Gecko’s Bar & Tapas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gecko’s Northeast Heights Location Opened In the Fall of 2006

One of the best examples of the dichotomy of human nature can be illustrated in the way we react to lizards.  The mere sight of a lizard scurrying around can send shivers down the spine of otherwise reasonable and intrepid people.  Many of us are repulsed or frightened in the presence of any slithering reptile.  In Tripoli the sight of a lizard is held to cause women to bear speckled children.  To others, however, lizards are a portend of good luck, a source of entertainment and a symbol of plenty.  Biographies written by several former prisoners of war in Vietnam recount being entertained by the scampering of geckos.  Throughout the Mediterranean, the lizard is fondly regarded as an old family friend. 

In Manhattan’s bustling Madison Avenue, long metonymous with the American advertising industry, the gecko is viewed as a wildly popular success story.  Since the GEICO gecko made its debut in the Millennium year, it has been an advertising icon and one of America’s favorite anthropomorphic characters. The gecko’s sense of humor, affability and selfless nature (exemplified by his desire to help people find the best values in insurance) endear him to children of all ages and reinforces the advertising notion that animal images create strong ties between customers and companies.

Gecko Dining Room

That notion certainly wasn’t lost on former Duke City restaurateur Mark Zanoni who changed the name of his popular bar and restaurant from Chez What to Gecko’s Gallery and Grill in the mid-1990s, predating the world-famous GEICO gecko by about half a decade.   The original Gecko’s menu featured pasta, pizza, burgers, appetizers and some of the city’s best Buffalo chicken wings.  It wasn’t until Chef Jay Wulf created the original tapas menu–complete with a conceptual rename to Gecko’s a Bar & Tapas–that the restaurant began its ascent into greatness.  Chef Todd Lovell succeeded Wulf, building on and improving the concept.  Gecko’s came to be recognized as one of the city’s first gastropubs.

Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices.  Until recent years, mentioning bar food in America has conjured images of dank, dark, smoky and loud watering holes serving greasy, tasteless food you have to be four sheets to the wind to consume.  Not so at Gecko’s, where  an imaginative menu of upscale comfort food favorites and exceptionally well done traditional bar appetizers became a major draw to Nob Hill.

Chorizo Bleu Cheese Queso

The second instantiation of Gecko’s launched in the far Northeast Heights (5801 Academy Road, N.E.) in December, 2006. At first glance, the new Gecko’s (where all the pictures on this review were taken) looks as if it should be called “The Bijou” or something cinematic. It’s a colorful antithesis of the Nob Hill location in many ways.  Aside from its gaudy polychrome facade, the exterior frontage includes an anthropomorphic gecko (a true lounge lizard) performing a champagne toast.  The gecko closely resembles the British accented GEICO gecko (say that five times fast).

The original Gecko’s might not be the type of pub David Frizell had in mind when he penned the lyrics to his country hit “I’m going to hire a wino to decorate our home.” Several tastefully done and colorful murals by famed local muralist Karen Deaton festoon the South-facing wall.  One mural, “Deviled Eggs at Gecko’s” depicts happy hour patrons at Gecko’s enjoying tapas and spirits. Another “Who Left the Curtain Open” shows the serving staff unwinding (in various states of undress including one “cheeky” waitress with a gecko tatoo) after a busy shift at Gecko’s.

Buffalo Chicken & Bleu Cheese Sandwich with Jalapeño Chicken Corn Chowder

The interior of the new Gecko’s isn’t nearly as dark as the original. It’s ultra-modern with none of the dark woods so prevalent in the founding restaurant. It’s got a mural, too, albeit one of a seaside cityscape in which two geckos dance under a starry, moonlit sky.  Smoking is no longer permitted at either Gecko’s location, though the malodorous ghost of cigarettes past is faintly noticeable at the original which had years’ worth of a head start for the odoriferous emanations to penetrate.

Gecko’s specialty remains tapas, the ubiquitous small snacks most people associate with Spain.  Gecko’s menu explains that tapas represent a dining philosophy where small plates of small appetizers are to be shared amongst friends and family in a relaxed fashion.  Talented chefs transform simple ingredients into elaborate creations that with a few, can make a meal in themselves. The tapas menu changes periodically which may be a good thing in that you get variety, but may be a downer if you get too attached to some of the great little plates which might not make it back into the “rotation” for a while. Many of them are served with sauces obviously inspired by genius tempered with experience and creativity.

