Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant

Countries and states may recognize borders but food doesn’t, especially today in an increasingly connected world where it’s possible to enjoy the cuisine of many of the world’s diverse and distant cultures without crossing a single border. Attribute the modern world’s dietary diversity to improved agricultural, transportation and preservation methods as well as rampant imperialism throughout the history of humankind. Consider the culinary influence of invading forces on the ancient nation of Armenia. During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded and occupied in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.

Though we were pretty sure the menu at Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant in Albuquerque would offer diversity, the terms “European” and “Middle Eastern” cast a rather broad net. European, for example, could encompass Spanish tapas, Italian pastas, French crepes and so much more. Similarly Middle Eastern is a rather broad category that could describe the cuisine of several nations and cultures, not all of whom share similar palates. There is no way, we thought, any restaurant could possibly attempt such a broad brush approach to European and Middle Eastern cuisine. There’s just too much diversity to execute the concept well. A quick perusal of the menu assuaged our concerns.

The rich interior of Aura

Aura’s menu isn’t a compendium of all foods European and Middle Eastern (not even close), but it offers a nice representation of the diverse melting pot cuisine on which brothers Ash and Marat Darbinyan were raised in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. If you’ve frequented Middle Eastern restaurants, you’ll find the menu more than vaguely familiar. You’ll recognize such appetizer delicacies as hummus, dolmas and crab cake. Lunch and dinner offerings such as Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Marsala, French Onion Soup and Russian borscht will also leap out at you as familiar favorites. So, too, will grilled lamb chops, kebabs and baklava. What you might not recognize, at least by name, are the premium wraps made with lavash bread, the Russian blinchik and the shashlik (grilled and skewerered meats and vegetables).

Aura is located in the Far North Shopping Center (just east of Budai Gourmet Chinese) in the space which previously housed Athens Eclectic Greek and other restaurants. The 86-seat restaurant has a very inviting vibe tailor-made for relaxed dining. Ash runs the front of the house while Marat runs the kitchen as he once did at the long defunct Charcoal Mediterranean Grill. The brothers Darbinyan have lived in Albuquerque since 2006, but Aura is the first eatery they’ve owned. It’s the culmination of a dream they’ve long shared and for which several restaurant jobs have prepared them. With amiable, professional service and a menu sure to please the discerning palate, the brothers have the formula that portends success.

Aura Appetizer Plate

Though there are probably several yet-to-be-discovered “must have” dishes on the menu, we certainly found one during our inaugural visit.  The Aura Appetizer Plate is everything you could possibly want if you love dips.  Picture hummus, tzatziki dip, spicy feta dip and an eggplant spread, a quadrumvirate of dip deliciousness served with pita bread wedges.  What we appreciated most about the fabulous foursome is that each has a unique flavor profile–the tanginess of the tzatziki, the garlicky bite of the hummus, for example.  Our favorite is the spicy feta dip which pairs the sharp, tangy sheep’s milk cheese with sweet-spicy red peppers.  It’s a magnificent duo.  The eggplant spread (roasted eggplant, red peppers, onions, parsley, tomato paste and spices) is the most interesting and multi-faceted.

In my seven years of serving as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl event, only one intrepid restaurateur (the brilliant Kevin Bladergroen at Blades’ Bistro) has ever attempted borscht, one of the most popular soups across Eastern European nations.  There are dozens of variations, some with and some without beetroot, the ingredient which gives borscht its reddish hue.  It’s been said that borscht isn’t about ingredients, it’s about spirit (aura?).  Aura’s version is replete with finely chopped vegetables in a comforting broth and it’s served with a dollop of sour cream.  It’s reminiscent of borscht we’ve had at some restaurants (including a Bohemian cafe in Chicago) and different from others.  That, too, is encompassed in the spirit of borscht.

Russian Borscht

My first exposure to Beef Stroganoff was courtesy of the “Tree Frogs,” Peñasco’s Boy Scout Troop 512.  During a camping excursion to the Jicarita wilderness, the experienced among us crammed lightweight dehydrated foods into our backpacks.  Somehow Beef Stroganoff was among our provisions, albeit a dish no other Tree Frog would even sample.  That turned out propitious for me. Reconstituted Beef Stroganoff began a lifelong love affair with the Russian dish.  Though my Kim makes a better-than-restaurant version at home, seeing it on a restaurant’s menu rekindles my love for the dish.  Rarely do we pass up the chance to order it at restaurants if only to compare it the one we make at home. 

We had expected Aura’s rendition (tender grilled beef, yellow onion, mushrooms smothered in a sauce served with fusilli pasta) to be prepared the traditional Russian way which is with potatoes, not pasta.  As the Web site To Discover Russia explains “Beef Stroganoff is at best a vague resemblance to the original dish, and at worst – absolutely different inexpressive concoction.”  The version we make at home is with egg noodles, so we don’t exactly subscribe to tradition either.  One thing we do at home and which many recipes advocate is thoroughly smothering the noodles with a rich, creamy mushroom sauce.  Aura’s version is rather stingy with the sauce though what there is of it is tasty.

Beef Stroganoff

In 2013, the per-capita consumption of lamb among Americans was a meager one pound per person per year.  Instead, beef is what was for dinner–to the Brobdingnagian tune of sixty-one pounds per person.  As recently as 2011, the American Lamb Board reported that nearly half of American diners had never even tasted lamb.  Blame this travesty on the latest war to end all wars, when rations for American servicemen in Europe included mutton (older sheep) passed off as lamb (typically slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months).  Servicemen hated the strong musky flavor of adult sheep and brought their distaste home with them.  Understandably, many of them forbade lamb from their dinner tables, resulting in generations growing up unfamiliar with the delights of real lamb. 

As an unabashed lover of lamb, it saddens me to learn that lamb is loathed, in many cases by diners who haven’t even tried it.  Sure, that leaves more for me and for enlightened diners in virtually every nation outside the fruited plain, but  passion, much like misery, loves company.  If you like lamb, but your excuse for not trying lamb is that it’s too expensive, Aura features three grilled lollipop lamb chops for under twenty dollars, far less than what you’d pay for a steak.  And if you’re phobic about its purported off-putting flavor, you’ll appreciate the well-seasoned preparation which complements without obfuscating, the distinctive, slightly gamy, more earthy flavor lf luscious lamb.  These chops are served with your choice of one side and a salad.  The grilled asparagus is an excellent complement.

Lamb Chops

In an increasingly connected world, it’s still gratifying to find there are still new and different foods to be tasted; to discover menus offering foods you’ve never heard of, much less tasted; to be titillated by different yet familiar spice combinations.  That’s what you’ll find at Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant.

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant
6300 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-3224
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Russian Borscht, Beef Stroganoff, Aura Appetizer Plate

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Curry Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Curry Leaf North & South Indian Cuisine

Leonard: Is it racist that I took you to an Indian restaurant?
Priya: It’s okay, I like Indian food.
Leonard: Or as you probably call it back home, food.
Big Bang Theory (Season Four, Episode 18)

Queen Rania of Jordan cautioned against judging “through the prism of our own stereotypes.”  Ill-founded stereotypes were very much in evidence after my team successfully landed an especially challenging project at Intel…and as with most stereotypes, they were based on faulty assumptions, overarching generalization and lack of experience.  When we deliberated where to celebrate our achievement, my suggestion that our repast be held at an Indian restaurant was met with such comments as “Indian food is…too spicy, too rich, too much curry, too vegetarian” and worse, it “causes heartburn and (to put it mildly) gastric distress.”  Prying more deeply revealed only one of my colleagues had ever actually ever tried Indian food.

In truth, when it comes to Indian food, if we don’t subscribe to such stereotypes, even the most open-minded among us tend to generalize about it.  Much as we do with Italian food, we compartmentalize Indian food as either “Northern” or “Southern,” generalizations which are inaccurate and which don’t do justice to one of the world’s great cuisines.  India is a very diverse country in which practically every province boasts its own unique cuisine.  Culinary taxonomists tell us there are 38 major kinds of cuisine in India, but my friend Kishore tells me there are local variations from village to village.

