THE WASHINGTON POST – Breaking Bad put Albuquerque on the fandom map. While visitors won’t meet Walter White, the New Mexico high school teacher who dabbled in the meth business, they can see his likeness all around town – on T-shirts, coffee mugs and Pez dispensers. At the Candy Lady, a confectionery in Old Town, you can even buy a baggie of the blue and white rock candy the shop created for the first two seasons of the TV drama.
However, I must confess that “Say my name” has no meaning for me. I have never watched the series, and my pop culture reference for Albuquerque is Doogie Howser. On my first outing to the Land of Enchantment’s largest city, I stopped by the restaurant owned by the parents of actor Neil Patrick Harris.
Ron, Sheila and I spent the whole time gabbing. Unfortunately, I will never be able to taste their food now; the establishment closed years ago. My next visit was a drive-through on Route 66. The city claims the largest intact urban section of the Mother Road.
I stretched my legs on a section in the Nob Hill neighbourhood, then high-tailed it to Santa Fe. I still feel guilty for the slight.
So for my most recent trip in November, I was going to do Albuquerque right, and do right by Albuquerque.
The city, which celebrated its tricentennial in 2006, holds tight to traditions steeped in Native American and Mexican cultures. Breaking Bad lasted five seasons, but the rock carvings at Petroglyph National Monument have been around for centuries.
Day of the Dead figurines, sugar skulls and Catrina are omnipresent, as are street tacos and huevos rancheros. The debate over red vs green chili is not as divisive as, say, red vs blue states. Restaurants always offer a third way called Christmas, a spoonful of both.
Exploring the city under a sky that seemingly has only two colours in its crayon box – blue and black – I met characters worthy of their own shows.
There was Chile Traditions owner Ken DeWees, who stocks the most unlikely chile-infused products, such as ketchup, olive oil and caramel popcorn. His decades-long purchase of fresh chiles from a farmer in Hatch, New Mexico, has helped put two of his colleague’s kids through college. And Pratt Morales, who treats his bakery, Golden Crown Panaderia, like a CrossFit gym: Instead of lifting medicine balls, he hoists bread shaped like a turkey. (The Great New Mexican Bake Off featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as guest judge.) And while the roadrunner and coyote have appeared on the small screen, maybe it’s time for a remake. Albuquerque can hold casting calls in the Sandia Mountains or Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. Seeing the archenemies in the wild is better than any Loony Tunes episode. It’s a “wow” moment, for sure, or as the Burqueños say, “Eeee!”
Before we ventured into the six galleries at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Jon Ghahate, a cultural educator, wanted to know which road I took to get there.
When I told him Indian School, his eyes lit up – the information bulb switching on – and the tour officially began. The street is named after the boarding schools the United States (US) government established in the late 19th Century to “kill the Indian and save the man”, said Ghahate, whose grandfather was forced to attend the first such institution in Pennsylvania. In one exhibit, an 1881 ledger from the Albuquerque Indian School shows two names per child: the Pueblo name and the new Euro-Anglo one. The centre focusses on the history and customs of the 19 pueblos of New Mexico, starting from pre-Columbian times.
“We had 2,000 years before Columbus,” Ghahate said. Exhibits change regularly, but ‘We Are of This Place: The Pueblo Story’, which opened in 2016 to mark the centre’s 40th anniversary, is permanent. One of Ghahate’s favourite displays allows guests to hear the different languages of the Pueblo communities. He played me a sample of Keres and Zuni, his parents’ native tongues.
On weekends, dancers perform in an outdoor amphitheater, which doubles as a marketplace for Native American artists. There is also a gift store with museum-quality art and the Pueblo Harvest restaurant, which uses ingredients from the aboriginal pantry and changes its menu with each solstice.
“The harrier has landed,” exclaimed a volunteer on a Sunday bird walk at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. The 38-acre park is busier than the Albuquerque airport, with winged bodies landing and taking off morning through night. The nature preserve, a stopping point along the Central Flyway, attracts about 300 species of birds, including seasonal guests and year-round residents. “He’s waking up,” the guide said as we watched a great blue heron perform avian sun salutations on a cottonwood branch.
Not all the sightings were feathered: We saw a coyote hungrily eyeing a flock of cranes, and a pair of hot-air balloons bobbing in the sky. Bikers and hikers passed by on trails that cut through the wetlands and bosque and over the silvery minnow channel to the sandy banks of the Rio Grande.
