Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

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Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: August, 2015

Orange Peel Chicken with Brown Rice from Fan Tang in Albuquerque

Vacation Idea, the online dream vacation magazine believes “foodies traveling to Santa Fe are in for a treat” because the city’s diverse restaurant offerings “showcase dishes from around the world.” Whether you’re vacationing in Santa Fe or you’re traveling there from within the Land of Enchantment, Vacation Idea has several ideas you might want to heed. Its 21 Must-Try Santa Fe Restaurants list includes some of the city’s best including: Osteria D’Assisi, Izanami, The Ranch House, Atrisco Cafe & Bar and several other highly regarded eateries this blogger will be visiting soon.

Not that long ago, a compilation of the best burritos across the fruited plain would probably have been shortlisted to only a few states, those with significant Hispanic populations: Texas, California, Arizona and of course, New Mexico. Thrillist’s compilation of the 33 best burritos in America includes burritos from such once unlikely states as Georgia, Massachusetts, West Virginia, North Carolina and even Colorado. The only New Mexican restaurant to make the list is Santa Fe’s La Choza. Thrillist recommends you “first order a cup of the green chile stew as an appetizer and then go red, to cover all your taste buds’ bases.”

Orange Beef from Chen’s in Albuquerque

Although it’s been four years (2011) since the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was last updated, the Tourism Department initiative continues to garner nationwide recognition. USA Today asked its readers to vote for their favorite from among ten culinary trails across the fruited plain. You can joke that New Mexicans know a thing or two about stuffing the ballot boxes, but it’s unlikely the New Mexico green chile cheeseburger would have earned enough votes without the support of so many visitors who have fallen in love with our sacrosanct sandwich. USA Today acknowledged that “the dish has been served here for decades, and several venerable roadside joints claim to be the original, including the Owl Café in San Antonio and the original Blake’s Lotaburger in Albuquerque, but it hardly matters: you can find delicious examples all across the state.”

Inc., a monthly American publication focused on growing companies doesn’t focus solely on Fortune 500 companies. It’s got a soft spot for the backbone of American business, the traditional mom-and-pop operation. Inc. discovered that “family-owned Pop Fizz is cooling off scorching-hot Albuquerque with its frozen treats — while trying to revitalize the image of its neighborhood.” Pop Fizz, “a popsicle shop, or paleteria, is a beloved part of the South Valley” created by the entrepreneurial Alvarez family in 2013. In a scant two years, its operations have expanded to the Hispanic Heritage Center.

Fried Chicken from Gravy

“Hatch chile is such a commodity.” That’s the misguided opinion of the Whole Foods Market regional produce manager who decided to drop Hatch green chile in favor of Pueblo chiles. That means infecting most of the Rocky Mountain region (including Colorado, Utah and Idaho) with more than 125,000 pounds of the brown…er, green stuff. It’s a good thing Whole Foods Market doesn’t bring Pueblo grown chile to the Land of Enchantment or another war between the states might ensue.

While Pueblo chile has gained a foothold in the Rocky Mountain region, the LA Creamery in Los Angeles has come up with “another chile way to cool down.” “For the second year, the ice cream company is making a Hatch green chile ice cream, to be sold exclusively through Bristol Farms stores.” Alas, only 800 pints will be made so they’re sure to go quickly. Creamland, are you reading this?

The Pauley with a side of fruit from the Oak Tree Cafe In Albuquerque

For years Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos has been shouting from the rooftop about how great the red chile ribs at Albuquerque’s El Pinto are. aroundme.com, a popular mobile application that allows users to quickly find nearby points of interest such as restaurants, agrees, declaring that “not only is El Pinto”New Mexico’s most iconic restaurant, it is also one of the best Mexican restaurants in the country.” In an article entitled “21 states and their most iconic restaurants,” aroundme indicated El Pinto is “known for their red chile ribs” and “sure is steps above the rest of the many Mexican restaurants in the state.” Bob, when did you get a job writing for aboutme.com?

July, 2015

Turtle Cheesecake from Sara’s Pastries & Deli

USA Today invited readers to feast on ten great summer cookbooks, “arriving just in time for outdoor grilling, family picnics and making the most of your garden’s goodies.” It wouldn’t be summer without barbecue and for many of us, it’s not barbecue without barbecue sauce. For the sauce lovers among us, The Barbecue Lover’s Big Book of BBQ Sauces by Santa Fe’s own Cheryl and Bill Jamison will surely help us earn our “Kiss the Cook” aprons. July also saw the release of The Restaurant Martin Cookbook, the last collaboration by the Jamisons before Bill’s passing in March.

Zagat, the “go-to guide for those obsessed with exceptional experiences” claims New Mexicans are obsessed with a specific food. Care to guess what it might be? Could it possibly be something red, hot and green? It’s really a no-brainer. New Mexicans are absolutely obsessed with red and green chile, our official state vegetable.

Lemon cheesecake (left) and Turtle cheesecake (right) from New Yorken in Albuquerque

If it’s July, grilling and barbecuing activities are at their peak throughout the Land of Enchantment, but nowhere more than in Rio Rancho which hosted its 12th annual Pork & Brew at the Santa Ana Star Center. Some of the very best competition barbecue teams in the fruited plain competed in the event, including seven of the top 25 teams in America. Though New Mexico was well represented in the competition, none were among the top five finishers. Rio Rancho’s own Rub-N-Wood did earn the Mayor’s Award.

It seems every time a national publication compiles a “best” of any food, the “usual suspects” always seem to represent the Land of Enchantment…and they almost always seem to be from either Santa Fe or Albuquerque. It’s as if new restaurants, especially those outside Santa Fe and Albuquerque, can’t possibly compete with the venerated restaurants which have always made the “best of” lists. Kudos to Pixte.com, a lifestyle and travel site, for uncovering a hidden gem worthy of acclaim, if not adulation. In naming Davido’s of Rio Rancho the “best pizza in New Mexico,” Pixte wrote “great value for money with its monstrous portion sizes, you’ll never leave here hungry. Perfect balance of quality and quantity.”

Veal Saltimbocca from Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Travel + Leisure showcased the world’s best cities as voted by readers. Santa Fe was voted the fourth best city in the United States and Canada. “Beyond the turquoise clichés and New Age philosophizing,” Travel + Leisure discovered “the key to Santa Fe” is “in the characters we meet along the way.” Some of those characters were uncovered in Santa Fe’s restaurants, among them Cafe Pasqual‘s, Restaurant Martin and El Parasol.

“With its fresh mountain air, farmer’s-market cuisine and mellow ambiance,” Albuquerque was rated number five for peace and quiet, number ten for wine and number one for picnics in a Travel + Leisure readers’ poll. Locals and visitors are urged to “fill your basket with fresh fruit and plenty of local flavors, like burritos from Java Joe’s or green-chile bacon quiches from New Mexico Pie Company.”

