Gyros Mediterranean – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gyros Mediterranean on Cornell just south of Central

It’s not easy being a gastronome about town when you make less than a thousand dollars a month and have a car payment, rent and a social life.   Stationed at Kirtland in the early 1980s, my Air Force salary pretty much dictated that most of my meals were at the base’s chow hall (which thankfully was legions better than the Peñasco High School cafeteria).   The little that was left of my meager monthly take-home pay meant social outings were pretty much of the cheap eats variety.

The epicenter for many of my off-site meals seemed to be Cornell Drive where it was possible to find restaurants with a broad socioeconomic appeal–restaurants which nurtured a refreshing open-mindedness toward the cuisines of the world.  Within easy walking distance of one another on Cornell, you could find battleship sized slices of pizza at Nunzio‘s, the very best lamb burger and green chile stew in the world at the long defunct Sheepherder’s Cafe, half a city block of full-contact eating at the Frontier Restaurant and a gourmand’s paradise of Greek food at Gyros Mediterranean.

Gryos Mediterraneon just off the UNM campus is a popular dining destination.

Gryos Mediterranean just off the UNM campus is a popular dining destination.

Though my first two years in the Air Force (happily served outside of Boston) introduced me to Asian cuisine of every type, I was virginal when it came to Greek food until discovering Gyro’s Mediterranean on Cornell. Back then, this was the place to go for the eponymous gyros, a popular sandwich. Gyros, a blend of lamb, beef and aromatic herbs and spices is grilled slowly on a vertical spit then sliced thinly into a pita which is topped with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki, a savory yogurt sauce loaded with garlic and cucumbers.

5 December 2015: Both Gyros,  the restaurant, and I have grown up and out since then.  While Gyro’s gyros are still among the best in town, the restaurant itself has added an extensive menu of Greek classics.  Your best bet remains the gyros combination platter (pictured below) which includes a Greek salad and patates.  Order it with double meat and you might have some left over to take home.  By far, the very most popular side dish or appetizer at Gyros are the patates, thinly sliced homemade potato chips served warm.  They’re not quite as thin as conventional potato chips, but they’re much better tasting even if a bit salty.  Don’t dare desecrate these chips with ketchup.

The Gyros combination plate with Patates, a Double Meat Gyro and a Greek Salad

Appetizers (mezethes) play an important role in the Greek table.  Most Greek appetizers are salty, piquant (or both) and accompanied by ouzo (a clear anise-flavored liqueur).  By tradition, appetizers are meant to be eaten slowly and while they are quite delicious, their traditional purpose remains to make drinking ouzo easier. Although Gyros Mediterranean doesn’t serve ouzo, appetizers themselves are cause for celebration.

One of the most popular is the aptly named mezethes (small plates of tasty morsels or appetizers).  At Gyros, the featured tasty morsels are dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with aromatic rice), feta cheese, Kalamata olives and pita bread (all pictured below).  The dolmades, although fresh and well seasoned, have a “canned” taste (very few restaurants make their own any more).   The feta is of the wonderful breath-wrecking variety, definitely not recommended for a hot date.  The Kalamata olives are mouth-watering with a briny flavor and meaty texture.  The pita is unfailingly warm.

A Mezze (Appetizer) Platter

5 December 2015: The saganaki, a slab of bubbly Green Kasseri cheese served with pita is far superior to the de rigueur cheesy fried mozzarella offered at chain restaurants. Crisp on the outside, soft and gooey on the outside, it is expertly pan-fried at your table then extinguished with a squeeze or two of lemon.  As with other Greek appetizers, saganaki is designed to be consumed in small amounts, as part of a large spread of small dishes.  The saganaki by itself won’t fill you up, but it will leave you sated.

Saganaki set afire at our table

Another intensely flavored appetizer is tarama, a carp roe spread.  I’ve heard tarama referred to as a “poor man’s caviar” and while I wouldn’t go that far myself, tarama is one of the most delicious things you can spread onto a piece of warm pita bread.  The name for this dish is derived from the Turkish taramas, which means “preserved roe,” and salata, Italian for “salad.”  The dish is made by blending the roe with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice to create a smooth, creamy paste,  then adding body to the paste with mashed potatoes or moistened breadcrumbs.

Some entrees include sides of Pepperonici and Kalamata olives, both of which are delicious. The Greek salad includes huge chunks of feta cheese, a sharp, fetid fromage. It also features red, ripe tomatoes, lettuce and a tangy Greek dressing that will enliven your taste buds. As with the gyros, the onions used on the salad are white onions which are much more flavorful than the seemingly more popular red onions.

Skorthalia: Greek-style dip made with garlic, potatoes, olive oil and lemon. Served with pita bread.

Something else you can spread onto pita bread is potatoes. While that may sound somewhat unconventional, Greeks have long used potatoes as a vehicle for complementary ingredients.  In Skorthalia, an appetizer at Gyros Mediterranean, potatoes served cold and the consistency of mashed potatoes are blended with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and white wine.  The potatoes spread easily onto the pita bread and make for an interesting starter.

