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Santa Fe comfort: PC’s Restaurant & Lounge offers northern New Mexico flavors, ambiance

A green chile cheeseburger with fries goes down easy with a margarita at PC’s Restaurant & Lounge. (Molly Boyle/For The Journal)

A handmade wooden sign at the entrance to PC’s Restaurant & Lounge sums up the longtime Santa Fe institution’s whole deal. It looks like someone’s amateur woodworker cousin made it. “Welcome to PC’s Restaurant and Lounge,” it spells out in charmingly askew turquoise lettering, inlaid over a landscape of streaming sun, rolling hills and a fiery ristra. The “O” in “to” is a Zia symbol. Glancing up at it, I felt a wave of comfort roll over me.

PC’s, which has anchored Airport Road for decades, is a classic Santa Fe dive. But it’s a dive where families gather at long tables after funerals to gobble up the “Comidas Nativas,” as the entrees are listed on the menu.

The year-round Friday Lenten salmon patty special has a loyal following. Other devotees swear by the no-frills Navajo taco, the carnitas plate and the chicharrón burrito.

At the bar, you’re automatically treated as a family member.

Early one weekday evening, I watched a bartender greet his regulars with the signature warmth that characterizes the PC’s experience. “Hey, Nancy, rum and Coke?” “What can I get you, Todd, Dos Equis?”

Like “Cheers,” it’s a place where everyone knows your name – at least by the time you leave. While Tom Petty’s “American Girl” blared and three college basketball games played on the various TVs, things got philosophical. I sipped a giant, well-balanced house margarita ($5.50) and listened to a steady stream of norteño non sequiturs at the cozy U-shaped bar.

“If you worked with me for 20 years, would you love me?” one whimsical customer asked his server. “I’m barely putting up with you now,” was the loving reply.

Another man pointed to a corner and said he had met his ex-wife over there, under the black-and-white wedding photo of Priscilla Chavez (the restaurant’s namesake) and her husband. The restaurant is now run by their son, John Paul Ulibarri.

Another day, in the more nondescript dining room, I lunched with another Santa Fe institution, retired Roundhouse reporter Steve Terrell. Over his combination plate of cheese enchilada, beef taco, chile relleno, rice and refried beans ($10.35), Terrell remembered that in the fall of 2008, Caroline Kennedy gave a stump speech for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in the restaurant’s parking lot.

Amid the vibrance of all this local color, the food takes a back seat. I’d give Terrell’s combo a B-minus. Everything on his plate was serviceable, but unmemorable, save for the wonderfully seasoned refritos. The relleno breading was too spongy, and the rice lacked flavor.

But I did enjoy the semi-bitter dark-red chile on my own order of chicken enchiladas ($11.80), as well as the tender white shreds of chicken. And like the prices and the service, the sopaipillas at PC’s have a distinct extra sweetness. They’re delicious with a dollop of honey and a generous sprinkle of salt.

Another night, my heart melted at the loving touch of a grill sear atop my green chile cheeseburger ($11.80). The hefty beef patty was nicely seasoned and cooked to the requested medium under a molten blanket of American cheese. The details were on point: a ripe tomato slice, rounds of red onion, a quality leaf of romaine and a heap of hot, well-salted fries rounded out the order.

Don’t expect any locavore touches here, though — when I asked where the green chile came from, my server said, “Probably Bueno,” with an unpretentious shrug. (It made my nose run, no matter what it was.)

A Tuesday night special of carne adovada ($9.50) had well-seasoned but too-dry pork chunks dredged in red chile, accompanied by impeccably cooked whole pintos, shredded cheddar, lettuce, tomato and some less impressive papitas, which had the flavor of old cooking oil. A cup of green chile stew ($4.55) had a thin but blazing broth, along with too many potatoes and not enough pork. A dessert bowl of cinnamon-dusted natillas ($4.40) tasted like someone’s adored abuelita had whipped it up. The thin custard made a good dipping companion to another of those curiously sweet, pillowy sopaipillas.

Despite the ups and downs of its menu, I keep pulling out of PC’s parking lot with that quintessentially northern New Mexico feeling of querencia, knowing I have just spent a decent time and very little money in a place that feels both fond and homey for longtime Santa Feans.

With five rotating lunch and dinner specials a week, eight appetizers, 10 senior and children’s specials, 15 hefty entrees and a full weekend breakfast menu, there might be something for everyone at PC’s.

Besides the burger, I’ll keep going back until I figure out what mine is. I’m particularly curious about the patty melt on rye with provolone and grilled onions — it seems like something my own grandma might make me.

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