The Valencia County News-Bulletin is once again honored to publish its
Best of Valencia County special section.
This year — 2020 — has been especially tough on many businesses and community members. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to close at times and curtail their services.
Students and teachers are having to learn and teach remotely, and student-athletes may have to wait until spring to start their sports season.
We appreciate our community — more now than ever — for their continued vigilance and support.
The winners of the Best of Valencia Contest were voted on by our readers. We thank everyone who participated, and congratulate all the winners of this year’s contest.
Best Beef Jerky
Get Hooked on Jerky
3072 N.M. 47, Tomé
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday
Starting with one flavor and now, 37 years later, offering seven custom blends that can satisfy just about anyone’s pallet, Hooked on Jerky has been voted the Best Beef Jerky in Valencia County.
The little store opened in Tomé in 1984 under the name Sunset Foods Carne Seca de Santa Fe. After a fire in 2014 completely destroyed the processing facility, owners Tanya and Jordan Lapira decided to reopen under the name Get Hooked Quality Foods Inc.
“We were closed for a little more than a year,” Jordan said. “But all over, we’d run into customers asking when we were going to reopen. We kept hearing ‘I got hooked on your jerky’ or ‘you hooked me on jerky,’ so we decided to rebrand.”
Tanya’s father, Frank Arellano, still makes the jerky and unlike many jerky companies, instead of using dehydrators, Get Hooked uses a custom walk-in oven designed and built by Arellano.
“All of our recipes are a custom blend of the finest quality products. Our chile comes straight off of the chile farms in Hatch,” Tanya said. “We clean it, dry it and turn it into a chile marinade in which our meat will then marinate for at least 24 hours before we cook it.”
In addition to a new flavor, Caliente, which features the Hoff and Pepper company’s sauce, Get Hooked On Jerky introduced a line of body soaps, bath bombs and men’s beard and shaving products in 2018, as well as their own apparel.
“I tell my staff all the time we don’t just sell a product we sell a service,” Tanya said. “We want our customers to know that when they walk through our door they’re not just a customer, they’re family.”
3463 Main St. NE, Los Lunas
Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday (temporary hours)
If you want a pile of papas or a buttermilk pancake nearly the size of your head, Weck’s is the place to get breakfast.
DonnaJo Grant, the assistant manager at the Los Lunas restaurant, called winning the Best Breakfast category “awesome,” saying she, general manager Laura Tyll and the entire staff pride themselves in over-the-top customer service.
“And we’ve been given that back a hundred fold from the community, especially all the support through the pandemic,” Grant said. “We have a lot of regulars we are really fond of; they’ve become like family, too. We are really, touched by this.”
A popular signature breakfast dish at Weck’s is the papas bowl or plate — a mountain of fresh hashbrowns topped with anything from bacon, ham and sausage to fresh carne adovada and two eggs.
“Our pancakes are bomb, too. They are made from scratch with real butter milk,” Grant said.
Best Breakfast Burrito
•799 River Road, Belen
•1395 Bosque Farms Blvd., Bosque Farms
•114 Main St. SW, Los Lunas
Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
Blake’s Lotaburger, with three different locations in Valencia County, was once again voted as the winner of the Best Breakfast Burrito. Blake’s has nearly 100 locations across the southwest and is headquartered in Albuquerque. Breakfast burritos are available until 11 a.m at all three Valencia County locations, and Blake’s carries six different options to start the day off.
Best Chile Relleno
Best Green Chile
144 Main St. NE, Los Lunas
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Sunday
The Best Chile Relleno goes to Teofilo’s Restauranté, who created the dish to be light but crispy while still giving the full flavor of the chile. Opening in 1985, Teofilo’s serves New Mexican food with it’s own twist.
“The panko breading on the relleno is light and we get lots of compliments,” Melanie Boone, a manager, said.
For the third year straight, Teofilo’s has won the Best Green Chile category. The restaurant was founded in 1985 by Pete and Hortencia Torres, and is now operated by their daughter, Johnnah Torres.
Teofilo’s is across the street from the famed Luna mansion.
“As a local business, we are happy to bring good flavors like our green chile,” said Boone, a manager who has been at Teofilo’s for 15 years.
Best French Fries
Circle T Burgers
•523 S. Main St., Belen
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m., seven days a week
•625 Reinken Ave., Belen
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Circle T Burgers, in its sixth decade of business in Belen, has earned the distinction of having the Best French Fries in the county for the fifth straight year.
With two locations in Belen, Circle T Burgers is owned by Phil Tabet, and managed by his children. In addition to their regular fries, Circle T also has cheese and chile cheese options available to complement one of their burgers.
Best Green Chile Cheeseburger
Big Mike’s Burgers and More
19388 N.M. 314, Belen
Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday
For the fifth year in a row, Big Mike’s Burgers and More has won the Best Green Chile Cheeseburger.
Owner, Mike Montano said he includes a special blend of green and red chile with the burger, which is a true quarter pounder. Each burger has its own special seasoning, and customers will sometimes order a double or triple-stacked burger.
“All of us here put in a lot of hard work and hours this year due to the ongoing pandemic,” Montano said. “We are very appreciative and thankful for the people of Valencia County for all their support.
“We are glad we can provide a great green chile cheeseburger for everyone to enjoy over the years.”
Big Mike’s opened in Rio Communities in 2011 and moved to it’s Belen location in 2018.
Best Ice Cream
3457 N.M. 47, Los Lunas
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday through Sunday
Ice cream is a favorite of many as the days get hotter, and Baskin Robbins in Los Lunas has been the spot for locals to grab a scoop or two.
With a variety of flavors, such as chocolate, vanilla or even a sherbert of some sort, Baskin Robbins can make most frozen treats whether it be an ice cream cone, a sundae or a milkshake.
Tiffany Sanchez, co-owner along with her business partner Walter Sullins, have owned the Baskin Robbins in Los Lunas for the last two years. Sanchez, who was born and raised in Los Lunas, said she was happy to win Best Ice Cream, and thanked the customers.
