K’Lynn’s Cuisine – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho

The tethered banner in front of K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho lists a few of the delicious treasures available in the tiny restaurant: “catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!”  Yeah, we did a double-take, too.  One of those items just seemed a bit out-of-place?  If you’re thinking “carne adovada fries” don’t belong on the list because they’re not Soul food, you’d be wrong.  Carne adovada fries definitely belong on the list.  So does jerk chicken which, by most conventional definitions, isn’t soul food either.  The one item we thought to be out-of-place was “& more.” 

I mean what more could you possibly want listed on the banner.  If it didn’t have you at “catfish” you probably haven’t had catfish down South…and if it didn’t seal the deal with “gumbo,” you definitely need an infusion of South in your mouth.  Beyond catfish and gumbo, the rest is gravy and it’s absolutely delicious.  Until the summer of 2016, restaurant-goers craving Southern cuisine had only one option for soul food, albeit a wonderful option in Bucket Headz.  For those of us on the “west side,” the  trek to the International District for Malaika’s fabulous cooking is a long (though well worth it) trip.  With the launch of K’Lynn’s Cuisine, we now have a second option to succor our souls.

K’Lynn’s Tiny and Cozy Dining Room

Residents of the City of Vision may be asking themselves where this new denizen of deliciousness is situated.  Most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment’s third most populous city, after all, are clustered on three main arteries: Rio Rancho, Southern and Unser.  K’Lynn’s occupies a Lilliputian space on the northeast side of the Rio Rancho Marketplace, a retail shopping center whose anchor tenants include Target and Albertson’s.  Even if you take Ridgecrest west-bound, it’s not easy to spot.  Trust me.  It’s there and it’s worth a detour from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine is the restaurant arm of K’Lynn’s Cuisine & Catering, an enterprise owned and operated by Karen Johnson-Bey, aka K’Lynn.  A self-taught chef, K’Lynn launched her restaurant on July 7th, formerly focusing solely on catering.  It’s no longer Rio Rancho’s best kept secret.  Word is getting out about the tiny place where you can enjoy food for your soul–a mix of soul, Cajun and Caribbean cuisine.  Her culinary repertoire is even more expansive, catering “all types of cuisines from American, New Mexican, Italian and more.”  There’s that “and more” term again.

Gumbo and Cornbread

You probably won’t peruse K’Lynn’s menu too thoroughly.  That’s because the day’s specials, scrawled on a white board on the counter, are so value-priced and tempting.  Listing only a handful of items, the specials list may include such mouth-watering items as crab cakes, oxtail and barbecue ribs.  The menu itself befits the small restaurant.  You might not get any further than the baskets: catfish (one, two or four pieces), fried shrimp or fried crawfish served with your choice of fries or coleslaw, but if you do you’ll run into three entrees: gumbo, jambalaya and jerk chicken.  Hungry diners can opt for platters which are served with your choice of three sides or you can have a two- or three-item combo.  Either way, you won’t leave hungry…and we haven’t even gotten to the appetizers which include such sumptuous starters as popcorn shrimp and the aforementioned carne adovada fries.  Page two of the menu, if you somehow manage to get there, also lists several po’ boy and salad options.

Gumbo is an archetypal Cajun offering and almost inarguably the most popular dish ever conceived in Louisiana (as emblematic of the Bayou State as chile is to New Mexico).  It’s a veritable melting pot dish, transcending all class and income barriers.  With a fragrant bouquet that precedes it, a steaming bowl of good gumbo is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures.  K’Lynn’s offers two options for its gumbo: Andouille sausage and chicken or shrimp. We can’t speak for the version made with shrimp, but the version made with Andouille sausage and chicken is “close your eyes and let the aroma and flavors wash over you” satisfying.  It goes without saying that it pairs best with cornbread, some to sop up that great gumbo and some cornbread with lots of butter.

Catfish, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

One of the Southern traditions we quickly embraced upon moving to Mississippi was a family-style meal of catfish and fried chicken after church every Sunday.  For umpteen consecutive Sundays we visited Aunt Jenny’s in Ocean Springs for a bounteous repast.  Aunt Jenny’s set the bar for catfish rather high and only a handful of restaurants (such as the aforementioned Bucket Headz) in the Land of Enchantment are even in the same zip code as that bar.  Though K’Lynn’s source for catfish isn’t the murky ponds of Mississippi, Californian catfish is still very good.  Sheathed in a golden-hued, lightly seasoned batter, the catfish is light and delicate with a deliciousness that defines any notions you may have about the bottom-dwelling fish.  Catfish goes especially well with mac and cheese and fried green beans, both of which are quite delicious.

While you’re more likely to find restaurants pairing fried chicken with catfish than you are restaurants pairing catfish with jerk chicken, the latter combination goes very well together.   Infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call, the chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning.  If you prefer your jerk chicken to render you a coughing, sputtering, watery-eyed frump, K’Lynn’s version won’t do that for you, but you will enjoy it.

Jerk Chicken, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

In his terrific tome Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time culinary historian Adrian Miller  declared red Kool-Aid to be the official soul food drink.  That’s a pretty audacious claim for which he puts up a good argument.  In the South, Kool-Aid tends to be made with almost as many scoops of sugar as there are granules of Kool-Aid.  That’s why we prefer K’Lynn’s grape Kool-Aid and ginger ale.  Not only is it not cloying, it’s got a nice  effervescence and it makes you feel as if you’re getting away with something.

