Ruth’s Chris Steak House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ruth’s Cris House in Albuquerque’s Uptown Area

During a recent Friends of Gil (FOG) outing, a newcomer asked how my Kim and I can afford to eat out as often as we do (about three times  week on average).  The practice of “dating your mate” is something we began half a lifetime ago when we were stationed in Mississippi and my Air Force salary was, to put it conservatively, considerably less than one-thousand dollars for every year of my life.  Despite the fact that I’d been handpicked for the only job of its kind in my career field, a position with significant responsibilities usually accorded to someone of higher grade and experience–not to mention the possibility of war and deployment every service member faces–by most standards we would probably be considered at the bottom rung of the middle-class.

Our date nights could hardly be considered extravagant or high-end. Fortunately the Gulf Coast had a multitude of reasonably priced restaurants serving high quality seafood, Southern cuisine and barbecue. During our frequent visits to New Orleans, we favored“second tier” (in reputation and price, but certainly not in quality) Cajun and Creole restaurants because we couldn’t afford the anointed restaurants that had made the Crescent City a world-renowned dining destination. For our tenth anniversary I was determined to do something special for my bride. It literally took months of scraping and going without, but eventually I managed to save enough of my weekly allowance to take her to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Mobile, Alabama.

First Floor Bar and Seating

Even back then–long before the advent of social media and a connected world–Ruth’s Chris was regarded as the place to go for special occasions, albeit one that cost a king’s ransom. Mobile was actually one of the first cities across the fruited plain to boast of a Ruth’s Chris franchise and it was less than an hour from our Ocean Springs home. Praying ninety-five dollars (adjusted for inflation, that’s about two-hundred dollars in 2016 dollars) would be enough, I asked my Kim to don her finery and ferried her to the most posh dining establishment we’d visited during our years together. Ruth’s Chris was everything we had hoped it would be.  The ambience—from subdued lighting to spacing and music—was one of comfort and intimacy, but it was the sizzling prime beef which took the spotlight and we were a rapt audience.

Fast forward twenty-some years to my most recent “Jack Benny” birthday. After years of chiding her for taking me to such paragons of mediocrity as Subway and Olive Garden for my birthday, my Kim decided to surprise me with our first return visit to a Ruth’s Chris restaurant in more than two decades. She wouldn’t have been able to do so even a month earlier because Ruth’s Chris didn’t grace the mean streets of Albuquerque until about a week before our visit. For some reason, the extravagant eatery didn’t deign to launch in America’s 32nd most populous incorporated city until 2016—more than twenty years after setting up shop in Mobile, the country’s 123rd most populated city. Even if that speaks to the widely-held perception that Albuquerque is a cow town, shouldn’t a cow town (especially a cow town) boast of arguably the most popular high-end steak house in America?


Fittingly Ruth Chris landed in the Uptown district, increasingly the city’s center of commerce. More specifically, it’s located in the Park Square shopping center in a three-story space previously occupied by Robert R. Bailey Clothiers. Few, if any, vestiges of the natty haberdashery remain. Nor are there any de rigueur abobe-hued touches or tributes to the Southwestern architectural design style that defines Albuquerque. Instead, Albuquerque’s Ruth’s Chris would fit in at every other city in which the 150-strong chain plies its craft.  A large mural in the downstairs bar area depicts Tucumcari’s legendary Blue Swallow Motel, a Route 66 landmark, but there isn’t much else that bespeaks of the restaurant being in the Land of Enchantment.

Step into the restaurant and you’ll find yourself in the lap of opulence. A comfortable waiting area beckons, but waiting is wholly unnecessary if you’ve got reservations. Your hostess will escort you to your table which is bedecked in white tablecloth with place settings and glassware for your party. The lower level doubles as a capacious bar and dining room, but for more quiet and intimate dining, you’ll want to dine at mezzanine level which you can reach via a few winding stairs or you can take an elevator. A large circular skylight with dozens of dangling lights ensures the mezzanine is flooded with natural light and artificial light as needed.

House Salad with Blue Cheese

Even among the masses who’ve frequented Ruth’s Chris over its forty-plus year existence, the genesis of the name “Ruth’s Chris” isn’t widely known. Contrary to a widely-held notion, the steak house isn’t named for someone named “Ruth Chris.” More than forty years ago, “Ruth Fertel, a divorced mother of two, mortgaged her home for $22,000 to buy a small 60-seat restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana named Chris Steak House. Shortly thereafter, a fire forced her to change the original location and she renamed the restaurant, “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.” Her restaurant has since featured custom-aged USDA prime (only two-percent of all beef earn this distinction) beef broiled to your exacting specifications in 1800-degree heat and served on a 500-degree plate still sizzling when it arrives at your table.

