Freight House Kitchen & Tap – Bernalillo, New Mexico

The Freight House in Bernalillo

Many of us look at an unused and timeworn historical building and a wave of nostalgia sweeps over us as we imagine what life was like when that building teemed with activity. Some see such a building as a pig in need of lipstick, nothing a coat of paint and a few nails can’t fix up. Others see that same edifice as having served its purpose, a structure which should be razed to make room for a modern complex. Still others view a weathered building as a thing of beauty from which they draw inspiration. For restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory, driving by the Santa Fe Freight House nearly two decades ago planted the seed for an idea that took years to germinate.

The long-time owner of The Range Café and Standard Diner drew inspiration from the two story Mission-Revival façade, envisioning it as the potential site of a restaurant with the thematic look and feel of the railroad industry which once thrived in Albuquerque. Because of the historical nature of the building, DiGregory was unable to realize that particular dream at that particular location. In 2015, he did the next best thing, launching The Freight House Kitchen & Tap Room, a restaurant inspired by the grand Santa Freight House. The restaurant is located in the yawning complex which previously housed the Flying Star on Bernalillo’s heavily trafficked Camino Del Pueblo. Fittingly, the Freight House Kitchen is in close proximity to the town’s Railrunner stop.

Pickled Veggies

It’s easy to see why the Santa Fe Freight House was such an inspiration to DiGregory. Though constructed some seven decades ago and currently in disuse, the Santa Fe Freight House remains an impressive structure. Located on First Street practically beneath Lead Avenue, the building is emblazoned with red neon signage which reads “Santa Fe Freight House” flanked by the words “Rail” and “Truck.” Lintels, window sills, base and canals are made of concrete while the stucco is a greyish adobe. The Freight House was one of the last additions to the sprawling railyard made by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. It is on the National Historic Register.

The halcyon days of the railroad is revisited at DiGregory’s Freight House Kitchen, a bustling establishment with 176-seating spaces on two levels and two expansive patios. Even the restaurant’s logo is thematic, depicting a locomotive engine designated “FR8” barreling down the track. Framed vintage photographs of life around the railyards festoon the brick walls, but the true masterpiece is a painting of the restaurant’s historic namesake. Even the wait staff gets into the act, sporting shirts emblazoned with clever play-on-words slogans such as “The Chew Chew Crew” and “We Smoke The Good Stuff.”

Tempura Green Beans with Manchego

The Freight House Web site purports to “raise the bar on bar food,” showcasing gastropub fare–high quality, freshly prepared food several orders of magnitude superior to the stereotypical pub grub of yore. During the railroad’s prosperous past, you could find food of this caliber near a railyard only at Fred Harvey establishments. The menu is very eclectic, offering both “chili” and “chile” (and you thought never the twain shall meet) as well as a number of sandwiches, burgers, plates and smoked items. Brunch is served on Sundays from 9AM to 3PM.

If appetizers are the preamble to a great meal, The Freight House’s “Snacks,” an inventive array of comfort food starters, will get you started on the right foot. The Snacks menu has so many intriguing options, in fact, that ordering two…or ten would constitute a very good meal. Our early favorite is the pickled veggies, a colorful mélange of pickled al dente vegetables (crisp carrots, cauliflower, green beans and celery) arranged artfully on a rectangular plate. Sometimes pickling vegetables brings out the worse in them, particularly when those vegetables are imbued with lip-pursing sour properties that take away their native freshness and flavor. Among the pickling spices used by the Freight House chef are cardamom and juniper berries, two aromatics with strong, distinctive flavors. They impart an invigorating quality to the vegetables that you’ll enjoy immensely even if you think you don’t like vegetables.

Smoked Bison Meatloaf

Another Freight House appetizer, the tempura green beans with Manchego, is almost a polar opposite to the pickled vegetables. Where the pickled vegetables are garden-fresh and crisp, this fried dish is crispy in other ways. Green beans are sheathed with a light tempura batter and fried to a crispy texture then sprinkled generously with shredded Manchego, a mild, nutty-flavored Spanish cheese. The green beans are served with a creamy green chile ranch dressing with a little kick and lots of flavor. Reflecting on the Freight House’s Snacks menu, you have to wonder if the chef isn’t consciously also trying to get children of all ages to eat their vegetables…and we would if they all tasted this good.

From the smoker, you’ll find such summer favorites as baby back ribs, beer canned chicken, smoked prime rib (Friday and Saturday nights) and a smoked bison meatloaf served with garlic mashed potatoes topped with a barbecue glaze and green beans. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes is a comfort food combination favorite that has made generations pine for a nap immediately after consuming a plateful or two. Being a very lean meat, bison offers a slightly different textural experience than beef, but its sweeter, more intense flavor more than makes up for any textural difference. A tangy barbecue sauce is slathered on generously to imbue the meatloaf with a summery, smoky feel. You’ll want to ask for the restaurant’s green chile gravy (maybe even an extra portion) to enliven the mashed potatoes. It’s an excellent green chile gravy.

BBQ Beer Can Chicken with Mac and Cheese and Garlic Green Beans

Beer can chicken—sometimes called chicken on a throne or dancing chicken—earns its name because of its preparation style. An entire chicken is placed over an opened, partially-filled can of beer. The chicken must be placed on a grill in an upright position in order for this dish to work. The heat of the grill warms the can, causing the beer inside to evaporate. Ostensibly, the beer, now in gaseous state, fills the inside of the chicken, imparting moistness and flavor to the chicken. While it may disappoint some diners that you don’t taste the beer at all, most of us are in it for the chicken, not the beer. The Freight House’s BBQ beer can chicken is indeed moist and tender with a mild smokiness. Few things go better with beer can chicken than mac n’ cheese, a rich, molten, cheesy version the restaurant does well.

