El Papaturro Restaurant – Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Papaturro Restaurant

Driving north on Fourth one Sunday afternoon, my sharp-eyed Kim espied a new eatery with the curious name El Papaturro. Our first inclination was that the Pappas Restaurants group had made another incursion into the Land of Enchantment. It seemed to make sense considering the Pappas Restaurant Group, a family-owned and operated restaurant company based out of Houston, is the parent restaurant of Pappadeaux which has had a presence in Albuquerque since 2004. Pappadeux, a seafood restaurant with Cajun leanings, has several sibling eateries across the fruited plain, all sporting “Pappas” on their appellation. Seemingly covering all palates, the Pappas restaurant family includes Pappasito’s Cantina for the Mexican food lover in you, Pappas Seafood House, Pappas Brothers Steakhouse, Pappas Bar-B-Q, Pappas Burger and Pappas Grill and Steakhouse.

Upon finally remembering that the trademark spelling for the Pappas family of restaurants calls for “Pappa” to be spelled with two p’s, we dismissed the notion that this was yet another restaurant in the burgeoning Pappas family. So what the heck, we wondered, is a Papaturro? Most likely, we reasoned, the term was probably Greek and not Spanish. With our combined vocabulary of Spanish and Spanglish words (including dozens of invectives), we would certainly have heard the term Papaturro. It wasn’t until we pulled up and saw the word “Pupusas” scrawled on the window that we knew we’d uncovered another Salvadoran restaurant in the fair city of Albuquerque.

El Papaturro Dining Room

The Duke City was first graced with a Salvadoran restaurant in November, 2005 when the Aguilar family launched the Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno in a homey hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Goff and Bridge. Not quite a decade later, the Aguilar family expanded to Santa Fe, where they opened “El Salvadoreno.” It wasn’t Santa Fe’s first Salvadorean culinary rodeo.  City Different diners had actually been enjoying Salvadoran cuisine since 2008 when the Tune-Up Café opened, introducing both the capital city and Food Network star Guy Fieri to the pupusa.

To Salvadorans and Hondurans, pupusas are as sacrosanct as hamburgers and hot dogs are across the fruited plain. They’ve also become increasingly popular in other Latin American countries and, thanks to significant migration of Salvadorans in the 1980s, continue to make inroads across the United States. Even if you’ve never before had a pupusa, your first one won’t seem entirely unfamiliar to you. The pupusa is a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients. Unlike New Mexican tortillas, Salvadorian tortillas are made with no baking powder and very little (if any) salt. They’re roughly four-inches in diameter and made with a masa de maiz (cornmeal dough) rendering them somewhat similar texturally (albeit much thicker) and in flavor to corn tortillas.

Pupusas

When we asked about the genesis of the restaurant’s name, our server had but to point to a framed poster on the wall behind us and explain “that’s papaturro.” The name which had stumped us, it turns out, is the common name of a fruit with a semi-pulpous edible flesh. We had assumed the fruit to be a type of grape as it was shown in bunches clinging tenuously to vines. That poster is one of several festooning the walls of the cavernous restaurant which launched in January, 2016 in the complex that previously housed Pho Hoa, a very good Vietnamese restaurant which closed in 2014.

As is the case with so many mom-and-pop restaurants, El Papaturro did not launch to a flurry of fanfare and media coverage (contrast that to the press barrage prefacing the launch of the Cheesecake Factory). Predictably, therefore, business has not been exactly brisk though it has started to pick up thanks mostly to word-of-mouth.  If our inaugural experience is any indication, satisfied guests will rave about their fantastic dining experiences at El Papaturro.

Fresh Corn Tamal with Sour Cream

Mere satisfaction may be an understatement.  El Papaturro is a restaurant sure to generate loyalty if only intrepid diners venture outside their comfort zones and trek to this exotic gem which despite a 4th Street address has poor street-front visibility.  If you’ve never had Salvadorean cuisine, fear not.  You won’t be inundated with a compendium of dishes you’ve never before encountered.  The entire menu is relatively short, only three pages, with every item spelled out and described in both Spanish and English.  You’ll be surprised how many dishes share names, if not flavor profiles, with Mexican and New Mexican foods with which you’re well acquainted.  That includes tamales whose semblance to what we’re used to in the Land of Enchantment is rather limited.

The very first item on the menu is a Salvadorean Tamal made with corn flour, stuffed with chicken and served with sour cream. This tamal is sheathed in banana leaves, an ancient Mesoamerican cooking technique which imparts a very moist quality to any food prepared in them and imbues foods with a delicious herbal flavor.  Unwrapping the banana leaves releases a steamy fragrance that prefaces an enjoyable treat.  Unlike New Mexican tamales, there is no unwrapping of corn husks to get to the good stuff on the fresh corn tamal.  Nor is it slathered with New Mexico’s prized red or green chile.  It arrives denuded on a plate where it shares space with a dollop of sour cream.  The fresh corn tamal is fried in oil and is intended to showcase the flavor of the corn masa from which is made.  It does, in fact, have a flavor reminiscent of cornbread.

Tamal Salvadoreño with Curtido

Technically you can stuff pupusas with virtually anything you want (chains would probably engorge them with burger patties or pizza ingredients), but trust your Salvadorean hosts to know what fillings work best.  There are six different pupusas on the menu.  We had three and regret not having one of each.  The most basic pupusa is stuffed with cheese, a mild-flavored white variety which becomes  soft when heated but doesn’t run and become oily.  My favorite pupusa is made with cheese and loroco, a vine flower bud that grows throughout Central America.  Loroco has a slightly astringent flavor somewhat reminiscent of quelites (lambs quarters).  Pupusas are served with curtido, a sort of Salvadorean coleslaw made from pickled cabbage and flavor profile that crosses from coleslaw to sauerkraut.  It’s quite good.

My favorite Mexican comfort food, especially on cold days, has become caldo de res, a traditional beef stew brimming with vegetables.  My Mexican friends might disown me at this declaration: The sopa de res at El Papaturro is better than the caldo de res at any Mexican restaurant in town.  There, I said it!  By any name, this is a superb caldo or sopa (stew or soup).  Few things in life are better than a large bowl practically running over with potatoes and cabbage with a solitary corn-on-the-cob and a large beef shank.  Only a few carrots would have improved upon this near perfect dish.  The corn-on-the-cob was sweeter than any we’ve had in recent years and the beef was much more tender than the shoe leather-tough beef too often served with this caldo.  Tiny globules of beef marrow float on top of the soup, indicative of the slow and lengthy preparation time and a beef stock flavor that will make you swoon.

Sopa De Res

El Salvador may be the smallest country in Central America, but its cuisine has huge flavors.  All intrepid Duke City diners should take a culinary expedition to El Papaturro, a restaurant that brings those huge flavors to life.

