Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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.


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.


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 fiance as of August, 2015) 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.


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": USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette

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 Macy’s 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

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. At its new Alameda location, the Oak Tree Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 8PM.

Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2233
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 November 2015
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
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 

Oak Tree Cafe on Urbanspoon

Chopstix – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chopstix Chinese Cuisine on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro.

Chopstix Chinese Cuisine on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro.

And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. 
Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people
ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder,
kites and any number of other useful objects,
and who have a noble history extending back
3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair
of knitting needles is no way to capture food? 
~Bill Bryson

The precise date in which chopsticks were first used has been lost in time. Archaeological evidence found in burial plots indicates they are at least 3,200 years old though some scholars believe they’ve been around even longer than that. Even the evolution of chopsticks is in debate. Some surmise that chopsticks evolved from the practice of using wooden sticks to stir food as it cooked on large pots over an open fire. Others believe that hasty eaters broke twigs from trees to retrieve food as it cooked. Whenever their origin and whatever its genesis, chopsticks have, for thousands of years, been the main tableware of the Chinese. By the Fifth Century A.D., the use of chopsticks had even spread from China to present day Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The dualistic philosophies of Yin Yang that seek universal balance and harmony even posit a correct way to use chopsticks so that the user forges a correct ration of sauce to meat. Their fundamental use remains unchanged over time. While many Americans have mastered the etiquette and techniques for using chopsticks properly, in the hands of others (including me), chopsticks become a lethal weapon, the attempted use of which might result in someone’s eye being gouged out.

The Chopstix dining room

Ironically, the only chopsticks you’ll see when you walk into Chopstix Chinese Cuisine are in the hands of deft users. On unoccupied tables, the place settings are spoons, forks, knives and a napkin. What makes this doubly ironic is that Chopstix, despite the Westernization of the name, is, along with the fabulous Budai Gourmet Chinese Restaurant, the most authentically Chinese restaurant we’ve found in Albuquerque.  How authentic?  For the unacculturated, it’s scary authentic with such rare specialties as chicken feet and pickled kohlrabi with pork and chive (both are delicious).

From its launch in 2005 until my inaugural visit, I received more e-mail about Chopstix than any other restaurant not previously reviewed on my blog. None of the e-mail was more passionate or compelling than one from Tom Donelan who described Chopstix as having “really excellent food with amazing and not familiar flavors.” Tom should know, having sampled 50 to 60 menu items.  While it’s not unusual for Chinese restaurants to have more than a hundred items on the menu, what is unusual for many diners is to sample so many of them.  Most diners seem to settle on a handful of select favorites.

Sesame Shaobing (left) and homemade Szechwan Sausage

Sesame Shaobing (left) and homemade Szechwan Sausage

Chopstix is ensconced in a nondescript shopping center on the northwest corner of Lomas and San Pedro. It occupies the space which once held Taeja, a highly regarded and widely popular Korean restaurant which closed in 2004. On its signage, the “x” at the end of the name Chopstix resembles a pair of chopsticks. The bottom end of the chopsticks (the end used for picking up food) is tapered to a blunt end. That, we quickly found out, is where the “Westernization” ends.

The menu at Chopstix is very similar to what you might find in the Chinatown district of a large Cosmopolitan city such as San Francisco or my former hometown of Boston. Every item on the menu is spelled out in English and in Chinese and is accompanied by a photograph. A plethora of healthful options, including several vegetarian dishes makes this menu unique in that it doesn’t specialize in the deep-fried, heavily breaded, candied meat favorites proffered elsewhere. The menu does include several of the “usual suspects” (Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Orange Beef), but the Chopstix’ version is  better and not nearly as Westernized.

Chinese Fried Bread with Sweetened Condense Milk

Additional dishes (specials) are posted in plastic sleeves on the east-facing wall. Many of these dishes are not to be found anywhere else in Albuquerque and rotate in and out seasonally and as customers request. To my surprise, there were several menu items I hadn’t seen since my days in Boston.  The cuisine is Beijing-style which focuses on poultry and vegetables and relies heavily on spices (though not as extensively as Szechwan style cooking) and breads. This style of cuisine is surprisingly not that common, even in Cosmopolitan cities throughout America.

