El Taco Tote – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Taco Tote on Central Avenue

As we perused the colorful menu hanging on the wall at El Taco Tote, my friends Captain Tuttle, Bob of the Village Of Los Ranchos and I pondered the veracity of images depicting gargantuan tacos brimming with glistening meat and sundry toppings. Could these super-sized behemoths possibly be as large as pictured? Perhaps, as in “objects in the mirror may appear closer than they are,” these tacos only appear large in photos. Captain Tuttle, a semi-regular at Taco Tote, confirmed that the truth is somewhere between the perfectly posed tacos portrayed on the menu and those actually served. He recalled from previous visits, being served tacos with as much as four ounces of meat. That’s as much as McDonald’s vaunted Quarter-Pounder.

Considering most taquerias nowadays tend to prefer (and proffer) small tacos, we wondered if Taco Tote’s largesse was an accommodation to denizens of the fruited plain who crave and expect Brobdingnagian portions. We’re not the only ones who’ve pondered this Jack Handy level deep thought. In an April, 2010 edition of “Ask A Mexican,” a reader asked columnist Gustavo Arellano “why do those tiny little Mexican tacos exist? Does anyone prefer getting 3 tiny tacos instead of 1 good sized one?”  Arellano clarified “It’s in the United States where the taco has been super-sized. In Mexico, and in Mexican communities in los Estados Unidos , tacos continue to be best appreciated small–four bites maximum. A taco is meant to be a snack, a bit, not a full meal. If we wanted something bigger, we’d order a plate or a bowl–or, better yet, order a plate/bowl make our own impromptu tacos.” So there!

Taco Tote Doesn’t Build A Better Taco…You do!

Alas, smaller tacos don’t necessarily translate to smaller prices.  In fact, Arellano has observed that “restaurants always overprice tacos, even when they’re substantially bigger than the small tortillas.”    He laments further that one of his favorite taquerias commits the “cardinal sin of charging more than a dollar for a taco. I don’t care how great or big a taco is–a taco is not worth more than a dollar ever”.  Much has changed–including the hyper-inflated cost of food–since 2010 when he made that declaration.  The price of Taco Tote’s offerings might just send him into sticker shock.  My initial assessment was that the price of tacos is nearing that of burgers, then I remembered just how expensive burgers have become.

With signage boasting “We don’t build a better taco…You do!,” Taco Tote’ operating model differs from that of many of its competitors where tacos are constructed for you.  You truly can have it your way at Taco Tote!  Your way starts with the filling of your choice: sirloin, arrachera (skirt steak), grilled chicken, bistek (inside round beef), barbacoa (cheek meat), fish, adobada pork (pork marinated in traditional Mexican dried chilies and spices), adobada chicken, shrimp, al pastor, carne asada, tripitas (small intestines) and brocheta (sirloin sautéed with green chilies and onions.  There’s only one vegetarian offering, a mushroom and veggie medley sautéed with soy sauce and “special spices.” 

The famous Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos Stands by the Salsa Bar

El Taco Tote celebrates the Mexican tradition of “street food,” a term which usually conjures up images of simple street stands serving up steamy, fresh corn or flour tortillas enveloping seared meats, veggies or seafood topped with sundry condiments and salsas.  As with street stands throughout Mexico, El Taco Tote doesn’t offer a New Mexican style taco with ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes.  These are tacos as authentic as you’ll find in their birthplace of Juarez, Mexico.  Founded in 1988, Taco Tote quickly opened its first branch restaurant in El Paso before expanding to the Duke City.  Today two dozen restaurants grace Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico.

Place your order then saunter over to the condiment bar which is where your taco becomes a “tote” (Mexican slang for large) as you cram it with onions, cucumber, cilantro, grilled hot peppers and more.  Six salsas, all of which pack a potent punch, are also available, but be forewarned, a couple of them might require a fire extinguisher.  The pequin chile talamada isn’t quite hot enough to remove the enamel from your teeth, but it might burn your tongue a bit.  Even the guacamole salsa has a bit of a bite.  You’ll be impressed by the fresh quality of the condiment bar where everything appeared to be homemade.

Chiles Rellenos with Beans and Rice

During our inaugural venture in 2006, my Kim and I fell in love with the pickled red onions which went especially well with the fish tacos.  El Taco Tote’s fish tacos are  akin to those you might find in the landlocked regions of Mexico where the fish is fried then nestled into warm corn tortillas.  It’s then up to you to dress those tacos with the condiments of your choice.  With fish tacos, you have to exercise some caution because unlike some meats, not everything goes well with fish.  Bob enjoyed his inaugural foray into the fish taco arena undressed.  No, not him.  His fish taco.  That’s the beauty of Taco Tote.  You’re free to create…or not to. 

21 November 2017: Despite the promise of titanic tacos, Captain Tuttle and I fell prey to Taco Tote’s clever of point-of-sale-marketing ploy.  When we got to the cash register, we espied a poster touting Taco Tote’s latest offering, Hatch chiles rellenos with refried beans and Spanish rice.  We just had to see for ourselves if these rellenos were as appetizing as the poster was appealing.  We should have stuck to tacos.  The rellenos were more than a bit on the mushy side, a result of having been fried in grease that just wasn’t hot enough.  Your intrepid blogger could barely finish one of the two rellenos on the plate.  Thankfully the tortillas and beans were quite good.

Unadorned Fish Taco

El Taco Tote’s corn and flour tortillas are made by hand, ostensibly the way they’ve been made in Mexico for hundreds of years. You can even watch these magical orbs being crafted thanks to the restaurant’s open kitchen design. Refried beans have a slight aftertaste of lard which also holds true to Mexican tradition. The Spanish rice is a bit on the dry side, but as regular readers know, Spanish rice rarely receives praise on this blog. Three aguas frescas–horchata, jamaica and melon) are available to wash down your victuals.

El Taco Tote describes itself as an “all fresh” restaurant, everything–from tortillas to its distinctive salsa bar–is made fresh every day, with no preservatives and with the best quality in produce, meats and ingredients.  In that salsa bar you’ll find everything you need to create your tacos your way.

El Taco Tote
4701 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-5188
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2017
1ST VISIT: 2 June 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish Tacos, Horchata, Tacos Al Pastor

El Taco Tote Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

MALAGUEÑA’S LATIN TAPAS – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Malagueña’s Latin Tapas, Five-Star Dining From a Mobile Food Kitchen

Not long after Superbowl XL’s halftime show began, a veil of theatrical smoke enveloped the stage, dissipating slowly to reveal the legendary featured performers, the immortal Rolling Stones.    First the camera panned to a gyrating Mick Jagger who got the frenzied crowd rollicking with Start Me Up. When the camera focused on Keith Richards, my sister-in-law asked when the Cryptkeeper (from the 1990s horror anthology television series Tales From The Crypt) joined the Stones.  We spent the halftime show making fun of the then-63-year-old rocker who looked much older thanks to a life of debauchery.

When the last commercial began before the game resumed, I reminded our guests that despite looking like a decrepit old duffer, Keith Richards was considered one of the best guitar players in the world (in 2015, Rolling Stone named him the fourth greatest guitarist in history.)  That didn’t impress them as much as watching a video afterwards of Richards playing Malagueña, a classical Spanish Guitar composition that evokes the spirit of Spain.   Malagueña, a composition which requires exceptional deftness and skill, was actually the very first song Richards learned.   No one in our party joked about the Granny Clampett  look-alike playing the banjo.

