Richie B’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Richie B’s on Montgomery and Louisiana

If you’ve ever wondered why New Yorkers fold their pizza slices in half lengthwise (aka the “fold hold”) and if you’ve ever  attributed that practice to Big Apple quirkiness, you owe it to yourself to visit Richie B’s, a New York-style pizzeria on Montgomery and Louisiana.  Now, the Albuquerque metropolitan area has plenty of claimants to New York-style pizza, but can you name a single one in which you’ve actually HAD to utilize the fold hold to eat a slice? New Yorkers have mastered the fold hold because true New York-style pizza is thin-crusted and cut into wide slices (usually wider than your face) which taper down to a perfectly pointed (and invariably “floppy”) bottom.

I’ve seen friends and colleagues employ the fold hold simply to double the amount of pizza they can consume in one bite (then wonder why they finished off their pizza twice as fast). I’ve also seen them utilize “The Travolta” method—layering one slice on top of another and eating both simultaneously—again, to double the amount of pizza in each bite.   I’ve also seen the more “civilized” (or haughty) among us (Mayor di Blasio should be impeached for doing so) use knives and forks on a slice; they’ve obviously forgotten or don’t care that God intended for pizza to be a finger food. NOTE:  If you’re not acquainted with “The Travolta” method, you may not have been paying close attention to the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever.

The dining room at Richie B’s is studded with New York City memorabilia

8 June 2015: At Richie B’s, each slice is so large and so wide that the holding and eating method which makes most sense  is the fold hold. It’s not only the best way to trap the prodigious toppings, gooey cheese and dripping sauce within its crusty confines, it’s also the only way to avoid the mess made by an overloaded pizza on a thin-crusted slice.  At Richie B’s, the slices are very thin, very wide and very overloaded. That’s especially true of the aptly named Supreme, a beauteous behemoth topped with Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, red peppers and olives, all with the sheen of olive oil and garlic.

It’s humanly impossible to pick up, hold and consume the Supreme unless you actually fold it in half lengthwise. For one thing, the only triangle-shaped man-made object that’s larger is the Great Pyramid of Giza. Because of the length and width of each slice coupled with the generosity of ingredients piled on, physical laws dictate that each foldable slice flops, not unlike a fish out of water.  This is the antithesis of the ironing board stiff pizza crust that won’t buckle under a ten-pound weight.  Not even the cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza, is stiff.

The Supreme

We’ve established that Richie B’s pizza is long, wide and floppy. That’s a given for many New York-style pizzas. “How does it taste?” you ask. Ann Marie Allen, who called me out on Zomato and recommended I get myself “over here pronto and review this place” says it’s “fantastic and the best pizza I’ve ever had!” Similar rousing endorsements adorn both Zomato and Yelp. My preliminary assessment is that this is a very good pizza, but it’ll take a few more slices to gauge its nuances. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. 

As for its authenticity, Richie B’s is true New York by way of Dothan, Alabama brought to you by an Albuquerque native. That would be Preston Smith who was working as a contractor at Fort Rucker, Alabama near Dothan where he discovered the original Richie B’s and “the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.” He also struck up a friendship with the owner, an entrepreneur-showman whose career path included a ten-year stint portraying Conan the Barbarian at Universal Studios. Before moving back to Albuquerque, Preston purchased the naming rights and recipes. The rest, as the proverbial “they” say, is history. Should Richie B’s do as well as Preston expects, he hopes to expand throughout the Duke City.

Green Chile Philly

To say Preston is passionate about pizza is an understatement. For his venture, he chose a deck oven instead of a conveyor oven. Deck ovens are generally the oven of choice for traditional sit-down pizza restaurants. They require much closer babysitting than conveyor ovens, but tend to distribute heat more evenly and give the pizzaioli greater control over temperature and air flow. It makes a great difference. Preston is also very passionate about Richie B’s “Viper Sauce” which can be used on virtually everything (much like green chile) save for dessert.

Richie B’s menu lists six custom pies available in 18- and 25-inch sizes. Also available are three twelve-inch sub sandwiches, two of which feature Boar’s Head meats. The other is a Philly cheesesteak. Also on hand are a garden house salad and a number of sides (including whole garlic pickles and stuffed cherry peppers) as well as cannoli and New York-style cheesecake. Although not expressly stated on the menu, Hatch green chile (from the Young Guns folks) can be added to virtually anything else on the menu. 

Onion Rngs

It would be audacious and probably laughable (much like Denver declaring its green chile the equal of New Mexico’s) to proclaim Phillys in Albuquerque the equal of or superior to those in Philadelphia, but we’ve got something even the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t have.  Albuquerque adorns its Phillys with green chile, an ingredient which improves everything with which it comes into contact.  Restaurants such as Philly’s N Fries and Davido’s Pizza & More have made Green Chile Phillys an edible art form. 

12 June 2015: You won’t find a Green Chile Philly at Richie B’s, but you can certainly request chile on the restaurant’s twelve-inch Philly Cheesesteak (grilled top sirloin, onions, mushrooms and sweet peppers topped with mozzarella and Provolone cheese served with a side of Viper Sauce.  It’s a very good sandwich bringing together ingredients meant to be together.  The Viper sauce, while more than interesting, is wholly unnecessary.  It’s an excellent dip for the onion rings, one portion of which will serve a family.

Italian Sub

30 November 2016: If, like me, you’ve ever lamented getting a veritable salad’s worth of lettuce, tomatoes and onions between bread when you order a sub, you’ll appreciate Richie B’s Italian Sub (thin-sliced ham, Genoa salami, prosciutto, capocalla, sopressata, pepperoni, mortadella, provolone, white American, onions, pepperoncini, sweet peppers, seasoned oil and vinegar dressing).  Nowhere on the ingredient list will you see lettuce and tomatoes, the two banes of Duke City sandwiches.  This is one meaty sandwich, emphasis on the word meaty.  Those meats aren’t rendered virtually tasteless by the overly generous presence of lettuce and tomatoes.  Instead, the sweet peppers, pepperoncini and onions serve a very complementary role that allow the meats to shine.  This is an Italian sandwich made the way many of us would create our own.  It’s a twelve-inch beauty constructed on a soft sub roll.

Richie B’s is located at Louisiana Plaza in a storefront that’s somewhat obfuscated from both Montgomery and Louisiana, but Duke City pizza paramours will discover it and they’ll return in droves for a pizza they’ll have to employ the fold hold to eat.

Richie B’s
7200 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 312-8579
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 30 November 2016
1st VISIT: 8 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Supreme, Green Chile Philly, Onion Rings, Italian Sub

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The Supper Truck – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Supper Truck, A Taste of South in Your Mouth

On December 20th, 2014, a part-paean, part elegy graced this blog.  The opening stanza read:  “Supper Truck, I hardly knew you!  Inexplicably and to the detriment of my taste buds, I didn’t partake of your delightfully creative interpretation of Southern cuisine until your very last day of serving Albuquerque.  So, why do I miss you so much already?  Most likely it’s the lost opportunities to partake of Southern cuisine inspired by the dynamic food truck scene of Charleston, South Carolina, one of my very favorite culinary destinations in America.   It begs a paraphrase of a time-honored question is it better to have loved and lost the chance to further enjoy your edgy, contemporary, fusion twists on classic Southern comfort food favorites than never to have loved them at all?” 

