Pasion Latin Fusion – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
Tammy Mollai

Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show has some nerve!  In an episode which first aired in March, 2014, the tough-talking British mesomorph had the audacity to tell America that Pasion Latin Fusion wasn’t the beautiful, graceful swan with which many of us had fallen in love.  Although he didn’t directly call Pasion an ugly duckling paddling about aimlessly, Irvine certainly intimated that things at Pasion weren’t as rosy as some of us may have thought. 

The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  If you’ve ever been to Pasion Latin Fusion, words like failure, dysfunction and drama won’t ever come to mind.  Since its launch in 2011, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, much moreso than reviews for other “failing” restaurants featured on Restaurant: Impossible.

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible show

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show

While the Food Network’s preview synopsized the issues at Pasion as “tension between Monica and their main investor, Elvis’s brother, and a menu that’s leaving customers confused and frustrated,” the most obvious revelation when the episode aired is that Elvis, Monica and Orlando Bencomo are extremely likeable and extraordinarily passionate about their restaurant.  If the Food Network came to Pasion expecting the dysfunction and drama of a soap opera, they instead got a true feel good story accentuating the love of a beautiful family. 

Robert Irvine’s renovation of Pasion was much more than cosmetic though that’s what visitors will notice first.  The interior has been wholly transformed from a milieu of dark jumbled gracelessness into a bright, airy and intimate two-level dining room.  The menu has also been revamped, both in content and in style.  All menu items are now clearly described so there’s no room for confusion.  Some fourteen items make up the “Latin tapas” section of the menu with another five entrees on the “Platos Principales (main courses) menu, but they’re so varied and good you won’t need more.

The Redesigned Interior of Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine

Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of  Elvis  and Monica Bencomo, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors.  The third in the family triumvirate who own and operate Pasion is Orlando Bencomo, Elvis’s brother and main investor in the restaurant.  Orlando, a veteran of Afghanistan, runs the front of the house.  If the Food Network exposure gave any of them a big head, you certainly can’t tell.

Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina.  Get the picture?

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna | Coconut | Habanero | Passion Fruit Sorbet

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna

Monica, the statuesque occasional hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago, but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Together Monica and Elvis have not only made beautiful food together, they actually enjoyed working together when Monica ran the front of the house. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain especially now that Pasion has been renovated.  It is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. A sole fireplace suspended from the ceiling is both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening.  Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.

The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items have combined those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.

Duck Taquitos Green and Yellow Chile | Pickled Vegetables | Mexican Cotija Cheese

Duck Taquitos

Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.

29 March 2014: Latino tapas are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You can make a meal out of the tapas.  Three per person is what our server advised, but he probably based that on my “svelte” physique.  One of those tapas (if it’s on the menu) should be the pasion fruit salsa with chips.  In New Mexico, chips and salsa are pretty de rigueur, so much so that it’s a rare salsa which can distinguish itself.  The pasion fruit salsa is unique, a combination of piquancy, tropical fragrance and tanginess.  It’s a welcome respite from the usual with chips.  Now, if you like your salsa to provide the flavor element of pain, this salsa won’t do it, but it does pack enough heat to titillate your tongue.

Carnitas Tacos

29 March 2014: Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Fire and Ice, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero-coconut sauce and passion fruit sorbet served with tortilla chips.  The habanero-coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut.  The passion fruit sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche.  Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients.  This is genius!

29 March 2014: In the 1980s, restaurants such as Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the West Beach Cafe in Venice, California started a trend still going strong today when they introduced duck tacos.  Being a trend doesn’t equate to being good, however.   Unlike so many others, the duck taquitos at Pasion are worth the build-up and hype.  They’re, in fact, sensational!  There’s only one thing wrong with the three rolled taquitos engorged with pickled vegetables and slow-simmered duck meat seasoned with Caribbean spices topped with yellow and green chile sprinkled with Mexican Cojita cheese.  If there are two of you, splitting that third taqito could end up in the type of drama the Food Network would appreciate.

Caribbean Chicken Adobo

29 March 2014: Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Quesadilla Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches.  Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé  as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based.  At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a hybrid corn-flour tortilla.  Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.” 

22 October 2015: For many New Mexicans the term “chicharron” conjures images of deep-fried cubes of crispy pork cracklings.  We enjoy them in much the way other people eat popcorn.  In parts of Texas and Mexico, chicharrones are more akin to menudo or strips of wiggly, squiggly pork tripe.  Only in Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas had we previously seen chicharrones fashioned from seafood (mariscos).  Leave it to Elvis to introduce Albuquerque to this uniquely delicious entree.  The combination of crispy mixed seafood (African white fish and calamari), pickled vegetables and small mango cubes is a winner, elevated to rarefied air with a habanero tartar sauce so good and so bold and assertive, you may just ask for a second ramekin.

