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Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cafe Bella in Rio Rancho

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
~Author Unknown

Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee.  As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I worked for eighteen years provided free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as employees can drink.  All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.

There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee.  It’s not that we like our coffee weak.  It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems.  Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and Texans cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.”  It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.

Cafe Bella, for the very best coffee and so much more…

Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens.  Only in the past fifteen years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir.  Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend.  As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).

Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries.  Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe.  It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable liquid commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.

Operating partner Michael Gonzales and his son (a future barista?)

Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless.  Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not.  Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window.  A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.

Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner.  Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed.  Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers.  Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.

Sriracha Bacon Sandwich

Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world.  He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio.  From an experiential standpoint, those  are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies.  To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”

In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side.  It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital.  The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six.  The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.

Panini (grilled Red Delicious apples with caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on local Fano rustic artisan bread) with a large Cafe Au Lait.

Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is.  The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.  The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound.  None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker.  Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine. 

The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico.  A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader.  Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic.  Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes.  During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.

Breakfast Bagel of the Day: Warm toasted Parmesan bagel, Italian herb bread with mozzarella, sundried tomato cream cheese spread and Canadian bacon

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more.  All food items are served with plasticware, reason being that Cafe Bella is a coffee shop which serves outstanding food.  It is not a restaurant (though many of its culinary offerings would put restaurants to shame).

20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity.  Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular.  One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread.  The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

When it first launched, Cafe Bella Coffee offered its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis, all procured from bakery partners, all of which are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  While partner relationships remain strong, they’re no longer exclusive. Cafe Bella staff has begun baking its own scones.  The staff has the latitude to be creative in designing delicious flavor combinations.  Think double espresso and red chile, chocolate chip and maple, and more.

15 March 2013:  For years after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time.  Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe.  Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2’s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012.  Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event.  However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating  in a number of events on and off location.  On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados.  Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights.  With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek. 

8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well.  One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread.  It’s even better than it sounds if possible.  Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload.  The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas and it’s lightly toasted so that the flavor of char doesn’t obscure the flavor of chocolate. 

CafeBella12

Smoked Turkey Panini with Garlic Mustard Barbecue Mayo, Melted Mozzarella, Organic Field Greens on Local Fano Artisan Bread

16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella.  One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese.  For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens.  The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most. 

14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.”  He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012.  It’s easy to see why.  Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini.  When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats.  When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours.  The result is pure, unadulterated edible art.  Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce.   Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness. 

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini (with an egg)

7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey.  You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella.   Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey.  This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham).  This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks. 

19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization.  For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico.   You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another.  In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili.  The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy.  The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation.  If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it.  I did!

Street Tacos, becoming a Tuesday tradition in Rio Rancho

8 July 2014:  While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand.  These tacos were  paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be.  In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out.  On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon.  What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions. 

An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit.  Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all.  The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema.  The sauteed carne packs  a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema.  Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions.  Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!. 

Avocado Toast

9 May 2015: Keeping a pulse on national culinary trends, Michael determined early on that avocado toast would become a national phenomena (just Google “avocado toast” to see how prescient he was).  Toast is a veritable tabula rasa, a blank slate which can be topped by sundry ingredients in limitless combinations.  Similarly, avocado pairs very well with numerous ingredients.  After much trial and experimentation, in 2014, Michael debuted his version of a soon-to-be national sensation, pioneering the Duke City’s very first avocado toast.  Generously spread atop lightly toasted focaccia this open-faced canvas of deliciousness includes butyraceous avocado at the height of ripeness and freshness along with a single poached egg.  Puncture the poached egg with your fork and the yolk trickles over the toast and onto the plate where it melds with Michael’s fabulous crema.  Words fail in expressing just how good Cafe Bella’s avocado toast is (this coming from someone who considers avocados rather boring).

