By Nora Hickey · Photos by Stacey M. Adams
Nestor Lopez in front of Gobble This in Old Town.
On a recent morning in Albuquerque, just hours after the placid blue sky was overrun with brightly colored balloons, scores of visitors press the Old Town pavement. Many pass through the numerous gift shops, which sell “Breaking Bad” paraphernalia and the ubiquitous red and green chile peppers of the state. Others linger at the central plaza, where under a high-ceilinged gazebo a mariachi band plays tunes both buoyant and serene.
Passing from one shop to another, visitors and locals alike have the opportunity to read up on the neighborhood’s history, whether it be the story of the centuries-old first Catholic church in the area or the role Old Town played in the Civil War. Despite the unique and important history, for Burqueños Old Town is often just a place where tourists go to get a tchotchke and a serving of agreeably packaged New Mexican culture. The truth is somewhere in the middle—while Old Town might appear to be the province of sightseers, there is richness for all in this historical spot.
Long ago, there were desert-adapted plants and animals that attracted the nomadic peoples who eventually settled in the region around 1240, notably the Tiguex for whom the nearby park bears its name. In most histories, the founding of Old Town is credited to Spanish settlers in 1706, when adobe and bricks were laid. The narrow, intricate paths delineated the center of commerce and entertainment in the Rio Grande Valley until the railroad changed things in 1880. Due to land price disputes and irrigation issues, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad chose to build their tracks three miles to the east, away from the river, a line of steel that drew business and residents away from Old Town. In the 1950s and 1960s, with a regional boom in residents from post-war nuclear industry and a new historic zoning designation, Old Town began its current iteration as a center for tourism.
Top: Carnitas tacos with pickled red cabbage. Bottom, left: Black Bird Coffee. Bottom, right: Pan con Pavo (Salvadoran pulled turkey sandwich).
From a house that was once a brothel, Nestor Lopez hopes to change Old Town’s reputation from merely an item on a visitor’s to-do list. Lopez began his Salvadoran restaurant, Gobble This, with a vision of bringing the locals back to Old Town. It’s not that he’s averse to the crowd that usually comes in. “I love the fact that I’m able to hit everyone from all over the world, from Norway, U.K., Japan, and a lot of Salvadorans come through and get excited about the pupusas,” he says.
But Lopez, along with manager Racheldawn Dewitt, is particularly interested in luring Old Town-phobic locals to Gobble This’ bright, cozy space. And what better way to attract a following than through delicious, comforting fare? “The El Chumpe, our turkey sandwich, is a star,” Dewitt notes. She describes the hours’ long process of toasting, then blending a mix of ingredients to be used in a tomato mole sauce that the slow roasted turkey is cooked in. “Everything is made to order,” Dewitt explains. “Nestor uses his own salsas, he hand pulls his pork and turkey—nothing comes from a can. We use our local butcher for meat, local farmers markets, and our garden out back,” Dewitt notes.
Lopez pulls in inspiration and technique from his wide-ranging background: raised in California by Salvadoran parents, he attended Le Cordon Bleu and came to Albuquerque to cook for the film industry. From there, he started a food truck business that grew to become this adobe and mortar restaurant. “This is a home—this is my big living room, my kitchen. I want Gobble This to be a hangout place. People who come in here are my family,” he says.
In another courtyard, next to the city’s first well, Blackbird Coffee does its own work to turn locals into Old Town enthusiasts. Owner Michelle La Meres serves handcrafted coffee and tasty treats. “I want locals to come, sit, use my Wi-Fi and enjoy my coffee and absorb the beauty of Old Town.” She also notes that when you come to Old Town, you support locals. “There’s Mike the jeweler, Collected Hands, the Co-Op Art Gallery,” she points out. As we talk, business owners come in for their regular drink orders and to chat with La Meres. The snug space fills with light conversation along with the scent of green and red chile and lavender. “I want the food and drink to be a little touristy, but also for the worker downtown,” La Meres says.
The area surrounding Old Town proper is evolving, too, contributing to the mix of new people, new flavors, new sights and sounds. To the north sits Hotel Albuquerque and its new sister hotel, Hotel Chaco, as well as the future Sawmill District food court. The El Vado motel and outdoor plaza recently opened its refurbished doors on old Route 66 just west of Old Town. And in WeDo (West Downtown) restaurateur Erin Wade has made her delicious mark with a trio of restaurants including the new Modern General and The Feel Good.
Old Town is well on its way to its own renaissance, one led by Gobble This and Blackbird Coffee. “We want to give Old Town back to the locals,” Lopez says. And through fresh ingredients, hospitality and handmade touches, a new chapter in the storied history of Old Town has begun.