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MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary & Tito's may serve the very best red chile in Albuquerque

Mary & Tito’s, THE very best New Mexican restaurant in the world!

Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963.  It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance.  These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful.  If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains.  Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.

Just how good is Mary & Tito’s?  In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had.  Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30” rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.

Mary Ann Gonzales for whom the restaurant is named passed away on Tuesday, September 17, 2013.  She was a great and wonderful lady!  Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again.  Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel.  Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.

There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips.  Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there.  It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico and now my highest rated in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.

Mary & Tito’s legendary carne adovada. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s.  In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.

Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990, his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales and their effervescent daughter Antoinette provided the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversaw an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere.  A spry nonagenarian, Mary remained a peripatetic presence at the restaurant virtually until passing away on September17, 2013.  Guests at Mary & Tito’s will miss seeing her energetically flitting to and from tables to make sure her customers are enjoying their meals.  Invariably, they all are!

Mary & Tito's green chile burrito stuffed with guacamole and rice--one of the very best burritos in the universe!

A rare sight–green chile on a burrito at Mary & Tito’s where red is best!

The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!  Beads of perspiration glisten on my friend Ruben’s forehead with every bite, but he perseveres through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor.  Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like.  It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like.  The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.

Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it.  Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin). There is magic in this purity.  There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch.  There’s none of that in this red chile!

A guacamole, beans and rice burrito with red chile. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat.  My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.

My friend Ruben, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, is absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.”  As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

A large combination plate: taco, tamale, cheese enchilada, beans and rice

In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment.  As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed.  Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stands out, the best of the best!

The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef.  With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.

The Monday Special: A large combination plate–taco, chile relleno and cheese enchilada

Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito.  It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!

With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.

Chile relleno covered in red.

Chile relleno covered in red.

The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion.  The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte.  As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.

My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other.  In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment).  New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker.  He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.

A huskless tamale smothered in red chile

You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover’ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city.

Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa.  The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.

Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy.  Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city.  Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out.  A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.

Carne Adovada Omelet

Carne Adovada Omelet

Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams.  There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.

Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive.  They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself.  They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific desserts available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and chips at Mary & Tito’s

For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular.  Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times.  You won’t find any better in New Mexico.  You won’t find anything close.

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

Chicharones, Mary & Tito’s style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.  Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.

While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?

The James Beard Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.”  The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.”  New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s?  Why not?  They’re fantastic!

In the February, 2013 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine  celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.”  I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved.  It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.

Mary & Tito’s fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013.  While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s.  The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu.  More converts!

Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.

MARY & TITO’S CAFE
2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-344-6266
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 36
RATING: 27
COST: $$
BEST BET
: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones,  Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate

Mary & Tito's Cafe on Urbanspoon

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE – Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.

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The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

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Chef Fernando Olea (in a rare pose in that he’s not wearing his hat) and the horno in which magic is created

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.

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Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.

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A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.

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Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!

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Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.

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Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.

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Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.

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Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.

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Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

20 March 2014: The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.

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Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

20 March 2014: Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

20 March 2014: When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.

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Abalone

20 March 2014:  Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Epazote17

Poblano Soup

20 March 2014: A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

20 March 2014: It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.

Epazote19

Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck (guava)

20 March 2014: The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

20 March 2014:  Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought it to our table, he described in alchemic terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

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Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon

From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-9944
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 March 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup,

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David Burke’s Primehouse – Chicago, Illinois

David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago

By day, my friend James Sorenham was an architect of his business group’s data warehouse and business intelligence strategies.  By night and on weekends, James was a gentleman farmer tending to a small herd at his Broke Again ranch outside Portland, Oregon.  James took immense pride in raising prized beef cattle and kept his colleagues apprised of their progress through his weekly status reports.  Alas, his writing skills weren’t in the same zip code as his data management skills so when he reported that he had “personally inseminated sixteen cows,” he got teased mercilessly about his deviant bestial activities.

The fact that David Burke is the first chef to own his own bull means “personal insemination” of beef cattle can best be left to the bovine persuasion.  That leaves Chef Burke to follow his passions as one of America’s most pioneering chefs and self-proclaimed chef, artist, entrepreneur and inventor.  The New York-based Burke is a practitioner of culinology, a revolutionary approach to food that blends technology and the culinary arts.  By experimenting with interesting ingredients and cooking techniques, he has developed such culinary innovations as an edible bacon candle which can be lit, smelled and eaten.  His innovative style translates well to the arena of prime grade beef.

My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner about to take their seats in one of the capacious dining rooms at David Burke’s Primehouse

Founded in 2006, David Burke’s Primehouse has redefined the modern American steakhouse with its out-of-the-box approach to culinary creativity.  Located in the James Chicago Hotel on the corner of Rush and Ontario just west of the Magnificent Mile, the restaurant remains one of Chicago’s few remaining practitioners of dry-aging its beef.  The Primehouse dry-ages its beef in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room on the premises.  While USDA prime grade, hand-selected beef is the restaurant’s raison d’etre, the menu also showcases Chef Burke’s signature whimsical and imaginative dishes such as the Lollipop Tree, cheesecakes on lollipop sticks.

