The Chili Stop – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Chili Stop knows its chile

The Chili Stop knows its chile

NOTE:  On November 15th, 2008, Ron Chavez sold the Chili Stop a mere four months after making green chile a religious experience.  I have not visited the Chili Stop since it changed hands and have heard mixed opinions on the Chili Stop post Ron.  I will update this review after my next visit.

Over the years it’s been my experience that almost invariably, New Mexican restaurants which violate traditional New Mexican grammar don’t prepare the object of their grammatical faux pas very well.  The grammatical transgression of which I speak is forgetting the “i” before “e” rule and committing the piquant peccadillo of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable with two “i’s” and no “e’s.”

It’s entirely forgivable that chile is technically a fruit, albeit one which packs an incendiary capsaicin punch, but like many New Mexicans, I feel personally insulted when presented with a menu offering “chili.”

That abhorrent spelling brings to mind something long-time New Mexico senator Pete Dominici supposedly once said on the Congressional record. Not one to mince words, “Saint Pete” is credited with saying “chili” is “that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma.

When Dale, a faithful reader of my Web site suggested I try The Chili Stop for a “great green chile cheeseburger,” my initial reaction was to question the authenticity of the product based solely on the spelling on the marquee. My preconception was cemented by the fact that the Chili Stop occupies the western side of the edifice which once housed the now defunct Bombay Grill and previous to that, a Chinese restaurant. The building still more closely resembles a pagoda than a restaurant, much less one that serves New Mexican food.   There’s a saying about assuming that would be appropriate here.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips at the Chili Stop

The inimitable aroma of green chile wafted toward us as we approached The Chili Stop. No ordinary green chile was this. The aroma was reminiscent of green chile roasting on a comal. Only the hissing and spitting of blackening chiles was missing.

The green chile which captivated us was simmering on a stove. We didn’t need to taste it to know it would be absolutely wonderful. The aroma was enough to make our mouths water. The chile, as it turns out comes from the Deming area in Luna county, an area not nearly as famous for its chile as Hatch, more than a hundred miles away. Perhaps it should be.

The Chili Stop is owned by Ron Chavez who moved back home to Albuquerque after retiring from the Los Alamos scientific laboratories. An avuncular gentleman, Ron has absolutely no compunction about the spelling of his restaurant’s name. His brother, a retired teacher who made several trips to South America told him “chili is a vegetable and Chile is a country,” a contention backed up by several sources. I couldn’t argue. Well, I could have, but feared he wouldn’t serve me any of the amazing siren-like chile tantalizing my nostrils and teasing my taste buds. For some of Ron’s chili, I’d spell it “chilly” if he wanted. It’s that good!

Green chile

Green chile--the very best in Albuquerque, maybe New Mexico!

The Chili Stop opened in June, 2008 in the 900-square-foot area which once served as the Bombay Grill’s kitchen. It is situated in the same building as the Arte de la Mano salon and has seating for only a few patrons.  Within weeks after launching, Ron received offers to expand his business to Rio Rancho and other parts of the Duke City. Though he plans to mull over those offers, he also plans to keep his inaugural restaurant venture.  Within weeks, he was also contacted by the Food Network who had heard about his fabulous green chile.

During his years in Los Alamos, Ron opened and sold four restaurants and introduced the breakfast burrito to the city on the hill nearly 30 years ago.  The reason his business will thrive is some of the very best green chile I’ve had in years. If, like me, you’ve lamented the lack of truly outstanding green chile in Duke City restaurants, you’ll love the Chili Stop.

The secret is in the way the deliciously earthy chile is prepared. It’s simmered for hours as called for in a secret recipe that’s been in the family for more than 35 years. This is green chile that packs a punch, the way it’s supposed to. Despite the “anglicized” name, this is no gringo chile (no offense intended).  A bowl of green chile will clear your sinuses. It’s served with ground beef and can be topped with shredded cheese to cut the capsaicin bite if you wish. You can also have it with New Mexico’s other official state vegetable, frijoles.

One of the best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico!

One of the best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico!

Prop your elbows on the table and your face as close to the chile as you can because you’ll want to imbibe all the aroma and all the flavor you possibly can from the neon green chile that will captivate you. The burning sensation will generate an endorphin rush that will remind you why you fell in love with green chile in the first place.

As Dale succinctly put it, the green chile cheeseburger is great–as in maybe the “best in the Duke City area” great. It’s at least as good as the green chile cheeseburger at Perea’s Tijuana Grill & Bar in Corrales. That puts it in rarified company as one of the best green chile cheeseburgers in the universe!

This burger starts with about six ounces of hand-formed beef topped with the traditional burger standards: mustard, lettuce, pickles, tomato and of course, phenomenal green chile nestled between sesame seed buns. It is a handful of moistness–about three napkins worth–and explosive flavor.

Here’s a secret only long-time New Mexicans know–the very best green chile cheeseburgers are served not in restaurants, but in the carnivals and fairs held throughout northern New Mexico.  The Chili Stop’s green chile cheeseburger is much like those served at carnivals. It would be easy to fall into the trap of having either or both the burger and a bowl of green chile, but that would be passing up too many other terrific menu items.

Cheese enchiladas with an egg on top

Cheese enchiladas with an egg on top

One of the “not to be missed” items are cheese enchiladas with a fried egg on top. If you prefer meat enchiladas, I would still recommend ordering the cheese enchiladas because there is beef a plenty on that outstanding green chile. The enchiladas are stacked, the way they’re made in Northern New Mexico. North, south, east or west, they really are among the very best!

The salsa is fresh and piquant at about medium thickness. The chips are relatively low in salt and more than capable of scooping up large quantities of salsa–if your tongue is laced with asbestos. The salsa is almost as piquant as the green chile.

The menu also includes both soft and hard-shelled tacos as well as a Navajo taco Ron’s staff raves about.  The soft taco is engorged with ground beef, shredded cheese and your choice of red chile. The hard-shelled taco also includes lettuce and one of the small touches that’s a difference maker in my book–cheese atop the meat so it can melt NOT atop the lettuce.

The Chili Stop is open for breakfast starting at 6AM. Breakfast burritos are featured fare. Unless you request otherwise, the burritos are hand-held, a large tortilla engorged with potatoes, eggs, bacon and of course, that soon to be legendary green chile.  You can also have your breakfast burritos smothered.   Have one (or two) for breakfast with a Diet Doctor Pepper and the endorphin rush will carry you through the rest of the day.

