Stack House BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho

One of my Psychology professors cautioned students about the danger of “amateur diagnosis,” the practice of assigning specific psychoses and neuroses to people we meet solely on the basis of our cursory familiarity with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  He explained that it often takes an experienced practicing psychiatrist several sessions to arrive at a diagnosis and many more sessions before treatment proves effective.  His point–a little knowledge can be dangerous–applies in virtually every arena of knowledge in practicum.  Reflecting back on all the times my rudimentary conclusions were ultimately proven incorrect, it’s a point well driven. 

When my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick, Dazzling Deanell and Beauteous Barb decided to pursue Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) certification, the words of my Psychology professor resonated in my memory.  Sure, we’d all been eating barbecue most of our lives, but how much did we really know about passing judgement on barbecue?  Not much, it turned out.  Over the course of several hours, our KCBS instructor imparted sage knowledge and proven techniques to help us understand thee three most important and very nuanced elements of competitive judging: taste, texture and appearance.   Much like getting a Psychology degree, obtaining KCBS certification gave us a modicum of knowledge.  Applying what we learned in such competitions as Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew built upon that knowledge.

Long lines queue up for terrific ‘cue

Recently when Larry and Deanell rhapsodized poetic about the barbecue at the Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho, my first questions were “how would that barbecue rate in a KCBS barbecue competition?” Larry gave it nines in taste, texture and appearance. Deanell one-upped Larry, indicating the Stack House BBQ’s ‘cue warranted all tens (and she knows what it is to be a ten). They invited me to discover for myself whether their ratings were hyperbole or justified.  Alas, during my inaugural visit, I was suffering the ravages of a bad cold which rendered my taste buds untrustworthy and enfeebled my olfactory senses.  You can’t judge barbecue if you can’t imbibe its aromas and taste its subtle flavor qualities. 

Having a bad cold tends to exacerbate my desire for chile, the more piquant the better.  In the throes of even the most egregious colds, I’ve been known to drive to Santa Fe for some of the Horseman’s Haven‘s combustible chile.  The Haven’s Level II chile, affectionately known as “El Diablo” is about the only thing that can quell the stuffiness of a head cold.  While the Stack House doesn’t offer anything quite as incendiary as El Diablo, the menu does include two pepper-infused items: Frito pie and jalapeño sausage.  From what my compromised palate could surmise, both were probably quite good though it would take a return visit or ten to know for sure. 

Pit Master Extraordinaire Greg Janke Slices Brisket with Surgical Precision

My return visit transpired exactly one week after my inaugural visit, so eager were my Kim and I to experience the bodacious barbecue about which Larry and Deanell had raved.  We had the great fortune to spend time discussing all things barbecue with proprietor-pit master Greg Janke.  Like me, Greg is an Intel alum, having toiled at the technology giant for 23 years, five years longer than I.  Not one to let grass grow under his feet, Greg left Intel in April, 2016 and five months later–on Friday, September 23rd–he launched Stack House BBQ. 

Greg’s transition from technologist to restaurateur wasn’t as challenging as one might think.  In fact, Greg admits, working at Intel prepared him very well to own and operate a restaurant.  Even in such technically demanding areas as Automation where he rose through the ranks, Intel employees have the opportunity to hone their business and customer orientation skills (not to mention the discipline to work long hours).  There is, of course, nothing in the semi-conductor arena which translates directly to the mastery of smoking meats in the low-and-slow manner.  Greg began smoking meats at home several years ago, eventually earning praise from friends and the confidence to enter the arena of competition.

Half Rack of Baby Back Ribs

In each of the past two years, Greg has competed at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew, a Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned event.  In 2016, he finished seventeenth overall in a field of thirty-one, faring especially well in the pork category where he placed eleventh.  As much as the judges in the blind taste foodfest may have enjoyed his barbecue, it was event-goers who convinced him to launch his own barbecue restaurant.  In each of the event’s two days, he sold out–every morsel of magnificent meat–well before day’s end.   Moreover, many of them lavished praise and encouragement, essentially convincing Greg that he belonged in the barbecue restaurant arena.

Just seven months previously, Rub-N-Wood had shuttered its doors, leaving the City of Vision without a barbecue restaurant.  Now, Rio Rancho without barbecue is akin to Hillary not wearing a pantsuit.  It just doesn’t and shouldn’t happen.  Barbecue became a Rio Rancho tradition in 1983 when the great Gary West launched Smokehouse BBQ  at 4000 Barbara Loop, a location which would henceforth become synonymous with great barbecue. He owned and operated the stately home of seductive smoke for nearly a quarter-century before moving on. With Roger Bell at the helm, Rub-N-Wood moved in and pleased palates for nearly three years.  The hazy smoke plumes which had so long emanated from 4000 Barbara Loop resumed on a lazy, late September day when Greg assumed the role as Rio Rancho’s proprietor of the pit.  It was a day warranting celebration.

Half Chicken

As had transpired during the Pork & Brew, Greg sold out his first few days of operation.  Barbecue aficionados quickly embraced his Memphis meets Texas approach to smoking meats.  What’s not to love!  Greg uses a combination of oak and cherry woods to impart a unique flavor to his barbecue.  He developed a rub that includes some twelve ingredients that penetrate deeply into the meats and imbue them with flavor-boosting, crust-forming properties.  Not only that, the Stack House BBQ restaurant is an inviting milieu for meat lovers.  It may well be the most pristine barbecue restaurant in which you’ve ever set foot.  If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, Greg is probably being fitted for a halo as you read this.  In addition to the immaculate nature of the premises, service is friendly and attentive (another Rio Rancho tradition exemplified by the terrific staff at Joe’s Pasta House among others).

The Stack House menu is rather limited.  Meats–brisket, chicken or pulled pork–are available by the half or full pound.  Also available are sausage, jalapeño sausage, half-a-chicken and baby back ribs (available in quantities of three, half a rack or a full rack).  You can also opt to have your meats on a sandwich.  Then there’s the aforementioned Frito pie.  Sides are pretty much what you’d expect at a barbecue joint: potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, corn on the cob, chile, beans, mac and cheese and fries (including chile cheese fries).  A baked potato, with or without meat, can also be had.  Limited applies solely to the number of items on the menu board, not to how great they taste.

Sides: Green Beans and Potato Salad

7 October 2016: You won’t mind getting your hands dirty handling the baby back ribs on which Greg’s magical rub is liberally applied.  These ribs are messy and they’re magnificent, each meaty morsel pried away easily from the bone.  They’re not fall-off-the-bone tender, having just the right amount of give that signifies the perfect degree of doneness.  Make no bones about it, these baby back ribs are (as Larry would say) competition-worthy, needing neither sauce nor amelioration to improve upon them.   The sauce, by the way, is terrific, a sweet and tangy complement to the richly satisfying smokiness of the ribs.

