The big enchilada
Don’t take your friends to Red Enchilada if they’re looking for “Santa Fe style” as it’s defined in upscale tourist publications. The no-frills exterior of this restaurant near the corner of Cerrillos Road and Osage Avenue features a homely sign, doors that look like they were salvaged, and three wide picture windows, one of which has bars on it. Inside, things are cozy but utilitarian — sturdy tables, chairs, and booth seats that seem ready to absorb punishment from rowdy kids or your Oklahoma in-laws. Looking through the big windows, you’ll get an excellent view of a Jiffy Lube across the street.
So, yes, the place is a bit ramshackle, but that can be a good thing. Some of the best food I’ve ever had was served inside scruffy-looking buildings, especially during road trips in the South. Prices at such places are typically low, and the only relevant question is whether that translates into excellent, economical cooking or so-so ingredients and blah presentations. My experiences at Red Enchilada were up and down: One day it was pretty good, one day it wasn’t. But they do some dishes well, and the prices are certainly affordable.
Red Enchilada serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, starting with a 15-item breakfast menu that includes huevos rancheros; a breakfast burrito with bacon, ham, or chorizo; and French toast. The prices on the morning roster are surprisingly cheap: $6.95 for the breakfast super combo, which comes with two eggs, carne adovada, refried beans, potatoes, and red or green chile, and $5.95 for banana pancakes. The lunch and dinner menu reveals that the food style here combines three traditions: Northern New Mexico, Mexico, and Central America. In addition to standard offerings like enchiladas, tamales, and tacos, there are more exotic dishes like mojarra frita (whole fried tilapia) and a combination of steak, onions, green chile, and shrimp called El Patrón.
At lunch on one visit, I ordered beef chalupas, which are offered as part of a seven-item list of specials that includes shrimp soup and tricolor steak tacos. I’ve always loved chalupas — “small boats” of fried tortilla that are usually filled with the same ingredients you’d see on a tostada. Unfortunately, Red Enchilada’s version involves a common shortcut. Instead of using fresh masa dough that’s been shaped and fried to be slightly boatlike or another tasty approach — like encasing the ingredients in a big flap of fry bread — they use premade bowl-shaped taco shells. The two bowls, colored blue and red, were filled with a mix of finely minced spicy ground beef — similar in taste and texture to the meat served at fast-food taco restaurants — refried beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. This array came with Spanish rice, posole, beans, guacamole, and salsa. The sides all did their job, though the posole here is very bland. It has no visible spice and only a few small strings of boiled pork.
My companion had the combo plate, a generous platter containing a rolled cheese enchilada, a beef taco, a pork tamale, and a similar complement of sides. The high point was the tamale — for this, Red Enchilada’s cooks use a nice masa mix that comes out tender, steamy, and tasty. The low point was the red chile, an uninspired concoction that tasted like oil, red chile powder, and little else. The taco contained the same minced meat I was served, so it was fairly dull. We also shared a side order of guacamole — decent stuff, but the portion was small. The iced tea I ordered was so weak that it tasted like water.
My second visit was a better experience. I went all in with the tamales — pork and red chile — and was not disappointed. The table shared a cheese quesadilla, which was fine and was served with a small bowl of dark-red, fine-textured salsa.
The others in our group seemed generally satisfied but not wowed. One person had blue-corn beef enchiladas, filled with the now-familiar ground beef. Another had rolled cheese enchiladas with green chile. Nothing wrong there, except that the green chile sauce at Red Enchilada, like the red, is unexceptional.
The overall feeling you get from Red Enchilada is that the restaurant is comfortable in its niche — serving low-price, medium-quality food to locals who are primarily looking to fill up. None of the three people I took there are likely to go back, though. It might be a different story if the restaurant prepared everything with the same level of care as its tamales.
The high point was the tamale — for this, Red Enchilada’s cooks use a nice masa mix that comes out tender, steamy, and tasty.