Sara’s Pastries and Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sara’s Pastries & Deli in the Journal Center Marketplace

Creator!  You who give life to all things and who has made men that they may live happy and multiply.
Multiply also the fruits of the earth, the potatoes and other food that you have
That men may not suffer from hunger and misery.
~Traditional Incan Prayer

As recently as 2010, Albuquerque–which rightfully takes great pride in its acceptance of cultural and culinary diversity–did not have a single Peruvian restaurant. Fast forward three years to March, 2013 and there are three restaurants showcasing to Duke City diners just a modicum of the tremendous diversity and deliciousness offered by Peruvian cuisine. Every one of the three is unique, each highlighting only a segment of the culinary offerings that make Peruvian cuisine one of the great cuisines of the world.  

More than perhaps any of the world’s great cuisines, Peruvian food is impossible to pigeonhole or stereotype. It is the original fusion cuisine, having absorbed culinary influences from streams of immigrants encompassing every great culinary culture and melding them with indigenous ingredients and dishes, many with Incan roots. As a result of this cultural and culinary fusion, the Guinness Book of Records recognizes Peru as the nation with the most local plates, some 491 officially registered dishes in all.

Under glass are some of the most sumptuous pastries, sandwiches and tamales in town

Under glass are some of the most sumptuous pastries, sandwiches and tamales in town

With nearly five-hundred official dishes in the Peruvian culinary repertoire, the comparatively limited menus at Albuquerque’s three Peruvian restaurants barely scratch the surface in offering the cuisine The Wall Street Journal called “the next big thing” in 2012.  It’s a fact not lost on peripatetic gastronomes about whom Frommers Travel Guide’s observed  “travel all the way to Peru just to eat.” 

Although most Duke City diners probably won’t travel to Peru to indulge in gastronomic greatness, most are just a few miles away from one of the city’s three Peruvian treasures.  The antecedent for hopefully several other Peruvian restaurants is the highly acclaimed Pollito Con Papas which, thanks to the best rotisserie chicken in Albuquerque, had to triple its real-estate within a year of its 2011 launch.   Eastsiders might argue that the best rotisserie chicken comes from Taste of Peru, a March, 2013 entry into the local culinary scene.

Roasted Pork Sandwich

Roasted Pork Sandwich

The most centrally-located of Albuquerque’s three Peruvian restaurants is Sara’s Pastries & Deli, ensconced in the increasingly familiar Journal Center Market Place, a strip mall quickly becoming a very popular dining destination. Sara’s neighbors include the nonpareil Torinos @ Home, El Pollo Picante, Twisters Burgers & Burritos and other restaurants. Launched in February, 2013, Sara’s Pastries & Deli fills a niche in offering the delectable and decadent dessert offerings of Peru.

There’s a venerable saying in Peru that translates to something like “Peruvians have two stomachs—one for food and another for dessert.” That idiom illustrates the passion with which Peruvians approach desserts, which, ironically were virtually unknown prior to the arrival of the Spanish. As with the entirety of Peruvian cuisine, desserts are heavily influenced by the streams of immigrants which settled in the country. The resultant cultural and culinary mix is why you shouldn’t be surprised if you see arroz con leche, pastel tres leches or even tiramisu on the dessert menu of a Peruvian restaurant.

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Tripled Sandwich with Miss Vickie’s Smoked BBQ Chips and Inca Kola

You’ll find those sumptuous delicacies and so much more in the pastry case at Sara’s Pastries & Deli. Under glass, in fact, are some of the most artistic quality pastries you’ll ever see. Perhaps not coincidentally, the walls of the restaurant are festooned with large framed photographs of those pastries. Every pastry is a made-from-scratch masterpiece. So, too, are the alfajores showcased under a domed glass tray. Perhaps the most popular cookie in Peru, alfajores are butter cookies filled with dulce de leche and sprinkled with powdered sugar. They are absolutely addictive! 

Owner Sara Correa, originally from Peru, is the petite whirling dervish in the kitchen responsible for the beautiful deliciousness in her eponymous operation. Visit on a weekend and you might be served by her dainty daughter or her two mesomorphic sons, both of whom can probably bench press the pastry case.  All three are as personable and charming as can be with the ambassadorial qualities every restaurateur wants for the “front of the house.”  You would never guess this is the first restaurant operation for this delightful family.

Peruvian Red Tamale

Peruvian Red Tamale

It would be so easy to bypass the deli offerings and dig right into the desserts, but to do so would mean missing out on some pretty terrific sandwich options.  It did my heart good not to see “proudly offering Boar’s Head products” displayed anywhere.  There’s nothing wrong with Boar’s Head products, but because they’re so ubiquitous, there aren’t as many sandwich surprises in the Duke City as there otherwise might be with a greater variety of (or better still, homemade) cold cuts, cheeses and condiments.

31 March 2013: Sara’s doesn’t rely on a megalithic corporate purveyor of meats for their sandwich offerings.  The meats proffered at Sara’s are homemade fresh daily.  It makes an amazing difference, one easily discernible on the roasted pork sandwich.  The canvas for this towering meatfest is homemade French bread that has a nice crusty exterior and soft innards.  A generous pile of tender and absolutely delicious pork is joined between bread by red onions and habanero peppers with your choice of a signature sauce (habanero, jalapeño or green chile). The piquant peppers lend qualities other than heat, all of them complementary.  The sandwich is served with a side of Miss Vickie’s chips.

