Namaste Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Namaste: Incomparable Indian and Nepalese Cuisine in Rio Rancho

Several years ago while leading my organization’s e-business marketing and communication effort at Intel, I had the great fortune of hiring a phenomenal Web developer recently arrived from India. In the process of filling out one of our complicated employment forms he transposed his name, writing his last name then his middle initial and first name instead of the way hinted at on the complicated form.

As a result, during the entire time he worked for us we all called him Kolli, his last name. He was too polite to tell us his first name is actually Srini.  Over time Srini became more acculturated, maybe even a bit “Americanized” (he’s now a huge Dallas Cowboys fan), but he’s never lost his personal warmth, good humor and impeccable manners.

A Rare Sight: Every Seat In The Restaurant Not Taken

Politeness and great manners seem to be a hallmark of Indian people…or at least those in the service industries. When colleagues ask for a romantic dinner recommendation, I frequently suggest one of the area’s Indian restaurants where impeccably attentive service and consistently excellent food impart the effect of making diners feel like welcome royalty. 

Most Indian restaurants, like my friend Srini, embody the spirit of a traditional Indian salutation, “Namaste” which is said while holding one’s hands pressed together near the heart with head gently bowed. Namaste is translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” a sign not only of respect but of deference in that the greeter recognizes not just good, but the fact that there is divinity in other people. It is something from which we oft unpolished and uncouth Americans can learn.

Bounteous, Beauteous Buffet – The Best in New Mexico

Rio Rancho  has a restaurant named for that most reverential of greetings. It opened in late July, 2008 in the small, age-worn strip mall which previously housed Tawan Thai cuisine and before that a number of other restaurants. It’s a seemingly cursed location in which restaurants seem destined to fail. If outstanding service and cuisine are portend success, Namaste has reversed the trend of failure and become a very popular dining destination in the City of Vision.  Along with the incomparable Joe’s Pasta House and the superb Cafe Bella, Namaste belongs on the pantheon of the very best restaurants in the metropolitan area.

Namaste is owned by Shree Prasad Gurung who was a mainstay at the India Palace for several years before striking out on his own. His wife Sandhya and brother-in-law Hem are the ownership triumvirate responsible for preparing not only the cuisine of India, but several Nepalese dishes as well. The charming Sandhya still has family in Nepal which was affected by the devastating earthquakes of 2015.

Sandhya, the heart and spirit of Namaste, Poses With a Painting of Her Done by Her Aunt

It’s with increased rarity (at least in Albuquerque) that you find any restaurant which greets you before the door with irresistible aromas. In that respect, Namaste is indeed an anachronism because it does capture you before the door with wafting emanations that bid you welcome and which just may have a Pavlovian effect on your taste buds.  Along with Siam Thai, it may be the most aromatically arousing restaurant in the Albuquerque area.

Similar to most Indian restaurants in the Duke City area, Namaste offers a very inexpensive for the quality lunch buffet. It’s not quite as Bacchanalian as the buffet at the now defunct India Palace, but it provides an excellent introduction to its diverse and delicious offerings. As much as you’ll enjoy the buffet, your dining experience is Namaste is incomplete if you don’t take it to the next level. That would be returning for dinner when the quality is an order of magnitude better. During dinner, the ambiance speaks of refinement and only part of that is attributable to the absence of diners who visit the buffet three or four times in one seating. The lights are subdued and tones are hushed in the evening.

Garlic Naan, the very best in Albuquerque (as good as my mom’s tortillas)

Among the appetizer selections on the buffet, you might find vegetable samosa, crisp patties stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. Samosas have reportedly been an Indian specialty since before the tenth century. They are delicious as is or dipped into one of the various chutneys. Namaste offers several excellent chutneys–onion, mint, tamarind and more–none of which are subtle in their impact on your taste buds. Flame imbibing New Mexicans will love the jalapeño chutney, a neon green amalgam of the fiery pepper, vinegar and other spices. The vinegar balances the heat of the jalapeño while the jalapeño cuts the tartness of the vinegar. It’s as good, if not better, than many salsas we’ve had.

Of course one of the best ways to enjoy the chutneys is with naan, the incomparable Indian flat bread which is a staple accompaniment to most hot meals in India. Naan bears some resemblance to pita bread and, like pita bread, is usually leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven fired by charcoal where the temperature at the bottom is maintained at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The tandoor oven is from which tandoori cooking derives its name.

Paneer Pakora

The menu features several variations on the freshly baked white flour bread. Those include garlic naan in which the naan is garnished with minced garlic. There’s also cheese naan in which the white flour bread is, you guessed it, stuffed with cheese. Another intriguing naan is the kashmiri, freshly baked white flour bread stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. At first glance you might think thin-sliced pizza or even lavosh, the flat, thin Armenian flat bread. After a bite or two, you might notice a semblance in flavor to the ubiquitous Christmas fruit cake. That’s because of the cherry and raisin influence which not only adds sweetness, but color to the naan. That sweetness isn’t overwhelmingly cloying like fruit cake; it provides a nice contrast and balance of flavors. 

21 June 2015: Turophiles, those of us who love cheese in all its fetid and aromatic forms, know all about paneer, the soft, crumbly farmer’s cheese native to India.  Who among us hasn’t enjoyed saag paneer (cooked spinach studded with cubed of fried paneer cheese) and mutter paneer (peas and farmer’s cheese in a tomato based sauce, spiced with garam masala)?  Because it’s not offered on the buffet, fewer have enjoyed paneer pakora, slices of homemade cheese stuffed with mint and spices, wrapped in garbanzo bean batter and deep-fried.  At four to an order, these golden-sheened beauties are absolutely delicious.  Paneer isn’t nearly as “melty,” gooey and oozy as say, goat cheese and it’s not as sharp as even the mildest Cheddar, but it’s got a very pleasant and mild personality that couples well with the mint chutney.

My Kim’s Buffet Plate: Mostly Tandoori Chicken and Meatballs

When you mention tandoori cooking, you’ve got to include tandoori chicken in the discussion. Namaste marinates its chicken in a fabulous array of exotic spices then broils it over mesquite in the tandoor oven. The mesquite imparts a smoky redolence to the chicken that renders it impossible to stop eating. Namaste’s tandoori chicken may just be the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The dinner menu offers several tandoori specialties, all prepared in the cylindrical clay tandoori oven and fired by charcoal to a constant temperature at the bottom of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several lamb dishes are prepared on the tandoori oven.  Among them are lamb tikka kabob which is lamb marinated in herbs and spices and lamb seekh kabob, spicy ground lamb molded on skewers and broiled in the tandoor oven. The lamb on the tikka kabob is cut into slightly larger than bite-sized cubes. The lamb seekh kabob might is cylindrical in shape, like a short, fat cigar, and in texture might remind you of rolled up gyros meat. The plate on which the lamb dishes are presented arrives at your table with a sizzling flair. It is lined with grilled onions and peppers which lend to the flavor explosions. Both lamb dishes will convert even the most staunch non-lamb eaters. In part, that’s because none of the characteristic “gaminess” of lamb is evident, but also because both dishes are very well flavored and enjoyable to eat.

