ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When traveling to the North Valley, it’s likely one’s route will include Second Street or Rio Grande Boulevard, but those taking the less popular Edith thoroughfare will drive right by one of the city’s most enthusiastic yet homey purveyors of Mexican grub: Rey’s Place. The black and white tiled floor hints at earlier restaurant incarnations as a diner, but the menu is inspired by grandma-style slow cooking, from the whole beans to stews that simmer a full day.
For more than two years Rey’s slipped by my notice, and when finally nudged to give it a try, I found an experience that could only come from someone as passionate about feeding folks as bubbly proprietor Michael Sierra. He constantly bounces from dining room to kitchen, greeting customers – old and new – with equal enthusiasm (though regulars might get a ribbing if he hasn’t seen them in some time).
While settling in at one of the scattered tables, order something to drink, sure, but don’t miss both the salsa and guacamole ($2.95) to whet the appetite. The salsa is smoky but with a tart bite that can startle one into a few coughs. Next to it, the guacamole is easy to dismiss by the nearly pureed texture I see all the time in packaged store stuff, but the flavor says otherwise – fresh and well-seasoned.
Sierra plops on a chair next to the table to take orders, then pounces up to deliver the scribbles to his staff, pausing to make a recommendation if the situation inspires. Whether or not it is recommended, order Gorditas ($8.95 plate, $4.25 a la carte) to experience a Mexican treat not often seen in Albuquerque. Gorditas are essentially small corn-based stuffed sopaipillas; here it is done in Sierra’s style where less masa is more. The resulting gordita is orange from chile powder in the mix and pita-thin, crispy from a dunk in the fryer. It is then split and filled with beans and your meat of choice, from chicken to carnitas. No mincing words here – get the carnitas.
Side dishes that come with most meals include whole beans simmered until they are barely able to hold their shape, and full of flavor without mush. The Mexican rice is cooked over an hour until fluffy. The slogan at Rey’s is “from the pan, not the can,” and it is in these sides that the attention to detail shows. Only the papitas, a bit on the greasy side, didn’t wow the whole table. Even the salsa came with chips fresh out of the fryer, putting us in a mood to forgive the slow pace of each dish’s delivery.
There are no Mexican restaurants I’ll sign off on that don’t serve some kind of huge soup, whether Menudo ($6.75) or a big Caldo de Res ($7.95), the kind with a half ear of corn and a couple of potatoes with bone-in beef hock. Lucky diners might even find a wedge of bone with the marrow still intact – that’s flavor to the nth degree.
Honestly, if your appetite is leaning toward something simpler like tacos, you still will find good menu choices – I’ve yet to try the highly recommended Grandma Gloria Tacos ($7.25) stuffed with narrow hamburger patties and served with a secret family-recipe salsa, all inside a freshly grilled soft corn tortilla. If my (very European) grandmother was around to taste this food, she’d fully approve.