Blades’ Bistro – Placitas, New Mexico

Blades’ Bistro in Placitas, New Mexico has one of the most beautiful patios around.

Ask three Placitans what they like best about living in Placitas and…
one will say it is being so far from everything, another, being so close to everything–and both will be right
.”
– The Placitas Chamber of Commerce

Chamber of Commerce not withstanding, the distance from Placitas to fabulous gourmet restaurants has spanned both great  mileage and the healing passage of time for residents. When hungry, the mileage between Placitas and either Santa Fe or Albuquerque has seemed interminable.  When fondly recalling a glorious meal within its doors, time has been the sole comforter for residents still missing their beloved Cafe De Las Placitas, a magnificent shooting star which faded away much too quickly but left an indelible afterglow. Most residents will agree the distance to fine restaurant dining is a small price to pay when you live in an idyllic haven back-dropped by the reddish Sandias and surrounded by panoramic views of hills dotted with dessert flora, weather-worn mesas and verdured mountains.  Compared to its bustling, burgeoning, boisterous neighbors, Placitas is a serene harbor of refuge and respite.

Blades’ Bistro, which opened on March 19th, 2009, has greatly narrowed the distance to fine-dining for Placitas residents while rekindling fond memories of fabulous gourmet experiences at the long defunct Cafe De Las Placitas. For diners who frequent the former, comparisons to the latter will be inevitable–and they will be favorable. In fact, Blades’ Bistro has become a standard by which restaurant greatness is measured–not just in Placitas, but throughout northern New Mexico. It’s that good!

Blade32

The Bladergroens: Chef Kevin and Anja, the first lady of Placitas

The village of Placitas (in Spanish, literally “small places”) was formed by the San Antonio de las Huertas (Saint Anthony of the Gardens) Spanish land grant in 1745.  While many descendants of the original land-grant families still reside in Placitas, it has in recent years blossomed as an affluent bedroom community for residents employed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  Fewer than a dozen non-realty businesses call Placitas home, most of them ensconced in the Homestead Village shopping center, home of Blades’ Bistro.

Within a week after Blades’ opened, an excited Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog, shared the news of its launch with me. “My first impression was I’m not in Placitas any more,” he related. “It has a sophisticated ambiance, very big city feel and the food is terrific.” Bruce’s glowing descriptions of what he ate were the inspired impetus for our first visit.  Ive since had the great fortune to have met Bruce and his aptly named better half Grayce at Blades.  It remains one of their very favorite restaurants.

Chef Kevin maintains one of the cleanest kitchens anywhere

Had it not been for Bruce, we might have thought the name “Blades” had to do with Rio Rancho’s multiplex arena by that name expanding into Placitas and into the restaurant business.  Apparently several people have made that mistaken assumption.  Blades’ Bistro is actually named for brothers Michael and Kevin Bladergroen.  Their name is Dutch, while their restaurant is a veritable melting pot of European and American culinary influences.

An exhibition kitchen is the domain in which Kevin Bladergroen plies his chef trade as he has now for three and a half decades. After years of opening, working in and managing the kitchens of several restaurants in Europe and America, he has set down roots in Placitas. No stranger to New Mexico, he started his professional career in 1975 at Casa Vieja, a Corrales institution. He has also worked at the Prairie Star and before partnering with his brother and wife Anja to launch Blades’ Bistro, was executive chef at the innovative Standard Diner. Anja runs the front of the house.  She is as charming and gracious a hostess as there is in New Mexico, the true first lady of Placitas.

Happy patrons enjoying their dinner on the patio in a mid-August day 2013

Happy patrons enjoying their dinner on the patio in a mid-August day 2013

Chef Bladergroen is classically trained, having attended the prestigious “La Varenne” cooking school in Paris.   His curriculum vitae also includes a unique professional odyssey by motor home.  To broaden his culinary edification, he and Anja traveled across the country to work in several restaurants with chefs he admired.  The journey included stops at a small coastal resort town in Maine; Aspen, Colorado, the glitzy playground for the rich and famous; and Pebble Beach, California, home of the national pro-am, one of golf’s most important events.

Chef Bladergroen’s menu is a culmination of his vast culinary training and experience. His cooking philosophy centers around using high quality ingredients to create a “melting pot of taste” with an innovative yet surprisingly unpretentious and simple menu influenced by the European and American culinary cultures from which he learned.  Some facets–moderately priced culinary fare and pleasant service–of Blades’ are true to the Parisian bistro concept, however, it could be debated that the setting is not exactly casual. It’s very well appointed and stylish, certainly more upscale than your typical bistro (albeit without being overweening). It’s a restaurant in which you’ll feel right at home and have fun while being inspired to be on your best behavior.

Most of the diners on a beautiful Sunday morning were enjoying brunch on the patio instead of in the dining room.

Although the bistro doesn’t have a formal “chef’s table” per se, you can still feel like like a VIP by sitting in an area directly adjacent to the exhibition kitchen. Only a plexiglass sneeze guard and an extended countertop separate you from the kitchen. You’ll be close enough to converse with the chef, an amicable gentleman with a quick wit. Chef Bladergroen is very well organized and purposeful in every motion. He is a treat to watch.

As enlightening and inspiring as sitting in close proximity to the kitchen might be, even better are the intoxicating aromas emanating from the panoply of pots and pans perpetually sitting atop high flames. Watching every appetizer and entree in every phase of its preparation, unfortunately doesn’t make it any easier to decide what you want to eat. Everything looks and smells absolutely fabulous. My advice–let the chef pick something for you. Don’t even let him tell you what it is so you can be surprised when it arrives at your table. That’s what I’m happy to have done.

Baked Mushrooms (escargot style) / white wine, garlic herb butter, fresh parmesan

Baked Mushrooms (escargot style) / white wine, garlic herb butter, fresh parmesan

Appetizers

31 March 2009: Blades’ array of appetizers is impressive, but not because of sheer numbers. Including daily specials there are only about a half dozen appetizers available, but if our inaugural choices are any indication, they are of four-star quality. Fans of fleshy and fabulous fungi will fawn over baked mushrooms served escargot style. Blanketed by a light, flaky puff pastry, rich, mellow mushrooms are baked in a light white wine broth with garlic herb butter and parmesan. Mushrooms, it turns out, are the ideal vehicle for soaking up all the buttery goodness (which even Gourmet magazine believes is the best best part of escargot).

It’s not easy to sop up any remaining broth with the hard-crusted crostini which accompanies the mushroom dish, but the crostini is lightly toasted and provides a nice counterpoint to the starring attraction’s richness. As do several of the best fine dining restaurants in the Duke City area, Blades’ Bistro acquires its staff of life offerings from Albuquerque’s Fano Bakery which specializes in artisan-style rustic and specialty breads. Characteristics of baguettes from Fano, a hard-crust complements a soft, airy texture on other breads served during meals at Blades’.

Roasted Fresh Beets

21 August 2016: Beauteous, blood-red beets and gorgeous golden beets roasted so they retain a soft inside and a firm exterior are the center point of a second appetizer, roasted red beets with toasted goat cheese and a Balsamic glaze drizzle on a bed of Arugula and Radicchio. The fresh red beets are moist and tangy, a flavor complement to the smooth, creamy texture and mild flavor of the goat cheese and both are a perfect counterbalance to the savory salt and pepper flavors of the Arugula and Radicchio salad.  The golden beets, grown locally, are not quite as earthy as their red siblings, but have a comparatively mellow quality and maybe a tad more sweetness.  Beets are unique for their high levels of anti-carcinogens and their very high carotenoid content. It’s also heartening that they’re so delicious especially at the hands of a skilled chef.

Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad

16 August 2013:  Before even having a real opportunity to peruse the menu, Anja walked by and whispered two words “Caprese salad.”  That was good enough for us.  Chef Kevin’s takes some liberties with the traditional Caprese salad.  As made in the Isle of Capri, this simple salad is made of sliced fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, seasoned with salt, and olive oil.  Blades’ rendition replaces tomatoes with fresh, sliced peaches and adds mint, an edible flower and a drizzle of Balsamic vinegar to the plate.  Vive la difference!  This is one lively salad with invigorating greens complementing the fresh, sweet-tangy peaches.  The creamy mozzarella is the perfect foil, tempering all the bold flavors with its subtle qualities.

Blade36

Cajun style fried oysters with Remoulade sauce

16 August 2013:  Hearing that one of the specials of the night was Cajun style oysters led to some trepidation.  Oysters, after all, have one of nature’s most unique flavors (albeit one that doesn’t appeal to all diners).  A heavy hand with Cajun seasoning–or worse, blackening techniques–could bring ruin to those flavors.  Thankfully Chef Kevin knows oysters are to be treated with utmost subtlety and delicateness.  The oysters are lightly seasoned which allows their natural brininess to shine.  The zingy, but certainly not overwhelming, Cajun personality comes from the accompanying Remoulade sauce.  During our visit, the oysters shared the plate with a cold, peanuty noodle salad, likely Thai inspired.

Entrees

Veal Sweetbreads: pan-seared with apples and finished with Calvados Brandy Sauce

23 February 2012: There are entrees a plenty for landlubbers, too, including some not attempted by other restaurants in the Duke City area.  The seasonal menu for winter 2012 included two such rarities, veal sweetbreads and rabbit (if Anja has her way, these two stick around longer, especially the rabbit, her absolute favorite).  Sweetbreads are one of those words which demonstrate English is a crazy language.  They’re neither sweet nor bread.  They’re in the offal (animal entrails and internal organs) family, though many would spell it “awful.”  They’re also an acquired taste and one of the most misunderstood entrees–being mistaken for everything from bull’s testicles to liver–on any restaurant’s menu.  Sweetbreads come from two organs–the thymus (sometimes called the throat sweetbread) and the pancreas (sometimes called the stomach sweetbread).  Of all offal meat, sweetbreads are the most prized thanks to their mild flavor and color and their velvety, rich texture.  Veal sweetbreads are the most popular. 

My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, is a sweetbread savant, enjoying them so much he once had them every other week for six straight months at Chicago’s La Grenouille. When he compared Blades’ version to the one he enjoyed so much in the Windy City, I knew I had to try them, gout be damned (purine rich sweetbreads top the list of things gout sufferers should avoid). What’s a little joint pain and threat of kidney stones compared to the decadent deliciousness of great sweetbreads. Blades’ sweetbreads are outstanding–pan-seared, fork-tender veal sweetbreads in a rich, creamy Calvados brandy sauce perfumed ever so slightly with sweet, delicate apples. Texturally they’re absolutely perfect and flavor-wise, they’re incomparable. The sweetbreads are served with mashed potatoes and a salad of julienned carrots and red cabbage, a good counterpoint to the richness of the sweetbreads.

Rib Eye Steak with Cremini Mushroom Demiglace

23 February 2012: Another entree any carnivorous landlubber will lust after is a ten- to twelve-ounce rib eye steak which can be prepared with either a green chile or a crimini mushroom demiglace.  The steak is prepared to your exacting specifications and arrives at your table surrounded by a rich, glossy pool of pure deliciousness.  Unadorned it’s an excellent steak.  The crimini mushroom demiglace with its discernible red wine influence elevates it to another level.  Served with asparagus spears and one grilled tomato, it’s a terrific entree. 

Green Chile Cheeseburger

Green Chile Cheeseburger

9 August 2013:  You’re also well advised to heed any culinary recommendation from Bruce Schor, a bon vivant who rates Blades’ Rustique Bistro green chile cheeseburger as among the very best he’s had in the Land of Enchantment.   What distinguishes this burger from so many others is the Angus reserved beef from which it’s made.   Angus reserve beef is consistently tender, juicy and rich with flavor.  With the Bistro burger, you might swear you’re eating a fine steak nestled between a hardy Brioche bun.   The green chile, splayed generously beneath melted Cheddar, is of medium piquancy with a nice roasted flavor.   If you top the burger with the red onions, ripe tomatoes and lettuce provided, you’ll have to open wide to bite down.  The beef itself is easily eight to ten ounces.  It’s a very thick slab of beefy deliciousness, extending slightly beyond the bun.  If burgers are truly about beef, this is one burger which emphasizes beef.  It’s an outstanding burger, now in my hallowed list of New Mexico’s best burgers

Steak Frites

Steak Frites

9 August 2013: My Chicago born-and-bred Kim, raised on a typical 1960s Midwest meat-and-potatoes diet, has consistently found much better steak at Blades’ Bistro than at any Duke City steakhouse.  She’ll also tell you that Blades’  prepares a better steak frites entry than any French restaurant in Albuquerque.  The steak is a grilled New York strip topped with herbed butter and served with French fries which don’t have that all-too-famiiar and insipid out-of-a-bag taste.  The steak is prepared to your exacting specifications and is an exemplar of beefy perfection at just under medium.  The herbed butter pools with the juices of the steak to form an addictive flavor combination.  The fries are crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside with just the right amount of salt.  This is a classic French meat and potatoes entree no one does better than Chef Kevin.

London Steak: Pan-seared top round filet topped with bleu cheese and port wine demi sauce.

London Steak with scalloped potatoes and roasted vegetables

16 August 2013:  Just when my Kim thinks she’s had the very best steak on Blades’ menu, Chef Kevin introduces another, even more delectable slab of perfectly prepared steak.  Called a London Steak, it is indeed reminiscent of the steaks we enjoyed so much at The Mermaid in picturesque Burford, England.  The London steak is a pan-seared top round filet topped with bleu cheese and a port wine demi sauce.  Because top round is one of the most lean cuts of beef you can find and has very little fat, it’s a perfect vehicle for demi sauces or Bourguignon.  The Blades’ cut is topped with a port demi sauce as well as a pungent, sharp bleu cheese.  The sauce is thick and it is magnificent with sweet and beef stock elements.  With nary a hint of fat or sinew, this steak somehow manages to be tender and moist even without the sauce.

Roasted Prime Rib Served with Au Jus and Horseradish sauce

Roasted Prime Rib

24 January 2014: One of the most popular of “cold weather dishes” on the Blades’ menu is roasted prime rib served with au jus and horseradish sauce.  The prime rib, as with all meats we’ve enjoyed at Blades’ is outstanding: rosy colored and bursting with copious juices flowing at medium rare, devoid of excess fat though nicely marbled and with a nice concentration of  deep fresh-roasted flavors.  At about twelve ounces it’s “right-sized” slab of beauteous beef, one of the very best we’ve had in New Mexico.  The prime rib is served with garlicky mashed potatoes, sauteed vegetables and a sweet, tart and sour red German cabbage as good as you’ll find at any German restaurant.

Entrees: Seafood

Shrimp Melanaise

Shrimp Melanaise

31 March 2009: The entree chef Bladergroen prepared for me during our inaugural visit is a dish he started preparing while serving as chef in a Fort Pierce, Florida restaurant overlooking an Atlantic waterfront. It’s Shrimp Milanaise, an entree named for the Italian city of Milan. For the most part I’ve equated breaded shrimp with disdained restaurant chains that tend to serve them in all-you-can-choke-down quantities. I had also assumed initially that the breading would be similar to the breading used on steak Milanesa, a Mexican favorite. Blades’ Bistro has forever changed those conceptions.