“We are so excited to have received this award,” Sanchez said. “We cannot thank our loyal customers enough and we appreciate the continued support and are happy to serve Valencia County.”
Casa de Pizza
106 Vallejos Lane, Los Lunas
Hours: 4:30-8:30 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 4:30-8:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 4:30-8 p.m., Sunday
Opening its doors 45 years ago, Casa De Pizza was the first pizza restaurant in Los Lunas. Now a half a century later, they’re still serving Valencia County’s Best Pizza.
Restaurant owner Andrew Barreras’ uncle, Tony Moya, founded the restaurant. When he retired, Barreras and his wife, Dorothy, took over the business. With the help of their three children, Casa De Pizza has stood strong for 25 years.
When it comes to the pizza itself, everything is made with the customer in mind. The ingredients are fresh and the product is homemade. This is what ultimately sets Casa De Pizza apart from other restaurants, along with the fact they make custom pizzas with your choice of crust, including gluten free, wheat or cauliflower.
Andrew said there’s a couple of reasons why customers keep going back to Casa de Pizza.
“It’s really a couple of reasons — we’re consistently good and they realize how hard we work,” Andrew said. “We have seen generations of customers — loyal customers. A lot of the customers have been so good, doing little things for us and they go out of their way to thank us for still being here.”
He’s especially grateful for his customers during the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Because Casa de Pizza has such a loyal customer base, they’ve decided to keep their prices the same although their expenses has increased.
“We’re kind of stuck; we don’t know what to do because our profit margin is less and less. We still want to keep our customers happy, and it’s been really sad to see how (the pandemic) has affected our customers.”
Best Red Chile
105 N. First St., Belen
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday
Pete’s Cafe in Belen is a perennial favorite in the Best of Valencia County contest. This year, the 71-year-old restaurant has won two categories — Best Red Chile and Best Salsa.
Marie Torres and Camille Padilla, owners of Pete’s Cafe, bought the Belen restaurant in October from the Torres siblings, making them the third generation to own and operate the New Mexican eatery.
The partnership between Torres and Padilla, who had been managing the restaurant for a combined total of 15 years, came about because the two had been thinking about their future and realized they wanted something more.
“We both decided we wanted to go into a partnership, and we spoke to the family and they all were at a point and wanted to retire and move on with their lives,” Marie said.
Winning the Best Red Chile category is special to Padilla and Torres, who said they’ve been using their grandmother’s recipe since the beginning. Evelyn Jaramillo has been making the red chile at Pete’s Cafe for 35 years.
“We use fresh pods, and we slowly cook it all day,” Camille said. “We make it fresh every day.”
“Our customers say they love it and it’s authentic,” Marie said. “It’s hot, but it’s hot enough. It’s very consistent — always the same.”
The salsa at Pete’s Cafe is also a recipe that has been served to customers for decades. While different cooks have made the salsa, it too is made fresh daily.
“We want to thank the community for this honor,” Camille said.
1700 Bosque Farms Blvd., Bosque Farms
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday; 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday (hours may vary)
Sopa’s has won Best Sopapilla for the second year in a row, and has been operating its Bosque Farm restaurant for nearly 20 years now.
Taking form in 2002, the family-owned restaurant serves up made-from-scratch New Mexican food, including its famous sopapillas.
“We take pride in our food that is home cooked,” Vanessa Gonzales, one of the owners, said.
1675 Bosque Farms Blvd., Bosque Farms
Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday (temporary hours)
For the second time, Benny’s is taking home the honor of Best Tacos in the county. The family-owned restaurant has been a staple in the village of Bosque Farms and Valencia County since 1972.
Owner Benny Zamora said on a good Taco Tuesday, he and his staff serve about 1,500 tacos.
“It’s probably a bit less now, with everything going on,” Zamora said. “It’s very nice to win, especially in these times. I think what makes us the best is our pricing and consistency. Our tacos are nothing gourmet, just a basic taco, but we’re consistent and good!”
BEST COUNTY FOLK
Judy Chicago, who lives in Belen along with her husband, photographer, Donald Woodman, is an artist, author, educator and feminist, whose career spans more than four decades. Her art has been widely exhibited in the U.S. as well as around the world.
A graduate of the University of California-Los Angeles with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in art, Chicago turned her attention to the subject of women’s history in 1974 and began creating what would become her most well-known work “The Dinner Party.” This large-scale, multimedia project, which includes weaving, china painting, ceramics and needlework, is a symbolic history of women, and is now on permanent display in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
In 1978, Chicago founded the nonprofit arts organization, Through the Flower, to serve the general public and especially K-12 schools with educational programs that communicate the importance and power of art through exhibitions, workshops, seminars and lectures, as well as a website and study center.
The couple, who have now been married for 33 years, bought the Belen Hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, on Becker Avenue 27 years ago. They moved in after three years of renovation and restoration.
In July 2019, Chicago and Woodman opened Through the Flower Art Space in Belen, which includes a permanent room of photos and narration depicting the history of the internationally-acclaimed artists in the Hub City.
“It is especially meaningful to me to be chosen by my community as the Best Artist as it’s important to me and my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, to make a contribution locally,” Chicago said. “And I’d like to invite everyone to make an appointment to visit the Through the Flower Art Space and see our work.
“In terms of what being a artist means to me, it has given my life incredible meaning and provided me the opportunity to travel all over the world.”
1001 W. Delgado Ave,, Belen
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday
Norm McDonald has been practicing law for 46 years, and has previously served as the Belen city attorney. He is a second generation lawyer, following in the footsteps of his father-in-law Gilberto Espinosa, who practiced law in Albuquerque for many years.
“It was been an honor and privilege to be of service to my clients for the past 46 years,” McDonald said. “They are more than clients, they are friends and a blessing that I treasure.”
