Cafe Bien – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Bien in Albuquerque’s Downtown Area

My friend Hannah, a brilliant linguist who’s become rather expert in the etymology and evolution of languages, speech patterns and morphology would find it dismaying should she hear someone attribute the term “Romance language” to the seductive sweet nothings spoken by such onscreen Lotharios as Ricardo Montalban.  With the mere utterance of “Corinthian leather,” Montalban could make women (and some men) swoon, but while his smooth intonations and thick, sophisticated accent may sound “romantic,” “Romance languages have nothing to do with love and romance. 

Romance languages (the R is always capitalized) are languages that developed out of the Latin used in the Roman Empire between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D..  By the beginning of the 21st century nearly one billion people claimed a Romance language as their mother tongue, 300 million people as a second language. The five most widely spoken Romance languages are Spanish (410 million), Portuguese (216 million), French (75 million), Italian (60 million), and Romanian (25 million).     Romance languages still share several commonalities and a surprisingly high proportion of basic vocabulary.

The dining room at Cafe Bien

Though more a polyglot (if knowing cuss words in multiple languages qualifies me as such) than a linguist, my first inclination at hearing about Cafe Bien was to wonder if “Bien” was indicative of the restaurant’s cuisine.    Depending on how it’s used (in combination with other words), “bien” can translate to “very well” or “very good” in both Spanish (muy bien) and French (tres bien).  Though just slightly different in Italian (abbastanza bene ) and Portuguese (muito bem), there’s no mistaking that these four terms have their genesis in a Romance language.  There are dozens of “common” phrases in use today. 

Subscripted directly below the name “Cafe Bien” is the term “a fine creation,” confirmation of what the term “bien” means without attributing it to the cuisine of any country.  Fine cuisine is fine cuisine, apparently…and that’s not necessarily synonymous with fine dining.  Peruse the menu and you’ll find delightfully eclectic offerings that are just a little different from those served at most “American” eateries throughout the city.  It’s got burgers, sandwiches, entrees and other “fine” dishes that have been bringing in breakfast and lunch crowds since Cafe Bien first launched in the autumn of 2013.

Brioche Toast and Croissant

Cafe Bien’s first home was on the bottom floor of the Simms Building on Gold Avenue, a block south of Central Avenue.  Not quite two years later, the restaurant relocated to Route 66, within easy walking distance of its first home.  Comfortably ensconced in the former home of Nick’s Crossroads Café, Cafe Bien is sure to benefit from increased traffic and the visibility of being on the corner of a very busy intersection (Fourth and Central).  East-facing windows let the sun shine in while the walls on the western wall are festooned with several televisions tuned to the Food Network (as if imbibing the intoxicating aromas emanating from the kitchen isn’t incentive enough). 

Ever since The Spot shuttered its doors in Corrales, we’ve been craving biscuits and gravy.  Cafe Bien’s rendition (chive biscuits with white gravy, green chile sausage, eggs sunny-side-up, house fries) sounds as inviting as a warm smile.  Alas, by the unholy hour of eleven o’clock on the Saturday morning of our inaugural visit, the restaurant had run out.  Not bien!  Housemade brioche toast and a croissant are poor substitutes when you’ve got a craving for biscuits.  It’ll take some doing for any restaurant’s biscuits to be nearly as good as The Spot’s, but on paper alone, Cafe Bien’s just might do the trick.

Bacon & Eggs

As she consoled us for having run out of biscuits, our server promised a breakfast entree sure to cheer our disconsolate hearts.  Telling us the “bacon and eggs” was one of Cafe Bien’s most popular dishes seemed as empty as a campaign promise during the primaries.   As she described it, the entree sounded more and more like “deconstructed Eggs Benedict” until she got to the “bacon” part of the entree: two half-inch thick slabs of caramelized pork belly.  That’s right.  Pork candy!   Though she had us at caramelized pork belly, the deal was sealed with the mention of green chile potato pancake. Everything else–toasted brioche, poached eggs and Hollandaise–was more of the “been there, done that” variety.  The caramelized pork belly lives up to expectations as a fatty, meaty, sweet, smoky, seductive bacon on steroids.  Similarly the green chile potato pancakes are par excellence with a pleasant piquancy enlivening what is often a boring, bland item. 