Triple Decker BLT

The shrimp and cabbage spring rolls, for example, are served with a hot, sour and sweet soy dipping sauce that while not Asian created, are inspired by the spirit and taste of Asia. They are better than 95% of the spring rolls served in Albuquerque’s Asian restaurants, many of which only hint at shrimp, but which are mostly cabbage.  Ditto for the tempura chicken skewers accompanied by a fiery chipotle cherry barbecue sauce that melds sweet, savory and piquant flavors to create a sensational taste sensation.  Tempura lightly sheathes the chicken so that it’s poultry you taste, not batter.  Similarly the sauce complements the chicken instead of making it taste like candied chicken.  Another A+ appetizer is the jerk spiced pork short ribs smothered with a smoky barbecue queso sauce–again, a pairing of seemingly disparate tastes that work exceptionally well together…and who but a creative genius might pair smoked kielbasa with a twany port reduction to form perhaps a sausage dish you might find to be the best of its kind in the Duke City.

It’s not just tapas at which Gecko’s excels. The “bar apps” (referred to as the “ol’ standby” on the menu) include thinly-sliced and lightly spiced buttermilk onion rings which are most assuredly among the very best in town. If chile con queso is what you crave, Gecko’s treats you to an extraordinary creation of chorizo blue cheese queso, perhaps the best in town of that genre. We’ve tried to duplicate some of Gecko’s masterpieces but have fallen consistently short.

Not surprisingly, Gecko’s also serves some of the best soups in town, including a rich and savory green chile chicken stew and a flavorful red chile clam chowder. While the green chile stew is standard daily fare, the chowders are rotated daily. Just how good are the soups at Gecko’s? Look above you as you walk in to the Academy restaurant and you’ll see three Souper Bowl awards including a third place award in 2012 for a sumptuous fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder. Gecko’s has also been recognized by Local IQ readers as the best place in Albuquerque to take your dogs.

The one sandwich we’ve ordered more often than any other is Gecko’s  Triple Decker BLT.   This is no simple sandwich. Stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread, it puts to shame just about every other BLT we’ve ever had. It’s maybe even better, if possible, with a fried egg.  The wheatberry (a term which refers to the entire wheat kernel) bread is lightly toasted and the applewood smoked bacon is the type of bacon only restaurants seem able to find.  The tomatoes are indeed ripe, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous artificially ripened but consistently green tomatoes most restaurants serve.

There’s a lot to like at either location of Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, a surprisingly good gastropub with tapas that can’t be topped and sandwiches ranging from sensational to sublime.

Gecko’s Bar & Tapas
3500 E. Central
Albuquerque, New Mexico

(505) 262-1848
Web Site

LATEST VISIT
: 11 November 2016
# OF VISITS
: 11
RATING
: 18
COST
: $$
BEST BET: 
Onion Rings,  

Gecko's Bar & Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gecko's Bar & Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mas Tapas Y Vino – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Mas Tapas Y Vino at the fabulous Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque

Had Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra written Don Quixote in the 21st century, the title character’s quest in life might not have been to revive the chivalric virtues and values of adventurous knights. His quests might well have instead taken him on tapas bar-hopping adventures throughout Madrid, Spain. In his edible escapades, he would have fought the commercialization of the Spanish tapas traditions. Instead of tangling with windmills, he would have squared off against golden arches. Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza would have certainly earned his surname.

Madrid, perhaps even more than Ernest Hemingway’s beloved Paris is a “moveable feast.”  The practice of chasing after those diverse and delicious little dishes known as “tapas” is called a “tapeo” and no city does tapas bar-hopping as well as Madrid.  In Madrid tapeos have achieved near cult status.  They are a cultural event, a rite of passage and a sporting event rolled into one.  A tapeo allows you to sample the culinary fare at several tapas bars without sitting down for an entire meal.  Ostensibly, you “walk off” your tapas and wine as you hop from bar to bar.