The breading is light and very well seasoned, adhering like a second skin to the perfectly prepared, sweet and succulent shrimp without dominating their native sea born flavors. Appropriately–being this entree is prepared by a chef of Dutch heritage–the shrimp are served with dollops of smooth and creamy Hollandaise sauce which imparts a rich, buttery flavor with a mild tang. Also served with the dish are rice and carrots, green beans and fennel served al dente. There are only two things wrong with the entree: it doesn’t come with a dozen or more of the crusty crustaceans and it’s not on the daily menu.

 Con Frutti de Mar -- (The Fruit of the sea) Shrimp-Scallops-Lobster with white wine garlic cream sauce over linguini

Con Frutti de Mar

31 March 2009: Seafood lovers in land-locked New Mexico have rarely had the quality of succulent shellfish and mollusks available in one dish–Blades’ Bistro’s Con Frutti de Mar, literally fruit of the sea. This entree features shrimp, scallops and lobster with a white wine garlic sauce over linguini. It’s an inspired entree in which the richness of the sauce is a concordant marriage for the sweetness of the seafood. It will not only sate your lust for protein and carbs, it may leaving you swooning in appreciation. In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Frutti de Mar entree a “Hot Plate Award” as the hot entree Albuquerque diners can’t do without.

Black Cod with a Miso Glaze and Assorted Vegetables

Black Cod with a Miso Glaze and Assorted Vegetables

9 August 2013: When Anja recommends a dish, you’re well advised to heed her advice especially when it’s the special of the night. Special often means spectacular at Blades’ Bistro. Such was the case when the featured special was the black cod with a miso glaze. It’s an amazing dish Chef Kevin was taught to prepare by restaurant impresario and celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, founder of Hawaiian fusion cuisine. Black cod, also known as “sablefish” is a delicate, flaky fish with a rich, buttery flavor and silky sweet and rich overtones. The miso glaze lends a savory-sweet element that pairs magnificently with the fish. It’s one of the very best fish entrees I’ve had in New Mexico, a luscious dish which will make grown men swoon in appreciation. Though I wasn’t bright enough to heed Anja’s recommendation, cousin Susie did and she was nice enough to share her bounty.

16 August 2013: Just how good is the black cod with a miso glaze? It’s good enough to inspire a return visit one week later and this time, I had all six ounces of deliciousness all too myself. It was just as wonderful the second time around.  This superb entree made my “best of the best for 2013,” a tribute to the very best dishes I had the pleasure of consuming during the year. I also paid much more attention to the sides: scalloped potatoes and roasted vegetables (carrots, asparagus, zucchini, beets and a single tomato. All were prepared to perfection. The scalloped potatoes had the right blend of cheese and creaminess to appeal to diners of all ages.

Blade37

Sole Meunière

24 January 2014: The mark of a truly outstanding chef is often the ability to take what outwardly appears to be a simple dish and execute it perfectly.  At its bare essence, Sole Meunière is simply sole dredged in flour, prepared in a hot skillet then doused with a pan sauce of butter, lemon and parsley.  Though this dish has relatively few ingredients, it’s a daunting dish to prepare because any mistakes or flavor imbalances are glaring.  Whether from years of practice or deft skill, Chef Bladergroen prepares this dish perfectly.  The pan-fried sole is imbued with a very light golden blond crust.  A press of a fork reveals sweet, creamy meat.  The sauce is rich: a revelation in nutty butter, fragrant parsley and the tartness of lemon, all in perfect proportion.

Dover Sole En Papillote

Dover Sole En Papillote

24 January 2014: Yet another way in which Blades’ showcases sole, a flat fish member of the extended flounder family, is as Dover Sole En Papillote, a classic marriage of British and French cuisine.  “En Papillote” is a method of baking fish within sealed parchment paper which creates a self contained mini “oven” in which the flavors blend and infuse the dish.  Because the parchment paper is porous, it allows steam to escape so the fish is baked rather than steamed.  The British contribution to this dish is the Dover sole itself.  Found in the waters below the Cliffs of Dover, this sole is sometimes considered the “Porterhouse of fish” and is one of the most delicious fish, cherished and beloved by gourmets who love fish.  Chef Bladergroen’s rendition of Dover Sole is as good as we remember the Dover Sole we enjoyed in England.

Soups

French Onion Soup

23 February 2012: The only sane reason for which you should forgo an appetizer is if you’re going to luxuriate in one of the chef’s wondrous soups. The French onion soup is among the most aesthetically appealing and delicious of its genre in New Mexico. Served in a traditional two-tone soup crock, it arrives at your table steaming hot with the cheese brown and bubbling over the top of the crock. The aroma of onions is intoxicating and the broth is thicker than most French onion soups. The onions are cut larger, too, imparting the wonderful sweet flavor of perfectly prepared onions. You’ll risk the molten cheese and sacrifice the roof of your mouth to dig into this soup right away.

Clam Chowder

23 February 2012: Ask any New England transplant to New Mexico what soup they miss most and invariably the answer will be clam chowder (chowdah to Bob of the Village People), the thick, hearty, soul-warming favorite of folks from Maine to Connecticut. Expats will also lament the absence of good clam chowder in the Land of Enchantment. Blades’ rendition is the best we’ve had since vacationing in Massachusetts in 2009. It’s creamy and thick, but not overly so. The potatoes are perfectly prepared and the clams are plentiful –a nice ratio of potatoes to clams. Best, they were neither tough nor chewy. It would have been interesting to see Chef Bladergroen attempt oyster crackers.

Borscht, one of several soups on the winter soup rotation

06 February 2011: If the soup du jour gracing the menu is Borscht, contemplate the rest of the starters menu no further (unless it’s to have Borscht and another starter).  The Borscht, one of several soups on the chef’s winter soup rotation, is excellent. Deep reddish-purple in color courtesy of beetroot, it is redolent with tomato, potatoes, beef, sour cream, garlic and dill.  Borscht, a veritable culinary treasure in Eastern and Central Europe, is one of those dishes for which there is no one universal recipe.  Cultural differences (Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian, etc.) account for variations in ingredients and preparation.  There are also seasonal variations that include serving it as a cold soup or a hot soup.  Blades’ version is served steaming hot and it’s terrific! 

Tortilla Soup

Tortilla Soup

24 January 2014: In January, 2014, Blades Bistro debuted the soup it would enter in the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl.  It’s called a tortilla soup, but it’s much more complex than its simple name would imply.  Among its components are red chili (sic), roasted corn, avocado and melted shredded cheese, all seasoned with rosemary, oregano, nutmeg, cinnamon and more.  Its diversity of ingredients imbue it with a very interesting and delicious flavor profile.  If you enjoy the adventure of ingredient discernment, this is a soup you will love.

Brunch

In 2010, Blades’ Bistro began serving  brunch on Sundays from 10AM through 2PM.  Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the very best of both.  It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, almost as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before your main entree.  Brunch in Placitas has the additional feel of going out-of-town, away from the maddening traffic and crowds to a more sedate and tranquil paced haven. 

21 August 2016:  Had Normal Rockwell visited Placitas on a leisurely late summer Sunday morning for brunch at Blades’, he might have been inspired to paint the event.  Thematically his portfolio of small-town American scenes for The Saturday Evening Post often depicted happy events shared by friends and neighbors.  That’s precisely what brunch at Blades’ is.  No sooner had we stepped into the outdoor patio than we ran into our friend Bruce Schor and his affectionate four-legged child Chloe who were finishing a splendid repast.  We lost ourselves in conversation for nearly an hour, our visit punctuated occasionally by dog lovers stopping to greet Chloe.  Almost everywhere else the waitstaff might rushed us, but Blades’ isn’t like other restaurants.  It’s a second home for residents of Placitas and a welcoming milieu from visitors like us.

Fettuccini alla Carbonara

06 February 2011: Perhaps the most sinfully rich brunch entree (on a menu which includes a Croque Monsieur made with Gruyere cheese topped with a cheese bechamel sauce) is the Fettuccini alla Carbonara, pasta tossed with cream, eggs, bacon and Parmesan.  This version is more cheesy than it is creamy and it’s thicker (though not clumpy and sticky) than some Carbonara dishes.  Carbonara, an Italian pasta dish with its genesis in Rome, is best made with al dente pasta and while Blades’ rendition is certainly not al dente, it’s so good and so rich you won’t–you can’t–stop eating it.  Besides that, every spoonful includes bacon and you can’t go wrong with that.  This dish is so rich, it should be served with a side of angioplasty.

Mongolian Ribs with Sweet Potato Fries and Coleslaw

6 February 2011: During our inaugural brunch visit, we lucked upon a special-of-the-day offering called Mongolian Ribs, a veritable tower of meaty ribs glazed with a ginger-sesame sauce.  The plating of the ribs is tower-like, indeed.  At least six ribs are stacked atop one another, buttressed by a mound of coleslaw and a phalanx of sweet potato fries.  The ginger-sesame sauce is practically shellacked onto the ribs, but if that description leaves you dubious based on similarly described Chinese rib dishes, fear not.  Unlike some Chinese ribs, these are not candied meat lollipops.  The ginger-sesame sauce complements the beef ribs; it does not overwhelm them.  Did I mention these ribs are meaty?  Though they’re not quite Flintstonian in size, they will appease any a carnivore.  The accompanying coleslaw is tangy and delicious, made with Fuji apples and julienne carrots on a bed of greens. 

Tenderloin Sate with Thai Peanut Sauce

21 August 2016: Perhaps stemming from time immemorial when meats were first prepared over a flame, human beings seem genetically predisposed to enjoy meat on a stick.  Whether it be shish kabobs from the Middle East, barbecue skewers from Texas or satay from Southeast Asia, we love the primal feeling of gnawing meats right off the stick before slowly, carefully extricating the meat from its host.  Some of the Duke City’s best skewers of meat can be found in Thai restaurants where satay, a popular street food meat “Popsicle” is served, typically with a peanut sauce.  With apologies to so many Thai restaurants we love, Chef Kevin’s beef sate (skewered and grilled beef tenderloin topped with an Indonesian peanut sauce served with an Asian salad) is better than your satay.  The main reason is the superior cut of meat he uses—a perfectly grilled beef tenderloin that tastes like a premium steak.  Then there’s the peanut sauce which doesn’t have the cloying, almost peanut-candy-like flavor of peanut sauce at some Thai restaurants. You’d have to beat me with a stick to make me loosen my grip on the three meat stick skewers.

Biscuits

21 August 2016: American poet Carl Sandburg defined poetry as “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits,” two of life’s enduring passions.  The purplish bloom of the Russian sage encircling Blades’ patio reminded us of hyacinths, so to complete the synthesis we had to order biscuits.  Served with high-quality marmalade (orange and strawberry), the biscuits are dense yet delicate, light but not flaky.  They’re also as delicious as biscuits can be made, particularly if you slather on the marmalade.  With biscuits this good, we’re inspired to try Blades’ version of biscuits and gravy during an upcoming brunch visit.

Cajun Grits

21 August 2016: In the late 1970s, a television sitcom named Alice introduced the catchphrase “kiss my grits” into the American vernacular.   From the moment the catchphrase was first uttered by Flo, a man-hungry Southern belle who worked at a roadside diner in a Phoenix diner, it garnered widespread popularity.   We weren’t at all happy to kiss grits good bye when we left Mississippi in 1995, figuring we’d never again enjoy a transformative version of this Deep South staple.  Two decades later, it seems almost heretical to declare that the three best grits dishes we’ve ever enjoyed have been in New Mexico, served in chronological order–from earliest to most recent–at The Hollar in Madrid,  The Point Grill in Rio Rancho and Blades’ Bistro in Placitas.   The Cajun Style Shrimp and Grits (sautéed shrimp with a zesty Cajun sauce, green onions, red pepper and bacon served over creamy cheese grits) are the best of the best.   It’s the version you’d serve to someone who’s never had grits or even better, to someone who’s never had good grits.  These are great grits, a mélange of flavors and textures that play off one another like a well-tuned orchestra.

Bacon, Green Chile and Cheddar Quiche

21 August 2016: If real men don’t eat quiche (a best-selling book published in 1982 satirizing masculine stereotypes), it’s a sad indictment of my gender.  Quiche, after all, is made from ingredients men love—things such as cheese, meat and seafood.  Those manly ingredients are added to a custard made from eggs and milk then poured into a pie crust (something else we love).   Blades’ brunch menu features a quiche of the day, but if you’re not careful the quiche du jour may have sold out.  Such was the case during our August, 2016 visit.  Because the salmon and goat cheese quiche had sold out quickly, we “settled” (a poor word choice) for a quiche filled with Cheddar, green chile and bacon, a tasty (and manly) triumvirate if ever there was one.  We made quick work of the quiche, relishing every bite.  The quiche is served with fruit and some of the best roasted potatoes you’ll find anywhere.  If you’re of the XY-chromosome persuasion and refuse to order quiche because of some tongue-in-cheek 1980s book, ask your wife to order it, but by any means just make sure Blades’ fabulous quiche graces your table.

Desserts

31 March 2009: What many will love most is dessert and Blades’ Bistro doesn’t disappoint here either. An outstanding option sure to please one and all is the tiramisu.  Blades’ rendition is served in a large goblet but the cake’s component parts are certainly present: ladyfinger biscuits dipped in espresso layered in a whipped mixture of mascarpone, sugar, egg yolks topped with cocoa.  The distinct addition of a liqueur is also discernible.  It is a phenomenal dessert and that’s selling it short.  Along with the incomparable offering at Torinos @ Home, this rendition is at the top of my list of my very favorite tiramisu desserts in New Mexico, a Tuscan treat so good I’d eschew my other favorite (if it was on the menu) dessert–bread pudding.

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

17 December 2011: In the June, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine celebrating “New Mexico’s Best Eats,” a three person panel of culinary experts of which I was a part, selected as the Land of Enchantment’s best uptown dessert, the red chile soup at La Casa Sena.  Studded with Chimayo chile that enlivens the chocolate, it is one of my favorite desserts.  In the Chocolate Chili Pot, Blades’ Bistro may have one-upped La Casa Sena.  The chocolate chili (sic) pot is a ramekin brimming with dark chocolate pots du creme with toasted Chimayo chili.  Its consistency is reminiscent of a very thick frosting served cold, but it certainly doesn’t taste like the topping for a cake.  The adult chocolate is made even more flavorful with the infusion of Chimayo chile (better, by the way, than Hatch chile).  It’s topped with whipped cream studded with blueberries.

Chocolate Chili Pot: Dark chocolate Pots du Creme with toasted Chimayo chili

23 February 2012: Even in winter, savvy restaurateurs will serve cold dishes, perhaps figuring that frozen desserts are good any time of year.  That’s certainly the case with Blades’ trio of sorbets, a refreshing, teeth-chattering bowl of flavor explosions.  This housemade triumvirate is as good a chilly dessert as there is in the Land of Enchantment.  As with all excellent sorbets, each truly captures the essence of the flavors they represent.  The pear sorbet tastes like fresh-picked pears (only served ice cold).  The pineapple-mint sorbet blends two distinctive flavors into a composite of what’s good about both.  The blackberry-cantaloupe sorbet is similarly fruity and delicious.

