Philly Steaks – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Philly Steaks on Juan Tabo Opened Its Doors in February, 2018

I love the dignity in the name Philadelphia, but at heart, we’re Philly.”
~Lisa Scottoline
New York Times Best-Selling Author

There are a couple of things you should know about Philadelphia,” my friend  Vladimir “Speedy” Gonzalez told me before my first visit to the City of Brotherly Love.  “First, Philadelphians are not rude.  We may be blunt and direct, but that’s just passion.”   Passion?  I always thought he was a grouch.   “Second,” he added, “you’ve got to know the process for ordering a Philly cheesesteak when you visit Pat’s King of Steaks.  If you don’t, you’ll be sent to the end of the line.”  Sure enough, the Pat’s counterman didn’t appreciate my typical twenty questions ordering approach and sent me back to the end of the line, halfway around the block. 

Apparently what Vladimir called passion is pretty pervasive in Philadelphia.  There are dozens of examples of that passion in sporting events, including a notorious 1968 event in which Eagles fans booed and pelted Santa Claus with snowballs.   There are also plenty of non-sporting examples.  In 1998, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which oversees taxis, mandated etiquette classes for the city’s cab drivers. Cynics called it “cabbie charm school” and derided it as “a class to teach class.” More recently, a 2012 project called “Twitter heat map” scanned 462 locations in the United States for the phrases “Good morning” and “F–k you.” The project revealed that Philadelphia registered the highest concentration of “f-bombs,” but also the highest concentration of “Good morning.”

The Interior of Philly Steaks

So, how do you reconcile that dichotomy?   “Good morning” is not only a salutation, it’s a wish and a blessing, a life-affirming declaration.  It’s hardly a rude or impolite.  Could it be that denizens of the City of Brotherly Love are morning people?  That the rigors and vicissitudes of the day weigh so heavily that they’re transformed into rude and grumpy people?  Could it be, as Vladimir explained, all about passion?  My friend “8,” who matriculated at an institution of higher learning in Philadelphia explained the notion of the grumpy Pat’s King of Steaks waitstaff this way: “It’s kind of a self fulfilling prophecy much akin to the grumpy counterman at Zabar’s or the attitude of the waiter at Peter Luger when a patron asks for a menu, or any Jewish deli man charged with slicing the pastrami.  It is part of the charm if that’s the way to express the curmudgeonly quality of the service.  I would expect no less when ordering.”  Extrapolate that charm, that attitude, that passion across an entire city and you’ve got Philadelphia, take it or leave it.

I’ll take it, especially if it means incomparable cheesesteaks, peerless pretzels, craveable cannoli, bountiful broccoli rabe and roast pork sandwiches, sumptuous square pizza, terrific tomato pie and scrumptious scrapple.  We were ecstatic to learn about the February, 2018 launch of Philly Steaks, an authentic purveyor of Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches owned and operated by veteran restaurateurs who plied their trade in the mean streets of the Cradle of Liberty.  We knew we’d love the sandwiches, were hopeful the portions would be more Philadelphia than Albuquerque, and wondered if the famous Philadelphia passion would be part and parcel of our experience.

Green Chile Fries

Philly’s Steaks is owned and operated by Jim and Joe Lelii, twin brothers with a passion for Italian style cooking.  The brothers launched their first restaurant at only 21 years of age and over the years, opened several successful Italian restaurants and sandwich shops across the Philadelphia metropolitan area.    Recently, however, they relocated to the Land of Enchantment where they launched Philly’s Steaks.  They’ve got the pedigree and the passion to do it right.  In rare lulls in grill activity, we shared good conversation and laughs with the affable Joe, a larger-than-life personality who doesn’t perpetuate the stereotype of the grumpy counterman.  He was as as friendly as could be. Look at his Popeye-like forearms and it’s obvious Joe has spent much of his life chopping rib eye on the grill, a melodic percussion of metal on metal as he slices the rib eye into thin, small pieces.

Philly Steaks is a veritable  shrine to the City of Brotherly Love, both its heroes and its anti-heroes.  Walls are festooned with framed photos of iconic Philadelphia sports icons–real (Smoking Joe Frazier, for example) and cinematic (Rocky Balboa anyone), singers, actors (such as Al Martino) and so much more.  One wall is dedicated to Joe’s family.  He waxes nostalgic when he points out the photos of his grandfather’s deli and other family enterprises in South Philadelphia.  Philly Steaks, he told us, is configured very similarly to similar restaurants he previously owned.  He has high hopes that Duke City diners will embrace his sandwich shop. Every indications–crowded tables with satisfied patrons–is that Albuquerque is already in love with Philly Steaks.

Onion Rings

3 March 2018: Seeing “French Fries” on any menu typically inspires a well-deserved yawn.  At Philly Steaks, it inspires contemplation–a deep, thoughtful deliberation as to how you want your fries.  Sure, you can save the thick, seasoned fries for ketchup, but how boring is that–especially when you can have your fries with Cheese Whiz, Crab, Crab and Cheese, Buffalo chicken and cheese, green chile and cheese, and Philly cheesesteak?  Available in two sizes, regular and bucket, either portion size will sate a family of four.  Don’t be wary about ordering your fries with green chile and cheese.  It’s as if a native New Mexican prepared the green chile.  It’s got both piquancy and the distinctive roasted flavor we love. 

14 March 2018:  On his one “cheat day” a week, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” allows himself just a few more carbs than usual.  One of his favorite indulgences is onion rings–what Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster calls “vegetable donuts.”  Philly Steak’s rendition are battered a bit on the thick side with a panko-like breading.  Bite into each of the succulent orbs and the flavor of sweet, juicy onions greets you.  Be careful, though, as these onion rings could burn your mouth.

My Friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Holds A Cheesesteak

If you’ve ever lamented the chintzy meat portions in sandwiches crafted throughout the Duke City, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (maybe amazed) at how generous portion sizes are at Philly Steaks.  Half a Philly Steaks cheesesteak is as big, if not bigger, than any other Philly cheesesteak in Albuquerque.   You’d think there is more livestock in Pennsylvania than there is in New Mexico where sheep and cattle outnumber our citizenry.  And, if you remember the lawsuit a few years ago against Subway for selling twelve-inch and foot-long sandwiches that were allegedly less than twelve-inches long, you’ll be happy to see elongated, torpedo-sized rolls that probably exceed twelve inches at Philly Steaks.  This is the sandwich size Duke City diners deserved and perhaps thought they’d never find in the city. 

3 March 2018: One look at the Philly Cheesesteak and we knew there’s no way my Kim and I would be able to finish it in one sitting.  It was humongous.  Moreover, it was bursting with flavor.  As at the aforementioned Pat’s King of Steaks, there’s a process for ordering your Philly Cheesesteak.  First you select your protein: beef (fresh-cut rib-eye) or chicken (fresh-cut boneless chicken breast) then your choice of cheese (white, American, Provolone, Cheese Whiz) then the type of cheesesteak you want: pizza steak, mushroom cheesesteak, bell pepper cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak, Buffalo chicken cheesesteak or green chile cheesesteak.  While the ordering process may be similar to that of Pat’s, the “attitude” is not.   Instead of sass and ‘tood, you’ll be greeted with cheer and friendliness.

Philly Cheesesteak “Whiz Wit”

If our choice (bell pepper cheesesteak with Provolone) is any indication, you can’t go wrong with any one of them.  The grilled rib eye is superbly seasoned, tender and delicious.  The hoagie roll is perhaps the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The portion size–it’s what Duke City sandwich lovers have wanted for years.  Of course, one of the most difficult decisions to make when ordering a cheesesteak is what type of cheese to request.  We’ve had our share of cheesesteaks with the fabled Cheese Whiz as well as with Provolone and American cheeses, but our favorite has been the white cheese with its salty, pungent notes.  It melts well and integrates beautifully with the steak. 

