Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 841 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6500 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

NM Rodeo Burgers – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

NM Rodeo Burgers In Rio Rancho

“Traveling with the rodeo
It’s the only life I’ll ever know
I started in New Mexico
Must have been a thousand years ago.”
~Lyrics to “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” by Paul Davis

Although my friends and I were all fairly accomplished horse riders in the svelte and carefree days of our youth, Peñasco didn’t have a high school rodeo team so we couldn’t show off our skills in the arena of competition.  Instead we entertained ourselves with such non-sanctioned “rodeo” events as hand-fishing for bottom-feeding suckers and tossing them into a chicken coop where a frenzied take-away melee would ensue with feathers and fish entrails flying.  We also enjoyed tossing wet bailing wire into electrical wires overhead.  if done right, the bailing wire returned to earth a smoldering ashen heap reminiscent of snake fireworks. 

Risking life and limb with thousands of volts of electrical current was child’s play compared to riding rambunctious young bulls who would invariably toss us to the ground with impunity.  My days of bull riding ended when a recalcitrant bull was spooked by a horse who aimed a kick at my flank, leaving me no recourse but to jump off into a fresh, fetid pile of horse and cow sh…er, excrement.  Memories of walking home to face my mom covered head-to-toe in manure were rekindled when a Burger King commercial for its new “rodeo burger” aired.  It wasn’t the brawny beef on the hoof we rode I associated with that commercial, but the dung pile into which I fell.  That’s the “appeal” chain restaurants seem to have with me.

The Rodeo Burgers Menu

I did a double-take when first spotting the NM Rodeo Burgers restaurant in Rio Rancho.  My first thought was of the maverick rodeo days of my youth then of America’s eagerly litigious society and its affinity for copyright infringement lawsuits.  A quick Google search revealed a number of Rodeo Burgers throughout the fruited plain and even Canada so copyright shouldn’t be an issue.  Side note: Even though Rio Rancho can’t claim the very first Rodeo Burgers restaurant across the fruited plain, the Land of Enchantment is one of several claimants to having held the very first rodeo in America.  That rodeo transpired in Santa Fe some 65 years before New Mexico joined the Union. Take that Texas!

The NM Rodeo Burgers is more a “joint” than a “restaurant.”  There are no indoor sit-down amenities save for a handful of concrete picnic tables where you can dine al fresco (or “al viento” on windy days).  To place your order, you can either drive up or walk up to the counter at the front of the edifice which once housed a  Weinerschnitzel (which long ago misplaced its “Der”).   While its address (900 36th Place, N.E.) may sound residential and unfamiliar, look for it off Southern Boulevard in the same cul-de-sac which is home to the Turtle Mountain Brewery.

The Rodeo Burgers Unique Hamburger Menu

The Rodeo Burgers menu (pictured above) may be limited in terms of sheer numbers, but for sheer variety look within the burgers themselves.  The Cowboy Burger, for example, includes spam and green bell peppers, two ingredients not often found in burgers around these parts.  The 8 Second Burger is even more uniquely adorned.  If you’re inclined to think these burgers were designed by a rodeo clown, you really need to lasso one before passing judgment.  

You’d think that with my personal rodeo experiences, my inaugural burger would have been the 8 Second Burger (in the rodeo vernacular, eight seconds is the length of time a rider should remain on a bucking bull for it to be considered a good ride).  Even cowboys start with baby steps, ergo the Cowboy Burger.  What caused me most trepidation is actually one of the best aspects of this burger.  That would be the Spam (ukuleles playing Home on the Range in the background) which, though a bit salty, complemented the beef very well.  The green chile, described as mild chopped green chile, actually has more bite than found in most green chile cheeseburgers.  The beef patty extended beyond the sesame seed buns and the burger was made fresh to order.  On the debits and credits side of the ledger, these were the credits.

The Cowboy Burger

On the debits side, the beef is prepared at medium-well, a degree of doneness which almost always means desiccated beef (no napkins necessary).  The green peppers are sliced into rather thick ribbons which makes them more prevalent an ingredient than all but the most ardent green pepper lovers would enjoy. The lettuce was a bit wilted.   Still, this is a burger I’ll order again if only to confirm how good Spam can be on a burger. 

