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Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cafe Bella in Rio Rancho

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
~Author Unknown

Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee.  As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I worked for eighteen years provided free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as employees can drink.  All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.

There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee.  It’s not that we like our coffee weak.  It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems.  Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and Texans cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.”  It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.

Cafe Bella, for the very best coffee and so much more…

Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens.  Only in the past fifteen years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir.  Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend.  As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).

Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries.  Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe.  It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable liquid commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.

Operating partner Michael Gonzales and his son (a future barista?)

Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless.  Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not.  Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window.  A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.

Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner.  Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed.  Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers.  Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.

Sriracha Bacon Sandwich

Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world.  He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio.  From an experiential standpoint, those  are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies.  To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”

In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side.  It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital.  The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six.  The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.

Panini (grilled Red Delicious apples with caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on local Fano rustic artisan bread) with a large Cafe Au Lait.

Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is.  The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.  The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound.  None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker.  Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine. 

The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico.  A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader.  Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic.  Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes.  During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.

Breakfast Bagel of the Day: Warm toasted Parmesan bagel, Italian herb bread with mozzarella, sundried tomato cream cheese spread and Canadian bacon

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more.  All food items are served with plasticware, reason being that Cafe Bella is a coffee shop which serves outstanding food.  It is not a restaurant (though many of its culinary offerings would put restaurants to shame).

20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity.  Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular.  One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread.  The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

When it first launched, Cafe Bella Coffee offered its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis, all procured from bakery partners, all of which are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  While partner relationships remain strong, they’re no longer exclusive. Cafe Bella staff has begun baking its own scones.  The staff has the latitude to be creative in designing delicious flavor combinations.  Think double espresso and red chile, chocolate chip and maple, and more.

15 March 2013:  For years after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time.  Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe.  Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2’s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012.  Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event.  However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating  in a number of events on and off location.  On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados.  Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights.  With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek. 

8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well.  One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread.  It’s even better than it sounds if possible.  Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload.  The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas and it’s lightly toasted so that the flavor of char doesn’t obscure the flavor of chocolate. 

CafeBella12

Smoked Turkey Panini with Garlic Mustard Barbecue Mayo, Melted Mozzarella, Organic Field Greens on Local Fano Artisan Bread

16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella.  One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese.  For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens.  The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most. 

14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.”  He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012.  It’s easy to see why.  Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini.  When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats.  When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours.  The result is pure, unadulterated edible art.  Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce.   Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness. 

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini (with an egg)

7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey.  You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella.   Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey.  This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham).  This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks. 

19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization.  For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico.   You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another.  In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili.  The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy.  The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation.  If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it.  I did!

Street Tacos, becoming a Tuesday tradition in Rio Rancho

8 July 2014:  While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand.  These tacos were  paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be.  In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out.  On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon.  What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions. 

An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit.  Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all.  The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema.  The sauteed carne packs  a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema.  Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions.  Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!. 

Avocado Toast

9 May 2015: Keeping a pulse on national culinary trends, Michael determined early on that avocado toast would become a national phenomena (just Google “avocado toast” to see how prescient he was).  Toast is a veritable tabula rasa, a blank slate which can be topped by sundry ingredients in limitless combinations.  Similarly, avocado pairs very well with numerous ingredients.  After much trial and experimentation, in 2014, Michael debuted his version of a soon-to-be national sensation, pioneering the Duke City’s very first avocado toast.  Generously spread atop lightly toasted focaccia this open-faced canvas of deliciousness includes butyraceous avocado at the height of ripeness and freshness along with a single poached egg.  Puncture the poached egg with your fork and the yolk trickles over the toast and onto the plate where it melds with Michael’s fabulous crema.  Words fail in expressing just how good Cafe Bella’s avocado toast is (this coming from someone who considers avocados rather boring).

