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Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

    The Oak Tree Cafe is now on Alameda as of April, 2013

The Oak Tree Cafe is now on Alameda as of April, 2013

This isn’t Burger King!
You can’t have it your way.
You get it our way or you don’t get it at all.

For some reason, human beings seem inclined to level criticism by the shovelful while apportioning praise and plaudits by the thimbleful.  We  seem genetically predisposed to put more stock into negativity than we are to believe the best of others.  We consider compliments to be based on insincerity or ulterior motives.  Even our television viewing preferences gravitate toward gratuitous depictions of misbehavior and depravity.  We consider unwatchable any movie or television show portraying kindness and humanity.

That grim indictment of humanity is, by virtue of its own unflattering characterization, itself an example of misanthropic pathos.  In the spirit of John 8:7, I will cast the first stone at myself.  For years, I heard about a humble little sandwich shop in which customer service was said to be more than a slogan; it was a way of doing business.  Instead of embracing this supposed people-pleasing panacea, my first inclination was skepticism and a willingness to lump the Oak Tree Cafe with any number of other eateries which provide good service, albeit with transparent insincerity.

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Affable proprietor Rob Carson at the counter where you place your order

You’re no doubt familiar with the type of restaurant of which I’m talking  (chains are especially good at this). The minute you walk in, a painted-on smile approaches you and begins the well-rehearsed wait “schtick” that typically begins with something like, “I’m Julie and I’ll be your server tonight.”  Periodic visits to your table (usually when your mouth is full) include perfunctory chit chat as well as refills and more napkins.  Though typically not unpleasant, this type of service is still rather impersonal and unmemorable.  It’s essentially a game of reciprocal expectations between customer and client; both parties know what to expect and fulfill their respective roles.  It’s basically harmless.

Unfortunately, as feedback to this blog will attest, for some restaurants, harmless would be a vast improvement. Some restaurants, it seems, don’t seem to understand that good customer service is the lifeblood of any business. All too often, customer service appears to be of the “This isn’t Burger King!  You can’t have it your way.” variety.   This type of service is characterized by a haughty disregard for the axiom that the customer is always right.  Its rendition of the golden rule stops at “do onto others” as in “do ignore them,” “do belittle them,” do patronize them.”  Quite naturally it dissuades return visits.

The Taos: Hot USDA Choice Top Round Roast Beef, Melted Monterey Jack, Grilled Onions, Grilled Chile, Tomato, Mayo and Lettuce on a Fresh-Baked Kaiser Roll

Since most customer service seems to fall somewhere between the impersonal and well-rehearsed wait schtick and the “you get it our way or you don’t get it at all” approach, you’ll forgive me if I was skeptical about the Oak Tree Cafe.  It really is too easy to be cynical about a restaurant which has made its reputation not only because of its great sandwiches, but because of its genuinely warm, personable and attentive service.  Though I’m not from Missouri, Oak Tree would just have to show me.

The Oak Tree Cafe was founded just over a quarter century ago by the father-son duo of Michael and Rob Carson who worked side-by-side until Michael’s death at age 86 in 2009.  Today Rob is ably assisted by a kitchen staff which abides with the cafe’s long-standing tradition of excellent customer service.  In the tradition of Cheers, television’s friendliest bar, it seems everyone–or at least Rob–knows the name of all regulars as they walk in.  He also knows each regular’s “usual,” what those regular patrons like to order when they visit.  If my first few visits are any indication, the regulars outnumber new visitors undoubtedly eager to find out if the cafe’s reputation for outstanding food and exceptional service is well deserved.

Special of the Day: Hot Corned Beef on Rye toast Topped with Grilled Onions, Monterey Jack Cheese, Banana Peppers, Lettuce, Tomato, Deli Mustard Served With a Side Order of Chips and Fresh Fruit

In April, 2013, the Oak Tree Cafe relocated from its Uptown location to a new shopping center at 4545 Alameda, N.E. (just west of Jefferson).  The Oak Tree Cafe’s digs are 2,500 square-feet of welcome to west side diners whose sandwich options were primarily chain restaurants which blight their neighborhoods.  An outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables accommodates another forty guests or so.  At its expansive new location, the Oak Tree Cafe now serves burgers, beer, wine and appetizers. 

