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The Shop Breakfast & Lunch – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Shop Breakfast and Lunch on Monte Vista

In the 60s and early 70s, movies and television programs would have you believe all spies were hard-drinking, fast-driving, woman-chasing playboys as good with their fists as they were with a gun. They were worldly, sophisticated and charming, but could just as easily use guile and deception to get the job done. Bob Ayers, who worked in intelligence for 30 years in the U.S. Army and Defense Intelligence Agency counters those stereotypes: “All of that stuff about James Bond, that’s Hollywood. You don’t want anyone standing out in the intelligence business. You want someone nondescript. The ideal spy is 5-foot-6 and kind of dumpy.”

That ideal—nondescript and dumpy—just wouldn’t work in the restaurant business…or would it? Restaurants, especially those which are generously bankrolled by corporate megaliths, tend to have a lot of cash, flash and panache to create the illusion of glamor and allure which brings in customers (and most of us are easily entertained). In addition to all the pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance money can buy, these restaurants tend to have catchy, memorable names which help in the establishment and proliferation of brand identity. They’re capacious, swanky, memorable and largely successful.

Interior of The Shop Breakfast and Lunch

Anyone who thinks this formulaic approach is the recipe for success would be at a loss to explain a restaurant like The Shop Breakfast and Lunch. It has none of the aforementioned characteristics of superficiality that seem to draw in the crowds. Even its name is so ambiguous that unless you know The Shop is a restaurant (the Breakfast and Lunch part is subtitled), you might dismiss it as yet another kitschy university area vintage clothing shop. While not “dumpy,” its ambiance is far from ostentatious. Maybe, that’s part of its charm. Perhaps that’s why The Shop has a faithful following that eschews the artifice and ambiance of the “shiny” restaurants to eat there instead.

Like The Shop itself, its patrons aren’t pretentious. Many of them are students at the University of New Mexico (UNM) which sprawls just across Buena Vista from the restaurant. They appreciate being able to fuel up on great food that isn’t going to break a student’s ramen-in-a-Styrofoam-box budget. You can bet the UNM voting demographic stuffed the Alibi’s ballots in 2014 when The Shop was named the Duke City’s “best new restaurant.”

Kentucky Hot Brown

Those of us who have only been students of life for a while also appreciate the great food…and to be honest, most of us don’t imbibe the “ambiance.” After all, a swanky milieu doesn’t improve the flavor of any food. The Shop’s furnishings are more utilitarian than they are comfortable, but you won’t be thinking about how much more comfortable you’d be in a plush, cozy chair as you’re indulging on an even cozier Kentucky Hot Brown.

Your eyes didn’t just deceive you. You did read “Kentucky Hot Brown,” perhaps the only thing more popular in the Bluegrass State than the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. The Kentucky Hot Brown is to Kentucky what the green chile cheeseburger is to New Mexico. It’s a sacrosanct sandwich beloved throughout the state. Even if you haven’t been to Kentucky, you may have heard about it on the Food Network, Travel Channel, PBS or any number of nationally syndicated stations. At The Shop, it’s far from the only sandwich surprise on the menu.

QBano

Surprises start with the most important meal of the day.  The breakfast menu, served all day long (from 8AM through 3PM) offers hearty options, some of which you can’t find anywhere else in Albuquerque.  The duck hash, biscuits and chorizo gravy, shrimp and grits and of course, the Kentucky Hot Brown are just a few of them.  Lunch offerings are categorized into sandwiches (with your choice of house made chips or side salad), mac and cheese (three scrumptious options) and three creative salads (Kale Caesar anyone?) .

15 April 2015: During the Roaring 20s, the executive chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky invented a sandwich to help revelers to wind down and sober up.  Today that sandwich, the Kentucky Hot Brown may be more popular (at least in the Louisville area) than the Kentucky Derby.  To say it should be served with an angioplasty may be an understatement.  This is a caloric overachiever constructed from egg-battered pain de mie (a soft-crusted butter- and milk-rich loaf), thick cut ham, white Cheddar mornay sauce (a type of Bechamel), two eggs and bacon.  Because it’s so very rich and creamy, it’s not for everyone, but everyone should try it at least once or twenty times.

