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Back-Sass BBQ – Bernalillo, New Mexico

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Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo

Every few years, the eyes of the world fixate on a tiny chimney perched on the roof of the Sistine Chapel as millions await the telltale plumes of white smoke which signify that a new pope has been elected.  Since November, 2012, savvy Duke City area barbecue aficionados have been following plumes of smoke emanating from a mobile eighteen-foot grilling machine, a sign that great barbecue is imminent.  Fittingly “Follow the Smoke” is the motto of the Back-Sass BBQ team which has been hauling its mother ship of barbecue all over the city.

On January 29, 2014, Back-Sass BBQ put down roots in Bernalillo, launching its bodacious barbecue operation in a restaurant storefront.  Located on North Camino del Pueblo less than half a mile north of heavily trafficked Highway 550, Back-Sass is easy to find if you follow the smoke which wafts into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try some baby backs.  Back-Sass BBQ is situated in a fairly nondescript edifice which formerly housed La Bamba Grill among other businesses.  Its signage is bold, sassy and inviting.

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The interior of Back-Sass BBQ

Attempts to define any new barbecue restaurant’s “style” as either Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, or the Carolinas are inevitable, but Back-Sass BBQ’s style doesn’t subscribe to any of those hallowed templates.  Instead it might best be described as “Cleveland style.”  No, not the Cleveland in Ohio which set the Cuyahoga River on fire back in 1969.  I’m talking about the other Cleveland, the one in New Mexico bordered by Holman and Mora; the Cleveland on the “other side” of the Jicarita Peak from my hometown of Peñasco.

Back-Sass BBQ founder and owner Gina Valdez grew up in Cleveland, New Mexico, a village one travel site described as “where cars go to die.”  She’s been a barbecue enthusiast all her life and although she’s a sanctioned judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society, doesn’t barbecue competitively, not even in Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew.  In fact, Gina didn’t get super serious about honing her craft until a broken leg laid her off, giving her the impetus to build the mobile unit.  The eighteen-foot barbecue behemoth can smoke more than one-hundred full-sized turkeys at one time.  In her new restaurant, however, she relies on barrel smokers that aren’t quite as prolific.  Though hours of operation are posted, once the barbecue runs out, the restaurant closes.

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Baby Back Ribs with Chile Beans and Potato Salad

You won’t want to miss out on this barbecue!  Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, made sure I didn’t, extolling the ribs and coleslaw so enthusiastically I had to visit Back-Sass BBQ the following day.  Shawne was also enamored of the sauce which she described as “pretty complex.”   Obviously more persuasive than I, she managed to coax Gina into telling her what’s in the sauce: molasses, apple pie spices, pineapple and a “bunch of other things.” 

Back-Sass BBQ is essentially a one-room operation with booth seating on one side of the room.  The dining room is sparsely appointed.  Fittingly therefore, the menu lists fewer than twenty items: four sandwiches, four plates (with your choice of two sides), three meats by the pound, baby back ribs, turkey legs, three sides (chile beans, coleslaw, potato salad) and for dessert, peach cobbler and gingerbread men.  

Two meat plate: hot links and pulled pork with two sides: potato salad and coleslaw

Two meat plate: hot links and pulled pork with two sides: potato salad and coleslaw

26 March 2014: Some purists will tell you  that one of the marks of great barbecue is whether or not sauce is needed.  Other barbecue enthusiasts don’t want their barbecue naked, preferring it slathered with a sauce.  Back-Sass BBQ is quite good with or without sauce.  The baby backs pull away from the bone easily and have an addictive bark, the deeply dark, flavor rich, sweet, caramelized rind suffused with magnificently complex flavor.  Barbecue without bark has no bite.  The sauce, by the way, is indeed pretty complex.  The flavor components Shawne described are easily discernible, but the source of a pleasant piquancy can only come from chipotle, a fact Gina confirmed.