Best Barber & Best Barbershop
2210 Sun Ranch Loop, Ste. C, Los Lunas
Hours: By appointment (temporary hours)
This year has been up and down for Mario Sandoval and his shop, Mario’s Barbershop.
“I would have liked it to be a little more up than down,” Sandoval says with a laugh.
Despite the downs, he’s marking his first year of owning his own shop on a high note — being named the Best Barbershop and Best Barber in Valencia County.
“Honestly? It makes me feel successful,” Sandoval said. “I feel like I made a name for myself, I try to take care of the customers the best way I can and hope they remember my name and come back. I guess it’s worked.”
Sandoval has been a barber for 10 years and stepped out on his own in November 2019, with Nathan Chavez and Deruk Dominguez.
Being able to support them in their careers and hopefully move on to owning their own place is something Sandoval enjoys.
“I’m hoping these guys open their own shop one day; it’s a good reflection,” he said. “If they want to spend 10 years here, I would love that too, but five years from now, even two, if they want to go on to another shop or their own, that opens up a space here to bring in someone else for a chance.”
Mario’s Barbershop offers not only hair cuts but hot lather shaves and hot steams as well, all in a modern, sleek setting.
“I wanted to do something more modern,” he said. “A bit more of a modern spin but still a barbershop.”
Due to the changing COVID-19 restrictions, Sandoval said the shop isn’t taking walk-in customers and asked that customers call ahead for an appointment.
19392 N.M. 314, Belen
Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday
Professional Contracting has been in Belen for 12 years, serving all of Valencia County as well as the rest of the Middle Rio Grande Valley — from Socorro through Santa Fe — and can handle any task from building a new home to redoing a bathroom, as well as providing all of the fixtures needed for any project.
“We really appreciate the community here and the time everyone took to vote,” said owner Art DelaCerda said “It’s easy to overlook us with all the big companies based out of Albuquerque so it’s nice to be honored in this way.”
Dr. Cecil Sandoval, DDS
601 Dalies Ave., Belen
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday
Dr. Cecil Sandoval, DDS, has been practicing in Belen for 38 years, opening his office in 1982. Sandoval has helped generations of families throughout his years of practice.
Sandoval offers a wide variety of services, including laser dentistry, implants, oral surgery, cosmetic dentistry, bridges, teeth cleaning, whitening and more.
The local dentist says it’s God’s will to have been able to serve the community for nearly four decades.
“The majority of my patients come from word of mouth — literally,” Sandoval said. “I just rely on God sending them.
“I’m proud that I have a good staff,” he said of being voted Best Dentist. “They’re not just voting for me; they’re voting for the whole office. These guys are what make it work. I am only as good as my help and I have excellent help.
“Thank you, Josephine, Sandy, Deb, Tina, Priscilla and Julie for your outstanding dedication and loyalty toward the patients’ needs and concerns.”
In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sandoval and his staff have taken extra precautions to ensure the safety and health of patients by installing a UV light system in the office.
3539 N.M. 47, Peralta
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday
Based in Peralta, Randy’s Electric Co. has been named the Best Electrician in Valencia County for the third straight year.
Founded by Randy Smith and his wife, Bonnie, in 1980, the company has been serving the county ever since. In addition to serving Valencia County, Randy’s Electric serves areas as far south as Socorro and as far north as Santa Fe.
The skilled electricians at the company can handle any project, no matter the size or complexity.
Best Financial Advisor
511 W. Reinken, Belen
Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday
Pavlos Panagopolus has been operating in Belen for 34 years, and has expanded his business to include Albuquerque but has kept his headquarters in Belen. He handles everything from college funds to retirement planning and 401Ks. He has previously served as president of the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s the community that is so good,” Panagopolus said. “People here are very humble, they’re very loyal. My staff here is so good, when I bought the Albuquerque office I was able to focus all my attention on that because I knew the group here had everything handled and I didn’t have to worry about it.”
John Gabaldon has been the fire chief of the Los Lunas Fire Department for five years.
He began volunteering for the fire service in Los Lunas and Belen, and was hired as a career firefighter at the Los Lunas Fire Department in 1998.
Gabaldon said his upbringing and lessons he learned from his grandparents helped guide his conscious to give back to his community.
“It was an opportunity to give back to the community who gave to me for years,” Gabaldon said. “Being part of the area made me want to help.”
Being a firefighter, Gabaldon said it was about joining in and making a difference. Through his career with the Los Lunas Fire Department, he’s learned a lot, saying it’s been a great experience to be part of a team that has grown the department into what it is today.
“We continue to progress and move forward as a department,” Gabaldon said. “The most rewarding part is being able to be there and help people through a rough time. Being part of a solution is the most rewarding part and seeing the positive outcomes.
“Being the fire chief in the midst of a pandemic, I think it shows what our firefighters can do and the effort they put forward,” the fire chief said. “It isn’t about me, it’s the department — we’re a team. It’s all of us as a unit.”
Gabaldon says while he’s grateful being voted Best Firefighter, if it wasn’t for the effort and hard work of the men and women of the Los Lunas Fire Department, he couldn’t do his job.
214 S. Main St., Belen
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday
Davis Floral has been in business since 1945, when Dale Davis’ mother, Ruth, opened up the shop on Dalies Ave. in Belen. After 75 years in business, Davis Floral moved in 2019 to its new location on Main Street in Belen.
Davis Floral not only offers fresh floral arrangements, but they have plants, gourmet and fruit baskets, gift baskets, greeting cards, candles and more.
The phones at Davis Floral are answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they are members of Teleflora, an online delivery system.
“It’s an honor; we try our hardest to be the best. We work very hard to be the best in the area,” said owner Dale Davis. “It makes us feel really good that people recognize that. It’s an unbiased opinion from the community because we don’t even vote for ourselves.”
Best Hairdresser & Best Hair Salon
403 Main St., Belen
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturdays; 9 a.m.-noon, Sundays
Ronnie Torres has been styling hair for more than four decades — a career he’s always loved. He has been chosen Best Hairdresser for the past six years, and says he’s extremely grateful.
