Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 815 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6100 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

St Clair Winery & Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

St Clair Winery & Bistro

While conducting research to write this review, I uncovered varying accounts as to the genesis of wine-making in New Mexico.  The New Mexico Wine Country Web site indicates the first Spanish explorers and settlers brought their European wines grapes with them as they made the Rio Grande valley their new home in the early 1500s. The original grape stocks supposedly remain the source of many of New Mexico’s vinters to this day.

Another source relates that in 1629, Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico in defiance to Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world. Those first wines were planted  on the east bank of the Rio Grande slightly north of the village of present day San Antonio by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan monk. Despite conflicting accounts, one fact appears incontrovertible–New Mexico is the oldest wine-making region in the country.

A loaf of bread with an herbed (parsley, thyme, garlic) butter

Today the fruit of the vine is cultivated in more than 5,000 acres throughout the Rio Grande valley. St. Clair Winery, situated in the fecund Mimbres Valley is the state’s largest winery. Thanks to day and night time temperature variances that can range by as much as 30 degrees and a growing elevation of 4,500 feet, the winery is reputed to grow some of the best grapes in New Mexico.  Forty different types of grapes produce several award-winning wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah.

The Deming-based winery sits on several hundred acres and has a 500,000 gallon capacity distributed among seventy different wines under eight labels.  It is among the 100 largest wineries in the United States with an annual production of 80,000 cases of wines.  Its grapes are trucked from its 200-acre vineyards fifty miles away just outside Lordsburg.  At the winery, the grapes are filtered and pressed.  Some are barrel-aged for as long as 18 months.  In the January, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, my friend Lesley King profiled the wine-making process at the St. Clair Winery for her monthly King of the Road feature.

Nosh

In 2005, St. Clair Winery launched a wine-tasting room and bistro on the outskirts of historic Old Town Plaza and on the site of the now defunct Rio Grande Cantina. Bacchus would be proud.  An extensive wine list showcases St. Clair wines which may be enjoyed in the bistro or the stylishly appointed wine bar. The wine shop also features some of our favorite gourmet offerings as well as wine accessories. St. Clair Bistros can also be found in Las Cruces and Farmington in addition to the tasting room in Deming.

The bistro’s menu is a vehicle for the diversity of St. Clair wines which are used to accentuate the sauces and gravies on most menu items as well as salad dressings and even the bistro’s signature soup d jour.  The menus describe the best wine pairings for the bistro’s delicious French country dishes.  An old-world style dining room and spacious outdoor patio provide an enjoyable venue for generally very good dining.  

Green Chile Mac and Cheese

27 July 2014: One of the best precursors to a meal at the bistro is the cheese nosh  which over the years has undergone multiple transformations.  When first offered, guests were allowed to select three from among ten different cheeses to enjoy with Kalamata olives (thankfully pitted), grapes, chunks of chocolate, mango chutney and homemade crostini.   The platter was generously portioned and easily sated two diners.  Today turophilies (someone who is obsessed with cheese) can still order the cheese nosh and enjoy a wide-variety of surprisingly high quality cheeses.  The nosh plate is artisinal in its presentation and delightful in its variety, albeit no longer as prodigious as it once was.  Intended to be a “light snack,” the cheese nosh is beautifully plated and colorful. 

During a visit in July, 2014, the cheese nosh plate showcased five cheeses with unique personalities in terms of taste and sharpness, texture and appearance. Those cheeses were: Maytag Blue Cheese, a hand-made, cave-aged often considered one of America’s finest blue cheeses; Sage Derby, a mild, semi-hard cheese with a sage flavor and green veins characteristic of sage being added to the curds; Port Derby, a smooth and creamy cheese with an elegant Burgundy veining; Brie, the best known French cheese with a complex flavor and soft texture; and pimento, a softly spreadable cheese featuring chopped cherry peppers.  The cheeses are quite good  especially when judiciously paired with palate cleansing raspberries and dark chocolate nibs.  A variety of crisp crackers is also provided.

