Teofilo’s Restaurante Serves a Feast
of New Mexican Flavors

by Lynn Cline

Joell Himeur with her parents, Pete and Hortencia Torres, at Teofilo’s Restaurante.

Walk through the front door of Teofilo’s Restaurante and you feel as if you’ve stepped inside a warm and welcoming home. In a way, you have. This handsome historic house, built in 1913 for the town doctor and his wife, has been home to the most popular New Mexican restaurant in Los Lunas for more than three decades.

What draws diners back again and again? It’s a rare combination of delicious New Mexican food, inviting dining rooms and a patio steeped in old New Mexico charm, and the treasured Torres family, longtime restaurateurs who created this vibrant gathering place for the community.

“We have customers who have been eating here for thirty-five years,” says co-owner Joell Himeur, whose parents—Pete and Hortencia—opened Teofilo’s in 1985. “I started working here at eighteen. I’m now fifty-two, and I’ve seen kids literally grow up here. . . . We’ve had bridal showers, weddings, and baptisms here. We’ve celebrated so many amazing events, including our own celebrations—the baptisms of our children, my parents’ anniversary, birthdays. We always seem to come together at Teofilo’s to celebrate anything that’s happening in the family.”

Whether diners come to celebrate milestones or simply to savor mouthwatering cuisine, they bring a craving for New Mexico chile. Teofilo’s serves it up in spades, starting with a complimentary bowl of bright red, smoky salsa. After that, it’s a hard choice among many tempting dishes, including the signature chiles rellenos—New Mexico green chile rolled in panko breadcrumbs and generously stuffed with cheese—and enchiladas topped with carne adovada and T’s famous red chile sauce. There’s a reason “Chile por vida” (Chile for life) is this restaurant’s longtime motto.

“I frequently visit Teofilo’s because of the chile,” says Dubra Karnes Padilla, who lives in Albuquerque. “And also because of the family. I’ve been a customer since they opened. I always get their spinach enchiladas with extra, extra, extra red. Teofilo’s has been a place where we’ve had parties, where I’ve met friends. It’s a lovely place to go. Their cooking is an art and it’s got love and life in it.”

The Torres family’s reverence for chile dates back to 1949, when Pete and Eligia Torres opened the legendary Pete’s Cafe in nearby Belen. Eligia’s family recipes (some more than a century old), including her mother’s chile recipe, helped put Pete’s Cafe on the culinary map. Eligia famously oversaw the preparation and taste-tested each fresh batch every day.

Pete “Teofilo” Torres Jr. grew up working various jobs in his parents’ Belen cafe. His wife, Hortencia, shared his passion for the restaurant business, and when the couple decided to open their own eatery, the historic house on Main Street in Los Lunas was the perfect fit. Teofilo’s quickly became known for serving the same type of authentic, tasty New Mexican food found at Pete’s Cafe. “These are recipes that all came from Eligia,” says Himeur. “We haven’t changed much. Our recipes are pretty simple. We don’t put a lot of spices or other ingredients in our chiles. We let the pure flavor shine through.”

Although Pete and Eligia have passed away, the family’s restaurant legacy flourishes at Teofilo’s through community, camaraderie, and a commitment to traditional cuisine made with New Mexico chiles and other local ingredients. “My sister, Johnnah, and my parents and I are all the chile testers,” Himeur says. “We’re very picky, especially with the red chile, which we make from scratch.  We buy the red chile from Grajeda Farms, the beans from Morrow Farms, and the green chile from Sabroso Foods. My dad makes a couple of trips down south to Hatch each year with a huge trailer that he loads up with chile.”

To make the coveted red chile sauce, the pods are soaked overnight. “In the morning, we blend them down and put them through a sieve for twenty to thirty minutes,” Himeur says, to remove any trace of skin or seeds. “We are really proud that our red chile sauce is always smooth and consistent, and you never get that grit in it.”

The red chile sauce stars in many of Teofilo’s dishes, including the popular carne adovada. “People love our carne adovada,” Himeur says. “We bring in pork cushion and we cut it ourselves, and we marinate it and bake it in our red chile. . . . The pork and the red chile are a great mixture.”

Los Lunas native Vickie Otero has a longtime favorite dish featuring Teofilo’s red chile. “I’ve always loved their stuffed sopapillas,” she says. “I’ve been going there since I was in high school, and I’m seventy-
two now.” Otero’s daughter once worked at Teofilo’s as a server, yet another example of the enduring connections between community and restaurant.

Teofilo’s founders, Pete and Hortencia, have essentially stepped away from the day-to-day operations, leaving Himeur and her sister, Johnnah Torres, to run the restaurant while longtime chef Raul Chavez helms the kitchen. Otherwise, not much has changed over the years. Southwest and contemporary art, selected by Hortencia, graces the walls, along with photos of the building’s original occupants, Dr. William Frederick Wittwer and his wife, Anna Nowlin. The first physician in Los Lunas, Wittwer lived in the house and met with patients in his home office. “One of the restaurant’s front rooms is where he saw patients,” Himeur says, “and up to ten or fifteen years ago, people would come into the restaurant and say, ‘When I was little, my mom used to bring me here to see Dr. Wittwer.’”

Many diners today could make a similar statement, marveling that when they were little, their parents brought them to the same restaurant where they now bring their kids and grandkids, to enjoy food that is firmly rooted in our region’s history.

144 Vallejos Lane, Los Lunas, teofilos.com

Lynn Cline
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Lynn Cline is the award-winning author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes and Tales From New Mexico. She's written for Bon Appétit, the New York Times, New Mexico Magazine, and many other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly talk show on public radio’s KSFR 101.1 FM.