Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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

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

Daniela and Maxime Bouneou

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

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

An Eclectic Dining Room

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

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

Spicy Eclectic Olives Mix

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

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

Wings Hot and Tangy

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

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

Hot “PHO” YOU

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

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

Big Dips and Dough

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

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

Eat Your Brussels Carley (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

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

Roasted Chicken (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

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

Build Your Own Pizza: Gorgonzola, Sausage

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

North Shore

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

The Nordik Pizza

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

Make Your Own Pizza

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

Paysanne

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

Beer Braised Short Ribs

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

Rhubarb Cobbler

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

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

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

ECLECTIC URBAN PIZZERIA AND TAP HOUSE
2119 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 322-2863
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2016
1st VISIT: 31 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy eclectic olives mix, Wings hot and tangy, Hot “PHO”YOU, Big dips and dough,Eat your Brussels Carley, Roasted chicken, North Shore, Beer Braised Short Ribs, Rhubarb Cobbler, Nordik Pizza, Paysanne Pizza

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

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!

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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.

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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.

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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 | Facebook Page
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

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 | Facebook Page
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

Joe’s Pasta House – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Once a year, despite my protestations and whining, I agree to take my Kim to the Olive Garden.  It’s a deal we have, albeit one that makes me feel like  Faust in the Christopher Marlowe play.  Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a  scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  In my case, the deal is  a visit to Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year.  I sure got the rotten end of that deal.

On a list of things I’d rather do, my annual visit to the Olive Garden for a meal of cheese glop or tomato torture ranks somewhere below visiting a proctologist or watching The View.  Kim likes the salad and bread sticks and I suspect derives a bit of sadistic satisfaction in hearing me mutter polysyllabic epithets about the “Evil Garden’s” food.   The cultural anthropologist in me finds it both amusing and tragic that teeming masses congregate for pathetic pasta, mediocre marinara and boring bread sticks.  It makes me long for a visit to Joe’s Pasta house in Rio Rancho.

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico at the best table in the house in front of the fireplace

Joe’s Pasta House is the antithesis of the Olive Garden.  In the words of Bruce Schor, one of my astute readers  (and not solely because our tastes in food are fairly similar), “Joe’s represents real Italian food of the real comfort variety.”  The operative word here is “real.”  Joe’s is most often thought of as old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurant, the type of which have survived the onslaught of their supposedly more sophisticated brethren, the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants;  the type of which remain so popular throughout the East Coast.  Perhaps that’s why Joe’s is so beloved in Rio Rancho, the city so many call “little New York.” 

To label Joe’s as strictly a “red sauce restaurant” is to do a disservice to one of the most comprehensive Italian restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant which transcends labels in that it showcases the cuisines of Italy’s three distinct culinary regions: north, south and central.  Joe’s also prepares the familiar Italian American dishes developed by Italian immigrants, occasionally spicing things up with green chile, a tribute to the adopted home of proprietors Joe and Kassie Guzzardi.

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe's

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe’s

Joe Guzzardi is a peripatetic presence with a buoyant personality and charm to spare. He visits every table to make sure his customers are enjoying their dining experience. “Mi casa es su casa” seems to be his mantra–and he really means it.  I once overheard him tell a guest who didn’t like the entree he ordered, “this is my house.  We’ll make you happy.” before proceeding to recommend entrees with a different flavor profile than the dish the guest didn’t like.   Joe’s energy, enthusiasm and customer orientation are mirrored by an attentive, well-mannered and highly professional wait staff that is easily among the very best in the metropolitan area. 

While Joe manages the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, his pulchritudinous partner Kassie oversees the restaurants social media channels, search engine optimization, blog and Web site presence.   In a day and age in which it’s become fashionable for restaurateurs to tout their social consciousness, Kassie was a pioneer in forging relationships with local suppliers to ensure the highest quality, most socially responsible and healthy foods possible.  She’s understandably very proud that Joe’s won’t feed guests anything the Guzzardi family wouldn’t eat themselves.

If you’re not careful you can fill up on the complimentary bread and the best bruschetta in New Mexico

That means hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and to the greatest extent possible GMO (genetically modified organism) free pasta imported from Italy.  It means grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, humanely raised veal and sustainably-caught fish.  Pastas and sauces are prepared in stainless steel pots, healthier vessels by far than their aluminum counterparts.  Only non-hydrogenated oil is used and it’s changed out every day, the remnants given to owners of vegetable oil-powered vehicles.   Unfortunately Rio Rancho’s solid waste infrastructure is currently incapable of providing the recycling capabilities to fully comprehend all of Joe’s needs, but the restaurant recycles as much as possible.  

