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Yanni’s Mediterranean Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

No Yanni come lately is Albuquerque's best Greek restaurant.

No Yanni come lately is Albuquerque’s best Greek restaurant.

The now defunct Albuquerque Monthly magazine titled a May, 1995 article “Yanni Come Lately,” heralding the arrival of a new Greek restaurant on Nob Hill.  More than a decade has elapsed since that article and Yanni’s Mediterranean continues to more than live up to the lofty accolades it has earned over the years. Yanni’s has been recognized by other national, regional and local publications for its outstanding cuisine.  It has also earned the unwavering devotion of teeming masses who patronize the city’s best Mediterranean restaurant.

In 1998, Gourmet magazine named Yanni’s a restaurant of distinction in the Southwest.  Southwest Airline’s Spirit magazine has also proclaimed it a great restaurant for Greek food.  More recently, readers of the Alibi voted Yanni’s as the best Greek restaurant in Albuquerque as well as the city’s very best restaurant overall in 2009.  Considering the vast improvements in the city’s restaurant landscape since Yanni’s launch a decade and a half ago as well as Albuquerque’s propensity for embracing the newest kids in the block, that’s a tremendous accomplishment for what is becoming one of the city’s venerable institutions.

Deep Mediterranean Blues Throughout the Dining Room

Deep Mediterranean Blues Throughout the Dining Room

In that time, more than Yanni’s reputation has grown.  The restaurant now occupies much of a city block.  Immediately adjacent to the restaurant is a swanky 75-seat Lemoni Lounge in which the most popular libations are available for every occasion.  Live music is provided every weekend.   A commodious banquet room with comfortable and private seating for up to 100 guests provides state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment as well as a special banquet menu.

Yanni’s Mediterranean is the brainchild of Nick Kapnison and his wife Chris Kapnison, veteran restaurateurs and successful entrepreneurs who have a keen grasp of what their dining patrons want–hearty portions of reasonably priced cuisine served in a pleasant milieu by an attentive wait staff.  Their restaurant delivers!

Warm, fresh bread from Fano Bakery in every meal.

Warm, fresh bread from Fano Bakery in every meal.

The south-facing Yanni’s is at the heart of Nob Hill on Central Avenue.  Its interior is awash in hues of azure, the shades and colors of the Aegean Sea.  Sculpted plaster busts and verdant plants sit atop truncated Corinthian columns.  The restaurant’s windows provide a panoramic view of the Nob Hill traffic and of the interesting shops that make this one of the city’s most diverse and interesting shopping districts.

Interestingly (and I’m certainly not complaining), the ratio of women to men always seems very high–or at least it has during the times we’ve visited.  Feminine pulchritude may account, in part, for consistently pleasant dining experiences at Yanni’s, but it’s degustation of outstanding cuisine that brings us back.  If you’d like to avoid crowds, Sundays are a good day to visit for when Popejoy is hosting a matinee event.  Once the event lets out, however, Albuquerque’s cultured crowd loves Yanni’s.

Spanakopita--there is none better in the Duke City!

Spanakopita–there is none better in the Duke City!

While you’re pondering the expansive menu, Yanni’s starts you off with some of the best baked bread in town (courtesy of Fano’s Bakery, a local institution).  It encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread.  When dipped into mixture of virgin olive oil and herbs (including chile pequin seeds), the character of the bread really stands out.  If you’re not careful, however, you can easily fill up on bread and still call it a great meal.

The mezathakia (appetizer) options are a veritable pantheon of prandial perfection (forgive the alliteration).  The challenge is in deciding which appetizer(s) with which to start.  If you favor simplicity instead of sophistication and sweet breath be damned, you can start off with Greek olives and feta cheese served with a generous amount of pita wedges.  The fetid feta spreads easily on the warm pita which tempers the acrid and salty fromage.  The olives are rich and briny.   You won’t find any better in the city.

Feta Psiti: Baked Feta with peppers, tomato & olive oil; Served with pita wedges

Feta Psiti: Baked Feta with peppers, tomato & olive oil; Served with pita wedges

A more complex flavor-rich starter features goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic served with pita wedges, a tasty triumvirate which spreads easily on the warm pita.  The soft, easily spread goat cheese and its strong and pungent, but very pleasant flavor is an excellent foil for the sweet acidity of the sun-dried tomatoes and the eye-watering garlic.   The resultant mix is absolutely delicious.

