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Alicea’s NY Bagels & Subs – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Never mind the signage.  This is the home of Alicea’s NY Bagels & Subs in Rio Rancho

Imagine a world without sandwiches! That daunting premise would make a pretty fatalistic post-apocalyptic movie in which Dystopian societies exist in a nightmare of deprivation, hopelessness, terror and processed food rations (Soylent Green anyone?).  No sandwiches–it’s just too incomprehensible to imagine, especially considering everywhere you turn there’s another Subway.  Frankly, my own post-apocalyptic nightmare would be a world in which Subway and other restaurants of that ilk are the only option for sandwiches.  Like the indestructible roach, chain restaurants would survive even a nuclear cataclysm.

Alas, my personal post-apocalyptic hell is closer to reality than you might suspect.  CHD Expert, the worldwide leader in collecting, managing and analyzing food service industry data reports that the sacrosanct sandwich, one of America’s iconic foods, is dominated by chains.  It’s not even close.  A bleak analysis indicates chains account for 90.4 percent of the sandwich market landscape while independent sandwich restaurants represent only 9.6 percent.  That type of dominance hasn’t been experienced since Mike Locksley coached the UNM Lobo football team.

The counter at which you order. Notice the large neophrine sandwich hanging overhead

CHD Expert’s analysis reveals that Subway is the “largest chain restaurant in America in terms of number of locations with over 26,000 units.”  Beyond the fruited plain there are over 10,000 Subway restaurants operating in more than 100 countries.  Subway ranks behind only McDonald’s (18,710) and KFC (11,798) among the ten most prolific fast food chains in the world.  Lest you fall for Subway’s Madison Avenue propaganda about its healthful menu, in 2010 the sandwich behemoth earned a rather dubious honor (is it any wonder I fear the white and yellow logo).   

Knowing all of these facts, perhaps the premise with which I began this essay should be rewritten to “imagine a world without independent sandwich restaurants.”  Let’s make it even easier to imagine by limiting that premise to sandwich restaurants specializing in subs.  At the risk of sounding gloomy, that world may soon be here…at least in the Duke City.  Think about it.  How many independent, mom-and-pop sub sandwich restaurants can you name in the Duke City area?  There aren’t many, folks. 

Meatball Parm Sub

When a new, independent, mom-and-pop sub sandwich restaurant opens its doors, it’s an event warranting a celebration.  Heck, when you pass by an independent mom-and-pop sandwich shop, a snappy salute should immediately be followed by a U-turn and visit.  April, 2011 saw the launch of L.A. Subs in a nondescript strip shopping center on Golf Course Road in Rio Rancho.  The initials L.A. didn’t represent the City of Angels, but rather the first names of owner Linda (L) Lorens-Martin and her mother Ann (A).  It wasn’t easily visible from the street and only simple signage told you it existed.

Despite its obfuscated location and virtually no advertising, L.A. Subs acquired a pretty significant and loyal clientele.  It wasn’t even listed on Urbanspoon until months had elapsed after its opening.  Visitors learned about it solely through word of mouth from satisfied customers.  You got the impression that’s the way Linda wanted it.  Her menu, scrawled by marker on a white board, was hardly a compendium of every sub sandwich and side conceivable, listing only a handful of subs, sandwiches and salads.  Specials of the day were listed on a smaller white board behind the counter at which you place your order.  Suspended behind that counter is a gigantic neoprene sub sandwich, a depiction so accurate it may make your mouth water.

Steak and Cheese Sub

Two years later, word on the street was of a merger between L.A. Subs and a newcomer named Alicea’s N.Y. Bagels, a bi-coastal sounding operation if ever there was one.  In addition to the subs with which City of Vision residents had fallen in love, they could now get fresh, New York-style bagels (and isn’t Rio Rancho often referred to as “Little New York?”) and fresh coffee.  Today, external signage still reads “L.A. Subs” but all other references for the 1,200 square-foot sub restaurant indicate it’s “Alicea’s NY Bagels & Subs.”  

Alicea is Frenchy Alicea, a Connecticut native who relocated to Rio Rancho with Hewlett-Packard (HP).  Although HP offered to move Frenchy to its operations in Georgia, he had already established roots in the Rio Rancho community and decided to stay.  Besides, he wanted to transition out of his engineering career into a culinary career and in his spare time had already been working with Linda at L.A. Subs. 

Tuna Sub

If there’s one part of the country that knows subs, it’s the East Coast.  You can find phenomenal subs from Maine to Delaware.  Independent mom-and-pop sub sandwich shops rule the East Coast.  Rio Rancho’s New York transplants echo similar sentiment about bagels, arguing that a good bagel can’t be found west of the Hudson River.  Not even in New York City, however, are bagels delivered to your door.  You read that correctly.  Alicea’s will deliver the bagels which are made the old-fashioned way.  Frenchy calls them “real NY bagels” and the subs “real subs,” emphasis on the real.

Subs are available in two sizes: large and small.  They’re made with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, cheese and Italian dressing.  They’re also accompanied by thick kettle chips and a single pickle spear.  On paper, some of the subs are hold-overs from the L.A. Subs days, but you’ll quickly discover they’re “real” subs, the way they’re made on the East Coast.  They’re bulging behemoths bursting with meats and cheeses.  Oh, and the meats aren’t pre-measured and extricated from hermetically sealed plastic.

