Posted by: wrmcnutt | October 22, 2009

Restaurant Review – La Placita – Albuquerque, NM

Last night I dined at La Placita, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the experience was mixed.  I’m in town for a professional meeting, so I have no transportation.  My dining choices, then, are limited to about a mile or so from the meeting hotel.  (A Best Western which is another post altogether.)  As it happens, my hotel is about a mile from an area the locals call “Old Town.”  Old Town is a shopping/Art Gallery district located in the area where Albuquerque was founded in 1706.

 I don’t want to be entirely cynical about Old Town.  The center square with bandstand is bordered on one side with the mission, and anchored on one corner with an original hacienda, built at about the same time.  Old Town has its own character.  There are many, many galleries and shops that display Native American art and artifacts.  There is a preponderance of silver and turquoise “trading posts.”  But the “blanket merchants” in front of the “trading posts” take credit cards and one of the “adobe” buildings houses a McDonald’s.   So, for a lot of it, if you’ve seen Fisherman’s Warf in San Francisco, if you’ve seen Gatlinburg, Tennessee, if you seen Bourbon Street in New Orleans, you’ve seen Old Town, Albuquerque.  I hate to say it, but the more I travel, the more places begin to look the same.  Old Town is the tourist district, and the industry of transferring money from tourists to locals has a point of efficiency, and every city strives toward it.

 La Placita is located in an old hacienda in Old Town, built not too long after the village was founded.  The walls are adobe and three feet thick.  The windows are over two hundred years old, and lop-sided.  And the central dining room has a tree growing up though it that is older than this country.  You enter La Placita after passing native blanket merchants on the sidewalks and going onto a deep, deep porch that shades the doors and windows from the harsh New Mexican sun.  You step down three stairs into their foyer, and the first thing you notice is the adobe fireplace/stove.  Covered in tile, it burns three or four mesquite logs at a time, perfuming both the restaurant and the square outside. 

 Unfortunately, when I came by, there was no one in it.  There is what is clearly a host station, as well as a small candy counter, that no doubt caters to passers-by during the day, but neither station was manned when I was there the evening of October 21, 2009.  In fact, looking down on corridor and up a staircase, I began to wonder if they were closed, and had just forgotten to lock up.  After about a fifteen minute wait, a small woman, clearly dressed for the outdoors, happened by and looked a little startled. 

 “Has no one been out here?” she asked.

 “No ma’am, I’m afraid not.”  I replied.

 “Well, you go on back down there and someone will see you.”

 Ever the intrepid diner, I headed off down the mysterious hallway.  I hope you’re grateful, I do this so you don’t have to, you know.  The architecture and the décor were fascinating.  While the diner’s furniture is all modern, it was clearly selected with an eye to fitting in well with La Placita‘s look and feel.  Scattered about the many alcoves and deep, deep window recesses are antiques of varying age and quality, all working together to achieve an eclectic, but southwestern feel.  And you know, it can be really hard to do that and avoid looking like a FiestaWare display at a department store.  La Placita has done so.  As I made my way into the wilderness, I eventually encountered a native. 

 “Oh – hi.  Did you need to eat?”

 Ok – all my friends think of me as a formal, stuffy bastard because I think there’s a level of decorum and dress that are appropriate in professional situations.  So I’ve been trying to lower my expectations, as I appear to have been born in an era that no longer cares about good manners.  But this waiter/host was really something. 

 Okay, a brief aside is in order.  As I get older, fatter, and less interesting to women, I’ve discovered that I am far less tolerant of men who are younger and prettier than I am, and this young man was certainly younger and prettier than I am.  So he had a long way back.

 He was wearing white sneakers, blue jeans that were too long, and had ratty tatters hanging from the cuffs where he’s been walking on his own pants.  His blue shirt had tails.  I know because they were hanging out, and he was wearing a blue chamois vest over it.  It was very odd, because from the neck up, he was over-groomed.  He had spiky hair with about two days worth of my salary in hair products on it, and one of those annoying little beards that scream for a moustache to go with it.  Okay, the facial hair left me pre-disposed to think badly of him.  I hate those.  But he looked that what we used to call a frat-rat on his way to a kegger.  Can this guy possibly be what the owner of La Placita wants as the public face of his restaurant?

