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The Salsa Twins: John and Jim Thomas

El Pinto Restaurant, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

El Pinto Restaurant - Salsa Twins

John and Jim Thomas, aka “the salsa twins,” are the Smothers Brothers of New Mexican cuisine.

The brothers, who finish one another’s sentences and are the mirror likenesses of one another, exude boyish enthusiasm about everything chile. They run El Pinto Restaurant, the largest restaurant serving authentic New Mexican cuisine in the world.

Their family has a long tradition of running authentic New Mexican restaurants. In 1962, Connie and Jack Thomas opened El Pinto on a sprawling piece of property in what was then the village of Alameda, on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jack, a Hungarian immigrant who had trained as an engineer before falling in love with New Mexican cooking, became what he called “an enchilada engineer”– and a darned good one judging from the crowds at El Pinto.

But back to the twins. John and Jim, two of six Thomas children, took over the restaurant from their parents and haven’t looked back. Staying true to their grandmother’s mottos “panzaa llena, corazon contento” (full stomach, happy heart), and “your food is only as good as what’s coming in the back door,” the brothers have grown the restaurant from a seating capacity of 60 to 1,000. They’ve made the food for Cinco de Mayo at the White House, served the men aboard the U.S.S. Albuquerque nuclear submarine, hosted dozens of celebrities like Clint Black and Mick Jagger, and developed an extensive line of bottled salsas that’s sold in 50 states.  And they’re just getting started…

The Thomas twins believe in doing things the old fashioned way, but using innovation to make it even better. For instance, to properly roast green Anaheim chiles, the chiles need to be slowly warmed, then hit with an open flame just when the sugars are caramelizingand moving onto the skin. That’s exactly how the brothers prepare their chiles for their salsa, but they do it with a super-long convection chamber oven specially designed for them for chile roasting. Their roaster is not only able to bring on the flames just at the right moment, it’s able to adjust the heating time, depending on the type of chile being roasted.

Worms at El Pinto Restaurant recycling scraps

Jim and John show off the worms that recycle El Pinto’s kitchen scraps. The restaurant owners are dedicated to producing authentic New Mexican food and using innovation to do it even better.

Their production room where the salsa is made and bottled is filled with custom-designed and hand built machines, some the brothers themselves have made in their on-site machine shop. “Our dad always fixed things around here,” explains Jim. “It’s fun. I made this bottling machine here. It took me about two weeks. Somebody else might have been able to do it in a day, but I had fun doing it.”

The guys are also dedicated to being earth-friendly. They recycle the water used in processing their products and use beneficial microbes rather than sprays to keep flies off the 50 horses and herds of cattle that live on the property.

They grow their chiles with beneficial microbes rather than
 toxic chemicals. When heavy rains prevented area farmers  from dowsing their chile crops with chemical fungicides, much of the crop was lost to mold. The brothers’ organic chiles thrived. They also use vermiculture, worm castings, to enrich the soil. Kitchen scraps are chopped up for the worms and the worms, in turn, enrich the soil that grow the chiles for their dishes. 

When we visited, John and Joe enthusiastically showed off their worm farm – rows and rows of 50 gallon plastic barrels filled with rich, sweet smelling worm castings and the little red wigglers. It’s this kind of enthusiasm for the old ways and dedication to doing it right that makes restaurateurs and salsa entrepreneurs Joe and John Thomas worthy of realfoodtravler’s seal of approval. You go boys! (Here’s the recipe for El Pinto Guacamole.)

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Bobbie Hasselbring

RFT founder and the website's former editor-in-chief, Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. She's been an award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook.