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Jambo Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Growing up in the 60s–the dark ages before the Internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes and google, then spelled “googol” represented an very large number (currently being approached by America’s budget deficit)–even precocious children like me derived most of our knowledge of Africa from National Geographic magazines and Tarzan movies. We thought Africa was one large monolithic country comprised solely of stark, expansive deserts or lush, mysterious jungles. Africa’s indigenous people, we believed, had to compete for food with lions, tigers and hyenas, oh my. Though Africa was called “the Dark Continent,” it was truly our knowledge which was in the dark, obfuscated by stereotypes and misconceptions.

A rare sight--For once Jambo Cafe isn't pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up--even though it was well after 2PM)

A rare sight–For once Jambo Cafe isn’t pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up–even though it was well after 2PM)

The 1966 debut of Star Trek helped eliminate some of those stereotypes with the introduction of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, a stunning black woman from the United States of Africa who spoke Swahili.  By the time Disney’s The Jungle Book premiered in 1967, I had learned enough about Africa to know that save for in zoos, you couldn’t find a tiger in the entire continent.  In the intervening years since the naivete of my youth, I’ve also learned that Africa is comprised of 53 very distinct and autonomous nations and even more unique cultures.  While jungles and desserts are indeed  a significant part of the African landscape, so too are mountains that hug the clouds and grassy flatlands called savannas.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef Ahmed Obo

The vast diversity of Africa extends to its cuisine, which–similar to American cuisines–takes on regional personalities reflective of an area’s culture, history and ingredients. Swahili cuisine, for example, is a lusty and vibrant confluence of local ingredients and spices ameliorated by the ideas and ingredients brought over by foreign settlers.  One of the epicenters of Swahili cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.  Lamu is where chef Ahmed Obo began the unique journey that would ultimately lead him to Santa Fe where he would launch one of the most talked about restaurants in a city in which the conversation usually turns to great restaurants.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Since its launch in August, 2009, perhaps no restaurant in Santa Fe has garnered as much acclaim as Jambo Cafe. In its inaugural year, Jambo Cafe earned “Best of Santa Fe” honors for “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Ethnic Restaurant” from the Santa Fe Reporter. Within six months of launching, Jambo’s intoxicating elixirs earned “Best Savory Soup” and “Best Soup” overall in Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl which benefits The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s food bank. One year later, Jambo repeated its “Best Soup” win and added “Best Vegetarian Soup.” The traveling trophy emblematic of Jambo’s super soup has a prominent place by the front window while framed certificates for each win festoon the walls

Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains served with pineapple curry dipping sauce.

“Jambo” translates from Swahili to a shortened, more informal, “touristy” version of “hello.” All social interactions in Swahili are usually prefaced by a greeting, but not in the perfunctory manner of American greetings. Swahili greetings tend to be more respectful and formal than American greetings. It’s therefore quite surprising to be greeted in such an effusive and informal manner when you walk into Jambo Cafe. It’s a genuine friendliness, imparting a warmth that’s increasingly rare in stodgy Santa Fe. The friendliness extends from adjoining tables, some populated by retro-clad hipsters who seem to have found the home at Jambo they couldn’t find in one of the stuffy, high-end, high-brow Santa Fe restaurants.  Conversations across neighboring tables make for a fun and interesting vibe.

Coconut Peanut Chicken Kebabs with Curry Coleslaw

The ochre colored walls are adorned with framed photographs and paintings of Africa: the shaggy maned lion in all its glory, the elegant and elongated giraffe, elephants frolicking in the Serengeti Plain, native youth at play and more. Batiks hug the ceiling tiles. The restaurant, a tenant of a nondescript strip mall, is long and narrow with tables in personal space proximity to one another.  Even though the restaurant expanded in 2012 and doubled its seating capacity, queues of diners waiting to be seated can exceed an hour over dinner.   The personal space proximity makes it easier to get to know your neighbors, some of whom have an intimate knowledge of the menu and can tell you what’s good and what’s…well, everything is good and that’s a starting point.

    Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

While many of us would willingly admit a complete ignorance of African food, the menu’s African and Caribbean dishes might inspire a little deja vu and it’s not necessarily because you may have read or heard about just how great the food is. The starters–stuffed phyllo, hummus plate, coconut shrimp, jerk chicken wings and cinnamon-dusted plantains–(or variations thereof) appear on menus at other restaurants. The familiarity extends onto the salads, entrees and desserts, none of which sound especially exotic or altogether strange or different.

Ginger Peanut Butternut Squash Soup

The difference between Jambo’s cuisine and that of other restaurants is in Jambo’s inspired melding of flavor and ingredient combinations–combinations which dance on your taste buds with seasonings and spices that eke out every bit of addictive deliciousness possible while perfuming the air with intoxicating aromas. There are few dishes and even fewer restaurants which truly surprise me with “knock your socks off” flavors. Jambo is among the few.

Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup

Your adventure in truly sensual dining starts with beverage selection while perusing the menu. Forget the usual suspects (even if they do include Hansen’s Soda, the ubiquitous and delicious Santa Fe favorite) and indulge in something out of the ordinary–something extraordinary. Try the mango ginger lemonade, a triumvirate of flavors that purse your lips with an invigorating tanginess. You’ll be smacking your lips in grateful appreciation, especially on sweltering summer days. Maybe even better is the Jamaican hibiscus iced tea with its elements of earthy fruitiness and noticeable lack of the acerbic aftertaste often found on tea.

Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew: with basmati coconut rice.

Appetizers & Soups

19 March 2011: Some diners consider appetizers foreplay for the taste buds, a preamble to the main course and a fairly reliable barometer of the restaurant’s culinary prowess. Great appetizers will whet your appetite for more. Phenomenal appetizers will leave you happy if your meal consisted of nothing more. That’s the way we felt about the cinnamon-dusted plantains served with a pineapple curry dipping sauce. The texture of the plantains is perfect–more firm than bananas and not as firm as potatoes, perhaps resultant from being sauteed. The cinnamon is akin to a blessing, sweet and gentle, while the pineapple curry dipping sauce is a perfect foil, a contrast that draws out other qualities in the plantains. The sauce is terrific, a melding of African curry and succulent, sweet pineapples. African curry is rich and complex, wholly different from Thai or Indian curries.

Jerk Chicken Wings

Jerk Chicken Wings

07 January 2012: One of Jambo’s most interesting appetizers naturally brings comparisons to a similar appetizer, one found a continent away in Southeast Asia.  When we saw coconut peanut chicken kebabs on the starter menu, it brought to mind satay, the popular Thai and Malaysian starter.  Similar to satay, Jambo’s coconut peanut chicken kebabs feature skewered strips of chicken served with a peanut sauce.  While satay is marinated in Thai curry with the peanut sauce used in a complementary fashion, Jambo’s kebabs are covered in the coconut-peanut sauce, a savory sauce that tastes like a grown-up version of the sometimes cloying Thai peanut sauce.  Served with the kebabs is a curry coleslaw, a terrific variation on conventional coleslaw.  It’s an idea whose time has come. 

Coconut Shrimp with Lime-Mango Sauce

03 January 2013Jerk wings tend to fall into two camps: wings slathered with a Scotch Bonnet pepper based sauce so piquant it’s been used in Guantanamo as an instrument of “interrogation” and wings so insipid, they cause somnolence.  At Jambo, the Jerk Chicken Wings are meaty wings infused with a beguiling Caribbean inspired spice mix in perfect proportion to a mild smokiness.   Jambo’s chicken wings will tease your taste buds with piquancy and they’ll please your palate with flavor. 

