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

Pueblito Mexicano – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Pueblito Mexicano shares space with Ashley's, a small 7-11 type store.

Pueblito Mexicano In Bernalillo

Even onto the 21st century the distinction between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine has been somewhat obfuscated. Restaurants which serve cuisine we recognize as uniquely New Mexican (characterized among other things by the use of piquant red and green chiles instead of jalapeno) bill themselves as Mexican restaurants. The situation is exacerbated by ancianos (New Mexico’s elderly population), many of whom refer to their cuisine as “Mexican.”

While many New Mexican restaurants errantly bill themselves as Mexican, neither their menus nor their accoutrements do little to clarify the distinction. That isn’t the case at Pueblito Mexicano.

First of all, the trappings are uniquely Mexican–from the watermelon colored walls to the clay fired pottery strewn throughout.

Secondly, the proof is in the eating. The food at Puelito Mexicano is most assuredly Mexican. While there are many commonalities between New Mexican and Mexican food, there are just as many dissimilarities. Not all New Mexicans seem to grasp that and some complain vociferously rather than celebrating the differences.

When I waste time whining that too many New Mexicans don’t appreciate or understand the differences between authentic Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, my dear wife reminds me that in the end, it’s whether you like the food or not that really matters. We really liked Pueblito Mexicano.

The specialty of the house at Pueblito Mexicano appears to be burritos with eighteen different burritos on the menu. Gigantic (albeit paper-thin) tortillas enveloping a variety of ingredients are on the tables of every diner you’ll observe as you walk into the restaurant. There are breakfast burritos as well as anytime burritos and they are all profuse, brimming with ingredients and topped with red chile and melted Cheddar (not Mexican white cheese as we might have expected) cheese.

The burritos are not only humongous, they are delicious. The carne adovada burrito has very little bite al estilo Mexicano (in the Mexican style). The shredded pork was tender and delicious, albeit with a slight acidity you don’t always get with New Mexican style adovada.

The Pueblito Platter is the restaurant’s sole combination platter, featuring a taco (shredded or ground beef or chicken); a cheese, chicken or beef enchilada and a red chile pork tamale served with rice and beans. The flavorful ground beef taco is served in a grease-laden, soft corn tortilla similar to the tacos you might find in Las Cruces. I ordered my combination platter with a ground beef enchilada topped with “green chile.” The green chile (a New Mexican spelling) is made Mexican style with a jalapeno and tomatillo base. Though somewhat more piquant than the red chile on the masa heavy tamale, it wasn’t nearly as hot as you’ll find at most New Mexican restaurants.

On the chilaquiles, however, the green chile is firecracker hot. Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish consisting of fried tortilla chips bathed in red or green salsa and usually with a cheese topping. At Pueblito Mexicano, the chilaquiles are served with two eggs and bacon, but unless your tongue is coated with asbestos, you’ll want something to cut the piquant heat. Pancakes are a good option. We’ve never had hotter chilaquiles.

Another Pueblito specialty are gorditas, a popular Mexican “sandwich” comprised of a small, thick masa (corn flour) tortilla engorged with beans, lettuce, tomato and beef. Gordita which means “little fat one” in Spanish are baked on a comal, just like tortillas, but may remind you more of pupusas, the national snack food of El Salvador.

Pueblito Mexicano serves Coke bottled in Mexico which has more carbonation (overflying birds beware) than its American counterpart and Fresca, the popular 70s grapefruit flavored soft drink. Better still, a selection of Jarritos is also available. Jarritos is the most popular Mexican soft drink made with natural fruit flavors and with less carbonation than American soft drinks. Also available is horchata which is sweeter even than the pancakes on the menu.

Pueblito Mexicano
1100 South Camino Del Pueblo
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pueblito Platter, Carne Adovada Burrito, Guacamole, Gorditas, Chilaquiles

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Marco Pollo serves some of the best rotisserie chicken you can have.

