ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Backstreet Grill in Old Town seems stuck somewhere between tourist layover and local hot spot.
Recently relocated to a shared space just south of the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and headed by Chef Christopher James Cordova, the restaurant makes up for what it lacks in excitement with earnestness and flavor.
Among the restaurant’s immediate selling points are accessibility – the waiter twice mentioned to customers that parking is free because “we own the parking lot” – and a feeling of familiarity; Native American rugs and historical photos of Albuquerque line the walls, and a lean menu features a handful of New Mexican standards like green chile cheeseburgers and street tacos.
Or mini-chimichangas, on the appetizer menu, but easily a meal for one person. Three flour tortillas are stuffed with a mixture of tender shredded beef, diced tomatoes, onions, peppers and, unnecessarily, a mozzarella cheese mix, then deep-fried and halved.
A pale and mild queso is served on the side to dip the chimichangas in, a nice complement to the bite of the spicy beef.
They’ve got a kick, but for a local it’s more of a nudge.
Another selling point: local beers on tap. On a recent weekend, eight New Mexico brews from four breweries (Bosque, Boese Brothers, La Cumbre and Marble) were on the menu. The beers are $4.50 apiece, so a better bet is the flight of your choice of three beers for $7.
To keep with the beef theme, try the three steak tacos. Small chunks of perfectly grilled tenderloin steak rest on a huge scoop of fresh guacamole, too much guacamole, if that’s possible, and are finished with roasted poblano peppers, cheese, and pine nuts dusted with red chile. The beef is tender and flavorful, if not plentiful, and the whole thing is plated like an entree at an airport cantina. The faint hint of cilantro, though, shows a restraint absent from most airport-cantina fare.
The menu promises a fire-roasted salsa but, unless it’s hidden in the guacamole, the kitchen might forget to add it. The whole thing is wrapped in two small corn tortillas. Served beside the tacos, inexplicably, were waffle-cut sweet potato fries that somehow worked. And good luck resisting the temptation to dip the fries into the queso dip from the chimichangas, also an unexpectedly good combination.
Service was good but sporadic on a Sunday afternoon, with random groups and large parties shuffling in. The wait staff itself seems uniformly friendly. Seating is most plentiful in the open patio, a perfect gathering spot for locals.
A final selling point: Even a well-behaved dog was welcomed outside to enjoy the sun with its owners.
After a meal at Backstreet, walk next door to the Albuquerque Museum to take in a bit of New Mexico history. For just $3, a steal for a museum of this quality, take a quick detour to see one of Peter Hurd’s most iconic paintings (albeit through an unfortunately placed vitrine) that celebrates the very terrain on which Backstreet’s beef was raised.
Street tacos and fine art, it turns out, make a uniquely New Mexican impression.
Now nearing 5 years old, Backstreet Grill is in full stride. Because of its location and consistent flavor, it’s a place you can take out-of-towners for a reliably good street taco without feeling like a sellout or a food snob. And the art museum is a nice bonus.