The Primehouse has two full-time butchers who butcher meats and fish on a daily basis Monday through Friday.  The back wall of the aging room is lined with Himalayan pink salt which performs two functions.  It purifies the air and slowly seasons the beef by extracting all the moisture out of the beef.  The Himalayan Salt Room (henceforth known as the aging room) is maintained at a constant state of between 34 and 40 degrees with sixty-percent humidity (a normal refrigerator is at about ninety-percent humidity).  All the beef is tagged with the date it was placed into the aging room and its weight at the time.

Cheese bread

Because of the room’s climatic conditions, the beef begins to break down very slowly, but doesn’t dehydrate all the way through.  Instead it becomes more tender.   While in the drying room, however, the beef’s exterior is desiccated and the cut of beef is firm and hard as might be expected from beef stored in a cold-temperature.  Ideally, the beef experiences about a twenty-percent loss of volume after 28 days and another fifteen-percent when it’s trimmed later.  At 75 days, the beef experiences a loss in volume of about 55 percent.  The Primehouse dry-ages ribeyes, sirloins, short-loins and chuck as well as prosciutto, kidneys, veal breads and brisket.

With “wet-aging,” the process used by many of Chicago’s best steak and chop houses, the beef is placed into a plastic bag and is then cryo-vacuumed (air is sucked out of it).  The beef basically “sits” there and flavor isn’t developed.  When you cut a wet-aged slab of beef into individual steaks, a puddle of blood ensues  With the dry-aging process used at the Primehouse, flavor is actually developed because of the catalytic intensification.  When a dry-aged cut of beef is prepared, what’s being cooked is the beauteous marbling and fat which breaks down the beef, making it tender and imparting a sweet, meaty flavor some have likened to an exotic foie gras like quality.

Bacon Sticks: black pepper, maple syrup

The beef at David Burke’s Primehouse is brought in once a week from Kentucky.  The aforementioned 2,500-pound bull, who just might have the best job in the world, performs his “service” three times a day six days a week.  The cows are high quality Black Angus prime.  The aging room can accommodate more approximately 12,000 pounds of beef valued as much as some homes.  Because of the restaurant’s bustling business, the aging room retains a month and a half of inventory at all times.  The minimum dry-aging period is 28 days and the maximum is 75 though one ribeye has remained in the aging room since April 4, 2006 when the restaurant first opened.  It’s starting weight was 10.10 pounds, but today, it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

When the beef is trimmed down, all the aged beef trim and fat is rendered down and tossed with roasted garlic, mustard powder and spices before being brushed on each steak as it goes out.  The staff calls it “beef love.”  It’s no wonder so many consider the Primehouse the very best steakhouse not only in Chicago, but in the entire country.   Prime dry-aged beef is only one of many things the restaurant does exceedingly well. Chicago Magazine named the Primehouse “Burker” one of the top ten burgers in Chicago.  Not surprisingly, the ten ounces of beef which form the beef patty are also dry aged.

Ahi Tuna: spicy chili bean sauce

The Primehouse has a relatively understated ambiance.  It’s contemporary and relaxing.  The cynosure at one wall is shelf work from which small blocks of Himalayan salt dangle.  Lighting is subdued, but sufficient for the visual appreciation of your meal.  The ambassador-like staff will take excellent care of you, explaining every detail of the aging process to the extent you want.  We asked a lot of questions and were amazed at our server’s encyclopedic knowledge. Our server happened to be from Santa Fe and took very good care of us.  Frankly, the only aspect of our meal that wasn’t absolutely first-rate was the soundtrack which seemed overly loud and disjointed for an otherwise classy milieu.

As you contemplate the menu,a cheesy Parmesan bread “popover” on a tin-can-like pan will be delivered to your table.  It’s a delicious difference from the de rigueur, ho-hum bread served at many steak restaurants.  The exterior of the Parmesan popover is crusty while the interior is light and chewy.  Best of all, it’s served with soft butter.  You’ll luxuriate in the popover’s wispy softness as you contemplate the “sticks and stones” on the menu.  Sticks are essentially items such as bacon, octopus and Kobe corn dogs served on a lollipop type stick.  Stones are hot Himalayan salt stones atop which you cook such starters as ahi tuna, steak and lamb loin. 

A “Caesarista” prepares to create a Caesar salad tableside.

One experience not to be missed is the tableside creation of a Caesar salad.  It’s one of the unique and personal experiences that once set apart the very best prime steak restaurants of a bygone era  A specially trained “Caesar barista” or “Caesarista” whisks the Parmesan-rich dressing by hand with egg yolks then tosses it with fresh Romaine lettuce.  Other classic ingredients include garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and of course, Parmesan.   Your Caesarista will ask whether or not you want anchovies on your salad.  Frankly, it’s the only way a Caesar salad should ever be made.

