Seared – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Seared on San Pasqual in Albuquerque’s Old Town

While you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, sometimes a book title will resonate deeply and you know you’re going to enjoy reading it very much. That’s especially true when a book title warmly reminds you of nostalgic memories long buried in your past. Such was the case when I espied Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood by award-winning raconteur Regi Carpenter. That title aptly described daily life for the long suffering Peraltas, our childhood neighbors in Peñasco. Mama Peralta, one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, was such a scatterbrained cook that she used the smoke alarm as a timer. She didn’t sear meat, she cremated it. Even the cockroaches at the Peralta home ate out. So did her children who had more meals at our kitchen table than they did at home.

“Wait,” you ask, “isn’t searing a technique practiced by great chefs?” In the hands of the right person, searing is indeed a culinary technique used to build deep savory flavors. Searing meats, chicken, fish and other proteins at high heat caramelizes their surfaces, imparting a deep-brown crust, especially on thick cuts. Searing crisps the skin on fish and imbues pork chops and other animal proteins a deep layer of flavor in a short amount of time. Alas, Mama Peralta’s idea of searing meat involved heat that was much too low (which allowed her to focus on the marathon phone call sessions in which she engaged at around meal prep time). As a result, the inside of the meat cooked at the same rate as the outside, resulting in very little browning, a zombie-gray pallor, ”carne seca” texture and a perpetually disappointed (and hungry) family.

The Dining Room at Seared

For entirely different reasons, a visit to Seared, a high-end American bistro on San Pasquale Avenue in Albuquerque’s Old Town, also reminded me of our deliciousness-deprived neighbors. At Seared we experienced the type of deliciousness our neighbors never enjoyed when Mama Peralta practiced her unique brand of meat mummification and her family prayed after they ate. Perhaps divine intervention would have occurred had the Peraltas lived on a street named for the patron saint of cooks and kitchens. Then again, Mama Peralto often used the San Pasqual retablo hanging on her kitchen wall as a place to drape dish towels (we could never understand why she needed dish towels when all meals she prepared were served on paper plates).

Seared is located on southwest side of the weirdly confusing, labryinthic Old Town intersection in which Lomas Boulevard meets Central Avenue and San Pasquale crosses both. Getting there is a challenge, but your patience will be rewarded—just as it was more than a decade ago when Jennifer James–then a relative newcomer to the Duke City–plied her craft at the then occupant, Chef DuJour. More recently, the “plain Jane” edifice has been the home of Cheese & Coffee, a popular purveyor of specialty sandwiches, made-from-scratch soups and crisp, fresh salads. Habitues of Cheese & Coffee can still get their favorite sandwiches at the tried, true and trusted San Pasquale location. They just won’t be able to get them after 3PM.

Fried Asparagus with Green Chile Ranch Dressing

Since late-August, 2017, at precisely 3PM, the 2,100-square-foot space begins its daily transformation from simple sandwich shop to Seared, an upscale American bistro “with a French and Italian twist.” The metamorphosis takes an hour during which white linen tablecloths are draped over dining room tables, silverware is laid out meticulously, moveable walls are rearranged and even the art is changed out. The art, by the way, includes colorful portraits of some of your favorite characters from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Signage is also changed out, a relatively easy feat considering there’s no flashy neon or LED involved.

Seared is the brainchild of Jan Barringer-Tenchipe and her husband and business partner Alejandro. Jan has owned the San Pasquale location of Cheese & Coffee for seven years, but with the notorious Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project having proven deleterious to business, she decided to offer Duke City diners another reason to visit the beleaguered Old Town area. Besides that, she and Alejandro had wanted to work together for a while. Seared aptly describes Alejandro’s cooking style, a style he honed in upscale and fine-dining restaurants throughout the city. During our inaugural visit, both Jan and Alejandro checked up on us several times. Their hospitality and commitment to great food and impeccable service is genuine and one of many reasons we’ll be back.

French-Cut Pork Chop

Another reason, of course, is the menu, a compelling bill-of-fare that defies ordering quickly. You’ll be hard-pressed to decide what to order. Everything listed is appealing. Should you visit on Sunday for brunch, you’ll have two equally enticing menus from which to choose–an intriguing brunch menu and the sumptuous daily menu.  We opted for the daily menu, reasoning that we now have an excuse to return on a lazy, brunchy Sunday afternoon.  Another excuse, not that one is needed, is a pleasant dog-friendly patio with plenty of shade behind the restaurant.  You’ll want to peruse the herb garden where such fresh ameliorants as rosemary, basil, parsley and more can be found.

What surprised us most about the menu is how relatively inexpensive each entree is considering the generous portion size and quality of preparation.  This is fine-dining at near cheap-eats prices.  The appetizer menu ranges from salmon crudo to encrusted brie and a cheese platter offering a diversity of local and imported fromage.  The soup and salad menu includes one of the best described chopped salads we’ve seen on any menu.  If it tastes as good as it reads, it’ll be a hit among Duke City diners.  Entrees showcase all your favorite proteins: pork, beef, chicken and fish.  There’s also a vegetarian entree which just might convert some of us carnivores.

House Cut Loin Steak

It took us nearly ten minutes to decide which appetizer to request. Our choice, the fried asparagus served with a green chile ranch is a winner.  Lightly coated in a tempura batter, the half-dozen asparagus spears are firm and crisp with none of the stringiness you find in poorly fried asparagus (Mama Peralta).  Though addictive on their own, the housemade green chile ranch dressing elevates the fried asparagus to the “must have” appetizer level.  The green chile ranch isn’t as piquant as the one now offered at Dion’s, but it, too, is so good it should be bottled and sold.  Seeing a generous portion of the green chile ranch remaining after we had polished off the asparagus made it easy to decide what dressing would be gracing the salad accompanying my entree.  The salad, an old-fashioned dinner salad with fresh, crisp greens, croutons, cherry tomatoes and shredded carrots is terrific.

Often when unable to choose from two equally evocative entrees, I ask our server to surprise me, always assuring him or her that either choice will make me happy.  The slow-braised French-cut pork chop made me very happy indeed.   As with proteins which are “Frenched,” the meat is cut away from the end of the chop so that part of the bone is exposed, essentially giving it a built-in “handle” which makes it easy to pick up and eat.  Another portion of the pork chop is roughly six-ounces of artfully prepared, absolutely delicious porcine perfection.  The chop is positioned atop a creamy, delectable grain mustard sauce that’s been tempered a bit so as not to obfuscate the delicate flavor of the pork.   The chop is served with a mound of rich potatoes au gratin and a fennel apple salad that rings with freshness. This chop competes with the bone-in pork chop at Mykonos Cafe for “best in town” honors.

German Chocolate Cake

My Kim’s house cut loin steak proved equally formidable, reminding us of the many times we enjoyed loin steak in England.  Though usually basted with chimichurri sauce, Kim asked that it be served on the side.  No sauce was needed.  Sliced thinly into medium-rare visions of pink pulchritude, the loin steak was fulsome and flavorful with a rich beefy flavor.  The herbaceous notes imparted by the chimichurri appealed to me, but my Kim is much more a purist than I when it comes to the flavor of beef.  Accompaniment for this terrific steak came in the form of roasted red potatoes and calabasitas (a substitute for broccolini).  Both are equal to the task of sharing space on a plate with that magnificent loin steak.

Jan is the baker in the family though Alejandro wishes she prepared her German Chocolate Cake more often at home.  It’s simply the best German chocolate cake I’ve ever had at any restaurant, equal to the version made by my not-at-all Teutonic mom.  One of the things we appreciated in this cake is that it is served at room temperature, not obviously thawed to order.  The coconut-pecan frosting is slathered on generously, but not so much that it overwhelms the delicate chocolate cake itself.  Another surprise we enjoyed is the sweet-tart raspberry jam spread atop the frosting.  It’s goodness on top of goodness.  The portion size is very lavish.  Call it a sizeable slab of sumptuousness.

Sorbet Trio: Mango, Lemon and Raspberry

For my Kim, the perusal of a dessert menu stops and ends when she espies sorbet.  Her excitement is in triplicate when a sorbet trio is available.  Seared’s sorbet trio features three of her favorites: mango, lemon and raspberry.  All three flavors are fresh, lively and delicious with the icy coolness you appreciate most when temperatures are unseasonably warm.

