Sophia’s Place – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Despite what the Name on the Marquee Says, This is the New Home of Sophia’s Place

Exterior signage for Dennis Apodaca’s new restaurant venture sports the name of the previous tenant, a short-lived eatery named MIXX. In a February blurb announcing Dennis’s return,  the Albuquerque Journal called his new venture “REMIXX.” A handwritten note scrawled on the front door, however, informs you that you’ve arrived at “Sophia’s – that you knew & loved on 4th St. NW.” Not taking any chances, Yelp lists entries for both “REMIXX by Sophia’s Place” and “Sophia’s.” So which is it? Ask Dennis and he’ll tell you that despite what the sign says, his restaurant is a relaunch of Sophia’s Place, the celebrated restaurant that made him one of Albuquerque’s most talked-about and respected chefs. “I’d rather spend money on serving great food than replacing a sign” he laughs.

Dennis points out that the exterior signage for Trois Mec, one of the most revered fine-dining restaurants in Los Angeles, still bears the name of its predecessor, Raffalo’s Pizza. That’s entirely by design, the point being that despite a constantly changing five-course tasting menu approaching a C-note price point, the restaurant is unpretentious, its focus being on the food not peripherals such as signage. The term “unpretentious” probably fits Dennis more than it does any other chef in Albuquerque. He’s as down-to-earth as they come, a straight-shooting guy whose passions are family, fine cigars and cooking. Despite an enviable pedigree that includes cooking side-by-side with some of the country’s best chefs at some of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in the fruited plain, he would rather turn out an affordable menu of New Mexico-inspired Mexican food than a more pricey menu of fine-dining entries.

Chicken Chicharrones

Ensconced on the southwest corner space on the first floor of the capacious Silver Moon Lodge apartment building along historic Route 66, Sophia’s Place reborn is the antithesis of its namesake predecessor. Where the Sophia’s on 4th Street was situated in a homey ramshackle old structure and for a time didn’t even have signage to tell you you’d arrived, the new Sophia’s has a more contemporary feel to it.   Parking at the new venue on the fringes of both downtown and Old Town is a bit tricky, but at least you’ll be parking on pavement. The parking lot at the old Sophia’s Place was prone to muddiness during inclement weather.

While Sophia’s Place would remain Dennis’s flagship restaurant, operating from 2002 through its unexpected closure in 2017, the enterprising chef would launch several other restaurant ventures over the years, all but one named for family members.  First came Ezra’s Place (2008 – 2013) which was named for his then teenage son.  Next came the magnificent, but short-lived Jo’s Place (2011 – 2012) named for his mother.   Just before the dawning of 2017, he launched Maya, a name inspired by the bright, vibrant cuisine prepared by the dynastic Mesoamerican civilization and their descendants.  He left Maya to launch the second instantiation of Sophia’s Place in March, 2017.

Salsa and Chips

Dennis’s cachet was elevated from local to nationwide when he wowed Guy Fieri, the Food Network’s spiky-coiffed host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives during a 2008 episode. He would parlay that appearance into an invitation to compete in the Food Network’s Chopped program where he displayed his chops to another nationwide audience. Exposure on the Food Network made Sophia’s Place a restaurant to which visitors pilgrimaged.  His other restaurants, all fabulous in their own right, were frequented more by Duke City devotees of dining Dennis style.  Some of us will follow him anywhere.

Count my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell among them.  After his first visit to the original Sophia’s Place, Larry wrote “I have done some stupid things in my life, but waiting almost three years after moving to Corrales from the east coast until eating at Sophia’s Place ranks near the top. With that stupidity cured, I am now hooked.”  He wouldn’t wait three months after its launch to dine at the new Sophia’s Place.  We were greeted at the door by Dennis’s delightful mother Josie an effusive ambassador for the restaurant’s food and her son’s prodigious talents.  A spry and youthful grandmother, Josie is a perpetually smiling ray of sunshine, a terrific hostess.

Elote

The menu at Sophia’s Place isn’t a mirror image of the menu at its previous instantiation, but you will find several familiar favorites such as the duck enchiladas, shrimp tacos and a sirloin and green chile sandwich.  Sophia’s Place is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week and has a dog-friendly patio.  For the time being, Sophia’s is cash only.  On select Friday evenings (call ahead), Dennis prepares a different thematic dinner.  Whether it be Italian, Thai or some other ethnic cuisine, you can bet it will be outstanding.  Dennis isn’t solely a chef who specializes in New Mexico inspired Mexican food; he can prepare anything you want and prepare it well.  That was certainly validated during our inaugural visit.

1 May 2018: You’d be surprised how challenging it is to decide what to order from a relatively small menu, moreso when you’re also contemplating the daily specials.  Josie doesn’t make it any easier because she raves about everything her son prepares.  As we perused the menu, we shared a bowl of chicken chicharrones.  They weren’t on the menu.  Dennis just thought we’d like them…though he wouldn’t commit to calling them chicken chicharrones (there’s a pattern here).  It’s a relatively simple offering of lean chicken thighs cut into thin pieces and tossed with Cotija cheese, cilantro, scallions and sea salt.   Sometimes, as in the case of this dish, simple is best.

