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Ben Michael’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ben Michael’s Restaurant on Rio Grande Blvd. outside Old Town

During the height of the Italian Renaissance, humanist-philosopher Leon Battista Alberti posited the notion that “a man can do all things if he will,” a notion that birthed the concept of the Renaissance man.  More than the contemporary Army challenge for American soldiers to “be all you can be,” a Renaissance man was expected to embrace all knowledge and develop capabilities as fully as possible in the areas of knowledge, physical development, social accomplishments and the arts.  Perhaps the very best example of a Renaissance man is Leonardo da Vinci, whose gifts were manifest in the fields of science, art, music, invention and writing. 

Spend a few minutes with Ben Michael Barreras, chef and owner of the eponymous Ben Michael’s Restaurant on the fringes of Old Town, and you’ll quickly discern you’ve met a true Renaissance man. In his half century plus, he’s been (and still is) a pharmacist, a farmer, a contractor, a musician, a fisherman and a chef.  Moreover, he’s a gentleman, emphasis on the word “gentle.”   We found that out quickly upon asking if he carried Splenda or Equal.  In a kind but serious tone, he admonished that he would never want to poison us with artificial sweeteners, emphasizing that as a practicing pharmacist, he subscribes to the Hippocratic edict to “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Sardines and Spanish Cheese

In that spirit, Ben Michael takes great pride in offering a menu replete with organic, locally raised ingredients.  He doesn’t have to travel far to get many of them either.  Behind the restaurant he lovingly tends to a small garden in which he raises seasonal produce such as arugula, pinto beans, beets and even chile.  The bounty of his small garden may not be abundant, but the freshness and flavor of the produce he reaps is memorable.  It’s the antithesis of the artificially ripened and synthetic-flavored vegetables to which diners are often subjected.  What Ben Michael can’t grow himself, he sources from small area vendors who adhere to his standards and principles. 

If you’re traveling on Rio Grande Boulevard just north of Old Town, you can’t miss the architectural anomaly that is Ben Michael’s Restaurant though you might mistake it for something else–perhaps an art gallery or an extension of Casa Talavera next door.  To say it doesn’t subscribe to the adobe-hued homogeneity of Old Town area architectural standards is an understatement.  Ben Michael’s stands out, not so much like a sore thumb, but like a defiantly tattooed finger.  The restaurant’s unique architecture is reflective of Ben Michael’s individuality.  He’s not someone you can typecast.

Organic Salad

Neither is the restaurant he constructed in 1997, mostly with his own two hands.  For the walls, he fashioned some 8,000 adobe bricks from mud in the arroyos behind the restaurant.  He used an axe to cut aspens from the Jemez Mountains for the natillas on the ceiling which he hand-carved himself.  He laid the bricks for the restaurant’s floor.  Save for the modernity of his tools, his labors were similar to those undertaken by his ancestors (on both sides of his family) who settled the Duke City in the sixteenth century,   Morning and mid-day sun illuminate the dining room which seems taller (at least twenty-five feet) than it does commodious.

Formidable as he is at construction, Ben Michael may be even more adept at building relationships.  Amiable interactions with guests come easy to the genial restaurateur.  So do firm abrazos for the friends and neighbors who drop in for a quick visit and a steaming cup of organic coffee.  Guests and friends alike drop in on Burque Blues Tuesday or Jazz Wednesday when Ben Michael lets his hair down and tickles the ivories on the piano at the corner of the restaurant.

Enchiladas with Posole

Music, ambiance and great conversation aside, if you’re at Ben Michael’s for lunch there are two things of which you should be aware.  First, you’d better have some time on your hands.  Ben Michael prepares everything to order and may well be a one person operation, serving as your chef, server, cashier and host.  Second, don’t expect a compendium of every New Mexican dish you’ve ever had.  To say the menu is abbreviated–three entrees, three appetizers, a salad and two desserts during a visit in January, 2015–is an understatement.  While the menu may not be comprehensive, it’s got more than its share of surprises. 

