A Road trip to New Mexico Includes Dinner at El Pinto

My wife and I have been traveling to New Mexico even prior to our marriage.  The motto of the state rings true for us, as it is the “Land of Enchantment”.  New Mexico is about the beautiful landscape, storied culture, friendly people and, of course, the delicious food.

Albuquerqueans regularly argue about which is the best New Mexican restaurant in the city. All I can say is that it depends on what strikes your fancy.  It could be the salsa, or possibly the enchiladas.  The overall heat of their green chiles could also be a deal breaker.  I don’t like to enter such debates because I don’t believe that there is a single restaurant that deserves to have the honor of “Best New Mexican Cuisine”.

Outside of El Pinto restaurant

Outside of El Pinto restaurant

Figuring that most restaurants would still have their holiday décor up, we decided upon El Pinto in Northwest Albuquerque.  The parking lot is immense and was surprisingly full at 5:00pm.  Luminarias (small paper lanterns) lined the walls and the building, which made the restaurant quite festive.  Inside the restaurant a number of lighted Christmas trees adorned each room.

Margarita on the rocks, with a salted rim of course.

Margarita on the rocks, with a salted rim of course.

Chips with Freshly Made Red and Green Salsas.

Tortilla Chips with Freshly Made Red and Green Salsas.

We were seated promptly and I wasted no time in ordering a couple of margaritas for us.  I was appreciative of the fact that while I wanted Cointreau in my margarita, our server didn’t try to force me to order their Herradura or Patron premium offerings.  Chips and both red and green salsa were placed on our table.  The green salsa was made from freshly roasted green chiles, garlic and organic tomatoes.

What makes New Mexican cuisine different from Mexican cuisine?  First, New Mexicans spell chile with an “e” not with an “i” because it’s all about the chile.  Some favor red; others green, but it depends on the harvest which ends up to be hotter.  Because the chiles are grown under distressed conditions and with unique soil, they end up having a unique flavor that can’t be duplicated elsewhere in the world.  Finally, there is a Pueblo Indian influence on the cuisine as evidenced by the popularity of stuffed sopapillas (more about that later).

Stacked cheese enchiladas with a fried egg on top

Stacked cheese enchiladas

I ordered the cheese enchilada combination plate.  Not very interesting, you may think, but the tortillas are stacked vs. rolled and I ordered mine with a fried egg on top Christmas style.  Christmas style refers to the use of both red and green chiles.  To an Angeleno, it’s rather humorous ordering enchiladas, but it’s part of the unique New Mexican culture.  Fortunately, it’s not as complex as ordering a coffee drink at Starbucks.

Pork tamale combo plate

Pork tamale combo plate

New Mexican sopapillas

New Mexican sopapillas

My wife ordered the pork tamale combination plate.  The masa was moist; the pork was flavorful and delicious, but the red chile sauce served on the side made the difference.  Another New Mexican tradition, sopapillas, (crispy flatbread like fluffy pillows) was also served.  I like to tear off a corner and liberally fill the insides with honey.  While many New Mexicans eat sopapillas as a dessert, I’ve found that the sopapilla combined with honey nicely offsets the heat of the food.

El Pinto's salsas - available at Ralphs

El Pinto’s salsas – available at Ralphs

Honestly, I can easily  justify a trip to New Mexico solely based on food.  If you can’t plan a trip around food alone, you can combine it with another event.  Here are a few suggestions:

Or for a taste of New Mexico at home, look for El Pinto’s ready-made salsas at your local grocery store.

  • El Pinto
    10500 4th Street NW
    Albuquerque New Mexico
    (505) 898-1771


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About the Author

Follow Bryan on twitter for the latest and greatest in food trucks and street food. @btsunoda.

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