El Papaturro Restaurant
6601 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1575
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Agua Fresca de Melon, Sopa De Res, Tamal Salvadoreño, Curtido, Fresh Corn Tamal, Pupusas

El Papaturro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Paddy Rawal’s OM- Fine Indian Dining – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Behind the glass, Paddy Rawal’s OM – Fine Indian Dining Restaurant

It wasn’t New Mexico’s Chamber of Commerce winter weather that enticed Chef Pramad “Paddy” Rawal to remain in the Land of Enchantment. In fact, when he first landed at Albuquerque’s International Sunport, he wondered if he had gotten on the correct flight. Albuquerque was as frigid as his home in Michigan which he had left just hours prior. Attired in clothing more appropriate for a balmy spring day, Paddy had certainly not anticipated the winter snap that kept New Mexicans indoors for several days on that uncommonly cold December in 2010.

Paddy was in New Mexico to visit his artist friends Dick and Jane in Santa Fe. Michigan transplants themselves, his friends had long tried to influence Paddy to leave the Wolverine State and open up a restaurant in Santa Fe. They wined and dined their guest and did their best to point out the charms of the capital city, but Mother Nature would not cooperate. Then they took him to a couple of New Mexico’s most highly regarded Indian restaurants. That’s when he came to the conclusion that what passes for good Indian food in New Mexico wasn’t good enough for his friends. Four months later, Paddy opened up Raaga Fine Indian Dining in Santa Fe.

The interior of Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining Restaurant in Albuquerque

From day one Raaga has been a huge critical success in The City Different, beloved not only by a very grateful Dick and Jane, but by Santa Fe’s savvy, well-traveled dining public. The feeling is very much mutual. Paddy has fallen in love with Santa Fe and sees himself as potentially retiring in New Mexico. Considering the well-traveled Paddy has worked as a chef in India, Egypt, Dubai, Australia and Michigan, that’s quite a testament to enchantment and to much better weather than what first welcomed him to the state.

With the November 1st, 2012 launch of Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining Restaurant, Duke City diners have begun to experience for themselves what Santa Fe diners now know and what East Lansing diners have been missing since Paddy closed his two Michigan eateries. OM may be in a class of its own in New Mexico when it comes to fine Indian dining! A number of infatuated patrons, including Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, have already become confirmed habitues. In short order, OM will have legions of pleased patrons.

Chef Paddy Rawal brings Ancho Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken to our Table

The main reason, of course, is the cuisine. Boasting of rich, intricately flavored dishes prepared with the finest spices, freshest herbs and highest quality ingredients, OM takes Northern Indian fare to new heights, even incorporating local Southwest elements as well as Chinese dishes to create imaginative and sophisticated fusions of deliciousness.   There are two aspects of Indian cuisine at which OM exceeds.  One is in the use of spices, the true legacy of India’s culinary heritage.  While the primary function of spices is to enhance the flavor of food, it is experience and tradition which determine their optimal use, whether it be to season food, enhance its texture or introduce color.  The other aspect is in the preparation of sauces, each one designed to bring out the finest qualities of the ingredients on which they’re used.  

The other reason OM will, in short order, become a Duke City favorite is Paddy Rawal himself. A peripatetic presence, Paddy is the consummate host and a veritable whirling dervish who is seemingly everywhere at once. He wears the stains of spilled sauces on his chef’s coat as a badge of honor, evidence that he himself is preparing the incomparable cuisine himself. Expect him to check up on you frequently to ensure your dining experience is as good as it can be. Paddy is a very engaging, charming and modest fellow, quick to turn compliments about his cooking into something praiseworthy he noticed about you. Interacting with satisfied customers is imperative to him.

Stuffed Dried Fruit Naan and Chana Chaat with Mango Lasi

The OM menu offers an exciting culinary journey into superior taste and flavor, into subtle nuances and exotic complexity, into delicate spice blends and rich, creamy sauces.   All dishes can be ordered mild, medium, hot, hell or any variation thereof (medium plus for example). A daily lunch buffet–at a ridiculously low price considering the quality–features various vegetarian, vegan and meat dishes as well as rice, salad, naan and dessert.  Now if you’re sniggering at the seemingly contradictory notion of a fine dining restaurant offering a buffet, you’ll salute Paddy’s prowess at making all-you-can-eat a sublime offering.  With a menu that showcases vegetarian and vegan options as well as seafood and meat entrees, there truly is something for everyone at OM.

12 November 2012:  Thus far, Albuquerque’s favorite OM appetizer is chana chaat, one of the most popular of Indian street foods and not only because it can be served as a side dish, snack or salad. OM’s rendition combines chickpeas, cucumber, blueberries, whole wheat crisps, tomatoes, mint chutney and sweetened yoghurt. It’s a refreshing adventure in bright and lively flavors and textures, an absolute delight because so many flavors coalesce on your taste buds.  Those flavors are both contrasting and complementary, flavors that play off each other.

Ancho Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken (Bone-In Chicken, a Thigh and a Breast)

My mom, a tortillera in the most traditional sense  may disown me for this, but I’ve come to prefer naan to tortillas, even those she prepares with love on her seasoned comal.  OM offers nine varieties of naan, a flat, leavened bread made of white flour and baked in a tandoor; and roti, its wheat counterpart which is cooked on  a flat griddle. Now, three baskets of naan is far too many for a meal for two, but when you can’t make up your minds, order to your hearts’ content because you’ll have wonderful naan for later. Three distinctive varieties with which we fell in love are the rosemary-olive oil naan, stuffed cheese naan and stuffed dried fruit naan.  Each has its unique flavor profile with the commonality being a pinto pony-like char and a light burnishing with clarified butter (ghee).  Whether you nosh on the naan, dip it into a chutney or use it to sop up a superb sauce, you’ll savor every bite.

While Ancho and Amchur in combination may sound like a suppressed sneeze, they’re actually spices which Paddy employs.  New Mexicans are more familiar with Ancho, a powder made from a type of chile that lends a rich, subtle piquancy to foods.  Amchur, a greenish-yellowish powder of dried mangoes, lends the quality of fruity-sweetness, but not to a cloying degree.  The qualities of these two complementary spices are well in evidence on the Ancho-Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken.  The spices penetrate deeply into the bone-in thigh and breast, imparting a slight piquancy and tanginess to the tandoor grilling.  As if the moist, tender, delicious chicken isn’t wonderful enough, OM includes a sauce which also utilizes those spices.  It makes a terrific dipping sauce for the chicken or for the naan.

Seafood Korma (Scallops, Shrimp, Mahi Mahi, Cashew Cream Sauce)

Korma Sutra might be an appropriate descriptor for the Seafood Korma which just may have a foodgasm effect on your taste buds. Korma, a Northern Indian specialty, is a mild and creamy curry sauce with a distinctively rich, almost silky flavor.  The basis for Korma is a mixture of yoghurt, cream and pureed cashews blended with toasted spices.  OM prepares it to your specified level of piquancy, however, ask for any potency beyond  medium and you risk degrading the rich, complex flavors of the spice and sauce meld.  The seafood–scallops, shrimp and mahi mahi–is slowly simmered in the sauce so it’s infused with flavor.  This may well be the most memorable Korma dish I’ve had, besting my previous favorite from an Indian restaurant in London.  The portion size is generous so you’ll be taking some home.  You’ll luxuriate in the aromas that fill your kitchen.