One of the other hallmarks of Back-Sass BBQ is an aromatic smokiness courtesy of apple woods which dispense a very mild flavor and imbue foods with a slight sweetness.  Because a little smoke goes a long way with meats, most aficionados prefer light-smoking hard woods such as apple which tend to be complementary of all meats.  The fragrances at Back-Sass BBQ’s dining room would make a wonderful aftershave or aphrodisiac.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" takes a bite from a turkey leg as big as his arm

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” takes a bite from a turkey leg as big as his arm

27 March 2014: Your best bet if you want to sample more than one meat is the two meat plate with your choice of two sides. Make one of those meats the hot links, emphasis on the word “hot.” That’s hot as in hotter than eighty percent of the chile served at New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City area. Not only are these luscious links hot, they’re moist and delicious. You’re well advised to eat these last because you might not be able to taste the other meat on the plate…and if the other meat is pulled pork, you’ll want to be able to discern every nuance. The pulled pork has a pinkish hue with a darker “ring” denoting the smoking process. It’s sweet, moist and absolutely delicious–with or without sauce.

Smoked Turkey and Broccoli Soup

Smoked Turkey and Broccoli Soup

27 March 2014: The turkey legs at Back-Sass BBQ look like throw-backs to the age of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. They’re bulbous, chewy, delicious drumsticks the size of Popeye’s forearm or a pterodactyl wing. Bad cartoon metaphors aside, you’ll channel your inner troglodyte as you gnaw on perhaps the best turkey legs in the Duke City area (with apologies to The Cube). There’s almost something primal about holding these legs by their built-in handle and piercing through the glistening bark to expose pinkish smoked turkey meat. Who cares that turkey is all dark meat. The smoked flavor and surprising moistness will convert even the most cynical. 

Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach

Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach

3 April 2014: During an April, 2014 visit to Back-Sass BBQ, Gina told my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and I that before she was a barbecue lady, she was a soup lady and that she planned on introducing soup to the menu once she perfected her recipe. She then treated us to a magnificent example of her soup handiwork, a steaming hot bowl of smoked turkey and broccoli soup. This soup is perfect as is and should be on the daily menu starting now! It’s a rich and creamy soup with a strong pepper influence coalescing with the smokiness of turkey and the al dente crispness of broccoli, celery and other vegetables. Both Sr. Plata and I took home 32-ounces of this enchanting elixir to share with our respective wives, but we secretly hoped they don’t like it as much as we do so we could have all of it. Unfortunately for us, they loved it. 

9 April 2014:  The soup of the day during a subsequent visit was a potato and leek soup with spinach.  It’s a hearty, creamy and very tasty soup served hot.  The flavors of leek and potato harmonize very well and the spinach lends nutrients, texture and its very own unique flavor profile.  This is the type of soup you’ll love best during cold winter days, but it’s wonderful any time.

A quarter-pound of brisket

A quarter-pound of brisket

3 April 2014: If your experiences with brisket are akin to what masticating shoe leather must be like, it’s because you haven’t had great brisket. Trust Gina to smoke your brisket. It’s tender, offering just the right amount of chew and it’s and smoky with a pink smoke outline. Best, it’s delicious with or without sauce and has the perfect qualities for dressing a sandwich. A quarter-pound will do you for lunch.

Brisket Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

Brisket Sandwich

09 April 2014: If you prefer your brisket on a sandwich, Back-Sass serves an overstuffed sandwich just brimming with moist, tender brisket nestled in a soft hoagie bun. My friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Mike Muller uses brisket as his benchmark for how good a barbecue restaurant is. He loved this one and was surprised at just how moist and tender the brisket is. The brisket pulls away easily and you won’t find any annoying sinew or fat.

Chicken Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

Chicken Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

09 April 2014: The very last item on the menu I had from Back-Sass was the chicken. True to form, it’s very clucking good. The chicken is available as a sandwich or you can opt for a half-chicken (thigh and leg). Any way you have it will become your instant favorite. As with all meats smoked by Gina, the chicken is moist, tender and redolent with apple wood smokiness. The half chicken has a wonderful crust which, at first glance, may appear to be on the burnt side, but that patina comes from the marinade she uses on her beer can chicken recipe.  That crust is poultry’s answer to pork skin and is absolutely delicious.

A half chicken

A half chicken

1 May 2014: Credit renowned author Calvin Trillin for exposing the world to burnt ends, what some have called “nuggets of barbecue gold.”  Though born of tougher, drier, misshapen end pieces of brisket, burnt ends are imbued with mouth-watering qualities, a coalescence of melted-down fat and meat slowly grilled into smoky, crunchy, meaty bark.  They’re a delightful delicacy not always appreciated by barbecue purists as they tend to be not only fatty, chewy and tough, but often very smoky.  For those of us who concur with Trillin’s sage opinion, they’re truly special.  Back-Sass BBQ’s version is Kansas City worthy, like delicious meat candy.

