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Ben Michael’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ben Michael’s Restaurant on Rio Grande Blvd. outside Old Town

During the height of the Italian Renaissance, humanist-philosopher Leon Battista Alberti posited the notion that “a man can do all things if he will,” a notion that birthed the concept of the Renaissance man.  More than the contemporary Army challenge for American soldiers to “be all you can be,” a Renaissance man was expected to embrace all knowledge and develop capabilities as fully as possible in the areas of knowledge, physical development, social accomplishments and the arts.  Perhaps the very best example of a Renaissance man is Leonardo da Vinci, whose gifts were manifest in the fields of science, art, music, invention and writing. 

Spend a few minutes with Ben Michael Barreras, chef and owner of the eponymous Ben Michael’s Restaurant on the fringes of Old Town, and you’ll quickly discern you’ve met a true Renaissance man. In his half century plus, he’s been (and still is) a pharmacist, a farmer, a contractor, a musician, a fisherman and a chef.  Moreover, he’s a gentleman, emphasis on the word “gentle.”   We found that out quickly upon asking if he carried Splenda or Equal.  In a kind but serious tone, he admonished that he would never want to poison us with artificial sweeteners, emphasizing that as a practicing pharmacist, he subscribes to the Hippocratic edict to “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Sardines and Spanish Cheese

In that spirit, Ben Michael takes great pride in offering a menu replete with organic, locally raised ingredients.  He doesn’t have to travel far to get many of them either.  Behind the restaurant he lovingly tends to a small garden in which he raises seasonal produce such as arugula, pinto beans, beets and even chile.  The bounty of his small garden may not be abundant, but the freshness and flavor of the produce he reaps is memorable.  It’s the antithesis of the artificially ripened and synthetic-flavored vegetables to which diners are often subjected.  What Ben Michael can’t grow himself, he sources from small area vendors who adhere to his standards and principles. 

If you’re traveling on Rio Grande Boulevard just north of Old Town, you can’t miss the architectural anomaly that is Ben Michael’s Restaurant though you might mistake it for something else–perhaps an art gallery or an extension of Casa Talavera next door.  To say it doesn’t subscribe to the adobe-hued homogeneity of Old Town area architectural standards is an understatement.  Ben Michael’s stands out, not so much like a sore thumb, but like a defiantly tattooed finger.  The restaurant’s unique architecture is reflective of Ben Michael’s individuality.  He’s not someone you can typecast.

Organic Salad

Neither is the restaurant he constructed in 1997, mostly with his own two hands.  For the walls, he fashioned some 8,000 adobe bricks from mud in the arroyos behind the restaurant.  He used an axe to cut aspens from the Jemez Mountains for the natillas on the ceiling which he hand-carved himself.  He laid the bricks for the restaurant’s floor.  Save for the modernity of his tools, his labors were similar to those undertaken by his ancestors (on both sides of his family) who settled the Duke City in the sixteenth century,   Morning and mid-day sun illuminate the dining room which seems taller (at least twenty-five feet) than it does commodious.

Formidable as he is at construction, Ben Michael may be even more adept at building relationships.  Amiable interactions with guests come easy to the genial restaurateur.  So do firm abrazos for the friends and neighbors who drop in for a quick visit and a steaming cup of organic coffee.  Guests and friends alike drop in on Burque Blues Tuesday or Jazz Wednesday when Ben Michael lets his hair down and tickles the ivories on the piano at the corner of the restaurant.

Enchiladas with Posole

Music, ambiance and great conversation aside, if you’re at Ben Michael’s for lunch there are two things of which you should be aware.  First, you’d better have some time on your hands.  Ben Michael prepares everything to order and may well be a one person operation, serving as your chef, server, cashier and host.  Second, don’t expect a compendium of every New Mexican dish you’ve ever had.  To say the menu is abbreviated–three entrees, three appetizers, a salad and two desserts during a visit in January, 2015–is an understatement.  While the menu may not be comprehensive, it’s got more than its share of surprises. 

Unless you’ve been to a very authentic Spanish or Portuguese restaurant, for example, you probably haven’t seen an appetizer offering of sardines and Spanish cheese served with bread.  My dad loved sardines, a trait only one of his six children (guess which one) inherited.  Because my Kim dislikes sardines intensely meant they were all mine. Ben Michael pan-fries the sardines in olive oil along with sauteed white onions.  It’s a delicious departure from the predictable cavalcade of appetizers at New Mexican restaurants.  The Spanish cheese, a firm, rindless white cheese is cubed and delicious.