Italian (ham, salami, roast beef and cheese)

Italian (ham, salami, roast beef and cheese)

During my inaugural visit since the transition to Alicea’s, the sub calling loudest was a meatball parm sub.  You know it’s an East Coast sandwich if it’s called a “meatball parm” sub.  Everywhere else it’s just a “meatball sub.”  The “parm” is “alla Parmigiana,” because of the cheese.  Alicea’s doubles your fromage fantasy by also adding Provolone.  The cheese is molten, melted deliciousness which blankets the meaty (no adjective better describes them) meatballs.  The meatballs are large orbs and each sub half is loaded with them.  They’re covered in a superbly seasoned sauce, the type of which East Coast Italian restaurants excel. 

In New England the steak and cheese sub is practically a religion.  No doubt Bostonians were up in arms when Subway introduced their version, an ostensibly flavorless (speculation here) calorific overachiever.  Though there are similarities, steak and cheese subs should not be mistaken with Philly Cheesesteak subs.  At Alicea’s, the steak and cheese sub is crafted from good quality steak cut painfully thin, glistening sweet fried onions, soft melting cheese and a soft, chewy sub roll.  It’s an excellent sandwich sure to be loved by expatriate New Englanders.

Bread Pudding, my weakness

As she transitioned L.A. Subs to Alicea’s NY Bagels & Subs, Linda imparted her bread pudding recipe to Frenchy.  Great move!  The bread pudding is thick, buttery and delicious, topped with brown sugar and walnuts which provide a savory contrast to the rich, gooey, buttery sweetness. I don’t know if it would make Larry McGoldrick’s bread pudding hall of fame, but I’m betting he’d like it.  Make sure you ask Frenchy to heat it up for you and to top it with a pad of butter for a sweet-salty contrast you’ll enjoy. 

The bleak post-apocalyptic scenario I posed in which there are no independent mom-and-pop sub sandwich shops will hopefully never come to pass.  This can best be assured by supporting local gems such as Alicea’s NY Bagels & Subs in Rio Rancho.

Alicea’s NY Bagels & Subs
1009 Golf Course Road
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-4455
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2014
1st VISIT:  4 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET:  Bread Pudding, Meatball Parm Sub, Steak and Cheese Sub

L.A. Subs on Urbanspoon

Tao Chinese Bistro – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho

Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho

It’s highly unlikely ancient Chinese philosophers ever intended the concept of Tao to be used as an approach for the serial seduction of women, but that was the premise of the 2000 movie The Tao of Steve.  Filmed in the Santa Fe area, this campy romantic comedy centered around a corpulent, underachieving former philosophy student who christened his approach after the somewhat stolid “cool” epitomized by three Steves: Steve McQueen, Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O and Steve Austin from The Six Million Dollar Man.

The Tao of Steve–which proves a very successful approach for sexual conquests–is comprised of three rules:  ((1) Be desire-less. If your body language indicates a lack of interest, a woman’s attraction to you will increase. (2) Be excellent.  Grasp the opportunity to showcase your talents, thereby proving your sexual “worthiness.” (3)  Be gone.  Leave women wanting more by not overstaying your welcome.

Feng Sui Principles on Display

For years, the concept of Tao has been and is being demonstrated in ever more creative and unique ways.  There was the Tao of Pooh, an introduction to Taoism using the beloved fictional character of Winnie the Pooh.  The Tao of Bow Wow taught pet owners how to better communicate with and relate to their dogs using these same principles.  The Tao of Physics provided an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.  There’s even The Tao of Tweeting intended to help maximize the enrichment and insightfulness of 140 words or less.

Tao (pronounced dao) is loosely defined as “doctrine” or “principle” but the word itself translates to the “way,” “path” or “route.”  Taoism, therefore, is not so much about a destination, but about experiencing life within the journey itself.  It’s a system of faith, attitude and practices designed to help its practitioners be true to and live their nature, to flow with life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things.

Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and Sour Soup

Throughout this path, one will encounter opposing, but equal forces or poles of existence that flow in a natural cycle, always seeking balance.  Known as yin and yang, these forces are opposite but complementary, opposing but not in opposition to one another.  They are instead two aspects of a single reality–light blending into dark, for example.  This is clearly depicted in the yin and yang symbol, one of the best-known symbols in the world.  The yin and yang symbol depicts the light, white yang moving up blending into the dark, black yin moving up–dependent, opposing forces seeking balance.

For New Mexicans familiar with the culture of the Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region, the Taoist desire for flowing through life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things sounds very familiar.   The Diné call it “hózhó,” a word embodying the striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order.  Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.

Peking Dumplings: Hand wrapped Crescent shaped dumplings filled with ground pork and green scallions served with homemade sauce

Very prominent on the north-facing wall at the Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho is a six-foot tall Chinese ideogram depicting the Tao symbol.  There is nothing else near the symbol, making it the most pronounced point of focus when you walk into the restaurant.  Shades of green, gray and gold with soft wood colors give the milieu a relaxing feel.  The ceilings are a grayish-black with subdued lighting which imbues the restaurant with a sense of intimacy.  Additional soft lighting is available behind the blond wood trim along the east and west walls.   A serpentine half wall bisects the front of the restaurant from the spacious dining area which seats 70.

