Golden Crown Panaderia – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Golden Crown Panaderia, one of Albuquerque’s premier dining destinations

Although we pride ourselves on keeping a pulse on the local dining scene, it took a nationally syndicated Food Network cable program called Food Finds to introduce us in 2003 to the Golden Crown Panaderia, an Albuquerque fixture for nearly three decades.  In an episode entitled Viewer’s Choice filmed entirely in New Mexico, hostess Sandra Pinckney visited several small-town shops, mom-and-pop stores and local vendors that pride themselves in creating specialty foods the old-fashioned way.

The Golden Crown Panaderia is an exemplar of dichotomy, a highly successful operation in which old-fashioned meets state-of-the-art and father and son proprietors rely on both technology and tradition to create one of New Mexico’s most unique and beloved dining experiences.   The Panaderia crafts its magnum opuses on equipment that is positively ancient by modern automation standards, but it uses avant-garde technology to grow the herbs and vegetables for its salads, sandwiches and pizzas.

View from the Patio

Old-fashioned might also describe the relationship between senior proprietor Pratt Morales and his son Chris.  It’s an old-fashioned father and son relationship in the tradition of Andy and Opie. On Food Finds, Pratt recounted having helped deliver his son, calling it the beginning of a life-long love affair.  Pratt also demonstrated his unique craft–bread sculpting. He can literally prepare bread in any shape and form as chronicled in a photo album replete with pictures of the artistic bread creations. Although the Food Network made larger than life celebrities out of father and son, they are both as friendly and accommodating as possible.

I probably wouldn’t be writing about Golden Crown, however, if the end product wasn’t good. Make that outstanding! Make that “the very best bakery in Albuquerque” outstanding!”  Situated in a ramshackle old building just outside Old Town, it’s far enough off the beaten path as to be relatively inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous, however, doesn’t mean diners aren’t finding it.  This humble Panaderia has been consistently ranked by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel community, as one of the top five out of 1,235 restaurants in the Duke City.   Golden Crown receives similar praise from Yelp while Lonely Planet, a French publication calls Golden Crown “Albuquerque’s best place to eat.”

A rare sight–no queue

The Panaderia’s crown jewel (no pun intended) is the original New Mexico green chile bread on which is sculpted a Santa Fe style coyote baying at the moon. Aside from green chile, this staff of life is fashioned with onions, fresh tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and cilantro.  The bread is baked slowly to seal in the flavor and aroma of all the fresh ingredients.  Toast it with butter and (if you can get it) New Mexican chokecherry jelly and you’ve got a mouth-watering breakfast.

All artisan breads are baked fresh daily and are out of the oven at regular intervals between 10:30AM and 2PM.  There may be no more pleasing bouquet in the Duke City than the aroma of fresh bread baking in one of the Golden Crown’s ovens: honey whole wheat, cinnamon raisin honey whole wheat, cinnamon pecan honey whole wheat, Appaloosa bread (a dark and light swirled rye), black rye and even seven-grain bread.  They’re all great!

One of the most beautiful pastry cases in New Mexico

The Appaloosa bread is edible artwork.  Swirling patterns of visually appealing dark brown pumpernickel ornament the bread like a beautiful Rorschach ink blot.  This is a full-bodied bread, the type of which makes outstanding delicatessen style sandwiches thickly smeared with a fine mustard or with sauerkraut piled on generously.  It’s also excellent toasted which enhances the vibrancy and flavors of the bread.

Also beyond reproach are the biscochitos, New Mexico’s official state cookie which is mildly sweet with a light taste of anise and a hint of cinnamon. These orb-shaped treats are melt-in-your-mouth delicious!  The minute you step into the bakery, a complementary biscochito is handed to “children of all ages,” a gift from the bakery gods.  You’ll probably leave with a dozen or more biscochitos courtesy of that warm cookie welcome.  In January, 2016, Spoon University named those bizcochitos New Mexico’s best dessert.  Spoon described them as “sweet, cinnamony cookies” that became the “official state cookie almost 20 years ago” and “deserve to graduate onto the official dessert.”

Blueberry Empanada and the World’s Greatest Coffee Shake

You might think it heretical, but the Moraleses also feature a chocolate biscochito made from a strong, slightly bitter dark chocolate and sprinkled liberally with anise.  If you like your chocolate dark, you certainly won’t care that New Mexico’s official state cookie has been altered such. A more recent addition to the biscochito family is a unique cappuccino biscochito. It’s like dunking a biscochito into strong coffee.  Abuelitas everywhere (or at least in New Mexico) marvel at the fact that Golden Crown even bakes biscochitos from blue corn flour. 

How good are the Golden Crown’s biscochitos? The October, 2005 edition of Gourmet magazine indicated the Golden Crown’s handmade version of biscochitos “make a delightful holiday accompaniment to red or white wine.” Wine, by the way, is how biscochitos were originally served in Spain. With or without wine, biscochitos are an absolute treat in which New Mexicans delight.  The Golden Crown’s biscochitos were also celebrated in the July-August edition of National Geographic Traveler magazine.  An article entitled “five American desserts worth the trip” describes them as “fragrant, infused with anise, this flaky shortbread coated with cinnamon.”  A more succinct way to describe them is absolutely wonderful!

Combination Pizza on Green Chile Bread Crust

Another pastry favorite are the flautas (flutes). No, not the corn tortillas rolled around a filling of shredded chicken or beef then fried until crisp. These flautas are filled with glorious lemon or apricot filling and dusted with white powdered sugar. Not too sweet and not too tart, they are absolutely delicious.  The Golden Crown’s empanadas are nonpareil, absolutely the very best in New Mexico–whether pumpkin, sweet potato, apple, blueberry, strawberry, apricot, lemon or raspberry.  The crust is reminiscent of the biscochitos in both texture and flavor. 

The menu purports to offer the “creamiest latte in town,” its creaminess attributed to”the freshest milk in town–straight from the cow.”  Espresso, latte and mocha coffee drinks are all available if indeed you wish to dunk your biscochito into excellent coffee.  The coffee-flavored milk shake also has the flavor of strong coffee (courtesy of two shots of espresso) without the cloying flavor of coffee that’s been over-sweetened.  It’s an adult coffee shake and it’s served cold thanks to nearly a full pound of vanilla ice cream out of the freezer.  This is my very favorite shake in Albuquerque and the very best coffee-flavored shake I’ve ever had anywhere.  Obviously, both the proprietors and legions of fans agree with me as this shake has earned the designation of “the world’s greatest coffee shake.”  That’s how it’s listed on the menu.

Make Your Own Pizza: Sausage, Canadian Bacon, Extra Cheese on Peasant Bread Crust

The Morales family goal is to serve products which are delicious, nutritious and beautiful. In keeping with that lofty aspiration, Pratt has figured out how to bake breads that are free of trans-fats, oils and fat without losing absolutely nothing taste-wise.  Still, it’s the artistic nature of his bread sculpture that continues to induce awe among visitors, including Guy Fieri who visited the Golden Crown Panaderia for a 2013 airing of an episode titled “All kinds of Gobble, Gobble” celebrating restaurants who specialize in Thanksgiving offerings.  Pratt Morales demonstrated his technique for sculpting a bread turkey.

By popular demand, the Golden Crown Panaderia also serves bakery-style pizza that starts with your choice of three innovative crusts: blue corn dough, peasant dough or the famous New Mexico green chile dough.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that no one knows bread (or pizza) crust as well as a baker?  While Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff didn’t give this pizza enough love to place it among their top five pizzas in their annual Food & Wine issue for 2010, it was rated the best pizza along Route 66 by a Roadfood crew rating the “best of the best” from among the dozens of restaurants they sampled in a 5,250-mile excursion along the route.  The pizza which captured the Roadfood crew’s affection was a green chile and roasted chicken pizza on a blue corn crust.  Golden Crown’s pizza is among my top three in Albuquerque and top five in New Mexico.

Roast Beef Sandwich with Chips and Queso

24 July 2016: This hand-tossed, thin-crust pizza features a housemade pizza sauce, mozzarella and your choice of ingredients in sizes ranging from personal to extra large (30% larger than the regular large). Gourmet toppings include anchovies, oven roasted chicken, artichoke and more.  Each pizza is baked to order in about fifteen minutes baking time per pizza.  Each pizza comes with a biscochito, an amuse bouche you don’t often see.  The personal-sized combination pizza (tasty pepperoni, hearty Italian sausage, black olives, crisp bell  peppers, red onions and mozzarella) is my favorite, an artisan-style pie that isn’t nearly as circular as what you might find at a chain, nor is the crusty rim of equal thickness throughout the circumference of the pie.  Not that it matters much because every morsel of the pie is an adventure in deliciousness.  At eight-inches, the personal-sized pizza is probably right-sized, but it’s so delicious you’ll want a larger sized pie to sate your pizza cravings.

The ingredients are of the highest quality and are absolutely terrific, but it’s the crust that will absolutely blow you away.  If you love your pizza crust imbued with the memory-inducing, olfactory arousing aroma of fresh bread just out of the oven, this is the pizza for you.  You won’t be leaving behind any of the crust from around the rim, nor will you be sharing it with the annoying pigeons scavenging around the outdoor seating areas waiting for a hand-out.  When it comes to olfactory arousing, the green chile crust is absolutely for you with just enough piquancy to get your attention, but moreover, the bouquet of roasted green chile.  The green chile crust includes some 18 ingredients while more than 20 ingredients go into both the blue corn and peasant crusts.

Blueberry, Cherry and Lemon Empanadas with Biscochitos

24 July 2016:  The housemade sauce is slathered on thickly and is quite good, a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce that complements other ingredients well.  The Italian sausage is not that benign sausage which tastes like so much hamburger meat; it’s sausage with a bit of attitude and a pronounced smokiness.  The pepperoni is nicely spiced; several thinly-sliced orbs generously applied throughout the pie.  The black olives and green peppers are fresh and delicious and the mozzarella is creamy and chewy.  My Kim’s favorite pizza is a make-your-own topped with sausage, Canadian bacon and extra cheese on a peasant crust.  It’s an outstanding pizza!

A sandwich board features six sandwiches built on the panaderia’s fresh-baked bread and uses only high quality meats, cheeses and fresh vegetables. Your sandwich can be built on sliced bread (including the fabled green chile bread) or sub sandwich bread.

Turkey sandwich adorned with fresh from the garden lettuce, tomatoes and more

in the November, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine I was asked to write an article showcasing the use of turkey for breakfast, lunch and dinner in  three Albuquerque restaurants.  My featured lunch selection was Golden Crown’s Turkey & Swiss sandwich (served with mayonnaise, Italian dressing, deli mustard, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and a kosher pickle).  It is an outstanding sandwich–and thankfully NOT named the “Albuquerque Turkey” as so many turkey sandwiches (particularly those offered by chains) seem to be.  Crafted on the Panaderia’s fabulous bread and adorned with vegetables grown on the premises on a hydroponic (a method of growing plants in water using mineral nutrient solutions with no soil) garden, the sandwich is accompanied by a biscochito and chips.

I also had the opportunity to introduce the world to Golden Crown in an article entitled “America’s Best Food Regions” published on the May, 2011 edition of Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine. Along with bloggers from other storied American food regions, I was given 500 words to explain why New Mexico’s “Chile Country” reigns supreme over other culinary regions. Naturally the Golden Crown was one of six purveyors of America’s most incendiary regional cuisine I wrote about.

Ham and Swiss toasted with avocado on the famous New Mexico Green Chile bread

Ham and Swiss toasted with avocado on the famous New Mexico Green Chile bread

It’s no surprise this humble bakery was also featured in the Unique Boutique section of the November, 2005 edition of New Mexico Magazine. In May, 2007, the magazine published a lengthier article profiling Pratt and his passion for baking. It’s no longer a surprise when the Golden Crown Panaderia receives national accolades….such as a designation as the “best place for a book stop” from Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine. The magazine extolled the green chile bread and urged readers to “buy a loaf and snack away during an extended session.”

The Golden Crown Panaderia leaves no stone unturned in providing the highest possible in quality products and produce. In 2010, the Morales family began cultivating its own herbs and vegetables for use on its salads, sandwiches and pizzas. In a temperature controlled indoor environment, utilize state-of-the-art aquaponic techniques to grow several varieties of lettuce as well as fresh basil which resonates with flavor on pizza. The garden is somewhat of an anomaly in that so much of the equipment throughout the bakery is an anachronism, veritable antiques which function under the master bakers to create culinary masterpieces.

Chris Morales proudly shows off the Golden Crown’s herb and vegetable garden from which they craft fresh salads.

Before the advent of propane-powered chile roasters, New Mexicans either roasted chile themselves or they took it to their favorite baker.  With advance arrangements, the Moraleses will still provide this service for loyal customers.  Under the skillful hands of the Duke City’s very best bakers, the chile is roasted far more evenly than it is on a gigantic rotating drum–and without the abuse to which the chile is subjected in the tumbling process.

At 81 years young (as of this writing on July 24, 2016), Pratt Morales still has the energy of a man half his age.  He bikes distances that would tire out people generations younger if they drove those distances.  His youthful exuberance and energy are resultant from having a passion for what he does.  He loves being a baker so much that he often wakes up at three in the morning and walks to work so he can get started on his next sculpting project or bread innovation.  We should all love our jobs as much as he does.

My friends and frequent dining companions Sr. Plata, Bill Resnik and Paul Lilly with Pratt Morales, a baker’s baker.