 But, when he opened his mouth, he began his long journey back from “prettier than me” and “dressed like a bum.”  He was courteous, if informal, and immediately got me seated in the most interesting room in the building and took my drink order, which appeared in less than three minutes.  It was the tartest sangria I’ve ever had, and had a slightly bitter finish.  Good thing I like tart.  If you’re expecting a sweet sangria, you’ll be surprised. 

Now, to the menu.  *sigh* I was disappointed.  Here I am in the heart of the land of enchantment, and the menu could just as well have come from El Charro’s or Cozymel’s in my home base of Knoxville, Tennessee.  It was your typical American-Mexican menu of fajitas, enchiladas, and tacos.  When I’m out of town, rather than select an entrée myself, I will typically try the specialty of the house.  But after a discussion with my frat-rat, I concluded that La Placita doesn’t have one.  So, unable to figure out what the signature dish of the chef d’cuisine, I just ordered the Enchiladas Especial.  

 It was slightly different, and more interesting that enchiladas that you get in Knoxville.  The texture was lighter, and there was far less grease.  In Knoxville, no matter where you buy them, enchiladas always seem to be greasy, and the bottom of them is soaked in fat of some kind.  These tortillas were lighter and had a firmer texture than I am used to.  But they were not chewy.  The filling was chicken, ground beef, and cheese, each in its own enchilada.  While all three were moist and flavorful, they were in no way greasy.  The shredded cheese topping was, I think, a little heavy, but lots of people really like a lot of cheese, so your mileage may vary.  I was given a choice of red or green sauce for my enchiladas, and my frat-rat was kind enough, and okay, professional enough, to offer to bring me some of each, in side cups, rather than make me choose.  I found the red sauce to be somewhat flat.  My palate is somewhere between the “Oh my, that pepperoni sure is spicy,” of my friend Duren, and the “I’m from Louisiana, hurt me plenty” of my friend Jay.  So I like a complex, flavorful sauce with a little bit of a bite, and I found the red sauce to be disappointing.  The green sauce, however, was rich, peppery, and also required slightly careful handling.  While I’m sure Duren’s eyes would water while sniffing it, and Jay would drink it like soda pop, I found it necessary to apply it sparingly to my enchiladas. 

This brings me to my sides.  I begin to suspect that somewhere in U.S. Federal Law, it is required that enchiladas be served with re-fried beans and Spanish rice, because that’s what I always get.  Refritos in Knoxville are served as a paste.  It has the texture of something that could be spread on bread and a uniform bland or indifferent taste.  These beans were delicately spiced and were not blended.  That is, they were actual flavorful beans.  The Spanish rice was different as well.  In Knoxville, Spanish rice is typically almost orange, soft, and has visible chunks of red and green peppers, or onions in it.  This was much lighter in color, had no visible vegetables, and had much firmer rice than that to which I am accustomed.  The most telling point:  I ate them all.  Typically, these sides are left partially on my plate. This time, there was nothing left.

Time to sum up.  I loved the building and the décor.  Service wise, well, on a Tuesday night, you don’t get the “A” squad, either out front or in the kitchen.  It was kind of weak.  The cuisine, while predictable, was well-executed.  I give La Placita of Albuquerque, New Mexico:

  • Three and a half pints of five for atmosphere
  • Two pints of five for service
  • Two and a half pints of five for cuisine

This gives La Placita an average score of 2.67 pints, making it a slightly above average dining experience.

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  1. Clearly this is your experience NOT mine, so I’m not saying you are wrong, but I want to know what it takes to get a higher rating in terms of cuisine?

    Every item you mentioned in this review sounded like the same ole same ole, but when it arrived all you expectations were exceeded. from the Sangria, through the entree and sauces to the sides.

    So why do you rank them only barely above average?

    And when will you be visiting Atlanta? I’m gonna have to figure out some interesting culinary adventures for you and your lady.

    • You know what? My response to this was turning into a blog post, so it’s going there. Look for it shortly.

  2. Just a note to say HI! I miss you!

  3. […] question was, in general, what does it take to get a higher rating in terms of cuisine, and why, at La Placita, did the food that exceeded my expectations, get a score barely above […]

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