ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to restaurants, there are two kinds of “hole-in-the-wall” places. Some truly embody the phrase, setting up shop in unlikely locations with fixtures and décor taking a backseat to putting out food for customers. On the other hand, some are polished in atmosphere but difficult to spot unless you know where to cast your gaze. That is the dilemma of the tucked-away Backstreet Grill in Old Town, where the tacos are a delicious reward for finding the tiny storefront. Just look for the La Hacienda building and turn your sights east about 200 feet down the alley.
This petite space has a large west-facing entrance, inviting enough to draw in a trickle of foot traffic throughout the lunch hours — folks looking for tacos stuffed with anything from grilled fish to duck, or sweltering tourists lured by the big sign announcing their new ice cream selections.
Most days you’ll see the owner and chef Christopher James bouncing around in the kitchen putting together orders or making sure the guests are enjoying themselves.
True Mexican street tacos are small and almost delicate under the weight of their fillings, and Backstreet’s live up to that promise. Our duo of Fish Tacos ($6) were stuffed with seasoned white fish and cooling pineapple salsa, while the Street Tacos ($8) come in threes with chicken, pork or veggie options.
Chicken is often the meat that gets short shrift — it is the de facto menu item, offered for folks who simply don’t like other kinds of meat. Thankfully this is not so in James’s kitchen: his chicken is spiced wonderfully and — dare I say it — possibly as good as the pork. Duck Tacos ($6 for two), cooked with mango mole, are available most days and well worth the diversion from traditional Mexican taco fillings.
Heartier appetites will meet their match in the Mexican Pizza ($12.75), a pileup of pulled pork, chile, cheese and black beans on a 12-inch flour tortilla. It’s massive and worthy of a take-home box. Summer’s heat is a perfect time for the other end of the hunger spectrum, with the Seasonal Salad ($6.50) featuring nearly everything on their menu, from tortilla strips to pineapple salsa to black beans, all tossed with green chile dressing.
With every dish, make sure to order fresh and chunky Guacamole ($3.75/side) if they haven’t already run out for the day. Otherwise we’ve been duly impressed with the hot-from-the-fryer Chips and Salsa ($2.50), packing more spice than you might assume for a tourist-traveled location.
James’ venture into the restaurant business has been impressive on all the flavor fronts; it’s too bad that logistics seem to be a frequent issue when it comes time to actually dine. Once in a while the phone will not ring through correctly, or the time to receive an order is slow, or the menu has items that sound tasty but are in short supply.
Give them a shot and let your appreciation for the food contrasted against any service hitches help them to see that the details matter, too.