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Peruvian Green Tamale

31 March 2013: If, like me, you find egg salad sandwiches boring, you’ll be made a convert by the Triple (pronounced “treep-lay”) Sandwich.  Four simple, but healthy ingredients: avocados, tomatoes, olive oil and hard-boiled eggs are layered between  multi-grain bread (there’s an extra slice in the middle) with just a smear of mayonnaise.  It’s a surprisingly moist and surprisingly delicious sandwich, layered in such a manner as to bring three times the joy to the hungry diner.  The Triple Sandwich may sound unsophisticated, but it’s not a sandwich this worldly gastronome would ever turn down.

31 March 2013: New Mexicans perusing the menu will likely become excited upon seeing Peruvian red tamales and Peruvian green tamales on the menu.  Alas, red and green don’t mean the same thing in Peru as they mean in the Land of Enchantment.  Red tamales are a traditional Peruvian dish enjoyed most often for Sunday breakfast.  Sara’s rendition is very traditional, fashioned with steamed red Peruvian chile (very different from Hatch or Chimayo red chile) corn masa stuffed with chicken and black olives.  The tamales are surprisingly moist, slightly piquant and imbued with an exotic flavor imparted by the banana leaves in which they are steamed

Peruvian Empanada

Peruvian Empanada

31 March 2013: The Peruvian green tamales are made from steamed cilantro corn masa stuffed with chicken, black olives and Peruvian chile steamed in corn husks.  The cilantro imparts an exotic quality to the corn masa while the Peruvian chile lends just enough piquancy to be noticed.  Very noticeable is the sheer deliciousness of these tamales.  Both the green and red tamales are served with a side of red onions laced with finely chopped habanero peppers.  If you’re missing piquancy with your tamales, this is where you can get it. 

14 July 2015: Most turkey sandwiches in Albuquerque don’t need tryptophan to make diners sleepy.  Not only do most of them sport the ridiculous sobriquet of “Albuquerque Turkey,” most are made with thin, tasteless sliced turkey, the type of which is a true turkey in the most derogatory sense of the term.  At Sara’s the turkey is the regal bird founding father Benjamin Franklin proposed as America’s symbol.  It’s majestic, a blend of white and dark meat roasted on the premises served with lettuce, red onions, habanero and Sara’s signature sauce on a French bread canvas.  The sandwich packs a piquant punch though not so much that it obfuscates the flavor of house roasted turkey.  Fittingly, it’s served with your choice of fruit or Miss Vickie’s jalapeño chips.

Gourmet Turkey Sandwich with Jalapeño Chips

31 March 2013: Also quite dissimilar to the same named offering in New Mexico are Peruvian empanadas.  Sara’s empanadas are baked in pastry dough stuffed with ground beef, onions, raisins and spices and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  They’re mostly savory but are tinged with sweetness imparted by the raisins and powdered sugar.  Your taste buds, however, will gravitate toward the exotic Peruvian spices which really give these empanadas their unique and wonderful flavor.

The dessert menu (nuestros dulces) is a tempting array of delicious treats that will have you making frequent return trips to Sara’s where you’ll find Black Forest Cake, Fruit Napoleon, Classic Peach Cake, Classic Strawberry Cake, Chocolate Mousse, New York Supreme Cheesecake and Tiramisu to name just a few as well as  tarts, cookies and truffles. 

Tres Leches "My Way"

Tres Leches “My Way”

31 March 2013: If the Tres Leches “My Way” is any indication, you’re in for a serious treat–as in some of the best in New Mexico treat.  The tres leches cake, sponge cake soaked in a milk syrup made of three different kinds of milk: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and whole milk (or cream) and topped with Italian meringue and sprinkled cinnamon, is in my Kim’s words, “the best I’ve ever had.” Who am I  to argue, especially with my mouth full. 

14 July 2015:   My first sighting of Sara’s caramel cone brought to mind the horn of plenty, also known as a cornucopia, which is represented by a hollow horn filled with the inexhaustible gifts of celebratory fruits.  Sara’s caramel cone is a horn-shaped pastry stuffed with plenty of dulce de leche, a sweet, rich treat similar in taste, texture and consistency to a thick caramel sauce.  Dulce de leche is ubiquitous in Peru where it’s used primarily as a spread or as a filling for pastries.  The caramel cone is a delicious way to enjoy perhaps the best dulce de leche you’ll find in Albuquerque.

Caramel Cone

Sara’s Pastries & Deli is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday from 7:00AM to 4:30PM.  Sara’s is a restaurant which does Peru proud!  Among savvy diners, Sara’s has ascended the ranks to the rarefied air of one of Albuquerque’s very best dining and dessert destinations.

Sara’s Pastries & Deli
7600 Jefferson N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 385-8247
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 July 2015
1st VISIT: 31 March 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET:Roasted Pork Sandwich, Tripled Sandwich, Green Tamale, Red Tamale, Empanada, Tres Leches “My Way”, Alfajores, Gourmet Turkey Sandwich, Caramel Cones,

Sara's Pastries and Deli on Urbanspoon

Taste of Peru – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver stands in front of Taste of Peru

Early in 2013, the National Restaurant Association took the pulse of more than 1,800 professional chefs and nearly 200 professional bartenders with its annual “What’s Hot” culinary survey designed to predict restaurant menu trends for the coming year. Considered the definitive forecast of culinary inclinations, the survey’s “Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors” category was topped by Peruvian cuisine which is not only hot, it’s cool. It’s hip, swanky and trendy. It’s so “happening” that even New Mexico, which is sometimes years behind culinary trends, has embraced it. Since 2011, three Peruvian restaurants have launched in the Duke City.

