Zullo’s Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Zullo’s Bistro and Bar in Albuquerque’s Downtown

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.”
~Jenny Joseph

“Only you,” my Kim chided me “would approach an Italian bistro and associate it with a poem considered an ode to nonconformity.” It couldn’t be helped. My mind just works that way. Besides, purple is prominent on the exterior facade approaching Zullo’s Bistro on Old Route 66. “Why so much purple?” I wondered—”especially amidst the adobe-hued homogeneity that is Albuquerque.” My Catholic upbringing taught me that purple is used during Advent and Lent as a sign of penance, sacrifice and preparation. Purple also represents justice as one of the three colors of Mardi Gras. In the best-selling novel The Color Purple, purple is a reminder that we should take the time to notice what little things God does to show us that He loves us.  Purple, it seems is a very versatile color.

There’s even more purple inside the restaurant as well as on the expansive back patio It’s a drastic departure from the days in which the edifice–then home to the Blackbird Buvette–was as dark as a goth wardrobe.   So why purple?  Mike Zullo who owns the bistro with his daughter Jenni, is–like the old woman of Jenny Joseph’s poem–a bit of a nonconformist (he plays bluegrass music after all).  While other restaurateurs might go with an earthy adobe tone, he likes purple.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a Barney the annoying Dinosaur purple.  It’s more of a purple M&Ms purple.  There are pastel colors, too…and most “normal” people will probably notice them first.

The interior of Zullo’s Bistro

Zullo’s Bistro is the family’s investment in Albuquerque, Mike told us.  It’s an investment that’s been fraught with challenges–and not solely because the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) has made driving and parking downtown a serious challenge.  Since launching in the Spring of 2017, a number of days in the hundred-degree range slowed walk-in traffic from neighboring businesses–so much so that a planned daily lunch seven days a week is down to four days.  As the saying goes, however, “when life gives you plums, you make plum wine (purple of course).”  While lunch traffic may be way down, this is one jumping joint in the evening.  Zullo’s is one of the few downtown dining alternatives to food trucks that remains open into the wee hours of the night.  Live music is a huge attraction.

So is the capacious back patio, a corner of which is a designated musical space.   The dog-friendly patio offers sun-shielding canopies and overhead fans to help offset the heat. Alas, during our inaugural visit on a Saturday lunch hour we had the patio to ourselves.  Still, it’s easy to see why the back patio is such a popular draw.  Admittedly, we probably wouldn’t have been on the back patio if Zullo’s didn’t offer some tempting Italian food prepared by an Italian chef.  In 32 reviews Zullo’s has amassed a four-star rating (out of five) on Yelp.

Beet and Feta Salad

Zullo’s menu lists only about a dozen items, but a compendium-like menu is never a guarantee of quality and deliciousness.  Instead, Mike Zullo told us, his family restaurant emphasizes fresh, high quality ingredients and even pays tribute to the Land of Enchantment’s favorite vegetable by offering a green chile marinara option as well as frites with green chile.  There are three salads, two sandwiches and three pasta items on the menu along with three appetizer items such grass-fed beef meatballs (more on them later).  For diners who pride themselves on trying everything on the menu, it won’t take many visits to do so.  Thankfully, you’ll want to repeat several of the dishes.

One dish you’ll enjoy time and again is the beet and feta salad (yellow and red beets, feta, toasted walnuts, craisins, and spinach tossed in orange vinaigrette).  Yellow (golden) beets vary in sweetness, tending to be a bit sweeter and tasting a little less earthy and more mellow in intensity than their red counterpart.  Texturally, yellow beets are more tender and are easier to masticate.  They’re my favorites while my Kim enjoys the red beets best.  To counterbalance the sweetness of the beets, ask for an additional ramekin of the orange vinaigrette, one of the very best we’ve had.  The toasted walnuts also provide a nice foil.

Bruschette

Bruschetta is an example of culinary ingenuity meeting practicality.  Originally created as a means to use up bread beginning to get stale by adding oil and seasonings to improve its flavor, it’s become a versatile appetizer or snack.  Toasted slices of bread can be served with any number of toppings, the chef’s imagination being the sole limiter.  At Zullo’s, the bruschette features triple-cream Brie cheese, freshly chopped basil and assorted tomatoes on a toasted baguette.  It’s akin to a Caprese salad sans mozzarella.  Served three to an order, it’s a nice starter!  The fresh cherry tomatoes and their sweet, juicy flavor are a perfect foil for the invigorating basil and the rich, milky Brie.  Our sole complaint (and it’s a nit) is that we had to split one of the bruschette.  Make it a foursome and we would have been very happy.

In 2008, the New York Times celebrated the return of the “lost Jersey tomato.” Believe it or not, the Garden State’s state’s agricultural reputation was built on consistently sweet, juicy tomatoes (and jokes crediting Three Mile Island soil aren’t appreciated). According to the Times, “the classic Jersey tomato is not an heirloom, loosely defined as a tomato your great-grandfather might have grown in the backyard.” Instead, it’s a disease-resistant, high-yield, red, round tomato developed for taste. New Jersey tomatoes are the only tomatoes Zullo’s uses on their sauces. They’re more expensive, but the quality is certainly telling.

Pasta and Free Range Meatballs

Still believe nothing says Italian food like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs?  Think again.  If you visit Italy and ask for spaghetti and meatballs, you might hear “sfigato” (loser) and “stunad” (stupid) being uttered under your server’s breath as they steer you toward something more authentically Italian.   Spaghetti and meatballs is strictly an American invention popularized in New York City.  For that, generations (at least of Americans) are grateful.  You’ll certainly give thanks for Zullo’s free-range meatballs served with fresh, hand-cut Pappardelle noodles and basil marinara.

My Kim believes these magnificent orbs are the best in Albuquerque and second only in New Mexico to the amazing meatballs at Deming’s tranformative Forghedaboudit.   Zullo’s meatballs aren’t of the crumbly variety, retaining their integrity even after you pierce them with your fork.  Already the most popular item on the menu, the grass-fed beef and sausage meatballs are about the size of a golf ball and are probably the first item on your plate you’ll attack, but don’t discount the papardelle.  Papardelle, a flat pasta cut into a broad ribbon shape, is tailor-made for sauce and Zullo’s doesn’t spare it.

Roasted Mushroom Manicotti with Green Chile Marinara

With nearly nine months having elapsed in 2017, reflecting on Gil’s “best of the best for 2017” has started to take on a more serious tone.  It’s a virtual certainty that Zullo’s roasted mushroom manicotti with green chile marinara will make it onto that hallowed list.  Normally served with a basil marinara, the four manicotti dish is an exemplar of flavors that work very well together.  The roasted mushrooms and their earthy deliciousness are finely diced and generously stuffed into the manicotti which is topped with the rich, fresh-flavored New Jersey marinara sauce punctuated with New Mexico green chile.  Between the acidity and sweetness of the marinara sauce and the pleasant piquancy of the green chile, this sauce is a winner.  Topping the manicotti is a melted three-cheese blend of Parmesan, Mozzarella and Pecorino Romano sprinkled with basil.  This is an outstanding dish!

