Old Martina’s Hall – Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos

Between the years 2000 and 2014, The Taos News had the prestigious distinction of being named the best weekly newspaper in the United States by the National Newspaper Association. Although the most famous words in American journalism–“all the news that’s fit to print”–don’t grace its masthead, The Taos News has fairly and objectively reported news of events and personalities that seemingly can exist only in Taos county. Readers like me marveled at the periodical’s ability to refrain from punchline-pocked cynicism when, for a couple of years, three topics perhaps more appropriate for Jerry Springer or The National Inquirer ostensibly dominated the front page.

One topic was the dysfunctional shenanigans of the Questa school board, the behavior of whom warranted a state-mandated suspension. Another was the hubris and arrogance of the five-member Taos County Commission who, despite a spate of unpopular decisions, thought enough of themselves that they named three new buildings in their own honor (so Bill Richardsonesque). The third topic which graced The Taos News repeatedly was that Commission’s refusal to issue a beer and wine license for Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, an absurd, self-serving drama that dragged on ad-nauseum. Obviously the second and third most news-worthy topics were interrelated, not an anomaly in a county historically replete with nepotism.

Bar at Old Martina’s

If that diatribe seems a bit rancorous toward Taos County, it’s not intended to be. Taos County has always been a quirky and special place, albeit long in patience and tolerance with duplicitous political wrangling. In 1981, Merilee Danneman wrote a book entitled Taos by the Tail, a collection of columns she wrote for The Taos News from 1974 through 1979. In her “nostalgic look back at a magical place in a time long ago,” Danneman attributes “everything I need to know about politics” to the Taos County Commission. It’s neither comforting nor funny to see that while the players have changed, political dynamics in Taos County remain the same. It’s the way it is and has always been in Taos County.

By denying a beer and wine license on the grounds of Old Martina’s Hall proximity to the San Francisco de Asis Church, perhaps the County Commission thought themselves to be taking a higher moral ground than previous Commissions. Factors such as precedence and history didn’t seem to matter to these paragons of virtue. You certainly didn’t see any “excuse me while I save the world” righteous indignation on the part of previous Taos County Commissioners who, for generations, allowed the edifice to serve as a rowdy dance hall (and venue for Dennis Hopper’s wild parties).

Dining Room at Old Martina’s

Old Martina’s Hall dates back to 1790, predating the San Francisco de Asis Church by a quarter century.  Sitting directly across the street from the Church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and the photographs of Ansel Adams, the stately adobe structure had fallen into disrepair and appeared ready to return to the dirt from which it was built.  That’s when an unlikely benefactor stepped in.  German cosmetic manufacturer and visionary entrepreneur Martina Gebhardt had visions of restoring the historic dance hall to its halcyon days as a community treasure, a milieu which had long served as the site of weddings and community gatherings. 

Martina spent more than two-million dollars renovating the long-derelict Old Martinez Hall, transforming the crumbling Pueblo Revival building into an enchanting edifice with massive adobe walls and stout viga-and-latilla ceilings.  Though her efforts weren’t universally appreciated, she persevered and after years of contentiousness (and the antics of the Taos County Commissioners), Old Martina’s Hall reopened in 2012.  Renaming the venerable structure from Old Martinez Hall to Old Martina’s Hall was a small concession for restoring an important historical center of community life.

Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

The new Old Martina’s Hall is a magnificent structure inside and out, a perfect complement to the Spanish Colonial church across the street.  Imposing and stately from the outside, it’s a breath-taking experience at every turn when you step inside.  The front room is a combination bar and dining room with light and dark wooden accents throughout.  Bright lights stream into the main dining room where you’ll want a seat by the window facing the Church.  The capacious dance hall is a splendid venue for dinner and a show or dinner and dancing.  New Mexican art, including contemporary and venerable weavings, festoons the walls.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus offer a tempting variety of diverse and delicious delicious served in a unique casual-fine dining atmosphere.  Old Martina’s Web site describes the fare as a “marriage of refined European simplicity with traditional New Mexican dishes.”  The dinner menu showcases a number of fine-dining quality seafood (picture pan seared sea scallops with pomegranate beurre blanc, quinoa pilaf and shaved fennel) and chops (carnivores can’t resist rustic grilled Berkshire pork porterhouse with apple pinon green chile chutney mashed sweet potatoes and anise creamed spinach).

Duck Enchiladas with Posole

Lunch isn’t quite as elaborate (or expensive) and the menu is somewhat abbreviated, but you’re bound to find something exciting…and the accommodating wait staff may even allow you to order something from the breakfast menu.  For the calorically conscious diner, the Healthful Minded Fruit Plate (seasonal fruit served with Greek yogurt, housemade granola and honey comb) is a good choice.  Unlike so many yogurt-granola dishes, this one isn’t rot-your-teeth-sweet.  That’s courtesy of the Greek yogurt which is somewhat thicker and more sour than other yogurt.  Because it’s so sour, the contrast with the sweetness of fruit tends to be more pronounced.  A bit more granola would make this dish even more enjoyable.

Surely New Mexican colonials were no strangers to duck, but it seems that only relatively recently has duck  been widely incorporated in New Mexican dishes.  Though not as traditional on New Mexican entrees as are other proteins, duck certainly lends its unique and delicious flavor profile to any dish in which it’s used.  The duck enchiladas at Old Martina’s are superb!  Rolled blue corn tortillas are engorged with a generous amount of moist, flavorful duck and slathered in your choice of red or green chile (ask for both) unadulterated by cumin.  Both the red and green chile have a pleasant, but not incendiary, piquancy.  Melted white and yellow Cheddar lends a salty richness to the dish while the posole and whole beans are wonderful accompaniment.  A small dollop of guacamole leaves you wanting more.  Frankly, a bit more of everything served on this plate would have been more than welcome.

Pumpkin-Pecan Tart

Desserts are far from standard fare as you’ll see when your server ferries them over to your table.  Next to deciding which Taos County site you’ll visit next, determining which one to order may be the hardest decision of your day.  I couldn’t even default to my usual choice–ordering something I’ve never previously had–because several dessert items fit that criteria.  Ultimately it took a coin flip to settle on the pumpkin-pecan tart, a  miniature pie-shaped pastry resembling pecan pie.  Pecans and pumpkin go surprisingly well together, a melding of diverse flavor profiles that serve as flavor and textural foils for each other. 

If walls could talk, the massive walls at Old Martina’s Hall would probably sing out with alacrity as they once again play witness to family functions and celebrations Taos County-style.

Old Martina’s Hall
4140 Highway 68
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-3003
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Enchiladas, Pumpkin-Pecan Tort, Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

Old Martina's Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Alley Cantina – Taos, New Mexico

The Alley Cantina just off the Plaza in Taos

In April, 2014, Gallup conducted a poll to determine state pride across the United States.  More precisely, the Gallup poll surveyed people in all 50 states to find out what percentage of residents say their state was the very best or one of the best places to live.  Sadly, New Mexico was rated the six worst state to live with only 28 percent of respondents indicating the Land of Enchantment was one of the best places to live. New Mexico was the only state among the bottom ten either not bordering or not East of the Mississippi River.

In recent years it seems every quality of life survey conducted lists New Mexico near the very bottom where we compete with Mississippi and Arkansas for “worst” in virtually every aspect of daily life.  So, what does it say about New Mexico when it is rated number one…that’s first…in the auspicious category of being “absolutely absorbed by the abnormal?”  To arrive at this rating, the Moveto Real Estate Blog actually used Facebook data to determine what percentage of each state’s population had an interest in the paranormal, psychic phenomena, conspiracy and shadow organizations and mythical creatures and mysterious beings.

