Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant

Countries and states may recognize borders but food doesn’t, especially today in an increasingly connected world where it’s possible to enjoy the cuisine of many of the world’s diverse and distant cultures without crossing a single border. Attribute the modern world’s dietary diversity to improved agricultural, transportation and preservation methods as well as rampant imperialism throughout the history of humankind. Consider the culinary influence of invading forces on the ancient nation of Armenia. During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded and occupied in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.

Though we were pretty sure the menu at Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant in Albuquerque would offer diversity, the terms “European” and “Middle Eastern” cast a rather broad net. European, for example, could encompass Spanish tapas, Italian pastas, French crepes and so much more. Similarly Middle Eastern is a rather broad category that could describe the cuisine of several nations and cultures, not all of whom share similar palates. There is no way, we thought, any restaurant could possibly attempt such a broad brush approach to European and Middle Eastern cuisine. There’s just too much diversity to execute the concept well. A quick perusal of the menu assuaged our concerns.

The rich interior of Aura

Aura’s menu isn’t a compendium of all foods European and Middle Eastern (not even close), but it offers a nice representation of the diverse melting pot cuisine on which brothers Ash and Marat Darbinyan were raised in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. If you’ve frequented Middle Eastern restaurants, you’ll find the menu more than vaguely familiar. You’ll recognize such appetizer delicacies as hummus, dolmas and crab cake. Lunch and dinner offerings such as Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Marsala, French Onion Soup and Russian borscht will also leap out at you as familiar favorites. So, too, will grilled lamb chops, kebabs and baklava. What you might not recognize, at least by name, are the premium wraps made with lavash bread, the Russian blinchik and the shashlik (grilled and skewerered meats and vegetables).

Aura is located in the Far North Shopping Center (just east of Budai Gourmet Chinese) in the space which previously housed Athens Eclectic Greek and other restaurants. The 86-seat restaurant has a very inviting vibe tailor-made for relaxed dining. Ash runs the front of the house while Marat runs the kitchen as he once did at the long defunct Charcoal Mediterranean Grill. The brothers Darbinyan have lived in Albuquerque since 2006, but Aura is the first eatery they’ve owned. It’s the culmination of a dream they’ve long shared and for which several restaurant jobs have prepared them. With amiable, professional service and a menu sure to please the discerning palate, the brothers have the formula that portends success.

Aura Appetizer Plate

Though there are probably several yet-to-be-discovered “must have” dishes on the menu, we certainly found one during our inaugural visit.  The Aura Appetizer Plate is everything you could possibly want if you love dips.  Picture hummus, tzatziki dip, spicy feta dip and an eggplant spread, a quadrumvirate of dip deliciousness served with pita bread wedges.  What we appreciated most about the fabulous foursome is that each has a unique flavor profile–the tanginess of the tzatziki, the garlicky bite of the hummus, for example.  Our favorite is the spicy feta dip which pairs the sharp, tangy sheep’s milk cheese with sweet-spicy red peppers.  It’s a magnificent duo.  The eggplant spread (roasted eggplant, red peppers, onions, parsley, tomato paste and spices) is the most interesting and multi-faceted.

In my seven years of serving as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl event, only one intrepid restaurateur (the brilliant Kevin Bladergroen at Blades’ Bistro) has ever attempted borscht, one of the most popular soups across Eastern European nations.  There are dozens of variations, some with and some without beetroot, the ingredient which gives borscht its reddish hue.  It’s been said that borscht isn’t about ingredients, it’s about spirit (aura?).  Aura’s version is replete with finely chopped vegetables in a comforting broth and it’s served with a dollop of sour cream.  It’s reminiscent of borscht we’ve had at some restaurants (including a Bohemian cafe in Chicago) and different from others.  That, too, is encompassed in the spirit of borscht.

Russian Borscht

My first exposure to Beef Stroganoff was courtesy of the “Tree Frogs,” Peñasco’s Boy Scout Troop 512.  During a camping excursion to the Jicarita wilderness, the experienced among us crammed lightweight dehydrated foods into our backpacks.  Somehow Beef Stroganoff was among our provisions, albeit a dish no other Tree Frog would even sample.  That turned out propitious for me. Reconstituted Beef Stroganoff began a lifelong love affair with the Russian dish.  Though my Kim makes a better-than-restaurant version at home, seeing it on a restaurant’s menu rekindles my love for the dish.  Rarely do we pass up the chance to order it at restaurants if only to compare it the one we make at home. 

We had expected Aura’s rendition (tender grilled beef, yellow onion, mushrooms smothered in a sauce served with fusilli pasta) to be prepared the traditional Russian way which is with potatoes, not pasta.  As the Web site To Discover Russia explains “Beef Stroganoff is at best a vague resemblance to the original dish, and at worst – absolutely different inexpressive concoction.”  The version we make at home is with egg noodles, so we don’t exactly subscribe to tradition either.  One thing we do at home and which many recipes advocate is thoroughly smothering the noodles with a rich, creamy mushroom sauce.  Aura’s version is rather stingy with the sauce though what there is of it is tasty.

Beef Stroganoff

In 2013, the per-capita consumption of lamb among Americans was a meager one pound per person per year.  Instead, beef is what was for dinner–to the Brobdingnagian tune of sixty-one pounds per person.  As recently as 2011, the American Lamb Board reported that nearly half of American diners had never even tasted lamb.  Blame this travesty on the latest war to end all wars, when rations for American servicemen in Europe included mutton (older sheep) passed off as lamb (typically slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months).  Servicemen hated the strong musky flavor of adult sheep and brought their distaste home with them.  Understandably, many of them forbade lamb from their dinner tables, resulting in generations growing up unfamiliar with the delights of real lamb. 

As an unabashed lover of lamb, it saddens me to learn that lamb is loathed, in many cases by diners who haven’t even tried it.  Sure, that leaves more for me and for enlightened diners in virtually every nation outside the fruited plain, but  passion, much like misery, loves company.  If you like lamb, but your excuse for not trying lamb is that it’s too expensive, Aura features three grilled lollipop lamb chops for under twenty dollars, far less than what you’d pay for a steak.  And if you’re phobic about its purported off-putting flavor, you’ll appreciate the well-seasoned preparation which complements without obfuscating, the distinctive, slightly gamy, more earthy flavor lf luscious lamb.  These chops are served with your choice of one side and a salad.  The grilled asparagus is an excellent complement.

Lamb Chops

In an increasingly connected world, it’s still gratifying to find there are still new and different foods to be tasted; to discover menus offering foods you’ve never heard of, much less tasted; to be titillated by different yet familiar spice combinations.  That’s what you’ll find at Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant.

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant
6300 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-3224
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Russian Borscht, Beef Stroganoff, Aura Appetizer Plate

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Curry Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Curry Leaf North & South Indian Cuisine

Leonard: Is it racist that I took you to an Indian restaurant?
Priya: It’s okay, I like Indian food.
Leonard: Or as you probably call it back home, food.
Big Bang Theory (Season Four, Episode 18)

Queen Rania of Jordan cautioned against judging “through the prism of our own stereotypes.”  Ill-founded stereotypes were very much in evidence after my team successfully landed an especially challenging project at Intel…and as with most stereotypes, they were based on faulty assumptions, overarching generalization and lack of experience.  When we deliberated where to celebrate our achievement, my suggestion that our repast be held at an Indian restaurant was met with such comments as “Indian food is…too spicy, too rich, too much curry, too vegetarian” and worse, it “causes heartburn and (to put it mildly) gastric distress.”  Prying more deeply revealed only one of my colleagues had ever actually ever tried Indian food.

In truth, when it comes to Indian food, if we don’t subscribe to such stereotypes, even the most open-minded among us tend to generalize about it.  Much as we do with Italian food, we compartmentalize Indian food as either “Northern” or “Southern,” generalizations which are inaccurate and which don’t do justice to one of the world’s great cuisines.  India is a very diverse country in which practically every province boasts its own unique cuisine.  Culinary taxonomists tell us there are 38 major kinds of cuisine in India, but my friend Kishore tells me there are local variations from village to village.

The Lunch Buffet is Spectacular!

