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An Albuquerque classic: Mary & Tito’s thrives with traditional New Mexico cuisine, simple setting

Mary & Tito’s Café is arguably the most celebrated restaurant in Albuquerque.

In 2018, the foodie website Eater named it one of America’s 38 essential restaurants. Before that, the James Beard Society bestowed on it a prestigious American Classics award for its carne adovada. Mary & Tito’s reputation is such that, on any given day, the dining rooms are filled with a combination of regulars and tourists.

But even an institution has to make allowances for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. In Mary & Tito’s case, that means operating on reduced hours, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Breakfast is served from 11 a.m. to noon.

Based on the turnout during a recent lunch hour, the pandemic has done little to dampen Mary & Tito’s popularity. Then again, you don’t survive more than five decades in the restaurant business without doing something right. Tito Gonzales, a retired firefighter, and his wife, Mary Ann, opened up shop in 1963, and although they’re gone now, their spirit still informs the restaurant. Their daughter, Antoinette Knight, runs things today with the help of her sons, Travis and Jordan.

The stucco façade, lined with vigas and decorated with hand-painted flowers, ristras and desert scenes, brightens up an otherwise drab stretch of Fourth just north of Interstate 40. A narrow, unpaved parking lot surrounds the building. Inside are two low-ceilinged dining rooms. The first one has booths along two walls. The second, newer dining room has a lot of natural light coming in from arched windows that look out onto Fourth Street.

Mary & Tito’s is a place where you get big portions at inexpensive prices and pay your tab at the register. The menu, fitted onto a small, folded-up piece of paper, starts off with daily specials such as huevos rancheros and combo plates for under $8.

Carne adovada chimichanga, one of the daily specials at Mary & Tito’s. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The Thursday special of carne adovada chimichanga ($7.75), a large tortilla wrapped around slow-cooked pork and deep-fried, was served with guacamole, sour cream, beans and rice. Some of the minimally sauced pork that makes up the carne adovada was in chunks, some was shredded. It was moist and tender, and the flavor faintly echoed that of the restaurant’s renowned red chile sauce. The sauce, velvety smooth with a noticeable amount of heat, is a testament to the simple preparation that lets the chile peppers shine.

Tacos, tamales, enchiladas and flautas make up the dinner selections. The Small Combination Plate ($7.50) comes with a taco and a tamale with rice and refried beans. Beans are often an afterthought in a New Mexican dish, but here they are smooth, silky and worth savoring.

The taco was a simple presentation like you might make at home, with finely ground beef packed into the bottom of a crisp corn tortilla and topped with lettuce, tomato and cheese. The tamale filled with shredded pork was moist, and the green chile added some smoky flavor, though not as much heat as its red counterpart.

The Mexican turnover, Mary & Tito’s version of a fried sopaipilla, was created by founder Tito Gonzales. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Tito Gonzales created the Mexican turnovers on the menu as an ode to the Italian calzone. They arrive as stuffed, half-moon-shaped tortillas deep-fried and doused in red chile. The Combination Chicken ($7.95) was nicely balanced, the exceptional red chile bringing some fire to the filling of shredded white meat, beans and rice.

There’s an entire section of carne adovada specials. You can get it in omelets, in flautas or as a pizza topping, each for only $8.95.

If there’s one other item at Mary & Tito that stands shoulder-to-shoulder in reputation with the red chile and carne adovada, it’s the Mexican wedding cake ($3.50 a slice). People purportedly call in daily and ask for slices to be set aside before it runs out. A tropical spin on carrot cake, one slice holds a filling, spicy mix of walnuts and crushed pineapple under a thick coat of cream cheese frosting. It’s good stuff, far less cloying than your average cake, and one slice was enough to feed two.

Service was top-notch from start to finish. The food came out in about five minutes, and I was checked on frequently. The staff took great care in disinfecting tables after parties had left, which had the unfortunate effect of filling the air with vapors. Fortunately, I stopped noticing it within a few minutes.

Longtime dining institutions often fall into the trap of skating by on their reputations. The management at Mary & Tito’s, under the direction of Antoinette Knight, has not let that happen. The food is consistently good and reasonably priced, and the service is excellent. No wonder it’s lasted more than a half a century.