Slapfish – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Slapfish, a Modern Seafood Shack

Every year, a jolly, bearded (some might also say fat) gentleman leaves the comforts of his home to celebrate an event that comes only once a year. Throughout the year he’s visited good little mom-and-pop restaurants across the Land of Enchantment and rewarded them with kind reviews wrapped in polysyllabic words and alliterative phrases. On this special day, my Kim’s birthday, the bearded gentleman isn’t quite as jolly for as faithful readers know, once a year I agree to take my cookie-baking bride to the Olive Garden. It’s a deal we have, albeit one that makes me feel like Faust in the Christopher Marlowe play. Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. In my case, the deal is a visit to Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year. I sure got the rotten end of that deal.

On 28 October 2017, my Kim decided to collect my soul, er….have me make good on my promise and take her to the Olive Garden (which she doesn’t like nearly as much as she likes the annoyance it brings me at the mere thought of visiting a chain restaurant). In the traditional deal with the devil motif of literature and cinema, when Satan comes to collect the witless pawn’s immortal soul, the pawn begs, bribes, cajoles and barters to no avail. Unlike the pawn, however, I had one barter up my sleeve. “Rather than the Olive Garden, wouldn’t you rather go to a better chain restaurant, one which purports to serve lobster rolls, ostensibly like the ones with which you fell in love in Maine?,” I pleaded. “If you’re talking about Slapfish, I’m game,” she replied. Phew, a reprieve for at least another year.

A cup of Clam Chowder

As with an increasing number of brick-and-mortar restaurants, Slapfish got its start as a mobile food kitchen (that’s food truck for you, Bob). In 2012, the founding owners hit the brakes on their mobile operation and launched their first sit-down restaurant in Huntington Beach, California. A scant five years later, Slapfish has restaurant locations across California, Utah, Idaho, Texas, Arizona, Colorado and even South Korea and London with plans to open fifty locations in six states (as of 2016). If past performance is a predictor of future success, the sky’s the limit for Slapfish, a fast-casual seafood shack offering a seasonally-driven menu showcasing responsibly sourced, fresh and healthy seafood. Slapfish, by the way, is an onomatopoeia (words that imitate a sound) for the sound fresh fish make while slapping around the dock.

New Mexico’s sole Slapfish location, a 2,000-square-foot space with two dog friendly patios, is located at the Holly Center (also home to newcomer Blaze Pizza, Tamashi Sushi, Tropical Smoothie and Jersey Mike’s) in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights. Slapfish celebrated its grand opening on October 7th and boasts of “fresh as coastal seafood” and a “sea-to-table concept.” A second Duke City location is in the planning stage. Though now ensconced in a brick-and-mortar edifice, there’s one hold-over element from Slapfish’s days as a food truck. You have to place your order at a counter, above which a fairly minimalist menu displays featured fare along with specials of the day.

Lobster Taquitos

“Must Have” (Slapfish’s term, not necessarily mine) selections headline the menu. These are the appetizers, some of which are rather intriguing. Among the more interesting offerings are the chowder fries (natural-cut fries smothered in creamy clam chowder and bacon) and lobster taquitos drizzled with “awesome sauce.” A “daily fish” is on the menu every day and it served in a salad, as a sandwich or as a bowl (with two sides). Main (and in some cases Maine) entrees are displayed on the “Signatures” menu. The lobster roll isn’t shown online, but it was available on the day of our inaugural visit, albeit at “market price.” Sides include housemade pickles (pickled or fried), some of the best we’ve had in Albuquerque. Fountain drinks are of the Maine Root handcrafted beverages brand.

In retrospect (and hindsight is always 20/20) we should have had the chowder fries. Instead, we ordered just one component of those chowder fries—the clam chowder—and did so only after verifying that it’s New England style clam chowder, not Manhattan style. There’s a huge difference. An overfilled cup of steaming hot chowder was replete with a generous amount of bacon bits, bite-sized red potatoes and well, not many (if any) clams (perhaps we should have asked Forrest Fenn to organize a treasure hunt to find them). As a bacon chowder, this cup was satisfying, but we didn’t order a bacon chowder. We ordered a clam chowder. Also conspicuous by their absence are the traditional New England style oyster crackers which typically accompany clam chowder throughout New England.

Lobster Ramen Burrito

Much more satisfying were the lobster taquitos drizzled in awesome sauce. Though the term “awesome sauce” has a fingernails on a chalkboard effect on some people, to others it’s become a catchphrase synonymous with “excellent” or “extremely good.” It could be argued that these taquitos (two per order) are more akin to a chimichanga because the tortilla is fried or even closer to an egg roll than a taquito, but what can’t be disputed is that they’re pretty darned good.  For under seven dollars, we didn’t expect an engorgement of lobster and our expectations were met.  What little lobster there was had a fresh and delicious.  The awesome sauce (an orange smoked chile sauce) is a nice touch.  It doesn’t have the type of heat a New Mexico chile-based sauce would have, but it’s got a pleasant personality.

Birthday or not, my Kim always orders first. Indicative of how little I understand women, I thought she’d surely order a lobster roll.   After all, she couldn’t get enough of them during our last visit to Maine. Instead, however, she ordered a shrimp ramen burrito. Yep, you read that correctly. A shrimp ramen burrito. She redeemed herself a little by asking for lobster instead of shrimp, a twelve-dollar upcharge.  So what exactly is a lobster ramen burrito?  Picture a flour tortilla engorged with ramen noodles, spinach and sizeable chunks of lobster meat from the tail and claws.  She used her fork to extricate the lobster which she dipped into warm butter and she slurped up the noodles, but basically left the tortilla shell alone.  After more than two decades in New Mexico, she still won’t eat “store-bought” tortillas and finds the term “hand-held” not applicable when it comes to burritos.

Lobstah Roll

Because my Kim didn’t order the lobster roll, it freed me up to be able to do so.  At first glance, it did bear a resemblance to the boatsful of lobster rolls I consumed in my years in Massachusetts.  Lobster meat from the tail and claws piled atop a split top roll.  Alas, there wasn’t much lobster inside the fluffy roll which was grilled and toasted to a lightly crispy exterior.  A light, sweet dressing (thankfully not gobs of mayo) and celery salt dress the lobster meat.  The lobster, while delicate and sweet, had a slightly stringy texture–discernible to us because we’ve devoured so much lobster.  Perhaps, Slapfish is still trying to figure out the nuances of high-altitude cooking.

In an interview with Forbes, founder Andrew Gruel admitted he “wanted to run the Chipotle of seafood.”  Despite some small foibles, it’s much better than Chipotle.  It’s inventive seafood the likes of which Albuquerque hasn’t seen before.

Slapfish Restaurant
6400 Holly Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1645
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 October 2017
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Clam Chowder, Lobster Roll, Lobster Taquitos

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

Crackin’ Crab Seafood Boil – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Crackin’ Crab Seafood Boil on Unser Boulevard in Albuquerque

There are certain notions people find too implausible or preposterous to believe. Case in point: during a recent lunch with my friend Bill Resnik, our waitress asked what we did for a living. Bill told her I was an actor, a premise our waitress found entirely credible—even to the point of recalling she may have seen me in an episode of Breaking Bad. When, however, I told her Bill was a porn star, she couldn’t contain her laughter. She practically fell over in hysteria at the image of my towering (6’5″) friend performing in a porno as if it was the most hilarious thing she’d ever heard. After she composed herself, she told me I was full of sh… er, excrement. My response: “full of sh..” was Bill’s porn name when he starred in diaper fetish movies. We thought we’d have to hose her down when even more raucous fits of laughter ensued.

