Sunday, February 16, 2014

I Made One Firm Resolution…

prior to this return to Albuquerque and that was to revisit Cecelia’s Café.
We were last there in November of 2009, and it was a scant six weeks after my unfortunate surgery. Since I wasn’t at my best, I have always wondered if I just wasn’t able to appreciate the café’s powerful (and unpredictable) chiles.
“Cecilia’s Cafe is the essence of an off-the-beaten path restaurant. Situated in a hundred-year-old-plus brick edifice a few blocks south of Central Avenue, it is both amazingly obscure and surprisingly well-known. Cecilia’s loyal clientele include white- and blue-collar workers who have frequented her cafe from the start. That clientele includes former ambassador to Spain Ed Romero, a New Mexico native. Romero gave Cecilia the wood-burning stove that keeps her homey restaurant warm. Considering its relative anonymity until ‘discovered’ in 2009, you might wonder if the faithful throngs wanted to keep this divine dining destination a well-kept secret” (nmgastronome.com).

We first heard of Cecelia’s on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, but since then Cecelia’s has also made an appearance on the Travel Channel. “In January, 2010, the Travel Channel traveled from coast to coast to uncover the 101 tastiest places to chow down—‘joints serving some of the biggest and best dishes of deliciousness around.’ The only New Mexico restaurant to make the list—at number 45 on the chow down countdown—was Cecilia’s Café…. The program described Cecilia’s as ‘where they serve up New Mexican food so messy even a stack of napkins won’t help…’” (nmgastronome.com).

If you are wondering if Cecelia’s qualifies as a diner, a drive-in, or a dive, let me assure you that it is the epitome of a dive. “The decor must have been assembled by an eclectic genius, with a funkiness that 10,000 retro-crazed art students on acid couldn’t re-create. The walls are covered with a hodgepodge of old photographs,
shrines, mirrors, clocks—some of which tell the correct time—battered license plates, poems, newspaper clippings and all manner of trinketry. The old wooden floor is uneven…You have to walk through a supply room to get to the bathroom” (Ari Levaux at alibi.com).
And I should note that the seemingly mismatched booths look as to have come from a restaurant fire sale.
Cecelia’s is perhaps best known for her red chile. A red chile that is described at gayot.com as one red chile “that virtually glows.” A chile that some local reviewers consider to be the equal, if not the better, of Tito’s and Mary’s (a James Beard Foundation Living Legend awardee). A chile so hot that on our last visit I declared it even too hot for me.

With a couple of exceptions, I don’t think that Cecelia’s menu opens new culinary doors. Chuck studied the menu in vain looking for a dish made with carne asada, but I am not sure I have ever seen that Mexican beef preparation in a New Mexico restaurant menu. So, after considerable study, he finally decided to order one ground been taco and
one ground beef quesadilla.
These were o.k. I do think that he should have gone all in and spent the extra $1.00 for a small bowl of green chile, but our server did bring him a small cup of highly incendiary red salsa that contained almost no cilantro. It’s another interesting thing about New Mexican food—I don’t think that it contains as much cilantro as does the Mexican food in Arizona or Southern California. Chuck is fine with that. I’m not.

I didn’t need to study the menu. I was there for a dish featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives—the chicharrone and bean burrito that I asked to be smothered in green chile. (I learned my lesson with the red last time.)
“Not surprisingly, Cecilia’s brings authenticity to a New Mexican specialty few restaurants seem to do well any more. That would be chicharrones or pork cracklings (not pork rinds, but deep-fried cubes of pork with maybe a bit of pork fat thrown in for flavor)….
Fieri made the mistake of declaring that chicharrones are eaten like potato chips. ‘That’s pork rinds, baby.’ Cecilia corrected him. She then showed him how they’re made—four hours of meticulous preparation time” (nmgastronome.com).

“…They are perfectly cooked—just slightly crispy and not hard, like some that I have had…. There is, as I have found out, a big difference between Mexican and New Mexican chicharonnes. The best Mexican ones that I have had are not nearly as crispy, but remain quite soft…” (abqtopten.com).
I have wanted to order this burrito since our November 2009 visit. Did it live up to my expectations. Well, no. The chicharrones were wonderful. Little bits of slightly chewy and crispy goodness. But I could have done without all of the beans. And the green chile was a disappointment. It was rather bland (compared to some other green chiles) and lacked that crisp and almost citrus taste that I look for in a green chile.

My plate came with rice and beans which Chuck ate while I was eating the guacamole from his plate.

We finished by sharing an order of sopapillas and these may well have been the best thing we ate that day.
Hot from the fryer, they had that ultra-thin and crisp shell that both of like. When drizzled with honey, they were divine.

In 2009, I awarded Cecelia’s Café 4.0 Addies. Nothing I ate on this visit causes me to revise this rating up or down and the café stays at 4.0 Addies.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.