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.

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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

Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papa Felipe’s on Menaul

In 2009, James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern published a terrific tome entitled 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late.  Despite the ominous (some might say fatalistic) name, the book is actually a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to this country.  The Sterns, who have been focusing on quirky All-American food haunts since 1977, describe in delicious detail, the best dishes proffered at roadside stands, cafes, street carts throughout the fruited plain.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Michael Stern was asked if the inclusion of the words “too late” in the book’s title referred to the “death of the small eatery, or the reader’s impending doom from eating too much fried chicken, French fries and fried fish.”  He indicated he was referring to “the impending onslaught of the nutrition police who will make all of this stuff illegal one of these days.”  He also warned of the loss of “some variety and some local specialties that were once easy to find and are now hard or impossible to find due to chain restaurants.”

One of Papa Felipe’s Dining Rooms

Despite the onslaught of the ubiquitous national food chain, Stern was  optimistic that “Americans have become more conscious about regional food,” which in his experience was once thought to be limited to fried chicken and hot dogs.  He praised the “rebirth of interest in regional food that parallels its diminution because of franchises.”

New Mexicans should be duly proud at how well represented our cuisine is among the 500 uniquely American foods celebrated in the book.  By the same token, as I’ve often railed about on this blog, if we don’t patronize the mom and pop restaurants who prepare these authentic time-tested treasures, all we will be left with is the chain restaurants and their homogeneous cardboard tasting food, superficial flamboyance and saccharin service.

Chips and Salsa

Unlike on their previous Roadfood books, the Sterns actually rank what they consider the “best of the best” among the foods described.  Understandably, when a book is published which encompasses the length and breadth of the United States, omissions are bound to occur.  Still, for the most part, the Sterns do a wonderful job of winnowing out the premium wheat from a prize crop, highlighting those restaurants which provide unforgettable dining experiences in their natural setting prepared by locals who still do it in the traditional ways.

In the Sterns’ estimation, the “hot list” of New Mexican restaurants proffering the very best carne adovada in America starts with Rancho de Chimayo, whose carne adovada is described as “chunks of meat turned tender from their long marinade and glistening fiery red.” Following in succession are the Horseman’s Haven Cafe in Santa Fe, Albuquerque’s Frontier Restaurant, Leona’s Restaurant in Chimayo, then two Duke City dining institutions Sadie’s of New Mexico and Papa Felipe’s.

Botana Crispeana

Most New Mexicans would probably agree with at least one restaurant named in that hallowed list.  My own “hot list,” for example, would rank Mary & Tito’s Cafe as the standard-bearer, but would also include the carne adovada at Cecilia’s Cafe, The Burrito Lady and Duran’s Central Pharmacy in Albuquerque as well as The Shed in Santa Fe and the aforementioned Rancho de Chimayo.

One restaurant climbing toward my hot list is Papa Felipe’s, an astute listing by the Sterns who observed that “an unusual version is served at Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant…where the pork is sopped with a marinade of green chiles, giving it a unique vegetable potency.  It’s great as a green tamale pie, baked in sweet corn masa and laced with cheese.”

PapaFelipe09

Caldo de Albondigas

Green chile carne adovada is indeed a unique spin on a New Mexico standard, and to the best of my knowledge, Papa Felipe’s is the only restaurant in Albuquerque, if not the entire state, to feature it.  When you stop to think about it, why not green chile carne adovada.  The preparation process is the same–marinating chunks of pork in chile.  Papa Felipe’s uses a blend of chopped green chile from Bueno Foods (a New Mexico institution since 1946) as well as the fat, elongated chiles they use for chile rellenos.  The marinading process takes about three hours.  The results will impress themselves on your taste buds for much longer.

Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant & Lounge has been pleasing Albuquerque palates for more than 30 years with chef Larry Gonzales at the helm for most of that time.  As with several restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, it straddles the sometimes ambiguous demarcation between New Mexican food and Mexican food and in fact, serves cuisine unique to and shared by both (often the sole distinction being the degree of heat). Some of the very best items on the menu are those with which Chef Gonzales has taken liberties and those he’s essentially invented.