The same can’t be said for the Rancher, a hot dog whose composition isn’t described on the drive-up menu.  Certainly the ranching profession is far from glamorous, but a restaurant creative enough to add Spam to a burger can certainly gussy up a hot dog with exciting and innovative ingredients.  Alas, upon wrapping the Rancher at home, it was nothing more than a toasted bun with a sliced hot dog.  No mustard.  No onions.  No relish.  No sense of rodeo adventure.  If the ordering protocol is to stipulate the ingredients with which you want your hot dog prepared, it certainly wasn’t described anywhere.  Grrrrr!

The Rancher

Rodeo Burgers shows some imagination and creativity in its menu, but must perform well on every single order or discerning diners won’t return.

NM Rodeo Burgers
900 36th Place, N.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT:  5 September 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET:Cowboy Burger

Nm Rodeo Burgers on Urbanspoon

Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)


Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine

If salt is the odorless spice, smoke is the ephemeral magical invisible spice.
You can’t feel it, you can’t touch it, but you can taste it.”
~Chef Seamus Mullen, Tertulia Restaurant, New York City.

Have you ever wondered why some people drool when they pass by a computer displaying a fireplace screen saver? They’re not thinking about romance. They’re thinking about barbecue. There’s just something about smoked foods that has excited humans across the millennia. It’s been that way since a lightning bolt struck a mastodon and rendered its flesh delicious. Since then humans have been genetically predisposed to crave the flavors created by the penetration of smoke.  We associate fire and the fragrant bouquet of wood smoke with  grilling, barbecues and mostly, eating things we love.

When my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott told me of an Albuquerque chef incorporating the element of smoke into virtually every ingredient of every dish he creates, my initial inclination was to think Ryan had been smoking something. It hadn’t surprised me to read in Around the World in 80 Dinners that Bill and Cheryl Jamison ate smoked zebra carpaccio in South Africa as much as it did to learn that the chef of whom Ryan spoke, Chef Paco Aceves, smokes marshmallows, peanut butter, tomatoes, bananas and so much more at Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine. Because smoking techniques are applied to all sorts of meats and fish, it’s almost a paradigm shift to hear of smoking techniques used outside of meat, fish and vegetables.


Chef-Proprietor-Genius Paco Aceves

For Paco Aceves, the lure of aromatic smoke plumes emanating from a smoker began at an early age because his first job was as the “pit boy” at Geezamboni’s, a popular eatery which put the “cue” in Albarbecuerque for many years. It was Paco’s job to tend to the smoker, stoking it with fragrant woods to keep the smoker at an optimal temperature for the “low and slow” preparation of meats. Low and slow, as barbecue purists know, has nothing to do with Española’s low-riders, but everything to do with the preparation of meats utilizing low heat over an extended period of time.

Paco’s baptism by fire fueled his interest in the culinary arts. After graduating from St. Pius High School in Albuquerque, he matriculated at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI) culinary arts program then later studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the country’s most respected school for culinary arts training. Paco returned to the Duke City in 2012 and partnered with Sue Heistermann to launch his eponymous restaurant.  Coincidentally, Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine is situated at the former site of Geezamboni’s (and later Johndhi’s) on the southwest intersection of Rio Grande and Griegos. The launch reunited him with the well-seasoned smoker on which he cut his teeth.

Ryan "Break the Chain" Scott stands in front of the massive smoker used to create smoked deliciousness

Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott stands in front of the massive smoker used to create smoked deliciousness

Dismiss any notions you might have that Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine continues the barbecue traditions of Geezamboni’s and Johndhi’s. Paco’s predecessors practiced American barbecue traditions, garnering their reputations on the strength of their smoke and sauce. Paco’s is more sophisticated; it’s American barbecue grown up, evolved and evangelized across the world stage. Chef Aceves captures the essence of smoke and applies it to a repertoire of dishes inspired by his training and his travels.