4 May 2014: If a cheese can embody a nation, it should be said that Feta is the flavor of Greece.  Feta is slightly pungent, delightfully soft and crumbly.  It’s also surprisingly versatile as Feta Psiti demonstrates.  Feta Psiti is baked feta with red and green peppers, tomato and olive oil served with pita wedges.  Baked feta isn’t quite as sharp or pungent as in its natural state, but it marries very well with red and green peppers. A single grilled tomato topped with the same seasonings used on the bread provides acidity and contrast.

Another wonderful pasta dish at Yanni's: Penne pasta with poached salmon in a Cayenne cream sauce.

Another wonderful pasta dish at Yanni’s: Penne pasta with poached salmon in a Cayenne cream sauce.

Not surprisingly, Yanni’s serves the very best dolmathes (wonderfully seasoned beef and rice stuffed grape leaves) in town.  Four of these wonderful treasures are served warm and drizzled with the whisper-thin tartness of Avgolemono sauce made with lemons.  You can also opt for dolmathes served cold and vegetarian style.

10 March 2007: Yanni’s saganaki, a dish of flaming Green Kaseri cheese is almost as much fun to see prepared tableside as it is to eat it.  Alit courtesy of a common lighter and incendiary rum, the flames ascend toward the heavens, leaving blue and orange plume trails in their aromatic wake.  Your well-trained attendant turns the cheese over with but a steak knife, manipulating the flames so they lick the cheese, imparting high heat through and through and with an evenness that ensures every bit of the cheese is flame-kissed.

Lamb Chops Marinated in Greek Oregano, Lemon and Garlic, Grilled to Perfection

Pork Chop Marinated in Greek Oregano, Lemon and Garlic, Grilled to Perfection

Yanni’s appetizers are better than entrees at many other restaurants and you can easily make a meal of two or three of them, but you’ll want to partake of incomparably prepared main courses.  The menu categorizes them into traditional Greek dinners; vegetarian entrees; steaks, chops and seafood; pastas; calzone and pizza.  The specials of the day might fall into any one of these categories and are generally terrific.

The pastas are primo good!  In fact, a daily special of Greek meatballs and fettuccine with marinara constitutes the very best spaghetti dish I’ve had in New Mexico.  The meatballs were heavenly spiced and of divine texture, wholly unlike the sawdust meatballs served at many local Italian restaurants.  It’s the entree I look for every time we visit Yanni’s, an entree which truly earns the sobriquet “special.”  Perhaps that’s why the restaurant features it as a “special of the day” and not as a daily offering.

Greek style chicken

Greek style chicken

Another pasta entree, appropriately named Mediterranean Linguini, is a gem of a dish which includes Kalamata olives, fresh Roma tomatoes, artichoke hearts, capers, sweet basil, virgin olive oil and marinara.  Talk about taste contrasts blending together to form something unbelievably wonderful.  The linguini, a wider noodle than spaghetti, is prepared at a bit more than al dente while the other ingredients are fresh and delicious, all perfectly prepared.

10 March 2007: Still another pasta entree that came from the daily specials list to capture my heart is a penne pasta dish with poached salmon, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes in a Cayenne cream sauce.  The piquant creaminess of the Cayenne sauce and well-seasoned salmon tastes play well on each other’s contrasts.  Salmon can be difficult to flavor and bad salmon is prone to “fishiness.”  Not so under the skilled skillet of Yanni’s chef where the salmon has a fresh taste, almost as if caught in the wild.   It is an absolutely perfect pasta dish!

Avgolemono, a chicken rice soup with lemon and egg.

Avgolemono, a chicken rice soup with lemon and egg.

10 March 2007: A departure from pasta dishes to meat based entrees is like departing Paris for Rome.  Both are wonderful in their own right and each is done very well at Yanni’s.  The Greek style chicken entree is, like many entrees at Yanni’s, prolific enough for two people to share.  It is comprised of a breast, leg, thigh and wing, all slow-roasted and flavored with lemon and flecked with garlic and oregano.  The skin is crispy while the chicken is moist and delicious.

27 March 2010: Partaking of Yanni’s bone-in pork chops is reminiscent of dining at a big city Chophouse where prime cuts of beef and pork are presented with pulchritudinous pork and beauteous beef clinging to a Flintstone sized bone.  At Yanni’s, the pork chops are marinated in Greek oregano, lemon and garlic then grilled to perfection.  These chops are moist and tender and at nearly an inch-thick, each and every morsel extricated easily from the bone is very satisfying.  Accompanied by roasted red potatoes potatoes resplendent in olive oil and Greek seasonings and deliciously bitter spinach, this is a terrific entree.

