Pad Thai Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pad Thai Cafe Thai Cuisine

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain likened his first experience tasting Thai food to “like discovering a color I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colors.” With so many vibrant colors available, most people don’t settle for one fairly basic color (let’s say black) in a box full of crayons. Unfortunately, settling is precisely what many diners tend to do when eating at Thai restaurants. Although the menu may be replete with dozens of exotic options, many diners focus exclusively on ordering that one Thai dish with which they’re familiar, that ubiquitous dish more innocuous than bold, the dish which provides flavor without venturing outside the safe comfort zone that bespeaks of the unknown. For many diners, that one dish is Pad Thai.

Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp, is the type of guy who has explored every crayon in the box and played with every color combination imaginable. He’s the kaleidoscopic, polychromatic, tie-dye guy who’s too whimsical and creative to remain in a monogamous relationship with any one basic color. Howie long ago gave up on Pad Thai because he wanted to explore the myriad of other options available at Thai restaurants. Here’s how he describes the basic black equivalent in a menu full of vibrant colors: “Pad Thai is “essentially the spaghetti ‘n meatballs of Thai food,”…”the starter dish,”…”the sweet, sorta hum-drum intro.”…”Pad Thai is so user friendly: noodles, chicken, lime, peanuts. Yummy stuff but pedestrian.” It’s a sentiment we share.

The Cozy Confines of Pad Thai Cafe

Howie doesn’t denounce Pad Thai as an inedible or bad dish. He just doesn’t find it as interesting or delicious as other options available at Thai restaurants. We also share in that opinion. So, when Howie recently proclaimed he’d experienced “the best darn Pad Thai I’ve ever had” at a Duke City Thai restaurant, my curiosity was piqued.  Fittingly that restaurant is the Pad Thai Cafe.  He reasoned that “when you’re ordering from a place called the Pad Thai Café, you have to try the flagship.” That made great sense to me. Pad Thai (the restaurant as well as the dish) is located at the sprawling Talin Market on Louisiana just north of Central.

As to why Pad Thai is so popular that some diners never deviate from ordering it, attribute that, at least in part, to more savvy diners who, when introducing less worldly friends to Thai food, steer them toward Pad Thai. Perhaps, they reason, Pad Thai is less exotic and intimidating than other dishes on the menu and it resembles Chinese stir-fried dishes with which the neophytes might be familiar. As with many other Thai dishes, Pad Thai does offer an intricate balance of textures and flavors—salty, sour, sweet and piquant (added to taste in the form of chilies). Bean sprouts and peanuts add a subtle though desirable crunch, a foil for the soft rice noodles and protein of your choice. Finding Pad Thai’s combination of spices and seasonings appealing and its flavors mild and easy on the palate, many diners never “graduate” beyond Pad Thai and don’t ever try anything else on the menu.

Egg Rolls

As of 2007, there were at least 11,600 Thai restaurants operating across the globe, many of them bearing the name Pad Thai. It’s a good bet that almost–if not all–those 11,600 Thai restaurants offer Pad Thai on their menus. Every one of Albuquerque’s two dozen or so Thai restaurants certainly does. In 2014, Andrea Lin, erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, published a primer on finding Pad Thai in the metropolitan area. She sampled Pad Thai at six Thai restaurants, finding desirable qualities in each and shortcomings in some. Her observations didn’t include much hyperbole or exaltation. That’s typically how it goes with Pad Thai. Even its most ardent aficionados don’t describe it in terms reserved for more transformative dishes.

Having fewer than a dozen tables in a rather Lilliputian space benefits the Pad Thai Café greatly in that the wonderful aromas emanating from the kitchen aren’t distributed beyond the relatively confined space. You’ll imbibe those aromas with alacrity even as they increase your appetite and cause involuntary salivation. Those enticing aromas preface a dining experience sure to be memorable. The menu is familiar though not quite the compendium larger restaurants offer. Still, you’ll find most of the dishes with which you’ve fallen in love at other Thai restaurants—and a Pad Thai dish that may well be the best in the city. But, I digress.

Chicken Satay

As is human nature, once you’re comfortably seated you’ll take a gander at the restaurant’s thematic trappings. More than at any Thai restaurant we’ve visited in Albuquerque, the Pad Thai Café’s walls are festooned with framed photographs of Thailand’s royal family. Thankfully (for the sake of your appetite) you won’t have much time to ponder restaurant walls adorned with the smiling countenances of The Donald or Hillary because a complimentary pair of egg rolls will soon capture your focus. The golden-hued, mostly vegetable egg rolls are served with a bright red sweet and sour sauce. They’re quite good, a portend of appealing appetizers soon to follow.

19 March 2016: Make one of them the chicken satay. Satay is Thailand’s version of shish kebab, a savory meat Popsicle constructed from skewered strips of beef, chicken or lamb and designed to be dipped in a traditional peanut sauce or cucumber sauce. In Thailand, satay is one of the more popular street foods, commonly purchased directly from food stalls (so why isn’t there at least one food truck in Albuquerque dedicated to the proliferation of satay?). The satay at Pad Thai Café is terrific, lightly coated in a yellow curry and imbued with a pronounced grilled flavor. Six satay are served per order and they’re so good, you may order a second batch.

Tod Mun Pla

19 March 2016: Though the satay stands out on its own, the two dipping sauces elevate the skewers to perhaps best in town quality. Unlike far too many peanut sauce concoctions in the Duke City, the Pad Thai Café’s version isn’t as cloying as a Reese’s peanut butter cup. It’s got a nice balance of savory and sweet flavors. Texturally, the sauce is more ground peanuts than peanut butter. Even better is the cucumber sauce, a delicious dish of chopped cucumbers, peanuts, red peppers and red onions in a tangy-vinegary sauce. The cucumber sauce provides a pleasant balance of sweet, sour, savory and piquant with no one overly dominant flavor.

19 March 2016: Thai fish cakes (tod mun pla) are not to be missed at the Pad Thai Café. Sold on many a street corner in Thailand, this street food favorite makes for a wonderful appetizer at sit-down restaurants, too. Although ten fish cakes constitute an order, some of the fish cakes are barely bite-sized (though their flavors are much larger). Infused with a red curry which imparts a pungent flavor, the fish cakes are lightly battered and wok-fried to a golden-hue. The consistency of each is firm, but “bouncy,” meaning they have a nice “give” when you bite down on them. The cucumber sauce is a perfect foil for the fish cakes.

Pot Stickers

31 March 2016: Pot stickers are an extremely important part of the Chinese New Year’s feast which is celebrated throughout Asian countries such as Thailand with a significant Chinese population. Not only are pot stickers believed to bring wealth, it is said that as they cook, they recover family wishes of generations past. Whether or not the Pad Thai Café’s pot stickers bring you fortune, you will believe yourself fortunate to have them on your plate. These golden-hued dumplings are more crispy than any other deep-fried pot stickers in Albuquerque. They’re also served with the best dipping sauce. While most dipping sauces tend to be a rather humdrum derivative of soy sauce, this sauce is an amalgam of pepper, garlic, soy, chili and perhaps other seasonings. It’s a lively sauce with a balance of heat, savoriness and sweetness. Eight pot stickers are served per order.

Papaya Salad

2 June 2017: The most popular dish among women in Thailand is papaya salad.  Even if it means admitting I’m very much in touch with my feminine side, I’ll gladly admit to loving papaya salad.  Along with curry, it’s the one Thai dish that serves as my benchmark for how good a Thai restaurant is.  The papaya salad at Pad Thai is right up there with the transcendent papaya salad at An Hy Quan.  That’s rarefied “best in the city” air.   Crisp strips of unripened papaya, crunchy raw green beans and a piquant mix of chiles, garlic, tomatoes fish sauce and lime juice make it the perfect cooling summer starter.  Pad Thai’s version is very balanced with delicious, healthful elements throughout. 

Massaman Curry

19 March 2016: The massaman curry is superb though you’re well cautioned to spoon on the accompanying rice in moderation. Too much rice and you risk a curry dish that isn’t as moist as you might like and won’t be as piquant as fire-eaters enjoy. Prepared to your exacting specifications for heat (Thai spice for me), the curry is counterbalanced with coconut milk, potatoes and crushed peanuts. This spicy yet sweet concoction provides a pleasing layer of flavor to your protein choice (pork works very well) and the potatoes. It’s a massaman curry with a wonderfully balanced flavor profile.

If you’ve noticed my use of the adjective “balanced” throughout this review, that’s by design. Perhaps more than at any other Thai eatery in Albuquerque, the Pad Thai Café is successful at creating and serving dishes with the balance of flavors that is truly the heart of Thai cooking. Every Thai chef should strive to imbue every dish with at least two of the five major flavors (sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter), a sort of yin and yang balance. In my estimation, too many of Albuquerque’s Thai restaurants forego balance and serve dishes which are overwhelmingly sweet (some would say “Americanized”).

Pad Thai

19 March 2016: One of the biggest culprits is Pad Thai (the dish, not the restaurant). Sure you can squeeze some lime to give it a slight sour bite or sprinkle on chilies to give it piquancy, but often the results are more like an adulterated dessert than a savory, balanced dish. I suspect Howie discerned the balance of flavors in the Pad Thai Café’s signature dish. That balance allows you to appreciate the savory flat rice noodles and crushed peanuts, the pleasant funkiness of the fish sauce and slight sourness from tamarind (which accounts for the dish’s reddish hue) without worrying about tooth decay from a cloying dish. Howie may have undersold how good this Pad Thai dish is…and it’s even better when you heat it up the next day because you probably won’t finish the generous portion on your plate.

31 March 2016: You might think that a dish called drunken noodles would be made with copious amounts of alcohol, but that’s typically not the case. Several theories abound as to the unique name. One posits that the dish was devised by someone who came home drunk and created the dish from available ingredients (why then isn’t it called “drunkard’s noodles?).” Still another origin theory attributes the name to the dish’s sloppy, drunken appearance. This theory has little credibility unless you really care about the aesthetic qualities of the dish. Most of us are interested only in its deliciousness. The Pad Thai Café’s version is the best I’ve ever had—stir-fried wide rice noodles with fish sauce, chili, garlic, basil, baby corn, carrots and broccoli and your choice of protein (beef, chicken, pork or shrimp). The concoction is stir-fried with chili added to your exacting degree of piquancy (still another theory as to this dish’s name has to do with how much beer you’ll drink to combat its heat). There are many elements on this dish that make it a star: velvety rice noodles impregnated with sauce, a balance of flavors that appeal to different taste buds and the addictive properties of capsaicin from the chilies.

Drunken Noodles

31 March 2016: Several years ago, I visited a sandwich shop in Charleston, South Carolina which had recently been named one of the best 21 sandwich shops in America. In a head-scratching moment as inexplicable as the popularity of Justin Bieber, this restaurant essayist visited one of America’s most heralded best sandwich shops and ordered…hold on to your seats…laab. Yes, laab. Gasp! Laab is a very popular “cooked salad” typically found on the menu at Thai and Lao restaurants, not sandwich shops.