Vegetable Curry with Papaya Salad

1 May 2018: At first browse, our second starter seemed equally simple–a bowl of black beans with avocado slices, Cotija cheese and pork rinds.  Appearances can be deceiving.  The black beans were impregnated with a pleasantly piquant chile that elevated them significantly.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve never liked black beans that much, preferring the sacrosanct pinto, New Mexico’s official state vegetable.)  These black beans I liked…a lot!  We used the pork rinds as a scoop mechanism to extricate those black beans from the bottom of the bowl and used the avocado as a palate-cleansing, tongue cooling aide.  From a textural and flavor perspective, this dish was yet another huge success.

1 May 2018: Since discovering the transformative elotes at El Cotorro, my affections for corn-on-the-cob have been rather singularly focused.  No other elote has been able to capture my fancy…until Sophia’s Place, that is.  As with the elote at El Cotorro, this sumptuous starter begins with a flame-grilled sweet ear of corn.   It’s elevated with the infusion of a lime aioli, chile powder and Cotija cheese. While that makes for a very messy proposition, you’ll enjoy licking any delicious residue off your fingers. You’ll also need a couple napkins to wipe your mouth afterwards. All corn-on-the-cob should be this good!

Grilled Cheese with Mango and Shoestring Fries with Salad

1 May 2018: While every dish Dennis prepares is a paragon of creativity and deliciousness, perhaps the dish which best shows off his versatility is vegetable curry with papaya salad, a special of the day during our inaugural visit.  If you thought his repertoire was limited to New Mexico inspired Mexican food, this dish will convince you otherwise.  It’s curry as well-prepared as the curry at the very best Thai restaurants in Albuquerque.  Dennis has mastered the delicate balance of flavors–pungent, sweet, savory–characteristic of Thai food, not compromising the integrity of flavors to pander to American preferences for cloying Thai dishes.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared, somewhere between al dente and fork-tender.  In a masterstroke of genius, Dennis tops the vegetable curry with a tangy papaya salad, again as good as you’ll find at any Asian restaurant in town.

1 May 2018: Not that long ago, an inquiry by BOTVOLR about grilled cheese sandwiches launched an avalanche of comments with several respondents providing input as to where the Duke City’s best can be found.  Sophia’s Place provides yet another contender, a rarefied exemplar of tradition meets innovation.  Between buttery, lightly toasted bread are nestled the unlikely combination of Manchego cheese and mango slices.  Yes, mango slices.  Manchego, a cheese made with sheep’s milk has a distinct acidity and flavor profile reminiscent of a tangier Monterey Jack.  It’s a perfect complement to the sweet richness of mango.  I ordered this grilled cheese sandwich because it was “different,”  but will order it again because it’s absolutely terrific.  As with other burgers and sandwiches on the menu, it’s served with Dennis’s shoestring fries, the best in New Mexico.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

5 May 2018:  It’s often been said that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”  Perhaps a more accurate aphorism might be “you knew what you had, you just never thought you’d lose it.”  That was the case with Dennis’s magnificent lemon ricotta pancakes, the very best we’ve ever had.  Those pancakes were our favorite from the rotation of fabulous flapjacks Dennis served at the original Sophia’s Place, a luscious line-up that includes blue corn pancakes, pumpkin pancakes and mixed berry pancakes.  It’s great to see he hasn’t lost his touch.   Available in quantities of one, two or four, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t have four, especially if you’re sharing. 

One of the things that makes Dennis’s pancakes a panacea is his homemade butter, a culinary rarity that blew even Guy Fieri away. Fieri who has probably seen just about everything on his road tours seemed amazed that Dennis would go to that extent. After sampling Sophia’s homemade butter (made from separated heavy cream mixed with toasted pine nuts, dried cherries and honey), Fieri called it “outstanding.”   A generous slather of that butter tops the pancakes along with fresh blueberries and strawberries.  As expected, the pancakes are punctuated with a lemony flavor that tempers the sweetness of the syrup.  These pancakes are available only on weekends, another reason to love Saturdays and Sundays.

Huevos Divorciados

5 May 2018: Josie got a kick out of it when I told her, in front of my Kim, that I wanted a divorce.  Not from my bride of thirty-two years.  I wanted one of the specials of the day, the curiously named Huevos Divorciados, a term which translates to divorced eggs.  This dish is an exemplar of the official New Mexico state question: red or green.  This dish features two fried eggs atop two tostadas topped with shredded white and yellow Cheddar and black beans .  One egg is slathered with a tomatillo sauce (the green), the other with red chile.  Both are absolutely superb!  The tomatillo sauce is tart and herbaceous, the red chile piquant and rich.  Dennis knows his way around Mexican sauces as well as most of us know our names.  The tostadas are crispy around the edges and soft in the middle.  The eggs are fried to your exacting specifications.  Every divorce should be this good!

