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
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Soup, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll, Loving Sushi Roll, Vegan Spicy Tuna Roll

Witch’s Brew – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Witch’s Brew Coffee House

“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
~Macbeth Act 4 Scene 1

Each of the lunch ladies at the Peñasco Elementary School cafeteria undoubtedly earned a pair of wings, a harp, and a halo for all they were subjected to from the recalcitrant kids who lined up for our daily gruel. Whenever (and it was quite often) something unappetizing was served, we would burst into a chorus of “double, double, toil and trouble. Dump this slop on the double.” Most of us were six or seven years old and had certainly never heard of the three witches immortalized in the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth. We’d improvised the little ditty from something we’d heard on an episode of Bewitched (or was it Gilligan’s Island?), a situation comedy of the 1960s.

It wasn’t those sainted lunch ladies who first came to mind when I espied the sign for “Witches Brew,” a coffee house in the Altura Park neighborhood. Now much more geriatrically advanced (and ostensibly more “grown up”) I tried to recall the remarkably precise and detailed incantation (was it “eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog?”…) uttered by Macbeth’s three witches as they concocted the most famous witches brew of all. Alas, my mind was too cluttered with the “dump this slop on the double” chant of my childhood.

From the dining room

Fittingly Witch’s Brew occupies the space previously held by another mythical character, the long defunct Blue Dragon, a coffee house and eatery whose eight year absence has made Duke City hearts grow fonder. As with its predecessor on Girard, Witch’s Brew is quirky and comfortable, a homey milieu in which you can procure enchanting eats and bewitching coffee. The dining room is an upgrade, offering cozy booths that seem tailor-made for long visits as you luxuriate over a pizza or sandwich. The cynosure of another expansive room is a pool table. Walls are festooned with the works of local virtuosos plying their craft in various artsy mediums.

Esthetics and ambiance aside, what sets Witch’s Brew apart is its vibe, the sense of déjà vu and belonging you feel when you first step into the joint. Even if you never set foot in the Blue Dragon, there’s something more than vaguely familiar about Witch’s Brew. For the more seasoned among us, perhaps it’s the sense of nostalgia gleaned from having studied assiduously in similar venues even as live music or a poetry slam unfolded (sometimes rather loudly) in the background.

Apricot Teacake

If you need help getting started in the morning, the Witch’s Brew can hook you up with hot Red Rock Roasters coffee or an 18-hour cold-brewed coffee as well as an assortment of eye-opening breakfast sandwiches and pastries. Return for lunch and you’ll revel in a selection of pizzas baked in the same Baker’s Pride oven once used by the Blue Dragon. The menu, scrawled on a slate board, also offers soups, burritos, salads, nachos and much more. You’ll be hard-pressed to tear your eyes away from the pie case which may be replete with pies, cakes, cheesecakes, Danishes, fruit and several types of cookies.

Feast your eyes on the apricot teacakes then let your taste buds confirm what your eyes tell you. These are perhaps even better than they look—thick, dense, apricot-infused teacakes with a generously slathered on apricot glaze. These aren’t artificially ripened, overly sweetened canned apricots, my friends. They’re imbued with Mother Nature’s freshness and the musky tartness of apricots that not long ago hung from a branch on a tall apricot tree.

Granola with Fruit

It wasn’t that long ago, granola was ascribed with such characteristics as rustic, tree-hugger bran, organic, natural and boring. Today, artisans and innovators are doing interesting things with granola, elevating it from the aforementioned to something inspired and maybe even chic. Witch’s Brew’s take on granola is neither. It might be easier to find Forrest Fenn’s treasure than to find something other than oats on the plate and we love our fruits and nuts, too. The yogurt itself is unsweetened which is a major plus as are the fruits (kiwi, watermelon, grapes, apple slices) served on a separate bowl.