The pet-friendly patio at the Alley Cantina

Research indicated that largely because of the mysterious UFO crash and subsequent cover-up in Roswell back in 1947, New Mexicans are more apt to believe in conspiracies, cover-ups and the Illuminati.  We, it seems, are also quite fascinated by cryptids (mythical creatures, mysterious beings, Chupacabra, etc) and psychic activity.  Only one state’s citizenry had a greater interest in the paranormal which one dictionary defines as “denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.”

Some of the state’s most active paranormal activity revolves around haunted Taos.  The aptly named The Ghosts of Taos blog believes ghosts are “as much a part of the landscape as the towering hollyhocks, dusty petunias, bancos, portals and adobe walls of Taos Plaza.”  One of the most famous of the Taos ghosts is Teresina Bent, daughter of the first governor of the newly acquired New Mexican Territory who was murdered during an uprising in Taos.  Teresina is said to haunt the Alley Cantina just north of the Taos Plaza.  Numerous sightings and incidents have been reported by both employees and guests.

Coconut Chicken Fingers with Apricot-Ginger Sauce and Celery Sticks

The Alley Cantina actually sits in the oldest building in Taos, a structure built in the 16th Century by Pueblo Indians.  The building initially served as an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail and was later occupied by the Spanish government.  In 1846, it became the office of the ill-fated Governor Bent whose family owned the building for several years.  The property became a restaurant in 1944 under the name “El Patio” and has continuously operated since then, becoming the Alley Cantina in 1997.  

In actuality, the entire building isn’t 400 years old, but large portions of the building remain from the original structure, including the south wall of the kitchen and the east wall of the kitchen and bathrooms (the tiniest bathrooms of any restaurant I’ve reviewed).   Despite the Lilliputian facilities (not enough room for you and for  Teserina Bent), the Alley Cantina is a beloved gathering place in Taos, earning several “Best of Taos County People’s Choice Awards.”  The menu is renowned for its New Mexican food (cumin alert: it’s on every item of New Mexican cuisine) as well as its barbecue and surprisingly, its fish and chips.

Green chile Cheeseburger with Fries

The Alley Cantina may also be known someday for its coconut chicken fingers served with an apricot-ginger dipping sauce and celery sticks.  The chicken fingers are somewhat thickly battered, a crispy exterior belying the moist, tender chicken inside.  While the crust has a pronounced coconut flavor, the generously plated chicken fingers (each one almost as large as the bathrooms) are elevated by the apricot-ginger dipping sauce.  It’s a sauce which should be bottled and sold.  Its personality is assertive without being overwhelming, tangy without being tart and aromatic without being perfume-like. 

Though it didn’t make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, the Alley’s version of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct burger is well worth ordering.  The canvas for this behemoth green chile cheeseburger  is a sesame seed bun with housemade qualities (our server couldn’t tell us who made it).  The burger is constructed with a rather sizable beef patty topped with chopped green chiles blanketed by your choice of Cheddar-Jack or Provolone cheese.  It’s a very good burger even though the green chile lacked the piquancy New Mexicans crave…or perhaps the piquancy was obfuscated by the thickness of the beef patty and the other ingredients (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles).  The burger is served with hand-cut fries.

Fish and Chips

It’s rather rare to find fish and chips in New Mexico described as “famous” as the ones at the Alley are.  As has been discussed on this blog, fish and chips in New Mexico are wholly unlike fish and chips in Great Britain where they’re made best.  The Alley’s fish and chips are, in many ways, a complete antithesis of those I enjoyed by the boatful in England.  First, they’re made from Pacific cod as opposed to Atlantic caught fish.  Secondly, they’re battered (sheathed is a better descriptor) rather thickly–so much so that malt vinegar won’t penetrate until you cut through the breading and expose the succulent white flesh.  That’s when you discover a pretty tasty, light and flaky fish that is surprisingly enjoyable. 

Perhaps if Gallup had conducted its poll at the Alley Cantina, respondents would have been more inclined to show their state pride.  Enjoying good food at a fun, pet-friendly patio would do that for you.

The Alley Cantina
121 Teresina Lane
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-2121
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish and Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Coconut Chicken Fingers

Alley Cantina on Urbanspoon

Stray Dog Cantina – Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Stray Dog Cantina at the Taos Ski Valley

There’s a rather ominous sign on the base of the Taos Ski Valley.  In bold red uppercase print, the sign reads “DON’T PANIC!,” a preface for somewhat more reassuring text: “YOU’RE LOOKING AT ONLY 1/30 OF TAOS SKI VALLEY.  WE HAVE MANY EASY RUNS TOO!”  To novice skiers, the steepness of the ski runs visible from the base may as well be the “I’d turn back if I were you” sign Dorothy and her friends encountered when they entered the Haunted Forest on the way to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.  No doubt the less skilled schussers turn tail like the Cowardly Lion and head for flatter topography. 

There’s another boldface type warning at another Taos Ski Valley landmark.  This one is for the meek of taste bud and gastrointestinal system.  The menu at the Stray Dog Cantina warns “Caution: Our chile is not for amateurs.  It’s extra tasty, but it can be spicy – it is serious chile.”  It’s obvious this warning is intended primarily for out-of-state visitors unaccustomed to their food biting back.  For citizens of the Land of Enchantment, such a warning is akin to a red flag being waved at a charging bull.  We see it as a challenge, another test for our manliness (being the more mature and intelligent gender, women don’t fall for such challenges) and an opportunity to show off our asbestos-lined constitutions. Not to mention some of us really dig this stuff when it’s packing heat. Then there are others who believe pain is a flavor.

The Pet-Friendly Patio at Stray Dog Cantina

With a name such as Stray Dog Cantina, it’s only fitting that this long-time Taos Ski Valley apres-ski favorite is one of only two pet-friendly restaurants in the Taos area.  The genesis of the unique name seems to be consigned to history and, in fact, some regulars still refer to it as “Tim’s Place” while throughout the internet, references to “Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina” abound.  Tim would be co-founder Tim Harter who died in an avalanche while backcountry skiing beyond Taos Ski Valley boundaries in 1996.  

While the “Tim’s” portion of the name was removed in 2009 when Harter’s family sold the cantina, at least “Stray Dog”  portion seems a permanent fixture.  Fittingly, the women’s softball team sponsored by the Stray Dog is called the “Stray Bitches.”  Their trophies are on display on the first floor which is part dining room (complete with picnic tables and wooden benches) and all bar.  On one second story wall, you’ll find a painting of New Mexico’s most spectacular mountain, The Jicarita, by the delightful Leigh Gusterson.  The Jicarita which backdrops Peñasco (pandering to my hometown) is about 35 miles from the Taos Ski Valley.

Frito Pie

Save for closing for a few weeks in spring after ski season, The Stray Dog is open year-round.  The vibe is certainly different in the winter when pristine white powder blankets the area.  Our inaugural visit, about a month before the autumnal equinox, was a weekend escape from the heat of the Duke City.  It was a good 25 degrees cooler at the Taos Ski Valley, prompting some visitors to don attire more appropriate for the winter.  The pet-friendly patio hugs the Stray Dog and provides magnificent views of the towering evergreens.  The al fresco experience is heightened by the sound of water cascading along a babbling brook directly beneath the wooden planks of the patio. 