Over the years I’ve derided the spelling “chili” and am finally ready to eat crow about it and accept the fact that it’s not the spelling that counts, but the flavor. Of course, the crow would have to be topped with some of the Chili Stop’s fabulous green chili.

The Chili Stop
3600 Highway 528
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 24
COST: $
BEST BET:Salsa & Chips, Green Chili Cheeseburger, Hard Taco, Soft Taco, Green Chili, Breakfast Burrito

California Baja Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

California Baja Grill

California Baja Grill

Several years ago, I introduced my good friend John Bennett to the exhilaration of verbal sparring with the shopkeepers at the mercados of Juarez, Mexico, a vibrant border city in which aggressive bartering is considered not only an honorable sport, but the only way to ensure any semblance of a fair exchange. The shopkeepers expect it and will respect your attempts to purchase their baubles, bangles and trinkets at the price you believe is fair.

When John decided to bring back some Mexican coins for his son, a novice numismatist, I advised him to get no more than a quarter’s worth of coinage. As usual he didn’t heed my advice and asked one of the shopkeepers to exchange a five dollar bill for as many coins as it would buy him. Not only did he clean out the shopkeeper’s register, the exchange rate being what it was, John wound up weighing down all his pants and shirt pockets with coins. Struggling to keep his pants up, he jingled all the way back across the border, looking and sounding like a circus clown in the process. He’s never lived down the experience.

As we studied the menu at California Baja Grill & Bar in Rio Rancho, I wondered if some of the prices were in pesos not in dollars. It’s not everyday you see seafood entrees–even in landlocked Albuquerque–priced in the mid-forty dollar range. Then again, it’s not everday you find seafood of the high quality and astounding quantities of the seafood entrees served at the city of vision’s first mariscos restaurant.

We didn’t quite know what to expect as we approached the shopping center edifice which for years served as the home of Weck’s in Rio Rancho. “California cuisine” is a pretty overarching term that covers everything from fish tacos which are all the rage in the San Diego area to the sophisticated culinary fare of San Francisco to the grunions which are caught by beach goers as they (the grunions, not the beach goers) flop on shore to lay their eggs.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

You’ll have a better clue as to what this restaurant is all about as you’re being escorted to your table. Decorative fishing nets and other marine-life accoutrements evince clearly that the restaurant specializes in mariscos, or Mexican seafood. One rear wall is dedicated to the golden bear flag of the great state of California and to what appears to be the shirt of a sports team emblazoned with the name of the city “Chicago” with the subtext “California Baja Grill.” Potted faux coconut trees and their hard-shelled fruit are positioned throughout the restaurant.

You won’t be seated long before a small bowl of salsa and a basket of chips and crackers are delivered to your table. The salsa is somewhat watery and at first appears to have virtually no piquancy. It’s got the kind of heat that sneaks up on you and before long your tongue may catch fire. The chips are low in salt and perfect for dipping into the salsa because, thin as it is, you won’t be able to scoop it up.

Tostada Mixta

Tostada Mixta

The menu includes an entire pageful of ceviche, some of which may send you into sticker shock. Three of the ceviche offerings are priced at just under $25 for a medium portion and only a penny less than $45 for a large portion. We were assured the portion sizes were prodigious, but if you don’t want to empty your wallet or purse to confirm that, order a tostada de ceviche.

Make it a tostada mixta, a melange of fish, octopus, imitation crab and shrimp atop a crisp tortilla shell. all invigorated with lime, cucumber and tomato. Shrimp is an oxymoron for this delicious decapod. What is delivered to your table are some of the largest, most crisp, fresh and delicious crustacean you’ll ever have on an order of ceviche. They are wholly unlike the tiny shrimp you generally find on Mexican ceviche.

Prodigious purplish hunks of octopus and sweet imitation crab complement the shrimp well. What makes the seafood special is that it’s allowed to shine on its own accord. It’s not dominated by the tartness of lime or the acidity of tomato. It’s equally, deliciously briny and sweet, a real treat.

Empanada de Camaron

Empanada de Camaron

Shrimp is a specialty of the house at the California Baja Grill and it’s prepared in various ways. One unique way is enrobed in a light, flaky cornmeal crust–empanadas de camaron, or shrimp empanadas. These individual-sized empanadas are engorged with sweet, succulent shrimp and served with a green salsa with even more piquant potency than its red counterpart. That piquancy is the perfect countermand for the sweetness of the crust and shrimp. These empanadas are a genuine treat and can be purchased by the half or full dozen. You’ll want to take some home with you.

Mariscos Siete Mares

Mariscos Siete Mares

Shrimp is but one of the terrific ingredients in another specialty of the house, Caldo Siete Mares(Seven Seas Soup). Other ingredients include octopus, crab legs, fish, mussels, scallops and an entire langoustine. Langoustine, if you’ve never had it, is sometimes known as Norweigian lobster and indeed it does resemble its larger cousin, albeit with a thinner shell and slimmer body. Even more than lobster, langoustine has a sweet, subtle flavor and delicate texture.

The crab leg is sliced down the middle so you can easily extricate its sweet meat. The mussels are of the New Zealand green lip variety while the scallops are fleshy and tender. The broth is imbued with the flavors of the bounties of the sea, but it’s also meant to be flavored with red onion and chile de arbol. Pinch the chiles so the chile “dust” and seeds fall into the broth for an excitingly piquant flavor complement.

This Caldo Siete Mares is served in a swimming pool sized bowl (it has to be that large to accommodate all the ingredients). It’s the only caldo of its kind we’ve had in the Albuquerque area which isn’t in dire need of desalinization. That allows for flavor discernment and appreciation the way it’s meant to be.

Camarones Costa Azul

Camarones Costa Azul

Still another terrific shrimp entree are the Camarones Costa Azul, shrimp wrapped with bacon strips then smothered with cheese and a sauce of sauteed green and red peppers and onions on a chile enhanced, tomato based sauce. This is an entree not usually served with a sauce and more often than not, it’s an entree as dry as an early summer day. California Baja Grill’s rendition is probably the best we’ve had in the Duke City area. It’s rich and flavorful, replete with complementary and contrasting sweet, piquant and savory flavors.

This entree is served with rice and beans, both of which are quite good. The rice is cooked perfectly with each kernel seemingly separated from the other and not clumped like rice is sometimes apt to be. It has a nice, buttery flavor. The beans are mashed, but not refried. It’s another restaurant specialty.