Desserts, if you manage to save room for them, are outstanding!  The carrot pudding (halwa), a wonderfully unique dessert composed of grated carrots and ground nuts prepared in butter and boiled milk then lightly sweetened with raisins, is my early favorite.  Served warm, it showcases the natural sweetness of carrots while removing any residual bitterness.  At the other end of the spectrum texturally is mango kulfi, an Indian ice cream that is more dense and “more frozen” than American ice creams.  Besides mango, the most pronounced flavor comes from sweetened condensed milk complemented with cardamom.

Carrot Pudding and Mango “Kulfi” (House-made ice cream)

18 February 2013: Paddy pays tribute to the Land of Enchantment with a stuffed Poblano, a New Mexican-Indian fusion appetizer served with a side of mint-coriander chutney.  You’ll recognize the “innards” as the contents with which Indian Samosas are stuffed: spiced mashed potatoes and peas.  The Poblano barely registers on the Scoville Scale of piquancy, but the chutney seems to bring out whatever heat is inherent with the pepper.  While this is a nice dish, my native pride would have preferred a nicely roasted New Mexico Hatch green chile. 

As noted above, OM specializes in naan, the wonderful Indian flat bread prepared in a tandoor.  Roti is the whole wheat alternative, a wedge-shaped bread often found in Malaysian restaurants, too.  OM’s roti is quite good though not as moist and buttery as the naan.  Still, it’s not a bread any diner would kick off their plate.  As with naan, the roti goes very well with chutneys, especially the tamarind.

Stuffed Poblano with Mint-Coriander Chutney

Stuffed Poblano with Mint-Coriander Chutney

OM’s menu includes a number of Indian-Chinese fusion dishes.  Ask Paddy why he would combine the flavors of two ancient culinary traditions and he will remind you he’s a chef–not a chef who specializes in Indian food, but a chef formally trained in more than ten different cuisines.  He hopes someday to launch, perhaps in San Francisco, a restaurant showcasing a fusion of Italian and Indian food.  Paddy has already conceptualized several dishes he hopes to introduce to intrepid diners. 

You don’t have to be an adventurous diner to appreciate OM’s Chilli (SIC) Chicken, boneless chicken sauteed and cooked with ginger and garlic then finished in a tomato-based Szechuan sauce.  Appearances can be very deceptive.  At first glance you might think the crimson sauce will be as cloying as most Chinese sweet and sour sauces, but that’s certainly not the case.  The sauce has a savory-tart flavor profile, emphasizing the sour (but not overly so) aspects of sweet and sour.  The all white meat boneless chicken is tender and moist.  Vegetables–red and green peppers, onions–are perfectly prepared. 

Chilli Chicken

Chilli Chicken

Diners who enjoy Thai curry, but who don’t necessarily appreciate the qualities of Indian curry will almost certainly enjoy OM’s Chicken Madras, perhaps the one dish most responsible for winning over converts to Indian cuisine.  Named for the city of Madras, it’s a dish as varied as the hundreds of recipes from which it’s prepared.  This hearty tomato-based curry is redolent with the spices of curry leaves, ginger, mustard, coconut milk and peppercorn.  It can be prepared to the degree of heat you desire, but too much piquancy and you might not appreciate the richness and sophistication of the flavors.  Chicken Madras may be the perfect winter entree, as heart-warming an entree as your favorite winter soup. 

OM, by the way, is not an abbreviation.  It represents a mystical Sanskrit sound of Hindu origin, a sacred chant considered the “primordial seed” of the universe.  Om is considered the “root mantra” from which all other mantras emerge.  Ancient sages believed that through chanting om, one can experience the infinite within themselves. 

Chicken Madras

Chicken Madras

In 2012, Raaga was selected as one of the best new restaurants in America by Kunda Eats, the only restaurant in New Mexico honored. It will surprise absolutely no one if OM garners a similar accolade in 2013.  Duke City diners will beat a path to this restaurant, already one of the best in the city in any genre–and the path is familiar, too.  OM is located at the former site of Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine.

Paddy Rawal’s OM – Fine Indian Dining
7520 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 February 2013
1st VISIT: 12 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Chana Chaat, Ancho Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken, Seafood Korma, Carrot Pudding, Mango Kulfi, Mango Lassi,

Paddy Rawal's 'OM'- Fine Indian Dining on Urbanspoon

Ezra’s Place – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ezra’s Place, the second restaurant launched by extraordinary chef Dennis Apodaca

When it comes to food, most bowling alleys strike out.  Ardent keglers are subjected to such catastrophic “cuisine” as perpetually rotating hot dogs seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno, soppy messes of nachos bathed in gloppy processed cheese topped with gelatinous jalapeños and greasy onion rings with the texture of fried rubber bands and as oily as well-slicked lanes.  Getting something edible at most bowling alleys is as tough as picking up a seven-ten split.

Los Ranchos de Albuquerque has somehow managed to buck the national trend of bad bowling alley food–or at least the Lucky 66 Bowling Alley on Fourth Street has.  The Lucky 66 (then known as Sun Valley Bowl) was once the home of Sadie’s Dining Room, one of the Duke City area’s most popular dining destinations.  After Sadie’s split for more commodious confines, Dean’s Mexican Food moved in and fed Duke City bowlers and diners in the know for a few years.  When Dean’s departed, other victual vendors tried, but couldn’t pin down the secrets to success in serving food at a bowling alley

The interior of Ezra’s Place, hardly your typical bowling alley restaurant

Visitors to the historical Fourth Street bowling alley will notice colorful signage on the exterior north-facing wall of the yawning complex and might initially attribute it to some of the city’s very creative taggers, but it’s not some gang named Ezra’s staking its territory with graffiti that’s at work here.  Ezra’s Place is the second Fourth Street restaurant venture of the phenomenal chef Dennis Apodaca, braintrust behind Sophia’s Place, one of the city’s very best restaurants.

Ezra’s Place is named for Dennis’s son, a well-mannered teenager who helps out on weekends.  Sophia’s Place is named for Dennis’s daughter so if the naming conventions formula holds true, he probably won’t open another restaurant since he’s only got two children (and a lovely step-daughter who also helps out at both restaurants).

Salsa, chips and guacamole at Ezra's

Salsa, chips and guacamole at Ezra’s

Ezra’s Place is antithetical to Sophia’s in terms of seating capacity.  While Sophia’s is tiny and crowded, Ezra’s is capacious.  Ezra’s Place launched in late September, 2008, but the word got out quickly and it wasn’t long before Dennis’s dining disciples made the pilgrimage almost directly across the street from Sophia’s.

