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Namaste Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Naste Restaurant in Rio Rancho

Namaste: Cuisine of India and Nepal

Several years ago while leading my organization’s e-business marketing and communication effort at Intel, I had the great fortune of hiring a phenomenal Web developer recently arrived from India. In the process of filling out one of our complicated employment forms he transposed his name, writing his last name then his middle initial and first name instead of the way hinted at on the complicated form.

As a result, during the entire time he worked for us we all called him Kolli, his last name. He was too polite to tell us his first name is actually Srini.  Over time Srini became more acculturated, maybe even a bit “Americanized” (he’s now a huge Dallas Cowboys fan), but he’s never lost his personal warmth, good humor and impeccable manners.

Namaste's interior

Namaste’s interior

Politeness and great manners seem to be a hallmark of Indian people…or at least those in the service industries. When colleagues ask for a romantic dinner recommendation, I frequently suggest one of the area’s Indian restaurants where impeccably attentive service and consistently excellent food impart the effect of making diners feel like welcome royalty. 

Most Indian restaurants, like my friend Srini, embody the spirit of a traditional Indian salutation, “Namaste” which is said while holding one’s hands pressed together near the heart with head gently bowed. Namaste is translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” a sign not only of respect but of deference in that the greeter recognizes not just good, but the fact that there is divinity in other people. It is something from which we oft unpolished and uncouth Americans can learn.

The lunch buffet at Namaste

Namaste’s lunch buffet

Rio Rancho  has a restaurant named for that most reverential of greetings. It opened in late July, 2008 in the small, age-worn strip mall which previously housed Tawan Thai cuisine and before that a number of other restaurants. It’s a seemingly cursed location in which restaurants seem destined to fail. If outstanding service and cuisine are portend success, Namaste has reversed the trend of failure and become a very popular dining destination in the City of Vision.  Along with the incomparable Joe’s Pasta House and the superb Cafe Bella, Namaste belongs on the pantheon of the very best restaurants in the metropolitan area.

Namaste is owned by Shree Prasad Gurung who was a mainstay at the India Palace for several years before striking out on his own. His wife Sandhya and brother-in-law Hem are the ownership triumvirate responsible for preparing not only the cuisine of India, but several Nepalese dishes as well. The charming Sandhya still has family in Nepal which was affected by the devastating earthquakes of 2015.

Some of the buffet’s bounty at Namaste

It’s with increased rarity (at least in Albuquerque) that you find any restaurant which greets you before the door with irresistible aromas. In that respect, Namaste is indeed an anachronism because it does capture you before the door with wafting emanations that bid you welcome and which just may have a Pavlovian effect on your taste buds.  Along with Siam Thai, it may be the most aromatically arousing restaurant in the Albuquerque area.

Similar to most Indian restaurants in the Duke City area, Namaste offers a very inexpensive for the quality lunch buffet. It’s not quite as Bacchanalian as the buffet at the now defunct India Palace, but it provides an excellent introduction to its diverse and delicious offerings. As much as you’ll enjoy the buffet, your dining experience is Namaste is incomplete if you don’t take it to the next level. That would be returning for dinner when the quality is an order of magnitude better. During dinner, the ambiance speaks of refinement and only part of that is attributable to the absence of diners who visit the buffet three or four times in one seating. The lights are subdued and tones are hushed in the evening.

Garlic Naan, the very best in Albuquerque (as good as my mom’s tortillas)

Among the appetizer selections on the buffet, you might find vegetable samosa, crisp patties stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. Samosas have reportedly been an Indian specialty since before the tenth century. They are delicious as is or dipped into one of the various chutneys. Namaste offers several excellent chutneys–onion, mint, tamarind and more–none of which are subtle in their impact on your taste buds. Flame imbibing New Mexicans will love the jalapeño chutney, a neon green amalgam of the fiery pepper, vinegar and other spices. The vinegar balances the heat of the jalapeño while the jalapeño cuts the tartness of the vinegar. It’s as good, if not better, than many salsas we’ve had.

Of course one of the best ways to enjoy the chutneys is with naan, the incomparable Indian flat bread which is a staple accompaniment to most hot meals in India. Naan bears some resemblance to pita bread and, like pita bread, is usually leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven fired by charcoal where the temperature at the bottom is maintained at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The tandoor oven is from which tandoori cooking derives its name.

