Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Oak Tree Cafe is now on Alameda as of April, 2013

This isn’t Burger King!
You can’t have it your way.
You get it our way or you don’t get it at all.

For some reason, human beings seem inclined to level criticism by the shovelful while apportioning praise and plaudits by the thimbleful.  We  seem genetically predisposed to put more stock into negativity than we are to believe the best of others.  We consider compliments to be based on insincerity or ulterior motives.  Even our television viewing preferences gravitate toward gratuitous depictions of misbehavior and depravity.  We consider unwatchable any movie or television show portraying kindness and humanity.

That grim indictment of humanity is, by virtue of its own unflattering characterization, itself an example of misanthropic pathos.  In the spirit of John 8:7, I will cast the first stone at myself.  For years, I heard about a humble little sandwich shop in which customer service was said to be more than a slogan; it was a way of doing business.  Instead of embracing this supposed people-pleasing panacea, my first inclination was skepticism and a willingness to lump the Oak Tree Cafe with any number of other eateries which provide good service, albeit with transparent insincerity.

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Affable proprietor Rob Carson at the counter where you place your order

You’re no doubt familiar with the type of restaurant of which I’m talking  (chains are especially good at this). The minute you walk in, a painted-on smile approaches you and begins the well-rehearsed wait “schtick” that typically begins with something like, “I’m Julie and I’ll be your server tonight.”  Periodic visits to your table (usually when your mouth is full) include perfunctory chit chat as well as refills and more napkins.  Though typically not unpleasant, this type of service is still rather impersonal and unmemorable.  It’s essentially a game of reciprocal expectations between customer and client; both parties know what to expect and fulfill their respective roles.  It’s basically harmless.

Unfortunately, as feedback to this blog will attest, for some restaurants, harmless would be a vast improvement. Some restaurants, it seems, don’t seem to understand that good customer service is the lifeblood of any business. All too often, customer service appears to be of the “This isn’t Burger King!  You can’t have it your way.” variety.   This type of service is characterized by a haughty disregard for the axiom that the customer is always right.  Its rendition of the golden rule stops at “do onto others” as in “do ignore them,” “do belittle them,” do patronize them.”  Quite naturally it dissuades return visits.

The Taos

Since most customer service seems to fall somewhere between the impersonal and well-rehearsed wait schtick and the “you get it our way or you don’t get it at all” approach, you’ll forgive me if I was skeptical about the Oak Tree Cafe.  It really is too easy to be cynical about a restaurant which has made its reputation not only because of its great sandwiches, but because of its genuinely warm, personable and attentive service.  Though I’m not from Missouri, Oak Tree would just have to show me.

The Oak Tree Cafe was founded just over a quarter century ago by the father-son duo of Michael and Rob Carson who worked side-by-side until Michael’s death at age 86 in 2009.  Today Rob is ably assisted by a kitchen staff which abides with the cafe’s long-standing tradition of excellent customer service.  In the tradition of Cheers, television’s friendliest bar, it seems everyone–or at least Rob–knows the name of all regulars as they walk in.  He also knows each regular’s “usual,” what those regular patrons like to order when they visit.  If my first few visits are any indication, the regulars outnumber new visitors undoubtedly eager to find out if the cafe’s reputation for outstanding food and exceptional service is well deserved.

Hot Corned Beef on Rye With a Side Order of Chips and Fresh Fruit

In April, 2013, the Oak Tree Cafe relocated from its Uptown location to a new shopping center at 4545 Alameda, N.E. (just west of Jefferson).  The Oak Tree Cafe’s digs are 2,500 square-feet of welcome to west side diners whose sandwich options were primarily chain restaurants which blight their neighborhoods.  An outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables accommodates another forty guests or so.  At its expansive new location, the Oak Tree Cafe now serves burgers, beer, wine and appetizers. 

As of my initial visit to the Alameda location on 10 May 2013, only the famous Oak Tree bell hasn’t made it to its new home.  At the Uptown location, once you took your seat, conversations with your dining companions were periodically be punctuated by the tintinnabulation of a bell positioned by the cafe door.  As customers exited, they were invited to please ring the bell “if the food was great and service was crazy.”  Without exception, everyone exiting the premises rang the bell.  Even if Rob doesn’t bring the bell back, the service remains great and the service as crazy as ever.

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The Oak Tree Combo Sandwich

For a restaurant with a reputation for service, it’s surprising to find that there is no tableside wait service.  Instead you’ll place your order at a counter, interacting with an affable server (maybe even Janet, Rob’s pulchritudinous bride as of August, 2016) who’s happy to answer any questions you may have or to make recommendations if you need them.  When you first walk in don’t be surprised to be greeted with a friendly handshake and an introduction “I’m Rob Carson.  Welcome to the Oak Tree Cafe.”  It probably won’t be the only time you interact with Carson who’s a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting throughout the premises with an ambassadorial flair.

The sandwiches warrant not only bell-ringing, but cheers. They’re that good! The sandwich and wraps menu is formidable, nearly two dozen different sandwiches crafted on fresh bread, (sub rolls, wheat, rye, white, Kaiser rolls and French rolls) either toasted or untoasted.  Meat products come from Boar’s Head.  Sandwiches are named for faithful customers, New Mexico landmarks and celebrities such as Monty Hall and Al Capone.  Each sandwich towers with meats, condiments and ingredients, some of which are infrequently found at other Duke City sandwich shops.

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Beer-battered “Black and Tan” onion rings, some of the very best in Albuquerque

5 July 2011: If you’re uncertain as to what sandwich to order, focus your study of the menu on those crafted with roast beef, a specialty of the house. The roast beef is slow-cooked on the premises from choice top round. It’s as tender as a marshmallow and as moist and delicious as any roast beef you’ll ever have anywhere! The Taos–hot USDA choice top round roast beef, melted Monterey Jack, grilled onions, grilled green chile, tomato, mayo and lettuce on a fresh-baked Kaiser roll–showcases layer upon layer of roast beef, so juicy and unctuous it resembles a hamburger patty until you taste it.  That’s when you gain an appreciation for how wonderful roast beef can be.  It’s especially wonderful when its flavor profile melds with the other ingredients which make this my choice for best roast beef sandwich in town.

5 July 2011: During my inaugural visit to the Menaul location, the special of the day featured an ingredient combination–hot corned beef on rye toast topped with grilled onions, Monterey jack cheese, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and deli mustard–that made my taste buds very happy.  The combination of banana peppers, deli mustard and grilled onions was especially notable, a complementary mix of sweet, savory and tangy flavors.  This sandwich is piled about twice as high as many other sandwiches you’ll find in local eateries.  It also stands tall above the rest in terms of pure deliciousness.

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

Fried green beans with green chile Ranch dressing

The sprawling Alameda location is every bit as accommodating and friendly as its previous home.  Even the menu bespeaks of friendliness with the slogan “A warm, friendly atmosphere full of camaraderie and congeniality.”  Location aside, the biggest difference between one location and another is the menu which now includes three gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and appetizers.  Sandwiches are the Oak Tree Cafe’s raison de’etre and will probably always be the most popular draw, but burgers and chicken sandwiches will beckon, too.

Although all sandwiches are served with a pickle spear and your choice of homemade apple coleslaw, homemade macaroni salad or fresh fruit, you owe it to yourself to try some of the other sides on the menu: hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries or beer-battered onion rings.  The beer-battered black and tan onion rings are among the two  best in the city (the others being from Flamez Burgers & More).  These golden hued beauties are served on a tree-like apparatus, just ready to be plucked.  Bite into them and onion juiciness squirts out, a wonderful departure from the usual desiccation you experience with out-of-the-bag onion rings most restaurants serve. 

Janet's Bacon Green Chili Burger

Janet’s Bacon Green Chili Burger

10 May 2013: Much as the burgers and chicken sandwiches beckon, chances are you’ll succumb to the stronger calling of a sumptuous sandwich.  One of the best is the Oak Tree Combo, a sandwich honoring the years spent at the San Mateo (Uptown) location.   This is a sandwich’s sandwich, a meaty behemoth on a Kaiser roll.  The ingredients–USDA top round roast beef, turkey breast, corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, melted Cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes–go very well together.  It’s such a good sandwich, you may mourn finishing your last bite. 

13 June 2013:  On the day of my second visit to the Alameda location, it did my heart good to see more cars parked in front of the Oak Tree Cafe than there were in front of Panera Bread, a chain restaurant five miles away which also serves sandwiches.  It goes to show Duke City Diners can be a discerning lot that recognizes the superiority of locally owned and operated restaurants and home-grown touches such as the Oak Tree Cafe’s green chile Ranch dressing which accompanies the fried green beans.   While no dressing is necessary for these perfectly breaded, perfectly fried green beans, a little piquancy and roasted flavor goes a long way.

