Mariscos Mazatlan – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Mariscos Mazatlan in Rio Rancho

A rotund, ripening, red tomato is featured prominently on license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  This is indicative of the state’s prominence in growing the “love apples” from which its rich salsas are made. In 2013, Sinaloa exported nearly one-billion tons of vegetables–primarily tomatoes–across the fruited plain, netting (mostly industrial) farmers nearly one-billion dollars. More than half the tomatoes consumed across the United States during the winter season are, in fact, grown in Sinaloa. While Sinaloan tomatoes are indeed sweet, juicy, meaty and delicious, an argument could easily be made that a more worthy subject for the state’s license plates would be mariscos, the bounty of the sea extricated from the azure waters of the Bay of Cortez.

With nearly four hundred miles of spectacular, varied and fecund coastland, Sinaloa is brimming with some of the finest, most delectable seafood available anywhere on Planet Earth. Waters teeming with an assortment of delicacies from the sea are especially bountiful during winter months when pescados y mariscos (fish and shellfish) are at their at their peak of freshness. The variety of seafood options can boggle the mind, especially in the restaurants of Mazatlán, the most popular beach town destination in Sinaloa. In Mazatlán, the daily seafood harvest literally goes from the docks to restaurants renowned for delivering consistently superior seafood meals.

The capacious dining room

Rerun-watchers and the geriatrically-advanced among us may remember that Mazatlán was one of the ports-of-call for the “Love Boat,” a campy 1970s television series set on a cruise ship. Cerevisaphiles know Mazatlán as the home of the Pacifico brewery while American tourists who apparently miss home know it as home to the first Senor Frog’s restaurant. Mazatlán has also long been a very popular location for collegiate types gone wild during spring break. For shrimp lovers simpatico with Bubba Gump, however, it matters only that Mexico’s largest shrimp fleet is based in Mazatlán. Not only are shrimp aficionados in our element when we visit Mazatlán, so are paramours of the pescetarian lifestyle who love mahi mahi, red snapper, tuna and sea bass, all abundant in the “Pearl of the Pacific.”

Since it’s not always easy to drop everything you’re doing to fly down to Mazatlán for Pacific Blue Shrimp caught off the Sea of Cortez, you’ll be happy to read that approximately half the 850 tons of shrimp harvested every year makes it to the United States, much of it to restaurants.  From purely an anecdotal perspective, Mexican restaurants showcasing mariscos is one of the fastest growing segments in the Mexican restaurant market, especially in the states bordering the Land of Montezuma.  Even Mexican restaurants which once offered more traditional and familiar fare are increasingly adding mariscos entrees to their menus.

Chips and Salsa

Note:  As of 2014, there were some 54,000 Mexican restaurants across the fruited plain, making Mexican food the third most popular menu type in the United States, representing eight-percent of the total restaurant landscape.  By any statistical measure, the consumption of Mexican food is increasing faster than any other segment of the restaurant industry (including burger restaurants which today number at about 50,000). Today, Mexican foods such as chips and salsa, tacos, enchiladas and burritos are today as mainstream American as hot dogs and cheeseburgers.

Despite the great quantity of mariscos restaurants across the fruited plain, for citizens of the City of Vision, mariscos may as well have been as far away as Mazatlán. For years “Visionaries” have had to drive deep into Albuquerque or about an hour away north to Santa Fe to get our mariscos fix.  It was with the excitement of a prospector finding a gold nugget that my friend Michael Gonzales, the gregarious proprietor of Cafe Bella, told me about Mariscos Mazatlan.  Michael is not only a successful entrepreneur, he’s an ambassador for his hometown and he’s a classically trained chef whose word you can take to the bank.  When he raved about Mariscos Mazatlan’s succulent seafood, we knew it had to be good.

Tostada Mixta

Mariscos Mazatlan is ensconced in a thriving shopping center on heavily trafficked Southern Boulevard just east of its intersection with Unser. Its exterior subscribes to a familiar template in which the signage is lettered in a tranquil blue color. Step inside and even deeper blues envelop you. The walls are festooned with colorful art depicting life on the azure waters. Mariscos Mazatlan is much deeper than it is wide with comfortable booths hugging the east wall and tables and chairs at the ready in the center seating space. Partitioned behind a half wall is an area in which the wait staff preps beverages and passes orders to the kitchen staff.

The menu at Mariscos Mazatlan isn’t replete with the “usual suspects” found at other mariscos restaurants in New Mexico and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any items that aren’t seafood based. As in mariscos restaurants throughout Mazatlán, you’ll find several dishes prepared “aguachile” style, meaning the seafood is marinated in green chili and lime. You’ll also find a variety of ceviche dishes, served both in a goblet and on tostadas.  Dishes served in the volcanic rocks used traditionally as a mortar for grinding spices are also available  as they are at the Mexican city for which the restaurant is named.  Frankly if you didn’t know you were in Rio Rancho, a meal of fresh, succulent mariscos may just convince you you’re in Mazatlán.

Tostada de Ceviche

9 April 2016: Remember the tomatoes which grace license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  Well, they make one heckuva basis for salsa.  Seriously, this is some of the very best salsa in the metropolitan area.  It’s not overly piquant, but those tomatoes have such a rich, sweet flavor  you’d swear they were imported from the Italian farm which sources Joe’s Pasta House.  With a smooth, not overly watery texture, the salsa is replete with chopped onions and cilantro.  The chips are low in salt and formidable enough to stand up to Gil-sized scoops of salsa (dipping is for sissies).

9 April 2016: Where every other mariscos restaurant (and even a few New Mexican restaurants) in the metropolitan area offers tostadas de ceviche topped with pescado (fish), camaron (shrimp) or a mix of the two, Mariscos Mazatlán offers six different options.  Ceviche choices include tostadas topped with jaiva (crab), pulpo (squid and octopus), mixta-camaron, pulpo, caracol y jaiva (shrimp, squid and octopus, snail and crab), pescado y callo de hacha (fish and scallops) and callo de hacha (scallops).  They’re not all prepared the same way with the same citrusy marinades.  The pescado y callo de hacha option, for example, is marinaded in an aguachile blend of citrus juices and chili, imbuing this option with a very pleasant piquancy that pairs oh so nicely with the tongue-tingling tang of lime.  You’ll also find red onions and finely chopped cucumbers on this dish, but no tomatoes.

Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo

9 April 2016: The more traditional tostada de ceviche con pescado sports the red (tomatoes), green (cilantro) and white (fish) colors of the Mexican flag.  The same sweet tomatoes which enliven the salsa make this ceviche a stand-out, perhaps the very best we’ve had in New Mexico.  The fish is as fresh as if just extricated from a net.  The citrus juice catalyst in which the fish is “cooked” is not quite of the lip-pursing variety, but it comes close.  It’s a challenge for the thick corn tortilla to hold the mound of ceviche with which it is topped.

9 April 2016: Situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Mazatlán enjoys temperate semi-tropical weather year-round and temperatures which average between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With an average of 300 sunny days per year (about 20 more than Albuquerque averages), it’s always beach weather.  It should come as no surprise, therefor, that coconut grows in abundance in the Mazatlán area.  Coconut is also very prominent on the Mariscos Mazatlán menu.  The “Mariscos en Coco” menu lists several dishes new to me, a feat that doesn’t happen often.  The Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo (coconut, shrimp, oysters, squid and octopus) is a revelation, one of the most unique plates to grace my table in quite a while.  Picture if you will a hollowed-out young coconut brimming with citrus-infused seafood, cucumber, red onions and tomatoes.  The coconut meat extricated from the coconut shell is on the platter as are a number of fresh, crisp, cold shrimp.  Served with this delicious boatload of seafood is a goblet with the clear, slightly sweet and refreshing juice of a young coconut (ostensibly the one hollowed out to make my meal).  This dish is delicious, filling and so unique it’s unlikely any of your friends have had anything like it.

Molcajete con Camarones, Pulpo, Callo de Hacha and Caracol in Aguachile

9 April 2016: My Kim who eschewed seafood for the duration of our eight years in Mississippi, has embraced embraced mariscos.  Over the years she’s become increasingly intrepid, enjoying even the more yucky and slimy seafood she once poo-pooed.  Twenty years ago she wouldn’t have ordered Mariscos Mazatlán’s  Molcajete dish teeming with once icky stuff.  Often used as a sizzling vessel to hold in heat, the molcajete is a versatile implement (as previously noted, it’s traditionally used as a mortar to grind spices) and forms an attractive serving dish for cold dishes, too.  Who wouldn’t love a molcajete overstuffed with camarones (shrimp), pulpo (squid and octopus), callo de hacha (scallops) and caracol (snail) in aguachile.  This is a magnificent entree, so richly colorful and sumptuous that it’ll be tempting not to order it again and again.

16 April 2016Toritos, a yellow chili stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese then wrapped in bacon, may just be fated to become one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers just as they are at beachside restaurants in Mazatlan.  With bacon and shrimp, they’ve already got two of the most popular ingredients on any dish anywhere.  Translated from Spanish to “little bull,” these little sticks of dynamite pack a lot of flavor, but not necessarily a lot of piquancy (though the cream cheese and bacon would probably quell any heat anyway).  At six per order, these will go quickly.