Savvy diners will eschew the indoor dining room and, weather permitting, will gravitate toward the aroma of smoked food wafting toward them from the outdoor patio. That aroma comes from delicate apple and hickory woods which will envelop you in a comforting fragrance Chef Aceves should bottle and sell as a cologne. Trepidation set in (thank you to Albuquerque’s ubiquitous winds) during our inaugural visit and we ate indoors. We had the entire dining room to ourselves while more intrepid, more savvy diners ate outdoors in the presence of smoky Shangri-La.


Brisket Nachos: Tender Smoked Pulled Brisket, Green Onions, Cheddar, Tomatoes & Green Chlle Queso

The seasonal menu is full of surprises, offering items from various countries, but not prepared as they would be prepared in their country of origin. Instead, Chef Aceves imparts the element of smoke to otherwise traditional dishes. Because of this element, the bigger surprises won’t occur until you bite into the foods you order. Menu descriptions can’t do justice to the flavors imparted by the just right amount of smoke. After tasting Paco’s variations on international foods with which you may have thought you were familiar, you might come to the realization that those foods were missing something.

Salads and starters include four very inventive salads as well as a spinach and olive strudel and brisket nachos, an appetizer destined to become a Duke City favorite. The menu lists only six entrees, the descriptions of which won’t blow you away (but eating them will). Entrees come with your choice of two sides, but you can order more a la carte for a pittance more. On the Spring, 2013 menu, those sides are French green beans, grilled squash and onions, glazed carrots, almond and cranberry brown rice, roasted potatoes and Cheddar grits.



Tortilla Roll-Up: Feta Cheese, Guacamole, Pepper Relish, Smoked Pork

31 May 2013: In 2006, the Wall Street Journal named the nachos created in two New Mexico restaurants as among the fifteen very best nachos across the fruited plain. Should the Wall Street Journal revisit New Mexico, they will most certainly find nachos that supplant some of the top fifteen nachos in America. Among them would be the Brisket Nachos at Paco’s. These are outstanding nachos, some of the very best you’ll find anywhere. What makes these nachos special is the tender pulled brisket which has been smoked low and slow for nearly fourteen hours. Brisket is one of those cuts of beef which is both lean and fat depending on where you cut it. That combination makes it very flavorful when prepared correctly. Paco’s pairs the tender brisket with fresh green onions, Cheddar, smoked tomatoes and a green chile con queso (sour cream need not apply). This is a mouth-watering introduction to Paco’s.



31 May 2013: As an amuse bouche (a complimentary introduction to the chef’s cuisine), Chef Aceves brought us one of the most unique (for lack of a better name) tortilla roll-ups we’ve had: a lightly toasted tortilla engorged with a sweet-tart pepper relish, sharp feta cheese, ethereal smoked pork, sweet raisins and guacamole. Sometimes the most surprisingly delicious dishes are those which pair seemingly incongruous ingredients. This tortilla roll-up is an example of contrasting elements complementing each other to form terrific bursts of flavor in surprising combinations: the sweetness of the raisin against the unctuousness of the guacamole, the sharpness of the feta against the tartness of the pepper relish, for example. 

Paco's unique take on lettuce wraps

Paco’s unique take on lettuce wraps

31 May 2013: A surprise starter on the night of our inaugural visit is a favorite of Mexican restaurants everywhere.  It’s Campechana, a Mexican seafood cocktail constructed of sundry seafood, usually white fish, shrimp, oysters, mussels, squid and more.  The seafood swims alongside diced tomatoes, onions and cilantro in a large goblet of Clamato and lime juice.  It’s a fresh, healthy and invigorating.   The delicious difference at Paco’s is that the seafood is smoked.  If you’ve ever had good smoked oysters, you’ll appreciate what the element of smoke can do to seafood.  It’s a transformative influence. 

26 September 2013:  Whenever a menu, seemingly any menu, offers lettuce wraps, the seemingly de facto comparison is to the lettuce wraps made popular at Paul Fleming (PF) Chang’s.  Dialogue which typically ensues is “these lettuce wraps are better (or worse) than the ones at PF Chang’s.  As someone who finds lettuce wraps insipid, boring and usually almost candied, such comparisons are lost on me.  That is, until sampling what Paco can do with lettuce wraps.  The difference-maker is the smoked pork which is shredded (not minced) and mixed with woody mushrooms and celery in a light sauce of ginger and soy.  Paco’s lettuce wraps made a believe out of me.



