In order to provide quality services, municipalities everywhere, but especially in growing urban areas, rely heavily on gross receipts taxes from sources such as hotels and restaurants. Cedar Crest, New Mexico, is no different from other cities in that it would like not only for its citizenry to spend as much disposable income as possible within the village, it courts an external revenue stream from visitors.
From 1961 through 1999–one of Cedar Crest’s most reliable sources of gross receipts revenue was the legendary Bella Vista Restaurant, a sprawling wooden edifice which during its halcyon days accommodated 1,200 dining patrons and served an unlimited number of all-you-can-eat platters of fried chicken and fish. When the Bella Vista launched during the onset of the Kennedy administration, Cedar Crest had very few amenities. The Bella Vista helped changed that. For nearly four decades, cavalcades of motorists made their way to the backside of the Sandias to fill their bellies without emptying their wallets. Many would stay.
The Bella Vista was a landmark, a true dining destination, which on weekends courted so many visitors that two-hour waits for tables on weekends were the norm. In 1999, the Bernalillo County Fire Department shuttered the restaurant’s doors because of numerous code violations. In due course, the prime property was sold and the cornerstone of the Cedar Crest community was demolished.
Today, the magnificent east-facing demense from which the Bella Vista held prominence is occupied by a yawning center of commerce appropriately named the Village at Bella Vista. With its pitched green tin roof and smoothly hewn timbers, the Village has an attractive and rustic mountain look and feel to it that fits in well with the alpine community of Cedar Crest.
One of the Village’s anchor tenants is an expansive, modern restaurant which by many standards would be considered spacious though it is barely one-forth the size of the Bella Vista. The Greenside Cafe, named in part because it is situated on the lush, verdant side of the Sandias, is a worthy successor to the legendary eatery. It may not ever become the type of dining destination the Bella Vista once was, but unlike its predecessor, the Greenside Cafe isn’t a one-trick pony relying on gargantuan portions (albeit delicious ones) as its primary draw.
If the Bella Vista was a one-trick pony, the Greenside Cafe is an entire stable of magnificent purebred stallions. With an array of simple and sophisticated dishes side-by-side on a menu which, while not revolutionary in its inventiveness, has something for everyone, the Greenside Cafe is one of many wonderful reasons to visit the backside of the Sandias.
At the Cafe’s helm is chef-owner Jay Wulf, a seasoned kitchen master whose pedigree is as impressive as any in New Mexico. His foray into the Duke City dining scene began with a stint at the long defunct Restaurant Andre’s where he worked for Andre Ditty, the city’s preeminent celebrity chef in the 1990s. Wulf has also served as executive chef at the Prairie Star Cafe and The Range in Bernalillo, Santa Fe’s Cafe Escalera, and in Albuquerque Gecko’s and the Standard Diner. He created the original tapas menu at Gecko’s Bar & Tapas when tapas were virtually unheard of in the Land of Enchantment.
The Greenside Cafe occupies the northernmost corner of the yawning shopping center where it is illuminated by the bright New Mexico morning sun. The restaurant is an airy, expansive and thoroughly modern complex with painted concrete floors, high ceilings with exposed beams, and bright colors. The walls are festooned with framed photographs of New Mexico landmarks. An expansive bar bisects two dining rooms. The main dining room is at the restaurant’s northern while a smaller, more intimate dining room at the south end is used for the restaurant’s four-course wine dinners.
The menu is hardly a compendium of everything for everybody. Instead it focuses on a select few items in various categories. Breakfast is served daily until 3PM and includes an enticing mix of New Mexican dishes such as the ubiquitous breakfast burrito along with Jay Wulf take-offs on traditional favorites such as Sandia Toast, sourdough French toast crafted with an orange and vanilla scented batter. Burgers are a full third-pound of 100 percent Angus chuck. The sandwich menu is beckoning, especially the Sangre de Cristo, Wulf’s interpretation of the Monte Cristo. Entrees range from a surprisingly inexpensive flat iron steak to comfort food favorites such as chicken-fried steak and meatloaf to a Thai-inspired curried rice bowl.
