Animal Welfare Approved Eggs at El Pinto

photos by Stephanie Cameron

Today is a special day at El Pinto. The hens have started laying green eggs. One pastel-hued specimen sits on the table in front of Jim Thomas, co-owner of the New Mexican food powerhouse, as he describes El Pinto’s recent egg-laying program and their new Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification.

El Pinto Restaurant and Cantina, long a beloved favorite of tourists and local chile-lovers alike, is the first restaurant in the nation using their own on-site Animal Welfare Approved pasture raised eggs. The AWA certification has extremely high standards for farm animal welfare and is determined by an independent evaluation. It is also incredibly rare. According to the Organic Consumers Association, ninety-eight percent of eggs come from factory farms, and labels like free range and cage free rarely guarantee more humane treatment of chickens. Pasture raised is the only term that ensures animal welfare and nutritional change within the egg.

For Jim and his brother John Thomas, the project fits naturally into their philosophy of healthy, homegrown New Mexican cuisine. “We’re all about serving the healthiest food we can locate,” Jim Thomas says. “We’re in a situation where we can influence people and educate them on what nutritional food is, and I think it’s our responsibility to do that as leaders in the food business.”

El Pinto can seat over one thousand people at a time, with seven outdoor patios and five dining rooms. They grow their own chiles in Hatch using organic growing principles, without using herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. El Pinto’s on-site chile factory produces two thousand cases of their signature chile sauces a day to sell at national retail giants like Wal-Mart and Smiths. With success on such a large scale, the Thomas twins decided to take their operation a step further and build what is known as the Hen Hotel.

Tucked away on El Pinto’s thirteen-acre property, the Hen Hotel houses two hundred chickens and produces over one hundred eggs a day. This is enough for the kitchen to use farm fresh pasture-raised eggs in all the entrées and in their recently revamped Sunday brunch. There’s even a “chicken cam” in the lobby that shows the happy hens in real time as customers wait to be seated.

At the Hen Hotel, the chickens lay eggs in specially built laying boxes, with ample space outside to roam free on pasture. AWA standards dictate that hens must have a generous allotment of space when indoors, and access to pasture at all times. De-beaking and confinement in small cages is prohibited, and chickens must be able to perform natural activities like dust baths and roosting. This treatment pays off: humanely raised chickens in a pasture environment lay eggs that boast lower levels of unhealthy fats and higher concentrations of vitamins, according to a study by Penn State.

Marc Quiñones, El Pinto’s newly hired executive chef, is just as enthusiastic about the egg program as Thomas. He says El Pinto’s dedication to clean food and local sourcing is a big part of what drew him to the position. He recently redesigned the brunch menu, where the pasture-raised fresh eggs are featured front and center. Quiñones noticed an immediate change in quality. “You think you know what an egg is,” he says. “And then you have one of these eggs, and it’s like ‘everything I thought I knew about eggs was wrong.’”

New dishes like the house-made chorizo frittata and the banana French toast, with house-made bacon, have been popular. “The French toast is so good. It’s light, it’s airy…these eggs just make a better batter,” Quiñones says. “It sounds so simple but it’s real.”

The Thomas brothers and their staff have quietly undertaken significant measures over time to ensure the dishes they serve are as “clean” and nutritious as possible. Beans are lard-free and embellished with only celtic sea salt. The kitchen has organic rice for sides and the chile sauces are vegan. But for a restaurant that can go through three tons of food a night, supply is often a challenge. Local farms can rarely supply the sheer quantity of food that El Pinto serves.

But Quiñones and Doug Evisizor, El Pinto’s director of marketing and public relations, have plans to showcase more locally-sourced foods. Soon, they will be launching a chef’s menu, an offering of seasonal fare chosen by Quiñones and created with produce from the El Pinto greenhouse and other nearby farms.

Their vision is to make El Pinto more sustainable and ethical while upholding its rich history. Evisizor says, “We use the phrase ‘tradition with innovation.’” He added, “New Mexican cuisine was the original farm-to-table food. It was simple food, it was grown out back, the chile made it exciting.”

For now, chickens at El Pinto continue to get the royal treatment, even taking
occasional trips to the greenhouse to forage for insects. “In the summertime we give them watermelon for a treat,” Thomas
says. “They’re happy chickens.”

10500 Fourth Street NW, Albuquerque

Editor’s note: since the original publication of this story, Marc Quiñones has left his position at El Pinto and has gone on to be the consulting executive chef at Hotel Andaluz.

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Sophie Putka is a Massachusetts transplant in love with New Mexico. She writes, makes lattes, and haunts Albuquerque eateries in search of a good bagel. She can usually be found in the kitchen trying to use up as many leftovers as possible and plotting her next adventure.