Spencer’s Restaurant – Palm Springs, California

Spencer’s Restaurant in Palm Springs

Dean Beck: What do you have against preachers?
Clay Spencer: It’s what they preach against I’m against.
Dean Beck: I’m afraid I don’t understand?
Clay Spencer: They’re against everything I’m for.
They don’t allow drinkin’ or smokin’, card playin’, pool shootin’, dancin’, cussin’ –
or huggin’, kissin’ and lovin’. And mister, I’m for all of them things.
~Spencer’s Mountain

In the family-centric 1963 movie Spencer’s Mountain, hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’ Clay Spencer (brilliantly portrayed by Henry Fonda) dreamed of building his wife Olivia (the stunning Maureen O’Hara) a beautiful home on a piece of land he inherited on Spencer’s Mountain.  My dream was a bit less ambitious.  My dream was to take my Kim to Spencer’s Restaurant at the Mountain, “one of the all-time great restaurants in the city” according to The Infatuation, an online recommendation service.  To be named an “all-time great” bespeaks of Spencer’s longevity and to the sustained love the Palm Springs dining public has for this treasure set in the historic Palm Springs Tennis Club area at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains just a few blocks west of downtown Palm Springs.

The dog-friendly patio in which The Dude held court

Named after the owner’s dog (an award-winning 110-pound Siberian husky), it stands to reason that Spencer’s would be dog-friendly and indeed it is.  In Palm Springs, our “dog-friendly” experience has come to mean friendly diners making a fuss over our debonair dachshund The Dude.  He could probably run for mayor and win (it would help that he’s almost the same height as Sonny Bono, a former Palm Springs mayor).  No candidate would ever kiss as many babies (or adults) or garner as much bipartisan support (plus, his honesty is refreshingly impeccable).  Two patios–one enclosed by glass but no roof–provide an outdoorsy feel with towering ficus and fig trees providing shade and natural beauty.  Even without our Dude, there’d be no better place to dine at Spencer’s.

Though categorized as a fine-dining restaurant, Spencer’s is synonymous with stylish elegance and comfortable informality, self-described as “Featuring Four Star American Cuisine with a French – Pacific Rim Influence in a Casually Elegant Atmosphere.”  Locals have recognized Spencer’s for having Palm Springs’ Best Sunday Brunch, Best Outdoor Dining, Best Power Lunch, Best Wine List, Best Chef, Best Caterer and Most Romantic.  They’ll tell you “Spencer’s is Palm Springs’ “it” place for any occasion.”  On an average week, Spencer’s draws more than 2,000 guests.

Spencer’s Hot Appetizer Sampler

Lest, I be remiss, Spencer’s serves the very best cup of coffee we’ve ever had at a restaurant, a fragrant blend of pure indulgence and sinful pleasure.  Brewed by Douwe Egberts out of the Netherlands, it’s a combination of strong Robusta beans and aromatic Arabica beans which come together in a symphony of flavor that swaddles you in a cloud of aromatic delight.  Two carafes weren’t nearly enough.  Though Douwe Egberts is available online, we were apprised that Spencer’s has a special (translation: expensive) brewing machine which makes the perfect cup every time.

With  appetizers ranging in price from $12 to $32, Spencer’s Hot Appetizer Sampler is practically a steal–three appetizers for thirty dollars (as of the date of our visit).  We’re not talking about bottom-shelf stuff, here.  This is a winning troika: Chinese Style Kung Pao Calamari tossed with a cilantro sweet and spicy chili sauce, Sauteed Crab Cakes (Maryland blue crab meat with heirloom tomato, lemon butter sauce, capers and tiny greens) and Coconut Shrimp.  Never have we had calamari as tender and fresh.  It was wholly devoid of the rubbery quality some calamari has.  Only one thing was wrong with the sauteed crab cakes and that was that there were only two of them.  Only in Corrales at the home of Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, will you find crab cakes this good.  The coconut shrimp was a bit on the unremarkable side, but the same could be said about virtually all coconut shrimp.

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Long-time readers of Gil’s Thrilling…are probably tired of my ad-nauseum whining about the scarcity of life-altering risotto, the type of risotto which elicited a carnal response from one of George Costanza’s girlfriends.  Most risotto is passable at best, but more often than not, it’s as boring as an Al Gore speech.  Spencer’s gluten-free wild mushroom risotto (Aborio rice with sautéed wild mushrooms and Parmesan cheese) with grilled shrimp is the best risotto we’ve ever had that didn’t include lobster or some other ocean-based protein.  When prepared well, risotto has a rich, creamy and slightly chewy texture, with each individual grain of arborio rice standing out clearly and having a hint of a bite, rather than being soft or mushy.  Perhaps because preparing risotto can be a complicated process requiring painstaking monitoring, not many restaurants prepare it well.  Spencer’s version is terrific!

For me, “any other white meat” is preferable to a steak.  That’s especially true of pork chops.  Deciding whether to order Spencer’s honey-brined center-cut pork chops or the wild mushroom risotto was a delicious dilemma.  Fortunately, my Kim preempted me by ordering the pork chops which meant that with sufficient pleading, she’d share a bite or six.  Considering she declared this one “the best pork chop I’ve ever had,” she was surprisingly generous in sharing an inch-thick chopped sitting on a pool of red wine demi-grace and topped with a pineapple-mango chutney all served with  mashed potatoes and asparagus.  Where to begin?  The pork chop was moist, tender and devoid of sinew and fat.   I would gladly shampoo my hair in the red wine demi-glace just so its aromas would linger.  The pineapple-mango chutney prevented me from just grabbing the chop by its “handle” and devouring it like a troglodyte (or Philadelphia Eagle).

Honey Brine Center Cut Pork Chop

Spencer’s Restaurant on the mountain certainly earns its billing as an all-time great restaurant.  From an experiential standpoint as well as a culinary revelation, it’s a restaurant we’ll long remember and one to which we hope to return.

Spencer’s Restaurant
701 West Baristo Road
Palm Springs, California
(760) 327-3446
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Chinese Style Kung Pao Calamari, Sautéed Crab Cakes, Coconut Shrimp, Wild Mushroom Risotto, Honey Brine Center Cut Pork Chop

Spencer's Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cheeky’s – Palm Springs, California

Cheeky’s, the most popular breakfast restaurant in Palm Springs

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is widely credited with the aphorism “England and the United States are two nations divided by a common language.”  My Kim and I had no idea just how different the Queen’s English is from the English spoken by the colonists until we were assigned to Royal Air Force Fairford.  As part of the newcomers orientation, we were required to attend a course in which those vast differences were explained.  Many of those differences were rather comedic, but we were warned, “if Yanks aren’t careful, we could perpetuate the dreaded “ugly American” stereotype widely held in some parts of Europe.”

We learned, for example, that if an American serviceman walks up to an English lady and introduces himself with “Hi, I’m Randy,” he’s likely to get slapped in the face.  Randy has an entirely different connotation in England where it means “frisky.”  Similarly, we were instructed that if we were to hear an English citizen declare “I’m going to suck on a fag,” we shouldn’t take offense or feign being shocked.  It actually means he or she is going to smoke a cigarette.   For us, the term “shag” described a cheesy carpet found in the back of a van.  In England, shag is a verb which (as Austin Powers later taught us) meant “to  have sex with someone you don’t know.