The Lunch Buffet is Spectacular!

Still, when we found out about the Curry Leaf, an Indian restaurant which opened its doors in August, 2016, we were elated at the prospect of a restaurant purporting to feature both Northern Indian cuisine and Southern Indian cuisine as well as a number of Indo-Chinese options.  Generalization goes out the window when our minds’ eye pictured spicier, more piquant entrees, the type of which aren’t common in Albuquerque whose Indian restaurants tend to focus on Northern Indian cuisine.  Even more rare in the Duke City is Indo-Chinese cuisine, the Indian adaptation of Chinese cooking techniques and seasonings.  Not since Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining has Albuquerque been able to enjoy the preternatural fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines.

With owner Narenda Kloty at the helm, Curry Leaf has the pedigree to succeed where other restaurants might fail if endeavoring such broad offerings.  Mr. Kloty is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment having previously owned and operated Albuquerque’s much-missed Bombay Grill as well as Santa Fe’s India Palace.  Until recently, he also owned a restaurant in Milpitas, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Today his sole focus is on Curry Leaf, a magnificent restaurant whose appeal to New Mexicans will grow as savvy diners discover flavor profiles very similar to our own beloved cuisine.  He is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant, a true gentleman whose goal it is to ensure all diners have a great experience at Curry Leaf.

A very inviting and attractive ambiance

Though sporting a Montgomery Boulevard address, Curry Leaf is recessed from the busy artery and isn’t easily visible until you turn into the retail development in which it sits.   Ironically, it’s situated next door to the familiar space which for nearly three-and-a-half decades housed the India Kitchen, Albuquerque’s very first Indian restaurant.  The Curry Leaf’s rather humble exterior belies an expansive and attractive dining room.  Visit for lunch and your immediate view as you walk in will be of burnished copper vessels in which the day’s buffet offerings are kept warm for you.  The wall art is not only visually spectacular, it’s thought-provoking.  An incomplete drawing of Buddha, for example, may have you contemplate that man, too, is a work in progress.

If you love buffets, this one is among the very best in the metropolitan area.  Quite simply, it offers entree quality offerings at value prices.  In fact, there are several items on the buffet this blogger already considers the best in the city (yes, even better than at the fabulous Namaste).  After my first two visits, I’ve accorded a rating of “23” for Curry Leaf, a rating heretofore not bestowed upon any buffet restaurant.  There’s little doubt that rating will increase when we order off the menu (which isn’t available during the lunch hour: 11:30AM to 2:30PM daily).

From the buffet: Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Tandoori Chicken

Ah, that menu!  It’s magnificent!  The appetizers section alone offers several items you won’t find at any Indian restaurant in the Albuquerque area–sumptuous starters such as chili paneer (cubed Indian cottage cheese sauteeed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce) and chili chicken (marinated, batter-fried chicken sauteed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce).  Homemade bread choices include not only naan of several types, but roti, kulcha and poori.  Tandoori specialties are absolutely the best in the area because the tandoor ovens burn charcoal.  The soups, several of which are available on the buffet, are wonderful (and will hopefully be entered into the Roadrunner Food Bank Souperbowl event in 2017).  Other menu categories warranting exploration are rice, chicken, lamb and goat, seafood, vegetable, dosa, Indo-Chinese and desserts.

Among the “best in the city” offerings at Curry Leaf are garlic naan, one of several homemade breads available.  The intense heat (approaching 900-degrees Fahrenheit) of the tandoori oven fired with charcoal imparts a magnificent flavor to what is probably my favorite form of bread (even over my mom’s flour tortillas)   Thin yet fluffy, the naan is amazing, inviting you to dip it into the tamarind chutney with its sweet, sour and just slightly piquant flavor or the raita, a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices.  Then there’s the mint chutney, an Indian “salsa” with an intensely fresh flavor.  It goes without saying that the naan is wonderful without amelioration, too.


If asked what the national food of England is, you’d probably answer fish and chips or Yorkshire pudding and roast beef.  In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook British declared chicken tikka masala as the new national dish of the United Kingdom.  Restaurant-goers seem to agree as they’ve made it the most popular restaurant dish in the country.  Tikka, a Persian word for “bits and pieces” aptly describes the dish which showcases boneless chicken pieces in a creamy spiced tomato sauce.  Curry Leaf’s rendition is fantastic, so full-bodied, rich and delicious it warranted a second helping.  So did the Chicken Makhani, a dish sometimes called Indian butter chicken.  It’s a dish so good it should be registered as a repeat offender for deliciousness.

Ubiquitous in virtually every Indian restaurant’s buffet offering, tandoori chicken is a take-it-or-leave-it item for me, but not at Curry Leaf which serves the Duke City’s very best rendition.  What makes this chicken so much better than any other is the fact that the tandoor oven is heated with charcoal.  That charcoal penetrates deeply, imparting smoky sweetness to the chicken which is rendered a bright reddish-orange color by a spice blend that includes cayenne pepper, paprika and other spices.  The Colonel can have his blend of eleven herbs and spices.  This chicken is better than finger-licking good.

Garlic Naan

Regardless of culture, soup is one of the most gratifying dishes on the face of the Earth.  Indian soups are among the very best.  They’re diverse, healthful and delicious.  Curry Leaf includes at least two soups on the daily buffet.  You’ll be tempted to ferry the entire tureen of Madras Tomato Soup to your table though a ladle or two will have to do.  This tomato soup is made distinctive with the addition of coconut milk and spices.  This is unequivocally the very best tomato soup I’ve ever had.  Nearly as good is the Sambar, a vegetable soup with a piquant bite.  It’s fiery red in appearance with fresh vegetables for every spoonful.

Two other noteworthy buffet staples are the Saag Paneer and the Aloo Gobi.  Rumor has it that Popeye the sailor man emigrated to Indian when he heard about Saag Paneer, a rich, delicious dish of creamed spinach and cubes of soft farmer’s cheese.  If you’ve never enjoyed spinach, this dish will change your mind…and if there’s one vegetable even more reviled than spinach, it might be cauliflower.    Aloo Gobi (potatoes and cauliflower sauteed with chopped onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes in a rich blend of mostly seed-based seasonings) presents cauliflower in the most delicious manner you’ve ever experienced this cruciferous vegetable.  Those seasons render this dish pleasantly piquant and superbly flavored.

From the Buffet: Madras Tomato Soup, Aloo Gobi, Saag Paneer, Chicken Makhani, Tandoor Chicken

As wonderful as the buffet is, savvy diners should also visit Curry Leaf for dinner when the menu really opens up with spicy deliciousness unlike any you’ll experience in the Duke City.   Now, if only Curry Leaf offered breakfast…

Curry Leaf
6910 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-3663
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 October 2016
1ST VISIT: 1 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Mango Lassi, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Dosa

Curry Leaf Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Stack House BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho

One of my Psychology professors cautioned students about the danger of “amateur diagnosis,” the practice of assigning specific psychoses and neuroses to people we meet solely on the basis of our cursory familiarity with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  He explained that it often takes an experienced practicing psychiatrist several sessions to arrive at a diagnosis and many more sessions before treatment proves effective.  His point–a little knowledge can be dangerous–applies in virtually every arena of knowledge in practicum.  Reflecting back on all the times my rudimentary conclusions were ultimately proven incorrect, it’s a point well driven. 

When my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick, Dazzling Deanell and Beauteous Barb decided to pursue Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) certification, the words of my Psychology professor resonated in my memory.  Sure, we’d all been eating barbecue most of our lives, but how much did we really know about passing judgement on barbecue?  Not much, it turned out.  Over the course of several hours, our KCBS instructor imparted sage knowledge and proven techniques to help us understand thee three most important and very nuanced elements of competitive judging: taste, texture and appearance.   Much like getting a Psychology degree, obtaining KCBS certification gave us a modicum of knowledge.  Applying what we learned in such competitions as Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew built upon that knowledge.

