California Pizza Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

California Pizza Kitchen, an Uptown Favorite

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This is Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog, champion of the mom-and-pop restaurant, defender of the independently owned eatery, supporter of the family owned and family operated diner…and this is a review of a chain restaurant. No, this blog has not been hijacked by some corporate cabal bent on corrupting the American diet with homogeneous mediocrity…and no, this review was not written under duress or the promise of free food. It was written of my own free will, sound mind and full accord. Lest you condemn this seemingly traitorous affront, hear me out.

Several years ago, I made my own version of a Faustian pact. Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a scholar who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. In my case, I made a deal with my Kim to take her to the 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 Labor Day 2015, my Kim decided to collect my soul, er….have me make good on my promise and take her to the Olive Garden.

Thai Chicken Tortilla Egg Rolls

In the traditional deal with the devil motif, when Satan comes to collect the witless pawn’s immortal soul, the pawn begs, bribes, cajoles and barters to no avail. Unlike the pawn, however, I had one barter up my sleeve. “Rather than the Olive Garden, wouldn’t you rather go to a better chain restaurant, one in proximity to the best gelateria in town?,” I pleaded. Much as she’d wanted to try the California Pizza Kitchen, it was the promise of gelato that sealed our bargain—a one-year reprieve from the Olive Garden.

Sadly, I must admit to many close encounters of the third kind familiarity with the California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). Back in the days when I traveled to Phoenix quite regularly for business, CPK was, by far, the best restaurant in the Sky Harbor. With that distinction, it held a captive market. Those of us from New Mexico wouldn’t deign to eat at the Phoenix-style Mexican food restaurants on the concourse and other options were even less palatable. Besides, several CPK offerings were actually pretty good.

Pear & Gorgonzola Pizza

If California Pizza Kitchen at the Sky Harbor, an express fast food to go operation, is better than Olive Garden anywhere it stood to reason (at least in my convoluted mind) that CPK in a casual-dining ambiance would be far better than the CPK at the Sky Harbor, ergo much better than the Olive Garden. Albuquerque’s CPK, situated in the heart of ABQ Uptown, is an expansive sit-down establishment in which menu items are prepared to order. That menu is much more expansive than at the Sky Harbor, offering everything hearth-baked pizzas to salads, pastas, entrees, soups and sandwiches.

Frankly, my expectations (which tend to be rather low for chain restaurants) were exceeded in every way. Service was first rate—not the saccharine, rehearsed wait shtick with which some chains insult diners, but personable, friendly and attentive service. Seating, while in near personal space proximity, was reasonably comfortable. Delivery was well spaced, meaning there was ample time between delivery of our appetizer and delivery of our entrees. Beverages were replenished faithfully. Best of all, our meal was delicious.

Jamaican Jerk Pizza

The appetizer which first caught our eye bore the name tortilla spring rolls.  What a great idea!  Why have we limited ourselves to boring tortilla roll-ups, tortilla pinwheels stuffed with cream cheese and sundry ingredients?  There are three types of tortilla spring rolls, the most enticing of which was the Thai Chicken Spring Rolls, flour tortillas sprinkled with herbs and baked in the hearth oven stuffed with bean sprouts, scallions, carrots, cilantro and mozzarella served with an addictive peanut sauce.  The peanut sauce is the topper, both literally and figuratively.  As good as peanut sauce at many Thai restaurants, it’s the perfect dip for an otherwise very good starter, elevating it into an excellent introduction to CPK.

CPK’s pizzas are categorized as “original hand-tossed” and “crispy thin crust.” Though there are plenty of traditional toppings, we opted for pies topped as no other pizzas we’ve seen in New Mexico are topped.  These are true California pizzas, constructed from imagination and creativity (not that the Land of Enchantment’s pizzaiolo don’t have these qualities).  The first was a Pear and Gorgonzola pie (Bosc pears, sweet caramelized onions and hazelnuts topped with chilled field greens in Gorgonzola ranch dressing).  Wow!  This salad on a pizza is a winner thanks largely to the creamy, sharp Gorgonzola ranch which penetrated through the greens onto the thin crusted pie.  The Bosc pears are sliced thin and are caramelized by the baking process, rendering them even sweeter, a nice contrast to the Gorgonzola.

Perhaps even more creative is a Jamaican Jerk Chicken pizza (spicy-sweet Caribbean sauce, authentic Jamaican spices, Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon, red onions and bell peppers).  Make sure to ask for pineapples (from the fruit, not a can) for a tangy-sweet complement to the assertively wonderful ingredients that come standard with this beauteous pizza.  Though you might be tempted to tell your server “Jamaican me crazy with this pizza,” your servers have all heard that before.  Nueske’s applewood bacon is porcine perfection, as good a bacon as you’ll find anywhere.

