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Tratta Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Al Fresco Dining at Tratta

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a Louisiana native who attended Ole Miss, has no problem poking fun at himself…and at stereotypes. During his opening monologue on a 2012 episode of Saturday Night Live, the two-time Super Bowl most valuable player, told the audience he finally feels like a “real New Yorker.” Then as if to demonstrate his urban sophistication, he entertained questions from out-of-towners in the audience. When asked where to get good Italian food in New York, Manning responded “Well, there’s a great place called The Olive Garden. You’ve got to go to New Jersey, but it’s worth it. Hey, I play for the New York Giants, but all my games are played in New Jersey.” 

It’s been a long time since the Olive Garden has garnered “Best Italian Restaurant” honors in any of the Duke City’s “best of” polls.  In that respect, Albuquerque is one-up on Las Vegas, Nevada where “what happens there, doesn’t always stay there.”  Despite Italian restaurants sporting such Food Network celebrity cognomens as Batali, Giada and Bastianich, Sin City diners have consistently voted The Olive Garden as the very best the city has to offer.  Does this mean denizens of the Duke City are more sophisticated than those of the gambling capital of the world?  Could it possibly mean Albuquerque’s Italian restaurants are superior to those of Las Vegas?

Bruschetta of the Day

You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader (or even a politician) to know the answer, respectively, to these questions is “probably” and “not yet.”  The latter response is based on extrapolating from the quantum improvements in Albuquerque’s Italian restaurant scene over the past ten years. If the Duke City’s Italian restaurant scene improves as much over the next ten years as it has over the past decade, it’ll be a force with which to be reckoned. 

It’s much too early to know if Tratta Bistro will be mentioned in the rarefied company of  Torinos @ Home and M’Tucci’s Kitchina for ushering in a new era of greatness among twenty-first century Italian restaurants.  Tratta, which opened its doors in April, 2015, offers the winning combination of an active and engaged owner, talented and creative chef and a limited, but inventive menu sure to entice return visits.  Tratta occupies the space previously held by the transcendent Bouche.  It’s an intimate space which, season permitting, extends to the outdoors, with an expansive courtyard for al fresco dining.

Arancini

Tratta’s unique menu is the antithesis of what you’ll find at any of the area’s “red sauce” Italian restaurants.  An apt descriptor might be Northern Italian meets fine-dining with distinctive offerings during lunch and dinner servings.  The lunch menu lists five salads, four entrees and something heretofore unseen in any restaurant of any genre in Albuquerque: a dozen sliders served three per order.  These aren’t your typical burger-based sliders either.  Imagine if you will, a terrific trio of sliders constructed from seared ahi tuna, salmon and pancetta, Mediterranean crab cake and baby greens. 

The dinner menu showcases five salads and four antipasto dishes, including a bruschetta of the day.  Then there are the entrees—a phalanx of steaks, chops and seafood entrees interspersed with other entrees you won’t see elsewhere.  It’s obvious someone put a lot of thought into creating a sui generis menu.  You just might find yourself selecting dinner based as much for the way the named entree is sauced and with what it is accompanied as you will for that item itself.  For example, don’t “Porter House Chops” read better on the menu when they preface cherry cacao sauce and crispy rainbow fingerling potatoes.

Fried Artichokes over Hand-Cut Pasta

Bruschetta is akin to an unpainted Sistine Chapel, a veritable blank canvas waiting to be painted by a culinary artiste.  That canvas is essentially just toasted bread, boring by itself but with unlimited creative potential.  Tratta’s bruschetta of the day aims to do exciting things to that boring toasted bread.  Good fortune smiled upon us when the topping for the toasted bread was a tapenade (tomato, olives, bell peppers) served in a hollowed-out lettuce cup.  This relish-like puree of fresh ingredients blended together when still raw is a great way to start your Tratta experience. 