Chicharron de Mariscos

16 July 2016: Absent from the revamped menu are several favorites, but my sense of loss is mitigated by the addition of Caribbean Chicken, among the very best I’ve ever had.  Caribbean chicken isn’t synonymous with jerk chicken.  In fact, Pasion’s Caribbean chicken doesn’t have a piquant punch.  Its flavor profile is derived from non-jerk Caribbean adobo spices and from having been wrapped and roasted in banana leaves which seal in freshness and flavor.  This is outrageously good chicken–two thighs and two legs.  The chicken is served with a white rice and mashed ripe plantain mound, a surprisingly good combination.

16 July 2016: The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet, savory and sour goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.

Pastel de Queso: Goat Cheese Style Cheesecake Drizzled with Mango Caramel

16 July 2016: The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, ranking number ten on Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten best bread puddings in New Mexico. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding though a scoop of vanilla ice cream may help quell the heat for visitors who may not be used to it.

29 March 2014: Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is the Pasion Platano Cake, a banana custard cake topped with passion fruit mousse.  It’s rich, sweet and tangy in every bite.  The lip-pursing tartness isn’t quite lemon-like, but it’ll excite your mouth more than a handful of pop rocks.  Notes of cinnamon and vanilla occasionally sneak the tanginess of the passion fruit and the gentle sweetness of the banana.  If it sounds as if there’s a lot going on in this dessert, that’s because there is.  There’s a taste adventure in every bite.  

Aztec Bread Pudding Con Cajeta with a hint of Red Chile and a Milk Caramel Sauce

Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion.  That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and  unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years.  It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine. 

Note:  Because Pasion Fusion Restaurant changes its menu with some regularity, some of the items described on this review may not be available when you visit.  No matter what’s on the menu, if Elvis is in the building, your meal will be great.

Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7880
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2016
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa, Chicharron De Mariscos

Pasión Latin Fusion Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli

Greek mythology recounts the story of Tantalus, progeny of a divine parent (Zeus himself) and a mortal one.  Uniquely favored among mortals by being invited to share the food of the gods, Tantalus abused that privilege by slaying his own son and feeding him to the gods as a test of their omniscience.  The gods immediately figured out what Tantalus had done and in their rage condemned him to the deepest portion of the underworld where he would be forever “tantalized” with hunger and thirst.  Though immersed up to his neck in water, when Tantalus bent to drink, it all drained away.  When he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

For years, Duke City diners have been tantalized by the promise of signage beckoning us to visit “delis” only to realize, much like the gods of Olympus, that all is not as it appears.  A sign does not a deli make nor do products from peripatetic distributors.  As with Tantalus, we’re left to pine for the authenticity of a true deli, the type of which Albuquerque has not seen since the bygone days of Deli Mart.  Savvy diners may not be able to vanquish the ersatz delis to the underworld, but we can banish these pretenders to the realm of chain restaurants we choose not to frequent.

Meats, Cheeses, Breads, Condiments and so Much More

By strict definition a “deli,” an abbreviated form of delicatessen, is a term meaning “delicacies,” “fine foods” or “delicious things to eat.”   Over time delicatessen and its diminutive form came to represent the store, restaurant or combination thereof in which these delicacies, fine foods and delicious things to eat are sold, either for take-out or eat-in.    For many of us who have lived in large cities, the term deli is synonymous with Jewish deli while for others a deli proffers specialty foods indigenous to Italy, Poland (see Red Rock Deli) or other European nation. 

The hard-liners among us will never accept  that Schlotzky’s, Jason’s, McAlister’s and others of that ilk are delis despite what their signage may say.  Nor will we ever be duped by the deception of diners daring to call themselves delis.  It goes without saying that we don’t believe a deli should  feature products burnishing the labels of Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Kirkland, Butterball or even the ubiquitous Boar’s Head.  An authentic deli should preferably cure, salt, dry and cut its own meats and make at least some of its cheeses–and if it doesn’t do that, it should procure and sell only the finest, most authentic meats and cheeses available.