From among the “sticks,” the one which called loudest to me is the bacon, five sticks of thick pork-belly bacon.  This is a perfect marriage of savory and sweet, pairing a smoky, salty bacon laced with black pepper and a lacquer-like maple syrup coating.   This fun carnival-stick-food-like starter is further proof that bacon goes well with everything.  From the “stones” section of the menu, we had the Ahi tuna with a spicy chili bean sauce.  For what more could you ask: five pieces of uncooked tuna per order plus the treat of preparing it yourself on a thick Himalayan salt stone.  If you like your sashimi slightly seared, you’d better pay close attention to the cooking process.  Even at just slightly more than seared, the tuna is quite good.  The spicy chili bean sauce adds punch and saltiness.

Himalayan Salt Dry-Aged Reserve Ribeye Steak Aged 75 Days

On an October 8, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “Meat & Potatoes,” host Rahm Fama called the Primehouse’s 75-day dry-aged rib-eye “the best steak I’ve had in my 35 years!”  An endorsement from a highly respected chef and fellow carnivore (especially one from New Mexico like Fama) certainly carries a lot of weight with me.  While the 75-day dry aged rib-eye may be perpetually listed on the menu, it isn’t always available.  On the date of our visit, only one 75-day aged steak remained.  My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner insisted I have the privilege of consuming it.  Bill would order the 55-day aged ribeye and Paul the 40-day aged ribeye.

I must admit there’s more than a little bit of trepidation in ordering a steak the menu describes as having “intense beef flavor.” That sounds just a bit intimidating.  Just what is intense beef flavor and why haven’t I had it before?  Our server recommended the steak be prepared at medium-rare.  Two bottles of David Burke’s 207L (the designation for Burke’s prize bull) Prime Steak Sauce were brought to our table, but none of us could conceive of desecrating our steaks.  No sauce could possibly have improved on perfection.  The 75-day aged rib-eye was indeed sinfully rich, decadent and utterly beefy. The rib-eye was richly marbled and just as our server explained, the marbling intensified the aged flavor.  So did the “beef love.”  The steak was tender and moist with a pinkish hue, but not the bloody flavor of wet-aged beef.

55-Day Rib-eye

There was a discernible difference in flavor profile between the 75-day rib-eye and the 55-day aged rib-eye described on the menu as “deep, concentrated beef flavor.”  This was another absolutely outstanding steak, one named “best dry aged steak” by Chicago Magazine in 2008.  The 55-day aged rib eye had a nice fat and marbling content and indeed, a bold and concentrated flavor.  The 40-day aged ribeye, described as having “rich beef flavor” was similarly distinctive.  We were amazed at what a difference a few days makes!  Why all prime beef and chop houses don’t dry age their steaks for as long as David Burke’s Primehouse is a mystery.

There are seven side dishes available to have with your steak.  All are available for seven dollars a piece or three for nineteen dollars (as of September, 2012).  The Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style will never be mistaken for Kraft dinner.  It’s a grown-up mac n’ cheese made with a rigatoni noodle, heavy cream, fresh peas and rich cheeses.  Another superb side is the creamy spinach tinged with garlic.  Both the mac n’ cheese and the creamy spinach were very rich, perhaps too rich after having had such an indulgent steak.

Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara style

David Burke has lamented that the steakhouse experience often leaves guests so full, they don’t have room for desserts.  That’s one of the reasons so many of his dishes are intended to be shared.  You have got to save room for one of Burke’s fun and inventive desserts.  The Primehouse desserts, cheeses and coffee menu is unlike that of any restaurant not owned by David Burke.  As fun as it is to peruse, have your server explain the dessert in which you’re interested.  Desserts are not always as they appear.  The “carrot cake” which my friend Bill ordered was essentially a “deconstructed” and reinvented carrot cake.  The components–gingerbread dream rooibos cake, pineapple golden raisin jam, orange cheesecake, black walnut ice cream and candied carrots–aren’t what your mom’s carrot cake recipe calls for, but they make for an outstanding dessert.

The banana split sundae is also unlike any other banana split-sundae hybrid you’ve ever had.  It’s layers of flavor complexity and absolute decadent deliciousness, one of the very best desserts I’ve ever had.  Each component–salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans and roasted pineapple slices–would have made a wonderful dessert on its own, but the compilation was mouth-watering.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the next best thing on the menu to one of the fabulous dry-aged steaks.

Banana Split Sundae: salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans, roasted pineapple

David Burke’s Primehouse is a pioneering steakhouse in a city long renowned for its prime steakhouses.  It’s  a beef emporium for the new millennium with dry-aged prime beef unlike any other anywhere.

DAVID BURKE’S PRIMEHOUSE
616 North Rush at Ontario
The James Hotel Chicago
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 660-6000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: 75-Day Aged Ribeye, 55-Day Aged Ribeye, 35-Day Kansas City Strip, Banana Split Sundae, Carrot Cake, Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style

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