Peruvian cuisine is so diverse–recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the nation with the most local plates, some 491 officially registered dishes in all–that there is very little cross-over among the three Duke City denizens of Peruvian food. The antecedent for hopefully several other Peruvian restaurants is the highly acclaimed Pollito Con Papas which, thanks to arguably the best rotisserie chicken in Albuquerque, had to triple its real-estate within a year of its 2011 launch. The most centrally-located of Albuquerque’s three Peruvian restaurants is Sara’s Pastries & Deli, ensconced in the increasingly familiar Journal Center Market Place launched in February, 2013.

Taste02

The dining room at Taste of Peru

The most recent entry among the triumvirate of Peruvian restaurants is Taste of Peru which launched in March, 2013. Taste of Peru is ensconced within the Manzano Shopping Center in the southeast intersection of Juan Tabo and Lomas. We learned about the restaurant from Peruvian expatriates sitting at an adjacent table while dining at Sara’s. Their enthusiasm for the food at all three of Albuquerque’s Peruvian restaurants bordered on infectious–comparable (and this is no stereotype) to the expressive enthusiasm Italians have for their cuisine.

Taste of Peru is owned Deborah Palma, an admitted aficionado of Peruvian gastronomy. Deborah didn’t have to search too hard to find a chef, hiring her fiance, a Peruvian native whose grandparents owned a traditional family restaurant in Peru. Chef Mantilla earned his chef’s certification in Lima, Peru, touted by the International Summit of Gastronomy as the “gastronomic capital of the Americas.” That’s some serious street cred in the culinary world.

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Chicken and Beef Empanadas

With an impressive culinary training and family heritage, Chef Mantilla is proud to offer Albuquerque traditional Peruvian cuisine prepared from family recipes perfected over a century. The specialty of the house is rotisserie chicken, prepared in a traditional coal oven procured directly from Peru. The menu is far from being a compendium of all culinary greatness that is Peru; it would take a much larger kitchen to offer more than a modicum of the specialties which make Peru such a favored culinary destination. Instead, the menu showcases a select few items: four appetizers, three entrees, three desserts and a number of daily specials.

From the outside, Taste of Peru blends right in with its strip mall neighbors in a sprawling adobe-hued complex. Step inside and you’re warmly embraced by the decorative touches and colors of Peru. The Peruvian flag is proudly displayed. A flat screen television runs a slideshow presentation showcasing the beauty of the Land of the Incas. At other times, it’s tuned to the most recent Peruvian soccer game. Each table is adorned with intricate Peruvian tablecloths.

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Peruvian Condiments: Rocoto, Aji yellow and Aji green

Not entirely dissimilar to the same named offering in New Mexico are Peruvian empanadas. Taste of Peru offers two types of savory empanadas–one made with chicken and one with beef. The beef empanadas are baked in pastry dough stuffed with ground beef, onions, raisins and spices . They’re mostly savory but are tinged with sweetness imparted by the raisins. The empanadas de pollo are moist and delicious with a juicy and flavorful chicken complemented by caramelized onions. Both are terrific.

Three Peruvian condiments add personality and heat to the flavor profile of the cuisine. New Mexicans who appreciate heat and believe pain is a flavor will enjoy the rocoto dip. Rocoto is among the oldest of domesticated peppers, having been harvested in Peru and Bolivia for at least 5000 years. It’s a fiery pepper ranging from 225,000 to 350,000 Scoville units, making it one of the ten hottest chili peppers in the world. The rocoto dip is fantastic, by far our favorite! Also served are two Aji pepper dips, one almost mustard-yellow and the other more greenish. The Aji dip lends a mild kick and a fruity pepper flavor.

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Peruvian yellow beans and a half rotisserie chicken

Peruvian fervor for Pollos a las Brasas, the South American-style of rotisserie chicken borders on fanaticism. If you’re used to to the desiccated grocery store rotisserie chicken, you’re probably wondering what’s so special about Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Perhaps the most apt description would be flavor intensity. The skin has the most intense flavor, char and crispiness, but the flavor penetrates deeply with charcoal and citrus notes. A half chicken means you’ll get a breast, leg and thigh. This gorgeous bird, roasted in low heat for a long time, is moist and juicy with a brown, craggy skin. The chicken is served with a salad and your choice of sides (Yellow Peruvian beans, sweet fries or white rice). The beans are ivory yellow and similar in size, shape, texture and even in flavor to our ubiquitous pinto bean.

A century or more before Asian fusion cuisine became a culinary fad, Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru looking for work. They integrated their own culinary techniques and ingredients to Peru’s diverse culinary vernacular. The most visible aspect of the Chinese influence on the Peruvian table is Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian stir-fry. The bravado of this dish is that it dares offer two starches–rice and potatoes–in one dish, a juxtaposition Americans might find a bit strange. This hybrid stir-fry is made with thinly sliced beef, tomatoes, peppers and onions blended in a pan with soy sauce and get this, French fries (another Peruvian passion). It’s a very interesting dish made even better with the Peruvian condiments (ketchup need not apply).

