Any place that alludes to a Bogart film has to have something going for itself. El Tesoro, "the treasure" of Sierra Madre Street, opened in 1991 with wit, flair and a modest, tasty menu that emphasized New Mexico cooking rather than the Tex-Mex hybrid so common elsewhere. We decided on a revisit recently to see how things were going.
The adobe warmth of the Southwestern style building remains as calming as always. Decorative tiles and cushioned benches along the central fireplace, wood and stucco details throughout, and sunlit windows all add to an ambience that makes one want to linger. The walls are a changing gallery of art; the current exhibit by Lorraine Danzo and Deb Komitor includes brightly colored still-life watercolors from interesting angles and perspectives and imaginative and dramatic clayworks. An added bonus, whether intentional or inadvertent, is the compatibility of artworks and interior space. It all works together.
Both the lunch and dinner menus feature enchiladas, soft tacos and burritos made with blue corn or flour tortillas and topped with green or red chile ($9.50-$12 at dinner, $6.50-$8.75 at lunch). We tried and were disappointed by both chiles. Simple cuisine often requires the most time and the best ingredients in order to be successful. The green chile had a glutinous soupiness and seemed to use canned chiles. The red chile tasted of chili powder used as a shortcut instead of the time-consuming roux a decent chile deserves. The menu described the Adovado Burrito as filled with pork marinated and baked in pureed Ancho chiles, but tasted otherwise. Under that disappointing red chile, wrapped in a tortilla was pretty bland shredded pork with no suggestion of the complexity an Ancho marinade would have provided.
On the plus side, the accompanying posole and black beans were terrific, as was the Tomatillo Shrimp ($15.95), one of the special dinner entrees sampled on another visit. The tomatillo salsa on the shrimp uses fresh tomatillos, those no-relation, tomato look-alikes. Another dinner special, Chicken Enchiladas ($13.95), tops green chile and cheese with a dollop of cooked tomatillo sauce, a nice enhancement to the green chile.
My dining companion and I started with the Mango Quesadillas ($6) appetitzer. The other available appetizer is Ceviche, lime-marinated seafood, available for $5.50. The mango was canned and the cilantro that might have enlivened the dish was missing. We asked for some chopped cilantro and got a ramekin of whole leaf cilantro which added some flair to the quesadillas. We still left most of them uneaten.
I should add that on this occasion we sat outside and marveled at the mismatched awnings and dangling lights. In a town hungry for al fresco dining, this could be called the Afterthought Patio.
The lunch menu offers some lighter fare not available in the evening: bowls of posole or chile verde. On one luncheon visit we tried the Spinach and Mushroom Burrito ($7.50). Two flour tortillas were lightly filled with fresh spinach and mushrooms sauteed in wine. Were it not for the green chile on top, these would have been at home in a French creperie. Very tasty, very rich. For an additional charge you can add posole, pinto beans or black beans.
Also for an additional charge you can get chips and salsa (complimentary at dinner; $2.50 at lunch), extra salsa, sour cream, or extra chips. It always seems a little cheesy (as it were) to charge for such items given what one is paying for the meal -- not unlike $200-a-night hotels that charge 50 cents for local phone calls.
Service on all visits was friendly and competent. At lunchtime an emergency had called one waitress away, leaving one young woman to do it all: greet and seat people, pour water, take orders, check up on diners, clear plates and take payments. She handled it all with nervous aplomb and graciousness.
Impressive service, lovely interior setting, haphazard outside space, generally adequate but unimpressive food. If we're content to enjoy great food in questionable settings (who doesn't have a favorite greasy spoon?), maybe for the regulars at El Tesoro the opposite is true. They go for the lovely, relaxing physical space and don't mind paying extra for a second serving of salsa.