As of my initial visit to the Alameda location on 10 May 2013, only the famous Oak Tree bell hasn’t made it to its new home.  At the Uptown location, once you took your seat, conversations with your dining companions were periodically be punctuated by the tintinnabulation of a bell positioned by the cafe door.  As customers exited, they were invited to please ring the bell “if the food was great and service was crazy.”  Without exception, everyone exiting the premises rang the bell.  Look for the bell to make its way to Alameda soon.  One of the Oak Tree Cafe’s loyal customers is repairing the brackets to hold the bell in place.

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The Oak Tree Combo Sandwich (USDA Top Round Roast Beef, Turkey Breast, Corned Beef, Ham, Melted Swiss Cheese, Melted Cheddar Cheese, Mayo, Lettuce, Tomatoes on a Kaiser Roll

For a restaurant with a reputation for service, it’s surprising to find that there is no tableside wait service.  Instead you’ll place your order at a counter, interacting with an affable server (maybe even Janet, Rob’s pulchritudinous girlfriend) who’s happy to answer any questions you may have or to make recommendations if you need them.  When you first walk in don’t be surprised to be greeted with a friendly handshake and an introduction “I’m Rob Carson.  Welcome to the Oak Tree Cafe.”  It probably won’t be the only time you interact with Carson who’s a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting throughout the premises with an ambassadorial flair.

The sandwiches warrant not only bell-ringing, but cheers. They’re that good! The sandwich and wraps menu is formidable, nearly two dozen different sandwiches crafted on fresh bread, (sub rolls, wheat, rye, white, Kaiser rolls and French rolls) either toasted or untoasted.  Meat products come from Boar’s Head.  Sandwiches are named for faithful customers, New Mexico landmarks and celebrities such as Monty Hall and Al Capone.  Each sandwich towers with meats, condiments and ingredients, some of which are infrequently found at other Duke City sandwich shops.

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Beer-battered “Black and Tan” onion rings, some of the very best in Albuquerque

5 July 2011: If you’re uncertain as to what sandwich to order, focus your study of the menu on those crafted with roast beef, a specialty of the house. The roast beef is slow-cooked on the premises from choice top round. It’s as tender as a marshmallow and as moist and delicious as any roast beef you’ll ever have anywhere! The Taos–hot USDA choice top round roast beef, melted Monterey Jack, grilled onions, grilled green chile, tomato, mayo and lettuce on a fresh-baked Kaiser roll–showcases layer upon layer of roast beef, so juicy and unctuous it resembles a hamburger patty until you taste it.  That’s when you gain an appreciation for how wonderful roast beef can be.  It’s especially wonderful when its flavor profile melds with the other ingredients which make this my choice for best roast beef sandwich in town.

5 July 2011: During my inaugural visit to the Menaul location, the special of the day featured an ingredient combination–hot corned beef on rye toast topped with grilled onions, Monterey jack cheese, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and deli mustard–that made my taste buds very happy.  The combination of banana peppers, deli mustard and grilled onions was especially notable, a complementary mix of sweet, savory and tangy flavors.  This sandwich is piled about twice as high as many other sandwiches you’ll find in local eateries.  It also stands tall above the rest in terms of pure deliciousness.

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

The sprawling Alameda location is every bit as accommodating and friendly as its previous home.  Even the menu bespeaks of friendliness with the slogan “A warm, friendly atmosphere full of camaraderie and congeniality.”  Location aside, the biggest difference between one location and another is the menu which now includes three gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and appetizers.  Sandwiches are the Oak Tree Cafe’s raison de’etre and will probably always be the most popular draw, but burgers and chicken sandwiches will beckon, too.

Although all sandwiches are served with a pickle spear and your choice of homemade apple coleslaw, homemade macaroni salad or fresh fruit, you owe it to yourself to try some of the other sides on the menu: hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries or beer-battered onion rings.  The beer-battered black and tan onion rings are among the two  best in the city (the others being from Flamez Burgers & More).  These golden hued beauties are served on a tree-like apparatus, just ready to be plucked.  Bite into them and onion juiciness squirts out, a wonderful departure from the usual desiccation you experience with out-of-the-bag onion rings most restaurants serve. 

Janet's Bacon Green Chili Burger

Janet’s Bacon Green Chili Burger

10 May 2013: Much as the burgers and chicken sandwiches beckon, chances are you’ll succumb to the stronger calling of a sumptuous sandwich.  One of the best is the Oak Tree Combo, a sandwich honoring the years spent at the San Mateo (Uptown) location.   This is a sandwich’s sandwich, a meaty behemoth on a Kaiser roll.  The ingredients–USDA top round roast beef, turkey breast, corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, melted Cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes–go very well together.  It’s such a good sandwich, you may mourn finishing your last bite. 