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Lomo saltado

You’ll want to wash down your meal with Inka Kola, a soft drink created in Peru in 1935 and made with lemon verbena. Its flavor, somewhat reminiscent of cream soda, is considered an “acquired taste.” Not everybody will enjoy its unusually sweet fruitiness. It should be noted that in ever nation in which Coke A Cola has a presence, it outsells any indigenous soft drink. That’s true everywhere but in Peru where Inka Kola outsells even Coke.

Three standard dessert offerings–Crema Bolteada (Creme Brulee), Masamorra Morada (Corn Pudding) and Arroz Con Leche (Rice Pudding) are available, but the most tempting sweet treat might just be the alfajores, a favorite Peruvian cookie (two white-flour cookies joined together with a dulce de leche filling and sprinkled generously with confectioners sugar). These cookies are addictive, so good you’ll want a half dozen at a sitting.

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Alfajore

Taste of Peru offers just an introduction to how good and how diverse Peruvian cuisine can be. You can eat through the restaurant’s entire menu in just a few visits and will probably discover a new favorite with every visit.

Taste of Peru
840 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken Empanada, Beef Empanada, Alfajores, Rotisserie Chicken, Lomo Saltado

Taste of Peru on Urbanspoon

Pollito Con Papas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pollito Con Papas in its new home on Gibson  just east of San Pedro

I think a rotisserie is like a really morbid ferris wheel for chickens.
It’s a strange piece of machinery.
We will take the chicken, kill it, impale it and then rotate it.
And I’ll be damned if I’m not hungry because spinning chicken carcasses
make my mouth water. I like dizzy chicken.
Mitch Hedberg

Comedian Mitch Hedberg may have meant it in a funny vein, but it’s no joke that Americans are finding rotisserie chickens  not only sexy and sumptuous, but convenient, flavorful and oh, so easy to prepare.  The latter three were reasons most cited by consumers for liking rotisserie chicken.  A National Chicken Council survey revealed that in 2007, 52 percent of all respondents had purchased a rotisserie chicken within four weeks prior to being interviewed.   In 2008, an estimated 750 million rotisserie style chickens were sold with more than 200 million of them being proffered by restaurants and food service outlets. 

Since 1980,  the per capita consumption of poultry–and not just rotisserie chicken–in America has increased significantly.   According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Chicken Council, Americans are eating more chicken than ever.  The per capita consumption of chicken has risen from 48 pounds in 1980 to almost 83 pounds in 2010, a 72.5% increase.  This increase is attributed to consumers desiring to eat leaner proteins.

One of the best reasons to “break the chain”–great restaurant owners like Monica and Rene Coronado

In the coastal nation of Peru, restaurants and roadside stands featuring pollo a la brasa (an entire chicken prepared on a rotisserie charcoal oven) are as ubiquitous and beloved as burgers are in America.  In the world culinary stage, this is significant because Peru (yes, Peru!) has been widely recognized by the cognoscenti as a delicious dining destination and a culinary trend-setter.  In fact, Frommers Travel Guide recently proclaimed Lima, Peru as the “top food and drink destination for 2012,” declaring that “Lima is now drawing a new flock of visitors who travel all the way to Peru just to eat.” Peruvian cuisine. In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian “the next hot cuisine,” extolling its “vibrant ceviches, crispy, spiced rotisserie chickens and packed-with-flavor empanadas” then encapsulating its declaration with “this is one cuisine we could eat every day.” 

What’s surprising is not that the culture-rich cuisine of a small, multi-ethnic nation rarely on the world’s stage is receiving such acclaim, it’s that it’s taken so long.  Peru’s culinary traditions, after all, began in pre-Columbian times. Peru was home not only to the oldest known civilization in the Americas (the Norte Chico civilization flourished as early as the 30th century BC) but later to the largest civilization in the Pre-Columbian Americas–the Incan empire.  Immigration melded the culture and cuisine of the Spanish, Basque, African, Moorish, Sino-Cantonese, Japanese and in the 19th century, the Italian, French and British with Peru’s indigenous peoples, the descendents of the pre-Incas and Incas, to combine the flavors of four diverse and distinct continents.

Chimichangas engorged with Peruvian style chicken

With our typical “land of mañana” attitude, Albuquerque hasn’t been as quick to embrace Peruvian cuisine as have larger American metropolitan areas–not that we’ve had much opportunity.  In the year Peruvian was declared “the next hot cuisine,” the Duke City’s first (and only) Peruvian restaurant both opened and closed.  Albuquerque–you’ve got a second chance!  In 2011, Rene and Monica Coronado launched Pollito Con Papas on the southeast intersection of Broadway and Avenida Cesar Chavez.  In August, 2012, the Coronados moved their restaurant to Gibson Avenue, just east of San Pedro.  The specialty of the house is Peruvian style chicken.  It’s addictive!

The Coronados have the pedigree to make this delicious concept work.  The vivacious Monica is originally from Peru.  Her face practically glows with pride as she discusses the cuisine of her place of birth and the successes of her family in the restaurant business.  One cousin owns the fabulous and famous El Pollo Rico Restaurants in the Arlington, Virginia area.  El Pollo Rico is one of the highest rated rotisserie chicken restaurants on the entire East Coast where Peruvian style chicken has been all the rage for years.  One of her brothers is the chef at a highly regarded Peruvian-Spanish fusion restaurant in Berlin, Germany.