Our server shows off his “cheeky” shirt

As we discovered over time, a one-hour course isn’t going to cover everything.  For example, a  friend of mine coaching a youth soccer team once told the English mother of a promising player “your son has a lot of spunk,” a statement she found extremely offensive.  My friend couldn’t understand her agitation until someone explained that in England “spunk” actually means er, uh…you’d better look it up.  I experienced a more harmless misinterpretation after asking a grocer where I could find napkins (for wiping hands and face) and was directed to the feminine products aisle.

Two of the terms we found perplexing (until we figured them out–long before Michael Myers introduced the terms on Saturday Night Live) were “cheeky” and “cheeky monkey.”  Cheeky means “disrespectful in speech or behavior” and a “cheeky monkey” is someone who acts in a way which shows they don’t take a situation seriously; they’re monkeying around.”  We had thought cheeky was an adjective to describe the posterior (derriere, buttocks or booty, if you prefer) and wondered why mothers would refer to their children as “cheeky monkeys.”

A flight of bacon

When restaurant impresario Tara Lazar was asked why she would name her uptown Palm Springs restaurant “Cheeky’s,” she replied “obviously, because I’m a smart-ass.”  That irreverence is only one of the reasons Cheeky’s is widely considered the very best restaurant for brunch in the Palm Springs area.  It’s reflected in an avant-garde menu so unlike the menu at other area restaurants which have held on to the past seemingly because to do otherwise would be to tarnish the era of Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and other denizens of the desert.  It’s even reflected on the shirts in which wait staff are attired–shirts which depict monkeys monkeying around, doing what monkeys do.

Cheeky’s has a no reservations policy.  It’s strictly first-come, first-served.  Place your name on a list and wait.  For fifty-minutes in our case.  We generally don’t want more than ten minutes, but any restaurant for which hungry patrons queue up in uncharacteristically cold sixty-eight degree weather at nine in the morning, bears exploring.  Our debonair dachshund The Dude didn’t mind.  He held court for his many admirers, some of whom had come even further than we had to partake of this unique brunch restaurant.  Others were locals who regaled us with their gushing tales of Cheeky’s unbelievable brunch entrees.

Duck Confit Hash

Cheeky’s is open from Wednesday through Monday and only from 8AM to 2PM, serving breakfast all day and lunch after 11:30AM.  The menu is changed weekly which might mean if you fall in love with a dish, it may not be available the next time you visit.  The breakfast menu is a bit irreverent, too.  Departures from the conventional aren’t wholesale (no deep fried chicken feet parmigiana, for example (thank you, “8”)), but you will find many of the “usual suspects” aren’t prepared the way you’re used to having them.  Buttermilk and fresh corn pancakes, for example.

One “must have” item according to the coterie of Colorado travelers we befriended on line was the flight of bacon.  It’s similar to a “beer flight” in which a number of small beer glasses are presented to cerevisaphiles, each holding a different beer.  A flight of bacon is worthy of an Erica Jong novel as it would cure any fear of bacon you might have.  Our flight–five strips of beauteous bacon–consisted of Beeler Apple Cinnamon (Rachael Ray’s favorite), Eggnog (it was Christmas season, after all), Buttered Rum (ditto), Jalapeño (with a pronounced bite) and Nodines smoked (from Connecticut).  All were quite good, but for our money, the honey-chile glazed bacon from Albuquerque’s Gold Street Caffe remains the undisputed, undefeated champion bacon of the world.

Custard Cheesy Scrambled Eggs

Our server’s most enthusiastic recommendation was for Cheeky’s duck confit hash with white Tillamook Cheddar, mushrooms, potatoes and two poached eggs.  The duck confit (cooking the meat at low temperature in its own fat) alone made this hash different.  What made it special was the mellifluous melding of ingredients.  This wasn’t a thrown-together jumble of stuff.  It was a contrived attempt to put together several items that go well together, very much reminiscent of French preparation.  Success!  This was easily the best hash dish we’ve ever experienced though the little devil over my right shoulder persisted “if only it had a bit of green chile.”

My Kim isn’t always as willing to take as wide a departure from her favorites as her mad scientist of a husband.  There’s no way, I thought, she won’t send back scrambled eggs that aren’t crispy on the bottom–despite the menu forewarning of “custard” scrambled eggs.  Custard scrambled eggs are much more “creamy” and soft than conventional scrambled eggs.  To the uninitiated they may even appear underdone.  Call these eggs decadent, absolutely delicious and addictive with cheesy notes reminiscent of Southern cheese grits.  The custard cheesy scrambled eggs are served with maple sausage (or three slices of bacon) and Deb’s cheddar scone.  The scone is magnificent–light and flaky yet substantial and beckoning for the housemade strawberry jam.

Buttermilk and Fresh Corn Pancakes

Though we both ordered an entree, there was no way we could pass up sharing the buttermilk and fresh corn pancakes, the type of savory and sweet entree we love.  On reflection, we agreed the combination is a natural.  Corn may be a vegetable, but it’s got glorious sweet notes that should marry well with pancakes and the Vermont maple syrup on our table.  The corn didn’t make just a perfunctory appearance on the pancakes.  It was plentiful and it complemented the syrupy, buttery buttermilk pancakes very well.  My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver would love these pancakes, easily some of the best we’ve ever had. 

England and the United States are indeed two nations divided by a common language, but Cheeky’s is a great unifier, bringing together breakfast and lunch items together in a spectacular manner.  Cheeky’s is a wonderfully irreverent restaurant.

Cheeky’s
622 North Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, California
(760) 327-7595
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Buttermilk and Fresh Corn Pancakes, Duck Confit Hash, Flight of Bacon, Custard Cheesy Scrambled Eggs

Cheeky's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lulu California Bistro – Palm Springs, California

Lulu California Bistro in Palm Springs, California

How many times have you heard a transplant to the Land of Enchantment say it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without snow?  Some of you expats dream of a white Christmas, just like the ones you used to know back when you lived in Siberia, the North Pole, Greenland and other similarly snowed-in states that aren’t as beautifully balmy in winter as is New Mexico.   It’s not enough for you that winter temperatures across the Land of Enchantment occasionally drop into the forties and you sometimes have to wear long pants outdoors.  You hardy, masochistic northerners are accustomed to mountains of snow being one of the defining elements of the Christmas season.  You want to wash your hands, your face and hair with snow, snow, snow

In the immortal words of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, “I say thee nay!”  Any more than the one- or two-inches it takes for the city of Albuquerque to declare a “snow day” is too much snow.  Who needs it!  My dear friend Becky Mercuri who lives just south of Buffalo in the lake-effect-snow-belt traumatizes me with reports of storms dumping two- to three-feet of snow at a time.  The Buffalo area averages some 94-inches of snow a year.  That’s 94 glorious snow days (no work or school) for those of us in Albuquerque, but for Becky it means digging herself out from under snow drifts taller than she is in temperatures twenty degrees colder than her freezer.

Site of our 2017 Christmas dinner

The more geriatrically advanced my Kim and I get, the more our blood thins.  We’re avowed wimps who don’t like driving in snow, walking in snow or even thinking about snow.  Brrrr!  So, why such antipathy for snow?  Well, my Kim grew up in Chicago whose lake-effect snows are legendary.  I grew up in Peñasco where I once walked six miles in two feet of snow to return a penny after being undercharged for a Snickers candy bar.  Yes, we’ve shoveled snow.  We’ve felt snow’s insidious presence and have shivered at its icy touch.  Snow is no friend of ours.

