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Café Castro knows its chile, serves up comfort food

Café Castro in Santa Fe serves hometown favorites incorporating many tasty versions of chile. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Café Castro in Santa Fe serves hometown favorites incorporating many tasty versions of chile. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Café Castro makes me smile.

This pleasant, locally owned and operated restaurant has been serving Santa Fe residents for decades, first on Rodeo Road and more recently on south Cerrillos Road. It looks small and unassuming from the outside, like nothing special, just another little business competing for attention.

But first impressions can be deceiving. Open the front door and you’ll find a hallway with benches for waiting – a sign that the food served here is good enough that people don’t mind the wait.

Beyond this foyer are several dining rooms with enough seats for a modest-sized family reunion. The decor includes a bit of Mexico, such as ceilings decorated with those colorful paper cutouts in bright tones. Among the paintings for sale, I noticed an interesting semi-portrait of a vaquero with beautiful detail.

But, as you’d expect, the reasonably priced delicious food is the main attraction. Castro’s knows its chile and traditional New Mexican food is its specialty. One of the trademarks of this local comfort food is the chile sauce and Castro’s treats our state vegetable with the respect it deserves. Prices are compelling here, too, with all entrees starting at less than $11.

Castro’s menu celebrates locals’ hometown favorites, beginning with the appetizers: chile con queso, taquitos, guacamole salad or all three together as El Trio Sabroso. Customers can also share nachos or a wedge of a quesadilla or try a taco salad or the savory, freshly made tortilla soup.

And the sopaipillas here practically float out of the basket and onto your plate. Castro’s makes some of New Mexico’s best.

I was driving home from business in Albuquerque. It was late for lunch – 2:30 p.m. – and I was hungry, with a special craving for my personal comfort food, enchiladas. Luckily, Castro’s serves a blue corn enchilada special.

For $8, I had my choice of beef, chicken or cheese between the flat tortillas, with cheese, sauce and plenty of sides. I feasted and can testify that Café Castro’s slogan, a classic New Mexican dicho, is true: Panza Llena … Corazon con Contento: A full tummy does lead to a contented heart.

I opted for chicken enchiladas, and both the red and the green chile on top because I couldn’t remember which I enjoy more here. I decided I prefer the red – rich, dense with flavor, slightly smoky and hot enough to get your attention without searing the taste buds.

But the green is great, too, and spicier. Both sauces tasted freshly made – even late in the lunch service cycle – and were served in ample portions. The chicken was moist, well-seasoned and abundant.

The enchilada special comes with tender, mild posole, and a fresh lettuce and tomato garnish heaped on so generously that it could pass for a salad. The rice is moist and lightly seasoned, not smothered in gooey tomato sauce.

The refried beans were OK, but I like the whole pinto here better. For an extra dollar, you can enjoy this feast (or your choices of anything else from the specials menu) any day of the week.

But its blue corn enchiladas are on sale, so to speak, on Wednesdays. Other specials include flautas, fajitas, carne adovada, a chicharron burrito, and a steak dinner with chile and other sides.

My traveling companion ordered the chalupa dinner, two yellow corn tortillas shaped into cups and filled with a mixture of ground beef (his choice), refried beans, guacamole, sour cream and fresh garnish. He opted for the chile sauces rather than the salsa.

If, for some reason, you aren’t in the mood for chile, the chalupas are a good choice because the picante is optional. You can enjoy the tortilla cup with its juicy fillings without adding anything spicy. The menu also features a hamburger and an omelet for the non-chile eaters.

Desserts include Castro’s trademark sopaipillas filled with ice cream, as well as flan and tres leches cake. The entrees are so generous and filling, I haven’t had room for dessert here yet.

The staff knows its jobs. The kitchen is usually quick to fix your meal, and the staff takes your order and brings your food without any hassles.

After a few visits, don’t be surprised if the waiter remembers your favorites and the hostess gives you a “welcome back” greeting.

Castro’s is on my shortlist of places to bring visitors with a craving for or interest in good New Mexican food – along with Tia Sophia’s and its sister restaurants, Atrisco and Tomasita’s, and The Shed and La Choza.