Pomegranate Chipotle Pork Salad

26 February 2011: Other sumptuous appetizers are also available.  The Bistro’s Green Chile Mac & Cheese, homemade mac and cheese pairing Hatch green chile with a penne pasta topped with a creamy Provolone and Cheddar cheese blend is sinfully rich, a decadent bowlful of richness.  This is an entree-sized appetizer  easily big enough for two to share.  It’s an adult mac and cheese with heady cheeses, perfectly prepared (al dente) penne and Hatch green chile for a piquant personality.

Though it may appear at first glance that the lunch menu is dominated by sandwiches and salads, upon further study, you’ll find that there are a multitude of entrees with only a handful (such as the prime rib) not available for lunch. The dinner menu showcases slow-roasted selections which take a bit longer to prepare.  During dinner servings, which begin at 4PM, the sandwiches and lunch pastas come off the menu.  All in all, the menu selections are extensive in both quantity and variety.

Flat iron steak topped with Cabarnet infused bleu cheese crumbles and potatoes au gratin

Many lunch and dinner entrees are served with the house bread, a wonderful loaf accompanied by an herbed (parsley, thyme, garlic) butter.  It’s a delicious, crusty bread enlivened by a terrific butter.  That bread is the perfect canvas for the bistro’s panini sandwiches.  Other sandwich options include the Southwest Tuna Melt, Pot Roast Sandwich, Bistro Dip and a Meatball Po’ Boy.  There are three burgers on the menu including a flame-roasted green chile cheeseburger made with Hatch green chile.  Burgers are constructed from premium certified Angus ground beef (ten-ounces) made to your exacting specifications.

27 July 2014: If you’re a salad lover, the Bistro will make you very happy, especially if your choice is the Pomegranate Chipotle Pork Salad, a beautifully plated masterpiece showcasing pomegranate and mango roasted pork loin, spring mix, cucumbers, jicama, shaved Asiago cheese, shaved almonds, and fresh beets tossed with the Bistro’s Pomegranate Wine Vinaigrette.   It’s as tasty as it sounds with all ingredients melding in delicate harmony with each other to compose a flavor profile that is savory, sweet, tangy, sharp and absolutely delicious.  The roasted pork loin is tender, moist and delicious, a perfect vehicle for the pomegranate wine vinaigrette (which is bottled and available for purchase).

Sebastien’s Wine Steak

The slow-roasted dinner entrees, including the “king of roasts” prime rib are slow-roasted and therefore not available until after 4PM.  These are served with homemade  mashed potatoes and a fresh vegetable medley.  Perhaps more than any other menu items, the slow-roasted dinner entrees truly accentuate the wines with which they are prepared.   

My Midwestern born and bred wife certifies the Merlot braised country pot roast as among the best she’s had outside of her native Chicago. Tender enough to be eaten with a fork, the pot roast is well-seasoned and delicious.  It is seared and slow-roasted in its own delicious juices.  This is pot roast the type of which you might find directly above a picture of comfort food.  It’s a meaty elixir for whatever ails you, a true carnivore’s delight.

Pasta del Faro: Fresh garlic and olive oil with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Greek olives, red peppers and capers sauteed in Chardonnay and topped with feta cheese.

26 February 2011: Available for both lunch and dinner is an eight-ounce flat iron steak topped with Cabernet-infused bleu cheese crumbles and accompanied by potatoes au gratin.  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 bleu cheese sauce and crumbles accentuate that beefy flavor with the pungent sharpness of one of my favorite cheeses, making me wish there were more than eight-ounces to enjoy.  The potatoes au gratin are perfectly prepared with just enough more than a hint of cheese, but not so much that it dominates the sweet flavor profile of the potatoes. 