Arancini might sound like something involving spiders–and in fact, this deep-fried Sicilian specialty is indeed named for the “spider,” but not the kind that crawls up the wall.  They’re named instead for a utensil called a spider, a wide shallow wire-mesh basket with a long handle that’s used to extricate the arancini from the fryer.  Three breadcrumb-covered risotto balls stuffed with sausage and mozzarella are served on a shallow pool of marinara.  Pierce each gilded orb with your fork and you’re immediately reminded that the chief ingredient in arancini is risotto, a rich, creamy, delicious foundation for a great dish.  The marinara is sweeter than it is savory and is seasoned very well.  It would make an excellent sauce for any pasta dish.

Quails Wrapped in Prosciutto

That is, unless the pasta dish is Tratta’s fried artichokes over hand-cut pasta tossed in a blood orange-grappa cream sauce with pancetta, seasonal veggies and toasted pignolias (pine nuts).  Despite having perused this menu item thoroughly, we were somewhat surprised (very pleasantly) at the agrodolce (sweet and sour) nature of the sauce and how it played on the other ingredients.  While artichokes are a naturally complementary vehicle for the agrodolce flavor profile, it’s not everyday you have Italian pasta and pancetta tinged with sweet and sour notes.  Perhaps we should experience it more often.  This is a surprisingly good dish with plenty of pancetta to contrast the agrodolce. 

Complements and contrasts also exemplify the quails wrapped in prosciutto engorged with a savory stuffing over a blackberry port demi glace served with a goat cheese risotto.  The only element on this entree to which we didn’t apply the demi glace is the goat cheese risotto which should not be tampered with.  If you love goat cheese, you’ll understand why.  The quails, on the other hand, marry well with the demi glace which imparts sweet and tangy notes.  Quail are not a very meaty bird, all the more reason to appreciate the savory stuffing. 

There’s an Olive Garden a couple of miles away from Tratta, but given their druthers, savvy diners will opt for Tratta every time.  We’ll leave the Olive Garden for the good folks from Las Vegas and maybe a certain New York Giants quarterback.

Tratta Bistro
10126 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 227-8780
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Quails Wrapped in Prosciutto, Fried Artichokes, Arancini, Bruschetta

Tratta Bistro on Urbanspoon

The Shop Breakfast & Lunch – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Shop Breakfast and Lunch on Monte Vista

In the 60s and early 70s, movies and television programs would have you believe all spies were hard-drinking, fast-driving, woman-chasing playboys as good with their fists as they were with a gun. They were worldly, sophisticated and charming, but could just as easily use guile and deception to get the job done. Bob Ayers, who worked in intelligence for 30 years in the U.S. Army and Defense Intelligence Agency counters those stereotypes: “All of that stuff about James Bond, that’s Hollywood. You don’t want anyone standing out in the intelligence business. You want someone nondescript. The ideal spy is 5-foot-6 and kind of dumpy.”

That ideal—nondescript and dumpy—just wouldn’t work in the restaurant business…or would it? Restaurants, especially those which are generously bankrolled by corporate megaliths, tend to have a lot of cash, flash and panache to create the illusion of glamor and allure which brings in customers (and most of us are easily entertained). In addition to all the pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance money can buy, these restaurants tend to have catchy, memorable names which help in the establishment and proliferation of brand identity. They’re capacious, swanky, memorable and largely successful.

Interior of The Shop Breakfast and Lunch

Anyone who thinks this formulaic approach is the recipe for success would be at a loss to explain a restaurant like The Shop Breakfast and Lunch. It has none of the aforementioned characteristics of superficiality that seem to draw in the crowds. Even its name is so ambiguous that unless you know The Shop is a restaurant (the Breakfast and Lunch part is subtitled), you might dismiss it as yet another kitschy university area vintage clothing shop. While not “dumpy,” its ambiance is far from ostentatious. Maybe, that’s part of its charm. Perhaps that’s why The Shop has a faithful following that eschews the artifice and ambiance of the “shiny” restaurants to eat there instead.