Adana Shish Kabob Combo from Anatolia in Albuquerque

Twenty-one of New Mexico’s finest restaurants were recognized by Wine Spectator magazine for inclusion in the publication’s 2015 Restaurant Awards, which highlight restaurants around the world that offer the best wine selections. Among the Duke City honorees were the Artichoke Cafe and the Ranchers Club. Santa Fe selections included Il Piatta and Luminaria. Blades Bistro from Placitas and Arroyo Seco’s Sabroso were among the seven restaurants to make the list from outside Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Bakers Royale, Naomi Robinson’s cozy online corner “where baking meets random thoughts and musings,” spent some time in Santa Fe where the writer got “hands-on experience with how to make the red and green chile sauce New Mexico cuisine is known for.” In addition to visiting the Santa Fe School of Cooking, Robinson visited a number of Santa Fe’s most widely acclaimed eateries: The Pantry Restaurant, Tomasita’s, Eloisa and others. She urges visitors to dispense with calorie-counting while visiting Santa Fe and above all not to “be that visitor and ask for skinny, made-to-order portions.” Great advice!

Inside-Out Burger from Central Grill in Albuquerque

Chef John Rivera Sedlar might have read Thomas Wolfe’s book “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but he didn’t follow that advice. After four decades of plying his craft in California, the Santa Fe native returned home to launch Eloisa, a restaurant which both reinterprets and honors New Mexico’s culinary traditions. Located within the Drury Plaza Hotel, Eloisa was named one of Eater Magazine’s 21 best new restaurants in America” for 2015. Calling Eloisa a “command performance,” Eater Magazine proceeded to heap praise on Chef Sedlar’s celebration of “local culture with more modern nuance than any other menu in town.”

The Las Cruces Convention and Visitor’s Bureau launched the Las Cruces “Walk of Flame” Green Chile Trail which invites locals and visitors to “experience a traditional green chile Mexican dish, or go off the beaten path and try one of the specialty plates, such as pecan encrusted green chile strips, green chile-meat lasagna, green chile chicken wontons, green chile hummus, green chile posole, green chile stew, cream of green chile, green chile mashed potatoes, green chile sausage soup and other exclusive dishes.”

Butterup Knife

I’ve longed contended (and this isn’t pandering) that readers of Gil’s Thrilling…are the most discerning and intelligent gastronomes in New Mexico.  Case in point.  I recently received an email from my friend Bruce Schor pointing out that Bob of the Village People shilled for the Butterup knife well before it was featured on August edition of Bon Appetit.  Despite driving a mid-century Pontiac Firebird and a daily spritz (or five) of Old Spice, Bob keeps up with all the pop culture trends.  Compared to Bob, Bruce and I are dinosaurs.

June, 2015

Los Equipales, a magnificent Mexican restaurant, shuttered its doors on June 26th

While trying to get to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1945, Bugs Bunny accidentally wound up in Germany where for the first time he utters the recurring line “I should have made that left turn at Albuquerque.” Realtors across the fruited plain have come to the realization that many people aren’t making any turns when they arrive in the Duke City. They’re here to stay. For them, the Movoto.com blog, the lighter side of real estate, provides “29 things you need to know about Albuquerque before you move there” Among the sagacious tips: Green Chile: Love it or Leave Town; Great Community Food at the Grove Cafe; You may not Know the Mufin Man, but Everyone Knows the Candy Lady; The Perfect Ron Swansonable Steak (from Farm & Table at “rustic Old Town”); All Other Bread Will Pale in Comparison (from the Golden Crown Panaderia); These Donuts, Oh Man, These Donuts (from Rebel Donut); and Your BBQ Search is Over at Mr. Powdrell’s BBQ House.

Every state in the U.S. has a unique flavor. Foursquare’s data science team identified the singular tastes of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., using a mix of data sets (menus, tips, ratings, and more) and normalizing for size against other states. The editorial team then reviewed the data and selected the winning taste that is most special and unique to each state. Dispensing with the statistical jibber-jabber, it’s no surprise that what New Mexicans crave more than any other state–255 percent more, in fact–is sopaipillas. Among the restaurants Foursquare recommends you get them are La Choza. It’s entirely likely that some of our neighbors cross into the Land of Enchantment for the tastes they crave: chile verde in Utah and chili (SIC) rellenos in Colorado.

Judy’s Catsup from Santacafe in Santa Fe

When Westword, the self-professed “first and the last stop of the day for anyone who wants to know what’s going on in Denver” published its “ten best green chiles in Denver for 2015” edition, New Mexican transplants saw red and green. Westword described it as ““fast and furious—mostly furious.” Almost a thousand Facebook posts, mostly from New Mexicans, described in no uncertain terms just what they think of chile in Denver–and it’s not much. Westword conceded that their neighbor to the south has a ” long history of growing chiles and enticing tourists with its pure and flaming version that doesn’t sport even the barest tint of orange.” Obviously the writer has never been to the Land of Enchantment at the tail end of harvest season.

A list of the “25 Best Things to Do in Albuquerque” is sure to evoke at least a little controversy, especially if it doesn’t list a few restaurants in between all those museums, the tramway, Old Town and the like. Vacation Idea, the “dream vacation magazine” tells perspective vacationers they should include Farm & Table, Vinaigrette, Budai Gourmet Chinese, The Grove Cafe & Market, Jennifer James 101 and the Artichoke Cafe among those 25 things all vacationers should do in the Duke City.

Banana Pudding from Vick’s Vittles in Albuquerque

When it comes to most quality of life categories, New Mexico seems to rank perpetually near the very bottom where we compete with such states as Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana for lowliness. You might think that the Land of Enchantment wouldn’t fare very well on Thrillist’s “Definitive and Final Ranking of All 50 States,” but that wasn’t the case. New Mexico actually ranked 23rd. The reasons given (no surprise here): “GREEN. CHILE. Also sand. And, like, pretty good skiing.”

Drive Happy. It Comes With the Territory! That’s what Alamo Car Rental has been telling us for years. So with all the driving their clients do, how well does Alamo know a territory near and dear to our heart? In its estimation, Alamo knows the Duke City territory well enough to compile a list of Albuquerque’s best attractions? Those attractions include two restaurants whose “homemade chili sauces are quite popular even outside Albuquerque, which is why they can be found in grocery stores throughout the country.” Chili? Apparently Alamo thinks Albuquerque is in Texas. In the Land of Enchantment, we spell it “chile.” 

Drive to Teofilo’s in Los Lunas and you may just find the food is so good you’ll want to stay there.

