El Maguey – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

El Maguey Mexican Food in Rio Rancho

On a 2010 episode of The Travel Channel’s No Reservations series, host Anthony Bourdain described pulque as “the sap of the maguey cactus” as well as “man juice” and “Mexican Viagra.” That may explain why so many aspiring middle-aged brewers across the fruited plain rushed to their local nurseries in search of the maguey plant. Although maguey may be plentiful even in the Land of Enchantment, extracting pulque is a laborious process involving four distinct steps, the first of which is called castration. The name of this step may also explain why so many middle-aged men quickly lost their enthusiasm for cultivating maguey.

In parts of Mexico where the maguey is harvested, native Zapotec, Mixtec and Mixe producers actually ask the plant for permission to harvest it. With the utmost respect, they tell the maguey that its use will primarily be for celebratory rituals and not solely for the sake of profit. Soon after the dawning of 2017, Rio Rancho saw the launch of El Maguey, a Mexican restaurant named for the plant held in such high esteem throughout Mexico. At El Maguey, horchata may be the closest thing to the alcoholic beverage made from the sap of the maguey plant and only in appearance do they share any similarity whatsoever.

El Maguey Dining Room

If you haven’t seen El Maguey during your travels through the City of Vision, it’s probably because its storefront doesn’t face heavily trafficked Rio Rancho Boulevard. Instead, it’s set back on the northeast corner of the timeworn Lujan Plaza shopping center which also houses Namaste and Stack House Barbecue.  The same obfuscated corner where El Maguey is situated was once home to such short-lived eateries as Ahh Sushi, Relish (although the original in Albuquerque remains a city favorite), Pastrami & Things and other restaurants.  It’s a tough location in which to succeed.

We knew we’d like El Maguey when we walked in and espied a Cantinflas movie playing on what has to be a nineteen inch flat screen (or PC monitor). Arguably Mexico’s greatest and most beloved comedy film star of all time, Cantinflas was once called “the greatest comedian alive” by no less than Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps because the television is so small, it isn’t the cynosure of the dining room which has undergone an amazing make-over since its previous occupant vacated. To say the room is colorful is an understatement. It is awash in bright colors. A swinging gate door separates the dining room from the kitchen. 

Salsa, Chips and Horchata

No sooner are you seated than chips and salsa are delivered to your table. The salsa is a luminous green, a telltale sign tomatillo is its chief ingredient and not tomato. The salsa is terrific with a nice balance of heat and tanginess from a squeeze or two of lime. Cilantro lends its unique freshness. The chips are crisp and just a bit on the salty side. El Maguey offers several options for washing down the chips and salsa. Alas, the only aguas fresca on the menu are Jamaica and horchata, the refreshing and sweet, cinnamony beverage. As with most horchata served in Albuquerque restaurants, it does taste a bit like the cold milk at the tail end of a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal.

El Maguey’s menu is relatively small with a rotation of daily specials such as Taco Tuesday. Tacos—chicken, steak, barbacoa, rose meat, chicharron and al pastor (as well as shrimp on occasion)–are a specialty of the house. Rose meat, by the way, has nothing to do with the flower. It’s named in honor of the ruddy chef who prepares it. Also on the menu are gorditas, burritos, quesadillas and tortas. Essentially any item on the menu can be crafted from the aforementioned proteins. Pozole and menudo are available on Saturdays and Sundays. Breakfast burritos are served daily from 7AM to 11AM.

El Pastor Taco, Steak Taco and Chicken Quesadilla

Nestled within a folded corn tortilla (about four inches around) along with onions and cilantro, the tacos are reminiscent of those sold by street vendors throughout Mexico. They’re bulging at their sides thanks to being stuffed generously. We enjoyed the al pastor taco most. Al pastor, which translates to “in the style of the shepherd” is indeed a ubiquitous street food option in Mexico where thin cuts of marinated pork are whittled away from a cone of sizzling pork gyrating on a spit (similar to a gyro). At El Maguey, the al pastor is in cubed form reminiscent of tandoori meats in its splendorous patina.

A flour tortilla with its characteristic pinto pony char is home to quesadillas which can be loaded up with your choice of protein and rich, melting cheese. Chicken is a good choice. It goes especially well with the tomatillo salsa. The canvas for the tortas is a split bolillo (white roll) engorged with your protein choice. The barbacoa, which is most assuredly not the Spanish word for barbecue, is a terrific option with its unique taste and texture. This barbacoa is the real thing, as authentic as you’ll find in Mexico. The chicharrones on our gordita are more akin to chicharrones you’ll find in Northern New Mexico than many found in Mexico. They’re crispy, crunchy crackling bits of pork.

Barbacoa Torta, Chicharron Gordita, Steak Taco

When my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver discovered El Maguey, he urged me to beat a quick path to this delightful little taste of Mexico in Rio Rancho. Diners venturing outside the well-beaten and eaten path are discovering it, too. For value dining of surprising quality, there may be none better in Rio Rancho.

El Maguey Mexican Food
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 508-6427
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 April 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Barbacoa Torta, Chicharron Gordita, Steak Taco, Chicken Quesadilla, Al Pastor Taco, Horchata

El Maguey Mexican Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Point Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa Development

“Get to the point!”  Archie Bunker, the irascible curmudgeon on the 70’s sitcom All in the Family frequently chided his doting wife Edith with the epithet “Get to the Point, Edith!”  One of the series occasional and most memorable bits depicted Archie’s pantomime suicides,  carried out  while Edith rambled on and on in her nasal high-pitched voice, wholly oblivious to his dramatic gestures.  In one episode Archie did himself in by tying a noose and hanging himself as Edith prattled on incessantly.  Archie also play-acted suicide by Russian roulette, overdosing on pills and slashing his wrist.  His facial expressions at the moment of death were priceless, often portraying him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Some visitors to Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog have echoed Archie’s sentiment. “Get to the point, Gil” they’ve expressed. They tell me they don’t want to wade through details or read the clever (okay, that’s debatable) introductions that preface my restaurant reviews. Others, such as my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott actually look forward to my roundabout way of introducing a restaurant, my efforts at being a racounteur. For them as well as those who would rather I employ a more formulaic (translation: fishwrap-style) approach, I offer this advice (or retort): Get to The Point!

Point Grill dining room

That would be The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa master-planned community. If you’re thinking “that’s too far,” think of going there as a New Year’s resolution (we’re not that deep into 2016) to journey outside your neighborhood in pursuit of new culinary adventures.  Better still, think of it as a treat (you owe it to yourself) in that you’ll get to experience a meal that competes with Joe’s Pasta House and Namaste as the best in the city and among the best in the metropolitan area.  That’s what our friends Dave and Joe have done and they live almost as far east as you can go while still being in Placitas. Dave and Joe introduced us to The Point which has become one of their favorite restaurants, distance be damned.

The Point is actually only about four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center which even much of Rio Rancho’s citizenry erroneously believes is as far northwest as you can go and still be in the City of Vision. From the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, The Point is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights and you won’t encounter the typical urban traffic snarls. Beyond the Santa Ana Star you’ll encounter a vast expanse of sage and sand as far as the eyes can see on both sides of the two lane highway. “It’s where the bodies are buried,” my Kim remarked.

Mushroom Soup

The Point is about two miles west of the turn-off into Mariposa. It’s ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views. From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio. Your views will also include just a few of the state-of-the-art homes and community buildings entwined with the natural splendor of the hilly desert topography in which the 6,500-acre community is situated. The delicate balance of nature, architecture and community blend in harmoniously with each other.

The Point’s perceived distance will make it a true destination restaurant, an exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the Rio Rancho’s dining scene. Two other highly regarded restaurants—The Outlook Café and The Timbuctu Bistro—gave it the “old college try” at this location, but neither was able to sustain a consistently reliable customer-base. What makes The Point different? The difference makers begin with owner and executive chef Michael White, a visionary who in his 18 years of professional experience has traversed the gamut of cooking—everything from  food trucks to high-end restaurants.  Originally from Virginia Beach (and reputed to prepare fabulous crab cakes), Chef White’s menu reflects his love of New Orleans’ dynamic culinary culture and its spices.

Chipotle Chicken Satay

Chef White’s menu offers everything from American comfort foods (six different macaroni and cheese dishes) to an innovative array of bounteous hand-crafted burgers and sandwiches, sumptuous salads, weekly soup specials, tapas and a variety of “chef’s favorites.” The dessert menu, while showcasing only four items, would tempt the most disciplined of dieters. Even the Sunday brunch menu, typically a boring after-thought for some restaurants, offers a number of dishes sure to be the best part of getting up. Best of all, the entire menu (save for brunch) is available at all hours in which the restaurant is open.

The Point opened its doors on September 15th and within two months had achieved 500 “likes” on Facebook. Guests certainly like the comfortable seating, accommodating 44 guests inside and 40 on the patio. They also appreciate all the special event menus such as a crawfish boil for Mardi Gras (already sold out) and a romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day. They’re grateful for the professional, attentive service and recommendations they can trust. Moreover, guests like the “get away from it all” feel of dining at a restaurant that may be a bit out of the way, but well worth the effort to get there.