7 October 2016: With the emphasis on pork and brisket, chicken is often a sorry afterthought at some barbecue establishments.  Not so at the Stack House where the full-flavored half-chicken is a main-event item.  Quite simply, it’s fantastic, some of the very best we’ve had in New Mexico!  Peel back the blackened skin (delicious in its own right) and you’ll be rewarded with moist, juicy and delicious white and dark meat chicken…and there’s plenty of it.  A nice-sized half-chicken (breast, thigh and leg) won’t leave much for sharing–not that you’ll want to.  Update: Because the half-chicken didn’t always sell out, Greg decided to offer chicken thighs instead.  Aside from being the most moist part of the chicken, chicken thighs don’t have to spend as much time on the smoker as half chickens.

Frito Pie

In November 2016, Stackhouse began offering daily specials from Wednesday through Sunday. Wednesday’s child is a pulled pork sandwich.  On Thursday, it’s a chicken sandwich.  Friday features beef back ribs (a whole pound) though you’re well advised to get them early.  When we attempted to order beef back ribs on December 2nd, 2016, Greg apprised us that on that very date, my friend Sr. Plata ordered two portions for lunch and took home another for dinner.  Sr. Plata enjoys the Stackhouse’s beef ribs so much, he may move in…at least on Fridays.  But I digress.  Saturday’s special is three baby back ribs while Sunday, it’s Frito pie.  All daily specials are value priced.

2 December 2016: New Mexico’s contribution to Health.com’s “50 Fattiest Foods,” a state-by-state hall of infamy, was our ubiquitous Frito pie. The version low-lighted in the article contained a pants-popping 46 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat. Still, it’s hard to resist the Land of Enchantment’s most egregious fat-offender, especially since it sometimes looks like a healthy lettuce and onion salad when prepared by some restaurants. Underneath the lettuce and chopped onions, however, is a mound of ground beef covered in chile and cheese surrounded by Frito’s corn chips.  At the Stack House, Greg dispenses with all the offending lettuce, tomatoes and onions.  Instead, this Frito Pie is constructed with only the good parts–lots of Fritos corn chips, ground beef, chile and a generous sprinkling of shredded cheese.   The chile has a nice bite, just enough to get your notice.  This is a fat-fest all New Mexicans will enjoy.

Three Meat Platter: Brisket, Chicken Thighs and Pork

2 December 2016: For a veritable meatfest, your best bet is a three meat platter (pictured above).  Kim, my carnivorous better-half will vouch for the brisket, chicken thighs and pulled pork.  Though a half chicken would be her preference, the chicken thighs make for a good consolation prize.  They’re moist, tender and delicious with a light smokiness.  The best of the three may well be the brisket which is shredded and pulls apart easily.  As with brisket in Central Texas, the cradle of Southwest barbecue, this isn’t the most lean of brisket.  It’s got just enough fat for flavor.  Tender tendrils of deliciousness define the shredded pork, a tangle of white and dark meat.  All three meats are lightly smoked and are perfect vehicles for the Stack House barbecue sauce.

2 December 2016: My Kim has often threatened to take away my man card, especially when we prepare steak at home or order it at a restaurant.  While she immediately–and with great zest–attacks the steak, my focal point is usually a loaded baked potato with plenty of melting butter, sour cream and shredded cheese.  The Stack House does one better than local steak houses.  First, the baked potatoes are smoked–lightly impregnated with hickory-cherry smoky goodness.  Secondly, you can load them up with the aforementioned baked potato suspects and with your choice of smoked meat.  The pulled pork is a magnificent choice for the smoked baked potato.  You’ll wish all your baked potatoes were similar endowed.

Smoked Baked Potato with Pulled Pork

7 October 2016: Great barbecue restaurants know that to provide an excellent full-meal experience, smoked meats must be accompanied by worthy sides.  Stack House has a two-tiered pricing model for its sides, the most expensive being three dollars.  Sides are served on Styrofoam vessels and are generously portioned.  The potato salad may evoke memories of picnic meals long gone.  It’s a mayonnaise-based potato salad with a pleasant mustardy-vinegary tang.  Alas, the green beans could use a few bits and pieces of smoked meats and maybe a pinch of salt.  Much better is the cherry cobbler, replete with whole cherries and a crumbly and delicious crust. 

Cherry Cobbler

Stack House BBQ may ultimately become yet another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho, a port-of-call for barbecue aficionados from throughout the metropolitan area, if not the entire Land of Enchantment.  With its September launch, all is right in Rio Rancho once again.

Stack House BBQ
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7516
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 December 2016
1ST VISIT: 29 September 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Half Chicken, Cherry Cobbler, Apple Cobbler, Brisket, Pulled Pork, Chicken Thighs, Frito Pie, Smoked Baked Potato

Stack House BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Supper Truck – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Supper Truck, A Taste of South in Your Mouth

On December 20th, 2014, a part-paean, part elegy graced this blog.  The opening stanza read:  “Supper Truck, I hardly knew you!  Inexplicably and to the detriment of my taste buds, I didn’t partake of your delightfully creative interpretation of Southern cuisine until your very last day of serving Albuquerque.  So, why do I miss you so much already?  Most likely it’s the lost opportunities to partake of Southern cuisine inspired by the dynamic food truck scene of Charleston, South Carolina, one of my very favorite culinary destinations in America.   It begs a paraphrase of a time-honored question is it better to have loved and lost the chance to further enjoy your edgy, contemporary, fusion twists on classic Southern comfort food favorites than never to have loved them at all?” 

To write a second chapter about the Supper Truck is to write a tale of rebirth, of starting over.  Some six months after our inaugural visit,  founding owner Amy Black sold both the truck and naming rights to Kristen Galegor and Claude Freeman.  Because Amy had emphasized she wouldn’t sell until she found “the right person with the rare combination of drive, creativity and community-mindedness” which epitomized her purview, Duke City diners have every reason to be optimistic about the future of one of the city’s stellar mobile kitchens. Kris and Claude seem primed to deliver as The Supper Truck Web site indicates: “Claude and Kris have kept the fan favorites and are working to expand this creatively Southern menu.  The pair have many years experience in restaurants and are the visionaries of what SUPPER is to become!

Grits

The Supper Truck rolled into town in September, 2012, inviting Duke City denizens to “put a little South in your mouth.”  Savvy diners (in whose ranks I obviously don’t belong) responded immediately and with a rare fervor, according “best of the city” honors in both the Alibi and Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual “best of” issues for 2013 and 2014.  More than perhaps any other motorized conveyance in Albuquerque, The Supper Truck brought people together, its crepuscular rays seemingly beckoning the city’s hungry huddled masses yearning for great Southern cuisine.