Most of the dishes are truly authentic, prepared as they would be in Beijing itself, without modification for American tastes. These dishes are prepared from scratch and take meticulous preparation time before they reach your table. When the restaurant is busy, it can mean long waits. While that may tax the patience of some Americans, many of Chopstix’ customers are Chinese who don’t seem to mind the wait. It’s certainly worth it.

The hot and sour soup is really HOT...and thoroughly delicious.

The hot and sour soup is really HOT…and thoroughly delicious.

The appetizer section of the menu lists twelve appetizers including the ubiquitous egg rolls. Appetizers also include sesame shaobing, a layered baked flatbread with sesame on top. In texture, shaobing bears some semblance to naan, the wonderful Indian flatbread.  It’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Unlike naan, however, shaobing is virtually devoid of flavor, not even salt.  In Taiwan, it’s served for breakfast with soy milk, a combination considered the most iconic breakfast in Taiwan.

The shaobing is accompanied by a standard “pot sticker sauce” (soy sauce, ginger and rice wine vinegar) for dipping, but savvy diners order the shaobing with their meals instead of as an appetizer. Dredging up the sauce on some of the entrees with shaobing is an improved use of a very tasty, very utilitarian bread that you just don’t find in many Albuquerque Chinese restaurants.

Shrimp with garlic sauce, the best we've had in New Mexico.

Shrimp with garlic sauce, the best we’ve had in New Mexico.

20 May 2012: Though New Mexico doesn’t currently have a full-fledged Chinese bakery, a surprisingly wide variety of Chinese bakery goods can be found in Chinese restaurants throughout Albuquerque (the dim sum menu at Ming Dynasty, for example, offers several). Only at Chopstix will you find Chinese fried bread, a deep-fried cruller that’s a Hostess cupcake shade of gold served with sweetened condensed milk which has a “frosting” like effect on the bread. It’s akin to having a Chinese donut. Only a scalding cup of coffee could possibly improve on this Chinese fried bread.

4 August 2007: Another appetizer unique in Albuquerque to Chopstix is Szechwan Sausage. While Szechwan cooking is characterized by spicy and piquant food, the Sausage barely registers on the piquant scale, but is redolent with spices (ginger, star anise, dried red chili and wild pepper), making it a very flavorful appetizer.  Szechwan sausage is made from shredded fresh pork, both lean and fat meat cuts.  You’ll occasionally bite into a sinewy bit, but for the most part, the texture of the sausage is akin to that of many German dry sausages.

Mustard with dried bean curd.

Mustard with dried bean curd.

17 March 2007: There’s a lot of truth in labeling when an asterisk (*) prefaces a dish. That means the dish is hot and spicy. Even the hot and sour soup (one of three soups on the menu) is gunpowder incendiary. It’s also as delicious and comforting as any hot and sour soup we’ve had, with throat and stomach warming properties that move it near the top of my favorite soup list.  There are plenty of woody mushrooms on this soup, a sign of its authenticity.

17 March 2007: Near the very top of my list of outstanding garlic shrimp entrees I’ve ever had is the Chopstix version. Laden with minced garlic and populated with barbed hot peppers, it is intensively flavored and preternaturally delicious. Prepared to absolute perfection were the dish’s vegetables: sweet snow peas, julienne carrots, green peppers, white onions and more. The sauce is incredibly flavorful, a perfect accompaniment to the aforementioned shaobing.

Dong Bo Pork on a Hoison-Soy Sauce

17 March 2007: Chinese physicians tout the healthful properties of mustard seed (which contain lots of protective substances called phytochemicals, which may inhibit the growth of existing cancer cells and help prevent normal cells from turning into cancerous ones), while diners will tout the surprising deliciousness of mustard with dried bean curd. Somewhat resembling, in both taste and appearance, the mustard greens so popular in Southern cooking, this dish doesn’t have the intense flavoring of the garlic shrimp, but it may be the most surprisingly good version of “greens” I’ve ever had. 