While the Land of Enchantment is second only to Georgia in the annual production of pecans, Southerners would argue that only in the South can pecan pie be made the right way.  The “right way” means an almost sickeningly sweet pie, palatable only to diners with a seriously sweet tooth.   In the South most pecan pies are made using dark Karo syrup which has a more pronounced and sweeter flavor courtesy of the addition of molasses.  K’Lynn’s version is made with the not-quite-as-sweet blonde Karo syrup and it’s topped with a smooth bourbon sauce redolent with the unique bouquet of the oak casks in which it is distilled.  Whole pecans and a flaky crust offset the cloying elements.   While some Southerners might complain it’s not sweet enough, most diners will enjoy it very much.

Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

Visionaries (isn’t that what residents of the City of Vision are called) have started to discover K’Lynn’s Cuisine, but it shouldn’t take long for savvy diners from throughout the metropolitan area to find out for themselves that food for your soul is good for everyone.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine
4300 Ridgecrest Drive, Suite O
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 453-3068
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Cornbread, Catfish, Mac and Cheese, Fried Green Beans, Jerk Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, Grape Kool Aid, Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

K'Lynn's Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nexus Brewery – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nexus Brewery on Albuquerque’s Pan American Highway East

Set in Albuquerque, Breaking Bad, AMC’s critically acclaimed television series may leave viewers with the impression that the Duke City is a haven for meth cookery and fried chicken joints.  Had the fair city been more accurately typecast, it might have been portrayed as a mecca for microbreweries.  The Albuquerque Beer Scene blog says it best: “It’s like Portland, but with sun,”  a comparison which shows just how much the city’s microbrewery and brewpub scene has grown–and not just in terms of sheer numbers.  Duke City breweries have accorded themselves so well at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup that the city may soon be re-christened “Albeerquerque.”

Should the New Mexico Tourism Department ever decide to introduce a New Mexico Beer Trail, the Duke City would be its epicenter both geographically and in terms of quantity.  The Land of Enchantment now boasts of nearly thirty independent microbreweries, brewpubs, brew houses and taprooms with the largest concentration in its most populous city.  In fact, the Duke City could be the hub of a Beer Trail with spokes traversing to just about ever corner of the state because high-quality craft beer can now be found throughout the Land of Enchantment.

The interior of Nexus Brewery

The success of New Mexico’s craft brewing industry mirrors a nation-wide trend.  Nearly 1,800 craft breweries operated across the fruited plain in 2010 with an estimated 9,951,956 barrels (each barrel containing 31 gallons) of beer sold in 2010 accounting for sales of $7.6 billion, up from 8,934,446 barrels and $7 billion the previous year.  While craft beers continue to grow in popularity, overall beer sales actually declined by nearly one percent during the same 2009-2010 period.  That growth can probably be attributed to the local touch provided by brewers with ties to the community. Duke City residents, it seems, would rather quaff a pint or three of locally brewed beer than a six pack of the beer that made Milwaukee famous.

Over the years the culinary bill of fare at many of our state’s breweries has upscaled from salty snacks designed to make patrons thirsty to a repertoire of substantial sandwiches and bounteous burgers.  More recently, however, menus at several breweries and brew pubs have made significant inroads, some moving into the arena of the gastropub, a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-quality, often high-end food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to describe food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub.”  It may, in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.

Pico de gallo with chips

While many brewpubs don’t call themselves gastropubs, it’s obvious food isn’t an after-thought or a Miss Congeniality and diners don’t have to be four sheets to the wind to enjoy it.  These breweries and brewpubs understand something vinters have known for a long time–that pairing their product with the right foods can emphasize its inherently complex, interesting and delicious flavors.  Some of the Duke City’s breweries and brewpubs have emerged as dining destinations in their own right.  They remain at heart and first of all, purveyors of high-quality craft beers, but they don’t necessarily take a back seat to anyone when it comes to food.

One such destination is the Nexus Brewery which opened in June, 2011 on Pan American Freeway East.  It doesn’t have the brewpub-restaurant storefront look and feel of some Duke City breweries and is in fact, situated on a largely industrial complex off Interstate 25 just north of Montgomery.  Don’t look for it on the “restaurant row” side of the freeway as we first did.  It’s on the side of the freeway headed north toward Santa Fe.  Keep your eyes open because the signage doesn’t shout out at you as signage at some brewpubs tends to do–and even when you drive up directly in front of it, the only telltale sign is a small logo that resembles a brand you’d normally see on cowhide.

Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles with real butter and syrup

The Nexus Brewery is the brainchild of Ken Carson, a former banker who once served as the state’s banking commissioner.   A hobbyist home brewer, Carson decided to take it to the next level after fifteen years of perfecting his home beer brew.  He chose the name Nexus because it reflects his desire to create a sense of community–and as a tribute to Star Trek The Next Generation where in “the Nexus,” circumstances are whatever you want them to be.  For Duke City diners lamenting the absence of non-chain Cajun food and a truly great fried chicken, the circumstances are exactly as we want them at Nexus where both are offered along with what Carson terms “New Mexican soul food.” 

New Mexican soul food is a combination of Southern and Cajun entrees honoring the Carson family’s Southern roots and New Mexican favorites befitting their current home.  Nexus may have the only menu in which red chile nachos share space on the appetizer menu with fried pickles and signature dishes include both home style open faced enchiladas and Southern fried chicken and waffles.  Everything is made fresh in the brewery’s kitchen.  The Southern fried chicken, in fact, takes 25 minutes to prepare because it’s made to order so it arrives at your table steaming hot.

