The Point Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa Development

“Get to the point!”  Archie Bunker, the irascible curmudgeon on the 70’s sitcom All in the Family frequently chided his doting wife Edith with the epithet “Get to the Point, Edith!”  One of the series occasional and most memorable bits depicted Archie’s pantomime suicides,  carried out  while Edith rambled on and on in her nasal high-pitched voice, wholly oblivious to his dramatic gestures.  In one episode Archie did himself in by tying a noose and hanging himself as Edith prattled on incessantly.  Archie also play-acted suicide by Russian roulette, overdosing on pills and slashing his wrist.  His facial expressions at the moment of death were priceless, often portraying him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Some visitors to Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog have echoed Archie’s sentiment. “Get to the point, Gil” they’ve expressed. They tell me they don’t want to wade through details or read the clever (okay, that’s debatable) introductions that preface my restaurant reviews. Others, such as my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott actually look forward to my roundabout way of introducing a restaurant, my efforts at being a racounteur. For them as well as those who would rather I employ a more formulaic (translation: fishwrap-style) approach, I offer this advice (or retort): Get to The Point!

Point Grill dining room

That would be The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa master-planned community. If you’re thinking “that’s too far,” think of going there as a New Year’s resolution (we’re not that deep into 2016) to journey outside your neighborhood in pursuit of new culinary adventures.  Better still, think of it as a treat (you owe it to yourself) in that you’ll get to experience a meal that competes with Joe’s Pasta House and Namaste as the best in the city and among the best in the metropolitan area.  That’s what our friends Dave and Joe have done and they live almost as far east as you can go while still being in Placitas. Dave and Joe introduced us to The Point which has become one of their favorite restaurants, distance be damned.

The Point is actually only about four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center which even much of Rio Rancho’s citizenry erroneously believes is as far northwest as you can go and still be in the City of Vision. From the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, The Point is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights and you won’t encounter the typical urban traffic snarls. Beyond the Santa Ana Star you’ll encounter a vast expanse of sage and sand as far as the eyes can see on both sides of the two lane highway. “It’s where the bodies are buried,” my Kim remarked.

Mushroom Soup

The Point is about two miles west of the turn-off into Mariposa. It’s ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views. From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio. Your views will also include just a few of the state-of-the-art homes and community buildings entwined with the natural splendor of the hilly desert topography in which the 6,500-acre community is situated. The delicate balance of nature, architecture and community blend in harmoniously with each other.

The Point’s perceived distance will make it a true destination restaurant, an exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the Rio Rancho’s dining scene. Two other highly regarded restaurants—The Outlook Café and The Timbuctu Bistro—gave it the “old college try” at this location, but neither was able to sustain a consistently reliable customer-base. What makes The Point different? The difference makers begin with owner and executive chef Michael White, a visionary who in his 18 years of professional experience has traversed the gamut of cooking—everything from  food trucks to high-end restaurants.  Originally from Virginia Beach (and reputed to prepare fabulous crab cakes), Chef White’s menu reflects his love of New Orleans’ dynamic culinary culture and its spices.

Chipotle Chicken Satay

Chef White’s menu offers everything from American comfort foods (six different macaroni and cheese dishes) to an innovative array of bounteous hand-crafted burgers and sandwiches, sumptuous salads, weekly soup specials, tapas and a variety of “chef’s favorites.” The dessert menu, while showcasing only four items, would tempt the most disciplined of dieters. Even the Sunday brunch menu, typically a boring after-thought for some restaurants, offers a number of dishes sure to be the best part of getting up. Best of all, the entire menu (save for brunch) is available at all hours in which the restaurant is open.

The Point opened its doors on September 15th and within two months had achieved 500 “likes” on Facebook. Guests certainly like the comfortable seating, accommodating 44 guests inside and 40 on the patio. They also appreciate all the special event menus such as a crawfish boil for Mardi Gras (already sold out) and a romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day. They’re grateful for the professional, attentive service and recommendations they can trust. Moreover, guests like the “get away from it all” feel of dining at a restaurant that may be a bit out of the way, but well worth the effort to get there.

Red Chile Grilled Corn and Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms

15 January 2016: On a cold winter day when the winds are biting and dark, somber clouds loom ominously, you can’t beat a soothing, soul-warming soup. If the soup-of-the-day is mushroom soup, don’t hesitate to order it. There are two qualities to appreciate most about The Point’s version. First, it’s not overly creamy, a quality often attained through the profusion of thickeners that obfuscate the flavor of the fetid fungi. Second, it’s served piping hot, a sure and instant offset to the cold. This mushroom soup is topped with croutons which soften when submerged under the soup as do the two pieces of ciabatta bread.

15 January 2016: The chipotle chicken satay offers another type of heat—the heat generated by the piquancy of peppers. This satay is the antithesis of the satay served in Thai restaurants which is punctuated by pungent curry and served with a cloying peanut sauce. Instead of curry, the chicken is marinated in a spicy chipotle blend then chargrilled and served over coconut rice, all topped with tzatziki, scallion and lemon wedges. The flavors are lively and offer a wonderfully immersive dining experience in which complementary flavors and textures compete for your rapt attention. The tzatziki and scallions offer cooling contrasts to the chargrilled chicken and help cool off your tongue, too.

Baked Ziti

15 January 2016: The menu’s market side selections, all priced at three dollars, are intended to complement your main entrees, but they can be treated as appetizers as well. After enjoying the charbroiled chicken so much, we thought the pairing of red chile grilled corn and garlic sautéed mushrooms would be a good follow-up. Great call! Golden nibblets of sweet corn are lightly dusted with a pleasantly piquant red chile then roasted nicely to preserve moistness while providing more than a hint of char. We were surprised at how well garlic and mushrooms married together. Neither of the two strong flavor profiles is dominant with both garlic and mushrooms blending their personalities well.

15 January 2016: Among the “Chef’s Favorites” in the winter menu is baked ziti (meatballs, Italian sausage, roasted peppers and onion baked with ziti marinara and Italian cheeses), a classic Italian-American hybrid showcasing a medium-sized tubular pasta baked with a “chunky” sauce and meats. Chef White’s rendition is very reminiscent of the baked ziti I enjoyed so much in the East Coast, save for the fact that The Point’s version is served in a pho-sized bowl instead of in a casserole dish. This version is replete with meatballs and sausage, both as flavorful as you’ll find at any Italian restaurant. The baked ziti is yet another dish that works best in winter, but which would be very enjoyable any time of year.

BRUNCH

Not everyone has a high opinion of brunch. In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.” New York Times columnist and writer Mark Bittman calls brunch “a huge fat-bomb,” no doubt a recognition that Americans will eschew fresh fruit and veggie frittatas to swill a few Bloody Marys with their heavy on the Hollandaise eggs benedict. In his defense, Bittman’s recent foray into Michelle Obama inspired healthy food activism has probably starved his thought processes of the clarity made possible only with a diet replete with processed foods and animal products.

Cream of Garlic Soup

Some brunches offer sumptuous all-you-can-choke-down buffets with gleaming silver trays overfilled with fried, gloppy, saucy, sweet, savory and otherwise not-good-for-you options sure to be a big hit among caloric overachievers. This is the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week. It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window. Albuquerque has its share of bounteous buffet brunches, the magnetically appealing, calorie-laden Vegas-style all-you-can-eat Bacchanalian feasts, but it also has the type of high-quality, off-the-menu brunch offerings that have lessened the frequency of my trips to Santa Fe on Sunday. Restaurants such as the Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, the Gold Street Caffe, Sophia’s Place and a spate of others serve up brunch that’s worth climbing out from under the covers to indulge in.

Add The Point to the list of the metropolitan area’s very best spots for brunch.  Quite frankly, it’s one of the area’s best restaurants of any genre.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Albuquerque’s most prolific and trusted contributor to Zomato calls The Point the “best new restaurant of 2015” and “well worth the pleasant drive to the Mariposa boonies.”  If Larry vouches for it, you can take it to the bank that this is a restaurant you have to experience.

Caesar Salad

24 January 2016: During our inaugural brunch visit, we ran into our friends Joe and Dave who were enjoying their umpteenth visit to The Point. Practically ambassadors to this great restaurant, they extol the chef’s preternatural culinary skills to all their friends. Seeing Joe luxuriate in a bowl of cream of garlic soup inspired us to order it, too. If Ludwig van Beethoven’s aphorism “only the pure in heart can make a good soup” holds true, Chef White’s heart must be chaste because his soups are fabulous. How he managed to create a soup that renders garlic so thoroughly delicious despite its distinctly pungent and odoriferous qualities speaks volumes to his skills. Rather than warding off vampires, this garlic soup will bring them in like ants to a picnic.

24 January 2016: Dave rhapsodized about The Point’s Caesar salad (Parmesan, hard-boiled egg and croutons with Caesar dressing). The side salad portion is about a pitchfork sized amount of beauteous Romaine lettuce punctuated liberally with shaved Parmesan. If there are any anchovies on this Caesar, they may have been incorporated into the rich, creamy, garlicky dressing. It’s not a point we debated for too long as we were all too busy enjoying this intricate concoction. While many variations of Caesar salad exist and many high-end restaurants prepare it table-side, few versions are as delicious as The Point’s. There are three other salads on the menu.

Grits & Shrimp

24 January 2016: Having lived in the Deep South may explain my affinity for grits, a “Rodney Dangerfield” type of dish in that it gets no respect outside the South. At their essence, grits are small, broken grains of corn, but let’s face it, when you order them outside the South, you’re playing “Southern Roulette” in that you have a one-in-six chance of them being palatable. The best we’ve had in New Mexico come from The Hollar in Madrid and Blades Bistro in Placitas. Equal to those are the shrimp and grits (jalapeno, maple bacon and white Cheddar; topped with Cajun shrimp, sunny-up egg and scallions) at The Point. Its fragrant properties will get to you before anything else. You’ll swear you’re imbibing the aroma of waffles and bacon. That’s the suggestive power of the maple bacon at work. The Cajun shrimp (succulent and sweet with the snap of freshness), jalapeno and scallions provide a pleasant punch while the sunny-up egg is like a molten blanket of gooey goodness. These are grits that will make you forget all the nasty things you may have heard about grits.

Sausage and Peppers

24 January 2016: There are so many enticing options on the hand-crafted sandwiches and burgers section of the menu that you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which one you’ll enjoy first. For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, it’s a no-brainer. She grew up with sausage and peppers sandwiches, but none in her Windy City neighborhood included goat cheese and basil. Perhaps they should. This is a superb sandwich, due in no small measure to some of the best sausage we’ve had at any restaurant in the area. It’s somewhere between spicy and assertive with lots of flavor. The tangy-pungent goat cheese is a perfect foil for the peppers while the basil lends freshness. 

Southwest Burger

15 January 2017: It should come as no surprise that burgers at The Point are more than a cut above.  In large part that’s because these burgers showcase great beef, not a plethora of ingredients that compete with the beef for your rapt attention.  Chef White constructs his burgers with seven-ounces of Akaushi premium beef, a Japanese red cattle Wagyu sourced from Harwood, Texas.  This prized beef if renowned for its marbling, taste and texture.  It’s great stuff!  There are five burger options on the menu, but New Mexicans will gravitate toward the Southwest burger which doubles up on our official state vegetable and favorite color combination–red and green chile.  The Akaushi patty is crusted with red chile and topped with roasted green chile and Cheddar.  The chile is more than a colorful adornment.  It’s got a nice bite, but not so much that it overwhelms the unctuous Akaushi beef.  This is a memorable burger, one of the best in Rio Rancho.

Flatiron Steak with Papitas

15 January 2017: The brunch special of the day during our inaugural visit in 2017 was a flatiron steak served with papitas and two eggs prepared to your exacting specifications.  Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. Chef White exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak sliced into one and two-bite segments that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy.  The exterior of the steak has a nice crust, but inside it’s medium-rare with a nice shade of pink.  The accompanying papitas would be excellent on their own, but are made irresistible with the simple addition of sauteed onions and red and yellow peppers.

DESSERT

As talented as Chef White is in crafting incomparable appetizers and entrees, it’s in the dessert arena that he really shines. With much of his culinary career having been spent in the operational side of restaurant management, Chef White used his free time to conceptualize and create hundreds of dishes with two goals in mind. First, he dreamed of owning and operating his own restaurant where he could showcase the dozens of diverse menus he formulated. Second, he hopes to someday soon participate in the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen program. With the launch of The Point, he’s achieved his first goal. He persists in applying for Cutthroat Kitchen. 

Bacon-Toffee Sundae

15 January 2016: It took us even longer to decide upon a dessert than it did our shared entrée. The Point’s dessert menu is like a siren’s call, leading guests willingly into temptation. If there’s one dessert which is even better than it sounds, it has to be the bacon-toffee sundae (cinnamon and brown sugar ice cream topped with bacon, toffee, maple-caramel and fresh whipped cream). My “best of the best” for 2015 list is heavily laden with desserts and already the bacon-toffee sundae is primed for inclusion in my 2016 list—and not just because it’s got bacon. This dessert is a montage of deliciousness, a sweet succor for the dessert-starved, a masterpiece in every respect.

