By Hope S. Philbrick
“I’ll take you somewhere not a lot of people have seen,” promised Douglas Evilsizor, director of marketing and public relations for El Pinto Restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shortly after I met him.
He escorted me to a shack at the back of El Pinto’s sprawling 12-acre compound. Though I’m not in the habit of following strangers into remote locations, he seemed trustworthy. Plus, my husband and uncle were a few yards behind us.
“Even as a food writer who’s traveled the world, I can guarantee of all the places you’ve visited you’ve never gone somewhere like this,” Evilsizor said with a smile as we walked.
And then he pushed open the wooden door to the room where they keep the worms.
In most cases, you hear a restaurant has worms and you wisely opt to steer clear of the place. With El Pinto, however, the worms are a very good thing.
“We’ve got tens of thousands of worms,” said Evilsizor, who pointed out that the worm house is equipped with its own air conditioning system. “The worms produce a product called leachate. We’re not composting soil, we’re processing organic scraps from the restaurant via the worms to produce a liquid and that liquid is a fertilizer that goes out to Hatch, N.M., to use as a fertilizer on our chile fields.”
So this restaurant is not only farm to table but also table to farm.
El Pinto brings in farm fresh ingredients like the famed Hatch chile peppers to feature on the menu, uses kitchen scraps to feed worms that produce a byproduct used to fertilize the very fields where the chiles grow. “We don’t use herbicides or pesticides or fungicides on our chiles,” said Evilsizor.
The worms eat their weight in kitchen scraps (think lettuce, avocado skins, tomato seeds, etc.) on a daily basis. Most surprising, perhaps, is that the whole wormy operation and even the leachate don’t smell. I’d have expected some offensive odor, but it sniffed only like earth after a soft rain shower.
“All our chiles are grown through this process,” said Evilsizor. Red chiles are sun dried on the vine; green chiles are mechanically—never chemically!—roasted. “We take the seeds and skin out from the meat pulp and that pulp is what we jar and use in the restaurant.” Inside one 5,000-square-foot building on the property, El Pinto processes and packages 25,000 jars of salsas and sauces a day. They are distributed nationwide (in the southeastern U.S., look for El Pinto products at Kroger and Publix).
As we walked back to the restaurant for lunch, Evilsizor asked, “Was I right? Of all the restaurants in all the countries you’ve toured, have you seen that before?”
No, I had not. “You did not lie,” I said. His smile grew wider.
El Pinto was voted “Best New Mexican Restaurant in Albuquerque” in an annual “Best of the City” survey conducted by Albuquerque The Magazine. Founded in 1962 as a one-room restaurant, over the years El Pinto has expanded to become the largest New Mexican restaurant in the state of New Mexico and currently seats more than 1,200 guests in three dining rooms, five patios and a cantina.
The menu is based upon recipes of the owners’ grandmother and features a range of options that showcase chile sauces and salsas. Don’t miss the red chile ribs—they’re famous for good reason. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
El Pinto is home to the largest tequila bar in New Mexico with over 140 different tequilas.
“We were a destination from Day 1,” said Evilsizor, acknowledging that the restaurant is a distance from downtown Albuquerque. “We still are off the beaten path, you have to know it’s here.” It’s worth the effort to find.
El Pinto Restaurant
10500 4th Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87114
Odds of Encountering Children: High, but the dining room is bustling with energy and chatter.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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