27 July 2014: For sheer tenderness, it’s hard to imagine any steak comparable to Sebastien’s Wine Steak, a char-grilled steak prepared to your exacting specifications topped with a wine and mushroom sauce and served with garlic redskin (a term not offensive when describing potatoes) mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables.  With nary a hint of fat and sinew, at medium the steak is not quite cut with a fork tender, but it’s close.  It’s a moist, juicy steak and not solely because of the terrific wine and mushroom sauce.  Alas, a special steak is served with pedestrian garlic mashed potatoes, a once popular trend which has had its day.

Jackson Square Bread Pudding

26 February 2011: The Pasta del Faro is another adventure in pure pasta pleasure and flavor discernment.  This creative entree–fresh garlic and olive oil with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Greek olives, red peppers and capers–is sauteed in Chardonnay and topped with feta cheese.  There is a lot going on in this dish–a lot of flavor contrasts pitting very strong tastes against one another that go surprisingly well together.  It’s a bountiful dish big enough for two to share or for a nice meal the next day when the flavors have penetrated even further.

27 July 2014: The bistro has the audacity to call one of its desserts Jackson Square bread pudding. Having sampled almost every bread pudding offered within blocks of Jackson Square, we savored the opportunity to debunk or validate whether this dessert warranted its name.  This wonderful bread pudding passed muster! A New Orleans French toast thick slice of bread is topped with golden raisins, white and dark chocolate, egg custard and topped with homemade butter rum sauce. This bread pudding ranks as one of the five best in New Mexico on both mine and excelsior Larry McGoldrick‘s rankings.  The only thing which would make this an even better bread pudding is even more dark chocolate.

Don’t ever and I mean never let the sweet-talking wait staff talk you into trying another dessert, least of all another bread pudding.  In 2011, the Bistro introduced a second bread pudding, this one showcasing the flavor of pralines and pecans, two staples of the deep south.  Topped with a homemade butter whiskey sauce, this bread pudding suffers from the same fate which befalls other bread puddings.  It is absolutely cloying, not tempered at all by just a dash of salt.  It’s definitely not in the same league as the fabulous Jackson Square bread pudding.

Whether you’re an oenophile (someone who appreciates and knows wine) or a gastronome around town, you’ll find both creative and delicious wines and very good food at the St. Clair Winery & Bistro, a French country treasure in Old Town Albuquerque.

St Clair Winery & Bistro
901 Rio Grande
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-9916
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Nosh Platter; Jackson Square Bread Pudding, Pasta del Faro, Sebastien’s Wine Steak, Flat Iron Steak, Pomegranate Chipotle Pork Salad, Green Chile Mac and Cheese,

St. Clair Winery & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio

Just when you think you’ve seen it all and you think nothing else can possibly been done to exploit the versatility in pizza, something comes along which surprises you.  One such example is the “make your own pie” proposal by the entrepreneurial Kramerica Industries, a proposal which prompted extensive water cooler discussions.

Flamboyant CEO Cosmo Kramer envisioned a pizzeria in which “we give you the dough, you smash it, you pound it, you fling it in the air; and then you get to put your sauce and you get to sprinkle it over your cheese, and they–you slide it into the oven.”  His attempts at securing funding falter over a dispute as to whether cucumbers can be pizza toppings.

The classy interior of Nicky V’s

The aforementioned scenario transpired in an episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.”  While the “make your own pie” concept has some fundamental flaws (people shoving their arms into a 600-degree oven), it does illustrate one of the few things that haven’t actually been done with pizza in the United States. Nicole “Nicky” Villareal didn’t have any uncommon business model in mind when she and her husband set out to launch Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio.

She wanted a true neighborhood pizzeria, the type of which she enjoyed so much during her travels throughout Europe where dining is regarded as a social event.  In Europe, friends and family often linger for hours, enjoying dining and discourse in welcoming cafes and sidewalk patios. That’s the spirit she wanted to convey with her pizzeria.  That’s the spirit that readers of Albuquerque The Magazine discerned in Nicky V’s when they named it Albuquerque’s very best new restaurant for 2010.  Nicky has the experience to pull  off her dreams, having served on the operational management side of several restaurants though Nicky V’s is her first venture in a sole ownership role.