9 May 2015: As a culinary professional, Michael understands better than most that in order to grow business year-upon-year, the menu has to remain interesting.  Though wholesale changes aren’t necessary, he and his creative staff have continued to introduce amazing new items we now can’t live without.  In 2013, it was the addictive Slow-Smoked Carne Panini and the Chocolate Panini.  In 2014, Cafe Bella pioneered the revolutionary avocado toast.  Those outstanding additions set the bar high, but 2015’s offering meets or exceeds the high standards set by its predecessors.  How could it not?  Its a Sriracha Bacon Sandwich (eggs, green onions, mozzarella, Parmesan and bacon on a grilled green chile cheddar bun with sriracha mayo).  The green chile Cheddar bun, specially baked for Cafe Bella, is somewhere between the size of a burger and the size of an English muffin.  It’s surprisingly light and delicate so as not to be too “bready,” allowing the other ingredients to shine…and shine they do.  This is a superb sandwich, a candidate for my “best of the best” for 2015.

Cafe Bella's drive-up window means coffee to go at any time

Cafe Bella’s drive-up window means coffee to go every day but Sunday

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.  Proximity to the drive-through has meant increased frequency of visits, most often for the aforementioned red chili mocha.  Thankfully Cafe Bella offers a loyalty card–buy ten and get one free.  As of May 9th, I’ve enjoyed six red chile mochas for free.

My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home.  The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality.  Waitresses donned  period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots.  The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back.  Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities.  If  this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2015
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 19
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos

Cafe Bella Coffee on Urbanspoon

Philly’s N Fries – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Philly’s N Fries, formerly Itsa Italian Ice

But it’s a dry heat.”  You’ve probably seen that slogan emblazoned on tee-shirts depicting a sun bleached skeletal figure lying prostrate mere feet from a thirst-slaking, life-giving oasis.  You’ve gratefully expressed that sentiment every time Channel 13’s manic meteorologist Mark Ronchetti predicts yet another day of 90 degree plus weather as you rationalize that you could be in one of the South’s sweltering, sauna-like cities with temperatures comparable to our Duke City, but with 80 percent humidity.  You may even have muttered that phrase while scalding your feet as you scurry to a swimming pool the temperature of bath water.

For years, Albuquerque spelled relief from the oppressive heat “I-T-S-A” as in Itsa Italian Ice, a veritable oasis of cool refreshment on scalding New Mexico summer days.  Itsa was situated in a Lilliputian locale at Lomas and Washington, offering drive-up service for cavalcades of parched motorists.  The specialty at Itsa was a veritable phalanx of Italian ices, a flavor or more for each color on the ultraviolet spectrum.

Cantaloupe and Watermelon Italian Ice

Cantaloupe and Watermelon Italian Ice

Unlike snow cones and other ice desserts, all ingredients–typically water, sugar and flavoring–used in making Italian Ice are blended together prior to being frozen.  Italian ice is baby-butt smooth and soft while snow cones have a granular, crunchy texture and the flavoring is added afterwards.  Most Italian ice is made with sugar, not corn syrup and has neither fat nor milk products.  It is far more refreshing than ice cream, gelato, snow cones or shaved ice.  It is the paragon of frozen pleasure.

Much to the dismay of Duke City heat-stroke candidates, Itsa Italian Ice shuttered its doors in 1996, a year after we moved back to Albuquerque.  Though you could still find Itsa products on the frozen food aisles at some grocery stores, it just wasn’t the same experience as rolling down your window to place your order and experience glorious heat relief and blissful, flavorful, sweet satisfaction seconds later.

Nostalgia Abounds at Itsa Italian Ice

In 2006, Steve and Cathy Garcia purchased Itsa and procured a refrigerated trailer they could ferry to outdoor events throughout the dessert-dry Duke City.  Three years later they actualized their vision for their Italian ice business by launching Itsa Italian Ice on the corner of Second and Phoenix, N.W., two blocks north of Menaul.  The facility isn’t set up for drive-up service, but you’ll want to take a seat and linger for a while at the 50s themed full-service restaurant where now you can get not only your favorite Italian Ice, but hamburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, a Philly cheese steak, hand-cut French fries, Frito pies, Frontier cinnamon rolls and more. 