To write a second chapter about the Supper Truck is to write a tale of rebirth, of starting over.  Some six months after our inaugural visit,  founding owner Amy Black sold both the truck and naming rights to Kristen Galegor and Claude Freeman.  Because Amy had emphasized she wouldn’t sell until she found “the right person with the rare combination of drive, creativity and community-mindedness” which epitomized her purview, Duke City diners have every reason to be optimistic about the future of one of the city’s stellar mobile kitchens. Kris and Claude seem primed to deliver as The Supper Truck Web site indicates: “Claude and Kris have kept the fan favorites and are working to expand this creatively Southern menu.  The pair have many years experience in restaurants and are the visionaries of what SUPPER is to become!

Grits

The Supper Truck rolled into town in September, 2012, inviting Duke City denizens to “put a little South in your mouth.”  Savvy diners (in whose ranks I obviously don’t belong) responded immediately and with a rare fervor, according “best of the city” honors in both the Alibi and Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual “best of” issues for 2013 and 2014.  More than perhaps any other motorized conveyance in Albuquerque, The Supper Truck brought people together, its crepuscular rays seemingly beckoning the city’s hungry huddled masses yearning for great Southern cuisine.

Fittingly, The Supper Truck served its last meals while parked on the south side of the Marble Brewery on an unseasonably warm Saturday.  For regulars the event was akin to one last pilgrimage to a beloved culinary shrine which had assuaged their hunger and pleased their palates for more than two years.  For newcomers (like me) and curiosity-seekers wondering if The Supper Truck warranted all the hullabaloo, it was an event that would ultimately leave us with mixed emotions–regret for not having visited sooner and sheer pleasure for having partaken of a rare excellence in esculence.

SupperTruck03

Fried Chicken Banh Mi

20 December 2014: The South takes its grits very seriously–so much so that unbeknownst to Yankees and those of us not blessed to have been born in the South, there are ten commandments of grits.   One of the principle commandments considers it blasphemous to eat Cream of Wheat and call it grits.    The Supper Truck’s grits are every bit as good as the best grits we enjoyed while living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for nearly eight years.  These gourmet-quality grits are made with grilled shrimp, bacon, roasted red pepper coulis, green onion, parsley and white wine cream sauce over creamy stone-ground South Carolina grits.  They’re so good even Yankees will enjoy them. 

20 December 2014: While the Old South tends to hold fast to tradition, the contemporary South has embraced change, particularly in the culinary arena.  At the forefront of this evolution is the city of Charleston, South Carolina (where Amy cut her teeth) which has become a bastion of culinary expansiveness.  Though Charleston has a very vibrant Vietnamese culinary community, it’s unlikely they’ve seen anything like The Supper Truck’s South Carolina meets Vietnam offering of a fried chicken banh mi. Yes, a fried chicken banh mi.  The canvas for this unlikely but uncommonly delicious sandwich is a fresh, locally-baked baguette into which are piled-on house-seasoned fried chicken, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro and a housemade momo sauce of Sriracha, mayo and lime juice.  It’s one of the best banh mi we’ve ever had.  Ever!  Anywhere!

BBQ Beef Tacos

20 December 2014: The Supper Truck’s tacos are on par with Cafe Bella’s street tacos and the scallop tacos at Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s Place) as my favorite tacos in the metropolitan area.  Traditionalists might decry them as nontraditional and unconventional even as their taste buds experience one foodgasm after another at every bite of their sheer deliciousness.  The shrimp taco ( grilled shrimp, Sriracha sour cream, Asian slaw, pickled red onion and cilantro on a grilled corn tortilla and the  BBQ beef taco (Coca-Cola braised New Mexico beef, Sriracha-Hoisin bbq sauce, Asian slaw, pickled red onion, cilantro on a grilled corn tortilla) don’t even need red or green chile to make them addictive.  It’s heartening to know Duke City diners won’t have to miss out on these gems.

20 December 2014: Among foreigners (anyone who’s not from the South), boiled peanuts (sometimes called goober peas) may just be the most hard to grasp of sacrosanct Southern culinary traditions.  In the South, unroasted and unshelled peanuts are boiled in salt water for hours, rendering the peanuts soft and salty.  Then they’re consumed while still hot and wet.  The Supper Truck’s boiled peanuts are terrific, the type of snack you might offer friends in hopes they’ll snub it so you can enjoy them all yourself.

SupperTruck03

Boiled Peanuts

26 November 2016: Our second visit to The Supper Truck also took place at the Marble Street Brewery, albeit the Westside version of the popular watering hole.  Similar to its elder sibling, the Westside location invites food trucks to park on its premises and feed its patrons.  The Supper Truck doesn’t often frequent the Westside Marble Street, but its reputation preceded its November, 2016 as long lines of hungry diners will attest.  Kris was very effusive about some of the civic projects in which The Supper Truck crew has been involved and raved about an online commercial for eHarmony in which Supper Truck made a brief cameo appearance.  More than anything, she waxed enthusiastic when discussing how well the new owners have been received.

Credit much of that reception to the graciousness of the Supper Truck crew and to the continuity of Amy Black’s creatively Southern inspired fusion cuisine.  Southern fusion is very much in evidence, especially the fusion of Southern elements with Vietnamese, New Mexican and Mexican ingredients.  The South meets the Far East in such daringly different items as the fried chicken banh mi and Vietnamese beef and grits.  New Mexican beef finds its way into several items, among them BBQ beef tacos and borrachitos (more on them later).

Chicken and Waffles

26 November 2016: John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of Fried Chicken: An American Story calls chicken and waffles “a Southern dish once or twice removed from the South,”  meaning it’s “a dish most popular among Southerners now living in urban areas.”  Though the unlikely combination of fried chicken and waffles was popularized largely in restaurants throughout Los Angeles and New York City, today that pairing can be found virtually everywhere–even in food trucks.  It should come as no surprise that the Supper Truck’s version is terrific even if served on a paper vessel.  Available in quantities of two each pieces of chicken and waffles, this terrific twosome will make a Southerner of us all.  Though the fried chicken is boneless, it is still quite good with a crispy, golden hue sheathing tender white meat.  The waffles are roundish and on the small side.  They’re slathered with peach butter and syrup dusted with confectioners sugar and topped with strawberries.

26 November 2016: Spanish-speaking New Mexicans tend to ascribe small size, youth, affection or contempt to objects and people by appending their names with the suffix “ito.”  A short man named Juan, for example, might be called Juanito.  We had to wonder what the heck a “borachito” might be.  Being that a drunk is a borracho, could a borachito be a small drunk (and why is it spelled with only one “r”?  It turns out a borachito is a deliciously different burrito (unwrapped below) constructed on a large flour tortilla engorged with Coca Cola braised New Mexico beef with rich Vietnamese flavors, Cheddar, fries, sriracha sour cream and cilantro.  The diminutive terminology is out-of-place considering the size of this behemoth.  Its size is matched only by the flavorful melange with sweet, savory, tangy and piquant profiles.  Very much in evidence on the beef, in particular, are bold Vietnamese flavors.  The fries are an interesting foil which works very well with other ingredients.