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Stray Dog offers an interesting menu replete with familiar New Mexican favorites and some unique creations heretofore unseen.  Red chile is sourced from Chimayo.  It’s a vegetarian chile ameliorated only by garlic and fresh vegetables.   All beef sold on the premises comes from New Mexico.  Among the more interesting dishes on the menu is the Hawaiian inspired Local Loco which is loosely patterned after the Aloha State’s “Loco Moco,” a dish many Spanish-speaking New Mexicans might find off-putting in that “moco” translates from Spanish to “mucus.”  You get the feeling the creator of Stray Dog’s menu knew this.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Save for a unique starter named the “Mexican Suzie Sushi” (blue corn-battered chile relleno wrapped in a tortilla, cut like sushi and served on red or green chile), the appetizers are similar to those you’d find at many New Mexican restaurants.  Because the salsa was laced with hemlock…er, cumin, we opted out of anything on the appetizers menu and shared a Frito pie (a bowl of Frito’s corn chips topped with beans, red chile, cheese, onion, lettuce, chopped jalapeños and sour cream).  It was our first opportunity to sample the chile about which we were warned.  As surmised, that warning wasn’t intended for red (chile) blooded New Mexicans.  The only heat discernible came from the chopped jalapeños.  The purity and deliciousness of the chile made up for its lack of piquancy.  It’s a very tasty chile, the highlight of an otherwise good Frito pie. 

Though the Local Loco beckoned, as one of the quadrumvirate who put the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail together, it is always my patriotic duty to order a green chile cheeseburger, by far the most popular item on the menu (even among tourists).  The green chile cheeseburger is constructed with Angus beef which is topped with green chile blanketed by melted Cheddar cheese.  Both mayo and mustard are slathered on the top bun with pickles, onions and tomatoes on the side.  The hand-formed beef patty doesn’t quite cover the bun, but what there is of it is terrific, reminiscent of a grilled steak and what it lacks in circumference is more than made up for in thickness and deliciousness.  As with the red chile on the Frito pie, the green chile didn’t pack much of a punch.

Green Chile Stew with Side of Beans

In order to restore homeostasis under extreme conditions (sixty degrees with a stiff breeze), New Mexicans crave the salubrious elixir of green chile stew.  We crave it because it nurtures us with two types of heat–the heart-warming heat of cold-defeating temperature and the heat of piquancy.   The Stray Dog’s version must be very popular at winter, primarily because it helps offset the cold (and, who knows, visitors may even discern a piquant bite).  For us, the green chile, while flavorful, was rather insipid, lacking the second type of heat New Mexicans crave.  It’s not a bad green chile stew, but we would have enjoyed it more had it brought sweat to our brows and blisters to our tongues.  Available with chicken or pork (shredded), the green chile stew is cloaked in white and yellow Cheddar.   

While the warning about the chile was wholly unnecessary for us, those steep mountain trails almost make me thankful that knees wrecked from playing football can no longer schuss down precipitous mountain trails.  Whether or not you ski, the Stray Dog Cantina is a great place for relaxing in the company of your four-legged children.

Stray Dog Cantina
105 Sutton Place
Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
(575) 776-2894
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Frito Pie, Green Chile Stew

Tim's Stray Dog Cantina on Urbanspoon

Five Star Burgers – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Five Star Burgers in Albuquerque

On Friday, March 19th, 2010 and to surprisingly little fanfare, a locally owned and operated burger restaurant by the name of Five Star Burgers launched in Albuquerque’s North Towne Plaza at Academy and Wyoming.  Its opening predated by about a week, the launch of a similarly named burger establishment, an east coast based interloper named Five Guys which has exploded across the country with nearly 600 locations in 39 states.  The latter opening was greeted with ruffles and flourishes, pomp and circumstance and throngs of curiosity-seekers and “chain gangs.”

Despite the relative lack of hype and brouhaha, Five Star Burgers won’t play second-fiddle to any burger restaurant.  The name on the marquee will tell you that.  That name is bold and maybe more than a bit audacious; some might say it borders on braggadocio.  Five-star, after all, is a term used to denote the highest quality, something that is incomparable and absolutely without peer.  In a rating system of one to five stars, it signifies the pinnacle, the top, the very best.  My friends in Taos tell me the name fits.

A crowded restaurant even at 2PM on a hot summer Saturday

Taos is where owner Bob Gontram founded his first of five planned Five Star Burgers restaurants. The historical “Soul of the Southwest” and Bohemian haven is a tough restaurant town. A burger restaurant would have to be pretty good to make it in Taos. With a pedigree that includes creating more than a hundred restaurants as both a franchisor and franchisee, Grantham has the experience and vision to succeed even in tough markets.

Discerning that trends are leaning ever more toward healthy dining, Gontram opted not to launch another copycat burger restaurant serving machine processed burgers from suspect feedlots.  Instead, his Five Star Burgers menu features all natural, antibiotic free 100 percent Angus beef from Harris Ranch, world-famous producer of superb quality beef and exemplar of “ranch to the table” beef production.  Five Star Burgers is trans-fat free and environmentally conscious; even its packaging is biodegradable, made from corn and recycled paper.

Chocolate-Chocolate Shake and Salted Caramel Shake

The name on the menu may say “burgers,” but burgers are not, as a hard and fast, intractable rule, synonymous with fast food.  If anything, Gontram has simultaneously slowed down and upscaled the concept of fast food.  He does more to defeat the stereotype of burgers being unhealthy and greasy than perhaps any other burger restaurant in Albuquerque.  If the menu alone doesn’t tell you this is no run-of-the-mill burger joint, it will be very obvious this is no “gobble and go” fast-food emporium when you don’t see a drive-up window anywhere in sight.  In fact, you’re more apt to saunter into the restaurant than to make a mad dash from your car.  That’s the pace at which the restaurant operates.

When you walk in, you’ll be amiably greeted and escorted to your table where you’ll be presented a well-organized menu.  Take in the swanky digs.  The ambiance is elegant in a neo-modern way with ebony ceilings and stark tri-colored walls.  Seating is utilitarian and comfortable and includes a bar complete with high-back stools from where you can order beer or wine   An attentive wait staff will check up on you frequently, but not to the point where it becomes a nuisance. Your first visit should be for a burger.

Fried green beans with green chile mayo

The beef is fresh ground daily and char-grilled to order with an intriguing selection of condiments to adorn each burger.  Burgers are served on a toasted brioche bun from Fano Bread Bakery, an Albuquerque institution.  Adkins devotees can opt instead for a 12-ounce Harris Ranch hamburger steak sans bun, char-grilled to order with Gorgonzola cream and caramelized onions.  A char-grilled Asian glazed salmon with grilled vegetables is also available and you can also substitute an all natural chicken breast for any burger.

Standard burger offerings include the 5 Star Burger (Gorgonzola cheese and applewood smoked bacon), Old Timer (tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle, condiments), Taos Burger (crispy green chile, BBQ sauce and Cheddar) and the New Mexico favorite, a rather unique Green Chile Cheeseburger (green chile, pepper Jack cheese, green chile mayo).