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken

While eating a store-bought rotisserie chicken is somewhat more appealing than than consuming the very last one of Quickie Mart’s perpetually rotating, alutaceous (seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno) hot dogs, the prospect of a desiccated rotisserie chicken carcass for dinner is hardly tempting. Experience has taught us that while slightly less leathery, restaurant rotisserie chicken would be a challenge for the most advanced desalination technologies. That’s what we expected during our inaugural visit to Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken.

Were we ever in for a pleasant surprise! As it turns out, Marco Pollo serves some of the best char-broiled chicken we’ve had in a long time. Best of all, Marco Pollo is the first instantiation of a local restaurant chain with the gloss and grandiosity of a national franchise. It is not related to a similarly named chain enterprise out of Texas.

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken is the brainchild of Mark Harden, a plucky local entrepreneur who managed New Mexico’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in the ’80s and later ran the now defunct (in New Mexico at least) Pollo Asado. Harden created the recipes, marinades and concept for a restaurant venture he hopes to expand further. The concept includes a red and yellow plumed mascot who very closely resembles the famous San Diego Chicken.

Under plexiglass in each of the restaurant’s circular tables is a map of the world with clever cartoon illustrations of local interest events, fauna, flora and personalities. A child with an imagination (even a 48-year old child like me) could get lost for hours circumnavigating the globe and interacting with all the wonder depicted on each table.

Marco Pollo’s menu is replete with poultry a plenty–not only the charbroiled chicken in which the restaurant specializes, but chicken wings, chicken burritos, chicken tacos, chicken enchiladas, chicken nachos and more. The chicken is marinated in a garlic, fruit and spice mix developed by Harden then is grilled over an open flame. Charbroiled chicken is available in quarter, half or whole sizes. You’ll want to have some left over for dinner so order the 12-piece chicken which includes three large side items and tortillas.

Unlike its store-bought brethren, Marco Pollo’s charbroiled chicken is moist, tender and delicious. The garlic, fruit and spice mix (while perhaps just a bit too salty) permeates throughout the chicken, not just the skin. Despite being truly finger-licking good, this is a multi-napkin chicken.

Except for the Lara Flynn Boyle thin tortillas, the sides were excellent. The Fiesta coleslaw is made with a sweet salad dressing and is crunchy and crisp. The rice was perfectly cooked with just a hint of spice. The best side, however, was the sweet corn and zucchini (calabasitas) which melded sweet yellow corn and fresh zucchini in a marriage of sweet and savory contrasts.

The restaurant’s salsa bar features a pico de gallo salsa with mushy tomatoes, a house salsa with little bite and an avocado salsa which lacked salt but was better than the other two. You’re free to abscond to your table with as many chips as you can carry.

A separate part of the capacious restaurant is dedicated Galileo’s Galley which serves frozen custard and Italian ices. Italian ice flavors are rotated daily, but the soft-serve frozen custard is available in chocolate and vanilla every day. If you can’t make up your mind which to have, ask for an Italian parfait in which vanilla custard is layered with the flavor of the day Italian ice. We’ve lucked out during our visits and have had both lemon and watermelon flavored Italian ices that complement the velvety smooth and creamy (and dreamy) ice cream wonderfully.

All adventurous culinary explorers should navigate to Marco Pollo soon!

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken
9880 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Charbroiled Chicken, Rice, Fiesta Cole Slaw, Sweet Corn & Zucchini, Italian Parfait

Ambrozia – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

theophany: an encounter with a visible manifestation of a deity.

Greek mythology chronicles the adventures of the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus whose primary sustenance was ambrosia, a magical repast which bestowed immortality upon those who consumed it, including humans. The word ambrosia literally means “sweet smelling or delicious,” an appropriate description of the wonderful meals proffered at Ambrozia, an Old Town fine-dining establishment launched in 2003. While dining at Ambrozia probably won’t confer immortality, diners might feel they’ve partaken of divine gastronomy.

The gods certainly conferred many culinary talents on Ambrozia’s proprietor and chef savant Sam Ethridge, one of the most creative, talented and inspired restaurateurs in the Duke City. Etheridge has the rare ability to take any classic dish and transform it into a work of art. His cookbook “Indian Nation,” a celebration of traditional Native American dishes, earned a prestigious James Beard award.