Torres, who owns and operates Hair Innovations in Belen, began his career 43 years ago when a friend suggested he go to school to learn the trade. Since then, he’s never looked back, saying it’s never been just a job for him.
“It’s very humbling; very nice,” Torres said of being voted Best Hairdresser. “I think they still like me. They’re more than my clients; they’re my family, and sometimes they’ll tell me things they won’t even tell their family.”
Ronnie and Barbara Torres opened Hair Innovations in Belen in 1986, and it has been in operation at the same location ever since. While Torres said it was a “big risk” opening a hair salon, it’s been a good ride.
Over the past 36 years, stylists have come and gone, but they’ve always remained friends, Torres said. Today, Hair Innovations has nine stylists and one nail tech.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt business at the hair salon, Torres says many of his loyal customers still frequent the shop.
“People have been really good to us,” Torres said of the customers. “They always come back.”
Most Helpful Elected Official
One little know fact about Robert Noblin is he plays the accordion, but not very often and only in the privacy of his own home.
Publicly, Noblin plays the piano and keyboard, and for that was voted the Best Musician this year.
Growing up the grandson of a Southern Baptist minister, Noblin started playing the piano when he was 4 years old. He listened to his grandmother practice church hymns for Sunday morning services, and learned to play by ear. By the time he was 8, Noblin was playing in church on Sundays.
“When I got to my junior year of high school, my band director finally made me take lessons. He said things were going to get more difficult and I couldn’t fake it,” Noblin says with a chuckle.
After moving to Belen, he played regularly in the band Salvaged but music has become more a stress reliever in recent years.
“It gives me a completely different place, away from work and everything else going on,” he said. “I’ve always been a very versatile musician, so I can jump in with a country group on keyboards just as easily as I could jump into you know, a cover band or a blues band.”
While many may appreciate his ability to string together musical notes, Noblin also has the distinction of being named this years Most Helpful Elected Official.
A Belen city councilor of one year, Noblin says he tries to be helpful to residents by responding quickly and finding creative solutions, with some help.
“As a public official, I have the honor of working with some other great people in the city of Belen,” he said. “We can throw out an idea and they make it happen.
“We’re elected to make difficult, yet fiscally responsible decisions. People may not always agree with your decisions, but I just think, in any elected position, if you always aim for what’s right, it’s hard to go wrong.”
Most Helpful Public Employee
After 20 years working for Valencia County, Orlando Montoya is always willing to help. Now the human resources director for the county, Montoya began working for the county assessor’s office in 2000.
“I helped anyone who came through the door, no matter what they needed. I would take them to the clerk’s office to file a deed, over to the treasurer’s to pay a tax bill. Whatever I could do,” Montoya said.
His desire and inspiration to help comes from his father, Carlos Montoya. A councilor for the village of Los Lunas, Montoya saw how his father helped people in the community.
“We’d see people when we were out and they’d thank him for helping them with an issue,” he said. “Growing up, I wanted to be like him, carry on that tradition. When you know you helped someone, it’s very fulfilling.”
Even now, Montoya will take the time to redirect and assist someone who calls his office accidentally.
“I’ll be like, ‘sure, I can look that number up for you.’ Sometimes, I can help them figure out who to call or where they need to go,” he said. “After all my experience working in government, I really feel like public service is my job — to help people get through the system, navigate the process and maybe get through some of the red tape a little quicker.”
Best Insurance Agent
Selina Zamora has been with the Panagopoulus Agency in Belen for more than 10 years providing insurance to the people of Valencia County.
“It is a pleasure to serve the community every day, especially now in these trying times,” Zamora. “It is an honor to provide insurance to the families in this community.
“Insurance can be confusing and complicated, my goal is to help find the right insurance for their families at the best price. I can’t thank everyone enough for voting for me for the second year in a row.”
Fr. Clement Niggel
The pastor at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church since June 2014, Fr. Clement Niggel was again voted the Best Minister in Valencia County.
This is the fifth time, Fr. Niggel has received the honor in the last six years.
“This year it’s even better because everybody needs pick-me-ups,” Niggel said. “Being recognized for all the hard work done, especially this year, it’s a good pick me up. I appreciate being nominated and chosen this year.”
Erica Nelson has been with Ambercare in Valencia County for nearly a decade, working as a hospice care nurse and executive director.
Her passion for helping others has netted her the Best Nurse in Valencia County this year, and she was shocked to hear she won the award in this time of the pandemic.
“It feels awesome,” Nelson said. “I’m shocked. It feels like all the hard work and dedication you put into something, that you’re making a difference in this community.”
Dr. Donald Leach, OD
943 Main St. SW, Los Lunas
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday
Dr. Donald Leach has been practicing optometry in Los Lunas for 44 years, and said it was heart warming for him to be recognized by the community as the Best Optometrist in Valencia County.
“Practicing here has been a great experience,” Leach said. “A lot of great people — people of all ages and backgrounds — all kinds of different kinds of eye problems.”
Leach, who spent the majority of his childhood in Albuquerque, settled in Los Lunas after doing his education and training at Ohio State University. With no optometrist in Los Lunas at the time, he saw a need and decided it was his to fill.
“We never advertised anything, it was all word of mouth,” Leach said. “But that worked for us.”
Having practiced in the area for more than four decades, Leach said he now has the benefit of having seen multiple generations from some families, which helps him spot conditions he knows run within the family sooner than he might latch onto them otherwise.
Best Pet Groomer
Shari’s Pampered Pets
1005 E. River Road, Belen
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; and every other Saturday
Shari Gallegos, owner of Shari’s Pampered Pets in Belen, has been a groomer for 38 years. She moved her business to its new location in 2019, where she was able to buy rather than lease.
Since 1982, Gallegos has been a certified dog groomer, and has provided not only grooming all breeds of dogs and cats, but the occasional bunny rabbit. Shari’s Pampered Pets also has a doggie day care, but only for daytime hours right now.