Seared is one of the very best reasons to make your way to the Downtown area.  Jan and Alejandro aim to please and their aim is certainly true. 

Seared
119 San Pasqual, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 999-8414
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Fried Asparagus, French-Cut Pork Chop, House Cut Loin Steak, German Chocolate Cake, Sorbet Trio
REVIEW #999

Seared Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pollito Con Papas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pollito Con Papas on Gibson Just West of Louisiana

I think a rotisserie is like a really morbid ferris wheel for chickens.
It’s a strange piece of machinery.
We will take the chicken, kill it, impale it and then rotate it.
And I’ll be damned if I’m not hungry because spinning chicken carcasses
make my mouth water. I like dizzy chicken.
Mitch Hedberg

Comedian Mitch Hedberg may have meant it in a funny vein, but it’s no joke that Americans are finding rotisserie chickens  not only sexy and sumptuous, but convenient, flavorful and oh, so easy to prepare.  The latter three were reasons most cited by consumers for liking rotisserie chicken.  In 2015, the National Chicken Council survey estimated that 900 million rotisserie chickens are sold each year in the United States, a number that’s expected to exceed one billion by 2018.  According to Lohud, a trade publication, nearly 700 million of those birds will be sold in supermarkets. At $5 a pop, that’s $3.5 billion in sales.

Since 1980,  the per capita consumption of poultry–and not just rotisserie chicken–in America has increased significantly.   According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Chicken Council, Americans are eating more chicken than ever.  The per capita consumption of chicken has risen from 48 pounds in 1980 to an estimated almost 91 pounds in 2017, an increase of more than 75-percent.  This increase is attributed to consumers desiring to eat leaner proteins.

Monica and Rene Coronado, The Heart and Soul of Pollito Con Papas

In the coastal nation of Peru, restaurants and roadside stands featuring pollo a la brasa (an entire chicken prepared on a rotisserie charcoal oven) are as ubiquitous and beloved as burgers are in America.  In the world culinary stage, this is significant because Peru (yes, Peru!) has been widely recognized by the cognoscenti as a delicious dining destination and a culinary trend-setter.  In fact, Frommers Travel Guide recently proclaimed Lima, Peru as the “top food and drink destination for 2012,” declaring that “Lima is now drawing a new flock of visitors who travel all the way to Peru just to eat.” Peruvian cuisine. In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian “the next hot cuisine,” extolling its “vibrant ceviches, crispy, spiced rotisserie chickens and packed-with-flavor empanadas” then encapsulating its declaration with “this is one cuisine we could eat every day.” 

What’s surprising is not that the culture-rich cuisine of a small, multi-ethnic nation rarely on the world’s stage is receiving such acclaim, it’s that it’s taken so long.  Peru’s culinary traditions, after all, began in pre-Columbian times. Peru was home not only to the oldest known civilization in the Americas (the Norte Chico civilization flourished as early as the 30th century BC) but later to the largest civilization in the Pre-Columbian Americas–the Incan empire.  Immigration melded the culture and cuisine of the Spanish, Basque, African, Moorish, Sino-Cantonese, Japanese and in the 19th century, the Italian, French and British with Peru’s indigenous peoples, the descendants of the pre-Incas and Incas, to combine the flavors of four diverse and distinct continents.

Chimichanga engorged with Peruvian-style chicken

With our typical “land of mañana” attitude, Albuquerque hasn’t been as quick to embrace Peruvian cuisine as have larger American metropolitan areas–not that we’ve had much opportunity.  In the year Peruvian was declared “the next hot cuisine,” the Duke City’s first (and only) Peruvian restaurant both opened and closed.  Albuquerque–you’ve got a second chance!  In 2011, Rene and Monica Coronado launched Pollito Con Papas on the southeast intersection of Broadway and Avenida Cesar Chavez.  In August, 2012, the Coronados moved their restaurant to Gibson Avenue, just east of San Pedro.  The specialty of the house is Peruvian style chicken.  It’s addictive!

The Coronados have the pedigree to make this delicious concept work.  The vivacious Monica is originally from Peru.  Her face practically glows with pride as she discusses the cuisine of her place of birth and the successes of her family in the restaurant business.  One cousin owns the fabulous and famous El Pollo Rico Restaurants in the Arlington, Virginia area.  El Pollo Rico is one of the highest rated rotisserie chicken restaurants on the entire East Coast where Peruvian style chicken has been all the rage for years.  One of her brothers, Enrique Servan is the chef at Restaurante Serrano a highly regarded Peruvian-Spanish fusion restaurant in Berlin, Germany.  Chef Servan is considered an ambassador to the world for Peruvian cuisine and has been pegged to showcase Peru at the 2017 Peru to the World Expo in New York City.

Half a Chicken with Fries

The Coronados are new to the restaurant business, but they did a lot of homework prior to launching their eatery.  Before embarking on their restaurant venture, the couple visited Peru (where Rene admits to having gained 12 pounds on one visit).  There Rene visited several rotisserie chicken restaurants, gleaning as much information as he could from the owners.  Because local ordinances in Peru tend to be somewhat more liberal than those in America, Rene quickly recognized he would have to modify his method of  preparing rotisserie chicken.  He wouldn’t, for example, be able to bring onto the premises and use the 18 outdoor grills–ranging from smokers to barrel-style–he used for years to prepare chicken in his backyard. 

One area in which the Coronados don’t have to compromise in the least is in the uniquely wonderful marinades and sauces used in the preparation and serving of the chicken.  More impressively, they do not serve frozen poultry–apparently an anomaly because city inspectors were nonplussed  over the fact they had never before seen a restaurant launch its operation without a freezer.  Each chicken is simultaneously brined and marinated for at least ten hours in a bath of several ingredients (vinegar, cumin, salt and pepper are discernible, but that constitutes fewer than half the ingredients in the marinade).  The chicken is served with a creamy light green Ahi sauce of medium-piquancy and maximum addictiveness.   If the ahi sauce doesn’t have enough heat for you, the terrific staff at Pollito Con Papas can bring you  sauce made with the incendiary rocoto chile.  For true volcano-eaters, an even more combustible chile piquin is available, but only those of us with asbestos-lined tongues can handle it.

Boneless thighs–marinated for eight hours

The entire Pollito Con Papas menu is comprised of whole chickens; boneless, skinless marinated chicken thighs; fresh, hand-cut wedge fries with ketchup; chicken- or vegetarian-style potatoes; and chicken engorged chimichangas all served with that wondrous green sauce.  By design, the restaurant does not serve tortillas, pico de gallo, or other popular New Mexico extras.  Rene’s objective is “to keep it super simple but incredibly delicious.”  “We just give our customers a taste and explain how our chicken is prepared and how we are able to provide a delicious meal at a reasonable price due to the fact that we have minimal waste. Where else can you feed four people good quality food for less than ten dollars a person-our price includes tax.” Where else indeed?

Pollito Con Papas’ new home as of August, 2012 is in a much more heavily trafficked street and in a much more capacious building with generous parking than its predecessor.  One thing that won’t change is the friendliness of the affable owners.   When my friend Ryan Scott, the dynamic host of the galluptious Break the Chain YouTube program and I discuss what we love most about mom-and-pop restaurants, near the top of the list is the warmth and hospitality of mom and pop themselves.   The Coronados didn’t need years of restaurant experience to understand this formula very well!  It comes from the heart!

Boneless/Skinless Grilled Thigh with Chicken Stuffed Potato

Consider the chimichangas your appetizer. Reminiscent of egg rolls on steroids, the chimichangas are sliced diagonally and are engorged with the restaurant’s wonderful marinated chicken.  There’s no scrimping on the chicken which is so very finely chopped that the chimichangas become very dense and tightly packed.  You’ll want to deluge the chimis (an Arizona diminutive) in the Ahi sauce or maybe one of the other sauces only New Mexican fire-eaters will appreciate. 