Our inaugural experience at Ambrozia was on a Sunday when a prix-fixe ($20 per person) brunch was featured fare. The four course brunch adventure begins with a selection of breads, croissants, pastries and sweet rolls, all of which are preternaturally wonderful (particularly the chocolate infused beignets). Since Ambrozia’s menu is seasonal, the items we enjoyed may not be available during other visits.

  • A phenomenal second course choice is the crepe-braised duck with cranberries, pears and gorgonzola cream, a perfect melding of distinct yet complementary tastes.

  • Better still might be a third course of Ambrozia Benedict which features wild boar sausage, English muffins, poached eggs and green chile con queso. This would undoubtedly be a favorite of the gods.

  • For a fourth course, a must have is the house-made dulce de leche and brownie chunk ice cream served in a chocolate dipped wonton bowl–the perfect culmination of a near perfect meal.

Nearly perfect would also be a good description of the dinner menu which is replete with imaginative contemporary global cuisine options not available anywhere else in the Duke City–such as the lobster corn dogs, skewered lobster tails in a jalapeno corn batter served with chipotle ketchup, mustard cream and avocado remoulade. Rarely has a sweeter, more succulent and tender decapod graced a table in Albuquerque. Other outstanding antecedents make it difficult to settle on one.

Deciding what to order from the innovative menu can also be a conundrum as each menu item is conferred with heavenly descriptions that will have your mouth watering. Ultimately you have to tell yourself you can order any one of the “runners-up” on your next visit (hopefully they’ll still be on the menu).

  • The duck leg confit (slow-cooked in its own delicious fat) served with a cranberry spring roll, foie gras mash potatoes, asparagus and a cherry chili reduction is an outstanding choice, particularly if you love duck and want to savor various taste sensations.

  • Burger and fries” might sound a bit pedestrian, but remember, chef Ethridge’s gift for transforming the ordinary into the sublime. His version of a burger is a grilled Duck Burger topped with house made duck bacon and melted foie gras. The fries are made of polenta corn and served with ketchup a l’orange. You won’t find anything like this under the Golden Arches. You might not find a better burger anywhere!

  • Only in San Francisco have I had Cioppino quite as wonderful and “just caught” fresh as Etheridge’s version. Cioppino, a fish stew originally concocted by Portuguese and Italian fishermen in San Francisco is comprised of fish and shellfish traditionally cooked with garlic, tomato and white wine. Etheridge gave his Cioppino a local touch by adding the uniquely New Mexican flavor of chile to the mix.

The dessert offerings also warrant deification and will challenge you to select only one.

  • The “coffee and donuts,” a light chocolate mocha mousse served with fresh beignets and raspberry wine jelly will leave you in a state of delicious delirium. The mousse isn’t cloying and frothy as you might find at lesser restaurants. It is ethereal in its delicacy. The beignets are of New Orleans quality. Need I say more.

  • Bakers often combine the complementary tastes of tangy apple pie with savory cheese, but none do it with the flair of Chef Etheridge’s “apple pie,” Granny Smith apple and white cheddar empanadas served with pecan butterscotch cinnamon ice cream. This is an indescribably wonderful dessert!

This Albuquerque Original is one of the very best restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant in which you might spend $100 or more and wonder how you got away so cheaply! A visit to Ambrozia might not confer immortality, but you might feel you experienced theophany.

108 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2006
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Prix-Fixe Brunch, Lobster Corn Dog, Duck Leg Confit, Coffee and Donuts, Elk Carpaccio, Burger and Fries, Cioppino

Graze – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Graze by Jennifer James, one of Albuquerque's most beloved...and most missed restaurants.

Graze by Jennifer James

When uncredentialed food critics (like me) sing the praises of a restaurant, their fulsome rants might not garner much notice, but when professional chefs and critics are unabashedly effusive about that same restaurant, you’d be well advised to listen.

