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Rancho de Chimayó accommodating, delicious

Rancho de Chimayó. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

Rancho de Chimayó. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — In my years as food reviewer for northern New Mexico, I’ve written several articles about Rancho de Chimayó. And, long before I began this job, I enjoyed coming here. For many of us, Rancho de Chimayó is a culinary institution, a place we go to celebrate, to reconnect with old friends, and in the process to remind ourselves of why we love living in this beautiful state. I never tire of the 40-minute drive from Santa Fe to the restaurant. In fact, I enjoy having time to decompress, look at the scenery, and think about what I’m going to enjoy besides the red chile and the sopaipillas.

The restaurant, once a family hacienda, reflects its roots with the chile ristras that hang against the gray walls at the entrance. Inside, you’ll find a maze of dining rooms. When the weather allows, dining on the patio is another option.

I joined three friends for lunch on a recent Sunday afternoon. The pacing of the meal gave us plenty of time for conversation — about half an hour from the time we ordered our food until it arrived. I’ve had quicker service here, but on this day the restaurant had filled every table and the crowd included several parties of eight or more. If your schedule allows, “leisurely” is not a bad thing. Aren’t most of us in too much of a hurry, anyway?

We enjoyed the fresh, mild guacamole, served with large, crisp corn chips. The guac needed a touch of lime for my taste, but one of my guests said she thought it was perfect — and one of the few examples of guacamole that didn’t overpower her with onion.

The pacing also provided an opportunity to observe our fellow diners and enjoy the surroundings. We sat in one of the larger dining rooms with windows facing a terrace with more dining tables. Next to us was the bar with its glowing fireplace and more natural light. Photographs of the family who once lived here hang on the white-washed adobe walls. The crowd included families with kids and grannies.

All our entrees were good. At my request, my plate of huevos rancheros ($7.50) had both smooth, wonderful red chile and fresh green chile with bits of onion. The eggs came over easy, a bit softer than ordered, the tortilla beneath them fresh. The refried beans had a creamy consistency and a nice touch of salt. It was a worthy meal. I used the sopaipilla to mop up the last of my chile.

I enjoyed the shrimp enchilada ($9.50). No skimping on shrimp here. Each soft blue corn tortilla enclosed plenty of the small but tasty critters. I was surprised at how well the mild green chile complemented the seafood. (The seasoning was advertised as “pesto,” but I didn’t taste the traditional basil.) Adding a moderate amount of white cheddar cheese that melted into the mixture gave the dish some creaminess. The black beans were soft and fresh-tasting.

For those who want to try several New Mexican specialties, Rancho de Chimayó offers a wide assortment of combinations, from a deluxe Platon Especial ($14.50) which includes guacamole salad, enchilada, taco, chile relleno and a tamale, to the two- item “Combinación Pequeña” ($7.50) available at lunch. All combos come with Spanish rice and beans or calabacitas, a side dish of corn and squash.

We tried the “Pequeña” with some modifications. First, almost as advertised, with a cheese enchilada, Spanish rice and beans and a beef taco. But my friend who ordered it requested “no chile.”

Many New Mexican restaurants won’t serve their food this way, especially enchiladas, but Rancho de Chimayó had no problem accommodating him. He loved the taco because it was crafted from shredded beef instead of the more frequently found ground variety, and ate the beans, rice and the naked enchilada with gusto. My other dining buddy had the combo with red and green chile and a tamale instead of the taco. He picked the traditional pork and red chile tamale over the green chile vegetarian option. It was delicious, filled with soft, chile-seasoned meat wrapped inside tender masa.

Our waiter said yes to every request we made of him. Maybe this accommodation was part of the reason the kitchen had trouble keeping up with the orders.

The sopaipillas that came with all our entrees were good, arriving hot and fresh. Honey sits on the table in a little dish if you want it.

We shared two desserts, a wonderfully light milk chocolate piñon mousse and a decadently rich sweet caramel cheesecake called “Dulce de Leche” (each $5.10). I also like the traditional flan, a Rancho de Chimayó specialty and their natillas, a soft vanilla pudding served with whipped cream and cinnamon.