Mussels: Sautéed Mussels with Potatoes & Leeks in a Smooth Coconut Milk and Chipotle Broth, served with Grilled Bread

31 May 2013: It didn’t take much perusal through the menu to decide that the Thai-inspired mussels dish would be making its way from the kitchen to my table. This dish is a fusion of flavors and ingredients: sautéed Prince Edward Island mussels with potatoes and leeks in a smooth coconut milk and chipotle broth served with grilled bread. The broth is an exemplar of comfort food, so good you’ll ask for more bread so you can sop up every delectable drop. The sweetness of the coconut milk and the piquancy of the chipotle don’t offset one another so much as they form a dynamic duo that showcases the best qualities of each. The potatoes are perfectly prepared, an excellent foil for the briny mussels.


Brick Chicken: Half Chicken, oven roasted till crispy and dressed with Coriander Dressing, parsley and Peanuts

31 May 2013: One of the specialties of the house and perhaps the restaurant’s most popular dish is the lemon coriander brick chicken. Served in a half chicken portion size, you’re almost guaranteed to take some home with you. It’s a chicken on steroids, poultry so profuse it makes those desiccated birds at the grocery store look anorexic in comparison.  Best of all, it’s absolutely delicious–moist, meaty and seasoned perfectly. The most eye-opening aspect of this pulchritudinous poultry is the complexity of the lemon and coriander rub which isn’t confined to the skin. It penetrates deeply and imbues the chicken with a magnificent flavor profile. This is one chicken my friend Sr. Plata needs to try on his quest to find Albuquerque’s best non-fried chicken dish.


Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott holds up a Cast Iron Chuck Filet (Juicy House Rub Steak Gently Seared on Cast Iron)

31 May 2013: Several years ago, we experienced a carnivore’s dream come true in dining on a coffee spice-rubbed rotisserie filet mignon at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill.  It’s a steak I’ve dreamed about several times, much to the detriment of my pillow.  At Paco’s, we found an even better steak.  It’s the cast iron chuck filet as tender as possible (you can cut it with a fork) and more delicious than should be legal.  The filet is prepared with a spice rub that includes smoked paprika, espresso, cayenne and garlic salt.  The triumvirate of espresso, smoked paprika and cayenne should be mandated on every steak.  The cayenne lends a bit of piquancy while the smoked paprika imbues the steak with even more meatiness.

Grilled House Steak Smoked Shallot and Bourbon Compound Butter + cedar roasted mushrooms

Grilled House Steak Smoked Shallot and Bourbon Compound Butter + cedar roasted mushrooms

26 September 2013: Ironically, many of the very best steaks available in the Duke City area don’t come from expensive steak restaurants, but from restaurants specializing eclectic offerings such as Blades’ Bistro in Placitas and P’Tit Louis Bistro in Albuquerque.  Add Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine to that list.  It would be easy to ascribe the many fine qualities of the grilled house steak to the grilling process which imbues each meaty morsel with a faint smokiness, but that would shortchange the deep penetrating influence of the smoked shallot and bourbon compound butter, not to mention the earthy accompaniment of cedar roasted mushrooms.  The cut of meat, an exquisite tri-tip, is about three-quarters of an inch thick and despite being relatively low in fat, has a surprising moistness and rich, full-bodied flavor.   Served with two sides, it goes especially well with roasted shallot and chive mashed potatoes and glazed carrots.


S'Mores Paco style

S’Mores Paco style

31 May 2013: There’s absolutely no surcease in quality on the dessert menu.   Desserts are a must-have, so if it means filling up a few doggie bags with entrees, sides and starters so you’ll have room for dessert, all the better.  Perhaps the most wonderful of four desserts is one the charismatic Ryan Scott calls the “Elvis Presley” although it’s missing one element (bacon) from Elvis’s favorite sandwich.  This Paco’s dessert pairs a split caramelized banana with peanut butter cheesecake mousse drizzled over by a rich caramel.  The peanut butter cheesecake mousse is amazing, a sweet-salty-rich amalgam as ephemeral as a wisp of smoke.  Come to think of it, ephemeral, which means short-lived, is the most apt description for this dessert because it’ll go quickly.