Despite the name on the marquee, Ruth’s Chris is about much more than USDA Prime beef. In addition to steaks and chops, the menu offers surprising variety, including seafood and specialties (chicken, fish or vegetarian fare). Appetizers and sides are internationally inspired, not only prepared to order, but guaranteed to complement any entrée. There are eleven starters on the menu, including a veal osso buco ravioli dish. The ala carte menu also includes numerous side dishes as well as soups and salads with soups and dressings all being made in-house. Bargain hunters will appreciate seasonal three-course meal offerings at prices substantially lower than some of the pricey steak entrees.

Sizzling Blue Crab Cakes

Much as we had remembered during our inaugural visit decades ago, personal and attentive service was a hallmark of our dining experience at Ruth’s Chris. Quickly noting our genial server sported a tie emblazoned with the Air Force logo, we struck up a conversation and discovered that Kenneth is, like me, an Air Force retiree. He’s also originally from New Orleans where we’d spent so much time during our eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Kenneth proceeded to guide us through the ordering process, sagely recommending dishes he thought we might enjoy based on preferences we expressed. Throughout our two-hour visit, the tandem service ensured our beverages and bread were faithfully replenished without us having to ask.

As we contemplated the menu, a small loaf of bread with whipped butter was brought to our table. A hard crust belied the soft, pillowy bread inside. The soft butter spread easily onto the steaming bread, a simple pleasure that seems somehow lost on fine-dining restaurants that insist on serving warm bread with cold butter. Good as the “staff of life” is with just some simple butter, it’s a bread whose purpose in life, other than granting pleasure, may well be for sopping up sauces and dressings. You’ll certainly want some of this inspired bread on your table to dredge up any of the steak house’s amazing blue cheese dressing (because licking your plate at a fine dining restaurant isn’t cultured.)

Loaded Baked Potato

The blue cheese is absolutely amazing, replete with sizeable chunks of picturesque blue veining and an earthy sharpness that characterizes fine blue cheese. It’s the highlight of an excellent steak house salad (fresh Iceberg, baby Arugula and baby lettuces tossed with grape tomatoes, garlic croutons and red onions). Don’t be shy about requesting a ramekin or three extra servings of the blue cheese because you’ll want some on every bite of the fresh, crisp greens, not to mention on the warm bread. Grape tomatoes are another highlight. Despite their diminutive size, they have a meaty texture with a thick skin and just enough sweetness and acidity for balance. The garlic croutons, red onions and blue cheese dressing will wreck your breath in the most delightfully delicious manner.

There are eleven starters on the Ruth’s Chris appetizer menu with ten of them featuring seafood. The only landlubber’s choice is the veal osso buco ravioli. A chilled seafood tower that includes Maine lobster, king crab legs and knuckles, colossal lump crab meat and jumbo cocktail shrimp sounds more like an entrée than an appetizer. We opted for sizzling blue crab cakes (two jumbo lump crab cakes served with sizzling lemon butter). Deposited on a sizzling pool of butter and surrounded by finely chopped red and green peppers, three generous, hand-formed lumps of crab meat looked good enough to eat…and they were. Alas, the lemon butter and peppers probably took away a bit too much of the crab’s natural sweet and briny flavors, but at least there was none of the “fishiness” you sometimes find in seafood served at landlocked locations.

Bone-In Filet

A baked potato (one-pound potato fully loaded “with all of your favorite fixings”) is but one of several inviting items on the thirteen-item signature side dishes menu. Frankly we haven’t had a truly excellent baked potato, especially one of such behemoth proportions, since the Great American Steakhouse closed in 2008. At Ruth’s Chris, “fully loaded” means chives, bacon bits, sour cream, melted cheese and butter, all of which are piled on where the potato is sliced open. Though the potato is baked well, not every forkful includes some of the fixings. On those forkfuls lacking fixings, we found the baked potato just a bit on the dry side (not an uncommon event considering the Duke City’s altitude).