Long lines queue up for terrific ‘cue

Recently when Larry and Deanell rhapsodized poetic about the barbecue at the Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho, my first questions were “how would that barbecue rate in a KCBS barbecue competition?” Larry gave it nines in taste, texture and appearance. Deanell one-upped Larry, indicating the Stack House BBQ’s ‘cue warranted all tens (and she knows what it is to be a ten). They invited me to discover for myself whether their ratings were hyperbole or justified.  Alas, during my inaugural visit, I was suffering the ravages of a bad cold which rendered my taste buds untrustworthy and enfeebled my olfactory senses.  You can’t judge barbecue if you can’t imbibe its aromas and taste its subtle flavor qualities. 

Having a bad cold tends to exacerbate my desire for chile, the more piquant the better.  In the throes of even the most egregious colds, I’ve been known to drive to Santa Fe for some of the Horseman’s Haven‘s combustible chile.  The Haven’s Level II chile, affectionately known as “El Diablo” is about the only thing that can quell the stuffiness of a head cold.  While the Stack House doesn’t offer anything quite as incendiary as El Diablo, the menu does include two pepper-infused items: Frito pie and jalapeño sausage.  From what my compromised palate could surmise, both were probably quite good though it would take a return visit or ten to know for sure. 

Pit Master Extraordinaire Greg Janke Slices Brisket with Surgical Precision

My return visit transpired exactly one week after my inaugural visit, so eager were my Kim and I to experience the bodacious barbecue about which Larry and Deanell had raved.  We had the great fortune to spend time discussing all things barbecue with proprietor-pit master Greg Janke.  Like me, Greg is an Intel alum, having toiled at the technology giant for 23 years, five years longer than I.  Not one to let grass grow under his feet, Greg left Intel in April, 2016 and five months later–on Friday, September 23rd–he launched Stack House BBQ. 

Greg’s transition from technologist to restaurateur wasn’t as challenging as one might think.  In fact, Greg admits, working at Intel prepared him very well to own and operate a restaurant.  Even in such technically demanding areas as Automation where he rose through the ranks, Intel employees have the opportunity to hone their business and customer orientation skills (not to mention the discipline to work long hours).  There is, of course, nothing in the semi-conductor arena which translates directly to the mastery of smoking meats in the low-and-slow manner.  Greg began smoking meats at home several years ago, eventually earning praise from friends and the confidence to enter the arena of competition.

Half Rack of Baby Back Ribs

In each of the past two years, Greg has competed at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew, a Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned event.  In 2016, he finished seventeenth overall in a field of thirty-one, faring especially well in the pork category where he placed eleventh.  As much as the judges in the blind taste foodfest may have enjoyed his barbecue, it was event-goers who convinced him to launch his own barbecue restaurant.  In each of the event’s two days, he sold out–every morsel of magnificent meat–well before day’s end.   Moreover, many of them lavished praise and encouragement, essentially convincing Greg that he belonged in the barbecue restaurant arena.

Just seven months previously, Rub-N-Wood had shuttered its doors, leaving the City of Vision without a barbecue restaurant.  Now, Rio Rancho without barbecue is akin to Hillary not wearing a pantsuit.  It just doesn’t and shouldn’t happen.  Barbecue became a Rio Rancho tradition in 1983 when the great Gary West launched Smokehouse BBQ  at 4000 Barbara Loop, a location which would henceforth become synonymous with great barbecue. He owned and operated the stately home of seductive smoke for nearly a quarter-century before moving on. With Roger Bell at the helm, Rub-N-Wood moved in and pleased palates for nearly three years.  The hazy smoke plumes which had so long emanated from 4000 Barbara Loop resumed on a lazy, late September day when Greg assumed the role as Rio Rancho’s proprietor of the pit.  It was a day warranting celebration.

Half Chicken

As had transpired during the Pork & Brew, Greg sold out his first few days of operation.  Barbecue aficionados quickly embraced his Memphis meets Texas approach to smoking meats.  What’s not to love!  Greg uses a combination of oak and cherry woods to impart a unique flavor to his barbecue.  He developed a rub that includes some twelve ingredients that penetrate deeply into the meats and imbue them with flavor-boosting, crust-forming properties.  Not only that, the Stack House BBQ restaurant is an inviting milieu for meat lovers.  It may well be the most pristine barbecue restaurant in which you’ve ever set foot.  If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, Greg is probably being fitted for a halo as you read this.  In addition to the immaculate nature of the premises, service is friendly and attentive (another Rio Rancho tradition exemplified by the terrific staff at Joe’s Pasta House among others).

The Stack House menu is rather limited.  Meats–brisket, chicken or pulled pork–are available by the half or full pound.  Also available are sausage, jalapeño sausage, half-a-chicken and baby back ribs (available in quantities of three, half a rack or a full rack).  You can also opt to have your meats on a sandwich.  Then there’s the aforementioned Frito pie.  Sides are pretty much what you’d expect at a barbecue joint: potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, corn on the cob, chile, beans, mac and cheese and fries (including chile cheese fries).  A baked potato, with or without meat, can also be had.  Limited applies solely to the number of items on the menu board, not to how great they taste.

Sides: Green Beans and Potato Salad

You won’t mind getting your hands dirty handling the baby back ribs on which Greg’s magical rub is liberally applied.  These ribs are messy and they’re magnificent, each meaty morsel pried away easily from the bone.  They’re not fall-off-the-bone tender, having just the right amount of give that signifies the perfect degree of doneness.  Make no bones about it, these baby back ribs are (as Larry would say) competition-worthy, needing neither sauce nor amelioration to improve upon them.   The sauce, by the way, is terrific, a sweet and tangy complement to the richly satisfying smokiness of the ribs.

With the emphasis on pork and brisket, chicken is often a sorry afterthought at some barbecue establishments.  Not so at the Stack House where the full-flavored half-chicken is a main-event item.  Quite simply, it’s fantastic, some of the very best we’ve had in New Mexico!  Peel back the blackened skin (delicious in its own right) and you’ll be rewarded with moist, juicy and delicious white and dark meat chicken…and there’s plenty of it.  A nice-sized half-chicken (breast, thigh and leg) won’t leave much for sharing–not that you’ll want to.  

Cherry Cobbler

Great barbecue restaurants know that to provide an excellent full-meal experience, smoked meats must be accompanied by worthy sides.  Stack House has a two-tiered pricing model for its sides, the most expensive being three dollars.  Sides are served on Styrofoam vessels and are generously portioned.  The potato salad may evoke memories of picnic meals long gone.  It’s a mayonnaise-based potato salad with a pleasant mustardy-vinegary tang.  Alas, the green beans could use a few bits and pieces of smoked meats and maybe a pinch of salt.  Much better is the cherry cobbler, replete with whole cherries and a crumbly and delicious crust. 

Stack House BBQ may ultimately become yet another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho, a port-of-call for barbecue aficionados from throughout the metropolitan area, if not the entire Land of Enchantment.  With its September launch, all is right in Rio Rancho once again.

Stack House BBQ
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7516
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2016
1ST VISIT: 29 September 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Half Chicken, Cherry Cobbler

Stack House BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

K’Lynn’s Cuisine – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho

The tethered banner in front of K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho lists a few of the delicious treasures available in the tiny restaurant: “catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!”  Yeah, we did a double-take, too.  One of those items just seemed a bit out-of-place?  If you’re thinking “carne adovada fries” don’t belong on the list because they’re not Soul food, you’d be wrong.  Carne adovada fries definitely belong on the list.  So does jerk chicken which, by most conventional definitions, isn’t soul food either.  The one item we thought to be out-of-place was “& more.” 

I mean what more could you possibly want listed on the banner.  If it didn’t have you at “catfish” you probably haven’t had catfish down South…and if it didn’t seal the deal with “gumbo,” you definitely need an infusion of South in your mouth.  Beyond catfish and gumbo, the rest is gravy and it’s absolutely delicious.  Until the summer of 2016, restaurant-goers craving Southern cuisine had only one option for soul food, albeit a wonderful option in Bucket Headz.  For those of us on the “west side,” the  trek to the International District for Malaika’s fabulous cooking is a long (though well worth it) trip.  With the launch of K’Lynn’s Cuisine, we now have a second option to succor our souls.