The Freight House dessert menu is a winner, offering a number of innovative options that will make choosing a challenge. If it’s on the menu, one unique and delicious option is the olive oil rosemary ice cream cake topped with a peach compote. Ice cream is made on the premises in flavors that go well beyond vanilla and chocolate. Olive oil and rosemary is one such example. Too much rosemary and it could overwhelm the flavor profile. The olive oil also poses textural challenges. Kudos to the chef for optimizing the proportions of each ingredient to create a deliciously decadent (without being overly rich) ice cream . The peach compote serves as a very nice foil.

Olive Oil Rosemary Ice Cream Cake with Peach Compote

If a visit to the Freight House Kitchen & Tap Room doesn’t inspire you to travel the rails, it will inspire you to come back to see what the inventive kitchen staff is cooking up. It’s bound to be good.

Freight House Kitchen & Tap
200 South Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 588-2143
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pickled Veggies, Tempura Green Beans with Manchego, Bison Meatloaf, Olive Oil Rosemary Ice Cream Cake, BBQ Bear Can Chicken

Freight House Kitchen & Tap Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chez Mamou – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chez Mamou on Palace Avenue in Santa Fe

When she asked me to repeat the name of the French restaurant where we were dining one slightly breezy Sunday morning, I knew my clever bride had something in mind.  Relaying that we were dining at Chez (pronounced “shay”) Mamou, she retorted “are you sure it’s not called “Shame on you.”  That was her reaction to a server having deposited a stale, probably older than day-old baguette on our table.  She followed up with “no self-respecting French restaurant, especially one claiming to be a bakery would serve bread baked by Napoleon’s baker.”  Whether or not the fossilized (her term) bread was indicative of Chez Mamou’s daily performance, it was enough to rile my usually saintly patient wife.

By this point, she had already dissed the coffee, an Allegro Coffee blend, which she found entirely too strong and “more bitter than supporters of England wanting to remain in the European Union.”   (In the interest of full-disclosure, she finds coffee too strong if it can’t be “cured” by five or six packets of Splenda.”)  She would later repeat her “what’s the name of this restaurant” comment while eating some of the restaurant’s highly-touted pastries and croissants, reputedly baked by a master baker (and I won’t repeat how she twisted that term). That, my friends, is why she leaves the reviewing to me…and lest you think she’s nit-picky, the only time she’s ever compromised on her exceedingly high standards is when she said “yes” to me.

Dining Room at Chez Mamou

You should certainly set your expectations high when visiting a restaurant as highly touted as Chez Mamou.  Never mind that it earned rave reviews from both the Albuquerque Journal and Santa Fe Reporter, where it really earned its creds with me is from a Facebook post by Daniela Bouneou, erstwhile owner of the fabulous  Torinos @ Home.  When Daniela posts about a restaurant, you’re well advised to heed her recommendation.  Chez Mamou also earned a 3.5 rating (out of 4) from Yelp, 4.5 (out of 5) from Trip Advisor  and 3.9 (out of 5) from Zomato. Interspersed among mostly glowing comments in these three crowd-sourced review forums are a few opinions which would make excellent roast material.  At least our experience wasn’t an outlier.

Chez Mamou is one of several French restaurants serving the City Different, not really a surprise considering the long and storied history of French people in New Mexico.  Launched in 2012, its East Palace Avenue location is scant blocks away from the Santa Fe Plaza, but in ways it seems almost an ocean away…as far away as a Paris sidewalk cafe.  That’s especially true on a Santa Fe summer morning if you’re trying to escape the sweltering heat of Albuquerque as was the case during our inaugural visit.  A light, cool breeze and the courtyard’s sun-shielding shade transported us to a better time and place.  Had we known Chez Mamou was so pet-friendly, we might have brought our four-legged children Tim and The Dude.

Al Fresco Dining at its Finest

Weather-permitted, the courtyard is definitely preferred seating.  If the courtyard is full, there are a few tables preceding the front entrance that’ll give you a great view of the street activity.  The space which houses Chez Mamou is bisected into two halves, one occupied by Noëlla Jewelry Couture.  Decor is tasteful and homey.  Step up into the cafe and your eyes will immediately gravitate toward the pastry case with its colorful display of pastries, breads, croissant and other French baked delicacies.  Few display cases in New Mexico are as lovely.  You’ll want to order the chocolate croissants the minute you walk in or you risk the cafe running out entirely.

From among the baked goods we shared, the chocolate croissants stand out.  While no croissant will ever have enough chocolate to sate this chocoholic, the chocolate chunks on these beauties are strategically placed so that you’ll experience sweet and savory tastes in virtually every bite.  The croissants are buttery, light and flaky, but they’re served with a hard butter which is a challenge to spread.  Fortunately a housemade strawberry jam accompanied our croissants.  The jam, nearly pureed in texture, was very reminiscent of fresh strawberries plucked at their optimum ripeness, neither too sweet nor too tart.

Mussels Mamou

Where Chez Mamou really stands out is in the large variety of its menu, particularly its brunch offerings.  While many restaurants feature an abbreviated brunch menu usually short on lunch-type offerings, Chez Mamou’s brunch menu is staggering in its variety.  Like me, the cafe doesn’t believe 7:30 in the morning is too early for Frog Legs, Escargots, Fettuccini Carbonara or any number of sandwiches on a canvas of freshly baked bread.  If you’re more of a traditionalist, the menu also includes a number of omelets (made with eggs produced by local, happy, free-range, Nambe hens) as well as sweet and savory crepes and even a Croque Madame…all because sometimes you feel like breakfast and sometimes you feel like lunch.

In England, as in much of Northern Europe, mussels are so readily available and relatively inexpensive that they’re often dismissed as a poor man’s shellfish.  During our years in England, we enjoyed mussels by the bushel, but we never contemplated the possibility of incorporating New Mexico flavors (not that we had red or green chile readily available) into either the wine- or cream-based broths we regularly prepared.  Thankfully restaurants in New Mexico, regardless of genre, know their patrons practically expect a little red or green in virtually every menu, even on dessert items…and as we all know, chile improves the overall flavor of everything it touches.