Still, when we found out about the Curry Leaf, an Indian restaurant which opened its doors in August, 2016, we were elated at the prospect of a restaurant purporting to feature both Northern Indian cuisine and Southern Indian cuisine as well as a number of Indo-Chinese options.  Generalization goes out the window when our minds’ eye pictured spicier, more piquant entrees, the type of which aren’t common in Albuquerque whose Indian restaurants tend to focus on Northern Indian cuisine.  Even more rare in the Duke City is Indo-Chinese cuisine, the Indian adaptation of Chinese cooking techniques and seasonings.  Not since Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining has Albuquerque been able to enjoy the preternatural fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines.

With owner Narenda Kloty at the helm, Curry Leaf has the pedigree to succeed where other restaurants might fail if endeavoring such broad offerings.  Mr. Kloty is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment having previously owned and operated Albuquerque’s much-missed Bombay Grill as well as Santa Fe’s India Palace.  Until recently, he also owned a restaurant in Milpitas, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Today his sole focus is on Curry Leaf, a magnificent restaurant whose appeal to New Mexicans will grow as savvy diners discover flavor profiles very similar to our own beloved cuisine.  He is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant, a true gentleman whose goal it is to ensure all diners have a great experience at Curry Leaf.

A very inviting and attractive ambiance

Though sporting a Montgomery Boulevard address, Curry Leaf is recessed from the busy artery and isn’t easily visible until you turn into the retail development in which it sits.   Ironically, it’s situated next door to the familiar space which for nearly three-and-a-half decades housed the India Kitchen, Albuquerque’s very first Indian restaurant.  The Curry Leaf’s rather humble exterior belies an expansive and attractive dining room.  Visit for lunch and your immediate view as you walk in will be of burnished copper vessels in which the day’s buffet offerings are kept warm for you.  The wall art is not only visually spectacular, it’s thought-provoking.  An incomplete drawing of Buddha, for example, may have you contemplate that man, too, is a work in progress.

If you love buffets, this one is among the very best in the metropolitan area.  Quite simply, it offers entree quality offerings at value prices.  In fact, there are several items on the buffet this blogger already considers the best in the city (yes, even better than at the fabulous Namaste).  After my first two visits, I’ve accorded a rating of “23” for Curry Leaf, a rating heretofore not bestowed upon any buffet restaurant.  There’s little doubt that rating will increase when we order off the menu (which isn’t available during the lunch hour: 11:30AM to 2:30PM daily).

From the buffet: Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Tandoori Chicken

Ah, that menu!  It’s magnificent!  The appetizers section alone offers several items you won’t find at any Indian restaurant in the Albuquerque area–sumptuous starters such as chili paneer (cubed Indian cottage cheese sauteeed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce) and chili chicken (marinated, batter-fried chicken sauteed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce).  Homemade bread choices include not only naan of several types, but roti, kulcha and poori.  Tandoori specialties are absolutely the best in the area because the tandoor ovens burn charcoal.  The soups, several of which are available on the buffet, are wonderful (and will hopefully be entered into the Roadrunner Food Bank Souperbowl event in 2017).  Other menu categories warranting exploration are rice, chicken, lamb and goat, seafood, vegetable, dosa, Indo-Chinese and desserts.

Among the “best in the city” offerings at Curry Leaf are garlic naan, one of several homemade breads available.  The intense heat (approaching 900-degrees Fahrenheit) of the tandoori oven fired with charcoal imparts a magnificent flavor to what is probably my favorite form of bread (even over my mom’s flour tortillas)   Thin yet fluffy, the naan is amazing, inviting you to dip it into the tamarind chutney with its sweet, sour and just slightly piquant flavor or the raita, a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices.  Then there’s the mint chutney, an Indian “salsa” with an intensely fresh flavor.  It goes without saying that the naan is wonderful without amelioration, too.


If asked what the national food of England is, you’d probably answer fish and chips or Yorkshire pudding and roast beef.  In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook British declared chicken tikka masala as the new national dish of the United Kingdom.  Restaurant-goers seem to agree as they’ve made it the most popular restaurant dish in the country.  Tikka, a Persian word for “bits and pieces” aptly describes the dish which showcases boneless chicken pieces in a creamy spiced tomato sauce.  Curry Leaf’s rendition is fantastic, so full-bodied, rich and delicious it warranted a second helping.  So did the Chicken Makhani, a dish sometimes called Indian butter chicken.  It’s a dish so good it should be registered as a repeat offender for deliciousness.

Ubiquitous in virtually every Indian restaurant’s buffet offering, tandoori chicken is a take-it-or-leave-it item for me, but not at Curry Leaf which serves the Duke City’s very best rendition.  What makes this chicken so much better than any other is the fact that the tandoor oven is heated with charcoal.  That charcoal penetrates deeply, imparting smoky sweetness to the chicken which is rendered a bright reddish-orange color by a spice blend that includes cayenne pepper, paprika and other spices.  The Colonel can have his blend of eleven herbs and spices.  This chicken is better than finger-licking good.

Garlic Naan

Regardless of culture, soup is one of the most gratifying dishes on the face of the Earth.  Indian soups are among the very best.  They’re diverse, healthful and delicious.  Curry Leaf includes at least two soups on the daily buffet.  You’ll be tempted to ferry the entire tureen of Madras Tomato Soup to your table though a ladle or two will have to do.  This tomato soup is made distinctive with the addition of coconut milk and spices.  This is unequivocally the very best tomato soup I’ve ever had.  Nearly as good is the Sambar, a vegetable soup with a piquant bite.  It’s fiery red in appearance with fresh vegetables for every spoonful.

Two other noteworthy buffet staples are the Saag Paneer and the Aloo Gobi.  Rumor has it that Popeye the sailor man emigrated to Indian when he heard about Saag Paneer, a rich, delicious dish of creamed spinach and cubes of soft farmer’s cheese.  If you’ve never enjoyed spinach, this dish will change your mind…and if there’s one vegetable even more reviled than spinach, it might be cauliflower.    Aloo Gobi (potatoes and cauliflower sauteed with chopped onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes in a rich blend of mostly seed-based seasonings) presents cauliflower in the most delicious manner you’ve ever experienced this cruciferous vegetable.  Those seasons render this dish pleasantly piquant and superbly flavored.

From the Buffet: Madras Tomato Soup, Aloo Gobi, Saag Paneer, Chicken Makhani, Tandoor Chicken

As wonderful as the buffet is, savvy diners should also visit Curry Leaf for dinner when the menu really opens up with spicy deliciousness unlike any you’ll experience in the Duke City.   Now, if only Curry Leaf offered breakfast…

Curry Leaf
6910 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-3663
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 October 2016
1ST VISIT: 1 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Mango Lassi, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Dosa

Curry Leaf Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s Place) – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dennis and the lovely Sophia at the viewing of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode featuring his outstanding restaurant

Dennis and his daughter, the lovely Sophia at the viewing of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode featuring his outstanding restaurant (Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Picture yourself as a first-year marketing student assigned by your professor to perform a marketing analysis of Eli’s Place and its enigmatic chef-owner Dennis Apodaca.  Essentially you’ve got to figure out the rhyme and reason behind the restaurant’s success.  “Easy assignment,” you think to yourself, “Eli’s Place is successful because it serves some of the best, most delicious food in Albuquerque.”  Your research quickly reveals, however, that Eli’s Place actually violates many of the time-honored, trusted and fundamental marketing tenets of growing and successful businesses.  From a marketing perspective, it just shouldn’t work as well as it does. 

Any Marketing 101 student can tell you, for example, the importance of brand identity.  A brand is one of the most valuable and important assets of a restaurant. It needs to be carefully cultivated to ensure it properly and authentically reflects the values, attributes and passions of a business.  Eli’s Place received an enormous boost to its brand identity in 2008 when the Food Network came calling.  Being featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is generally worth a fortune to any restaurant.  So what does Dennis Apodaca do?  In 2015, he renamed his restaurant, eschewing the well-established and nationally known brand name Sophia’s Place in favor of Eli’s Place.