5 May 2018: Another special of the day, emphasis on the word “special,” is the roasted organic achiote chicken tostada with black beans, avocado slices and a fried egg served with a salad.  Achiote is a orange-red spice with a subtle, earthy flavor and peppery aroma, but a little goes a long way.  Dennis knows exactly how much to use and how to use it.  Thin strips of organic chicken are a perfect vehicle for the achiote.  The richness of the avocados provides a pleasant counterbalance while the fried egg lends a savory deliciousness.  A light sprinkled of Cojita cheese adds a light feta-like saltiness.  This is yet another terrific dish.

Roasted Organic Achiote Chicken Tostada

12 May 2018: Long-time Duke City diners may remember that before there was a Sophia’s Place in that dilapidated 4th Street location, there was Fajitaville and a young chef named Dennis Apodaca.  When Fajitaville closed in 2002, Dennis rented the location and named it for his daughter Sophia.  One holdover from Dennis’s days at Fajitaville are some of the best salsas in town. An order of salsa and chips rewards diners with two salsas–a smoky chipotle salsa and a pico de gallo style salsa coupled with housemade chips served warm. Neither of the salsas are especially piquant, but both are redolent with freshness and flavor.  The chipotle salsa is among the very best in New Mexico and that’s saying a lot. The chips are lightly salted and oversized for Gil-sized portions of salsa. Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.

12 May 2018:  Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times, the only food writer ever to earn a Pulitzer Prize, once wrote “when it’s done properly, taco should be a verb.”   In Albuquerque, Dennis has made taco not only an active verb but a possessive adjective (as in my taco), an exclamation and an interjection (as in aha, great tacos).  His scallop tacos are superb, his shrimp tacos a revelation and his carnitas tacos are transformative.  In his breakfast nopales tacos, we found a new favorite.  Nopales or nopalitos are the flat paddles of prickly pear cactus (nopal).  Remove the thorns, slice them up, bottle them in brine and they’re delicious, albeit a bit on the slimy side.  Dennis pairs nopales with scrambled eggs, fresh salsa and cojita cheese then packs them tightly into two warm corn tortillas.  The tortillas can barely contain their contents.  You won’t be able to contain your smile as you enjoy them.

Nopales Breakfast Tacos

12 May 2018:  A couple of years ago, Business Insider published a feature entitled “How to make any quesadilla better.”   Obviously very few people in Albuquerque need help finding the quintessential quesadilla but if they do, all they need to do is point their GPS toward Sophia’s Place.  The carnitas quesadilla with salsa, eggs and papas is one of the best reasons to get up in the morning.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than the best Business Insider could do.  Four triangular wedges of cheesy, meaty love can only be improved with some of Sophia’s magnificent salsa. 

Sophia’s Place is located directly across Central Avenue from Robinson Park, home of the Downtown Grower’s Market.  The market operates on Saturdays from April 14th through November 3rd from 8AM to noon.  Parking is often a challenge when the market is in full swing, but it’s worth walking an extra block or six to visit one of the most dynamic and vibrant markets in the city followed or preceded by a fabulous breakfast or lunch at Sophia’s Place.

Carnitas Quesadilla

By any name, Sophia’s Place is an outstanding restaurant and platform for the culinary genius that is Dennis Apodaca.  Albuquerque is a far better place with Sophia’s Place as its culinary heart.

Sophia’s Place
918 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 916-5496
LATEST VISIT: 12 May 2018
1st VISIT: 1 May 2018
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Cheese with Mango, Chicken Chicharrones, Black Bean Stew, Vegetable Curry with Papaya Salad, Elote, Huevos Divorciados, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Roasted Organic Chicken Achiote Tostada, Nopaies Tacos, Carnitas Quesadilla, Chips and Salsa
REVIEW #1040

Sophia's Place Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Torinos’ @ Home – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Torinos @ Home in the Journal Center

I love Italian food but that’s too generic a term for what’s available now:
you have to narrow it down to Tuscan, Sicilian, and so on.”
~ Lee Child, Author

“You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend; you want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.” That tried and proven sports adage applies in every walk-of-life. Indeed, if you’re the person who has to succeed a beloved living legend, you’ll invariably hear about the gigantic shoes you have to fill. Your every move will be scrutinized and your every failure magnified until you prove yourself worthy of breathing the same rarefied air as the icon you’re replacing. It’s not a challenge the faint-hearted should attempt and it will test the mettle of even the most accomplished.

Confident people have another perspective on following a legend. They relish the challenge of living up to exceedingly high standards and fully expect to succeed. There’s no exit strategy for them…unless it’s to move on to a loftier challenge. They revel in the scrutiny, seeing it as another opportunity to prove themselves. Confident people aren’t reluctant to chart a different course, to do things just a bit differently than their predecessors. They’re risk-takers with an intrinsic believe that it is possible to improve on perfection.

The bright, sunny dining room

So just how to you balance the need for respectful deference to your predecessor with the desire to stamp your own imprint on success? Daniel and Jenna John are doing it the right way. In February, 2016, they purchased Torinos @ Home, one of New Mexico’s most revered and highly acclaimed restaurants. In doing so, they succeeded Maxime and Daniela Bouneou, two of the most beloved and highly respected restaurateurs in the state. Rather than rebranding an established and highly successful restaurant, Daniel and Jenna decided to keep the name Torinos’ @ Home and to continue showcasing the Northern Italian cuisine inspired with French and Spanish influences.