As for Joe’s famous red sauce (so good I’ve joked with Joe that he should serve it in a shot glass), the secret is in the tomatoes.  Joe’s uses only imported, vine-ripened, hand-picked Italian plum tomatoes which have a wonderful, natural sweetness.  Now, there are two schools of thought about preparing sauce.  Joe is a proponent of not simmering his sauces for hours on end as opposed to the school of chefs who employ marathon-long simmering sessions (which tend to render tomatoes very acidic).  That’s one of the reasons Joe’s red sauce is much lighter in color.   It’s much more delicious, too.

Hot Antipasti for two

It may be hard to believe that Joe’s Pasta House occupies the former digs of an International House of Pancakes (IHOP), but what’s not surprising is that the restaurant consistently earns flawless ratings on all its restaurant inspections.  It’s an immaculate and attractive restaurant.   Sophisticated stylings include an exhibition kitchen under the cover of a burnished copper awning. The restaurant’s walls are festooned by artwork provided by the Rio Rancho Art Association.

Faux Italian marble columns, a mural painted by a deceased beloved Rio Rancho city council member, real napkins and linen tablecloths let you know this is more than a casual dining restaurant even though the reasonable prices might belie that fact.  Until 2009, the great Bob Morris sang at the Pasta House, his elegant voice delivering beautiful Italian arias and romantic ballads on weekend evenings.  Bob now lives in Texas, but is much missed by frequent patrons and the staff at the Pasta House. 

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

Stuffed Eggplant

In August, 2013, Joe’s began featuring delicious, fine, imported foods and confections for those evenings in which you’re craving Italian cuisine, but don’t want to leave home.  Almost immediately as you step into the restaurant, you’ll espy shelves replete with imported olive oils, pastas, olives, salts, risotto, nutella, pastas, mustard, cookies and so much more.  It’s not quite the next best thing to dining at Joe’s, but Kassie assures me this is excellent stuff. 

November, 2015: For some restaurants, having a presence in the community means little more than having a brick-and-mortar storefront with an address.  For restaurants which become beloved institutions within their communities, having a presence in the community means being part and parcel of the fabric of the community–being involved on a day-to-day basis in promoting all that is great about a community.  It means not only providing outstanding food and excellent service to guests, but getting to know them and treating them like family.  It means listening to their guests, taking their feedback–good and bad–and using it to continue improving.  It means being a neighbor and friend.

Fried Lasagna

That’s what   Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho has done.  Joe’s isn’t just one of the two or three best Italian restaurants in New Mexico, it’s an exemplar of what it means to be part of a community.  Because of her involvement with the community, Kassie Guzzardi, the effervescent co-owner of Joe’s Pasta House, was selected by Yelp as one of 100 owners of top-rated businesses from the U.S. and Canada.  With that well-deserved honor, she ws invited to Yelp’s “Coast-to-Coast: Coming Together Because We Mean Business,”  a networking opportunity in which Yelp professionals  shared marketing techniques with their brethren.  There’s no doubt Kassie also taught even Yelp’s marketing experts a thing or two about what it means to be part of the community.

Perhaps the only thing at the Pasta House as warm as the Guzzardi’s hospitality is the bread which arrives at your table shortly after you’re comfortably seated. There may be nothing as comforting as a basket of sliced bread and yeasty rolls baked in-house–unless, of course, it’s a dish of seasoned olive oil and various herbs and spices in which to dip that bread.  Joe’s Pasta House goes even further with a complementary plate of bruschetta crowned with a mixture of rich, red tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic and other savory ingredients. At most restaurants you would pay handsomely for such a treat.

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli Served with a Piñon Cream Dipping Sauce

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

Appetizers

Extreme care must be taken to ensure you don’t fill up on bread, great as it is. You also have to be doubly cautious so as not to fill up on Pasta House appetizers, some of which arrive in profuse portions which might constitute an entire meal elsewhere. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the Pasta House hungry!  The menu features several tempting appetizers and while such options as fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari are seemingly standard offerings at most Italian restaurants, live it up and try something unique to Joe’s Pasta House.  That something different might be the poppy seed shrimp, ten (yes, 10) jumbo shrimp sautéed with bell peppers, red onions and black olives in a tangy poppy seed sauce. It’s different and it’s delicious. 

15 January 2014: The menu offers six salads, most available in half and full sizes.  Our favorite is the Caesar salad which is classically interpreted then improved by Joe’s.  The traditional touches are large leaf Romain lettuce, shaved Parmesan cheese and croutons topped with Caesar dressing.   Joe’s touches include red peppers and a sole cherry pepper.  Caesar, after all, was Italian so these small additions are copacetic.  The Caesar dressing is applied lightly so you can enjoy the other salad ingredients.