The Golden Crown Panaderia is a rarity–a bakery-slash-restaurant that does both well.  Pratt and Chris Morales have made this panaderia an Albuquerque institution and in the process, have become part of the fabric of the Duke City’s unique cuisine culture themselves.

Golden Crown Panaderia
1103 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-243-2424
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Bread, Tres Leche Cake, Biscochitos (Traditional, Chocolate and Cappuccino), Specialty Pizza, Turkey & Swiss Sandwich, Combination Pizza, Blueberry Empanada, Cherry Empanada, Lemon Empanada, Roast Beef Sandwich

Golden Crown Panaderia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bocadillos Slow Roasted: A Sandwich Shop – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Bocadillos on Indian School

School cafeteria meals have probably traumatized more youth than John Carpenter’s horror movies. Lunch menus read like fine-dining, promising nutritious, healthy and delicious cuisine. Instead, they deliver what could pass for TV dinner rejects. Reject is an apropos term here. Slop buckets are overfilled with the much feared and cursed vegetable medley (also known as succotash, emphasis on the “suck” part) and the next day with chicken a la king, featuring whatever is left over of the dreaded vegetable medley. It’s no wonder America’s youth seeks sustenance and refuge in the calorie-laden comfort of vended snacks.

Bocadillos, a locally owned and operated, full-service school lunch and catering company is working to change the image of the dreaded school cafeteria meal.  In 2012, Bocadillos prepared as many as 500 meals per day for three charter school clients.  In 2013, those numbers doubled to 1000 meals per day and six charter schools.  Bocadillos doesn’t do things in the tried and failed methods of the past.  The serve children wholesome, balanced meals to support their cognitive development and physical health. All students will likely recognize is that it tastes delicious!

Urban Street Art Festoons Bocadillos West-Side Entrance

Urban Street Art Festoons Bocadillos West-Side Entrance

Launched in 2010, Bocadillos is the brainchild of owner and chef Marie Yniguez, a creative, high-energy dynamo who apparently can’t sit still.  While many people would wind down during the summer lull between one school year and the next, Marie and co-owner Karla Arvizu instead launched a small grab-and-go operation which operates out of  Bocadillos commissary at 1609 Indian School, N.W.  Dubbed Slow Roasted: A Sandwich Shop, it will have the geriatrically advanced among us wonder just how good Bocadillos school lunches must be (not that we’d ever want to return to school to find out). 

Bocadillos is a Spanish term which translates to sandwiches while slow-roasted speaks for itself.  The meats from which Slow Roasted sandwiches are constructed are indeed slow-roasted which makes them tender, moist and delicious.  The menu currently showcases only five sandwiches, including the “Salad Shooter,” a vegetarian sandwich featuring grilled portabello mushrooms, roasted bell peppers and roasted tomatoes.  Each sandwich comes with your choice of four sides: chipotle potato salad, macaroni salad or a small side salad with your choice of house dressing.  In cold weather, soups are an optional side.  Here’s to more cold weather!

The dining room at Bocadillos

The bad news for folks whose dining opportunities are limited to weekends is that at its original location on Indian School, Bocadillos Slow Roasted is open only for lunch and only Monday through Friday from 11AM to 2:30PM.  In December, 2015, Bocadillos expanded its operation, launching a second site at the Green Jeans Farmery,  the community-oriented commercial plaza constructed entirely with repurposed shipping containers as modular, architectural building blocks.  Expansion applies to its hours of operation, too.  You can have your favorite Bocadillos sandwiches well into the evening.

Over time, the Indian School location has also expanded.  When first opened, your best bet for seating was on your motorized conveyance though weather-permitting there was limited outdoor seating.  As of February, 2016, Bocadillos is on its third dining room configuration, the most recent instantiation accommodating three or four times more diners than previously.  Place your order at a counter then saunter over to a picnic table to await being called to pick up your meal.

Guy Fieri visited Bocadillos in September, 2013

Guy Fieri visited Bocadillos in September, 2013

One word of caution about finding Bocadillos–all you have to watch for is the Blakes Lotaburger.  Bocadillos is to the immediate east of the popular burger restaurant.  Go past Bocadillos and you just might end up on Menaul or 12th Street courtesy of a round-about that seems to confuse some drivers (or at least me) looking for Bocadillos.  It doesn’t help that Bocadillos doesn’t resemble a restaurant in the least.  It could easily be mistaken for an industrial complex.

Unmistakable, however, are the intoxicating aromas wafting from the kitchens.  By the time you place your order, you might be drooling as those aromas envelop you like an olfactory-arousing cocoon.  The challenge of deciding what to eat is no less daunting because the menu is limited.  You’ll be hard-pressed to decide what to have.  Make sure you take a friend or loved one when you visit so you can share half a sandwich a piece.  Either that or order two sandwiches.

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Duke City Ruben

29 July 2013: The chef’s choice…the sandwich of which Marie is most proud is the Duke City Ruben.  Quite simply, it may be the very best Reuben sandwich in Albuquerque.  It’s the embodiment of the slow roasting process, taking no less than twelve hours to achieve its tender texture and moistness throughout as well as a sweet caramelization on the surface of each tendril of the corned beef.  The housemade sauerkraut doesn’t have the lip-pursing qualities of some sauerkraut.  It’s made with a red cabbage tinged with the distinctive flavor of caraway seeds.  The Thousand Island dressing, also made on the premises, is terrific, too. 

29 July 2013: One of the consequences of splitting a sandwich with a friend is that one of you will have to share half of a superior sandwich.  That was the case with the Ruben I split with my friend Paul Lilly.  Rarely will you consider the sandwich he ordered (a Philly cheesesteak sandwich) a “Miss Congeniality” of sandwiches, but Bocadillos’ Ruben is just that much better than just about any other sandwich.  Place it on a line-up of the Duke City’s best sandwiches and it might rise to the top. It’s on my list.

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5-0-Philly

That “Miss Congeniality,” the 5-0-Philly is pretty terrific in its own right.  Constructed with slow-roasted beef, Swiss cheese, New Mexico green chile, green and red bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, it’s a coalescence of ingredients and flavors that will delight you.  There is so much going on, however, that the green chile doesn’t express itself quite as much as this New Mexico native would have liked.  What does stand out is the slow roasted beef, as tender, moist and delicious as possible. 

29 January 2014: One-track minded men with their minds in the gutter might do a double-take when they see T n A on the sandwich menu.  T n A in this case stands for “turkey and avocado,” but this sandwich is so much more.  In fact, just about every other turkey sandwich in town is a true turkey compared to this one.  The T n A’s listed ingredients are slow-roasted turkey, avocado, green chile apple chutney, lettuce, tomato and Muenster cheese, but this sandwich isn’t about ingredients.  It’s about the process of putting it together. 

T n A: Slow Roasted Turkey, Avocado, Green Chile Apple Chutney, Lettuce, Tomato and Muenster Cheese

T n A Sandwich and Smoked Sweet Potato-Chipotle Soup

The process starts with real turkey, not a ubiquitous Boar’s Head offering.  First, a dry rub of relatively simple ingredients (crushed peppers, garlic, salt, etc.) is lovingly applied followed by a smear of a housemade honey mustard.  The turkey then goes into the oven for twelve hours at low temperature (250 degrees).  When extricated, the turkey pulls apart easily.  At this point, almost every restaurant would serve, but not so at Bocadillos which nestles a generous amount of this amazing turkey between a hoagie bun, tops it with a magically reduced  green chile-apple chutney, heirloom tomatoes and ripe avocados.  It’s eight-ounces of absolute deliciousness, turkey being all it can be.  The green-chile apple chutney is sweet and tangy but has a bit of fire which will sneak up on you. 

17 February 2015: Not that very long ago you could use the adjective “unique” to describe any non-standard preparation of the ubiquitous Cubano sandwich, but nowadays it seems every sandwich shop has its own unique take on this popular sandwich.  In time, only Cubanos prepared in time-honored, traditional ways will be unique.  That said, Bocadillos take on the Cubano is vastly different (unique) from any other I’ve had.  First, it’s made on a sub roll and not on a pressed panini.   Secondly, the slow-roasted pork is accompanied by bacon instead of ham (like substituting a BMW for a Ford Pinto).  Thirdly, it’s made with homemade sweet pickles, not the dill variety.  It’s also made with Muenster cheese and sweet chile sauce.  Aside from the tender tendrils of pork and smoky ham, the star of this sandwich is the pickles which seem hardly more than freshly canned, crispy cucumbers with a sweet pickling sauce that elevate them to a sublime level.

Cubano

25 February 2016: It’s only natural that there would be one sandwich on the Bocadillos menu I wouldn’t esteem as highly as the others, a fifth place sandwich out of five so to speak.  That sandwich is the 505-Filthy (slow-roasted chicken, green chile, bacon, Asadero cheese, chopotle mayo, lettuce and tomato).   Elsewhere it would probably be the best sandwich on the menu, but at Bocadillos, it’s the one sandwich which wouldn’t be on my sandwich rotation if I believed in such a prosaic notion.  The “Filthy” is constructed with unfailingly fresh ingredients that go well together.  That slow-roasted chicken is moist, tender and delicious.  There’s nothing wrong with this sandwich.  It’s just not (in my honest opinion) as wonderful as others on the menu.

As a young student, I disliked cold weather intensely because it meant summer vacation was over and school was back in session.  As a more seasoned citizen, I’m looking forward to cold weather because it  means Bocadillos is serving soup.  Having served for six years as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s SouperBowl fund-raising event, I’m well acquainted with Bocadillos soup.  In 2013, Bocadillos earned the Critics Choice Award for its Southwest chicken corn chowder.  In the 2014 soup soiree, Bocadillos green chile chicken corn chowder  earned third place in the Peoples’ Choice category.  In the 2015 SouperBowl, Bocadillos earned third place for its New Mexico Clam Chowder.  Better than both of these is a smoked sweet potato-chipotle soup reminiscent of the phenomenal soups prepared in Santa Fe’s Jambo.  It’s one of the very best soups this veteran soup judge has enjoyed.

The 505-Filthy

It’s highly likely Bocadillos will likely earn quite a few “best of” and “peoples’ choice” awards over the years.  Within months after launching its grab-and-go operation, no less than Food Network glitterati Guy Fieri and the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew came calling. Fieri’s September, 2013 visit caused quite a stir and when the episode showcasing Bocadillos aired on Monday, October 28, 2013, viewers all over the country found out about the small unconventional restaurant which serves one of the world’s best Ruben sandwiches.  Even more remarkable is that the best Ruben in Albuquerque may not even be the best sandwich on the Bocadillos menu.

Bocadillos Slow Roasted: A Sandwich Shop
1609 Indian School Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-0403
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 25 February 2016
1st VISIT: 29 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Duke City Ruben, 5-0-Philly, T n A, Macaroni Salad, Roasted Sweet Potato Chipotle Soup, Green Chile Chicken Corn Chowder, Cubano, 505-Filthy

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Tecolote Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The World Famous Tecalote Café

Everyone knows the most sagacious of all creatures in nature is the owl. The owl is to whom all other creatures go to get some of life’s most pondered questions answered–questions such as “how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”  After having posed the question to a cow, a fox and a turtle, a young boy decides to ask the wise owl. “Good question, let’s find out,” the owl retorts. “A One…A two-hoo…A three (crunch sound effect). Three!”  It took three licks for the erudite owl to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie roll, prompting the boy to declare, “if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a smart owl.”

Three is also the number of visits to New Mexico restaurants made in December, 2007 by Guy Fieri while filming episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives for the Food Network. Fieri was wise enough to make one of those visits to Santa Fe’s own owl, the famous and fabulous Tecolote Cafe.  Tecolote is the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for “owl,” but founding proprietors Bill and Alice Jamison actually named their restaurant for an all-but-deserted Northern New Mexican village alongside the railroad tracks just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico about 55 miles east of Santa Fe.

One of the restaurant’s sprawling dining rooms

Throughout history, the owl has played a significant role in the myths and legends of many cultures. Just as in Old Mexico, in northern New Mexico the owl often represents “la bruja” or the witch–either the malevolent or benevolent kind (as masterfully represented by the title character in the outstanding Rudolfo Anaya novel Bless Me Ultima). As such, to many the owl is either to be feared or revered.  The attribution of wisdom to the owl actually started with Ancient Athenians who called the owl the bird of wisdom. It’s conventional wisdom for Santa Fe residents to start their days with breakfast at the Tecolote Cafe, one of the city’s most popular dining destinations. It became even more popular after the Food Network first aired the episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featuring the restaurant.

The December filming occurred shortly after the staff had decorated the restaurant for Christmas. Because the Food Network airs each episode several times throughout the year, the Tecolote staff had to take down the Christmas decorations so that the restaurant would appear seasonally agnostic.The Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew spent about 23 hours over a two-day period in the restaurant. Host Guy Fieri’s focus was on the Tecolote’s famous red and green chile which he helped prepare under the watchful eye of former general manager Chris Valdez (who now owns and operates the fabulous Chris’ Cafe), one of the coolest and down-to-earth restaurant personalities we’ve met–an excellent foil for the effervescent Fieri.

Bakery Basket with Strawberry Preserves and Whipped Butter

The Tecolote received the coveted third segment on the program, meaning it the segment was bisected by a commercial. The segment lasted little more than six minutes, but it reintroduced America to a Santa Fe treasure which was named one of Santa Fe’s ten best dining destinations by Fortune magazine in the early 1990s  Since it opened in June, 1980, the Tecolote Cafe has earned a bevy of accolades. It is a perennial winner of “best breakfast” awards from local and national publications. Quite simply, it’s one of the best reasons to get up in the morning in Santa Fe.  In fact, you’d better get up early and get to the Tecolote shortly after it opens at 7AM because within an hour after opening, you might just have to wait for a seat. 