The dessert menu is a bit on the small side, but the tiramisu has already garnered high acclaim.  Alas, Saturday night diners and revelers polished it all off so the only postprandial treat available to us was a chocolate gelato sprinkled liberally with walnut chunks.   Tannins in walnuts are great for balancing out sweet dishes, not that the chocolate is especially sweet.  Still, the walnuts provide a nice flavor contrast to an “adult” ice cream with plenty of rich creaminess, chocolate chunks and dense thickness.  It’s a nice way to finish a great meal though someday we’ve got to return to try that acclaimed tiramisu.

Chocolate Gelato with Walnuts

Zullo’s Bistro is living proof that you don’t have to be old to wear purple.  It’s seriously one of the very best reasons to visit Albuquerque’s downtrodden downtown district.  Go for the roasted mushroom manicotti and you’ll be back time and again.

Zullo’s Bistro
509 Central Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-6909
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beet and Feta Salad, Bruschette, Pasta and Free Range Meatballs, Roasted Mushroom Manicotti with Green Chile Marinara, Chocolate Gelato with Walnuts

Zullo's Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary & Tito's may serve the very best red chile in Albuquerque

Mary & Tito’s, THE very best New Mexican restaurant in the world!

Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963.  It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance.  These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful.  If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains.  Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.

Just how good is Mary & Tito’s?  In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had.  Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30” rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.

Mary Ann Gonzales for whom the restaurant is named passed away on Tuesday, September 17, 2013. She was a great and wonderful lady! Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again.  Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel.  Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.

There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips.  Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there.  It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico, my highest rated restaurant of any genre in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.

Mary & Tito’s legendary carne adovada. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s.  In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.

Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990 and his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales left us in 2013, their effervescent daughter Antoinette and sons Jordan and Travis continue to provide the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversee an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere.  Interestingly, Mary & Tito’s continues to win over lifelong New Mexicans who never heard of the restaurant until it was featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods Dining Destinations program.

Mary & Tito's green chile burrito stuffed with guacamole and rice--one of the very best burritos in the universe!

A rare sight–green chile on a burrito at Mary & Tito’s where red is best!

The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!  Beads of perspiration glistened on my dearly departed friend Ruben Hendrickson’s forehead with every bite, but he persevered through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor.  Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like.  It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like.  The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.

Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it.  Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin–contrary to what the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern once reported on Bizarre Foods: Dining Destinations). There is magic in this purity.  There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch.  There’s none of that in this red chile!

A guacamole, beans and rice burrito with red chile. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat.  My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.

My dear friend Ruben Hendrickson, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, was absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.”   The Santa Fe Travelers Billie Frank and Steve Collins called it “the best carne adovada we’ve ever had.”  As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

A large combination plate: taco, tamale, cheese enchilada, beans and rice

In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment.  As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed.  Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stood out, the best of the best!

The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef.  With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.

Two Tacos

Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito.  It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!

With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.

Chile relleno covered in red.

Chile relleno covered in red.

The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion.  The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte.  As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.

My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other.  In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment).  New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker.  He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.

A huskless tamale smothered in red chile

You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover‘ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city.  The Mexican turnover is the most popular item at the restaurant, surpassing even the nonpareil carne adovada.

Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa.  The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.

Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy.  Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city.  Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out.  A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.

Carne Adovada Omelet

Carne Adovada Omelet

Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams.  There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.

Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive.  They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself.  They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific desserts available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and Chips

For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular.  Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times.  You won’t find any better in New Mexico.  You won’t find anything close.  My friend Bill Resnik calls it “one of the ten best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

Chicharones, Mary & Tito’s style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.  Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.

While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?

The James Beard Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.”  The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.”  New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s?  Why not?  They’re fantastic!

18 August 2017: It took me 45 visits to sample everything on the menu at Mary & Tito’s, the very last item being a Mexican Pizza.  Described on the menu as “fry bread, refried beans and cheese,” it’s so much more than that.  It’ll remind you most of the fry bread tacos served at Indian Pow Wows and on reservations.  The canvas for this unique pizza is a deep-fried sopaipilla similar to the one used on the Mexican turnover.  The sopaipilla is topped with lots of refried beans, red chile, sprinkled with cheese and lined with lettuce and tomato.  Unlike Indian-style fry bread tacos, the fry bread at Mary & Tito’s is crisp and crunchy, not soft and pliable.  It doesn’t make the top ten list of items I’ve had at Mary & Tito’s, but you could put that red chile on a leather boot and it would be delicious.

Mexican Pizza

In the February, 2013 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine  celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.”  I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved.  It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.

The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013.  While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s.  The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu.  More converts!

Mary & Tito’s fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.

MARY & TITO’S CAFE
2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-344-6266
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 18 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 45
RATING: 27
COST: $$
BEST BET
: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones,  Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate, Mexican Pizza, Mexican Turnover, Salsa & Chips

Mary & Tito's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Soo Bak Foods – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Soo Bak Foods, an Outstanding Mobile Kitchen

When I told my friend Jim “Bubba” Chester about having discovered a terrific mobile food kitchen named Soo Bak, he became very animated. Surely, he thought Soo Bak just had to serve the Arkansas-style barbecue he craved. When I asked how he arrived at that conclusion, he explained rather matter-of-factly that the trademarked chant at his beloved alma-mater (the University of Arkansas), is ”Woooo! Pig Sooie!” and of course, the team mascot is the Razorbacks. Hence anyone should be able to see that “Soo Bak” is Arkansas-style barbecue. It nearly broke his heart to learn that instead of Arkansas-style barbecue, Soo Bak serves Korean barbecue (among other paragons of deliciousness). “How in tarnation could someone that far from the Ozarks know anything about barbecue?” he cried. Quite a bit, my friend. Quite a bit.

Korean barbecue, called “gogi gui,” more closely resembles grilling than it does the traditional low-and-slow preparation of meats throughout the fruited plain. This grilling method is distinguished by the use of a charcoal or gas grill, often build right into the dining room table itself. There diners prepare their favorite thinly sliced pork, beef, chicken or seafood. Korean barbecue is actually an overarching term encompassing a variety of marinated and non-marinated meat and seafood dishes. The two Korean barbecue dishes with which Americans are most familiar are bulgogi (thinly sliced rib eye glazed with a sweet and savory marinade) and kalbi (sliced, butterflied and marinated beef short ribs prepared over a wood fire).

The Soo Bak Menu

Contrary to Jim’s rationale, the name Soo Bak actually translates from Korean to “Watermelon,” a fitting appellation considering the mobile kitchen conveyance plies its craft under the shadows of the Sandias. Soo Bak is the brainchild of owner-chef John Katrinak who has reinterpreted his grandmother’s and mother’s recipes so that they meld the complementary flavors of Korea and New Mexico. Those flavors work very well together! During his travels throughout the globe, the impressions he gleaned from the generosity and love many people put into their food resonated deeply with him. It’s his personal mission statement to share his foods in the spirit of that generosity and love. Mission accomplished!