Breakfast Sandwich

15 April 2015: Several years ago, former Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez attempted a commercially-driven re-branding of the city.  Despite his efforts, the sobriquet “The Q” didn’t exactly catch on, not that anyone would believe The Shop’s QBano  is named for the mayor’s folly.   Obviously, the QBano is a Cuban sandwich, one of the very best in “The Q,”…er, the Duke City.  The canvas for this magnificent sandwich is a toasted bolillo roll stuffed and pressed with citrus-brined roasted local pork shoulder, sliced ham, yellow mustard, roasted garlic aioli, Gruyere cheese and housemade pickles.  Just perusing the ingredients will cue you in that there are many elements which make this sandwich so special.  My friend Bill raved about the garlic aioli while the pork shoulder won me over.  This is a sandwich that’s more delicious than the sum of its ingredients! 

15 April 2015: In some cultures (Vietnamese, for example), sandwiches are a breakfast mainstay.  For some reason, however, Americans seem to dismiss the notion of much more than eggs and ham on their breakfast sandwich (Cafe Bella being an exception).  Perhaps acquiescing to American tastes, The Rush’s ubiquitously named Breakfast Sandwich does indeed include eggs and a type of ham (prosciutto) then it gets creative with  tomato, arugula, and basil aioli.  There isn’t enough prosciutto to suit the ham lover in most of us and veggie haters might not like the thick tomatoes or peppery arugula, but most will enjoy the sandwich in its entirety. 

Fried Chicken Sandwich

23 April 2015:The answer-slash-punchline to the trite joke that begins “why did the chicken cross the road?” could well be “to avoid becoming a chicken sandwich.” What chicken in its right mind would want a fate so boring? Despite being so commonplace (operative word, common), the chicken sandwich at one restaurant is more of the same banality as you’ll find at almost every other restaurant. You’d think someone (besides the Stone Face Tavern) could come up with something original to do with chicken. The Shop has! Its fried chicken sandwich is constructed with a buttermilk fried chicken breast, shaved cabbage slaw, a creamy caraway dressing, housemade pickles and just enough hot sauce to create an absolutely delicious interplay with the caraway dressing. The chicken itself is moist and sheathed with a light breading which glistens from the creaminess of the caraway and fiery red of the sauce. The pickles provide a tart, but not lip-pursing foil while the shaved cabbage slaw offers a textural contrast. It’s a chicken sandwich any self-respecting chicken would gladly sacrifice its feathers to be a part of.

23 April 2015:For years I didn’t understand coffee snobs and their haughty, expensive designer mochas, lattes, espressos and cappuccinos. The lure of these trendy and upscale aromatic elixirs escaped me until my first sip of the red chili (SIC) mocha at Café Bella in Rio Rancho. To say it was love at first sip was an understatement, one that opened my eyes to the realization that maybe the coffee snobs were right. Because my daytime proximity to Café Bella has shifted by nearly twenty miles, I’ve searched high and low for a closer proximity version of the soothing, sating, invigorating siren’s call that is red chile mocha. While none have equaled the one at my beloved Café Bella, the Mexican Mocha at The Shop has lessened my pain a bit. It’s an earthy, palate-pleasing beverage which more than hints at piquancy and chocolate, two of the world’s finest taste sensations.

Mexican Mocha

While The Shop Breakfast and Lunch may be an ugly duckling compared to some of Albuquerque’s “shiny,” flashy restaurants, it’s a beautiful, graceful swan in the kitchen where some of the most creative and delicious dishes in the Nob Hill district are created.

The Shop Breakfast And Lunch
2933 Monte Vista Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 433-2795
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 April 2015
1st VISIT: 15 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Qbano, Breakfast Sandwich, Kentucky Hot Brown, Housemade Potato Chips, Fried Chicken Sandwich

The Shop Breakfast and Lunch on Urbanspoon

J.J.’s Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

J.J.'s Pizza on Menaul

J.J.’s Pizza on Menaul

“Locally owned and operated.”  It’s a concept I celebrate on my blog in paying homage to intrepid moms and pops who risk it all to compete with the ubiquitous corporate chains.  I trumpet the fact that locally owned and operated restaurants can be unpredictable, that they prepare food to order instead of thawing something out which was shipped from corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away, that you can get to know the great families who own them, that those families have very personal investments and take immense pride in their products.