Pescado Culichi

16 April 2016: Residents of the city of Culiacan often call themselves “Culichi” but when you see a dish on a Mexican restaurant menu called “Culichi style,” you’re not necessarily getting something canonically traditional.  Culichi style basically means just about anything a chef believes to be typically “Culichi.”  One commonality most Culichi style dishes do have is a mild green sauce often with a jalapeño influence.  At Mariscos Mazatlan the Pescado Culichi very rich and has very little bite, but it goes so well on a tilapia filet.  Crispy on the outside and flaky and tender on the inside, the tilapia would be delicious on its own, but is elevated to greatness with the sauce.  The pescado is served with a handful of silver dollar sized potato slices and a delightful rice dish.

16 April 2016:  When my Kim ordered langosta (lobster tail) mojo de ajo (garlic butter), a twenty-two dollar dish, she knew what she’d be getting what she paid for–somewhat rubbery and chewy lobster tails lacking the characteristic seafood sweetness she loves.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one she’d happily repeat.  My wife is a lobster fiend.  Three small lobster tails complete with tomalley (the soft, green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters, that fulfills the functions of both the liver and the pancreas) were polished off quickly as were the handful of silver dollar-sized sliced potatoes and rice. 

Langosta

31 July 2016: Growing up in Peñasco, about one-hundred miles away from Albuquerque, the term “seafood” meant Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and Mrs. Paul’s breaded shrimp.  Lobster, clams and crab were ethereal concepts, delicacies we read about in books.  Fortunately rivers teeming with German Brown and Cutthroat Trout  flowed (sometimes trickled) in our backyard so we could have seafood’s fresh-water cousins whenever we caught them.  Though experience should have taught me better, seeing parillada de mariscos (literally grilled seafood) on the menu at Mariscos Mazatlan must have rekindled nostalgia.  How else would you explain ordering breaded, grilled seafood when the menu offers so many other (and better) options?  Not surprisingly, Mariscos Mazatlan’s version of fried shrimp and fried fish fillets are infinitely superior to Mrs. Paul’s overly breaded version, but the restaurant’s other preparation styles are the way to go.

31 July 2016:  And while we’re at it, when you visit a mariscos restaurant, what the savvy diner should order is mariscos.  Not burgers.  Not pizza.  Not something to sate your carnivorous cravings.  Just as ordering parillada de mariscos was a mistake, ordering a landlubber’s version of parillada is not something of which we’re especially proud.  At many other restaurants, a veritable netful of meat in a tray–grilled chicken, grilled pork chops and grilled beef–would probably have been satisfying, but at a superb mariscos restaurant, the meat served mostly to remind us how much more we would have enjoyed seafood.  As with the parillada de mariscos, the Parillada Mexicana is served with refried beans and silver dollar sized fried potatoes.

Parillada de Mariscos

When my latest IT project prevented me from joining my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, and the Dazzling Deanell  for our weekly lunch, I suggested they visit Mariscos Mazatlán.  Larry enjoyed it so much that he returned the following day.  That’s the type of restaurant loyalty this superb seafood restaurant will engender.  If it’s not the best mariscos restaurant in the metropolitan area, it’s on a very short list as one of the best.

Mariscos Mazatlan
2003 Southern Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2016
1st VISIT: 9 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Molcajete; Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo; Tostada de Ceviche; Tostada Mixta; Salsa and Chips, Horchata, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Agua Fresca de Melon

Mariscos Mazatlan Seafood and Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Desert Grows – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Desert Grows on 4th Street

And he gave it for his opinion,
that whoever could make two ears of corn,
or two blades of grass,
to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before,
would deserve better of mankind,
and do more essential service to his country,
than the whole race of politicians put together.”
–  Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

 Had Jonathan Swift not uttered those words of sagacious cynicism, there’s a good chance Armand Saiia would have.  It’s a sentiment that resonates with Armand, the effusive chef-owner of Desert Grows.  Sensing our confusion as we approached the towering trees providing sweet, salubrious shade to a charming courtyard at his first Albuquerque location, Armand welcomed us to one of the Duke City’s most unique and most welcoming milieus, assuring us that we were indeed at the right place.  Only partially joking, he explained that the goal of his restaurant is to “provide food on Route 66 for the 99-percent”  and that he would like to “turn the Route 66 upside-down as a sign that the 99-percent of us are in distress.”