Chicken Vindaloo

24 January 2011: The tandoori chicken is similarly delicious and also served two ways. The first is chicken tikka kabob, or delicately spiced boneless chicken breast cut into large pieces. This chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned. The second presentation is of tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh combination marinated and broiled over mesquite.  Still the very best chicken dish on the menu is the chicken tikka masala, boneles chicken  with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices.  Preparation of chicken tikka masala is a two-step process.  First the chicken is baked in a tandoor then cooked in a thick, creamy “gravy” of tomato sauce, cream and spices.  The charcoal tandoor oven imparts an unmistakably distinctive smoky flavor to the chicken while the creamy tomato sauce imparts a sweet piquancy to an absolutely marvelous dish.

24 January 2011: My very favorite vegetarian entree at any restaurant is mattar paneer, green peas with Indian farmer cheese (paneer) in a creamy gravy.  Paneer is a fresh, unaged, non-melting cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or some other food acid.  It’s not necessarily the type of cheese you’d want to snack on as you might a slice or two of Kraft singles, but it’s the perfect cheese for the creamy gravy seasoned to perfection.  Mattar paneer is rich and utterly delicious, prepared to your level of piquancy.  No one in New Mexico does it better than Namaste.

Mattar Paneer

You might also opt to make dinner an adventurous event by trying one of the menu’s six Nepali dishes. Santa Fe has had a Himalayan restaurant for years, but Nepali dishes in Albuquerque were scarce until Namaste. The Nepalese diet consists heavily of lentil and rice dishes along with vegetable curries and a side dish called anchar, which are pickled vegetables and fruits (tomato, mango, cucumber, etc.), much like a chutney. There are many similarities to Indian food in Nepalese cooking.

26 October 2008: It may surprise you to discover similarities to Chinese food as well.  That’s especially true in Kathmandu where  the most popular lunch and snack item served are steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings known as “Momo.”  Namaste features both chicken and lamb momo.  The lamb momo plate consists of ten dumplings stuffed with ground and spiced lamb served with a piquant and delicious tomato achar.  It’s easy to see why this would be the most popular dish in Nepal.  The only downer for me is that the achar is served cold and the momo just warm.  Submerge the momo into the achar and it cools off quickly.  Still, this is a minor inconvenience and should not deter you from trying a delicious entree.

Lamb Momo

21 June 2015: When the Gurungs moved to New Mexico, they soon fell in love with green chile and have been roasting two sacks per year of the best Hatch has to offer.  it stands to reason that they’d eventually incorporate green chile into their menu.  Over the years, the green chili (SIC) chicken curry has become one of the most popular dishes offered at Namaste.  One of the reasons New Mexicans have adopted this dish as one of their own is that the green chile has plenty of heat, even more than the restaurant’s incendiary chicken vindaloo.  The curry incorporates a variety of aromatic spices that waft toward your nostrils like a fragrant breeze, possessing a flavor profile that’s sweet, savory, piquant and addictive.  It’s akin to a thick gravy punctuated with larger than bite-sized pieces of chicken.  In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded this dish a “Hot Plate” award signifying its recognition as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”

24 December 2015: Manhattan Chef Dan Barber likes to say that “clean plates don’t lie.”  It’s an adage that describes all my dining experiences at Namaste.  Only the combination platters challenge fulfilling Barber’s adage.  Namaste offers five combination platters, each as delicious as they are bountiful.  Each platter comes with your choice of dal (a yellow lentil soup) or chicken with rice soup as well as your choice of plain or garlic naan.  As if this isn’t enough, dessert is also provided, either Kheer (rice and cream), Gulab Jamun (fried dough in sweet syrup), Gajar ka halva (described below) or mango custard depending on which of the five platters you order. 

Combination Platter

Non-Vegetable Dinner Combination Platter

My favorite of the combination platters is the Non-Vegetarian dinner combination (Chicken Tikka Masala, Shrimp Sang, Lamb Curry).  This platter should come with a warning label.  Not only is it exceptionally delicious, it features three of the richest entrees on the menu.  You’re well advised to temper the richness with the Raita, an Indian yogurt and cucumber condiment which soothes your palate and stands up to the creamy richness of the entrees.  Indian cuisine isn’t always noted for its contributions to seafood, but the shrimp sang  dish warrants plenty of love.  This dish features several large shrimp nestled in a rich pureed spinach and cream sauce.  The sweet shrimp snap when you bite into them and provide a nice contrast to the rich creaminess of the dish.  It’s my favorite of the three entrees in this combination platter, but not by much.  All three are outstanding! 

30 July 2016: Ask the dear-hearted Sandhya to recommend a dish and she’s likely to tout the incendiary deliciousness of the chicken vindaloo.  Vindaloo dishes didn’t originate in India, but in Europe and weren’t originally intended to be piquant, but garlicky-vinegary.  The transformation to a fiery dish is rather recent, but there’s no going back.  The blends of spices and seasonings that give Vindaloo its signature heat are here to stay.  There’s an Indian restaurant in New York City which prepares a vindaloo dish so potent that chefs wear gas masks to protect them from the heat level.  Namaste’s chicken vindaloo isn’t nearly that piquant, but it does have a very pleasant burn.  Moreover, it’s got an amazing flavor.  It’s no wonder it’s Sandhya’s favorite dish.

Green Chili Chicken Curry

21 June 2015: Meals at Namaste are extraordinary and you’ll savor each and every bite as you experience flavor combinations and taste explosions that will enrapt all ten-thousand of your taste buds.  As challenging as it is to stop eating, make sure to save room for a dessert specialty that this restaurant prepares better than any other Indian restaurant of my acquaintance.  It’s Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet and dense confection made with carrots, butter and milk.  Though the julienne carrots are served warm, they’re not mushy in the least, but retain a discernible crunchiness.  Namaste adds shaved almonds for an even crunchier contrast.  This is a rich dessert as good, if not better, than any carrot cake.

You might notice that my rating for Namaste is the highest I’ve accorded to any Indian restaurant in New Mexico.  Namaste may not be as big or ostentatious as its competition, but in my estimation, it’s much better.  My friend and colleague Tushar Desai, a Bombay native and globetrotter who’s traveled extensively across the fruited plain as a project manager for Microsoft confirms this, saying Namaste is in the top three to five Indian restaurants at which he’s dined in North America.  That’s exceedingly high praise from a true connoisseur whose opinion I value.  

