Last week was not a good one for us middle-aged lefties. So, I’ll quit obsessing about politics and turn to something happier. The hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque, the first week of October 2010, was phenomenal. The Balloon Fiesta began in the 1970’s. Albuquerque has great weather for hot air balloons at both sunrise and sunset in the fall. There is a weather pattern called the “Albuquerque box.” This means that balloons will rise, float in more or less a square or rectangular pattern, and return to where they left from. Hot air balloons are difficult to navigate, and normally a balloon lands wherever it can--- whenever it runs out of fuel. Because of the Albuquerque box, pilots need not worry about having an expensive chase crew to find them wherever they land.
This year there were about 600 balloons that participated. It brings in millions of dollars from tourists who flock to the event. It’s difficult to find a hotel room the first week of October, when the fiesta takes place. The balloons launch at sunrise, about 7:00 a.m. Getting out to watch them launch in the northeast heights is tricky. This year, for instance, friends who left their house at 5:30 a.m. were still stuck in traffic 2 hours later, and missed the launch. Even some people who bought tickets for the park and ride program missed out—this year had some unexpected logistical problems.
It’s really something to see the balloons all rise at once. Because there are so many, the launches are staggered, and it takes about an hour for all of them to get up in the air. You can see them from almost anywhere in the city. And if you think that all balloons are more or less round, you’d be mistaken. Increasingly they are in unusual shapes, from beer bottles to bees. The bees are incredibly popular: this year there were 3 bee balloons launched: mom and dad and a little one. On the ground, the most interesting and popular chase crew is dressed like Jedi warriors from Star Wars. I’m not up on the terminology, but some are good guys and some are bad guys—they are dressed in white costumes as well as black ones.
If you are lucky enough to go to Albuquerque during the Fiesta, there are a lot of other things going on at the same time. The Greek Orthodox Church has its annual Greek festival the first weekend of October. It was well-attended, and the food wasn’t bad. There are bigger Greek festivals in other cities, but if you’ve never gone to one, this one is a good start.
Don’t miss the Arts and Crafts Festival that is held near the balloon launching area. There is wonderful Native American art in New Mexico, but you won’t find any great art at this festival. It’s kitschy in a wonderful way. The artist that I was most taken with is R.C. Ramey, a Melungeon potter who had a great collection of hand-fired rabbis and other Judaica. I hope this promising potter, based in Arizona, keeps working.
And now for the food. When you are in New Mexico, the real question is: “red or green?” Chili, of course. You must try authentic New Mexico food, which you can get at almost any restaurant. I’ll recommend a few. If you are like me, and can’t make up your mind about anything, ask for both red and green. The red has a rich flavor, and is usually nice and spicy, but don’t miss the green either. Near Old Town, eat at Duran’s Pharmacy café. Duran’s is a pharmacy that has a lunch counter—be sure to try the homemade blue corn tortillas. Sadie’s has two locations, one in the heights and one in the valley. It may have the best New Mexico food in town. If you are downtown, try Cecilia’s—it’s like visiting the Hispanic family you wished you had! If you’re in the heights, you might try Eloy’s New Mexico café. Friends tell me that El Pinto is one of the finest restaurants in town. I’ve never been, but it’s where President Obama ate the week before I got to town.
If you want a steakhouse, then the place to go is Vernon’s. New Mexico beef is yummy. Vernon’s is a concept restaurant, with the gimmick of being a 1930’s speakeasy. There is no sign out front, and you must know the password to be admitted. (When you make your reservation, they give you the day’s password. And yes, you must have a reservation—it’s packed.) It is quite dark inside, and there is live music. And now for the disclaimer: the chef there is the neighbor boy I walked to school with for years. The food is excellent, but, sadly, there’s no green chili. Try the chopped salad--- it’s a meal in itself. The portions are more than ample, and if you have supper there you won’t need to eat again for a week. I had the scallops, which were fresh and tasty.
Finally, when you visit the lovely campus of the University of New Mexico (be sure to see the WPA era murals in Zimmerman library), eat at the Frontier Café on Central Avenue. Everyone in the state eats there. The food is delish, reasonable, but the reason to go there is for the people watching. You’ll see real cowboys, Native Americans, Hispanos, and students. It offers a cross-section of the most interesting people in this fascinating state. When I was there, we saw a cowboy with a loaded pistol in his belt, students, senior citizens, and various and sundry aging hippies.
I love Albuquerque, and any excuse to go there, and visit with my old childhood friends, is great. From Vivian Vance to my neighbor here, everyone says Albuquerque people are the friendliest—it’s a good middle class city. Santa Fe is OK, but too pretentious for my liking. Go to Taos if you want history. But by all means, see the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, the first weekend in October, and eat as much red and green chili as you can!