Route 66, or at least the original route that meandered south from Santa Fe through Fourth Street is where Desert Grows is located.  Unlike at its inaugural location a few blocks south of its present venue, there’s plenty of signage to let you know you’ve reached your destination.   Banners will apprise you of the “Fresh Fabulous Food” and “The Best Burritos” within the premises.   Then there’s the mobile food kitchen in a utility trailer so proximate to the restaurant that you’ll wonder if the two are connected.  A walkway to the entrance bisects a comfortable patio, albeit one not shaded by towering cottonwoods as the first Albuquerque instantiation of Desert Grows had been.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Armand is a true Renaissance man with a passion for sustainable, healthy food, but unlike so many of the celebrated chef luminaries plying their trade in New Mexico, his path to a culinary career in the Land of Enchantment doesn’t include the usual matriculation at an accredited culinary school.  Instead of artistry on a plate, Armand’s chosen career path was as a painter and sculptor who attained success in New York City (and if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere), but being an artist only begins to define his assiduous life.  He’s also been a filmmaker, yogi, healer, wilderness camp instructor, organic farmer, restaurateur and chef.

It was his experiences in the restaurant field that would define his current life’s path.  Those experiences didn’t cultivate a myopic, profit-driven mindset; they awakened a passion to combat the “industrial food plague” which he contends contributed to the deaths from cancer of two wives.  He also believes that poor consumer health and suspect food quality is the ultimate cost of corporate agriculture and its mass production of inexpensive, chemically modified food.  The alternative, he says is sustainable, local agriculture which may cost more, but is so much better and more importantly, better for you.

Brisket Tacos

About a decade ago, Armand’s passions led him to Ribera, New Mexico where he bought a nine-acre farm he christened Infinity Farms.  After tending to vegetable gardens and greenhouses for three years, the gentleman farmer expanded his operation, establishing Desert Grows, a nonprofit agency he chartered to encourage and support other small farmers in the valley.  For eight years, Armand even served as mayordomo for the acequias which are the life’s blood for all farms in the area. 

In 2014, Armand launched a restaurant he named The Desert Rose at the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe, offering simple fare–sandwiches, salads, pastas and baked goods–to enthusiastic diners.  Despite critical and popular acclaim, he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the mall owners and relocated to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque where he launched Desert Grows.  The menu boasts of “serving 90% New Mexico locally and naturally grown or eco-sourced food,” The restaurant is provisioned with fresh local produce from his new acreage in the South Valley as well as his farm in Ribera and from La Montañita Co-op.

Brisket Ribs with French fries and Coleslaw

Whether you’re passionate about sustainability and maintaining a small footprint or you’re just passionate about great food, Desert Grows has something for you.  It’s got breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday and dinner by reservation only.   The lunch menu features salads, sandwiches and chef’s specialties such as an Italian meat loaf plate, carne adovada tacos and more.  Whatever you order is best washed down with organic apple cider (cherry, ginger, mint or lemonade apple).  It’s, by far, the best we’ve had in New Mexico. 

26 September 2015: While the menu is replete with temptation, daily specials are equally alluring.  Armand is proud and passionate about everything on the menu, perhaps proudest of all of the heirloom tomato salad, a lush, lavish in-season cornucopia of freshness plated with artistic flair.  This bounty of the garden showcases beauteous red and yellow heirloom tomatoes whose juicy deliciousness belies their plum size, julienne carrots, red onions, red peppers and mozzarella slice drizzled with a beet vinaigrette.  It’s beautiful to ogle and delightfully delectable to eat.

Bread Pudding Cake

26 September 2015: If you see potato wedges scrawled on a slate board on one of the mobile kitchens window, you’re well advised to order them.  While technically not wedge-shaped (they’re more silver-dollar shaped), these terrific tubers, each about an eighth of an inch thick, are superb–maybe even better when dipped into the housemade (with fresh tomatoes) ketchup.  If you like the papitas served with so many New Mexican dishes, you’ll love these, though they may make you pine for red or green chile. 

26 September 2015: Even though you won’t see a smoker on the premises, there are many ways to impart a barbecue-like smokiness to meats.  The brisket tacos are certainly imbued with the type of smokiness you’ll find in sanctioned barbecue competition.  It’s a light smoke intended to impart flavor and personality, not overwhelm the meats.  Tender tendrils of brisket blanketed by molten cheeses nestled in moist, pliable tortillas define these tasty tacos.  Carne adovada tacos are also on the menu, but this isn’t your abuelita’s carne adovada.  Armand uses five different chiles, not all New Mexican, on the adovada, imparting a piquancy that’ll please fire-eaters.

Mama’s Italian Meatloaf Plate

26 September 2015: Barbecue aficionados will appreciate the boneless brisket ribs (any comparisons with Applebee’s riblets should subject you to flogging), a plateful of moist, meaty ribs glistening with a chocolate-mole barbecue sauce.  The unique sauce alone makes these ribs a great choice, but it’s the magnificent meat carnivores will appreciate most.  Though not quite fall-off-the-bone tender, each mouth-watering rib has a fresh-off-the-grill flavor.  The ribs are served with French fries (which are best eaten with the chocolate-mole barbecue sauce) and a tangy coleslaw. 