Green Tamale Pie only at Papa Felipe’s

From an experiential perspective, Papa Felipe’s has the look and feel of a Mexican restaurant that belies the New Mexico style stucco exterior. The interior features a combination of whitewash and stucco colored walls with faux adobe half-walls separating the main dining room.  A mural of what appears to be a Mexican village is painted on one wall.  A surprisingly good house stereo system pipes in Mexican standards by the great crooners of yesteryear and today. Seating is comfortable and plush.

A full bar serves a wide variety of domestic and Mexican beers and a selection of house wines as well as what is reputed to be “the meanest margarita in town.”  One of the more popular margaritas is named for New Mexico’s legendary Dixon apple.   Additionally, Papa Felipe’s offers full-service catering, drop-off catering and pick-up services.

PapaFelipe10

Big Papa Breakfast Burrito

The wait staff is prompt with complementary chips and salsa.  The chips are lightly salted and thin.  The salsa, which is sold online internationally, is also lightly salted.  It is a jalapeno-based salsa which according to the Web site is made from “the finest ingredients combined with secret spices.”  It’s not an especially piquant salsa and has a pureed texture like a tomato paste, but it very much tastes like New Mexico.

26 February 2017: One of chef Gonzales’s unique creations, the Botana Crispeante has an “east meets west” feel to it.  The menu describes this appetizer as “spicy beef, chicken or carne adovada filling (or a combination of the three), crisp fried as a chimipiqueño.”  Chimipiqueño appears to be a diminutive version of a chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito.  The Botana Crispeante features of these six bite-sized miniature burritos which might remind you more of miniature egg rolls with unique New Mexico touches.

Chilaquiles Casserole

The Botana Crispeante is served with chile con queso and guacamole, both of which are quite good.  The chile con queso is creamy and delicious, thick enough not to run off your chips but not so gloppy that it breaks the brittle chips.  The guacamole showcases the flavor of fresh avocados seasoned with garlic.  Both complement the deep-fried mini burritos very well.  If for no other reason than their uniqueness, this is an appetizer you should try.  The fact that they’re quite good is a bonus. 

28 July 2013: While several Duke City restaurants serve excellent renditions of caldo de res, the hearty, satisfying beef soup, not as many restaurants offer caldo de albondigas, another Mexican comfort food favorite often referred to as “Mexican soul food.”  Moorish in origin, Caldo de Albondigas was integrated into Spanish culinary tradition when Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered the region occupied by the Moors.  Albondigas made their way to Mexico with the conquistadores where the dish has flourished into iconic status.  Papa Felipe’s version is a soul-warming and delicious bowl of hearty goodness with a generous number of meatballs swimming in a savory 16-ounce broth with perfectly prepared carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes and squash.  The meatballs are terrific, so good you’ll want a dozen or so.

PapaFelipe11

Mexican Skillet

26 February 2017: As for the green tamale pie which Jane and Michael Stern praised so highly, that praise is well warranted.  Succulent carne adovada is baked in a sweet corn masa with bits of vegetables, green chile and a touch of onion set of with a liberal lacing of melted yellow Cheddar cheese and green chile.  The star is definitely the green chile carne adovada which is as tender as any we’ve had in Albuquerque, but with the pronounced flavor and aroma of green chile.  Your taste buds might be confused at first bite, but they’ll quickly get over it and will enjoy this dish immensely.  It’s a winner–truly one of the best 500 things to eat in America and a contender for my carne adovada “hot list.”

Speaking of “hot lists,” it wasn’t solely Papa Felipe’s carne adovada which the Sterns rated as among America’s best.  The green tamale pie was one of three tamale pies beloved enough by the Sterns to praise effusively in their book.  About the green tamale pie, they wrote, “Green tamale pie at Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant in Albuquerque broadcasts the palmy essence of New Mexico chiles and is well appointed with Papa’s excellent carne adovada.”