Laab is essentially a minced meat (pork, chicken or beef) dish with healthful elements of a salad. The Pad Thai Café’s version is made with grilled minced pork, lime juice, fish sauce, chili powder, roasted rice powder, shallots, green onions, Kafir lime leaves, cilantro and mint. There are few salads as refreshing courtesy of fresh sprigs of Kafir lime, cilantro and mint which counterbalance the heat and pungency of the fish sauce and chili powder. This is not a boring composed salad; it’s an adventure in complementary and disparate flavors working very well together.

Laab

31 March 2016: When you discover a restaurant as amazing as the Pad Thai Cafe, you’ve got to share it with your friends.  For the most part that means sharing my observations on this blog.  Among my cherished readers are three of my very best friends, fellow foodies who’ll drop what they’re doing to join me for a meal to validate the veracity of the claims on my blog. My second visit to the Pad Thai Cafe was with Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott: Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate; and the dazzling Deanell.  They were all surprised at the diversity, explosiveness and balance of flavors in every dish we enjoyed.  By meal’s end, there was near unanimous consensus that the Pad Thai Cafe is the Duke City’s very best Thai restaurant. 

2 June 2017:  My friend Bill Resnik expressed similar sentiment when I introduced him to Pad Thai.  We had actually intended to visit the Pop-Up Dumpling House within Talin, but it was closed.  Pad Thai Cafe is no consolation prize.  More than any Thai restaurant in the Duke City, it emphasizes a balance of flavors…and more than at any other Thai restaurant in town, even fire-eaters may have to be cautious about the degree of piquancy in the dishes.  “Medium” heat at Pad Thai is easily the equivalent of “Hot” at other Thai restaurants while the “Hot” should be reserved solely for those of us with asbestos-lined tongues.  Bill is one such masochist.  He adds prik nam pla (a ubiquitous condiment made with incendiary bird peppers) to even the most piquant of Thai dishes.

Yum Woon Sen

12 June 2017:  Pad Thai is the only Thai restaurant in the Duke City in which I don’t regret not having ordered a curry dish.  That’s because everything else on the menu is absolutely fantastic.  As is characteristic of adventurous diners, I often order dishes heretofore unknown to me.  Invariably that means discovering wonderful new options such as the Yum Woon Sen, a bean thread noodles salad.  While that may not sound particularly exciting, it encapsulates much of what aficionados love about Thai cuisine:  the invigorating freshness of just-squeezed limes; the distinctive herbal-licorice flavor of Thai basil,  a balance of crunchy and chewy ingredients, the pungency of the fish sauce, and just enough piquancy to set your tongue tingling.  Pad Thai’s version is constructed with pork, shrimp and wood ear mushrooms topped with fish sauce, sugar, carrot, onions, cilantro and Thai chilis a plenty.  This is a new favorite. 

16 June 2017:  The translation of Thai dishes is often surprising.  Yam Nuea Nam Tok, for example translates to waterfall beef or beef waterfall, but it also translates to grilled beef salad.  The terms waterfall beef or beef waterfall are appropriate from the standpoint that you’ll be deluged with flavors with every bite of this savory-sweet-piquant-tangy dish constructed with lime, fish sauce, chili powder, roasted rice powder, sugar, green onion, cilantro, lemongrass, shallots and mint.  Legend has it, however, that the term waterfall beef comes from the sound the steak makes once the beef begins to hiss from the sizzling juices.  Grilled steak, lean and flavorful, is the main ingredient, a terrific compliment to fresh, aromatic ingredients Americans don’t usually serve with steak–even as a side salad.  This salad has it all: tart and tangy sour notes from the lime, aromatic freshness from the herbs, crunchy and crispiness from the veggies, vibrancy and heat from the chillies and complete satisfaction afterwards.

Yam Nuea Nam Tok, a wondrous beef salad

2 June 2017:  With the exception of the transcendent Chinese sausage fried rice at Ming Dynasty,  most fried rice is of the take it or leave it variety.  It’s just not very exciting, but it’s generally better than the simple white rice served with many Asian dishes.  The Pad Thai Cafe offers two fried rice alternatives to plain white rice.  Don’t miss out on the green curry fried rice (green curry, rice, fish sauce, sugar, green peas and basil) with your choice of protein.  It’s fried rice at its self-actualized best, as good as fried rice can possibly get.  The green curry permeates each rice kernel, imparting its pungent piquancy courtesy of fresh, young green chilis which tend to make green curry more potent than other curries.

Green Curry Fried Rice

19 March 2016: Our inaugural visit transpired when mangoes weren’t in season so we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy our favorite mangoes and sticky rice dessert. Sensing our disappointment, our server offered to put together a dish she promised we’d enjoy. It was a magnificent masterpiece, a dessert worthy of a place in the pantheon of great Duke City desserts. Picture a scoop of mango ice cream (replete with chunks of mango) and a scoop of coconut ice cream atop layers of sticky rice and coconut milk with shaved almonds tossed in for balance. This dessert should be a permanent fixture on the menu.

Mango and Coconut Ice Cream with Sticky Rice and Coconut Milk

2 June 2017: Most Thai restaurants offer sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and fresh, ripe mango in season. Out of season, the best restaurants will advise you not to order this dessert when the mangoes aren’t perfectly ripe. That’s advice one and all should heed. When in season, mangoes with sweet sticky rice make a refreshing dessert contrasting the sweet tanginess of mangoes and the near cloying flavor of coconut with the neutral to sweet flavor of sticky rice. The very best mangoes and sticky rice dish I’ve ever had comes from Albuquerque’s Thai Cuisine.  If that dessert is a perfect Bo Derek “ten,” the mangoes with sticky rice at Pad Thai is a nine.  Quite simply, it’s a must-have.

Mangoes with Sticky Rice

Named for a dish that had never before “wowed” me, the Pad Thai Café would be a restaurant we’d have on our regular rotation if we had a regular rotation. It’s one of the very best Thai restaurants in the Duke City.

Pad Thai Cafe
110 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-0567
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 June 2017
1st VISIT: 19 March 2016
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken Satay, Tod Mun Pla, Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Mango Ice Cream with Sticky Rice, Egg Rolls, Laab, Drunken Noodles, Potstickers, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Green Curry Fried Rice, Yum Woon Sen, Yam Nuea Nam Tok

Pad Thai Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Danny’s Place – Carlsbad, New Mexico

Danny’s Place: Home of New Mexico’s Best Barbecue

For some reason, national print and online publications and even the Food Network can’t seem to fathom that the Land of Enchantment has outstanding cuisine outside the shining pinnacles of Santa Fe and Albuquerque.   To some extent the media may be justified in perceiving the City Different and Duke City as offering the quintessence of what makes New Mexico a culinary Mecca.  Obviously, Santa Fe and Albuquerque enthrall hungry visitors armed with voracious appetites (especially for our incendiary red and green chile), but to discount the cuisine at other cities throughout our diverse state is just plain lazy.  Santa Fe and Albuquerque do not have exclusivity when it comes to extraordinary restaurants and cuisine.  Phenomenal eateries and cuisine can be found throughout the Land of Enchantment.

When it comes to naming New Mexico’s best restaurants and best cuisine, the mantra embraced by national media seems to be “round up the usual suspects.”  Invariably, a short list of “anointed” restaurants from Santa Fe and Albuquerque is repeated ad-nauseam whenever a “best this” or “best that” list is compiled. The list of anointed restaurants is short, exclusive and predictable. It’s hard to break into the list if a restaurant isn’t from Santa Fe or Albuquerque.  If you need further proof, read Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food, where each and every month you’ll learn of more well-deserved accolades being accorded to a restaurant in Santa Fe or Albuquerque.

Danny’s Place for Real Pit BBQ

Credit Dan Gentile of Thrillist for actually doing his homework and reaching out to local experts across the fruited plain to compile a list of where the best barbecue in each state is to be found. The local expert for the Land of Enchantment, in this case, was a blogger of some repute who goes by the handle “nmgastronome.”  When Dan approached me, it would have been easy to declare some bastion of bodacious barbecue in Santa Fe or Albuquerque as our state’s very best, but that would have been falling into the trap of singling out only restaurants in the anointed cities.  Besides, doing so would have been disingenuous.  The very best barbecue my Kim and I have experienced in the Land of Enchantment comes from Danny’s Place in Carlsbad.  I built a pretty good case for Thrillist which declared Danny’s Place as serving New Mexico’s best barbecue for 2015 and 2016.

Here’s what Dan had to say about the best barbecue in the Land of Enchantment: “If you want to know about New Mexican cuisine, you talk to Gil Garduño. The verbose restaurant reviewer who can’t write his own name in under 100 words said the best in show was a toss-up between Danny’s and Sparky’s, but Danny’s partially gets our nod because of the gall involved in tearing up a Dairy Queen franchise agreement when they wouldn’t let him add his own smoked meats to the menu. Forty years later, Danny’s now retired, but his son Tim is running the show and still cranking out the smoked meats that put the rest of the state to shame.”

Kitchen Accoutrements Adorn the Walls

You’ve got to admit a highly regarded barbecue restaurant which got its start as a Dairy Queen is a pretty good story.  Danny’s Place is so much more than a good story.  If, however, you insist on  categorizing it as a story, it would be a tale of a bold independent spirit bolstered in his righteous quest by a small community which believed in his product.  The protagonist of our story is Danny Gaulden, a maverick and hero to many in the barbecue community.  On August 1, 1975, Danny launched Carlsbad’s sole Dairy Queen, but because his true passion and calling was barbecue, he incorporated low-and-slow meats into the menu.  Danny’s barbecue wasn’t advertised in any form of the local menu or anywhere outside the restaurant.  Nonetheless, word quickly got around far-and-wide as to where to find the best barbecue in New Mexico.

To say Dairy Queen was unhappy about the maverick owner who served outstanding barbecue is an understatement.  Even though Danny had one of the original franchise contracts with Dairy Queen and was thus permitted to sell barbecue, corporate bureaucrats were duly upset when they had to field requests from other franchisees to diversify their own menus.  Danny fought the good fight, but in February, 2004, he decided to strike out as an independent barbecue restaurant owner.  He tore up his agreement with Dairy Queen and has never looked back.  Danny’s Place is one of the most popular eateries in Southeastern New Mexico.  Competitive barbecue chefs from across the fruited plain pilgrimage to this legendary establishment.  Though Danny has retired, he left his legacy in the hands of his son Tim.

Two Meat Combination Dinner: St Louis Cut Pork Ribs and Brisket

It goes without saying that there is no vestige of Dairy Queen at Danny’s Place.   Walls are adorned with country kitchen bric-a-brac.  You can study those kitchen accoutrements later.  The fragrant bouquets emanating from the kitchen will command your immediate attention and maybe a napkin or two to wipe the salivation on your chin.  Meats are slow cooked over sweet hardwood on a 100% wood-fired pit.  All dinners–one, two or three meats–are served with rolls, pinto beans and your choice of one side with pickles and onions on request.  Sandwiches are also available as are such “special dinner plates” as the “Flip Plate” (Danny’s invention over 30 years ago and a local favorite… a flour tortilla buttered and fried on the grill and filled with a hamburger patty, two cheese slices, green chile, onions, and salsa.)