Raviolo Fritti (Fried Ravioli and warm marinara sauce)

Nicky V’s is is about a mile away from restaurant row on Coors Bypass where a phalanx of mediocre chain restaurants blights the landscape. It is situated in the same corner space which once housed two other pizza restaurants–a middling quality Florida-based chain named New York Pizza Department (NYPD) and a local, non-related favorite named JC’s New York Pizza Department.  The 3,300 square-foot restaurant includes an east-facing patio featuring spectacular views of the cottonwoods surrounding the Rio Grande as well as the breathtaking Sandias.

Nicky V’s may have an old-fashioned customer-centric attitude, but the ambiance bespeaks of contemporary modernity.  You won’t find any of the stereotypical trappings–such as red and white checkered tablecloths–of neighborhood pizzerias of old, but you will find an old-fashioned attitude in which good service and friendliness abounds.  Nicky makes the rounds frequently to ensure her patrons are enjoying the dining experience while the wait staff is on-the-spot with a recommendation or a refill.

Il Manchango – Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and Manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette

The walls are adorned with framed photographs of Venice, Rome and Orvietto taken by Nicky’s husband when they traveled throughout Europe during their one-year anniversary-slash-honeymoon.  Traveling throughout Europe via Eurorail left an indelible impression on Nicky.  It helped establish her vision for the type of restaurant she would eventually open.

The menu includes an array of familiar and innovative offerings.  Appetizers include throwbacks such as fritto misto (breaded calamari, onion rings, fried zucchini) as well as the seemingly de rigueur anti-pasto platter (cured meats, roasted peppers, olives, fresh mozzarella) and pita points and hummus (cucumber relish, Kalamata olives, hummus and warm pita).  Raviolio Fritti, fried ravioli with warm marinara, each of five the size of an iPhone, are a popular favorite.

Antipasto: prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives, mozzarella cheese

7 August 2010: The Ravioli Fritti are lightly breaded then fried to a golden sheen and served in a conical wrought iron basket.  Each ravioli is sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and oregano and is stuffed with a rich cheese blend.  The consistency of each ravioli is just slightly crispy, but not crunchy.  The marinara is quite good, the type of which would go very well on a pasta dish. 

12 September 2011: Another excellent starter, one of the very best of its genre in the city, is the Antipasto platter, a plate brimming with crostini, prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives and mozzarella.  By themselves, each individual item on the platter is quite good.  In combinations with one another, they’re all even better.  Top a crostini with a slice of prosciutto, spread on some of the near butter soft mozzarella then crown it all with the roasted pepper and olives and you’ve got an improvised sandwich of the first order.  You can also each component immensely by itself as the high quality shines with each and every bite. 

Pita Points and Hummus

20 July 2014: Appetizers at Nicky V’s tend to be not only beautifully plated, but very generously portioned.  Save for the Raviolo Fritti, the appetizers are pretty much intended to be shared.  That’s certainly the case with the Pita Points and Hummus, a manhole cover sized plate artistically plated with warm pita wedges, cucumber relish (cucumbers, kalamata olives, onions, Roma tomatoes), feta cheese and hummus on a bed of mixed greens.  The cucumber relish is delicious and would make a great salad by itself, but goes especially well with the Feta cheese because of how significantly its flavor profile clashes with the fetid fromage.  The hummus is very garlicky but with a discernible tang from a squeeze or two of lemon. 

Pasta dishes are adorned with a variety of sauces: white wine pasta cream sauce, mascarpone and lemon butter sauce, roasted pepper Parmesan cream sauce, fresh herb Veloute sauce and a cracked pepper pesto cream sauce.  None of the pasta entrees are made with a traditional “red” sauce (marinara or meat sauce).  Even the lasagna is made with a Bolognese meat sauce.