Italian Charcuterie Board

With the December, 2014 launch of M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli, Albuquerque once again has an authentic Italian deli in the tradition of delis for which hard-core deli aficionados have pined for far too long.  It’s a deli in which I’d proudly break bread with Dave Hurayt, Bruce Schor, Bob Sherwood and Gary Feaster with whom I’ve commiserated about the absence of an authentic deli in Albuquerque.  Best of all, it’s a deli with a pedigree that promises authenticity and deliciousness. 

Trust the ownership triumvirate of John Haas, Katie Gardner and Jeff Spiegel to do for their Italian market and deli what they’ve done for their restaurant. The trio launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in 2013 and accolades quickly piled on (including “Best New Restaurant” honors from Albuquerque The Magazine readers and being named one of the top 100 neighborhood restaurants in the US by Open Table).  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli is located about 150 feet away from its elder sibling in the Montaño Plaza shopping center.

Pickled Board

Ensconced within Lilliputian digs, M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli embodies the axiom “little place, huge flavors.”  Add huge aromas and you might feel you’ve been transported to a small corner New York City Italian deli.    You’ll be amazed at just how much is crammed into such a small space.  Seating for about ten guests is to your immediate left and right as you walk in.  Because of space constraints, the deli’s take-out business will be a robust part of the operation.  The rest of the space is devoted to mouth-watering Italian products, many of which are created on the premises. 

In fact, the talented staff at M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli bakes its own breads (sourdough, rye, whole wheat, baguette, ciabatta, foccacia), makes its pastas and sausages, cures many of its own meats (prosciutto, cotto, sopressata, mortadella, etc.) and makes its cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, etc.).  What isn’t made on the premises is procured from trusted, high-quality sources.  On the shelves you’ll also espy jars of fresh herbs (basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.) while refrigerated deli cases showcase pickled goods (eggplant, sweet or spicy cucumbers, cardamom carrots, giardinera, Sicilian green olives, Macedonian peppers and more).  Your taste buds might go into sensory overload, not to mention involuntary salivation.

Muffaletta with Farro Salad

Optimally, you’ll be able to score one of the four tables for a unique eat-in experience that will allow you to browse and sample as you wait for your meal which, by the way, is so much more than sandwiches.  First on the menu are three Italian charcuterie boards, all of which are accompanied by house-made artisan bread.  After you peruse the four enticing appetizers and three scrumptious salads, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose from among seven featured sandwiches, including a build-your-own option and all served with one side.  You can opt instead for one of three pastas.  Either way, you might not have room left for one of the three luscious desserts.

If, like me, you believe Italian delis start and end with meats and cheeses, you’ve got to try one of the three Charcuterie Boards (Salumi Board, Pickled Board, Cheese Board).  In America, the ancient European culinary art of charcuterie has recently started to become a highly revered and well-practiced art.   Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli not only offers charcuterie, it is a charcuterie!

Pastrami

14 December 2014: The Salumi Board offers three options: pick two, pick three or pick four from among the meats.  An outstanding option is the spicy coppa (short for capicolla), a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat with a taste and texture similar to prosciutto.   If you’re a Sopranos fan, you might recognize capicolla by its slang name “gabagool.” By any name it’s delicious.   Speck, which is cured with such spices as juniper berries, nutmeg, garlic and bay leaves before being cold-smoked, is another terrific option.  It wouldn’t be a salumi (Italian cold cuts) board without Toscano salami, a dry, salami with large bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns surrounded by leaner meat which provides a robust, distinctive but not overpowering flavor.  It goes without saying you’ll also want prosciutto on your board.  Accompanying these meats are slices of Italian bread, an addictive onion jam, house-made mustard, tomato relish and probably the very best spicy pickles you’ll ever have.

12 April 2015: M’Tucci’s pickled board is the very best we’ve had in New Mexico though there aren’t that many to compare with.  Available in quantities of two, three or four pickled vegetables, it’s essentially a vegetable plate even vegetable-haters will love.  Usually served with a local goat cheese, we lucked out during our April, 2015.  Because the deli had run out of what is undoubtedly an outstanding goat cheese, a Bucherondin de Chevre, a luscious and creamy French goat cheese was substituted.  Pierce the Bucherondin’s rind and you’ll enjoy a near-buttery soft, creamy and mild goat cheese that complements pickled vegetables very well.  Our pickled board included sweet and hot pickles, carrots and eggplant, all of which were oh, so delicious with distinctive notes in each.  Those pickles are absolutely addictive!