Preliminaries out of the way, we were ready for the main event, ever curious to see if Ruth’s Chris steaks were as good as we remembered them to be so many years ago. From the Porterhouse for two, a whopping 40-ounces of prime beef, to the petite filet at four-ounces, there’s a cut for every appetite though price points can be a bit traumatizing. Eschewing the heftier cuts, I opted for the bone-in filet, a 16-ounce cut with a blend of marbling and mellowness near the bone. A perfectly pulchritudinous sear on the outside belies the medium rare degree of doneness on the inside (as per my exacting specifications). As advertised, the steak was still sizzling angrily on the 500-degree plate. Perhaps because of the plate’s heat retention properties, red steak juices didn’t drip off the steak onto the plate. By no means was this a desiccated slab of steak. It was one of the most delicious filets we’ve had in years.

12-Ounce Ribeye

My Kim ordered a Ribeye, described on the menu as a 16-ounce cut of USDA prime beef that’s well marbled and deliciously juicy. After struggling to cut the steak, she asked me when sinewy and tough became synonymous with well marbled. Sure enough, the Ribeye was far more chewy than we’d expected, too much of a challenge to enjoy. We sent the steak back and ordered another filet in its place. Staff and management apologized profusely and more than “made it right” with our second filet of the evening.

American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was once quoted as saying “take care of your memories, for you cannot relive them.” While that may be true, our return visit to Ruth’s Chris did rekindle memories of when we couldn’t afford such a meal and made us appreciate that we can now splurge every now and then. Ruth’s Chris is the perfect memory-making, occasional splurge restaurant.

Ruth’s Cris Steak House
6640 Indian School, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-3350
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2016
COST: $$$$$
BEST BET: Bone-in Filet, Baked Potato, Bread, Sizzling Blue Crab Cakes, House Salad with Blue Cheese

Ruth's Chris Steak House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

RedBrick Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Red Brick Pizza for Fire-Roasted Gourmet Pizza

The American culture of instant gratification may be precipitating the decline of the independent neighborhood pizzeria. In recent years, this traditional bastion of pizza preparation has been largely supplanted by ubiquitous pizza delivery companies with their gratuitous gimmicks, copious coupons and promises of breakneck deliveries.

Pizzaiolis, the artisans who deftly toss and craft prandial perfection in the form of circular, precisely seasoned and superbly sauced oven-baked flat-bread have been unseated by pimply teenagers slathering ketchup on cardboard spheres then setting land speed records to ensure the day’s special of five for the price of one reaches its intended destination within seconds after an order is placed.

The American consumer seemingly prefers quick and cheap pizza of inferior quality and taste that he or she can devour in front of the 500-channel living room altar to the greater expenditure of time spent with family or friends at a pizzeria in which sensory titillation includes the imbibing of incomparable aromas you just can’t get by opening a cardboard box.

The bustling interior at Red Brick Pizza

RedBrick Pizza purports to address the gap between the delivery-oriented market and the more traditional sit-down restaurant approach with a revolutionary “fast casual” concept, ostensibly giving the American consumer a product far superior to delivery pizza without the “inordinately long wait times” at traditional pizzerias.

Founded in 2000, this burgeoning franchise has ambitions of being one of the largest pizza chains in the world with an eye toward 12,000 units and possible expansion into Europe and Asia. In 2004, RedBrick Pizza’s 750 percent growth helped it earn a spot on Entrepreneur magazine’s list of top 50 new franchises. Albuquerque’s first two RedBrick franchises opened in the fall of 2005, one in the Sedona Row shopping center and a second one in the Brick Light District by UNM.

The centerpiece of each franchise appears to be a 1,000-degree brick oven capable of turning out three-minute, fire-roasted gourmet pizzas. The menu promises fresh, all-natural dough and cheeses and premium gourmet ingredients with no MSG, fillers or substitutes. You can craft your own pie by selecting your favorites from an extensive list of ingredients or you can opt for one of the menu’s fifteen gourmet pizzas. If you’re not in the mood for pizza, RedBrick offers several fresh tossed chopped salads, all of which can be had with fire-roasted croutons. Another fire-roasted specialty are Fhazani sandwiches crafted on the restaurant’s signature dough.

Two flavors of wonderful Italian Gelato: pumpkin pie and pistachio

Many of the tables have their own small flat-screen televisions while several overhead large-screen TVs are strategically positioned for maximum viewability. The restaurant’s artificially friendly staff (called “pizza ambassadors” in the company’s lexicon) make frequent visits to your table to ensure all is well with your RedBrick experience.

True to the menu’s promise, our pizzas did have a crisp, golden brown crust, but truth be told, they weren’t delivered much more quickly than at some of the city’s traditional pizzerias, many of which serve a much better product.