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The spectacular lobby of Andaluz

Tapas have become one of Madrid’s most popular tourist attractions with “tapas tours” becoming increasingly well-known and popular. As recounted on this blog, tapas are the Spanish version of hors d’oeuvres or dim sum, little plates of food. In Spain they’re often served complimentary with a drink (usually wine). The word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, which means “to cover”. History and legend attribute the term to pieces of ham or cheese laid across glasses of wine to keep flies out (and stagecoach drivers sober).

Tapas can be traced back to the seven centuries of Moorish presence in the Iberian Peninsula.  The Moors brought with them an influx of exotic spices and ingredients such as saffron, apricots, artichokes, carob, sugar, carrots, coriander and rice.  They introduced pastries, desserts and cold soups which remain part and parcel of the Spanish culinary repertoire to this day.  Fittingly, the Moors are widely credited for Spain’s best-known culinary innovation–the small and varied delicacies today known as tapas.  

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The exhibition kitchen at Mas

Perhaps New Mexico’s preeminent practitioner in the art of Spanish tapas is five-time James Beard Award nominee for “Best Chef – Southwest”  James Campbell Caruso.  Chef Caruso has plied his culinary craft at La Boca in Santa Fe since 2006, achieving so much critical acclaim and popularity that in 2012, he launched Taverna La Boca, a Spanish-style tavern which, as its elder sibling, specializes in, tapas. His two Santa Fe tapas restaurants are a favorite of Food Network luminary Giada DiLaurentis.

In 2013 when Albuquerque’s AAA Four Diamond hotel, Hotel Andaluz announced a make-over of its signature restaurant Lucia, it made sense that the restaurant’s new direction and concept would be Spanish tapas.  After all, the presence of Moorish culture and cuisine is more prominent in Andalusia (the Spanish region for which the hotel is named) than anywhere else in Spain.  It also made sense that Chef Caruso would be brought in from Santa Fe to head the new restaurant concept christened Mas, a Spanish word which translates to “more.”

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Mezze Platter

The magnificent Hotel Andaluz is the perfect venue for Mas, providing a “tantalizing and sensuous tapestry of past and future,” celebrating yesteryear while embracing today. Tracing its lineage to Conrad Hilton, the ten-story hotel launched in 1939 as New Mexico’s first Hilton, is a stunning complex showcasing earth tone stucco and southwest woodwork, furnishings and artwork.  Its imposing two-story lobby, stately arches, hand-carved beams and balconies overlooking the lobby make it one of the finest hotels in the Land of Enchantment.

In an interview with NBC Latino, Chef Caruso proclaimed the menu at Mas “cutting edge, a total juxtaposition of the hotel itself.”  Mas is significantly larger than Caruso’s other restaurants with a large exhibition kitchen illuminated to showcase both the modernity of the equipment and the process of putting together some of the very best tapas in the Land of Enchantment.  Those tapas will be available in all the hotel’s service areas as well as the main lobby and the rooftop Ibiza bar.

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Gambas Fritas

The Mas dinner menu features tapas, salads, soups, entrees and desserts with Chef Caruso’s wife Leslie serving as pastry chef. The lunch menu adds sandwiches and burgers, including a green chile cheeseburger. For lunch, a “menu del dia,” a special three-course lunch is offered daily. The restaurant’s Web sites describes Mas as “inspired by the bold flavors, rich history and exuberance of Spanish cooking,” offering “fresh reinventions of traditional Spanish cuisine with an emphasis on locally-sourced foods and high quality imported ingredients and spices.” It’s a winning formula! 

It’s interesting that one of the platos on the lunch menu is called a “mezze” platter because mezze is more commonly associated with Turkish or Greek food and is essentially synonymous with tapas (small dishes). Name notwithstanding, the mezze is a must (maybe a better name) have. Three spreads—a spicy carrot garbanzo hummus, beet walnut spread and a spinach-caper spread—are served with lavash sesame crackers, a pile of greens and a small ramekin of grapes and olives.

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Manchego cheese with Membrillo

The three spreads are vastly different, each uniquely imprinting themselves on your taste buds. The spicy carrot garbanzo hummus is a slight departure from many Middle Eastern hummus you may have had. The carrots lend a tinge of sweetness and color to the garbanzo, a traditional ingredient in hummus. This hummus isn’t as oily and lemony as some hummus tends to be with a pleasant spiciness that surprised us. The beet walnut spread is a coming together of two diverse ingredients. Their merger accentuates a savory flavor profile with little of the sweetness which characterizes some beets. The spinach caper salad is a melding of distinctive bitterness of spinach and the salty, sharp and sour notes of capers. All three spreads are unique adventures in flavor discernment with the sesame lavosh serving as a pleasant canvas.

