Chicago Beef – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chicago Beef on Isleta Blvd, S.W. serves Italian Beef sandwiches

Chicago Beef on Isleta Blvd, S.W. serves Italian Beef sandwiches

Ask any Chicago transplant in Albuquerque or anywhere else to list the five things they miss most about the Windy City and it’s a good bet the list will include Italian beef sandwiches, a staple in Chicago. Citizens of the Toddlin’ Town are almost as passionate about this sloppy sandwich as they are Da Bears.

Chicagoans grow up worshipping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing.

The authentic Italian beef sandwich is, according to Pasquale Bruno, the Chicago Sun-Times dining critic and contrary to the opinion of some purists, a spin-off of the French-dip sandwich. It is never (and I mean ever) made with marinara sauce. You won’t find one in all of Italy, in fact. It is as uniquely Chicago as deep-dish pizza (which you also won’t find in Italy) and hot dogs with sport peppers and green tomatoes.

Chicago Beef, the next best thing to being in the Windy City?

Chicago Beef, the next best thing to being in the Windy City?

An Italian beef sandwich is made with roasted sirloin tip which is massaged with a blend of herbs and spices (oregano, black pepper, basil and more) before roasting. The beef is sliced Nicole Ritchie thin and is so tender it shreds into pieces. At many Chicago restaurants, it is momentarily immersed (dipped) in the gravy to make it even juicier. It is often served with either hot or mild giardiniera (a concoction of spicy, pickled, chopped-up vegetables such as peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery), but sometimes with sautéed mushrooms and bell peppers. The entire creation is extremely messy; you dare not ever try to eat one while driving.

When we found out a new restaurant with the name Chicago Beef had launched in August 2006, we wondered if this was some audacious pretender or if, perhaps, this was the real thing. One thing is certain–you can’t fool a Chicago native and Albuquerque which has its share of Chicago transplants, has been direly lacking an authentic Italian beef sandwich shop since Frank Bellino sold Sweet Peppers in 2005.

Those transplants–especially Rio Rancho residents according to co-owner Hass Aslami–have discovered Chicago Beef, a Chicago-style restaurant specializing in Italian beef and hot dogs. Chicago Beef is situated in the building which until early 2005 housed Doc & Mz. V’s restaurant.

A hot dog dressed your way.

A hot dog dressed your way.

Business has been brisk since Aslami and his partner Tom Epley, both former residents of the City of Big Shoulders, launched their taste of Chicago. The menu features several hot Chicago-style sandwiches, bratwurst, hot dogs and a beef burger as well as some of the very best onion rings you’ll find this side of the Mississippi and Texas-sized French fries you’ll never find in Chicago.

A condiment bar is well stocked with hot and cold condiments which you can lavish on your hot dog. The hot condiments include sautéed bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, chili with beans, sauerkraut and Au Jus (the wonderful beef gravy drippings for the Italian beef sandwich).

The cold condiments include diced tomato, onions, cucumbers, pickles, ketchup, various relishes, mustards, jalapenos and giardiniera.

Not only can you embellish your hot dog Chicago-style, but you can make it a Coney Island hot dog, too…and since this is Albuquerque, the condiment bar also includes nicely piquant green chile.

Quite possibly the very best onion rings in the Duke City.

Quite possibly the very best onion rings in the Duke City.

Though thinly-sliced (it may, in fact, have been deli roast beef), the beef on the Italian beef sandwich doesn’t break apart into shards like it does at our favorite Chicago area restaurants and streetside stands. Nor were we given the option of having the sandwich dipped, a messy option to be sure, but as long as there are napkins a plenty, who cares. Instead, we were given a small plastic container of Au Jus with directions to an Au Jus container near the condiment bar.

Not all Italian beef sandwiches are created equal. We’ve experienced beef with the gristly consistency of shoe leather, giardiniera as limp and soggy as a dishrag and sandwich bread as stale as last week’s leftovers. In comparison to the worse we’ve had, Chicago Beef’s version rates high, but is not nearly as good as the masterfully crafted Italian beef sandwich at Johnnie’s Beef. Overall, it was of mid-range quality for Chicago, but pretty good (by default) for Albuquerque.

Not quite Chicago style pizza, but not bad.

Not quite Chicago style pizza, but not bad.

