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Cafe Fina – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cafe Fina, about twenty minutes from the Santa Fe Plaza

Living in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, my nieces expect to stay home on those blustery winter days in which (gasp, the horror) two or more inches of snow accumulate on the highways and byways. Because, they reason, sane people don’t have to risk such ”treacherous conditions,” they don’t buy the dramatic “exaggerations” my brother relates about his experiences growing up in Peñasco.  After all, how could they be expected to believe such obvious “embellishments” as my brother having walked to school in a foot of snow and having read by the light of kerosene lamps and candles when weather knocked out electrical power for hours? They certainly don’t buy what he tells them about gas stations and the service rendered during a typical fill-up and they roll their eyes when he tells them how much gas cost “way back then.” He may as well have told them he hunted dinosaurs in the woods.

There are times we look back upon our “primitive” upbringing without PCs, iPhones and satellite television and our youth seems like an episode of The Twilight Zone, a program much too bumpkinly for my worldly and sophisticated nieces. Back then, you’d pull up to a gas station and wait in your car while an attendant not only pumped your gas, but washed your windshield, checked your fluid levels, radiator hoses, tire pressure and fan belts then thanked you for your business (what a radical notion!). Even in Peñasco there were “gas wars” in which competitors lowered the price of gas to as little as 25 cents a gallon (about the price of a loaf of bread at the time). Sometimes a fill-up included a free gift. It’s no wonder my nieces regard our recollections of the “good old days” with more than a bit of healthy skepticism.

Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice, Gingerbread Square and Chocolate Croissant

Pointing out that Cafe Fina was once the type of service station my brother remembers fondly would certainly elicit guffaws of derision from my nieces…along with scatological comments about the “gaseous” (not the petroleum kind) nature of gas stations turned restaurants. Situated about twenty minutes east of the Santa Fe Plaza, Café Fina probably once have had a “Last Chance for Gasoline” sign similar to those on the edge of many western cities and towns many years ago. Today very few visages of its service station past are visible. In fact, unless someone tells you (or you put two-and-two together from the restaurant’s name) you’re about to dine at what was once a prominent gas station, you probably won’t be able to tell.

In a bit of prophetic irony, when every oil company in the mid-1960s was trying to differentiate its products from those of the competition, Fina touted “PFLASH” as an ingredient in its gasoline which would “improve the food at roadside restaurants.” Though PFLASH isn’t an ingredient on any of Café Fina’s culinary fare, it can certainly be argued that the ingredients used by this oasis on Santa Fe’s easternmost fringes make it perhaps the best eatery between Santa Fe and Las Vegas. You might be surprised at just how many guests fuel up for the day with brunch and lunch fare every day of the week and dinner Thursday through Sunday evenings.

Breakfast Burrito

Café Fina is a commodious structure with several dining rooms and an expansive patio which welcomes four-legged children of the canine persuasion. Large picture windows let in plenty of light and offer views of the pinon-studded foothills. Visit on a busy weekend and you’ll probably queue up within a few feet of the restaurant’s entrance. The line moves quickly, but not so quickly that you don’t get a generous gander at the bakery case on your left and a counter to the right with a bounty of baked goods, including quiche. The bakery case flaunts a phalanx of pies, pastries, cookies and cakes. A bevy of beverages showcases organic apple juice, orange juice, Coca cola with real sugar, Blue Sky sodas, lemonade and a number of coffee and tea options.

You might just find yourself torn between ordering the Mexican hot chocolate or the Mexican mocha. The problem is that both names are rather generic for hot beverages which may or may not have a hint of piquancy (courtesy of chile) and which usually include a number of ingredients in addition to chocolate. Because of a rather lengthy line behind us, we opted not to ask. We didn’t discern chile on the hot chocolate as has been customary since the days of a rather avaricious dude named Montezuma (who lived even before the days of 25 cent gas). Still, it’s a silky, cinnamon-kissed, rich and hot beverage not to be missed. Even more eye-opening is the orange juice, a pulpy blend with what appears to be a hit or two of seltzer for just a bit of effervescence.

Housemade Granola

Naturally you can’t have hot chocolate and orange juice without pastries and Café Fina offers only the best. Those pastries come from the Sage Bakehouse, Santa Fe’s nonpareil artisanal pastry and bread company and they are magnificent! The chocolate croissant is light, flaky and fresh, filled with rich, delicious chocolate and topped with powdered sugar. The gingerbread squares would inspire the Brothers Grimm to spin another yarn about a house constructed of this full-body flavored pastry so reminiscent of autumn.