Peanut Butter Cheesecake Mousse, Roasted Bananas

31 May 2013: Is there any back-to-nature pairing as tasty as S’mores, that campfire favorite of children of all ages?  Paco’s has created a more adult version of the S’more with smoked marshmallows, cinnamon caramel and powdered sugar on a Graham cracker crust. It’ll take you back to days of yore when New Mexico’s forests weren’t on fire and you could enjoy a S’more or ten.

Smoked Pecan Pie Ala Mode

Smoked Pecan Pie Ala Mode

26 September 2013:  If you’ve never heard grown men swoon, you should have been with Ryan and I as we experienced a foodgasm or two with every morsel of Paco’s smoked pecan pie ala mode.  Pecan pie is one of those richer than it needs to be foods which is often dismissed from the pantheon of great desserts.  At Paco’s, the smoking influence lends a campfire quality to what might otherwise have been a rather ordinary pecan pie, transforming it into an extraordinary dessert.  The ice cream provides a nice foil and textural contrast.   


Paco began serving lunch in September, 2013. The pairing of a warm autumn day with the capacious patio at Paco’s is idyllic for a great lunch. The lunch menu includes a number of sandwiches and salads interpreted in Paco’s unique style, but the accommodating restaurant will serve dinner entrees whenever possible. Lunch is served Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 until 2.

Service at Paco’s is exceptional, especially if you’re attended to by JB, a 25-year veteran of the food service industry.  JB is attentive, friendly and knowledgeable, a paragon of professionalism.

Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine was featured on the third episode of Break the Chain.  If this review doesn’t convince you that you need to visit Paco’s soon, Ryan Scott will.

Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine
3851 Rio Grande Blvd. NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 September 2013
1st VISIT: 31 May 2013
COST: $$$
BEST BET:Brisket Mussels; Brick Chicken, Lemon Coriander Dressing; Cast Iron Chuck Filet; Mussels; Cheddar Grits; Campechana; S’more, Cinnamon Caramel & Powdered Sugar; Peanut Butter Cheesecake Mousse, Roasted Bananas

View Paco’s on »

Paco's International Smoked Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Terra Bistro Italiano – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Terra American Bistro on Alameda

To some extent, people watch Anthony Bourdain for the same reasons they tune in to infamous shock-jock Howard Stern–to see what he’ll say next. Though Bourdain, the best-selling author, world traveler, renown chef and “poet of the common man” is hardly the potty-mouthed bane of the Federal Communications Commission that Stern is, his incisive comments are oft peppered with pejoratives and references to genitalia. They’re also laden with insightful, well-reasoned, highly intelligent and well articulated thoughts uncommon in the world of food television currently dominated by pretty faces with Ultra Brite smiles.

In the 2010 season premier of his No Reservations show, the first words Bourdain uttered were “the optimist lives on a peninsula of infinite possibilities; the pessimist is stranded on the island of perpetual indecision.” It’s not every culinary celebrity who can quote William Arthur Ward, or even know who he is, but Bourdain is not only a fellow sybarite, he is well-read and highly intelligent. His introduction gave me pause to reflect on Ward’s words, one of my very favorite inspirational maxims. Just hours earlier, I was transformed from an eternal optimist to someone mired in indecision.

The interior of Terra American Bistro

The interior of Terra American Bistro

What caused this transformation was nothing less than the perusal of the magnificent menu at Terra Bistro Italiano in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Frankly, every visit to Terra is a peninsula of infinite possibilities followed by perpetual indecision. The menu seems to have that effect on many people. Not only is it a very well written, very enticing menu, it is replete with boundless possibilities. It is a well-balanced menu that reflects seasonal changes. It is a menu that diners can easily understand, not written as a compilation of ingredients that don’t really tell you what you’re going to be eating or how it will be prepared.