Sopaipillas

26 February 2017: Traditionalists who love their carne adovada red can have that, too.  One of the best ways is in Papa Felipe’s Chilaquile Casserole, a brimming bowlful of joy (think Beethoven’s Fifth at every bite).  This entree is layer upon layer of luscious carne adovada (red), melted yellow Cheddar cheese, spicy green peppers, sweet corn, and tostadas smothered in red chile.  The casserole is baked to perfection then topped with even more cheese, chile and garnish.  This entree includes a flour tortilla and a side of guacamole (among the very best in New Mexico).  Only with a fried egg can this dish be improved upon. 

28 July 2013: Although Papa Felipe’s isn’t open for breakfast, it does offer one of the very best–and certainly one of the largest–breakfast burritos in Albuquerque.  The aptly named Big Papa Breakfast Burrito is constructed from a giant flour tortilla engorged with three scrambled eggs, Papa’s potatoes, carne adovada (marinated in your choice of red or green chile) and Cheddar Jack cheese topped with your choice of chile and more Cheddar Jack cheese.  Both the red and green chile are exemplars of New Mexico’s official state vegetable with plenty of piquancy and flavor.  Not every diner will be able to finish this behemoth of a burrito. 

Fiesta Tacos

26 February 2017:  Papa Felipe’s offers three styles of tacos: a traditional crisp fried corn tortilla filled with beef or chicken, the Fiesta Style Taco (two flour tortillas filled with marinated beef strips sautéed with onions, peppers, avocado and tomatoes, garnished with sour cream and pico de gallo) and a Puffy Taco (a large sopaipilla shell filled with chicken that has been marinated with salsa).  The Fiesta Taco will remind you of fajitas which stands to reason the ingredients from which it’s constructed can also be found on fajitas.  The marinated beef strips are of prime steak quality.

28 July 2013: Another entree as good for breakfast as it is for lunch or dinner is the Mexican skillet, a sizzling skillet filled with papitas, carne adovada, and two eggs any style.  The papitas aren’t fried in the style of French fries as so many papitas tend to be.  Try this dish with the green marinated chile carne adovada for a different take on the dish.  This entree is served with one side and a flour tortilla.

Friends of Gil (FOG) enjoy spirited conversation at Papa Felipe’s

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Papa Felipe’s New Mexican Restaurant a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Camarones Victor as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. 

In April, 2016, Papa Felipe’s was one of four Duke City restaurants (along with Tia B’s La Waffleria, Laguna Burger and Rebel Donut) featured on the Cooking Channel.  In an episode entitled “Cheap Eats,” host and food blogger Ali Khan had dinner at Papa Felipe’s where he enjoyed a sopaipilla stuffed with carne adovada.  Papa Felipe’s was selected because of its unusual take on New Mexican food.

Papa Felipe’s is one of those rare restaurants which defies paradigms and dares to be different with such inventive entrees as carne adovada made with green chile, entrees which are too good to be on any endangered list. Just in case, make sure you try them before it’s too late.

Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant
9800 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 292-8877
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Botana Crispeante, Salsa and Chips, Green Tamale Pie, Chilaquile Casserole, Sopaipillas, Caldo de Albondigas, Mexican Skillet, Big Papa Breakfast Burrito, Fiesta Tacos

Papa Felipe's Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Vick’s Vittles Country Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Vick’s Vittles on Central Avenue just east of Wyoming

Possum shanks; pickled hog jowls; goat tripe; stewed squirrel; ham hocks
and turnip greens; gizzards smothered in gristle; smoked crawdads.  
“Ewwww Doggies!,” now that’s eatin’. 
~The Beverly Hillbillies

Guests at the Clampett residence always seemed to recite a litany of excuses as to why they couldn’t stay for dinner when Granny announced the mess of vittles she’d fixed up.  Not even the opportunity to dine at the fancy eatin’ table (billiards table) and use the fancy pot passers (pool cues) under the visage of the mounted billy-yard (rhinoceros) was enough to entice the sophisticated city slickers to stay for dinner with America’s favorite hillbillies.

For the generation who grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies, the notion of eating vittles elicits a broad smile and a warm heart.  Those sentiments were rekindled when we drove east on Central Avenue just past Wyoming and espied a new restaurant named Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen.  Not only did it conjure memories of “heaping helpings of hospitality” from Jed and all his kin, the name “Vick’s Vittles” seemed so familiar and comfortable.