The California Baja Grilled is owned by several business partners out of the Mexican state of Nayarit on the Pacific Coast. The group has ambitious plans for their restaurant and has leased the space next door which they will use as a sort of Mexican style, family-oriented sports bar connected to the restaurant. The only thing that might put a damper on their plans is lack of patronage. It’s ensconced in a low-trafficked area and is not well known. That hopefully won’t be the case for long because this is a special restaurant which should be around for a long time.

California Baja Grill
1690 Rio Rancho Blvd, #B
Rio Rancho, NM

LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Camarones Costa Azul, Tostada de Camaron, Caldo Siete Mares, Empanada de Camarones

The Old House Gastropub – Corrales, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Old House Gastropub

The Old House Gastropub

There’s a European joke that uses stereotypes to deride British cooking, one of the most maligned cuisines in the world culinary stage.

As the joke goes, in the European conception of heaven, the French are the chefs, the British are the police and the Germans are the engineers while in the European conception of hell, the Germans are the police, the French are the engineers and the British are the chefs.

When it comes to the culinary arts, England is the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe; its cuisine receives absolutely no respect. English food is regarded as bland and unimaginative, especially when compared with the haute (and haughty) cuisine of France.

Having spent three years in England and having partaken of wonderful food throughout the Isles, I rise to the defense of this nation’s maligned food. We found English food to be inventive and delicious.

Rebecca Carter, the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub

Rebecca Carter, the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub

We left England about four years before the term “gastropub” was coined, but the concept had actually already started to be practiced and proliferated. A gastropub is a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-end, high-quality food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to define food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub,” but in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.

Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices.

The menu, of course, has to complement an assortment of wines and beers, the latter being a staple of pub life in England.

Cambridge, England born Rebecca Carter and her husband purchased the venerable Casa Vieja restaurant in 2005, but only three years later did they change the restaurant’s name and concept. The name “Casa Vieja” has actually been retained, but it has been subordinated under its English translation.

Visitors are quickly discovering that the gastropub concept really fits the Corrales pace and lifestyle. So why the change?

Just like English food, stereotypes were attached to the name “Casa Vieja.” Both tourists and locals assumed that, because of the restaurant’s Spanish name, everything on the menu would include chile. As a result, tourists avoided the restaurant while locals expecting New Mexican food may have left disappointed.

Blue crab claw meat Queso served with tortilla chips

Blue crab claw meat Queso served with tortilla chips

The “Old House” dates back to the early 1700s and is one of the oldest buildings in Corrales, contemporaneous with the founding of Albuquerque. The original walls are constructed not of adobes, but of of thick slabs of earth called terrones. Some walls are 30-inches thick.

At its largest, the building has been described as a 20-room, E-shaped hacienda. A chapel was said to be located at the west end of the 55-foot long room of the house. Although original vigas still support the roof, many of the latillas in the ceiling have been replaced.

During its early years, the Casa reportedly served at various times as a stop on a stagecoach route, a military headquarters for the Spanish, a courthouse, the headquarters for a cavalry unit, a tuberculosis clinic and even a nudist colony.

Until several years ago, it still had gun turrets high on one wall of the chapel, the edifice’s oldest room. When the Casa served as a courthouse, defendants would be tried then marched down Corrales Road with bystanders throwing food and rocks at them. When they reached what is now the Rancho de Corrales restaurant, justice would be meted out on the famous hanging tree.

From 1999 until July, 2005, the Casa Vieja was home to chef Jim White who became somewhat of a local celebrity by hosting short cooking segments on two Duke City television news programs.

Garlic shrimp and chorizo served with Focaccia bread

Garlic shrimp and chorizo served with Focaccia bread

The departure of chef White began a new era for Casa Vieja. In place of the peripatetic and effervescent chef were new owners from England of all places.

Rebecca Carter is the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub. An indefatigable whirling dervish, she has crafted an imaginative and very ambitious menu unlike that of any restaurant in the Duke City area. It is, in fact, one of the best menus in the state!

That wide-ranging menu includes sandwiches and salads as well as steaks and burgers with an assortment of desserts and pastries. The menu is seasonal, reflecting the “fantastic diversity that the full culinary year has to offer” and it is affordable.

Perhaps not since Noah’s menagerie of beast and fowl has there been such an eclectic range of meats as what is offered at the Old House Gastropub. In terms of variety, these meats may be unsurpassed in the Land of Enchantment. They include yak, wild boar, buffalo, kangaroo, ostrich, quail, pork and Kobe beef.

The Old House Gastropub is open continuously for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Brunch is served on weekends starting at 10AM. There are few milieus as inviting and relaxing as the patio where centuries old trees provide cooling shade from the heat of the day (not to mention the ubiquitous winds).

The restaurant’s philosophy is simple–“to delight you with exceptionally delicious and well-prepared meals that are also created with conscience.” After two meals in two days, I’m ready to proclaim “mission accomplished.”

Our inaugural visit to the Old House Gastropub elicited the type of epiphany-like response we rarely have any more. Not only were we thrilled to find an exceptional menu, but its execution was flawless. If anything, there is such tremendous variety in the menu that it was a challenge to pare down to a select few. There’s no doubt frequent visits are in order.

Tenderloin of wild bor served with a pear and golden sultana chutney

Tenderloin of wild bor served with a pear and golden sultana chutney

The “Casa Favorites” section of the menu includes thirteen items, some of which can be classified as appetizers and others as entrees. They include traditional English fish and chips offered, unfortunately, with American type fries. Rebecca jokes that English fries can be tossed against a wall where they would stick. Despite their flaccidity and “stick-to-itiveness” we love English chips and the way malt vinegar complements them. American chips just don’t cut it with malt vinegar.

The Casa Favorites section also includes a blue crab claw meat queso served with tortilla chips that puts to shame most con queso in the Duke City area.

The queso is flecked with genuine New Mexico green chile, courtesy of Rebecca’s chef from Socorro. The green chile has a nice roasted-on-a-comal flavor and just a hint of piquancy. The queso is creamy and rich.

The blue crab claw meat is sweet and delicious though parsimoniously meted out. Any more might have altered the flavors of this excellent con queso.

The tortilla chips are made from flour tortillas cut into triangles then deep-fried. They are reminiscent of the tortillas served at El Bruno, one of the state’s best New Mexican restaurants.

The standard queso, by the way is terrific as we found out during our second visit. It’s not gloppy or gooey as we’ve found in several New Mexican restaurants which serve queso with chips.