Unless you’ve been to a very authentic Spanish or Portuguese restaurant, for example, you probably haven’t seen an appetizer offering of sardines and Spanish cheese served with bread.  My dad loved sardines, a trait only one of his six children (guess which one) inherited.  Because my Kim dislikes sardines intensely meant they were all mine. Ben Michael pan-fries the sardines in olive oil along with sauteed white onions.  It’s a delicious departure from the predictable cavalcade of appetizers at New Mexican restaurants.  The Spanish cheese, a firm, rindless white cheese is cubed and delicious.

Organic Burger

It’s rare to declare a salad as the one “must have” item on a menu, but if ever that designation is deserved for one sole item, it’s tailor-made for the organic salad at Ben Michael’s.  There is no one standard template for constructing the organic salad.  In fact, don’t be surprised if Ben Michael excuses himself briefly to step out back to retrieve the seasonal ingredients with which to construct your salad.  Ours was made with fresh, crisp greens; chopped, raw beets; organic walnuts; shredded Spanish cheese; salty, briny olives and luscious figs with a housemade Balsamic vinaigrette.  It’s organic artwork on a plate, a truly terrific salad. 

Soon after placing my order for chicken enchiladas, the unmistakeable whirring of a blender and the melodic sound of a freshly cracked egg (organic) sizzling and spitting on a frying pan could be heard.  It was the  sound of Ben Michael preparing my lunch.  More specifically, he was grinding red chile from pods for my enchiladas.  It’s an outstanding chile (among the very best we’ve had in Albuquerque) with a pleasant piquancy and deep, rich, earthy flavor.  Not surprisingly, it was chile grown by the chef himself.  The enchiladas are an outstanding option.  They’re made flat and ooze with melted Cheddar and the gooey goodness of an egg fried over-medium, all good, but made transformative thanks to that chile.

Flan

In a consumer economy dominated by fast food and mystery meat burgers, it’s refreshingly rare to find an organic burger.  The difference is significant.  At Ben Michael’s, the organic burger is constructed from hand-formed ground beef and served with crisp, fresh salad greens (ask the chef to drizzle on some of the house vinaigrette) and a side of cubed papitas.  Every burger should be as fresh and delicious. 

Only two desserts festoon the menu, a chocolate mousse and a flan which renders Ben Michael poetic.  He raves about the flan and eagerly awaits your verdict at first bite.  It’s a wonderful flan, second only to Chef Estevan Garcia’s organic goat milk flan when he helmed Tabla De Los Santos.  An addictive intoxicating caramel wafts through the air when you pierce the flan with your spoon.  It’s a light flan served cold and it’s as good as Ben Michael says it is. 

After you finish your meal and if he’s not inundated with guests, Ben Michael might just invite you to visit his small pharmacy on the premises. Similar to the abbreviated menu, it’s not nearly as well stocked as other pharmacies in Albuquerque, but you can trust that what Ben Michael chooses to keep in stock has the healthful qualities this Renaissance man values.

Ben Michael’s Restaurant
2404 Pueblo Bonito Court, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 224-2817
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sardines and Spanish Cheese, Organic Salad, Enchiladas, Organic Burger, Flan

Ben Michael's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ming Dynasty – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ming Dynasty, the very best Chinese restaurant in New Mexico.

Ming Dynasty, one of the very best Chinese restaurants in New Mexico.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was renowned as one of the greatest periods of governmental and societal stability in the history of mankind. Before long, history just might recognize the Ming Dynasty restaurant as one of, if not the, greatest Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque.  

Launched at 11AM on Sunday, April 27th, 2003, it returned our friend, proprietor Minh Tang and his loyal staff to the Duke City dining scene after the dissolution of an unsuccessful partnership that precipitated the closure of the great Beijing Palace. In Ming Dynasty, there’s a lot of addition by subtraction. Minh no longer has a partner to hold him back and he no longer offers a buffet that drew in patrons who didn’t necessarily know or appreciate real Chinese cuisine.  Beijing Palace’s buffet was living proof that you shouldn’t judge a Chinese restaurant by a buffet.  It wasn’t bad, but ordering off the menu is several orders of magnitude better.