Molly and Javier Montaño

For Chef Javier Montaño, an Albuquerque native and (like me) a scion of Galicia in Spain, Malagueña resonates deeply.  When he and his beauteous bride Molly relocated from San Francisco to the Duke City, it made sense that their restaurant venture would be named for the profoundly soulful song which captures the essence of Spain so well. While well cognizant of the barbarous atrocities perpetrated throughout the Americas by Spanish conquistadores, Javier’s focus is on the positive cultural and culinary aspects of the Spanish influence.  Promising a fresh twist on Spanish and Latin American Cuisine, the Montaños are taking traditional ingredients and culinary ideas from throughout Latin America and interpreting them in delicious ways.  After our inaugural sampling of Malagueña’s fare, my Kim called it “five-star food from a food truck.”

Yes, some of the very best Latin American cuisine in the Duke City exists not in a brick and mortar operation, but in a mobile food kitchen.  With thirty years experience as a chef, Javier well knows that the three keys to success as a brick and mortar restaurant are location, location and location.  A brick and mortar might come later.  For now, the Montaños are having a blast meeting and interacting with very savvy and receptive diners.  They’ve now had their mobile food kitchen for three months (as of July, 2017), but have enjoyed a promising start.  

Chef Montaño Shows Off Beautifully Marbled Wagyu Beef from Lone Mountain Wagyu in Golden, New Mexico

Before moving to San Francisco, Javier plied his chef skills at some of New Mexico’s most highly acclaimed restaurants including Scalo in Albuquerque and the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe.  In the City by the Bay, he served as chef at Fog City and at Guckenheimer, a corporate food service provider.  Also in San Francisco he met and married Molly who worked at the time as a gourmet food representative.  Their passion for food is obvious.  Speak with them for just a while and you’ll come away impressed with their commitment to creating a harmonious interplay from the premium ingredients they use.

Take, for example, their use of beautifully marbled wagyu beef from Lone Mountain Wagyu in Golden, New Mexico.  Wagyu beef is beef self-actualized, as good as it can be.  It’s luxurious, buttery and high in saturated fats (which, contrary to some nutrition know-it-alls tell us has many health benefits).  Wagyu is regarded as some of the best beef in the world.  Beef this exclusive and premium shouldn’t be prepared on just any old grill.  Javier worked with an Argentine friend (and few people know beef as well as Argentines do) to construct an Argentinian-style pit for grilling meats low and slow in a shallow pile of glowing coals.

Surf & Turf Special

8 July 2017: The results are some of the most unctuous, tender, rich and absolutely delicious beef we’ve had in quite a while.  Three thinly sliced seared strips of wagyu prepared at medium-rare graced the surf and turf special of the day that also included chimichurri, a spicy shrimp skewer on roasted Spanish potatoes with an aji amarillo aioli.  A surf and turf special of this caliber is usually served with cloth napkins and silverware, not on a paper food tray.  The three shrimp on a wooden skewer are fresh and firm with a characteristic snap when you bite into them.  They’re lightly dusted with a spice mix that gives them a lively flavor profile that complements a grilled flavor.  The roasted Spanish potatoes are sliced into small cubes and have sweet-savory notes that go so well with the aji amarillo aioli. 

8 July 2017: Amarillo aji, a ubiquitous fixture in Peruvian cuisine, also plays a prominent part in another fabulous entree–the ceviche mixto.  Ceviche is the national dish of Peru and the coastal nation’s most popular dish: fresh, raw, white fish cut into smaller than bite-size cubes, marinated and “cooked” in lime juice and seasoned with Peruvian chili peppers (often aji), onions and salt.  There are literally hundreds of variations of Peruvian ceviche.  Malagueña’s version includes not only the fish of the day, but calimari and chicharrones as well as ginger, garlic and pepitas.  The aji amarillo, a thick-fleshed chile with a medium to hot heat level works very well with the lime and ginger to imprint the sensation of invigorating freshness in your mouth.  You haven’t had ceviche until you’ve enjoyed a Peruvian version of this manna from the sea.  Malagueña’s version would make a Peruvian swoon.

Ceviche Mixto

8 July 2017: When my Kim ordered Malagueña’s lomo burrito, my first inclination was to dismiss it as just another boring burrito, the same as so many others.  Even after Javier cut it in half to reveal edible art reminiscent of a beautiful stained glass window, I remained a cynical skeptic.  Then my Kim slid a heaping forkful into my mouth.  The lomo burrito (marinated beef with chopped red onions, fries, tomatoes, rice, lettuce, sour cream and rocoto chile sauce wrapped in a thin flour tortilla) may be the very best burrito we’ve had in three years or longer.  Rocoto is one of Peru’s most piquant chiles, an incendiary pepper that’ll set your mouth on fire if you eat it straight off the plant.  Javier tames the chile in sauce form so that its emphasis isn’t solely heat, but the sweet-fruity notes that really define this pepper. The rocoto sauce allows the lomo (the Spanish term for loin) to shine. It’s tender and delicious with a magical marinade that compliments its beefy flavor.

8 July 2017: After polishing off our entrees and being fully sated, you’d think we could walk away contented, but we wanted to have even more of the explosions of flavors that characterized our inaugural visit to Malagueña’s.  Our solution: take home two Choripan (Argentinian spicy sausage sandwich with chimichuri and salsa fresca on a toasted bun).  Choripan is in Argentina what the hot dog is in the United States, perhaps the ultimate street food.  Choripan is obviously a portmanteau from the words chorizo, a sausage, and pan, meaning bread.  Take my word for it, Malagueña’s choripan is better than about one-hundred-percent of the hot dogs you’ll find in the Duke City.  It’s better than a Wisconsin brats, too.  Wow, is this an excellent sandwich.

Lomo Burrito

As might be expected from a mobile food kitchen, Malagueña’s menu is on the small side, listing fewer than a dozen items.  If our initial and second visits are any indication, you’ll want to try them all.  Aside from the items so inadequately described by me above, the menu on the date of our inaugural visit listed chicken pintxos (sherry, garlic chicken skewers), salt and vinegar fries, papas bravas (seasoned crispy fries with smoked tomato aioli), a spring salad (greens, nectarines, feta, almonds and mint in a charred lime vinaigrette) and a coconut pudding (with coconut, peanuts and sesame).  Javier apprised us that he and Molly plan to change up the menu frequently to keep things lively and fresh.  Lively, fresh, delicious…these are the hallmarks of Malagueña.

18 November 2017:  Habitues of Gil’s Thrilling… may have noticed that Malagueña’s Latin Tapas has now earned the very first rating of 25 I’ve ever accorded to a mobile food kitchen, placing it in rarefied company as one of my highest rated restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  That’s not just one of my highest rated food trucks.  It’s among my highest rated restaurants of any type: brick and mortar, mobile food kitchen, fine dining, etc.  The flavors coaxed by Chef Javier and Molly from the highest quality ingredients can’t be contained.  Nor can they go without notice.  Before celebrating its one year anniversary, Malagueña’s has earned so much critical acclaim that it was one of ten nominees for the Edible Local Heroes award in the food truck category.  It’s the best vote you’ll cast.

Choripan, an Argentinian Sausage Sandwich

18 November 2017:  Javier reminisced about the creative liberties he enjoyed as a young chef working at Fuego, then the high-end fine-dining gem at La Posada de Santa Fe.  Working alongside another youthful prodigy named Maxime Bouneou, he fondly recalled creating a dinner salad offered for the then (and maybe even now) unfathomable price of thirty dollars.  Despite that lofty price point, the salad flew off the menu (and that was more than two decades ago).  The reason–it was constructed with quite literally the finest ingredients available: jamon Iberico, aged Balsamico, premium olive oil, etc. 