Steak Frites

In an inspired example of France meets New Mexico, Chez Mamou offers an eponymous appetizer called Mussels Mamou which showcases the lively flavor of red chile paired with the incomparable flavor of applewood smoked bacon in a light wine sauce punctuated by shallots and parsley.  Although comprised of only a paltry six mussels, everyone knows that more than half of the enjoyment of mussels is in sopping up the broth with a good bread.  Because the bread we were provided lacked the dredging qualities of great broth sopping bread (hence my Kim’s dissatisfaction described above), we had to spoon up the broth instead.  While still good, the sensory–tactile, olfactory and taste–experiences were diminished somewhat.

Because she missed the French fries often served with mussels (who doesn’t love moules frites?), my Kim’s choice of entree was the Steak Frites, a flank steak served with a pile of French fries and assorted vegetables.  After recent encounters with sinewy, tough ribeye steaks, we were delighted to find the flank steak tender and absolutely delicious (in Kim’s estimation, better than a much more expensive steak at Ruth’s Chris).  Prepared and seasoned to her exacting specifications, it didn’t even need the delectable mushrooms in gravy (not quite duxelles style) though they, too, were mouth-watering.  So were the vegetables (carrots, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower) which were so good even avowed vegetable-haters of all ages would enjoy them.  Alas, the frites were strictly out-of-a-bag quality, a far cry from the twice-fried frites we enjoyed in Europe and now in La Quiche Parisienne in Albuquerque.

Duck Confit

One of the more challenging decisions we faced during our inaugural visit was how to enjoy the duck which is prepared three different ways: duck confit, duck confit pasta and duck confit salad.  The duck confit (red wine demi glace over slowly cooked duck) served with fresh roasted tomato, seasonal vegetables and potatoes au gratin had me at au gratin, a potato dish served often at French restaurants bur almost nowhere else.  A layer of Gruyere blanketed the perfectly prepared potatoes, imparting a creamy texture, richness and saltiness.  As with the aforementioned mussels, the superb red wine demi glace beckoned for bread so as not to leave a single drop on the plate.  It was one of the best demi glace preparations we’ve had at any French restaurant in New Mexico.  The duck, too, was well prepared and nicely seasoned with dark meat qualities showcased in every bite.

As beautiful as the pastries under glass appeared to be, we must have ordered the wrong ones because their appearance was certainly deceiving.  Kim opted for the cherry tart, the most redeeming quality of which was that real, whole cherries were used, not some gloppy gelatinous mix.  Alas, the thickness and plenitude of the breading was off-putting.  Such was the case as well with the almond tart of my choosing.  Topped with almond slivers and walnut pieces, it would have been far more enjoyable had there not been so much breading.

Pastry Tray

As with virtually all restaurants we visit, our experience was a mix of good and not-so-good.  That’s not surprising.  What is surprising is the delta between the good and not-so-good.  Our entrees were outstanding, as good as prepared at any French restaurant in the Land of Enchantment, but the baked goods (save for croissants) were lacking.  It’s quite possible this was an anomaly, but it’ll take additional visits to know for sure.  That’s something this gastronome and his oft-fussy better-half are happy to do.

Chez Mamou
217 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 216-1845
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Confit, Steak Frites, Mussels Mamou

Chez Mamou French Cafe & Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Point Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa Development

“Get to the point!”  Archie Bunker, the irascible curmudgeon on the 70’s sitcom All in the Family frequently chided his doting wife Edith with the epithet “Get to the Point, Edith!”  One of the series occasional and most memorable bits depicted Archie’s pantomime suicides,  carried out  while Edith rambled on and on in her nasal high-pitched voice, wholly oblivious to his dramatic gestures.  In one episode Archie did himself in by tying a noose and hanging himself as Edith prattled on incessantly.  Archie also play-acted suicide by Russian roulette, overdosing on pills and slashing his wrist.  His facial expressions at the moment of death were priceless, often portraying him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Some visitors to Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog have echoed Archie’s sentiment. “Get to the point, Gil” they’ve expressed. They tell me they don’t want to wade through details or read the clever (okay, that’s debatable) introductions that preface my restaurant reviews. Others, such as my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott actually look forward to my roundabout way of introducing a restaurant, my efforts at being a racounteur. For them as well as those who would rather I employ a more formulaic (translation: fishwrap-style) approach, I offer this advice (or retort): Get to The Point!

Point Grill dining room

That would be The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa master-planned community. If you’re thinking “that’s too far,” think of going there as a New Year’s resolution (we’re not that deep into 2016) to journey outside your neighborhood in pursuit of new culinary adventures.  Better still, think of it as a treat (you owe it to yourself) in that you’ll get to experience a meal that competes with Joe’s Pasta House and Namaste as the best in the city and among the best in the metropolitan area.  That’s what our friends Dave and Joe have done and they live almost as far east as you can go while still being in Placitas. Dave and Joe introduced us to The Point which has become one of their favorite restaurants, distance be damned.

The Point is actually only about four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center which even much of Rio Rancho’s citizenry erroneously believes is as far northwest as you can go and still be in the City of Vision. From the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, The Point is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights and you won’t encounter the typical urban traffic snarls. Beyond the Santa Ana Star you’ll encounter a vast expanse of sage and sand as far as the eyes can see on both sides of the two lane highway. “It’s where the bodies are buried,” my Kim remarked.

Mushroom Soup

The Point is about two miles west of the turn-off into Mariposa. It’s ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views. From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio. Your views will also include just a few of the state-of-the-art homes and community buildings entwined with the natural splendor of the hilly desert topography in which the 6,500-acre community is situated. The delicate balance of nature, architecture and community blend in harmoniously with each other.

The Point’s perceived distance will make it a true destination restaurant, an exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the Rio Rancho’s dining scene. Two other highly regarded restaurants—The Outlook Café and The Timbuctu Bistro—gave it the “old college try” at this location, but neither was able to sustain a consistently reliable customer-base. What makes The Point different? The difference makers begin with owner and executive chef Michael White, a visionary who in his 18 years of professional experience has traversed the gamut of cooking—everything from  food trucks to high-end restaurants.  Originally from Virginia Beach (and reputed to prepare fabulous crab cakes), Chef White’s menu reflects his love of New Orleans’ dynamic culinary culture and its spices.