Another notion New Mexicans find implausible is the idea that very good to excellent seafood can be found within the landlocked borders of the Land of Enchantment. Since the rapid fire succession closure in the early 2000s of Cafe Oceana, the Rio Grande Yacht Club and Seagull Street, many diners considered Pelican’s Restaurant the sole surviving seafood restaurant in the metropolitan area.  Just about the time the aforementioned trio were shuttering their doors, Mariscos Altamar began introducing Duke City diners to Mexican style seafood, a trend that caught on rapidly.  Then in 2013, Down N’ Dirty Seafood Boil filled a real niche by offering a product unique to the marketplace, something that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.  Its Cajun-style seafood boil concept was an immediate smash hit.

The Crackin’ Crab Dining Room

Just as as mighty forests start with one tiny fertile seed, niche markets tend to propagate as soon as entrepreneurs see an opportunity to get in on a good thing.  In 2015, just about the time Down N Dirty opened its second restaurant (Los Altos Plaza on Wyoming), an aptly named competitor–Crackin’ Crab Seafood Boil–opened its doors near the Century Rio 24 theater. It didn’t take Crackin’ Crab long to expand, launching its own second instantiation just as 2016 was dawning.  2015 also saw the launch of Crab N’ Draft in the International District.  In May, 2016, 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen in Nob Hill followed suit.

Detractors might say the market is already saturated, but those of us “glass half filled” types can’t get enough.  Landlocked Albuquerque has fallen in love with the seafood boil concept.  With existing and planned locations soon to blanket the metropolitan area, favorites are likely to be based as much on proximity as to quality of the product.  Living in Rio Rancho (almost as far north as you can go before you’re in the Santa Ana Pueblo), we longed for a seafood boil restaurant we didn’t have to drive thirty miles to reach.  With the opening of Crackin’ Crab at the McMahon Marketplace on Unser just north of the demarcation line between Rio Rancho and Albuquerque, our wish has been granted.

A family bag of seafood

The name Crackin’ Crab speaks volumes about the concept.  At its mechanical essence, a seafood boil is little more than seafood, water (or beer) and spices (exquisite, flavor-packed, seafood enlivening spices).  At its spiritual essence, it’s so much more than that.  A seafood boil is about fun and frolic.  It’s about sharing succulent seafood with friends and family.  It’s about getting your hands and face dirty and enjoying every minute of it.  Even though the nearest sand and surf (Tingley Beach doesn’t count) is more than 800 miles away, Duke City diners can still enjoy the spirit of the seafood boil.  That spirit is alive and well at the Crackin’ Crab.

With an ambiance almost equal parts nautical and nondescript, the Crackin’ Crab is a sole, elongated dining room with a seating capacity of about fifty guests.  Weather-permitting, another twenty-five diners can enjoy themselves on the patio.  Several strategically placed wall-mounted flat screen televisions might get your attention early, but only until your seafood bounty arrives at your table.  “Pounds of Crackin'” is set at market price by the pound: blue crab, Dungeness crab cluster, snow crab cluster, king crab legs, lobster, black mussels, green mussels, crawfish (in season), clams, scallops and shrimp (headless or with heads).   You can’t catch this stuff on the Rio Grande.  If you prefer your seafood fried, a netful of fried options are also available: calamari, shrimp, seafood, oysters and softshell crab.  Landlubbers can have fried chicken tenders.

Sampling of the Family Bag

Any order combination of three pounds will also yield one corn on the cob, one sausage and one potato, but you can also order additional portions of each in any quantity you desire for a relative pittance.  Two sauce options are available to enliven your seafood boil–an Old Bay Cajun sauce and a lemon pepper sauce, both available in mild, medium or hot.  My penchant for piquancy goes out the window with seafood.  Any spice level beyond medium obfuscates the natural sweet and briny flavors of seafood.  At Crackin’ Crab even the medium sauce is as incendiary as hot chile at some New Mexican food restaurants. 

11 September 2016: Your best bet whether you’re a value conscious diner or you want variety in your meal is the family bag, a veritable boatload of beauteous seafood.  Your yield is one pound of snow crab, a half pound of headless shrimp, a half pound of scallops and a half pound of black mussels along with one corn on the cob, one potato and one Andouille sausage.  That’s two-and-a-half pounds of succulent seafood for about forty dollars (as of this writing).  Being a lazy eater, my preference is for seafood requiring no peeling or cracking.  Extricating the sweet meat, no matter how delicious, is just too much work and I seem to lack the manual dexterity to use the cracking appliances provided.  My Kim would rather extract the crab meat for me than to see me wreak mass destruction on the claws.  

More Goodness from the Family Bag

11 September 2016: My favorite item in the family bag is the scallops (and not only because there’s no peeling or shelling involved).  Crackin’ Crab serves silver dollar sized scallops, each as sweet, rich and deliciously decadent as possible.  The shrimp are sizeable enough for the term “shrimp” to be an oxymoron while the black mussels probably benefit most from the Cajun sauce.  Because couples might not remain together if they had to split just one Andouille sausage, potato or corn-on-the-cob, you’re well advised to order at least two for each of you.  The spicy, smoked Andouille sausage is always a treat.

30 October 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, quotes the two things you need to know about Old Bay Seasoning: (1) It’s great on seafood; and (2) It’s great on everything else. Sprinkled lovingly on all the contents of the family bag (which you’ll remember, includes the corn-on-the-cob, Andouille sausage and potatoes), the seasoning penetrates deeply, imbuing the seafood with a blend of 18 herbs and spices. During our inaugural visit, we opted for the medium piquancy which proved more incendiary than much of the green chile served in some New Mexican restaurants. The source of that piquancy is nothing more than red pepper, black pepper and paprika. Lemon pepper, the seasoning of choice during our second visit, seemed to emphasize the flavor of coarse ground pepper more than the tanginess of lemon peel. At “mild,” it allowed the seafood to shine.

Crackin’ Crab has cracked the line-up of seafood boil restaurants par excellence in the metropolitan area. As if terrific seafood isn’t enough, when you’re done you can take your receipt two doors down to the outstanding chocolatier ChocoGlitz & Cream and you get a ten-percent discount on your order.

Cracking Crab Seafood Boil
10660 Unser Blvd, #B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-5790
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 30 October 2016
1st VISIT: 11 September 2016
BEST BET: Family Platter (One Pound Snow Crab, Half Pound Headless Shrimp, Half Pound Scallops, Half Pound Black Mussels, Corn on the Cob, Potatoes, Andouille Sausage) Bread

Crackin' Crab Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Down N Dirty Seafood Boil – Albuquerque, New Mexico


Down N Dirty Seafood Boil on Fourth Street in Albuquerque

Seafood boil in the Duke City!  If the notion conjures visions of heading to Tingley Beach and embarking on an unappetizing repast of catfish, trout and silvery minnows boiled together in a large pot of green chile seasoned water, you’re in for a treat.  As of September, 2013, it’s possible for expatriates from any of America’s coastal regions to indulge in authentic seafood boil…and it’s very good.  