At the opposite end of the flavor profile spectrum are Gambas Fritas, fried shrimp served with a smoked paprika agridulce dipping sauce. The shrimp are perfectly fried and sheathed in a light, golden batter. They snap when you bite into them, a mark of freshness, and have a pleasant sweetness. Though “agridulce” implies sweet and sour, the smoked paprika dipping sauce lends the dimensions of smokiness (obviously) and just a hint of piquancy.

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Hot Gouda, chorizo, apple bake w/ crostini

If, like me, you celebrate Hannahmas on December 11th, do it in style with one of Hannah’s favorite indulgences: Manchego cheese with membrillo. Manchego cheese is the pride of the La Mancha region in Spain, a sheep’s milk with a buttery texture and distinctive creaminess and flavor. Nothing pairs better with Manchego cheese than membrillo, a Spanish paste made from quince (the fruit Eve is reputed to have given Adam). Membrillo is a deep, ruby red square that’s not overly sweet and has a texture not unlike jelly candy. Few things in this world go as well together as Manchego cheese with membrillo.

Also blending well is the triumvirate of hot gouda, chorizo and baked apple. This is an adult mac and cheese, the antithesis of that crappy Kraft dinner to which far too many Americans subject their children. Gouda, a Dutch cheese, is one of the world’s most popular cheeses, renowned for its rich flavor with a creamy tang and smooth texture. The Gouda is a perfect foil for the savory-piquant chorizo and the tangy-sweet apples. Then, as if anything else is needed to make this a perfect mac and cheese, it’s served with crostini with which you’ll scoop up the cheesy deliciousness. It’s a rich, rich, rich indulgence.

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Slow-braised pork shoulder sandwich: fig olive tapenade

Perhaps the most enticing from among the lunchtime sandwich menu is the slow-braised pork shoulder sandwich with a fig-olive tapenade served on a hoagie roll. There’s a lot going on in this sandwich, highlighted by the perfectly braised, wonderfully tender pork shoulder. It’s porcine perfection! The fig-olive tapenade is a surprise considering how very sweet figs can be and how astringent olives can be. As prepared at Mas, these two strong flavor profiles are terrific, an excellent complement to the pork. Hmmm, maybe the Reese’s Peanut Butter folks might consider pairing these two flavors in a candy bar.

The dessert menu is limited in terms of quantity, but has some very interesting and inviting offerings. For me, dessert menus begin and end with bread pudding, one of those anachronistic desserts that never completely seem to go out of style. The Mas version of bread pudding is made with mission figs and is served warm though a scoop of Hagen Daz ice cream will quickly take care of that. Texturally, it’s about on par with a thick, borderless Challah bread French toast. Flavorwise, it’s got just a pinch of salt to offset the extreme sweetness of the figs. It’s a very good bread pudding.

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Mission Fig Bread Pudding with one scoop of vanilla ice cream

It’s appropriate that this fine tapas restaurant in the heart of downtown Albuquerque is named “Mas” because after enjoying its rich indulgences, you’ll definitely want mas, mas, mas.

Mas Tapas Y Vino
Hotel Andaluz
125 Second Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-9090
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 7 December 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mezze Platter, Gambas Fritas, Manchego Cheese With Membrillo; Hot Gouda, chorizo, apple bake w/ crostini; Slow-braised pork shoulder sandwich; Mission Fig Bread Pudding

Mas Tapas y Vino at Hotel Andaluz on Urbanspoon

La Boca – Santa Fe, New Mexico

La Boca in Santa Fe

La Boca in Santa Fe

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” George Costanza declared food and sex to be his two passions, reasoning that “it’s only natural to combine them.”  Jerry’s retort, “Natural?  Sex is about love between a man and a woman, not a man and a sandwich.”

George Costanza may actually have gotten it right!  The mouth is actually considered an erogenous zone, an area of the body with heightened sensitivity, the stimulation of which may result in a sexual response.

