Los Olivos a bright spot in the International District - Albuquerque Journal

Los Olivos a bright spot in the International District

Los Olivos’ red chile chicken enchiladas with rice, beans and sliced avocado. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Albuquerque’s restaurant community suffered a devastating loss recently when Rosario Zito, beloved owner of Giovanni’s Pizzeria in the International District, was killed during an armed robbery at his restaurant.

Zito’s death is yet another setback for a neighborhood still referred to by many as the “War Zone.” Despite the efforts of community leaders and residents, the violent crime that has plagued this area for decades shows no signs of abating.

If there is a reason for optimism in this neighborhood, it can be found in a vibrant dining scene exemplified by places like Los Olivos, the 3-year-old Mexican restaurant on Zuni south of Central.

Los Olivos occupies a one-story building that looks more like a home than a restaurant. The stucco walls are painted olive-green and colorful pennants decorate the whitewashed porch. Inside is equally vibrant, with walls of violet and green and colorful papel picados, the intricate, punched paper decorations of Mexico, hanging from the ceiling. A covered patio sits just off the main dining room.

The food at Los Olivos celebrates the cuisine of Durango, a landlocked state in northwestern Mexico known for its meats, cheeses and rich, flavorful broths.

Caldo de Pescado, fish soup with catfish steaks in a tomato-based broth at Los Olivos. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Breakfast, available until 12:30 p.m., leans toward savory dishes like chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. Most of the rest of the menu is given over to tacos, burritos and tortas with familiar fillings like barbacoa, carnitas and asada. Daily specials offer less common things like pellizcadas, small masa cakes formed with a lip around the edge to contain the fillings. Prices hover in the $10 range.

Word of mouth has been strong. I was there for lunch on the recommendation of a friend who himself had been steered there by another friend.

A steady procession of customers trudged in that afternoon, including several men wearing the reflective vests of road construction workers. Most of the patrons conversed and ordered in Spanish.

The meal started off with a complimentary bowl of chips, thick and crisp, and a red salsa that had a little zip to it. Only strong self-discipline kept me from finishing the bowl and spoiling my appetite for the meal ahead.

One page of Los Olivos’ menu is devoted to a selection of hearty caldos, or soups, available in two sizes and ranging in price from $8.99 to just under $15. A bowl of Menudo ($8.99) brimmed over with chopped tripe in a vivid, earthy red chile and tomato broth. If some foods can be described as acquired tastes, then menudo might be characterized as an acquired texture. The fatty, chewy tripe has the mouth feel of thick rubber bands. It’s easier to appreciate when you fork a few pieces between slices of the accompanying telera rolls and squeeze some lime on them.

Caldo de Pescado ($10.99), a fish soup popular in Mexico during Lent season, came in a tomato-based broth flavored with cucumbers, onions and carrots that was reminiscent of Italian minestrone. The small catfish filets that crowded the bowl held up well in the broth. Like the menudo, it was filling enough to serve as an entree. You can get shrimp added in for a buck more.

Los Olivos is located on Zuni just a block south of Central near the Fairgrounds. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The stars of the menu, and the restaurant’s Facebook page, are the QuesaBirria Tacos ($13.75). The four tortillas are filled with cheese and beef and crisped up on the grill before folding and serving. The beef, slow-cooked until it has an almost jelly-like consistency, was juicy and a dip in the consommé amplified the flavor while adding notes of onion, garlic and red pepper.

A dish of Chicken Enchiladas ($13.99) consisted of four tortillas rolled around shredded chicken and served under a blanket of dark red mole. The sauce was smoky and considerably sweeter than the typical red chile enchilada sauce you find around here. It came with sliced avocado and a dollop of sour cream. The silky refried beans and rice that accompanied it were terrific.

Drinks include a rotating selection of agua frescas. The choices that day, Strawberry ($3.25) and a Jamaica Chica ($3.25) made from dried hibiscus flowers, were slightly sweet and tart enough to cut the heaviness of the food. Those seeking a shot of caffeine should try the Café de Olla, Mexican spiced coffee prepared and served in an earthen clay pot. Neither my friend nor I had any room for the two desserts: cheesecake and fried burritos filled with cream cheese and raspberry and served with chocolate sauce.

Two servers worked the dining room, patio and register. Ours was prompt and friendly and shifted seamlessly between English and Spanish. There are a handful of gluten-free options, though they are not marked on the menu.

Los Olivos and the other International District restaurants provide a glimmer of hope for the future of the area. They are a fitting honor to Rosario Zito’s memory.

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