13 June 2013:  On the day of my second visit to the Alameda location, it did my heart good to see more cars parked in front of the Oak Tree Cafe than there were in front of Panera Bread, a chain restaurant five miles away which also serves sandwiches.  It goes to show Duke City Diners can be a discerning lot that recognizes the superiority of locally owned and operated restaurants and home-grown touches such as the Oak Tree Cafe’s green chile Ranch dressing which accompanies the fried green beans.   While no dressing is necessary for these perfectly breaded, perfectly fried green beans, a little piquancy and roasted flavor goes a long way.

The Father Paul Sandwich, "Heaven In A Sandwich": USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette

The Father Paul Sandwich, “Heaven In A Sandwich”: USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette

13 June 2013: The best new green chile cheeseburger I’ve had in 2013 is the quaintly named Janet’s Bacon Green Chili (SIC) Burger, a burger so good the Oak Tree Cafe can get away with the Texas-like spelling of New Mexico’s official state vegetable.  The burger is named for the delightful Janet, Rob’s girlfriend and a partner in the restaurant.   All the burgers at the restaurant are made from fresh ground beef formed on the premises daily and served on a fresh bakery bun.  The Janet invites you to “Cowgirl It Up” (a phrase meaning stop being a sissy) with this half-pound behemoth topped with pecan-smoked bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, New Mexico green chile, red onions, lettuce and tomatoes.  The green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough bite to let you know it’s there.  The beef is moist and perfectly prepared at about medium.  The bacon is terrific as is the cheese.  It’s a burger which goes very well with the onion rings.

13 June 2013: If you’ve ever wondered what “heaven in a sandwich” tastes like, try the Father Paul Sandwich, named for a Catholic priest friend of Rob Carson.  Although Father Paul is now in Florida, this sandwich is a terrific legacy to leave behind.  The sandwich is constructed on a baguette which is ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) with USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes.  The deli mustard pulls no punches, enlivening the sandwich with an eye-watering flavor that complements the tender as butter roast beef.  If you’ve discerned a predilection for ordering roast beef sandwiches, it’s simply because The Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best roast beef in Albuquerque.

Mike's Chicken Sandwich: Six-ounce chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese, honey mustard, topped with lettuce and tomatoes

Mike’s Chicken Sandwich

18 June 2013: While turkey is often blamed for post-meal Thanksgiving lethargy, chicken actually has more of the serotonin-boosting tryptophan than turkey does.  Perhaps that’s why most chicken sandwiches bore me to the point of sleepiness.  In the spirit that the Oak Tree Cafe can do no wrong, I didn’t put up much resistance when Janet recommended Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, a six-ounce grilled chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese and honey mustard topped with lettuce and tomatoes.  This is what all chicken sandwiches should aspire to. The chicken (no breading) is grilled to perfection, but what makes this sandwich special is the combination of smoky-piquant bacon, slightly incendiary Pepperjack cheese and the honey mustard.  This is a multi-napkin affair, a very juicy and delicious chicken sandwich that won’t leave you sleepy after consuming it.

8 July 2013: It’s entirely conceivable that if the 1982 best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche were to be rewritten for the new millennium, quiche would be replaced on the title by tortilla wraps or maybe quesadillas.  It’s practically an XY chromosome expectation that real men order behemoth sandwiches overstuffed with ingredients.  Real men certainly wouldn’t order a tortilla wrap with raspberry sauce of all things.  That is unless real men are really comfortable in their own skin or who don’t want to miss out on a terrific tortilla wrap constructed with superb ingredients.  The Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap is bursting with roasted turkey breast, cream cheese, New Mexico green chile, spring mix, tomatoes and raspberry chipotle sauce wrapped in a tortilla.  The combination of green chile and raspberry chipotle gives the wrap a piquant personality with a sweet kick.  The turkey, and there’s plenty of it, is terrific, the antithesis of the boring turkey.  Real men would love this sandwich…if only they would try it.