BLT

14 December 2014: The sandwich menu includes several familiar favorites such as the Cubano, BLT, Pastrami and Muffaletta, but while M’Tucci’s pays homage to traditions which spawned these sacrosanct sandwiches, it does not attempt to duplicate them.  The muffaletta, for example, is not an exact replica of the muffaletta you might have at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, but it’s an outstanding Italian inspired sandwich in its own right.  The canvas for this superb sandwich is housemade ciabatta which is generously topped with housemade capicola, mortadella, salami, an olive tapenade and house-smoked mozzarella. It takes two hands and a wide-open mouth to handle this mighty, meaty, magnificent sandwich.  The yin to the muffaletta is a ferro salad  (fresh grape tomatoes, walnuts, Tucumcari feta, pickled red onions on a lettuce leaf), one of the four available sides.

14 December 2014: Pastrami paramours often consider it heretical for pastrami sandwiches to be topped only with a good deli mustard with a dill pickle on the side.  Before they become apoplectic at learning M’Tucci’s pastrami (made on the premises) sandwich is made with herbed goat cheese, fresh red onions, a housemade mustard on housemade rye, they had darned well better try it.  It’s unlike any pastrami this aficionado has ever had and it’s a bit lean (fat is flavor) for my tastes, but it’s still a pretty good sandwich with that herbed goat cheese really standing out.  This sandwich pairs well with oven-roasted herbed potatoes, red potatoes seasoned with rosemary, thyme and fresh garlic. 

Carbonara

12 April 2015: For years, the benchmark against which I’ve measured all BLTs in New Mexico has been the TBL, a Gecko’s Bar & Tapas original stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread.  It took more than a decade to find a BLT that’s better.  Like the TBL, M’Tucci Market’s version is also an original.  In its standard form, it, too, is made with applewood smoked bacon though for a mere pittance, you can substitute bourbon-glazed bacon.  Splurge!  It’s the best bacon we’ve had in New Mexico, better even than the red chile-honey glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe.  The BLT (butter leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, blue cheese aioli and wheat bread made on the premises) is all a sandwich should be though the hard-crusted bread scrapes against the roof of your mouth just a bit.  The blue cheese aioli is rather mild which is perfectly fine because it lets the bacon shine.  The lentil salad (pickled onion, carrot, zucchini, rosemary, sage, thyme and Tucumcari gouda) is an excellent accompaniment.

12 April 2015: While judging the Taste of Rio Rancho in February, 2015, my friend Mario D’Elia, the uber-talented executive chef for the Albuquerque Isotopes, commiserated that guanciale (an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks) isn’t that widely used in Albuquerque restaurants, Chef Maxime Bouneou at Torinos @ Home being one of the few to use it.  Add M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli to what will hopefully become a trend.  M’Tucci’s makes its own guanciale and it’s terrific.  The guanciale is perhaps my favorite ingredient in a Carbonara dish constructed of superb ingredients (housemade cured egg yolk, Pecorino, sage, pepperoncini flakes, shallots and tagliatelle made on the premises).  The tagliatelle (long, flat pasta ribbons) is fortified with an unctuous, but not overly excessive, sauce.   The portion size is relatively modest, but being so rich, Carbonara isn’t a pasta dish on which many diners can over-indulge.  This is a great one!

Italian Mac & Cheese (Photo courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, has (as of this writing) visited MTucci’s Italian Market & Deli some 48 times.  It’s easy to see why he loves this restaurant so much–as well as why your humble sesquipedalian blogger needs to increase the frequency of his visits.  The Italian Mac & Cheese (Rosemary ham, Morbier Mornay, handmade penne, fresh Mozzarella, Aleppo pepper bread crumbs) warrants a visit or ten all by itself.  After one forkful Larry declared it the best mac and cheese he’s ever had.  High praise indeed.  There’s a lot to love about this skilletful of deliciousness and inventiveness.  Instead of the usual half-and-half mixture of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, the Mornay sauce is made with Morbier, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which, interestingly, is fashioned with a black layer of tasteless ash.  The Morbier not only coalesces the penne, some of it melts into a delightfully oily pool at the bottom of the skillet.   Chunks of Rosemary ham imparts resinous, savory and sweet qualities that blend magnificently with other ingredients while the Aleppo peppers (about 10,000 on the Scoville scale) lends a pleasant piquancy.