In February, 2015, Itsa Italian Ice was renamed Philly’s N Fries.  It’s not everyday a highly regarded and successful business tampers with an established brand identity, but the move was deemed necessary because (surprisingly) not everyone associated the name Itsa Italian Ice with food.  Then, of course, not everyone reads Food & Wine Magazine which, in October, 2010, featured Itsa in its Trendspotting segment.  No, they’re more apt to read Albuquerque the Magazine which spotlighted Itsa’s “better than Philadelphia Philly” in a feature entitled “The Ex-Pat’s Guide to Eating in Abq.”  The rename has proven very successful.

Double meat green chile cheeseburger with French fries

Double meat green chile cheeseburger with French fries

The panoply of Italian ice flavors includes lemon, watermelon, cantaloupe, lime, grape, black raspberry, tangerine, cherry, banana, blue moon (cotton candy) and chocolate.  The only flavor which  didn’t initially survive the decade plus was Root Beer, my very favorite flavor.  Fortunately, it was added to the menu in June, 2010.  It’s as wonderful as ever with a pronounced adult root beer flavor–strong and peppery.   Unlike some Italian Ices, these actually taste like the fruits (and chocolate) for which they are named. They are still as refreshing as a dip in a cold mountain lake.

Philly’s N Fries provides diners with a nostalgic trip back to a carefree, more innocent time before the infestation of chain restaurants.  Even if you’re not old enough to remember it, you’ll appreciate the sundry bric-a-brac from the Fabulous Fifties.  The Fifties theme starts with the black and white checkerboard tile of the era which blends thematically with the red and white kitchen-style chairs, brushed chrome tables, refurbished Conoco gasoline pump and on the northwest corner of the restaurant atop a vintage Pepsi machine, a bulky, boxy period era television set.

Green Chile Philly and French Fries

Although prices are hardly reminiscent of the 1950s (or 1996 for that matter), there are good meal deals on the menu.  Hamburger and hot dog combo meals (French fries and a soft drink with unlimited free refills) are a good bet for cost conscious consumers.  A regular ice goes for $2.50 while a large will put a slight dent in your wallet for two dollars more.  Still, this is Itsa Italian Ice we’re talking about and it’s worth it!

Philly’s N Fries doesn’t offer table-side service.  The friendly staff is ready to take your order at a counter and they’ll bring it to your table when it’s ready.  If there’s one thing reminiscent of the 50s (from what I’ve heard), it’s the service–friendly, accommodating and pleasant.  The service is enough to bring me back.  Steve and Cathy are among the most friendly restaurateurs in the Duke City.

Philly Cheesesteak at Itsa Italian Ice

Another View of the Fabulous Philly Cheesesteak (Photo courtesy of Sean O’Donnell)

Philly’s N Fries may be just as adept at satisfying the pangs of hunger as it is refreshing your thirst and you won’t go away hungry.  That’s especially true if you order the double-meat green chile cheeseburger, a behemoth on sesame seed buns.  Prepared at just a shade beyond medium, the beef patties are thick and juicy.  American cheese, lettuce, tomato and of course, green chile adorn the burger.

The green chile lacks the piquancy New Mexicans love on their favorite burger, but it’s got a nice flavor and the restaurant doesn’t scrimp on it.  The French fries are crisp inside and out, almost as if they’re fried twice in very hot oil.  These fries are fresh and hand-cut on the premises.  In a city in which most restaurants serve Oreida frozen French fries out of the bag, these fresh shoestring fries are a welcome change.

Nathan's Hot Dog

Nathan’s Hot Dog

Being a 50s themed restaurant, it’s only fitting that Philly’s N Fries offer a hot dog that was actually around in the 1950s.  Nathan’s Famous were first seen on the Coney Island boardwalk in 1916.  Not only have they stood the test of time, they’ve expanded nationwide and are available in grocery stores and food courts everywhere.  Despite being ubiquitous, Nathan’s hot dogs are a take it or leave it proposition with as many aficionados as there are detractors.  At Philly’s N Fries these fat all-beef dogs are griddled to a crispy exterior.  They’re browned outside but retain their juiciness inside.