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap: Turkey Breast, Cream Cheese, New Mexico Green Chile, Spring Mix, Tomatoes, Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Wrapped in a Flour Tortilla

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap

Contemporary culinary culture is so competitive (forgive the alliteration) that a purveyor of sandwiches can’t just slap some meats and cheeses on bread and expect to stay in business for long.  The very best restaurateurs are constantly reinventing their menus, looking for exciting new options with which to entice their diners.  Since the Oak Tree Cafe moved into its commodious new digs, the opportunities for tinkering with an already outstanding menu have been more readily available.  A number of new burgers (including an excellent blue cheese burger) show up in the menu of daily specials.  The most successful among them will hopefully make it onto the everyday menu

27 March 2014: Call it audacious if you will, but the Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area.  Yes, better than the fish and chips at Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill and the Two Fools Tavern.  Rob Carson and his crew didn’t just decide one day to start serving fish and chips then immediately started doing so.  They worked on the batter for two months (going through boatloads of fish) before considering it worthy of the guests they value so much.  It’s a light and crispy beer batter that sheathes two large pieces of tender and flaky haddock.  The light batter allows for excellent penetration by malt vinegar and pairs well with the superb tartar sauce with which the fish are served.  The fish is delicate and delicious and because it’s virtually grease-free, you can eat it with your hands.  The fries have a twice-fried texture and also absorb malt vinegar well.  An accompanying coleslaw is crisp, fresh and delicious.

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

The Oak Tree Cafe has made a believer our of this cynic who often laments the absence of truly sincere, truly personable service coupled with excellent sandwiches. This cafe is an anachronism, a throwback to the days in which the customer was always right and you could get things done your way. At its new Alameda location, the Oak Tree Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 8PM.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
LATEST VISIT: 27 March 2014
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Taos Sandwich, Hot Corned Beef Sandwich, Oak Tree Combo, Onion Rings, Fried Green Beans, The Father Paul Sandwich, Janet’s Green Chili Burger, Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap, Apple Coleslaw, Fish & Chips 


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Prime – Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico

The patio in front of Prime faces Fourth Street

What kind of foods and food-related activities do white people like? According to New York Times best-selling author Christian Lander, white people like picking their own fruit, sea salt, hummus, dinner parties, bottles of water, kitchen gadgets, Whole Foods and grocery co-ops, Asian fusion food, sushi, breakfast places, vegan or vegetarianism, wine, micro-breweries, tea, organic food,  farmer’s markets, coffee and expensive sandwiches.  Lander compiled a list, wrote a book and created a blog listing 134 things (and not just food) white people like.

So, what constitutes an expensive sandwich?  According to Lander, the expensive sandwiches liked by white people start at $8.99, but you’re looking at at least a $15 outlay after tip and drink.  The shops which serve the sandwiches liked by white people generally “aren’t open for dinner, have a panini press and are famous for their bread.  There are always vegan options and the selection of meats and cheeses are strongly European.”

The interior at Prime

By the standards of today’s economy-driven inflation, $8.99 is starting to sound more like the median price of a sandwich, not the starting point for an expensive sandwich.  In fact, $8.99 is a mere pittance compared to the most expensive sandwich in the world which went for about $184.  Gold dust, Cheddar cheese blended with expensive white truffles, quail eggs and 10-year-old Balsamic vinegar were among the high-quality ingredients in this gourmet feast between slices of sourdough bread.  That sandwich was created (by a white person) in Somerset, England as the main attraction for a celebration of cheese.

A case can easily be made that Albuquerque is a sandwich town.  First of all, more than 70 percent of the Duke City’s population is comprised of white people (according to the 2000 U.S. census) and as Christian Lander revealed, we know how much white people like sandwiches–at least expensive ones.  Secondly, the chain with the largest presence in the city is not McDonald’s as you might expect, but Subway, the country’s sandwich franchise leader. Sandwich town or not, it’s highly unlikely  many people in the Duke City would pay anywhere in the neighborhood of $184 for a sandwich, no matter how good it might be.  The question is, just how much is the citizenry of Albuquerque willing to pay for a sandwich?

The Angry Sicilian: Cappicola Ham, Pepperoni, Genoa Salami, Olive Tapenade, Tomatoes, Banana Peppers and Buffalo Mozzarella

 On April 14, 2011, a high-end delicatessen and specialty food shop opened in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque which offers gourmet sandwiches at a price point which might send Subway fanatics into sticker shock and which should make white people deliriously happy. With an appropriate appellation which can be defined as “premier” or “of the highest quality,” Prime is poised to give Duke City diners a sandwich soiree for the senses.  In addition to high-end gourmet sandwiches and side dishes currently available for take-out or dine-in,  Prime proffers fine wines by the bottle, beers and spirits, specialty cheeses and has introduced a full-service butchery featuring prime cuts of beef and lamb, the type of which are offered at Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse.