20 May 2012: If the Chinese dish of mustard with dried bean curd resembles the mustard greens of the Deep South, Chopstix’ rendition of Seafood Noodles has only a passing resemblance to the Caldo de Siete Mares served in many Mexican mariscos restaurants.  It more closely resembles a Vietnamese pho with a rich broth redolent with the flavors of the bounty of the sea–shrimp, crab, squid and fish.  The baby bak choy lends a slightly bitter flavor profile while the thick rice noodles provide one of life’s best pleasures, that of slurping perfectly prepared, almost buttery noodles.

Vinegar and sugar ribs

Vinegar and sugar ribs

4 August 2007: Pork entrees include Vinegar and Sugar Ribs in which pork ribs are stewed with soy sauce, Chinese vinegar, various seasonings and what is likely brown sugar. Not everyone appreciates a sweet and savory combination, and even if you do, this may be too much of a good thing–as in not enough taste contrasts for you to continue enjoying it with the same gusto as you had when gnawing the meat off the first few bones. 

20 May 2012: In recent years, perhaps as an offshoot of bacon’s popularity, one of America’s favorite gourmet cravings has been for pork belly.  The Chinese version is called Dong Bo Pork and it’s fabulous.  On the bowl in which it’s served, it bears an almost off-putting resemblance to fatty pork served in ink or tar.  The sauce in which it is served is a Hoisin-soy sauce mix that’s wholly unnecessary, but quite good.  This half-lean meat and half-fat pork belly dish is a wonderful study in textural contrasts, but if you like pork regardless of texture, it’s a dish you’ll love.

Chicken with Ginger

2 October 2015:  Little chili icons next to specific items on the menu denote levels of spiciness.  Several items are rated one chili, but only one item has two chili icons next to it.  That’s the chicken with ginger, a unique dish unlike any we’ve had in Albuquerque.  Lightly breaded chicken usually means tender and moist, but not on this dish.  Texturally the chicken is chewy and crisp with not as much moistness as you might expect.  Piquancy is courtesy of finely chopped bird peppers as well as stir-fried ginger strips.  It’s not the type of piquancy which should intimidate most New Mexicans, but it’ll make most of us happy.

Several entrees are accompanied by steamed white rice, but for a pittance you can also have fried rice, with or without pork. Chopstix’ version of fried rice isn’t as soy sauce salty as most fried rice you’ll find in Americanized Chinese restaurants. It lets other flavors speak out for themselves.

Seafood Noodles (Baby Bak Choy, Shrimp, Crab, Squid, Fish)

You should never visit Chopstix alone because while every item might be good, you miss out on the fun and adventure of sharing and even a good thing (like the Vinegar and Sugar Ribs) might be too much of a good thing. There is much to like and much to be explored at Chopstix, a restaurant which may have a Westernized spelling, but which serves some of the best, most authentic dishes of any Chinese restaurant in New Mexico. This one will remain highly placed on my rating list!

6001 Lomas Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mustard With Dried Bean Curd, Shrimp With Garlic Sauce, Sesame Shaobing, Hot & Sour Soup, Seafood Noodles, Chicken with Ginger, Vinegar and Sugar Ribs, Dong Bo Pork, Chinese Fried Bread with Sweetened Condense Milk

Chopstix on Urbanspoon

The Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse – Los Lunas, New Mexico

The Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse for the best in fine dining in Los Lunas

New Mexico is truly a dichotomous land, a state in which seemingly contrasting qualities exist in symbiotic harmony with each other. While most of those contrasts exist spectacularly in nature, the Land of Enchantment’s architecture is no stranger to contradictions. One such example is the Luna Mansion, a stately manor built in the Southern Colonial architectural style, but whose basic construction material is adobe. The Luna Mansion was built in 1880 by the Santa Fe Railroad Company in exchange for right-of-way through lands owned by the Luna family. In the 1920s, the Luna-Otero family added to the grandeur of the Los Lunas showcase by building a front portico and grand solarium. White Grecian columns bid all visitors welcome.

In the 1970s, the Luna Mansion was transformed into a restaurant, perhaps rankling the ire of Josefita Otero, one of the original family members to dwell in the Mansion. Her apparition, attired in 1920s regalia, began to appear. Several other apparitions, including Cruz, a groundskeeper, are said to haunt the restaurant while others have been seen or felt on the grounds of the estate. Perhaps they continue to visit the Luna Mansion for the food.

