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Sandia Chile Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sandia Chile Grill, Smokehouse and Microbrewery

If perspiration is (as the proverbial “they” have declared) the mother of invention, Mickey and Clinton Coker may just be two of the most glistening guys in the Duke City. Since 2004, the Cokers have “reinvented” their restaurant four times. If you’re thinking, they’re just try, try, trying again until they get it right, you couldn’t be more wrong. Mickey Coker, the entrepreneur behind the four make-overs, started with a culinary concept that was so wildly successful, it prompted almost immediate growth. His second effort, a brick-and-mortar operation, also achieved significant acclaim. Some might have considered the third Coker transition strictly a sideline…until it started garnering one award after the other. The fourth step in the evolution of the Sandia Grill may be the most revolutionary of all.

For Mickey Coker, the route to entrepreneur was inauspicious. He got his start selling New Mexican food at a gas station-convenience store. Yes, the very notion of a gas station-convenience store food conjures images of salty, cylindrically shaped dry meat snacks with the texture of sawdust and air-filled bags of Cool Ranch Doritos.  Now mention New Mexican food and gas station in the same sentence and the likely image would make all the sophomoric six-year-olds among us giggle, the notion of “gas” not having anything to do with petroleum.  Despite these stereotypes, Coker had the confidence in his New Mexico food products to launch his business in 2004, ensconced within the confines of a convenience store-gas station in the Winner’s Circle gas station at Harper and Barstow. A second location, on Montgomery just east of I-25, followed shortly thereafter.

Once strictly a New Mexican Restaurant, Now Showcasing Barbecue and New Mexican Food

From its onset, the Sandia Chile Grill’s made-to-order burrito concept elevated gas station dining from a fast food grab-and-gobble experience to a uniquely sublime New Mexico dining extravaganza, albeit one without on-the-premises seating. The aroma of tortillas on the grill quickly had patrons making a bee-line to the little grill that could at the back of the convenience store portion of the gas station. While relatively little space is required to operate what is essentially a to-go diner, Coker saw his business grow to the extent–as many as 4,000 meals in a busy month–that a real restaurant storefront was in order. He launched the Sandia Chile Grill restaurant at the Del Norte Shopping Center, essentially moving from the Winner’s Circle gas station not that far away.

A native New Mexican (born in Belen), Coker saw two obvious reasons for the name Sandia Chile Grill, the first being Sandia chile which grows in the Mesilla Valley. Sandia chile ranges from four to six-inches long and dries to a deep burgundy color.  It’s one of the most delicious of all red chiles and is served at such fabled New Mexican food treasures as Mary & Tito’s.   Sandia is also the name of the mountain range backdropping the city of Albuquerque.

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Twice Baked Potatoes and Calabasitas

At the restaurant, the staff had the room to operate and customers had comfortable seating in which to enjoy New Mexican food favorites. Though much of the restaurant’s business remained carry-out, it was nice to have had an alternative when you wanted it. As at the service station, burritos dominated the menu: breakfast burritos, steak burritos, steak and chicken burritos, chicken burritos, pork burritos and even veggie burritos. Some burritos were named for professional wrestlers (Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker, Junkyard Dog, Mankind and the Macho Man). There were also burritos named for Mexican western characters: El Matidor (sic), Bandito, Caballero and El Jeffe. The menu also included stuffed sopaipillas, enchiladas, tamales, rellenos and tacos–the New Mexican food essentials which couldn’t be prepared at the gas station sites.

In 2009, the facility was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to can all its chiles and sauces for nationwide distribution. In 2012, the Cokers opened a microbrewery on the premises–and an award-winning brewery at that. Within months after launching, they entered seven items in a New Mexico State Fair competition, earning five medals including a “best of show” in the professional division. The blue and red-ribbons are on display in the restaurant. The menu also began featuring several gluten-free items (nachos, green chile chicken stew, chicken quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, steak tacos and more).