You can’t help but love a mobile kitchen sporting the tag line “Korean Seoul Food,” wordplay honoring the capital of South Korea. Operating across the city since January, 2013, Soo Bak is a ubiquitous presence at the Talin Market where it sets up alongside several other mobile kitchens every Wednesday. Unlike many of its brethren, Soo Bak posts its weekly schedule on its Facebook page and can be counted on reliably to be where it’s supposed to be. Its Facebook page also lists its menu of “everyday items,” though frequently changing specials aren’t listed. Befitting a motorized conveyance with limited operating room, the menu is rather limited, but it’s the flavors and aromas that are far-reaching. As you queue up to place your order, you may want to pull a George Costanza and yank the people in front of you out of your way.  That’s how ravenous the aromas will make you.

BBQ Beef Tacos with Cucumber Kimchi

9 August 2017: Among Soo Bak’s most popular fusion of New Mexico meets Korea are Korean tacos. Available in quantities of two or three and generously engorged with your choice of Korean BBQ beef (with lettuce, cheese, crema and Sriracha), Spicy Pork (with lettuce, cheese, crema, and a side of jalapeño salsa) or sautéed mushrooms (with lettuce, cheese, crema and Sriracha). The Korean BBQ Beef taco is in rarefied company as one of the most surprising tacos I’ve had in years. Many other tacos have surprised me in their use of ingredients which don’t always work well together. Soo Bak surprised me in just how harmoniously well those ingredients coalesce into a delicious whole. The beef is impregnated with a superb smokiness, a grilled flavor with a perfect amount of char that still lets you appreciate the crispiness and freshness of the lettuce and the complementary sauces.

9 August 2017: Air Force friends and colleagues who served in Korea like to use the term “deep kimchi” when someone is in a rather sticky situation. They shared horror stories of kimchi so pungent and piquant that they couldn’t eat it. Because I could, it instantly made me one of the gang. Soo Bak offers three types of kimchi available in small and large portions: Napa cabbage, radish and cucumber. The cucumber kimchi is the complete antithesis of the sometimes cloying cucumber salad oft served with satay at many Thai restaurants. Where Thai cucumber salad is sweet and vinegary, Soo Bak’s cucumber kimchi is pungent, salty and pleasantly piquant with a nice crunchy texture that bespeaks of its freshness. It isn’t nearly as incendiary as other kimchi I’ve enjoyed, but it is a delightful accompaniment to any meal.

Korean BBQ Beef Bibimbap

 9 August 2017: Koreans have mastered the art of “leftovers disguised as a gourmet dish” in a popular dish known as Bibimbap, which translates from Korean to “mixed rice.” As with other Soo Bak dishes, there are three types of bibimbap available: Korean BBQ beef, spicy pork and sautéed mushrooms. The dish is described on the menu as “on a dish of steamed rice with lettuce and chilled daikon, sprouts and zucchini; topped with a fried egg and topped with red pepper sauce or sesame ginger vinaigrette.” My words won’t do justice to this dish which plays with and delights every one of your ten-thousand taste buds. Puncture the yolk and let it run across the other ingredients to maximize the intensity of your enjoyment.  My choices were the spicy pork and the sesame-ginger vinaigrette, both of which interplay so well. As with the aforementioned BBQ beef, the spicy pork is grilled to the point that its exterior is nearly caramelized, the flavor of nicely-seasoned charcoal prominent.  Call it “gourmet leftovers” if you will, but this is an addicting dish. 

16 August 2017:  There’s an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t eat more than one starch in any one meal.  This isn’t as much so that you avoid bad combinations (such as potatoes and pasta) as it is so that you don’t overeat starches.  Somehow Soo Bak can get away with violating this culinary faux pas.  At least they do with the Sesame Noodles (chilled sweet potato noodles with spinach, carrots, onion, and sesame seeds in a sesame soy sauce)  served with steamed rice.  While both the sesame noodles and the steamed rice are exemplars of how each dish should be prepared, eating that much starch in one meal will rankle the ire of your cardiologist.  One way to cut the starch is to add the Korean BBQ beef with the dish.  Yes, the dish will still have two starches, but at least the flavor profile isn’t one-note.  This is an excellent dish.

Korean Sesame Noodles with Korean BBQ Beef

16 August 2017:  Kimchi is as Korean as apple pie is American.  It’s a quintessential food, one offering spicy, salty, sour, crunchy and healthy notes.  With more than one hundred varieties of kimchi, there’s bound to be one to appease ever palate–and contrary to stereotype, not all are made with cabbage.  That said, Soo Bak’s Napa cabbage kimchi is terrific, an exemplar of the kimchi with which most Americans are familiar.  Its pungency and piquancy is courtesy of the combination of red pepper powder and several other seasoning spices.  Its deliciousness is courtesy of Soo Bak’s traditional preparation.  My friend Bill Resnik calls Soo Bak’s radish kimchi the very best he’s ever had.  Made with ponytail radishes, it’s got a pleasant punch and delightfully crunchy texture.

Soo Bak prepares everything to order so waits are in order. If you find them at Talin, there’s a good chance you’ll run into Air Force personnel in uniform. Make sure to thank them for their service and maybe compliment them for their good taste in mobile food kitchens. Soo Bak is among the very best!

Soo Bak Foods
Location Varies
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 221-9910
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2017
1st VISIT: 9 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Korean BBQ Beef Bibimbap, Cucumber Kimchi, Spicy Pork Tacos

Soo Bak Foods Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taco Fundación – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Taco Fundación in Santa Fe

Consider it sacrilege if you will, but some pundits believe the taco is poised to become the most ubiquitous and popular dish in the fruited plain. One such heretic is eater.com’s Nick Solares who made the audacious prediction that the taco will replace the hamburger as the American national dish within fifty years. He makes a great case for his conjecture, citing such factors as the rising Hispanic immigrant population, America’s hipster culture, and people in general embracing the taco as a budget alternative to American fast foods. New York City-based chef Alex Stupak is similarly inclined. In recent years, he points out that largely because of the rising cost of beef, chicken has supplanted it as the most consumed protein in America and he believes pork is poised to make a run at beef, too.

Tacos have a way to go before catching up with burgers…a long way.  According to a 2012 PBS Newshour feature, Americans eat an average of three hamburgers a week.  That’s a whopping total of nearly 50-billion burgers per year.  By comparison, that same year Americans consumed 4.5 billion tacos, inexplicably including 554-million Jack in the Box tacos (a taco described by one source as a “wet envelope of cat food).   When it comes to availability and diversity, the City of Angels is peerless.  In Los Angeles, there are 5,575 places to buy tacos which means you can eat tacos three times a day and never visit the same place for five years.  You want diversity?  Los Angeles is the birthplace of the Korean taco, an exemplar of which you can enjoy at Albuquerque’s Soo Bak Foods.

The Fun-Loving Crew at Taco Fundación

As much as denizens of the Duke City may believe we’re prolific consumers of tacos, one scientific analysis ranked Albuquerque 38th in a listing of “America’s most/least taco-crazed cities.” From among the 50 largest cities across the fruited plain, five Texas cities–Arlington, Fort Worth, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio in that order–ranked one through five and Houston ranked ninth. Even El Paso ranked above Albuquerque, finishing fifteenth.  For those of us who don’t believe New Mexico should rank behind Texas in anything, that’s pretty hard to take.