In the 2011 season premier of the Sundance Channel’s Ludo Bites America show which first aired on July 19th, nomadic chef Ludo LeFebvre transformed the Tecolote Cafe into Ludo Bites Tecolote.  The premise of the show is that the eccentric chef travels across the country and creates a “pop-up” restaurant on an existing restaurant premises.  Only New Mexico’s piquant peppers were a match for Ludo’s tempestuous nature in this entertaining half hour.  Interesting though they were, the liberties Ludo took in crafting a New Mexico meets Ludo menu pale in comparison with Tecolote’s standard menu.

Chips and salsa with chile piquin

Chips and salsa with chile piquin

When Alice and Bill Jennison first opened Tecolote Cafe in 1980, their mission was to serve excellent food at a reasonable price while making their guests feel at home. Over three decades later the family still strives for these qualities.   Bill passed away in May, 2010 and Alice followed suit two and a half years later.  Today, their daughter Katie and her husband Matt own and operate the Tecolote, pleasing Santa Fe’s palate now for more than three decades.  The restaurant’s staff is among the most accommodating and friendly in the City Different.  Our favorite is Mela whose broad smile and buoyant sense of humor make early mornings easier to take.

One of the cafe’s mottos is “Great Breakfast–No Toast.” That’s okay because you won’t miss toast in the least. Breakfast entrees are accompanied by your choice of a bakery basket or a tortilla. In its July-August, 2010 issue, Food Network magazine celebrated the “most important meal of the day” in a feature entitled “50 States, 50 Breakfasts.”  The magazine featured “the best breakfast” in every state in the union.  The New Mexico selection was the Tecolote Cafe’s atole piñon pancakes (more on these gems later).  Apparently even after five years, the Food Network couldn’t find any better breakfast in the Land Of Enchantment as it named those atole piñon pancakes New Mexico’s best breakfast choice in 2015, too. 

Huevos Yucatecos

Huevos Yucatecos

6 December 2015: The bakery basket includes a variety of muffins, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, strawberry preserves and whipped butter. It arrives at your table shortly after you place your order and it arrives just out of the oven fresh, hot and delicious. If the basket doesn’t fill you up, it’ll put a dent on your appetite.  The strawberry preserves are homemade and are as good as you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico. 

Save room for the Tecolote’s chips and salsa. Although New Mexico is the world capital for chile, many of our restaurants don’t use chile on their salsa, heating it up instead with jalapenos. That’s a shame because red and (or) green chile can really liven up salsa.  Red chile piquin is discernible in the Tecolote Cafe’s salsa which is the rich red color of invigorating freshness and piquancy. This salsa packs a punch as it should, but where it stands out is in its chile enriched flavor.

Atole-pinon hotcakes

Atole-pinon hotcakes

The cafe’s other motto as sported on the shirts worn by the staff is “Get Your Chile Fix at the Tecolote Cafe.” That’s an appropriate motto for a cafe which serves up some of the best chile in northern New Mexico. In Santa Fe the only green chile to compare with this one comes from the legendary Horseman’s Haven.  It is quite simply outstanding!  That green chile is showcased in several of the restaurant’s signature dishes, but may shine most brightly on the Huevos Yucatecos. Initially offered as a special, it became so popular it just had to be added to the menu.

Huevos Yucatecos feature corn tortillas layered with black beans, two eggs any style, green chile, Swiss and feta cheese, pico de gallo, and surrounded with fried bananas. It is served with your choice of beans, posole, or potatoes (ask for all three). It is one of the dishes featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  It stands to reason that host Guy Fieri would relate to an entree which melds seemingly disparate ingredients. Several years ago Fieri launched Tex Wasabi, a restaurant serving Southwestern barbecue and California-style sushi, as innovative a fusion of disparate cuisine as you’ll find anywhere. Fieri appreciated the Huevos Yucatecos.

Carne Adovada Breakfast with Potatoes and Two Eggs

This dish arrives at your table piping hot with the aroma of piquant green chile steaming toward your nostrils. It’s an aroma every New Mexican finds as alluring and irresistible as a siren’s call. The Tecolote Cafe’s green chile is absolutely wonderful (though I’ve already stated this, it bears repeating), epitomizing the high standards for which our state vegetable is beloved.  At over easy, the yoke from the fried eggs runs onto the green chile to add another flavor dimension. For absolute contrast, however, slice up the fried bananas and use your fork to dip them into the green chile, egg yolk mix. Think Bananas Foster New Mexico style. 

The fried potatoes are crispy and low in salt, a commonality among many menu items. The chile and beans, in fact, are prepared in pure soy oil with very little salt. They contain no meat or cholesterol.  Back to the fried potatoes. They’re sliced almost potato chip thin, but have a great flavor. The pinto beans are not your run-of-the-mill soupy, just-off-the-stove pintos nor are they the often dreaded and desiccated refried beans. These beans have obviously simmered on a stove and are served at the peak of flavor.

Huevos Rancheros with Posole

Huevos Rancheros with Posole

6 December 2015: Another popular breakfast entree is carne y huevos. The carne is adovada, a heaping serving of lean pork loin cooked in a blend of chiles (including chile piquin), chopped garlic, cracked pepper and Mexican oregano. The pork is both cubed and shredded with the obvious low and slow preparation style which makes it tender.  The best carne adovada tends to have a very smooth and mellow flavor profile.  Tecolote’s rendition is a bit heavy-handed with the oregano, rendering an otherwise excellent adovada more than a bit on the astringent side.   This entree is served with two eggs any style and the Tecolote Cafe’s famous potatoes.  

Aside from the chile, the one dish which seemed to capture Fieri’s imagination was the atole blue corn-piñon pancakes which he described as having “real texture, not just light fluffy nothing.” He called them “some of the best.”  Forty years ago the word “atole” was among the most dreaded in the vernacular of northern New Mexico for this native. Atole then represented a thick cornmeal cereal which my abuelitas swore had curative properties. They never succeeded in getting me to eat it. Maybe they should have used it to craft pancakes.  The secret to these pancakes is the blue, ground cornmeal which is the chief ingredient in the atole I dreaded so many years ago. Toss in piñon evenly throughout the pancakes, serve them with hot maple syrup and whipped batter and you’ve got just about the best medicine for the morning blues.

The Kitchen Sink

6 December 2015: The special of the day, scrawled on a slate board near the restaurant entrance, sported the rather interesting name “The Kitchen Sink,” a term which implies an entrée made with everything in the kitchen and then some.  Alas, when it came time to place our orders, I had forgotten the name and called it the “Garbage Pail.”  It took Mela a few seconds to figure out what I wanted.  The Kitchen Sink starts off with two fluffy biscuits, one topped with green chile and the other with carne adovada, both of which are blanketed by two eggs.  This is a terrific dish, especially the biscuit half topped with the green chile.  As we joked with Mela, there’s no way a dish this good could possibly be named for refuse.

You may have noticed from the photograph at the start of this review depicts a different Tecolote Café than one you may have visited in the past.  For almost 34 years, the Tecolote Café served the City Different on heavily trafficked Cerrillos.  On April 20th, 2014, the fabled and fabulous restaurant closed its original restaurant, reopening in much more capacious and modern digs on July 14th, 2015 at the Village West Shopping Center on Saint Michael’s.  As with its previous location, getting seated at the Tecolote Cafe may take a while, but once you’re seated, the staff is quick to deliver some of the very best breakfast in New Mexico. To avoid a lengthy wait, get there when the restaurant opens promptly at 7AM and you’ll beat the crowds of owl-wise diners who love the Tecolote Cafe.

Tecolote Cafe
1616 Saint Michael’s Drive
Santa Fe, New Mexico

(505) 988-1362
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 06 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Huevos Yucatecos, Carne Y Huevos, Atolé Piñon Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Bakery Basket, Huevos Rancheros with Posole, The Kitchen Sink

Tecolote Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Standard Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Standard Diner in Albuquerque's East Downtown District

The Standard Diner in Albuquerque’s East Downtown District

While New Mexico is most assuredly the Land of Enchantment, most locals also accept that it’s also the “land of mañana” where things that can be put off until tomorrow usually are, where the pace of life is more relaxed and slower. George Adelo, Jr., an enterprising Pecos resident even coined (and copyrighted) a phrase to describe the New Mexican way: “Carpe Mañana”–Seize Tomorrow.  The spirit of Carpe Mañana was certainly prevalent in the long-awaited, much-anticipated opening of the Standard Diner, a Matt DiGregory restaurant venture which in opening March 2nd, 2006, was nearly eight months behind its planned launch.  If ever a restaurant has more than made up for lost time, it may be this one.

DiGregory, a local restaurant impresario owns the Standard Diner with his brothers Chris, Vince and Jon. He also owns the very popular Range restaurants in Bernalillo and Albuquerque as well as the now defunct Rodeo Grill.  The Brothers DiGregory couldn’t have found a better location for their high-end diner which specializes in fresh, homemade comfort foods. The restaurant is situated in Albuquerque’s East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming” areas in the nation.”  DiGregory defines standard as “a benchmark that all others are compared to.”  That’s become the case for the neighborhood as well as the restaurant.

The Standard Diner’s herb bread

Housed in what was once a classic car dealership (vintage photographs show it was called Caruthers & Maudlin), a tremendous amount of refurbishment obviously went into restoring the property. The decor is reminiscent of a 1930s or 1940s dining room with exposed brick walls and wood-beamed ceilings lending to the period piece authenticity.  A soundtrack featuring the soothing stylings and dulcet tones of the best big band era artists and romantic crooners of the 1940s inspires hushed tones and a relaxed dining pace. Vintage photographs of the Duke City festoon the walls in the restaurant’s two dining rooms.

An evidently well-prepared wait staff is cordial, professional and eager to share their knowledge of both the building’s history and the restaurant’s diverse menu. When our waitress couldn’t answer a question we asked about the bar towels used instead of napkins, she quickly dispatched the day manager who regaled us with interesting details on where the idea for bar towels came up.  We also learned that the herb bread brought to our table has a history even more interesting than that of the restaurant. The bread comes from a culture whose progenitor traveled the Oregon trail in 1845. It is baked in-house and has that yeasty bouquet true connoisseurs of the “staff of life” crave. Best of all, we’ve had it served to us with a brilliant orange-red oil made from achiote a subtly flavored paste which has a pleasant flavor. Better still is the achiote butter (pictured above) which enlivens the bread even further.

Coconut Key Lime Shake, one of several creative shakes on the Standard menu

In the February 2nd, 2009 airing of a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode called “Return to Route 66,” host Guy Fieri declared “there’s nothing standard about the Standard Diner.”  That is very evident in the restaurant’s diverse menu which somewhat belies the “Diner” label by not serving traditional diner food.  The menu is very interesting to say the least, interspersing several upscale American comfort food favorites with cuisine whose genesis is the Orient, Latin America and even Australia (where DiGregory discovered the “Otis Burger” which is made with roasted beets, a fried egg, bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayo). You’ll be hard-pressed to make a quick selection and will undoubtedly want to make several return visits to try one of the other intriguing items on a menu that’s truly unique.

In a handful of visits since the restaurant opened in 2009, we have often opted (as we almost always do at restaurants we visit) to order adventurously in lieu of ordering the “safe” sounding menu items.  This is a philosophy that has introduced us to a wealth of otherwise untried deliciousness  at many restaurants and at the very least lets us say we gave it a shot.  Alas, at the Standard Diner our success rate with this approach is somewhere around fifty percent; that is, we’ve only liked about half of what we’ve ordered.  Though we applaud the inventiveness of the menu, it’s in execution that some items truly fail to win us over.  That’s especially true of appetizers (coincidentally many of which are no longer on the menu (I wonder why)).

1 January 2012: Roasted Beef Salad

Appetizer options (they change frequently) have included BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, slow-cooked lamb top-round, housemade BBQ sauce and Jarlsberg cheese grilled in a tortilla and served with a tangy yogurt, cucumber raita (a traditional Indian style yogurt-based condiment). While the BBQ sauce was surprisingly ordinary, the raita was refreshing and delicious–almost a cross between Greek tzadziki sauce and the cucumber sauce which often accompanies satay in Thai restaurants.  The lamb deserved better!

An intriguing meal starter is the flap jack trio which is essentially three petite peach and scallion flap jacks topped with an inventive array of ingredients. One is topped with a tomato chutney, one with herbed goat cheese and one with a strawberry basil relish. The flap jacks are small in circumference, about the size of a biscuit, but they’re imbued with a gigantic amount of flavor from taste combinations that go very well together. This is a very nice appetizer!

Watermelon & Tuna Ceviche

One appetizer we won’t have again if it’s brought back on the menu are the tuna salad spring rolls made with sesame marinated Saku tuna wrapped in rice paper with micro greens and pickled carrots. There just wasn’t much to this appetizer as the tuna was lost among the other ingredients and was somewhat recessed even further into the background by a tangy chile sauce.  That tangy chile sauce proved to be the salvation for the steak salad, described on the menu as “Thai marinated flank steak, grilled and served on our house greens with a sesame vinaigrette.” Talk about under-performing. The sesame vinaigrette was virtually tasteless, lending absolutely no appeal to an otherwise ordinary salad which needed rescuing by something lively and with pizzazz. We were also unable to discern anything “Thai” tasting in the five thin strips of flank steak that came on the salad.