House Sauces: Hot (with Habanero), Tangy (Mustard-Based) and Sweet

The Cokers determined that an even more natural accompaniment to award-winning adult libations than New Mexican food is barbecue. Yes, barbecue! Though their New Mexican dishes were beloved by the masses who frequented the Sandia Chile Grill, the Cokers are not ones to stay still. They transitioned to a smokehouse concept in March, 2014, positioning a smoker near the Wyoming entrance to the shopping center. Aficionados of Sandia’s New Mexican food weren’t left in the cold, however. The new menu also includes several popular New Mexican food favorites (burritos, enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas, huevos rancheros and a green chile chicken bowl ) prepared with smoked meats instead of the more conventional meats used on New Mexican food.

Because the concept of transitioning from a New Mexican restaurant to a smokehouse may seem radical, you’re probably wondering if this is a haphazardly undertaken venture. In truth, the Cokers have had a smoker for more than a decade. That’s plenty of time to master low-and-slow smoke manipulation on meats. Brimming with confidence from the great reception their barbecue has received, the Cokers have plans for a larger smoker with a much greater capacity. The barbecue menu is replete with the essentials: pulled pork, smoked chicken, brisket, St. Louis ribs and street tacos. You can purchase them in increments ranging from a quarter-pound through ten pounds. You can also partake of a sandwich meal with two sides for a ridiculously low price. Three sauces–a tangy sauce similar to what you’d find in the Carolinas, a spicy sauce redolent with Habanero and a sweet sauce–are available though because it’s good barbecue, they’re wholly unnecessary.

Brisket Enchiladas

29 June 2015: The pulled pork sandwich features a hoagie type bun brimming with tender tendrils of pulled pork. It’s good to go as is though you might want to experiment with the three sauces to see if one suits your taste. The spicy Habanero-based sauce provides a “slow burn,” a deceptive “sneak up on you” burn that may water your eyes if you apply too much of the sauce. If you’re from New Mexico, you can handle it. Make one of the two sides the calabasitas. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill calabasitas. They’re prepared al dente and paired with a green chile as incendiary as the Habanero sauce. Another excellent side is the twice-baked potatoes which have a smooth, creamy texture and are punctuated with sour cream.

3 July 2015: The pairing of New Mexican food and barbecue is a match made in New Mexico and that’s about as close to heaven as there is on Earth.  One of the most surprisingly natural couplings is smoked brisket with “Christmas” style enchiladas, available in quantities of one, two or three.  Atop tortillas redolent with corn are heaping helpings of smoked brisket, shredded Cheddar, lettuce and the red and green chile with which Duke City diners fell in love when the Ultimate Warrior was on the menu.  The chile has a pleasant piquancy that doesn’t obfuscate the smokiness of the brisket.  Brisket enchiladas are a surprisingly good way to enjoy the best of two flavor combinations.

St. Louis Ribs with Macaroni and Cheese and Calabasitas

16 August 2015:  In the Duke City area, barbecue restaurants tend to favor baby back ribs over St. Louis ribs even though the St. Louis ribs are more substantial and meaty. So, what’s the difference? St. Louis ribs are actually spareribs that have been trimmed down, removing what is commonly known as the rib tips.  St. Louis ribs come from the belly section of the pig, near where the sacrosanct bacon can be found.  As their name suggests baby back ribs come from the back side of the pig, near where the loin is.  The St. Louis ribs at the Sandia Chile Grill aren’t quite as thick, meaty and substantial as other ribs of the kind we’ve had, but the meat they do have includes the caramelized “bark” barbecue aficionados love.  This is meaty magnificence at its best.

Mick Coker and his son Clinton are immensely proud of their New Mexican heritage and like most proud New Mexicans, know one of the day’s most difficult decisions is whether to have red or green chile…or both.   They help make that decision easier for their guests by offering excellent New Mexican cuisine showcasing both. They also showcase some of the best adult libations and barbecue in town.