Fittingly, The Supper Truck served its last meals while parked on the south side of the Marble Brewery on an unseasonably warm Saturday.  For regulars the event was akin to one last pilgrimage to a beloved culinary shrine which had assuaged their hunger and pleased their palates for more than two years.  For newcomers (like me) and curiosity-seekers wondering if The Supper Truck warranted all the hullabaloo, it was an event that would ultimately leave us with mixed emotions–regret for not having visited sooner and sheer pleasure for having partaken of a rare excellence in esculence.

SupperTruck03

Fried Chicken Banh Mi

20 December 2014: The South takes its grits very seriously–so much so that unbeknownst to Yankees and those of us not blessed to have been born in the South, there are ten commandments of grits.   One of the principle commandments considers it blasphemous to eat Cream of Wheat and call it grits.    The Supper Truck’s grits are every bit as good as the best grits we enjoyed while living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for nearly eight years.  These gourmet-quality grits are made with grilled shrimp, bacon, roasted red pepper coulis, green onion, parsley and white wine cream sauce over creamy stone-ground South Carolina grits.  They’re so good even Yankees will enjoy them. 

20 December 2014: While the Old South tends to hold fast to tradition, the contemporary South has embraced change, particularly in the culinary arena.  At the forefront of this evolution is the city of Charleston, South Carolina (where Amy cut her teeth) which has become a bastion of culinary expansiveness.  Though Charleston has a very vibrant Vietnamese culinary community, it’s unlikely they’ve seen anything like The Supper Truck’s South Carolina meets Vietnam offering of a fried chicken banh mi. Yes, a fried chicken banh mi.  The canvas for this unlikely but uncommonly delicious sandwich is a fresh, locally-baked baguette into which are piled-on house-seasoned fried chicken, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro and a housemade momo sauce of Sriracha, mayo and lime juice.  It’s one of the best banh mi we’ve ever had.  Ever!  Anywhere!

BBQ Beef Tacos

20 December 2014: The Supper Truck’s tacos are on par with Cafe Bella’s street tacos and the scallop tacos at Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s Place) as my favorite tacos in the metropolitan area.  Traditionalists might decry them as nontraditional and unconventional even as their taste buds experience one foodgasm after another at every bite of their sheer deliciousness.  The shrimp taco ( grilled shrimp, Sriracha sour cream, Asian slaw, pickled red onion and cilantro on a grilled corn tortilla and the  BBQ beef taco (Coca-Cola braised New Mexico beef, Sriracha-Hoisin bbq sauce, Asian slaw, pickled red onion, cilantro on a grilled corn tortilla) don’t even need red or green chile to make them addictive.  It’s heartening to know Duke City diners won’t have to miss out on these gems.

20 December 2014: Among foreigners (anyone who’s not from the South), boiled peanuts (sometimes called goober peas) may just be the most hard to grasp of sacrosanct Southern culinary traditions.  In the South, unroasted and unshelled peanuts are boiled in salt water for hours, rendering the peanuts soft and salty.  Then they’re consumed while still hot and wet.  The Supper Truck’s boiled peanuts are terrific, the type of snack you might offer friends in hopes they’ll snub it so you can enjoy them all yourself.

SupperTruck03

Boiled Peanuts

26 November 2016: Our second visit to The Supper Truck also took place at the Marble Street Brewery, albeit the Westside version of the popular watering hole.  Similar to its elder sibling, the Westside location invites food trucks to park on its premises and feed its patrons.  The Supper Truck doesn’t often frequent the Westside Marble Street, but its reputation preceded its November, 2016 as long lines of hungry diners will attest.  Kris was very effusive about some of the civic projects in which The Supper Truck crew has been involved and raved about an online commercial for eHarmony in which Supper Truck made a brief cameo appearance.  More than anything, she waxed enthusiastic when discussing how well the new owners have been received.

Credit much of that reception to the graciousness of the Supper Truck crew and to the continuity of Amy Black’s creatively Southern inspired fusion cuisine.  Southern fusion is very much in evidence, especially the fusion of Southern elements with Vietnamese, New Mexican and Mexican ingredients.  The South meets the Far East in such daringly different items as the fried chicken banh mi and Vietnamese beef and grits.  New Mexican beef finds its way into several items, among them BBQ beef tacos and borrachitos (more on them later).

Chicken and Waffles

26 November 2016: John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of Fried Chicken: An American Story calls chicken and waffles “a Southern dish once or twice removed from the South,”  meaning it’s “a dish most popular among Southerners now living in urban areas.”  Though the unlikely combination of fried chicken and waffles was popularized largely in restaurants throughout Los Angeles and New York City, today that pairing can be found virtually everywhere–even in food trucks.  It should come as no surprise that the Supper Truck’s version is terrific even if served on a paper vessel.  Available in quantities of two each pieces of chicken and waffles, this terrific twosome will make a Southerner of us all.  Though the fried chicken is boneless, it is still quite good with a crispy, golden hue sheathing tender white meat.  The waffles are roundish and on the small side.  They’re slathered with peach butter and syrup dusted with confectioners sugar and topped with strawberries.

26 November 2016: Spanish-speaking New Mexicans tend to ascribe small size, youth, affection or contempt to objects and people by appending their names with the suffix “ito.”  A short man named Juan, for example, might be called Juanito.  We had to wonder what the heck a “borachito” might be.  Being that a drunk is a borracho, could a borachito be a small drunk (and why is it spelled with only one “r”?  It turns out a borachito is a deliciously different burrito (unwrapped below) constructed on a large flour tortilla engorged with Coca Cola braised New Mexico beef with rich Vietnamese flavors, Cheddar, fries, sriracha sour cream and cilantro.  The diminutive terminology is out-of-place considering the size of this behemoth.  Its size is matched only by the flavorful melange with sweet, savory, tangy and piquant profiles.  Very much in evidence on the beef, in particular, are bold Vietnamese flavors.  The fries are an interesting foil which works very well with other ingredients.

Vietnamese Beef Borrachitos, a Unique Fusion Burrito

The Supper Truck Web site advises diners to “Be prepared to pull out your first aid kit because your mind will be blown when you experience the taste of SUPPER. Keep your eyes open for what’s to come!!!”  That’s pretty good advice from a purveyor of deliciousness we’re glad to have back serving the Duke City.

The Supper Truck
Location Varies
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 796-2191
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 November 2016
1st VISIT: 20 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET:  BBQ Beef Tacos, Shrimp Taco, Fried Chicken Banh Mi, Grits, Boiled Peanuts, Vietnamese Beef Borachitos, Chicken and Waffles

Supper Truck Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Toro Burger – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Toro Burger in Rio Rancho

While watching a “sanitized for television” version of the audacious satirical comedy Blazing Saddles, my precocious six-year-old niece asked several questions with deep sociological implications: “Why is everyone in the town of Rock Ridge named Johnson? Why were all the town’s citizens white?” From her silence, you’d think my Kim was a “perp lawyering up” at a police inquiry. Rather than responding herself, she enjoyed seeing my brother and I hem and haw in trying to give accurate and age-appropriate answers. Far easier to answer were Blazing Saddles questions which inspired nostalgic reflection: “Is there a Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Albuquerque? Does Howard Johnson’s really serve only one flavor?”