Mixed cart of fries

Mixed cart of fries

On October 1st, the national newspaper USA Today published a compilation of America’s “great burger joints,” one in each state.  The choice for New Mexico was the green chile cheeseburger from Five Star Burgers.  According to USA Today, “When you talk burgers in New Mexico, you’re talking green chile cheeseburgers.  What distinguishes 5 Star Burgers, with restaurants in Taos and Albuquerque, is quality.  Served on a brioce bun from local Fano bakery, their all-natural, hormone-and antibiotic-free Black Angus beef is ground fresh daily and cooked to order.  The 8-oz green chile cheeseburgers come in two varieties.  Both are delicious.”

When USA Today proclaimed Five Star’s green chile cheeseburger as New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger, it wasn’t some nameless, faceless writer in New York City making that audacious claim. The burger was recommended by Sally Moore, author of Culinary New Mexico, “the ultimate food lover’s guide” and one of my most trusted sources for information on New Mexico’s specialty food stores, cooking classes, wineries, bakeries, tortilla makers, food festivals and restaurants. It would have been easy for Sally to recommend one of the “usual suspects,” but in recommending a burger proffered by a relative newcomer, she was as bold as the burger she recommended.

Lamb burger with blue cheese, applewood smoked bacon and green chile

Lamb burger with blue cheese, applewood smoked bacon and green chile

The menu also offers a number of specialty burgers and sandwiches: the freshly ground 5 Star Turkey Burger (sage, red onion, peach or cranberry chutney), Green Chile Chicken Cheeseburger (all natural chicken breast, green chile pepper Jack cheese, green chile mayo), Lamb Burger (tomato, lettuce, mayo), Portobello Burger (crispy green chile, roasted red pepper, grilled onions, Gorgonzola cream), Reuben Sandwich (corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing on marbled rye), Coho Salmon (tomato, red onion, mayo on brioche roll) and Grilled Cheese (Cheddar, Swiss, Pepper Jack, tomato marmalade, applewood smoked bacon on sourdough).

This formidable line-up can be ameliorated by a number of flavorful toppings: aged Cheddar, American cheese, pepper jack, Swiss, Gorgonzola, smoked Provolone, avocado, roasted sweet pepper, crispy green chile, caramelized onions, wild mushrooms and crispy applewood bacon, all available for a dollar a piece.  At Five Star Burgers, you truly can have your burger your way!

Five Star Burger with Gorgonzola Cheese, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Tomato Relish and Caramelized Onions

Five Star Burger with Gorgonzola Cheese, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Tomato Relish and Caramelized Onions

You can even eschew burgers and sandwiches altogether with Five Star Burger’s selection of salads: Shanghai Chicken Salad (Asian and field greens, almonds, green onions, water chestnuts, crispy rice noodles, sprouts, sesame seeds and a spicy peanut dressing), Caesar Salad (Romaine hearts, garlic croutons, shaved Parmesan cheese), BLT Salad (crisp lettuce and diced tomato, applewood smoked bacon, Provolone cheese and a spicy Rojo Ranch dressing) or you can have a side Caesar salad with your burger or sandwich if you desire.

Aside from the side Caesar salad, available extras include French fries, sweet potato fries, a mixed “cart” of fries, a half order of fries, coleslaw and green chile on any menu item.  To wash it all down, you can opt for Pepsi products or fresh-squeezed lemonade, black leaf iced tea, raspberry iced tea, organic free trade coffee or shakes (chocolate, vanilla or strawberry) made with all-natural Breyer’s ice cream.

A1 Burger (8-ounce beef patty served with A1 sauce brushed on both sides, Cheddar cheese topped with fried onion straws on a toasted bun)

7 June 2014: The shakes are thick and delicious, made with real ice cream cold enough to give you “brain freeze” (an ice cream headache), but so good you won’t want to stop.  Dreyer’s ice cream is renown for its slow-churned process which makes it more rich and creamy than other ice creams.  The chocolate is chocolatey and velvety smooth, like a premium semi-frozen chocolate milk.  Alas, the salted caramel is somewhat cloying with little of the salt influence discernible.

About a quarter century ago, my very favorite burger restaurant in Albuquerque was a tiny hovel on Cornell near the University of New Mexico.  It was called the Sheepherder’s Cafe and the specialty of the house was a lamb burger with green chile.  The closure of this unique student favorite was a heart-breaker.  While a few other restaurants have offered a facsimile of the lamb burgers I so enjoyed, none approached the quality of the Sheepherder’s Cafe.  That is, until Five Star Burgers.

Five Star’s award-winning green chile cheeseburger

21 March 2010: A mix-up in the kitchen resulted in a lamb burger with applewood smoked bacon, green chile, Gorgonzola and caramelized onions in addition to the standard tomato, lettuce and mayo.  It’s the way I’ll order all my lamb burgers in the future.  Five Star’s lamb is subtle and rich, not gamey in the least.  Prepared at medium, its inside glowed with pink pulchritude.  The applewood smoked bacon is chopped, not unlike bacon bits.  The caramelized onions are a sweet contrast to the plucky Gorgonzola.   This is a five-star burger in every regard.

21 March 2010: We adorned our Five Star burger, too, adding tomato relish and caramelized onions to the standard offerings of gorgonzola cheese and applewood smoked bacon.  The contrast of sweet and savory toppings makes for an interesting flavor combination, a coalescence of deliciousness.  The tomato relish is so good you might want to spoon it up.

Special of the Month for May, 2014: Pimento Cheese and Applewood Smoked Bacon Burger

2 October 2010: Five Star’s rendition of the green chile cheeseburger is made with Pepper Jack cheese, green chile mayo and green chile which is blanketed by the molten cheese.  Alternatively you can ask for crispy fried green chile strips which Andrea Lin indicates “rival bacon in sheer deliciousness as a burger topping.”  Either way, this is an excellent green chile cheeseburger.  Grilled at medium it’s a juicy five-napkin affair.  It’s not especially piquant even with the double-barrel approach of green chile and green chile mayo, but the green chile has a nice roasted flavor and it’s plentiful.

2 October 2010: October, 2010’s burger of the month, hopefully a burger which will make Five Star’s menu, is yet another celebration of excellent beef ameliorated by complementary ingredients. The A1 Burger showcases an eight-ounce beef patty with A1 sauce brushed on both sides then topped with Cheddar cheese and fried onion straws on a toasted brioche bun.  A national chain has a similar burger, but it’s not executed nearly as well.  As with other Five Star burgers, this is a juicy  and delicious burger, one for which a bib might be advisable.

Grilled Cheese with a Beef Patty

7 June 2014:  Five Star’s Burger of the Month for June, 2014 transported me back to South Carolina where my love of pimento cheese (a mix of grated cheddar, mayonnaise and diced pimiento peppers) was rekindled.  Five Star paired pimento cheese with applewood smoked bacon to create one of the most intriguing and delicious burgers in town.  Pimento cheese is a working person’s cheese, a cheese with personality courtesy of the beauteous pimento, a red cherry pepper with sweet flavor and very mild heat (100-500 Scoville units).  Then, of course, there’s applewood smoked bacon at its salty, crispy and smoky best.  Together they make an unbeatable combination.

7 June 2014:  Five Star has even managed to elevate the humble and oft boring grilled cheese sandwich into something spectacular.  A triumvirate of cheese–Cheddar, Swiss, Provolone–paired with bacon and tomato marmalade on sourdough on its own makes for a three- or four-star sandwich.  Add a Harris Beef Angus beef patty and you’ve got a somewhat subdued, but quite delicious version of a patty melt.  With rye bread this sandwich would have the more assertive personality which would make this a true, even more memorable patty melt.