9 May 2015: As a culinary professional, Michael understands better than most that in order to grow business year-upon-year, the menu has to remain interesting.  Though wholesale changes aren’t necessary, he and his creative staff have continued to introduce amazing new items we now can’t live without.  In 2013, it was the addictive Slow-Smoked Carne Panini and the Chocolate Panini.  In 2014, Cafe Bella pioneered the revolutionary avocado toast.  Those outstanding additions set the bar high, but 2015’s offering meets or exceeds the high standards set by its predecessors.  How could it not?  Its a Sriracha Bacon Sandwich (eggs, green onions, mozzarella, Parmesan and bacon on a grilled green chile cheddar bun with sriracha mayo).  The green chile Cheddar bun, specially baked for Cafe Bella, is somewhere between the size of a burger and the size of an English muffin.  It’s surprisingly light and delicate so as not to be too “bready,” allowing the other ingredients to shine…and shine they do.  This is a superb sandwich, a candidate for my “best of the best” for 2015.

Cafe Bella's drive-up window means coffee to go at any time

Cafe Bella’s drive-up window means coffee to go every day but Sunday

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.  Proximity to the drive-through has meant increased frequency of visits, most often for the aforementioned red chili mocha.  Thankfully Cafe Bella offers a loyalty card–buy ten and get one free.  As of May 9th, I’ve enjoyed six red chile mochas for free.

My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home.  The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality.  Waitresses donned  period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots.  The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back.  Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities.  If  this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2015
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 19
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos

Cafe Bella Coffee on Urbanspoon

Teofilo’s Restaurante – Los Lunas, New Mexico

Teofilo’s Restaurante on Main Street in Los Lunas

Several years ago award-winning Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum (since retired) penned a wonderfully evocative column entitled “Spanish Names Fade into History.”  Leslie observed that if you frequent the obituaries, especially those published on the Journal North and Journal Santa Fe, you may have observed  and lamented the passing of another great Spanish name.   The lyrical names with which the scions of Coronado were christened–Leocaida, Elfido, Trinidad, Pacomio, Seralia, Evilia, Amadea, Aureliano and others– have become increasingly rare in the Land of Enchantment. 

Leslie noted that “just about every day in New Mexico, another great old Spanish name passes on as a family loses a viejo.”   Former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez believes the disfavor which has befallen once-honored given names can largely be attributed to  “the stigma against the use of the Spanish language, which stretched from the 1940s into the 1980s.”   It’s a shameful stigma that “extended into many families as they welcomed babies into the world.”

One of the capacious dining rooms at Teofilo’s

Today, instead of bestowing their children with such culturally-rooted names as Prudencio, Malya, Natividad, Onofre, Celso, Andreita, Ramoncita and Piedad, young New Mexican parents tend to favor more “homogeneous” names as Noah, Elijah, Jacob, Aiden, Daniel, Jayden, Josiah, Ethan and Michael for boys and Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia, Emily, Sofia, Ariana, Ava and Abigail for girls. According to the state Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, in 2014, the most popular names for newborns in New Mexico were Liam for boys and Mia for girls followed by the aforementioned names. Coronado would not recognize these names.

Salsa and Chips

Having grown up daily hearing the mellifluous and traditional Spanish names of a bygone era, I can now appreciate their distinctively melodic qualities and like Leslie, mourn the passing of friends, relatives and strangers alike who brought honor to those names.  It makes me cringe when young Hispanos mispronounce (butcher would be a more appropriate term) names those of my generation hold sacrosanct.  Because their own parents were taught to eschew Spanish, it’s entirely inappropriate to blame young Hispanos for any linguistic malapropisms.

Breakfast Quesadilla (Cheddar-Jack Cheese, Avocado, Bacon) with Papitas

Leslie recalls the appropriate recitation of these names by former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez as “somewhere between a poem and a lullaby.”  Were she to visit Teofilo’s Restaurante in Los Lunas, Leslie would probably first celebrate the perpetuation of a time-honored, traditional Spanish name on the restaurant’s marquee.  She would probably then shudder the first and subsequent times she heard a server answer the phone “Tio Philo’s.”   Servers aren’t the only ones employing this aberrant mispronunciation, but even more than their customers, they darned well should know better. 

