Guac, stock, and bar­rel

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alex Heard

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.

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