El Pinto Restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, may be the biggest little restaurant you’ll ever dine at. The sprawling hacienda-style building contains dining room after dining room filled with plants, cascading waterfalls, and traditional Mexican-style fireplaces. The place can hold 1,000 diners and often serves 4,000 guests in an evening.
El Pinto’s food has been served for Cinco de Mayo at the White House, they’ve served the Naval atomic submarine, U.S.S. Albuquerque, and the restaurant’s walls are festooned with celebrities like Clint Black and Mick Jagger who love the food. But the way they do everything in the handmade, traditional way, you’d think they were a tiny mom and pop place on the corner.
El Pinto (which means “the place”) is situated on several tree-filled acres. Guests are greeted by mariachis singing under a portico decorated with long strands of chiles (called ristras)¸ the traditional welcome symbol of the Southwest. Near the front entrance, a cook tumble roasts batches of long, green Anaheim chiles over a fire. Another ladles out small bowls of pozole or green chile soup for arriving guests. It’s all part of the way the people at El Pinto invite guests to come into their spicy world.
New Mexican cooking is all about green and red Anaheim chiles. And no one knows more about this chile than the folks at El Pinto where they roast and process 590 tons of the stuff each year. In addition to their wonderfully successful restaurant, they make and bottle several varieties of El Pinto salsa (4,000 cases/year) that’s sold in 50 states across the U.S.
The restaurant uses Anaheims in two ways: fresh, green and roasted, and peeled, and dried red, and rehydrated. For the green chilies, they roast them and peel them by hand. (Chili skins can also be removed by steaming them or dipping them in a strong acid bath and then rinsing them.) “We hand peel them because it retains the subtle flavors and retains the nutrients,” explains Jim Thomas, one of two twin brothers — aka The Salsa Twins — who own the restaurant.
When Anaheim chilies are allowed to ripen to a deep red color, they’re hung up in long strands, and sundried. “Chiles can be dried in kilns or in the sun,” says Jim. “We sun dry ours, which retains the sweetness of the chili.”
The chiles are rehydrated with water. Then they are chopped up, more water and pork fat are added, and the chile mixture is pureed into red chile sauce. The dried chiles can also be crushed into a powder to be later made into a chile sauce.
The results are delicious. You might start with fall-off-the-bone-tender Red Chile Baby Back Ribs, ribs that have been marinated in their house made red chile sauce and then baked until they’re tender. The first bite is HOT, but you find yourself going back for more of the delicately sweet hot meat. Eating some of the restaurant’s homemade guacamole will cool your mouth off. It’s chopped, not smashed, with a touch of fresh chopped tomato and onion, a little of their red salsa, salt, and a splash of lime. The result is some of the best guacamole RealFoodTraveler has enjoyed (try El Pinto’s Guacamole Recipe).
El Pinto’s chile rellenos are light with just the right balance of cheesy filling and sweet-hot chile flavor.
If you’re a fan of the Mexican hominy soup, pozole, you’ll find a good one at El Pinto. The red broth is light and spicy, the chicken chunks tender and juicy, and the hominy still has a bit of tooth to it.
In New Mexican cuisine, you order your chile red or green or “Christmas” (both). Red chile dishes are traditionally served with a fried egg on top and their red chile and cheese enchiladas rolled with blue corn tortillas are no exception. They also serve a green chili chicken enchilada that’s complex and deeply flavorful (it’s also the most requested dish the restaurant serves). As side dishes to the enchiladas, we were served fresh and flavorful highland beans cooked simply, and calabasitas, a harvest dish of squash, onions, and fresh corn.
A dish not to miss is the red chili con carne, pork marinated in red chile sauce that’s all about deep, rich chile flavor without being too hot. If New Mexico cuisine isn’t your thing (we can’t imagine that), El Pinto also serves an excellent, smoky New York strip steak and a salmon filet that’s seasoned with salt, pepper, red chile powder, lemon, and lime, and lightly grilled.
If you still have room for dessert, they have several options, including the traditional Mexican brown sugar custard flan, which we found wasn’t as smooth as it should have been, and a light, coffee-flavored mousse called La Vante (“to lift”). The best choice, by far, is their Pumpkin Crisp, a cross between a pumpkin pie and a pumpkin bread pudding served warm with whipped cream and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s a rich pumpkiny taste with a lilt of Meyers Rum that will send you to pumpkin heaven. Even though we were stuffed, we couldn’t stop eating this delightful dessert.
After dinner, you might want to indulge in one of El Pinto’s 57 varieties of tequila, including Don Julio’s $400 a bottle 1942 sipping tequila. If you aren’t sure which tequila to order, ask El Pinto’s knowledgeable bartenders. They sample at least 10 new tequilas every week in an effort to bring their customers the best from the agave plant.
Realfoodtraveler finds El Pinto to be just right for travelers looking to sample some really authentic New Mexican cuisine. — BH
El Pinto Restaurant
10500 4th St. NW (Alameda and 4th, exit 234 off I-25)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-898-1771 x 117