Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 821 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6200 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

El Norteño – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Norteño's Second Albuquerque Location: On Montgomery and Wyoming

El Norteño On Montgomery and Wyoming

No Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque has a pedigree that approaches that of El Norteño, a venerable elder statesperson in the Duke City’s burgeoning and constantly evolving Mexican restaurant scene.  El Norteño has been pleasing local diners for more than a quarter of a century as evinced by its perennial selection as the city’s “Best Mexican” restaurant. Respondents to the Alibi’s annual “best of” poll accorded El Norteño that coveted accolade against increasingly more formidable competition every year for seven consecutive years.

Launched in 1986 by Leo and Martha Nuñez, El Norteño is an Albuquerque institution, a Mexican restaurant which can’t be pigeonholed for serving the cuisine of one Mexican state or another.  That’s because El Norteño offers traditional Mexican specialties while staying true to the Land of Enchantment, using only peppers grown in New Mexico.  In 1993, Monica Manoochehri and her husband Kamran took over the restaurant, maintaining the exceptional standards established by her parents.

A trio of salsas

Three salsas and chips at El Norteno

As consistently excellent as it has been, El Norteño became one of those restaurants even its most loyal patrons may have begun to take for granted.  We all knew it was in a class by itself with incomparable cuisine; warm, friendly service and a homey ambiance in which all guests felt welcome.  We thought it would always be there, but in July, 2008, an early morning conflagration caused extensive damage to this treasure which at the time of the fire was situated at 6416 Zuni, S.E..  With its closure, a little piece of all of us was tragically, seemingly irreplacaebly gone.

In December, 2008, El Norteño reopened at 1431 Wyoming, N.E., (just north of Constitution) the former site of Cafe Miche, one of the city’s very best French restaurants. Cafe Miche’s elegant French appointments were replaced by more colorful, thematically Mexican trappings including the art of Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists. Just as in its former home, El Norteño treats all diners like welcome guests.  Just as in its former home, Monica performed culinary magic as only she can.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

As elegant as its new digs were, frequent guests will tell you they just didn’t seem as welcoming and warm as the original, more humble and more homey Zuni location generations had come to love.  Even  Monica will tell you she felt much more comfortable in her original restaurant home than in the more spacious, more ostentatious strip mall setting her restaurant occupied. 

In November, 2012 Monica launched a second instantiation of El Norteño on Wyoming and Montgomery just a few miles north of its Wyoming and Constitution location which closed when its lease elapsed.  The restaurant is situated in the corner space once occupied by Yen Ching, a popular Chinese eatery coincidentally also consumed by fire.   Monica’s new restaurant includes an expansive banqueting room (which hosted Friends of Gil III) and a panaderia in which such popular Mexican and New Mexican pastries as biscochitos, empanadas, conchas and even sopaipillas will be available for dessert or take-home.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While El Norteño holds a firm grasp on the hearts and appetites of Duke City diners, it’s not just locals who traverse to this family-owned and operated gem.  As an unabashed ambassador for New Mexico’s restaurants, I’m often surprised that Land of Enchantment residents don’t always grasp just how highly regarded our restaurants are across the country.  Restaurants such as El Norteño paved the way for the pantheon of restaurant gems which have recently earned acclaim from the Food Network.

In the year 2000, Michael and Jane Stern conceived Roadfood.com as a Web site devoted to finding the most memorable local eateries along the highways and back roads of America. One of their favorites for years has been El Norteño which they visit during their frequent sojourns to the Land of Enchantment.  In rating El Norteño’s horchata among the very best in the country for their terrific tome, 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns called El Norteño “Albuquerque’s home of meals that are true Mex, not Tex-Mex or New Mex.”

Carne Asada

Carne Asada

When Chile Pepper magazine published a “best of zest” feature, a mainstay for years was El Norteño which the magazine rated as one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the country. According to Kamran, his wife’s restaurant was even named “best authentic Mexican restaurant in America” in 1999 by no less than Gourmet Magazine.

Both the culinary unadventurous and the “epicurious” diners will find something to their liking at El Norteño. Until 2005, El Norteno offered a daily lunch buffet, a repast for the rapacious, but not necessarily adventurous, diner. The lunch buffet offered pretty standard fare prepared exceptionally well–some of the best beans in the city, terrific rice, lively enchiladas and the most tender carne adovada imaginable–as well as some departures into the realm of culinary audacity such as menudo and chipotle sauced chicken.

Some of the best horchata in America

Some of the best horchata in America

True epicureans, however, will always order off the menu because we recognize that El Norteño is probably the one restaurant in Albuquerque where the distinction between the cuisines of New Mexico and Old Mexico is most discernible. You can get enchiladas, burritos and tacos anywhere. Give us barbacoa (meat from a cow’s cheek), lengua (tongue), cabrito (young goat) and nopalitos (nopal leaves).

El Norteño is most appreciated by discerning diners who understand and crave authentic Mexican food as it would be prepared at the region in which it originated. Unlike many other Mexican restaurants in the city, El Norteño doesn’t specialize in the cuisine of solely one of Mexico’s diverse regions; it celebrates Mexican cuisine from throughout the many states of Mexico. Authenticity is certainly a hallmark at El Norteño!