The Father Paul Sandwich, “Heaven in a Sandwich”

13 June 2013: The best new green chile cheeseburger I’ve had in 2013 is the quaintly named Janet’s Bacon Green Chili (SIC) Burger, a burger so good the Oak Tree Cafe can get away with the Texas-like spelling of New Mexico’s official state vegetable.  The burger is named for the delightful Janet, Rob’s fiance and a partner in the restaurant.   All the burgers at the restaurant are made from fresh ground beef from Nelson’s Meat Market formed on the premises daily and served on a fresh bakery bun.  The Janet invites you to “Cowgirl It Up” (a phrase meaning stop being a sissy) with this half-pound behemoth topped with pecan-smoked bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, New Mexico green chile, red onions, lettuce and tomatoes.  The green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough bite to let you know it’s there.  The beef is moist and perfectly prepared at about medium.  The bacon is terrific as is the cheese.  It’s a burger which goes very well with the onion rings.

13 June 2013: If you’ve ever wondered what “heaven in a sandwich” tastes like, try the Father Paul Sandwich, named for a Catholic priest friend of Rob Carson.  Although Father Paul is now in Florida, this sandwich is a terrific legacy to leave behind.  The sandwich is constructed on a baguette which is ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) with USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes.  The deli mustard pulls no punches, enlivening the sandwich with an eye-watering flavor that complements the tender as butter roast beef.  If you’ve discerned a predilection for ordering roast beef sandwiches, it’s simply because The Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best roast beef in Albuquerque.

Mike's Chicken Sandwich: Six-ounce chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese, honey mustard, topped with lettuce and tomatoes

Mike’s Chicken Sandwich

18 June 2013: While turkey is often blamed for post-meal Thanksgiving lethargy, chicken actually has more of the serotonin-boosting tryptophan than turkey does.  Perhaps that’s why most chicken sandwiches bore me to the point of sleepiness.  In the spirit that the Oak Tree Cafe can do no wrong, I didn’t put up much resistance when Janet recommended Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, a six-ounce grilled chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese and honey mustard topped with lettuce and tomatoes.  This is what all chicken sandwiches should aspire to. The chicken (no breading) is grilled to perfection, but what makes this sandwich special is the combination of smoky-piquant bacon, slightly incendiary Pepperjack cheese and the honey mustard.  This is a multi-napkin affair, a very juicy and delicious chicken sandwich that won’t leave you sleepy after consuming it.

8 July 2013: It’s entirely conceivable that if the 1982 best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche were to be rewritten for the new millennium, quiche would be replaced on the title by tortilla wraps or maybe quesadillas.  It’s practically an XY chromosome expectation that real men order behemoth sandwiches overstuffed with ingredients.  Real men certainly wouldn’t order a tortilla wrap with raspberry sauce of all things.  That is unless real men are really comfortable in their own skin or who don’t want to miss out on a terrific tortilla wrap constructed with superb ingredients.  The Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap is bursting with roasted turkey breast, cream cheese, New Mexico green chile, spring mix, tomatoes and raspberry chipotle sauce wrapped in a tortilla.  The combination of green chile and raspberry chipotle gives the wrap a piquant personality with a sweet kick.  The turkey, and there’s plenty of it, is terrific, the antithesis of the boring turkey.  Real men would love this sandwich…if only they would try it.

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap: Turkey Breast, Cream Cheese, New Mexico Green Chile, Spring Mix, Tomatoes, Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Wrapped in a Flour Tortilla

Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap

Contemporary culinary culture is so competitive (forgive the alliteration) that a purveyor of sandwiches can’t just slap some meats and cheeses on bread and expect to stay in business for long.  The very best restaurateurs are constantly reinventing their menus, looking for exciting new options with which to entice their diners.  Since the Oak Tree Cafe moved into its commodious new digs, the opportunities for tinkering with an already outstanding menu have been more readily available.  A number of new burgers (including an excellent blue cheese burger) show up in the menu of daily specials.  The most successful among them will hopefully make it onto the everyday menu

27 March 2014: Call it audacious if you will, but the Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area.  Yes, better than the fish and chips at Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill and the Two Fools Tavern.  Rob Carson and his crew didn’t just decide one day to start serving fish and chips then immediately started doing so.  They worked on the batter for two months (going through boatloads of fish) before considering it worthy of the guests they value so much.  It’s a light and crispy beer batter that sheathes two large pieces of tender and flaky haddock.  The light batter allows for excellent penetration by malt vinegar and pairs well with the superb tartar sauce with which the fish are served.  The fish is delicate and delicious and because it’s virtually grease-free, you can eat it with your hands.  The fries have a twice-fried texture and also absorb malt vinegar well.  An accompanying coleslaw is crisp, fresh and delicious.

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

Possibly the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area

28 August 2015:  My friend Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, books time with a “personal shopper” at Gucci when she flies into Chicago.  I can one-up her by having my very own personal sandwich advisor every time I visit the Oak Tree.  Not only are reservations not required to book this service, anyone can avail themselves of getting great sandwich advice every time you visit.  All you’ve got to do is ask Janet for a recommendation.  She’ll ask some questions to discern your tastes and desires before recommending your next favorite sandwich at the Oak Tree.  

My Kim is eternally grateful to Janet for recommending the Don Juan (which isn’t named for the legendary libertine, but for John who conceptualized it).   The Don Juan (ham, pepperoni, melted Provolone cheese, Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, red onion, artichokes, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette) is a concordant masterpiece of ingredients which work so very well together.  The Balsamic vinegar and artichokes are a very nice touch, lending a tangy contrast to otherwise savory ingredients.  The baguette is the perfect canvas, lending the properties of chewiness and staff-of-life deliciousness to the meats and cheeses.

The Don Juan

13 November 2015: Most sandwich restaurants tend to have a turkey sandwich and invariably it lives up to its name, turkey being a term used to describe something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful.  The Oak Tree Cafe’s version of a turkey sandwich is the antithesis of every boring turkey sandwich out there, second in my estimation only to the turkey sandwich at the legendary Smokehouse.  The canvas for this terrific turkey is toasted sourdough bread topped with green chile, melted Monterey Jack, homemade guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes.  The turkey breast is moist and delicious, a natural complement to the other ingredients and a perfect foil for the incendiary green chile and rich, buttery guacamole.

13 November 2015: In her terrific tome American Sandwich, my friend Becky Mercuri explains that the origin of the Reuben sandwich is hotly contested with at least three sources claiming to be its progenitor.  None of those sources credit the sandwich as being named for Baroque painting genius Peter Paul Rubens, but an argument could easily be made for his cause.  That’s especially true if you consider his preference for plus- or real-sized women, the genesis for the term Rubenesque meaning plump or voluptuous. Those terms could apply to the sandwich as well, especially its homonym, the Rueben sandwich.  The Oak Tree’s rendition is a triple-decker beauty constructed of housemade lean corned beef (cooked in Guinness which imparts a dark, rich, complex flavor); tart and tangy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing on a beautiful light rye.  It’s one of Albuquerque’s very best!

Triple Decker Reuben

29 December 2016: There are thirteen specialty sandwiches on the menu, but dispense with any notion of triskaidekaphobia (fear or a phobia concerning the number 13) you might have.  That’s because the Oak Tree also offers a daily special which may mean upping the number of specialty sandwiches to fourteen.  Daily specials are listed on the white board you encounter as you wind along the queue path to the counter where you’ll place your order.  Some of the daily specials are so good they’d be the starring attraction at other sandwich shops across the Duke City. One such special is the Turkey Pesto Sandwich (turkey breast on toasted roll topped with basil pesto, melted Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.  Add green chile and you’ve got one of the most invigoratingly flavorful sandwiches in town.  The basil pesto practically pops with its sharp freshness while the green chile lends just a bit of heat.  As we’ve come to expect from Oak Tree, the turkey is plentiful and plenty good, too.

Turkey Pesto Sandwich

10 August 2017: Because you can never have enough chile, the Oak Tree Café recently added battered and fried green chile strips to an already formidable appetizer menu. Lightly battered in a Sierra Blanca ale (brewed in Moriarty), it’s got just enough heat to ramp up your endorphins. Served golden brown and inviting, these green chile strips are served with a ranch dressing, the perfect complement to a savory starter which (wishful thinking here) should replace French fries as a burger accompaniment. My Kim assessed these as the best she’s ever had. Me, too.

