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Finding a decent Northern New Mexican meal isn’t hard if you’re willing to take a short drive.
There are plenty of places in Santa Fe that offer traditional New Mexican fare. There are also a few places in Española where you can get a meal reminiscent of those grandma used to make; La Cocina is one of those places. Just to be clear, we’re talking about the location at 415 Santa Clara Bridge Road, not Steve’s La Cocina, behind the fueling station on Los Alamos Highway.
A recent trip to La Cocina proved to be satisfying and did not cause sticker shock when the bill came. The worst part of the experience was trying to decide on what to order. There is quite a variety to choose from. They offer everything from American comfort food like chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, to burgers and sandwiches. But one doesn’t go to a Northern New Mexican restaurant for a hamburger (though they are probably pretty good). No, one goes there for either a red or green chile fix.
Enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and more grace the pages of the menu, each one tempting the diner to try something they don’t usually order.
During a recent visit, the Frito pie looked tempting and so that was ordered. The dish comes in two sizes: regular and large. Thinking that the regular size might be too small, and not having had any breakfast, the large Frito pie was ordered. In addition, enchiladas supremas and two chicken tacos were also ordered. The enchiladas were ordered with red chile, as were the Frito pies.
Either red or green chile is offered (or Christmas) on the enchiladas and either green or red on the Frito pie.
Normally, the Frito pie is a bowl of beans and your choice of chile, with the Fritos served on the side, but per a diner’s request, the Fritos can be added to the bottom of the bowl. Your choice of chicken or beef is also available in the Frito pie.
Complimentary chips and salsa are always offered at La Cocina. The chips were crisp, with just the right amount of salt.
The salsa was a good consistency, not too thick and not too soupy. The tomato flavor was just right.
The salsa wasn’t too salty and didn’t have too many onions. It was just right, with just enough heat from the jalapeños to let you know they there, without making you grab for a glass of water, while nearly choking on the heat.
The enchiladas supremas offers an abundant serving — large enough for two or just enough for one with a large appetite. The chile is spicy, but not enough to set your mouth on fire. The dish is topped with a good amount of gooey cheese and the flavor of the ingredients mixed together is a treat for the taste buds.
When the Frito pies arrived, the size of the bowls was enough to make the eyes bulge in disbelief
They were huge. So huge in fact, that one of the bowls could probably be used as a helmet. Yes, they were that big. They were also filled to the halfway point with beans, chile,, ground beef and Fritos. The dish was topped with shredded cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.
The entrée came with a tablespoon, as well. You know, just in case a regular-sized spoon wasn’t enough to get the job done. The flavor of the beans, chile and ground beef will transport those who grew up in Northern New Mexico back to their grandmother’s kitchen.
They taste homemade. Despite the fact that there are salty Fritos in the dish, the flavors are well balanced. The beans and meat have just the right amount of flavor and combined with the lettuce, tomato and cheese, strike just the right flavor balance.
There was one complaint, however. The chicken tacos were bland. There was no flavor to the meat, which was encased in a greasy corn tortilla. The side of salsa that came with the tacos helped add flavor, but wasn’t enough to make that much of a difference.
Sopaipillas come with most meals. They were also a bit bland, but once they’ve covered in honey, it’s not such a big deal.
What is a big deal, however, is when they are dripping grease, even after being placed on a sheet of paper, in the basket. Two of the sopaipillas were fine, but the third one was greasy and had to be blotted with a napkin before and attempt to eat it was made.
The dining room wasn’t packed, but there was a decent crowd for a Sunday afternoon. The waiter was attentive without being overbearing.
Drink refills were brought promptly and he checked in regularly. His appearance was neat and his uniform was clean, which is always a plus. The check was brought promptly as well and added to the overall positive dining experience.
Lunch for three, including three sodas, before tip, came to $42.41.
There are a couple of areas in which La Cocina can improve, but overall, if you’re looking for a good Northern New Mexico dining experience, it’s definitely worth the trip to Española.