A trio of Sorbet: Pineapple-Mint, Blackberry-Cantaloupe and Pear

23 February 2012: Besides sweetbreads, another addiction my friend Larry McGoldrick and I share is for bread pudding.  It’s our catnip and kryptonite–practically bringing us to our knees in gratitude to the bread pudding gods when it’s made right.  Blades’ bread pudding made Larry’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame, an indication of its rarefied greatness.  It’s at or near the top of my list, too.  Unlike the soggy, custard-like bread pudding that relies on cloying sauces for flavor, this is a firm yet spongy bread pudding with a texture that’s absolutely spot-on.  In terms of taste, it’s an eye-opener with the pronounced flavor of banana and rum, the latter cutting the sweetness of the former.  It’s a winning combination.

Banana Rum Bread Pudding

9 August 2013: There’s only one thing wrong with the dessert menu at Blades’  It’s that every single dessert item with which you fall in love doesn’t always grace the menu.  Desserts, as with entrees and appetizers, rotate with seasonal regularity.  Perhaps the most perfect of summer sweets is Key Lime Pie, the official state pie of the state of Florida.  The key lime pie at Blades is terrific with a pronounced key lime flavor (key lime juice, by the way, is yellow not green the way faux key lime pies are presented) tempered with sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks.  Kenney Chesney once sang about the perfect key lime pie, describing it as “not too tart, not too sweet.”   That’s the perfect description for the key lime pie at Blades’ Bistro.

Key Lime Pie with Graham Cracker-Coconut Crust

Key Lime Pie with Graham Cracker-Coconut Crust

16 August 2013:Could there possibly be a more appropriate name for a triumvirate of chocolate decadence than  chocolate decadence trio?  It’s a no brainer.  If you’re a bonafide chocoholic, having this dessert is also a no brainer.  Quite simply, it lives up to its name.  The chili (SIC) lime chocolate pot’s du creme has the type of heat which hits the back of your throat coupled with the rich, adult chocolate to generate an endorphin rush.  A sole peanut butter truffle, the coupling of two great tastes (chocolate and peanut butter) that taste great together will have you wishing for a bowlful.  The flourless chocolate torte with strikes of raspberry sauce is dense and intensely flavored with adult chocolate notes.  This is the type of chocolate dessert that provides the same “high” as falling in love.  You’ll certainly fall in love with this dessert

Chocolate Decadence Trio: Chili Lime Chocolate Pot's du Creme, Peanut Butter Truffle and Flourless Chocolate Torte

Chocolate Decadence Trio

24 January 2014: Blades certainly knows how to capture my heart, offering a bread pudding du jour that proves the diversity and deliciousness of my favorite dessert, even managing to make a great bread pudding out of an ingredient I don’t like.  That ingredient is white chocolate (which is technically not chocolate at all even though it contains cocoa butter), perhaps the only item bearing the name “chocolate” I don’t like.   Blades’ white chocolate and macadamia bread pudding topped with a housemade brandy sauce is so good, it might even make Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  The macadamia nuts cut the sweetness and richness of the white chocolate while the housemade brandy sauce lends its own richness.  Make sure you order this bread pudding a la mode because the housemade ice cream is rich and delicious.

White Chocolate Macadamia Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream

White Chocolate Macadamia Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream

21 August 2016: Just when you think salted caramel has run its course, you find a dish that reels you back in and reminds you why salted caramel became a culinary obsession in 2008.  Though there’s virtually no surcease to the number and type of desserts which can be transformed from merely good to addictively delicious with the addition of salted caramel, it just seems sweet caramel seasoned with fancy salt has been tried on everything.  As a result, some of us have started to take it for granted.  That’s where we were until our first spoonful of the salted caramel cheesecake at Blades’.  In optimal proportions of each flavor profile, the salty-sweet combination is a perfect counterbalance to the a light, creamy cheesecake.  It was so good, it justified my decision to forego bread pudding.

Salted Caramel Cheesecake

21 August 2016: Anja is justifiably proud of the verdant flowers and dense shrubbery which grace the patio.  Some, such as the Lavender de Provence and Rosemary have more than esthetic value and are actually used in the kitchen by the superbly talented Chef Kevin.  The pairing of Rosemary with its highly aromatic-peppery-woodsy flavor notes and watermelon with its sweet, most flavor was our favorite of three wonderful sorbets, but it was close.  The cucumber-lime marriage is no mere Miss Congeniality.  It’s a superb pairing of flavors who share little more than a shade of green, but which combine magnificently.  The third in a tasty triumvirate was blood orange, always a palate pleaser.  Computer dating services should be as good at match-making as Blades’ is at pairing flavor combinations.

Sorbet Trio: Cucumber Lime, Rosemary Watermelon, Blood Orange

Placitas has become a dining destination frequented not only by local loyalists, but by diners from throughout the state and beyond.  In 2011, Blades’ Bistro was selected by readers of Local IQ as the Duke City area’s best romantic restaurant, best fine-dining restaurant and for having the area’s best bartender.  The operative term here is “best,” a term that has become synonymous with this stand-out restaurant and with its superbly talented chef and of course, the first lady of Placitas.

BLADES’ BISTRO
221 Highway 165 Suite L
Placitas, New Mexico
505) 771-0695
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2016
1st VISIT:  31 March 2009
# OF VISITS:7
RATING: 25
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Baked Mushrooms (escargot style), Roasted Fresh Beets with toasted Goat Cheese @ Balsamic Glace Drizzle, Con Frutti de Mar, Shrimp Melanaise, Tiramisu, Trio of Sorbets, Chocolate Chili Pot, Mongolian Ribs, Borscht, Fettuccinni alla Carbonara, Banana Rum Bread Pudding, Veal Sweetbreads, Rib Eye with Mushroom Demiglace, Steak Frites, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Black Cod with Miso Glaze, Key Lime Pie, London Steak, Chocolate Decadence Trio, White Chocolate Macadamia Bread Pudding, Roasted Prime Rib, Sole Meunière, Dover Sole En Papillote, Tortilla Soup, Dutch Style Mussels, Cajun Grits, Quiche, Salted Caramel Cheesecake, Biscuits

Blades' Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Plaza Cafe Southside – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Plaza Cafe Southside

Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant (circa 1918), the Plaza Cafe is so popular that long waits to be seated are commonplace. Compound that with the hassle of trying to find a parking spot that isn’t a marathon’s length to walk to and from the Cafe then having to navigate through throngs of awestruck tourists and it’s a restaurant we don’t visit as often as we’d like.  Our visits might become even more infrequent thanks to the 2003 launch of the Plaza Cafe’s sister restaurant (albeit a sister that’s 84 years younger) on Santa Fe’s south side.

Neon Spangled Interior Festooned with Colorful Art

The Plaza Cafe Southside, situated in San Isidro Plaza on Zafarano Drive, is a welcome respite from the challenges inherent with trying to dine in the teeming tourist traversed Plaza area. It’s one of an increasing number of excellent restaurants situated well outside Santa Fe’s well beaten, well eatin’ Plaza area.  It’s also one of several very good restaurants within easy walking distance of the Regal Cinemas 14.  It’s the Plaza Cafe Southside’s second home.  For its first six years, the Cafe occupied cozy, but cramped confines within a motel off Cerrillos.

You Can’t Help But Smile

The Plaza Cafe Southside is the brainchild of Leonard Razatos who “wanted to bring a little of the old Santa Fe to the new Santa Fe.” A “new” Santa Fe can certainly describe the burgeoning south side which has shown tremendous growth over the past decade. “Old” Santa Fe begins and ends with the famous Santa Fe Plaza, fittingly home to the Plaza Cafe, the city’s oldest restaurant. In 1947, Greek immigrant Dionysi “Danny” Razatos, purchased the restaurant and together with his wife and six children has fed Santa Fe ever since. Leonard upholds the family tradition within the trappings of a modern edifice which might not work well in the architectural restricted plaza area.

Karen Webb, One of Santa Fe’s Most Famous (And Beloved) Waitresses

Where the Cafe’s first digs were cramped and cozy, its new home is capacious and comfortable. Despite the modernity of high ceilings, industrial-style ductwork and steel girders, the Cafe retains the appearance of an old-fashioned diner. Undulating neon festoons the service area where an industrious wait staff delivers and picks up orders. Suspended from the ceiling is a colorful four-sided mural depicting the culture of Santa Fe, not so much in an idyllic fashion, but in a mode which might best describe the things that make it the “City Different.” The bar soffit mural painted by local artist Robb Rael depicts the Zozobra, skeletal images from el Dia de los Muertos, pueblo-style architectural homes and more, all in the artist’s unique interpretive style. It, too, is festooned by 1950s style neon.

The first thing you notice when you walk in to the Plaza Cafe Southside is a dessert case that’s wider than it is tall. Behind glass are some of the most sumptuous, calorie-laden confections ever crafted. It’s a wonder there aren’t tongue trails on the glass because behind it, just waiting for hungry diners, are the Plaza Cafe’s famous cajeta apple pecan pie, served in huge slabs with or without ice cream. There’s also the fabulous coconut cream pie (in a macaroon shell), pastel tres leches and other mouth-watering desserts.

In The Event of An Emergency

Step into the restaurant on a lazy Sunday morning and it’s a good bet you’ll be cheerfully greeted by Karen Webb, one of the city’s most famous and beloved hostesses. Karen gained a modicum of fame on the terrific documentary American Waitresses: New Mexico, a feature film that examines the lives, attitudes, perceptions and experiences of waitresses. Karen came across as the very effusive and warm soul she is. A mainstay at the Plaza Cafe Southside, she greets guests with an endearing “darling” or “baby,” eliciting hearty hugs from many of them. She’s a true ambassador for the Cafe, pointing out the historical photographs on the wall and inviting guests to make themselves at home. When I asked if I could photograph her, she joked with another guest about “posing for a nudie.”

The Dessert Case

Their classic American diner showcases traditional cooking methods and time-honored ingredients that would make many a New Mexican abuelita proud indeed.  In addition to excellent New Mexican  and Mexican food, the restaurant features a few Greek entrees as well as American diner favorites and blue-plate specials.  The menu is a veritable compendium of home-style diner cuisine New Mexico style with something for everyone.  Some time-honored recipes have been “improved upon” with inventive ingredients in exciting combinations.  Other recipes haven’t been “tampered” with and might remind you of the home cooking you got at home as a child. 

Peruse the menu and quality-conscious diners will certainly appreciate reading “A Few Things We’re Proud of.”   “We use local New Mexico heritage ranch, grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef.  We use only cage-free eggs.  We bake all our pastries and desserts from scratch daily using only the highest quality ingredients.  All our breads are from scratch using only the highest quality ingredients.  Our corn and flour tortillas are from a local tortillera and are free of preservatives and artificial ingredients.”  How can you not love that if you care about quality?

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

The Southside Cafe shares most of the same menu with its sister restaurant. There are a few notable exceptions, one being the absence of the elder sibling’s roasted garlic and carnitas quesadillas, an appetizer for which you’d brave the teeming throngs.  Similar to the Plaza Cafe, the Southside Cafe features oversized plastic menus emblazoned with a round image of the heavily trafficked Santa Fe plaza at the height of bustling activity. The menu is several pages long and reads like a great novel; it’s very hard to put down and even harder to make a decision as to what to order.

That menu includes several “aguas frescas,” the refreshing at any time beverages becoming increasingly popular in New Mexico. The Cafe has its own interesting twists on traditional aguas frescas.  That includes a prickly pear lemonade made with tangy prickly pear puree and even prickly pear horchata, an exotic blend of almond, cinnamon and rice water with tangy prickly pear puree. The latter is an interesting departure from what can be a cloying beverage and will amaze you at how well two unique flavors meld together.  For those cold mornings in which your belly needs some anti-freeze, the Ibarra Mexican hot chocolate has your number.  It’s a strong hot chocolate with a rich flavor.

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

The appetizer section features New Mexican, Mexican, Greek and American options.  If in the mood for something Greek, hummus and pita are available. The hummus, a puree of tahini, lemon, garlic, onion and garbanzo beans is oh so garlicky delicious. This terrific appetizer is served with warm pita bread.  Typical of the surprising inventiveness of the menu is the fried calamari with jalapeños, tender calamari dusted with flour, flash-fried and garnished with salt, pepper and jalapeños then served with a habanero dipping sauce that’s positively piquant.

28 July 2007: If a more traditional Mexican appetizer is what you’re after,  the Cafe’s housemade blue, yellow and red corn tortilla chips and three salsas (Chipotle, tomatillo and pico de gallo) is a terrific triumvirate. All three salsas are sensational and all have capsaicin enriched potency (translation: they bite back). The Chipotle salsa has a wonderfully smoky taste and is perhaps the most piquant of the three. It may also be the most addicting and will probably be the first one you finish. Guacamole and chips are also available as is a mountainous plate of nachos (tortilla chips, beans, chipotle salsa, chile con queso, chorizo, jalapeños, lettuce and tomato).

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

28 July 2007: The “Specials” section includes several items in which the chef’s artistic interpretations crossed into the realm of non-traditional mixing of cultures. That would apply to the Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero lasagna.  The salmon filet is entree sized in and of itself. It’s a flame-grilled six-ounce slab of salmon marinated in garlic, cilantro and olive oil. It is fork-tender and surprisingly moist as well as imbued with discernable smokiness courtesy of the grill.  See the word “Habañero” attached to any entree and you’re bound to think incendiary, pain-inducing, eye-watering, mouth-scalding, too hot to handle, torturous pepper.

At the Cafe, the Tomato-Habañero Lasagna is surprisingly scaled down heat-wise. In fact, the hotter-than-Hell pepper’s most discernable quality is the fruitiness with which it imbues the lasagna. It complements the acidic tomatoes and rich ricotta cheese very well. This is an excellent lasagna.  As with other Italian inspired entrees at the Cafe, the tomato sauce is applied lightly so that it ameliorates, not dominates, the flavor profile.  The sauce has a flavor quite like fresh tomatoes seasoned with garlic and basil.  It’s an excellent sauce for lasagna or any other Italian pasta.

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

28 July 2007: What best defines comfort food?  Many surveys will tell you it’s meatloaf and that just happens to be the Cafe’s specialty. Appropriately, it used to be found on the menu’s Blue Plate section; now it’s  the special of the day on Tuesdays. This isn’t your mama’s meatloaf, unless you’re from New Mexico. This is New Mexico meatloaf stuffed with vegetables (sweet corn nibblets stand out), cheese and green chile.  Unlike the meatloaf at many a diner, the Cafe’s version doesn’t have that annoying crust you have to cut through to get to the moist part. This is one of the most moist meatloaves you’ll find anywhere…and the green chile, vegetable and cheese combination imbues it with qualities that render it sublime. The meatloaf is served with mashed potatoes and gravy as well as sautéed broccoli and carrots.