My Kim enjoyed California Pizza Kitchen so much, our Faustian deal might just have to be amended.  It’s a deal with which this anti chain crusader can probably live and it’s so much better than the Olive Garden.

California Pizza Kitchen
2241 Q Street, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-3005
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jamaican Jerk Pizza, Gorgonzola & Pear Pizza, Thai Chicken Tortilla Egg Rolls

California Pizza Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fox’s Pizza Den – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fox's Pizza Den in Albuquerque's West Side

Fox’s Pizza Den in Albuquerque’s West Side

There may have been no more amusing (or, tragically, accurate) depiction of the “meat market” that was the dating scene in the 1970s than a recurring Saturday Night Live skit about two wild and crazy guys named George and Yortuk Festrunk. The Czech brothers, portrayed brilliantly by Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd, dressed in tight pants and loud, unbuttoned polyester shirts with medallions singing over their chests. They lived for “swinging” in their bachelor pad.  The hedonistic Festrunk brothers especially loved to cruise the fox bar in pursuit of swinging foxes who might just have the hots-on for them and who might let them hold on to their big American breasts. In their minds, there was no other pair of Czech brothers who cruised and swung as successfully in their tight slacks which gave them great bulges.

It’s hard to believe that in the 70s, “foxes” was a term not used exclusively to describe a carnivorous animal. It was also used as a not always endearing and almost always sexist term for very attractive women. Though I don’t keep up with contemporary vernacular, I believe the modern day equivalent is “hottie.” Alas, at my age, “cruising for foxes” now has an entirely different meaning–as in driving my “sensible” married and adult car over to Fox’s Pizza Den for lunch or dinner (so long as it’s well before my 10PM bedtime).

White Garlic Pizza

White Garlic Pizza

Fox’s Pizza is an example of the American entrepreneurial spirit gone right. Founded in the Pittsburgh area in March, 1971, Fox’s was voted 1993’s “best pizza franchise” by the National Pizza and Pasta Association and is consistently ranked as one of America’s “best pizza and sandwich franchises” by Entrepreneur and Pizza Today magazines. It’s the sixth largest pizza franchise in the United States.  So why haven’t you ever heard of Fox’s Pizza? That’s probably because Albuquerque’s sole franchise is ensconced in a small shopping center on a road less traveled. Unless you live in Albuquerque’s far west side and Golf Course and Irving are part of your daily commute, you’ve probably never seen or heard of it. There are several apartment complexes in the area and many of their residents certainly know about this burgeoning chain.

Chain. Yes, I admit to having broken my own personal edict about not eating at chain restaurants, most of whom I consider a blight (or carbuncle if you prefer) on the landscape. My first visit was by accident (thinking it was a local restaurant), but subsequent visits have been by design. I generally will visit chain restaurants only if they offer a “niche” product, something you can’t find anywhere else. Fox’s pizza does this. Not only that, the product on the marquee is pretty darn good–far better than Pizza Hut, Dominos, Papa John’s and the like.

An Italian Wedgie

At its most elemental form, pizza is about bread, sauce and sundry ingredients which top the crusty canvas. Despite being slightly stiff (it’s not the type of pizza you fold vertically as you would in New York), Fox’s pizza crust is chewy, buttery and delicious. It’s so good you might even devour the crust at the top which many people don’t ever eat. The crust is neither too thin nor too thick and it has just a slight char. Fox’s uses 100 percent real Mozzarella with no preservatives added. It makes a huge difference in the taste. The sauce has fresh, herbaceous qualities and is seasoned very well. It’s wholly unlike the bland and boring sauce used by competitors. Ingredients are fresh and plentiful.

The menu includes a vast array of options from pizza to wings, hoagies, stromboli and salads to an impressive number of sides. In the pizza department, you can have a traditional pie topped your way or you can opt instead for one of the gourmet pizza offerings. Pizzas range in size from small to extra large. From among the gourmet pizza menu, Fox’s offers a white garlic pizza, the likes of which are commonplace in the East Coast. This is pizza without tomato sauce and there’s no doubt, the recipe for Fox’s rendition had its genesis in America’s East. On this pizza, the crusty canvas is adorned with a rich garlic butter sauce and plenty of Parmesan and olfactory arousing oregano plus any other ingredients you might deem necessary to add. Great as it is, you won’t miss the traditional pizza sauce.

Beef, Bacon and Cheddar Wedgie: Roast beef, bacon, and cheddar cheese topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo.

Roast Beef Wedgie

The “niche” I mentioned previously is a wonderful sandwich offering called a “Wedgie,” a term which in the 70s represented a demeaning prank in which a victim’s underpants were pulled up sharply from behind in order to wedge the underpants uncomfortably between the victim’s buttocks ( worse was the atomic wedgie in which the rear waistband was hoisted up and over the recipient’s head).  Thankfully Fox’s Wedgie has nothing to do with cruel wardrobe malfunctions. Wedgies are essentially sandwiches served on a pizza crust instead of a bun. Most pizza crust can’t pull this off, but Fox’s pizza crust can. The Wedgies are very good sandwiches made on nine inches of pizza crust.