Southern Fried Fish and beer battered fries – 2 generous Swai fillets with fries

You’ll have a selection of seven New Mexican and Southern inspired appetizers to whet your appetite as you wait for your entrees.  If you order the fried chicken, you’ll want a starter that will last more than a few bites.  The homemade corn tortilla chips and fresh pico de gallo fit the bill.  This “rooster’s beak” is made from finely chopped tomatoes, white onions and jalapeños, but doesn’t have much of a bite if piquancy is what you’re after.  It’s still fresh and lively, coupling well with crispy chips which are low in salt.

Perhaps the most popular Southern-soul food combination across the fruited plain is the marriage of crispy, Southern-style fried chicken with waffles draped in maple syrup and butter.  At Nexus, a single golden, orb-shaped waffle sliced into four pieces, has just a slight crunch that belies a silken texture.  Alas the syrup is served cool and has a cooling effect on the waffles.  Thankfully the wait staff will gladly nuke them for you, but better would be warm syrup.   The combination of sweet, syrupy waffles and savory fried chicken makes for an excellent meal, better than an entree and dessert pairing.  In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Nexus Brewery a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its chicken and waffles as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

Collard Greens – leafy collard greens slow-simmered, smoked turkey and a touch of spiciness

That’s especially true because Nexus’s fried chicken may be the very best fried chicken in the Duke City (although Johnny’s Homemade Takeout and Delivery would have had something to say about that had it not closed).  “There’s not much competition,” you say.  The truth is there are a number of restaurants (and not just the fried chicken joints showcased on Breaking Bad) who serve good to very good fried chicken.  The fried chicken (at least the breasts) is boneless and lightly breaded.  With a “have it your way” approach, you can order two or three pieces of chicken and select from among breasts, thigh or legs in any combination you desire.  Any way you have it, the fried chicken is superb! 

For the first four months of our eight year residency in Mississippi, our weekly after church Sunday lunch was at at Aunt Jenny’s, a circa 1852 home on the bayou which specialized in all-you-can-eat pond-raised catfish, shrimp and chicken served family style. Since leaving the Deep South, we’ve lamented the dearth of good catfish in New Mexico.  We saw it as almost heretical when we read the Nexus claim that its Swai, a fresh water farm raised fish, tastes better than catfish.  Swai fillets, two of them, are featured fare on the Southern fried fish and beer battered fries entree. 

New Orleans’s Style Gumbo – with chicken and andouille sausage

It may mean renouncing my honorary Southern Gentleman status, but I believe Nexus’ claim may be accurate.  These lightly battered fish are more moist than catfish, making them a more willing recipient of malt vinegar (a preferential hold-over from our years in England).  So, not only is this fish dish better than just about any we had in Mississippi, it may also have given us the best “fish and chips” dish we’ve had since leaving “Old Blighty.”  The beer-battered fries are excellent, too. 

Optional sides include collard greens, leafy cruciferous greens slow-simmered with smoked turkey.  Renown for their cholesterol-lowering ability as well as their leaf-like texture and a flavor that makes spinach seem tame in comparison, greens are an acquired taste.  We enjoyed them immensely during our years in the Deep South and were reminded of those with each bite of Nexus’ version. 

Cracklin (Chicharrones) Cornbread

Dining at Nexus is perhaps as close as you’ll find in Albuquerque’s to dining in the deep south.  A surprisingly Southern menu includes New Orleans-style gumbo with andouille sausage and chicken.  As John Lucas astutely points out in the comments below, proteins are parsimonious (paltry poultry and absent andouille), but flavor is not.  Its thick, hearty roux has a smoky bouquet and a nice spice kick (moreso than the piquancy of some New Mexico green chile). The thick, dark roux is complemented with plenty of okra as well as the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking: onions, celery and bell pepper.

Though the gumbo isn’t accompanied with French bread,  you can do one better by ordering Nexus unique rendition of New Mexico inspire cracklin cornbread.  Cracklin cornbread is a Southern tradition, usually made with all pieces of crispy rendered pork fat and skin.  Paula Deen, the queen of butter, even has a version in which jalapeños are used.  At Nexus, the cracklins are chicharrones and instead of jalapeños, green chile is used.  The muffin-shaped cornbread is crumbly yet moist, perfect for for crumbling into the gumbo.  A basket of four is the way to go here.

Bread pudding

For dessert, the staff favorite is Nexus biscuit bread pudding a la mode.  Howard Paige, author of “Aspects of African-American Foodways” explains that biscuit bread pudding originated when African Americans could only afford homemade biscuits instead of the white bread the more affluent enjoyed.  When the biscuits went stale, inventive cooks turned them into a wonderful bread pudding dessert.  Nexus doesn’t use stale biscuits, but it does use a biscuit mix to create dense, but moist bread pudding which is topped with a Scottish dark ale glaze.  It’s served warm and is best with vanilla ice cream. 

In its annual Food and Wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff sampled “every dish of nachos in the city” and selected Nexus Brewery’s nachos as the fourth best in the city.  The magazine raved that “the chefs here don’t hold back when topping your nachos” with “tons of meat (including seasoned ground beef)” and a “plethora of protein.”

My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, is as fond of Nexus’s libations as he is the cuisine.  Whether you visit for the craft brews or the terrific New Mexico Soul Food, you’ll find something to like at this very welcome member of the fraternity of award-winning breweries.