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

The charming Monica is the heart and soul of the restaurant, managing the kitchen, yet seemingly always finding time to check in on her guests.  The charming and beauteous Monica is a real treat to converse with.  She is personable, intelligent and possesses a smile that will light up a room.  The wait staff reflects her customer orientation and is generally on-the-spot and friendly.  Dining at El Norteño is always a treat!

The salsas are also a treat. A guacamole based salsa ameliorated with jalapeño is only mildly piquant but rich in the buttery smooth flavor of well-ripened avocados. El Norteño also specializes in a couple of salsas rarely seen in New Mexico, but common in the state of Puebla. They’re peanut-based salsas, including the salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, a peanut salsa with chile Guajillo. None of the peanut salsas are as cloying as the peanut sauces so prevalent in Thai foods.

Tamales at El Norteno

Tamales at El Norteno

El Norteño’s appetizer selection includes many standard favorites such as queso fundido served in various ways, but it also offers a fairly unique starter you don’t often find in Albuquerque–ensalada de nopalitos, a refreshing salad made from tender nopal (a member of the cactus family sometimes referred to as a prickly pear) simmered in vinaigrette and served with tomato, onion, minced chiles and corn tortillas. It has a tangy flavor that salad savants will love. 

6 January 2013: Not on the appetizer menu, but on the mariscos (Mexican seafood) menu, is another excellent starter, tostadas de ceviche.  In all good ceviche, the briny-savory flavors of seafood should never be obfuscated by citrus juices or by the chopped tomato-cilantro-jalapeño-onion accompaniment.  In other words, shrimp and fish should taste like shrimp and fish and not a seafood and lime Popsicle.  El Norteño accomplishes this very well, but also gives you several limes to add more citrus if you so desire.

Monica and Leo, the heart and soul of El Norteno.  The tres leches cake in Monica's hands is destined for our table.

Monica and Kamran, the owners of El Norteño

Where El Norteño truly excels is in the art of preparing porcine perfection. Every pork-based entree is unbelievably tender (thanks in part to an overnight marinade in a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil) and uniquely delicious:

  • 8 August 2009: Utilizing ancient Mayan techniques, El Norteño prepares the very best Cochinita Pibil we’ve ever had. Citrus and spice marinated shredded pork is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until tender. The pork literally melts in your mouth, imparting with it as it goes, a lively aftertaste of complementary spices and citrus juices that may elicit tears of joy.

  • Monturas are a specialty at El Norteño. From all appearances, this appears to be a very simple dish–medallions of pork topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese and a rich, flavorful green chile–but appearances can be deceiving. You can masticate this pork with your gums; that’s how tender it is. It is one of the very best pork chop-like dishes in the city.
  • If pork chops are what you crave, the Guisado Norteño will assuage your cravings. Two hearty pork chops are topped with a wild tomato sauce that enlivens them with flavor. Need I say the pork is unbelievably tender.
Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

It also goes without saying that the carne adovada is exceptionally tender and delicious (even though it includes a modicum of cumin) as is the al pastor which derives its flavor from as many as 13 different spices. I could rhapsodize for several pages on how wonderful the pork is, but that would be an injustice to the other terrific items on the menu which aren’t pork based.  Pork isn’t the sole treasure at El Norteño where it’s quite possible there is no ordinary entree.  Every dish is extraordinary or better, if possible.

6 January 2013: The cabrito (meat from very young, milk fed kids between 4 and 8 weeks of age) al Horno Estilo Birria (a style of Mexican barbecue) is absolutely wonderful, some of the best non-barbecued cabrito I’ve had in the past 25 years (maybe even better than the cabrito at Santa Fe’s fabled Los Potrillos). Oven roasted, marinated in chile and its own juices then served shredded, it oozes the pungent flavors of a classic Mexican entree. The cabrito is served with a pico de gallo and corn tortillas, perfect for crafting scrumptious tacos.

Chicken Mole with Beans and Rice

7August 2014:  The best mole recipes tend to be very closely guarded.  Monica will concede that the mole served at El Norteño includes seeds, chocolate, nuts and chilies and while they combine to form a greater whole, they’re not always discernible as individual ingredients.  Mole is so rich and complex that each bite is an adventure in flavor and though chilies are part and parcel of mole, piquancy is rarely a prominent feature.  El Norteño’s mole is smooth and creamy with a very slight hint of chocolate flavor.  It permeates the shredded chicken, imbuing it with a delicious richness.  The shredded cheese tempers the sweetness and provides a welcome contrast.

7August 2014:  Some New Mexican and Mexican restaurants make a big deal out of their presentation of fajitas, parading them from the kitchen with a vapor trail which would make jet aircraft envious.  The procession resembles a phalanx of models walking the runway with tortillas, shredded cheeses, sour cream and pico de gallo plated separately.  At El Norteño, there isn’t much fanfare in the presentation of the fajitas.  In fact, these fajitas are simplicity itself: grilled skirt steak, onions, green peppers and pico de gallo share a plate with beans and rice.  Only the tortillas are served separately. The grilled steak is moist, tender and seasoned nicely, a perfect complement to the grilled onions and green peppers.