Dessert options include a bevy of baklava or baklava-like sweet treats, most resplendent in a honey sheen.  A nice alternative is the tongue-twisting Galaktoboureko, an inspired custard pie sandwiched between flaky phyllo dough baked until golden then drenched with a citrus-infused syrup.  Don’t buy the Homeric myth that the Trojan War started over Helen of Troy, the face that supposedly launched a thousand ships.  the Trojan War started over Galaktoboureko, an epic dessert!

Galaktoboureko, a tongue-twister name for a terrific dessert

Though this gastronome about town can now afford more than the cheap eats of my youth, I still return often to Cornell where some of the deliciously diverse diners that sated me in my poverty are still appeasing patrons of every wallet size.

Gyros Mediterranean
106 Cornell, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexican
(505) 255-4401
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 19
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gyros, Patates, Tarama, Galaktoboureko, Spanakipita, Saganaki

Gyros Mediterranean on Urbanspoon

Anatolia Turkish & Mediterranean Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Anatolia Turkish & Mediterranean Grill on Central Avenue

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.

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Anatolia’s expansive dining room

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.

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Babaghannoug with Pita

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.

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Falafel with hummus

By American standards, the Anatolia Turkish & Mediterranean Grill (formerly the Anatolia Doner Kebab House) could hardly be called upscale, but it’s posh and elegant compared to the jankety little kebab house in Banbury.  After several years in a nondescript edifice on Fifth Street just north of Central in the downtown area, Anatolia nearly doubled its real estate (from 1,100 square-feet to 2,106 square feet) when it moved to Central Avenue, making it even that 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.

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

5 January 2013: 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.

8 January 2013: 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.

Adana Shish Kabob

Adana Shish Kabob

5 July 2013: 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.

8 July 2013: 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. 

Leg of Lamb Shish Kabob plate

Leg of Lamb Shish Kabob plate

29 July 2015: 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.  

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.

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Pistachio Baklava

12 July 2013: 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. 

My friend and colleague John Flaco spent significant time in Anatolia, but didn’t know about the restaurant until hearing about it from me.  We visited on July 29th, 2015 with our friend Elaine Ascending who’d never experienced Turkish food before.  John confirmed the authenticity and “just as delicious as Turkey” quality of the food at Anatolia while Elaine uncovered another cuisine she’ll want to experience again and again..as in exactly one week later.  

Leg of Lamb Kebab Sandwich

5 August 2015:  It took until my fifth visit to Anatolia before I finally ordered a sandwich…and it wasn’t a doner kebab.  Interest piqued by its sheer uniqueness, I ordered a leg of lamb kebab sandwich, something we never saw in all the kebab eateries in England.  Leg of lamb isn’t the sole unique ingredient from which this sandwich is crafted.  French fries occupy the very top layer.  They’re a bit on the flaccid side and don’t add much to the flavor profile so you might want to pluck them off and enjoy the other ingredients: mixed greens, a dill-cucumber sauce and tender, moist leg of lamb so heavily (and heavenly) spiced that it’ll wreck your breath.  The French fry anomaly aside, this is an excellent sandwich!

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 Turkish & Mediterranean Restaurant
313 Central, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-6718
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2015
1st VISIT: 5 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pistachio Baklava, Babaghannoug, Pita, Falafel, Combination Platter, Leg of Lamb Shish, Leg of Lamb Kebab Sandwich

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Ali Baba – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ali Baba Food Mart on Lomas

Legends recount that in his quest for immortality, Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh visited a tavern where a divine barmaid gave him the advise: “Eat and drink your fill, Gilgamesh, and celebrate day and night. Make every day a festival; day and night dance and play.” Because of the fecundity of their land, the people of Mesopotamia could indeed afford to eat, drink and be merry until they died–even if they were denied immortality.

The rich culinary legacy of ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) can be traced back more than 10,000 years when the comparatively lush and fecund land constituting the fertile crescent gave rise to the cradle of civilization.  The availability of water and agricultural resources allowed some of the world’s earliest human civilizations to flourish from both a societal and technological perspective.  This region is credited with the development of writing, glass, the wheel and the use or irrigation. 

Ali Baba Dining Room

Tablets found in ancient ruins throughout Iraq document recipes used in temple festivals, including a 3,700-year-old recipe for a meat pie baked in an unleavened crust. In what are essentially the world’s very first cookbooks, these tablets reveal a very large and gastronomically advanced civilization. A cuneiform script on 24 stone tables dated from about 1900 BC lists more than 800 different foods and beverages including more than 100 varieties of soup, 300 types of bread and 20 different cheeses–each with varying ingredients, shapes, fillings and sizes.

