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Tune-up Café – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Tune-Up Cafe, already a neighborhood standard

The Tune-Up Cafe, already a neighborhood standard

Dave Who? From 1981 until its closing in 2008, the converted residence at 1115 Hickox Street was the home of Dave’s Not Here, a quaint and quirky neighborhood favorite loyalist locals described as “unforgettable.” Perhaps “memorable” would have been more appropriate, because as the Eagles reminded us in their 1976 hit song New Kid In Town, “they will never forget you ‘til somebody new comes along.” That somebody new…the new kid in town… the usurper who made many of us forget about Dave’s Not Here is the Tune-Up Café.

When it first launched, the Tune-Up Café was always mentioned in the same breath as its beloved predecessor. Over time, however, the equally funky Tune-Up Café has carved out its own identity and it’s no longer just “that restaurant which replaced Dave’s Not Here.” Vestiges of Dave’s Not Here remain if you look closely, but for the most part, it can truly be said that Dave’s now truly gone. The shoulder-to-shoulder personal space proximity dining room hasn’t grown up any, but a small covered patio has been added. Not even a mirror on the dining room’s west-facing wall can make the Tune-Up Café any larger.

Dave Was Here Burger with Green Chile

Dave Was Here Burger with Green Chile

The Tune-Up Café is the brainchild of Jesús and Charlotte Rivera, both veterans of the Santa Fe restaurant scene. Jesús is originally from El Salvador while Charlotte’s roots are in Northern Louisiana. They’re co-conspirators in developing a menu interesting enough to intrigue the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program which showcased the restaurant in an episode called “Neighborhood Favorites.”  Host Guy Fieri called the Tune-Up Cafe “a perfect example of what we’re looking for on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” meaning “they scratch-cook just about everything, the place is full of character and the neighborhood totally digs it.”

Not surprisingly, the Food Network worthy menu features some Salvadoran specialties as well as Mexican and New Mexican entrees with a smattering of American favorites, too. Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch on weekends,  the Tune-Up Cafe can no longer be categorized as just a “neighborhood favorite.”  Fans of the Food Network’s “Triple D” show from throughout the fruited plain have made pilgrimages to the restaurant, too.  Many of them have returned.

The Cubano

The Cubano

The menu once paid a playful mark of respect to its predecessor tenant with a burger named “Dave Was Here,” but that burger has been rechristened the Tune-Up Burger. It’s one of three burgers on the menu, including a vegan made burger–the brown rice nut burger (a housemade patty served on a brioche bun). The similarities between the Tune-Up Burger and the burgers served by Dave’s Not Here start with the sheer size and volume of these behemoth burgers. Dave’s was famous for its 9-ounce beef patty and the Tune-Up Burger has got to approximate that prodigious size. There are similar burger toppings, too, like the green chile, grilled onions and sautéed mushrooms, but the Tune-Up Café also offers Cheddar, Jack, Blue, Manchego and Provolone cheeses.

While Dave’s Not Here obtained its beef from a local market, the Tune-Up Café grinds its beef daily. One of the biggest differences in the burgers is in the bun. The Tune-Up Café uses a sesame seed covered brioche bun instead of the standard, run-of-the-mill bun. The Tune-Up burger comes standard with homemade mayo, lettuce, tomato and a pickle spear. The rest is up to you. The green chile warrants a “gringo” rating in the piquancy scale, but it’s got a nice roasted flavor.

Salvadoran Pupusas

Salvadoran Pupusas

The brioche bun is hard-crusted and formidable. That means that unlike so many standard burger buns, it won’t wilt and wither under the weight and moistness of the ingredients you may choose to pile on. It also means the bun may be a bit chewy, but on the Tune-Up Burger, that’s a good thing. You’ll have to open up as wide as you do for your dentist with this two-fisted masterpiece. It’s a gigantic burger with a lot of flavor. All burgers and sandwiches are served with hand-cut French fries.