My early favorite is the Italian Wedgie–ham, hard salami, cotta salami, melted provolone and mozzarella, green peppers, onions, lettuce, tomato and a gourmet Italian dressing. You can probably find a sandwich in Albuquerque with the same ingredients, but what makes Fox’s version special is that pizza crust. It’s hard-crusted yet soft and pliable enough to really make this unique sandwich work without dominating the sandwich.


Steak Wedgie

There are twelve Wedgies on the menu including a poetic Veggie Wedgie.  The ingredients for each would probably go well on a standard hoagie or sub roll, but probably wouldn’t taste quite as good.  One intriguing option is the Steak Wedgie constructed with several of the ingredients which come standard on many a Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich: choice sirloin steak, melted Provolone and Mozzarella, sweet peppers, onions, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and mayo.  Wedgies are cut in half so you can share them.

In time perhaps more Fox’s Pizza Den restaurants will launch in the Duke City. For now, however, if you’re in Albuquerque’s Northwest side and hankering for pizza, cruise on over to Fox’s.

Fox’s Pizza Den
9221 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 899-8444
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: White Garlic Pizza, Italian Wedgie

Fox's Pizza Den on Urbanspoon

The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Cracker Barrel Restaurant on San Antonio

Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This really is Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog and you really are reading a review of  a (gasp) chain restaurant. It would be easy (a cop-out) to say my visit to the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store was the result of brow-beating, cajoling, bribery or even torture, but the truth is I wanted to spend time with my friends Esther Ferguson and Henry Gabaldon who swear by Cracker Barrel’s Thursday special of turkey n’ dressing with your choice of two vegetables. Esther and Henry are quite aware of my chain-averse attitude, but were hoping the Cracker Barrel would win me over. With my every reference to the “Chancre Barrel” on the drive to the restaurant, they quickly realized it was a hopeless cause.

After eight years of living in the Deep South, the Cracker Barrel didn’t stand a chance.  For the most part, Southern cooking in the Land of Enchantment (or frankly, anywhere outside of Dixie) is about as good as New Mexican food being interpreted  in Mississippi.  It just doesn’t pass muster.  We’ve learned if we want Southern food as we enjoyed it in Dixie, we have to visit The Hollar in Madrid where chef-owner Josh Novak has elevated Southern food to the level of cuisine. The Hollar, by the way, was one of three restaurants showcased in the May, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine’s breakfast, lunch and dinner feature.

Nostalgic treats abound at the Cracker Barrel Store

My friend Bill “Roasmaster” Resnik, who also coined the “Chancre Barrel” term  likes to joke that the wait staff  at Cracker Barrel can’t figure out your bill if you don’t have a senior citizen discount. Though we didn’t see any hay wagons or tractors in the parking lot as Bill predicted we would, a quick scan of the parking lot revealed a cavalcade of Cadillacs, a bounty of Buicks and a lot of Lincolns, all of the super-sized variety preferred by some seasoned citizens (yeah, that’s a stereotype, but so is everything about the Cracker Barrel).    The truth is, the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is as popular with young families as it is with geriatric generations. Portions are bountiful and the environment shouts fun in a subdued Disney Country Bear Jamboree sort of way.

The Cracker Barrel’s template does bespeak (rather loudly) of Southern stereotypes.  The facade resembles that of an old country store with a corrugated tin roof and a porch extending the entire length of the restaurant’s frontage.  As at some country stores (which tend to be the cultural and social hub of small communities) in the Deep South  the porch is  the center of  hospitality with dozens of sturdy oaken rocking chairs of all sizes lined up for neighborly visits.  Veterans will appreciate the rocking chairs in which the seals of the different branches of the armed forces are embedded onto the top slat.  The porch, by the way, provides a perfect western-facing vantage point for one of our amazing New Mexico sunsets.

The main dining room at the Cracker Barrel

It’s the Old Country Store portion of the sprawling edifice that even cynics like me will enjoy most.  Though the store is capacious, it seems quite crowded because  from floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall there is just so much to see. You’ll have plenty of time to check out the racks of tee-shirts, shelves brimming with kitchen towels, tables crowded with crafts, rag-stuffed animals, gaggles of greeting cards, kitchen accouterments, old photographs, vintage advertising signs and even farming equipment.  That’s because waits are almost invariable.