The Umbria - Truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts

The Umbria – Truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts

The pizza menu is segmented into a “Smart” category and a “Savvy” category, perhaps an indication that you can’t go wrong regardless of from which pizza you order.  The pizza dough is scratch-made in-house using a sourdough starter that is allowed to ferment for a day before being rolled into dough.  The dough is made from “the finest flours milled.”  Toppings are of “only the best quality, using local and organic whenever possible.” 

Only one size pizza is offered, a twelve-inch pie that’s perhaps a bit too big to be called a personal pizza, but may be too small to be shared.  Eat half at the restaurant and take the other half home; this pizza is just as good out of the fridge as it is out of the oven.  Pies range from the traditional (Margherita with red sauce, mozzarella slices and fresh basil) to the locally inspired (the New Mexican, made with red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, Autumn green chili and garlic crunch) to the innovative.

Tre – red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers, oregano

In the latter category are pizzas topped with non-traditional ingredients, the likes of which few pizzerias in Albuquerque offer.  These toppings range from the rich and sublime (the Novara includes gorgonzola, pears, ricotta cheese, toasted walnuts and olive oil) to the truly unique (the Siena is crafted from red sauce, Yukon potatoes, roasted red peppers, pancetta and fresh basil). It’s not every pizza for which wine pairings might even be a consideration, but Nicky can tell you exactly which wine and pizza combinations complement one another best. 

The restaurant’s phone number, by the way, is 890-WINE (9463), but don’t expect to find the cheap Chinati bottles which seem to adorn the red and white checkerboard tablecloths at the stereotypical mom-and-pop Italian joints. In fact, Nicky V’s earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2012 in recognition of the restaurant’s more than 125 offerings covering all the reaches of the globe.   With our practice of never drinking adult beverages if we’re driving, we could only imagine what red vintage might have gone best with the Umbria, a pizza crafted with truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, Prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts.

Limited Time Special Served on St. Patrick’s Day: Gravy, ground beef, peas, mashed potato and Cheddar cheese (Photo courtesy of Bruce “Senor Plata” Silver)

5 June 2010: What my mind’s eye is still reliving is the wonderful texture of the pie.  Nicky V’s pizzas are thin-crusted, but not waifishly thin.  What sets them apart are their crunchiness which is wholly unlike the cracker-crust variety of pizzas.  It’s a crunchiness that doesn’t offset the pizza’s chewiness if that’s possible.  The Umbria is a terrific pizza with flavor explosions in every bite as excellent ingredients compete with each other for the rapt attention of your taste buds. 

5 June 2010: Another revelation in flavor appreciation is the Chieti, a masterpiece of a pie topped with garlic cream, a cheese blend, roasted butternut squash, Gorgonzola and baby arugula.  The top topper is butternut squash, a creamy, fine-textured, orange-fleshed squash with a taste vaguely resembling sweet potato.  The arugula and its characteristic light bitter flavor seems to bring out the pungency of the Gorgonzola, a blue cheese with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste.  The creator of this pie is an inspired genius!  Alas, it is no longer on the menu, but it’s much missed (at least by me).

The New Mexican: red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch

12 September 2011: Most pizza restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment pander to New Mexican tastes for green chile by offering it as either an optional topping or using it as the centerpiece of a specialty pizza.  Unfortunately, the green chile often has no more bite than parsley.  Nicky V’s offers two pizzas with names near and dear to the heart of many Duke City diners: the New Mexican (red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch) and the Lobo (red sauce, Italian sausage, green chile, red onions, cheese blend, fresh roasted red peppers).  The New Mexican will bring pride to any state citizen who loves chile.  It will also bring sweat to your brow and maybe even singe your tongue.  Not only does the green chile have heat, the red sauce may include red chile powder and even the pepperoni has a kick to it.  Piquancy aside, this is a very good pizza that will impress itself upon your taste buds and your memories. 