Paneer Pakora

The menu features several variations on the freshly baked white flour bread. Those include garlic naan in which the naan is garnished with minced garlic. There’s also cheese naan in which the white flour bread is, you guessed it, stuffed with cheese. Another intriguing naan is the kashmiri, freshly baked white flour bread stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. At first glance you might think thin-sliced pizza or even lavosh, the flat, thin Armenian flat bread. After a bite or two, you might notice a semblance in flavor to the ubiquitous Christmas fruit cake. That’s because of the cherry and raisin influence which not only adds sweetness, but color to the naan. That sweetness isn’t overwhelmingly cloying like fruit cake; it provides a nice contrast and balance of flavors. 

21 June 2015: Turophiles, those of us who love cheese in all its fetid and aromatic forms, know all about paneer, the soft, crumbly farmer’s cheese native to India.  Who among us hasn’t enjoyed saag paneer (cooked spinach studded with cubed of fried paneer cheese) and mutter paneer (peas and farmer’s cheese in a tomato based sauce, spiced with garam masala)?  Because it’s not offered on the buffet, fewer have enjoyed paneer pakora, slices of homemade cheese stuffed with mint and spices, wrapped in garbanzo bean batter and deep-fried.  At four to an order, these golden-sheened beauties are absolutely delicious.  Paneer isn’t nearly as “melty,” gooey and oozy as say, goat cheese and it’s not as sharp as even the mildest Cheddar, but it’s got a very pleasant and mild personality that couples well with the mint chutney.

Tandoori chicken

Tandoori Fried Chicken and Meatballs

When you mention tandoori cooking, you’ve got to include tandoori chicken in the discussion. Namaste marinates its chicken in a fabulous array of exotic spices then broils it over mesquite in the tandoor oven. The mesquite imparts a smoky redolence to the chicken that renders it impossible to stop eating. Namaste’s tandoori chicken may just be the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The dinner menu offers several tandoori specialties, all prepared in the cylindrical clay tandoori oven and fired by charcoal to a constant temperature at the bottom of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several lamb dishes are prepared on the tandoori oven.  Among them are lamb tikka kabob which is lamb marinated in herbs and spices and lamb seekh kabob, spicy ground lamb molded on skewers and broiled in the tandoor oven. The lamb on the tikka kabob is cut into slightly larger than bite-sized cubes. The lamb seekh kabob might is cylindrical in shape, like a short, fat cigar, and in texture might remind you of rolled up gyros meat. The plate on which the lamb dishes are presented arrives at your table with a sizzling flair. It is lined with grilled onions and peppers which lend to the flavor explosions. Both lamb dishes will convert even the most staunch non-lamb eaters. In part, that’s because none of the characteristic “gaminess” of lamb is evident, but also because both dishes are very well flavored and enjoyable to eat.

Chicken Tikka Masala: Boneless chicken baked in the tandoor with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices

24 January 2011: The tandoori chicken is similarly delicious and also served two ways. The first is chicken tikka kabob, or delicately spiced boneless chicken breast cut into large pieces. This chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned. The second presentation is of tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh combination marinated and broiled over mesquite.  Still the very best chicken dish on the menu is the chicken tikka masala, boneles chicken  with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices.  Preparation of chicken tikka masala is a two-step process.  First the chicken is baked in a tandoor then cooked in a thick, creamy “gravy” of tomato sauce, cream and spices.  The charcoal tandoor oven imparts an unmistakably distinctive smoky flavor to the chicken while the creamy tomato sauce imparts a sweet piquancy to an absolutely marvelous dish.

24 January 2011: My very favorite vegetarian entree at any restaurant is mattar paneer, green peas with Indian farmer cheese (paneer) in a creamy gravy.  Paneer is a fresh, unaged, non-melting cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or some other food acid.  It’s not necessarily the type of cheese you’d want to snack on as you might a slice or two of Kraft singles, but it’s the perfect cheese for the creamy gravy seasoned to perfection.  Mattar paneer is rich and utterly delicious, prepared to your level of piquancy.  No one in New Mexico does it better than Namaste.