The half-chicken–breast, wing and thigh–is an even better way to enjoy the marinade in which the chickens are prepared. The lengthy marinade process ensures deep penetration of flavors so it’s not just the skin which absorbs the ten ingredient melange of flavors.  The brining and marinade process ensure every single bite is redolent with deliciousness while the process of slow-cooking makes a moist, delicious, non-greasy and very healthy chicken that doesn’t rely solely on salt for its flavor (as grocery store rotisserie chicken tends to do).  The fact that each chicken is fresh and never frozen further seals in flavors and gives the chicken a texture you won’t find in poultry previously frozen (which tends to become desiccated after thawing).  The accompanying papitas are fresh and hand-cut on the premises.  They’re Texas thick and golden hued, better with the green sauce being a better condiment than the ketchup. Peru, by the way, is where potatoes were first domesticated.  There are more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru today so it stands to reason Pollito Con Papas fries are among the very best in Albuquerque.

Lomo Saltado

8 May 2017: The boneless, skinless marinated thighs are a best bet for bone-phobic diners.  Chicken thighs, not breasts as is the common misconception, are the most moist, tender and flavorful piece on a chicken.  These thighs are oh so mouth-watering moist and the flavor profile is a nice balance of spiciness, savoriness, and peppery qualities with discernible hints of sweetness and tanginess, too.  The discernment of flavors is an adventure in pure deliciousness.  French fries aren’t the only papas with which those wondrous chicken breasts.  The chicken stuffed potato is an amazing marvel of culinary creation–poultry perfection enveloped by seasoned mashed potatoes all nestled under a coarse cassava breading. Texturally, the exterior is somewhat reminiscent of tater tots while the fluffy interior is cloud-like and creamy at the same time. These stuffed potatoes are in a class of their own.  Vegetarians appreciate the vegetarian stuffed potatoes, easily the best in Albuquerque.

8 May 2017: Make sure to follow the restaurant’s Facebook page to find out what the specials on Thursday and Saturday are.  Consider yourself blessed if that special is Lomo Saltado an exemplar of the Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine. A century or more before Asian fusion cuisine became a culinary fad, Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru looking for work. They integrated their own culinary techniques and ingredients to Peru’s diverse culinary vernacular. The most visible aspect of the Chinese influence on the Peruvian table is Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian stir-fry. The bravado of this dish is that it dares offer two starches–rice and potatoes–in one dish, a juxtaposition Americans might find a bit strange. This hybrid stir-fry is made with thinly sliced beef, tomatoes, peppers and onions blended in a pan with soy sauce and get this, French fries (another Peruvian passion). It’s a very interesting dish made even better with the Peruvian condiments (ketchup need not apply).

Seco de Pato with Yuca and Rice

16 September 2017:  Rene congratulated me on being the first guest ever to try a new special, seco de pato with yuca and rice.  If my inaugural experience is any indication, this is a very special special.  Interestingly the term “seco” translates from Spanish to “dry,” but this decadent duck is anything but dry.  Seco de pato is a duck stew prepared with cilantro, Peruvian yellow pepper and Peruvian spices served with a side of white rice and yuca.  As with all confit duck dishes, the unctuous duck fat penetrates deeply into the rich, delicious duck meat (and by the way, there’s no such thing as white meat in duck).  The spice blend elevates the duck flavor, imbuing it  with even more finger-licking personality.   Even after polishing off the duck, there’s plenty of sauce left with which to enjoy the white rice.

16 September 2017:Picarones may resemble donuts, beignets and even onion rings, but they’re uniquely wonderful and addictively delicious.  Known as “Peruvian donuts,” these golden-hued rings are made from sweet potatoes and squash then drizzled with fig syrup.  Consider it heresy if you will, but picarones are better than just about any American donuts you’ll find.  Texturally, they’re a delight to eat with a crispy exterior which contrasts perfectly with the doughy interior.  Then there’s the fig syrup–sweet, but not cloying.  Because the picarones themselves are on the savory side, the syrup imparts match made in heaven qualities.

Picarones

16 September 2017:  My beverage of choice during my first four visits was Inca Kola, a yellowy, sweet, slightly fruity carbonated beverage which invites you to “immerse yourself into a micro vacation.”  As with RC Cola, it’s a terrific departure from the usual Coke and Pepsi suspects.  Perusing the menu, I saw that Pollito Con Papas also offers Peruvian chicha, a purplish-black beverage made with Peruvian purple corn and infused with pineapple, lime and apples as well as cloves and cinnamon.  When the weather turns colder, chicha is served hot.  It’s the perfect winter beverage, but it’s equally delicious any time of the year.  As with the stuffed potatoes, chicha is a process- and time-intensive item to prepare, a labor of love so to speak.

In its October, 2014 issue, Women’s Day magazine named Albuquerque as home to one of the country’s up-and-coming food scenes. Taking input from Yelp, the magazine evaluated cities with a large proportion and variety of highly rated new restaurants, delis, grocery stores and other purveyors of comestibles. The article didn’t cite the usual suspects in the pantheon of outstanding New Mexican restaurants. Instead, Women’s Day touted a “handful of new Peruvian, Costa Rican and Cuban spots” which have “reenergized local palates.” Three Duke City restaurants were singled out: Pollito Con Papas, Guava Tree Cafe and Pasion Latin Fusion.

Inca Kola at left, Peruvian Chicha at right

A Nogales native, Rene joined the Air Force several decades ago in hopes of being able to travel across the globe.  The Air Force sent him to Kirtland Air Force Base, a few hundred miles away.  He’s been in the Kirtland neighborhood ever since.  Among his most faithful and most frequent guests are officers and airmen from Kirtland, some of the finest gentlemen you’ll ever meet…which reminds me it’s time for a very special public service announcement:

The Team Kirtland Home Away from Home sponsors “Adopt an Airman,” a terrific program that matches first-term Airmen and enlisted students at Kirtland Air Force Base with volunteer civilian host families. For many of these outstanding young men and women, it can be their first time away from home and families can offer friendship, mentoring and engagement with larger groups. Host families provide home-cooked meals, recreational activities such as Lobo or Isotopes games, recreation such as hiking, fishing, or golf. Families and airmen are matched based on mutual interests. If your family is interested in adopting an airman, visit the Kirtland Home Away From Home site to learn more and apply.

There is nothing fancy about Pollito Con Papas. It has none of the over-the-top veneer, flash and panache of the well-financed corporate chains. What it does have is a wonderful product–likely the very best chicken you’ll have in New Mexico. This is four-star quality food prepared by very nice people and served in the most humble surroundings. Whether you order it for take-out or enjoy it at the tiny eatery, the operative word is enjoy and you WILL enjoy it immensely.

Pollitos Con Papas
6105 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-765-5486
Web Site
| Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 September 2017
1st VISIT: 26 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $
BEST BET: Boneless Thighs, Half Chicken, French Fries, Chimichangas, Inca Kola,  Lomo Saltado, Seco de Pato, Peruvian Chicha, Picarones, Pomegranate Cheesecake, Chicken Stuffed Potato

Pollito Con Papas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pho Lao – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho Lao, Albuquerque’s Only Lao Noodle Restaurant

One definition of audacity is “the state of being bold or daring—particularly with disregard for danger, rudeness or pressure.” Audacity is nine-year-old fourth grader Akilan Sankaran (son of my friend Sridevi)  unflinchingly spelling such words as “rejoneador” and “mnemonic” to win the New Mexico Spelling bee over eighth graders who’d participated in the annual event as many as six times.  Audacity is a miniature dachshund protecting its family from the menacing mailman who dares trespass daily into the family’s territory. Audacity is Homer Simpson eating fugu, a blowfish which can be toxic if not properly sliced.

It may not be as bold or daring as the aforementioned examples, but your humble blogger recently demonstrated great audacity. When my friend and colleague Tuan Bui asked me to pick a restaurant where we could enjoy pho-nomenal pho, I didn’t take him to one of the Duke City’s tried and proven Vietnamese restaurants, but to a Lao restaurant which itself demonstrates audacity by calling itself “Pho Lao.” Having grown up in Vietnam and still partaking frequently of his mom’s very authentic Vietnamese food preparations, Tuan certainly knows more about pho than I ever will. My restaurant choice would either expose me as a phony (or pho-ny) or would validate my reputation as a virtuoso of Vietnamese victuals.