Happy customers are typical at Ming Dynasty.

Happy customers are typical at Ming Dynasty.

Though his parents are southern Chinese, the youthful and exuberant Minh was born forty some years ago in Vietnam. The story of his family’s migration to America is one of fortitude, courage and determination. Should you get to know him well, he might recount it to you in his usual self-effacing and humble manner.  Similar to the large-bellied Buddha near the restaurant’s cash register, Minh sports a perpetual smile no matter how hectic and harried the day may be going.

About the only time the good-natured Minh lets his hair down is when Ming Dynasty hosts the annual dragon dance during Chinese New Year. He beats on the drums with the fervor of a real rock and roller.  He also greets some of his long-time customers and friends with “Buenos dias, como estas?”  It’s about the only Spanish he knows, but that’s more than many lifelong New Mexicans.

Dim sum cart

Dim sum cart

Prior to the Chinese New Year in February, 2008, Minh was invited to prepare hot and spicy pork chops on the CBS affiliate Channel 13’s morning show. At the unholy hour of 6:30AM, synchronized stomach growling among Albuquerque viewers could be heard all the way to China (or maybe that was just mine).

Minh is also the hardest worker of any restaurant owner I’ve ever met. Seven day work weeks without respite are typical. None of his wait staff can keep up with his multi-tasking routine of clearing tables, serving customers and keeping the kitchen running.

Dim Sum treasures (Photo by Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

Dim Sum treasures (Photo by Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

Ming Dynasty is more upscale and classy than its predecessor and like its predecessor, will draw more Chinese and Asian patrons than any other restaurant in town. I receive more feedback on Ming Dynasty than on any other Asian restaurant save for Budai with favorable comparisons to Chinese restaurants in New York City, Vancouver, Hong Kong and San Francisco often made. By the same token, I receive a lot of feedback from diners who “don’t get” Ming Dynasty and can’t understand my high regard for it.

Ming Dynasty’s decor is very traditional though unacculturated patrons might consider it a bit stereotypical. From the moon gate entrance surrounded by a ferocious dragon and a resplendent phoenix to the restaurant’s wasabi-colored walls, Minh can tell you the significance of every artifact, each having a purpose in his restaurant’s design.

Some of Ming Dynasty's dim sum treasures

Some of Ming Dynasty’s dim sum treasures

The menu is a veritable compendium of Szechwan and Cantonese cuisine, with more than 100 examples of authentic Chinese treasures prepared exceptionally well. A well-stocked tank with live lobster and crab is the source of some of the menu’s popular seafood entrees.

Ming Dynasty offers a wonderful Saturday and Sunday dim sum lunch (and you can ask for a dim sum menu every other meal). Dim sum, a Cantonese word meaning “a little bit of heart” has captured my heart and seemingly the heart of every Asian in Albuquerque.  Get there right at 11AM on Sunday morning and watch the restaurant fill up quickly.  There are seemingly three “shifts” of diners–those who get there as the restaurant opens, a second shift an hour later and a smaller phalanx of diners at about four o’clock.  Regardless of when you get there, freshness is a hallmark.

Minh escorts two dim sum carts through the restaurant (Photo courtesy of Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

Minh escorts two dim sum carts through the restaurant (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

At Ming Dynasty, you might swear you’re in San Francisco, the domicile of American dim-sum dining (and four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Jamison even compared Ming Dynasty’s dim sum to similar fare in Hong Kong). A fusillade of stainless steel carts make their way to each table, each cart wielding several different treasures. Most dim sum dishes come in multiples of two, three or four so it will behoove you to dine with someone you love.

