I’m on the road again, and this morning I found myself in Albuquerque. I’ve been a New Mexico addict since childhood, early on for their mountains, caves, and deserts, and later on for their culture and food. No one has mastered the growing of green chiles like New Mexican farmers, and no one has mastered the cooking of them like New Mexican home cooks and chefs. So I knew that narrowing my favorite meal of the day down to one restaurant was going to be daunting.
In the end…I just couldn’t do it. I had to have two breakfasts: one at a cheffy, creative type spot, and the other at a local, authentic dive. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.
Having heard legendary things about the bacon at Gold Street Caffe in downtown, next to an actual shoe shine parlor, that was my first stop. Yes…people drive halfway across the country to eat their bacon. Because it’s glazed with green chile and maple syrup, of course.
Walking in the door (and joining the mammoth line) I was greeted by a sign offering their special: caramel pound cake French toast. That’s a pretty good indicator, I’d say! While I’m no sweet tooth, I know at least a dozen people that would faint dead after reading those words.
The menu didn’t make it easy for me. I eventually settled on the Southwest Eggs Benedict: poached eggs, house made green chile cheese biscuit, chile glazed bacon, jalapeno hollandaise, and herb toasted potatoes…only I asked for the eggs to be topped with their green chile sauce rather than the hollandaise. (Not that the hollandaise sounded bad, but the barometer of a great New Mexican restaurant is their house green chile!) It wasn’t an easy choice though, because their Eggs Eleganza also sounded tempting: poached eggs on house made green chile brioche, local goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and grilled salmon. Uf!
The food arrived surprisingly fast considering the line and the tiny kitchen. The first thing I noticed was that their legendary potatoes weren’t crispy, as I’d expected. One bite, though, and my fears were quelled. Infused with amazing herb flavor and perfectly seasoned. And then…
I’m still in shock over this Benedict. Every component was perfect. The biscuit was crusty, lightly sweet, and pungent with chile. Then that bacon. Oh the bacon! Perfectly cooked, sweet but spicy but smoky but still bacon. A molten egg, and their chunky, fiery green chile on top. I may have actually died there and gone to heaven.
With my mouth aflame, I paid my check and headed uptown to Mick’s Chile Fix, a local dive in an industrial area next to a tractor rental place, said to have about the best green chile in town. I was gonna do my best to cram another breakfast into my distended abdomen. Worst case scenario, I saved the rest for lunch.
Mick’s is proof that if you make fabulous food at a good price, people will come regardless of your location. A bowl of red or green chile here with brand and tortillas is $4. My huevos rancheros, their house specialty, was $4.96 including tax. And the place was packed. Service was more familiar and friendly than at Gold Street, though both restaurants were comparably busy. The waitresses at Mick’s have been doing this a looooong time.
I didn’t want to waste a plate because I knew I’d be taking much of my huevos to go, so I ordered it in a container. Upon its prompt arrival, it looked like any plate served at any diner in the country. The green chile was gravy-style, which I have to admit, I love. Gold Street’s was chunky style, and while that lends itself well to gorgeous presentation and can often result in more intense flavor, there’s something about a rich, creamy, gravy-style chile that nourishes my soul. Perfect heat.And complimented by the fact that virtually everyone in the restaurant around me was eating the exact same thing, and when they heard I was from out of town, they all smiled and winked at me, knowing I was eating something extraordinary for the first time that had a legacy in the community.
So which was best in the end? Both. These places exist in two different worlds, and coincidentally, they are the two worlds I’m trapped between. I adore creative innovation with local, familiar flavors, while still maintaining authenticity and respect for the ingredients, like what I found at Gold Street. I am uncomfortable in sophisticated restaurants where you need a PhD to understand the menu, and where nothing looks like itself…scallop foam, foie gras cotton candy, citrus dust, chocolate soil. Ultimately, while I can respect the chef’s creativity and innovation, I feel it’s dishonest to both diner and ingredient. But at places like Gold Street (and FRANK, of course!), you can taste the heritage behind the dish. It’s honest food, made brilliant in the hands of a chef who really understands flavors.
But part of me will still only be supremely at home on a plastic coated seat in a dive that’s been there for half a century, ordering from a waitress who’s been slinging plates there for almost as long. These establishments are cornerstones for a community. Places where kids grow up, Rotary clubs meet for lunch, and neighbors stumble across each other with regularity. They are the kind of places that, should they ever close, it makes the front page of the newspaper and the community mourns. Because food just isn’t about culinary perfection. It’s about people. And my two breakfasts this morning in Albuquerque satisfied both cravings.
And now…westward ho!