One of the first floor dining rooms

While Auld Lang Syne faded with the dawning of 2009, the Luna Mansion was put up for sale by Earl Whittemore who had owned the property for more than three decades. It wasn’t for sale for long. Fittingly, the Mansion was purchased by Pete and Hortencia Torres, longtime owners of the Wittwer House, another historic property converted to a restaurant (the award-winning Teofilo’s Restaurante). Moreover, the Torres family has a restaurant pedigree in Valencia County that goes back more than six decades. Pete’s parents opened the eponymous Pete’s Cafe in 1948. Teofilo’s is directly across Main Street from the Luna Mansion, now a registered national historic landmark.

Under the auspices of the Torres family, the Luna Mansion remains a monument to the way good food used to be served in bygone days before America became a fast food nation, back when hearty portions of delicious cuisine could be enjoyed in a relaxing milieu. Though not by design, the restaurant brings to mind the clean, elegant Harvey House restaurants which introduced a touch of refinement and civility to an untamed frontier while serving good food at reasonable prices throughout the Old West. There’s a Harvey House a few miles south in Belen though it no longer serves food.

Sourdough bread

The Luna Mansion name is now appended by “Landmark Steakhouse,” a recognition of its historic place in the community as well as the Torres family commitment to providing a memorable fine dining experience for their patrons. As the name implies, the specialty of the house is USDA prime beef aged 21 days for flavor and tenderness and hand-carved by local butchers exclusively for the Luna Mansion. The menu also offers fresh fish, seafood and poultry. Several menu items popularized during the tenure of previous owners have been retained (including one of my favorite desserts) while New Mexican chile inspired items no longer have a place on the daily menu.

The nattily attired and attentive Luna Mansion wait staff is as energetic as any in the Duke City area, but with a small town neighborliness you don’t often find in the big city. They’ll be happy to engage you in small talk or discuss the history of the Mansion if you wish, but they’re also professional enough to leave you alone if that be your preference. Best of all, they’re always on-the-spot with hard-crusted sourdough bread and soft butter as well as ice water or your beverage of choice. The sourdough isn’t baked on the premises, but it’s served warm and is replenished faithfully.

The Maytag Wedge: Crisp iceberg lettuce layered with bleu cheese dressing, crumbled Maytag bleu cheese, chopped tomato and crisp bacon

This appetizer menu includes some traditional (some might say anachronistic) steakhouse starters such as shrimp cocktail, Oysters Rockefeller and calamari, but throws in shrimp wontons as a surprising change of pace. These wontons aren’t your typical desiccated dumplings fried to a crackling, crunchy and empty shell. These are roughly the size of a beverage coaster and stuffed with a generous bounty of cream cheese, green onion and shrimp. Best of all, they’re served with a jalapeño sweet and sour sauce that packs a punch. The calamari are small ringlets of squid goodness–not too chewy or too thickly coated. The accompanying cocktail sauce is packed with a potent horseradish.

31 May 2012: The menu also offers a Maytag Wedge constructed from crisp iceberg lettuce layered with bleu cheese dressing, crumbled Maytag bleu (sic) cheese, chopped tomato and crisp bacon. As a bleu (or blue) cheese aficionado who routinely asks servers to bring me as much bleu cheese as they can carry, it does my heart good (only figuratively) to see the generous dollops of my favorite salad dressing. Maytag blue cheese has been hand-formed and cave-aged since 1941 and is one of the most flavorful of all bleu (or blue) cheeses. The other salad components are quite good, but it’s the pungent cheese that stars here.

A 24-ounce Porterhouse steak (21 day aged beef hand-carved by local butchers exclusively for the Luna Mansion

You might not consider Los Lunas (or anywhere in landlocked New Mexico) a destination for seafood, but the Luna Mansion might just change your mind. Daily offerings include two lobster tails, tipping the scales at about a pound, at market price. There’s also a pound or pound and a half of sweet, juicy Alaskan King Crab also at market price. A long-time restaurant favorite is the Mansion Steak, a six ounce filet smothered by crab meat and Béarnaise sauce. Both the filet and the crab are good in their own right, but don’t necessarily combine all their best qualities when paired together.