The Sandia Toast, Greenside’s stunning variation on French toast is not to be missed! It’s crafted with sourdough bread dipped in an orange and vanilla scented batter and served with real maple syrup. The sourdough bread has an ever so slightly crispy crust while the interior of the bread is soft and spongy enough to absorb the real maple syrup. The fragrance of the orange scented batter permeates this unique rendition of French toast, imbuing it with memorable qualities that will linger long after your breakfast. The Sandia Toast is served with fresh fruit, a tangy foil for the sweet syrup.
The restaurant’s most popular appetizer might be the Romesco, a pureed dip made from roasted bell pepper, fresh garlic, lemon and almonds served with French bread. The most prevalent flavor of the reddish dip which is served at room-temperature is the lively freshness of roasted bell peppers, a flavor which subdues even the garlic and lemon. If you love bell peppers, this appetizer will resonate with you; if not, you might want to opt instead for a more conventional spinach and artichoke dip, one of several appetizers on the menu.
One of America’s hottest dining trends, one sweeping even Albuquerque, is eateries specializing in Buffalo hot wings. It just makes sense. Wings are the least-expensive portion of the chicken because most of the meat lies in breasts, thighs and even drumsticks. The drumette and middle, flat portion of the wing aren’t entirely meatless, but there’s not a lot of meat there. Two things make wings the most perfect of finger foods: the sauce and the fact that they’re generally not very expensive.
The Greenside Cafe’s hot wings are exceptional. In fact, in New Mexico, the only comparable wings might be those at Wings ‘N Things in Albuquerque. What makes the Greenside’s wings different is that they’re double-breaded. If that term paints a picture in your mind of those shapeless, heavily breaded chicken wings served at some Chinese restaurants, think again. The breading at the Greenside isn’t some clumpy, thick amalgam. It’s light and crispy and it sheathes perfectly prepared poultry within its crispy shell. The hot wings are available with your choice of spicy mango or traditional Louisiana style sauce. The spicy mango sauce is some of the very best wings sauce we’ve ever had. It’s as piquant as a Vietnamese chili sauce with the tangy-sweetness of fresh mangoes. These are the type of wings you could eat by the dozen.
Aficionados of Thai cuisine will appreciate Jay Wulf’s interpretation of a curry rice bowl, lime and cilantro-scented Basmati rice served with fresh sauteed vegetables and house-made green curry with coconut milk. Add chicken, tofu, shrimp or chipotle marinated beef (my choice) for a pittance. You won’t necessarily get the feeling that you’re in Bangkok or even an Albuquerque based Thai restaurant when you eat this dish, but that may be a good thing especially when compared to the latter. Unlike at some Duke City Thai restaurants, the green curry isn’t as cloying as pudding. With just a bit more piquancy, the curry would be downright inspired.
The star of the curry rice bowl might well be the fresh sauteed vegetables: red peppers, snow pea pods, onions, zucchini and broccoli, all perfectly prepared so that they’re crisp and fresh-tasting. You won’t find an over-boiled morsel among the vegetables, nor will they be too al-dente. The Basmati rice is similarly perfectly prepared–long-grained and free-flowing with nary any of the clumpiness of poorly prepared rice.
The most expensive item on the menu is The Flat Iron, a half-pound flat iron steak marinated in the restaurant’s house-made J-Sauce. Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. The Greenside Cafe exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy. Excellent in its own right, it is embellished by some of the very best steak sauce we’ve ever had, a sauce so exquisite that we buy a pint to bring home every time we visit Greenside. Unlike the commercial steak sauces which detract from the flavor of beef, the J-1 sauce complements, maybe even improves, the taste of the beef.
If you love the J-sauce (and you will), another meaty host which showcases its fabulous flavor profile is the restaurant’s J-1 burger, a third-pound, 100-percent Angus chuck burger served with lettuce, tomato, pickle (a spear) and your choice of mixed greens, French fries, homemade potato chips (or you can upgrade to a Caesar or spinach salad for a pittance more). The J-1 burger is marinated with the house-made steak sauce. Frankly, the only thing which could make this burger even better is even more of the sauce. Though you can add bacon, Cheddar or Swiss cheese, green or red chile, pickled jalapenos, mushrooms, onions and even a homemade barbecue sauce, you won’t want any additives to take anything away from the J-1 sauce.