Eli’s Place may not be as visually appealing as other restaurants, but it serves beautiful food

Then there’s the restaurant itself.  From an esthetic perspective, it isn’t nearly as inviting and attractive as those modern venues with their pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains.  It’s virtually homely.  Heck, it doesn’t even have a sign telling you you’ve arrived at your destination.  The parking lot can get muddy during inclement weather which can sometimes render the outdoor patio useless.  Step inside the Lilliputian edifice and during peak hours, you’ll be challenged to find a seat.  It just doesn’t make sense that Eli’s Place works as well as it does.

The main reason for its success, of course, is gifted proprietor and chef Dennis Apodaca, an accomplished restaurateur despite (or maybe in spite of) not following a tried-and-true template. Sure, he may be an enigma to any marketing student, but to savvy diners he’s one of the very best chefs in New Mexico.  Dennis has a very impressive pedigree that includes stints at some of the best restaurants in San Francisco and Santa Fe, having worked for several world-famous, cutting-edge chefs in some of America’s most renown restaurants.  Those include Mark Miller, the high priest of modern Southwest cuisine and founder of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the pioneering Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, the original California cuisine (focusing exclusively on organic, locally produced foods in season) restaurant in Berkeley, California.

The interior of Eli’s Place. Note the poster signed by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri

Apprenticing under luminary chefs may make apparent the genesis of some of his culinary influences, but it’s also obvious that Dennis loves his craft and plies it with enthusiasm and style.  I heard him speak once of his annual pilgrimages to New York and of dining at such restaurants as Katz’s, a Manhattan deli I hold in reverential esteem. Like most great chefs, he is always in pursuit of new ideas and techniques.  Dennis launched the restaurant he named for his then eight-year-old daughter Sophia on December 3rd, 2002 (and which he renamed for Sophia’s own son in 2015).  It’s situated at the former site of the once very popular, but now defunct Fajitaville, a restaurant at which he served as chef before launching his own operation. As popular as it was, you don’t hear many former Fajitaville patrons lament the change. That’s because they’ve been completely won over by Apodaca’s inventive, eclectic and funky menu–a menu that includes a range of sophisticated salads and soups, extraordinary sandwiches and lots of pleasant surprises.

Dennis is also a stickler for using fine ingredients, many of which are flown in and delivered daily to his charming North Valley restaurant. He insists on the preparation of each meal to order; you won’t find anything sitting under a heating lamp here.  You also won’t find a freezer in the premises.  Dennis believes in ultra-fresh. His menu is replete with specials of the day which change frequently, usually crafted from fresh ingredients he procures from the farmer’s markets.  Eli’s also does not have an oven or burners, just two grills, but sheer magic is created on those grills.

Chips and salsa at Eli’s

On August 25th, 2008 the Food Network’s Guy Fieri taped a segment at Sophia’s for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program.  On a signed poster which hangs on one of the restaurant’s walls, Fieri wrote “little place, huge flavors.”  That pretty much says it all, not that Fieri didn’t say quite a bit more about Sophia’s.  After that segment aired on Monday, November 24th, 2008 getting a seat at this fabulous restaurant became even more difficult.  Guy Fieri pegged it correctly when he called him “a hands-on chef who’s doing things his own way.”  That includes touches like making his own butter and crafting all his culinary creations by hand.

24 November 2012: One holdover from Dennis’s days at Fajitaville are some of the best salsas in town.  An order of salsa and chips rewards diners with two salsas–a roasted tomato salsa and a pico de gallo style salsa coupled with housemade chips served warm.  Neither of the salsas are especially piquant, but both are redolent with freshness and flavor.  The chips are lightly salted and oversized for Gil-sized portions of salsa.  Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.

Grilled Sirloin and Green Chile Sandwich on Sage Bakehouse Bakery Bread with Shoestring Fries

Grilled Sirloin and Green Chile Sandwich on Sage Bakehouse Bakery Bread with Shoestring Fries

Breakfast and lunch entrees are served all day which is a great thing because you never know when the urge will hit for a world-class sandwich. Sage Bakehouse bread, a New Mexico treasure, is the foundation upon which those sandwiches are built. Each sandwich is served with your choice of potato salad, green salad or homemade shoestring potatoes (a must-have).  Don’t desecrate those shoestring potatoes with ketchup. Ask instead for a small bowl of Eli’s red chile and dip your fries into that. Some of the best chile and some of the best fries in town–you can’t go wrong with that combination.

Eli’s grilled pastrami sandwich is a poor man’s version of the aforementioned Katz’s in which pastrami is piled on skyscraper high. Even though Eli’s doesn’t lay the pastrami on as thick as at Katz’s, it’s also not apportioned in waifishly thin shreds like the sandwiches the chains proffer. In Albuquerque only California Pastrami serves a better pastrami sandwich (although it dropped just a bit in my estimation when packets of mustard replaced the gourmet mustard once dolloped on the sandwich). Apodaca gets his pastrami flown in from Chicago where this brisket derivative is best made.

Chipotle Chile Bacon Cheeseburger

The green chile cheeseburger at Eli’s

30 August 2008: Also exceptional is the green chile bacon cheeseburger on hard-crusted Sage Bakehouse bread. As the hack comic Banya would tell Jerry Senifeld, “it’s the best, Jerry, the best.” In a city and state in which green chile cheeseburgers are a religion, Dennis Apodaca is a high priest, serving something just a bit different. This cheeseburger is a two-fisted edible piece of art with an explosively delicious taste.  The green chile is not so assertive that it prevents the salty sweetness of the bacon to sneak out. Instead they meld together wonderfully. The texture of the lightly toasted Ciabatta bread is a nice departure from the traditional soft burger buns. The bacon is crispy and thick. There’s no iceberg lettuce in this masterpiece; it’s salad quality mixed greens. The hamburger patty hasn’t seen  the inside of a freezer; it’s hand-formed and thick, prepared to your exacting specifications.

27 September 2016: Burger aficionados will also love Eli’s chipotle cheeseburger, a work of art and absolute beauty.  It’s got the piquancy (maybe even more) of a green chile cheeseburger with the inimitable flavor of chipotle.  If you’re not sure what a chipotle is, it’s merely a smoked, dried jalapeño.  It’s a versatile pepper, adding depth, complexity and a kick to meats, and a savory counterbalance to sweets.  At Eli’s, the chipotle doesn’t come out of a jar.  It’s the real thing, smoked at home and rehydrated to textural perfection.  This chipotle cheeseburger is simple, a thick hamburger patty, molten cheese and chipotle.  That’s it…and that’s enough.

Sophia's Breakfast Burrito

The breakfast burrito, Albuquerque’s very best

The simply named Breakfast Sandwich on (what else) toasted Sage Bakehouse bread is a concordant composition of fried eggs, bacon, cheese and fresh salsa that will help make your day start off on the right foot. It may well be the best breakfast sandwich in Albuquerque, not that there is a plethora of competition in the breakfast sandwich arena.

10 April 2008: Eli’s breakfast burrito has done something I had thought impossible. It supplanted Milton’s breakfast burrito as my favorite breakfast burrito in New Mexico. The primary reason is a wondrous red chile, a deep, earthy, sweet and utterly delicious chile of medium piquancy. This chile is in rarified company with Mary & Tito’s legendary red which I’ve long considered the best in the Duke City area. It’s the type of chile you might want to lick off your plate so as not to leave any of it behind. If Dennis were to offer New Mexican food exclusively, it would probably be the best in the city. Make sure you order your burrito “smothered” so you won’t be lamenting that there isn’t enough chile on your plate. In its September, 2011 edition, the staff of Albuquerque The Magazine undertook the enviable task of selecting the Duke City’s very best breakfast burrito. Eli’s was rated tenth best. To paraphrase the immortal words of former world boxing champion Max Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs, “they waz robbed!”

Huevos Mexicanos

There’s only one thing wrong with Eli’s red chile. It’s that the red is so good, many of us may never again order the breakfast burrito “Christmas style” (with both red and green chile). That would be sad because the green chile is outstanding in its own right. It’s a fruity chile with a comal roasted aroma and flavor. The breakfast burrito is crafted from organic eggs, potatoes, cheese and salsa. You can have it with your choice of bacon, pork carnitas, chicken, beef or vegetables.