If you hadn’t heard about Down N Dirty Seafood Boil, it’s because Albuquerque’s very first seafood boil restaurant launched to very little fanfare.  The event should have been celebrated with ceremonial splendor and rejoicing.  Think about it.  Among the dozens of  restaurant openings in the Duke City every year, very few actually serve an untapped market.  Even fewer fill a real niche and offer a product unique to the marketplace, something that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.

The homey interior of Down N’ Dirty Seafood Boil

Expats who’ve lived along coastal waters know of what I speak.  As they read this, they may even be experiencing involuntary salivation at their memories of seafood boils in their past and the prospect of recreating that experience within easy driving distance.   Others not fortunate enough to  have ever experienced an authentic seafood boil may be scratching their heads and wondering just what a seafood boil is and why the launch of the Down N Dirty (no double-entendre intended) Seafood Boil is such a milestone event.

A seafood boil is, first and foremost, a social event, a gathering of friends and family to celebrate and luxuriate in succulent shellfish.  In coastal areas, seafood boils are held on Memorial day to herald the start of summer and they’re held on Labor Day to wish summer a fond farewell.  Optimally, they’re held on the beach where the heady aroma of briny seawater mingles with the smoke from the fire surrounding a large cauldron or stockpot of boiling water (or beer) in which the bounty of the sea is prepared. 


Lobsters and crabs in tanks

Regional variations not only dictate what shellfish is prepared, but the spices and nuances that give that region its culinary personality. The seafood of choices in New England are clams and oysters served with Portuguese sausage.  In Georgia and in the “Low Country” of South Carolina, it’s shrimp and smoked sausage while Louisiana seafood lovers prefer the triumvirate of crabs, crawfish and andouille sausage.  Blue crab, Chincoteague oysters and clams are all the rage along the estuaries of Chesapeake Bay.

There is no one standard “recipe” for a seafood boil.  Chefs and cooks have freelanced for generations, tweaking local variations with a pinch of this or a dash of that but never deviating too far from tradition.  At its basics, a seafood boil is little more than seafood, water (or beer) and spices.  The seafood is typically boiled whole and if you’re fortunate enough to experience it along the coast, extricated from the net or trap and tossed directly into a boiling pot.  There is nothing like the just-caught flavors and brininess of fresh seafood!

Scallops, Potatoes, Corn and Andouille Sausage

Obviously, the Duke City and landlocked New Mexico are at a disadvantage when it comes to just-caught, fresh-off-the-boat seafood, but modern transportation has made next day delivery of fresh seafood a reality.  The other elements–foamy waves crashing along the beach, pristine sands as fine as talcum, marine layers of soupy fog in the morning–we’ll just have to imagine.  Though it does sport a thematic seaside decor, stepping into the Down N Dirty Seafood Boil restaurant on Fourth Street won’t transport you back to the coast.  The seafood boil just might!

The menu invites you to “get dirty by the pound” offering at market price all the seafood it takes to sate expats from coast to coast.  Blue crab, clams, mussels, crawfish, scallops, shrimp, rock shrimp, Dungeness crab, snow crab legs, Alaskan king crab legs, crab claws and even lobster are available.  While you’re free to mix and match to your heart’s content, it’s got to be in full pound increments.  You can’t, for example, order a quarter pound of rock shrimp, a half pound of crab claws and three-quarter pounds of mussels.

Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob

Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob

After you’ve selected your seafood of choice, you’ll be asked to pick a spice flavor and degree of spiciness.  The spice accents include garlic butter, lemon pepper, Cajun and “Down N Dirty” if you want it all.  Spice levels range from none (garlic butter) to mild, medium and hot.  Your server will explain the process in as much detail as you need.  After your inaugural visit you’ll have the routine down pat. 

It wouldn’t be a seafood boil without the accompaniments which luxuriate in the fragrant stew of spices and herbs along with the seafood.  Popular favorites include potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage and Andouille sausage.  Down N Dirty will also fry up some of your favorites: chicken tenders, fish and chips, shrimp, catfish, calamari, soft shell crab and oysters, but let’s face it, you can get fried foods just about anywhere. 

Alaskan King Crab Legs, potatoes and corn

Alaskan King Crab Legs, potatoes and corn

There are a couple of cautionary statements you should heed when partaking in a seafood boil: (1) it can get pretty messy as in buttery liquids running down your chin onto your shirt; and (2) you’ll want to use the bib provided by your server to protect that shirt.  Better yet would be cutting a hole in a trash bag and putting your head through it.  That would be fitting because the seafood itself is served in a clear trash bag (which really should be called “treasure bags” considering what they hold).  Make that two trash bags (double-bagging).  The inner bag is tied at the top.  You’ll have to untie it then fashion it into a makeshift bowl before you can indulge in your seafood fantasy. 

2 November 2013: While the seafood options with a carapace (an exoskeleton) are tempting, if your hunger won’t wait or, like me, you lack the manual dexterity to safely extricate the tender seafood from its craggy shell, you’ll opt for seafood sans shell.  Scallops, the pearlescent beauties with a sweet flavor are a perfect choice.  Because scallops are so delicate in flavor, you won’t want to overwhelm them with an assertive spice.  The Down N Dirty spice, which can be made “mild” is perfect for scallops.  The reddish, stewy liquid in which the scallops are served is rich and buttery with minced garlic and spices swimming around. 

Two-pound lobster with potatoes and corn-on-the-cob

Two-pound lobster with potatoes and corn-on-the-cob

8 November 2013: Conventional thought is that most seafood boil seasoning mixtures come from a can, box, packet or decanter of some sort.  There’s absolutely no shame in using Old Bay, Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s seasonings, all of which are good.  It’s quite likely the good folks at Down N Dirty start with one of these pre-packaged mixes then “doctor” them to their liking, but they won’t reveal their “secret recipes’ to anyone.  Who needs to know what’s in the seasoning as long as they enhance the flavor of the seafood.  These seasonings do.  The Cajun seasonings on a pound of rock shrimp, for example, brought me back to seafood boils of yore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

The accompaniment options are worthy of sharing trash bag space with the seafood. The thin-skinned new potatoes are boiled to perfection and soak up the buttery-garlicky mix.  The corn-on-the-cob is sweet and succulent, perhaps the messiest component of the boil because it’s hand-held.  At the opposite spectrum of the sweet, briny seafood is the Andouille sausage, a coarse, smoky and nicely spiced sausage.  The only thing missing is a baguette which would be perfect for sopping up any remaining liquid.  Alas, the owners don’t want diners to fill up on bread.  The menu also offers about a dozen and a half drinks by the can as well as bottled drinks.  If you’ve ever looked inside the tubing of a fountain drink machine, you’ll be grateful. 

Bread, a relatively new offering at Down N’ Dirty

11 November 2013: While the boiled seafood travels well, the fried clams do not.  Instead of the plump, sweet and miraculously delicious whole bellied clams I had fallen in love with during the two years I lived in Massachusetts, the fried clams at Down N Dirty are of Howard Johnson’s quality.  That is, they’re passable (barely) in New Mexico, but wouldn’t pass muster in New England.  Experience has taught me that not even in San Diego and Las Vegas are excellent fried clams to be found.