30 January 2011: Yet another intriguing starter which failed to deliver on the intriguing promise of excellent ingredients is a watermelon and tuna ceviche.  Nested on endive leaves is a ceviche made from sashimi tuna, Hatch green chile, red onions and chopped tomatoes.  Unlike traditional Mexican ceviche found in so many local restaurants, the Standard Diner’s ceviche is not marinated in citrus juices.  That may be the start of its downfall, but the accelerant is most certainly the endive leaves which are bitter receptacles for what might have otherwise been at least passable ceviche.  The lemon cilantro coulis was also uninspired,  the flavor of tangy lemon and refreshing cilantro failing to coalesce into any semblance of deliciousness.

The Standard Mac and Cheese with Smoked Salmon and Green Chili

Much better luck have we had with the restaurant’s entrees, among which are chicken and dumplings made with garlic roasted poultry-a-plenty simmered in a green chile broth with masa, feta cheese and cilantro dumplings. This is New Mexico style comfort food at its best with hearty, robust flavors and aromas that you want on a blustery winter day.

11 October 2008: You can’t say “comfort food” without mentioning macaroni and cheese, a fact obviously recognized by the Standard Diner. The Standard Mac and Cheese features baked shells with crisp bacon, Guinness and fine Irish Cheddar cheese sauce covered with herbed bread crumbs. For a pittance more, you can add green chile and smoked salmon to the mix. The only item we would dispense with entirely are the herbed bread crumbs. Our entree arrived with herbed bread crumbs a plenty, so many that we wondered if a clumsy chef had spilled the box’s entire contents onto the entree. The bread crumbs serve only to desiccate what is otherwise a moist and very good entree.

1 January 2012: Lobster Roll

The one entree which seemed to captivate Guy Fieri most was the diner standard of meatloaf, done Standard Diner style, of course, which means wrapped in bacon.  Fieri loved the texture and depth of flavor.  Called the “Finer Loaf” on the menu, it is served with smashed potatoes and a red wine gravy.  The red wine gravy is terrific, one of the very best mashed potato toppers in the city and a nice departure from the more conventional chicken or turkey gravy.

Another fun entree evinces a whimsical side that many nouveau restaurants just don’t have. It’s country fried tuna. Our close proximity to Texas means many New Mexico restaurants serve up a mean, artery-clogging country fried steak or chicken, but tuna is (as Texas chamber of commerce commercials say) “like a whole other country.” Rather than the thick coating used on steak, it’s a light coating of tempura fried batter that covers several half-inch thick pieces of sushi grade Ahi tuna.  One bite and Guy Fieri’s eyes rolled back in obvious appreciation, maybe even homage.  His litany of adjectives was perhaps over the top, even for the effusive host.

The Otis Burger

30 January 2011: In addition to “different” the adjective which best describes the aforementioned Otis burger is messy. The egg will run down your hands as you try to hold this two-fisted burger which is trapped within the confines of a desiccated bun made from the restaurant’s signature bread. Other than the egg, the  ingredient which most distinguishes itself is the bacon which has the smoky taste aficionados like.  Once we extricated the grilled pineapple and sliced beet from the confines of a very good hamburger bun, we enjoyed them tremendously, but they were lost within the burger itself.  All burgers are made from char-grilled 100-percent Black Angus beef (or you can upgrade to Kobe beef for a price).

30 January 2011: Perhaps residents of the Badger State have an affinity for unhealthy foodstuffs which start with the letter “B” (beer, brats, burgers) because in Wisconsin you can’t spell burger without butter.  Artery-clogging Wisconsin butter is slathered on both sides of the  Wisconsin butter burger which is then topped with cheese.  My friend Dale, an ectomorph from the Green Bay area loves the Standard Diner’s Bourbon Butter Burger upon which is slathered a bourbon-maple compound butter.  It’s about twice the size of many of the butter burgers proffered throughout the Milwaukee area and ostensibly has at least as many calories.  Though this burger should come standard with an angioplasty, it’s a very good burger.

The Bourbon Butter Burger

A popular entree on the lunch menu during one visit, the Sheep Herder is a New Mexico meets the world treat you will thoroughly enjoy. It starts with two over-medium eggs atop Irish Cheddar home fries with melted Gruyere cheese, a combination which upscales the popular breakfast standards of fried eggs and potatoes. Also upping the ante are a “tortilla roll-up” cut in three. A large flour tortilla enveloping corned beef, sauerkraut and green chile makes for a tangy, savory and piquant flavor combination in which the marriage of sauerkraut and green chile is surprisingly good. It’s wholly unlike some of the boring Philadelphia cream cheese and ham tortilla roll-ups you sometimes see at office parties.

19 October 2015: Not that very long ago it might have been easier to find Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure in the Rocky Mountains than it was to find a good fish taco in New Mexico.  Today, fish tacos have become a viable dining option, even a reason to visit the restaurants which prepare them well.  Among the very best in the city are the Standard Diner’s fish tacos (three street style tacos with seared cod, charred tomatillo salsa, spicy pineapple slaw, smoked chile-lime crema and avocado), a bold, zesty and fun triumvirate.   These tacos glean their personality from the assertiveness of the smoked chile-lime crema, the tangy audacity of the charred tomatillo salsa and the liveliness of the spicy pineapple slaw.  Despite the vibrancy of these condiments, the delicate flavor of the flaky seared cod isn’t obfuscated in the least.  It takes two tortillas per taco to hold in all the ingredients of each taco and even then you can expect some of the “innards” will spill onto your plate.

Fish Tacos

The dessert menu is also not your standard hum-drum parade of cloying boringness. After much deliberation (and if it’s on the ever-changing dessert menu), you might opt for the Twisted Tiramisu made with Espresso-soaked lady fingers, dulce de leche Mascarpone with agave poached pears and candied piñon. It is light, frothy and delicious with wonderfully complementary and contrasting flavor sensations.

Mascarpone is also a principle ingredient in an off-the-menu special you might luck on. It’s a delicious twist on strudel featuring phyllo dough engorged with Marscapone then topped with a scoop of Rum Raisin ice cream. The semi-sweet nature of the phyllo dough and Marscapone in combination with the shivering cold sweetness of the ice cream is inventive and delicious.

Bananas Foster Bread Puding

30 January 2011: It wouldn’t hold true to the pattern of our visits to the Standard Diner if we liked every single dessert.  The one we didn’t like–and this is very uncharacteristic for me–is the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding.  Regular readers might recognize my carnal passion for great bread pudding.  Made with a dark rum caramel sauce and poured sugar tuile, this is not among the good ones–not by a long shot.  What made it so disagreeable to me was just how cloying and rich it is.  Considering my ideal bread pudding is studded with adult (dark) chocolate, this one was as sweet as honey and syrup together.

Standard Diner isn’t your standard, everyday run-of-the mill diner. It’s a restaurant going places thanks to an innovative and delicious menu full of surprises.  You may not like all those surprises, but you’ve got to admire the never say die attitude of a chef  who dares to be different and in doing so, has as many hits as misses.  Every restaurant should be as enterprising.   Don’t “carpe manana” before you dine at this restaurant.

Standard Diner
320 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-1440
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 19 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 18
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, Twisted Tiramasu, Country Fried Tuna, The Otis, The Sheep Herder, Bourbon Butter Burger

Standard Diner on Urbanspoon

Jambo Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Growing up in the 60s–the dark ages before the Internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes and google, then spelled “googol” represented an very large number (currently being approached by America’s budget deficit)–even precocious children like me derived most of our knowledge of Africa from National Geographic magazines and Tarzan movies. We thought Africa was one large monolithic country comprised solely of stark, expansive deserts or lush, mysterious jungles. Africa’s indigenous people, we believed, had to compete for food with lions, tigers and hyenas, oh my. Though Africa was called “the Dark Continent,” it was truly our knowledge which was in the dark, obfuscated by stereotypes and misconceptions.

A rare sight--For once Jambo Cafe isn't pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up--even though it was well after 2PM)

A rare sight–For once Jambo Cafe isn’t pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up–even though it was well after 2PM)

The 1966 debut of Star Trek helped eliminate some of those stereotypes with the introduction of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, a stunning black woman from the United States of Africa who spoke Swahili.  By the time Disney’s The Jungle Book premiered in 1967, I had learned enough about Africa to know that save for in zoos, you couldn’t find a tiger in the entire continent.  In the intervening years since the naivete of my youth, I’ve also learned that Africa is comprised of 53 very distinct and autonomous nations and even more unique cultures.  While jungles and desserts are indeed  a significant part of the African landscape, so too are mountains that hug the clouds and grassy flatlands called savannas.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef Ahmed Obo

The vast diversity of Africa extends to its cuisine, which–similar to American cuisines–takes on regional personalities reflective of an area’s culture, history and ingredients. Swahili cuisine, for example, is a lusty and vibrant confluence of local ingredients and spices ameliorated by the ideas and ingredients brought over by foreign settlers.  One of the epicenters of Swahili cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.  Lamu is where chef Ahmed Obo began the unique journey that would ultimately lead him to Santa Fe where he would launch one of the most talked about restaurants in a city in which the conversation usually turns to great restaurants.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Since its launch in August, 2009, perhaps no restaurant in Santa Fe has garnered as much acclaim as Jambo Cafe. In its inaugural year, Jambo Cafe earned “Best of Santa Fe” honors for “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Ethnic Restaurant” from the Santa Fe Reporter. Within six months of launching, Jambo’s intoxicating elixirs earned “Best Savory Soup” and “Best Soup” overall in Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl which benefits The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s food bank. One year later, Jambo repeated its “Best Soup” win and added “Best Vegetarian Soup.” The traveling trophy emblematic of Jambo’s super soup has a prominent place by the front window while framed certificates for each win festoon the walls

Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains served with pineapple curry dipping sauce.

“Jambo” translates from Swahili to a shortened, more informal, “touristy” version of “hello.” All social interactions in Swahili are usually prefaced by a greeting, but not in the perfunctory manner of American greetings. Swahili greetings tend to be more respectful and formal than American greetings. It’s therefore quite surprising to be greeted in such an effusive and informal manner when you walk into Jambo Cafe. It’s a genuine friendliness, imparting a warmth that’s increasingly rare in stodgy Santa Fe. The friendliness extends from adjoining tables, some populated by retro-clad hipsters who seem to have found the home at Jambo they couldn’t find in one of the stuffy, high-end, high-brow Santa Fe restaurants.  Conversations across neighboring tables make for a fun and interesting vibe.

Coconut Peanut Chicken Kebabs with Curry Coleslaw

The ochre colored walls are adorned with framed photographs and paintings of Africa: the shaggy maned lion in all its glory, the elegant and elongated giraffe, elephants frolicking in the Serengeti Plain, native youth at play and more. Batiks hug the ceiling tiles. The restaurant, a tenant of a nondescript strip mall, is long and narrow with tables in personal space proximity to one another.  Even though the restaurant expanded in 2012 and doubled its seating capacity, queues of diners waiting to be seated can exceed an hour over dinner.   The personal space proximity makes it easier to get to know your neighbors, some of whom have an intimate knowledge of the menu and can tell you what’s good and what’s…well, everything is good and that’s a starting point.

    Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

While many of us would willingly admit a complete ignorance of African food, the menu’s African and Caribbean dishes might inspire a little deja vu and it’s not necessarily because you may have read or heard about just how great the food is. The starters–stuffed phyllo, hummus plate, coconut shrimp, jerk chicken wings and cinnamon-dusted plantains–(or variations thereof) appear on menus at other restaurants. The familiarity extends onto the salads, entrees and desserts, none of which sound especially exotic or altogether strange or different.

Ginger Peanut Butternut Squash Soup

The difference between Jambo’s cuisine and that of other restaurants is in Jambo’s inspired melding of flavor and ingredient combinations–combinations which dance on your taste buds with seasonings and spices that eke out every bit of addictive deliciousness possible while perfuming the air with intoxicating aromas. There are few dishes and even fewer restaurants which truly surprise me with “knock your socks off” flavors. Jambo is among the few.

Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup

Your adventure in truly sensual dining starts with beverage selection while perusing the menu. Forget the usual suspects (even if they do include Hansen’s Soda, the ubiquitous and delicious Santa Fe favorite) and indulge in something out of the ordinary–something extraordinary. Try the mango ginger lemonade, a triumvirate of flavors that purse your lips with an invigorating tanginess. You’ll be smacking your lips in grateful appreciation, especially on sweltering summer days. Maybe even better is the Jamaican hibiscus iced tea with its elements of earthy fruitiness and noticeable lack of the acerbic aftertaste often found on tea.

Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew: with basmati coconut rice.

Appetizers & Soups

19 March 2011: Some diners consider appetizers foreplay for the taste buds, a preamble to the main course and a fairly reliable barometer of the restaurant’s culinary prowess. Great appetizers will whet your appetite for more. Phenomenal appetizers will leave you happy if your meal consisted of nothing more. That’s the way we felt about the cinnamon-dusted plantains served with a pineapple curry dipping sauce. The texture of the plantains is perfect–more firm than bananas and not as firm as potatoes, perhaps resultant from being sauteed. The cinnamon is akin to a blessing, sweet and gentle, while the pineapple curry dipping sauce is a perfect foil, a contrast that draws out other qualities in the plantains. The sauce is terrific, a melding of African curry and succulent, sweet pineapples. African curry is rich and complex, wholly different from Thai or Indian curries.