During our inaugural visit, we overheard the owner tell a customer that Philadelphia natives who ordered Philly’s N Fries Philly Cheesesteak compared it to the one offered at Pat’s King of Steaks, arguably the City of Brotherly Love’s best cheesesteak.  I dismissed that as pride of ownership until Sean O’Donnell (the very entertaining former KOB FM radio personality), a Pennsylvania native told me he was “ecstatic” about finally finding “a place in town with a decent Philly Cheesesteak,” “a big deal for a PA transplant.” Considering Sean has steered me toward other great dining destinations, I place a lot of stock in his recommendation.

Itsa’s Frito Pie (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik

It’s a well-founded recommendation.  the Philly Cheesesteak is terrific!  Sweet white onions are grilled to perfection, not caramelized, but on that fine line between being crispy and soft.  Green peppers are grilled to a slightly crunchy consistency.  Two slices of white American cheese are arranged on each sandwich and it’s a wonderfully creamy and nice melting cheese.  The meat is chopped thin on the grill (a melodic percussion) and is seasoned well; you won’t find any fat or sinew anywhere.  The bread is a soft receptacle for the contents and is quite good.  This isn’t a huge sandwich except in terms of flavor.

The only Philadelphia cheesesteak better in Albuquerque is the restaurant’s Green Chile Philly, a Philadelphia cheesesteak with New Mexican green chile.  Green chile makes everything taste better, especially when the chile has a piquant bite.  My friend “Señor Plata,” an aficionado of the Philadelphia cheesesteak ranks this sandwich even higher than his previous favorite at Petito’s Pizzeria in Rio Rancho.  The biggest difference, in his estimation, is the steak itself which isn’t shaved sliver-thin as at Petito’s.  It’s also not quite as lean which generally means just a bit of fat for flavor.  A Los Angeles native, Señor Plata has had the very best cheesesteak sandwiches America’s second largest city has to offer and he rates Philly’s N Fries higher.

Cantaloupe Italian Ice

New Mexico’s contribution to Health.com’s “50 Fattiest Foods,” a state-by-state hall of infamy, was our ubiquitous Frito pie.  The version low-lighted in the article contained a pants-popping 46 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat.  Still, it’s hard to resist the Land of Enchantment’s most egregious fat-offender, especially since it looks like a healthy lettuce and onion salad when it’s delivered to other tables.  Underneath the lettuce and chopped onions, however, is a mound of ground beef covered in chile and cheese surrounded by Frito’s corn chips.  It’s a classic New Mexican Frito pie.  Alas, the restaurant’s chile has a “canned” flavor with very little bite.  Canned chile is the best way to ensure I won’t indulge in this Frito fat-fest.

Dessert offerings include the aforementioned Italian ice as well as an old favorite, the Nutty Buddy.  Philly’s N Fries also carries the fabled Frontier rolls, those hot, buttery, gooey rolls of pure deliciousness with a cinnamon sugar glaze.  They pack a day’s worth of tooth-decaying, waist-expanding calories, the kind you love to consume.  Among the very best cinnamon rolls in the Land of Enchantment, they’re worth the extra time at the gym.

Italian Ice–it’s a refreshing, fat free, non dairy dessert that’s an Albuquerque tradition now energizing and winning over yet another generation of thirsty, overheated residents. The green chile Philly cheesesteaks are the very best in Albuquerque (certified by experts like Sr. Plata) and the service is warm and hospitable.

Philly’s N More
215 Phoenix Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 May 2015
1ST VISIT: 1 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 16
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Double meat green chile cheeseburger, French fries, Italian Ice, Hot Dog, Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, Green Chilly Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, Frontier Roll

Itsa Italian Ice on Urbanspoon

San Antonio General Store – San Antonio, New Mexico

San Antonio General Store, home of New Mexico’s best fudge

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of
arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather
to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, latte in the other, body
thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “Woo Hoo, what a ride!”
– Motto to Live By

What struck me most about this motto was not the profundity of its words, but their placement–on a placard hanging directly above a glass pastry case showcasing some of the most delicious fudge in the state.  It seems somehow appropriate that the motto hover above gourmet fudge like a radiant halo.  This is fudge crafted with imagination and flair.  It is luscious and decadent, extremely rich and thoroughly delicious.  It is a perfect gift for yourself and for someone you love.