Burnt Ends

Burnt Ends

One other essential element in the barbecue experience is sides, the accompaniment needed because even barbecue addicts can’t live on meats alone. Back-Sass BBQ offers three terrific sides. The chile beans are true New Mexican chile beans with red chile and not Texas “chili” beans with whatever mystery spices they add. The coleslaw is light on the dressing and heavy on crispness and freshness. The potato salad, which includes finely cut pickles and celery, is similarly light on the mayo or salad cream. All are terrific.

Peach Cobbler and Gingerbread Men

Peach Cobbler and Gingerbread Men

27 March 2014: Back-Sass BBQ offers only two desserts, one of which is seemingly de rigueur in barbecue restaurants.  That would be peach cobbler, one of those desserts often described as both homespun and old-fashioned.  More often than that, it’s described as delicious.  Covered with a crumbly sweet crust and imbued with moistness, it’s a good cobbler, one which can be improved only by a scoop or four of ice cream.  The other dessert is gingerbread men (five for three dollars) which children of all ages will enjoy.

Meat up with some friends and follow the smoke to Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo for apple wood smoked deliciousness.

Back-Sass BBQ
N. 213 Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 404-8217
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 Mayl 2014
1st VISIT: 26 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Chile Beans, Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Hot Links, Pulled Pork, Peach Cobbler, Gingerbread Men, Turkey Leg, Smoked Turkey-Broccoli Soup, Brisket, Brisket Sandwich, Half Chicken, Chicken Sandwich, Burnt Ends


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The Range – Bernalillo, New Mexico

My friend Karen Baehr and the Range

My friend Karen Baehr stands next to the range at The Range

The phoenix of ancient Egyptian mythology was a sacred firebird of beautiful red and gold plumage said to live for centuries. At the end of its life, the phoenix built itself a nest of cinnamon twigs which it then ignited. Both the phoenix and the nest burned fiercely and were reduced to ashes from which a new phoenix arose.  Similarly, the Range Cafe in Bernalillo was claimed by a fiery conflagration only to rise up from the ashes to exceed its former glory to become one of the most popular restaurants in New Mexico.

Like the phoenix, the Range is a rare breed–one of the few locally owned and operated (non-chain) restaurants which at any given time (make that, almost all the time) has diners lining up for a seat. That may be because the Range offers the “familiar” in serving comfort foods and local favorites and serves them in the profuse portion sizes American diners love.

Creative art abounds at the Range Cafe

The original Range debuted in September, 1992 in Bernalillo’s main street, Camino Del Pueblo. The restaurant was an instant success, quickly becoming more than a local favorite.  Not quite three years later (on May 30, 1995), the Range went up in smoke–a huge conflagration consumed the entire restaurant. The community let it be known that they wanted their favorite restaurant rebuilt and held fund-raising events to help with the process.

Two months after the fire, the Range was back in business, albeit in a temporary location directly across the street from the church, thereby making it unlawful to obtain a beer and wine license. In April, 1996, the Range negotiated to rent a circa 1905 property which once served as the warehouse of the Bernalillo Mercantile. By December of that year, the Range officially re-opened at its present address, 925 Camino del Pueblo in the heart of downtown Bernalillo. Like the majestic phoenix, the Range rose from the ashes and has been going strong ever since.

Stuffed Range Toast

Stuffed Range Toast

The Range shares building space with Rose’s Pottery House owned by life-long Bernalillo resident Antoinette Silva. Part museum, part art gallery, it features contemporary and ancient Pueblo pottery and art. It’s a must stop before or after dining at the Range.  During its nearly 80 year history, the building, now covering a full city block, served as a general store, movie theater, auto repair shop and permanent home to one of the finest collections of Native American and Hispanic art in New Mexico.

After obtaining a liquor license, the Range opened the Lizard Rodeo Lounge, a welcoming, non-smoking gathering place for locals and visitors alike. The Lounge includes a full-service bar and offers a full service-menu as well as live, free entertainment featuring local New Mexico bands.  Every Thursday is open mike night for all aspiring stars.