Fajitas with Beans and Rice

7 August 2014: Dessert at El Norteño is a heavenly experience. The pastel de tres leches is unique in that the cake itself is cut up into small cubes which swim in a huge goblet filled with three types of rich, sweet milks then is dolloped with sweet cream and strawberries. It is sinfully decadent and delicious. Sweet and tangy flavors also combine like a concordant concert in your mouth in a dessert of frescas con crema (sweet strawberries blended with cream). 

6 January 2013: The glass pastry case at the Montgomery location is so enticing, I’d like one in my man cave–provided it’s stocked with the luscious pastries at El Norteño.  The biscochitos, the official cookie of the state of New Mexico, are wonderful with an abundance of anise and cinnamon flavor on perfect shortbread cookies.  Three varieties of empanada fillings–apple, crema and cherry–are available as are a number of other Mexican pastries.  When Monica launches her panaderia, expect even more deliciousness from the oven.

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Mexican restaurants come and go in Albuquerque.  El Norteño has staying power because it continues to deliver great value, terrific service and fantastic food to its loyal patrons.

El Norteno
1431 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 299-2882
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cochinita pibil, Queso Fundido con Chorizo, Tostadas De Ceviche, Horchata, Tres Leches, Guisado Norteño, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Fajitas, Chicken Mole, Bischochitos, Empanadas


View El Norteno on LetsDineLocal.com »

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

El Norteño
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-4372
LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tostadas de Ceviche, Chips and Salsa, Queso Fundido with Chorizo, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Horchata

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro on Central Avenue in the Nob Hill District

Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district largely owes its emergence as the city’s first “suburb” to Route 66, the great Mother Road which carried Americans westward.  Because of Route 66, the Nob Hill area has been, since before World War II, a thriving residential community replete with restaurants, motels, a modern movie theater, pharmacies and restaurants.  Today it remains the city’s cultural heart and, thanks to the preservation of Route 66 era architecture, retains much of the charm that captivated west bound sojourners.

New tenants such as Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro which launched in 2003 hold court in well preserved brick buildings and seem completely at home.  Antique mirrors, distressed wood floors, stained glass and warm colors coalesce with intoxicating aromas to make this classy bistro one of the city’s best launches (and lunches) of the new millennium.  The French rotisserie, visible from the main floor and the open mezzanine above, turns out some of the best meals in the city.

There’s just a bit of whimsy in the decor at Zinc

While considered a premium fine dining destination, Zinc’s generous portions are comparatively value priced–your bill may approach three figures, but you’ll feel you got your money’s worth.  Meals are well paced with appetizers and entrees brought to your table at seemingly prescribed intervals that allow you to savor and reflect on the quality of the former without pining for the latter. Portion sizes are reasonable–generous, but not profuse.

There are nearly as many floor levels at Zinc as there are layers of flavor in some of its terrific food. There’s a downstairs bar with a lighter menu, a street-level dining room and a mezzanine floor that provides perhaps the best vantage point of any floor. Comfortable spacing between tables is available at all three levels.

Duck Confit Egg Rolls–Absolutely Wonderful!

Zinc is the brainchild of twin brothers Kevin and Keith Roessler, two veteran restaurateurs who also own Season’s Rotisserie & Grill on the northern outskirts of Old Town. They also own Savoy, a Swanky fine-dining restaurant launched in 2007 in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.  The menu at Zinc seems to be a fusion of eclectic American comfort food with departures into New Mexican and French cuisine. The menu is inventive and inspired with something for everyone, including a nice selection of vegetarian entrees.

The clientele is nearly as eclectic as the menu. At any given meal, you’ll see young ladder-climbing urban professionals and more seasoned and affluent diners who have already ascended to or near the top of the ladder. Most will order wine with their dinner and will linger in conversation long after their meal is over.

Steak Au Poivre

Steak Au Poivre

The wait staff is attentive without hovering and informative without being pedantic. They are well-versed in their craft and capable of clearly describing the nuances of the restaurant’s menu. Their recommendations don’t necessarily lean toward the most expensive items on the menu.

4 August 2014 (Brunch): One item everyone at Zinc recommends are the crispy duck confit eggrolls served with peanut curry and chile-lime dipping sauces. The duck is amazingly tender, the result of slow-cooking. It is wrapped in a won-ton type wrapper and is sliced diagonally (giving it the appearance of four egg rolls).  Other components of this delicious appetizer are ginger, mushrooms, sesame oil, scallions, chopped peanuts. soy sauce, spinach and carrots though it is the duck itself that will win you over.  These are easily among the best egg rolls in the city and are outstanding even without the dipping sauces. The peanut curry sauce stands out. It’s entirely unlike and better than the peanut sauce served with satay at most Thai restaurants. Unlike the Thai peanut sauce, it’s not cloying. It’s a savory sauce with a piquant punch to it.

Grilled Lamb Loin Mignon: Accompanied by chorizo-sweet potato tart with goat cheese bechamel, winter vegetable melange and pomegranate demi glace.