Red Chile Grilled Corn and Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms

15 January 2016: On a cold winter day when the winds are biting and dark, somber clouds loom ominously, you can’t beat a soothing, soul-warming soup. If the soup-of-the-day is mushroom soup, don’t hesitate to order it. There are two qualities to appreciate most about The Point’s version. First, it’s not overly creamy, a quality often attained through the profusion of thickeners that obfuscate the flavor of the fetid fungi. Second, it’s served piping hot, a sure and instant offset to the cold. This mushroom soup is topped with croutons which soften when submerged under the soup as do the two pieces of ciabatta bread.

15 January 2016: The chipotle chicken satay offers another type of heat—the heat generated by the piquancy of peppers. This satay is the antithesis of the satay served in Thai restaurants which is punctuated by pungent curry and served with a cloying peanut sauce. Instead of curry, the chicken is marinated in a spicy chipotle blend then chargrilled and served over coconut rice, all topped with tzatziki, scallion and lemon wedges. The flavors are lively and offer a wonderfully immersive dining experience in which complementary flavors and textures compete for your rapt attention. The tzatziki and scallions offer cooling contrasts to the chargrilled chicken and help cool off your tongue, too.

Baked Ziti

15 January 2016: The menu’s market side selections, all priced at three dollars, are intended to complement your main entrees, but they can be treated as appetizers as well. After enjoying the charbroiled chicken so much, we thought the pairing of red chile grilled corn and garlic sautéed mushrooms would be a good follow-up. Great call! Golden nibblets of sweet corn are lightly dusted with a pleasantly piquant red chile then roasted nicely to preserve moistness while providing more than a hint of char. We were surprised at how well garlic and mushrooms married together. Neither of the two strong flavor profiles is dominant with both garlic and mushrooms blending their personalities well.

15 January 2016: Among the “Chef’s Favorites” in the winter menu is baked ziti (meatballs, Italian sausage, roasted peppers and onion baked with ziti marinara and Italian cheeses), a classic Italian-American hybrid showcasing a medium-sized tubular pasta baked with a “chunky” sauce and meats. Chef White’s rendition is very reminiscent of the baked ziti I enjoyed so much in the East Coast, save for the fact that The Point’s version is served in a pho-sized bowl instead of in a casserole dish. This version is replete with meatballs and sausage, both as flavorful as you’ll find at any Italian restaurant. The baked ziti is yet another dish that works best in winter, but which would be very enjoyable any time of year.

BRUNCH

Not everyone has a high opinion of brunch. In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.” New York Times columnist and writer Mark Bittman calls brunch “a huge fat-bomb,” no doubt a recognition that Americans will eschew fresh fruit and veggie frittatas to swill a few Bloody Marys with their heavy on the Hollandaise eggs benedict. In his defense, Bittman’s recent foray into Michelle Obama inspired healthy food activism has probably starved his thought processes of the clarity made possible only with a diet replete with processed foods and animal products.

Cream of Garlic Soup

Some brunches offer sumptuous all-you-can-choke-down buffets with gleaming silver trays overfilled with fried, gloppy, saucy, sweet, savory and otherwise not-good-for-you options sure to be a big hit among caloric overachievers. This is the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week. It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window. Albuquerque has its share of bounteous buffet brunches, the magnetically appealing, calorie-laden Vegas-style all-you-can-eat Bacchanalian feasts, but it also has the type of high-quality, off-the-menu brunch offerings that have lessened the frequency of my trips to Santa Fe on Sunday. Restaurants such as the Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, the Gold Street Caffe, Sophia’s Place and a spate of others serve up brunch that’s worth climbing out from under the covers to indulge in.

Add The Point to the list of the metropolitan area’s very best spots for brunch.  Quite frankly, it’s one of the area’s best restaurants of any genre.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Albuquerque’s most prolific and trusted contributor to Zomato calls The Point the “best new restaurant of 2015” and “well worth the pleasant drive to the Mariposa boonies.”  If Larry vouches for it, you can take it to the bank that this is a restaurant you have to experience.

Caesar Salad

24 January 2016: During our inaugural brunch visit, we ran into our friends Joe and Dave who were enjoying their umpteenth visit to The Point. Practically ambassadors to this great restaurant, they extol the chef’s preternatural culinary skills to all their friends. Seeing Joe luxuriate in a bowl of cream of garlic soup inspired us to order it, too. If Ludwig van Beethoven’s aphorism “only the pure in heart can make a good soup” holds true, Chef White’s heart must be chaste because his soups are fabulous. How he managed to create a soup that renders garlic so thoroughly delicious despite its distinctly pungent and odoriferous qualities speaks volumes to his skills. Rather than warding off vampires, this garlic soup will bring them in like ants to a picnic.

24 January 2016: Dave rhapsodized about The Point’s Caesar salad (Parmesan, hard-boiled egg and croutons with Caesar dressing). The side salad portion is about a pitchfork sized amount of beauteous Romaine lettuce punctuated liberally with shaved Parmesan. If there are any anchovies on this Caesar, they may have been incorporated into the rich, creamy, garlicky dressing. It’s not a point we debated for too long as we were all too busy enjoying this intricate concoction. While many variations of Caesar salad exist and many high-end restaurants prepare it table-side, few versions are as delicious as The Point’s. There are three other salads on the menu.

Grits & Shrimp

24 January 2016: Having lived in the Deep South may explain my affinity for grits, a “Rodney Dangerfield” type of dish in that it gets no respect outside the South. At their essence, grits are small, broken grains of corn, but let’s face it, when you order them outside the South, you’re playing “Southern Roulette” in that you have a one-in-six chance of them being palatable. The best we’ve had in New Mexico come from The Hollar in Madrid and Blades Bistro in Placitas. Equal to those are the shrimp and grits (jalapeno, maple bacon and white Cheddar; topped with Cajun shrimp, sunny-up egg and scallions) at The Point. Its fragrant properties will get to you before anything else. You’ll swear you’re imbibing the aroma of waffles and bacon. That’s the suggestive power of the maple bacon at work. The Cajun shrimp (succulent and sweet with the snap of freshness), jalapeno and scallions provide a pleasant punch while the sunny-up egg is like a molten blanket of gooey goodness. These are grits that will make you forget all the nasty things you may have heard about grits.

Sausage and Peppers

24 January 2016: There are so many enticing options on the hand-crafted sandwiches and burgers section of the menu that you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which one you’ll enjoy first. For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, it’s a no-brainer. She grew up with sausage and peppers sandwiches, but none in her Windy City neighborhood included goat cheese and basil. Perhaps they should. This is a superb sandwich, due in no small measure to some of the best sausage we’ve had at any restaurant in the area. It’s somewhere between spicy and assertive with lots of flavor. The tangy-pungent goat cheese is a perfect foil for the peppers while the basil lends freshness. 

Southwest Burger

15 January 2017: It should come as no surprise that burgers at The Point are more than a cut above.  In large part that’s because these burgers showcase great beef, not a plethora of ingredients that compete with the beef for your rapt attention.  Chef White constructs his burgers with seven-ounces of Akaushi premium beef, a Japanese red cattle Wagyu sourced from Harwood, Texas.  This prized beef if renowned for its marbling, taste and texture.  It’s great stuff!  There are five burger options on the menu, but New Mexicans will gravitate toward the Southwest burger which doubles up on our official state vegetable and favorite color combination–red and green chile.  The Akaushi patty is crusted with red chile and topped with roasted green chile and Cheddar.  The chile is more than a colorful adornment.  It’s got a nice bite, but not so much that it overwhelms the unctuous Akaushi beef.  This is a memorable burger, one of the best in Rio Rancho.

Flatiron Steak with Papitas

15 January 2017: The brunch special of the day during our inaugural visit in 2017 was a flatiron steak served with papitas and two eggs prepared to your exacting specifications.  Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. Chef White exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak sliced into one and two-bite segments that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy.  The exterior of the steak has a nice crust, but inside it’s medium-rare with a nice shade of pink.  The accompanying papitas would be excellent on their own, but are made irresistible with the simple addition of sauteed onions and red and yellow peppers.

DESSERT

As talented as Chef White is in crafting incomparable appetizers and entrees, it’s in the dessert arena that he really shines. With much of his culinary career having been spent in the operational side of restaurant management, Chef White used his free time to conceptualize and create hundreds of dishes with two goals in mind. First, he dreamed of owning and operating his own restaurant where he could showcase the dozens of diverse menus he formulated. Second, he hopes to someday soon participate in the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen program. With the launch of The Point, he’s achieved his first goal. He persists in applying for Cutthroat Kitchen. 

Bacon-Toffee Sundae

15 January 2016: It took us even longer to decide upon a dessert than it did our shared entrée. The Point’s dessert menu is like a siren’s call, leading guests willingly into temptation. If there’s one dessert which is even better than it sounds, it has to be the bacon-toffee sundae (cinnamon and brown sugar ice cream topped with bacon, toffee, maple-caramel and fresh whipped cream). My “best of the best” for 2015 list is heavily laden with desserts and already the bacon-toffee sundae is primed for inclusion in my 2016 list—and not just because it’s got bacon. This dessert is a montage of deliciousness, a sweet succor for the dessert-starved, a masterpiece in every respect.