What Bohemians and long-ago frequenters of the Blue Dragon want to know is if the venerable oven can still weave its magic on a pizza. If you believe pizza ovens have a memory and that, like a good pan, they can be “seasoned,” the answer is “the magic is still there.” There are a number of pizza options on the menu, including a taco pizza (black bean-red chile sauce, roasted chicken and al-fresco toppings) and a white pizza sans tomato sauce, but with plenty of garlic. You’re sure to find one you’ll love.

Pizza Margherita

Traditionalists and historians will enjoy the Pizza Margherita, the acknowledged progenitor of every pizza. Tradition dictates that the Margherita is adorned simply in the colors of the Italian flag: white from mozzarella, red from tomato sauce and green from basil. Add the color of char around the braided cornicione (the edge or lip of a pizza) and a bit of golden sheen from semolina flour and you’ve got a beauteous pie, one that’s chewy on the inside and crisp on the outside. The pie itself is rather thin, but it doesn’t wilt when picked up. Though the tomato sauce is generously applied, it doesn’t overwhelm the cheese. Thankfully salt isn’t a prominent part of this pie’s flavor profile.

Some would argue that the premise of a combination pizza is to get as many ingredients on one pie as you possibly can. Others look for combination pizzas to have a more thematic (Hawaiian, meat lovers, veggie, for example) appeal. Still others look for combinations that work well together. That’s what the combination pizza at Witch’s brew does. Constructed with pepperoni, black olives, onions and mozzarella, it’s not a profligate pile-up of ingredients, but the toppings do go very well together.

Combination Pizza

The Witch’s Brew is an enchanting coffeehouse in the heart of the Land of Enchantment. One can only wonder what type of ditty the Gil of my childhood would have composed about its culinary alchemy.

Witch’s Brew
1517 Girard Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 July 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combination Pizza, Pizza Margherita, Granola with Fruit

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Shade Tree Customs & Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill

For at least the past seven years, the most famous “biker cafe” in the Land of Enchantment has been the fictional Maggie’s Diner in Madrid on the Turquoise Trail.  Constructed in 2007 for the made-in-New-Mexico comedy Wild Hogs, Maggie’s Diner was frequented by bikers of all ilks, whether they be white collar executives in the throes of mid-life crises or the stereotypically rowdy, raucous bikers who terrorize the Madrid’s citizenry and  demand food and adult beverages gratis.

After January 14th, 2015 when the Food Network aired a Restaurant: Impossible episode entitled “Revved Up,” New Mexico’s most famous biker cafe probably became the Shade Tree Customs & Cafe in Albuquerque.  Chef-host Robert Irvine and crew spent a couple of days in October “transforming” the restaurant.  The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence. 

The redesigned Shade Tree Cafe

To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows. If anything, what the show revealed is that when two worlds—a motorcycle shop and a restaurant—collide, issues are bound to arise. Irvine quickly determined the ownership quintumvirate didn’t have clearly defined roles and that operational transparency (food and beverage costs, labor costs, revenue) was lacking. Irvine also discerned the ownership passion for the motorcycle shop, indicating that similar passion for the restaurant would make the concept “amazing.”

Convening a meeting of the minds with staff and management, he pinpointed operational issues and recommended an increase in the frequency and openness of communication as well as role definition and managerial involvement. He also helped the kitchen staff rework the menu, creating exciting new dishes designed to wow patrons. To increase kitchen cohesiveness, team-building and morale, he asked that they create a team dance. It was one of the more entertaining segments of the show.

Part of your dining experience should include visiting the patio and repair shop

The show’s restaurant designer described the restaurant design as “college dormish” and “super macho.” Her goals for the make-over was to “make it cool, rough-and-tough, but still have a feminine touch.” Mission accomplished! The metamorphosed Shade Tree Café was even better than the vision ownership had in mind, described by Irvine as “the coolest place on Route 66.” The redesign inspired a rekindled passion that, coupled with the implementation of sound management practices, promises to restore the restaurant to profitability and prominence.