In 2011, New Mexicans voted Greenside’s version of a green chile cheeseburger onto the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, an honor roll of the very best of New Mexico’s iconic burgers. It doesn’t even need the sobriquet of “Turquoise Trail Green Chile Cheeseburger,” to pander to locals. Its flavor will win them over easily enough. This is a relatively simple burger without too many frills and flourishes–just outstanding Angus chuck, Cheddar cheese, chopped green chile, lettuce, tomato and a pickle spear. You can embellish it with a number of options (including the aforementioned J-1 sauce, but adornment is wholly unnecessary. The green chile is a bit mild, but has a nice roasted flavor and there’s plenty of it.
Yet another vehicle seemingly (hopefully this isn’t getting to be a tired theme) made for J-1 sauce is Greenside’s meatloaf which is served with a barbecue sauce. This meatloaf is crafted from ground black Angus chuck blended with bacon, fresh herbs and vegetables. It’s a slab nearly as wide as the plate on which it’s served and unlike so many cardboard-like meatloaf dishes, it’s moist and absolutely delicious. It’s the caliber of meatloaf which can convert vegans–especially if you slather on a coat of J-1 sauce (which incidentally goes well on the mashed potatoes, too).
When a Friday evening found us at Greenside, a special of the night was a tailor-made excuse for more J-1 steak sauce. It also gave us an opportunity to see how well Jay Wulf prepared New Mexican food. The special was an eight-ounce New York strip with two chile rellenos, pinto beans and Basmati rice. The New York strip was grilled to our exacting specifications (medium) and was indeed a perfect canvas for the J-1 sauce. Moreover, it was a delicious cut of beef and it would have been so even without the sauce. It was tender and juicy with a nice hint of pink inside.
World-famous Top Chef Master Rick Bayless calls chiles “the culinary icon for passion,” and sees the embodiment of that iconography in the chile relleno. Not all chiles rellenos are created the same way and even in New Mexico, the chile portion of the dish is a poblano, a chile not much more piquant on the Scoville scale than a bell pepper. At Greenside, the chile of choice is a New Mexico green chile with plenty of bite. Sheathed in a crunchy batter and stuffed with Cheddar cheese, it is accompanied by a small dish of even more potent green chile, a perfect dip for doubling your piquant pleasure.
If you’re in the mood for meat, but not necessarily a steak, an excellent alternative is the Hoisin Glazed Ribs, a full pound of St. Louis style ribs slow-cooked and coated with a Hoisin glaze then grilled. The ribs are off-the-bone tender and very meaty. The glaze is applied liberally but imparts qualities other than sweetness, an all too common characteristic of too many Hoisin-ameliorated dishes. Those qualities include a nice chili-based piquancy and a pronounced smoky savoriness that balances the flavor profile very well.
The Hoisin Glazed Ribs are accompanied by thin-cut French fries and homemade coleslaw, both of which are quite good. Quite naturally we eschewed ketchup and asked for J-1 sauce as our dipping condiment. It worked well. The coleslaw is thankfully not swimming in salad cream or mayonnaise as some coleslaw is apt to be. It’s also not a cloying cabbage based coleslaw, but a slaw with nice tanginess and an ingredient we could not discern (perhaps five-spice) that gave it an interesting flavor.
The spinach salad is fresh and leafy, a generous, well-adorned pile of pickled onions, carrots and avocado crowned with a Dijon-vinaigrette dressing. The pickled onions, a pinkish-purple shade, are exceptional. For a taste contrast you’re sure to enjoy, upgrade to the spinach salad and order a side of the restaurant’s house-made potato chips. The chips are thin and crispy, not a soggy one in the bunch. They’re also lightly salted, a welcome surprise considering so many house-made chips tend to need desalinization.
It’s become very fashionable for New American restaurants to offer “adult” versions of mac and cheese on their menus. Fortunately, none we’ve had in New Mexico approximate the insipid Kraft dinner and most showcase the versatility of cheese. The Greenside’s rendition is crafted of homemade macaroni with real Cheddar. It’s tossed with green chile and roast chicken. The macaroni is perfectly prepared, neither too al dente nor too rubbery. The chicken is nicely seasoned and tasty. Alas, the green chile is barely noticeable with absolutely no piquancy. If you like your mac and cheese to be rich and creamy, you may be slightly disappointed in this one. It’s not very creamy, but then it is an adult mac and cheese.
