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Circus of flavors: El Payaso offers fresh, affordable Mexican food

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I usually avoid restaurants with clowns on the wall. I’m not afraid of clowns, like some people, but I also don’t find them reassuring before a meal.

El Payaso is on Fourth Street south of Montaño NW. (Jason K. Watkins/For The Journal)

El Payaso is on Fourth Street south of Montaño NW. (Jason K. Watkins/For The Journal)

Also, I happen to love gorditas – fist-sized balls of corn or flour golden-fried and then stuffed with meat or beans. So when I came across El Payaso, “the clown” in Spanish, a new Mexican restaurant at 5333 Fourth NW, I decided my love for gorditas was greater than my beef with clowns.

El Payaso is authentic and new and relatively unknown. The circus motif and unlicensed Disney memorabilia on the walls are a stark change from the Chinese restaurant that occupied the building previously. But the new occupants were confident enough to list gorditas first on the front of their flier, so that’s confident enough for me to give it a try.

As a longtime New Mexican eater, I know you can judge a restaurant solely by its beans and rice. I decided to do just that and make it a vegetarian meal. Through a translation error (on my part), the three-gordita plate stuffed with beans and rice that I ordered at the counter arrived at my table as three giant gorditas on three plates.

No complaints. Turns out they make great leftovers, too.

Through another error on my part, the cup of salsa I absent-mindedly threw into the first gordita turned out to be that fiery-hot red kind that makes you sweat and curse. Once the heat died down, the flavor of the beans and rice started to come through and I realized I was dealing with a top-quality gordita.

Both the beans and rice were perfect, not dry or too thick, and both were fresh. The shell itself, the size of a softball and made of flour, was perfectly browned on the outside and came apart in my hands. Gorditas should be messy, so I stuffed the second one with lettuce and tomato (and left out the salsa).

I grew up in the Bootheel, where we take our gorditas seriously, and these stand up to any I’ve ever had: large, crispy, freshly made, freshly cooked, generously stuffed and hot.

I had a choice between a canned Coke or a bottle from Mexico made with cane sugar, which wasn’t really a choice at all. The waitress walked by several times with large burritos wrapped in aluminum foil for people who presumably hadn’t yet learned about gorditas, but nearly everyone was aware how much better a bottled Coke is.

El Payaso has quite a few other options, from burritos and tacos to menudo and tortas, all extremely affordable, but the gorditas, at $3.50 apiece, are the way to go. Try them with carne asada, deshebrada (shredded beef), molé or picadillo (ground beef), or go vegetarian and stuff them with beans and rice like I did. Order three only if you plan to take two home, and unless you’re a professional, go easy on the salsa.

This isn’t a date restaurant, but it’s a perfect place to a take a big family for a reasonably priced plate of authentic and traditional Mexican food without waiting in line. Meals come on Styrofoam plates – a perfectly respectable way to serve a gordita – and a salsa bar in the corner provides the usual condiments. The service is great, but lots of regulars means the wait can be up to 20 minutes at times and sometimes more during lunch hour. Takeout is also a great option.

Good gorditas aren’t easy to find, but El Payaso’s are reliably fresh, homemade, tasty and affordable. They’re also as authentic as you can find this side of the border. I’m now a regular, so if you see a gringo sweating underneath a clown poster in front of a table full of gorditas, say hello.

3 stars