Sandia Chile Grill
7120 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 798-1970
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2015
1st VISIT:  18 August 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Calabasitas, Twice Baked Potatoes, Brisket Enchiladas, St. Louis Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese

Sandia Chile Grill on Urbanspoon

Cinnamon Sugar and Spice Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe

Back in the dark ages when I grew up–long before America became the kinder, gentler Utopia it is today–it would have been inconceivable that boys and girls would receive trophies just for “participating.” Back then, we were expected to be competitive about everything. The battle of the sexes was waged at home every night with my brothers and I pitting our brawn and bulk against the brains and gumption of our sisters, two of whom would go on to graduate as valedictorians and all of them much smarter than the recalcitrant Garduño boys. 

It rankled us to no end when our sisters reminded us constantly that “boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails'” while they were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice” even as they smashed our toy machine guns (probably in retaliation for us having drawn mustaches on their Barbie dolls before decapitating them).  We sure made it challenging for our parents to be as generous with their affection as Dr. Benjamin Spock (the pediatrician, not the Vulcan) had advocated.

Busy dining room on a Sunday morning

Espying the curiously named Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe on Juan Tabo rekindled memories of the “What Are Little Boys Made Of” nursery rhyme and prompted me to reflect on the fact that somewhere between the merciless teasing, nasty name-calling and nefarious feats of brotherly terrorism, my sisters grew up to be beautiful ladies made of sugar, spice and everything nice.  It took my brothers and I a bit longer to grow up, but then our sisters did remind us often that girls mature three years faster than boys. 

Though I often revert to the snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails of my boyish youth, the sugar and spice and everything nice influence of my bride of three decades has made me more cultured and ostensibly more mature. My former traits rear themselves, however, when we enter a new restaurant such as the Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe and my eyes fixate immediately and exclusively on the menu. My Kim noticed everything about Cinnamon Sugar & Spice right away: the bouncy terriers on the dog-friendly patio, the bright sunshine entering through the east-facing windows, the kitchen utensils and bric-a-brack for sale, the dishes on which dainty delicacies are presented… Those details didn’t warrant my attention until our order had been placed.

Carne Adovada Burrito

It was then, and only then, that I noticed just how crowded the café was. Almost every table was taken even as throngs of diners queued almost reverentially past glass pastry cases showcasing cakes, pies, cookies, baklava and other sweet, decadent temptresses. Eyes that weren’t hypnotically drawn toward those pastries were locked on the nattily inscribed menu, a luscious line-up of American, New Mexican and even Greek breakfast and lunch favorites. The café is so bright, open and capacious you’ll find it hard to believe this same space was once home to DaVinci’s Gourmet Pizza which seemed so diminutive in comparison.

If you’re wondering why you may not have espied the Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe during your travels across the Duke City, it may be because the cafe is ensconced in the Shops @ Mountain Run on Juan Tabo just before it intersects with Eubank. It’s not exactly a bustling thoroughfare and the Cafe is set back a ways from the street. A teeming brunch crowd is certainly confirmation that this Cafe has been discovered and perhaps by more than just the neighborhood.

Honey Granola and Yogurt Parfait

Launched in 2014, the Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe may be relatively new to Albuquerque, but it’s owned and managed by an experienced and highly regarded staff. Since 2001, owner Kanella (which translates from Greek to “cinnamon”) Chronis and her team have kept Albuquerque’s power-brokers well fed at the Plaza Eatery, a downtown cafe in the shadow of City Hall. In 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine ranked the Eatery’s breakfast burrito as the city’s fifth best, giving it the red and green cred Duke City diners respect most.

It wasn’t Albuquerque’s fifth best breakfast burrito my Kim opted for during our inaugural visit, but the carne adovada burrito. The flavor profile of carne adovada, all those falling apart tender tendrils of porcine perfection, should be melt-in-your-mouth delicate, never overwhelming in piquancy or astringency. Too much Mexican oregano, for example, can embitter carne adovada. That, unfortunately, is what we experienced with the Cafe’s version. Thanks to a dash more spice than warranted, it just didn’t have the light, delicate chile marinated qualities we love in carne adovada.

