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M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli

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.

Meats, cheeses, breads, condiments and so much more…

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 with Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes

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 at 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!

Cannoli Pila with Cherry Walnut Filling

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.

Cheesecake with Fig and Crostata with Butternut Squash

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 Italian Market & Deli
6001 Winter Haven Road,  N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2015
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
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

M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

Red Rock Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Red Rock Deli on Lomas Blvd.

America may be a multicultural melting pot, but thriving within its most populous metropolises are ethnic neighborhoods–pockets of diversity residing in two worlds, retaining many of the cultural and culinary traditions of their motherland while integrating into and pursuing the American dream.  Cities such as Chicago have long realized that these ethnic enclaves offer a treasure trove of cultural and culinary experiences.  Most of these neighborhoods welcome culinary tourism–the opportunity to showcase the cuisine of their homelands. 

One such example is the city of Chicago which boasts of the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw (as many as 183,000 by some estimates) in the world.   Storefronts and restaurants in “Little Poland” on Chicago’s far Northwest side are bedecked in the white and red flag of Poland.  They offer everything from pierogies to kielbasa.  Every Labor Day weekend Chicago celebrates its Polish heritage at the Taste of Polonia festival where Polish cuisine and culture are showcased.

The interior of the Red Rock Deli. Can you tell it was once a Subway Restaurant?

Obviously Albuquerque doesn’t have the population to support a “Chinatown” or a “Little Poland,” but the Duke City does offer multicultural dining diversity.  Although several of the city’s ethnic restaurants are clustered throughout the International District, many others are strewn throughout the metropolitan area where they’ve integrated into the fabric of  neighborhoods which may or may not have an ethnic population base.  

One such restaurant is the Red Rock Deli which opened its doors in October, 2014 in the far Northeast Heights.  Featuring the cuisine of Poland and Eastern Europe, the Red Rock Deli sits on Lomas just west of Tramway.  Situated in a timeworn shopping center, it occupies the easternmost storefront in a complex which also houses the Ali Baba Food Mart.

Ukrainian Borscht

If you’ve ever been blessed with the opportunity to visit Chicago’s Little Poland, the Red Rock Deli will seem very familiar once you step within its doors.  To your immediate right are shelves stocked with comestibles such as red borscht, sauerkraut, jams and so much more.  Make sure to peruse the freezers where savory and sweet pierogies, stuffed cabbage and other items can be purchased.  Other shelves are jam-packed with candy, cookies, beverages and other grocery items not usually found in Duke City stores. 

Owner Mark Toczek spent his formative years in Poland before moving first to Germany then to Chicago (which he visits frequently to stock up on the items which grace his shelves and his deli’s menu).  In 1995, he launched the Red Rock General Store in Blanca, Colorado just outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park about 1.5 hours north of Taos.  The Red Rock General Store has long been TripAdvisor‘s highest rated restaurant in the area. 

Russian Roulette, a mix of six different kinds of pierogi

Mark, who launched the Red Rock Deli in October, 2014, is an effusive and hands-on owner with a high likeability quotient and a welcoming smile for everyone.  In fact, for sheer customer orientation and making all guests feel welcome, he’s in rarefied company with the superb staff at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho.    Initially he operated the deli with the help of his sweet mother Jadwiga, but she passed away in January, 2015.   

While the walls are papered with imagery depicting New York’s subway system (a remnant from the years in which the store housed a Subway restaurant), the menu is proudly and prominently Chicago and not just the Little Poland section of the Windy City.  Windy City transplants are sure to find several things that will transport them back home to Chicago.

The Polish Polish

Our eyes immediately gravitated on the menu to the Italian Beef sandwich, a Chicago staple.  Also catching our eyes was menudo, a New Mexico favorite among intrepid diners.  The menu has four sections, the first of which lists three Polish sausage options.  Six hot dogs (including Chicago-style and a New Yorker) precede twelve sandwich options (including Angus hamburgers) on the menu.  The “specialties” section of the menu lists the Polish specialties along with the aforementioned menudo as well as blood sausage.