Mattar Paneer: Green peas and homemade cheese in gravy and touch of cream

You might also opt to make dinner an adventurous event by trying one of the menu’s six Nepali dishes. Santa Fe has had a Himalayan restaurant for years, but Nepali dishes in Albuquerque were scarce until Namaste. The Nepalese diet consists heavily of lentil and rice dishes along with vegetable curries and a side dish called anchar, which are pickled vegetables and fruits (tomato, mango, cucumber, etc.), much like a chutney. There are many similarities to Indian food in Nepalese cooking.

26 October 2008: It may surprise you to discover similarities to Chinese food as well.  That’s especially true in Kathmandu where  the most popular lunch and snack item served are steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings known as “Momo.”  Namaste features both chicken and lamb momo.  The lamb momo plate consists of ten dumplings stuffed with ground and spiced lamb served with a piquant and delicious tomato achar.  It’s easy to see why this would be the most popular dish in Nepal.  The only downer for me is that the achar is served cold and the momo just warm.  Submerge the momo into the achar and it cools off quickly.  Still, this is a minor inconvenience and should not deter you from trying a delicious entree.

Lamb Momo

21 June 2015: When the Gurungs moved to New Mexico, they soon fell in love with green chile and have been roasting two sacks per year of the best Hatch has to offer.  it stands to reason that they’d eventually incorporate green chile into their menu.  Over the years, the green chili (SIC) chicken curry has become one of the most popular dishes offered at Namaste.  One of the reasons New Mexicans have adopted this dish as one of their own is that the green chile has plenty of heat, even more than the restaurant’s incendiary chicken vindaloo.  The curry incorporates a variety of aromatic spices that waft toward your nostrils like a fragrant breeze, possessing a flavor profile that’s sweet, savory, piquant and addictive.  It’s akin to a thick gravy punctuated with larger than bite-sized pieces of chicken.

21 June 2015: Meals at Namaste are extraordinary and you’ll savor each and every bite as you experience flavor combinations and taste explosions that will enrapt all ten-thousand of your taste buds.  As challenging as it is to stop eating, make sure to save room for a dessert specialty that this restaurant prepares better than any other Indian restaurant of my acquaintance.  It’s Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet and dense confection made with carrots, butter and milk.  Though the julienne carrots are served warm, they’re not mushy in the least, but retain a discernible crunchiness.  Namaste adds shaved almonds for an even crunchier contrast.  This is a rich dessert as good, if not better, than any carrot cake.

Green Chili Chicken Curry

You might notice that my rating for Namaste is the highest I’ve accorded to any Indian restaurant in New Mexico.  Namaste may not be as big or ostentatious as its competition, but in my estimation, it’s much better.  My friend and colleague Tushar Desai, a Bombay native and globetrotter who’s traveled extensively across the fruited plain as a project manager for Microsoft confirms this, saying Namaste is in the top three to five Indian restaurants at which he’s dined in North America.  That’s exceedingly high praise from a true connoisseur whose opinion I value.

Gajar ka Halwa: Indian-style carrot cake with cashew

The only thing that could have improved our visits to Namaste would have been sharing our meal with Srini, who in his infinite politeness, tells me I can still call him Kolli as long as I call him friend.

Namaste Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-3126
Web Site
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 21 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori, Gajar ka Halwa, Green Chili Chicken Curry, Mutter Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala

Namaste on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cafe Bella in Rio Rancho

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
~Author Unknown

Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee.  As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I worked for eighteen years provided free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as employees can drink.  All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.

There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee.  It’s not that we like our coffee weak.  It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems.  Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and Texans cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.”  It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.

Cafe Bella, for the very best coffee and so much more…

Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens.  Only in the past fifteen years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir.  Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend.  As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).

Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries.  Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe.  It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable liquid commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.

Operating partner Michael Gonzales and his son (a future barista?)

Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless.  Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not.  Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window.  A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.

Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner.  Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed.  Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers.  Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.

Sriracha Bacon Sandwich

Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world.  He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio.  From an experiential standpoint, those  are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies.  To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”

In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side.  It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital.  The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six.  The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.