Do these scientific findings mean La Tierra Encantada can’t prepare tacos encantados?  Hardly!  My friend Schuyler, a proud New Mexican temporarily exiled in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, will tell you that New Mexicans spread their love among the multitude of outstanding foods available across our enchanted state.  We’re not as taco-crazed as other states (especially Texas) in which no other foods warrant affection.  He tells me two purveyors of tacos–El Cotorro and B2B Tap Room-— recently showcased on Gil’s Thrilling… are probably better than any tacos you’ll find in the Lone Star state.

Al Pastor

Texans and New Mexicans alike will go crazy for Santa Fe’s Taco Fundacion which opened its doors in late April, 2017. Taco Fundacion sits in the revered Guadalupe Street location which for 61 years housed Bert’s Burger Bowl, a capital city institution. Scant months after the Burger Bowl’s closure (on April 29, 2015, a day which will live in infamy) restaurant impresario Brian Knox announced he would be launching a taco restaurant at that former home of hallowed hamburgers. It took almost exactly two years for his plans to reach fruition.

For nearly three decades, the name Brian Knox was synonymous in Santa Fe with fine-dining, having earned his stripes in such highly regarded restaurants as Escalera and the Coyote Cafe. He also owned and operated Aqua Santa, a contemporary American restaurant which helped pioneer the city’s slow-food movement. Wanting for several years to make high-quality burgers widely accessible and affordable in a fun and welcoming venue, he launched The Shake Foundation in 2014. Now, Knox hopes to duplicate his success with the Shake Foundation by offering “classic” tacos constructed with organic ingredients.

Oyster

From all outward appearances, not much has changed at the familiar site—not even a fresh coat of stucco. That’s certainly a nostalgic boon. As with Bert’s (and the Shake Foundation), you’ll walk up to a counter, scan the overhead menu and place your order then wait to be called. Once your order is ready, you can pick up napkins and douse your tacos with bottled pepper and tomatillo sauce (not that they’re needed at all). Alas, your only seating options are shielded outdoor patios—or your motorized conveyance. Expect the Taco Fundacion to do a booming take-out business.

As of our inaugural visit in August, 2017, the Taco Fundacion was one shy of a dozen different tacos including three vegetarian (verduras) tacos and three with seafood (oyster, shrimp and fish).  Other than tacos, the menu offers salsa and chips, a side of Moriarty pinto beans and guacamole.  You can quench your thirst with Mexican Coke and Jaritos brand beverages.  Perhaps a portend of more deliciousness to come, the marquee in front of the restaurant also reads “burritos” and “bowls,” though the fun-loving guys at the counter didn’t have any details.

Bison

For my Kim, the taco most appealing is always al pastor (roasted marinated pork, pineapple, onion and cilantro), the famous tacos in the style of the shepherd.  Believed to have developed in Mexico because of the influence of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, tacos al pastor offer a balance of savory, sweet and tangy flavors.  Unlike on some Hawaiian pizzas, pineapple is much more judiciously used so that its tanginess is more hinted at than a dominant flavor.  Two corn tortillas per taco provide a nice savory, intensely corn-flavored contrast to the marinated pork.

Since its launch, one of my favorite offerings at the Shake Foundation has been the fried oyster sandwich with red chile mayo so it stands to reason the Taco Fundacion’s oyster taco (chipotle mayo and cabbage) would also strike my fancy.  It did.  There are never enough oysters to sate this oyster-lover, but what oysters there were, were quite good.  The chipotle mayo packs a barely discernible kick which means it doesn’t take anything away from the unique flavor profile of the oysters.

Chicken Mole

Bison meat is similar to beef, but those of us with discerning palates believe it has a slightly different flavor and texture. It also has more health benefits than beef: lower fat, more lean, low in cholesterol, and high in protein.  At Taco Fundacion you need to know is that it makes a delicious filling for a taco.  The bison taco (creamed corn, Oaxaca cheese, avocado crema) stands out as much for the bison as for the sweet corn niblets and an addictive avocado crema. 

The one taco we found most boring is the chicken mole taco (crema and sesame seeds) which lacked the complexity of flavors and punch of true Mexican moles.  Moreover, it was more than a bit dry.  A much better version can be found at Albuquerque’s Taqueria El Paisa.

In Santa Fe, tacos have already replaced burgers–at least in one location.  Whether or not the popularity of tacos supplanting that of burgers will ever transpire remains to be seen, but if they do you can credit great taquerias such as the Taco Fundacion for leading that charge.

Taco Fundación
235 North Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-8286
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Al Pastor, Chicken Mole, Oyster, Bison

Taco Fundacion Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Oak Tree Cafe is now on Alameda as of April, 2013

This isn’t Burger King!
You can’t have it your way.
You get it our way or you don’t get it at all.

For some reason, human beings seem inclined to level criticism by the shovelful while apportioning praise and plaudits by the thimbleful.  We  seem genetically predisposed to put more stock into negativity than we are to believe the best of others.  We consider compliments to be based on insincerity or ulterior motives.  Even our television viewing preferences gravitate toward gratuitous depictions of misbehavior and depravity.  We consider unwatchable any movie or television show portraying kindness and humanity.

That grim indictment of humanity is, by virtue of its own unflattering characterization, itself an example of misanthropic pathos.  In the spirit of John 8:7, I will cast the first stone at myself.  For years, I heard about a humble little sandwich shop in which customer service was said to be more than a slogan; it was a way of doing business.  Instead of embracing this supposed people-pleasing panacea, my first inclination was skepticism and a willingness to lump the Oak Tree Cafe with any number of other eateries which provide good service, albeit with transparent insincerity.

OakTree02

Affable proprietor Rob Carson at the counter where you place your order

You’re no doubt familiar with the type of restaurant of which I’m talking  (chains are especially good at this). The minute you walk in, a painted-on smile approaches you and begins the well-rehearsed wait “schtick” that typically begins with something like, “I’m Julie and I’ll be your server tonight.”  Periodic visits to your table (usually when your mouth is full) include perfunctory chit chat as well as refills and more napkins.  Though typically not unpleasant, this type of service is still rather impersonal and unmemorable.  It’s essentially a game of reciprocal expectations between customer and client; both parties know what to expect and fulfill their respective roles.  It’s basically harmless.

Unfortunately, as feedback to this blog will attest, for some restaurants, harmless would be a vast improvement. Some restaurants, it seems, don’t seem to understand that good customer service is the lifeblood of any business. All too often, customer service appears to be of the “This isn’t Burger King!  You can’t have it your way.” variety.   This type of service is characterized by a haughty disregard for the axiom that the customer is always right.  Its rendition of the golden rule stops at “do onto others” as in “do ignore them,” “do belittle them,” do patronize them.”  Quite naturally it dissuades return visits.

The Taos

Since most customer service seems to fall somewhere between the impersonal and well-rehearsed wait schtick and the “you get it our way or you don’t get it at all” approach, you’ll forgive me if I was skeptical about the Oak Tree Cafe.  It really is too easy to be cynical about a restaurant which has made its reputation not only because of its great sandwiches, but because of its genuinely warm, personable and attentive service.  Though I’m not from Missouri, Oak Tree would just have to show me.

