Congratulations to the winners!

The Valencia County News-Bulletin is once again honored to publish its Best of Valencia County special section.

This year — 2021 — has been especially tough on many businesses and community members. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to close at times and curtail services. 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 Breakfast


455 N. Main St., Belen

Phone: 505-864-0093

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday

Jennifer Olguin, granddaughter of restaurant founder, Rudy Jaramillo, has been the manager of the Rutilio’s in Belen for about two years now, and she continues the tradition of good food and a welcoming atmosphere.

“It’s homey. People love our food,” Olguin said. “It’s something they can always come back to; it’s comforting.”

Breakfast favorites at the 20 year-plus establishment include carne, eggs and pappas, biscuits and sausage gravy and, of course, huevos rancheros.

“I want to thank everyone who’s supported us, especially in this last year and beyond,” she said. “It meant a lot and kept us going.”

Best Breakfast Burrito

Blake’s Lotaburger

•799 River Road, Belen

Phone: 505-864-6869

•1395 Bosque Farms Blvd., Bosque Farms

Phone: 505-869-1001

•114 Main St. SW, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-5711

Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

With three different locations in the county, Blake’s Lotaburger continues its streak, once again winning Best Breakfast Burrito.

Across the Southwest, the franchise boasts more than 100 locations, but calls Albuquerque home to their headquarters. Blake’s serves six different options of breakfast burrito until 11 a.m. daily.

Best Sopaipilla, Best Green Chile, Best Salsa

Teofilo’s Restaurante

144 Main St. NE, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-5511

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday

 Teofilo’s Restaurante won in the categories of Best Green Chile, Best Salsa and Best Sopaipilla.

The restaurant opened in 1985 by Pete and Hortencia Torres. Their daughters, Johnnah Torres and Joell Himeur, now operate the business.

“We make our salsa with all local and fresh ingredients,” said Johnnah Torres, operator of the restaurant. “Our chef, Raul, mixes it just right so that it doesn’t get too watery, and it is a recipe that dates back to the 1940s.”

This is the fourth straight year that Teofilo’s has won for Best Green Chile.

“Our chefs make the food with love,” Torres said. “Our chefs love what they do, and it shows in our food. We’re so lucky for our patrons during the pandemic. They kept us going and we are so thankful for that.”

Best Green Chile Cheeseburger

Big Mike’s Burgers & More

19388 N.M. 314, Belen

Phone: 505-864-7918

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Saturday

 The craftsmanship of Big Mike’s Burgers and More’s green chile cheeseburger has continued to delight customers since 2011, and even garnered them a second place trophy at the New Mexico State Fair this year for their burger.

Mike Montaño, owner and operator of the Belen burger joint, says each and every burger is made fresh with a simple seasoning and a special mix of Christmas blend Bueno green chile with his own extra hot mixed in.

“We try to keep it as fresh as possible,” Montaño said of his famous green chile cheeseburger. “We try to stay consistent — that’s the trick.

“I appreciate our customers here in Belen and Valencia County. We wouldn’t be successful here without them.”

Best Red Chile, Best Food Truck

Blue Line Grill

Blue Line Grill, a food truck Joe Portio opened in November 2020, was voted to have the Best Red Chile and as Best Food Truck.

Portio, a retired Belen police officer, was about to return to law enforcement when his wife, Angelica, told him she would buy him a food truck instead. While his green chile cheeseburgers and Philly cheese steaks are customer favorites, he will also offer specialties, such as shredded barbecue pork, smoked sausage and even turkey legs.

Portio makes his red chile fresh every day, and says he uses red chile pods from Lemitar. He admits he uses his wife’s red chile recipe.

Blue Line Grill is parked either at Curbside Towing in Belen or Paul’s Son Signs in Rio Communities from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and at Anna Becker Park every Friday.

“I’m just honored that the good people in our community felt that our food and service was worth recognizing,” Portio said. “We, at the Blue Line

Best Tacos


1675 Bosque Farms Blvd., Bosque Farms

Phone: 505-869-2210

Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday-Monday

 Winning for the third time in the category for Best Tacos is Benny’s.

Opening in 1972, the family-owned restaurant has been a favorite of locals for a while. It is the simplicity that keeps customers coming back for more.

“Our tacos are just simple,” owner Benny Zamora said. “We’re consistent with that, and that makes us good.”

Best Artist

© Judy Chicago/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS New York
Judy Chicago after “Diamonds in the Sky” performance in Belen.

Judy Chicago

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.

Chicago created what would become her most well-known work “The Dinner Party” in 1974. 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 bought the Belen Hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, on Becker Avenue 28 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 gratifying that the citizens of Valencia County consider me their Best Artist and (I am) very glad that my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, and I have received so much community response in terms of the Through the Flower Art Space which we invite everyone to visit,” Chicago said.

