How to build a program. With green chile.

What makes a great program? Sustained excellence, of course.

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We all can tick off the traditional powers. But try to think of a school that wasn’t on the radar then, and is now. That’s a tough list to make.

I was thinking about this the other day when a friend sent me a Wall Street Journal article about a restaurant in Albuquerque.

My first full-time job was at the Albuquerque Journal, and I happened to live around the corner from a cafe in the North Valley called Mary & Tito’s. I was working the 4-to-midnight shift on the news copy desk, and sharing a house with a guy named Steve, who was a waiter on a similar shift.

Needless to say, beer was consumed after work. Our first meal of the day was often lunch—at Mary & Tito’s.

In those days, Tito cooked up the chile—the best red and green chile around, but especially the green. Tito, who was outgoing, often did a monologue from the kitchen that we could enjoy in the cafe.

As anyone who has spent time in New Mexico will tell you, the key question in the Land of Enchantment is, ``Red or green?’’

While Tito was cooking up the chile in the kitchen with his son-in-law, Mary was working the register. And their three daughters waited on tables.

Mary & Tito’s not only had great food. It had a pickle jar filled with water. A shot glass sat on the bottom. If you could drop a dime through the water into the shot glass, you won a taco dinner. If you could do it with a quarter, you won a combination plate.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

I had a great run with quarters. Hey, I’ve always had a good short game.

Needless to say, we loved that place.

When my college friends, medical students Ron and Bob, maneuvered themselves into rotations at the Bernalillo County Medical Center, they also became devotees of Mary & Tito's.

The original allure of New Mexico was Taos Ski Valley, where I spent virtually every day off from Thanksgiving to Easter. The lasting allure was the green chile.

Green chile is an art form in New Mexico, and I learned to put it on everything. On the Sadie Burger at Sadie’s, which was in a bowling alley. On the amazing chile rellenos at little lunch dives with names like M&M’s, and L&V’s. On the enchiladas at a bar-time haunt called the Terminal Cafe—``El Terminale!’’ to us—which was located at the intersection of I-25 and I-40.

After a year or two, I moved back to Chicago and lost track of New Mexico, except to develop my own excellent green chile recipe, the centerpiece of Badger Rose Bowl parties. But I often told my wife about all the great New Mexican food that was served there. It was not Tex-Mex food; it was New Mexican, with that unbelievable green chile.

We finally took a trip out there in 2010. We flew in late, and went straight to our hotel. The next morning, as we were driving out of town, headed for attractions in the northern part of the state, she said, ``Maybe we should go to Mary & Tito’s.’’

``Oh, it won’t still be there,’’ I said. ``It was just a little place. And I left in 1977.’’

But she convinced me to check. So we turned the car around.

After some false moves—that portion of the North Valley is a much more intown location than it was in my day—we found the area.

My ramshackle old rental house on Cordova was gone, replaced by a tidy little adobe on a street filled with tidy little adobes.

But around the corner, on 4th Street, there was Mary & Tito’s. It even had expanded, taking over the adjacent storefront.

Excited, we pulled in and were seated by a young man. ``Is Mary or Tito still here?’’ I said tentatively.

He told us that Tito had passed, but Mary would be in shortly. And explained that he was her grandson. This was now a third-generation Mary & Tito's.

Sure enough, Mary came in not long after that and sat with us for a while.

She didn’t remember me, but I described how the place had looked back in the day, and she smiled. It had gone from little more than a glorified lunch counter to a warm and comfortable restaurant.

``Do you remember the time,’’ I said, ``when you had me and my roommate Steve rearrange the frontcase where you kept the cash register and the pickle jar where you could win a free meal?’’

She looked at me a little puzzled.

``The case was over here, and you wanted us to move it over there,’’ I said.

She nodded and smiled. But I don’t think she remembered.

``It’s a good thing you came today,’’ she said. ``My daughter and I are leaving tomorrow. We’re going to New York, to receive a James Beard Award.’’

A James Beard Award for Mary & Tito’s? Very unlikely. But a very wise decision.

Mary died in 2013 at 92. The restaurant is flourishing in the hands of the next generations.

And that, football fans, is what you call a program.


The Wall Street Journal article on Mary & Tito's.[/membership]