Like The Shop itself, its patrons aren’t pretentious. Many of them are students at the University of New Mexico (UNM) which sprawls just across Buena Vista from the restaurant. They appreciate being able to fuel up on great food that isn’t going to break a student’s ramen-in-a-Styrofoam-box budget. You can bet the UNM voting demographic stuffed the Alibi’s ballots in 2014 when The Shop was named the Duke City’s “best new restaurant.”

Kentucky Hot Brown

Those of us who have only been students of life for a while also appreciate the great food…and to be honest, most of us don’t imbibe the “ambiance.” After all, a swanky milieu doesn’t improve the flavor of any food. The Shop’s furnishings are more utilitarian than they are comfortable, but you won’t be thinking about how much more comfortable you’d be in a plush, cozy chair as you’re indulging on an even cozier Kentucky Hot Brown.

Your eyes didn’t just deceive you. You did read “Kentucky Hot Brown,” perhaps the only thing more popular in the Bluegrass State than the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. The Kentucky Hot Brown is to Kentucky what the green chile cheeseburger is to New Mexico. It’s a sacrosanct sandwich beloved throughout the state. Even if you haven’t been to Kentucky, you may have heard about it on the Food Network, Travel Channel, PBS or any number of nationally syndicated stations. At The Shop, it’s far from the only sandwich surprise on the menu.

QBano

Surprises start with the most important meal of the day.  The breakfast menu, served all day long (from 8AM through 3PM) offers hearty options, some of which you can’t find anywhere else in Albuquerque.  The duck hash, biscuits and chorizo gravy, shrimp and grits and of course, the Kentucky Hot Brown are just a few of them.  Lunch offerings are categorized into sandwiches (with your choice of house made chips or side salad), mac and cheese (three scrumptious options) and three creative salads (Kale Caesar anyone?) .

15 April 2015: During the Roaring 20s, the executive chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky invented a sandwich to help revelers to wind down and sober up.  Today that sandwich, the Kentucky Hot Brown may be more popular (at least in the Louisville area) than the Kentucky Derby.  To say it should be served with an angioplasty may be an understatement.  This is a caloric overachiever constructed from egg-battered pain de mie (a soft-crusted butter- and milk-rich loaf), thick cut ham, white Cheddar mornay sauce (a type of Bechamel), two eggs and bacon.  Because it’s so very rich and creamy, it’s not for everyone, but everyone should try it at least once or twenty times.

Breakfast Sandwich

15 April 2015: Several years ago, former Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez attempted a commercially-driven re-branding of the city.  Despite his efforts, the sobriquet “The Q” didn’t exactly catch on, not that anyone would believe The Shop’s QBano  is named for the mayor’s folly.   Obviously, the QBano is a Cuban sandwich, one of the very best in “The Q,”…er, the Duke City.  The canvas for this magnificent sandwich is a toasted bolillo roll stuffed and pressed with citrus-brined roasted local pork shoulder, sliced ham, yellow mustard, roasted garlic aioli, Gruyere cheese and housemade pickles.  Just perusing the ingredients will cue you in that there are many elements which make this sandwich so special.  My friend Bill raved about the garlic aioli while the pork shoulder won me over.  This is a sandwich that’s more delicious than the sum of its ingredients! 

15 April 2015: In some cultures (Vietnamese, for example), sandwiches are a breakfast mainstay.  For some reason, however, Americans seem to dismiss the notion of much more than eggs and ham on their breakfast sandwich (Cafe Bella being an exception).  Perhaps acquiescing to American tastes, The Rush’s ubiquitously named Breakfast Sandwich does indeed include eggs and a type of ham (prosciutto) then it gets creative with  tomato, arugula, and basil aioli.  There isn’t enough prosciutto to suit the ham lover in most of us and veggie haters might not like the thick tomatoes or peppery arugula, but most will enjoy the sandwich in its entirety. 

