Monday, November 30, 2009

The Temple of New Mexican Food

Or at least that’s how many local foodies seem to feel about Mary & Tito’s Café in Albuquerque.

We had never been there. In fact, we had never heard of it until about two weeks ago. But the rave reviews on the web made us add this to our list of “must eats.” And we were not disappointed.

Mary & Tito's has received numerous awards for serving the best carne adovada, best red chile, and best New Mexican food in the state. Tito Gonzalas died in 1889, but his wife Mary and other family members are maintaining the tradition of fresh and authentic New Mexican food.

The café has been described by many as a “hole in the wall.” Now we have eaten in many a hole in the wall and Mary & Tito’s doesn’t fit that description. Let’s just say that it is minimally decorated. The tables are covered with plastic tablecloths--who wants to try and remove red chile from white linen table cloths?

The menu does not break new ground with the kitchen’s creativity. You will find the usual assortment of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos along with stuffed sopapillas, carne adovado, and chile relleno. The sopappilas, or "Mexican turnovers,” resemble an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It's made from sopapilla dough and may be stuffed with cheese, meat, beans, or rice and then deep fried. Chuck, deciding to eat outside the box, selected the bean and cheese stuffed sopapilla, which did not come with either beans or rice. So he announced that he would eat mine.

What arrived was an enormous sopapilla slathered with the café’s famous green chile with meat. The “crust” was ultra light, ultra crisp, and ultra flaky. What could have been an ultra heavy meal, especially with a bean and cheese filling, was anything but heavy. The filling wasn’t overly seasoned, but, oh, the green chile. This was without a doubt the hottest green chile we have had anywhere. But it was also the tastiest. Moderately thick with large chunks of roasted green chile, it was the kind of chile about which one simultaneously thinks “This is really hot. I can’t wait to eat some more.”

The menu also listed the daily specials, and on the day of our visit, the special ($6.00) was the large combination plate – one ground beef taco, one rolled cheese enchilada, and one cheddar-stuffed chile relleno with rice and beans (which Chuck ate) on the side. I usually order the red chile, which is the café’s specialty, but I prefer the green on a chile relleno. Since my experience with “Christmas” (both red and green on the plate) has been mixed with the two blending together in a muddle that obscures both flavors, I ordered the green. Was I glad I did.

The taco, which I usually consider filler on a combo plate, was a superior example with juicy ground beef in a thin and tasty corn tortilla and topped with the green chile. The rolled enchilada was filled with shredded cheddar in a tender corn tortilla. And the chile relleno was outstanding with a thin, crisp crust and just oozing mild white cheese.

Since Chuck ate my rice and beans, this allowed me to order a side of guacamole. Seemingly lacking in lime juice and cilantro, this was the only minor disappointment of the lunch.

For what seems to be authentic New Mexican food at very reasonable prices (our lunch, with two ice teas, only cost $20.57 before the tip), Mary & Tito’s Café can’t be beat and earns a 4.5 Addie rating.

Before paying our bill, we looked at several family photographs by the register. "Are you Mary?" Chuck asked.

"Yes, I am. I've been here 50 years . . .," Mary began, as she reached out to shake his hand.

"Fifty years?" Chuck interrupted.

"Yes, 5-0 years. My husband was a fireman when he had this idea about opening a restaurant. My head cook has been here for 27 years, and his assistant has been here for 26 years," Mary proudly responded.

"I really enjoyed the chile relleno," I said, "especially with the green chile."

"Oh, you are brave. The green is hotter than the red. When I have the green chile on the chile relleno, I start sneezing immediately," Mary (left) added with a laugh. (That's a framed sketch of Tito over Mary's right shoulder.)

Appearing younger than her years, it was clear that Mary enjoyed people and enjoyed preparing some of the finest New Mexican food in the state.

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