7 August 2010: The Tre, an Italian word that means three, is made up of more than three ingredients: red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers and oregano. Those ingredients are of superb quality. The red sauce and Italian sausage are as good as any on any pizza in the Duke City. The red sauce has a slight piquant bite with just a bit of sweetness and very little acidity despite the obvious fresh tomato base. The sausage has a nice fennel-rich flavor. The roasted red peppers are nonpareil, perfection itself. As my friend Larry McGoldrick has observed, Nicky V’s pizzas are as good as any thin-crust pizza you’ll find in Chicago…and yes, the Windy City has outstanding thin crust pizza!

Orvietto – smoked bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh basil, Crimini mushrooms, peas and pine nuts tossed with cavatappi with a white wine pasta cream sauce

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2011, Nicky V’s introduced–for a limited time only–a pizza special  citizens of the British Isles would have scarfed-up though Nicky admitted she had a hard time talking  customers into trying it.  One intrepid diner who did try the Shepherd’s Pie Pizza was my adventurous friend Señor Plata.  He ranted about this pizza, a thin-crust canvass with gravy slathered on instead of tomato sauce and topped with mashed potatoes, ground beef  and Cheddar cheese.  Larry McGoldrick had  recommended Nicky offer a corned beef and cabbage pizza which might also have received a cool reception from diners who wouldn’t try it.  Some year, I’ll be there to sample whatever Nicky contrives for St. Patrick’s Day. 

7 August 2010: As outstanding as the pizza is, Nicky invites her diners to try the pasta, recommending most highly the Orvietto, an amazing pasta crafted from smoked bacon (pancetta) crimini mushrooms, peas and cavatappi noodles in a white wine pasta cream sauce. The cavatappi, a double-elbow, corkscrew or spiral macaroni formed into a spiral tube shape with groves on their outside surface, is perfectly prepared, just beyond al dente. The white wine reduction melds with the crimini mushrooms and the beautifully smoked Italian bacon to form flavor combinations that dance on your taste buds. The sauce is just perfect, neither too rich or too subtle. This is one of the best pasta dishes we’ve had in New Mexico.

Il Adelaide: Garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage in a Creole pasta cream sauce

As fans of Garfield, once the world’s most widely syndicated comic, know, the rotund cat loves lasagna.  Once confronted by his owner Jon about having eaten four boxes of lasagna, Garfield’s hiccuped retort was, “It’s not my fault.  They started it.”  Garfield would want at least four boxes of Nicky V’s lasagna, a simple blend of lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese topped with mozzarella cheese made complex with a Bolognese meat sauce that the chef tends to for six to eight hours.  This is no ordinary meat sauce.  The Bolognese is true to time-honored traditions.  It’s also quite good. 

Another complex entree prepared exceptionally well is Nicky V’s Chicken Veloute, an entree made with one of the true classic sauces of French cuisine.   The sauce finds its genesis in the word velvety, an apt term for the sauce which is made from a light chicken stock thickened with a blond roux.  Nicky V’s rendition is also made with an onion confit (onions reduced to an intensified flavor), roasted garlic, Crimini mushrooms, chicken and spinach fettuccine.  My friend Señor Plata was surprised to find a dish of such complexity and depth of flavor in an Italian restaurant.  I was surprised at how good it was.

Gnocci: roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil

14 December 2010: Save for the fabulous Orvietto which is in stratified company as one of the very best pasta dishes in Albuquerque, my favorite of Nicky V’s outstanding pasta dishes is the gnocchi, one of the most complex renditions of this dish I’ve ever had with roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks, red onions and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper Parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil.  The gnocchi are rich dumplings with a texture so light they practically melt in your mouth.  The sauce is lick-the-plate good with flavor accents that impress themselves on your taste buds. 