The Down N Dirty Seafood Boil is located at the former site of several failed restaurants.  There are enough expats from coastal regions and enough adventurous seafood lovers to make it a dining destination where they can make it a celebration of the seafood boil tradition as American as New Mexico’s red and green chile.

Down N Dirty Seafood Boil
6100 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-0595
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2015
1st VISIT: 2 November 2013
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Scallops, Alaskan King Crabs, Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob, Andouille Sausage, Lobster, Cherry Pepsi

Down N Dirty Seafood Boil Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar – Monterey, California

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in the Cannery Row area of Monterey, California

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem,
a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone,
a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
John Steinbeck
Cannery Row, 1945

During basic military training in the Air Force, several of us who could speak multiple languages were asked to take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), the test the military services use to measure aptitude to learn a foreign language.  Fewer than five percent of people who take (or retake) the DLAB pass it.  Somehow I managed a high score and was extended an opportunity to attend the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey.   My response, one borne of ignorance and stupidity, was “I don’t want to go to Mexico.”  It had not dawned on me that the Monterey being offered was in California. 

Over the years, I’ve revisited my decision frequently.  On one hand, the Air Force might have decided to have me learn Arabic or Iranian then stationed me on a remote mountaintop to listen to and decipher chatter.  On the other, the year or so spent in Monterey would have been glorious (other than the hours of poring over language tapes and books).  Every ten years or so, I manage to visit Monterey where I once again ponder the obtuse decisions of my youth.  It usually results in me thinking that the time spent in Monterey would have been worth the hazards and remoteness of an assignment as a cryptology linguist.

Outdoor patio at Schooners

Monterey, California in 1977 when I would have attended the Defense Language Institute is not the Monterey of 1945 when Steinbeck wrote his novel and if anything, it’s changed significantly since 1977.  The Monterey of Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was set during the Great Depression when sardine fishing created a boom economy in the village.  Cannery Row is the living backdrop for the book, a unique neighborhood of fish packing plants, bordellos, and flophouses.  The novel made Cannery Row the most famous street in America.

Today Cannery Row is among the most popular vacation destinations on California’s magnificent central coast with many of the city’s very best attractions, hotels, dining establishments, shopping and nightlife available in the area.  Sardine fishing has made a resurgence in recent years, with sardine boats swaying on anchor next to vessels that troll for tuna and whale sighting charter boats.  Monterey has become an epicenter of the sustainable fishing movement.  Then there’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the very best of its kind in the world.

Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake: Corn and Avocado Salad, Citrus Vinaigrette

The restaurant landscape in the Cannery Row district is a popular draw, though my friend Sandy is of the opinion that most of its eateries are touristy and commercial.  Sure enough, among the several dozen restaurants in the area are such national chains as Johnny Rockets, Dippin’ Dots, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (the first one in America, by the way).  Sadly, but not surprisingly, those restaurants are packed (sardine tight, you might say).   Savvy diners visit the fine dining and seafood establishments on Cannery Row for a more authentic, more delicious dining experience.

One of the best seaside restaurants both for ocean views and the bounty of the sea is Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar,  at the only Forbes four-star-awarded Monterrey Plaza Hotel & Spa.  Schooners is perched dramatically over the Monterey Bay where diners will enjoy the gentle sounds of the undulating surf; the fresh, salty fragrance of sea air; the playfulness of sea otters drifting in kelp forests and a Mediterranean ambiance  accompanied by personalized service.  The views and the experience are unparalleled.  So,  too, is an innovative menu that showcases a variety of seafood–both raw and cooked.

Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder: Baby Clams, Sherry, Potatoes, Cream Served in Freshly Baked Sourdough Bread

All seafood served at Schooners is compliant with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch Guide” designed to raise consumer awareness about the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood.  Not only does the restaurant celebrate conscious dining and high quality, sustainable seafood, it educates the dining public by  indicating the origin and catching method on the menu.  The menu is divided into such categories  as “In the Raw,” “Chowders & Stews,” “Fish Stories,” and “Tails to Share,” when plates are portioned to be shared for two or more.

The pride of restaurants throughout the California coast is the Dungeness crab, which are fresh and abundant thanks to sustainable harvesting practices.  Californians are as proud of the Dungeness crab as Baltimore area citizenry are of their fabled Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.  One of my dreams is to participate as a judge in a crab cake throw-down between the aforementioned crustaceans.  The Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake at Schooners would make a good representative of the left coast’s best.  This is an excellent crab cake.  It’s thick and large with a preponderance of crab and a bare minimum of binder.  Complementing the smooth, delicate flavor of crab is an accompanying corn and avocado salad with a tart-sweet citrus vinaigrette.  It’s wholly unnecessary, but quite good.

Fish Tacos: Grilled Fish, cabbage, Lime, Salsa, Avocado, Fresh Corn-Flour Tortillas

When it comes to bi-coastal seafood, it’s not only crab cakes which are prepared par excellence.  Between the clam chowder at my former home in the Boston area and the clam chowder in the San Francisco area, it’s a virtual toss-up as to which is the very best.  Both are outstanding!  In the Boston area, the preferred accompaniment are oyster crackers while in the San Francisco area, clam chowder is often served in hollowed-out sourdough bowls.  The latter option is irresistible, especially if you learn how to scrape the sides of the sourdough bowl so as to have just a bit of bread with each spoonful of soup.  Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder showcases baby clams, sherry, potatoes and cream served in freshly baked sourdough.  The proportion of sherry to cream is especially delicious, providing interesting flavor notes.

While fish tacos are much more closely associated with San Diego where they’re regarded as perhaps the city’s top delicacy, you can find decent fish tacos throughout the Golden State.  Schooners’ rendition starts on a canvas of fresh corn-flour tortillas into which are nestled grilled fish, cabbage and avocados with a salsa on the side.  The cabbage is tinged with pleasantly piquant jalapeños.  The grilled fish is wonderfully fresh and flavorful, the avocados unctuous and buttery.  Squeeze a little bit of lime and spoon in a little salsa and you’ve got an excellent, dare I say, San Diego worthy fish taco.  Three per order are served and they’ll go fast.

Seafood Salad: Seared Ahi Tuna, Shrimp, Crab, Endive, Mango, Avocado, Mango Sauce

Land meets sea in a bountiful seafood salad, a delicious melange of complementary and contrasting flavors which meld into a surprisingly fresh and delicious plate.  Easily large enough for two, you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of ingredients: endive leaves stuffed with shredded crab, sliced mango, buttery avocado, heirloom cherry tomatoes (yellow and orange), red cherry tomatoes, peeled shrimp and pepper crust rimmed ahi tuna.  The salad is served with a mango sauce as thick as mayonnaise and a light citrus vinaigrette.  The contrasting flavors played the most delicious notes on our taste buds: tangy-sweet mango with sea salty ahi and especially the astringency of endive with the sweet-brininess of the crab.

Desserts seem to taste just a bit sweeter at seaside, especially if you opt for the Tropical Sabayon ((a cousin of the light, egg-based Italian dessert zabaglione, the very best of which we’ve ever had being at Il Piato in Santa Fe).  Though a bit less frothy and lighter than its Italian cousin, this honey-infused custard is quite good.  The showcase, however, is the fruits and berries–mango broiled to the point of near caramelization, pineapple and berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries).  To frosted cookies, much denser than the sugared donuts they resemble, are the proverbial topping you can’t top.