Gajar ka Halwa, one of my favorite desserts in the world

On November 14th, 2015, Namaste launched its second location in the Albuquerque metropolitan area.  Located at 110 Yale in the University of New Mexico area, the new location will bring the best Indian food in the state to a wider demographic.  With its proximity to a wider base, look for Namaste to earn “best Indian food” perennially.   Namaste’s walls are festooned by framed certificates naming it among Albuquerque’s top five Indian restaurants by Albuquerque The Magazine voters.  Methinks with greater proximity to a wider voting populace, you can replace the the term “among the best” with “the very best.”

The only thing that could have improved our visits to Namaste would have been sharing our meal with Srini, who in his infinite politeness, tells me I can still call him Kolli as long as I call him friend.

Namaste Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-3126
Web Site | Facebook Page
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2016
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori, Gajar ka Halwa, Green Chili Chicken Curry, Mutter Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala, Non-Vegetable Combination Platter, Chicken Vindaloo

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

Jhett’s Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Rio Rancho Country Club, home to Jhett’s Restaurant

In its halcyon days, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club in Rio Rancho was considered one of the city’s crown jewels.  Its undulating 18-hole championship course with strategically placed deciduous trees and challenging water hazards once hosted the Charley Pride Golf Fiesta, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the state.  Built in 1970, the 212-acre development was flanked by upscale gated communities and boasted of magnificent panoramic views showcasing the reddish hues of the Sandias at sunset and the twinkling city lights of Albuquerque at night. 

Alas, over time escalating water rates made operating the course economically onerous.  Soon denuded fairways and eroded bunkers replaced the once verdant grounds.  In 2013, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club was auctioned off to be purchased nearly a year later by visionary entrepreneurs Bob Gallagher and Jhett Browne who immediately began putting into action their plans for restoring the operation to prominence and profitability.  The two negotiated significant water rate reduction rates and plan for reduced turf areas to conserve water.  At fruition, they hope to revivify the facility into one of the area’s best event centers, not just golf clubs.

View to the East from the dining room patio

Rebranded as Club Rio Rancho, the sprawling complex includes two nine-hole golf courses, six resurfaced and lighted tennis courts, a remodeled swimming pool, a members-only restaurant and lounge with an outdoor cigar bar, a three-level bar and grill with televisions and outdoor patio seating and a remodeled indoor restaurant with a patio facing the Sandias.  While some of the facilities and amenities remain available only to club members, the priceless “billion-dollar views” are available to the general public as is what promises to be an exciting fine-dining venture.

From its sprawling patio, the eponymous Jhett’s Restaurant may just have the very best views of any restaurant in the metropolitan area with the possible exception of Sandiago’s Mexican Grill.  There’s a view for all seasons and times of day from the east-facing large picture windows, too.  Jhett’s offers live music and dancing every Friday and Saturday starting at 8PM and a bountiful Sunday brunch, the type of which have seemingly become an anachronism.

The dining room in which Sunday brunch is served from 11AM to 2PM

The dinner menu bespeaks fine-dining belied by a price-point that’s surprisingly competitive with fine-dining establishments in far less ostentatious digs.  Whether your choice emanates from the land (such as the Bleu Cheese Crusted Angus Filet, Ribeye Steak or Lamb T-Bone) or sea (Stuffed Filet of Sole, Honey Ginger Shrimp or Lobster tail), you’ll find it on the menu.  Soups and salads as well as “nothing but noodles” entrees (such as Baked Lasagna Bolonaise and Spinach Ravioli) are also available. 

The all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch is quickly becoming a Rio Rancho Sunday tradition.  Available from 11AM through 2PM, the buffet-style brunch is the antithesis of the grab, gobble and go fare one associates with the terms “all-you-can-eat” and “buffet.”  A fusillade of well-laid out tables with silver heating trays offer dish after dish of beautifully edible creations arranged aesthetically.  An omelet station with eight different fillings is at the ready as is a carving station where a deft server cleaves generous slices from a large roast beef prepared at medium rare.  Desserts aplenty and a beverage table round out the cavalcade of deliciousness.

Some of the magnificent brunch offerings

4 January 2015: Rightfully so, the hand-carved roast beef is the primary draw.  The roast beef has a deep brown, crisp, crackly, unctuous crust around the edges.  The medium-rare interior is moist and tender, signs of optimum temperature control and cooking time.  You can have your roast beef with au jus or with a creamy horseradish that’ll water your eyes.  There are a number of other proteins on the buffet trays: bacon, sausage, fish and more.  The macaroni and cheese is some of the best we’ve had in a while while the Eggs Benedict dish is delightfully creative.  Instead of an English muffin, the poached egg and Hollandaise sauce rest inside a hollowed-out tomato.

13 September 2015: On Sundays in which the roast beef isn’t featured fare, you’ll find a large hand-carved ham served with a cranberry-pineapple glaze.  The ham is hardly a consolation prize.  It’s pulchritudinously pink with a salty-smoky deliciousness that complements the glaze so well.  Few things go as well with ham as au gratin potatoes and Jhett’s version is seconds-worthy.  We honestly couldn’t remember the last time we had a second portion of au gratin potatoes.  That’s how good these are.


The dessert table doesn’t have tremendous variety, but what it lacks in quantity, it made up for in deliciousness. Alternatively you can sate your sweet tooth with the various fruits. The cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple have an in-season freshness and flavor. Throughout our meal we were well taken care of by an attentive server staff who replenished our beverages and made savvy recommendations. All this and million dollar views of the Sandias.

Jhett’s Restaurant is a welcome addition to the Rio Rancho fine-dining scene. An excellent brunch is just the prelude to future fine-dining ventures in what is once again becoming one of Rio Rancho’s crown jewels.

Jhett’s Restaurant
500 Country Club Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2015
1st VISIT: 4 January 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

Jhett's on Urbanspoon

Ahh! Sushi – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED: 2015)

Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

The year was 1997. Recently thawed from a thirty year cryogenic state, Dr. Evil addressed the United Nations about his diabolical scheme to hold the world ransom: “ In a little while you’ll notice that the Kreplachistani warhead has gone missing. If you want it back, you’re going to have to pay me…one million dollars.” After the United Nations officials erupted in laughter, Dr. Evil quickly corrected himself “sorry…one hundred billion dollars.”

The interior of Ahh Sushi

The interior of Ahh Sushi

When our mere pittance of a bill arrived after my friends Paul, Bill, Fred and I had polished off a boatload of all-you-can-eat sushi at Ahh! Sushi, the 1997 movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, quickly came to mind. Considering all we had eaten, we half expected an evil sushi chef to come out from behind the curtain and say “sorry…one thousand dollars.” We didn’t add up what the sushi would have cost had we not availed ourselves of the all-you-can-eat offering, but suffice to say, we ate our money’s worth and then some.