Where the new owners will make Torinos @ Home truly their own is in bringing more local ingredients and indeed, Torinos’ has established local partnerships with several local farms, wineries and breweries. The couple also plans to incorporate new items into the menu and introduce wine happy hour events. One significant “attitudinal” difference is Daniel’s concession that Torinos @ Home offers a “fine dining experience with a casual atmosphere.” Maxime would not—even on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives—declare Torinos’ to be a fine-dining restaurant.

Torinos’ lounge

Stepping into Torinos’ @ Home still felt like coming back home even though we weren’t greeted effusively by Daniela. Also gone is the little store in which Italian goodies—such as Maxime’s olive oil, biscotti, chocolate croissants, homemade jams and a veritable treasure trove of other exciting and interesting items—were once proffered. In its place is a welcoming lounge where you can indulge in your favorite Italian coffee. For my Kim, the most noticeable absence (aside from the Bouneous) was her favorite lavender scented soaps in the ladies room.

Other, more important, facets of a Torinos’ dining experience remain unchanged. Service is still first-rate with attentive servers tending to your every need, such as delivering and later replenishing a colander of olive and Italian bread. The accompanying 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!

Bread

The menu remains comfortably familiar with many of our favorite dishes still available. Dishes we had not previously sampled are interspersed among the familiar favorites. The Antipasti menu includes both a cheese board and an antipasto platter as well as five other inviting starters. Six salads, several of them Torinos’ standards, beckon. A section of the menu is dedicated to Pasta and Risotto, two of life’s enduring pleasures. Two (beef cheek manicotti and squid ink pasta) of the ten dishes on this section were showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Because diners can’t live on pasta and risotto alone, other sections of the menu are devoted to offerings from the Sea and from the Farm. You can add such favorites as homemade sausage, prosciutto and sweet potato fries to any dish. Then there’s the desserts, as decadent and enticing as ever.

20 August 2016: Turophiles everywhere will delight in Torinos’ cheese board, literally a paddle-sized wooden board strewn from top to bottom with cheeses: biaco sardo (sheep’s milk), pichin (raw cow’s milk), Aged Montegrappa (cow’s milk), Nocetto Di Cabra (goat’s milk) and Gorgonzola Picante (cow’s milk) as well as Nicoise olives and walnuts. As with all good cheese boards, the cheeses run the taste gamut—from mild to sharp with degrees of variation in between. Cheeses should be eaten from mildest to strongest so you don’t miss the nuance of a mild cheese after eating a stinging, astringent blue. Because the olfactory senses contribute so much to a cheese-tasting experience, you should always imbibe the aroma of your cheeses before eating them. There is only one thing wrong with the Torinos’ cheese plate. Understandably, what’s missing is more cheese—as in large wheels or blocks of the stuff.

Cheese Board

We’d be hard-pressed to name a favorite cheese from among the five. We loved the bianco sardo and the way its creamy mouthfeel contrasted with its firm, dry texture. We could have eaten an entire wheel of the Pichin, an earthy, acidic, semi-firm cheese. Montegrappa, probably the most expensive cheese on the board, is dense and crumbly with a subdued flavor that nonetheless leaves a lactic aftertaste. Predictably, the Nocetta di Cabra, a creamy, tart cheese was my Kim’s favorite while mine was the Gorgonzola Picante, a veiny blue cheese with piquant notes. Make sure you ask for a side of the positively addictive Cipolline onions (saucer-shaped Italian pearl onions with a uniquely sweet and mild flavor), a nice foil for the cheeses.

20 August 2016: If Risotto Fruit Di Mare had been on the Torinos @ Home menu when the Maxime performed his magic in the kitchen, we must have missed it.  More likely it’s one of the new items on the menu introduced by Chef John.  Don’t dare miss it!  The arrival of the dish (al dente Arborio rice with shrimp, little neck clams, calamari, mussels, clam juice and star anise) is preceded by an aroma one normally encounters only at Vietnamese restaurants.  It’s the inimitable, alluring aroma of star anise, an aroma that permeates each grain of rice with its subtle licorice-like flavor.  The risotto with its very clean, very fresh flavors and the slight and subtle undertones of anise, is a perfect complement to the fresh, almost off-the-boat flavors of the seafood.  Several years ago, I lamented the scarcity of good risotto in New Mexico.  Since then a number of restaurants have risen to the challenge and now serve very good to outstanding risotto dishes.  Mark Torinos’ as one of the latter.

Risotto Fruit Di Mare

During my inaugural visit to Torinos’ @ Home way back in 2009, the menu showcased a “ravioli of the day” special. It was a novel concept which introduced Santa Fe diners to the infinite possibilities of ravioli, an Italian dumpling composed of sundry fillings sealed between two layers of thin pasta dough. For those of us who once believed ravioli came from a can labeled Chef Boyardee, Torinos’ ravioli was a godsend. Thinking back on our naiveté, we’re now inclined to share the perspective of Canadian novelist Doug Coupland who put it so aptly: “I know it’s not cat food, but what exactly is it that they put inside of tinned ravioli?”

