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Feast on northern Mexico tradition at Los Potrillos

Jorge Pereira and Gloria Leon have lunch at Los Potrillos restaurant on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jorge Pereira and Gloria Leon have lunch at Los Potrillos restaurant on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

If the test of a good restaurant is its popularity, then Los Potrillos, packed with families dressed in their Sunday best for brunch, is a winner.

A longtime favorite of ours, this modest eatery on the closed-in end of Cerrillos Road offers Mexican classics in an informal setting.

Braving the crowd, we enjoyed a late Sunday brunch recently, savoring steak, shrimp and lamb prepared slightly differently than they might be at New Mexican eateries down the street.

The birria ($13.50), for example, a stew traditionally prepared from goat, is served up at Los Potrillos laden with lamb. It was the best of show at our table. While Mexicans may classify this as a stew, I would say it’s a soup – but a rich one. Big, tender chunks of lamb, plus attendant vegetables, with your choice of flour or corn tortillas. The meat was tender, the broth was savory. What’s not to like?

We also ordered the shrimp tacos ($11.50) and there was enough to share of the little nuggets of shrimp tucked into double corn tortillas with the traditional cabbage-based slaw showered overall.

Los Potrillos unashamedly boasts its northern Mexico allegiance, with a heavy emphasis on beef and cheese in its menu. I went for broke with the “Mi General” plate ($14.45), a name reminiscent of the Mexican Revolution, which largely played out in the north. Billed as “steak arrachera,” it rewarded me with a Mexican-style steak accompanied by an enchilada, chile relleno and strips of cactus nopalitos.

The steak was very tasty. But keep in mind that you’re not going to get an American-style thick steak here: This is a thin cut of beef, flash-grilled and served up with the usual beans-and-rice accompaniments. For Sunday breakfast, though, it more than sufficed.

The accompanying nopalitos, however, carried a little too much canned taste for me. But how else are you going to enjoy these green cactus pads, which don’t to my knowledge grow this far north, unless they come from a bottle or a can?

Along with our entrees arrived a stack of corn tortillas cradled in an insulated serving dish. The serving was far too copious for us gringos, but apparently the standard for Los Potrillos’ largely Latino clientele. They were hot and fresh – the only way tortillas should be served.

Los Potrillos’ menu includes several exclusively Mexican dishes that deserve special mention. Chiles en nogada, for example, is basically a chile relleno stuffed with a 16th-century Spanish colonial blend of meat, spices and fruit. There is a dish featuring huitlacochle, too – the corn fungus typical of southern Mexico.

On previous visits, we’ve enjoyed the queso fundido – surely the precursor to our own chile con queso. As the name suggests, it’s melted cheese, a dip for chips. And speaking of dips, Los Potrillos offers three with the complimentary chips that arrive pre-order. One is thin, mild and avocado-based, another is a salsa variation and the third is an earthy red chile-based concoction we’d love to know how to make.

Desserts at Los Potrillos are also completely in keeping with Mexican tradition. Accordingly, we chose flan, a sturdy version topped with lots of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The tres leches cake – another traditional dessert – was equally predictable and satisfying.

“Tres leches” refers to the three dairy products poured over the very simple cake after it is baked: sweetened condensed milk, regular condensed milk and whipping cream. Needless to say, this is a moist and rich end for any meal. Los Potrillos ramps it up with a generous garnish of whipped cream and the ubiquitous cherry. We loved it.

You won’t find haute cuisine at Los Potrillos. But the northern Mexico specialties, with a few inclusions from the southern reaches of that country, plus the mix of clientele – Mexican families, a few gringos – makes this place worthy of inclusion on any Santa Fe diner’s shortlist.