ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. â€” As one of Santa Feâ€™s vintage restaurants, Mariaâ€™s has become a favorite for generations of locals, and a regular stopping place for visitors. The restaurant opened in 1952 as small take-out cafe and expanded to sit-down service due to popular demand. In 1985, Laurie and Al Lucero bought Mariaâ€™s and have operated it ever since, reinforcing the tradition of good New Mexican food. Ask locals where they go for chile, and Mariaâ€™s is sure to be on the short list.
Thereâ€™s a reason for the success. Mariaâ€™s knows how to make a great green-chile sauce, a green-chile salsa with a hint of smokiness, a lovely, smooth red chile and a knock-your-socks-off chile carribe to flavor carne adovada. And without our characteristic chile, New Mexican cuisine might as well move to Texas.
Mariaâ€™s menu includes many classics favorites of New Mexican cuisine: posole, green-chile stew, blue-corn tortillas and sopaipillas with honey â€“ served with the meal, not as dessert. The blue-corn enchiladas here are one of my all-time favorites because they feature the right combination of cheese, a tasty red or green sauce and soft blue tortillas with their slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavor. (I like them with onion, too.)
The enchiladas, and most New Mexican entrĂ©es, come with rice and beans ($11.50). You can add chicken and sour cream or some lean ground beef if you want and top it off with a warm fried egg. There it is, enchilada heaven. This is one of Mariaâ€™s signature dishes, and they sit at the top of the menu.
Although I usually have enchiladas here, on a recent visit my taste buds demanded something heartier. I tried the Carne Adovada ($16.50). The kitchen here does that right, too. They start with lean pork, marinate it in red chile with oregano, garlic and a bit of salt, and when the meat has soaked up the flavor bake it until tender. The serving size is large enough to be totally satisfying, with a bit left for the next day if you pace yourself. The rice was especially light and good the night of my visit, not the gummy mess that Spanish rice sometimes become.
My three friends and I started with a shared appetizer combination plate ($10.50). The tamale, tender masa wrapped around moist shredded pork with a nice chile seasoning, stole the show. The bite-sized tacos with ground beef and cheese inside were excellent. The order also included â€śnachosâ€ť â€“ a pile of corn chips with shredded cheese on top that hadnâ€™t melted all the way â€“ and ribs. I remember a more savory version of these ribs; the ones we tried were still pleasant little bitefuls, but they sat in a pool of overly sweet barbecue sauce. The menu describes the sauce as â€śmild red chile barbeque.â€ť I wonder if someone left the chile powder out of the batch we tried.
Mariaâ€™s gets an A for salad, however. The dinner salad was crisp and the veggie, cucumber, tomato, carrots, red cabbage and lettuce, nicely chilled and well worth $4.95.
I also liked the Galisteo chicken ($14.50), billed as a â€śMariaâ€™s exclusive.â€ť The chicken is parboiled, then finished in a deep fryer with canola oil. The cooking leaves the meat moist with a slight crispness to the skin, not greasy or heavy.
My friend asked for the green-chile salsa on the side, and received a small dish of sauce nicely warmed. The chicken itself, probably because it is intended to be served with the flavorful sauce on top, was lightly seasoned. The half-chicken came with a small fresh guacamole salad on a bed of lettuce and Spanish rice.
When another of my friends ordered the Don Pedro Grande ($17.50), the waitress nodded. â€śTwo plates of food for you,â€ť she told him. The chile relleno that came as part of the feast had nice crisp breading and a juicy interior of melted cheese inside the large mild green chile. The â€śGrandeâ€ť dinner also includes ribs, a tamale, a cheese enchilada, beans and rice. The regular combo plate has a taco with guacamole instead of the ribs for a dollar less.
Open for lunch and dinner every day of the week, Mariaâ€™s draws a crowd, especially in the evenings and during tourist season. Busyness can lead to service problems. We had a reservation, but our group of four waited half an hour past the reserved time. We were happy when the hostess showed us to a table and we received menus, water and a tray of chips with good, hot salsa. Another 15 minutes went by before our waitress appeared to ask if we wanted to try one of Mariaâ€™s margaritas, the house specialty. Once she got around to us, the waitress was fine and her assistants worked hard, too.