The San Antonio General Store is across the street and catty-corner from the world-famous Buckhorn Tavern and separated by a short parking lot from the equally world-famous Owl Cafe.  There may be nothing better in the entire world than a green chile cheeseburger from either of the village’s world-famous purveyors of burger perfection followed by  fudge warranting the overused “enchanted” adjective.

Some of the best fudge in the state

Some of the best fudge in the state

From the outside, the San Antonio General Store may not warrant a second glance.  It looks like a two-pump gas station in a small, rural New Mexico village–and indeed, motorized conveyances of all kinds drive up and fill up.  If you expect the heady smell of stale gas and oily rags to follow you into the store, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Like many small town country stores, the San Antonio General Store has a little bit of everything to provision locals and hungry sojourners.  There are aisles of shelves well stocked with savory and sweet snacks of all types as well as well-lit refrigerators showcasing America’s favorite cold carbonated beverages.  Small town general stores like this one aren’t slaves to either Coke or Pepsi products and are at liberty to proffer fruity soft drinks such as Big Red, my favorite.

The San Antonio General Store

The San Antonio General Store

There are a couple of tables, too.  This is where diners sit to partake of Dreyer’s ice cream and we’re not talking about something you pluck out of a refrigerator and unwrap.  This is the good stuff–scooped out of tubs and served in cups.  It’s slow churned ice cream renown for its rich creaminess.  The San Antonio General Store has a surprising variety of flavors available.

The tables come in handy for guests who can’t wait to sink their teeth into one of the store’s deli sandwiches.  Constructed of sundry cold cuts, meats and cheeses, these sandwiches are popular take-out items among nature lovers making the short trek to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  From the rudimentary chicken salad sandwich to a complex sandwich arrangement, there’s something for everyone.

Chocolate Fudge

Chocolate Fudge

Ice cream and deli sandwiches not withstanding, the main attraction at the San Antonio General Store is the homemade fudge.  It’s old-fashioned fudge made the way it should be made–with real sugar, real cream and real butter.  It makes for really great fudge, the best in the Land of Enchantment great!

In 2007, Sarah Karnasiewicz, senior editor of Saveur, trekked back to New Mexico where she lived for a number of years to rediscover some of  the Land of Enchantment’s best “filling stations,” service stations in which you can actually find food that is not only fit for human consumption, it’s quite good, too.  She observed that, “we know of no other state in the Union where you can so consistently find such tasty cooking along the asphalt byways, often steps from the gas pumps.”

Rocky Road fudge

Rocky Road fudge

One of the filling stations to which Sarah ventured was the San Antonio General Store whose fudge she described as a “siren song to truckers and day-trippers alike.”  The fudge maven is Ann Lund, a Danish transplant to New Mexico who purchased the store in 2004.  That purchase included the previous owner’s carefully guarded recipes as well as hands-on training to ensure continuity in the making of the village’s legendary fudge.  It took Lund about six months to get it right.  Perfection takes time.

If perfection has a taste, it might taste like the pure milk chocolate fudge or maybe the oh-so-wonderful chocolate walnut fudge.  You might find it in the chewy peanut butter fudge or the luscious Rocky Road fudge where nuts and fluffy marshmallow combine to raise the standards of perfection.

Fabulous Fudge: Chocolate Walnut, Chocolate, Pistachio Nut, Praline

The village of San Antonio is almost indisputably New Mexico’s epicenter for green chile cheeseburger perfection, but a visit to Ann Lund’s San Antonio General Store and memories and dreams of your visit may center around the best fudge you’re likely to ever have.

San Antonio General Store
Us Hwy 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-4594
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2014
# OF VISITS:6
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Rocky Road Fudge, Amaretto Fudge, Milk Chocolate Fudge, Chocolate Walnut Fudge, Praline Fudge, Pistachio Fudge

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