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The Supper Truck – Albuquerque, New Mexico

On its final day of operation, The Supper Truck parked on Marble Street just south of the Marble Street Brewery (Photo Courtesy of the Supper Truck)

Supper Truck, I hardly knew you!  Inexplicably and to the detriment of my taste buds, I wasn’t graced with 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?” 

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.

Grits

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.

The Supper Truck’s closure was precipitated by a combination of family needs and staffing issues.  Founding owner and heart of the operation Amy Black is willing to sell both the truck and naming rights to the right person with the rare combination of drive, creativity and community-mindedness which epitomized her purview.  To say a new owner will have Shaquille O’Neal sized shoes (22) to fill is a vast understatement.  Should an owner with such gumption emerge, I’ll be in line shortly thereafter.

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Fried Chicken Banh Mi

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. 

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!

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Hoisin BBQ Beef Taco and Shrimp Taco

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 Hoisin 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.  I’ll miss these most of all! 

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.

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Boiled Peanuts

Supper Truck, I miss you!

The Supper Truck
Location Varied
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 205-7877
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hoisin BBQ Beef Taco, Shrimp Taco, Fried Chicken Banh Mi, Grits, Boiled Peanuts

Supper Truck on Urbanspoon

The Stumbling Steer – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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The Stumbling Steer Brewery & Gastropub

There are ranchers throughout New Mexico who might not think there’s anything even mildly amusing about a brewery and gastropub called The Stumbling Steer.  These robust ranchers would likely equate the term Stumbling Steer to the clumsy gait exhibited by their precious livestock after they consume locoweed, a poisonous plant found in every one of the Land of Enchantment’s 33 counties.  Ultimately leading to paralysis and death if not controlled, locoweed accounts for millions of dollars in livestock loss each year.

The name Stumbling Steer obviously has nothing to do with the bane of ranchers throughout New Mexico.  According to the gastropub’s Web site, the name has everything to do with a commitment to a farm and table approach.  All the spent grains used to craft the brewery’s (ostensibly delicious) beers are fed to locally grown cattle which purportedly gain fat…or flavor.  Those selfsame cattle provide the beef which graces a very imaginative menu. It’s a menu which changes with the seasons, keeping things fresh and fun.

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The sprawling interior of the Stumbling Steer

The Stumbling Steer is no ordinary brew pub.  It’s a gastropub, a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-end, high-quality food. The term gastropub, a portmanteau of pub and gastronomy, is intended to define food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub,” but in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better. Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices. The menu, of course, has to complement an assortment of wines and beers, the latter being a staple of pub life in England. 

The Stumbling Steer opened its doors for both lunch and dinner in February, 2014, occupying a rambling edifice which housed The Quarters since 1994.  There are few, if any, vestiges of The Quarters in sight.  Thematically, The Stumbling Steer is a mishmash of western ranch meets neo-modern. Just above the entrance to the yawning complex is an elevated water tank emblazoned with the gastropub’s moniker. A sprawling covered patio increases the restaurant’s 270-seat capacity. The interior is cavernous, segmented into a bar area and a dining area although you can eat at both. It’s a brightly lit space. Seating is just beyond personal space proximity and is more functional than it is comfortable.  The ambiance is festive (or you can translate that to “noisy” if you’d like) and fun.

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Ale French Onion Soup

The Stumbling Steer is the brainchild of a quintumvirate of friends who understand and appreciate good food (gastronomes) and good craft beers (cerevisaphiles).  One of the five founding partners was Chef Thanawat Bates who’s got major chef creds, having guided culinary teams at several four- and five-star and five-diamond resorts in highly competitive culinary markets.   Chef T. has since moved on, but his imprint on the menu and culinary standards remains. 

The Stumbling Steer’s menu exemplifies what gastropubs are all about, offering some of the bar and pub foods with which diners are familiar, but up-scaling them with gourmet qualities and inventive touches.  Why, for example, offer the ubiquitous starter of French fries when you can let diners enjoy Southwestern Poutine (French fries, cheese curd, green chile, gravy and jalapeño)?   Why visit another pub which might serve a standard lettuce, pickle and tomato burger when you can get The Stumbling Steer Burger (half-pound of Angus beef, pastrami, mushrooms, onions, Gruyere cheese, house sauce on a Challah bun)?  Half of the fun of the dining adventure is trying something you may not have had before–something creative and different.

