The trouble with angels
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.