A "short" stack

A “short” stack

A contemporary Southwestern artsy ambiance enhances your entire dining experience. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to catch your eye. Even the chairs and tables are functional art. While the milieu may seemingly scream “contemporary western,” ergo “home on the range,” the restaurant is actually named for the other kind of range–the one on which you prepare food. Several old stoves as well as stove art festoon the restaurant. Art and ambiance not withstanding, it’s the wonderful food that’s the big attraction. Not only are the portions profuse and most menu items familiar, they are generally delicious and reasonably priced. 

The Range is the brainchild of restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory whose other popular restaurant ventures in the Duke City area include the Standard Diner and now defunct and much missed Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen.  The entrepreneurial restaurateur is a visionary innovator whose restaurant concepts defy local stereotypes.  His idea to combine fine cooking (such as applying French culinary techniques to the preparation of meatloaf) with comfort food was years before its time.

A trio of salsa, con queso and guacamole with blue corn tortilla chips

The Range trio of guacamole, salsa and con queso with blue corn chips

Breakfast

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the Range’s eye-opening, belly-busing breakfasts are a good way to start off the day, but if you’re inclined to get sleepy after a big meal, you might want to split breakfast with someone you love. That’s because the Range’s portions are humongous.  The most popular entree on the voluminous Range menu, by the way, is the huevos rancheros.  It’s possible the Range sells more huevos rancheros than any other restaurant in New Mexico.  Diners come from miles around to partake of these award-winning treasures.

The gargantuan breakfast burrito includes three large eggs scrambled with either ham, sausage or grilled veggies, wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with white cheddar and your choice of red or green chile. It is accompanied by Range fries and pinto beans. Both the red and the green chile at the Range can be about as piquant  (or as mild) as you’d get at some New Mexican restaurant, depending on the season and batch. It may open your eyes in the morning.

The Range’s version of green chile chicken stew

Even larger than the breakfast burrito, if that’s possible, is a breakfast entree called the “Range Roundup” in which a homemade biscuit is topped with crumbled, crisp bacon and sausage, two eggs fixed your way smothered in chile and white cheddar cheese with Range fries and pinto beans.  This entree should come standard with an angioplasty.

2 May 2009: For a week’s worth of calories, try the stuffed Range toast–three brick-sized slices of cinnamon raisin bread with a rich egg batter, grilled and stuffed with strawberries and bananas then topped with homemade apple/peach butter, whipped cream and maple syrup. These are among the most decadent French toast in New Mexico and should be shared.

Shrimp Scampi Quesadilla

Shrimp Scampi Quesadilla

2 May 2009: Should you opt instead for pancakes “Short stack” is a misnomer for the two large pancakes (the size of manhole covers) that leave very little of your plate uncovered. These syrupy orbs, like most Range portions, are big enough to share (they could feed a developing country).

Appetizers, Soups and Salads

2 April 2008: Lest I forget, one of the best ways to start a meal at the Range is with the trio of guacamole, salsa and con queso with blue corn tortilla chips. The salsa is about medium on the piquancy scale, but it is fresh, rich and delicious. The guacamole is buttery and fresh, the product of excellent ingredients. Only the con queso, which lacks creaminess, disappoints. It’s a bit on the thick side and includes no ameliorants to contrast the cheesiness.

Range Quesadilla

Range Quesadilla

28 May 2012: You can’t mention comfort foods without a prominent spot on the list for soups. The soups–especially the cream of mushroom soup and the cream of carrot soup–are among the very best you’ll find in New Mexico. These are the type of soups you love most on a cold winter day, but which are great any time of year. Thick, rich, hearty and replete with fresh ingredients, they’re an elixir for whatever (if anything) ails you. I’m not quite as fond of the Range’s green chile chicken stew, perhaps a misnomer because it’s described on the menu as a “soup that serves like a meal.”  It really is a soup as it’s not thick and creamy as most traditional green chile stews tend to be.  Within a thin soupy broth, you’ll find blue corn tortilla chips, potatoes, carrots, celery, tendrils of chicken and a barely discernible chile. 