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Crispy Brussels sprouts

What could be more different–and more audacious–than Brussels sprouts?  Named America’s “most hated vegetable” in a 2008 survey conducted by Heinz, Brussels sprouts are almost universally reviled.  Many diners hate them without ever having tried them (probably because they heard someone else express their disdain for this villainous vegetable).  Andy Griffiths even wrote an anti-tribute to Brussels sprouts.  Entitled “Just Disgusting!,” its lyrics posit: “Who wouldn’t hate them? They’re green.  They’re slimy.  They’re moldy.  They’re horrible.  They’re putrid.  They’re foul.  Apart from that, I love them.”

1 March 2014: At The Stumbling Steer, the Crispy Brussels Sprouts appetizer is so good, even the most fussbudget will enjoy them.  If you’re of the mind that these Brussels Sprouts are palatable solely because their flavor is masked, you would be wrong.  Texturally, they’re crispy with slightly darkened, but not burnt edges.  That in itself is an improvement, but they’re taken to a new level with the addition of a cilantro-tamarind sauce paired with garlic, peanuts and shaved almonds.  The sauce is enlivened with a pleasant piquancy that pairs well with the tanginess of the tamarind and the freshness of the cilantro.

Southwestern Poutine

1 March 2014: French restaurants throughout the Duke City don’t have exclusivity when it comes to preparing delicious French Onion Soup.  In fact, The Stumbling Steer’s version is competitive with the best offered in town, but it’s not your standard everyday French Onion Soup.  It’s not even French.  It’s Welsh Cheddar Rarebit, slightly modified from the traditional Welsh method by ladling a thick Cheddar sauce over crouton, then briefly toasting the two together so that the cheese sauce turns thick and bubbling.  My pet peeve with most French onion soup is the lack of “beefiness” in the broth.  That’s not the case with this soup which melds so many wonderful flavors together.  Not only is it delicious, it’s warming and comforting. 

28 November 2014:  Poutine, an artery-clogging Canadian delicacy, is to Toronto, Canada what red and green chile are to New Mexico.  In other words, it’s a long-time favorite, a tradition and a way of life.  At its very core, poutine combines three simple ingredients: fresh-cut pomme frites (French fries), homemade gravy and toothsome cheese curds.  Beyond these three ingredients, poutine is open to both interpretation and augmentation.  To my knowledge, the very first poutine offered in Albuquerque is the Southwestern Poutine (French fries, pork green chili (SIC) gravy, mozzarella cheese curds, cilantro crema, jalapeño) at the Stumbling Steer.  If you’re not into tradition, it’s actually a very good rendition.  My Kim, however, is a traditionalist and wanted actual curds in their solid form, not melted in combination with cilantro crema.  That just meant more for me. 

Crispy Pork Bites

Kricket, a faithful reader of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog (and one who should comment more often) may be The Stumbling Steer’s biggest fan.  Her enthusiasm for the gastropub prompted our inaugural visit:  “Gil, I beg of you, review The Stumbling Steer. I keep saying I will try different appetizers, but those fried pork bites are like bits of pork belly *butter* and I can’t avoid ordering them. This place has my undying loyalty (and if they delivered, my arteries would last about a week).”  The fried pork bites were initially available as an appetizer only for dinner, but are now a mainstay in the standard menu. 

28 November 2014:  In its 10th annual Best of the City edition for 2014, Albuquerque The Magazine readers named The Stumbling Steer’s appetizers “best of the city.  Two of its appetizers were highlighted: the transformative Crispy Brussels Sprouts and for a sweeter encounter, the Fried Pork Bites “deep-fried pork belly that can be dipped in Greek yogurt and apple powdered sugar.”  It’s easy to see why Kricket is so infatuated with these grown-up chicharrones.  They’re crispy morsels of golden porcine meat and fat–sinfully decadent on their own and differently delicious when combined with other ingredients.  With the apple powdered sugar, their flavor profile isn’t so much altered as it is boosted.  The pork bites become pork candy, sweet without detracting from the integrity of the pork.  The Greek yogurt offers a cool contrast.