Shanghai Chicken Salad

7 June 2014:  Every once in a while, everyone should eschew French fries, onion rings and that ilk and opt instead for a salad.  Salads go better with burgers than you might believe.  Order a salad for two and the Five Star crew will split it for you.  The Shanghai Chicken Salad (Asian and field greens, almonds, green onions, water chestnuts, crispy won ton noodles, sprouts, sesame seeds and a Thai peanut dressing is a very good bet, especially if you ask for extra Thai peanut dressing.  The ingredients are fresh and crispy and the flavor profile is varied–sweet, savory and tangy.

21 March 2010: You’ll want a mixed cart of fries with your burgers.  A mix of standard French fries and sweet potato fries served on a fine mesh colander basket with butcher paper atop, they go especially well with Five Star’s unique green chile mayo (all chile used by the restaurant is Hatch chile).

2 October 2010: Better yet, order the fried green bean appetizer served with green chile mayo.  I first experienced fried green beans at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chandler, Arizona several years ago and have craved them since.  Five Star has sated my cravings with some of the most tasty green beans in memory.  Sheathed in a light batter, the beans have a snappy crunch while retaining the freshness and moistness of the green beans.  Dip them into the accompanying green chile mayo for an even better adventure.

Five Star Burgers is open 11AM to 9PM Sunday through Thursday and 11AM to 10PM Friday and Saturday.  Try the other similarly named burger restaurant if you’re curious, but you’ll come back to Five Star Burgers.  It’s more than a cut above.  It’s the pinnacle, a true five-star burger restaurant.

Five Star Burgers
5901 Academy Road, N.E., Suite P3
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-1909
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2014
1st VISIT:  20 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Chocolate Shake, Lamb Burger, Five Star Burger, Mixed Cart of Fries, Green Chile Cheeseburger, A1 Burger, Fried Green Beans, Shanghai Chicken Salad, Pimento Cheese & Bacon Burger, Grilled Cheese with Beef Patty

Five Star Burgers on Urbanspoon

Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe – Taos, New Mexico

Orlando's Marquee Bids All Welcome?

Orlando’s Marquee Bids All Welcome?

During his 2005 visit to Taos for the taping of the Food Network’s Food Nation program, über-celebrity chef Bobby Flay, likely the best known grill chef in the world, probably didn’t do as much to put Orlando’s New Mexican restaurant on the culinary map as you might think. Ditto for all the many first place awards hanging on the restaurant’s walls–“Best Mexican Food in Taos County” every year since 2005, best red chile, best green chile, and more than 25 other awards.  Flay’s visit and the accolades on the wall are merely validation of what locals and visitors in the know have long known: Orlando’s is a “must visit” dining destination in Taos.

Located in El Prado, a “suburb” of Taos about two miles northwest of the world-famous Taos Plaza, Orlando’s is as colorful a restaurant as you’ll find in Northern New Mexico.  Its marquee is that of a huarache-shod, mustachioed skeletal figure attired in a Mexican sombrero and serape.  In his left hand, he holds a bottle of hot sauce with the label “Taos.”  His bony right hand holds a skillet with a single flaming red chile, which does not–as some might surmise–denote the manner of his demise.

A meal at Orlando's is colorful and delicious

In the summer there’s no better venue than Orlando’s outdoors.

The skeletal figure has returned to this world for El Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  During this Mexican holiday, the profusion of skeletons of all sizes performing day-to-day activities signifies the return to this world of the dead who remain who they were when they lived, doing what they did.  For example, the skeletal figure on the marquee, would have been a Mexican cook in life.  Therefore in death, he remains a Mexican cook.  The marquee is typical of the fun and folly which emanates at every turn at Orlando’s.

Orlando’s is colorful all year round, but certainly more-so in the summer when nature lends a hand and Orlando’s is backdropped by incomparable cobalt blue skies graduating in depth of color the higher above the horizon you look.  Climbing toward the sky are deciduous trees in various verdant hues complemented by multicolored hollyhocks.  Large polychromatic umbrellas shade the metal grate tables in which diners enjoy an al-fresco repast with dishes even more colorful than the umbrellas.  On some winter days, weather permitting, Orlando’s fires up a raised fire pit outdoors for patrons who might have to wait for a seat.

Orlando's is one colorful restaurant

Orlando’s is one colorful restaurant

The restaurant itself is relatively small (perhaps 20 tables), essentially a cramped main dining room with what appears to be an adjourning closed-in patio.  Red ristras hang from the east-facing window while on the west-facing window sit glasses and candles adorned with the skeletal image on the marquee.  One wall includes more than two dozen framed “People’s Choice” awards celebrating the esteem in which Taos County residents hold Orlando’s.  A wooden statue of San Pasqual, the patron saint of kitchens, sits on a shelf above the wait staff’s counter where affable owner Orlando Ortega oversees the operation when he’s not glad-handing with customers.  Desserts are on display under glass in a unique glass cabinet.

Progressive Spanish (unlike any New Mexican music I’ve ever heard) is continuously piped in through speakers strategically placed throughout the restaurant. As colorful and interesting as the interior restaurant is, weather permitting, you absolutely have to dine out-of-doors under one of the restaurant’s colorful umbrellas where the shade will shield you from the heat of the day while allowing you to bask under the most gloriously blue skies anywhere.

Red, yellow and blue corn tortillas with salsa at Orlando's

Red, yellow and blue corn tortillas with salsa at Orlando’s

Shortly after menus are brought to your table, your dining experience begins in a colorful and delicious manner. Orlando’s salsa, served with red, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips may be the most piquant item Orlando serves. It is also one of the most beautiful salsas you’ll ever see at any restaurant. Rich red tomatoes, pearlescent onions and verdant cilantro decorate the salsa dish. For a mere pittance more, order the trio of salsa, chips and guacamole and your table will be graced with an edible and mouth-watering table decoration.

The salsa and chips are no longer complimentary.  In fact, at $3.50 an order, they’re the least expensive appetizer on the menu, but well worth the price.  Other appetizers include nachos (with or without beef), papas Y chile (a bowl of beer-battered French fries smothered with red chile, green chile or chile caribe topped with Jack and Cheddar cheese and tomatoes) and a quesadilla.  Save for the salsa and chips, the appetizers are priced comparably to entrees.

Shrimp is one of the most popular ingredients on the menu, found in three entrees.  Baja style fish tacos filled with deep-fried cod provide another seafood option.  Some of the very best entrees on the menu can certainly be considered unique, not your standard New Mexican fare.  Bobby Flay happened upon one such entree–Orlando’s grilled carne adovada.

Los Colores (Three rolled blue corn enchiladas, one chicken with green chile, one beef with red chile, and one cheese with chile caribe.  Served with beans and posole.

Los Colores (Three rolled blue corn enchiladas, one chicken with green chile, one beef with red chile, and one cheese with chile caribe. Served with beans and posole.

Orlando’s carne adovada plate features three grilled, quarter-inch thick marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe and served with mouth-watering posole, pinto beans and a tortilla. What makes the carne adovada unconventional is that it isn’t shredded (desebrada) as it is in most New Mexican restaurants. What makes it special is the chile caribe, a chile preparation style practiced for hundreds of years in Northern New Mexico.

The carne adovada has a smoky grilled taste inherited after only two minutes per side on a pre-heated grill.  On high, the pork medallions cook quickly and remain moist.  Chile caribe is a concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency.  It’s a staple in Northern New Mexican homes and some restaurants, but perhaps nowhere as thoroughly integrated into the menu as at Orlando’s.  During his visit, Bobby Flay learned and published on Food TV’s Web site, Orlando Ortega’s secrets for some of the best (albeit unconventional) carne adovada in New Mexico.