20 August 2016: The ravioli of the day concept may not have been long-lived, but it certainly had an enduring effect on diners. The challenge for my Kim was whether to have the roasted beet ravioli (beets, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses stuffed in a ravioli, topped with golden raisins, walnuts, poppy seeds and more Parmesan cheese drizzled in light butter sauce) or the Porcini Ravioli (white truffle, porcini mushrooms, cream and Parmesan cheese), a vegetarian offering.  It was a very good choice.  Earthy, rich-flavored porcini mushrooms impart a pungent, woodsy flavor to the ravioli.  The white truffle lends similar qualities.  If you love full-flavored fungi, this is the dish for you.

Porcini Ravioli

14 April 2018: Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp believes Daniel and Jenna have “made the dining adventure even more swoon-worthy than it was a few years ago.”  TripAdvisor and Yelp communities strongly agree.  In the two plus years since they bought Torinos @ Home, they’ve truly made it their own.  During our April visit, we had a brief opportunity to meet Jenna who’s even more attractive in person than online.  She has an effervescent personality and easy smile even when she’s assiduously preparing for a unique event such as the “Technology Dinner” Torinos was hosting that evening.  With Saturday morning brunch and interesting themed events, Torinos continues to evolve and improve.

14 April 2018: If you’re tired of reading about Gil’s charcuterie adventures, rest easy.  Torinos @ Home doesn’t serve charcuterie.  Charcuterie is French.  Salumi is Italian.  What’s the difference, you ask.  Paul Balisteri, the award-winning salumi maestro and Executive Chef of Tender Greens in San Diego, explains: “salumi is an Italian term for sausage-making, cured and smoked meats, as charcuterie is in French. He also explains that “the difference between salumi and salami is, salami is one of the many items that fall under the umbrella of salumi.”   If it sounds as if your humble blogger is getting hung up over semantics, you’re probably right. By any name, the cured meats served at Torinos are exemplary.

Salumi Plate

14 April 2018: A good salumi plate should offer a diverse flavor profile–a well thought-out melody of flavors and textures.  Careful consideration is in evidence with Torinos’ salumi platter which was comprised of three different salamis as well as sopressata and the house-cured duck along with an eye-opening, taste bud awakening, house-made mustard.   Finocchiona, a traditional Italian pork salami from the Tuscany region is one of the most popular of all Italian salamis.  It’s easy to see why.  Named for the Italian word for fennel, its chief flavor component, this coarse-ground salami is distinctly sweet and delicate.  Its polar opposite is the Calabrese which has a discernible piquancy thanks to a generous addition of red pepper flakes.  Coppa, a dry cured capicolla, is somewhere in the middle, neither sweet nor piquant, but earthy and delicate with notes of pepper, ground cinnamon, cloves, bay seeds and nutmeg.

Our salumi soiree also included two painfully thin sliced slivers of fatty, delicate, salty prosciutto, the Italian equivalent of ham (though prosciutto is as similar to American ham as Hans Solo is to Jabba the Hutt). With a buttery texture and melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness, it’s one of the saltiest of all Italian cured meats. It’s also one of the very best. Torinos’ duck is without peer in the Duke City. An outer layer of unctuous fat borders a delicate pink meat flecked with marbling. You’ll want to make sure you’ve got bread on hand with your salumi plate—not to make sandwiches, but to give the house-made mustard a platform. The mustard has a reddish hue, courtesy of what I believe to be a Turkish Aleppo pepper which has more heat than an ancho chile. It imparts an incendiary quality all mustard aficionados will love.

Tomato Basil Soup

14 April 2018: The Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten calls grilled cheese and tomato soup “the ultimate comfort meal.” She certainly wasn’t talking about Campbell’s condensed tomato soup which goes better on Andy Warhol’s 1968 painting than it does on any kitchen table. She was talking about the delicious cure-all for whatever ails you, a tomato soup with the flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes. A great tomato soup embraces you like a warm hug. A superior tomato soup also includes basil, an invigorating, fragrant variety that lends oomph to any Italian dish. Torinos’ tomato basil soup is studded with pinon which lends just a bit of piny freshness. This soup takes the chill out of winter.

14 April 2018: Contemporary wisdom is that if you want a dish to be perceived as appetizing, you give it a name that makes it sound delicious, like something you’d crave. Such wisdom has apparently been lost on Italians who have long christened their culinary fare, especially pasta, with rather unique names—some humorous, some irreverent, some even ribald, but always interesting. Not even the most innocuous of Italian dishes are spared. Vermicelli pasta, for example means “little worms” in Italian. Spaghetti alla puttanesca’ translates literally as “spaghetti in the style of whore’s.” Orecchiette, a flat, disk-shaped pasta translates to “little ears,” not the most inviting of names for any dish. Chicken Scarpariello or “shoemaker’s chicken” is named because of the way chicken bones protrude from your mouth as you eat the dish much like a shoemaker holding tacks in his mouth as he works