K’Lynn’s Tiny and Cozy Dining Room

Residents of the City of Vision may be asking themselves where this new denizen of deliciousness is situated.  Most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment’s third most populous city, after all, are clustered on three main arteries: Rio Rancho, Southern and Unser.  K’Lynn’s occupies a Lilliputian space on the northeast side of the Rio Rancho Marketplace, a retail shopping center whose anchor tenants include Target and Albertson’s.  Even if you take Ridgecrest west-bound, it’s not easy to spot.  Trust me.  It’s there and it’s worth a detour from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine is the restaurant arm of K’Lynn’s Cuisine & Catering, an enterprise owned and operated by Karen Johnson-Bey, aka K’Lynn.  A self-taught chef, K’Lynn launched her restaurant on July 7th, formerly focusing solely on catering.  It’s no longer Rio Rancho’s best kept secret.  Word is getting out about the tiny place where you can enjoy food for your soul–a mix of soul, Cajun and Caribbean cuisine.  Her culinary repertoire is even more expansive, catering “all types of cuisines from American, New Mexican, Italian and more.”  There’s that “and more” term again.

Gumbo and Cornbread

You probably won’t peruse K’Lynn’s menu too thoroughly.  That’s because the day’s specials, scrawled on a white board on the counter, are so value-priced and tempting.  Listing only a handful of items, the specials list may include such mouth-watering items as crab cakes, oxtail and barbecue ribs.  The menu itself befits the small restaurant.  You might not get any further than the baskets: catfish (one, two or four pieces), fried shrimp or fried crawfish served with your choice of fries or coleslaw, but if you do you’ll run into three entrees: gumbo, jambalaya and jerk chicken.  Hungry diners can opt for platters which are served with your choice of three sides or you can have a two- or three-item combo.  Either way, you won’t leave hungry…and we haven’t even gotten to the appetizers which include such sumptuous starters as popcorn shrimp and the aforementioned carne adovada fries.  Page two of the menu, if you somehow manage to get there, also lists several po’ boy and salad options.

Gumbo is an archetypal Cajun offering and almost inarguably the most popular dish ever conceived in Louisiana (as emblematic of the Bayou State as chile is to New Mexico).  It’s a veritable melting pot dish, transcending all class and income barriers.  With a fragrant bouquet that precedes it, a steaming bowl of good gumbo is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures.  K’Lynn’s offers two options for its gumbo: Andouille sausage and chicken or shrimp. We can’t speak for the version made with shrimp, but the version made with Andouille sausage and chicken is “close your eyes and let the aroma and flavors wash over you” satisfying.  It goes without saying that it pairs best with cornbread, some to sop up that great gumbo and some cornbread with lots of butter.

Catfish, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

One of the Southern traditions we quickly embraced upon moving to Mississippi was a family-style meal of catfish and fried chicken after church every Sunday.  For umpteen consecutive Sundays we visited Aunt Jenny’s in Ocean Springs for a bounteous repast.  Aunt Jenny’s set the bar for catfish rather high and only a handful of restaurants (such as the aforementioned Bucket Headz) in the Land of Enchantment are even in the same zip code as that bar.  Though K’Lynn’s source for catfish isn’t the murky ponds of Mississippi, Californian catfish is still very good.  Sheathed in a golden-hued, lightly seasoned batter, the catfish is light and delicate with a deliciousness that defines any notions you may have about the bottom-dwelling fish.  Catfish goes especially well with mac and cheese and fried green beans, both of which are quite delicious.

While you’re more likely to find restaurants pairing fried chicken with catfish than you are restaurants pairing catfish with jerk chicken, the latter combination goes very well together.   Infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call, the chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning.  If you prefer your jerk chicken to render you a coughing, sputtering, watery-eyed frump, K’Lynn’s version won’t do that for you, but you will enjoy it.

Jerk Chicken, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

In his terrific tome Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time culinary historian Adrian Miller  declared red Kool-Aid to be the official soul food drink.  That’s a pretty audacious claim for which he puts up a good argument.  In the South, Kool-Aid tends to be made with almost as many scoops of sugar as there are granules of Kool-Aid.  That’s why we prefer K’Lynn’s grape Kool-Aid and ginger ale.  Not only is it not cloying, it’s got a nice  effervescence and it makes you feel as if you’re getting away with something.

While the Land of Enchantment is second only to Georgia in the annual production of pecans, Southerners would argue that only in the South can pecan pie be made the right way.  The “right way” means an almost sickeningly sweet pie, palatable only to diners with a seriously sweet tooth.   In the South most pecan pies are made using dark Karo syrup which has a more pronounced and sweeter flavor courtesy of the addition of molasses.  K’Lynn’s version is made with the not-quite-as-sweet blonde Karo syrup and it’s topped with a smooth bourbon sauce redolent with the unique bouquet of the oak casks in which it is distilled.  Whole pecans and a flaky crust offset the cloying elements.   While some Southerners might complain it’s not sweet enough, most diners will enjoy it very much.

Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

Visionaries (isn’t that what residents of the City of Vision are called) have started to discover K’Lynn’s Cuisine, but it shouldn’t take long for savvy diners from throughout the metropolitan area to find out for themselves that food for your soul is good for everyone.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine
4300 Ridgecrest Drive, Suite O
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 453-3068
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Cornbread, Catfish, Mac and Cheese, Fried Green Beans, Jerk Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, Grape Kool Aid, Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

K'Lynn's Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s Place) – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dennis and the lovely Sophia at the viewing of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode featuring his outstanding restaurant

Dennis and his daughter, the lovely Sophia at the viewing of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode featuring his outstanding restaurant (Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Picture yourself as a first-year marketing student assigned by your professor to perform a marketing analysis of Eli’s Place and its enigmatic chef-owner Dennis Apodaca.  Essentially you’ve got to figure out the rhyme and reason behind the restaurant’s success.  “Easy assignment,” you think to yourself, “Eli’s Place is successful because it serves some of the best, most delicious food in Albuquerque.”  Your research quickly reveals, however, that Eli’s Place actually violates many of the time-honored, trusted and fundamental marketing tenets of growing and successful businesses.  From a marketing perspective, it just shouldn’t work as well as it does. 

Any Marketing 101 student can tell you, for example, the importance of brand identity.  A brand is one of the most valuable and important assets of a restaurant. It needs to be carefully cultivated to ensure it properly and authentically reflects the values, attributes and passions of a business.  Eli’s Place received an enormous boost to its brand identity in 2008 when the Food Network came calling.  Being featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is generally worth a fortune to any restaurant.  So what does Dennis Apodaca do?  In 2015, he renamed his restaurant, eschewing the well-established and nationally known brand name Sophia’s Place in favor of Eli’s Place.

Eli’s Place may not be as visually appealing as other restaurants, but it serves beautiful food

Then there’s the restaurant itself.  From an esthetic perspective, it isn’t nearly as inviting and attractive as those modern venues with their pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains.  It’s virtually homely.  Heck, it doesn’t even have a sign telling you you’ve arrived at your destination.  The parking lot can get muddy during inclement weather which can sometimes render the outdoor patio useless.  Step inside the Lilliputian edifice and during peak hours, you’ll be challenged to find a seat.  It just doesn’t make sense that Eli’s Place works as well as it does.

The main reason for its success, of course, is gifted proprietor and chef Dennis Apodaca, an accomplished restaurateur despite (or maybe in spite of) not following a tried-and-true template. Sure, he may be an enigma to any marketing student, but to savvy diners he’s one of the very best chefs in New Mexico.  Dennis has a very impressive pedigree that includes stints at some of the best restaurants in San Francisco and Santa Fe, having worked for several world-famous, cutting-edge chefs in some of America’s most renown restaurants.  Those include Mark Miller, the high priest of modern Southwest cuisine and founder of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the pioneering Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, the original California cuisine (focusing exclusively on organic, locally produced foods in season) restaurant in Berkeley, California.