23 November 2010: The daily specials on Eli’s menu truly earn the accolade “special.” Such is the case with a breakfast enchilada with turkey sausage, Cojita cheese and poblano chile. The melding of these ingredients make for an outstanding breakfast entree that I may have to bide my time to see returned to the menu. Fortunately, there’s always something else intriguing and invariably delicious to mollify my appetite.

Another special special, duck enchiladas with a green chile cream sauce

Duck enchiladas served with a green chile cream sauce

30 August 2008: Another very special special are the duck enchiladas served with a green chile cream sauce (pictured above). Somehow Dennis manages to segregate the least fatty parts of the duck while retaining all its characteristic flavor and he engorges corn tortillas with the delicious canard. A generous dollop of mildly piquant green chile sauce crowns the enchiladas with even more flavor. This special is served with black beans studded with Cojita cheese as well as a mixed greens and mango salad. This is just Dennis and his free spirited whimsy; he loves to play with ingredients and has a knack for making seemingly disparate ingredients meld together in perfect flavor synchronicity.

The Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives taping took place on a day in which the special of the day was another version of duck enchiladas, this time with tomatillo sauce. Watching the step-by-step construction of this entree revealed the depth of Dennis’s talent, but even more so, just what a perfectionist he is. Every preparation step is meticulous and well practiced, obviously the result of extensive experimentation until everything is absolutely to the chef’s exacting standards.

Scallop Tacos with beans, rice and a salad

The duck, which is left in the bone and skin, is seasoned and rendered in duck fat for several hours then is de-boned by hand and seasoned again (lime, cilantro, Mexican red chile, sugar, salt and other ingredients) on the flat top.  Two legs per order of succulent duck meat are then placed on two soft corn tortillas with Asadero cheese then topped with the tomatillo sauce, toasted pumpkin seeds, scallions and queso fresco.  Fieri uttered “really good” three times punctuated with “an explosion of flavors” and “you’ve got it going on with this one.”

10 April 2015: A Washington Post writer recently proclaimed, “Ok so who in the hell doesn’t do a scallop taco?” He obviously hasn’t been around the restaurant scene in Albuquerque where scallop tacos are a novelty. In fact, Dennis is just one of a handful of chefs in the landlocked Land of Enchantment I know of daring to depart from the de rigueur fish taco (which is rarely done well in New Mexico). His version starts with gigantic sea scallops which he tucks into soft, pliable corn tacos then garnishes with a mild salsa, avocado slices and Crème fraîche. There are two scallops per taco, two tacos per order and they’re at least twice as good as the best fish taco I’ve ever had.

Sophia's shoestring fries with red chile

Eli’s shoestring fries with red chile

Eli’s scallop tacos are inspired–an amalgam of flavor combinations which work very well together.  The pearlescent scallops are grilled so they have a nice char on top and at bottom while retaining an opaque clarity that means they’re absolutely perfect.  I’ve tried in vain several times to duplicate Dennis’s wizardry with scallops, but have concluded begrudgingly that my scallop skills are rudimentary compared to the chef. 

The Saturday and Sunday brunch menu features several items not available during weekdays. These weekend specials have made Eli’s an intensely popular dining destination. You might have to wait in line ten to fifteen minutes to place your order then another half hour for your order to reach your table. It’s worth the wait.


20 April 2008: One of the best reasons to get up on a weekend are Eli’s Special Pancakes, priced daily and served with fresh fruit and real maple syrup. Those special pancakes might be sour cream and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with blueberries. The tartness of the blueberries and lemon create a palate pleasing harmony with the maple syrup. The sour cream changes the texture of standard pancakes by adding moistness while retaining the fluffiness inherent in great pancakes. 

23 November 2008: Eli’s pancakes will cure the early morning blues (or anything else that ails you).  A large stack (four) of pumpkin pancakes with pinon nut butter topped with assorted berries may be the very best pancakes you’ll ever have.  They’re stick to your ribs pancakes, the panacea for cold mornings.  Cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice emphasize the flavor of pumpkin while the berries provide a tangy contrast.  The syrup brings together the complementary tastes of sweet, tangy and pumpkiny.  Share these with people you love.

Turkey Sausage Enchiladas with Red and Green Chile

One of the things that makes Dennis’s pancakes a panacea is his homemade butter, a culinary rarity that blew even Guy Fieri away. Fieri who has probably seen just about everything on his road tours seemed amazed that Dennis would go to that extent. After sampling Eli’s homemade butter (made from separated heavy cream mixed with toasted pine nuts, dried cherries and honey), Fieri called it “outstanding.” 

4 November 2012: Other brunch favorites include Eli’s version of chilaquiles and a very unique interpretation of Huevos Rancheros called Huevos Mexicanos.  This dish is constructed from corn tortillas topped with two eggs prepared any way you want them then slathered with green chile stew.  The green chile stew is terrific, the type of which you’d appreciate at any time, but especially on a cold wintery day.  The chilaquiles are simplicity itself though its flavors are complex and delicious.  Chilaquiles are a traditional Mexican dish with which Eli’s takes a few liberties, topping the eggs and tortilla chips with red chile instead of the more conventional salsa.

Lemon and sour cream pancakes with blueberries

Sour cream and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with blueberries

You’ve got to experience this gem for yourself to find out what so many diners know–Eli’s Place is one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre. Overflow crowds and accolades don’t tell the whole story. That lies in each and every wonderful morsel of pure deliciousness fashioned by the inventive hands of the chef and owner.  Eli’s Place and its superbly talented owner-chef Dennis Apodaca may be an enigma to marketing students, but to those of us who love great food, he’s a luminous star, one of the very best.

Pumpkin pancakes with pinon nut butter

6313 4th, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-3935
LATEST VISIT: 27 September 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Pastrami Sandwich, Breakfast Sandwich, Chipotle Bacon Cheeseburger, Simple Noodles, Breakfast Burrito, Special Pancakes, Scallop Tacos, Chilaquiles, Huevos Mexicanos, Grilled Sirloin Sandwich, Pork Carnitas Tacos,

Eli's Place (New Name for Sophia's Place) Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, my very favorite Mediterranean restaurant in New Mexico

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, my very favorite Mediterranean restaurant in New Mexico

The St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Magdalena, New Mexico is adorned with ceramic statues, most familiar and easy to identify…at least for lifelong Catholics like me.   After Sunday Mass one September, 2010 morning, we espied a statue of a saint clutching a curious implement to his chest.  None of the parishioners we asked had any idea who the statue represented.  Father Andy Pavlak, the parish vicar, confirmed the statue depicted Saint Lawrence  of Rome and the curious device he held was a gridiron, a metal grate used for grilling meat, fish, vegetables or any combination thereof.

Father Pavlak went on to explain why Saint Lawrence clutched the gridiron.  Saint Lawrence was one of seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian.  The manner of death he suffered was especially gruesome.  The intrepid saint was grilled on a gridiron.  As his flesh cooked, Lawrence is said to have cried out, “This side’s done.  Turn me over and have a bite.”  That probably explains why Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, butchers and roasters. He is also patron saint of several parishes throughout the Land of Enchantment.

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

I suspect Saint Lawrence might also be the patron saint of grillmasters.  If so, I sure could use his divine intercession.  Like the administrators of his death, I seem to have a problem discerning when one side is done.  Consequently one side is usually charred to the consistency of coal while the other is as rare as the raw beef fighters apply over wounds acquired in the ring.  It doesn’t matter how closely I study the collective writings of Bill and Cheryl Jamison, America’s preeminent outdoor cooking experts, my results are disastrous.  On the grill, I’m a disgrace to my gender.

Because I’ve ruined thousands of dollars of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, my Kim would just as soon see me wave the white flag of surrender (though I’d probably drop it on the grill and only one side would burn.)  Better still, she’d rather I take her to a restaurant in which bona fide grillmasters impart the olfactory-arousing direct application of heat to produce succulent results.  Frankly, that would be my preference, too…so, perhaps my ineptitude on the grill might be a subliminal thing.  Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.