Vietnamese Beef Borrachitos, a Unique Fusion Burrito

The Supper Truck Web site advises diners to “Be prepared to pull out your first aid kit because your mind will be blown when you experience the taste of SUPPER. Keep your eyes open for what’s to come!!!”  That’s pretty good advice from a purveyor of deliciousness we’re glad to have back serving the Duke City.

The Supper Truck
Location Varies
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 796-2191
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 November 2016
1st VISIT: 20 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET:  BBQ Beef Tacos, Shrimp Taco, Fried Chicken Banh Mi, Grits, Boiled Peanuts, Vietnamese Beef Borachitos, Chicken and Waffles

Supper Truck Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Casa Taco – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Casa Taco on Academy

“Nowadays, hoy en día, with our world full of war and violence and lack of love, a world full of greed
A world of domination, grasping power, venal stupidity, real evil.  Don’t get me started.
It’s good to know that a conversation about tacos will always engender a sense of comfort and happiness.
If only we could sit down at a big round world table and eat tacos in a spirit of love we might begin to work on world peace!”
~
Denise Chavez
New Mexican Author

Not even the beloved taco was excluded from the divisiveness of 2016’s contentious presidential campaign. Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump warned MSNBC that without tighter immigration policies…”you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.” While taco trucks may not yet be parked on every corner, tacos have become a ubiquitous favorite across the fruited plain, as American as apple pie, hot dogs, pizza and egg rolls.  Their popularity is unparalleled with a market segment outpacing competitors in the quick service restaurant category.  Despite a near cult status, analysts believe tacos have yet to reach their peak in popularity–and not solely because their portability and deliciousness make them such a desirable dining option.  Culinary anthropologists attribute much of their increasing popularity to their diversity–the adaptation to a wide variety of ingredients across culinary cultures–agreeing that these are not your mom’s tacos.

The invention of tacos is largely credited to eighteenth century Mexican silver miners.  Largely considered working-class food, tacos made their way north of the border in 1905 when Mexican migrants were brought in to work the mines and railroads of the burgeoning States. From being constructed with offal or shredded beef (when available) in Mexico to being made with hamburger (along with the widely available Cheddar cheese, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce) in the United States, the taco began to evolve.  Credit Taco Bell and its proliferation of the pre-fried hard shell with the next significant evolution of the taco.  Further adoption, adaptation and transformation can be imputed to other immigrant cultures (such as the Lebanese who introduced the taco al pastor).

John Wayne Loved Tacos

While many of us are quick to criticize Millennials, Elizabeth Johnson, a Latin Cuisine Specialist at the Culinary Institute of America credits the most recent–and maybe most profound–evolution of the taco to “the next greatest generation.” “Millennials are very multi-ethnic…and very interested in cuisine from around the world,” she posits, adding that “we are becoming more and more casual.”   Coining the term “tacofication” of foods, she points out the fusion of various ethnic foods with tacos: Korean barbecue, Belgian waffles, Chinese dim-sum, Vietnamese banh mi and more, explaining that “this is happening because the United States is changing, especially the younger generation.”  That tacofication of foods is evident even in the Duke City where diners are indulging in taco adventures of which our abuelitas could not have conceived.

In its Fall Food and Wine Issue for 2016, Albuquerque The Magazine (ATM) crunched the numbers and told us that in 2015, Americans ate more than 4.5 billion tacos (so it wasn’t just me).  That’s more than 490,000 miles of tacos or roughly the equivalent of circling the globe nineteen times.  In terms of tonnage, the totality of tacos consumed across the fruited plain is the equivalent of two Empire State Buildings (730,000 tons).  In its “Taco the Town” feature, ATM indicated Albuquerque has “nearly 170 restaurants that create and serve some of the tastiest tacos of every ilk–from New Mexican to gourmet; seafood to veggie.”  The Magazine sampled and presented several examples of the city’s “unique, unusual, and undeniably savory taco types.”

Salsa Bar

With nary a nod to Taco Bell and its  own contributions to the revolutionary-evolutionary diversity of tacos (Cool Ranch Doritos Tacos, Breakfast Waffle Tacos), ATM’s feature  on unique, unusual, and undeniably savory taco types across the Duke City celebrated several exemplars of cultural taco fusion.  One of the best illustrations cited is the Jerk Chicken Taco, a specialty of Casa Taco on Academy.  If you’re not yet acquainted with this purveyor of taco innovation, lake-lovers among you might recognize its elder sibling of the same name in Elephant Butte.  The popularity of the latter, serving the popular reservoir vacation area since 2002, is one of the reasons the former launched in the Duke City in July, 2015.

Founder James Pecherski is a  Detroit native who fell in love with the Southwest while vacationing with family as a child.  He later attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Phoenix where his passion for the region’s culinary traditions were further inculcated.   It was never his intention to replicate Mexican or New Mexican style tacos, but to honor them with innovative concepts and ingredients.  He characterizes  Casa Taco as a “Southwestern, contemporary restaurant with New Mexican and central Mexico influences, with a tropical twist.”  Those influences are very much in evidence throughout the menu.

Jerk Chicken Burrito Plate

If you love tacos and can relate to the culinary adventurousness of a Millennial, you’ll love Casa Taco’s menu where tacos are more than just corn or flour tortillas stuffed with sundry deliciousness.  Three categories of tacos festoon the menu: Signature Tacos, Specialty Tacos and Grande Tacos.  Strewn throughout that menu are familiar options–ground beef tacos, carne asada tacos, calabasitas tacos–you can find elsewhere.  Seek instead those taco options with which you might not be familiar, those innovative creations, tacos unique to the Land of Enchantment.  Options such as the aforementioned Jamaican Jerk Chicken tacos were the impetus for our inaugural visit.  Not in the mood for tacos?  The accommodating staff can create a burrito, wrap, sandwich or salad from any of the ingredient combinations used to build tacos.

That’s precisely what they did for me.  Rather than order the Jamaican Jerk Chicken Taco plate (spicy jerked chicken breast and a fiery habañero pineapple-mango salsa), I asked for and received a Jamaican Jerk Chicken Burrito plate (with beans and rice).  As if the sweet-fiery qualities of the habañero pineapple-mango salsa and the incendiary properties of assertively seasoned Jamaican Jerk chicken aren’t enough, the amenable waitstaff will top your burrito with your choice of red chile, green chile (both laden with cumin) or con queso.  Combustible and delicious, it’s a terrific way to enjoy a burrito.  There’s only one drawback–the burrito is served with plastic utensils which make cutting into the soft, pliable flour tortilla a challenge.  The accompanying beans are quite good, but the rice is on the boring side (something that can be said about most “Spanish” rice).

Yucatan Pork Tacos

When we espied “Yucatan Pork Tacos” on the menu, we envisioned tacos engorged with the myriad of exotic tropical fruits and vegetables found in abundance throughout the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  Instead we were rewarded with two tacos engorged with lean chile-crusted pork loin, a spicy cucumber salsa and sweet pickled onions.  The spicy cucumber salsa is very much reminiscent of the sweet cucumber relish served in Thai restaurants with dishes such as satay.  It’s a wonderful complement to the lean, chile crusted pork loin which is plentiful in bite-sized pieces.  You can alter the flavor profile of these (or any) tacos with the addition of any one of the lively salsas found on the salsa bar.