The Tune-Up Café serves up its own rendition of the seemingly de rigueur Cuban sandwich. Where many Cuban sandwiches in the area seem to be waifishly thin with parsimoniously portioned ingredients, the Cubano is thick and generously engorged with its ingredient melange. The canvass for the Cubano is a ciabatta roll which is dressed with a citrus and garlic marinated pork loin, cured ham and Swiss cheese. The menu indicates this sandwich is pressed, but you wouldn’t know it the way the ingredients bulge. In any case, the restaurant’s panini grill must be super-sized to accommodate this Cubano. It’s an excellent sandwich, one which can easily be shared. It’s one of three sandwiches on the menu, the most intriguing being a Ginger Chicken Sandwich on ciabatta with Provolone and basil aioli.

Cinnamon Roll

Cinnamon Roll

In New Mexico’s melting pot of cultural cuisine, one cuisine which has captured the fancy of culinarily intrepid diners is Salvadoran cuisine.  New Mexican diners who have embraced Salvadoran cuisine have one-up on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri who had never even had a pupusa until his visit to the Tune-Up Cafe.  He called it “crazy good,” effusively praising the “crispy, crunchy masa on the outside with the corn and the cheese oozing out of it.”  It warranted a high-five for the chef along with the comment, “you have completely train wrecked me, man.”

The pupusa is the national snack of El Salvador; it’s a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients. Unlike New Mexican tortillas, Salvadoran tortillas are made with no baking powder and very little (if any) salt. They’re made with a maize masa. Of all the pupusas we’ve ever had, none have the pronounced corn taste of the pupusas at the Tune-Up Café. None are any bigger. Where the standard pupusa seems to be about four-inches in diameter, these are roughly the size of a pancake. Two different pupusas, served two per order, adorn the menu. Our favorite of the two is stuffed with flank steak, chile pasado and queso fresco.

Huevos Salvadorenos

Huevos Salvadorenos

Accompanying each order of pupusas is a Salvadoran cabbage salad somewhat resembling the pinkish pickled relishes served at some Mexican restaurants. Curtido is made with pickled cabbage, onions and just a hint of red pepper. The Tune-Up Cafe makes the best curtido I’ve ever had, so good it will postpone enjoying the pupusa itself. 

Another delightful Salvadoran entree is the Huevos El Salvadorenos, scrambled eggs with scallions and tomatoes, refried beans, pan-fried banana, crema and corn tortillas.  It’s not exactly a novel concept with similar offerings–the Huevos Motuluenos at Cafe Pasqual and Huevos Yucatecos at Tecolote Cafe–being familiar to Santa Fe diners.  The Tune-Up Cafe’s huevos would be much improved with chile, but with both red and green tinged with cumin, we opted against it.  The highlight of this dish is the melding of sweet, caramelized pan-fried bananas and the slightly sour-savory crema.  The huevos themselves are perfectly prepared.

Banana Pancake with real syrup

Banana Pancake with real syrup

Sweet-toothed diners who look for a high carb morning pick-up will enjoy the cinnamon rolls, spiral-shaped beauties large enough to share.  The cinnamon rolls are redolent with cinnamon and are iced generously.  The Tune-Up Cafe’s buttermilk pancakes are among the very best in town.  Best of all, they’re served with real syrup and can be topped with blueberries, bananas or chocolate chips.

In time we may forget what life was like without the Tune-Up Café.  It may already have supplanted its predecessor for local loyalty, a funky ambiance and a menu replete with deliciousness.

Tune-up Café
1115 Hickox Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 983-7060
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 27 January 2013
1st VISIT: 10 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: El Salvadoran Pupusas, Dave Was Here Burger, Cubano, Hand-cut French Fries


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Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno on Bridge Street

In the 1980s, several hundred thousand Salvadorans fled their civil war ravaged nation (courtesy, many would say of America’s attempting to turn El Salvador into the Western hemisphere’s version of Vietnam).  Many migrated to large metropolitan areas in the United States where their culture has quietly flourished.  Those immigrants introduced and hooked Californians on their national snack, a modest street food called the pupusa.  If you’ve never had a pupusa, there’s a chance you may have learned of them on the Food Network’s Diners Drive-Ins and Dives program.  In 2009, host Guy Fieri visited Santa Fe’s Tune-Up Cafe where the garrulous wayfarer was first introduced to pupusas himself.