A two meat barbecue platter will sate even the most ravenous diners.  Make one of those meats brisket.  It’s Texas quality–replete with flavor and lightly smoked with no residual bitterness.  A pinkish smoke ring around the brisket marries well with a nice bit of bark on the outside edge.  Texturally, the brisket is tender with a perfect amount of “stretch” to it.  Another excellent meat option is Danny’s St. Louis cut pork ribs, four meaty bones with sauce practically lacquered on.  The meat pulls off the bones easily and needs no additional sauce.  The sauce, by the way, is fabulous–vinegar-based with a pronounced sweetness and a piquancy that sneaks up on you.  The potato salad has sweet notes, too.  It’s memorable!

Three Meat Dinner: Ham, Pulled Pork and Turkey

Even better than the two meat dinner is the three meat dinner.  The pulled pork is blessed with a dry rub comprised of salt, pepper and other spices rubbed liberally on the pork.  Both the ham and turkey are sliced thinly and are imbued with a light smoke.   As with all of Danny’s meats, absolutely no sauce is needed though that sauce is so good you’ll want to drink it up.  Worthy accompaniment to the three meats is the coleslaw, a sweet-tangy mound light on creaminess but big on flavor and crispness.  Also terrific is the fried okra. 

Whether or not the national media will ever acknowledge culinary greatness in New Mexico exists outside of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Danny’s Place is in rarefied air as not only New Mexico’s very best barbecue restaurant, but one of the best in the country.

Danny’s Place
902 South Canal Street
Carlsbad, New Mexico
(575) 885-8739
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: St Louis Cut Pork Ribs, Pulled Pork, Ham, Turkey, Brisket

Danny's Place Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Seasons Rotisserie & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Seasons Rotisserie & Grill just north of Old Town

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Despite America’s woeful economic situation, new restaurants continue to sprout faster than New Mexico’s unofficial state flower (no, not the ubiquitous orange traffic cone; the almost as omnipresent tumbleweed).  Rarely does a week go by without some sparkly and shiny new restaurant opening up somewhere in the Duke City.  Though most start off with much promise and potential, many restaurants are destined to suffer a fate similar to the dreaded and accursed tumbleweed.  The average lifespan of most independent restaurant concepts is less than five years.

In 1995, Seasons Rotisserie & Grill was one of the shiny new restaurants with lots of promise and potential. Just over two decades later, it continues to thrive against the onslaught of rigorous competition from newer, shinier and prettier new restaurants, outlasting many restaurants anointed the “next best thing” by the cognoscenti.  Year after year, Seasons continues to be mentioned as one of the city’s very best restaurants and not in the condescendingly reverential tone reserved for the restaurants recognized for their greatness largely because they’re old.  Seasons is still recognized as a player!  In the April edition of New Mexico Magazine, Seasons was listed as one of the 50 reasons to love Albuquerque.  In actuality, there are more than fifty reasons alone to love Seasons.

The main floor dining room at Seasons

Launching on Mountain Road just north of Old Town was somewhat of a risk as the area was theretofore not considered a dining destination–at least not by locals.  Tourists have, perhaps as a captive market, always flocked to Old Town’s eateries, but save for area residents, locals tended to dine elsewhere.  Seasons changed that with a look and feel which defied the adobe-hued stereotype of area restaurants–that despite being comfortably ensconced in a modern Pueblo-style two-story stucco edifice. 

Step inside and a contemporary milieu transports you to the wine country of Sonoma County, California.  An elongated dining room adorned in muted terracotta and ocher tones seems somewhat smaller courtesy of a barrel-vaulted ceiling.  The wood floors have a glossy sheen and appear immaculate enough to eat off of.  A wine rack comprises one of the restaurant’s walls.  The restaurant’s cynosure is an open exhibition kitchen whose own centerpiece is a wood-burning grill and rotisserie. Tables are adorned with crisp white linens and oversized flatware.  A rooftop cantina transports you to yet another world where movers and shakers in the evening give way to beautiful people after sunset.

Fano Bakery Bread at Seasons

Seasons’ philosophy is to take the best ingredients and let them speak for themselves on simple dishes executed to perfection.  There are no pretensions to keeping up with trends; it’s all about flavors, the way it should be.  The menu changes seasonally (to everything there is a season) but several American classics such as rotisserie chicken, a 14-ounce boneless ribeye and sea scallops are available year round.  Seasons prides itself on wine pairings.  Even the dessert menu suggests which wines go best with each sweet treat.

The wine pairings come naturally because Seasons is the brainchild of Roger Roessler of Rosseler Cellars in Sonoma County.  Roessler’s nephews, identical twin brothers Keith and Kevin own and operate Zinc and Savoy, two of the Duke City’s gourmet cuisine gems.  At the triumvirate of Roessler owned restaurants, wines are selected to complement the bold flavors of the menus.  Seasons also seems to recognize there are diners who eschew adult beverages when we’re driving, serving an absolutely addictive organic Guatemalan coffee roasted by Aroma Coffee of Santa Fe.  The coffee is served hot, not lukewarm.  That’s a big plus for me.

Seasons’ Calamari, the very best in Albuquerque

The wait staff is as polished as the stemware and as accommodating as any in the Duke City area.  From the moment you’re seated, you’re in good hands (especially if you’re attended to by the lovely Hannah).  Ask a question about local sources, ingredients, menu items or just about anything to do with your dining experience and the wait staff will either know the answer or will get it for you.  Their timing in replenishing your beverages reflects an almost uncanny sense of timing.

Your dining experience begins with a half loaf of thickly sliced fresh bread and the best Balsamic vinegar, olive oil and spice combination in which to dip that bread. Those spices include black and red pepper which add a piquant boost.   The bread comes from Albuquerque’s Fano Bread, an artisan style bakery which does not use preservatives or additives.  Fano bread is characterized by freshness and flavor.   A hard crust frames a soft, yeasty bread that’s perfect for dredging up sauces.

Strawberries & Butter Lettuce

16 January 2017: The appetizer menu includes several intriguing options, but savvy diners typically owner Seasons’ deep-fried calamari.  While calamari is usually one of those de rigueur appetizers that rarely warrants any fanfare, Seasons elevates it to the very best in town.  No other calamari is even close.   It’s chewy but not to the rubber band texture of some calamari.  It’s breaded lightly and it’s always fresh. The calamari is drizzled with a lemon aioli and is served in a pool formed by a roasted tomato salsa with a flavor profile that delves into piquant, sweet, savory and tangy elements. When you’re done with the calamari, you just might spoon up the salsa (or dredge it up with the bread). 

9 April 2012: …a time to pluck up that which is planted.  Salads at Seasons are always a terrific appetizer or entree selection.  A split portion is big enough for the former.  The strawberries and butter lettuce salad is fresh, filling and fantastic and it’s not especially complicated or ingredient laden.  It’s simply a combination of butter lettuce and baby spinach topped with crumbled chevre (goat cheese) sourced locally, toasted sliced almonds and sliced strawberries drizzled with a black pepper-Balsamic vinaigrette.  The tanginess of the strawberries and the pungent creaminess of the chevre, in particular, go especially well together while the vinaigrette brings it all home.

Rotisserie Chicken Carbonara

One of the restaurant’s signature entrees is a rotisserie half chicken.  Other restaurants in Albuquerque do rotisserie chicken well (some such as Pollito Con Papas uniquely and exceptionally so), but few, if any, give you the thrill of an exhibition kitchen in which you can see it prepared.  If watching a skewered chicken rotate over an open flame is a thrill, wait until you taste it.  The rotisserie keeps the chicken moist, its skin just slightly crisp.  It’s seasoned very well.  The rotisserie chicken is served with roasted new potatoes, a herb jus and julienne spring vegetables. 

9 April 2012: Another way to enjoy rotisserie chicken is on an entree of rotisserie chicken carbonara, a linguine pasta made with pancetta, spring peas and Grana Padano.   Unlike some carbonara dishes, this one is not overly creamy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not moist.  The linguine is al dente and may have been prepared in butter.  The pancetta, a type of Italian bacon, is salt cured, but not overly salty, offering a nice contrast to the delicate rotisserie chicken.  The Grana Padano has a flavor profile similar to  Parmigiano Reggiano, but with more mild tones.  The spring peas taste like freshly shucked peas out of the pod.  This is a unique carbonara dish that doesn’t subscribe to what many might have in mind when they think carbonara, but it’s a good one.

Pan Seared Sea Scallops

9 April 2012: There’s a reason scallops are a standard offering at Seasons.  Perhaps no restaurant in Albuquerque prepares them quite as well or in so many different ways.  Take for example, jumbo scallops pan-seared in a tarragon butter sauce and served with bacon grits, wild mushrooms and spring peas.   The accompaniment is nearly as good as the entree and the scallops are fabulous.  By the way, if a restaurant fails to ask you how you want your scallops prepared, it’s a disservice to you as a guest.  My response, just as when ordering lamb, is  ask that they be prepared as the chef sees fit.  At Seasons, the scallops are best at medium rare, giving them a sweet and mild flavor.

16 January 2017: Seasons’ winter 2016 menu showcased another terrific way to enjoy pan-seared jumbo sea scallops by preparing them in a rich citrus beurre blanc, a French sauce made from an acidic (such as citrus) reduction whisked together with chunks of fresh butter). If this sounds incredibly rich, it is. The scallops are not lavishly garnished with the sauce which is a saving grace because the naturally sweet flavors of the scallops are allowed to shine though the influence of the unctuous sauce does come across, too. The scallops are served with butter and cream smashed sweet potatoes, as good as we’ve ever had them and sautéed onions and spinach. The sautéed onions and spinach were somewhat reminiscent of a wilted spinach salad which is made with bacon and bacon drippings. The sheer richness of this dish is exceeded only by its deliciousness.

Yet Another way to Prepare Pan-Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops

The jalapeño-bacon grits will change your mind if you’ve ever thought grits were a bumpkinly dish with a flavor and texture of soggy and gritty corn meal.  At Seasons, the grits are dense and cotton soft, but it’s the jalapeño and bacon combination which places these grits in rarefied company with the grits at The Hollar in Madrid and Blades’ Bistro in Placitas as likely the very best in New Mexico.  Bacon makes everything better, but it’s the incendiary qualities of the jalapeño that stand out most.  The wild mushrooms we had turned out to be oyster mushrooms, my favorite fleshy fungi.  Oyster mushrooms have a velvety texture and an amazing flavor vaguely reminiscent of oysters. 

16 January 2017: Also from Seasons’ winter 2016 is a grilled bistro steak medallions salad, an outstanding entrée emboldened and made rarefied with the duality of Black River blue cheese crumbles and blue cheese dressing. The salad itself is constructed with baby spinach, red onions and cubes of winter squash while the bistro steak is as tender and perfectly prepared at medium as any steak we’ve had. With a slightly caramelized crust on the outside and a pulchritudinously pink inside, each medallion is rich and flavorful. What can you say about blue cheese? If you’re an aficionado, you can’t get enough of this fetid fromage. Black River blue, a Wisconsin cow’s milk blue cheese, is rich, earthy and full-flavored. It’s among the best! So is this salad!