25 April 2015: Because fried shrimp harkens me back to the rare “fine-dining” experiences at The Sizzler during my unenlightened childhood, my preference has always been for boiled shrimp. My eyes typically grouse over any menu featuring fried shrimp, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s classic debate zinger “Jambo is no Sizzler.” You’ve got to believe Chef Ahmed knows a thing or two about frying shrimp. Besides, wild tiger shrimp are a mild (less briny and “fishy) shrimp that pairs well with a variety of sauces. Jambo butterflies the jumbo shrimp, encrusts it in a crispy coconut batter and fries it to a golden sheen. The shrimp is paired with a lime-mango sauce which imparts a tanginess that complements the sweetness of the batter and the savory qualities of the shrimp. This is shrimp the way my eight year-old self wishes he’d had. 

Combination Plate: Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti.

If the notion of a fennel butternut squash soup makes you deliriously weepy, Jambo has a version you’ve got to try. Typically the aromatic, licorice-like flavor of fennel is a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of butternut squash, but the fennel is just one of so many exotic touches on this soup that it’s a challenge to discern its presence. Seriously, you could probably have substituted dandelion for fennel and you wouldn’t be able to discern the dandelion. That’s how well all the spices and seasonings meld together. This soup is truly an amalgam of individual flavors coalescing into a singular, more delicious whole. It’s got the typical comforting soup qualities of creaminess and deliciousness, but it’s so wonderfully well-blended that the fennel seemed rather left out, not that we cared. Okay, now that I’ve beaten up that point, once we got past trying to discern the fennel, we luxuriated in just how great yet another Jambo soup is.

19 March 2011: The soup of the day during our inaugural visit was the best of the best, Jambo’s 2011 Souper Bowl award winning curried black bean and sweet potato soup. In several years of serving as a judge at Albuquerque’s Souper Bowl competition, only a handful of soups even approach the complexity and depth of flavors of this intoxicating elixir. This is a soul-warming soup which will lift your spirits and re-kindle your love of soup. The curry provides an exquisitely spicy touch that marries oh so well with the sweet potatoes. The soup is served hot, the way soup should always be served.

    Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

One Skewer of Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs and One Skewer of Coconut-Peanut Chicken Kebabs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

7 January 2012: If there’s one thing our visits to Jambo have taught us is that soup is a must with every meal.  Even if its ninety-five degrees outdoors, these magical elixirs are so good they’d draw a smile from the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame.  The soup of the day during our second visit was a ginger peanut butternut squash soup, the very best I’ve ever had.  Too many chefs seem to accentuate or even heighten the sweetness of butternut squash, sometimes resulting in a dessert-sweet soup.  At Jambo, the natural sweetness of the butternut squash is melded with the invigorating freshness of ginger and the savoriness of peanuts to create a sweet-savory-piquant soup you’ll want a vat of.  The soup is served with wedges of pita.  You’ll also find pita within the soup where it’s toasted and cut into delightful bite-size pieces. 

7 January 2012: Sometimes the differences between a soup and a stew are barely discernible.  By definition, a soup is any combination of meat, fruit, vegetables and/or fish cooked in liquid while a stew is a dish containing meat, vegetables and a thick soup-like broth made from a combination of the stewing liquid and the natural juices of the food being served.  Jambo’s Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew is most assuredly a stew though it has soup-like qualities and might remind you of Jambo’s wondrous soups.  It’s a thick amalgam of perfectly spiced and sinfully rich ingredients as comforting and delicious as any soup or stew you’ll ever have.  It’s served with perfectly prepared basmati rice.

Grilled jerk organic chicken

Entrees

19 March 2011: To maximize your adventure in flavor, you’ll want Jambo’s combination plate which is brimming with chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti. The curry, stew and lentils are trisected by coconut rice in the shape of the letter Y. The chicken curry and goat stew are studies in the efficacy of rich, complex sauces. The goat stew is an amalgam of potatoes and carrots in a sauce of equal pronouncements of sweet and piquant. The goat meat itself is plentiful, including tiny bones. The chicken curry, which includes sauteed spinach, is not nearly as intense as the curry, but maybe even more flavorful. Coconut lentils, an East African staple, will make a believer of any lentil loathers out there. The roti, a warm bread vaguely reminiscent of Indian naan, is perfectly made. We used it in much the way New Mexicans use tortillas to scoop up chile and beans. Interestingly, while the menu calls roti “African flat bread,” it’s also a staple of Malaysian restaurants.

19 March 2011: The accommodating staff has a “customer is always right” latitude in allowing substitutions.  For example, my Kim wanted the grilled jerk organic chicken entree, but wanted the sides which come with the grilled marinated beef kabobs.  The sides would be a pomegranate red onion sauce over a green bean and mixed green salad with saffron new potatoes.  The pomegranate and red onion sauce is phenomenal, a melding of sweet, tart fruitiness and caramelized pickled red onions.  It’s one of those rare salad dressings you might be tempted to lick off the plate to make sure you don’t miss any.  The mixed greens are at the height of freshness.  The jerk chicken is redolent with a sweet-spicy smokiness reflective of the assertive spiciness of jerk seasoning.  A light crust seals in moistness and flavor.  This is one of the very best jerk chicken plates I’ve ever had! 

Tuna

Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna

7 January 2012: The grilled marinated beef kabobs served with the aforementioned pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans are par excellence, as good (albeit quite different) as kebabs you’ll find at most Middle Eastern restaurants.  Two skewers of slightly bigger than bite-sized beef prepared at about medium well are served crisscrossed style over the other items on a beautifully appointed plate.  The beef is tender and delicious and if you’re concerned about the sweet pomegranate sauce having a sweet and sour effect on the beef, you need not be.  The pomegranate red onion sauce actually complements the beef very well.  In fact, you might find yourself wondering how that sauce would go with your favorite steak. 

3 January 2014: Jambo is no slouch when it comes to seafood.  The special of the day during a January, 2014 visit was a sesame encrusted albacore tuna over crab basmati rice and julienned vegetables topped with a spicy coconut peanut sauce.  The creamy white flesh of albacore, a true “white meat tuna” is less oily than other types of tuna and has a delicate flakiness.  It also has a slightly more “fishy” flavor than some tunas.  Perhaps that’s why the spicy coconut-peanut sauce works so well.  It doesn’t mask the natural flavors of the tuna; it accentuates them much in the way mint jelly complements lamb chops. The crab basmati rice is perfectly prepared with a delightful texture and ability to sop up the coconut-peanut sauce.

Mango cobbler a la mode

It’s become almost passé for restaurant menu items to read like an impossibly good novel only for the highlight of those items to actually be reading the mouth-watering descriptions. Not so at Jambo. When the special-of-the-day is described as “papaya marinated moonfish served over butternut squash brown rice, sautéed garlic asparagus and topped with a smoked paprika coconut spice,” the eating is better than the reading. Moonfish, a widely underutilized and carefully harvested Hawaiian fish is–despite an oily flesh–very rich and flavorful. Chefs love its versatility, but none we’ve had is prepared in quite the way Jambo prepares it. You may want to bathe in the smoked paprika coconut sauce which blends seemingly disparate flavor profiles into a harmonious composite.

Jambo will make diners of all persuasions very happy.  The menu is replete with vegetarian friendly dishes.  Chef Obo is a proponent of the locavore movement, striving to procure locally grown organic food as much as possible.  The cafe’s lamb is raised in Abiquiu, the organic feta cheese comes from Tucumcari and other ingredients such as organic mixed greens and free-range chicken are from local sources.

Key Lime Pie with Chocolate-Almond Crust and Coconut-Cardamom Flan

Desserts

19 March 2011: Apple, peach and blackberry cobblers are a staple of the deep South where cobbler is often served with barbecue, but rarely will you see mango cobbler a la mode with barbecue (or anything else).  If Jambo’s rendition is any indication, mango should be a fixture on cobbler recipes.  Its sweet juiciness is perfect atop and beneath a crumbly crust topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In season, mangoes are even more juicy and sweet so this is a dessert that will be even better in the summer. 