Jerk Chicken Wings

Jerk Chicken Wings

07 January 2012: One of Jambo’s most interesting appetizers naturally brings comparisons to a similar appetizer, one found a continent away in Southeast Asia.  When we saw coconut peanut chicken kebabs on the starter menu, it brought to mind satay, the popular Thai and Malaysian starter.  Similar to satay, Jambo’s coconut peanut chicken kebabs feature skewered strips of chicken served with a peanut sauce.  While satay is marinated in Thai curry with the peanut sauce used in a complementary fashion, Jambo’s kebabs are covered in the coconut-peanut sauce, a savory sauce that tastes like a grown-up version of the sometimes cloying Thai peanut sauce.  Served with the kebabs is a curry coleslaw, a terrific variation on conventional coleslaw.  It’s an idea whose time has come. 

Coconut Shrimp with Lime-Mango Sauce

03 January 2013Jerk wings tend to fall into two camps: wings slathered with a Scotch Bonnet pepper based sauce so piquant it’s been used in Guantanamo as an instrument of “interrogation” and wings so insipid, they cause somnolence.  At Jambo, the Jerk Chicken Wings are meaty wings infused with a beguiling Caribbean inspired spice mix in perfect proportion to a mild smokiness.   Jambo’s chicken wings will tease your taste buds with piquancy and they’ll please your palate with flavor. 

25 April 2015: Because fried shrimp harkens me back to the rare “fine-dining” experiences at The Sizzler during my unenlightened childhood, my preference has always been for boiled shrimp. My eyes typically grouse over any menu featuring fried shrimp, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s classic debate zinger “Jambo is no Sizzler.” You’ve got to believe Chef Ahmed knows a thing or two about frying shrimp. Besides, wild tiger shrimp are a mild (less briny and “fishy) shrimp that pairs well with a variety of sauces. Jambo butterflies the jumbo shrimp, encrusts it in a crispy coconut batter and fries it to a golden sheen. The shrimp is paired with a lime-mango sauce which imparts a tanginess that complements the sweetness of the batter and the savory qualities of the shrimp. This is shrimp the way my eight year-old self wishes he’d had. 

Combination Plate: Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti.

If the notion of a fennel butternut squash soup makes you deliriously weepy, Jambo has a version you’ve got to try. Typically the aromatic, licorice-like flavor of fennel is a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of butternut squash, but the fennel is just one of so many exotic touches on this soup that it’s a challenge to discern its presence. Seriously, you could probably have substituted dandelion for fennel and you wouldn’t be able to discern the dandelion. That’s how well all the spices and seasonings meld together. This soup is truly an amalgam of individual flavors coalescing into a singular, more delicious whole. It’s got the typical comforting soup qualities of creaminess and deliciousness, but it’s so wonderfully well-blended that the fennel seemed rather left out, not that we cared. Okay, now that I’ve beaten up that point, once we got past trying to discern the fennel, we luxuriated in just how great yet another Jambo soup is.

19 March 2011: The soup of the day during our inaugural visit was the best of the best, Jambo’s 2011 Souper Bowl award winning curried black bean and sweet potato soup. In several years of serving as a judge at Albuquerque’s Souper Bowl competition, only a handful of soups even approach the complexity and depth of flavors of this intoxicating elixir. This is a soul-warming soup which will lift your spirits and re-kindle your love of soup. The curry provides an exquisitely spicy touch that marries oh so well with the sweet potatoes. The soup is served hot, the way soup should always be served.

    Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

One Skewer of Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs and One Skewer of Coconut-Peanut Chicken Kebabs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

7 January 2012: If there’s one thing our visits to Jambo have taught us is that soup is a must with every meal.  Even if its ninety-five degrees outdoors, these magical elixirs are so good they’d draw a smile from the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame.  The soup of the day during our second visit was a ginger peanut butternut squash soup, the very best I’ve ever had.  Too many chefs seem to accentuate or even heighten the sweetness of butternut squash, sometimes resulting in a dessert-sweet soup.  At Jambo, the natural sweetness of the butternut squash is melded with the invigorating freshness of ginger and the savoriness of peanuts to create a sweet-savory-piquant soup you’ll want a vat of.  The soup is served with wedges of pita.  You’ll also find pita within the soup where it’s toasted and cut into delightful bite-size pieces. 

7 January 2012: Sometimes the differences between a soup and a stew are barely discernible.  By definition, a soup is any combination of meat, fruit, vegetables and/or fish cooked in liquid while a stew is a dish containing meat, vegetables and a thick soup-like broth made from a combination of the stewing liquid and the natural juices of the food being served.  Jambo’s Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew is most assuredly a stew though it has soup-like qualities and might remind you of Jambo’s wondrous soups.  It’s a thick amalgam of perfectly spiced and sinfully rich ingredients as comforting and delicious as any soup or stew you’ll ever have.  It’s served with perfectly prepared basmati rice.

Grilled jerk organic chicken

Entrees

19 March 2011: To maximize your adventure in flavor, you’ll want Jambo’s combination plate which is brimming with chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti. The curry, stew and lentils are trisected by coconut rice in the shape of the letter Y. The chicken curry and goat stew are studies in the efficacy of rich, complex sauces. The goat stew is an amalgam of potatoes and carrots in a sauce of equal pronouncements of sweet and piquant. The goat meat itself is plentiful, including tiny bones. The chicken curry, which includes sauteed spinach, is not nearly as intense as the curry, but maybe even more flavorful. Coconut lentils, an East African staple, will make a believer of any lentil loathers out there. The roti, a warm bread vaguely reminiscent of Indian naan, is perfectly made. We used it in much the way New Mexicans use tortillas to scoop up chile and beans. Interestingly, while the menu calls roti “African flat bread,” it’s also a staple of Malaysian restaurants.

19 March 2011: The accommodating staff has a “customer is always right” latitude in allowing substitutions.  For example, my Kim wanted the grilled jerk organic chicken entree, but wanted the sides which come with the grilled marinated beef kabobs.  The sides would be a pomegranate red onion sauce over a green bean and mixed green salad with saffron new potatoes.  The pomegranate and red onion sauce is phenomenal, a melding of sweet, tart fruitiness and caramelized pickled red onions.  It’s one of those rare salad dressings you might be tempted to lick off the plate to make sure you don’t miss any.  The mixed greens are at the height of freshness.  The jerk chicken is redolent with a sweet-spicy smokiness reflective of the assertive spiciness of jerk seasoning.  A light crust seals in moistness and flavor.  This is one of the very best jerk chicken plates I’ve ever had! 

Tuna

Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna

7 January 2012: The grilled marinated beef kabobs served with the aforementioned pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans are par excellence, as good (albeit quite different) as kebabs you’ll find at most Middle Eastern restaurants.  Two skewers of slightly bigger than bite-sized beef prepared at about medium well are served crisscrossed style over the other items on a beautifully appointed plate.  The beef is tender and delicious and if you’re concerned about the sweet pomegranate sauce having a sweet and sour effect on the beef, you need not be.  The pomegranate red onion sauce actually complements the beef very well.  In fact, you might find yourself wondering how that sauce would go with your favorite steak. 

3 January 2014: Jambo is no slouch when it comes to seafood.  The special of the day during a January, 2014 visit was a sesame encrusted albacore tuna over crab basmati rice and julienned vegetables topped with a spicy coconut peanut sauce.  The creamy white flesh of albacore, a true “white meat tuna” is less oily than other types of tuna and has a delicate flakiness.  It also has a slightly more “fishy” flavor than some tunas.  Perhaps that’s why the spicy coconut-peanut sauce works so well.  It doesn’t mask the natural flavors of the tuna; it accentuates them much in the way mint jelly complements lamb chops. The crab basmati rice is perfectly prepared with a delightful texture and ability to sop up the coconut-peanut sauce.

Mango cobbler a la mode

It’s become almost passé for restaurant menu items to read like an impossibly good novel only for the highlight of those items to actually be reading the mouth-watering descriptions. Not so at Jambo. When the special-of-the-day is described as “papaya marinated moonfish served over butternut squash brown rice, sautéed garlic asparagus and topped with a smoked paprika coconut spice,” the eating is better than the reading. Moonfish, a widely underutilized and carefully harvested Hawaiian fish is–despite an oily flesh–very rich and flavorful. Chefs love its versatility, but none we’ve had is prepared in quite the way Jambo prepares it. You may want to bathe in the smoked paprika coconut sauce which blends seemingly disparate flavor profiles into a harmonious composite.

Jambo will make diners of all persuasions very happy.  The menu is replete with vegetarian friendly dishes.  Chef Obo is a proponent of the locavore movement, striving to procure locally grown organic food as much as possible.  The cafe’s lamb is raised in Abiquiu, the organic feta cheese comes from Tucumcari and other ingredients such as organic mixed greens and free-range chicken are from local sources.

Key Lime Pie with Chocolate-Almond Crust and Coconut-Cardamom Flan

Desserts

19 March 2011: Apple, peach and blackberry cobblers are a staple of the deep South where cobbler is often served with barbecue, but rarely will you see mango cobbler a la mode with barbecue (or anything else).  If Jambo’s rendition is any indication, mango should be a fixture on cobbler recipes.  Its sweet juiciness is perfect atop and beneath a crumbly crust topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In season, mangoes are even more juicy and sweet so this is a dessert that will be even better in the summer. 

3 January 2013: Save for the baklava, the desserts at Jambo are made on the premises.  It’s no surprise that desserts are very much worthy of the appetizers, soups and entrees.  The desserts start off as familiar, but are given unique touches that make them even better.  Take for example the restaurant’s flan.  Flan, a baked custard often served with a caramel (or even better, cajeta) sauce is almost de rigueur in New Mexican restaurants.  At Jambo, the flan is imbued with cardamom, a fragrant and delicious spice.  Then there’s the Jamaican rum pecan pie with just enough Jamaican rum to be noticeable.

Jambo24

Top: Cardamom Flan
Bottom: Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie

The popularity of Jambo means during peak times, you may have to wait to be seated, but the deliciousness of the food makes the wait worth it. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call this tiny cafe one of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico.

JAMBO CAFE
2010 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 473-1269
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2015
1st VISIT: 19 March 2011
# of VISITS: 4
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains, Curried Black Bean and Sweet Potato Soup, Grilled Organic Jerk Chicken, Combination Plate (Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti) Mango Cobbler a la mode, Cardamom Flan, Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie, Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna, Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup, Coconut Shrimp, Moonfish

Jambo Cafe on Urbanspoon

Back Road Pizza – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Back Road Pizza in Santa Fe

My brother George has the right idea!  Rather than braving the motoring madness that is traversing New Mexico’s highways at breakneck speeds and risking life and limb contending with America’s worst drivers (according to a 2014 report by Wallet Hub), he’ll take the back roads every chance he gets.  Not only does he avoid frazzled nerves and minimize potential encounters with distracted, drunk and demolition derby caliber drivers, he gets to enjoy the scenery of enchantment and arrive at his destination unscathed. His blood pressure is better than mine.

George will enjoy Santa Fe’s Back Road Pizza and not only because he doesn’t have to spend much time on Cerrillos to get there and not only because the street on which it’s situated has a posted speed limit of only 25 miles-per-hour.  The pizza is very good, maybe even “worth risking rush hour to get there” good.  Who says it’s good?  The pizza-loving denizens of the City Different seem to accord it “best pizza” honors perennially in the Santa Fe Reporter‘s annual “best of” polls.  It’s been one of Santa Fe’s “top 40 favorite restaurants” for more than eleven years running according to The Reporter who has also designated it the “counterculture surfer’s hotspot of choice.”

Back Road Pizza Dining Room

Okay, so the locals love it, but does its appeal translate outside Santa Fe?  If you put much stock into a Guy Fieri seal of approval, then it does.  The spike-coiffed star of the Food Network’s phenomenally popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives visited Back Road Pizza in 2011 and by all indications seemed to have enjoyed himself immensely.  Not enough credibility for you?  Well, in 2014, TripAdvisor’s Flipkey site compiled a “definitive list of the top pizza joint in each state worth traveling for.”  Back Road Pizza was the Land of Enchantment’s honoree. 

In 2014 alone, the Back Road Pizza may have been the most honored pizzeria in New Mexico with national and local media flocking to the City Different for the Pizza Different (flour crust rolled in cornmeal).  Pizza Today, the self-professed “most powerful marketing tool in the pizza industry” singled out Back Road Pizza for “making a connection with local pizza aficionados.”  Back Road Pizza was also named by USA Today’s 10 Best as “one of Santa Fe’s ten best restaurants.”   There were a number of other honors in 2014, but you get the point.

Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Program Visited in 2014

True to its name, Back Road Pizza is “your off-the-beaten path, around-the-corner local neighborhood pizza shop that’s casual, fun, friendly and affordable.”  Ensconced immediately east of the live/work studios within the Triangle District, its storefront isn’t readily visible from Second Street, but because you’re keeping to the posted speed limit (or at least you will be if you’re following my brother George), you’ll be able to turn around almost as soon as you pass by it. 

Because of its metal exterior, the edifice which houses the Back Road Pizza could pass for anything from a gas station to an artist’s studio.   It can’t be mistaken for anything but fun when you enter the premises.  Behind serpentine corrugated metal panels is where the pizza production process takes place.  Almost every other square inch of the restaurant has something to grab your attention, whether it be another “best of” certificate or a poster supporting an ecological cause.    Weather permitting, an outdoor patio lends additional seating.  Upstairs in a loft area, you’ll find pool tables.