Chipotle Chicken Satay

Chef White’s menu offers everything from American comfort foods (six different macaroni and cheese dishes) to an innovative array of bounteous hand-crafted burgers and sandwiches, sumptuous salads, weekly soup specials, tapas and a variety of “chef’s favorites.” The dessert menu, while showcasing only four items, would tempt the most disciplined of dieters. Even the Sunday brunch menu, typically a boring after-thought for some restaurants, offers a number of dishes sure to be the best part of getting up. Best of all, the entire menu (save for brunch) is available at all hours in which the restaurant is open.

The Point opened its doors on September 15th and within two months had achieved 500 “likes” on Facebook. Guests certainly like the comfortable seating, accommodating 44 guests inside and 40 on the patio. They also appreciate all the special event menus such as a crawfish boil for Mardi Gras (already sold out) and a romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day. They’re grateful for the professional, attentive service and recommendations they can trust. Moreover, guests like the “get away from it all” feel of dining at a restaurant that may be a bit out of the way, but well worth the effort to get there.

Red Chile Grilled Corn and Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms

15 January 2016: On a cold winter day when the winds are biting and dark, somber clouds loom ominously, you can’t beat a soothing, soul-warming soup. If the soup-of-the-day is mushroom soup, don’t hesitate to order it. There are two qualities to appreciate most about The Point’s version. First, it’s not overly creamy, a quality often attained through the profusion of thickeners that obfuscate the flavor of the fetid fungi. Second, it’s served piping hot, a sure and instant offset to the cold. This mushroom soup is topped with croutons which soften when submerged under the soup as do the two pieces of ciabatta bread.

15 January 2016: The chipotle chicken satay offers another type of heat—the heat generated by the piquancy of peppers. This satay is the antithesis of the satay served in Thai restaurants which is punctuated by pungent curry and served with a cloying peanut sauce. Instead of curry, the chicken is marinated in a spicy chipotle blend then chargrilled and served over coconut rice, all topped with tzatziki, scallion and lemon wedges. The flavors are lively and offer a wonderfully immersive dining experience in which complementary flavors and textures compete for your rapt attention. The tzatziki and scallions offer cooling contrasts to the chargrilled chicken and help cool off your tongue, too.

Baked Ziti

15 January 2016: The menu’s market side selections, all priced at three dollars, are intended to complement your main entrees, but they can be treated as appetizers as well. After enjoying the charbroiled chicken so much, we thought the pairing of red chile grilled corn and garlic sautéed mushrooms would be a good follow-up. Great call! Golden nibblets of sweet corn are lightly dusted with a pleasantly piquant red chile then roasted nicely to preserve moistness while providing more than a hint of char. We were surprised at how well garlic and mushrooms married together. Neither of the two strong flavor profiles is dominant with both garlic and mushrooms blending their personalities well.

15 January 2016: Among the “Chef’s Favorites” in the winter menu is baked ziti (meatballs, Italian sausage, roasted peppers and onion baked with ziti marinara and Italian cheeses), a classic Italian-American hybrid showcasing a medium-sized tubular pasta baked with a “chunky” sauce and meats. Chef White’s rendition is very reminiscent of the baked ziti I enjoyed so much in the East Coast, save for the fact that The Point’s version is served in a pho-sized bowl instead of in a casserole dish. This version is replete with meatballs and sausage, both as flavorful as you’ll find at any Italian restaurant. The baked ziti is yet another dish that works best in winter, but which would be very enjoyable any time of year.

Bacon-Toffee Sundae

15 January 2016: It took us even longer to decide upon a dessert than it did our shared entrée. The Point’s dessert menu is like a siren’s call, leading guests willingly into temptation. If there’s one dessert which is even better than it sounds, it has to be the bacon-toffee sundae (cinnamon and brown sugar ice cream topped with bacon, toffee, maple-caramel and fresh whipped cream). My “best of the best” for 2015 list is heavily laden with desserts and already the bacon-toffee sundae is primed for inclusion in my 2016 list—and not just because it’s got bacon. This dessert is a montage of deliciousness, a sweet succor for the dessert-starved, a masterpiece in every respect.

BRUNCH

Not everyone has a high opinion of brunch. In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.” New York Times columnist and writer Mark Bittman calls brunch “a huge fat-bomb,” no doubt a recognition that Americans will eschew fresh fruit and veggie frittatas to swill a few Bloody Marys with their heavy on the Hollandaise eggs benedict. In his defense, Bittman’s recent foray into Michelle Obama inspired healthy food activism has probably starved his thought processes of the clarity made possible only with a diet replete with processed foods and animal products.

Cream of Garlic Soup

Some brunches offer sumptuous all-you-can-choke-down buffets with gleaming silver trays overfilled with fried, gloppy, saucy, sweet, savory and otherwise not-good-for-you options sure to be a big hit among caloric overachievers. This is the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week. It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window. Albuquerque has its share of bounteous buffet brunches, the magnetically appealing, calorie-laden Vegas-style all-you-can-eat Bacchanalian feasts, but it also has the type of high-quality, off-the-menu brunch offerings that have lessened the frequency of my trips to Santa Fe on Sunday. Restaurants such as the Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, the Gold Street Caffe, Sophia’s Place and a spate of others serve up brunch that’s worth climbing out from under the covers to indulge in.

Add The Point to the list of the metropolitan area’s very best spots for brunch.  Quite frankly, it’s one of the area’s best restaurants of any genre.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Albuquerque’s most prolific and trusted contributor to Zomato calls The Point the “best new restaurant of 2015” and “well worth the pleasant drive to the Mariposa boonies.”  If Larry vouches for it, you can take it to the bank that this is a restaurant you have to experience.