The picture of Iraq (formerly Mesopotamia) conjured in most peoples’ minds today is not of a verdant and fertile land, but of a desolate desert in which little grows.  In truth, only about fifteen percent of Iraq’s acreage is arable with another ten percent being permanent pasture.  Rain-fed irrigation is enough to cultivate the winter crops (mainly wheat and barley) which have long been a staple of the region.  Valleys along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, whose headwaters some theorize was the site of Biblical Eden, account for about half of Iraq’s arable land

Amira brings us Arabian bread

Culinary anthropologists have extrapolated from the ancient tablets that while the cuisine of Mesopotamia has evolved significantly, many of the dishes and preparation techniques from time long past can still be found today in Iraq.   A visit to Ali Baba Food Mart in the far Northeast Heights may not magically transport you back to the bygone days of yore, but it will give you an appreciation for the cuisine of Iraq, most of which is very familiar.  Moreover, you’ll be treated to Iraqi hospitality (and if you’re fortunate, you may even meet Amira, the precocious daughter of Ali Baba’s owners). 

Named for the character in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Ali Baba is located next door to the Red Rock Deli on Lomas just west of Tramway.  Signage indicates it’s a food mart and indeed, about half of the store’s real estate is devoted to comestibles.  The other half houses a very charming, ornately decorated dining room unlike any in Albuquerque.  It’s a magnificent milieu for dining on the restaurant specialties, some listed on the storefront signage: gyros, baba ghanoush, falafel, kabab, hummus, tabooli, fattoush and more.

The tandoor-like oven in which Arabian bread is baked

Arabian bread is baked in a small back room.  A cylindrical metal oven operates very similarly to the tandoor clay ovens of India in baking large flat bread more closely resembling Indian naan (about the size of a pizza) than Greek pita.  As with tandoor ovens, rolled dough is slapped against the oven wall.  Extricating it is a delicate (and sometimes painful) process.   The resultant flat bread is wonderful with a pinto-pony char, a chewy texture and an addictive flavor.  Mesopotamia, by the way, may have actually invented bread.  The oldest known clay oven was excavated about 45 miles south of Baghdad. It dates to 4000 B.C. and was used to make the flat bread which was the progenitor of the bread we enjoyed. 

Ali Baba doesn’t have tableside service.  Instead you’ll place your order at a counter behind which a cook is shaving shards of meat from a rotating spit.  Meats are prepared halal style and are procured from the Al Noohi company in California.   The menu is rather limited, but you certainly can’t say that about portion size.  Generous plating belies the outrageously reasonable prices.  Call it “cheap eats” if you will, but only if your definition of cheap is “high quality and inexpensive.”  As with the Red Rock Deli next door, two can eat very well for under thirty dollars and still have some to take home.

Falafel Plate

Start your introduction to the cuisine of Ali Baba with the amazing Falafel Plate (pictured above).  Large enough to feed a small family, the plate includes eight deep-fried falafel balls, half of which are sprinkled with sesame seeds; sliced dill pickles, sliced olives, yellow peppers, jalapeños, lettuce and a cucumber-tomato salad.   Almost as amazing as the generosity of the plate is how good the falafel are (equalled only by the falafel at the phenomenal San Pedro Middle East Restaurant).  Both texturally (moist, but not oily with a crisp exterior and soft, parsley infused interior) and flavor-wise, each falafel will bring a smile to your face.

Baba Ghanoush

As good as the falafel is the baba ghanoush, a garlicky, smoky roasted eggplant spread popular throughout the Middle East.  The melodic name baba ghanoush (fun to say even if you don’t know what it means) has its genesis in an Arabic phrase which translates to “pampered daddy” (not necessarily in a paternal sense).   Baba ghanoush is made from grilled eggplant that is mashed and mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and tahini (a sesame seed paste).  Ali Baba serves it with the aforementioned Arabic bread which you’ll dip into the spread and consume lustily.  Interestingly, the baba ghanoush is served with a spoonful of chili (similar in heat to Sriracha) which goes well with the dip. 

In a unique cultural interchange, Ali Baba serves its sandwiches on New Mexico-style flour tortillas instead of on pita or Arabic bread.  Call it an Iraqi burrito if you will, but you’ll also call it delicious.  On the shish kabab sandwich, the tortilla is engorged with grilled meat marinated in a combination of herbs and spices then sliced into small pieces and served finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and a lightly applied, but mouth-watering sauce.  The shawarma, a tortilla sandwich with thinly sliced cuts of meat generously sprinkled with sumac is also quite good.

Shish Kabob on a Tortilla

Ali Baba provides a true essence of authentic Middle Eastern cuisine with a culinary heritage that dates back more than two-thousand years. Moreover, Ali Baba provides a very welcoming ambiance and hospitality galore.

Ali Baba
13025 Lomas, Blvd. N.E., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Falafel Plate, Shish Kabob, Shawarma, Babaganouj, Arabian Bread

Ali Baba on Urbanspoon

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