16 March 2008 (Dinner): Another excellent value appetizer are the steamed black mussels for only twelve dollars. Bathed in a basil-chardonnay broth and crowned with colorful julienne vegetables, these mussels are top tier. You’ll want to sop up the broth with the restaurant’s wonderful hard-crusted yet yeasty bread.  For years these mussels were one of the city’s very best bargains at ten dollars, but a dreary economy necessitated change.  They’re still a bargain considering the quality and deliciousness.

4 August 2014 (Brunch): Lest I forget, the complementary basket of bread is among the city’s best. I believe the bread is made by Albuquerque’s Fano Bakery, one of the very best bread-making companies in the state and a purveyor of artisan style rustic and specialty breads.  It’s  the type of bread you could eat by the loaf–with or without butter.  The butter served at Zinc is soft and smooth for easy spreading.  During Saturday and Sunday brunch, the bread plate may include croissants and scones.  The wait staff will replenish them happily.

Breads for Brunch

26 December 2010 (Bruch): Lamb is certainly a specialty at Zinc and is accented with seasonal touches.  The grilled lamb loin Mignon, for example, is accompanied by a chorizo-sweet potato tart topped with a goat cheese bechamel, contrasting elements which bring out each others best qualities.  A cleanly simple winter vegetable melange–baby asparagus, carrots, roasted onions–is perfectly prepared, so good even finicky children would love it.  The lamb loin, prepared at medium rare, sits on a puddle of pomegranate demi glace, an ever-so-slightly tangy sauce with a lightly lacquered texture which couples so well with the lamb that they rhapsodize on your taste buds with a subtle medley of flavors you’ll remember long after your meal.  The lamb has none of the gaminess for which lamb is often disdained.

16 March 2008 (Dinner): If you want something more lively, the seared flank steak Au Poivre will invigorate your taste buds with a pronounced black peppercorn taste. A nine-ounce steak seared in a cast iron pan, it is served with buttermilk mashed potatoes, fried mushrooms and onions, all of which are wonderful.  Steak Au Poivre is a staple at French brasseries throughout the country (both France and the United States), but is sometimes prepared with an excess of pepper, making it a bit acerbic.  At Zinc, it is perfectly prepared so that the peppercorn taste complements, not dominates, the flavor profile.  It is served with an espagnole sauce, a veal stock roux reduction sometimes called one of the “mother sauces” of classic French cooking.

Chicken and Waffles

Sunday brunch is an event worth getting up for at Zinc. The menu is only somewhat abbreviated, including more dining options than just about any brunch menu in town. The dulcet tones of soothing guitar music playing soft and low may just make the rest of the world seem so far away and small.  An eye-opening roasted chicken and cashew salad is a great way to start. This superstar salad features sugar snap peas, sweet n’ sour red onions and baby carrots mixed with field greens and a sharp Maytag blue dressing that emboldens the salad. It’s one of several inventive and delicious salad options available for brunch.

26 December 2010 (Brunch): Zinc’s pecan-crusted chicken and chorizo relleno, a unique rendition of the traditional New Mexican stuffed chile pepper, is also one of the state’s very best.  A baked poblano is engorged with cream cheese, Asadero cheese, chicken breast and crumbled sausage then topped with a fried egg sunny and covered with a wonderfully smoky and piquant Ancho chile sauce. Ancho chiles are essentially dried poblanos which may surprise some considering poblanos have a very mild flavor, barely registering on the Scoville scale.  Ancho chiles, on the other hand, can have significant heat and a pungent, smoky, wonderful flavor.  More restaurants should employ this very diverse and very delicious chile.

Pecan-crusted chicken & chorizo relleno: Baked poblano stuffed with cream cheese, asadero, chicken breast and crumbled sausage. Topped with sunny side up egg and ancho chile sauce. Hash brown pie on the side

Also worth getting up for is Zinc’s house-made pork sausage patty (a carnivore’s dream), which along with the sausage served at the San Marcos Cafe, may be the best sausage in New Mexico. It’s got the perfect balance of piquant bite and savory flavor sausage lovers appreciate. The sausage is available on several brunch entrees, including an amazing array of surprisingly good New Mexican dishes that for some reason aren’t available on the lunch or dinner menu.  That’s a shame because if Zinc focused exclusively on New Mexican food, it would be in rarefied company with the very best New Mexican restaurants in the state.

4 August 2014 (Brunch): As with fashion and music, the culinary world isn’t exempt from the whimsy of the trend.  While some foods are forever in vogue, for better or worse others come and go.  The Duke City may have been a bit late in following the waffles and chicken trend, but now it seems every restaurant in town is offering a variation of this popular soul food favorite.  Worse, some local restaurants have taken a rather homey combination and made it uppity with gourmet syrups and highfalutin alterations which make the chicken unrecognizable.   While Zinc jumped on the trendy bandwagon, at least the chicken and waffles haven’t been upscaled.  Better still, they’re actually pretty good.  The chicken, three pieces–a leg, a thigh and a breast– though prepared on a deep fryer, actually has a pan-fried taste.  The waffles are light, fluffy and served with maple syrup.