Beet & Feta Salad

Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly discern that Back Road Pizza is no one-trick pizzeria.  The menu is surprisingly diverse, offering more than a dozen different pizzas (including gluten-free pies) in addition to submarine sandwiches, soups, salads and sumptuous appetizers.  More than 25 different toppings are available so you can craft your pie to your exacting tastes.  In addition to slices, you can order a pie ranging in size from small (12-inches) to extra large (19-inches).  You’ll place your order at a counter, but everything will be delivered to your table. 

Because a pizza is more than the sum of its individual ingredients and the way they’re put together, Back Road Pizza places a premium on quality, procuring many of its ingredients from local farms and producers whenever possible.  All beef and pork used in making housemade meatballs and sausage come from the Talus Wind Ranch in Galisteo.  Goat cheeses and fresh vegetables are acquired from the Camino de Paz School and Farm in Santa Cruz (the one in New Mexico, not the one in California). Everything on the menu is made from scratch.   The quality shows!

Cubano Roll

Salads (available in full, half and side sizes) at too many pizzerias are either just an afterthought or a menu-filler.  It’s almost shameful to see salads relegated to such levels of disrespect.  That’s certainly not the case at Back Road Pizza where freshness, flavor and ingredient synergy will give you the impression that this pizza parlor could serve nothing but salads and be very successful in doing so.  The beet and feta salad (spring mix, beets, feta cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds served with a housemade dill vinaigrette) is a winner.  It took this salad to convince me beets don’t need to be roasted to be delicious.  With their intensely earthy flavor and high sucrose level, the beets are tempered by the fabulously fetid feta and the tangy dill vinaigrette. 

Back Road Pizza’s menu lists only four appetizers, three of which are “rolls.” Perhaps the most popular among the starters is Penny’s Bruschetta which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and which is highly recommended by the fabulous Billie Frank, USA Today‘s local expert in Santa Fe.  We opted instead for the Cubano Roll, described as “all your favorite flavors of a Cuban sandwich rolled up and served with a homemade mustard dipping sauce.”   While “all the flavors of a Cuban sandwich” may be present, its whisper thin slivers of ham and roast beef mean those flavors aren’t quite as bold as they are on a sandwich.  What is bold is using sweet pickles instead of the more common dill pickles.  The most exciting aspect of the Cubano roll is certainly the crust.

Greek Pizza: Sun-dried tomato, kalamata olive, artichoke heart & feta

Greek Pizza

What makes the crust so unique and so special isn’t only that it’s made daily, but that it’s rolled in cornmeal using a rolling pin.  The prep table is literally covered in fine cornmeal which renders the pizza delightfully crunchy, especially at its cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza.  Because the pizza is so thin, there frankly isn’t much of a cornicione, but its crunch makes it discernible…and delicious.  The crust makes a perfect canvas for the other high-quality ingredients. 

Rather than opting for a build-it-yourself pie, savvy diners trust that the pizzaioli artisans in the kitchen know what they’re doing and know exactly what ingredients go best together.  The Greek pizza, for example, is constructed from flavor-packed sun-dried tomatoes, briny Kalamata olives, thin slivers of artichoke heart and sharp, crumbled feta.  These are tried and true ingredients you’ve probably had on a pizza elsewhere, but at  Back Street Pizza, these ingredients are atop that magical cornmeal crust.  That makes all the difference in the world!

Norm Pizza

Sometimes there’s a comfort level in partaking of the familiar.  After all, even gastronomes don’t always want to eat only the new, strange and different.  The Norm (black olive, mushroom, housemade sausage and pepperoni) is the epitome of familiar.  In fact, a 2013 survey from delivery provider Foodler revealed that all four of the aforementioned ingredients are in the top seven from among the ten most popular pizza toppings in America.  In the case of the Norm, familiar and popular doesn’t mean boring.  The housemade sausage is very good and of course, there’s that cornmeal crust.

The only bread-like items not made with the much extolled cornmeal crust are desserts though the prospect is intriguing. Among the desserts are flying saucer-sized chocolate chip cookies and an ice cream sandwich in which chocolate chip cookies form the sandwich with rich vanilla ice cream in the middle. Both desserts are quite good though you’ve got to wonder if chocolate chip cookies made from cornmeal crust would be even better.

Left: Two Chocolate Chip Cookies Right: Ice Cream Sandwich

My brother George would scold me if I urged you to rush to Back Road Pizza.   He would want you to get there safely…and slowly.  Just get there!

Back Road Pizza
1807 2nd st #1
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 955 9055
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Norm Pizza, Greek Pizza, Cubano Roll, Beet & Feta Salad, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Ice Cream Sandwich

Back Road Pizza on Urbanspoon

Torinos @ Home – Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

Torinos @ Home

On Monday, October 21st, 2013 in a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode entitled “Aces of Authenticity,” the Food Network introduced Torinos @ Home to the world. Just four years earlier–on 22 December 2009–i was one of, if not the very first critics to see greatness in what was then a tiny Italian eatery coaxing amazing flavors from its humble menu.  Then ensconced in diminutive digs, it was obvious Torinos @ Home was destined for far better things.  During my many return visits over the years, Torinos has never ceased to impress–even amaze–me.  Quite simply it’s one of the very best restaurants of any genre in the Land of Enchantment.

So what makes Torinos @ Home stand out from among so many Italian restaurants in New Mexico. It starts and ends with owners Chef Maxime and Daniela Bouneou who are absolutely passionate about what they do. They have a sincere desire to please their patrons with the very best food they can prepare and they strive to present it as a work of edible art. They relish the challenge of knowing that they have to win over each guest one meal at a time and recognize they can never have an “off” night. Their greatest pleasure is in seeing the smiling faces of very contented guests. 

Guy Fieri of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program loved Torinos @ Home

Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program loved Torinos @ Home

How can you not smile when the beauteous Daniela greets you with great alacrity and proceeds to treat you like a much-welcome guest at her home?  How can you not smile when a veritable cavalcade of deliciousness prepared by one of New Mexico’s very best chefs reaches your table?  A visit to Torinos @ Home is an escape, a temporary respite to a better place, where you’re waited on and treated like royalty. 

When you’re dining on culinary excellence, it’s easy to forget your cares.  All you want to do is indulge in the luxuriant flavors of cuisine prepared by a chef who once worked in Michelin two- and three-star restaurants in his native France.  Maxime certainly has the chops and experience to wow his guests, even those with the most  sophisticated palates.  On her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog,  the scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison called Torinos @ Home the “best destination dining in New Mexico.”

    Daniela and Maxime Bouneou, the heart and soul of Torinos @ Home

Daniela and Maxime Bouneou, the heart and soul of Torinos @ Home

 Initial Visit: 22 December 2009

Never has the adage “Everyone’s a critic” been more true than since the advent of the Internet. The blogosphere is a tailor-made venue for the general public to express itself openly, honestly and directly—and openly, honestly and directly the public does. The anonymity of writing online reviews has emboldened in the American culture, a mean-spiritedness equaled only in the vicious, in-the-gutter squalor of politics. At least that’s the outward appearance.

Researchers have discovered that when consumers write online reviews, they are more likely to confer positive ratings than negative ones. On a scale of one to five stars, the average online review grade bestowed to products and services as diverse as hotels, dog food and restaurants is about 4.3. The average rating for YouTube videos, according to Google, Inc. is even higher at 4.6 stars.

The Santa Fe Village, original home of Torinos @ Home

Respondents to TripAdvisor’s online review and rating service accorded Torinos @ Home a perfect rating of five. A perfect rating–that’s as much an anomaly as Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten during the 1976 summer Olympics. It’s akin to Bo Derek’s pulchritude. Out of 85 respondents (as of December 23rd, 2009), 75 rated Torinos “Excellent,” 9 rated it “Very Good” and one sole dissenter said it was only “Average.” There’s a nay-sayer in every crowd.

Americans, it would seem are softies, an Oprahesque culture prone to puffery. At least that’s the impression I gleaned by reading TripAdvisor, source of the self-professed “world’s most trusted travel advice.” TripAdvisor, which allows consumers to review and rate all aspects of the travel experience (hotels, flights, restaurants), listed as the number one restaurant in Santa Fe, a humble, rustic little Italian restaurant named Torinos @ Home. Considering that among the City Different’s 327 restaurants are some of the most highly regarded restaurants under America’s spacious skies, is it possible that a restaurant whose name sounds more like an e-mail address than that of a restaurant is that good?

Torinos @ Home was ensconced in a very small corner of the Santa Fe Village

Burbling comments on TripAdvisor unabashedly supported the rating with such accolades as “best food in Santa Fe” and “best I’ve ever had” uttered with unfettered enthusiasm. A veritable love-fest for all aspects of the Torinos experience seemed almost too good to be true. The comments would have you believe that at Torinos, heaping portions of ambrosia are served on gilded platters by beautiful maidens. That last line is hyperbole, but not by much.

Me, I’m from Missouri…or at least the part of me that says “show me” is. When Daniela Bouneou, one of the restaurant’s owners, invited me to visit her restaurant, she indicated she would be honored to have Torinos @ Home listed on my index of Santa Fe restaurants. She said nothing about Torinos being rated the number one restaurant in Santa Fe or about the outstanding reputation it has garnered since launching in 2006. Obviously she wanted me to find out for myself.

The diminutive interior of Torinos @ Home in the Santa Fe Village

As much as TripAdvisor respondents like Torinos @ Home, they love Daniela even more. From the descriptions on TripAdvisor, I pictured an apron-wearing signora with Monica Bellucci’s sultry beauty and the culture and refinement to mesmerize all guests with her graciousness and hospitality–a veritable Italian kitchen siren. Daniela is as wonderful as advertised! 

Raised in Torino (Turin to most Americans), the capital of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region for which her restaurant is named, Daniela attended culinary school at the precocious age of 14, but opted instead to pursue a career path in the “front of the house” for which her buoyant personality is best-suited. While working as maitre d’ at a four-star hotel in Nice, France, she met and married Maxime Bouneou, the hotel’s promising sous-chef. They moved to Santa Fe shortly thereafter.

Daniela on December 22, 2009, the day I first met her

Their Santa Fe restaurant ventures were initially in the employ of some of the city’s most prominent dining establishments. Maxime served as the Executive Chef at Fuego at La Posada de Santa Fe, a high-profile Four Diamond Award-winning restaurant. Daniela managed The Chocolate Maven for five years. Friends inspired the couple to open up their own restaurant after being completely blown away by the traditional Italian dishes they served during dinner parties at their home.

Torinos @ Home was ensconced in the venerable Santa Fe Village, a shopping center with an old west charm just a couple blocks south of the Plaza. For capturing the essence of Santa Fe, few shopping centers can match the Santa Fe Village with its unique local retail stores. Charm and essence are nice, but the truth is, the restaurant didn’t have a storefront presence and its square footage wasn’t much more spacious than a couple of office cubicles. Newcomers relied on smallish exterior signage and a slate board listing the day’s specials to point them in the restaurant’s general direction.

Worse, Torinos’ was tucked away in a corner hallway which got awfully crowded during peak hours as hungry patrons queued up for the limited number of tables or lined up to place an order. Though the brightly painted walls–the color of Santa Fe sunlight on one of New Mexico’s more than 300 days of sunshine annually–had a welcoming effect, when you’re hungry, you don’t want to wait no matter how great the food may be.

Torinos Relocates to Albuquerque

Shortly before opening in Albuquerque, Torinos @ Home celebrated Maxime’s birthday

On February 16, 2010, the Bouneous sold their restaurant’s assets and the right to lease their charming spot so they could relocate to Albuquerque where Maxime’s family resides. Aside from familial reasons, Daniela and Maxime wanted a location which could provide the amenities all successful restaurants need (in addition to great food): a reasonable lease, plentiful parking, patio seating and spacious accommodations (the very antithesis of their crowded space at the Santa Fe Village center).

It took less than six months for Torinos @ Home to achieve in Albuquerque what it achieved in Santa Fe. Since relocating to the Duke City on May 24, 2010, it has been among the highest rated restaurants on Travel Advisor from over 900 Duke City restaurants rated. More than 90 percent of the respondents participating in the online review rated it “Excellent.” In February, 2010, Torinos @ Home closed its doors in Santa Fe and relocated to the Duke City. Truly Santa Fe’s loss is Albuquerque’s gain. Among aficionados it has achieved near cult status.

The Bouneous found everything they sought in the Journal Center off Jefferson Street at the former home of Voila. Torinos @ Home has made itself at home in comfortable new digs, launching its Albuquerque operation on May 24th, 2010.  Torinos is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM to 5:30PM and dinner from 5:00PM to 9:00PM.  Reservations are suggested for dinner.  The menu remains a memorable–maybe magical–tribute to outstanding Italian cuisine with a deliciousness heretofore not experienced in Albuquerque. It’s hardly a compendium of all things Italian and it is certainly not a “red sauce” Italian restaurant. Instead, it serves a limited number of items prepared exceptionally well. 

Adjacent to the restaurant is a little store selling Italian treasures

Adjacent to the restaurant is a little store selling Italian treasures

A larger kitchen also means an expanded lunch menu which now includes Grigliata Di Pesce, a selection of fresh fish—grouper filets, swordfish and scampi– all grilled and prepared with a hint of extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon and a whole roasted tomato.   The antipasti, salads and soups section has also grown and now includes an antipasti platter for two that might elicit involuntary salivation, first when you read its component ingredients on the menu and next when it’s headed to your table.  Though the menu section may be entitled “Just A Panini,” Torinos’s sandwiches hardly warrant the limiting descriptor of “just.”  These are superb sandwiches!