Nexus Brewery
4730 Pan American Freeway East, N.E., Suite D
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 242-4100
Web Site
LATEST VISIT:  2 December 2012
1st VISIT:  4 February 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fried Chicken and Waffles, Southern Fried Fish and Beer Battered Fries, Collared Greens, Pico de Gallo, Cracklin Cornbread, New Orleans Style Gumbo, Bread Pudding

Nexus Brewery on Urbanspoon

The Cajun Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Albuquerque's Cajun Kitchen

Albuquerque's Cajun Kitchen

Note:  After 24 years of serving Albuquerque in two locations, the Cajun Kitchen closed its doors on Friday, March 11, 2011.  On a notice in the menu, the Hebert family wrote, “It has been a privilege serving the Albuquerque community and have been equally blessed by the support of those who have graced our tables making the restaurant the institution it has become.”

When we moved back to Albuquerque in 1995 after eight years of living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we begrudgingly accepted the fact that in New Mexico, we would never experience the type and quality of  Cajun and Creole cuisine with which we had fallen head-over-heels in love.  Our taste buds, we thought, would be deprived of  the very lively, very colorful and very varied rustic cuisine characterized by the use of the “holy trinity” (bell pepper, onion and celery), just-off-the-boat seafood, spicy sausage and perfectly prepared rice.  Where, we wondered would we receive our meals with the “laissez bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll) attitude so prevalent in the Deep South?

Obviously we didn’t know about the Cajun Kitchen, where Duke City diners have been getting their Cajun and Creole cooking fix for nearly a quarter of a century.  In that time, several usurpers–including chains–have come and gone.  The Cajun Kitchen is the real deal, an unpretentious and authentic, straight-forward purveyor of Cajun and Creole cuisine as well made as it can probably be done in Albuquerque, especially considering the distance to the Gulf and to seaside suppliers.  This should not be interpreted in any way that the Cajun Kitchen is some sort of “consolation prize.”  It is a very good restaurant with a loyal following that includes many other Gulf Coast transplants who recognize and love its food.

Hungry alligator headed toward Cajun Kitchen

The Cajun Kitchen is 1,162 miles from New Orleans, 1,082 miles from Baton Rouge and 918 miles from Natchitoches.  How do I know this?  Similar to the iconic signpost from the television series MASH, the walls on the kitchen at Albuquerque’s  Cajun Kitchen are adorned with signs indicating the distance to those three Louisiana bastions of Cajun and Creole cuisine.  Greatness of distance to Cajun country does not  mean greatness of distance to good Cajun food in Albuquerque.

The Cajun Kitchen is festooned in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). One wall is bespangled with expressions of “Fat Tuesday” celebrations: multi-colored beads and bangles, Mardi Gras masks and more.  Some of the green comes in the form of a large mural depicting a bayou swamp replete with a large alligator and other fauna and flora indigenous to the bog.  The gator’s mouth is open wide, a mere foot or so away from the open kitchen.

One wall has a Mardi Gras theme

Yet another wall (pictured below) lists the lexicon of Louisiana–po-boys, French Market, krew, Hebert (the family name of the restaurant’s owners) and more along with pronunciations for some of the words not widely spoken outside of the deep south. Immediately above this dictionary are some of the trappings of the Mississippi Gulf Coast fisherman, the life’s blood of Cajun and Creole cuisine. A painting of Louisiana manor named Lemeuse takes up much of the easternmost wall.

While all the symbolism is reflective of the Cajun culture and life in Louisiana, nothing shouts Cajun louder than the restaurant’s food.  It’s the food that tugs most at our heart strings.  It’s the food that brings us back.  The Cajun Kitchen’s menu is hardly a compendium of all the great foods showcased on the menus in the great restaurants of New Orleans.  Instead, it focuses on a select few familiar offerings, those entrees that even those barely conversant in Cajun would recognize.

Cajun lexicon

Most would recognize gumbo–if not the dish, certainly the word which is actually a corruption of the African name for okra.  Okra is only one of the vegetables on traditional gumbo where it shares the stage with the aforementioned holy trinity of vegetables (celery, bell peppers and onion).  The strength of the Cajun Kitchen’s gumbo is its roux, a thickening agent made from flour and fat (perhaps clarified butter).  Gumbo options include seafood (fish, shrimp and scallops) and crawfish, both of which are quite good. This is a flavorful, full-bodied soup!

Cajun Kitchen starters include seasoned Cajun fries which are much better than the flaccid fries most restaurants serve–so good, in fact, they’re starting to catch on in other restaurants.  As good as the crispy seasoned fries  (coated in Cajun seasonings) are, most diners will start off with a crawfish basket, an oyster basket or a shrimp basket, all three of which feature fried, delicately breaded seafood.  The popcorn crawfish tend to be the most fresh, with the surprising sweetness crawfish tend to have.  All are served with traditional cocktail sauce, but are better with the “po’boy sauce,” a sweet, tangy orange marmalade sauce that contrasts nicely with the briny seafood taste. It goes without saying that the well-dressed oyster po’boy should have plenty of that po’boy sauce.

Seafood Gumbo

Better yet, if fried seafood is what you crave, order the large combo platter and you’ll be treated to a fisherman’s fried dream: Louisiana style oysters, crawfish tail meat, catfish, and shrimp. Because these treasures of the sea are lightly battered, it’s their native flavors  that will captivate you, not some thick coating which masks those flavors.  In all honesty, it’s with the fried seafood where you can most tell you’re not on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where it’s not uncommon to partake of freshly caught, just-off-the-boat seafood treasures.  Oysters, in particular, are best when that fresh and when you’ve had these pearlescent gems just plucked out of the water, you’ll notice the difference.  From among the large combo platter, the catfish stands out.  In Mississippi, we lived in the catfish capital of the world and will attest to Cajun Kitchen’s preparation of catfish being some of the best we’ve had anywhere–and certainly the best we’ve had in New Mexico…by far.