20 July 2014: Chicken Parmesan is an old school entree some Italian restaurants (especially the haughty Northern Italian restaurants) are “too uppity” to serve.  Though it may seem to be a simple dish, it can be very challenging to make well.  Nicky V’s rendition is made with a very thick chicken breast.  Too long in the oven and the breading chars.  Not long enough in the oven and the inside of the chicken borders on raw.  We experienced both extremes, but in the process wound up falling in love with the side spaghetti.  More specifically, we fell in love with the spaghetti sauce which is made from tomatoes grown in Moriarty, New Mexico.  The sauce has a perfect balance of sweetness and tanginess without the oft-characteristic acidity of some tomatoes.  It’s an excellent sauce. 

Note:  Even though our experience with the Chicken Parmesan wasn’t up to the exceedingly high Nicky V standards, the staff was very accommodating, professional and kind when we sent the dish back.

Chicken Parmesan with Spaghetti

28 March 2011: Conspicuous by virtue of its name is Il Adelaide which frankly sounds more Australian than it does Italian.  Rather than name it for an Italian landmark, the chef who conceptualized the dish named it for Nicky’s spicy little daughter Adelaide.  Il Adelaide is indeed spicy, courtesy of a pasta cream sauce redolent with Cayenne peppers.  Other ingredients include garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage.  It’s a complex dish which pays tribute to the lively flavors of Louisiana.  With the 2011 demise of the Cajun Kitchen, Il Adelaide is a comforting thought that you can still get a semblance of Cajun-Creole cooking in the Duke City.

Six salads are also available. These aren’t the types of salads that remind you that the word “diet” is simply the word “die” with the letter “t” added at the end. These are the type of salads of which you can make a thoroughly enjoyable meal. Three of the salads–a house salad, a Caesar salad and “the Wedge”–are pretty standard, though what will set them apart at Nicky V’s is the quality of ingredients and their freshness. The other three salads are crafted with ingenuity and flair. All are available in half- or full-sizes.

Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Meatballs, Marinara, Parmesan and Provolone all stacked tall and sent into Nicky V’s brick oven until bubbly hot!

5 June 2010: The Il Manchango is festooned with Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette. This is an ingredient-fest combining several different taste and texture sensations–the sweet tartness of the Fuji apples; the sugary sweetness of fresh dates; the tangy zestiness of arugula; the crunchy saltiness of the toasted pecans; the unique buttery-bitter spiciness of endives and the pungent saltiness of the manchango drizzled with the citrusy sweetness of a vinaigrette.

This is an outstanding salad especially if you like adventurous taste discernment, flavor combinations and a variety of textures in one plate. It’s also a fun salad to eat. You can use the endive leaves to form a sort of lettuce taco in which you can pile on other ingredients.

Tiramisu (Espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder

9 October 2012: For lunch only (11AM to 4PM), Nicky v’s offers four paninis, all built on French (not Italian) lightly toasted hoagie rolls served with a bag of Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar chips (or a side salad for two dollars more) and a pepperoncini.  One of the most popular of the four is the Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, named for KOAT-TV’s popular meteorologist who frequents the restaurant.  This panini is constructed from meatballs, marinara, parmesan and provolone stacked tall and sent to the oven until bubbly hot.  

5 June 2010: Nicky V’s desserts, many made in-house (sounds like a repeating theme) are par excellence, a quadrumvirate of fine-dining quality sweets.  The tiramisu, espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder–is an exemplary rendition of this popular Italian cake.  It is neither too sweet nor too moist, but sufficient in both qualities to make it one of the best tiramisu in Albuquerque.

Profiterole – puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate

7 August 2010: A recent addition to the superb Nicky V’s menu is gelato, which is much more than Italian ice cream, having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream. Texturally, it is much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor than American ice cream.  High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally, not shipped from afar. Nicky V’s acquires its gelato from Van Rixel Brothers Gelato, the best local source possible.  It’s outstanding!  In fact, the sea salt and caramel gelato may be the very best gelato we’ve had in Albuquerque.  It’s Nicky’s favorite and mine, too.  Flavors will be rotated weekly.