20 November 2009: The motto of the Range Cafe is “ordinary food done extraordinarily well.” Ordinary doesn’t have to be boring or the “same old thing” everyone else serves. The Range Cafe takes some liberties with New Mexican cuisine and comfort food favorites. Take for example the shrimp scampi quesadilla, sauteed shrimp marinated in tequila, lime and garlic combined with tomatillo, pico de gallo, corn and white Cheddar cheese grilled on a flour tortilla and served with sour cream and guacamole. The shrimp is sweet and succulent, blending in extraordinarily well with the other flavor combinations. 

Green Chile Strips (breaded whole chiles served with a cool, creamy jalapeno dipping sauce), a Range Cafe appetizer favorite

4 April 2014: Vegetarians and Catholics out on a Lenten Friday aren’t left out in the cold when they crave quesadillas.  The Range Quesadilla is everything any discerning diner desires in a quesadilla save for a meaty protein.  A large, grilled flour tortilla is folded over artichoke hearts, red bell pepper, tomato, green chile and white Cheddar then served with the tasty triumvirate of salsa, guacamole and sour cream.  Even avowed carnivores will enjoy this terrific tortilla treat, but if they must have a protein, it’s also available with chicken.

28 May 2012: Another appetizer catering to New Mexican tastes is a plate of green chile strips, breaded whole chiles served with a cool, creamy jalapeño dipping sauce.  Served four to an order, each of the green chile strips is at least six inches of piquancy and deliciousness.  Unlike some chile rellenos, the batter is thin, light and doesn’t fall off the chiles.  The jalapeño dipping sauce is cool heat, a perfect accompaniment for chilephiles who know the only way to improve on a heat-generating food is with even more heat. 

Asian Salad

Asian Salad

4 April 2014: The Range menu features ten salads ranging from the familiar and traditional (taco salad, Caesar and wedge) to the innovative (Grilled Salmon Berry and Quinoa).  The Asian Salad–fresh spinach and mixed greens with cabbage, carrots, jicama, cucumber, snow peas, sliced almonds and frizzled onions tossed in sesame ginger dressing–probably falls in the latter category.  It’s an exceptional salad highlighted by freshness and diversity of ingredients.  Alas, those ingredients have a similar flavor profile and the salad would probably benefit from a mild cheese.

Entrees

The aforementioned meatloaf, christened Tom’s meatloaf in honor of Range co-founder Tom Fenton, is a comfort food standard served with garlic mashed potatoes and a delicious mushroom gravy. The meatloaf is a substantial brick-sized slab of moist deliciousness. Like most Range entrees, it’s served almost out-of-the-stove hot. The mashed potatoes are made with real potatoes, not the powdery stuff and surprise, surprise…you can actually taste the garlic.

Mac and cheese with a unique Range twist, green chile

Mac and cheese with a unique Range twist, green chile

Another comfort food specialty, the chicken fried steak (a fresh beef cube steak breaded and smothered with cream gravy) is as good as you’ll find anywhere in the Land of Enchantment’s Rio Grande valley. Even Texans (for whom chicken fried steak is a religion) enjoy the Range’s Texas-sized version which even has the size (everything’s bigger in Texas) they appreciate. This chicken fried steak is tender enough to be cut with a fork.

20 November 2009: Recognizing that mac and cheese are everyone’s favorite, the Range makes theirs with a special New Mexico unique twist–green chile. The macaroni is rigatoni, the size of a culvert. The cheese is creamy and delicious with a prominent white Cheddar flavor though it’s entirely possible more than one cheese is used. The entire bowl–and it’s the size of a hub cap–is covered with ground parmesan. The green chile is a bit mild on the piquancy scale, but it’s a delicious chile that complements the mac and cheese very well.

Trout

The Range Trout

Although comfort foods hold a prominent place on the menu, my favorite entree (when on the menu) is the Thai shrimp noodles with semi spicy peanut sauce and julienne vegetables. It’s an entree as good as you’ll find at some Thai restaurants and like many Thai entrees, has a flavor profile that includes a nice balance of sweet, savory and piquant flavors.

The Range burger starts with an eight-ounce fresh ground chuck patty flame grilled to order.  It’s topped with shaved ham, green chile strips and melted white cheddar cheese on a fresh, homemade bun.  It is one of six inventive burgers on the menu, the most unique being a Relleno Burger topped with a blue corn chile relleno and green chile sauce.  Obviously these are not boring burgers. The ground chuck patty is what all burgers in the area should aspire to be.