The fried seafood entrees are served with your choice of red beans and rice or seasoned fries. The red beans and rice, with or without sausage (and it would be a sin not to have the sausage), are in a class of their own in the Duke City.  This Louisiana Creole dish, traditionally served on Mondays is good seven days a week (although the Cajun Kitchen is only open Monday through Friday).  Red beans and rice get their kick from cayenne pepper, but their flavor from the holy trinity as well as  smoky Andouille sausage.  By the way, at the Cajun Kitchen, all the wait staff can pronounce Andouille correctly which is always a good sign.

Chicken Sauce Piquant: two fried chicken breasts in a very hot and spicy sauce made with jalapeños and cayenne peppers simmered in a tomato roux

It’s because we love the fried catfish so much that the entree I’ve had most often is catfish smothered in crawfish etouffee, an absolutely stunning dish brimming in the rich, flavorful spices that make Cajun cooking so popular. The basis for the Cajun Kitchen’s etouffee, a French word for “smother” is a thick, well-seasoned tomato sauce served over perfectly prepared white rice. The sauce wholly dissimilar to the tomato sauces used in Italian cooking. It’s redolent with the fragrance of the holy trinity and the olfactory-arousing seasonings so prevalent in Cajun cooking.

Another saucy and spicy offering New Mexicans will appreciate is the restaurant’s chicken sauce piquant, two fried chicken breasts in a very hot and spicy sauce made with jalapeños and cayenne peppers simmered in a tomato roux.  Hot and spicy Cajun style isn’t synonymous with hot and spicy New Mexico style.  Anyone who’s had Tabasco sauce can attest to the zesty heat the capsaicin-rich cayenne can generate, but it wouldn’t, for example, be very good on enchiladas.  What cayenne does is invigorate acidic-based sauces such as the tomato roux used on this dish.  The fried chicken is terrific, as good as any fried chicken in town.  It’s lightly breaded, moist and delicious.

Catfish filets topped with crawfish etouffe

On the “Personal Favorites!” section of the menu is a delightful surprise for diners who like flavor combinations.  It’s blackened salmon chipotle, salmon lightly glazed with raspberry chipotle and served on a bed of herbed rice and red beans and sausage.  On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, blackened entrees are de rigueur, but not many restaurants blacken salmon.  Give the Cajun Kitchen an “A” for originality and high marks for execution, too.  This entree is surprisingly good with a flavor profile that includes piquant, savory, sweet, smoky and tangy combinations.

A highlight of any meal at the Cajun Kitchen is the buttery, toasted French bread.  It’s accompaniment for most of the non-sandwich options, but so good you might want a slice or two even with a po boy, so good it doesn’t need butter or any topping.  This stellar bread is wonderful for dredging up any of the wonderful sauces and roux.  The only problem with this bread is that you’ll have a few slices too many and might not finish some of the other Cajun delights.

Oyster Po Boy with seasoned fries

Among the Cajun specialties no self-respecting Cajun restaurant would be without are po boys.  While some essayists will tell you a po boy is essentially synonymous with other sandwich types–submarines, heroes, grinders and others, Louisiana natives will argue that the po boy is different, that it’s better.  One of the things that distinguishes the po boy from other sub-type sandwiches is the French bread, baked into two-foot-long “sticks” then sliced into “half” (a six-inch sandwich called a “Shorty”) and “full” at a full foot long.  Po boy are served “dressed” with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise with pickles and onions optional. Traditional po boys are served hot.  That’s the way the Cajun Kitchen makes them.  The po boy menu includes catfish, crawfish, shrimp, oyster, a shrimp-oyster combination, blackened catfish and chicken.  Po boys are served with red beans and rice or seasoned fries.

Though portions tend to be very generous, diners should never leave the Cajun Kitchen without finishing their meal with Lynn Hebert’s famous bread pudding, a version my friend Larry McGoldrick,  New Mexico’s preeminent expert on bread pudding rates among New Mexico’s best.  His assessment of the Cajun Kitchen’s bread pudding: “smooth, velvety texture, and the taste is enhanced by a light honey-based syrup and a slight cinnamon taste.  Pretty delicate dessert.”  The only thing I’ll add is that this bread pudding isn’t cloying as some syrup-enhanced bread puddings tend to be.

Lynn Hebert's famous Bread Pudding, one of Albuquerque's very best

Cajun Kitchen has been our respite when missing the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a terrific reminder of that there is laissez bon temps rouler in New Mexico.

The Cajun Kitchen
5505 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 3 March 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fried Crawfish, Fisherman’s Platter, Crawfish Bisque, Garlic Bread, Crawfish Etouffee, Chicken Sauce Piquant, Beans and Rice, Oyster Po Boy, Seafood Gumbo, Bread Pudding

Cajun Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Mardi Gras Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mardi Gras on the southwest intersection of Broadway and Avenida Caesar Chavez

Mardi Gras on the southwest intersection of Broadway and Avenida Caesar Chavez

Over the centuries, Mardi Gras has evolved in America from a sedate French Catholic tradition to a hedonist’s holiday in which revelers indulge–and overindulge–the day before Ash Wednesday.  Every year Mardi Gras celebrations lure millions of rollickers and revelers to New Orleans where Mardi Gras is celebrated in grand scale.  Extravagant parades, masked balls, raucous convivality and copious consumption are hallmarks of the Crescent City event where shouts of “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the good times roll) resound from rooftops and alleyways.