Miso Soup

The only sticker shock visitors to Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho receive is shock (and maybe a little bit of awe, too) at how inexpensive all you can eat can be. I won’t list the cost for fear the owner will read this review and figure out he’s not charging enough. Now, the natural inclination of skeptics reading this is to assume the quality of Ahh Sushi’s sushi is comparable to the inedible sushi you find in grocery stores or all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. At Ahh Sushi, there is no correlation between cost and quality—for just a little more than you’d pay for a couple Happy Meals, you’ll partake of surprisingly high quality and absolutely delicious sushi.

Salad with ginger-teriyaki dressing

Salad with ginger-teriyaki dressing

With your meal, you’ll also receive your choice of miso soup or salad, and as Ronco’s famous pitchman Ron Popeil would say, “and that’s not all.” With your ginsu knives….er, sushi, you’ll also get your choice of an appetizer.  If you’re with a group and if not overwhelmed with dine-in traffic, the accommodating kitchen might even prepare a Sampler Platter: egg rolls, tempura shrimp and vegetables, dumplings and onion rings.  The tempura shrimp and vegetables are excellent, comparable in quality and flavor to the tempura at Mr. Tokyo, a Duke City standard-bearer for tempura.  Served with a sweet-savory dipping sauce, the crispy, fresh vegetables are lightly sheathed in a crispy tempura batter that allows the vegetables and shrimp to shine.

 Sampler Platter: Egg Rolls, Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables, Dumplings, Onion Rings

Sampler Platter: Egg Rolls, Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables, Dumplings, Onion Rings

The all-you-can-eat sushi is served daily for lunch only from 11:30AM to 3:00PM.  You can eschew the all-you-can eat offering and select from among some fifty specialty rolls, not all of which are available on the sushi buffet.  Contrary to some sushi buffets in which offerings are limited to modified California rolls, Ahh Sushi’s buffet includes some terrific and addictive offerings: Crunchy Roll, Fried Philadelphia Roll, Green Chile Roll, Green Salmon Roll, Santa Fe Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Spider Roll and more.  Nigiri sushi (sliced raw fish with a molded ball of rice underneath) is not part of the all-you-can-eat menu.

Tuna roll, Santa Fe roll with wasabi and ginger

Tuna roll, Santa Fe roll with wasabi and ginger

There are some definite winners in the line-up.  The Santa Fe Roll (crab, cucumber, cream cheese, shrimp tempura and green chili (sic) tempura topped with all tuna and sauced with spicy mayo, Sriracha chili and teriyaki) is terrific, a synthesis of flavors that go very well together.  A commonality among the spicy rolls is spiciness (go figure).  The spicy tuna roll brings the heat with it at no sacrifice to taste.  The green chile on its eponymous roll is incendiary enough to make New Mexicans proud.  Ahh Sushi doesn’t scrimp on seafood and overindulge on rice.  The green salmon roll (salmon, seaweed salad mix an crab stick all wrapped with cucumber wrap) includes a generous amount of salmon.


Boatloads of sushi at our table

Rio Rancho’s Ahh Sushi opened in September, 2013, two years after its elder sibling opened at the Riverside Plaza just north of Montaño on Coors.  As with its scion, the Rio Rancho instantiation is sports friendly with flat screen televisions positioned for ESPN viewing.  Framed shirts signed by Dallas Cowboys’ hall-of-fame players Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith hang on separate walls, but the restaurant will serve everyone–even New York Giants fans.  Overall, Ahh! Sushi isn’t  much on ambiance, but the focus of the highly regarded restaurants at the small, age-worn strip mall (which includes the legendary Namaste and Rub-N-Wood Barbecue) in which it resides is on great food, not ambiance.


Spicy Tuna Roll, Green Chile Roll, New Mexico Roll

My friends, especially Bill who visits Ahh Sushi so often his mail is being delivered there, find all the ambiance they need in the feminine pulchritude serving their meals, especially when the vivacious Monique Candelaria is on call (Mondays).  If the WWE’s Bella Twins need a triplet for their act, they should call on the alluring brunette…not that the stunning Monique hasn’t had several casting calls.  She’s been in a number of movies as well as on Breaking Bad.  Monique has got an Academy Award-winning smile and is as gregarious as can be. There’s no one in Albuquerque who delivers sushi better than she does.

The vivacious Monique Candelaria. Someday we'll say we knew her back when...

The vivacious Monique Candelaria. Someday we’ll say we knew her back when…

The interjection “Ahh” is used to convey understanding or realization as in “ahh, this is great sushi.”  It’s an interjection heard often at All! All Out Sushi.

Ahh! Sushi
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 January 2014
1st VISIT: 14 October 2013
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: All-You-Can Eat Sushi, Tempura Shrimp and Vegetables, Miso Soup

Ahh's Sushi Rio! on Urbanspoon

La Fonda Del Bosque – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Fonda Del Bosque within the sprawling National Hispanic Cultural Center

In the millennium year, after years of planning and lobbying, the dream was finally realized of a haven  dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and advancement of Hispanic culture, arts, and humanities. In 2000, the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), launched along the Camino Real in the Albuquerque’s historic Barela’s neighborhood.  The Center is an architectural anomaly in a largely adobe-hued area, its unique structures including a renovated hacienda-style school, a stylized Mayan pyramid with interior elements modeled on Romanesque architecture and a torreon (tower) housing a 4,000 square foot concave fresco depicting over 3,000 years of Hispanic history.

Ironically the complex chartered to preserve, protect and promote Hispanic culture had to displace several families, thereby disenfranchising some of the very families who embody the Hispanic culture in Albuquerque.  One resident–the late Adela Martinez–stared down bureaucrats and made them blink, refusing to move.  The forty-million dollar Cultural Center had to be redesigned to accommodate her family in the home she moved into in the 1920s.  Today, her family’s two small houses stand out, not like a sore thumb, but as a testament to the courage of one 80-year old Hispanic woman whose treasured memories were worth much more than the monetary treasures government offered.


The home of Adela Martinez, a New Mexico treasure

Since November, 2000, the converted Barelas Elementary School on the sprawling NHCC complex has served as the home of La Fonda Del Bosque, a stylish 280-seat restaurant.    La Fonda, which translates from Spanish to “The Inn” almost immediately garnered recognition.  Within three years of its launch,  Hispanic magazine named it one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the United States for two consecutive years (2003 and 2004).  It was also named one of Gourmet Magazine’s “Best Kept Secrets.” A higher compliment is that many locals love it, too, especially during the Sunday brunch when they can sample a greater bounty of Hispanic favorites.