Javier is well aware that in a food truck market where the expectation is often nachos and tacos, he can’t possibly proffer a gourmet salad approximating the price of Fuego’s lavish gallimaufry.  What he does offer is the best five dollar salad you’ll ever have.  Talk about a different kind of sticker shock.  For a salad of such quality, we would have paid three times the amount.  The canvas for Malagueña’s autumn salad is locally grown little gem lettuces from a north valley farmer.  Not only are locally grown greens much more fresh and flavorful, they retain the nutritional value absent in greens shipped for hundreds of miles before making it to your grocery.  Playing six-part harmony with the little gem lettuces are thinly sliced apples, cranberries, goat cheese and cinnamon pecans in a maple vinaigrette.  The interplay between ingredients, textures and flavors–sweet, savory, tartness, earthiness–will enthrall your taste buds.

Autumn Salad

18 November 2017:  One of the most surprising culinary trends across the fruited plain over the past two years has been the ascendancy of cacio e pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” or as described by some sources as a “minimalist mac and cheese.”  Essentially just long, stringy noodles  tossed in olive oil, Parmesan cheese, Pecorino and cracked pepper, cacio e pepe is terrific, but hardly worthy of the adulation it’s received.  Much better by several orders of magnitude is the simply named garlic noodles from Malagueña’s.  

Two of the many essential ingredients in my Kim’s kitchen repertoire are noodles and garlic, ingredients which not only go very well together, they complement virtually everything else.  Yeah, I know there are plenty of you who share  a vampire-like affinity with garlic, but for those of us with heightened tasted buds, garlic is glorious.  Malagueña’s garlic noodles lists only two other ingredients ( butter and Parmesan), but there’s so much more going on in this simple dish with complex flavors.  There is, for example, the delightful caramelization of garlic, an alchemic process made possible by its catalytic interaction with Turbinado sugar (from pure cane sugar extract).  The caramelization doesn’t take away garlic’s strong, sharp, pungent flavor.  It makes it more interesting.  Then there’s the acidic notes of shredded Parmesan, the creaminess of butter and the experiential delight of slurping up noodles.  Let’s face it, these are self-actualized garlic noodles, as good as they can be!

Garlic Noodles

18 November 2017:  Throughout Mexico and often using makeshift grills on ramshackle roadside stands, intrepid cooks aren’t afraid to let chicken skin blacken on the outside while the chicken cooks through on the inside.  Their technique involves two steps: a simple achiote-based marinade and slow-roasting over charcoal.  Known as pollo al carbon (literally “to the coals”), this poultry preparation style hasn’t caught on as widely across the fruited plain (perhaps because the technique isn’t exactly the most clean).  The Duke City’s sole sit-down purveyor (El Pollo Real) of pollo al carbon closed down in 2014 while a poultry purveying mobile kitchen (El Chicken 100% Carbon) has been inactive since the onset of the dreaded Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project. 

It’s no surprise that Javier and Molly would be great fans of pollo al carbon.  Nor should it comes as a surprise that their interpretation of chicken carbon is absolutely delicious and wholly unique.  Instead of the spatchcocked chicken favored in Old Mexico, Malagueña’s rendition showcases marinated juicy chicken skewers topped with a smoked tomato salsa.  The marinade includes Worcestershire sauce and achiote, a bright orange-red spice vastly underutilized in New Mexico.   Achiote marinade imparts a distinctively peppery aroma and a subtle flavor described by The Kitchn as nutty, sweet, and earthy.  The marinade also facilitates the beauteous blackening of the skin that seals in juices and flavors.  The fresh smoked tomato salsa is yet another example of Malagueña’s commitment to freshness and fine ingredients.  Neither sauce-like nor runny as some salsas tend to be, it’s premium tomatoes and red onions cut up into small chunks.

Chicken Carbon

18 November 2017:  Among carnivores, the matter of baby back ribs or St. Louis ribs is oft debated.  Baby backs are favored in the barbecue community because their meat is ubiquitous.  It’s found between the bones and on top of the bones.  Baby backs are shorter, curved, and usually meatier and leaner than St. Louis ribs.  Those of us who favor the latter know St. Louis ribs have more fat content (and fat does mean flavor) and tend to be more tender then baby backs.  Sure, St. Louis ribs have more bone, but they also have more meat. 

It made me very happy to see Malagueña’s featuring St. Louis ribs with coffee red chile rub on the late Fall menu.  Coffee, Javier explained, is an underused ingredient in cooking and as aficionados know, coffee has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that oenophiles).  Pair coffee (Javier uses New Mexico Piñon Coffee) with red chile and you’ve got two of the most flavorful ingredients conceivable.  It makes for a fantastic rub.  Neither the coffee nor the red chile dominate.  Instead, notes from each coalesce into a delicious dream slathered on top of meaty ribs.  Wow!  Javier knows ribs!  He also knows New Mexico and knows there’s no better accompaniment for ribs than beans.  No, not the molasses-based beans served at barbecues across the fruited plain.  When in New Mexico, you serve pinto beans, the official state vegetable of the land of Enchantment.  A single bread roll completes a plate that feels like summer but would be great any time of year.

St Louis Ribs with Coffee Red Chile Rub

When he’s not prepping for his busy days on Malagueña, Javier teaches students knife skills and how to prepare everyday foods at New Day Youth & Family Services’ Gourmet Grub, a cooking class with the goal of helping Albuquerque’s at-risk youth stay off the streets and gain valuable experience in the food service industry for their future. In this capacity, he works closely with his brother Sean, part owner and general manager of Monroe’s, one of Albuquerque’s most popular New Mexican restaurants.

My Kim may have said it best: “Malagueña offers five-star cuisine in a food truck.”  It is the best mobile food kitchen we’ve experienced in the Duke City.  Javier and Molly are taking Latin American cuisine to new heights.  If you hear of them rolling down your neighborhood, run, don’t walk to this wonderful addition to the Duke City culinary scene.

MALAGUEÑA’S LATIN TAPAS
(Location Varies)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(415) 342-1461
Web Site | Facebook Page | Instagram
LATEST VISIT: 18 November 2017
1st VISIT: 8 July 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lomo Burrito, Ceviche Mixto, Choripan, Special Surf & Turf, Autumn Salad, Garlic Noodles, Chicken Carbon, St. Louis Ribs with Coffee Red Chile Rub

Malagueña Latin Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Los Compadres Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Los Compadres on Central Avenue

In the vernacular and tradition of Hispanic Northern New Mexico, few–if any–titles were held in such esteem and reverence by elder generations as “compadre” (male) and “comadre” (female).  In his Dictionary of New Mexico & Southern Colorado Spanish, Ruben Cobos defines a compadre as a “ritual co-parent; a term by which godparents address the father of their godchild and by which the child’s parents address the godfather.” With the societal dissolution of the family entity, the term compadre doesn’t hold the same bonding connotation as it once did–at least in terms of raising one another’s families should the need arise.  Today the term compadre is frequently used almost interchangeably with “paiser,” a derivative of “paisano” or countryman. Paiser is a Northern New Mexican word addressing a person from one’s hometown or county.

When Janice and Roberto Martinez launched Los Compadres in March, 1997, they must have had in mind a homey, family-oriented restaurant in which compadres could gather for delicious Mexican and New Mexican cuisine the way it’s been prepared for generations.  Their mission statement as expressed so familially on their Facebook page bespeaks of concepts very important to New Mexicans: “The goal is to serve the best food in New Mexico and make customers feel happy and at home. So come in, get comfortable, and enjoy a nice meal with friends and family here at Los Compadres Restaurant LLC where Mi Casa Es Su Casa.”  

A rare sight–Los Compadres Isn’t Packed

When Brian Maestas a paisano from el Norte recommended Los Compadres Restaurant, he didn’t just tell me it serves great food, he asserted “they have the best Mexican/New Mexican in the state.” He cemented this audacious contention with bona fide credentials you can respect. Brian used to work at El Bruno and grew up in Cuba, New Mexico. El Bruno’s (the one in Cuba) is one of the ten best New Mexican restaurants in the state, so any comparison to its greatness has to be investigated. Besides, any restaurant with a name like “Los Compadres” has got to be good.