Caesar Salad

24 January 2016: During our inaugural brunch visit, we ran into our friends Joe and Dave who were enjoying their umpteenth visit to The Point. Practically ambassadors to this great restaurant, they extoll the chef’s preternatural culinary skills to all their friends. Seeing Joe luxuriate in a bowl of cream of garlic coup inspired us to order it, too. If Ludwig van Beethoven’s aphorism “only the pure in heart can make a good soup” holds true, Chef White’s heart must be chaste because his soups are fabulous. How he managed to create a soup that renders garlic so thoroughly delicious despite its distinctly pungent and odoriferous qualities speaks volumes to his skills. Rather than warding off vampires, this garlic soup will bring them in like ants to a picnic.

24 January 2016: Dave rhapsodized about The Point’s Caesar salad (Parmesan, hard-boiled egg and croutons with Caesar dressing). The side salad portion is about a pitchfork sized amount of beauteous Romaine lettuce punctuated liberally with shaved Parmesan. If there are any anchovies on this Caesar, they may have been incorporated into the rich, creamy, garlicky dressing. It’s not a point we debated for too long as we were all too busy enjoying this intricate concoction. While many variations of Caesar salad exist and many high-end restaurants prepare it table-side, few versions are as delicious as The Point’s. There are three other salads on the menu.

Grits & Shrimp

24 January 2016: Having lived in the Deep South may explain my affinity for grits, a “Rodney Dangerfield” type of dish in that it gets no respect outside the South. At their essence, grits are small, broken grains of corn, but let’s face it, when you order them outside the South, you’re playing “Southern Roulette” in that you have a one-in-six chance of them being palatable. The best we’ve had in New Mexico come from The Hollar in Madrid. Equal to those are the shrimp and grits (jalapeno, maple bacon and white Cheddar; topped with Cajun shrimp, sunny-up egg and scallions) at The Point. Its fragrant properties will get to you before anything else. You’ll swear you’re imbibing the aroma of waffles and bacon. That’s the suggestive power of the maple bacon at work. The Cajun shrimp (succulent and sweet with the snap of freshness), jalapeno and scallions provide a pleasant punch while the sunny-up egg is like a molten blanket of gooey goodness. These are grits that will make you forget all the nasty things you may have heard about grits.

24 January 2016: There are so many enticing options on the hand-crafted sandwiches and burgers section of the menu that you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which one you’ll enjoy first. For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, it’s a no-brainer. She grew up with sausage and peppers sandwiches, but none in her Windy City neighborhood included goat cheese and basil. Perhaps they should. This is a superb sandwich, due in no small measure to some of the best sausage we’ve had at any restaurant in the area. It’s somewhere between spicy and assertive with lots of flavor. The tangy-pungent goat cheese is a perfect foil for the peppers while the basil lends freshness.

Sausage and Peppers

As talented as Chef White is in crafting incomparable appetizers and entrees, it’s in the dessert arena that he really shines. With much of his culinary career having been spent in the operational side of restaurant management, Chef White used his free time to conceptualize and create hundreds of dishes with two goals in mind. First, he dreamed of owning and operating his own restaurant where he could showcase the dozens of diverse menus he formulated. Second, he hopes to someday soon participate in the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen program. With the launch of The Point, he’s achieved his first goal. He persists in applying for Cutthroat Kitchen. 

24 January 2016: One of the dishes Chef White conceptualized is country apple cobbler. In and of itself that name doesn’t come close to doing justice to this dessert. Not even close! In fact, the name “country apple cobbler” may conjure images of the type of cobbler you’ll find at many barbecue joints, not that there’s anything remotely wrong with that type of cobbler. As is often the case with the barbecue joint type of cobbler, Chef White’s version is served a la mode. The greatest difference between his version and the usual suspect is in the candied apple-cranberry mix sans crust topped not with streusel, but with a crunchy granola and with ice cream drizzled with caramel. The ice cream is sixteen percent milkfat which means it’s richer and creamier than most ice cream. It’s also more delicious. You’ll want to make sure every spoonful of this inspired dessert rewards you with a little bit of every single component.

Country Apple Cobbler

24 January 2016:  Though not on the menu, if your server or the chef recommends the grilled pineapple dessert, grab it before someone else does. This is not grilled pineapple prepared as you may have had it at a Brazilian churrascaria (prepared on a grilled and served on a skewer). It’s Chef White applying his creativity to elevate what would be a great dessert if grilled pineapple was all you found on your plate. Instead, this grilled pineapple is topped with caramel and designed to look like New Mexico’s Zia symbol. Atop the pineapple are two scoops of the aforementioned rich, creamy, delicious ice cream. The concoction is then sprinkled liberally with coconut flakes. The sweet, juicy, tangy pineapple marries so well with the sweetness of the caramel and ice cream that you may have to subdue a swoon or three.

By popular request, Chef White has figured out how to package his magnificent desserts for guests who want to enjoy them at home.  While it’s possible their aesthetic appeal may lose something by virtue of being jostled on the ride home, they’re bound to be just as delicious once you get there (at least during the winter when the cold prevents ice cream from melting).  These are desserts you’ll dream about.  Just ask my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell who made the trek to the Point and are still raving about it.

Pineapple Deliciousness

Get to The Point! It may be a bit of a drive for many of you, but the destination is worth the drive. The Point is destination dining at its best!

The Point Grill Gastropub
2500 Parkway Avenue, N.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7453
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 January 2016
1st VISIT: 15 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bacon-Toffee Sundae, High Point Mac, Baked Ziti, Mushroom Soup, Chipotle Chicken Satay, Red Chile Grilled Corn, Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms, Grits & Shrimp, Caesar Salad, Cream of Garlic Soup,

The Point Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Standard Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Standard Diner in Albuquerque's East Downtown District

The Standard Diner in Albuquerque’s East Downtown District

While New Mexico is most assuredly the Land of Enchantment, most locals also accept that it’s also the “land of mañana” where things that can be put off until tomorrow usually are, where the pace of life is more relaxed and slower. George Adelo, Jr., an enterprising Pecos resident even coined (and copyrighted) a phrase to describe the New Mexican way: “Carpe Mañana”–Seize Tomorrow.  The spirit of Carpe Mañana was certainly prevalent in the long-awaited, much-anticipated opening of the Standard Diner, a Matt DiGregory restaurant venture which in opening March 2nd, 2006, was nearly eight months behind its planned launch.  If ever a restaurant has more than made up for lost time, it may be this one.