Sliced sirloin steak with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese in a toasted hoagie roll

Sliced sirloin steak with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese in a toasted hoagie roll

The salsa is chunky and made with great ingredients–white onion, jalapeno and rich, red tomatoes. It’s the type of salsa locals will appreciate for its high quality and tourists will appreciate because it won’t excoriate their taste buds with piquancy.

Appetizers include garlic shrimp and chorizo served with focaccia bread. This appetizer packs a real punch with more piquancy than the queso or salsa.

A broth flecked with smoky and spicy chorizo is seasoned with the refreshing herb combination of rosemary and oregano. A relative of the mint family, rosemary imbues foods with a “woodsy” fragrance, but in quantity, can overwhelm the food it is meant to complement.

The optimum amount of rosemary and seasonings are used in this memorable broth into which several plump garlic shrimp are added. You’ll dispense of those shrimp quickly then will dredge up every bit of the savory broth with the focaccia.

If soup is more to your liking, the menu includes three standard offerings plus a soup of the day. One of the daily standards is green chile, the official soup of the state of New Mexico.

Try the garlic soup for something refreshingly different. This is tempered garlic which won’t be emitted through your pores. It is smoky and just a tad sweet. The soup is somewhere between a thin broth and a thick soup. It is comfort food embodied.

The entrees section of the menu is where many of the exotic meat offerings can be found. Heading this section is a wet-aged, grain-fed Kansas bone-in prime rib-eye steak served with a Jim Beam reduction which can be had for $50. It is the most expensive item on the menu though other prime cuts of beef are upwards of $30.

If the tenderloin of wild boar served with a pear and golden sultana chutney is any indication, the Old House Gastropub’s preparation of meats is top-tier.

Three medallions of wild boar served at medium are as tender a cut of meat as you’ll find anywhere. Boar is a lean meat with only a very slightly discernable gaminess. It is also surprisingly light, not dense and fatty like some game meats tend to be.

The pear and golden sultana chutney reminded me that one of the things we’ve missed most about English cuisine is all the wonderful chutneys. France can have all their sauces. I’ll take chutneys any time.

The tenderloin is served with the chef’s vegetables of the day which will hopefully be the garden-fresh medley pictured above. A choice of starch is also available, including mashed Yukon gold and red potatoes with chives sans gravy.

An impressive array of sandwiches is available for budget-conscious diners who like to venture into the realm of the creative sandwich world. Sandwiches are served with your choice of a small dinner salad, cup of soup, French fries or potato salad.

Thick-sliced rashers of Applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun

Thick-sliced rashers of Applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun

The sliced sirloin steak sandwich with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese on a toasted hoagie roll is a winner thanks to premium quality ingredients. The sirloin steak is tender and of prime steak quality with a surfeit of flavor and juiciness at about medium done.

Stilton is an intensely-flavored blue cheese with veins of pure pleasure. It can overwhelm or greatly improve anything to which it is added. Coupled with the light, sweet flavor of red onion and the slightly acerbic flavor of the baby spinach, this sandwich couples items which go together very well to form composite greatness.

Ascribe greatness to the sandwich crafted from thick rashers of applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun. Telera, a Mexican flat bread is flat and crusty, a perfect canvass for a sandwich. This sandwich, in particular, is fashioned from moist ingredients (tomato and mayo) complementing dry ingredients (bacon and hard-boiled egg) to form a marriage made in sandwich heaven. It is an early favorite.

Garlic soup

Garlic soup

Burger aficionados will fawn all over the gourmet burger offerings. Each burger is crafted on a toasted Telera bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion on the side along with your choice of a small dinner salad, soup, French fries or potato salad.

Your biggest challenge will be in deciding whether to have ostrich, Kobe beef, Colorado yak, wild Alaskan sockeye, buffalo, wild boar or a Portobello mushroom burger stuffed with mozzarella and sage.

You can get around that delicious dilemma by ordering the mini gourmet burger assortment which includes one of each yak, buffalo, Kobe and ostrich mini burgers served with cheeses on mini-rolls.

The yak burger is grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with Gjetost cheese, a uniquely flavored cheese that is both strong and sweet with notes of caramel and goat’s milk. At rare to medium-rare, the yak is richly flavored and delicate with a flavor reminiscent of beef, but with one-sixth the fat and 40 percent more protein than beef.

The ostrich burger is also grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with a French brie cheese. Like the yak, ostrich meat tastes similar to lean beef and it is low in fat and cholesterol as well as high in protein, iron and calcium. Uncooked, it is a darker than beef, so at rare to medium-rare, that color is readily apparent.

English sticky pudding

English sticky pudding

It’s been my experience that it’s not the flavor of rare to medium-rare beef that will turn off proponents of charred meats. It’s usually the texture that will get to them. At rare, the beef is seared on the outside and red and cool on the inside and loose to the touch.

The Kobe burger is also grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with Gruyere cheese. I’ve long contended that to put Kobe beef on a burger is to desecrate one of the most unctuous, delicious and rich meats there is. The Old House Gastropub’s rendition did little to change my mind.

The most enjoyable burger among the quadrumvirate may well be the buffalo burger grilled at about medium and topped with a mature Cheddar cheese. Buffalo meat is very high in essential fatty acids that can aid in the reduction of cholesterol levels. It is also rich and delicious.

Desserts include English sticky pudding, a lush muffin-like mound of bread pudding topped with a rich caramel. It’s a high-calorie indulgence rich in flavor and deliciousness, one of our favorite desserts from the old country. Rebecca’s version is as good as we remembered ever having in the Cotswolds.

For a few hours each visit, the Old House Gastropub takes us back to the England we knew and loved–the England in which outstanding food can be enjoyed. Best of all, you can enjoy the best of England under a canopy of New Mexico’s blue skies.

The Old House Gastropub
Casa Vieja
4541 Corrales Road
Corrales, NM

LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Blue Crab Claw Meat Queso, Garlic Shrimp & Chorizo, Sliced Sirloin Steak Sandwich, Tenderloin of Wild Boar

The Cup – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Cup

The Cup

Buxom silent screen siren Mae West was so renown for her use of double entendre that she once said, “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would ask for the double meaning.”

When my wife suggested we have breakfast at The Cup, I wondered what she really had in mind. The Cup, after all, did not impress her in the least during our inaugural visit in January, 2007.