Guilty Pleasures.  We all have them.  So do Food Network glitterati who reveal their “best-kept, most-intimate, guilty-pleasure secrets for the first time ever.”  The Food Network’s “Guilty Pleasures” program visits the locations to hobnob with the chefs who “make these crazy ooey-gooey, “I can’t believe I’m eating this” food masterpieces.  Top Chef America star Alex Guarnaschelli lusts after the Frito Pie (and Ribs) plate at Santa Fe’s Cowgirl BBQ, an indulgence she says offers something different in every bite.

May, 2015

Brussels Sprouts Salad from The Shop Breakfast and Lunch in Albuquerque (Photo Courtesy of Hannah Walraven)

One of the most mirthful events during the merry, merry month of May is Cinco De Mayo, a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, but one which has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage throughout the fruited plain. Every May, it seems, brings with it a compilation of the “top Mexican restaurants” in America by virtually every online list compiling site. Gayot, “the guide to the good life,” named Mary & Tito’s to it’s top ten Mexican restaurant list, citing it for “exemplary red chile” which “smothers just about everything here from eggs to tamales to the fresh-tasting chile rellenos.”

At least Yahoo Food is honest enough to reveal that Cinco de Mayo has come to be embraced as a celebration of Mexican food, beer, tequila, culture, and more food…even if, like Gayot, it doesn’t know the difference between Mexican food and New Mexican cuisine. Its own compilation of the “best Mexican restaurants” in America included only one restaurant from the Land of Enchantment. Yahoo Food urges visitors to “do what the locals have been doing for the last 65 years: head over to The Pantry and make sure to order the famous huevos rancheros.”

Crawfish Etouffee from N’awlins Mardi Gras Cafe in Albuquerque

Thrillist calls nachos “a combination of pretty much the best foods out there, and yet a truly transcendent plate of them is mysteriously elusive, like the Bigfoot of bar food, except (hopefully) less hairy.” Elusive though they may be, great nachos can be found at “taquerias, bars, and holes-in-the-wall” throughout America. Thrillist put together a list of the 21 best nachos in America. The Brisket Nachos at El Patron in Las Cruces made the list thanks to “smoky, flavorful meat paired with refried beans, tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole, and salsa on top of authentic, house-made tortillas.” Also making the list were the Nachos Grande at Cecilia’s Cafe in Albuquerque, described as “bursting with flavorful ground beef, guac, beans, cheese, and more, all on crispy tostadas.”

Four New Mexican restaurants made it onto MSN‘s its list of America’s 75 best tacos: The Shed topped the list with its taco plate: “two fresh blue corn tortillas with baked chicken topped with green chile, Cheddar cheese, onion, lettuce, and tomato.” “If a great taco requires perfection in all of its elements, then the carne adovada at Mary and Tito’s, heaped into a fresh corn tortilla, is undeniably world-class.” “Only three types of tacos are available (chicken, ground beef, and shredded beef)” at Santa Fe’s El Parasol but “what tacos these are.” For sheer value, you can’t beat the 99-cent tacos at Tacos Mex Y Mariscos in Albuquerque. MSN urges you to “peruse the menu and pick out something a little out of the ordinary, like cabeza (head) or tripas (which are intestines, not tripe), but their al pastor taco is sure to please even the least adventurous eater.”

Italian Sandwich from the Empire Board Game Library in Albuquerque

If you’re dubious about the credibility of all these online lists purporting to rate the best of this or the best of that, Thrillist may have given you even more reason to question the veracity of these lists. In compiling its list of the “Best BBQ in America,” Thrillist reached out to a “verbose restaurant reviewer who can’t write his own name in under 100 words.” (Shameless self-promotion here.) The “best in show was a toss-up between Danny’s and Sparky’s” with Danny’s from Carlsbad getting “our nod because of the gall involved in tearing up a Dairy Queen franchise agreement when they wouldn’t let him add his own smoked meats to the menu.”

“No longer just a side dish, great fries deserve recognition in their own right.” That’s why MSN Food & Drink “consulted expert reviews and local recommendations to find the true standouts from every state.” The Land of Enchantment’s best fries were also “voted best fries in Albuquerque as a part of Alibi’s Best of Burque Restaurants in 2013.” “Holy Cow’s hand-cut fries do not disappoint. They come in regular, sweet potato, and zucchini varieties, and each huge order is enough to split two or three ways — but there’s no guarantee you’ll actually want to.”

Hot buttered tortilla from Duran’s Station in Albuquerque

The aptly named Cheap Tickets blog “scoured North America for bargain-priced, refreshingly creative plates, and found eleven, all ten bucks or under. The Frito Pie Bowl at Santa Fe’s Beestro “may seem pedestrian to some foodies out there, but this match-up is a legendary throwback to the Woolworth’s original and now served with flair and a fun-loving attitude at this super-cute farm-to-table bistro (the owners are sweet on honey bee products and preservation) in downtown Santa Fe. “

Turophiles everywhere across the fruited plain sing “This cheese is your cheese, this cheese is my cheese” for at least fifty different reasons. Cheeserank compiled a list of the fifty best cheese recipes from the “fifty best United States.” All the usual suspects–cheese dip (Arkansas), cheesesteak (Pennsylvania), mac and cheese (Colorado), etc.–made the list. So did New Mexico’s fabled green chile cheeseburger. As Cheeserank explains “You can’t be from New Mexico and not love green chiles (it’s the law).”

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Still much missed, the wonderful Sheepherder’s Cafe

The Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race” spent a day in Santa Fe Plaza shooting a big food competition segment for the season premiere episode airing later in August, 2015. It’s the second time the Great Food Truck Race has filmed in Santa Fe. One of the factors making Santa Fe so attractive to the food competition is New Mexico’s fabled green chile. Five food truck teams rolled into the City Different and tried their hand at preparing dishes showcasing chile. Show host Tyler Florence and Santa Fe’s multi-time James Beard Award nominee Martin Rios judged their dishes. Stay tuned!

Emage Magazine, renowned internationally for its fashion sense, placed Golden Crown Panaderia‘s dashing and debonair owner-chef Chris Morales on its cover for issue 40. Unlike some previous cover models who doffed most of their clothing, Chris was pictured in his his baker’s whites for the shoot. The publication date will be announced soon.

