El Roi Cafe has created a buzz since opening a year ago on Lomas near Downtown.
Pictures of the house specialty, a green chile cheeseburger on fry bread, grace the pages of magazines. The restaurant’s Facebook page is full of pictures of visitors from far and away, happy to try the restaurant’s New Mexican and Native American specialties.
All that excitement seemed to crest during a recent lunch hour.
Several people waited in the small dining room for takeout orders, while others lined up at the counter to order. The lone server hurried back and forth between the counter to the kitchen where I saw, at various times, between one and three people working the grill and fryer. Waits were long, and the green chile stew ran out.
The jovial, if beleaguered, man working the counter apologized to my friend and I for the delay. The restaurant was donating 10% of proceeds that day to a fund for fallen firefighters, he explained, and as a result there had been getting an unusually high volume of call-in orders.
I appreciated the explanation. You put up with longer wait times for a good cause. You also wait longer for the promise of something different, like the Mutton Stew, Indian Tacos and other Native American specialties from chef Joshua Archuleta, who has roots in Ohkay Owingeh, the pueblo north of Española.
Archuleta and his wife, Albuquerque native Fabby Espitia-Archuleta, opened El Roi after years working in the catering trade.
The restaurant occupies the corner of a strip mall at Sixth Street and Lomas Boulevard a block west of the courthouses. The striking façade is dominated by what looks like rusted steel girders that frame a lattice of small windows around the door. There are a couple of tables on the sidewalk in front. Inside, the walls are busy with decorations; most noticeably, paintings from Navajo artist Fred Cleveland. The giant menu behind counter is set on brushed aluminum that shimmers with reflected light.
EL Roi is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, a schedule that syncs with the schedules of the many office and courthouse workers in the area. Prospective jurors should make a note of it.
The menu leans toward New Mexican favorites with a smattering of Native American dishes like Blue Corn Mush ($6.95), a traditional Navajo food that’s part of the all-day breakfast menu. At lunch, mutton stew and frybread share space with enchiladas and tamales. Entrees are priced mostly between $10 and $15, with two outliers: a Delmonico steak and eggs breakfast dish for $29.28 and a $48.96 ribeye steak plate. Yes, steak is getting expensive.
A bowl of Posole ($10.15), served in a deep, stainless steel bowl, was suitable as both a starter and a meal, with lots of plump and tender pieces of hominy and chunks of pork tenderloin resting in a silky broth rich with earthy red chile flavor.
The Mutton Stew ($15.95), also served in a stainless steel bowl, was equally terrific. Mutton, the meat of a mature adult sheep, has a reputation for being tough and a little gamey, but the version at El Roi is slow roasted to tenderize the meat and wring the gaminess out of it. There was plenty of it in the stew, along with chopped potatoes and celery. Fragrant with herbs, the peppery, olive drab-colored broth was excellent.
Both stews come with a choice of frybread or tortillas. El Roi’s frybread – crisp, bubbled around the edges, a little greasy – was the perfect side, soaking up the broth without falling apart.
In the Indian Taco ($10.95, $2 extra for chicken and ground beef), the same frybread held a mix of beans, cheese and ground beef. Besides being tasty, it’s fun to eat, as you start out with a knife and fork and end up folding the bread around the fillings.
The much-ballyhooed Green Chile Cheeseburger on frybread ($14.95) arrived looking more like an oversized taco than a burger. The frybread was folded over a thick patty topped with green chile that delivered a mild sting to the tongue. Crispier than a hamburger bun and more substantial than a tortilla, the frybread provided some textural contrast to the burger. It was good stuff, even though the burger was cooked all the way through instead of to the requested medium. The fries, however, were soggy with oil.
The menu offers a lighter side featuring a salad, a chicken salad sandwich and a fruit cup. Drinks include aguas frescas and bottles of Mexican Coke.
If you haven’t had enough frybread by the end of the meal, the dessert menu offers something called Chef Joshua’s Frybread ($5.95): mini frybreads covered with powdered sugar, caramel and chocolate sauces.
As you might imagine, there are not a lot of options here for gluten-free diners.
Native American cuisine is underrepresented in Albuquerque. Fabby Espitia-Archuleta and Joshua Archuleta’s El Roi Cafe goes a long way to filling that void.