Panini (grilled Red Delicious apples with caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on local Fano rustic artisan bread) with a large Cafe Au Lait.

Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is.  The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.  The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound.  None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker.  Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine. 

The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico.  A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader.  Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic.  Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes.  During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.

Breakfast Bagel of the Day: Warm toasted Parmesan bagel, Italian herb bread with mozzarella, sundried tomato cream cheese spread and Canadian bacon

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more.  All food items are served with plasticware, reason being that Cafe Bella is a coffee shop which serves outstanding food.  It is not a restaurant (though many of its culinary offerings would put restaurants to shame).

20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity.  Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular.  One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread.  The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

When it first launched, Cafe Bella Coffee offered its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis, all procured from bakery partners, all of which are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  While partner relationships remain strong, they’re no longer exclusive. Cafe Bella staff has begun baking its own scones.  The staff has the latitude to be creative in designing delicious flavor combinations.  Think double espresso and red chile, chocolate chip and maple, and more.

15 March 2013:  For years after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time.  Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe.  Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2’s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012.  Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event.  However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating  in a number of events on and off location.  On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados.  Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights.  With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek. 

8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well.  One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread.  It’s even better than it sounds if possible.  Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload.  The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas and it’s lightly toasted so that the flavor of char doesn’t obscure the flavor of chocolate. 

CafeBella12

Smoked Turkey Panini with Garlic Mustard Barbecue Mayo, Melted Mozzarella, Organic Field Greens on Local Fano Artisan Bread

16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella.  One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese.  For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens.  The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most. 

14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.”  He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012.  It’s easy to see why.  Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini.  When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats.  When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours.  The result is pure, unadulterated edible art.  Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce.   Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness. 

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini (with an egg)

7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey.  You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella.   Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey.  This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham).  This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks. 

19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization.  For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico.   You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another.  In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili.  The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy.  The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation.  If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it.  I did!

Street Tacos, becoming a Tuesday tradition in Rio Rancho

8 July 2014:  While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand.  These tacos were  paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be.  In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out.  On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon.  What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions. 

An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit.  Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all.  The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema.  The sauteed carne packs  a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema.  Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions.  Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!. 

Avocado Toast

9 May 2015: Keeping a pulse on national culinary trends, Michael determined early on that avocado toast would become a national phenomena (just Google “avocado toast” to see how prescient he was).  Toast is a veritable tabula rasa, a blank slate which can be topped by sundry ingredients in limitless combinations.  Similarly, avocado pairs very well with numerous ingredients.  After much trial and experimentation, in 2014, Michael debuted his version of a soon-to-be national sensation, pioneering the Duke City’s very first avocado toast.  Generously spread atop lightly toasted focaccia this open-faced canvas of deliciousness includes butyraceous avocado at the height of ripeness and freshness along with a single poached egg.  Puncture the poached egg with your fork and the yolk trickles over the toast and onto the plate where it melds with Michael’s fabulous crema.  Words fail in expressing just how good Cafe Bella’s avocado toast is (this coming from someone who considers avocados rather boring).

9 May 2015: As a culinary professional, Michael understands better than most that in order to grow business year-upon-year, the menu has to remain interesting.  Though wholesale changes aren’t necessary, he and his creative staff have continued to introduce amazing new items we now can’t live without.  In 2013, it was the addictive Slow-Smoked Carne Panini and the Chocolate Panini.  In 2014, Cafe Bella pioneered the revolutionary avocado toast.  Those outstanding additions set the bar high, but 2015’s offering meets or exceeds the high standards set by its predecessors.  How could it not?  Its a Sriracha Bacon Sandwich (eggs, green onions, mozzarella, Parmesan and bacon on a grilled green chile cheddar bun with sriracha mayo).  The green chile Cheddar bun, specially baked for Cafe Bella, is somewhere between the size of a burger and the size of an English muffin.  It’s surprisingly light and delicate so as not to be too “bready,” allowing the other ingredients to shine…and shine they do.  This is a superb sandwich, a candidate for my “best of the best” for 2015.