April, 2015

Scallops from M’Tucci’s Kitchina (Photo Courtesy of Hannah Walraven)

Ponder the simple French fry. It’s not one of those sexy, glamorous foods that easily comes to mind when you’re famished. In fact, most of us don’t think of French fries unless we’re also thinking of burgers. The Daily Meal, perhaps the most prodigious creator of culinary content in the blogosphere, apparently thinks about fries more than most of us do. In compiling its third ever list of America’s fifty best fries, the Daily Meal traversed the length and breadth of the fruited plain. Only one restaurant in the Land of Enchantment made this sacrosanct list, ranking 14th. It’s not surprising that our best fries come from The Santa Fe Bite whose pommes frites were described as combining “the best of Tex-Mex with burgers and fries.”  Tex Mex?  “Their wedge fries are stellar, and if you’re feeling adventurous, ask for the green chile cheese fries. They’re a secret menu item that locals rave about.”

Cowboys & Indians, a Western lifestyle magazine covering Western art, rodeo, cowboys, the cowboy way of life, westerns, music, television, food, and travel gave readers a taste of the West’s culinary pioneers and innovators on their food issue for 2015. You can’t discuss culinary pioneers and innovators without mentioning scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison. Cheryl, a proud Tesuque resident, shared the recipe for Rancho de Chimayo’s legendary carne adovada. The recipe was excerpted and adapted with permission from The Rancho de Chimayó Cookbook: The Traditional Cooking of New Mexico, 50th Anniversary Edition by Cheryl Jamison and her husband Bill Jamison.

Red Chile Mocha from The Brew on Gold Street in Downtown Albuquerque

To New Mexicans, there is nothing as thoroughly soul-satisfying and utterly delicious as our ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger. We have a fierce pride in that most simplistic, but explosive, flavor-blessed union of a thick, juicy beef patty grilled over an open flame or sizzled on a griddle then blanketed in cheese and topped with taste bud awakening, tongue tingling, olfactory arousing green chile. USA Today honored our ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger by placing the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail on the pantheon of greatness that is “America’s Most Indulgent Food Trails.” USA admitted “There’s no better way to splurge than with a juicy burger and New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail is the hottest of its kind, literally.

Homer Simpson, that everyman philosopher posited an essential philosophical question: “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do.” in recent years, donuts in New Mexico have garnered their share of recognition with both Duke City Donuts and Rebel Donut being singled out for national recognition. Recognizing that donuts are a “full-blown trend now, as artisanal donut shops have risen up like those magical yeasty treats all across America,” Thrillist named the 33 best donuts in America. New Mexico was well represented by Santa Fe’s Whoo’s Donuts, which inspired “one rather chubby act of selfishness” for the Thrillist feature writer.

Tilapia Quesadilla from Papa Nacho’s

Albuquerque took quite a beating from the national media in 2014, but Travel and Leisure was paying attention to the positive aspects in the Duke City. In recognition of its “affable citywide demeanor” Albuquerque was ranked ninth from America’s ten friendliest cities. Though you can pick up “faux crystal-meth candy from The Candy Lady or even the “Blue Sky” donuts at Rebel Donut,” Travel and Leisure cautions not to spoil your appetite because the Duke City has “a large presence on the state’s so-dubbed Breakfast Burrito Byway” where you’ll find “two classic spots…The Frontier and Burrito Lady. “

You’ve got to admire Thrillist and its patriotism for reminding all red-blooded Americans that “it’s your duty — nay, your destiny — to eat as many different varieties of your birthright food as humanly possible.” That birthright food is the quintessential American sandwich. Thrillist compiled a “bucket list of 50 sandwiches across America that you should eat before you die (probably from eating so many sandwiches).” Where this list reigns supreme over similar lists is that it doesn’t cop-out and add a couple burgers to the list. Santa Fe’s Palacio Cafe made the list with its “Taos Style” sandwich, a “mix of roast beef, Provolone, chopped green chile, caramelized onion, and mayo on panini-pressed sourdough.”

Marinated Grilled Tilapia from Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

There are New Mexicans who even under the threat of water-boarding would never concede that Colorado grows, prepares and serves an edible green chile, much less one that’s delicious. In that respect we differ from Thrillist which ranked the “green chile legends” of Denver. The “one single criterion for ranking them: deliciousness,” which means “zero debates about the Colorado vs. the New Mexico style — because who gives a flying frijole?” Huh? As if to give credence and consolation to New Mexicans who’ll fight to the death over the supremacy of our chile, almost every chile pictured on the article has a brownish patina. So there!

According to Wikipedia, “the traditional etymology for April is from the verb aperire, “to open”, in allusion to its being the season when trees and flowers begin to “open.” Alas, sometimes in April restaurants close, too, including one of only two restaurants (Mary & Tito’s is the other) to earn a rating of “27” on this blog. Epazote, the fabulous milieu serving incomparable world cuisine served its last magnificent meal two weeks before the closure of Bert’s Burger Bowl, a Santa Fe institution for 51 years. Both restaurants were owned and operated by Fernando Olea, a gentle man if ever there was one. The gracious chef is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

From the Flying Star‘s new menu: Hidden Treasure (Thai coconut red curry sauce, grilled chicken, fresh veggies over your choice of organic Jasmine or brown rice)

THREE FOR MAY: One of the most important things a restaurant can do to ensure longevity in a very dynamic business climate is to listen to its customers. In response to customer feedback and the perception that menu items were too pricey, the Flying Star revamped its menu, offering several lower-priced items in a new “Café Menu.” New desserts were also added. If the Hidden Treasure (pictured above) is any indication, the iconic Flying Star is well on its way to regaining, retaining and attaining guests. *** One person’s bizarre is another person’s delicacy. Albuquerque’s NewsCastic outlet recently published a list of “13 bizarre things on ABQ menus.” Among the baker’s dozen was the caramel catfish at Café Dalat, my highest rated Vietnamese restaurant in New Mexico. While not taking umbrage with the categorization of caramel catfish as “bizarre,” owner James Nguyen confirmed that the dish is absolutely beloved by Vietnamese people and that it’s usually paired with sour soup. Sounds great to me. *** When is the last time you enjoyed “the other red meat” other than on a lamb chop or gyro? The roast leg of lamb burrito from the Atrisco Bar & Café in Santa Fe is so good, you’ll be having lamb more often.

March, 2015

The Milano (Marinara Sauce, Italian Sausage, Prosciuitto, Genoa Salami, Mozzarella, Oregano, Pesto) from Saggio’s

Noting that “America’s coming-of-agecoincided with the rise of the automobile,” and the automobile birthed the ubiquitous drive-in restaurant, Thrillist compiled a list of the best drive-in restaurants in the fruited plain. The Land of Enchantment was well represented thanks to Mac’s Steak in the Rough, an Albuquerque staple for more than six decades. According to Thrillist: “just about everyone in Albuquerque that isn’t a meth-addled Breaking Bad fan has hit up Mac’s Steak in the Rough for everything from taquitos and cheeseburgers, to the semi-eponymous Double Meat Rough.” You can bet even our meth-addled citizenry have hit up Mac’s for that fantastic limeade.