At the visitors centre, you can watch the pond action from an indoor viewing room or borrow binoculars for outdoor sleuthing. However, you won’t need magnification to spot the roadrunner darting around the parking lot, in the shadow of your car.
Petroglyph National Monument, a National Park Service site, contains more than 25,000 petroglyphs along a 17-mile-long escarpment, one of the largest collections of rock carvings in North America.
At the visitors centre, ask a staff member to cue up the 20-minute video that explained the backstory of the petroglyphs and their spiritual significance. Native Americans and early Spanish settlers etched the imagery of humans, animals, geometric shapes and symbols 400 to 700 years ago.
Despite their age, they look as sharp as if they were carved yesterday. Visitors can choose among three areas peppered with petroglyphs: Piedras Marcadas Canyon, which features more than 400 carvings on a 1.5-mile trail; Rinconda Canyon, which counts up to 300 depictions along a 2.2-mile trek; and Boca Negra Canyon, where 100 images adorn a steep path that requires the climbing skills of a bighorn sheep.
Scrambling over basalt boulders, I saw figures with animated expressions, footprints, spirals and a snake – thankfully sketched into the rock and not slithering my way.
Up, up, up goes the Sandia Peak Tramway, to the tippy-top of the Sandia Mountains. The ride takes only 15 minutes – the mechanism moves at 20 feet per second – but the views are eternal. Go during the day to take advantage of the hiking trails and ski and snowboard runs at Sandia Peak Ski Area. Or wait till sunset to watch the sky ignite with colour as the city lights flicker on like fireflies.
Since its inaugural ride in May 1966, the two-car tram has transported more than 11 million passengers over the 1,000-foot-deep canyon with no cushion below. Before boarding, check out the ski museum, which includes a Hall of Fame and vintage equipment, but save your appetite for Ten 3, the new restaurant at the peak. Each ride comes with an attendant who provides interesting facts about the operation and will answer questions, no matter how silly they might seem. On my ride, one passenger asked about the temperature difference between the top and bottom; another wanted to know the thickness of the glass and whether the tram has ever crashed. At Ten 3, the fine dining section requires a reservation.
For four years, nearly 10 food and drink establishments have been in residence at Green Jeans Farmery, a two-storey tower of shipping containers. Depending on where you enter the dining playground, you might start with dessert. Nitro Fog Creamery whips up liquid nitrogen ice cream right before your eyes. When the smoke clears, your cup of matcha green tea pistachio or Himalayan salted caramel is ready.
For an entree, choices include tacos at Rockin’ Taco, Southwestern fare at Chumlys, gourmet burgers and fries at Rustic on the Green and Amore Neapolitan Pizzeria, which offers a New Mexico-style pizza category. Grab a table in the central courtyard, which is warmed by a firepit and the bonhomie of friendly strangers.
At Golden Crown Panaderia, if you give a customer a free cookie – specifically, a biscochito – she will most likely order several more in different flavours, plus a loaf of bread or two. The legendary bakery and its equally illustrious owner, Morales, have been doling out baked goods since 1972. When I visited on a weekday afternoon, Morales, an age-defying octogenarian, was kneading a mound of blackstrap molasses dough for a batch of marranitos-shaped Mexican cookies.
“We make a lot of cookies shaped like shells, coyotes, rocks, trees and horse hoofs,” he said. He handed me a blue corn biscochito, the state cookie, which I chewed on during his presentation of green chile bread.
He lifted the loaf head-high and traced the edible coyote and moon on top. For a holiday or special meal requiring a bird, Morales will bake a turkey-shaped bread that you can stuff with any fixing of your choice.
About 90 per cent of his recipes have local origins, including the empanadas, which skew fruity. If you have a savoury tooth, order a pizza made with a blue corn or green chile crust, a solid foundation for the five-protein Golden Crown Big Meat.
The owners of Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm are committed to preserving the agricultural legacy of their 25-acre ranch, which once stretched all the way to the Sandia Mountains. Two years ago, the 50-room inn opened Campo – the Spanish word for “field” – in a restored dairy building that retains its original concrete floors, complete with drain and rough patches.
The breakfast and dinner menus delve into Rio Grande Valley cuisine, a genre created by the property and its executive chef, Jonathan Perno, a repeat James Beard Award nominee.