It was even worse for me as The Cup’s emptiness triggered memories of a dark day in the late 70s when I was the recipient of bad news (the “Dear John” kind) at the only restaurant I can remember as empty as The Cup that night–a long defunct Burger Chef.

Considering The Cup was sister restaurant to the popular Gold Street Caffe, the emptiness seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone.

We’re talking the Gold Street Caffe here–one of downtown Duke City’s darling dining destinations, the restaurant with the very best bacon (the thick cut honey chile glazed marvel) in the world.

We’re also talking the Pan American frontage road area within easy walking distance to the Century 24 theater. All the restaurants clustered in this area and their parking lots are typically nearly filled to capacity on Friday nights.

Escalivada Catalana

Escalivada Catalana

The feeling of unease and trepidation followed me as we walked up to The Cup and saw, scrawled on a sign “New Concept, New Menu, Old World Taste, Nothing Over $14.50.”

What the sign left out was “New Ownership.” The Cup is now owned by the quadrumvirate which operates Scalo, one of the Duke City’s best Italian restaurants. The group assumed ownership of The Cup in April, 2008.

Where changes are most evident is in the menu which introduces a revolutionary concept Albuquerque diners will hopefully embrace. The menu includes nine different tapas, an impressive selection of salads and sandwiches and several main course entrees.

The concept of tapas has been tried to varying success in several Albuquerque restaurants, but The Cup extends that concept with an imaginary fusion of small plates, appetizers and entrees with an Old World European flair and flavor.

The logo for the Cup’s new concept bears the flag of four European nations: France, England, Germany and Spain. The menu featured items from throughout Europe, many with a surprising twist.

Consider the Irish Reuben. Most of us are familiar with its components–pretty standard stuff. Restaurants “daring” to deviate from the time-tested, albeit mundane, standard may add pastrami to the mix. Big deal, right? At The Cup, the sandwich is called the Reuben Italiano and it’s crafted with lean corned beef, spicy Italian sausage, and caramelized onions on a crusty Italian bread topped with spicy marinara and melted Provolone cheese. It’s one of the restaurant’s best sellers.

Bacon wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon

Bacon wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon

The menu does a better job of cultural amalgamation than the United Nations. On the world stage, France and Germany have never gotten along as well as in the creations on The Cup’s menu. A lot of thought obviously went into the planning of the menu and the multi-nation melding isn’t always intuitively obvious.

The cultural cavalcade isn’t always as obvious as the aforementioned Reuben Italiano. The elemental composition of some entrees may be a favorite dish or ingredient from one nation ameliorated with a sauce, dressing or demi-glaze from another nation. The possibilities are fun.

The tapas menu starts off your Old World tour. Consider the Escalivada Catalana, a traditional Spanish tapa. The word “escalivada” comes from the Catalan verb “escalivar” which is the process of cooking food slowly and very close to the embers of a fire.

Even though The Cup’s rendition may not have been prepared over an open fire, its soul has its genesis in barbecue. The Cup’s Escalivada Catalana features roasted red peppers, eggplant and caramelized sweet onions finished with a Sherry dressing.

Normally this tapa is served on its own or with grilled meat, but at The Cup it’s served over grilled rustic bread in a manner similar to how bruschetta is used. It is a very tasty way to begin your European adventure.

Seafood Risotto

Seafood Risotto

A delicious French detour is an option with the bacon wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon, a seven-ounce filet wrapped in bacon and char-grilled to your exacting specifications. The filet is served over red bliss mashed potatoes and finished with melted Roquefort cheese and red wine mushroom Bordelaise.

There is a lot going on with this dish. The pungency of the “King of Cheeses, Cheese of Kings” and the red wine mushroom Bordelaise ameliorate the flavor of the steak, a testament to the chef as Roquefort, in particular, can dominate just about anything.

The filet is tender and delicious, as good a cut of meat as can be had at the price ($14.50) anywhere. It will have you wishing the portion size was significantly larger than seven ounces.

The cold coastal waters of the North Atlantic meet Italy in the seafood risotto entree. I must confess that in my entire life, I’ve had outstanding risotto only twice and each case, at a princely price.

The Cup’s version of risotto is the best risotto I’ve ever had approximating its price point ($14.50). It’s better than some I’ve had at twice the price.

You might remember that risotto became a part of pop culture when a Seinfeld episode lampooned the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom.

Bread pudding

Bread pudding

The Cup’s seafood risotto didn’t have me behaving like Costanza’s girlfriend, but it did impress me. Shrimp, scallops, mussels and calamari in a roasted shallot lobster risotto finished with Parmesan will do that.

The seafood was delicious and surprisingly fresh. The mussels and scallops were sweet, the shrimp had the snap of freshness and the calamari wasn’t rubbery as it’s apt to be when ill prepared.

An impressive array of desserts will finish your Old World adventures. Try the bread pudding topped with apricots and ice cream for a combination that will tantalize your taste buds. The bread pudding is dense and thick, the apricots tangy and semi-sweet and the ice cream rich and delicious.

Desserts are the specialty of Chef Stephan Maywalt, who was brought in from California to lead the kitchen team. He is a talented and personable chef who will make it big in Albuquerque.

The Cup offers a brunch menu Friday through Sunday, but the entire menu is available at all times. You can decide for yourself if it lives up to the motto on its bills: “5 star food, 2 star prices.”

As to why my Kim chose The Cup for our Sunday morning repast, she had actually learned of the ownership and concept change and wanted to surprise me as I tend to do her with many of our restaurant visits. It’s the type of one-up ploy Mae West would have enjoyed.

The Cup
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Escalivada Catalana, Bacon Wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon, Seafood Risotto, Bread Pudding

Downtown Gourmet – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

“People who know nothing about cheeses reel away from Camembert, Roquefort, and Stilton
because the plebeian proboscis is not equipped to differentiate between the sordid and the sublime.”

– Harvey Day

The Downtown Gourmet on Central Avenue

The fabulous fromagerie, Albuquerque's much-missed Downtown Gourmet

I don’t know whether or not Mr. Day intended his quote as a condescending affront toward those lacking appreciation for some of the world’s most fetid fromage, but the truth is, not everyone really “gets it” when it comes to stinky cheeses. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

That’s because there really is a cheese for everyone. It’s one of the world’s most versatile and beloved foods and it has been since the very first cheese was made somewhere in the Middle East around 6000 B.C.

Its versatility ranges from overwhelming (to some) to subtle. In taste, it can range from bland to sharp, from buttery and rich to light and delicate and from pleasantly astringent, even mild, to powerful and assertive.