The bratwurst and hot dog, on the other hand, were more noteworthy. I dressed my “brats” with both green chile and sauerkraut, probably not something you’ll see in Wisconsin. Who can go wrong with that combination? The hot dog was plump, flavorful and snapped when we bit into it. We half expected Chicago Beef to serve Vienna Beef products which are synonymous with hot dogs in The Second City.

Within months after opening, Chicago Beef began offering “Chicago style pizza.” True Chicago style pizza is more akin to a casserole on a deep dish crust than it is to a traditional pizza.

The pizza at Chicago Beef is about a third the thickness of a true Chicago style pizza as you might find at a Windy City pizzeria such as Gino’s East or Pizzeria Uno. Still, it’s thicker than most pizzas in the Duke City and it’s also quite good with a treasure trove of available toppings, including giardiniera.

Our expectations of Chicago quality Italian beef and authentic Chicago style pizza were somewhat dashed, but we have to remind ourselves that Isleta Boulevard more closely resembles the main drag in Espanola than it does Taylor Street (home of Al’s Beef). Still, we’re grateful to have some vestige of Chicago in Albuquerque.

Chicago Beef
3905 Isleta, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 June 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combo Beef & Sausage; Onion Rings; French Fries

Rice ‘N Roll – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

On the bottom floor, the Coronado Restaurant.  Upstairs it's Rice N Roll

On the bottom floor, the Coronado Restaurant. Upstairs it's Rice N Roll

The 1970s have been characterized by writer Tom Wolfe as the “Me Decade” and derided by cynics as the “Disco Era.” It was an era of contrasts: the national crisis of confidence described by President Jimmy Carter as a “malaise” and the ubiquitous yellow smiley face; the melodic, velvety stylings of the Carpenters and the edgy, funky beat of disco; an explosion of copycat fast food chain restaurants and the introduction of innovative fusion cuisine in many contemporary restaurants.

Fusion cuisine is the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre. In large metropolitan areas, particularly in California, the fusion of different cuisines became commonplace. Restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine were especially popular.

Still other restaurants had their own ideas as to what constituted fusion cuisine. The now defunct Maverick Cafe in San Antonio, Texas, became famous for their “East Meets West” dining concept. It wasn’t so much a fusion of cuisines as it was the plating of different cuisines (Mexican and Chinese) on the same salver.

Soft-shelled crab salad.

Soft-shelled crab salad.

The very best lemon chicken I’ve ever had, in fact, was at the Maverick Cafe in 1994, served in a combination plate with enchiladas. I fondly recall using my tortilla as a “New Mexican spoon” to scoop up both the tart lemony chicken and the piquant red chile though not at the same time.

I’ve often wondered why no restaurant in New Mexico (that I know of) ever tried such a revolutionary East Meets West concept. If the Maverick Cafe could do it, why not Mary and Tito’s? Okay, maybe not Mary and Tito’s, which from a purist point of view is one of the best New Mexican food restaurants in the universe, but someone else could do it.

Think about it. The piquant bite of capsaicin imbued salsa and the earthy hot mustard-like heat of wasabi in one restaurant–it just makes sense, especially if you’re craving both New Mexican and Japanese cuisine, but not one over the other.

East finally did meet West (well, really Southwest) in Bernalillo when the top floor of the Coronado restaurant became Rice N Roll, a clever play on words sushi bar. Now you can have salsa and sushi at one place, even on the same plate if you wish.

Wonder why the restaurant is called Rice N Roll?

Wonder why the restaurant is called Rice N Roll?

In truth, you can’t order New Mexican food upstairs at the sushi bar, but if you dine downstairs at the Coronado restaurant you can order sushi. Rice N Roll opened in March, 2007 and has been doing very well, particularly on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

During our inaugural visit on a blustery May day, Kim wanted the warm comfort of salsa, chips and green chile stew while I craved the burning sensation of wasabi on a spicy tuna roll. We were not disappointed in either count.

As with most sushi bars, the menu includes both nigiri (vinegared rice combined with a topping or filling of fish, seafood, vegetables, or egg) and maki (rolled sushi, which includes sashimi, rice, and nori (dried seaweed) among other ingredients) style sushi.

The menu categorizes sushi offerings as fresh (Nigiri), roll (maki), cooked, roe, vegetarian, sashimi and specials (such as sea urchin and halibut). A slate board includes other chef’s specials including a few invented by the chef himself. These tend to be almost twice the price of the standard menu offerings.

