Al­bu­querque boasts plenty of sass and style

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - PATTI NICK­ELL

AL­BU­QUERQUE, N.M. — One of my fond­est travel mem­o­ries was of a trip I took with my grand­par­ents on his­toric Route 66 from their home in Texas to Cal­i­for­nia.

One of our stops was Al­bu­querque, where my grand­fa­ther sug­gested din­ner at La Placita Din­ing Rooms and Cantina in Old Town.

We had a lengthy wait for a ta­ble, so we oc­cu­pied the time at the bar lis­ten­ing to the strolling gui­tar player strum Mex­i­can love songs. When he asked for re­quests, my grand­mother — em­bold­ened by the three mar­gar­i­tas she had con­sumed while wait­ing — beck­oned him over and asked if he knew “The Eyes of Texas.”

With­out miss­ing a sin­gle beat, he segued from “Cielito Lindo” to the song that is a ral­ly­ing cry for Texans ev­ery­where.

Years later, I’m back in Old Town stand­ing in front of La Placita, which ap­pears trapped in a time warp. The adobe fa­cade is still the same and the an­cient cot­ton­wood tree still stands in the mid­dle of the din­ing room (a holdover from when the now-en­closed room was the court­yard of the orig­i­nal Casa de Ar­mijo ha­cienda).

From La Placita, I stroll across the plaza to San Felipe de Neri, the old­est church in Al­bu­querque, be­gun by the Fran­cis­can or­der in 1706. The church and the ad­join­ing Rec­tory share a gar­den.

In the plaza, his­tor­i­cal plaques tell the story of the city and its place on the Camino Real (King’s High­way), which wound through a se­ries of small ranch­ing com­mu­ni­ties be­fore link­ing up with set­tle­ments on the West Bank of the Rio Grande.

Lo­cated in north­ern New Mex­ico’s high desert re­gion at an el­e­va­tion of 5,312 feet, Al­bu­querque may lack the pol­ished panache of Santa Fe or the west­ern chic of Taos, but it more than makes up for it in sass and style — a com­bi­na­tion of the city’s Na­tive Amer­i­can, His­panic and An­glo her­itage.

Cur­rently un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance of sorts, Al­bu­querque is home to some 800 works of pub­lic art; a vi­brant mix of neigh­bour­hoods, from quirky Nob Hill to Down­town (where Route 66 is now known as Cen­tral Av­enue); and a bur­geon­ing brew­ery scene (more brew­eries per capita than Port­land). Stop in for a tast­ing at Bow & Ar­row, where Shyla Shep­pard is the only Na­tive Amer­i­can woman to own a brew­ery.

Oh yes, and there’s the lit­tle mat­ter of Al­bu­querque be­ing the set­ting for two of tele­vi­sion’s most ac­claimed se­ries, “Break­ing Bad” and its pre­quel, “Bet­ter Call Saul.”

As so of­ten hap­pens when a pop cul­ture phe­nom­e­non is as­so­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar lo­cale, fans of said phe­nom­e­non flock there, swelling tourism cof­fers. This be­came clear to me one morn­ing dur­ing break­fast at the Grove Cafe & Mar­ket, where one ta­ble seemed to be gar­ner­ing un­due at­ten-

tion — es­pe­cially since no one was sit­ting there at the time.

I was told that this was the ta­ble where “Break­ing Bad’s” Wal­ter White, high school chem­istry teacher-turned-meth mogul, sub­sti­tuted ricin for Ste­via in Ly­dia’s camomile tea. Now, if that doesn’t say tourist at­trac­tion, I don’t know what does.

But I wasn’t here for a Break­ing Bad tour; in­stead I was in town for the Gath­er­ing of Na­tions Pow­wow, the world’s largest gath­er­ing of Na­tive Amer­i­can and In­dige­nous peo­ples.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from 700 tribes from across the U.S., Canada and Latin Amer­ica joined to­gether for the three-day event, which fea­tured 3,000 Na­tive Amer­i­can singers and dancers com­pet­ing for prizes; 23 con­tes­tants vy­ing for the ti­tle of Miss In­dian World (tal­ent com­pe­ti­tions ranged from tra­di­tional — Hoop Dance — to some­what less tra­di­tional — braid­ing the in­testines of an Arc­tic seal), and 800 Na­tive Amer­i­can ar­ti­sans and crafts­men dis­play­ing and sell­ing their wares.

In­ter­spersed among the Pow­wow fes­tiv­i­ties were ac­tiv­i­ties de­signed to give vis­i­tors a bet­ter cul­tural un­der­stand­ing of the 19 pueb­los scat­tered across New Mex­ico.