Best Attorney

Norm McDonald

1001 W. Delgado Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-864-3333

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

 This year marks the sixth time Belen attorney Norm McDonald has been voted the Best Attorney in Valencia County. While the News-Bulletin’s Best of Valencia County was on hiatus for several years, McDonald continued to practice law in the Hub City, his first and only professional home.

“It has been an honor and privilege to be of service to my clients for 47 years,” McDonald said. “They are more than clients; they are friends and a blessing that I treasure.”

Whether it’s legal advice on real estate, helping with a family’s estate planning or a matter in probate, McDonald says he always strives to put his clients at ease and make them comfortable.

“I greatly appreciate it,” he said of the award.

Best Coach

Kukutla Motlojoa

Kukutla Motlojoa won in the category of Best Coach in Valencia County.

Originally from Lesotho, a landlocked kingdom in southern Africa completely encircled by the country of South Africa, Africa. Motlojoa played tennis at both New Mexico Military Institute, in Roswell, and in Southern Virginia. He now coaches tennis at the Valencia Middle School.

“This means a lot,” Motlojoa said. “It’s great to see the players grow every year, every match really. It makes me excited and I am truly humbled to win this.”

Best Current Female High School Athlete

Johnnie “JC” Trujillo

Johnnie “JC” Trujillo was voted Best Current Female High School Athlete in Valencia County for 2021.

Trujillo is a senior at Valencia High School, and is a member of the Valencia cheer team.

“When I first found out, I thought it was a great honor,” Trujillo said. “I’m so happy all the hard work I put in paid off.”

Best Current Male High School Athlete

Xavier Castillo

Winning this year for the category of Best Current Male High School Athlete is Valencia High School’s Xavier Castillo.

“I’m surprised, to be honest,” Castillo said. “I had heard of the award last year but never really thought I’d be in the running for it. To win it is truly wonderful.”

Castillo is a senior at Valenica High School and is on the Jaguars’ tennis team.

Best Dentist

Dr. Roland Sanchez, DDS

Conquistador Dental

704 S. Christopher Road, Belen

Phone: 505-864-7000

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., every other Friday

Email: [email protected]

 Dr. Roland Sanchez, DDS, opened his practice, Conquistador Dental, in Belen 11 years ago, and offers a variety of services, including teeth cleaning, implants, cosmetic work, oral surgery and more.

Sanchez always wanted to serve his community, and initially went to medical school to be a physician. While in medical school he changed his focus and became a dentist.

After doing his residency in Boulder, Colo., a program he says was a great opportunity, he returned to New Mexico, where he worked on the Alamo reservation and the Albuquerque Metropolitan Jail for a short time before opening his practice in Belen.

“We take care of our patients and they take care of us,” Sanchez said of the community.

He also praised his team of 13 employees, saying, “We were able to create and capture the best team here. I depend on them for everything.”

When asked how he felt about being voted Best Dentist in Valencia County, Sanchez said, “I’m excited. It’s really neat that people took the time to share their opinion, and I’m honored by this community.”

Best Electrician

Daylight Electric and HVAC

Phone: 505-864-3980

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Friday

Daylight Electric and HVAC is now in the hands of the next generation, and this year’s winner in the Best Electrician category. The company was started in November 1997 by Justin Day. In January, when Day was ready to retire, his nephew, Matt Thomas, bought the business.

“I want to thank everyone,” Thomas said. “This feels great, and we’re really humbled by the honor.”

Thomas said he grew up working for his uncle’s company, so the natural thing was for him to take over the business.

“He taught me so much and still is. I talk to him almost every day,” Thomas said.

Thomas and his wife, Denae, employ three technicians, and the company services everything, from replacing an outlet to utility poles and underground power. It also specializes in commercial HVAC and electrical.

Best Financial Advisor

Pavlos Panogopoulos

511 W. Reinken Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-445-1883

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

 After more than three decades of doing business in Belen, Pavlos Panogopoulos says he is humbled, grateful and blessed by the support of the News-Bulletin readers who took the time to submit their ballots and vote for him as the Best Financial Advisor.

“It’s an honor to win this award,” Panogopoulos said. “Thank you to everyone for your confidence and seal of approval.”

Proud to support local charities and organizations, Panogopoulos says he’s excited to see the growth in the Belen business community.

“I grew up in a small town — Carlsbad — so I respect and embrace small town values, as do all our financial team members, Francine Pena and Selina Zamora, who grew up in Valencia County,” he said. “Family and community are the most important things to people here. When people drive by and see my car outside, they know they can drop in and get help with their accounts.”

Founded in Belen and now with an office in Albuquerque, the staff at Panagopoulos Agency believes the best approach to customer service is all about relationships and communication, whether it’s a phone call, email or a visit to their office.

“We have always prided ourselves on being available to our clients. Throughout the pandemic, we have stayed open — while observing COVID protocols — to be physically here in the office. This way, we had access to all the materials needed to give the personalized and customized service we provide to every client,” Panagopoulos said. “We treat our clients as individuals. Our best way of advertising is word of mouth, so, our goal is ro make all our customers, whether prospects or long term clients, feel as though they are the most important person we talk with that day.”