The Rio Grande Gorge: 8-ounce ground chuck beef patty served open face on a tortilla, topped with red or green chile sauce, Cheddar, grilled onions, black beans, Range fries with queso

An eight-ounce ground chuck patty is also a key component of the Rio Grande Gorge in which the patty is served open face on a tortilla, topped with red or green chile sauce, Cheddar, grilled onions, black beans and Range fries with queso. It sounds great–and for the most part it is, save for the queso which tops the Range fries which is of Velveeta quality.

2 April 2008: Dinner specials are generally so good you’ll wish they were on the standard menu. One example is the Range’s trout which is topped with capers, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes in a light white wine sauce. The trout is flaky and grilled to perfection. The natural brininess melds perfectly with the tanginess of the ingredients topping the trout. A lime and cilantro infused Basmati rice makes for excellent accompaniment to this dish.

The dessert case is an edible work of art.  You'll want to lick the glass.

The dessert case is an edible work of art. You’ll want to lick the glass.

Desserts

Desserts, are so good, they’re almost indecent!  The Range bakes only with real butter, fresh cream, real vanilla, fresh fruits and fine chocolates. Anything can be made a la mode for a pittance.  The Range’s dessert case is one of Bernalillo’s most popular attractions, one that should be displayed on tourist guide books.  Not only is each dessert esthetically pleasing (drool eliciting), they’re all delicious.

The roadhouse chocolate cake is among the most moist cakes you’ll find anywhere while the “Life by Chocolate” cake defines the word decadent. Featuring milk chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, Belgian white chocolate and raspberry mousse layered together and glazed with a rich ganache, this is the type of dessert your dentist warned you about as a child and your dietician cautions against today.

Key Lime Pie at the Range

20 November 2009:  If you’re served green key lime pie, there’s a good bet either food coloring was added or the pie mix came out of a box.  In the Florida keys, no restaurant can expect to stay in business for long if it serves green key lime pie.  Key lime pies should always be pale yellow, usually a good indication that actual key lime juice is used.  The Range’s key lime pie is very reminiscent of those we enjoyed so much when traveling through Florida where the key lime pie has been designated by the state legislature as “the official pie of the state of Florida.”  The Range’s version has a tart, but not lip-pursing, flavor.  It’s also very aromatic, another sign of authenticity.

4 April 2014: In New Mexico, chefs and cooks love showing off the versatility of green chile.  One of the most delicious is in apple pie, an idea which makes good sense considering chile (a member of the nightshade family) is closer related to fruits than it is to vegetables.  The Range’s green chile apple pie with piñon streusel in a flaky pie crust is among the best.  The green chile packs the type of piquant punch that titillates the back of your throat.  For the faint of heart and tongue, this pie should be served a la mode.

Green chile apple pie with piñon streusel in a flaky pie crust

Green chile apple pie a la mode

The Range expanded from its Bernalillo location by launching at two Albuquerque locations, both of which experience the same overflow crowds as the original. Rather than creating a separate entry for each, I’ll update this listing for any visit to the Range, regardless of location.

This is a restaurant about which seldom a disparaging word is heard. Like the Phoenixes rise from the ashes, it continues to ascend in the estimation of its many patrons.

The Range
264 Camino Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 867-1700
Web Site


LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 24
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Desserts, Meatloaf, Mushroom Soup, Mac and Cheese, Shrimp Scampi Quesadilla, Range Quesadilla,

Range Café on Urbanspoon

Kaktus Brewing Company – Bernalillo, New Mexico

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The Kaktus Brewing Company in Bernalillo

Most of us have known a wine snob or two. You know the type. They refer to themselves as oenophiles, a fancy way of saying “connoisseur or lover of wines.” They believe themselves to possess refined palates and won’t drink a wine that isn’t as cultured as they are. Even then, they first have to check the color and opacity of the wine. Then they twirl their glass for ten minutes or so before sticking their nose into the glass (like anteaters at an ant hole) and sniffing the wine noisily. They then proudly proclaim the wine has notes of oak, berries or butter. Their next step is to gargle with the wine, sloshing it between their cheeks and gums before finally imbibing of its delicate flavors and proclaiming it worthy.