The business is all family run, with Gallegos’ daughters, Jolene Sokohl, Dominque Gallegos and Krystal Kaiser also grooming animals. Gallegos said shes been successful because of the bond she forms with her clients.
“It’s because of the dedication we give to the customers,” she said. “We’re consistent, and we strive on giving them 110 percent.
“It’s an honor to win, especially when you beat out those big box stores,” Gallegos said. “A lot of people think because it’s corporate, they’re better, but they soon realize they’re not.”
Gallegos is grateful for her loyal customers, some, she says, comes from around the state, including Las Cruces, Socorro, Los Lunas, Albuquerque and Magdelena.
600 Dalies Ave., Belen
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday
It’s been a tough year all over, with the COVID-19 pandemic, but Belen pharmacist Richard Brower, this year’s Best Pharmacist, is still going.
“I’m grateful to be here. It’s been a tough year,” Brower said.
When asked what sets him apart from other pharmacists, Brower chuckles.
“Well … I am the only pharmacy in Belen that advertises in the News-Bulletin,” he said.
Brower went to pharmacy school, following his brother Daniel’s footsteps. He graduated from pharmacy school in 1977, and bought Buckland Pharmacy from Elmer Atwood in 1979.
Brower has been known to serve his customers after hours, in an emergency or when they’ve just returned home from the hospital.
Best Plumber (Tie)
40 Los Chapulines, Belen
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday-Friday, with after-hours emergency services available
Kris Hessinger started Hessinger’s Plumbing in 2016 after running a similar company in Albuquerque for many years. He said driving to Albuquerque every morning while watching trucks from Albuquerque-based companies come into Valencia County always left a bad taste in his mouth, so he decided to start a business in his hometown of Belen.
Hessinger runs the company with his wife, Elizabeth, and works alongside his four children
“It always drove me nuts to see five or six plumbing companies coming down here from Albuquerque to my hometown,” Hessinger said. “I figured there was a need and sure enough there was.”
There is enough work within the county to keep them busy, but they also service surrounding areas.
“It’s awesome to be recognized like this,” Hessinger said. “I thought we could get here, but I never thought it would be this quickly.”
5000 Edith Blvd., Albuquerque
Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday – Friday; open 24 hours in cases of emergency
TLC, based out of Albuquerque, tied with Hessinger’s Plumbing for the Best Plumber in the county. Started by Dale Armstrong in 1987, TLC has offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and serves the entirety of the Middle Rio Grande Valley.
In addition to plumbing, TLC was voted No. 1 in this category outright in each of the last two years, making this the third straight year the company has been among the Best of Valencia County. In addition to plumbing, TLC also handles heating, cooling and electrical.
Best Primary Care Provider
Dr. Joseph Aragon, MD
127 Sandoval Road, Los Lunas
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday; 9 a.m.,-12 p.m., Fridays
For the third time in the last four years, Dr. Joseph Aragon has been voted Best Primary Care Provider in Valencia County.
Dr. Aragon, who currently runs a practice out of Los Lunas, was honored to win the award.
“Humbled and blessed to receive this award. Very gracious for community members,” Jennifer Guggino-Othart, officer worker, said on behalf of Dr. Aragon.
Mildred Chavez has been a lifelong educator, including the last decade as principal of Sundance Elementary School in Los Lunas.
Born and raised in Los Lunas, Chavez had previously won Best Principal in New Mexico in 2007, her 25th year as an educator. More than anything, she loves helping children grow.
“This is totally unexpected,” Chavez said. “But I’m grateful.”
Best Police Officer
Los Lunas Police Chief Naithan Gurule started his law enforcement career in July 2002 when he joined the Los Lunas Police Department. He was named chief of police in March 2014.
He became interested in a career in law enforcement as a young boy after watching his aunt and uncle, who were both police officers.
“I’m excited,” Gurule said. “It’s neat to get that positive feedback. It makes me feel the effort I put into my job is recognized by the public.”
Gurule has won the coveted title of Best Police Officer for several years in a row, and when asked if the honor get’s old, he says it’s the opposite.
“It becomes more motivating because I want to make sure I do a good job,” the police chief said. “There’s no room to slack.”
Best Real Estate Agent
Century 21 Real Estate
2601 Main St. Los Lunas
Nancy Montoya has been named the Best Real Estate Agent in Valencia County once again this year.
Montoya, who is based in Los Lunas, serves the entire Albuquerque metro area in addition to Valencia County. She has been named a Grand Centurion Producer for Century 21 each of the last five years and focuses on putting her clients first.
Victoria Jaramillo has been teaching first grade at La Merced Elementary School for 22 years. The 1988 Belen High School graduate earned her elementary education degree from The University of New Mexico in 1994.
Growing up, Jaramillo always wanted to be a teacher, and initially, Jaramillo went into the profession to have the same days off as her own children. But once she got into the classroom, her passion for teaching shined.
“It’s so fun to see the growth in my students; how they learn and to see the light bulb turn on,” Jaramillo said.
In the more than two decades as an educator, Jaramillo has seen two generations of families go through her classroom, and she’s proud to be able to see how some of her students turned out — members of the military, police officers, doctors and nurses.
“With social media, I can see how good they’re doing,” she said. “It’s great.”
The Belen Consolidated Schools teacher said this year has been the most challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s like my first year all over again,” she said.
Teaching first grade, she is used to being more interactive with her students, but the “new normal” of social distancing and remote learning has been a challenge.
“Now, all I can give is air hugs and wave at them,” she said. “I try to be as creative as possible because I want to reach all the kids.”
Dr. Brenda Mack, DVM
Valencia Animal Clinic
1533 E. River Road, Belen
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. – 12 p.m., Saturday
Brenda Mack has been honored as the Best Veterinarian in Valencia County for the second year in a row. Mack has worked in Belen for more than 20 years, and is a graduate of the veterinary program at Colorado State University.