For a more “conventional” (term used lightly) taco evocative of Old Mexico, try the La Puerto Steak tacos (cilantro and garlic “mojo” marinated steak with guacamole and cilantro).  Lest some lexicologist surmises “mojo” means these tacos are imbued with some magical voodoo charm or infused with libido, in this case mojo is also what several types of Mexican sauces are called.  The mojo penetrates deeply into the steak, infusing it with a lightly spicy personality.  The steak marries well with the invigorating freshness of the cilantro and the astringency of garlic.   This a great taco for experimenting with the various salsas.

La Puerto Steak Tacos

There was a time “con queso” was better known by its full name “chile con queso.”  At Casa Taco, it’s still called “chile con queso.”  By any name, it’s the perfect vehicle for crispy fried tortilla chips.  Picture a heaping bowl (or Styrofoam vessel) of hot, velvety cheese festooned with fiery chiles and chips sprinkled with red chile.  If you frequently crave chile con queso, this one will quell your ardor and possibly make an addict out of you.  It’s some of the very best chile con queso in the Duke City area.  Remember, you can have your burrito smothered in this liquid gold, too.

As if tacos, burritos, wraps, sandwiches and salads weren’t already enough to make your mouth water, Casa Taco’s menu also includes huevos rancheros, a third-pound Angus cheeseburger, chimichangas and two nacho platters.  Dessert options include caramel-filled churros with vanilla ice cream, a warm brownie sundae, apple flautas, strawberry nachos or old-fashioned milkshakes or malts.  There ae plenty of interesting and delicious options sure to inspire return visits a plenty.  Bottled Mexican Coke or Fanta are available to wash down your meal.

Con Queso

In 2016, Casa Taco earned TripAdvisor’s coveted “Certificate of Excellence.”  One visit and you’ll discover why so many Yelp reviews are peppered with the adjective “excellent.”

Casa Taco
5801 Academy Road, N.E., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-TACO
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Con Queso, Jerk Chicken Burrito, La Puerto Steak Tacos, Yucatan Pork Tacos, Chocolate Milk Shakes

Casa Taco Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

An Hy Quan for Outstanding Vegetarian Vietnamese Cuisine

Celebrity chef  and professional cynic Anthony Bourdain, one of the more vocal detractors of the vegetarian lifestyle, contends “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”  He’s not alone in his opinion.  Vegetarians are perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood group in the culinary community.  Consider the stereotypes.  Nay-sayers with their preconceived and oversimplified notions founded on ignorance would have you believe all vegetarians are emaciated and pallid tree-huggers who worship at the altar of PETA.  They attack vegetarian fare as bland and boring, lacking in variety and mostly tofu and lettuce. 

You can bet they wouldn’t spout their ill-founded drivel about vegetarian cuisine if they partook of just one meal at An Hy Quan, a Duke City restaurant showcasing Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine.  An Hy Quan’s cuisine is every bit as good as the food served at Albuquerque’s best Vietnamese restaurants, all of which cater primarily to carnivores.  They’d also have to toss out their stereotypes that a vegetarian diet renders its practitioners pale, sickly and scrawny should they meet Bill, the restaurant’s affable proprietor.  Admittedly not a bona fide vegetarian, Bill has reduced his consumption of meat over the years by nearly ninety-percent and he’s never felt better.  He sports a mesomorphic somatype (meaning he’s really built) that would put some athletes to shame.

Papaya Salad: The Very Best I’ve Ever Had

Interestingly,  even though many Vietnamese dishes are replete with vegetables, a vegetarian diet is rare in Vietnam.  Bill confirmed that strict adherence to vegetarianism is practiced mostly in Buddhist temples and on the first and fifteenth of each Lunar Calendar month when all Buddhists shy away from meat.  In Vietnam as in much of Asia, the citizenry believe meat is the best part of any dish.  Try going meatless along the Mekong and you can expect quizzical looks if not being overtly asked “why would anyone would turn down meat?”  It’s not easy for Vietnamese to comprehend that someone wouldn’t want meat which they believe imbues people with strength, stamina and vigor.  Eschew meat and they worry you’ll become too enfeebled and malnourished to function.

An Hy Quan, a term which translates to “a place of peace and happiness” is breaking down any stereotypes diners may have about vegetarian food and is earning converts daily in the process.  One of the reasons for its popularity is that An Hy Quan features Vietnamese vegetarian fare that’s true to traditional Vietnamese flavors and ingredients.  It’s the antithesis of faux burgers which, even diehard vegetarians will admit, taste like desiccated, overcooked corrugated cardboard.  Another reason so many savvy diners flock to An Hy Quan is Bill, the peripatetic owner and amiable ambassador of an addictive restaurant.

Egg Rolls

Bill grew up in the restaurant business.  His mother was a pioneer, launching Huong Thao back when there were fewer than a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City.  From the onset, Huong Thao had a reputation as a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, earning accolades from the Vegetarian Society of New Mexico for its “great food” and “many vegetarian options.”  Bill eventually bought and operated Huong Thao for about seven years before embarking on other ventures.  When he made his return to the restaurant business, he wanted to do something different, something as pioneering as his mother had done.  He launched An Hy Quan in 2015.

Almost from the beginning, An Hy Quan was recognized as something special. In September, 2015, it was named by Movoto, a multi-state real estate brokerage, as one of the “ten best Albuquerque restaurants for vegetarians.”  Movoto wrote “The menu at An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant is enough to make a person cry with happiness. From appetizers to dessert, dining is an adventure in flavor and technique combined with excellent service and generous portions. Select memorable dishes like Vietnamese spring rolls, avocado shakes, mock pork, and much more.”  Not long thereafter, An Hy Quan was recognized by Three Best Rated as one of the Duke City’s three best vegetarian restaurants.

“Chips and Salsa” An Hy Quan Style

Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly discern many familiar favorites–ranging from rice plates to noodle dishes and some of the best, most diverse soup (including pho) selections in the city.  While some Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque boast of menus listing well over one-hundred items, An Hy Quan’s menu seems somewhat abbreviated in comparison.  That doesn’t make it any easier to decide what to order.  Put yourself in Bill’s hands and you’re assured of a great meal.  There are at least two “must have” appetizers, one of which I had both during my inaugural and second visit.  It’s an addictive dish you might dream about.

24 June 2016: That would be the papaya salad, the very best my Kim and I have ever had.  A fresh and invigorating starter possessing more mouth-pleasing qualities than any salad in recent memory, it’s artfully plated and large enough to share.  Matchstick-like slivers of papaya resembling noodles are tossed with fresh basil, chopped peanuts, ground chili and mock ham in a shallow pool of pleasantly piquant “fishless” sauce with tangy citrusy notes.   You’ll be tempted to lap it up off your plate when the last remnants of the salad have been polished off.