14 March 2018:  Like me, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver has long lamented the dearth of sizeable sandwiches in the Duke City.  Having grown up in Los Angeles, he was used to sandwiches as big as footballs.  In Philly’s Steaks, he’s finally found a sandwich comparable in size to those with which he was raised.  Moreover, the cheesesteak he ordered (mushrooms, red peppers, grilled onions and Provolone) was as delicious as any sandwich he’s had anywhere.  My sandwich was exactly the same as his save for ordering Cheese Whiz instead of Provolone.  Perhaps traumatized by my inaugural visit to Pat’s King of Steaks, I didn’t order mine “Whiz Wit,” local vernacular for ordering a cheesesteak with Whiz and grilled onions.  Maybe next time.  At any regard, we both enjoyed our sandwiches very much and thoroughly enjoyed our visit with Joe.

Italian Special

3 March 2018: Freshly sliced hoagies, all served with lettuce, tomato, onion, oil, oregano, hot or sweet peppers, salt and pepper and mayo on request, are an excellent alternative to a cheesesteak (if you can pry yourself away from the sandwich which made Philadelphia famous).  There are ten sandwiches in the freshly sliced hoagies portion of the menu.  Among them is a sandwich almost as elusive as Forrest Fenn’s treasure, a truly transformative Italian Special (ham, capicola, Genoa salami, Provolone, pepper ham).  It’s roughly the size of two, maybe three, similarly named and priced Italian sub sandwiches at any Albuquerque restaurant. 

Most ordinary humans won’t be able to consume an entire sandwich in one seating (that turns out to be a blessing because the sandwich tastes even better for breakfast the following day).  Most of us (exempting politicians) won’t be able to get the sandwich in our mouths.  It is seriously thick and crammed with meats and condiments.  The meats (Boar’s Head) work very well with the condiments, the more of them the better.  With its sweet and mild notes, Provolone lets other ingredients shine as well as being a great foil for the sweet, tangy peppers.  Oh, and the hoagie rolls are fantastic, reminiscent of Amoroso’s, the legendary Philadelphia hearth-baked bread.  Joe told us the dough is shipped from Philadelphia and baked on the premises.  It’s outstanding bread and the way it’s sliced, there’s not so much bread that it dominates the sandwich and leaves little room for other ingredients.

Crab Soup

3 March 2018: Because of its proximity to Maryland, it’s only natural that the menu of a Philadelphia themed restaurant would include dishes showcasing crab Maryland style.  Befitting Philadelphia’s “passion,”  a little tchotchke about the staff’s “crabbiness” hangs behind the counter where you place your order.  The menu offers “craby” fries, “craby” cheese fries and on the day of our inaugural visit both Maryland style crab cakes and a crab soup.  It’s a thick elixir served hot in a large portion cup.  Creamy and rich, it’s replete with chunks of sweet crab, potatoes, red peppers and seasonings.  As with every item on the menu, portion size is Philadelphia not Albuquerque.

3 March 2018: When my Kim was studying the small dessert case, Joe came up to her and suggested she try the cheesecake which is imported directly from the City of Brotherly Love.  It makes great sense that the city famous for its eponymous cream cheese would make a superb cheesecake.  Indeed it does.  Moreover, food historian Gil (great name) Marks notes that Philadelphia boasted of a tavern called “Cheesecake House” in the 18th century.  So, Philadelphians have been enjoying cheesecake for years.  You’ll enjoy this one.  It’s dense, creamy, buttery and not overly sweet on a Graham crust.  Even better, it’s served slab-sized so it’s big enough to share.  Take my word for it, if you eat even half a sandwich, you’ll only have room enough left for half a slice of cheesecake.


If you’ve ever experienced the stereotyped seedy side of Philadelphia manners as well as the authenticity and deliciousness of the Philadelphia cheesecake, you’ll love Philly Steaks where you can experience the latter without the “passion” for which Philadelphians are known.   Philly Steaks has elevated the sandwich scene in Albuquerque.

Philly Steaks
2520 Juan Tabo, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 582-2527
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 March 2018
1st VISIT: 3 March 2018
COST: $$
BEST BET: Philly Cheesesteak, Cheesecake, Italian Special, Crab Soup, Green Chile Fries
REVIEW #1029

Philly Steaks Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Leona Banh Mi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Leona Banh Mi…Fresh, Healthy, Yummy

“I’m not allowed in the Vietnamese sandwich shop anymore.
They decided to banh mi for life.”

During an ice-breaker at what promised to be a stressful project planning meeting, all participants were asked to stand up and describe their favorite childhood Christmas gift. For the most part, favorite gifts conformed to gender stereotypes. Male colleagues waxed fondly about GI Joe action figures (don’t ever call them dolls), Star Wars Lego sets and their first bike. Females in our group described Barbie dolls, playhouses and cabbage patch kids. Then it was my turn. “My favorite Christmas gift as a child,” I explained “was a dictionary.” Copious groaning ensued though for some reason no one was surprised. As a child for whom English was a second language, my first dictionary was a good friend, one consulted frequently when reading my other favorite tome, the encyclopedia. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Perhaps because it was so ponderous and not a few gazillion bytes of information floating around some ethereal concept called the cloud, the dictionary was much more uncool back then. It was also much more mysterious and stodgy. No one seemed to know how new words were added from year-to-year (I pictured a pantheon of robed academics assiduously considering all prospects). Today, we know that new words are added to dictionaries when they’re used often enough that they can be said to “belong”—they’ve become part of the mainstream vernacular. One particularly rich source of new words is the culinary world. In 2014, for example, the Vietnamese term “banh mi” was one of 500 new words added to the American Heritage Dictionary.

Leo Greets Another Soon To Be Satisfied Customer

If you’re wondering why it took such a long time, consider that the popularity of banh mi has largely been an urban phenomenon. You could, in fact, say the same thing about Vietnamese cuisine in general. Travel around the Land of Enchantment and you’re not likely to find authentic banh mi in Farmington, Gallup, Roswell, Silver CIty or Taos—and they’re among the state’s most populous or urbane cities. No, my friends, for the most part if you want banh mi, you’ll have to trek to the Duke City, Las Cruces or Santa Fe. Though banh mi may have become part of the American lexicon, it’s still largely a strange word to many New Mexicans. Give it a decade or so and that shouldn’t be the case. Banh mi is too good not to be enjoyed by everyone!

We’ve been loving banh mi in Albuquerque since at least 1995 when they were called “Vietnamese Sandwiches” by the few Vietnamese restaurants (May Hong among them) which served them. That’s nineteen years before banh mi made it to the American Heritage dictionary. Albuquerque’s very first Vietnamese bakery whose primary focus was banh mi was Banh Mi Coda which opened in 2010 after a short stint as Lee’s Bakery. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named the banh mi at Banh Mi Coda as “one of the city’s “12 yummiest sandwiches.” In early 2013, the Duke City saw the launch of its second banh mi shop when Sai Gon Sandwich opened in Franklin Plaza, a timeworn shopping center made infamous on Better Call Saul. Ten different banh mi adorn the menu at this combination bakery, deli and tofu house.

Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

In November, 2016, SweeTea Bakery Café opened its doors in the Montgomery Plaza shopping center, gracing the Duke City with yet another very impressive array of delicious banh mi as well as some of the best pastries this side of Paris. Not quite a year later, Rolls & Bowls became the fourth Vietnamese bakery-restaurant specializing in banh mi to launch in Albuquerque. One commonality among this quadrumvirate of banh mi purveyors is some of the city’s very best sandwiches prepared and served by very talented and dedicated owners all committed to proving (to paraphrase the Beatles) you can banh mi love. You may have noticed there remain under-served and even unserved portions of the Duke City in which nary a banh mi can be found. One of those is the burgeoning westside.

On 28 December 2017, westside Vietnamese food aficionados had their prayers answered with the launch of Leona Bahn Mi.  Located in a small, nondescript shopping center, Leona may be the smallest tenant in the area with two four-tops (table seating four diners) and seating for two on a small counter space.  This bodes mostly take-out business–or diners arriving early so as to secure a seat.  You’ll want to do the latter to interact with the very friendly and accommodating owners.  There actually isn’t anyone named Leona at the restaurant.  Leona is a portmanteau for the delightful married couple who own the restaurant: Leo, who runs the front of the house and Hanh who runs the kitchen.  You’ll meet them both.