We’d driven by Los Compadres at its Isleta location on several occasions and despite the fact that its parking lot was always packed, we never stopped, usually because we were on our way to Kathy’s for one of the best burgers in town. Our loss!  Los Compadres signage belied the fact that the restaurant may once have served as a family residence, no doubt with a sala in which compadres got together to talk about family.  After fifteen years at the familiar Isleta location, the Martinez family relocated to the Northeast Heights, launching Los Compadres in the venue which has been the home to such restaurants as the Heimat House and Beer Garden and the Independence Grill.  The original home of Los Compadres, by the way, lives on today as Lollie’s New Mexican Food.

Salsa and Chips

In 2004, Los Compadres relocated again, this time to a Central Avenue venue just east of Route 66’s crossing of the Rio Grande.  Now situated at the former site of a Village Inn, Los Compadres remains a very popular eatery, especially on weekends where short waits aren’t uncommon.  There are several reasons beyond good food that friends and family pack the restaurant. Start with the welcoming family atmosphere and friendly and attentive service and you have a formula for success. Add generous portions of delicious food, piping hot coffee that’s replenished faithfully, prices reminiscent of the halcyon days of Route 66 and you’ve got a restaurant that draws patrons from throughout the city.

Los Compadres straddles that sometimes ambiguous line of demarcation between New Mexican food and Mexican food and in fact, serves cuisine unique to and shared by both (often the sole distinction being the degree of piquancy). The fiery salsa, by far the most piquant item on the menu, is some of the very best on Route 66. Its piquancy comes from incendiary jalapenos, but its essence is in the way those jalapenos meld with the tangy acidity of tomatoes and the refreshing fragrance of cilantro.  Make sure to have coffee with the salsa and chips.  The heat (temperature) of the coffee exaggerates the heat (piquancy) of the salsa even more.  It’s a practice fire-eaters enjoy.

Combination plate with enchilada, chile relleno and taco (not pictured)

Combination plate with enchilada, chile relleno and taco (not pictured)

14 June 2008: Only a few entrees include a papa asada (Mexican baked potato), but you can ask for one on the side if you wish. Not even the English pubs we frequented can bake a potato as well as a Mexican restaurant and the papa asada at Los Compadres is no different, save for the fact that it’s about twice as large as most baked potatoes you’ll find at many Mexican restaurants.  This papa asada is baked to absolute perfection–tender and moist on the inside with no desiccation or hardened crust on the outside. A few pats of butter and sour cream and you’re in potato paradise.

14 June 2008: One of the entrees with which the papa asada comes standard is the bistec a la plancha plate. A la plancha refers to meat or fish grilled on a cast iron skillet. It’s a great way to prepare a steak and seems to imbue it with heightened flavor, tenderness and juiciness. The restaurant’s version is a bone-in sirloin steak, not the finest cut of meat you can find, but one with a lot of flavor if prepared right. Los Compadres does it right! At about eight-ounces, it’s not sinewy or fatty as low-priced steak is apt to be. It’s better, in fact, than some steak for which you’ll pay twice the price.  In addition to the papa asada, the plate includes a generous serving of refried beans topped with a sheen of yellow and white cheeses. The beans are delicious, albeit just a bit too salty.

Bistec a la plancha

Bistec a la plancha

14 June 2008: The menu offers two different combination plates. The number twelve combo, pictured below, is comprised of a crispy beef and papas taco, a cheese stuffed enchilada with red chile and a green chile relleno.  There are several New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City (including a former honoree of Hispanic magazine’s Top 50 Hispanic Restaurants in America) that add potato flakes to their tacos, perhaps hoping to “stretch” the paltry amount of ground beef they add to their tacos. Los Compadres makes no pretense about their tacos. The menu will tell you up front the tacos include papas (not potato flakes), not something you see on many tacos, but quite good when not used as a filler.

The chile relleno is a tepid Anaheim with just a tad more piquancy than a bell pepper. It is topped with green chile which doesn’t pack much of a punch either, but it isn’t needed to make this a flavorful offering.  Lightly battered, it is engorged with cheese which just oozes out as you cut into the chile. Better is the cheese enchilada topped with a red chile that makes the green chile seem incendiary by comparison. The red chile has a lot of earthy flavor and sweetness, but very, very little piquancy. The only disappointment and one I can reiterate about almost every version I’ve had in Albuquerque is the Spanish rice. Los Compadres rendition isn’t desiccated as you’ll find at many restaurants. Instead, it’s nearly overwhelmed with tomato sauce leaning toward the sweet side.

Breakfast Enchiladas with Two Eggs

17 November 2017: My return visit to Los Compadres transpired some nine years after our inaugural visit, but that wasn’t by design.  We tried several times to return–always on weekends–but we couldn’t find a parking place.  That’s a testament to just how very popular this family-oriented gem is.  Breakfast enchiladas (two stacked enchiladas with red and green chile topped with two fried eggs over easy with sides of papitas and refried beans) were my Douglas McArthur (I shall return) choice.  Save for the overly salted refried beans, the behemoth breakfast place is a terrific option, one that will ensure you won’t be hungry the rest of the day.

Los Compadres is a restaurant to which you should bring your compadres, paisanos and paisers. It’s a restaurant you should visit by yourself if you have to. Just visit!

Los Compadres Restaurant
2434 Central Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 452-8091
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 November 2017
1st VISIT: 14 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Carne Asada, Cheese Enchilada, Papa Asada, Breakfast Enchiladas, Coffee

Los compadres Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lindy’s Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver stands in front of Lindy’s Diner, one of the Duke City’s oldest restaurants

Get your kicks on Route 66” is the mantra of nostalgic motorists who have lobbied for generations to preserve the heritage that is America’s “mother road”, the 2,448 mile highway commissioned in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985 and which traversed eight states between Chicago, Illinois and Santa Monica, California. Though Route 66 generally traces the state’s traditional east-west transportation corridor through the center of the state, its initial route when commissioned in 1926 resembled a giant S-shaped detour.  It ran northwest from Santa Rosa to Santa Fe then south (through Bernalillo and Albuquerque) to Los Lunas. At that point, the road resumed its northwesterly route toward Laguna Pueblo, where it finally resumed its western direction.

Route 66’s original Albuquerque route basically followed 4th Street.  One block west–on the corner of Central Avenue and 5th Street–a storied eatery opened in 1929.  Now Albuquerque’s longest continually operating restaurant with a nearly 90-year run, this landmark institution began serving the Duke City as the Coney Island Cafe.  In 1937, the Coney Island Cafe would begin casting its shadow on Route 66 when the fabled highway was rerouted through the center of the state, traversing the length and breadth of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue. 

Lindy’s on Route 66 resonates with the past

In the 1960s, the homey hot dog haven was purchased by Narke Vatoseow who renamed it Lindy’s Coffee Shop. Remnants of its past include walls festooned with nostalgic bric-a-brac and a long lunch counter at which long-time patrons congregate to catch up.  Gone, however, are the red vinyl booths that you stuck to on hot summer days.  Today, Lindy’s Diner remains a popular dining destination, an anachronism for which there will always be a place. Situated on historic Route 66, it may serve as a living reminder of Albuquerque’s nostalgic past, but has assured its future by serving hearty, homestyle meals for decades.

In 1999, Gourmet magazine feted Lindy’s in a feature called “Sentimental Journey Through America’s Main Streets.” In 2002, Jane and Michael Stern celebrated Lindy’s on their Roadfood Web site. Despite such national recognition and its longevity, many Duke City residents (especially the young whipper-snappers) have never heard of this unassuming historical treasure–and it’s likely the folks at Lindy’s like it that way. It allows them to maintain the personal touch and comfortable pace its clientele has come to love.  After a nine-year absence (from 2008 through 2017), I returned to Lindy’s with my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver who appreciates nostalgia almost as much as he loves chicken fried steak.  Lindy’s offers both.

