The Ramblin’ Café — a popular family restaurant that marked its 11th anniversary in April — is an easy place to miss, partly because it’s on a side street off Cerrillos Road, tucked away at one end of a shopping center that doesn’t have a lot going on these days. From north to south, there’s the café, some blank space, a nurse practitioners’ office promising “Beautiful Skin,” and an old-fashioned birthday-party-style bakery called A Cake Odyssey.
The café’s entrance combines glaring panels of reflective glass with bold white letters, which signal that this is a nothing-fancy, short-order kind of eatery: a Frito pie, fried taquitos, a chile bowl, and a stuffed sopaipilla, among other high-calorie delights, are advertised on the exterior. Inside you’ll find drip-stained drop ceilings; an ordering counter with a wide, densely worded menu mounted above it; and some surprisingly good food. The no-snobs-need-apply interior feels very welcoming: There’s a flat-screen television mounted in one corner, a wall partially covered in photographs, and casual seating around a sprawling array of square tables. It’s the kind of restaurant that breeds local regulars, and if you’re there during the workweek, you’ll see plenty of them.
The menu is big, and it’s heavy on rise-and-shine stuff — breakfast is served all day — including huevos rancheros, carne adovada and eggs, and a signature item called “morning pan fry” that consists of eggs, spinach, sautéed mushrooms in balsamic vinaigrette, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and potatoes and is served with toast or a tortilla. For lunch, you can order from an extensive list of New Mexico standards (tamales, chile rellenos, tacos, Indian tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and more) or from a burger-and-sandwiches roster that contains 21 different offerings.
The kitchen’s masterminds make food on a human scale, unlike many restaurants today, whose oversized portions seem like they should be served on hubcaps. Try the huevos rancheros and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a simple, delicious, tidy arrangement that will fill you up but won’t leave you feeling cross-eyed. Mine consisted of two expertly fried eggs on a tortilla bed, a serviceable red chile sauce, beans, hash browns, and cheese, all of which came together just right. I’ll go back and have that again.
Be aware, though, that some of the food here is spicier than you might expect. And I don’t just mean the sauces: the green I had was pretty hot, but the red was fairly mild. The real issue is the food itself, which occasionally has a level of ground spice (either blended chili powder or dried red chile, I’m guessing) that steadily builds on your tongue as you work through your order. I noticed this with two meals in particular: a breakfast quesadilla with chorizo and an enchilada combo, which included two rolled cheese enchiladas, a chile relleno, a pork tamale, a beef taco, beans, and rice. Everything in both dishes was made well, using good ingredients, but in both cases I was unable to finish because I couldn’t stand the heat. Maybe I’m just weak, but don’t be surprised if you feel the burn, too.
The spice-blast thing didn’t happen every time, though. During two visits, I sampled two different dishes featuring carne adovada, a New Mexico staple that isn’t especially spicy at the Ramblin’ Café. The quality of an adovada tends to vary depending on how long the meat has been stewing. For lunch one day, I ordered adovada tacos, and the meat was great: tender without being overcooked. But on a different trip, for breakfast, my dining companion tried it — in the adovada and eggs — and it was stringy and dry. The kitchen masked this by slathering the chunks of meat with red sauce, but that didn’t quite solve the problem.
From the burger-and-sandwich section, one of my companions tried the double green chile cheeseburger, which was nothing special, and certainly not on a par with the café’s best New Mexican food: a generic sesame-seeded bun, two beef patties slapped together in the middle, chopped green chile, a pale tomato slice, onion, iceberg lettuce, and a piece of partially melted American cheese. Santa Fe’s green chile cheeseburger scene is competitive, and this version wouldn’t win any prizes, but all in all, the Ramblin’ Café is a good place to wander into.
1420 Second St., 505-989-1272 Breakfast and lunch 7:00 a.m.-4 p.m. MondaysFridays; 7:00 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays; closed
Takeout available Vegetarian options Handicapped accessible Noise level: quiet
No alcohol Credit cards, local checks