Purchase an assortment of seasoned snacks such as watermelon seeds

It’s no secret that some of the very best grilled meats anywhere are prepared to perfection in Middle Eastern restaurants.  Many Middle Eastern dining establishments have mastered the enviable art of imbuing meats with the pungency of exotic spices; a distinctive aroma inherent from woods with personality; a whisper-thin crust that seals in flavor and tenderness in a pleasantly pink interior; and any number of heavily spiced, flavorful sauces, all of which seem to highlight even more of the magnificence of meat in all its grilled glory.

In Albuquerque as in many other cities, Middle Eastern restaurants seem to fall into two stratum: opulent, lavishly adorned dining rooms or time-worn cafes in bedraggled edifices.   Experience shows that spit and polish alone don’t make the restaurant. Some of the very best Middle Eastern restaurants are often found in tumbledown buildings.  Perhaps the very best of these is the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant on the southwest corner of San Pedro and Montgomery in the Northeast Heights.

Dolmes: Six piece stuffed grape leaves served tahini sauce

The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is ensconced in a stand-alone building that frankly could be home to just about any retail business.  Much of the building is dedicated to comestibles.  Its shelves are well-stocked with Middle Eastern spices, groceries and dry goods.  Adventurous cooks will enjoy walking up and down the aisles studying all the wonderful options, perhaps inspired by the olfactory arousing aromas coming from the small kitchen at the front of the complex.  The counter separating the kitchen from the store doubles as a counter in which patrons pay for their purchases or place their to-go orders.

Dine-in and carry-out options abound.  Should you decide to dine in, there are several comfortable booths and tables available.  The dining area is ensconced beneath a canopy reminiscent a large Bedouin tent, the biggest difference being that instead of Middle Eastern rugs, the canopy is made from Southwest themed rugs (Kokopeli anyone?).   The menu over the counter is abbreviated; you’ll be handed a laminated menu to take with you to your table.  From the window-side booths, your vantage point will be of busy San Pedro to your east.

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

The menu is surprisingly ambitions considering the relatively cramped quarters.  Reading from top-left, the first items to catch your eye are appetizers and small order items followed by a seven salads, only one of which you might see at any type of restaurant.  One entire page is dedicated to platters, both meat-based platters and vegetarian platters.  Platters generally include a meat or vegetarian entree with hummus or rice and one of the seven sensational salads.  Homemade fresh pita bread (which you can see being made at the kitchen) comes with several of the platters.

The last page of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches–non-vegetarian and vegetarian–and desserts.  It’s an intriguing menu, one you might expect to see at a larger Middle Eastern restaurant and not necessarily at a grocery store doubling as a restaurant.  Your hosts are brothers Muhammad and Abraham, who are as cordial and accommodating as any restaurant proprietors in the Duke City.  Both are more than happy to recommend various options and will check up on you periodically.  Trust their recommendations.

Lamb shawarma Platter served with Hummus

The appetizers section includes some de rigueur standards you’ll find at almost all Mediterranean restaurants.  The difference is that the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant prepares them better.  “Heresy,” you say.  After our inaugural visit on November 13th, we were so impressed that we had to return a week later to confirm what our taste buds were saying.  They were telling us this humble little establishment might be the very best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque.  Zomato readers seem to agree.  As of this writing (September 20, 2016), the restaurant has earned a 4.7 rating (out of 5), one of the highest in Albuquerque. Muhammad proudly points this out to new visitors.

14 November 2010:  The dolmes, a six-piece appetizer of stuffed grape leaves served with tahini sauce is one of those items at which this restaurant excels.  Decoratively plated so that the six dolmes form a pool for the tahini sauce, you can use the plastic fork to cut the dolmes into smaller, bite-sized pieces, but Muhammad will encourage you to eat your entire dinner the way it would be eaten back home in Palestine.  He would just as soon you dispense with your fork altogether.  Great advice!  The dolmes are fabulous!

Bakdunecea Salad

Unlike many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Duke City, these dolmes are homemade, not from out of a can.  They have a very distinctive flavor with nary a hint of lemon.  The distinctiveness comes from a seven spice blend, one that’s just slightly different than many seven spice blends I’ve seen in Japanese and Arabic cooking.  This one is made with All Spice, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Fennel and Ginger, a blend which enlivens the vegetarian dolmes with a flavor punch that will wow your taste buds.  The dolmes are even better when dipped into the fresh, invigorating tahini sauce.

14 November 2010:  Another terrific starter is the six-piece falafel plate.  Falafel (chickpeas mashed with onions then fried to a nice crunch) are hemispherically shaped, like the top half of the Earth.  Bite into each falafel and you’ll experience the sensation of a slight crispy crunch followed by a soft, moist inside that tastes unlike any falafel I’ve ever had.  It’s the type of falafel which should be used to help broker peace in the Middle East.  They’re that good!  Seasoned with herbs and spices, they’re served with a luscious yogurt sauce which complements them wonderfully.

Housemade Fresh Pita Bread, Maybe the Best in Town

14 November 2010: For years, my local standard for Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic, has been Yasmine’s Cafe, yet another terrific Palestinian-owned treasure.  If possible, the San Pedro Middle Eastern Restaurant’s version is even better.  It’s rich and creamy with a prominent garlic flavor.  In Middle Eastern fashion, you’ll want to cut up pieces of the wonderful housemade pita (still fresh and warm) and use the pita to scoop up as much Baba Ghanoug as you can fit into your mouth.  Each bite is an adventure in appreciation.

20 September 2016: For me, the highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the seven choices–was always the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil).  Though no longer offered on the menu, the accommodating staff might just whip it up for you if you ask nicely.    This salad has powerful qualities, a term you might not associate with parsley.  Parsley is usually thought up as an ingredient to chop up and sprinkle on entrees needing color.  It’s sometimes thought of in a decorative sense, not for its flavor enhancing qualities.  Used correctly and in combination with other ingredients (such as tahini), it is refreshing and assertive.

Kefta Kabob with Rice

20 November 2010: Another sensational salad is the Tabbouli (lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint, cracked Bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice and virgin olive oil).  Growing up in Peñasco with Lebanese neighbors, I was introduced to Tabbouli, Kibbeh and Tahini long before I’d ever had Chinese food or even my first Bic Mac from McDonald’s.  The Tabbouli may be the best I’ve ever had, reminding me in some ways of what a Middle Eastern pico de gallo might taste like.  It’s got remarkable freshening qualities, like a savory and delicious breath mint.

20 September 2016: It wouldn’t be a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant without a sensational hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic) and that, too, is available at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  You can order it on its own as an appetizer or you can order one of the several platters with which the hummus is served.  The hummus encircles the meat platters like an island of creamy, garlicky goodness.  Muhammad taught us to use pita to scoop up heaps of meat and hummus with our hands.  It’s the only way to eat them.

Shisk Kafta Platter: ground beef, onion, parsley served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

20 September 2016: The Lamb Shawarma (marinated slices of lamb) is terrific (as if that needs to be said).  Instead of shaved lamb as you’d find on Greek gyros, the lamb is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces, each blessed with a grilled smokiness and penetrated with seasonings that are so distinctively Middle Eastern.  Sprigs of fragrant, roughly chopped parsley impart fresh qualities which meld with the other ingredients to fashion a fabulous flavor profile.

Not since Banbury, England in 1987 have we had better shish kabob (cubes of extra lean beef served) than we’ve had on San Pedro.   In describing the grilling expertise at Middle Eastern restaurants earlier in this essay, I must have had this shish kabob in mind.  The meat is grilled to perfection.  At medium, it has just a slight hint of pink inside while its exterior texture is nicely charred. It’s the type of grilling expertise I lack.  It’s perfect grilling.

Chicken Tawook surrounded by the best hummus in Albuquerque

13 February 2011: Another exceptional platter which showcases the grilling process and exceptional seasoning is the chicken tawook platter, marinated juicy cubes of chicken breast with garlic sauce served with hummus, salad and the homemade fresh pita bread.  The chicken is moist and tender, absolutely impregnated with flavor though not so garlicky that it will wreck your breath.  Instead, the garlic melds wondrously with a hint of grilling.