Grilled Bistro Steak Medallions Salad

The dessert menu lists only a few items, but they’re all tempting.  After having had a few bad experiences with lemon curd based desserts at French restaurants, we teased fate during an April, 2012 visit and ordered a chilled lemon souffle with a basil whipped cream and candied lemon peel.  This dessert doesn’t emphasize the lip-pursing qualities of bitter lemons, but harnesses the qualities of freshness and citrus. 

To everything there is a season.  Albuquerque’s Seasons Rotisserie & Grill restaurant is a restaurant for all seasons in every conceivable way.

Seasons Rotisserie & Grill
2031 Mountain, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-766-5100
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 24
COST: $$$$
BEST BETS:: Calamari, Strawberries & Butter Lettuce, Chilled Lemon Souffle, Pan Seared Sea Scallops, Rotisserie Chicken Carbonara, Grilled Bistro Steak Medallions Salad

Seasons Rotisserie & Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Artichoke Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque’s Artichoke Cafe for the Finest in Fine Dining

These things are just plain annoying.
After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual “food”
out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps.
Have the shrimp cocktail instead.”
Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy, that shrill and garrulous walking side of bacon, may not appreciate the humble artichoke much, but among both health conscious and discerning diners, the artichoke has long been a healthful and delicious dining option.  Considered a “super food” for its high antioxidant, fiber, potassium, phosphorous, iron, calcium and magnesium content, artichokes have long been used in the treatment of gall bladder and liver conditions because it improves liver functions and is recognized for its ability to lower blood pressure.  It’s also been known, in some cases, to help with migranes and to give skin a healthy glow. 

In 16th Century Europe, eating an artichoke was considered scandalous behavior for women because the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac (along with the humble tomato) and was reserved exclusively for men (especially aristocrats like Henry, VIII).  Catherine de Medici, bride of King Henry, II of France, denounced that social more, introducing the artichoke along with traditional Italian foods and cooking to the French kitchen.  Catherine was passionate about artichokes, consuming them in large quantities. Henceforth the French elevated the artichoke to the stature of a gourmet ingredient.  It was treated as such when introduced to the American colonies.

The Exquisite Elegance of the Artichoke Cafe

It’s only fitting that one of Albuquerque’s most highly regarded fine-dining gourmet treasures pay tribute to the artichoke by  festooning its name on the marquee.  When the Artichoke Cafe opened in 1989, the artichoke was hardly ubiquitous on Duke City restaurant menus, many of whom seemed to believe vegetables stopped and ended with green chile.  In its two and a half decades plus  of serving the city, the Artichoke Cafe has helped pioneer culinary trends diners now take for granted.  That includes concepts such as seasonal menus, sustainable foods, a wine bar and…a mission statement. 

Mission statements are commonplace in the military and in the corporate world, but not necessarily among restaurants.  They should be!  The Artichoke Cafe’s mission statement is inspired, especially the part which reads, “The guest is always is always right and we will accommodate every guest’s dietary needs to the best of our ability. We strive to make our guest’s dining experience a delicious and memorable one at the Artichoke Cafe.  We encourage every employee working at the Artichoke Cafe to make this vision a reality. On any given day we are only as good as our best effort. Therefore, every employee is an important link in the chain of our mission statement and is valued as such.”

A Basket of Bread and Muffins with Herbed Butter

From the onset, the Artichoke Cafe has been a trend-setter, launching in the East Downtown (EDO) district long before it was the burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming areas in the nation.”  In 1989, the district was actually considered failing.  You can’t underestimate the impact the Artichoke Cafe has had on the area nor that it has rightfully earned the sobriquet “heart of EDO.”  In fact, there’s no disputing the veracity of any of the other slogans the Cafe has used: “the saucy little bistro at the heart of creative cuisine” and “where artisan cocktails meet creative cuisine” among them. 

The 5000-square foot, 120-seat establishment is the brainchild of proprietors Pat and Terry Keene.  Pat serves as the restaurant’s executive chef, a vocation for which she was formally trained in New York City while Terry has more than 30 years experience in restaurant management.  While that marital pairing was certainly made in heaven, the restaurant is reputed to serve heavenly pairings of fine wine and exquisite cuisine.  As a non-imbiber of adult beverages, I can’t speak for the wine, but The Wine Spectator certainly can, perennially listing it in its annual dining guide.   

French Onion Soup Gratinee with crostinis and Gruyere

The Cafe’s walls are adorned with art whose beauty pales in comparison to the the truly artistic cuisine, whose artists are merely stick figure novices in comparison to the classically trained masters who create in the kitchen.  From the complimentary bread basket to desserts, this restaurant exudes four star first class with a culinary repertoire which melds the finest in creative American, Italian and French cuisines.  Be aware, however, that it’s easy to fall in love with an entree that may not be available because of a seasonal menu rotation. 

The love starts early as in when the basket of fresh bread is delivered to your table along with a delicious herbed butter.  The basket typically includes a triumvirate of breads including a very good French bread.  It’s an excellent bread for sopping up the restaurant’s inspired soups, among them memory-triggering Potato-Leek soup.   The Artichoke’s rendition transported us back to  The Mermaid Inn in picturesque Burford, England where we luxuriated in its warmth and depth of flavor.  It’s a high compliment to the Artichoke’s version that it can even be mentioned in the same sentence as the wondrous elixir served at the Mermaid Inn.

Sliced Steak

28 December 2011: Also quite inspired is the French Onion Soup gratinee with imported Gruyere.  It’s easily among the very best French Onion Soups in Albuquerque, so good even French-hating xenophobes would appreciate a steamy bowl of aromatic beef broth in which sweet onions and pungent cheese swim merrily with spongy, soft crostinis.   Considered a “peasant food” by virtue of its humble, economically borne origin, French onion soup has risen to the level of much coveted, highly sought after gourmet favorites.

26 December 2016: Don’t be surprised if lunch entrees at the Artichoke are exceedingly better than more expensive dinner entrees at other fine dining establishments. Such is the case, in part because the lunch menu includes sliced steak.  As described on the menu (flat iron steak, angel hair pasta salad, basil, asparagus, red pepper, Parmesan, Balsamic reduction), you’re not quite sure what exactly will be delivered to your table, but you can rest assured it’ll be outstanding.   Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. The Artichoke Cafe exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy at about medium-rare which means plenty of delicious pink.  The Balsamic-blessed asparagus spears shine!

Salmon and Broccolini Crepe with Marsala-Goat Cheese Sauce

26 December 2016: The lunch menu during our December, 2016 visit listed both a crepe of the day and a chef’s daily preparation of shepherd’s pie.  Although chicken was the listed filling for the crepe, the accommodating kitchen staff agreed to substitute salmon for a small up-charge.  Well cognizant that the Artichoke Cafe prepares salmon better than just about any restaurant in Albuquerque, it was a substitution this persnickety diner relished.  Picture if you will a thin crepe nearly bursting at its seams with sweet, earthy broccolini and tender, flaky salmon all covered with an absolutely addictive Marsala-goat cheese sauce served with a side salad and vegetables.  Broccoli haters might enjoy its more palatable cousin broccolini whose flavor is more mild and less bitter.  It’s an excellent complement to salmon and absolutely shone under the resplendent Marsala-goat cheese sauce which is so good you’ll want to mainline it.

26 December 2016: Author Anna Lappe rhapsodized “the joy of eating seasonally is the joy of fresh produce and fresh foods.”  That’s what you find on the Artichoke Cafe’s greens menu–an array of seven artfully composed and inspiring salads so inviting you might eschew the restaurant’s magnificent appetizers.  Available year-round is the best Salad Nicoise in New Mexico as well as the restaurant’s most popular salad, the extraordinary Pear and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad.  This is a salad comprised of complementary flavor and textural elements for which all great salads should strive: fresh, crispy greens; a pungent, fetid blue cheese; sweet-juicy pears; tangy-sweet cranberries and savory umami-laden Tamari pecans all drizzled with a honey-champagne vinaigrette that pulls everything  together.  This is one of my favorite salads anywhere!

Pear and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad

At the Artichoke, we’ve also discovered one of the very best Italian entrees we’ve had in the Duke City, an inspired lunch entree of Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers, a concordant marriage of sweet, savory and piquant flavors that had us salivating with every delicious morsel.  The Italian sausage is of Chicago or Philadelphia caliber with the perfect amount of fennel.  Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers are a quintessential Italian dish, especially popular throughout the East Coast where they’re often stuffed into sandwiches.

For dinner, perhaps no restaurant in New Mexico serves a lamb quite as luscious as the Artichoke Cafe.  The oven roasted New Mexico rack of lamb, as succulent as you’ll find anywhere in the state, is not to be missed.  It is tender and mouth-watering without the prevalent gamy smell of lamb served in restaurants not of the Artichoke’s caliber.  The only fault you can ever find with outstanding lamb is that you’re always left wanting more.  That’s the case with this luscious lamb.

Mocha Semi-Freddo and chopped Serrano chiles (added at my request)

28 December 2011: One of the hallmarks of the Artichoke Cafe is its commitment to sustainable seafood. Past menus have featured a “chef’s daily creation” in which only sustainable king salmon and seafood are used.  You’ll want to pay rapt attention to your server’s description of this daily seafood bounty though doing so may dissuade you from ordering what you thought you had wanted. One daily special we happened upon during a December, 2011 visit showcased sustainable king salmon atop a bed of ginger and scallion sticky rice and topped with pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish served with snap peas and carrots. 

This is an entree with one surprise after the other.  The salmon has a near “just caught” freshness that seems enlivened by the mouth-watering combination of pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish.  The combination of tanginess and piquancy is a winner, far better than disguising the native flavors of the salmon with some syrupy sweet sauce as other restaurants are apt to do. The ginger and scallion sticky rice had me longing for ripe Thai mangoes.

King Salmon over Sticky Rice

28 December 2011: The Serrano chile relish so captivated me that I asked for it to be added to my dessert choice of mocha semi-freddo.  To our server’s credit, he didn’t call for a straight jacket or attempt to dissuade me from potentially ruining what is an excellent dessert.  Alas, instead of the Serrano chile relish served with the salmon, chopped Serrano chiles were delivered in a plate.  It didn’t matter.  I garnished the dessert with the chiles and enjoyed my fiendish concoction thoroughly.

The Artichoke Cafe is one of the Duke City’s premier dining destinations, a fact not lost among the city’s movers and shakers who make it their destination of choice for “power” lunches and dinners.  Whether or not you consider yourself a “player” in the arena of business, politics or any other enterprise, you’ll feel right at home at the Artichoke Cafe, truly one of the city’s very best restaurants of any genre.