3 January 2013: Save for the baklava, the desserts at Jambo are made on the premises.  It’s no surprise that desserts are very much worthy of the appetizers, soups and entrees.  The desserts start off as familiar, but are given unique touches that make them even better.  Take for example the restaurant’s flan.  Flan, a baked custard often served with a caramel (or even better, cajeta) sauce is almost de rigueur in New Mexican restaurants.  At Jambo, the flan is imbued with cardamom, a fragrant and delicious spice.  Then there’s the Jamaican rum pecan pie with just enough Jamaican rum to be noticeable.

Jambo24

Top: Cardamom Flan
Bottom: Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie

The popularity of Jambo means during peak times, you may have to wait to be seated, but the deliciousness of the food makes the wait worth it. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call this tiny cafe one of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico.

JAMBO CAFE
2010 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 473-1269
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2015
1st VISIT: 19 March 2011
# of VISITS: 4
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains, Curried Black Bean and Sweet Potato Soup, Grilled Organic Jerk Chicken, Combination Plate (Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti) Mango Cobbler a la mode, Cardamom Flan, Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie, Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna, Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup, Coconut Shrimp, Moonfish

Jambo Cafe on Urbanspoon

Los Potrillos – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Los Potrillos, my favorite Mexican restaurant in New Mexico

Faced with a situation that renders us incredulous, many of us might yammer incoherently, complain vociferously or maybe even utter colorful epithets.  Such moments, it seems, are best expressed with succinct precision, a rare skill mastered by a select few wordsmiths from which eloquence flows regardless of situation–polymaths such as Anthony Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man.”

Flummoxed at the discovery of a Chili’s restaurant a mere five miles from the Mexican border, I might have ranted and raved about another inferior chain restaurant and its parody of Mexican food. With nary a hint of contempt, Bourdain instead compared the spread of Chili’s restaurants across America to herpes.  How utterly brilliant and wholly appropriate was that?

Mexican Vaquero Art Festoons the Walls at Los Potrillos

Indicating that chain restaurants are “the real enemy, the thing to be feared, marginalized and kept at a distance at all costs,” he wondered aloud why anyone would eat institutionalized franchise food when the real thing is available nearby.  Bourdain, a cultural assimilator, would love Los Potrillos, an unabashedly authentic Mexican restaurant which serves the food Mexican citizens eat everyday, not the pretentious touristy stuff or worse, the pseudo Mexican food proffered at Chili’s and restaurants of that ilk.

That authenticity may be one of the reasons Los Potrillos became one of Santa Fe’s most popular Mexican restaurants within months of opening in 2006. Today it’s no longer just transplanted Mexicans who frequent this colorful dining establishment situated in what was once a Pizza Hut (another chain Bourdain undoubtedly disdains).

Three Salsas and Chips at Los Potrillos

Los Potrillos celebrates the horse, or more specifically the “potrillo,” which translates from Spanish to a “colt” or more precisely, a young horse of less than twelve months of age.  The restaurant’s back wall is festooned with a colorful mural depicting several handsome horses including a noble Mexican charro horse with rider astride. The back of each wooden chair features a colt with head reared back as if in the throes of bucking off an unwanted rider. Cacti indigenous to Mexico lends to the thematic ambiance which also includes burlap curtains and sundry charro clothing and accessories. On the walls hang horseshoes, charro sombreros and other Mexican accoutrements, but you won’t find the multi-hued, touristy blankets.

Los Potrillos is owned by Gustavo and Jose Tapia who owned Pepe’s Tacos next door for years before converting the space to Tapia’s Used Cars. The Los Potrillos menu speaks volumes about what the Tapia’s promise for your dining experience: “Not just an ordinary Mexican meal…the means of tasting how delicious our beloved Mexico is.”

Quesadilla synchronizada

Fabulous quesadillas at Los Potrillos

Mexico is not only delicious. It is a festive country in which life is celebrated and sometimes loudly. The sole complaint we have about this fabulous restaurant is the cacophonous din of excessively loud music competing with stridently blaring televisions. When the restaurant is packed (which is quite often) carrying on a conversation at normal voice is a challenge.

19 January 2015: The menu is replete with lively choices, many of them heart-healthy and many quite the opposite. Mariscos (Mexican seafood) occupies more than a page of the menu which features the varied cuisines of several regions of Mexico. You’ll be hard-pressed to narrow your choice of fare; it all sounds absolutely delicious.  A magnificent mariscos starter not to be missed is the tostadas de ceviche which are available in appetizer or entree (three per order) portions.  A thin layer of mayonnaise atop a thick, crispy tostada canvas is crowned with citrus cooked fish, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and avocado.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While you’re contemplating what to order, the amiable wait staff will bring to your table a salsa trio–salsa de arbol, chipotle salsa and a guacamole and sour cream salsa–that serves as a precursor of just how good the rest of your meal will be. The chipotle salsa, in particular, has fruity, smoky qualities that will enrapt your taste buds. The salsa de arbol is the most piquant of the three, a few levels below habanero.  The guacamole and sour cream salsa is watery which means you’ll have to dip the chips into the salsa instead of scooping it up.  Each of these salsas has a taste unique unto itself, but all are complementary.

5 March 2007: Appetizer options abound–such as the Quesadilla Sincronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together). This is one of the very best quesadillas you’ll find anywhere: ham, chorizo, bacon, onion, bell pepper, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeno and the requisite queso to “synchronize” the entire concoction together.  While not exactly a heart-healthy appetizer option, this quesadilla is absolutely delicious, an excellent way to begin what portends to be an excellent dining experience all the way around.  Bite into the jalapeno and you’ll need the cheese to quell the fire on your tongue.

Molcajete Al Pastor

19 January 2015: One of the more popular items on the menu (which includes entrees and appetizers you won’t find anywhere else) is the molcajete al pastor. Most restaurants don’t use real molcajetes (bowls fashioned from volcanic pumice) which are painstaking to “cure” or make usable for everyday use, but Los Potrillos does. Somehow serving marinated pork in a molcajete really seems to improve the taste and to keep the entree hot through the duration of your meal.  Los Potrillo’s Molcajete al Pastor is a vast improvement over the tacos al pastor on which this popular dish is based–and even those once served at the Coyote Cafe’s Rooftop Cantina which we had thought to be the best we’d ever had.

This dish is comprised of chopped pork and pineapple marinated with a special chef’s sauce and cooked over onions over a sizzling grill then served on a hot molcajete. Fresh homemade tortillas (your choice of flour or corn) and a pineapple pico de gallo salsas finish this fabulous dish. The pico is one of the two best (the other is at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill) we’ve had in New Mexico.  Fiery jalapeños balance the sweet-tangy chopped pineapple nicely.

Costillas Pancho Villa

Parillada at Los Potrillos

Among the mariscos entrees are several fish fillets inventively stuffed with various items. The Niño Envuelto (which translates from Spanish as “wrapped infant”), for example, is a fish fillet stuffed with white and yellow cheese, ham, shrimp and bacon. Despite its saltiness, this entree is delicious, particularly if you’re always begging for more bacon.

The Niño Envuelto is accompanied by rice and Mexican fries (superior by far over their French counterpart). Other entrees come with some of the best Ranchero Beans you’ll find anywhere.  The menu also  features several variations on parrillada (items prepared on a grill) for two. Grilled options include mariscos, meat or both–a Mexican surf and turf.

Chile Rellenos en Nogada

14 July 2007: One of the interesting parrillada entrees is called Costillas Pancho Villa. The starring attraction on this entree are perfectly prepared, fall-off-the bone tender ribs which don’t lose any of their inherent moistness on the grill. They practically ooze flavor and are marinated only in seasonings. It would be blasphemous to add barbecue or picante sauce to these babies.  With food enough to feed Pancho Villa’s army, this parrillada plate also includes a highly seasoned and thoroughly delicious chorizo, the very best nopalitos I’ve ever had and eight quesadillas.