From the outside, the Tao Chinese Bistro isn’t much to look at.  In fact, unless you look closely at the signage, you might mistake the storefront space for a martial arts studio.  It’s sandwiched between the now empty space that once housed the Black Olive Wine Bar & Bistro on the east and Fratellis Pizzeria on the west in the Country Club Shopping Center, one of several nondescript shopping centers off heavily-trafficked Southern Boulevard.  One of the shopping center’s long-time anchor tenants is the fabulous Joe’s Pasta House, but it’s Albertson’s which dominates the complex.

Tao’s Marinated Chicken Wings

The Tao Chinese Bistro’s February, 2010 opening has been a welcome one at the City of Vision which has several Chinese restaurants, but none of which are transcendent.  Though the ambiance bespeaks upscale and classy, the price points are reasonable, particularly for lunch.  The specialty is gourmet quality wok-fried Szechwan cuisine and dishes from China’s remote Southeast provinces.

Chef Johnny Lee, formerly of the Fortune Cookie Chinese restaurant on Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico, is at the helm.  Chef Lee is passionate about fresh ingredients and balanced flavors.  He doesn’t take short-cuts, using no monosodium glutamate on his cooking.  The restaurant serves lunch and dinner six days a week (closed on Mondays) and offers both take-out service and catering for parties and special events.

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

The lunch menu served Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM through 2:30PM provides excellent value with a phalanx of familiar favorites averaging around seven dollars each.  Lunch entrees are served with steamed or brown rice and your choice of egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soup.  You can upgrade to fried rice for a dollar more.

The dinner menu is segmented into several categories: Soups, Rice, Noodles, Entrees, Vegetarian, Egg Foo Young, Tao’s Classic Dishes, Kid’s Menu, Desserts and Drinks.  The menu is a familiar one with few surprises save for on the Classic Dishes portion of the menu where you’ll find Coffee Chicken (chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce), Fisherman’s Feast (large prawns, scallops and lobster meat quickly cooked to perfection) and Walnut Shrimp (Lightly fried shrimp with roasted walnuts in a creamy sauce).  The menu offers more seafood entrees than most Albuquerque area Chinese restaurants.

Coconut Curry with prawns

Coconut Curry with prawns

Even though the restaurant specializes in Szechuan cuisine, there are but a handful of entrees asterisked (*) to denote a greater degree of spiciness.  Szechuan cuisine, which originated in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China, is renown for its bold flavors, emphasizing the qualities of spiciness and pungency.  Szechuan cuisine’s liberal use of chili peppers and garlic make it a favorite of discerning diners who want their meals to grab their attention.

19 March 2010: It was thus surprising that the hot and sour soup is somewhat subdued, lacking the intensely piquant and lip-pursing, vinegary tartness which defines the way some people measure how good this soup is.  It is a flavorful soup served steaming hot and delivered promptly within minutes after you place your order.  It’s just not as intensely, boldly flavored as one might expect from a restaurant specializing in Szechuan cuisine.

Orange Peel Beef

Orange Peel Beef

15 August 2014: Pork dumplings are served at most Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area and are generally among the most consistently good dishes you’ll find at those restaurants.  Tao’s Peking dumplings–six hand-wrapped, crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground pork and green scallions served with a homemade sauce–are among the very best in the area.   The sauce, which has sweet, savory, tart and piquant properties makes them even better.  In fact, the sauce would make a good beverage to accompany your meal.

15 August 2014: Chicken wings are another appetizer staple in Duke City area Chinese restaurants, but unlike dumplings, most aren’t very good.  Tao’s marinated chicken wings, six wings sauteed in black pepper and salt, are terrific.  The black pepper imbues the wings with an assertive flavor profile, but doesn’t overwhelm the moist, tender chicken.  Only larger chicken wings could improve this starter.  Our server informed us that with enough notice we could have an entire chicken prepared in this style.

Chicken with Black Bean Sauce: slices of chicken, stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce

19 March 2010: If the hot and sour soup is insipid, how then does an asterisked entree called Szechuan Beef fare?  Szechuan beef is one of the most popular wok-fried entrees in Chinese restaurants throughout America.  Tao’s rendition is a melange of thinly sliced beef, garlic, ginger, green and red peppers, snow peas, garlic and strategically positioned throughout the plate, several incendiary dried peppers that you dare not bite into unless your mouth is lined with asbestos.  This entree is served steaming hot (a consistent quality among the restaurant’s entrees) so that the flavors wafted upwards to excite your nostrils.  The beef is of high quality, not the cheap, sinewy beef this dish might use if in a Chinese buffet restaurant.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared and very fresh.

19 March 2010: One of the surprising lunch menu entrees is a Thai inspired coconut curry with prawns (or beef or chicken) which emphasizes the pungent piquancy of curry and not the cloying qualities of coconut milk.  This generously plated entree is redolent with the melding of flavors which go together very well, including fresh, crisp vegetables: onions, red peppers, black mushrooms and baby snap peas.  The prawns are large, wholly antithetical to the concept of shrimpy shrimp.  The number of prawns on the plate is surprising, too.

Tao’s Spicy Chicken

19 March 2010: Orange peel beef is an entree seemingly done by most Chinese restaurants, but most don’t do it well.  Tao Chinese Bistro does.  The beef is wok-fried to the point of being caramelized on the outside while retaining a perfect tenderness on the inside with an orange peel sauce that is most definitely citric, but not syrupy or cloying.