7 June 2016:  When she hangs out with Larry and me, Dazzling Deanell Collins is like a delicate flower among two wilted weeds.  She not only graces our table with beauty, wit and charm, she always seems to order the right things.  Take for example, the Market Reuben (fresh market-cured corned beef, homemade sauerkraut, red chile mostarda on rye bread) she ordered during our June 7th visit.  Even as she ordered it, she declared the Reuben at O‘Hare’s Grille and Pub in Rio Rancho to be her favorite Reuben then conceded that M’Tucci’s version will probably be even better.  She has the gift of prophecy!  This is a fantastic Reuben, one she paired with a glorious beet salad.  The housemade rye is the perfect canvas for the other components.  The red chile mostarda (which has nothing to do with mustard and more closely resembles a relish) is a magnificent blend of fruity sweetness, piquancy and tanginess.  As we enjoyed the sandwich, we discerned a flavor similar to cloves (or perhaps crushed lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread spice cookies), but weren’t quite sure what its genesis was.  We surmise it may have come from the roasting of the corned beef itself.  The corned beef is even better than M’Tucci’s pastrami and that’s saying something.

Market Reuben (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

14 December 2014: There are only three desserts on the menu and if they’re all as good as the two we chose, you’re sure to sate, if not titillate, your sweet tooth. The molded cheesecake topped with a fig jam renewed my faith in cheesecakes which of late have all been plagued by a boring sameness.  The crostata, a delicate Italian tart enveloping buttery butternut squash infused with sage is nearly as good.  Somewhat small by contemporary dessert size standards, they’re not to be missed.

12 April 2015: Not that long ago you could practically count on one hand, the number of Italian restaurants offering cannoli as a dessert option.  For the most part, it’s been pretty standard–tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta and often, mascarpone.  “Radical” versions sometimes included chocolate toppings.  Yawn!  During our visit in April, 2015, M’Tucci’s served a cannoli pila (an Italian term meaning “stacked” or “piled”) that was essentially a deconstructed cannoli.  Instead of the standard stuffed shell, bits of shell were topped with a mascarpone-ricotta mix topped with a cherry-walnut compote.  It’s a deliciously different way to enjoy one of the most popular of Italian desserts.

Italian Bread Pudding (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  When Larry first tried M’Tucci’s Italian bread pudding, it immediately rocketed to the coveted number one spot on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  It was so good that both he and Deanell regretted not having ordered one each instead of sharing a portion.  One of my life’s greatest regrets is not having driven over immediately as soon as they told me (months ago) how fabulous this bread pudding is.  There are several reasons it’s so good.  First, the bread isn’t the mushy, squishy mess so often used on bread pudding.  It’s a housemade foccacia.  Secondly, it’s not cloying as bread pudding is oft to be.  Third, it’s made with premium ingredients.  The version to which I was introduced included blueberries and piñon and was topped with a seasonal melt-in-your-mouth gelato.  This is transformative stuff!

Pop culture enthusiasts will remember the scene from the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan experienced delirious joy from her sandwich at New York City’s revered Katz’s Deli. Similar reactions at M’Tucci’s are sure to be repeated and when they are, you can tell your server “I’ll have what she’s having.”

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli
6001 Winter Haven Road,  N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2016
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Italian Charcuterie Board, Pickled Board, Pastrami Sandwich, BLT, Muffaletta, Carbonara, Farro Salad, Lentil Salad, Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes, Cheesecake with Fig, Crostata with Butternut Squash, Cannoli Pila, Italian Mac and Cheese, Market Reuben, Italian Bread Pudding

M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

The Point Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa Development

“Get to the point!”  Archie Bunker, the irascible curmudgeon on the 70’s sitcom All in the Family frequently chided his doting wife Edith with the epithet “Get to the Point, Edith!”  One of the series occasional and most memorable bits depicted Archie’s pantomime suicides,  carried out  while Edith rambled on and on in her nasal high-pitched voice, wholly oblivious to his dramatic gestures.  In one episode Archie did himself in by tying a noose and hanging himself as Edith prattled on incessantly.  Archie also play-acted suicide by Russian roulette, overdosing on pills and slashing his wrist.  His facial expressions at the moment of death were priceless, often portraying him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Some visitors to Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog have echoed Archie’s sentiment. “Get to the point, Gil” they’ve expressed. They tell me they don’t want to wade through details or read the clever (okay, that’s debatable) introductions that preface my restaurant reviews. Others, such as my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott actually look forward to my roundabout way of introducing a restaurant, my efforts at being a racounteur. For them as well as those who would rather I employ a more formulaic (translation: fishwrap-style) approach, I offer this advice (or retort): Get to The Point!

