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Cocina Azul earns a spot among best New Mexican restaurants

Creamy chicken enchiladas with sides of beans and white buttery rice, sopaipillas and a margarita at Cocina Azul. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Creamy chicken enchiladas with sides of beans and white buttery rice, sopaipillas and a margarita at Cocina Azul. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The flavors of Cocina Azul are so bright and bold that if they were music, they would be a mariachi concert.

Although it’s been around only about seven years, Cocina Azul at 12th and Mountain NW has already earned admittance to the pantheon of Albuquerque’s favorite New Mexican restaurants.

This blue kitchen is spoken of with loyal reverence reserved for the likes of Duran pharmacy and Sadie’s. I say to anyone brave enough to compete with those establishments as well as Mary & Tito’s and Barelas Coffee House: Good luck with that. You’re going to have to deliver mighty portions of flavor and friendliness, and your restaurant must inspire word-of-mouth and return customers.

But unarguable success has powered Cocina Azul’s expansion to a new additional location in Granada Square on Montgomery NE.

Although restaurants have come and gone from this spot, all the way back to the International House of Pancakes, it’s a good bet Cocina Azul is there to stay. An informal big-screen TV bar, ample banquettes, clean white-painted brick walls and a sunny room do not completely eradicate IHOP sterility, but smart acoustics and sufficient space between tables to permit private conversation are pluses.

Cocina Azul brings much good into this world in the form of perfect huevos rancheros, a bargain at $5.98, served from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily, but two bucks more other times. If you can get past that, you may get hooked on the crispy chicken-fried steak and eggs with creamy green chile gravy ($11.95).

Toothsome steak tacos ($4.95 each), red and green Hatch chile that sings and stings, in a good way, and fresh sizzling sopaipillas delivered on request. A distinguishing feature of the menu is generous combination plates (around $14) like the carne adovada relleno plate. Traditional comfort foods like calabacitas – zucchini stewed with corn – and fideos – pasta in mild tomato sauce – are offered as side dishes, along with standard rice and beans.

Azul bowls ($8.95) of posole; green or red chile; or creamy green chile chicken soup with a kick will make you happy you live here.

I didn’t love the fish tacos ($12.95), best described as breaded mini-fish cakes on a tortilla, I can live without Spam and eggs ($8.95), and the chicken breast taco salad ($11.95) does not stand out.

But what Cocina Azul does well, it does very well, such as the lightly breaded, sumptuously textured chile relleno ($10.95), mild enough for those who don’t like their food really hot, yet with enough depth for those who do.

Homemade flavor prevails in this well-prepared and well-served food that does not suffer from greasiness, down to the nicely browned hash browns. And the guacamole is fresh as a summer morning.

About that brisket burger ($12.95): Man up. Grab hold of that baseball-sized buttery toasted bun loaded with Angus beef, melted cheese, green chile (amateurs need not apply), and tender tasty brisket, hoist it up, give it a chomp. This meat lover’s burger is far more than the sum of its delicious parts. This is the burger that launched a thousand ships.

Service, which on one occasion was good-spirited but a bit haphazard, is unstintingly warm, sensitive, patient and gracious, with every attempt made to accommodate diners’ requests. Genuinely welcoming smiles and farewells are part of the experience. This place is notably family-friendly, and it is obvious from the clientele that families with young children feel at home here. Breakfast is served all day.

You’ll walk out agreeing: panza llena, corazón contento. Translation: full belly, happy heart.