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The distinct regional tastes of New Mexico have become a huge draw for foodies, thanks to the cultural fusion of Anglo, Native, Mexican and Spanish cuisines.
In recent years, the state has seen a profusion of upscale locavore restaurants reflecting new interest in the old traditions. But that doesn't mean you should write off the old-timers, especially those outside traditional Southwestern tourist enclaves.
El Patio de Albuquerque, a longtime, unpretentious eatery near Albuquerque's University of New Mexico campus, is one of the city's most popular dining spots. For nearly four decades, multi-generational families, tourists, professors, students — even celebrities — have lined up outside this former house for robust but simple fare enlivened with plenty of locally grown Hatch chiles, like carne adovada and green chile enchiladas.
Located in the city's Nob Hill neighborhood and just off the historic Route 66, the restaurant is tucked behind a blue fence and serves up Southwestern food without the cliche decor of adobe walls, Pueblo pottery or wooden ladders. Instead, visitors have a choice of dining in the former house or outside on the patio next to a busy street. Overheard is not mariachi music, but oldies popular with Chicano fans from the likes of Smokey Robinson (known as El Smokey in these parts).
On the patio, students enjoy Dos Equis XX drink specials while writers debate if a new Latino literature boom is upon us.
It seems like a place that Jesse Pinkman, the meth-cooking character in AMC's series "Breaking Bad," played by Aaron Paul, would opt to hang out.
In fact, he did.
"He came in here all the time when they were filming in Albuquerque," said owner David Sandoval, 69. "Sat over there."
So have actor Alan Alda and radio host Don Imus, who even plugged the restaurant on air.
Sandoval, a retired engineer and Vietnam War-era Marine, opened El Patio almost 40 years ago after living in Hollywood, Calif. His goal was simple. Create a restaurant focused on local cuisine but with an environment that could remain edgy and cool so the place could transcend generations and withstand changes to the neighborhood.
The menu would be simple but all the food, like reasonably priced favorites chile rellenos and chicken-stuffed sopapillas, would be homemade and locally sourced.
The restaurant is located in a growing "Brick Light District" of trendy restaurants, cafes and poster shops. "Breaking Bad" sites are nearby too — including an apartment duplex four blocks away where Pinkman's girlfriend, played by Krysten Ritter, overdosed on heroin. Tourists routinely stop by to take photos of it.
Less than a mile away is the internationally known Mask y Mas shop, which sells small statues of La Santa Muerte — the Mexican Death Saint whose intervention is sought in matters of love, employment or protection from the law (if you are involved in the drug trafficking business, that is).
"We've always been in a great spot," Sandoval says in between greeting customers. "Keep it local and keep it fresh. That attracts everyone."
If You Go...
EL PATIO DE ALBUQUERQUE: 142 Harvard Dr SE, Albuquerque, N.M. 87106-3521, 505-268-4245.