Half a Peruvian style chicken

The Coronados are new to the restaurant business, but they did a lot of homework prior to launching their eatery.  During their most recent visit to Peru (where Rene admits to having gained 12 pounds), Rene visited several rotisserie chicken restaurants, gleaning as much information as he could from the owners.  Because local ordinances in Peru tend to be somewhat more liberal than those in America, Rene quickly recognized he would have to modify his method of  preparing rotisserie chicken.  He wouldn’t, for example, be able to bring onto the premises and use the 18 outdoor grills–ranging from smokers to barrel-style–he’s been using for years to prepare chicken in his backyard. 

One area in which the Coronados don’t have to compromise in the least is in the uniquely wonderful marinades and sauces used in the preparation and serving of the chicken.  More impressively, they do not serve frozen poultry–apparently an anomaly because city inspectors were nonplussed  over the fact they had never before seen a restaurant open without a freezer.  Each chicken is simultaneously brined and marinated for at least ten hours in a bath of several ingredients (vinegar, cumin, salt and pepper are discernible, but that constitutes fewer than half the ingredients in the marinade).  The chicken is served with a creamy “green sauce” made with jalapeño, cilantro and other ingredients which give it addictive properties.

The papitas–hand-cut French fries

The entire Pollito Con Papas menu is comprised of whole chickens; boneless, skinless marinated chicken thighs; fresh, hand-cut wedge fries with ketchup, and chicken engorged chimichangas all served with that wondrous green sauce.  By design, the restaurant does not serve tortillas, pico de gallo, or other popular extras.  Rene’s objective is “to keep it super simple but incredibly delicious.”  “We just give our customers a taste and explain how our chicken is prepared and how we are able to provide two whole chickens, fries, and creamy sauce for twenty dollars due to the fact that we have minimal waste. Where else can you feed four people good quality food for less than five dollars a person-our price includes tax.” Where else indeed?

Pollito Con Papas’ new home as of August, 2012 is in a much more heavily trafficked street and in a much more capacious building with generous parking than its predecessor.  One thing that won’t change is the friendliness of the affable owners.   When my friend Ryan Scott, the dynamic host of the galluptious Break the Chain radio program and I discuss what we love most about mom-and-pop restaurants, near the top of the list is the warmth and hospitality of mom and pop themselves.   The Coronados didn’t need years of restaurant experience to understand this formula very well!  It comes from the heart!    

Boneless thighs–marinated for eight hours

To ensure the highest level of freshness, Rene advises patrons to call in whole chicken orders two hours in advance so they’re cooked specifically for them and not sitting on a warming plate.  Many of the restaurant’s repeat visitors have responded very well to this practice.  Rene is contemplating ways to be even more responsive to customers calling in pick-up orders, perhaps even instituting curb-side service. 

If you don’t happen to call in your order two hours in advance, there’s still plenty on the menu that will make you very happy.  You might want to sample a bit of everything on the menu as we did.  Consider the chimichangas your appetizer. Reminiscent of egg rolls on steroids, the chimichangas are sliced diagonally and are engorged with the restaurant’s wonderful marinated chicken.  There’s no scrimping on the chicken which is so very finely chopped that the chimichangas become very dense and tightly packed.  You’ll want to deluge the chimis (an Arizona diminutive) in the creamy green sauce which has a nice piquant bite New Mexican fire-eaters will appreciate. 

External signage lists the menu in Spanish

The half-chicken–breast, wing and thigh–is an even better way to enjoy the marinade in which the chickens are prepared. The lengthy marinade process ensures deep penetration of flavors so it’s not just the skin which absorbs the ten ingredient melange of flavors.  The brining and marinade process ensure every single bite is redolent with deliciousness while the process of slow-cooking makes a moist, delicious, non-greasy and very healthy chicken that doesn’t rely solely on salt for its flavor (as grocery store rotisserie chicken tends to do).  The fact that each chicken is fresh and never frozen further seals in flavors and gives the chicken a texture you won’t find in poultry previously frozen (which tends to become desiccated after thawing).  The accompanying papitas are fresh and hand-cut on the premises.  They’re Texas thick and golden hued, better with the green sauce being a better condiment than the ketchup. Peru, by the way, is where potatoes were first domesticated.  There are more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru today so it stands to reason Pollito Con Papas fries are among the very best in Albuquerque.

The boneless, skinless marinated thighs are a best bet for bone-phobic diners.  Chicken thighs, not breasts as is the common misconception, are the most moist, tender and flavorful piece on a chicken.  These thighs are oh so mouth-watering moist and the flavor profile is a nice balance of spiciness, savoriness, and peppery qualities with discernible hints of sweetness and tanginess, too.  The discernment of flavors is an adventure in pure deliciousness. 

There is nothing fancy about Pollito Con Papas. It has none of the over-the-top veneer, flash and panache of the well-financed corporate chains.  What it does have is a wonderful product–likely the very best chicken you’ll have in New Mexico.   This is four-star quality food prepared by very nice people and served in the most humble surroundings.  Whether you order it for take-out or enjoy it at the tiny eatery, the operative word is enjoy and you WILL enjoy it immensely.