The Oak Tree Cafe was founded just over a quarter century ago by the father-son duo of Michael and Rob Carson who worked side-by-side until Michael’s death at age 86 in 2009.  Today Rob is ably assisted by a kitchen staff which abides with the cafe’s long-standing tradition of excellent customer service.  In the tradition of Cheers, television’s friendliest bar, it seems everyone–or at least Rob–knows the name of all regulars as they walk in.  He also knows each regular’s “usual,” what those regular patrons like to order when they visit.  If my first few visits are any indication, the regulars outnumber new visitors undoubtedly eager to find out if the cafe’s reputation for outstanding food and exceptional service is well deserved.

Hot Corned Beef on Rye With a Side Order of Chips and Fresh Fruit

In April, 2013, the Oak Tree Cafe relocated from its Uptown location to a new shopping center at 4545 Alameda, N.E. (just west of Jefferson).  The Oak Tree Cafe’s digs are 2,500 square-feet of welcome to west side diners whose sandwich options were primarily chain restaurants which blight their neighborhoods.  An outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables accommodates another forty guests or so.  At its expansive new location, the Oak Tree Cafe now serves burgers, beer, wine and appetizers. 

As of my initial visit to the Alameda location on 10 May 2013, only the famous Oak Tree bell hasn’t made it to its new home.  At the Uptown location, once you took your seat, conversations with your dining companions were periodically be punctuated by the tintinnabulation of a bell positioned by the cafe door.  As customers exited, they were invited to please ring the bell “if the food was great and service was crazy.”  Without exception, everyone exiting the premises rang the bell.  Even if Rob doesn’t bring the bell back, the service remains great and the service as crazy as ever.

OakTree07

The Oak Tree Combo Sandwich

For a restaurant with a reputation for service, it’s surprising to find that there is no tableside wait service.  Instead you’ll place your order at a counter, interacting with an affable server (maybe even Janet, Rob’s pulchritudinous bride as of August, 2016) who’s happy to answer any questions you may have or to make recommendations if you need them.  When you first walk in don’t be surprised to be greeted with a friendly handshake and an introduction “I’m Rob Carson.  Welcome to the Oak Tree Cafe.”  It probably won’t be the only time you interact with Carson who’s a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting throughout the premises with an ambassadorial flair.

The sandwiches warrant not only bell-ringing, but cheers. They’re that good! The sandwich and wraps menu is formidable, nearly two dozen different sandwiches crafted on fresh bread, (sub rolls, wheat, rye, white, Kaiser rolls and French rolls) either toasted or untoasted.  Meat products come from Boar’s Head.  Sandwiches are named for faithful customers, New Mexico landmarks and celebrities such as Monty Hall and Al Capone.  Each sandwich towers with meats, condiments and ingredients, some of which are infrequently found at other Duke City sandwich shops.

OakTree06

Beer-battered “Black and Tan” onion rings, some of the very best in Albuquerque

5 July 2011: If you’re uncertain as to what sandwich to order, focus your study of the menu on those crafted with roast beef, a specialty of the house. The roast beef is slow-cooked on the premises from choice top round. It’s as tender as a marshmallow and as moist and delicious as any roast beef you’ll ever have anywhere! The Taos–hot USDA choice top round roast beef, melted Monterey Jack, grilled onions, grilled green chile, tomato, mayo and lettuce on a fresh-baked Kaiser roll–showcases layer upon layer of roast beef, so juicy and unctuous it resembles a hamburger patty until you taste it.  That’s when you gain an appreciation for how wonderful roast beef can be.  It’s especially wonderful when its flavor profile melds with the other ingredients which make this my choice for best roast beef sandwich in town.

5 July 2011: During my inaugural visit to the Menaul location, the special of the day featured an ingredient combination–hot corned beef on rye toast topped with grilled onions, Monterey jack cheese, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and deli mustard–that made my taste buds very happy.  The combination of banana peppers, deli mustard and grilled onions was especially notable, a complementary mix of sweet, savory and tangy flavors.  This sandwich is piled about twice as high as many other sandwiches you’ll find in local eateries.  It also stands tall above the rest in terms of pure deliciousness.

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

The sprawling Alameda location is every bit as accommodating and friendly as its previous home.  Even the menu bespeaks of friendliness with the slogan “A warm, friendly atmosphere full of camaraderie and congeniality.”  Location aside, the biggest difference between one location and another is the menu which now includes three gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and appetizers.  Sandwiches are the Oak Tree Cafe’s raison de’etre and will probably always be the most popular draw, but burgers and chicken sandwiches will beckon, too.

Although all sandwiches are served with a pickle spear and your choice of homemade apple coleslaw, homemade macaroni salad or fresh fruit, you owe it to yourself to try some of the other sides on the menu: hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries or beer-battered onion rings.  The beer-battered black and tan onion rings are among the two  best in the city (the others being from Flamez Burgers & More).  These golden hued beauties are served on a tree-like apparatus, just ready to be plucked.  Bite into them and onion juiciness squirts out, a wonderful departure from the usual desiccation you experience with out-of-the-bag onion rings most restaurants serve. 

Janet's Bacon Green Chili Burger

Janet’s Bacon Green Chili Burger

10 May 2013: Much as the burgers and chicken sandwiches beckon, chances are you’ll succumb to the stronger calling of a sumptuous sandwich.  One of the best is the Oak Tree Combo, a sandwich honoring the years spent at the San Mateo (Uptown) location.   This is a sandwich’s sandwich, a meaty behemoth on a Kaiser roll.  The ingredients–USDA top round roast beef, turkey breast, corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, melted Cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes–go very well together.  It’s such a good sandwich, you may mourn finishing your last bite. 

13 June 2013:  On the day of my second visit to the Alameda location, it did my heart good to see more cars parked in front of the Oak Tree Cafe than there were in front of Panera Bread, a chain restaurant five miles away which also serves sandwiches.  It goes to show Duke City Diners can be a discerning lot that recognizes the superiority of locally owned and operated restaurants and home-grown touches such as the Oak Tree Cafe’s green chile Ranch dressing which accompanies the fried green beans.   While no dressing is necessary for these perfectly breaded, perfectly fried green beans, a little piquancy and roasted flavor goes a long way.

The Father Paul Sandwich, “Heaven in a Sandwich”

13 June 2013: The best new green chile cheeseburger I’ve had in 2013 is the quaintly named Janet’s Bacon Green Chili (SIC) Burger, a burger so good the Oak Tree Cafe can get away with the Texas-like spelling of New Mexico’s official state vegetable.  The burger is named for the delightful Janet, Rob’s fiance and a partner in the restaurant.   All the burgers at the restaurant are made from fresh ground beef from Nelson’s Meat Market formed on the premises daily and served on a fresh bakery bun.  The Janet invites you to “Cowgirl It Up” (a phrase meaning stop being a sissy) with this half-pound behemoth topped with pecan-smoked bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, New Mexico green chile, red onions, lettuce and tomatoes.  The green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough bite to let you know it’s there.  The beef is moist and perfectly prepared at about medium.  The bacon is terrific as is the cheese.  It’s a burger which goes very well with the onion rings.

13 June 2013: If you’ve ever wondered what “heaven in a sandwich” tastes like, try the Father Paul Sandwich, named for a Catholic priest friend of Rob Carson.  Although Father Paul is now in Florida, this sandwich is a terrific legacy to leave behind.  The sandwich is constructed on a baguette which is ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) with USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes.  The deli mustard pulls no punches, enlivening the sandwich with an eye-watering flavor that complements the tender as butter roast beef.  If you’ve discerned a predilection for ordering roast beef sandwiches, it’s simply because The Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best roast beef in Albuquerque.