Ming Dynasty’s 43-item dim sum menu includes a boatload of steamed seafood treasures such as seafood salad rolls, stuffed crab claws and shrimp-stuffed bell peppers. There are also steamed, baked and fried items of all shapes and sizes, including chicken feet (which are actually pretty tasty but a pain to eat because chicken feet tend to have a lot of cartilage),  fish maw, Mixal ox stew and shark’s fin gow.  Minh’s professional catering team can craft party trays with all your favorites for parties of all sizes.  On many a Saturday during the spring and summer, Ming Dynasty is actually closed because it is hosting a wedding.

Seafood salad rolls with Chinese mayonnaise

Seafood salad rolls with Chinese mayonnaise

Dim sum protocol dictates that you dispense with soy sauce which tends to mask the subtle flavors of some items. Instead, use Minh’s chili sauce, made on the premises, in moderation to enhance inherent flavors. I’ve also seen some patrons mix plum sauce and Chinese hot mustard to create a gunpowder hot and fruity sweet mix they swear enlivens the flavor of the dim sum even further.

Ordering off the menu is an adventure in decision-making. The 120-item plus menu includes many traditional Chinese favorites prepared with an authenticity you rarely find in New Mexico. In every respect, Ming Dynasty is a formidable, world-class Chinese restaurant with the operative word being “Chinese.”

Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken

Although he serves the sweet and sour standards, Minh’s offerings aren’t “Americanized.” The sauces he employs (lemon, plum, orange, etc) are subtle ameliorants, not candied and overwhelming such as served at other Chinese restaurants. Fellow gourmand and friend Bill Resnik often refers to the culinary offerings at other Chinese restaurants as “chicken in syrup sauce, twice chewed pork and pork tasting like fish.”

If you are in the mood for something sweet, my highest recommendations go to the orange beef or either lemon chicken or orange chicken. The pork chops in Peking sauce are also quite wonderful. All of Ming Dynasty’s sweet and sour meat entrees are lightly battered and replete with high-quality white meat, a contrast to the heavily breaded, dark meat served elsewhere.

More Dim Sum Treasures

If you want something on the spicy side, order the Twice Cooked Pork–fresh pork sautéed with green pepper, vegetables and a hot, spicy Hoisin and black bean sauce. This entree is proof that you don’t need to load up a dish with Thai peppers to make it firecracker hot.

Want fried rice? Minh makes the best fried rice in town, flavored with a unique Chinese sausage which has a savory and sweet taste similar to longoniza, the wonderful Filipino sausage. Chinese sausage, made from pork, has a distinctively reddish tint.  The rice is fluffy, not clumpy with green onions, eggs, green peas and a hint of soy sauce and sesame oil.

Fried rice with Chinese sausage, the very best fried rice in town

Minh’s salt and pepper chicken wings are an interesting, but delicious entree in that the prominent flavor profile isn’t salt or pepper, but rather green onions and minced garlic.  Never mind the misnomer, these chicken wings are absolutely delicious.  Each golden hued wing is lightly battered, a thin batter sheathe briefly concealing white and dark meat.  The meat is moist and tender with the influence of its seasoning quite prominent.

In the fall of 2005, Minh launched a satellite restaurant in the Chinese food starved east side of the Sandias. Ming’s Chinese Cuisine (12128 Highway 14 North, Cedar Crest) met with critical success from day one, but closed in 2008.   The restaurant was smaller (only twelve tables) and had a somewhat limited menu, but it brought great Chinese food to our neighbors in the east.

Shredded duck, a wonderful entree

18 November 2014:  Unbeknownst to much of the dining public, there is so much more to Chinese soups than the egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soups often served in combination meals in cheap eats Chinese restaurants.  In fact, soups are a deep-rooted and endeared Chinese food tradition enjoyed for generations both for their flavorful qualities as for their healthful properties.  In America, Chinese soups have taken a proverbial back-seat to Vietnamese phos, perhaps the most beloved of any nation’s soups. 