Don’t ever use the tired idiom “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” to describe the Land of Enchantment’s uber chefs whom, it seems, are perennially named semi-finalists for the James Beard “Best Chef: Southwest” Award, but don’t advance further. To be named a semi-finalist is to be recognized as among the very best of the elite. The level of competition throughout the Southwest (Arizona, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico) is extremely high. Chef Martin Rio’s of the eponymous Restaurant Martin has broken through, being named one of six finalists for the “Oscars of Food.”

Egg Foo Yong and Fried Rice from Lucky Boy

Chope’s Town Café and Bar in La Mesa has been recognized by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division as the newest entrant on the state’s Register of Cultural Properties. Named for José “Chope” Benavides, the son of original proprietors Longina and Margarito Benavides, the restaurant was established in 1915 when Longina opened her dining room to sell enchiladas to local residents. A century later, visitors from all over the world have discovered Chope’s and pilgrimage to what remains one of the very best restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.

San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Austin, New Orleans…These are all formidable foodie cities, heralded and acclaimed as trend-setters and culinary destinations nonpariel. Would you believe the Duke City rates above all of these cities, finishing sixth overall, in a Travel & Leisure Magazine ranking of America’s best food cities? As is usually the case, you can attribute that high ranking to New Mexico’s incomparable green chile which Travel & Leisure described as “the patron saint of this Southwestern city’s food scene” indicating it “pops up on the local fry-bread tacos and cheeseburgers (like the classics at Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Liquor Store, or can be made into a sauce at your table at legendary spots like El Pinto.”

Shrimp Sausage Banh Mi from Banh Mi Coda

Take a quaint, old adobe building, some candlelight, and arguably Albuquerque’s best food and you have the making of an amazing romantic experience.” In recent years, Old Town’s iconic Antiquity Restaurant has consistently garnered “most romantic restaurant” honors in several local polls. The secret is out. TABELog has named Antiquity “one of the thirteen most romantic restaurants in America,” and recommends trying the “filet mignon wrapped in bacon.”

On March 24th, a pall of sadness was cast over the Land of Enchantment as we learned of the passing of Bill Jamison. That sadness was punctuated by loving memories of a beautiful man with an infectious joie de vivre. Bill was a man who laughed easily and often and who kept listeners spellbound with his raconteur’s wit and humor. When he circulated among friends, he had the rare gift of making all of them feel special. Modest and self-effacing almost to a fault, you’d never hear him trumpet his many impressive accomplishments—such as partnering with Cheryl, the love of his life and scintillating bride for thirty years, to earn four James Beard Awards for culinary writing. Along with Cheryl, he authored some two dozen travel books and cookbooks, earning the couple the sobriquet “the king and queen of grilling and smoking” from Bon Appetit magazine. Even as we will miss this tremendous soul, we can’t help but smile at having been blessed with his wit and his friendship. Godspeed, Bill.

Thai hot Mussamun Curry with Vegetables from Thai Cuisine II

IN APRIL, MAKE TIME FOR: On Saturday, April 11th from 11AM – 4PM, the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum will host the inaugural Great New Mexico Food Truck & Beer Festival. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the Duke City’s food truck and craft beer culture in one place for one truly delicious day. The festival will include 20 gourmet food trucks from the Duke CIty area, serving up a variety of savory and sweet dishes, including fall off the bone BBQ to South American cuisine, gourmet hot dogs and everything in between. General admission tickets cost $5, with children 12 and under free. Food and craft beer are sold separately. For more information and to purchase tickets in advance to avoid lines, please visit: http://www.foodtruckfestivalsofamerica.com.

February

Street Food Blvd was the Clear Favorite Among Judges and Public Alike at The Taste of Rio Rancho

The fifth-annual Taste of Rio Rancho gave 22 of the City of Vision’s best eateries an opportunity to showcase their finest culinary fare to some 800 guests. Shining most brightly was rookie participant Street Food Blvd., a food truck which garnered three of six awards in the “Best of Taste” competition judged by two panels of six judges each. The winners were:

  • Best Appetizer: Street Food Blvd.
  • Best Entree: Street Food Blvd.
  • Best Pizza: Pizza 9
  • Best Sandwich: Pizza 9
  • Best Dessert: Vanilla Bean Frozen Custard and Treatery
  • People’s Choice: Street Food Blvd.

If nothing else the compilation of lists is entertaining. Often controversial and rarely achieving consensus, lists serve as excellent conversation starters. One of America’s foremost compilers of lists is Thrillist which purports to bring “very best food, drink, and fun from across the country and around the world delivered piping hot right to your inbox.” Recognizing that “50 million Americans are served fast food every day,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list ranking every state in the fruited plain by its fast food. New Mexico ranked 31st largely on the strength of the 75 LotaBurgers throughout the Land of Enchantment. Special mention was given to Whataburger with the disclaimer that the writer was “running out of other options.”

Pierogies from the Heimat House in Albuquerque

Thrillist “looked to” their “famous chef friends to tell us the best burgers they’ve ever eaten” and where to find them. The best burgers in the country, according to chefs included only one burger from the Land of Enchantment, but it’s a great one indeed. Chef Michael Kornick of Chicago’s celebrated mk is obviously a discerning gentleman with great taste: “My favorite burger would have to be the original Hatch green chile cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite (formerly The Bobcat Bite), made with a giant hunk of amazing beef and green chile so perfect it renders any additional condiments superfluous.”

New Mexico’s best restaurant. That’s a topic sure to elicit a wide swathe of opinions. In compiling a list of the best restaurants in every state, the Business Insider considered a wide swathe of opinions from credentialed sources (such as the James Beard Foundation) while not discounting local recommendations. Paying particular heed to fine dining establishments, Business Insider named Santa Fe’s Geronimo as New Mexico’s best, citing its “impeccable service and complex dishes” and noting that “Geronimo was named best overall, best ambiance, and best food in New Mexico by OpenTable, among other honors.” Business Insider also indicated Geronimo is the “only New Mexico restaurant to win a AAA Four Diamond award, as well as a Forbes Four Star award.”

Coffee isn’t all Rio Rancho’s Cafe Bella does well: Chocolate Chip and Double Espresso Scones

The Los Angeles Times arrived at a conclusion reached by sojourners along Highway 60 on the west side of the Continental Divide: There are indeed pies in Pie Town, a slice of heaven for travelers. The “queen of the oven” in Pie Town is the effervescent Kathy Knapp, a “pastry pilgrim” with a license plate befitting her status: “PIELADY.” “Visitors from all over the world” come, some “to see if a place named Pie Town is a joke.” Pie Town is no joke. It’s the panacea of pie.