Sour Cream Enchiladas

9 November 2017:  Breakfast is served all day long and during breakfast hours you can order anything off the menu. American comfort food favorites, bounteous sandwiches, salads and New Mexican entrees hold prominence on the menu, but you can also order Mediterranean specialties. It’s a safe bet everything on the menu is somebody’s favorite.  My favorite after three visits is the sour cream enchiladas, three flat cheese enchiladas served Christmas style (both red and green). The green chile is slightly more piquant than the red chile and while neither will singe your tongue, they’re both very flavorful.  Most sour cream enchiladas seem to incorporate both chicken and cream of chicken soup, but at Lindy’s you can also have this entree with beef.  Another difference is that a huge dollop of sour cream is added after the rest of the entree is baked.  It imparts a mild and not too tart flavor that complements the chile very well.

Better chile is slathered on the Frito pie which includes a generous tossing of Frito corn chips garnished with a mountain of lettuce, tomato, onions and Cheddar cheese. Scale down that garnish and you’ll uncover one of the best Frito pies in the city.  In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff sampled “every dish of nachos in the city” and selected Lindy’s nachos as the ninth best in the city.  The magazine described these nachos as having been “sent by the Greek gods themselves.”

Cowboy Breakfast

Breakfast favorites include a traditional American breakfast of bacon, fried potatoes and eggs. The eggs are prepared to your specifications.  The potatoes are small, delicately cubed and well-salted spuds reminiscent of very good French fries with a soft texture inside.  The star of this triumvirate, however, is the bacon.  It’s the type of bacon only old-fashioned American diners seem to serve best–three six-inch strips of porcine perfection fried perfectly.  if you’re tired of bacon as stiff and dry as jerky, you’ll love the pliability of this bacon.  It’s crisp on the edges and beautifully bendable elsewhere with just the right amount of fattiness for flavor.

9 November 2017: For my friend Sr Plata, the epitome of comfort food greatness spells chicken fried steak, also a favorite of his sainted parents.  For two dollars shy of a ten-spot, he found some of the very best in Albuquerque in a plate called the Cowboy Breakfast.   You’d better arrive hungry if you’re thinking of ordering this behemoth breakfast which includes a chicken fried steak smothered in green chile and cheese with two eggs, beans, hash browns and two slies of toast.  In addition to the green chile and cheese, Sr. Plata asked for and was brought a cupful of white gravy sans meat (Lindy’s has many vegetarian guests).  He poured the white gravy on top of the green chile, making a rich dish even more calorific and delicious.  The chicken fried steak is fork tender and delicious, as good as you’ll find anywhere along Route 66.

Short Stack of Pancakes

9 November 2017:  You can add a short stack of fluffy, golden brown pancakes with syrup to any breakfast for a pittance. The syrup comes unheated, but you ask for it to be nuked for a steamy syrupy treat.  Even better–and this is the way Sr. Plata loves his pancakes–is with heated butter.  When the two golden orbs arrive at your table they’re glistening from the butyraceous touch.  The pancakes, by the way, nearly cover the plate and are dusted with white confectioner’s sugar.  If Route 66 has a food mascot, it would have to be pancakes.  Lindy’s pancakes are among the best along the Mother Road.

In 2003, the Vatoseows launched Lindy’s American Cafe in a Northeast Heights former location of JB’s. Larger accommodations (seating for 140 patrons) than the downtown restaurant allowed for a more expansive menu, but the new cafe lasted just about a year. It must be true that there’s only one Lindy’s.

Lindy’s
500 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-2588
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 November 2017
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sour Cream Enchiladas; Frito Pie; Pork Chops; Pancakes; Bacon; Cowboy Breakfast

Lindy's Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aya’s New Asian on Menaul

There’s an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between restaurant guests and the restaurant personnel with whom we interact. As guests, we show our appreciation for a dining experience well executed by tipping generously and maybe complimenting the kitchen and wait staff during and after the meal. Representatives of the restaurant– whether they be chefs, maître ds, servers or owners—typically thank their guests and invite them to return. All too often these interactions seem trite, maybe even rehearsed or expected. It’s what we all do because it’s what we’ve always done and it’s what’s expected to be done. Only during and after exceptional (or exceptionally bad) dining experiences do interactions between guests and restaurant personnel become more effusive…or so we thought.

During our inaugural visit to Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine on Menaul, we experienced gratitude and friendliness so sincere and authentic that we couldn’t help but be touched.  Even if the Japanese cuisine hadn’t won us over, the humility and friendliness of Aya herself would have.  Let me step back at this point and explain that the restaurant is actually operated by two women named Aya (short for Ayako).  One Aya runs the front of the house and serves as sushi chef while the other runs the kitchen.  We only met the Aya who’s the public face of the restaurant and we were impressed.

Aya’s Dining Room

The two Ayas have been in Albuquerque for just over half a year, having made the move from Seattle which they found too rainy and dreary.  In contrast, they love the Duke City, especially its incomparable skies and weather.  The Ayas plan on making their lives in the United States, having liquidated their assets in Japan to move here.  Both classically trained in Japanese culinary techniques, they hope to introduce Duke City diners to the food of their homeland…and indeed, the menu offers a few “just a little different” items heretofore not found in the area’s Japanese restaurants.

Aya (the restaurant, not the owners) is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Menaul.  To its immediate west is a Flying Star and just east is Relish.  Wasabi and cranberry colored walls are festooned with serene paintings of lotus blossoms on one side and magnificent glass art showcasing Michael Miro‘s kabuki series on the other.  Aya was delighted in my knowledge and appreciation of the kabuki practices depicted so colorfully.  With an amazing command of English–considering she’s only been in America for about a year–she told us about her life in Okinawa.  Her self-effacing modesty in accepting compliments on her English was but one thing we immediately liked about her.

Vege Tempura

We also liked the Web site’s URL. It’s not just aya.com. It’s ayako-san.com. In Japanese, appending a name with the suffix “san” is a title of respect which can be used with both female and male names and with either given names or surnames. It can also be attached to the name of occupations and titles. In Japan, restaurant owners are often called mama-san or papa-san by both customers and employees. This signifies a level of affection as well as respect. It’s easy to see that Aya deserves such a title of endearment. We also liked that menu items are spelled phonetically—how they sound. Some menu items aren’t necessarily spelled the way Americans or even other Japanese restaurants would spell them. For example, the American spelling for Japanese dumplings is “gyoza” but the Aya menu spells it “gyouza.”

There’s much to like about Aya’s menu. There are seven starters on the menu, including three recently added (such as the green chile Ohitashi and poke salad). Four ala carte tempura options and miso soup can also be ordered as starters. The next section of the menu is dedicated to curry—five types, each served with a small salad. Six noodle dishes, including miso ramen, will sate all of us who love to nosh on noodles. Nine rice dishes, several of the donburi variety, follow suit. Next on the menu are three platters which are served with steamed rice, small salad, soup and small dish of the day. Sushi, available only during dinner time, follows suit then it’s a vegetarian tofu teriyaki dish. Last, but certainly not least is a three item dessert menu.

Gyouza

31 December 2016: Let tempura tease your taste buds. The vege tempura is an excellent starter option, rewarding you with a generous plating of deep-fried assorted seasonal vegetables sheathed in a crispy tempura batter. Having been born and raised in the Windy City area, my Kim generally eschews vegetables unless they’re covered in meat and potatoes, but she loves tempura vegetables. Unlike fried foods in Chicago, these are virtually grease-less. Aya served us lightly battered green beans, zucchini, squash and carrots. Underneath the tempura sheath, each vegetable retains a nice crispness that is indicative of fresh vegetables. Tempura dishes are served with a light soy-based sauce.

