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Maria’s has lost its magic touch under new ownership

Patrons eat lunch Monday in the bar area of Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Patrons eat lunch Monday in the bar area of Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen used to be one of my favorite places to take visitors from outside our state who were looking for a margarita, New Mexican food and some ambiance.

But after two recent experiences, I’m hesitant to recommend it.

In April of 2013, longtime owners Al and Laurie Lucero announced that, after many years in the business, they were ready for a well-deserved retirement.

They sold the business to Santa Fe Dining Inc., a company that also owns the Blue Corn Cafes, Rio Chama Steakhouse, Rooftop Pizza and La Casa Sena.

I gave the new owners and management a chance to settle in and ate there with some friends in January. Our meal then was below average in terms of both food and service. I made some notes but didn’t review it then. I know the restaurant business is a tough one and I thought perhaps we hit them on a bad day.

Different friends and I gave Maria’s a second chance last week. This time, some of the food was good, up to the original Maria’s standards. But most of the meal was subpar. The service, although better than the first visit, was perfunctory.

I’ll start with things that I enjoyed.

The ambiance is the same and still pleasant – wooden floors, old wooden tables, lacy curtains. The older dining rooms have a cozy feeling.

Maria’s is maintaining the tradition of complimentary chips and salsa. While, on my first visit, the chips were stale, this time they were fresh and the salsa was good.

We very much enjoyed the green chile stew, especially with the addition of pinto beans. It tasted fresh, had a nice balance of meat, potatoes and green chile. It was pleasantly spicy, with a good chile tang.

The blue corn chicken enchiladas were excellent. The chicken was moist and nicely seasoned, and served with a generous hand. The green chile sauce, although tourist-mild, had a pleasant flavor and, like the chicken, was ladled on in ample proportions.

My friend ordered his meal with an egg on top and it arrived as requested with the egg cooked as requested. The stew and the chicken enchilada would be worth a return visit. I wish the rest of the food had been as good as these two dishes.

I remembered eating Maria’s delicious little spare ribs from days past, so I ordered the rib plate. Bad mistake. The ribs were smothered in a sticky sauce that was unbearably sweet and as thick as glue. I tried to scrape it off to salvage some of my dinner, but the meat underneath was tough, dry and chewy.

When a friend sampled a bite, he choked on a tiny fragment of bone. The ribs came with a scoop of refried beans that might have been good hot, but tasted greasy served at room temperature. The bowl of red chile that came with this mess had a nice flavor but, again, was room temp, not hot.

The beef enchiladas also arrived lukewarm and with very little meat. We ordered these with red chile and, like the chile I had with the ribs, it wasn’t hot from the kitchen.

The old Maria’s was known for its great assortment of tequilas and the many types of margaritas available there. Past owner Al Lucero wrote a lovely little book of margarita recipes.

I’m not a margarita fan, but two of my guests ordered margaritas. Both said they thought the drinks were weak.

We would have called these problems to the attention of our waitress but, by the time she checked back with us, we’d made the best of a bad situation. The assistants kept the water glasses and our iced tea filled.

Sopaipillas – traditional puffy fried yeast bread – came with our meals. When she came back, the waitress asked if we wanted them. We said yes, of course. The assistants removed our dinner plates and the sopaipillas arrived shortly thereafter, too late, of course to be eaten as bread with the meal.

In some parts of the country, sopaipillas are offered as dessert but that has never been the practice in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. My friends were of mixed opinions on this, with one of them strongly in favor of Maria’s serving them after the meal. That way, he said, we could eat them hot.

But, unfortunately, we couldn’t eat them at all. They were hot, but they were greasy, heavy and oddly tough. They must have been made from the same recipe as those I had on my first trip in January, but at least those came the same time as the food.

If you want a fine sopaipilla, try the ones they make at Tia Sophia’s, Tomasita’s, Atrisco or up at Rancho de Chimayó.

And if you’re craving good New Mexican food, Santa Fe and the rest of northern New Mexico offer a wide selection of better choices.