The brunch menu is replete with options, so many and so varied that Solomon himself would be hard-pressed to select just one. It’s a menu which will surely inspire future visits to sample those options we missed out on during our inaugural visit—options such as the cloud cakes (ricotta pancakes with fresh berries and real maple syrup), huevos motulenos, the “one for David” fish sandwich and of course, the green chile cheeseburger. Because there are so many other intriguing options, we won’t have the housemade granola next time we visit and it makes me sad. The Greek yogurt with which it is served is tangy and sour, a nice departure from so many sweet yogurts. The fruits (raspberries, blueberries, bananas, strawberries) are a fresh and delicious complement to the yogurt and the rolled oats and nuts.

Migas

As much as we’ll miss the housemade granola, we’ll miss the migas even more…much more. There are a number of restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment which serve migas, but perhaps none make them as delicious as Café Fina. There’s only one thing wrong with these migas (scrambled organic eggs with corn tortillas sautéed with mild salsa and New Mexico Asadero cheese, served with black beans, sour cream, guacamole and a whole wheat tortilla) that’s the fact that you’ll want a portion twice the size. There’s a lot going on in this relatively simple dish in which every ingredient plays so very well against its brethren. Every bite is an adventure in gustatory pleasure.

If only the migas were the size of the behemoth breakfast burrito (scrambled organic eggs, hash browns, New Mexico Asadero and Gouda cheeses and bacon with red and (or) green chile. Better still, if only Café Fina created a migas burrito then life would be perfect. While the breakfast burrito is perfectly fine…even quite good, everything pales in comparison to those migas. Surprisingly the combination of Asadero (stringy like mozzarella with a Monterey Jack flavor) and Gouda (a rich, smooth cheese) works so well, you might not want to go back to Cheddar. Bacon lovers will also appreciate the generosity of everyone’s favorite pork candy.

Because social media has brought the world closer, even tourists are finding Café Fina…and they’re loving it. What’s not to love? Writing for USA Today’s “10 Best,” the fabulous Billie Frank, whose blog The Santa Fe Traveler, is (like her) a local treasure, rated Café Fina as one of Santa Fe’s ten best restaurants for brunch. She calls it “a true local hangout.” You’ll envy those locals in close proximity to this gem of a gas station turned restaurant. My nieces probably wouldn’t believe my brother if he told them just how good Cafe Fina is.

Cafe Fina
624 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 466.3886
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Migas, Chocolate Croissant, Breakfast Burrito, Gingerbread Square, Housemade Granola, Orange Juice, Mexican Hot Chocolate

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Jhett’s Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

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 reclaimed 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 esthetically.  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

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. 

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.

Desserts

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
(505) 896-5000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

Jhett's on Urbanspoon

Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro on Central Avenue in the Nob Hill District

Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district largely owes its emergence as the city’s first “suburb” to Route 66, the great Mother Road which carried Americans westward.  Because of Route 66, the Nob Hill area has been, since before World War II, a thriving residential community replete with restaurants, motels, a modern movie theater, pharmacies and restaurants.  Today it remains the city’s cultural heart and, thanks to the preservation of Route 66 era architecture, retains much of the charm that captivated west bound sojourners.

New tenants such as Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro which launched in 2003 hold court in well preserved brick buildings and seem completely at home.  Antique mirrors, distressed wood floors, stained glass and warm colors coalesce with intoxicating aromas to make this classy bistro one of the city’s best launches (and lunches) of the new millennium.  The French rotisserie, visible from the main floor and the open mezzanine above, turns out some of the best meals in the city.

There’s just a bit of whimsy in the decor at Zinc

While considered a premium fine dining destination, Zinc’s generous portions are comparatively value priced–your bill may approach three figures, but you’ll feel you got your money’s worth.  Meals are well paced with appetizers and entrees brought to your table at seemingly prescribed intervals that allow you to savor and reflect on the quality of the former without pining for the latter. Portion sizes are reasonable–generous, but not profuse.

There are nearly as many floor levels at Zinc as there are layers of flavor in some of its terrific food. There’s a downstairs bar with a lighter menu, a street-level dining room and a mezzanine floor that provides perhaps the best vantage point of any floor. Comfortable spacing between tables is available at all three levels.

Duck Confit Egg Rolls–Absolutely Wonderful!

Zinc is the brainchild of twin brothers Kevin and Keith Roessler, two veteran restaurateurs who also own Season’s Rotisserie & Grill on the northern outskirts of Old Town. They also own Savoy, a Swanky fine-dining restaurant launched in 2007 in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.  The menu at Zinc seems to be a fusion of eclectic American comfort food with departures into New Mexican and French cuisine. The menu is inventive and inspired with something for everyone, including a nice selection of vegetarian entrees.