Fried Green Chili Strips

10 August 2017: Having judged many a culinary competition, it’s galled me to discover that dishes served during the competition aren’t necessarily the ones a restaurant serves its customers on a daily basis. I’ve experienced this duplicity only a handful of times, but that’s enough to have diminished my respect for the purveyors. Rob and Janet are absolutely committed to serving their loyal customers the very same dishes they might serve persnickety competition judges. That means the green chili (SIC) cheeseburger on their daily menu is the same green chili cheeseburger judges at the New Mexico State Fair competition will sample during the 2017 event. It’s a great burger! How could it not be? The canvas upon which this masterpiece is constructed is a bun flecked with green chile. It’s made locally at Sergio’s Bakery and Café. The fresh ground beef—a whopping half-pound of never frozen deliciousness—comes from Nelson’s and the chile is New Mexico proud with a pleasant piquancy. Unless otherwise requested, burgers are prepared at medium where their juiciness shines. Then there’s a thick slice of Cheddar draped lovingly over the beef patty. Red onion, crisp lettuce and ripe tomatoes somehow manage to fit in between the buns, too. It takes two hands to handle this beauteous behemoth, a green chili cheeseburger you’ll love.

New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger

The Oak Tree Cafe has made a believer our of this cynic who often laments the absence of truly sincere, truly personable service coupled with excellent sandwiches. This cafe is an anachronism, a throwback to the days in which the customer was always right and you could get things done your way.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2017
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Taos Sandwich, Hot Corned Beef Sandwich, Oak Tree Combo, Onion Rings, Fried Green Beans, The Father Paul Sandwich, Janet’s Green Chili Burger, Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap, Apple Coleslaw, Fish & Chips, The Don Juan, The Pauley, Triple Decker Reuben, Turkey Pesto, New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger

Oak Tree Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Patio – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Patio on Harvard Avenue

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt had the type of job any aspiring sojourner would envy.  He hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing  the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies.  Observing that “thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything,” Kuralt avoided the interstates, instead traversing America’s back roads and byways in search of real people with interesting stories to tell.

Kuralt loved New Mexico, which he noted in his terrific tome America, is really a misnomer.  In his estimation, New Mexico “should be called Precambria for the sea that crashed upon its shores for tens of millions of years, or Mastadonia, for the mammals that later roamed its plains..; or Sandia for the mountain where the camp of an ice age hunter, the earliest known American was found in a cave…New Mexico is old, stupendously old and dry and brown, and wind-worn by the ages.”

Chips and Salsa

Kuralt also loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment.  In his book America, he declared the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.  During his peridoc visits to the Duke City, the peripatetic wanderer also frequented Old Town’s La Placita restaurant which he considered one of his favorite feeding stations.  In 1988, the legendary newsman featured El Patio in a CBS “Sunday Morning On The Road” segment.

El Patio was then but ten years old, but already becoming a formidable presence in the Duke City dining scene.  It was then one of the few New Mexican restaurants in the UNM area, but that wasn’t solely the reason it garnered rave reviews and legions of loyal fans.  Discerning UNM students appreciated the authenticity and deliciousness of the food; for many of them, it represented a home away from home where they could get cooking as good or better than mom’s.  Those former students have raised a generation, many of whom followed their parents to UNM and to El Patio.

Frito Pie

El Patio is ensconced in a converted home just south of Central Avenue on Harvard Drive.  A telltale sign you’ve made it to the popular restaurant on this relatively low traffic drive is the can’t miss Taos blue Mexican picket fence.  Beyond the fence lies the patio (El Patio), essentially the entire front yard, which is shaded by tall trees, a welcome respite from the sun’s heating rays.  El Patio’s patio also welcomes dogs.

For the duration of its three decade plus, El Patio has been family owned and operated.  Founding owners Dave Sandoval (a fellow Taoseño) and wife Gloria Sandoval remain involved, but much of the day-to-day operation has been transitioned over to their progeny, sons Thomas and Christopher who have made some changes, including the addition of a catering service and a sales operation which markets El Patio’s fabulous salsa and green chile.  Both can be purchased in the restaurant and at several stores throughout the Duke City.

Carne Adovada plate (no beans)

Thomas Sandoval, the elder sibling, is the chef while Christopher is the restaurant’s front-end man.  Thomas acquired his culinary skills literally at his maternal grandfather’s apron strings.  His grandfather taught him well.  El Patio’s food is as good today as it was decades ago when it first blew me out of the water.

Interestingly, El Patio considers itself primarily a vegetarian restaurant, but that distinction isn’t readily apparent in its meat dishes which are as good, if not better, than meat-based New Mexican entrees at other restaurants.  Even the most ardent carnivores, however, should at least try the vegetarian entrees which go a long way toward showcasing the delicious versatility of New Mexican cuisine.  The restaurant’s vegetarian enchiladas, for example, are made with spinach instead of meat.  The spinach imparts a spring-like freshness and healthful, but surprisingly (at least to meatatarians) delicious qualities to the enchiladas.  The Frito pie is also meatless, but you won’t miss the meat.  It’s one of the best Frito pies in town.

Carne Adovada Taco

Many pundits rank El Patio among the top four or five New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque, leaving one to wonder if voters on “best of” polls mistakenly stuff the ballots for “El Pinto” when meaning to vote for El Patio which is several orders of magnitude better.  You’d think after the “dangling chad” episodes during the 2000 presidential elections in Florida, more extreme care would be taken in the voting process.

Salsa isn’t complementary at El Patio, but it’s worth the paltry pittance for which you pay for it, especially considering the attentive wait staff is on the ball to replenish each ramekin just as you’re running low.  The salsa is jalapeno based, but I believe it includes a tinge of red chile powder.  In any case, this is a wonderful salsa, some of the very best in the city.  This flavorful salsa has a nice piquant bite that will get your attention without dulling your taste buds for your entrees.  The accompanying chips are low in salt, crisp and formidable enough to scoop up ample amounts of salsa.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Patio the seventh best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas

30 June 2017: The restaurant’s most popular entree, according to the menu, are the green chile chicken enchiladas.  El Patio is so accommodating (one of the main reasons for its popularity), you can have dual meat–beef and chicken–enchiladas and you can have them Christmas style and on blue corn tortillas with the requisite fried egg on top.  This best of all worlds approach for one of New Mexican cuisine’s most versatile entrees is my favorite way to have them.  The shredded chicken is moist and delicious, prepared to absolute perfection.  The beef is ground hamburger, not shredded beef as Mexican restaurants will serve on enchiladas, but the beef is well-seasoned and not refried as some restaurants are apt to do.  The red chile is rich and flavorful at about a medium level of piquancy.  The green chile has a fresh, fruity taste.  Both are par excellence.

31 December 2011: Carne Adovada is available in several dishes, including on a smothered or hand-held burrito. Because the chile with which carne adovada is smothered is oftentimes not the same chile in which the pork is prepared, my Kim will never order a smothered carne adovada burrito. She contends it allows her to better enjoy the purity of the adovada. El Patio’s adovada is outstanding, well worthy of a visit from my friend Ruben Hendrickson whose quest for the perfect carne adovada continued until his passing on 30 May 2016 (I miss you, dear friend). The pork is spoon tender (that means even more tender than fork-tender) and absolutely delicious, a benchmark which competes with some of the very best in the city.

Combination Plate

1 July 2017: El Patio’s combination plate is the best way to introduce newcomers to some of the best the restaurant has to offer.  A veritable platter is brimming with two cheese enchiladas engorged with chile, a chile relleno and a taco (thankfully served on a small plate) all topped with shredded Longhorn Cheddar and your choice of chile.  Longhorn Cheddar is what makes the cheese enchiladas some of the very best you’ll ever have.  It’s a good melting cheese with a nice degree of sharpness and terrific cows’ milk flavor.  The chile relleno is especially noteworthy.  A single sweet-piquant chile is stuffed with even more of that luscious Longhorn cheese then battered lightly and deep-fried.   It’s quite good.  So is the taco.  Given your choice of carne advocada, chicken or ground beef (all good), opt for the carne adovada.  It’s prepared on a hard-shelled corn tortilla that crumbles quickly, but that’s why God invented forks.

Each entree is served with pinto beans (not refried), boiled and peeled potatoes and lots of garnish (lettuce and tomato).  The potatoes have a consistency near being mashed.  Similar to the boiled potatoes at Duran’s Central Pharmacy, they appear to be an anomaly at first in that they’re not crisply fried, but by your second forkful, you’ll be hooked.  The potatoes have a sweet-savory marriage that makes them a joy to eat.  The beans are perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious.