Best Firefighter

Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon

For the second year in a row, Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon has been voted Best Firefighter in Valencia County.

“I’m proud of the fire department because I don’t think it’s really me,” Gabaldon said. “It’s from the hard work and dedication of our crews that allows me to go out there and actually take care of a lot of things we do in the community. I really think this belongs to the firefighters, all of them.”

Gabaldon became chief of the department in 2016, and was first hired as a career firefighter with the department in 1998.

Best Florist

Tie: Amor Flowers and Davis Floral

Amor Flowers

315 W. Reinken Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-864-3677

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday

 A former dance hall and once the Belen Public Library, the little adobe building on West Reinken in Belen is home to Amor Flowers, one of the two Best Florists in Valencia County.

Since 1993, Angela Norman and her husband, Mark, have provided floral arrangements and much more to the community. The shop is bursting with colorful gifts — everything from dainty butterflies to sets of fine china sold on consignment.

Along with floral designer Laurie Pipkin, Norman creates fresh flower arrangements and gifts to suit any style or budget. Whether you call the shop directly or order online, the folks at Amor will design and deliver an arrangement locally or across the globe.

“We are so excited,” Norman said. “I just want to say thank you for everything; this is a honor.”

Amor carries a large selection of plants and gifts, dish gardens, fruit and gourmet baskets, baby gifts, candy and chocolates, silk flower arrangements, plush stuffed animals and balloons. They also offer wedding bouquets, arrangements and on-site decorating for your dream wedding or a special occasion.


Davis Floral

214 S. Main St., Belen

Phone: 505-864-8722

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday

 A recent transplant to Belen’s Main Street, Davis Floral has been a mainstay of the Hub City since 1945 when Dale Davis’ mother, Ruth, opened the shop on Dailes Avenue. After 75 years in business, Davis Floral relocated in 2019.

“I know people have choices. It’s definitely cool, an honor,” Davis said of winning Best Florist for the second time. “We worked hard to get where we’re at and I’m glad people are recognizing that.”

In addition to fresh floral arrangements, Davis’ has added a line of whimsical wind chimes, carries boxed chocolates from Terri’s Sweet Garden in Los Lunas, and recently introduced a line of jewelry designed by a local artisan, Carol Young.

“We are trying to keep business local in our buying,” he said. “We have metal roses created from washers, new ornaments for Christmas, a new line of candles, probably the best selection of wall crosses in town, as well as unique nativity sets. We are also getting a new line of wax melts and heaters from Australia.”

Davis Floral also offers plants, gourmet and fruit baskets, gift baskets, greeting cards and more. The phones are answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they are members of Teleflora, an online delivery system.

Most Helpful Public Employee

Nancy Gonzales

Valencia County Community Development Director

When asked if she feels helpful, Nancy Gonzales chuckles.

“Well, I’d like to think so,” Gonzales says.

The community development director for Valencia County since the end of 2019, Gonzales oversees county functions ranging from business licenses and permits to planning and zoning and code enforcement.

She started working for the county in 2017, as the director of its Older Americans Program.

“Both jobs are definitely serving the public,” Gonzales said. “I interact directly with members of the public on a daily basis.”

The door to her office under the stairwell at the county’s administrative offices in Los Lunas is always open to the public and her fellow employees. Gonzales said she’s always happy to help people get where they’re needing to go in the building or pitch in with a county project.

“People are usually here out of an obligation of some sort,” she said. “When they leave, I want them to feel like their local government and the people who work here are approachable.”

Best Insurance Agent

Selina Zamora

Panagopoulos Agency

511 W. Reinken Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-445-1883

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

As the Best Insurance Agent for the third year in a row, Selina Zamora says she is honored and humbled so many people voted for her.

“It motivates me to work even harder for my customers,” Zamora said. “As a young girl growing up in Belen, I saw how important it was to treat everyone with respect and kindness. Insurance is complicated and something we all need. So, I like to provide different options for folks when they come in or call for coverage so they can make the best choice for their family.”

A licensed insurance agent for more than 11 years, Zamora is in the office five days a week, and keeps up with messages after hours, on weekends and holidays. As an independent insurance agent, she works for the customer, not the insurance companies.

“I quote different companies and compare price. While it’s not always about price, it’s important to compare ‘apples with apples’ when deciding which company and policy to recommend,” she said.

When a customer needs to file a claim, Zamora is there start to finish, talking to the underwriters and streamlining the process for her clients.

“I believe insurance is a relationship business because you have to care about the customer. Everyone has different needs for their family so I treat everyone’s unique needs as an individual process,” she said. “I really care about helping people with all of their insurance needs.”

Best Pet Groomer

Shari’s Pampered Pets

1005 E. River Road, Belen

Phone: 505-864-7646

Hours: 8 a.m. until the last pet goes home, Tuesday-Saturday.