In past years, the threat of some malevolent snowstorm potentially ruining our travel plans has kept us home over the Christmas holidays.  All our favorite “get away from snow” travel destinations require traveling through potential snow magnets such as Flagstaff to reach the warm climes of our dreams.  Then came 2017.  With consistent 50-degree forecasts between Christmas and New Years, 2018 (thank you, Kristen Currie), we decided to give each other a shared Christmas present and spend a week in Palm Springs, California.  Yes, that Palm Springs–the one where you can swim outdoors in December and snow is just ground-up Styrofoam used in movies.

Carrot Curry Soup

For the first time since we lived in Mississippi, we were able to enjoy al fresco dining, albeit on an “unseasonably cool” Palm Springs day when temperatures dropped to 72-degrees.  Never once did we complain “it doesn’t feel like Christmas.”  Never once did we lament about how much we missed doing the dishes.  Our host was Lulu’s, a downtown eatery often described online in such glowing terms as  “Palm Springs hippest restaurant,” “funky and modern,” and “vibe that embodies the spirit of Palm Springs.”  OpenTable has named Lulu’s one of the “Top 100 Dining Hot Spots in the U.S.” and has repeatedly  honored  Lulu  with  their “Diners Choice Award.” Next to the hostess station, you’ll espy a veritable tower of plaques naming Lulu the “best” in the valley in virtually every conceivable category–from best breakfast, Sunday brunch and outdoor dining to best margarita and martini (to name a few). 

The uniquely architected restaurant boasts of two floors of indoor seating and the best people-watching-patio in the city.  That patio is where we spent Christmas, 2017 with our debonair dachshund The Dude.  Imprinted on the sidewalk next to our table were several stars honoring the many Hollywood luminaries who have lived, loved and played in this beautiful desert oasis.”  You’d think The Dude was the biggest celebrity of them all considering all the attention he garnered.  Everyone, it seemed, wanted to pet our little boy.  Hmm, wasn’t this the way Marilyn Monroe was discovered?

Wild Mushroom Soup

The 2017 Christmas menu featured four courses of palate pleasing choices we would have enjoyed any time of year.  As with Christmas feasts at home, an after-lunch comatose state was assured.  The first course was our choice from four superb soups: curry carrot soup, classic corn chowder, wild mushroom soup and minestrone.  Predictably, my choice was the curry carrot soup, the best I’ve ever had.  Served hot so that its fragrant emanations wafted upward to my very happy nostrils, this pureed elixir is rich, creamy and satisfying, a perfect blend of sweet, earthy carrots and floral curry.

January is national soup month.  While that makes sense for most of the fruited plain, we wondered if perhaps cold soups would be a better bet for places such as Palm Springs and Phoenix where January feels like May almost everywhere else.  That notion was quickly dismissed when we reviewed the soup options.  Hot soup is wonderful all year long!  For my Kim, the gluten-free wild mushroom soup beckoned.   It’s a rich and hearty blend with a pronounced earthiness and an invigorating freshness you don’t find with domesticated mushroom soups, especially those from a can.

Sonoma Mixed Greens

Our second course was salad with my choice being Sonoma Mixed Greens (with toasted walnuts, raspberry vinaigrette and goat cheese).  It’s long been our experience that salad greens just taste better and fresher in California than anywhere else.  They seem to have a recently picked freshness and flavor (not the out-of-a-bag staleness of some salads).  Such was the case with these mixed greens lightly drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette.  Predictably, we split the single wedge of mild goat cheese instead of crumbling it onto the salad.

For my Kim who turned up her nose at the notion of blue cheese just twenty years ago, the petite iceberg wedge (with hickory-smoked bacon, red onions, tomato slices and Roquefort cheese dressing) is indicative of how far she’s come.  Roquefort cheese is sour, strong, ripe, sharp, pungent and absolutely delicious who love our fromage as fetid as it can be.  This blue-veiny cheese goes so well with the hickory-smoked bacon, the best Palm Springs pairing since Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Petite Iceberg Wedge

Perhaps because technically it’s a roast, not a steak, prime rib is one of my very favorite cuts of beef.  In the past few years, my Kim and I have eschewed more traditional Christmas dinners in favor of prime rib, cut into a slab Fred Flintstone would appreciate.  While not cut as thick as either Fred or I like, Lulu’s version was a good fourteen-ounces of rich, juicy prime rib prepared at medium rare.  An accompanying horseradish cream provided a great counterbalance, imparting an eye-watering contrast to the beef.  Horseradish on prime rib isn’t for everyone, but it is for me.  Red skin potatoes, baby carrots and beans are nice sides, but it’s the prime rib that steals the show.

12-Ounce Prime Rib

My Kim is much more of a traditionalist in every way.  Plus she’s from the Midwest which means she was weaned on meat and potatoes.  For her, Christmas (and Thanksgiving, Halloween, Independence Day, Mothers’ Day and of course Guy Fawkes Day) is all about oven-roasted turkey and all the trimmings.  Ironically, she doesn’t like one of those trimmings and always shovels the stuffing into my plate.  This was some of the very best chestnut stuffing I’ve ever had.  Chestnuts have a very distinctive flavor (plus Northerners use them to warm their hands) and they’re so much better on stuffing than boring old cornbread.  A generous amount of turkey with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes were terrific, too.

Oven Roasted Turkey

Legend has it that a fourth “wise man” brought the gift of fruitcake to the infant Jesus.  Had it been more warmly received by the Holy Family, perhaps it would be more beloved today.  As it is, the best fruitcake takes a distant backseat to warm bread pudding, a timeless dessert and very much a Christmas favorite.  Lulu’s version is rich, sweet and decadent–three characteristics which make it such an endearing and beloved dessert.  If I may offer a small criticism, it’s that the lightest touch of salt would have made it even better.

Warm Bread Pudding

Lulu California Bistro was a holiday haven for us, a home away from home.  It’s about as far away from snow as we could find, but even in warm weather, this is a happening place to which we hope very much to return.

Lulu California Bistro
200 South Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, California
(760) 327-5858
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 25 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Prime Rib, Roasted Turkey, Apple Crisp, Warm Bread Pudding, Carrot Curry Soup, Wild Mushroom Soup, Sonoma Mixed Greens, Petite Iceberg Wedge

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

Jake’s – Palm Springs, California

Jake’s of Palm Springs

Now i lay me down to sleep
And pray the Lord my soul to keep
If i die before i wake, feed Jake
He’s been a good dog
My best friend right through it all
If i die before i wake, feed Jake.”
~Pirates of the Mississippi

On one hand,” my Kim tells me, “you’d make a great politician.”  “You maintain a perfect deadpan expression while telling the biggest whoppers.”  She had just watched me convince a gullible millennial that the Jeff Bridges character in the movie The Big Lebowski was named for our debonair dachshund The Dude.  Never mind that our Dude was born sixteen years after the 1998 comedy hit.  “On the other hand,” she corrected herself, “you’re much too honest to ever run for office.”  Only a few people, my Kim being one of them, can recognize when I’m using my “gift” of mirthful mendacity.  It’s a gift I employ only to lighten the mood, not to exploit gullibility.

The Dog-Friendly Patio, an Excellent Brunch Milieu on Christmas Eve When It’s Only 75-Degrees

We were standing in line in front of Jake’s, one of the most famous and popular restaurants in Palm Springs, when the opportunity for my duplicitous act presented itself.  The Dude, as usual, was the center of attention.  Virtually everyone in line with us stopped to coo at our little boy, commenting on how soft his fur is and what a handsome (he takes after his dad), well-behaved little guy he is.  Of course, everyone wanted to know what our paragon of puppyhood (or is it puppyness) was named.  They all concurred that “The Dude” name fits very well.