The Artichoke Cafe
424 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 243-0200
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 24
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Italian Hot Peppers, New Mexico Rack of Lamb, Pear and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Salad,

Artichoke Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

SweeTea Bakery Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe on San Mateo

In some metropolitan areas, legions of restaurant bloggers dissect and report on every facet of the area’s dining scene. These bloggers have a significant impact on the restaurant choices diners make. That fact isn’t lost on savvy restaurateurs—particularly young entrepreneurs active in social media–who solicit feedback on their restaurants from the dynamic food blogger community. Some restaurateurs who understand the power of online reviews even engage in “food blogger outreach campaigns” and cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with food bloggers. Alas, this doesn’t often happen in Albuquerque—maybe because you can count on one hand (with at least two fingers left over) the number of active food bloggers with staying power and brand recognition.  There is anecdotal evidence that Duke City restaurant review bloggers have some impact, but it hasn’t been quantified.

You can also count on one hand the number of restaurateurs who have actually invited me to experience their new restaurant ventures. On the rare occasion in which a restaurateur does invite me, it reaffirms for me that the restaurateur: (1) recognizes food bloggers as a legitimate, credible and influential medium; and (2) understands the power of blog-based reviews to amplify a positive dining experience. So, when Anh and Tammie, the vivacious owners of the SweeTea (the expected “t” is redundant) Bakery Café on San Mateo, invited me to “come sample and review our new sandwich bakery” and expressed their “excitement to get feedback from food experts like you,” I leaped at the opportunity…though careful as always to remain as inconspicuous as my linebacker size and “real” camera will allow.

Owners Tammie Nguyen (left) and Any Nguyen

It didn’t immediately dawn on me that I may have “outed” myself when ordering a durian-coconut smoothie. Durian, as regular readers may recognize, is considered “the world’s smelliest fruit.” Its odoriferous emanations have been likened to body odor, smelly feet, rotten onions, garbage and worse. Our server’s reaction—a shock and awe mix of “you are kidding, aren’t you?” and “do you really know what you’re ordering?”–is typical. Perhaps sensing the server’s trepidation, Anh Nguyen stepped out to confirm the sheer madness or foolhardiness of my beverage order. She laughed when I told her I was Vietnamese in my previous life, acknowledged that durian is an acquired taste which very few people acquire then proceeded to give us a guided tour of the bakery-café’s pastry case.

This wasn’t some special treatment accorded to a food blogger who could perhaps influence venturesome Duke City diners (remember, Anh didn’t yet know who I was). This is how SweeTea’s staff treats everyone who walks into the premises for the first time. With the pride of a young parent, Anh practically beamed as she aptly described each pulchritudinous pastry, a phalanx of sweet and savory treasures displayed under glass. It’s a wonder drool tracks don’t obscure your view; many a museum’s most cherished masterpieces pale in comparison to these pastries. Their appeal is heightened by Anh’s enthusiastic descriptions.

View of the Pastry Case and Order Counter

After our meal had been delivered to our table, Anh stopped by to see how we were enjoying it…and “caught me” carefully photographing our bounty. Surmising my gig was up, I proceeded to reveal my identity as a mild-mannered food blogger who can eat tall banh mi in a single (well, maybe ten) bite(s). She reproved me for having paid for the meal myself, indicating that having invited me she had intended to treat us to our meal. Noting our table was brimming with savory fare, she excused herself, returning scant minutes later with a trove of baked goods—eight enticing delicacies as dainty and beautiful as those baked by a Parisian patisserie.

Ahn then summoned her partner and long-time friend Tammie Nguyen to join us. If you’ve ever admired those framed portraits of statuesque Vietnamese women which adorn the walls at some Vietnamese restaurants, in Anh and Tammie you’ll see vivid confirmation that such elegant beauty does exist. Theirs is an easy friendship borne of shared years and experiences. Before launching SweeTea, Ahn worked as a pharmacist while Tammie toiled as a software engineer.  As restaurateurs they’re naturals with an ambassadorial flair all good restaurateurs have.  They’re passionate about giving their guests a memorable and delicious experience.

Meatball Banh Mi

If you ever visited the defunct House of Pho, the location’s previous occupant at Montgomery Plaza, you’ll be amazed at the wholesale transformation the 1,800 square-foot space has undergone. A complete make-over has converted a nondescript restaurant venue into one which bespeaks of both modernity and hominess. A mural depicting Singapore’s high-rise dominated skyline covers an entire wall. It’s eye-catching, but the true cynosure of the attractive milieu is the pastry case with its enticing fare. Seating is more functional than it is comfortable unless you manage to snag the comfortable red sectional sofa where you can stretch out. Anh expects a robust take-out business so the dozen or so seats should be just about right for those of us who want to eat in.

SweeTea is patterned after 85 °C Bakery Café, a Taiwanese chain of coffee shops and self-serve bakeries with a huge presence in California. Guests employ tongs to extricate their favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) pastries from self-serve pastry cases then pile them onto a tray and ferry them to the counter. In other pastry cases, you’ll see such delicacies as cheesecake and fruit-filled tarts. Above the counter you’ll espy a menu showcasing an appealing selection of delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, small bites, special entree dishes, unique specialty drinks and bubble tea. It’s an ambitious menu considering the relatively Lilliputian size of the bakery-cafe, but it’s not exclusively Vietnamese.

Bulgogi Banh Mi

Anh explained that contemporary Vietnamese food has been heavily influenced by nearly a century of French colonialism. The influx of French flavors, ingredients and techniques essentially revolutionized traditional Vietnamese food. One of the most visible aspects of modern French-inspired Vietnamese food is the crusty baguette, the basis for banh mi, the widely popular Vietnamese sandwich. Sweet and savory pastries, sweet breads, chocolate-filled croissants and other tantalizing baked goods may now be ubiquitous in Vietnam, but their origin is French.

“In Vietnam,” Anh told me “it takes a lot more work to make a banh mi.” That’s because ovens are still relatively scarce within family homes. Throughout Ho Chi Minh City where she was born, banh mi are a featured fare of the makeshift street markets in which “kitchens” are ad-libbed by inventive cooks. The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial street foods being prepared on small, sometimes homemade, charcoal braziers wafts throughout the alleyways and side streets in which these, mostly uncovered, markets are located. Though she can’t hope to recreate the incomparable experience of preparing banh mi in the street food style of her birthplace, she certainly knows what it takes to create the best to be found in Albuquerque.

Egg Rolls

Before launching SweeTea, Anh and Tammie returned to Vietnam to study baking techniques then spent time refining recipes to adapt to Albuquerque’s high altitude, high alkaline water and arid climate.  These challenges have baffled transplanted bakers for years, but with lots of practice, water-softening technology and a determination to treat Duke City diners to the very and most authentic best banh mi in New Mexico, they’ve got it down pat.  The authenticity is immediately obvious in that the baguettes (baked on the premises, not purchased at Costco) have a perfect balance of pillowy softness inside and crustiness of the exterior.  Moreover, Anh explained, banh mi sandwiches are supposed to be at least twelve-inches long as they are at SweeTea.

In our first two visits, we enjoyed five banh mi, each one dressed with picked carrots, daikon relish, cilantro, jalapeño, cucumbers and SweeTea mayo.  Banh mi aren’t ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) in the manner of American sandwiches.  There’s just enough meat in each of the five sandwiches we enjoyed to complement the accompanying vegetables without obscuring the freshness and deliciousness of the baguette.  Each banh mi is a balance of flavors in perfect proportion to one another.  My early favorite is the meatball banh mi.  If you’re picturing golf ball-sized meatballs as you’d find in an Italian meatball sandwich, you won’t find them here, but you will find them addictively delicious.  These “meatballs” have neither the texture nor orb-like shape of Italian meatballs.  They are instead more akin to a very moist, very well-seasoned ground pork simmered in tomato sauce.

Chicken Dumplings

My Kim enjoyed the bulgogi banh mi most.  Bulgogi is certainly not Vietnamese.  It is instead the signature dish of Korea,  what many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue–thin strips of marinated lean beef imbued with a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes.  The fusion of signature elements from Korean and Vietnamese culinary cultures is a winner, but in terms of flavor profile, it’s not significantly different than the grilled pork banh mi.  For more distinctive, savory flavors try the grilled sausage banh mi, a pork-based sausage redolent with the flavors of fish sauce and garlic.  If “cold-cut” sandwiches are your preference, you’ll love the #1 Special Banh Mi made with Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate (yet another delicacy for which Vietnam can thank France).  Don’t let the term “headcheese” scare you off.  There’s not enough of it to overwhelm the sandwich.  Besides, it’s a nice complement to the other ingredients.

But I digress.  Before you get to the banh mi, you’ll want to enjoy at least two of the four listed “small bites” on the menu.  Make one of them the deep-fried, golden-hued egg rolls.  Come to think of it, you may want two orders of these cigar-shaped beauties lest you risk fighting over who gets the third one (being a gentleman, I always let my Kim have it then stew over it later).  Served with a sweet-savory and slightly tart sauce of thick viscosity, these egg rolls are generously stuffed and perfectly fried.  They’re absolutely delicious.

Vermicelli with Grilled Pork

For those of us who dine with a spouse or partner, the matter of appetizers served in odd-numbered quantities can be confounding.  Exempli gratia, the pan-fried chicken dumplings which are served five to an order.  You’ll probably covet all five of these crescent-shaped beauties for yourself.  Who can blame you?  They’re tender and plump, filled with fresh, tasty minced chicken fried to a crispy (but not greasy) golden-hue.  There’s only one thing missing–and that’s the elusive sixth dumpling to make it an even-numbered starter so neither you or your partner will feel short-changed. 

While not a compendium-like menu (such as the 145-items at nearby Saigon Restaurant), SweeTea offers more than enough entrees to make it not just your favorite pastry provider, but a very viable lunch or dinner option.  In thirty or forty visits, for example, you might  want to deviate from the banh mi menu.  There to sate and likely hook you are seven vermicelli options, each made with the same familiar proteins you love on the bahn mi.  The grilled pork vermicelli is a resplendent swimming pool-sized bowl crammed with vermicelli noodles, cucumber, bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce, pickled carrot and daikon, scallion and roasted peanuts served with SweeTea fish sauce.  If freshness has a flavor, it’s exemplified by this dish in which a melange of ingredients and flavors coalesce into a palate-pleasing, tongue-titillating bowl of pure gustatory enjoyment.

Assorted Vietnamese Pastries

Now for the pastries!  Trays of these artisanal delicacies are baked twice daily so you’ll always have fresh pastries on hand. That is until the bakery runs out…and if you get to SweeTea late in the day, you just might find slim pickings. Not that a limited selection is a bad thing. It’s how we discovered the cinnamon rose buns, (not pictured) cinnamon rolls shaped like roses.  Unlike those overly-glazed grocery store pretenders, the prevalent flavor here is sweet cinnamon in perfect proportion to the soft bread dough which unravels easily.  After two visits and nine different pastries, these may be my favorite…at least until I try another new one.  