“I would have to say, it makes me very uncomfortable,” Mack said of being voted Best Veterinarian. “I wouldn’t be the best vet without all the people who work here with me.
“I feel like we’re the best veterinarian clinic. It’s truly every one, from the person that answers the phone to the person who cleans the kennels. We have an awesome team and we work really well together. Our mission is to help not only pets but also their people.”
Rhona Baca Espinoza
Rhona Baca Espinoza has been a member of the Pilot Club of Belen for more than 23 years, and has served in all of the executive board positions except for treasurer. She has also served on the executive board of the Southwestern District, and is in her fourth year serving on Pilot International’s executive board, where she is currently vice president.
Espinoza is also a volunteer member of the Valencia County Juvenile Justice Board, the secretary of the New Mexico Coalition of MainStreet Communities, and has volunteered since 2006 at Christian Faith Chapel in Belen, where her husband, Rudy, is the pastor.
“I’m just overwhelmed with thankfulness because I think about the outstanding volunteers in our county, and being considered is just an honor and I appreciate it so much.
“I volunteer because I have a wonderful life and it’s my way of giving back and showing appreciation for the great life I have. I give back because I have been given so much.
“When you volunteer, you’re the one who gets the blessing more than who you volunteer for. It’s a great feeling to be able to give back. It’s a way of showing how grateful I am.”
BEST BUSINESS & SERVICE
Best Auto Shop
Pete’s Pro Truck and Auto Repair
1101 Don Felipe Road, Belen
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m.,
Pete and Leticia Garcia opened Pete’s Pro Truck and Auto Repair, at 1101 Don Felipe Road in Belen, on May, 14, 2012. They specialize in repairing any make and model — domestic and imports — from changing wiper blades and having your oil change to an engine overhaul.
Pete’s Pro Truck and Auto Repair does a lot of fleet work, which is about 75 percent of their business, to include Los Lunas Schools, BNSF, PNM and others.
“We offer honest and quality repairs with warranties,” Pete said of their service.
“We have a good relationship with a few other shops; we try to work together instead of against each other,” Leticia said.
The Garcias said the secret to their success is the shop’s consistency and crew.
“We have a good crew here — people who actually care about what they do,” Pete said. “We’ve had a lot of people come and go, but this crew we have is great.”
When asked what being voted Best Auto Shop means to them, Leticia said, “We’re extremely honored and thankful, especially during this time. Without our customers, we wouldn’t be anything. We definitely take it with gratitude.”
“Our goal is to always be the best, and we take pride in what we do,” Pete said. “We stand behind our employees and that’s what we have to do.”
Best Art Gallery
Tomé Art Gallery
2930 N.M. 47, Tomé
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays
The 60-member artist co-op in the heart of the historic community of Tomé offers a wide array of artwork, including fine art, weaving, jewelry, pottery of all sorts, bottle-cap creations, religious art, poetry and fiction and non-fiction books, felted bags and wall hangings and much more.
There is something to please almost everyone, from the contemporary to the more traditional southwestern look. Tomé Art Gallery also holds numerous art shows throughout the year.
Jan Pacifico, gallery owner and member, said she is grateful for everyone who voted, and for the gallery’s loyal customers.
“It’s a real big honor this year because there’s a lot of stiff completion out there with all the galleries in the county,” Pacifico said. “We’re really proud of our commitment to our community and from our community especially now during the pandemic.”
The gallery was shut down from March through September when the members decided to open for a couple of days a week.
“It’s been really good,” she said. “The month of October was as good as a regular October when we were open all the time. People are shopping for the holidays.”
Manny’s Fine Pastries
515 Main St. NE, Los Lunas
Hours: 6 a.m.-1 p.m.. Monday and Saturday; 6 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; closed Sundays
Manny’s Fine Pastries was first opened in 1996 when Manny Gutierrez purchased the bakery. Originally, it was a doughnut shop. It is the fifth year in a row Manny’s has won this category.
Betty Jean Villa, Manny’s daughter, and her husband currently own the bakery. They took over in 2002, and her daughter, Mari Zilla, helps her run the shop.
Villa says it’s a full-line bakery that serves more than just doughnuts; they serve cookies, iced cookies, cakes, tortillas, and other pastries.
“We are just honored to win again,” Villa said.
Best Child Care
Wright Choice Learning Center
901 W. Vivian Road, Belen
Hours: 6:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.
Wright Choice Learning Center in Belen was once again voted as the Best Child Care facility in Valencia County, winning for the fifth year in a row.
Run by Sandra Baca, Wright Choice has been in business for more than 30 years. Despite the challenges that have come with trying to manage remote learning as well as the extensive sanitation and personal protective equipment that 2020 has mandated, Baca’s facility has continued to serve families throughout the region non-stop, staying open when other facilities in the region closed.
Best Community Service/Nonprofit Organization
CASA Partners 4NMKIDS
CASA Partners is a volunteer-based organization operating in different locations throughout the state, including in Los Lunas. However, they operate all throughout Valencia County.
The organization deals with neglected and abused children, working their own investigations into the lives of adolescents and presenting their case to local judges.
Teresa Romero and Linda Griego are the two local volunteer coordinators, and both were excited to find out they were chosen as the best nonprofit this year.
“It’s a big honor to win,” Romero said. “We are helping give foster kids here a voice.”
Best Financial Institution
State Employees Credit Union
•19390 N.M. 314, Belen
•280 Emilio Lopez Road, Los Lunas
Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.,
Monday through Friday
State Employees Credit Union, with locations in Belen and Los Lunas, has been voted the Best Financial Institution in Valencia County for the fourth straight year.
SECU has been around for nearly 60 years and is a non-profit, a move which they say allows for more money to be invested back into the credit union to provide better services and rates to its members.
Despite the name, anyone can join SECU, whether a state employee or not. Providing loans, checking and savings accounts and services for businesses as well as financial planning, SECU provides a full slate of services to its members.