Pho Lao’s Dining Room

30 March 2017: What made my choice especially daring is that during my inaugural visit a few months earlier, I literally couldn’t immediately discern the nuances of the Lao Noodle Soup. That’s because my appetizer precedent was the most incendiary papaya salad I’ve ever had. It made me cough and sputter and drew a gusher of tears from my eyes, but it was so darned delicious it was impossible to stop eating it. My vaunted taste buds and tongue would recover I hoped. As with all Lao-style papaya salad, a large mortar and pestle is used to pound garlic and chilies together along with a very pungent fermented Lao fish sauce. With the addition of shredded green papaya, juicy tomato slices and lime juice, the papaya salad is replete with intense flavors: pungent, piquant, sour, sweet, salty and especially umami (from the fish sauce). Sharing the bowl with the papaya salad is a mound of shredded cabbage, not so much a palate cleanser but a balm for the burn.

Papaya salad, by the way, may be more closely associated with Thai cuisine, but its origin is Lao. The same thing goes for sticky rice and larb, two foods which have become ubiquitous in Thai restaurants. Bordered on the east by Vietnam and on the west by Thailand, Laos is a landlocked nation for which the Mekong River forms its border with Thailand. Unlike Thai cuisine, Lao food tends to be much lighter—no sweet and heavy curries or stews. Strong flavors—bitter, sour, spicy, salty and umami–are a hallmark of Lao cuisine with the blandness of sticky rice balancing out those strong flavors. Contrary to Thai cuisine, in Laos very little sugar is used in cooking with more dishes tending toward a bitter flavor profile.

Papaya Salad

So, why doesn’t Pho Lao showcase the foods of Laos? That was attempted before when the restaurant first launched and was known as the Mekong Noodle House. Albuquerque, it seems, didn’t give the Noodle House and its Lao-centric menu the type of reception it gives the phalanx of pho-bulous Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. Ergo, the name and concept change to Lao Pho. Ensconced in a timeworn strip mall just north of Chuck E. Cheese, Lao Pho has resembled a ghost town during my first two visits.  It almost pained me to realize that so many Duke City diners were eating at entirely pho-getable restaurants when this paragon of deliciousness was virtually empty–despite a very favorable review from the Albuquerque Journal.

Pho, by the way, may have had its origin in Vietnam, but you’ll also find pho on menus throughout Laos, albeit pronounced “fer” and made with different spices and herbs flavoring the broth.  As with its Vietnamese counterpart, Lao pho is served with sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeño, romaine, and fresh lime.  In a heading entitled “Noodle Soups,” Pho Lao’s menu lists five phos, a Lao noodle soup, tom yum soup, tom kha soup and wonton ramen soup.  The menu also lists six rice dishes, two of which showcase Lao beef jerky and Lao pork sausage (both of which you’ve got to try).  Stir-fry dishes on the menu include the ever popular Pad Thai as well as chow mein and fried rice.  Only three appetizers grace the menu–spring rolls, egg rolls and the aforementioned papaya salad.

Lao Noodle Soup

30 March 2017: With my mouth still on fire from the combustible papaya salad, it took a while before my taste buds would be able to discern all the flavors of the Lao noodle soup, the one soup for which the noodles are made by hand.  Fortunately this enchanting elixir arrives at your table scalding hot so it’s advisable to wait for it to cool.  There are so many elements to this Lao variation of a chicken noodle soup you’ll absolutely love.  The hand-made noodles about as thick as Italian bucatini and have a rich, almost buttery flavor.  Texturally, the noodles are an absolute delight to slurp up.  They have a very nice mouth feel.  The chicken, a combination of white and dark eat, is in larger pieces than you’ll find in most chicken noodle soup and it’s plentiful.  Most enjoyable is the broth with its intense poultry flavor punctuated by green onions and cilantro.  This is one soup that may almost make having a cold something for which to look forward.

5 September 2017: At the recommendation of the amiable Pany, our hostess and chef, both Tuan and I ordered the Pho Lao Combo (rice noodles, sliced fresh beef, tripe, beef meatballs, well-done beef in beef broth topped with green onion, cilantro and fried garlic).  If you’re of the carnivorous persuasion this is the soup to order.  From both a flavor and textural perspective, it offers the most variety.  As with Vietnamese pho, the broth announces itself on the way to your table with a fragrance so enticing your mouth may water in anticipation.  That’s courtesy of a bone broth simmered slowly and enhanced with the spice combination of sugar, cinnamon, star anise, clove and cardamom–not as prevalent as with Vietnamese pho, but still there and oh, so delicious.

Pho Lao Combo

So, did my audacity pay off?  Well, my friend Tuan was certainly blown away by Pho Lao though neither of us could finish our swimming pool-sized bowls of pho.  He admitted Lao pho is as good as (if not better than) the pho served at all but a couple Duke City Vietnamese restaurants he’s tried.  Being far less foolhardy than I, he finished less than half the insanely piquant papaya salad, saving the remainder for later.  That meant he could taste his pho from the start not when the burn quelled. 

Denizens of the Duke City should show some audacity of their own by visiting this excellent restaurant and enjoying some of the most sumptuous soups in town.  Pho Lao is in the same rarefied air as the best Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in Albuquerque!

Pho Lao
3115 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2326
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2017
1st VISIT: 30 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Lao Noodle Soup, Pho Lao Combo
REVIEW #998

Pho Lao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Counter Culture Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Counter Culture Cafe in Santa Fe

Counterculture.  Growing up in rural Taos County four decades ago, I don’t know how many of us understood that the cultural and political upheaval of the big cities had moved into our isolated corner of the world.  All we knew was that these unkempt and unwashed interlopers preaching free love and practicing it in communes had invaded our idyllic agrarian communities and shocked our quiet, small town sensibilities.

They rode around in psychedelic school buses and wore multi-colored smocks.  The men among them wore their hair as long as their women.  More shocking was how these strangers walked around unabashedly nude in the confines of the communes they christened with such colorful names as the Hog Farm, New Buffalo and Lama.  There were even rumors of rampant drug use.  The Taos News referred to it as “The Hippie Problem.”  Weekly letters to the editor referred to them as “smelly, crazy-eyed pot and LSD ridden draft dodgers” and worse.

Humongous cinnamon roll at Counter Culture

Humongous cinnamon roll at Counter Culture

Considering the rancor between the locals and the scores of hippies which invaded Taos County in the late 1960s, some might consider it ironic–maybe even more than a bit hypocritical–that Taos designated the summer of 2009 as the “Summer of Love.”  The summer-long celebration marked the 40th anniversary of the iconic counterculture movie “Easy Rider,” some of which was filmed in the area.  It also celebrates the influx of the hippie counterculture Taos County actively combated and tried to eliminate.

Much has transpired in the past four decades.  Taos County (and America as a whole) has evolved into a kinder, gentler, more accepting society.  The strange outsiders of the late 60s are well integrated into the fabric of the communities which initially were so unwelcoming toward them.  Some live in the suburbs they eschewed, work in businesses they once denounced.  Some even vote Republican.  Others remain steadfast to their dreams of a Utopian American society.

Middle Eastern Plate

Today no one thinks twice when encountering the Bohemian influences and remnants of the 60s.  The symbols of counterculture once reviled throughout New Mexico are today even celebrated in such stanchions of the “establishment” as El Palacio, the quarterly publication of the Museum of New Mexico.  Vestiges of counterculture-influenced restaurants are prevalent in Taos (Taos Pizza Out Back among others) and Santa Fe, including one whose very name honors the movement: the Counter Culture Cafe on Baca Street.

The Counter Culture Cafe may remind long-timers of Joe’s Place, the first “alternative” restaurant on Bent Street in Taos which became the center of hippie culture throughout the county.  The Counter Culture Cafe  has a similar laissez-faire attitude and like the long defunct Joe’s Place, serves generally excellent food at very reasonable prices.