Though you won’t need an interpreter to understand the menu, you’ll need time to peruse it thoroughly. The highly professional wait staff at Terra is accustomed to hearing, “just a few minutes more” from patrons, like me, who can’t easily decide what to have. The options are seemingly endless, the possibilities exciting. Now, the menu at Terra isn’t encyclopedic in size–about seven starters, five sandwiches and eleven entrees for lunch and ten of each starters and entrees for dinner, but it is an exciting compilation of contemporary Italian-American cuisine.

Housemade pumpernickel and lavender focaccia just out of the oven

Terra is the brainchild of Chef-Owner Peter Lukes, an Albuquerque native who left home to stamp his imprint on the San Francisco culinary scene before returning home and launching Terra in 1998. His restaurant is situated in the Far North Valley, an attractive stand-alone milieu on heavily trafficked Alameda Boulevard. There are no other restaurants of the fine-dining genre anywhere near Terra and few fine-dining restaurants in the Duke City which can match the near-flawless execution of such an ambitious menu.

Terra is an Italian word for “Earth.” The appellation was chosen because like the earth, Peter Lukes intends Terra to “be a place diners consider their own.” While it has become a popular neighborhood dining establishment, it also draws in diners from throughout the Duke City. It’s a bright, attractive and welcoming milieu, an upscale-casual restaurant with white linen tablecloths and etiquette-appropriate place-settings, but it’s a restaurant in which nattily attired can mean shorts in summertime.

Porcini Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil and Chives

The restaurant’s cynosure is a sparkling exhibition kitchen with bar stool seating arranged in a half circle where patrons can watch Chef Lukes in action. Sterling steel and burnished copper kitchen accouterments glint with newness though they’ve likely been through the mill a time or two. A pot rack suspended from the ceiling holds the pots and pans in which meals are expertly prepared.

Savvy diners will arrive promptly at 11:30 for lunch, knowing that warm, fresh, house-made bread right out of the oven will arrive at their tables shortly after they do. Terra serves some of the best bread in town and it’s all baked on the premises. The staff of life is of artisan quality and it’s replenished faithfully by the on-the-spot wait staff. The lavender focaccia is an early favorite, its fragrant, pine-like bouquet belying a rich, delicate flavor. Lavender isn’t just for bubble baths and sachets any more. It can be used to punctuate and enhance the flavors of everything from ice cream to lemonade. On Terra’s focaccia, it is marvelous!

Seasoned Crab and Corn Cakes with Seasonal Vegetables, Roasted New Potatoes and Tangy Remoulade Sauce

At the other spectrum is Terra’s house-made pumpernickel, a dark-colored bread with a pronounced rye taste and virtually no crust. It’s neither light nor delicate, having a more intense flavor profile than the lavender focaccia, but it is no less delicious. This yin and yang bread offering of breads varying in flavor, texture and appearance is indicative of Chef Luke’s genius.

Starters–a meal’s equivalent of an opening act, a preliminary bout before the main event, a diminutive preview of what’s to come–at the best fine-dining restaurants have become reason enough to visit those dining establishments who care enough to give them the attention to detail that whets the appetite and leaves diners eager for more. The starters at Terra have that effect, as well as the aforementioned effect of rendering diners indecisive. Perhaps the restaurant’s worst kept secret is that all the starters are excellent. If you can’t decide, close your eyes and take a stab at the starters’ menu. You can’t go wrong.

Risotto Arancini

Arancini Di Riso

The applewood smoked bacon wrapped and grilled asparagus with bleu cheese and aged Balsamic vinegar is one of our favorites. This starter plays complementary and contrasting ingredients against each other in delicious, flavor-melding ways. The applewood smoked bacon has a semi sweet-savory flavor and if you close your eyes, you might swear it was fried over an open campfire with light smoke. It’s lightly fried so it can be wrapped around several perfectly grilled asparagus spears. The asparagus spears have an earthy, slightly charred flavor. Primarily a spring-time treat, nothing brings out the freshness and sweetness more than grilling.

Perhaps nothing complements grilled asparagus more than bleu cheese, the pungent, tangy cheese which definitely makes its presence felt…or tasted. Terra uses a blue vein-rich cheese that’s neither too strong nor too subtle. Juicy, herbaceous tomatoes provide a bit of acidity while an aged Balsamic vinaigrette lends a distinctive sweet-tanginess to this sensational starter. If you like the adventure of flavor discernment, you’ll appreciate this appetizer.