A pupusa is a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients, the only limitation as to what each is engorged with being the imagination of the chef preparing them.  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 maize masa.  In recent decades, pupuserias have sprung up in many large American cities.  Generally small and family run, pupuserias have been developing a very popular following among college students and adventurous diners.

Pupusas and curtido at Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno (Photo by Sergio Salvador

Pupusas and curtido at Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno (Photo courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño launched in November, 2005 and within months inspired a “Where’s Waldo” type search for a rumored Salvadoran restaurant, the Duke City’s first.  That search was triggered by a reader of the Albuquerque Tribune’s “Food City” column who was desperately craving pupusas.  Fortunately for other pupusa fanatics, another reader let everyone know just where the restaurant is.  It’s a homey hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Goff and Bridge.  In 2010, a second instantiation of the restaurant opened on the corner of San Mateo and Gibson, directly west of the “Chevy on a Stick.”

Owned by retired military veteran Eddie Aguilar but run by his sister Antonia Miles and their huggable mother Ruth Aguilar, Pupuseria Y Restaurante  Salvadoreño is a treasure which looks as it belongs somewhere in inner city Los Angeles.  As terrific as it is and after experiencing absolutely addicting flavor explosions during each visit, our return visits have been all too infrequent.  Antonia is the visible face of the restaurant while Ruth operates the kitchen with the skill of someone who loves to cook.  To Ruth there is no greater compliment than the smile of her customers’ as they enjoy her cooking.

A sensational Salvadoran meal (Photo courtesy of Sergio Salvador) Click photo for more

A sensational Salvadoran meal (Photo by Sergio Salvador)

Several colorful towels adorn the restaurant’s walls.  One towel depicts the Salvadoran and United States flags with the words “Estamos Unidos” (we’re united).  Other colorful towels portray Salvadoran women preparing pupusas in an open air market at which children are frolicking.  There are at least two maps of El Salvador on the wall as well as two posters of the country’s currency, the Colon.  Perhaps reflective of El Salvador’s attitude toward family, most of the restaurant’s seating seems tailored for groups of four or more.  When all tables are occupied, you can still sit on a counter above which a television seems perpetually tuned to a soccer game.

The menu features nine different pupusas, all served with curtido (a pickled-cabbage relish with a taste more than vaguely reminiscent of something between coleslaw and sauerkraut) and a water-thin tomato salsa.  The curtido is made with beets, cabbage, carrots, dried hot pepper and Mexican oregano (a natural flavor ameliorant far superior to its ground American counterpart).  You can eat the curtido as you would any coleslaw or you can pile it on your pupusa as Salvadorans tend to do.  Either way, it’s an exciting taste experience.

A Salvadoran Tamale prepared on banana leaves

A Salvadoran Tamale prepared on banana leaves (Photo courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

The pupusas are as wonderful as those I first experienced in San Jose, California several years ago.  It isn”t difficult to imagine a Salvadoran mother lovingly crafting the pupusa revuelta (mixed), crafted with cheese (a soft Salvadoran cheese called quesillo), chicharrones and refried beans…and indeed, we have been so effusive in our praise of this tortilla treasure that Ruth has come out of the kitchen during each of our visits to accept our compliments in person.  Equally praise-worthy is the pupusa de queso con loroco.  Loroco is a vine flower bud that grows throughout Central America.

You could easily make a meal out of several pupusas and would be more than satisfied, however, the menu is replete with intriguing choices–starting with the beverage (bebidas) selections.  Aguas Frescas include horchata (the refreshing rice and cinnamon drink), piña (pineapple), melon and tamarindo (a slightly sour fruity drink).  For health-conscious diners, several natural juvos (juices) flavored with carrot (zanahoria) and other fruit or vegetable ingredients can also be found.  The zanahoria y naranja (orange) beverage is a refreshing and delicious surprise chock full of vitamins.