31 December 2016: Another excellent starter is the aforementioned gyouza, five lightly stir-fried, house-made Japanese pork dumplings served with ponzu (thin, tart citrus-based) sauce. While Japan is steeped in ancient culinary traditions, gyouza isn’t one of them. Japanese didn’t start making gyouza until after World War II when Japanese soldiers were exposed to Chinese dumplings while serving in Manchuria. Gyouza are usually thinner, smaller (two to three bites), more delicate and fillings tend to have a finer texture than their Chinese counterparts. Made well, gyouza is as good as any Chinese dumplings you’ll ever have. Aya makes them well.

Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate

31 December 2016: You can emphasize the word “special” when a special of the day is posted on the slate board or Facebook page. As someone who tends to order specials more often than from the regular menu, I’m ever attuned for something new and different such as the Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate (cubes of tuna, boiled shrimp, egg, zencom, cucumber and avocado over sushi rice). While we’ve certainly had chirashi before, it’s always been served donburi-style (in a bowl).  At Aya, the chirashi is served in a rectangular plate. The dish is pleasing to the eye and the palate with a nice balance of ingredients in good proportion to one another. Unlike chirashi we’ve had in other Japanese restaurants, we weren’t provided wasabi-sushi which really changes the flavor profile. Instead, we were left to enjoy sweet, delicate flavors that practically had us swooning.

31 December 2016: The Chirashi Sushi Plate is served with a salad, miso soup and pickled vegetables somewhat reminiscent of Korean namul (assorted unfermented salads). A simple salad (iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots) is transformed into a paragon of deliciousness with a cool, refreshing ginger dressing so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate. The miso soup is much better than most we’ve had in Albuquerque where bouillon cube quality miso is maybe not the norm, but it’s shamefully all too common. It’s served hot as opposed to warm which gives it good miso creds with us and the tofu appears to have been made in-house.

Yakisoba

31 December 2016: Another popular Japanese dish of Chinese origin is Yakisoba, a fried noodle dish similar to chow mein. Aya elevates this relatively simple dish of fried noodles and vegetables with the addition of bacon. Yes, bacon! In Japan, thinly sliced pork is most commonly used on Yakisoba. Japan needs to have a bacon epiphany! A generous amount of bite-sized pieces of smoky, delicious bacon coalesces with the thick, sweet sauce to make this potentially the best Yakisoba dish we’ve ever had (we can’t remember having one better). 

6 November 2017: On the first Monday following the long overdue return to standard time, it seemed nothing could get me going despite having supposedly gained an hour of sleep.  What’s the cure for Monday malaise you ask.  The prescription for whatever ails you on Monday or any day is green chile–even in a Japanese restaurant.  Aya’s green chile tempura is as good as you’ll find at many New Mexican restaurants.  Not only does the chile have a pleasant piquancy, it’s served with something other than the de rigueur ranch dressing.  A soy-rice wine dressing imparts sweet notes that contrast nicely with the heat of the green chile strips.  The tempura batter is lightly applied and lends a delightfully crispy texture.

Green Chile Tempura

6 November 2017: Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto describes ramen as “a dish that’s very high in calories and sodium.  “One way to make it healthier,” he advises is to “leave the soup and just eat the noodles.”  Do that at Aya’s and you’ll miss out on a very satisfying, soul-warming soup that’s surely the epitome of Japanese comfort food.  Picture tangles of ramen noodles in a miso flavored soup topped with corn, sprouts, minced meat and butter.  While other Japanese restaurants across the Duke City favor a pork broth for their miso ramen minced meat makes for a surprisingly flavorful protein.  My sole complaint about this ramen–and it’s a nit–is the very thin sliver of butter.  My preference would be for a healthy half pound of butter.  The ramen noodles are a joy to eat though the Iron Chef’s contention that eating solely the noodles would be healthier has got to be wrong.  These noodles are much too tasty not to be calorie-laden.

31 December 2016: Great desserts and Japanese restaurant are two terms not commonly associated with one another. If a Japanese restaurant in New Mexico even deigns to serve dessert, it’s usually plum sorbet or green tea ice cream. Aya offers several desserts heretofore unknown to us. The most intriguing may be the green tea parfait which is served on a goblet similar to what Dairy Queen might use to serve a sundae. Layers of flavor, color and texture define this dessert. Imagine corn flakes (yes, the Kellogs type), green tea ice cream, whipped cream, green tea jelly, chocolate and seasonal fruits. Where do you start? We discovered early on that this dessert is best experienced if you can combine flavors and textures in each spoonful. The combination of corn flakes, chocolate sauce and green tea ice cream is especially satisfying.

Miso Ramen

31 December 2016: We first experienced green tea tempura cheesecake at Naruto, one of the Duke City’s premier ramen houses.  It’s since been an obsession.  Comparisons with Naruto’s version were inevitable.  At Naruto, the cheesecake is drizzled with cocoa powder served atop a swirl of chocolate.  Not so at Aya where a thin tempura batter sheathes a beautiful wedge of green tea cheesecake.  A dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top is served on the side.  It’s a very good cheesecake.

My introduction of this review posited the existence of an unspoken reciprocal arrangement between guests at a restaurant and the restaurant personnel who serve them.  I explained that our experience with Aya was unlike the usual polite interaction between the two parties.  As we settled our bill of fare and prepared to leave, Aya didn’t extend the perfunctory “come back soon.”  She embraced us as one might an old friend or family member and told us how much she appreciated our visit and interest in her food.  She meant it!

Green Tea Parfait

Aya’s New Asian Japanese Cuisine offers many of the comfort food favorites Americans have come to love as well as some new and different options which just might become new favorites.  There’s also a strong chance Aya herself will quickly become one of your favorite restaurateurs.

Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake

Aya’s New Asian
8019 Menaul, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 323-5441
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 November 2017
1st VISIT: 31 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bara Chirashi Sushi Plate, Yakisoba, Vege Tempura, Gyoza, Green Tea Tempura Cheesecake, Green Tea Ice Cream Parfait, Miso Ramen, Green Chile Tempura

Ayas New Asian Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Las Ristras Restaurant – Corrales, New Mexico

Las Ristras Restaurant: Comedor de Corrales

Based on interviews conducted with Hollywood luminaries who’ve starred in movies or television shows shot in New Mexico, you might think our state either doesn’t have a symbol of hospitality or that symbol is something as poorly representative of the Land of Enchantment as crack (Josh Brolin), tire stores (Jonathan Banks), shirtless drivers (Seth McFarlane), Walmart (Jessica Alba) or loudness (Tommy Lee Jones).   With all the tax breaks and enticements afforded film production companies, shouldn’t its most visible beneficiaries at least have something nice to say about New Mexico?

While New Mexico doesn’t have an official (as in legislatively decreed) symbol of hospitality, most of us recognize a ristra hanging on a doorway as an invitation to visitors, ergo a symbol of hospitality. It’s as much a symbol of hospitality as the pineapple is in Hawaii and the fleur de lis is in Louisiana. Moreover, the ristra has come to represent the state of New Mexico, maybe not quite as much as the Zia sun, but to a large extent. Now, if you want your texts to reflect New Mexico hospitality, download an app called “New Mexico Emojis” for your iPhone or iPad. Among the emojis you can add to your texts is one depicting a bright red ristra.

Chips and Salsa

In Spanish, “ristra” actually means string.  “Chile ristra” then translates into “a string of chiles.”   While the chile ristra has utilitarian roots (chiles being strung together by their stems and hung on walls to dry in the sun), it’s possible decorative ristras fashioned from ceramic, fabric, plastic, and plaster mold are almost as common as actual chile ristras.  Traditionalists appreciate the decorative qualities of the chile ristra, but ultimately will use them as they’ve been used for generations–for cooking and eating.

