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At El Pinto, the chicken has landed

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — El Pinto diners would not have to look far to find the source of the egg rolled into their breakfast burritos or perched atop their cheese enchiladas.

In fact, they might have seen the very hen that produced it while waiting for a table at the Albuquerque restaurant; the lobby’s chicken cam feed offers a live look at the 200 pasture-raised hens living — and laying — right outside.

El Pinto’s Hen Hotel currently generates about 100 eggs a day that executive chef Marc Quiñones and his crew serve as part of standard offerings like huevos rancheros and highlight in the restaurant’s new Sunday brunch menu. Quiñones said the fresh eggs offer a “big time difference” in flavor.

“When you have one of these eggs and taste it for the first time, it’s just like ‘Wow. This is what an egg is supposed to taste like,'” he said during a recent interview at the 1,000-seat North Valley eatery.

Jim Thomas, who co-owns the restaurant with twin brother John, wanted to keep chickens on-site so the kitchen had fresh eggs for the dishes, so El Pinto built the Hen Hotel about a year ago toward the southern edge of its pastoral 13-acre property. (The chickens are not used for meat.)

If chickens wrote Yelp reviews, the Thomases would likely expect some five-star raves, having taken great pains to make fowl-friendly accommodations. The chickens can roam a 10,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor enclosure that includes a building intended for egg laying. The structure — which has heating and cooling — features 64 hay-filled cubbies for the birds’ comfort and privacy. It even has a sound system that pipes in music.

“It makes them more relaxed,” marketing director Doug Evilsizor said of the music. “A lot of times it’s symphonic.”

The property also includes a fenced open-air section shielded from predators with netting above and electric wire outside the perimeter. Chickens can rest on a series of wooden perches or burrow into the soft ground for their dust baths.

El Pinto’s efforts have won approval from independent farm evaluators — the restaurant just completed a three-month process to earn “Animal Welfare Approved” seal for the hens. AWA audits and certifies “independent family farmers raising their animals according to the highest animal welfare standards, outdoors on pasture or range,” according to its website. It has 30 pages worth of standards for certifying laying hens and conducts on-site inspections.

Earning the AWA seal was not the original goal, Evilsizor said, but proved that the Thomases had done right by the birds.

“(When constructing it) we did things that made sense. It was just stuff that if you’re concerned about animals and laying healthy, nutritious eggs, this just kind of made sense,” he said. “And then at the end of the process we said ‘We really should now have an outside agency come in and tell us ‘Did we do a good job?’ and get it approved.”

The restaurant finally started using the eggs in the kitchen over the summer having earned the necessary U.S. Department of Agriculture OK. The hens’ daily 100-egg yield is not enough to meet all of El Pinto’s needs, but Evilsizor said the restaurant has committed to using them in entrees that feature (or are topped with) eggs.

Evilsizor said pasture-raised eggs like El Pinto’s generally cost at least five times as much as conventional eggs. He declined to say how much El Pinto spent building its Hen Hotel.



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