Savoring the Unexpected

At John Armijo's general store in Santa Fe, N.M., the tamales have been the draw for a quarter-century.
At John Armijo's general store in Santa Fe, N.M., the tamales have been the draw for a quarter-century. (Clay Ellis - Clay Ellis)
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 16, 2007

Among the many lessons I've learned in my food travels are these: Discovery doesn't have to cost a lot of money, and memorable dining experiences aren't always found in restaurants. Sometimes, something as seemingly mundane as a trip to a convenience store, or a suggestion to have a drink before dinner, yields an appetizing little adventure in the least-expected place. Here are three tales of discovery in three very different cities: Santa Fe, Paris and Washington.

HEED THE SIGNAGE OUT FRONT: Don't try to pay for anything with plastic at Johnnie's Cash Store. "Cash or checks," a visitor is politely reminded by none other than the namesake himself, John Armijo, who helped his father build this low-slung general store in New Mexico's capital in 1946. Ever since, Armijo has stuck with the place, just a short drive from haute art galleries, and he says he has no plan to retire even though his 78th birthday looms next month. The Sam Drucker of Sante Fe, Armijo opens the place "every day but Sunday" at 8:15 a.m., and his commute can't be beat: His home, which he shares with his wife, Bertha, is attached to the business.

Looking around the store, it's hard to believe it's 2007.

Johnnie's mixes soup, cereal, detergent, pet food -- and a few baseball trophies from his sons' youthful triumphs -- in a few aisles of low, unglamorous shelves. The main draw sits near an old-time cash register, in the spot most convenience stores reserve for endlessly spinning wieners. "TAMALES," the hand-drawn sign on a well-worn aluminum warmer shouts out, tempting customers who have dropped by for water or gum to reconsider their restaurant reservations.

They should. Even in New Mexico, where tamales are ubiquitous -- and the bar for them is as high as the elevation above sea level (7,000 feet, for anyone who's counting) -- the husk-wrapped packets of pleasure at Johnnie's stand out as ideals. They're neither too dry nor too soupy, and "each bite tastes fully complete," as my trusted guide to the Southwest dining scene, cookbook author Cheryl Jamison, points out.

Served on paper plates with paper towels, and best eaten at one of the two picnic tables parked outside Johnnie's, the tamales come in three feisty flavors: red chili pork, red chili chicken and green chili chicken, the last of which is the owner's favorite. A bite of any of them explains their position in the store. "They keep the business going," says Armijo, who sells the soft comforts to the tune of about 40 dozen a week, for $1.59 a piece, and gets frequent requests to ship them -- recently from someone in Oklahoma who asked for six dozen. "It would cost three times as much as they cost to ship them!" says Armijo, who declined to do so.

Tamales have been a staple at Johnnie's Cash Store for at least a quarter-century. About 15 years ago, the woman who originally made them died, and Armijo tried out two home cooks whose work didn't come close to hers. A conversation with his beef jerky supplier led Armijo to find a proper replacement in the vendor's sister, a woman from nearby La Puebla who "doesn't want her name to get out," according to Armijo.

Her identity might be a secret. Johnnie -- and Johnnie's tamales -- shouldn't be.

Johnnie's Cash Store,

420 Camino Don Miguel,

Santa Fe, N.M.; 505-982-9506

OTHER THAN THE SIDEWALK, there's no place for patrons at Le Comptoir, the hottest reservation in Paris, to wait for their table. But that small disappointment results in a rich reward when the bistro's acclaimed chef, Yves Camdeborde, turns you on to his unofficial waiting area: La Cremerie, an intimate wine shop less than a block away. (Camdeborde is such a fan that he keeps an open account there.)

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