Country Apple Cobbler

24 January 2016: One of the dishes Chef White conceptualized is country apple cobbler. In and of itself that name doesn’t come close to doing justice to this dessert. Not even close! In fact, the name “country apple cobbler” may conjure images of the type of cobbler you’ll find at many barbecue joints, not that there’s anything remotely wrong with that type of cobbler. As is often the case with the barbecue joint type of cobbler, Chef White’s version is served a la mode. The greatest difference between his version and the usual suspect is in the candied apple-cranberry mix sans crust topped not with streusel, but with a crunchy granola and with ice cream drizzled with caramel. The ice cream is sixteen percent milkfat which means it’s richer and creamier than most ice cream. It’s also more delicious. You’ll want to make sure every spoonful of this inspired dessert rewards you with a little bit of every single component.

Pineapple Deliciousness

24 January 2016:  Though not on the menu, if your server or the chef recommends the grilled pineapple dessert, grab it before someone else does. This is not grilled pineapple prepared as you may have had it at a Brazilian churrascaria (prepared on a grilled and served on a skewer). It’s Chef White applying his creativity to elevate what would be a great dessert if grilled pineapple was all you found on your plate. Instead, this grilled pineapple is topped with caramel and designed to look like New Mexico’s Zia symbol. Atop the pineapple are two scoops of the aforementioned rich, creamy, delicious ice cream. The concoction is then sprinkled liberally with coconut flakes. The sweet, juicy, tangy pineapple marries so well with the sweetness of the caramel and ice cream that you may have to subdue a swoon or three.

By popular request, Chef White has figured out how to package his magnificent desserts for guests who want to enjoy them at home.  While it’s possible their aesthetic appeal may lose something by virtue of being jostled on the ride home, they’re bound to be just as delicious once you get there (at least during the winter when the cold prevents ice cream from melting).  These are desserts you’ll dream about.  Just ask my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell who’ve made the trek to the Point several times and are still raving about it.

LAISSEZ BON TEMPS ROULER: Mardi Gras 2017

Crab Hush Puppies

28 February 2017: In 2017, Mardi Gras took place on Tuesday, February 28th, marking the the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins.  In celebration of “Fat Tuesday,” The Point Grill featured a two-day crawfish boil.  From 12PM through 9PM Monday and Tuesday, diners were treated to a menu showcasing such New Orleans staples as crawfish, shrimp, sausage, jambalaya, gumbo, crab cake hush puppies and Cajun shrimp or roast beef po’ boys.  By popular demand, The Point rented a giant tent for the event which went on despite 55 mile-an-hour winds.  My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” and I visited The Point during lunch.  Had we not arrived early we wouldn’t have found a seat for this well-attended, very popular event. 

According to legend, hush puppies may have been named on account of Southern fishermen and Civil War making  the golden nuggets from scraps just to toss to barking and begging dogs with the command to “Hush, puppy.”  Today cooks throughout the Deep South prepare these crisp-fried fritters from cornmeal shaped into an orb and served alongside fried fish and tartar sauce.  Chef White’s version is made not from cornmeal, but from crab.  Available in quantities of six or ten, the crab cake hush puppies are much better than their cornmeal counterpart.  A couple squeezes of lemon are enough to provide a tangy contrast to the rich, sweet, succulent crab.

Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver Enjoys a Roast Beef Po’ Boy

28 February 2017: Most people know New Orleans is a Mecca for seafood, but there are other dishes prepared incomparably well throughout the Crescent City.  The Roast Beef Po’ Boy is, along with oyster and shrimp po’ boys, one of the most popular sandwiches in The Big Easy.  What distinguishes roast beef po’ boys in New Orleans from roast beef sandwiches elsewhere is moistness.  In the birthplace of Jazz, roast beef sandwiches are judged by how many napkins used to keep your chin semi-dry.  Many of the very best roast beef po’ boys are replete with debris, all the tiny bits and pieces that fall of the roast and wallow in its juices as it cooks and is carved

The roast beef po’ boy at The Point isn’t nearly as moist and messy as some of its New Orleans counterparts (the one from Mother’s Restaurant, for example), but it’s far more moist than the desiccated roast beef sandwiches oft served in the high dessert of New Mexico.  Chef White adds a light smear of creamy horseradish to give the roast beef a little oomph.  Tender tendrils of thinly sliced roast beef engorge a lightly toasted sandwich roll.  My friend Sr. Plata enjoyed this sandwich very much.

Gumbo

28 February 2017: It wouldn’t be a true Mardi Gras celebration without gumbo, that hearty, spicy, soul-warming stew.  Chef White’s version included many of the usual suspects such as chicken and sausage along with green peppers, onions, tomatoes, and herbs.  While quite good, for my tastes it could have had a tad more heat (and I didn’t ask for hot sauce).  It’s immediately obvious Chef White spent quite a bit of time in Louisiana.

Get to The Point! It may be a bit of a drive for many of you, but the destination is worth the drive. The Point is destination dining at its best!

The Point Grill Gastropub
2500 Parkway Avenue, N.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7453
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2017
1st VISIT: 15 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bacon-Toffee Sundae, High Point Mac, Baked Ziti, Mushroom Soup, Chipotle Chicken Satay, Red Chile Grilled Corn, Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms, Grits & Shrimp, Caesar Salad, Cream of Garlic Soup, Southwest Burger, Flatiron Steak

The Point Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tao Chinese Bistro – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

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.

Tao Chinese Bistro Dining Room

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.

Peking Dumplings

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.

Tao’s Marinated Chicken Wings

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 (now closed) which once dominated the complex.

Hot and Sour Soup

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.  Still, Tao is easily the very best Chinese restaurant in Rio Rancho and one of the very best west of the Rio Grande.  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.

Wonton Soup

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 two dollars 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

24 February 2017: In Cantonese, the literal translation of wonton is “eating clouds.”  Indeed, a well-made  bowl of wonton soup should reflect this definition with cooked wontons resembling soft and fluffy pillows floating in clear broth.   At Tao, the wonton soup is made well.  Wontons made from a thin sheet of dough are stuffed with pork and served in a clear chicken broth.  While the broth and the wonton skins are light and delicate in taste, the pork filling is seasoned nicely.  Unlike other versions of wonton soup we’ve had, Tao’s version is relatively lightly salted and generous in the number of dumplings, making it one of our favorites.

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.

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

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.

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.

Tao’s Spicy Chicken

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.

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.

Double Pan-Fried Noodles

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.

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. 

Coffee Chicken

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.

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.

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

24 February 2017:  Tao’s menu lists six vegetarian items.  If the mushrooms with snow peas dish is indicative of the high quality and deliciousness of the vegetarian menu, we’ll be ordering from the vegetarian menu more often.  What’s not to love about fresh Shiitake mushrooms and crispy snow peas in a sauteed brown sauce–especially if mushrooms and snow peas are among your favorite vegetables in non-vegetarian dishes?  Event better, this terrific dish includes thinly sliced ginger and red peppers.  Typically made from molasses, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other flavorings, the brown sauce is has sweet and savory flavor notes in near equal proportions.  The mushrooms are large and fleshy with the earthy flavor characteristic of fetid fungi while the snow peas are sweet, crispy and delightful to eat.

Mushrooms with Snow Peas, an Excellent Vegetarian Dish

24 February 2017: If ever there was an aptly named noodle dish, it would be Chow Fun, a Cantonese dish showcasing long, thin noodles (as opposed to chow mein which uses thin egg noodles; your choice of vegetables and your choice of chicken, pork, beef or shrimp.  My Kim would rather not spend much time and effort on vegetables when noodles and meat are around so the only vegetables gracing her Chow Fun were green and white onions.  The wok-grilling imparts a discernible smoky flavor that lingers long after you finish your dinner.  The pork is delicate and delicious with a sweet barbecue flavor.  Much as we enjoy Chow Fun, we don’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s a healthy dish.  It’s a calorie-laden, often oily dish that’s far from healthful.

Chow Fun Noodles

After five visits, it might be audacious to proclaim the Tao Chinese Bistro the best Chinese restaurant on the west side.  Five 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 | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2017
1st VISIT:  19 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
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, Mushrooms with Snow Peas, Chow Fun Noodles, Wonton Soup

Tao Chinese Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’Tucci’s Moderno – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Moderno In Rio Rancho

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New
York.”
~Frank Sinatra

Jeff Spiegel, managing partner of the insanely popular M’Tucci’s family of restaurants has described flagship restaurant M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant (previously M’Tucci’s Kitchina) as “as good as anything we did in New York City.”  That is really saying something considering  over the course of 23 years, Jeff and his life and business partner Katie Gardner owned and operated eleven restaurants in The Big Apple.  Those eclectic eleven were highly regarded dining establishments, earning praise and acclaim from the dining public and media alike.  One, The West End Bar & Grill, was a legendary Columbia University institution and veritable second home to students, faculty and staff.  Two chefs who once worked for Jeff and Katie have earned Best Chef recognition from the James Beard Society while one has garnered significant notoriety as a chef, author and television personality (some of you might recognize the name Anthony Bourdain).

When Jeff and Katie returned to Albuquerque (his hometown) in 2007, they initially pursued other ventures.  Eventually the lure of the restaurant world at which they had succeeded at the highest level pulled them back.  In July, 2013, they partnered with über executive chef John Haas in launching M’Tucci’s Kitchina, the progenitor of a restaurant family quickly becoming dynastic.  Some seventeen months later, the triumvirate opened M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria 150 feet south of the mother ship in the Montaño shopping center.  In July, 2015, they introduced M’tucci’s Cocina Grill, a Nuevo Latino concept and catering operation, in Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center.  Shortly after the dawning of 2017  M’Tucci’s Moderno debuted in Rio Rancho.