23 January 2011: From the blue-plate special comes a spaghetti and meatballs entree which might have you saying “That’s amore!” with every bite.  It’s the Plaza Cafe’s spaghetti with meatballs served with a tomato-marjoram sauce, bacon and Parmesan cheese.  Bacon, as everyone knows, makes everything better and the Cafe’s menu boasts of “Santa Fe’s best bacon.”  You won’t find bacon in every bite, but oh those spoonfuls blessed with bacon are special.  The tomato-marjoram sauce is light and thin, emphasizing the flavor of tomatoes and not some thick tomato paste.  Marjoram, by the way, is a member of the oregano-mint family.  It’s similar to oregano, but somewhat milder.  The spaghetti noodles are perfectly al dente.

Spaghetti & Meatballs with Bacon Tomato Sauce: Meatballs, tomato-marjoram sauce, spaghetti, bacon + parmesan cheese, grilled focaccia

23 January 2011: Yet another blue plate special which takes off where ordinary fish and chips leave off is a spicy rendition made from beer-battered cod served with a habanero tartar sauce and jalapeño malt vinegar.  It’s the type of fish and chips the irascible Captain Quint from the movie Jaws would eat while daring the scholarly Matt Hooper to follow suit.   Just as the two tried to out-macho one another by showing off their “battle” scars, it’s easy to imagine the two dousing their beer-battered cod filets in the jalapeño malt vinegar then chasing them down with the habanero tartar sauce all the while daring the other to spice it up even more.

To be honest, neither the jalapeño malt vinegar nor the habanero tartar sauce are that piquant, but it makes for a good story to tell.  It also makes for a very good, very different fish and chips dish.  The cod filets are light and flaky with a beer-batter that’s light enough to allow the superb malt vinegar to impregnate the filets with a terrific tartness.  The “chips” are red chile fries, actually just fries lightly dusted with red chile.  They’re great fries.  Instead of some insipid salad cream, the slaw is made with an apple cider vinegar-like sauce that makes the slaw lip-pursing tangy.

Spicy Fish & Chips: beer-battered cod fillet with habanero tartar sauce, jalapeño malt vinegar and red chile fries, slaw

28 July 2007: For just a pittance, you can add a dinner salad to any entree. As is the case with every item on the menu, this isn’t a blasé and boring salad. It’s mixed greens, strips of jicama, julienne carrots, wedges of tomato, garbanzo beans and more. Ask for the citrus vinaigrette to enliven the salad even further.  If a satisfying salad is what you crave for your entree, consider the menu’s six salads which include a Greek Chicken Souvlaki salad and an inspired Middle Eastern salad (mixed greens, roasted beets and carrots, red cabbage, toasted almonds, cumin seeds, hummus, falafel, pita bread served with a cumin-lemon vinaigrette).

It may be entirely possible that breakfast, served day and night, is even better than lunch and dinner. The menu lists five early morning themes–eggs & omelets, pancakes & French toast, breakfast specialties, bakeshop offerings and platos nativos–and it will be a challenge to figure out what eye-opening entree to have.  One certainty is the thick-cut, sugar-cured bacon which surely must be the best bacon in Santa Fe.  It’s a must have.

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

5 August 2007: The platos nativos (native plates) section features traditional New Mexican entrees such as blue corn enchiladas. Layers of blue corn tortillas, Cheddar cheese and eggs are slathered with the Plaza Cafe’s dark red chile and served with hashed browns and beans.  Because the red and green chile are equally wonderful, ask for your enchiladas “Christmas” style and each mouthful will be a treat. Neither chile is mild.  Red and green chile are available at medium-hot or extra hot and if you’re not certain as to your tolerance level, ask for a sample or order your chile on the side.  The menu’s disclaimer reads “We cannot be responsible for chile that is too hot.” 

14 August 2016: For some strange reason, my Kim prefers her breakfast burritos “deconstructed,” that is with the tortilla on the side. She prefers folding bits of tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” and loading them up with the burrito’s constituents in the proportions and combinations she wants. Usually that means I inherit at least half the frijoles. Whether served the way New Mexico’s chile gods intended or deconstructed, the Plaza Cafe’s breakfast burritos are the bomb! Credit much of that to the piquancy and deliciousness of the chile. The green chile, in particular, not only bites back but has a fruitiness that’ll open your eyes (and nasal passages).

Breakfast Tacos

A word about the hashed browns–they’re amazing! Most hashed browns look and taste like confetti, but not at the Plaza Cafe. These shredded tubers are prepared with onion and are just slightly crispy. Best of all, they actually taste like potatoes and not some paper derivative. You won’t leave any on your plate. The beans are also terrific.  They’re the type of means your abuelita might have prepared years ago. 

14 August 2016Breakfast tacos are oft-attempted, but rarely imbued with the eye-opening deliciousness you crave first thing in the morning.  Plaza Cafe Southside’s version are the best, by far, we’ve ever had.  Picture two soft corn tortillas engorged with scrambled eggs and calabasitas with your choice of meat (Santa Fe’s best bacon, of course) or veggie sausage as well as avocado, cheese, cilantro, onion, chipotle salsa and a side of pinto beans and hash browns.  Individual ingredients coalesce into a mouth-watering whole with several flavor stand-outs.   Among them are the al dente calabasitas, as fresh and delicious as you’ll find anywhere.  The chipotle salsa is so good we requested a second ramekin which we spooned directly into our eagerly awaiting mouths.   The accompanying frijoles, blanketed by molten white Cheddar, and hash browns are wonderful.

“Deconstructed” Breakfast Burrito

14 August 2016: For some reason my Kim prefers her breakfast burritos “deconstructed,” that is with the tortilla on the side.  She folds pieces of tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” into which she piles on the other ingredients in the proportions and combinations she wants (meaning fewer frijoles).  Whether in the form New Mexico’s culinary gods intended or deconstructed, the Plaza Cafe’s breakfast burrito is a paragon of deliciousness.  Credit much of that to an incendiary chile that’s not only piquant, but oh, so flavorful.  It’s impossible for me to chide her for her non-traditional approach to burritos because I usually inherit most of the beans on her plate.

5 August 2007: If your sweet tooth is acting up in the morning, the lemon ricotta pancakes will take care of it. Topped with fresh blueberries, these magnificent orbs are so sweet you might not even need syrup. An equal pronouncement of tanginess and sweetness make these pancakes dessert-like and absolutely delicious. The pancakes are available in quantities of one or two per order.  The Plaza’s pancake line-up also includes made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes and blue corn pancakes with orange butter and cinnamon syrup.  It’s a terrific triumvirate.

Lemon ricotta pancakes

Lemon ricotta pancakes

14 August 2016: Perhaps better than the pancakes, amazing as they are, are the restaurant’s signature French toast made from a thick-cut crunchy coated (with Kellog’s Corn Flakes) Challah bread.  Challah bread, a traditional Hebrew bread makes the best French toast, especially when sliced thick.  It has a pillowy-soft texture and an rich, egg enhanced flavor.  Challah bread also absorbs syrup (or honey, if you prefer).  The French toast are served in half (pictured below) or full-sized portions.

Challah Bread French Toast

14 August 2016: No matter how good your entrees might be, you absolutely must save room for desserts.  Make that a lot of room.  The desserts are humongous!  The green chile apple pie with a Cheddar crust, for example, is a huge slab of pie with about seven layers of stacked apples.  The Cheddar crust bottom and the crunchy top crust provide textural and flavor contrasts.  Ask for the pie to be served warm and for a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side, an unbeatable combination.

The other apple pie dish, the one made famous at the original Plaza cafe, is topped with cajeta, a Mexican caramel made from goat’s and cow’s milk.  It’s fully addictive, a far better caramel than the squeeze bottle variety.  The pie, of course, is delicious with sweet-tart apples.  A la mode is the best way to experience it because the Plaza Cafe uses a premium vanilla ice cream in which flecks of vanilla bean are prominent.

Green Chile Apple Pie with a Cheddar Crust

The Plaza Cafe Southside Cafe is so good it should be considered a dining destination in its own right, not a consolation prize for not wanting to face the challenges of eating at the Plaza. A reasonable bill of fare, excellent food, accommodating service and almost as important, easy parking make this an excellent choice at any time.

Plaza Cafe Southside
3466 Zafarano Drive (San Isidro Plaza)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 424-0755
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, New Mexico Meatloaf, Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero Lasagna, Prickly Pear Horchata, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Challah French Toast, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Spicy Fish & Chips, Breakfast Tacos, Chipotle Salsa, “Deconstructed” Breakfast Burrito

Plaza Cafe Southside Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Budai Gourmet Chinese – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Budai Gourmet Chinese in Albuquerque’s Far North Shopping Center

The true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent.
His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection
.”
Ludwig Bemelmans

By definition, gourmets are connoisseurs, taking food more seriously than most and embodying the axiom  “live to eat rather than eat to live.”  True gourmets, as Ludwig Bemelmans would define them, appreciate food of the highest quality, exalting only in the rarefied experiences–those which require the most discerning palates and noses to cognize subtle nuances in complex and sophisticated flavors and aromas.   Bemelmans, himself an internationally known gourmet, posited that the true gourmet will find joy only in tasting, smelling and appreciating perfection, not in its pursuit.

I’ve known several true gourmets fitting Bemelmans definition.  Most of  them are insufferable and condescending.  Though endowed with refined palates cultivated by years of indulgence in the finest foods and blessed with olfactory senses which would put a German shepherd to shame, they derive no sensuous enjoyment from most culinary experiences.  Nothing is quite good enough.  Nothing meets their demanding and exacting standards.  Dining (they don’t eat) with them is a test in patience as they deride and diminish everything put before them.

Pineapple slush and organic flowering tea

Perhaps the best example of a Bemelmans’ style gourmet is Anton Ego, the notoriously harsh food critic from the wonderful animated movie Ratatouille. Ego earned the nickname “the grim eater” for his impossibly difficult to please, pedantic palate. His ironic proclamation, “I don’t like food; I love food.” belied his joyless, funerary approach to dining.

In 1984, British authors Ann Barr and Paul Levy, coined the term “foodie” to describe passionate food-lovers who have enraptured conversations about their food discoveries.  As with gourmets, foodies have a passion for high-quality food and they pursue it with zeal.  Unlike gourmets, however, foodies are interested in all kinds of foods–up to and including pedestrian, everyday foods such as donuts and potato chips, as long as they are of the highest quality.  Foodies find joy in the pursuit and are generally a lot of fun to break bread with.

Boiled chive pork dumplings

Over the past two and a half years, none of my faithful readers have provided more solid tips on where to go to find great food than my friend Barbara Trembath who has shared her finds with me not only for Albuquerque, but for Boston, Sacramento, Phoenix and other locations to which I’ve traveled. A seasoned traveler with a sophisticated palate, Barbara exemplifies the term “foodie” in the best sense of the term. She  revels in the sensuous enjoyment of a great meal and like me, is hardly monogamous when it comes to eating out. She is constantly on the look-out for the next great dining experience and is finding a lot more of them recently because she moved to Boston in 2012.

A great dining experience.  That’s one of several things that distinguish a foodie from a Bemelmans style gourmet.  Foodies like Barbara relish the holistic experience of dining.  They initiate and enjoy the interaction with chefs and wait staff alike, gleaning as much information as possible about their meals.  They savor the experience of trying new and different entrees.  They engage in the discernment of ingredients, even to the point of trying to figure out how to recreate recipes for those  they enjoy most.  They talk during their meals…mostly about their meals.  Sharing a meal with them–and they do share–is akin to sharing a meal with me.

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

After far too many weeks of failed attempts to break bread together, we finally met at Budai Gourmet Chinese in the Far North Shopping Center.  For adventurous foodies, there are few restaurants in New Mexico as accommodating–and as much fun.  Barbara had been to Budai several times, predating reviews by both the Albuquerque Journal and the Alibi.  I was pleasantly surprised to see she was on a first-name basis with Chef Hsia Fang and his effervescent better half, the pulchritudinous pint-sized hostess Elsa.

More impressively, Elsa didn’t try to dissuade them against trying something from the “non-secret” menu (thank you Ari Leveau) as she might people she pegs as “sweet and sour” loving Americans.  That’s a sign of respect.  That’s a sign she’s earned her stripes by having proven themselves as atypical diners.  Being presented with the “other” menu places her in an exclusive class usually reserved for Asian diners who were raised on foods many Americans might consider weird, strange, different…or worse.

Beef stew in clay pot

Budai Gourmet Chinese opened its doors shortly before the dawning of the year 2010.  It didn’t take long for savvy Duke City diners to realize Budai was a special restaurant, one for which the appellation “Gourmet Chinese” is appropriate.  Budai is named for a small fishing village in Taiwan, the “beautiful island” about 75 miles from mainland China.  Neither Hsai nor Elsa are from Budai, but both are inspired by the little village for which they named their restaurant.  Hanging on a wall is an intriguing poem from Budai written in sinography, the unique Chinese character writing style.  Elsa says the poem loses a lot in translation.

On another wall are several photographs taken during a “wrap” party when the filming of a Jackie Chan movie in Albuquerque was completed in 2008.  The Fangs got to know Jackie fairly well and broke bread with the acrobatic actor several times during his stay in the Duke City.  Chan, as it turns out, is quite a cook himself.  It’s doubtful he’s of the caliber of Budai chef Hsai Fang.  It’s possible no one in Albuquerque is.  The day after my inaugural visit, I craved its incomparable flavors so much I had to visit Budai again.  Barbara told me that would happen, that I wouldn’t rest until I’ve tried everything.  I’m off to a good start.

Tea Leaves Smoked Duck (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

Perhaps because of the many and varied economic, geographic, ethnic and cultural influences, Budai’s menu is inspired–and not just the not-secret one.  The regular menu showcases a variety of dishes and cooking styles from several provinces in China as well as several dishes native to Taiwan and even some influenced by the Japanese who occupied Taiwan for many years. Dishes are categorized into chicken, beef, pork, duck, shrimp, fish, squid, scallop, mussel, tofu and vegetable entrees.

A limited–nine small plate treasures–dim sum menu provides tantalizing temptations, several of which might together constitute a meal.  Some diners eschew appetizers altogether and substitute  a dim sum treasure or two.  Though the de rigueur Chinese soups (hot and sour, won ton and egg drop) are available, adventurous diners will see “fish and Goji berry soup” on the menu and read no further.  A separate section highlights hearty noodle soups.

The vivacious Elsa delivers a bowl of lamb stew to our table

Organic flowering tea served in a clear glass pot offers a visually stunning alternative to traditional teas. If you’ve never had flowering tea, you’re in for a surprise. Hand-picked premium tea flower buds are actually hand-sewn into rosettes. When steeped in hot water, these rare artisan tea buds slowly blossom into a bouquet of breathtaking shapes. Budai calls these teas “liquid meditation.” At the other extreme is a slush of the day offering in which fresh fruits are mixed with pulverized ice to fashion a refreshing beverage.

23 November 2013: One of the telltale signs of a great dim sum house is high quality dumplings.  Though Budai’s dim sum menu has but two featured dumplings, another is available on the “no longer secret” menu.  The boiled chive pork dumplings are absolutely not to be missed.  Fifteen juicy and meaty (porky?) dumplings with a perfect consistency between thin translucent wrapper and fillings have that familiar, comfortable flavor that will remind you of why you fell in love with dumplings in the first place.  Immerse them in a light sauce of ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and chili and that comfortable flavor becomes intimate with your taste buds.