Laissez les bon temps rouler is also now the resounding sentiment from Albuquerque’s South Valley where in February, 2009, a new Cajun restaurant opened for business.  Now Duke City diners can celebrate “Fat Tuesday” five days a week instead of once a year.  Appropriately, Albuquerque’s newest Cajun eating emporium is named the Mardi Gras Grill.

Situated on the southeast intersection of Avenida Caesar Chavez and Broadway, the Mardi Gras Grill is an example of a neighborhood revitalization and community development program that is working.  The South Broadway neighborhood was once among the city’s most undesirable with substance abuse and gang violence a thriving part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

Laissez Bon Temps Roulette

Laissez Bon Temps Roulette

Proprietor Josh Salaz is proud of his neighborhood and invites all Duke City residents, but in particular Cajun country transplants, to visit his New Orleans inspired restaurant.  Josh’s father is originally from Algiers, Louisiana, a community within the city of New Orleans and home to a number of New Orleans Mardi Gras carnival krewes.  Mardi Gras and Cajun cooking are in Josh’s blood.  Better yet, his father’s family recipes are in his repertoire.

The Mardi Gras Grill is a relatively small–yet very cozy and inviting–restaurant with fewer than ten tables.  It is festooned in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power).  A soundtrack of festive New Orleans jazz plays continuously.

The restaurant reminded us instantly of some of the wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants we discovered during the eight years we lived outside of “The Big Easy.”  Sure New Orleans has some of the most highly regarded and popular restaurants in America, but save for special events, most “real people” eat in the small mom-and-pops.  The Mardi Gras Grill would fit right in with those.

Sausage, chicken and shrimp gumbo

Sausage, chicken and shrimp gumbo

The menu belies the restaurant’s cramped quarters.  In fact, it’s downright ambitious considering both the diminutiveness of the restaurant’s size and the greatness of distance to Bayou country.  Josh has crawfish flown in from New Orleans and after auditioning several distributors, has found one that keeps him well-stocked in more than passable shrimp and surprisingly good Andouille sausage.

The menu features only two appetizers, but one is a Cajun country standard–fried okra served with a zesty Remoulade sauce.   Also available are five po-boys, the traditional Louisiana submarine sandwich served on a baguette-like Louisiana French bread.  The po-boys are available dressed (generally lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise with onion and pickles optional) or undressed.   Six seafood dishes grace the menu, too, as do two rice dishes and two burgers (including Josh’s Bayou Burger which is topped with sauteed onions, bell peppers and mushrooms with Swiss cheese and mayo).

The proof, as it’s been said, is in the pudding–or in the case of Cajun food, in the gumbo.  Josh’s rendition is made with chicken, shrimp and Andouille sausage served on top of a bed of white rice.  This gumbo passes muster!  Its thick, hearty broth has a smoky bouquet and a nice spice kick (not the piquancy of New Mexico green chile, but a respectable kick).  The roux (an amalgam of butter and flour cooked over low heat) is lighter than we’ve seen at other Cajun restaurants in New Mexico, an indication that it isn’t just this side of being burned.  It’s also subtle–solid and rich while allowing other ingredients to shine.  The Andouille sausage is very good–coarse grained the way it should be with a pronounced smokiness.

Crawfish and shrimp etouffe

Crawfish and shrimp etouffe

The roux in the crawfish and shrimp etouffee is also lighter (and not as orange-red) than we we’ve seen in New Mexico, but in line with some of our favorite New Orleans Cajun and Creole kitchens.  The Mardi Gras Grill’s etouffee, which means “smothered,” is made with a beautiful brownish sauce replete with red bell pepper, onion and celery (the “Trinity” of Creole cuisine) along with a dose of cayenne pepper for added piquancy.  The crawfish and shrimp are cooked to perfection and are as tender and flavorful as if these buttery crustaceans were caught from local waters.

A basketful of French bread accompanies the seafood dishes.  Its flaky crust and soft, airy center is the perfect canvas for butter or for sopping up any surplus sauces.  Not too dense and not too airy, it is as ideal for po-boys as it is as a side.  True to New Orleans style French bread, this one leaves copious crumbs on the table.

On Saturdays, in-season, the restaurant features a Louisiana style crawfish boil served with whole crawfish, smoked sausage, Cajun boiled corn on the cob and boiled Cajun potatoes.  Memories of ninety percent humidity, ninety degree heat days in the sun flooded back as the crawfish approached our table, its unmistakably familiar steamy aromas wafting toward us.

Crawfish boil

Crawfish boil

Crawfish boils are about peeling tails and sucking heads and you get to do a lot of that with the generous portion served at the Mardi Gras Grill.  The crawfish are meaty and succulent.  Served on newspaper, you’ll quickly dispatch of this seafood bounty.

During an upcoming trip back to Bayou country, Josh plans on locating a vendor who can supply him with the inimitable Italian bread on which New Orleans restaurateurs craft muffulettas.  The large, round and somewhat flat loaf about ten-inches across isn’t easy to duplicate, but Albuquerque is ready for an outstanding muffulettas and Josh may just be the man to provide it.  In fact, he may just be the guy to bring New Orleans back to Albuquerque–or at least a semblance of its kitchens.