For years the Coconut Craisins Butterfly at Banh Mi Coda has been my favorite of all Vietnamese pastries.  Though somewhat smaller, SweeTea’s version is better…more of the coconut-raising marriage we love.  For my Kim, the nutella buns reign supreme.  She’s fiendishly addicted to the sweetened hazelnut cocoa spread and smiles broadly with every bite of the soft buns.  We both love the “not your traditional banana nut bread” which is baked with fresh rum-soaked bananas and is topped with walnuts.  This is not your mother’s dry, tasteless banana nut bread.  It’s rich, moist and utterly decadent.  SweeTea’s signature pastry is the Kim Sa Bun, a soft bun filled with egg custard and with a cookie crust top.  Anh described the painstaking process of brining the egg yolks to prepare the custard, a labor of love for a pastry you will love.  

More Pastry Deliciousness

24 December 2016: It stands to reason that innovative and avant-garde restaurateurs such as Anh and Tammie wouldn’t subject their guests to the de rigueur Coke or Pepsi product offerings.  Though soft drinks are available, adventurous diners will gravitate to the exceptional teas or smoothies (truly intrepid souls will try the coconut-durian smoothie).  If you’re of a more healthful bent, Anh (remember she was a pharmacist) might recommend Thai basil seed with Malva nut which has properties conducive to good health. 

The childlike among us (okay, me) might instead opt for a colorful, multi-layered “rainbow” drink.  From bottom to top, this beverage is layered with chestnuts, mung bean, agar, coconut and crushed ice.  Use your straw to blend it all together and you’ll enjoy one of the more unique flavor-texture experiences you’ll have in the Duke City.

Nhu Holding “Rainbow” Drink

There are many things to love about the SweeTea Bakery Cafe, a magical fusion of Vietnamese and French ingenuity.  With Anh and Tammie turning out the best pastries this side of Ho Chi Minh City, it promises to be a very welcome and exciting addition to the Duke City dining scene.  Tell them Gil sent you.

SweeTea Bakery Cafe
4565 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 582-2592
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2016
1st VISIT: 4 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Meatball Banh Mi, Bulgogi Banh Mi, Special (Vietnamese ham, pork roll, headcheese and pate) Banh Mi, Grilled Sausage Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Chicken Dumplings, Egg Rolls, Vermicelli with Grilled Pork, “Not Your Traditional Banana Nut Bread,” Kim Sa Bun, Egg Custard Bun, Nutella Bun, Coconut Craisins Butterfly, Cinnamon Rose Bun

Sweet Tea Bakery Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Alqud’s Middle East Grocery Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Middle East Grocery Restaurant on San Pedro

The St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Magdalena, New Mexico is adorned with ceramic statues, most familiar and easy to identify…at least for lifelong Catholics like me.   After Sunday Mass one September, 2010 morning, we espied a statue of a saint clutching a curious implement to his chest.  None of the parishioners we asked had any idea who the statue represented.  Father Andy Pavlak, the parish vicar, confirmed the statue depicted Saint Lawrence  of Rome and the curious device he held was a gridiron, a metal grate used for grilling meat, fish, vegetables or any combination thereof.

Father Pavlak went on to explain why Saint Lawrence clutched the gridiron.  Saint Lawrence was one of seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian.  The manner of death he suffered was especially gruesome.  The intrepid saint was grilled on a gridiron.  As his flesh cooked, Lawrence is said to have cried out, “This side’s done.  Turn me over and have a bite.”  That probably explains why Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, butchers and roasters. He is also patron saint of several parishes throughout the Land of Enchantment.

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

I suspect Saint Lawrence might also be the patron saint of grillmasters.  If so, I sure could use his divine intercession.  Like the administrators of his death, I seem to have a problem discerning when one side is done.  Consequently one side is usually charred to the consistency of coal while the other is as rare as the raw beef fighters apply over wounds acquired in the ring.  It doesn’t matter how closely I study the collective writings of Bill and Cheryl Jamison, America’s preeminent outdoor cooking experts, my results are disastrous.  On the grill, I’m a disgrace to my gender.

Because I’ve ruined thousands of dollars of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, my Kim would just as soon see me wave the white flag of surrender (though I’d probably drop it on the grill and only one side would burn.)  Better still, she’d rather I take her to a restaurant in which bona fide grillmasters impart the olfactory-arousing direct application of heat to produce succulent results.  Frankly, that would be my preference, too…so, perhaps my ineptitude on the grill might be a subliminal thing.  Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.

Purchase an assortment of seasoned snacks such as watermelon seeds

It’s no secret that some of the very best grilled meats anywhere are prepared to perfection in Middle Eastern restaurants.  Many Middle Eastern dining establishments have mastered the enviable art of imbuing meats with the pungency of exotic spices; a distinctive aroma inherent from woods with personality; a whisper-thin crust that seals in flavor and tenderness in a pleasantly pink interior; and any number of heavily spiced, flavorful sauces, all of which seem to highlight even more of the magnificence of meat in all its grilled glory.

In Albuquerque as in many other cities, Middle Eastern restaurants seem to fall into two stratum: opulent, lavishly adorned dining rooms or time-worn cafes in bedraggled edifices.   Experience shows that spit and polish alone don’t make the restaurant. Some of the very best Middle Eastern restaurants are often found in tumbledown buildings.  Perhaps the very best of these is the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant on the southwest corner of San Pedro and Montgomery in the Northeast Heights.

Dolmes: Six piece stuffed grape leaves served tahini sauce

The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is ensconced in a stand-alone building that frankly could be home to just about any retail business.  Much of the building is dedicated to comestibles.  Its shelves are well-stocked with Middle Eastern spices, groceries and dry goods.  Adventurous cooks will enjoy walking up and down the aisles studying all the wonderful options, perhaps inspired by the olfactory arousing aromas coming from the small kitchen at the front of the complex.  The counter separating the kitchen from the store doubles as a counter in which patrons pay for their purchases or place their to-go orders.

Dine-in and carry-out options abound.  Should you decide to dine in, there are several comfortable booths and tables available.  The dining area is ensconced beneath a canopy reminiscent a large Bedouin tent, the biggest difference being that instead of Middle Eastern rugs, the canopy is made from Southwest themed rugs (Kokopeli anyone?).   The menu over the counter is abbreviated; you’ll be handed a laminated menu to take with you to your table.  From the window-side booths, your vantage point will be of busy San Pedro to your east.

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

The menu is surprisingly ambitions considering the relatively cramped quarters.  Reading from top-left, the first items to catch your eye are appetizers and small order items followed by a seven salads, only one of which you might see at any type of restaurant.  One entire page is dedicated to platters, both meat-based platters and vegetarian platters.  Platters generally include a meat or vegetarian entree with hummus or rice and one of the seven sensational salads.  Homemade fresh pita bread (which you can see being made at the kitchen) comes with several of the platters.

The last page of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches–non-vegetarian and vegetarian–and desserts.  It’s an intriguing menu, one you might expect to see at a larger Middle Eastern restaurant and not necessarily at a grocery store doubling as a restaurant.  Your hosts are brothers Muhammad and Abraham, who are as cordial and accommodating as any restaurant proprietors in the Duke City.  Both are more than happy to recommend various options and will check up on you periodically.  Trust their recommendations.

Lamb shawarma Platter served with Hummus

The appetizers section includes some de rigueur standards you’ll find at almost all Mediterranean restaurants.  The difference is that the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant prepares them better.  “Heresy,” you say.  After our inaugural visit on November 13th, we were so impressed that we had to return a week later to confirm what our taste buds were saying.  They were telling us this humble little establishment might be the very best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque.  Zomato readers seem to agree.  As of this writing (September 20, 2016), the restaurant has earned a 4.7 rating (out of 5), one of the highest in Albuquerque. Muhammad proudly points this out to new visitors.

14 November 2010:  The dolmes, a six-piece appetizer of stuffed grape leaves served with tahini sauce is one of those items at which this restaurant excels.  Decoratively plated so that the six dolmes form a pool for the tahini sauce, you can use the plastic fork to cut the dolmes into smaller, bite-sized pieces, but Muhammad will encourage you to eat your entire dinner the way it would be eaten back home in Palestine.  He would just as soon you dispense with your fork altogether.  Great advice!  The dolmes are fabulous!

Bakdunecea Salad

Unlike many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Duke City, these dolmes are homemade, not from out of a can.  They have a very distinctive flavor with nary a hint of lemon.  The distinctiveness comes from a seven spice blend, one that’s just slightly different than many seven spice blends I’ve seen in Japanese and Arabic cooking.  This one is made with All Spice, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Fennel and Ginger, a blend which enlivens the vegetarian dolmes with a flavor punch that will wow your taste buds.  The dolmes are even better when dipped into the fresh, invigorating tahini sauce.

14 November 2010:  Another terrific starter is the six-piece falafel plate.  Falafel (chickpeas mashed with onions then fried to a nice crunch) are hemispherically shaped, like the top half of the Earth.  Bite into each falafel and you’ll experience the sensation of a slight crispy crunch followed by a soft, moist inside that tastes unlike any falafel I’ve ever had.  It’s the type of falafel which should be used to help broker peace in the Middle East.  They’re that good!  Seasoned with herbs and spices, they’re served with a luscious yogurt sauce which complements them wonderfully.

Housemade Fresh Pita Bread, Maybe the Best in Town

14 November 2010: For years, my local standard for Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic, has been Yasmine’s Cafe, yet another terrific Palestinian-owned treasure.  If possible, the San Pedro Middle Eastern Restaurant’s version is even better.  It’s rich and creamy with a prominent garlic flavor.  In Middle Eastern fashion, you’ll want to cut up pieces of the wonderful housemade pita (still fresh and warm) and use the pita to scoop up as much Baba Ghanoug as you can fit into your mouth.  Each bite is an adventure in appreciation.

20 September 2016: For me, the highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the seven choices–was always the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil).  Though no longer offered on the menu, the accommodating staff might just whip it up for you if you ask nicely.    This salad has powerful qualities, a term you might not associate with parsley.  Parsley is usually thought up as an ingredient to chop up and sprinkle on entrees needing color.  It’s sometimes thought of in a decorative sense, not for its flavor enhancing qualities.  Used correctly and in combination with other ingredients (such as tahini), it is refreshing and assertive.

Kefta Kabob with Rice

20 November 2010: Another sensational salad is the Tabbouli (lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint, cracked Bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice and virgin olive oil).  Growing up in Peñasco with Lebanese neighbors, I was introduced to Tabbouli, Kibbeh and Tahini long before I’d ever had Chinese food or even my first Bic Mac from McDonald’s.  The Tabbouli may be the best I’ve ever had, reminding me in some ways of what a Middle Eastern pico de gallo might taste like.  It’s got remarkable freshening qualities, like a savory and delicious breath mint.

20 September 2016: It wouldn’t be a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant without a sensational hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic) and that, too, is available at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  You can order it on its own as an appetizer or you can order one of the several platters with which the hummus is served.  The hummus encircles the meat platters like an island of creamy, garlicky goodness.  Muhammad taught us to use pita to scoop up heaps of meat and hummus with our hands.  It’s the only way to eat them.