Strozzapreti

14 April 2018: My favorite quaintly named Italian pasta dish is strozzapreti, a term which translates to “priest stranglers.” There are several myths regarding the etymology of the term, the most popular being that gluttonous priests (who apparently didn’t know about fasting and abstaining disciplines) used to gorge themselves on it until some of them, quite literally, choked to death. A more humdrum origin story suggests that the pasta’s twisted shape simply resembles a priest’s collar. Alas, it’s not on Torinos’ daily menu, but it was the special of the day on the breezy Saturday in which we visited. Torinos’ version is among the best we’ve ever had, a very rich dish with varying flavor profiles and delightfully diverse textures: a creamy Parmesan cheese sauce, woodsy pine nuts, earthy mushrooms, leafy spinach, grilled chicken and of course, the priest strangling pasta. Whether cautious because of the legends as to how the pasta acquired its name or because we wanted to savor each and every bite, we ate slowly, several swoons of appreciation escaping our lips. This was a wonderful dish!

Whenever my mom chided me for not liking some traditional Northern New Mexican dish (boiled turnips, anyone), I had a two word retort—“goat cheese.” As do many people, she finds goat cheese off-putting in both aroma and flavor. That’s not surprising. Goat cheese has as many detractors as it does proponents. Count my Kim and I among the latter. We count goat cheese among our favorite frommages. Torinos’ goat cheese salad (spinach, Nicoise olives, red onion and candied pecans drizzled with a sweet Balsamic dressing and served with two crostinis topped with honey goat cheese) gave us another way to enjoy it. Our favorite component of an excellent salad was, of course, the honey goat cheese. The combination of tart, slightly sour goat cheese with the liquid gold sweetness of honey blew us away. It’s possible even my mom would have liked it, but if not, that just means more for us.

Goat Cheese Salad with Chicken

14 April 2018: Though several dessert options beckoned, we opted for the Biscotto Jar (Biscotto (caramel cookie), chocolate hazelnut mousse, homemade whipped cream, drizzled with caramel) which was even better than described on the menu. Perhaps inspired by gianduja, a chocolate-hazelnut paste created in Turin, Italy a couple of centuries ago, the chocolate-hazelnut pairing on the rich, creamy mousse is absolutely addictive. Surely some divinity also inspired the addition of caramel. This is three great tastes that taste even better together. For textural contrast as well as another element of deliciousness, the biscotto proved a worthy component. Only one thing would have made this dessert better—instead of a biscotto jar, a biscotto barrel.

Biscotto Jar

While diners throughout New Mexico believed only Maxime and Daniela were synonymous with Torinos @ Home, Daniel and Jenna John have, in short order, proven worthy successors.  Torinos @ Home remains in good hands! 

Note: You can read my previous review of Torinos @ Home here.

Torinos’ @ Home
7600 Jefferson Street, Suite 21
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-4491
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2018
1st VISIT:  20 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Porcini Ravioli, Risotto Fruit Di Mare, Cheese Board, Salami Plate, Strozzapreti, Biscotto Jar, Goat Cheese Salad, Tomato Basil Soup

Torinos' @ Home Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Philly Steaks – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Philly Steaks on Juan Tabo Opened Its Doors in February, 2018

I love the dignity in the name Philadelphia, but at heart, we’re Philly.”
~Lisa Scottoline
New York Times Best-Selling Author

There are a couple of things you should know about Philadelphia,” my friend  Vladimir “Speedy” Gonzalez told me before my first visit to the City of Brotherly Love.  “First, Philadelphians are not rude.  We may be blunt and direct, but that’s just passion.”   Passion?  I always thought he was a grouch.   “Second,” he added, “you’ve got to know the process for ordering a Philly cheesesteak when you visit Pat’s King of Steaks.  If you don’t, you’ll be sent to the end of the line.”  Sure enough, the Pat’s counterman didn’t appreciate my typical twenty questions ordering approach and sent me back to the end of the line, halfway around the block. 

Apparently what Vladimir called passion is pretty pervasive in Philadelphia.  There are dozens of examples of that passion in sporting events, including a notorious 1968 event in which Eagles fans booed and pelted Santa Claus with snowballs.   There are also plenty of non-sporting examples.  In 1998, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which oversees taxis, mandated etiquette classes for the city’s cab drivers. Cynics called it “cabbie charm school” and derided it as “a class to teach class.” More recently, a 2012 project called “Twitter heat map” scanned 462 locations in the United States for the phrases “Good morning” and “F–k you.” The project revealed that Philadelphia registered the highest concentration of “f-bombs,” but also the highest concentration of “Good morning.”

The Interior of Philly Steaks

So, how do you reconcile that dichotomy?   “Good morning” is not only a salutation, it’s a wish and a blessing, a life-affirming declaration.  It’s hardly a rude or impolite.  Could it be that denizens of the City of Brotherly Love are morning people?  That the rigors and vicissitudes of the day weigh so heavily that they’re transformed into rude and grumpy people?  Could it be, as Vladimir explained, all about passion?  My friend “8,” who matriculated at an institution of higher learning in Philadelphia explained the notion of the grumpy Pat’s King of Steaks waitstaff this way: “It’s kind of a self fulfilling prophecy much akin to the grumpy counterman at Zabar’s or the attitude of the waiter at Peter Luger when a patron asks for a menu, or any Jewish deli man charged with slicing the pastrami.  It is part of the charm if that’s the way to express the curmudgeonly quality of the service.  I would expect no less when ordering.”  Extrapolate that charm, that attitude, that passion across an entire city and you’ve got Philadelphia, take it or leave it.