Albuquerque is Where It’s At” according to The Huffington Post which named the Duke City among the “5 American Cities You Should Visit” in 2015. With a nod to “Breaking Bad,” writers encouraged visitors to “go for the insanely good chicken-fried steak fingers at Mac’s Steak in the Rough” and to “stay for the sopaipillas.” An Albuquerque tradition for more than six decades, Mac’s Steak in the Rough may not have the fine-dining cachet of Geronimo, but it’s got the love and admiration of generations of Duke City diners.

Albuquerque’s The Grill is proud of its burgers

New Mexico was well represented in the 2015 James Beard Foundation pantheon of award semifinalists. James Beard awards, the restaurant industry’s equivalent of an Academy Award, have eluded all but a few of the Land of Enchantment’s best restaurants and chefs. Could 2015 be the year Albuquerque’s Jennifer James is finally recognized for Best Chef: Southwest Honors, a distinction for which she’s been nominated numerous times? Her in-state competition in 2015 includes another multi-time nominee in Martin Rios of Santa Fe’s Restaurant Martin as well as Andrew Cooper at Santa Fe’s Terra at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado and Jonathan Perno of La Merienda at Los Poblanos in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. Ron Cooper of the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal in Ranchos de Taos was nominated in the category of Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional.

The Daily Meal’s “passionate team canvasses the world to bring you the best food and drink experiences at all levels, around the table, at home or on the road.” In February that passionate team took a stab at naming America’s 50 Best Mexican Restaurants.” Only one Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment made it onto the fabulous fifty, but it’s a restaurant imbued with greatness. Albuquerque’s El Modelo, a Duke City institution since 1929 “still makes rave-worthy tortillas and tamales along with enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and sopaipillas–many of these featuring New Mexico’s signature red and green chiles.”

Panna Cotta from Albuquerque’s Fork & Fig

In an era of openness and transparency in which there seem to be no secrets left, DreamPlanGo which purports to “bring you travel and vacation ideas, insights and inspiration” named Santa Fe as one of “America’s secret 2015 foodie destinations.” One of ten foodie destinations noted, Santa Fe was noted for its chef “blending the flavors they’ve grown up on with influences from Mexico, France and the Mediterranean” resulting in “a delicious collection of Southwest fare prepared in new and innovative ways.” 

Plato once said that “opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”  In the opinion of The Culturetrip, these are “New Mexico’s ten best restaurants:” Antiquity Restaurant, High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, The Artichoke Cafe, and The Grove Cafe & Market, all in Albuquerque; The Range in Bernalillo;  Geronimo, Luminaria and Cafe Pasqual in Santa Fe; The Curious Kumquat in Silver City and Savoy de Mesilla in Mesilla.  Some will view this list and determine it leans toward knowledge and others will argue that it skews toward ignorance.  At the least, it should inspire conversation.

Salsas from Taqueria El Paisa in Albuquerque

Global Gumshoe Ron Stern of the Communities Digital News (CDN) tells readers that Albuquerque’s cuisine is “anything but ordinary.”  In fact, Stern believes “Albuquerque is blazing a trail of its own on the culinary scene.”  “From hot and spicy New Mexican cuisine to upscale dining,” CDN recommended some of the Duke City’s most popular dining hotspots including: Sadie’s of New Mexico, El Pinto, The Cube, The Pueblo Harvest Cafe and others.

TIME TO REVISIT THESE THREE RESTAURANTS: Bob of the Village of Rio Rancho (BOTVOLR), the most prodigious commentator on Gil’s Thrilling…(and some would say, most prolific palaverist) recently suggested I “might remind readers of three Options to check out over a weekend as many of us are ‘getting of an age’.” If you’re interested in sampling traditional Lenten fare enjoyed by New Mexico’s Catholics for generations, make one of those three Abuelita’s in Bernalillo and order the torta de huevo and quelites. You have only one day left to visit Paul’s Monterrey Inn, an Albuquerque institution which shutters its doors for good on February 28th. It may not quite be a trip to the age of Aquarius, communes, hippies and free love, but Santa Fe’s Counter Culture Cafe may just remind you of a bygone psychedelic era as it delights you with deliciousness.

January

The  Culture Trip, “a one-stop, global website, showcasing the best of art, food, culture and travel for every country in the world” discovered ten great places in Taos for dining out.   It may surprise you to learn that only two–Michael’s Kitchen and Orlando’s Cafe— of the restaurants recognized showcase New Mexican cuisine.  Diversity is the hallmark of the remaining restaurants whose ranks include French and Latin inspired Gutiz and Spanish and Moorish influenced El Meze whose chef Frederick Muller has been nominated several times for the James Beard award as the best chef in the Southwest.

Sushi Rolls from Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

Obsessed with everything that’s worth caring about in food, drink, and travel,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list of “the most iconic restaurants in every state.”  Admittedly this endeavor required looking up the word “iconic” in the dictionary and to qualify, a restaurant had to have been around for 30 years or more and “still be a crowd favorite.”  As a disclaimer, perhaps, the selected restaurants “may not have the best food or be tourist-free,” but “they’re all famous.”   Thrillist’s selection for New Mexico was El Pinto, a restaurant with  more detractors than supporters, a conclusion at which you might arrive if you read the comments following the list. 

While it may be debated as to whether or not El Pinto is the most iconic restaurant in the Land of Enchantment, you can’t dispute its popularity and propensity for marketing.  The new year saw filming begin for a potential reality show featuring the restaurant.  El Pinto’s owners, the “iconic” Thomas twins desire is that the reality show “offer an authentic portrayal of the restaurant, the Albuquerque community and New Mexico’s food and culture.” 

Mussels from Farina Alto in Albuquerque

In its January, 2015 report Pizza Magazine Quarterly revealed that only four states across the fruited plain love pizza less than New Mexico does  (another quality of life category for which we can be grateful for Mississippi).  With only 1.55 pizza joints per 10,000 residents, the Land of Enchantment ranks 46th in terms of number of pizzerias.   Worse, only 38.4 percent of those pizzerias are independent.  There is one local chain regarded as one of the most successful local chains in the fruited plain.  Dion’s ranked number 37 on the magazine’s list of the top fifty pizza chains in America.  From a monetary perspective, however, the magazine noted that Dion’s makes more money per restaurant than any other pizza chain in the country.

“The Best…Ever!”  That’s a pretty audacious premise, but one the Food Network decided to tackle.  In its inaugural episode which aired on January 5th, celebrity chefs and restaurateurs celebrated the “Best. Pizza. Ever.,” identifying the eleven best pizzas ever.  Who says when it comes to pizza you can’t have the whole enchilada?  Not chef and restaurateur Roger Mooking who made a a case for the chicken green chile and cheese pizza at Santa Fe’s Rooftop Pizzeria being “the best spicy slice ever.” 