Because of the esteem with which the chile ristra is held throughout New Mexico, the expectations for a restaurant calling itself Las Ristras are high.  That name brings with it the promise of hospitality and good food showcasing chile.   Las Ristras opened its doors in August, 2015 at the site which scant weeks earlier was home to The Spot.  The restaurant was the brainchild of Corrales resident Ginger Hunter, a fourth generation Corralenia who in 2015 was awarded a Civic Recognition Award in recognition of “acts of compassion and kindness.”  Doesn’t that just bode of hospitality?

Baked Queso Fresco Topped with Chorizo

At its onset, the featured fare at Las Ristras was New Mexican cuisine—most of the “usual suspects” with a few creative touches added for good measure. Las Ristras made an impact on my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate who gave it the “McGoldrick stamp of approval: “What I like about Las Ristras is that it is not a clone of the many dozens of cookie-cutter NM restaurants. The food is homemade and I feel like I’m eating (and conversing) in Ginger’s kitchen. This is simple food lovingly prepared.” Alas, not everyone shared the same opinion with Yelp and Zomato critics casting dissenting opinions. 

By year’s end, ownership of Las Ristras had transitioned to Chef Jude Sanchez, a Corrales native (and Cibola graduate) who had returned home after cutting a wide swath across some of the best kitchens in Chicago and New York. One of the restaurants at which he worked even earned a Michelin star, a distinction accorded to very few restaurants. While a Michelin star for any restaurant in the Land of Enchantment may seem a fanciful hope, Chef Sanchez has very high aspirations for Las Ristras. To that end, he’s expanded the restaurant’s menu from mostly New Mexican fare to one now showcasing chophouse favorites the likes of which he enjoyed during his time in Chicago.

Dinner Salad

TTo say Chef Sanchez has come a long way is an understatement. Unlike many chef luminaries who aspire from a very young age to pursue the culinary arts, he had no such designs. Fate—and a famous New Mexico chef—intervened. After committing a teenage indiscretion, Chef Sanchez found himself in front of a judge about to impose a sentence of community service. Chef Jim White, then at the helm of Corrales institution La Casa Vieja, convinced the judge to let the young rapscallion perform his community service at his restaurant. The rest, as the proverbial “they,” say is history.

Initially, Chef Sanchez was assigned to what the military terms as “kitchen police,” or “KP,” a punishment calling for washing and drying mountains of soiled dishes. When the repentant teen proved himself adept at following instructions and performing quality work, Chef White taught him how to cut and peel vegetables, the next tasking to which he was assigned. Laboring in the fast-paced kitchen environment went from judicially imposed community service to a career path Chef Sanchez wanted very much to pursue. After his stint at La Casa Vieja, he made it his life’s quest to learn as much as he could about the vast diversity of culinary arenas, hence his sojourn to Chicago and New York.

Half Rack Green Chile Rubbed Ribs

The domain of some chefs is solely the kitchen where they toil in relative anonymity and rarely mingle with the dining public. Other chefs glad-hand diners and let others actually prepare meals for their guests. Not so with Chef Sanchez who not only makes it a point to check up on his guests, he prepares meals. When we met him, he was toting heavy boxes of locally grown produce for use at Las Ristras, but the prospect of spending time with our debonair dachshund Dude lured him toward our table under a porch at the back of the restaurant. Chef Sanchez is an outgoing gentleman with an easy smile and ebullient passion for his restaurant. He’s got a pit bull terrier at home whom he loves like a child. How can you not appreciate a chef like that? 

You’ll certainly appreciate the multifarious menu, a surprisingly ambitious bill of fare that is actually several menus in one.  There’s the Steak House Menu which is subtitled “Chef Inspired Dishes.”  This is where carnivores of all persuasions will gravitate.  Then there’s the New Mexican Favorites page which lives up to its name.  The third menu, called “From the Grill” includes such inviting offerings as green chile meatloaf, fajitas and the Corrales Tortilla Burger.  A breakfast menu includes both New Mexican and American wake-you-up items.  Drive past Las Ristras and invariably you’ll see a slate board inviting you to try the latest du jour offering.

The “Bad Boy”

Five appetizers and three “in the bowl” starters (posole, green chile stew and chile with beans) may not seem like many, but you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which to order.  Luckily while you’re perusing the menus, a bowl of fresh salsa and chips is ferried over to your table.  It may inspire you (as it did us) to order a Mexican inspired starter–the baked queso fresco topped with chorizo.  Described as “a fresh slice of queso fresco baked and topped with sauteed chorizo served with chimi chips,” it’s presented beautifully.  More importantly it’s flavored beautifully.  The chorizo has a pleasant piquancy that permeates the entire dish with the queso fresco slice serving as a nice foil, maybe even palate-cleanser.  Since my Kim found the chorizo a bit too piquant for her Chicago palate, it was only fair that I let her have both slices of the melted queso.  We suspect that what the menu described as “chimi chips” may have been the three sopes-like fried dough circles on which everything else is piled.  In any case, it was the canvas on which a masterpiece was created.

Ever since a rib was taken from Adam’s body and fashioned into the first woman, both men and women (exempting vegetarians and vegans, of course) have craved ribs.  Whether spare ribs, baby backs, rib tips or St. Louis cut ribs, they’re beloved by many, but don’t always offer many surprises.  Chef Sanchez’s half rack of green chile rubbed ribs (fire-roasted baby back ribs with a Corrales green chile rub and sweet jalapeño sauce) surprised us.  Most surprising is just how balanced and complementary the Corrales green chile and jalapeño sauce were.  If you ever thought “never the twain shall meet,” you’ll be won over by just how much flavor can be extricated from that combination.  The ribs themselves aren’t quite fall-off-the-bone tender, but then the best ribs aren’t.  They have a little bit of give, indicative that they’re not overdone as those fall-off-the-bone ribs tend to be.  These are competition worthy ribs which would fare well at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew.

For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, meat and potatoes have been a lifelong dietary staple, so you just have to know that she spent most of her time perusing the Steak House Menu.  Not that she got very far even on that page.  Mostly she contemplated at length the very first item on the menu, a beefy behemoth called “The Bad Boy.”  Picture a sixteen to eighteen ounce bone-in ribeye, it’s described on the men as the “James Dean of the menu,” “so good, it’s bad.”  That’s bad in a good way.  At medium rare, this beauteous slab of beef has picturesque grill marks that preface flowing juices and a rich, beefy flavor with nice marbling throughout and after all, fat is where a lot of the distinctive flavor of beef comes from.  In some places, ribeye is sold as “beauty steak.”  The two-inch-thick Bad Boy certainly fits the bill.  Steak House menu items are served with a terrific dinner salad drizzled with a creamy avocado ranch dressing.  You also have your choice of sides: smoked Gouda green chile potatoes, pancetta vegetables or cilantro lime rice.  Go for the former.

Las Ristras is part New Mexican, part steak house and a one-hundred percent destination restaurant.  Chef Jude Sanchez certainly has knows his way around the kitchen.

Los Ristras Restaurant
4940 Corrales Road, N.E., Suite 400
Corrales, New Mexico
(505) 433-4192
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 4 November 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chips and Salsa,

Las Ristras Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thai Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thai Vegan on Osuna

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
– William Shakespeare

Contrary to the Bard of Avon’s most famous sonnet, what something is named does matter.  It matters at least as much as what it is.   Some would say, in fact, that a name is everything.  If a steak restaurant was named Rotted Meat, it’s unlikely it would entice enough diners (much less pedantic critics) to ever discover it serves four-star gourmet quality cuisine.  Diners would stay away in droves and those intrepid enough to visit would likely find the suggestive nature of its name  greatly diminishes the deliciousness of the food.