Best Food Truck
Big Mike’s Burgers and More
1540A Bosque Farms Blvd., Bosque Farms
Hours: 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday
While 2020 may not have seemed like the best year to launch a new business venture, Chris Montano and Lorraine Garcia thought otherwise.
In June, Big Mike’s Burgers and More got into the food truck game, and were voted the Best Food Truck in Valencia County.
“That’s where it’s at now. It’s the only way to go,” Montano said of the addition of mobile dining to the restaurant’s well-known sit down eatery in Belen.
The menu for the food truck is very pared down compared to the Belen restaurant, he said.
“It’s basically burgers and Phillies,” Montano said. “We have some specialty things like tortilla and taco burgers, carne asada fries, and weekly specials like a grilled chicken sandwich. But with the limited room, we have a pretty simple menu for daily service.”
Winning the category, new this year, feels amazing he said.
“Big Mike’s has come a long way since 2011. We have a good name for ourselves,” he said. “I think we have a bigger following than others and next year, things might change and someone else will win.”
Looking to the future, Montano said they are planning for another, bigger truck.
Montano recommended customers call ahead to order, since some days are busier than others.
Best Funeral Home
Best Locally-Owned Business
Noblin Funeral Service
•418 W. Reinken Ave., Belen
•2211-D Main St. NE,
When Robert Noblin was 27, he realized he had to make a choice. As the manager of a large, corporate funeral home in his native state of Virginia, he had to decide whether to stay with the safer, stable corporate world or fulfill his long time goal of owning his own business.
He decided to strike out on his own and, after looking at funeral homes in several different states, Noblin decided Belen was going to be home.
“I made the leap of faith. My thinking was if I show up in the middle of New Mexico and I fail, I’ll tuck my tail and head back east and nobody will remember,” he said.
The first year in business, he served 41 families. Now, in 2020, Noblin Funeral Service is on track to serve just more than 400 families.
Named both the Best Funeral Home and Best Locally-Owned Business, Noblin said as a business owner that isn’t a large, corporate chain he feels a certain type of responsibility to the community.
“I think what makes us different is the community’s ability to come in and deal directly with the owner. That makes people feel special, feel welcome,” he said. “Chances are, I’m not going to walk into Walmart and deal with a Walton family member.”
Noblin Funeral Service has two locations — Belen and Los Lunas — as well as a crematory in Belen.
As families have to grieve in a different way this year due to COVID-19, Noblin has given the funeral home’s website several updates to make it more user-friendly and incorporate more features for those mourning from afar.
They also live-stream services through the website, since in-person gatherings are limited in numbers.
“We’re really trying to accommodate families during this time,” he said. “I think my own, personal losses in the last six months with my mother, then my grandfather, has really brought me full circle into empathy and wanting to treat people the way I was treated.
“It has been a very tragic year and it has grounded me again into the reality that people need and deserve compassion. We might have 400 funerals this year, but the only one that counts is the one that person’s having for their loved one.”
Best Grocery Store
2351 Main St. SE, Los Lunas
Hours: 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday through Sunday
Since 1991, Albertsons Market in Los Lunas has offered Valencia County shoppers a wide variety of groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and ready-made meals, as well as a pharmacy, full-service deli and bakery, and beer, wine and spirits.
This year, the store was voted Best Grocery Store for the fourth year.
“We’re honored,” said Eric Quillmann, assistant store director. “We try to take care of every guest who comes in. We have a great team — they do most of it with their great customer service. “All our guests are like family here; everybody knows everybody.”
Main Street Muscle and Fitness
435 Main St. SW, Los Lunas
Hours: 4:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday-Sunday
Chris Sais, owner of Main Street Muscle and Fitness Center, is happy that his local gym has been voted Best Gym once again, for the fifth year in a row.
With a variety of gym equipment such as dumb bells, bench presses and treadmills, Main Street is the go-to spot for locals looking to stay fit.
“I have so much appreciation for this community,” Sais said.
Best Hardware/Lumber Store
RAKS Building Supply
108 Carson Drive, Los Lunas
Hours: 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday
RAKS Building Supply, based in Los Lunas, has been in business since 1986 and has since expanded to five stores ranging from Edgewood to Socorro.
Owned by Richie Tabet and Kenny Trujillo, the two were in a situation where they wanted to set out on their own, and the result was RAKS. Both were born and raised in Valenica County, and do what they can to give back to the community. This is the fourth straight year RAKS has won in this category.
“We want to thank everyone in the county and the community for voting for us and helping to put us on top,” Tabet said.
Best Home Furnishings
204 N Main St., Belen
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday
Having been in business nearly 70 years, Hub Furniture currently calls Belen home and has been run by the Sanchez family the entire time. Michael Sanchez, the current owner, took over for his father about 30 years ago.
Sanchez said community members in Belen and the surrounding areas can rely on Hub Furniture for low prices and reliable furniture. And it’s local, too.
“It’s nice to be acknowledged by people,” Sanchez said. “We are dependable, good prices and service is the most important thing to us.”
The store sells couches, dining room sets, among other home furnishings.
Best Landscaping Company
Rio Grande Landscapes
19535 N.M. 314, Belen
Rio Grande Landscapes specialize in providing residential and commercial landscape design, construction and maintenance.
The local company offers computer-aided designs customized for site conditions and customer preference.
They also offer a complete line of landscaping services including lawns, fencing, gravel and wood mulches, sprinkler and drip irrigation, retaining walls, water features, decorative concrete and masonry and flagstone.
In addition, they offer irrigation, pest control and reclamation services. The company is now offering the installation of low voltage landscape lighting.
Best Local Social Media Site & Best Local Website
Valencia County News-Bulletin
221 S. Main St., Suite B, Belen
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday
Once again, the Valencia County News-Bulletin has been chosen as the Best Local Website and Best Local Social Media Site by the residents of Valencia County.
