“You want me to review a James Beard Award winner?”
Before leaving Albuquerque, we must have lunch at this homey Mecca of New Mexico food that is noted particularly for their wonderful red chile. Or, as said at alibi.com: “We worship two Marys around these parts: La Virgen de Guadalupe and Mary Gonzales. The warm, fruity red chile at Mary & Tito’s—incompar-able for 48 years in its depth of flavor and color—has even earned it a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics designation.”
“Green chile perfect in its most pure form: simply roasted and chopped. Red chile, though, takes a little more effort and the results are less predictable. Not so great red chile tastes like wet chile powder. Great red chile transports us to tastebud nirvana. The gloriously rich and velvety red chile at Mary and Tito's in Albuquerque sends us reeling” (www.lacocinita.com).
There is nothing fancy about Mary & Tito’s. For ambience, you need to visit Sadie’s or El Pinto. “This little beige cafe, with wrought iron on the windows and a busted sign, probably hasn't been redecorated since the Nixon administra-tion. But if you're looking for something authenti-cally Albu-querque, this is it. Since 1968, senators and judges have lunched here with (some have said) quite a bit of legislation coming to pass over plates of enchiladas. Tito has long since passed, but Mary proudly carries on their legacy”(citysearch.com).
While Mary Gonzales still comes to work every day, the day to day management is handled by Mary and Tito’s daughter, Antoinette Knight, along with members of the next generation. We had the chance to speak with Antoinette’s son Jordan Knight, while our table was being readied and he gave us some behind the scene details about Mary and Antoinette’s trip to New York to receive their award. At the ceremony, they met such culinary notables as Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and Mario Batali of the Food Network and Wolfgang Puck, best known for his restaurant Spago. They attended the taping of a David Letterman program, went to a Yankees game, and saw a Broadway play. Was Mary impressed? Noooooo. She wanted to get back home to her rice and beans.
While you sit in the front dining room, you realize that some customers have been coming here for years. When Mary arrived and took a seat at the counter, a procession of diners came up to say hello. As one gentleman took his seat, Jordan called over to him: “You want iced tea, Frank?”
Later, one of the servers said to this same gentleman: “Wow, you’re having lunch for lunch today.” He must be one of those who orders breakfast at any time.
While munching on a basket of tortilla chips and a dish of very spicy salsa, the three of us pondered our menu options. Finally, after much deliberation, Chuck decided to order the Tito’s Special—refried beans with green chile and a flour tortilla. To augment his meal, he added—what else—a taco.
Now I wouldn’t have found his lunch overly exciting, but I do admit that Mary & Tito’s does make some of the best refried beans around. And the taco was a definite improve-ment over the patty in a taco shell at El Charro in Tucson. And the green chile, while not what I consider the best in Albuquerque—that honor goes to Sophia’s place—still carries plenty of heat.
I had no problem making my choices—the chile relleno with green chile and the a la carte portion of carne adovada. Chile relleno is a dish by which I judge a Mexican or New Mexican restaurant. Here, the very large chile is lightly battered and the coating doesn’t taste overly of egg. Fortunately, they don’t whip the egg batter to a froth leaving a puffy coating that you have to work through before reaching the chile. And the green chile sauce complements the cheese stuffed chile. (Boy, I have used the word chile a lot in this paragraph!)
And now for the carne adovada—a dish of slow simmered pork that has been marinated and then cooked in red chile. Words escape me. So I will quote Gil Garduno (what would a blog about food be without a quote from Gil) whose poetic musing on Mary & Tito’s red chile I couldn’t hope to match: “There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips. Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there…The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!” (nmgastronome.com/blog).
Yes, there are individual New Mexican dishes that I prefer at other Albuquerque restaurants, but the consistently good food here coupled with the warm and friendly family atmosphere make this restaurant my favorite. Thankfully, the third generation seems poised to ultimately take over so that those seeking authentic New Mexico food will always have Mary & Tito’s.
Oh, a rating. 5.0 Addies, of course.