An Albuquerque classic comes to Nob Hill
Latest visit: April 6, 2012
First Visit: February 17, 2012
There are 128 restaurants in Albuquerque that serve New Mexican food, according to Urbanspoon. Most, but not all, are good. Some are overblown hypes (you know which they are). A few are fancy and great. And a few are small family owned places that you may consider dives, and they are superb. Cecilia’s is one of the small and great ones.
Cecilia’s second place is in Nob Hill (the other is Downtown and doesn’t serve dinner) . Our Friday night crawl brought us here, partly on a recommendation from Andrea Lin, and we were knocked out. Cecilia has been crafting some of the best New Mexican food since 1999, and you would swear that she is cooking it especially for you (more about this later) . I started with my benchmarking dish: a Carne Adovada Stuffed Sopaipilla.
Carne Adovada Stuffed Sopaipilla. I have had these things all over this state, and Cecilia’s is one of the two best to be had anywhere. The pork is perfectly done. The Red is the stuff that dreams are made of: Chimayó chiles prepared with garlic, Mexican oregano, and loving care. This chile is nearly incendiary without shorting on the flavor. Texture and color are outstanding, and the piquancy is 8 – 9 on my unofficial scale. The Sopa is huge. You can watch Guy Fieri wrap his mouth around a handheld version of this thing in the video from his TV show embedded in this review. I prefer mine smothered in Red, and you should, too. The beans and rice added to the enjoyment of this dish instead of just coming along for the ride. The beans are properly ladry, which imparts that unmistakably silky mouth feel to each forkful.
Enchilada Relleno Combination Plate. Jane settled on this dish for her dinner. Flat enchiladas and two chile rellenos graced the plate with more of the beans and rice. The rellenos are lightly battered and cooked to a slightly crispy golden brown. She had been warned about the Red, and got Red and Green. Good choice for her, because the Red is just too much for her taste buds. She loved the taste, but wisely shunned the Red. The Green was quite fine. She allowed as the rellenos were quite possibly the best she has ever had. From the sample I tasted, I agree with her.
Chicharrón (Chicharonnes). I am a sucker for chicharonnes, and these are as good as any New Mexican style that I have had. They are perfectly cooked —just slightly crispy and not hard, like some that I have had. Our server brought a small cup of Red for dipping. You might want to wrap a handful inside a tortilla and add some Red. Sublime.
There is, as I have found out, a big difference between Mexican and New Mexican chicharonnes. The best Mexican ones that I have had are not nearly as crispy, but remain quite soft. Try them at La Cocina De Doña Clara, a no-holds-barred Mexican cocina in Santa Fe.
Cecilia shares het time between het two restaurants. She arrived at the Nob Hill place as we were half way through our dinner. Shortly, she came over to our boot and we asked her to sit with us for a wile, which turned into a half hour. She is charming and loquacious, and is immensely proud of her food, and for good reason. She told us how her Red is prepared (she showed Guy Fieri, and you can get the method from the video). When I asked her about the super hot Red that Andrea Lin wrote about, smiled and said that she now only makes that version on special order for folks that she knows will appreciate it. And she knows me now, and said that I should call her when I want the real hot stuff, and she will make it for me. Game on, Cecilia.
We then chatted about desserts. I told her that I love natillas, and she said that she makes them here from scratch, along with flan and bread pudding. The mention of bread pudding got my full attention — I am a bread pudding freak, an affliction I share with my friend Gil Gardoño, New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite . I then recalled that he told me about Cecilia’s Capirotada, a Savory bread pudding that is served during Lent and sometimes Advent. It is one of his favorites. Cecilia will start having it available this week. Count me in. Maybe I’ll meet Gil there.
I’ll surely be back for the super-Red.
OK. I’m back for more goodies. As Good Friday rolled around, I realized that the capirotada would go away until Advent, and I couldn’t wait that long. That morning, I called Cecilia and asked her to make up a special batch of her incendiary red chile and some capirotada. She agreed and told me that it would be waiting for me.