Nostalgia abounds for those of us beset by our own advancing geriatric progression.  For foodies, the area pulling most gently at the heart strings is the area showcasing the sweets of our youth, especially the candy we ate as kids.  Shelves are replete with Mallo Cups, Goo Goo Clusters, Moon Pies, Zero Bars and even Nik-L-Nips, the tiny wax bottles filled with flavored syrup.  About the only things missing were the little candy cigarettes (which are surprisingly still made and sold) and the wax orange harmonicas sold around Halloween time.

A plateful of corn muffins and biscuits

The country theme continues onto the Cracker Barrel’s dining rooms where walls abound in sundry brick-a-brac.  Vintage  sepia-toned photographs of mostly unsmiling (perhaps the photos were taken after a meal) countenances survey the room.  A large brick fireplace with a heavy oaken mantle is the cynosure of one dining room.  The handiwork of a taxidermist is on display on some walls with the deer smiling more broadly than the stoic faces on the vintage photographs.  The dining rooms are expansive though some seating is of personal space proximity.

Cracker Barrel purports to offer “homestyle meals, prepared from scratch in our kitchens.”  Breakfast, described on the menu as providing “stick-to-the-ribs satisfaction” is served all day long and features such traditional country cooking favorites as hickory smoked country ham, grits, homemade buttermilk biscuits and sawmill gravy.  The lunch and dinner menu touts such old favorites as meatloaf, chicken n’ dumplins, roast beef and country vegetables.  It’s a veritable compendium of what many would consider a Southern menu.

Spicy Grilled Catfish Two farm raised Catfish fillets served with your choice of three sides. (0 net carbs – plus carbs in side items)

Most lunch and dinner entrees are served with your choice of one, two or three “country vegetables.”  In the Cracker Barrel’s vision of the south, that means turnip greens, coleslaw, steak fries, mashed potatoes, breaded fried okra, hashbrown casserole, dumplins, whole kernel corn, country green beans, sweet whole baby carrots, fried apples, macaroni n’ cheese, apple sauce and pinto beans. There is absolutely NO green or red chile anywhere on the menu nor are the “country vegetables” strictly vegetarian.  Meals are also accompanied by made from scratch buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins and real butter (in those real annoying little tubs).

Deciding on what to order at a chain restaurant is an arduous process for me and no matter what I ultimately end up with, my very low expectations about liking what I order invariably wind up ending in a self-fulfilling prophecy.  With few exceptions, I order the “lesser of all evils,” generally something out of Home Economics 101, a dish any beginning cook can make edible (if lucky, made to taste good).  For my first visit to the Cracker Barrel since a team-building activity nearly a decade ago, the lesser of all evils would be spicy grilled catfish.

Country Fried Steak: USDA Choice Steak breaded and deep fried then topped with Sawmill Gravy.

Our years in Mississippi were bereft of red and green chile, but we did have the best catfish in America everywhere we turned.  With few exceptions, catfish in New Mexico tastes as if the restaurants serving it want to remind diners that catfish are a bottom-feeding, mud-dwelling fish.  The fact that the Cracker Barrel’s spicy catfish entree is featured on the “Low Carb” section of the menu gave me hope that it wouldn’t be coated in batter the consistency of sawdust  (which might taste better) as most catfish served in New Mexico restaurants  tend to be.

Arriving at our table with a prominent char, the catfish had the blackened sheen of New Orleans style blackened fish.  Alas, it had none of the personality of blackened fish.  In fact, it wasn’t “spicy” in the least until I doused it liberally with Louisiana hot sauce.  The hot sauce wouldn’t have been necessary had the catfish been tasty.  It not only lacked spiciness, it lacked flavor.  My two country vegetables–whole kernel corn and mashed potatoes with gravy–were a bigger disappointment.  The mashed potatoes lacked any creaminess whatsoever.  These mashed potatoes weren’t lumpy; they were clumpy.  They weren’t of the stick-to-your-ribs variety; they stuck to the spoon.  The gravy was even worse–thick and tasteless.  The whole kernel corn, though fresh and tasty, was unseasoned and would have benefited from some butter.

Turkey n' Dressing with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes (two portions for my friend Henry).

The Country Fried Steak, a USDA choice steak breaded and deep-fried then topped with sawmill gravy was as much a let-down as the catfish.  Country fried steak is popular throughout Dixie because country cooks know the secrets to country fried steak is pound the cut of beef until it’s tender and juicy then bread it lightly so that when done, the exterior is crispy but the inside is still tender.  Cracker Barrel’s version is desiccated and tough. The sawmill gravy is gloppy and flavorless.  Try feeding this dish to a Southerner and you just might reignite the Civil War.

Cracker Barrel one-ups a lot of restaurants by not only offering Stewart’s sodas, but cranberry, grapefruit and orange juices and not just for breakfast.  The coffee is replenished faithfully and the wait staff is friendly and accommodating.

Cracker Barrel
5200 San Antonio, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stewart’s Orange Cream Soda

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Urbanspoon

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