While most people don’t get sexually stimulated by eating, the mouth does host very sensitive taste receptors, including 10,000 taste buds on the tongue.  Perhaps that’s why so many people derive so much pleasure from the act of eating.

Gino brings a bocadillo to our table

Gino brings a bocadillo to our table

It may have been with this realization that chef and proprietor James Campbell Caruso named his restaurant venture “La Boca,” which translates from Spanish to “the mouth.”  La Boca launched in the summer of 2006.

Formerly executive chef at El Farol, Caruso is renown for melding Spanish and Mediterranean cuisines to create a unique cuisine that’s both traditional and contemporary.  It’s also extraordinary in its ability to tantalize the mouth with inimitable taste sensations.

La Boca specializes in tapas, the name for a wide variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine.  Spaniards eat tapas as a cocktail between meals.  Dinner is usually served between 8PM and 10PM and lunch between 2AM and 3AM.  Having been raised in the Basque region (between the French and Spanish border), Caruso certainly understands the culture and significance of tapas.

Canelones with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream

Canelones with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream

Tapas restaurants have hit the United Kingdom and the United States by storm, but unlike in Spain, tapas may constitute a meal in and of themselves.  At Spanish restaurants, diners usually order many different small tapas, combining them for a full meal.

Since launching, La Boca has received extensive critical acclaim, including rave reviews from one of the most beautiful mouths in the world (with more teeth than an Osmond)–that of Giada Delaurentis, the pulchritudinous Food Network luminary.  Delaurentis visited Santa Fe in November, 2006 for the taping of her television series Giada’s Weekend Getaway.

Giada explained that though reservations are sometimes hard to come by, you can usually find a seat at the bar where the chef himself will craft a tapa to suit your taste.  A table can more easily be found during lunch hour on Saturday, especially if you’re there when the restaurant opens.

Cola: Caramelized Onions, Figs, Cabrales, Balsamic Reduction

Cola: Caramelized Onions, Figs, Cabrales (a Spanish cheese), Balsamic Reduction

A word of warning about the tables, however–they’re small…very small.  You’ll wonder how such tiny tables can accommodate the cavalcade of small plates destined your way.  Fortunately, the kitchen prepares each tapa to order and staggers their delivery so you aren’t too uncomfortably cramped in trying to make room.

Insofar as ambience, it might best be described as minimalist.  A sole framed painting of a restaurant called “La Boca Linda” hangs by the entrance.  That seems to constitute the restaurant’s non-edible art. The floors are red brick.  A black board over the bar lists the specials of the day.

During our inaugural visit, two tin buckets were suspended from the ceiling beams, but they weren’t there for esthetics; it turns out they’re functional.  The roof had a small leak exacerbated by the uncommonly wet winter.

Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese

Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese

Spanish and Mediterranean influences are apparent on the tapas menu which features twenty or so tapas.  It will be a challenge to narrow your choices to the six or so that constitute a hardy meal, but one that won’t leave you uncomfortably full.  In the next few paragraphs, I’ll attempt to describe the tapas of which we’ve partaken during our visits.  Please bear in mind that the menu changes frequently and some, perhaps many, of these tapas may not be available when you visit.

You might want to take Giada’s cue and order the grilled asparagus with black olive salsa and Regianno (a hard, granular parmesan cheese).  Lightly grilled, the asparagus are crisp to the bite, but tender and delicious.  The cheese and black olive salsa remove any trace of bitterness sometimes found in this folic acid and vitamin enriched vegetable.

Giada didn’t try the chorizo de la rioja simmered in sherry with golden raisins, but we did and boy, are we ever happy about that.  The chorizo is sliced diagonally and is seasoned with Spanish paprika which is said to give Spanish chorizo its characteristic flavor.  The sherry reduction and sweet golden raisins added a sweet taste to the smokiness of an excellent chorizo.

Bruscetta with Mushrooms, Fried Egg, Truffle Oil and Reggianito (an Argentinian cheese)

Bruscetta with Mushrooms, Fried Egg, Truffle Oil and Reggianito (an Argentinian cheese)

Perhaps even better than the chorizo is a pork fennel sausage with pomegranate and piment d’espelette (a long red pepper cultivated in the Basque region of France which imbues dishes with a mildly piquant, fruity finish).  Wow!   This tapa has it all–the tart sweetness of the pomegranate, the agreeably aromatic fragrance of fennel and the coarse savory deliciousness of the sausage.

