After being greeted by a “Welcome to Nelson’s” and a held-open door, I stepped inside to find a bustling milieu of customers and staff, working around the intricately arranged and chock-full meat cases. Like a well-oiled machine, orders that were to become tonight’s dinner, the weekend’s barbecue, or the week’s basic fridge fill, were pointed to, picked out, weighed, wrapped up, and passed into the hands of their purchasers by exceedingly friendly staff. Among full slabs of ribs, expertly cut rib eye steaks, and house-made ground meats and sausages sculpted into the shape of a very cute pig, I found my paprika, and much more.
That day, I went home with skirt steak, Albuquerque-made tortillas, house-made red chile, and a ten-pound bag of Colorado-grown potatoes. I made my soup, and it was a hit. More importantly, though, I had found my new go-to spot for all the fixins for when I want to make meat the focus of a meal. And as we move into summer grilling season, what better time to pay Nelson’s a visit?
The multigenerational business was founded by Larry Nelson fifty-seven years ago. Originally from Santa Rosa, New Mexico, Larry grew up in the family cattle ranching business. “My dad was looking for a way to work for himself and support his family in the city,” says his son and the business’s co-owner, Ben Nelson, on a recent visit. The family knowledge of the beef industry served Larry well, as he made every effort to stock his cases with the highest-quality meats available.
To succeed in this, Ben and his father have hustled to forge direct relationships with producers over the years. Today most of their meat comes from Texas and Oklahoma, where the Nelsons manage their own pickups, with twice-weekly trips. On the way back to Albuquerque, they swing through Tucumcari to pick up cheese for the shop as well. These relationships became especially essential during the early days of the pandemic, when chain grocery stores, unable to keep a consistent meat supply in stock, were calling Nelson’s to fill orders.
“There was no nine to five during COVID,” Ben recounts. “It became a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.” Yet, despite the challenges the pandemic presented, Nelson’s Meats kept trucking . . . literally. By picking up goods directly from producers, taking phone orders, and offering bulk-buying discounts, the shop has succeeded in providing the freshest product possible at a price that won’t break the bank.
Last May, when I needed brisket for my little sister’s high school graduation celebration, I was met with a perfectly portioned and trimmed cut of meat waiting for me after a painless phone call and expression of my budget. “The definition of business is to be fair to yourself and be fair to your customers,” says Ben. With frank honesty he adds, “There are some stupid prices out there. We steer people away from them.”
Throughout the years, the shop’s offerings have changed to meet the tastes and preferences of their clients. Nelson’s Meats now sells pre-marinated meats, including a fajita mix and carne adovada, as well as items to fill out the dinner table, like potato salad and hamburger and hot dog buns. Due to demand, Nelson’s has brought in New Mexican–grown chile, and now sells whole dried red pods, freshly ground pods, and freshly roasted green chile, as well as pantry staples like onions and spices.
On the day I visited recently, at least three employees said hello to me and asked if they could help me before Ben emerged from the back to chat with me. This level of service is presumably tied to the care with which Nelson’s treats their employees. “We tell the kids, we are here to help you. If you guys go to school, we’ll pay for your books,” Ben tells me about his employees. Helping the neighborhood have a place to be, to work, and find value in themselves is super important to Ben. “This is a stepping-stone for the community,” he says. His own six kids have all made their way through the business, and one of his sons, now in high school, currently helps on the weekends.
Today Ben and his father own the entire strip mall Nelson’s is located within. They have plans in the works to expand their storefront space, and they also support a local, women-owned business, Gloria’s New Mexico Burritos and More, housed next door. So if meat is on the menu for your dinner plans, don’t forget that Nelson’s is there, has been there, and will continue to be there to serve Albuquerque, hopefully for a long while! Just like the brisket they cut for me last spring, shopping at Nelson’s is sure to be a customized, enjoyable, and efficient experience—and if I can romanticize for a moment, reminiscent of relationships forged over meat and deli counters in days gone by.
If you go:
- Look for their specialty spice blends, made specifically for the shop.
- Don’t miss the chicken thigh and leg combos with skin on. These are great marinated (something they sell too!) and plopped on the grill for a quick summer dinner.
- Look for rare cuts not found at standard groceries, like full racks of ribs, pork loin, brisket, and shoulder roasts. The staff will happily trim fat or specialize your cut—just ask.
- Check out their excellent selection of staple items beyond meat, including Rasband Dairy milks, eggs, sacks of onions and potatoes, dried beans, and Tucumcari cheeses.
- In need of a quick snack? Their mustard potato salad is on par with a New York deli.
- Call ahead and they’ll have your order waiting upon your arrival!
929 Old Coors SW,
Cassidy Tawse-Garcia is a storyteller, cook, and PhD student in human geography at the University of New Mexico. She lives in Albuquerque with her cat, Ham. She is the owner of Masa Madrina, a pop-up food project.