Meatball Banh Mi

Leona Banh Mi is aptly named, but banh mi aren’t the sole items on the menu.  Belying the Lilliputian space, you’ll also find seven pho dishes, four different spring rolls and Vietnamese coffee.  Lots of coffee.  Vietnamese smoothies are at the ready though not one made with durian.  Nine distinct banh mi grace the menu including one (sardines and tomato sauce) your intrepid blogger has yet to try anywhere.  Banh mi are available in six- or twelve-inch sizes.  All banh mi include pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro and jalapeños or green chile if you request them.  Instead of your banh mi being constructed on the usual Vietnamese-style baguette, you can ask for a lettuce wrap-style banh mi.

Spring rolls, two per order rice wrappers encasing cilantro and lettuce along with your ingredients of choice: shrimp, shrimp and pork, tofu or vegan are the only “appetizers” on the menu–or you can enjoy a six-inch banh mi with a bowl of pho if you prefer.  Don’t pass up the spring rolls.  They’re about five-inches long and are served with Leona’s homemade peanut sauce or fish sauce.  The shrimp and pork spring rolls are terrific–fun, fresh and delicious.  The shrimp has the crisp snap of freshness while the pork is imbued with inimitable Vietnamese grilled pork flavors.  The peanut sauce is a bit on the sweet side, but a bit of chili sauce will quickly fix that.

Fish Roll Banh Mi

After years of being disappointed by so-called Italian meatball subs, my affections have turned to the Vietnamese meatball banh mi.  My disappointment has been abated every time.  There’s just something magical about the moist pork meatballs interplaying with the crunchy carrot-daikon-cilantro-jalapeño slaw that appeals to my taste buds.  As with all banh mi, the secret to this sandwich is the balance between meatballs, slaw and sauce.  It’s not drenched in sauce nor is it desiccated.  Banh mi are not intended to be behemoth “Dagwood” sandwiches crammed with meats and cheeses.  You can actually taste, discern and appreciate every single component of every banh mi.

One of the most unique banh mi I’ve ever encountered is Leona’s fish roll banh mi.  My expectations were for some type of fried fish looking like most fried fish look.  Instead, the fish more closely resembles sliced deli turkey about a quarter-inch thick.  Thankfully it doesn’t take like turkey.  Despite its rather unique appearance, it does taste like fish, albeit strangely presented fish.  Hahn explained that the fish is filleted and pressed then fried.  Whatever the process, it’s a good (though not even very good) banh mi.  Flavors didn’t pop as they do with the meatball banh mi. 

Residents of the West Mesa no longer have to trek across the river or to Rio Rancho to get their banh mi fix.  Now if we could only persuade Leona to expand to other unserved and under-served hamlets across the Land of Enchantment, the dictionary entry for “banh mi” will be instantly recognizable to one and all.

Leona Banh Mi
3250 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite H
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 347-1913
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 February 2018
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET:  Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls, Fish Roll Banh Mi, Pork Meatball Banh Mi

Leona Banh Mi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

AK Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

AK Deli, a True Chicago-Style Sandwich Shop

“You’ll never be one of us,” my brother-in-law Chuck quipped in his best Baron von Trapp voice. He wasn’t talking about me being part of the family. He was talking about me being a Chicagoan. Chuck wasn’t being mean-spirited or condescending in any way. The only person not born in the Windy City whom he considers a true Chicagoan is da coach Mike Ditka. “He’s the embodiment of Chicago. It’s in his soul. It’s his attitude.” he explained. Michael Jordan? “Nah, his Royal Airness probably has never even had a real Italian beef sandwich.” Oprah? “Too Hollywood. Not a real person.” Barack Obama? (Surely a former President for whom Chuck voted twice would have to be given a pass). “Politicians are what make Chicago the “Windy City,” he joked. “To be a Chicagoan, you have to have been born here, not transplanted here in your 20s,” Chuck qualified. He isn’t alone in his thinking. A lot of people in the Windy City feel that way and they’re not xenophobic in the least.

Throughout Chicago the walls at many small cafes, diners and hot dog stands are festooned with a poster entitled “You know you’re from Chicago when…” This colorful, fact-filled poster was created by Vienna Beef, the true sausage king of Chicago (with apologies to Abe Froman, the mythical sovereign of tubed meat immortalized in the 1986 classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)” Among other things, the poster will tell you that you’re from Chicago if…”you know what the phone number is for Empire Carpet (it’s 588-2300, by the way),” “you commute 20-feet above street level,” “you have two favorite football teams—the Bears and anyone who beats the Packers,” and of course, “you know you’re from Chicago when you insist on a Vienna Beef hot dog with all seven condiments” (more on this later).

Chicago Hotdog Made with Vienna Beef Hot Dogs

Vienna Beef’s famous poster festoons one wall at AK Deli, the Chicago-style sandwich shop which opened its doors shortly after Labor Day in 2017. The Deli is named for Allan and Kameko, the friendly husband-and-wife couple who own what has already become one of my favorite sandwich destinations in Albuquerque (four visits in two weeks).  Allan is originally from the south side of Chicago which legendary troubadour Jim Croce described as “the baddest part of town,” while Kameko is from Aurora.  AK Deli is located in a nondescript shopping center on Wyoming Blvd just north of Comanche. It’s next door to Ortega’s New Mexican Restaurant. Sadly it isn’t nearly as capacious as Ortega’s. In fact, it’s downright Lilliputian. Within feet of its entrance, you run into the counter where you place your order. There’s a menu on one wall and a few chairs where you can sit while you wait for your order.  There’s not much else.

Unlike two classic Saturday Night Live (SNL) skits which immortalized Chicago, there aren’t many telltale signs that AK Deli is destined to be a second home for Chicago transplants living in the Duke City (and for those of us who love the City of Big Shoulders). No, you won’t hear the exaggerated Chicago accent embodied by George Wendt playing Bill Swerski on the Saturday Night Live “Super Fans” skit. Nor will you hear anything approximating “cheeburger, cheep and Pepsi” as you might at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern (and in another classic SNL skit). What you will find is amiable people who are happy to see you…and contrary to stereotypes, there are very nice people in Chicago.  They’re happy to answer your questions on their little restaurant and big menu.

Italian Combo with Hot Giardinara

That menu is very similar to what you’d see at restaurants and cafes throughout Chicago where the distinction between blue-collar and white-collar is blurred because real Chicagoans tend to love the same foods.  Three breakfast sandwiches–available in your choice of bread: bagel, English muffin or toast–as well as bagel and cream cheese will open your eyes in the morning, but Chicagoans (including wannabe-Chicagoans like me) will gravitate toward the “Chicago Favorites” menu.  That’s where you find Chicago hotdogs, Italian beef, Italian combo (sausage and beef) and the ribeye steak sandwich.  Other sandwich choices include pastrami, corned beef, fried bologna and more.

You can have your sandwich dressed with such condiments as mustard, spicy mustard, mayo, A1 steak sauce and BBQ sauce.  Available cheeses include Cheddar, Havarti, Provolone and Swiss.  Sandwiches can be constructed on a canvas of rye bread, sourdough, kaiser roll, English muffin or bagel.  Extras include whole pickles and chips–Lay’s or Jay’s.  The latter is a 90-year old Chicago institution.  Of course, you know you’re from Chicago if you grew up eating Jay’s potato chips.  My Kim got me hooked on Jay’s, especially the open pit BBQ chips with their hint of heat.  AK Deli offers these gems and will soon be carrying regular potato chips, too.