Country Apple Cobbler

24 January 2016: One of the dishes Chef White conceptualized is country apple cobbler. In and of itself that name doesn’t come close to doing justice to this dessert. Not even close! In fact, the name “country apple cobbler” may conjure images of the type of cobbler you’ll find at many barbecue joints, not that there’s anything remotely wrong with that type of cobbler. As is often the case with the barbecue joint type of cobbler, Chef White’s version is served a la mode. The greatest difference between his version and the usual suspect is in the candied apple-cranberry mix sans crust topped not with streusel, but with a crunchy granola and with ice cream drizzled with caramel. The ice cream is sixteen percent milkfat which means it’s richer and creamier than most ice cream. It’s also more delicious. You’ll want to make sure every spoonful of this inspired dessert rewards you with a little bit of every single component.

Pineapple Deliciousness

24 January 2016:  Though not on the menu, if your server or the chef recommends the grilled pineapple dessert, grab it before someone else does. This is not grilled pineapple prepared as you may have had it at a Brazilian churrascaria (prepared on a grilled and served on a skewer). It’s Chef White applying his creativity to elevate what would be a great dessert if grilled pineapple was all you found on your plate. Instead, this grilled pineapple is topped with caramel and designed to look like New Mexico’s Zia symbol. Atop the pineapple are two scoops of the aforementioned rich, creamy, delicious ice cream. The concoction is then sprinkled liberally with coconut flakes. The sweet, juicy, tangy pineapple marries so well with the sweetness of the caramel and ice cream that you may have to subdue a swoon or three.

By popular request, Chef White has figured out how to package his magnificent desserts for guests who want to enjoy them at home.  While it’s possible their aesthetic appeal may lose something by virtue of being jostled on the ride home, they’re bound to be just as delicious once you get there (at least during the winter when the cold prevents ice cream from melting).  These are desserts you’ll dream about.  Just ask my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell who’ve made the trek to the Point several times and are still raving about it.

Get to The Point! It may be a bit of a drive for many of you, but the destination is worth the drive. The Point is destination dining at its best!

The Point Grill Gastropub
2500 Parkway Avenue, N.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7453
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2017
1st VISIT: 15 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bacon-Toffee Sundae, High Point Mac, Baked Ziti, Mushroom Soup, Chipotle Chicken Satay, Red Chile Grilled Corn, Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms, Grits & Shrimp, Caesar Salad, Cream of Garlic Soup, Southwest Burger, Flatiron Steak

The Point Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho Linh at its new location as of 2016

You always remember your first time…and if it’s good, it may set the standard by which you’ll forever measure every other time. I was a lanky lad of nineteen, away from home for the first time when “it” happened.  As a precocious yet naive child growing up in bucolic Peñasco, New Mexico, I had been sheltered from the wiles and ways of the world and felt silly and embarrassed about being so inexperienced. All my new friends in Massachusetts seemed so sophisticated in comparison.

Luckily I had a very patient and understanding teacher who taught me all its nuances and variations–how to appreciate its fragrant bouquet, taste the subtleties of its unique flavors and use my fingers as if lightly caressing its delicate features.  To this day, I still compare all other Vietnamese meals against my first that balmy summer day in Massachusetts. I treasure the memories of my first fresh spring rolls; marinated, grilled beef served atop a bed of rice vermicelli and the fragrance of leafy basil wafting from my first steaming bowl of pho.

Pho Linh’s colorful interior

The intoxicating aromas of Vietnamese cuisine remain a potent medium for conjuring up memories of my first time. A flood of memories greeted me when we first walked into Pho Linh, a 2005 addition to a fabulous array of Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City. Pho Linh was originally situated on the Central Avenue location just west of San Mateo which had long been the home of a Golden City Chinese restaurant. It was adjacent to the historical Desert Sands Motel, a survivor of the 1960s which made a bloody cameo appearance in the 2007 movie No Country For Old Men.

On 24 May 2016, an arsonist set fire to the Desert Sands Motel, in the process displacing about five dozen people and causing $1.5 million in damages.  Among the conflagration’s casualties was the beloved Pho Lin Vietnamese Grill.  Although the fire didn’t reach Pho Linh, everything in the restaurant was lost due to fire, water, and power failure.  Because the fire did not reach the restaurant, no reimbursement from the insurance company was forthcoming.   Friends of Pho Linh established a GoFundMe account to help the restaurant owners get back on their feet and start a new restaurant in a different location as quickly as possible.

The lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside

The lovely Toa Kim prepares seven courses of beef tableside (circa 2007)

The second instantiation of Pho Linh celebrated its grand opening on September 15th, 2016, not quite four months after fire consumed the original restaurant.  Its new location, 9100 Central Avenue, N.E., just east of Wyoming and about four miles east of the original, occupies the location which previously housed Lee’s Chinese Fast Food, a long-time tenant.  We hadn’t been seated for long when Toa Kim (who goes by Kim), who owns the restaurant along with her husband, came to our table, indicating she remembered us from our previous visit ten years ago–my Kim because she’s so nice and me because I “took the best pictures of her she’d ever seen.” 

As the three photos on this review–the first two taken in 2007 and the third taken in January, 2017–of Toa Kim attest, she’s aged gracefully and remains as lovely and youthful as when we first met her.  Back then she was a shy young lady who struggled with English.  Today she has a good command of English…and obviously a good memory.  To her delight, Pho Linh’s new location has already eclipsed its predecessor in terms of popularity.  Not only have many loyal guests followed their favorite Vietnamese restaurant east, Pho Linh has started to win over new loyalists courtesy of Kirtland Air Force Base, the Sandia National Labs and others like us who just feel safer in the new location.

Toa grills beef at our table

Toa Kim grills beef at our table (circa 2007)

We reminisced with Toa Kim about her having prepared seven courses of beef for us a decade ago.  Seven courses of beef were a Pho Linh specialty during its time at the Desert Inn, an entree so popular that in 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded its highly-coveted Hot Plate award to the carnivores’ delight.  The award signifies the selection of seven courses of beef as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections across the city, to be singled out is quite an honor.    Sadly, seven courses of beef are no longer on the menu as an entree though each individual item comprising the seven is still available.

Pho Linh is one of the most colorful Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City with a brightness matched only by Toa Kim’s sparkling personality.  On a wall behind a bamboo counter are five painted plates, each representing some of Vietnam’s most populous and culinarily influential cities: Saigon and Nha Trang in the South, Da Nang and Hue in Central Vietnam and Ha Noi in the North.  An “I Love Me” wall on which hang the aforementioned Hot Plate Award and several published restaurant reviews, is on your immediate left as you walk in.  The words “Mom Cooking Ware” are displayed beneath the accolades and reviews, a tribute Toa Kim explained, to her adopted American mother, a frequent guest of Pho Linh with whom she became so close that the two formed a mother-daughter relationship.

Ten years later (2017), Toa Kim remains as lovely as ever

While some may find the color scheme a bit loud, there’s no denying the appeal of Pho Linh’s appetizers. Options include fresh spring rolls with steamed pork and shrimp served with a sweet peanut sauce barely emboldened by chilies but redolent in minty fragrance.  For daring diners, an order of golden crispy squid with butter sauce might be in order. The squid is somewhat reminiscent of fried calamari in taste and texture while butter sauce is an acquired taste disdained by many Westerners. Also quite good are the Vietnamese egg rolls, four cigar shaped rolls fried to a golden hue and tightly wrapped to hold in anise blessed beef. The accompanying fish sauce is served without julienne carrots and daikon and is somewhat salty.

Grilled Mussels

14 January 2017: Remembering how much we enjoyed the aforementioned appetizers ten years previously, we decided to try appetizers heretofore new to us–preferably appetizers not available at other Vietnamese restaurants. We lucked upon two of them. The first, grilled mussels with scallions sprinkled with peanuts served with homemade sweet and sour ginger fish sauce provided an excellent re-introduction to Pho Linh.  Unlike the fried mussels with tamarind from Saigon Restaurant, there is no attempt to alter or obfuscate the native, “fishy” flavors of the mussels though you can immerse them in the sweet and sour ginger sauce if you’d like a more fruity flavor profile.  We enjoyed the mussels immensely with only the crushed peanuts to temper their natural flavors.

Grilled slices beef rolled with pickled leek

14 January 2017: Another appetizer we’d not previously seen at a Vietnamese restaurant was grilled beef slices rolled with pickled leeks though we did enjoy this remarkable starter while indulging in the seven courses of beef entree.  It’s an appetizer very similar to the grilled onion beef pictured in my review of Saigon 2 Restaurant in Rio Rancho though instead of onions, it’s leeks that are rolled tightly in beef.  While leeks may be more closely associated with the cuisine of several European nations, pickled leeks are quite common in Vietnamese cuisine.  They’re not pickled to the extent that they’ll purse your lips as a sour lemon might, but they serve as a nice foil for the anise-blessed beef.  This dish also includes a tangle of noodles along with shredded carrots, daikon and cucumber slices.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

14 January 2017: When it comes to comfort, you can’t beat swimming pool sized bowls of steaming, fragrant, absolutely delicious pho. During a recent discussion about Albuquerque’s best pho, my friend and colleague Tuan Bui convinced me that a return visit to Pho Linh is long overdue. He raved about the Beef Noodle Soup Combination (rare steak, well done flank, beef brisket, beef tendon, beef tripe and beef meat ball). These same meats are also available on the spicy beef noodle soup, my very favorite of all Vietnamese soups. The aforementioned meats swim in a house special spicy lemongrass sauce with sundry aromatic seasonings, onions, scallions, sliced tomatoes and tangles of noodles. A plate of bean sprouts, sweet basil, jalapeno and lemon wedges accompanies each gargantuan bowl. The basil is the freshest we’ve had at any Vietnamese restaurant. Only at Cafe Dalat and the May Cafe have we had a comparable spicy beef noodle soup, meaning it’s in rarefied air–among the very best in the city.

Singapore Noodles

14 January 2017: Only at May Cafe have we experienced Singapore Noodles as addictively delicious as those pictured below. While the origin of Singapore Noodles is Cantonese, several Vietnamese restaurants have one-upped their Chinese restaurant counterparts in preparing outstanding versions of this terrific noodle dish. As with all versions of Singapore noodles, Pho Linh’s rendition is seasoned with curry powder and its vermicelli-thin rice noodles are stir-fried along with pork and a mix of vegetables. What makes this version so much better than so many others is the moistness of the dish, every morsel permeated with sweet, savory, pungent flavors. 

Top: Banh Mi with Pork; Bottom: Banh Mi with Beef

14 January 2017: To say Americans love sandwiches is as much an understatement as declaring ducks love water.  There have probably been more new and more inventive sandwich options introduced in the past ten years as in the remainder of the history of the fruited plains.  To think banh mi, the popular Vietnamese sandwich, were not widely available even a quarter-century ago is almost inconceivable.  Banh mi have become as ubiquitous, even in Albuquerque, as Hawaiian pizza–and you don’t have to visit one of the city’s Vietnamese bakeries to enjoy them.  Menus at restaurants such as Pho Linh offer very good banh mi.  Two options–banh mi engorged with pork and banh mi stuffed with beef–are available here.  These may be the most “Americanized” of all banh mi in the city in that they’re overstuffed–absolutely filled with beef or pork along with carrots, daikon, cilantro and fish sauce.  Alas, they’re somewhat smaller, maybe seven inches, than banh mi at other purveyors, but then again, there’s all the stuff inside.  It’s all good stuff.

Seven Courses of Beef

24 November 2007Though, as previously noted, seven courses of beef are no longer on the menu as an entree, it is still possible to enjoy each of the seven items or you can pick-and-choose from among the seven for an abbreviated experience.  As such, indulge me while I explain this extraordinary offering which we hope will some day soon be reinstated onto the menu. Traditionally served at Vietnamese weddings, seven courses of beef is a meal to be shared with someone you love.  The seven courses of beef provide a uniquely interactive dining experience in which you’ll have ample opportunity to use your hands so make sure they’re well washed before you begin. For most diners, this means you’ll have the opportunity to create your own spring rolls–wrapping various courses of beef and sundry ingredients into a tissue-thin, translucent rice paper.
24 November 2007: I’ve been able to feign (without much effort) an all thumbs clumsiness that prompts lovely attendants such as Toa Kim to feel sorry for me and craft spring rolls that are more uniform than I could make in a lifetime.  A table for two won’t do if you order the seven courses of beef. Just for starters, the courses require two different cooking appliances–a grill and a fondue pot.  You’ll also have to make room for a bowl of hot water (in which to dip the rice paper) as well as a bevy of vegetation that includes green leaf lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled carrots, daikon, green apples, cucumbers, mint and the house’s special dipping sauce.  This sauce, called mam nem is brackish brown in color and is more pungent in flavor than nuoc mam, the traditional fish sauce served in many Vietnamese restaurants throughout Albuquerque.  Unlike the nuoc mam, the mam nem is made from fermented fish, but it is not strained and retains bits of fish that fermented in a barrel for about a year. It’s thicker and more chunky than nuoc mam and is more sweet than tangy.