It’s not only the seating area that’s capacious.  The kitchen at Ezra’s dwarfs the confining kitchen at Sophia’s (although as Guy Fieri said, “little place, huge flavors.”)  As a result, Dennis has been able to expand his menu and feature even more of the creative and funky, New Mexican influenced dishes that have garnered him acclaim as an Über chef.  He’s also been able to expand hours of operation and serve dinner five nights a week.  Ezra’s Place is open from 11AM to 9PM Tuesday through Saturday and from 9AM to 2PM on Sundays.

Chiliquiles with red chili-roasted tomato sauce and black beans with bacon

As at Sophia’s, the ambiance at Ezra’s is colorful and interesting.  Unframed and very colorful paintings festoon the walls.  Most, particularly those of anthropomorphic dogs will have you do a double-take in an appreciative sort of way.  The restaurant is situated on a second level of the brightly illuminated bowling alley, but the sound of pins crashing down is muffled by distance.  What you’re more likely to hear are compliments to the chef and utterances of sheer enjoyment.

The Saturday and Sunday brunch is like a “best of” from among some of the wonderful specials with which Dennis tantalized taste buds at Sophia’s.  There are only about a dozen standard items on the brunch menu plus the special (in every sense of the word) pancakes and scrawled on a slate board near the entrance are brunch specials, some of which I don’t recall ever seeing at Sophia’s.

Sour cream and lemon pancakes

Because brunch means breakfast and lunch, you can also order from the expansive lunch menu, adding another dozen or so options from which to choose.  We had the pleasure of sharing our inaugural brunch at Ezra’s Place with Sandy Driscoll, our friend from Los Angeles.  Brunch is best with friends like Sandy who have sophisticated palates and a great sense of adventure–friends from whose plates you can sample, friends who won’t order the same thing you do.  It allows for trying more of the menu and comparing notes on what’s good and what’s not as good.

We didn’t find anything at Ezra’s for which the adjective “good” would suffice. Everything started at “great” and got better from there. Greatness would certainly be ascribed to the fried calamari with the house dipping sauces.  Each whisper-thin, batter-coated ringlet is surprisingly fresh with the perfect texture that’s neither too chewy or too crispy, but a balanced medium.  Two sauces accompany the calamari.  The first is a Balsamic reduction with equal pronouncements of sweet and tangy.  This one is so good that I tried it with pancakes and it passed muster.  The second is a jalapeño Ranch dressing.  This one has a piquant bite to it, but also a hint of dill.  No doubt Dennis made these dipping sauces from scratch as he’s apt to do with most things on the menu.

Two fried eggs over medium, pork chop topped with green chile, refried black beans, papitas and a tortilla

In New Mexico, chips, salsa and guacamole are the three amigos people most want on their dinner tables.  The chips are homemade and served warm.  They’re also thin and low in salt, a healthful, delicious combination.  Neither of the salsas–a roasted tomato and chipotle salsa and a salsa fresca akin to a pico de gallo–are particularly piquant, but both are very flavorful and tend to complement rather than dominate the flavors of anything to which they are added.

The special pancakes of the day is a brunch tradition at Sophia’s Place and it continues at Ezra’s.  With any luck, you’ll visit Ezra’s when the featured pancakes are the ricotta and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with fresh berries.  The tartness of the berries and lemon create a palate pleasing harmony with the maple syrup (yes, the real stuff). The sour cream changes the texture of standard pancakes by adding moistness while retaining the fluffiness inherent in great pancakes.

Chiles Rellenos

Chiles Rellenos

Some of the aforementioned specials which sometimes graced Sophia’s menu are standard offerings at Sophia’s.  One such special at Sophia’s but standard at Ezra’s are the chiliquiles with red chili-roasted tomato sauce served with black beans and two long strips of crispy bacon.  Chiliquiles are an interesting dish, seldom prepared the same way by different cooks.  Dennis’s rendition holds true to some of the dishes traditional aspects, but being the maverick (eat your heart out John McCain) he is, he also imparts his own creative flair into what is otherwise a simple dish.

The basis of chiliquiles are soft tortillas on top of which eggs (any style) are added.  In Dennis’s version, the chili-roasted tomato sauce is actually layered below the eggs which are topped with queso fresco.  This dish truly brings with it an explosion of flavors, textures and contrasts–the medium piquancy of delicious red chile, the acidity and tanginess of a homemade tomato sauce and so much more.  It is a very enjoyable entree.

Two shrimp tacos (Santa Barbara shrimp) with a guacamole salsa, refried black beans and a greens salad

A chile relleno trio sure to tantalize your taste buds starts with chilaca chiles, a mild to medium-hot chile with a rich flavor.  Fully mature the chilaca chiles have a dark greenish or maybe even dark brown appearance.  When dried, these chiles take on a dark, wrinkled skin and are known as pasilla chiles.  What Dennis does with the chilaca chiles is akin to culinary wizardry, stuffing them three ways.  One is stuffed with black beans refried in duck confit (a flavor escalation that places the beans in rarified company as some of the very best I’ve ever had).  One is stuffed with tomatillo and one with a roasted tomato and red chile sauce.  All three are topped with goat cheese and Asadero cheese then drizzled with a creme fraiche.

From the lunch side of the menu, you might want to try the Poblano chili relleno with calabasitas, Asadero cheese and tomatillo sauce.  The poblano has slightly more piquancy than a bell pepper, but when roasted properly imbues the qualities of freshness and fruitiness to an entree.  This is a poblano on steroids, a corpulent pepper engorged with fresh calabasitas and Asadero cheese.  The tomatillo sauce is a Dennis Apodaca specialty, one which he demonstrated for host Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Wagyu Beef Burger with Grilled Onions and Blue Cheese accompanied by Ezra’s famous shoestring fries

The tomatillos are grilled and blackened while Dennis prepares the foundation for the sauce (onion, garlic, chipotle adobo and pure honey).  He then adds the tomatillos to the mix and allows them to simmer for a few minutes before blending the entire amalgam then reducing it.  This is a spectacular sauce with a lot going on.

One of the seemingly de rigueur offerings at many inventive Southwestern restaurants in New Mexico is duck quesadillas,  a very good idea not always executed well.  For me, the standard has always been the Coyote Rooftop Grill in Santa Fe.  It shouldn’t surprise me that Dennis does them better.  The duck is as tender as a bird’s heart with none of the gaminess and fattiness of duck at the hands of chefs who don’t have Dennis’s skills.  He’s generous with the duck to which he applies a sweet-savory barbecue sauce wholly unlike the vinegar-tomato sauce you’ll find at barbecue restaurants.  The tortillas are browned to a nice crispness and have the brown spot appearance of a pinto pony.

Duck Quesadillas

Duck Quesadillas

Served with the quesadillas is a fresh salad, a hallmark of Dennis’s restaurants.  Ezra’s  salads are always crafted with fresh, crisp greens and a subtle dressing that marries well with the greens so that their flavor is what you get with every forkful, not some sweet or tart flavor suppressor.  The quesadillas also include a fresh pico de gallo and some of the very best guacamole in America.  The guacamole has a nice lime and cilantro infusion to complement the buttery richness of fresh, creamy avocado.