12 April 2011: Half of the entrees from the “Tao’s Classic Dishes”section of the menu feature chicken, a meat which tends to shine when stir-fried or wok-fried.  Dark meat, which tends to be more juicy and flavorful, is used on all but one of them.  The chicken with black bean sauce features slices of dark meat chicken, red and green peppers, pea pods, onions, water chestnuts and broccoli stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce.  The black bean sauce has a garlicky profile and isn’t overly thickened with corn starch so the flavor is predominantly of fermented black beans.  The vegetables are perfectly stir-fried so that they’re crispy and fresh.  Tao’s rendition of this dish is a good one.

Double Pan-Fried Noodles

21 March 2012: Even better is Tao’s Spicy Chicken, chicken breast rubbed with cayenne chili cut into bite-sized pieces then wok-tossed with garlic, ginger, green onions and Sichuan dry chili (with a hint of five-spice powder that’s not listed on the menu).  The flavor profile is intense as in this is a very garlicky, nicely piquant dish.  It’s made with white chicken for discerning diners who care about such matters.  In three visits, this is the best entree I’ve sampled. 

15 August 2014: My Kim’s favorite Chinese dish is a nest of double pan-fried noodles which reconstitute in a light brown sauce.  She typically orders it with onions, omitting such vegetables as green peppers and with pork.  The pork has a characteristic reddish ring around the pinkish-white meat.  It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a marinade.  Until you mix in the light brown gravy, the double pan-fried noodles  have a texture similar to Shredded Wheat before milk is poured on.  One reconstituted, the noodles are delightful, both to eat and to enjoy the transformation process.

Coffee Chicken

15 August 2014: Conceptually, the notion of Coffee Chicken sounds like a winner, but it’s in its execution that it seems to fall consistently short.  Tao’s menu describes its coffee chicken as “tender chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce.”  The description borders on fallacious.  First, the chicken is hardly tender.  It’s rather heavily breaded and stir-fried to the point of being caramelized, rendering it crispy.  Secondly, the sweet spicy sauce has virtually no spiciness.  It’s got a surfeit of sweetness, so much so that an entire bowl of fried rice doesn’t temper its cloying qualities.  Desserts envy this dish for its sweetness.

After four visits, it might be audacious to proclaim the Tao Chinese Bistro the best Chinese restaurant on the west side.  Four visits in four years is more than most Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque are accorded so it must be good.

Tao Chinese Bistro
3301 Southern Blvd., Suite 500
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 962-0168
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2014
1st VISIT:  19 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Orange Peel Beef, Coconut Curry with Prawns, Szechwan Beef, Hot and Sour Soup, Tao’s Spicy Chicken, Chicken with Black Bean Sauce

Tao Chinese Bistro on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Pasta House – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Joe's Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Once a year, despite my protestations and whining, I agree to take my Kim to the Olive Garden.  It’s a deal we have, albeit one that makes me feel like  Faust in the Christopher Marlowe play.  Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a  scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  In my case, the deal is  a visit to Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year.  I sure got the rotten end of that deal.

On a list of things I’d rather do, my annual visit to the Olive Garden for a meal of cheese glop or tomato torture ranks somewhere below visiting a proctologist or watching The View.  Kim likes the salad and bread sticks and I suspect derives a bit of sadistic satisfaction in hearing me mutter polysyllabic epithets about the “Evil Garden’s” food.   The cultural anthropologist in me finds it both amusing and tragic that teeming masses congregate for pathetic pasta, mediocre marinara and boring bread sticks.  It makes me long for a visit to Joe’s Pasta house in Rio Rancho.

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico at the best table in the house in front of the fireplace

Joe’s Pasta House is the antithesis of the Olive Garden.  In the words of Bruce Schor, one of my astute readers  (and not solely because our tastes in food are fairly similar), “Joe’s represents real Italian food of the real comfort variety.”  The operative word here is “real.”  Joe’s is most often thought of as old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurant, the type of which have survived the onslaught of their supposedly more sophisticated brethren, the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants;  the type of which remain so popular throughout the East Coast.  Perhaps that’s why Joe’s is so beloved in Rio Rancho, the city so many call “little New York.” 

To label Joe’s as strictly a “red sauce restaurant” is to do a disservice to one of the most comprehensive Italian restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant which transcends labels in that it showcases the cuisines of Italy’s three distinct culinary regions: north, south and central.  Joe’s also prepares the familiar Italian American dishes developed by Italian immigrants, occasionally spicing things up with green chile, a tribute to the adopted home of proprietors Joe and Kassie Guzzardi.

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe's

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe’s

Joe Guzzardi is a peripatetic presence with a buoyant personality and charm to spare. He visits every table to make sure his customers are enjoying their dining experience. “Mi casa es su casa” seems to be his mantra–and he really means it.  I once overheard him tell a guest who didn’t like the entree he ordered, “this is my house.  We’ll make you happy.” before proceeding to recommend entrees with a different flavor profile than the dish the guest didn’t like.   Joe’s energy, enthusiasm and customer orientation are mirrored by an attentive, well-mannered and highly professional wait staff that is easily among the very best in the metropolitan area. 

While Joe manages the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, his pulchritudinous partner Kassie oversees the restaurants social media channels, search engine optimization, blog and Web site presence.   In a day and age in which it’s become fashionable for restaurateurs to tout their social consciousness, Kassie was a pioneer in forging relationships with local suppliers to ensure the highest quality, most socially responsible and healthy foods possible.  She’s understandably very proud that Joe’s won’t feed guests anything the Guzzardi family wouldn’t eat themselves.