Mike's Chicken Sandwich: Six-ounce chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese, honey mustard, topped with lettuce and tomatoes

Mike’s Chicken Sandwich

18 June 2013: While turkey is often blamed for post-meal Thanksgiving lethargy, chicken actually has more of the serotonin-boosting tryptophan than turkey does.  Perhaps that’s why most chicken sandwiches bore me to the point of sleepiness.  In the spirit that the Oak Tree Cafe can do no wrong, I didn’t put up much resistance when Janet recommended Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, a six-ounce grilled chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese and honey mustard topped with lettuce and tomatoes.  This is what all chicken sandwiches should aspire to. The chicken (no breading) is grilled to perfection, but what makes this sandwich special is the combination of smoky-piquant bacon, slightly incendiary Pepperjack cheese and the honey mustard.  This is a multi-napkin affair, a very juicy and delicious chicken sandwich that won’t leave you sleepy after consuming it.

8 July 2013: It’s entirely conceivable that if the 1982 best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche were to be rewritten for the new millennium, quiche would be replaced on the title by tortilla wraps or maybe quesadillas.  It’s practically an XY chromosome expectation that real men order behemoth sandwiches overstuffed with ingredients.  Real men certainly wouldn’t order a tortilla wrap with raspberry sauce of all things.  That is unless real men are really comfortable in their own skin or who don’t want to miss out on a terrific tortilla wrap constructed with superb ingredients.  The Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap is bursting with roasted turkey breast, cream cheese, New Mexico green chile, spring mix, tomatoes and raspberry chipotle sauce wrapped in a tortilla.  The combination of green chile and raspberry chipotle gives the wrap a piquant personality with a sweet kick.  The turkey, and there’s plenty of it, is terrific, the antithesis of the boring turkey.  Real men would love this sandwich…if only they would try it.

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap: Turkey Breast, Cream Cheese, New Mexico Green Chile, Spring Mix, Tomatoes, Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Wrapped in a Flour Tortilla

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap

Contemporary culinary culture is so competitive (forgive the alliteration) that a purveyor of sandwiches can’t just slap some meats and cheeses on bread and expect to stay in business for long.  The very best restaurateurs are constantly reinventing their menus, looking for exciting new options with which to entice their diners.  Since the Oak Tree Cafe moved into its commodious new digs, the opportunities for tinkering with an already outstanding menu have been more readily available.  A number of new burgers (including an excellent blue cheese burger) show up in the menu of daily specials.  The most successful among them will hopefully make it onto the everyday menu

27 March 2014: Call it audacious if you will, but the Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area.  Yes, better than the fish and chips at Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill and the Two Fools Tavern.  Rob Carson and his crew didn’t just decide one day to start serving fish and chips then immediately started doing so.  They worked on the batter for two months (going through boatloads of fish) before considering it worthy of the guests they value so much.  It’s a light and crispy beer batter that sheathes two large pieces of tender and flaky haddock.  The light batter allows for excellent penetration by malt vinegar and pairs well with the superb tartar sauce with which the fish are served.  The fish is delicate and delicious and because it’s virtually grease-free, you can eat it with your hands.  The fries have a twice-fried texture and also absorb malt vinegar well.  An accompanying coleslaw is crisp, fresh and delicious.

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

28 August 2015:  My friend Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, books time with a “personal shopper” at Gucci when she flies into Chicago.  I can one-up her by having my very own personal sandwich advisor every time I visit the Oak Tree.  Not only are reservations not required to book this service, anyone can avail themselves of getting great sandwich advice every time you visit.  All you’ve got to do is ask Janet for a recommendation.  She’ll ask some questions to discern your tastes and desires before recommending your next favorite sandwich at the Oak Tree.  

My Kim is eternally grateful to Janet for recommending the Don Juan (which isn’t named for the legendary libertine, but for John who conceptualized it).   The Don Juan (ham, pepperoni, melted Provolone cheese, Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, red onion, artichokes, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette) is a concordant masterpiece of ingredients which work so very well together.  The Balsamic vinegar and artichokes are a very nice touch, lending a tangy contrast to otherwise savory ingredients.  The baguette is the perfect canvas, lending the properties of chewiness and staff-of-life deliciousness to the meats and cheeses.

The Don Juan

13 November 2015: Most sandwich restaurants tend to have a turkey sandwich and invariably it lives up to its name, turkey being a term used to describe something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful.  The Oak Tree Cafe’s version of a turkey sandwich is the antithesis of every boring turkey sandwich out there, second in my estimation only to the turkey sandwich at the legendary Smokehouse.  The canvas for this terrific turkey is toasted sourdough bread topped with green chile, melted Monterey Jack, homemade guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes.  The turkey breast is moist and delicious, a natural complement to the other ingredients and a perfect foil for the incendiary green chile and rich, buttery guacamole.

13 November 2015: In her terrific tome American Sandwich, my friend Becky Mercuri explains that the origin of the Reuben sandwich is hotly contested with at least three sources claiming to be its progenitor.  None of those sources credit the sandwich as being named for Baroque painting genius Peter Paul Rubens, but an argument could easily be made for his cause.  That’s especially true if you consider his preference for plus- or real-sized women, the genesis for the term Rubenesque meaning plump or voluptuous. Those terms could apply to the sandwich as well, especially its homonym, the Rueben sandwich.  The Oak Tree’s rendition is a triple-decker beauty constructed of housemade lean corned beef (cooked in Guinness which imparts a dark, rich, complex flavor); tart and tangy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing on a beautiful light rye.  It’s one of Albuquerque’s very best!

Triple Decker Reuben

29 December 2016: There are thirteen specialty sandwiches on the menu, but dispense with any notion of triskaidekaphobia (fear or a phobia concerning the number 13) you might have.  That’s because the Oak Tree also offers a daily special which may mean upping the number of specialty sandwiches to fourteen.  Daily specials are listed on the white board you encounter as you wind along the queue path to the counter where you’ll place your order.  Some of the daily specials are so good they’d be the starring attraction at other sandwich shops across the Duke City. One such special is the Turkey Pesto Sandwich (turkey breast on toasted roll topped with basil pesto, melted Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.  Add green chile and you’ve got one of the most invigoratingly flavorful sandwiches in town.  The basil pesto practically pops with its sharp freshness while the green chile lends just a bit of heat.  As we’ve come to expect from Oak Tree, the turkey is plentiful and plenty good, too.

Turkey Pesto Sandwich

10 August 2017: Because you can never have enough chile, the Oak Tree Café recently added battered and fried green chile strips to an already formidable appetizer menu. Lightly battered in a Sierra Blanca ale (brewed in Moriarty), it’s got just enough heat to ramp up your endorphins. Served golden brown and inviting, these green chile strips are served with a ranch dressing, the perfect complement to a savory starter which (wishful thinking here) should replace French fries as a burger accompaniment. My Kim assessed these as the best she’s ever had. Me, too.