27 March 2011: The chicken shawarma, an island of small-cut chicken pieces surrounded by hummus is yet another fabulous entree.  Similar to the chicken tawook, garlic is a prominent flavor as is the wondrous fragrance of grilling.  Parsley also fits prominently into the flavor profile, imparting an invigorating herbaceous freshness, but this dish is best when scooped up with hummus and that absolutely amazing pita.  Abraham tells me he makes some 700 pieces of bread on an average day.  I’ll typically have four of them each visit and take home another half dozen.  This is the best pita in New Mexico!

Chicken Shawarma

24 August 2011: Even on the rare occasion in which an item you don’t order is delivered to your table, you’ll want to try it before even thinking about sending it back.  Such was the case when my friend Ruben Hendrickson and I ordered dolmes and a strange looking dish with an even stranger name was placed before us.  As it turns out, the Foul Mudammas with Pita is an outstanding appetizer, one which will visit my table in the future. 

There’s nothing foul about this wonderful dish which is made with diced fava beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.  Given the same ingredients and asked to create something wonderful, there’s no way most of us could ever concoct anything nearly this good.  The humble fava hasn’t made significant inroads in the American diet, but in combination with the right condiments and spices, it’s more than palatable.  Fava beans have tremendous healthful benefits, too.

Foul Mudammas with Pita

20 September 2016: The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  Trays of baklava behind a glass pastry case may elicit involuntary salivation.  Don’t hesitate to order the pistachio baklava.  This baklava is on par with the pistachio baklava at the Anatolia Doner Kebab House which means it’s the very best in New Mexico.  The salty pistachios are a perfect foil for the cloying honey, making this a dessert of complementary and contrasting flavors which go so well together.  Bite into the layers of luscious flaky phylo and you’ll be rewarded with a moist, delicious, wonderful way to finish an outstanding meal.

Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is reminiscent of the type of restaurant you’d find in an ethnic rich area of a large metropolitan area.  It is frequented by customers of all ethnicities, the common denominator being the recognition that this is a very special restaurant with incomparable food, terrific service and the type of grilling skills I envy.

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant
4001 San Pedro
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 888-2921
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2016
1st VISIT:  13 November 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shish Kabob Platter, Lamb Shawarma Platter, Fresh Pita Bread, Bakdunecea Salad, Garden Salad, Dolmes, Falafel, Baba Ganouj, Shisk KaftaPlatter, Beef Shawarma, Tabbouli, Chicken Shawarma, Foul Mudammas with Pita, Fatoush, Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Mart Middle East Grocery & Alquds Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Starr Brothers Brewing – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Starr Brothers Brewing in the San Antonio Commons (Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights)

Poets, musicians and authors have long rhapsodized about the loyalty of dogs, the most faithful and loving companions anyone can have. Their love is unconditional, their loyalty boundless.  They’re  truly man’s best friend.  Poets, musicians and authors obviously didn’t know Chato, the sleek and powerful best friend to the Dominican nuns who taught generations of Peñasco’s best and brightest at St. Anthony’s (my alma-mater).  No matter where they drove in their ancient rattletrap of a car, Chato sprinted along to ensure their safety.  When the nuns raffled off that car to raise money for the purchase of a newer, more reliable vehicle, Chato suddenly changed his lifelong residence from the convent to the home of the new car owners…..and everywhere that car went, Chato was sure to go.

In his own way Chato demonstrated the loyalty for which dogs are renowned, albeit to a car instead of to his people.  Among people–who tend to be the most fickle and disloyal of creatures–studies have repeatedly shown that beer is one of the things about which we as consumers tend to be most loyal.  According to a Nielsen (and you thought they only did television ratings) study conducted in 2015, 48% of beer drinkers purchased only one to three brands of their alcoholic beverage of choice in the year preceding the survey.  Only 15% of beer drinkers purchased ten or more brands of beer in the same period.

Dining and Bar Area

Not all beer drinkers are so brand monogamous.  Those who drink craft beers are much more likely to purchase a variety of brands. Almost one-third (32%) of all craft beer drinkers who buy beer at least several times a year bought seven or more brands in the year preceding the survey.  Younger, more frequent craft beer drinkers were found to be more brand “promiscuous,” as 37% purchased seven or more brands of beer in the year preceding the survey.  The survey revealed that younger beer drinkers were more apt to purchase a broader set of brands,  likely resultant from the more adventurous nature  of youth compared to older demographics.  Being younger, it’s conceivable as well that they have not established brand loyalty.

Albuquerque’s burgeoning craft beer industry means beer drinkers have many more choices than the beer drinkers of yore.  It seems a new brewery pops up every week with no surfeit in sight.  Indeed, the New Mexico Brewer’s Guild Map indicates there are (as of this writing) some sixty-six craft breweries across the Land of Enchantment with nearly half of them concentrated in the Albuquerque metropolitan area.  As  competition for beer buyers continues to intensify, breweries are looking for ways to differentiate themselves–to stand out from the crowd–from their brewing brethren.   The differentiator which resonates most with gastronomes, of course, is food.

Herbed Brie with Heidi’s Raspberry-Lavender Jam

Several Duke City breweries have elevated culinary offerings from the “pub grub” (typically deep-fried, stick-to-your-ribs fast foods) of yore to true gastropub fare–high quality, freshly prepared food that may surprise discerning diners.  They offer diverse menus, several orders of magnitude superior to what bar-goers of yesteryear were accustommed to.  In January, 2016, the Starr Brothers Brewing Company joined the fray, launching in an underserved Northeast Heights area in a sprawling 5,000 square-foot edifice.  Situated on heavily-trafficked San Antonio about a mile east of Cracker Barrel, Starr Brothers operates a full kitchen that features a wide-ranging menu showcasing some of the most surprising culinary fare of any brewery in the city.

“Small bites” to get you started include poutine, an artery-clogging Canadian French fry delicacy made uniquely New Mexican with red chile gravy and green chile; pizza constructed on naan flatbread and much more.  Our server informed us the Cubano has become an early favorite of the brewery’s habitues though the burger isn’t far behind in popularity.  Of more interest to my Chicago born-and-bred Kim is the Italian beef sandwich which we’ll return for  Where you’ll do a double-take is with the entrees, some of which seem more likely to be found in a Chicago chophouse than a brew pub in Burque.    The menu truly has something for every member of the family and indeed, several families were dining at Starr Brothers during our inaugural visit.

Bone-In Pork Chops

3 July 2016: My Kim often chides me for ordering items we’ve never previously had instead of tried and true favorites.  Sometimes it pays off and we uncover a new favorite.  Other times we wish we’d ordered one of the standards.  The herbed brie is in the former category, an appetizer we hadn’t previously enjoyed elsewhere.  Molten brie is formed into four golf ball-sized orbs encased in panko breadcrumbs and served with Heidi’s raspberry-lavender jam.  To be honest, we might have regretted having ordered the brie (which lacks the sharpness this turophile enjoys) had it not been for the jam.  The lavender to raspberry is in perfect proportion to bless you with the invigorating and exiting floral qualities of lavender without detracting from the sweet, slightly tart flavor of the raspberries.

3 July 2016: In ordering the bone-in grilled pork chop (singular), we expected something closer to the waifishly thin pork chops served for breakfast in several Duke City eateries than what was delivered to our table.  Our server got her work-out ferrying a plate with two Flintstonian-sized chops with bone “handles” that looked like Lakota battle axes.  We were momentarily mesmerized and took proper pause to gape with awe and reverence at this porcine bounty (if only lamb chops were similarly sized).  Imbued in a brown sugar honey sweet ale sauce and topped with toasted pecans, the pulchritudinous pork chops are easily an inch thick and grilled masterfully so they’re still moist and tender on the inside.  Noting a little bit of raspberry-lavender jam remained, we used it as a sauce and found the combination absolutely magnificent.  Our accommodating server even brought us another ramekin of that wondrous jam.  The pork chops are served with mashed sweet potatoes.