Grilled Breakfast Pork Chops and Chile Relleno

4 August 2014 (Brunch): Another breakfast standard which never seems to fall out of fashion is grilled pork chops, a solid and unspectacular (translation: boring) offering.  It’s usually up to whatever accompanies those “supporting cast” pork chops to enliven breakfast.  The yang to the grilled breakfast port chop’s yin is a blue corn-crusted Poblano stuffed with Mexican cheeses, fresh corn and peppers topped with a sunny side-up egg and a chipotle fruit glaze.  Frankly, the blue corn crust and egg dominate the flavor profile so much we had to taste the chipotle fruit glaze and fresh corn separately to make sure they were there.  It’s rare that breakfast pork chops are the highlight of a breakfast, but that was the case here.  The pork chops may have been solid and unspectacular, but they met expectations.

16 March 2008 (Brunch): Our waitress told us that some visiting tourists can’t handle the heat of New Mexican dishes and send them back. What a shame they don’t have the heat tolerance of New Mexicans. What a shame that they miss out on enchiladas engorged with absolutely delicious chorizo sausage and baked chicken.  Perhaps more to their heat tolerance level are Zinc’s rendition of stuffed sopaipillas which aren’t served with chile. Instead, two puffy sopaipillas are filled with lemon-blueberry custard then finished with Bosque Farms BeeSweet honey drizzle.

Stuffed Sopaipillas Zinc style

If you love lip-puckering lemon with real blueberries, this is the dessert for you. If you love real honey, you’ll love BeeSweet and you’ll lament the fact that far too many New Mexican restaurants fill their squeeze bottles with “sopaipilla syrup,” the honey flavored syrup that pales in comparison to real honey.

26 December 2010 (Brunch): Another fabulous dessert is the chevre cheesecake tart made with a honey granola crust branded with the letter “Z” (and probably not for Zorro).  Rivulets of ruby port gastrique and fig preserves provide terrific contrasts to the sweet, creamy cheesecake.  On the side of this dish is honeycomb, the pure essence of honey sweetness that’s better than any candy.

Chevre Cheesecake Tart – honey granola crust, ruby port gastrique, honeycomb and fig preserves

Zinc upholds the Nob Hill tradition and has itself become a destination worthy of the Mother Road. It’s a Santa Fe quality restaurant in the Duke City.

Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro
3009 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505)-254-9462
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 03 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Crispy Duck Confit Eggrolls; Seared Flank Steak Au Poivre; Baked Chicken & Chorizo Sausage Enchiladas; Stuffed Sopaipilla; Chevre Cheesecake Tart; Pecan-crusted chicken & chorizo relleno; Grilled Lamb Loin Mignon


View Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro on LetsDineLocal.com »

Zinc on Urbanspoon

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio

Just when you think you’ve seen it all and you think nothing else can possibly been done to exploit the versatility in pizza, something comes along which surprises you.  One such example is the “make your own pie” proposal by the entrepreneurial Kramerica Industries, a proposal which prompted extensive water cooler discussions.

Flamboyant CEO Cosmo Kramer envisioned a pizzeria in which “we give you the dough, you smash it, you pound it, you fling it in the air; and then you get to put your sauce and you get to sprinkle it over your cheese, and they–you slide it into the oven.”  His attempts at securing funding falter over a dispute as to whether cucumbers can be pizza toppings.

The classy interior of Nicky V’s

The aforementioned scenario transpired in an episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.”  While the “make your own pie” concept has some fundamental flaws (people shoving their arms into a 600-degree oven), it does illustrate one of the few things that haven’t actually been done with pizza in the United States. Nicole “Nicky” Villareal didn’t have any uncommon business model in mind when she and her husband set out to launch Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio.

She wanted a true neighborhood pizzeria, the type of which she enjoyed so much during her travels throughout Europe where dining is regarded as a social event.  In Europe, friends and family often linger for hours, enjoying dining and discourse in welcoming cafes and sidewalk patios. That’s the spirit she wanted to convey with her pizzeria.  That’s the spirit that readers of Albuquerque The Magazine discerned in Nicky V’s when they named it Albuquerque’s very best new restaurant for 2010.  Nicky has the experience to pull  off her dreams, having served on the operational management side of several restaurants though Nicky V’s is her first venture in a sole ownership role.

Raviolo Fritti (Fried Ravioli and warm marinara sauce)

Nicky V’s is is about a mile away from restaurant row on Coors Bypass where a phalanx of mediocre chain restaurants blights the landscape. It is situated in the same corner space which once housed two other pizza restaurants–a middling quality Florida-based chain named New York Pizza Department (NYPD) and a local, non-related favorite named JC’s New York Pizza Department.  The 3,300 square-foot restaurant includes an east-facing patio featuring spectacular views of the cottonwoods surrounding the Rio Grande as well as the breathtaking Sandias.

Nicky V’s may have an old-fashioned customer-centric attitude, but the ambiance bespeaks of contemporary modernity.  You won’t find any of the stereotypical trappings–such as red and white checkered tablecloths–of neighborhood pizzerias of old, but you will find an old-fashioned attitude in which good service and friendliness abounds.  Nicky makes the rounds frequently to ensure her patrons are enjoying the dining experience while the wait staff is on-the-spot with a recommendation or a refill.