For those of us who grew up in the dark ages, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were almost as ubiquitous as McDonald’s are today. During its halcyon days (peaking in 1975), more than 1,000 “Ho Jo’s” restaurants and motor lodges dotted the American landscape, their distinctive orange roofs a familiar beacon for hungry sojourners. Among the restaurants’ culinary draws were its 28 flavors of butterfat-enhanced ice cream and fried clam strips, an exotic offering theretofore available only in New England. The Marriott Corporation’s 1982 acquisition of all Howard Johnson’s properties signaled the precipitous beginning of the end of the once popular and profitable restaurant. Today, a sole remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant (in Lake George, New York) remains from among more than 1,000 original restaurants.

Toro’s Welcoming Dining Room

Having returned to the Land of Enchantment in 1979 after a two-year Air Force assignment to Massachusetts, this inveterate fried clam aficionado craved the plump, intensely-flavored paragons of deliciousness. Only Howard Johnson’s provided an approximation, albeit waifishly thin, desiccated strips (sorry Bob) vastly inferior to the tender, juicy whole bellied clams available seaside throughout New England. Despite having to settle for crummy clams, Howard Johnson’s became a frequent stop, a milieu of memories.  When the Albuquerque Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Eubank gave up the ghost in the early 1980s, I mourned.  Where now would fried clams be found?

When Mary Ann Schaefer, a long-time friend of this blog wrote to tell me about the Toro Burger Bar in Rio Rancho’s Howard Johnson hotel, it wasn’t the prospect of juicy, beefy burgers which came to mind, but my beloved fried clams.  Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the burgers would be the impetus for a visit.  We hadn’t visited the hotel since it housed Wine and Roses, a rather good German restaurant.  That was more than a decade ago when the hotel was the Inn at Rio Rancho.  The Inn became a Howard Johnson’s property in 2014.

Chile Cheese Fries

Since Wine and Roses shuttered its doors so many years ago, a number of restaurant concepts gave it the old college try in the Inn’s restaurant space but none had the staying power engendered by customer loyalty.  The seemingly du jour concept during the conversion from Inn at Rio Rancho to Howard Johnson’s was the Toro Bar and Grill which offered dinner service seven days a week.  It garnered the same level of enthusiasm as another tumbleweed rolling onto the street.  We surmised the name change to Toro Burger was just a rebranding-repackaging effort offering the same uninspiring fare.  Boy were we wrong!

Toro Burger is a terrific restaurant, one every burger aficionado in the metropolitan area should visit.  Ryan, an inventive Indiana born-and-bred chef has suffused the menu with some of the most superb and innovative burgers in the Land of Enchantment.   Chef Ryan’s previous gig in New Mexico was at Annapurna.  Now he’s doing his own thing and creating culinary magic.   You’ll be hard-pressed to decide which burger or sandwich to order, so tempting are the choices.  Even better, the beef is ground daily on the premises from three different cuts of steak.  That means superior burgers!  All burgers come with your choice of patty–house ground beef, turkey, veggie, chorizo-beef blend or lamb–on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger sauce (unless noted) and your choice of side.  You can also ask for your burger to be wrapped in a flour tortilla.

Fried Pickles

Before rushing out the door to get your burger fix, you should know that Toro is open only from 5PM through 10PM Tuesday through Saturday.  Much as you’d love to have one of Toro’s fabulous burgers for lunch, you’ll appreciate the reason for the restaurant’s limited hours.  Not only does Chef Ryan prepare everything to order, he spends a lot of time sourcing fresh ingredients, grinding the beef, creating sauces and even curing and smoking the restaurant’s bacon and pastrami.  That pastrami is cured for 18 days then smoked for another 12 to 16 hours.    The bacon undergoes a similar meticulous hands-on curing and smoking process.  These are the difference-makers, the reasons burgerphiles will return often.

The menu is another reason.  To get you started, you can select from one of six appetizers, three soft tacos (ground beef, adobado chicken, blackened tilapia) or four salads.  Be cautioned that the appetizers are generously portioned and you’ll want lots of room for those burgers.  There are twelve highly imaginative burgers on the menu as well as a build-your-own-burger option with seemingly unlimited options considering you can choose your meat, cheese (seven choices), veggies (eight choices) and sauces (eleven choices).  It’s a mad burger scientist’s dream!  There are three entrees on the menu: catfish dinner, New Mexico hot chicken and beef ribs.  There are also ten sandwich options, each intriguing.  All sandwiches include your choice of side.  If you’re not already planning a visit, I haven’t done my job well.  If the burgers are any indication, you should rush right over!

Jack and Dianne Burger with Onion Things

18 November 2016: When we ordered our appetizers we had no idea how generously portioned they’d be.  An order of chile cheese fries rewarded us with a mountain of house-cut fries and a generous sprinkling of New Mexico green chile with a cheese blend dousing and Ranch dressing on the side.  The green chile has a pleasant piquancy–enough heat for me to notice and for my Kim to call it “hot.”  Anytime you can find house-cut fries, you should jump on them.  Infinitely better than out-of-a-bag fries, these golden planks of salty deliciousness are terrific repositories for cheese and green chile.

18 November 2016: Our server, the ambassadorial and indefatigable James recommended the fried pickles, one of the more popular appetizers on the menu.  Served with a ramekin of Ranch dressing (ask for one with blue cheese, too) is a pile of thinly sliced, lightly breaded dill pickles which would really purse your lips were it not for the breading.  In our eight years down South (on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), we never received such a generous portion of fried pickles as we did during our inaugural visit to Toro Burger.  We wound up taking half of them home and found them as delightful the next day as we did when they first graced our table.

Mo’ Better Burger with Fries

18 November 2016: Until just before we placed our order, I fully intended to order what Mary Ann’s hubby had enjoyed so much–the Toro burger (Hatch green chile, house made bacon, cheese and chipotle aoli), but perusing a full-sized menu instead of one online gave us new perspective on just how inventive Toro’s burgers are.  If, like me, you enjoy flavor combinations that pair disparate (sweet and savory, tangy and piquant, etc.) taste profiles, you’ll love the Mo’ Better Burger (grilled pineapple jam, house-made bacon and Sriracha aioli) which teases and tantalizes every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  While the combination of pineapples and bacon has long been exploited on pizza, we found it to be tailor-made for burgers, too.  The bacon has a wonderful smokiness paired with a sweet-peppery element that renders it positively addictive.  One taste of the pineapple jam and your imagination will conjure up all the different ways you can enjoy it.