The nopalitos, made from the young stem segments of the prickly pear cactus, have a delightfully tart (without pursing your lips) flavor. Spoon them into a flour or corn tortilla then add chorizo and costillas and you’ve got some of the very best tacos in town.  Fear not if you’re concerned about being “stung” by a prickly cactus quill; quills are extricated carefully and completely fro the cactus pads before they’re prepared.

Carne Asada Tampiquena

Arrachera (skirt steak) Mi General

19 January 2015: Mexican history recounts that in 1821, Catholic nuns from Pueblo created a dish to honor a visit from a revolutionary general who helped Mexico win its independence from Spain.  That dish, chile rellenos en nogada, were the color of the Mexican flag: a green poblano pepper, a white walnut sauce and red pomegranates.  The version prepared at Los Potrillos doesn’t subscribe to the original recipe, omitting the vibrant red pomegranate seeds which usually serve as a garnish which just happens to taste great in combination with the sauce and chile.

Despite the variance in recipes, Los Potrillos’ Chiles en Ahogada are rich, creamy and sinfully delicious, one of the best entrees we’ve had at any Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. It’s so wonderfully non-traditional that we’ll have it again and again (and again and…). It is also the favorite dish of my friend Skip Munoz, a man of tremendous courage and fortitude who has managed to duplicate this dish at home.

Cabrito, the very best I've ever had

Cabrito, among the very best I’ve ever had

3 May 2009: One commonality among many of the entrees at Los Potrillos is that, almost invariably, we leave remarking to ourselves how one dish or another was “among the best we’ve ever had.”  That goes for the cabrito, tender young goat meat marinated and sautéed in peanut and almond sauce, served with charros, beans and fresh, garlicky guacamole.  The sauce is absolutely beguiling.  I surmise it includes a puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo chiles which are redolent with bright flavors, combining spiciness, tanginess, smokiness and warmth.   At any regard, it imparts a fabulous flavor to the tender cabrito.

3 May 2009: Dessert options include the quintessential Mexican post-prandial sweet treat, tres leches cake. It’s a vast understatement to call the Los Potrillos version moist because this beauty positively oozes with the cloying richness of three types of milk.  Several refreshing aguas frescas are available to quench your thirst. The horchata is terrific as is the sandia (watermelon)!

Pastel Tres Leches

Pastel Tres Leches

My initial impression of Los Potrillos is that it would compete with Mariscos La Playa and Mariscos Costa Azul as the very best Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe.  After my second visit, I reconsidered that assessment and concluded that it might be the very best Mexican restaurant in Northern New Mexico–better than Los Equipales and even better than El Norteño. It’s a restaurant about which Anthony Bourdain could not utter a disparaging word. He would thoroughly enjoy the taste of real Mexico in the City Different.

Los Potrillos
1947 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 992-0550
LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Nino Envuelto, Molcajete Al Pastor, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Salsa & Chips, Guacamole, Parrillada Costillas Panco Villa, Chiles en Ahogada, Cabrito

Los Potrillos on Urbanspoon

Torinos @ Home – Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

Torinos @ Home

On Monday, October 21st, 2013 in a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode entitled “Aces of Authenticity,” the Food Network introduced Torinos @ Home to the world. Just four years earlier–on 22 December 2009–i was one of, if not the very first critics to see greatness in what was then a tiny Italian eatery coaxing amazing flavors from its humble menu.  Then ensconced in diminutive digs, it was obvious Torinos @ Home was destined for far better things.  During my many return visits over the years, Torinos has never ceased to impress–even amaze–me.  Quite simply it’s one of the very best restaurants of any genre in the Land of Enchantment.

So what makes Torinos @ Home stand out from among so many Italian restaurants in New Mexico. It starts and ends with owners Chef Maxime and Daniela Bouneou who are absolutely passionate about what they do. They have a sincere desire to please their patrons with the very best food they can prepare and they strive to present it as a work of edible art. They relish the challenge of knowing that they have to win over each guest one meal at a time and recognize they can never have an “off” night. Their greatest pleasure is in seeing the smiling faces of very contented guests. 

Guy Fieri of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program loved Torinos @ Home

Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program loved Torinos @ Home

How can you not smile when the beauteous Daniela greets you with great alacrity and proceeds to treat you like a much-welcome guest at her home?  How can you not smile when a veritable cavalcade of deliciousness prepared by one of New Mexico’s very best chefs reaches your table?  A visit to Torinos @ Home is an escape, a temporary respite to a better place, where you’re waited on and treated like royalty. 

When you’re dining on culinary excellence, it’s easy to forget your cares.  All you want to do is indulge in the luxuriant flavors of cuisine prepared by a chef who once worked in Michelin two- and three-star restaurants in his native France.  Maxime certainly has the chops and experience to wow his guests, even those with the most  sophisticated palates.  On her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog,  the scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison called Torinos @ Home the “best destination dining in New Mexico.”

    Daniela and Maxime Bouneou, the heart and soul of Torinos @ Home

Daniela and Maxime Bouneou, the heart and soul of Torinos @ Home

 Initial Visit: 22 December 2009

Never has the adage “Everyone’s a critic” been more true than since the advent of the Internet. The blogosphere is a tailor-made venue for the general public to express itself openly, honestly and directly—and openly, honestly and directly the public does. The anonymity of writing online reviews has emboldened in the American culture, a mean-spiritedness equaled only in the vicious, in-the-gutter squalor of politics. At least that’s the outward appearance.

Researchers have discovered that when consumers write online reviews, they are more likely to confer positive ratings than negative ones. On a scale of one to five stars, the average online review grade bestowed to products and services as diverse as hotels, dog food and restaurants is about 4.3. The average rating for YouTube videos, according to Google, Inc. is even higher at 4.6 stars.

The Santa Fe Village, original home of Torinos @ Home

Respondents to TripAdvisor’s online review and rating service accorded Torinos @ Home a perfect rating of five. A perfect rating–that’s as much an anomaly as Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten during the 1976 summer Olympics. It’s akin to Bo Derek’s pulchritude. Out of 85 respondents (as of December 23rd, 2009), 75 rated Torinos “Excellent,” 9 rated it “Very Good” and one sole dissenter said it was only “Average.” There’s a nay-sayer in every crowd.

Americans, it would seem are softies, an Oprahesque culture prone to puffery. At least that’s the impression I gleaned by reading TripAdvisor, source of the self-professed “world’s most trusted travel advice.” TripAdvisor, which allows consumers to review and rate all aspects of the travel experience (hotels, flights, restaurants), listed as the number one restaurant in Santa Fe, a humble, rustic little Italian restaurant named Torinos @ Home. Considering that among the City Different’s 327 restaurants are some of the most highly regarded restaurants under America’s spacious skies, is it possible that a restaurant whose name sounds more like an e-mail address than that of a restaurant is that good?

Torinos @ Home was ensconced in a very small corner of the Santa Fe Village

Burbling comments on TripAdvisor unabashedly supported the rating with such accolades as “best food in Santa Fe” and “best I’ve ever had” uttered with unfettered enthusiasm. A veritable love-fest for all aspects of the Torinos experience seemed almost too good to be true. The comments would have you believe that at Torinos, heaping portions of ambrosia are served on gilded platters by beautiful maidens. That last line is hyperbole, but not by much.

Me, I’m from Missouri…or at least the part of me that says “show me” is. When Daniela Bouneou, one of the restaurant’s owners, invited me to visit her restaurant, she indicated she would be honored to have Torinos @ Home listed on my index of Santa Fe restaurants. She said nothing about Torinos being rated the number one restaurant in Santa Fe or about the outstanding reputation it has garnered since launching in 2006. Obviously she wanted me to find out for myself.

