The Standard Diner in Albuquerque’s East Downtown District
While New Mexico is most assuredly the Land of Enchantment, most locals also accept that it’s also the “land of mañana” where things that can be put off until tomorrow usually are, where the pace of life is more relaxed and slower. George Adelo, Jr., an enterprising Pecos resident even coined (and copyrighted) a phrase to describe the New Mexican way: “Carpe Mañana”–Seize Tomorrow. The spirit of Carpe Mañana was certainly prevalent in the long-awaited, much-anticipated opening of the Standard Diner, a Matt DiGregory restaurant venture which in opening March 2nd, 2006, was nearly eight months behind its planned launch. If ever a restaurant has more than made up for lost time, it may be this one.
DiGregory, a local restaurant impresario owns the Standard Diner with his brothers Chris, Vince and Jon. He also owns the very popular Range restaurants in Bernalillo and Albuquerque as well as the now defunct Rodeo Grill. The Brothers DiGregory couldn’t have found a better location for their high-end diner which specializes in fresh, homemade comfort foods. The restaurant is situated in Albuquerque’s East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming” areas in the nation.” DiGregory defines standard as “a benchmark that all others are compared to.” That’s become the case for the neighborhood as well as the restaurant.
The Standard Diner’s herb bread
Housed in what was once a classic car dealership (vintage photographs show it was called Caruthers & Maudlin), a tremendous amount of refurbishment obviously went into restoring the property. The decor is reminiscent of a 1930s or 1940s dining room with exposed brick walls and wood-beamed ceilings lending to the period piece authenticity. A soundtrack featuring the soothing stylings and dulcet tones of the best big band era artists and romantic crooners of the 1940s inspires hushed tones and a relaxed dining pace. Vintage photographs of the Duke City festoon the walls in the restaurant’s two dining rooms.
An evidently well-prepared wait staff is cordial, professional and eager to share their knowledge of both the building’s history and the restaurant’s diverse menu. When our waitress couldn’t answer a question we asked about the bar towels used instead of napkins, she quickly dispatched the day manager who regaled us with interesting details on where the idea for bar towels came up. We also learned that the herb bread brought to our table has a history even more interesting than that of the restaurant. The bread comes from a culture whose progenitor traveled the Oregon trail in 1845. It is baked in-house and has that yeasty bouquet true connoisseurs of the “staff of life” crave. Best of all, we’ve had it served to us with a brilliant orange-red oil made from achiote a subtly flavored paste which has a pleasant flavor. Better still is the achiote butter (pictured above) which enlivens the bread even further.
Coconut Key Lime Shake, one of several creative shakes on the Standard menu
In the February 2nd, 2009 airing of a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode called “Return to Route 66,” host Guy Fieri declared “there’s nothing standard about the Standard Diner.” That is very evident in the restaurant’s diverse menu which somewhat belies the “Diner” label by not serving traditional diner food. The menu is very interesting to say the least, interspersing several upscale American comfort food favorites with cuisine whose genesis is the Orient, Latin America and even Australia (where DiGregory discovered the “Otis Burger” which is made with roasted beets, a fried egg, bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayo). You’ll be hard-pressed to make a quick selection and will undoubtedly want to make several return visits to try one of the other intriguing items on a menu that’s truly unique.
In a handful of visits since the restaurant opened in 2009, we have often opted (as we almost always do at restaurants we visit) to order adventurously in lieu of ordering the “safe” sounding menu items. This is a philosophy that has introduced us to a wealth of otherwise untried deliciousness at many restaurants and at the very least lets us say we gave it a shot. Alas, at the Standard Diner our success rate with this approach is somewhere around fifty percent; that is, we’ve only liked about half of what we’ve ordered. Though we applaud the inventiveness of the menu, it’s in execution that some items truly fail to win us over. That’s especially true of appetizers (coincidentally many of which are no longer on the menu (I wonder why)).
1 January 2012: Roasted Beef Salad
Appetizer options (they change frequently) have included BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, slow-cooked lamb top-round, housemade BBQ sauce and Jarlsberg cheese grilled in a tortilla and served with a tangy yogurt, cucumber raita (a traditional Indian style yogurt-based condiment). While the BBQ sauce was surprisingly ordinary, the raita was refreshing and delicious–almost a cross between Greek tzadziki sauce and the cucumber sauce which often accompanies satay in Thai restaurants. The lamb deserved better!