Clams Casino

13 November 2012: Another unique appetizer is the hot antipasti for two, an entree-sized portion that features stuffed eggplant (with rich Polly-O Premium Ricotta Cheese from New Jersey), clams, calamari, shrimp and mussels baked and served with marinara sauce. The shrimp have that snap that signifies freshness and a sweet brininess that’s addictive. The marinara is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico–slightly sweet, barely acidic and wholly addictive, but it’s the eggplant that makes me want to sing like Bob Morris.  Prepared incorrectly eggplant can leave a “metallic” taste in your mouth that may last for days.  The Pasta House chefs know what they’re doing with eggplant!  By itself, it’s quite good, but the Pasta House tops it with melted mozzarella and bits of prosciutto. 

The eggplant is indeed exquisite.  It’s the type of dish which makes all your synapses fire as your taste buds try to discern the adventure of flavors going on in your mouth.  Texturally, the skin of the eggplant is soft, but not mushy.  The prosciutto is fairly mild and not nearly as salty as some prosciutto is prone to being.  The sauce is rich with tomatoes, basil, garlic and other spices.  This is an excellent appetizer, a wonderful way to start a meal. Regulars know the stuffed eggplant is standard fare on the daily buffet.  To offer his patrons more variety Joe removed the eggplant from his buffet and replaced it with another item.  That tactic lasted one day, a day he remembers for having made about 75 trips to the kitchen to prepare the beloved eggplant dish for his guests.

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp

17 January 2016: When we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my Kim’s work-commute took her past pristine sandy beaches and spectacular blue waters. Alas, it also took her past several seafood processing plants, the malodorous emanations of which turned her off seafood for years. She won’t partake of seafood unless it is at the peak of freshness with absolutely no “fishy” smell.  She loves the seafood at Joe’s Pasta House.  It’s unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Her new favorite may be the clams casino. Created in a Rhode Island casino near the turn of the 20th century, clams casino (fresh little neck clams steamed in broth with garlic, red onions and bacon) are a magnificent mariner’s favorite.  The combination of crispy bacon and sweet clams is addictive.

10 August 2014: One of the menu items which best shows Joe’s versatility and creativity is the sweet and spicy shrimp dish, an appetizer which by name alone you might think would be a Chinese dish.  In actuality, Joe concocted this starter as a tribute to the predilection for piquancy among New Mexicans.  The piquancy is courtesy of a roasted pineapple Habanero sauce.  At about 350,000 Scoville units, the Habanero  pepper ranks as one of the most incendiary peppers on Earth.  Not always sufficiently appreciated is its citrus-like properties.  It’s those properties which complement the roasted pineapple so utterly well.  To temper the sweet notes of the pineapple, the sauce is also replete with garlic and red onions.  The eight large shrimp are superbly fresh and have a discernible snap when you bite into them.  They’re served over a bed of fresh spinach.

Mediterranean Style Calamari

Addictive is an apt description for a lightly breaded eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese, prosciutto and sauteed spinach, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese.  Eggplant is the bane of my kitchen, a dish I’ve never been able to prepare well (hence my aforementioned references to “metallic” taste), but Joe’s rendition comes highly recommended by a trusted fellow gastronome and friend Dave Hurayt who calls it “exquisite…more than a full meal.”  Dave knows what he’s talking about.  He’s a world-traveler who’s experienced the very best in Italian food throughout Boston, New York City and Italy.  Another friend, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver calls this the very best dish on Joe’s formidable menu.  My Italian sister-in-law says it’s just like her sainted mama used to make. 

29 August 2014: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read “fried lasagna?”  More than a few of you will probably cringe in terror at the thought of Paula Deene slathering up a perfectly good lasagna with butter then frying it.  History recounts that lasagna has actually been fried well before the popular pasta dish was even called lasagna.  In fact a First Century recipe describes “lagana” as thin sheets of wheat flour dough with crushed lettuce juice, flavored with spices, then fried.

Fried Breaded Meatballs

Fast forward some twenty centuries and innovative restaurants such as Joe’s Pasta House are preparing the most indulgent and delicious fried lasagna you can imagine.  As expected, your fork will penetrate past a blanket of molten cheese and sink down into layers of delicious strips of lasagna noodles and ground sausage resplendent in one of Joe’s famous red sauces.  Much less expected is the piquant bite, the genesis of which is actually the sausage.  It’s not New Mexico chile piquant, but it’s got a bite to it. 

