We were rolling out of Espanola, N.M., roughly a half-hour north of Santa Fe, with Lester snuggling on my lap and Max riding shotgun.
We hadn’t gone far when Max slumped his shoulders and unleashed an unholy cry of dismay: “Ohhh, this is ridiculous! We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell the boy we’d just crossed the border into the northern New Mexico realm of nowhere. We wouldn’t reach the middle of nowhere for hours.
As it was, nowhere had already bewitched us with its whimsical beauty. We had the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains, the southernmost section of the Rockies, in our rear-view mirror. We had the Jemez Mountains to our left, and the Sierra Negra to our right. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we were hungry.
And then we stumbled upon a pizza oasis in Southwestern Nowhere, nestled in an adobe nook at the junction of U.S. 84 and New Mexico 554.
Normally, rural New Mexico pizza wouldn’t rank as an eye-catching option for an afternoon snack. You don’t wander into the lonesome roads of the southwest, in land shared by Navajos, Apaches, Tesuque and the descendents of Spanish invaders, and think pizza.
But Becky and I hadn’t eaten a thing all day. We stopped, and Becky went to check out the menu.
She returned with the news that Mamacita’s boasted the “second-best pizza” in all of New Mexico. I wondered what sort of defeatist marketing strategy produced this bizarre claim, but I was nonetheless intrigued. And hungry.
After minimal discussion, we ordered a veggie sub, which at least didn’t jump off the menu with second-banana billing. I turned the behemoth around so we could eat with the charming view of the Blood of Christ in front of us.
And when Marta Uribe, the proprietor, delivered our sandwich, I asked if she didn’t think the “second-best pizza in New Mexico” was kind of a, well, lame sales pitch.
Marta, a pepperpot with the blood of conquistadors and Apaches roiling inside her, said no way, dude.
She’d placed second in a statewide pizza competition, and that, she insisted, is pretty cool.
“I smoked 900 other pizzerias,” she crowed.
Marta’s mother’s family goes back more than 300 years in this state. They come from northwest New Mexico, near Raton, hard by the Colorado border. I thought I’d never heard of Raton, but later I remembered this song, and I never miss a chance to plug the incomparable Townes Van Zandt.
But back to Marta. Her parents met in Albuquerque, where her dad was stationed in the service. She was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Cal Poly Pomona.
“Mom and dad both have fourth-grade educations,” she said. “My sister and I are the first out of 48 cousins to graduate with a degree.”
Turns out she’s a refugee banker from Manhattan, which is something else you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find out here on the fringes of nowhere. She worked for Citigroup for 23 years before retiring and following her dream back to New Mexico.
She bought 13 acres on man-made Abiquiu Lake, which is hemmed in by stunning red-rock cliffs, and went into the restaurant business.
Abiquiu is a long way from way in every way from Long Island, where she lived while making the commute to the Big Apple every day. When she left the big city, she was flush with Citigroup stock, until it plummeted to 97 cents in 2009.
“I retired a millionaire, now I’m broke,” she said with a sly smile. “And I’ve never been happier.”
I made a joke about the convoluted way this winsome region came to be the American Southwest. First the natives were overrun by Spanish immigrants. Then we, uh, stole it from the Mexicans in a bloody little 19th century act of aggression.
It is, after all, the land of the free.
“Free to take what you can,” Marta said. “But I bleed red. white and blue.”
The sub, with a little Charles Shaw pinot grigio, was indeed delicious, but it wasn’t quite enough. I figured we should at least try the second-best pizza in New Mexico. Plus I wanted to chat up Marta a little more.
She may be in romantic New Mexico, but she’s still got New York bubbling inside her. Marta’s not messing around. She’s a businesswoman through and through.
She tosses our pie, throws it in the oven and says, “You’ll be outta here in seven minutes.”
I said, what’s the hurry, Marta?
“Hungry people, you know.”
She takes a pineapple-and-bacon pie from the oven, slides it into a box and goes to the screen door. She lets loose a piercing whistle and bellows “Randy.”
Randy’s been sitting in his 4-x-4 truck, pointed out at 84, since we got here. The top of the truck is festooned with antlers. Resting on the front bumper is a hand-painted sign that said “I buy deer, elk and moose.”
I hadn’t seen him buy anything since we got here.
Randy jogs over, and Marta flips the top of the box to let him inspect the pie. He’s happy.
She shoves a couple packets of red pepper flakes into the box, and he asks for parmesan cheese.
“No parm,” Marta says. “Went from a dollar-eight a pound to $3.47. Even Pizza Hut doesn’t give it away.”
She’s living her dream, with feet planted firmly in real life.
“I always wanted to come back to New Mexico since I was a kid, but my parents had other ideas for us,” she said.
I allow that the land certainly is enchanting, and mumble something about there probably being a lot of struggling people around here.
“This county has the highest heroin death rate per capita in the country,” she shoots back without missing a beat.
Well, I checked, and she’s not kidding. Rio Arriba County has long ranked at the top or near the top of the charts when it comes to heroin deaths. The problem is so acute that it landed in the pages of The New York Times in 2008. The harrowing story highlighted a problem that has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1970s.
New Mexico itself leads the nation in per-capita heroin deaths, and Albuquerque is a shipping hub for Mexican black tar heroin and brown powdered heroin.
Thankfully, we came for pizza, not heroin.
Before she serves up our pizza, I ask her if we’ve passed the road to Farmington yet. She says no, then warns the road to Farmington, charming as it is, is likely to be a perilous speedway packed with drunk drivers on a Friday evening.
“Be careful, keep you eyes open,” she says, her brown eyes suffused with seriousness.
What about the road north through Chama, I ask? She says that’s nice, but a twisting, rising and falling deer hazard.
So, it’s either the deer or the drunks?
“Oh, you’ll get the drunks both ways,” she says.
Then she delivers our pizza, flips open the box, and it looks delightful. We’ve spent more than $20 at Mamacita’s, which is out of character for us. But it’s a our first genuine road experience in a while, and a small one at that.
If it costs a little more to meet real people sometimes, that’s a price we’ll happily bear.
- October 2014
- September 2014
- May 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- January 2014
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- January 2012
- November 2011
- October 2011