Point Grill dining room

That would be The Point Grill in Rio Rancho’s Mariposa master-planned community. If you’re thinking “that’s too far,” think of going there as a New Year’s resolution (we’re not that deep into 2016) to journey outside your neighborhood in pursuit of new culinary adventures.  Better still, think of it as a treat (you owe it to yourself) in that you’ll get to experience a meal that competes with Joe’s Pasta House and Namaste as the best in the city and among the best in the metropolitan area.  That’s what our friends Dave and Joe have done and they live almost as far east as you can go while still being in Placitas. Dave and Joe introduced us to The Point which has become one of their favorite restaurants, distance be damned.

The Point is actually only about four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center which even much of Rio Rancho’s citizenry erroneously believes is as far northwest as you can go and still be in the City of Vision. From the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, The Point is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights and you won’t encounter the typical urban traffic snarls. Beyond the Santa Ana Star you’ll encounter a vast expanse of sage and sand as far as the eyes can see on both sides of the two lane highway. “It’s where the bodies are buried,” my Kim remarked.

Mushroom Soup

The Point is about two miles west of the turn-off into Mariposa. It’s ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views. From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio. Your views will also include just a few of the state-of-the-art homes and community buildings entwined with the natural splendor of the hilly desert topography in which the 6,500-acre community is situated. The delicate balance of nature, architecture and community blend in harmoniously with each other.

The Point’s perceived distance will make it a true destination restaurant, an exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the Rio Rancho’s dining scene. Two other highly regarded restaurants—The Outlook Café and The Timbuctu Bistro—gave it the “old college try” at this location, but neither was able to sustain a consistently reliable customer-base. What makes The Point different? The difference makers begin with owner and executive chef Michael White, a visionary who in his 18 years of professional experience has traversed the gamut of cooking—everything from  food trucks to high-end restaurants.  Originally from Virginia Beach (and reputed to prepare fabulous crab cakes), Chef White’s menu reflects his love of New Orleans’ dynamic culinary culture and its spices.

Chipotle Chicken Satay

Chef White’s menu offers everything from American comfort foods (six different macaroni and cheese dishes) to an innovative array of bounteous hand-crafted burgers and sandwiches, sumptuous salads, weekly soup specials, tapas and a variety of “chef’s favorites.” The dessert menu, while showcasing only four items, would tempt the most disciplined of dieters. Even the Sunday brunch menu, typically a boring after-thought for some restaurants, offers a number of dishes sure to be the best part of getting up. Best of all, the entire menu (save for brunch) is available at all hours in which the restaurant is open.

The Point opened its doors on September 15th and within two months had achieved 500 “likes” on Facebook. Guests certainly like the comfortable seating, accommodating 44 guests inside and 40 on the patio. They also appreciate all the special event menus such as a crawfish boil for Mardi Gras (already sold out) and a romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day. They’re grateful for the professional, attentive service and recommendations they can trust. Moreover, guests like the “get away from it all” feel of dining at a restaurant that may be a bit out of the way, but well worth the effort to get there.

Red Chile Grilled Corn and Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms

15 January 2016: On a cold winter day when the winds are biting and dark, somber clouds loom ominously, you can’t beat a soothing, soul-warming soup. If the soup-of-the-day is mushroom soup, don’t hesitate to order it. There are two qualities to appreciate most about The Point’s version. First, it’s not overly creamy, a quality often attained through the profusion of thickeners that obfuscate the flavor of the fetid fungi. Second, it’s served piping hot, a sure and instant offset to the cold. This mushroom soup is topped with croutons which soften when submerged under the soup as do the two pieces of ciabatta bread.

15 January 2016: The chipotle chicken satay offers another type of heat—the heat generated by the piquancy of peppers. This satay is the antithesis of the satay served in Thai restaurants which is punctuated by pungent curry and served with a cloying peanut sauce. Instead of curry, the chicken is marinated in a spicy chipotle blend then chargrilled and served over coconut rice, all topped with tzatziki, scallion and lemon wedges. The flavors are lively and offer a wonderfully immersive dining experience in which complementary flavors and textures compete for your rapt attention. The tzatziki and scallions offer cooling contrasts to the chargrilled chicken and help cool off your tongue, too.

Baked Ziti

15 January 2016: The menu’s market side selections, all priced at three dollars, are intended to complement your main entrees, but they can be treated as appetizers as well. After enjoying the charbroiled chicken so much, we thought the pairing of red chile grilled corn and garlic sautéed mushrooms would be a good follow-up. Great call! Golden nibblets of sweet corn are lightly dusted with a pleasantly piquant red chile then roasted nicely to preserve moistness while providing more than a hint of char. We were surprised at how well garlic and mushrooms married together. Neither of the two strong flavor profiles is dominant with both garlic and mushrooms blending their personalities well.