26 September 2015: Desert Grows is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  Armand’s partner Betina Armijo bakes some of the best bizcochitos in town.  Four per plate of these anise-kissed cookies will leave you pining for more when they’re done.  Neither cake nor pie, bread pudding can be a carb-overload, ultra-decadent dessert too rich for some.  For others, bread pudding is a little slice of heaven.  Desert Grows’ bread pudding cake is so sinfully rich, moist and delicious it may leave you swooning.

Pancakes with Star Anise Syrup and Bacon

30 April 2016:  One of the saddest terms in the English language is “what if” as in “what if I hadn’t worn my plaid jacket and striped pants to that job interview.”  Alas, that sad term was oft spoken as we attempted to enjoy Mama’s Italian Meat Loaf Plate, described on the menu as “not your ordinary boring meatloaf.  Our Sicilian Mama developed a sumptuous blend of local pork, lamb and beef that you will remember.”  We won’t remember it too fondly.  If only it hadn’t been so dry (edges were more than caramelized, they were nearly burnt).  Shaped more like a rectangular burger patty, Mama’s Meat Loaf had a nice flavor, but lacked moistness.  If only the accompanying skin-on mashed potatoes had a little gravy, they, too, wouldn’t have been so desiccated.  The saving grace for this dish was a salad drizzled with the house beet vinaigrette.

30 April 2016: Nowadays it’s a treat when a restaurant offers real maple syrup with pancakes.  Desert Grows one-ups those restaurants with a star anise syrup in which you’ll find star anise as big as Chinese throwing stars.  It was no surprise that the star anise influence on the syrup reminded us so much of Vietnamese pho ( on which star anise is a distinct ingredient).  To cut the sweetness of the syrup, the pancakes are also served with a tangy blueberry compote.  Few things in life are as satisfying as three fluffy pancakes topped with blueberry compote and star anise syrup, a plate made even better by three pieces of thick, smoky bacon.

Granola Cereal

30 April 2016Granola Cereal (house-baked granola served over organic yogurt with seasonal New Mexico fruit and nuts) is a real treat at Desert Grows.  The organic yogurt is neither as savory as Greek yogurt nor as sweet as some commercial yogurt brands tend to be.  Yogurt may have lactobacillus and an assortment of other bacterial fermentation, but what we appreciate most from this sweet-sour-savory bowl of deliciousness is its diverse flavor and textural profile.

If you find yourself in the North Valley and you see a sign telling you you’re on Route 99, make your way to Desert Grows where all your cares melt away as you luxuriate in fresh food you can trust.

Desert Grows
7319 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2016
1st VISIT: 26 September 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Heirloom Tomato Salad, Potato Wedges, Brisket Tacos, Brisket Ribs, Bizcochitos, Bread Pudding Cake, Pancakes with Star Anise Syrup, Granola Syrup

Desert Grows Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Vernon’s Open Door – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Vernon’s Open Door in Albuquerque’s Northwest Quadrant

However well-intended, the corporate world’s “open door policy” doesn’t always have the desired effect of establishing trust between employees and their managers.  This became evident during my first corporate gig after leaving the Air Force.  My boss, whom Jerry Seinfeld would describe as a “loud talker” spoke at a decibel level rivaling the University of New Mexico’s fabled Pit during a Lobo fast break.  Compounded with the fact that our offices were housed in a pod of flimsy mobile offices affectionately called Jurassic Park and it was a recipe for disaster. 

Though held behind closed doors, one-on-one meetings were hardly private.  Paper-thin walls and rickety doors meant everyone within a two block radius could hear my boss.  Consequently employees remained apprised of matters–such as employee discipline, pay raises or promotions, for example–not intended for public consumption.  At its very worse, we learned of a fellow employee’s dilemma as to which she should treat first, her chlamydia or her dandruff.  For fear of bursting out in raucous laughter, we couldn’t look her in the face for a long time.

The Sprawling Interior of Vernon’s Open Door

Memories of those failed “open door policy” meetings flooded back to me at Vernon’s Open Door restaurant when  my Kim and I conversed in normal volumes without worrying about being overheard.  Somehow sound doesn’t amplify as much in the cavernous dining room with its high ceilings and concrete floors as it did in ramshackle Jurassic Park.  Vernon’s Open Door would be an excellent place in which to conduct open door policy meetings though it’s conceivable my old boss’s booming voice would still carry through the commodious restaurant. Moreover it’s an excellent place for a great meal in Albuquerque’s West side.

