On a recent Saturday night, a party of four stood uncertainly inside the entrance to La Salita, the New Mexican restaurant in a Northeast Heights strip mall on the east side of Juan Tabo near Menaul.
“Should we eat in?” one man said. Another man, noting the masked staffers and plexiglass barriers in front of the register, said “eh, I don’t know.” It was as if they were contemplating going on a particularly frightening amusement park ride.
Wariness like this, coming mere days after the governor lifted dining-in restrictions that had been in place since March 2020, is well-founded. Almost half the people in the state are not fully vaccinated against COVID. Perhaps that’s why La Salita’s dining room was largely empty, while Grubhub drivers and takeout customers filled the lobby.
I was there among them to grab a to-go order and sample the food of one of the Northeast Heights’ oldest restaurants. La Salita, which translates to “sitting room” or “lounge,” opened in 1978, when the city was less than half as populous as it is today and the housing developments of the Northeast Heights were still filling in the open spaces below the foothills of the Sandias. An Armenian couple originally ran the place before Cindy Seifert, who started out as a server in the restaurant, took the reins and managed the operation for decades until her recent retirement. Her daughter, Stephanie Eddings, is now in charge.
Up until a few years ago, La Salita operated from a building on Eubank it shared with Basil Leaf, the Vietnamese restaurant. The small parking lot there proved to be woefully inadequate for two popular restaurants, so La Salita made the move east into more spacious confines that were previously home to Chow’s Asian Bistro and the Asian Café.
The menu is pretty concise, especially for a restaurant in the New Mexican genre. One of the first things you notice is the absence of chicken. There’s plenty of turkey, but no chicken. Initially, I thought this might be a nod to the historical importance of turkey in Native American and Mexican cuisines, but it turns out the reason is more personal. Apparently, the Armenian man who opened the place once had a pet chicken, and the poor bird got served for dinner one night. The experience was so galling to the boy that he swore off eating chicken for the rest of his life.
Another remarkable aspect of La Salita’s menu are the accommodations made for customers with special dietary needs. Much of the menu is gluten-free or can be altered to be that way. There’s vegan cheese, and Beyond Meat is available as a substitute for ground beef. It’s unusual and welcome to see this range of options in a restaurant serving New Mexican food.
Starters include nachos, chile cheese fries and a couple of soups. The turkey soup ($3.99 for a cup), packed with a mix of dark and white meat, green chile and Spanish rice, was terrific. The broth was perfectly salted, mildly spicy and rich with turkey flavor, and it was quite filling, too. Add a sopaipilla (25 cents) and you can make a meal out of it.
The eight Signature Plates average around $15 and include two sides. Flat blue corn enchiladas ($14.99) are served for takeout in a circular aluminum pan. Ground beef is the default protein in this dish, but since I was ordering for two gluten-free diners, I got it with shredded beef instead. The tortillas and beef were topped with green chile, cheddar cheese and hot sour cream. Everything melts together into a gooey, tasty mess fortified with Spanish rice and the tender, moist beef.
La Salita’s chile rellenos, another Signature Dish, came in a Styrofoam container with the cup of red chile plunked unceremoniously into the refried beans. The batter around the green chiles was fried up beautifully crisp and light, and avidly soaked up the medium-hot, silky red chile. Swiss cheese oozed out of one relleno; the other was filled with diced avocado marred by numerous darks spots.
You can mix and match things through the Combos and Originals part of the menu. The Combo 1, for instance, gives you two enchiladas and a relleno for $9.99. The taco plate comes with either two ($9.99) or three ($11.99) tacos. The tacos are served in large, crisp, corn tortillas. I had the ground beef, turkey and shredded beef, all topped with cheddar cheese. The turkey was savory, the shredded beef succulent; the ground beef, however, was underseasoned and needed a couple of spoonfuls of red chile to bring it to life.
For smaller appetites, the menu has Lite Bites, such as a single enchilada or chile relleno for around $10. The two desserts are a vegan-friendly chocolate cheesecake ($10.99) and a cheesecake chimichanga ($5.99). The latter is a burrito wrapped around a cheesecake filling and deep-fried. The cheesecake was fluffy, the burrito crisp and non-greasy. It was dusted with cinnamon, but what it really needed was some strawberry sauce.
I ordered by phone and the food was waiting when I arrived 15 minutes later.
With its extensive vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, and a wealth of choices for turkey lovers, La Salita occupies a unique place in Albuquerque’s New Mexican restaurant scene. It has survived many changes and challenges, and the continuity in management suggests it will thrive through many more.