Fajitas

1 July 2017:  There’s a short list of fajitas on our list as best in the Duke City.  Topping our current list are the fajitas at El Patio.  Among the many reasons we esteem these so highly is the full half-pound of marinated steak, as tender and flavorful as any fajita beef we’ve ever enjoyed.  The marinated steak is hand-cut and sauteed with green and red peppers, mounds of onions, and diced tomatoes. They’re served with guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, salsa, a side of potatoes and two flour tortillas (white or wheat).  Oh, and there’s plenty of Longhorn cheese, too.

Entrees also include complementary sopaipillas.  Large, cloud-like and puffy, they emit wisps of steam as you cut into them to form a pocket for honey.   Kudos to El Patio for serving real raw honey, not that aberrational honey-flavored syrup.   These sopaipillas are not doughy as some sopaipillas are made, but rather have thin walls that are easy to penetrate, but not so thin that they’re sieves for the honey. If you don’t imbibe adult beverages, the watermelon limeaid is a very nice alternative.  It’s more tangy than it is sweet and it’ll quell your thirst on the dog days of summer.

Sopaipillas

We’ve found service at El Patio extremely capable and more than accommodating, but then we tend to visit when the restaurant first opens (11AM seven days a week) and the choicest seating is available.  Experience has taught us that this extremely popular restaurant fills up quickly–and for good reason.  This is one of Albuquerque’s very best New Mexican restaurants, a genuine gem.

El Patio
142 Harvard Dr SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-4245
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 July 2017
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Beef and Chicken Enchiladas Christmas Style, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicken Taco, Combination Plate, Carne Adovada Plate, Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas, Watermelon Limeaid, Frito Pie, Fajitas

El Patio de Albuquerque Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

May Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Paul Bunyan Leaving His Favorite Vietnamese Restaurant

There are perhaps thousands of examples throughout the Duke City of immigrants whose path to the American dream involved rising above humble origins and surmounting extraordinary circumstances to achieve success.  Those challenges are exacerbated by the fact that many of them arrived in America as refugees from war-torn nations with nary a modicum of English. 

One such example is Liem Nguyen, who along with wife Kim founded the May Cafe in 1992, a scant nine years after arriving in Albuquerque through a church resettlement program.  Speaking almost no English, Liem, then 22 years old, enrolled in Highland High School as a ninth-grader.  He didn’t know how to drive, shop at the supermarket or even catch a bus.  He slept in a closet in a tiny apartment he shared with several other immigrants.

Grilled Onion Beef

Grilled Onion Beef

Among the city’s very first Vietnamese restaurants, May Cafe wasn’t an immediate success save within the tight-knit Vietnamese community craving the tastes of home and among the servicemen at Kirtland Air Force Base who had been stationed in Vietnam and fell in love with the cuisine.  It took a while before the widespread acceptance by a trepidatious general public of the alluring and theretofore mysterious flavors of Vietnam.  It helped tremendously when in its annual restaurant issue, the long-defunct Abq Magazine listed the May Cafe as a handful of second-tier restaurants just below the magazine’s anointed ten best.

The May Cafe is situated on Louisiana just south of Central.  The most conspicuous sign that you’ve arrived is a 27-foot tall fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan just behind the restaurant.  Weighing more than 2,000 pounds and wielding an axe as long as a compact car, the giant lumberman has been perched on a customized steel beam 25 feet above the ground for more than four decades.  Anywhere but in Albuquerque the behemoth statue might seem out-of-place, but here it’s become a beloved local landmark.

MayCafe03

Vietnamese Sandwich (Banh Mi)

Beloved local landmark is also an apt description for the May Cafe which has earned every peoples’ choice and “best of” award possible during its twenty plus years of serving the Duke City.  Most recently, in 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine bestowed a “Hot Plate” award on the restaurant’s popular pork chop dish, signifying its selection as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Despite competition from more than thirty Vietnamese restaurants strewn throughout the metropolitan area, the May Cafe remains one of the most highly regarded and popular independent restaurants of any genre.

The menu reads like a compendium of all that is delicious and wonderful about Vietnamese cuisine.  The menu boasts “our food is made from the best ingredients, freshest vegetables and meats.”  The proof is in the tasting and that’s where the May Cafe shines.  You’re not likely to find any appetizer or entree that doesn’t elicit exclamations of “wow!” or “yummo” if you’re a Rachael Ray clone!

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Spicy Beef Stew

9 February 2013: One of the Cafe’s most popular starters is the grilled onion beef, a specialty available as an entree at SaiGon Restaurant.  An order features five cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled spring onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion.  Vietnamese grilling imparts a slight smoky char imprint on beef with a fragrance promising deliciousness in every morsel.  The deliciousness comes from a melding of such spices as star anise and cinnamon which prove a perfect foil for the full-flavored onions.  The grilled onion beef is served with the Cafe’s renowned fish sauce which adds sweet-savory-tangy notes to the beef.

9 February 2013: Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) are almost antithetical to their American counterparts.  On the latter, sandwich aficionados want ingredients, particularly meat, piled high and spilling over.  With banh mi, it’s all about a balance of delicate, complimentary flavors.  You’ll probably never find a Dagwood-sized banh mi and if you did, it probably wouldn’t be very good.  May Cafe’s banh mi combines barbecue pork, beef or chicken with daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, julienne carrots, cucumber slivers in an airy baguette.  The baguette is key.  It can’t be dense and thick or it might dominate the flavor profile.  In perfect combination with the ingredients it cocoons, the baguette is a repository for the perfect sandwich. 

Egg Rolls

14 June 2017:  The history of Vietnam is one of colonization by conquering nations.  Centuries of colonization fashioned what ultimately evolved into Vietnamese cuisine, distinctly different from the cuisine of any intervening conquerors.  Vietnamese egg rolls are on example.  While they bear some resemblance to their Chinese progenitors, preparation and flavor are entirely different from the Chinese version.  Vietnamese egg rolls are smaller and more crispy, wrapped and lightly fried in rice paper and filled with seasoned bits of vegetables and served with the ubiquitous nuoc mam sauce. Nuoc mam is considered the Vietnamese alternative to soy sauce, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s a distilled and fermented fish extract used to season many dishes. Both the egg rolls and nuoc man sauce at the May Cafe are terrific.

9 February 2013: When fellow Vietnamese cuisine aficionados often ask what my favorite pho in the Albuquerque area is, I’m almost unqualified to answer.  Rather than pho, if a Vietnamese restaurant offers a spicy beef stew, that’s what I’ll order.   There are three Duke City restaurants which offer phenomenal spicy beef stew: Cafe Dalat, May Hong and the May Cafe.  Aside from the fact that the proprietors of each are related, the common element among the three spicy beef stews is intense flavor–not intense spiciness if your definition of such is piquancy, but the spiciness born of spice combinations redolent with flavor.  May Cafe’s version is the color of brackish water and can be prepared with your choice of noodles: rice, egg or vermicelli.  What singles out this spicy beef stew from among its brethren is the beef which is carne adovada tender and absolutely delicious. The broth is replete with flavor so good it might make you swoon.

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Singapore Noodles

9 February 2013: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, calls the May Cafe’s Singapore Noodles “perhaps the best I have ever had.”  I beg to disagree with my esteemed friend.  The word “perhaps” doesn’t belong in the sentence.  This is the very best bowl of Singapore Noodles I’ve ever had.  With a make-your-mouth-happy level of piquancy, the curry-based dish with tangles of vermicelli noodles and ultra-fresh vegetables is one of those rare dishes so good it would be the only thing you’ll ever order.  That is if the menu wasn’t already replete with other dishes that good.

14 June 2017:  Ginger or Mary Ann?  Oops, wrong ginger.  In this case, ginger definitely wins.  The May Cafe’s version of ginger catfish (crispy catfish in ginger sauce is one of the most surprising dishes you’ll find in Albuquerque.  Fish, for all that is said about them, have a rather “blandish” flavor profile while ginger is an assertive, peppery spice that will wake up your taste buds.  Fish and ginger go wonderfully together.  The ginger sauce is the color of luminous, fluorescent Day-Glo or maybe French dressing, but it has a flavor you won’t soon forget.  That’s because it imprints itself on your taste buds with piquant, savory, sweet and just slightly sour sensations.  Surprisingly it is a perfect complement to the meaty catfish which is fried to perfection.  Though the catfish skin is crispy, the fish is light and flaky and not “fishy” in the least.

Ginger Catfish

As with many of Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurants, the May Cafe provides excellent value, proving gourmet quality cuisine doesn’t have to be expensive in order to be very good.