As if to prove cobbler isn’t just for barbecue restaurants, Cafe Bien offers a number of cobbler dishes, none of which will have you craving ribs lacquered with a sweet-sticky sauce.  The mixed berry (raspberry, blueberry, blackberry) cobbler a la mode is a winner courtesy of tart-sweet berries and a glorious sweet crust.  By serving the ice cream in a separate dish, you’re allowed to introduce the element of cold to the hot berries as you see fit.  Vanilla ice cream is a perfect foil for tart berries, its sweet creaminess providing a nice contrast to the lip-pursing berries.  Whipped cream is provided on the side, but it’s wholly unnecessary.

Mixed Berry Cobbler A La Mode

Cafe Bien is one of the reasons “todo esta bien” (all is well) in the downtown area.  Now if they could only manage not to sell out of biscuits before we get there…

Cafe Bien
400 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bacon & Eggs, Mixed Berry Cobbler A La Mode
Cafe Bien Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loving Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Loving Vegan Closed Its Doors on Friday, November 13th, Two Days After My Inaugural and Only Visit

My adovada adoring amigo Ruben likened the irony to an episode of Seinfeld.  Two weeks into his experiment with an ostensibly healthier vegan diet, he was craving sushi and needed his sushi-specific pangs of hunger sated.  No sooner had we finished a very satisfying sushi soiree at Albuquerque’s only vegan sushi restaurant than our waitress apprised us the restaurant would be closing for good two days later.  “Serenity now,” we cried, mimicking Frank Costanza when faced with a stressful situation.  It just didn’t seem fair that we would make such a delicious discovery only to have plans for future meals dashed. 

Loving Vegan gave it the “old college try,” initially launching in June, 2012 on Coors Blvd before relocating in November, 2013 to a much more heavily trafficked Nob Hill location.  In its relatively short life, Loving Vegan garnered a loyal following and a very prestigious honor.  Within a year of opening, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) named Loving Vegan the “top restaurant for vegan sushi” in the United States and Canada.  The citation from PETA read: “Loving Vegan earned our top prize because it truly proves that any food can be made deliciously and healthfully without animal products. Cheers and congratulations to Loving Vegan — this number-one award is well deserved!”

Interior of Loving Vegan

Despite being a relative newcomer competing against vegan restaurants in such population centers as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Ontario (Canada) and Baltimore, to veteran observers of the Duke City dining scene, it  came as no surprise that Loving Vegan would be accorded such an honor. After all, it was founded by Kathy Punya, one of Albuquerque’s most active restaurant impresarios.  Among Kathy’s other eateries are a number of Sushi King restaurants throughout the Duke City as well as one in Rio Rancho.  Kathy Punya knows sushi! 

Kathy also knows restaurants.  After all vestiges of Loving Vegan have been cleared out, one of her other restaurants, Soul and Vine, a downtown fine-dining gem will be moving in.  Parking in Nob Hill is probably only slightly better than in the downtown district, but Nob Hill may be more heavily trafficked in the evening hours than is the downtown area, especially by the dining demographic.

In 2013 PETA named Loving Vegan the best Vegan Sushi Restaurant in America

Ruben and I were pleasantly surprised at the diversity and depth of the Loving Vegan menu.  Not only did the menu list a tremendous variety of sushi (nigiri, sashimi, rolls, hand rolls and chef’s specials) options, a separate  menu showcased Bento boxes, rice dishes, pan-fried noodles, noodle soups, Chinese stir-fried dishes and chef specials.  The chef specials included Pad Thai and three curry dishes including a vegan duck curry dish that beckoned me to try it.  Loving Vegan’s menu was as ambitious and inviting as any menu in any of Albuquerque’s many Asian restaurants. 

As we discovered, diners didn’t need to be of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion to enjoy a meal at Loving Vegan.  If we hadn’t known better, in fact, we would have sworn there was little discernible difference between some of the vegan sushi we enjoyed and sushi at traditional “fishy” sushi restaurants throughout the Duke City and that’s not just the horseradish-heavy wasabi talking.  Before finding out about the restaurant’s impending closure, it pleased Ruben to no end that despite his new healthful dietetic lifestyle, he’d be able to continue enjoying sushi.