Lemon Beef

24 November 2007:The first courses of beef are grilled loaf leaf beef (say that ten times as fast as you can) and grilled beef rolls in pickled leek. Both are reminiscent of link sausage in texture, size and appearance, but with the unmistakable fragrance of anise blessed grilling. Next comes the fun part–a beef fondue prepared at your table on a brazier with a bubbling hot pot of vinegar fondue. A plate of tissue-thin slices of raw beef is swirled on the fondue and flash-cooked to your specifications.  Swirling the beef on the fondue is easy compared to dipping the rice paper in a warm water bath to soften it then lining the rice paper with sundry ingredients and wrapping your creation into a sort of do-it-yourself spring roll. This is where not being dexterous and having a face like a pouty hound dog pays off if you can get one of the lovely waitresses to do this for you.
In Vietnam, wrapping rice paper is an Olympic sport and it’s done to an art form. Most Americans will want to super-size their spring rolls and rice paper isn’t meant to hold a steak and a half head of lettuce. That’s another reason to have your waitress play with your food instead of you doing it.  Alas, there isn’t enough fondue beef to finish off all the accompanying vegetables, so your next course of beef is a lemongrass beef with five spices. The beef is Calista Flockhart thin and is grilled on a tabletop hibachi. The wrapping adventure ensues.

Grilled Loaf and Grilled Beef Rolls in Pickled Leek

24 November 2007:The next course is lemon beef (as thin as Nicole Ritchie) topped with mint, herbs and peanuts. At an Italian restaurant it would be called carpaccio and it probably wouldn’t taste as good. You can opt to have this dish grilled, but there are few things as tasty as raw beef marinated in lemon.  A quartered lemongrass beef ball served with rice crackers follows suit. The beef is steamed into a succulent mass topped with crushed peanuts and spices. It is meant to be eaten with the crackers.  Rice crackers are an adventure in eating. They look like and have the consistency of packing material you might use to mail something fragile. They don’t taste much better than what you might imagine that packing material would taste like, but top one of these crackers with a bit of beef ball and it’s not bad.

24 November 2007:The final course is a beef congee, a rice and beef soup similar to Chinese juke (rice porridge). The rice is cooked until very soft then served in a ginger-infused broth with minced beef and scallions. It is served warmer than all the other courses and has the effect of finishing your seven courses with the most comforting of all. 

Our return visit to Pho Linh was akin to a homecoming. It was indeed as if we were coming back home–home to outstanding Vietnamese cuisine and to an effusive, energetic owner with a pho-nomenal memory and sparkling personality. There’s no way we’ll allow ten years to elapse before returning again and again.

Pho Linh
9100 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-3368
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Squid With Butter Sauce, Spicy Lemongrass Beef Noodle Soup, Seven Courses of Beef, Spicy Beef Noodle Soup, Singapore Noodles, Grilled Beef Slices with Pickled Leek, Grilled Mussels

Pho Linh Vietnamese Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Artichoke Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque’s Artichoke Cafe for the Finest in Fine Dining

These things are just plain annoying.
After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual “food”
out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps.
Have the shrimp cocktail instead.”
Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy, that shrill and garrulous walking side of bacon, may not appreciate the humble artichoke much, but among both health conscious and discerning diners, the artichoke has long been a healthful and delicious dining option.  Considered a “super food” for its high antioxidant, fiber, potassium, phosphorous, iron, calcium and magnesium content, artichokes have long been used in the treatment of gall bladder and liver conditions because it improves liver functions and is recognized for its ability to lower blood pressure.  It’s also been known, in some cases, to help with migranes and to give skin a healthy glow. 

In 16th Century Europe, eating an artichoke was considered scandalous behavior for women because the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac (along with the humble tomato) and was reserved exclusively for men (especially aristocrats like Henry, VIII).  Catherine de Medici, bride of King Henry, II of France, denounced that social more, introducing the artichoke along with traditional Italian foods and cooking to the French kitchen.  Catherine was passionate about artichokes, consuming them in large quantities. Henceforth the French elevated the artichoke to the stature of a gourmet ingredient.  It was treated as such when introduced to the American colonies.

The Exquisite Elegance of the Artichoke Cafe

It’s only fitting that one of Albuquerque’s most highly regarded fine-dining gourmet treasures pay tribute to the artichoke by  festooning its name on the marquee.  When the Artichoke Cafe opened in 1989, the artichoke was hardly ubiquitous on Duke City restaurant menus, many of whom seemed to believe vegetables stopped and ended with green chile.  In its two and a half decades plus  of serving the city, the Artichoke Cafe has helped pioneer culinary trends diners now take for granted.  That includes concepts such as seasonal menus, sustainable foods, a wine bar and…a mission statement. 

Mission statements are commonplace in the military and in the corporate world, but not necessarily among restaurants.  They should be!  The Artichoke Cafe’s mission statement is inspired, especially the part which reads, “The guest is always is always right and we will accommodate every guest’s dietary needs to the best of our ability. We strive to make our guest’s dining experience a delicious and memorable one at the Artichoke Cafe.  We encourage every employee working at the Artichoke Cafe to make this vision a reality. On any given day we are only as good as our best effort. Therefore, every employee is an important link in the chain of our mission statement and is valued as such.”

A Basket of Bread and Muffins with Herbed Butter

From the onset, the Artichoke Cafe has been a trend-setter, launching in the East Downtown (EDO) district long before it was the burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming areas in the nation.”  In 1989, the district was actually considered failing.  You can’t underestimate the impact the Artichoke Cafe has had on the area nor that it has rightfully earned the sobriquet “heart of EDO.”  In fact, there’s no disputing the veracity of any of the other slogans the Cafe has used: “the saucy little bistro at the heart of creative cuisine” and “where artisan cocktails meet creative cuisine” among them. 

The 5000-square foot, 120-seat establishment is the brainchild of proprietors Pat and Terry Keene.  Pat serves as the restaurant’s executive chef, a vocation for which she was formally trained in New York City while Terry has more than 30 years experience in restaurant management.  While that marital pairing was certainly made in heaven, the restaurant is reputed to serve heavenly pairings of fine wine and exquisite cuisine.  As a non-imbiber of adult beverages, I can’t speak for the wine, but The Wine Spectator certainly can, perennially listing it in its annual dining guide.   

French Onion Soup Gratinee with crostinis and Gruyere

The Cafe’s walls are adorned with art whose beauty pales in comparison to the the truly artistic cuisine, whose artists are merely stick figure novices in comparison to the classically trained masters who create in the kitchen.  From the complimentary bread basket to desserts, this restaurant exudes four star first class with a culinary repertoire which melds the finest in creative American, Italian and French cuisines.  Be aware, however, that it’s easy to fall in love with an entree that may not be available because of a seasonal menu rotation. 

The love starts early as in when the basket of fresh bread is delivered to your table along with a delicious herbed butter.  The basket typically includes a triumvirate of breads including a very good French bread.  It’s an excellent bread for sopping up the restaurant’s inspired soups, among them memory-triggering Potato-Leek soup.   The Artichoke’s rendition transported us back to  The Mermaid Inn in picturesque Burford, England where we luxuriated in its warmth and depth of flavor.  It’s a high compliment to the Artichoke’s version that it can even be mentioned in the same sentence as the wondrous elixir served at the Mermaid Inn.

Sliced Steak

28 December 2011: Also quite inspired is the French Onion Soup gratinee with imported Gruyere.  It’s easily among the very best French Onion Soups in Albuquerque, so good even French-hating xenophobes would appreciate a steamy bowl of aromatic beef broth in which sweet onions and pungent cheese swim merrily with spongy, soft crostinis.   Considered a “peasant food” by virtue of its humble, economically borne origin, French onion soup has risen to the level of much coveted, highly sought after gourmet favorites.

26 December 2016: Don’t be surprised if lunch entrees at the Artichoke are exceedingly better than more expensive dinner entrees at other fine dining establishments. Such is the case, in part because the lunch menu includes sliced steak.  As described on the menu (flat iron steak, angel hair pasta salad, basil, asparagus, red pepper, Parmesan, Balsamic reduction), you’re not quite sure what exactly will be delivered to your table, but you can rest assured it’ll be outstanding.   Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. The Artichoke Cafe exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy at about medium-rare which means plenty of delicious pink.  The Balsamic-blessed asparagus spears shine!

Salmon and Broccolini Crepe with Marsala-Goat Cheese Sauce

26 December 2016: The lunch menu during our December, 2016 visit listed both a crepe of the day and a chef’s daily preparation of shepherd’s pie.  Although chicken was the listed filling for the crepe, the accommodating kitchen staff agreed to substitute salmon for a small up-charge.  Well cognizant that the Artichoke Cafe prepares salmon better than just about any restaurant in Albuquerque, it was a substitution this persnickety diner relished.  Picture if you will a thin crepe nearly bursting at its seams with sweet, earthy broccolini and tender, flaky salmon all covered with an absolutely addictive Marsala-goat cheese sauce served with a side salad and vegetables.  Broccoli haters might enjoy its more palatable cousin broccolini whose flavor is more mild and less bitter.  It’s an excellent complement to salmon and absolutely shone under the resplendent Marsala-goat cheese sauce which is so good you’ll want to mainline it.

26 December 2016: Author Anna Lappe rhapsodized “the joy of eating seasonally is the joy of fresh produce and fresh foods.”  That’s what you find on the Artichoke Cafe’s greens menu–an array of seven artfully composed and inspiring salads so inviting you might eschew the restaurant’s magnificent appetizers.  Available year-round is the best Salad Nicoise in New Mexico as well as the restaurant’s most popular salad, the extraordinary Pear and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad.  This is a salad comprised of complementary flavor and textural elements for which all great salads should strive: fresh, crispy greens; a pungent, fetid blue cheese; sweet-juicy pears; tangy-sweet cranberries and savory umami-laden Tamari pecans all drizzled with a honey-champagne vinaigrette that pulls everything  together.  This is one of my favorite salads anywhere!

Pear and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad

At the Artichoke, we’ve also discovered one of the very best Italian entrees we’ve had in the Duke City, an inspired lunch entree of Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers, a concordant marriage of sweet, savory and piquant flavors that had us salivating with every delicious morsel.  The Italian sausage is of Chicago or Philadelphia caliber with the perfect amount of fennel.  Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers are a quintessential Italian dish, especially popular throughout the East Coast where they’re often stuffed into sandwiches.

For dinner, perhaps no restaurant in New Mexico serves a lamb quite as luscious as the Artichoke Cafe.  The oven roasted New Mexico rack of lamb, as succulent as you’ll find anywhere in the state, is not to be missed.  It is tender and mouth-watering without the prevalent gamy smell of lamb served in restaurants not of the Artichoke’s caliber.  The only fault you can ever find with outstanding lamb is that you’re always left wanting more.  That’s the case with this luscious lamb.

Mocha Semi-Freddo and chopped Serrano chiles (added at my request)

28 December 2011: One of the hallmarks of the Artichoke Cafe is its commitment to sustainable seafood. Past menus have featured a “chef’s daily creation” in which only sustainable king salmon and seafood are used.  You’ll want to pay rapt attention to your server’s description of this daily seafood bounty though doing so may dissuade you from ordering what you thought you had wanted. One daily special we happened upon during a December, 2011 visit showcased sustainable king salmon atop a bed of ginger and scallion sticky rice and topped with pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish served with snap peas and carrots. 

This is an entree with one surprise after the other.  The salmon has a near “just caught” freshness that seems enlivened by the mouth-watering combination of pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish.  The combination of tanginess and piquancy is a winner, far better than disguising the native flavors of the salmon with some syrupy sweet sauce as other restaurants are apt to do. The ginger and scallion sticky rice had me longing for ripe Thai mangoes.

King Salmon over Sticky Rice

28 December 2011: The Serrano chile relish so captivated me that I asked for it to be added to my dessert choice of mocha semi-freddo.  To our server’s credit, he didn’t call for a straight jacket or attempt to dissuade me from potentially ruining what is an excellent dessert.  Alas, instead of the Serrano chile relish served with the salmon, chopped Serrano chiles were delivered in a plate.  It didn’t matter.  I garnished the dessert with the chiles and enjoyed my fiendish concoction thoroughly.

The Artichoke Cafe is one of the Duke City’s premier dining destinations, a fact not lost among the city’s movers and shakers who make it their destination of choice for “power” lunches and dinners.  Whether or not you consider yourself a “player” in the arena of business, politics or any other enterprise, you’ll feel right at home at the Artichoke Cafe, truly one of the city’s very best restaurants of any genre.