Grilled Bistro Tender Steak with Fingerling Potatoes and Wilted Spinach

3 July 2016: We weren’t sure with what cut of meat we would be rewarded for ordering the “grilled bistro tender steak,” as “tender” tends to be an adjective, not a cut of steak.  Tender, it turns out, is a perfect descriptor for a slab of meat sliced into several medallions and served with fingerling potatoes and wilted spinach.  The steak is prepared to your exacting specifications with a medium degree of doneness providing moistness, flavor and tenderness.  It’s an excellent steak, especially around the “rim” where just a bit of caramelization appears.  The fingerling potatoes and wilted spinach are a perfect accompaniment.

3 July 2016: Starr Brothers is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  While the Polychinka (a crepe stuffed with caramelized banana and topped with nutella, chocolate ganache and powdered sugar) sounds most interesting, it’s hard to pass up bread pudding, especially when it’s described as “chef’s choice” made with the seasonal draft (which turned out to be strawberry ale during our inaugural visit).  At the risk of hyperbole, this is one of the best bread puddings in the city, a sure-fire addition to Larry McGoldrick’s bread pudding hall-of-fame.  Thick slices of bread impregnated with chocolate and berries are caramelized on the edges, moist and tender on the inside then topped with a premium vanilla bean ice cream.  Portion size is prodigious, but the bread pudding’s flavor profile is even larger.

Strawberry Blonde Bread Pudding

13 September 2016:  In the Land of Enchantment, our sacrosanct green chile cheeseburgers transcend the seasons.  They’re enjoyed all year-round, however, two factors combine to make September the one month in which they’re enjoyed more than in any other.  The first factor is the freshly picked, recently roasted crop of green chile.  The second factor is the celebration of the green chile cheeseburger in two premier competitive events–Santa Fe’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown and the New Mexico State Fair’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge.  On September 12th, 2016, Laguna Burger earned bragging rights at the State Fair event, ending a two year reign by national chain Fuddrucker‘s.  Finishing second in the blind taste test adjudged event was Starr Brothers. 

Frankly had Starr Brothers not garnered such a prestigious honor, it would probably have taken several visits before the Starr Burger crossed my lips.  That’s not so much an indictment of the burger as it is a credit to how diverse and alluring the rest of the menu is.  My server became animated in describing the burger, touting it as the best in Albuquerque.  If it’s not the Duke City’s best, it’s on a very short list as one of the best.  This is a sensational burger!  The canvas is a brioche bun, a rich, eggy bread of optimal thickness–resilient enough to hold up against moist ingredients without becoming a dominant flavor.  Atop the bottom bun are chopped onions, a sliced tomato and fresh greens then comes a choice beef patty prepared to your exacting specifications.  The beef is topped with a green chile ranch aioli, molten melted cheese and strips of bacon in a crossed (X) pattern.  The green chile ranch aioli has a nice bite to it,  The beef patty is moist and seasoned well with a premium beef flavor (obviously not thawed).  You have your choice of a salad or fries with your burger.  The seasoned fries are addictive, with or without the uniquely flavored ketchup with its notes of smokiness and piquancy.

Award-Winning Starr Burger

Lest you think there are no Starr brothers or that they’re a pair of wizened and hirsute gentlemen like the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame, there really are Starr brothers.  They’re the children of owners John and Heather Starr.  If our inaugural visit is any indication, Starr Brothers Brewing is a rising star!

Starr Brothers Brewing
5700 San Antonio Drive, N.E., Suite B1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 492-2752
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2016
1st VISIT: 3 July 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Strawberry Blonde Bread Pudding, Tender Steak, Pork Chops, Herbed Brie, Starr Burger

Starr Brothers Brewing Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

ChocGlitz & Cream – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ChocoGlitz & Cream in Albuquerque (Just Barely)

To whom should you turn when you want a recommendation you can trust for great ice cream?   Your natural inclination is probably to ask a kid.  Kids, particularly those in the age group two through twelve, consume more ice cream than any other American demographic.  Alas, kids in the aforementioned age group are like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials. They like everything (except maybe coffee flavored ice cream) and aren’t quite as discerning as ice cream paramours in other age groups.  So, why not trust an adult for a recommendation?  Research has shown that contrary to children, adults tend to prefer the same few flavors for which they’ve developed a preference over the course of their lives (talk about getting set in their ways and losing the sense of adventure).

So, to whom does this overgrown kid in an adult’s body turn for advice on great ice cream?  Would you believe I get my ice cream advice from Stefan, one of my two favorite baristas at Rio Rancho’s sublime Cafe Bella.  Here’s why.  Baristas tend to have rather refined palates–they have to considering coffee has almost twice as many flavor characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does–and are able to discern flavor nuances and qualities most of us can’t detect.   When barista extraordinaire Stefan, told me about his favorite place for ice cream, he didn’t just tell me he liked it.  He gave me a detailed flavor profile analysis, describing flavors, ingredients, textures, milk fat content and other qualities only a connoisseur would understand.

Deliciousness Everywhere you Turn

When we stepped into ChocGlitz for the first time, owner-chocolatier Celeste Davis asked how we found out about her charming establishment.  No sooner had we told her our barista recommended it than she responded with “oh, you must mean Michael” as in Michael Gonzales, the effusive owner of Cafe Bella.  Michael, it turns out, frequents ChocGlitz with his beautiful family.  It didn’t surprise us in the least that culinary professionals we respect so much would visit ChocGlitz which just might be Albuquerque’s very best chocolate and ice cream shop.  It’s almost Rio Rancho’s very best chocolate and ice cream shop, too, being situated just south of the Presbyterian Rust Medical Center on Unser Blvd. near the demarcation line between the Duke City and the City of Vision.

ChocGlitz & Cream opened its doors in July, 2014 and almost immediately began garnering not only local accolades, but national attention.  In February, 2015, ChocGlitz staffers created a five-foot chocolate sculpture depicting trees, fairies and woodland creatures for a Food Network program called Outrageous Chocolate.  That painstaking effort took a bit longer than 200 hours.  While Celeste doesn’t have to take nearly as much time in crafting the tempting chocolates on display daily at the shop, it’s obvious hers is a labor of love…and of deliciousness.   ChocGlitz literally surrounds you with eye candy everywhere you turn.

Caramel Apples for Kids of All Ages

Celeste hand-crafts almost all the chocolates sold at the store using fair-trade certified chocolate (ensuring cocoa farmers are paid fair wages and don’t use child or slave labor).  ChocGlitz offers a treasure trove of beguiling treats such as fudge, caramel apples, caramel corn, chocolate-dipped Oreos, hand-made truffles, cheesecakes and many other chocolate specialties.  A whopping 95-percent of the chocolates sold at ChocGlitz are made on the premises with a handful of fair-trade chocolates (and such rarities as Mallow Cups) brought in to complement the locally made product.  All ice creams are also made on the premises.

21 November 2015: With a sensory overload of aromas and sights threatening to engulf us, we started our ChocGlitz adventure with ice cream: a scoop each of raspberry-red chile and salted caramel on a waffle cone for me and a scoop each of egg nog and pumpkin spice, also on a waffle cone for my Kim.  The raspberries for the raspberry-red chile ice cream come from Heidi’s Raspberries in Corrales so you know they’re of the highest quality.  Common denominators in all four ice cream flavors are smoothness, creaminess, delicateness and richness.  These are the hallmark of ice cream greatness, the qualities of which Stefan bragged.  Those qualities make for the type of ice cream with which you want to take your time, the type that releases its nuanced flavors as it melts on your tongue.  A good amount of milk-fat contributes the quality of “mellowness,” coupling with the natural flavors to seduce your taste buds, not attack them.

Left: Raspberry-Red Chile and Salted Caramel; Right: Egg Nog and Pumpkin Spice

21 November 2015: The Cracker Jacks jingle with which some of us grew up boasts of “candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize!  That’s what you get in Cracker Jacks!”  After sampling the bacon caramel corn at ChocGlitz, I became immediately convinced that Cracker Jacks got it wrong.  Instead of candy-coated peanuts, Cracker Jacks should have used bacon.  During the third annual Southwest Bacon Fest, ChocoGlitz introduced a number of bacon products which were very well received.  The bacon caramel combines two great ingredients–possibly the very best caramel corn you’ve ever had and bacon, that addictive pork candy America loves.