The diminutive interior of Torinos @ Home in the Santa Fe Village

As much as TripAdvisor respondents like Torinos @ Home, they love Daniela even more. From the descriptions on TripAdvisor, I pictured an apron-wearing signora with Monica Bellucci’s sultry beauty and the culture and refinement to mesmerize all guests with her graciousness and hospitality–a veritable Italian kitchen siren. Daniela is as wonderful as advertised! 

Raised in Torino (Turin to most Americans), the capital of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region for which her restaurant is named, Daniela attended culinary school at the precocious age of 14, but opted instead to pursue a career path in the “front of the house” for which her buoyant personality is best-suited. While working as maitre d’ at a four-star hotel in Nice, France, she met and married Maxime Bouneou, the hotel’s promising sous-chef. They moved to Santa Fe shortly thereafter.

Daniela on December 22, 2009, the day I first met her

Their Santa Fe restaurant ventures were initially in the employ of some of the city’s most prominent dining establishments. Maxime served as the Executive Chef at Fuego at La Posada de Santa Fe, a high-profile Four Diamond Award-winning restaurant. Daniela managed The Chocolate Maven for five years. Friends inspired the couple to open up their own restaurant after being completely blown away by the traditional Italian dishes they served during dinner parties at their home.

Torinos @ Home was ensconced in the venerable Santa Fe Village, a shopping center with an old west charm just a couple blocks south of the Plaza. For capturing the essence of Santa Fe, few shopping centers can match the Santa Fe Village with its unique local retail stores. Charm and essence are nice, but the truth is, the restaurant didn’t have a storefront presence and its square footage wasn’t much more spacious than a couple of office cubicles. Newcomers relied on smallish exterior signage and a slate board listing the day’s specials to point them in the restaurant’s general direction.

Worse, Torinos’ was tucked away in a corner hallway which got awfully crowded during peak hours as hungry patrons queued up for the limited number of tables or lined up to place an order. Though the brightly painted walls–the color of Santa Fe sunlight on one of New Mexico’s more than 300 days of sunshine annually–had a welcoming effect, when you’re hungry, you don’t want to wait no matter how great the food may be.

Torinos Relocates to Albuquerque

Shortly before opening in Albuquerque, Torinos @ Home celebrated Maxime’s birthday

On February 16, 2010, the Bouneous sold their restaurant’s assets and the right to lease their charming spot so they could relocate to Albuquerque where Maxime’s family resides. Aside from familial reasons, Daniela and Maxime wanted a location which could provide the amenities all successful restaurants need (in addition to great food): a reasonable lease, plentiful parking, patio seating and spacious accommodations (the very antithesis of their crowded space at the Santa Fe Village center).

It took less than six months for Torinos @ Home to achieve in Albuquerque what it achieved in Santa Fe. Since relocating to the Duke City on May 24, 2010, it has been among the highest rated restaurants on Travel Advisor from over 900 Duke City restaurants rated. More than 90 percent of the respondents participating in the online review rated it “Excellent.” In February, 2010, Torinos @ Home closed its doors in Santa Fe and relocated to the Duke City. Truly Santa Fe’s loss is Albuquerque’s gain. Among aficionados it has achieved near cult status.

The Bouneous found everything they sought in the Journal Center off Jefferson Street at the former home of Voila. Torinos @ Home has made itself at home in comfortable new digs, launching its Albuquerque operation on May 24th, 2010.  Torinos is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM to 5:30PM and dinner from 5:00PM to 9:00PM.  Reservations are suggested for dinner.  The menu remains a memorable–maybe magical–tribute to outstanding Italian cuisine with a deliciousness heretofore not experienced in Albuquerque. It’s hardly a compendium of all things Italian and it is certainly not a “red sauce” Italian restaurant. Instead, it serves a limited number of items prepared exceptionally well. 

Adjacent to the restaurant is a little store selling Italian treasures

Adjacent to the restaurant is a little store selling Italian treasures

A larger kitchen also means an expanded lunch menu which now includes Grigliata Di Pesce, a selection of fresh fish—grouper filets, swordfish and scampi– all grilled and prepared with a hint of extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon and a whole roasted tomato.   The antipasti, salads and soups section has also grown and now includes an antipasti platter for two that might elicit involuntary salivation, first when you read its component ingredients on the menu and next when it’s headed to your table.  Though the menu section may be entitled “Just A Panini,” Torinos’s sandwiches hardly warrant the limiting descriptor of “just.”  These are superb sandwiches!

In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Torinos’ @ Home a “Hot Plate Award,” for “Hot Restaurateurs.” The Hot Plate Award is the magazine’s highest honor signifying appetizers, dishes, desserts, drinks and restaurants “that we can’t live without.” What a tribute to Torinos’ that Duke City diners can’t live without this gem of a restaurant. Some critics I trust consider it the only truly great Italian restaurant in Albuquerque with its nearest competition rating a very distant second.

Appetizers, Sandwiches and Soups

Italian bread with herb infused olive oil

Italian bread with herb infused olive oil

A basket of Italian bread and a decanter of herb-infused olive oil will help diffuse your hunger and stave off involuntary salivation while aromatically enticing entrees are delivered to nearby tables. Italian bread is characterized by a crispy crust and a chewy texture and Torinos’ rendition of the staff of life will not disappoint. Until late 2010, the bread came from the world-famous La Brea Bakery in California which boasts of an artisan’s passion, skill and dedication in every loaf. The bread was shipped to the restaurant where the baking process was finished. Thanks to a more expansive space, Maxime now bakes the restaurant’s focaccia and it’s fabulous–better even than the world-famous artisan staff-of-life from La Brea.

The olive oil is superb as well.  You won’t need any of the sprinkled-on seasonings other restaurants serve.  The olive oil is resplendent with the herbaceous freshness of a complementary blend of herbs swimming in the decanter. where they are joined by thin ancho chiles. You’ll also want to save a couple slices for dredging up whatever may be left over of the sauce you select for your entree…and you’ll definitely want to purchase a decanter of this olive oil before you leave.  It’s world class stuff!

Bacalao

Bacalao

20 April 2013: Cheryl Jamison is especially besotted with Torinos’ Baccalao appetizer.  In chronicling  The 10 Best Things I Ate in New Mexico This Year for 2012, Cheryl described the Baccalao as “the ultimate salt cod preparation.”  It certainly is a fabulous composition: salted cod fish and Yukon Gold potatoes mashed together with a sweet confit garlic cream.  What makes this dish special is how it blends into one dish, familiar yet seemingly disparate flavors.  The Yukon Gold potatoes are a perfect foil for the pleasantly “fishy” flavor of the cod.  The sweet confit garlic cream lends just enough moistness to prevent the dish from being dry.  The dish is served with a crostini topped with a terrific olive tapenade and sun-dried tomatoes.

Figs marinated in Marsala, Prosciutto di Parma, Arugula salad, goat cheese crostini, vinaigrette

Figs marinated in Marsala, Prosciutto di Parma, Arugula salad, goat cheese crostini, vinaigrette

20 April 2013: While the Baccalao is probably an acquired taste (my Kim didn’t like it), most diners will appreciate an Antipasto quadrumvirate of figs marinated in Marsala, Prosciutto di Parma, Arugula salad, and a goat cheese crostini. This is an appetizer that will excite all 10,000 taste buds while challenging them to discern each of the five recognized taste sensations (salty, sweet, butter, sour and unami). It’s served on a wooden cutting board. Each component is magnificent. Together they create an adventure in flavor.

Prosciutto di Parma, one of the best known varieties of Italian uncooked ham, is an intensely flavored (courtesy of dry-aging), thinly sliced ham with a nice fat content. Whether by design or by accident, a generous helping at Torinos is shaped like a rosette on the cutting board. The goat cheese, spritzed with just a bit of honey, is fantastic. It spreads easily on the crostini and is a wonderful counterpoint to the figs marinated in Marsala, a wine frequently used in cooking. The arugula salad is drizzled with the house Vinaigrette which melds magnificently with the peppery greens. 