One of M’Tucci Moderno’s Two Dining Rooms

One of the keys to expanding their Duke City area restaurant empire has been the recognition, cultivation and flourishing of a very talented and inventive staff, six of whom have become partners.  You get the feeling that Jeff and Katie don’t hold their young chefs back, that they allow them to be inventive and to stretch their creative bounds.  The result is modern, contemporary restaurants which offer playful takes on classic dishes as well as a hint of local flavor.  Chef Haas’s interpretation of traditional dishes often involves their deconstruction, refinement and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes you’ve enjoyed for years, but they might not be exactly as you remember them.  They’re better! 

Similarly Cory Gray and Shawn Cronin at M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli have created a real niche by baking their own breads (sourdough, rye, rustic wheat, baguette, ciabatta, focaccia), making their own pastas and sausages, curing some of their own meats and making their own mozzarella and other cheeses.  They’re New York City deli quality!  M’Tucci’s is the only business in the Land of Enchantment authorized (by the state) to sell its own artisan salumi products.

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

Habitues of the M’Tucci restaurant family will recognize the influence of Chefs Haas, Gray and Cronin on the menu at M’Tucci’s Moderno, a menu which mostly resembles that of the flagship albeit with more steaks and chops than its brethren.  In some ways, Moderno combines the best of its predecessors, offering for example, the charcuterie boards and market bread from the Market & Pizzeria as well as some familiar entrees heretofore available only at the mothership.  The menu is a delight to peruse.  Segmented into sections–antipasti, insalata & zuppa, pasta, secondi, artisan pizza/lavosh flatbread and contini–makes it easy to navigate though you might have a hard time deciding what to order.

M’Tucci’s Moderno is located at the Unser Pavilion, west of Rust Medical Center in the space which previously housed Prime and Vernon’s Open Door, both now defunct.  Swathed in a neo-industrial aesthetic complete with exposed ceiling ductwork, it has some of the familiar eye-catching aesthetic touches Katie introduced at the couple’s first Duke City venture (without the life-sized alligator).  The restaurant has three distinct main areas, all offering comfortable seating and just enough personal space proximity to neighbors.

Charcuterie Board C: Sopressata Salami, Morbier Cheese, House Rosemary Grain Mustard

Surprisingly considering Rio Rancho is often referred to as “Little New York,” there’s only one other Italian restaurant in town (though there are several pizzerias).  That would be the much celebrated Joe’s Pasta House about five miles away.  One hallmark of Joe’s has always been outstanding service, the best in the metropolitan area in my opinion and according to Albuquerque The Magazine‘s 2016 “Best of the City” poll.  M’Tucci’s is also no slouch when it comes to service with M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant finishing in the top five of the Magazine’s “best service” category.  As has been our experience at the M’Tucci restaurant family, we found Moderno’s service convivial and professional.

We also found every nuanced morsel absolutely delicious.  On a blustery February day, the cream of wild mushroom soup especially hit the spot.  Constructed from wild mushrooms, Shiitake, Cremini, Portabella, heavy cream, brandy and olive oil, it’s got the comforting, soul-warming properties of all great soups.  It’s a soup that penetrates deep into your taste buds and thoroughly satisfies your palate and belly.  It’s the type of soup this multi-time judge would love to see at the Roadrunner Food Bank‘s annual Souper Bowl next January (hint, hint).

Shrimp Campanelle

Our hearts beat a little faster when we espied Charcuterie Boards on the menu–four of them, each offering sundry cheeses, meats and garnishes.  Charcuterie, the art of salting, smoking, brining, or otherwise curing meats, is a culinary art for which M’Tucci’s has absolutely no equal in the metropolitan area.  All four boards will merit your rapt consideration.  We opted for Charcuterie Board C, a bountiful melange of Sopressata salami, Morbier cheese, house Rosemary grain mustard served with olive oil, sea salt and  fresh M’tucci’s market bread.  Morbier has a rich, creamy flavour with a slightly bitter aftertaste and delightfully pungent aroma.  It pairs well with the whisper-thin Sopressata, a coarsely ground salami with a hint of piquancy.  The market bread, as always, is the perfect canvas for the house Rosemary grain mustard.

Previous visits to M’Tucci’s restaurants have taught us that any intentions we might have to save some of our entrees for later will go out the window as soon as we taste those entrees.  Such was the case with the Shrimp Campanelle (sauteed Gulf shrimp, house heritage pork chorizo, grape tomatoes, lobster cream sauce, basil and Campanelle pasta).  At first glance, the entree appeared too big to finish in one meal.  At first bite, we knew we wouldn’t be leaving any for later.  This is an outstanding dish–one with  je ne sais quoi, qualities not easily described.  We determined uniquely palate pleasing notes came from the house heritage chorizo and its cinnamony flavor pairing with the sweet brininess of the shrimp and decadent lobster cream sauce.  The grape tomatoes provided acidity and served as a nice foil for the richness of other elements.

Affumicato Artisinal Pizza

Whether you like your pizza on a thin, but pliable crust (artisinal pizza) or an even thinner, crispy crust (lavosh flatbread), Moderno has a pizza to satisfy every preference.  Ever since I introduced her to buffalo mozzarella several years ago, it’s been my Kim’s favorite cheese.  Smoked buffalo mozzarella is only one reason she ordered the Affumicato.  Other reasons included roasted grape tomatoes, San Marzano tomato sauce, preserved sweet peppers and caramelized onions.  For someone with as pronounced a carnivorous bent to have enjoyed this pizza as much as she did speaks volumes about how good it is…and how good buffalo mozzarella is.  One of few people who don’t believe char is a flavor, Kim asked for a light char and Moderno delivered. 

Desserts are a medley of familiar M’Tucci’s standards and some heretofore unavailable.  Among the former is the Twinkie L’Italia which four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.”  Only the bread pudding (port wine cherries, Stracciatella gelato, dark chocolate ganache) could pull us away.  This is an excellent bread pudding elevated to rarefied air with the addition of the Stacciatella (vanilla gelato flecked with fine chocolate) drizzled with dark chocolate ganache veins.  The tart-sweet port wine cherries are a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of the bread pudding.  It has already vaulted to the top of Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  The professor with the perspicacious palate is pretty selective when it comes to bread pudding.  Trust us.  This is a great one.

Bread Pudding (Port Wine Cherries, Stracciatella Gelato, Dark Chocolate Ganache

It could well be argued that Duke City diners are even more persnickety and demanding than their counterparts in New York City.  What can’t be disputed is that–just as they did in Metropolis–Jeff Spiegel and Katie Gardner have made it in Albuquerque.  As restaurant impresarios and developers of restaurant talent, they just might be peerless.  Their restaurants certainly are!

M’Tucci’s Moderno Italian Restaurant
1908 Wellspring Avenue, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 891-2432
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bread Pudding, Shrimp Campanelle, Affumicato, Charcuterie Board C, Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

M'Tucci's Moderno Italian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

JOE’S PASTA HOUSE – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

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.” 

Exemplars of Outstanding Service: Randi and Victoria

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. 

Side Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing

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 complimentary bread and the best bruschetta in New Mexico

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

Stuffed Eggplant

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. 

November, 2015: For some restaurants, having a presence in the community means little more than having a brick-and-mortar storefront with an address.  For restaurants which become beloved institutions within their communities, having a presence in the community means being part and parcel of the fabric of the community–being involved on a day-to-day basis in promoting all that is great about a community.  It means not only providing outstanding food and excellent service to guests, but getting to know them and treating them like family.  It means listening to their guests, taking their feedback–good and bad–and using it to continue improving.  It means being a neighbor and friend.

Fried Lasagna

That’s what   Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho has done.  Joe’s isn’t just one of the two or three best Italian restaurants in New Mexico, it’s an exemplar of what it means to be part of a community.  Because of her involvement with the community, Kassie Guzzardi, the effervescent co-owner of Joe’s Pasta House, was selected by Yelp as one of 100 owners of top-rated businesses from the U.S. and Canada.  With that well-deserved honor, she ws invited to Yelp’s “Coast-to-Coast: Coming Together Because We Mean Business,”  a networking opportunity in which Yelp professionals  shared marketing techniques with their brethren.  There’s no doubt Kassie also taught even Yelp’s marketing experts a thing or two about what it means to be part of the community.

March, 2017: Delish.com, one of the top ten food-related online destinations, knows that buffets are often perceived as “minimal hotel breakfasts and cheesy resort restaurants.” Rather than waste bytes denouncing these denizens of dreariness, Delish celebrated the highest-rated restaurant buffets according to Foursquare City Guide. In its feature “The Buffet Everyone is Talking About in Your State,” Delish certainly picked a great one from New Mexico, selecting Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho as purveyor of the very best buffet in the Land of Enchantment. Joe’s buffet is the apotheosis of deliciousness, a sumptuous array of favorites that will leave you drooling. Although Joe’s spectacular buffet is available only for lunch, the dinner menu is even better.

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

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

Appetizers

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.

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. 

Clams Casino

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.

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. 

Joe’s Famous and Fabulous Stuffed Eggplant Atop Spaghetti

22 January 2017: 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. 

Baked Imported Brie (Melted Imported Brie, Served with Fresh Cranberry Compote, Blueberries and Crostini)

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. Regulars know the stuffed eggplant is standard fare on the daily buffet.  To offer his patrons more variety Joe removed the eggplant from his buffet and replaced it with another item.  That tactic lasted one day, a day he remembers for having made about 75 trips to the kitchen to prepare the beloved eggplant dish for his guests. 