Grilled Carne Adovada - three grilled marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe.  Served with beans, posole and a flour tortilla.

Grilled Carne Adovada – three grilled marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe. Served with beans, posole and a flour tortilla.

Even though Orlando’s chile caribe isn’t necessarily overly piquant, the menu does disavow responsibility for chile which might be too hot (a necessary warning for tourists (and my sister in Phoenix) who can’t stomach anything more piquant than Chef Boyardee tomato sauce). If anything, the chile caribe might be too good. It is highly flavorful, mildly piquant and absolutely delicious–a concentration of the wonderful flavors we love in chile.

The carne adovada plate is served with pinto beans and posole, both of which are quie good (even though the posole has more than a hint of cumin).  If I have one complaint about these terrific standards, it’s that we weren’t provided with a spoon.  A fork just doesn’t cut it when you want to consume the bean “juice” and you’ll want to finish off every trace of these perfectly prepared whole pintos.  Both beans and posole are also lightly salted, a real plus considering other restaurants’ beans and posole could stand some desalinization.

To blue corn tacos stuffed with shredded beef topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions with a bowl of salsa

Two blue corn tacos stuffed with shredded beef topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions with a bowl of salsa

Rarely, if ever do I compliment the traditional garnish which decorates many New Mexican platters, but Orlando’s tomato and lettuce garnish warrants accolades. The tomatoes are at the peak of their edible lives, a rich red color that complements the shredded lettuce which also seems to be preternaturally green.  This garnish is not of the “molting” variety some restaurants shamefully present to their diners.

There’s a reason “Los Colores” (the colors) is Orlando’s most popular entree.  This entree–comprised of three rolled blue corn enchiladas: one chicken with green chile,one beef with red chile and one cheese with chile caribe–is absolutely terrific, among the very best enchiladas you’ll find anywhere.  Invariably the three chiles end up mixing with each other, but that’s not a bad thing since they’re all quite good, albeit only just above mild on a piquancy scale.

Buffalo enchiladas on blue corn tortillas covered with chile caribe and served with beans and posole.

The beef in the beef enchilada is shredded, not ground beef as Taco Bell caliber restaurants use.  The ground beef is marinated and well-seasoned so that its deliciousness is independent of the red chile atop it.  That red chile is a dark red, characteristic of excellent chile which hasn’t been adulterated by a profusion of corn starch or other thickening agents.  It’s a pure, delicious and wonderful chile, the way it should be prepared.

The green chile is perhaps the least piquant of the three, but it has a sweet, smoky flavor you’ll enjoy greatly.  The chicken is shredded and moist, mostly white meat.  The blue corn tortillas are a welcome treat and they’re perfectly prepared–easy to cut into with your fork and not greasy in the least.  I’ve had this entree in each of our three visits to Orlando’s and have yet to remember to ask for a fried egg atop, so mesmerized have I been by the vibrant colors and even more exciting flavors of an excellent enchiladas entree.

Frozen Avocado Pie, a fabulous dessert!

Frozen Avocado Pie, a fabulous dessert!

The shredded beef on the enchiladas is so good, you’ll want more of it.  Sate your fix with a couple of a la carte blue corn tacos which are overstuffed with shredded beef then topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions accompanied by a bowl of salsa.  These tacos are the antithesis of every greasy, ground beef taco you’ve ever had with a profusion of freshness and moistness you’ll enjoy.

Several dessert options are available (if you somehow have room), including biscochitos, the official state cookie of New Mexico. In keeping with its convention-defying nature, Orlando’s serves a dark- or white-chocolate dipped biscochito. The dark chocolate and the anise/cinnamon cookie go very well together.

An even more unconventional dessert is Orlando’s frozen avocado pie.  My Filipino friend Fred Guzman has long told me of the delicious dessert potential of avocados and I’ve long enjoyed avocado shakes at Vietnamese restaurants, but an avocado pie is something my well-practiced palate had heretofore not tried.  It had me at first bite.  Not quite frozen as its name implies, the Graham cracker crusted pie is imbued with the taste complements of fresh avocado and lime.  This pie is not quite as lip-puckering as key lime pie or as rich as guacamole, but seems to inherit the best qualities of both.  This is a must have dessert!

Orlando’s also serves an all-natural root beer bottled in Carrizozo, New Mexico called “Way 2 Cool Root Beer.” Like the restaurant, the root beer is too cool.

Orlando’s Northern New Mexican Cafe
1114 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, NM
(575) 751-1450
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tres Colores Enchiladas, Grilled Carne Adobada, Shredded Beef Tacos, Frozen Avocado Pie, Biscochitos, Salsa and Chips

Orlando's New Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery in Taos, New Mexico

In 1989, the tarantula hawk wasp was designated the official state insect of New Mexico, joining the roadrunner (state bird), whiptail lizard (state reptile),  spadefoot (state amphibian), Sandia Hairstreak (state butterfly),  Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (state fish) and the black bear (state animal) as official symbols of our great state.  Ostensibly the state legislature put aside partisan politics and selected these symbols after carefully weighing all options.  A case could certainly have been made for the dragonfly to represent New Mexico.

 Not only is the dragonfly a ubiquitous presence–flitting fluidly and gracefully like tiny fairies attired in wardrobes of many colors–they are omnipresent in local lore and legend.  In The Boy Who Made Dragonfly A Zuni Myth retold by New Mexico’s eminent author Tony Hillerman, the dragonfly represents a messenger between children and the gods.  The Zuni consider the dragonfly a shamanistic creature with supernatural powers while to the Navajo, the dragonfly represents pure water.

The front dining room at Dragonfly

Anyone who’s ever observed these multi-colored frequent fliers as they perform such spectacular aerial feats as loop-the-loops and flying backwards can’t help but be held spellbound by their grace and beauty.  It’s no wonder so many birdwatchers have  become dragonfly watchers that dragonflies have come to be known as “the birders’ insect.”  Spellbound is a good term for describing the Dragonfly Cafe And Bakery in Taos about which Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate advises, “don’t even think about eating breakfast/brunch anywhere else.”

The Dragonfly Cafe and Bakery was founded in 1998 by Karen Todd, a transplanted Chicagoan with decades of experience in restaurants and bakeries.  A world traveler and culinary student, Karen is intimately acquainted with the cuisine of many cultures, influences of which are apparent in her restaurant’s eclectic menu.  On Monday nights, the Dragonfly offers an East Indian menu while on Wednesdays, tapas and wine flights are featured fare. She calls her delightful slice of gustatory heaven a “European-style cafe and bakery.”   That’s especially accurate in that the Dragonfly is the type of community gathering place in which friends congregate for good food, good conversation and good times.  In the winter they cozy up next to the adobe fireplace in the front dining room and in the summer, they enjoy the verdant flora, bubbling fountains and occasional dragonfly in the courtyard.

A steaming bowl of kale and potato soup

The Dragonfly prides itself in using the highest quality ingredients–procured locally and grown organically when available–and hormone- and antibiotic-free dairy and non-cured meats.  Seasonal produce is picked fresh from the chef’s garden or is produced by small, local growers.  In the off-season, produce is preserved and pickled for year-round use.  Included among the restaurant’s diverse staples are kimchee, smoked fish, mushrooms, eggplant, corned beef buffalo and an award-winning granola.  The Dragonfly has a full-service coffee bar with an assortment of gourmet Mighty Leaf teas, organic soy milk and house-made chai tea. 