  • A “Greek” pizza with an olive oil and garlic sauce base featured mozzarella, ham, red onions, whole Kalamata olives, Feta cheese and Pepperonici. The Feta was barely discernable while the Pepperonici was wonderfully tangy and somewhat piquant. Our favorite ingredient was the ham (which looked like what some pizzerias call Canadian bacon).
  • The most prominent tastes on a roasted garlic chicken pizza (white sauce, mozzarella, garlic, chicken, mushrooms, onions, red peppers, bacon, garlic, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese) were neither the roasted garlic (a chintzy portion) or the chicken, but the Parmesan cheese. This pizza did little to distinguish itself as a memorable pie.

The highlight of our meal was the restaurant’s fresh Italian Gelato dessert. More than just “Italian ice cream,” true Gelato is much more dense, icy and usually more flavorful than American ice cream. RedBrick’s version was wonderfully gritty and extremely flavorful, exceeding other Gelato we’ve found in the Albuquerque area. It’s worth a trip to RedBrick just for this cold confection. It’s also worth a trip to your favorite neighborhood pizzeria for a better pizza.

RedBrick Pizza
8101 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

1st VISIT: 17 December 2005
LATEST VISIT: 12 June 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gelato

Red Brick Pizza on Urbanspoon

Zea Rotisserie & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Zea Rotissserie & Grill, a popular Northeast Heights Dining Establishment

Our first visit to Zea followed the day after it was savaged by an erstwhile Albuquerque Journal restaurant critic, but any trepidation we might have had quickly dissipated when we were greeted enthusiastically at the hostess station by Betty, the luminous former waitress at the incomparable and much missed (to this day, I dream of its timbale tuna) Nouveau Noodles restaurant in Tijeras.

At Nouveau, Betty was a whirling dervish of perpetual motion and the restaurant’s consummate ambassador. As warm and effusive a waitress as you’ll find anywhere, Betty’s unabashed enthusiasm for Nouveau’s cuisine was evident in her flowingly eloquent descriptions of the restaurant’s menu items–polysyllabic descriptions which she peppered with adjectives synonymous with fabulous. We trusted her recommendations and appreciated the personable and attentive service she lavished upon us.

After seating us at Zea, she cautioned against any pre-conceived notions we might have about chain restaurants, indicating this one was was different. She explained that Zea was founded in New Orleans in 1997 and that its founders’ goal is to celebrate the cultural phenomenon that is eating and drinking for the sheer pleasure of it (sounds like my kind of people).

Calamari, lightly breaded and fried until crisp. Served with Zitziki sauce and topped with Feta cheese.

There are currently five Zea locations in the New Orleans area, a tough restaurant market.  Zea also has locations in Lafayette, Covington and Baton Rouge, Louisiana as well as Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama with franchise locations in Plano, Texas, Pensacola, Florida and Albuquerque–all apparently markets  which covet dining and drinking for the sheer pleasure of it.  The Albuquerque restaurant is stylish and modern with Anasazi stonework complementing neutral colors.  It is an attractive venue with good spacing between tables to allow for privacy.

Betty recommended an appetizer called Mediterranean Hummus Supreme, the consorting of sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, roasted garlic, Roma tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and herbs layered on a bed of creamy hummus and served with grilled pita bread and seasoned rotisserie lamb. It was an excellent starter when we first sampled it shortly after Zea opened and it remains an excellent starter years later.  In its annual food and wine issue, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded its prestigious Hot Plate Award to this appetizer.  The magazine indicated it is “impossible to stop dipping, dunking and devouring.”

Following Betty’s recommendation, I had the St Louis ribs prepared Thai style, a half-rack of fall-off-the-bone tender ribs bathed in a sweet and spicy  Thai sauce reminiscent of the chili sauce you might find at a Vietnamese restaurant. The ribs , which are served wet, dry or Thai were good and thankfully not quite as sweet as Betty whom we discovered has legions of fans in the Duke City who appreciate her attentive service and sage recommendations. Alas, Betty left Albuquerque in 2008 and we have yet to find a waitress nearly as attentive.

Mixed Rotisserie and Grill: Half a rack of ribs, half a chicken and a quarter-pound of the rotisserie meat of the day

While Betty may be gone, the remaining wait staff is friendly and attentive, not the sort to hover while you’re trying to hold a conversation or time their visits to when your mouth is full.  In fact, sometimes the best thing that can be said about a wait staff is that it’s not especially noticeable.  Save for Betty, others who have saved us haven’t made a memorable impression, but that’s not a bad thing.

