Where do you go if you want to hang out among local bigwigs — with a chunky bowl of menudo on the side?
The answer has to be the Barelas Coffee House, a 45-year-old institution that is on the agenda for many a local politician, not to mention higher-level notables such as then-President Barack Obama. (His order: huevos rancheros deluxe, with a side of chicharrones.)
Bill Clinton visited, too, but he was only governor of Arkansas then. When he became president and was in Albuquerque, he didn’t have time for a repeat visit, but he did order to go.
“For some reason, every single mayor has eaten here,” owner Mike Gonzales says. “It’s been way, way back. I think the Barelas neighborhood, to a lot of Hispanic politicians, it’s like coming back home.”
It’s certainly home for Gonzales — he’s the fourth generation of his family in the area just south of Downtown. He and his now-deceased brother, Jim Gonzales, started the first coffee house incarnation on Valentine’s Day, 1978, across the street from where it is now, in a “tiny little venue.” His sister, Benita Villanueva, also was a partner at one point.
Their father owned the building and ran a grocery store “right next door, so we used to get a lot of the groceries and paper products from him. And it was going to be real simple. We just had coffee, chile and beans, hamburgers.”
But here’s why that little business took off: it was the menudo. The dish that features cow stomach was the suggestion of the restaurant’s first-ever cook, whose husband was Mexican and who told the brothers that it was a popular dish in Mexico.
“Sure enough, we tried it and that’s kind of what got us going, because we had a lot of Mexican trade then,” Gonzales says. “We still sell menudo. I don’t eat it.”
Why do you think your restaurant is so popular?
“A lot of people say it’s like going to your grandmother’s kitchen or home. It’s a very homey atmosphere. We use our grandmother’s recipes … that we grew up with and were used to eating. We have a very, very simple menu. And we haven’t changed it over the years.”
What’s your bestseller?
“I would say the huevos rancheros (and) carne adovada.”
What has made you successful as a business owner?
“I think persistence and being conservative, especially at the beginning. Most of our equipment and things we bought were used. And then very good help. We have cooks who have been with us 40-plus years. You tell any restaurateur that we’ve had employees this many years, they’d be kind of shocked. We treat them right. And then we don’t show up and do nothing. Whatever needs to be done, we do it. They feel like we’re not just saying, ‘Do this, do that.’ We actually come every day and work, me and my wife, from start to finish.”
Did you always know you wanted to be a business owner?
“I kind of had it in me. My family for generations have been business people. They’ve been in the grocery business, the funeral business. I had an uncle that was in the bar business. Being around people like that in the family who were self-employed, you grow up with it, and it’s kind of in your blood. And I graduated with a business degree.”
What’s some good advice you’ve gotten?
“It was from my high school basketball coach, Jim Hulsman. He was at Albuquerque High for (over 30) years, and he was my basketball coach in 1976. He was here (at the restaurant) for his 92nd birthday recently. There’s a group — they were UNM basketball players, baseball players — they come in once a week and they sit right over there. Two-thirds of them are in the New Mexico Hall of Fame. He (Hulsman) inspired me because I think playing basketball, especially with a coach like that, they teach you hard work. If you put in the effort, you’ll accomplish something. Him coming to my restaurant now makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
What do you enjoy about your work?
“Meeting people, and just getting the feedback from people. They come in and say, ‘I’ve been coming (here) since I was a kid.’ And now they’re bringing their children. We actually, in some cases, have three generations. And the employees are like family.”
What’s the hardest part?
“It’s very labor intensive, but I enjoy it. It keeps you in pretty good health, because you’re constantly moving. When COVID hit and we had to close for a couple of months, my body kind of went into shock because I was so used to doing something every day. It drove me crazy.”
Have you had any particularly tough times?
“The first year was difficult. We couldn’t afford to hire anybody, so we did the painting, put in new tile and got the place ready and just opened. We couldn’t afford to hire any help for the first probably six to eight months. We were barely getting by. My brother used to tell me, ‘It’s a good thing we’re in the food business. At least we won’t starve, because we’re not making any money.’”
What is something few people know about you?
“The only other job I’ve ever had was at the Royal Fork Buffet. I started as a busboy and ended up as a student manager.”
Have you ever thought about expanding?
“I think this is one of a kind. I don’t think it would be the same if we opened another one and tried to duplicate it. Someone wrote an article years ago about the restaurant. They said it’s like ‘Cheers’ (the TV series), where everybody knows your name. Everybody feels at home here. That’s a neat feeling. I’m just kind of happy with the way it is.”