12 July 2015:  In recent years the term “fusion” has been widely used to describe the blending of two or more cuisines to create innovative and sometimes quite delicious dishes.  Though Joe would probably dismiss the term fusion, he does marry Italian ingredients and culinary techniques with those of his adopted home state to create uniquely delicious dishes which bring great credit to both cultures.  Among them is the fried breaded meatballs, a special offered in July, 2015.

Ziti Alla Vodka

Ziti Alla Vodka

The name “fried breaded meatballs” in and of itself may not sound especially interesting or delicious, but at the hands of Joe’s kitchen staff, these meaty orbs are quite wonderful.  Take four traditional breaded and fried meatballs, top them with a New Mexico green chile spinach cream sauce and melted mozzarella and you’ve got a rich, indulgent, absolutely decadent adventure in deliciousness.  While dense and coarse, the meatballs are mostly meat, not some filler.  They’d be terrific by themselves, but the green chile spinach sauce elevates them to rarefied status…and that sauce.  Oh, that sauce.  Bill Gates isn’t that rich.

29 August 2014:  In recent years the seemingly de rigueur calamari appetizer has fallen out of fashion, largely because it’s almost always prepared exactly the same way–strips or ringlets of breaded calamari served with a side of marinara.  Joe’s dares to be different, offering a “Mediterranean style” calamari that brings personality and zest to an appetizer which too often earns the adjective “boring.”  At Joe’s, this is one exciting calamari dish redolent with tangy and invigorating flavors. The fried calamari is topped with warm feta cheese, capers, artichoke hearts, red onions and kalamata olives in a lemon-butter sauce. It’s even better than it sounds and thankfully Joe’s serves it in a characteristically large portion size because you and your dining companion will be vying for as much of it as you can get.

Manicotti Bolognese

16 November 2013:  Joe’s fried breaded butternut squash and ricotta ravioli is one of those seasonal appetizers which may have you wishing it was autumn all year round.   Four raviolis, each the size of an iPhone are served with a piñon cream sauce so rich and decadent, it should come with a warning.  As addictive as the ravioli are, they’re also so rich you couldn’t possibly eat more than two, but you’ll relish every single morsel.  The butternut squash and ricotta combination is a perfect blend of semi-sweet and savory, buttery and creamy.  The sauce features not only woodsy New Mexico piñon, but nutmeg and cinnamon to accentuate the squash.  This is one seriously good, ultra rich, ultra delicious appetizer.

Entrees

7 April 2007: The menu is broken into several sections: fresh salads, appetizers, local favorites, traditional favorites, house specialties, seafood favorites and grilled entrees. Within each section are various options, all sure to please the most discerning diners. From the “Local Favorites” section comes a Mediterranean Pasta entree as good as you might expect to find at an upscale Greek restaurant. This dish is crafted with artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese sautéed in a white wine butter sauce all served atop linguine pasta (or you can substitute penne). Available with chicken or shrimp, it is richly calorific and served in a deep dish. You’re sure to have some left over.

Traditional Gnocchi Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

Traditional Gnocchi

9 January 2014: Another local favorite not commonly found in Albuquerque area Italian restaurants (but extremely popular in New York City and which we’ve also had in the deep South) is the beguiling Ziti alla Vodka, Ziti pasta with prosciutto and scallions in a vodka pink sauce.  The sauce appears to be  combination of the restaurant’s rich Alfredo sauce and its meatless marinara with a bit of vodka splashed in and the alcohol cooked out.  It’s inventive and unconventional, creamy and rich, sweet and savory…and absolutely delicious.  The pasta is slightly more than al dente and the scallions appear to have been added after the entree is put together, offering a nice contrast.  The prosciutto is sliced into tiny morsels and offers a startling taste and texture difference that you can’t help but take notice.  This is an excellent entree.

4 August 2007: One of the restaurant’s richest entrees is the Fettuccini Carbonara (pictured above) made with green peas, pancetta and a heavy cream sauce that will put weight on you just by looking at it.  There are two Albuquerque area restaurants whose carbonara I recommend highly–Paisano’s Italian Restaurant and Joe’s Pasta House.  The commonality is a subtle balance of rich flavors and perfectly prepared pasta crafted from complementary ingredients.

Baked Cannelloni

14 May 2016: Though it’s easy to characterize Joe’s Pasta House as a “red sauce” restaurant, in truth the restaurant excels at a variety of sauces, some complex and some simple, but all delicious.  During a visit in January, 2011, we happened upon the former, a special of the evening my Kim’s friend Rosalie Marella makes in Chicago.  The label “special” certainly fits.  It’s rigatoni pasta and pork ribs, (old-world-style tender pork ribs slow-cooked in Joe’s homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil, olive oil and Romano cheese served over imported rigatoni pasta), an Italian dish showcasing a simple, but magnificently executed tomato sauce.  Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this addictive dish is the interplay between the acidic tomato sauce and the rich, creamy, sharp flavor of the Romano cheese which Joe applies in perfect proportion to impart a discernibly magnificent contrast.

The pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty (porky?) enough for Fred Flintstone.  It’s easy to extricate the pork off the bone, but your inclination will probably be to pick them up and gnaw off that pork with your hands.  It’s a messy proposition considering the tomato sauce, but then that’s what napkins are for.  The rigatoni pasta is prepared at just slightly past al dente,  but certainly not nearly to the level of the squishy, mushy overdone pasta served at the restaurant at which I’m forced to eat once a year.

Rigatoni Pasta and Pork Ribs

23 January 2011: As smooth as degustation (a sensory (taste, smell, tactile, experience) appreciation of a meal, especially with good company) tends to be at Joe’s, there are some meals  which are thoroughly enjoyable while you partake of them at the restaurant, but not so enjoyable if you’re prone to indigestion later.  One of these is the Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp special, a sinfully rich dish of lobster and ricotta engorged ravioli topped with sauteed shrimp, fresh peas and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce.  It’s the brandy cream sauce which will get you.  It’s ultra rich, but also ultra-delicious which means you’ll probably polish off the entire plate. Then there’s the lobster.  Each ravioli (tablet-sized) is engorged with fresh, delicious and rich lobster meat.

13 November 2012: If ravioli is what you crave, there are a variety of ways in which you can have it at Joe’s.  It’s available as a breaded and deep-fried appetizer served with a mushroom cream sauce.  It’s available as an entree where it’s stuffed with cheese and topped with marinara sauce.  It’s also available off-the-menu as an entree called the Giovanni Special.  Invented by John, one of Joe’s long-time waiters, this dish is the mother lode for ravioli lovers.  It features six round cheese stuffed raviolis, three meatballs and two sausages topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella.  This is one of those dishes only regular guests know about.  We’ve had to describe it to members of the wait staff who have never heard of it; fortunately Joe knows precisely what it is.

Giovanni Special: Six cheese stuffed ravioli, three meatballs, two sausages topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

13 November 2012: The Baked Cannelloni, homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella is akin to having one large ravioli. The season beef is an excellent counterpoint to the rich, melted mozzarella and the tangy sauce. Roughly the size of a baked potato, it’s a red sauce dish with the richness of an Alfredo sauce. As with all entrees at Joe’s, it’s an archetypal example of how good this specific dish can be.

16 November 2013: Every once in a while Joe’s will feature a special which proves just how much the restaurant’s cuisine has also been influenced by the Land of Enchantment.  Now, green chile on Italian pasta dishes isn’t exactly a novel concept in New Mexico, but rarely is it done as well as the Green Chili (sic) Chicken Ravioli, ricotta-filled ravioli topped with sauteed chicken and green chili Alfredo sauce.  The piquancy (discernible, but not overwhelming) and roasted flavor of the green chile are a perfect foil for the richness of the Alfredo sauce…and it is rich.  It’s also delicious, a fine departure from the tried and true sauce. 

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli: Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli

16 November 2013: In November, 2012, four time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison published an article entitled 5 Top New Mexico Spots for Divine Gnocchi on her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog.  Cheryl lamented that for years she tended to avoid gnocchi in restaurants because “most I’d sampled in such settings were heavy with a gluey quality I associate with eating paste in kindergarten.”  She elaborated that “gnocchi should be hearty but have an ethereal lightness about them, too.”  The traditional gnocchi at Joe’s would make my top five.  Traditional means the gnocchi are made from potato, not semolina flour as prepared at some restaurants.  Potatoes is the way gnocchi are made in the Piedmont region of Italy and it’s the way gnocchi tastes best.  At Joe’s the gnocchi are topped with a superb tomato sauce and topped with meatballs and Italian sausage.

While the pasta dishes are infused with flavor, it’s apparent the chef’s culinary skills are as plentiful as are the portions.  Joe’s Pasta House is by no means a one-trick pasta.  In August, 2009, the menu was upscaled with the addition of an admirable cavalcade of chops: Porterhouse steak, French style pork chops, lamb chops and more.  These are chops the type of which you might expect to find in Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders.”  If Joe has his way, perhaps Rio Rancho should be called “City of Big Chops.”  Lamb chops.  Pork chops.  Porterhouse steaks.