4 April 2015: During our second visit, Mark surprised us with a complimentary bowl of Ukrainian Borscht served piping hot.  The borscht is made by Mark’s talented wife and is as comforting and delicious as any vegetarian soup you’ll find in the Duke City.  A light, savory meatless broth redolent with cabbage and beets (accounting for its reddish hue) includes potatoes, carrots, kidney beans and jut a tinge of salt and pepper.  It’s a wonderful soup!

Pyzy

21 November 2014: It’s not often (if ever) the term Russian Roulette elicits smiles, but at the Red Rock Deli you just might find yourself drooling at the mention.  Russian Roulette is a mix of six different kinds of pierogi (a sweet Russian Roulette option offers six different kinds of pierogi with sweet stuffing) from among the nine variants of savory stuffing available at Red Rock).  For a pittance, you can have the pierogi fried with onions and bacon.  It’s a winning combination. 

21 November 2014: The pierogi are about the size of a Chinese dim sum dumpling or about two bites worth.  They’re served with a generous dollop of sour cream, not that it’s needed when you can scoop them up with crispy bacon and onions fried to a pearlescent sheen.  Among the nine available options with which the pierogi can be stuffed are potato, sauerkraut, ground meat, cabbage and spinach.  All are very good with our very favorite being the spinach stuffing.  In our increasingly cosmopolitan world in which the unusual and unique are embraced, it’s nice to enjoy old-fashioned and traditional pierogi. 

Denuded Chicago-Style Hotdog

4 April 2015:  Pyzy, yet another form of Polish dumplings, may be difficult to pronounce, but they’re delicious to eat.  Unlike the pierogies on the menu whose wrappers could pass for those used on Chinese dumplings, these are most assuredly and unmistakably potato dumplings.  They even look like boiled potatoes with a doughy wrapper made from potatoes and stuffed with meat.  Texturally, they’re soft and pliable as dumpling wrappers tend to be.  The meat stuffing is nicely seasoned and complements the wrappers very well.  Don’t forget to pay the pittance for having them fried with onions and bacon, a combination which improves everything.

21 November 2014: Of the three Polish sausage options, we couldn’t pass up the one anadiplotic name–Polish Polish, a hot dog style sandwich with Polish sausage, brown mustard and pickled jalapeños.  What you’ll notice first about the Polish Polish is the bolillo-style bread which resembles the bread used on Sonoran hot dogs.  Mark procures this bread from Colorado.  It’s so good you’ll want to use it on all your future sausage and hot dogs.  It has a dense and crusty exterior and a soft, pillowy interior.  The Polish sausage nestled within that bread is procured from Chicago and is sliced diagonally.  It’s a coarse, garlicky and smoky sausage with a natural casing that snaps when you bite into it.  The pearlescent onions and pickled jalapeños complement the sausage very well.

Italian Beef

21 November 2014: For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, only a Chicago-style hot dog would do though by omitting the tomatoes, pickles, jalapeño (normally sport peppers are used) and even the celery salt, you could hardly call it a traditional Chicago hot dog.  Its only claims to Chicago were the neon green relish, mustard and a Vienna Beef hot dog directly from Chicago.  Vienna Beef hot dogs have a natural casing that gives them a discernible snap when you bite into them.   The same delightful buns used on the Polish Polish sheath the hot dog which extends beyond the bun by a good inch on both sides. 

21 November 2014: Among the foods most expatriated Chicagoans tend to miss most–no matter where they may settle–is the uniquely Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich, about which Thrillist wrote “Some cities were built on rock ‘n’ roll, but Chicago was built on big, greasy meat mountains on rolls.”  The Italian Beef sandwich features thinly-sliced, slow-roasted roast beef dripping with homemade Italian gravy on a dense, long Italian-style roll.  There are at least four Duke City eateries now serving Italian Beef sandwiches and (with apologies to Pizza 9) perhaps none of them make a better one than the Red Rock Deli.  Quite simply, it’s got all the elements of an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich and can be prepared with your choice of sweet peppers or hot giardiniera (or both). It’s Chicago good!