Tropical Sabayon: Broiled Mango, Pineapple, Berries, Marshall’s Honey Sabayon

The impeccable service at Schooners also served to remind me of my perhaps ill-fated decision several decades ago when I opted out of spending much more time in one of California’s paradises than a vacation can afford.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar
400 Cannery Row Map.965d171
Monterey, California
(831) 372-2628
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 July 2012
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake, Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder, Seafood Salad, Fish Tacos, Tropical Sabayon

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab – Las Vegas, Nevada

Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

Stone crab is probably what God eats every night of the year,
but in Florida we mortals only have it from mid-October to mid-May…”
Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter by Blaize Clement

Whether or not stone crab is really what God likes for dinner might make an interesting literary debate, but there’s no disputing that ordinary and not-so-mere mortals have loved the captivating crustaceans of citrus country for nearly a century.  In 1913 Joe Weiss discovered that stone crabs were not only edible, they were delicious–so much so that his small lunch counter in then backwater Miami Beach became an epicurean epicenter.  High society–everyone from Will Rogers, Gloria Swanson and Emelia Earhart to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and J. Edgar Hoover–flocked– to his restaurant.  So did a nemesis of Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Using the alias Al Brown, public enemy number one Al Capone and his entourage dined at Joe’s every evening.  Capone liked and respected Joe’s wife so much (and ostensibly her preparation of stone crabs) that every Mother’s Day, he sent a truck to the restaurant to deliver a horseshoe-shaped bouquet of flowers which read, “Good Luck Mother Joe’s.”  Jennie Weiss never realized who he was, but admired his gentlemanly behavior and always made him feel welcome at the restaurant.

The interior entrance to Joe's

Stone crabs are harvested in Florida every year between October 15th and May 15th.  Among the world’s most sustainable seafood, only one of the delicious decapod’s large claws may be remove thereby ensuring the continued survival of the species.  The crabs are thrown back into the water where another claw will generate in twelve to eighteen months.  Crabs are captured in baited traps, not speared or hooked and egg-bearing females are not allowed to be declawed.  The minimum legal size per claw is about two ounces with some colossal crabs weighing as much as twenty-five pounds. 

Claws make up half the weight of the entire crab.  A claw is removed by carefully grabbing it from the rear and twisting it off, a more humane treatment than say, boiling it live as is done with lobsters.  The claws are steamed on the boat then chilled and delivered to restaurants such as Joe’s which serve them to soon-to-be sated guests.  At Joe’s, they can be ordered in three sizes: medium (seven per order), select (six per order) and large (five per order).  Size–other than perhaps the size of your billfold–has no bearing on flavor; the medium crab claws taste every bit as great as the large crab claws.

Bread basket at Joe's

Joe’s legendary stone crabs are to the Miami chamber of commerce what green chile is to the New Mexico Tourism Department and as with our green chile, their popularity could not be contained by borders.  In the millennium year of 2000, Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based concept restaurant dining empire partnered with the Weiss family to bring Joe’s to Chicago, pairing Florida’s incomparable stone crab with prime bone-in chops, a Windy City staple.  Four years later, the Joe’s legacy expanded to the Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas.  Proving no mirage in the Nevada desert, Joe’s legendary stone crab quickly became a popular draw with reservations strongly recommended.

That’s a contrast to the original Joe’s which has always had a mandated no-reservations policy.  Another contrast is the service.  The Miami Beach wait staff is crabbier than the decadent decapods they deliver to their patrons’ tables, but in Las Vegas, service is friendly and attentive–particularly if your server is the lovely and ambassadorial Linda, a native of the south of England who will make you feel right at home and can be trusted to provide spot-on recommendations on what to order.

A bowl of stone crab bisque

As you contemplate the menu, a basket of bread is delivered to your table along with soft butter you can actually spread.  The artisinal assortment of breads is as beauteous to admire as it is delicious to devour.  The assortment includes a caramelized onion and cheese roll, a cracker-like lavosh and  cranberry-walnut bread, each so good you’ll want the basket replenished.  Make sure to save at least one slice or roll to sop up one of the menu’s outstanding bisques, the best of which might be the sumptuous stone crab bisque

Great restaurants recognize that visual elements–color, texture, portion size, shape–will greatly enhance the appreciation of a great dish.  The stone crab bisque arrives at your table in a steel vessel which completely obfuscates the creamy, pureed crustacean.  The wait staff will pour the contents of the steely pitcher onto a plate brimming with chopped stone crab and finely minced carrots and celery, instantly releasing a steamy, enticing aroma that precedes the rich, delicious flavor profile of sweet crab meat and sauteed vegetables.  This elixir will remedy whatever ails you.

Lobster Tail Tempura with an Asian dipping sauce

The bountiful bowl of bisque is large enough to share though you might want to keep it all for yourself.  It’s among the very best soups, chowders, stews or gumbos I’ve ever had.  It’s one of those rare items about which you could say you’d die happy if you fell into a brimming vat of this steamy deliciousness and drowned while attempting to drink your way out.  It’s the type of soup which would win any Souper Bowl!

Stone crabs aren’t the sole seafood item on the menu, not by a long shot.  The menu offers a boatload of seafood options: fried shrimp, shrimp scampi, scallops (and bacon-wrapped sea scallops), colossal lump crab cakes, lobster tail tempura, jumbo Alaskan king crab legs and a fisherman’s platter which showcases shrimp, scallops, calamari and cod. Fresh fish options include cod, salmon (au poivre), mahi mahi, halibut and ahi tuna.

An order of five medium-sized stone crabs

The lobster tail tempura is a winner–two six-ounce tails sheathed in a light tempura batter which imparts a crunchy accent without detracting from the sweet, succulent deliciousness of the lobster.  The lobster tails are served with an Asian inspired, slightly spicy apricot dipping sauce.  It’s wholly unnecessary and, if anything, you might find yourself missing drawn butter.  A grilled jumbo lobster tail is available for purists who don’t believe the flavor of lobster should be masked, even partially, by any batter.

Those purists will love the stone crabs, particularly during lunch when Joe’s Classic stone crab is available at an unbeatable prix fixe price.  One lunch special includes five stone crab claws, hashed brown potatoes, coleslaw and a sliver of key lime pie. Alternatively, you can sate your carnivorous cravings with a lunch special that showcases a six-ounce filet mignon, Jennie’s potatoes, Joe’s grilled tomatoes and banana cream pie with Foster sauce. Never mind a jackpot from the one-armed bandit; you’re a winner with either option.

Joe's famous hash browns and coleslaw

The stone crab claws arrive at your table cracked and ready to be de-shelled, similar to how you would peel a hard-boiled egg (albeit one with very sharp edges).  For someone who bashed his thumb with a wooden mallet cracking dungeness crabs in San Francisco, the pre-cracked claws were much appreciated.  Not everyone needs the authenticity of a crab-cracking experience.  The stone crab is served cold as if having been resting in a tub of ice before coming to your table.  There’s plenty of meat in each claw and it’s a sweet, succulent, delicious meat.  The crab claws are served with Joe’s trademarked mustard sauce which is as sweet as it is tangy.  No sauce is really necessary.

