La Choza's New Mexican cuisine stands above the rest - Albuquerque Journal

La Choza’s New Mexican cuisine stands above the rest

Two fish tacos on double blue corn tortillas are topped with pico de gallo and served with rice. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

There is no shortage of New Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. In fact, they seem to miraculously proliferate daily. The influence and confluence of green and red chiles permeate traditional New Mexican food to make it stand out in a crowd and what a crowded field it is.

Though I have tried most of the New Mexican restaurants, there is one that I believe stands above the rest. And though the name indicates “shack,” La Choza is anything but. For me, La Choza is the Taj Majal of New Mexican food and they nail it every time. For some reason, La Choza feels different and the food tastes different. It’s a healthy spin on typically heavy, overly spicy, cheese-laden dishes.

Since 1983, La Choza has been serving fresh and clean food that is neither oily nor heavy. It’s a sublime interpretation of New Mexican food and that’s why you will likely wait up to an hour if you go during peak traffic – and even if you arrive when the doors open. But with an outdoor waiting area that’s as thoughtful as La Choza’s, you won’t mind waiting, as you are surrounded by hibiscus and trumpet flowers, and shaded by an awning.

New Mexico’s favorite Chile Relleno Plate features two fried chile rellenos with red and/or green chile, pinto beans and rice. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

While you wait, peruse the massive margarita list and explore the creative concoctions. Some say La Choza has the best margarita in town and I agree. No matter what drink you order, it will be an exceptional balancing of flavors. Nothing too sweet, too salty nor too tart, the margaritas are not to be missed. We loved the simple House Margarita ($9) which I ordered with a chile salt rim; Smoke & Fire Margarita ($10.75) made with mezcal; and the Oaxacan Paloma ($10.25) with grapefruit juice and mezcal.

When seated in one of four dining rooms – or two outdoor patios where dogs are welcome – you will immediately feel festive. The colorful walls, bright art work, tin cut-out lights hanging from the ceiling and healthy plants set the stage for a fun occasion.

Though La Choza is neither a vegetarian nor gluten-free restaurant, the menu seems to be tailored to vegetarians and gluten-free diners in a big way. My dining companions and I unintentionally had a vegetarian/pescatarian meal and we were completely satisfied.

One of the surprises of the evening was when the entrees arrived and one of my dining companions happily observed, “The food is served hot from the kitchen and I mean hot.” While many restaurants serve warm or tepid food – La Choza’s kitchen staff is serious about getting the hot plates to the table as soon as the plate arrives on the pass through. This attention to detail was duly noted and appreciated.

“We have a lot of pride in what we do and we have a long-standing team in place to provide great service to our customers,” says Sarah Carswell, who has been managing La Choza since 2007, but has been working in the family business at The Shed since she was a child. “We have always had a family environment at La Choza and many family members work together.”

La Choza adds their own spin to classic clam chowder with this Green Chile Clam Chowder with potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, clams and green Chile with a splash of heavy cream. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

A bowl of the Green Chile Clam Chowder ($9) started us off with a subtle pop of heat from chopped green chiles, an unexpected but delightful addition to this classic chowder made with carrots, potatoes, onions and celery and a few clams mingled in. Even with a cream-base, it is not heavy. We ate every bite and then sopped up the last few dregs with French garlic bread. Garlic bread? Why, yes. Garlic bread has been a signature part of the dining experience at The Shed, the flagship sister restaurant, which originally served continental cuisine. Lucky for us, the French garlic bread remains a steadfast part of the brand and has been an essential part of La Choza’s menu as well because we need it to sop up the sauce and clean our plates.

The Trio Dips and Chips ($12) is another great starter for the table. A basket of homemade blue and white corn tortilla chips arrive with green chile con queso, a spicy salsa with chile de arbol, caribe and pequin peppers, along with uber-fresh guacamole. Sipping on a margarita and dipping chips into tasty concoctions always makes everything better.

For our entrees, we ordered the Chile Relleno Plate ($15.50), Vegetable Enchiladas ($16) and Fish Tacos ($16.50). Two battered and fried chile rellenos with both red and green sauce comes with rice and pinto beans. The rice is simple but very flavorful, and the beans are perfectly cooked. Crispy and filled with melted cheese, the rellenos are small but stellar. The vegetable enchiladas are equally sensational but the plate comes with double rice and we wondered why. Our waiter, Tada, informed us that you can replace rice with pinto beans – and that’s my recommendation moving forward because the beans are excellent.

The only dish that didn’t wow us was the Fish Tacos. The fish, broken into lots of small pieces, felt like leftover fish pieces rather than intact fish strips. Also, the blue corn tortillas were dry and not soft enough.

But this one miss didn’t set us back because the Bleu Cheese and Roasted Walnut Salad ($10) made up for whatever the fish tacos lacked. It felt very French to have the salad served with our entrees and we liked that. Fresh spinach leaves dance with sliced red cabbage and mixed greens which are topped with blue cheese crumbles, whole roasted walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette. This is an ideal fall salad where the ingredients do the heavy lifting.

La Choza’s expansive but executable menu has wide appeal. For light eaters, try the Fresh Mushroom Soup ($6/$9) or New Mexican Posole ($6/$9) or Posole a la Mexicana ($6/$9), all of which are gluten-free and the posole can also be served vegetarian. Or choose from classic Frito Pie ($11.50), Tostadas ($7/$9) and Quesadillas ($12). For the manly diners, try Steak and Enchilada plate ($28), a 10 ounce New Mexico ribeye and a cheese and onion enchilada with pinto beans and posole, or build-your-own Combination Plate with two ($16) or three ($19.50) items.

And be sure to savor a sopaipilla. Resembling a big New Orleans beignet, La Choza’s sopaipillas are dense but light. Drizzled with honey, this sopaipilla is all you need to wrap up your favorite New Mexican meal.

Whether it is summer or fall, winter or spring, La Choza promises a cozy environment where you feel at home and where you will enjoy the best New Mexican food Santa Fe has to offer. Owned and operated by the Carswell family since inception, there is a team of people who make La Choza, La Choza. There is a deep family feel to this restaurant that really shines through the homemade food and the warmth of the experience.

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