A fresh and delicious Greek salad

A fresh and delicious Greek salad

Several lamb based entrees are prepared in traditional Greek style and all exemplify all that is great about lamb.  Very little (if any) gaminess is ever found on Yanni’s lamb entrees, whether it be the lamb ragout, lamb chops or lamb shank.  Greek “fast food” in the form of Yanni’s gyros is an absolutely delicious, perfectly seasoned amalgam of lamb and beef swimming in tzadziki sauce and stuffed into a warm pita bread pocket.  There may be no better gyros anywhere in New Mexico.

10 March 2007: Entrees are accompanied by your choice of soup or salad.  For me, it’s a no-brainer.  The Avgolemono, a chicken rice soup with lemon and egg is the very best I’ve had anywhere.  Wholly unlike the sweet and sour soup you might find at a Chinese restaurant, it’s only mildly tart and blends tart and savory tastes in seemingly equal proportions.  27 March 2007: The Greek salad is certainly no consolation prize.  Artistically constructed of Romaine lettuce, red onion, cucumber slices, tomato wedges and lots of fetid feta, it’s as good and fresh a Greek salad as you’ll find anywhere.

Barcelona Pizza: Marinara, chicken breast, mozzarella, cilantro, prosciutto & red onions

Barcelona Pizza: Marinara, chicken breast, mozzarella, cilantro, prosciutto & red onions

4 May 2014: The menu lists six pizzas, each named for a European port of call.  Every pizza can be made into a calzone and you’re free to craft your own by selecting the ingredients of your choosing.  Baked whisper-thin on the restaurant’s pizza oven, the pizza has a nice char around the edges with bubbling cheese sharing canvas space with other ingredients.  The Barcelona (chicken breast, mozzarella, cilantro, prosciutto and red onions) is a very good pizza which would be made even better sans chicken (which tends to dessicate in an oven) and with the addition of whole garlic cloves.  It’s a personal-sized pizza cut into eight slices, several of which you’ll take home for lunch the following day.

4 May 2014: Not counting salads, there are four vegetarian entrees on the menu.  Contrary to what some believe, vegetarian is not synonymous with boring or tasteless.  There are few examples that prove this point as well as the stuffed acorn squash, a partially hollowed out acorn squash gourd stuffed with sauteed spinach, fennel, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, asparagus and mushrooms served with a dill cream sauce and garlic mashed potatoes.  Leave the dill cream sauce for the garlic mashed potatoes (which are rather dry) and partake of the vegetables alone.  The squash is prepared with brown sugar and butter, imbuing it with a slightly sweet flavor profile that blends well with the crisp, perfectly prepared and absolutely delicious vegetables.

Stuffed Acorn Squash: Spinach, fennel, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, asparagus & mushrooms served with garlic mashed potatoes & topped with dill cream-sauce

Stuffed Acorn Squash:
Spinach, fennel, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, asparagus & mushrooms served with garlic mashed potatoes & topped with dill cream-sauce

10 March 2007: A wealth of dessert options (if you have room) will satiate the sweetest of teeth.  From the traditional baklava to an inspired baklava sundae, Yanni’s has a dessert line-up with which no other Mediterranean restaurant can compete.  Our recent favorite is Galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert made with a lemon-kissed custard in a crispy phyllo pastry shell.  The custard is (gasp, forgive the blasphemy) as good (if not better) as the very best natillas we’ve had in New Mexico while the light pastry shell cuts into the richness just enough so you’re not overwhelmed.  It is one of the best dessert options available in the city.

Galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert made with a lemon-kissed custard in a crispy phyllo pastry shell.

Galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert made with a lemon-kissed custard in a crispy phyllo pastry shell.

There are many reasons Yanni’s Mediterranean separates itself from the rest.  Quite simply, it provides one of the Duke City’s very best dining experiences.

Yanni’s Mediterranean
3109 E. Central
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-9250
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 22
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Souvlaki, Greek Chicken, Mediterranean Pasta, Galaktoboureko, Gyros, Pizza, Pork Chops, Lamb Chops, Stuffed Acorn Squash, Feta Psiti

Yanni's Mediterranean Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Anatolia Doner Kebab House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Anatolia Doner Kebab House in the Albuquerque Downtown Area

Anatolia Doner Kebab House in the Albuquerque Downtown Area

In the mid 80s when my Kim and I lived in rural, agrarian England, a “sandwich” meant one of three things: a warm, fresh floury bap with butter, Cheddar cheese and Branston’s Pickle from our favorite bakery in Lechlade; a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (with chips (fries), of course) from The Plough in Fairford; or a doner kebab from a jankety kebab house in Banbury. 