Sophia’s was home to my favorite pastrami sandwich in Albuquerque.  Ezra’s one-ups Sophia’s with a grilled Ezra pastrami sandwich. Lightly toasted Sage Bakehouse sourdough bread is the canvass on which sauerkraut, pastrami and homemade Thousand Island dressing imprint their deliciousness.  Rather than masking the flavor of sauerkraut as some restaurants do by sweetening it or saucing it highly, Dennis allows the sauerkraut to be sour–not lip-pursing sour, but with a definite tang.  The Thousand Island dressing is thick, rich and somewhere between sweet and sour.  This sandwich is served with a mountain of Ezra’s fries, julienne fries that are one of the restaurant’s most popular draws.  In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Ezra’s a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its julienne fries  as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

Grilled Ezra Pastrami Sandwich with Ezra Fries

Grilled Ezra Pastrami Sandwich with Ezra Fries

On October 23rd, 2011, the New York Times travel section celebrated “36 hours in Albuquerque.”  The article was perhaps a revelation to residents of Metropolis who may not be cognizant of all there is to see and do…and eat in the Duke City.  Likening the “lush farmland” “along the banks of the Rio Grande” to a “quiet oasis,” the Times indicated those farmlands provision the city’s “vibrant organic movement” with “heirloom beans, corn and more.”  The Magazine praised the “bowling alley location, farm to table produce and a chef-owner with Chez Panisse credentials” at Ezra’s as adding “up  to hipster overload” anywhere but Albuquerque.

The aforementioned Sophia’s is one of a handful of restaurants in Albuquerque I believe can compete in larger, more culinarily sophisticated markets.  Ezra’s, if possible, could be even better.  That’s because Dennis Apodaca now has a bigger canvas for his art, a more expansive venue in which to display his vast talents.

Ezra’s Place
6132 Fourth, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
 LATEST VISIT: 12 July 2012
1ST VISIT: 23 November 2008
# OF VISITS:
7
RATING
: 25
COST
:  $$
BEST BET:
Poblano Chili Relleno, Breakfast Burrito, Breakfast Sandwich, Fried Calamari, Ezra Pastrami Sandwich, Ezra Fries, Chile Rellenos Three Ways, Chips and Salsa, Guacamole, Pork Chops and Eggs, Shrimp Enchiladas

Ezra's Place on Urbanspoon

Village Subs – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Village Subs in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

Village Subs in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

To paraphrase John 15:13, “No greater love a man has than this, that a man give up his life for a….sandwich?”

In an uproariously funny episode of the television show Friends, Joey, Chandler and Ross go on a ride-along with Phoebe’s policeman boyfriend. Believing a back-firing muffler was actually a gunshot, Joey (sitting in between his two friends) dives, seemingly to protect Ross from harm.  Naturally Chandler was upset that Joey would choose to protect Ross instead of him…until he learns that Joey was actually trying to protect his sandwich.  In the finest tradition of Dagwood Bumstead, Joey Tribbiani loved sandwiches; they were his favorite food.

I don’t know how many Americans would “take a bullet” for their sandwich, but America is most definitely a nation of sandwich lovers. According to one of my favorite books, American Sandwich by the fabulous Becky Mercuri, Americans consume more than 45 billion sandwiches per year, with the average American consuming 193 sandwiches per year.

A foot-long tuna salad sandwich.

A foot-long tuna salad sandwich.

That’s a lot of sandwiches! One restaurant that has serving a lot of sandwiches is Village Subs, appropriately situated in the village of Los Ranchos De Albuquerque.  Allow me another paraphrase, this time of an African proverb: “it takes a village to make a great sub!” Or at least that’s been my experience of late. Aside from the now defunct Deli Mart, there has been a tremendous dearth of truly outstanding sandwich shops in Albuquerque’s west side where I live and work.

Village Subs occupies the space once held by Fremont’s Fine Foods, a sacrosanct shopping and dining destination now in San Mateo’s Courtyard. It seems to be the hub of an otherwise nondescript shopping center much of which has been left vacant by former tenants who set up shop elsewhere.  It’s hard to miss Village Subs. A cerulean blue awning competes with New Mexico’s incomparable sky blue. Several wall-mounted chairs hug the restaurant’s east-facing wall. As capacious as the restaurant is, it’s a good thing the yellow lettering on the awning doesn’t list what this sub shop’s true name should be.

A bounteous Italian sub

That would be Village Subs & Pizza & Wings & Italian & Ice Cream and so much more. The true test of a restaurant’s greatness is not in the size or diversity of the menu; it’s in the quality of its product (more on that later).  The floors at Village Subs are black and white checkered tile reminiscent of a 1950s era diner. Throwback floors are appropriate because this sup shop is a bit of an anachronism with service that’s both enthusiastic and cordial. It’s a welcome change from the rehearsed wait “schtick” to which you’re subjected at the industry leading chain.

Not everything is old-fashioned at Village Subs. It’s one of an increasing number of restaurants in the Duke City providing free wireless internet (WiFi) access. Village Subs is larger than most of the city’s sub shops. Counter space is divided into two distinct sections–an area in which you order main entrees and another in which ice cream is featured fare.

The Club Sub: Ham, Turkey, Bacon, American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced onion and tomatoes.

No ordinary ice cream is this. It’s Blue Bunny Ice Cream, the largest family-owned and operated ice cream manufacturer in the United States. The Blue Bunny folks have been creating ice cream since 1913 and now distribute their 500 tantalizingly tasty ice cream flavors, frozen dairy desserts and delectable novelties throughout all 50 states and Mexico.  If you’re watching the scale, Blue Bunny makes lighter, sugar free and low or no fat versions of favorite flavors.

On a white board directly above the food ordering counter is a hand-scrawled menu listing the wide array of items available to hungry diners. Pizza is a relatively new addition to the menu and it’s available by the slice with a wide variety of toppings available.

Sausage, Pepper and Onion Sub

Sausage, Pepper and Onion Sub

Your biggest challenge will be in deciding what to order, especially if you’re cravings are for an appetite sating, two-fisted, ingredient-packed sandwich of greater proportions than most sandwiches in the Duke City.  The sandwich selections includes cold subs, hot heroes and several specialty sandwiches, all made with bread baked fresh daily, topped with your choice of veggies and served with a pickle spear and a pepperonici.  Subs are available in two sizes: ten-inches and six-inches.  What will surprise you most about these behemoth sandwiches is that they’re priced two to three dollars less than many other sub sandwiches in the Duke City.

The ingredients on a great sandwich have to work well together and it all starts with the bread. At Village Subs, the bread is quite good though no longer baked on the premises. Both white and whole wheat bread are available.  Wrap some of that bread around tuna salad and you’ll have a sandwich any landlubber or sea-faring wanderer would love. The tuna is made with diced celery, onion and a sweet pickle relish. Add crisp lettuce and fresh tomato and it’s even better.

A slice of pizza with sausage.

A slice of pizza with sausage.