Curry Tofu with Rice

24 June 2016: Following traditional New Mexican restaurant practices, An Hy Quan delivers complimentary Vietnamese “chips and salsa” to your table.  They’re not chips and salsa as you’d enjoy them at say, Mary & Tito’s Cafe.  They’re chips and salsa as they might be served in Vietnam.  The chips are made from fried potato starch.  Texturally they resemble the packing peanuts you shove into boxes to protect your delicate valuables.  The salsa is a chili sauce with a nice level of heat.  Instead of dipping the chips into the sauce, you’ll spoon it on as liberally as your taste buds can appreciate.

25 June 2016: Vegetarian egg rolls sound much like an oxymoron, a seemingly contradictory term much like “honest politician.”  Though described on the menu as “deep-fried egg rolls,” eggs aren’t used in preparing these tightly-wrapped, golden-hued cylindrical treasures.  Served four per order, they’re as good as any egg rolls served at any Vietnamese or Thai restaurant in the Duke City.  Because most egg rolls are engorged primarily with vegetarian ingredients, you might not be able to tell any difference.  They’re absolutely delicious.  So is the dipping sauce with flavor notes resembling fish sauce.

Curry Noodles

24 June 2016: Regular readers recognize my rapacious love of curry, whether it be Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese or meteorologist (KRQE’s pulchritudinous Kristen Currie).  It stands to reason vegetarian curry would be added to that list…and it was.  My inaugural meal at An Hy Quan was curry tofu served with rice.  Vietnamese curry tends to be very aromatic, somewhat lighter than Indian curries and not cloying as some coconut-infused Thai curries tend to be.  Though you’ll be tempted to finish the large portion, consider that the flavors of curry get better over time and the promise of left-overs becomes something to look forward to.  This curry is served piping hot and has a pleasant amount of piquancy that’s tempered only slightly by the cubed tofu and vegetable variety.  It’s an absolutely delicious curry dish!

25 June 2016: If your preference with curry leans toward noodles instead of rice, An Hy Quan has you covered.  The curry noodles dish features wide rice noodles, cubed tofu and assorted vegetables (including yu choy which resembles spinach in both appearance and flavor).   As with the curry rice dish, curry noodles are served with tofu which inherits the wonderfully pungent and pleasantly piquant flavors of the curry.  The assorted vegetables are fresh and unfailingly crispy–not quite al dente, but perfectly prepared.  My Kim, who doesn’t share my affinity for curry, loved this dish.  So will you!

Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles

25 June 2016:  One of An Hy Quan’s most popular dishes (raved about in several Yelp and Zomato reviews) is the cashew mock pork rice dish.  My Kim who prefers noodles (even over Alford) asked nicely if she could have the mock pork and cashews over crispy noodles and the ever-accommodating Bill agreed.  The dish was even more delicious than she could have conceived.  Kim finds something magical in the reconstitution of crispy noodles in the dish’s light sauce.  She loved the mock pork, admitting it’s as good as the real stuff.  She even enjoyed the vegetables and the sesame seeds which topped them.  This dish should be standard on the menu (Kim won’t even ask for residuals). 

21 November 2016: Deciding to pursue a vegetarian lifestyle is the easy part.  Preparing palatable vegetarian dishes at home or discovering restaurants which make them delicious takes a little more work.  When my friend Elaine, already one of the most healthy and fit people I know, decided to try vegetarianism, she asked me to take her to my favorite vegetarian restaurant.  It didn’t take much deliberation to decide where we’d go.  Not surprisingly, Hy Quan exceeded her expectations.  Elaine fell in love with the papaya salad and egg rolls, but it may have been the clay hot pot rice dish we split (and couldn’t finish) which most excited her.  Clay pot cooking is very popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving vessel.  Aside from rice, this dish contains an assortment of vegetables (carrots, cabbage, zucchini  and green onion) prepared perfectly as is the accompanying tofu.  The dish has a a smoky, wok-fried flavor with crispy, fresh vegetables and at the bottom edges of the pot, amazing caramelized rice which Bill confirmed is the most popular feature of a terrific dish.

Clay Hot Pot Rice

If you’ve never enjoyed vegetarian fare, it’s time to visit An Hy Quan where you might not be able to taste any significant difference and even if you do, you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.  An Hy Quan isn’t only one of Albuquerque’s very best vegetarian restaurants, it’s one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants.  Make that best restaurants of any genre.  It’s that good!

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant
1405 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 332-8565
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2016
1st VISIT: 24 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papaya Salad, Curry Tofu, Egg Rolls, Curry Noodles, Cashew Mock Pork Over Crispy Noodles, Clay Hot Pot Rice

An Hy Quan Vegetarian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gecko’s Bar & Tapas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gecko’s Northeast Heights Location Opened In the Fall of 2006

One of the best examples of the dichotomy of human nature can be illustrated in the way we react to lizards.  The mere sight of a lizard scurrying around can send shivers down the spine of otherwise reasonable and intrepid people.  Many of us are repulsed or frightened in the presence of any slithering reptile.  In Tripoli the sight of a lizard is held to cause women to bear speckled children.  To others, however, lizards are a portend of good luck, a source of entertainment and a symbol of plenty.  Biographies written by several former prisoners of war in Vietnam recount being entertained by the scampering of geckos.  Throughout the Mediterranean, the lizard is fondly regarded as an old family friend. 

In Manhattan’s bustling Madison Avenue, long metonymous with the American advertising industry, the gecko is viewed as a wildly popular success story.  Since the GEICO gecko made its debut in the Millennium year, it has been an advertising icon and one of America’s favorite anthropomorphic characters. The gecko’s sense of humor, affability and selfless nature (exemplified by his desire to help people find the best values in insurance) endear him to children of all ages and reinforces the advertising notion that animal images create strong ties between customers and companies.

Gecko Dining Room

That notion certainly wasn’t lost on former Duke City restaurateur Mark Zanoni who changed the name of his popular bar and restaurant from Chez What to Gecko’s Gallery and Grill in the mid-1990s, predating the world-famous GEICO gecko by about half a decade.   The original Gecko’s menu featured pasta, pizza, burgers, appetizers and some of the city’s best Buffalo chicken wings.  It wasn’t until Chef Jay Wulf created the original tapas menu–complete with a conceptual rename to Gecko’s a Bar & Tapas–that the restaurant began its ascent into greatness.  Chef Todd Lovell succeeded Wulf, building on and improving the concept.  Gecko’s came to be recognized as one of the city’s first gastropubs.

Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices.  Until recent years, mentioning bar food in America has conjured images of dank, dark, smoky and loud watering holes serving greasy, tasteless food you have to be four sheets to the wind to consume.  Not so at Gecko’s, where  an imaginative menu of upscale comfort food favorites and exceptionally well done traditional bar appetizers became a major draw to Nob Hill.

Chorizo Bleu Cheese Queso

The second instantiation of Gecko’s launched in the far Northeast Heights (5801 Academy Road, N.E.) in December, 2006. At first glance, the new Gecko’s (where all the pictures on this review were taken) looks as if it should be called “The Bijou” or something cinematic. It’s a colorful antithesis of the Nob Hill location in many ways.  Aside from its gaudy polychrome facade, the exterior frontage includes an anthropomorphic gecko (a true lounge lizard) performing a champagne toast.  The gecko closely resembles the British accented GEICO gecko (say that five times fast).