The clientele is nearly as eclectic as the menu. At any given meal, you’ll see young ladder-climbing urban professionals and more seasoned and affluent diners who have already ascended to or near the top of the ladder. Most will order wine with their dinner and will linger in conversation long after their meal is over.

Steak Au Poivre

Steak Au Poivre

The wait staff is attentive without hovering and informative without being pedantic. They are well-versed in their craft and capable of clearly describing the nuances of the restaurant’s menu. Their recommendations don’t necessarily lean toward the most expensive items on the menu.

4 August 2014 (Brunch): One item everyone at Zinc recommends are the crispy duck confit eggrolls served with peanut curry and chile-lime dipping sauces. The duck is amazingly tender, the result of slow-cooking. It is wrapped in a won-ton type wrapper and is sliced diagonally (giving it the appearance of four egg rolls).  Other components of this delicious appetizer are ginger, mushrooms, sesame oil, scallions, chopped peanuts. soy sauce, spinach and carrots though it is the duck itself that will win you over.  These are easily among the best egg rolls in the city and are outstanding even without the dipping sauces. The peanut curry sauce stands out. It’s entirely unlike and better than the peanut sauce served with satay at most Thai restaurants. Unlike the Thai peanut sauce, it’s not cloying. It’s a savory sauce with a piquant punch to it.

Grilled Lamb Loin Mignon: Accompanied by chorizo-sweet potato tart with goat cheese bechamel, winter vegetable melange and pomegranate demi glace.

16 March 2008 (Dinner): Another excellent value appetizer are the steamed black mussels for only twelve dollars. Bathed in a basil-chardonnay broth and crowned with colorful julienne vegetables, these mussels are top tier. You’ll want to sop up the broth with the restaurant’s wonderful hard-crusted yet yeasty bread.  For years these mussels were one of the city’s very best bargains at ten dollars, but a dreary economy necessitated change.  They’re still a bargain considering the quality and deliciousness.

4 August 2014 (Brunch): Lest I forget, the complementary basket of bread is among the city’s best. I believe the bread is made by Albuquerque’s Fano Bakery, one of the very best bread-making companies in the state and a purveyor of artisan style rustic and specialty breads.  It’s  the type of bread you could eat by the loaf–with or without butter.  The butter served at Zinc is soft and smooth for easy spreading.  During Saturday and Sunday brunch, the bread plate may include croissants and scones.  The wait staff will replenish them happily.

Breads for Brunch

26 December 2010 (Bruch): Lamb is certainly a specialty at Zinc and is accented with seasonal touches.  The grilled lamb loin Mignon, for example, is accompanied by a chorizo-sweet potato tart topped with a goat cheese bechamel, contrasting elements which bring out each others best qualities.  A cleanly simple winter vegetable melange–baby asparagus, carrots, roasted onions–is perfectly prepared, so good even finicky children would love it.  The lamb loin, prepared at medium rare, sits on a puddle of pomegranate demi glace, an ever-so-slightly tangy sauce with a lightly lacquered texture which couples so well with the lamb that they rhapsodize on your taste buds with a subtle medley of flavors you’ll remember long after your meal.  The lamb has none of the gaminess for which lamb is often disdained.

16 March 2008 (Dinner): If you want something more lively, the seared flank steak Au Poivre will invigorate your taste buds with a pronounced black peppercorn taste. A nine-ounce steak seared in a cast iron pan, it is served with buttermilk mashed potatoes, fried mushrooms and onions, all of which are wonderful.  Steak Au Poivre is a staple at French brasseries throughout the country (both France and the United States), but is sometimes prepared with an excess of pepper, making it a bit acerbic.  At Zinc, it is perfectly prepared so that the peppercorn taste complements, not dominates, the flavor profile.  It is served with an espagnole sauce, a veal stock roux reduction sometimes called one of the “mother sauces” of classic French cooking.

Chicken and Waffles

Sunday brunch is an event worth getting up for at Zinc. The menu is only somewhat abbreviated, including more dining options than just about any brunch menu in town. The dulcet tones of soothing guitar music playing soft and low may just make the rest of the world seem so far away and small.  An eye-opening roasted chicken and cashew salad is a great way to start. This superstar salad features sugar snap peas, sweet n’ sour red onions and baby carrots mixed with field greens and a sharp Maytag blue dressing that emboldens the salad. It’s one of several inventive and delicious salad options available for brunch.