18 November 2016: My Kim’s choice was a slightly modified Jack and Dianne (which she ordered not because she likes the John Mellencamp song by that name) which comes standard with sauteed garlic mushrooms and Jack cheese.  Kim asked that the Jack cheese be eighty-sixed and substituted grilled onions instead.  The last trade that good was when the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta for a song and dance.  There’s something almost magical about earthy garlic-infused mushrooms paired with sweet, almost caramelized onions.  Lest I forget, the beef is of superior caliber, a delicious, nicely seasoned patty of about six-ounces.  Burgers at Toro are so good you can dispense with mustard and ketchup.

Travis Pastrami

19 November 2016: So impressed were we after our inaugural visit that we couldn’t wait to return.  It took us only one day to make like McArthur.  To avoid marital strife, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would order the pastrami sandwich (Kim wins so many coin tosses she must have a two-headed coin).  Called the Travis Pastrami, the sandwich is constructed on grilled light rye bread smeared with hot mustard and piled generously with the housemade pastrami about which James, our affable guide had waxed poetic.  The sandwich comes standard with sauerkraut, but Kim opted to have it on the side.  As with all great pastrami, this one’s got plenty of marbling.  That’s where so much of the flavor comes from. Well, that a meticulous, painstakingly monitored brining, curing, smoking process.  It’s obvious Chef Ryan knows what he’s doing.  Only at Joe Rodriguez’s California Pastrami will you find pastrami this good. 

19 November 2016: Our inaugural visit taught us to be more judicious about ordering appetizers. Instead of, for example, ordering an overly generous platter of chile cheese fries and risk being near-full when entrees arrive, opt for the pulled pork sliders (three slow-cooked pulled pork sliders with a red chile BBQ sauce and house slaw).  Tender tendrils of pork nestled between pillowy soft bread rolls is just the beginning.  The red chile BBQ sauce is more tangy than it is piquant, but it infuses the pork with a delightful liveliness.  Ditto for the coleslaw which imparts tangy, creamy notes. There’s only one thing wrong with these sliders–you’ll want at least two (or eight) more.

Pulled Pork Sliders

19 November 2016: Having lost the coin flip and thus the opportunity to order the pastrami sandwich didn’t make me a Miss Congeniality.  There are just too many terrific options on the menu, each one a winner.  James recommended the catfish dinner (buttermilk soaked fried catfish fingers tossed in a spicy cornmeal dredge and served with house-cut fries, slaw and a roasted corn tartar sauce).  Who would have thought Rio Rancho would become my go-to destination for catfish–first at K’Lynn’s Cuisine and now at Toro Burger?  The two planks of catfish placed gently atop a haystack-sized pile of French fries are terrific–light, flaky and delicate with a bit of personality courtesy of a spice blend.  Dip the catfish into the roasted corn tartar and the flavor profile changes altogether.  This is the tartar sauce for those of us who don’t like tartar sauce courtesy of sweet corn niblets that serve as a nice foil to other savory elements.

Catfish Dinner

18 November 2016: Even among the most creative and experienced chefs, desserts are often a challenge, one usually left to an assistant or pastry chef.  Chef Ryan may be just as adept at desserts as he is with savory elements.  As with everything that comes out of his kitchen, there’s plenty of imagination in every dish.  There’s also quite a bit of magic.  Our introduction to his prowess with postprandial aspects of a meal was with a crustless cheesecake.  Well, there is a crust, but it’s not Graham crackers or anything of the like.  This “crust” is comprised of thinly sliced red apples atop of which rests a molded round cheesecake topped with a green chile compote punctuated by more thin apple slices.  The green chile compote has both piquant and sweet elements, a perfect foil for the tangy apples and even sweeter cheesecake.  We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this masterpiece.

Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote

19 November 2016: We weren’t surprised at how much we enjoyed Chef Ryan’s housemade ice cream sandwich.  Now, this one does have a Graham cracker crust which sandwiches a layer of chocolate ganache and a thick wedge of chocolate ice cream.  The ice cream sandwich arrives at your table in a frozen state.  You’ll be advised to let it sit for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.  Would that we had such discipline.  No sooner had it arrived at our table than we began to gnaw on it.  Our sole complaint about this delightful ice cream treat is how small it is–maybe four inches.  It’s not the ice cream sandwich behemoth you’ll find at Rude Boy Cookies, but it’s just as good.

Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich

19 November 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, will be happy to hear Toro Burger’s dessert menu includes a bread pudding, perhaps one worthy of inclusion on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  This particular bread pudding, resplendent with the presence of sweet-tangy peaches and topped with a vanilla icing is reminiscent of peach cobbler, albeit just a bit sweeter.  Though some might consider them anachronistic, bread pudding and cobbler are two of my very favorite desserts and for some of the same reasons.  What we enjoyed most about Toro’s rendition is the interplay of different flavors to compose a cohesive, absolutely delicious whole.  Next time, however, we may ask for the green chile compote instead of the vanilla icing.

Peach Bread Pudding

Peach Bread Pudding

If you visited any one of Toro Burger’s predecessors at the Rio Rancho Howard Johnson’s, you likely weren’t very impressed.  Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Toro Burger.   It’s better…much better.  Chef Ryan’s burger creations are not to be missed and you’ll be well taken care of by James, the restaurant’s whirling dervish server whose recommendations you can take to the bank.

Toro Burger
1465 Rio Rancho Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1700
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Cheese Fries, Fried Pickles, Jack and Dianne Burger, Mo’ Better Burger, Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote, Peach Bread Pudding, Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich, Pulled Pork Sliders, Catfish Dinner, Travis Pastrami, French Fries, Onion Things

Toro Burger Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

Pete’s Frites – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pete’s Frites on Route 66 in the Nob Hill district

You might view my friend Schuyler’s insistence that his favorite vegetables are French fries, salsa and pizza as a fallacious premise, a non-sequitur fraught with absurdity. French fries are made from potatoes (botanically classified as a vegetable) so categorizing fries as a vegetable might not be a stretch, but pizza? How, you might ask, could any reasoning adult possibly consider pizza a vegetable? Schuyler’s argument is inspired from the beloved 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. When ordered by the court to submit authoritative proof that Mr. Kringle is the one-and-only Santa Claus, Kringle’s lawyer Fred Gailey produced dozens of mailbags brimming with letters addressed to Santa Claus in care of the courthouse. Overwhelmed with this authoritative proof, the judge responded “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, the court will not dispute it.”

By now you’ve probably surmised that Schuyler must have uncovered authoritative proof in the form of a governmental declaration that French fries, pizza and salsa are vegetables.  Indeed he has.  He points out that in 2011, the United States Congress passed a bill that allows pizza and French fries to remain on federally funded school lunch menus, essentially declaring that anything containing two tablespoons of tomato sauce (such as pizza and salsa) can be labeled a vegetable.  In truth, Schuyler doesn’t really subscribe to that (or almost any) Congressional premise. Being a cynic (or maybe wiser than us all), he believes decisions such as considering pizza a vegetable prove government is a Kakistocracy (the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power).