Cafe Bella's drive-up window means coffee to go at any time

Cafe Bella’s drive-up window means coffee to go every day but Sunday

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.  Proximity to the drive-through has meant increased frequency of visits, most often for the aforementioned red chili mocha.  Thankfully Cafe Bella offers a loyalty card–buy ten and get one free.  As of May 9th, I’ve enjoyed six red chile mochas for free.

My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home.  The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality.  Waitresses donned  period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots.  The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back.  Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities.  If  this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2015
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 19
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos

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Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub in Rio Rancho

If you’ve ever wondered why the term “pink elephants” has long been recognized as a euphemism for a drunken hallucination, credit author Jack London. In his autobiographical tome, he described himself as “the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.”

When we first heard of the Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub in Rio Rancho, we wondered if it, too, was  a euphemism for adult beverage overindulgence.  Frankly, the reason behind the name is almost as good as Jack London’s euphemism.  The sobriquet was bestowed upon co-owner Peter Apers by his mentor as he was teaching Apers to play the blues on guitar.  One of that mentor’s favorite television personalities was Caine, the David Carradine character in Kung Fu whom the Shaolin master called “grasshopper.”  Hence “Blues Grasshopper.”

The cozy, comfy confines of the Blue Grasshopper

In 2014, Livability.com named the Duke City as “America’s best mid-sized city in the country for beer.”  With nearly thirty brewery and tap room restaurants (as of this writing), Albuquerque metropolitan area  cerevisaphiles certainly have their pick as to where to imbibe their favorite beer.  Initially the Blue Grasshopper served beers from other local breweries, but with the advent of a new year (2015), they now have their own beer on tap. 

So besides its name, what distinguishes the Blue Grasshopper from all the competition?  Two things come to mind immediately.  The first is the nightly live entertainment showcasing the best in local talent in several genres: pop, rock, jazz, country and more.  The second is pizza, nine twelve-inch pies prepared in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy.   There isn’t much else on the menu and what there is might best be described as “bar snacks.”

Bar Snack

As long as there have been bars, pubs, taverns, bodegas and beer halls, there have been bar snacks, the type of which are served at the Blue Grasshopper.  Salty and flavorful, these bar snacks are intended to make you want more adult beverages.  A bowl of these bar snacks features pretzel sticks, hard and dry pumpernickel and rye bread pieces; and cheesy, salty and garlicky bite-sized pieces of goodness that will tide you over until your pizza is out of the oven. 

Although you can choose all the ingredients with which to build your own pizza, the nine pies on the menu will sate most of us.  Pies range from the simple (cheese pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella) to the gourmet (chicken pesto with pesto sauce, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and chicken).  Hatch green chile can be added to any of them.  All pizzas are made-to-order.

The Margherita

If you want the pizza that started it all, you’ll order the Blue Grasshopper’s version of the Margherita (tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sliced fresh tomato).  It’s a pretty basic pizza which would be improved with even more fresh basil.  The crust has a light char and is is chewy, but formidable enough to hold up against the weight of copious ingredients. The combination of tomato sauce and fresh, sliced tomatoes is a nice touch as is the cheese blend.

Copious ingredients is what you’ll find on Greg’s Special, a pie topped with pepperoni, spicy Italian sausage, black olives, green olives, Hatch green chile, tomato sauce and mozzarella.  What a pleasant surprise to enjoy both black and green olives with all their similarities and dissimilar flavor properties.  The Hatch green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough piquancy to be discernible.  The olives, green chile and tomato sauce are all acidic with only the mozzarella and crust to temper those properties.  Still, it’s an excellent pizza.

Greg’s Special

Launched in October, 2014, the Blue Grasshopper occupies the space which previously housed a Quizno’s Sandwich Restaurant.  No vestiges of the previous tenant remain in the  formerly narrow and long retail strip center space which has been expanded to 2,000 square-feet with a seating capacity of 60 or so. Long gone are the sandwich assembly stations and bread ovens. In their place is a single pizza oven imported from Italy.  It’s a pizza oven from which emerge pizzas cerevisaphiles and pizza aficionados will enjoy.

Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub
4500 Arrowhead Ridge Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 463-3169
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 February 2015
# OF VIS
ITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Margherita Pizza, Greg’s Special, Snack Mix

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