The interior of Eli’s Place. Note the poster signed by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri

Apprenticing under luminary chefs may make apparent the genesis of some of his culinary influences, but it’s also obvious that Dennis loves his craft and plies it with enthusiasm and style.  I heard him speak once of his annual pilgrimages to New York and of dining at such restaurants as Katz’s, a Manhattan deli I hold in reverential esteem. Like most great chefs, he is always in pursuit of new ideas and techniques.  Dennis launched the restaurant he named for his then eight-year-old daughter Sophia on December 3rd, 2002 (and which he renamed for Sophia’s own son in 2015).  It’s situated at the former site of the once very popular, but now defunct Fajitaville, a restaurant at which he served as chef before launching his own operation. As popular as it was, you don’t hear many former Fajitaville patrons lament the change. That’s because they’ve been completely won over by Apodaca’s inventive, eclectic and funky menu–a menu that includes a range of sophisticated salads and soups, extraordinary sandwiches and lots of pleasant surprises.

Dennis is also a stickler for using fine ingredients, many of which are flown in and delivered daily to his charming North Valley restaurant. He insists on the preparation of each meal to order; you won’t find anything sitting under a heating lamp here.  You also won’t find a freezer in the premises.  Dennis believes in ultra-fresh. His menu is replete with specials of the day which change frequently, usually crafted from fresh ingredients he procures from the farmer’s markets.  Eli’s also does not have an oven or burners, just two grills, but sheer magic is created on those grills.

Chips and salsa at Eli’s

On August 25th, 2008 the Food Network’s Guy Fieri taped a segment at Sophia’s for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program.  On a signed poster which hangs on one of the restaurant’s walls, Fieri wrote “little place, huge flavors.”  That pretty much says it all, not that Fieri didn’t say quite a bit more about Sophia’s.  After that segment aired on Monday, November 24th, 2008 getting a seat at this fabulous restaurant became even more difficult.  Guy Fieri pegged it correctly when he called him “a hands-on chef who’s doing things his own way.”  That includes touches like making his own butter and crafting all his culinary creations by hand.

24 November 2012: One holdover from Dennis’s days at Fajitaville are some of the best salsas in town.  An order of salsa and chips rewards diners with two salsas–a roasted tomato salsa and a pico de gallo style salsa coupled with housemade chips served warm.  Neither of the salsas are especially piquant, but both are redolent with freshness and flavor.  The chips are lightly salted and oversized for Gil-sized portions of salsa.  Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.

Grilled Sirloin and Green Chile Sandwich on Sage Bakehouse Bakery Bread with Shoestring Fries

Grilled Sirloin and Green Chile Sandwich on Sage Bakehouse Bakery Bread with Shoestring Fries

Breakfast and lunch entrees are served all day which is a great thing because you never know when the urge will hit for a world-class sandwich. Sage Bakehouse bread, a New Mexico treasure, is the foundation upon which those sandwiches are built. Each sandwich is served with your choice of potato salad, green salad or homemade shoestring potatoes (a must-have).  Don’t desecrate those shoestring potatoes with ketchup. Ask instead for a small bowl of Eli’s red chile and dip your fries into that. Some of the best chile and some of the best fries in town–you can’t go wrong with that combination.

Eli’s grilled pastrami sandwich is a poor man’s version of the aforementioned Katz’s in which pastrami is piled on skyscraper high. Even though Eli’s doesn’t lay the pastrami on as thick as at Katz’s, it’s also not apportioned in waifishly thin shreds like the sandwiches the chains proffer. In Albuquerque only California Pastrami serves a better pastrami sandwich (although it dropped just a bit in my estimation when packets of mustard replaced the gourmet mustard once dolloped on the sandwich). Apodaca gets his pastrami flown in from Chicago where this brisket derivative is best made.

Chipotle Chile Bacon Cheeseburger

The green chile cheeseburger at Eli’s

30 August 2008: Also exceptional is the green chile bacon cheeseburger on hard-crusted Sage Bakehouse bread. As the hack comic Banya would tell Jerry Senifeld, “it’s the best, Jerry, the best.” In a city and state in which green chile cheeseburgers are a religion, Dennis Apodaca is a high priest, serving something just a bit different. This cheeseburger is a two-fisted edible piece of art with an explosively delicious taste.  The green chile is not so assertive that it prevents the salty sweetness of the bacon to sneak out. Instead they meld together wonderfully. The texture of the lightly toasted Ciabatta bread is a nice departure from the traditional soft burger buns. The bacon is crispy and thick. There’s no iceberg lettuce in this masterpiece; it’s salad quality mixed greens. The hamburger patty hasn’t seen  the inside of a freezer; it’s hand-formed and thick, prepared to your exacting specifications.

27 September 2016: Burger aficionados will also love Eli’s chipotle cheeseburger, a work of art and absolute beauty.  It’s got the piquancy (maybe even more) of a green chile cheeseburger with the inimitable flavor of chipotle.  If you’re not sure what a chipotle is, it’s merely a smoked, dried jalapeño.  It’s a versatile pepper, adding depth, complexity and a kick to meats, and a savory counterbalance to sweets.  At Eli’s, the chipotle doesn’t come out of a jar.  It’s the real thing, smoked at home and rehydrated to textural perfection.  This chipotle cheeseburger is simple, a thick hamburger patty, molten cheese and chipotle.  That’s it…and that’s enough.

Sophia's Breakfast Burrito

The breakfast burrito, Albuquerque’s very best

The simply named Breakfast Sandwich on (what else) toasted Sage Bakehouse bread is a concordant composition of fried eggs, bacon, cheese and fresh salsa that will help make your day start off on the right foot. It may well be the best breakfast sandwich in Albuquerque, not that there is a plethora of competition in the breakfast sandwich arena.

10 April 2008: Eli’s breakfast burrito has done something I had thought impossible. It supplanted Milton’s breakfast burrito as my favorite breakfast burrito in New Mexico. The primary reason is a wondrous red chile, a deep, earthy, sweet and utterly delicious chile of medium piquancy. This chile is in rarified company with Mary & Tito’s legendary red which I’ve long considered the best in the Duke City area. It’s the type of chile you might want to lick off your plate so as not to leave any of it behind. If Dennis were to offer New Mexican food exclusively, it would probably be the best in the city. Make sure you order your burrito “smothered” so you won’t be lamenting that there isn’t enough chile on your plate. In its September, 2011 edition, the staff of Albuquerque The Magazine undertook the enviable task of selecting the Duke City’s very best breakfast burrito. Eli’s was rated tenth best. To paraphrase the immortal words of former world boxing champion Max Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs, “they waz robbed!”

Huevos Mexicanos

There’s only one thing wrong with Eli’s red chile. It’s that the red is so good, many of us may never again order the breakfast burrito “Christmas style” (with both red and green chile). That would be sad because the green chile is outstanding in its own right. It’s a fruity chile with a comal roasted aroma and flavor. The breakfast burrito is crafted from organic eggs, potatoes, cheese and salsa. You can have it with your choice of bacon, pork carnitas, chicken, beef or vegetables.

23 November 2010: The daily specials on Eli’s menu truly earn the accolade “special.” Such is the case with a breakfast enchilada with turkey sausage, Cojita cheese and poblano chile. The melding of these ingredients make for an outstanding breakfast entree that I may have to bide my time to see returned to the menu. Fortunately, there’s always something else intriguing and invariably delicious to mollify my appetite.

Another special special, duck enchiladas with a green chile cream sauce

Duck enchiladas served with a green chile cream sauce

30 August 2008: Another very special special are the duck enchiladas served with a green chile cream sauce (pictured above). Somehow Dennis manages to segregate the least fatty parts of the duck while retaining all its characteristic flavor and he engorges corn tortillas with the delicious canard. A generous dollop of mildly piquant green chile sauce crowns the enchiladas with even more flavor. This special is served with black beans studded with Cojita cheese as well as a mixed greens and mango salad. This is just Dennis and his free spirited whimsy; he loves to play with ingredients and has a knack for making seemingly disparate ingredients meld together in perfect flavor synchronicity.

The Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives taping took place on a day in which the special of the day was another version of duck enchiladas, this time with tomatillo sauce. Watching the step-by-step construction of this entree revealed the depth of Dennis’s talent, but even more so, just what a perfectionist he is. Every preparation step is meticulous and well practiced, obviously the result of extensive experimentation until everything is absolutely to the chef’s exacting standards.

Scallop Tacos with beans, rice and a salad

The duck, which is left in the bone and skin, is seasoned and rendered in duck fat for several hours then is de-boned by hand and seasoned again (lime, cilantro, Mexican red chile, sugar, salt and other ingredients) on the flat top.  Two legs per order of succulent duck meat are then placed on two soft corn tortillas with Asadero cheese then topped with the tomatillo sauce, toasted pumpkin seeds, scallions and queso fresco.  Fieri uttered “really good” three times punctuated with “an explosion of flavors” and “you’ve got it going on with this one.”

10 April 2015: A Washington Post writer recently proclaimed, “Ok so who in the hell doesn’t do a scallop taco?” He obviously hasn’t been around the restaurant scene in Albuquerque where scallop tacos are a novelty. In fact, Dennis is just one of a handful of chefs in the landlocked Land of Enchantment I know of daring to depart from the de rigueur fish taco (which is rarely done well in New Mexico). His version starts with gigantic sea scallops which he tucks into soft, pliable corn tacos then garnishes with a mild salsa, avocado slices and Crème fraîche. There are two scallops per taco, two tacos per order and they’re at least twice as good as the best fish taco I’ve ever had.

Sophia's shoestring fries with red chile

Eli’s shoestring fries with red chile

Eli’s scallop tacos are inspired–an amalgam of flavor combinations which work very well together.  The pearlescent scallops are grilled so they have a nice char on top and at bottom while retaining an opaque clarity that means they’re absolutely perfect.  I’ve tried in vain several times to duplicate Dennis’s wizardry with scallops, but have concluded begrudgingly that my scallop skills are rudimentary compared to the chef. 

The Saturday and Sunday brunch menu features several items not available during weekdays. These weekend specials have made Eli’s an intensely popular dining destination. You might have to wait in line ten to fifteen minutes to place your order then another half hour for your order to reach your table. It’s worth the wait.


20 April 2008: One of the best reasons to get up on a weekend are Eli’s Special Pancakes, priced daily and served with fresh fruit and real maple syrup. Those special pancakes might be sour cream and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with blueberries. The tartness of the blueberries and lemon create a palate pleasing harmony with the maple syrup. The sour cream changes the texture of standard pancakes by adding moistness while retaining the fluffiness inherent in great pancakes. 

23 November 2008: Eli’s pancakes will cure the early morning blues (or anything else that ails you).  A large stack (four) of pumpkin pancakes with pinon nut butter topped with assorted berries may be the very best pancakes you’ll ever have.  They’re stick to your ribs pancakes, the panacea for cold mornings.  Cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice emphasize the flavor of pumpkin while the berries provide a tangy contrast.  The syrup brings together the complementary tastes of sweet, tangy and pumpkiny.  Share these with people you love.

Turkey Sausage Enchiladas with Red and Green Chile

One of the things that makes Dennis’s pancakes a panacea is his homemade butter, a culinary rarity that blew even Guy Fieri away. Fieri who has probably seen just about everything on his road tours seemed amazed that Dennis would go to that extent. After sampling Eli’s homemade butter (made from separated heavy cream mixed with toasted pine nuts, dried cherries and honey), Fieri called it “outstanding.” 

4 November 2012: Other brunch favorites include Eli’s version of chilaquiles and a very unique interpretation of Huevos Rancheros called Huevos Mexicanos.  This dish is constructed from corn tortillas topped with two eggs prepared any way you want them then slathered with green chile stew.  The green chile stew is terrific, the type of which you’d appreciate at any time, but especially on a cold wintery day.  The chilaquiles are simplicity itself though its flavors are complex and delicious.  Chilaquiles are a traditional Mexican dish with which Eli’s takes a few liberties, topping the eggs and tortilla chips with red chile instead of the more conventional salsa.

Lemon and sour cream pancakes with blueberries

Sour cream and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with blueberries

You’ve got to experience this gem for yourself to find out what so many diners know–Eli’s Place is one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre. Overflow crowds and accolades don’t tell the whole story. That lies in each and every wonderful morsel of pure deliciousness fashioned by the inventive hands of the chef and owner.  Eli’s Place and its superbly talented owner-chef Dennis Apodaca may be an enigma to marketing students, but to those of us who love great food, he’s a luminous star, one of the very best.

Pumpkin pancakes with pinon nut butter

6313 4th, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-3935
LATEST VISIT: 27 September 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Pastrami Sandwich, Breakfast Sandwich, Chipotle Bacon Cheeseburger, Simple Noodles, Breakfast Burrito, Special Pancakes, Scallop Tacos, Chilaquiles, Huevos Mexicanos, Grilled Sirloin Sandwich, Pork Carnitas Tacos,

Eli's Place (New Name for Sophia's Place) Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Los Chavez Cafe – Belen, New Mexico

Los Chavez Cafe in Belen

Vamos todos a Belen
Con amor y gozo.

Translated from Spanish, those words–lyrics to a traditional New Mexican nativity song–mean “Let’s all go to Bethlehem with love and joy.”  In villages and cities throughout Northern New Mexico, peregrines sing that song as they reverently process from house-to-house reenacting the Gospel of Luke account of Mary and Joseph and their search for shelter.  Peregrines repeat their search every night during the nine days preceding Christmas, culminating with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  Known as “Las Posadas” this Catholic tradition often incorporates farolitos, lighted candles weighted with sand in paper bags which light the way for the peregrines and the Christ child yet to be born. 

You couldn’t blame the Belen Chamber of Commerce if they ever decide to co-opt the lyrics “Vamos todos a Belen con amor y gozo.”  It would make a great marketing campaign, an invitation to visit the “Hub City” with love and joy.  While some of us may not associate love and joy with a visit to Belen, New Mexico, there’s much to love about the second most populous city in Valencia County.  If you regard Belen as solely a place en route to somewhere else, you’re probably overdue for a visit to this ancient settlement (founded in 1741) with an eye to the future.

The Drive-up Menu

The New Mexico Railrunner Express makes it easy for you.  As the southern terminus point for the commuter rail system, Belen welcomes visitors with open arms.  Once you arrive, you’re in close proximity to one of the sixteen Harvey Houses built in New Mexico.  Across the street and acequia from the old Harvey House is the legendary Pete’s Cafe, one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  A pedestrian overpass provides easy access to restaurants and galleries on Becker Avenue in downtown Belen.

Not everything Belen has to offer is in walking distance proximity of the Railrunner station.  To take full advantage of the city’s offerings, you’ll need your vehicle.  One event eliciting much love and joy in Belen is the annual matanza held the last Saturday in January.  Touted as the “world’s largest matanza,” the event involves the slaughter and cooking of several dozen fatted pigs then serving them to more than ten-thousand hungry patrons.  All proceeds go toward scholarships for local college students.  This family-fun event is renown for, among other delicious offerings, some of the very best chicharrones and carne adovada in the land of Enchantment.  People from all over the world flock to Belen to taste porcine perfection.

Salsa and Chips

About twenty separate teams carry on the tradition passed down by Spanish vaqueros, preparing a variety of dishes showcasing the versatility and deliciousness of pork.  For some cities it may be enough to be known for one significant achievement (such as the world’s largest matanza), but not for Belen.  In August, 2015, Belen laid claim to another “world’s largest” feat.  Fittingly it also involved pork.  During Belen’s Viva II event, the world’s longest tamale was constructed.  Measuring 116 feet, 7 inches, it easily dwarfed the previous  Guinness Book of World Records’ 66-foot 4-inch tamale, which was assembled in Cancún, Mexico.

LJ Thomason and wife Tina, proprietors of Los Chavez Cafe in Belen, led the tamale team.  When it comes to food and festivals in Belen, the Thomasons lead the pack…er, swineherd.  They also sponsor the Rio Grande Matanzeros, one of the pork preparation teams at the world’s largest matanza.  Since the New Mexico state fair began holding an annual chicharrones competition, the Thomson’s have practically owned both the “peoples’ choice” and “judges’ choice” awards.  When it comes to chicharrones, no one does it better!

