Wednesday, July 30, 2014

One of a Kind Eating Experiences in New Mexico

In my recent telling of a lesson in civic individuality, learned during a New Mexico baseball vacation with old friends, all of dining establishments I mentioned were chain restaurants.  That was unfortunate and misleading because our annual trips are very much about unique restaurants, not chains.

In this post, I’ll remedy that misdirection by describing some of the best non-chain experiences from this year’s trip.

Tying this subject to the more general subject of urbanism, I’ll admit that unique restaurants aren’t always located in walkable urban settings.  But there is a connection between non-chain restaurants and urbanism.  Non-chain restaurants, because they aren’t forced to meet building footprint and parking requirements dictated by a corporate headquarters, have greater freedom to occupy oddly configured downtown spaces, thus promoting urbanism.

Even patronizing a non-chain restaurant on a virtually unwalkable frontage road in Santa Fe supports a non-chain culture that allows another restaurant to prosper in a rambling, downtown, windowless space in the nearby town of Las Vegas.  (That would be Las Vegas, New Mexico, not its more famous cousin.)

Also, I’m not guaranteeing that all of the places listed below are non-chains.  Chains sometimes sneak up on us.  During an early morning drive through eastern New Mexico, we stopped at Penny’s Diner in Vaughn.  With a location miles from any other restaurant, a setting in a mock railroad car, and specials hand-written on placemats and taped to the walls, it looked like a single ownership restaurant.  But our waitress advised us that the restaurant was part of a chain of 35 Penny’s Diners.

Although I can’t pledge that the places below are non-chains, I can confirm that none of them feel like chains.  They all offered a sense of localness, with none of the prepackaged “charm” prescribed by someone behind a desk in Hoboken.

Also, to give a sense of the urban setting, I’ve shown the Walk Score for each restaurant, but with the acknowledgment that several are far from walkable.

With the preamble complete, here are eight fine restaurant experiences in New Mexico.

Mesilla Valley Kitchen in Las Cruces (2001 East Lohman Avenue, Walk Score of 66): With its location in a strip mall, tucked behind a Subway, Mesilla Valley Kitchen is proof that good local food can be found nearly anywhere, a fact that the locals seemed to appreciate based on the full dining room.

Breakfast is the highpoint of the menu, the chorizo burrito topped with chile sauce being a fine way to start a day.  (We’ve sometimes described our annual trip as an odyssey of beer, bacon, and baseball.   For New Mexico, chorizo replaced the bacon.)

We visited Mesilla Valley Kitchen a second time during the trip and found the lunch menu a little odd, with items such as barbecued brisket burritos and corned beef quesadillas, but breakfast remains highly recommended.

Can't Stop Smokin’ BBQ in Alamogordo (900 E 10th St, Walk Score of 62): An old-fashioned smoke house that believes in flavorful meat, good side dishes, and not much else.  Alcoholic beverages are nowhere to be seen.   Can’t Stop Smokin’ offers a broad selection of soft drinks, but their primary function is to wash down the good food.  We made a mid-afternoon stop, so weren’t looking for a pile of food, but shared a large sampler plate.  Everything from the brisket to the pulled pork to the beans was delectable, but my favorite was the smoked sausage.

Dick’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (705 Douglas Avenue, Walk Score of 80): Dick’s is an oddly rambling, quirky space that takes full advantage of the unused space in a downtown building.  It also served the most memorable dish of the trip.

The front door of Dick’s is into a deli/liquor store through which one must pass to find the restaurant/bar.  The back door is next to a loading dock.  In between is a dark, windowless space that nonetheless exudes a comfortable, local charm.

In recent years, I’ve learned to ask my server to suggest his favorite dish, benefiting from making the server a partner in the dining experience.  We tried this strategy at Dick’s and it worked perfectly.  The server recommended the mussels steamed in a chorizo broth.  Furthermore, he diverged from the menu to suggest adding fettuccine to the dish to further absorb the spicy saltiness.   The flavors and textures combined marvelously.  (Note to mussel aficionados: These weren’t the green and black New Zealand mussels which are typically encountered on the west coast, but Prince Edward Island mussels, which are more like super-sized Manila clams and were a great complement to the mild heat of the chorizo.)

Draft Station in Santa Fe (60 E San Francisco Street, Walk Score of 94): A rooftop pub, overlooking the plaza in the heart of Santa Fe as pictured above.  The beer selection is fine.  Even better, Draft Station serves pizza from a nearby pizzeria.  In addition to the brews, we enjoyed a lobster, shrimp, and bacon pizza.

Gutiz in Taos (812 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Walk Score of 43): A breakfast/lunch diner that promotes a French/New Mexican fusion cuisine.  Perhaps the most representative dish was a breakfast casserole of Andouille sausage, kidney, pinto, and garbanzo beans, potatoes, and corn.

Harry’s Roadhouse in Santa Fe (96 Old Las Vegas Highway, Walk Score of 23): The location along a freeway frontage road a couple of miles south of Santa Fe precludes walkability, but many have found Harry’s regardless, as the full parking lot attests.  On our second visit, we discovered “chorizo de Bilbao” which may be the uber-chorizo.  A dense, dark red, finely grained chorizo, it made a memorable breakfast hash, which was further improved by the friendly staff and rambling layout.

Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque (4730 Pan American Freeway NE, Walk Score of 51): Another fusion effort, Nexus combines Southern and New Mexican cuisines.  The fried chicken looked great, but we weren’t ready for dinner, so instead went with the sampler platter of fried zucchini, pickles, and okra.  It paired well with the beer.

Trying to build good local relationships, the brewery offers a Nexus Neighbor program with discounted beer and other benefits in exchange for a promise from members to make a special effort to incorporate new folks into conversation.  From our experience, the promise is being kept.

Standard Diner in Albuquerque (320 Central Ave SE, Walk Score of 86): Located along the old Route 66, Standard Diner offers an updated version of the food that might have greeted the early travelers from Chicago to Los Angeles.  The food didn’t measure up to some of the cuisine we enjoyed elsewhere, but the history made up for any shortfall.

There we are.  Eight fine restaurants over nine days in the State of New Mexico, all of them, at least to my knowledge, under single restaurant ownership.  Perhaps not all of them were in walkable urban locations, but the mindset to support single-ownership restaurants can’t help but support urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Dave, especially as a one-time Albuquerquean, and also as an urbaniist, I'm intrigued with the Nexus Neighbor Program. John Crowley at Aqus Cafe here in Petaluma would surely enjoy hearing about that, and I wouldn't mind extending my own sociability a bit extra at some of our local pubs to benefit both neighborliness and the pocketbook!

    1. Barry, thanks for writing. I think what John is doing at Aqus is largely similar to the Nexus Neighbor program, with the exception of the specific Nexus Neighbor direction to chat with strangers. I didn't read the full content of the Neighbor program until after our visit, but remember being surprised at the willingness of other customers at Nexus to engage in casual conversation with my group. It wasn't overbearing, but just softly comfortable.