A friend fondly remembers bringing her children to eat at Jessie Martinez’s small storefront café in the center of Española several decades ago. La Cocina was family-friendly then and — 49 years, three locations, and three generations later — it’s still family-owned and operated, and still family-friendly. Visit at any time and you will find multigenerational groups with numerous small children scattered among the six dining rooms. The rooms, each with its own name and distinctive décor, reinforce the homey feeling of this Northern New Mexico institution that now seats close to 200 people.
Every meal starts with complimentary chips and salsa. Made in-house from corn tortillas, the chips are thick enough to scoop up the juicy, rough-cut cooked tomato salsa spiced up with bits of raw jalapeño and onion. Not the usual finely diced dip, the salsa reminds me of the kind Margaret Campos made from her home-canned tomatoes at Algo Nativo, her family farm in Embudo. If you like the chips as much as we do, you can take home a sizeable bag for $2.25.
The large menu calls out breakfast choices, appetizers, salmon and shrimp, New Mexico lamb, steaks, carnitas, fajitas, sandwiches, salads, ice cream floats, and chile-free plates for kids under 10. There’s a small selection of all-American comfort foods, like a pot roast plate, burgers, and chicken-fried steak. The chicken-fried steak comes in either an 8-ounce ($11.95) or 6-ounce ($9.99) portion, with a side of chunky mashed potatoes (skins included), calabacitas, and a choice of creamy white or brown gravy. It’s an excellent rendition of the culinary icon officially claimed by the state of Texas — although it more likely originated in restaurants in Kansas and Colorado.
The Classic La Cocina Burger ($11.95) piles two 6-ounce ground beef patties atop a bun, along with a slice of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, roasted green chile, avocado, and more thick-cut bacon than I’ve ever seen on a burger. The height of the stack and the overflowing toppings require some thought — and maybe an engineering degree — to get it from plate to mouth. There is much meat here, but it doesn’t take center stage. All the elements play nicely, and deliciously, together. The burger comes with fries, soup, or salad, or you can substitute meltingly tender, thick-cut, breaded and fried onion rings for an additional $1.50.
Although the menu is tilted in favor of carnivores, it’s also vegetarian-friendly. There’s a tofu scramble ($11.25), and many of the dishes can be prepared without animal flesh. The green chile and refried beans are both meatless.
There are more than 20 choices on the “Traditional Favorites” side of La Cocina’s menu. Some are Northern New Mexico workhorses and some are more unusual. The huge guacamole and chicharrón burrito ($14.75) is a case in point. The ultra-creamy guac, rolled in a flour tortilla, punctuated with salty, crunchy nibs of fried pork rind, and topped with red and green chile is a quirky textural treat.
Enchiladas (starting at $12.75) filled with a choice of cheese, beef, chicken, or carne adovada, come rolled or flat. Some say the harder-to-find flat, stacked enchiladas are less typical of New Mexico than the rolled version, but a note in Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert’s Historic Cookery: Authentic New Mexican Food, first published in 1931, claims the authentic New Mexican way to make enchiladas is to layer two chile-sauce-dipped tortillas with grated cheese and chopped onion, pour more chile over it all, and top the stack with yet more grated cheese — exactly the way La Cocina does it. You can put an egg on it for an additional $1.25.
Many New Mexican restaurants prepare their green chile enchilada sauce like a somewhat smooth, slightly thickened gravy. La Cocina serves its chopped, roasted green chile straight up so the flavor can shine through. Our server said the chile comes from Chimayó and Hatch, but the logo for Albuquerque-based Bueno Foods featured prominently at the entrance and on several pages of the menu makes it more likely that it is sourced from a variety of chile-growing New Mexico communities.
Pollo Estilo La Cocina ($11.95 with one chicken breast; $14.95 for two) floated a tender grilled chicken breast atop a pool of chile con queso over a blue corn tortilla. More of that excellent green chile and cheese blanketed the chicken. The pinto beans and calabacitas on the side were also just right. “If I lived in Española,” my companion sighed, “I could eat here every night.”
A build-your-own combo plate is a great way to sample a number of dishes that show up in different guises across the menu. We chose a four-way combo ($14.50) that included a rolled cheese enchilada, chicken taco, red chile-pork tamale, and carne adovada, sided with posole and refried beans. The tamales are not made in house but are dense and flavorful, with the rough feel of handmade dough and filling. The adovada is tender without being mushy; shreds of pork in the posole add flavor and texture. Rough-hewn, house-made flour tortillas ($0.95 for three) are available on request.
If you are in need of comfort — and who isn’t these days — take the half-hour drive from Santa Fe to Española. La Cocina’s homestyle cooking will make your tongue and tummy happy — and grateful to grandma Jessie Martinez. ◀