Mardi Gras Grill
1402 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-4299
LATEST VISIT:  21 March 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crawfish Boil, Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffe, Gumbo

Copeland’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Copeland's, offering a taste of New Orleans

Copeland's, offering a taste of New Orleans

Having lived 90 miles outside of “The Big Easy” for almost eight years, we were naturally filled with the spirit of laissez les bon temps roulette (let the good times roll) when we found out the 48th Copeland’s restaurant in America was launching on our backyard in Albuquerque’s West side in November, 2001.

We had been back in Albuquerque for six years and were experiencing withdrawal symptoms that only a fix of heartily spiced Cajun cuisine could quell. Copeland’s we thought would be a welcome breath of fresh air for the Duke City, albeit not the steamy, salt-kissed air of the Louisiana coast.

Copeland’s is a restaurant with which we were quite familiar when it wasn’t the national presence it is today, but a regional chain founded in 1983 and firmly ensconced in a tough Cajun market. Brainchild of restaurant impresario Al Copeland (who also founded Popeye’s and Zea’s), Copeland’s was a relatively inexpensive alternative to more costly Cajun restaurants in the Crescent City area.

Cajun appetizer sampler

Cajun appetizer sampler

In terms of ambience and attitude, Copeland’s doesn’t really provide the type of sensory bombardment reminiscent of Mardi Gras in which excess is celebrated. In fact, it is relatively low-key compared to some New Orleans restaurants we frequented.

A soundtrack of blues, jazz and boogie-woogie plays continuously but not loud enough to drown out the hushed volume conversations inspired by mood lighting.

The restaurant is thankfully not festooned in the cliché and overdone Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power) but in the colors of purple, black and red which are traditionally Lenten colors.

The wait staff, often adorned with traditional Mardi Gras beads and thematic ties is at your beck and call without being disruptive. We’ve rarely visited Copeland’s when a manager hasn’t dropped by our table to ensure our satisfaction.

The menu is replete with the confusingly intertwined cuisines characterized as Cajun and Creole. Cajun cuisine is said to have its genesis in the cooking of peasant Acadian populations who lived in Southern Louisiana’s swamps. It is more heavily spiced and pungent. Creole food is said to be more refined and subtle with its basis being French traditions but with influences from Spain, the West Indies, Africa and more. Native Louisianans might tell you that Cajun is country while Creole is city, that Cajun is cooking while Creole is cuisine. The truth is, any meaningful distinction between the two has been lost over time and the two terms seem to be used interchangeably.

Many of the entrees at Copeland’s are well-seasoned and redolent with the olfactory arousing aromas of complementary ingredients (onions, bell pepper, garlic, celery, parsley and green onions chief among them) and dark brown (Cajun) or tomato-based (Creole) roux. You’ll also find several heavily spiced and piquant blackened fish entrees as well as rich, voluptuous desserts. It’s no wonder Mark Twain said in 1884 that “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”

Gumbo ya ya

Gumbo ya ya

That being said, Copeland’s just doesn’t do Cajun or Creole quite as well as many of the restaurants we frequented in New Orleans’ French Quarter or Garden District. We have occasionally been disappointed in the absence of addictive flavors we knew so well. That’s especially true when we order seafood entrees such as the prodigious seafood platter, an assemblage of fried and heavily battered catfish, oysters, shrimp and crawfish tails served with a mountain of fries and a tangle of fried onion strings. Perhaps as a consequence to being in land-locked New Mexico, the seafood just doesn’t have that “just off the boat” taste you can get in Louisiana.

Likewise, several of the seafood-based sandwiches we’ve tried have been mundane at best. Served on a toasted bun the size of the tires on my car, the dwarfish crab cake sandwich just doesn’t captivate our taste buds as might the same sandwich in Opaloosa, Louisiana. Made with lump crabmeat mixed with onions, bell pepper, celery and seasonings, this crab meat creation is almost as boring as fish sticks out of a box. Even worse is the oyster po’boy on New Orleans French bread, inferior by far than its New Orleans counterpart. Perhaps masked by breading, the fried oysters don’t have that flavor burst that typifies oysters on the best po’boys.

Among the appetizers, we have been ensnared by Cajun pot stickers, spicy, pan-fried then steamed pork filled dumplings covered in a creamy tasso (a flavoring agent made from lean, highly-seasoned pork) sauce. Tragically, this appetizer gem isn’t always on the menu. Better than any of the appetizers is an apple, pear and candied pecan salad with Maytag blue cheese and drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette. The sharpness of the blue cheese contrasts nicely with the candied pecans.

Where Copeland’s does succeed is in the preparation of traditional sauce-based entrees such as the crawfish etouffee (a French word for “smother”), a tangy Cajun stew made with garlic, green onions, spices and a dark roux (a mixture of flour and fat that’s slowly cooked until brown) served over rice. This stupendous stew is one of the most flavorable entrees on Copeland’s menu.

Copeland’s also holds fast to New Orleans traditions with the quintessential Big Easy dish of red beans and rice with andouille sausage. Traditionally served on Mondays, it’s good any day of the week (albeit somewhat salty at times).

Also quite good is Copeland’s gumbo (a corruption of the African name for okra, one of the vegetables used as a thickening agent) which is also served over rice. Unlike etouffee, gumbo is considered a soup, but it’s a thick, hearty soup which explodes with flavor. The gumbo featuring chicken and andouille sausage is classic.