DiGregory, a local restaurant impresario owns the Standard Diner with his brothers Chris, Vince and Jon. He also owns the very popular Range restaurants in Bernalillo and Albuquerque as well as the now defunct Rodeo Grill.  The Brothers DiGregory couldn’t have found a better location for their high-end diner which specializes in fresh, homemade comfort foods. The restaurant is situated in Albuquerque’s East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming” areas in the nation.”  DiGregory defines standard as “a benchmark that all others are compared to.”  That’s become the case for the neighborhood as well as the restaurant.

The Standard Diner’s herb bread

Housed in what was once a classic car dealership (vintage photographs show it was called Caruthers & Maudlin), a tremendous amount of refurbishment obviously went into restoring the property. The decor is reminiscent of a 1930s or 1940s dining room with exposed brick walls and wood-beamed ceilings lending to the period piece authenticity.  A soundtrack featuring the soothing stylings and dulcet tones of the best big band era artists and romantic crooners of the 1940s inspires hushed tones and a relaxed dining pace. Vintage photographs of the Duke City festoon the walls in the restaurant’s two dining rooms.

An evidently well-prepared wait staff is cordial, professional and eager to share their knowledge of both the building’s history and the restaurant’s diverse menu. When our waitress couldn’t answer a question we asked about the bar towels used instead of napkins, she quickly dispatched the day manager who regaled us with interesting details on where the idea for bar towels came up.  We also learned that the herb bread brought to our table has a history even more interesting than that of the restaurant. The bread comes from a culture whose progenitor traveled the Oregon trail in 1845. It is baked in-house and has that yeasty bouquet true connoisseurs of the “staff of life” crave. Best of all, we’ve had it served to us with a brilliant orange-red oil made from achiote a subtly flavored paste which has a pleasant flavor. Better still is the achiote butter (pictured above) which enlivens the bread even further.

Coconut Key Lime Shake, one of several creative shakes on the Standard menu

In the February 2nd, 2009 airing of a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode called “Return to Route 66,” host Guy Fieri declared “there’s nothing standard about the Standard Diner.”  That is very evident in the restaurant’s diverse menu which somewhat belies the “Diner” label by not serving traditional diner food.  The menu is very interesting to say the least, interspersing several upscale American comfort food favorites with cuisine whose genesis is the Orient, Latin America and even Australia (where DiGregory discovered the “Otis Burger” which is made with roasted beets, a fried egg, bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayo). You’ll be hard-pressed to make a quick selection and will undoubtedly want to make several return visits to try one of the other intriguing items on a menu that’s truly unique.

In a handful of visits since the restaurant opened in 2009, we have often opted (as we almost always do at restaurants we visit) to order adventurously in lieu of ordering the “safe” sounding menu items.  This is a philosophy that has introduced us to a wealth of otherwise untried deliciousness  at many restaurants and at the very least lets us say we gave it a shot.  Alas, at the Standard Diner our success rate with this approach is somewhere around fifty percent; that is, we’ve only liked about half of what we’ve ordered.  Though we applaud the inventiveness of the menu, it’s in execution that some items truly fail to win us over.  That’s especially true of appetizers (coincidentally many of which are no longer on the menu (I wonder why)).

1 January 2012: Roasted Beef Salad

Appetizer options (they change frequently) have included BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, slow-cooked lamb top-round, housemade BBQ sauce and Jarlsberg cheese grilled in a tortilla and served with a tangy yogurt, cucumber raita (a traditional Indian style yogurt-based condiment). While the BBQ sauce was surprisingly ordinary, the raita was refreshing and delicious–almost a cross between Greek tzadziki sauce and the cucumber sauce which often accompanies satay in Thai restaurants.  The lamb deserved better!

An intriguing meal starter is the flap jack trio which is essentially three petite peach and scallion flap jacks topped with an inventive array of ingredients. One is topped with a tomato chutney, one with herbed goat cheese and one with a strawberry basil relish. The flap jacks are small in circumference, about the size of a biscuit, but they’re imbued with a gigantic amount of flavor from taste combinations that go very well together. This is a very nice appetizer!

Watermelon & Tuna Ceviche

One appetizer we won’t have again if it’s brought back on the menu are the tuna salad spring rolls made with sesame marinated Saku tuna wrapped in rice paper with micro greens and pickled carrots. There just wasn’t much to this appetizer as the tuna was lost among the other ingredients and was somewhat recessed even further into the background by a tangy chile sauce.  That tangy chile sauce proved to be the salvation for the steak salad, described on the menu as “Thai marinated flank steak, grilled and served on our house greens with a sesame vinaigrette.” Talk about under-performing. The sesame vinaigrette was virtually tasteless, lending absolutely no appeal to an otherwise ordinary salad which needed rescuing by something lively and with pizzazz. We were also unable to discern anything “Thai” tasting in the five thin strips of flank steak that came on the salad.

30 January 2011: Yet another intriguing starter which failed to deliver on the intriguing promise of excellent ingredients is a watermelon and tuna ceviche.  Nested on endive leaves is a ceviche made from sashimi tuna, Hatch green chile, red onions and chopped tomatoes.  Unlike traditional Mexican ceviche found in so many local restaurants, the Standard Diner’s ceviche is not marinated in citrus juices.  That may be the start of its downfall, but the accelerant is most certainly the endive leaves which are bitter receptacles for what might have otherwise been at least passable ceviche.  The lemon cilantro coulis was also uninspired,  the flavor of tangy lemon and refreshing cilantro failing to coalesce into any semblance of deliciousness.