There just weren’t many other sandwich options (not to mention burgers and pizza) in the Cotswolds region of England where we lived and certainly no subs, grinders, torpedoes, po’ boys or hoagies. In fact, to our British hosts, the notion that “Yanks” had so many options and fillings for our sandwiches was sheer lunacy on the level of King George, III. Never mind that the bread-encased convenience food known as the “sandwich” was invented by Englishman John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.

Anatolia02

Babaghannoug with Pita

Of the three sandwiches, the memories of all which still rekindle pangs of hunger, our favorite was the doner kebab. It was our special occasion sandwich, the extravagance of which we chose to partake on birthdays and anniversaries. It was the indulgence on which we splurged (we were very poor back then) when we wanted to maximize our culinary enjoyment and stretch our pounds (English monetary unit). To this day—more than 25 years later—memories of those doner kebabs stir the type of powerful emotions one associates with the most pleasant of memories–on par with olfactory-arousing memories of my grandma’s tortillas just off the comal.

We weren’t the only ones crazy for kebabs. In England, where they’re even served in pubs, doner kebabs are considered an icon of urban food culture. They’re especially popular following a night of adult beverage excess, but are beloved at any time.  If possible, they’re even more popular in Germany, where, as in England, large communities of Turkish immigrants settled. Doner kebabs are, in fact, the most popular street food in Germany,  by far exceeding the popularity of the German source of historical and cultural pride, the sausage.

Anatolia03

Falafel with hummus

Aside from vegans, vegetarians and calorie counters, it seems the only person in England who doesn’t like doner kebabs is contrarian extraordinaire Gordon Ramsey who likens kebabs throughout the United Kingdom to “a piece of (expletive) on a stick that is taken off the burner at night frozen then reheated the next day.”   Obviously he never visited the jankety little kebab house in Banbury which forever set our benchmark for excellence in Middle Eastern sandwiches.

If you’ve never had a doner kebab or have gleaned from this essay only that it’s some sort of sandwich, let me describe it.  A doner kebab is a traditional Turkish dish made from meat roasted vertically on a spit, very similarly to how Greek gyros and other spit-roasted meats from throughout the Mediterranean region are prepared.  On the long cylindrical spit, the meat resembles an elephant’s foot  from which small pieces of juicy meat are shaved then crammed into warm pita or epic flat bread before being topped with a sauce and (or) lettuce, onions and tomatoes.

Anatolia04

Combination Platter: Chicken Kebab, Beef Kebab, Ground Beef, Onion Salad, Pita, Rice, Green Chile and Cacik

By American standards, the Anatolia Doner Kebab House on Sixth Street, could hardly be called upscale, but it’s posh and elegant compared to the jankety little kebab house in Banbury.  Situated in a nondescript edifice just north of Central in the downtown area, it’s also much larger than many kebab houses in England, some of which are hardly more than roadside stands.  Best of all, Anatolia’s menu includes a number of Turkish delicacies more than a step above street food.  Anatolia’s menu touts its cuisine as “what mama used to make.”

Mama must have been one heckuva cook.  The food at Anatolia is so good that our server declared confidently that we’d be back within a week.  That was three days before my first return visit.  I can’t yet state that Anatolia transports me back to England because I have yet to try Anatolia’s version of my beloved doner kebab.  During my first two visits the specials of the day were too tempting to pass up.  If that trend persists, it may be a while before I get to try the doner kebab.

Adana Shish Kabob

Adana Shish Kabob

The first special was a combination platter consisting of three meat skewers: chicken kebab, beef kebab and ground beef as well as an onion salad, several wedges of pita, a single roasted green chile, rice and Cacik, a very refreshing and cool sauce made with cucumber, yoghurt, mint, olive oil and spices.  The meats are perfectly grilled and seasoned masterfully.  All three meats are fork-tender and devoid of any annoying fat or sinew.   The onion salad is drizzled with a sweet-tangy dressing, but would have been more interesting with just a bit of feta.  The warm and delicious pita is the only item on the menu that’s not made on the premises, but it’s a high-quality pita.  The Cacik (what Greeks call tzaziki) is outstanding while the rice is buttery, but not especially memorable.