Adult Beverage Menu at the Shade Tree Custom & Cafe which was featured on the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible

If you’ve ever shortchanged New Mexico’s barbecue, you might just give it some respect now that the Food Network’s “Best…Ever!” program airing on January 12th listed a Santa Fe barbecue dish as one of the best barbecue dishes ever in America.  Chef Aaron Sanchez explained why Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe is taking nachos to another level, calling them “decadent, gluttonous and fun” with “big flavor.”  He noted that the “best barbecue nachos ever” brings elements of barbecue (brisket), Mexican and Southwestern dishes together. 

Travel Mindset, a site “created by experienced travelers who like to explore the world and are looking for life changing and life shaping experiences” took a stab at dissecting New Mexico’s “signature ingredient: the chile pepper.”  Advising that “if you want to taste one of the hottest—literally—culinary landscapes in the United States, you need to get a few things straight,” Travel Mindset encourages familiarizing yourself with the “red or green” question.  They also championed the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, “composed up of local and critic favorites—making it the best of the best.”  The best, in their estimation comes from San Antonio’s fabulous Owl Cafe

Street Food Asia and sister restaurant Street Food Market won second and third place critic’s choice awards at the 2015 Roadrunner Food Bank SouperBowl in Albuquerque

The premise of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  host Robert Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  On January 14th, the episode featuring Albuquerque’s Shade Tree Customs & Cafe aired for the first time.  While soap opera-like drama is typical for many reality shows, the Restaurant: Impossible segment was a very effective vehicle for showing the likeability and passion of the Shade Tree ownership and staff.  

When most people think American cuisine, they think pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers.  While these are indeed staples across the country, each state has its own sense of flavor.”  The Huffington Post and Yelp collaborated to determine the “most disproportionately popular cuisine in each state.”  In Louisiana, it was Cajun cuisine while Missouri certainly loves its barbecue.  Interestingly, the most disproportionately popular cuisine in New Mexico was determined to be “Mexican.”  Not “New Mexican,” but Mexican.  Texas garnered more respect as its most disproportionately popular cuisine was deemed to be “Tex-Mex.”  

Santa Fe SouperBowl Winners: 215

If breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day, it seems most of America prefers to start their day off with a richly indulgent cavalcade of calorific sweets such as pancakes, French toast, donuts and sticky buns.  At least that’s what several celebrity chefs on the Food Network’s “Best. Ever. Breakfast” program would have you believe.  California based chef Antonia Lofaso begs to differ, making a case for the breakfast burritos in Santa Fe’s Tia Sophia’s restaurant as the best breakfast burrito ever.    Chef Lofaso recommends getting it “Christmas style.”  

On Saturday, January 17th, 2015, Santa Fe’s The Food Depot hosted its 21st annual Souper Bowl, a fabulous event featuring soup tastings from 29 local restaurants competing for the title of Best Soup in Santa Fe.  

  • In the category of “best savory soup” as well as the overall winner with a King Trumpet Mushroom soup was Dinner For Two.  
  • In the category of “best cream soup,” the winner was Terra at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado with a Creamy Vegetable with Cranberry soup.  
  • The “best seafood soup” category was claimed by The Pantry which wowed judges with a Seafood Butternut Bisque.  
  • “Best vegetarian soup” honors went to Bon Appetite with a wild mushroom soup.

The Ranchers Club of New Mexico won the Critic’s and People’s Choice Awards at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s 2015 SouperBowl in Albuquerque

The Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl, held on an unseasonably warm January day, is the Food Bank’s largest fund-raising effort every year. The soups seem to get better every year, too.  In my eight years serving as a soup judge, this year’s soups were the very best I’ve had from top to bottom and for the first time in memory, the critic’s  and people’s choice award winners went to the same restaurant.  Here are the 2015 winners:

  • 1st Place and Souper Bowl Champion: Ranchers Club of New Mexico for their Chimayo Red Chile Pork Chowder; 2nd Place: Artichoke Café for their Lobster Bisque; Third Place: Bocadillos New Mexico for their New Mexico Clam Chowder
  • People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup 1st Place: Bouche for their Cream of New York Portabello; 2nd Place: Forque Kitchen and Bar at the Hyatt Regency for their Pumpkin Red Vegetarian Soup; 3rd Place: StreetFood Market for their Malay Curry Squash Bisque
  • People’s Choice – Desserts 1st Place: Nothing Bundt Cakes; 2nd Place: Theobroma Chocolatier; 3rd Place: Chocolate Cartel
  • People Choice – Best Booth: Ranchers Club of New Mexico
  • Critics’ Choice Winners 1st Place:  The Ranchers Club of New Mexico for their  Chimayo Red Chile Pork Chowder; 2nd Place: StreetFood Asia for their Bangkok Christmas Lobster Bisque; 3rd Place: StreetFood Market for their Malay Curry Squash Bisque

The American diner tradition is alive and well.  To recognize this sacrosanct tradition, the good folks at Thrillist embarked on a trek across the fruited plain to locate America’s 21 best diners.   The only diner in the Land of Enchantment to make it onto this elite list was Santa Fe’s Pantry Restaurant on Cerrillos.  Thrillist observed that “the Pantry was on every single person’s list” when the writer inquired as to where he should eat.  “Around since 1948, it’s 1) damn iconic, 2) a place where you have a decent shot at running into Cormac McCarthy, and 3) serves impeccable New Mexican breakfasts.”

Orange Chicken en Papillote with rice and vegetables from The Model Pharmacy in Albuquerque

Movoto Blog, a blog celebrating the lighter side of real estate, did a seriously great job of naming “15 New Mexico Restaurants Which Will Blow Your Taste Buds Out Of Your Mouth.”  Having previously published a list showcasing Albuquerque restaurants, the list was richly represented by restaurants in Rio Rancho where the  Turtle Mountain Brewing Company, Namaste Restaurant, Rub-N-Wood Barbecue and Joe’s Pasta House received well-deserved praise.  Duke City restaurants noted included Farm & Table, The Grill, Down N Dirty Seafood Boil, Tia Betty Blues, Bocadillos Slow Roasted and the Guava Tree Cafe

Each January, AAA announces restaurants that received the Four Diamond or Five Diamond Rating during their latest evaluation. Restaurants at these rating levels offer an extensive array of amenities and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail. Among the 58,000 AAA Approved and Diamond Rated restaurants visited in 2014, only a very small percentage received the AAA Four Diamond Rating.  Two Santa Fe restaurants–Geronimo and Terra at Encanto–were named to the very exclusive list. 