The Artichoke Cafe
424 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 243-0200
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 24
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Italian Hot Peppers, New Mexico Rack of Lamb, Pear and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad,

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

SweeTea Bakery Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe on San Mateo

In some metropolitan areas, legions of restaurant bloggers dissect and report on every facet of the area’s dining scene. These bloggers have a significant impact on the restaurant choices diners make. That fact isn’t lost on savvy restaurateurs—particularly young entrepreneurs active in social media–who solicit feedback on their restaurants from the dynamic food blogger community. Some restaurateurs who understand the power of online reviews even engage in “food blogger outreach campaigns” and cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with food bloggers. Alas, this doesn’t often happen in Albuquerque—maybe because you can count on one hand (with at least two fingers left over) the number of active food bloggers with staying power and brand recognition.  There is anecdotal evidence that Duke City restaurant review bloggers have some impact, but it hasn’t been quantified.

You can also count on one hand the number of restaurateurs who have actually invited me to experience their new restaurant ventures. On the rare occasion in which a restaurateur does invite me, it reaffirms for me that the restaurateur: (1) recognizes food bloggers as a legitimate, credible and influential medium; and (2) understands the power of blog-based reviews to amplify a positive dining experience. So, when Anh and Tammie, the vivacious owners of the SweeTea (the expected “t” is redundant) Bakery Café on San Mateo, invited me to “come sample and review our new sandwich bakery” and expressed their “excitement to get feedback from food experts like you,” I leaped at the opportunity…though careful as always to remain as inconspicuous as my linebacker size and “real” camera will allow.

Owners Tammie Nguyen (left) and Any Nguyen

It didn’t immediately dawn on me that I may have “outed” myself when ordering a durian-coconut smoothie. Durian, as regular readers may recognize, is considered “the world’s smelliest fruit.” Its odoriferous emanations have been likened to body odor, smelly feet, rotten onions, garbage and worse. Our server’s reaction—a shock and awe mix of “you are kidding, aren’t you?” and “do you really know what you’re ordering?”–is typical. Perhaps sensing the server’s trepidation, Anh Nguyen stepped out to confirm the sheer madness or foolhardiness of my beverage order. She laughed when I told her I was Vietnamese in my previous life, acknowledged that durian is an acquired taste which very few people acquire then proceeded to give us a guided tour of the bakery-café’s pastry case.

This wasn’t some special treatment accorded to a food blogger who could perhaps influence venturesome Duke City diners (remember, Anh didn’t yet know who I was). This is how SweeTea’s staff treats everyone who walks into the premises for the first time. With the pride of a young parent, Anh practically beamed as she aptly described each pulchritudinous pastry, a phalanx of sweet and savory treasures displayed under glass. It’s a wonder drool tracks don’t obscure your view; many a museum’s most cherished masterpieces pale in comparison to these pastries. Their appeal is heightened by Anh’s enthusiastic descriptions.

View of the Pastry Case and Order Counter

After our meal had been delivered to our table, Anh stopped by to see how we were enjoying it…and “caught me” carefully photographing our bounty. Surmising my gig was up, I proceeded to reveal my identity as a mild-mannered food blogger who can eat tall banh mi in a single (well, maybe ten) bite(s). She reproved me for having paid for the meal myself, indicating that having invited me she had intended to treat us to our meal. Noting our table was brimming with savory fare, she excused herself, returning scant minutes later with a trove of baked goods—eight enticing delicacies as dainty and beautiful as those baked by a Parisian patisserie.

Ahn then summoned her partner and long-time friend Tammie Nguyen to join us. If you’ve ever admired those framed portraits of statuesque Vietnamese women which adorn the walls at some Vietnamese restaurants, in Anh and Tammie you’ll see vivid confirmation that such elegant beauty does exist. Theirs is an easy friendship borne of shared years and experiences. Before launching SweeTea, Ahn worked as a pharmacist while Tammie toiled as a software engineer.  As restaurateurs they’re naturals with an ambassadorial flair all good restaurateurs have.  They’re passionate about giving their guests a memorable and delicious experience.

Meatball Banh Mi

If you ever visited the defunct House of Pho, the location’s previous occupant at Montgomery Plaza, you’ll be amazed at the wholesale transformation the 1,800 square-foot space has undergone. A complete make-over has converted a nondescript restaurant venue into one which bespeaks of both modernity and hominess. A mural depicting Singapore’s high-rise dominated skyline covers an entire wall. It’s eye-catching, but the true cynosure of the attractive milieu is the pastry case with its enticing fare. Seating is more functional than it is comfortable unless you manage to snag the comfortable red sectional sofa where you can stretch out. Anh expects a robust take-out business so the dozen or so seats should be just about right for those of us who want to eat in.

SweeTea is patterned after 85 °C Bakery Café, a Taiwanese chain of coffee shops and self-serve bakeries with a huge presence in California. Guests employ tongs to extricate their favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) pastries from self-serve pastry cases then pile them onto a tray and ferry them to the counter. In other pastry cases, you’ll see such delicacies as cheesecake and fruit-filled tarts. Above the counter you’ll espy a menu showcasing an appealing selection of delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, small bites, special entree dishes, unique specialty drinks and bubble tea. It’s an ambitious menu considering the relatively Lilliputian size of the bakery-cafe, but it’s not exclusively Vietnamese.

Bulgogi Banh Mi

Anh explained that contemporary Vietnamese food has been heavily influenced by nearly a century of French colonialism. The influx of French flavors, ingredients and techniques essentially revolutionized traditional Vietnamese food. One of the most visible aspects of modern French-inspired Vietnamese food is the crusty baguette, the basis for banh mi, the widely popular Vietnamese sandwich. Sweet and savory pastries, sweet breads, chocolate-filled croissants and other tantalizing baked goods may now be ubiquitous in Vietnam, but their origin is French.

“In Vietnam,” Anh told me “it takes a lot more work to make a banh mi.” That’s because ovens are still relatively scarce within family homes. Throughout Ho Chi Minh City where she was born, banh mi are a featured fare of the makeshift street markets in which “kitchens” are ad-libbed by inventive cooks. The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial street foods being prepared on small, sometimes homemade, charcoal braziers wafts throughout the alleyways and side streets in which these, mostly uncovered, markets are located. Though she can’t hope to recreate the incomparable experience of preparing banh mi in the street food style of her birthplace, she certainly knows what it takes to create the best to be found in Albuquerque.

Egg Rolls

Before launching SweeTea, Anh and Tammie returned to Vietnam to study baking techniques then spent time refining recipes to adapt to Albuquerque’s high altitude, high alkaline water and arid climate.  These challenges have baffled transplanted bakers for years, but with lots of practice, water-softening technology and a determination to treat Duke City diners to the very and most authentic best banh mi in New Mexico, they’ve got it down pat.  The authenticity is immediately obvious in that the baguettes (baked on the premises, not purchased at Costco) have a perfect balance of pillowy softness inside and crustiness of the exterior.  Moreover, Anh explained, banh mi sandwiches are supposed to be at least twelve-inches long as they are at SweeTea.

In our first two visits, we enjoyed five banh mi, each one dressed with picked carrots, daikon relish, cilantro, jalapeño, cucumbers and SweeTea mayo.  Banh mi aren’t ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) in the manner of American sandwiches.  There’s just enough meat in each of the five sandwiches we enjoyed to complement the accompanying vegetables without obscuring the freshness and deliciousness of the baguette.  Each banh mi is a balance of flavors in perfect proportion to one another.  My early favorite is the meatball banh mi.  If you’re picturing golf ball-sized meatballs as you’d find in an Italian meatball sandwich, you won’t find them here, but you will find them addictively delicious.  These “meatballs” have neither the texture nor orb-like shape of Italian meatballs.  They are instead more akin to a very moist, very well-seasoned ground pork simmered in tomato sauce.

Chicken Dumplings

My Kim enjoyed the bulgogi banh mi most.  Bulgogi is certainly not Vietnamese.  It is instead the signature dish of Korea,  what many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue–thin strips of marinated lean beef imbued with a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes.  The fusion of signature elements from Korean and Vietnamese culinary cultures is a winner, but in terms of flavor profile, it’s not significantly different than the grilled pork banh mi.  For more distinctive, savory flavors try the grilled sausage banh mi, a pork-based sausage redolent with the flavors of fish sauce and garlic.  If “cold-cut” sandwiches are your preference, you’ll love the #1 Special Banh Mi made with Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate (yet another delicacy for which Vietnam can thank France).  Don’t let the term “headcheese” scare you off.  There’s not enough of it to overwhelm the sandwich.  Besides, it’s a nice complement to the other ingredients.

But I digress.  Before you get to the banh mi, you’ll want to enjoy at least two of the four listed “small bites” on the menu.  Make one of them the deep-fried, golden-hued egg rolls.  Come to think of it, you may want two orders of these cigar-shaped beauties lest you risk fighting over who gets the third one (being a gentleman, I always let my Kim have it then stew over it later).  Served with a sweet-savory and slightly tart sauce of thick viscosity, these egg rolls are generously stuffed and perfectly fried.  They’re absolutely delicious.

Vermicelli with Grilled Pork

For those of us who dine with a spouse or partner, the matter of appetizers served in odd-numbered quantities can be confounding.  Exempli gratia, the pan-fried chicken dumplings which are served five to an order.  You’ll probably covet all five of these crescent-shaped beauties for yourself.  Who can blame you?  They’re tender and plump, filled with fresh, tasty minced chicken fried to a crispy (but not greasy) golden-hue.  There’s only one thing missing–and that’s the elusive sixth dumpling to make it an even-numbered starter so neither you or your partner will feel short-changed. 

While not a compendium-like menu (such as the 145-items at nearby Saigon Restaurant), SweeTea offers more than enough entrees to make it not just your favorite pastry provider, but a very viable lunch or dinner option.  In thirty or forty visits, for example, you might  want to deviate from the banh mi menu.  There to sate and likely hook you are seven vermicelli options, each made with the same familiar proteins you love on the bahn mi.  The grilled pork vermicelli is a resplendent swimming pool-sized bowl crammed with vermicelli noodles, cucumber, bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce, pickled carrot and daikon, scallion and roasted peanuts served with SweeTea fish sauce.  If freshness has a flavor, it’s exemplified by this dish in which a melange of ingredients and flavors coalesce into a palate-pleasing, tongue-titillating bowl of pure gustatory enjoyment.

Assorted Vietnamese Pastries

Now for the pastries!  Trays of these artisanal delicacies are baked twice daily so you’ll always have fresh pastries on hand. That is until the bakery runs out…and if you get to SweeTea late in the day, you just might find slim pickings. Not that a limited selection is a bad thing. It’s how we discovered the cinnamon rose buns, (not pictured) cinnamon rolls shaped like roses.  Unlike those overly-glazed grocery store pretenders, the prevalent flavor here is sweet cinnamon in perfect proportion to the soft bread dough which unravels easily.  After two visits and nine different pastries, these may be my favorite…at least until I try another new one.  

For years the Coconut Craisins Butterfly at Banh Mi Coda has been my favorite of all Vietnamese pastries.  Though somewhat smaller, SweeTea’s version is better…more of the coconut-raising marriage we love.  For my Kim, the nutella buns reign supreme.  She’s fiendishly addicted to the sweetened hazelnut cocoa spread and smiles broadly with every bite of the soft buns.  We both love the “not your traditional banana nut bread” which is baked with fresh rum-soaked bananas and is topped with walnuts.  This is not your mother’s dry, tasteless banana nut bread.  It’s rich, moist and utterly decadent.  SweeTea’s signature pastry is the Kim Sa Bun, a soft bun filled with egg custard and with a cookie crust top.  Anh described the painstaking process of brining the egg yolks to prepare the custard, a labor of love for a pastry you will love.  

More Pastry Deliciousness

24 December 2016: It stands to reason that innovative and avant-garde restaurateurs such as Anh and Tammie wouldn’t subject their guests to the de rigueur Coke or Pepsi product offerings.  Though soft drinks are available, adventurous diners will gravitate to the exceptional teas or smoothies (truly intrepid souls will try the coconut-durian smoothie).  If you’re of a more healthful bent, Anh (remember she was a pharmacist) might recommend Thai basil seed with Malva nut which has properties conducive to good health. 

The childlike among us (okay, me) might instead opt for a colorful, multi-layered “rainbow” drink.  From bottom to top, this beverage is layered with chestnuts, mung bean, agar, coconut and crushed ice.  Use your straw to blend it all together and you’ll enjoy one of the more unique flavor-texture experiences you’ll have in the Duke City.

Nhu Holding “Rainbow” Drink

There are many things to love about the SweeTea Bakery Cafe, a magical fusion of Vietnamese and French ingenuity.  With Anh and Tammie turning out the best pastries this side of Ho Chi Minh City, it promises to be a very welcome and exciting addition to the Duke City dining scene.  Tell them Gil sent you.