Prime is, in fact, a sibling to Vernon’s, owed by Michael Baird who purchased the speakeasy-themed steakhouse in 2009.   It is situated in the location which previously housed the popular comfort food restaurant, the Calico Cantina & Cafe in the Village Shops at Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.  Introduction of the Prime concept is just part of the  transformation at the heavily trafficked edifice.  Vernon’s has made the speakeasy experience even more authentic with secret passageways, a new private dining room, a cigar patio and a VIP club.

The Bootlegger: Roasted Turkey Breast, Autumn Roast Green Chile, Tomatoes, Shaved Red Onion and Muenster Cheese

If Christian Lander’s observations are correct, white people should love Prime’s sandwich menu.  At an even nine dollars each, Prime’s three breakfast panini sandwiches (available all day) are only one penny more than the starting price for expensive sandwiches, the type of which are loved by white people.  Hero sandwiches (served on a fresh baked hoagie unless otherwise stated) range in price from ten to twelve dollars.  Panini sandwiches, served on ciabatta bread, range in price from eleven to fourteen dollars.  The menu also offers a selection of “salads & such” for five dollars (three dollars as a substitution for the kettle chips or red potato salad served with each sandwich).

Not only should white people love these expensive sandwiches, they will probably get a kick out of each sandwich’s sobriquet which appears to have been spit out of a Mafia nickname generator on an Apple (something else which makes white people weak in the knees).  The Hero Sandwiches are cleverly named: Shylock, Hitman, Tommy Gun, Pesci and more.  The Panini Sandwiches are similarly christened: 38 Special, N 4th Bootlegger, Angry Sicilian, Goomba and others.  Despite the whimsical names, a quick perusal of the ingredients and you’ll take these sandwiches seriously.

The Hitman: Muffaletta style, on foccacia bread with ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, spicy giardiniera, lettuce and tomato

 Prime’s sandwiches earn the right to be called gourmet. They are the antithesis of the value meal variety sandwiches constructed on cardboard bread with paltry meats and razor-thin cheeses buried under a mound of lettuce and masked by sauces and condiments designed to cover up an inferior product.  Gourmet doesn’t generally imply gargantuan, but Prime’s sandwiches will sate in every way.  They are filling and they are fabulous!  The bread is procured from Fano, an artisan bread company from Albuquerque.

3 May 2011: The Angry Sicilian panini sandwich will assuage any anger.  It is a very good sandwich crafted on the best ciabatta bread I’ve had in Albuquerque.  An Italian artisan  bread of the highest caliber, the ciabatta provides a perfect contrast in textures with a hard-crusted exterior and an airy, soft interior.  It’s a robust, earthy and wholly delicious bread canvas for the high-quality delicatessen favorites which are lavished profusely: cappicola ham, pepperoni, Genoa salami, olive tapenade, tomatoes, banana peppers and buffalo mozzarella.  The deli meats are fresh and redolent with flavors, definitely several orders of magnitude better than the Boar’s Head meats served at so many local sandwich shops.  The buffalo mozzarella is rich and buttery with slightly acidic and salty (but entirely pleasant) nuances.  Unfortunately, it’s sliced painfully thin.

The Tommy Gun: Vernon’s Prime Meatballs, Spicy Marinara, Melted Provolone and Grated Parmesan

3 May 2011: The N. 4th Bootlegger, a panini sandwich also crafted on the wonderful ciabatta is another winner.  Overstuffed (can anything ever truly be overstuffed) with roasted turkey breast, autumn roast green chile, tomatoes, shaved red onion and Muenster cheese, it even made a believer out of my friend Señor Plata, a white guy who doesn’t like sandwiches much, expensive or not.  The green chile has a freshly roasted flavor and a pleasant piquancy.  The Muenster cheese, likely a European variety, has a pleasant pungency and subtle sweetness.  The turkey is delicious.

10 May 2011: The Hitman is not quite the hit the two preceding sandwiches are.  That’s primarily because of the foccacia bread which is sliced thick–to the point that it detracts from the enjoyment of other ingredients on the sandwich.  Bread should never dominate the flavor profile of any sandwich!  Pull the other ingredients–ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, spicy giardiniera, lettuce and tomato–out of the sandwich and they’re quite enjoyable on their own, but then that’s not a sandwich.  The spicy giardiniera is applied so parsimoniously that it barely registered, a shame considering the little I did taste was quite good.