“We appreciate people taking the time to vote for us and acknowledge the hard work our staff puts into our website and social media platforms,” said editor/publisher Clara Garcia. “We take great pride in being able to offer Valencia County timely and important, and sometimes just fun, information about what is happening in our community.”
The News-Bulletin is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Daniel Fernandez Memorial Park
1103 N.M. 314, Los Lunas
Daniel D. Fernandez Memorial Park in Los Lunas has been around for 40 plus years, and remains a go-to spot for any type of outdoor activity for those in and around Los Lunas
With different outdoor activities, such as tennis courts, a softball field, a soccer/football field and horseshoe pits, the village of Los Lunas recently added a splash pad over the summer to the park, though the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the use of it for community members.
Parks and Recreation Director Jason Duran said this park is a top priority for the village and Mayor Charles Griego, as they constantly try to make improvements to it for the community.
Best Place to get a Tasty Treat
Teri’s Sweet Garden
120 Main St., SW, Los Lunas
Hours: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday
With Teri’s Sweet Garden celebrating 10 years of serving up tasty treats at the beginning of November, the Los Lunas candy shop has been voted the Best Place to get a Tasty Treat for the second year in a row.
Serving a variety of candy and other snacks, Teri’s Sweet Garden owner Teri Leahigh is happy to still be the go-to spot for sweet treats in Los Lunas.
“I am so excited to win again especially because there has been more competition locally,” Leahigh said.
Best Place to Work
444 Luna Ave., Los Lunas
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday
It was a welcome surprise for Valencia County Manager Danny Monette to hear the county had been voted Best Place to Work this year.
“It all comes back to communication. I have an open door and people can come to me with issues and we work together until we find solutions,” Monette said. “We all communicate very well and back each other up. This is a smart, capable group of people who know policy and procedure, know the law.”
Monette said in recent years, the county has been able to offer more to employees, such as paying 100 percent of an employee’s health insurance and 80 percent of the family plan’s cost.
“That means there’s a lot less coming out of their paychecks,” the manager said. “We’ve also been able to do little things, like the employee of the month, which has been good for building morale.”
As an organization, Monette said the people who are a part of it are what makes the difference.
“Not only do we have a lot of smart people working here, they are people with heart. This is their community. They want to be here, they’re invested,” he said. “They enjoy making things better for Valencia County.”
As the county manager, Monette has five bosses — the members of the board of county commissioners — who set the goals for the county.
“The commissioners, all of us, want to bring bigger and better things to Valencia County, and improve on what we have,” Monette said.
2250 Sun Ranch Village Loop, Los Lunas
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday
Mariscos Altamar, a regular winner in multiple categories, was voted into the 2020 edition of Best of Valencia County in only one category — Best Restaurant.
Opened by Edgar Hernandez in 2013, Mariscos Altamar has an extensive menu, and has previously won for their nachos and their bar area which are both still staples of the location.
“It’s dope,” Hernandez said of the honor. “We’ve been here for eight years, so I’m not surprised. If you want to be the best, it should be expected.”
Best Retail Store
Ross Dress for Less
2353 Main St. SE, Los Lunas
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Sunday
Ross Dress for Less in Los Lunas is relatively new, having been around since 2018.
The store sells name-brand clothes such as Nike, Puma, Adidas and others, and it has been the new go-to spot for clothing and accessories in Los Lunas.
Not only that, Ross sells other stuff, too, such as home accessories, electronic accessories, jewelry, perfume and toys. This is the first year Ross has been voted Best Retail Store.
Best Thrift/Consignment Store
Adelante Bargain Square
19554 N.M. 314, Belen
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Sunday
Operating since 2005 in Belen, Adelante Bargain Square Thrift Store helps those with disabilities by giving them jobs and teaching them about the workforce.
The thrift store is owned and operated by Adelante Development Center, and won Best Thrift Store last year as well.
“This year has held a lot of challenges for retailers, so Adelante is especially gratified to be honored as the 2020 Best Thrift Store in Valencia County.
“Not only have we had to follow all of the health orders, we moved this summer and had to reset the entire store. We have never been more grateful for the locals that support our mission as shoppers and donors,” Reina Chavez, Adelante’s vice president of community operations, said.
Best Tourist Spot
Belen Harvey House Museum
104 N. First St., Belen
Hours: By appointment only during the COVID-19 pandemic
The Belen Harvey House Museum specializes in Harvey House, railroad and Southwest history, but it is also a space where you can find a variety of exhibits. Thousands of visitors come to the Hub City and the Harvey House to view exhibits featuring history, art and is a branch of the Belen Public Library.
Belen’s Harvey House operated from 1910 to 1939. It had a first-class dining room and a lunchroom with a large horseshoe-shaped marble counter.
In the 1940s, it briefly reopened during World War II, with many Harvey Girls coming out of retirement to serve troop trains. In the 1950s, it became the Santa Fe Reading Room for railroad employees, serving as a break room and dormitory through the 1970s.
Boarded up and readied for demolition, a campaign by citizens of Belen saved the building from being torn down. In 1982, the Santa Fe Railroad donated the building to the city of Belen and hundreds of volunteers began restoring the building.
The Harvey House reopened in 1985 as a civic center, a scattering of government and nonprofit offices and small museum. In 2013, the Valencia County Historical Society turned over management of the museum to the city of Belen.
Frances Zeller, who has been the museum coordinator for five years, said she is elated to once again accept the honor on behalf of the volunteers at the museum.
“It’s a real honor to me; I’m here every day and I’m the one who manages the Harvey House and works with the volunteers,” Zeller said. “To have that trust and respect from the community is wonderful. We don’t always do everything right and don’t appeal to every person, but we try. It’s a little bragging right for us.”
The Valencia County News-Bulletin is a locally owned and operated community newspaper, dedicated to serving Valencia County since 1910 through the highest journalistic and professional business standards. The VCNB is published weekly on Thursdays, including holidays both in print and online.