The Standard Mac and Cheese with Smoked Salmon and Green Chili

Much better luck have we had with the restaurant’s entrees, among which are chicken and dumplings made with garlic roasted poultry-a-plenty simmered in a green chile broth with masa, feta cheese and cilantro dumplings. This is New Mexico style comfort food at its best with hearty, robust flavors and aromas that you want on a blustery winter day.

11 October 2008: You can’t say “comfort food” without mentioning macaroni and cheese, a fact obviously recognized by the Standard Diner. The Standard Mac and Cheese features baked shells with crisp bacon, Guinness and fine Irish Cheddar cheese sauce covered with herbed bread crumbs. For a pittance more, you can add green chile and smoked salmon to the mix. The only item we would dispense with entirely are the herbed bread crumbs. Our entree arrived with herbed bread crumbs a plenty, so many that we wondered if a clumsy chef had spilled the box’s entire contents onto the entree. The bread crumbs serve only to desiccate what is otherwise a moist and very good entree.

1 January 2012: Lobster Roll

The one entree which seemed to captivate Guy Fieri most was the diner standard of meatloaf, done Standard Diner style, of course, which means wrapped in bacon.  Fieri loved the texture and depth of flavor.  Called the “Finer Loaf” on the menu, it is served with smashed potatoes and a red wine gravy.  The red wine gravy is terrific, one of the very best mashed potato toppers in the city and a nice departure from the more conventional chicken or turkey gravy.

Another fun entree evinces a whimsical side that many nouveau restaurants just don’t have. It’s country fried tuna. Our close proximity to Texas means many New Mexico restaurants serve up a mean, artery-clogging country fried steak or chicken, but tuna is (as Texas chamber of commerce commercials say) “like a whole other country.” Rather than the thick coating used on steak, it’s a light coating of tempura fried batter that covers several half-inch thick pieces of sushi grade Ahi tuna.  One bite and Guy Fieri’s eyes rolled back in obvious appreciation, maybe even homage.  His litany of adjectives was perhaps over the top, even for the effusive host.

The Otis Burger

30 January 2011: In addition to “different” the adjective which best describes the aforementioned Otis burger is messy. The egg will run down your hands as you try to hold this two-fisted burger which is trapped within the confines of a desiccated bun made from the restaurant’s signature bread. Other than the egg, the  ingredient which most distinguishes itself is the bacon which has the smoky taste aficionados like.  Once we extricated the grilled pineapple and sliced beet from the confines of a very good hamburger bun, we enjoyed them tremendously, but they were lost within the burger itself.  All burgers are made from char-grilled 100-percent Black Angus beef (or you can upgrade to Kobe beef for a price).

30 January 2011: Perhaps residents of the Badger State have an affinity for unhealthy foodstuffs which start with the letter “B” (beer, brats, burgers) because in Wisconsin you can’t spell burger without butter.  Artery-clogging Wisconsin butter is slathered on both sides of the  Wisconsin butter burger which is then topped with cheese.  My friend Dale, an ectomorph from the Green Bay area loves the Standard Diner’s Bourbon Butter Burger upon which is slathered a bourbon-maple compound butter.  It’s about twice the size of many of the butter burgers proffered throughout the Milwaukee area and ostensibly has at least as many calories.  Though this burger should come standard with an angioplasty, it’s a very good burger.

The Bourbon Butter Burger

A popular entree on the lunch menu during one visit, the Sheep Herder is a New Mexico meets the world treat you will thoroughly enjoy. It starts with two over-medium eggs atop Irish Cheddar home fries with melted Gruyere cheese, a combination which upscales the popular breakfast standards of fried eggs and potatoes. Also upping the ante are a “tortilla roll-up” cut in three. A large flour tortilla enveloping corned beef, sauerkraut and green chile makes for a tangy, savory and piquant flavor combination in which the marriage of sauerkraut and green chile is surprisingly good. It’s wholly unlike some of the boring Philadelphia cream cheese and ham tortilla roll-ups you sometimes see at office parties.

19 October 2015: Not that very long ago it might have been easier to find Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure in the Rocky Mountains than it was to find a good fish taco in New Mexico.  Today, fish tacos have become a viable dining option, even a reason to visit the restaurants which prepare them well.  Among the very best in the city are the Standard Diner’s fish tacos (three street style tacos with seared cod, charred tomatillo salsa, spicy pineapple slaw, smoked chile-lime crema and avocado), a bold, zesty and fun triumvirate.   These tacos glean their personality from the assertiveness of the smoked chile-lime crema, the tangy audacity of the charred tomatillo salsa and the liveliness of the spicy pineapple slaw.  Despite the vibrancy of these condiments, the delicate flavor of the flaky seared cod isn’t obfuscated in the least.  It takes two tortillas per taco to hold in all the ingredients of each taco and even then you can expect some of the “innards” will spill onto your plate.

Fish Tacos

The dessert menu is also not your standard hum-drum parade of cloying boringness. After much deliberation (and if it’s on the ever-changing dessert menu), you might opt for the Twisted Tiramisu made with Espresso-soaked lady fingers, dulce de leche Mascarpone with agave poached pears and candied piñon. It is light, frothy and delicious with wonderfully complementary and contrasting flavor sensations.

Mascarpone is also a principle ingredient in an off-the-menu special you might luck on. It’s a delicious twist on strudel featuring phyllo dough engorged with Marscapone then topped with a scoop of Rum Raisin ice cream. The semi-sweet nature of the phyllo dough and Marscapone in combination with the shivering cold sweetness of the ice cream is inventive and delicious.

Bananas Foster Bread Puding

30 January 2011: It wouldn’t hold true to the pattern of our visits to the Standard Diner if we liked every single dessert.  The one we didn’t like–and this is very uncharacteristic for me–is the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding.  Regular readers might recognize my carnal passion for great bread pudding.  Made with a dark rum caramel sauce and poured sugar tuile, this is not among the good ones–not by a long shot.  What made it so disagreeable to me was just how cloying and rich it is.  Considering my ideal bread pudding is studded with adult (dark) chocolate, this one was as sweet as honey and syrup together.