The sandwich menu is a limited (only four sandwiches), but formidable assemblage of inventive creations all served with your choice of mixed greens, French fries, homemade potato chips (or upgrade to a Caesar salad for a pittance). On any given day, the sandwich menu may be bolstered by a sandwich which would probably be the showpiece at any other restaurant. One such daily special is the Cubano which is quite unlike many of the other Cubanos you’ll find in Duke City area restaurants.
This Cubano isn’t pressed on a panini pressed to the point at which the bread becomes so dry it’s like taking sandpaper to the roof of your mouth. Instead it’s lightly grilled so that the bread remains soft and pliable. The contents of this Cubano are superb! The roast beef and ham aren’t out-of-the-package whisper-thin slices, but thick, hand-cut pieces. The mustard is homemade and instead of dill pickles, sweet pickles (only recently cucumbers) sliced thinly are used to provide a great contrast to the tangy mustard.
One of the ways you know your taste buds have truly arrived is when you can appreciate the subtlety and deliciousness of entrees which don’t necessarily blow you away with powerful flavors–when those entrees visit your taste buds like a faint breeze not a tornadic wind. One such entree is Greenside’s Chicken Artichoke, a grilled chicken breast served with an artichoke and goat cheese sauce. The chicken breast is perfectly grilled then topped with a mild sauce in which both the artichokes and goat cheese provide a faint essence of deliciousness, neither dominant of the other or of the chicken. If you like the adventure of flavor discernment, this is a good dish for you.
The dessert menu is headlined by a chocolate molten cake which you have to order virtually as soon as you walk in because it takes 30 minutes to prepare. You can’t call the chocolate almond butter mousse pie a consolation prize. It’s an excellent dessert option made with a Graham cracker crust, dark chocolate ganache and almond butter dark chocolate mousse. It accentuates the rich flavors of “adult” chocolate and is a wonderful conclusion to a great meal.
Another terrific terminus to an exceptional meal is the strawberry mascarpone cheesecake, a dessert which channels the freshness and vibrancy of spring. The base of this cheesecake is the most moist and fresh-tasting Oreo cookie crust we’ve had. Atop the crust is a blend of mascarpone cream cheese resembling the stratification of light earth layers, but tasting as rich and creamy as possible. There are actually no fresh strawberries on the cheesecake, but rather a drizzle of pureed strawberries akin to a creamy jam. In any case, it provides a tangy contrast to the sweet-richness of the cream cheese.
My friend Andrea Lin, restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, has long told me about Jay Wulf’s magical homemade ice cream, but it wasn’t until my third visit that we sampled that magic in the form of a Mexican chocolate. This ice cream holds true to Mexican chocolate ice cream traditions. It is an adult chocolate which means not especially sweet and it’s flavored with both cinnamon and nutmeg. An absolutely delicious, creamy concoction, it is so good you’ll want to take a pint home (not that it’s going to make it that far).
The Greenside Cafe and its superb chef-owner Jay Wulf are reason enough for Duke City diners to make the short 20-minute trek from the Big-I. In 2009 Chef Wulf was honored with a “Hot Plate” award by Albuquerque The Magazine, signifying a restaurateur who’s going places. His Greenside Cafe is an excellent restaurant that is already inspiring the same reverential tones with which the fabled Bella Vista is still mentioned, hopefully without closing.
The Greenside Cafe
The Village at Bella Vista
12165 North 14, Suite B-1
Cedar Crest, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 May 2013
1st VISIT: 31 October 2009
# OF VISITS: 6
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Flat Iron Steak with French Fries, Curried Rice Bowl with Chipotle Marinated Beef, Chocolate Almond Butter Mousse Pie, Mac and Cheese, J-1 Burger, House-made Potato Chips, Spinach Salad, Strawberry Mascarpone Cheesecake, Turquoise Trail Green Chile Cheeseburger, Meatloaf, Cubano, Chicken Artichoke