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

15 January 2014: The Colorado lamb chops are cloud-like luscious and redolent with grilled flavor.  At about an inch thick, they’re the antithesis of the tiny, emasculated chops so many restaurants serve and each order includes four prepared to your exacting specifications.  At medium rare as the chef recommends they be prepared, the flavorful juices flow as you cut into them.  As with much of the lamb served in restaurants, the inherent gaminess associated with lamb has been somewhat bred out which is why medium rare works so well.  These chops are tender and succulent with just the slightest hint of fat for additional flavor.   They’re also not served in the “Frenched” style with the bone “handle” for easy handling.   The lamb chops are served with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes and a ramekin of delicious gravy made from pan drippings.

Porcine perfection can be found in the form of juicy French cut grilled pork chops in a Chianti mushroom sauce.  Chianti is a full and rich red wine that couples well with the mushrooms to imbue the inch-thick chops with a complementary flavor that doesn’t detract from their native pork flavor in any way.  Two chops for under twenty dollars is an additional bonus. 

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

In February, 2013, Joe’s Pasta House began offering a “Fish Fry” as its Tuesday night weekday special.  If you’re from the Midwest, you know that fish fry is practically a religion.  Consider the dining room tables at Joe’s your altar as you enjoy two pieces of hand-breaded, cold-water, wild-caught flounder served with a garden salad, fried potatoes and a house made tartar sauce!  The fish is fried in 100% vegetable oil.  Meat lovers have their own special day, too.  On Wednesdays, the special is all-natural, slow-roasted, Black Angus Prime Rib served with garden salad and mashed potatoes!  Liquid smoke doesn’t exist within the same zip code as this slow-roasted slab of beefy deliciousness. 

15 January 2014: The prime rib is available in ten- and twelve-ounce sizes.  It’s become so popular that you’re well advised to get to Joe’s early (the prime rib special is available from 4PM to 9PM) because once it runs out, you’re out of luck.   Because of the demand, Joe’s roasts some four prime rib roasts.  It’s easy to see why the prime rib is so popular.  It’s very tender, cutting almost like butter and revealing a perfectly pink center (at medium) with rich juices flowing copiously onto your plate.  As with great prime rib, the “crust” is seared to perfection.  Seasoning is earthy and natural, accentuating the terrific grass-fed flavor of the beef.   The accompanying horseradish sauce has some bite, but not so much that it detracts from the starring attraction. 

Veal Parmigiana

15 January 2014: You can add a dinner or Caesar salad with your entree for a pittance or top your steak with sauteed sliced mushrooms, melted mozzarella cheese or sauteed sweet onions for just a bit more.  If you’re tastes are more inclined toward surf and turf, you can also top any of your steak or chop entrees with garlic scallops.  Because scallops are delicately flavored and sweet, you might think garlic would overwhelm those qualities, but that’s not the case.  The garlic kisses the scallops softly so as not to change their flavor profile.  This is a surprisingly nice dish.

4 April 2014: During my years in New England, I consumed boatloads of creamy, comforting, delicious seafood bisques and chowders from Maine to Connecticut.  Nothing in the world compares to a thick, sweet, creamy bisque served at a waterfront restaurant with the advantage of being able to use freshly caught, just off the boat seafood.  There’s also no equal for enjoying such a repast while the salty sea air and balmy ocean breeze lulls you into a state of blissful relaxation. 

Seafood Bisque

Seafood Bisque

Joe’s Pasta House has none of those advantages, but somehow manages to serve a seafood bisque which transports me back to so many wonderful afternoons on the wharf at Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The bisque isn’t always on the menu, but when it is, it quickly sells out.  That’s because Rio Rancho may be a landlocked city several hundred miles from the sea, but its citizenry knows great seafood.  A large soup cup is brimming with fresh crab, mussels and clams sharing a creamy home with carrots, scallions, celery and a single crostini.  The seafood is unbelievably fresh and surprisingly plentiful with sweet crab being especially cherished.  The bisque is creamy and thick and is served at the perfect height of steaminess.  See where it ranks among my favorite soups in New Mexico here

10 August 2014: Blessed with 5,000 miles of coastline, Italy is a nation which cherishes the frutti di mari (fruits of the sea).  Pairing pasta with luscious seafood is virtually a culinary sport for Italian chefs.  There are hundreds of potential variations for something which sounds as simple and basic as a seafood stew or zuppa di pesci.  Italian chefs have learned to exercise restraint to balance the briny seafood with the delicate pasta.  A great seafood stew isn’t about mixing a net full of seafood with a bowl of pasta.  It’s about complementary ingredients melding together well. 