The texture of cheese can range from the softness of melting butter (such as a fine Burrata) to a crumbly firmness that makes it literally flake off in pieces when you cut or bite into it (think Leicester cheese). The aroma of some cheeses can clear a room and turn the stomach, but other cheeses have a pleasing, aromatic bouquet. Still other cheeses have virtually no discernable aroma.

Carey Smoot, the real Downtown Gourmet!

Carey Smoot, the real Downtown Gourmet!

Cheese should be served during special and formal occasions and it’s almost always served with the most American foods of all–sandwiches and burgers. Cheese can be served as a family snack or as the crowning finale to a great gourmet meal. It is nourishing, soul-warming comfort food at its best.

Cheese serves as the perfect complement to fine wines. Both symbolize refinement over time; like fine wine, some cheeses improve with age. Wine and cheese pairings can range from sublime and sophisticated to fun and festive.

Cheese has been written about by Homer (the renown Greek poet, not Homer Simpson) and Aristotle, but its essence may have been captured best by an American writer named Clifton Fadiman who once said “cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality.”

In Albuquerque, a veritable altar to some of the best cheeses in the world can be found at the Downtown Gourmet, a fabulous 1200 square foot fromagerie and grocery store across Central Avenue from Robinson Park. Though technically on the western fringes of Downtown and technically not a grocery store (at least not in the traditional sense) by anyone’s definition of location and store, it’s a little piece of heaven–especially if you love cheese.

The Downtown Gourmet is a full-service retail shop offering over 90 cheeses from around the world. It also has a treasure trove of locally grown and/or organic vegetables and fruits (when available) and offers a wonderful selection of fresh and frozen entrees.

Potato and leek soup

Potato and leek soup

If you’ve ever looked upon shopping as a tedious, but necessary evil, the Downtown Gourmet will change your outlook. Who wouldn’t have fun if they could sample anything in the store before buying it? Who wouldn’t delight in the type of personalized attention that makes you feel special? That’s the feeling you get when you walk into Downtown Gourmet and meet that special lady behind the counter.

The heart and soul of Downtown Gourmet is its effusive proprietor Carey Smoot, the true Downtown Gourmet. Carey is the consummate hostess and she’s designed her shop to reflect her culinary passions. As genuine and friendly as any restaurateur, she genuinely loves introducing her customers to some of the unique products she offers. Visit often enough and you’ll eventually sample everything.

Carey also loves to ply her extraordinary talents in her kitchen where she prepares gourmet quality entrees for take-out. Her specials vary daily and lean toward healthy, comforting entrees prepared extraordinary well. Health-conscious consumers will appreciate both the reasonable portion size and the lightly salted quality of her culinary fare. Most of all, they will appreciate the taste.

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

An apt description for a meal prepared by Carey and intended for immediate consumption might be “fine China quality gourmet food heated in a microwave and served in plastic containers.” The ambience for this repast might be provided by the historic Robinson Park’s verdant surroundings where picnic tables serve as your dining platform.

None of that is a bad thing. In fact, it makes for a very enjoyable dining experience. I’m just so pleasantly surprised and happy to find such high-quality cuisine being served outside of a high-priced restaurant.

Credit that to the delightful Ms. Smoot who revels in taking treasured family recipes (yours or hers) and concocting something delicious–something which resurrects memories. If it’s true that fragrance is among the most potent medium for conjuring up a memory, let Carey apply her talents toward recreating one of your childhood favorites.

She did that for me–not by design, but in offering Beef Stroganoff as a special of the day during my inaugural visit in January, 2008.

My very first memories of this Russian dish stem from having prepared a reconstituted version as a Boy Scout some thirty plus years ago. No one else in Troop 512 would even sample this “sophisticated,” albeit packaged dish, which as it turns out, was a good thing for me. Since then, I’ve ordered Beef Stroganoff every chance I get.

Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff

Carey’s rendition of Beef Stroganoff (pictured at right) was not only infinitely better than the one I prepared over a campfire, it brought back treasured memories of my youth when my energy was boundless and calories melted off my then svelte frame.

At its elemental form, Beef Stroganoff is a dish comprised of strips of lean beef sautéed and served in a rich sauce infused with sour cream. Onions, mushrooms, egg noodles and various spices are part of the entree, too.

In its sublime form, the aforementioned ingredients meld into utter deliciousness–the creaminess of a rich, flavorful sauce; the pleasant texture and earthy flavor of tender mushrooms; the hearty aroma of sautéed beef and a noodle accompaniment that puts it all together.

Carey’s rendition is sublime, probably the best I’ve had in New Mexico. Never mind the plastic container and utensils, this is Beef Stroganoff the type of which you might find served on fine China with the best silverware.

Another memory-triggering special of the day was a Leek and Potato soup, the likes of which we hadn’t had since dining at the Mermaid Inn in picturesque Burford, England. While Europeans (particularly the Welsh) love leeks, they are vastly underutilized in America and that’s a shame because this relative of the humble onion is replete with flavor. Carey herself might describe her leek and potato soup as soul-warming and that would be an accurate description. Comparatively, this is not a rich soup, but it is a delicious one that will truly warm the cockles of your heart and leave your taste buds gloriously happy.

If the Beef Stroganoff and Leek and Potato Soup rekindled old memories, Carey’s Pasta e Fagioli made new ones. Few Albuquerque restaurants serve Pasta e Fagioli and by default, that had rendered Olive Garden’s version my heretofore favorite in the Duke City. No more! Carey’s rendition is not the tomatoey, soup-thin facade served at Olive Garden. It’s a hearty, heart-warming dish with a thick, delicious broth and succulent, fresh vegetables.

If I haven’t written about your favorite or soon-to-be favorite cheese, that’s solely because YOU need to visit the Downtown Gourmet where Carey is waiting to make a new friend out of you. You can thank me after you’re done imbibing all the aromas and flavors of a little shop on Central Avenue that’s a little bit of heaven.

Downtown Gourmet
900 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Stroganoff, Leek & Potato Soup, Pasta e Fagioli

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe

Leave it to the wonderfully irascible and irreverent comedian George Carlin to put things in perspective in his retort to a popular English idiom. “When people say, ‘Oh you just want to have your cake and eat it too.’ What good is a cake you can’t eat? What should I eat, someone else’s cake instead?“.

