I Choo-choo-choose Valentina’s

...and a mariachi band played, too

I don’t often get restaurant recommendations as strong as the one I received from a friend who recently told me that, “When my dad comes to visit, we go to Valentina’s, like, every single night.” But I did indeed hear and heed those words while trying to rustle up dinner the other night, and that is exactly where we went.

It’s not that I don’t know the place the Aboytes family built in the Solana Center, or have never been; more like I’d fallen into that Santa Fe trap of having a tiered list of favorite chile joints I tend to frequent. Still, I’ve long been a proponent of the fact that sometimes the best restaurants occupy unassuming spaces in unassuming strip malls, and owners Pedro and Carla Aboytes, who took over the restaurant from Pedro’s brother Alberto a couple years back—who himself named it for his daughter when he opened in 2013—keep it clean and easy.

We arrived at roughly 6 and were seated immediately. Perhaps this is early for dinner for most, and Valentina’s was still a little quiet, but our chile quest knew no bounds or time constraints. We were greeted warmly by a server wearing a totally cool Misfits tee, too, who told us to sit wherever we liked (we chose to sit indoors rather than on the patio—have you noticed it’s been getting a little chilly some nights?) and, within a couple minutes, found ourselves plied with guac and chips ($9.25 and it comes with salsa) and a sangria served in a chilled glass goblet ($6.50). More patrons wandered in as my companion referred to their drink as “the cutest sangria ever,” and I must admit that were I not a teetotaling dirtbag who would wake up with the type of hangover that could slay a walrus were I to even drink half a chilled goblet of wine-y, fruity sangria, I, too, might have imbibed: It was indeed the cutest ever, and looked like a delicious complement to the late summer evening. My companion had no trouble drinking it to completion, and a soft breeze blew in the open door while we munched our guacamole and salsa.

Rarely do I find myself stumped by menus anymore, as I usually have a plan of some kind before I arrive. At Valentina’s (945 W Alameda St., (505) 988-7165), the world is kind of your oyster thanks to a large selection covering Mexican food, New Mexican food, seafood, tortas and more. Say you want a chicharron burrito (which sounds awesome/who doesn’t?) or a stuffed sopaipilla—they’ve got that. Not that either of us ordered it, but the gringo torta with chicken, bacon and ham looked intriguing ($10.50, with fries) as did the torta cubana with chorizo ($13). You can even mix and match a variety of soft and crispy tacos if you like ($13-$13.99); you can get four freaking flautas on one plate ($14.75)! And, when it comes to the vegetarian combo plate, you’ll find a crispy avocado taco ($13.75 including cheese enchiladas, a chalupa and more). Well whaddya know? A vegetarian dish that actually sounds enticing.

In the end, my companion chose the beef crispy taco plate, a generous combination of three crunchy tacos, rice and beans and posole. At $12.99, Valentina’s was practically giving it away (by which I mean it’s a fair price), and though I didn’t say it out loud, I’d have demolished those beef tacos in a heartbeat given the chance. There was so much quality food on that plate, it was un-finishable. But as ever, you take what you can’t eat home and slap some eggs on it the next morning. Now that’s living.

I, meanwhile, continued my quest to eat pork at any restaurant that has it with the signature combination plate—a similarly generous dish that came with a pork tamale and a cheese enchilada, plus a soft al pastor taco on the side. For those unfamiliar with the porky goodness of al pastor, it’s often cooked with pineapple, which gives it a sweet and almost acidic quality that just plain works with spicier foods. At Valentina’s, the pork was so tender and its sweetness so subtle that I had to stop and think about whether I’d had a taco that good in some time. The answer was no, and whatever was left on that plate wound up scooped into my sopa, drizzled in honey and consumed with the heat and passion of a billion suns flaring into existence. Hyperbolic? Maybe so, but here we are days later and I’m screaming about Valentina’s at anyone who’ll listen—seriously, the people in my life are sick of hearing about it.

Valentina’s even had a mariachi band show up—on a Wednesday, no less, though we didn’t catch their band name—and they were excellent. Did I find it hard to converse at that point? I did. Do I consider it a negative? Nope. You know what you might pay for dinner and a show elsewhere? More than the 40-something bucks we spent, I’ll tell you that. I, meanwhile, shall chalk another win in the unassuming New Mexican/Mexican eatery tally I run in my head. Valentina’s is worth a trip anytime, and I almost can’t wait to wend my way through the rest of the menu.

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