A Look Back at the Roadfood 1992 Edition–New Mexico

Roadfood 1992 Edition

Roadfood 1992 Edition

In my quest for nostalgia and information about old restaurants, I came across a goldmine of information from the 1992 edition of Jane & Michael Stern’s book Roadfood, published by HarperPerennial (a division of HarperCollins). One thing I love about this book is that it has its mission statement on the cover, which is to be a “guide to America’s best diners, small-town cafes, BBQ joints, and other very special eateries serving great, inexpensive regional food.”

This is largely the same mission I have for my Restaurant Guide and for many of the reviews published on this site. The Restaurant Guide lists places I find reviewed on the Internet in various cities, many of which meet the criteria set forth by the Sterns. Roadfood only lists a few restaurants per state, but it covers much of the United States (the 1992 edition does not have any listings for Alaska, Hawaii, or Montana). I am also very impressed that the Sterns were able to travel to all of the places listed and personally visit each restaurant mentioned in the book.

Somehow the Sterns got very good intelligence about which restaurants to visit, and this was in the age before the Internet was available. The restaurants included were obviously not picked randomly out of a phone book (one of my methods for finding places to eat in 1992), but there was a specific reason each one was chosen (I imagine they must have eaten in some places that they judged to not be worthy of inclusion in the book). In any case, I judge this book to be a treasure for restaurant historians (is it acceptable for me to invent a new field of academic study which I am sure does not actually exist anywhere?).

NEW MEXICO

There are a couple of reasons I would like to include the New Mexico restaurants in my first blog post about the Sterns’ book. One is that I found this book at the fabulous Coas Books in Las Cruces, a used book store that concentrates on excellence in books as much as the Sterns have done with food. Many of the best additions to my own collection have come from this store (I have always gone to the one at 317 N. Main although they have another location at 1101 S. Solano Dr.).

Also we got word this week that Tecolote Cafe in Santa Fe, one of the restaurants listed in the Sterns’ book, has closed. Now that I have this list I plan to deliberately put many of the ones that are still open on my list of places I would like to visit (some of them are already on the list). One of them, Nellie’s in Las Cruces is where I had lunch right before going to Coas where this book almost magically appeared, with Nellie’s being one of the first restaurants I spotted.

The Sterns list the restaurants alphabetically by state. I am listing all of them here, whether they are still open or not. I will only include a brief summary of the information about each restaurant (there is additional information available from other sources such as the Roadfood web site and later editions of the book).


Abeyta’s Mexican Kitchen–2805 San Mateo NE, Albuquerque.  Chicharrones, carne adovada, and menudo are what made the best impression.

Bien Mur Indian Market–Exit 234 off I-25 (Tramway Rd.), Albuquerque.  Come here for cookies and fry bread.

Chope’s–Rt. 28, La Mesa.  (Not surprisingly) they recommended the chile relleno. Since Dr. Paul Bosland, America’s foremost chili breeder, recommended that they get red enchiladas instead of green, they complied (and were very glad with the result). Note: The Sterns use the spelling “chili” throughout the book.

Don Jose’s Cocina–Route 279, Bibo.  They were surprised this place was even open (with the town’s uranium mine being played out and the area being so isolated). They described eating what was apparently the only thing offered that day (roast beef burritos topped with green chili and an enchilada platter). One fact revealed in the write-up was that the source of many of the Sterns’ tips was Bart Ripp from the Albuquerque Tribune.

Dora’s–401 E. Hall St, Hatch.  Supposedly the owner was trying to change the name because it was named after his ex-wife, but locals kept calling it Dora’s no matter what sign he put in front. What impressed them the most was the chili, red or green (I think they liked the red better). Dora’s had 3 levels of spiciness, and the Sterns said all of them were very good.

Double Rainbow–3416 Central SE, Albuquerque.  They were coming here for the coffee, and eventually tried the food (pastries, Zuni stew, East Indian pot pie, and sourdough bread filled with smoked turkey were all hits).

Duran Central Pharmacy–1815 Central NW, Albuquerque.  Located in a working pharmacy, they recommended both breakfast and lunch here. For lunch they liked the specials of the day (all were New Mexican cuisine). They were quite impressed by the freshly made tortillas.

Frontier–2400 Central SE, Albuquerque.  They recommended the sweet roll served with coffee. What they liked best, though (and said so), was the breakfast burrito with green chili. They also mentioned that the orange juice was freshly squeezed.

The Hacienda–2605 S. Espina, Las Cruces.  They enjoyed the blue corn enchiladas, tacos in blue corn shells, chili colorado, and chili relleno. Sopaipillas were a must with this, “to salve the tongue.”