Fried Bologna Sandwich

If you know only one thing about eating a hot dog in Chicago, it’s probably the hard and fast rule: absolutely, under penalty of ridicule or torture, no ketchup!!!  Even Dirty Harry, who’s not even from Chicago, will tell you (in the movie Sudden Impact) in his inimitable manner: “Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a hot dog.”  Though he didn’t declare a presidential fiat, Barack Obama (sounding very much like a real Chicagoan) chimed in: “You shouldn’t put ketchup on your hot dog.”  The most definitive anti-ketchup declaration, however, came from Chicago’s legendary columnist Mike Royko: “No, I won’t condemn anyone for putting ketchup on a hot dog. This is the land of the free. And if someone wants to put ketchup on a hot dog and actually eat the awful thing, that is their right. It is also their right to put mayo or chocolate syrup or toenail clippings or cat hair on a hot dog. Sure, it would be disgusting and perverted, and they would be shaming themselves and their loved ones. But under our system of government, it is their right to be barbarians.”

18 September 2017: There is absolutely no ketchup in a Chicago Hotdog, whom Chicagoans lovingly tease is “dragged through the garden” because of the many accoutrements with which it is constructed: yellow mustard, chopped white onions, neon green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash or two of celery salt on a poppy seed bun (preferably from Rosen’s).   Then there’s the Vienna Beef hot dog in a natural casing with its first-bite-snap.  By the way, you should never say “Chicago style hot dog” because “style” implies Chicago’s hot dogs are a variation of an original. No self-respecting Chicagoan can accept that.  AK’s rendition of the Chicago Hotdog is exemplary (my Kim called it “spectacular.”).  It will trigger memories of your very first Chicago Hotdog.  This is what most transplanted Chicagoans will order their first visit to AK Deli.

Pastrami on Rye

Ask any Chicago transplant in Albuquerque or anywhere else to list the five things they miss most about the Windy City and it’s a good bet the list will include Italian beef sandwiches, a staple in Chicago. Citizens of the Toddlin’ Town are almost as passionate about this sloppy sandwich as they are Da Bears. Chicagoans grow up worshiping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing. An Italian beef sandwich is made with roasted sirloin tip which is massaged with a blend of herbs and spices (oregano, black pepper, basil and more) before roasting. The beef is sliced Nicole Ritchie thin and is so tender it shreds into pieces.  Kameko’s favorite Italian beef sandwich, by the way, comes from Portillo’s.

18 September 2017: At many Chicago restaurants, it is momentarily immersed (dipped) in the gravy to make it even juicier. It is often served with either hot or mild giardiniera (a concoction of spicy, pickled, chopped-up vegetables such as peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery), but sometimes with sautéed mushrooms and bell peppers. The entire creation is extremely messy; you dare not ever try to eat one while driving.  My favorite variation is an Italian combo which pairs Italian sausage with the Italian beef.   AK Deli’s rendition is very good though I regret not having had it served “wet” (dipped).  The gravy is a wonderful counterbalance to the heat of the hot giardiniera.  During her inaugural visit with me on September 30th, my Kim had an Italian Beef sans everything–and she had it wet.  “It’s just like home,” she declared.

Jay’s Open Pit BBQ Chips, a Chicago Staple

20 September 2017: Midwesterners have long claimed fried bologna sandwiches as their own, but if you’re from Northern New Mexico (particularly if you lived on or near an Indian pueblo), you’ve probably consumed dozens of fried bologna sandwiches in your day.  In that regard, having a fried bologna sandwich from AK Deli was for me like going home.  Another way in which it was akin to going home is that AK Deli prepares sandwiches the same way we do at home.  That means they’re not chintzy in their portions.  With three thick slices of bologna fried just the way I like it, mustard and onions on lightly toasted sourdough, this is a sandwich’s sandwich.  Comedian Mitch Hedberg calls bologna “a deli meat for people with eyes.”  It’s also for people with great taste who love deli meats that taste great!

30 September 2017: In two of my first four visits, my choice has been a pastrami sandwich–a regular-sized sandwich my first visit and an “AK Max” sandwich on my second.  Both times the pastrami has been served on a canvas of light rye with mustard–the way Chicagoans like pastrami.  The pastrami served at AK Deli is quite a bit thicker than the fabulous pastrami served at California Pastrami.  While Joe Rodriguez slices his pastrami into thin shards, at AK Deli the pastrami is sliced into thick ribbons.  Aside from the distinctive brine flavor that characterizes great pastrami, this pastrami has a peppery influence–large flecks of pepper that compete with the mustard as the most assertive element of the sandwich.  It reminded me very much of the wonderful pastrami sandwiches shared with Aunt Emily at Siegelman’s Deli in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb.

Ribeye Steak Sandwich on a Kaiser Roll

21 September 2017:  Determined to have something other than a pastrami sandwich or Italian combo, I asked Kameko what her favorite sandwich is.  Without hesitation she recommended the Ribeye Steak Sandwich on a kaiser roll with A1 sauce, onions, tomato and lettuce.  That’s just how Allan prepared it for me and I loved every single bite.  Ribeye is tender, juicy and full-flavored, with nice marbling throughout.  It loses none of those qualities the way it’s prepared at AK Deli.  This is a terrific sandwich!  By the way, you should always order the combo which includes chips (Jay’s, of course) and a soda.

13 January 2018: Located in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, Maxwell Street is a mile-long venue beloved by Windy City denizens because of its diversity of commerce and cuisine. A legendary sandwich was invented on the corner of Maxwell and Halsted Streets some seventy years ago.  That sandwich is almost as famous as the street in which it was born. In the Duke City you can find the Maxwell Street Polish Sausage sandwich only at the AK Deli.  Take a bite and you might swear you’re strolling along the Maxwell Street market.  It’s every bit as good as you’ll find in Chicago.  The canvas for this paragon of deliciousness is a soft celery seed bun in which is nestled a thick, well-seasoned beef and pork sausage with a smear of mustard, a tangle of grilled Spanish white onions and a couple of sport peppers.  The aroma and flavor of those sweet onions is so addictive, you could make a meal of just those alliaceous beauties, but you wouldn’t want to.  This is a sandwich that’s great because of the sum of its terrific ingredients.  This is sandwich greatness!

Maxwell Street Sandwich

You may have noticed that AK Deli is the 1000th review published on Gil’s Thrilling…  While achieving a millennial occasion of any sort is one worthy of celebration with friends and family, the truth is I often dine alone.  I wanted to be alone on this momentous occasion to take pause to reflect on the many wonderful friends this blog has brought into my life.  My journey to 1000 reviews has been made special because it’s been shared–on at least one meal–by great friends such as Andrea Lin, Barbara Chase, Bill Resnik, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, Bruce and Grayce Schor, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver, Bruce Terzes, Bryan Byun, Captain Escalante Tuttle, Carrie Seidman, Dave Hurayt,  Dazzling Deanell, Delightful Darren, Elaine Rising, Esther Ferguson, Franziska Moore,  Dennis Gromelski, Hannah Walraven, Henry Gabaldon, Howie Kaibel, Huu Vu, Jim Millington and The Child Bride, Jim and Sylvia Westmoreland, John Colangelo, John and Kay Lucas, John and Zee Baldwin, Joe Vaughn, Karen Baehr, Professor Larry McGoldrick, Mary Ann Spencer, Mike Muller, Nader Khalil, Nikko Harada,  Paul Lilly, Ruben Hendrickson, Ryan “Break the Chain” and Kimber Scott, Schuyler, Scott McMillan, Shawn Riley, Tom and Elyn Hamilton, Tuan Bui and others whose names may not appear here, but which are forever impressed in my heart.  Thank you for accompanying me on this cavalcade of calories.

AK Deli
3615B Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 639-4249
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 January 2018
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pastrami Sandwich, Chicago Hot Dog, Italian Combo Sandwich, Ribeye Steak Sandwich, Jay’s Open Pit BBQ Chips, Fried Bologna Sandwich, Maxwell Street Polish Sausage Sandwich
REVIEW #1000

AK Deli Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Urban Hotdog Company – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Let the Barking Begin! The Urban Hotdog restaurant is open as of October, 2012.

Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks
Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox
love hot dogs.
Armour Hot Dog Commercial, 1960s

Advertising standards in the 1960s were quite a bit more lax than they are today.  In today’s culture of American political correctness, there’s no way an earworm-inspiring jingle such as the Armour Hotdog commercial would ever see the light of day, but back then it helped sell a lot of hot dogs.  Even in the 1960s, Armour’s savvy ad agency undoubtedly understood the influence children had on the family’s food consumption budget.  In addition to catchy jingles designed to appeal to children, Armour’s advertising agency enticed children with prizes to be had for a monetary pittance and a coupon cut out from the back of a package of its hot dogs.  Not even parents were immune from Madison Avenue’s charms.  They were swayed by assurances that hot dogs were actually good for children because they were “made from lean meat” and were “protein rich.”

The 1963 United States census reported the production of 1.11 billion pounds of frankfurters and wieners, constituting thirty percent of all sausages made that year.  Two years later, a study by the US Department of Agriculture revealed that the household per capita consumption of hot dogs averaged nine pounds or about 75 hot dogs per family per year, numbers consistent regardless of socioeconomic status or region.  Interestingly, the world-champion gurgitator in the 1960s established a personal best of 18-1/2 hot dogs and buns in the International Hot Dog Eating Contest held at Nathan’s in Coney Island.  That’s less than a third the number of hotdogs consumed by today’s gurgitator extraordinaire Joey Chessnut.

The order counter at the Urban Hotdog

The 60s were also a time in which, for the most part, hot dogs were rather basic, lacking in imagination and flair.  The most common toppings were mustard (sometimes a deli variety) and relish.  Daring diners might add onions, sauerkraut or chili (not chile), hardly what you might consider gourmet ingredients.  Most hot dogs were prepared in boiling water though grilling was becoming increasingly popular.  Most were made from beef or pork. 

The advent of “gourmet” hot dogs can largely be attributed to the desire of immigrants and their descendants to incorporate their traditional foods and ingredients into a standard hot dog.  A Greek hot dog, for example, might include feta cheese, an olive tapenade and sun-dried tomatoes.  Mexican-style hot dogs might be served in tortillas and slathered with guacamole or (and) salsa.  Asian-style varieties frequently incorporate soy sauce, ginger, onions, teriyaki sauce and more.  Most varieties of gourmet hot dogs develop locally and spread across the region.  The best ones ultimately become national phenomena.

The Crunchy Onion Hotdog and baked beans

In 2007, my good friend Becky Mercuri published The Great American Hotdog Book, a terrific tome which takes readers on a state-by-state tour across America, introducing us to each state’s special take on this American comfort food classic (New Mexico’s contribution, by the way, was the red chile hotdog as prepared at Albuquerque’s Dog House Drive In).  Becky replicated each of the fifty unique ways to prepare hot dogs in her kitchen, finding that though a hot dog may be a source of pride for its state of origin, it doesn’t always export well.

My initial impression of the gourmet hotdogs offered at Albuquerque’s Urban Hotdog Company mirrors Becky’s findings.  Though most of the hotdogs will appeal to some diners, few will have a universal appeal though adventurous eaters will enjoy testing their mettle and taste buds.  As validated in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s “Best of the City” for 2013, Duke City diners love these hot dogs, naming them Albuquerque’s best.     The menu lists more than a dozen “urban dogs” with gourmet toppings heretofore not seen in the Duke City.   If you could go back in time to the 1960s and describe these hotdogs, you’d probably find yourself in a straitjacket.  There’s no way those of us who are products of the 60s could have conceived of such “weirdness.”

Rosemary-Garlic French Fries and Curry Hot Dog

If gourmet isn’t your style, you can also have a more “standard” hotdog, ranging from the “starter” made with your choice of mustard, ketchup, onion and relish to a Chicago Dog, described as it would be in the Windy City: “dragged through the garden.” The menu earns extra props from me by acknowledging its New Mexico adorned hot dog as “Real Chile,” made with white Cheddar cheese, green chile, tomato and onions. Alas, when Urban Hot Dog first launch it committed a grammatical faux pas in that the “Other Chile” hotdog wasn’t spelled “chili” even though the menu describes it as “East coast style chile.”

Each hotdog is made to order in a semi exhibition kitchen though most diners probably won’t stand behind the counter to observe the process.  Instead, most of us take the little three-by-five cards handed to us when we placed our orders and which are inscribed with the name of some city (Dallas, for example) to our table and place it in the card slot atop the napkin holder.  Expect to wait ten to fifteen minutes for your order to be ready.  That’s on top of the time you spend in line as diners ahead of you peruse the menu carefully (and painfully slowly if you’re hungry) before placing their orders.

Top: The Tiger
Bottom: Le Bleu

The Urban Hotdog Company has the look and feel of a sophisticated chain, but it is definitely and proudly local, procuring as many products locally as possible.  The corner space housing the restaurant is bright and airy courtesy of unobstructed sunlight filtering in from the east.  It’s open seating is more utilitarian than it is comfortable.  Large plastic menus are on display next to the counter where you place your order and there are also paper menus available for your perusal.  Your order is taken on an iPad configured with a point of sale software system.    An “expediter” stands watch over the kitchen to make sure all orders are comprehended and delivered accurately.  The self-serve beverage dispenser is in a small room adjacent to the open dining room.

9 October 2012: With my predilection for the “strangest” or most unique items on any restaurant menu, my inaugural visit proved a fun culinary adventure as well as a challenge.  How, after all, do you determine the strangest, most unique item on a menu replete with unique and different items?  The “tamest” of the four hotdogs I split with my Kim was the Crunchy Onion Hotdog crafted with fresh-fried Ancho chile dusted onion strings with the restaurant’s signature chipotle mayo.  Texturally the crunchy onions are a success, but neither the Ancho chile nor the chipotle mayo packed much discernible punch and were overwhelmed by the thick hot dog itself, a salty, garlicky and thick wiener with a lot of flavor.  The buns, made locally by Pastian’s Bakery, are soft and pliable, but substantial enough to hold in the copious ingredients of some hot dog creations.



9 October 2012: The Curry Urban Dog is a vegetarian delight, but it’s not a hotdog.  If you order it as it’s described on the menu, it’s made with marinated tofu grilled and served with green curry vegetables, chopped peanuts and cilantro on a poppy seed bun.  I made the mistake of ordering it hotdog style, effectively rendering the wonderful green curry vegetables anemic because of the overwhelming hotdog.  The green curry, chopped peanuts and cilantro are very much reminiscent of Thai curry dishes without a pronounced coconut milk flavor.  Marinated tofu is actually an excellent vehicle for these ingredients as tofu tends to inherit the flavor properties of ingredients around it. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa for not having ordered the Curry as it’s designed.

9 October 2012: We had hopes the Le Bleu (fried hot dog wrapped in bacon and covered with sauteed mushrooms, blue cheese and thyme) would rekindle memories of the Sonoran hotdogs we enjoyed so much in Tucson.  It didn’t, but this hotdog is a standout on its own.  The sharp, pungent blue cheese is a perfect foil for the garlicky hotdog while the sauteed mushrooms play a deliciously complementary role.  This is the one hotdog in which the wiener itself didn’t dominate the flavor profile.   The Tiger (housemade Asian slaw, spicy dried peas and fresh pea shoots on a poppy seed bun) is more tame than it is wild courtesy of a relatively anemic Asian slaw.  Many Asian slaws utilize ginger, rice wine vinegar and citrus to add tartness and personality.  This Tiger could have used a more Asian-like slaw.


Real Chile

13 December 2013: One of the potential pitfalls of gourmet hot dogs is “too much of a good thing,” as in too many ingredients competing for your attention, especially when some of those ingredients mask the flavors of others.  That may be the case with the Chorizo hot dog (spicy mayo, pineapple & pepper salsa and cilantro) in which the spicy mayo pretty much obfuscated the flavor of the chorizo.  The occasional sneak-in of chopped pineapple is a nice foil to a flavor profile that is primarily piquant. 