The dishes weave together many influences, such as Mexican, Native American and the Simms family, the previous owners who built the dairy, nursery and other agri-operations.
The restaurant supports local farms but goes to the Atlantic and Pacific for its fish. However, the prickly pear on the hamachi will reestablish the sense of place. The farm grows lavender, which flavours the chicken breast and perfumes the restroom toiletries. An on-site store sells lavender products, so you can bring a sprig of Los Poblanos home with you.
On a Monday morning, a waitress pointed out the regulars at Duran Central Pharmacy. Her finger landed on everyone but me. For the easily distracted, the restaurant, which is tucked inside a pharmacy and gift shop, can take a minute to find.
Follow the crowd veering left, toward the wall of kitchen towels, and not right, unless you have a prescription to fill. The weekday rush starts at about 11am. A half-hour before the anointed hour, I found a seat at the counter, where I could watch an employee roll, pat and grill tortillas the size of a steering wheel.
The huevos rancheros is one of the most popular items on the menu, followed by the bowl of chili, the enchiladas, and the combo plate, a sampler platter with one taco, one tamale, one enchilada, beans, and red or green chili. For chili novices, the staff will bring you a taste of each, so you can decide whether you are a green, a red or a Christmas. Once you know your chile leanings, you are one step closer to becoming a Duran regular.
For more than 40 years, Blue Portal has been providing seniors with a gallery of their own. The gift shop in Old Town is run by the Assistance League, a non-profit that aids families, children and older residents through a variety of programmes.
About 400 artists show three or four items each in the former adobe residence. All the contributors are age 55 or older. One of the eldest participants, 90-year-old Nellie Austin, died a few years ago, but her son is carrying on his mother’s work, sewing red velvet chiles. The artists, who set their own prices, receive 100 per cent of the proceeds.
Belita Clover, who owns the Octopus and the Fox, asks customers to do more than just support local artists. According to the store’s business card, she needs us to help “keep Albuquerque cooler than Portland”. Consider it done. Octofox is home to about 40 New Mexican artists who fit Clover’s criteria of being “affordable, fun, colourful and playful”. Thomas Tomlinson creates laser-cut wood hangings of Southwestern subjects like cow skulls and roadrunners. Clover, who specialises in screen printing, adorns tops, totes and tea towels with such winsome illustrations as a low rider paired with the words “Nuevo Mexico” and lovestruck hares in a hot-air balloon.
Plant assassins can fill their flower boxes with crocheted cactuses, and literati can rethink the classics with Jason L Witter’s illustrated reinterpretations of Moby Dick and Hamlet among other titles. If you need head coverage, pick up a knitted hat with a detachable pompom – one for each snow day. Dryland Wilds captures the true scent of New Mexico by imbuing its soaps, perfumes and lip tints with such native flora as sagebrush, snakeweed, rosehip and thistle. If your car smells like your missing tuna sandwich, hang a roasted green chile air freshener on the rearview mirror and inhale.
Masks Y Mas, an emporium with a phantasmagoric mural out front and controlled chaos inside, is true to its name: It sells masks from around the world (Africa, Indonesia, Mexican luche libra wrestling arenas) and specialises in New Mexican and Mexican art, souvenirs (high, low and uni-brow), clothing, and home decor. You will see many familiar faces, such as Day of the Dead figures, sugar skulls and Catrina, the godmother of Occupy Wall Street, as well as some new ones, including a gangsta Chihuahua by artist El Moises.
One glass case contains alebrijes, painted papier-mache creatures inspired by dreams; another holds skeletal mermaids and Elvis figurines made of cornmeal. (Don’t put them in direct sunlight or add them to your muffin mix.) If Jeff Spicoli is your fashion muse, pick up a Baja hoodie. Or if Frida Kahlo is more your style, expand your wardrobe with some colourfully embroidered tops and flouncy skirts. The handmade wood furniture sprinkled around the store is also for sale – all the better to show off your Day of the Dead diorama of Kiss, the all-bones band.
DeWees started selling fresh chiles on a street corner before moving indoors in 2000 with his peppery shop, Chile Traditions. As an orientation, he will provide a quick lesson on the two types of chilis.