Owners Mehmet and Umut Kokangul pay homage to their Turkish hometown with the Adana Shish Kabob, the special of the day during my second visit.  Unlike other kebabs offered at Anatolia, the Adana is pleasantly piquant courtesy of Aleppo peppers, a Turkish pepper favorite with balanced heat and rich, sweet and smoky notes.  This kebab has the texture similar to meatballs, but in an elongated meat package.  Because of its heat properties, it should become a favorite of Duke City diners.

Leg of Lamb Shish Kabob plate

Leg of Lamb Shish Kabob plate

Appetizers are very inexpensive at Anatolia where you can get single-sized portions of falafel and dolmas for under a dollar.  The falafel, fried balls of spiced chickpeas and favabeans, are quite good, especially for the price.  Even better are the dolmas which are homemade.  You can definitely tell the difference between the canned dolmas served at many Middle Eastern restaurants and the homemade dolmas served at Anatolia.  The grape leaves are fresher and the flavors of lemon zest and olive oil permeate each bite.

Anatolia’s babaghannoug is among the very best in the city (as well as one of the most challenging to spell).  The combination of olive oil, roasted eggplant and tahini (a sesame paste) is ameliorated with Turkish spices to form a wonderful dip for the pita bread.  For an even more eye-opening, mouth-watering version, ask for the spicy babaghannoug which is punctuated with the bite of the Aleppo pepper.  The color of the hummus resembles Thousand Island dressing and that’s not the only way in which Anatolia’s hummus differs from most in the Duke City.  Texturally it’s somewhat creamier than most and it’s also more heavily seasoned, including a good amount of cumin. 

Anatolia07

Pistachio Baklava

Dessert at Turkish restaurants means baklava, or more specifically pistachio baklava.   It’s not sodden with the dreaded corn syrup as some baklava tends to be.  Instead, trust that real honey is used.  This is a buttery, flaky pastry whose sweetness is mitigated with ground green pistachios.  It’s homemade and is among the very best I’ve ever had.  

THIRD VISIT – 12 JULY 2013: When John L, a very discerning gastronome whose opinions I value, wrote about a less than stellar dining experience at Anatolia, I surmised John must have visited on a rare off day.  Still his comments hastened my return with my good friends Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver, Paul “Boomer” Lilly and Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott in tow.  It was their first visit and they weren’t privy to any discouraging words about Anatolia.  All three of them found their meals very enjoyable (especially the pistachio baklava) and promised to return.

The special of the day was leg of lamb shish kabob.  At fourteen dollars, it was the most expensive item I’ve seen on Anatolia’s menu, but also one of the most delicious.  The lamb was tender, moist and perfectly seasoned, but there wasn’t a lot of it, so each small bite was cherished with small bites.  The special included a roasted green chile, rice and a salad.  Only the rice was unremarkable.

Some psychologists credit the dissolution of the family unit as the reason behind America’s social ills.  It’s also thought that families which dine together, stay together. In June, 2013, Urbanspoon put together its list of the most popular family-friendly restaurants in America and two Albuquerque eateries were on the list.  Apparently Duke City families enjoy going out for non-American food because the two honorees were Anatolia Doner Kebab and Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining, both outstanding choices. 

Don’t be surprised if Anatolia’s doner kebab makes it to my best sandwich list.  That is if I ever get to try the doner kebab, which considering those fantastic specials of the day may not be too soon.  Anatolia is a terrific Turkish restaurant in a city which welcomes diversity and has long been overdue for the authentic flavors, hospitality and deliciousness of Turkey.

Anatolia Doner Kebab House
521 Central, N.W., Suite 1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-6718
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 July 2013
1st VISIT: 5 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pistachio Baklava, Babaghannoug, Pita, Falafel, Combination Platter, Leg of Lamb Shish Kabob


View Anatolia Doner Kebab Restaurant on LetsDineLocal.com »

Anatolia Doner Kebab Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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: Marinated slices of lamb served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

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.  Urbanspoon readers seem to agree.  As of this writing, 93% of the 431 readers voting on its page indicated they liked it.  Muhammad proudly points this out to new visitors.

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!

Tabbouli Salad, Baba Ghanoug and 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.

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 very best in town

Housemade fresh pita bread, maybe the very best in town

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.

The highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the seven choices–may just well be the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil).  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.

Shish Kabob Platter: cubes of extra lean beef served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

Shish Kabob Platter: cubes of extra lean beef served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

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.

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

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

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.

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

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 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

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, some of the very best in Albuquerque

Pistachio Baklava, some of the very best in Albuquerque

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: 26 May 2013
1st VISIT:  13 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
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

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