13 December 2013: More complimentary are the ingredients on the Real Chile” hot dog (white Cheddar cheese, green chile, tomato, onions and chopped bacon) and that’s not just because green chile makes everything else around it taste better.  The green chile has a pleasant piquancy, more kick than entrees at far too many New Mexican ingredients.  The chopped tomatoes and onions are a natural pairing with the chile, a sort of pico de gallo.  Then there’s the bacon, which like green chile, seems to pair well with everything.

Banh Mi Hot Dog

13 December 2013: The menu calls its sides “the extras,” a term which makes sense.  Extras include five types of French fries (plain and simple; rosemary-garlic; chile con queso; “the other chile,” cheese and onion; and blue cheese, chives and truffle oil).  These fries are of the stiff variety with a crispy exterior sheathing soft, tender “innards.”  They’re definitely not flaccid, nor are they boring.  My Kim’s favorite are those in which blue cheese, chives and truffle oil are featured.  Truffle oil is too strong, musky and earthy, but it also has a bit of a “chemical” flavor…at least in my estimation.  It is, after all, artificially produced.

2 December 2017: Our very favorite of Urban Hot Dog’s offerings is the Banh Mi which, true to its name, is fashioned after the very popular Vietnamese sandwich.  Indeed, it’s constructed from many of the same ingredients used on the sandwich: shredded carrots, daikon radishes, red onion, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño.  These ingredients are so good together, they make the relative minimalist use of meats on banh mi a non-event.  The banh mi is constructed on a poppy seed bun instead of the popular Vietnamese baguette.  Sriracha mayo is the crowning ingredient, imparting heat and moistness.  This is an excellent hot dog!

Chicago Hot Dog

2 December 2017: We didn’t enjoy the Chicago Hot Dog nearly as much chiefly because it wasn’t made with a Vienna Beef hot dog.  Virtually all Windy City area denizens will tell you it’s not a real Chicago hot dog without Vienna Beef and I’m inclined to agree.  Nathan’s hot dogs are just too darn garlicky.  So just what is a Chicago Hot Dog and why is it often referred to as “dragged through the garden?”  Here’s what the Vienna Beef Web site has to say: Vienna Beef hot dog, nestle it in a steamed poppyseed bun, and cover it with a wonderful combination of toppings: yellow mustard, bright green relish, fresh chopped onions, juicy red tomato wedges, a kosher-style pickle spear, a couple of spicy sport peppers and finally, a dash of celery salt.

2 December 2017: The Urban Hot Dog Company constructs several of its hot dogs with ingredients used on namesake sandwiches.  Take, for example, the Havana, an obvious take on the famous Cubano sandwich.  Picture a pork sausage, split, grilled and filled with Swiss cheese then topped with warm, thinly-sliced black forest ham, a dill pickle spear and loaded into a grilled bun.  It’s dressed with a touch of raspberry jam and spicy brown mustard.  We were surprised at how well the unconventional liberties worked together though it’s hard to say whether or not a native Cuban might enjoy it.

The Havana

In the 1960s and in the new millennium, there’s no doubt all kinds of kids love hotdogs.  Most of them will find at least one hotdog to love on the Urban Hotdog Company menu.   Edward Sung did and he wrote about it in his inimitable fashion on one of my very favorite food blogs in New Mexico, Once Again We Have Eaten Well.  It’s a great read!

Urban Hotdog Company
10250 Cottonwood Park NW Suite 400H
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 898-5671
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 December 2017
1st VISIT: 9 October 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Le Bleu, The Crunchy Onion, The Tiger, The Curry, The Real Chile, Banh Mi, Havana, Chicago Hot Dog

Urban Hotdog Company Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pig + Fig Cafe – White Rock, New Mexico

Pig + Fig Bakery & Cafe in White City

In its eighth season, the brilliant sitcom Seinfeld helped introduce casual comic book fans to the concept of Bizarro world, a setting which is weirdly inverted or opposite of expectations. In other words, a Bizarro world is a mirror image of conventionality, logic and reality, everything being reversed. Jerry Seinfeld’s polar opposite Kevin, for example, was depicted as kind, selfless and reliable in contrast to Jerry’s indifference, self-absorption and forgetfulness. Gene was quiet, studious, polite and giving while his Bizarro counterpart George was loud, obnoxious, cheap and slovenly. Some people believe there’s a polar opposite—a Bizarro version—of every one of us.

I met “Bizarro Gil” while stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. While I (all modesty aside) consider myself a bit of a renaissance man, Derwin was atavistic, a throwback to the days of Ralph Kramden when men were short-tempered, disparaging and chauvinistic. He couldn’t understand why I would take my Kim out for dinner so often when there we had a perfectly good stove at home. It galled him that Kim often picked where we’d eat. His retort to that grievous affront was “The last time women decided what to eat, they doomed humanity for eternity,” an obvious reference to Eve being misled by a waiter into ordering the most expensive special at Eden Eatery.

Pig + Fig Dining Room

Bizarro Gil, er…Derwin was especially critical of the spontaneity of our meal choices. My Kim and I didn’t decide what to eat until after discussing our options and preferences…and only after hashing over the travails of our day at work. Derwin, on the other hand, laid out a strict schedule of mostly 1950s diner-style American favorites (meatloaf on Monday, roast beef on Tuesday, pork chops on Wednesday and so on) from which his browbeaten bride was never allowed to deviate. What torqued him off most was the egalitarian nature of my relationship with my Kim. We usually cooked together. “Cooking,” he insisted “is women’s work.” He found the notion ridiculous that many of the world’s greatest chefs are men. “Girly men” he called them…and probably me, when my back was turned.

Obviously Derwin had absolutely no any sense of appreciation for independent-minded, entrepreneurial women who owned restaurants and therefore told girly men what to do. Such a notion was incomprehensible, a sheer travesty. His caveat to “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” is that “the kitchen should be at home in a man’s castle”…and “if a woman did have to work outside the home, it should be as a waitress.” He would have hated Laura Hamilton, owner and chef of Pork + Fig Bakery and Cafe in White Rock and would be incensed to learn that Laura’s enviable culinary credentials dwarf those of many men.

Apple Strudel & Strawberry Lemonade

In forging a distinguished career, Laura blazed a path that took her from Houston to Las Vegas, Miami, Paris and back home to Houston before moving to Los Alamos in 2009. She is a graduate of the world-famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and got her baptism by fire at Houston’s prestigious Brennan’s where after only two years, she ascended to sous chef. At Brennan’s she helped co-author two cookbooks and was on the culinary team that launched Commander’s Palace in Las Vegas. From 2001 through 2009, she earned multiple culinary honors nominations in Houston restaurants.

After moving to Los Alamos, Laura took a three-year hiatus from cooking. In January, 2016, she launched Pig + Fig Bakery and Cafe in White Rock as a venue in which she can showcase gourmet comfort food and fine wine. Within a year, the Los Alamos Daily Post was calling it a “White Rock Institution.” In May, 2017, she added tapas to her restaurant’s menu (alas, they’re available only from 4-8p.m.). Breakfast is served from 7-11a.m. and lunch from 11a.m. to 4p.m. Pig + Fig is closed on Sundays (“a man’s day of rest” according to Bizarro Gil). I first learned of this culinary oasis from my dear Zuzu Petals (from It’s a Wonderful Life, not The Adventures of Ford Fairlane).

Pig + Fig Green Chile Stew

Unlike Chicago’s acclaimed Purple Pig which showcases porcine perfection in all its glory, the Pig + Fig offers an eclectic menu. Its appellation (and the tapas menu) is a tribute to Laura’s Spanish mother and Cuban father. During visits to Spain, she frequented tapas restaurants where she developed a fondness for pork and figs. The charming bakery-café is obviously a popular dining destination for denizens of White Rock, a bedroom community where most residents are transplants from throughout the fruited plain and beyond. The queue to place your order begins when you set foot in the door. Pastries under glass may evoke involuntary salivation, if not sheer lust.