Appetizers include edamame (large green vegetable soybeans), green chile tempura, baked green mussel and other sushi bar standards. The soft shell crab salad (pictured above) is a simple, but excellent option: tempura batter fried soft shell crab, ribbons of cucumber, iced daikon radish and a sweet, piquant spicy mayonnaise. Fortunately we had some of the tortilla left over from our green chile stew to sop up the remaining mayo which was quite delicious.

The New Mexico Surf and Turf Roll

The New Mexico Surf and Turf Roll

Though several of the slate board specials will catch your eye, the New Mexico Surf and Turf Roll will certainly prompt questions. The name is apropos. Nestled within the vinegared rice is fresh pink crab and a bit of green chile while the topping is seared rib eye with a smearing of spicy mayonnaise.

The New Mexico Surf and Turf Roll is a reminder that the Japanese word sushi does not mean fish. Rather, it represents any vinegared rice dish. More importantly, it’s a delicious maki roll, one we’ll certainly order again.

Plating is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks.

Not every piece of sushi quite lives up to its appearance, but on balance, you won’t be disappointed…and if you’ve got the room, what can possibly be better after a meal of good sushi than some New Mexico sopaipillas with honey. Best of all, you won’t have to leave your table to have that.

Rice N Roll
870 Highway 44
Bernalillo, NM
LATEST VISIT: 4 May 2007
COST: $$$-$$$$
BEST BET: New Mexico Surf & Turf Roll, Spicy Scallop Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Calamari Tempura Roll

The Falls – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The outdoor waterfalls at the Falls Restaurant in December, 2006.

River rock waterfalls at The Falls Steakhouse

New Mexico has been gilded with incomparable scenic beauty and an abundance of sunshine. Cerulean skies graduate in depth of color the higher above the horizon your eyes climb, interrupted only by velvety smooth red-rock outcrops and snow-capped mountains. Fiery sunsets and brilliant sunrises give the illusion that God just threw a bucket of paint into the sky while processions of wispy cloud formations provide the promise of much needed rain as they sweep past the parched escarpment. A vibrant and diverse topography provides striking contrasts in terrain. It’s easy to focus on the many reasons New Mexico truly earns the sobriquet “the Land of Enchantment.”

“Glass is half empty” folks might argue that New Mexico has been “shortchanged” when it comes to water-based enchantment and would point out that “waterfall” in our blessed state means that the water falls only on occasion and in parsimonious amounts. The rest of us would retort that sometimes less is more and cite as evidence, the volcanically formed and preternaturally beautiful Soda falls in the Jemez River valley.

The Falls Restaurant

The sprawling Falls Steakhouse on Albuquerque's far northwest side

Sometimes man creates what God didn’t provide. In November, 2006, the Falls Steakhouse launched in a new edifice just about as far northwest as you can go before you’re in Rio Rancho. Situated on the steep slope, the top of which demarks the boundary between the Duke City and the City of Vision, it provides a panoramic view of the Sandia Mountains and at night, of the city lights.

Appropriately named, the restaurant features two manmade waterfalls so that whether you’re indoors or out, the sound of rivulets of water cascading down sheer rock formations will lull you into a state of content relaxation.

An out-of-doors waterfall on a large outdoor patio was crafted from river rock culled from the Las Vegas, New Mexico area (pictured above). It’s 15 feet tall and 51 feet in length.

In comparison, the indoor waterfall is much smaller at 9 feet in height and 25 feet in length. The indoors waterfall employs a fog machine to evoke the feeling of intense cold or heat. Two large salt water aquariums add to the thematic experience, both teeming with exotic tropical fish and live coral.

The Falls Steakhouse is owned by local businessman Fahim Adi who also owns several IHOP restaurants in the city. It is a dramatic departure from IHOP in every way but one—the proximity of tables to one another makes it difficult to hold a private conversation. Still, each seat has a view, whether of the waterfalls or of the city below.

Seafood Spinach & Artichoke Dip-- Tender Shrimp & Bay Scallops, Cheese, Spinach, Artichoke, Broiled Until Bubbly.

Seafood Spinach & Artichoke Dip-- Tender Shrimp & Bay Scallops, Cheese, Spinach, Artichoke, Broiled Until Bubbly.