Justin (JJ) Salazar’s ideas as to what constitutes “locally owned and operated” mirror my own.  In his words, local should mean that “a business is owned by someone who lives in town (not just a mailing address), that there is no parent company (franchise) taking the proceeds to another town, and that the owner works in the business.”  JJ knows that “nobody cares as much as an owner and that it does no good if the owner’s not in the store.”  He plans on passing on his business to his children so you know his heart is in his investment.

The interior of JJ’s

J.J. grew up in Albuquerque, just a couple of blocks from Central Avenue in the UNM area where he frequented Nunzio’s, then the undisputed best independent pizzeria in town.  As a teenager he was fascinated with the art and science of cooking, particularly the chemistry and processes that create different breads.  This knowledge served him well as he moved up the ladder from driver to general manager in one of the busiest Pizza Hut franchises in New Mexico.

His time at Pizza Hut served to intensify his appreciation for independent pizzerias, an appreciation he would nurture in California where he immersed himself in studying and training for the day he would launch his own independent pizza restaurant.  It would take borrowing from every source he could find before J.J. would realize his dream, the type of personal investment many mom and pop restaurant owners make in their restaurants.  The price of a dream can be very costly.

Before there were video games....

Before there were video games….

From the outside, J.J.’s Pizzeria resembles many other independent pizzerias with little of the flash and panache of the behemoth pizza chains which are ultimately more style than substance and whose copycat products reflect the impersonal investment of their parent chain.  When you walk in, don’t expect the typical rehearsed wait schtick of insincere chains.  J.J. himself greets you as he might a guest at his home.  It’s yet another aspect of independent restaurants I appreciate.

Positioned above the counter at which you place your order is a menu which at first browse resembles the menu of many a pizzeria.  Pizza is available in small (a personal size eight-inch beauty), medium, large and extra large sizes.  A panoply of specialty pizzas includes meat lovers options (including a barbecue beef pizza) as well as vegetarian friendly pizzas.  You can also construct your own from a phalanx of available ingredients.  Eleven different hot subs, calzones, salads and even spaghetti are also available.

The Ranchero Pizza at J.J.'s

The Ranchero Pizza at J.J.’s

On one corner of the restaurant are positioned three video games.  No, not the modern hand-held video games.  J.J.’s got the precursors of today’s innovative digitally enhanced multi-platform games.  These are the video games of the 1980s, the type of which could be found in drugstores, laundromats and game rooms two decades ago.  J.J. grew up playing these games and still has a soft spot in his heart for them.

So what makes J.J.’s pizza different?  It certainly starts with the crust.  Dough is made fresh from scratch in the store every day, a recognition that living dough makes better bread than frozen dough.  The crust has deep hues of brown and gold, the speckled char to which all great pizzas aspire.  The crust is baked in a Middleby Marshal PS260 pizza oven which cooks hotter meaning the dough never comes out doughy and all the toppings are cooked thoroughly.   Only 100 percent never-frozen, real mozzarella cheese is used on each pizza.

A large pizza: half Ranchero and half barbecue beef

A large pizza: half Ranchero and half barbecue beef

1 July 2009: During my inaugural visit, J.J. himself recommended the Ranchero (pictured above), a personal sized pizza topped with pepperoni, ground beef, bacon and green chile.  It was an astute recommendation from an obviously very proud owner.  The Ranchero is an excellent pizza!  It arrives at your table steaming hot and cooked all the way through.  The crust is pliable, with enough bend that it can probably be folded like New York style pizza.  It is a terrific crust, the type of which will remind you of great bread right out of the oven.  The sauce is thick, well-seasoned and hearty.  The ingredients, particularly the green chile, are top notch.  The green chile has a nicely roasted flavor and just a bit more piquancy than most Duke City pizzas.