Hearty portions may mean foregoing dessert and that would be too bad because Copeland’s serves a wonderful white chocolate bread pudding. A thick layer of decadent white chocolate covers a thick slice of spongy bread while a strawberry-based sauce decorates the plate. You couldn’t call yourself a true Cajun restaurant without a good bread pudding and Copeland’s passes muster here.

Lastly, you can’t have Cajun and Creole food without the original Barq’s Root Beer, the root beer with bite. Barq’s was first brewed in my old stomping grounds of Biloxi, Mississippi in 1898. It’s a “different” kind of root beer with a higher level of carbonation and without the cloying sweetness of other root beers. Not especially foamy, it’s the official root beer of the Deep South and a long-time favorite of mine.

10051 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NN
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Cajun Pot stickers, Crawfish Etouffe

The Blue Dragon – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In truth, the Blue Dragon is a coffee house in the style of New Orleans or San Francisco more so than it is a Cajun restaurant, but since it serves better Cajun food than anyone else in Albuquerque, Cajun is as good a category as any in which to place it.

This Dragon serves up the best muffalatta in town, by far–just the right amount of Italian olive salad on four slices of bread (two slices if you wimp out and have only a half muffalatta) with Genoa salami, ham, baby Swiss cheese and provolone. The Dragon doesn’t use the traditional muffalatta round bread, substituting instead with Po’ Boy French bread made by the Paris Bakery just minutes away. During two visits the restaurant was out of Po’ Boy bread but the substitutes–chile cheese bread and sourdough bread–were fabulous.

Want an interesting pizza? Try the muffalatta pizza, replete with olive salad just dripping with flavor (literally). The Mediterranean pizza with Kalamata olives and feta cheese is also quite savory. Pizza can be ordered with a traditional red sauce (marinara with fresh basil, Italian herbs), a Cajun pesto sauce (pesto glaze sun dried tomato, red chile) or the white glaze sauce (garlic and herb infused). These vegan sauces, like much of the menu, emphasize healthy and fresh ingredients with an organic touch.

Several eye-opening breakfast pizzas grace the menu as well. The list of pizza toppings allows you to be as creative as your imagination will allow you to be with such exotic, non-traditional pizza choices as andouille sausage (the restaurant truly has a Cajun soul).

When on the menu, the gumbo is positively brimming with flavor and is much better than the one served at local chain Cajun restaurants. The tomato basil soup, made with crushed tomatoes and fresh basil is one of those soups you crave on cold, winter days, but it’s great any time.

The Blue Dragon features all natural soft drinks made in New Mexico including the refreshingly delicious Carrizozo cherry drink served cold over ice and several smoothies. Among the smoothies, the aptly named “Sun Salutation” is an invigorating mix of papaya, pineapple, honeydew melon with a pinch of cardamom thrown in.

The Blue Dragon is a quaint establishment frequented by ultra left-leaning students (who appreciate the wi fi capabilities) of all ages and disciplines (me, I study restaurants). The ambience is reminiscent of Maulpin’s Tales of the City. Even though eating here makes us feel old beyond our ears, conservative beyond our political bent and parental beyond our status, we love the food and the ambiance.

The Blue Dragon
1517 Girard, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 June 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Muffeletta, Carrizozo Cherry Drink

Commander’s Palace – Las Vegas, Nevada (CLOSED)

When it comes to accolades, there is perhaps no restaurant in America which has been as venerated as the original Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. From being named the best restaurant in America three times by Food & Wine magazine to being named Zagat’s top New Orleans restaurant for 13 consecutive years (1988-2002) and counting, the Commander’s Palace is truly in a class of its own.

The comfortable climes of the Aladdin Resort and Casino attempt to duplicate the original’s inimitable hospitality, incomparable food, impeccable service and sophisticated Southern stylings. In bringing the Crescent City’s most revered dining institution to the desert, the Brennan family has, for the most part, succeeded in reestablishing its classic restaurant without compromising in any fashion. The Commander’s Palace exudes panache, sophistication, Southern gentility, and sheer awe inspiring class which will leave you agape from the moment you walk in until the minute you walk out.

An eminently polite wait staff treated us like royalty, anticipating and attending to our every need, making polite recommendations without undue pressure and politely apprising us of the restaurant’s uniquely fabulous specials.

We began our lunches with Turtle Soup Au Sherry and Gumbo YaYa, two of the most savory soups we’ve ever had. Surprisingly the gumbo was better than the turtle soup for which the Palace is most famous.

My entree, a crispy oyster Caesar sandwich featured garlic crusted “P&J” Gulf oysters with toasted ciabatta bread, anchovy-garlic emulsion, shaved Laura Chenel’s aged goat milk cheese and crisp greens was probably the best such sandwich I’ve ever had. Kim had a Beef Tenderloin “Pirogue” Sandwich which included roasted and slowly braised beef debris in a rich Creole seasoned au jus, stuffed in French bread and glazed with fontina cheese. Every bite was mouth-watering. Both sandwiches were accompanied by the best sweet potato fries imaginable.

The sole disappointment was in not seeing the signature Bananas Foster flambéed table-side. Whether that accounted for the merely mediocre Bananas Foster or not, I’m not sure, but I do know we’ve had better in riverboat casino restaurants. If the Commander’s Palace is a restaurant for the ages, every detail must be flawless.

Commander’s Palace
3663 Las Vegas Blvd S.
Las Vegas, NV


LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2002
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Turtle Soup Au Sherry, Gumbo YaYa, Beef Tenderloin “Pirogue” Sandwich