Every year, nearly a million people — including plenty of Santa Feans and roughly 600,000 out-of-staters — flock to Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta, which kicks off again this weekend. Whether you’re planning to stand on the field during the Glowdeo or watch the Mass Ascension from the rooftop or balcony of your hotel, the pageantry of the event is singular and captivating. For a few brief hours, it’ll take your mind off almost everything else, including food. When the sky has temporarily cleared and those hunger pangs kick in, the fairway offers quick-and-easy solutions, but a girl can’t live on fry bread and mini Tom Thumb cinnamon doughnuts alone. The Duke City offers a wide variety of options for delicious off-the-field nosh, from classic New Mexican to Vietnamese. Here’s a guide to some of our favorite spots.
In advance of its reopening on St. Michael’s Drive, beloved Santa Fe Bite has brought its green-chile-cheeseburger magic to the Burque. Santa Fe Bite ABQ (3407 Central Ave. NE, 505-369-1621, santafebite.com) snapped up a prime Nob Hill spot not far from the University of New Mexico campus, and the menu’s much the same as it was before the Bite closed up shop in the fall of 2018. That means burgers in three sizes, fiery green chile, house-made chips, killer onion rings, and even some salads and a wicked-good oversized fried-chicken sandwich (which may sate your desire to participate in the Twitter war between Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A). The décor consists primarily of Coca-Cola and Route 66 paraphernalia along with a giant mural depicting the downtown Albuquerque skyline. A beer and wine license has yet be secured, but the burgers are good as ever.
Normally I’d scoff at a restaurant that calls its food “elevated,” but the self-assuredness is earned in the case of Coda Bakery (230-C Louisiana Blvd. SE, 505-232-0085). Just across the parking lot from ABQ’s destination grocery, Talin Market, this sleek and efficient space offers more than a dozen variations on the ultimate fusion sandwich, the bánh mì, made on what is arguably the best baguette in the city, if not the state. I can’t leave town without one chockablock with house-made tofu along with the other standard stuffings: pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeño, and Vietnamese mayo. Why not take home an extra baguette while you’re at it?
Duran’s Central Pharmacy (1815 Central Ave. NW, 505-247-4141, duransrx.com) is an actual drug store where you can pick up a souvenir and some sunscreen on your way to the soda-fountain-style café. Here, New Mexico versions of the blue plate special are slathered with some of the best, scalp-sweatingest red chile in the state. Though they do a stand-up job of swaddling a variety of burritos, the angelically flaky and cloudlike house-made flour tortillas really need no more adornment than butter. Across town to the northeast, the pharmacy’s sister restaurant, Duran’s Station (4201 Menaul Blvd. NE, 505-830-0007, durans-station.business.site), features a similar menu — both include the aptly named Torpedo (a potato, chile, and cheese burrito). I can’t help but think the Duran family chose this decommissioned fire station to remind us all that “five-alarm” chile-with-an-E is a thing.
Few scenes are more Albuquerque-iconic and idyllic than the patio at El Pinto (10500 4th St. NW, 505-898-1771, elpinto.com). This cottonwood-shaded spot is less than two miles from the balloon fiesta grounds, so it’s a breeze to sip a margarita and nosh on some chips and salsa as balloons float by. You can grab a jar of salsa on your way out, too.
The glorious cooler weather of fall is just right for sitting in the bright, open courtyard of the recently overhauled Route 66-era El Vado Motel (2500 Central Ave. SW, 505-361-1667, elvadoabq.com/restaurants), where you have your pick of burgers, chicken in various forms, pizza, some muy rico Latin American food from Buen Provecho, and beer from Ponderosa Brewing — not to mention coffee, ice cream, and cookies. Patio misting keeps things pleasantly cool in the heat of midday, and if temps drop considerably in the evening, you can cuddle up by the fireplace in the taproom.
For more than a decade, Farina (510 Central Ave. SE, 505-243-0130, farinapizzeria.com) has been widely considered one of the Duke City’s best and most inventive pizzerias. It’s a cozy space with close-knit tables and a curvy mod bar, and though you’ll face a wait if you arrive at prime time on a popular night, every wood-fired bite is worth it. Our go-tos are the fiber- and flavor-filled chopped salad, the Pepe Caldo pizza (broccollini, hot peppers, and ricotta, caciocavallo, and mozzarella cheese), and the butterscotch budino — a sweet, creamy Italian dessert much like pudding. If you’re up in the Heights, visit the outpost there, Farina Alto (10721 Montgomery Blvd. NE, 505-298-0035, farinaalto.com). What it lacks in quirky charm, it makes up for in spaciousness and number of seats, which usually translate to a much shorter wait — or none at all.
