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Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

My friends Bruce “Señor Plata” Silver and Paul “Boomer” Lilly in front of Cafe Bella Coffee in Rio Rancho

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

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

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

Affable proprietor Michael Gonzales tends to guests

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

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

Coffee Cup Chandelier

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

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

Panini with roasted organic chicken, micro greens, garlic mustard and cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more. 

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

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

Cafe Bella Coffee works with four special bakeries to bring its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis. All its bakery partners are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  The Lemon Budt Cake from Cosmic Euphoria Desserts is available exclusively at Cafe Bella.  It’s made with unrefined, unbleached flour, organic cane sugar, agave nectar, coconut oil and real lemon.  The blueberry scones from Cosmic Euphoria are an early favorite, as good a scone as we used to have on the banks of the River Windrush in Bourton on the Water, England. 

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

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

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

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

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

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

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

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

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

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

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

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

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

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.

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

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 March 2014
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha


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Cafe Bella Coffee on Urbanspoon

Bocadillos Slow Roasted: A Sandwich Shop – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Bocadillos on Indian School

School cafeteria meals have probably traumatized more youth than John Carpenter’s horror movies. Lunch menus read like fine-dining, promising nutritious, healthy and delicious cuisine. Instead, they deliver what could pass for TV dinner rejects. Reject is an apropos term here. Slop buckets are overfilled with the much feared and cursed vegetable medley (also known as succotash, emphasis on the “suck” part) and the next day with chicken a la king, featuring whatever is left over of the dreaded vegetable medley. It’s no wonder America’s youth seeks sustenance and refuge in the calorie-laden comfort of vended snacks.

Bocadillos, a locally owned and operated, full-service school lunch and catering company is working to change the image of the dreaded school cafeteria meal.  In 2012, Bocadillos prepared as many as 500 meals per day for three charter school clients.  In 2013, those numbers doubled to 1000 meals per day and six charter schools.  Bocadillos doesn’t do things in the tried and failed methods of the past.  The serve children wholesome, balanced meals to support their cognitive development and physical health. All students will likely recognize is that it tastes delicious!

Urban Street Art Festoons Bocadillos West-Side Entrance

Urban Street Art Festoons Bocadillos West-Side Entrance

Launched in 2010, Bocadillos is the brainchild of owner and chef Marie Yniguez, a creative, high-energy dynamo who apparently can’t sit still.  While many people would wind down during the summer lull between one school year and the next, Marie and co-owner Karla Arvizu instead launched a small grab-and-go operation which operates out of  Bocadillos commissary at 1609 Indian School, N.W.  Dubbed Slow Roasted: A Sandwich Shop, it will have the geriatrically advanced among us wonder just how good Bocadillos school lunches must be (not that we’d ever want to return to school to find out). 

Bocadillos is a Spanish term which translates to sandwiches while slow-roasted speaks for itself.  The meats from which Slow Roasted sandwiches are constructed are indeed slow-roasted which makes them tender, moist and delicious.  The menu currently showcases only five sandwiches, including the “Salad Shooter,” a vegetarian sandwich featuring grilled portabello mushrooms, roasted bell peppers and roasted tomatoes.  Each sandwich comes with your choice of four sides: chipotle potato salad, macaroni salad or a small side salad with your choice of house dressing.  In cold weather, soups are an optional side.  Here’s to more cold weather!

The diminutive, but homey dining room at Bocadillos

The diminutive, but homey dining room at Bocadillos

The bad news for folks whose dining opportunities are limited to weekends is that Bocadillos Slow Roasted is open only for lunch and only Monday through Friday from 11AM to 2:30PM.  There is good news for the rest of us, however.  Guests who in previous visits had  to eat in their cars or take their meals to go is that Bocadillos now offers seating.  It’s only seven two-seat tables, but you’ll want to stay and take in the interaction and energy between Marie and her staff.  It’s obvious they enjoy what they’re doing. 

The ambiance includes a vintage Texaco gas pump, atop of which sits a bucket of fry batter from Los Pollos Hermanos, the fictional Mexican chicken restaurant on Breaking Bad.  It’s a prop Chef Marie acquired from a friend.  Los Pollos Hermanos television commercial touted “The finest ingredients…brought together with love and care, then slow cooked to perfection.”  Among the fry batter’s ingredients listed on the prop bucket are chicken semen along with the usual chemical additives to which the American palate is subjected.  I’d much rather have a Bocadillos sandwich.