In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Torinos’ @ Home a “Hot Plate Award,” for “Hot Restaurateurs.” The Hot Plate Award is the magazine’s highest honor signifying appetizers, dishes, desserts, drinks and restaurants “that we can’t live without.” What a tribute to Torinos’ that Duke City diners can’t live without this gem of a restaurant. Some critics I trust consider it the only truly great Italian restaurant in Albuquerque with its nearest competition rating a very distant second.

Appetizers, Sandwiches and Soups

Italian bread with herb infused olive oil

Italian bread with herb infused olive oil

A basket of Italian bread and a decanter of herb-infused olive oil will help diffuse your hunger and stave off involuntary salivation while aromatically enticing entrees are delivered to nearby tables. Italian bread is characterized by a crispy crust and a chewy texture and Torinos’ rendition of the staff of life will not disappoint. Until late 2010, the bread came from the world-famous La Brea Bakery in California which boasts of an artisan’s passion, skill and dedication in every loaf. The bread was shipped to the restaurant where the baking process was finished. Thanks to a more expansive space, Maxime now bakes the restaurant’s focaccia and it’s fabulous–better even than the world-famous artisan staff-of-life from La Brea.

The olive oil is superb as well.  You won’t need any of the sprinkled-on seasonings other restaurants serve.  The olive oil is resplendent with the herbaceous freshness of a complementary blend of herbs swimming in the decanter. where they are joined by thin ancho chiles. You’ll also want to save a couple slices for dredging up whatever may be left over of the sauce you select for your entree…and you’ll definitely want to purchase a decanter of this olive oil before you leave.  It’s world class stuff!

Bacalao

Bacalao

20 April 2013: Cheryl Jamison is especially besotted with Torinos’ Baccalao appetizer.  In chronicling  The 10 Best Things I Ate in New Mexico This Year for 2012, Cheryl described the Baccalao as “the ultimate salt cod preparation.”  It certainly is a fabulous composition: salted cod fish and Yukon Gold potatoes mashed together with a sweet confit garlic cream.  What makes this dish special is how it blends into one dish, familiar yet seemingly disparate flavors.  The Yukon Gold potatoes are a perfect foil for the pleasantly “fishy” flavor of the cod.  The sweet confit garlic cream lends just enough moistness to prevent the dish from being dry.  The dish is served with a crostini topped with a terrific olive tapenade and sun-dried tomatoes.

Figs marinated in Marsala, Prosciutto di Parma, Arugula salad, goat cheese crostini, vinaigrette

Figs marinated in Marsala, Prosciutto di Parma, Arugula salad, goat cheese crostini, vinaigrette

20 April 2013: While the Baccalao is probably an acquired taste (my Kim didn’t like it), most diners will appreciate an Antipasto quadrumvirate of figs marinated in Marsala, Prosciutto di Parma, Arugula salad, and a goat cheese crostini. This is an appetizer that will excite all 10,000 taste buds while challenging them to discern each of the five recognized taste sensations (salty, sweet, butter, sour and unami). It’s served on a wooden cutting board. Each component is magnificent. Together they create an adventure in flavor.

Prosciutto di Parma, one of the best known varieties of Italian uncooked ham, is an intensely flavored (courtesy of dry-aging), thinly sliced ham with a nice fat content. Whether by design or by accident, a generous helping at Torinos is shaped like a rosette on the cutting board. The goat cheese, spritzed with just a bit of honey, is fantastic. It spreads easily on the crostini and is a wonderful counterpoint to the figs marinated in Marsala, a wine frequently used in cooking. The arugula salad is drizzled with the house Vinaigrette which melds magnificently with the peppery greens. 

Burrata and Tomato (Similar to a Caprese Salad): juicy Heirloom tomato (in season), burrata mozzarella, Nicoise olives, fresh basil pesto

Burrata and Tomato

5 April 2014: The Caprese salad may be a simple salad, but it’s imbued with qualities that elevate it to greatness.  At its essence, this salad is a concordant combination of flavors, textures, and freshness: ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, aromatic basil, and your choice of drizzle: either or both olive oil or balsamic.  Torinos takes this simple salad and raises it to rarefied air.  Instead of mozzarella, this salad is constructed with burrata,  an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Burrata is ethereal in its texture and as rich a cheese as you’ll find.  A wonderful fresh basil pesto takes the place of the all-too-ordinary basil.  Olive oil is drizzled onto the resplendent greens and ripe tomatoes while balsamic circumnavigates the dish.  Simplicity meets sophistication can be delicious.

Iceberg Lettuce & Fegatini Di Pollo

26 December 2014:  Implying that someone was “chicken-livered” was of the most deleterious insults one person could levy against another during the late nineteenth century.  For offal-loving foodies, the term chicken liver can only mean one thing–deliciousness.  Some chefs go out of their way to obfuscate the distinctively rich, creamy and slightly metallic flavor of chicken liver, a favorite tactic being marinating it in or pairing it with agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauces.  Kudos to Maxime for not disguising what is really a tender and mild flavor (at least in comparison to beef liver) and letting it shine. 

Of the many salads we’ve had at Torinos, our very favorite showcases chicken livers in a melange of ingredients all with distinctive personalities.  The Iceberg Lettuce & Fegatini Di Pollo features an entire half head of iceberg lettuce, sauteed chicken livers, crostini, Pecorino Romano, radishes, walnuts and a shallot vinaigrette.  Easily the star of this sumptuous salad, the chicken livers have that addictive flavor and texture that chicken liver lovers lust after.  The shallot vinaigrette brings everything together brilliantly.

Soup of the Day: Zucchini Ciliantro

Zucchini Ciliantro

22 December 2009: The menu describes its soups as “heart warming.” That’s an understatement! Like mans’ best friend and favorite four-legged companion, a great soup loves you unconditionally. It provides hearty substance and warms the cockles of your heart. It’s equally at home on your sick bed as it is at a sumptuous feast. Torinos’ zucchini cilantro soup is such a soup! Four oversized croutons (perfect for crostini toppings) soak up the well-seasoned elixir while you bask in the liquid love as it slides down your throat.  It’s the soup Daniela served me during my inaugural visit and remains one of my favorites. 

Oven roasted tomato, garlic, fresh thyme, basil and  homemade croutons (there is no cream, no chicken broth in this soup)

Oven roasted tomato, garlic, fresh thyme, basil and homemade croutons

4 November 2013: How many of us have ordered tomato soup at an Italian restaurant that’s reminiscent of the soup in a can with which we grew up?  Not so at Torino’s where tomato soup means oven-roasted tomatoes, garlic, fresh thyme, basil and homemade croutons.  There is no cream or chicken broth in this soup.  It’s rich, sweet-savory tomatoes at their comfort food finest.  It’s a simple soup made extraordinarily well from excellent ingredients. 

Pasta Fagoli

Pasta Fagoli

4 June 2011: Better still is Torino’s rendition of pasta fagioli, an Italian peasant soup which translates to “pasta and beans” (typically cannellini beans).  As with many family dishes, the recipe for pasta fagioli varies greatly.  Quite often it is made with a stewed tomato or tomato paste base.  Torino’s variation is not made with tomatoes, but it is no less fragrant than its red sauced counterpart.  Unlike some pasta fagioli, its broth is thick and soul-warming with pasta and beans in perfect proportion to sundry vegetables.  My sister-in-law Lola DeVivo Laws, a proud Italian loved Torino’s pasta fagioli so much, every bite brought tears of joy to her eyes.  

Duck Confit Panini

Duck Confit Panini

21 November 2012: In its annual food and wine issue for 2012,  Albuquerque The Magazine named Torinos’ duck confit sandwich one of the yummiest sandwiches in the city.  It’s one of the yummiest in the state!  The canvas for this gem is focaccia bread from La Quiche Parisienne which is layered with a herbaceous (fresh thyme and cilantro) goat cheese spread, duck which has been confit in its own fat for ten hours, and grilled zucchini.  This is a magnificent sandwich!  The duck is moist, tender and absolutely delicious while the goat cheese spread lends a savory-slightly tart counterpoint.  

Calamari: Stuffed with pancetta, garlic, fresh herbs and ricotta cheese

Calamari: Stuffed with pancetta, garlic, fresh herbs and ricotta cheese

4 June 2011: Surprises abound with every visit.  You can literally expect the unexpected, a twist here and there to any preconceived notions you might have about Italian food.  If you thought all pasta fagioli, for example, should look and taste like the Olive Garden’s version, Torino’s will break that paradigm quickly.  If you think calamari should be cut into ringlets, breaded, deep-fried and served as an appetizer with some sort of dipping sauce, you’re in for a treat should you order Torino’s calamari entree.  Instead of thinly sliced ringlets, the calamari actually resemble large pasta shells.  That’s because Torino’s serves them in their natural state minus the tentacles.  Maxime stuffs each calamari with pancetta, garlic, fresh herbs and ricotta cheese and serves them with a tomatoes concasse (essentially peeled, seeded and crushed tomatoes) and a tart Balsamic reduction.  The texture may be a bit off-putting to some as it’s almost rubbery, but it’s also replete with flavor.  It’s a unique way to enjoy succulent squid. 

Foie Gras Au Torchon: Served with Applewood Smoked Duck and Fig Preserve

Foie Gras Au Torchon: Served with Applewood Smoked Duck and Fig Preserve

9 December 2011: During our inaugural dinner visit, one of the two featured appetizers was Foie Gras Au Torchon served with applewood smoked duck and fig preserve.  Foie Gras, which translates from French as “fat liver” is a highly-coveted, incomparably rich and delicious duck liver that’s been fattened specifically to give it a silken texture and unctuous flavor.  This luscious, delicate “meat butter” dish is a foodie favorite and bane of vegetarians everywhere.  France is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of foie gras which is at its very best during the autumn and fall seasons when quite naturally, ducks accumulate most fat, particularly on their livers. 

Torchon, which means “dish towel” in French refers to the way the foie gras is often prepared. It’s truly a delicious irony that the most craved and coveted portion of the canard, a culinary luxury, is traditionally wrapped in humble and lowly dish towels and poached for as long as three days.  The results are an eyes rolling back in the head, swoon inducing foodgasm.  Torinos’ foie gras is among the best we’ve ever had, heightened by the addition of whisper-thin slivers of applewood smoke duck and a thin fig preserve “trail” that’s dragged on the plate to give you just a sensation of sweetness without overwhelming the make you weak in the knees flavor of the duck.

Main Courses/Entrees

Ravioli of the Day: Spinach and Ricotta With A Three-Herb (Dill, Tarragon and Chives) Butter Sauce

Ravioli of the Day: Spinach and Ricotta With A Three-Herb (Dill, Tarragon and Chives) Butter Sauce

22 December 2009: The ravioli of the day (a concept no longer on the menu) is what Daniela chose for my introductory meal at Torinos. On this day, the ravioli was stuffed with ricotta and spinach and drizzled lightly with a three-herb (dill, tarragon, chives) butter sauce. Until that point, I’d never had better ravioli! In fact, compared to this ravioli, almost all other ravioli I’ve ever had is on par with the dreaded canned Chef Boyardee variety.  

The three herb commingling imparted heretofore not experienced fresh herbaceous qualities to the rich buttery sauce: the divine fennel- and anise-like pleasantness of tarragon; the clean and subtle tangy balance of sweet and savory that is dill; and the sweet, mild onion-like versatility of chives. Each of the dozen raviolis on my plate were perfectly prepared and uniform in size. The texture was neither too al dente nor mushy in the least. The ricotta was not dominantly rich as some Italian restaurants serve it, but subtly rich in a manner that complements other ingredients. A generous sprinkle of fresh parmesan topped this fabulous entree. 

    Fresh herbs raviolis topped with a goat cheese cream sauce

Fresh herbs raviolis topped with a goat cheese cream sauce

18 October 2010: Possessing a heart of gold as well as an amazing memory, Daniela remembered just how much I loved the ravioli dish and emailed me when Maxime prepared it with a decadent goat cheese cream sauce. Wow! Who says you can’t improve on perfection! Who says you can’t have too much of a good thing! This dish is the epitome of rich deliciousness. 

Grouper al Cartoccio: Grouper filet baked in a crispy wrap with Swiss chard, mussels and clams

Grouper al Cartoccio

20 April 2013: Having worked in a fishing village, Maxime is a stickler for freshness. He has cultivated a network of sources which ensure next-day delivery of fresh, just-caught fish. It makes a difference. His preparation of Grouper al Cartoccio is tres magnifique. The grouper is stuffed with Swiss chard, sealed in a crispy filo-like parchment then sautéed and served in a bowl surrounded by steamed clams and mussels. The entrée is then drizzled with a light Pomodoro sauce. It’s already got a spot reserved on my “best of 2013” list.

Beef Cheek Manicotti

Beef Cheek Manicotti

4 November 2013: Guy Fieri, the loquacious host of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show is a rather skilled chef himself.  One of the ways he likes to demonstrate his chops on the show is by predicting the featured chef’s next move: “in the oven at 350 degrees for 90 minutes.”  While observing Maxime as he prepared beef cheek manicotti, Fieri seemed at a loss.  Either that or he was in awe of Maxime’s meticulous preparation of delectable dish which wasn’t crafted solely for the Food Network, but is available on the daily menu. 