It was fitting that my canine caper transpired at Jake’s, a classic American bistro named for a West Highland Terrier who crossed the rainbow bridge in February, 2016, a month before we lost our beloved Tim.  Regulars with whom we made small talk told us all about Jake, a peripatetic and much loved presence at the restaurant named for him.  If it’s possible for the spirit of a dearly departed dog to infuse a locale he loved, you could certainly feel Jake’s presence.  That’s especially true near the restroom where walls are festooned with his smiling countenance.

Hangar Steak and Eggs Sandwich

Smiles come with the territory when you dine at Jake’s which has been recognized as one of the top “100 Best Al Fresco Dining Restaurants in America,” and by eater.com as  “one of the top seventeen Palm Springs restaurants for 2017.”  More importantly, it earned a perfect five bones rating from BringFido, the trusted online dog travel directory.  “Bone apetit” commented several reviewers.  Aside from its dog-friendly ambiance, Jake’s is renowned for its amiable servers, decadent desserts and for its weekend brunch.  The brunch menu is wholly unlike the seemingly standard brunch template of pancakes, omelets and similar fare.  The Christmas Eve brunch had some of those, but it also had some of the most tempting sandwiches and salads we’ve seen.

As usual, my Kim ordered a sandwich superior to the one I ordered–a hangar steak and eggs sandwich, a stellar lunch meets breakfast which exemplifies why brunch is so beloved.  A ciabatta roll is the canvas for one of the most delicious breakfast sandwiches we’ve ever had, a sandwich which will kick any McMuffin in the teeth.  Picture two eggs over medium, sliced hangar steak prepared at about medium, Gorgonzola cheese, pico de gallo, avocado slices and chipotle aioli.  My Kim tells me I pay more attention to the nuanced elements of the most complicated sandwiches than to their star ingredients.  In this case, my attention (and affection) centered on the chipotle aioli, a smoky, piquant smear that made this sandwich coalesce into a delicious whole, not jumble of ingredients.  Sure, the hangar steak was as tender as the murmur of a spring drizzle (and would make wondrous fajitas), but that aioli made it.

Lobster Roll

My own choice, the lobster roll (tail meat lobster, Old Bay remoulade, preserved lemon, heirloom tomato and Romaine lettuce on a long brioche roll) wasn’t quite as satisfying.  My preference has always been for knuckle and claw meat, not meat from the tail, but still I ordered this because, well…it’s a lobster roll.  Sure, it wasn’t constructed on a split top roll as were the boatloads of lobster rolls I enjoyed while living in Massachusetts, but, well…it’s a lobster roll.  At minimum, that means it’s a great sandwich.  The degree of greatness of Jake’s lobster roll may not be as high as the greatness you’d ascribe a lobster roll from Maine, but this was a lobster roll.  That means it’s pretty great.

Take the term “great” and multiply it by an infinite order of magnitude and you’ve got the citrus cake, an incomparable brick-sized slab of absolute deliciousness my Kim described as the “best cake ever!”  As our server toted it over to our table, she attributed the size of his formidable, rock-hard “guns” (seething with jealousy here) to having to carry such weighty desserts all day.  Size was far from its most definable quality.  This colorful beauty is three layers of fresh, natural citrus flavors demarcated by a date buttercream frosting.  Each layer of citrus–sweet Meyer lemon, tangy lemon and bright orange–is replete with the flavors of freshly picked citrus fruits, not some artificial flavor.  We thought there would be no way we could finish it all, but finish it all we did…and we’d do it all over again.

Citrus Cake, the best we’ve ever had…ever!!!

Jake’s lives up to its billing.  It’s truly one of the very best restaurants in Palm Springs, but how could it not be.  It’s not just a dog-friendly restaurant.  It’s a restaurant named for a four-legged family member.  Those tend to be the best!

Jake’s
664 North Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, California
(760) 327-4400
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Citrus Cake, Lobster Roll, Hangar Steak and Eggs Sandwich

Jake's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Butters Pancakes & Cafe – Scottsdale, Arizona

Butters Pancakes & Cafe: A patio view from the nearby water fountain

Spread your tiny wings and fly away
And take the snow back with you
Where it came from on that day
So, little snowbird take me with you when you go
To the land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow.”
~ Anne Murray

Every autumn, gaggles of geese, flocks of ducks, kettles of hawks and  constructions of cranes begin their long, arduous migration from the continent’s northern regions to warmer climes in the South.  They fly in formation to more idyllic and much warmer locales such as the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico.   Similarly, large numbers of pasty-skinned human migrants from Canada and the northern tier of the fruited plains leave behind the rigors of snow shoveling, sub-zero temperatures, dark winter nights and bitterly disappointing fall television schedules. They journey by every motorized conveyance known to man  to the southern United States and Mexico, toting their golf clubs, swimming trunks, SPF-400 suntan oil and bags of money. In polite company, we call these heat-seeking seasonal migrants “snowbirds.”  Many of them, especially the blonde ones of the XX chromosome pairing, seem to favor Scottsdale, Arizona.

Cheese Blintzes with Lingonberry Sauce

We had thought the concept of snowbirds applied solely to migratory avian and human refugees from winter, but during our visit to Kim’s brother Tim and sister-in-law Lola at their Avondale home just west of Phoenix, we wondered if every Chicago area restaurant was making like a snowbird, too.  From purveyors of butter burgers (Culver’s) to paragons of casserole-thick pizzas such as Giordanno’s, Gino’s East, Rosatti’s Pizza (which had a short-lived dalliance with Albuquerque) and even Lou Malnati’s, they’re all in the Phoenix area. So, too, are hot dog empire Portillo’s and Italian beef giant Luke’s along with several other lesser-known Chicago favorites.

After Tim and Lola moved from Chicago in June, 2017, it didn’t take them long to discover Butters Pancakes & Cafe which,  it turns out, also has its roots in Chicago.  It’s the younger sibling of Butterfield’s Pancake House which has been serving some of the best breakfasts in the Windy City since the year 2000.  Featuring gargantuan portions of high-calorie, carbohydrate-laden breakfast and lunch favorites, Butterfield’s has sustained many a denizen of the City of Big Shoulders (and big pancakes, big omelets, big French toast and big crepes).    Now, if only Carson’s Ribs and Topolobampo would move to the Phoenix area.  We might even follow suit.

French Toast with Nutella and Bananas

How can you not love Butters, a restaurant whose ambitious goals include being the “best breakfast and lunch cafe in Arizona—and the world.”  Butters is a detail-oriented restaurant, one which pays attention to the little things–the difference-makers such as freshly-squeezed orange juice.  Moreover, Butters executes the big things very well, especially consistency meal-after-meal.  Tim and Lola, who can be fussbudgets about breakfast, told us they’ve never had a bad bite at Butters.  That’s bite, not meal.   Fittingly, Butters espouses all the ideals modern diners seem to appreciate: being responsible shepherds of the environment, limiting its carbon footprint, sourcing organically-grown ingredients from local farmers, giving back to the community and sourcing from local small butchers and artisinal bakers as much as possible.