Over the years, a number of catering and restaurant management companies have tried their hand at running La Fonda Del Bosque.  The most recent to take the helm is A KayTahRing Company which began operating the restaurant in June, 2012.  After several years of serving New Mexican food, the new operators are taking the restaurant in a new direction, showcasing “flavors, cooking styles and ingredients from the 27 countries comprising Central and South America and the Latino Caribbean islands” according to the restaurant’s Web site.

Dining Room at La Fonda Del Bosque

La Fonda is open for breakfast and lunch as well as for brunch on Sundays. Dinner is served only for special events when the upscale milieu really shines.   While the menu offerings may have a Latin fusion flair, the ambiance at La Fonda Del Bosque is most decidedly Southwestern with a pronounced New Mexican influence.  The centerpiece of the dining room is a wood-burning fireplace that may make you wish it was winter so you could imbibe the aromas of piñon wood.  On bright New Mexican summer days, the  tinwork light fixtures aren’t much needed because the large windows let in so much natural light.  Service is impeccable. 

The restaurant’s Web site describes the menu as “one bold statement after another.”   At the very least, it’s an ambitious menu that crosses over several borders and culinary cultures.  That’s especially true of the prix fixe menu for brunch which couples a buffet and a number of items from the menu.  Stainless steel vessels hold such buffet items as smoked salmon lox, Argentine prawn and chili quiche, seasonal fruit, Cuban Torrejas, Peruvian Ceviche Limon and twin crepes.  Don’t fill your plate too much because you’ll also have the opportunity to order an entree from the “kitchen” menu.  This menu ranges from the simple (huevos rancheros) to the complex (Seafood Valencia Paella).

Sunday Brunch Offerings Include Seafood Valencia (Paella made with chicken, chorizo, prawns, mussels and peas); smoked salmon lox; Argentine Prawn and Chili Quiche

The attentive wait staff does their best to ensure the buffet items are replenished so diners will always have fresh and warm food.  Their efforts are more successful when a passel of diners empties the serving vessels almost as quickly as the servers fill them.  Such was the case during our inaugural visit which transpired on the same day the Japanese Fall Festival was being held on the grounds of the Center.  Apparently a number of diners preferred Latin inspired cuisine to Japanese fare because La Fonda was quite crowded when we arrived.

Among the buffet items which would have stood out was the smoked salmon lox with cream cheese, capers, red onions and eggs.  Alas, the toasted bagels intended to be the canvas upon which to heap the other ingredients were stale and dry.  Still, who can resist salmon, capers and cream cheese, a triumvirate of taste. Also good were Cuban Torrejas, essentially pain perdu (French toast) stuffed with strawberry and mamey glaze, and topped with whipped Cream.   The Peruvian Ceviche Limon, fresh raw fish, calamari, octopus and shrimp served with yam and Peruvian corn was rather uninspired, a far cry from Peruvian ceviche we’ve had elsewhere. It lacked the freshness and the citrus-tinged zip of a great ceviche.

Carne Asada con Huevos al Gusto (Native to Northern Mexico): Half-pound charbroiled sirloin with 2 eggs any style, served with breakfast potatoes, adobo sauce

My choice from the menu was paella, but not just any paella. According to the menu, it was Seafood Valencia,  named for the city in Spain in which paella originated.  Valencia isn’t just where paella was first made, it’s where it’s best made.  Paella is a great source of local pride for Valencianos where it’s made so well that, much like some Italian food, its flavors improve into the next day.  Similar to the paella made in Valencia, La Fonda’s rendition has a slightly crunchy edge.  It’s replete with bite-sized pieces of chicken, seasoned pork sausage, prawns, mussels and green peas embedded in a mound of saffron-infused rice.   The portion size is more than generous, but the experience would have been even more authentic and fun had it been served in a paellera, the flat steel pan in which paella is traditionally prepared.  Exercise caution not to ladle out the paella on the buffet table (unless you really like paella) because it will count as your entree. 

Another palate pleasing entree is the carne asada con huevos al gusto, a plate native to Northern Mexico.  The carne asada is a half-pound charbroiled sirloin steak prepared to your exacting level of doneness.  In some Mexican restaurants–both in Mexico and in New Mexico–a half-pound sometimes means two portions of thinly cut, usually tough as leather steak so it’s a surprise to find a thick, juicy steak that’s almost fork tender.  Literally the term “huevos al gusto” translates to “eggs to your pleasure,” but really means “eggs made the way you want them.”  The breakfast potatoes are excellent, but the adobo sauce lacked any real punch.

Tiramisu and white chocolate truffle

The brunch menu also includes a dessert bar featuring such sweet-tooth favorites as tiramisu, truffles, and fruit tarts.  The tiramisu would never be mistaken for the tiramisu made at Torinos @ Home, not by a long stretch, but it’s better than out-of-the-box.

La Fonda Del Bosque offers catering services for special events such as weddings and anniversaries. With a patio which can accommodate as many as 1,500 guests, it’s a perfect venue for a good time.

La Fonda Del Bosque
Hispanic Cultural Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 September 2012
COST: $$

La Fonda Del Bosque on Urbanspoon

India Palace – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The India Palace, one of Albuquerque’s most popular Indian restaurants

When many of us think of romantic destinations to visit or in which to honeymoon, our choices probably mirror closely those of US News & World Report which listed among their 22 best honeymoon destinations such exotic locations as Kauai, Maui, Florence, Crete, Santorini and even Las Vegas, Nevada.  The authors apparently didn’t think enchantment is synonymous with romance or wedded  bliss because no New Mexico locations made the list,  Surprisingly, neither did any destination in India. 

Not everyone equates India with romance, but its ancient legends, history and monuments are rich with tales of profound love.  One of the world’s most far-famed love offerings is the opulent and ethereal Taj Mahal, built by a grieving emperor in memory of his dearly beloved wife and queen.  India also gave the world the Kama Sutra, an ancient Hindu text widely recognized as a definitive guide to the nature of love and the pleasure-oriented aspects of human life.  Hindus understood the importance of fore foreplay, paying significant attention to light, music, touch, smell, drink and food before moving on to carnal pleasures.

Preprandial pleasure: tamarind, onion and mint chutneys.

Preprandial pleasure: tamarind, onion and mint chutneys.

Sensual, tactile, pleasurable–those adjectives are probably used more frequently to describe the practices of the Kama Sutra, it wouldn’t be a stretch to apply those adjectives to an outstanding meal of Indian cuisine, maybe to add even more superlatives.  Those adjectives certainly apply to a meal at the Indian Palace on the southeast intersection of Wyoming and Montgomery in Albuquerque. Sensual certainly applies because the intoxicating aromas of exotic spices infiltrate olfactory senses which some physiologists indicate are a key to arousal.