Josie’s Casa de Comida–225 E. Marcy, Santa Fe.  Josie’s was said to be good for New Mexican cuisine or Southwest (chicken fried steak, etc.), but the real gem here was dessert (a wide variety and all of them were good).

La Tertulia–416 Agua Fria, Santa Fe.  The Sterns said “the food at La Tertulia isn’t as spectacular and hot as it used to be, but it still tastes good.” What they recommended, though, was the carne adovada, which was one of the best examples of it anywhere. This had become a very formal restaurant, by Santa Fe standards, that gave a very pleasant experience even if the meal wasn’t as good as it used to be.

M & J Restaurant–403 2nd St. SW, Albuquerque.  They say the burrito stuffed with carne adovada may be the best version of the dish anywhere, but I think they liked the blue corn enchilada plate equally well. They said it was great fun to watch people come in from the Greyhound station, just down Second Street, and “accidentally” discover some of the best food they have ever experienced.

Nellie’s–1226 W. Hadley, Las Cruces.  They pointed out that the sopaipilla compuesta was sensational, and the chili relleno and the salsa were also quite notable (they gave great compliments to the green chili, but apparently did not try the red). They also complimented the rich and lardy beans. At that time Nellie’s was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

OJ Sarah’s–106 Guadalupe St., Santa Fe.  This was a restaurant that catered to locals, and which really shined for breakfast. They had so many great sounding items it was hard to choose, but the Sterns liked the cottage pancakes best (the batter was made with cottage cheese).

Powdrell’s Barbecue–11309 Central Ave. NE, Albuquerque.  They say the beef is done right, and they like this the best of the items served. The reason they like this out of the three Powdrell’s locations is the setting in the mountains, particularly at sunset.

Rancho de Chimayo–Route 520, Chimayo.  Their top recommendation is the carne adovada, or the sopaipillas rellenos for those who want something a little less spicy. The town is a destination in itself, having a history that goes back to the eleventh century.

Roque’s Carnitas–Corner of Palace and Washington, Santa Fe.  These are served out of a food cart at lunch time, and unlike most carnitas these are made with beef. Apparently you don’t have to choose the chili you want–these come with green.

Stop And Eat Drive In–110 S. Paseo de Onate, Espanola.  This is a true drive in (you eat in your car). They have jumbo burgers (which are not really very jumbo), but it sounds as if the best items are the burritos or the frito pies. The Sterns recommend getting Hawaiian Punch with a frito pie if you want the ultimate Roadfood experience.

Tecolote Cafe–1203 Cerrillos Rd., Santa Fe.  The Sterns state that the real mission of the restaurant is breakfast, and what they liked best were the atole pinon hotcakes. However, there were so many other excellent items on the menu it required many trips through town to try them all. For lunch they liked the carne adovada (excellent here, as they are at many New Mexico restaurants).

Truchas Mountain Cafe–Truchas.  This was a very small place that served traditional New Mexican food, but what they liked best was the stuffed sopaipilla with green chili. They also had interesting desserts that may be rooted in the area’s Indian history.

Woolworth’s–58 E. San Francisco, Santa Fe.  Apparently they take a local favorite, Frito pie, and turn it into an art form. Most people take it outside and eat it on the square. A bag of Fritos is torn open where they pour in red chili with hamburger meat and cheese. You will need a spoon because the Fritos become soft when saturated by the chili.

Some Comments
For some of these eating places I have written the narrative in the present tense as they are in the book. I did not research which places are still open, and whether I write in the past or present tense is not indicative of whether the restaurant is still in business or not.

There are only a very few points over which I disagree with the Sterns about these restaurants. I would say the Sterns are are correct about some major points such as (1) Red chile usually seems to be a better choice than green for items such as enchiladas, (2) Stuffed sopapillas are a better choice than enchiladas at many restaurants–mainly when they really know how to make the stuffed sopapillas the right way, (3) Blue corn enchiladas are usually preferable to ones made with regular tortillas. The Sterns did a very good job of trying different New Mexican items, and identifying which restaurants served the best versions.

I know that some restaurants have changed over time. I think the New Mexican food in Las Cruces was a lot spicier in 1992 than it is now, except at a few restaurants that are very local and do not attract a lot of out of town visitors. The Sterns comment on several restaurants throughout the state that the flavor is just as good if you get the milder version, and I believe that is the case now with Las Cruces restaurants which serve milder chile than in the past (I am now using the correct spelling of “chile” rather than the Stern version, but of course it is still good no matter how you spell it).