The idiom “to have one’s cake and eat it, too or simply have one’s cake and eat it” actually means wanting more than one can handle or deserves, or to trying to have two incompatible things. Still, Carlin makes a sage point.

In Albuquerque’s Far North Valley, Albuquerque diners can have their cake and they can eat it, too. They can also have and eat delicious sandwiches, salads, cupcakes, empanadas, pies and other wonderful breakfast and lunch treats.

This is all courtesy of the Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe which opened in December, 2007 in a hundred year old adobe building just south of the capacious El Pinto New Mexican restaurant.

The bakery/cafe is owned by Kathy Medero, an Albuquerque native who trained at the French Culinary Institute of New York. The century plus old building previously housed other restaurants as well as a motorcycle repair shop and a church. Its transformation was nearly a two-year labor of love.

A "Have Your Cake" Dagood Sandwich

A "Have Your Cake" Dagood Sandwich

Kathy’s restaurant is spotless and has a bright, sunny feeling to it. Glass block on both sides of the front door along with several north-facing windows bring in plenty of light while the off white walls and tan tiles help disburse it.

Walls are nicely appointed with framed pastels, mostly of flowers and nature scenes. Alongside the north walls of the main dining room is a banco, an ochre colored bench that expands seating capacity for this relatively tiny cafe.

When you walk in, you’re immediately drawn in to the side-by-side glass display cases which showcase wondrous pastries and other baked goods. The cases display muffins, cupcakes, brownies and other delectable treats. It’s a wonder there aren’t drool trails running down the cases.

The lunch menu is inscribed on chalk boards just above the pastry case. The left board features the cafe’s hot sandwiches while the one on the right lists the cold sandwiches. It’s an impressive array of sandwiches the likes of which few restaurants can match.

House made lamb sausage makes this sandwich special

House made lamb sausage makes this sandwich special

The sandwiches are made the way you might make a sandwich for yourself. You wouldn’t scrimp on ingredients and neither does Have Your Cake. You wouldn’t haphazardly toss tomatoes and lettuce on your sandwich; you’d position them carefully so they complement your sandwich. That’s the way this bakery makes them. These are excellent sandwiches–among the very best in Albuquerque!

Have Your Cake sandwiches are made with fresh and innovative ingredients in combinations you don’t see at many restaurants. There are several vegetarian friendly sandwiches on the menu, too. With the exception of one sandwich, you also won’t see these sandwiches called by some annoying “cutesy” name.

The one sandwich called by other than its number on the menu is Have Your Cake’s Dagwood, a mountain high creation with turkey, roast beef, ham, Cheddar cheese, Swiss, Muenster, green chile, mayo and Dijon piled triple-decker on white bread.

One of the best pasta salads I've ever had

One of the best pasta salads I've ever had

Dagwood Bumstead would be proud. It’s likely not even the sandwich worshipping character in the comic strip Blondie could put this eponymous, thick, multi-layered creation into that exaggeratedly expansive mouth of his. There are so many ingredients in this sandwich that you can’t even compress it down to a smaller size.

Enormity aside, this is an excellent sandwich–very flavorful with no one ingredient dominating, but all contributing to the deliciousness of a true work of art. The bread is housemade and sturdy enough to keep it all together (although most people will have to “deconstruct” the sandwich in order to eat it all).

Note: For an appreciation of just how big this sandwich is, visit my Albuquerque Dining page where you’ll find a picture of my friend Bill Resnik trying to bite into the Dagwood.

The hot sandwich area superstar (and Kathy’s favorite) is a sandwich constructed of housemade lamb sausage, roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes and harissa (you might call this North African salsa; it’s a spice mixture containing chiles, olive oil, cumin, garlic, coriander and other ingredients) on a grilled baguette.

Wow! There is a lot going on in this sandwich with respect to the various ingredients and their unique contributions. The lamb sausage has no discernable gaminess or filler–and unlike most sausage, no sinew. It is an excellent sausage. The roasted potatoes taste like out-of-the-oven, lightly seasoned potatoes while the sweet potatoes lend a bit of sweetness and texture. The harissa brings it all together with sweet, savory and just a hint of piquancy flavors.

Pumpkin cream cheese muffin

Pumpkin cream cheese muffin

Another wonderful hot sandwich (again, no name) is made with oven roasted chipotle, chicken breast, roasted red peppers and onion marmalade on a grilled baguette. It’s a heart-healthy sandwich with palate pleasing properties.

All sandwiches are served with a choice of one daily side. That side could be coleslaw or one of the best bowtie pasta salads I’ve ever had. The pasta is flecked with olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and other nuanced ingredients. It is worthy accompaniment to any sandwich.

Although the sandwiches are formidable, you can’t leave Have Your Cake without having (or taking out) one of the decadent dessert treats. You’ll be tempted to order them all.

The pumpkin cream cheese muffin (pictured at right) is a terrific option. It’s an oversized muffin with a large top (remember the Seinfeld episode introducing us to the “top of the muffin”). It’s got a spiced pumpkin pie flavor with a muffin texture. The cream cheese adds even more sweetness.

Have Your cake has a cold case of sodas (including Diet 7Up) and is reputed to serve very good coffee.

The next time somebody uses the tired cliché about not being able to have your cake and eating it, too, tell them about Have Your Cake, a wonderful cafe in which you can have it all.

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe
10420 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Have Your Cake Dagwood Sandwich, Pasta Salad, Pumpkin Cream, Lamb Sausage Sandwich, Chipotle Chicken Breast Sandwich

Tocororo Cafe – Madrid, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Tocororo Cafe in Madrid, New Mexico

The Tocororo Cafe in Madrid, New Mexico

New Mexico is a dichotomous land, a land which welcomes contrast and diversity, where the state-of-the-art trappings of modern society are juxtaposed against ancient cultures with traditions that have gone largely unchanged for centuries. It’s a land in which the sophisticated and the rustic are equally at home.

It’s a land in which the best New Mexican cuisine might just be found in Cuba (that would be El Bruno and the best Cuban food could well be the one served in Madrid’s Tocororo Cafe.

Cuban food in Madrid, you ask. Many people assume (incorrectly) that there are only two restaurants in Madrid–the Mine Shaft Tavern and Maggie’s Main Street Diner, a storefront prop built for the movie “Wild Hogs” and its all-star cast of John Travolta, William H. Macy, Tim Allen, Ray Liotta and Martin Lawrence.

You know what has been said about assuming. In this case, an incorrect assumption means missing out on two fabulous cafes: Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen and the Tocororo Cafe which has been blowing patrons away since it opened in 2006.