23 October 2016:  Though Joe doesn’t spent as much time in the kitchen as he might like, he’s certainly honed his chef staff to prepare dishes to his high and exacting standards.  He’s got an excellent kitchen staff he can trust.  Chef Simon, for example, prepared a baked imported brie dish that is not only delightful in its deliciousness, but plated beautifully.  If it’s true that you also eat with your eyes, it was love at first sight when the brie arrived.  Served with a fresh cranberry compote, blueberries and crostini, it pairs the mold-ripened pungency of brie with tangy berries, a match made in kitchen heaven.  Brie’s somewhat thick rind belies the creamy softness that practically oozes when punctured.

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp

17 January 2016: When we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my Kim’s work-commute took her past pristine sandy beaches and spectacular blue waters. Alas, it also took her past several seafood processing plants, the malodorous emanations of which turned her off seafood for years. She won’t partake of seafood unless it is at the peak of freshness with absolutely no “fishy” smell.  She loves the seafood at Joe’s Pasta House.  It’s unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Her new favorite may be the clams casino. Created in a Rhode Island casino near the turn of the 20th century, clams casino (fresh little neck clams steamed in broth with garlic, red onions and bacon) are a magnificent mariner’s favorite.  The combination of crispy bacon and sweet clams is addictive.

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.

Mediterranean Style Calamari

29 August 2014: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read “fried lasagna?”  More than a few of you will probably cringe in terror at the thought of Paula Deene slathering up a perfectly good lasagna with butter then frying it.  History recounts that lasagna has actually been fried well before the popular pasta dish was even called lasagna.  In fact a First Century recipe describes “lagana” as thin sheets of wheat flour dough with crushed lettuce juice, flavored with spices, then fried.

Fried Breaded Meatballs

Fast forward some twenty centuries and innovative restaurants such as Joe’s Pasta House are preparing the most indulgent and delicious fried lasagna you can imagine.  As expected, your fork will penetrate past a blanket of molten cheese and sink down into layers of delicious strips of lasagna noodles and ground sausage resplendent in one of Joe’s famous red sauces.  Much less expected is the piquant bite, the genesis of which is actually the sausage.  It’s not New Mexico chile piquant, but it’s got a bite to it. 

12 July 2015:  In recent years the term “fusion” has been widely used to describe the blending of two or more cuisines to create innovative and sometimes quite delicious dishes.  Though Joe would probably dismiss the term fusion, he does marry Italian ingredients and culinary techniques with those of his adopted home state to create uniquely delicious dishes which bring great credit to both cultures.  Among them is the fried breaded meatballs, a special offered in July, 2015.

Ziti Alla Vodka

Ziti Alla Vodka

The name “fried breaded meatballs” in and of itself may not sound especially interesting or delicious, but at the hands of Joe’s kitchen staff, these meaty orbs are quite wonderful.  Take four traditional breaded and fried meatballs, top them with a New Mexico green chile spinach cream sauce and melted mozzarella and you’ve got a rich, indulgent, absolutely decadent adventure in deliciousness.  While dense and coarse, the meatballs are mostly meat, not some filler.  They’d be terrific by themselves, but the green chile spinach sauce elevates them to rarefied status…and that sauce.  Oh, that sauce.  Bill Gates isn’t that rich.

29 August 2014:  In recent years the seemingly de rigueur calamari appetizer has fallen out of fashion, largely because it’s almost always prepared exactly the same way–strips or ringlets of breaded calamari served with a side of marinara.  Joe’s dares to be different, offering a “Mediterranean style” calamari that brings personality and zest to an appetizer which too often earns the adjective “boring.”  At Joe’s, this is one exciting calamari dish redolent with tangy and invigorating flavors. The fried calamari is topped with warm feta cheese, capers, artichoke hearts, red onions and kalamata olives in a lemon-butter sauce. It’s even better than it sounds and thankfully Joe’s serves it in a characteristically large portion size because you and your dining companion will be vying for as much of it as you can get.

Manicotti Bolognese

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.

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.

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

Traditional Gnocchi

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.

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.

Baked Cannelloni

14 May 2016: 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, (old-world-style tender pork ribs slow-cooked in Joe’s homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil, olive oil and Romano cheese served over imported rigatoni pasta), an Italian dish showcasing a simple, but magnificently executed tomato sauce.  Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this addictive dish is the interplay between the acidic tomato sauce and the rich, creamy, sharp flavor of the Romano cheese which Joe applies in perfect proportion to impart a discernibly magnificent contrast.

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 will probably 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.

Rigatoni Pasta and Pork Ribs

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.

23 October 2016: 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.

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

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.

Sausage and Beef Lasagna

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. 

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

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli

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.

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.

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

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.

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. 

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

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

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. 

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. 

Veal Parmigiana

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.

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. 

Seafood Bisque

Seafood Bisque

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

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. 

Italian Seafood Stew- Zuppa di Pesci

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. 

29 August 2014: One of the most traditional “red sauce” entrees is the almost anachronistic veal parmigiana which the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants don’t even deign to put on their menus.  Veal parmigiana is a circa 1960s favorite of Italian restaurants throughout the East Coast where it’s referred to simply as “veal parm.”  Perhaps one of the reasons this wonderful dish has fallen out of favor is because it’s not always prepared well.   At Joe’s, the veal parmigiana is the stuff of which dreams are made.  The veal is lightly breaded and perfectly prepared.  It’s fork tender and delicious with a blanket of molten Parmesan and Mozzarella and rich, tangy red sauce providing a delicious cover 

Linguini Pasta with Fried Breaded Clams and Scallops

12 July 2015: While I was raving effusively about Joe’s red sauces, my Kim once retorted “if you love them so much, you should marry them.”  I tell her she was being ridiculous.  The state of New Mexico prohibits polygamy.  You know when I eschew a red sauce dish at Joe’s, what I order instead has got to be very special.  Special is a good way to describe the linguini pasta with fried breaded clams and strips, a weekend special during the second week of July, 2015.  A very delicate pasta is tossed with red and orange cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and Romano cheese then topped with fried breaded clam strips and scallops.  Fried clams are extremely rare in the Land of Enchantment.  Leave it to Joe to prepare them in the manner and style of my favorite New England clam shacks.  Even if they weren’t the sublime clam bellies I prefer, the clams transported me back to Essex in Massachusetts.  Joe’s has a way of transporting diners to better places and states of satisfaction.

26 July 2015: With a veritable compendium of a menu, not to mention specials that live up to that distinction, you’re bound to find something you’ve never had before or haven’t had in quite a while.  For me, the entree fitting the latter is Veal Saltimboccaveal scallopini with red onions, garlic, mushrooms and prosciutto topped with melted mozzarella and served with a pesto cream sauce.   In Italian, the term saltimbocca means “to jump in the mouth,” supposedly a reference to the  dish being so good that it literally jumps into the diner’s mouth.  This isn’t just hyperbole; it literally is that good.  The tender, moist veal is pounded into thin medallions that would be excellent by themselves.  The herbaceous pesto renders them even more delicious.

French Cut Pork Chops

26 July 2015: It seems ironic that a proud Italian restaurant would serve French-cut pork chops…and no, “French cut,” in this case, has nothing to do with cutting women’s underwear so as to emphasize a woman’s thigh.   You don’t have to be a Francophile to understand that “French-cut” means to slice food lengthwise into long, thin strips.  Easily three-quarters of an inch thick, Joe’s pork chops are grilled and topped with a Chianti mushroom pan sauce you might be tempted to lap up when you’re done.  The chops are grilled to your exacting specification and at medium, have plenty of moistness while retaining a fork tenderness.  This is a white meat dish sure to appease all carnivores. 

17 January 2016:  Jonesing for a steak on a Sunday morning, we rattled off one steakhouse after the other before it dawned on me that the Joe’s weekend dinner special for January 15, 16 and 17 was a grilled New York Strip steak topped with sauteed mushrooms, sweet onions and melted Provolone cheese served with battered onion rings.  No steakhouse would have done it better.  Better than a one-inch cut and easily twelve-ounces, it is a moist and tender slab of beef prepared to your exacting specifications (for optimum juiciness go for no more than medium-rare).  The sauteed fleshy fungi are earthy and sweet, counterbalanced by the melted molten blanket of Provolone.  Then there are the onion rings, a stack of golden fried orbs and for great measure, wonderfully prepared asparagus spears.

Grilled New York Strip Steak

17 January 2016: All along the coast of Italy, frutti di mare which translates from Italian to “fruit of the sea” offers a beloved multi-seafood soiree.  The myriad of seafood flavors at Joe’s includes shrimp, clams, calamari, mussels and scallops over a best of linguine in your choice of spicy marinara sauce or garlic butter white wine sauce.  At Joe’s the “spicy” marinara sauce isn’t so spicy or piquant that it detracts from the freshness and sweetness of the seafood.  If anything, the marinara brings out those qualities.  There’s a netful of seafood in each swimming pool-sized bowl of the fruits of the sea.  The next time someone tells you there isn’t good seafood in the Duke City area, bring them to Joe’s and order this dish for them.