Grilled 8 ounce Angus Pub Steak with Griddled Red Onions, French Fries, And House-made Ketchup

In his 1949 classic The Soup Book, Louis P. De Gouy wrote, “One whiff of a savory aromatic soup and appetites come to attention. The steaming fragrance of a tempting soup is a prelude to the goodness to come. An inspired soup puts family and guests in a receptive mood for enjoying the rest of the menu.” What an appropriate description for the effect Terra’s porcini mushroom soup will have on you. Fresh porcini, a heady and meaty fungi, is imbued with a wonderfully earthy aroma. Chef Lukes adds fuel to the fire by adding aromatic truffle oil and chives to the porcini mushroom soup. The resultant bouquet is a siren’s call for hungry diners needing the warmth and envelopment only a great soup can provide. This soup delivers! It’s as flavorful as it is aromatic.

Some of my faithful readers are probably tired of reading about my quest to add to the handful of outstanding risotto dishes I’ve had in my life. It’s entirely possible only one of George Costanza’s girlfriends and i have such a wanton lust for risotto. Unlike George’s girlfriend, however, I’ve yet to experience “le petit mort” (a French euphemism for….er, uh, really enjoying something) from risotto. Terra offers a rather unique take on risotto, serving it inside an arancini or fried rice balls. The arancini di riso, which translate literally to “oranges of rice”, are (duh) shaped like an orange and stuffed with an herbaceous risotto punctuated with a basil pesto and tiny hazelnut bits served with a tomato sauce and basil oil. You’ll want to enjoy two or three of these delightful starters before your meal.

​Anatra: slow-braised duck with red wine risotto,crimini mushrooms, romano cheese

​Anatra: slow-braised duck with red wine risotto,crimini mushrooms, romano cheese

The entrees portion of the menu has a nice balance of meats, seafood and pasta dishes, all of which beckon diners to try them. Lunchtime portions and pricing are a bit smaller, but no less exciting. Take for example, the grilled angus pub steak with griddled red onions, demiglace, steak fries and house ketchup. At well under twenty-dollars, this is one of the most flavorful, well-prepared steaks in Albuquerque. It’s eight to ten ounces of perfectly prepared (at medium) beef with no sinew or excess fat. Ask for it to be seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic.

The demiglace is a rich, concentrated beef stock ameliorated (I believe) by a fine cooking wine and reduced to a slightly thick, but certainly not syrupy sauce. It’s an excellent compliment to the beef, not a sweet sauce that changes its flavor. The griddled red onions are a surprisingly good addition, too. The steak fries are large and thick, but cooked all the way through. The house ketchup is fantastic with the flavor of rich, red tomatoes seasoned very well with, among other spices, mace and nutmeg.

​Fennel Risotto: seared sea scallops, white wine, spinach, romano cheese

​Fennel Risotto: seared sea scallops, white wine, spinach, romano cheese

From among the pasta dishes, one of the real winners is a penne pasta with Molinari hot sausage, hot house tomatoes, spinach and a white-wine-pesto sauce sprinkled with a dusting of Parmesan. This dish is perhaps the best penne dish we’ve had in the Duke City. It’s a magnificent melding of flavors and textures. The Molinari hot sausage has a nice fennel flavor and just enough piquancy to get your attention. The white wine-pesto sauce is rich and buttery, cut by the acidity of the tomatoes and spinach. No Italian restaurant in Albuquerque serves such a good penne pasta dish.

One of Terra’s most popular menu items, alas available only for lunch, is the seasoned crab and corn cakes served with seasonal vegetables, roasted new potatoes and a tangy remoulade sauce. The most telling feature of the crab cakes is that they taste like fresh crab, not some unnecessary filler. The sweet, succulent flavor of the crab is punctuated by the even sweeter flavor of roasted corn niblets. Texturally, the crab stands out too. There’s no surfeit of binder to render these cakes gummy as some I’ve had in Albuquerque. Instead these crab cakes fall apart, not disintegrate, into forkfuls of flavor. My esteemed colleague Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, knows more about crab cakes than anyone else in the Duke City area. I’m betting he’ll love these.