An intriguing meal starter is the flap jack trio which is essentially three petite peach and scallion flap jacks topped with an inventive array of ingredients. One is topped with a tomato chutney, one with herbed goat cheese and one with a strawberry basil relish. The flap jacks are small in circumference, about the size of a biscuit, but they’re imbued with a gigantic amount of flavor from taste combinations that go very well together. This is a very nice appetizer!
Watermelon & Tuna Ceviche
One appetizer we won’t have again if it’s brought back on the menu are the tuna salad spring rolls made with sesame marinated Saku tuna wrapped in rice paper with micro greens and pickled carrots. There just wasn’t much to this appetizer as the tuna was lost among the other ingredients and was somewhat recessed even further into the background by a tangy chile sauce. That tangy chile sauce proved to be the salvation for the steak salad, described on the menu as “Thai marinated flank steak, grilled and served on our house greens with a sesame vinaigrette.” Talk about under-performing. The sesame vinaigrette was virtually tasteless, lending absolutely no appeal to an otherwise ordinary salad which needed rescuing by something lively and with pizzazz. We were also unable to discern anything “Thai” tasting in the five thin strips of flank steak that came on the salad.
30 January 2011: Yet another intriguing starter which failed to deliver on the intriguing promise of excellent ingredients is a watermelon and tuna ceviche. Nested on endive leaves is a ceviche made from sashimi tuna, Hatch green chile, red onions and chopped tomatoes. Unlike traditional Mexican ceviche found in so many local restaurants, the Standard Diner’s ceviche is not marinated in citrus juices. That may be the start of its downfall, but the accelerant is most certainly the endive leaves which are bitter receptacles for what might have otherwise been at least passable ceviche. The lemon cilantro coulis was also uninspired, the flavor of tangy lemon and refreshing cilantro failing to coalesce into any semblance of deliciousness.
The Standard Mac and Cheese with Smoked Salmon and Green Chili
Much better luck have we had with the restaurant’s entrees, among which are chicken and dumplings made with garlic roasted poultry-a-plenty simmered in a green chile broth with masa, feta cheese and cilantro dumplings. This is New Mexico style comfort food at its best with hearty, robust flavors and aromas that you want on a blustery winter day.
11 October 2008: You can’t say “comfort food” without mentioning macaroni and cheese, a fact obviously recognized by the Standard Diner. The Standard Mac and Cheese features baked shells with crisp bacon, Guinness and fine Irish Cheddar cheese sauce covered with herbed bread crumbs. For a pittance more, you can add green chile and smoked salmon to the mix. The only item we would dispense with entirely are the herbed bread crumbs. Our entree arrived with herbed bread crumbs a plenty, so many that we wondered if a clumsy chef had spilled the box’s entire contents onto the entree. The bread crumbs serve only to desiccate what is otherwise a moist and very good entree.
1 January 2012: Lobster Roll
The one entree which seemed to captivate Guy Fieri most was the diner standard of meatloaf, done Standard Diner style, of course, which means wrapped in bacon. Fieri loved the texture and depth of flavor. Called the “Finer Loaf” on the menu, it is served with smashed potatoes and a red wine gravy. The red wine gravy is terrific, one of the very best mashed potato toppers in the city and a nice departure from the more conventional chicken or turkey gravy.
Another fun entree evinces a whimsical side that many nouveau restaurants just don’t have. It’s country fried tuna. Our close proximity to Texas means many New Mexico restaurants serve up a mean, artery-clogging country fried steak or chicken, but tuna is (as Texas chamber of commerce commercials say) “like a whole other country.” Rather than the thick coating used on steak, it’s a light coating of tempura fried batter that covers several half-inch thick pieces of sushi grade Ahi tuna. One bite and Guy Fieri’s eyes rolled back in obvious appreciation, maybe even homage. His litany of adjectives was perhaps over the top, even for the effusive host.