Vernon’s Open Door is an extension of the “Vernon’s” brand synonymous with Vernon’s Speakeasy (formerly known as Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse) a high-end chop house serving the Duke City since January, 2007.  The Open Door concept is the brainchild of restaurant impresario Michael Baird whose credits also include Prime and Wise Pies Pizza.  Vernon’s Open Door will actually replace Prime at its Rio Rancho and Los Ranchos locations.  It has also taken occupancy of the yawning 25,000 square-foot space which previously housed the Stumbling Steer and before that Quarter’s BBQ.   The entrepreneurial Baird plans to expand beyond the inaugural three locations and may eventually have as many as ten Open Door restaurants across the metropolitan area.

Asparagus Con Carne

While the warehouse look-and-feel and sheer expanse of the capacious edifice made previous tenant spaces seem cold and industrial, Vernon’s Open Door occupies only a portion of the building.  Other tenants, including another instantiation of Wise Pies Pizza will occupy other sections of the structure.  The Open Door’s dining room, while still sizable, doesn’t feel like a Sam’s Club version of a restaurant.  With several wall-mounted flat-screen-televisions placed strategically and tuned to sporting events, the restaurant has the look and feel of a combination sports bar-casual dining restaurant.  It is not–by design or price-point–a high-end restaurant as is Vernon’s Speakeasy.  In fact, you won’t find anything on the menu priced above the twenty-dollar mark. 

The menu at Vernon’s Open Door features “modern American cuisine,” a rather ambiguous term most often associated with a fusion of culinary techniques and ingredients emphasizing high quality, freshness, locally produced, in-season, often organic and healthful foods.  It’s an ambitious and interesting menu sure to appeal to most diners.  The same menu is available for both lunch and dinner, but not during Sunday brunch (served 10AM – 3PM).  The menu includes vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Green Chile Stew

Six starters festoon the appetizers menu.  There are also six choices in the soup (including a soup du jour) and salad menu.  Sadly the sandwich section of the menu is not a mirror image of the superb sandwich menu offered at Prime, but it does afford diners the opportunity to fall in love with new sandwich options.  Instead of listing a phalanx of burger options, Vernon’s Open Door has a “burger builders” option listing a variety of ingredients with which to construct your own burger.  Entrees include some very interesting takes on conventional dishes (a chile relleno stuffed with calabasitas, for example).  Four dessert options are available. 

Among the more intriguing appetizer options is the asparagus con carne (asparagus wrapped with tender New York strip steak, char-grilled and topped with Balsamic reduction and sriracha aioli) on a bed of carrot chips.  To shave the New York strip steak into such thin slices requires that the steak first be frozen.  Making the shaved steak malleable enough to wrap around the asparagus then requires a thawing process.  It’s an exacting process that the chefs at Vernon’s Open House has mastered.  Asparagus never tasted so good.  At first, the carrot chips seemed like an “aside,” but we found ourselves wanting even more of these delectable delights.  They’d give the best potato chips a run for their money.

Grilled Flank Steak

On an unseasonably cold winter day, the only soup du jour which makes sense for many New Mexicans is green chile stew, the elixir which elates and sates us most.  We like it hot, both from a temperature standpoint and from the heat generated by the piquant pepper for which this sacrosanct stew is named.  This stew passes muster on only one of those two aspects.  It is served piping hot, the way all food should be served.  Alas, it lacks the piquancy that warms you to your core.  My Kim, who’s hardly a fire-eater, described it best as “a very good beef stew.”  On the Scoville heat scale, the chile wouldn’t rank much higher than a bell pepper. 

Ordinarily steak entrees elicit much more excitement from my more carnivorous better-half than from me, but the Open Door’s grilled flank steak appealed to my love of diverse flavor combinations.  It’s described on the menu as “expertly grilled flank steak served with a red pepper and blistered grape tomato couscous, topped with blue cheese and haricot vert braised in bacon lardons and onions, paired with your choice of garlic demi, au poivre, mushroom bordelaise or gorgonzola cream.”  The dish had me at “couscous,” a coarsely ground semolina dish that’s a dietary staple of several North African countries, but it sealed the deal with the mushroom bordelaise, a hearty sauce made with wine and earthy fungi.  When it comes to dining, I’m not a monogamous guy, typically ordering something different every visit to a restaurant.  This dish may become a regular.

Roasted Prime Rib Sandwich

When it first launched, Prime showcased high-end delicatessen and specialty food shop offerings such as sumptuous sandwiches made with premium ingredients.  The name of each sandwich (The Hit Man, for example) appeared to have been spit out of a Mafia nickname generator.  The sandwiches at Vernon’s Open Door are more the type you’d find in restaurants that don’t necessarily specialize in sandwiches.  They’re more of the “vanilla” variety compared to the high-end deli sandwiches at Prime.  That doesn’t mean they’re not quite good.  The roasted prime rib sandwich (shaved prime rib, sauteed mushrooms, melted Swiss, green chile and au jus on a ciabatta bun), for example, is thoroughly enjoyable and generously appointed.  The sweet potato fries might be the best in town, too. 