SweeTea Bakery Cafe
4565 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 582-2592
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2016
1st VISIT: 4 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Meatball Banh Mi, Bulgogi Banh Mi, Special (Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate) Banh Mi, Grilled Sausage Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Chicken Dumplings, Egg Rolls, Vermicelli with Grilled Pork, “Not Your Traditional Banana Nut Bread,” Kim Sa Bun, Egg Custard Bun, Nutella Bun, Coconut Craisins Butterfly, Cinnamon Rose Bun

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’TUCCI’S MARKET & PIZZERIA – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria

Greek mythology recounts the story of Tantalus, progeny of a divine parent (Zeus himself) and a mortal one.  Uniquely favored among mortals by being invited to share the food of the gods, Tantalus abused that privilege by slaying his own son and feeding him to the gods as a test of their omniscience.  The gods immediately figured out what Tantalus had done and in their rage condemned him to the deepest portion of the underworld where he would be forever “tantalized” with hunger and thirst.  Though immersed up to his neck in water, when Tantalus bent to drink, it all drained away.  When he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

For years, Duke City diners have been tantalized by the promise of signage beckoning us to visit “delis” only to realize, much like the gods of Olympus, that all is not as it appears.  A sign does not a deli make nor do products from peripatetic distributors.  As with Tantalus, we’re left to pine for the authenticity of a true deli, the type of which Albuquerque has not seen since the bygone days of Deli Mart.  Savvy diners may not be able to vanquish the ersatz delis to the underworld, but we can banish these pretenders to the realm of chain restaurants we choose not to frequent.

Huge Flavors Come out of This Small Space

By strict definition a “deli,” an abbreviated form of delicatessen, is a term meaning “delicacies,” “fine foods” or “delicious things to eat.”   Over time delicatessen and its diminutive form came to represent the store, restaurant or combination thereof in which these delicacies, fine foods and delicious things to eat are sold, either for take-out or eat-in.    For many of us who have lived in large cities, the term deli is synonymous with Jewish deli while for others a deli proffers specialty foods indigenous to Italy, Poland (see Red Rock Deli) or other European nation. 

The hard-liners among us will never accept  that Schlotzky’s, Jason’s, McAlister’s and others of that ilk are delis despite what their signage may say.  Nor will we ever be duped by the deception of diners daring to call themselves delis.  It goes without saying that we don’t believe a deli should  feature products burnishing the labels of Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Kirkland, Butterball or even the ubiquitous Boar’s Head.  An authentic deli should preferably cure, salt, dry and cut its own meats and make at least some of its cheeses–and if it doesn’t do that, it should procure and sell only the finest, most authentic meats and cheeses available.

Italian Charcuterie Board

With the December, 2014 launch of M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli, Albuquerque once again has an authentic Italian deli in the tradition of delis for which hard-core deli aficionados have pined for far too long.  It’s a deli in which I’d proudly break bread with Dave Hurayt, Bruce Schor, Bob Sherwood and Gary Feaster with whom I’ve commiserated about the absence of an authentic deli in Albuquerque.  Best of all, it’s a deli with a pedigree that promises authenticity and deliciousness. 

Trust the ownership triumvirate of John Haas, Katie Gardner and Jeff Spiegel to do for their Italian market and deli what they’ve done for their restaurant. The trio launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in 2013 and accolades quickly piled on (including “Best New Restaurant” honors from Albuquerque The Magazine readers and being named one of the top 100 neighborhood restaurants in the US by Open Table).  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli is located about 150 feet away from its elder sibling in the Montaño Plaza shopping center.

Pickled Board

Ensconced within Lilliputian digs, M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli embodies the axiom “little place, huge flavors.”  Add huge aromas and you might feel you’ve been transported to a small corner New York City Italian deli.    You’ll be amazed at just how much is crammed into such a small space.  Seating for about ten guests is to your immediate left and right as you walk in.  Because of space constraints, the deli’s take-out business will be a robust part of the operation.  The rest of the space is devoted to mouth-watering Italian products, many of which are created on the premises. 

In fact, the talented staff at M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli bakes its own breads (sourdough, rye, whole wheat, baguette, ciabatta, foccacia), makes its pastas and sausages, cures many of its own meats (prosciutto, cotto, sopressata, mortadella, etc.) and makes its cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, etc.).  What isn’t made on the premises is procured from trusted, high-quality sources.  On the shelves you’ll also espy jars of fresh herbs (basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.) while refrigerated deli cases showcase pickled goods (eggplant, sweet or spicy cucumbers, cardamom carrots, giardinera, Sicilian green olives, Macedonian peppers and more).  Your taste buds might go into sensory overload, not to mention involuntary salivation.

Muffaletta with Farro Salad

Optimally, you’ll be able to score one of the four tables for a unique eat-in experience that will allow you to browse and sample as you wait for your meal which, by the way, is so much more than sandwiches.  First on the menu are three Italian charcuterie boards, all of which are accompanied by house-made artisan bread.  After you peruse the four enticing appetizers and three scrumptious salads, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose from among seven featured sandwiches, including a build-your-own option and all served with one side.  You can opt instead for one of three pastas.  Either way, you might not have room left for one of the three luscious desserts.

If, like me, you believe Italian delis start and end with meats and cheeses, you’ve got to try one of the three Charcuterie Boards (Salumi Board, Pickled Board, Cheese Board).  In America, the ancient European culinary art of charcuterie has recently started to become a highly revered and well-practiced art.   Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli not only offers charcuterie, it is a charcuterie!

Pastrami

14 December 2014: The Salumi Board offers three options: pick two, pick three or pick four from among the meats.  An outstanding option is the spicy coppa (short for capicolla), a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat with a taste and texture similar to prosciutto.   If you’re a Sopranos fan, you might recognize capicolla by its slang name “gabagool.” By any name it’s delicious.   Speck, which is cured with such spices as juniper berries, nutmeg, garlic and bay leaves before being cold-smoked, is another terrific option.  It wouldn’t be a salumi (Italian cold cuts) board without Toscano salami, a dry, salami with large bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns surrounded by leaner meat which provides a robust, distinctive but not overpowering flavor.  It goes without saying you’ll also want prosciutto on your board.  Accompanying these meats are slices of Italian bread, an addictive onion jam, house-made mustard, tomato relish and probably the very best spicy pickles you’ll ever have.

12 April 2015: M’Tucci’s pickled board is the very best we’ve had in New Mexico though there aren’t that many to compare with.  Available in quantities of two, three or four pickled vegetables, it’s essentially a vegetable plate even vegetable-haters will love.  Usually served with a local goat cheese, we lucked out during our April, 2015.  Because the deli had run out of what is undoubtedly an outstanding goat cheese, a Bucherondin de Chevre, a luscious and creamy French goat cheese was substituted.  Pierce the Bucherondin’s rind and you’ll enjoy a near-buttery soft, creamy and mild goat cheese that complements pickled vegetables very well.  Our pickled board included sweet and hot pickles, carrots and eggplant, all of which were oh, so delicious with distinctive notes in each.  Those pickles are absolutely addictive!

BLT

14 December 2014: The sandwich menu includes several familiar favorites such as the Cubano, BLT, Pastrami and Muffaletta, but while M’Tucci’s pays homage to traditions which spawned these sacrosanct sandwiches, it does not attempt to duplicate them.  The muffaletta, for example, is not an exact replica of the muffaletta you might have at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, but it’s an outstanding Italian inspired sandwich in its own right.  The canvas for this superb sandwich is housemade ciabatta which is generously topped with housemade capicola, mortadella, salami, an olive tapenade and house-smoked mozzarella. It takes two hands and a wide-open mouth to handle this mighty, meaty, magnificent sandwich.  The yin to the muffaletta is a ferro salad  (fresh grape tomatoes, walnuts, Tucumcari feta, pickled red onions on a lettuce leaf), one of the four available sides.

14 December 2014: Pastrami paramours often consider it heretical for pastrami sandwiches to be topped only with a good deli mustard with a dill pickle on the side.  Before they become apoplectic at learning M’Tucci’s pastrami (made on the premises) sandwich is made with herbed goat cheese, fresh red onions, a housemade mustard on housemade rye, they had darned well better try it.  It’s unlike any pastrami this aficionado has ever had and it’s a bit lean (fat is flavor) for my tastes, but it’s still a pretty good sandwich with that herbed goat cheese really standing out.  This sandwich pairs well with oven-roasted herbed potatoes, red potatoes seasoned with rosemary, thyme and fresh garlic. 

Carbonara

12 April 2015: For years, the benchmark against which I’ve measured all BLTs in New Mexico has been the TBL, a Gecko’s Bar & Tapas original stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread.  It took more than a decade to find a BLT that’s better.  Like the TBL, M’Tucci Market’s version is also an original.  In its standard form, it, too, is made with applewood smoked bacon though for a mere pittance, you can substitute bourbon-glazed bacon.  Splurge!  It’s the best bacon we’ve had in New Mexico, better even than the red chile-honey glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe.  The BLT (butter leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, blue cheese aioli and wheat bread made on the premises) is all a sandwich should be though the hard-crusted bread scrapes against the roof of your mouth just a bit.  The blue cheese aioli is rather mild which is perfectly fine because it lets the bacon shine.  The lentil salad (pickled onion, carrot, zucchini, rosemary, sage, thyme and Tucumcari gouda) is an excellent accompaniment.

12 April 2015: While judging the Taste of Rio Rancho in February, 2015, my friend Mario D’Elia, the uber-talented executive chef for the Albuquerque Isotopes, commiserated that guanciale (an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks) isn’t that widely used in Albuquerque restaurants, Chef Maxime Bouneou, formerly of  Torinos @ Home being one of the few to use it.  Add M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli to what will hopefully become a trend.  M’Tucci’s makes its own guanciale and it’s terrific.  The guanciale is perhaps my favorite ingredient in a Carbonara dish constructed of superb ingredients (housemade cured egg yolk, Pecorino, sage, pepperoncini flakes, shallots and tagliatelle made on the premises).  The tagliatelle (long, flat pasta ribbons) is fortified with an unctuous, but not overly excessive, sauce.   The portion size is relatively modest, but being so rich, Carbonara isn’t a pasta dish on which many diners can over-indulge.  This is a great one!

Italian Mac & Cheese (Photo courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, has (as of this writing) visited MTucci’s Italian Market & Deli some 48 times.  It’s easy to see why he loves this restaurant so much–as well as why your humble sesquipedalian blogger needs to increase the frequency of his visits.  The Italian Mac & Cheese (Rosemary ham, Morbier Mornay, handmade penne, fresh Mozzarella, Aleppo pepper bread crumbs) warrants a visit or ten all by itself.  After one forkful Larry declared it the best mac and cheese he’s ever had.  High praise indeed.  There’s a lot to love about this skilletful of deliciousness and inventiveness.  Instead of the usual half-and-half mixture of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, the Mornay sauce is made with Morbier, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which, interestingly, is fashioned with a black layer of tasteless ash.  The Morbier not only coalesces the penne, some of it melts into a delightfully oily pool at the bottom of the skillet.   Chunks of Rosemary ham imparts resinous, savory and sweet qualities that blend magnificently with other ingredients while the Aleppo peppers (about 10,000 on the Scoville scale) lends a pleasant piquancy.

7 June 2016:  When she hangs out with Larry and me, Dazzling Deanell  is like a delicate flower among two wilted weeds.  She not only graces our table with beauty, wit and charm, she always seems to order the right things.  Take for example, the Market Reuben (fresh market-cured corned beef, homemade sauerkraut, red chile mostarda on rye bread) she ordered during our June 7th visit.  Even as she ordered it, she declared the Reuben at O‘Hare’s Grille and Pub in Rio Rancho to be her favorite Reuben then conceded that M’Tucci’s version will probably be even better.  She has the gift of prophecy!  This is a fantastic Reuben, one she paired with a glorious beet salad.  The housemade rye is the perfect canvas for the other components.  The red chile mostarda (which has nothing to do with mustard and more closely resembles a relish) is a magnificent blend of fruity sweetness, piquancy and tanginess.  As we enjoyed the sandwich, we discerned a flavor similar to cloves (or perhaps crushed lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread spice cookies), but weren’t quite sure what its genesis was.  We surmise it may have come from the roasting of the corned beef itself.  The corned beef is even better than M’Tucci’s pastrami and that’s saying something.

Market Reuben (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

11 December 2016:  There appears to be no limit to the talents of Shawn Cronin and Cory Gray, the uber-talented chefs who “bake, cook, age, and cure their way to creative culinary bliss.”    In November, 2016, the dynamic duo transformed M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli  into M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria.  It’s not just a change in concept or solely an exercise in re-branding, but rather an ambitious expansion that reflects the addition of 12 pizzas into an already outstanding menu.  When you think about it, it just makes sense.  They were already hawking some of the best cheese, meat and bread in the city.  Why not put them all together?  And, if you’re thinking to yourself, there’s already a top tier pizza at M’Tucci’s Kitchina, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria has one-upped its elder sibling.  In fact, in our estimation, the only pizza in the Duke City that’s even in the same zip code is at the Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House. 

