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Chile fix for travelers: Tia Juanita’s serves New Mexican favorites at the ABQ Sunport

The Albuquerque Combo is an enchilada, chile relleno, beans and rice at Tia Juanita’s restaurant in the Albuquerque Sunport. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Albuquerque Combo is an enchilada, chile relleno, beans and rice at Tia Juanita’s restaurant in the Albuquerque Sunport. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Airport food. Historically it’s had about the same reputation as hospital food or army food or school cafeteria food.

Times have changed at many airports with gourmet eats found all over the country, but Albuquerque’s Sunport was ahead of the curve in matters of cuisine for many years.

For starters, local businesses led the way, with a pleasantly low number of national chains. The Sunport coffee shop is local, with no green-lady-logo place in sight.

Tia Juanita’s continues that local focus by expanding into the huge space formerly occupied by Garduño’s and Los Cuates, bringing a full menu to thousands of airport visitors. The best part is the pre-security location, allowing friends and loved ones to dine on our favorite state foods with their traveler, whether departing or arriving.

Service at Tia Juanita’s could be better in one regard: speed. Our server was unfailingly friendly and enthusiastic once assigned to the table and in our eyesight, a welcome balance to the delay. After beverages arrive, you must, must start with the Guacamole Fresca ($8.45), a pile of chunky avocado delivered in a large bowl, unadorned and ready to become your dip. This is “tableside” guacamole created by the diner: on the side are all the fixin’s needed, like tomato, onions, jalapeños, limes and garlic salt. Mix them in, smash up the avocado, and start dipping with the paper-thin fresh tortilla chips.

It’s summer, but that never stops a New Mexican from eating green chile stew; round out your appetizers with a cup of Green Chile Chicken Stew ($3.95). While the spice is mild, the stew is still satisfying with chunks of chicken interspersed with potatoes and chile.

Entrees are standard and comprehensive: chiles and smothered things and tortillas galore. Frequent travelers might want to start with a Personalized Combination ($9.95 two, $10.95 three, $11.95 four items), allowing time to choose your favorite dish, the one that will immediately go on your order as “the usual” when you sit down at the table.

The list rounds up like this: the tacos are fine, rellenos decent, tamales tasty, enchiladas enjoyable and carne adovada delicious. My favorite is obvious — go for broke and just order carne adovada to enjoy tender pork and rich, red chile. As a two-item combo with chicken enchiladas smothered in green, it is a Christmas plate to relish.

When not ordering the adovada, the best fall-back is Huevos Rancheros ($7.95), particularly with the $3 addition of bacon or sausage. Served on top of a plate-sized flour tortilla, the refried beans and chile soak right in and complement the hash browns nicely. I do prefer the corn tortilla rendition of this dish, and a bit more brown on my hash browns, but this plate is still comforting.

That’s how I feel about Tia Juanita’s — reliable New Mexican comfort foods to send off or welcome home travelers with chile cravings.