A sign posted in the entryway warns they are not responsible for the hotness of their chile. A second one invites patrons to take advantage of free overflow parking at neighboring Cheeks, and a slogan printed on their menu, panza llena, corazón contento (full belly, happy heart), completes the message trifecta. Welcome to Café Castro (2811 Cerrillos Road, 473-5800), a humble eatery that serves up regional goods on the regular, and elevates homegrown—covered in Technicolor, and oozing down your chin New Mexican goodness—to the sphere of haute cuisine.
There's no going wrong by ordering anything here. Feel adventurous? Build-your-own meal á la carte, or let fate do the picking and order the daily special (Saturday's 10-ounce sirloin carne asada is boss and only sets you back $9.50).
As for me, I usually start off with a large orange juice ($2.50), a Creamsicle-hued concoction whose contents I'm not really sure about. It tastes like part Tang, part Jarritos and all goodness. On a recent visit, I juxtaposed it with the rich and hearty guac and chips ($5.50), a starter feast built for two (but in my case devoured by one), while wide-eyed, I perused the menu and opted for the enchilada plate ($9)—two smothered chicken enchiladas, topped with an egg, because why not? And accompanied by beans, posole and the never-enough house rice.
I get busy Instagramming my appetizer and making out-of-town friends jealous. There's a succinct appeal New Mexican food carries with it past our borders, and trust me, no one does it better than owners Julia and Carlos Castro. My social media bonanza is aided by slow jams of my youth in the able vocal cords of Ana Gabriel, Rocío Dúrcal and Joan Sebastian, whose broken-heart anthem, "Recuérdame Bonito," almost made me dry a lone tear with a piece of fluffy sopaipilla.
My entrée meets its maker, and in a full state of melancholy, I chow down. The sturdy enchiladas hold their own, drenched in some of the smokiest red around, and the gingerly stacked compartments of sides quickly mesh into a delectable sloppy New Mexican symphony.
Julia, who can often be found bussing tables, managing floor staff and ringing customers up, says her favorite dish is menudo. "It's special. I don't give it to myself very often; maybe once every two months," she tells me between chews. As far as Carlos goes, he's a stickler for the fajitas, and as Julia puts it, he also "makes his own concoctions. We don't order off the menu."
Balance is a big thing at Castro's. Every single item on the menu has been curated by the owners and reflects a long-standing tradition.
"The truth?" Julia says when asked about the origins of their recipes. "The very truth? These recipes were all Tomasita Leyba's from Tomasita's. That's where he learned to cook," she continues, nodding at her husband. "Of course, they've become his over the years, because we haven't worked for them for 30 years."
Decades into it, their flavors and their own relationship remain solid.
"It's not hard working with him," Julia says. "He's in the back, and I'm in the front. If he gets in my way, I'll go get in his way in the kitchen," she concludes with a chuckle.