Whether you’ve been hiking at Bandelier or just parched from the salubrious mountain air, the strawberry lemonade will slake your thirst and delight your taste buds. It’s served in a Mason jar with plenty of ice to keep it cold and it’s not too sweet or too tart (Goldilocks would love it). Because it was served at the same time as the lemonade, I made quick work of the apple strudel. My well-intentioned willpower to sample only one bite and save the remainder for dessert went out the window. This strudel is reason enough to consider moving to White Rock. It’s light, flaky and fabulous–the optimum ratio of apples to crust!

Hot Pig & Fig Sandwich with Sea Salt Potato Chips

It’s rare that White Rock is mentioned as a dining destination, much less one that serves excellent chile. Pig + Fig may soon be changing perceptions with its eponymous Pig + Fig green chile stew (Kyzer Farms pork chunks, potato, sweet onions, New Mexico green chile). This chile bites back—not so much that it’ll deaden your taste buds, but enough for you to take notice. The Kyzer Farms pork is an order of magnitude better than the pork you’ll find on most green chile stew. If green chile stew is the Land of Enchantment’s most comforting elixir, this one could be an archetype, an ideal example or theoretically perfect form.

Though the lunch menu features such gourmet fare as chicken tagine, summer gnocchi and pork tagliatelle, don’t discount the sandwiches, salads and quiches. If you do, you’ll miss out on such sumptuousness as the Hot Pig + Fig Sandwich (honey-cured ham, arugula, brie and fig jam in a sourdough bread canvas). This exemplar of sweet meets savory meets peppery is an outstanding sandwich in which so many complementary flavors coalesce that grown men (at least this one) will swoon in delight. Fig jam, brie and honey-cured ham are so good together it’s as if that combination has always existed. The peppery arugula is a nice foil.  So are the housemade sea salt potato chips.

There is so much to see and do in Los Alamos county—and now there’s a fabulous bakery and café to entice visitors from throughout the Land of Enchantment. The Pig + Fig is the real deal! Only Bizarro Gil could utter a disparaging word or ten about this place.

Pig + Fig Bakery & Cafe
35 Rover Blvd Suite G
White Rock, New Mexico
(505) 672-2742
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 September 2017
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hot Pig & Fig Sandwich, Sea Salt Potato Chips, Pig + Fig Green Chile Stew, Apple Strudel

Pig + Fig Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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.


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

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.

Hot Corned Beef on Rye 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.  Even if Rob doesn’t bring the bell back, the service remains great and the service as crazy as ever.


The Oak Tree Combo Sandwich

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 bride as of August, 2016) 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.


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”

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 fiance and a partner in the restaurant.   All the burgers at the restaurant are made from fresh ground beef from Nelson’s Meat Market 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

28 August 2015:  My friend Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, books time with a “personal shopper” at Gucci when she flies into Chicago.  I can one-up her by having my very own personal sandwich advisor every time I visit the Oak Tree.  Not only are reservations not required to book this service, anyone can avail themselves of getting great sandwich advice every time you visit.  All you’ve got to do is ask Janet for a recommendation.  She’ll ask some questions to discern your tastes and desires before recommending your next favorite sandwich at the Oak Tree.  

My Kim is eternally grateful to Janet for recommending the Don Juan (which isn’t named for the legendary libertine, but for John who conceptualized it).   The Don Juan (ham, pepperoni, melted Provolone cheese, Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, red onion, artichokes, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette) is a concordant masterpiece of ingredients which work so very well together.  The Balsamic vinegar and artichokes are a very nice touch, lending a tangy contrast to otherwise savory ingredients.  The baguette is the perfect canvas, lending the properties of chewiness and staff-of-life deliciousness to the meats and cheeses.

The Don Juan

13 November 2015: Most sandwich restaurants tend to have a turkey sandwich and invariably it lives up to its name, turkey being a term used to describe something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful.  The Oak Tree Cafe’s version of a turkey sandwich is the antithesis of every boring turkey sandwich out there, second in my estimation only to the turkey sandwich at the legendary Smokehouse.  The canvas for this terrific turkey is toasted sourdough bread topped with green chile, melted Monterey Jack, homemade guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes.  The turkey breast is moist and delicious, a natural complement to the other ingredients and a perfect foil for the incendiary green chile and rich, buttery guacamole.

13 November 2015: In her terrific tome American Sandwich, my friend Becky Mercuri explains that the origin of the Reuben sandwich is hotly contested with at least three sources claiming to be its progenitor.  None of those sources credit the sandwich as being named for Baroque painting genius Peter Paul Rubens, but an argument could easily be made for his cause.  That’s especially true if you consider his preference for plus- or real-sized women, the genesis for the term Rubenesque meaning plump or voluptuous. Those terms could apply to the sandwich as well, especially its homonym, the Rueben sandwich.  The Oak Tree’s rendition is a triple-decker beauty constructed of housemade lean corned beef (cooked in Guinness which imparts a dark, rich, complex flavor); tart and tangy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing on a beautiful light rye.  It’s one of Albuquerque’s very best!

Triple Decker Reuben

29 December 2016: There are thirteen specialty sandwiches on the menu, but dispense with any notion of triskaidekaphobia (fear or a phobia concerning the number 13) you might have.  That’s because the Oak Tree also offers a daily special which may mean upping the number of specialty sandwiches to fourteen.  Daily specials are listed on the white board you encounter as you wind along the queue path to the counter where you’ll place your order.  Some of the daily specials are so good they’d be the starring attraction at other sandwich shops across the Duke City. One such special is the Turkey Pesto Sandwich (turkey breast on toasted roll topped with basil pesto, melted Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.  Add green chile and you’ve got one of the most invigoratingly flavorful sandwiches in town.  The basil pesto practically pops with its sharp freshness while the green chile lends just a bit of heat.  As we’ve come to expect from Oak Tree, the turkey is plentiful and plenty good, too.

Turkey Pesto Sandwich

10 August 2017: Because you can never have enough chile, the Oak Tree Café recently added battered and fried green chile strips to an already formidable appetizer menu. Lightly battered in a Sierra Blanca ale (brewed in Moriarty), it’s got just enough heat to ramp up your endorphins. Served golden brown and inviting, these green chile strips are served with a ranch dressing, the perfect complement to a savory starter which (wishful thinking here) should replace French fries as a burger accompaniment. My Kim assessed these as the best she’s ever had. Me, too.

Fried Green Chili Strips

10 August 2017: Having judged many a culinary competition, it’s galled me to discover that dishes served during the competition aren’t necessarily the ones a restaurant serves its customers on a daily basis. I’ve experienced this duplicity only a handful of times, but that’s enough to have diminished my respect for the purveyors. Rob and Janet are absolutely committed to serving their loyal customers the very same dishes they might serve persnickety competition judges. That means the green chili (SIC) cheeseburger on their daily menu is the same green chili cheeseburger judges at the New Mexico State Fair competition will sample during the 2017 event. It’s a great burger! How could it not be? The canvas upon which this masterpiece is constructed is a bun flecked with green chile. It’s made locally at Sergio’s Bakery and Café. The fresh ground beef—a whopping half-pound of never frozen deliciousness—comes from Nelson’s and the chile is New Mexico proud with a pleasant piquancy. Unless otherwise requested, burgers are prepared at medium where their juiciness shines. Then there’s a thick slice of Cheddar draped lovingly over the beef patty. Red onion, crisp lettuce and ripe tomatoes somehow manage to fit in between the buns, too. It takes two hands to handle this beauteous behemoth, a green chili cheeseburger you’ll love.