It’s a virtual certainty that the Swedish lingonberries used on some breakfast entrees aren’t locally sourced.  You’ll never accuse the lingonberry of being a “snowbird.”  These hardy berries thrive in cold weather climates from New England to Minnesota.  Bring them South and they won’t survive the heat.  Okay, so you can’t get locally-grown lingonberries on your pancakes, French toast or crepes in the Phoenix area, but the lingonberry sauce topping the cheese blintzes is the next best thing.  Resembling the taste of cranberries, only just a tad more tart, lingonberries are a perfect complement to the Ricotta-cottage cheese blend with which the blintzes are stuffed.  A little confectioner’s sugar imparts just a bit of sweetness.

Cobb Salad with Maytag Blue Cheese Dressing

Now, if you want something as sweet as the song of a snowbird leaving the cold weather behind, try one of Butters’ six types of French toast.  Four of us shared the nutella toast with bananas and were pinging off the walls from the sugar high.  Because the French toast, (two brioche slices sliced thick slathered with sweet hazelnut cocoa and fresh bananas) weren’t enough, someone had the bright idea to top them with the house syrup, an especially sweet and rich elixir.  These are hearty French toast, the type of which Northerners (and wimpy Arizonans who don parkas when the temperature drops below sixty) need to combat the cold.  They’re not only substantial, they’re delicious.

While the rest of us enjoyed our cavalcade of calories (washed down with Diet Pepsi), my Kim had a more sensible Cobb salad, albeit a behemoth bounty of lettuce, bacon, shredded Cheddar cheese, chopped tomatoes, grilled chicken, sliced avocados, hard-boiled eggs, croutons and Maytag blue cheese dressing.  Unlike her fetid fromage fanatic of a husband who enjoys a modicum of vegetables with my blue cheese dressing, she applies it judiciously.  Maytag blue cheese is one of the premier blue cheeses produced in America.  Its melt-in-your-mouth tangy, semi-sharp deliciousness is memorable.

Snowbirds who escaped the brutal lake-effect winters of Chicago will feel right at home at this soon-to-be Scottsdale legend.  So will visitors who appreciate good food in large portions.

Butters Pancakes & Cafe
8390 East Vía de Ventura
Scottsdale, Arizona
(480) 629-4333
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cheese Blintzes with Lingonberry Sauce, French Toast with Nutella and Bananas, Signature Salad with Maytag Blue Cheese Dressing

3 January 2018: As his comment attests, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver enjoyed Butters as much as we did. He shared a few pictures of his dining experience at Butters:

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and his grandson leave Butters quite content (and full) (Photo Courtesy of Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver)

Cinnamon Pancakes (Photo Courtesy of Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver)

Blintz with Lingonberry Sauce, Two Eggs and Extra Crispy Hash Browns (Photo Courtesy of Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver)

HMOP (Ham, mushroom, onion & green peppers) Skillet (Photo Courtesy of Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver)

Butters Pancakes & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

TFK Smokehouse & Art Barn – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The TFK Smokehouse, No Longer Just on Wheels

Every summer, a predictable ritual takes place. After hibernating comfortably since the previous autumn, men attired in aprons emblazoned with the slogan “kiss the cook” will selflessly volunteer to “cook” a meal. This, of course, means barbecue, a decidedly masculine affectation and the only type of cooking most men can be entrusted to do. When this ritual is completed and guests are sated, lavish praise and thanks are heaped upon the “chef.” In truth, the only aspects of this ritual for which men are typically responsible is getting the grill lit, placing the meats on the grill and turning them (after our female better halves warn us that the meats are burning). Normally all the preparatory work—buying the food; preparing the salad, vegetables and desserts; preparing the meat for cooking; organizing plates and cutlery; preparing the plates—is done by our wives and girlfriends. Ditto for the post-dining rituals—clearing the table, doing the dishes and putting everything away. Insouciant clods that men are, we can’t figure out why our ladies are upset when we asked how they enjoyed their “night off.”

While most of us endowed with the XY-chromosome pairing can identify with the scenario described above (which some women might find entirely accurate), Katie Calico and her husband Chris White have a more egalitarian relationship when it comes to the barbecue ritual. The two own and operate the TFK Smokehouse, an endeavor which requires equally exhausting effort from both of them. We first observed them prepare then serve meals out of their barbecue mothership, one of the very best mobile food kitchens (food truck for you, Bob) an endeavor which nearly wore us out. They performed the same type of prep work the brick-and-mortar restaurants do, but they did so in a much more confined space, a food truck other food truck vendors refer to as “The Cage” for its mix of industrial meets artistic design.

My Friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott (in his Ugly Denver Broncos Shirt) Stands by the TFK Smoker

TFK, by the way, doesn’t stand for “Truck Food Kitchen” as we had surmised before meeting Katie. It stands for “Talking Fountain Kitchen,” in honor of Katie’s erstwhile venture, Talking Fountain Gallery and Boutique. Before launching the TFK Smokehouse in November, 2013, Katie owned and operated the gallery on Lead Avenue. She explained that “talking fountains” don’t speak on their own; for centuries, fountains have served as meeting places in which citizens of Rome could express themselves—even during Mussolini’s regime. The idea of expressing yourself any way you can resonated deeply with Katie who continues in that spirit even though her primary focus has expanded to now include the culinary arts.

The TFK Smokehouse is reflective of the creativity formerly on display at her gallery. Once a flatbed trailer sporting stainless steel tables, the Smokehouse underwent a significant make-over. Many of the display fixtures and racks from the defunct art gallery were repurposed for the truck along with other artistic treasures. The result is a rather unique food truck that belies any stereotypes you may have about food trucks…at least in terms of appearance. From a functional standpoint, however, the Smokehouse is everything you would expect a great food truck to be. The aromas wafting from this mobile conveyance are akin to smoke signals beckoning you to sample the fruit wood-perfumed fare.

Burqueño Cheesesteak with Coleslaw

When we asked to which style the Smokehouse subscribes from among the four regional pillars of American barbecue (Memphis, Texas, Kansas City, Carolinas), Chris told us they employ the St. Louis style of barbecue. On a per capita basis, St. Louis consumes more barbecue sauce than any city in the nation and boasts of former world barbecue champion Super Smokers among other purveyors of outstanding barbecue. He added that the influence of molasses is readily apparent on their sauce. It’s also apparent that savvy diners keep track of where the Smokehouse will be parked. In the time it took us to finish our lunch, dozens of diners had queued up and ordered food either to go or to consume at one of La Cumbre Brewing Co’s shaded picnic tables.

3 June 2017: In that time, the most frequently ordered item appeared to be the Burqueno Cheesesteak (smoked prime rib with grilled onions, green chile and Asadero cheese on a toasted baguette). In this town only the transcendent green chile Philly from Philly’s N’ Fries is even in the same ballpark as this behemoth sandwich. Several elements make this a special sandwich. First and foremost, it really is made with prime rib, not some inferior cut of beef. That prime rib is lightly smokes so as not to detract from the native deliciousness of that cut. Secondly, the green chile actually bites back. You probably won’t be reaching for water (unless you’re from Colorado), but you’ll definitely get a little endorphin rush. Third, the toasted baguette is courtesy of Albuquerque’s premier bakery, Golden Crown Panaderia. No one in this town knows bread as well as Pratt and Chris Morales.

BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich

3 June 2017: On the date of our inaugural visit, the Smokehouse menu featured six sandwiches, each served with a side item (your choice of cole slaw, potato salad or kettle chips).  Roasted green chile can be added to any barbecue sandwich for a dollar more.  It’s a very worthwhile investment especially with the BBQ beef brisket sandwich (smoked beef brisket on a bed of cole slaw with the Smokehouse’s sweet BBQ sauce on a toasted bolillo roll.  This is a very good sandwich with contrasts (the crunchy, tangy cole slaw and the sweet sauce, for example) which work very well together.  The brisket is shredded into tender tendrils of moist, juicy beef.  True to its genesis, the St. Louis style sauce is very much on the sweet side.  Thankfully other elements provide a nice counterbalance.