In recent years, another adult beverage snob has arisen to give oenophiles some competition in the haughtiness department. They’re called “cerevisaphiles,” a term that refers to beer enthusiasts. Cerevisaphiles turn their nose up at Pabst Blue Ribbon and other “pedestrian swill.” As with their oenophile counterparts, the cerevisaphiles pride themselves on their discerning palates. They will drink no beer before or after its time and are careful to note its appearance (color, head density) and aroma before sipping (yes, sipping) it and contemplating its worthiness. Where the snobbiest and most well-heeled of oenophiles pride themselves on wine cellars, cerevisaphiles (like my friend Ruben) take pride in brewing their own.

The artsy compound

The artsy compound

That, my dear readers, is this gastronome’s feeble attempt to use humor and stereotypes to exploit the misconceptions behind the much maligned, much misunderstood talents and passions of oenophiles and cerevisaphiles. Most oenophiles and cerevisaphiles I know (including some of my best friends) are actually very down-to-earth and uncommonly modest. They’re justifiably proud of their bona fide gifts and abilities to discern and appreciate wine and beer in ways plebeians like me aren’t fully capable of doing. Where I’m mildly jealous is that sometimes their gifts and abilities extend to the culinary realm. With their enhanced taste buds and olfactory senses, they can discern nuances and subtleties in foods better than I can. For all I know, they even have better vocabularies, too.

Dana Koller is one such person.  Born into a family which included talented chefs, Dana couldn’t help but develop a passion for quality foods.  He parlayed his passions and precocious experiences in the food and beverage industries toward entrepreneurial channels, founding a marketing platform for local restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries throughout central and northern New Mexico.  He also launched indulgenm.com, a Web site celebrating the Land of Enchantment’s wines.  Although wine is his true passion, Dana’s refined palate also appreciates good beer.  

Sit with the cast of Breaking Bad

Sit with the cast of Breaking Bad

Seeing an untapped opportunity in Bernalillo, Dana partnered with brew master Mike Waddy to launch Kaktus Brewing Company in October, 2013.  In the vernacular of the brewing industry, Kaktus is a nano-brewery  in that it brews only about 500 total barrels a year.  Kaktus, named for the German spelling of the word “cactus,” is also unique in that all beer is brewed on steel, flat-bottomed German-made equipment which allows for lighter style lagers without compromising on the quality of other beers.  This Lilliputian brewery uses all natural and organic ingredients in its beer.  As you enter Kaktus, you can take a self-guided-tour of the brewery.

You have to get there first and that can be a bit tricky.  Kaktus is located on South Hill Road, a lightly trafficked, relatively unknown two-lane west of and which essentially parallels I-25.  It’s about half a mile from the Railrunner and lies in what seems to be part industrial complex, part residential area with a couple of trailer parks along the way.  A single sign depicting Kokopelli points the way to the brewery.  Signage not withstanding, you might still wonder if you entered a kitschy art compound instead of a brewery.  Then there’s the brewery itself.  There’s none of the pristine veneer or effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the typical brew pub to lure in patrons.

All Natural Buffalo Frito Pie

All Natural Buffalo Frito Pie

Instead, Kaktus resembles a somewhat austere converted home to which is attached a canopied patio, ostensibly for use when weather permits it.  If you choose not to take the self-guided tour, you’ll step into a brightly illuminated room where you’ll espy Dana Koller manning the brewery taps behind the bar.  What will almost immediately catch your eye are the chairs and stools.  Carved onto the chairs on one six-person table is the cast of Breaking Bad.  The four stools on another table (which will probably be most popular among male patrons) pays tributes to the “dollys:” Salvadore Dali,  the Dalai Lama and of course, Dolly Parton.  The Dolly Parton stool is a bit uncomfortable because of  a couple of a couple of wooden “protuberances” that won’t let you sit up straight.

4 January 2014: Primarily a brewery in which patrons can gather together leisurely and enjoy high quality beer, Kaktus hasn’t neglected the gustatory needs of its guests, offering a small, but inviting menu.  As with the beer menu (eight beers on tap), the food menu focuses on quality.  The first item on the menu is a homemade all-natural buffalo Frito pie (Fritos corn chips, sour cream, onion, Cheddar cheese).  It’s not a conventional Frito pie, at least from a New Mexico standpoint.  The “chile” is black bean chipotle chile and it’s seasoned with bay leaf, oregano and coriander stewed with all-natural bison, cumin, sea salt and peppers.