When I ate at La Tertulia it must have been when it was still “spectacular and hot,” because I remember it as being some of the best New Mexican food I have ever eaten.

I don’t know how the Sterns missed El Modelo in Albuquerque, which has been around since well before 1992, but for the most part I think they found and described the truly good New Mexican food that existed at the time.

Karam’s–San Antonio, TX

Karam’s Mexican Dining Room (Closed)
121 N. Zarzamora St.
San Antonio, TX
Date of Review: Jan. 2005

Karam’s has been around for so long it is one of the few restaurants I can say I have gone to for more than 30 years. I also think it is one of the best examples of Tex-Mex food there is. So far, in fact, it has turned out to be the restaurant by which I judge Tex-Mex food. Many restaurants in Austin came close, and some had specific items that were better, but Karam’s seems to have captured the essence of Tex-Mex cooking to a point that it is almost equal in quality to other styles of Mexican cooking.

Known for its Cheese Enchiladas, I think they are some of the best I have had that are not New Mexico or El Paso style. They are interesting because the tortillas are soaked in a sauce that turns them the signature red of true Tex-Mex style.

Although the enchiladas themselves are good, a combination dinner is even better– there may be no better examples of Tex-Mex style Tamales than at Karam’s. These have a masa that is soft and seems to break away the moment a fork touches it, with a flavor that I could almost imagine all the times I had fast food and TV dinner tamales while on a student budget, but which even most Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin could not duplicate.

Karam’s is popular enough to have required building a parking lot across the street. In addition to the restaurant, Karam’s Catering, a separate portion of the building dedicated exclusively to take-out orders, does a brisk business. With the mild weather found in south Texas, the outdoor patio with a fountain is an added attraction.

I think that unless you are specifically hungry for meat items such as the fajitas at Mi Tierra, you really owe it to yourself to make Karam’s your one special San Antonio Tex-Mex meal. It is a San Antonio institution for a reason.

RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican Tex-Mex
Cost: $$
Alcohol: Beer
Special Features: Catering

Chile Index: chile 3

Most Recent Visit
Jan. 6, 2005

Number of Visits: 4

Best Items
Cheese Enchiladas, Tamales, Tacos

Special Ratings

star 5 Cheese Enchiladas
star 5 Chicken Tacos
star 5 Tamales
star 3 Refried Beans
star 5 Chips
star 4 Salsa

Menu (Date Unknown):

Menu courtesy of Eugene F. Michael El Paso Menu Collection, MS499, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department. The University of Texas at El Paso Library.

Note to Readers:

This review is reprinted from my original web site (Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page) and the newer site (OK Gourmet).  By putting it on Steve’s Food Blog I hope to keep it accessible to readers and to preserve the information as something that I think is of historical importance for Tex-Mex restaurants.

Karam’s was quite possibly the best Tex-Mex restaurant I ever found in Texas (there were a couple in Austin that were close).  Unfortunately when I discuss Tex-Mex restaurants I often have to refer to ones that are now closed (of which Karam’s joined the ranks in about 2005).  I wrote a blog post about why I do not think the Tex-Mex food served now is as good as it was at these former restaurants which were considered leaders of the Tex-Mex restaurant world:

Why Does Tex-Mex Not Taste the Same as I Remember Growing Up?

The Karams’ daughter wrote a very informative comment about the restaurant, and it is certainly relevant to this review as well as a discussion of Tex-Mex food in general.

 

Pamela Karam’s Comment (Dec. 10, 2015):

Dear Steve,
Karam’s Mexican Dining Room of San Antonio had the absolute best Tex-Mex in the country.
My parent’s invented the style that chefs tried to copy without much luck.
All over the country to this day when I say I’m from San Antonio, strangers will ask me if I ever ate at Karam’s. Of course they go crazy about the food when I tell them who I was lucky to be.
My dad started me in the kitchen and I know the secrets to the taste of our food.
I miss a Deluxe Dinner as much as the next person.
Thank God I can whip one up when necessary..
I’m glad you enjoyed our place.
I loved it and miss it every day.

Some of My Favorite El Paso Lent Specials

Many restaurants in El Paso (particularly Mexican restaurants) offer Lent specials in the days leading up to Easter. These are usually served on Friday, but some restaurants have them for other holy days as well.

I found out a long time ago that this is some of the best Mexican food served, and rather than Lent being a “fast” I always found it to be a treat to enjoy the food served by these restaurants. Most Lent specials are served with fish or shrimp, but some vegetarian dishes are also available such as enchiladas (they frequently use some special sauce that is not normally served on enchiladas). The Lent specials at restaurants can really be anything as long as there is no meat.

