Twin brothers Jim and John Thomas have fond memories of dinnertime in their childhood home.
“We sat down as a family to eat together every night at 5:30, and it was always a home-cooked meal,” Jim says. “Both of our grandmothers were phenomenal cooks, and our parents used their traditional recipes. Our dad’s family came from Hungary, and our mom’s side is from Las Cruces.”
Coming from a long lineage of excellent cooks, it’s not surprising that the Thomas brothers own the iconic El Pinto Restaurant & Cantina in Albuquerque. El Pinto arose from humble beginnings, built as a one-room restaurant with a small kitchen in 1962 by Jack and Connie Thomas, the twins’ parents. Jim, John and their four siblings grew up helping in the restaurant, but the twin brothers purchased the business from their parents in 1989. Since then, they’ve expanded it to seat more than 1,000 guests in five patios, three indoor dining rooms and a cantina, making it the largest New Mexican restaurant in the state.
“We’ve been consistent over the years with our food, using the highest-quality, freshest products and serving our family’s recipes that are close to our hearts,” John says. “Our parents and grandparents didn’t have a lot, but they were happy and they ate well. Having quality food was important to them. My grandma would always say, ‘Panza llena corazón contento,’ which means ‘Full stomach, happy heart.’ ”
New Mexican Cuisine is in the Family
Today, Jim and John Thomas are carrying on their family’s tradition by serving fresh, farm-to-table cuisine to hungry customers for lunch and dinner every day, as well as brunch on Sundays.
“We’re known for our Hatch roasted green chiles and sun-dried red chile from Hatch – both are phenomenal,” Jim says. “We use all organic and no chemicals. Our culinary style is back to the basics, with fresh corn, chiles, beans, eggs, chicken and pork. Our pork comes from a producer 20 miles away, and we try to source everything local that we can.”
One of El Pinto’s most requested dishes is the famous red chile ribs. Their signature baby back ribs were named the “No. 3 Ribs in America” by the Food Network and are marinated in red chile and slow baked until they fall off the bone.
“People fly in from all over the world to eat our chile ribs,” Jim says. “We use authentic New Mexico Hatch red chiles and no sugar at all.”
Customers also flock to El Pinto for its fresh guacamole, which has been voted “Best Guacamole” by the locals in Albuquerque The Magazine for seven years in a row. El Pinto’s chile con queso, dry-aged steaks, tamales, red chile enchiladas and huevos rancheros are other popular dishes.
Because of their notoriety for to-die-for New Mexican cuisine, the Thomas brothers have been pleased to serve several U.S. presidents.
“A lot of people have walked through these doors,” John says. “The Bushes have eaten here, and the Obamas have enjoyed our ribs. Hillary Clinton ate here during the campaign, and we even did take-out for Air Force One on the tarmac in Albuquerque.”
Green Chile Is King
Because of the demand for the unbeatable flavor of their chiles and sauces, Jim and John were motivated to add the El Pinto Foods’ salsa division in 2000. The addition allowed people all over the country to savor the flavors of El Pinto salsa and green chile sauce at home. The salsas and green chile sauces are produced in a 15,000-square-foot manufacturing facility within walking distance of the restaurant. They come in hot, medium and mild varieties and can be purchased at the restaurant, in retail food stores around the country or shipped nationwide.
One of the things John enjoys most about his job is interacting with their 200 employees.
“They are like family,” he says. “We spend more time with them than our own siblings. The customers are too. We had an 89-year-old lady eat with us recently who reminded me of when we had chickens outside the window in the 1960s. We’ve found that when you feed people, they become your friends.”
Jim agrees. “The food business is so dynamic. You start with great soil and healthy plants, and then you prepare it and deliver it to your customers,” Jim says. “We have a passion for it. It gives us joy. And when our customers show gratitude and say, ‘Thank you,’ that really tops it.”