The trou­ble with an­gels

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Alex Heard

Gabriel’s is nes­tled inside a com­pound that hugs the east side of the 84/285 frontage road in casino coun­try, just south of the Towa Golf Club links. Tucked away be­hind thick walls and coy­ote fenc­ing, with big elms and cot­ton­woods swish­ing in the wind, it gives off a peace­ful ran­cho vibe. You’ve prob­a­bly driven past it many times on your way to or from Taos, Ghost Ranch, or Ban­de­lier Na­tional Mon­u­ment, and if you have out-of-town vis­i­tors in the car, chances are somebody will no­tice its dis­tinc­tive leap­ing-crit­ter sign and ask, “Is that place good?” Ex­cel­lent ques­tion: Is it? I’ve been to Gabriel’s a few times over the years — dat­ing back to its early days in the 1990s — and my take­away has been that it serves av­er­age food and not much more, closer to chain-restau­rant qual­ity than what you’re promised in its ad­ver­tise­ments. “The fresh­est in­gre­di­ents,” Gabriel’s home page boasts. “The right spices. The per­fect pre­sen­ta­tion.”

With some ex­cep­tions, Gabriel’s doesn’t honor this covenant with your stom­ach. The menu here is af­ford­able — a carne asada plate costs $11.50, a seafood com­bi­na­tion plate is $14.95 — and the por­tions are gen­er­ous. But you can’t hit those prices (and pay­loads) with­out tak­ing a few short­cuts on in­gre­di­ents, and I think this is what Gabriel’s is re­ally about: eco­nom­i­cal, fa­mil­iar North­ern New Mex­ico com­fort food.

Gabriel’s has some strengths. The pa­tio is a nice place to be on a sunny New Mex­ico day — a roomy sprawl of pool­side-style fur­ni­ture, a cen­tral foun­tain, and shade­giv­ing um­brel­las with a clear view of the San­gre de Cris­tos to the east. There’s also cheer­ful in­door seat­ing, which is a bet­ter choice if you go on a cooler night.

On a re­cent lunchtime visit, we started with the best­known of­fer­ing: the Gua­camole Es­pe­cial, made fresh at the ta­ble with two av­o­ca­dos (they use the Brav­o­cado brand), minced garlic and jalapeño, chopped toma­toes, onion, cilantro, salt, and lime juice. Don’t be shy about ask­ing for ex­tra jalapeño. The guac we got was creamy enough, but it needed more heat.

Beyond that, not much turned our heads, and one dish could use an in­ter­ven­tion: the Lone Star ribs. The menu de­scribes th­ese as fresh baby-back ribs that have been “baked un­til ten­der, and then mesquite smoked and basted with our own spe­cial bar­be­cue sauce.” The only ac­cu­rate part of that cook­ing de­scrip­tion is “baked.” The ribs had been dry-rubbed — with trace amounts of some kind of sweet and sa­vory spices — but I can’t imag­ine they were smoked. The “spe­cial” sauce served in a side bowl was a sweet, thin, oily mix that wouldn’t be rec­og­nized as bar­be­cue sauce in Texas or Ten­nessee.

We also or­dered huevos rancheros — a good way to take the mea­sure of a place, as the dish’s sim­ple el­e­ments (corn tor­tilla, fried egg, chile sauce, and cheese) need to be fresh and of high qual­ity for it to work. Gabriel’s ver­sion was big and cheesy, with a nice green chile sauce, a so-so red, and three de­cent sides — re­fried beans, Mex­i­can corn, and Mex­i­can rice. It was heavy go­ing, though, with a rubbery egg at the cen­ter.

At din­ner on a dif­fer­ent night, the best things we had were two cock­tails: La Rosarita — which blends prickly pear juice, tequila, Coin­treau, and lime — and La Granada, which has tequila, Coin­treau, pomegranate juice, and hibis­cus. Again, though, the food was medi­ocre. The best en­tree was a plat­ter of veg­e­tar­ian en­chi­ladas with roasted yams. We also tried the chile rel­leno, another good test dish, be­cause mak­ing it right re­quires putting ef­fort into the bat­ter. Gabriel’s was heavy, and the dish had an un­pleas­ant, fishy taste. I sus­pect the oil had been used a few times too many.

Un­der the “Mesquite Grill” head­ing on its din­ner menu, Gabriel’s of­fers five dif­fer­ent fajita op­tions. We or­dered a combo that came with beef, chicken, and red snap­per. If the fish re­ally was red snap­per, then both its taste and its tex­ture were lost dur­ing long med­i­ta­tion pe­ri­ods in the freezer. The beef and chicken were blah and, once more, there was no in­di­ca­tion that any of this food had been au­then­ti­cally grilled.

Bot­tom line? Gabriel’s is a nice place to have a drink and some chips and guac. But if you’re look­ing for the real New Mex­ico, keep driv­ing.

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