Souvenir from Breaking Bad television show

Souvenir from Breaking Bad television show

One word of caution about finding Bocadillos–all you have to watch for is the Blakes Lotaburger.  Bocadillos is to the immediate east of the popular burger restaurant.  Go past Bocadillos and you just might end up on Menaul or 12th Street courtesy of a round-about that seems to confuse some drivers (or at least me) looking for Bocadillos.  It doesn’t help that Bocadillos doesn’t resemble a restaurant in the least.  It could easily be mistaken for an industrial complex.

Unmistakable, however, are the intoxicating aromas wafting from the kitchens.  By the time you place your order, you might be drooling as those aromas envelop you like an olfactory-arousing cocoon.  The challenge of deciding what to eat is no less daunting because the menu is limited.  You’ll be hard-pressed to decide what to have.  Make sure you take a friend or loved one when you visit so you can share half a sandwich a piece.  Either that or order two sandwiches.

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Duke City Ruben

The chef’s choice…the sandwich of which Marie is most proud is the Duke City Ruben.  Quite simply, it may be the very best Reuben sandwich in Albuquerque.  It’s the embodiment of the slow roasting process, taking no less than twelve hours to achieve its tender texture and moistness throughout as well as a sweet caramelization on the surface of each tendril of the corned beef.  The housemade sauerkraut doesn’t have the lip-pursing qualities of some sauerkraut.  It’s made with a red cabbage tinged with the distinctive flavor of caraway seeds.  The Thousand Island dressing, also made on the premises, is terrific, too. 

One of the consequences of splitting a sandwich with a friend is that one of you will have to share half of a superior sandwich.  That was the case with the Ruben I split with my friend Paul Lilly.  Rarely will you consider the sandwich he ordered (a Philly cheesesteak sandwich) a “Miss Congeniality” of sandwiches, but Bocadillos’ Ruben is just that much better than just about any other sandwich.  Place it on a line-up of the Duke City’s best sandwiches and it might rise to the top. It’s on my list.

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5-0-Philly

That “Miss Congeniality,” the 5-0-Philly is pretty terrific in its own right.  Constructed with slow-roasted beef, Swiss cheese, New Mexico green chile, green and red bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, it’s a coalescence of ingredients and flavors that will delight you.  There is so much going on, however, that the green chile doesn’t express itself quite as much as this New Mexico native would have liked.  What does stand out is the slow roasted beef, as tender, moist and delicious as possible. 

One-track minded men with their minds in the gutter might do a double-take when they see T n A on the sandwich menu.  T n A in this case stands for “turkey and avocado,” but this sandwich is so much more.  In fact, just about every other turkey sandwich in town is a true turkey compared to this one.  The T n A’s listed ingredients are slow-roasted turkey, avocado, green chile apple chutney, lettuce, tomato and Muenster cheese, but this sandwich isn’t about ingredients.  It’s about the process of putting it together. 

T n A: Slow Roasted Turkey, Avocado, Green Chile Apple Chutney, Lettuce, Tomato and Muenster Cheese

T n A Sandwich and Smoked Sweet Potato-Chipotle Soup

The process starts with real turkey, not a ubiquitous Boar’s Head offering.  First, a dry rub of relatively simple ingredients (crushed peppers, garlic, salt, etc.) is lovingly applied followed by a smear of a housemade honey mustard.  The turkey then goes into the oven for twelve hours at low temperature (250 degrees).  When extricated, the turkey pulls apart easily.  At this point, almost every restaurant would serve, but not so at Bocadillos which nestles a generous amount of this amazing turkey between a hoagie bun, tops it with a magically reduced  green chile-apple chutney, heirloom tomatoes and ripe avocados.  It’s eight-ounces of absolute deliciousness, turkey being all it can be.  The green-chile apple chutney is sweet and tangy but has a bit of fire which will sneak up on you.

As a young student, I disliked cold weather intensely because it meant summer vacation was over and school was back in session.  As a seasoned citizen, I’m looking forward to cold weather because it  means Bocadillos is serving soup.  Having served for six years as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s SouperBowl fund-raising event, I’m well acquainted with Bocadillos soup.  Its Southwest chicken corn chowder earned the Critics’ Choice award in 2013.  In the 2014 soup soiree, Bocadillos green chile chicken corn chowder  earned third place in the Peoples’ Choice category.  Better than both of these is a smoked sweet potato-chipotle soup reminiscent of the phenomenal soups prepared in Santa Fe’s Jambo.  It’s one of the very best soups this veteran soup judge has enjoyed.