Custom-made ovens that heat to 800-degrees will ensure your pie is baked quickly and evenly.  You’ll find plenty of char on each pie, a hallmark of the pizza at Farina  where Shawn and Cory cut their teeth.  If char is not a flavor you like much, you can ask for light char.  The menu indicates “Our pizza dough uses wild sourdough starter instead of yeast, giving a better flavor and texture. We cook it until a deep caramelization occurs. We source the best ingredients, either house made, local, or imported.”  Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found a pizza menu like this one.  Instead of last decade’s sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives and the like, this menu lists such ingredients as orange-herb gremolata, baby kale, smoked buffalo mozzarella and caramelized onion coulis.  The result will make a believer out of you!

Caprese Trio

11 December 2016:  Mike Green, the metrosexual nerd who pairs with the brutish former NFL player Mike Golic to host the morning sports talk show Mike & Mike (on Albuquerque’s ESPN 101.7 The Team) contrasts the difference in their personalities by condescendingly pointing out he enjoys Caprese salads while his endomorphic partner prefers donuts.  The implication here is that the Caprese salad (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction and olive oil) is enjoyed by worldly sophisticates while donuts are an opiate for the hoi polloi.  In truth, Caprese salads are a favorite of all of us who enjoy salads. 

Though listed in the Insalata (salad) section of the menu, the “Caprese Trio” is unlike any composed Caprese salad you’ve ever seen.  Served on a slate board is a treasure trove of deliciousness: fresh mozzarella, Balsamic roasted tomato, fresh basil, smoked mozzarella, house Italian tomato jam, pesto, Burrata, fresh tomatoes, basil oil, ten-year old Balsamic vinegar and wedges of lightly toasted bread.  It’s sheer genius to compile such individually delicious ingredients into a cohesive array of complementary, harmonious magnificence.  Every single component is a shining star.  Our favorite may have been the burrata, an unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Translated to “buttered,” it bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.   The smoked mozzarella is absolutely amazing and the tomato jam is addictive!

Carbonara Pizza

11 December 2016:  Ordering the Carbonara pizza brought a broad smile to our server’s face.  She said it was her favorite pizza.  It’s easy to see why.   M’Tucci’s pizzaiolos nonpariel have taken Carbonara to the nth degree, actualizing its potential and fashioning a pizza as good as it can possibly be.  Not since Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California have we found a pizza that amazed us as much as this one did (Jim Millington, are you reading this?).  This fourteen-inch masterpiece redolent with char is topped with house-cured and smoked Guanciale, caramelized onion coulis, sauteed spinach, Tallegio cheese and Rosemary cured egg yolk.  The caramelized onion coulis imparts sweet notes while the Tallegio cheese provides an unusually fruity tang.  Our favorite ingredient, however, is the guanciale (about which I rave above).  The Neapolitan crust is light and chewy with the distinctive flavor of sourdough in evidence.

11 December 2016:  While the Margherita may be the forerunner of all pizzas, it’s never been one of my favorites.  It’s just too basic and unadorned to suit my “more is better” tastes.  M’Tucci Market & Pizzeria has made a convert out of me with its Buffalo Margherita (smoked buffalo mozzarella, basil-infused olive oil, tomato jam and roasted garlic).  Buffalo mozzarella, made from the milk of domestic Italian water buffalo, is a difference-maker.  With a high butterfat content, it’s got a seductive tang you just don’t get from mozzarella made from cow’s milk.  Then there’s the tomato jam with its rich, sweet-savory notes. It’s wholly unlike the savory acidity of the tomato sauce which typically graces pizza. Every Margherita should be this good!

Margherita Pizza

14 December 2014: There are only three desserts on the menu and if they’re all as good as the two we chose, you’re sure to sate, if not titillate, your sweet tooth. The molded cheesecake topped with a fig jam renewed my faith in cheesecakes which of late have all been plagued by a boring sameness.  The crostata, a delicate Italian tart enveloping buttery butternut squash infused with sage is nearly as good.  Somewhat small by contemporary dessert size standards, they’re not to be missed.

12 April 2015: Not that long ago you could practically count on one hand, the number of Italian restaurants offering cannoli as a dessert option.  For the most part, it’s been pretty standard–tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta and often, mascarpone.  “Radical” versions sometimes included chocolate toppings.  Yawn!  During our visit in April, 2015, M’Tucci’s served a cannoli pila (an Italian term meaning “stacked” or “piled”) that was essentially a deconstructed cannoli.  Instead of the standard stuffed shell, bits of shell were topped with a mascarpone-ricotta mix topped with a cherry-walnut compote.  It’s a deliciously different way to enjoy one of the most popular of Italian desserts.

Italian Bread Pudding (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  When Larry first tried M’Tucci’s Italian bread pudding, it immediately rocketed to the coveted number one spot on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  It was so good that both he and Deanell regretted not having ordered one each instead of sharing a portion.  One of my life’s greatest regrets is not having driven over immediately as soon as they told me (months ago) how fabulous this bread pudding is.  There are several reasons it’s so good.  First, the bread isn’t the mushy, squishy mess so often used on bread pudding.  It’s a housemade foccacia.  Secondly, it’s not cloying as bread pudding is oft to be.  Third, it’s made with premium ingredients.  The version to which I was introduced included blueberries and piñon and was topped with a seasonal melt-in-your-mouth gelato.  This is transformative stuff!

Pop culture enthusiasts will remember the scene from the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan experienced delirious joy from her sandwich at New York City’s revered Katz’s Deli. Similar reactions at M’Tucci’s are sure to be repeated and when they are, you can tell your server “I’ll have what she’s having.”

M’TUCCI’S  MARKET & PIZZERIA 
6001 Winter Haven Road,  N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 December 2016
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Italian Charcuterie Board, Pickled Board, Pastrami Sandwich, BLT, Muffaletta, Carbonara, Farro Salad, Lentil Salad, Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes, Cheesecake with Fig, Crostata with Butternut Squash, Cannoli Pila, Italian Mac and Cheese, Market Reuben, Italian Bread Pudding, Carbonara Pizza, Buffalo Margherita Pizza, Caprese Trio

M'Tucci's Market and Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

ECLECTIC URBAN PIZZERIA AND TAP HOUSE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My Friends Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor Leaving the Magnificent Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House

Looking around our table, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott astutely pointed out the relative scarcity of pizza at our table. Considering the Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap Room may have been the most eagerly awaited pizzeria to open in Albuquerque in years, you’d think a phalanx of foodies would  be devouring our weight in pizza…and while three pulchritudinous pies did grace our table, so did such eclectic fare as pho, chicken wings, roasted chicken and Chimichurri skirt steak a la plancha.   Despite the term “eclectic” on the pizzeria’s appellation,  the menu’s vast diversity actually surprised us.

It’s a testament to his tremendous creativity and talent that Chef Maxime Bouneou can still surprise diners who for nine years reveled in his fabulous Italian creations at Torinos @ Home, the restaurant he founded with his beautiful bride and partner Daniela.  Surprises at Torinos were usually of the “I can’t believe how good this is” variety.  At Eclectic, surprises fall under the “I can’t believe he can prepare this so well” category, emphasis on “this.”  Frankly we shouldn’t have been surprised at the diversity of dishes he prepares so well.  Maxime isn’t a great chef who prepares great Italian food.  He’s a great chef who can prepare virtually anything!

Daniela and Maxime Bouneou

Maxime’s pedigree as a chef is very impressive though more diners are acutely aware he wowed (absolutely blew away is more like it) Food Network celebrity Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives than know that in his native France, he worked in Michelin two- and three-star restaurants.  Maxime’s ability to coax unbelievable deliciousness out of everything he prepares isn’t just a matter of talent.  He and Daniela are committed to using the highest quality, locally procured organic ingredients wherever possible.  Moreover, he absolutely loves what he does and continually works at improving his craft.

Daniela is the yin to Maxime’s yang.  They complete one another with a work and life synergy few couples ever achieve.  It’s been that way since they met in Nice, France where she was working as maitre d’ at a four-star hotel and he was the hotel’s promising sous-chef.  They were married shortly thereafter and moved to Santa Fe where they launched Torinos @ Home in 2006.  While the kitchen has always been Maxime’s domain, Daniela runs the “front of the house” with an incomparable elan.  Her buoyant personality makes her the perfect hostess where she shines unlike no other in New Mexico.  To say the Bouneous were beloved is an understatement.

An Eclectic Dining Room

In February, 2016, Maxime and Daniela sold Torinos, an event their adoring patrons believed warranted an apron flying at half mast. For months, we all speculated as to where they would land and even if they would remain in New Mexico.  Fortunately the Bouneous have fallen in love with the Land of Enchantment and in early April, 2016 announced the forthcoming launch of their next restaurant venture, an undertaking they named “Eclectic. Urban Pizzeria and Tap House.”    For months, legions of Facebook friends anxiously awaited the next snippet of news about the Bouneous return.  Along with a Web site depicting construction progress, the Facebook page was both a big tease and an appetite-whetting medium.

On Saturday, August 27th at precisely 11AM, Eclectic opened its doors, a “soft opening” in which Daniela and Maxime may have set a one-day record for most hugs dispensed (although Tim Harris might have something to say about that).   Guests were as happy to see the Bouneous as they were to sample their culinary fare.  By Eclectic’s official September 17th launch date, it’s probably accurate to say many of us fed by the Bouneous for years will already have fallen in love with Eclectic, a restaurant which more than lives up to its name.

Spicy Eclectic Olives Mix

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House is located on Menaul, about three blocks east of University.  Because there isn’t a direct turn-in to the restaurant from east-bound Menaul, you’ll have to double back if you took the University exit.  And because the pizzeria doesn’t have vivid, eye-catching signage and its storefront is a bit recessed from the street, you might miss it if you’re headed west from Carlisle.  If you are headed west from Carlisle and you see Twisters, you’ve gone just a bit too far.  Though your inaugural effort to find Eclectic might engender increased familiarity with Menaul, you’ll never again pass it by.  Nor will you forget it.

Eclectic’s ambiance is industrial, but warm with blonde woods, distressed red bricked walls, hand-scrawled menus on the wall, a corrugated bar and industrial style polished concrete floors.  Table legs are made from metal pipes, the type used in plumbing.  Menus on clipboards hang from hooks on each table.  Large south-facing windows let in sunlight.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable though we’ve lingered long and happily during our first two visits with no ill effect.  Even al fresco dining is available thanks to a pet-friendly patio that doubles the pizzeria’s seating capacity.  This is just one cool place to be, especially if you’re dining with friends.

Wings Hot and Tangy.  Photo courtesy of Kimber Scott

31 August 2016:  My friends Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor who, because of this blog, enjoyed a kinship without ever having met, accompanied me on our inaugural visit.  Walking into the restaurant was like old home week, a reunion of new and old friends.  No sooner had we stepped in than we espied the charismatic Ryan Scott, his winsome wife Kimber and their precious angel Judah.  Daniela and Maxime greeted us all like long-lost family.  That’s pretty much how they treat everyone–and one of the reasons Eclectic will soon become Albuquerque’s favorite pizzeria and watering hole.  Well that and the food.  Oh, the food… 

While a disclaimer cautions that the menu is subject to change without notice, in our experience every item on that menu is an absolute winner, a perfect ten.  The first section of the menu is titled “Start With” and it included eight starters, each as appealing as the other.  There are ten pizzas on the menu, including a “build your own” option.  Save for the Reina Margherita, a vegetarian pizza, and the Quattro Formaggi, the pizzas are unlike any you’ll find in the city.  Instead of the de rigueur “meat lovers” pizza for example, you’ll find a Nordik pizza with smoked salmon and capers.  There are four items on the “Not A Pizza” section of the menu, entrees truly befitting the term “eclectic.”  Those include roasted chicken, fish and chips, Chimichurri skirt steak a la plancha and beer braised short ribs.  Three sides are also available as well as four decadent desserts.

Hot “PHO” YOU

31 August 2016: As we perused the menu, we enjoyed a bowl of spicy, eclectic olives (some with pits). Brine-cured green and reddish, the olives are meaty, fresh and rubbed with a pleasantly piquant chile.  It’s not often, if ever, the flavor combination of briny and piquant is discussed on this blog, but the combination is surprising (there’s that word again).  The piquancy level of the chiles is a degree or two of magnitude more intense than pimentos stuffed into olive centers (as in the olives used on martinis), but without compromising on aroma and flavor.  Bruce Schor graciously allowed me to eat the single Thai bird pepper that helped give the olives their piquancy.  It was an eye-opener.

31 August 2016:  If he’s not Albuquerque’s foremost authority on chicken wings, Ryan is certainly their most prolific “appreciator.”  My friend loves chicken wings, but not just any chicken wings.  They’ve got to be better than good.  When chicken wings earn the Ryan Scott seal of approval, you know they’re imbued with greatness.  Ryan loved the “get your hands dirty” sriracha-lime wings at Eclectic.  The unlikely combination of intense piquancy coupled with tangy, citrusy lime works surprisingly well with an optimum balance of two strong flavors.  These meaty wings are accompanied with a buttermilk ranch dressing so good you’ll want to spoon it out of the ramekin, but it’s wholly unnecessary on the wings.