15 January 2016: Among the “Chef’s Favorites” in the winter menu is baked ziti (meatballs, Italian sausage, roasted peppers and onion baked with ziti marinara and Italian cheeses), a classic Italian-American hybrid showcasing a medium-sized tubular pasta baked with a “chunky” sauce and meats. Chef White’s rendition is very reminiscent of the baked ziti I enjoyed so much in the East Coast, save for the fact that The Point’s version is served in a pho-sized bowl instead of in a casserole dish. This version is replete with meatballs and sausage, both as flavorful as you’ll find at any Italian restaurant. The baked ziti is yet another dish that works best in winter, but which would be very enjoyable any time of year.

Bacon-Toffee Sundae

15 January 2016: It took us even longer to decide upon a dessert than it did our shared entrée. The Point’s dessert menu is like a siren’s call, leading guests willingly into temptation. If there’s one dessert which is even better than it sounds, it has to be the bacon-toffee sundae (cinnamon and brown sugar ice cream topped with bacon, toffee, maple-caramel and fresh whipped cream). My “best of the best” for 2015 list is heavily laden with desserts and already the bacon-toffee sundae is primed for inclusion in my 2016 list—and not just because it’s got bacon. This dessert is a montage of deliciousness, a sweet succor for the dessert-starved, a masterpiece in every respect.

BRUNCH

Not everyone has a high opinion of brunch. In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.” New York Times columnist and writer Mark Bittman calls brunch “a huge fat-bomb,” no doubt a recognition that Americans will eschew fresh fruit and veggie frittatas to swill a few Bloody Marys with their heavy on the Hollandaise eggs benedict. In his defense, Bittman’s recent foray into Michelle Obama inspired healthy food activism has probably starved his thought processes of the clarity made possible only with a diet replete with processed foods and animal products.

Cream of Garlic Soup

Some brunches offer sumptuous all-you-can-choke-down buffets with gleaming silver trays overfilled with fried, gloppy, saucy, sweet, savory and otherwise not-good-for-you options sure to be a big hit among caloric overachievers. This is the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week. It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window. Albuquerque has its share of bounteous buffet brunches, the magnetically appealing, calorie-laden Vegas-style all-you-can-eat Bacchanalian feasts, but it also has the type of high-quality, off-the-menu brunch offerings that have lessened the frequency of my trips to Santa Fe on Sunday. Restaurants such as the Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, the Gold Street Caffe, Sophia’s Place and a spate of others serve up brunch that’s worth climbing out from under the covers to indulge in.

Add The Point to the list of the metropolitan area’s very best spots for brunch.  Quite frankly, it’s one of the area’s best restaurants of any genre.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Albuquerque’s most prolific and trusted contributor to Zomato calls The Point the “best new restaurant of 2015” and “well worth the pleasant drive to the Mariposa boonies.”  If Larry vouches for it, you can take it to the bank that this is a restaurant you have to experience.

Caesar Salad

24 January 2016: During our inaugural brunch visit, we ran into our friends Joe and Dave who were enjoying their umpteenth visit to The Point. Practically ambassadors to this great restaurant, they extoll the chef’s preternatural culinary skills to all their friends. Seeing Joe luxuriate in a bowl of cream of garlic coup inspired us to order it, too. If Ludwig van Beethoven’s aphorism “only the pure in heart can make a good soup” holds true, Chef White’s heart must be chaste because his soups are fabulous. How he managed to create a soup that renders garlic so thoroughly delicious despite its distinctly pungent and odoriferous qualities speaks volumes to his skills. Rather than warding off vampires, this garlic soup will bring them in like ants to a picnic.

24 January 2016: Dave rhapsodized about The Point’s Caesar salad (Parmesan, hard-boiled egg and croutons with Caesar dressing). The side salad portion is about a pitchfork sized amount of beauteous Romaine lettuce punctuated liberally with shaved Parmesan. If there are any anchovies on this Caesar, they may have been incorporated into the rich, creamy, garlicky dressing. It’s not a point we debated for too long as we were all too busy enjoying this intricate concoction. While many variations of Caesar salad exist and many high-end restaurants prepare it table-side, few versions are as delicious as The Point’s. There are three other salads on the menu.

