The big en­chi­lada

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW -

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.

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