Guy Fieri visited Bocadillos in September, 2013

Guy Fieri visited Bocadillos in September, 2013

It’s highly likely Bocadillos will likely earn quite a few “best of” and “peoples’ choice” awards over the years.  Within months after launching its grab-and-go operation, no less than Food Network glitterati Guy Fieri and the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew came calling. Fieri’s September, 2013 visit caused quite a stir and when the episode showcasing Bocadillos aired on Monday, October 28, 2013, viewers all over the country found out about the small unconventional restaurant which serves one of the world’s best Ruben sandwiches.  Even more remarkable is that the best Ruben in Albuquerque may not even be the best sandwich on the Bocadillos menu.

Bocadillos Slow Roasted: A Sandwich Shop
1609 Indian School Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-0403
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 29 January 2014
1st VISIT: 29 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Duke City Ruben, 5-0-Philly, T n A, Macaroni Salad, Roasted Sweet Potato Chipotle Soup, Green Chile Chicken Corn Chowder


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Bocadillos on Urbanspoon

The Grove Cafe & Market – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Grove on Central Avenue

Voracious readers*, avid aficionados of art and those aflame with a musical ardor know that great books, art and music are imbued with the power to transport them to another time and place.  A recent influx of contemporary restaurants in Albuquerque also has that power.

If you think about it, having a meal at most Duke City restaurants–transcendent though some may be–is just so…Albuquerque.  There’s an almost boring consistency and sameness about many local restaurants.  Their sole distinctiveness comes from the foods they serve.  It’s very difficult, for example, to picture yourself on the beaches at Cabo San Lucas while sipping on a margarita at Garduño‘s. Noshing on mussels at the Indigo Crow just doesn’t feel like a leisurely repast on a sidewalk cafe in Paris.

Does this look like a typical Albuquerque dining establishment?

Does this look like a typical Albuquerque dining establishment?

A new dining trend has emerged in Albuquerque that has something to do with the type of cuisine, but perhaps even more to do with the “look and feel” of the dining experience.  New restaurants have emerged that can transport you from the dour sameness of Duke City dining.  Restaurants such as the Slate Street Cafe, Standard Diner and most recently the Grove Cafe & Market are so un-Albuquerque that you just may feel as if you’re dining at a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan city.  This trendy pattern is especially prevalent in the revitalized, reinvigorated downtown district and more so in the East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming areas in the nation.”

The EDO is considered an urban evolution of sorts as historic buildings are reclaimed from veritable scrapheaps and transmogrified into vibrant and thriving neighborhoods in which residents can work, live, shop and play.  The EDO is where you’ll find the Grove Cafe & Market which launched its unique restaurant concept in June, 2006.  Functionally and esthetically, it’s got the look and feel of a market restaurant in Portland, Oregon or maybe even San Francisco, California.  It’s got the look and feel of a market restaurant that’s going places.

A unique take on a breakfast burrito....so un-ALbuquerque!

A unique take on a breakfast burrito….so un-ALbuquerque!

The expansive interior, which Albuquerque Journal food critic Andrea Lin says is “somewhere between industrial-loft and trendy restaurant” is bustling and inviting despite cold concrete floors, exposed ductwork and steel beams.  Moreover, it is a fun place that will certainly invoke the feeling of deja vu (if ever you’ve dined in Portland) or the feeling that you’re dining in an oasis of sophistication. 

You might also feel as if you’re dining in a tightly-enclosed sound chamber of sorts.  There’s a perpetual noisy din in the restaurant, the byproduct of diners enjoying themselves.  Weather permitting, it’s somewhat quieter on the patio, situated on the restaurant’s west side near the parking area.  The only drawback might be the cacophonous commotion from Central Avenue.

"The Beef"

“The Beef”

True to its name, there is a market, but it’s not to be mistaken for the type of market at which you can pick up all your comestibles.  The market portion of the complex has a nice selection of gourmet specialty items such as chocolate, cheeses, crackers, olive oils, pastas and more.  The menu isn’t quite fine-dining and it certainly isn’t fast food fare.  Call it fast-casual fare for everyday dining.  A large slate board lists every item on the menu save for the day’s specials.  You order at a counter and are given not a number, but a placard touting a market product provided by a local vendor.  Somehow the wait staff will manage to find you.