Another good cold sub is named solely the “Italian” and it’s generously endowed with ham, Capacola ham, salami, Provolone cheese, onions and roasted red peppers then embellished with mayonnaise, oil and vinegar.  Italian subs consisting of assorted luncheon meats are popular throughout America and it’s easy to see why. A great Italian sub features a coalescence of flavors and aromas that any American meat-eater will enjoy. The Village Sub’s version is one of the better ones in town!

If a hot hero is more your style, the Sausage, Pepper and Onion hero might just have your number. It’s a messy assemblage of ingredients you’ll probably have to eat with a fork because those ingredients push the bread to its capacity and despite being toasted, may leave it a bit soggy (in a very good way).  The sausage is spicy, maybe even a little bit piquant. Green and red peppers and onion are grilled to perfection. Melted Mozzarella cheese blankets the entire sandwich.

Pastrami sandwich

Pastrami sandwich

As with many sandwich restaurants (or restaurants of any kind for that matter) we have not been enamored of every item on the menu. The sandwich which we found disappointing is the pastrami sandwich. We weren’t expecting Chicago Jewish deli caliber pastrami, but it would have been nice to find something good by Albuquerque standards. Listed as a “specialty sandwich,” a few stiff slices of pastrami were topped by melted Swiss cheese and were laid out between two slices of good light rye bread.

Village Subs committed three of the criminal offenses you can commit in serving a pastrami sandwich–not providing deli caliber mustard (squeeze jar mustard is a no-no), using relatively thick slices of pastrami instead of thinly sliced shards and using pastrami with no marbling. There’s a lot of flavor in the marbling of a good pastrami and there wasn’t much flavor in this one.

Green chile cheeseburger

Green chile cheeseburger

Contrary to the notion that all it takes to make a good green chile cheeseburger are the component parts named in that sandwich, a good green chile cheeseburger is much more than a sum of its parts.  Village Subs understands that and crafts a burger with a neon green chile that packs plenty of capsaicin kick, two slices of American cheese, grilled buns, mustard, ketchup, onions, tomatoes and pickles. At about medium well, the beef still retains the requisite juices inherent in good beef.

Milk shakes and malts are both available at Village Subs and they can be made from all available ice cream flavors. Our early favorites are mint chocolate chip and coffee, both of which are rich and delicious. Best of all, they’re served cold to beat the heat.

Mint-chocolate malt and chocolate shake

Mint-chocolate malt and chocolate shake

It may not take a village to make a great sub, but the Village certainly knows the secret to making Joey Tribbiani’s favorite food (and one of mine, too).

Village Subs
7901 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $
BEST BET: Tuna Salad Sub; The Italian Sub; Sausage, Peppers & Onion Sub; Mint Chocolate Malt; Chocolate Shake; Pizza by the Slice

Village Subs on Urbanspoon

Casa de Benavidez – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico

Casa de Benavidez, nestled under the pines on Fourth Street

There are restaurants throughout the Duke City that have seemingly always been “there.”  They’re  as much a part of the fabric of the city as the neighborhoods they serve.  Casa de Benavidez is one of those restaurants, a familiar part of the landscape on North Fourth Street, some would say an institution.  Despite the notion of permanence, this venerable treasure has, in fact, been around only since 1984–at least under its current name.

Before there was a Casa de Benavidez, there was, just a mile or so away, a tiny little eatery with only three tables and a bustling take-out business.   There was also a dream, the shared ambition of Paul and Rita Benavidez  to serve their hometown with the food they loved and prepared so well.  At El Mexicano, a diminutive eatery they operated with their children, that dream began the transformation from monochromatic to technicolor with every one of their trademarked sopaipilla burgers sold.

One of several dining rooms at Casa de Benavidez

While the family was selling more and more sopaipilla burgers, they were also stockpiling used restaurant equipment in hope and anticipation of an expansion that would allow them to more fully realize their dreams.  Not far from their diminutive digs, Paul found a nearly 100-year-old two-story territorial style adobe home with a half-finished waterfall just south of the structure.  Quickly consummating the sale of the home, the Benavidez family moved out of their old location into the sprawling edifice in just one day.  The rest, as the proverbial “they” say, is history.

Over time, the carryout business at the back of the home became so successful that the family expanded their operation to include a full-service restaurant in the front of the house.  The restaurant was rechristened “Casa de Benavidez,” and the dream culminated with a commodious restaurant offering an expansive menu featuring traditional New Mexican and Mexican food in elegantly appointed interior dining rooms and exterior surroundings that include lush gardens, a coy pond teeming with life and strolling mariachis.

Chips and salsa at Casa de Benavidez

On the marquee, subtitled directly below the restaurant’s name, are the words “Home of the Sopaipilla Burger.”  That’s a recognition of the role played in the restaurant’s early and current successes by its unique rendition of New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger.  Several other restaurants offer their own take on a sopaipilla burger, but Casa de Benavidez’s version was the very first and it remains first in the heart of its loyal patrons, some of whom order the “jumbo” sized half-pound version.

Repeat after me (to the tune of the old Big Mac jingle) — one all-beef patty, refried beans, lettuce, cheese, tomato and chile  (red, green or both) on two sopaipilla “buns.”  That’s the sopaipilla burger, still one of the most popular and celebrated items on the menu.  The sopaipillas are more dense than the puffed-up sopaipillas on which New Mexicans love honey.  They’re formidable enough not to fall apart at the moistness of other ingredients, but if the chile is ladled on a bit too generously, expect your hands to be covered in the red or green stuff.

Sopaipilla Burger at Casa Benavidez

Sopaipilla Burger at Casa Benavidez (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Casa de Benavidez was one of the first restaurants we visited after moving back to Albuquerque in 1996. It didn’t surprise us when this casa was the 1996 winner of KOB TV’s “Salsa Challenge.” The salsa is about medium on the piquancy scale  and has a garlicky flavor aficionados love while the red and yellow chips are unfailingly crisp and fresh. Alas, sometimes because of overflow crowds your empty salsa dish isn’t replenished as faithfully as at other New Mexican restaurants. That’s about the only short-coming in the service which tends to be friendly and attentive.  That salsa, by the way, was named Albuquerque’s fifth best salsa by Albuquerque The Magazine from among a sampling size of 130 different restaurant salsas reviewed in the September, 2012 issue.

The menu features many New Mexican standards, but it also includes “foreign” items such as  chimichangas (Tucson) and fajitas (Texas).  Breakfast is served from 9AM to 12PM on Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday.  Lunch specials are a more economical dining option than dinners. To say Casa Benavidez is one of the more pricey New Mexican restaurants  might be an understatement.  You might experience a bit of sticker shock at seeing some items approaching the nine dollar price point–and that’s just the appetizers.  The entrees are all priced in double-figures.

Tacos at Casa Benavidez

Tacos at Casa Benavidez (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Perhaps the best way to experience the restaurant’s culinary wizardry is by ordering one of the four combination plates.   Combos are served with beans, rice, very special ribs and sopaipillas.  Combination plate number one features a cheesy enchilada, a taco, a crunchy chile relleno and a tamale. Of these, the real stand-out is the crunchy chile relleno whose battered texture is unlike any other we’ve had in Albuquerque.