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Monte Cristo Porchetta

1 March 2014: Adventurous diners might eschew burgers for something just a little bit different–perhaps something you’ve had before, but prepared in a uniquely creative manner.  One option is the Monte Cristo Porchetta, a sumptuous sandwich stuffed with slow-roasted pork, Fontina, Gruyere and a fried egg on top served with a ramekin of an Ancho chili-wild berry sauce.  The sandwich needs absolutely no amelioration, but that sauce gives the otherwise boring French fries some personality.  The porchetta (pork) is nicely roasted with a crispy skin and is seasoned with aromatic spices and herbs which imbue it with addictive properties.  Our only complaint about this sandwich is that it didn’t have enough pork (a roast would have been good).

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B2LT

1 March 2014: Another sandwich showcasing the sumptuous qualities of pork is the B2LT, not your mother’s bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.  Bacon, one of nature’s perfect foods, isn’t even a component of this sandwich…or at least the bacon you might be thinking of.  Instead, a quarter-inch thick braised and seared pork belly is used.  That’s like bacon all grown up.  It’s thick and smoky with fatty and crispy elements playing two-part harmony on your taste buds.  The tomato and lettuce are served on the side so you don’t have to discard them and risk getting mayo on your hands.  The canvas for this sandwich is soft and pillowy Ciabatta bread.  Persnickety eaters might consider the pork belly a little too fatty, but if you’re a purist, this sandwich is for you. 

28 November 2014: Give the Stumbling Steer an “A” for effort alone in crafting deliciously different burgers which don’t stray too outlandishly far from tradition.  The eponymous Stumbling Steer Burger is of the most creative offerings on the menu.  Starting with a half-pound of Angus ground beef, this burger is a melange of delicious ingredients: pastrami, mushrooms, onion relish and Gruyere cheese with red onions, tomato and lettuce on the side.  To maximize your enjoyment, eschew the “on the side” ingredients (the tomato is typical of the artificially ripened variety, who needs red onions when you’ve got onion jam and the lettuce is cold and wilted).  The onion relish is caramelized in the fashion that renders onions deliciously sweet and tangy.  It’s my favorite ingredient in a pretty good burger that truly takes two hands to handle.

Stumbling Steer Burger with French Fries

28 November 2014:  In recent years, America has embraced the soulful Southern staple of chicken and waffles and Albuquerque has followed suit.  Fried chicken is one of the most versatile of American comfort foods because it’s wonderful on its own and maybe even better when paired with sweet or savory partners (the old “gravy vs. syrup conundrum.”)  The Stumbling Steer’s fried chicken (breast, thigh and leg) is fried in duck fat and stacked atop a Belgian waffle with a Corn Flake streusel and real maple syrup.  The fried chicken is moist and delicious with a crispy batter (but not too much of it).  If there is one surprise in this entree, it’s the Corn Flakes streusel which should be sprinkled liberally on the waffle (or chicken) for best results.

Chicken and Waffles

1 March 2014: During our three years in England, we often enjoyed sticky toffee pudding, a lush muffin-like mound of bread pudding topped with a rich caramel toffee.  It’s a high-calorie indulgence rich in flavor and deliciousness.  The Stumbling Steer’s version takes a couple of liberties from the English version.  These liberties–a sea salt toffee and vanilla ice cream–work very well.  The sea salt toffee, in particular, lends just a modicum of savoriness to what would otherwise be a too sweet, too rich dessert.  One of the most common mistakes made with bread puddings is the absence of savoriness to offset the cloying nature of the dessert.  The toffee is served in a small pitcher and can be dispensed onto the bread pudding in quantities you control.

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Sticky Toffee Pudding

1 March 2014: The king of rock and roll loved a particular sandwich crafted from peanut butter and mashed bananas so much that he consumed some twelve to fifteen of them in one sitting.  Today, there are many variations of the “Elvis,” including one at the Stumbling Steer that might have adult pelvises gyrating and children pinging off the walls.  The main ingredient in the Steer’s Elvis Fudge Brownie is decadence.  Other ingredients in this interpretation of the Elvis are banana ice cream, bacon caramel, peanut brittle and chocolate sauce.  You probably gained three pounds just reading those ingredients.  It’s a very sweet, very rich and probably not something you can (or should) consume in one sitting.  The peanut brittle lends a nice savory offset to the cloying dominance.