31 May 2012: The purity of beefy deliciousness is best exemplified by the 24-ounce Porterhouse steak, as good a prime cut of beef as we’ve had in the Albuquerque area. It is prepared to your exacting specifications (at medium, it’s got that pinkish center that ensures juiciness and flavor) and is seasoned with exactly the right amount of sea salt, pepper and garlic. This beauteous beef has marbling for flavor, but not much of the excess fat you cut out and leave on your plate. As with other entrees, steaks are accompanied by your choice of potato (a fully loaded baked potato, French fries or whipped Yukon Gold potatoes). The baked potato is perfectly cooked all the way through and is roughly the size of a child’s football.

Lamb chops with creamed spinach in the background

31 May 2012: Another spectacular plate features four lollipop (what lamb rib chops are called when they’re “Frenched” (when the meat is cut away from the end of a rib or chop, so that part of the bone is exposed)) lamb chops served with mint sauce. Lamb chops essentially come with a built-in “handle” which makes them easy to pick up and eat (yes, even at a fine dining restaurant). Each lamb chop is pert and petite, but it’s packed with flavor and is very tender. When asked the degree of “doneness” for your chops, it’s best to leave it to the chef’s discretion. Most chefs prepare lamb chops by broiling, grilling or pan-searing them for only a few minutes on each side. At medium, the Luna Mansion lamb chops are moist and delicious.

19 July 2015: The Luna Mansion set the bar very high, hosting the inaugural brunch venture for the discerning and culinary savvy Friends of Gil (FOG).  Ten of us convened at the historical gem to enjoy a sumptuous repast that included a prime rib breakfast burrito.  Engorged with scrambled eggs and grilled prime rib topped with red chile, it’s a Cadillac of breakfast burritos in a neighborhood of Chevys.  This burrito was served with French fries, a surprising departure from the usual hash browns.

Prime Rib Burrito

The menu offers several “sides including creamed spinach, steamed asparagus, sauteed garlic spinach, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, baked potato and French fries. The creamed spinach is a winner thanks to the infusion of intensely garlicky heavy cream playing off the natural acerbic qualities of the spinach. The cream is a bit on the watery side, but is good enough to sop up with the restaurant’s sourdough bread.

19 July 2015: It’s not every brunch that allows guests to also select from the dinner menu.  The only concession at Luna Mansion is that baked potatoes aren’t available until after five.  If you’re having the pasta, you don’t need another carb anyway.  You might not even miss out on the Mansion’s magnificent meats.  That is if the fettuccine with a red chile cream sauce and sirloin tips is on the menu.  First, the pasta is perfectly prepared if your ideal is neither mushy nor al dente.  The red chile cream sauce is rich and delicious with just enough piquancy to be discernible, but not so much that it tastes like another New Mexican dish showcasing our enchanting chile (great as it is).  The sirloin tips are a highlight, a reminder that the Luna Mansion serves some of the very best steak in the area.

Fettuccine with Red Chile Cream Sauce and Sirloin Tips

31 May 2012: Only three desserts–the Mansion Mud Pie, classic cheesecake and housemade key lime pie–grace the menu, but savvy diners look no further than the Mansion Mud Pie, one of my favorite desserts in the area. The foundation for the pie is a thick Oreo crust which is topped with about two inches of mocha flavored ice cream, a chocolate ganache and whipped cream garnished with almond slivers. This is a pie for the ages, a pie I might haunt the Luna Mansion for someday.

The Mansion Mud Pie, a Luna Mansion specialty

The Luna Mansion has long been one of Valencia county’s culinary crown jewels, but it’s good enough to warrant mention among the most highly regarded fine dining establishments in the metropolitan Duke City area.

The Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse
Highway 6 & Highway 85
Los Lunas, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 19 July 2015
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mud Pie, Shrimp Wontons, The Maytag Wedge, Porterhouse, Lamb Chops

Luna Mansion on Urbanspoon

1 2 3 23