If you’re not careful you can fill up on the complementary bread”

That means hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and to the greatest extent possible GMO (genetically modified organism) free pasta imported from Italy.  It means grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, humanely raised veal and sustainably-caught fish.  Pastas and sauces are prepared in stainless steel pots, healthier vessels by far than their aluminum counterparts.  Only non-hydrogenated oil is used and it’s changed out every day, the remnants given to owners of vegetable oil-powered vehicles.   Unfortunately Rio Rancho’s solid waste infrastructure is currently incapable of providing the recycling capabilities to fully comprehend all of Joe’s needs, but the restaurant recycles as much as possible.  

As for Joe’s famous red sauce (so good I’ve joked with Joe that he should serve it in a shot glass), the secret is in the tomatoes.  Joe’s uses only imported, vine-ripened, hand-picked Italian plum tomatoes which have a wonderful, natural sweetness.  Now, there are two schools of thought about preparing sauce.  Joe is a proponent of not simmering his sauces for hours on end as opposed to the school of chefs who employ marathon-long simmering sessions (which tend to render tomatoes very acidic).  That’s one of the reasons Joe’s red sauce is much lighter in color.   It’s much more delicious, too.

Hot Antipasti for two

It may be hard to believe that Joe’s Pasta House occupies the former digs of an International House of Pancakes (IHOP), but what’s not surprising is that the restaurant consistently earns flawless ratings on all its restaurant inspections.  It’s an immaculate and attractive restaurant.   Sophisticated stylings include an exhibition kitchen under the cover of a burnished copper awning. The restaurant’s walls are festooned by artwork provided by the Rio Rancho Art Association.

Faux Italian marble columns, a mural painted by a deceased beloved Rio Rancho city council member, real napkins and linen tablecloths let you know this is more than a casual dining restaurant even though the reasonable prices might belie that fact.  Until 2009, the great Bob Morris sang at the Pasta House, his elegant voice delivering beautiful Italian arias and romantic ballads on weekend evenings.  Bob now lives in Texas, but is much missed by frequent patrons and the staff at the Pasta House. 

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

In August, 2013, Joe’s began featuring delicious, fine, imported foods and confections for those evenings in which you’re craving Italian cuisine, but don’t want to leave home.  Almost immediately as you step into the restaurant, you’ll espy shelves replete with imported olive oils, pastas, olives, salts, risotto, nutella, pastas, mustard, cookies and so much more.  It’s not quite the next best thing to dining at Joe’s, but Kassie assures me this is excellent stuff.

Perhaps the only thing at the Pasta House as warm as the Guzzardi’s hospitality is the bread which arrives at your table shortly after you’re comfortably seated. There may be nothing as comforting as a basket of sliced bread and yeasty rolls baked in-house–unless, of course, it’s a dish of seasoned olive oil and various herbs and spices in which to dip that bread.  Joe’s Pasta House goes even further with a complementary plate of bruschetta crowned with a mixture of rich, red tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic and other savory ingredients. At most restaurants you would pay handsomely for such a treat.

Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad

Appetizers

Extreme care must be taken to ensure you don’t fill up on bread, great as it is. You also have to be doubly cautious so as not to fill up on Pasta House appetizers, some of which arrive in profuse portions which might constitute an entire meal elsewhere. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the Pasta House hungry!  The menu features several tempting appetizers and while such options as fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari are seemingly standard offerings at most Italian restaurants, live it up and try something unique to Joe’s Pasta House.  That something different might be the poppy seed shrimp, ten (yes, 10) jumbo shrimp sautéed with bell peppers, red onions and black olives in a tangy poppy seed sauce. It’s different and it’s delicious. 

15 January 2014: The menu offers six salads, most available in half and full sizes.  Our favorite is the Caesar salad which is classically interpreted then improved by Joe’s.  The traditional touches are large leaf Romain lettuce, shaved Parmesan cheese and croutons topped with Caesar dressing.   Joe’s touches include red peppers and a sole cherry pepper.  Caesar, after all, was Italian so these small additions are copacetic.  The Caesar dressing is applied lightly so you can enjoy the other salad ingredients.

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli Served with a Piñon Cream Dipping Sauce

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

13 November 2012: Another unique appetizer is the hot antipasti for two, an entree-sized portion that features stuffed eggplant (with rich Polly-O Premium Ricotta Cheese from New Jersey), clams, calamari, shrimp and mussels baked and served with marinara sauce. The shrimp have that snap that signifies freshness and a sweet brininess that’s addictive. The marinara is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico–slightly sweet, barely acidic and wholly addictive, but it’s the eggplant that makes me want to sing like Bob Morris.  Prepared incorrectly eggplant can leave a “metallic” taste in your mouth that may last for days.  The Pasta House chefs know what they’re doing with eggplant!  By itself, it’s quite good, but the Pasta House tops it with melted mozzarella and bits of prosciutto. 

10 August 2014: One of the menu items which best shows Joe’s versatility and creativity is the sweet and spicy shrimp dish, an appetizer which by name alone you might think would be a Chinese dish.  In actuality, Joe concocted this starter as a tribute to the predilection for piquancy among New Mexicans.  The piquancy is courtesy of a roasted pineapple Habanero sauce.  At about 350,000 Scoville units, the Habanero  pepper ranks as one of the most incendiary peppers on Earth.  Not always sufficiently appreciated is its citrus-like properties.  It’s those properties which complement the roasted pineapple so utterly well.  To temper the sweet notes of the pineapple, the sauce is also replete with garlic and red onions.  The eight large shrimp are superbly fresh and have a discernible snap when you bite into them.  They’re served over a bed of fresh spinach.