Lentil soup

Lentil soup

My favorite Lent specials are ones that include a vegetarian lentil soup (lentejas) and the traditional bread pudding dessert (capirotada). The main plate on traditional meals usually includes mashed potatoes and either rice or bread. I usually like to get fish because the restaurants usually prepare it so well, but I think I see about two shrimp specials on the menu for every one that is fish.

Capirotada

Capirotada

The following list includes recent places I have visited, with two of them (El Jacalito and Carnitas Queretaro) being long time favorites:

 

San Isidro Mission Cafe

1071 Country Club Rd.
El Paso, TX

This restaurant seems to be well known for its Lent special, although I just tried it for the first time this year.

Pescado Marinero

Pescado Marinero

Unlike other restaurants, though, San Isidro only has one Lent special. It is called Pescado Marinero, and is cooked in foil with a fish fillet, clams, squid, and shrimp all cooked together. Frankly, I went with a friend who shared this dish with me, and we both got full. We were both very happy with the food as well. The dinner came with lentil soup and capirotada (the only down side with sharing the meal is that you only get one of each of these side dishes).

The up side of this meal was that the fish was good and the seafood and vegetables mixed in were a nice added touch. The down side was that there were no other items on the Lent menu–this was the only special available. The lentils were prepared in a different style than the others I tried (heavy on the cilantro) and were very good. The capirotada was moist to the point of being soggy (more like an actual pudding than the others). Although different, this was also a worthwhile experience.

Edit: I should mention that we got an extra order of lentils and that is the reason both of us were full.

 

Carnitas Queretaro

7410 Remcon Circle
El Paso, TX

Carnitas Queretaro is the only restaurant I have found which serves Filete Veracruzano (fish with Veracruz sauce) on a regular basis, meaning every Friday during Lent. Thus, I got to try the one dish which is probably my favorite during Lent.

Filete Veracruzano

Filete Veracruzano

I loved the sauce here, but the fish fillet was probably the most disappointing out of the ones I tried this year. I also know that it was not up to the standard I experienced in previous years at Carnitas Queretaro. This was quite an expensive meal, and I just do not understand why this restaurant has changed so much (even so it was almost worth it to get such a good veracruzana sauce).

The lentil soup and capirotada were both excellent, and Carnitas is excellent on items such as the chips and salsa. The main plate came with mashed potatoes, rice and bread. To me this is overkill on the starchy items, although I enjoyed the mashed potatoes very much.

 

Delicias Cafe

865 N. Resler Dr.
El Paso, TX

Delicias Cafe had good fish and an excellent poblana sauce. Several shrimp items were on the menu, and the staff explained that the owner and chef decide the night before what items to put on the Lent menu (so it changes weekly).

Filete with poblana sauce

Filete with poblana sauce

The lentils here were probably my least favorite of the ones I tried, but the capirotada was one of the best. The meal was a little bit strange because they had put “Filete a la Veracruzana” on the menu but the meal they brought me had a different sauce (the poblana sauce). When I asked about this they gave me some veracruz sauce to try, but I found that the poblana sauce was actually much better. In any case, if you are all right with being surprised (in a good way) then this is a good place to come.

Edit: I returned to Delicias on Good Friday and ordered the Filete a la Veracruzana. It confirmed my previous observation that the poblana sauce was better (and at Delicias I would probably skip the veracruzana sauce).

 

El Jacalito

2130 Myrtle Ave.
El Paso, TX

El Jacalito is one of the restaurants that changes the menu weekly, and like most of them offers both fish and shrimp. This is my favorite restaurant for the veracruz style fish (which I did not have this year), but it is also my favorite for breaded fish (empanizado). In fact, this is really my favorite place for Lent specials.

Pescado empanizado

Pescado empanizado

One reason it is good is because of the price, but where the food is concerned I really like everything I have tried. The breaded fish had a very good sauce which was not quite like the veracruz sauce I had hoped to try, but what I had was very enjoyable. The fish itself was very fresh, and was the best I tried at any restaurant (although San Isidro was very close). The lentils and capirotada are always my favorites here, and this year was no exception.

El Jacalito is only open for lunch (as is San Isidro) but it is a great place for Lent specials if you can make it. Sometimes they do not have either the breaded or the veracruz style fish, but others may be happier with the shrimp options than I am, and there are other items on the menu you can also choose (enchiladas, etc., or even a meat item if you are not following a Lenten diet). In any case, I think it is worth coming here just for the lentil soup and capirotada.

In past years I always included their horchata as part of the Lent tradition. This year I decided on iced tea, but the horchata really is one of the best I have found anywhere.