Pineapple upsidedown cake with housemade vanilla bean ice cream

Seasonal vegetables decorate this plate in both appearance and freshness. Peruvian purple potatoes, roasted fingerling potatoes, beets, tomatoes, French green beans, snap peas, asparagus and carrots are all prepared to perfection with a farmer’s market freshness to them. The tangy remoulade sauce, while intended for the crab cakes, complements each vegetable very well. The remoulade (tarragon, dill, French mustard, anchovies) is rich and complex, the type of sauce which improves anything it touches.

Tired of reading about my quest for risotto? You might want to skip the next two paragraphs because the summer, 2013 menu at Terra includes not just one, but two risotto dishes. Both are terrific. Neither elicited le petit mort, but both warrant return visits. The first risotto is called Anatra which translates from Italian to “duck.” Duck is indeed the star of this risotto. It’s braised slowly and served with a red wine risotto (rendering the dish almost purple), crimini mushrooms, Swiss chard and Romano cheese. Most risotto dishes of my past have been rather mellow with subtle flavors coalescing around perfectly prepared round, short grain, high starch rice. The Anatra is bold and exciting in much the manner that French wine dishes are bold and exciting.

Even better, if possible, is the Fennel Risotto, a more traditional risotto dish showcasing the same perfectly prepared rice, this time braised in white wine, spinach, Romano cheese and seared sea scallops. The four scallops are lightly seared and mildly sweet with just a hint of brininess. With a soft, slightly chewy texture, each morsel is thoroughly enjoyable. There is no clumping on the risotto, every grain of perfectly prepared rice punctuated with the flavors of white wine and Romano.

Terra Bistro Italiano has a handful of dessert offerings, the most popular being the Appaloosa, named in honor of the many neighborhood horse lovers who frequent the restaurant and because of its black and white coloring. The Appaloosa cake is served warm and has the texture and feel of a molten flourless cake, but the wait staff will swear it’s not flourless. Nonetheless, a chocolate flourless-style cake is topped with a layer of white hazelnut cream cheese then topped with bittersweet Belgian chocolate and caramel sauces. It’s an outstanding dessert, a fitting way to end a fine meal at one of Albuquerque’s very best fine dining establishments.

To say Chef Lukes is multi-talented is an understatement. He’s not only a chef, he’s a baker and a pastry chef, too. That’s a troika of talent few chefs possess. Among the many surprises on the menu are what he does with ice creams and sorbets, all completely housemade. His sorbets are crafted from seasonal ingredients at their peak of flavor and juiciness. The strawberry sorbet is one of the two or three best sorbets I’ve ever had. It’s the perfect antidote for lethargy, a refreshing kick of strawberry-infused flavor that will get you going. As with all desserts, the sorbet goes well with the Whiting Coffee served at Terra since its inception. Whiting Coffee is roasted in Albuquerque from premium coffee beans. It is one of my favorite brews.

As important as kitchen skills are, some chefs seem to disregard the most important people-pleasing aspects of running a restaurant. It’s apparent Chef Lukes has ensured his dining public is well-served in every way with some of the best, most savvy wait staff in Albuquerque. If you’re a semi-regular, they’ll not only remember your name, but more than likely what you ordered during your previous visit.

If you’re waiting for a special occasion to visit Terra, consider waking up a special occasion and head to Terra for lunch or dinner. It’s an Albuquerque gem.

Terra Bistro Italiano
1119 Alameda Blvd., N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2013
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Housemade Bread; Bacon-Wrapped and Grilled Asparagus with bleu cheese and aged Balsamic vinaigrette; Penne pasta with Molinari Italian sausage, hot house tomato, spinach and white wine-pesto sauce; Grilled angus pub steak with griddled red onions, demiglace, steak fries and house ketchup; Warm chocolate appaloosa cake with bittersweet chocolate and caramel sauces

View Terra Bistro Italiano on »

Terra American Bistro on Urbanspoon