But Mediterranean fare?
The bustling North Valley restaurant is so famous for New Mexican food that it’s hard to believe that owner Betty Jo Stafford’s own kitchen specialty is something patrons won’t find anywhere on the menu: Stuffed grape leaves.
“But that’s not going to go over in the restaurant,” she says.
Little known fact: Stafford, so often mistaken as Hispanic, is actually the daughter of Lebanese immigrants.
Her parents left Lebanon for the U.S. in the early 20th century, shortly after their arranged marriage. Stafford’s aunt already was living in New Mexico and set the young couple up with boat fare and a home in Bernalillo.
Both were illiterate and spoke only Arabic. Stafford’s father cobbled together a living as a trader and later had his own mercantile store. Her mother stayed home to raise their 10 children – nine daughters and one son.
“We were poor, but you know what was funny? There was always food on the table. I don’t know how my mom did it,” Stafford says with a laugh.
The kids were raised on stews, lamb and her mother’s homemade yogurt, though the household also began incorporating chile, salsa and more traditional New Mexican foods that they were introduced to in Bernalillo.
Stafford was the youngest of the brood. She was also something of a surprise since she came along 11 years after child No. 9. She was 25 years younger than her oldest sister, Sadie.
“They thought I was a tumor,” Stafford says. “I told my sisters, ‘Well, gosh, I’m kind of glad they didn’t cut me out.’ Oh, my Lord. They just didn’t think it could be possible.”
Stafford says her father was quite strict – “Why wouldn’t you be with nine daughters? He was probably petrified!” – but that her family was tight-knit. Her parents communicated in a mix of Arabic, Spanish and English.
“It was so funny, but we understood them,” she recalls.
Most of her siblings already were grown by the time Stafford, her parents and brother moved to Albuquerque’s North Valley. They lived with Sadie, who had just opened her own restaurant, a nine-stool cafe at 2nd and Osuna.
Stafford, who was attending St. Mary’s Catholic School on Sadie’s dime, helped out with dishwashing and waitressing duties while her sister cooked the burgers and T-bone steaks for the truck drivers and other beloved regulars who swarmed the place.
“Nine would come in, nine would go out. She really, genuinely loved her patrons,” Stafford recalls. “She learned those truck drivers’ names, the names of their kids, their wives. When the kids would have a birthday, she’d give the truck drivers a silver dollar.”
The gregarious Stafford – whose chattiness was well-known among the nuns at St. Mary’s – adored her sister and enjoyed the work but didn’t think she wanted to be in the restaurant business her whole life. After graduating in 1958, she tried her hand at a few other jobs.
“But then,” she says, “something drew me back to Sadie.”
Stafford returned to work at Sadie’s, which soon became popular enough to warrant bigger digs. In 1972, the sisters moved into a nearby bar, The Lark, that offered four times as much seating.
But even that proved too small.
Stafford – by then married to Bob, a route salesman for Frito-Lay and other food companies – spearheaded the restaurant’s relocation into a bowling alley on 4th Street in 1975.
At about that time, Stafford and her husband took the reins of the restaurant, as diabetes was claiming Sadie’s eyesight.
“After that, Sadie just kind of deteriorated,” Stafford recalls. “It killed her when she couldn’t cook anymore.”
The Staffords began steering the menu toward New Mexican food because it was in demand.
“My husband and I and my brother George actually perfected the recipes. My brother George kind of helped us learn how to make green chile stew, my husband perfected the salsa,” she recalls.
The restaurant remained a family operation – Bob and Betty Jo running it with the help of longtime staff members like Toni Minoli. Their children, Brian and Billy, helped out from a young age and are still involved to various extents: Brian runs the kitchen at the flagship 4th Street location – now a stand-alone building that can seat more than 300 – while Billy and his wife are running the show at the Santa Ana Star site.
Bob passed away several years ago, but Betty Jo still remains a regular presence at the restaurant, spending hours there every morning checking on the kitchen and getting the tills going.
“I’m not ready (to fully retire),” she says. “I love being in the restaurant. I love seeing my patrons.”
Q: Did you grow up learning how to cook?
A: Not as much as I would like. I grew up cooking with Sadie, absolutely, but not the Lebanese. I can do grape leaves, and I do the cabbage rolls. I do some. But you know what, when you’re watching your mom, you just take it for granted she’s going to be there forever, and I am so sorry I didn’t watch her more closely or put stuff down, write it down. She was a doll. My mom was the sweetest lady.
Q: What’s the most important lesson Sadie taught you?
A: To take care of your patrons, to really be very conscientious about the way you treat your patrons and treat them on a personal basis … She did. I just used to love to watch her with the patrons. She was just something else. And I did that. I did it a lot. I loved it, more so in the bowling alley. I have done it in this big place (on 4th Street), but not as much, it’s just too massive. And how to be kind. Oh, my God, and generous. She was just something else. She put me all through my Catholic education. Sadie paid my tuition.
Q: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
A: Oh, my gosh, what is my favorite item on the menu? I loved the stacked enchiladas. And the tacos. The beef tacos.
Q: What was your worst kitchen disaster?
A: You’re not going to believe this one. Oh, my God. We were kind enough, out of the kindness of our hearts in the bowling alley, Bob and I decided to hire someone who was on probation from prison. Oh, dear God. And this particular night, we were swamped. It was a Friday night. We were swamped. I was at the register and doing register and host, running up and down the stairs getting people, so all of the sudden this one cook comes out of the kitchen and he’s as white as paper (saying) ,”Mrs. Stafford, come quick.” I said, “What the heck is going on?” So anyway, my head cook at the time … this guy that we’d hired had (the cook) with a knife at his throat. Now don’t ask me where I got the courage because I don’t know. I think you just do. (I said), “Put that knife down now, and I mean put it down now . Do you hear me?” Hell, he could’ve turned around and stabbed me with it. … I said some bad words. He did (put it down). OK, so I’m sure he knew his job was over so he starts crying (saying), “Please, Mrs. Stafford, don’t fire me, please, I need the job.” (I said), “Out of here now. You get the hell out of here now, and don’t you even look back. I mean now!” My poor cook was shaking. It didn’t hit me until I got home, telling Bob about it (laughs) – Bob was off – I come home, I’m telling Bob and then I start shaking.
Q: Did you grow up with a lot of Lebanese traditions?
A: Very much and I miss that so much. My dad would play records and sing along with the records. We would (do) not exactly belly dancing, but we would do the dances.
Q: What is your biggest regret?
A: That I couldn’t dance on “Dancing with the Stars?” No, I’m just kidding. … No, I’ll tell you what, more children. What happened is Bob and I going into the bowling alley, we were going to probably try to have another child, and we got so busy that we put it on the back burner. And then pretty soon I realized I was too old. That’s my regret. Not more children. Absolutely. Gosh, what I wouldn’t give now for two, three, four more sons to help me with this endeavor, but I waited too long.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: Oh, God, yeah. I love popcorn, and I love sweets, are you kidding me? But then I can’t do it anymore; I’m diabetic. I love ice cream. What I do is get the sugar-free stuff now. Still with that though you have to kind of limit yourself. I love popcorn and I can’t be eating it. Oh, my salsa (too). I could eat our salsa every day of the week. I love it.