The Otis Burger
30 January 2011: In addition to “different” the adjective which best describes the aforementioned Otis burger is messy. The egg will run down your hands as you try to hold this two-fisted burger which is trapped within the confines of a desiccated bun made from the restaurant’s signature bread. Other than the egg, the ingredient which most distinguishes itself is the bacon which has the smoky taste aficionados like. Once we extricated the grilled pineapple and sliced beet from the confines of a very good hamburger bun, we enjoyed them tremendously, but they were lost within the burger itself. All burgers are made from char-grilled 100-percent Black Angus beef (or you can upgrade to Kobe beef for a price).
30 January 2011: Perhaps residents of the Badger State have an affinity for unhealthy foodstuffs which start with the letter “B” (beer, brats, burgers) because in Wisconsin you can’t spell burger without butter. Artery-clogging Wisconsin butter is slathered on both sides of the Wisconsin butter burger which is then topped with cheese. My friend Dale, an ectomorph from the Green Bay area loves the Standard Diner’s Bourbon Butter Burger upon which is slathered a bourbon-maple compound butter. It’s about twice the size of many of the butter burgers proffered throughout the Milwaukee area and ostensibly has at least as many calories. Though this burger should come standard with an angioplasty, it’s a very good burger.
The Bourbon Butter Burger
A popular entree on the lunch menu during one visit, the Sheep Herder is a New Mexico meets the world treat you will thoroughly enjoy. It starts with two over-medium eggs atop Irish Cheddar home fries with melted Gruyere cheese, a combination which upscales the popular breakfast standards of fried eggs and potatoes. Also upping the ante are a “tortilla roll-up” cut in three. A large flour tortilla enveloping corned beef, sauerkraut and green chile makes for a tangy, savory and piquant flavor combination in which the marriage of sauerkraut and green chile is surprisingly good. It’s wholly unlike some of the boring Philadelphia cream cheese and ham tortilla roll-ups you sometimes see at office parties.
19 October 2015: Not that very long ago it might have been easier to find Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure in the Rocky Mountains than it was to find a good fish taco in New Mexico. Today, fish tacos have become a viable dining option, even a reason to visit the restaurants which prepare them well. Among the very best in the city are the Standard Diner’s fish tacos (three street style tacos with seared cod, charred tomatillo salsa, spicy pineapple slaw, smoked chile-lime crema and avocado), a bold, zesty and fun triumvirate. These tacos glean their personality from the assertiveness of the smoked chile-lime crema, the tangy audacity of the charred tomatillo salsa and the liveliness of the spicy pineapple slaw. Despite the vibrancy of these condiments, the delicate flavor of the flaky seared cod isn’t obfuscated in the least. It takes two tortillas per taco to hold in all the ingredients of each taco and even then you can expect some of the “innards” will spill onto your plate.
The dessert menu is also not your standard hum-drum parade of cloying boringness. After much deliberation (and if it’s on the ever-changing dessert menu), you might opt for the Twisted Tiramisu made with Espresso-soaked lady fingers, dulce de leche Mascarpone with agave poached pears and candied piñon. It is light, frothy and delicious with wonderfully complementary and contrasting flavor sensations.
Mascarpone is also a principle ingredient in an off-the-menu special you might luck on. It’s a delicious twist on strudel featuring phyllo dough engorged with Marscapone then topped with a scoop of Rum Raisin ice cream. The semi-sweet nature of the phyllo dough and Marscapone in combination with the shivering cold sweetness of the ice cream is inventive and delicious.
Bananas Foster Bread Puding
30 January 2011: It wouldn’t hold true to the pattern of our visits to the Standard Diner if we liked every single dessert. The one we didn’t like–and this is very uncharacteristic for me–is the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding. Regular readers might recognize my carnal passion for great bread pudding. Made with a dark rum caramel sauce and poured sugar tuile, this is not among the good ones–not by a long shot. What made it so disagreeable to me was just how cloying and rich it is. Considering my ideal bread pudding is studded with adult (dark) chocolate, this one was as sweet as honey and syrup together.
Standard Diner isn’t your standard, everyday run-of-the mill diner. It’s a restaurant going places thanks to an innovative and delicious menu full of surprises. You may not like all those surprises, but you’ve got to admire the never say die attitude of a chef who dares to be different and in doing so, has as many hits as misses. Every restaurant should be as enterprising. Don’t “carpe manana” before you dine at this restaurant.
320 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 7
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, Twisted Tiramasu, Country Fried Tuna, The Otis, The Sheep Herder, Bourbon Butter Burger