Interior of Pete’s Frites

But he does love French fries..and he’d fight to the death to defend your right to eat them.  He’s not the only one.  Americans consume some two-million tons of French fries every year, an average of nearly thirty pounds per red-blooded American.  About seven percent of the potatoes grown in the fruited plain end up being sold by McDonald’s which sells more than one-third of all the French fries hawked in restaurants across the United States each year. In the early 1990s, as you may remember, McDonald’s acceded to customer demand for less saturated fat and converted the oil in which it prepares its French fries–from beef tallow to a “vegetable oil” amalgam.

Not everyone appreciated this change.  Schuyler certainly didn’t and neither did television chef and author Julia Child who did more than anyone else in the culinary arena to demystify sophisticated French cuisine for mainstream Americans.  Here’s what she had this to say about McDonald’s French fries:  “When they first started out, their French fries were very good.  And then the nutritionists got at them.  It turned out to be erroneous that tallow fat was bad and lard was bad and so forth.  So they changed it to some kind of nutritionist oil and they’ve been kind of limp ever since.  I never really eat them which is too bad and I always am very strong about criticizing, hoping maybe they’ll change.”

Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger with Fries and Garlic Aioli

While it’s probably too late for McDonald’s, Schuyler will be happy to read about an Albuquerque restaurant which hasn’t (as he would term it) “succumbed to pressure from nutritional Nazis.”  That restaurant is Pete’s Frites whose Facebook page proudly boasts “I think our fries are pretty special. We take a lot of time and pain in preparing them. We also have our not so secret oil, beef tallow, that takes them over the top.”  Schuyler will also be happy to learn that Pete’s Frites has the “Break the Chain” seal of approval from my friend Ryan Scott, one of my most trusted sources for recommendations on where to go (no, not in that way) and what to eat.

In between bites Ryan texted me to let me know about his latest find, a Santa Fe food truck turned brick-and-mortar enterprise on Nob Hill occupying the former home of Restaurant: Impossible alum Shade Tree Customs & Cafe just west of Carlisle.  He described it as “really, really good…worth a Gil review.”  Ryan’s not a man prone to hyperbole unless discussing the Denver Broncos or Texas barbecue, so when he uses “really more than once as a modifier for “good,” you can bet Pete’s Frites are almost as good as a Trevor Siemian touchdown.

Thrice Cooked Fries: More Than Twice As Nice!

Launched in September, 2016, Pete’s Frites specializes in the second part of its marquee–“frites” which you may know is what French fries are called in France and Belgium.  You wouldn’t expect a restaurant named Pete’s Frites to use some homogeneous out-of-a-bag fries.  Instead, Pete’s hand peels and cuts its potatoes daily then triple cooks them in the aforementioned beef tallow to achieve perfect Belgian-style frites.  Pete’s Web site boasts of house-cut fries which is “crunchy on the outside and mashed potatoey on the inside.”  Each frites order comes with one homemade specialty sauce: mayonnaise housemade with lemon; aioli, mayo for garlic lovers; spicy mayo with habanero-based pili pili sauce; spicy ketchup with a kick; and fry sauce (Ketchup and house-made mayo).

Few restaurants across the Duke City serve truly memorable fries worthy of adulation and certainly not worth an extra half-an-hour or more on the treadmill. Until Pete’s Frites, there hasn’t been a single restaurant intrepid enough to showcase French fries as its featured fare. So, does triple-cooking in beef tallow make that much of a difference? Absolutely! The time-intensive process is scientific in its approach, but artful in its delivery. Quite simply these are the very best frites (or fries if you prefer) in the metropolitan area, delivered as promised with a delightful crispy-crunchiness on the outside and cloud-like fluffiness on the inside. You’ll run out of the housemade sauce (the aioli is terrific) before you run out of fries, but these fries stand out on their own, needing absolutely no amelioration.

Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger with Green Chile

Much as he loved the fries, it was the burger which excited Ryan most. Pete’s boasts of premium, all-natural New Mexican beef with no hormones and antibiotics. Best of all, the proprietary blend with a beauteous balance of fat and lean is ground daily on the premises. Complimentary toppings include lettuce, onion and tomato, but for a pittance you can add Cheddar or American cheese and (or) green chile. Each burger is prepared “smash style” which means the beef is mashed onto the grill, a process which often leads to desiccated burgers. Not so at Pete’s Frites where each burger is a multi-napkin, chin-drenching affair. Bun integrity goes out the window if you order a double patty burger which is “release the floodgates” juicy. Four-ounces of beef make up a single patty burger.

Ryan recommended an “Oklahoma-style” smash burger (not on the menu) which I assumed was prepared in the manner made famous by Johnnie’s Grill in El Reno, Oklahoma. At Johnnie’s, a spatula wielding grill cook obviously well practiced in the craft mashes thinly sliced yellow onions with raw, thin, hand-formed patties, alternately grilling each side to ensure uniformity of onion dispersion. Caramelized onions adhering to the meat patty are then placed on a bun. Pete’s version is more akin to lots of grilled onions atop the beef patty. That’s a good way to go, too. Pete came out of the kitchen to ask if the green chile was too hot (you may as well ask the devil if Hell is too hot). For this volcano-eater, the green chile had a pleasant piquancy, but was certainly not too hot. Your opinion, of course, may differ.

Pete apprised me that the menu will be expanding soon with more options coming. Apparently diners can’t live on fries alone…though Pete’s are so good, you just might be willing to try, but then you’d miss out on a superb burger. You don’t want to miss out on the Pete’s Frites experience!

Pete’s Frites
3407 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 200-0661
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT:
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frites, Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger

Pete's Frites Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Second Street Brewery – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe’s Second Street Brewery

Having served as a judge at many competitive culinary events, it’s always baffled me just how much disparity there usually is between the judges’ choices and the people’s choices. In almost a decade of having had the privilege of judging at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl event in Albuquerque, for example, there’s only been one instance in which judges and the general public agreed on the winning soup.  That transpired in 2015 when the Ranchers Club of New Mexico‘s Chimayo Red Chile Pork was a consensus “best in show.”   More often than not, few (if any) of the top three soups in the judges’ estimation  show up among the people’s top three choices. It’s the same in virtually every culinary competition in which you’ve got judges’ choice and people’s choice awards.

So, why the significant difference of opinion? The easy answer is that judges have some level of experience judging food, maybe more refined palates than the general public and perhaps even a modicum of culinary training.   Based on my experience, however, judges are often a mix of culinary experts (usually critics) and local celebrities (usually media and public officials), all with varied levels of experience and culinary expertise.  We tend to see ourselves as everyday Joes and Janes trying to give every item placed before us a fair assessment, usually following some prescribed criteria such as taste, appearance, texture and creativity.  None of us see ourselves as food snobs or as culinary elitists.  Our greatest commonality is a love of eating and a love of getting involved in worthy causes.