Three cup catfish

31 August 2010: The Taiwanese beef noodle soup is an elixir for whatever ails you–a warm, nourishing, soul-warming broth flavored sublimely with star anise, Chinese five star powder and other, more subtle seasonings. Luxuriating in a bowl the size of a small swimming pool are yellow and green onions, thick wheat noodles, shards of Napa cabbage (a very flavorful but drastically underutilized cabbage) and stewed beef. Budai will prepare it to your preferred spice level, taking care to ensure it’s neither too incendiary nor too weak. The only beef noodle soup in Albuquerque that’s comparable is the spicy beef stew at Cafe Dalat and May Hong. That places it in rarefied company.

1 September 2010: The beef stew in clay pot is equally enrapturing. Served in a clay tureen is a bounteous stew that will make you long for the cold snap of winter when the stew’s enveloping warmth can mollify any of old man winter’s misery. Basking in a beguiling broth are cellophane noodles fashioned from mung beans, chewy beef tendon the consistency of gummy bears, succulent stewed beef, yellow and green onions, earthy shitake mushroom buttons and a variety of spices which impregnate the stew with flavor. If possible, this stew is even better the second day when those flavors have penetrated even more deeply.

Dong Bo Pork (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

1 September 2010: Elsa delights in offering suggestions, describing each dish’s provenance and composition at great length if you ask–and she does so with a rare alacrity that bespeaks of her love for the cuisine masterfully prepared by her chef husband.  Her knowledge of the menu will ensure complementary dishes are served.  When my Kim ordered the tea leaves-smoked duck, Elsa diverted me from ordering a beef tongue entree, indicating the beef stew in clay pot would provide a better, more complementary alternative.  She was right!

1 September 2010: The tea leaves-smoked duck is magnificent, each meaty morsel of a half duck imbued with a bacon-like smokiness that complements the essential duck flavor.  It’s a juicy duck with a perfectly crisp skin and just enough glistening, glorious fat to lend to the textural experience.  Thankfully Budai doesn’t serve the duck with a Hoison sauce or with incendiary chili as some Chinese restaurants do.  Instead, a very light and subtle rice wine sauce lends just a hint of savory sweetness.  Tea leaves-smoked duck is a quintessential Szechuan entree and is generally served in festive and celebratory events–like enjoying a great meal with friends.

Beef Tongue

31 August 2010: Budai’s orange peel beef is also subtle, a subdued version of a dish Americanized Chinese restaurants tend to overdo with sauces that are usually cloying and redolent with an excess of tangy orange peel.  Americanized Chinese restaurants also tend to over-caramelize the beef, leaving it an overly chewy, sweet and sticky mess that tastes very much like candied beef.  At Budai the orange peel beef is lightly seasoned with flavors that tease, not overwhelm.  The beef is breaded to a whisper-thin consistency then fried along with slices of orange peel and dried chilis.  It’s a very nice version of a very popular dish.

31 August 2010: Budai’s sugar vinegar short ribs belie the named ingredients, being neither overly sweet nor vinegary.  Both flavors are present, but not in the proportions the name sugar vinegar might hint at.  In fact, these ribs are wholly unlike Chinese barbecued ribs which tend to be lacquered with sauce. Instead the sauce is light and delicate, a flavorful sheathing to complement the meaty short ribs which you’ll gnaw with delight.

Hollow Heart, a rare, very seasonal Chinese vegetable sauteed with fermented tofu

30 August 2010: During our third visit, Elsa came to our table and excitedly told us Budai had a unique vegetable the Chinese call “hollow heart” because its stems are characteristically hollow.  Sometimes called water spinach, Chinese watercress and a host of other names, it’s got nutritional benefits comparable to spinach.   Budai’s rendition is prepared the Cantonese way, with fermented tofu which imparts a very nice flavor.  The hollow heart is fun to eat though it can be messy because you either cut it or you wrap your fork around it like spaghetti.

31 August 2010: One entry a Bemalmans style gourmet would probably not appreciate in the least is Budai’s Dong Bo pork, a fatty pork stewed for eight hours. This half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish  has a very interesting texture.  The fatty portion is almost gelatinous to the point many would find it off-putting.  In concert with the lean meat portion, however,  the fatty flavors sing. Though very fatty, the dong po pork isn’t discernibly greasy.  It’s very tender, so much so that  if you wish to forgo  the sensation of fattiness, all you need to extricate succulent meat from fat is a fork.  To fully enjoy this dish, have it as the chef intended–and centuries of tradition dictate–intact with glorious fat and meat. 

Shanghai Ribs with Chinese Vegetables

9 June 2012: Diners who might find the texture of the fatty portion of Dong Bo Pork a big off-putting will delight in the Shanghai Ribs with Chinese Vegetables entree.  The Shanghai ribs are essentially the lean portion of the Dong Bo Pork in the form of the most delicious, most tender and glorious short ribs you’ll ever have.  As with most items on the menu, Chef Hsai Fang takes no shortcuts in preparing this entree, a painstaking process that involves several cooking techniques including flash-frying, baking and grilling.  The result is fall-off-the-bone tender short ribs that melt in your mouth.  The sauce is complex and delicious with such components as hoisin and light soy, but in such light proportions as to be a challenge to discern, thereby not being dominated by any flavor profile.

The Chinese vegetables bed on which the Shanghai ribs lie will vary depending on what’s in season.  One popular choice in Taiwanese cooking is Taiwanese Napa cabbage.  Napa cabbage is so important to Taiwan that a sculpture of the vegetable is on display at the National Palace Museum.  The name Napa has nothing to do with California’s famous viticulture epicenter, but translates from the Japanese term referring to the leaves of any vegetable.  Taiwanese Napa cabbage is crisper than other varieties of Chinese Napa cabbage.  It does not wilt under the sauce used on Shanghai Ribs.

Taiwanese Pork Chop Served with Mustard Greens and Fried Rice

Taiwanese Pork Chop

30 August 2010: The most passionate foodies don’t think twice about trying something that might inspire fear and loathing in less adventurous diners.  During my third visit to Budai, I ordered beef tongue only to find out my friend Barbara had ordered  and enjoyed it thoroughly the night before (a little cliche about great minds might be appropriate here).  Having had lengua (Spanish for tongue) in various ways and on many occasions, the notion of trying tongue was a no-brainer.  Contrary to what one might think, the texture of tongue is not akin to shoe leather nor is it comparable to menudo.

The tongue is thinly sliced and on the plate resembles several little, oval tongues, none pink.  Texture-wise, it might remind you of the sliced sausage adorning some pizzas.  It’s not tough, sinewy or chewy in the least.  Budai’s  tongue recipe calls for  grilled jalapenos, green onions, white onions and a soy sauce based sweet sauce invigorated by the jalapeno.  This is excellent tongue, so good you might just tell your friends you got some “tongue action” last night.

The Uniquely Named Lion’s Head (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

30 August 2010: Taiwanese pork chops are another Budai specialty prepared in ways you might not see at any other Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque.  The pork chop is breaded almost Milanesa style, but it’s just an exterior covering for a very tender and juicy pork chop flavored with soy sauce and five spice powder among other seasonings.  What makes this pork chop special are its accompaniment–mustard greens and fried rice.  The mustard greens have a tangy, almost vinegary flavor with a crunchy texture.  The fried rice isn’t made with soy sauce, but is light, fluffy and delicious.

15 December 2010: From Shanghai comes a playfully artistic and playfully named casserole dish called Lion’s Head.  Budai’s rendition is somewhat different from the rare (at least in New Mexico) Chinese restaurants which offer this entree.   Instead of one gigantic meatball configured by ingredient placement to resemble the head of the king of the beasts complete with a shaggy mane, Chef Hsai serves up several large (by American standards) meatballs.  The meatballs are constructed from pork he grinds himself then tops with shredded greens (Chinese cabbage black mushrooms, bamboo shoots) meant to represent the mane.  This flavorful melange, redolent with garlic and star anise in a fragrant brown sauce, is prepared and served in a clay vessel as big around as a wading pool.  It’s a fabulous entree!

Curry Shrimp

15 December 2010: For sheer fragrance, perhaps the most olfactory-arousing, palate-pleasing dish at Budai is the curry shrimp, equaled only by the rendition proffered at Ming Dynasty.  The curry is gravy thick and brackish in color–not quite green and not quite brown, but a combination of both.  It has equal pronouncements of savory and sweet though not nearly as sweet as a coconut enriched Thai curry.  The vegetables in this curry dish–potatoes, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms are perfectly cooked with the potatoes reminiscent of those you might find in massuman curry.  The shrimp are large and absolutely magnificent, a sweet and briny foil to the pungency of the curry.

15 January 2011: In January, 2011, my friend Alfredo Guzman regaled me with tales of his recent visit to California and the terrific Chinese food he ate during his stay all the while lamenting the absence of great Chinese food in Albuquerque.  That was akin to throwing down the gauntlet in my direction so I invited my  friend to Budai.  A whiff of the magical aromas emanating from the kitchen followed by a couple of bites of the chive pork dumplings and the California Chinese restaurants suddenly didn’t measure up any more.  The smiles of sheer joy on his face were a testament to yet another convert won over by the greatness that is Budai.

Pig’s feet with mung bean noodle soup

15 January 2011: In between utterances of pure joy, my friend, a native of the Philippines, exclaimed (several times) how our shared entrees elicited flashbacks to the style of food on which he grew up.  The flavors triggered happy memories of great meals he hadn’t experienced in years.  Fred couldn’t believe a Chinese restaurant in New Mexico would serve pig’s feet with mung bean noodle soup.  He couldn’t believe just how good this dish is.  The pig’s feet are meaty and delicious with a surprising tenderness.  The mung bean noodles, some at least a foot long, are perfectly prepared.  The broth, an amazing elixir in a swimming pool sized bowl more than big enough for two, includes bak choy and scallions.

15 January 2011: When we inquired about the three cup chicken dish on the menu, Elsa explained that when she grew up in Taiwan, chicken was a rare delicacy so the family cook found ways to stretch it as far as it would go.  One way was by creating a broth made with one cup rice wine, one cup sesame oil and one cup soy sauce along with ginger and basil.  The broth was simmered for a long time in an earthenware pot along with chicken.  The slow simmering ensures the sauces are absorbed by the chicken.  This dish is served in the earthenware pot on which it is prepared.

An appetizer of thinly-sliced beef

15 January 2011: Elsa also shared that, courtesy of the three sauces, the dish was extremely salty so it was served with rice to absorb the saltiness and in the process, stretch the dish. Conscious of today’s low sodium lifestyles, Chef Hsia’s version of three cup chicken is far less salty.   Elsa informed us that several Filipino customers asked that instead of chicken, catfish be used on the three cup dish.  That’s the way we requested it.  The three cup catfish was absolutely amazing with the prominent flavors of ginger and basil enveloping us in warmth and deliciousness.  It’s one of my new favorite dishes at Budai…along with the pig’s feet and mung bean noodle soup, Dong Bo pork, etc., etc….

7 May 2011: If you make it a practice to ask Elsa to select your meal, you’ll always be pleasantly surprised.  When my friend Ryan Scott, the dynamic host of Break the Chain, walks into Budai, he’ll tell Elsa “I’ve got $25 to spend for lunch” and places himself entirely in her hands.  He’s never had the same thing twice and has nothing but praise for everything he’s had.  One new favorite he and I shared is an appetizer of lightly marinated and seasoned thinly-sliced beef served on a bed of lettuce.  Not quite as thinly sliced as carpaccio and far more generously plated than carpaccio tends to be, this cold-served beef may remind you of high-quality roast beef, but with subtle seasoning that brings out even more of the beef’s natural flavors.

Spicy Beef Tendon

15 May 2011: In recent years, foodies have embraced the holistic potential of every part of an animal, many discovering that offal isn’t awful.  Offal, a culinary term referring to the entrails and internal organs of a butchered animal is often considered a delicacy. Budai subscribes to the use of all animal parts, unleashing deliciousness in every part.  Take for example  beef tendon, which some might dismiss as elastic, sinewy and tough.  In the hands of Hsia, tendon is prepared with incendiary chilis, whole peanuts, green onions and lively seasonings that will awaken your taste buds.  Thankfully Tsai doesn’t boil the tendon to the point that it’s soft and flavorless.  Its texture is honest and its flavor is fulfilling.

15 May 2011: Another greatly underutilized ingredient which in the hands of a master can be quite good is taro, a tuberous root vegetable which, much like a sponge, can absorb the flavor of almost anything with which it’s cooked.  Taro is sweet, but not cloying.  It’s starchy–much like a parsnip or turnip–and retains its form when cooked.  Budai serves a taro and chicken stew that is simply redolent with flavor.  The savory qualities of the chicken and the sweetness of the taro coalesce in a thick broth that impregnates the dish with deliciousness.  The chicken is not de-boned, a minor inconvenience considering how taste each morsel is.

Taro root and chicken stew

Taro root is perhaps not so much an acquired taste as it is an ingredient you either  like  immediately or you’ll never like it.  On its own, it’ll probably never win any favorite flavor contests, but as a complementary ingredient it melds well, like a good supporting actor.  The not-so-secret menu has offered, on occasion, a crispy fried duck layered with taro root paste.  Perhaps only vegetarians would find fault with the crispy duck which is succulent and tender, a paragon of poultry perfection.  The taro root paste, on the other hand, is starchy and semi-sweet.  To me, it’s a nice complement; to my Kim, it’s a nuisance to be scraped off.

23 November 2013: As with many great restaurants, Budai offers a seasonal menu that takes advantage of ingredients which are at their freshest during each of the four seasons.  Though winter is not often thought of as a growing season, it’s the time of year in which Chef Hsai prepares soul-warming specialties not available any other time of year.  Among the very best of these is a luscious lamb stew wholly unlike the mutton stews so prevalent in New Mexico’s Navajo country.  It’s a stew so rich that Hsai dares not serve it any other time of year, so rich that Elsa contends it can give diners a bloody nose if eaten in summer.  That sounds like the perfect wintery elixir and it is.  The lamb, as tender as can be at under one year of age, is selected personally by Elsa and Hsai from a local rancher.

Five spice and honey lacquered ribs

One-inch lamb cubes (bone included) are marinated-brined-stewed for hours in a sauce that includes rehydrated figs, scallions, chilies, star anise, garlic skins, fresh ginger and other seasonings then is served with mung bean noodles, shitake mushrooms and cubes of tofu.  The tofu is “honey-combed” thanks to first being frozen then thawed.  The tiny holes allow the cubes to absorb the unctuous broth very well. The stew is served in a clay pot nearly the size of a swimming pool.  It’s one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had at any Chinese restaurant anywhere, but then I say that about almost everything at Budai.

23 November 2013: When ordering something as large, filling and rich as the lamb stew, Elsa will recommend a “smaller” appetizer such as the five spice and honey lacquered ribs. Smaller in this case means four large meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender ribs instead of say fifteen boiled chive pork dumplings. Lacquered in a rich sauce of five spice powder and honey, the ribs give the appearance of being very sweet, but they’re not anywhere close to the “meat candy” some Chinese restaurants serve. Nor is the meat “disguised” in the sauce. These are so good and so tender you don’t even need teeth to enjoy them.