Shari’s Pampered Pets is holding strong onto their title of Best Pet Groomer in Valencia County.

“I’m always excited. I’m glad my customers are pleased and the county feels that we’re the best,” said Shari Gallegos, owner of Shari’s Pampered Pets. “We’re more than excited to receive it. It was kind of a shock.”

Gallegos has been grooming pets for 40 years. Her business, which moved to its current location in 2019, is entirely family owned with Gallegos’ daughters helping to groom animals and other duties around the shop.

“We strive to give 110 percent of ourselves to our customers, and we work on difficult ones and others that some won’t even attempt,” she said.

Best Pharmacist

Richard Brower

Buckland Pharmacy

600 Dalies Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-854-7434

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday-Friday; and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday

 Richard Brower, owner of Buckland’s Pharmacy, continues to hold onto his title of Best Pharmacist in Valencia County.

“We’re just grateful to be here,” Brower said, citing the hardships all businesses have faced over the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Brower graduated from pharmacy school in 1977, shortly buying Buckland’s thereafter from Elmer Atwood in 1979. He has been known to go above and beyond for his customers, even serving after hours in case of emergency and when they’ve just come home from the hospital.

Best Plumber

Hessinger’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling

40 Los Chapulines, Belen

Phone: 505-864-3149

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

 For the second year in a row Hessinger’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling won for Best Plumber in Valencia County.

Hessinger’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling brings more than 20 years of experience. They are family-owned and operated, offering residential and commercial solutions. They service plumbing, heating and cooling needs; everything from drain cleaning to HVAC conversions.

“It’s very humbling to win it,” said Kris Hessinger, owner of Hessinger’s. “Our employees and our customers make this happen. We are truly humbled that our customers have been that satisfied with our work that they keep coming back.”

Best Primary Care Provider

Dr. Karen Phillips, MD

First Choice Community Healthcare Los Lunas Medical Center

145 Don Pasqual Rd. NW, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-4618

Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Friday

 Dr. Karen Phillips, MD, began her medical career late in life, which motivates her to give back. A doctor in Valencia County since 2001 and a resident for five decades. Dr. Phillips is this year’s Best Primary Care Provider, something that makes her feel honored.

Going to medical school was something she’d always considered but it wasn’t until her two children were teenagers did she feel like the time was right for her family.

“I applied and got in on the first go-round, which was kind of amazing. Because I went back so late, I really felt like I owed something back because medical education is expensive,” Phillips said. “I honestly didn’t expect to be practicing in my 70s.”

Before becoming a medical physician, Phillips earned undergraduate degrees in geology and Spanish, two areas of study that didn’t provide a background for medicine.

“But I do use my Spanish every single day,” she says with a laugh.

Because she felt she’d have a limited number of years to practice, Phillips wanted to work for a federally-qualified health center that served an under-served community. She has done that in Mountainair, Belen and now Los Lunas.

Being a doctor in a rural area, Phillips has patients she’s seen for decades.

“You just kind of walk through life with them and it’s an honor. You’re there for the hard times, in the good times. It just keeps you coming back every day because you feel like you’ve done something good,” Phillips said.

Best Principal

Jennifer Otero

Only months after accepting her first administrative position, Jennifer Otero, an assistant principal at Valencia High School, was voted Best Principal in the county.

While she started at the high school in May, Otero has been teaching at the elementary school level for 24 years at both Katherine Gallegos Elementary and Valencia Elementary schools.

“At this point, I think elementary school can be a little boring,” Otero said with a chuckle. “The activity level, the excitement level (of high school), just the complexity of their content, it’s exciting. It’s fun.”

Going to Valencia meant moving back to her home school since all three of her daughters graduated from the school.

“I’m definitely humbled, but I feel like this is the place where I need to be this time in my career, and in order to affect my community in a positive way,” Otero said. “These are the kids who are my neighbors, so I really want to do good by them and their families.”

Best Police Officer

Lt. Adam Keck

Lt. Adam Keck, of the Belen Police Department, has been a police officer for nearly 18 years, first joining the Albuquerque Police Department and then coming to the Hub City in January 2005.

Keck has worked his way up the ladder at BPD, first as a patrol officer, then as a detective and narcotics officer. He was then promoted to sergeant and then patrol lieutenant in October 2019.

Keck wanted to be a police officer since he was in grade school in Kentucky, saying he would go to the school’s library and listen to an audio book about becoming a police officer.

“I used to listen to it all the time,” Keck said.

When he got older, he instead went to aviation school and moved to New Mexico when he got a job at the Albuquerque Sunport working on electronics in airplanes. It was when he was laid off, he decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a police officer.

Keck admits his job as patrol lieutenant is a lot different, as he has less contact with the community than  he once had.

“It’s all about helping those who can’t help themselves,” he said about his career in law enforcement. “It’s fulfilling because you have a purpose — a purpose to help people.”