Miso soup

By no stretch of the imagination is miso soup veganThe basis for this traditional Japanese favorite is dashi, a fish-based (fermented bonito or skipjack tuna fish shavings) broth and a salty fermented soybean paste.  A vegan-friendly version can be made fairly easily by substituting vegetable stock for the dashi.  Loving Vegan’s rendition has the pungent, salty qualities of traditional miso soup and had it been served hot instead of lukewarm, it would have been even more enjoyable. 

We initially wondered if the sheer number of ingredients on each sushi roll was a deliberate attempt at “masking” the flavor of the vegan ingredients, but it dawned on us that most American sushi rolls also tend to constructed from a preponderance of ingredients.  The vegan spicy tuna crunch roll was an exception in that the sole listed ingredients were vegan spicy tuna and cucumber inside with tempura flakes and sweet sauce on top.  Frankly, we didn’t spend much time trying to discern the nuanced differences between vegan tuna and its “regular” sushi counterpart.  That’s more indicative of our genuine appreciation for its deliciousness than any perceived lack of scientific curiosity.  This was a very good roll.

Left: Loving Vegan Roll; Right: Vegan Spicy Tuna Crunch Roll

We also disposed of the Loving Vegan Roll (green chili tempura, avocado, cucumber, vegan lobster inside; deep fried with spicy mayo, sriracha, and sweet sauce on top) rather quickly.  It wasn’t until we had wiped it out that we asked ourselves about the flavor of the vegan lobster.  Neither of us discerned, either texturally or flavor-wise, any lobster-like flavor.  We did, however, note that the “green chili” wasn’t especially reminiscent of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile.  Any heat we gleaned from this roll had its genesis in the wasabi and sriracha.  Still in all, we enjoyed the Loving Vegan Roll very much. 

Framed and captioned photographs on the walls proved very enticing–true food porn, none more alluring than the grilled portobello (SIC) roll (a unagi roll with cucumber, salmon and sweet sauce on top).  “Mock” unagi was nearly as good as its eel-based counterpart thanks largely to a generous application of the sweet “eel sauce.”   If the rapidity with which we dispensed of this roll is any indication, we enjoyed it thoroughly…and as with our previous vegan sushi conquests, we didn’t spend much time trying to determine its composition though I now surmise roasted eggplant may have been the basis for mock unagi.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll

Albuquerque apparently didn’t love Loving Vegan enough to keep it operating, but Ruben and I certainly wish it would have survived the test of time.  With sushi this good, a vegan lifestyle might be even be more than palatable. It just might be delicious.

Loving Vegan
3409 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Soup, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll, Loving Sushi Roll, Vegan Spicy Tuna Roll

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World on Southern Blvd in Rio Rancho

Nay-sayers, those nattering nabobs of negativism, have always had it in for hot dogs. First they plied us with horror stories and urban myths about what hot dogs are made of. Essentially, they decried, hot dogs are made of everything from pigs snouts and chicken feet to snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails. Then they ratcheted up our shock and awe by telling us how hot dogs are loaded with artery-clogging, cancer-causing saturated fats, not to mention those nasty nitrates and nefarious nitrites. They’ve even disparaged hot dogs as processed pink slime in a bun.Despite all the brouhaha and rigmarole, hot dogs continue to thrive across the fruited plain as aficionados of the tantalizing tubular treats snub their noses at those who would abolish an American institution. What’s next—motherhood, apple pie, the Dallas Cowboys? Recent statistics reveal that the U.S. population consumes 20 billion hot dogs per year. That’s some 70 hot dogs per person per year (or about as many as Joey Chestnut ate in one sitting during Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest). In 2012, CNN compiled a list of America’s top fifty foods and the hot dog ranked fourth. That’s a lot of love for a beloved American icon some would deprive us of.

Nathan’s Hot Dog with Jalapeño Mustard, Onions and Relish

Unlike the humble hot dog which has been disparaged and bad-mouthed to no end, ice cream has been practically beatified. It is both loved and revered, a symbol of all that is good, wholesome and pure. Research findings from Cornell University revealed that both men and women consider ice cream one of their three favorite comfort foods (not that men will admit to it). CNN confirms this: “Think of any modern romantic comedy to come out of Hollywood; what do citizens of the United States reach for when their boyfriend leaves them for their therapist? A gun? A simple solution? Try a tub of ice cream.”In the entirety of mankind’s history, there is only one ice cream that’s beyond contempt, a turn-off even to the most ardent aficionados. For some inexplicable reason, an ice cream brand in India bears the stern, mustachioed countenance and name of the Führer of Germany.  Sure, branding an ice cream Adolf Hitler is an exercise in the freedom of speech, but moreover, it’s a demonstration of extremely poor taste and insensitivity (and I need a shower just for mentioning it here).