Pollitos Con Papas
6105 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-765-5486
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2012
1st VISIT: 26 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Boneless Thighs, Half Chicken, French Fries, Chimichangas, Inca Kola

Pollito Con Papas on Urbanspoon

The Paradise Grill – Las Vegas, Nevada (CLOSED)

The Paradise Grill in Las Vegas, Nevada

The Paradise Grill in Las Vegas, Nevada

Americans spent several billion dollars a year on products touting their ability to provide fresh breath.  Ultrabrite toothpaste promises to “give your mouth sex appeal” while Colgate’s Oxygen toothpaste’s slogan is “Pure, Fresh, Clean.”  Fresh breath is so important to our culture that we even insist our pets have it. Milk Bone Dog Biscuits pledge to “freshen breath naturally” so of course, we buy that product in bulk for our four-legged children.

Fresh breath, it seems, translates (at least on humans) to a “cool, minty sensation with no mediciny taste” if commercials are to be believed. It’s unlikely dogs would appreciate having minty breath, preferring instead something smelling with the aroma of rotted carcass.  So why this digression into the emphasis our culture places on fresh breath when this is supposed to be a review of a Peruvian restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada. The answer can be found in one word–ceviche.

The ceviche at the Paradise Grill is so fresh and invigorating that it will impart upon your mouth, a sensation of freshness that may last for hours. I’ve had ceviche on three continents and it has varied in quality and memorability. None has impressed itself on my taste buds as effectively or for as long as the ceviche at this relatively obscure restaurant. My Kim said it best for both of us, “this is the best ceviche I’ve ever had.”

chicharonnes de pollo, ceviche de pesdado and ceviche de mariscos

Chicharonnes de pollo, ceviche de pesdado and ceviche de mariscos

The Paradise Grill is one of about a half dozen Peruvian restaurants in Las Vegas, a city which about 5,000 Peruvians call home. It is situated about seven miles from the famous Las Vegas strip.

The combination lounge and restaurant celebrates several aspects of the coastal nation’s culture. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas and other Catholic images is an integral part of the decor. So, too, are woven tapestries, depicting both intricate Andean designs and Peruvian symbols such as the llama, an animal as essential to the nation today as it was during the days of the Incan empire.

Seat yourself in the wrong spot and the competition for your eyeballs and ears could be distracting. Two large flat screen televisions, both tuned to different Peruvian television programming, may provide a sense of modern culture in Peru, but they can also become unnerving. This was the sole aspect of the dining experience we didn’t like.

The Paradise Grill offers both Peruvian and Mexican cuisine, perhaps out of necessity because as good as this restaurant is, it does not appear to be heavily patronized–at least during lunch. In the evenings, the restaurant’s frontage becomes a thriving taqueria visited by throngs of taco fans. “The best tacos in Las Vegas,” we were told.

Among the “Entradas-Botanas y Aperitivos,” literally starters or appetizers, are several interesting Peruvian dishes replete with flavor.

papa a la Huancaina

Papa a la Huancaina

The papa a la Huancaina, a boiled potato served with a Peruvian cheese sauce, is a cold starter served on a bed of lettuce leaves. The potatoes are covered in a creamy and spicy (as in piquant) sauce made with fresh, country-style cheese and aji-amarillo, a yellow chili pepper with a distinctive fruity flavor.

A variation of the papa a la Huancaina is supposedly served in almost every Peruvian restaurant in the world. It’s easy to see why. The dish bears some similarities to the good old fashioned American potato salad and it even includes a garnish of hard-boiled eggs and olives. It’s a terrific way to start a meal.

The true Peruvian potato salad is the Causa de Pollo, a dish served warm and layered with the seemingly omnipresent ingredients in Peruvian cooking: potatoes, corn and chicken. This dish is a patty made from mashed potato stuffed with shredded chicken, mixed vegetables, mayonnaise and avocado. This is a moist and savory dish with the chicken being so finely shredded that its texture melds into an indistinguishable coalescence with the mashed potatoes.

Causa de Pollo

Causa de Pollo

The multi-page menu has so many thematic elements that it’s difficult to narrow your choices down. Will it be seafood, poultry, beef or a combination of the three? The accommodating wait staff is more than happy to create a combination to suit you. My recommendation is for a combination plate with at least two different ceviches and perhaps a chicarrone entree.

Peruvian chicharonnes are wholly unlike the New Mexican crackling pork variety and even a wider departure from the tripe version of chicharonnes served at some Mexican restaurants. At the Paradise Grill, the chicharonnes include not only pork, beef and poultry, but several different types of seafood.

The chicharonnes de pollo (chicken) are deep-fried into strips and are reminiscent of the chicken fingers served at many American restaurants, only much better. The chicken is moist and delicious, seasoned on the spicy side. I can’t recall ever having better “chicken strips” anywhere.

We were besotted with the ceviche de mariscos even before first tasting it. Large calamari ringlets; plump, sweet shrimp; chunks of real crab; sumptuous squid and a multitude of mussels were served with cilantro and red onions in a very generous portion. The mariscos are marinated in a citrus bath which imparts a clean and fresh taste then they are invigorated with rocoto, a Peruvian chili with both an incendiary heat and a fruity freshness.

Wow! If freshness had a taste, it would be like this ceviche. Every bit of the seafood seemed as fresh as the moment it was plucked out of the salty waters. The calamari was perfectly prepared and had none of the rubbery texture so common in poorly prepared calamari. The shrimp had the snap of freshness.