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Elvis Fudge Brownie

The Stumbling Steer Brewery & Gastropub has the potential and chef creds to excite Duke City diners for a long time.

The Stumbling Steer Brewery & Gastropub
3700 Ellison Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 November 2014
1st VISIT: 1 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Monte Cristo Porchetta, B2LT, Ale French Onion Soup, Crispy Brussels sprouts, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Elvis Fudge Brownie, Southwestern Poutine, Chicken & Waffles, Crispy Pork Bites, Stumbling Steer Burger

Stumbling Steer Brewery & Gastropub on Urbanspoon

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.

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The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

Chef Fernando Olea (right) and his very talented Sous Chef Leroy Alvarado (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll).

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.

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Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.

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A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.

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Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!

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Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.

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Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.

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Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.

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Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.

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Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 20 March 2014

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.

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Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.

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Abalone

Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Poblano Soup (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.

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Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck

The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought Sweet Symphony to our table, he described in alchemical terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

Sweet Symphony: Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 15 November 2014

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining, she wrote “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.  And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  My conversation about food with my friend Sandy Driscoll began in October, 2007 when she discovered my blog shortly before visiting New Mexico.  We’ve been talking about food (and virtually everything else) ever since and have broken bread (and sopaipillas) together in New Mexico and California. 

During a recent conversation about food, we discussed our mutual admiration for Spanish chef Jose Andres, a restaurant impresario and celebrity chef.  In a fit of bravado and New Mexico pride, I posited that Chef Olea is “right up there with Andres” as a chef (frankly I think Chef Olea is a superior chef, but he’s a very modest man and wouldn’t want me bragging on his behalf).  Because the proof is in the huitlacoche, we introduced Sandy to Chef Olea’s fabulous chef’s tasting menu where can be found at least two items on my theoretical “last meal” wish list.

Porcini Mushrooms and Bean Thread Noodles with an Asian Sauce and Sprigs of Mint (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our perfectly paced three-hour meal, Sandy, who’s not nearly as prone to hyperbole as yours truly, used the term “fabulous” to describe virtually every item (in between other utterances of delight).  Afterwards she described her meal as “one of my best ever culinary experiences!!” and “the best meal I’ve ever had in Santa Fe.”   Considering she’s dined at several Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, that’s high praise indeed.  

Epazote has been in a lot of conversations lately.  In October, 2014, USA Today’s 10 Best named Epazote the very best option for lunch in Santa Fe.  Billie Frank, who’s pretty fabulous in her own right, was effusive in her praise for Chef Olea’s loving culinary preparations.  Lest you think “it’s just lunch,” Hillside owner Tisha Sjosfrand assured me that Epazote will enter the dinner restaurant fray on receipt of its beer and wine license.  The question then will be whether or not Epazote is the best dinner destination in Santa Fe, too.

Chef Fernando Olea and our very capable server bring Poblano Soup to our table (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef Olea’s coat is emblazoned with the term “Inspired New World Cuisine.”  It’s an apt description for his masterful execution of cuisine which defies pigeonholing.  He laments that when Santa Fe concierge recommend Epazote for its Mexican cuisine, some diners are disheartened and leave when they don’t find tacos and enchiladas on the menu.  What a shame!  Perhaps if they had stuck around, they would have experienced an Asian inspired work of art with which our tasting menu experience began.  This starter showcased porcini mushrooms and bean thread noodles with the chef’s own Tabuca sauce and sprigs of mint.  The woodsy  earthiness of the mushrooms, the Thai chili pepper heat of the Tabuca sauce and the evergreen freshness of the mint coalesced into a balanced flavor profile in which all elements are deliciously discernible on your palate. 

Our second course was the sublime Poblano soup about which I wax poetic in my review of my previous tasting menu experience.  Served in a martini glass, this soul-warming elixir was not, however, a repeat of the Poblano soup I had previously experienced (though that would have been joyously welcomed).  Chef Olea changed things up subtly yet with great effect.  Instead of the magnificent shrimp from my first visit, a sole “crouton” created from seared wild Pacific salmon luxuriated in the broth.  The brininess of the salmon and the alchemical interplay of other ingredients reenforced why this is my highest rated soup in New Mexico.  It’s on the very top of my proverbial “last meal” list.