Second Street Brewery Dining Room

While sweeping the judges’ choice and people’s choice honors on the same year may be as rare as a Subaru in Santa Fe sporting an NRA sticker, every so often you’ll find a restaurant which earns a nod from the judges one year then earns people’s choice accolades another year.   Albuquerque’s Artichoke Cafe has done it (People’s Choice in 2012 and Judges’ Choice in 2014, both at the Souperbowl).   So has the Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe…and we’re not talking “people’s choice stout” or “judges’ choice lager” here though the Brewery has earned many accolades for its adult beverages.   Second Street Brewery isn’t only about beer.  As judges and people can attest, this brewery’s chefs can really cook, in 2014 earning judges’ choice in Santa Fe’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown.  Two years later, the Brewery earned people’s choice for the aptly named plate lickin’ chile cheeseburger.

If you’re wondering if the Second Street Brewery is a one-trick-pony, specializing solely in award winning burgers (though that should be enough), you’re in good company.  Despite accolades for their prowess with New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburgers, we resisted visiting…or more accurately resisted getting to Santa Fe at eleven when the restaurant opens.  On more than one occasion we arrived after noon only to discover every parking spot within a quarter mile already taken.  Surely, we wondered, they couldn’t all be all there for beer, great as it might be.  Our inaugural visit bore out that as a dining destination, the Second Street Brewery belongs on every serious foodie’s list of “gotta go” restaurants!

New Mexico Farmer’s Plate

When it launched in 1996, the Second Street Brewery envisioned “providing fresh beer to serve by the pint to a loyal, local clientele.  In addition, we wanted to provide just the right atmosphere and food to enjoy along with that pint.”  Though that statement could be perceived as food being an afterthought, the reality is a menu well thought out with an unpretentious array of high-quality pub grub.  There’s really only two entrees (Northern New Mexico Style Enchiladas and a Railyard Chile Philly) featuring New Mexican chile, but chile does play a part on lighter fare such as mustard, croutons, mac and cheese, grits, hand-cut fries, green chile stew and even Texas toast.  Burgers, sandwiches and wraps are the primary featured far, but the menu also includes a number of sumptuous salads and a wider variety of appetizers than most restaurants carry.

As much as we wanted to try the award-winning green chile cheeseburger, the greater impetus for our visit to the Second Street Brewery was the New Mexico Farmer’s Plate,  an embarrassment of riches for one, a shared treasure for two:  fresh lamb sausage, handmade New Mexico cheeses, house made chutneys, local sprout salad, with a side of citrus vinaigrette and toast.  The lamb sausage comes from Naturally New Mexico, a family processing plant which produces arguably the best lamb and beef in New Mexico.  Naturally New Mexico “grain finishes” its lamb with barley from Second Street’s brewing process.  The flavor is telling, as luscious and delicious as any sausage you’ll find.  It’s terrific on its own or dipped into the green chile mustard.  New Mexico cheeses–Stout gouda, smoked gouda and goat cheese–are a highlight, particularly when paired with the chutneys, apricot-tomato and raisin.  The little sprout salad with citrus vinaigrette is a bit of a tease–not nearly big enough for even one and so good you won’t want to share it.

New Mexico Farmer’s Plate

You can, however, share the side salad which is available for a pittance when you order a sandwich, burger or wrap.  At the Second Street Brewery, a pittance (two dollars as of this writing) will get you a lot of salad, more than you’ll get for thrice the price elsewhere and it’s  of excellent quality.  This haystack-sized salad is composed of mixed greens, shaved carrots, grape tomatoes, goat cheese, beets and your choice of salad dressings: bleu cheese, bleu cheese vinaigrette, jalapeño ginger tahini, balsamic vinaigrette, citrus vinaigrette, chipotle Caesar and ranch.  Pity the Francophobes who won’t order bleu cheese because of its “Frenchified” spelling.  This is an excellent bleu cheese–pungent, sharp, rich and wholly delicious.

Sandwich side choices at no additional charge include Idaho potato chips, chile seasoned hand-cut fries, sweet potato waffle fries and coleslaw.  For an extra charge, you can have beer-battered onion rings, a Caesar salad, chile cheese fries or the aforementioned side salad.  Should you choose a build-your-own-burger (half-pound grilled black Angus patty or veggie patty), you can have it topped with American, Tucumcari mild white Cheddar, Tucumcari feta, provolone, Swiss, Chevre, Wisconsin Bleu cheese or Wisconsin chile-Jack.  Also available is a buffalo burger constructed from all-natural, hormone and antibiotic-free six-ounce ground LaMonte buffalo patty on a cornmeal dusted baked Kaiser.  Ostensibly all are very good, but we wanted to taste people’s choice certified greatness.

The Fatty Burger with Fries

That would be the aptly named “Fatty Burger” which truly lives up to its name (renamed since the Smackdown).  Picture if you will a skyscraper tall, “single decker” burger constructed from an all-natural and hormone-free Harris ranch beef patty stuffed with good, old-fashioned American cheese topped with Hatch green chile and three slices of Farmland bacon served on a locally baked Fano brioche bun.  This burger comes with a warning and it has nothing to do with the caloric over achievement.  The warning reads “since this is a stuffed burger, we do not take the temperature on this burger.  Per the chef’s request, this burger must be cooked through thoroughly.”  Despite being prepared to those specifications, it’s a moist and juicy burger impregnated with flavor.   Smooshing this behemoth down is the only way it’ll fit in your mouth, but it also squeezes out the molten cheese.  Though a messy, multi-napkin challenge to eat, this is a magnificent burger!

It’s a challenge to imagine a sandwich as tasty as the Habanero-Citrus Pulled Pork Sandwich (slow-roasted pulled pork topped with habanero-citrus BBQ, creamy coleslaw and pickled onion on locally baked baguettini).  Habanero may be renowned for its incendiary heat, but it’s also got serious flavor with delightful citrus notes.  The Habanero-Citrus BBQ sauce is so mouth-watering it should be bottled and sold.  It’s one of the best barbecue sauces we’ve enjoyed in quite a while.  The creamy, tangy, tasty coleslaw has a cooling effect that goes oh so well with the tender tendrils of pulled pork as do the pickled onions.  This sandwich goes well with the housemade potato chips and at least one Bario Brinery pickles.   What makes these pickles so unique is that they’re brined in salt, not vinegar.  That means more cucumber flavor and more freshness.

Habanero-Citrus Pulled Pork Sandwich

Judges and people alike would certainly agree that the Second Street Brewery warrants every award it’s earned over the years.  Just get there early or you might not find a nearby place to park.