Standard Diner isn’t your standard, everyday run-of-the mill diner. It’s a restaurant going places thanks to an innovative and delicious menu full of surprises.  You may not like all those surprises, but you’ve got to admire the never say die attitude of a chef  who dares to be different and in doing so, has as many hits as misses.  Every restaurant should be as enterprising.   Don’t “carpe manana” before you dine at this restaurant.

Standard Diner
320 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-1440
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 19 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 18
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, Twisted Tiramasu, Country Fried Tuna, The Otis, The Sheep Herder, Bourbon Butter Burger

Standard Diner on Urbanspoon

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 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.

Desserts

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
(505) 896-5000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2015
1st VISIT: 4 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

Jhett's on Urbanspoon

Cinnamon Sugar and Spice Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe

Back in the dark ages when I grew up–long before America became the kinder, gentler Utopia it is today–it would have been inconceivable that boys and girls would receive trophies just for “participating.” Back then, we were expected to be competitive about everything. The battle of the sexes was waged at home every night with my brothers and I pitting our brawn and bulk against the brains and gumption of our sisters, two of whom would go on to graduate as valedictorians and all of them much smarter than the recalcitrant Garduño boys. 

It rankled us to no end when our sisters reminded us constantly that “boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails'” while they were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice” even as they smashed our toy machine guns (probably in retaliation for us having drawn mustaches on their Barbie dolls before decapitating them).  We sure made it challenging for our parents to be as generous with their affection as Dr. Benjamin Spock (the pediatrician, not the Vulcan) had advocated.

Busy dining room on a Sunday morning

Espying the curiously named Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe on Juan Tabo rekindled memories of the “What Are Little Boys Made Of” nursery rhyme and prompted me to reflect on the fact that somewhere between the merciless teasing, nasty name-calling and nefarious feats of brotherly terrorism, my sisters grew up to be beautiful ladies made of sugar, spice and everything nice.  It took my brothers and I a bit longer to grow up, but then our sisters did remind us often that girls mature three years faster than boys. 

Though I often revert to the snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails of my boyish youth, the sugar and spice and everything nice influence of my bride of three decades has made me more cultured and ostensibly more mature. My former traits rear themselves, however, when we enter a new restaurant such as the Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe and my eyes fixate immediately and exclusively on the menu. My Kim noticed everything about Cinnamon Sugar & Spice right away: the bouncy terriers on the dog-friendly patio, the bright sunshine entering through the east-facing windows, the kitchen utensils and bric-a-brack for sale, the dishes on which dainty delicacies are presented… Those details didn’t warrant my attention until our order had been placed.

Carne Adovada Burrito

It was then, and only then, that I noticed just how crowded the café was. Almost every table was taken even as throngs of diners queued almost reverentially past glass pastry cases showcasing cakes, pies, cookies, baklava and other sweet, decadent temptresses. Eyes that weren’t hypnotically drawn toward those pastries were locked on the nattily inscribed menu, a luscious line-up of American, New Mexican and even Greek breakfast and lunch favorites. The café is so bright, open and capacious you’ll find it hard to believe this same space was once home to DaVinci’s Gourmet Pizza which seemed so diminutive in comparison.

If you’re wondering why you may not have espied the Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe during your travels across the Duke City, it may be because the cafe is ensconced in the Shops @ Mountain Run on Juan Tabo just before it intersects with Eubank. It’s not exactly a bustling thoroughfare and the Cafe is set back a ways from the street. A teeming brunch crowd is certainly confirmation that this Cafe has been discovered and perhaps by more than just the neighborhood.

Honey Granola and Yogurt Parfait

Launched in 2014, the Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe may be relatively new to Albuquerque, but it’s owned and managed by an experienced and highly regarded staff. Since 2001, owner Kanella (which translates from Greek to “cinnamon”) Chronis and her team have kept Albuquerque’s power-brokers well fed at the Plaza Eatery, a downtown cafe in the shadow of City Hall. In 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine ranked the Eatery’s breakfast burrito as the city’s fifth best, giving it the red and green cred Duke City diners respect most.

It wasn’t Albuquerque’s fifth best breakfast burrito my Kim opted for during our inaugural visit, but the carne adovada burrito. The flavor profile of carne adovada, all those falling apart tender tendrils of porcine perfection, should be melt-in-your-mouth delicate, never overwhelming in piquancy or astringency. Too much Mexican oregano, for example, can embitter carne adovada. That, unfortunately, is what we experienced with the Cafe’s version. Thanks to a dash more spice than warranted, it just didn’t have the light, delicate chile marinated qualities we love in carne adovada.

Cin-fully delicious French Toast

We long ago stopped deluding ourselves that granola is a healthy alternative to sugary breakfast cereals. Despite the fruits, nuts and whole grains, most restaurant granola is fairly fattening. Its deliciousness, however, sometimes outweighs the extra treadmill miles you’ll have to do to work it off. The housemade honey cinnamon granola at Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe is worth a half marathon at least. It’s layered with your choice of Greek vanilla or Strawberry yogurt (a great option) served with toast and seasonal fresh fruit. Luckily for us, blueberries and strawberries were in season and at the prime of freshness. They enlivened an already excellent granola and yogurt pairing.

The first item on the breakfast menu is “Cin-fully delicious French Toast,” a curious name which makes sense in a literal sense as in you probably don’t want to consume something that’s full of sin, but something “cin-ful” might be palatable. Whether it was that unique spelling or the promise of “thick slices of housemade bread dusted with Saigon cinnamon, topped with brown sugar toasted pecans, served with maple syrup” the menu had us at “sin”…er “cin.” These French Toast live up to their promise with loads of sweetness and richness that no residual savoriness in the pecans could hope to penetrate. For the lust with which we enjoyed these French toast, our penance will be five Hail Cinnamons.

Like my three wonderful sisters, Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe is made of everything nice.

Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe
5809 Juan Tabo, N.E., Sweet A.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 492-2119
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cin-fully Delicious French Toast, Honey Granola and Yogurt Parfait, Carne Adovada Burrito

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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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