The Shade Tree Customs & Cafe first launched in February, 2012 before relocating to a larger Nob Hill venue some twenty months later.  As its name implies, the Shade Tree is a motorcycle-themed restaurant  and custom motorcycle shop within one complex.  The restaurant storefront is visible from Central Avenue just a few doors west of Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila.  The suite also houses a shop area where Shade Tree builds, sells and repairs custom cycles.  Weather permitting, an expansive patio in the alley behind the restaurant extends  capacity beyond indoor capacity of 70.

Spark Plugs

The Cafe portion of the Shade Tree operation offers wide-ranging beer and wine options as well as lunch and dinner menus ostensibly celebrating American biker favorites such as burgers and sandwiches.  The Cafe is also open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11AM until 2PM.  The menu isn’t overly expansive (five appetizers; four soup and salad options; five burgers, including one custom-made; four sandwiches and three popular entrees) or vegetarian friendly, but it does offer good variety and interesting specials. 

A good way to start your dining experience at the Shade Tree is with Spark Plugs, not the humble electrical contrivance that “sparks” to ignite the fuel on combustion engines, but what non-“motorheads” might call a “jalapeño popper.”  If that term practically reeks of greasy, breaded, bite-sized stuffed jalapeños, you’re in for a surprise.  These spark plugs are baked, not fried, and they’re stuffed with cream cheese and Cheddar topped with bacon bits.  The jalapeños aren’t incendiary, a likely consequence of being rather large (generally the smaller the pepper, the more heat it generates).  These spark plugs will rev your motor.

STC (Southern Tasty Chicken) Sandwich

One of the Shade Tree’s most popular entrees is the Southern Tasty Chicken (STC), a fried chicken breast served with green chile chutney, smashed potatoes and the veg o’ day.  A more portable variation of this “sounds like Sunday dinner” entree is the STC Sandwich, a towering behemoth constructed from a fried chicken breast, Habanero-Jack, Cajun mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle.  Do yourself a favor and dispose of the lettuce, tomato and onion even before biting into the sandwich; their biggest contribution to the sandwich is in providing a cooling effect.  The fried chicken breast is meant to be eaten hot with the molten cheeses and Cajun mayo slathered on generously.  As far as chicken sandwiches go, in the Duke City the only better option may be at the Stone Face Tavern

Fortune smiled upon us on the Sunday morning of our inaugural visit when one of the brunch specials was a Southwestern Patty Melt, an Angus patty, poblano, caramelized onions, Habanero cheese and green chile aioli on a brioche bun.  Perhaps because the patty is so prodigious, the ostensibly piquant influence of poblano, Habanero cheese and green chile aioli aren’t especially notable.  A larger tangle of caramelized onions would also be welcomed.  If these sound like shortcomings, kudos are still in order to the Shade Tree for providing a unique take on a sandwich that all-too-often provides a boring sameness from one restaurant to another.

Southwest Patty Melt

From the “Entrees” portion of the menu comes the Green Chile Mac, a plateful of macaroni smothered in Cheddar and Habanero-Jack cheese with a New Mexico green chile topping.  The rich combination of cheeses is sure to please the turophiles (cheese connoisseurs) among us, but the lack of real piquancy may leave volcano-eaters wanting more.  Alas, we didn’t learn until more closely perusing the menu after-the-fact that you can give any entree a kick-start by adding the “XXX hot “Backfire Sauce.”  We’ll request it next time. 

The veg o’ day served with the green chile mac was baby asparagus, as good as we’ve had them anywhere in Albuquerque.  Sauteed (probably in butter) and seasoned with black pepper and garlic, they should be made a permanent addition to the menu or at the very least offered as a substitute for the fries served with sandwiches and burgers.  These baby asparagus are adult-pleasing good.

Green Chile Mac smothered in Cheddar and Habanero Jack Cheese served with Baby Asparagus

If the food is good and the ambiance welcoming, the concept of a biker’s cafe should have a much wider appeal than solely to the biker culture.  At the  Shade Tree Customs & Cafe, the food is good and the ambiance make-over up-classed the restaurant from being inviting primarily to bikers to being a draw for all demographics.

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe
3407 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 December 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Mac, Southwestern Patty Melt, STC Sandwich, Spark Plugs

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