Tamale

Somehow nature decreed that ice cream and hot dogs become inextricably associated with one another, a sort of “saint and sinner” pairing of foods that just seem to go so well together. That’s especially true in sweltering spring and summer days when the outdoors beckon. Fortunately New Mexico averages nearly 400 days of sunshine a year so ice cream and hot dogs are a good idea any time of the year and in any season. The preternaturally delicious pairing of this dynamic duo wasn’t lost on Abrahan Montaño, an entrepreneur who in March, 2015 launched the Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World in Rio Rancho.Though he may be a first-time restaurant owner, Abrahan is passionate about ice cream, blending unique ingredients into rich, creamy ice cream flavors you don’t often see.  The paleterias (Mexican Popsicle and ice cream shops) he frequented during his youth were one of the inspirations for his restaurant.  The other inspiration was his grandfather Fred Reade, a familiar name in the restaurant community.  Reade owned and operated Antonio’s Mexican Restaurant on Fourth Street for more than two decades before closing shop in 1996.  Reade has become a fixture at the ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World.

Frito Pie

Although not on the menu, a visit to this Southern Boulevard gem is guaranteed fun as might be expected from a shop offering ice cream and hot dogs.  One corner of the shop is dedicated to kids and includes a number of toys which might make the geriatrically advanced among us wish we were kids, too.  The menu also bespeaks of fun.  A number of aguas frescas are at the ready to quench your thirst while Italian ice and fresh fruit paletas (Popsicles) will quell the heat.  Ice cream flavors include two sure-to-become New Mexican favorites: red chile-chocolate and green chile pistachio.Nathan’s hot dogs are featured fare and you’ll find all your favorite toppings, too, but if you really want to live a little, try “Grama Faviola’s Fabulous Homemade Jalapeno Mustard.” It’s got almost as much personality as Grama Faviola herself. Faviola and her brother Eddie are friends of the owners and serve as the shop’s unofficial ambassadors.  Much as we love them, we can’t live on hot dogs alone.  Fortunately the shop also offers tamales and Frito pies as well as corn-on-the-cob or in a cup.

Sonoran Hot Dog

The tamales are made for the shop in Santa Fe.  Even when not blanketed by chile, they pack a pleasant piquancy and are packed with shredded, tender tendrils of pork marinated in a very flavorful chile.  These are the type of tamales you would want two (or six) per serving.  The Frito pie is also quite good, a mound of Fritos corn chips topped with ground beef, red chile, lettuce, onions, and onions.  The vegetables offer a cool contrast to the hot chile and ground beef.  The chile won’t water your eyes with heat, but it’ll make you happy.Among the specialty hot dogs are one you couldn’t find in Albuquerque five years ago.  The Sonoran Hot Dog has made its way into New Mexico and it’s been embraced by the masses.  The Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World offers an interesting and delicious version: a thick Nathan’s hot dog, meat candy (er…bacon), chopped tomatoes and an incendiary jalapeño mayo you can respect.  Had this hot dog been served in the traditional Sonoran bolillo style Mexican bread (resembling) a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise), it would have been even better.

Left: Red Chile Chocolate Ice Cream; Right: Chocolate and Vanilla

Our verdict on the red chile chocolate ice cream–if you’re not revving up your engine to head to Rio Rancho for a scoop or two, you probably didn’t read this far.  Surprisingly, this may be the most piquant dish we enjoyed during our visit.  The combination of chile and chocolate has been wowing diners since before Montezuma’s reign.  This one will definitely wow you.  So will the regular (if such a pedestrian word is appropriate) chocolate ice cream.  Then there’s the pumpkin ice cream, a true taste of autumn that’s wonderful all year long.  The Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World pairs two of America’s very favorite foods in a fun, friendly shop that promises to be a haven for the hungry and solace for all who need soothing comfort.

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World
2003 Southern Blvd., Suite 118
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dog, Tamale, Nathan’s Hot Dog, Red Chile Chocolate Ice Cream, Frito Pie

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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