Burrata and Tomato (Similar to a Caprese Salad): juicy Heirloom tomato (in season), burrata mozzarella, Nicoise olives, fresh basil pesto

Burrata and Tomato

5 April 2014: The Caprese salad may be a simple salad, but it’s imbued with qualities that elevate it to greatness.  At its essence, this salad is a concordant combination of flavors, textures, and freshness: ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, aromatic basil, and your choice of drizzle: either or both olive oil or balsamic.  Torinos takes this simple salad and raises it to rarefied air.  Instead of mozzarella, this salad is constructed with burrata,  an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Burrata is ethereal in its texture and as rich a cheese as you’ll find.  A wonderful fresh basil pesto takes the place of the all-too-ordinary basil.  Olive oil is drizzled onto the resplendent greens and ripe tomatoes while balsamic circumnavigates the dish.  Simplicity meets sophistication can be delicious.

Iceberg Lettuce & Fegatini Di Pollo

26 December 2014:  Implying that someone was “chicken-livered” was of the most deleterious insults one person could levy against another during the late nineteenth century.  For offal-loving foodies, the term chicken liver can only mean one thing–deliciousness.  Some chefs go out of their way to obfuscate the distinctively rich, creamy and slightly metallic flavor of chicken liver, a favorite tactic being marinating it in or pairing it with agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauces.  Kudos to Maxime for not disguising what is really a tender and mild flavor (at least in comparison to beef liver) and letting it shine. 

Of the many salads we’ve had at Torinos, our very favorite showcases chicken livers in a melange of ingredients all with distinctive personalities.  The Iceberg Lettuce & Fegatini Di Pollo features an entire half head of iceberg lettuce, sauteed chicken livers, crostini, Pecorino Romano, radishes, walnuts and a shallot vinaigrette.  Easily the star of this sumptuous salad, the chicken livers have that addictive flavor and texture that chicken liver lovers lust after.  The shallot vinaigrette brings everything together brilliantly.

Soup of the Day: Zucchini Ciliantro

Zucchini Ciliantro

22 December 2009: The menu describes its soups as “heart warming.” That’s an understatement! Like mans’ best friend and favorite four-legged companion, a great soup loves you unconditionally. It provides hearty substance and warms the cockles of your heart. It’s equally at home on your sick bed as it is at a sumptuous feast. Torinos’ zucchini cilantro soup is such a soup! Four oversized croutons (perfect for crostini toppings) soak up the well-seasoned elixir while you bask in the liquid love as it slides down your throat.  It’s the soup Daniela served me during my inaugural visit and remains one of my favorites. 

Oven roasted tomato, garlic, fresh thyme, basil and  homemade croutons (there is no cream, no chicken broth in this soup)

Oven roasted tomato, garlic, fresh thyme, basil and homemade croutons

4 November 2013: How many of us have ordered tomato soup at an Italian restaurant that’s reminiscent of the soup in a can with which we grew up?  Not so at Torino’s where tomato soup means oven-roasted tomatoes, garlic, fresh thyme, basil and homemade croutons.  There is no cream or chicken broth in this soup.  It’s rich, sweet-savory tomatoes at their comfort food finest.  It’s a simple soup made extraordinarily well from excellent ingredients. 

Pasta Fagoli

Pasta Fagoli

4 June 2011: Better still is Torino’s rendition of pasta fagioli, an Italian peasant soup which translates to “pasta and beans” (typically cannellini beans).  As with many family dishes, the recipe for pasta fagioli varies greatly.  Quite often it is made with a stewed tomato or tomato paste base.  Torino’s variation is not made with tomatoes, but it is no less fragrant than its red sauced counterpart.  Unlike some pasta fagioli, its broth is thick and soul-warming with pasta and beans in perfect proportion to sundry vegetables.  My sister-in-law Lola DeVivo Laws, a proud Italian loved Torino’s pasta fagioli so much, every bite brought tears of joy to her eyes.  

Duck Confit Panini

Duck Confit Panini

21 November 2012: In its annual food and wine issue for 2012,  Albuquerque The Magazine named Torinos’ duck confit sandwich one of the yummiest sandwiches in the city.  It’s one of the yummiest in the state!  The canvas for this gem is focaccia bread from La Quiche Parisienne which is layered with a herbaceous (fresh thyme and cilantro) goat cheese spread, duck which has been confit in its own fat for ten hours, and grilled zucchini.  This is a magnificent sandwich!  The duck is moist, tender and absolutely delicious while the goat cheese spread lends a savory-slightly tart counterpoint.  

Calamari: Stuffed with pancetta, garlic, fresh herbs and ricotta cheese

Calamari: Stuffed with pancetta, garlic, fresh herbs and ricotta cheese

4 June 2011: Surprises abound with every visit.  You can literally expect the unexpected, a twist here and there to any preconceived notions you might have about Italian food.  If you thought all pasta fagioli, for example, should look and taste like the Olive Garden’s version, Torino’s will break that paradigm quickly.  If you think calamari should be cut into ringlets, breaded, deep-fried and served as an appetizer with some sort of dipping sauce, you’re in for a treat should you order Torino’s calamari entree.  Instead of thinly sliced ringlets, the calamari actually resemble large pasta shells.  That’s because Torino’s serves them in their natural state minus the tentacles.  Maxime stuffs each calamari with pancetta, garlic, fresh herbs and ricotta cheese and serves them with a tomatoes concasse (essentially peeled, seeded and crushed tomatoes) and a tart Balsamic reduction.  The texture may be a bit off-putting to some as it’s almost rubbery, but it’s also replete with flavor.  It’s a unique way to enjoy succulent squid. 

Foie Gras Au Torchon: Served with Applewood Smoked Duck and Fig Preserve

Foie Gras Au Torchon: Served with Applewood Smoked Duck and Fig Preserve

9 December 2011: During our inaugural dinner visit, one of the two featured appetizers was Foie Gras Au Torchon served with applewood smoked duck and fig preserve.  Foie Gras, which translates from French as “fat liver” is a highly-coveted, incomparably rich and delicious duck liver that’s been fattened specifically to give it a silken texture and unctuous flavor.  This luscious, delicate “meat butter” dish is a foodie favorite and bane of vegetarians everywhere.  France is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of foie gras which is at its very best during the autumn and fall seasons when quite naturally, ducks accumulate most fat, particularly on their livers. 

Torchon, which means “dish towel” in French refers to the way the foie gras is often prepared. It’s truly a delicious irony that the most craved and coveted portion of the canard, a culinary luxury, is traditionally wrapped in humble and lowly dish towels and poached for as long as three days.  The results are an eyes rolling back in the head, swoon inducing foodgasm.  Torinos’ foie gras is among the best we’ve ever had, heightened by the addition of whisper-thin slivers of applewood smoke duck and a thin fig preserve “trail” that’s dragged on the plate to give you just a sensation of sweetness without overwhelming the make you weak in the knees flavor of the duck.

Main Courses/Entrees

Ravioli of the Day: Spinach and Ricotta With A Three-Herb (Dill, Tarragon and Chives) Butter Sauce

Ravioli of the Day: Spinach and Ricotta With A Three-Herb (Dill, Tarragon and Chives) Butter Sauce

22 December 2009: The ravioli of the day (a concept no longer on the menu) is what Daniela chose for my introductory meal at Torinos. On this day, the ravioli was stuffed with ricotta and spinach and drizzled lightly with a three-herb (dill, tarragon, chives) butter sauce. Until that point, I’d never had better ravioli! In fact, compared to this ravioli, almost all other ravioli I’ve ever had is on par with the dreaded canned Chef Boyardee variety.  

