I just got back from a business trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I did a lot of research before I left to try and line up some culinary adventures during conference downtime. I have to say, I think my expectations might have been too high and/or not having a car limited my culinary range so to speak.
Getting in on a Sunday morning, the town was pretty dead. I wandered to Old Town and was hoping to try the chile (Christmas style: red and green) at Duran Pharmacy. Unfortunately they don't serve on Sundays. So, I found Monica's El Portal on the edge of Old Town. The ambiance was nothing special, but felt fairly local, so I liked that. I ordered the chiles relleno with red chile. It came with sopapillas, which were quite nice. However, the chiles were not very flavorful and seemed like they had been pre-fried and been sitting out for some time. One was actually fairly tough and seemed underdone. However, I would say that the place delivered an average Mexican meal with good service and a local atmosphere.
For dinner that night, after having some light appetizers at a conference function, I had dinner at Lucia, which is in the Hotel Andaluz. The hotel itself, recently restored, is filled with historic charm but also the feel of an upscale boutique hotel. I really liked the vibe. The restaurant carried through the upscale, relaxed feel. The open kitchen was nice since I was dining alone. I enjoyed watching the kitchen staff banging out the meals. I didn't want to order anything too heavy since I had already had a bite to eat, but I did want to try a few things off the menu. I had a spinach salad that was pretty good with feta, kalamata olives and a bacon dressing. It paired well with the King Estate Pinot Gris I had. Then, the disappointment of the evening. I ordered one of their "flatbreads" off the menu. Well, the bill had it right when it called it a "pizza margherita". I was expecting something totally different. Lighter, more simple. It was basically a nice looking, below average tasting hotel pizza that probably should have been on the kids menu. Oh well. The service was good, prices somewhat reasonable and the atmosphere made up for a lot.
The next day was packed with conference activities and a lunch awards program. However, a colleague and I were able to make an afternoon train to Santa Fe for dinner. Again, I think my expectations were too high. We had dinner at La Fonda's restaurant, La Plazuela. The hotel, again, was awesome. Just off the Plaza in Santa Fe and very charming. The food though was just OK. The vibe in the restaurant was much more family and fairly downscale, but it seemed very booked for the evening. I ordered the tortilla soup, which was inferior to the one we make at home. The broth and chicken were good, but it didn't taste like it had any lime in it at all to cut the richness and give it some balance. For my main, I had the enchiladas, Christmas style. These were average at best. The chile was not very complex or even that spicy.
All-in-all, I don't know if I picked the wrong places (two hotel restaurants were maybe a mistake), ordered the wrong things, or have been spoiled by some of the awesome Mexican cuisine you can find in Chicagoland — including Rick Bayless' restaurants, Bien Trucha in Geneva and even my favorite taqueria in Aurora, Jallisco on Galena. New Mexicans were so nice and the landscape so beautiful that I want to give it another shot. There were some places that looked amazing, but they were out of town and I'd like to check out some of the New Mexico wineries, especially Gruet, that makes one of my favorite affordable sparkling wines.