Cin-fully delicious French Toast

We long ago stopped deluding ourselves that granola is a healthy alternative to sugary breakfast cereals. Despite the fruits, nuts and whole grains, most restaurant granola is fairly fattening. Its deliciousness, however, sometimes outweighs the extra treadmill miles you’ll have to do to work it off. The housemade honey cinnamon granola at Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe is worth a half marathon at least. It’s layered with your choice of Greek vanilla or Strawberry yogurt (a great option) served with toast and seasonal fresh fruit. Luckily for us, blueberries and strawberries were in season and at the prime of freshness. They enlivened an already excellent granola and yogurt pairing.

The first item on the breakfast menu is “Cin-fully delicious French Toast,” a curious name which makes sense in a literal sense as in you probably don’t want to consume something that’s full of sin, but something “cin-ful” might be palatable. Whether it was that unique spelling or the promise of “thick slices of housemade bread dusted with Saigon cinnamon, topped with brown sugar toasted pecans, served with maple syrup” the menu had us at “sin”…er “cin.” These French Toast live up to their promise with loads of sweetness and richness that no residual savoriness in the pecans could hope to penetrate. For the lust with which we enjoyed these French toast, our penance will be five Hail Cinnamons.

Like my three wonderful sisters, Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe is made of everything nice.

Cinnamon Sugar & Spice Cafe
5809 Juan Tabo, N.E., Sweet A.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 492-2119
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cin-fully Delicious French Toast, Honey Granola and Yogurt Parfait, Carne Adovada Burrito

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Savory Fare – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Savory Fare Cafe, Bakery and Catering

Back in the mid 70s, anyone in Albuquerque’s southeast quadrant who wanted privacy knew they could find it at the Burger Chef restaurant in the Gibson and San Mateo area. It was the place seemingly designated for undisturbed break-ups (this was in the dark ages before texting and email were the preferred mediums for breaking-up). Once a burgeoning franchise second only to McDonald’s in the fast food arena, Burger Chef was in a state of rapid decline and even during lunch hours, few diners patronized it.

Our inaugural dining experience at Savory Fare rekindled memories of a long-ago visit to Burger Chef when I was one of only two diners in the whole place and one of us was soon-to-be on the receiving side of bad news (the “Dear Gil” kind). While cavalcades of cars were driving up for their Egg McBorings and whatever breakfast banality Burger King offers, my Kim and I were–for nearly twenty minutes–the only diners at Savory Fare. Though I was fairly certain my bride of thirty years wasn’t breaking up with me, I wondered why this cafe-bakery wasn’t overflowing with patrons. Surely the savory fare for which the restaurant is named wasn’t as uninspired as Burger Chef’s forgettable food.

One of the most beautiful counters of any restaurant in Albuquerque

For sheer visual appeal, very few restaurants in Albuquerque rival Savory Fare where gloriously arrayed behind glass pastry cases are some of the most sumptuous creations you’ll find anywhere: lavish pastries, captivating cakes, photogenic pies, enticing eclairs and so much more (be still, my heart). Surely all this edible art would have the same Pavlovian effect on other discerning diners as it did on us. Moreover, Savory Fare is immaculate, as spotless as a hospital operating room while retaining an air of whimsy and fun. Unframed prints of anthropomorphic vegetables would bring a smile even to Scrooge’s craggy countenance.

Perhaps, we pondered, the menu doesn’t offer much beyond pulchritudinous pastries. After all, man and woman cannot live on cake and pie alone (though some of us would like to try). Savory Fare’s Web site lists only four items (breakfast torte, quiche Lorraine, breakfast burrito and an omelet), but we found out we could also order from a very intriguing cold sandwich menu as well as from soup and salad menus and a number of scrumptious daily specials. Take your time perusing the slate boards perched over the counter and by the door. For sheer volume and diversity, there’s something (maybe many things) there for everyone.

The Alexander

Crossing off deliciousness and diversity, we next ruminated on three things that are often the bane of many a restaurant: location, location and location. Savory Fare is ensconced within the Mossman Center on Montgomery and while the café doesn’t have a street-facing storefront, there’s plenty of parking and it’s easy to get to. There could be only one reason this gem wasn’t beset by throngs of hungry diners–my blogging brethren and  I haven’t done our jobs well. We haven’t climbed onto our virtual rooftops and shouted out “bring your hungry masses yearning to eat well to Savory Fare.”