The original Gecko’s might not be the type of pub David Frizell had in mind when he penned the lyrics to his country hit “I’m going to hire a wino to decorate our home.” Several tastefully done and colorful murals by famed local muralist Karen Deaton festoon the South-facing wall.  One mural, “Deviled Eggs at Gecko’s” depicts happy hour patrons at Gecko’s enjoying tapas and spirits. Another “Who Left the Curtain Open” shows the serving staff unwinding (in various states of undress including one “cheeky” waitress with a gecko tatoo) after a busy shift at Gecko’s.

Buffalo Chicken & Bleu Cheese Sandwich with Jalapeño Chicken Corn Chowder

The interior of the new Gecko’s isn’t nearly as dark as the original. It’s ultra-modern with none of the dark woods so prevalent in the founding restaurant. It’s got a mural, too, albeit one of a seaside cityscape in which two geckos dance under a starry, moonlit sky.  Smoking is no longer permitted at either Gecko’s location, though the malodorous ghost of cigarettes past is faintly noticeable at the original which had years’ worth of a head start for the odoriferous emanations to penetrate.

Gecko’s specialty remains tapas, the ubiquitous small snacks most people associate with Spain.  Gecko’s menu explains that tapas represent a dining philosophy where small plates of small appetizers are to be shared amongst friends and family in a relaxed fashion.  Talented chefs transform simple ingredients into elaborate creations that with a few, can make a meal in themselves. The tapas menu changes periodically which may be a good thing in that you get variety, but may be a downer if you get too attached to some of the great little plates which might not make it back into the “rotation” for a while. Many of them are served with sauces obviously inspired by genius tempered with experience and creativity.

Triple Decker BLT

The shrimp and cabbage spring rolls, for example, are served with a hot, sour and sweet soy dipping sauce that while not Asian created, are inspired by the spirit and taste of Asia. They are better than 95% of the spring rolls served in Albuquerque’s Asian restaurants, many of which only hint at shrimp, but which are mostly cabbage.  Ditto for the tempura chicken skewers accompanied by a fiery chipotle cherry barbecue sauce that melds sweet, savory and piquant flavors to create a sensational taste sensation.  Tempura lightly sheathes the chicken so that it’s poultry you taste, not batter.  Similarly the sauce complements the chicken instead of making it taste like candied chicken.  Another A+ appetizer is the jerk spiced pork short ribs smothered with a smoky barbecue queso sauce–again, a pairing of seemingly disparate tastes that work exceptionally well together…and who but a creative genius might pair smoked kielbasa with a twany port reduction to form perhaps a sausage dish you might find to be the best of its kind in the Duke City.

It’s not just tapas at which Gecko’s excels. The “bar apps” (referred to as the “ol’ standby” on the menu) include thinly-sliced and lightly spiced buttermilk onion rings which are most assuredly among the very best in town. If chile con queso is what you crave, Gecko’s treats you to an extraordinary creation of chorizo blue cheese queso, perhaps the best in town of that genre. We’ve tried to duplicate some of Gecko’s masterpieces but have fallen consistently short.

Not surprisingly, Gecko’s also serves some of the best soups in town, including a rich and savory green chile chicken stew and a flavorful red chile clam chowder. While the green chile stew is standard daily fare, the chowders are rotated daily. Just how good are the soups at Gecko’s? Look above you as you walk in to the Academy restaurant and you’ll see three Souper Bowl awards including a third place award in 2012 for a sumptuous fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder. Gecko’s has also been recognized by Local IQ readers as the best place in Albuquerque to take your dogs.

The one sandwich we’ve ordered more often than any other is Gecko’s  Triple Decker BLT.   This is no simple sandwich. Stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread, it puts to shame just about every other BLT we’ve ever had. It’s maybe even better, if possible, with a fried egg.  The wheatberry (a term which refers to the entire wheat kernel) bread is lightly toasted and the applewood smoked bacon is the type of bacon only restaurants seem able to find.  The tomatoes are indeed ripe, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous artificially ripened but consistently green tomatoes most restaurants serve.

There’s a lot to like at either location of Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, a surprisingly good gastropub with tapas that can’t be topped and sandwiches ranging from sensational to sublime.

Gecko’s Bar & Tapas
3500 E. Central
Albuquerque, New Mexico

(505) 262-1848
Web Site

LATEST VISIT
: 11 November 2016
# OF VISITS
: 11
RATING
: 18
COST
: $$
BEST BET: 
Onion Rings,  

Gecko's Bar & Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gecko's Bar & Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pete’s Frites – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pete’s Frites on Route 66 in the Nob Hill district

You might view my friend Schuyler’s insistence that his favorite vegetables are French fries, salsa and pizza as a fallacious premise, a non-sequitur fraught with absurdity. French fries are made from potatoes (botanically classified as a vegetable) so categorizing fries as a vegetable might not be a stretch, but pizza? How, you might ask, could any reasoning adult possibly consider pizza a vegetable? Schuyler’s argument is inspired from the beloved 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. When ordered by the court to submit authoritative proof that Mr. Kringle is the one-and-only Santa Claus, Kringle’s lawyer Fred Gailey produced dozens of mailbags brimming with letters addressed to Santa Claus in care of the courthouse. Overwhelmed with this authoritative proof, the judge responded “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, the court will not dispute it.”

By now you’ve probably surmised that Schuyler must have uncovered authoritative proof in the form of a governmental declaration that French fries, pizza and salsa are vegetables.  Indeed he has.  He points out that in 2011, the United States Congress passed a bill that allows pizza and French fries to remain on federally funded school lunch menus, essentially declaring that anything containing two tablespoons of tomato sauce (such as pizza and salsa) can be labeled a vegetable.  In truth, Schuyler doesn’t really subscribe to that (or almost any) Congressional premise. Being a cynic (or maybe wiser than us all), he believes decisions such as considering pizza a vegetable prove government is a Kakistocracy (the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power).

Interior of Pete’s Frites

But he does love French fries..and he’d fight to the death to defend your right to eat them.  He’s not the only one.  Americans consume some two-million tons of French fries every year, an average of nearly thirty pounds per red-blooded American.  About seven percent of the potatoes grown in the fruited plain end up being sold by McDonald’s which sells more than one-third of all the French fries hawked in restaurants across the United States each year. In the early 1990s, as you may remember, McDonald’s acceded to customer demand for less saturated fat and converted the oil in which it prepares its French fries–from beef tallow to a “vegetable oil” amalgam.

Not everyone appreciated this change.  Schuyler certainly didn’t and neither did television chef and author Julia Child who did more than anyone else in the culinary arena to demystify sophisticated French cuisine for mainstream Americans.  Here’s what she had this to say about McDonald’s French fries:  “When they first started out, their French fries were very good.  And then the nutritionists got at them.  It turned out to be erroneous that tallow fat was bad and lard was bad and so forth.  So they changed it to some kind of nutritionist oil and they’ve been kind of limp ever since.  I never really eat them which is too bad and I always am very strong about criticizing, hoping maybe they’ll change.”

Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger with Fries and Garlic Aioli

While it’s probably too late for McDonald’s, Schuyler will be happy to read about an Albuquerque restaurant which hasn’t (as he would term it) “succumbed to pressure from nutritional Nazis.”  That restaurant is Pete’s Frites whose Facebook page proudly boasts “I think our fries are pretty special. We take a lot of time and pain in preparing them. We also have our not so secret oil, beef tallow, that takes them over the top.”  Schuyler will also be happy to learn that Pete’s Frites has the “Break the Chain” seal of approval from my friend Ryan Scott, one of my most trusted sources for recommendations on where to go (no, not in that way) and what to eat.

In between bites Ryan texted me to let me know about his latest find, a Santa Fe food truck turned brick-and-mortar enterprise on Nob Hill occupying the former home of Restaurant: Impossible alum Shade Tree Customs & Cafe just west of Carlisle.  He described it as “really, really good…worth a Gil review.”  Ryan’s not a man prone to hyperbole unless discussing the Denver Broncos or Texas barbecue, so when he uses “really more than once as a modifier for “good,” you can bet Pete’s Frites are almost as good as a Trevor Siemian touchdown.

Thrice Cooked Fries: More Than Twice As Nice!

Launched in September, 2016, Pete’s Frites specializes in the second part of its marquee–“frites” which you may know is what French fries are called in France and Belgium.  You wouldn’t expect a restaurant named Pete’s Frites to use some homogeneous out-of-a-bag fries.  Instead, Pete’s hand peels and cuts its potatoes daily then triple cooks them in the aforementioned beef tallow to achieve perfect Belgian-style frites.  Pete’s Web site boasts of house-cut fries which is “crunchy on the outside and mashed potatoey on the inside.”  Each frites order comes with one homemade specialty sauce: mayonnaise housemade with lemon; aioli, mayo for garlic lovers; spicy mayo with habanero-based pili pili sauce; spicy ketchup with a kick; and fry sauce (Ketchup and house-made mayo).

Few restaurants across the Duke City serve truly memorable fries worthy of adulation and certainly not worth an extra half-an-hour or more on the treadmill. Until Pete’s Frites, there hasn’t been a single restaurant intrepid enough to showcase French fries as its featured fare. So, does triple-cooking in beef tallow make that much of a difference? Absolutely! The time-intensive process is scientific in its approach, but artful in its delivery. Quite simply these are the very best frites (or fries if you prefer) in the metropolitan area, delivered as promised with a delightful crispy-crunchiness on the outside and cloud-like fluffiness on the inside. You’ll run out of the housemade sauce (the aioli is terrific) before you run out of fries, but these fries stand out on their own, needing absolutely no amelioration.

Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger with Green Chile

Much as he loved the fries, it was the burger which excited Ryan most. Pete’s boasts of premium, all-natural New Mexican beef with no hormones and antibiotics. Best of all, the proprietary blend with a beauteous balance of fat and lean is ground daily on the premises. Complimentary toppings include lettuce, onion and tomato, but for a pittance you can add Cheddar or American cheese and (or) green chile. Each burger is prepared “smash style” which means the beef is mashed onto the grill, a process which often leads to desiccated burgers. Not so at Pete’s Frites where each burger is a multi-napkin, chin-drenching affair. Bun integrity goes out the window if you order a double patty burger which is “release the floodgates” juicy. Four-ounces of beef make up a single patty burger.

Ryan recommended an “Oklahoma-style” smash burger (not on the menu) which I assumed was prepared in the manner made famous by Johnnie’s Grill in El Reno, Oklahoma. At Johnnie’s, a spatula wielding grill cook obviously well practiced in the craft mashes thinly sliced yellow onions with raw, thin, hand-formed patties, alternately grilling each side to ensure uniformity of onion dispersion. Caramelized onions adhering to the meat patty are then placed on a bun. Pete’s version is more akin to lots of grilled onions atop the beef patty. That’s a good way to go, too. Pete came out of the kitchen to ask if the green chile was too hot (you may as well ask the devil if Hell is too hot). For this volcano-eater, the green chile had a pleasant piquancy, but was certainly not too hot. Your opinion, of course, may differ.

Pete apprised me that the menu will be expanding soon with more options coming. Apparently diners can’t live on fries alone…though Pete’s are so good, you just might be willing to try, but then you’d miss out on a superb burger. You don’t want to miss out on the Pete’s Frites experience!

Pete’s Frites
3407 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 200-0661
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT:
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frites, Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger

Pete's Frites Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monte Carlo Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Package Liquor Store

The Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Package Liquor Store

“Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter
That looks like Elvis.”
~George Jones

Having spent much of his career in an inebriated state, Country music icon George Jones actually lived the life experiences that inspired much of his music.  After one of his four divorces, Jones sat alone in a rather empty home, his ex-wife having absconded with almost everything–furniture, china, glassware and more.  Among the few items left behind were a small table, a Jim Beam whiskey decanter bearing the likeness of Elvis Presley, and a Fred Flintstone jar of jelly beans.  After dumping the jelly beans, the “Possum” used the jar as a glass into which he poured the entire contents of the Jim Beam decanter.  The imaginary conversations he had with Elvis and Fred Flintstone during his impaired state were the inspiration for the song “The King is Gone.” 

Only among avid collectors will you generally find Jim Beam decanters sporting the likeness of The King.  The Duke City’s most prolific collectors of vintage adult beverage decanters, bottles and signage is the Monte Carlo Steak House on Route 66.  Kitschy mirrors emblazoned with the logos of beer distributors, anthropomorphic alcohol decanters, faux wood walls, garish neon signs, Velvet Elvis and stereotypical “leatherette” booths may have been born in another era, but they never go out of fashion because the Monte Carlo is one of the most comfortable and welcoming restaurants in the city. To those in the know, it’s also one of Albuquerque’s very best steak houses.

Taking you back 40 years–the interior of the Monte Carlo Steakhouse

“Those in the know” now include a nation-wide audience who watched the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode entitled “Where the Locals Go” in which “local hot spots” got the inimitable Guy Fieri treatment.  Contrary to the episode’s title, not all locals go to the Monte Carlo–or at least they didn’t until after the show’s premier.  In fact, many people even within the confines of the Duke City had never heard of the Monte Carlo until the Food Network introduced it to them.  It truly was one of Albuquerque’s best kept secrets.  As Fieri did, you can enter the steak house through a bustling package liquor store (which doubles as a veritable museum for even more collectibles).  You can also enter directly through an entrance on the restaurant’s west side.  One of the first things you’ll notice is a full-service bar which probably can’t concoct the libation of your choice, but can dispense long-neck Budweiser, Schlitz and Pabst like there’s no tomorrow.  The volume is turned way down on the restaurant’s televisions, but then you probably couldn’t hear them amidst the din of an eclectic crowd.

One of my propeller-headed, Jedi-worshiping, 40-something Luke Skywalker wannabe colleagues uttered “come out of the light and into the darkness, Luke” when he stepped into the Monte Carlo Steakhouse from a bright, sunlit Duke City afternoon. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit beef and beer palace by the Rio Grande–and when they do adjust, you’ll wonder if you stepped out of a portal into the 1960s.  The Monte Carlo Steakhouse is an anachronism, a bona fide throwback to a bygone era–and indeed, the restaurant has been in business since 1970.