May Cafe
111 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-4448
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2017
# OF VISITS:  5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Vietnamese Sandwich, Singapore Noodles, Spicy Beef Stew, Ginger Catfish, Egg Rolls

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

IKrave Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

iKrave Cafe for Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese Sandwiches

Please say it isn’t so!  According to Nations Restaurant News, a highly respected trade publication “a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs” believes “American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.”  The notion of corporate chain megaliths setting their sights on the humble banh mi should send shudders down the spine of everyone who frequents the mom-and-pop nature of the banh mi restaurants we’ve come to know and love. Imagine a phalanx of Subway-like sandwich shops creating and selling banh mi. The notion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

One of the first chains vying to expand the presence of banh mi in the mainstream is Chipotle whose Asian-themed offshoot “ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen” features banh mi as the menu’s cornerstone. If Chipotle does for the banh mi what it did for burritos and what Olive Garden did for Italian food, there will be generations of American diners who may never experience the real thing–an authentic banh mi prepared in the traditional manner by Vietnamese weaned on banh mi. Worse, slick Madison Avenue advertisers might convince them they prefer the faux food.

iKrave’s energetic, customer oriented owner Hien

It’s a small consolation that it will probably take a while before the heavily bankrolled chain interlopers reach Albuquerque (think about how long it took before Chipotle invaded).  That gives the Duke City’s  three established independent purveyors of peerless banh mi the opportunity to win over even more converts.  It should take only one visit!

Until just a few years ago, you had to visit larger cosmopolitan areas such as San Francisco to find banh mi.  Eventually such banh mi pioneers as May Café, May Hong and Cafe Dalat, all full-service Vietnamese restaurants, began offering “Vietnamese Sandwiches” on their appetizer menus.  Before long, almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City followed suit.  In 2010, Banh Mi Coda became the Duke City’s first full-fledged banh mi shop.  It took three more years before Sai Gon Sandwich launched, becoming the second restaurant in Albuquerque dedicated solely to banh mi.

#4 Grilled Pork Banh Mi

The third banh mi restaurant–the one about which you may not yet have heard–is called iKrave.  The name means exactly what it sounds it should mean as in “I crave” banh mi. iKrave opened its doors in August, 2014. Being ensconced in a rather nondescript strip mall on Juan Tabo (just north of Constitution) and without a prominent eye-catching storefront, much of its business has come from the Vietnamese community and nearby residents. You wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to keep secret what is one of New Mexico’s best sandwich shops of any genre. Indeed, much of the restaurant’s traffic comes from word-of-mouth. That’s truly the best advertising you can get.

iKrave exemplifies the axioms “big things come in small packages” and “small place, huge flavors.” This Lilliputian lair has room for only a couple of small tables, a free-standing beverage refrigerator and a bamboo counter where you place your order. The man behind the counter is owner-chef Hien who not only constructs the banh mi (it’s a thing of beauty), he cures, marinades, cuts and otherwise imparts preternatural deliciousness on all the meats which grace the banh me he serves. He also slices, dices and juliennes all the fresh vegetables adorning each banh mi.

Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

To say the banh mi is a sacrosanct sandwich is an understatement. So is calling it merely delicious or utterly wonderful. During a 2009 visit to Vietnam for his award-winning “No Reservations” show, Anthony Bourdain described banh mi as “a symphony in a sandwich.” It’s an apt description for the effect this superb sandwich has on your taste buds. You can almost picture all ten-thousand taste buds dancing, enrapt in the melodious harmony of flavors

Bourdain elaborated further: “The baguette alone is something of a miracle. How do they stay so crunchy, crisp and fresh on the outside, so airy, so perfect on the inside?” In truth, this statement is much more applicable to the baguettes in Vietnam than the bread used by banh mi purveyors throughout the Duke City. Hien procures his baguettes from a local baker whose classic preparation techniques are very close to those used in Vietnam. Unlike American sandwiches whose bread can lull taste buds to sleep, Vietnamese baguettes are really the vessel that coalesces all the flavors of the banh mi.

#1 Special Combination Banh Mi

With your first bite, you’ll notice the difference and with each subsequent bite, your appreciation will grow for this delicious duality of light and airy, crisp and soft, fresh and flavorful bread. It’s the perfect canvass for any one of the eight sandwiches on the iKrave banh mi menu.  Before he creates your sandwich, Hien brushes the baguette with a rather expensive French butter then heats it.  It’s one of several touches he employs to ensure the most moist and meticulously crafted banh mi in town.  It’s sandwich artistry at its finest and most delicious.

16 April 2015: Combination #1 is the mother lode, the bahn mi with the most. It’s an unheated sandwich (the Vietnamese version of a “cold cut” sandwich, but infinitely better) constructed with barbecue pork, pork roll and cured pork pate along with the classic banh mi condiments: Vietnamese mayo (cut with butter for moistness and nuttiness), fresh herbs (cilantro, scallions), pickled (julienne daikon and carrots) and unpickled vegetables (jalapeños).  Note: For the fire-eaters among you, ask Hien to replace the jalapeños with Thai bird peppers which are far more incendiary and delicious.   The sandwich is further moistened by sauce Hien uses on the barbecue pork.  Every element in this sandwich is as fresh and delicious as it can be. Together they coalesce to create my very favorite banh mi in New Mexico.

Grilled Chicken and Pork Banh Mi

23 July 2016: if your preference is for a heated sandwich, iKrave has several wonderful options.  Savvy diners who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with grilled pork, porcine perfection marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  Imagine a banh mi created with this incomparably delicious pork.  It’s better than your imagination.  So is the grilled chicken banh mi.  If you can’t make up your mind between grilled pork and grilled chicken, the ever-accommodating Hien will build a combination grilled pork and chicken banh mi for you.  It’s my new favorite among the grilled banh mi. 

24 May 2017: In modern vernacular, the term “size doesn’t matter” has implications of double entendre.  In the culinary world, only the Food Network and Travel Channel would have you believe meatballs should be the size of basketballs.  Vietnamese purveyors of meatball banh mi know better and the proof is in the eating.  iKrave’s meatballs are about the size of the tiny meatballs once found on Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti and meatballs.  Size truly doesn’t matter when the flavor of these tender pork meatballs will make you swoon.  The meatballs are impregnated with seasonings that complement the fresh, crispy vegetable “slaw” made with pickled carrots and daikon radishes, sliced jalapeños, cucumber slices and fresh cilantro in a baguette canvas.  This is one of the very best banh mi in the city.

Meatball Banh Mi

16 April 2015: You’ll want to wash down your banh mi with sugar cane juice made on the premises by Hien himself.  Take a gander at the beverage refrigerator where you’ll see bundles of sugar cane stalks from which Hien extracts the juice.  Organic Lifestyle Magazine lists sugar cane juice  (which has a relatively low glycemic index of 43), as a healthy alternative to table sugar when used in moderation. It contains fructose and glucose, which, unlike sucrose-based sugars, do not require insulin for metabolism.  Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious! Alternatively, iKrave serves what Hien believes to be some of the strongest iced coffee in town.  It’s excellent!  

One of the most  common, albeit more than a little bit Americanized, nicknames for Vietnam is “Nam,” obviously a diminutive of its full name.  In honor of the banh mi, perhaps its nickname should be “num num.”  iKrave is home to banh mi which will have you uttering “num num” and more.

iKrave Cafe
1331 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite 1P
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-6625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2015
1st VISIT: 16 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Special Combination Banh Mi, Sugar Cane Juice, Coconut Macaroons, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

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

Pana’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pana’s Cafe for Excellent New Mexican Food

The term “red or green” has connotations beyond New Mexico’s sacrosanct chile.  For restaurateurs across the Duke City, red or green can spell the difference between a good or bad reputation and even success or failure.  All food service establishments across the city must display the results of the most recent restaurant inspection conducted by the Albuquerque Environmental Health Department.  Those results are displayed on a “current grade” sticker in a visible inspection, typically the front door.  Savvy diners look for a green sticker which signifies that a food establishment received a passing grade at their most recent inspection.  It means the restaurant staff has demonstrated skills and knowledge that create a safe and sanitary food service environment. 

A red sticker, on the other hand, means the food service establishment has been downgraded for non-compliance with the Food Sanitation Ordinance. The dreaded red sticker can be the proverbial kiss of death. Although food service establishments are given the opportunity to correct critical violations, sometimes the damage to reputation is done. For years, the “red or green report” was a weekly staple of KOAT Action 7 News with appropriate dramatic emphasis accorded restaurants earning red stickers. As with inspections of any type, restaurateurs who strive consciously to maintain a safe and sanitary food service environment look forward to proving their mettle.