Chicharron Taco and Carne Adovada Taco

Fortunately you don’t have to wait until late January or for the state fair to sample those celebrated chicharrones.  All it takes is a thirty-minute (from Albuquerque) ride south to Los Chavez Cafe on Main Street Belen.  It’s a drive to be made with love and joy, two emotions you’ll experience at the popular Cafe (reason enough to visit Belen).  The Cafe is rather innocuous, bearing little semblance to most New Mexican restaurants.  In a previous life, it appears to have been the home of a Long John Silver’s seafood (term used loosely) restaurant.  That notion is reinforced by the large drive-up window and cavalcade of motorized conveyances waiting to place an order.

Rather than trying to be another one of those restaurants purporting to server virtually every New Mexican dish and not necessarily doing any of them well, Los Chavez’s menu is relatively sparse, showcasing what they do best: pork dishes.  Open for breakfast and lunch, the Cafe’s best bets are probably chicharron dishes though the daily specials are tempting.  Chicharrones aren’t just found on the bounteous burrito menu.  You can find chicharrones, porcine gold nuggets, on some items in which you wouldn’t expect to find chicharrones.

Chile Relleno Plate

That includes chicharron tacos, a novelty anywhere else, but a specialty at Los Chavez.  Served on soft-shelled corn tortillas redolent with the alluring aroma of fresh corn, the chicharron tacos are replete with inimitably delicious golden-hued cubed pork.  Nestled within the corn envelope are chopped cilantro, red onions and chopped tomatoes, all reminiscent of Mexican-style tacos.  Though good as gold, you won’t have to raid Fort Knox to pay for them.  While you’re at it, you should also order a carne adovada taco.  The carne adovada is silky smooth and absolutely delicious.  The tender tendrils of chile-marinated pork are addictive. 

You’ll know you’re no longer in Albuquerque with your first sampling of the Cafe’s salsa and chips.  While too many of the metropolitan area’s New Mexican restaurants tend to dumb down their salsa, at Los Chavez the salsa has an incendiary bite–even more heat than the fabled salsa at Sadie’s.  Because heat isn’t the be-all qualify of a great salsa, this one also has a great chile-blessed flavor.  The salsa is served with crisp, low-in-salt chips.  You’ll quickly polish off the complimentary first portion (perhaps with a cup or six of coffee) and will probably order another portion. 

Jim Croce once cautioned against “tugging on Superman’s cape and spitting into the wind.”  He should have added “you don’t order something other than chicharrones at Los Chavez.”  That’s precisely what this humbled critic did because my waitress rhapsodized about the chile relleno plate.  Don’t get me wrong.  The chile relleno was delicious, thanks largely to the piquancy of the cheese-engorged green chile, but it was battered a bit too thickly for my taste.  Though I enjoyed the rellenos–and the superb frijoles and papits–very much, my cheating eyes were focused on the chicharron dishes destined for other tables. 

Love and joy will certainly warm your heart (and that’s not just the chile talking) after lunch at Los Chavez Cafe in beautiful downtown Belen.  It’s time to rediscover Belen and the pleasure pork can bring.

Los Chavez Cafe
633 North Main Street
Belen, New Mexico
(505) 859-4121
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicharron Taco, Carne Adovada Taco, Chile Rellenos, Salsa and Chips

Los Chavez Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, my very favorite Mediterranean restaurant in New Mexico

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, my very favorite Mediterranean restaurant in New Mexico

The St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Magdalena, New Mexico is adorned with ceramic statues, most familiar and easy to identify…at least for lifelong Catholics like me.   After Sunday Mass one September, 2010 morning, we espied a statue of a saint clutching a curious implement to his chest.  None of the parishioners we asked had any idea who the statue represented.  Father Andy Pavlak, the parish vicar, confirmed the statue depicted Saint Lawrence  of Rome and the curious device he held was a gridiron, a metal grate used for grilling meat, fish, vegetables or any combination thereof.

Father Pavlak went on to explain why Saint Lawrence clutched the gridiron.  Saint Lawrence was one of seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian.  The manner of death he suffered was especially gruesome.  The intrepid saint was grilled on a gridiron.  As his flesh cooked, Lawrence is said to have cried out, “This side’s done.  Turn me over and have a bite.”  That probably explains why Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, butchers and roasters. He is also patron saint of several parishes throughout the Land of Enchantment.

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

I suspect Saint Lawrence might also be the patron saint of grillmasters.  If so, I sure could use his divine intercession.  Like the administrators of his death, I seem to have a problem discerning when one side is done.  Consequently one side is usually charred to the consistency of coal while the other is as rare as the raw beef fighters apply over wounds acquired in the ring.  It doesn’t matter how closely I study the collective writings of Bill and Cheryl Jamison, America’s preeminent outdoor cooking experts, my results are disastrous.  On the grill, I’m a disgrace to my gender.

Because I’ve ruined thousands of dollars of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, my Kim would just as soon see me wave the white flag of surrender (though I’d probably drop it on the grill and only one side would burn.)  Better still, she’d rather I take her to a restaurant in which bona fide grillmasters impart the olfactory-arousing direct application of heat to produce succulent results.  Frankly, that would be my preference, too…so, perhaps my ineptitude on the grill might be a subliminal thing.  Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.

Purchase an assortment of seasoned snacks such as watermelon seeds

It’s no secret that some of the very best grilled meats anywhere are prepared to perfection in Middle Eastern restaurants.  Many Middle Eastern dining establishments have mastered the enviable art of imbuing meats with the pungency of exotic spices; a distinctive aroma inherent from woods with personality; a whisper-thin crust that seals in flavor and tenderness in a pleasantly pink interior; and any number of heavily spiced, flavorful sauces, all of which seem to highlight even more of the magnificence of meat in all its grilled glory.

In Albuquerque as in many other cities, Middle Eastern restaurants seem to fall into two stratum: opulent, lavishly adorned dining rooms or time-worn cafes in bedraggled edifices.   Experience shows that spit and polish alone don’t make the restaurant. Some of the very best Middle Eastern restaurants are often found in tumbledown buildings.  Perhaps the very best of these is the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant on the southwest corner of San Pedro and Montgomery in the Northeast Heights.

Dolmes: Six piece stuffed grape leaves served tahini sauce

The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is ensconced in a stand-alone building that frankly could be home to just about any retail business.  Much of the building is dedicated to comestibles.  Its shelves are well-stocked with Middle Eastern spices, groceries and dry goods.  Adventurous cooks will enjoy walking up and down the aisles studying all the wonderful options, perhaps inspired by the olfactory arousing aromas coming from the small kitchen at the front of the complex.  The counter separating the kitchen from the store doubles as a counter in which patrons pay for their purchases or place their to-go orders.

Dine-in and carry-out options abound.  Should you decide to dine in, there are several comfortable booths and tables available.  The dining area is ensconced beneath a canopy reminiscent a large Bedouin tent, the biggest difference being that instead of Middle Eastern rugs, the canopy is made from Southwest themed rugs (Kokopeli anyone?).   The menu over the counter is abbreviated; you’ll be handed a laminated menu to take with you to your table.  From the window-side booths, your vantage point will be of busy San Pedro to your east.

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

The menu is surprisingly ambitions considering the relatively cramped quarters.  Reading from top-left, the first items to catch your eye are appetizers and small order items followed by a seven salads, only one of which you might see at any type of restaurant.  One entire page is dedicated to platters, both meat-based platters and vegetarian platters.  Platters generally include a meat or vegetarian entree with hummus or rice and one of the seven sensational salads.  Homemade fresh pita bread (which you can see being made at the kitchen) comes with several of the platters.

The last page of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches–non-vegetarian and vegetarian–and desserts.  It’s an intriguing menu, one you might expect to see at a larger Middle Eastern restaurant and not necessarily at a grocery store doubling as a restaurant.  Your hosts are brothers Muhammad and Abraham, who are as cordial and accommodating as any restaurant proprietors in the Duke City.  Both are more than happy to recommend various options and will check up on you periodically.  Trust their recommendations.