Grits & Shrimp

24 January 2016: Having lived in the Deep South may explain my affinity for grits, a “Rodney Dangerfield” type of dish in that it gets no respect outside the South. At their essence, grits are small, broken grains of corn, but let’s face it, when you order them outside the South, you’re playing “Southern Roulette” in that you have a one-in-six chance of them being palatable. The best we’ve had in New Mexico come from The Hollar in Madrid. Equal to those are the shrimp and grits (jalapeno, maple bacon and white Cheddar; topped with Cajun shrimp, sunny-up egg and scallions) at The Point. Its fragrant properties will get to you before anything else. You’ll swear you’re imbibing the aroma of waffles and bacon. That’s the suggestive power of the maple bacon at work. The Cajun shrimp (succulent and sweet with the snap of freshness), jalapeno and scallions provide a pleasant punch while the sunny-up egg is like a molten blanket of gooey goodness. These are grits that will make you forget all the nasty things you may have heard about grits.

24 January 2016: There are so many enticing options on the hand-crafted sandwiches and burgers section of the menu that you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which one you’ll enjoy first. For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, it’s a no-brainer. She grew up with sausage and peppers sandwiches, but none in her Windy City neighborhood included goat cheese and basil. Perhaps they should. This is a superb sandwich, due in no small measure to some of the best sausage we’ve had at any restaurant in the area. It’s somewhere between spicy and assertive with lots of flavor. The tangy-pungent goat cheese is a perfect foil for the peppers while the basil lends freshness.

Sausage and Peppers

As talented as Chef White is in crafting incomparable appetizers and entrees, it’s in the dessert arena that he really shines. With much of his culinary career having been spent in the operational side of restaurant management, Chef White used his free time to conceptualize and create hundreds of dishes with two goals in mind. First, he dreamed of owning and operating his own restaurant where he could showcase the dozens of diverse menus he formulated. Second, he hopes to someday soon participate in the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen program. With the launch of The Point, he’s achieved his first goal. He persists in applying for Cutthroat Kitchen. 

24 January 2016: One of the dishes Chef White conceptualized is country apple cobbler. In and of itself that name doesn’t come close to doing justice to this dessert. Not even close! In fact, the name “country apple cobbler” may conjure images of the type of cobbler you’ll find at many barbecue joints, not that there’s anything remotely wrong with that type of cobbler. As is often the case with the barbecue joint type of cobbler, Chef White’s version is served a la mode. The greatest difference between his version and the usual suspect is in the candied apple-cranberry mix sans crust topped not with streusel, but with a crunchy granola and with ice cream drizzled with caramel. The ice cream is sixteen percent milkfat which means it’s richer and creamier than most ice cream. It’s also more delicious. You’ll want to make sure every spoonful of this inspired dessert rewards you with a little bit of every single component.

Country Apple Cobbler

24 January 2016:  Though not on the menu, if your server or the chef recommends the grilled pineapple dessert, grab it before someone else does. This is not grilled pineapple prepared as you may have had it at a Brazilian churrascaria (prepared on a grilled and served on a skewer). It’s Chef White applying his creativity to elevate what would be a great dessert if grilled pineapple was all you found on your plate. Instead, this grilled pineapple is topped with caramel and designed to look like New Mexico’s Zia symbol. Atop the pineapple are two scoops of the aforementioned rich, creamy, delicious ice cream. The concoction is then sprinkled liberally with coconut flakes. The sweet, juicy, tangy pineapple marries so well with the sweetness of the caramel and ice cream that you may have to subdue a swoon or three.

By popular request, Chef White has figured out how to package his magnificent desserts for guests who want to enjoy them at home.  While it’s possible their aesthetic appeal may lose something by virtue of being jostled on the ride home, they’re bound to be just as delicious once you get there (at least during the winter when the cold prevents ice cream from melting).  These are desserts you’ll dream about.  Just ask my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell Collins who made the trek to the Point and are still raving about it.

Pineapple Deliciousness

Get to The Point! It may be a bit of a drive for many of you, but the destination is worth the drive. The Point is destination dining at its best!

The Point Grill Gastropub
2500 Parkway Avenue, N.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7453
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 January 2016
1st VISIT: 15 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bacon-Toffee Sundae, High Point Mac, Baked Ziti, Mushroom Soup, Chipotle Chicken Satay, Red Chile Grilled Corn, Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms, Grits & Shrimp, Caesar Salad, Cream of Garlic Soup,

The Point Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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