Il Manchango – Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and Manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette

The walls are adorned with framed photographs of Venice, Rome and Orvietto taken by Nicky’s husband when they traveled throughout Europe during their one-year anniversary-slash-honeymoon.  Traveling throughout Europe via Eurorail left an indelible impression on Nicky.  It helped establish her vision for the type of restaurant she would eventually open.

The menu includes an array of familiar and innovative offerings.  Appetizers include throwbacks such as fritto misto (breaded calamari, onion rings, fried zucchini) as well as the seemingly de rigueur anti-pasto platter (cured meats, roasted peppers, olives, fresh mozzarella) and pita points and hummus (cucumber relish, Kalamata olives, hummus and warm pita).  Raviolio Fritti, fried ravioli with warm marinara, each of five the size of an iPhone, are a popular favorite.

Antipasto: prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives, mozzarella cheese

7 August 2010: The Ravioli Fritti are lightly breaded then fried to a golden sheen and served in a conical wrought iron basket.  Each ravioli is sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and oregano and is stuffed with a rich cheese blend.  The consistency of each ravioli is just slightly crispy, but not crunchy.  The marinara is quite good, the type of which would go very well on a pasta dish. 

12 September 2011: Another excellent starter, one of the very best of its genre in the city, is the Antipasto platter, a plate brimming with crostini, prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives and mozzarella.  By themselves, each individual item on the platter is quite good.  In combinations with one another, they’re all even better.  Top a crostini with a slice of prosciutto, spread on some of the near butter soft mozzarella then crown it all with the roasted pepper and olives and you’ve got an improvised sandwich of the first order.  You can also each component immensely by itself as the high quality shines with each and every bite. 

Pita Points and Hummus

20 July 2014: Appetizers at Nicky V’s tend to be not only beautifully plated, but very generously portioned.  Save for the Raviolo Fritti, the appetizers are pretty much intended to be shared.  That’s certainly the case with the Pita Points and Hummus, a manhole cover sized plate artistically plated with warm pita wedges, cucumber relish (cucumbers, kalamata olives, onions, Roma tomatoes), feta cheese and hummus on a bed of mixed greens.  The cucumber relish is delicious and would make a great salad by itself, but goes especially well with the Feta cheese because of how significantly its flavor profile clashes with the fetid fromage.  The hummus is very garlicky but with a discernible tang from a squeeze or two of lemon. 

Pasta dishes are adorned with a variety of sauces: white wine pasta cream sauce, mascarpone and lemon butter sauce, roasted pepper Parmesan cream sauce, fresh herb Veloute sauce and a cracked pepper pesto cream sauce.  None of the pasta entrees are made with a traditional “red” sauce (marinara or meat sauce).  Even the lasagna is made with a Bolognese meat sauce.

The Umbria - Truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts

The Umbria – Truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts

The pizza menu is segmented into a “Smart” category and a “Savvy” category, perhaps an indication that you can’t go wrong regardless of from which pizza you order.  The pizza dough is scratch-made in-house using a sourdough starter that is allowed to ferment for a day before being rolled into dough.  The dough is made from “the finest flours milled.”  Toppings are of “only the best quality, using local and organic whenever possible.” 

Only one size pizza is offered, a twelve-inch pie that’s perhaps a bit too big to be called a personal pizza, but may be too small to be shared.  Eat half at the restaurant and take the other half home; this pizza is just as good out of the fridge as it is out of the oven.  Pies range from the traditional (Margherita with red sauce, mozzarella slices and fresh basil) to the locally inspired (the New Mexican, made with red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, Autumn green chili and garlic crunch) to the innovative.

Tre – red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers, oregano

In the latter category are pizzas topped with non-traditional ingredients, the likes of which few pizzerias in Albuquerque offer.  These toppings range from the rich and sublime (the Novara includes gorgonzola, pears, ricotta cheese, toasted walnuts and olive oil) to the truly unique (the Siena is crafted from red sauce, Yukon potatoes, roasted red peppers, pancetta and fresh basil). It’s not every pizza for which wine pairings might even be a consideration, but Nicky can tell you exactly which wine and pizza combinations complement one another best. 

The restaurant’s phone number, by the way, is 890-WINE (9463), but don’t expect to find the cheap Chinati bottles which seem to adorn the red and white checkerboard tablecloths at the stereotypical mom-and-pop Italian joints. In fact, Nicky V’s earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2012 in recognition of the restaurant’s more than 125 offerings covering all the reaches of the globe.   With our practice of never drinking adult beverages if we’re driving, we could only imagine what red vintage might have gone best with the Umbria, a pizza crafted with truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, Prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts.

Limited Time Special Served on St. Patrick’s Day: Gravy, ground beef, peas, mashed potato and Cheddar cheese (Photo courtesy of Bruce “Senor Plata” Silver)

5 June 2010: What my mind’s eye is still reliving is the wonderful texture of the pie.  Nicky V’s pizzas are thin-crusted, but not waifishly thin.  What sets them apart are their crunchiness which is wholly unlike the cracker-crust variety of pizzas.  It’s a crunchiness that doesn’t offset the pizza’s chewiness if that’s possible.  The Umbria is a terrific pizza with flavor explosions in every bite as excellent ingredients compete with each other for the rapt attention of your taste buds. 