Organic Burger

It’s rare to declare a salad as the one “must have” item on a menu, but if ever that designation is deserved for one sole item, it’s tailor-made for the organic salad at Ben Michael’s.  There is no one standard template for constructing the organic salad.  In fact, don’t be surprised if Ben Michael excuses himself briefly to step out back to retrieve the seasonal ingredients with which to construct your salad.  Ours was made with fresh, crisp greens; chopped, raw beets; organic walnuts; shredded Spanish cheese; salty, briny olives and luscious figs with a housemade Balsamic vinaigrette.  It’s organic artwork on a plate, a truly terrific salad. 

Soon after placing my order for chicken enchiladas, the unmistakeable whirring of a blender and the melodic sound of a freshly cracked egg (organic) sizzling and spitting on a frying pan could be heard.  It was the  sound of Ben Michael preparing my lunch.  More specifically, he was grinding red chile from pods for my enchiladas.  It’s an outstanding chile (among the very best we’ve had in Albuquerque) with a pleasant piquancy and deep, rich, earthy flavor.  Not surprisingly, it was chile grown by the chef himself.  The enchiladas are an outstanding option.  They’re made flat and ooze with melted Cheddar and the gooey goodness of an egg fried over-medium, all good, but made transformative thanks to that chile.

Flan

In a consumer economy dominated by fast food and mystery meat burgers, it’s refreshingly rare to find an organic burger.  The difference is significant.  At Ben Michael’s, the organic burger is constructed from hand-formed ground beef and served with crisp, fresh salad greens (ask the chef to drizzle on some of the house vinaigrette) and a side of cubed papitas.  Every burger should be as fresh and delicious. 

Only two desserts festoon the menu, a chocolate mousse and a flan which renders Ben Michael poetic.  He raves about the flan and eagerly awaits your verdict at first bite.  It’s a wonderful flan, second only to Chef Estevan Garcia’s organic goat milk flan when he helmed Tabla De Los Santos.  An addictive intoxicating caramel wafts through the air when you pierce the flan with your spoon.  It’s a light flan served cold and it’s as good as Ben Michael says it is. 

After you finish your meal and if he’s not inundated with guests, Ben Michael might just invite you to visit his small pharmacy on the premises. Similar to the abbreviated menu, it’s not nearly as well stocked as other pharmacies in Albuquerque, but you can trust that what Ben Michael chooses to keep in stock has the healthful qualities this Renaissance man values.

Ben Michael’s Restaurant
2404 Pueblo Bonito Court, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 224-2817
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sardines and Spanish Cheese, Organic Salad, Enchiladas, Organic Burger, Flan

Ben Michael's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro on Silver Avenue in Nob Hill

If your perception of Colombia is of a nation beleaguered with drugs, terrorism and violence, you may just have to recalibrate your thinking.  In 2014, for the second consecutive year, a WIN-Gallup poll conducted in 65 countries revealed that Colombia has earned the distinction of being the world’s happiest country.  Known as the “Barometer of Happiness and Hope,” the survey reported that of 1,012 Colombian respondents, 86 percent consider themselves “happy” while only 2 percent report themselves as “unhappy.”   The United States, by the way, ranked as only the 31st happiest nation surveyed.

So what could possibly account for Colombia’s surprisingly high happiness quotient?  In discussing the survey results with my friend John (who’s married to a beautiful Colombian woman), I joked that if all Colombian women looked like Sofia Vergara and Shakira, it’s no wonder there’s so much happiness.  His response was that not only are all Colombian women beautiful, they can all cook, too.  What they’re cooking most he told me is ajiaco, a traditional Colombian chicken and potato soup.

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver in the front dining room at Ajiaco Colombian Bistro

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Albuquerque’s sole Colombian restaurant is named Ajiaco for the feel-good comfort food favorite of a nation increasingly celebrated for its gastronomic splendor.  Launched in 2014, Ajiaco Colombian Bistro, which is located on Silver Avenue in The Village, a complex which also hosts P’Tit Louis Bistro and Limonata Trattoria, isn’t the Duke City’s first Colombian restaurant. That distinction goes to the now defunct El Pollo Real which earned its reputation as much for Mexican food favorites (in particular the charbroiled chicken) as it did for Colombian cuisine. 