There is so much to love 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. In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine readers voted Joe’s “Top Five” in four different categories: Best Italian, Best Wait Staff (the pulchritudinous Randi and vivacious Victoria are our favorites), Best Place to Overindulge and Best Buffet.  In 2016, Joe’s earned a coveted best of the city for its service staff.  There is none better!

24-Ounce Porterhouse Steak

While Joe’s Pasta House has earned popular acclaim from a faithful customer base, Joe’s culinary skills aren’t always as critically acclaimed.  Rarely will you hear his name mentioned in discussions about the best chefs in the metropolitan area.  Some of that is based on the misbegotten perception that red sauce dishes aren’t as sophisticated and challenging to prepare as the “high-brow” dishes served in “Northern Italian” restaurants.  Another reason is Joe’s self-effacing nature.  He’s not one to crow about his skills and is modest to a fault.  When we lavished praise on his phenomenal rigatoni pasta and pork ribs dish, he dismissed it as “just another dish we ate at home growing up in New York.”  If only every chef was as modest…and talented.  

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

22 January 2017:  Joe’s weekend dinner specials are so popular that they sometimes sell out early Saturday night.  On occasion, however, one or two specials might be left over for early birds who arrive on Sunday at precisely noon.  Such was the case when a 24-ounce Porterhouse steak was the weekend dinner special.  For my carnivorous Kim, ordering the very last Porterhouse steak is akin to winning the lottery.   Martha Stewart Living Magazine once declared “Only a few steaks can be classified as perfect.  The porterhouse is one of them.”  Indeed, Porterhouse is a peerless cut consisting of a supple, ample-sized filet and a robust strip joined by the T-bone.  It compromises nothing in taste or presentation.  Joe’s seasons it with salt and pepper and cooks it to your notion of perfection.  For Kim, only medium-well will do.  Though usually accompanied by a baked potato, during our Sunday visit she opted instead for a side of spaghetti with meat sauce which she admits is much better than what Olive Garden can prepare.

14 May 2016: We’re convinced there’s nothing Joe can’t do.  Want pizza?  The housemade Sicilian-style pizza, available on the daily lunch buffet, is terrific.  Two or seven slices of pizza and a serving or five of the eggplant parmigiana and you’ll be smiling for a week.  The lunch menu also includes a third-pound burger and a number of hero sandwich, the best of which may just be the Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich, a beauteous behemoth as good as any sandwich in New Mexico.  Greatness is destined for any sandwich lucky enough to be made on the exceptional bread which comes fresh from Joe’s bread ovens every day.  Nestled between the pillow-soft bread are generous slices of delightfully seasoned salami and sharp, creamy cheese dressed your way.

Frutti Di Mare “

23 October 2016: Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. Joe Pasta House exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy.  The steak is prepared to your exacting specifications (it’s outstanding at medium-rare) and served with a light, innocuous sauce that does nothing to detract from the flavor of the beef.  The flat iron steak is served with sauteed red peppers and onions, a surprisingly natural complement to what is increasingly a favored cut of steak.

Flat Iron Steak sliced with sauteed red peppers & onions

The

Romano Encrusted Salmon

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.   Both the tiramisu and the cannoli are absolute must-have desserts.  In the inaugural Taste of Rio Rancho (held in 2014), the tiramisu was acclaimed the City of Vision’s very best dessert.  I was fortunate enough to have served as a judge along with my friend Larry McGoldrick.  When the tiramisu was brought to us, we knew there aren’t many desserts in New Mexico as good as Joe’s terrific tiramisu.

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.

Joe’s Magnificent Tiramisu, the best anywhere

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 | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 27
RATING: 25
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, Veal Parmigiano, Fried Lasagna, Calamari Mediterranean Style, Sweet and Spicy Shrimp, French-Style Pork Chops, Veal Saltimbocca, Fruitti De Mare, Steamed Clams Casino, Grilled New York Strip Steak, Rigatoni Pasta and Pork Ribs, Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich, Porterhouse Steak, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

Joe's Pasta House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Stack House BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho

One of my Psychology professors cautioned students about the danger of “amateur diagnosis,” the practice of assigning specific psychoses and neuroses to people we meet solely on the basis of our cursory familiarity with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  He explained that it often takes an experienced practicing psychiatrist several sessions to arrive at a diagnosis and many more sessions before treatment proves effective.  His point–a little knowledge can be dangerous–applies in virtually every arena of knowledge in practicum.  Reflecting back on all the times my rudimentary conclusions were ultimately proven incorrect, it’s a point well driven. 

When my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick, Dazzling Deanell and Beauteous Barb decided to pursue Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) certification, the words of my Psychology professor resonated in my memory.  Sure, we’d all been eating barbecue most of our lives, but how much did we really know about passing judgement on barbecue?  Not much, it turned out.  Over the course of several hours, our KCBS instructor imparted sage knowledge and proven techniques to help us understand thee three most important and very nuanced elements of competitive judging: taste, texture and appearance.   Much like getting a Psychology degree, obtaining KCBS certification gave us a modicum of knowledge.  Applying what we learned in such competitions as Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew built upon that knowledge.

Long lines queue up for terrific ‘cue

Recently when Larry and Deanell rhapsodized poetic about the barbecue at the Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho, my first questions were “how would that barbecue rate in a KCBS barbecue competition?” Larry gave it nines in taste, texture and appearance. Deanell one-upped Larry, indicating the Stack House BBQ’s ‘cue warranted all tens (and she knows what it is to be a ten). They invited me to discover for myself whether their ratings were hyperbole or justified.  Alas, during my inaugural visit, I was suffering the ravages of a bad cold which rendered my taste buds untrustworthy and enfeebled my olfactory senses.  You can’t judge barbecue if you can’t imbibe its aromas and taste its subtle flavor qualities. 

Having a bad cold tends to exacerbate my desire for chile, the more piquant the better.  In the throes of even the most egregious colds, I’ve been known to drive to Santa Fe for some of the Horseman’s Haven‘s combustible chile.  The Haven’s Level II chile, affectionately known as “El Diablo” is about the only thing that can quell the stuffiness of a head cold.  While the Stack House doesn’t offer anything quite as incendiary as El Diablo, the menu does include two pepper-infused items: Frito pie and jalapeño sausage.  From what my compromised palate could surmise, both were probably quite good though it would take a return visit or ten to know for sure. 

Pit Master Extraordinaire Greg Janke Slices Brisket with Surgical Precision

My return visit transpired exactly one week after my inaugural visit, so eager were my Kim and I to experience the bodacious barbecue about which Larry and Deanell had raved.  We had the great fortune to spend time discussing all things barbecue with proprietor-pit master Greg Janke.  Like me, Greg is an Intel alum, having toiled at the technology giant for 23 years, five years longer than I.  Not one to let grass grow under his feet, Greg left Intel in April, 2016 and five months later–on Friday, September 23rd–he launched Stack House BBQ. 

Greg’s transition from technologist to restaurateur wasn’t as challenging as one might think.  In fact, Greg admits, working at Intel prepared him very well to own and operate a restaurant.  Even in such technically demanding areas as Automation where he rose through the ranks, Intel employees have the opportunity to hone their business and customer orientation skills (not to mention the discipline to work long hours).  There is, of course, nothing in the semi-conductor arena which translates directly to the mastery of smoking meats in the low-and-slow manner.  Greg began smoking meats at home several years ago, eventually earning praise from friends and the confidence to enter the arena of competition.

Half Rack of Baby Back Ribs

In each of the past two years, Greg has competed at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew, a Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned event.  In 2016, he finished seventeenth overall in a field of thirty-one, faring especially well in the pork category where he placed eleventh.  As much as the judges in the blind taste foodfest may have enjoyed his barbecue, it was event-goers who convinced him to launch his own barbecue restaurant.  In each of the event’s two days, he sold out–every morsel of magnificent meat–well before day’s end.   Moreover, many of them lavished praise and encouragement, essentially convincing Greg that he belonged in the barbecue restaurant arena.

Just seven months previously, Rub-N-Wood had shuttered its doors, leaving the City of Vision without a barbecue restaurant.  Now, Rio Rancho without barbecue is akin to Hillary not wearing a pantsuit.  It just doesn’t and shouldn’t happen.  Barbecue became a Rio Rancho tradition in 1983 when the great Gary West launched Smokehouse BBQ  at 4000 Barbara Loop, a location which would henceforth become synonymous with great barbecue. He owned and operated the stately home of seductive smoke for nearly a quarter-century before moving on. With Roger Bell at the helm, Rub-N-Wood moved in and pleased palates for nearly three years.  The hazy smoke plumes which had so long emanated from 4000 Barbara Loop resumed on a lazy, late September day when Greg assumed the role as Rio Rancho’s proprietor of the pit.  It was a day warranting celebration.

Half Chicken

As had transpired during the Pork & Brew, Greg sold out his first few days of operation.  Barbecue aficionados quickly embraced his Memphis meets Texas approach to smoking meats.  What’s not to love!  Greg uses a combination of oak and cherry woods to impart a unique flavor to his barbecue.  He developed a rub that includes some twelve ingredients that penetrate deeply into the meats and imbue them with flavor-boosting, crust-forming properties.  Not only that, the Stack House BBQ restaurant is an inviting milieu for meat lovers.  It may well be the most pristine barbecue restaurant in which you’ve ever set foot.  If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, Greg is probably being fitted for a halo as you read this.  In addition to the immaculate nature of the premises, service is friendly and attentive (another Rio Rancho tradition exemplified by the terrific staff at Joe’s Pasta House among others).