Jane did not fare to try the incendiary red, so she ordered a Carne Adovada Stuffed Sopaipilla with Cecilia’s usual red (still no slouch in the heat department) with a cup of sour cream on the side to help put out any flames that might arise. Jane learned the sour cream trick from Marlene at het 4th Street restaurant. [Marlene and Cecilia went to school together and started their careers as servers at a 4th Street restaurant located where Garcia's Kitchen now is. Marlene still runs a food truck near Washington and Alameda.] Jane loved the sopa, calling it the best she has ever had. She only needed a little bit of the sour cream.
Blue Corn Enchiladas with Carne Adovada and super hot red chile.
Cecilia brought me this dish and promptly sat down in front of me to watch my reaction. I took a forkful of the chile and smiled. She smiled back, maybe a smile of amazement that an anglo could get this stuff past his lips. Yes, it is hot. One of the hottest things I have ever had in my mouth. But the taste is fantastic. The chile is dark red, smoky and highly complex, and absolutely delicious. I have finally found the real thing. And the Carne Adovada is world class. Beautiful dish. I also got a small dish of chicharones with some flour tortillas and a small dish of the red for dipping. This is heavenly stuff.
I need to warn you that this chile can be painful. Eating it is not a macho thing. Please read Andrea Lin’s comments farther down on this page. If you like super Thai hot, or indian with some ghost peppers, you will like this. Cecilia has these chiles hand chosen and picked just for her. From Chimayó, the red chile capital of the world.
Capirotada (pronounced: kä-pē-rô-tä-thä) is a common Mexican bread pudding that is traditionally eaten during Lent. It is generally composed of toasted French bread soaked in a mulled syrup, sugar, raisins, and walnuts. The syrup is mixed with a little bit of water or milk to make it less thick; piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar), cinnamon, and nutmeg. It is best served warm, but many choose to let it chill.
As these are native ingredients, they are still identical ingredients to those used during the 1640s to make breads and cakes. The ingredients and recipes have been recorded by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and saved to this day in the archives.
The basic ingredients carry a rich symbolism to the Passion of Christ, and the dish is viewed by many Mexican and Mexican-American families as a reminder of the suffering of Christ on Good Friday. The bread is for the Body of Christ, the syrup is his blood, the raisins are the nails of the cross, and the whole cinnamon sticks are the wood of the cross. The melted cheese stands for the Holy Shroud.
Well, I indeed had this on Good Friday. Cecilia’s version was made from bread that she baked that morning, and she uses pine nuts instead of walnuts. This is sweetened with piloncillo, a Mexican unrefined dark sugar from cane that is usually sold in cones. This is distinctly better than using white sugar or molasses, and it has a quite delicate not-too-sweet taste. Topped with melted cheddar and other cheeses, this capirotada is a fine example of what a savory bread pudding should bd. It broke into my Bread Pudding Hall of Fame List. I, like my friend Gil Garduño, an a bread pudding freak. Watch for my article on bread puddings to appear on these pages soon.
Cecilia Baca is one of the culinary treasures of New Mexico.
What others are saying
Watch Guy Fieri interview Cecilia Baca on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives
Andrea Lin — The Journal and Duke City Food
“Hottest Red Chile EVER.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. I have liked Cecilia’s for awhile, but her red just keeps getting hotter and hotter.
“Now it is at the level that will make sweat drops appear on the forehead of diners that request “extra super native Thai Hot” at Thai restaurants (which would be me). It is insanely, painfully hot in the best way. If you order it and find it TOO hot, don’t send it back or at least don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Gil Garduño — Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog
“When Cecilia says the secret ingredient in her cooking is love, she knows it comes from her heart, but she also doesn’t discount divine inspiration from her kitchen’s patron saint. One meal at Cecilia’s Cafe and you’ll probably be disposed to believe her food is inspired. If you’re a native New Mexican, you might even call it miraculous. That’s because this is New Mexican food the way it’s been prepared by and for New Mexicans for generations. It is unadulterated and in no way “anglicized” for touristy tastes. This is the real thing!”