Guac, stock, and barrel
If you’ve been to a movie at Regal Stadium 14, you know that several restaurants line the parking lots north and west of the entrance, positioned to reel people in as they walk from vehicle to movie and back again. One of them, El Milagro, sits catty- corner from the Santa Fe Capitol Grill and next door to Cleopatra’s Café. El Milagro is unapologetically no-frills, a small place (just over a dozen tables) that skips any fancy touches or pretentious dishes. The restaurant’s big menu combines New Mexico and Mexican standards with Anywhere USA staples like chicken-breast sandwiches, smothered pork chops, and 10 different hamburgers. A sign out front promises the “best burgers in town.”
Tempted by such claims, should you give El Milagro a try? Sure, but be aware that most of the offerings here are pretty ordinary, including those burgers. Like many Santa Fe restaurants that specialize in Northern New Mexico cuisine, El Milagro keeps its prices low — but sometimes at a clear cost to what winds up on your plate. The bulk of what we tried during two visits suffered from a double whammy of mediocre ingredients and uninspired preparation. There’s nothing wrong with simple comfort food, and when it’s done right, there are few things I like more. But too often at El Milagro, what you get is heavy and dull.
During a lunch visit, we started with chips and queso, a humble appetizer that can be superb in the right chef’s hands. A friend who came along justifiably boasts about a queso recipe he picked up years ago at a cooking class: It contains 15 ingredients, including three kinds of cheese, two kinds of chile, and a splash of tequila. I wouldn’t expect El Milagro to attempt all that — it wouldn’t be cost-effective — but the thin queso they serve is definitely below par. It’s the color of Velveeta, and it’s barely livened up by the few flecks of zingless green chile thrown in.
We were happier with the beef taquitos — corn tortillas rolled tightly around a spicy minced-beef mixture and then fried — which were hot, savory, and satisfying. The price was good, too — five for $6.95 — and if you order these and a beverage as a quick snack, you’ll probably go away happy. El Milagro serves beer, wine, and sangria but no spirits. The wine and beer choices are all big brands like Woodbridge, Budweiser, Coors, Tecate, and Pacifico, but that’s OK. With this kind of food, light beers are a good, refreshing fit. El Milagro also serves soft drinks, iced tea, coffee, and a commercial brand of lemonade.
The rest of our lunch was a mixed bag, typified by the combo plate, which came with a chile relleno and a chicken chalupa. The limp chile in the relleno tasted like a green bell pepper. It was socked away inside a heavy fried coating that, as often happens with this dish, was soggy. A good chalupa uses a boat-shaped fried tortilla that has some thickness and heft to it. This one featured a thin, basket-shaped taco shell, and the chicken inside was bright-white breast meat that had very little flavor. My friend ordered chicken and guacamole tacos and was pleased. The guac was good, and there was plenty of it.
Our second trip, for dinner, started with a setback: We arrived 10 minutes before closing time and were told that the restaurant had closed early. Why? The hostess said things had been slow, so they just decided to shut down. Our appeals for mercy were fruitless.
We went back two nights later, with time to spare, and kicked things off with a chicken quesadilla. The flour tortilla was crispy and good, but the chicken and cheese inside were the same so-so stuff I’d had in my chalupa, and the red salsa that came with it was too mild to register. Next I tried what I assume is the flagship hamburger here: the Milagro Burger, which comes with green chile, bacon, and both Swiss and American cheeses. It wasn’t the best burger in town, but it wasn’t bad. The beef tasted fresh, and the cheeses bonded with the bun in a nicely sloppy way. The green chile, as before, was weak, and the bacon on top was dry.
Bottom line? El Milagro is a reasonable bet for a snack and a drink, but as a full-meal destination, it needs to improve its game.