The Stack House menu is rather limited.  Meats–brisket, chicken or pulled pork–are available by the half or full pound.  Also available are sausage, jalapeño sausage, half-a-chicken and baby back ribs (available in quantities of three, half a rack or a full rack).  You can also opt to have your meats on a sandwich.  Then there’s the aforementioned Frito pie.  Sides are pretty much what you’d expect at a barbecue joint: potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, corn on the cob, chile, beans, mac and cheese and fries (including chile cheese fries).  A baked potato, with or without meat, can also be had.  Limited applies solely to the number of items on the menu board, not to how great they taste.

Sides: Green Beans and Potato Salad

7 October 2016: You won’t mind getting your hands dirty handling the baby back ribs on which Greg’s magical rub is liberally applied.  These ribs are messy and they’re magnificent, each meaty morsel pried away easily from the bone.  They’re not fall-off-the-bone tender, having just the right amount of give that signifies the perfect degree of doneness.  Make no bones about it, these baby back ribs are (as Larry would say) competition-worthy, needing neither sauce nor amelioration to improve upon them.   The sauce, by the way, is terrific, a sweet and tangy complement to the richly satisfying smokiness of the ribs.

7 October 2016: With the emphasis on pork and brisket, chicken is often a sorry afterthought at some barbecue establishments.  Not so at the Stack House where the full-flavored half-chicken is a main-event item.  Quite simply, it’s fantastic, some of the very best we’ve had in New Mexico!  Peel back the blackened skin (delicious in its own right) and you’ll be rewarded with moist, juicy and delicious white and dark meat chicken…and there’s plenty of it.  A nice-sized half-chicken (breast, thigh and leg) won’t leave much for sharing–not that you’ll want to.  Update: Because the half-chicken didn’t always sell out, Greg decided to offer chicken thighs instead.  Aside from being the most moist part of the chicken, chicken thighs don’t have to spend as much time on the smoker as half chickens.

Frito Pie

In November 2016, Stackhouse began offering daily specials from Wednesday through Sunday. Wednesday’s child is a pulled pork sandwich.  On Thursday, it’s a chicken sandwich.  Friday features beef back ribs (a whole pound) though you’re well advised to get them early.  When we attempted to order beef back ribs on December 2nd, 2016, Greg apprised us that on that very date, my friend Sr. Plata ordered two portions for lunch and took home another for dinner.  Sr. Plata enjoys the Stackhouse’s beef ribs so much, he may move in…at least on Fridays.  But I digress.  Saturday’s special is three baby back ribs while Sunday, it’s Frito pie.  All daily specials are value priced.

2 December 2016: New Mexico’s contribution to Health.com’s “50 Fattiest Foods,” a state-by-state hall of infamy, was our ubiquitous Frito pie. The version low-lighted in the article contained a pants-popping 46 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat. Still, it’s hard to resist the Land of Enchantment’s most egregious fat-offender, especially since it sometimes looks like a healthy lettuce and onion salad when prepared by some restaurants. Underneath the lettuce and chopped onions, however, is a mound of ground beef covered in chile and cheese surrounded by Frito’s corn chips.  At the Stack House, Greg dispenses with all the offending lettuce, tomatoes and onions.  Instead, this Frito Pie is constructed with only the good parts–lots of Fritos corn chips, ground beef, chile and a generous sprinkling of shredded cheese.   The chile has a nice bite, just enough to get your notice.  This is a fat-fest all New Mexicans will enjoy.

Three Meat Platter: Brisket, Chicken Thighs and Pork

2 December 2016: For a veritable meatfest, your best bet is a three meat platter (pictured above).  Kim, my carnivorous better-half will vouch for the brisket, chicken thighs and pulled pork.  Though a half chicken would be her preference, the chicken thighs make for a good consolation prize.  They’re moist, tender and delicious with a light smokiness.  The best of the three may well be the brisket which is shredded and pulls apart easily.  As with brisket in Central Texas, the cradle of Southwest barbecue, this isn’t the most lean of brisket.  It’s got just enough fat for flavor.  Tender tendrils of deliciousness define the shredded pork, a tangle of white and dark meat.  All three meats are lightly smoked and are perfect vehicles for the Stack House barbecue sauce.

2 December 2016: My Kim has often threatened to take away my man card, especially when we prepare steak at home or order it at a restaurant.  While she immediately–and with great zest–attacks the steak, my focal point is usually a loaded baked potato with plenty of melting butter, sour cream and shredded cheese.  The Stack House does one better than local steak houses.  First, the baked potatoes are smoked–lightly impregnated with hickory-cherry smoky goodness.  Secondly, you can load them up with the aforementioned baked potato suspects and with your choice of smoked meat.  The pulled pork is a magnificent choice for the smoked baked potato.  You’ll wish all your baked potatoes were similar endowed.

Smoked Baked Potato with Pulled Pork

7 October 2016: Great barbecue restaurants know that to provide an excellent full-meal experience, smoked meats must be accompanied by worthy sides.  Stack House has a two-tiered pricing model for its sides, the most expensive being three dollars.  Sides are served on Styrofoam vessels and are generously portioned.  The potato salad may evoke memories of picnic meals long gone.  It’s a mayonnaise-based potato salad with a pleasant mustardy-vinegary tang.  Alas, the green beans could use a few bits and pieces of smoked meats and maybe a pinch of salt.  Much better is the cherry cobbler, replete with whole cherries and a crumbly and delicious crust. 

Cherry Cobbler

Stack House BBQ may ultimately become yet another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho, a port-of-call for barbecue aficionados from throughout the metropolitan area, if not the entire Land of Enchantment.  With its September launch, all is right in Rio Rancho once again.

Stack House BBQ
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7516
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 December 2016
1ST VISIT: 29 September 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Half Chicken, Cherry Cobbler, Apple Cobbler, Brisket, Pulled Pork, Chicken Thighs, Frito Pie, Smoked Baked Potato

Stack House BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Toro Burger – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Toro Burger in Rio Rancho

While watching a “sanitized for television” version of the audacious satirical comedy Blazing Saddles, my precocious six-year-old niece asked several questions with deep sociological implications: “Why is everyone in the town of Rock Ridge named Johnson? Why were all the town’s citizens white?” From her silence, you’d think my Kim was a “perp lawyering up” at a police inquiry. Rather than responding herself, she enjoyed seeing my brother and I hem and haw in trying to give accurate and age-appropriate answers. Far easier to answer were Blazing Saddles questions which inspired nostalgic reflection: “Is there a Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Albuquerque? Does Howard Johnson’s really serve only one flavor?”

For those of us who grew up in the dark ages, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were almost as ubiquitous as McDonald’s are today. During its halcyon days (peaking in 1975), more than 1,000 “Ho Jo’s” restaurants and motor lodges dotted the American landscape, their distinctive orange roofs a familiar beacon for hungry sojourners. Among the restaurants’ culinary draws were its 28 flavors of butterfat-enhanced ice cream and fried clam strips, an exotic offering theretofore available only in New England. The Marriott Corporation’s 1982 acquisition of all Howard Johnson’s properties signaled the precipitous beginning of the end of the once popular and profitable restaurant. Today, a sole remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant (in Lake George, New York) remains from among more than 1,000 original restaurants.

Toro’s Welcoming Dining Room

Having returned to the Land of Enchantment in 1979 after a two-year Air Force assignment to Massachusetts, this inveterate fried clam aficionado craved the plump, intensely-flavored paragons of deliciousness. Only Howard Johnson’s provided an approximation, albeit waifishly thin, desiccated strips (sorry Bob) vastly inferior to the tender, juicy whole bellied clams available seaside throughout New England. Despite having to settle for crummy clams, Howard Johnson’s became a frequent stop, a milieu of memories.  When the Albuquerque Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Eubank gave up the ghost in the early 1980s, I mourned.  Where now would fried clams be found?

When Mary Ann Schaefer, a long-time friend of this blog wrote to tell me about the Toro Burger Bar in Rio Rancho’s Howard Johnson hotel, it wasn’t the prospect of juicy, beefy burgers which came to mind, but my beloved fried clams.  Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the burgers would be the impetus for a visit.  We hadn’t visited the hotel since it housed Wine and Roses, a rather good German restaurant.  That was more than a decade ago when the hotel was the Inn at Rio Rancho.  The Inn became a Howard Johnson’s property in 2014.

Chile Cheese Fries

Since Wine and Roses shuttered its doors so many years ago, a number of restaurant concepts gave it the old college try in the Inn’s restaurant space but none had the staying power engendered by customer loyalty.  The seemingly du jour concept during the conversion from Inn at Rio Rancho to Howard Johnson’s was the Toro Bar and Grill which offered dinner service seven days a week.  It garnered the same level of enthusiasm as another tumbleweed rolling onto the street.  We surmised the name change to Toro Burger was just a rebranding-repackaging effort offering the same uninspiring fare.  Boy were we wrong!