5 June 2010: Another revelation in flavor appreciation is the Chieti, a masterpiece of a pie topped with garlic cream, a cheese blend, roasted butternut squash, Gorgonzola and baby arugula.  The top topper is butternut squash, a creamy, fine-textured, orange-fleshed squash with a taste vaguely resembling sweet potato.  The arugula and its characteristic light bitter flavor seems to bring out the pungency of the Gorgonzola, a blue cheese with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste.  The creator of this pie is an inspired genius!  Alas, it is no longer on the menu, but it’s much missed (at least by me).

The New Mexican: red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch

12 September 2011: Most pizza restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment pander to New Mexican tastes for green chile by offering it as either an optional topping or using it as the centerpiece of a specialty pizza.  Unfortunately, the green chile often has no more bite than parsley.  Nicky V’s offers two pizzas with names near and dear to the heart of many Duke City diners: the New Mexican (red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch) and the Lobo (red sauce, Italian sausage, green chile, red onions, cheese blend, fresh roasted red peppers).  The New Mexican will bring pride to any state citizen who loves chile.  It will also bring sweat to your brow and maybe even singe your tongue.  Not only does the green chile have heat, the red sauce may include red chile powder and even the pepperoni has a kick to it.  Piquancy aside, this is a very good pizza that will impress itself upon your taste buds and your memories. 

7 August 2010: The Tre, an Italian word that means three, is made up of more than three ingredients: red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers and oregano. Those ingredients are of superb quality. The red sauce and Italian sausage are as good as any on any pizza in the Duke City. The red sauce has a slight piquant bite with just a bit of sweetness and very little acidity despite the obvious fresh tomato base. The sausage has a nice fennel-rich flavor. The roasted red peppers are nonpareil, perfection itself. As my friend Larry McGoldrick has observed, Nicky V’s pizzas are as good as any thin-crust pizza you’ll find in Chicago…and yes, the Windy City has outstanding thin crust pizza!

Orvietto – smoked bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh basil, Crimini mushrooms, peas and pine nuts tossed with cavatappi with a white wine pasta cream sauce

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2011, Nicky V’s introduced–for a limited time only–a pizza special  citizens of the British Isles would have scarfed-up though Nicky admitted she had a hard time talking  customers into trying it.  One intrepid diner who did try the Shepherd’s Pie Pizza was my adventurous friend Señor Plata.  He ranted about this pizza, a thin-crust canvass with gravy slathered on instead of tomato sauce and topped with mashed potatoes, ground beef  and Cheddar cheese.  Larry McGoldrick had  recommended Nicky offer a corned beef and cabbage pizza which might also have received a cool reception from diners who wouldn’t try it.  Some year, I’ll be there to sample whatever Nicky contrives for St. Patrick’s Day. 

7 August 2010: As outstanding as the pizza is, Nicky invites her diners to try the pasta, recommending most highly the Orvietto, an amazing pasta crafted from smoked bacon (pancetta) crimini mushrooms, peas and cavatappi noodles in a white wine pasta cream sauce. The cavatappi, a double-elbow, corkscrew or spiral macaroni formed into a spiral tube shape with groves on their outside surface, is perfectly prepared, just beyond al dente. The white wine reduction melds with the crimini mushrooms and the beautifully smoked Italian bacon to form flavor combinations that dance on your taste buds. The sauce is just perfect, neither too rich or too subtle. This is one of the best pasta dishes we’ve had in New Mexico.

Il Adelaide: Garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage in a Creole pasta cream sauce

As fans of Garfield, once the world’s most widely syndicated comic, know, the rotund cat loves lasagna.  Once confronted by his owner Jon about having eaten four boxes of lasagna, Garfield’s hiccuped retort was, “It’s not my fault.  They started it.”  Garfield would want at least four boxes of Nicky V’s lasagna, a simple blend of lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese topped with mozzarella cheese made complex with a Bolognese meat sauce that the chef tends to for six to eight hours.  This is no ordinary meat sauce.  The Bolognese is true to time-honored traditions.  It’s also quite good. 

Another complex entree prepared exceptionally well is Nicky V’s Chicken Veloute, an entree made with one of the true classic sauces of French cuisine.   The sauce finds its genesis in the word velvety, an apt term for the sauce which is made from a light chicken stock thickened with a blond roux.  Nicky V’s rendition is also made with an onion confit (onions reduced to an intensified flavor), roasted garlic, Crimini mushrooms, chicken and spinach fettuccine.  My friend Señor Plata was surprised to find a dish of such complexity and depth of flavor in an Italian restaurant.  I was surprised at how good it was.

Gnocci: roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil

14 December 2010: Save for the fabulous Orvietto which is in stratified company as one of the very best pasta dishes in Albuquerque, my favorite of Nicky V’s outstanding pasta dishes is the gnocchi, one of the most complex renditions of this dish I’ve ever had with roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks, red onions and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper Parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil.  The gnocchi are rich dumplings with a texture so light they practically melt in your mouth.  The sauce is lick-the-plate good with flavor accents that impress themselves on your taste buds. 