In Spain, the fried egg is so beloved that almost every Spanish cookbook includes at least one recipe for fried eggs.  Lest you think frying an egg is so basic no recipe should be required, pick up a Spanish cookbook or two and you might be amazed at how the author rhapsodizes about el huevo frito and the many ways in which it can be prepared.

La Boca offers a farm-fresh fried egg atop a Reggianito (a very hard, granular, cows’ milk cheese from Argentina) and mushroom topped Bruschetta brushed with truffle oil.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than just about any fried egg you’ll ever have with a coalescence of flavors that might make you swoon.  The egg is prepared over-easy with just a hint of crispiness around the edges.  When the yoke breaks and golden deliciousness mingles with the other ingredients, you’ll luxuriate in an ovum that outstrips any ther.

Tapas Trio: Hummus and Eggplant Purees with Mint-Feta Spread and Flatbread

Tapas Trio: Hummus and Eggplant Purees with Mint-Feta Spread and Flatbread

Another tapa which blends complementary, yet on the surface, seemingly disparate ingredient combinations is the grilled artichokes with Spanish goat cheese, orange and mint.  To say the artichokes are grilled to perfection is an understatement.  They are both crispy and tender.  The goat cheese is full-flavored with a heady aroma and mildly sharp taste.  The orange and mint flavoring isn’t especially prominent which allows other tastes to come forward.

In the past few years, hummus and flatbread have become so common as to be considered almost passé.  Just about every restaurant seems to have their own rendition and few, if any, come close to the time-honored, traditional hummus you might find at a Middle Eastern restaurant such as Yasmine’s Cafe in Albuquerque.  Most restaurants tweak the ingredients to create their own interpretation of what should be a smooth, creamy taste of chickpea heaven.  Most are poor imitations.

La Boca’s version of hummus is one of three delicious spreads offered in the Tapas Trio.  The other two are an eggplant puree and a mint-feta spread.  They are served with a thin pita-like flatbread grilled and served warm.  The hummus has a mild garlic kick with a hint of lemon.  It’s quite good, but the most attention and taste bud grabbing of the three is the mint-feta spread in which two very strong tastes complement one another to form a refreshing, yet pungent and salty-briny combination.  The attentive wait staff will replenish the flatbread when you run out–and you will run out.

Tortilla Espanola: Red Pepper, Parmesan, Manzanilla Olives

Tortilla Espanola: Red Pepper, Parmesan, Manzanilla Olives

Perhaps the very best of the tapas is a sole canelone filled with lump crab and scallops and topped with a Manchego cream sauce then cooked and served in a clay dish.  A thin pasta is engorged with sea-sweetened lump crab and scallops.  There couldn’t be a better topping than the creamy, rich Manchego cheese sauce which finds its genesis in LaMancha, the land of Don Quixote.  According to Geno, our affable and knowledgeable waiter, this tapa is the restaurant’s most popular. Giada, who knows a thing or two about canelone, called La Boca’s phenomenal.  At her first bite, she exclaimed “this should be illegal, it’s so good.”

The Tortilla Española is the most commonly served dish in Spain with many variations often served as a light dinner in Spanish homes.  Despite the name, this “tortilla” is nothing like the flour or corn tortillas served in so many restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  Instead, the Tortilla Española, as served in Spain and at La Boca, is a Spanish omelet that bears little resemblance to American omelets.  In fact, it may resemble a quiche more than an American omelet.  La Boca’s version is a fluffy omelet with red peppers, parmesan cheese and manzanilla olives.  It’s an excellent and thoroughly delicious representation of one of Spain’s national dish.

The only item we weren’t completely enamored with is a bocadillo (little sandwiches on grilled rustic bread) constructed of tuna salad with piquillo peppers and capers.  The panini-style bread dominated the tuna and left the other ingredients undiscernable.  Its saving grace is a salad of fresh, delicious house greens.  Other sandwiches are also available.