As with other Taos restaurants, the Bohemian spirit is alive and well at the Dragonfly, a cafe which is both homey and unconventional.  It’s relaxed and informal with a “laissez faire” element that appeals to the counter-culturalist remnants of the 60s but won’t turn off the corporate suits–or my old-fashioned 82-year-young mom who managed to find something to love amidst a menu she found a bit strange.  Most will enjoy the colorful confines of the 1920s bungalow style adobe which originally served as a family home complete with gardens, livestock and an orchard on the back of the property.  

Bibimbop: Two eggs over easy with brown rice, vegetables, kim chee, scallions and garlic chili sauce

In May, 2002, it wasn’t the Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery’s culinary diversity which was on display, but its mastery of Southwest-inspired dishes.  The event was the Food Network’s Food Nation program hosted by chef glitterati Bobby Flay who was in town to celebrate northern New Mexico culture.   Chef-owner Karen Dodd feted the superstar chef with an hors d’oeuvres menu which included such savory starters as tiny calabacitas cups bulging with green chile and roasted red peppers; fresh yellow corn and oregano goat cheese and red chile mousse daubed on garlic crostini; lamb and green onion brochettes partnered to a red chile yogurt dipping sauce and smoked trout dotted with watercress and aïoli on white corn tortillas.  Sumptuous sweets included cornmeal-piñon-orange shortbread; red chile-infused chocolate truffles; and apricot brown butter bars. Flay was effusive in his appreciation.

The daily menu may not be quite as Southwest-centric, but it is no less exciting.  On the date of our inaugural visit, the lunch menu was wonderfully multifarious, a deliciously diverse melange of Korean, Greek, New Mexican, Moroccan and Cajun dishes.  The dinner menu we perused is even more exciting, not a carbon copy of the lunch menu albeit with higher prices and slightly bigger portions.  The breakfast and brunch menus are highly regarded by my friend Larry McGoldrick whose recommendation you can trust.

Gyros: Marinated lamb with tzatziki sauce, hummus, tomato, red onion, cucumber, olives, feta and pita bread

Because our inaugural visit was on a blustery winter day, a comforting bowl of soup was in order.  The soup of the day was a kale and potato soup, a variation on the traditional Portuguese caldo verde.  Our server apprised us that the soup was spicy in a manner reminiscent of garam masala, a spice blend that’s really the heart of many Indian dishes.  A brimming bowl arrived at our table steaming hot with tangles of kale floating atop a fragrant vegetable broth redolent with a bouquet of exotic spices.  The soup’s fragrance foretold the deliciousness of the heart-warming soup.

One of the most intriguing items on the menu was a unique interpretation of a dish which made my top ten list of dishes I had in 2011–bibimbap, a Korean dish which literally translates to “mixed meal” in part because it’s constructed from sundry items often already prepared. As with Korean bibimbap, Dragonfly’s version starts with a large bowl of brown rice at the bottom of the bowl.  Atop the rice are sundry vegetables–zucchini, broccoli, julienned carrots, scallions and more as well as a generous dollop of pleasantly piquant garlic chili sauce.  Two eggs prepared to your exacting specifications cover much of the dish.  Mixing the melange is not only fun, but introduces all the elements to each other, forming a wondrous deliciousness in every bite.  You can add chicken, tofu or steak to the bibimbap if you wish, but they’re wholly unnecessary.

Organic Chicken Pot Pie

Another well interpreted dish worthy of its Greek origin are gyros, marinated lamb nestled in a warm pita and served with tzatziki sauce, hummus, tomato, red onion, cucumber, feta cheese and olives.  Unlike that served on gyros at many a Greek restaurant, the lamb is not shaved from a vertical spit nor is it an amalgam of lamb and beef.  It’s wonderfully seasoned and marinated lamb reminiscent of the shawarma offered at the magnificent San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  The garlicky hummus and tzatziki are excellent as well.

Somewhat less exotic, but very good “mom” food is the organic chicken pot pie.  Atop the crust is a dragonfly shaped cut-out also made of crust.  Puncture the crust and you’re greeted with wisps of fragrant steam enticing you further.  Fill your forks with a bit of crust and as creamy a pot pie concoction as you’ll find anywhere.  It’s resplendent with vegetables and not just the conventional carrots and potatoes.  Dragonfly’s pot pie includes sweet potatoes and other delicious surprises.  The organic chicken is plentiful and it’s cut into bite-size pieces so you’re not left wondering where the poultry went.

The dessert platter, a bevy of bakery deliciousness

Even if you’re left full from the generously portioned entrees, you’ve got to make room for one of the Dragonfly’s award-winning (“Best of Taos” in 2006, 2008 and 2009 according to the Taos News).  The bakery goods are fresh, homemade, healthy and made in-house using local organic flour, sweet cream butter and natural sweeteners.  No corn syrup or hydrogenated oils are used.  Your server will bring by a platter brimming with some of the bakery treasures: fruit galettes, tarts, brownies, cookies, chocolate eclairs, cheesecakes, bread pudding, coconut macaroons and truffles. Deciding what to have is nearly as challenging as some of the Taos Ski Valley’s exhilarating runs.

One of the most exciting is a white chocolate and cherry bread pudding, the best I’ve had in Taos county other than my mom’s caprirotada.  The warm gooeyness of the melting white chocolate, the tart-sweet cherries and the custard-like texture elevate this humble, moist dessert into an excellent rendition of my favorite dessert.  

The Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery is right at home in an area replete with art galleries and Karen Todd is every bit the artist as are  the much celebrated Taos art colony denizens.  Instead of a gallery, she creates her art in the kitchen.  Her restaurant and bakery are not to be missed.

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery
402 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bibimbop, Lamb Gyros, Organic Chicken Pot Pie, Macaroon, Cherry & White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Dulce de Leche Tart

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Graham’s Grille by Lesley B. Fay – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Graham’s Grill by Lesley B. Fay, just north of the famous Taos Plaza

While it may be true that you only have one chance to make a good first impression, history has shown that bad first impressions can be overcome.  Further,  given a second chance, someone making a bad first impression may go on to  make a lasting positive impression.   In 1988, a charismatic  young governor was widely jeered during the Democratic National Convention, his first national stage.  After an uninspiring 32-minute-long opening night address, political pundits predicted the demise of the man heretofore considered a rising star in the party.  Four years later Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd President of the United States.

Feedback to a surprising number of my reviews has a palpable tone of negativity–sometimes even anger–based on a first and only visit to a restaurant which made a bad first impression.  Diners should expect, perhaps even demand, tasty food, reasonable portions,  good service and fair value for their hard-earned dollars.  It’s our prerogative not to return to restaurants which don’t meet those expectations, however, before making a hasty judgment, consider that the restaurant may have had an uncharacteristically bad hair day. That’s especially true if that restaurant has been widely recognized by trusted sources as a high-quality, high-performing paragon of deliciousness.