New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger

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.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2017
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
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, The Don Juan, The Pauley, Triple Decker Reuben, Turkey Pesto, New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger

Oak Tree Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rolls & Bowls – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Rolls & Bowls Vietnamese Deli and Boba Coffee

The banh mi sandwich is really the only good argument for colonialism.”
~Calvin Trillin

By most historical standards, the banh mi is a rather new entrant in the world culinary stage. Its evolution into the revered sandwich we know and love today began in 1859 with the French arrival in Saigon. Along with military occupation, the French brought their c’est delicieux cuisine to Southeast Asia…although to be clear, the colonial rulers never had the benevolent intent of introducing the Vietnamese to their more “refined” cuisine. The French, in fact, initially forbade their subjects from partaking of such stables as bread and meat, believing the Vietnamese diet of fish and rice kept them weak. In time, wealthy Vietnamese who embraced French rule were allowed to purchase sandwiches from expensive bakeries which constructed them on French baguettes (which were too pricey for the poverty classes).

One of the culinary traditions the French brought to Vietnam was casse-croute, a term which translates literally to “break or crush the crust,” but which more often translates to “snack.” Among the most popular snacks was a traditional French baguette which the “upper crust” served with a plate of cold cuts, pate, ham, cheese and butter. Is this starting to sound familiar? This obviously was the deconstructed precursor of the modern banh mi. The term “banh mi,” by the way, actually translates to “bread,” but is understood to refer specifically to the Vietnamese baguette and more often, the sandwiches constructed on those baguettes.

The counter where you place your order

After the French were ousted from Vietnam in 1954, baguettes and cold cuts became increasingly available to the Vietnamese people. It didn’t take long before a tiny family-owned snack bar known as Hoa Ma constructed the first truly Vietnamese sandwich–the banh mi which became the progenitor of the beloved banh mi of today. Hoa Ma’s version of the banh mi included traditional ingredients, condiments, sauces and garnishes the Vietnamese people considered their own. It didn’t take long before street vendors popularized the banh mi as a staple food for the masses.

When Saigon fell to the Communist North Vietnamese Army in 1975, a unified Vietnam entered a period of austerity and hardship. It fell upon those who fled Vietnam’s shores to carry forward to their new homes in America, Europe and Australia, the propagation of such Vietnamese delights as the banh mi and its culinary cousin, pho. Initially some of the expatriates established bakeries and delis which catered to their communities, but when the local populace discovered the incomparable deliciousness of Vietnamese cuisine, its popularity soared. Today there are hundreds of restaurants, bakeries, delis and cafes offering banh mi…and for that, Calvin Trillin’s statement makes good sense.

Raspberry Boba Tea and Vietnamese Coffee

We’ve been loving banh mi in Albuquerque since at least 1995 when they were called “Vietnamese Sandwiches” by the few Vietnamese restaurants (May Hong among them) which served them. That’s sixteen years before banh mi made it to the Oxford English dictionary. Albuquerque’s very first Vietnamese bakery whose primary focus was banh mi was Banh Mi Coda which opened in 2010 after a short stint as Lee’s Bakery. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named the banh mi at Banh Mi Coda as “one of the city’s “12 yummiest sandwiches.” In early 2013, the Duke City saw the launch of its second banh mi shop when Sai Gon Sandwich opened in Franklin Plaza, a timeworn shopping center made infamous on Better Call Saul. Ten different banh mi adorn the menu at this combination bakery, deli and tofu house.

In November, 2016, SweeTea Bakery Café opened its doors in the Montgomery Plaza shopping center, gracing the Duke City with yet another very impressive array of delicious banh mi as well as some of the best pastries this side of Paris. Not quite a year later, Rolls & Bowls became the fourth Vietnamese bakery-restaurant specializing in banh mi to launch in Albuquerque. One commonality among the quadrumvirate of banh mi purveyors is some of the city’s very best sandwiches prepared and served by very talented and dedicated owners all committed to proving (to paraphrase the Beatles) you can banh mi love (how’s that for a pithy covfefe?).

Egg Rolls

Located in the timeworn shopping center that also serves as home to Basil Leaf (next door) and La Salita, Rolls & Bowls proves once again that a small space doesn’t belie huge flavors.  A handful of booths hug one wall then there’s the counter at which you place your order.  That’s the extent of this Lilliputian lair.  The face of Rolls & Bowls is the lovely Ai (or the American name Tina if you prefer) who’s lived in the Duke City for nearly a quarter-century though she barely looks much older than that.  Ai is as friendly and engaging as any restaurateur in town.  Her husband prepares the baked goods and the restaurant’s featured fare.

The menu at Rolls & Bowls is rather ambitious considering its diminutive digs though as previously declared, if restaurants were measured solely by their deliciousness, it would be one of the city’s most capacious restaurants.  The menu’s tag line reads “Asian fusion comfort food freshly made for you!”  Those comfort foods include rolls (obviously), a number of egg rolls and spring rolls and bowls (of course) of rice served with your choice of chicken, grilled pork char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) and tofu loaf.  Noodle dishes also grace the menu as do bowls of salad and assorted breads, pastries and snacks.  Then there’s the banh mi, a phalanx of superb sandwiches.  To wash it all down, Rolls & Bowls offers boba flavored teas in several flavors as well as an outstanding Vietnamese espresso.

Meatball Banh Mi

Vietnamese egg rolls tend to be thinner and lighter than their Chinese and American counterparts.  Thinner, too, are the wrappers which are tightly packed with ground pork and vegetables (cabbage, dried mushrooms, carrots, and jicama) cut so small and thin that they’re difficult to distinguish by sight alone.  It’s only in the tasting that a determination as to their deliciousness can be discerned.  Rolls & Bowls prepares excellent egg rolls, as good as you’ll find at any Vietnamese restaurant in town.  Accompanied by a tart-tangy fish sauce, they’re a terrific way to start a meal.

The canvas for the banh mi are whole baguettes baked in-house and dressed with a type of aioli spread infused with fish sauce. About ten-inches in length, the baguettes become a repository for a wide variety of fillings: your choice of grilled pork, char siu, meatballs, sardines, ham, chicken, fried eggs and vegetables. A common denominator on all banh mi is a bright, crunchy “slaw” constructed from shredded carrots, daikon radish, fresh cilantro and sliced jalapeños. Freshness and flavor are a hallmark of all banh mi as is value. Unlike so many American sandwiches, the price point of most banh mi remains less than six dollars.

Grilled Pork Banh Mi

Rolls & Bowls meatball banh mi ranks with its brethren from SweeTea as my favorite Vietnamese sandwich in the Duke City.  There’s just something magical about the moist pork meatballs interplaying with the crunchy slaw that appeals to my taste buds.  As with all banh mi, the secret to this sandwich is the balance between meatballs, slaw and sauce.  Banh mi are not intended to be behemoth “Dagwood” sandwiches crammed with meats and cheeses.  You can actually taste, discern and appreciate every single component of every banh mi.

Perhaps the most popular banh mi across the fruited plain is the one constructed with grilled pork.  Yes, this is the same grilled pork that’s magically marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  The grilling infuses the flavors of those spices deeply into the pork while imparting the unmistakable essence of meats prepared on a grill.  The grilled pork banh mi is the favorite of my Kim–to the point that all she ever lets me have is one bite of her sandwich.

Vietnamese Steamed Pork Buns

Vietnamese steamed pork buns are, much like their Chinese counterparts, a type of dumpling made with leavened dough and rolled out into round shapes then stuffed and steamed.  Rolls & Bowls shapes their steamed pork into pig faces, a precursor to the delicious pork sausages with which the buns are stuffed.  The exterior of these steamed pork buns is cakey and dense indicative of being steamed for an optimum time (when not steamed long enough, the interior can taste undercooked and doughy).  The interior is stuffed with sausage and hard-boiled egg tinged with a sweet barbecue-like sauce.  These are addictive.

Rolls & Bowls–the name slides off your tongue like a rhapsodic melody and indeed, the flavors conjured in the kitchen are carefully orchestrated to give diners maximum enjoyment.  Rolls & Bowls is a wonderful addition to the Duke City’s increasing repertoire of banh mi restaurants.

Rolls & Bowls
1301 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 990-0480
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2017
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Raspberry Boba Tea, Vietnamese Espresso, Egg Rolls, Vietnamese Bun, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Meatball Banh Mi, Ham Banh Mi

Rolls & Bowls Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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