In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a down-home version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as  state’s very best down-home use of local, seasonal ingredients to The Grove’s farmers salad.  It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute.  The farmers salad is constructed of mixed greens with roasted golden beets, asparagus, yellow peppers, tomato, marcona almonds and goat cheese, all tossed with a lemon-basil vinaigrette studded with shallots and garlic.  It’s a winner in every way.  New Mexico Magazine‘s amazing associate editor Ashley Biggers also listed the Grove as one of the 50 reasons to love Albuquerque in the magazine’s April, 2012 issue.

Winter Fig & Prosciutto Salad: Quercia Prosciutto, Marinated Figs, Spiced Pecans, Old Windmill Goat Cheese, Pomegranate Seeds, Mixed Greens, Orange-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

Given an opportunity to select the ingredients to craft the salad I’d enjoy most and it would very much resemble the Winter Fig and Prosciutto Salad at The Grove.  This salad starts with a bed of mixed greens atop of which lies a tangle of artisan cured prosciutto from La Quercia, an award-winning Iowa-based charcuterie a James Beard Foundation executive extolled as “the best prosciutto you can get in America hands down;” marinated figs; spiced pecans; Old Windmill goat cheese from New Mexico; pomegranate seeds and an orange-poppy seed vinaigrette.  This is a salad in which ingredients contrast and complement one another exceptionally well–the tanginess of the pomegranate seeds and orange-poppy seed vinaigrette, the rich pungency of the goat cheese, the salty porcine perfection of the prosciutto and the freshness of the greens.

Local, seasonal ingredients are an essential component of The Grove’s operational philosophy.  Executive chef Jason Green and his wife Lauren are passionate about using ingredients of the highest quality and employing artisan methods.  Their focus on local products and produce is core to the restaurant’s success.  Most of the vegetables used on the menu are acquired within a 40-mile radius of the restaurant.  Other high-quality ingredients are procured out-of-state because those ingredients are the best to be found anywhere.

Piquillo Pepper Soup (garlic, onion, harissa, celery and smoked paprika topped with creme fraiche. 100 percent vegetarian and 100 percent delicious!

It was in recognition of The Grove’s commitment to the local food movement that it was singled out by the Huffington Post in a feature celebrating the “ten best US cities for local food.”  Albuquerque was ranked number eight on the list though only two restaurants were mentioned–the Flying Star and the Grove about which the Post wrote, “the Grove uses green produce along with artisan meats and cheeses.”

Greenopia, recognized experts on green living, gave The Grove four and a half stars out of five meaning it meets 90 percent of its stringent criteria for meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, dairy products, prepared foods and even personal care products, all of which are verified to be certified organic and/or locally grown or raised without chemical treatment, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics.

Aged Salami with olive tapanade, arugula and aged provolone

Large, steaming vats of coffee are conveniently situated in close proximity to the order counter.  This is fresh-roasted coffee from Chicago’s Intelligencsa Coffee, the basis for some of the best cafe au lait I’ve had in Albuquerque.   Andrea raves about this stuff with the same fervor with which I speak of The Grove’s strawberry-rosemary lemonade.  It’s an intensely flavored lemonade, neither too sweet nor too tangy and punctuated by the freshness of the rosemary. The Grove is open six days a week (closed Mondays) with workday hours being 7AM to 4PM.  On Sundays the Grove opens from 8AM to 3PM.  Breakfast is served all day long and lunch starts promptly at 11AM.  A small (in item size only) brunch menu is also available on Sundays.

4 September 2007: The quintessential New Mexican breakfast seems to be defined in our uniquely wonderful breakfast burritos.  The Grove has a very interesting take on this ubiquitous morning indulgence that’s good any time of the day.  Like all breakfast burritos, it starts with scrambled eggs which the Grove somehow manages to serve sheet-like.  They also include goat cheese with a pronounced creamy and earthy flavor; housemade green chile which smells and tastes housemade, not canned; and hearty chunks of Tully’s sausage.

EDO’s Best BLT with butter lettuce, grove guacamole, applewood smoked bacon

Unlike traditional New Mexican breakfast burritos, the Grove tops their version not with red or green chile, but with a roasted tomato jalapeno salsa served cold.  Normally I would balk at eating cold salsa on a warm burrito, but have nothing but praise for the salsa.  It is only mildly piquant, but explodes with flavor though not so much that it obfuscates other flavors on this magnificent breakfast burrito.  In its September, 2011 edition, the staff of Albuquerque the Magazine rated the breakfast burrito at the Grove Cafe & Market the third best breakfast burrito in the Albuquerque area.  Considering the number and quality of the competition, that’s a significant honor. 