I’ll take it, especially if it means incomparable cheesesteaks, peerless pretzels, craveable cannoli, bountiful broccoli rabe and roast pork sandwiches, sumptuous square pizza, terrific tomato pie and scrumptious scrapple.  We were ecstatic to learn about the February, 2018 launch of Philly Steaks, an authentic purveyor of Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches owned and operated by veteran restaurateurs who plied their trade in the mean streets of the Cradle of Liberty.  We knew we’d love the sandwiches, were hopeful the portions would be more Philadelphia than Albuquerque, and wondered if the famous Philadelphia passion would be part and parcel of our experience.

Green Chile Fries

Philly’s Steaks is owned and operated by Jim and Joe Lelii, twin brothers with a passion for Italian style cooking.  The brothers launched their first restaurant at only 21 years of age and over the years, opened several successful Italian restaurants and sandwich shops across the Philadelphia metropolitan area.    Recently, however, they relocated to the Land of Enchantment where they launched Philly’s Steaks.  They’ve got the pedigree and the passion to do it right.  In rare lulls in grill activity, we shared good conversation and laughs with the affable Joe, a larger-than-life personality who doesn’t perpetuate the stereotype of the grumpy counterman.  He was as as friendly as could be. Look at his Popeye-like forearms and it’s obvious Joe has spent much of his life chopping rib eye on the grill, a melodic percussion of metal on metal as he slices the rib eye into thin, small pieces.

Philly Steaks is a veritable  shrine to the City of Brotherly Love, both its heroes and its anti-heroes.  Walls are festooned with framed photos of iconic Philadelphia sports icons–real (Smoking Joe Frazier, for example) and cinematic (Rocky Balboa anyone), singers, actors (such as Al Martino) and so much more.  One wall is dedicated to Joe’s family.  He waxes nostalgic when he points out the photos of his grandfather’s deli and other family enterprises in South Philadelphia.  Philly Steaks, he told us, is configured very similarly to similar restaurants he previously owned.  He has high hopes that Duke City diners will embrace his sandwich shop. Every indications–crowded tables with satisfied patrons–is that Albuquerque is already in love with Philly Steaks.

Onion Rings

3 March 2018: Seeing “French Fries” on any menu typically inspires a well-deserved yawn.  At Philly Steaks, it inspires contemplation–a deep, thoughtful deliberation as to how you want your fries.  Sure, you can save the thick, seasoned fries for ketchup, but how boring is that–especially when you can have your fries with Cheese Whiz, Crab, Crab and Cheese, Buffalo chicken and cheese, green chile and cheese, and Philly cheesesteak?  Available in two sizes, regular and bucket, either portion size will sate a family of four.  Don’t be wary about ordering your fries with green chile and cheese.  It’s as if a native New Mexican prepared the green chile.  It’s got both piquancy and the distinctive roasted flavor we love. 

14 March 2018:  On his one “cheat day” a week, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” allows himself just a few more carbs than usual.  One of his favorite indulgences is onion rings–what Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster calls “vegetable donuts.”  Philly Steak’s rendition are battered a bit on the thick side with a panko-like breading.  Bite into each of the succulent orbs and the flavor of sweet, juicy onions greets you.  Be careful, though, as these onion rings could burn your mouth.

My Friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Holds A Cheesesteak

If you’ve ever lamented the chintzy meat portions in sandwiches crafted throughout the Duke City, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (maybe amazed) at how generous portion sizes are at Philly Steaks.  Half a Philly Steaks cheesesteak is as big, if not bigger, than any other Philly cheesesteak in Albuquerque.   You’d think there is more livestock in Pennsylvania than there is in New Mexico where sheep and cattle outnumber our citizenry.  And, if you remember the lawsuit a few years ago against Subway for selling twelve-inch and foot-long sandwiches that were allegedly less than twelve-inches long, you’ll be happy to see elongated, torpedo-sized rolls that probably exceed twelve inches at Philly Steaks.  This is the sandwich size Duke City diners deserved and perhaps thought they’d never find in the city. 

3 March 2018: One look at the Philly Cheesesteak and we knew there’s no way my Kim and I would be able to finish it in one sitting.  It was humongous.  Moreover, it was bursting with flavor.  As at the aforementioned Pat’s King of Steaks, there’s a process for ordering your Philly Cheesesteak.  First you select your protein: beef (fresh-cut rib-eye) or chicken (fresh-cut boneless chicken breast) then your choice of cheese (white, American, Provolone, Cheese Whiz) then the type of cheesesteak you want: pizza steak, mushroom cheesesteak, bell pepper cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak, Buffalo chicken cheesesteak or green chile cheesesteak.  While the ordering process may be similar to that of Pat’s, the “attitude” is not.   Instead of sass and ‘tood, you’ll be greeted with cheer and friendliness.