Zea’s concept is based on “inspired American food,” a broad concept describing a melting pot of Mediterranean, Thai, Cajun and New Mexican inspired entrees and appetizers.  Soup du jour selections, in fact, include two featuring green chile.  Salads are inventive and large enough to share, the type of salads which fill you up in the manner of large entrees.  Unless you’re a professional gurgitator, you probably wouldn’t be able to finish a salad and an item from the rotisserie meats and poultry menu.

Items on this menu are served with two sides, all large enough to put a dent on any appetite. The sauteed corn is so heavily buttered, it may put a dent on your waistline, too.  What corn wouldn’t be delicious when swimming in a pool of melted butter.  Other sides include roasted corn grits, Zea potatoes, Thai snap beans, buttered sweet potatoes, red beans, vegetable du jour, French fries and sugar snap beans.

Sauteed corn–sweet, succulent and swimming in butter

The menu is further segmented into grilled entrees, seafood, pasta and sandwiches.  Portions are profuse, most big enough to share.  The Mixed Rotisserie and Grill entree is a veritable meatfest and perhaps the largest entree on the menu: half a rack of ribs, half a chicken and a quarter-pound of the rotisserie meat of the day with two sides.  The chicken has an almost lacquered sheen on the outside and is grilled to perfection so it remains moist on the inside.  The ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty. The rotisserie pork, served with a rosemary roasted garlic glace, is also quite good, albeit heavily salted.

Not quite as appetizing is the twice cooked crispy duck, a Maple Leaf Farms duckling slow-roasted then crisped and served with Asian herbs and a honey soy sauce.  One of my pet peeves is seafood or duck served with either a fruity or cloying sauce that masks the inherent flavors of the duck or seafood item. Zea’s honey soy sauce is cloying, almost dessert-sweet.  This entree’s saving grace is the crispy duck skin–and a few napkins to wipe away some of the sauce.  The duckling is otherwise good–tender, moist and delicious, but that sauce has got to go.

Another item Betty steered me toward is the Asian Tuna Salad, made with enough Romaine lettuce to keep a migrant farmer employed for a week. It is served with marinated and seared sashimi tuna (four strips about half-inch thick), carrots, fried noodles, Asian herbs, sesame seeds and roasted almonds laced with peanut vinaigrette.  The peanut vinaigrette is reminiscent of the peanut sauce often served with satay in Thai restaurants.  It’s a bit on the sweet side, but not overly so.

Shrimp Etouffe with Rice

One item not on my plans for future visits is the shrimp etouffe served with brown rice.  On the sole occasion in which we had this entree, the shrimp, though plentiful, had a mealy texture.  It was enough to detract from the flavorful roux and its otherwise good flavor.

Zea Rotisserie & Grill has the look and feel of a restaurant you visit only on special occasions, but it’s priced reasonably, especially considering the portion size.

Zea Rotisserie & Grill
4800 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Mediterranean Hummus Supreme, St Louis Ribs Thai Style

Zea Rotisserie & Grill on Urbanspoon

Fuddruckers – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fuddrucker's on Yale

Fuddruckers on Yale, one of three Fuddruckers in Albuquerque

The audacious proclamation on Fuddruckers door, logo and Web site, “The world’s greatest hamburgers available” may not be quite complete. Add the words “somewhere else” and most will agree, you probably have a more accurate description of this tremendously popular restaurant chain which actually trademarked the “world’s greatest hamburgers” logo.

Founded in 1980 by Phil Romano (of Romano’s Macaroni Grill fame), Fuddruckers has expanded to more than 250 locations across the world including such purveyors of American culture as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait.  The theme at most of the fast casual franchises is 1950s and 1960s rock and roll.  The ambience is Disneyesque, both from the sense that it’s family-friendly and that it’s loud (as in blaring, ear-splitting music loud) and fun (at least for some people).  Others might describe it as tacky, gaudy and over-the-top.  Ostensibly, Fuddruckers also serves good burgers.

Duke City diners have been heavily patronizing Fuddruckers since day one, so much so that there are now three Fuddruckers restaurants in the city (as well as one in Farmington).  Not long after its millennium year launch in Albuquerque, Fuddruckers supplanted all the indigenous burger joints to win the Alibi’s best burger award.  It also won the award in 2001 and has been a win, place or show vote-in just about every year since.