25 March 2012: The Grove’s Sunday brunch menu is posted on the restaurant’s Web site’s “Feature of the Day” section.  Not surprisingly, this section is kept up-to-date, a lesson other restaurants should learn.  The brunch menu doesn’t introduce a large number of items not normally found on the day-to-day menu, normally two entrees.  If the sunchoke hash is any indication, some of those brunch items should become menu standards.  Sunchokes are a real treat!  Also called Jerusalem artichokes, they taste a bit like a cross between potato and artichoke heart.  The Grove’s hash showcases this edible tuber, serving it with spinach, garlic onions, local feta cheese and Benton’s bacon topped by two eggs over-easy.  The pairing of sunchokes and the bacon are especially noteworthy.  No ordinary bacon is Benton’s, a hickory-smoked, full-flavored bacon cut lardon thick.  It may well be the best bacon to ever cross into New Mexico.

Croque Monsieur: Black Forest Ham, Tomato, Whole Grain Mustard, Gruyere Cheese, Open-Faced and Warm on Rustic Farm Loaf

25 March 2012: For breakfast or lunch, few entrees are as satisfying as the Croque Monsieur.  At its most elemental level, it’s essentially a hot ham and cheese sandwich, but being French, it’s got a storied background more interesting than some fiction.  The Croque Monsier has been around for more than a century and it’s literal translation is “crunch mister” based on the verb “croquer” (to crunch) and the word monsieur (mister).  The Grove’s rendition starts with a rustic farm loaf topped with black forest ham and tomato both covered in a rich Gruyere cheese.  It’s served open-faced with whole grain mustard on the side.  It’s a very good sandwich.

4 September 2007: For lunch the menu has a selection of warm, pressed sandwiches as well as several cool sandwiches, the word “cool” having dual meanings involving temperature as well as fashionability.  Sandwiches, made with Sage Bakehouse artisan bread, are served with fresh fruit and sweet pickles (a welcome respite from the all-too-common dill variety). One of the coolest sandwiches we’ve had in a while is called simply “The Beef.”  The Beef starts with a canvas of fresh sourdough bread which is then topped with thin sliced housemade roasted sirloin, caramelized onion, butter lettuce, whole grain mustard and havarti.  This is no boring roast beef sandwich! The Beef is served in the proportions he-men like, but is crafted with high-quality ingredients women appreciate.  It is a two-fisted sandwich as good as any you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque.

Sunchoke Hash: Roasted Sunchoke, Spinach, garlic, Onions, Benton’s Bacon, Local Feta and Two Eggs Over-Easy

10 August 2013:  The Beef’s porcine counterpart is called simply The Pork.  It’s every bit as good, if not better, than its beefy sibling.  What makes it such a great sandwich is the superb quality of the ingredients from which it’s constructed and the creativity to put such complementary ingredients together.  Chief among those ingredients is house-roasted Berkshire pork loin.  Berkshire pork has been called pork’s equivalent of Kobe beef.  It’s an exquisite pork renowned for its juiciness and tenderness as well as its slightly sweet flavor and nice marbling.   The canvas for the sandwich–which also includes Romesco sauce, fennel, arugula, lemon aioli and an over-easy egg–is a toasted brioche bun.

Another spectacular pressed sandwich (sometimes referred to elsewhere as panini sandwiches) is called simply “Aged Salami” and it’s constructed of aged salami, olive tapenade, arugula and aged provolone on sourdough bread.  The  lightly toasted and buttery sourdough bread is a terrific canvas for ingredients which work very well together.   The aged salami isn’t too heavily salted or garlicky as aged salami tends to be; instead spices are well balanced for optimum flavor.  The aged provolone has a light, creamy flavor and the tapenade complements the other ingredients very well.

The Pork

The Pork

EDO’s Best BLT isn’t just some audacious claim.  The Grove’s rendition of the not-so-humble BLT is one of the very best in Albuquerque, ranking with the BLT at Gecko’s Bar & Tapas.  At the Grove, this descendant of Victorian tea sandwiches, is crafted with butter lettuce, the Grove’s guacamole, tomatoes and applewood smoked bacon.  There are two stand-outs in this sandwich–several strips of crispy bacon (the type of which only restaurants seem to be able to acquire) and the Grove’s creamy, rich guacamole.  Though it’s generally made with whole wheat bread, ask for it to be crafted on the restaurant’s homemade English muffin which, unlike some English muffins, isn’t crumbly.  Still another sandwich, the Mozzarella was named one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches for 2012 by Albuquerque The Magazine in its annual food and wine issue for 2012.