The larger of two dining rooms at Graham’s Grill

Our inaugural visit to Graham’s Grille by Lesley Fay was more a case of high expectations not being met than it was the restaurant having a bad day.  It seems every national and local source to visit Graham’s Grille–from Bon Appetit Magazine to the Taos Newhas touted it as THE place to dine in Taos.  In 2010, Graham’s Grill garnered “best restaurant” (for the third year in a row) and “best ambiance” accolades in the Taos News‘ annual “best of Taos” balloting with chef-owner Lesley Fay earning “best chef” honors.  In 2010, Graham’s Grille also  earned Wine Spectator’s award of excellence as well as a “diner’s choice” award from Open Table.  It’s understandable that most visitors come to Graham’s Grille with high expectations.

To be clear, our inaugural visit was far from a disappointment. It just didn’t “wow” us to the extent that a restaurant with its sterling pedigree should have been expected to wow us.  Some of that might be attributable to the fact that we visited during brunch, not dinner when Graham’s Grille is reputed to shine brightest, but there were other factors contributing to the lack of the wow effect.

Mexican XXX Chocolate: Ibarra Chocolate, Kahlana, Agave Wine, Whipped Cream and Cinnamon

It’s easy to see why Graham’s Grille is so popular.  As we passed the uncovered patio and approached the stairs, the host greeted us with not just a cordial welcome and smile, but by introducing himself and offering a firm handshake.  He escorted us past the open kitchen into a long and narrow dining room that includes an attractive bar area, a showcase for the Fays who, prior to moving to Taos, worked in winery businesses for more than a decade.  Lesley, in fact, created private label food lines for many of Napa Valley and Sonoma’s famous wineries.

Graham’s Grille has a uniquely Taos vibe.  Though considered a fine dining establishment, it has a casual, almost laissez-faire feel without being “out there” Bohemian yet it’s also cosmopolitan in an understated sort of way.  During brunch, the entire wait staff and even Lesley herself, are nattily attired in balloon pants, some sporting the type of psychedelic color and design schemes found on the hippie buses which traversed the highways and byways of Taos county.   It’s hard to believe the restaurant occupies the former digs of J. C. Penney’s downtown store.

Buttermilk Biscuits with homemade strawberry jam and orange marmalade

A quick perusal of the menu reflects the peripatetic chef’s varied culinary influences. The “California” influence is apparent in the freshness of the ingredients and the abundance of vegetables.  Other menu items pay tribute to Lesley’s travels to the Middle East, Mexico, Cyprus and of course, her move to New Mexico.  Playfully, she even names menu items for previous tenants at the location.  There’s the El Miramon Combination Plate named for a bar at the location in the 1910s.  Then there’s the J.C. Penney Burrito.

Ever the unrelenting purist, I’m not sure what would influence (possess) anyone, much less a heralded chef,  to use  the accursed demon spice cumin on dishes in which the star of the flavor profile should be New Mexico’s incomparable red and green chile, but Graham’s Grille uses it copiously (perhaps the California influence).  As a result of the cumin contaminant, the multi-page menu becomes  a bit more limited for those of us who will never go over to the dark side.  In addition to the New Mexican dishes, cumin slithers onto other items we might otherwise have enjoyed–including the vaunted El Pequeño baked macaroni and Cheddar cheese with mild green chile and hickory smoked bacon.

Winter Spinach, Goat Cheese, Julienned Carrots and Strawberries

Perusing the menu is like reading a fine novel you don’t want to put down.  It’s a voluminous compendium of  interesting and ostensibly delicious items.  Audaciously, page one of the menu is dedicated to desserts and dessert beverages, obviously in deference to American writer Ernestine Ulmer who wrote, “Life is uncertain…Eat dessert first.”  Alas, not all the desserts are available during  brunch, that leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something…as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree.

The brunch menu is replete with tempting sweet treats such as vanilla orange French toast with fresh strawberries and blue corn blueberry pancakes as well as fresh French donuts and a basket of buttermilk biscuits with homemade jam.  We opted for the latter two.  Having lived in the Deep South for eight years, we grow lascivious at the mere thought of  melt-in-your mouth, tender and flaky  buttermilk biscuits.  Alas, the biscuits at Graham’s Grille were neither tender nor flaky.  Expatriated Southerners would probably compare them to hardtack.  Both the orange marmalade and the strawberry jam are more than a bit on the sweet side and neither showcases the flavor of the fruits ostensibly used in their creation as does the miraculously good orange marmalade at Gutiz.

Peter’s Bigger Boy: Angus Burger with Grilled Green Chile, Cheddar and Swiss, Frizzled Onions and Bacon (served with Cajun fries)

The menu describes the fresh French donuts as having “5 spice cinnamon sugar,” but neither five spice nor cinnamon sugar were in evidence on our taste buds. That’s a pity because either would have enlivened the otherwise bland donuts. Powdery white confectioner’s sugar is fine on beignets, those small, square puffs of fried doughy deliciousness, but it didn’t do much for the French donuts which in addition to being bland, were slightly on the tough side.

Our disappointment with the buttermilk biscuits and French donuts were tempered somewhat by the Mexican XXX Hot Chocolate (Ibarra chocolate, Kahlana, agave wine, whipped cream and cinnamon), a Mexican hot chocolate with a kick.  It’s one of the very best hot chocolates we’ve ever had, a rich and flavorful elixir with a lively flavor.  It’s not a teetotaler’s cup of tea, but it’s perfectly fine for someone who indulges ever so infrequently on adult beverages.

Passion Fruit Barbecue Sauce Sandwich, Homemade Pickle and Cajun Fries

Our third strike–a salad composed of winter spinach, goat cheese, julienned carrots and strawberries–can be attributed to the bane of my culinary existence, the demon spawned spice cumin. Both the salad dressing and the walnuts normally found on this salad included cumin, a revelation made upon the salad’s delivery. While the blue cheese dressing was good, the vinaigrette with which this salad is normally served was more tailored for the flavor profile we wanted. On the positive side, the salad ingredients were fresh and delicious.

“Graham’s Famous Burgers” are available for both lunch and dinner.  Save for the lamb burger, they are served with Lesley’s “special burger sauce,” a tasty amalgam of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup and are served on a housemade bun.  On each burger plate is tomato, lettuce, sliced onion and a housemade dill pickle.  Peter’s Big Boy, an eight-ounce angus burger with green chile, Cheddar and Swiss cheeses, frizzled onions and bacon is a very good burger, a burger worthy of consideration for inclusion on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  The angus beef is hand-formed and prepared to your exacting specifications.  What the green chile lacks in piquancy, it more than makes up for in roasted flavor perfection.  The frizzled onions, a tangle of deep-fried onion strips, are piled on.  Burgers are served with your choice of Cajun fries, New Mexican slaw, house greens, Caesar salad or soup (hopefully not the cumin cursed posole).

Fresh French Donuts with Five Spice Cinnamon Sugar

Barbecue aficionados might be drawn in by a tempting sandwich offering showcasing a passion fruit barbecue sauce on a generous mound of pulled pork. Alas, the passion fruit is wholly understated lacking the sweet richness and aromatic flavor that titillates the taste buds.  The pork is tender and delicious, but would have been something special had the passion fruit flavor come across more prominently.

On the whole, our inaugural visit to Graham’s Grille had some hits and it had some misses, but what it didn’t have was that “wow” factor we crave from the vaunted restaurants anointed as something special.  Lack of wow factor not withstanding, we look forward to future visits when we hope to discover for ourselves why Graham’s Grill is widely recognized as the very best in Taos.

Graham’s Grill by Lesley B. Fay

106 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2011
# of VISITS: 1
RATING:
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Peter’s Bigger Boy, Passion Fruit Barbecue Sandwich, Mexican XXX Chocolate

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