5 June 2010: The profiteroles, puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate, are also quite wonderful. Even the whipped cream is made in-house (as if that needs to be said) and it’s some of the best we’ve had. The profiteroles are rich and delicious.

Sea salt and caramel gelatto

In business for just a few years years, Nicky V’s Pizzeria has earned accolades and honors restaurants in business for much longer can only aspire to. In July, 2011, Nicky was presented the award for “Best Small Business 2011″ by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Her terrific restaurant was later selected to compete in the “Chef Knockout” competition, an Iron Chef style head-to-head cooking competition pitting some of the city’s very best restaurants. The sky is the limit for Nicky V’s, already one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre!

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio
9780 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-9463
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2012
1st VISIT: 5 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
BEST BET: Chieti, Umbria, Il Manchango, Profiterole, Tiramisu, Sea salt and caramel gelatto, Orvietto, Tre, Lasagna, Chicken Veloute, Gnocchi, Il Adelaide, Spaghetti

Nicky V's Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio on Urbanspoon

MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary & Tito's may serve the very best red chile in Albuquerque

Mary & Tito’s, THE very best New Mexican restaurant in the world!

Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963.  It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance.  These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful.  If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains.  Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.

Just how good is Mary & Tito’s?  In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had.  Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30″ rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.

Mary Ann Gonzales for whom the restaurant is named passed away on Tuesday, September 17, 2013.  She was a great and wonderful lady!  Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again.  Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel.  Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.

There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips.  Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there.  It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico and now my highest rated in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.

Mary & Tito’s legendary carne adovada. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s.  In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.

Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990, his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales and their effervescent daughter Antoinette provided the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversaw an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere.  A spry nonagenarian, Mary remained a peripatetic presence at the restaurant virtually until passing away on September17, 2013.  Guests at Mary & Tito’s will miss seeing her energetically flitting to and from tables to make sure her customers are enjoying their meals.  Invariably, they all are!

Mary & Tito's green chile burrito stuffed with guacamole and rice--one of the very best burritos in the universe!

A rare sight–green chile on a burrito at Mary & Tito’s where red is best!

The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!  Beads of perspiration glisten on my friend Ruben’s forehead with every bite, but he perseveres through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor.  Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like.  It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like.  The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.

Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it.  Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin). There is magic in this purity.  There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch.  There’s none of that in this red chile!

A guacamole, beans and rice burrito with red chile. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat.  My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.

My friend Ruben, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, is absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.”  As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

A large combination plate: taco, tamale, cheese enchilada, beans and rice

In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment.  As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed.  Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stands out, the best of the best!

The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef.  With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.

The Monday Special: A large combination plate–taco, chile relleno and cheese enchilada

Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito.  It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!

With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.

Chile relleno covered in red.

Chile relleno covered in red.

The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion.  The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte.  As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.

My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other.  In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment).  New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker.  He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.

A huskless tamale smothered in red chile

You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover’ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city.

Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa.  The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.

Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy.  Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city.  Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out.  A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.

Carne Adovada Omelet

Carne Adovada Omelet

Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams.  There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.

Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive.  They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself.  They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific desserts available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and chips at Mary & Tito’s

For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular.  Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times.  You won’t find any better in New Mexico.  You won’t find anything close.

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

Chicharones, Mary & Tito’s style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.  Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.

While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?

The James Beard Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.”  The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.”  New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s?  Why not?  They’re fantastic!

In the February, 2013 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine  celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.”  I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved.  It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.

Mary & Tito’s fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013.  While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s.  The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu.  More converts!

Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.

MARY & TITO’S CAFE
2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-344-6266
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 36
RATING: 27
COST: $$
BEST BET
: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones,  Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate

Mary & Tito's Cafe on Urbanspoon