4 September 2007: Beethoven once said, “Only the pure of heart can make good soup.”   If that’s true, the Grove’s soup makers are as chaste as ice and as pure as snow, creating an impressive array of homemade soups of the day.  One of the best is piquillo pepper soup.  Piquillo translates from Spanish to “little beak,” and have a rich, spicy-sweet flavor.  As if the flavor profile of the tiny piquillo isn’t enough, The Grove adds garlic, harissa, celery and smoked paprika then tops the concoction with creme fraiche.  Though it looks like tomato soup, its flavors are much more concentrated and intense.  It is an amazing soup!

Antipasto Board

Antipasto Board

10 August 2013: It shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to us that The Grove has one of the very best antipasto boards in Albuquerque.  Emphasizing freshness and complementary flavors, it’s a treasure trove of some of the most delicious bite-sized treats you’ll find anywhere.  Artisan cheeses included a creamy brie, a hard parmesan and a soft, delicate mozzarella.  You can pair those cheeses with the board’s meats, a whisper-thin sliced salami and prosciutto shards.   Sweet pickles, a grainy mustard, cherry tomatoes and Marcona almonds complement both meats and cheeses.  To assuage the sweet tooth, the antipasto included sweet pickles, raspberry jelly and some of the best chutneys we’ve had outside of England.  The antipasto board is easily big enough for three to share.

10 August 2013:  For those of us who enjoy sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between, the  Grove offers three breakfast sandwiches.  None are so heavy that you’ll want to crawl back under the covers.  The Smoked Salmon is a masterpiece of concordant ingredients: cream cheese, red onion, capers, lemon peel, creme fraiche, and chives served on a housemade English muffin.  The salmon is as fresh as you’ll find it in Albuquerque without compromising the native pungency of salmon.  The triumvirate of cream cheese, creme fraiche and capers add an unexpected moistness and flavor punch.

Smoked Salmon: cream cheese, red onion, capers, lemon, creme fraiche, chives with green side salad served on housemade English muffin

Smoked Salmon: cream cheese, red onion, capers, lemon, creme fraiche, chives with green side salad served on housemade English muffin

Three large “trasteros” as white as a stereotypical picket fence, showcase a variety of dry goods: shelves of chocolates, vinegars, teas, candy and more. Two other standing displays include mustards, cookies, gourmet dried pastas and more while a small refrigerator displays fine cheeses. This is the market portion of The Grove, an integral component of a swanky place to be.

4 September 2007: Nowhere in Albuquerque will you find cupcakes comparable to The Grove. That’s the findings of a Duke City Fix taste test. How can you dispute those findings when you’re enjoying such unique concoctions as red velvet and coconut cupcakes. These are outstanding! Ernestine Ulmer stated something very obvious and wise when she said “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” It’s an aphorism to which visitors to The Grove should subscribe, especially when the counter at which you order showcases cookie jars with such treats as chocolate chip and ginger cookies and cookies constructed with chocolate, walnut and sea salt. These cookies are fabulous!

Chocolate Chip and Ginger Cookie (right) and Chocolate, Walnut and Sea Salt Cookie (left)

Albuquerque is as close to perfect as any city in America, but it’s good to know that if you want to, you can get away quickly and easily simply by driving to the Grove Market & Cafe where in an instant you can be transported elsewhere–a better, more delicious Duke City.

*Voracious readers, the type of which I mention at the start of this essay, should make sure their reading list includes La Bajada Lawyer, a spell-binding mystery by Albuquerque attorney Jonathan Miller. Miller made a couple of observations about the Grove which will warrant many happy returns. He wrote that “The Grove hired the most beautiful waitresses in town,” and “the place is a “chick restaurant” at lunch.” If my male readers needed a reason to visit The Grove, perhaps Miller’s writing will inspire that visit.

A wonderful quadrumvirate of cupcakes including coconut and red velvet.

The Grove Cafe & Market
600 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-248-9800
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2013
1st VISIT: 4 September 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Burrito, The Beef, Signature Cupcakes, EDO’s Best BLT, Croque Monsieur, Cookies, Piquillo Pepper Soup, Sunchoke Hash, Winter Fig & Prosciutto Salad, The Pork, Smoked Salmon, Antipasto Board


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