Greek Olives and Feta Cheese

There are no distinctions between the lunch and the dinner menu and even though the menu stipulates that baked potatoes and rice pilaf are available only after 5PM, you can generally have either with your lunch. Lunch specials are available Monday through Friday while a prime rib–regarded by many as among the city’s very best–is the evening special Thursday and Friday.  Aside from the aforementioned baked potato (perfectly done) or rice pilaf, each dinner also includes one slice of Texas toast.

The parking lot is generally crowded with mechanical conveyances of every type, size and description and waiting lists tend to be long, especially on weekends.  Despite nearly overflow crowds, the wait staff is among the most accommodating and friendly in the city.  Many regulars opt for the bounteous Greek appetizer plate in lieu of the standard fried appetizers (zucchini, onion rings, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese sticks) and are rewarded with a platter of salami strips, Greek olives, Pepperoncini, tomatoes and one solitary dolma (stuffed grape leaf) all drizzled with Kalamata olive oil.  Sadly, this otherwise outstanding precursor does not include pita bread.

Salad

Steak dinners are accompanied by your choice of soup or a fresh dinner salad (perfunctory iceberg lettuce only, not the fancy designer lettuces upscale steak houses proffer) made with shredded red cabbage, tomato, carrot slivers and your choice of dressing.  For a full Greek experience, a good bet is the zesty Greek dressing which is liberally sprinkled with bits of fetid Feta cheese.  Among the restaurant’s most popular soups is the creamy green chile chicken soup, a swimming pool-sized bowl of soul-warming soup served hot.  Thickened heavily (probably with corn starch), it is replete with chicken pieces.  The green chile lacks piquancy but has a nice flavor.  Soup and salad not withstanding, this is a meat and potatoes establishment in the anachronistic traditions of the 70s.  Observing the offerings–burgers, steaks, ribs and even a cheesesteak, Fieri noted “you don’t come to this joint for a tomato and avocado on whole wheat.

The menu defines the degree of doneness for each charbroiled steak–from the “cold center” of a rare steak to the “cooked throughout” description of a well done steak–and includes a disclaimer that the restaurant is not responsible or meat ordered well done. The chef is truly master of his broiler domain, typically achieving the exacting specifications requested by discerning diners who would think nothing of sending back a steak not prepared the way they asked for it.

A lovely slab of beef and French fries

We can’t imagine ever sending the steak back.  The bone-in 20-ounce Porterhouse steak is charbroiled to perfection with just enough marbling for flavor.  Unless otherwise requested, each steak is prepared with Seasonall, an all-purpose seasoning (no MSG) used liberally.  An excellent alternative is asking for salt, pepper and garlic on each side of your steak. While on the grill, the chef will also brush on some melted butter.

One of the things that makes a Monte Carlo steak stand out is the fact that the restaurant still cuts its own steaks fresh daily, a practice begun by founder Michael Katsaros when the restaurant launched nearly thirty years ago.  The Katsaros family still runs the restaurant.  After his first bite of a ribeye, Guy Fieri’s uttered then reiterated the statement “that’s just great.”  You’re probably thinking “he’s the host of the show and is supposed to be enthusiastic about the restaurants featured,” but his sentiment pretty much echoes that of most people who discover the Monte Carlo Steak House.

Louie's Special, maybe the best steak sandwich in town.

Fieri also pointed out that “it ain’t just killer steaks that get hand-cut here.”  The souvlaki, “made with mama’s classic Greek recipe with a family twist” is made from pork tenderloin cut at the restaurant.  Each souvlaki portion is 12 to 14 ounces of some of the most tender and delicious, albeit non-traditional, skewered meat you’ll ever have.  The souvlaki is allowed to age for five to six days in a marinade of lemon juice, white wine, salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano and vinegar before it hits the grill.  After it’s done on the grill, it’s brushed on with a mix of olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and lemon juice.  Watching this inspired creation, Fieri exclaimed “I hear the national anthem of flavor town going off right about now.”  In between utterances of “wow” and “this is monster flavor, he called the flavor “so deep and so rich” and after a few forkfuls, he proclaimed “I’m moving in.”

3 November 2016: The charbroiled green chile cheeseburger is a role-model for how this most sacrosanct among New Mexico’s many sandwiches should be prepared. There are too many green chile cheeseburgers in which green chile barely registers on the Scoville scale with about as much piquancy as a bell pepper.  This green chile bites back with a pleasant piquancy heat lovers will respect.  What really sets this cheeseburger apart, however, is the freshness and moistness of the beef patty which is essentially ground steak, a thick third-pound of beef prepared to your exacting specifications. Wholly unlike the desiccated Frisbees served at some burger establishments, these meaty orbs are oh so wonderfully juicy–even if ordered at medium.  Monte Carlo’s green chile cheeseburger was selected for inclusion on both the 2009 and 2011 editions of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  It’s one of the favorite green chile cheeseburgers of Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author and architect of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger initiative.  Mine, too.

Green Chile Cheeseburger, one of the very best in New Mexico

Another “not to miss” entree is the Greek style chicken. The loquacious Fieri admitted to “not having talked much or taken a breath” while sampling this perfectly prepared poultry which he described as “killer,” one of the adjectives he uses effusively when he really likes something. He also noted that “it’s about as basic as you can make it” and “as tender and juicy as you can get it.” The key is getting it. If you haven’t visited the Monte Carlo Steakhouse, it’s worth the drive from anywhere in the Duke City area just for this chicken.

3 November 2016:  If you have to work overtime to make up for an extended lunch hour to drive across town for a lunch special, it’s worth it, especially if the lunch special is the hamburger steak with grilled onions.  My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik describes it as “75-percent as good as its counterpart at San Antonio’s fabled Owl Cafe.”  Bill, who matriculated at New Mexico Tech loves the Owl’s hamburger steak almost as much as he loves his car.  To compare the Monte Carlo’s rendition is a high compliment indeed.   Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver had his hamburger steak smothered in grilled onions and roasted green chile, two components which made his lunch even more memorable though the incendiary green chile did have him reaching for coffee more often than usual.

Hamburger steak and Onion Rings

The spaghetti’s golf ball sized meatballs have a little flavor “je ne sais quoi” that most diners try to figure out. The secret is a bit of Greek mint which just seems to invigorate the meatballs with flavor. Fieri called it a “money meatball.”

The meats are so well flavored, the service so accommodating and the ambiance so 60s, you’ll wonder why anyone would visit an inferior chain restaurant for a lesser steak or spend nearly $100 for a steak dinner at one of those hoidy toidy, fancy schmanzy restaurants.  Fieri called the Monte Carlo “just an average off-the-hook steakhouse with homemade Greek.”  Everyone else calls it special.

Monte Carlo Steak House
3916 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 831-2444
LATEST VISIT: 3 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Greek salad; Greek Appetizer Plate; Porterhouse Steak; Green Chile Cheeseburger; Hamburger Steak

Monte Carlo Steak House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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