Toro Burger is a terrific restaurant, one every burger aficionado in the metropolitan area should visit.  Ryan, an inventive Indiana born-and-bred chef has suffused the menu with some of the most superb and innovative burgers in the Land of Enchantment.   Chef Ryan’s previous gig in New Mexico was at Annapurna.  Now he’s doing his own thing and creating culinary magic.   You’ll be hard-pressed to decide which burger or sandwich to order, so tempting are the choices.  Even better, the beef is ground daily on the premises from three different cuts of steak.  That means superior burgers!  All burgers come with your choice of patty–house ground beef, turkey, veggie, chorizo-beef blend or lamb–on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger sauce (unless noted) and your choice of side.  You can also ask for your burger to be wrapped in a flour tortilla.

Fried Pickles

Before rushing out the door to get your burger fix, you should know that Toro is open only from 5PM through 10PM Tuesday through Saturday.  Much as you’d love to have one of Toro’s fabulous burgers for lunch, you’ll appreciate the reason for the restaurant’s limited hours.  Not only does Chef Ryan prepare everything to order, he spends a lot of time sourcing fresh ingredients, grinding the beef, creating sauces and even curing and smoking the restaurant’s bacon and pastrami.  That pastrami is cured for 18 days then smoked for another 12 to 16 hours.    The bacon undergoes a similar meticulous hands-on curing and smoking process.  These are the difference-makers, the reasons burgerphiles will return often.

The menu is another reason.  To get you started, you can select from one of six appetizers, three soft tacos (ground beef, adobado chicken, blackened tilapia) or four salads.  Be cautioned that the appetizers are generously portioned and you’ll want lots of room for those burgers.  There are twelve highly imaginative burgers on the menu as well as a build-your-own-burger option with seemingly unlimited options considering you can choose your meat, cheese (seven choices), veggies (eight choices) and sauces (eleven choices).  It’s a mad burger scientist’s dream!  There are three entrees on the menu: catfish dinner, New Mexico hot chicken and beef ribs.  There are also ten sandwich options, each intriguing.  All sandwiches include your choice of side.  If you’re not already planning a visit, I haven’t done my job well.  If the burgers are any indication, you should rush right over!

Jack and Dianne Burger with Onion Things

18 November 2016: When we ordered our appetizers we had no idea how generously portioned they’d be.  An order of chile cheese fries rewarded us with a mountain of house-cut fries and a generous sprinkling of New Mexico green chile with a cheese blend dousing and Ranch dressing on the side.  The green chile has a pleasant piquancy–enough heat for me to notice and for my Kim to call it “hot.”  Anytime you can find house-cut fries, you should jump on them.  Infinitely better than out-of-a-bag fries, these golden planks of salty deliciousness are terrific repositories for cheese and green chile.

18 November 2016: Our server, the ambassadorial and indefatigable James recommended the fried pickles, one of the more popular appetizers on the menu.  Served with a ramekin of Ranch dressing (ask for one with blue cheese, too) is a pile of thinly sliced, lightly breaded dill pickles which would really purse your lips were it not for the breading.  In our eight years down South (on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), we never received such a generous portion of fried pickles as we did during our inaugural visit to Toro Burger.  We wound up taking half of them home and found them as delightful the next day as we did when they first graced our table.

Mo’ Better Burger with Fries

18 November 2016: Until just before we placed our order, I fully intended to order what Mary Ann’s hubby had enjoyed so much–the Toro burger (Hatch green chile, house made bacon, cheese and chipotle aoli), but perusing a full-sized menu instead of one online gave us new perspective on just how inventive Toro’s burgers are.  If, like me, you enjoy flavor combinations that pair disparate (sweet and savory, tangy and piquant, etc.) taste profiles, you’ll love the Mo’ Better Burger (grilled pineapple jam, house-made bacon and Sriracha aioli) which teases and tantalizes every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  While the combination of pineapples and bacon has long been exploited on pizza, we found it to be tailor-made for burgers, too.  The bacon has a wonderful smokiness paired with a sweet-peppery element that renders it positively addictive.  One taste of the pineapple jam and your imagination will conjure up all the different ways you can enjoy it.

18 November 2016: My Kim’s choice was a slightly modified Jack and Dianne (which she ordered not because she likes the John Mellencamp song by that name) which comes standard with sauteed garlic mushrooms and Jack cheese.  Kim asked that the Jack cheese be eighty-sixed and substituted grilled onions instead.  The last trade that good was when the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta for a song and dance.  There’s something almost magical about earthy garlic-infused mushrooms paired with sweet, almost caramelized onions.  Lest I forget, the beef is of superior caliber, a delicious, nicely seasoned patty of about six-ounces.  Burgers at Toro are so good you can dispense with mustard and ketchup.

Travis Pastrami

19 November 2016: So impressed were we after our inaugural visit that we couldn’t wait to return.  It took us only one day to make like McArthur.  To avoid marital strife, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would order the pastrami sandwich (Kim wins so many coin tosses she must have a two-headed coin).  Called the Travis Pastrami, the sandwich is constructed on grilled light rye bread smeared with hot mustard and piled generously with the housemade pastrami about which James, our affable guide had waxed poetic.  The sandwich comes standard with sauerkraut, but Kim opted to have it on the side.  As with all great pastrami, this one’s got plenty of marbling.  That’s where so much of the flavor comes from. Well, that a meticulous, painstakingly monitored brining, curing, smoking process.  It’s obvious Chef Ryan knows what he’s doing.  Only at Joe Rodriguez’s California Pastrami will you find pastrami this good. 

19 November 2016: Our inaugural visit taught us to be more judicious about ordering appetizers. Instead of, for example, ordering an overly generous platter of chile cheese fries and risk being near-full when entrees arrive, opt for the pulled pork sliders (three slow-cooked pulled pork sliders with a red chile BBQ sauce and house slaw).  Tender tendrils of pork nestled between pillowy soft bread rolls is just the beginning.  The red chile BBQ sauce is more tangy than it is piquant, but it infuses the pork with a delightful liveliness.  Ditto for the coleslaw which imparts tangy, creamy notes. There’s only one thing wrong with these sliders–you’ll want at least two (or eight) more.

Pulled Pork Sliders

19 November 2016: Having lost the coin flip and thus the opportunity to order the pastrami sandwich didn’t make me a Miss Congeniality.  There are just too many terrific options on the menu, each one a winner.  James recommended the catfish dinner (buttermilk soaked fried catfish fingers tossed in a spicy cornmeal dredge and served with house-cut fries, slaw and a roasted corn tartar sauce).  Who would have thought Rio Rancho would become my go-to destination for catfish–first at K’Lynn’s Cuisine and now at Toro Burger?  The two planks of catfish placed gently atop a haystack-sized pile of French fries are terrific–light, flaky and delicate with a bit of personality courtesy of a spice blend.  Dip the catfish into the roasted corn tartar and the flavor profile changes altogether.  This is the tartar sauce for those of us who don’t like tartar sauce courtesy of sweet corn niblets that serve as a nice foil to other savory elements.

Catfish Dinner

18 November 2016: Even among the most creative and experienced chefs, desserts are often a challenge, one usually left to an assistant or pastry chef.  Chef Ryan may be just as adept at desserts as he is with savory elements.  As with everything that comes out of his kitchen, there’s plenty of imagination in every dish.  There’s also quite a bit of magic.  Our introduction to his prowess with postprandial aspects of a meal was with a crustless cheesecake.  Well, there is a crust, but it’s not Graham crackers or anything of the like.  This “crust” is comprised of thinly sliced red apples atop of which rests a molded round cheesecake topped with a green chile compote punctuated by more thin apple slices.  The green chile compote has both piquant and sweet elements, a perfect foil for the tangy apples and even sweeter cheesecake.  We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this masterpiece.

Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote

19 November 2016: We weren’t surprised at how much we enjoyed Chef Ryan’s housemade ice cream sandwich.  Now, this one does have a Graham cracker crust which sandwiches a layer of chocolate ganache and a thick wedge of chocolate ice cream.  The ice cream sandwich arrives at your table in a frozen state.  You’ll be advised to let it sit for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.  Would that we had such discipline.  No sooner had it arrived at our table than we began to gnaw on it.  Our sole complaint about this delightful ice cream treat is how small it is–maybe four inches.  It’s not the ice cream sandwich behemoth you’ll find at Rude Boy Cookies, but it’s just as good.

Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich

19 November 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, will be happy to hear Toro Burger’s dessert menu includes a bread pudding, perhaps one worthy of inclusion on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  This particular bread pudding, resplendent with the presence of sweet-tangy peaches and topped with a vanilla icing is reminiscent of peach cobbler, albeit just a bit sweeter.  Though some might consider them anachronistic, bread pudding and cobbler are two of my very favorite desserts and for some of the same reasons.  What we enjoyed most about Toro’s rendition is the interplay of different flavors to compose a cohesive, absolutely delicious whole.  Next time, however, we may ask for the green chile compote instead of the vanilla icing.

Peach Bread Pudding

Peach Bread Pudding

If you visited any one of Toro Burger’s predecessors at the Rio Rancho Howard Johnson’s, you likely weren’t very impressed.  Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Toro Burger.   It’s better…much better.  Chef Ryan’s burger creations are not to be missed and you’ll be well taken care of by James, the restaurant’s whirling dervish server whose recommendations you can take to the bank.

Toro Burger
1465 Rio Rancho Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1700
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Cheese Fries, Fried Pickles, Jack and Dianne Burger, Mo’ Better Burger, Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote, Peach Bread Pudding, Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich, Pulled Pork Sliders, Catfish Dinner, Travis Pastrami, French Fries, Onion Things

Toro Burger Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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