Fried Chicken Sandwich

23 April 2015:The answer-slash-punchline to the trite joke that begins “why did the chicken cross the road?” could well be “to avoid becoming a chicken sandwich.” What chicken in its right mind would want a fate so boring? Despite being so commonplace (operative word, common), the chicken sandwich at one restaurant is more of the same banality as you’ll find at almost every other restaurant. You’d think someone (besides the Stone Face Tavern) could come up with something original to do with chicken. The Shop has! Its fried chicken sandwich is constructed with a buttermilk fried chicken breast, shaved cabbage slaw, a creamy caraway dressing, housemade pickles and just enough hot sauce to create an absolutely delicious interplay with the caraway dressing. The chicken itself is moist and sheathed with a light breading which glistens from the creaminess of the caraway and fiery red of the sauce. The pickles provide a tart, but not lip-pursing foil while the shaved cabbage slaw offers a textural contrast. It’s a chicken sandwich any self-respecting chicken would gladly sacrifice its feathers to be a part of.

23 April 2015: For years I didn’t understand coffee snobs and their haughty, expensive designer mochas, lattes, espressos and cappuccinos. The lure of these trendy and upscale aromatic elixirs escaped me until my first sip of the red chili (SIC) mocha at Café Bella in Rio Rancho. To say it was love at first sip was an understatement, one that opened my eyes to the realization that maybe the coffee snobs were right. Because my daytime proximity to Café Bella has shifted by nearly twenty miles, I’ve searched high and low for a closer proximity version of the soothing, sating, invigorating siren’s call that is red chile mocha. While none have equaled the one at my beloved Café Bella, the Mexican Mocha at The Shop has lessened my pain a bit. It’s an earthy, palate-pleasing beverage which more than hints at piquancy and chocolate, two of the world’s finest taste sensations.

Housemade Granola & Yogurt (Photo Courtesy of Hannah Walraven)

19 May 2015: In the early ’70s, a television commercial for Post Grape-Nuts cereal featured outdoorsman Eull Gibbons asking viewers “Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible.”  This quote fueled the public’s imagination and made him a celebrity.  Much like Grape Nuts, granola signified the back-to-nature, whole-grain tenor which grew from the American counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s.  In fact, to the mainstream, granola was practically synonymous with a hippie lifestyle. 

Like many of the hippies of the ’60s and ’70s, granola has become mainstream.  Inventive restaurateurs have sown their wild oats with granola and have transformed what was once considered a sensible and healthy food concept into a popular and delicious dish.  The Shop’s rendition ranks right up there with the Flying Star‘s magnificent “Morning Sundae” as perhaps the city’s best granola dish.  This hearty housemade bowl of oats, nuts and dried fruits pairs oh so well with a tangy-sour yogurt punctuated with lemon and agave nectar and topped with fresh berries and local honey.

Duck Confit Sandwich (Photo Courtesy of Hannah Walraven)

19 May 2015: In its annual food and wine issue for 2012,  Albuquerque The Magazine named Torinos @ Homeduck confit sandwich one of the yummiest sandwiches in the city.  The Shop’s own duck confit sandwich is in rarefied air with Torinos sacrosanct sandwich as the city’s very best.  A toasted bolillo roll is the canvas for this masterpiece–a moist, delicious creation of confit duck, caramelized onions, lemon aioli, Fontina cheese, arugula and Balsamic vinaigrette.  The tangy tartness of the vinaigrette and lemon aioli complement the sweetness of the caramelized onions and the fatty richness of the duck.  It’s a sandwich that will remain on your mind long after you’ve finished it.

19 May 2015:  As we grow older, most of us no longer crave the indulgences of our childhood: Lucky Charms cereal, Franco-American’s SpaghettiOs (now with a Campbell’s Soup brand) and Smarties Candy, but we never lose our taste for Macaroni and Cheese.  Not only is it a fun food for children of all ages, it’s the epitome of comfort food favorites, each morsel imparting warmth and deliciousness.  Most of us, however, graduate well beyond the gooey, neon-bright Kraft mac and cheese out-of-a-box.  We won’t settle for less than an adult mac and cheese.

