I recall a 1980s high-school lecture series wherein local politicians and entrepreneurs spoke about community engagement. I remember just three speakers: the governor, the mayor, and the restaurateur. The governor’s speech and stature were short, the mayor was easily befuddled, but the “American Dream” guy stood out. Miguel Ribera got his start washing dishes, worked hard, eventually bought the business and volunteered tremendous amounts of time and effort to improve our community. And then there were the UFOs.
Miguel had personal anecdotes of extraterrestrial encounters he’d share at the drop of a hat. His restaurant was decorated in an amazing amalgam of classic Mexican restaurant kitsch and icons of UFOlogy, piñatas and flying saucers hung about with wild abandon. I loved it, and I loved the food. Though not entirely what would be considered “authentic,” it was classic Mexican-American grub.
After Miguel’s passing the restaurant fell to his descendants to carry on. They got rid of the little green men and renovated the decor to what can best be called “generic Mexican-American.” I felt the menu also suffered with the change and eventually parted ways with my standby favorite.
After over 50 years of success in what is now called Midtown, the family has opened a second location in a space vacated by a sub-par chain restaurant. They’ve done a pretty nice job converting the quasi-Italian decor into something Mexican, complete with Frida Kahlo prints and bright, zesty colors. The service was pretty quick on the draw. House Margaritas were served in 20-ounce schooners—over ice as they should be—sweeter than I prefer but still a good deal ($7.50). If anything, our entrees followed the appetizers a little too soon. Most of the food was well-prepared by way of texture and assembly, the portions more than ample. The refried beans and rice were fine. The tortilla chips were thin, crispy and served warm. Yet the salsa had barely any heat or spice, a warning for the seasoning of dishes in general.
We began with albondigas soup ($2), which might be the item I enjoyed most. Savory broth, large vegetable chunks, tender meatball. Pretty sizable portion for the price, outstanding on flavor and value. Less amazing was the bean and cheese chorizo dip ($5.95), essentially a pool of molten queso asadero, refritos, and meat that didn’t remotely read sausage. If I hadn’t read the menu, I’d have thought it was unseasoned ground beef. The less I say about the completely uncrisp cheese crisp appetizer the better ($3.95).
I understand not all people like the heat of chilies the way I do. I accept there need to be options for folks who consider ketchup “too spicy.” But certain cuisines come with an expectation of heat, and Mexican is likely the first thing most Americans will say when asked, “What’s a spicy food?” Every single dish we sampled had plenty of body and salt, but was almost completely devoid of capsaicin heat.
Among entrees ordered were chicken enchilada with chile relleno ($9.95), cheese enchilada with shredded beef taco ($10.95), chimichanga ($10.50 plus $1.25 for carnitas), and bistec ranchero ($11.95). The enchiladas and relleno were above average, the chimi was expertly crispy, and its pork was perfectly cooked, albeit cruelly thwarted from perfection by lack of seasoning. Ranchero sauce is usually more akin to beef gravy, so the lack of spice here is actually acceptable. The beef and vegetables were cooked just right.
Two small sopapillas completed the meal ($0.25 each), and though they weren’t as airy and pillowy as those I remember from Albuquerque, they still played their part as dessert. Miguel’s has a roomy new space with food that is 90 percent close to being quite good. Barring a change in the kitchen, a caddy of hot sauce bottles on every table would do wonders for the experience.