23 August 2009: Being an independently owned and operated family business means you have the latitude to do what you want; you don’t have to follow the corporate regimen.  If you ask for a unique combination (within reason), JJ’s can prepare it for you.  You can, for example, ask for a half Ranchero (pepperoni, ground beef, bacon, green chile) and half barbecue beef and it will be delivered to your table.  The barbecue beef pizza is topped with handfuls of barbecue beef and red onion, each slice offering some of both.  The beef has a faint smokiness and is imbued with a sweet and tangy sauce.  It’s the type of beef which would go well in a barbecue beef sandwich–which is a good thing because the menu offers it as one of eight hot subs–ranging in size from five-inches to ten-inches–on the menu.

Meatball Sub

 

21 April 2015: The hot subs include turkey, Italian, roast beef, Albuquerque turkey, BBQ, club, ham and meatball.  If the meatball sub is any indication, JJ’s is no slouch in the sandwich department.  You’ll want the ten-inch meatball sub which arrives at your table sliced in half.  A generous number of meatballs smothered in a thick marinara are nestled in a lightly toasted roll and topped with shredded mozzarella.  There’s very little, if any, filler in the meatballs which are just slightly larger than bite-sized.  Because the marinara is so thick and tomato-rich, this may be the least messy meatball sub in town.  Not quite fully melted, the shredded mozzarella is a nice change from the gooey, molten blanket of cheese which usually tops meatball subs.  It’ll be hard to top this sub!

Albuquerque has a surprising number of very good independent pizzerias.  When J.J. Salazar entered the fray, he knew his product had to be a cut above in order to compete. It is!  If personal investment, a terrific product and owner involvement count for anything–and they should–J.J.’s Pizza will continue to win over a discerning Duke City market.

J.J.’s Pizza
4111 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-6962
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2015
1ST VISIT: 1 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Ranchero, BBQ Beef Pizza, Cinna-Munchies, Meatball Sub

J J's Pizza on Urbanspoon

IKrave Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

iKrave Cafe for Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese Sandwiches

Please say it isn’t so!  According to Nations Restaurant News, a highly respected trade publication “a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs” believes “American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.”  The notion of corporate chain megaliths setting their sights on the humble banh mi should send shudders down the spine of everyone who frequents the mom-and-pop nature of the banh mi restaurants we’ve come to know and love. Imagine a phalanx of Subway-like sandwich shops creating and selling banh mi. The notion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. One of the first chains vying to expand the presence of banh mi in the mainstream is Chipotle whose Asian-themed offshoot “ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen” features banh mi as the menu’s cornerstone. If Chipotle does for the banh mi what it did for burritos and what Olive Garden did for Italian food, there will be generations of American diners who may never experience the real thing–an authentic banh mi prepared in the traditional manner by Vietnamese weaned on banh mi. Worse, slick Madison Avenue advertisers might convince them they prefer the faux food.

iKrave’s energetic, customer oriented owner Hien

It’s a small consolation that it will probably take a while before the heavily bankrolled chain interlopers reach Albuquerque (think about how long it took before Chipotle invaded).  That gives the Duke City’s  three established independent purveyors of peerless banh mi the opportunity to win over even more converts.  It should take only one visit!Until just a few years ago, you had to visit larger cosmopolitan areas such as San Francisco to find banh mi.  Eventually such banh mi pioneers as May Café, May Hong and Cafe Dalat, all full-service Vietnamese restaurants, began offering “Vietnamese Sandwiches” on their appetizer menus.  Before long, almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City followed suit.  In 2010, Banh Mi Coda became the Duke City’s first full-fledged banh mi shop.  It took three more years before Sai Gon Sandwich launched, becoming the second restaurant in Albuquerque dedicated solely to banh mi.

