One of my fondest travel memories was of a trip I took with my grandparents on historic Route 66 from their home in Texas to California. One of our stops was Albuquerque, where my grandfather suggested dinner at La Placita Dining Rooms and Cantina in Old Town.
We had a lengthy wait for a table, so we occupied the time at the bar listening to the strolling guitar player strum Mexican love songs. When he asked for requests, my grandmother — emboldened by the three margaritas she had consumed while waiting – beckoned him over and asked if he knew “The Eyes of Texas.”
Without missing a beat, he segued from “Cielito Lindo” to the song that is a rallying cry for Texans everywhere.
Years later, I’m back in Old Town standing in front of La Placita, which appears trapped in a time warp. The adobe facade is still the same and the ancient cottonwood tree still stands in the middle of the dining room (a holdover from when the now-enclosed room was the courtyard of the original Casa de Armijo hacienda).
From La Placita, I stroll across the plaza to San Felipe de Neri, the oldest church in Albuquerque, begun by the Franciscan order in 1706. The church and the adjoining Rectory share a garden, which in late April is already abloom with roses.
In the plaza, historical plaques tell the story of the city and its place on the Camino Real (King’s Highway), which wound through a series of small ranching communities before linking up with settlements on the West Bank of the Rio Grande River.
The real deal
Located in northern New Mexico’s high desert region at an elevation of 5,312 feet, Albuquerque may lack the polished panache of Santa Fe or the western chic of Taos, but it more than makes up for it in sass and style — a combination of the city’s Native American, Hispanic and Anglo heritage.
Currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts, Albuquerque is home to some 800 works of public art; a vibrant mix of neighborhoods, from quirky Nob Hill to downtown (where Route 66 is now known as Central Avenue); and a burgeoning brewery scene (more breweries per capita than Portland). Stop in for a tasting at Bow & Arrow, where Shyla Sheppard is the only Native-American woman to own a brewery.
Oh, yes, and there’s the little matter of Albuquerque being the setting for two of television’s most acclaimed series, “Breaking Bad” and its prequel, “Better Call Saul.”
As so often happens when a pop culture phenomenon is associated with a particular locale, fans of said phenomenon flock there, swelling tourism coffers. This became clear to me one morning during breakfast at the Grove Cafe & Market, where one table seemed to be garnering undue attention — especially since no one was sitting there at the time.
I was told that this was the table where “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth mogul, substituted ricin for stevia in Lydia’s chamomile tea. Now, if that doesn’t say tourist attraction, I don’t know what does.
A gathering of nations
But I wasn’t here for a “Breaking Bad” tour; instead I was in town for the Gathering of Nations Powwow, the world’s largest gathering of American Indian and indigenous peoples.
Representatives from 700 tribes from across the U.S., Canada and Latin America joined together for the three-day event, which featured 3,000 American Indian singers and dancers competing for prizes; 23 contestants vying for the title of Miss Indian World (talent competitions ranged from traditional — Hoop Dance — to somewhat less traditional — braiding the intestines of an Arctic seal), and 800 American Indian artisans and craftsmen displaying and selling their wares.
Interspersed among the Powwow festivities were activities designed to give visitors a better cultural understanding of the 19 pueblos scattered across New Mexico. At the impressive Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, I partook of a traditional feast at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe (who knew that black cherry Kool-Aid pickles coated with blue corn could be so tasty?) and afterward, received instruction on how to make American Indian fry bread.
On another day, several of us joined Mike Nez, a full-blooded Navajo jewelry maker at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa to learn how to design and make our own copper bracelets.
Dinner at the resort’s Corn Maiden Restaurant provided an epicurean journey through New Mexico’s regional cuisine, with dishes such as beef strip loin cooked on a rotisserie grill and served with green chile potatoes au gratin, vegetables with cactus chutney and peach salsa and green chile pinon apple pie.
Red, green or Christmas?
When it comes to New Mexican cuisine, it’s all about the chiles, and when it comes to chiles, it’s all about whether you prefer red, green or Christmas (a mixture of both).
I had plenty of opportunity to scorch my palate with all three at a number of local restaurants. There were the blue corn pancakes from James Beard-nominated chef Jonathan Perno at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. Los Poblanos, built in the Spanish hacienda style, is a lush green oasis in the desert and boasts lavender beds, formal English gardens and honey from its own beehives.
There were (what else?) tacos and tequila at Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila — even my margarita had red chiles in it. Green chiles were on the menu at the Great American Diner, especially in its Laguna burger, winner of the New Mexico State Fair’s 2016 Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge.
If by now you are thinking New Mexicans are a bit chile-centric, take note: Albuquerque is one of the stops on the state’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.
It’s tapas rather than tacos that feature on the menus at two of Albuquerque’s best hotel restaurants — Tablao Flamenco at Hotel Albuquerque (on weekends, flamenco performances are offered along with the food) and at MAS — Tapas Y Vino at the charming Andaluz Hotel.
Before dining at the latter, enjoy cocktails in the second-floor Ibiza Bar or sip surrounded by Southwestern art in one of the private nooks off the first-floor lobby (the stained glass screen is especially noteworthy).
A city in the sky
On my last day in Albuquerque, I took a drive 60 miles west to Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City. For good reason, as the pueblo, built in the 12th century and the oldest continuously operating community in North America, sits atop a sheer-walled 367-foot sandstone bluff.
Surrounding it is a landscape of desert, mesas and blue sky, which served as muse for artists such as painter Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Ansel Adams. Today, some 50 tribal members still live here, selling their handmade crafts and providing stewardship for San Estevan del Rey Mission, completed in 1640 (how the Spanish priest got the American Indian residents to construct the mission’s roof is the New Mexican equivalent of how the Egyptian pharaohs got their slaves to build the pyramids).
A visit to the Sky City Cultural Center and its Haak’u Museum will help put the visit to Acoma in perspective, and teach you that mesas — such as the one that Acoma is built on — are sacred to the people of the pueblos.
It’s where, as they tell you, “Mother Earth meets Father Sky.”