Main Dining Room at Vick’s Vittles

That’s because several years ago a restaurant named “‘Country Vittles” plied its chicken-fried specialties for about an year on Central Avenue where  Middle Eastern Food & Kababos currently sits.   Despite the similarity in names, there is no affiliation between the two restaurants.  Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen is named for proprietor Robert Vick who’s got a passel of credentials and awards in the hospitality industry.

An affable gentleman and stylish dresser (owning more than 100 vests), Vick earned “Executive of the Year” honors in 2010 from the International Food Service Executives Association for his leadership at Kirtland Air Force Base’s food services.  Before being launched as a restaurant, Vick’s Vittles excelled as a contract company that continues to operate the Thunderbird Inn Dining Facility at Kirtland.  Under Vick’s auspices, the Thunderbird Inn has earned two Hennessy Food Service awards signifying the best dining facility in the Air Force.  Look for the Thunderbird Inn to earn its third in 2018.   Transforming a “chow hall” into an outstanding dining facility is no easy feat.

Affable Proprietor Robert Vick and my very favorite server, an even better reason to visit Vick’s Vittles

Robert Vick is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant, glad-handing and inviting guests to set a spell.  His wait staff mirrors his friendliness and is on-the-spot to replenish your coffee.  During our inaugural visit, we caught sight of several familiar faces–some of the same folks who frequented this familiar location when it was occupied by Roper’s Restaurant and before that, Milton’s Cafe.  Vick’s is a popular dining option for my Air Force brothers-in-arms.

Vestiges of its former tenant are still in evidence in the form of  cowboy and western-themed accoutrements throughout the large dining room.  Country music plays in the background while you dine.  The menu also includes a few hold-overs from the Roper’s days, a melange of country cooking meets the Southwest.  It’s an ambitious menu, offering American and New Mexican comfort food favorites as well as barbecue all served in prolific portions.  Daily specials are available Monday through Friday with a daily lunch standard being green chile New England clam chowder in a sour dough bowl, a New Mexico meets New England treat.

Buttery, Pecan-Rich Cinnamon Roll

The breakfast menu is extensive, offering pancakes, French toast and waffle plates for those of you craving a sweet start to your day.  A bounty of breakfast burritos includes several sure to elicit double takes.  There’s the corned beef hash burrito, for example.  Breakfast plates, served with your choice of potatoes (country, spuds or hash browns) galore and three-egg omelets round out the menu for the most important meal of the day.  You can start your day off no matter what time you start it because Vick’s Vittles serves breakfast all day long.  An every Sunday buffet offers scrambled eggs, green chile, red chile, country spuds, crispy bacon, sausage links, sliced ham, biscuits, Vick’s famous green chile cream gravy, green chile cheese enchiladas, pintos, red chile pork tamales, waffles, Santa Fe pancakes, buttermilk pancakes, French toast, grits and more.

Vick’s Vittles also offers an extensive lunch menu with a number of appetizers, salads and soups available. New Mexican specialties, served with pinto beans and rice, include the “Lone Star Stack,” enchiladas layered with spicy beef and chile-con-queso, shredded chicken with green chile and melted Cheddar-Jack cheese with red chile.  Sandwiches and burgers, served with your choice of a garden salad, soup, French fries or onion rings, are also available.  Daily specials are displayed on a monitor directly above the greeter’s stand.

“The Cowboy,” a behemoth, belly-busting burrito

20 September 2014: American novelist Lemony Snicket wisely noted  “Anyone who gives you a cinnamon roll fresh out of the oven is a friend for life.”  Though we arrived at Vick’s a little late for cinnamon rolls fresh out-of-the-oven, the hot, buttery cinnamon rolls were fresh nonetheless and delicious with a surfeit of sweet, rich icing tempered only slightly by the melting butter.  The cinnamon rolls are about the size of the disc shape conveyance which crash-landed in Roswell a few decades ago.  One of these calorific overachievers is large enough to share. If you like a bit of savoriness to offset the sweetness of the cinnamon rolls, you can ask for a topping of pecans.

