Culinary invention: Zacatlán artfully blends Southwestern, Mexican influences – Albuquerque Journal

Perhaps the best churro you ever had is waiting for you at Zacatlán on Aztec Street. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

Over the past six months, I’ve read a lot of existential hand-wringing by food writers about the future of restaurant reviewing. I’ve certainly done my share of wrestling with the contradictions of encouraging folks to try new places during quarantine.

On a recent visit, I watched my dining companion’s eyes pop wide at a sugar- and spice-encrusted bite of what he promptly named “the best churro I’ve ever had.” All remaining qualms about pandemic reviewing melted into the dipping ramekin of sweet cajeta caramel on the table.

At Zacatlán, a Southwest-meets-Mexico venture on Aztec Street, former Coyote Café executive chef Eduardo Rodriguez is resurrecting the pure pleasure of culinary invention. It might just be our civic duty to enjoy a visit, then go back again. Zacatlán is the first COVID-era restaurant to come along where I’ve felt the urge to eat all the way through the menu.

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Rodriguez is a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, but his chef’s DNA has also been forged in the fires of Santa Fe fine dining. In 1996, he began working his way up the line at Geronimo under the guidance of the late, great Eric DiStefano. Rodriguez moved with DiStefano to Coyote Café in 2007, focusing on the innovation and perfection of new Southwestern classics at the top of Santa Fe’s restaurant echelons.

Zacatlán feels more personal and less touristy than both of the chef’s old stomping grounds. That ambiance is imparted by its humble, intimate digs on a side street in the Railyard, a spot that in recent years has housed a quick rotation of ill-fated cafés. But the quiet two-room interior seems ample enough for lasting success, and the brightly decorated patio seating feels cozy, not cramped.

Rodriguez’s adventurous menu thoughtfully blends the influence of several cultures whose own entangled DNA strands contain unexpected flavor complements. The brunch lineup, for example, ranges far and wide: There’s a tomato-pesto-proscuitto-burrata salad and a poached pear, caramelized piñon and arugula salad; two types of chilaquiles and a breakfast burrito; red chile posole; four choices of tacos; french toast; chicken and waffles; and a surf & turf eggs Benedict with smoked salmon and ham.

Mole chilaquiles is one of the dishes served at Zacatlán on Aztec Street. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

I was having my own epiphanic moment over the mole negro chilaquiles ($12.50). Part of the surprise of Zacatlán’s plates stems from the vague details on the menu, and I’d asked my server about the unadorned word “chicken” tacked onto the end of the dish’s description.

Was Rodriguez really melding scrambled eggs with chunks of chicken?

He was, and the artful brown mountain placed before me was revelatory: mild, but nuanced, mole-covered eggs, toasty home fries, queso fresco, black beans, perfectly crisped tortilla triangles and, yes, juicy chunks of white meat. I sipped a bottomless cup of strong black coffee, relished the sunlight streaming onto Zacatlán’s secluded side yard, ate a bit more than half and took the rest home for the next day’s equally delicious reheated breakfast.

Dinner offers a set of more complex, but similarly exclamatory, combos. A pair of fried squash blossoms ($16) are stuffed with cream cheese, wild mushrooms and ground veal, then napped with an orangey-red romesco sauce, each element in fine balance with its partners. A sizable bone marrow appetizer ($18) arrives with three bone trenches covered in pale yellow corn esquites, sided with green chile toast soldiers and a musky truffle mustard. Every element has a distinct zing that harmonizes beautifully with its partners.

The braised pork shanks of the mole-soaked cochinita pibil ($36) spoke to the chill in the air and the primal carnivore within. The radish and red pear-topped meat fell from the bone in succulent sheets, nestling comfortably with sweet-and-savory masa, and zesty sautéed strips of poblano, red pepper and corn.

A snow-white halibut al pastor ($40) was adorned with glazed mango chunks and drizzled with tarragon butter atop tender sticks of zucchini and purple carrots. Part of the joy of Rodriguez’s cooking is in his even showcasing of in-season northern New Mexico produce alongside proteins — he’s an alchemist of farm-fresh, amply portioned fruits and veggies.

Both dessert choices are equally worthy. Besides the excellent churros ($8), there’s an elote flan ($8). It’s more of a rustic egg-corn pudding than a silky slice, whimsically paired with a few kernels of caramel corn and finished with an elegant fan of strawberries.