One of the restaurant’s very best, albeit most unconventional entrees are the succulent pork short ribs: four meaty ribs on which is slathered a semi-sweet and smoky homemade sauce.  These are multi-napkin ribs, the type of which will leave a red beard on any clean-shaven face.  They’re better ribs than you’ll find at several of the Duke City’s barbecue restaurants.  That goes for the sauce, too.  You’ll find yourself dredging up excess sauce with the accompanying fries (or you can have rice).

Natillas (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Natillas (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

On Fourth Street, facing east Casa de Benavidez is at the forefront of the Sandia Mountains.  Both seem to have an air of distinction and permanence.  Because of its longevity and community standing, the Casa de Benavidez is on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s “Culinary Treasures trail,” an initiative which honors those rare and precious family-owned-and-operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31st, 1969.  As with all the restaurants on the list, the Casa is an independent mom-and-pop restaurant which has stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.

Casa de Benavidez
8032 Fourth Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
893-3311
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2011
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sopaipilla Burger, Pork Ribs, Chile Relleno, Salsa and Chips, Natillas, Sopaipilla

Casa de Benavidez on Urbanspoon

El Camino Dining Room – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Camino Dining Room captured brilliantly by photographer Deanna Nichols

El Camino Dining Room captured brilliantly by photographer Deanna Nichols

Many of us who predate, however slightly, the explosion of institutionalized fast food retain a fondness for the remaining independent family restaurants whose arsenal in the competition for hungry diners consists of reasonable portions of great meals at budget-conscious prices. An Albuquerque restaurant which epitomizes those ideals is the El Camino Dining Room, captured brilliantly above by the fabulous photographer Deanna Nichols.

The El Camino was built by Clyde H. Tyler in 1950, five years after the latest “war to end all wars” and 13 years after Route 66 was “straightened” so that it would bypass Santa Fe completely.  Albuquerque was much more innocent back then.  Some might even describe it as a “cow town trying to be a city.”  At the time, 44% of America’s population resided in rural areas and the Duke City’s population was only 96,800.

The Chef's Special Mexican Dinner

The Chef's Special Mexican Dinner

Despite no longer being part of Route 66, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares was 4th Street on which commerce was burgeoning.  It was the perfect location for an independent family restaurant, far from the cavalcade of Howard Johnson’s type restaurants which grew along the interstates.

Similar to Howard Johnson’s which prided itself on providing all the amenities travelers would need in one convenient location, El Camino also included a motor lodge (a hotel for motorists which provides direct access from rooms to the parking area).  The motor lodge is directly across the street from the restaurant.

Chips and salsa at El Camino

While El Camino doesn’t exude the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate today’s Duke City dining scene, it still exudes much of the charm that must have captured Albuquerque diners when it first launched more than half a century ago.  That charm includes immaculate whitewash adobe walls, rough-hewn vigas and latillas painted dark brown, old-fashioned glass block windows and vintage signage.  It extends to the warm service and hospitality.

Great service is a hallmark for the restaurant’s current proprietors Lydia Sakelaris, her daughter Mandy Chavez and her husband Gilbert.  One of the three is always on hand to ensure their patrons receive outstanding service.  The wait staff is typically on-the-spot with a refill and will check up on you unobtrusively to ensure your meal is a pleasant one.

Each table includes a small table-tent indicating the restaurant is proud to serve New Mexico grown green chile.  Read closer and you’ll learn that today 82 percent of the chile consumed in the United States is foreign grown–from Mexico, Peru, China and India and that while U.S. chile consumption is skyrocketing, New Mexico chile production is in steep decline, down by as much as two-thirds of peak production.  According to the New Mexico Chile Association, in 1992, 35,000 acres of chile were grown in New Mexico.  In 2008, that number was only 11,000 acres.

Huevos Rancheros, the specialty of the house.

Huevos Rancheros, the specialty of the house.

The restaurant’s menu lists more than 60 dishes ranging from American comfort food favorites and diner specialties to New Mexican standards such as carne adovada and huevos rancheros, the house specialty.  El Camino is open daily for breakfast and lunch and everything is made fresh daily.  Best of all, if you want a green chile cheeseburger for breakfast or pancakes for lunch, you can have them.

Dinner plates are a bargain.  Each plate begins with a bowl of chips and salsa and ends with fluffy sopaipillas.  In between, your entree might be tamales, enchiladas, tacos or some other tempting main course, each served with sides of beans and Spanish rice.  The chips and salsa are very good.  The salsa is fresh and delicious, the genesis of its piquant bite being jalapenos.  The chips are lightly salted and crisp, but formidable enough to hold Gil-sized portions of salsa.

The green chile stew is special: cubed potatoes, tender pork, piquant green chile and just a hint of Mexican oregano.  As with other items on the menu, it’s served piping hot.  The steamy bouquet of  New Mexico grown green chile wafts upwards toward your merrily awaiting nostrils.  The green chile is not quite medium on the piquancy scale, but it has a nice roasted flavor.

Green chile stew.

Green chile stew.

The tamales are some of the best in the city.  I’ve often heard it debated as to whether tamales are about the chile infused pork or beef filling or about the corn masa encasing that pork or beef.  Few tamales strike a perfect balance.  Either the masa is so thick it overwhelms the meat filling or the meat filling and especially the chile don’t allow any of the masa’s corn flavor to come out.  El Camino has the secret to great tamales down pat.  The masa is redolent with corn flavor, the pork is tender and the chile tongue-tingling and delicious.  The flavors coalesce beautifully!

Red chile is a starring attraction on several of the restaurant’s New Mexican entrees.  Slathered on generously, but not enough to drown any entree, the chile has a nice flavor that will bring sweat to your brow without scalding the roof of your mouth.  It’s a pure, unadulterated chile without the bitter cumin which some restaurants use to the detriment of their food.

A popular entree is the Chef’s Special Mexican Dinner which features Indian style blue corn tortilla enchiladas and the aforementioned extras (Spanish rice and beans).  Whether stacked flat or rolled, the enchiladas are replete with flavor.  The very best enchiladas on the menu are those engorged not with cheese or beef, but with carne adovada.  The carne is tender and delicious, some of the very best in Albuquerque.  Best of all, the corn tortillas are absolutely engorged; they’re not cigar-thin pretenders as you’ll find in too many New Mexican restaurants.

A combination plate at El Camino

A combination plate at El Camino

The combination plate features a tamale, enchilada and taco.  It’s a great way to audition potential entrees during a future visit and you get three delicious entree quality items in one heaping plate.

In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The state’s very best downhome huevos rancheros come from the El Camino. There’s a good reason huevos rancheros are the specialty of the house and among the very best in the state.  Fluffy eggs any style you desire, melted cheese, and red chile–that’s as good a reason to get up in the morning as any.  Lounging on the plate with the huevos are some of the best papitas you’ll find anywhere.  They’re more than silver dollar sized with a crispy, golden exterior and tender, cooked all the way through interior.