Five Flavors Mussels

9 June 2012: There is never a shortage of adventurous surprises on the Budai menu and if you’re an adventurous diner who likes to try new things, you’re bound to find a new favorite every visit.  Pity the monogamous diners who eat the very same thing every visit because they’re missing out on the joy of new discoveries.  On the other hand, those of us who try new items every visit won’t partake of the type of wondrous deliciousness you can eat every meal.  One item I’ll surely miss until it comes back up on my rotation are the Five Flavor Mussels (alternatively you can order Five Flavor Cuttle Fish), New Zealand green-lip mussels in a multi-ingredient, multi-flavored sauce.  The base for the sauce is a sweet tomato sauce (you’d be surprised at just how much tomatoes and even ketchup are used in Chinese cuisine) to which is added garlic, ginger, scallions and chili.  It hits every note on the flavor scale. 

1 May 2014: Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet) posited that “Scallops are expensive, so they should be treated with some class. But then, I suppose that every creature that gives his life for our table should be treated with class.”  Imbued with a mildly sweet and delicate flavor and a tender, but not mushy texture, scallops are often maltreated at restaurants which deploy sauces which obfuscate their natural flavor.  That has long been my opinion of restaurants which cover scallops in marmalade-like orange sauce so cloying there is little natural citrus influence discernible. 

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

Crispy Orange Peel Scallops

My friend and fellow gastronome Hannah Walraven of Once Again We Have Eaten Well raves so effusively about the crispy orange peel scallops at Budai that trying them was inevitable.  If anything, Hannah sold this entree short.  It is simply fabulous!  Served in a ceramic seashell, the scallops are lightly battered and covered in a reduced orange sauce with ginger, Szechuan chiles and plenty of crisp yet chewy orange peel with a candied texture and flavor.  The sauce doesn’t detract from the flavor of the large scallops and is wholly unlike the syrupy sauce so many other restaurants serve. 

2 May 2014: With almost every Chinese entree you can name, there’s a version other restaurants serve then there’s Budai’s version.  Invariably Budai’s version is the very best.  That goes for Budai’s Singapore Rice Noodles, which rank with those at May Cafe as the very best in the city.  Singapore noodles are a tangle of thin rice vermicelli noodles stir-fried with pork, shrimp and vegetables (green and white onions, julienne carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts) in a light curry.  The curry is terrific with more than a hint of piquancy coupling with a pungent quality while the clear vermicelli noodles are delightful, requiring no cutting or twirling around your fork.  Both the pork (which is plentiful) and the shrimp are perfectly prepared.

Singapore Rice Noodle

Singapore Rice Noodle

31 October 2015: For years, American restaurants seemed to shun the long, narrow razor clam, an aversion likely triggered by the worm-like creature in the shell.  Asian restaurants, meanwhile, showcased them in diverse and delicious ways.  Resembling an old-fashioned straight razor, these mollusks may not be the most appealing in appearance, but their deliciousness outweighs any ill-founded prejudice.  When Elsa is effusive about any menu item (as well she should be when her genius chef husband prepares it), you’ve got to try it.  She raves about the stir-fried razor clams.  So will you!  A generous bowl of razor clams are served in a brown “gravy” with basil leaves, minced garlic, green onions and sheer magic.  These magnificent mollusks are absolutely addictive, so good you’ll be tempted to order a second portion.

31 October 2015: If ever a dish earned its name, it’s Chow Fun, a stir-fried dish made with a broad rice noodle.  For my Kim, few things are as much fun as showing me her adroitness with noodles, knowing anything longer than a rigatoni noodle confounds and endangers me (as in accidentally stabbing myself while trying to wrap the noodles around a fork).  Chow Fun noodles can be longer than six-inches.  In the hands of a stir-fried master, they can be quite wonderful.  Budai prepares a version that includes chicken, onions, cabbage and chili.  Though this dish has an oleaginous texture, Budai’s version is the antithesis of greasy and oily.  That, too, evinces the chef’s deft touch and experience.  This is the best chow fun dish in Albuquerque.

Chow Fun Noodles with Chicken

31 October 2015: What’s the best way to respond to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) denouncement of bacon as a cancer-causing scourge?  If you’re tired of alarmist bureaucrats telling you what to do, you’ll thumb your nose and fry a rasher or two of bacon for your next breakfast.  My way of showing rebellion was by ordering the pork belly bacon with spicy onion dish at Budai.  Not even the hypocrites at the WHO would be able to resist this bounteous bowl of sheer deliciousness.  The pork belly bacon combines the richness of pork belly with the smokiness of bacon, the best of two qualities.  The onions inherit their spiciness from chili and jalapeños, stir-fried to a delightful consistency.  Elsa suggested coupling this dish with rice, a good idea if you want the dish to go just a little further…or if you can’t handle the intense piquancy.

11 November 2012: Ask many people about Chinese desserts and the answers you’re likely to hear–almond cookies, fortune cookies, etc.–might induce laughter. In truth, many Chinese prefer fruits instead of the cloying, tooth-decaying sweets Americans crave.  Leave it to Tsia to introduce us to something decadent, delicious and different–a lovely plating that resembles an orange noodle nest surrounding a patty of some sort.  The “patty” is a roundish quarter-inch thick, maybe seven-inch around mound of sweet, sticky rice and raw peanuts caramelized to form a sort of pie.  In fact, Elsa sliced it for us in the way we might slice pizza.  This is an outstanding dessert which should be on the daily menu.  That, too, is something which could be said about so many items at Budai, but then if you continuously repeat your favorites, you won’t experience the soon to be new favorites.

Pork Belly Bacon with Spicy Onions

7 August 2016: In 2008, restaurateur extraordinaire Tom Hamilton invited us to dine at his fabulous restaurant, the Hamilton Chophouse then a tenant of the Glacier Club at Tamarron Resort’s Sundowner Lodge about twenty miles north of Durango. By the terminus of an exceptional meal, our high regard for the Chophouse was surpassed only by our esteem for its affable owner with whom we’ve remained friends. Tom Hamilton is an exemplar of class and integrity, one of the most devoted family men I’ve ever met. Though we’d seen him beam with pride when waxing poetic about Ellyn, the lovely love of his life and their delightful daughter Haley, we met them for the first time at Budai, one of Tom’s favorite restaurants in Albuquerque. Fortunately Elsa sat us at Budai’s most capacious table because the table’s Lazy Susan, roughly the size of a hot air balloon, was nearly overflowing with all the appetizers and entrees we shared and  beautifully photographed by the talented Haley.

7 August 2016: Haley, it turns out, spent a summer studying in Taiwan where she developed a fondness for scallion pancakes.  Budai’s version is reminiscent of those she enjoyed so much at the island nation formerly known as Formosa.  At Budai, a scallion pancake is roughly the diameter of a personal-pizza.  Scallion Pancakes are formed from hard dough rolled out in such a manner that it creates a series of layers similar to Greek phyllo without the flakiness and delicateness. In between those layers, a sheen of oil (or perhaps clarified butter) is applied and scallions are spread in between. After the scallion pancake is rolled into a flat disc, it is fried in butter or oil until completely cooked and crisp on the outside.  These golden orbs are superb!

Scallion Pancake (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016:  Bon Appetit describes soup dumplings (not pictured) as falling “in the category of “delicious things we love to order when we’re out, but would never even dream of making at home.”  A mainstay of dim sum menus, these steamed buns are an intricate dish whose Houdini-like preparation baffles non-chefs.  Within each plump dumpling is nestled a little pork meatball surrounded by a delightful meaty broth.  How the broth gets in there is a mystery, the answer to which you can find online, but one foodies prefer not to contemplate as we’d rather be enjoying these tender pouches of porcine perfection with the liquid surprise.

7 August 2016: An episode of Friends in which Joey Tribbiani urinated on Monica’s jellyfish sting contributed to an inaccurate myth about jellyfish, the sting of which should be treated only with vinegar.  Another myth is that jellyfish aren’t edible.  Don’t ever tell Chef Hsia or anyone at our table that jellyfish aren’t edible.  Not only that, they’re delicious…or at least the way they’re prepared at Budai whose Jellyfish Salad  is magnificent.  You’ll never give it a second thought that you’re eating jellyfish whose texture and flavor are palate pleasing as are the melange of ingredients (well-cooked jellyfish with celery, cilantro, rice cooking wine, white pepper powder and scallions) with which the jellyfish is prepared and served.  Few dishes have surprised me as much as this one did.

Jellyfish Salad (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016: Regular readers have been subjected to my incessant whining about Americanized Chinese food and especially anything sweet and sour (typically described as “candied”).  When Elsa recommended sweet and sour flounder we momentarily wondered if had forgotten who we are.  She then explained that Shanghai style sweet and sour is very different and far superior.  True enough.  Instead of the cloying reddish sauce served at just about every other Chinese restaurant in town, Budai’s Shanghai style sweet and sour sauce is far more balanced with no one flavor component (sweet, savory, tangy, piquant) overwhelming the other.  The flounder is delicate, flaky and absolutely delicious.

7 August 2016:  As is often the case when ordering a number of dishes at Budai, you probably won’t achieve consensus in deciding which is the best or favorite.  One dish came close.  That would be the pork belly with bamboo.  In this novel-length review you’ve already read about the Dong Bo Pork, the half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish with which I fell in love during my first visit to Budai.  Picture smaller pieces of unctuous pork belly served in a rich, luxurious sauce with shredded bamboo (similar to  the bamboo served with green curry at Thai restaurants).  I was the sole hold-out who preferred the Dong Bo Pork whose combination of gelatinous fat and crispy bacon appeals to some primitive manly instinct.

Shanghai-Style Sweet and Sour Flounder (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

7 August 2016: Though we rarely order from the regular menu, we’ll forever make an exception for the Black Pepper Lamb, a wok-fried dish with a piquant bite (courtesy of incendiary Thai bird peppers) served over crispy cellophane noodles.  If you’ve ever lamented the gaminess of lamb, this is the lamb dish for diners who don’t like (or think they don’t like) lamb.  The lamb is moist and glistening from the fiery influence of chili oils.  Despite the heat, this is a very balanced dish with several tastes.  Had it not been for the Shanghai-style sweet and sour flounder, this would have been my favorite dish.

7 August 2016:  Thematically this review been a reflection on the pleasures of dining with friends peppered with my feeble attempts at describing dishes so good mere words don’t do them justice.  Dining with the Hamiltons ranks up there with Friends of Gil outings for the sheer delectation of dining with great people who share a passion for wonderful food.

Pork Belly with Bamboo (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

In all likelihood, a Bemalmans style gourmet might not enjoy much about a meal at Budai, but most true foodies will.  Budai is a very special restaurant, one which should be shared with open-minded friends who love food as much as you do.

BUDAI GOURMET CHINESE
6300 San Mateo, N.E., Suite H-1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-7898
Web Site
1st VISIT: 31 August 2010
LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Dong Bo Pork, Sugar Vinegar Short Ribs, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Orange Peel Beef, Hollow Heart, Taiwanese Pork Chops, Beef Tongue, Curry Shrimp, Lion’s Head, Three Cup Catfish, Pig’s Feet with Mung Bean Noodle Soup, Spicy Tendon, Taro Root and Chicken Stew, Crispy Duck with Taro Paste, Lamb Stew, Honey and Five Spice Lacquered Ribs, Five Flavors Mussels, Shanghai Ribs, Crispy Orange Peel Scallops, Singapore Rice Noodles, Razor Clams with Basil, Chow Fun with Chicken, Pork Belly Bacon with Spicy Onions, Jellyfish Salad, Shanghai-Style Sweet and Sour Flounder, Pepper Lamb, Pork Belly with Bamboo, Scallion Pancake,

Budai Gourmet Chinese Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Namaste Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Namaste: Incomparable Indian and Nepalese Cuisine in Rio Rancho

Several years ago while leading my organization’s e-business marketing and communication effort at Intel, I had the great fortune of hiring a phenomenal Web developer recently arrived from India. In the process of filling out one of our complicated employment forms he transposed his name, writing his last name then his middle initial and first name instead of the way hinted at on the complicated form.

As a result, during the entire time he worked for us we all called him Kolli, his last name. He was too polite to tell us his first name is actually Srini.  Over time Srini became more acculturated, maybe even a bit “Americanized” (he’s now a huge Dallas Cowboys fan), but he’s never lost his personal warmth, good humor and impeccable manners.

A Rare Sight: Every Seat In The Restaurant Not Taken

Politeness and great manners seem to be a hallmark of Indian people…or at least those in the service industries. When colleagues ask for a romantic dinner recommendation, I frequently suggest one of the area’s Indian restaurants where impeccably attentive service and consistently excellent food impart the effect of making diners feel like welcome royalty. 

Most Indian restaurants, like my friend Srini, embody the spirit of a traditional Indian salutation, “Namaste” which is said while holding one’s hands pressed together near the heart with head gently bowed. Namaste is translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” a sign not only of respect but of deference in that the greeter recognizes not just good, but the fact that there is divinity in other people. It is something from which we oft unpolished and uncouth Americans can learn.

Bounteous, Beauteous Buffet – The Best in New Mexico

Rio Rancho  has a restaurant named for that most reverential of greetings. It opened in late July, 2008 in the small, age-worn strip mall which previously housed Tawan Thai cuisine and before that a number of other restaurants. It’s a seemingly cursed location in which restaurants seem destined to fail. If outstanding service and cuisine are portend success, Namaste has reversed the trend of failure and become a very popular dining destination in the City of Vision.  Along with the incomparable Joe’s Pasta House and the superb Cafe Bella, Namaste belongs on the pantheon of the very best restaurants in the metropolitan area.

Namaste is owned by Shree Prasad Gurung who was a mainstay at the India Palace for several years before striking out on his own. His wife Sandhya and brother-in-law Hem are the ownership triumvirate responsible for preparing not only the cuisine of India, but several Nepalese dishes as well. The charming Sandhya still has family in Nepal which was affected by the devastating earthquakes of 2015.

Sandhya, the heart and spirit of Namaste, Poses With a Painting of Her Done by Her Aunt

It’s with increased rarity (at least in Albuquerque) that you find any restaurant which greets you before the door with irresistible aromas. In that respect, Namaste is indeed an anachronism because it does capture you before the door with wafting emanations that bid you welcome and which just may have a Pavlovian effect on your taste buds.  Along with Siam Thai, it may be the most aromatically arousing restaurant in the Albuquerque area.

Similar to most Indian restaurants in the Duke City area, Namaste offers a very inexpensive for the quality lunch buffet. It’s not quite as Bacchanalian as the buffet at the now defunct India Palace, but it provides an excellent introduction to its diverse and delicious offerings. As much as you’ll enjoy the buffet, your dining experience is Namaste is incomplete if you don’t take it to the next level. That would be returning for dinner when the quality is an order of magnitude better. During dinner, the ambiance speaks of refinement and only part of that is attributable to the absence of diners who visit the buffet three or four times in one seating. The lights are subdued and tones are hushed in the evening.