3 June 2017: For lesser appetites, the Smokehouse offers “pint” sized barbecue sandwiches for about half the price of the standard-sized sandwiches.  These pint-sized treasures are available in your favorite meats (brisket, pork, chicken).  A vegetarian-friendly sandwich christened the Bella (balsamic-glazed portabella mushrooms on a bed of coleslaw with the Smokehouse’s sweet sauce on a toasted bolillo roll) is another superb option.  The balsamic glaze imparts vinegary notes that work very well with the sweet sauce.  The portabella mushrooms have a meaty texture and earthy flavor, but it’s just a bit obfuscated by the sauce. 

Pint-Size BBQ Bella Sandwich with Potato Salad

On Wednesday, 3 October 2017, the mobile smokehouse with a siren-like appeal launched a brick-and-mortar operation in the cute big red barn that previously housed Kasey’s Restaurant & Pub on Washington about a mile south of Central.  For Katie, who once worked in the food truck on a 103-degree day while nine months pregnant, getting out of the elements is a blessing.  A larger venue also means she and Chris can expand their menu to showcase bodacious barbecue that just can’t be contained in a mobile kitchen.  Visit the TFK website and you’ll notice the restaurant’s full appellation is TFK Smokehouse and Art Barn.  In addition to culinary arts, Katie is exhibiting  paintings of her “beautiful friends” which hang on the wall.  Reminiscent of the Talking Fountain gallery, the entire venue showcases art in various mediums. 

Though the brick-and-mortar restaurant will attract new guests, habitues of La Cumbre Brewing Co. consider Saturday, October 14th a day which will live in infamy. That’s the last day the TFK Smokehouse rolled onto the familiar parking lot to feed cerevisaphiles.  Many of them will be making the ten mile trek to experience their familiar favorites at a new location.  Occasional specials such as the Burqueño Cheesesteak are now part of the daily menu.  Oh, and what a menu!  It’s got everything from salads and sandwiches to smoked meat by the pound to bbq platters.   For those of us who love our meats slathered in sauce, the Smokehouse now gives you a choice of four sauces: Carolina BBQ, Tangy Cider BBQ, Green Chile BBQ and a Sweet BBQ.  You can also order a flight of all four or enjoy the meats san sauce.

Barbecue Brisket Nachos

27 October 2017: Joining me during my inaugural visit to the barbecue barn were my great friends Bill Resnik and Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, both tough critics when it comes to barbecue.  Ryan has been smoking meats for years and has visited many of the prestigious pantheons of Texas barbecue.  The Land of Enchantment’s barbecue hasn’t impressed him much.  Similarly Bill prefers smoking his own meats though he has an affinity for Powdrell’s barbecue sauce.  The TFK Smokehouse would have to be pretty darned good in order to impress these two.  It is!

27 October 2017:  Six appetizers adorn the menu–everything from lemongrass chicken satay to fried asadero mac n’ cheese bites.  While all are tempting, Peter, our ebullient server steered us toward the special of  the day, brisket nachos.  Great choice.  Picture a creamy asadero cheese sauce, house-pickled jalapeños, scallions, and some of the most tender and delicious brisket you’ll find all piled onto deep-fried flour tortillas cut into triangle shaped chips.  These are some of the very best nachos in town with every component a perfect complement to the others.  Asadero is a great choice for a cheese sauce, a mild tasting, nicely melting cheese with a pleasant acidity and fresh flavor.  The pickled jalapeños have a nice balance between sweetness and piquancy.  The star of these nachos, however, is the brisket which is redolent with fruit wood smoke.  Each tender tendril of brisket is moist and delicious.

The Smokehouse Reuben

27 October 2017:  Peter was two-for-two in the recommendations department.  When we queried him about the pastrami used on the Smokehouse Reuben, he explained that a recent guest said the Reuben should win a Nobel prize and that the pastrami is smoked on the premises though it’s brined elsewhere.  The menu describes the Smokehouse Reuben as “a pile of TFK smoked pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, grilled onions and housemade Russian dressing on toasted marble rye.”  Pile is a good term.  The sandwich is generously endowed with some of the very best smoked pastrami you’ll ever have.  The smokiness is tempered by the tangy, assertive sauerkraut and a delicate Russian dressing on a fresh marble rye canvas.  The most prevalent flavor is that of the pastrami.  Everything else is supporting cast, but the type of supporting cast which should win awards (maybe not a Nobel prize, but…).

27 October 2017:  Bill’s inaugural selection, the meatball platter with two sides, also proved a winner, too, though the sweet sauce is practically lacquered on each meatball and virtually covers the bottom of the plate.  The meatballs themselves are terrific, fashioned from housemade smoked pork tenderloin and bacon.  They’re fork tender, moist and just a bit smaller than a ping pong ball.  The appetizer menu offers an alternative meatballs option, smoked pork chile cheese meatballs, which shouldn’t be quite as sweet.  Bill raved about his Caprese salad side though he couldn’t find much mozzarella in it.

Meatballs Platter with French Fries and Caprese Pasta Salad

27 October 2017: Ryan’s meal choice was the three-meat combo featuring brisket, pork and baby back ribs, all prepared to Ryan’s liking.  He appreciated the meatiness of the baby back ribs.  All too often you have to commission a search party to find much meat on baby backs.  These ribs also have a nice bark and an obvious smoke ring, very endearing qualities on any barbecued meat.  Ryan also loved the brisket, the Lone Star state’s favorite barbecue.  Both the brisket and pork are cut thick with flavorful fat left on–again as it’s often served in Texas.  Nary a disparaging word was heard at our table as three tough critics all certified TFK Smokehouse barbecue as very, very good.

From among the four sauces, there was consensus as to the one we enjoyed least.  That would be the sweet sauce which we all found to be almost cloying.  Ryan and I enjoyed the Carolina mustard sauce with its tangy kick while Bill was partial to the tangy cider BBQ sauce (which even reminded him of his cherished Powdrell’s sauce).  Neither of us discerned any heat at all in the green chile sauce, but at least it wasn’t cloying.  Consensus was also decreed that none of the meats needed sauce.  That’s one of the signs of truly great barbecue.

Three Meat Combo

16 December 2017:  During her inaugural visit to the brick-and-mortar instantiation of the TFK Smokehouse, my Kim also opted for the three meat combo though she substituted a grilled chicken breast for the baby back ribs.  The chicken breast is the only meat which isn’t smoked though it is thoroughly rubbed with a wondrous house concoction.  As did Ryan, my Kim sampled the flight of sauces, but concluded that good as the sauces may be, they are wholly unnecessary.  It’s obvious the pitmaster knows what he’s doing!

16 December 2017:  When the phenomenal Bucketheadz closed its doors early in 2017, we feared we’d seen the last of fried macaroni and cheese in Albuquerque.  It’s a terrific appetizer with which we fell in love back in Mississippi half a lifetime ago.   TFK’s version is as good as any we had in the Magnolia state and on par with Malaika’s version at Bucketheadz.  Picture breaded and fried asadero mac ‘n cheese bites shaped into glorious golden wedges and served with your choice of the green chile bbq sauce or the classic sweet bbq sauce.  Asadero is a creamy, virtually oil-free cheese with a slight tang.  It’s the perfect choice for fried mac ‘n cheese.  The green chile bbq sauce with a discernible bite is the perfect foil for this delicious starter.