From the dinner menu: Grilled Hangar Steak with Smoked Sea Salt Caramel and Cabrales Butter

From the dinner menu: Grilled Hangar Steak with Smoked Sea Salt Caramel and Cabrales Butter

One of the true stars on the dinner menu is a grilled hangar steak sliced into seven pieces and served with your choice of two unique sauces–a smoked sea salt caramel sauce and a sauce made of Cabrales (a pungent and full-bodied artisan Spanish cheese) butter.  Ask for both sauces, both of which are wholly antithetical in flavor.  The smoked sea salt caramel sauce is caramel sweet punctuated by a discernible saltiness.  The Cabrales butter has a strong blue cheese flavor with the creaminess of butter.  Both are excellent foils for one another.  The hangar steak is fantastic at medium rare with plenty of pink to show for it.

Another adventure in flavor is the Moroccan spiced grilled shrimp served with an avocado mojo verde similar to guacamole, but with a bit of piquancy.  The shrimp have a snap when you bite into them, signifying not only freshness, but optimum preparation.  The Moroccan spices give the shrimp a zesty, rich and flavorful flavor.

Having grown up in Northern New Mexico meant an early realization as to where meat comes from.  It meant participating in matanzas, the slaughter of an animal, usually as part of a family celebration.  Matanzas can be a traumatizing event for a child, particularly if the intended guest of honor on the plate was treated as a pet.  I always gave thanks for and to the pigs, sheep and cattle which gave the ultimate unwilling sacrifice so we could eat.  Pangs of guilt still visit when I eat bacon, pork chops and especially morcillas.

Morcillas are blood sausages, made by bleeding a freshly slaughtered pig and collecting its warm blood  for  sausages.  You won’t find them at many restaurants or even family homes in New Mexico as family matanzas have largely been replaced by large supermarkets.  La Boca is one of a handful of restaurants in which the intensely flavored porcine treat  can be found.  Made with pork blood, garlic, chile and sundry ingredients, the morcillas are sliced diagonally into bite-sized pieces of eye-opening deliciousness.  Forget any preconceived notions you may have about blood sausage and try morcillas at La Boca.


Moroccan Spiced Grilled Shrimp with Avocado Mojo Verde

Moroccan Spiced Grilled Shrimp with Avocado Mojo Verde

Dessert tapas are on the roster at five dollars each or three for fourteen dollars.  The menu lists five desserts, but there are also daily specials.  You’ll have as hard a time selecting dessert as you’ll have picking main course tapas.  No matter what you select, you won’t be settling.

If you love strong semi-sweet, bitter chocolate, a good choice is the pot de crème, chocolate ganache infused with espresso beans.  The ganache has the consistency of soft frosting and the flavor of excellent dark chocolate.  You might not even taste the espresso beans though coffee aficionados might swear they make this dessert as wonderful as it is.

To broaden your dessert experience, try the Bocaditos Especiales, a specialty platter with PX (a liqueur from the Spanish region of Montilla) injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies.  These bite-sized treats are decadent and delicious, flavor explosions in every bite.  Close your eyes as you bite into the PX injected figs and let the flavor of pure, heavenly deliciousness wash over you.

Bocaditos Especiales (Specialty platter with PX injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies

Bocaditos Especiales (Specialty platter with PX injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies

La Boca’s version of “happy hour” is offered Monday through Friday from 3 to 5PM when “tapas de la tarde” are offered at reduced prices.

La Boca’s menu changes periodically to keep things fresh and interesting.  As such, some of the tapas described above may not be available when you visit.  No matter!  The genius of chef James Campbell Caruso is such that there will be new and wonderful things with which to fall in love.  Your mouth will absolutely love La Boca.

La Boca
72 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, NM
982-3433
Web Site
1st VISIT: 10 February 2007
LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Pot De Crème, Pork Fennel Sausage, Canelones, Grilled Asparagus, Grilled Artichokes, Chorizo de La Roja, Bocaditos Especiales, Grilled Hangar Steak, Tortilla Espanola, Tapas Trio, Roasted Gemini Beets, Cola

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Graze – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Graze by Jennifer James, one of Albuquerque's most beloved...and most missed restaurants.

Graze by Jennifer James

When uncredentialed food critics (like me) sing the praises of a restaurant, their fulsome rants might not garner much notice, but when professional chefs and critics are unabashedly effusive about that same restaurant, you’d be well advised to listen.