Shisk Kafta Platter: ground beef, onion, parsley served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

20 September 2016: The Lamb Shawarma (marinated slices of lamb) is terrific (as if that needs to be said).  Instead of shaved lamb as you’d find on Greek gyros, the lamb is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces, each blessed with a grilled smokiness and penetrated with seasonings that are so distinctively Middle Eastern.  Sprigs of fragrant, roughly chopped parsley impart fresh qualities which meld with the other ingredients to fashion a fabulous flavor profile.

Not since Banbury, England in 1987 have we had better shish kabob (cubes of extra lean beef served) than we’ve had on San Pedro.   In describing the grilling expertise at Middle Eastern restaurants earlier in this essay, I must have had this shish kabob in mind.  The meat is grilled to perfection.  At medium, it has just a slight hint of pink inside while its exterior texture is nicely charred. It’s the type of grilling expertise I lack.  It’s perfect grilling.

Chicken Tawook surrounded by the best hummus in Albuquerque

13 February 2011: Another exceptional platter which showcases the grilling process and exceptional seasoning is the chicken tawook platter, marinated juicy cubes of chicken breast with garlic sauce served with hummus, salad and the homemade fresh pita bread.  The chicken is moist and tender, absolutely impregnated with flavor though not so garlicky that it will wreck your breath.  Instead, the garlic melds wondrously with a hint of grilling.

27 March 2011: The chicken shawarma, an island of small-cut chicken pieces surrounded by hummus is yet another fabulous entree.  Similar to the chicken tawook, garlic is a prominent flavor as is the wondrous fragrance of grilling.  Parsley also fits prominently into the flavor profile, imparting an invigorating herbaceous freshness, but this dish is best when scooped up with hummus and that absolutely amazing pita.  Abraham tells me he makes some 700 pieces of bread on an average day.  I’ll typically have four of them each visit and take home another half dozen.  This is the best pita in New Mexico!

Chicken Shawarma

24 August 2011: Even on the rare occasion in which an item you don’t order is delivered to your table, you’ll want to try it before even thinking about sending it back.  Such was the case when my friend Ruben Hendrickson and I ordered dolmes and a strange looking dish with an even stranger name was placed before us.  As it turns out, the Foul Mudammas with Pita is an outstanding appetizer, one which will visit my table in the future. 

There’s nothing foul about this wonderful dish which is made with diced fava beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.  Given the same ingredients and asked to create something wonderful, there’s no way most of us could ever concoct anything nearly this good.  The humble fava hasn’t made significant inroads in the American diet, but in combination with the right condiments and spices, it’s more than palatable.  Fava beans have tremendous healthful benefits, too.

Foul Mudammas with Pita

20 September 2016: The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  Trays of baklava behind a glass pastry case may elicit involuntary salivation.  Don’t hesitate to order the pistachio baklava.  This baklava is on par with the pistachio baklava at the Anatolia Doner Kebab House which means it’s the very best in New Mexico.  The salty pistachios are a perfect foil for the cloying honey, making this a dessert of complementary and contrasting flavors which go so well together.  Bite into the layers of luscious flaky phylo and you’ll be rewarded with a moist, delicious, wonderful way to finish an outstanding meal.

Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is reminiscent of the type of restaurant you’d find in an ethnic rich area of a large metropolitan area.  It is frequented by customers of all ethnicities, the common denominator being the recognition that this is a very special restaurant with incomparable food, terrific service and the type of grilling skills I envy.

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant
4001 San Pedro
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 888-2921
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2016
1st VISIT:  13 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shish Kabob Platter, Lamb Shawarma Platter, Fresh Pita Bread, Bakdunecea Salad, Garden Salad, Dolmes, Falafel, Baba Ganouj, Shisk KaftaPlatter, Beef Shawarma, Tabbouli, Chicken Shawarma, Foul Mudammas with Pita, Fatoush, Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Mart Middle East Grocery & Alquds Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Kitchina, an outstanding Italian restaurant on Montano

Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone..”
Stanley Tucci as Segundo in Big Night

With a name like M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant, you might wonder if the Italian restaurant on the intersection of Coors and Montano is named for Academy Award nominated actor Stanley Tucci. After all, Tucci co-starred in Big Night and Julie & Julia, arguably two of the very best food movies in recent years. Initially christened M’Tucci’s Kitchina, the “Kitchina” part of the restaurant’s name was obviously a whimsical play on “cucina,” the Italian term for kitchen, but was spelled more similarly to Kachina, the Hopi ancestral spirits. In any case, if the amusing name and fun, casual ambiance didn’’t hook you, the food certainly will.

Step into the expansive dining room and the playfulness hinted by the restaurant’s name continues. Our immediate impression was “Laissez les bon temps roulette” (let the good times roll) as in New Orleans Mardi Gras. That impression was gleaned from the colorful Mardi Gras-like masks on several walls and a life-sized alligator on another. Then there’s the pergola–large enough to accommodate a table of four–with an ominous lizard crawling down the roof. There’s something to pique your interest everywhere you turn.

M’Tucci’s colorful dining room

The colorful masks (which are easily mistaken for those widely seen in New Orleans) are Venetian, a staple of the Carnival of Venice. The alligator…well, he’s there because co-owner Katie Gardner likes him. The chandeliered pergola is designated for feting guests celebrating a special occasion. When we commented on the restaurant’s “wildly eclectic ambiance” Katie explained that she’s a wildly eclectic person. She’s also very experienced in running successful restaurants, having owned eleven of them along with her husband in New York City…and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Succeeding where other restaurants have failed will certainly be a challenge. M’Tucci’s is situated in the digs formerly occupied by The Mill of New Mexico, Tomato Café and Spinn’s Burgers and Beer. It’s a tough location exacerbated by the fact that its storefront, while facing heavily trafficked Coors Boulevard, is obfuscated by distance, traffic flow and other shops. A very active Facebook presence and (mostly) glowing reviews by print and online media (including Cheryl Alters Jamison for New Mexico Magazine) have helped tremendously, but word-of-mouth from satisfied guests (especially those returning) is a major catalyst for drawing new guests. In October, 2013, scant months of its July launch, M’Tucci’s finished as runner-up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants  as the “best restaurant on the west side.” 

M'Tucci03

Borlotti White Bean Soup

Katie and her husband Jeff Spiegel moved to Albuquerque, his hometown, in 2007. Eventually they started to miss the hustle and bustle of the restaurant business and launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in July, 2013. The “M’Tucci” in the restaurant’s name is in honor of Richard Matteucci, a friend of Jeff’s. A framed black-and-white photo of Jeff, Richard and an unidentified frolicker celebrating a (very) good time hangs among the bric-a-brac. You’ve got to love an owner who shares in his fun.

While the ambiance bespeaks of fun and whimsy, the menu includes some seriously good dining options, some heretofore unseen in the Duke City. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this modern contemporary Italian restaurant which offers playful takes on classic dishes as well as a bit of local flavor (it’s virtually impossible to have a menu in New Mexico without red and green chile). Six Neapolitan-style pizzas are prepared in a wood-burning pizza oven. The bar menu, which varies daily, includes tapas-style small plates.

House Bread Imported From Three Doors Down

The visionary behind the menu is John Hass, executive chef and member of the restaurant’s ownership triumvirate. John’s interpretation of traditional foods often involves their deconstruction, refining and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes with which you’ve grown up, but they might not be exactly as you  John is already so highly regarded that he was named “best chef” runner up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants 2013.  Traditional items he prepares might not be exactly as you may remember them. They’ll be better! The ricotta stuffed cannelloni dish, for example includes both marinara sauce and New Mexico red chile which is why it’s sub-titled “Enchiladas Italianas” on the menu.

5 October 2013: You won’t need cold weather to luxuriate in the warmth and deliciousness of the Borlotti White Bean Soup, M’Tucci’s answer to the seemingly de rigueur pasta fagoli. This superb soup is constructed from Haas-made (get it?) sausage, arugula, carrots and fennel in a steamy chicken broth with just a sprinkling of Parmesan. It’s Italian comfort food at its finest even without pasta or tomatoes. The Borlotti white beans are terrific with a “meaty” flavor, creamy texture and nary a hint of sweetness. The sausage is a bit coarse, but has excellent fennel enriched flavor. A bowlful will cure whatever ails you.

Fried Brie crispy brie cheese, apples strawberries, mixed greens, grilled baguette, pomegranate glaze

Fried Brie
crispy brie cheese, apples strawberries, mixed greens, grilled baguette, pomegranate glaze

27 August 2016: When M’Tucci first launched, the house bread came from America’s breadbasket. That’s one of the nicknames for the state of Kansas which is renowned for its high quality wheat production. It was an excellent bread!  Three years later, the house bread is imported from four doors down.  It’s baked by the talented bakers at M’Tucci’s Italian Market and Deli and it’s outstanding!  A basketful of the staff of life includes six lightly toasted and buttered  slices. A hard exterior crust belies a pillowy soft inside with plenty of air holes. It’s the type of bread for which you risk filling up quickly, but can’t stop eating because it’s so good. 

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells laments “Menus shouldn’t need explanation. Menus should BE the explanation. That’s the point of writing things down.”  In far too many restaurants, you practically need a degree in Egyptology to understand the hieroglyphics placed in front of you.  As creative as they are with food, many chefs lack creativity with words.  This translates to overly confusing, overly wordy menus.  Kudos to Chef Hass and the M’Tucci staff for publishing menus diners can actually understand.

Golden Beet Salad

19 April 2014: One of the most exquisite appetizers on the M’Tucci’s menu is the fried brie.  Call it a finely choreographed symphony of simple flavors which go so well together.  A wedge of soft brie is sheathed beneath a crisp, light, golden crust.  It’s intended to be spread onto thinly sliced, pomegranate glazed grilled baguette.  From there you’re on your own.  You can then add crisp apple slices, strawberries and even mixed greens, a brie sandwich of sorts.  The warm silkiness of the brie amplifies the tanginess of the apples and strawberries and the bitterness of the greens.

27 August 2016: One of the more interesting items on the Antipasti menu when we first visited in October, 2016 was  the quaintly named Fauxpaccio de Barbietola Arrostite.  Fauxpaccio is obviously a play on the word carpaccio, (thinly sliced or pounded thin meat or fish) while Barbietola Arrostite is an Italian terms for roasted sugar beets.  The menu had me at Fauxpaccio.  Served in a dinner plate, it was a beautiful dish: roasted yellow beets shaved supermodel thin and as gold as New Mexico foliage in autumn, pickled red onion, goat cheese and a pile of arugula all lightly drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. It was a marvelous contrast of ingredients with varied flavor profiles and textures, all thoroughly enjoyable.  A few days after having this wonderful appetizer we learned that it is no longer offered because, for some reason inexplicable to me, it just wasn’t selling.  Grrrrr!  During our August, 2016 visit, we espied a “roasted beet salad” on the menu.  Comprised of the same ingredients as the aforementioned Fauxpaccio, the golden beets aren’t shaved or presented quite as artistically, but you still get an excellent salad as exciting as its predecessor.