Healthful and refreshing beverage (Photo by Sergio Salvador) Click for More

Healthful and refreshing beverage (Photo courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

The menu also includes entree choices sure to please the discerning diner.  As you contemplate the menu, you’ll enjoy the complementary chips and salsa.  Both are more in the style of Mexican salsa and chips than they are New Mexican which means a pureed and piquant sauce and thick, unsalted chips.  Carnivores are sure to enjoy the beef steak encebollado, a thin steak in a light brown gravy flavored with roasted onion and peppers.  The cut of meat is typically cut, but the flavors work very well together.  If fish is more what you wish, the mojarra frita, a lightly battered fried fish is a very good choice (just watch out for those sharp bones).

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once posited that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”  Let me posit that New Mexico and El Salvador are a state and country similarly separated.  Case in point are tamales and torta de huevo, two dishes common to both New Mexico and El Salvador yet two dishes as different as night and day while retaining some unmistakable similarities.

Torta Cubano stuffed with ham, cheese, lettuce, hot dog, guacamole, mayonnaise and coleslaw

Salvadoran tamales are filled with shredded chicken and wrapped in a banana leaf (hoja de platano).  Texturally, the masa is more fine than the masa used in New Mexican or Mexican tamales.  In fact, the masa is prepared first then wrapped around the shredded chicken and steamed in the banana leaves.  The leaves impart a distinct herbaceous quality to the chicken and seal in the moistness you want in a chicken dish.  In New Mexico torta de huevo is a traditional Lenten dish made from egg whites beaten to a frothy consistency then fried into circular “fritters.” In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its tamal de pollo 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.

Salvadoran torta de huevo is more akin to an unfolded omelet.  Similar to an omelet, it is stuffed with various ingredients–primarily chopped onions and tomato at Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno.  Unlike American omelets which tend to be light and fluffy, Salvadoran torta de huevo has a fried egg texture and appearance.  Bite into it and you’ll notice the differences immediately.  This entree is served with refried beans, sour cream and quesillo, the unique Salvadoran cheese.  The refried beans are actually better than just about any I can remember having at any Mexican or New Mexican restaurant.

Torta de Huevo Salvadoreno with beans, cream and quesillo

In the nearly four years (2007-2011) which elapsed between our visits to this fabulous Salvadoran treasure, several things had changed–all for the better.  The complementary salsa and chips  are new as are “tortas ricas.”  Tortas are popular Mexican sandwiches typically made from an oblong six-to-eight inch soft Mexican bread rolls called bolillos).  The restaurant offers three different tortas: the Cubana, the carne asada (literally roasted meat) and the jamon (a dry-cured ham).  Our waiter heartily recommended the Cubano and for good reason.

The Cubano, loosely patterned after the famous sandwich of the same name, is fantastic–a large bolillo stuffed with ham, cheese, hot dog wieners, lettuce and tomato.  The bolillo is smeared with both mayonnaise and guacamole, giving it a very rich taste.  The torta is as thick as a triple-beef hamburger; you have to open your mouth wide to bite into it, but when you do, you’ll be surprised at the deliciousness of the ingredient combination.  The ham and hot dog duo, in particular, are quite good, literally two pork products in concert with one another.  It’s big enough for two to share.

Salsa and chips

We were so pleased with our introductory meals that even though bursting from the large quantities of food we had just consumed, we were eager to see if the chef’s kitchen mastery extended to desserts.  Though not on the menu, Ruth whipped up some warm natillas richly flavored with cinnamon and raisins.  Somewhat more liquefied than natillas you might find at a New Mexican restaurant, Ruth’s version is simply wonderful, among the best we’ve had anywhere.

Albuquerque has become a rich melting pot in which the world’s cultures integrate easily and contribute to the fabric of the city.  One of the best ways to begin to appreciate a culture is through its cuisine.  Our visits to Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño have certainly increased our appreciation for the great people and culture of our Central American neighbor.

Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño
1701 Bridge, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM
243-8194

LATEST VISIT: 9 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 20
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pupusa Revuelta; Pupusa De Queso Con Loroco; Pupusa De Salami; Pupusa De Camaron; Platano Frito Con Crema Y Frijoles; Beef Steak Encebollado; Torta de Huevo Salvadoreno, Torta Cubana, Torta de Carne Asada

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