The three herb commingling imparted heretofore not experienced fresh herbaceous qualities to the rich buttery sauce: the divine fennel- and anise-like pleasantness of tarragon; the clean and subtle tangy balance of sweet and savory that is dill; and the sweet, mild onion-like versatility of chives. Each of the dozen raviolis on my plate were perfectly prepared and uniform in size. The texture was neither too al dente nor mushy in the least. The ricotta was not dominantly rich as some Italian restaurants serve it, but subtly rich in a manner that complements other ingredients. A generous sprinkle of fresh parmesan topped this fabulous entree. 

    Fresh herbs raviolis topped with a goat cheese cream sauce

Fresh herbs raviolis topped with a goat cheese cream sauce

18 October 2010: Possessing a heart of gold as well as an amazing memory, Daniela remembered just how much I loved the ravioli dish and emailed me when Maxime prepared it with a decadent goat cheese cream sauce. Wow! Who says you can’t improve on perfection! Who says you can’t have too much of a good thing! This dish is the epitome of rich deliciousness. 

Grouper al Cartoccio: Grouper filet baked in a crispy wrap with Swiss chard, mussels and clams

Grouper al Cartoccio

20 April 2013: Having worked in a fishing village, Maxime is a stickler for freshness. He has cultivated a network of sources which ensure next-day delivery of fresh, just-caught fish. It makes a difference. His preparation of Grouper al Cartoccio is tres magnifique. The grouper is stuffed with Swiss chard, sealed in a crispy filo-like parchment then sautéed and served in a bowl surrounded by steamed clams and mussels. The entrée is then drizzled with a light Pomodoro sauce. It’s already got a spot reserved on my “best of 2013” list.

Beef Cheek Manicotti

Beef Cheek Manicotti

4 November 2013: Guy Fieri, the loquacious host of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show is a rather skilled chef himself.  One of the ways he likes to demonstrate his chops on the show is by predicting the featured chef’s next move: “in the oven at 350 degrees for 90 minutes.”  While observing Maxime as he prepared beef cheek manicotti, Fieri seemed at a loss.  Either that or he was in awe of Maxime’s meticulous preparation of delectable dish which wasn’t crafted solely for the Food Network, but is available on the daily menu. 

This entree is absolutely amazing, so rich and delicious grown men will swoon as they eat it and women will consider it better than chocolate.  Maxime cooks natural beef cheeks for just over five hours in red wine then combines them with fresh ricotta and stuffs them into manicotti shells.  They’re then baked in the oven with Bechamel,  Pecorino Romano and Fontina cheeses melted over the top.  The richness of this dish should be paired with an acidic side such as the aforementioned tomato soup.  It’s a heavenly pairing.

Risotto Al Fegatini Di Pollo -Porcini 

26 December 2014:  Italy’s Turin region is credited with the creation of innovative risotto dishes that transform one of the most traditional, comforting and homey of Italian dishes into sophisticated, gourmet-quality favorites.  At first glance, Torinos Risotto Al Fegatini Di Pollo appears rather simple, a deep dish of short-grain rice straddling that fine line between being congealed and being perfectly prepared.  Its richness and complexity may not be discernible in its appearance, but it sure is at first bite.  That richness and complexity is also discernible in its ingredients: white Vialone rice, chicken liver, Porcini mushrooms, Guanciale (pork cheeks) and white truffles, ingredients in perfect proportion to one another and all complementary to each other.  Despite its absolute deliciousness, it may not be possible to eat any more than one bowlful of this nearly overwhelmingly rich dish. 

Bistecca Alla Griglia: Grilled flat iron steak on the grill, roasted vine tomato and fagioli

Bistecca Alla Griglia: Grilled flat iron steak on the grill, roasted vine tomato and fagioli

20 April 2013: It’s not every Italian restaurant that offers steak on its menu, much less excels in its preparation and delivery. In Torinos’ Bistecca Alla Griglia (grilled steak), we enjoyed a better steak than we’ve had at many a steakhouse. Maxime pioneered the flat iron cut long before it became a popular offering. Until they became so popular flat iron steaks were a much more value-priced cut. It’s a cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. Maxime exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak all carnivores will thoroughly enjoy. It is served with a roasted vine tomato and fagioli, the delicious white beans often found on soup. 

Ravioli stuffed with spezzatino (beef brisket)

1 June 2010: When interviewed by Ryan Scott on the much loved and missed Break The Chain radio program, Maxime revealed that spezzatino, a slowly braised beef brisket, is his very favorite dish.  It’s almost always on the menu in one form or another.  One of the ways in which Maxime prepares it is by stuffing it in ravioli.  This is one of many dishes on the menu that has absolutely blown me away.  The slowly braised brisket is unctuous and almost preternaturally good. 

Spaghetti Bolognese & Guanciale

26 December 2014: Shamefully “Bolognese” sauce in American restaurants has typically meant a meat sauce not entirely different from their de rigueur meat sauce.  Bolognese is so much more than meat sauce which originated in the northern Italian city of Bologna.   Soffrito, a variety of flavorful and aromatic vegetables fried in olive oil and butter forms the base of this sauce to which chunks of meat are added along with a white wine reduction. tomato paste and stock.  Unlike most marinara and meat sauces, this sauce isn’t seasoned with oregano or garlic nor is acidity a strong quality.  In recent years, we’ve experienced authentic and delicious Bolognese twice–one in Montecito California’s Trattoria Mollie and now at Torinos where the sofrito includes carrots and celery and the meat includes guanciale, pork jaw and beef from the 4 Daughters Ranch in Belen.

    Spaghetti alla Carbonara: Pancetta (Italian Bacon), cream, egg, caramelized onion, garlic and parmigiano

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

21 November 2012: It’s not quite as rich, however, as Torinos’ Spaghetti alla Carbonara, perfectly al dente pasta tossed with pancetta (Italian bacon), cream, egg, caramelized onion, garlic and parmigiano.  It’s one of those rare dishes that is so rich you know you shouldn’t finish it all, but so good you can’t stop eating it.  Calvin Trillin, one of the best food writers in America once suggested that instead of turkey, Americans should gather around the table for pasta carbonara.  I’d gladly forgo turkey for Maxime’s spaghetti alla carbonara. 

Anitra Al Forno (Duck Leg Slowly Confit for 10 Hours)

23 May 2010: From the “Torinos Entrees” section of the menu, it’s hard to pass up Anitra al Forno, a duck leg slowly confit for ten hours served with seared polenta and fresh vegetables sauteed with extra virgin olive oil.  After your first bite, you’ll lament that so many restaurants seem to believe duck should be fruity-tasting.  The flavorful fat from the confit process imbues the duck with flavor through and through as well as a crust that seals in juices.  This is a very moist and tender duck leg. 

Buccatini Puttanesca

28 December 2010: As refined a lady as Daniela is, it’s always a joy to share a laugh with her when the topic at hand is so unladylike–such as when we discussed the etymology of the popular Italian dish Buccatini Puttanesca.  The literal translation of this delicious dish is “whore’s spaghetti.”  The origin of the term is in dispute, but what can’t be disputed is just how wonderful this dish is at the hands of a master chef like Maxime.  Buccatini Puttanesca is a lively entree–pleasantly piquant, a bit salty, tantalizingly tangy and wholly delicious.  At Torinos, its construction includes anchovies, olives, capers and other complementary ingredients.  The anchovies are discernible, but not so much that the anti-anchovy crowd will disdain this wondrous dish. 

Tagliatelle Gorgonzola

Torinos’ pasta dishes include one aptly named “Tagiatelle Gorgonzola “For You Blue Cheese Haters,” though for this fan of fetid fromage, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking stinky cheese, the more rancid and blue the better.  I suspect Daniela and Maxime are having the last laugh  because gorgonzola is itself a blue cheese, a veined Italian blue cheese, in fact.  Like other blue cheeses, it can be crumbly and salty with a pronounced bite.  On tagliatelle, this cheese finds a receptive canvas.  The tagliatelle, a long, flat ribbon-like pasta similar in shape to fettuccine, is perfectly prepared; the sauce is surprisingly subdued, a rich, buttery, but not overwhelming sauce. 