Counter Culture Burger with Green Chile on the Side

The Counter Culture Cafe is located only a couple miles west of the tourist-laden plaza and is frequented primarily by locals in-the-know (and tourists who visit Yelp or this blog).  It is ensconced in a “rough around the edges” fashionable artists’ haven away from the more well-known denizens of Southwest art.  The restaurant’s setting has been described as “post-modern, industrial warehouse,” an apt description.  Storefront parking is rather limited, but there is a spacious parking lot across the street.

Two outdoor dining areas–one by the parking lot up front and an enclosed area out back–are very popular, but strictly seasonal.  The indoor dining area is a hub of activity.  When you walk in, you’ll place your order at a counter above which are slate boards on which breakfast and lunch menus are scrawled in chalk.  After you place your order, you’ll be given a number to take to your table.  Then you’ll pick up your silverware, napkins and water (if that’s your beverage of choice) and take them to your table.  If you order wine, it will be served in a juice glass.  Your order will be delivered to your table promptly and professionally.

Proscuitto Egg Sandwich on a Hoagie with Swiss Cheese and Roasted Red Peppers

Seating, more functional than comfortable, is on communal tables, the type of which are used for church-sponsored bingo games.  For the dog-lovers among us, the Counter Culture has a capacious dog-friendly patio.  Our debonair dachshund Dude loves the patio’s vibe.  Make sure you have cash on hand as the restaurant does not accept credit cards (though a local check will suffice).  The restaurant has free Wi-Fi for those of us who have to remain connected at all times.  Minimalist decor includes walls festooned with portraits taken by local photographer Anne Sweeney.

28 November 2009: It’s almost unfair that stationed under glass at the top of the counter are baked goods so tempting you’ll eschew any diet no matter how faithful you’ve been to it.  The chocolate cake is reputed to be among the very best in town while the cinnamon rolls are ridiculously large, like frosted bricks.  Those cinnamon rolls are so good, Santa Fean food writer John Vollertsen put them on his “bucket list,” a collection of must try dishes he would plan to devour before “kicking the bucket.”  Vollertsen wrote, “you gotta love a sweet roll that hangs over the edge of a dinner plate, pull-apart tender and dripping with sugar glaze.  Plop this monster in the middle of a table of friends and demolish.”  Counter Culture’s French toast are made from these cinnamon rolls which are sliced horizontally then battered in an egg wash and prepared as any French toast would be.  Just writing about them added to my waistline.

Chicken Tom Yum Soup

8 September 2017: The menu is an eclectic East meets West meets Southwest mix of Asian, European, New Mexican and American gourmet favorites.  The simple sandwich is transformed into a gastronomic masterpiece in the kitchen.  Soup is sublime, especially, according to Sunset.com, the chicken tom yum which the “life in the west” magazine mentioned as one of “five great bowls of soup in Santa Fe.”  Sunset stated the “chicken tom yum warms the belly and ends in a spicy kick: Lemon grass and lime leaves enliven broth filled with chicken, rice noodles and chile.”  Thai inspired soups are standard menu offerings.  If the Thai Coconut Salmon Soup is any indication, that inspiration runs deep.  Pungent curry, as good as made at local Thai restaurants, is punctuated with the sweetness of coconut and the freshness of salmon wholly devoid of any off-putting piscine qualities.  Served hot, it’s as comforting as any soup.

8 September 2017: A number of salads large enough to feed entire families are available including a Greek salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onions and pepperoncini with a red wine vinaigrette).  Better still, order the Middle Eastern platter which includes the aforementioned Greek salad as well as spanikopita, hummus, Kalamata olives and pita bread.  The spanikopita–a Greek appetizer made with pre-cooked spinach, butter, olive oil, feta cheese, green onions and egg in a phyllo dough pastry–is baked to perfection, a flaky and savory warm treat.  A humongous portion of hummus will outlast the two few wedges of pita.

Fall Salad: Roasted Beets, Red Chile Dusted Pecans, Wilted Greens, Blue Cheese and Balsamic Vinegarette

8 September 2017: One of the most popular items on the lunch and dinner menu is the grilled burger, a hamburger prepared to your exacting specifications with grilled red onions on foccacia with lettuce and tomato on the side.  This is simply one of the very best burgers in Santa Fe, a burger on par with what you might find at a high-priced steakhouse.  More than any other burger in the entirety of New Mexico, this one reminds me of the world-famous Ambrosiaburger from the legendary Nepenthe in California’s Big Sur. An enormous hand-formed beef patty is juicy and flavorful while the foccacia canvas is lightly toasted and a refreshing difference from the boring buns served nearly everywhere else.

Ask for green chile for your burger and you’ll be given a small bowl of neon green chile as piquant and flavorful as just about any you’ll find in the City Different.  By piquant, I mean this chile may actually have you reaching for water.  Piquancy isn’t its sole redeeming quality; it’s a fantastic chile.  Condiments, which you’ll have to bus to your table yourself, include Grey Poupon mustard, the gourmet choice.  The haystax fries are about as thin as a spaghetti noodle, or more appropriately shoestring potatoes.  They are perfectly salty, delicious and fun to eat.

Frittata: Pan Fried Eggs, Potatoes, Roasted Red Peppers, Feta Cheese

8 September 2017: Breakfast is served until 5PM every day.  That means at all hours you can enjoy the fabulous proscuitto egg sandwich on a hoagie roll with Swiss cheese and roasted red peppers.  It’s better, if possible, than the American favorite, the ubiquitous bacon and egg sandwich.  The prosciutto has the flavor of a smoked, dry ham while the red peppers are imbued with the slight sweetness that comes from expertly roasting strong, acidic vegetables.  A prosciutto sandwich (grilled prosciutto, provolone cheese, Dijon mustard, roasted peppers with lettuce and tomato on a hoagie roll) is available for lunch, but you’ll miss the egg. 

4 September 2011: Breakfast’s answer to the pizza and the quiche is the Frittata, a dish real men will eat (a reference to a book published in 1982, not a sexist remark).  Frittata is a type of Italian omelet in which cheese and other ingredients are mixed into the eggs and cooked together.  The Counter Culture’s frittata is made with pan-fried eggs, silver dollar potatoes, roasted red peppers and feta cheese. It’s an excellent frittata, second only to the frittata at Torinos @ Home (not on the current menu) as the best I’ve had in New Mexico.  The eggs are fluffy and delicious.  The fillings are in perfect proportion for a balance of flavors.

House Roasted Turkey Sandwich

The Counter Culture Cafe is a throwback to the 60s with a communal feel to it courtesy of having to share your table with strangers (make that people you have yet to meet), busing your table and cleaning up after yourself when you’re done.  There are no interlopers here, only hungry people whose appetites will be sated by some of the best food in town in an atmosphere that feels like the summer of love all year long.

Counter Culture Cafe
930 Baca Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 995-1105
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 September 2017
1st VISIT:  28 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING:   23
COST:  $$
BEST BET:  Prosciutto Egg Sandwich, Grilled Burger, Middle Eastern Platter, Cinnamon Roll, Tom Yum Soup, House Roasted Turkey Sandwich, Haystax Fries, Lemonade, Thai Coconut Salmon Soup

Counter Culture Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Maya – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Maya for the Finest in MesoAmerican Fusion Cuisine From Chef-Genius Dennis Apodaca

My precocious niece doesn’t miss a beat. Ever attentive to adult conversation, she often stumps my brother and me with her surprisingly deep and thought-provoking questions. Case in point, when she overheard me telling my brother Mario about the Mesoamerican-inspired cuisine at Maya, she asked what I have against Americans. Perplexed by her assertion, I gently asked what she was talking about. “First you said Americans are ugly (obviously remembering a discussion Mario and I once had about the “ugly American syndrome”) and now you’re calling them messy, too.” From the mouth of babes…

Her comment got me thinking about the last time we saw a great chef who wasn’t a bit on the “messy” side. No, not like the Charlie Brown character Pig Pen, but with a light dusting of flour or a splash of sauce bespattered on their white coats or aprons. Hands-on chefs–those who not only conceptualize their menus, they prepare everything themselves—don’t always embody the axiom that cleanliness is next to godliness. These do-it-all chefs are veritable whirling dervishes in the kitchen—chopping, shredding, grating, slicing, dicing, mincing, broiling, boiling, simmering, frying, sautéing, plating… It’s inevitable that a smattering of sauce or a sprinkling of crumbs will land on those immaculate whites.