Fried Green Chili Strips

10 August 2017: Having judged many a culinary competition, it’s galled me to discover that dishes served during the competition aren’t necessarily the ones a restaurant serves its customers on a daily basis. I’ve experienced this duplicity only a handful of times, but that’s enough to have diminished my respect for the purveyors. Rob and Janet are absolutely committed to serving their loyal customers the very same dishes they might serve persnickety competition judges. That means the green chili (SIC) cheeseburger on their daily menu is the same green chili cheeseburger judges at the New Mexico State Fair competition will sample during the 2017 event. It’s a great burger! How could it not be? The canvas upon which this masterpiece is constructed is a bun flecked with green chile. It’s made locally at Sergio’s Bakery and Café. The fresh ground beef—a whopping half-pound of never frozen deliciousness—comes from Nelson’s and the chile is New Mexico proud with a pleasant piquancy. Unless otherwise requested, burgers are prepared at medium where their juiciness shines. Then there’s a thick slice of Cheddar draped lovingly over the beef patty. Red onion, crisp lettuce and ripe tomatoes somehow manage to fit in between the buns, too. It takes two hands to handle this beauteous behemoth, a green chili cheeseburger you’ll love.

New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger

The Oak Tree Cafe has made a believer our of this cynic who often laments the absence of truly sincere, truly personable service coupled with excellent sandwiches. This cafe is an anachronism, a throwback to the days in which the customer was always right and you could get things done your way.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2017
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Taos Sandwich, Hot Corned Beef Sandwich, Oak Tree Combo, Onion Rings, Fried Green Beans, The Father Paul Sandwich, Janet’s Green Chili Burger, Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap, Apple Coleslaw, Fish & Chips, The Don Juan, The Pauley, Triple Decker Reuben, Turkey Pesto, New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger

Oak Tree Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Vibrance – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Dog-Friendly Patio at Vibrance

My Chicago born-and-bred brother-in-law Chuck considers being asked to lunch at a vegan restaurant akin to being asked to a Green Bay Packers pep rally. It’s a violation of a Windy City cultural norm–as inappropriate as telling a Chicagoan that: ketchup belongs on hot dogs, Mike Ditka and Da’ Bears could never beat the Detroit Lions, calling Mike Royko a mere journalist and that it’s okay to ridicule Harry Carey’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballpark.” As with many Chicagoans, Chuck is an avowed meat and potatoes zealot (fanatic isn’t strong enough a word). Because he never would have acceded to my request to dine at a vegan restaurant, I waited until he answered “I’m up for anything” when I asked what he’d like for lunch. Yeah, it’s duplicitous and politician-like, but my Kim and I genuinely believed Chuck would like Vibrance.

Vibrance.  Even the name bespeaks of veganism (or militant veganism to a carnivorous Chicagoan). Ask any vegan and they’ll tell you their lives are indeed more vibrant since they made the lifestyle change to veganism. They’ll tell you they’ve improved their heart and gut health, lost weight, lowered blood sugar levels and reduced their risk of heart disease. None of these benefits holds water with a staunch carnivore, especially one from Chicago. You have to understand that not only is Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders,” it’s the city of gargantuan Porterhouse steaks, colossal slabs of ribs and pizzas as large as the tires on a tractor-trailer. Chicago is much prouder of its “Hog-Butcher to the World” sobriquet than it is to another nickname, “The Big Onion” (onions are vegetables).

Salad

Those of you who subscribe to the Rudy’s Country Store & Barbecue mantra “we didn’t claw our way up to the top of the food ladder only to eat vegetables” might not want to read further lest you risk reading such four-letter words as: vegan, raw food, gluten-free and non-GMO. Vibrance is all that and more. It’s an all-vegan restaurant whose specialty is living foods made from sprouted beans and seeds. Vibrance makes raw desserts, gluten-free baked goods and cooked foods. Since July, 2016, it has offered organic vegetarian specialties which are mostly locally sourced—as are featured artists who regale diners with live music.

Vibrance is located in the former home of Los Equipales, one of the city’s very best Mexican restaurants. Before housing Los Equipales, the previous tenant at the walled-in citadel-like complex was a branch of the Sunwest Bank. When you drive through the open gate for the first time, there’s very little signage to confirm that you’ve arrived at your destination. The situation is made a bit more confusing because savvy diners park under the adjacent overhang which once served as the bank’s drive-through. Then there’s an expansive dog-friendly patio physically separated from the restaurant.  When you locate the restaurant, you’ll be impressed by an interior awash in vibrant colors, framed art and flourishing green plants. You’ll be more impressed by the aromas wafting through the air.

Ratatouille, Sweet Potato Curry, Vegetarian Lasagna

The Vibrance menu describes every item (probably for the carnivores among us who need to know what meat dishes the vegan items might approximate). Only one appetizer is currently listed, a salad roll described as two veggie filled rolls in rice paper with ginger, garlic and cashew sauce). Doesn’t that sound like something carnivorous lovers of Asian cuisine will enjoy? Entrees are global in scope: Asian salad, hummus plate, Italian mushroom pocket, curried lentil and sweet potato stew and more. The daily menu also includes a chocolate turtle cheesecake. Is it any wonder Kim and I believed Chuck would enjoy the heretical departure into the realm of vegan dining?

Besides, my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling (and vibrant) Deanell had raved about their Vibrance experiences. Larry’s astute assessment: “OK, you carnivores. Get over your animal desires and go here. It will blow your mind. Did mine!.” Vibrance has earned a 4.5 star rating on 28 reviews from Yelp reviewers, many of which are admittedly of the carnivorous bent. TripAdvisor contributors also rated Vibrance 4.5 stars on 17 reviews. The Albuquerque Journal restaurant critic described Vibrance as “the next generation of health food restaurant, moving far beyond the cliché of brown rice and steamed veggies into the realm of gourmet vegetarian fare.”

Stir-Fried Vegetables with Cheesecake

Two other reasons we believed Chuck might enjoy Vibrance is that he had grown tired of “everything smothered in red and green chile” and that on Sundays, Vibrance offers an all-you-can-eat buffet. For a trencherman of Chuck’s caliber, a buffet is a challenge. His eyes became as big as saucers at first glance of the gleaming silver trays in which featured fare was kept warm. They wandered quickly to the desserts where vegan cheesecake looked every bit as luscious as its carnivore’s counterpart. Believing he’d be slaking his thirst with “regular” tea, he filled his glass with kombucha, a fresh, organic, lightly effervescent sweetened tea replete with healthful probiotics.  He loved it!

In three trips to the buffet, he sampled virtually everything available. His grumbling and snarling were quickly replaced by exclamations of “wow, this is good” with virtually every new item. The three of us probably enjoyed the curried lentil and sweet potato stew most. Not only does the curry have its characteristic pungency, it’s got a pleasant bite that blends very well with the sweet potatoes. We also enjoyed the ratatouille which looks nothing like the dish served in the animated movie of that name. The vegetarian lasagna drew much appreciation as did the stir-fried vegetables. From among the more “salady” items, the sauerkraut (made with purple cabbage) stood out as did the pepitas with which we topped our greens.

If Vibrance can make a believer out of a staunch carnivore from Chicago, it will make a believer out of you. This is a vegetarian restaurant diners of all stripes will love.

