The usually humble Río Embudo is a frothing water-god intent on getting its flow as fast as it can down to the Rio Grande-and, like every other runoff-swollen tributary, it's causing many a headache for the norteños. Estevan Arellano, mayordomo of the Embudo acequia, is fending off irate parciantes (the ditch can't handle the massive melt from the Sangres) while engineers scratch their heads for a solution. It'll be a multi-tasking day for Arellano. He's not only the ditch boss, but also runs the recently opened La Charola restaurant just a few yards away ***image1***from the churning waters. Inside the handsome two-story adobe that houses the eatery, locals and tourists-farmers, rafters, painters, bed & breakfast patrons-sit down to a culinary experience that, like the Rio Grande, makes a singular flow from its far-flung sources.
My wife Angela and I are newcomers to the area (we live in Velarde) and while we often indulge in New Mexican cuisine, the local offerings were starting to depress us in their monotony (how many times can you order the carne adovada plate at Rancho de Chimayó?) and in their lack of fresh greens (the general rule being lackluster side salads). Sure, you can head up north to Joseph's Table in Taos for the hyper-nouvelle (chiote citrus-marinated, organic-grilled quail on pecan quinoa!) and hope to get seated near Julia Roberts' table (and pay for the experience). But there has clearly been something missing up here: a place of both tradition and innovation, where the enchiladas don't look and taste like they come off an assembly line, where the aesthetic atmosphere avoids Ansel Adams or Mexican-American clichés.
La Charola is that place, and the Arellano clan the one to pull it off. Estevan, the longtime local writer (and former director of the Oñate Center in Alcalde), greets you at the door in jean jacket with his Hispano-activist intensity (ask him for his opinion on land grants, heirloom seeds, the new Popé statue and assorted bits of local history, like the time Baby Face Nelson hopped off the Chili Line in Embudo). Matriarch Elena (who, with two other norteñas founded the LLC for the restaurant) is now a librarian at San Juan Pueblo and the keeper of several culinary secrets (including the astonishing red chile pork tamales). First-born son Javier, an up-and-coming filmmaker, wears the chef's uniform in the kitchen. Daughter Unica Paloma, soon to head off to college in Las Cruces, works the tables and youngest son Carlos is the shortstop, lending a hand wherever it's needed.
On a recent Sunday morning visit, the family sat with me for a brunch of huevos rancheros (yolk consistency perfect-just runny enough-and the tortillas, swathed in ***image2***oil and chile, melted in my mouth). And we talked food, which is to say we talked history-all the more in the case of La Charola. The Arellanos, like most norteño families, are acutely aware their place in it. Estevan talks with gusto of his Mexican, Native, Spanish and Moorish roots; he's on a mission to deconstruct the longtime Hispano romance of all things "Spanish." A typical Estevan-ism (I'll leave it in his Spanglish rendition): "La herencia morizca se mezcló con la mexicana, pero siempre agarran los españoles el crédito [The Moorish heritage mixed with the Mexican, but the Spaniards took all the credit]. It was more profound than that. Like the acequia system, it originated where Pakistan and Afghanistan are today, and then traveled to the Iberian peninsula, then to Mexico, then up the Camino Real."
And here's that Moorish heritage on the Charola menu, in the dessert section: arroz con leche (the luscious pudding of rice, milk, butter, sugar, cinnamon) and the capirotada (bread and raisins smothered in a concoction of butter, cheese and brown sugar). And here's the "Native" blending with the "Mexican," in the enchiladas de quelite (spinach, $8.95). And just about all the traditions come together (and take a quasi-nouvelle leap) in one of La Charola's signature dishes, the Pollo Embudeño: grilled chicken breast rubbed with local apricot sauce, topped with green chile, white cheese and sliced almonds, served with mushroom-and-herb rice ($12.50). Vegetarians are welcomed with the olive and fresh bread appetizer, the eggplant-tomato-mushroom- onion-jack cheese sandwich, the fantastic ensalada de quelite (the freshest locally grown spinach, sprinkled with walnuts and tossed in a raspberry vinaigrette) ***image3***and tamales de calabacitas (squash, $8.95). The pinto beans, by the way, are cooked in olive oil, not lard, and suffer nothing for it.
Accenting the ambience, paintings by Rick Martínez and Ken Macdonald, photographs by Lou Malchie and Ruby Martínez's tinwork line the walls. Given Estevan's experience as cultural organizer, there promises to be a steady flow of art and also live performance-there's a stage at the far end of the large main dining room perfect for a norteño serenade.
History, of course, is as much a source of pain as of pride in northern New Mexico-and at La Charola, the reconciliation of distinct and often opposed traditions is the order of the day. Let's complicate the subject of our identities, the menu and the art and the Arellano family seem to be saying. Let's build a place to sit down together-a place to be one and many at once.
And above all, enjoy the food. Estevan envisions a place where you take your time while eating. "It's a slow-food place," he says, "where food is appreciated and enjoyed."
Copyright 2005 by Ruben Martinez. By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services., New York City and Lamy, NM. All rights reserved.