20 July 2014: Chicken Parmesan is an old school entree some Italian restaurants (especially the haughty Northern Italian restaurants) are “too uppity” to serve.  Though it may seem to be a simple dish, it can be very challenging to make well.  Nicky V’s rendition is made with a very thick chicken breast.  Too long in the oven and the breading chars.  Not long enough in the oven and the inside of the chicken borders on raw.  We experienced both extremes, but in the process wound up falling in love with the side spaghetti.  More specifically, we fell in love with the spaghetti sauce which is made from tomatoes grown in Moriarty, New Mexico.  The sauce has a perfect balance of sweetness and tanginess without the oft-characteristic acidity of some tomatoes.  It’s an excellent sauce. 

Note:  Even though our experience with the Chicken Parmesan wasn’t up to the exceedingly high Nicky V standards, the staff was very accommodating, professional and kind when we sent the dish back.

Chicken Parmesan with Spaghetti

28 March 2011: Conspicuous by virtue of its name is Il Adelaide which frankly sounds more Australian than it does Italian.  Rather than name it for an Italian landmark, the chef who conceptualized the dish named it for Nicky’s spicy little daughter Adelaide.  Il Adelaide is indeed spicy, courtesy of a pasta cream sauce redolent with Cayenne peppers.  Other ingredients include garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage.  It’s a complex dish which pays tribute to the lively flavors of Louisiana.  With the 2011 demise of the Cajun Kitchen, Il Adelaide is a comforting thought that you can still get a semblance of Cajun-Creole cooking in the Duke City.

Six salads are also available. These aren’t the types of salads that remind you that the word “diet” is simply the word “die” with the letter “t” added at the end. These are the type of salads of which you can make a thoroughly enjoyable meal. Three of the salads–a house salad, a Caesar salad and “the Wedge”–are pretty standard, though what will set them apart at Nicky V’s is the quality of ingredients and their freshness. The other three salads are crafted with ingenuity and flair. All are available in half- or full-sizes.

Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Meatballs, Marinara, Parmesan and Provolone all stacked tall and sent into Nicky V’s brick oven until bubbly hot!

5 June 2010: The Il Manchango is festooned with Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette. This is an ingredient-fest combining several different taste and texture sensations–the sweet tartness of the Fuji apples; the sugary sweetness of fresh dates; the tangy zestiness of arugula; the crunchy saltiness of the toasted pecans; the unique buttery-bitter spiciness of endives and the pungent saltiness of the manchango drizzled with the citrusy sweetness of a vinaigrette.

This is an outstanding salad especially if you like adventurous taste discernment, flavor combinations and a variety of textures in one plate. It’s also a fun salad to eat. You can use the endive leaves to form a sort of lettuce taco in which you can pile on other ingredients.

Tiramisu (Espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder

9 October 2012: For lunch only (11AM to 4PM), Nicky v’s offers four paninis, all built on French (not Italian) lightly toasted hoagie rolls served with a bag of Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar chips (or a side salad for two dollars more) and a pepperoncini.  One of the most popular of the four is the Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, named for KOAT-TV’s popular meteorologist who frequents the restaurant.  This panini is constructed from meatballs, marinara, parmesan and provolone stacked tall and sent to the oven until bubbly hot.  

5 June 2010: Nicky V’s desserts, many made in-house (sounds like a repeating theme) are par excellence, a quadrumvirate of fine-dining quality sweets.  The tiramisu, espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder–is an exemplary rendition of this popular Italian cake.  It is neither too sweet nor too moist, but sufficient in both qualities to make it one of the best tiramisu in Albuquerque.

Profiterole – puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate

7 August 2010: A recent addition to the superb Nicky V’s menu is gelato, which is much more than Italian ice cream, having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream. Texturally, it is much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor than American ice cream.  High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally, not shipped from afar. Nicky V’s acquires its gelato from Van Rixel Brothers Gelato, the best local source possible.  It’s outstanding!  In fact, the sea salt and caramel gelato may be the very best gelato we’ve had in Albuquerque.  It’s Nicky’s favorite and mine, too.  Flavors will be rotated weekly.

5 June 2010: The profiteroles, puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate, are also quite wonderful. Even the whipped cream is made in-house (as if that needs to be said) and it’s some of the best we’ve had. The profiteroles are rich and delicious.

Sea salt and caramel gelatto

In business for just a few years years, Nicky V’s Pizzeria has earned accolades and honors restaurants in business for much longer can only aspire to. In July, 2011, Nicky was presented the award for “Best Small Business 2011″ by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Her terrific restaurant was later selected to compete in the “Chef Knockout” competition, an Iron Chef style head-to-head cooking competition pitting some of the city’s very best restaurants. The sky is the limit for Nicky V’s, already one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre!

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio
9780 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-9463
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2012
1st VISIT: 5 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
BEST BET: Chieti, Umbria, Il Manchango, Profiterole, Tiramisu, Sea salt and caramel gelatto, Orvietto, Tre, Lasagna, Chicken Veloute, Gnocchi, Il Adelaide, Spaghetti

Nicky V's Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio on Urbanspoon