Pana’s Dining Room

Despite my years of reviewing restaurants I’d never actually witnessed a restaurant inspection until my inaugural visit at Pana’s Cafe.  It was the cafe’s first inspection.  Inspector Rosanna Trujillo was the consummate professional, providing constructive feedback, dispensing praise, imparting training and providing helpful tips as warranted.  She was the antithesis of any negative perception about restaurant inspectors you may have.  When she completed her inspection–no violations–owners Joe and Michelle Repichowski were so proud they immediately posted a photo of the inspection results on their Facebook page.  That’s not something you see many restaurants do.  Then again, Pana’s Cafe isn’t like many other restaurants.

Pana’s Cafe is ensconced in the space which previously housed Patricia’s Café and before that Choroni Café. The café is set back from heavily trafficked San Mateo and doesn’t especially stand out visually among the multitude of stores and shops with which it shares space in a timeworn shopping center. Where Pana’s Café does stand out is with the New Mexican fare it serves. It’s New Mexican food with a pedigree. The restaurant is named for Michelle’s mother whose sister Mary has owned and operated the immensely popular Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen for decades. Joe admits Pana’s recipes are essentially the same family recipes which have made Padilla’s beloved in the Duke City.

Salsa and Chips

Unlike the venerable Padilla’s, Pana’s Café isn’t serving to overflow crowds—at least not yet. As with many relatively new mom-and-pop restaurants, sometimes word is slow to get around. Pana’s launched in January, 2016, exactly four days after Patricia’s Café shuttered its doors. Remnants of its previous tenant remain on the walls where the north wall is painted with a mural depicting the Santuario de Chimayo. On the south wall are painted three other murals, each with a New Mexico theme. Pana’s Café is fairly small in an intimate sort of way. The menu is somewhat abbreviated, too, but it’s got many of the traditional New Mexican favorites. Cumin is added only to the carne adovada.

Pana’s is currently open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday. Breakfast is served from 8AM through 11AM and lunch is served from 11AM through 3PM. Among the smattering of breakfast items are pancakes, huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos. Lunch plates–which include beans, rice and two sopaipillas—feature such traditional New Mexican favorites as tamales, chile rellenos, enchiladas, tacos, burritos and a phalanx of ala carte items. “This and that” are available in the form of guacamole and chips, salsa and chips, a Frito pie or a hamburger with fries. As you peruse the menu, a bowl of salsa and basket of chips are ferried to your table. The chips are crispy and thick, ready to scoop up as much salsa as you’re able to lay on them. Alas, the salsa is a bit on the thin side and is better for dipping than for scooping. The jalapeno-based salsa has very distinctive flavor notes courtesy of cumin and bay leaves (yes, bay leaves). It’s not especially piquant, but it’s quite good.

Blue Corn Enchiladas with Red and Green Chile

16 June 2016: You can have your enchiladas constructed with cheese, ground beef, chicken or carne adovada and on either blue- or yellow-corn tortillas. Regardless of filling you choose, make it an early Christmas and ask for both red and green chile. For good measure ask for at least one fried egg (over easy) on top. The chile is hot! For a fire-eater, it’s not necessarily piquant, but it’s served piping hot, not lukewarm. It’s a very good, earthy chile, unadorned with seasonings that don’t belong on New Mexican food. Both the red and green are about even on the piquancy scale and both are absolutely delicious. The accompanying beans will remind you of those prepared by your abuelita while the Spanish rice is…well, it’s Spanish rice.

12 April 2017: What do you do when a combination plate asks you to select three items from among four choices?  You pay a little bit extra for the forth item, of course.  Pana’s combination plate offers three choices from among four equally delicious items: a cheese enchilada, tamale, chile relleno and ground beef taco.  That’s akin to ask you to pick three of your children to the exclusion of the fourth.   You just can’t do it!  All four items are exemplars of how they should be prepared.  The taco, a crescent-shaped corn tortilla housing well-seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato is excellent, the likely first item you’ll finish.  The tamale features features a nice balance between corn masa and chile marinated pork topped with shredded cheese and more of Pana’s addictive chile.  Puncture the chile relleno with your fork and it practically oozes molten cheese.  Cheese enchiladas are usually pretty boring to me, but not so at Pana’s where the red and green chile enliven the dish.  The chile is memorable!

Combination Plate

Complimentary sopaipillas are becoming increasingly rare in New Mexican restaurants. Lunch plates at Pana’s include not one, but two of them. They’re large, puffy and fresh with deep pockets beckoning for honey to be poured in. If you’re so inclined, you might also want to stuff your savory entrée into those deep pockets, a sort of stuffed sopaipilla in miniature.

14 April 2017: Every year on Holy Thursday at about 7PM, by brothers would set off on the 25-mile pilgrimage to the Santuario De Chimayo, a torturous walk through winding roads that climb and descend precipitously. They would arrive home the next day thoroughly exhausted–too exhausted, it turned out, to enjoy my mom’s traditional Good Friday lunch of tortas de huevo. That left more for me. Tortas de huevo are a traditional Lenten dish typically served on Fridays when New Mexican Catholics are expected to abstain from meat. Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious. Picture a sort-of egg fritter whipped into a light, fluffy texture and fried then topped with red chile. Five or six of these eggy chile delivery vehicles with pinto beans, quelites, calabasitas and fideos and there’s no way you can bemoan the fact that you didn’t have a single hamburger on a Lenten Friday.

Pana’s Magnificent Lenten Special

14 April 2017: Every Friday during Lent in 2017, Pana’s served all the aforementioned Lenten treats, preparing them nearly as well as my mom did. The quelites (lamb’s quarters, commonly referred to as wild spinach throughout Northern New Mexico), calabacitas (sautéed zucchini, onions and corn) and fideos (a pasta dish with short spaghetti noodles and a mild tomato sauce) made me wish Lent would last longer than forty days. The fideos rekindled many fond memories. Unlike spaghetti which is seasoned (sometimes heavily) with oregano and garlic, this New Mexican vermicelli noodle dish is lightly seasoned and light on the tomato sauce, too. Pana’s adds a few beans to the quelites, perhaps acknowledging that quelites are an acquired taste. To me, they taste like my mom’s home.  The calabasitas are fresh, crisp and addictive.

Joe and Michelle are the consummate hosts. Their customer-orientation became apparent when, despite having an inspector performing a white-glove routine on their café, they were timely to take my order, quick to replenish my beverage and ever present to ensure my dining experience was a good one.   Pana’s Café is the type of restaurant you pull for to succeed and not only because of its culinary lineage. It’s a very good New Mexican restaurant.

Pana’s Cafe
3120 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)884-4260
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2017
1st VISIT: 16 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chips and Salsa, Sopaipillas, Blue Corn Enchiladas with Ground Beef and Beans Christmas Style, Combination Plate (Ground Beef Taco, Cheese Enchilada, Tamale, Chile Relleno), Tortas de Huevo, Quelites, Fideos, Calabasitas

Pana's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Latitude 33 – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Latitude 33, a Surprisingly Great Asian Fusion Restaurant

“Of all places in the country where you could have opened a restaurant, why Truth or Consequences, New Mexico?”  You can bet Joseph Schmitt has been asked that question many times, especially when people find out his previous address was in Palm Springs, California where he was an accomplished travel writer with a special affinity for cooking and dining.  Schmitt’s introduction to T or C started off as business but wound up as pleasure.   Assigned to write about New Mexico’s salubrious spas, he enjoyed the T or C area so much that he hawked the story idea to several publications, the impetus for several return trips.  With each return trip he found more to love about the area until ultimately relocating in April, 2013.

In all fairness, one of the reasons guests to Schmitt’s Latitude 33 Asian fusion restaurant ask “why T or C” is because they don’t expect to find a restaurant offering such sophisticated fare.  That’s especially true if they haven’t visited America’s most affordable spa town in a while.  In recent years, the influx of free-thinking quirkiness, eclectic artsiness  and a bohemian spirit have touched all aspects of life in this small city, including its restaurants.  If you visit T or C expecting only the solid, but unspectacular comfort food of yore, you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised to find unconventional and excellent eateries offering cosmopolitan cuisine with a local flair.

Main dining room at Latitude 33

No longer are K-Bob’s, Denny’s and Subway among the highest rated Truth or Consequences restaurants on Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor. Those paragons of chain mediocrity have been supplanted by fresh, innovative independent restaurants which, quite frankly, would be competitive in larger, more cosmopolitan cities.  These interlopers sport such names as the Passion Pie Cafe, Cafe Bella Luca and Latitude 33, the latter being the most recent addition to a burgeoning dining scene. 