Chef Dennis Apodaca and Partner Cecilia Schmider

Practicing chefs wear those little stains like edible badges of honor, emblematic of the noble profession. When Chef Dennis Apodaca stepped out from the kitchen at Maya, it made us happy to see a small chile stain on the sleeves of his jacket. It meant he was in the kitchen preparing meals for his guests. Cooking, as savvy Duke City diners know, is something Dennis does better than just about anybody else in New Mexico. Even though having been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program has made him more of a public persona, it’s in the kitchen where he’s most comfortable. It’s where he plies his craft with incomparable skill and dedication.

My friend Carlos once described Dennis as “a five-star chef in a one-star kitchen.” That’s an apt description for how Dennis has been able to coax incredible flavors at Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s), a timeworn, ramshackle eatery with no freezer, oven or even burners. Not surprisingly, “five-star chef” was also the term used by Cecilia Schmider in describing her partner in Maya, the downtown venture that promises to blow the lid off the Duke City dining scene. If you loved Dennis’s culinary skills at Eli’s Place, you’ll be blown away by what he’s doing in the more expansive digs at Maya.

Salsa and Chips with a Side of Guacamole

Cecilia explained that the name Maya was inspired by the bright, vibrant cuisine prepared by the dynastic Mesoamerican civilization and their descendants. Bright, vibrant and colorful are apropos terms for Maya, but so are inviting and homey. While Dennis conceptualized the menu—a fusion of New Mexican, Mexican and neo Latin cuisine–Cecilia took the reins in designing the 1,500 square-foot milieu. The restaurant environs are a perfect home for Dennis’s inspired cuisine. Surprisingly, this is Cecilia’s inaugural foray into the restaurant world, having previously worked in retail jewelry and before that as a speech pathologist.

Maya is situated on the first floor of the commodious Imperial Building on Second and Silver. You might recognize the mixed-use Imperial Building as the home of the Silver Street Market, Downtown Albuquerque’s only grocery store. Immediately next door and in partnership with Maya is The Monk’s Corner which features libations brewed at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu. A reciprocal arrangement between The Monk’s Corner and Maya means guests of either may partake of both—Maya’s diners can enjoy their cuisine with libations from The Monk’s Corner and vice-versa.

Burrito Ahogado

Maya’s menu is hung on framed slate boards on the wall behind the counter where you place your order. It’s an uncomplicated menu devoid of the overly descriptive ingredient lists which seem to characterize contemporary menus. Weekly specials for each day of the week are listed first then appetizers. On the second slate board you’ll find ensaladas, a section called “Nuevo Mexico” which showcases culinary fare from the Land of Enchantment (prepared in the inimitable Dennis Apodaca manner, of course) and finally sides such as papas, fries and slaw. Tortas with salsa headlines the third slate board along with tacos. Three smaller slate boards are dedicated to desserts, “to warm you up,” and specials. It’s not a huge menu, but you’ll have a hard time deciding just which of the beguiling dishes to order.

2 January 2017: Long-timers among us fondly remember Dennis’s stint as chef at the long defunct Fajitaville where he got us addicted to chips and salsa so unlike those offered by New Mexican restaurants. He’s still at it. Chips and salsa are always a good bet at one of his restaurants, but you’ll want to make it a threesome with guacamole. One of the salsas is akin to a pico de gallo with fresh, chopped tomatoes, red onions and jalapeno. The other is a smoky fire-roasted salsa with a terrific flavor. Neither is especially piquant, but both are addictive. The guacamole is thick, creamy and redolent with the freshness of avocados in-season.

Guajillo-Pecan Mole Chilaquiles

2 January 2017: As we mulled what entrees to order (knowing they would all be fabulous), we asked Dennis for advice. He recommended either of the specials. Both sounded so good we couldn’t select just one. First to hit our table was a Burrito Ahogado which translates to smothered or drowned burrito. It’s unlike any burrito we’ve had at any of Dennis’s other restaurants. Though vegetarian, it’s a burrito carnivores will love, too. The burrito is engorged with collard greens and corn swimming in a spicy tomato broth with a garnish of pickled carrots and red onions and a sprinkling of cobija cheese. My Kim, who’s never been a fan of collard greens, absolutely loved these. The spicy tomato broth will tantalize your taste buds with a pleasant piquancy and nice acidity. This is one special which should be on the daily menu.

2 January 2017: Of course that could be said about the other daily special, Guajillo-Pecan Mole Chilaquiles. When Dennis makes mole, you’re well advised to order it. His mole has a profound earthiness and a discernible depth of complex flavors working together very harmoniously. The use of guajillo bespeaks of the authenticity he pursues in his cooking. Guajillo, the dried form of the mirasol chile, is a mild, slightly sweet chile with notes of berries and tea. It’s an excellent basis for mole with which he covers tortilla chips. As you enjoy the mole, you’ll find it’s been garnished with finely chopped pineapple, cobija cheese, shaved radishes and more, all of which combine to give you different flavor profiles in every bite. This mole dish is served with papitas and the best refried black beans we’ve had. This is a mole worthy of Oaxaca.

Duck Cubano

2 January 2017: While there isn’t a protein Dennis can’t make interpret into its self-actualized best, one of his favorites has long been duck. Duck enchiladas, you might recall, is one of the dishes with which he wowed Food Network glitterati Guy Fierri. When my Kim saw Duck Cubano on the Tortas menu, she couldn’t wait to see what delicious liberties Dennis would take with the traditional Cuban sandwich. True to form, the pressed sandwich was stuffed with roast beef, ham and cheese but it also had bacon and instead of yellow mustard, it was constructed with pickled mustard seeds and spicy mayo. To say it’s one of the tastiest Cubanos we’ve ever had is an understatement. There’s deliciousness in every morsel.  The duck is plentiful, rich and delicious with nary a hint of sinew or excess fat. The Cubano is served with a side of housemade chips and a tangy tomatillo-avocado dressing. 

5 January 2017:  A former Intel colleague from Las Cruces used to chide me about being a “Norteño,” a term she used to label Hispanics who grew up in Albuquerque or north thereof.   She insisted that other than me (and she thought me weird), she’d never met a Norteño who liked mole, perhaps the most Mexican of all dishes.  While it’s true that very few Norteños grew up eating mole, Mexico’s legendary multi-ingredient sauce with its nuanced complexity and deep flavor profile, I was sure her contention was ill-founded and absolutely fallacious.  Unfortunately aside from myself, I couldn’t think of a single born-and-bred Norteño who enjoyed mole.  To this day, only a handful of my Norteño friends, all of whom have red and green chile running in their veins, admit to enjoying mole.

Kale & Collard Greens Enchiladas

While not a Norteño by ethnicity, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott grew up in the Duke City where he was weaned on red and green chile, attended Albuquerque High and counts several Norteños among his many friends.  Although I knew he didn’t like mole, I thought surely he’d like Dennis’s mole.  Alas, he’s more Norteño than I’d thought (an maybe I’m just a little bit weird).  To his credit, he did sample a forkful of the special of the day, kale and collard greens with guajillo chile mole, and didn’t spit it outt or disparage my taste buds (which are besotted with the guajillo chile mole which manages to make even kale (never did jump on that kale bandwagon) palatable). 

5 January 2017:  Ryan did like the Caramelized Onion and Poblano Raja Queso, another special of the day.   This is a wonderful departure from the de rigueur con queso served in many New Mexican restaurants.  It has a perfect degree of meltedness.  It scoops easily and there are no foot-long cheese strings to get passed before you can eat it.  The chips are thick, crispy and have a just-right amount of salt.  This would make an excellent party dip.