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp

Addictive is an apt description for a lightly breaded eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese, prosciutto and sauteed spinach, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese.  Eggplant is the bane of my kitchen, a dish I’ve never been able to prepare well (hence my aforementioned references to “metallic” taste), but Joe’s rendition comes highly recommended by a trusted fellow gastronome and friend Dave Hurayt who calls it “exquisite…more than a full meal.”  Dave knows what he’s talking about.  He’s a world-traveler who’s experienced the very best in Italian food throughout Boston, New York City and Italy.  Another friend, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver calls this the very best dish on Joe’s formidable menu.  My Italian sister-in-law says it’s just like her sainted mama used to make.

Ziti Alla Vodka

Ziti Alla Vodka

The eggplant is indeed exquisite.  It’s the type of dish which makes all your synapses fire as your taste buds try to discern the adventure of flavors going on in your mouth.  Texturally, the skin of the eggplant is soft, but not mushy.  The prosciutto is fairly mild and not nearly as salty as some prosciutto is prone to being.  The sauce is rich with tomatoes, basil, garlic and other spices.  This is an excellent appetizer, a wonderful way to start a meal. 

16 November 2013:  Joe’s fried breaded butternut squash and ricotta ravioli is one of those seasonal appetizers which may have you wishing it was autumn all year round.   Four raviolis, each the size of an iPhone are served with a piñon cream sauce so rich and decadent, it should come with a warning.  As addictive as the ravioli are, they’re also so rich you couldn’t possibly eat more than two, but you’ll relish every single morsel.  The butternut squash and ricotta combination is a perfect blend of semi-sweet and savory, buttery and creamy.  The sauce features not only woodsy New Mexico piñon, but nutmeg and cinnamon to accentuate the squash.  This is one seriously good, ultra rich, ultra delicious appetizer.

Manicotti Bolognese

Entrees

7 April 2007: The menu is broken into several sections: fresh salads, appetizers, local favorites, traditional favorites, house specialties, seafood favorites and grilled entrees. Within each section are various options, all sure to please the most discerning diners. From the “Local Favorites” section comes a Mediterranean Pasta entree as good as you might expect to find at an upscale Greek restaurant. This dish is crafted with artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese sautéed in a white wine butter sauce all served atop linguine pasta (or you can substitute penne). Available with chicken or shrimp, it is richly calorific and served in a deep dish. You’re sure to have some left over.

9 January 2014: Another local favorite not commonly found in Albuquerque area Italian restaurants (but extremely popular in New York City and which we’ve also had in the deep South) is the beguiling Ziti alla Vodka, Ziti pasta with prosciutto and scallions in a vodka pink sauce.  The sauce appears to be  combination of the restaurant’s rich Alfredo sauce and its meatless marinara with a bit of vodka splashed in and the alcohol cooked out.  It’s inventive and unconventional, creamy and rich, sweet and savory…and absolutely delicious.  The pasta is slightly more than al dente and the scallions appear to have been added after the entree is put together, offering a nice contrast.  The prosciutto is sliced into tiny morsels and offers a startling taste and texture difference that you can’t help but take notice.  This is an excellent entree.

Traditional Gnocchi Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

Traditional Gnocchi
Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

4 August 2007: One of the restaurant’s richest entrees is the Fettuccini Carbonara (pictured above) made with green peas, pancetta and a heavy cream sauce that will put weight on you just by looking at it.  There are two Albuquerque area restaurants whose carbonara I recommend highly–Paisano’s Italian Restaurant and Joe’s Pasta House.  The commonality is a subtle balance of rich flavors and perfectly prepared pasta crafted from complementary ingredients.

23 January 2011: Though it’s easy to characterize Joe’s Pasta House as a “red sauce” restaurant, in truth the restaurant excels at a variety of sauces, some complex and some simple, but all delicious.  During a visit in January, 2011, we happened upon the former, a special of the evening my Kim’s friend Rosalie Marella makes in Chicago.  The label “special” certainly fits.  It’s rigatoni pasta and pork ribs, an Italian dish showcasing a simple, but magnificently executed tomato sauce.  The dish showcases old-world style tender pork ribs cooked in Joe’s homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil, olive oil and Romano cheese served over imported rigatoni pasta.

Baked Cannelloni: Homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

The pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty (porky?) enough for Fred Flintstone.  It’s easy to extricate the pork off the bone, but your inclination might be to pick them up and gnaw off that pork with your hands.  It’s a messy proposition considering the tomato sauce, but then that’s what napkins are for.  The rigatoni pasta is prepared at just slightly past al dente,  but certainly not nearly to the level of the squishy, mushy overdone pasta served at the restaurant at which I’m forced to eat once a year.

23 January 2011: As smooth as degustation (a sensory (taste, smell, tactile, experience) appreciation of a meal, especially with good company) tends to be at Joe’s, there are some meals  which are thoroughly enjoyable while you partake of them at the restaurant, but not so enjoyable if you’re prone to indigestion later.  One of these is the Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp special, a sinfully rich dish of lobster and ricotta engorged ravioli topped with sauteed shrimp, fresh peas and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce.  It’s the brandy cream sauce which will get you.  It’s ultra rich, but also ultra-delicious which means you’ll probably polish off the entire plate. Then there’s the lobster.  Each ravioli (tablet-sized) is engorged with fresh, delicious and rich lobster meat.

Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp

13 November 2012: If ravioli is what you crave, there are a variety of ways in which you can have it at Joe’s.  It’s available as a breaded and deep-fried appetizer served with a mushroom cream sauce.  It’s available as an entree where it’s stuffed with cheese and topped with marinara sauce.  It’s also available off-the-menu as an entree called the Giovanni Special.  Invented by John, one of Joe’s long-time waiters, this dish is the mother lode for ravioli lovers.  It features six round cheese stuffed raviolis, three meatballs and two sausages topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella.  This is one of those dishes only regular guests know about.  We’ve had to describe it to members of the wait staff who have never heard of it; fortunately Joe knows precisely what it is.

13 November 2012: The Baked Cannelloni, homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella is akin to having one large ravioli. The season beef is an excellent counterpoint to the rich, melted mozzarella and the tangy sauce. Roughly the size of a baked potato, it’s a red sauce dish with the richness of an Alfredo sauce. As with all entrees at Joe’s, it’s an archetypal example of how good this specific dish can be.

Giovanni Special: Six cheese stuffed ravioli, three meatballs, two sausages topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

16 November 2013: Every once in a while Joe’s will feature a special which proves just how much the restaurant’s cuisine has also been influenced by the Land of Enchantment.  Now, green chile on Italian pasta dishes isn’t exactly a novel concept in New Mexico, but rarely is it done as well as the Green Chili (sic) Chicken Ravioli, ricotta-filled ravioli topped with sauteed chicken and green chili Alfredo sauce.  The piquancy (discernible, but not overwhelming) and roasted flavor of the green chile are a perfect foil for the richness of the Alfredo sauce…and it is rich.  It’s also delicious, a fine departure from the tried and true sauce. 

16 November 2013: In November, 2012, four time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison published an article entitled 5 Top New Mexico Spots for Divine Gnocchi on her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog.  Cheryl lamented that for years she tended to avoid gnocchi in restaurants because “most I’d sampled in such settings were heavy with a gluey quality I associate with eating paste in kindergarten.”  She elaborated that “gnocchi should be hearty but have an ethereal lightness about them, too.”  The traditional gnocchi at Joe’s would make my top five.  Traditional means the gnocchi are made from potato, not semolina flour as prepared at some restaurants.  Potatoes is the way gnocchi are made in the Piedmont region of Italy and it’s the way gnocchi tastes best.  At Joe’s the gnocchi are topped with a superb tomato sauce and topped with meatballs and Italian sausage.

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli:  Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli:
Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

While the pasta dishes are infused with flavor, it’s apparent the chef’s culinary skills are as plentiful as are the portions.  Joe’s Pasta House is by no means a one-trick pasta.  In August, 2009, the menu was upscaled with the addition of an admirable cavalcade of chops: Porterhouse steak, French style pork chops, lamb chops and more.  These are chops the type of which you might expect to find in Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders.”  If Joe has his way, perhaps Rio Rancho should be called “City of Big Chops.”  Lamb chops.  Pork chops.  Porterhouse steaks.

15 January 2014: The Colorado lamb chops are cloud-like luscious and redolent with grilled flavor.  At about an inch thick, they’re the antithesis of the tiny, emasculated chops so many restaurants serve and each order includes four prepared to your exacting specifications.  At medium rare as the chef recommends they be prepared, the flavorful juices flow as you cut into them.  As with much of the lamb served in restaurants, the inherent gaminess associated with lamb has been somewhat bred out which is why medium rare works so well.  These chops are tender and succulent with just the slightest hint of fat for additional flavor.   They’re also not served in the “Frenched” style with the bone “handle” for easy handling.   The lamb chops are served with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes and a ramekin of delicious gravy made from pan drippings.

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Porcine perfection can be found in the form of juicy French cut grilled pork chops in a Chianti mushroom sauce.  Chianti is a full and rich red wine that couples well with the mushrooms to imbue the inch-thick chops with a complementary flavor that doesn’t detract from their native pork flavor in any way.  Two chops for under twenty dollars is an additional bonus. 

In February, 2013, Joe’s Pasta House began offering a “Fish Fry” as its Tuesday night weekday special.  If you’re from the Midwest, you know that fish fry is practically a religion.  Consider the dining room tables at Joe’s your altar as you enjoy two pieces of hand-breaded, cold-water, wild-caught flounder served with a garden salad, fried potatoes and a house made tartar sauce!  The fish is fried in 100% vegetable oil.  Meat lovers have their own special day, too.  On Wednesdays, the special is all-natural, slow-roasted, Black Angus Prime Rib served with garden salad and mashed potatoes!  Liquid smoke doesn’t exist within the same zip code as this slow-roasted slab of beefy deliciousness. 