Chips Con Queso from the Effing Bar in Albuquerque

The Food Network’s Best. Ever. program continued its love affair with Santa Fe restaurants and dishes, going four for four (four episodes, four Santa Fe restaurants) in the month of January.  The beloved Santa Fe Bite was showcased in the Best.Burgers.Ever episode with chef and restaurateur Roger Mooking calling them “a rich, satisfying bite.”  New Mexicans have long acknowledged the Santa Fe Bite and its predecessor, The Bobcat Bite, as living treasures in the Land of Enchantment.

Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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.  Look for the bell to make its way to Alameda soon.  One of the Oak Tree Cafe’s loyal customers is repairing the brackets to hold the bell in place.

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 fiance as of August, 2015) 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": USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette

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 Macy’s 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

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. At its new Alameda location, the Oak Tree Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 8PM.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 August 2015
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 9
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 

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300 Club Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The 300 Club at Skidmore's Holiday Bowl in Albuquerque

The 300 Club at Skidmore’s Holiday Bowl in Albuquerque

300!  In the parlance of the bowler, it signifies absolute perfection, twelve consecutive strikes.  According to some trusted foodies, the 300 Club Bar & Grill in Albuquerque’s Skidmore’s Holiday Bowl on Lomas just east of San Pedro serves a mean green chile cheeseburger, a 12-strike masterpiece, a perfect 300.  This is a burger so good, it was one of the twenty contestants for the inaugural Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge in 2009.

We all know the stereotypes about bowling alley food.  When it comes to food, most bowling alleys strike out.  Ardent keglers are subjected to such catastrophic “cuisine” as perpetually rotating hot dogs seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno, soppy messes of nachos bathed in gloppy processed cheese topped with gelatinous jalapeños and greasy onion rings with the texture of fried rubber bands and as oily as well-slicked lanes.  Getting something edible at most bowling alleys is as tough as picking up a seven-ten split.

The 300 Club

The 300 Club, a stylish eatery in a bowling alley

The fact that the 300 Club Bar & Grill has a separate entrance from the rest of the bowling alley is a promising sign.  That promise is bolstered by its utterly charming sports bar ambiance which is wholly unlike the greasy, divey stereotype affixed in my mind about bowling alley dining (obviously when I’m not thinking about the now defunct Ezra’s Place).  A wall-mounted, flat screen high-definition television tuned to ESPN is a fixture on one wall while smaller televisions, also tuned to Sports programming are strategically placed for optimal viewing no matter where you’re seated.  Seating–whether along the bar or in the booths along the wall–is comfortable and spacious.

On November 20th, 2009, the 300 Club Bar & Grill celebrated the grand opening of the HB Extreme Vodka Venue.  As Albuquerque’s sole Vodka bar, the Venue promises over 50 premium Vodkas along with a full selection of liquors, liqueurs and draft and bottled beers.  If you don’t partake of adult beverages, you can still have a great dining experience either for a quick breakfast, relaxing lunch away from the office or a fun night out with friends and family.

Popcorn

The menu is surprisingly ambitious–as daring as that of many restaurants.  The breakfast menu includes many traditional New Mexico breakfast favorites, most laced with the chile some of us need to truly wake up everyday.  The lunch menu is also interwoven with New Mexican entrees such as burritos, tacos as well as sandwiches burgers and even pizza.  Burger selections include some non-conventional but utterly New Mexican choices as green chile cheeseburgers enveloped by a flour tortilla.   A weekly special which just be fried chicken with all the trimmings or pork chops is also available.

18 November 2009: Salsa and chips are always a great way to start any meal, especially when the chips are made to order.  Those chips arrive at your table still warm to the touch.  They cool off quickly as you scoop up the fresh tomato. onion and jalapeno based salsa of medium piquancy.  The salsa reminded me a bit of Pace Picante Sauce without the characteristic acerbic qualities of the Texas based bottled salsa.  It has good pronouncements of piquancy, freshness and flavor.  If you don’t order an appetizer such as the salsa and chips, you can also ask for a bowl of popcorn.

Chips & Salsa at the 300 Club

Chips & Salsa at the 300 Club

18 November 2009: The green chile cheeseburger is adorned with large leaf lettuce, red onion and a sole red tomato atop grilled buns.  The beef patty is uniform in size and texture, a usually obvious sign of pre-packaged, frozen beef.  Though I would have preferred fresh, hand-formed beef, there are many green chile cheeseburgers throughout the Land of Enchantment using frozen beef patties from Sam’s, the Price Club or others of that ilk.

The green chile is blanketed by smoldering, bright orange cheese so hot that the cheese-chile amalgam seems to be one entity.  The green chile is neither chopped nor diced, but pureed.  It drips and drizzles onto the plate like a vibrant, verdant-orange lava flow.  It’s hot on the tongue both in terms of heat and piquancy.  The chile is not only fulsome in flavor, but has the tongue-tingling qualities of very good chile.  This is the type of chile than can top everything, but can’t be topped.  I imagine the judges at the Governor’s Challenge enjoyed this burger and its chile very much.

Green Chile Cheeseburger at the 300 Club

Green Chile Cheeseburger at the 300 Club

The accompanying French fries are also quite good.  Unlike the flaccid and boring French fries normally served with our sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger, these are stiff as if twice-fried and well-seasoned.  Burgers and fries make for an excellent marriage, particularly when both are excellent in their own right as these are. 

27 August 2015: Among chefs, the practice of deconstructing dishes is a popular technique, especially in gourmet restaurants and cooking competitions.  The term “deconstructed dish” basically means taking foods normally combined, changing their form then plating them together in different ways.  It’s not just about taking a dish apart, but recombining its elements.  It might be a stretch to call the 300 Club Grill’s burrito in a bowl a deconstructed dish, but it is a different and delicious way to present and serve a New Mexico favorite. 

Burrito In A Bowl

As the name implies, this dish is essentially an unwrapped burrito or rather its contents (beef or chicken layered with beans, red or green chile topped with shredded cheese and garnish)  are served on a plate with a tortilla. It could be argued that all it would take to make this a Frito pie is a few Frito’s corn chips, but why argue when you could enjoy every morsel of a terrific dish. The green chile shines on this “deconstructed” bowl of deliciousness.

If you’ve needed an excuse to explore the Land of Enchantment, start with New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail which promises an excellent meal along the highways and byways of the most beauteous of America’s fifty states.  For Duke City sojourners, the 300 Club Bar & Grill is a good place to start.

The 300 Club Bar & Grill
Skidmore’s Holiday Bowl
7515 Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-3308
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2015
1st VISIT: 18 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Chips & Salsa, Burrito In A Bowl, Popcorn