Italian Seafood Stew- Zuppa di Pesci

Joe’s version of seafood stew is a wonderful balance of fresh seafood  with perfectly prepared pasta served in a large boat…er, bowl.  The seafood–shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, lump crab and Atlantic salmon–are so fresh you might forget you’re in a landlocked state and not dockside.  The seafood is served atop a linguini pasta in a tomato basil bullion which allows all ingredients to sing.  A sweeter sauce or one more acerbic would not have gone so well with the delicate, delicious, briny seafood, but the tomato basil brings out the seafood’s natural flavors.  Joe served this dish on the first Sunday in which his magnificent restaurant opened for lunch. 

29 August 2014: One of the most traditional “red sauce” entrees is the almost anachronistic veal parmigiana which the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants don’t even deign to put on their menus.  Veal parmigiana is a circa 1960s favorite of Italian restaurants throughout the East Coast where it’s referred to simply as “veal parm.”  Perhaps one of the reasons this wonderful dish has fallen out of favor is because it’s not always prepared well.   At Joe’s, the veal parmigiana is the stuff of which dreams are made.  The veal is lightly breaded and perfectly prepared.  It’s fork tender and delicious with a blanket of molten Parmesan and Mozzarella and rich, tangy red sauce providing a delicious cover 

Linguini Pasta with Fried Breaded Clams and Scallops

12 July 2015: While I was raving effusively about Joe’s red sauces, my Kim once retorted “if you love them so much, you should marry them.”  I tell her she was being ridiculous.  The state of New Mexico prohibits polygamy.  You know when I eschew a red sauce dish at Joe’s, what I order instead has got to be very special.  Special is a good way to describe the linguini pasta with fried breaded clams and strips, a weekend special during the second week of July, 2015.  A very delicate pasta is tossed with red and orange cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and Romano cheese then topped with fried breaded clam strips and scallops.  Fried clams are extremely rare in the Land of Enchantment.  Leave it to Joe to prepare them in the manner and style of my favorite New England clam shacks.  Even if they weren’t the sublime clam bellies I prefer, the clams transported me back to Essex in Massachusetts.  Joe’s has a way of transporting diners to better places and states of satisfaction.

26 July 2015: With a veritable compendium of a menu, not to mention specials that live up to that distinction, you’re bound to find something you’ve never had before or haven’t had in quite a while.  For me, the entree fitting the latter is Veal Saltimbocca, veal scallopini with red onions, garlic, mushrooms and prosciutto topped with melted mozzarella and served with a pesto cream sauce.   In Italian, the term saltimbocca means “to jump in the mouth,” supposedly a reference to the  dish being so good that it literally jumps into the diner’s mouth.  This isn’t just hyperbole; it literally is that good.  The tender, moist veal is pounded into thin medallions that would be excellent by themselves.  The herbaceous pesto renders them even more delicious.

French Cut Pork Chops

26 July 2015: It seems ironic that a proud Italian restaurant would serve French-cut pork chops…and no, “French cut,” in this case, has nothing to do with cutting women’s underwear so as to emphasize a woman’s thigh.   You don’t have to be a Francophile to understand that “French-cut” means to slice food lengthwise into long, thin strips.  Easily three-quarters of an inch thick, Joe’s pork chops are grilled and topped with a Chianti mushroom pan sauce you might be tempted to lap up when you’re done.  The chops are grilled to your exacting specification and at medium, have plenty of moistness while retaining a fork tenderness.  This is a white meat dish sure to appease all carnivores. 

17 January 2016:  Jonesing for a steak on a Sunday morning, we rattled off one steakhouse after the other before it dawned on me that the Joe’s weekend dinner special for January 15, 16 and 17 was a grilled New York Strip steak topped with sauteed mushrooms, sweet onions and melted Provolone cheese served with battered onion rings.  No steakhouse would have done it better.  Better than a one-inch cut and easily twelve-ounces, it is a moist and tender slab of beef prepared to your exacting specifications (for optimum juiciness go for no more than medium-rare).  The sauteed fleshy fungi are earthy and sweet, counterbalanced by the melted molten blanket of Provolone.  Then there are the onion rings, a stack of golden fried orbs and for great measure, wonderfully prepared asparagus spears.

Grilled New York Strip Steak

17 January 2016: All along the coast of Italy, frutti di mare which translates from Italian to “fruit of the sea” offers a beloved multi-seafood soiree.  The myriad of seafood flavors at Joe’s includes shrimp, clams, calamari, mussels and scallops over a best of linguine in your choice of spicy marinara sauce or garlic butter white wine sauce.  At Joe’s the “spicy” marinara sauce isn’t so spicy or piquant that it detracts from the freshness and sweetness of the seafood.  If anything, the marinara brings out those qualities.  There’s a netful of seafood in each swimming pool-sized bowl of the fruits of the sea.  The next time someone tells you there isn’t good seafood in the Duke City area, bring them to Joe’s and order this dish for them.