As if to confirm that self-serving contention, I went online and found only one review of the cafe from a credentialed source. My friend and fellow Souperbowl judge Gail Guengerich had written a glowing review of Savory Fare for The Alibi some eighteen months prior to my visit yet despite her persuasiveness, we didn’t drive over immediately (fearing we’d be subjected to long lines of hungry hordes).

Chicken Apricot Salad Sandwich

Gail’s observations expanded on some of mine: “There’s a framed award on the wall of Savory Fare Café & Bakery that reads “Best Undiscovered Restaurant”—issued by Albuquerque The Magazine in the year 2006. That was seven years ago, and greater Albuquerque still hasn’t beaten a path to its door. Most people I talk to have never heard of Savory Fare, and it rarely receives any press. Strange, when you consider how elusive a good pastry case is in this town.”

It brought me great comfort to read further that unlike breakfast “every lunch hour, the café is packed to the rafters.” That’s the way it should be and not just for lunch. Savory Fare is family-owned and operated, serving home-style food with attention to freshness, nutrition, taste and quality. Specials change daily with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Every evening, the cafe offers a freshly prepared take-home dinner as well as a selection of soups and deli salads for take-out. Then there’s that dessert case which probably has to be cleaned frequently to remove drool stains. There’s a lot to love about a cafe-bakery like this one!

Turtle Bread Pudding

You’ll certainly love The Alexander (grilled ham, turkey, provolone, green chile and Dijonnaise on grilled sourdough), an archetypal sandwich unlike any we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The green chile and dijonnaise combination has probably been attempted before, not not as memorably as at Savory Fare.  It blends the piquancy and roasted deliciousness of green chile with Dijonnaise, a sharp Dijon mustard blended with creamy mayonnaise. It’s two types of heat coming together to create a cohesive flavor profile that will blow you away. The sourdough has a perceptible tang that makes it a perfect canvas for generously piled-on meats and cheese. The only way in which The Alexander is short-changed is its name. It really should be called “Alexander The Great!”

We weren’t quite as enamored of the Chicken Apricot Salad Sandwich (diced chicken breast, apricots, walnuts, scallions, mayonnaise on whole wheat).  That’s primarily because apricot and its musky, tart uniqueness wasn’t as prominent a presence on the sandwich as it should have been.  Apricots are a difference-maker, the separation between merely very good and great.  Without a strong apricot presence, this sandwich is still a very good chicken sandwich, but you can find those elsewhere.

Sour Cherry Pie

It’s been a while since I’ve uncovered a great bread pudding to recommend to my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate. For years, Larry has scoured the Land of Enchantment for bread pudding worthy of inclusion into his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame. There’s a very good chance Savory Fare’s turtle bread pudding will make the list should Larry visit (there’s an invitation implied here, Larry).  It’s an outstanding bread pudding with all the turtle elements sweet-toothed diners enjoy so much.  That means plenty of warm, gooey caramel and meaty walnuts atop a texturally perfect bread pudding that would be delicious on its own.

My friend and colleague Elaine Ascending and her husband recently celebrated his birthday with a sour cherry pie from Savory Fare.  What a great wife and what an outstanding pie!  It’s the antithesis of the cloying, filler-rich cherry pie you normally find at bakeries.  True to their name, the cherries are indeed sour–not as lip-pursing as lemons, but certainly tangy and rife with personality.  The crust enveloping the cherries is every bit as good as a high-quality bakery should aspire to.  One slice isn’t enough, however.  You’ll want to take a whole pie home with you. 

Perhaps fate intervened in making sure we had Savory Fare all to ourselves during our inaugural visit. It allowed us to ask more questions of the staff, walk around and browse more closely and to savor each and every bite slowly of cafe-bakery fare even more savory than is implied by the establishment’s name.

Savory Fare Cafe
7400 Montgomery Blvd, Suite 1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-8514
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 1 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sour Cherry Pie, Turtle Bread Pudding, The Alexander,  Chicken Apricot Salad Sandwich, Lemonade

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