Two things go best with stone crab claws at Joe’s.  Fittingly they’re the two things first served with the claws nearly a century ago.  The first would be hashed browns which are unlike the packaged confetti strips most restaurants serve.  The exterior of the hashed browns resembles a crusty shell, likely the byproduct of the way the potatoes are prepared.  Penetrate that shell and you’ll find soft fried goodness.  The other accompaniment is Joe’s famous coleslaw which isn’t made with a mayo-based salad cream, but with a tangy-sweet vinegary sauce.  It’s an excellent coleslaw.

The very best Boston Cream Pie I've Ever Had (and I lived in Massachusetts for two years)

For years my very favorite Boston Cream Pie was the one served at the Parker House Hotel in Boston where it was first conceived in 1867.  The official dessert of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts may henceforth hold a back seat to the Boston cream pie at Joe’s.  There are several reasons this pie is so fabulous.  First, it’s a generous slab, not a sliver leaving you wanting more.  Secondly, the ganache is of adult chocolate sweetness and it’s applied generously.  Third, the inside layer of cream is neither overly thick nor too cloying.  Everything about this pie is just right.

Joe’s most famous dessert, one as popular in the Florida Keys as Boston Cream Pie is in Boston, is key lime pieIf you’ve ever had a luminescent or neon green “key lime pie” it’s not the real thing. Joe’s rendition is the real deal, made with key lime juice and a heaping helping of key lime zest.  It’s got a pale yellowish hue and it’s both creamy and just tangy-tart enough to purse your lips.  The Graham cracker crust maintains its integrity and doesn’t fall apart when you press your fork into it.  That’s partially because the pie is served cold.

Real Key Lime Pie

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab serves stone crab all year round–even off-season when frozen claws are served.  That, too, one-ups the Joe’s in Miami which is closed all summer.  Our inaugural visit was more a “been there, done that” experience than it was transformative in any way.  Some items–the stone crab bisque and Boston cream pie–were in the “to die for” category, but not everything else was.  Still, from an experiential perspective, you can’t go wrong with a restaurant offering stellar service and palate-pleasing cuisine.

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
Forum Shops @ Caesar’s
3500 Las Vegas  Blvd. South
Las Vegas, Nevada
Web Site
LATEST VISIT:5 November 2011
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET:  Lobster Tail Tempura, Stone Crab, Hash Browns, Coleslaw, Key Lime Pie, Boston Cream Pie, Stone Crab Bisque

Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab on Urbanspoon

Desert Fish – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Desert Fish, a seafood oasis on Central Avenue

If you were entertaining a visitor from Seattle or Portland, would you take them to Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s or even  Pelican’s to show them how the seafood in land-locked Albuquerque measures up to the seafood in those two bastions of fresh, succulent seafood?  Not likely!  You’d probably want to take them to a restaurant which showcases New Mexico’s red and green chile.  For some reason, however, during business trips to Seattle and Portland, my well-intentioned colleagues insist on taking me to Mexican restaurants.  Perhaps they assume that with my Spanish surname and place of residence, I would want to try their Mexican food.  That makes as much sense as expecting me to stay at La Quinta and drive a Ford Fiesta rental car.

As a consequence of such faulty (albeit well-meaning) assumptions, I’ve been subjected to such chains as Chevy’s and other restaurants of that ilk where instead of “red or green,” a gloppy brown “sauce” absolutely reeking of the accursed demon spice cumin is ladled on liberally over the overly cheesy entrees.  Perhaps discerning my disdain for chains, my colleagues have also entertained me at such independent, but no less offensive Americanized Mexican restaurants as Macheezmo Mouse (you read that correctly).

The swanky interior at Desert Fish

Admittedly two or three days into a business trip, I start to crave New Mexican food, but not so much that I’ll visit a pitiful pretender.  My friend and colleague Steve Caine did that and will forever rue the day.  Upon returning from Portland, he asked me to help him with his expense report. His itemized report indicated he had dined twice at Chevy’s, a middling quality Americanized Mexican restaurant which wouldn’t survive in the tough Albuquerque market. I teased him mercilessly. Worse, when our boss saw what the commotion was all about, he immediately put Steve on double-secret probation. Steve has never lived down visiting a Chevy’s in Portland where he could have had some of the country’s freshest and best seafood.

When the din died down, Steve admitted somewhat sheepishly that after two days in Portland, he was missing New Mexican food so desperately that he visited the closest facsimile he could find. It was either Chevy’s or the aforementioned Macheezmo Mouse. Most business traveler from New Mexico have probably been there, too…well, not to Chevy’s, but at a point in the trip where the craving for New Mexico’s inimitable cuisine strikes like an addict’s need for a fix.

Mojito Ceviche:  Rock cod thinly sliced and marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint. Served with fresh made blue corn chips.

Peter Martin can certainly relate to that type of craving.  The Seattle native and owner of the Desert Fish restaurant has been marooned on a land-locked desert isle of a sort, having moved to New Mexico shortly after a friend bought the Tesuque Village Market outside of Santa Fe.   Youthful in exuberance and chronology, Peter has been working in nightclubs and restaurants for more than two decades, but it wasn’t as much an entrepreneurial spirit that prompted his venturing into the restaurant ownership business as it was just how much he missed seafood.  No matter how much New Mexico’s restaurants may think they’re serving good seafood, they’re not serving the type of seafood with which Peter was raised.

That would be seafood prepared as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest by seafood houses whose idea of freshness is off-the-boat and where catch of the day means this morning.  It’s seafood the type of which you find at the world-famous Pike’s Place Market where fishmongers toss fish at one another to the delight of visitors.  It’s wild-caught fish which are healthier and are more palatable in texture, aroma and flavor than their farm-raised brethren.  It’s an oyster bar serving a variety of oysters with a sweet oceanic flavor.  It’s Dungeness crab, a delicately flavored, slightly sweet West Coast delicacy.  Peter has made all of this available in Albuquerque.

Fresh Oysters: Kumamoto, Snow Creek, Penn Cove, Kushi and Miyagi with three dipping sauces: Clover honey and Tabasco, Raspberry and Champagne

The aptly named Desert Fish was launched on December 10th, 2010 at the former site of Sonny’s Bar and Grill on Route 66 in the Nob Hill District.  Gone are the pool tables, dartboards and numerous televisions usually tuned to sporting events.  The bandstand was retained, its stage to be graced by local music acts, their tunes piped in through a sound system reputed to be one of the best in town.  The ambiance is refined, like a true Northwestern seafood emporium and not a stereotypical nautical themed template.

While rich, dark woods imbue a room with masculinity, Desert Fish’s more gender-neutral light, but no less rich, woods give it character.  The bar’s paneled wainscoting extends to the smooth hewn planks on the ceiling.  Exposed industrial-style ductwork adds a touch of modernity while a twelve-foot totem pole, reminiscent of those carved by the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest,  provides a bit of whimsy.   On the day of our inaugural visit, the topmost figure on the totem pole sported a Seattle Seahawks helmet.

Cioppino: Hearty fish stew with shrimp, Dungeness crab, salmon, clams and mussels in a savory tomato broth with our own Desert Fish spice. Served with grilled bread.

The restaurant has two main dining areas.  As you enter (through a door on the edifice’s west side, not through Central Avenue as you might think) to the right there’s an intimate dining room with about a dozen tables.  More commodious is the main dining room where your interior views are of the stage, bar and oyster bar while your exterior views through large picture windows are of Central Avenue.  You’ll want to appreciate those views later; first you’ll want to peruse the menu which is not so much a compendium of all great seafood, but a carefully selected assemblage of incomparable seafood.