Guacamole and Chips

That not everyone in the village of Los Lunas can correctly pronounce the name Teofilo is probably attributable to the fact everyone calls Pete “Teofilo” Torres, Jr. by his first name.  Everyone in Valencia county pronounces the Torres name correctly and with a bit of reverence.   To put it mildly, the dynastic Torres family is restaurant royalty in Valencia County. In 1949, Pete Jr.’s father and mother Elijia (another melodic New Mexican name) founded the legendary Pete’s Café in Belen, which (ask Arnold Schwarzenegger) is still going strong.  In 1986, Pete, Jr., and his wife Hortencia (more music to my ears) launched Teofilo’s in Los Lunas. 

T’s Huevos in a Bowl (Blue Corn Tortilla topped with papitas, T’s red chile carne adovada, two over-medium eggs, chile, Cheddar-Jack cheese piled high in a bowl

Teofilo’s is situated on Main Street where it faces the historic Luna Mansion which Pete, Jr. purchased in 2009.  Both are historic properties.  The venerable complex which houses Teofilo’s dates from 1913.  It was built for Doctor W.F. Wittwer who was enticed to stay in Los Lunas for the princely sum of fifty dollars per month.  The distinctively old New Mexican architectural design showcases period-specific architecture, including terron (thick slabs of earth rather than adobes) walls and a high-pitched, corrugated tin roof. 

Step into Teofilo’s and you’re not only walking into history, you’re walking into a warm and beckoning interior with period pieces throughout.  It’s akin to walking into someone’s home and in a very real sense, you are.  The small waiting room, which is often standing room only, includes a number of black-and-white photos of Doctor Wittwer and his family.  There are a number of small dining rooms, the most popular of which is probably the enclosed porch area where historic artwork festoons the wall.  The east-facing windows let in both heat and sunlight.

Red Chile Carne Adovada on Blue Corn Tortillas with refritos and arroz

You’ll also find plenty of heat on the salsa.  The salsa is a rich red jalapeno-based salsa with as much heat as it has flavor. Your first serving of salsa is complementary. After that there’s a small charge. Freshness, flavor, piquancy and a little bit of smokiness are hallmarks of the very best salsas and this one ranks near the very top, among the very best in New Mexico.  Aside from jalapenos, you’ll discern the boldness of chopped onions, fresh cilantro and naturally sweet and absolutely delicious crushed tomatoes. The chips are over-sized and delicious with little salt to get in the way of your taste buds enjoying them with a scoopful of the salsa.

15 March 2015: Rather than lamenting Sunday as the day preceding the start of a new workweek, savvy diners in Los Lunas and beyond celebrate Sunday as the day in which Teofilo’s offers a Sunday breakfast menu unlike any in the area. Available only from 9AM until 2PM, this is a Sunday breakfast the good doctor would have ordered. Start with a breakfast quesadilla (Cheddar-Jack cheese, avocado and bacon) with a side of papitas. It’s not only a good way to obtain another portion of salsa, it’s a way to treat yourself to as good a quesadilla as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll love the way the buttery richness of the sliced avocadoes, sharpness of the Cheddar and smokiness of the bacon nestled within a grilled flour tortilla all combine to form an eye-opening, mouth-watering flavor combination. The lightly-sheened papitas are thinly sliced and are fried to perfection.

Chile Rellenos

15 March 2015: If the breakfast quesadilla doesn’t have you praying for Sunday, T’s Huevos in a Bowl (blue corn tortilla topped with papitas, T’s red chile carne adovada, two over-medium eggs, chile, Cheddar-Jack cheese piled high in a bowl) certainly will. At first glance, T’s Huevos in a Bowl might appear to be a gloppy, cheesy mess, but as your fork peels back layer-upon-layer of concordant flavors, you won’t care what it looks like. To your taste buds, this is a masterpiece, a convergence of ingredients that complement one another very well. The carne adovada is among the very best in New Mexico. It’s silky smooth porcine perfection marinated slowly in a superb red chile. The blue corn tortilla has a sweet, nutty flavor that plays off the sharpness of the cheese very well. 