At the im­pres­sive In­dian Pue­blo Cul­tural Cen­ter, I par­took of a tra­di­tional feast at the Pue­blo Har­vest Cafe (who knew that black cherry Kool-Aid pick­les coated with blue corn could be so very tasty?) and af­ter­ward, re­ceived in­struc­tion on how to make Na­tive Amer­i­can fry bread.

On an­other day, sev­eral of us joined Mike Nez, a full-blooded Navajo jew­elry maker at the Hy­att Re­gency Ta­maya Re­sort & Spa to learn how to de­sign and make our own cop­per bracelets.

Din­ner at the re­sort’s Corn Maiden Restau­rant pro­vided an epi­curean journey through New Mex­ico’s re­gional cui­sine, with dishes such as Beef Strip Loin cooked on a ro­tis­series grill and served with green chili pota­toes au gratin, veg­eta­bles with cac­tus chut­ney and peach salsa and green chili pinon ap­ple pie.

When it comes to New Mex­i­can cui­sine, it’s all about the chiles, and when it comes to chiles, it’s all about whether you pre­fer red, green or Christ­mas (a mix­ture of both).

I had plenty of op­por­tu­nity to scorch my palate with all three at a num­ber of lo­cal restau­rants.

There were the blue corn pan­cakes from James Beard-nom­i­nated chef Jonathan Perno at Los Poblanos His­toric Inn & Or­ganic Farm. Los Poblanos, built in the Span­ish ha­cienda style, is a lush green oa­sis in the desert and boasts laven­der beds, for­mal English gar­dens and honey from its own bee­hives.

There were (what else?) tacos and te­quila at Za­cate­cas Tacos & Te­quila ... even my mar­garita had red chiles in it. Green chiles were on the menu at the Great Amer­i­can Diner, es­pe­cially in its La­guna Burger, win­ner of the New Mex­ico State Fair’s 2016 Green Chile Cheese­burger Chal­lenge.

If by now you are think­ing New Mex­i­cans are a bit chile-cen­tric, take note: Al­bu­querque is one of the stops on the state’s Green Chile Cheese­burger Trail.

It’s tapas rather than tacos that fea­ture on the menus at two of Al­bu­querque’s best ho­tel restau­rants — Tablao Fla­menco at Ho­tel Al­bu­querque (on week­ends, fla­menco per­for­mances are of­fered along with the food) and at MAS — Tapas Y Vino at the charm­ing An­daluz Ho­tel.

Be­fore din­ing at the lat­ter, en­joy cock­tails in the sec­ond-floor Ibiza Bar or sip sur­rounded by South­west­ern art in one of the pri­vate nooks off the first floor lobby (the stained glass screen is es­pe­cially note­wor­thy).

On my last day in Al­bu­querque, I took a drive 60 miles/100 kilo­me­tres west to Acoma Pue­blo, also known as Sky City. For good rea­son, as the pue­blo, built in the 12th cen­tury and the old­est con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing com­mu­nity in North Amer­ica, sits atop a sheer-walled 367-foot sand­stone bluff.

Sur­round­ing it is a land­scape of desert, mesas and blue sky, which served as muse for artists such as painter Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe and pho­tog­ra­pher Ansel Adams. To­day, some 50 tribal mem­bers still live here, sell­ing their hand­made crafts and pro­vid­ing stew­ard­ship for San Este­van del Rey Mis­sion, com­pleted in 1640 (how the Span­ish priest got the Na­tive Amer­i­can res­i­dents to con­struct the mis­sion’s roof is the New Mex­i­can equiv­a­lent of how the Egyp­tian pharaohs got their slaves to build the pyra­mids).

A visit to the Sky City Cul­tural Cen­ter and its Haak’u Mu­seum will help put the visit to Acoma in per­spec­tive, and teach you that mesas — such as the one that Acoma is built on — are sa­cred to the peo­ple of the pueb­los.

It’s where, as they tell you, “Mother Earth meets Fa­ther Sky.”

San Felipe de Neri Church in his­toric Old Town.

VISIT AL­BU­QUERQUE, TNS

Adobe build­ings and shops in Al­bu­querque’s his­toric Old Town.

VISIT AL­BU­QUERQUE, TNS

The lobby of Ho­tel An­daluz, which boasts a top­notch restau­rant.

SER­GIO SAL­VADOR, TNS

Clas­sic New Mex­i­can break­fast smoth­ered in red chiles.

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