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South Valley favorite warms up Central

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Daily eating habits of restaurant critics are more mundane than you might imagine: simple cafes or plain home-cooked meals are comforting compared with the structure of “official” restaurant visits with multiple courses and rich preparations. For that reason, I was fond of vegetable-heavy lunches at Souper Salad on Central until its sudden closure several months ago.

Soon after, Matteo’s New Mexican opened and I stayed away, still stung by the upheaval to my routine. Then I got word that Matteo’s was a well-regarded family spot from the far South Valley that had relocated and expanded, and the word was good.

Opened by Tanya Fitzjerrell and Fredo Chavez and oozing with friendliness, Matteo’s is a place to take the whole family or even the extended family. Even the sign over the door says, “Enter a stranger, leave as a friend.” Space abounds in the restaurant in both wide booths and dozens of small tables that could be assembled to accommodate a reunion. That’s a good thing, as the food at Matteo’s is family-friendly New Mexican comfort, right down to the salty tortilla chips placed on the table.

Matteo’s New Mexican ┬áLOCATION: 1606 E. Central, 433-3731
HOURS: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily

Bowls of red or green are often a benchmark dish – is the chile good enough to stand on its own, rather than as a garnish or sauce? Matteo’s Bowl of Green ($4.95) fits this mark – almost. Great flavor, medium heat and perfectly seasoned, but only after I let loose with the salt shaker. Over- or underseasoning food is an easy fix in the kitchen, so I hope it’s taken care of by the cooks.

Rellenos ($2.95 a la carte, $9.50 plate), on the other hand, were appropriately rich, oozing with white cheese and a good bit of chile heat near the top of the pod, with a thick batter coating that got a little soggy under the red chile sauce.

I like Matteo’s red, even if the heat level is far below my upper tolerance. It reminds me of Monroe’s, with the slightly orange tint that hints at a flour thickener (though you can never be sure – most red chile sauce recipes are closely guarded family secrets).

Fans of tortilla burgers should try the Steak Burrito Special ($7.25), a pounded-thin hunk of beef neatly folded into a flour tortilla with cheese and small side of chile pequin sauce – wickedly hot with a hint of sweetness from honey to tame the flames. I found myself dabbing at the sauce instead of the salsa included with the chips and relishing the spice.

Not everything succeeds, unfortunately. We had some guacamole that had seen better days, and there was that soggy relleno batter, after all. But in the end, we appreciated the variety of the menu and even had some room for delicious warm natillas for dessert, creamy and sweet under cool whipped cream.

My future visits are sure to include a sampling of menudo that I hear is outstanding, and I’d not be a good New Mexican if I didn’t have a plate of huevos rancheros ($5.95), especially if smothered in that roasted green chile.

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