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El Pinto's Artfully Loaded Nachos Named the Best in the Country by Wall Street Journal

By Carolyn Carlson
Journal Staff Writer
    Muy caliente! El Pinto Restaurant is one hot restaurant, and we're not just talking chile.
    The restaurant's nachos topped Saturday's Wall Street Journal list of best in the nation.
The Big Cheese
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Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal
El Pinto waitress Kelleen Coyne, holds a tray of El Pinto's traditional nachos that the Wall Street Journal rated as best nachos in the country.

  • Photos from this week's ABQjournal.com
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  •     On Thursday, President George W. Bush, along with first lady Laura, stopped in for a chile fix.
        In mid-January, the Food Network featured the restaurant during one of its episodes of "The Secret of: Comfort Foods."
        And on Aug. 30, ESPN SportsCenter filmed one of its "50 States in 50 Days" episodes from the North Valley restaurant with host Linda Cohn calling El Pinto's salsa "the best in the nation."
        What's the secret to this longtime North Valley restaurant?
        "It all starts with my grandmother Josephina Chavez Griggs' recipes," co-owner John Thomas said Monday.
        The Wall Street Journal, in setting out to find the nation's best nachos, first received recommendations from more than four dozen chefs, hotel concierges, chile experts and even the cook for the Seattle Seahawks, according to the paper.
        It then visited several, sampling nachos across the country.
        In Saturday's edition, El Pinto's nachos were ranked No. 1 out of 15 restaurants the newspaper visited.
        This is what the Wall Street nacho reviewer said about El Pinto's: "(The) Nachos are built like lasagna, one layer at a time, so no chip is cheeseless: first chips, then cheese, until there's a pyramid topped with sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, chicken and green chili (their spelling) sauce."
        Another New Mexico restaurant made it into the nacho ranking. The Cowgirl BBQ and Western Grill in Santa Fe ranked 13.
        Barry Secular, owner and manager of the Cowgirl, when asked Monday evening if he was excited by the recognition, said "Yeah, hell yeah. It's extremely cool. We're blown away ... . We think we've got great nachos. We're thrilled that someone recognized that."
        The Wall Street Journal is not the only El Pinto fan.
        President Bush has eaten at the restaurant five times. Not to mention all the salsa he has taken back with him aboard Air Force One.
        "He loves the taste of our chile," said Jim Garcia, director of operations.
        The restaurant's laid back ambience is appreciated as well.
        "They trust us to keep his visits very low key and private," Garcia said. "When the president is here, he is warm and engaging. He asks about the economy of our business and is genuinely interested."
        El Pinto's food was included in the President's Cinco de Mayo festivities held last year at the White House, he said.
        The restaurant was started in 1962 by Jack and Consuelo Thomas using Consuelo's mother's recipes. The family hails from Mesilla, right smack in chile heartland.
        Thomas and twin brother, Jim, bought the restaurant from their parents in 1989 and have expanded its seating to a little more than 1,000 including summer dining on its patios.
        Thomas said they have not changed his grandmother's recipes except for making them a little healthier.
        "For instance, we use non-hydrogenated oils to fry our foods in," Thomas said.
        He credited the staff with stressing quality service and food.
        "We treat everyone like they are the president," Thomas said.
        And for those who can't fly in like the president, El Pinto salsa and other products will soon be in Kroger grocery stores in every state except New York and Florida, Garcia said.