11 September 2016:  Though the raspberry-red chile ice cream could easily become a lifetime habit, how can you possibly know whether or not you’re going to enjoy another flavor more unless you try them all.  That’s my attitude and the sole reason for not ordering it again.  At ChocoGlitz there are no consolation prizes, no Miss Congenialities.  Every flavor is a winner.  That includes one scoop of malted milk balls ice cream and one scoop of Rocky Road on a waffle cone.  The malted milk balls ice cream, in particular, is rich and utterly addictive with a nice malted milk ball to ice cream ratio.

Chocolate Oreos and Walnut Clusters (Milk Chocolate and Dark Chocolate)

11 September 2016:  A cavalcade of chocolates in a glass display case would tempt the most disciplined of dieters.  Every conceivable chocolate confection possible is available including some of which Willie Wonka never imagined.  My Kim’s favorites are the chocolate Oreos covered in milk chocolate while my preference are walnut clusters, one milk chocolate and another dark chocolate.  They’re so good they’ve never made it home where we can have them with milk.  We’re barely out of the parking lot before they’re gone, pleasant memories left in their delicious wake.

If you’re not happy with the ice cream you’re finding in your neighborhood, there’s no guarantee your barista will be able to recommend something better.  That is, unless that barista has been to ChocGlitz & Cream, quite possibly the best chocolate and ice cream shop in the metropolitan area.

ChocGlitz & Cream
10660 Unser Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-898-GLTZ (4589)
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2016
1st VISIT: 21 November 2015
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Raspberry-Red Chile Ice Cream; Salted Caramel Ice Cream; Egg Nog Ice Cream; Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream; Bacon Caramel Corn; Dark English Toffee; Cashew Turtle

ChocGlitz & Cream Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Crackin’ Crab Seafood Boil – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Crackin’ Crab Seafood Boil on Unser Boulevard in Albuquerque

There are certain notions people find too implausible or preposterous to believe. Case in point: during a recent lunch with my friend Bill Resnik, our waitress asked what we did for a living. Bill told her I was an actor, a premise our waitress found entirely credible—even to the point of recalling she may have seen me in an episode of Breaking Bad. When, however, I told her Bill was a porn star, she couldn’t contain her laughter. She practically fell over in hysteria at the image of my towering (6’5″) friend performing in a porno as if it was the most hilarious thing she’d ever heard. After she composed herself, she told me I was full of sh… er, excrement. My response: “full of sh..” was Bill’s porn name when he starred in diaper fetish movies. We thought we’d have to hose her down when even more raucous fits of laughter ensued.

Another notion New Mexicans find implausible is the idea that very good to excellent seafood can be found within the landlocked borders of the Land of Enchantment. Since the rapid fire succession closure in the early 2000s of Cafe Oceana, the Rio Grande Yacht Club and Seagull Street, many diners considered Pelican’s Restaurant the sole surviving seafood restaurant in the metropolitan area.  Just about the time the aforementioned trio were shuttering their doors, Mariscos Altamar began introducing Duke City diners to Mexican style seafood, a trend that caught on rapidly.  Then in 2013, Down N’ Dirty Seafood Boil filled a real niche by offering a product unique to the marketplace, something that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.  Its Cajun-style seafood boil concept was an immediate smash hit.

The Crackin’ Crab Dining Room

Just as as mighty forests start with one tiny fertile seed, niche markets tend to propagate as soon as entrepreneurs see an opportunity to get in on a good thing.  In 2015, just about the time Down N Dirty opened its second restaurant (Los Altos Plaza on Wyoming), an aptly named competitor–Crackin’ Crab Seafood Boil–opened its doors near the Century Rio 24 theater. It didn’t take Crackin’ Crab long to expand, launching its own second instantiation just as 2016 was dawning.  2015 also saw the launch of Crab N’ Draft in the International District.  In May, 2016, 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen in Nob Hill followed suit.

Detractors might say the market is already saturated, but those of us “glass half filled” types can’t get enough.  Landlocked Albuquerque has fallen in love with the seafood boil concept.  With existing and planned locations soon to blanket the metropolitan area, favorites are likely to be based as much on proximity as to quality of the product.  Living in Rio Rancho (almost as far north as you can go before you’re in the Santa Ana Pueblo), we longed for a seafood boil restaurant we didn’t have to drive thirty miles to reach.  With the opening of Crackin’ Crab at the McMahon Marketplace on Unser just north of the demarcation line between Rio Rancho and Albuquerque, our wish has been granted.

Family Bag

The name Crackin’ Crab speaks volumes about the concept.  At its mechanical essence, a seafood boil is little more than seafood, water (or beer) and spices (exquisite, flavor-packed, seafood enlivening spices).  At its spiritual essence, it’s so much more than that.  A seafood boil is about fun and frolic.  It’s about sharing succulent seafood with friends and family.  It’s about getting your hands and face dirty and enjoying every minute of it.  Even though the nearest sand and surf (Tingley Beach doesn’t count) is more than 800 miles away, Duke City diners can still enjoy the spirit of the seafood boil.  That spirit is alive and well at the Crackin’ Crab.

With an ambiance almost equal parts nautical and nondescript, the Crackin’ Crab is a sole, elongated dining room with a seating capacity of about fifty guests.  Weather-permitting, another twenty-five diners can enjoy themselves on the patio.  Several strategically placed wall-mounted flat screen televisions might get your attention early, but only until your seafood bounty arrives at your table.  “Pounds of Crackin'” is set at market price by the pound: blue crab, Dungeness crab cluster, snow crab cluster, king crab legs, lobster, black mussels, green mussels, crawfish (in season), clams, scallops and shrimp (headless or with heads).   You can’t catch this stuff on the Rio Grande.  If you prefer your seafood fried, a netful of fried options are also available: calamari, shrimp, seafood, oysters and softshell crab.  Landlubbers can have fried chicken tenders.

The Crackin’ Crab Dining Room

Any order combination of three pounds will also yield one corn on the cob, one sausage and one potato, but you can also order additional portions of each in any quantity you desire for a relative pittance.  Two sauce options are available to enliven your seafood boil–an Old Bay Cajun sauce and a lemon pepper sauce, both available in mild, medium or hot.  My penchant for piquancy goes out the window with seafood.  Any spice level beyond medium obfuscates the natural sweet and briny flavors of seafood.  At Crackin’ Crab even the medium sauce is as incendiary as hot chile at some New Mexican food restaurants. 

Your best bet whether you’re a value conscious diner or you want variety in your meal is the family bag, a veritable boatful of beauteous seafood.  Your yield is one pound of snow crab, a half pound of headless shrimp, a half pound of scallops and a half pound of black mussels along with one corn on the cob, one potato and one Andouille sausage.  That’s two-and-a-half pounds of succulent seafood for about forty dollars (as of this writing).  Being a lazy eater, my preference is for seafood requiring no peeling or cracking.  Extricating the sweet meat, no matter how delicious, is just too much work and I seem to lack the manual dexterity to use the cracking appliances provided.  My Kim would rather extract the crab meat for me than to see me wreak mass destruction on the claws.  

My favorite item in the family bag is the scallops (and not only because there’s no peeling or shelling involved).  Crackin’ Crab serves silver dollar sized scallops, each as sweet, rich and deliciously decadent as possible.  The shrimp are sizeable enough for the term “shrimp” to be an oxymoron while the black mussels probably benefit most from the Cajun sauce.  Because couples might not remain together if they had to split just one Andouille sausage, potato or corn-on-the-cob, you’re well advised to order at least two for each of you.  The spicy, smoked Andouille sausage is always a treat.

Crackin’ Crab has cracked the line-up of seafood boil restaurants par excellence in the metropolitan area. As if terrific seafood isn’t enough, when you’re done you can take your receipt two doors down to the outstanding chocolatier ChocoGlitz & Cream and you get a ten-percent discount on your order.

Cracking Crab Seafood Boil
10660 Unser Blvd, #B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-5790
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2016
BEST BET: Family Platter (One Pound Snow Crab, Half Pound Headless Shrimp, Half Pound Scallops, Half Pound Black Mussels, Corn on the Cob, Potatoes, Andouille Sausage) Bread

Crackin' Crab Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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