M'Tucci06

Pan Seared Duck Breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions, cherry balsamic reduction

Some Italian restaurants segregate their menus into Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, loosely translated to appetizers, first course and main course.  M’Tucci’s also includes a Pizza menu, offering some six pizzas, including gluten-free options.  Portion sizes will make it a challenge to order one from each menu then expect to have dessert, too.  The Secondi menu, available during dinner hours, is replete with proteins (rotisserie chicken, fried fish, duck breast, braised tripe, Kurobuta Pork and ribeye).  Some of them are  also available for lunch, too. 

19 April 2014:  One of the most ambitious items on the menu is the Risotto Del Giorno, a daily risotto special featuring seasonal ingredients.  Even the most intrepid of chefs avoid risotto because it’s easy to make simple mistakes that ruin the dish.  You’ve got to admire Chef Hass’s gumption.  He doesn’t just prepare risotto on special occasions, he’s got the temerity to offer it every day.  If the seafood risotto is indicative of his mastery of this oft-intimidating dish, I’ve got to visit more often.  The triumvirate of mahi mahi, shrimp and mussels in a sumptuous and rich saffron sauce was absolutely perfect.   The saffron imparts the color of a sunny disposition and a uniquely umami quality.  The seafood is fresh and delicious.  The rice is a smidgeon past al dente, a textural success.

Seafood Risotto

Seafood Risotto

5 October 2013: Much as we admire the monogamy of ducks, it’s hard to resist the beautiful feathered waterfowl when it’s on the plate and it looks so inviting.  The pan-seared duck breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions and a cherry Balsamic reduction is so good, it’ll mitigate any guilt we might feel.  The duck breast is perfectly prepared and sliced thinly.  The end pieces are slightly crispy.  The polenta, often a “take it or leave it” dish is definitely a “take it” at M’Tucci’s.  It’s creamy, light and fluffy and it inherits additional flavor from the braised kale and caramelized onions which blanket the polenta.  If polenta is an oft unappreciated dish, kale is often disdained, even by foodies.  This kale might win over some converts. 

19 April 2014:  The two culinary feats I have yet to master after five decades on Planet Earth are using chopsticks and twirling spaghetti around a fork.  Because of the latter, my appreciation for pastas other than spaghetti has grown tremendously.  For fork challenged diners, a great alternative to the confounding, long, thin strands is the pappardelle noodle, a ribbon pasta easy to work with.  M’Tucci’s Pappardelle con Salsiccia, a ribbon pasta with sausage is an exemplar on how well this noodle works, both from a functional as well as an esthetic perspective.  This dish showcases the Haas made Italian sausage, a medium coarse blend flavored with fennel.  My Kim says it’s of Chicago quality, a huge compliment.  A delicate sauce imbued with braised kale and Pecorino lend more than personality to this winner of an entree.

Ribbon Pasta with Sausage (Pappardelle con Salsiccia) - Haas made Italian sausage, braised kale, pappardelle pasta, pecorino

Ribbon Pasta with Sausage (Pappardelle con Salsiccia)

5 October 2013: During our inaugural visit, the lunch menu included an aptly named sandwich called the AL-BQ Italian Beef, Chef Haas’s interpretation of the Italian beef sandwich held sacred throughout Chicago.  The sandwich is named partially for Al’s #1 Beef in the Windy City and of course, for Albuquerque.  The thinly shredded roasted beef, giardinera and Italian beef au jus  on an Italian hoagie roll make it Chicago while green chile makes it Albuquerque.   Frankly, we enjoyed the AL-BQ Italian Beef more than we did the sacrosanct Italian beef sandwich at Al’s #1 (although Al’s does pack quite a bit more beef into its sandwiches).  So do a number of transplants from the City of Big Shoulders.  For additional authenticity, ask for your sandwich to be served “wet” (as in immersed in the au jus).  It’ll render your sandwich falling apart moist, but that’s why forks were invented. The sandwich is no longer on the menu.

10 October 2013: In recent years, Albuquerque has experienced not only a pizza resolution, but an evolution of its pizzas. Almost every purveyor of the pie now offers a pizza or two sans tomato sauce and we’re all the better for it. Of the six pizzas offered at M’Tucci’s, only two of them are made with tomato sauce. The Alla Campagna starts with a beauteous golden brown crust topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta and Balsamic glaze. The crust is a little thicker than some Neapolitan-style pizzas, especially the cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) which is thick, soft and chewy. It’s also delicious with the flavor of freshly baked bread. The Alla Campagna’s ingredients provide wonderful taste contrasts which not only make it an interesting pizza, but a delicious one.

M'Tucci09

Alla Campagna: goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta, balsamic glaze

23 August 2016: Had anyone other than founding Friends of Gil (FOG) member Bruce Schor declared the eggplant Parmesan at M’Tucci’s “better than Joe’s” (as in Joe’s Pasta House), I would have considered that either heresy or hokum.  Bruce loves the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s.  Moreover, he’s a native New Yorker who really knows his eggplant Parmesan, so his opinion carries a lot of weight with me.  It took me two days to make my way to M’Tucci to sample what is indeed a fantastic eggplant Parmesan.   This magnificent dish, available for both lunch and dinner, features two thick eggplant medallions topped with marinara sauce and house-fresh mozzarella.  You can easily puncture the light and crispy breading with a spoon, but there’s nothing mushy about the interior of this dish, just a silky smooth, delicious eggplant. The sauce is redolent of tart and juicy fresh tomatoes, a perfect foil for the melted mozzarella. Now is M’Tucci’s eggplant Parmesan better–or as good as–the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s Pasta House? That’s a decision you, my dear readers, will have to make yourselves. Both are head and shoulders above any other in Albuquerque, but for me it would take a side-by-side comparison to decide.

23 August 2016: The eggplant is served a terrific Cacio E Pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” or as described by some sources as a “minimalist mac and cheese.”  Al dente pasta may look like spaghetti sans marinara, but in reality those long, stringy noodles are tossed in olive oil then impregnated with melted Pecorino and cracked pepper.  The cracked pepper lends a pleasant assertiveness while the Pecorino adds a nutty tang. More like spaghetti without marinara than like a minimalist mac and cheese, it’s a delicious dish no matter how you describe it.

Eggplant Parmesan

Ever since our friends Tom and Ellyn Hamilton brought us two bags of freshly picked mushrooms, we’ve been cooking with the fleshy fungi, expanding our repertoire and exploring the vast possibilities of cooking with sumptuous shrooms.  From cream of mushroom soup to beef Stroganoff, we’re planning on running the gamut as to what can be done with mushrooms: grilling, stuffing, breading, frying, roasting, braising and sauteing.  A recent visit to Torinos @ Home has inspired us to try concocting Porcini Ravioli ourselves.  Similarly, our visit to M’Tucci’s in August, 2016 gave us yet another mushroom dish we can try preparing ourselves (though it’s unlikely we’ll match Chef Hass’s high standards.)

27 August 2016: The Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini (wild mushrooms, scallions, roasted chicken, Parmesan, Parmesan Porcini cream sauce, ribbon pasta) is a magnificent dish with the mushrooms shining so well, the roasted chicken is almost redundant.  Hearty, nutty and earthy, the Porcini cream sauce is everything a strongly flavored mushroom sauce should be.  The pappardelle noodles, large, flat and broad noodles, are perfectly prepared–neither al dente nor near mushy as pappardelle tend to be if not prepared correctly.  The roasted chicken would normally have been the star of most dishes.  Here it’s just a complementary ingredient, a delicious foil.

Cacio E Pepe

27 August 2016: Pappardelle noodles played an integral role in the special of the day, a magnificent dish so good it should make it to the standard menu.  Picture three four-ounce heritage pork and lamb meatballs served over pappardelle ribbon noodles tossed in a tomato Agre Dolce (an Italian term for bitter-sweet) sauce.  The dish is garnished with freshly shaved Parmesan.  Our first bite of the meatballs challenged us to discern their composition.  With notes similar to five spice powder, we finally had to ask our server to find out.  It turns out the meatballs are made with nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic and sundry other spices.  The meatballs were extraordinary with just enough filler to bind them, but mostly meat.  The tomato Agre Dolce sauce was superb, punctuated with mint and Balsamic vinegar to help give the sauce their bitter-sweet flavor profile.

According to the M’Tucci’s Facebook page, an ancient proverb once declared that if four or more desserts gather in one place, at one time, you will have the power to change the world. Whether or not that proverb rings with truth, one thing is for certain: desserts at this fantastic new Italian restaurant are fantastic. M’Tucci’s inaugural pastry chef was Eric Moshier who was named America’s best new chef in 2000 by Food& Wine. Moshier has moved on, but the restaurant’s dessert offerings are still among the very best in Albuquerque.

Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs

5 October 2013: Desserts aren’t only spectacular, they’re inventive–some of the Duke City’s most  unique and uniquely delicious pastries.  The most inventive might be the Twinkie L’Italia which Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.”  Fantasy is right!  This is a terrific dessert.  So is the Cannoli Di Sicilia (crispy cannoli shell, sweet ricotta filling, chocolate chips) with tantalizing citrus notes. 

10 October 2013: Another transformative dessert is the Crostada De Limone, a lip-pursing lemon tart as artistic and beautiful to ogle as it is to eat.  It’s one of few lemon tarts in the Duke City that’s actually made well in that it doesn’t reek of artificial ingredients and flavors.   The lemon is actually allowed to taste like lemon, not artificial in the least.  It’s the type of lemon dessert you might find in Florida. 

Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini

27 August 2016: Of all Italian desserts, panna cotta may be the most delicate.  While Italians tend to think nothing should sully its purity, American pastry chefs like to partner it with everything from fresh fruits to fresh fruit sauces.   M’Tucci’s Torta De Panna Cotta is an interesting variation on an Italian standard.  In Italy, a torta is normally a pie consisting of a filling (sometimes even vegetables) enclosed in thin dough and baked in an oven.   M’Tucci’s torta is a chocolate Genoese cake topped with strawberry-rhubarb Jam with a single pine nut bark wedge leaning on the chocolatey creation.  Delicious as we found the cake, we enjoyed the single pine nut bark most.  The pine nuts are redolent with the roasted flavor of good piñon, intensely–sweet with a subtle hint of pine.

The restaurant’s coffee is made by Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain.  The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque.  It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.”

Torta De Panna Cotta

You can never have too many good, must less truly outstanding Italian restaurants in town.  M’Tucci’s Kitchina falls into the latter category.  With a formula that includes great food and great fun,  M’Tucci’s Kitchina has the right stuff needed to succeed in a tough market.

M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant
6001 Winter Haven Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2016
1st VISIT: 5 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Twinkie L’Italia, Chocolate Cannoli, Borlotti White Bean Soup, Fauxpaccio de Barbabietola Arrostite, Pan Seared Duck Breast, AL-BQ Italian Beef, Alla Campagna Pizza, Crostada de Limone, Seafood Risotto, Pappardelle con Salsiccia, Eggplant Parmesan, Cacio E Pepe, Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini, Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs, Golden Beet Salad, Torta De Panna Cotta

M'Tucci's Kitchina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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