As was El Pollo Real, the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro is owned by Colombian immigrants Pedro and Nubia Sabogal, but unlike at El Pollo Real, the singular focus is solely on Colombian cuisine.  Adventurous diners who eschewed El Pollo Real’s Mexican offerings in favor of ajiaco, arepas and empanadas couldn’t be happier–both with the food and with the  stylish new digs.  Elegant hardwood floors throughout the restaurant impart an airiness and homey feeling which is enhanced by the main dining room’s open view to the kitchen.  You can’t help but stand agape at the burlap curtains in the front room which appear to have been made from large bags used to ship coffee.

Sancocho (Short Rib Soup) with Rice

Menu items are listed in Spanish with an English translation directly below.  It’s an intriguing menu with a very reasonable pricing structure.  Only a few items exceed the ten dollar price point and for the most part, those items are meant to be shared.  If you’re tired of paying entree prices for appetizers, you’ll also be thrilled with the aperitivos menu.  None of the eight appetizers crosses the six dollar barrier and empanadas can be had for under two dollars.  The menu offers two sopas (soups)–Ajiaco and sopa del dia (soup of the day). 

Not including the special of the day, the Platos (entrees or main courses) menu offers nine entrees including a vegetarian plate.  The amiable wait staff will also work with guests to craft a meal low-carb dieters can enjoy that doesn’t include rice or potatoes.  For an amazing introduction to Colombian cuisine that two can share, order the Picada which is brimming with steak, pork rinds, morcilla, chorizo, yuca, plantains and arepas.  A la carta items are also available to supplement your platos.  The postres (desserts) include torta de platano (plantain cake) and flan de cafe (coffee flan).

Platano Con Queso

As tempting and delicious as ajiaco is, it’s not sacrilegious to order the sopa del dia instead.  If the Sancocho or short rib soup is offered, it’s a worthy alternative.  Served with fluffy white rice on the side, the soup is served piping hot, perfect for a cold winter day.   While Sancocho, a term which translates loosely to “stew,” can be a complex soup made with a plethora of ingredients, Ajiaco’s version is deliciously simple–a seasoned broth; tender, de-boned short ribs and potatoes.  It’s the type of soup which should be ordered not by cup, but by bowlful. 

Though not listed as a dessert, the platano de queso (plantain with cheese and guava) is dessert sweet and dessert delicious.  A large hollowed-out roasted plantain is stuffed with melted quesito and caramelized guava chunks.  The Colombian quesito (cheese) is texturally similar to Mexican queso fresco and has a mild, slightly sweet taste that becomes exaggerated with the addition of the guava.  There’s not much sweet-savory contrast in this dish.

Grilled Chicken Breast with Pineapple, Salad, Plantains and Vegetables

The special of the day during our inaugural visit was a pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast) served with plantains, a salad and a plate of sauteed vegetables.  Topped with grilled pineapple which provides a sweet contrast, the exceptionally moist and tender grilled chicken breast is simple yet remarkably tasty.  A simple salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers) with a sweet-spicy mango-mustard dressing pairs well with the chicken breast as do sauteed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, squash). 

Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), believed to be a Creole variant of Spanish paella, is a traditional dish of Spain and Latin American countries.  Traditional, however, doesn’t mean it’s prepared the same way or with the same ingredients in all the countries in which it’s served.  The version served in New Mexican family homes (forgive me, mom) may be the most boring, especially in comparison with the Colombian version.  Featuring a medley of vegetables, seasoned rice and moist shredded chicken breast, it’s as beautiful to ogle as it is delicious to eat.  With a texture somewhat similar to risotto and a vibrant color (courtesy of achiote), it’s one of those rare dishes it’ll be difficult to pass up in future visits to Ajiaco.

Arroz Con Pollo with Plantains and Salad

Dining at the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro may not fully explain why Colombia is the world’s happiest country, but you’ll get the feeling that Colombians are happy in large part because their cuisine is so good.  Visit Ajiaco and you’ll be happy, too.

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro
3216 Silver Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-2305
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Arroz Con Pollo, Platano Con Queso,  Short Rib Soup, Pechuga a la Plancha

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Firenze Pizzeria – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Firenze Pizzeria at 900 Park Avenue, S.W., near Central Avenue and 8th Street adjacent to Robinson Park

We’ve got a wood-burning pizza oven in the garden
- a luxury, I know, but it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made.”
~Gwyneth Paltrow

There really is a lot of veracity in the axiom that “your eyes are the mirror to your soul” because eyes truly do provide visual clues as to what we’re thinking. Some psychologists would have you believe that your choice of pizza toppings is also a window to your soul. So what do your favorite pizza toppings say about your personality and behavior?