Rolled Chapulines (Baby Grasshoppers) Tacos, Sun Gold Tomatoes with a jalapeño sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Our third course–one neither my Kim nor the worldly Sandy had imagined they would ever experience–was two rolled tacos engorged with chapulines (baby grasshoppers) encircled by a jalapeño sauce and served with three Sun Gold tomatoes.  It’s only the thought of eating the “icky” insect that’s repulsive.  Get past that revulsion and you might, like everyone to whom I’ve introduced this tasty treat, enjoy (or at the very least, be able to brag about) the experience.  If you can’t get past the chapulines alone, the jalapeño sauce adds flavor and heat elements that may make them less off-putting to you.  Then there are the Sun Gold tomatoes, the reddish-orange beauties with an explosively sweet, fruity flavor.  They’re addictive (and so are the chapulines). 

Should you treat yourself to the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Epazote, make it a point to request bread before any course is brought to your table.  You’ll don’t want to lose a single drop of any of the fabulous sauces which ameliorate each course.  Not only is the bread utilitarian for sopping up those precious sauces, Chef Olea’s baking skills are on display with such creative and delicious breads as a dense grain bread punctuated with apricot and walnuts.  It’s a fabulous bread, the type of which you’ll want an entire loaf. 

Bread infused with walnuts and apricots (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not every chef is intrepid enough to pair bold, assertive flavors with delicate flavors and not every chef knows that seemingly disparate flavors can actually be complementary.  Chef Olea’s flavor and ingredient pairings are legendary.  Perfectly tender, rich and rosy rare Muscovy duck with a light, succulent ring of fat is one of those light, delicate flavors not often paired with assertive and bold flavors.  Chef Olea dared pair the magnificent Muscovy duck with an incendiary (courtesy of jalapeños) Oaxacan mole verde which isn’t quite as sweet as some moles tend to be .  A smear of the equally piquant Tebuca sauce decorated the plate.  Other delicate elements on the dish were crispy spinach and crispy bean threads. The ethereally light and flaky spinach is a real treat.  The seemingly disparate pairing actually worked very well with flavors playing off each other in harmony.  I’m convinced Chef Olea can pair an Army chukka boot with a Bruno Magli loafer and make a fashion statement haute fashionistas would drool over. 

Over the years, lamb has obtained (perhaps earned) a reputation for being gamey (resembling the flavor and odor of wild hunted game) and having a strong flavor not all carnivores enjoy.  The strength of “gaminess” actually ranges among different breeds of sheep.  Northern New Mexican sheep, the type of which Epazote procures, has a rich and robust flavor without being off-putting and overly gamey.  Chef Olea paired two thick, lollipop lamb chops with a sweet potato puree and Poblano mole, both of which have sweet notes that complement the lamb very well.  With their built-in “handles,” the lamb chops are made to be picked up (etiquette be damned) and used to scoop up some of the puree and mole.  Three purplish dots on the plate are courtesy of a red cabbage reduction which just might reduce you to tears of ecstasy.

Muscovy Duck, Oaxacan Mole Verde, Bean Threads, Crispy Spinach and a Tabuca Sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Our dessert was the fabulous Sweet Symphony, the second Epazote offering on my proverbial last meal.  Words can’t adequately describe just how wonderful this sublime sweet course really is, but you can read my feeble efforts at such above Sandy’s photo of the dessert.  Having previously had Sweet Symphony, it made me tremendously happy to see my wife and dear friend first try to discern the ingredients of this masterful concoction, then watching them swoon with each treasured bite.  Two days after having partaken of this greatness, Sandy is still raving about it.

Although our initial seating was by the tranquil waterfall on the restaurant’s bottom level, we asked to be moved on account of the sunlight.  Our accommodating server gave us the other best seat in the house–right under the portrait of the New Mexico mole ingredients on the second level.  The culmination of our meal was a conversation with the great gentleman chef whom Sandy looks forward to seeing again when he serves as guest chef at the Los Angeles restaurant where his daughter works. There’s no doubt this won’t be Sandy’s sole visit to Epazote.

Northern New Mexico Raised Lamb Chops, Mole Poblano, Sweet Potato Puree, Red Cabbage Reduction (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

EPILOGUE

From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup, Symphony

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