There are seven appetizers on the menu including a couple (French fries and kabobs) which are decidedly not seafood.  A soup of the day and clam chowder as well as a number of salads provide delicious alternatives to starters to be  sampled during future visits (and there will be many), but it’s the “bar menu” which will command most of your attention.  Price points are surprisingly comparable to what you might pay at a restaurant in Portland or Seattle and there’s no compromise in quality here.  Seafood is flown in fresh every two or three days.  A grilled rib eye steak au poivre is the only landlubber’s entree on the menu, but then you didn’t come here for meat, did you?

Whole Dungeness Crab: Succulent steamed crab served with corn on the cob and choice of fries.

You came to Desert Fish for the seafood, the quality of which my foodie friend Larry McGoldrick describes as “superior.”  On his Urbanspoon page, Larry assures readers that “Desert Fish has become a polished eatery and imbibery in the three short weeks that it has been open.”  You can trust the good professor of oceanography.  He lived on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay before moving to New Mexico.  Larry’s recommendations in mind, we wanted to try everything he had but opted instead to try a few different items so readers can get two perspectives on the menu’s delicious offerings.

As we do at most mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants, we had to have ceviche.  At Desert Fish that means Mojito Ceviche, thinly-sliced rock cod marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint.  The ceviche is served with fresh made blue corn chips and in the fashion of tostadas de ceviche, the combination of light, delicate fish and crispy corn is hard to beat, not that the chips were necessary in the least.  This is ceviche reminiscent of ceviche you might find at a Peruvian restaurant meaning it’s incomparably fresh and wholly imbued with flavors which are both complementary and contrasting.  The infusion of fresh citrus juices and rum, in particular, impart an almost Tropical feel.


Truffle Fries, Sweet Potato Fries and House Fries

Seafood connoisseurs recognize that no other seafood offering tastes as much like the sea as oysters, renown nearly as much for their aphrodisiac properties as for their flavor.  It’s a flavor attributable to terroir, the specific environment in which they grow.  Desert Fish offers a variety of oysters from a variety of locales.  Order at least one from each and discern the nuanced flavors.  The Kumamoto, considered by many as the perfect oyster, is sweet and “fruity” in an oceanic way.  Snow Creek oysters, raised in the deep waters of the Puget Sound, have a hint of iron in a sweet-salty flavor profile.  Penn Cove, perhaps the most “beautiful” of all oysters, are about medium in brininess while retaining a sea-saltiness.  Kushi (Japanese for “precious”) oysters have a clean flavor and are small in size.  Miyagi oysters are full-flavored and robust.

Though I prefer the unfettered flavor of oysters in all their native deliciousness, Desert Fish serves their oysters with three dipping sauces: clover honey and Tabasco, raspberry and champagne.  Each imparts its own complementary flavor ameliorating qualities to the oysters.  Unlike most oyster “shooters” which are tangy and piquant, these sauces are sophisticated and delicious.  The champagne resonated most with me with its characteristically dry and sweet flavors.  Neither the raspberry or clover honey and Tabasco sauces are as sweet as their names might suggest.

Milk and cookies

During all my visits to San Francisco, one of America’s truly great culinary hotbeds, the one dish I absolutely have to partake of is cioppino, a fish stew whose genesis is indeed the City by the Bay.  No one does this Portuguese-Italian dish better than the seafood houses by the piers.  Traditionally made from the catch of the day–usually Dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels, fish and clams–in a savory broth of fresh tomatoes and a dry white wine sauce, it is a hearty, delicious comfort soup.  Though several restaurants in Albuquerque have tried their hand at cioppino, they all fall woefully short.  Cioppino is a very nuanced dish with distinct seasonings which bring out the flavor of their seafood constituents.  Desert Fish’s rendition includes a beautifully pink grilled salmon, Dungeness crab, clams and mussels and is served with grilled bread.  It’s a San Francisco-worthy cioppino.

Another San Francisco treat popular throughout the Pacific Northwest is Dungeness crab, sweeter and more tender than lobster with more meat than the vaunted blue crabs of Larry McGoldrick’s former stomping grounds.  The legs  and body are engorged with sweet, succulent meat that’s easier to extricate than the meat of Alaskan king crab.  At Desert Fish, a whole Dungeness crab is served with sweet corn-on-the-cob and your choice of fries.  Ask the accommodating wait staff to bring you a sampler of all three fries: sweet potato, truffle fries and house fries, all of which are so reminiscent of the fries served at seaside stands.  The corn-on-the-cob is grilled and unseasonably sweet.  Best of all, it’s a whole ear of corn, not a half-sized piece that will have you longing for more.

The totem pole at Desert Fish. Check out the Seattle Seahawks helmet on top

The dessert menu includes several surprises including milk and fresh-baked cookies.  While milk and cookies may sound a bit quaint outside the child’s menu, these cookies are very good–two chocolate cookies with chocolate chips and pecans.  Milk, of course, is the perfect accompaniment to cookies of any kind.  This is a combination that might take you back to your childhood.

Desert Fish is the real deal–a Pacific Northwest seafood house in the desert southwest.  From its look and feel to the fantastic flavors of the fish and more, it is a welcome respite for expatriates from either coast.  It’s the type of seafood restaurant to which I wish my colleagues would have taken me all those times I suffered through Mexican food as mediocre as any you’d get on a frozen dinner.

Desert Fish
4214 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2011
CLOSED: May 2013
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fresh Oysters, Chioppino, Dungeness Crab, Mojito Ceviche, Fries, Milk and Cookies

Desert Fish on Urbanspoon

Pelican’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

The remonstrance from a group of my foodie friends was vocal and animated when I contended that good seafood in the Duke City dining establishments not only exists, some of it borders on greatness.  One ardent detractor asserted that good seafood in our landlocked community is as rare as a good steak was on Gilligan’s Island.  Another argued that only at Pappadeaux, a national chain, could good seafood be found while a third reminisced that in the 1990s there were actually three restaurants–Cafe Oceana, the Rio Grande Yacht Club and Pelican’s–vying perennially for “best seafood” honors.

My rejoinder was to remind them of the half-dozen or so mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants in the Duke City, most of which serve very good to excellent seafood.  “Duplicity,” they cried, “when we think of seafood, we’re thinking of King crab, Ahi tuna, lobster and halibut.”  I then reminded them that Pelican’s continues to thrive in two Duke City locations–the original on the Heights (9800 Montgomery, N.E.) and a newer location on the burgeoning Northwest side (10022 Coors, N.W.).  They unanimously found merit in the case for Pelican’s, a popular seafood emporium that has served Albuquerque since 1975.

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

That’s more than three and a half decades of surviving, even thriving, in a tough restaurant market.  That means pleasing a widely divergent and persnickety range of Duke City diners–everything from the well-traveled sophisticates who have partaken of seafood fresh off the boat in a city by a shore somewhere to those who believe the end-all and be-all for seafood is Red Lobster and that Pelican’s is strictly a special occasion restaurant.

As with many seafood restaurants in landlocked areas, Pelican’s subscribes to a nautical theme designed to evoke the calming and peaceful feeling associated with the ocean.  Anyone who’s laid on the beach and watched the undulating waters can attest to the effect the salty sea air and the motion of the ocean have in stimulating the appetite–usually for seafood.

