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A warming taste of northern New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. — Every year when a couple of my family members come out for their pre-Christmas visit, we soon make tracks for Cafe Castro.

Pity the poor visitors – they can’t get real New Mexico chile in the Chicago suburbs. And it’s not a matter of heat, one of them said; it’s a matter of flavor. Nothing matches the full flavor of chile found in New Mexico.

So, of course, chile is a prime draw in our visits to Cafe Castro. But the ambiance helps, too. On a recent Sunday evening, Christmas lights twinkled throughout the restaurant and a guitarist sat near the entrance softly singing a variety of tunes in Spanish. A quick glance around showed that the Hispanic customers outnumbered the Anglos – generally a good sign that quality, down-home northern New Mexican food is being cooked in the kitchen.

We started with guacamole and chips ($6). We didn’t ask for the additional salsa ($1) that the waitress delivered, but we were fine with the addition. The chips were thin but sturdy, made in-house and “very fresh,” the waitress assured us. Indeed, they provided a delicate taste of corn that you won’t find in the stuff that comes in a bag on grocery shelves.

The guac’s avocado was specked with bits of tomato and perhaps also onion. Anyone who missed heat in the guacamole would have been satisfied with the salsa, though.

More liquid than solid, it was dominated by (canned) tomato flavor with a hearty enough addition of red chile to send my male guest’s scalp into a sweat.

We made a considerable dent in that appetizer even in the short time before the entrees appeared.

My female guest opted for the Plato Pequeño ($5), an ample enough meal that she customized to include chicken in the enchilada, green chile on top, and posole on the side – along with a little mound of shredded lettuce and tomato. “Delicious,” was her judgment.

For his stuffed sopaipilla, my other guest chose a beef and beans filling with a green chile topping. And the good-sized sopaipilla, he noted, was quite stuffed, leaving him in the same condition when he finished. In both cases, the food was warm, flavorful and made just the way it should be. While he fantasized about having Castro’s chile sauce shipped to Illinois, I noted that the chile this time was on the mild side. But I imagine the degree of heat depends on the harvest and the chile on hand. I’ve had some here in the past that set my nose to running and cleared my sinuses.

Now we get to my choice, which might make some shy away: a large bowl of menudo ($6). Yes, it’s made from tripe – usually beef stomach. But I love it. Maybe the vaguely rubbery texture of the menudo reminds me of the thick skin that covered pork hocks that my mother used to make with sauerkraut. It’s comfort food to me.

I ordered the menudo with posole and green chile; some chopped raw onions and oregano came on the side to add as I wished. It all comes together in a tasty broth that combines the taste of all the ingredients. I alternated between dipping the sopaipilla that came on side in the broth, and drizzling some slow-moving honey into its interior.

Menudo is good, folks, honest. Give it a try. After all, if you’re going to kill an animal to eat it, you might as well make use of all its parts.

The sopaipillas varied. The one I had on the side was substantial and not greasy, while others we had in a basket had thinner walls, a bit more crispness and a little more grease – maybe they emerged more recently from the fryer.

Service was good. When the waitress occasionally got tied up, an older woman with a somewhat maternal attitude made her way down the tables, making sure everyone had what they needed.

I can’t think of a better spot for inexpensive, well-prepared northern New Mexican cuisine in the City Different. And an extra spot in my heart was warmed by the restaurant’s sign that said “Immigrants Make Us Strong.”