Latitude 33 is so named because it’s on the latitude (33.12889 to be more precise) in which the restaurant and T or C sit.  Portions of Japan and China, two of the pan-Asian countries honored on the restaurant’s fusion menu, also lie on that latitude.  Situated near the heart of the historic bathhouse and spa district, Latitude 33 fits right in with the district’s bright color palette.  Distressed brick and corrugated window treatments give the exterior a rustic look and feel while the artsy interior is a melange of Southwestern art with Asian accoutrements on wasabi green walls.  Three picnic tables are available for al fresco dining with your four-legged children.

Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce

The menu is fresh and innovative, a much-welcome respite from the copycat fare many other so-called “fusion” restaurants tend to offer.  It’s a menu reminiscent not of Albuquerque or Santa Fe Asian fusion restaurants, but of the wildly eclectic and creative fusion restaurants in such cosmopolitan cities as Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas.  The price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality, diversity and in-house preparation of all soups, sauces, dressings and stocks. 

While you peruse the menu, make it a point to enjoy a sparkling strawberry-ginger lemonade, a homemade puree with soda water.  It’s a wonderfully refreshing blend of sweet-tangy strawberries, tart lemonade and lively ginger with just a hint of fizz.  The coconut-lime elixir (rich coconut milk with lime juice and a touch of mint) blends smooth mellow coconut milk with what is probably its polar opposite, tangy, refreshing lime juice.  The combination just works well.

Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce

Starters include the house Thai-style chicken noodle soup with coconut milk and rice noodles; a small Asian salad (cabbage mix, peanut dressing, veggies, sesame seeds); and a triumvirate of appetizers.  At a bare minimum, you should order at least two because if you order only one, you’ll certainly regret you didn’t sample the others.  If there’s an appetizer you haven’t previously found in New Mexico, that’s one you should consider.  The other should be a favorite appetizer so you can compare your previous favorite with Latitude 33’s made-from-scratch version. 

29 September 2014: Among the former, green chile aficionados should order the shishito peppers, a mild Japanese pepper not entirely unlike our own New Mexico green chiles.  Shishito peppers are three to four inches long and inherit the olfactory-arousing aroma of green chile when flash-fried until their skin is lightly blistered.  Unlike green chile, you don’t peel them after they’re  flash-fried.  Latitude 33  serves them with a green chile ponzu (a watery citrus-based sauce) sauce that complements the shishito peppers wonderfully.  You will absolutely fall in love with shishito peppers.  Note: The only place we’ve been able to find the addictive shishito peppers has been the Santa Fe Grower’s Market.  Shame on Asian restaurants in the Duke City and Santa Fe for not showcasing this green chile “mini me.”

Crispy Pork Wings

29 September 2014: In recent years, fried green beans have become a rather trendy finger food appetizer health-conscious parents are actually able to get their children to enjoy–even if their persnickety children otherwise hate green beans.  Whether ordered in lieu of fattier French fries or for healthful considerations, fried green beans are quite delicious when prepared correctly.  At Latitude 33, the green beans are lightly breaded and fried to a golden hue then served with a Chinese remoulade sauce.  Each about the length of your index finger, they’re crispy just beyond al dente.  The remoulade is a savory-tangy-slightly piquant dip which may remind you of the dip you dredge up with your favorite snack. 

7 April 2017: So what if nature didn’t imbue pigs with wings, it didn’t stop Latitude 33 from serving crispy pork wings, six meaty (porky?) mini pork shanks topped with sesame seeds in a sweet chili sauce topped with scallions. The “wings” might be the bone “handles” with which each shank is equipped. The handles allow you to pick up each pork shank and extricate the delicate meat with your teeth instead of with a fork. It’s a bit of a messy endeavor, but seriously would you eat these porcine beauties with a fork the way some people (at least in a Seinfeld episode) eat candy bars? While the pork is tender and delicious, the thick, syrupy sauce is a bit cloying and would have benefited from some piquancy.

Spicy Peanut Noodles with Flank Steak

29 September 2014: One of the most popular entrees on the menu are spicy peanut noodles, an entree for which the name falls well short of describing its deliciousness. Normally offered with tofu or chicken, the accommodating staff will substitute flank steak for a pittance more. The flank steak is seasoned magnificently and is as tender as the song of a summer wind. It’s a worthy protein for the elongated strands of wild rice noodles in a house-made spicy peanut sauce served with edamame (immature soybeans in the pod) and red peppers garnered with green onion, a wedge of lime and cucumber. The spicy peanut sauce is only mildly piquant, but imbues the noodles with a delightful flavor that marries especially well with the other ingredients. Be very judicious with the lime wedge because too much citrus will change the flavor profile significantly (and not necessarily for the better).

29 September 2014: In years of eating at Thai and Asian restaurants, few entrees have surprised me nearly as much as Latitude 33’s coconut green curry chicken. New Mexico’s Thai restaurants tend to prepare green curry dishes with bamboo shoots in a sweet-spicy coconut milk-enhanced curry. Latitude 33’s housemade version is made with Jasmine rice and no noodles. The curry is imbued with a touch of Hatch green chile, fresh broccoli, onion, red pepper, chicken and toasted coconut. The toasted coconut was heretofore not something my pedantic lips had ever experienced with green curry. Texturally and from a flavor perspective, it’s a nice touch. Latitude 33’s green curry isn’t overwhelmed by coconut milk as so many Thai curries in America tend to be. Instead, it treated us to a wide variety of thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture combinations. 

Coconut Green Curry Chicken

20 December 2015:  In addition to five daily lunch specials (available until 2PM), the menu lists four “day or night delights” sure to delight discerning diners.  One entree rarely seen in restaurants across the Land of Enchantment is Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa.  If you’ve ever heard of or had Mochiko Chicken, it was likely in the Hawaiian Islands where this poultry dish is served as a sort of island style chicken nugget.  Originating in Japan, these nuggets are coated in Mochiko flour, a cornstarch and rice flour which makes a light batter with a golden hue.

Latitude 33’s version of Mochiko Chicken is somewhat more sophisticated than the chicken nuggets so beloved among Hawaiian children.  Instead of nugget-sized poultry pieces, this entree includes several generously sized thighs lightly coated in the flour and topped with a sweet-tangy mango salsa.  The salsa is punctuated with sliced jalapeños from which it inherits a fresh piquancy. My preference would have been for the even more incendiary Thai bird peppers, but when chopped small enough they’re hard to see and may surprise you with their potency.  For just a bit of savory acidity, the entry also includes small cherry tomatoes.

Turquoise Curry with Grilled Shrimp

20 December 2015:  The “Day or Night Delights” menu includes yet another entree heretofore unseen in the Land of Enchantment.  The pan-seared pork tenderloin entree is a beautifully plated dish showcasing six medallions of marinated pork tenderloin in a housemade strawberry barbecue sauce.  If you’ve never had a strawberry-based sauce on an Asian-style entree, you’re in for a treat.  Strawberry-based sauces are somewhat underutilized in American Asian restaurants, but Latitude 33’s version will make you wonder why.  The lively and pungent ginger-fried rice is a wonderful foil for the sweet sauce.  Punctuated with a vegetable medley (carrots, broccoli, corn), the rice is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico.

7 March 2017: As seen on the state flag, New Mexico’s official state colors are the red and yellow of Old Spain. Perhaps because turquoise has already been designated the official state gem, our state legislature hasn’t lobbied to add it to our state color palette. Turquoise is very important to the Land of Enchantment and to Latitude 33’s menu. We did a double-take when we espied the dish “Turquoise curry with grilled shrimp.” How, we wondered, could a curry be made the color of turquoise. It turns out, the color this very unique curry dish is more akin to freshly mowed summer grass than it is to turquoise. The base for this curry is the restaurant’s green curry with Hatch green chile, jalapeno and cilantro with a dose of vibrant Chlorophyll, the pigment which gives plants their green color. The curry is simmered with fresh broccoli, red bell pepper and onions and is served over jasmine rice with large grilled shrimp. As unique as the dish may be, the curry itself didn’t have the herbaceous notes and piquancy of the Indian subcontinent or the coconut milk sweetness of curry in Thailand.

Asian Fusion Steak Frites

7 March 2017: Perhaps the dish best demonstrating fusion cuisine is the New Mexico meets Asia meets France offering of Asian Style Steak Frites, a choice grade, eight-ounce New Mexican grass-fed flank steak in a house marinade topped with wasabi butter served with sweet potato fries tossed in salted red chili powder. For my beef-loving babe, this dish alone made the drive to Truth or Consequences worth it. Flank steak, derived from the abdominal muscles or buttocks of a cow, are more common in England where we lived for eight years. Sliced against the grain, it’s a tender and lean cut with a strong beefy flavor. Flank steaks absorb marinades, sauces and spicy rubs very well. The wasabi butter was proof of that.