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

15 January 2014: The prime rib is available in ten- and twelve-ounce sizes.  It’s become so popular that you’re well advised to get to Joe’s early (the prime rib special is available from 4PM to 9PM) because once it runs out, you’re out of luck.   Because of the demand, Joe’s roasts some four prime rib roasts.  It’s easy to see why the prime rib is so popular.  It’s very tender, cutting almost like butter and revealing a perfectly pink center (at medium) with rich juices flowing copiously onto your plate.  As with great prime rib, the “crust” is seared to perfection.  Seasoning is earthy and natural, accentuating the terrific grass-fed flavor of the beef.   The accompanying horseradish sauce has some bite, but not so much that it detracts from the starring attraction. 

15 January 2014: You can add a dinner or Caesar salad with your entree for a pittance or top your steak with sauteed sliced mushrooms, melted mozzarella cheese or sauteed sweet onions for just a bit more.  If you’re tastes are more inclined toward surf and turf, you can also top any of your steak or chop entrees with garlic scallops.  Because scallops are delicately flavored and sweet, you might think garlic would overwhelm those qualities, but that’s not the case.  The garlic kisses the scallops softly so as not to change their flavor profile.  This is a surprisingly nice dish.

Garlic Scallops

Garlic Scallops

4 April 2014: During my years in New England, I consumed boatloads of creamy, comforting, delicious seafood bisques and chowders from Maine to Connecticut.  Nothing in the world compares to a thick, sweet, creamy bisque served at a waterfront restaurant with the advantage of being able to use freshly caught, just off the boat seafood.  There’s also no equal for enjoying such a repast while the salty sea air and balmy ocean breeze lulls you into a state of blissful relaxation. 

Joe’s Pasta House has none of those advantages, but somehow manages to serve a seafood bisque which transports me back to so many wonderful afternoons on the wharf at Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The bisque isn’t always on the menu, but when it is, it quickly sells out.  That’s because Rio Rancho may be a landlocked city several hundred miles from the sea, but its citizenry knows great seafood.  A large soup cup is brimming with fresh crab, mussels and clams sharing a creamy home with carrots, scallions, celery and a single crostini.  The seafood is unbelievably fresh and surprisingly plentiful with sweet crab being especially cherished.  The bisque is creamy and thick and is served at the perfect height of steaminess.  See where it ranks among my favorite soups in New Mexico here

Seafood Bisque

Seafood Bisque

10 August 2014: Blessed with 5,000 miles of coastline, Italy is a nation which cherishes the frutti di mari (fruits of the sea).  Pairing pasta with luscious seafood is virtually a culinary sport for Italian chefs.  There are hundreds of potential variations for something which sounds as simple and basic as a seafood stew or zuppa di pesci.  Italian chefs have learned to exercise restraint to balance the briny seafood with the delicate pasta.  A great seafood stew isn’t about mixing a net full of seafood with a bowl of pasta.  It’s about complementary ingredients melding together well. 

Joe’s version of seafood stew is a wonderful balance of fresh seafood  with perfectly prepared pasta served in a large boat…er, bowl.  The seafood–shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, lump crab and Atlantic salmon–are so fresh you might forget you’re in a landlocked state and not dockside.  The seafood is served atop a linguini pasta in a tomato basil bullion which allows all ingredients to sing.  A sweeter sauce or one more acerbic would not have gone so well with the delicate, delicious, briny seafood, but the tomato basil brings out the seafood’s natural flavors.  Joe served this dish on the first Sunday in which his magnificent restaurant opened for lunch.

Italian Seafood Stew- Zuppa di Pesci      

Desserts

Not surprisingly, the Pasta House also has a stellar dessert tray with palate-pleasing options galore: German chocolate cake, chocolate cake, lemon cake, chocolate cannoli, red velvet cheesecake and oh, so much more. It’s all tempting and likely all delicious. Only the tiramisu and cannoli are prepared in-house.  Other desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor. 

The Italian Dream Cake will inspire nocturnal smiles.  It’s rich, creamy and delicious.  The cannoli is among the best in the city, replete with rich ricotta brought in from New Jersey.  The lemon cake zings with a nice tanginess while the German chocolate cake is the perfect marriage of coconut, pecans and chocolate.  Desserts are decadent, delicious and dreamy.

There is so much to like at Joe’s Pasta House, an Italian restaurant several orders of magnitude better than the heavily trafficked Olive Garden to which I’m subjected once a year. In 2013 that fact was acknowledged when Joe’s Pasta House was selected by readers of Albuquerque The Magazine as the “best Italian restaurant” in the metropolitan area.  That’s proof that Joe’s has become a dining destination drawing diners from throughout the Duke City area and beyond.  

Tiramisu and Cannoli, the two desserts made on the premises at Joe’s. Other fabulous desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor

Though they’re absolutely indefatigable ambassadors for their establishment, Joe and Kassie also rave about other restaurants in the City of Vision, an act of class so very typical of this dynamic couple who win the hearts and stomachs of their guests one delicious dining experience at a time. 

10 AUGUST 2014:  By popular demand, Joe’s Pasta House is now open on Sundays from 12PM to 7:30PM.  Treat yourself to the Albuquerque area’s favorite Italian restaurant where you’ll be well taken care of by the most professional staff in New Mexico.

Joe’s Pasta House
3201 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-3333
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 19
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pesto, Mediterranean Pasta, Hot Antipasti for Two, Lasagna, Cannelloni, Giovanni Special, Fetuccini Carbonara, Zita Alla Vodka, Gnocchi, Butternut Squash and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli,  Tiramisu, Cannoli, Italian Cream Cake, Green Chili Chicken Ravioli, Colorado Lamb Chops, Prime Rib, Seafood Bisque


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