Second Street Brewery
1814 2nd St
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-3030
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Habanero-Citrus Pulled Pork Sandwich, Potato Chips, The Fatty Burger, Fries, New Mexico Farmer’s Plate, Side Salad with Bleu Cheese Dressing

Second Street Brewery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

K’Lynn’s Cuisine – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho

The tethered banner in front of K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho lists a few of the delicious treasures available in the tiny restaurant: “catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!”  Yeah, we did a double-take, too.  One of those items just seemed a bit out-of-place?  If you’re thinking “carne adovada fries” don’t belong on the list because they’re not Soul food, you’d be wrong.  Carne adovada fries definitely belong on the list.  So does jerk chicken which, by most conventional definitions, isn’t soul food either.  The one item we thought to be out-of-place was “& more.” 

I mean what more could you possibly want listed on the banner.  If it didn’t have you at “catfish” you probably haven’t had catfish down South…and if it didn’t seal the deal with “gumbo,” you definitely need an infusion of South in your mouth.  Beyond catfish and gumbo, the rest is gravy and it’s absolutely delicious.  Until the summer of 2016, restaurant-goers craving Southern cuisine had only one option for soul food, albeit a wonderful option in Bucket Headz.  For those of us on the “west side,” the  trek to the International District for Malaika’s fabulous cooking is a long (though well worth it) trip.  With the launch of K’Lynn’s Cuisine, we now have a second option to succor our souls.

K’Lynn’s Tiny and Cozy Dining Room

Residents of the City of Vision may be asking themselves where this new denizen of deliciousness is situated.  Most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment’s third most populous city, after all, are clustered on three main arteries: Rio Rancho, Southern and Unser.  K’Lynn’s occupies a Lilliputian space on the northeast side of the Rio Rancho Marketplace, a retail shopping center whose anchor tenants include Target and Albertson’s.  Even if you take Ridgecrest west-bound, it’s not easy to spot.  Trust me.  It’s there and it’s worth a detour from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine is the restaurant arm of K’Lynn’s Cuisine & Catering, an enterprise owned and operated by Karen Johnson-Bey, aka K’Lynn.  A self-taught chef, K’Lynn launched her restaurant on July 7th, formerly focusing solely on catering.  It’s no longer Rio Rancho’s best kept secret.  Word is getting out about the tiny place where you can enjoy food for your soul–a mix of soul, Cajun and Caribbean cuisine.  Her culinary repertoire is even more expansive, catering “all types of cuisines from American, New Mexican, Italian and more.”  There’s that “and more” term again.

Gumbo and Cornbread

You probably won’t peruse K’Lynn’s menu too thoroughly.  That’s because the day’s specials, scrawled on a white board on the counter, are so value-priced and tempting.  Listing only a handful of items, the specials list may include such mouth-watering items as crab cakes, oxtail and barbecue ribs.  The menu itself befits the small restaurant.  You might not get any further than the baskets: catfish (one, two or four pieces), fried shrimp or fried crawfish served with your choice of fries or coleslaw, but if you do you’ll run into three entrees: gumbo, jambalaya and jerk chicken.  Hungry diners can opt for platters which are served with your choice of three sides or you can have a two- or three-item combo.  Either way, you won’t leave hungry…and we haven’t even gotten to the appetizers which include such sumptuous starters as popcorn shrimp and the aforementioned carne adovada fries.  Page two of the menu, if you somehow manage to get there, also lists several po’ boy and salad options.

Gumbo is an archetypal Cajun offering and almost inarguably the most popular dish ever conceived in Louisiana (as emblematic of the Bayou State as chile is to New Mexico).  It’s a veritable melting pot dish, transcending all class and income barriers.  With a fragrant bouquet that precedes it, a steaming bowl of good gumbo is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures.  K’Lynn’s offers two options for its gumbo: Andouille sausage and chicken or shrimp. We can’t speak for the version made with shrimp, but the version made with Andouille sausage and chicken is “close your eyes and let the aroma and flavors wash over you” satisfying.  It goes without saying that it pairs best with cornbread, some to sop up that great gumbo and some cornbread with lots of butter.

Catfish, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

One of the Southern traditions we quickly embraced upon moving to Mississippi was a family-style meal of catfish and fried chicken after church every Sunday.  For umpteen consecutive Sundays we visited Aunt Jenny’s in Ocean Springs for a bounteous repast.  Aunt Jenny’s set the bar for catfish rather high and only a handful of restaurants (such as the aforementioned Bucket Headz) in the Land of Enchantment are even in the same zip code as that bar.  Though K’Lynn’s source for catfish isn’t the murky ponds of Mississippi, Californian catfish is still very good.  Sheathed in a golden-hued, lightly seasoned batter, the catfish is light and delicate with a deliciousness that defines any notions you may have about the bottom-dwelling fish.  Catfish goes especially well with mac and cheese and fried green beans, both of which are quite delicious.

While you’re more likely to find restaurants pairing fried chicken with catfish than you are restaurants pairing catfish with jerk chicken, the latter combination goes very well together.   Infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call, the chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning.  If you prefer your jerk chicken to render you a coughing, sputtering, watery-eyed frump, K’Lynn’s version won’t do that for you, but you will enjoy it.

Jerk Chicken, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

In his terrific tome Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time culinary historian Adrian Miller  declared red Kool-Aid to be the official soul food drink.  That’s a pretty audacious claim for which he puts up a good argument.  In the South, Kool-Aid tends to be made with almost as many scoops of sugar as there are granules of Kool-Aid.  That’s why we prefer K’Lynn’s grape Kool-Aid and ginger ale.  Not only is it not cloying, it’s got a nice  effervescence and it makes you feel as if you’re getting away with something.

While the Land of Enchantment is second only to Georgia in the annual production of pecans, Southerners would argue that only in the South can pecan pie be made the right way.  The “right way” means an almost sickeningly sweet pie, palatable only to diners with a seriously sweet tooth.   In the South most pecan pies are made using dark Karo syrup which has a more pronounced and sweeter flavor courtesy of the addition of molasses.  K’Lynn’s version is made with the not-quite-as-sweet blonde Karo syrup and it’s topped with a smooth bourbon sauce redolent with the unique bouquet of the oak casks in which it is distilled.  Whole pecans and a flaky crust offset the cloying elements.   While some Southerners might complain it’s not sweet enough, most diners will enjoy it very much.

Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

Visionaries (isn’t that what residents of the City of Vision are called) have started to discover K’Lynn’s Cuisine, but it shouldn’t take long for savvy diners from throughout the metropolitan area to find out for themselves that food for your soul is good for everyone.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine
4300 Ridgecrest Drive, Suite O
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 453-3068
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Cornbread, Catfish, Mac and Cheese, Fried Green Beans, Jerk Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, Grape Kool Aid, Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

K'Lynn's Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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