Fried Snapper and Fried Broccoli on Sweet Corn Rice with Mole

7 September 2017:  The genius of Dennis Apodaca is such that he can coax deliciousness out of ingredient combinations perhaps no one else would consider.  Inventiveness has always been one of the many traits he’s always exemplified.  So, when you see something on the Maya menu that doesn’t immediately whet your appetite, try it anyway.  You might happen upon a surprisingly wonderful hodgepodge of ingredients that work very well together.  Such was the case when my friend Bill Resnik and I enjoyed yet another Apodaca original: fried snapper and fried broccoli on sweet corn rice with mole lightly sprinkled with cotija cheese.  Though my preference would be for enough of Dennis’s mole in which to to swim, he served just enough of the enchanting elixir to allow the other ingredients to display their own deliciousness.  The fried snapper and fried broccoli are coated in a light batter and are perfectly prepared, the broccoli a crisp al dente.  The sweet corn rice would be a star on its own.

7 September 2017:  When two fellow gastronomes whose opinions on food I trus, st explicitly rave about Maya’s Wagyu beef green chili (SIC) cheeseburger, the question isn’t “when are you going to try it?,” but “why haven’t you tried it already?”  First, the sage epicure Sarita listed it as one of the best dishes she enjoyed in 2016.  Then Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, ranked it sixth best among New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburgers.  In all honesty, wagyu beef burgers have never done much for me, but that’s probably because it takes a chef of Dennis’s caliber to coax optimum deliciousness out of the mouth-coating unctuousness and nearly obscene richness of this beef.  Prepared to your exacting degree of doneness and served virtually naked save for white Cheddar and green chile, this is a magnificent burger which emphasizes all the delicious qualities of beef paired with a flavorful (but not piquant) chile.  There’s no mustard, tomatoes, onions or other miscellany to impede your enjoyment.  If you love beef, you’ll love this burger.

Wagyu Beef Green Chili (SIC) Cheeseburger

2 January 2017: There are only four desserts on the menu, all of which would tempt Job. My Kim, who’s got the sweet tooth in the family (which stands to reason considering she’s so much sweeter than me) wanted the cinnamon doughnuts which are served with a chocolate ganache and a crushed cherry compote. Because the ganache wasn’t ready, we were given cajeta (sweetened caramelized goat’s milk caramel) instead. What a great stroke of fortune! The cajeta proved magnificent, absolutely delicious with the slight sour component found in goat’s milk complementing the sweetness of the caramel. The cherry compote provided a tangy component which cut the sweetness of the doughnuts. In all, this is an excellent dessert. 

5 January 2017:  Maya is open seven days a week.  From Monday through Saturday doors open at 11AM and close at 10PM.  Featured fare on Sundays (10AM – 2PM) is brunch, long a staple of Eli’s Place…and if you’ve frequented Dennis’s flagship restaurant, your mouth is probably salivating at the prospect of pancakes.  No one in New Mexico makes pancakes quite as good as Dennis’s masterpiece orbs.  Whether it’s blue corn, lemon-ricotta or pumpkin, he’s a true griddle master.  It surprised me to hear that in the three months Maya has been open, only a couple orders of pancakes have sold.  Dennis will soon be introducing Dutch Boy-style pancakes (though they’ll have a more apropos name).  The sample he gave us was terrific with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar and a tangy cherry compote on top.

Cinnamon Doughnut with Cherry and Cajeta

Our inaugural visit transpired on a national holiday when only one other couple was at the restaurant at the time. As they walked out, Gil and Julia Clarke introduced themselves, indicating they are long-time readers of Gil’s Thrilling… They were as nice as could be. Gil kidded that one of the drawbacks of me getting to be well known is having to eat cold food. Meeting readers has always been a huge—and humbling—privilege for me. It is a thrill to hear from you—whether it be in public at a restaurant or through your comments on this blog.

The next time you visit Maya, check Dennis’s whites for the chef’s badge of honor and relish the opportunity to enjoy the magic and creativity of one of New Mexico’s very best hands-on chefs. Maya is a find!

Maya
205 Silver, S.W., Unit F
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 938-6292
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2017
1st VISIT: 2 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Guajillo-Pecan Mole Chilaquiles, Cinnamon Doughnuts, Chips and Salsa, Guacamole, Duck Cubano Torta, Burrito Ahogado,  Caramelized Onion and Poblano Raja Queso, Kale & Collard Greens Enchiladas, Wagyu Green Chili Cheeseburger

Maya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Olympia Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Olympia Cafe on Central Avenue

For culinary diversity, it’s hard to beat the University of New Mexico (UNM) area in which restaurants with a broad socioeconomic appeal are congregated. Aside from academic enrichment, this area is nurturing a refreshing open-mindedness toward the cuisines of the world.  That seems to be a commonality in areas within easy walking distance of large urban universities.  Perhaps restaurateurs recognize that students–especially the oft-maligned millennials–are not only willing to open up their minds to new knowledge, but their wallets and their minds to new culinary experiences.

The UNM area inaugurated many of us from rural parts of the state to wonderful new taste sensations.  The heretofore enigmatic mysteries of the Orient unraveled themselves the first time we tasted the sweet and sour variations of Chinese food and braved cultural taboos to actually consume raw fish.  The first time we sampled real pizza ((my friend Captain Tuttle can attest to this), we cursed Chef Boyardee and Pizza Hut for deigning to call their tomato sauce slathered cardboard “pizza.”  We lost a bit of our naivete and innocence with each bite of each and every new culinary adventure we experienced.  Life for many of us would never be the same.

Place Your Order At The Front Counter

I dare say that for many UNM students, especially those from rural areas, their first tastes of Greek cuisine occurred at the Olympia Cafe on Central Avenue.  The Olympia Cafe is a venerable elder statesman among UNM area restaurants, launching in 1972.  That’s when Spiros and Marina Counelis began serving Greek cuisine directly across the street from New Mexico’s largest university.   In 2009, Spiros finally embarked on a well-deserved retirement–which lasted less than a year before he and his family launched Zorba’s Fine Greek Dining in the Heights Village shopping center at Montgomery and Juan Tabo. 

The Olympia Cafe was purchased by Charles Akkad who, for the most part, continued in the traditions established by his predecessor.  The greatest change Akkad made was in expanding operating hours.  Olympia is now open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 10PM and on Sunday from 12PM to 8PM.  It’s a more accommodating schedule for those of us who neither live nor work in the UNM area.  Alas, in preparing this review, I came across a “Go Fund Me” page to save the Olympia Cafe which has apparently suffered severely from the erosion of business wrought by the ART project.

Front Dining Room

Even the thought of losing the Olympia Café sends shudders down the spines of the many loyalists this café has cultivated over the years. It seems imponderable that one could drive Route 66 and not be greeted by the unmistakable aromas of well-seasoned Greek cuisine wafting onto Central Avenue. Those aromas are not only a welcome respite from the choking haze of automobile emissions, they’re a prelude to deliciousness. Step into the restaurant and the first thing you see is a counter in which you place your orders. The specials of the day are scrawled on a slate board on a restaurant wall while the daily menu is situated just above the counter.

After the aromas, the next thing you’ll notice is the restaurant’s liveliness. During lunch hour rushes, the Olympia Cafe is bustling with activity. A salvo of orders is quickly filled by a well-practiced kitchen staff.  It doesn’t take very long.  Insofar as ambiance, picture lots of Mediterranean blue touches. In the front dining room a life-sized mural depicts a pulchritudinous athlete setting a torch alight. Seating is more functional than it is comfortable.

Gyros

You won’t be seated long before your number is called and you can walk to the counter to pick up your order.  Portion sizes are prolific.  It may take two of you to carry back the serving trays and their bounteous loads.  That’s especially true if you order one of the restaurant’s terrific appetizers and a dessert, too.  The best way to maximize your experience and appreciation of Greek cuisine is by ordering one of the menu’s combination combos (there are three combo platters on the menu, including one vegetarian).  The most diverse of those combo platters is the Olympia Platter, a combination platter of Moussaka, Pastichio, Gyros meat with tzatziki sauce and dolmathes.  A small Greek salad replete with feta cheese is also part of this platter. 