One psychologist and longtime pizza lover would have you believe people who adorn their pies with pepperoni are “good team players, prepared to sacrifice their personal interests to those of the majority.” Another purports that people who prefer pepperoni have “been shown to “forget” obligations on occasion and miss out on opportunities at work and home.” Hmmm, contradictory assessments by two so-called experts. Perhaps such assessments say more about their creators than they do about the personality traits of subjects they claim to understand so well.

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The interior of Firenze Pizzeria

Extending the premise that an accurate personality assessment could be discerned from your choice of toppings, why not a personality assessment based on your preference for slices instead of a whole pie? What does it say about you if you’d rather have a thick Brobdingnagian pizza over a thin wisp of a pie? Somewhere out there, an analyst is creating a profile of diners who prefer pizza from a mobile conveyance (food truck, if you will) over pizza from a pizzeria.

For those of us who love the Italian wood-fired pizzas from Firenze Mobile Wood Fired Pizza and the Italian wood-fired pizzas from the Firenze Pizzeria equally, the personality assessment would probably read something like “indecisive, timid and easily manipulated, fearful of offending others” and other such psycho-babble. From a pizza preference standpoint alone, it’s impossible to decide which is better–dining al fresco on a pizza from the Firenze mobile oven or dining under climate-controlled comfort in the pizzeria.

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The unique pizza oven in which your pie is prepared

If you didn’t know the good folks who brought us Firenze pizza on wheels have expanded their operation and given Duke City pizza lovers another option for enjoying their pizza, you’re probably not alone. The Firenze Pizzeria opened its doors in May, 2013. Now, however, if you didn’t know of Firenze Mobile Wood Fired Pizza, you might not be attuned to the Duke City’s burgeoning food cart scene. Albuquerque has become a cosmopolitan cow town, joining such cities as Portland, Los Angeles and Austin as a haven for (take your pick) food trucks, food carts, mobile canteens, catering trucks and mobile kitchens. Just don’t call them roach coaches.

Firenze may well be the first of the Duke City’s mobile eateries to diversify its offerings by launching a brick and mortar operation. It wasn’t solely the success of the mobile operation that precipitated the move. Felicia and Steve Meyer matriculated into the food service world with the intention of determining whether or not they would enjoy the challenge and all the work entailed without going broke. Purchasing an Italian-made oven was less expensive than renting a storefront. Long story short, the Meyers found out they not only enjoyed making pizzas for hungry patrons, they were pretty darned good at it. Firenze quickly made it to every diner’s short list, leaving us pining for the next time we happened upon the location in which the magnificent mobile oven was parked.

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The Don Corleone Pizza

Being booked every weekend for nearly two years for special events, catering and a semi-permanent gig at the Downtown Growers’ Market at Robinson Park facilitated the decision to seek a permanent venue. They found the perfect spot at 900 Park Avenue, S.W., virtually adjacent to Robinson Park. The two-story edifice Firenze now calls home has plenty of character and personality, previously having housed an art gallery and before that, El Hispano News.

The pizzeria’s cynosure is an inlaid brick oven imported from Italy. It’s not an exact replica of the mobile oven, but works similarly. Firenze burns locally sourced elm, a soft wood which isn’t especially good for smoking meats, but imparts a nice flavor to pizza dough. The oven generates temperatures of up to 800 degrees. That doesn’t portend getting your pizza quickly. Expect your order to take up to fifteen minutes to be filled as the Firenze pizzaioli stretch the dough by hand and meticulously apply the ingredients for your pie.

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​Quattro Formaggio: Garlic Oil, Mozzarella, Ricotta, Feta, Pecorino Romano, Roasted Garlic & Parsley

Firenze pizzas are individually sized at eleven-inches–perfect for one. The pizza isn’t exactly thin crust and not exactly New York style, but somewhere in between. The dough is made on the premises and is hand-stretched. Firenze touts its use of “only the freshest, most organic ingredients” sourced locally as much as possible. “Market specials” are made with ingredients from local farmers and purveyors. Firenze also offers a ten-inch gluten-free crust and gluten-free salad options. All pizza crusts are dairy-free and if you ask, any pizza can be made without cheese. Signature teas are housemade daily and lightly sweetened with pure cane sugar. No fountain drinks or artificially flavored beverages are served.