Vibrance
4500 Silver Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 639-3401
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Buffet

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

Gabriel’s – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Entrance to Gabriel’s

Located fifteen miles north of Santa Fe, just south of Pojoaque and within minutes of two garish native American casinos, Gabriel’s is a culinary oasis back-dropped by nearby cedar, cottonwood and pine tree-laden hills and the Santa Fe mountains further to the southeast.  Gabriel’s entrance is flanked by unpeeled latillas, a “coyote fence” precursor to one of the best restaurant settings in the Santa Fe area.  In the early spring and fall, weather permitting, the sprawling dining room and its Spanish colonial theme are often rebuffed in favor of an outdoor dining experience. 

For al fresco dining, there are few options to compare with Gabriel’s, a restaurant perhaps more renowned for its experiential qualities than it is for its cuisine.  You won’t read a single review from a credentialed critic which doesn’t sing the praises of the restaurant’s ambiance.  You will, however, read scathing indictments of Gabriel’s cuisine.  Alex Heard of the Santa Fe New Mexican, for example, was brutally honest in his assessment: “my takeaway has been that it serves average food and not much more, closer to chain-restaurant quality than what you’re promised in its advertisements.”

Al Fresco Dining at Gabriel’s

England’s The Guardian, on the other hand, put Gabriel’s on its list of the “top ten restaurants and cafes in Santa Fe.”  That assessment was made by a Denver-based travel journalist who regularly visits family in Santa Fe.  None of the locals with whom I’ve discussed Gabriel’s share the writer’s opinion though all of them rave about the capacious patio and the pine scented air.   Most concede that the margaritas are quite good and that the combination of several margaritas and the fresh, salubrious air somehow improves the food. 

Gabriel’s purports to serve the foods of the great Southwest and of Old Mexico.  The restaurant’s Web site describes it as “an  authentic mix of modern and classic Mexican and Southwestern dishes and seasonal specials,” also indicating that “The personal attention to service and food is what makes Gabriel’s special:a place where little touches enhance your whole dining experience.”  Indeed, the predominantly Mexican wait staff, attired in black trousers and white shirts, is unfailingly polite and formal if not always there when you need a refill.

The Dog Friendly Patio

Gabriel’s has three distinct menus: lunch, brunch and dinner with the latter offering the most options from among the three.  Aperitivos (appetizers) include a number of fairly standard options along with some unique offerings such as crab taquitos, bbq skewer and vegetarian quesadillas.  Six vegetarian entrees, all of which will appeal to the omnivores among us, are available as are soups and salads.  Other sections of the menu are titled A La Mexicana, Southwest Platters, Combinaciones, Mesquite Grill Platters, Sizzling Fajitas and Desserts.  The menu indicates  Gabriel’s uses free-range chicken, all chiles are mesquite roasted and cooking oil is high grade cholesterol-free. 

Very popular is the pricey thrill of having your server prepare guacamole at your table.  If you’re counting your pennies, the Guacamole Especial is an eleven-dollar plus thrill you might want to do without even though the guacamole is a real treat–meaty ripe avocados, fresh lime, cilantro, minced garlic, chopped tomatoes, salt and jalapeño mashed to a creamy consistency on a molcajete before your very eyes.  Two entire avocados are used.  Though fresh and creamy, the guacamole could use just a bit more jalapeño and lime, the two ingredients which really give guacamole its personality and without which, guacamole would just be mashed avocados.

One of two Interior dining rooms

The flavorful and piquant jalapeno based salsa is served in a generous faux molcajete (unfortunately, bureaucrats decided the authentic molcajete made from lava rock pose health risks) with plenty of lightly salted chips boasting of a pronounced corn flavor.  The salsa packs plenty of cilantro and garlic, but it’s the jalapenos that will impress themselves upon your taste buds.  Friends swear they were unable to taste anything else after having their taste buds seared by salsa they considered “too good to stop eating” delicious, but tongue-scorching. 

Chips and Salsa

5 August 2017: The Combinacione appetizer plate is a popular starter option, one which offers variety and an opportunity to sample a diverse range of dishes for two: nachos, quesadillas, taquitos and of course, Gabriel’s famous guacamole.  The nachos are covered in a “ranchero sauce” and melted cheese along with chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, scallions and sliced (though somewhat anemic) jalapeños.   The cheese quesadillas are indeed melty and cheesy on housemade flour tortillas, but don’t have much personality unless you top them with salsa, sour cream or guacamole.  If the blue-corn tortilla taquitos were stuffed, it was in such a chintzy amount that neither of us were able to discern much.

Combinacione

5 August 2017: From the Southwest Platters section of the menu, you’ll find such regional favorites as San Diego fish tacos, Arizona chimichanga, rellenos de Santa Fe, Taos combination and Lone Star ribs.  The latter are wholly unlike any ribs we’ve ever had in the Lone Star state.  Described on the menu as “fresh baby-back ribs baked until tender and then mesquite-smoked and basted with our own barbecue sauce,” the ribs are absolutely fall-off-the-bone tender, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.  The best ribs have just a little “give” to them.  These baby back ribs also don’t have the low-and-slow smokiness that characterizes competition-worthy ribs.  It’s pretty obvious that they’ve been baked, likely after being slathered with the “special” sauce and perhaps a rub.  The sauce is very much on the sweet side with hints of citrus.  Served on the side is a bowl of whole charro beans and French fry logs, both of which are rather unremarkable.

Lone Star Ribs

5 August 2017: Another Texas treat, tender skirt steak fajitas arrive sizzling at your table after leaving a steamy trail which invariably draws the eyes and nostrils of all other patrons.  Supplementing the thinly sliced  marinated skirt steak are a pico de gallo as colorful (with red, green and yellow peppers and sweet white onions) as it is delicious; more of the unctuous guacamole and lime slices.  My Kim asked for an extra helping of grilled red and white onions–grilled not to the point of caramelization, but to a crispy, fresh consistency.  If mariscos are more to your liking, seafood fajitas (tender scallops, tiger prawns and red snapper) are also available and equally delicious.  Both corn and flour tortillas are made on the premises and are first-rate.

Beef Fajitas

5 August 2017: A few days before starting my freshman year at Peñasco High School, my friends and I each devoured about a half-dozen or so corns-on-the-cob picked from our garden and grilled on my mom’s antique stove.  It preceded a very painful ruptured appendix.  Though an avaricious appetite for grilled corn was hardly the cause of my burst appendix, I didn’t eat grille corn for years.  Gabriel’s elotes, a grilled corn  topped with a chipotle mayo and queso blanco, reminded me of how good roasted corn can be.  It also reminded me that roasting corn with friends is a great way to pass the time.

Elote

5 August 2017: For dessert, there are three options: flan, banana Vallarta and a tres leches cake you’ll be besotted by.  Topped by a chocolate frosting, it’s one of the most moist and rich tres leches cakes we’ve had.  Press your fork into it and the three milks from which it is made ooze out.  My Kim said she’d drive the 75 miles from Albuquerque just for a slice.

Tres Leches Cake

The Gabriel’s experience is memorable even if not all your meal may be.  You may visit for the food, but you’ll stay–and you’ll return–for the views and that enrapturing piñon scented ambiance.

Gabriel’s
U.S. 285/84
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 455-7000
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 17
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Guacamole, Salsa, Tres Leches Cake

Gabriel's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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