Tactile is appropriate because you’ll keep your hands busy tearing off hunks of naan (Indian flat bread made from wheat with a slightly flaky crust baked in a tandoor) to dip into one of the restaurant’s wonderful chutneys. India Palace offers a variety of naan including an absolutely delicious garlic naan which is garnished with parsley and slightly moistened with ghee, the rich clarified butter prominent in Indian cuisine. Perhaps even better is the onion naan with bits of crunchy green onion baked right in.

Garlic Naan, some of Albuquerque’s best

As heretical as it may sound, there are times in which I believe naan is even better than the ubiquitous New Mexican tortilla with which I grew up. The India Palace bakes some of the best naan we’ve  had in New Mexico–naan which it’s easy to envision being used to sop up chile.  If naan can be compared, even if loosely, to the tortilla then poori is akin to New Mexico’s beloved sopaipilla.  Poori is a deep-fried whole wheat bread which puffs up as golden pillows of delicious goodness which just might have you longing for honey.

Another tactile pleasure begins shortly after you’re seated when a complementary plate of papadum (pictured above) accompanied by three stainless steel vessels of Indian chutneys is brought to your table. Papadum are crispy crackers somewhat resembling flattened taco shells, but far more brittle. They’re made with lentil flour and have a brittle texture, breaking easily so they can be dipped into the accompanying chutneys.

Poori, Deep-fried whole wheat bread

Indian chutney is usually prepared to be eaten fresh and as a genre, might be compared to the familiar salsas served throughout New Mexico. Authentic chutneys usually contain a significant amount of olfactory-arousing, tongue-tingling spices (including piquant green chili peppers) and center around a wide variety of vegetables or fruits. Among the most popular chutneys are a red onion chutney, a mint chutney and a fruity, semi-sweet tamarind chutney (all three pictured above).

Few things in life are as pleasurable as a meal of well prepared, perfectly seasoned Indian food and the India Palace is Albuquerque’s premier practitioner of that art. Lunch time is when the restaurant is most crowded with white- and blue-collar workers partaking of the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Mulligatawney, a melodic name for a savory soup.

Mulligatawney, a melodic name for a savory soup.

In the evening, everything is an order of magnitude (or more) better. That’s when you get the full India Palace treatment: subdued lighting, impeccably formal service, a nattily attired wait staff, perfectly aligned place settings, starched maroon napkins–and no buffet to tempt you away from the outstanding menu offerings.That dinner menu features several pages of traditional Indian favorites, about 70 choices in all. Whether your pleasure be appetizers, entrees or desserts, chances are you’ll enjoy whatever you order.

New Mexican   spice aficionados (not to mention fans of the Seinfeld “soup Nazi” episode) might want to start with the India Palace’s Mulligatawny (pictured above), a mildly spicy soup comprised of vegetables and nuts seasoned with curry powder and pepper then served with rice. It’s very flavorful though it can always be improved with even more pepper and a tad more salt.

Your best bet–dining with friends and sharing entrees

Among the entrees, the tandoori dishes, especially tandoori chicken, seem to be especially popular. Traditionally, tandoori cooking is done in a Tandoor, a clay oven which heats to temperatures in excess of 500 degrees and imprints meat with a smoky flavor. Meats are marinated in a mixture of spices, herbs and yogurt that permeate them with a distinctive red color.  At the Palace, the tandoori lamb, chicken and fish are all wonderful. A mixed tandoori grill entree includes a chicken breast, drumstick, sausage and prawn, all lavished with breathtaking spices. It’s the best way to sample a variety of palate pleasing meats.

Even if you think you don’t like Indian food and lamb in particular, the Sheek Kabob (pictured below) will win you over. It’s choice, minced lamb seasoned with mild spices (mint and ginger are easily discernable) and barbecued on skewers in a clay oven. It has the texture of sausage and little of the gaminess often associated with lamb dishes. It is simply one of the very best lamb dishes around.

Sheek Kabob with mattar paneer.

Sheek Kabob with mattar paneer.

Aficionados of piquant foods might also be drawn to the restaurant’s vindaloo offerings. This curry dish is prepared with tamarind paste, chile, pepper, vinegar and other seasonings to imbue it with a rich taste. The import of chili peppers in the 16th century by Portuguese traders led to the development of vindaloo dishes in Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the Indian coast. In the land of the Kama Sutra, the late-arriving chile pepper had a very significant impact on romance, earning repute as a powerful aphrodisiac (to be eaten, not rubbed on sensitive private parts).

The degree of heat at which vindaloo is served at Indian restaurants throughout the world ranges in restaurants from barely tepid by New Mexican chile standards to sheer delicious agony with enough heat to make grown adults weep. In fact, in some restaurants in London and even New York City, it’s almost a sport to see how piquant intrepid diners can stand their vindaloo.

Lamb vindaloo

Lamb vindaloo

Duke City diners need not worry about being overtaken by delicious fumes and overpowering heat. The vindaloo at the Indian Palace isn’t even as piquant as a bowl of chile at Sadie’s. You can ask for additional spices and chile to be added if you wish. Whatever your taste, the Palace serves a very good lamb vindaloo.  To quell a fiery tongue resultant from a particularly potent green chile, New Mexicans might turn to milk. Similarly, Indians will have a glass of room temperature lassi available as they consume the spiciest of vindaloo. Lassi is a creamy concoction made from milk and yogurt. Though it has soothing properties, it can also be quite filling.

Indian cuisine is very accommodating to vegetarian tastes with a variety of wonderful offerings all lavished with aromatic sauces: a tomato-based makhani sauce, a curry and green pea sauce called mattar (my favorite) and saag, made with gamy spinach. Many vegetarian dishes are prepared with paneer, an unaged cheese somewhat similar to pressed Ricotta. Mattar paneer and sag paneer as crafted at the India Palace might be good enough to convert carnivores to vegetarianism.

Gulab Jamun--you might swear you're tasting pancakes in syrup.

Gulab Jamun–you might swear you’re tasting pancakes in syrup.

For dessert, breakfast aficionados will appreciate gulab jamun (pictured at left) a dessert dish with a taste somewhat reminiscent of pancakes and hot syrup. Gulab Jamun is made of fried dough and covered in a sugar syrup flavored with cardamom seeds. If not for their donut hole appearance, these gems really might make you think you’re having pancakes in a thinned down syrup. They’re delicious. 

Another terrific dessert, particularly if you like paneer, is Rasmali, balls of paneer soaked in malai (clotted cream) flavored with cardamom and sprinkled with minced pistachios.  This dessert reminds me of the goat cheese we ate with syrup in Northern New Mexico.  It’s a wonderful combination of sweet and savory flavors bringing out the best in each other.  Unlike the gulab jamun, this isn’t an overly sweet dessert.