29 September 2014: During our inaugural visit, desserts were limited to green tea ice cream and coconut black rice pudding with whipped cream. Made with sticky whole grain black rice, just a modicum of coconut milk and a generous sprinkling of toasted coconut, this rice pudding is creamy, mildly sweet, a little savory, and very coconutty. Unlike most of the black rice puddings you’ll find, this one is served cold. It took one bite to get used to the cold sensation and focus on just how good this dessert can be. 

Coconut Black Rice Pudding

20 December 2015:  Latitude 33’s key lime pie had us wondering if a Key West resident would be able to tell the difference between this key lime pie and its counterpart at the Florida keys.  Unlike far too many so-called key lime pies, this one isn’t overly sweet with a Graham cracker crust providing much of its sweetness.  Instead, the flavors emphasized were a delightful tangy tartness bordering on the lip-pursing variety.  This is key lime pie with a great balance of flavors and an emphasis where those flavors are needed.

Ginger Key Lime Pie

Latitude 33 is just one more reason we’ve grown to love Truth or Consequences, a city which surprises us more and more every time we visit.  This is one restaurant with which you’ll fall in love, too. 

Latitude 33
304 South Pershing Street
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
(575) 740-7804
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2017
1st VISIT: 29 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Peanut Noodles, Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce, Coconut Green Curry Chicken, Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce Coconut Black Rice Pudding, Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa, Pan-Seared Pork Tenderloin, Key Lime Pie

Latitude 33 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Owl Cafe & Bar – San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

7 March 2017Over the past five years, the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico has been the most frequently launched review on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog.  From January 1st through April 7th, 2017, the review of the Owl has been launched more often than any other review on 37 occasions.  It’s been among the top five most frequently launched reviews 95 times (out of 98 days) since January 1st.  The Owl review is the third most frequently launched review (behind the Buckhorn Tavern and Mary & Tito’s of all time.  What accounts for the Owl’s popularity?  It truly is a timeless institution beloved for its consistently excellent burgers.
San Antonio may be but a blip on the map, but its storied and pioneering history make this sparsely populated agricultural community arguably one of New Mexico’s most important towns.

In 1629, San Antonio was the site on which Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico (in defiance of Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world.) San Antonio was the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, founder of the ubiquitous Hilton Hotels and more importantly, one of New Mexico’s original legislators after statehood was granted in 1912. San Antonio was also the gateway to the Trinity Site in which the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. While these events are historically significant, they are also inextricably bound by one common element–the uncommonly ordinary facade that houses the extraordinary, world-famous Owl Cafe.

owl05

The Owl Cafe and Bar

Conrad Hilton’s father once owned the saloon in which the bar (pictured below) in the Owl Cafe once held prominence and presumably sold the fruit of the vine whose progenitors may have been among New Mexico’s original grape stocks. According to local lore, the fathers of the nuclear age spent much of their free time cavorting at the Owl Cafe where original owner Jose Miera installed a grill and started crafting the green chile cheeseburgers that would ultimately achieve unprecedented acclaim.

Ostensibly, the restaurant was named the Owl because legal gambling was conducted at all hours of the night in the back of the restaurant, ergo by “night owls.” Today feathered fowl are still important to San Antonio’s local economy as thousands of bird watchers flock to the nearby Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to crane their necks for a glimpse of geese, ducks and cranes. The Owl Cafe offers welcome respite from the pleasures of bird-watching.

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

Rowena Baca, a descendent of the Owl Cafe’s founder and current proprietor of the Owl Cafe, holds on to tradition, preparing the world-famous green chile cheeseburger in much the same way as her grandfather did. The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and green chile) are unfailingly fresh. On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns. The meat positively breaks apart (the consequences of not using filler and an optimum fat to lean ratio) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair.

The green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico. Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right. Ironically, it’s not green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company. The reason given is that the Albuquerque Tortilla Company’s Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness. Somehow it makes sense.

Double meat, double cheese green chile cheeseburger, one of the very best in New Mexico (ergo, the universe)

Another Owl tradition you can’t help but notice is all the dollar bills tacked on the restaurant’s walls. Patrons leave messages or write their names on dollar bills then tack them on any available free space. Once a year, the money is collected and given to charity with more than $20,000 donated thus far.

On an average summer day, the Owl Cafe will serve an average of six to seven hundred burgers. The population of San Antonio rivals that of a larger city during lunch and dinner hours when the Owl’s several parking lots are overflowing with hungry diners. The front dining room will accommodate only a few of them. Fortunately the restaurant has several dining rooms; you’ve got to go through one to get to another.

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern, rated the Owl Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger on Epicurious.Com as one of the top ten burgers in America–lavish praise indeed for one of New Mexico’s historic gems. It has garnered similar acclaim by other notable critics, having transcended the generations by sticking to a time-tested formula of providing great food at reasonable prices. Disputably there may be better green chile cheeseburgers out there, but there are none more famous.

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies. Kuralt loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment. In his book America, he declared the Own Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.

The hamburger steak dinner

The hamburger steak dinner

In his celebration of America’s favorite dish, filmmaker George Motz traversed the fruited plain in search of some of the country’s most unique burgers for his 54-minute film Hamburger America which made it to the airwaves in 2004. In 2008, he followed up his award-winning documentary with a state-by-state tome listing what he considers the best burgers throughout the fruited plain. Motz loved The Owl calling it “a friendly place, a family saloon with an excellent burger on the menu.”

The menu isn’t limited to burgers. Savvy diners will order the hamburger steak dinner, a bounteous platter that will fill you up for just over ten dollars. This platter includes a juicy hamburger patty (no charring anywhere), a small mountain of hand-cut French fries, a salad with your choice of dressing (including a pretty good blue cheese dressing), Texas toast and bowls of green chile and beans. Make sure you get the grilled onions atop that hamburger steak. It’s an unbeatable combination.

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans--sheer pleasure!

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans–sheer pleasure!

The other “must have” in addition to an outstanding green chile cheeseburger is a bowl or side of beans with green chile. The aroma of steaming green chile wafts through the dining room as your waitress approaches and you’re the envy of any diner who may not have ordered this favorite of New Mexican comfort foods. The beans are frijoles, whole pinto beans, not refried or black beans you’ll find elsewhere. Ironically, as proud of New Mexicans are to claim green chile as our official state vegetable, we’re often hesitant to admit frijoles share official state honors with green chile. The frijoles at the Owl Cafe will remind you why real New Mexicans love and are proud of their precious pintos.

The Owl Cafe has several other menu items, but rarely do you see anyone foolhardy enough to order say, a hot dog or nachos. It is entirely forgivable, however, to order a patty melt (pictured below), one of the very best of its kind anywhere. One of the reasons this patty melt is oh, so good is obvious. The same wondrous beef patty used on the Owl’s world-famous green chile cheeseburgers is used to create this pulchritudinous patty melt. Two slices of American cheese drape over grilled sweet onions complete the masterpiece sandwiched between two slices of light rye. It’s a fantastic alternative to green chile cheeseburgers.

Patty melt at the Owl Cafe

7 March 2017:  The Owl’s French fries are terrific.  They’re not the homogeneous, flavorless out-of-a-bag travesty, but are hand-cut and fried to a golden-brownish hue.  Texturally, they’re about as perfect as fries can get.  They’re crispy and firm on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside.  Don’t ever make the mistake of ordering these fries with cheese.  Conceptually cheese fries might sound like a good idea, but when the cheese is the gloppy out-of-a-can variety (typically found in ballpark nachos), it’s just blanketing very good fries with cheese glop that’s not worthy to be on the same plate.

Skip the dessert at the Owl and head next door to the San Antonio General Store where Anne Lund serves some of the very best homemade fudge anywhere as well as ice cream (Dreyers), drinks, snacks and sandwiches. Lund actually bought the General Store from Rowena Baca’s daughter and spent about a year perfecting the wonderful fudge (which is made with real butter and cream). Perfect is the operative word for fudge in which you can taste the quality and a whole lot of love from a confectionery artist. 

Chile Cheese Fries

The Owl Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 8AM to 9PM and is closed on Sundays.

The Owl Cafe & Bar
State Hwy. 1 and U.S. 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-9946
Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 7 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger; French Fries, Beans and Green Chile, Hamburger Steak Dinner, Patty Melt

Owl Bar & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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