Steakhouse Mac (Photo Courtesy of Hannah Walraven)

Fortunately The Shop has us covered and not just with one adult macaroni and cheese offering.  The daily menu showcases three different mac and cheese meals: chorizo mac, bacon mac and steakhouse mac.  The latter is a beauteous bowl brimming with shaved ribeye, caramelized onions, mushrooms and a white Cheddar mornay sauce topped with Parmesan and bread crumbs.  Every forkful is an adventure in great flavors blending together.  It’s possible we may not have appreciated the steakhouse mac as children, but it’s a dish all adults will love.

While The Shop Breakfast and Lunch may be an ugly duckling compared to some of Albuquerque’s “shiny,” flashy restaurants, it’s a beautiful, graceful swan in the kitchen where some of the most creative and delicious dishes in the Nob Hill district are created.

The Shop Breakfast And Lunch
2933 Monte Vista Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 433-2795
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 19 May 2015
1st VISIT: 15 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Qbano, Breakfast Sandwich, Kentucky Hot Brown, Housemade Potato Chips, Fried Chicken Sandwich, Duck Confit Sandwich, Steakhouse Mac, Granola & Yogurt

The Shop Breakfast and Lunch on Urbanspoon

Chris’ Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chris’ Cafe on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe

“Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy.
It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing.
It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.
~Louise Fresco (Scientist and Writer)

Santa Fe and its denizens are an accepting lot, open to new ideas and different ways of doing things. When such pioneers as Mark Miller at the Coyote Café and Ming Tsai at Santacafe began fusing other culinary styles, techniques and ingredients with the traditional foods of New Mexico, tradition didn’t go out the window. It helped birth a new genre—an evolutionary fusion that coalesced existing and diverse food cultures and invited experimentation with exotic and beguiling spices, sauces, fruits and produce as well as preparation techniques. More importantly to local tastes, New Southwestern cuisine introduced different chiles with their own invigorating personalities and varying degrees of piquancy.

New Southwestern cuisine isn’t for everybody. There are many New Mexicans who stubbornly resist any evolution of, or alteration to, the traditional foods with which they grew up. They express the sentiment that you shouldn’t mess with perfection and that New Mexican cuisine, especially our sacrosanct red and green chile, is absolutely perfect as it is. Fortunately, Santa Fe is blessed with a significant number of restaurants that continue to prepare and serve New Mexican cuisine in the traditional manner. One of the very best of this genre is Chris’ Cafe which opened its doors in 2012.

The homey interior of Chris’ Cafe

Scrawled on the window of Chris’ Café is the statement “Traditional Northern New Mexico breakfast and lunch.” As if to emphasize that point, those words are superimposed over the Zia sun symbol representing the state flag of the Land of Enchantment. This isn’t owner Chris Valdez’s way of declaring war on the avant-garde movement deeply ingrained in Santa Fe’s culinary culture. It’s his way of honoring the sacrosanct traditions with which he was raised–deep-rooted traditions which go back generations. These are the traditions which counterbalance the nouveau trends which spawned the hybrid genre of Southwest cuisine.  In Santa Fe, there’s enough room for both.

If the name Chris Valdez sounds familiar, you likely ran into him at the Tecolote Café where he served as general manager for several years…and if you never visited the Tecolote Café, you probably saw him on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (DDD) program. In December, 2007, Guy Fieri and the Triple D crew spent 23 hours over a two-day period at the restaurant. Chris was the consummate host, teaching Fieri how to prepare red and green chile Tecolote style and getting Fieri hooked on the restaurant’s addictive blue corn atole pancakes.

Owner Chris Valdez and his daughter Marissa

After leaving the Tecolote Café, Chris toyed with the idea of launching a hamburger restaurant and even found a perfect spot for his concept, but non-compete agreement (#$%*&! Burger King) in the area prevented him from opening. Months later while driving on Cerrillos, he chanced upon a recently closed restaurant space that had housed several failed restaurant efforts. Chris was confident he could prepare and serve the high quality food which would make the restaurant a success.