Rasmalai: Great dessert dish of paneer (farmer’s cheese) soaked in malai (clotted cream) flavored with cardamom.

While the India Palace can be a terrific precursor to a night of romance, it’s also a wonderful restaurant to share with friends and colleagues, especially if they’re from India.  My globe-trotting, gastronomically savvy friends Tushar Desai and Kannan Appuswamy give the India Palace a rousing endorsement.  They’re not impressed with Americanized Indian food and were surprised at the authenticity of most foods at the Palace.

India Palace
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 October 2011
CLOSED: May 2013
COST: $$$
BEST BET:Tandoori, Chutney, naan, mattar paneer, Sheek Kabab, Lamb Vindaloo, Mulligatawny, Gulab Jamun, Poori, Rasmalai,

India Palace (Northeast) on Urbanspoon

Tomato Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Tomato Cafe on Academy

The Tomato Cafe at its former site on Academy

You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off
Ira & George Gershwin

Let’s call the whole thing off.  If the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century had had its way, the tomato might not be a ubiquitous ingredient in the cooking of many cultures today.  So, just what is it about the seemingly innocuous tomato that once earned it a scurrilous reputation in the Church, the type of reputation which made it the  Paris Hilton of the nightshade family?  Brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, it was initially viewed with apprehension, thought not to be edible but purely decorative–and poisonous.  Leave it to the French to change that perception by ascribing aphrodisiac properties to what they called pomme d’amour or love apple.  This prompted the Roman Catholic Church of the time to declare the tomato the “fruit of the devil,” a sinful indulgence. 

The scandalous tomato, its sensuous red color and sweet-tangy flesh spurting with red juiciness, was even thought to be the fruit Eve offered to Adam.  Because of its role in original sin, the Church believed the tomato to have been cast off to the furthest reaches of man, where it could no longer be the tempting source of transgression.  More disconcerting to the Church fathers was that the tomato was deemed a symbol of tempting, bewitching femininity, a threat to the patriarchal boy’s club of the age.  Worse, the hermaphroditic tomato plant self-pollinated, needing not the seed of man. 

The exhibition kitchen at the Tomato Cafe on Montano and Coors

For nearly a century and a half after being brought from the new world, the forbidden fruit was avoided throughout Italy.  Its use was eventually spurred on by the poor in Naples who cared more about filling empty bellies than subscribing to the wrongful notions of the Church.  It was in Naples that in 1889, the tomato became forever entrenched in culinary history when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza whose colors reflected the red (marinara sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil colors of the Italian Sabauda flag.  He named the pizza the Margherita, for his queen.  

Today the once scandalized tomato is as revered as it once was reviled.  The notion of Italian food without tomatoes is nearly impossible to conceive–like a day without sunshine.  Can you imagine salsa–America’s favorite condiment–made without tomatoes?  Without tomatoes, there would be no Bloody Mary, no Caprese salad, no BLT sandwich, no ketchup and no gazpacho.  Soups, barbecue sauces, stews, ceviches, meat loaf–they would all be forever different without the ubiquitous, nutritious, delicious tomato.  To say tomatoes are the fabulous foundation of many a meal is a vast understatement. 

Slice of vegetarian pizza, ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) and meatballs

In 1993, Deborah Gagnon and Don Watroba founded an upscale, all-you-can-eat Italian buffet restaurant named Mama Lena’s.  Within a year, the restaurant changed its name to the Tomato Cafe, but by any name, this award-winning treasure can’t be mistaken for anything but a unique restaurant concept that provides great value while serving generally very good Italian favorites.  The Tomato Cafe’s mission statement is to “Provide our guests with delicious, high quality food, friendly service in a pleasant atmosphere at a good value.”  Mission Accomplished!  The restaurant has earned a gaggle of accolades, consistently winning or placing high on the Alibi’s coveted “best all-you-can-eat restaurant” category in its annual restaurant poll.  In 2002, manager Deborah Gagnon was named “restaurateur of the year” by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to this restaurant’s success.

For me, however, the endorsement I trust most comes from my esteemed friend Jacob Muller, the most precocious fourteen year old I know, who considers the Tomato Cafe his favorite restaurant.  Considering he already knows more about dinosaurs than I’ll ever learn, I put a lot of stock on his opinion.  Like Jacob, I’ve never tried any of the salad ingredients, so eager am I to dig into the main event–five handcrafted pizzas, two homemade soups, three types of pasta, breadsticks, polenta, garlic green beans, fresh broccoli, six sauces, meatballs, ravioli and ice cream with toppings included.

Gourmet pizza

Gourmet pizza

An exhibition kitchen gives you the opportunity to watch as pizza pies are deftly tossed into the air and fashioned into thin crusted orbs of deliciousness.  If a specific type of pizza isn’t available on the buffet line, one of the accommodating pizzaioli artisans can craft it for you.  The gourmet pizza is sometimes ameliorated by non-traditional pizza ingredients–feta cheese, barbecue sauce, piñon nuts, and other savory offerings.  You’ll only find thin-crusted pizza here, but it’s substantial enough to hold the great ingredients that adorn each pizza.  My very favorite is the barbecue chicken pizza in which the barbecue sauce has just the right amount of tang to make it interesting.  The chicken is applied parsimoniously, but what lands on the pizza is moist and delicious.    Also quite good is any pizza in which New Mexico green chile is added. 

Two types of soup–a vegetarian posole and a tomato basil–are positioned next to the salad ingredients in the family-style buffet line-up.  The roasted tomato basil soup is one of those comforting home-style soups which will give you pause to contemplate the greatness that is the tomato.  This flavor-rich elixir for whatever ails you is redolent with the aromas of fresh vegetables and Italian seasonings in perfect proportions.

Meatballs and penne pasta with green chile Alfredo sauce

Meatballs and penne pasta with green chile Alfredo sauce

Six sauces such as roasted tomato garlic, white clam, green chili Alfredo, sausage and Bolognese will embellish your choice of pasta.  The white and red clam sauces actually reminds me of my halcyon days in Massachusetts when my palate (and waistline) began to expand as I experienced theretofore foods outside my New Mexican comfort zone.  There’s nothing better on a cold winter day than a bowl of pasta with a generous amount of deliciously chewy clams and a tangy tomato sauce.

New Mexicans might prefer the tasty green chile Alfredo sauce (pictured above) as a pasta topper.  This sauce has a surprisingly piquant taste chile aficionados appreciate.  Next to the pizza, the favorite fare for children of all ages just might be the meatballs.  A tray of meatballs swimming in a tangy tomato sauce is frequently replenished as it seems most diners load their plates with these delicious orbs.  Other patrons prefer the ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) which is nearly as big as a Big Chief tablet.