Simply put, a red chili is a green chile left to ripen on the stem – a green all grown up. DeWees buys his supply from a farmer in Hatch, about 190 miles south of Albuquerque. “New Mexico is the chili capital of the world. I don’t care what Pueblo says,” he said, referring to the Colorado town’s recent claim on the fruit.
The season runs from August 1 through the first freeze, typically around Halloween, but DeWees stocks whole, unpeeled chiles in a walk-in freezer. Though his supply starts to run out in June, you can fill the lean weeks with any number of chile products: salsa, olive oil, ketchup, honey, popcorn, peanut brittle, jelly, chocolate, lollipops, jerky, pistachios (another local product) and his latest discovery, pickles. If you start to fall for the chile, like a true Burqueño, show your love by hanging a pequin red chile heart on your front door.
A new generation of guests can get kicks at El Vado Motel, one of the foremost lodgings from the Route 66 era.
The auto court, which opened in 1937, fell into disrepair when motorists started to abandon the Mother Road for the national highway system. Even the building’s National Register of Historic Places designation in 1993 couldn’t slow its decline.
But last year, El Vado stirred back to life as a boutique motel that retained many of its original designs, such as its Spanish Pueblo Revival architecture, its vigas (timber ceilings) and its neon sign. The carports are gone but not forgotten: They live on as eight suites.
The 22 rooms huddle around the pool and El Vado Plaza, which draws locals and guests with its fireplace, live bands and “food pods”.
Instead of the same old hotel restaurant, diners can mix it up at seven takeout spots including Happy Chickenzz, Rude Boy Cookies and Buen Provecho. For an indoor mural, the motel is collecting licence plates from states along Route 66. Only the section for New Mexico reads “You Are Here”.
Hotel Chaco looked 160 miles west and a millennium ago for inspiration. The Old Town hotel pays tribute to Chaco Canyon, the ancient ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who were master builders and engineers.
The hotel incorporated materials and building principles found in the Great Houses, such as using sandstone blocks for the exterior and aligning the 118-room hotel to the passage of the sun.
Guests are greeted by Avanyu, a Tewa water serpent immortalised on the front doors, and staff dressed in stylish uniforms by Patricia Michaels, the Native American designer who competed on Project Runway.
The hotel champions contemporary Native American artists, displaying works by more than 23 painters, sculptors, weavers, glass blowers and potters.
At Level 5, the top-floor restaurant that serves from morning to night, the main masterpiece is the natural landscape.
Eat indoors or out, around firepits that insulate against the chilly desert air. With no humidity, you will feel like a lizard in a tanning bed. To hydrate, swim in the pool, catch the mist off the meditation garden’s water feature or guzzle a glass of cota. The Navajo tea, which the staff sets out at the lobby bar, promises health benefits beyond quenching a wicked thirst.
Though Nob Hill claims a significant stretch of Route 66, the neighbourhood does not pander to nostalgia. Sure, you’ll see neon on Central Avenue, but instead of jukebox diners and drive-ins, you’ll find a long strip of contemporary establishments. For example, grab a bang or beard trim and a vegan burger at the salon-cafe Laru Ni Hati and Cafe Cubano. Or catch an arty movie at the Guild Cinema, a former adult movie house that has come a long way, baby. Or join the global movement with a Bollywood or Afro-Cuban folkloric class at Maple Street Dance Space.
At Toad Road, the men’s and women’s clothing and accessories look vintage but are never-used, with the exception of the upcycled hoodies, T-shirts and totes constructed from recycled feed bags. The few throwbacks receive a modern-day makeover. The candy apples at ChocolateDude come in such updated flavours as pine nut caramel and dark chocolate sea salt.
A bronze statue of Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, the Spanish-appointed governor who established Villa de Alburquerque (note the extra “r”) in 1706, welcomes visitors to Old Town, the city’s first neighbourhood.
With the exception of cars instead of horses, the historic district does not look much different from Valdés’s time. Adobe structures housing art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants line narrow lanes that lead to any number of surprises.
A non-linear museum row covers general (art, history, science) and specific subjects. On the main plaza, artisans set up their wares on the sidewalk by La Placita restaurant.
For the holidays, thousands of luminarias cast their light heavenward. Breaking Bad tours leave from here, as do ghost walks. However, you don’t need to sign up for a tour to meet a specter. According to an employee at High Noon Restaurant and Saloon, a thoughtful ghost once hitched the door latch for a male patron using the lavatory.