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Old Town charm: La Placita offers New Mexican favorites in historic atmosphere

Increase your chances of a ghost sighting this Halloween with reservations to La Placita Dining Rooms, an expansive Mexican eatery in the heart of Old Town housed in a reportedly haunted 300-year-old building.

La Placita is unlike any other restaurant in Albuquerque – or anywhere else. Housed in the historic Casa de Armijo on the plaza in Old Town, the restaurant is a series of connected rooms that used to be the home of a prominent local family. It’s been serving New Mexico cuisine for more than 80 years to hungry tourists and longtime regulars.

One of its most unusual features is a centuries-old cottonwood tree growing through the middle of the main dining room and exiting through the roof. One of the restaurant’s most enduring features happens to be its tales of ghost sightings, apparently most commonly in the women’s restroom.

The tree was originally in the center of the courtyard – the “placita” – but a greenhouse roof has since turned the placita into a grand dining room. A few old paintings line the thick adobe walls. You can feel centuries of history around you; for nearly all of Albuquerque’s history, this building housing La Placita has been at the center of city life.

And if you’re lucky, or maybe unlucky, you might spot the reflection of a young woman in the mirror of the women’s restroom upstairs.

Ghosts or not, dining there is as much a treat for locals as it is for tourists.

The food is reliably New Mexican, with red and green chile of considerable heat and flavor, but don’t expect fine dining – like most of the shops and vendors in and around the plaza in Old Town, La Placita is supposed to be a comfortable spot for tourists to sample local fare.

And just like the decor and the history, the food has some undeniable charms, starting with the chips and salsa. They’re fresh and delicious here: The salsa has just the right amount of cilantro, enough heat to enjoy the flavor without murdering the lovely tourists, and it’s served with big, thick tortilla chips.

The Navajo taco at La Placita Dining Rooms is filled with carne adovada and then smothered with pinto beans, cheese, red chile, lettuce and tomatoes. (Jason K. Watkins/For The Journal)

The Navajo taco ($13) was great, too, piled with big chunks of carne adovada and then smothered with pinto beans, lots of cheese, delicious red chile, shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes. The meat was slow-cooked pork in red chile, lean and tender with a pleasant kick. Although the taco, and the plate, were overflowing, I would have liked a bit more of the meat. (I also would have preferred the fry bread being a little fresher, but it was still tasty.)

The Navajo taco makes a great meal on its own, but a true foodie would order it as an appetizer and share it with the table. That offers the chance to sample more, like the pork tamales ($13) smothered in red chile and melted cheese. They’re fresh and delicious, mild to medium on the spicy chart, and not too filling.

The pinto beans and Mexican rice at La Placita are good, though I liked the rice more than the beans. The tomato and pepper in the rice really come through, and the rice is not gummy or overcooked like at some fast-food restaurants.

The best part, though, comes at the end when the sopaipillas arrive, steaming-hot and flaky and perfect. Just bite off one end and give it a generous pour of warm honey. Every meal should end with these sopaipillas, I think you’ll agree.

The service is great, even on weekends, and reservations aren’t required. They have a full bar and a children’s menu, too. Parking in Old Town can be a problem, especially on a weekend, although paid public parking is available nearby. Don’t miss the grand staircase in the middle of the restaurant, imported from Spain in the late 1800s.

La Placita appeals as much to tourists as to history and architecture buffs, even ghost hunters. The food will appeal to everyone. In the end, you probably won’t get to witness an apparition, mostly because they aren’t real and because only half of you are welcome in the women’s restroom. But your meal will be tasty and memorable and well worth the trip. And the sopaipillas are quite a treat.