By itself, the seafood would have provided an explosion of sweet, briny and savory tastes and textures that spell freshness, but with the rocoto imbued citrus marinade, the seafood resoundingly embodied freshness. That freshness, that flavor stayed with us for hours after our meal. All ceviche should taste like this!

The ceviche de pescado features a firm-fleshed white fish which doesn’t disintegrate as inferior fish is apt to do. The fish is cut into larger pieces than we’re used to with Mexican ceviche. It, too, epitomizes the essence of freshness.

I don’t know if it’s possible to create a toothpaste or mouthwash with the flavor of the Paradise Grill’s ceviche, but if it were possible, I’d certainly use it. I could certainly use a bit more sex appeal.

The Paradise Grill
4180 South Jones, Suite #1
Las Vegas, Nevada

LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Causa de Pollo, Chicharron de Pollo, Ceviche de Pescado, Ceviche de Mariscos

Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro – San Francisco, California

Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

In 2004, The Economist (a British weekly news publication) proclaimed that “Peru can lay claim to one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines.” In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian “the next hot cuisine,” extolling its “vibrant ceviches, crispy, spiced rotisserie chickens and packed-with-flavor empanadas” then encapsulating its declaration with “this is one cuisine we could eat every day.”

A year later, at the world’s premier gastronomic forum, the International Summit of Gastronomy, Lima (the coastal nation’s capital city) was touted as the “gastronomic capital of the Americas.”

What’s surprising is not that the culture-rich cuisine of a small, multi-ethnic nation rarely on the world’s stage received such acclaim, it’s that it took so long.  Peru’s culinary traditions, after all, began in pre-Columbian times. Peru was home not only to the oldest known civilization in the Americas (the Norte Chico civilization flourished as early as the 30th century BC) but later to the largest civilization in the Pre-Columbian Americas–the Incan empire.

Immigration melded the culture and cuisine of the Spanish, Basque, African, Moorish, Sino-Cantonese, Japanese and in the 19th century, the Italian, French and British with Peru’s indigenous peoples, the descendents of the pre-Incas and Incas, to combine the flavors of four diverse and distinct continents.

The interior at Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

The interior at Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

With such a cultural and racial amalgam, it any wonder Peruvian cuisine has been constantly evolving and expanding?  Peru’s openness facilitated a veritable fusion of ancient traditional dishes with contemporary global influences.

Years before Peruvian cuisine began being recognized for its delicious diversity, some culinary pioneers had already started the trend in the United States towards this innovative and flavor-rich cuisine.

One of them was James Schenk who launched Destino in 2000. From a family with deep roots in Peru, Schenk helped put Peruvian cuisine on the nation’s culinary map.  His charming bistro certainly fueled the explosion in popularity of Peruvian cuisine in San Francisco, one of the United States’ culinarily revolutionary cities.

Within four years of its launch, Destino began receiving national recognition.  In 2004, the restaurant was named one of the United States “top fifty Hispanic restaurants” by Hispanic magazine which underlined the “overall appeal of this special nuevo latino bistro where the accents are Peruvian.”

Destino repeated as a Hispanic magazine choice as one of the United States “top fifty Hispanic restaurants” in 2005.  The magazine raved about Schenk taking “extra care to tap rich Latin flavors and preparations for his innovative dishes.”

In 2006, it was Destino’s chef and owner, James Schenk himself, who was recognized by Hispanic magazine.  In an article honoring eight Latino chefs “creating magic in the kitchen,” Schenk was praised for “honoring authentic tastes, even though his plating is contemporary.”

That same year, Saveur magazine introduced the culinary world to a specialty of the house at Destino–Alfajores, South American butter cookies filled with dulce de leche.  Schenk sets a plate of alfajores on the table at the end of every meal so as to “give people something that will let them leave with a smile on their faces.”

Smiling faces are a common sight at Destino, a long, charming bistro whose ambience is warm and inviting and whose wait staff is attentive and knowledgeable.  Destino’s muted-lighting, rich colors (alluring reds and beguiling shades of orange), oversized mirrors and dark woods make it a perfect neighborhood hang-out where the cares of the day are washed away by food and wine pairings that will impress themselves on your taste buds for a long time.

A delicious way to start any meal

A delicious way to start any meal

In truth, the bill of fare isn’t exclusively Peruvian.  It’s advertised as “Nuevo Latino,” a fusion of dishes inspired by the cuisines of Central and South America served with a “nuevo” or contemporary flair that has won over critics and patrons alike.

The front of the menu is dedicated to tapas, the name in Spain for a wide variety of appetizers or “small plates.”  Schenk lived in Madrid for a year where he learned all about Spanish tapas traditions.  His time in Spain was, in fact, his muse for opening Destino.

At Destino, some diners will follow the Spanish tradition of ordering several different tapas, combining them for a full meal.  Others will opt instead to order from Destino’s three-course prix fixe menu.  This menu includes an appetizer, main entree and delectable dessert.

While you’re making up your mind (and it will be a challenge), your server will bring wonderfully yeasty bread rolls along with a Peruvian Ocopa sauce to your table.  The Ocopa sauce, a light, creamy sauce is seasoned with chiles to give it a nice pizzazz.  It’s not an overly piquant sauce and in fact, its pronouncements are almost equally sweet, piquant, savory and even a bit tangy.  It tops the de rigueur bread dipping sauces served elsewhere.