Keck is grateful for those who voted him as Best Police Officer, but humbly says, “I couldn’t get it done by myself; it’s the guys on the street who are doing it, who are protecting the public. I’m just grateful I can pass down my knowledge to them.”

Best Real Estate Agent

Nancy Montoya

Century 21

2601 Main St. SW, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-866-4721

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday; by appointment on Sundays

Real estate transactions can be stressful, so Nancy Montoya and her team at Century 21 in Los Lunas strive to give each of their customers the attention and care they deserve through the entirety of the transaction.

As this year’s Best Real Estate Agent, Montoya and her team take a customer-first attitude to make real estate transactions a positive and successful experience.

“That experience is what encourages referrals and repeat business,” Montoya said.

She was recently awarded the 2020 Grand Centurion® Producer award, the most prestigious award presented to Century 21® real estate professionals. Only a small number of producers reach the goal. The 2020 award makes for 27 years of Centurion® production for Montoya.

Best Teacher

Shannon Watling

School of Dreams Academy teacher Shannon Watling has been voted Best Teacher in Valencia County, a recognition she was “completely shocked” to get.

Watling teaches agriculture and engineering to grades six through 12th at the charter school.

“It made me really reflect on what I had been doing in my classroom, and made me want to push harder for the kids that did nominate me for this award because I feel like I can do so much more,” Watling said. “(I am also) very appreciative for the kids that recognize the tough days that we have had within the past couple of years, and just realize that the extra work that I had been doing is not going unnoticed … I’m very thankful.”

Best Veterinarian

Dr. Florian Sanchez, DVM

Yucca Veterinary Medical Center

1837 Camino Del Llano, Belen

Phone: 505-864-6001

Hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

Dr. Florian Sanchez, DVM, owner of Yucca Veterinary Medical Center in Belen, has been practicing veterinary medicine in Belen since 2013.

He started his clinic on Main Street and renovated a much larger building on Camino del Llano and reopened in January 2020.

Yucca Veterinary Medical Center offers services for your family pet and large animals, including internal medicine, dentistry for companion pets and equines, canine lameness, orthopedic surgery and more.

Dr. Sanchez is a member of the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

He said he became interested in veterinary medicine when he was an undergraduate while working for a veterinarian in Texas.

“I worked with him, and saw that I could give back to the community, too,” Sanchez said. “It’s a calling — God has a plan for us.

“It’s an honor that people feel that way about us,” he added of being voted Best Veterinarian. “Sometimes it just feels like work, but it’s fulfilling knowing we have the community’s support. A lot of what I’ve learned goes back to my dad (the late Dr. Roland Sanchez) and how he offered the best care for the community.

“We do what’s best for the pet, and the services we can provide,” he said. “The best practice is to be honest with people, which has always been proven to be successful.”

Best Volunteer

Rhona Espinoza

Rhona Espinoza has been a member of the Pilot Club of Belen for nearly 25 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 president-elect, and will be installed as president in July.

“It’s been a beautiful journey, and I’ve been entrusted with some amazing appointments, and it’s just going to be awesome,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza is also a volunteer member of the Valencia County Juvenile Justice Board and the Attendance for Success Board, which encourages students to stay in school. She has volunteered since 2006 at Christian Faith Chapel in Belen, where her husband, Rudy, is the pastor.

“I feel blessed to be chosen again (as Best Volunteer), because there are so many dedicated volunteers in this county that deserve it,” she said. “I have been so blessed in my life that in order to show my appreciation and my gratitude I want to give back. It’s pouring out of myself for all the blessing that has come to me.”

Best Auto Shop

Zeke’s Auto Repair

419 E. River Road, Belen

Phone: 505-864-4425

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Friday

 Zeke Jaramillo isn’t there anymore but his name is still on the sign. Under the ownership of Paul Baca since 1991, Zeke’s Auto Repair is this year’s Best Auto Shop.

When Baca worked in sales — a career that spanned more than 20 years — he developed a friendship with Jaramillo. The bond ran so deep that Baca would take a week of vacation every year to run the shop so Jaramillo could take time off.

When Jaramillo was ready for retirement, Baca bought the shop and kept its unique name.

“I’m really honored to receive this,” Baca said. “I’m glad people recognize the work we do.”

Baca attributes the success and longevity of the shop to his and his employees’ willingness to go the extra mile for a customer.

“If something isn’t right, we’ll make it right. We’ll bend over backwards for a customer,” he said. “It all comes down to credibility. You’re only as good as your word.”

Zeke’s handles everything from computer diagnostics to oil changes, major engine repairs, diesel work and farm equipment.

Best Art Gallery

Tomé Art Gallery

2930 N.M. 47, Tomé

Phone: 505-565-0556

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday

From contemporary to traditional southwestern art, weaving, jewelry, pottery, religious art, books, postcards, fabric art and more, Tomé Art Gallery offers something for everyone at a multitude of price points.