#4 Grilled Pork Banh Mi

The third banh mi restaurant–the one about which you may not yet have heard–is called iKrave.  The name means exactly what it sounds it should mean as in “I crave” banh mi. iKrave opened its doors in August, 2014. Being ensconced in a rather nondescript strip mall on Juan Tabo (just north of Constitution) and without a prominent eye-catching storefront, much of its business has come from the Vietnamese community and nearby residents. You wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to keep secret what is one of New Mexico’s best sandwich shops of any genre. iKrave exemplifies the axioms “big things come in small packages” and “small place, huge flavors.” This Lilliputian lair has room for only a couple of small tables, a free-standing beverage refrigerator and a bamboo counter where you place your order. The man behind the counter is owner-chef Hien who not only constructs the banh mi (it’s a thing of beauty), he cures, marinades, cuts and otherwise imparts preternatural deliciousness on all the meats which grace the banh me he serves. He also slices, dices and juliennes all the fresh vegetables adorning each banh mi.

Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

To say the banh mi is a sacrosanct sandwich is an understatement. So is calling it merely delicious or utterly wonderful. During a 2009 visit to Vietnam for his award-winning “No Reservations” show, Anthony Bourdain described banh mi as “a symphony in a sandwich.” It’s an apt description for the effect this superb sandwich has on your taste buds. You can almost picture all ten-thousand taste buds dancing, enrapt in the melodious harmony of flavorsBourdain elaborated further: “The baguette alone is something of a miracle. How do they stay so crunchy, crisp and fresh on the outside, so airy, so perfect on the inside?” In truth, this statement is much more applicable to the baguettes in Vietnam than the bread used by banh mi purveyors throughout the Duke City. Hien procures his baguettes from a local baker whose classic preparation techniques are very close to those used in Vietnam. Unlike American sandwiches whose bread can lull taste buds to sleep, Vietnamese baguettes are really the vessel that coalesces all the flavors of the banh mi.

#1: Special Combination Banh Mi

With your first bite, you’ll notice the difference and with each subsequent bite, your appreciation will grow for this delicious duality of light and airy, crisp and soft, fresh and flavorful bread. It’s the perfect canvass for any one of the eight sandwiches on the iKrave banh mi menu.  Before he creates your sandwich, Hien brushes the baguette with a rather expensive French butter then heats it.  It’s one of several touches he employes to ensure the most moist and meticulously crafted banh mi in town.  It’s sandwich artistry at its finest and most delicious.16 April 2015: Combination #1 is the mother lode, the bahn mi with the most. It’s an unheated sandwich (the Vietnamese version of a “cold cut” sandwich, but infinitely better) constructed with barbecue pork, pork roll and cured pork pate along with the classic banh mi condiments: Vietnamese mayo (cut with butter for moistness and nuttiness), fresh herbs (cilantro, scallions), pickled (julienne daikon and carrots) and unpickled vegetables (jalapeños).  The sandwich is further moistened by sauce Hien uses on the barbecue pork.  Every element in this sandwich is as fresh and delicious as it can be. Together they coalesce to create my very favorite banh mi in New Mexico.

Sugar Cane Juice

19 April 2015: if your preference is for a heated sandwich, iKrave has several wonderful options.  Savvy diners who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with grilled pork, porcine perfection marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  Imagine a banh mi created with this incomparably delicious pork.  It’s better than your imagination.  So is the grilled chicken banh mi.16 April 2015: You’ll want to wash down your banh mi with sugar cane juice made on the premises by Hien himself.  Take a gander at the beverage refrigerator where you’ll see bundles of sugar cane stalks from which Hien extracts the juice.  Organic Lifestyle Magazine lists sugar cane juice  (which has a relatively low glycemic index of 43), as a healthy alternative to table sugar when used in moderation. It contains fructose and glucose, which, unlike sucrose-based sugars, do not require insulin for metabolism.  Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious! Alternatively, iKrave serves what Hien believes to be some of the strongest iced coffee in town.  It’s excellent!  

One of the most  common, albeit more than a little bit Americanized, nicknames for Vietnam is “Nam,” obviously a diminutive of its full name.  In honor of the banh mi, perhaps its nickname should be “num num.”  iKrave is home to banh mi which will have you uttering “num num” and more.

iKrave Cafe
1331 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite 1P
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-6625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2015
1st VISIT: 16 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Special Combination Banh Mi, Sugar Cane Juice, Coconut Macaroons, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

Ikrave Cafe on Urbanspoon