Maybe you grew up in the South, maybe you’re a Roscoe’s-loving expat from L.A., or maybe you just have the good sense to appreciate soul food. Whatever the reason, hustle over to Frank’s Famous Chicken & Waffles (400 Washington St. SE, 505-712-5109) for the eponymous offerings, which range from small and sensible (two wings and a waffle) to almost incomprehensible (12 wings and two waffles). The menu also includes a glorious variety of other fried delights (pickles, okra, and catfish among them) and brilliant stewed greens that get their smolder from hunks of smoked turkey. If Frank’s is packed — or if you prefer your Southern comfort with a tasty local beer — check out what’s happening at one of three Nexus Brewery locations (4730 Pan American Freeway NE, 505-424-4100; 2641 Coors Blvd. NW, 505-226-1055; 1511 Broadway Blvd. SE, 505-445-1545; nexusbrewery.com). This is my old reliable for collard greens and fried catfish.
Speaking of beer, the ABQ scene is as booming as ever. Bosque Brewing (bosquebrewing.com) is crafting some of the best cerveza in the state, and at either of their two Albuquerque-area locations — in Nob Hill (106-B Girard Blvd. SE, 505-508-5967) and Bernalillo (834 U.S. 550, 505-361-1876) — you can sample their extremely well-balanced IPA, a popular sweet-tart wheat named Elephants on Parade, or the thirst-quenching Pistol Pete’s 1888 Ale, among others. The Bernalillo location offers plentiful alfresco sitting space, while the Nob Hill location puts you closer to the center of the Albuquerque action.
You have other options for enjoying a local brew with a view. Steel Bender Brewyard (8305 2nd St. NW, 505-433-3537, steelbenderbrewyard.com), which is practically around the corner from the fiesta field, hosts Balloons & Brews every morning, and you should keep in mind that their kitchen walked away with the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown (a pint of their Compa lager makes a nice partner). The patio at the original Canteen Brewhouse (2381 Aztec Road NE, 505-881-2737, canteenbrewhouse.com) offers sunny and shady spots to enjoy New Mexico’s fine fresh air. Soak up a Flashback IPA or a High Plains Pils with the ever-so-frankly named “Beer Sponge,” an outsize soft pretzel that’s nice when paired with Lusty Monk chipotle mustard. You’ll get a nearly unparalleled panorama at Level 5, on the rooftop of the Hotel Chaco (2000 Bellamah Ave. NW, 505-246-9989, hotelchaco.com), where the menu includes local beers as well as a half-dozen sparkling wines from New Mexico’s celebrated Gruet Winery.
Los Poblanos (4803 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, 505-344-9297, lospoblanos.com) — the historic 25-acre farm and inn in the North Valley — is an intoxicating getaway that seems like the love child of Albuquerque and Provence. Campo, the stalwartly farm-to-fork restaurant, is helmed by James Beard-nominated chef Jonathan Perno. Day or night, the food blends subtle creativity with a hat tip to regional traditions: There’s a breakfast cazuela made with bolita beans, a tostada topped with Tucumcari feta, a ribeye and lamb mole, both locally sourced, and an option to lily-gild your cheese plate with a drizzle of 21-year-old barrel-aged balsamic vinegar made in the historic village of Monticello. Lest you forget this is actually a farm, a brilliant peacock might parade by the dining room window, or some beautifully mottled guinea fowl might be your welcoming committee right outside the door. The bar serves beer, wine, and inventive cocktails, which you may discover if you neglect to make a reservation — you may even need one for brunch.
Salt & Board (115 Harvard Drive SE, Suite 9, 505-219-2001, saltandboard.com) has a clean, open “urban farmhouse” feel, and it’s an ideal stop if you’re not ready to commit to a whole pizza or a platter of enchiladas. Which isn’t to say they can’t assuage heftier appetites. The five-cheese board includes substantial portions of fromage along with fig jam, olives, house-made pickles, mustard, apricot mostarda, marcona almonds, and crostini. Add a few salads to the mix, and you’ve got a lovely light meal that can satisfy six.
If you find yourself awake and hungry during the wee hours, stop by Last Call (420 Central Ave. SW, 505-300-4911; 102 Richmond Drive NE, 505-369-6102; 6261-A1 Riverside Plaza Lane, 505-717-1207; lastcallabq.com) for righteous fish tacos or a Cali-style burrito, with fries stuffed into your tortilla for good measure.
If you can’t bear to go a single meal without food from one of your Santa Fe favorites, the Albuquerque outpost of Tomasita’s (4949 Pan American Freeway NE, 505-344-1204, tomasitas.com) is there for you, serving all the dishes you know and love — including the infamous Randy Travis Plate. ◀