Tomato Basil Soup

After fifteen years at its original location on Academy, the Tomato Cafe moved to the Holly Place Center at Paseo del Norte and San Pedro.  In 2010, the restaurant expanded, adding a second store in the Montano Plaza (Coors and Montano).  Since 2002, the Tomato Cafe has donated all unused food to feed the homeless, the type of civic mindedness which endears this terrific restaurant to its patrons almost as much as the food does.

Tomato Cafe
5920 Holly Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gourmet Pizza, Ravioli with Green Chile Alfredo Sauce, Red Clam Sauce, Meatballs

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Santa Ana Cafe – Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

The resort at Tamaya

As you gaze in awe at the sheer opulence of the expansive Tamaya hospitality complex and resort and consider the Santa Ana Pueblo’s Vegas-style, high-stakes gaming center or 27-hole, championship golf course, you have to conclude that the Pueblo’s tribal enterprises are flourishing–and you would be right. An entrepreneurial spirit is nothing new to the Santa Ana people. The Santa Ana (Tamaya) Pueblo has a long and storied history of forward-thinking and self-reliance. To increase its land base and agricultural production, in 1709 the pueblo purchased 5,000 acres along the Rio Grande. Coupled with its 15,000-acre Spanish land grants and other land purchases, the reservation (population about 500) is today a vast expanse of about 73,000 acres.

While Tamaya, the ancient Keresan (Keres is a group of seven related dialects spoken by Pueblo peoples) pueblo isn’t open to the public, Tamaya, the pueblo’s opulent, award-winning Hyatt Regency resort and spa is. Located just northwest of Bernalillo, Tamaya is a sprawling complex of luxurious pueblo-style guest rooms appointed with traditional designs and modern amenities. The resort is renown for its soothing spa, nationally ranked golf course and restaurants which celebrate the tri-cultural traditions of New Mexico.

The Santa Ana Cafe is the more informal and family-oriented of the two fine-dining restaurants on the site. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a comfortable setting where you’re surrounded by traditional Native American art as you dine. Picture windows provide spectacular vistas, at your forefront being the resort’s hornos in which breads are baked in time-honored ways.

Some of the tasting offerings from the Prime Rib Buffet

The menu is a melding of New Mexican and nouvelle cuisines showcased in innovative dishes, many of which are punctuated with red or green chile and other New Mexico staples. Visit after work on Friday and even if you’re determined to order one of the mouth-watering menu options, you’ll succumb to the lure of the Friday evening Prime Rib Buffet, a bargain at under $30 a person. The buffet features a slow-roasted herb-crusted prime rib of beef, au jus carved to order. With more than a hint of pink and juices oozing freely, it is richly marbled with fat and tender enough to cut with a fork. Alas, the restaurant’s horseradish is one tame pony (if it doesn’t make my eyes water and nose run, it’s not horseradish), so fortunately the au jus and a spicy chimichurri sauce are good alternatives.

You won’t see the traditional marriage of prime rib and baked potato on the Prime Rib Buffet. Instead, you’ll savor the Yukon Gold Whipped Potato Bar featuring sautéed mushrooms and onions, roasted garlic sour cream, butter, chopped bacon, cheddar cheese and scallions–all you need to dress a potato deliciously. The whipped potatoes have the tender, buttery taste of baked potatoes without the mess of the potato skin. The buffet captures the essence of a New Mexican staple and the spirit of the Caribbean with its signature grilled red chile jerked chicken. This intricate blend of uniquely pungent spices and tender poultry is even popular among children who probably think it’s some sort of barbecue.

Salads at the Santa Ana Cafe

The third carnivore’s delight on the buffet might be pork scaloppini with burgundy braised shallots. In our travels, we’ve experienced veal, beef, pork and even venison scaloppini and have had scaloppini with a variety of sauces–some sassy and sweet, some stewy and bland and some even lemony and tart, but few as complementary as the burgundy braised shallots. The pork is moist and tender with a lively melding of savory and sweet tastes. If there’s one complaint we have about the restaurant’s “meaty main event,” it’s that the meats and even Yukon gold potatoes are generally no more than lukewarm, probably to prevent them from drying out. Don’t hesitate to have the restaurant’s attentive wait staff take them to the kitchen and warm them for you. You’ll be happy you did.

A lively mélange of assorted mixed greens with a selection of toppings (including piñon, roasted corn, and bleu cheese crumbles) and dressings (the Italian dressing is incomparable and the green chile buttermilk) make for creative salads. You might also opt for a salad of nopalitos and citrus with a charred jalapeno vinaigrette. The choices are limited only by your imagination.

Chocolate decadence defines the dessert bar. Your eyes, heart and appetite will be immediately drawn to the chocolate fountain where all your fondue fantasies will be fulfilled. You can dip all the strawberries, marshmallows and pound cake you want in rich, creamy milk chocolate. It’s so popular among chocoholics that the hot fudge brownie pudding, New York style cheesecake with strawberries and other tantalizing sweet treats are virtually ignored.

Santa Ana Baby Back Ribs Sweet and Spicy Glazed Ribs served with Steak Fries and Wasabi Slaw

On the evenings in which the prime rib isn’t the featured attraction, the dinner menu provides a number of American and New Mexican specialties, all reasonably priced and generously portioned. The menu includes a build your own burger you can have your way–with a beef, chicken, tuna or veggie pattie and all your favorite fixings. One of the specialties of the house is a Dr. Pepper Glazed Short Rib, a braised, fork-tender beef short rib topped with “Old Time” Dr. Pepper glaze served with mashed sweet potatoes and sauteed fresh vegetables.

The Santa Ana Baby Back Ribs, sweet and spicy glazed ribs served with your choice of pinto beans or wasabi coleslaw, are quite good–better, in fact, than baby backs served at several local purveyors of barbecue.  These baby backs are uncharacteristically meaty and the meat is fork-tender.  As advertised, the glaze has a nice pronouncement of spicy sweetness though it’s not as much glazed on as it is slathered.  The wasabi coleslaw is considerably more piquant than the barbecue sauce though it won’t quite water your eyes either.

Fish Tacos

The lunch menu includes burgers, sandwiches, salads, soups and daily specials, some very inventively crafted.  Fish tacos, for example, are made with seared ahi topped with a cabbage slaw, a lime-cilantro crema and guacamole in a crispy, hard-shelled blue corn taco.  Though different than other fish tacos I’ve had in New Mexico, these are characteristically dry with the ahi being the dominant flavor.  More of the crema’s influence would have improved these tacos greatly.

Santa Ana Cafe
1300 Tuyuna Trail
Santa Ana Pueblo, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 March 2011
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch, Friday Evening Prime Rib Buffet, Santa Ana Baby Back Ribs

Santa Ana Cafe on Urbanspoon

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