26 December 2010 (Brunch): Zinc’s pecan-crusted chicken and chorizo relleno, a unique rendition of the traditional New Mexican stuffed chile pepper, is also one of the state’s very best.  A baked poblano is engorged with cream cheese, Asadero cheese, chicken breast and crumbled sausage then topped with a fried egg sunny and covered with a wonderfully smoky and piquant Ancho chile sauce. Ancho chiles are essentially dried poblanos which may surprise some considering poblanos have a very mild flavor, barely registering on the Scoville scale.  Ancho chiles, on the other hand, can have significant heat and a pungent, smoky, wonderful flavor.  More restaurants should employ this very diverse and very delicious chile.

Pecan-crusted chicken & chorizo relleno: Baked poblano stuffed with cream cheese, asadero, chicken breast and crumbled sausage. Topped with sunny side up egg and ancho chile sauce. Hash brown pie on the side

Also worth getting up for is Zinc’s house-made pork sausage patty (a carnivore’s dream), which along with the sausage served at the San Marcos Cafe, may be the best sausage in New Mexico. It’s got the perfect balance of piquant bite and savory flavor sausage lovers appreciate. The sausage is available on several brunch entrees, including an amazing array of surprisingly good New Mexican dishes that for some reason aren’t available on the lunch or dinner menu.  That’s a shame because if Zinc focused exclusively on New Mexican food, it would be in rarefied company with the very best New Mexican restaurants in the state.

4 August 2014 (Brunch): As with fashion and music, the culinary world isn’t exempt from the whimsy of the trend.  While some foods are forever in vogue, for better or worse others come and go.  The Duke City may have been a bit late in following the waffles and chicken trend, but now it seems every restaurant in town is offering a variation of this popular soul food favorite.  Worse, some local restaurants have taken a rather homey combination and made it uppity with gourmet syrups and highfalutin alterations which make the chicken unrecognizable.   While Zinc jumped on the trendy bandwagon, at least the chicken and waffles haven’t been upscaled.  Better still, they’re actually pretty good.  The chicken, three pieces–a leg, a thigh and a breast– though prepared on a deep fryer, actually has a pan-fried taste.  The waffles are light, fluffy and served with maple syrup.

Grilled Breakfast Pork Chops and Chile Relleno

4 August 2014 (Brunch): Another breakfast standard which never seems to fall out of fashion is grilled pork chops, a solid and unspectacular (translation: boring) offering.  It’s usually up to whatever accompanies those “supporting cast” pork chops to enliven breakfast.  The yang to the grilled breakfast port chop’s yin is a blue corn-crusted Poblano stuffed with Mexican cheeses, fresh corn and peppers topped with a sunny side-up egg and a chipotle fruit glaze.  Frankly, the blue corn crust and egg dominate the flavor profile so much we had to taste the chipotle fruit glaze and fresh corn separately to make sure they were there.  It’s rare that breakfast pork chops are the highlight of a breakfast, but that was the case here.  The pork chops may have been solid and unspectacular, but they met expectations.

16 March 2008 (Brunch): Our waitress told us that some visiting tourists can’t handle the heat of New Mexican dishes and send them back. What a shame they don’t have the heat tolerance of New Mexicans. What a shame that they miss out on enchiladas engorged with absolutely delicious chorizo sausage and baked chicken.  Perhaps more to their heat tolerance level are Zinc’s rendition of stuffed sopaipillas which aren’t served with chile. Instead, two puffy sopaipillas are filled with lemon-blueberry custard then finished with Bosque Farms BeeSweet honey drizzle.

Stuffed Sopaipillas Zinc style

If you love lip-puckering lemon with real blueberries, this is the dessert for you. If you love real honey, you’ll love BeeSweet and you’ll lament the fact that far too many New Mexican restaurants fill their squeeze bottles with “sopaipilla syrup,” the honey flavored syrup that pales in comparison to real honey.

26 December 2010 (Brunch): Another fabulous dessert is the chevre cheesecake tart made with a honey granola crust branded with the letter “Z” (and probably not for Zorro).  Rivulets of ruby port gastrique and fig preserves provide terrific contrasts to the sweet, creamy cheesecake.  On the side of this dish is honeycomb, the pure essence of honey sweetness that’s better than any candy.

Chevre Cheesecake Tart – honey granola crust, ruby port gastrique, honeycomb and fig preserves

Zinc upholds the Nob Hill tradition and has itself become a destination worthy of the Mother Road. It’s a Santa Fe quality restaurant in the Duke City.

Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro
3009 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505)-254-9462
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 03 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Crispy Duck Confit Eggrolls; Seared Flank Steak Au Poivre; Baked Chicken & Chorizo Sausage Enchiladas; Stuffed Sopaipilla; Chevre Cheesecake Tart; Pecan-crusted chicken & chorizo relleno; Grilled Lamb Loin Mignon

Zinc on Urbanspoon