There is so much to love at Joe’s Pasta House, an Italian restaurant several orders of magnitude better than the heavily trafficked Olive Garden to which I’m subjected once a year. In 2013 that fact was acknowledged when Joe’s Pasta House was selected by readers of Albuquerque The Magazine as the “best Italian restaurant” in the metropolitan area.  That’s proof that Joe’s has become a dining destination drawing diners from throughout the Duke City area and beyond. In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine readers voted Joe’s “Top Five” in four different categories: Best Italian, Best Wait Staff (the pulchritudinous Randi and vivacious Victoria are our favorites), Best Place to Overindulge and Best Buffet.

Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich

While Joe’s Pasta House has earned popular acclaim from a faithful customer base, Joe’s culinary skills aren’t always as critically acclaimed.  Rarely will you hear his name mentioned in discussions about the best chefs in the metropolitan area.  Some of that is based on the misbegotten perception that red sauce dishes aren’t as sophisticated and challenging to prepare as the “high-brow” dishes served in “Northern Italian” restaurants.  Another reason is Joe’s self-effacing nature.  He’s not one to crow about his skills and is modest to a fault.  When we lavished praise on his phenomenal rigatoni pasta and pork ribs dish, he dismissed it as “just another dish we ate at home growing up in New York.”  If only every chef was as modest…and talented. 

14 May 2016: We’re convinced there’s nothing Joe can’t do.  Want pizza?  The housemade Sicilian-style pizza, available on the daily lunch buffet, is terrific.  Two or seven slices of pizza and a serving or five of the eggplant parmigiana and you’ll be smiling for a week.  The lunch menu also includes a third-pound burger and a number of hero sandwich, the best of which may just be the Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich, a beauteous behemoth as good as any sandwich in New Mexico.  Greatness is destined for any sandwich lucky enough to be made on the exceptional bread which comes fresh from Joe’s bread ovens every day.  Nestled between the pillow-soft bread are generous slices of delightfully seasoned salami and sharp, creamy cheese dressed your way.

Frutti Di Mare “

Desserts

Not surprisingly, the Pasta House also has a stellar dessert tray with palate-pleasing options galore: German chocolate cake, chocolate cake, lemon cake, chocolate cannoli, red velvet cheesecake and oh, so much more. It’s all tempting and likely all delicious. Only the tiramisu and cannoli are prepared in-house.  Other desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor.   Both the tiramisu and the cannoli are absolute must-have desserts.  In the inaugural Taste of Rio Rancho (held in 2014), the tiramisu was acclaimed the City of Vision’s very best dessert.  I was fortunate enough to have served as a judge along with my friend Larry McGoldrick.  When the tiramisu was brought to us, we knew there aren’t many desserts in New Mexico as good as Joe’s terrific tiramisu.

The Italian Dream Cake will inspire nocturnal smiles.  It’s rich, creamy and delicious.  The cannoli is among the best in the city, replete with rich ricotta brought in from New Jersey.  The lemon cake zings with a nice tanginess while the German chocolate cake is the perfect marriage of coconut, pecans and chocolate.  Desserts are decadent, delicious and dreamy.

Joe’s magnificent tiramisu, the very best in Rio Rancho

Though they’re absolutely indefatigable ambassadors for their establishment, Joe and Kassie also rave about other restaurants in the City of Vision, an act of class so very typical of this dynamic couple who win the hearts and stomachs of their guests one delicious dining experience at a time. 

10 AUGUST 2014:  By popular demand, Joe’s Pasta House is now open on Sundays from 12PM to 7:30PM.  Treat yourself to the Albuquerque area’s favorite Italian restaurant where you’ll be well taken care of by the most professional staff in New Mexico.

JOE’S PASTA HOUSE
3201 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-3333
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 25
RATING: 25
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pesto, Mediterranean Pasta, Hot Antipasti for Two, Lasagna, Cannelloni, Giovanni Special, Fetuccini Carbonara, Zita Alla Vodka, Gnocchi, Butternut Squash and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli,  Tiramisu, Cannoli, Italian Cream Cake, Green Chili Chicken Ravioli, Colorado Lamb Chops, Prime Rib, Seafood Bisque, Veal Parmigiano, Fried Lasagna, Calamari Mediterranean Style, Sweet and Spicy Shrimp, French-Style Pork Chops, Veal Saltimbocca, Fruitti De Mare, Steamed Clams Casino, Grilled New York Strip Steak, Rigatoni Pasta and Pork Ribs, Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich

Joe's Pasta House on Urbanspoon

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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