A restaurant’s name is its identity.  The right name imprints a good and lasting impression on a restaurant’s customers.  It’s an effective way to draw first-time visitors to a restaurant, if only to satisfy their curiosity.  Choose the wrong name and your restaurant could be subjected to pejoratives and ridicule. Zagat’s, one of the most prolific print and online sources of user-generated restaurant reviews rounded up what they consider the worst restaurant names they could find — “silly, sexually suggestive, potty referencing and all.”

Thai Vegan’s exotic dining room

The list was comprised of Asselina, an Italian restaurant in New York; Beaver’s Choice, an Arizona Scandinavian eatery; Big Wong, a New York City Chinese institution; Crabby Dick’s, a Mid-Atlantic seafood chain; Crapitto’s, a Houston Italian diner; Fu King, a Chinese restaurant in Florida; Goat Lips, a Florida deli; 9021Pho, a Beverly Hills Vietnamese restaurant; Phat Phuc, a Vietnamese noodle Bar; and Pink Taco, a Las Vegas taco restaurant.  It’s possible the double-entendre and scatology will appeal to the sophomoric among us–at least the first time we visit.  After that, return visits are unlikely if the food isn’t up to par. 

Rather than risk scaring potential customers away or worst, bringing in an “undesirable” crowd, most restaurant owners play it safe and give their restaurants fairly generic, but descriptive names that leave no doubt as to what type of food is proffered.  Albuquerque’s Thai Vegan restaurant, for example, will never be mistaken for a restaurant which serves steak and chops.  The name is clearly indicative of the type of food this restaurant serves.  What the name doesn’t come close to describing is just how good Thai vegan food can be under capable hands. 

Steam Dumplings (Photo Courtesy of Dazzling Deanell)

At Vegan Thai, the capable hands belong to chef-owner Pat Phomnoi and they’re on display for all diners to admire in two Albuquerque locations–the original on Osuna and one in Nob Hill–and one in Santa Fe. It’s obvious from Thai Vegan’s “I love me” wall that the original restaurant’s success spawned the need for expansion. One section of the wall just as you walk in is plastered with all the “best of” accolades the restaurant has earned over the years from such publications as Albuquerque The Magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, The Daily Lobo and more. Not only has it earned honors as the city’s best vegan restaurants, but in recent years has also been recognized as the city’s best Thai restaurant.

That last honor–best Thai restaurant–places the emphasis on “Thai” cuisine, not “vegan” cuisine.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate rates Thai Vegan as the third best Thai restaurant in the Duke City, right behind the Pad Thai Cafe and Thai Tip.  When it comes to purity of flavors, Thai Vegan, he emphasizes, is spot on.  After his inaugural visit, he returned to Thai Vegan four times in a two week span.  I joined Larry and Dazzling Deanell on Larry’s fourth visit.  He was excited to see if maybe a more recent visit to Thai Vegan might persuade me to up my rating from “20” to “22,” the rating he would accord the restaurant on my scale.

Papaya Salad (Photo Courtesy of Dazzling Deanell)

Chef Phomnoi launched Vegan Thai in 2010 at the former site of Lotus Cafe, quickly winning over the hearts of many of its predecessor’s devotees and bringing in the niche demographic of vegans wanting high-quality Thai cuisine.  No matter your preference, Vegan Thai will win you over when you step into the restaurant and are immediately enveloped in the olfactory arousing aromas of spices and sauces.  If you had any doubts before walking in, the fabulous fragrances will dispel them as they waft toward you like a sensuous siren’s call.

Thai Vegan will appeal to your visual sense as well.  The attractive dining room is adorned in gold trim with a gold symbol resembling a seahorse particularly prominent.  An aquarium teeming with goldfish seems strangely out of place though it does add to an already tranquil ambiance.  Service is friendly, attentive and employs tandem concepts.  The waitress who takes your order may not be the one to deliver it.  Whichever waitress is closest to you at any given time will be the one to refill your drink order or check up on you.

Red Curry (Photo Courtesy of Dazzling Deanell)

The menu is very similar to that of many Thai restaurants with a few surprises thrown in.  For example, the appetizers include not only edamame (soybean pods more commonly served in Japanese restaurants), but French fries, too.  Perhaps because of the commonality of the pairing, the menu also lists eight burgers–tofu burgers, legume veggie burgers, soy burgers, wheat meat burgers and wheat and soy burgers, all of which you can have with fries.  Many entrees are available with your choice of soy chicken, soy pepper steak or soy fish.

2 November 2017: Dumpling appetizers come six to an order or you can request an assortment of each of three types of dumplings: veggie, steam curry or red chili.  The dumplings are decoratively plated on a bed of lettuce, julienned carrots and purple cabbage.  The steam curry dumplings stand out largely because of the green curry sauce drizzled on top.  The red chili dumplings   have a crispy texture as if deep-fried.  The red chili is more cloying than it is piquant.  One of this appetizer’s best qualities is that when you’re done with the dumplings, you still have a salad well sauced with green curry and red chili.

Praram’s Plate with two spring rolls and a salad

2 November 2017: The menu offers eight different salad options including larb (the national dish of Laos) and papaya salad.  The papaya salad is as beautiful to behold as it is a joy to eat.  A bed of lettuce is crowned with julienned papaya and carrots, minced peanuts, cilantro and purple cabbage flanked by tomatoes.  Ordered at medium piquancy, there is barely a discernible hint of heat (at least to fire-eaters like Larry and me) on an otherwise very tasty, very fresh papaya salad.  Papaya salad is one of the most fresh and vibrant dishes on a Thai menu.  Even if newcomers don’t like anything else about Thai food, they’ll probably enjoy papaya salad.

30 July 2011:My server looked at me as if I had a death wish when I requested green curry at a “Thai hot” level, prompting me to question my own sanity.  I shouldn’t have.  The heat level was innocuous–maybe a third as piquant as the incendiary heat generated at Thai Cuisine.  That’s too bad because a little heat would have elevated the flavor profile of a pretty good green curry.  Even my Chicago born-and-bred better half thought the heat level to have been strictly “gringo.”  Stricken by a desire to experiment, I asked for the curry to be prepared with the soy pepper steak which will never be mistaken for the real thing, but shouldn’t be discounted either. 

Mangoes with sticky sweet rice

5 May 2015: Thai Vegan’s daily lunch and dinner combinations are a bargain at under ten dollars. Both are served with steamed brown rice, a spring roll and salad with your choice of tofu, soy chicken, pepper steak or soy fish. For a pittance more, you can also have soy shrimp or soy chicken nuggets. If the curiously named Praram’s Plate (marinated soy chicken pan-fried with peanut sauce on a bed of steamed spinach) is any indication, these combination plates are special. The pan-fried soy chicken may not perfectly mimic the taste and texture of real white meat chicken, but it’s close enough to the real thing that not everyone will notice. The tofu chicken is drenched with a peanut sauce very much reminiscent of the peanut sauce often served with satay. For those of us who love peanut sauce, the profligate portion of sauce is very much welcome. The spinach also goes well with the peanut sauce. As Thai spring rolls tend to be, the spring roll is excellent.

30 July 2011: Our mangoes with sticky rice dessert was a bit of a let-down. Though the mangoes were in-season, fresh and juicy and the sticky rice was perfectly prepared, this simple but elegant dessert favorite lacked coconut milk, the ingredient which coalesces all flavors in this dish.

So, what’s in a name?  In the name Thai Vegan, there’s the promise of very good and very healthy Thai food prepared before your eyes in a very attractive milieu.

Thai Vegan
5505 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-4610
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 2 November 2017
1st VISIT: 30 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Green Curry, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Dumpling Assortment, Praram’s Plate, Spring Rolls, Spicy Eggplant

Thai Vegan on Urbanspoon

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