The co-op run gallery displays works from 32 consignment members, seven working members, six member/managers, and six authors and musicians

“We are humbled that our loyal customers and the community have been so supportive throughout the ups and downs of the past years,” said photographer and co-op member Heidi Snell.

Toni Edwards, a potter and co-op member, said the gallery being voted Best Art Gallery reinforces the feeling of support all the artists at the gallery get from the community and  “encourages us to keep producing quality art and crafts.”

Having recently celebrated 25 years in business and as the gallery owner, potter Jan Pacifico said being chosen in the Best of Valencia County competition is humbling, especially where there are so many fine art galleries in the community.

“We are proud of our artists, of their dedication to their work and of their commitment to the community,” Pacifico said. “To be recognized for all that, is an honor.”

Best Bakery

Manny’s Fine Pasteries

515 Main St. NE, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-7082

Hours: 6 a.m.-1 p.m., Monday and Saturday, 6 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, Closed Sundays

For the sixth year in a row, Manny’s Fine Pastries has taken home the award for Best Bakery.

Since opening in Los Lunas 25 years ago, Manny’s Fine Pastries has been family-owned and operated. Manny Gutierrez first bought the bakery and opened it in 1996. Now, his daughter, Betty Jean Villa, owns and operates the bakery.

“I do it for the name on the sign and door,” Villa said. “My dad, he taught me everything. He taught me how to do it with love. Anyone can make food, but if you make it like you’re in a hurry to leave it won’t taste good. Making it with love is the way to go, and customers taste that.”

Best Barbershop

Mario’s Barbershop

2210 Sun Ranch Loop, Ste. C, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-550-9473

Hours: 7 a.m to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; and 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

 Mario’s Barbershop is coming up on a 2-peat in the Best Barbershop category, an accomplishment owner, Mario Sandoval, says he is proud of since the business has only been open since 2019.

“The first two years we’ve been open, we’ve ended up winning, so that’s pretty cool,” Salazar said.

Salazar was a barber for 10 years before pursuing his own barbershop in November 2019. He also has previously been named Best Barber in the county, a category not offered this year.

Best Child Care

Sunshine Kids Preschool & Childcare Center

33 El Cerro Rd., Los Lunas

Phone: 505-565-1812; 505-865-9047

Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday

 Four-star certified with the New Mexico Focus Program, Sunshine Kids Preschool & Childcare Center has been voted as the Best Child Care in Valencia County.

“We feel very honored and blessed that the community we serve has chosen to recognize our efforts to provide a loving, safe, Christian atmosphere for families and children where kids can play, grow, and learn in ways they will take with them for the rest of their lives,” said Pastor Alanna McDuff.

The child care center is a ministry of Cornerstone Church, and is a non-profit, child-centered learning environment providing age appropriate education in a nurturing atmosphere to foster spiritual, social, physical, emotional and cognitive growth.

Sunshine Kids participates in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, so children are assured healthy meals and snacks at the center.

Best Community Service/Nonprofit Organization

Belen Area Food Pantry

129 Third St., Belen

Phone: 505-318-8234

Hours: 9-11 a.m., Tuesday and Thursday

 When you’re feeding about 2,000 people a month, you’re going to need some help. Between a steadfast group of volunteers, who are mostly seniors, and donations from the community, the Belen Area Food Pantry manages to help keep food in pantries throughout the Belen Consolidated Schools district.

“It’s all about the people — both the volunteers and the customers,” said volunteer Robin Holbrook. “A lot of people have come to rely on us.”

The service provided by the pantry takes a good deal of work and can be stressful, but the benefits definitely outweigh the bad, said BAFP board president Joe Portio.

“To help somebody helps you. It’s therapeutic,” Portio said. “It feels good to give back. You can be having the worst day, but you come volunteer here, you go home knowing you’ve helped.

“To get this recognition is amazing.”

Best Financial Institution

Nusenda Credit Union

320 Main St. NE, Loss Lunas

Phone: 505-889-7755

Hours: Lobby and drive-up: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday; Drive-up video teller: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Friday; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday

 The local branch of Nusenda Credit Union, the state’s largest credit union both in membership and assets, has won for Best Financial Institution this year.

“We are honored to be named the Best Financial Institution by our members and the Valencia County News-Bulletin readership,” said Valencia Nusenda office manager Judy Sandoval. “This award reflects the dedication of the Valencia Nusenda branch team to making a positive difference in the lives of our members and the community.”

Nusenda members have access to many financial products and solutions, plus easy ways to support the communities and causes they care about. The credit union offers checking and savings accounts, mobile and internet banking, money management resources, plus Community Rewards® and The Power of Change® programs which support local communities and causes.