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of butter

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of garlic

The nautical theme is most pronounced in the original Pelican’s which includes a woody interior reminiscent of the creaky underbelly of an old fishing boat.  Ornamental bronze finished pendant lamps hang from the ceiling; it’s easy to imagine them swinging to and fro from the rocking of the waves.  Heavy ropes are lashed on beams, the symbol of strength and security.  Decorative life rings, the type of which are tossed overboard to rescue seafarers who fall overboard, are used throughout the restaurant as are other oceanic ornaments such as oars, fishing nets, and even a surfboard.  Sure it’s stereotypical, but a stucco New Mexico motif wouldn’t cut it.

The West side Pelican’s supplanted a failing Carraba’s Italian Grill restaurant in the Cottonwood Crossings development on the northeast corner of the Coors and Seven Bar Loop intersection and thematically is more like a woody fisherman’s wharf.  It is situated next door to the Outback Steakhouse, offering an excellent alternative to the popular Australian themed meatery.  A small fishing boat hangs from the ceiling while bubbling aquariums teem with colorful sea life.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

Perhaps by default (especially with the 2005 closure of the Rio Grande Yacht Club), Pelican’s has been the very best seafood (non-mariscos) restaurant in Albuquerque by a nautical mile or more (although the December, 2010 launch of Desert Fish may change that landscape). Best of all, it’s locally owned and operated although there are two other Pelicans in El Paso. From the moment you’re seated, the friendly wait staff dotes on you.  It’s not the saccharine service you’ll get at the chains which dot restaurant row along the Coors Bypass; the wait staff at Pelican’s works to earn your business, the way it should be.

While you contemplate the menu, the wait staff will start you off with a basket of out-of-the-oven bread with whipped butter and roasted garlic, both of which are faithfully replenished when you finish them (and you undoubtedly will, they’re so good).   The bread has a hard-crusted exterior and a soft interior in which both butter and the roasted garlic spread easily.  This is true garlic bread!

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

One of the most inviting appetizers on the menu and one at which Pelican’s excels is Oysters Rockafeller, a dish first created in 1899 at the famous Antoine’s in New Orleans.  Because of the richness of the sauce (liberally interpreted at restaurants throughout the world), the dish was named for John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in America at the time.  Pelican’s rendition is five plump oysters on the half shell topped with Pernod-spiked spinach and melted cheese.  It’s a rich and indelicate starter that will win over even the most onerous oyster hater.

Another appetizer sure to please are the Sizzling Mussels sautéed in white wine and garlic served with two slices of toasted bread.  The white wine and garlic broth are tailor-made for the bread which you’ll use to sop up and lustily consume as much of that savory broth as you can.  Characteristic of good mussels, they don’t really need the broth, but the sizzling metal plate on which they’re delivered is a nice touch because it keeps the mussels and broth warm.

New York Strip

New York Strip

Pelican’s menu showcases fresh fish, thick slabs of Angus beef steaks, shrimp and surf-and-turf.  The “Fresh Fish Report” includes tilapia, halibut, salmon, ahi tuna and rainbow trout.  Daily specials range from Alaskan King Crab Legs to Australian Lobster Tail and “All you can eat peel n’ eat shrimp.”  A Sunday brunch menu includes some of the most popular dinner menu items as well as traditional breakfast items such as French toast.  Entrees come with your choice of baked potato, wild rice pilaf, or French fries and Pelican’s famous bottomless bowl of salad.

A common element among the seafood is uncommon freshness.  The menu boasts of fresh and fresh-frozen seafood (and I’m not talking about Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks here).  Modern trawlers are equipped to process and freeze the fresh catch immediately.  Some fish is best shipped fresh-frozen while other fish is best shipped fresh, albeit at low temperatures.  The result–fish at Pelican’s have a fresh and mild smell not that “fishy” smell that turns people off seafood.

If there are any complaints about Pelican’s, it’s that the restaurant’s menu is a bit anachronistic–a throwback to the 80s.  That’s especially true of the appetizer menu which includes such “yesterday” starters as mozzarella sticks and fried zucchini and mushrooms, both battered to order.  Old-fashioned surf and turf entrees are also a bit dated.  Then again, if something works, why change?

Shrimp Pelican with Sweet Potato Fries

One entree which really works is the Shrimp Pelican which may well be the restaurant’s most popular dish–even though there’s nothing radical or avant-garde about it. Butterflied and golden brown in beer batter, the shrimp are humongous (forgive the oxymoron) and gloriously sweet.  Even though my preference is generally for peel-and-eat shrimp with incendiary cocktail sauce, Pelican’s shrimp flood my memories with reminiscences of the first really great battered shrimp I ever had.

With some menu items, Pelican’s subscribes to the adage that “when in New Mexico, do as New Mexicans do” and in the Land of Enchantment, we serve our food–almost all of it–with chile.  Pelican’s menu tends to have at least entree with either green or red chile, including a piñon crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter.  Because of its clean, mild flavor and because it tends to inherit the flavor of seasonings very well, tilapia is sometimes described as fish for people who don’t like the taste of fish.  Alas, while the tilapia is delicious, flaky and tender, the chile is hardly of the caliber of New Mexico chile served at a New Mexican restaurant.

Pelican’s is almost as highly regarded for steaks and prime rib as it is for seafood.  Carnivorous cravings will be sated with a line-up that includes teriyaki beef kabobs, choice center-cut top sirloin, choice ribeye filet mignon, market teriyaki center-cut top sirloin, New York strip and slow roasted prime rib au jus as well as a “Ranchero” center-cut top sirloin with Cheddar and green chile.  The New York strip (pictured above) is grilled to your exacting specifications.  At medium, it is juicy and delicious.  It’s also very tender with no sinew or excess fat.

Pelican's famous ice cream mud pie, a slab of decadence

Football sized baked potatoes include your choice of toppings (butter, sour cream, bacon bits, green onions).  Wisps of steam from the aluminum foil enveloped potatoes waft upward, hinting at perfectly baked potatoes.  Alas, appearances can be deceiving as we found out during a January, 2010 visit when undercooked potatoes were the sole let-down in an otherwise good meal.  The clam chowder is rich and very thick, but it would take Sherlock Holmes to find more than two bits of clam and the clams he might find are bound to minuscule and somewhat chewy.

Desserts are large enough to feed entire families.  Offerings include large wedges of New York style cheesecake topped with a strawberry or chocolate sauce (or both), a lip-pursing key lime pie and perhaps the single largest slab of pie in the Duke City, a humongous ice cream mud pie.  This slab of waist-expanding decadence is easily four-inches tall and that’s even before the whipped cream crowns this dessert.  Two types of ice cream–chocolate and mocha–layered on top of a thick Oreo crust make this a teeth-chattering post-prandial treat.  It’s a fine dessert, but much more than one person can handle.

Pelican’s is a very solid, if unspectacular restaurant that has survived nearly four decades and several generations in the Duke City’s constantly changing dining scene.  It deserves a place in any conversation about good seafood in Albuquerque.

Pelican’s Restaurant
10022 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Shrimp, Oysters Rockafeller, Cracked Pepper New Yorker, New York Strip, Sizzling Mussels, Bread with Garlic Cloves, Ice Cream Mud Pie

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