Although his challenge was exacerbated by the fact that the restaurant space is obfuscated from the heavily trafficked Cerrillos by the huge yellow fleet of a Penske truck rental company, Chris had culled such a loyal following from his tenure at the Tecolote, that in short order, his new restaurant started to gain a following.  Today, the throngs that visit Chris’ Cafe are a combination of regulars and guests from some of the nearby hotels and motels.

Chips and Salsa

To know Chris even a little bit is to know a man consumed by the need to please.  He takes to heart any negative reviews posted on Yelp, Urbanspoon or TripAdvisor with the attitude that all feedback is a gift.  To him, it’s also an opportunity to continually improve and not rest on the laurels bestowed by most respondents to feedback providers.  Take a gander at the three aforementioned restaurant review sites and you’ll see that most of his guests are more than satisfied with all aspects of their experience at Chris’ Cafe.  You can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t stop Chris from trying.

Chris’s customer orientation is mirrored by his staff, many of whom come from the ranks of family and friends.  His lovely and gracious daughter Marissa inherited her dad’s ambassadorial qualities.  She flits from table to table, ensuring coffee is replenished, providing recommendations when asked and generally making sure all guest needs are attended to.  If Chris isn’t out and about ensuring the larders are replete with fresh, healthy ingredients, he’s glad-handing with his guests, many of whom he knows by name. In many ways, it’s like dining at home.

Pork Chop Adovada

Forgive the cliche, but perhaps the only thing warmer than the service is the coffee, a medium-roast blend from Guatemala. It’s a coffee with assertiveness and personality. That makes it a perfect pairing for the salsa, a salsa which bites back and whose own heat is exaggerated by the hot coffee.  Coupled with yellow, red and blue chips, the salsa is addictive and is easily the most piquant item we enjoyed during our inaugural visit.  The chips aren’t especially thick, but they’re formidable enough for Gil-sized portions of salsa. 

Generally when we think of carne adovada, our mouths water as we contemplate cubed pork marinated in red chile caribe then slow-cooked in the oven, stove top or in a crock-pot for several hours until so tender that tendrils break away easily.  Chris’ Cafe demonstrates the versatility of carne adovada by marinating pork chops in that paragon of deliciousness then grilling those chops.  Served one or two per order (you’ll regret it if you don’t order two), the pork chop adovada plate shows the versatility of carne adovada while enhancing pork chops.  The plate is served with two eggs, a flour tortilla and home fries.

The Randolph

If early morning finds you famished, let The Randolph quell your appetite.  The Randolph is the largest plate on the menu which aptly describes it as “a mountain of potatoes, Frito’s corn chips, beans, chile and cheese topped with two eggs.  As if that’s not enough, it’s available with your choice of carne adovada, ground beef or chicken.  As you scale the potato mountain, you’ll be grateful these terrific tubers are cubed home fries and not out-of-the-bag hash browns.  The home fries are topped with what is essentially a Frito pie and two eggs served the way you want them.  Blanket the mountain with both red and green chile, equal in piquancy and one just about as delicious as the other.  This is one of the best breakfast entrees in New Mexico and this statement would be true even if you scratched the word “breakfast.”

Sweet eats–hot cakes, French toast and cinnamon French toast–are also available on the breakfast menu.  A single hot cake is roughly the size of an unidentified craft seen hovering around the Roswell area in 1947.  Slather on some butter, douse it in hot syrup and you’re ready to share it with one or five best friends (did I mention it’s rather large?).  One thing you won’t find on the menu are the blue corn atole pancakes made famous at the Tecolote Cafe.  It’s pretty clear Chris’ Cafe isn’t a reincarnation of the Tecolote.  It’s better!

One giant pancake

It’s pretty much a given that those among us who prefer traditional to avant-garde will love Chris’ Cafe, but in truth, it’s a restaurant everyone who appreciates great food and terrific service will love. Chris’ Cafe is a paragon of deliciousness in a small strip mall.

Chris’ Cafe
3568 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 424-3566
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: The Randolph, Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Pork Chop Adovada

Chris' Cafe on Urbanspoon