The Falls is also a dramatic departure from Albuquerque’s other steakhouses. The menu showcases Wagyu beef lines, the top of the scale, high-end grade of beef. Wagyu is a breed of cattle genetically predisposed to intense marbling. It produces a high percentage of buttery-tasting, unsaturated fat laden beef. In its most famous rendition, Wagyu beef is known as Kobe Beef when it is raised in the Kobe prefecture of Japan.

Wagyu cattle are hand-massaged with sake and are fed a daily diet Homer Simpson would die for that includes large amounts of beer. The result is meat that is extraordinarily tender and extremely expensive. At The Falls, a bone-in Kobe ribeye to share goes for $129.95 while a filet of tenderloin commands $79.95. For most of us, those are special occasion prices.

Fortunately, not everything on The Falls’ menu is exorbitantly priced. In fact, there are many items on the menu within the easy reach of most price-conscious diners. The lunch menu, in particular, features many reasonably priced entrees that although portioned somewhat smaller than dinner menu entrees, will let you feel like a million bucks without having to spend nearly that much.

Prepared at medium, the Kobe burger is juicy and delicious.

Prepared at medium, the Kobe burger is juicy and delicious.

A dinner menu appetizer you can order at any time is the seafood spinach and artichoke dip (pictured above) fashioned with tender shrimp and bay scallops, cheese, spinach and artichoke then broiled until bubbly. Both the shrimp and scallops are imbued with the complementary briny and sweet tastes inherent only in fresh seafood. This appetizer plate is circumnavigated by ten triangles of warm, tender pita bread onto which you can slather the rich, delicious mélange.

If the price of Kobe beef scares you, but you’re dying to try it, you can do so by ordering The Falls Kobe Burger. You can practically see the richness of the beef on the six-ounce beef patty which practically oozes a buttery taste when prepared at medium or below. Slather on the mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise if you will, but make sure you don’t overpower the subtle beef taste. Oh, and since this is New Mexico, you can order the Kobe Burger with green chili (their spelling, not mine). The burger is accompanied by Texas fries, perhaps the most boring item on the menu.

For a pittance, you can have either a Caesar salad or a dinner salad. The dinner salad is crafted with Romaine lettuce, small tomato cubes, cucumbers and croutons, but you can transform it into something truly special by requesting the bleu cheese dressing with crumbles. The dressing is creamy and redolent with olfactory arousing bleu cheese apportioned generously. I normally ask the wait staff to bring me “as much bleu cheese as you can carry,” but the standard portion will be just fine for most diners.

The New York steak with scallopped potatoes.

The New York steak with scallopped potatoes.

The Falls’ steaks are hand-selected by executive chef Henry Sanchez and are aged for no less than 30 days. Processed locally in New Mexico, this is excellent beef–even if you don’t order the Kobe.

If you order the New York cut (pictured at right), ask for it to be prepared with salt, pepper and garlic (the real stuff, not powdered) on both sides and the chef will slice thin slivers of garlic and broil them with your steak. It imbues the steak with the unmistakable pungency of garlic that blends superbly with the steak’s inherent sweetness. This is an outstanding steak!

Although starches are a’ la Carte for dinner, a lunch steak entree includes the potato of the day. Pray it will be the scalloped potatoes which are sliced into thin wedges then dredged with a blend of Asiago and Mozzarella cheeses. You may never again asked for a baked potato.

Dessert options are a match for their prandial precursors. The favorite of the wait staff appears to be Bananas Foster which one especially ebullient waitress described as something like you’d want to eat everyday. This isn’t a New Orleans style Bananas Foster. In fact, it’s similar in name only to the popular southern specialty. The Falls’ version features deep-fried slices of banana filled with a rich banana and Bavarian cream mousse then drizzled with confectionary sugar. It is absolutely delicious.

With the audacity or confidence of a winner, the Falls Steakhouse was started with one thought in mind–“to provide a great meal with great ambiance and unparalleled service” in a “real steak and seafood restaurant.” It will certainly compete with its upper-crust brethren, the Gruet Steakhouse and the venerable Ranchers’ Club for the adulation and dollars of well-heeled patrons, but goes one better by providing reasonably priced lunch options for the rest of us.

The Falls Steakhouse
3771 NM Highway 528
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 1 December 2006
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Seafood Spinach & Artichoke Dip, New York Strip, The Falls Kobe Burger, Bananas Foster

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