The South Side: Shaved Vernon’s Prime Rib, Sauteed Mushrooms, Melted Gruyere, Autumn Roast Green Chile and Au Jus

10 October 2011: The Tommy Gun, constructed from Vernon’s prime meatballs, spicy marinara, melted provolone and grated Parmesan is Prime’s version of a meatball sub, but it’s so much better than most.  A more conventional sub-style roll, pillow soft on the inside and sturdy on the outside, is the canvas for this creation.  The meatballs are dense and herbaceous with a beef flavor as opposed to a prominent filler flavor.  It’s rare that Parmesan leaves much of an impression, but the one used on this sandwich is an olfactory arousing dream with a nice flavor.  The spicy marinara is applied relatively lightly so it doesn’t overwhelm other ingredients.  This sandwich is made by someone who knows how to make sandwiches. 

10 October 2011: The same can be said about the South Side (shaved Vernon’s prime rib, sauteed mushrooms, melted Gruyere, autumn roast green chile and au jus).  The prime rib is piled on generously and is prepared at about medium rare.  Consider it heresy if you will, but it might be just be better with some incendiary horseradish than it was with the far too tepid autumn roast green chile.  While the green chile has a nice roasted flavor, it has very little, if any, bite.  This is a very moist and tender sandwich, the juiciness brought out even more thanks to the sauteed mushrooms.

The Goomba

The Goomba

23 February 2014: In its annual food and wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named Prime’s Goomba sandwich one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches.  It was the only vegetarian sandwich to make the delicious dozen.  Fromage fanatics will appreciate that this sandwich is crafted with a trio of terrific cheeses: Gouda, Boursin and Muenster melted over Balsamic grilled portabella mushrooms with artichoke hearts and spinach.  The Balsamic grilled portabella mushrooms are replete with personality while the molten blanket of cheese is a triumvirate of cheeses which go very well together. 

23 February 2014:  Although segregated on the menu and labeled differently, by most dictionary definitions, a burger is a type of a sandwich.  As such, it makes perfect sense that a burger have its place on Prime’s sandwich menu, albeit not labeled a sandwich.  The one burger on the menu is the aptly named Prime Burger, constructed from Vernon’s in-house Prime ground beef, lettuce, tomato and onion on a fresh Kaiser roll with your choice of three ingredients (green chile strips, mushrooms, guacamole, bacon, yellow Cheddar, Swiss cheese, Provolone, blue cheese or Cajun rub).  This is as moist and juicy a burger as you’ll find anywhere so it’s a good thing the Kaiser roll is formidable enough to keep it from falling apart.  The green chile is very much on the mild side, probably because it’s obfuscated by half a pound of prime beef deliciousness.

Prime Burger

Prime Burger With French Fries

Sandwiches are accompanied by your choice of kettle potato chips or a red potato salad.  The latter is quite good.  It’s creamy without being deluged by mayo or salad cream.  The texture of the potatoes is neither too mushy nor too hard.   Savory and sweet qualities in a nice proportion to one another and the presence of celery, onions, cornichons, crispy prosciutto, egg and herb dijon salad give this potato salad its flavor profile with the prosciutto very much reminiscent of the good Italian bacon it is.  

If you’ve ever had desserts at Vernon’s, you’re probably well aware of the chocolate silk, a shortbread pecan cookie crust topped with a rich, frothy chocolate custard and sweet cream cheese.   It’s one of the steakhouse’s most popular desserts and it’s available at Prime, too.  Unfortunately it’s such a good dessert that I may never order any other post-prandial treat.

Chocolate Silk: shortbread pecan cookie crust topped with a rich, frothy chocolate custard and sweet cream cheese

The breakfast menu also includes three different quiche dishes, all served on a bed of spinach and green chile bechamel with papas.  A European bagel (lox, capers, onions and dill cream cheese) and a cheese and fruit “splurge” (baked brie en croute with prosciutto, Balsamic drizzle and fresh fruit served over a bed of mixed greens) are other breakfast offerings along with such extras as yogurt and house-made granola, seasonal fruit and oatmeal and a child’s bacon and egg wrap with fruit.

Though the price point may seem a bit steep for some, the uncompromising quality of the ingredients and the generosity and creativity with which they are applied means white people will make frequent return trips.  For the cost of a two sandwich meal at Prime, you could visit Subway six times and fill your belly–or you can visit Prime and  enjoy what could be the best sandwich shop in the Duke City.  Consistency over time will tell.

Prime
Village Shops at Los Ranchos
6855 Fourth Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-9150
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 February 2014
1st VISIT:  3 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Angry Sicilian, The Bootlegger, Chocolate Silk, The Tommy Gun, The South Side, The Goomba, Prime Burger


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Kaktus Brewing Company – Bernalillo, New Mexico

Kaktus01

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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