Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fish Tacos and Monastic Bliss

This was a Wednesday of contradictory experiences. Fish tacos in the high desert. "Riders on the Storm" played during the warmest, clearest, and sunniest of middays. Two soon-to-be students saving for graduate school splurging on a lunch out.

Belgian-derived Abbey-style beer with Mexican food.

And yet, the juxtapositions made the day. Or, in this case, the meal.

After a morning spent doing backyard gardening for an elderly friend, I called Jenny on a complete whim and asked if she would like to join me for a nice lunch, anywhere of her choosing, but probably near UNM so she could stay close to work. She never hesitated to say yes. (This is why I love this woman.) We deliberated for a bit, and settled on El Patio, the Mexican/New Mexican food establishment for the University district. (Unless you count Bandido's. Which I don't. Call me crazy, but the silent man walking around campus and standing in the median on Central with his Nacho Libre mask always creeps me out. Besides, buckets of Bud Light obviously don't rank high on our list of fine drinking experiences.)

The reason we chose El Patio? Fish tacos. El Patio (142 Harvard Dr. SE, Albuquerque, NM; 505-268-4245) only serves their renowned fish tacos--or what I like to call delectable, crunchy bundles of yum!--on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of each week, and Jenny loves them. (He's being modest, folks. I am seriously the worst fish taco junkie the world has ever seen.) Apparently I had only ever been a weekender at El Patio, so I had never tasted these so-called delights. I was in. Why not?

On a day like this one, our choice of seating was really no choice at all. We took a seat on the front patio (presumably, the very namesake of the establishment) along the front wall. We were essentially right on the sidewalk, but the simple wooden fence made me feel like we were in a backyard in a quieter part of town.
Zach is right on with this observation. El Patio's approach is simple yet effective. The place itself is small and the patio: even smaller. But in my opinion this keeps the conversational volume knob at medium, which means you can hear what your lunch date has to say. 

Then came the inevitable question from Jenny, setting off the restaurant routine we share each time we dine out: What are you going to drink?

I answered like I always do: What are you going to drink?

But this dance had a variation. See, Jenny and I don't get to go out to lunch very often. I blame work. At dinner, assuming the place has any beer selection worth mentioning, our sudsy beverage is a given. But lunch? Ah, in America (and surely in some other part of the world, though I haven't found it yet), we are meant to think one is not intended to drink during lunch. Especially on a work day. So really, the veiled question was instead, not what, but are you going to drink?

We knew already what to eat (though we both gave the menu an obligatory glance), so we turned to the drink menu. There was a selection of Mexican beers, none of which particularly excited us at that moment, and one local brew: Monk's Ale.

Every time we go grocery shopping, we see Monk's Ale among the selections. And we always debate it. And we never decide to buy it. So I looked up from my menu, and Jenny looked up from hers, and our eyes made the decision for us. Two Monk's Ales, please!

We began to discuss how our drinking culture in the United States is so very different from what we both experienced in various places throughout Europe. Clearly, drinking at lunch here is not so powerfully taboo that it cannot happen, like purchasing liquor on a Sunday used to be. After all, we were able to order our Monk's Ales just then without any hassle. But why this difference in cultural attitudes? Why does one see outdoor tables with no purpose other than mid-day drinking in France and Germany and Belgium, but so very seldom in New Mexico?

The beer was brought out before we could reach any ground-breaking conclusions. I suspect this is what happens to a good many brilliant conclusions. The server gave us each a typical pint-style glass and a bottle of our selection. (If you like Belgian-style beers, I do recommend purchasing a six-pack. As is typical when going out, our two bottles cost well over your usual six-pack cost. But they were SO worth it. Keep reading.) We poured them, and on a visual level, we knew we'd picked a winner. The beer came out wonderfully bubbly without fear of fizzing over, and the marigold-yellow brew looked clear and crisp. I held the glass up to the dappled light coming through the shade tree at the center of the patio. "Whoa," I said. "This beer's not transparent."

I don't think Jenny believed me until she lifted hers up, too. (I'm not a skeptic, just a hands-on, do-it-yourself, and see it for yourself kind of learner...that's all.) I can't explain the appearance (oh, but I on!) of this beer other than to say it was opaque without being cloudy. I tip my hat to those monks.

And tip he should, if there be money in that hat! The makers of Monk's Ale accomplished one of the most important, and perhaps difficult feats concerning a great Belgian brew, which is make it the very color and opacity of Heaven's own golden, cloudy gates.    

Then I sipped it. Now, if one can call me a connoisseur of any particular genre of brew, perhaps I can speak of German beers. Or stouts and porters. Jenny is the real expert on Belgian- and Abbey-style beers. But I know what I like. And I liked this particular beer. A lot. It had a very light floral taste without overdoing it, and what I would call a slight citrus undertone. It was the kind of beer about which you could use words like "bouquet" and "fruit" without saying "crowded" and "fruity." That is, it tasted like it might as well have been brewed in Brugges. And it accompanied sunlight and fresh air simply beautifully.

Well, now, I wouldn't profess to be an expert but I developed my pallet for the Abbey-styles while in Belgium. Where else, right? And yes, the local Monk's Ale craftsmen fermented into this beer the same outdoor elements that the monks of scenic Belgium would have celebrated and meditated. The buzzing of the bees, the color of tulips, or the fresh smell of rain. All of it is there in that sip of heaven. And that little taste of citrus Zach noted in this ale I'd say is nothing other than the unique Zia-zing of outdoor New Mexico!

Only then did I notice the subtle music coming through the speakers. Of course I noticed it, because it was Neil Young's acoustic "My My, Hey Hey" off of Rust Never Sleeps. Who plays that song at a Mexican restaurant? But it was, if I may say it, perfect. Then it rolled into one of the melodic tracks off of Led Zeppelin III. Then "Riders on the Storm." It was a strange string of songs, ones I never would have associated with a lovely early afternoon such as this. Yet it fit. The day was perfect for such pairings.

Then the food came. These fish tacos were, indeed, fantastic. (Nom! Nom! Nom! Gobble-gobble-slurp!) And at something like $6.50 a plate, complete with three soft-shelled tacos, salsa, all the garnish (including avocado) and decently-sized french fries, I felt like it was a steal.

Now if I'd thought ahead and remembered that seafood is so often served with this style of beer in Belgium and the Netherlands and France, I might have realized just how well paired this meal would be with this beer. But I was too engrossed in the day to think like that. And oh. my. God. did they go delightfully together. Scrumptious! It was the kind of meal where you want to sip your beer while still chewing your food, just to let the flavors mingle and frolic together on your tongue.

The only tragic part was when we had to leave. Our lunch break was over, and we had to go back to the grinding stone. (Believe me when I say that we both seriously considered quitting our jobs right than and there, just to continue enjoying the flavors, the music, the moment!) Besides, our one-hour parking had expired. But just as the warmth of the sun and the air lingered on our skin, and The Doors lingered in my ears, so the memory of this delectable discovery continued to tantalize my tastebuds. I would have eaten (and drunk) the whole thing all over again. Before we leave Albuquerque, I believe we will.


  1. Finding authenticity in unexpected places is always a delight.

  2. Stanley Bing, a contributor to Esquire magazine many years ago once wrote a piece on the demise of the lunchtime double martini in American culture. Called "Way too Sober" Bing's essay was brilliant and inspirational (to me), but fell way short of capturing what truly matters -- sharing drinks and food and music with someone special. You captured it perfectly, except the part where you went back to work... what were you possibly thinking???