It’s understandable that Vernon’s Open Door wants to carve out its own identity separate from its elder sibling.  That includes featuring a repertoire of dishes unique to each restaurant.  Understanding that philosophy doesn’t imply I’m happy about it.  With its Chocolate Silk, Vernon’s Speakeasy serves one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.  We had so hoped it would be available at the Open Door, but were left disappointed.  The cinnamon roll bread pudding (cinnamon roll white chocolate bread pudding with vanilla creme anglaise on top of white chocolate and caramel sauce topped with ice cream) isn’t consolation prize worthy.  It’s just too sweet and rich for our blood.

Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding

Vernon’s Open Door is primed to be very competitive in the casual dining arena.  It’s got the pedigree to succeed in a venue that wasn’t inviting and the menu to keep diners happy and coming back.

Vernon’s Open Door (Closed in May 2016)
3700 Ellison Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Asparagus Con Carne, Roasted Prime Rib Sandwich, Grilled Flank Steak, Sweet Potato Fries

Vernon's Open Door Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

Gravy – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gravy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on Central Avenue in the East Downtown (EDO) District

“Gravy is the simplest, tastiest, most memory-laden dish I know how to make:
a little flour, salt and pepper, crispy bits of whatever meat anchored the meal,
a couple of cups of water or milk and slow stirring to break up lumps.”
~Dorothy Allison, American writer

Some would say that the discovery (invention?) of gravy is one of mankind’s crowning achievements.  Others would deride it as the work of the devil, likening gravy to a beguiling temptress which bends the will to its bidding.  Dolly Parton acknowledges that “every single diet I ever fell off of was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.”   It’s no surprise that similar to many of the world’s best tasting foods, gravy is generally fattening.  Most commonly, it’s the byproduct of pan drippings and juices derived from cooking meat.

Some among us who consider gravy one of mankind’s most glorious achievements (even as it flows through our veins) may salivate involuntarily when turning onto Central Avenue and espying a large sign reading simply “Gravy” subtitled with the three events with which gravy goes so well: “breakfast, lunch, dinner.”  One of the most eagerly anticipated restaurant launches in recent memory, Gravy is the brainchild of the partnership which in 2011 opened Holy Cow, one of the city’s  most celebrated purveyors of burgers.

Chocolate-Cherry Shake

Gravy is located at the site of the former site of Milton’s, a long-time East Downtown institution.  Despite nearly two years and more than half a million spent in renovating the edifice,  architectural constraints make it nearly impossible not to hearken back to the days in which the facade housed a Denny’s Restaurant.  That’s not to say the renovation was like “putting lipstick on a pig.”  It’s just that there’s only so much you can do with a building originally constructed in 1964. 

What you can do, however, is place a premium on providing an attractive venue for guests.  It’s a venue which pays homage to previous tenants in a retro-modern diner fashion without a thematic regression to the 60s.  The exterior (which had probably been neglected for years) has a pristine appearance; even the river rock facade now has a polished look.  The interior received similar attention though the sound system’s bassy speakers have a one-note (boom, boom) cacophony that makes discourse at conversational tones a challenge.

Steak Frites

Where Gravy will shine most is with a diner menu that bespeaks of inventive and traditional diner foods, many prepared with a New Mexico twist while others offer a contemporary interpretation of classic dishes.  Diner foods generally translate to comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken fried steak, fried chicken and beef stroganoff, all staples of Gravy. Salads range from the classic chopped salad to the lobster-avocado salad.  You can start your morning off with such eye-opening favorites as biscuits and gravy or opt instead for a breakfast pot pie.  Nine types of pancakes grace the breakfast menu.

13 December 2014: In the tradition of diners everywhere, milkshakes are prepared to order for kids of all ages.  These aren’t the milkshake machine variety shakes proffered at chain restaurants.  The chocolate-cherry shake, for example, is made with real ice cream, chunks of adult (dark) chocolate and a multitude of maraschino cherries, not some artificial cherry-flavored sweetener.  It’s served cold the way shakes used to be and should always be made.

Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle with Cucumber-Mint Yogurt and Tomato-Olive Salsa

13 December 2014: One of the more contemporary menu items offered at some diners is steak frites. While some might decry steak frites as just a fancy name for steak and French fries, in France there are restaurants whose entire menu is comprised solely of this sacrosanct dish.  Gravy’s rendition is a marinated top sirloin topped with a maitre d’ butter served with hand-cut fries.  At medium-rare, the steak oozes beautiful pink juices.  The maitre d’ butter, a compound butter with parsley, adds a complex layer of flavors and a rich unctuous quality that enlivens the meat.  The fries are just a bit on the flaccid side and are prepared at just past the stage at which they’re golden hued. 