Torino26

Prime Rib, Potato Gratin, Vichyssoise Carrots

9 December 2011: Dinner might mean something unexpected such as a featured special of roasted prime rib au jus served with a potato gratin and vichyssoise carrots.  The prime rib is a slab of wonderfully roasted (Lowry’s quality) just-off-the-bone prime rib with a perfectly pink hue redolent with a peppercorn enhanced au jus. It’s nearly fork-tender and as juicy as any prime rib you’ll ever have.  The potato gratin is a beauteous brick of thinly sliced and layered potatoes and cream seasoned with garlic.  The top layer is beautifully browned and each layer underneath perfectly prepared.  While the term vichyssoise is most often associated with a cold French soup, the term actually means “from Vichy” a city in France.  Torinos’ vichyssoise carrots have a sweet (but not overly so) flavor and a crisp texture (a boon for those of us who don’t want mushy carrots). 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH MANICOTTI: Oven roasted butternut squash, extra virgin olive oil, caramelized onion, fresh ricotta cheese,  baked in the oven with bechamelle, pecorino romano and fontina cheese melted over the top

Butternut Squash Manicotti

13 August 2011: In season, one of the most overdone ingredients on restaurant menus is butternut squash.  Unfortunately more often than not, restaurants tend to prepare it to a near-dessert level of sweetness.  Instead of letting its natural sweetness shine forth, chefs tend to add sweetening spices to its creamy beige flesh.  At Torinos, Maxime pairs the butternut squash with fresh ricotta and stuffs them into hand-made manicotti then tops the manicotti with extra virgin olive oil, caramelized onions, Bechamel, Pecorino Romano and Fontina cheeses melted on top.  It’s some of the best manicotti you’ll ever have times five, the pairings of ingredients heightening the best in each other. 

Cioppino

Cioppino

5 April 2014: For seafood lovers, few things are as satisfying as a rich, hearty seafood stew, whether it be cioppino or bouillabaisse.  There are several similarities between the Italian-Portuguese cioppino and the French bouillabaisse, both of which have their genesis in the pots and cauldrons of the scions of ancient Mediterranean fishermen.  Chef Maxime, a French man who cooks Italian food, can call his seafood stew anything he wants as long as he serves it.  Cioppino is a very nuanced dish that takes on the personality of the seafood from which it is constructed as well as the distinct seasonings which give it its kick. Torino’s rendition includes shrimp, Pacific cod fish, mussels, clams and calamari in a star anis clam broth.  It’s a San Francisco-worthy cioppino showcasing fresh seafood in a sumptuous broth. You won’t leave a drop.

Gnocchi Spezzatino: Organic beef brisket (braised for 5  hours in red wine) served with homemade potato dumplings

Gnocchi Spezzatino: Organic beef brisket (braised for 5 hours in red wine) served with homemade potato dumplings

5 April 2014: In the November 8, 2012 edition of Tasting New Mexico, scintillating author Cheryl Alters Jamison introduced readers to the “top five New Mexico spots for divine gnocchi.”  Not surprisingly, the Gnocchi Spezzatino, made the list.  This gnocchi is made from homemade potato dumplings and an organic beef brisket braised for five hours in red wine.  The dumplings are delicate, smooth and rich while the beef brisket is so tender it falls apart much like carne adovada.  The red wine and beef reduction may be the highlight of a dish whose every component is absolutely fabulous.

Desserts

Apricot & Ricotta Fried Ravioli

26 December 2014: Mention fried ravioli and the image conjured by most foodies involves the fried, breaded ravioli appetizer invented in Saint Louis, Missouri where a strong Italian culinary lineage exists.  At Torinos, fried ravioli involves a dessert, three circular ravioli stuffed with apricots and ricotta then sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar and encircled by vanilla Mascarpone cream.  There’s only one thing wrong with this dessert.  It’s that three of these decadent ravioli aren’t nearly enough.

Daniela’s tiramisu

13 August 2013: Legend has it that when needing a “pick me up” in between amorous trysts, the courtesans of Venice would consume Tiramisu (the literal translation of which is “pick me up) to boost their stamina.  An addictive, rich and ethereally light Italian dessert, when made right it will leave an indelible impression on you.  The very best tiramisu I’ve had in the Albuquerque area has been from Blades’ Bistro in Placitas, Joe’s Pasta House in rio Rancho and Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria in the Duke City.  That is, those were the best until I sampled Daniela’s Tiramisu at Torinos’ @ Home.  It’s also the most authentic tiramisu I’ve had, wholly unlike the “cake” type tiramisu some restaurants serve.  That’s pseudo tiramisu.  Daniela’s rendition is served in a concave bowl, the discernible melding of spirits, espresso and cocoa defying convention by being both whisper light and having body and texture.

Chocolate Mi-Cuit

9 December 2011: Some diners might not brave a dessert which translates from French to “half cooked,” but then they’d be missing the rich deliciousness of Torinos’ chocolate mi-cuit.  Similar to the molten centered chocolate cakes served in highly regarded restaurants such as Roy Yamaguchi’s eponymous Roy’s,  this is a chocolate cake so decadent it can only be finished if shared.  Torinos’ rendition is topped with vanilla ice cream and served with amarena cherries.  Amarena cherries, grown mostly in Bologna and Modena, Italy, start off as slightly sour cherries, but they’re preserved in a rich, sweet syrup that makes them nearly cloying.  The vanilla cuts the sweetness nicely as does the adult chocolate. 

Pistachio Square

21 November 2012: If you’re in the mood for something not quite as rich or decadent, the pistachio square is the dessert for you. Pistachios are a versatile nut that can serve not only as a snack food, but in entrees and desserts.  They lend a savory quality to desserts that are would otherwise be cloying– such as baklava at Yasmine’s Cafe.   The pistachio square is a tarte in which finely chopped pistachios are the star and creme Anglaise is a counterpoint of sweet richness.  The tarte is dense and moist with an excellent crust.

Postscript

Torinos does a bustling take-out business, the best way to curb the inevitable cravings you’ll experience after a meal at what became, after only one visit, my favorite and highest rated Italian restaurant in New Mexico. Anything on the menu is available for carry-out. Dinner from Torinos, even if you have to warm it up yourself, is the next best thing to dinner at Torinos. 

Also available is a little store adjacent to the restaurant in which Italian goodies are sold.  You’ll want to stock up on Maxime’s olive oil, biscotti, chocolate croissants (more on these later), homemade jams and a veritable treasure trove of other exciting and interesting items.  Daniela introduced us to her favorite candies growing up in Italy.  They’re wrapped similarly to saltwater toffee, but are wholly unlike saltwater toffee in texture.  Best of all, they’re available in various flavors (pear, anise, mint, apricot and more.

Outstanding food, reasonable prices and portions, exceptional service…not to mention the fabulous Daniela.  Torinos @ Home is as much about the experience as it is about the food.  Was it Santa Fe’s best restaurant?  A phalanx of restaurant critics say it was. Will it be Albuquerque’s highest rated restaurant?  Daniela invites you to find out for yourself.

TORINOS @ HOME
Journal Center
7600 Jefferson Street
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-4491
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2014
1st VISIT:  22 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 14
RATING: 25
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Ravioli of the Day, Spezzatino, Fruit Cobbler, Soup of the Day, Antipasti Platter, Prosciutto “Just Like Italy” Panini, Pollo & Carciofini Panini, Taliatelle Gorgonzola “For You Blue Cheese Haters,” Anitra Al Forno, Spaghetti Puttanesca, The Latino, Calamari, Pasta Fagioli, Duck Confit Sandwich, Spaghetti Carbonara, Baccalao, Grouper al Cartoccio, Butternut Squash Manicotti, Beef Cheek Manicotti, Gnocchi Spezzatino, Cioppino

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