Best Funeral Home, Best Place to Work

Noblin Funeral Service

418 W. Reinken Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-864-4448

2211-D Main St., SE, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-866-9992

 Being voted Best Funeral Home tells Noblin Funeral Service owner Robert Noblin one thing ­— his staff members are going above and beyond for the families they serve.

“It means they are doing everything to make sure the people we serve are being taken care of,” Noblin said. “That we’re paying attention to details, that we were serving people with compassion.”

In the 16 years since he opened his doors in Belen, Noblin has seen his business grow every year and is on track to serve about 600 families throughout Valencia County by the end of this year. Along with the Belen location, Noblin Funeral Service has a Los Lunas office as well.

“Ultimately, we hope a lot of the votes for this came from the families we served,” he said. “We aren’t perfect; we’re always in trial-and-error mode, but at the end of the day, we do try to make each experience unique and compassionate, to the individual and to the families’ needs.”

Listening to his employees, implementing their ideas and taking their input to heart is what makes Noblin Funeral Service the Best Place to Work, says owner Robert Noblin.

“It feels great because we like our employees to bring their own ideas to the table. We value them, take them to heart,” said Noblin. “We put them to use in many situations.”

Some employee ideas Noblin’s has implemented include the purchase of a laser engraving machine, so customized items can be done in-house for families, a Christmas-time lantern release to honor the departed and taking many interactions digital.

“We’ve gone digital with many things, like making arrangements online. We can pretty much do everything digitally, which is part of these strange, new times with COVID,” he said. “That was implemented by one of our employees. Being willing to listen to their ideas lets our employees know they are valued.”

Best Gym

Planet Fitness

1950 Ken Haynes Rd., Los Lunas

Phone: 505-565-5506

Hours: Open 24 hours

 For the first time, Planet Fitness-Los Lunas, a gym which prioritizes creating “a judgment-free zone” was named the Best Gym in Valencia County.

Although there are more than 2,000 Planet Fitness gyms nationwide, only the Los Lunas location exists in Valencia County.

Customers can make the most out of their fitness experience with small group training sessions, personalized exercise programs and certified trainers. Planet Fitness also has a variety of high-quality, brand-name cardio and strength equipment available.

Best Hair Salon

Hair Innovations

403 Main St., Belen

Phone: 864-4334

Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., seven days a week

 For the past 37 years, Hair Innovations, owned by Ronnie and Barbara Torres, has been the go-to hair salon for generations of families.

From color and cuts to eyebrow threading and perms, everyone in the family can stop by for a little primping and beautifying.

The Torres’ daughter, Sabrina Sweeney, one of seven stylists and the manager of the Belen salon, says even though they’re a small staff, they’re like family, always helping one another.

“We are all very grateful that the salon has been so successful for so many years,” Sweeney said. “We know people have a lot of options, and people come back time and time again.”

Sweeney credits the salon’s success to quality work, their friendly staff and excellent customer service.

“It’s all about the customer,” Sweeney said. “We want to make sure they feel comfortable, safe and leave feeling beautiful.”

Ronnie and Barbara Torres opened Hair Innovations in 1986, and have continued to support the community with cut-a-thons and sponsoring local schools, sports teams and events.

Sweeney says the staff is dedicated to their customers and learning new styles for their clients. They attend at least one hair show every year and have continuing education classes in the shop at least twice a year.

“We try to stay up-to-date on the latest styles so we can provide it for our customers,” Sweeney says.

Best Hardware/Lumber Store

RAKS Building Supply

108 Carson Drive, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-1100

Hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

For the fifth straight year, RAKS Building Supply has won in the category for Best Hardware/Lumber Store.

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.

“It’s awesome to be honored once again,” owner Kenny Trujillo said. “Thanks to everyone who voted for us.”

Best Home Furnishings

Home Furniture Co.

704 Main St., Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-9891

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Saturday

Customers of Home Furniture Co. in Los Lunas have been frequenting the family-owned business since 1962 when Bernard and Eva Sanchez, and Bernard’s brother, Benny, opened it.

Through the years, their loyal customers have been able to purchase everything from recliners to sofas to beds and refrigerators to stoves to washer and driers.

Sisters Marilyn and Beverly Sanchez inherited the business about 10 years ago when their parents retired. Home Furniture Co. in Los Lunas has the store along with two large warehouses.

“We have wonderful customer services, low prices, free delivery and set up,” Marilyn says of why they have so many repeat customers. “We also have generations of families who come back.”

The sisters say people are loyal to this family-owned and operated business because they like the small, hometown atmosphere they provide at Home Furniture Co.

“We treat them like they’re family,” Beverly said.

“This is a huge honor,” Marilyn said of being voted Best Home Furniture.

“We’re happy our customers trust us,” Beverly said. “We feel we’ve earned our customers’ trust throughout the years.”

Best Locally-Owned Business

Hodge’s Oil Co., Inc.

201 W. Reinken Ave., Belen

Phone: 505-864-8611

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

Before there was Hodge’s Oil Co., Inc., Frank D. Trainer, Benny Hodge’s maternal grandfather opened Continental Oil Co. in 1923. His father, Benny Sr., ran the operation after he returned home from World War II  in 1946.