Graze, launched in December, 2002 by chef luminary Jennifer James, has had all the cognoscenti waxing poetic. La Cocinita magazine’s best chef award winner for 2002, James has been all but beatified, so prolific is her reputation. Renown for melding seemingly disparate ingredients into concordant meals, she is as much an artist as a chef.

Note: In September, 2006, Jennifer James ended her affiliation with Graze, leaving it in the hands of her business partner Michael Chesley. On January 27, 2007, Graze closed for good.

Appropriately named, Graze specializes in tapas, Spanish appetizers that can also form an entire meal when several are ordered together. Tapas dishes are generally quite small and can be both simple or elaborate. Even though I understood that dining concept, I didn’t quite “get it” during our inaugural visit accustomed as I am to the huge portions served at most restaurants.

  • We lamented the short-lived pate grand-mere with cornichons (sour crisp pickles made from tiny gherkin cucumbers), grainy mustard and walnut bread and bemoaned the tantalizing tease that was a perfectly seasoned satay.

  • We mourned after consuming the last essence of grilled tournedos of beef, potato gratin with arugula, pepper jus and crispy peppers and we paid loving tribute to a plate of orange-tequila braised pork ribs with smashed potatoes and greens garnished with roasted peanuts.

Every nibble was a pleasurable dining adventure for each of our 10,000 rapt taste buds, but the transitory gratification was somehow superceded by the sense of loss we felt as each morsel on each plate had been lustily consumed.

During our second visit, rather than fret because each plate left us wanting more, we relished the opportunity to once again try several tapas and in ordering plates that provided complementary taste contrasts. That second visit took place during the second week in which Graze featured a Sunday brunch to go along with its seasonal menu. A better brunch we’ve never had in Albuquerque.

  • Our gustatory orgy began with a “Graze plate” in which we noshed on harissa (a North African spice mixture containing chiles ground with cumin, garlic, coriander and olive oil) spiced olives, pickled asparagus (the best I’ve ever had) and an Indian curried vegetable salad somewhat reminiscent of the chow-chow served in the Deep South. Organic greens were brought to life by a lively mango-chipotle vinaigrette in a salad we shared.

  • We slathered unsalted apricot and cherry butter on fluffy biscuits then topped them with generous amounts of mango preserves, an indulgence in consonant excellence.

  • Hunanese potatoes, fingerling roasted potatoes with scallions and Thai chilis, a creative alternative to conventional roasted potatoes, wowed our taste buds.

  • Seared Hawaiian sunfish with a spicy peanut-lime sauce was the coup de grace. The lightly breaded, flaky white fish filet was a fabulous fish–not too “fishy” tasting and ameliorated, not dominated by the spicy, citrus sauce. It’s the type of filet of which you’d never tire.

  • The dessert menu features several tempting sweet treats including a bowl of cardamom chocolate chip ice cream imbued with the flavor of Swedish cardamom cake and premium chocolate chip ice cream. It was a fitting topper to a tapas meal you can’t top in Albuquerque.

I could expend several pages feebly trying to describe other plates we had during subsequent visits, but words fall woefully short of describing just how wonderful the Graze experience is. I can try to describe the ancho BBQ spare ribs and tell you about the lacquered BBQ sauce the color of orange marmalade that glazes the tender, meaty ribs…or wax poetic about housemade desserts (such as the refreshing key lime and red chile ice cream), but really, you’ve got to try them to really understand.

It’s readily apparent from her almost preternatural melding of ingredients that Jennifer James has a vivid imagination and the creativity to translate that imagination into plates of utter deliciousness. It also appears her creativity extends beyond the kitchen. Some of the ads she ran on the Alibi might be considered blasphemous, prompting the wickedly brilliant Albuquerque blogger Pika Brittlebush to proclaim on the Duke City Fix that Jennifer James is going to hell.

Graze by Jennifer James
3128 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2006
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 25
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Graze Pate; Satay; Seared Hawaiian Sunfish; Hunanese Potatoes; Artisan Cheese Plate; Sweet Corn Tamale With Mango Salsa and Poblano Cream; Thai Beef Salad; Ancho BBQ Spare Ribs