Graze, launched in December, 2002 by chef luminary Jennifer James, has had all the cognoscenti waxing poetic. La Cocinita magazine’s best chef award winner for 2002, James has been all but beatified, so prolific is her reputation. Renown for melding seemingly disparate ingredients into concordant meals, she is as much an artist as a chef.

Note: In September, 2006, Jennifer James ended her affiliation with Graze, leaving it in the hands of her business partner Michael Chesley. On January 27, 2007, Graze closed for good.

Appropriately named, Graze specializes in tapas, Spanish appetizers that can also form an entire meal when several are ordered together. Tapas dishes are generally quite small and can be both simple or elaborate. Even though I understood that dining concept, I didn’t quite “get it” during our inaugural visit accustomed as I am to the huge portions served at most restaurants.

  • We lamented the short-lived pate grand-mere with cornichons (sour crisp pickles made from tiny gherkin cucumbers), grainy mustard and walnut bread and bemoaned the tantalizing tease that was a perfectly seasoned satay.

  • We mourned after consuming the last essence of grilled tournedos of beef, potato gratin with arugula, pepper jus and crispy peppers and we paid loving tribute to a plate of orange-tequila braised pork ribs with smashed potatoes and greens garnished with roasted peanuts.

Every nibble was a pleasurable dining adventure for each of our 10,000 rapt taste buds, but the transitory gratification was somehow superceded by the sense of loss we felt as each morsel on each plate had been lustily consumed.

During our second visit, rather than fret because each plate left us wanting more, we relished the opportunity to once again try several tapas and in ordering plates that provided complementary taste contrasts. That second visit took place during the second week in which Graze featured a Sunday brunch to go along with its seasonal menu. A better brunch we’ve never had in Albuquerque.

  • Our gustatory orgy began with a “Graze plate” in which we noshed on harissa (a North African spice mixture containing chiles ground with cumin, garlic, coriander and olive oil) spiced olives, pickled asparagus (the best I’ve ever had) and an Indian curried vegetable salad somewhat reminiscent of the chow-chow served in the Deep South. Organic greens were brought to life by a lively mango-chipotle vinaigrette in a salad we shared.

  • We slathered unsalted apricot and cherry butter on fluffy biscuits then topped them with generous amounts of mango preserves, an indulgence in consonant excellence.

  • Hunanese potatoes, fingerling roasted potatoes with scallions and Thai chilis, a creative alternative to conventional roasted potatoes, wowed our taste buds.

  • Seared Hawaiian sunfish with a spicy peanut-lime sauce was the coup de grace. The lightly breaded, flaky white fish filet was a fabulous fish–not too “fishy” tasting and ameliorated, not dominated by the spicy, citrus sauce. It’s the type of filet of which you’d never tire.

  • The dessert menu features several tempting sweet treats including a bowl of cardamom chocolate chip ice cream imbued with the flavor of Swedish cardamom cake and premium chocolate chip ice cream. It was a fitting topper to a tapas meal you can’t top in Albuquerque.

I could expend several pages feebly trying to describe other plates we had during subsequent visits, but words fall woefully short of describing just how wonderful the Graze experience is. I can try to describe the ancho BBQ spare ribs and tell you about the lacquered BBQ sauce the color of orange marmalade that glazes the tender, meaty ribs…or wax poetic about housemade desserts (such as the refreshing key lime and red chile ice cream), but really, you’ve got to try them to really understand.

It’s readily apparent from her almost preternatural melding of ingredients that Jennifer James has a vivid imagination and the creativity to translate that imagination into plates of utter deliciousness. It also appears her creativity extends beyond the kitchen. Some of the ads she ran on the Alibi might be considered blasphemous, prompting the wickedly brilliant Albuquerque blogger Pika Brittlebush to proclaim on the Duke City Fix that Jennifer James is going to hell.

Graze by Jennifer James
3128 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Graze Pate; Satay; Seared Hawaiian Sunfish; Hunanese Potatoes; Artisan Cheese Plate; Sweet Corn Tamale With Mango Salsa and Poblano Cream; Thai Beef Salad; Ancho BBQ Spare Ribs

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