This entree is absolutely amazing, so rich and delicious grown men will swoon as they eat it and women will consider it better than chocolate.  Maxime cooks natural beef cheeks for just over five hours in red wine then combines them with fresh ricotta and stuffs them into manicotti shells.  They’re then baked in the oven with Bechamel,  Pecorino Romano and Fontina cheeses melted over the top.  The richness of this dish should be paired with an acidic side such as the aforementioned tomato soup.  It’s a heavenly pairing.

Risotto Al Fegatini Di Pollo -Porcini 

26 December 2014:  Italy’s Turin region is credited with the creation of innovative risotto dishes that transform one of the most traditional, comforting and homey of Italian dishes into sophisticated, gourmet-quality favorites.  At first glance, Torinos Risotto Al Fegatini Di Pollo appears rather simple, a deep dish of short-grain rice straddling that fine line between being congealed and being perfectly prepared.  Its richness and complexity may not be discernible in its appearance, but it sure is at first bite.  That richness and complexity is also discernible in its ingredients: white Vialone rice, chicken liver, Porcini mushrooms, Guanciale (pork cheeks) and white truffles, ingredients in perfect proportion to one another and all complementary to each other.  Despite its absolute deliciousness, it may not be possible to eat any more than one bowlful of this nearly overwhelmingly rich dish. 

Bistecca Alla Griglia: Grilled flat iron steak on the grill, roasted vine tomato and fagioli

Bistecca Alla Griglia: Grilled flat iron steak on the grill, roasted vine tomato and fagioli

20 April 2013: It’s not every Italian restaurant that offers steak on its menu, much less excels in its preparation and delivery. In Torinos’ Bistecca Alla Griglia (grilled steak), we enjoyed a better steak than we’ve had at many a steakhouse. Maxime pioneered the flat iron cut long before it became a popular offering. Until they became so popular flat iron steaks were a much more value-priced cut. It’s a cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. Maxime exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak all carnivores will thoroughly enjoy. It is served with a roasted vine tomato and fagioli, the delicious white beans often found on soup. 

Ravioli stuffed with spezzatino (beef brisket)

1 June 2010: When interviewed by Ryan Scott on the much loved and missed Break The Chain radio program, Maxime revealed that spezzatino, a slowly braised beef brisket, is his very favorite dish.  It’s almost always on the menu in one form or another.  One of the ways in which Maxime prepares it is by stuffing it in ravioli.  This is one of many dishes on the menu that has absolutely blown me away.  The slowly braised brisket is unctuous and almost preternaturally good. 

Spaghetti Bolognese & Guanciale

26 December 2014: Shamefully “Bolognese” sauce in American restaurants has typically meant a meat sauce not entirely different from their de rigueur meat sauce.  Bolognese is so much more than meat sauce which originated in the northern Italian city of Bologna.   Soffrito, a variety of flavorful and aromatic vegetables fried in olive oil and butter forms the base of this sauce to which chunks of meat are added along with a white wine reduction. tomato paste and stock.  Unlike most marinara and meat sauces, this sauce isn’t seasoned with oregano or garlic nor is acidity a strong quality.  In recent years, we’ve experienced authentic and delicious Bolognese twice–one in Montecito California’s Trattoria Mollie and now at Torinos where the sofrito includes carrots and celery and the meat includes guanciale, pork jaw and beef from the 4 Daughters Ranch in Belen.

    Spaghetti alla Carbonara: Pancetta (Italian Bacon), cream, egg, caramelized onion, garlic and parmigiano

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

21 November 2012: It’s not quite as rich, however, as Torinos’ Spaghetti alla Carbonara, perfectly al dente pasta tossed with pancetta (Italian bacon), cream, egg, caramelized onion, garlic and parmigiano.  It’s one of those rare dishes that is so rich you know you shouldn’t finish it all, but so good you can’t stop eating it.  Calvin Trillin, one of the best food writers in America once suggested that instead of turkey, Americans should gather around the table for pasta carbonara.  I’d gladly forgo turkey for Maxime’s spaghetti alla carbonara. 

Anitra Al Forno (Duck Leg Slowly Confit for 10 Hours)

23 May 2010: From the “Torinos Entrees” section of the menu, it’s hard to pass up Anitra al Forno, a duck leg slowly confit for ten hours served with seared polenta and fresh vegetables sauteed with extra virgin olive oil.  After your first bite, you’ll lament that so many restaurants seem to believe duck should be fruity-tasting.  The flavorful fat from the confit process imbues the duck with flavor through and through as well as a crust that seals in juices.  This is a very moist and tender duck leg. 

Buccatini Puttanesca

28 December 2010: As refined a lady as Daniela is, it’s always a joy to share a laugh with her when the topic at hand is so unladylike–such as when we discussed the etymology of the popular Italian dish Buccatini Puttanesca.  The literal translation of this delicious dish is “whore’s spaghetti.”  The origin of the term is in dispute, but what can’t be disputed is just how wonderful this dish is at the hands of a master chef like Maxime.  Buccatini Puttanesca is a lively entree–pleasantly piquant, a bit salty, tantalizingly tangy and wholly delicious.  At Torinos, its construction includes anchovies, olives, capers and other complementary ingredients.  The anchovies are discernible, but not so much that the anti-anchovy crowd will disdain this wondrous dish. 

Tagliatelle Gorgonzola

Torinos’ pasta dishes include one aptly named “Tagiatelle Gorgonzola “For You Blue Cheese Haters,” though for this fan of fetid fromage, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking stinky cheese, the more rancid and blue the better.  I suspect Daniela and Maxime are having the last laugh  because gorgonzola is itself a blue cheese, a veined Italian blue cheese, in fact.  Like other blue cheeses, it can be crumbly and salty with a pronounced bite.  On tagliatelle, this cheese finds a receptive canvas.  The tagliatelle, a long, flat ribbon-like pasta similar in shape to fettuccine, is perfectly prepared; the sauce is surprisingly subdued, a rich, buttery, but not overwhelming sauce. 

Torino26

Prime Rib, Potato Gratin, Vichyssoise Carrots

9 December 2011: Dinner might mean something unexpected such as a featured special of roasted prime rib au jus served with a potato gratin and vichyssoise carrots.  The prime rib is a slab of wonderfully roasted (Lowry’s quality) just-off-the-bone prime rib with a perfectly pink hue redolent with a peppercorn enhanced au jus. It’s nearly fork-tender and as juicy as any prime rib you’ll ever have.  The potato gratin is a beauteous brick of thinly sliced and layered potatoes and cream seasoned with garlic.  The top layer is beautifully browned and each layer underneath perfectly prepared.  While the term vichyssoise is most often associated with a cold French soup, the term actually means “from Vichy” a city in France.  Torinos’ vichyssoise carrots have a sweet (but not overly so) flavor and a crisp texture (a boon for those of us who don’t want mushy carrots). 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH MANICOTTI: Oven roasted butternut squash, extra virgin olive oil, caramelized onion, fresh ricotta cheese,  baked in the oven with bechamelle, pecorino romano and fontina cheese melted over the top

Butternut Squash Manicotti

13 August 2011: In season, one of the most overdone ingredients on restaurant menus is butternut squash.  Unfortunately more often than not, restaurants tend to prepare it to a near-dessert level of sweetness.  Instead of letting its natural sweetness shine forth, chefs tend to add sweetening spices to its creamy beige flesh.  At Torinos, Maxime pairs the butternut squash with fresh ricotta and stuffs them into hand-made manicotti then tops the manicotti with extra virgin olive oil, caramelized onions, Bechamel, Pecorino Romano and Fontina cheeses melted on top.  It’s some of the best manicotti you’ll ever have times five, the pairings of ingredients heightening the best in each other. 

Cioppino

Cioppino

5 April 2014: For seafood lovers, few things are as satisfying as a rich, hearty seafood stew, whether it be cioppino or bouillabaisse.  There are several similarities between the Italian-Portuguese cioppino and the French bouillabaisse, both of which have their genesis in the pots and cauldrons of the scions of ancient Mediterranean fishermen.  Chef Maxime, a French man who cooks Italian food, can call his seafood stew anything he wants as long as he serves it.  Cioppino is a very nuanced dish that takes on the personality of the seafood from which it is constructed as well as the distinct seasonings which give it its kick. Torino’s rendition includes shrimp, Pacific cod fish, mussels, clams and calamari in a star anis clam broth.  It’s a San Francisco-worthy cioppino showcasing fresh seafood in a sumptuous broth. You won’t leave a drop.

Gnocchi Spezzatino: Organic beef brisket (braised for 5  hours in red wine) served with homemade potato dumplings

Gnocchi Spezzatino: Organic beef brisket (braised for 5 hours in red wine) served with homemade potato dumplings

5 April 2014: In the November 8, 2012 edition of Tasting New Mexico, scintillating author Cheryl Alters Jamison introduced readers to the “top five New Mexico spots for divine gnocchi.”  Not surprisingly, the Gnocchi Spezzatino, made the list.  This gnocchi is made from homemade potato dumplings and an organic beef brisket braised for five hours in red wine.  The dumplings are delicate, smooth and rich while the beef brisket is so tender it falls apart much like carne adovada.  The red wine and beef reduction may be the highlight of a dish whose every component is absolutely fabulous.

Desserts

Apricot & Ricotta Fried Ravioli

26 December 2014: Mention fried ravioli and the image conjured by most foodies involves the fried, breaded ravioli appetizer invented in Saint Louis, Missouri where a strong Italian culinary lineage exists.  At Torinos, fried ravioli involves a dessert, three circular ravioli stuffed with apricots and ricotta then sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar and encircled by vanilla Mascarpone cream.  There’s only one thing wrong with this dessert.  It’s that three of these decadent ravioli aren’t nearly enough.

Daniela’s tiramisu

13 August 2013: Legend has it that when needing a “pick me up” in between amorous trysts, the courtesans of Venice would consume Tiramisu (the literal translation of which is “pick me up) to boost their stamina.  An addictive, rich and ethereally light Italian dessert, when made right it will leave an indelible impression on you.  The very best tiramisu I’ve had in the Albuquerque area has been from Blades’ Bistro in Placitas, Joe’s Pasta House in rio Rancho and Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria in the Duke City.  That is, those were the best until I sampled Daniela’s Tiramisu at Torinos’ @ Home.  It’s also the most authentic tiramisu I’ve had, wholly unlike the “cake” type tiramisu some restaurants serve.  That’s pseudo tiramisu.  Daniela’s rendition is served in a concave bowl, the discernible melding of spirits, espresso and cocoa defying convention by being both whisper light and having body and texture.

Chocolate Mi-Cuit

9 December 2011: Some diners might not brave a dessert which translates from French to “half cooked,” but then they’d be missing the rich deliciousness of Torinos’ chocolate mi-cuit.  Similar to the molten centered chocolate cakes served in highly regarded restaurants such as Roy Yamaguchi’s eponymous Roy’s,  this is a chocolate cake so decadent it can only be finished if shared.  Torinos’ rendition is topped with vanilla ice cream and served with amarena cherries.  Amarena cherries, grown mostly in Bologna and Modena, Italy, start off as slightly sour cherries, but they’re preserved in a rich, sweet syrup that makes them nearly cloying.  The vanilla cuts the sweetness nicely as does the adult chocolate. 

Pistachio Square

21 November 2012: If you’re in the mood for something not quite as rich or decadent, the pistachio square is the dessert for you. Pistachios are a versatile nut that can serve not only as a snack food, but in entrees and desserts.  They lend a savory quality to desserts that are would otherwise be cloying– such as baklava at Yasmine’s Cafe.   The pistachio square is a tarte in which finely chopped pistachios are the star and creme Anglaise is a counterpoint of sweet richness.  The tarte is dense and moist with an excellent crust.

Postscript

Torinos does a bustling take-out business, the best way to curb the inevitable cravings you’ll experience after a meal at what became, after only one visit, my favorite and highest rated Italian restaurant in New Mexico. Anything on the menu is available for carry-out. Dinner from Torinos, even if you have to warm it up yourself, is the next best thing to dinner at Torinos. 

Also available is a little store adjacent to the restaurant in which Italian goodies are sold.  You’ll want to stock up on Maxime’s olive oil, biscotti, chocolate croissants (more on these later), homemade jams and a veritable treasure trove of other exciting and interesting items.  Daniela introduced us to her favorite candies growing up in Italy.  They’re wrapped similarly to saltwater toffee, but are wholly unlike saltwater toffee in texture.  Best of all, they’re available in various flavors (pear, anise, mint, apricot and more.

Outstanding food, reasonable prices and portions, exceptional service…not to mention the fabulous Daniela.  Torinos @ Home is as much about the experience as it is about the food.  Was it Santa Fe’s best restaurant?  A phalanx of restaurant critics say it was. Will it be Albuquerque’s highest rated restaurant?  Daniela invites you to find out for yourself.

TORINOS @ HOME
Journal Center
7600 Jefferson Street
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-4491
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2014
1st VISIT:  22 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 14
RATING: 25
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Ravioli of the Day, Spezzatino, Fruit Cobbler, Soup of the Day, Antipasti Platter, Prosciutto “Just Like Italy” Panini, Pollo & Carciofini Panini, Taliatelle Gorgonzola “For You Blue Cheese Haters,” Anitra Al Forno, Spaghetti Puttanesca, The Latino, Calamari, Pasta Fagioli, Duck Confit Sandwich, Spaghetti Carbonara, Baccalao, Grouper al Cartoccio, Butternut Squash Manicotti, Beef Cheek Manicotti, Gnocchi Spezzatino, Cioppino

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