8 June 2013: The Pizzeria’s menu lists three “classics:” the Margherita (the pizza which started it all), a cheese pizza and a pepperoni pizza (don’t expect the Meyers to conduct a personality assessment should you order this one). The real showcase of the important Italian oven is in its preparation of eleven artisan pizzas, some of which are very inventive. For her inaugural taste of Firenze, my Kim opted for the Quattro Formaggi, a turophile’s delight made with four cheeses: mozzarella, ricotta, feta and Pecorino Romano as well as garlic oil, roasted garlic and parsley. It’s amazing how the four cheeses complement and contrast one another: the pungent sharpness of the feta against the delicate richness of the ricotta; the familiar creaminess of the mozzarella with the hearty sheep’s milk undertones. Fromage fanatics, this one’s for you!

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The Firenze mobile pizza oven

8 June 2013: Sign up for the Firenze newsletter and you’ll receive periodic updates and news. That’s how we found out about the Don Corleone special, a pizza available only to newsletter subscribers. If ever a pizza was worthy of being considered the “Godfather” of pizzas, this would be it. Picture on a slightly charred dough canvas: tomato sauce, mozzarella, Italian sausage from Keller’s Farm, pepperoni, green olives and Copocollo ham. This is a magnificent pizza, so good I eschewed my usual practice of saving three slices for later…so good I wanted a couple more slices…so good it made it to my short list of best pizzas in New Mexico.

What makes the Don Corleone so good? Farina fanatics might find it blasphemous to learn that not everyone believes char should be part of a pizza’s flavor profile. The pies at Firenze have a light char, just enough so that you might catch a hint of it on a bite or two; it’s not the taste of “burnt” some diners complain about at Farina. The ingredients are top notch and are apportioned just a bit on the parsimonious side which lets you glean a good appreciation for the well-seasoned tomato sauce and magnificent crust. Your pie isn’t weighed down with excess which makes eating it a challenge. Moreover, it is a delicious, uncomplicated pie.

The Godfather

3 January 2015: In its January, 2015 report Pizza Magazine Quarterly revealed that only four states across the fruited plain love pizza less than New Mexico does  (another quality of life category for which we can be grateful for Mississippi).  With only 1.55 pizza joints per 10,000 residents, the Land of Enchantment ranks 46th in terms of number of pizzerias.   Worse, only 38.4 percent of those pizzerias are independent.  Perhaps if more pizzerias in New Mexico offered a pizza as good as The Godfather, our ranking would be much higher.  The Godfather (tomato sauce, mozzarella, Keller’s Farm Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and Kalamata olives) is a beautiful pie that arrives at your table steaming hot with the mozzarella burbling to a tempting sheen.  The high-quality toppings are strewn atop a golden dough canvas in the manner worthy of Michelangelo with each bite rewarding you with pleasurable deliciousness.

3 January 2015: With a name like “Picante,” you might expect a pie pulsating with piquancy.  Instead, the “wow” factor on this pizza comes from a melange of ingredients (tomato sauce, mozzarella, Capocollo ham, rosemary pineapple and fresh sliced jalapeños) that go very well together.  The jalapeños are baked with the pizza which renders them nearly caramelized and tame.  With pineapple and Capocollo ham, the Firenze folks could have paid tribute to the Aloha state in naming this pie, but unlike far too many “Hawaiian” pizzas, this one isn’t nearly as fruity and sweet as others.  It’s got just enough sweetness from the pineapple to meld magnificently with the saltiness of the ham and the slight heat of the jalapeños.

The Picante

The menu also includes three salads: house salad (Romaine, cherry tomato, cucumber, Pecorino Romano, house vinaigrette), creamy pesto salad (Romaine, Parmesan, cracked black pepper, croutons and a creamy pesto dressing) and the one which most piqued our interest, the Gorgonzola salad (mixed greens, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and Balsamic vinaigrette). Wash down your meal with Firenze’s basil mint iced tea, a black tea infused with basil and mint or with a lavender lemonade, an herbal bend of lavender tea, Italian lemon juice and pure cane sugar. You won’t miss Coke or Pepsi in the least.

Whether or not you buy into the notion that your choice of pizza ingredients says a lot about your personality, you’ll probably join the soon to be legions of pizza aficionados headed for the Robinson Park neighborhood for one of the best pies in town–a wonderful pizza whether you get it from the oven on wheels or the venerable two-story building.

Firenze Pizzeria
900 Park Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242.2939
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 3 January 2015
1st VISIT: 8 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Don Corleone, Quattro Formaggio, Lavender Lemonade

Firenze Pizzeria on Urbanspoon