Neighborhood Eateries Need Our Support
Moving back to Albuquerque after a near-decade hiatus, I kept hearing people refer to the corridor that stretches between San Mateo and Wyoming along both sides of Central Ave. as “The International District.” At first I was reluctant to accept this relabeling of the War Zone. It seemed little more than a real estate ploy. But after working for a time at Van Buren Middle School, I came around. After all, I figured, growing up in a neighborhood known as “The War Zone” can’t have made life easier for these youth. Admittedly, this area, like much of the city, has very real issues with violence, property crime, narcotics and police brutality. But compared to the late ’80s into the ’90s, when that old hard-hitting nickname first stuck, rates of violent crime have decreased significantly. What’s more, the neighborhood hosts a range of ethnic and cultural enclaves that benefit the whole city, not least by providing samplings of cuisines from around the Americas and from Asia. Albuquerque’s International District doesn’t offer only PhŎ spots and Banh Mi, but various Vietnamese joints that boast regional specialties.
First off is a migrant to the International District. I first noticed this spot out on Old Coors a few years ago, but found it shuttered before I got a chance to give it a go. Lo and behold, it had just moved across town and has been serving up Mexico City specialties at Louisiana and Trumbull for around two years now.
As a true megalopolis, D.F. (short for “Distrito Federal” a.k.a. Mexico City) acts as a cauldron for both the nation of Mexico and much of the world beyond. There, estufados of varied inputs bubble away, refining down to new cultural and culinary creations. Nena’s Food: Comida Casera al Estilo D.F. (600 Louisiana Blvd. SE Suite A) showcases some of these gems. The matriarch of Nena’s is from Mexico City, and the menu consists of chilango favorites that I have yet to see elsewhere in this city or even, for that matter, in this country. Case in point, Nena’s pambazos. These sandwiches are a thing of great ingenuity. A bolillo, or simple white-bread roll, serves as the vessel for this sandwich; but unlike those of a more standard torta, this roll is baked just short of developing a flaky crust. Filled with papas, meats or a combination of both, along with lettuce, crema and cheese, this rather humble roll is elevated to something spectacular by being dunked into a chile sauce made of stock and guajillo peppers, which gives it a bright orange-red sheen. You might assume this concoction would devolve into a mushy mess, but the center does indeed hold. (I implore you: Go to Nena’s and test my claim.) An aside: Depending on the Mexico City neighborhood, some pambazo spots provide plastic gloves with each order, while others just give you a small stack of napkins. Nena’s is of the later camp. While the pambazos are available in a few iterations (asada, pastor, pollo or tinga: each $5.50), I went with the classic chorizo and papa ($4.50) but will surely be going back to try them all in the near future. Nena’s offers curbside pick up, and you can check out their menu online and order ahead by calling (505) 818-0356.
Next up, I headed West on Zuni down to San Pedro, where I’d heard that a Jamaican food truck had recently started setting up. I pulled up alongside a brand-new, fire-truck-red cart in the middle of a vacant lot on the SE corner, where a quick glance at the menu made clear this was not the truck I had been planning to check out. But I was there, so I decided to give it a shot. Old School is a food truck that seems committed to keeping it classic. The couple who run it are not ashamed to offer up the standbys that they grew up on. She makes the “meaty tamales” and Mexican-American styled fare, while he is in charge of the fried catfish, the grill and the collards. Sadly, the catfish dinner that I had my heart set on was yet to be on offer. I must have looked a bit dejected because they told me, with the utmost politeness and sincerity, that they were just getting started and hadn’t yet been able to source wild-caught catfish that they were happy with. In fact, they informed me, I was their first customer. Like, ever.
Not wanting to miss out on a new great spot, I went ahead and settled on a tamale ($4) and the spicy hot link sandwich ($5). The tamale was indeed meaty and quite rich, boasting a nearly one-to-one ratio of masa to beef. The hot link sandwich had a nice char on the kielbasa but could have benefitted from similar char-lines on the hot dog bun. The side of collard greens, however, was slamming. A bit sweet while still plenty bitter and not overly salty. I found myself wolfing them down, upending the container and draining the pot-likker down to the last drop.
To be honest, this spot seems like it isn’t quite fully realized … but it shows promise. They certainly seem happy to provide solid versions of classic dishes at a fair price. Maybe an unpretentious spot will win out with those who are relieved not to be offered a bunch of gimmicky up-charged items when they really just want a plate of nachos with ground beef and queso or a Tex-Mex styled frito pie (just $5 each).
Lastly, I headed up to a utilitarian spot that I’ve been enjoying since I was a small fry. I love Griff’s Hamburgers (8516 Central Ave. SE) for being a Rt. 66 holdout that serves up Americana right. Griff’s iconic A-frame designs were once staples on freeways all over the West. Now only a few remain, scattered around Louisiana and Texas, with a single New Mexican location at Wisconsin and Central. Griff’s rather psychedelic star-eyed clown logo and regular appearance in Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead comix cemented my allegiance to it long ago—though in high school my friends and I lovingly dubbed the battered old A-frame “Gritty Griff’s,” with a range of variations on that theme. And in truth, despite their signage getting an update a few years back—around the time that the iconic “Foxes’ Booze and Cruise” sign was finally taken down just across the street—the burgers themselves remain cheap, greasy and delicious. I ordered a vanilla shake, a giant hamburger with green chile, and a side of onion rings. It all came out fast and hot. The onion rings were fried to a perfect golden brown and came stuffed into a small wax paper receptacle. Griff’s is not the kind of place that skimps. The burger was just what I expected and craved. Better than any of the multinational franchises, yet decidedly less meaty than Blake’s. And one upgrade: They no longer attempt to pass off chopped up pickled jalapeños as “hot green chile.” Griff’s is drive-through only for the foreseeable in light of COVID safety measures.
If you have a favorite spot in the International District or elsewhere that you feel needs some extra attention, please send any and all suggestions. This neighborhood round-up will continue as a series. I plan to focus on other parts of the city and return to the International District for future deep dives. [ ]