Everyone’s (including 2 KASA Style host Chad Brummlett who calls it “arguably the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had in my life) favorite breakfast burrito, according to the menu, is the Cowboy Burrito, a tortilla-encased behemoth constructed from scrambled eggs, country spuds, Cheddar-Jack cheese and chopped chicken fried steak smothered in green chili (SIC) cream gravy. In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Vick’s Vittles a “Hot Plate Award,” for this beauteous behemoth.

Carne Adovada and Eggs

20 September 2014: While not your conventional New Mexico breakfast burrito, there’s much to like about the Cowboy Burrito.  The green chili cream gravy topped with melting shredded cheese is very rich and quite good though not especially piquant.  Texturally, the chopped chicken fried steak and country spuds (more like square tater tots than fried potatoes) are unexpectedly delightful.  Perhaps only Jethro Bodine, lovingly referred to as “the six foot stomach” by Granny, could polish off an entire Cowboy burrito in one sitting.

20 September 2014: For my Kim, seeing “carne adovada” on a menu means there’s no need to look any further at the menu. More often than not, she’s pleased with that choice. Sometimes, as in the case of Vick’s Vittles, she’s thrilled, calling the carne adovada “New Mexico quality.”  Tender tendrils of marinated shredded pork are served with two eggs and country spuds.  The red chile in which the carne adovada is marinated is only slightly piquant, but it’s got the time-honored flavor of well-made chile. 

Hot Link Sandwich with Fries

There are barbecue restaurants (several of them, in fact) in the Duke City area.  Very few of them do barbecue as well as Vick’s Vittles.  That’s not just my opinion.  In June, 2015, Yelp’s community manager Howie Kaibel compiled a list of the “11 best BBQ joints in the metro area.”   The only barbecue restaurant rated higher than Vick’s Vittles was Pepper’s Bar-B-Q & Soul Food, a full-time purveyor of smoked meats.  Howie aptly described Vick’s as have a menu “bigger than Texas, as are the plates, and peep those Baby Back ribs hanging off the plate.”

2 April 2015: When it comes to the hot link sandwich, Vick’s is in rarefied company with Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House as the best in the area.  It may also be one of the messiest, especially after you slather on the side of Vick’s green chili (SIC) sweet BBQ sauce.  Two split hot links weighing in at five-ounces are nestled within a toasted hoagie bun with grilled onions.  Keeping some of the links inside the bun is a challenge, but eating them off the point of a fork isn’t a consolation prize.  The green chili sweet BBQ sauce is a wondrous amalgam of two things most New Mexicans love–a thick barbecue sauce punctuated with plenty of piquancy. 

My friend Sr. Plata enjoys chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green chile gravy

11 June 2015: In the great state of Texas, chicken fried steak is virtually a religion.  No Texan ever revered this breaded cutlet dish with as much fervor and zeal as my Los Angeles born-and-bread friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver.  We’ve taken my friend to restaurants specializing in other foods (burgers at Spinn’s Burgers and the “Travis” at the K&I Diner, for example) and he’s always eschewed the house specialty in favor of chicken fried steak.  At Vick’s, he found one of his favorites–a thick slab of tenderized cube steak breaded lightly and covered in green chile gravy.  It’s an exceptional chicken fried steak, equal to some of the best I’ve had in the San Antonio area, but nowhere in the Lone Star steak…er, state will you find a gravy quite as rich and delicious as the green chile gravy which covers both the chicken fried steak and the mashed potatoes.

Not very many restaurants in the Duke City area employ the “broasting” technique of preparing meats, despite the technique being available solely to restaurants and food services operations.  Though the broasting process has been around since the 1950s, broasting equipment and ingredients are not available to the general public.  If you haven’t experienced broasting, you’ve missed out on a method of preparing meats that may be incomparable in terms of flavor and freshness.  Broasting, which incorporates a special marinating process, seals in a meat’s natural juices while sealing out almost all the cooking oil.  The result, for example, is chicken with the flavor of fried chicken though much more moist and less greasy.