Big Dips and Dough

31 August 2016:  “Don’t tell me Maxime does pho, too?”  If that sentiment wasn’t outwardly expressed, it was certainly contemplated.  Yes, Maxime does pho and it’s one of Daniela’s favorite items on the starters menu.  Listed as Hot “PHO” YOU, it’s a spectacular soup though it could be debated as to whether it is or isn’t pho.  Pho is technically a noodle soup and there are no noodles on this piping hot dish nor will you find the distinctive, aromatic essence of star anise, but those are technicalities.  Call this “faux pho” if you will, but you’ll also be calling it absolutely delicious.  Instead of the swimming pool-sized portion served at Vietnamese restaurants, Eclectic’s version is served in a small bowl with  ladle.  Maxime’s interpretation of pho is made with generous pieces of chicken, bamboo shoots, cabbage, nuoc mam, garlic and cilantro.  It will blow you away!

31 August 2016: My friend Sr. Plata was on the first day of a low-carb diet when he espied big dips and dough on the menu.  Needless to say, his low-carb effort was delayed by one day.  Served with focaccia bread sticks is a triumvirate of terrific dips: humus, smoked trout and goat cheese, each a magnificent complement to the best focaccia you’ll find in the Duke City.  If the notion of “smoked trout” dip channels memories of slick-talking salesman Dan Aykroyd hawking a Bassomatic, you’re probably not alone.  Don’t let that notion stop you from enjoying this magnificent dipping sauce.  Great as the dips are, the foccacia is fabulous–a precursor to the quality of the pizza crust to be enjoyed later.

Eat Your Brussels Carley (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

31 August 2016:  There are two versions of Brussels sprouts on the menu, one with bacon and one without.  Sporting the curious appellation “Eat Your Brussels Carley,” they’re delicious with our without the pork candy.  Named America’s “most hated vegetable” in a 2008 survey conducted by Heinz, Brussels sprouts are almost universally reviled.  Many diners hate them without ever having tried them (probably because they heard someone else express their disdain for this villainous vegetable).  Andy Griffiths even wrote an anti-tribute to Brussels sprouts.  Entitled “Just Disgusting!,” its lyrics posit: “Who wouldn’t hate them? They’re green.  They’re slimy.  They’re moldy.  They’re horrible.  They’re putrid.  They’re foul.  Apart from that, I love them.”  You’ll certainly love Maxime’s version!

Mac & Cheese Jalapeño

1 November 2016: A Google search for “Ode to Macaroni and Cheese” will fruitfully return results, some of which are inspired and creative. One especially catchy ode was put to music, taking liberties with the Celine Dion song “Because You Loved Me.” I half expected my friend Bill to belt out a chorus or two of that ode. That’s how much he enjoyed Eclectic’s mac & cheese jalapeno dish. Anyone who’s been comforted by the warmth and deliciousness of macaroni and cheese can certainly understand that. Macaroni and cheese has uplifting qualities that make it the most revered of comfort foods…and if ever there was a poster child for how mac and cheese should look and taste, it would be Maxime’s version. Served in a cast iron pan, this turophile’s dream is a medley of cheeses: Fontina, Gorgonzola, Cantal and Mozzarella atop of which sit several sliced jalapenos. A little truffle oil gives it earthy notes your taste buds will appreciate. This dish is decadent enough to satisfy a nostalgic “back to childhood” pang for mac and cheese but it’s also sophisticated enough for grown-ups. What really makes this dish stand out, however, is that it’s both cheesy in a melty, gooey way (but not to the extent of ballpark nachos) and it’s caramelized, especially at the bottom of the pan. Caramelized cheese is so good, it could be used on a caramel apple. 

Fish Tacos

1 November 2016: There’s a disclaimer on Eclectic’s Web site which cautions that “menu is subject to change without notice.” You’ll want to visit Eclectic’s Web site daily so you’ll be up-to-speed on what the daily special is. In the past week, daily specials have included such alluring offerings as a green chile cheeseburger, patty melt, oyster po’ boy and the Tuesday special—tacos. Tacos, which come in all shapes, sizes, colors and price points have become as American as apple pie and baseball. At Eclectic, soft, steamed white corn tortillas are engorged with your choice of carne asada, chicken or fish and they’re value-priced so you can afford two or ten of them. Filled generously with planks of tender, fried Pollock and cabbage slaw, these beauties are served with a wedge of lime, a perfect foil for the fish.

Roasted Chicken (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

31 August 2016: For many gastronomes the very notion of roasted chicken elicits if not an outward yawn, an ennui.   Leave it to Maxime to enliven what is often a ho-hum dish.  A generously applied pasilla chile and lime rub precedes a deeply penetrating heat roasting in the brick oven.  The pasilla imbues the chicken with a unique flavor.  Pasilla, the dried form of the chilaca chili pepper, is an aromatic, brownish red chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness.  It’s increasingly finding favor among bold chefs such as Maxime who are skilled at building concordant flavors with diverse ingredients.  The roasted chicken is served with a green mango chutney which complements the chicken very well. 

Fish & Chips

1 November 2016: Had King George III’s government attempted to tax fish and chips, it’s conceivable the revolutionary war would have started earlier (presuming that the colonists brought fish and chips across the pond). It’s become increasingly rare in cafes and restaurants across the fruited plain to find a menu that doesn’t offer fish and chips, an indication that Americans, too, love this dish. Most of the time fish and chips at American restaurants are passable…or at least better than what you’ll find at Long John Silver’s. Every once in a while, you find a version of fish and chips so good, you wonder if maybe one of Her Majesty’s culinary staff prepared it. Eclectic’s version is such a dish. Instead of the heavily-breaded, golden-hued planks with a mountain of French fries to which you might be accustomed, what arrives at your table are driftwood-sized logs that are more Dijon-colored than canary gold. That’s because Maxime uses Stout on his batter. Not only does the Stout impart a darker hue, it tempers the strongly flavored Pollock, a lovely whitefish with a flaky texture. Instead of British “chips” (French fries), the fish is served with housemade potato chips, infinitely better than you’ll find at any grocery store. 

Oyster Po Boy with Curry Fries

9 December 2016: During the eight years we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I must have consumed at least one boatload’s worth of  po’ boys.  What differentiates New Orleans’ most famous sandwich from your run-of-the-mill sub sandwich is its humble origin as a sumptuous sustenance provided to striking streetcar drivers.  Because of the abundant local resources of the Gulf Coast and bayous, fried seafood–particularly shrimp and oysters–po’ boys are the most popular option.  In New Mexico, it may be easier to find a prize pearl inside an oyster than to find an outstanding oyster po’ boy or sandwich.  Leave it to the genius of Maxime Bouneau to construct one that’s every bit as good as the very best you’ll find in New Orleans.  Nestled in Maxime’s incomparable soft, chewy, delicious focaccia are a netful of oysters, a single lettuce leaf and a housemade remoulade you’d swear came out of Louisiana.  The oyster po’ boy is served with a ramekin of tangy coleslaw which (hmm, wish I’d thought of this sooner) would go well inside the po’ boy.  Even better, ask for a side of curry fries, the best you’ll have anywhere.

Build Your Own Pizza: Gorgonzola, Sausage

31 August 2016:  Eclectic’s “Build Your Own” pizza offers more options than just about any pizzeria you’ll ever find–and not just the boring “usual suspects” line-up of toppings.  The build your own starts with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Cantal (a raw cow’s milk cheese with a pleasant milky aroma and a nutty, buttery flavor that finishes just slightly acidic).  It’s the canvas atop which you can build your own masterpiece.  Bruce (to avoid confusion with the other Bruce (Sr. Plata), let’s call him Bruce 1.0) added pork sausage and imported Gorgonzola, both excellent choices.  The first thing you’ll appreciate about an Eclectic pizza is the aroma which precedes it out of the brick wood-burning oven.  The taste and texture deliver on the promises made by the aroma.  Waifishly thin, the pizza is imprinted with a pinto pony char and just a slight cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza.  Both the sausage and imported Gorgonzola are first-rate.

North Shore

31 August 2016: Who says pizza has to be based on tomato sauce?  Certainly not Maxime who also offers one based on cilantro-pesto and another based on buttermilk.  Yes, buttermilk!  Unable to decide from among five tempting options, I asked the more decisive (and infinitely cuter) Kimber to order for me.  Her choice, the North Shore (cilantro pesto, roasted chicken, smoked bacon, pineapple, cantal and mozzarella cheese) was outstanding!  The cilantro pesto has a real zip that impregnates the wondrous crust thoroughly.  As always, the combination of pineapple and bacon proved magical, the two disparate ingredients playing off one another in contrasting harmony.  The bacon is thick and smoky, wholly unlike the tiny bacon bits some pizzerias use.  The true test of pizza greatness, however, is how it holds up to refrigeration–essentially how good it is for breakfast.  The North Shore is just as good cold the next day as it was out-of-the-oven.  This is true pizza greatness! 

The Nordik Pizza

6 September 2016: “How about dinner.  I know a place that serves great Viking food.”  Those words, uttered by the immortal Police Squad Lieutenant Frank Drebben gave me pause to reflect on Viking food and whether or not any restaurant in America actually serves it.  Not even Google  the Infallible (doesn’t that sound like a Viking name?) could find a single Viking restaurant across the fruited plain.  If a Viking restaurant did exist, they’d be well advised to copy Maxime’s Nordik Pizza (buttermilk, smoked salmon, capers, red onion, cantal and mozzarella cheese).  Only a pizzaioli genius could conceive of such a masterpiece.  He hadn’t finished his first slice when my friend  Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, declared it second only to the Funghi & Tartufo from Piatanzi as his favorite pizza in the world.  It is indeed a delicious pie, albeit one not everyone will enjoy.  The smoked salmon, in particular, has an intensely smoky, fishy flavor and aroma. 

Make Your Own Pizza

6 September 2016:  As a self-admitted mad scientist in the kitchen, experimentation with ingredient combinations brings me as much joy as frustration, as many successes as failures.  When the ingredient combinations don’t complement one another, it’s “curses, foiled again!”  Dazzling Deanell, on-the-other-hand, seems to have a Midas touch.  She always seems to know what to order at restaurants and, as we discovered at Eclectic, she knows how to put together a perfect pie.  The make your own beauty pictured above includes roasted red peppers, black olives, mushrooms and sausage.  Sounds pretty standard, right?  Not when the sausage is so magnificently fennel-kissed with notes of pleasant piquancy.  Excellent ingredients make for an excellent pizza.  Sausage will evermore grace any pizza we order at Eclectic. 

Paysanne

6 September 2016:  When my Kim espied a pizza named “Paysanne,” she thought the menu’s creator may have misspelled “Paisano”, an Italian term for compatriot.  While that might make good sense, the pizza’s actual name really is “Paysanne” and if there’s one term which defines Maxime’s genius it might be this one.  Paysanne describes meals prepared simply.  Even Maxime’s most complex dishes and most creative combinations aren’t a mishmash of designer ingredients thrown together.  Take the namesake “Paysanne” pizza, for example.  It’s constructed with buttermilk, smoked bacon, mushroom, red onion, olives, cantal and mozzarella cheese.  Simple, right.  It’s simply delicious, a flavorful feast for the eyes and taste buds.

Beer Braised Short Ribs

2 September 2016: My father-in-law loved short ribs, maybe even more than Adam did.  He would have flipped over the beer braised short ribs at Eclectic.  Martha Stewart once declared “there is perhaps no purer beef flavor than that of a short rib.”  Ironically, short ribs were once disdained by chefs as “poor man’s food.”  Under the right hands, however, this fairly modestly priced cut can be coaxed to rich, unctuous tenderness and complexity thanks to a basic braise.  At Eclectic, the short ribs are served sans bone, but somehow they retain the silken richness of bone-in short ribs.  Braised in beer, cherries and Pasilla chiles, the ribs are available in three sizes: small, medium and large.  The medium is the size of a small roast with huge flavors.

Rhubarb Cobbler

2 September 2016: With only five desserts on the menu, you’d think it would be easy to decide which one to order.  Under Maxime’s deft touch, they’re all bound to be great.  Bread pudding not being an option made the choice easier for me.  With fresh memories of the sumptuous peach cobbler at The County Line Restaurant there could only be one choice.  Served in a cast iron pan, the rhubarb cobbler is superb!  With a lip-pursing tartness, the rhubarb is counterbalanced by the sweetness of the ice cream and the savoriness of the pie crust.

Friends of Gil: Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria may be the new kid on the block, but it may already be the answer to the supplications of pizza lovers across the Duke City for a transformative pie, one that’s not merely very good, but truly outstanding.  As Ryan pointed out, however, pizza may not even be the best item on the menu.  Repeat visits are a must!