When Benny Jr. was in Vietnam, he learned his father was ill with a brain tumor. When he returned home to Belen in December 1969, his father passed away and he took over the family-owned business in January 1970. It was in 1978 that the company was incorporated, becoming Hodge’s Oil Co., Inc.

The company is a distributor of petroleum products — gasoline, diesels, motor oil, lube oils and anti-freeze. Hodge’s Oil has two bulk plants, one in Belen and another in Socorro, and employs 13 people, with Benny Hodges as the CEO of the company, and his daughter, Alexandra Hodges-Swinford, serving as president.

“We primarily sell to retail outlets — Al’s Mini Mart and Young Baca’s here,” Hodges said. “We sell in seven counties. We have commercial accounts, retail accounts, government accounts and agriculture accounts. We pick up refined product at different terminals and operate transports as well.”

Hodges said he believes they’ve remained in business for so many years because they’ve focused on giving reliable customer service.

“It’s never been my desire to be the largest, but it’s always been my desire to be the best,” Hodges said. “I was surprised to learn we were voted Best Locally-Owned Business, but we’re flattered.”

Best Park

Daniel D. Fernandez Memorial Park

1103 N.M. 314, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-839-3845

 Daniel D. Fernandez Memorial Park, located on N.M. 314 in the village of Los Lunas, was once again voted Best Park in Valencia County.

“It’s an honor to be voted the best park,” said Jason Duran, director of Los Lunas Parks and Recreation. “Every year, we always strive to do some sort of improvement to the parks to help the community, so the community can continue to enjoy it.”

For more than 40 years, the park has been the go-to spot for many local events and outdoor activities. It contains numerous sports and outdoor facilities such as tennis courts, soccer and football fields, horseshoe pits and a new splash pad which opened to the public for the first time this past summer.

“It’s one of our oldest parks in the village, and the mayor and council every year continue to give us funding to continue to improve it,” Duran said. “It’s an honor, definitely.”

Best Place to get a Sweet Treat

Teri’s Sweet Garden

120 Main St. SW, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-865-5834

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday to Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Since 2010. Teri’s Sweet Garden has been a Los Lunas staple, serving nearly any kind of treat a sweet tooth might be craving. For the third year in a row, the shop was named Best Place to get a Sweet Treat in Valencia County.

Teri’s Sweet Garden Owner, Teri Leahigh said this year the recognition means more than in previous years because of the amount of competition springing up around the county.

“Now, we have the Paleta Bar, we have the Rainbow Candy Shop, that I know of,” Leahigh said. “I’m sure there are more little ones, so there is more competition now. We feel very blessed and privileged to win this three years in a row.”

Best Restaurant


2350 Main St., NE, Los Lunas

Phone: 505-565-2055

Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday

 A common staple of the best foods lists, Rutilio’s finally snagged the holy grail, Best Restaurant.

“It’s pretty cool. We’re very happy and excited and proud,” said Joey Acanfrio, co-owner of Rutilios’ Los Lunas location.

Joey and his wife, Natalie, opened the Los Lunas Rutilio’s in 2012, and have managed it for nearly a decade. In past, the restaurant has been voted in other categories, but this is the first year they have received Best Restaurant.

“We appreciate the customers and those who voted for us. They are the reason why they picked us,” Acanfrio said. “I’ve got my staff, too — staff and customers, they are what make us.”

Best Thrift/Consignment Store

Adelante Bargain Square Thrift Store

19554 N.M. 314, Belen

Phone: 505-923-4250

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday-Saturday, except holidays

Calling the Hub City home since 2005, Adelante Bargain Square Thrift Store was once again named the Best Thrift/Consignment Store in Valencia County.

The store helps those with disabilities by giving them jobs and teaching them about the workforce.

The store is owned and operated by Adelante Development Center.

“Adelante is thrilled that Bargain Square Thrift Store has once again been voted as the Best Thrift/Consignment Store of the Year for Valencia County,” said Rebecca Sanford, Adelante’s president and CEO. “We are grateful for the shoppers and donors who have continued to support our efforts and Adelante’s mission, and for our amazing operations team who process thousands of donations a day to make Bargain Square the great store that it is.”

Best Tourist Spot

Belen Harvey House Museum

104 N. First St., Belen

Phone: 861-0581

Hours: 12-5 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday (last tour at 4 p.m.; masks required)

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, the museum coordinator, said she is elated to once again accept the honor on behalf of the volunteers at the museum.

“We’re of course thrilled to be re-opened, but not only were we closed for a year, the museum stayed relevant online, and forced us to do things we never did before and made us think outside the box,” Zeller said. “It gives me a great sense of pride and gratitude, especially for our volunteers who are local. We have volunteers who feel this museum is part of their history and the community.”

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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.