Broasted Pork Chop, Mashed Potatoes with Green Chile Gravy (Side Salad Not Pictured)

11 June 2015: Even better than the broasted chicken (which is better than any fried chicken in the Duke City) is the broasted pork chop, a bone-in, center-cut, three-quarter-inch chop that instantly became my very favorite pork chop in Albuquerque…by a country mile.  In fact, the only pork chop I remember liking nearly as much comes from Carson’s Ribs in Chicago.  What makes this pork chop so wonderful?  Cut into the lightly breaded chop and you’re rewarded with a moist and juicy pulchritudinous portion of white meat with an intriguing  flavor replete with personality courtesy of having been marinated overnight in cayenne, Chimayo red chile, garlic and other spices.  You may find yourself gnawing at the bone lest you risk missing out on a morsel of this magnificent white meat.  It goes without saying that the broasted chop pairs fabulously with mashed potatoes and green chile gravy.

13 June 2015:  Having thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to broasted pork chops Robert Vick-style, I had to return two days later for an encore.  My Kim, who’s been known to order those scrawny pork chops so many restaurants serve for breakfast, ordered the broasted chicken.  At first glance the broasted chicken looks like fried chicken and it even tastes like some of the very best fried chicken you’ve ever had anywhere.  An eleven-ounce portion includes a breast and leg quarter.  Usually breast meat is less moist and juicy than thigh meat, but not this one.  Sticker shock nearly set in when we finished with our bodacious broasted brunch.  We couldn’t believe how inexpensive our meal was and felt so guilty we left our server a tip equal to half our bill of fare.  She…and the broasted bounty we so enjoyed…were worth it.  My friend “Captain Tuttle” listed both the broasted chicken and pork chop as among the very best dishes he enjoyed during 2016.

Broasted Chicken with French Fries

11 June 2015: The vast variety of victuals at Vick’s Vittles will surprise and delight you.  You’ll invariably fall in love with an item and couldn’t be blamed if you fall into the trap of ordering it every time you visit.  Do so at your own peril because it’s likely there’s something else on the menu even better.  Kathy Kyle made a passionate plea for me to try a dessert which at first bite, supplanted the cinnamon rolls which had besotted me during my inaugural visit.  That new favorite is the peach turnover with green chile, proof indeed that green chile improves the flavor of virtually everything.  I’ll let Kathy describe it: “they are the best turnovers we have ever had! They melt in your mouth. Not at all heavy or greasy.” Ditto!

13 June 2015: Because of the vastness of the menu, you could potentially discover a new favorite every time you visit.  That’s the beauty of being an adventurous diner.  Robert Vick himself introduced me to my new favorite dessert at Vick’s Vittles–banana pudding.  Served in a large Mason jar is a generous enough to share (not that you’ll want to) portion of very rich, very sweet and very tasty banana pudding.  As you drill down the luscious layers of bananas, vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, you’ll swoon with delight.  This is a Mississippi quality banana pudding.

Peach with Green Chile Turnover

19 February 2017: For many restaurants across the Duke City, earning one Hot Plate Award from Albuquerque The Magazine is quite an accomplishment.  Vick’s Vittles has earned two.  The first was earned by the Cowboy Burrito in 2013.  The  second went to the Santa Fe Pancakes (three blue corn buttermilk pancakes with roasted piñons, hatch green chile, and cheddar-jack cheese in the batter).  It’s the perfect amalgam of sweet meets savory with a little piquancy thrown in.  While Cheddar is not an uncommon foil for sweet dishes such as apple pie and pancakes, not every restaurateur is intrepid enough to throw in some green chile, especially when it’s got some bite to it.

Santa Fe Pancakes

Robert Vick may not personally tell his guests they’re all invited back to this locality to have a heaping helping of hospitality, vittles, that is…Vick’s Vittles.  It’s implied in the way you’re treated at this unpretentious restaurant in that oh, so familiar location.  Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week and for dinner on Friday and Saturday.

Vick’s Vittles Country Restaurant
8810 Central Avenue
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-5143
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2017
1st VISIT: 20 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carne Adovada and Eggs, “The Cowboy,” Cinnamon Roll, Chicken Fried Steak, Broasted Pork Chop, Green Chile Peach Turnover, Hot Links Sandwich, Broasted Chicken, Banana Pudding

Vick's Vittles Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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