Philly Cheesesteak “Whiz Wit”

If our choice (bell pepper cheesesteak with Provolone) is any indication, you can’t go wrong with any one of them.  The grilled rib eye is superbly seasoned, tender and delicious.  The hoagie roll is perhaps the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The portion size–it’s what Duke City sandwich lovers have wanted for years.  Of course, one of the most difficult decisions to make when ordering a cheesesteak is what type of cheese to request.  We’ve had our share of cheesesteaks with the fabled Cheese Whiz as well as with Provolone and American cheeses, but our favorite has been the white cheese with its salty, pungent notes.  It melts well and integrates beautifully with the steak. 

14 March 2018:  Like me, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver has long lamented the dearth of sizeable sandwiches in the Duke City.  Having grown up in Los Angeles, he was used to sandwiches as big as footballs.  In Philly’s Steaks, he’s finally found a sandwich comparable in size to those with which he was raised.  Moreover, the cheesesteak he ordered (mushrooms, red peppers, grilled onions and Provolone) was as delicious as any sandwich he’s had anywhere.  My sandwich was exactly the same as his save for ordering Cheese Whiz instead of Provolone.  Perhaps traumatized by my inaugural visit to Pat’s King of Steaks, I didn’t order mine “Whiz Wit,” local vernacular for ordering a cheesesteak with Whiz and grilled onions.  Maybe next time.  At any regard, we both enjoyed our sandwiches very much and thoroughly enjoyed our visit with Joe.

Italian Special

3 March 2018: Freshly sliced hoagies, all served with lettuce, tomato, onion, oil, oregano, hot or sweet peppers, salt and pepper and mayo on request, are an excellent alternative to a cheesesteak (if you can pry yourself away from the sandwich which made Philadelphia famous).  There are ten sandwiches in the freshly sliced hoagies portion of the menu.  Among them is a sandwich almost as elusive as Forrest Fenn’s treasure, a truly transformative Italian Special (ham, capicola, Genoa salami, Provolone, pepper ham).  It’s roughly the size of two, maybe three, similarly named and priced Italian sub sandwiches at any Albuquerque restaurant. 

Most ordinary humans won’t be able to consume an entire sandwich in one seating (that turns out to be a blessing because the sandwich tastes even better for breakfast the following day).  Most of us (exempting politicians) won’t be able to get the sandwich in our mouths.  It is seriously thick and crammed with meats and condiments.  The meats (Boar’s Head) work very well with the condiments, the more of them the better.  With its sweet and mild notes, Provolone lets other ingredients shine as well as being a great foil for the sweet, tangy peppers.  Oh, and the hoagie rolls are fantastic, reminiscent of Amoroso’s, the legendary Philadelphia hearth-baked bread.  Joe told us the dough is shipped from Philadelphia and baked on the premises.  It’s outstanding bread and the way it’s sliced, there’s not so much bread that it dominates the sandwich and leaves little room for other ingredients.

Crab Soup

3 March 2018: Because of its proximity to Maryland, it’s only natural that the menu of a Philadelphia themed restaurant would include dishes showcasing crab Maryland style.  Befitting Philadelphia’s “passion,”  a little tchotchke about the staff’s “crabbiness” hangs behind the counter where you place your order.  The menu offers “craby” fries, “craby” cheese fries and on the day of our inaugural visit both Maryland style crab cakes and a crab soup.  It’s a thick elixir served hot in a large portion cup.  Creamy and rich, it’s replete with chunks of sweet crab, potatoes, red peppers and seasonings.  As with every item on the menu, portion size is Philadelphia not Albuquerque.

3 March 2018: When my Kim was studying the small dessert case, Joe came up to her and suggested she try the cheesecake which is imported directly from the City of Brotherly Love.  It makes great sense that the city famous for its eponymous cream cheese would make a superb cheesecake.  Indeed it does.  Moreover, food historian Gil (great name) Marks notes that Philadelphia boasted of a tavern called “Cheesecake House” in the 18th century.  So, Philadelphians have been enjoying cheesecake for years.  You’ll enjoy this one.  It’s dense, creamy, buttery and not overly sweet on a Graham crust.  Even better, it’s served slab-sized so it’s big enough to share.  Take my word for it, if you eat even half a sandwich, you’ll only have room enough left for half a slice of cheesecake.

Cheesecake

If you’ve ever experienced the stereotyped seedy side of Philadelphia manners as well as the authenticity and deliciousness of the Philadelphia cheesecake, you’ll love Philly Steaks where you can experience the latter without the “passion” for which Philadelphians are known.   Philly Steaks has elevated the sandwich scene in Albuquerque.

Philly Steaks
2520 Juan Tabo, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 582-2527
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 March 2018
1st VISIT: 3 March 2018
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Philly Cheesesteak, Cheesecake, Italian Special, Crab Soup, Green Chile Fries
REVIEW #1029

Philly Steaks Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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