Fried Asadero Mac N’ Cheese Bites

The Food Network’s Eat, Sleep BBQ program  would have you believe that it’s no longer sufficient for a barbecue restaurant to feature the tried and true standards–low and slow smoked beef and pork either or both rubbed and sauced.  In the contemporary fruited plain, even barbecue has become avant-garde, just another platform for experimentation.  Recently celebrated on the aforementioned networks were such inventive barbecue dishes as barbecue brisket ramen noodles (The Granary in San Antonio, Texas), brisket barbecue egg rolls and burnt end nachos (Sauced in Petaluma, California). 

Those bastions of barbecue have nothing on the TFK Smokehouse whose own unique barbecue dishes are certainly Food Network worthy.  Some of those unique dishes such as the Burqueño cheesesteak and barbecue brisket nachos began as specials, but are now on the regular menu.  You’ll want to follow TFK on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss (as we did) such creative wonderment as the Smokehouse Chicken Carbonara (farfalle pasta in champagne cream sauce topped with grilled chicken, bacon, tomatoes, green onions, and shredded Parmesan) and smoked brisket Stroganoff.  It’s reason enough to visit Facebook.

Hawaii 505 Barbecue Sliders

16 December 2017:  In his inimitable style, Gil’s Thrilling pollmeister (my spellchecker insists on poltergeist) Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) described TFK’s Hawaii 505 Barbecue Sliders as “knock you socks or thongs… aka go-aheads…off”  as well as “scrumpdillyiciously yummy.”  Good call, Bob!  My first inclination was that most “sliders” tend to be rather small, sometimes almost bite sized.  While that may suit someone with an avian appetite, big guys like me consider most sliders mere canapes.  The ever-reliable Peter assured us the three-per-order sliders have as much meat as any other sandwich on the menu.  Soft, toasted Hawaiian rolls courtesy of the Fano Bread Company, a premier Duke City bakery are the canvas upon which this sandwich is made.  Indeed, there is plenty of the TFK’s addictive smoked pork as well as a tangy coleslaw, grilled pineapple and sauce.  Rather than the house sauce, I asked for the Carolina bbq sauce, a tangy mustard and vinegar-based sauce with a lip-pursing tanginess that contrasts nicely with the sweet pineapple.  This sandwich quickly dispelled any notions I had about the sliders being too small.  You’ve got to open wide to get this skyscraper of a sandwich in your mouth.  Its size isn’t the only surprise.  More surprising is its sheer deliciousness.

16 December 2017:  The TFK Smokehouse dispels another menu about barbecue restaurants.  If you believe barbecue joints serve only cobbler (and cobbler ala mode) for dessert, boy are you in for a treat.  Diet be damned when such deliciousness as a fried pineapple chimichanga is available.  Yes, it really is a fried tortilla bursting at its seams with pineapple and white caramel topped with vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with plenty of cinnamon.  It’s absolutely delicious, well worth the extra hour of time on the treadmill.  Best of all, it’s a dessert big enough to share and big enough to sate the sweetest of sweet teeth.

Fried pineapple chimichanga with white caramel and vanilla ice cream

More than most Albuquerque area restaurants, the TFK Smokehouse does a terrific job of posting on its Facebook page what it’s daily specials are (including tempting desserts and specials you’ve probably never before seen at a barbecue restaurant).  Alas, the page also includes photos of some of the featured fare.  It’s food porn that’ll have barbecue aficionados salivate with lust.  That lust is justified.  The TFK Smokehouse was one of the city’s very best food trucks.  Now it’s one of its very best barbecue restaurants.

TFK Smokehouse
400 Washington Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 369-8668
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2017
1st VISIT: 3 June 2017
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: BBQ Bella Sandwich, Burqueño Cheesesteak, BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich, Coleslaw, Potato Salad, Baked Beans, The Smokehouse Reuben, Hawaii 505 Barbecue Sliders, Fried Pineapple Chimichangas

TFK Smokehouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

66 Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The 66 Diner on Route 66 (Central Avenue)

Known as “America’s Highway” and celebrated by author John Steinbeck as the “Mother Road,” the legendary Route 66 meandered across 2,448 miles of the fruited plain, crossing three time zones and eight states as it traversed from Chicago to Los Angeles. For many—especially destitute sharecroppers fleeing Oklahoma’s devastating Dust Bowl—Route 66 held the promise of a better life. For others, Route 66 brought a sense of connectedness with parts of America previously considered difficult to reach. For them, Route 66 engendered a frontier spirit of adventure, greatly expanding their vacation options and travel opportunities.

For hundreds of communities strewn along the two-lane blacktop, Route 66 was also an engine of economic prosperity, creating tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs large and small. The service industry fared especially well with roadhouses, motels and restaurants springing up, offering respite and sustenance to weary and hungry travelers. Since the halcyon days of Route 66, neon signage has been a prominent and vital part of the Mother Road as it winds through Albuquerque. From the foothills of the Sandias in the east to the parched desert expanse of the west, Route 66 is festooned with vibrant neon signage that cuts a luminous swath through the city. The nocturnal spectacle of glowing neon might be the siren’s call that has drawn generations of “cruisers” to the nostalgic route.

My Friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver Enjoys the Nostalgia

One of the Route 66 corridor’s most popular neon-spangled destinations celebrates Route 66 in name and spirit. Even though Route 66 was decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1984, a visit to Albuquerque’s 66 Diner takes you back in time to when Nat King Cole was singing about getting his kicks on the fabled highway. It will transport you back to the days of pony-tailed waitresses in blue skirts and bobby socks, back to when rock-and-roll was making inroads to ruling the airwaves, to when Ed Sullivan was nabbing all the top talent for his popular variety television show.

With a jukebox full of hits, walls adorned with nostalgic black-and-white photographs and plenty of neon, the 66 Diner celebrates the era of Route 66 with aplomb, earning it an internationally known reputation. Hundreds of Pez dispensers line the ledges directly above the steely countertops in the front dining room. A black-and-white classic lunch counter calls to mind the ice cream fountain of yesteryear. There is much to like about the Route 66 the diner even if Route 66 the two-lane blacktop is solely something you’ve read about. You’ve got to admire the gumption of a restaurant willing to replace a recipe if a better one is brought in by a guest. That’s right! If you believe you have a tastier recipe for something, the 66 Diner will try it out and if they like it more, it will go on the menu. Not only that, they’ll treat you and three friends to dinner. Frankly, I have a feeling they haven’t had to comp many dinners.

Nostalgia Abounds at the 66 Diner

That’s because the 66 Diner’s recipes are tried and tested over time. The diner originally launched in 1987 in a converted World War II era Phillips 66 gas station named Sam’s. It was an instant hit among locals and tourists alike. In May, 1995, the 66 Diner went up in flames, only a portion of the original structure remaining. Albuquerque was in mourning for nearly seven months as the diner was rebuilt. It relaunched in February, 1996 and like the Phoenix of legend, has arisen from the ashes to reclaim its previous glory.

Like many 1950s diners, the 66 Diner features a daily “blue plate special.” Ironically the term “blue plate special” originated not in the 1950s, but in the 1890s courtesy of the Fred Harvey restaurants along the railroad lines of the frontier west. I’ve written extensively in other reviews of Fred Harvey’s culinary contributions to the West. Like his other contributions, the genesis of the blue plate special is very interesting. Apparently Harvey bought cheap, disposable plates colored blue similar to Wedgwood dishes and used them to serve inexpensive meals, hence the term.