Pastichio might be described as the Greek answer to lasagna.  It’s a baked macaroni casserole layered with ground beef and topped with cheese and a cream topping.  All too often this entree is surprisingly dry, sometimes the byproduct of over-heating. That’s not the case at Olympia where it is moist and delicious, even tasting made to order.   Another casserole dish on the Olympia combo is Moussaka, a baked eggplant and ground beef casserole also topped with a cream sauce.  Moussaka is a very common dish in the Mediterranean region, but it’s vastly different in every country in which it is served.  The Greek version is my favorite.  Made correctly, the filling has a smooth and rich consistency and the eggplant is baked to perfection (not an easy feat).  Undercooked eggplant may leave your mouth with a metallic taste sensation that can last for hours.  At Olympia, the sole sensation you’ll experience is the desire for a second portion.

Greek Salad

6 September 2017: Perhaps the most popular entree at the Olympia Cafe as at other Greek restaurants are gyros, slices of beef and lamb broiled on a vertical split then wrapped in a pita with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce. The beef and lamb amalgam is moist, tender and very well seasoned, but what enlivens it with flavor is the tzatziki which is made of finely chopped cucumber and dill and mixed with natural yoghurt. There’s a tinge of sweetness to the yoghurt along with the fresh, cool taste of the cucumber that goes very well with the meat.  If anything, we would have appreciated even more of the tzatziki.

In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Olympia Cafe a hot plate award for its chicken souvlaki.  Hot plate awards are accorded annually to some of the city’s most delicious dishes as seen by the magazine’s editors and staff.  The magazine describe this dish as “fit for the gods.”

Galatoboureko, baked custard between crisp filo topped with a light syrup

If you have any room left over, dessert options abound.  My favorite Greek dessert even though I’m still not able to pronounce it is Galatoboureko, baked custard between crisp phyllo topped with a light honeyed syrup.  The custard is rich and delicious but not at all cloying.  Galatoboureko is a Cypriot delicacy and one of the best desserts anywhere.

If your own life broadening experiences have yet to include Greek cuisine, the Olympia Cafe is a great restaurant in which to experience one of the world’s first and most delicious cuisines.

Olympia Cafe
2210 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 166-5222
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2017
1st VISIT: 20 October 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING:  18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Olympia Combo, Gyros, Galatoboureko

Olympia Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sauce Pizza & Wine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sauce Pizza and Wine in the Uptown Area

To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, James Beard Award-winning food writer Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, taking a representative pulse of the best from among thousands of pizza purveyors. His terrific tome, Pizza A Slice of Heaven, published in 2010, provides a definitive guide to a beloved staple that in its elemental form is simplicity itself–bread, cheese and whatever toppings a pizzaioli artisan might care to add. To the surprise of cognoscenti and plebeian alike, Levine declared the best pizza in the fruited plain (and the world, for that matter) to be made in the unlikely town of Phoenix, Arizona where the intensely brilliant Chris Bianco plies his trade as no other.  Yes, that Phoenix, Arizona!

In the dozens of business trips I made to the Phoenix area while working for Intel, convivial colleagues introduced me to a number of wholly forgettable models of pizza mediocrity.  “All-you-can-choke-down” seemed to be their primary criteria for assessing the quality of pizza.  I gleaned the impression that save for  Pizzeria Bianco, nary a good pizza was to be found in the 9,071 mile expanse of metropolitan Phoenix.  None of my colleagues had ever even heard of the anointed purveyor of peerless pies  and when I explained where Pizzeria Bianco was located, none would venture that far…especially when prodigious portions of the all-you-can-eat variety were in much closer proximity.  Eventually I made it to Pizzeria Bianco on my own and confirmed what Ed Levine had proclaimed.

Italian Chopped Salad with Basil Lemonade

When we heard a Scottsdale-based restaurant chain specializing in pizza would be expanding to Albuquerque, misgivings quickly set in.  If this interloper was comparable in quality to the cavalcade of barely passable pizzerias to which my colleagues introduced me, surely savvy Duke City diners would spurn it.  With the sobriquet Sauce–subtitled with “Pizza and Wine”–the burgeoning franchise currently has eight locations in the Phoenix area and four in Tucson with  Albuquerque being the first city outside of Arizona to which Sauce has expanded.  The franchise is located at The Corner @ Winrock, an Uptown property in the sprawling Winrock complex.  Sauce is situated in a 3,000 square-foot space on the corner of Indian School and Uptown and has a capacious dog-friendly patio.

The Sauce menu is so much more than pizza and wine.  Twelve signature pizzas constructed from handcrafted toppings, made-from-scratch sauces and dough prepared fresh daily, might be the first thing to which your eyes gravitate, but you’ll probably peruse the salads menu rather closely, too.  Prepared fresh daily, the ten composed salads aren’t all of the run-of-the-mill variety and the dressings are all house-made.  Locally-sourced, fresh-baked bread from Fano Bread Company is the canvas upon which the four paninis are made.  Pasta paramours have five choices, including a macaroni and cheese option which appears to be very popular.  Soups, sides and desserts are also very intriguing.  Guests order at a counter but an attentive server staff will deliver your order, refill drinks and bus tables.

Prosciutto and Fig Pie

If you’re tired of designer greens-based salads, Sauce has an Italian Chopped salad (pepperoni, sopressata, smoked mozzarella, pepperoncini, kalamata olives, yellow tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, red onions, roasted garbanzo beans and roasted garlic vinaigrette) that will make a believer out of you.  Sure, chopped salads (which include ingredients which have been chopped to be uniform then either composed or tossed) have been around for a long time, but peruse the aforementioned ingredients and you’ll probably note combinations heretofore unseen to you.  These ingredients coalesce into a  delicious whole in every bite.  There are plenty of surprises in this salad, among them the crunch of the roasted garbanzo beans, the smokiness of the mozzarella and the potency of the roasted garlic vinaigrette, for example.

From among Sauce’s signature pizzas, several are sure to pique your interest.  Among them are the Prosciutto & Fig (black mission figs, goat cheese and fresh arugula).  The idea of tossing arugula atop a pizza was almost certainly conceived by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.  It’s an idea oft duplicated, especially in California.  Not among my favorite toppings, arugula nonetheless adds a bold, peppery flavor to each pie.  While the black mission figs counterbalance the tanginess of the goat cheese and the saltiness of the prosciutto, a fig jam would have been preferable to sliced fig halves.  Our favorite aspect of each slice was the pizza crust, especially the cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza.  The cornicione is not only is soft and chewy, it’s got granules of sea salt that enhance its just baked bread flavor and aroma.

Lasagna Pie

Noting that “nothing ruins a pizza faster than the wrong toppings,” The Cheat Sheet, an online presence dedicated to “providing audiences the information they want in an approachable, entertaining way” compiled a list of the fifteen most hated pizza toppings many people think take a pie from delicious to disgusting.  Among them are spinach (described as making a pizza soggy while imparting very little flavor) and mushrooms (another topping which adds very little flavor).  Both spinach and mushrooms adorn the Lasagna Pie along with ricotta, meatballs and fresh garlic.  These ingredients seem more at home on a true lasagna than atop a beauteous crust.  Still, the one ingredient we enjoyed least was the meatballs which lacked the personality of say, a spicy sausage.

My Kim didn’t get much argument from me that along with the Chopped Italian, the best item on the Sauce menu is the gelato from Van Rixel Brothers. That could be said about almost every restaurant in which Van Rixel gelato is offered.  What’s so great about this gelato?  Aside from having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream, texturally it’s also much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor.  High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally (the Van Rixel Brothers are Albuquerque-based), not shipped from afar. Two winning flavors we enjoyed are lavender-lemon gelato and chocolate gelatoSauce’s portion size was very generous.

Left: Lavender-Lemon Gelato; Right: Chocolate Gelato From Albuquerque’s VanRixel Brothers

Sauce Pizza & Wine has redeemed Phoenix pizza in my eyes.  It’s not only better than any of the pizza parlors to which my Arizona colleagues took me, it’s a very good addition to the Duke City pizza scene.  The Italian Chopped salad alone is worth a visit (or six) while the basil-lemonade is a best in town caliber beverage.

Sauce Pizza & Wine
2100 Louisiana Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 639-5402
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lavender-Lemon Gelato, Chocolate Gelato, Strawberry-Basil Lemonade, Chopped Italian Salad, Prosciutto-Fig Pizza, Lasagna Pizza

Sauce Pizza & Wine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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