one from the heart
Have you ever been seated at a large table of people while a couple of them awkwardly argue over who should take the leftovers home? It induces a special kind of squirming, having to watch each person struggle with the perceived social stigma of carrying a doggy bag out to her car against the desire to stretch one meal into two — especially if you’re the carb hoarder (though I prefer the term “carb connoisseur”) who has already wrapped an especially thick tortilla in a napkin and carefully stashed it in the small pocket of her purse.
That’s why it’s a relief to be at Valentina’s in the Solana Center on a Wednesday night, where no one has any such shame and every table ultimately wants a box. The group of amiable gray-haired guys who ordered several extravagantly stuffed burritos will definitely be taking their remainders home, along with the family of four who are having their huge sopaipillas boxed up to go with a few honey packets. By the end of my own tri-colored chips and salsa at the beginning of one dinner, I wanted the bright red chile, spicy green ranchera, and verdant tomatillo salsas put in separate containers, bound for my refrigerator and the next morning’s soft-scrambled eggs.
The seemingly universal compulsion for Valentina’s patrons to take their scraps home is a testament to the generosity and care that owner Alberto Aboytes has poured into his voluminous menu. Aboytes, who hails from Querétaro, Mexico, and opened the restaurant in 2013, has put a dependable spin on dishes at popular establishments around town like Lucia’s and El Comal. At Valentina’s, named for his daughter, he expanded a list of the usual chile-soaked suspects (enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas, burritos, and combinations thereof) to include more traditional Mexican offerings like tortas, mole, menudo, and steak and seafood plates.
A meal here can be like joining a large party that has been going on for a few hours, especially on Wednesday and Thursday nights, when Santa Fe’s venerable all-female mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Buenaventura, loudly delights diners for an hour starting at 6:30 p.m. The long modular table in the center of the room is often at capacity with a family celebration, adults happily slurping on salt-rimmed margaritas and micheladas roughly the size of their children’s heads. The restaurant’s bright-orange walls, which boast a large mural and several painted iterations of Frida Kahlo, add to the festive vibe.
One dinner date began with a bucket of six icy ponies — 7-ounce Mexican beers. We divvied them up between us with slices of lime, three Sols and three Coronitas each, and the fun continued from there when we dove into a heaping plate of chicken enchiladas de mole rojo. The perfectly shredded white meat was rolled into rich, russet-sauced tortillas sprinkled with a fine dusting of cotija cheese. Another entree, a humongous carne adovada burrito soaked in both red and green chiles and covered in a molten layer of Jack and cheddar, carried a subtly
intensifying heat, and the red chile in particular lent itself well to the tender, flaking pork. Both plates were accompanied by good portions of fluffy Spanish rice, lettuce, tomato, and pintos or refritos, and everything was pretty lovable, including Buenaventura’s cover of Selena’s “Como la Flor.” A platter of chiles rellenos was the lone disappointment, their soggy-spongy batter sheathing a pair of outsize, but not quite tender enough, cheese-filled poblanos.
One staunch supporter of Valentina’s breakfast said she always orders the papas rancheras (breakfast potatoes topped with two eggs, cheese, chile, and sour cream, served with beans, lettuce, tomato, and sopaipillas or tortillas) and that she frequents the place on weekend mornings for its no-frills yet reliable food and service. Indeed, a Sunday brunch here is a goal-oriented pursuit, if your aim is to roll back out the door thoroughly stuffed by a satisfying breakfast burrito the girth of a chubby toddler’s upper arm. With fluffy scrambled eggs and spicy sausage snuggled up to creamy potatoes inside a thick tortilla blanket covered with more of that rewarding red chile and cheese, ours proved a rewarding undertaking that lasted us for most of the day ahead. We also enjoyed the less substantial but equally tasty migas, which layered an abundance of crispy tortilla strips with scrambled eggs, cheese, green peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and more semi-slick home fries. Valentina’s coffee also turns out to be much better than the term “no frills” might portend.
Most plates come with a choice of sopaipillas or tortillas. The sopas are some of the best in town — large not-too-oily clouds of fried dough that are perfectly suited to scoop up more of that sneaky red chile. But I’d suggest organizing with your dining companions to get both options on the table, so that when the impulse strikes, you can fold your own selection into a box in anticipation of happy snack times to come.
A meal here can be like joining a large party that has been going on for a few hours, especially when the venerable all-female ensemble Mariachi Buenaventura loudly delights diners.