Albuquerque’s best shakes according to many are at the 66 Diner

At the 66 Diner, the blue plate specials range from spaghetti and meatballs on Monday to chicken pot pie on Tuesday, chicken and dumplings on Wednesday, a taco platter on Thursday, fried catfish on Friday, a hot turkey sandwich on Saturday and “mom’s choice” (whatever mom comes up with) on Sunday. For the most part, the blue plate specials are comfort food favorites prepared very well and served in generous portions.

No ’50s-era diner would be complete without thick, rich milkshakes, floats and malts (egg creams are available, too). No one in Albuquerque does it any better. That’s the consensus of respondents to various annual polls of city diners who have voted the 66 Diner’s shakes “best in the city” consistently year after year. It’s unlikely, however, that you’d have been able to find a strawberry-lemonade or Mochaccino shake during the Route 66 era. The 66 Diner offers more than twenty different shake flavors.

One of the very best green chile cheeseburgers not to make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

Many people eschew the old stand-bys–chocolate, vanilla and strawberry–in favor of flavors that weren’t available in the 1950s. In fact, some of those revolutionary flavors might have been considered heretical in the more conservative era of the 50s. Those flavors include the Elvis Presley (banana and peanut butter), the Pink Cadillac (strawberry ice cream and crushed Oreos), Oreo, Dreamsicle, Mocha, Coffee and several others. Pumpkin pie and Egg Nog shakes are featured as “shakes of the month” during winter holiday season. Despite all the inventiveness, the most popular shake remains chocolate.

Unique flavors not withstanding, the 66 Diner’s milkshakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin on a Hamilton Beach blender, the way they were made in the 50s. They’re then served in a shake glass with the tin on the side, much like getting a shake and a half. The 66 Diner is also one of the few places in town to offer red cream soda, my favorite before I gave up sodas altogether.

Sloppy Joe and onion rings

25 June 2011: Nothing goes better with a shake, float or malt than a burger. In New Mexico, naturally this means a green chile cheeseburger. The 66 Diner makes one of the very best (top ten) green chile cheeseburgers in town–even though it didn’t made the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in either 2009 or 2011. When you request a burger a certain way, it’s delivered to your exacting specifications. Moreover you get a two-fisted burger in which the beef is prepared to your exacting specifications, the ingredients are unfailingly fresh and the chile (spelled correctly on the menu) actually bites back. It’s a very good chopped green chile with piquancy and flavor. Burgers are accompanied by your choice of sides–French fries, potato chips, coleslaw or potato salad. 

28 June 2014: There are probably only a handful of Duke City restaurants deigning to serve a Sloppy Joe sandwich today.  While the Sloppy Joe wasn’t “invented” during the Route 66 era, its peak in popularity occurred during that time.  The Food Timeline Web site explains how the name Sloppy Joe came about: “There is probably no Joe after whom it is named–but its rather messy appearance and tendency to drip off plate or roll makes “sloppy” an adequate description, and “Joe” is an American name of proletarian character and unassailable genuineness.”   At its most basic, the Sloppy Joe is a simple sandwich constructed with ground beef and a tomato sauce to which salt, pepper and spices are added.  At its elevated form, it’s  sandwich deliciousness you will crave.  Route 66’s Sloppy Joe will inspire craving.

Patty Melt with Potato Chips

28 June 2014: Contrary to cynics who decry the patty melt as nothing but a “cheeseburger served on toast instead of a bun,” a patty melt—when made well—can be a transformative sandwich constructed from a high-quality ground beef patty topped with molten cheese and grilled onions on rye bread pan-fried in butter. The 66 Diner may prepare the very best patty melt in town. Perhaps that’s because the patty melt actually originated in the Route 66 era. Every element of this sandwich is absolutely textbook perfect, the way every patty melt should be made.

All sandwiches are served with your choice of French fries, potato chips, potato salad or coleslaw. For a pittance more, you can substitute onion rings, Cheddar fries, Fiesta fries, okra or a dinner salad. The onion rings are worth the splurge. They’re lightly battered and golden-hued, sheathing a sweet onion. The potato chips are crisp and whole, not annoying bottom-of-the-bag bits and crumbs.

The Breakfast Burrito

The 66 Diner isn’t as well known for breakfast as perhaps it should be. Its limited breakfast menu might be the reason. Frankly, many New Mexicans are of the opinion that if you have breakfast burritos on the menu, you don’t need much else. The diner’s breakfast burrito is one of the biggest in the city, a large tortilla engorged with home fries, scrambled eggs and chopped green chile topped with melted Cheddar cheese and your choice of red and (or) green chile.

12 October 2008: Make yours “Christmas style,” a burrito covered with both red and green chile. Both are surprisingly good and more piquant than at many New Mexican food restaurants. In fact, the green chile is downright special, a fruity sweet and incendiary chile that elicits the type of endorphin rush which makes people fall in love with chile in the first place. The burrito is served with pinto beans.

A “short stack” of pancakes

12 October 2008: On our way to the 66 Diner for breakfast one Sunday, we passed a restaurant on Central Avenue offering “all you can eat pancakes for seven dollars.” A better bet would be ordering a “short stack” at the 66 Diner. Short obviously isn’t synonymous with small as we found out when our waitress delivered two pancakes which covered all but a tiny bit of the plate. These enormous pancakes would fill a small, developing nation (or as Jay Leno might quip, one fat American). We barely put a dent on them and even contemplated the notion of left-over pancakes, but perhaps only if you’re stoned would pancake left-overs be palatable…and they might cure the munchies. Otherwise, they’re almost inedible.

13 December 2017: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver is as California as a surfer girl or an In & Out Burger, but as much as he loves chicken fried steak, you’d think he was from Texas.  When we make plans to meet for breakfast or lunch, one of us is invariably “low-carbing” it.  Healthy eating be damned when one of us suggests chicken fried steak.  It’s a choice we always agree upon.  In our two-man quest to traverse the length and breadth of the New Mexico chicken fried steak trail, it surprised me to learn he’d never tried the Route 66 Diner’s version.  He quickly discovered what generations have known–that the tenderized slab of breaded steak on his plate is roughly the size of Danny DeVito.   Seriously!  It’s one large slab.  As always, Sr. Plata didn’t settle for for only the house gravy (a meatless brown).  He also requested a side of the con queso.  He then slathered the slab with a sinful portion of both–not gravy on one side and queso on the other, but both intermixed.  It was a delicious choice!

Chicken Fried Steak, Another Route 66 Favorite

13 December 2017:  While Sr. Plata enjoys chicken fried steak best, my preference is for chicken fried steak, a redundantly named dish which Serious Eats calls “country cooking at its most comforting.”  This is one chicken dish about which any pretensions about chicken being a healthier alternative to beef go out the window.  There’s not much healthiness in the tender, juicy hunk of tenderized and breaded chicken.  Add queso and you can virtually feel your arteries hardening with every bite.  What a way to go!

Friendly, attentive service is also a constant. There are many who say nothing could be finer than a meal at the 66 Diner.  They’re right!

Chicken Fried Chicken

66 Diner
1405 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 247-1421
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LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 16
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Breakfast Burrito, Pancakes, Red Cream Soda, Shakes, Malts, the “Dagwood”, Sloppy Joe, Patty Melt, Chicken Fried Steak, Chicken Fried Chicken

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