Garlic Naan, the very best in Albuquerque (as good as my mom’s tortillas)

Among the appetizer selections on the buffet, you might find vegetable samosa, crisp patties stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. Samosas have reportedly been an Indian specialty since before the tenth century. They are delicious as is or dipped into one of the various chutneys. Namaste offers several excellent chutneys–onion, mint, tamarind and more–none of which are subtle in their impact on your taste buds. Flame imbibing New Mexicans will love the jalapeño chutney, a neon green amalgam of the fiery pepper, vinegar and other spices. The vinegar balances the heat of the jalapeño while the jalapeño cuts the tartness of the vinegar. It’s as good, if not better, than many salsas we’ve had.

Of course one of the best ways to enjoy the chutneys is with naan, the incomparable Indian flat bread which is a staple accompaniment to most hot meals in India. Naan bears some resemblance to pita bread and, like pita bread, is usually leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven fired by charcoal where the temperature at the bottom is maintained at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The tandoor oven is from which tandoori cooking derives its name.

Paneer Pakora

The menu features several variations on the freshly baked white flour bread. Those include garlic naan in which the naan is garnished with minced garlic. There’s also cheese naan in which the white flour bread is, you guessed it, stuffed with cheese. Another intriguing naan is the kashmiri, freshly baked white flour bread stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. At first glance you might think thin-sliced pizza or even lavosh, the flat, thin Armenian flat bread. After a bite or two, you might notice a semblance in flavor to the ubiquitous Christmas fruit cake. That’s because of the cherry and raisin influence which not only adds sweetness, but color to the naan. That sweetness isn’t overwhelmingly cloying like fruit cake; it provides a nice contrast and balance of flavors. 

21 June 2015: Turophiles, those of us who love cheese in all its fetid and aromatic forms, know all about paneer, the soft, crumbly farmer’s cheese native to India.  Who among us hasn’t enjoyed saag paneer (cooked spinach studded with cubed of fried paneer cheese) and mutter paneer (peas and farmer’s cheese in a tomato based sauce, spiced with garam masala)?  Because it’s not offered on the buffet, fewer have enjoyed paneer pakora, slices of homemade cheese stuffed with mint and spices, wrapped in garbanzo bean batter and deep-fried.  At four to an order, these golden-sheened beauties are absolutely delicious.  Paneer isn’t nearly as “melty,” gooey and oozy as say, goat cheese and it’s not as sharp as even the mildest Cheddar, but it’s got a very pleasant and mild personality that couples well with the mint chutney.

My Kim’s Buffet Plate: Mostly Tandoori Chicken and Meatballs

When you mention tandoori cooking, you’ve got to include tandoori chicken in the discussion. Namaste marinates its chicken in a fabulous array of exotic spices then broils it over mesquite in the tandoor oven. The mesquite imparts a smoky redolence to the chicken that renders it impossible to stop eating. Namaste’s tandoori chicken may just be the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The dinner menu offers several tandoori specialties, all prepared in the cylindrical clay tandoori oven and fired by charcoal to a constant temperature at the bottom of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several lamb dishes are prepared on the tandoori oven.  Among them are lamb tikka kabob which is lamb marinated in herbs and spices and lamb seekh kabob, spicy ground lamb molded on skewers and broiled in the tandoor oven. The lamb on the tikka kabob is cut into slightly larger than bite-sized cubes. The lamb seekh kabob might is cylindrical in shape, like a short, fat cigar, and in texture might remind you of rolled up gyros meat. The plate on which the lamb dishes are presented arrives at your table with a sizzling flair. It is lined with grilled onions and peppers which lend to the flavor explosions. Both lamb dishes will convert even the most staunch non-lamb eaters. In part, that’s because none of the characteristic “gaminess” of lamb is evident, but also because both dishes are very well flavored and enjoyable to eat.

Chicken Vindaloo

24 January 2011: The tandoori chicken is similarly delicious and also served two ways. The first is chicken tikka kabob, or delicately spiced boneless chicken breast cut into large pieces. This chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned. The second presentation is of tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh combination marinated and broiled over mesquite.  Still the very best chicken dish on the menu is the chicken tikka masala, boneles chicken  with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices.  Preparation of chicken tikka masala is a two-step process.  First the chicken is baked in a tandoor then cooked in a thick, creamy “gravy” of tomato sauce, cream and spices.  The charcoal tandoor oven imparts an unmistakably distinctive smoky flavor to the chicken while the creamy tomato sauce imparts a sweet piquancy to an absolutely marvelous dish.

24 January 2011: My very favorite vegetarian entree at any restaurant is mattar paneer, green peas with Indian farmer cheese (paneer) in a creamy gravy.  Paneer is a fresh, unaged, non-melting cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or some other food acid.  It’s not necessarily the type of cheese you’d want to snack on as you might a slice or two of Kraft singles, but it’s the perfect cheese for the creamy gravy seasoned to perfection.  Mattar paneer is rich and utterly delicious, prepared to your level of piquancy.  No one in New Mexico does it better than Namaste.

Mattar Paneer

You might also opt to make dinner an adventurous event by trying one of the menu’s six Nepali dishes. Santa Fe has had a Himalayan restaurant for years, but Nepali dishes in Albuquerque were scarce until Namaste. The Nepalese diet consists heavily of lentil and rice dishes along with vegetable curries and a side dish called anchar, which are pickled vegetables and fruits (tomato, mango, cucumber, etc.), much like a chutney. There are many similarities to Indian food in Nepalese cooking.

26 October 2008: It may surprise you to discover similarities to Chinese food as well.  That’s especially true in Kathmandu where  the most popular lunch and snack item served are steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings known as “Momo.”  Namaste features both chicken and lamb momo.  The lamb momo plate consists of ten dumplings stuffed with ground and spiced lamb served with a piquant and delicious tomato achar.  It’s easy to see why this would be the most popular dish in Nepal.  The only downer for me is that the achar is served cold and the momo just warm.  Submerge the momo into the achar and it cools off quickly.  Still, this is a minor inconvenience and should not deter you from trying a delicious entree.

Lamb Momo

21 June 2015: When the Gurungs moved to New Mexico, they soon fell in love with green chile and have been roasting two sacks per year of the best Hatch has to offer.  it stands to reason that they’d eventually incorporate green chile into their menu.  Over the years, the green chili (SIC) chicken curry has become one of the most popular dishes offered at Namaste.  One of the reasons New Mexicans have adopted this dish as one of their own is that the green chile has plenty of heat, even more than the restaurant’s incendiary chicken vindaloo.  The curry incorporates a variety of aromatic spices that waft toward your nostrils like a fragrant breeze, possessing a flavor profile that’s sweet, savory, piquant and addictive.  It’s akin to a thick gravy punctuated with larger than bite-sized pieces of chicken.  In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded this dish a “Hot Plate” award signifying its recognition as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”

24 December 2015: Manhattan Chef Dan Barber likes to say that “clean plates don’t lie.”  It’s an adage that describes all my dining experiences at Namaste.  Only the combination platters challenge fulfilling Barber’s adage.  Namaste offers five combination platters, each as delicious as they are bountiful.  Each platter comes with your choice of dal (a yellow lentil soup) or chicken with rice soup as well as your choice of plain or garlic naan.  As if this isn’t enough, dessert is also provided, either Kheer (rice and cream), Gulab Jamun (fried dough in sweet syrup), Gajar ka halva (described below) or mango custard depending on which of the five platters you order. 

Combination Platter

Non-Vegetable Dinner Combination Platter

My favorite of the combination platters is the Non-Vegetarian dinner combination (Chicken Tikka Masala, Shrimp Sang, Lamb Curry).  This platter should come with a warning label.  Not only is it exceptionally delicious, it features three of the richest entrees on the menu.  You’re well advised to temper the richness with the Raita, an Indian yogurt and cucumber condiment which soothes your palate and stands up to the creamy richness of the entrees.  Indian cuisine isn’t always noted for its contributions to seafood, but the shrimp sang  dish warrants plenty of love.  This dish features several large shrimp nestled in a rich pureed spinach and cream sauce.  The sweet shrimp snap when you bite into them and provide a nice contrast to the rich creaminess of the dish.  It’s my favorite of the three entrees in this combination platter, but not by much.  All three are outstanding! 

30 July 2016: Ask the dear-hearted Sandhya to recommend a dish and she’s likely to tout the incendiary deliciousness of the chicken vindaloo.  Vindaloo dishes didn’t originate in India, but in Europe and weren’t originally intended to be piquant, but garlicky-vinegary.  The transformation to a fiery dish is rather recent, but there’s no going back.  The blends of spices and seasonings that give Vindaloo its signature heat are here to stay.  There’s an Indian restaurant in New York City which prepares a vindaloo dish so potent that chefs wear gas masks to protect them from the heat level.  Namaste’s chicken vindaloo isn’t nearly that piquant, but it does have a very pleasant burn.  Moreover, it’s got an amazing flavor.  It’s no wonder it’s Sandhya’s favorite dish.

Green Chili Chicken Curry

21 June 2015: Meals at Namaste are extraordinary and you’ll savor each and every bite as you experience flavor combinations and taste explosions that will enrapt all ten-thousand of your taste buds.  As challenging as it is to stop eating, make sure to save room for a dessert specialty that this restaurant prepares better than any other Indian restaurant of my acquaintance.  It’s Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet and dense confection made with carrots, butter and milk.  Though the julienne carrots are served warm, they’re not mushy in the least, but retain a discernible crunchiness.  Namaste adds shaved almonds for an even crunchier contrast.  This is a rich dessert as good, if not better, than any carrot cake.

You might notice that my rating for Namaste is the highest I’ve accorded to any Indian restaurant in New Mexico.  Namaste may not be as big or ostentatious as its competition, but in my estimation, it’s much better.  My friend and colleague Tushar Desai, a Bombay native and globetrotter who’s traveled extensively across the fruited plain as a project manager for Microsoft confirms this, saying Namaste is in the top three to five Indian restaurants at which he’s dined in North America.  That’s exceedingly high praise from a true connoisseur whose opinion I value.  

Gajar ka Halwa, one of my favorite desserts in the world

On November 14th, 2015, Namaste launched its second location in the Albuquerque metropolitan area.  Located at 110 Yale in the University of New Mexico area, the new location will bring the best Indian food in the state to a wider demographic.  With its proximity to a wider base, look for Namaste to earn “best Indian food” perennially.   Namaste’s walls are festooned by framed certificates naming it among Albuquerque’s top five Indian restaurants by Albuquerque The Magazine voters.  Methinks with greater proximity to a wider voting populace, you can replace the the term “among the best” with “the very best.”

The only thing that could have improved our visits to Namaste would have been sharing our meal with Srini, who in his infinite politeness, tells me I can still call him Kolli as long as I call him friend.

Namaste Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-3126
Web Site | Facebook Page
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori, Gajar ka Halwa, Green Chili Chicken Curry, Mutter Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala, Non-Vegetable Combination Platter, Chicken Vindaloo

Namaste Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Piatanzi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Piatanzi, the stuff of wishes…

Italy is an illusion, indeed, a mirage, the stuff of wishes.”
~Mario Luzi

In the 1996 motion picture Big Night, two Italian restaurants across the street from one another operate in diametric opposition to one another both philosophically and in practice.  One is enormously successful because it gives customers what they want and expect (even though savvy diners would consider the culinary fare mediocre and uninspired).  In the other restaurant, the chef is a perfectionist who will labor all day to create a perfect dish and becomes exasperated when diners don’t recognize the authentic culinary art he creates, preferring  “Americanized” Italian food instead.

You might think the American dining public would prefer the latter and reject the former.  Our inaugural visit to Piatanzi seems to indicate the opposite may be true in Albuquerque.  Our route to Piatanzi took us past an Olive Garden where throngs of patrons lined up to get their fill of mediocre Americanized Italian food.  When we arrived at Piatanzi, we practically had our choice of seating.  The cavernous restaurant was nearly empty on a Saturday at noon.  We could only hope this was an anomaly because diners should be beating down the doors to dine at any restaurant owned and operated by Chef-Owner Peter Lukes.

Piatanzi, an intimate milieu for magnificent Italian deliciousness (This is the Juan Tabo location)

Chef Lukes and his wife Maggie launched Piatanzi in May, 2014 after a 16-year-stint at Terra Bistro, one of the Duke City area’s very best Italian restaurants, despite violating the three most important tenets of successful restaurants: location, location, location.  Situated in the North Valley on heavily trafficked (mostly commuters trying to get to and from the west-side) Alameda, Terra was the very definition of a destination restaurant, one with a strong enough appeal to draw customers from beyond the city’s burgeoning Northwest side.

Piatanzi is much more centrally located than was Terra, although Girard is somewhat less trafficked than Alameda.  Located just a few blocks north of the University of New Mexico, Piatanzi occupies the space long held by the Grocery Emporium in a neighborhood that’s more residential than it is retail.  No vestiges of the grocery store remain.  Piatanzi is a beautiful space courtesy of Maggie Lukes, an über-talented interior designer with a flair for creating spaces which are both comfortably cozy and upscale.  A second instantiation was launched in 2015 in a 6,000-square-foot venue that used to house R & S Yamaha motorcycle dealership.  The transformation is spectacular!

Fano bread with a mix of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar

As much as we’ll miss Terra (and selfishly, our proximity to it), in time the lure of innovative and well-executed Italian cuisine will make Piatanzi a favorite.  Where Terra was more formal and upscale, Piatanzi is just a bit more casual and relaxed.  While Terra featured a more conventional antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci format, Piatanzi ‘s focus is on small plates similar to Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum.  Many of the familiar favorites from Terra are still available though scaled down to fit the format. 

The dinner menu at Piatanzi is segmented somewhat differently than at Terra, at least in terminology.  Starters or appetizers are called “Boccone” which translates to “morsels.”  Next on the menu is the “Giardino” or “Garden” section which lists the restaurant’s salads.  The “Fattoria or “Farm” section lists small plates of meats and cheeses while the “Mare” section lists seafood items.  The “Farina e Acqua which translates to “Flour & Water” is a compilation of pasta dishes.  Then there’s the “Pietra” or “Stone” which lists Piattini’s pizza selections.  The “Contorni” section lists sides. 

Ceviche Italiano

The Pièce de résistance is the “Grandi Piatti” or “Large Plates” section of the menu. This section features several items with which we were familiar from having dined at Terra.  On his outstanding blog Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings, my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, was especially effusive about the dinner menu which, unfortunately, is not available during the lunch hour.  Serendipitously, we did visit on the day Piattini introduced its new weekend brunch menu so even though we missed out on the fabulous dinner menu, there were many terrific options available.  Note:  Brunch is no longer served on weekends, but you can sleep in and visit for dinner.

Alas not available at Piattini is the warm, fresh, house-made bread right out of the oven which was a staple at Terra.  It’s entirely unfair to consider bread from Albuquerque’s artisan Fano Bread bakery a consolation prize since it’s excellent bread, but the bread at Terra was peerless in the Duke City.  Still, Fano bread encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread.  When dipped into mixture of virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar the character of the bread really stands out.  If you’re not careful, however, you can easily fill up on bread.