The menu doesn’t have a green chile cheeseburger per se, but you can order a cheeseburger and ask for it with chile strips.   The chile isn’t piquant in the least, but it has a nice flavor.  The burger is garnished with lettuce, onion and tomato, all fresh and delicious.

Cheeseburger with green chile strips

Cheeseburger with green chile strips

Chicharonnes, made with various cuts of pork, are made differently throughout Latin America and in parts of Spain.  In New Mexico they’re typically cut into small cubes and fried to a near crackling crunch.  That’s what we expected when ordering El Camino’s chicharones burrito.  Instead, the burrito was engorged with a single almost pork chop sized piece of gristly, chewy pork.  Unfortunately it didn’t taste like a pork chop and was difficult to eat.  It’s the only thing we haven’t enjoyed at El Camino.

Papitas (called “home fries” on the menu) are part of a delicious breakfast triumvirate that also includes pork chops and two eggs, any style.  The pork chops are porcine perfection–tender, well-seasoned and delicious with little excess marbling.

As with many old-fashioned 50s and 60s era family style restaurants, El Camino also serves wonderful pancakes.  A short stack of two griddled orbs six-inch in diameter and slathered in butter and syrup.  Now that’s breakfast!

El Camino in winter courtesy of Deanna Nichols

El Camino Dining Room
6800 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
344-0448
LATEST VISIT: 12 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chef’s Special Mexican Dinner, Tamales, Sopaipillas, Green Chile Stew, Pancakes, Carne Adovada Enchiladas, Salsa and Chips

El Camino Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Calico Cantina & Cafe – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Calico Cantina & Cafe

The Calico Cantina & Cafe

The first time my friends and I visited the Calico Cafe at its original Corrales location, we wondered if the restaurant suffered from an identity crisis. Exterior signage read “Calico Cafe” but the menus indicated we were dining at “Cowgirl’s.” Apparently the restaurant was initially christened Cowgirl’s, but a name change was court-ordered after a naming dispute with Santa Fe’s long-established Cowgirls BBQ restaurant.

On December 2nd, 2004, the popular and intimate lunch and breakfast restaurant owned by Corrales residents Vernon and Angel Garcia, was consumed by fire. In 2006, the Calico Cantina & Cafe launched in a new and much expanded location, the 19,000 square foot Village Shops at Los Ranchos–in the heart of the original Route 66. Coupled with outdoor seating in a spacious patio, the Cafe now accommodates as many as 189 diners.

The Village Shops at Los Ranchos is a burgeoning complex usually beset by the parking woes of popular destinations. The Calico Cantina & Cafe is an anchor tenant along with its sister restaurant Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse, located directly behind the Cafe’s bakery. Vernon’s, patterned after a probation era speakeasy, can be accessed through the Los Ranchos Liquors store.

The ambience shouts Southwestern with an emphasis on Western.

The ambience shouts Southwestern with an emphasis on Western.

Thematically, the Calico Cantina & Cafe could be described as “Southwestern with an emphasis on Western.” Peeled knotted pine vigas on the ceiling support copper burnished light fixtures. A waxy plaster finish on the walls hosts several western watercolor paintings, most by popular Corrales artist Doreman Burns.

Burns’ watercolor compositions juxtapose the American cowgirl against multi-hued sunsets, azure skies and other romantic settings that portray a spirit of independence and beauty. The cowgirls’ eyes are always shaded, making the viewer wonder what the windows to the soul are transfixed upon.

I’m getting ahead of myself in describing the restaurant. The very first thing you see when you step into the restaurant is a bakery case perhaps unlike any other in any Albuquerque dining establishment. You’ll wonder how drool stains and tongue trails don’t cover the glass under which some of the very best cakes and cookies in town are displayed.

The desserts at the Calico Cafe are delicious, decadent and diet devastating.

The desserts at the Calico Cafe are delicious, decadent and diet devastating.

The German Chocolate Cake is certainly one of the very best of its kind we’ve sampled in the Duke City. Rich and delicious, it is served slab-sized and is easily big enough for two to share, not that you’d want to. The cookies are the size of a motorcycle tire. Oatmeal, chocolate chip, sugar cookies–they’re all there under glass and all beckoning you to abandon the diet du jour.

The menu is replete with all the comfort food favorites Americans love in huge portions: chicken-fried steak, pot roast, meat loaf and more all with mashed potatoes and gravy and buttered corn. A mom-and-pop restaurant to the nth degree, the Calico Cantino & Cafe also specializes in New Mexican food favorites.

The prime rib sandwich provides the type of comfort you might want wrapped around you like a cocoon.  This sandwich features tender prime rib-style beef shaved thin and piled high on a warm, crusty ciabatta roll.  It is available with either Swiss or Cheddar cheese and is served with a seasoned au jus and a small tub of horseradish.  The au jus is hot and delicious, served in a cup big enough for sandwich dipping.  The horseradish has the distinctive taste of well, horseradish with just enough bite to get your attention.

Prime rib sandwich on Ciabatta

Prime rib sandwich on Ciabatta

Breakfast at the Calico Cantina & Cafe is a popular family event, especially on weekends when traditional American and New Mexican breakfast entrees are served.

The restaurant has a unique twist on the quesadilla, most of which are served elsewhere as wafer thin and oozing cheese. The Calico’s breakfast quesadilla is engorged with scrambled eggs; your choice of bacon, sausage or ham (or carne adovada for a bit more) and country potatoes.

The breakfast quesadillas at the Calico Cafe.

The breakfast quesadillas at the Calico Cafe.

The Calico Cafe’s version is a far cry from the Nicole Ritchie thin quesadillas you may have had elsewhere. The quesadilla is easily three-quarters of an inch thick and bulging with ingredients. Alas, it’s served with a chunky tomato salsa served just-out-of-the-refrigerator cold. It would be better with a hot and piquant green chile.

Vernon’s Favorite,” an eye-opening breakfast of three eggs prepared any style, a rasher (three) plus one of bacon, country style potatoes and a short-stack (what a misnomer) of pancakes. The pancakes are about six-inches around and served with a hot syrup. The country-style potatoes are cubed and baked. The bacon is crisp and thick-sliced. It’s a day’s worth of delicious calories in one meal.

The wait staff at the Calico Cafe is on-the-spot with free coffee or soft-drink refills. It’s a courteous staff prone to folksiness that seems more sincere than rehearsed.

Fourth Street in historic Los Ranchos De Albuquerque houses some of the area’s most popular restaurants (Sadie’s, Sophia’s Place, Cafe Benavidez, Garduno’s). With the Calico Cafe joining the fray, diners have yet another great dining destination not too far from anywhere else in the Albuquerque area.

Calico Cafe
6855 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: German Chocolate Cake, Prime Rib Sandwich, Breakfast Quesadilla

Calico Café on Urbanspoon