Lincoln Pork Sandwich

4 April 2015: One of the more interesting items on a very interesting menu has the curious name “Lincoln Pork Sandwich.”  It’s easy for Chicago transplants (and those of us married to them) to assume this sandwich is named for Lincoln Park, a community area in northeast Chicago bordering Lake Michigan.  Instead, Mark will explain, the sandwich has everything to do with the cost of pork.  When pork was a relatively inexpensive meat, he could afford to sell the sandwich for five dollars, the denomination sporting Abe Lincoln’s stoic countenance.  Today the sandwich is priced at just south of eight dollars.  When the rising cost of pork forces a price escalation to ten dollars, the sandwich will be renamed the Hamilton Pork Sandwich.  Alexander Hamilton is the face on the ten dollar bill. 

The Lincoln Pork Sandwich is terrific!  At its essence it’s a breaded pork cutlet nestled on a gilded bun.  If that sounds pretty boring, count on Mark to embellish the sandwich with excitement courtesy of mustard, mayo, pickles, jalapeños and lettuce.  It’s a winning formula.  The pork cutlet is pounded thin and not even Sherlock Holmes would be able to find fat or sinew.  The combination of jalapeños, mustard and mayo provides bold and contrasting flavors while the may adds a touch of richness.  My Kim, who usually has an aversion to breaded anything, enjoyed this delightfully delicious sandwich as much as I did. 

Gyros

4 April 2015:  Chicago’s Greektown district has a distinctive dining and nightlife scene that celebrates the culture and cuisine of the Greek population.  To assume you can find excellent gyros is an understatement.  Some of the very best gyros you’ll ever find in the fruited plain are prepared and served in this area.  Mark imports both the lamb-beef amalgam and the pita bread from Chicago and the quality shows.  That quality is also evident in the thick, sour-tangy Tzatziki with its pronounced yogurt and cucumber flavor profile. The pita is moist and pliable and didn’t dry up and harden as some pita is apt to do.  Just a modicum of hopped onions and tomatoes makes this a sandwich as opposed to a salad with meat.  The gyros is accompanied by baked potato skin chips, my new favorite potato chip.

21 November 2014: Dessert options include the aforementioned sweet pierogi and nalesniki, crepes stuffed with sweet farmer cheese fried in butter and served with sour cream and powdered sugar.  Texturally similar to cottage cheese, farmer cheese is a fresh, dry-curd cheese with a tangy flavor.  Stuffed into crepes topped with powdered sugar, this dessert is rich and delicious without the cloying flavor found on some crepes.

Nalesniki

4 April 2015: The premise of Russian Roulette, a potentially lethal game of chance, is frightening, but at the Red Rock Deli, Russian Roulette may forever change what you think of the term.   Sweet Russian Roulette, a mix of six different types of pierogies stuffed with a sweet filling and topped with sour cream and (usually) powdered sugar is more like a Russian dream.  When available, the sweet pierogies are spritzed with “forest sauce,” a tangy-sweet, light syrupy sauce made from berries which grow in the forest.  The pierogies are stuffed with such delicious fillings as cranberries, plum and farmer’s cheese.  There are few desserts quite as exciting and delicious, especially when forest sauce is drizzled generously.

The Red Rock Deli is a welcome addition to Albuquerque’s increasingly diverse culinary scene. You need not know anything about Polish cuisine. If you love a great hot dog, a terrific sandwich or a Chicago style deli, you’ll be right at home.

Sweet Russian Roulette

Red Rock Deli
13025 Lomas Blvd, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 332-9656
LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2015
1st VISIT: 21 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Italian Beef Sandwich, Classic Hotdog, Polish Polish, Nalesniki, Russian Roulette (Sweet and Savory Pierogies), Gyros, Lincoln Pork Sandwich

Red Rock Deli on Urbanspoon

O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ORamen01

My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

My friends Jim and Janet Millington (left), Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) and Hannah Walraven ruminating about ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return frequently.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

ORamen03

Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  My friend Andrea Lin, the luminous restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, calls it “liquid pork.”  The porkalicious broth elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Tonkatsu Spicy Miso Ramen (Level 4)

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  For fellow aficionado Jim Millington, level three is perfect.   The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2015
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

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