Lamb shawarma Platter served with Hummus

The appetizers section includes some de rigueur standards you’ll find at almost all Mediterranean restaurants.  The difference is that the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant prepares them better.  “Heresy,” you say.  After our inaugural visit on November 13th, we were so impressed that we had to return a week later to confirm what our taste buds were saying.  They were telling us this humble little establishment might be the very best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque.  Zomato readers seem to agree.  As of this writing (September 20, 2016), the restaurant has earned a 4.7 rating (out of 5), one of the highest in Albuquerque. Muhammad proudly points this out to new visitors.

14 November 2010:  The dolmes, a six-piece appetizer of stuffed grape leaves served with tahini sauce is one of those items at which this restaurant excels.  Decoratively plated so that the six dolmes form a pool for the tahini sauce, you can use the plastic fork to cut the dolmes into smaller, bite-sized pieces, but Muhammad will encourage you to eat your entire dinner the way it would be eaten back home in Palestine.  He would just as soon you dispense with your fork altogether.  Great advice!  The dolmes are fabulous!

Bakdunecea Salad

Unlike many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Duke City, these dolmes are homemade, not from out of a can.  They have a very distinctive flavor with nary a hint of lemon.  The distinctiveness comes from a seven spice blend, one that’s just slightly different than many seven spice blends I’ve seen in Japanese and Arabic cooking.  This one is made with All Spice, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Fennel and Ginger, a blend which enlivens the vegetarian dolmes with a flavor punch that will wow your taste buds.  The dolmes are even better when dipped into the fresh, invigorating tahini sauce.

14 November 2010:  Another terrific starter is the six-piece falafel plate.  Falafel (chickpeas mashed with onions then fried to a nice crunch) are hemispherically shaped, like the top half of the Earth.  Bite into each falafel and you’ll experience the sensation of a slight crispy crunch followed by a soft, moist inside that tastes unlike any falafel I’ve ever had.  It’s the type of falafel which should be used to help broker peace in the Middle East.  They’re that good!  Seasoned with herbs and spices, they’re served with a luscious yogurt sauce which complements them wonderfully.

Housemade Fresh Pita Bread, Maybe the Best in Town

14 November 2010: For years, my local standard for Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic, has been Yasmine’s Cafe, yet another terrific Palestinian-owned treasure.  If possible, the San Pedro Middle Eastern Restaurant’s version is even better.  It’s rich and creamy with a prominent garlic flavor.  In Middle Eastern fashion, you’ll want to cut up pieces of the wonderful housemade pita (still fresh and warm) and use the pita to scoop up as much Baba Ghanoug as you can fit into your mouth.  Each bite is an adventure in appreciation.

20 September 2016: For me, the highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the seven choices–was always the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil).  Though no longer offered on the menu, the accommodating staff might just whip it up for you if you ask nicely.    This salad has powerful qualities, a term you might not associate with parsley.  Parsley is usually thought up as an ingredient to chop up and sprinkle on entrees needing color.  It’s sometimes thought of in a decorative sense, not for its flavor enhancing qualities.  Used correctly and in combination with other ingredients (such as tahini), it is refreshing and assertive.

Kefta Kabob with Rice

20 November 2010: Another sensational salad is the Tabbouli (lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint, cracked Bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice and virgin olive oil).  Growing up in Peñasco with Lebanese neighbors, I was introduced to Tabbouli, Kibbeh and Tahini long before I’d ever had Chinese food or even my first Bic Mac from McDonald’s.  The Tabbouli may be the best I’ve ever had, reminding me in some ways of what a Middle Eastern pico de gallo might taste like.  It’s got remarkable freshening qualities, like a savory and delicious breath mint.

20 September 2016: It wouldn’t be a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant without a sensational hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic) and that, too, is available at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  You can order it on its own as an appetizer or you can order one of the several platters with which the hummus is served.  The hummus encircles the meat platters like an island of creamy, garlicky goodness.  Muhammad taught us to use pita to scoop up heaps of meat and hummus with our hands.  It’s the only way to eat them.

Shisk Kafta Platter: ground beef, onion, parsley served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

20 September 2016: The Lamb Shawarma (marinated slices of lamb) is terrific (as if that needs to be said).  Instead of shaved lamb as you’d find on Greek gyros, the lamb is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces, each blessed with a grilled smokiness and penetrated with seasonings that are so distinctively Middle Eastern.  Sprigs of fragrant, roughly chopped parsley impart fresh qualities which meld with the other ingredients to fashion a fabulous flavor profile.

Not since Banbury, England in 1987 have we had better shish kabob (cubes of extra lean beef served) than we’ve had on San Pedro.   In describing the grilling expertise at Middle Eastern restaurants earlier in this essay, I must have had this shish kabob in mind.  The meat is grilled to perfection.  At medium, it has just a slight hint of pink inside while its exterior texture is nicely charred. It’s the type of grilling expertise I lack.  It’s perfect grilling.

Chicken Tawook surrounded by the best hummus in Albuquerque

13 February 2011: Another exceptional platter which showcases the grilling process and exceptional seasoning is the chicken tawook platter, marinated juicy cubes of chicken breast with garlic sauce served with hummus, salad and the homemade fresh pita bread.  The chicken is moist and tender, absolutely impregnated with flavor though not so garlicky that it will wreck your breath.  Instead, the garlic melds wondrously with a hint of grilling.

27 March 2011: The chicken shawarma, an island of small-cut chicken pieces surrounded by hummus is yet another fabulous entree.  Similar to the chicken tawook, garlic is a prominent flavor as is the wondrous fragrance of grilling.  Parsley also fits prominently into the flavor profile, imparting an invigorating herbaceous freshness, but this dish is best when scooped up with hummus and that absolutely amazing pita.  Abraham tells me he makes some 700 pieces of bread on an average day.  I’ll typically have four of them each visit and take home another half dozen.  This is the best pita in New Mexico!

Chicken Shawarma

24 August 2011: Even on the rare occasion in which an item you don’t order is delivered to your table, you’ll want to try it before even thinking about sending it back.  Such was the case when my friend Ruben Hendrickson and I ordered dolmes and a strange looking dish with an even stranger name was placed before us.  As it turns out, the Foul Mudammas with Pita is an outstanding appetizer, one which will visit my table in the future. 

There’s nothing foul about this wonderful dish which is made with diced fava beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.  Given the same ingredients and asked to create something wonderful, there’s no way most of us could ever concoct anything nearly this good.  The humble fava hasn’t made significant inroads in the American diet, but in combination with the right condiments and spices, it’s more than palatable.  Fava beans have tremendous healthful benefits, too.

Foul Mudammas with Pita

20 September 2016: The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  Trays of baklava behind a glass pastry case may elicit involuntary salivation.  Don’t hesitate to order the pistachio baklava.  This baklava is on par with the pistachio baklava at the Anatolia Doner Kebab House which means it’s the very best in New Mexico.  The salty pistachios are a perfect foil for the cloying honey, making this a dessert of complementary and contrasting flavors which go so well together.  Bite into the layers of luscious flaky phylo and you’ll be rewarded with a moist, delicious, wonderful way to finish an outstanding meal.

Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is reminiscent of the type of restaurant you’d find in an ethnic rich area of a large metropolitan area.  It is frequented by customers of all ethnicities, the common denominator being the recognition that this is a very special restaurant with incomparable food, terrific service and the type of grilling skills I envy.

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant
4001 San Pedro
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 888-2921
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2016
1st VISIT:  13 November 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shish Kabob Platter, Lamb Shawarma Platter, Fresh Pita Bread, Bakdunecea Salad, Garden Salad, Dolmes, Falafel, Baba Ganouj, Shisk KaftaPlatter, Beef Shawarma, Tabbouli, Chicken Shawarma, Foul Mudammas with Pita, Fatoush, Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Mart Middle East Grocery & Alquds Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1 2 3 117