Fresh conchas (scallops) ala Parmesana

Fresh conchas (scallops) ala Parmesana

The tapas selections are so enticing, you’ll be hard-pressed not to order more than you can eat.  That’s one of the reasons a meal at Destino is meant to be shared–although sharing is not what you’ll have in mind when the Ceviche Sampler is brought to your table.

You may have to fight the primal urge to devour this paragon of deliciousness all by yourself.  It is, after all, three different sashimi- quality ceviche plates, each brimming with flavor.

Ceviche is served in almost every Peruvian restaurant in which the specialty of the house is fish and seafood.  The ceviche can range from sublimely simple to intensely complex, but is in most cases, very flavorful.

There’s the Ceviche A la Peruana in which the inherently briny flavor of Pacific sea bass is ameliorated with aji Amarillo (a yellow Peruvian hot pepper), cilantro and canchas (toasted Peruvian corn with a little bit of salt and oil).  It is a pleasant adventure for your taste buds as contrasting tastes and textures compete for their rapt attention.

The Destino Chino honors the Chinese who settled Peru’s coastal areas in which the richness of aquatic life contributes significantly to the bio-diversity, economic and ecological make-up of the country.  This ceviche features yellowtail tuna, tiger prawns, ginger and lemongrass oil.  It is more tangy and complex than the other ceviche plates on the sampler.

Chile Relleno

Chile Relleno

The third offering in the sampler, Ceviche A la Mexicana is crafted of Ahi tuna, avocado, organic mango and Achiote oil.  It is wholly unlike the ceviche proffered at many Mexican restaurants in which the tanginess of lime sometimes overwhelms instead of complementing the natural briny flavor of the fish.

Destino’s rendition of Mexican ceviche reminded me more of the type of ceviche you sometimes see in Japanese sushi restaurants in which the fish is the featured attraction and everything else is an ameliorant meant to bring out its taste.  This is a ceviche at the level of sublime.

At that level you’d also have to include Destino’s Chile Relleno, a poblano chile engorged with Niman Ranch ground sirloin, farmhouse Cheddar, chipotle salsa and citrus Crème Fraiche.  It’s a Peruvian dish with the full California treatment starting with ground sirloin from a cooperative which raises livestock traditionally, humanely and sustainably to deliver some of the best tasting meat you’ll have anywhere.

While the poblano chile is the canvas and the Niman Ranch ground sirloin the showcase, it is the smoky chipotle salsa and tart, citrusy Crème Fraiche that put it all together with complementary, yet contrasting tastes.  Having consumed chile rellenos at hundreds of restaurants, I can attest to these being among the very best I’ve had anywhere.

Grilled Niman Ranch sirloin is also a featured component of another fabulous tapas dish–Churrasco.  Churrasco is a Spanish and Portuguese term referring to meat or grilled beef.  Destino’s churrasco is perfectly grilled to about medium.  It is adorned with Maldon sea salt and Chimichurri salsa, an Argentine specialty.

Another tapas hit, the Conchitas a la Parmesana starts with Hokkaido Day Boat Scallops, the famous Japanese scallops which have earned “epicure-grade” and “sushi-grade” ratings from culinary cognoscenti.  That will tell you something about this tapas dish.  Each scallop is extremely flavorful in and of itself with an invigorating briny wildness, but add a bit of garlic butter and rich Parmesan and you’ve got a terrific treat.

Last, but certainly not least among top-grade tapas we sampled are Arepas de Queso, uniquely shaped cornmeal biscuits sandwiching Fontina cheese very similarly to a quesadilla then topped with a roasted corn and bell pepper salsa.  The combination of flavors works very well together, but it is the light texture that made this a special dish.

Churros with hot chocolate

Churros with hot chocolate

If after a sumptuous repast of tapas you still have room for a main entree, an excellent option are the Raviolis de Aji de Callina, housemade pasta, shredded chicken, an Aji Amarillo reduction and toasted walnuts.  Similar to yet distinctive from Italian ravioli dishes, it will appease the most finicky diners.

The ravioli tablets, more closely resembling dumplings than Italian ravioli are engorged with tender, well-seasoned chicken and topped with a mildly piquant pepper sauce with just slightly more heat than tomato sauce.  This is an excellent entree.

If there’s one absolute must in a dining experience at Destino, it’s that you MUST have dessert irrespective of how much you have to loosen your belt.  Desserts are fabulous, maybe none more so than Churros Y Chocolate. Churros have a reputation for having cardboard-like textures and empty calories with little flavor to show for it.

Destino’s churros were lightly crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside with a light sprinkling of canela (the Portuguese and Spanish word for cinnamon).  The chocolate is made from winter-spiced hot cocoa and being thin, is prone to spillage on your shirt.  That’s a small price to pay for a decadent dessert treat you’ll dream about.

It won’t take alfajores for you to leave Destino with a smile on your face.  It’s a smile that will return with every sweet remembrance of the wondrous cuisine with its roots in gastronomic heaven, the modest nation of Peru.

DESTINO NUEVO LATINO BISTRO

1815 Market Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 552-4451
LATEST VISIT: 20 February 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Ceviche A La Peruana, Ceviche Destino Chino, Ceviche A La Mexicana, Chile Relleno, Arepas de Queso, Churrasco, Conchitas a la Parmesana, Raviolis de Aji de Gallina, Churros Y Chocolate