The restaurant is named for the tocororo, the national bird of Cuba whose plumage exhibits the colors of the Cuban flag: red, blue and white. Interestingly, the bird cannot live in captivity and as such is an appropriate symbol for thousands of Cuban exiles who fled the country’s repressive communist regime under Fidel Castro.

Casey, the official restaurant dog

Casey, the official restaurant dog

One such exile is Olga Delulogeu, an accomplished artist and owner of the delightful Tocororo Cafe. Olga came to the United States in 1992 with a humanitarian vista. Her work is exhibited in the Aka-Tombo Cuban Art Gallery housed in an old, red rail car gallery connected to her restaurant.

The restaurant’s tabletops and walls are decorated with Olga’s vibrant Caribbean motifs, but to get the full effect, you’ve got to visit the gallery. Her paintings are a mix of scenes from her beloved Cuba and of the desert Southwest where she now lives. Her work also displays, in an innocent and happy way, the intense love she has for animals.

Note: Olga shares gallery space with Kathleen O’Bryan whose remarkable pastels capture the essence of New Mexico, particularly its incomparable skies and other-worldly cloud formations.

The Tocororo Cafe is housed in a ramshackle building left over from Madrid’s halcyon days as a coal mining town. In the 1970s, talented artists and craftspeople converted old company stores and houses into quality galleries, shops and services.

The Cafe is constructed of wood planks, the type of which have made popular frames for paintings and photographs for years. The color of the trim around the door and window shutters is probably closer to Taos blue than to the turquoise shade that defines the scenic Highway 14 alongside which the restaurant is situated. The restaurant is backdropped by tall evergreens.

The Tocororo Combination Platter--Cuban tapas galore!

The Tocororo Combination Platter--Cuban tapas galore!

Madrid is a village with personality (and personalities) to spare. If you’ve ever wondered where the hippies from the 1970s communes throughout Northern New Mexico went, you’re bound to run into some of them here.

If you’re looking for characters, look no further than the Tocororo Cafe’s unofficial host and greeter Casey, a Labrador mix who likes to mingle with guests, particularly after meals have been delivered to their tables.

Weather permitting, the best seats (albeit more utilitarian than comfortable) in the restaurant are just outside the restaurant’s entrance where you can breathe in the high mountain’s salubrious air.

One word of caution–if your blue cheese dressing tastes funny, it could be on account of a mischievous starling perched on an overhead tree branch.

Tocororo’s menu is somewhat abbreviated compared to the menu at some Cuban restaurants. It is sectioned off into sandwiches, tapas, salads, specials (called hot stuff), soups, side orders and desserts.

The Isla de Pinos

The Isla de Pinos

There’s also a section for hot coffee drinks. To Cubans, a cafe is a prominent cultural and social activity and it is said that there is no such thing as unsweetened Cuban coffee. The wait staff will provide sweeteners if you want, but most Cubans take it strong and black.

If your tastes lean more toward iced drinks, the menu includes various granitas (a dessert drink made by freezing a flavored juice and then blending it when it is served), freezes, traditional tropical fruit shakes and malts.

Unlike the coffee, Cuban milkshakes tend to be somewhat sweeter than even their American counterparts. They also tend to be served colder and with more pronounced fruit flavor derivations.

My compadre Rico Martinez, the brilliant comedic genius behind The Rant Pack blog site might never forgive me if I visited a Cuban restaurant and didn’t partake of a Cuban sandwich. Having made it his life’s questto find the ultimate Cuban sandwich, Rico will have to make the trek to the Tocororo Cafe.

He’ll have to make several trips because Tocororo’s menu features seven different Cuban sandwiches, each named for one of the seven Cuban provinces before the Castro regime took over.

The menu features the conventional Cuban sandwich (called La Habana) constructed of sugar cured ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and dill pickle on a baguette. A vegetarian version of La Habana is also available. The menu also includes a sandwich in which the primary meat ingredient is turkey, one made with Albacore tuna, one with grilled chicken breast and a goat cheese sandwich with no meat ingredient.

The Tocororo Salad

The Tocororo Salad

Then there’s the Isla de Pinos with which we fell in love from bite one. This sandwich is crafted with Spanish chorizo, julienne potatoes, tomato, Swiss cheese and Romaine lettuce on a ciabatta bread canvas.

The amalgam of ingredients is terrific, with the real stand-out being the chorizo–a bit coarse, a bit dry, just a tad spicy–an excellent Spanish chorizo (which is wholly unlike Mexican chorizo). The sandwich is thick and served warm with the melted Swiss cheese blanketing other ingredients.

Portions at Tocororo are easily big enough to share, but the sandwich you might want to keep to yourself.

Instead share some of the restaurant’s tapas or better still, the Tocororo Combination Platter (pictured above right) which includes several different tapas. The platter is brimming with ham and Swiss cheese croquettes, Swiss cheese, Spanish olives with pimento, slices of sugar-cured ham and a Cuban specialty, roast pork.

The pork is roasted with cloves of garlic, but it isn’t overly garlicky and its surprising moistness seems to indicate some marinate (perhaps a citrus), but we were unable to discern its basis. The combination platter is served with a basket of warm, slightly toasted bread.

Apple crisp with vanilla ice cream and caramel topping.

Apple crisp with vanilla ice cream and caramel topping.

Another candidate for sharing is one of Tocororo’s inventive salads. There are four salads on the menu, none of which are exactly like other salads you’ll find at other restaurants.

The Tocororo Salad, for example, is crafted with Romaine lettuce, apple slices, dry cranberries, crunchy pecans, blue cheese crumbles, roasted turkey and a dressing of vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. The sharpness of the cheese, sweetness of the cranberries, tartness of the apple and freshness of the lettuce coalesce into a complementary array of flavors. Every bite is an experience in taste sensations.

For dessert, if you’re able to manage, a very good option is the apple crisp served three scoops of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with warm caramel. Calorie laden to be sure, but what a delicious way to expand your waistline. It, too, is made for sharing.

Sharing seems to be a common theme in this review, so it’s only fitting that you go with someone you love to Tocororo and share your experiences. It’s a restaurant many people haven’t heard about, but one made to be shared with friends and loved ones.

Tocororo Cafe
2841 NM. 14
Madrid, New Mexico
471-2285

LATEST VISIT: 3 November 2007
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Isla De Pinos, Tocororo Combination Platter, Tocororo Salad, Cuban Coffee

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