Knockwurst

Brats

If, like me, you’ve been so inundated with hot dogs obfuscated by everything but the kitchen sink, Kaktus is your hook-up, offering build-your-own hot dogs and brats. Build your own starts with selecting your own dog or brat from an alluring selection: buffalo chile dog; Elk, Cheddar and Jalapeno Brat; All-Natural Beef Dog; Duck and Cilantro Game Sausage; and Wild Boar Game Sausage. Next you select your choice of bun: baguette or pretzel and lastly your favorite toppings: mustard, ketchup, sauerkraut, garlic, onions and relish. You even get to specify whether you want your mustard or ketchup spread light, medium or heavy. Green chile and curry ketchup are available for a pittance. All brats and dogs are served with chips and salsa.

To ensure the quality he wants, Dana sources the brats and dogs from Colorado. Great choice! The three we sampled were “restore my faith in brats and dogs” good! They were “can’t wait to sample others” good! The brats are “Wisconsin good” and in the Badger State, brats are almost a religion. Kaktus’s brats are thick and meaty sausages incorporating a blend of old world German spices with the aforementioned  contemporary twists. They snap when you bite into the casing, releasing moist, smoky deliciousness. These brats are so thick that even the chewy pretzel bun is challenged to hold it in, especially if you add anything more than mustard.

Duck and Cilantro Game Sausage on Pretzel Bun Hickory Smoked Wild Boar Game Sausage

Duck and Cilantro Game Sausage on Pretzel Bun
Hickory Smoked Wild Boar Game Sausage

4 January 2014: After only one visit, the wild boar game sausage has quickly become my very favorite exotic hot dog in the Land of Enchantment. Credit some of that to the hickory smoke flavor impregnating this behemoth between a pretzel bun. The hickory smoke is more than noticeable, but it doesn’t mask the feral, but fabulous flavor of the wild boar which, by the way, isn’t quite as sweet or as fatty as domestic pork. Boar meat is also a bit darker and more coarse, but otherwise shares a similar flavor profile to pork.  If you love pork-based hot dogs, you’ll love the wild boar game sausage.

4 January 2014: We admire the monogamous commitment and beauty of ducks so much, it sometimes makes it difficult to fully enjoy the wonderful watery fowl, one of my very favorite proteins. The duck and cilantro game sausage means I’m no closer to giving up my guilt-edged enjoyment of duck. This is an outstanding sausage! It’s not nearly as fatty as some duck entrees tend to be while the cilantro lends the element of an invigorating freshness to the sausage. As with the other hot dogs, this one is long and thick, reminiscent of the “fifteen schnitzengruben” sausages in Blazing Saddles.

Curry Dog: All Natural Beef Dog with Housemade Curry Sauce

Top: Curry Dog: All Natural Beef Dog with Housemade Curry Sauce
Bottom: Wild Boar Game Sausage

3 February 2014: Throughout Chicago, using ketchup on a hot dog is considered a desecration akin to scrawling graffiti on Mike Ditka’s countenance.  It just isn’t done!  Customers wanting to exercise their freedom to choose ketchup are either refused (Superdawg Drive-In comes to mind) or gruffly handed a bottle and told to apply it themselves.  One wonders if Kaktus’s curry sauce would even be given a shot.  My Chicago in-laws will probably consider it heresy, but I believe this curry sauce would improve even the sacrosanct Vienna hot dogs.  It’s a very nice curry with a good depth of flavor complexity.    

Not being a certified cerevisaphiles, I can’t vouch for what beer goes well with what brats or dog. What I can vouch for with much alacrity is that Kaktus Brewing Company has hot dogs which go well with any carnivorous appetite.

Kaktus Brewing Company
471 South Hill Road
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 379.5072
LATEST VISIT: 3 February 2014
1st VISIT: 4 January 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Knockwurst, Duck and Cilantro Game Sausage on Pretzel Bun, Hickory Smoked Wild Boar Game Sausage, Curry Dog


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