26 April 2015: In Old Mexico, mention chiles rellenos and the likely reply will probably be “Que rico!, a lustful expression declaring how very good chiles rellenos are.  New Mexicans aren’t quite as expressive about our chiles rellenos, but we love them no less.  Perhaps we’d be more prone to rhapsodizing enthusiastically if all chiles rellenos were as wonderful as those served at Teofilo’s.  These chiles rellenos are in rarefied company in a small pantheon of great New Mexican chiles rellenos.  At first glance, the coating around the New Mexico green chile stuffed with cheese might have you thinking Panko breadcrumbs, but one bite will confirm they’re not nearly that grainy textured.  They also retain their integrity at the press of a fork.  Each forkful rewards you with chile, cheese and the wondrous sheathing around the rellenos, not some crumbly mess.  Not all chiles rellenos are created equal; these are among the very best!

Stuffed Sopaipillas with Ground Beef and Refritos

15 March 2015: For many of us, enchiladas are the benchmark we use to measure just how good a New Mexican restaurant is. While they may appear rather simple in their construction, when you consider the vast diversity of ingredients with which they can be created, enchiladas can be a rather complex dish. Teofilo’s creates enchilada plates from which dreams are made. Picture a blue corn tortilla canvas topped with carne adovada and a fried egg over-easy slathered with a rich red chile and served with sides of refritos and arroz. Quite simply, Teofilo’s enchiladas are poster child quality, as good as they can be made. “As good as it can be made” aptly describes the red chile which may tempt you to lick the plate so as not to leave any behind. 

26 April 2015: Because the sopaipillas at Teofilo’s are so good with honey, it stands to reason they’d be just as good in the form of stuffed sopaipillas.  If anything, the stuffed sopaipillas are even better, especially if they’re engorged with ground beef and refritos then slathered in rich, red chile and blanketed in molten shredded Cheddar.  As with every entree at Teofilo’s, a case could easily be made for these being among, if not the very best stuffed sopaipillas in New Mexico.  They’re also served piping hot, a serving style every New Mexican restaurant should emulate.

Sopaipillas

15 March 2015: Sopaipillas are, very often, the way most meals at New Mexican restaurants end. Most of the time, it would be criminal to consume anything after reveling in the hot, puffy pillows of dough. Doing so is generally anti-climatic. As wonderful as the sopaipillas are at Teofilo’s, you’re forgiven if you choose to indulge in one of the rich, delicious desserts. For many diners, a meal at Teofilo’s wouldn’t be complete without finishing it off with natillas. In its “Best of the City” issue for 2008, Albuquerque The Magazine named them the “best natillas,” indicating they’re “worth driving for.” These rich, creamy, cinnamon custard delights are absolutely addictive.

Award-winning Natillas

15 March 2015: If there’s one dessert which may top (yes, it’s blasphemy, I know) the natillas, it’s Teofilo’s Toledo Crème Cake, a three-layer coconut-buttermilk cake studded with pecans and thick, rich cream cheese frosting. Served Fred Flintstone slab-sized, it’s an addictively rich, calorific indulgence you’ll have to share and even so, will probably take much of it home with you. This is the type of cake few restaurants endeavor to prepare and serve any more.   Lucky for all of us, Teofilo’s isn’t like other restaurants.

Toledo Creme cake (three-layer buttermilk, pecan, coconut cake layered with cream cheese frosting)

While so many mellifluous New Mexican names are going by the wayside, we’re comforted in knowing that wonderful family restaurants such as Teofilo’s continue to prepare and serve the traditional foods of New Mexico the way they’ve been prepared for generations.  Teofilo’s is a Land of Enchantment classic!

Teofilo’s Restaurante
144 Main Street
Los Lunas, New Mexico
(505) 865-5511
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Natillas, Toledo Creme Cake, Blue Corn Enchiladas, T’s Huevos in a Bowl, Sopaipillas, Breakfast Quesadilla, Chips and Salsa, Chile Rellenos, Stuffed Sopaipillas, Guacamole and Chips

Teofilos Restaurante on Urbanspoon

O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ORamen01

My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

My friends Jim and Janet Millington (left), Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) and Hannah Walraven ruminating about ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return frequently.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

ORamen03

Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  My friend Andrea Lin, the luminous restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, calls it “liquid pork.”  The porkalicious broth elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Tonkatsu Spicy Miso Ramen (Level 4)

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  For fellow aficionado Jim Millington, level three is perfect.   The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2015
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

O Ramen on Urbanspoon