ECLECTIC URBAN PIZZERIA AND TAP HOUSE
2119 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 322-2863
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 December 2016
1st VISIT: 31 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy eclectic olives mix, Wings hot and tangy, Hot “PHO”YOU, Big dips and dough,Eat your Brussels Carley, Roasted chicken, North Shore, Beer Braised Short Ribs, Rhubarb Cobbler, Nordik Pizza, Paysanne Pizza, Fish & Chips, Fish Tacos, Mac & Cheese, Oyster Po’ Boy, Curry Fries

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Toro Burger – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Toro Burger in Rio Rancho

While watching a “sanitized for television” version of the audacious satirical comedy Blazing Saddles, my precocious six-year-old niece asked several questions with deep sociological implications: “Why is everyone in the town of Rock Ridge named Johnson? Why were all the town’s citizens white?” From her silence, you’d think my Kim was a “perp lawyering up” at a police inquiry. Rather than responding herself, she enjoyed seeing my brother and I hem and haw in trying to give accurate and age-appropriate answers. Far easier to answer were Blazing Saddles questions which inspired nostalgic reflection: “Is there a Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Albuquerque? Does Howard Johnson’s really serve only one flavor?”

For those of us who grew up in the dark ages, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were almost as ubiquitous as McDonald’s are today. During its halcyon days (peaking in 1975), more than 1,000 “Ho Jo’s” restaurants and motor lodges dotted the American landscape, their distinctive orange roofs a familiar beacon for hungry sojourners. Among the restaurants’ culinary draws were its 28 flavors of butterfat-enhanced ice cream and fried clam strips, an exotic offering theretofore available only in New England. The Marriott Corporation’s 1982 acquisition of all Howard Johnson’s properties signaled the precipitous beginning of the end of the once popular and profitable restaurant. Today, a sole remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant (in Lake George, New York) remains from among more than 1,000 original restaurants.

Toro’s Welcoming Dining Room

Having returned to the Land of Enchantment in 1979 after a two-year Air Force assignment to Massachusetts, this inveterate fried clam aficionado craved the plump, intensely-flavored paragons of deliciousness. Only Howard Johnson’s provided an approximation, albeit waifishly thin, desiccated strips (sorry Bob) vastly inferior to the tender, juicy whole bellied clams available seaside throughout New England. Despite having to settle for crummy clams, Howard Johnson’s became a frequent stop, a milieu of memories.  When the Albuquerque Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Eubank gave up the ghost in the early 1980s, I mourned.  Where now would fried clams be found?

When Mary Ann Schaefer, a long-time friend of this blog wrote to tell me about the Toro Burger Bar in Rio Rancho’s Howard Johnson hotel, it wasn’t the prospect of juicy, beefy burgers which came to mind, but my beloved fried clams.  Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the burgers would be the impetus for a visit.  We hadn’t visited the hotel since it housed Wine and Roses, a rather good German restaurant.  That was more than a decade ago when the hotel was the Inn at Rio Rancho.  The Inn became a Howard Johnson’s property in 2014.

Chile Cheese Fries

Since Wine and Roses shuttered its doors so many years ago, a number of restaurant concepts gave it the old college try in the Inn’s restaurant space but none had the staying power engendered by customer loyalty.  The seemingly du jour concept during the conversion from Inn at Rio Rancho to Howard Johnson’s was the Toro Bar and Grill which offered dinner service seven days a week.  It garnered the same level of enthusiasm as another tumbleweed rolling onto the street.  We surmised the name change to Toro Burger was just a rebranding-repackaging effort offering the same uninspiring fare.  Boy were we wrong!

Toro Burger is a terrific restaurant, one every burger aficionado in the metropolitan area should visit.  Ryan, an inventive Indiana born-and-bred chef has suffused the menu with some of the most superb and innovative burgers in the Land of Enchantment.   Chef Ryan’s previous gig in New Mexico was at Annapurna.  Now he’s doing his own thing and creating culinary magic.   You’ll be hard-pressed to decide which burger or sandwich to order, so tempting are the choices.  Even better, the beef is ground daily on the premises from three different cuts of steak.  That means superior burgers!  All burgers come with your choice of patty–house ground beef, turkey, veggie, chorizo-beef blend or lamb–on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger sauce (unless noted) and your choice of side.  You can also ask for your burger to be wrapped in a flour tortilla.

Fried Pickles

Before rushing out the door to get your burger fix, you should know that Toro is open only from 5PM through 10PM Tuesday through Saturday.  Much as you’d love to have one of Toro’s fabulous burgers for lunch, you’ll appreciate the reason for the restaurant’s limited hours.  Not only does Chef Ryan prepare everything to order, he spends a lot of time sourcing fresh ingredients, grinding the beef, creating sauces and even curing and smoking the restaurant’s bacon and pastrami.  That pastrami is cured for 18 days then smoked for another 12 to 16 hours.    The bacon undergoes a similar meticulous hands-on curing and smoking process.  These are the difference-makers, the reasons burgerphiles will return often.

The menu is another reason.  To get you started, you can select from one of six appetizers, three soft tacos (ground beef, adobado chicken, blackened tilapia) or four salads.  Be cautioned that the appetizers are generously portioned and you’ll want lots of room for those burgers.  There are twelve highly imaginative burgers on the menu as well as a build-your-own-burger option with seemingly unlimited options considering you can choose your meat, cheese (seven choices), veggies (eight choices) and sauces (eleven choices).  It’s a mad burger scientist’s dream!  There are three entrees on the menu: catfish dinner, New Mexico hot chicken and beef ribs.  There are also ten sandwich options, each intriguing.  All sandwiches include your choice of side.  If you’re not already planning a visit, I haven’t done my job well.  If the burgers are any indication, you should rush right over!

Jack and Dianne Burger with Onion Things

18 November 2016: When we ordered our appetizers we had no idea how generously portioned they’d be.  An order of chile cheese fries rewarded us with a mountain of house-cut fries and a generous sprinkling of New Mexico green chile with a cheese blend dousing and Ranch dressing on the side.  The green chile has a pleasant piquancy–enough heat for me to notice and for my Kim to call it “hot.”  Anytime you can find house-cut fries, you should jump on them.  Infinitely better than out-of-a-bag fries, these golden planks of salty deliciousness are terrific repositories for cheese and green chile.

18 November 2016: Our server, the ambassadorial and indefatigable James recommended the fried pickles, one of the more popular appetizers on the menu.  Served with a ramekin of Ranch dressing (ask for one with blue cheese, too) is a pile of thinly sliced, lightly breaded dill pickles which would really purse your lips were it not for the breading.  In our eight years down South (on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), we never received such a generous portion of fried pickles as we did during our inaugural visit to Toro Burger.  We wound up taking half of them home and found them as delightful the next day as we did when they first graced our table.

Mo’ Better Burger with Fries

18 November 2016: Until just before we placed our order, I fully intended to order what Mary Ann’s hubby had enjoyed so much–the Toro burger (Hatch green chile, house made bacon, cheese and chipotle aoli), but perusing a full-sized menu instead of one online gave us new perspective on just how inventive Toro’s burgers are.  If, like me, you enjoy flavor combinations that pair disparate (sweet and savory, tangy and piquant, etc.) taste profiles, you’ll love the Mo’ Better Burger (grilled pineapple jam, house-made bacon and Sriracha aioli) which teases and tantalizes every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  While the combination of pineapples and bacon has long been exploited on pizza, we found it to be tailor-made for burgers, too.  The bacon has a wonderful smokiness paired with a sweet-peppery element that renders it positively addictive.  One taste of the pineapple jam and your imagination will conjure up all the different ways you can enjoy it.

18 November 2016: My Kim’s choice was a slightly modified Jack and Dianne (which she ordered not because she likes the John Mellencamp song by that name) which comes standard with sauteed garlic mushrooms and Jack cheese.  Kim asked that the Jack cheese be eighty-sixed and substituted grilled onions instead.  The last trade that good was when the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta for a song and dance.  There’s something almost magical about earthy garlic-infused mushrooms paired with sweet, almost caramelized onions.  Lest I forget, the beef is of superior caliber, a delicious, nicely seasoned patty of about six-ounces.  Burgers at Toro are so good you can dispense with mustard and ketchup.

Travis Pastrami

19 November 2016: So impressed were we after our inaugural visit that we couldn’t wait to return.  It took us only one day to make like McArthur.  To avoid marital strife, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would order the pastrami sandwich (Kim wins so many coin tosses she must have a two-headed coin).  Called the Travis Pastrami, the sandwich is constructed on grilled light rye bread smeared with hot mustard and piled generously with the housemade pastrami about which James, our affable guide had waxed poetic.  The sandwich comes standard with sauerkraut, but Kim opted to have it on the side.  As with all great pastrami, this one’s got plenty of marbling.  That’s where so much of the flavor comes from. Well, that a meticulous, painstakingly monitored brining, curing, smoking process.  It’s obvious Chef Ryan knows what he’s doing.  Only at Joe Rodriguez’s California Pastrami will you find pastrami this good. 

19 November 2016: Our inaugural visit taught us to be more judicious about ordering appetizers. Instead of, for example, ordering an overly generous platter of chile cheese fries and risk being near-full when entrees arrive, opt for the pulled pork sliders (three slow-cooked pulled pork sliders with a red chile BBQ sauce and house slaw).  Tender tendrils of pork nestled between pillowy soft bread rolls is just the beginning.  The red chile BBQ sauce is more tangy than it is piquant, but it infuses the pork with a delightful liveliness.  Ditto for the coleslaw which imparts tangy, creamy notes. There’s only one thing wrong with these sliders–you’ll want at least two (or eight) more.

Pulled Pork Sliders

19 November 2016: Having lost the coin flip and thus the opportunity to order the pastrami sandwich didn’t make me a Miss Congeniality.  There are just too many terrific options on the menu, each one a winner.  James recommended the catfish dinner (buttermilk soaked fried catfish fingers tossed in a spicy cornmeal dredge and served with house-cut fries, slaw and a roasted corn tartar sauce).  Who would have thought Rio Rancho would become my go-to destination for catfish–first at K’Lynn’s Cuisine and now at Toro Burger?  The two planks of catfish placed gently atop a haystack-sized pile of French fries are terrific–light, flaky and delicate with a bit of personality courtesy of a spice blend.  Dip the catfish into the roasted corn tartar and the flavor profile changes altogether.  This is the tartar sauce for those of us who don’t like tartar sauce courtesy of sweet corn niblets that serve as a nice foil to other savory elements.

Catfish Dinner

18 November 2016: Even among the most creative and experienced chefs, desserts are often a challenge, one usually left to an assistant or pastry chef.  Chef Ryan may be just as adept at desserts as he is with savory elements.  As with everything that comes out of his kitchen, there’s plenty of imagination in every dish.  There’s also quite a bit of magic.  Our introduction to his prowess with postprandial aspects of a meal was with a crustless cheesecake.  Well, there is a crust, but it’s not Graham crackers or anything of the like.  This “crust” is comprised of thinly sliced red apples atop of which rests a molded round cheesecake topped with a green chile compote punctuated by more thin apple slices.  The green chile compote has both piquant and sweet elements, a perfect foil for the tangy apples and even sweeter cheesecake.  We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this masterpiece.

Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote

19 November 2016: We weren’t surprised at how much we enjoyed Chef Ryan’s housemade ice cream sandwich.  Now, this one does have a Graham cracker crust which sandwiches a layer of chocolate ganache and a thick wedge of chocolate ice cream.  The ice cream sandwich arrives at your table in a frozen state.  You’ll be advised to let it sit for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.  Would that we had such discipline.  No sooner had it arrived at our table than we began to gnaw on it.  Our sole complaint about this delightful ice cream treat is how small it is–maybe four inches.  It’s not the ice cream sandwich behemoth you’ll find at Rude Boy Cookies, but it’s just as good.

Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich

19 November 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, will be happy to hear Toro Burger’s dessert menu includes a bread pudding, perhaps one worthy of inclusion on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  This particular bread pudding, resplendent with the presence of sweet-tangy peaches and topped with a vanilla icing is reminiscent of peach cobbler, albeit just a bit sweeter.  Though some might consider them anachronistic, bread pudding and cobbler are two of my very favorite desserts and for some of the same reasons.  What we enjoyed most about Toro’s rendition is the interplay of different flavors to compose a cohesive, absolutely delicious whole.  Next time, however, we may ask for the green chile compote instead of the vanilla icing.

Peach Bread Pudding

Peach Bread Pudding

If you visited any one of Toro Burger’s predecessors at the Rio Rancho Howard Johnson’s, you likely weren’t very impressed.  Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Toro Burger.   It’s better…much better.  Chef Ryan’s burger creations are not to be missed and you’ll be well taken care of by James, the restaurant’s whirling dervish server whose recommendations you can take to the bank.

Toro Burger
1465 Rio Rancho Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1700
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Cheese Fries, Fried Pickles, Jack and Dianne Burger, Mo’ Better Burger, Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote, Peach Bread Pudding, Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich, Pulled Pork Sliders, Catfish Dinner, Travis Pastrami, French Fries, Onion Things

Toro Burger Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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