13 December 2014: Another entree unlikely to be found in an old-fashioned diner of yore is a spinach, artichoke and feta triangle served with a cool cucumber-mint yogurt and a tomato-olive salsa.  Not entirely unlike Greek spanokopita, this filo dough pastry is a winner, so good you can enjoy it on its own or with the delightful cucumber-mint yogurt and (or) tomato-olive salsa.  Luckily there’s enough of the cucumber-mint yogurt that you can use it in lieu of ketchup for the fries.  The tomato-olive salsa has a discernible bite whose genesis we weren’t able to determine. 

Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes

13 December 2014: There’s a reason restaurant critics don’t typically review new restaurants until restaurateurs have had the opportunity to iron things out, a process that sometimes takes several weeks, if not months.   Virtually all restaurants experience “Murphy’s Law-esque” start-up issues that belie the countless hours of planning and preparation for a smooth launch.  We visited Gravy scant days after its opening and suffered through a number of issues that detracted from the enjoyment of our meal, however, the restaurant’s seasoned ownership makes it very likely these issues will be resolved in short order and Gravy will more than live up to the hype it’s received. 

22 August 2015: We waited nine months for a return visit and while the service issues we endured during our inaugural visit were largely resolved, we experienced mixed results with what we ordered, thoroughly enjoying a couple of items and sending two other items back.  There are never any guarantees that every item at every restaurant will appease every diner, but the items we sent back were praised highly on other online forums and frankly, aren’t that difficult to prepare well.

Breakfast Sandwich

22 August 2015: The Air Force sent Kim and I to Mississippi in 1987, the year in which Fannie Flagg’s memorable Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published.  Fried green tomatoes are a Southern staple, as part of the culture as good manners.  Before we even read the book or watched the movie, we were  besotted by tangy fried slices of succulent fresh-from-the-garden green tomatoes.  Though restaurants throughout the fruited plain jumped on the fried green tomato bandwagon, only in the deep south have we enjoyed them.  Gravy’s rendition takes a contemporary approach to the sacrosanct fried green tomato, topping each slice with pimento cheese, chopped pork belly and tomato jam, negating the need for sauce of any type.  Though not quite “Southern,” these are very enjoyable.  The tomatoes are indeed green with nary a touch of mushy yellow or worse, red.  They’re fried lightly and pair well with the unique and clever toppings, especially the sweet tomato jam which nicely contrasts with the savory tartness of the green tomatoes.

22 August 2015: In 2014, I spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina, a city widely regarded as one of America’s culinary treasures.  At the James Beard award-winning Hominy Grill, I had the tremendous pleasure of partaking of the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, a beauteous behemoth in which sausage gravy is slathered on a mile-high biscuit bisected by a Southern-fried (in a skillet) chicken breast topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.  It’s one of the very best sandwiches these lips have ever enjoyed.  Gravy’s breakfast sandwich takes the term “nasty” as in awesomely big to another level.  It should come standard with an angioplasty.  Messily nestled within a UFO-sized biscuit are a fried chicken thigh topped with bacon, a fried egg and as much gravy as the Rio Grande has water.  On paper it sounds deliciously decadent, an indulgence not for the faint of heart.  Alas, the gravy lacked personality (a cardinal sin in a restaurant named Gravy) and would have benefited greatly from sausage.  The chicken was tough, rather heavily breaded and lacked seasoning.  We tried our darnedest to enjoy this beast of a biscuit sandwich, but couldn’t get past its shortfalls.

Pineapple Upside Down Pancake

22 August 2015:  The Gravy menu features a number of unique pancake offerings heretofore unseen in these parts.  The triumvirate, called “The Pancake Flight” includes a red velvet pancake, a cinnamon roll pancake and a pineapple upside down pancake.  Each is about the size of a manhole cover and unless you’re a lineman for the UNM Lobos is easily large enough to share.  The pineapple upside down pancake is terrific with tangy pineapple chunks providing a tangy contrast to the pancakes (which would have benefited from real maple syrup).

Gravy is a bit of an anomaly to us. The dishes it does well, it does very well, but shortcomings in other dishes are rather glaring. It’ll take time and a few more visits to find the sweet spot, a complete meal in which our enjoyment crosses several dishes.

Gravy
725 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2015
1st VISIT: 13 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Steak Frittes; Chocolate-Cherry Shake; Caramelized Banana Shake; Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle; Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes;

Gravy on Urbanspoon

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