A circus-like atmosphere adds to the Fuddrucker's experience

A circus-like atmosphere adds to the Fuddruckers experience

Fuddruckers purports to be the original “build your own” burger establishment.  Its 100 percent USDA fresh ground beef patties are available in one-third, one-half, two-thirds and one pound sizes.  A self-service toppings bar lets you load up your burger with your favorite condiments.  For a pittance you can also add grilled onions, American bleu cheese, Cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Pepper Jack, Swiss Cheese, Smokehouse Bacon, Guacamole and Grilled Mushrooms.  Fuddruckers will prepare your burger to your exacting specifications.  Medium rare is medium rare and well done is well done.  If you don’t agree, take it back and they’ll re-do it for you.

The menu also features eight different specialty burgers such as the Fudd 66, Fuddruckers version of New Mexico’s revered green chile cheeseburger.  Fuddruckers obviously recognizes the importance of the green chile cheeseburger to the Land of Enchantment, because this burger isn’t available across the fruited plain.  Heat-seeking diners elsewhere have to settle for other specialty burgers such as the Inferno (sauteed jalapenos, onions and pepper jack cheese) and the Southwest burger (guacamole, pepper jack cheese and smokehouse bacon).

The hamburger buns are made from scratch every day and throughout the day.  It’s a treat watching the baker hand-form and roll the buns similar to how abuelitas have been preparing tortillas for their families every day for centuries.  The produce and “fixins” are unfailingly fresh and let you be burger artiste, crafting your burger your way.

Chocolate shakes at Fuddruckers

Chocolate shakes at Fuddruckers

It stands to reason that a chain claiming to serve the world’s greatest burgers would also think very highly of its shakes, not surprisingly christened the “world’s greatest shakes” on the menu and Web site.  Fuddruckers doesn’t just serve a chocolate shake, it serves a “Crazy for Chocolate” shake.  It’s not just a strawberry shake, it’s a “very berry shake” at Fuddruckers.  There’s no plain vanilla here; it’s a “dreamy vanilla” shake.  The “crunchy cookies and cream” shake is the only one not bearing a superlative adjective.

The shakes are thick and rich, but not necessarily as flavorful as their sobriquets might imply.  The chocolate shake is a bit on the cloying side and not very chocolaty (at least in comparison to the frappes served in New England).  Perhaps its best attribute is that it’s served cold enough to give you a case of brain freeze.  The shakes are also made with real ice cream and are served in a glass goblet with a cold tin on the side.  It’s much like getting a shake and a half.

The Fudd 66 Burger (Green Chile) with blue cheese and grilled onions

The Fudd 66 Burger (Green Chile) with blue cheese and grilled onions

Remember the Fudd 66 burger (the one with the green chile).  It has the potential to be a big burger if you’re careful as to what else you add.  The Fudd 66 burger pictured above  is adorned with grilled onions and blue cheese on a half-pound beef patty.  The combination sounds like something your gastronome about town would really enjoy.

Alas, what the burger elicited was recollections of the Wendy’s commercials of the late 70s in which old women wiped their mouths daintily after every bite.  The motto of these commercials was “juicy with lots of napkins.”  The Fudd 66 burger as I adorned it was juicy to the point of being run-down-your-arms juicy.  The beef (prepared at medium) was juicy, the grilled onions were juicy and the green chile (which was plentiful) was also juicy.  Unfortunately the buns are sieve-like; they don’t prevent any of the copious run-off.

A better option would have been the Fudd 66 sans American bleu cheese and grilled onion–just as it’s offered on the menu.  Alternatively, the Black & Blue burger (smokehouse bacon, bleu cheese, Balsamic green onions) would have been a good choice.  In fact, it’s my favorite of the specialty burgers offered at Fuddruckers.

One half-pound All American burger

One half-pound All American burger

If you’re not in the mood for burgers, Fuddruckers does serve a passable quarter pound hot dog although it can be overly salted and may call to mind the naval term “salty dog.”

The fries are Texas-sized and generously salted.  If you’d rather not be so singularly focused, you can also order “frings”, a basket including both fries and onion rings.  The onion rings are thick and crunchy, but nothing special.

The great etymologist Barry Popik explains in his fabulous blog that Fuddruckers is a made-up name and that in its early days the restaurant sometimes called itself “Freddie Fuddruckers.”  He believes the name was possibly influenced by the 1970s Texas cocktail called the “Freddie Fudpucker.”  Fuddruckers is one of those tongue-twisting names for which invectives are often substituted, but this is strictly a family-friendly, G-rated restaurant most people will like.

4855 Pan American Freeway
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 26 September 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blue Onion Burger

Fuddruckers on Urbanspoon

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