Asparagi

27 September 2014: Time was the only restaurants in which you could find ceviche were either Peruvian or Mexican.  Today ceviche can be found in Japanese restaurants as well as avant-garde Italian eateries such as Piatanzi .  Each restaurant puts its own spin on a dish which is essentially seafood catalyzed in citrus juices.  At Piattini, the Ceviche Italiano ( scallop, shrimp, tuna, tomato, cucumber, lime, parsley, basil) would never be mistaken for the ceviche at a Mexican restaurant where the citrus flavors can be a bit overwhelming.  The emphasis at Piattini is on the freshness and natural flavor of the seafood and the way it plays against a lesser citrus influence.  The invigorating Italian basil and its peppermint-anise notes is a terrific twist. 

27 September 2014: Many adults grow up to rue the wasted years in which foods such as spinach, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus were feared and hated.  Fussy eaters as children sometimes become adventurous diners who grow up to love those foods they once avoided like a plague.  Asparagus is usually near the top of public enemy number one lists.  If asparagus was prepared everywhere as it is at Piatanzi, even persnickety diners would enjoy it.  The Asparagi (grilled asparagus, prosciutto di parma, balsamic vinaigrette, Gorgonzola cheese) is an amalgam of ingredients and flavors that complement one another very well though the grilled asparagus is excellent in its own right.

Salsiccia, a magnificent pizza!

29 July 2016: A cynical quote posits “who needs friends when you have pizza?”  During a Friends of Gil (FOG) dinner hosted by Piatanzi, several FOG members, including my Kim, ordered the pizza.  Perhaps the aforementioned quote should be reworded “When you have pizza, you have friends” (or vice-versa). Our long-time friend Jim March (Albuquerque’s bartender nonpareil, now plying his craft at Piatanizi) recommended the Salsiccia, knowing Kim is originally from Chicago where the sausage is sourced.  The Salsiccia (fennel sausage, roasted peppers, tomato sauce, blended cheeses) is a magnificent pie and the fennel sausage lives up to its name.  The fennel imparts an aromatic, mild licorice flavor that marries wonderfully with the pork-based sausage.  With a balance of crispiness and pliability, the crust is a terrific canvas for the bubbling cheese blend, roasted peppers and sausage. This pizza belongs on the pantheon of great pizzas along with the Funghi & Tartufo which you’ll read about next. 

19 January 2016: There are some ingredients on pizza that, at least for some of us, are solely “supporting cast.” For example, the “more is better” crowd wouldn’t conceive of constructing a pizza whose sole topping is black olives, red onions, green peppers or mushrooms. No, these are complementary ingredients, toppings which go well with pepperoni, sausage, bacon and the like. When my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling Deanell raved about a “mushroom” pizza, my first inclination was to dismiss it as “boring!” Larry went so far as to declare it the best pizza he’s ever had while Deanell confessed to having dreamed about it. It was a pizza I held off trying until I could share it with Larry and Deanell who’ve never steered me wrong. If anything, they may have undersold it.

Funghi & Tartufo (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

Piatanzi’s Funghi & Tartufo, a mushroom pizza is a masterpiece—constructed with a lavish field of criminis from each tapered slice’s triangular endpoint to the cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza. A sprinkling of Gruyere, strategically placed scallions and a liberal dousing of truffle oil on a crust that’s crispy or soft where it should be allowed the criminis to shine, imparting their earthy flavor profile in every bite. Truffle oil, the one ingredient surly cur Gordon Ramsey contends no self-respecting chef should have in his or her pantry, imparts an earthy, pungent aroma that complements the criminis very well. Ramsey should try this pizza. This probably isn’t a pizza everyone will enjoy, but if you’re a fan of the fetid, fleshy fungi, you’ll fall for this one.

29 July 2016: There are several items available for dinner that you won’t find on the lunch menu.  Since Piatanzi’s launch, Larry has raved to me about several of them, none more effusively than the Pescatore, an entree he ordered the first two times he visited the restaurant.  Pescatarians and landlubbers alike will love this dish which just may transport you back to San Francisco where similar dishes abound. Swimming in a delightfully assertive marinara and Pinot Grigio broth enlivened with chile flake are clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and some of the best potato gnocchi we’ve ever enjoyed.  The next time someone laments that you can’t find great seafood in Albuquerque, mention this dish.  Words can’t do it justice.

Pescatore for the Pescatarian in you

19 January 2016: While not quite as effusively as they raved about the mushroom pizza, Larry and Deanell waxed poetic about the deliciousness of Piatanzi’s calamari.  A plateful of calamari ringlets delicately dusted with a rice flour and lightly fried is the antithesis of the fried rubber band (typically denoting overcooking) calamari some restaurants serve.  Each ringlet is textbook perfect, described by Larry as “almost butter soft and tender.”  Though you can have the calamari with marinara, it’s best with the restaurant’s lemon aioli which lends the qualities of acidity and richness to some of the best calamari you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.

29 July 2016: Another of the aforementioned foods of my wasted youth are beets which novelist Tom Robbins described as “the most intense of vegetables.”   As a child, beets ranked with spinach and verdolagas (purslane) as vegetables to be feared and loathed.  Beets were so awful not even our omnivorous scrounging dogs would eat them.  In my estimation as an adult, beets can’t be beat.  They’re among my favorite vegetables.  Only at the phenomenal Blade’s Bistro in Placitas have we had beets as good as the Barabietola (beets, tomato, pickled fennel and red onion, goat cheese, walnuts) at Piatanzi.  Your taste buds will do a happy dance over the melange of flavors while your sense of esthetics will appreciate the sheer beauty of this dish…and if you’ve never had yellow beets, you’re in for a treat.  Paired with goat cheese, they’re spectacular.

Barabietola, a fabulous beet salad

Several years ago, a case could easily be made that great Italian restaurants in the metropolitan area were far and few in between.  Restaurants such as Piatanzi have certainly changed that perspective.  Piatanzi ranks with the best!

Bistro Piattanzi
1403 Girard, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 792-1700
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 27 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Asparagi, Fano Bread, Barabietola, Pescatore, Funghi & Tartufo, Salsiccia

Piatanzi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Poki Poki Cevicheria – Albuquerque, New. Mexico

Poki Poki Cevicheria on Central Avenue in the UNM area

Having settled comfortably into middle age, my favorite participatory sports of basketball and tennis have been replaced by more sedentary, safe and slothful pursuits.  Instead of getting my shot rejected almost as often as the cheerleaders in Peñasco spurned my offers of a burger at Victor’s Drive-in, I now delight in catching every grammatical faux pas, malapropism and inaccuracy uttered by the media–not a difficult challenge since the legendary and near infallible anchor Dick Knipfing retired.  

Instead of double-faulting on my serve eighteen times in a row, it’s answering questions which stump Jeopardy contestants that now gets my adrenaline pumping.  Alas, as a fogey who believes music died in the 70s and could not care less about Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling but count among my closest friends, the Albuquerque Adonis, Ryan “Break the Chain”  Scott, pop culture questions are my downfall. Case in point, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” was my answer to a recent question about a video game franchise from Japan.  The correct answer, of course, was Pokemon.  Pokemon?  I could have answered nearly all there is to know about Poke, the Hawaiian culinary craze that’s sweeping the mainland, but had absolutely no clue about this Pokemon creature.

Place your order and in a few minutes, your Poke adventure begins

Now let me tell you about Poke. Poke (sometimes spelled “poki” and always pronounced poh-kay) refers to a “chunked” marinated or seasoned raw fish dish that’s been served primarily as an appetizer in Hawaii for centuries. In fact, the Hawaiian term “poke” simply means to “chunk” or to “cut crosswise into pieces,” both aptly descriptive terms for the salad-like preparation of seafood that has been cut into small chunks and marinated. Largely influenced by Asian flavors and ingredients, poke can be–and is–made with almost any type of seafood and topped with a vast array of garnishes and sauces. As with sushi, the chef’s imagination often determines the composition and diversity of poke.

In Hawaii, poke is a ubiquitous comfort food, served in venues ranging from surf shacks to gourmet restaurants. The advent of poke’s popularity across the fruited plain can be attributed to our shrinking world and the popularity of Hawaii as a travel (and increasingly, a dining) destination. It’s only natural that enterprising chefs who fall in love with poke during forays to the island paradise would want to share this pescetarian phenomenon with their own customers. It may be an overstatement to say these chefs have reshaped the American mainland’s culinary culture, but it’s safe to say they may have introduced its most exciting new food trend in recent memory. Sushi hotbeds such as Los Angeles and San Francisco were among the first to embrace poke, but even landlocked destinations in the heartlands now boast of poke restaurants.

Spicy Bowl

In a recent discussion about food trends, my friend David, an accomplished chef and barista, lamented how often the Duke City is slow to embrace culinary trends that have captured seemingly every other major metropolitan market. He’s very happy to hear Albuquerque isn’t late to the poke party. On May 18th, Burque celebrated the official grand opening of Poki Poki Cevicheria, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant specializing in Hawaiian poke bowls with Latin flair and influence. Poki Poki is a family owned enterprise which allows intrepid diners to assemble their own poke bowls in a fashion similar to Chipotle’s assembly line process. Poki Poki Cevicheria is located on Central Avenue in the Brickyard District just across the street from the University of New Mexico.

If you’re a true foodie, two items on the preceding paragraph probably caught your eye. The first is the inclusion of the term “Cevicheria” on the restaurant’s name. The second is the term “Asian-Latin” fusion. Poki Poki actually takes a creative departure from the standard poke restaurant template by incorporating “Latin” ingredients and flavors with ingredients and flavors rooted in Hawaii. In Albuquerque, when Latin flavors are discussed, it’s often hand-in-hand with the name Elvis Bencomo, the brilliant chef-owner of Passion Latin Fusion. Elvis collaborated on the development of the restaurant’s sauces and chips (more on them later).

Hawaiian Bowl

Though not a true “cevicheria” as you might find throughout Latin America, Poki Poki, it can be said, is a sushi-meets-ceviche-meets-donburi (Japanese rice bowl dish) restaurant, the first, best and only of its kind in Albuquerque. It was difficult to contain my excitement when introducing my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell to Poki Poki. Larry, the professor with the perspicacious palate, told me he’d “been looking for a restaurant like this for a long time.” Deanell,a culinary bon-vivant who’s probably smarter than Larry and I combined, marveled at how the flavors just popped.

The build-your-own poke bowl concept has five distinct steps: (1) select your bowl (regular, large or unlimited and base (white rice, salad or chips); (2) Go fishing. Choose from albacore tuna, ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon or octopus. A regular bowl rewards you with three ounces of your choice, a large bowl with five ounces and an unlimited bowl with seven ounces. (3) Sauce it up. Choose from the house sauce, roasted jalapeno, passion fruit, red pepper, poki sauce, tosa-mi or fusion mayo. Heat ratings for the sauces range from mild to hot. (4) Toppings. With a regular bowl, you can select three toppings; with a large bowl, it’s five toppings and with an unlimited bowl, you can top the bowl until it’s full. (5) Finish it! Elevate its deliciousness with chipotle mayo, spicy mayo, teriyaki sauce, chimichurri or Sriracha.

Latin Bowl

15 May 2016: Unless or until you understand the flavors resultant from combining ingredients and sauces, you’re probably better off ordering one of Poki Poki’s “Special Bowls,” composed poke bowls ostensibly constructed by restaurant staffers after much delicious trial and effort.  Knowing my own gluttonous tendency to overstuff  salads with favorite ingredients, often to the detriment of flavor optimization, I opted for the Spicy Bowl during my inaugural visit.  With a base that’s half rice and half garlic chips;  spicy tuna and salmon; passion fruit; crab, avocado, cucumber, jalapeño, lime, green onion, pico de gallo and furikake (a Japanese seasoning) as toppings with chipotle mayo and Sriracha for sauces, this “better than any sushi roll” poke is an adventure in complementary flavors and textures, an addictively delicious bowl of stuff you probably never thought would be so good together.  The fresh, invigorating flavors will imprint themselves on your taste buds and for a while, all you’ll be able to think about is your next poke bowl.

17 May 2016: That next poke bowl transpired two days after my inaugural visit with the Hawaiian Bowl gracing my table.  This beauteous, bounteous bowl with a salad base; salmon, albacore and octopus; fusion mayo; a boatload of toppings (crab, avocado, seaweed salad, cucumber, pineapple, mango salsa, edamame, masago, ginger, sesame seeds and furikaki) and a teriyaki sauce is the antithesis of the Spicy Bowl.  Sweet notes are the prominent flavor profile though the sweetness of the teriyaki and the fructose tanginess of the mango salsa and pineapple are tempered by savory ingredients.  Because New Mexicans like their heat, ask the accommodating staff for some spicy mayo to give this bowl a hint of piquancy that marries well with other flavors. 

A Build-Your-Own Masterpiece

19 May 2016: The promised fusion qualities are best experienced in the Latin Bowl (white rice, octopus and albacore tuna, roasted jalapeño and red pepper sauce, avocado, jalapeño, plantain chips, lime, pico de gallo, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds with a chimichurri dressing).  All too often in New Mexico, Latin fusion means an insistence in using New Mexican green chile.  Wonderful as it is, green chile isn’t missed on the Latin Bowl which has plenty of other delicious heat generating ingredients.   With lime slices, you’re free to impart citrusy flavors to the albacore and octopus a la ceviche mixto, the popular Mexican restaurant offering.  The plantain chips as with the restaurant’s yam chips and garlic chips provide a textural contrast and delightful flavor complement to other ingredients.

29 July 2016: Since introducing my friend Bill Resnik to Poki Poki, it’s become a regular lunch destination for him.  He long ago graduated from ordering the prefab bowls and has been masterfully concocting his own creations.  A mathematician who graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology, Bill has an engineer’s mind with a mad scientist’s whimsy.  To see him point out ingredient combinations is to watch mad science or abstract art in action.  It’s not just “give me some of this and some of that.”  In his mind’s eye, he can actually taste what the intricate flavor combinations will be.  That’s why when we celebrated his birthday at Poki Poki, my instructions to our server were “just give me exactly what he’s having.”   Essentially, it was a melange of vegetables, seafood and sauces in complementary proportion to each other.  Alas, I probably wouldn’t be able to duplicate his masterpiece precisely, but should be able to create deliciousness on my own.  So can you!

The Poki Poki Cevicheria is so good, so radically different, so welcome that you just may do the Hokey Poki dance to celebrate finishing your first poke bowl even as you anxiously await your next.

Poki Poki Cevicheria
2300B Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1077
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 15 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Bowl, Hawaiian Bowl, Latin Bowl, Make-Your-Own Bowl

Poki Poki Cevicheria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Golden Crown Panaderia – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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

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

View from the Patio

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

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

A rare sight–no queue

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

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

One of the most beautiful pastry cases in New Mexico

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

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

Blueberry Empanada and the World’s Greatest Coffee Shake

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

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

Combination Pizza on Green Chile Bread Crust

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

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

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

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

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

Roast Beef Sandwich with Chips and Queso

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

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

Blueberry, Cherry and Lemon Empanadas with Biscochitos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 2 3 25