All in the familia
An ad campaign from the late 1960s suggested that fur coats are “what becomes a legend most.” In the case of Tia Sophia’s, the legendary family-owned restaurant just a few blocks from the Plaza that celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this month, it’s probably a ladleful of chile.
Tia Sophia’s is only open for breakfast and lunch, and it’s a pretty great place to start your day. On the menu are burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and huevos rancheros, along with other breakfast classics like omelets and eggs. Sure, they serve pancakes and French toast, too, but that’s probably not what you’re going there for, is it?
In the mellow breakfast quesadilla, the Wednesday special, eggs and crumbled bacon meet the requisite cheese. I enjoyed it, particularly because I like any excuse to eat guacamole first thing in the morning.
The handheld breakfast “rolls” are a little unusual. They begin with meat or egg but not both — for that you’ll pay extra, as you will to add potato and cheese. If you load yours up, you’ll get buttery-tasting egg, grated cheese, squiggly-crisp hash browns, and long, substantial strips of bacon folded up in a soft flour tortilla. The smothered version is better, since it allows you to slather your breakfast in stewy, mildly spicy green chile or bittersweet brick-colored red.
Lighter and chile-free dishes are available — salads and sandwiches — as well as burgers. I tried the tostadas, in which crisp fried whole corn tortillas are topped with layers of beans, cheese, chicken or beef, lettuce, and tomato, with guacamole in generous dollops on top. The chicken was remarkably juicy and tender enough to pull apart with a fork. Overall the dish was filling but somehow felt light.
Traditional New Mexico dishes are the restaurant’s real strong suit, though — tacos, enchiladas, adovada, burritos, and the like. I’ll eat huevos rancheros for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and Tia Sophia’s, drowning in chile, are some of the best I’ve had, though over-medium eggs always come out over-easy and runny.
The green chile stew, served by the bowl, is loaded with hunks of meat and the occasional potato. Rather than simple broth, the base looks like it’s made from puréed chile. If you really need a chile fix, you can always order red or green by the bowlful. The kitchen will add your favorite combination of meat, beans, cheese, and diced onion. I’m a “bowl of green with beans and cheese” kind of gal — it’s the sort of thing I order when I’ve been traveling, because in a simple, to-the-point way, it reminds me how great it is to be home.
If you can’t make up your mind, choose the combo so you can enjoy a deliciously doughy relleno and a cheesy enchilada — both disappeared quickly at our table. The Saturday special is a duo that combines a smothered enchilada and a taco (if one day’s special appeals to you on a different day, don’t worry — you can order it anyway if you’re willing to pay a little extra). The pinto beans served alongside most of these dishes are pleasantly starchy and salty.
You’ll also get a traditional basket of puffy, pillowy sopaipillas with your meal — one for each person at the table. Honey is de rigueur, of course, but I sometimes prefer a dusting of cinnamon and sugar, offered on the table in a retro-diner-style glass and chrome dispenser.
The food here is certainly good, but it’s not singular — you can get similar dishes as other restaurants around town, and everyone has a favorite spot for that. So what distinguishes the place? Perhaps it’s the ambience and “local flavor.” As one Yelp reviewer wrote, “The vibe is real.” Your server might deliver corny jokes along with iced-tea refills, and in a sweet, thoughtful touch, a shelf near the front of the dining area is stocked with children’s books.
Staff members are friendly in a familial kind of way. Even when you catch them behind the scenes looking exhausted or overwhelmed, they put on their game face and greet you pleasantly. Once the meal begins, they might be quick and businesslike, but your water glass and coffee cup will never be empty.
Plan your visit wisely, especially now that summer’s almost here. On weekends or during holidays, clusters of tourists and locals spill out the door and onto the sidewalk. Try to arrive early or late for breakfast or lunch; otherwise, you should be prepared to wait with them.
A few tables are available in the sunny front windows, and there’s a larger open dining room in the back, but it’s fun to snuggle up in one of the wood-lined booths, which feels a little like your own private dining capsule. Once you’re settled in, it’s easy to forget about the mob out front. Sit back, put your napkin in your lap, and let the legend do what it does best.