Ming Dynasty has two soup menus. One menu lists the hot and sour, wonton and egg drop soups with which most Americans are familiar. It also lists soups that will entice more adventurous diners–soups such as the crab meat with shark fin. The other soup menu lists seven noodle soups, one of the best being the roast pork with wonton and egg noodle soup.  It’s an outstanding soup, the type of which will warm the cockles of your heart and leave you deeply satisfied.  It may also remind you of a high-quality Vietnamese pho.  The roast pork has the traditional reddish hue and temptingly tasty flavor of Chinese barbecue.  The noodles are delightfully delicious while the broth will leave you very happy.  If you enjoy more “personality” with your soup, add some of Ming Dynasty’s chili sauce to taste.

Roast Pork with Wonton & Egg Noodle Soup

If you think, I’ve got exclusivity of opinion as to how terrific Ming Dynasty is, buy a copy of Scott Sharot’s outstanding book New Mexico Chow in which he lists among his favorite restaurants in New Mexico, only two Chinese restaurants. One is Ming Dynasty and ABC Chinese is the other.  Sally Moore, one of New Mexico’s most prolific travel writers, also waxed poetic about Ming Dynasty in her terrific tome Culinary New Mexico

In her March 11, 2011 post on her Tasting NM Blog, my friend Cheryl Alters Jamison, the scintillating James Beard award-winning author listed “5 New Mexico Hot Spots for Chinese Food.”  Of Ming Dynasty she said, “This east-side establishment reminds me of the epic dim sum houses of Hong Kong, the capacious ones where families gather, carts roll continually, and you pick what you’d like when they come by. Carts piled with dim sum roll here too on weekends, but ordering off the menu at times that aren’t so busy keeps the little dishes fresher. There’s a full menu of Sichuan and other Cantonese too. The attentive owner will guide you.”

Quail marinated in five spice powder

Over the years, my colleagues and I have taken business partners from throughout Asia to Ming Dynasty and they offer the highest praise possible, “it’s as good as home.”  They don’t say that about P.F. Chang’s.

Ming Dynasty
1551 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 296-0298
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 November 2014
# OF VISITS
: 28
RATING
: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shredded Duck, Roast Duck, Pork Chops with Peking Sauce, Dim Sum, Roast Pork with Wonton & Egg Noodle Soup

Ming Dynasty on Urbanspoon

Shake Foundation – Santa Fe, New Mexico

ShakeFoundation01

The Shake Foundation in Santa Fe (side view)

If it seems there’s a glut of restaurants brandishing a much-hyped and often self-glossed as “best” version of New Mexico’s fabled green chile cheeseburger, it won’t surprise you to read that yet another purveyor of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct sandwich entered the fray in January, 2014.  What might surprise you is its most worthy motto and raison d’etre:  “Dedicated to the preservation of the original green chile cheeseburger.” Just what exactly does that mean?   

If, like me, your initial inclination is to question why at its pinnacle of popularity, the green chile cheeseburger needs to be preserved, you’re missing the point.  Likewise, the motto has nothing to do with  mimicking the burgers crafted by New Mexico’s two claimants to being progenitor of all green chile cheeseburgers: The Owl Cafe & Bar and Bert’s Burger Bowl.  The Shake Foundation is all about preserving and honoring the inviolable traditions and impeccably high standards of the green chile cheeseburger.  It’s about crafting the type of green chile cheeseburgers that trigger memories of unforgettable burgers past while creating new memories that will have you eagerly anticipating your next great green chile cheeseburger.

ShakeFoundation02

The Shake Foundation in Santa Fe (front view)

Despite its “mission statement,” the Shake Foundation isn’t based solely on green chile cheeseburgers as proffered throughout the Land of Enchantment, but also on founder-owner-chef Brian Knox’s boyhood memories of eating cheeseburgers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Milwaukee, as burgerphiles everywhere know, is famous for slathering its burgers–both bun and beef–with butter: lots of gooey, unctuous, calorific butter.  Milwaukee’s butyraceous burgers are the quintessential five napkin (or more) burger.

For nearly three decades, the name Brian Knox has been synonymous in Santa Fe with fine-dining.  Prior to launching the Shake Foundation, Chef Knox owned and operated Aqua Santa, a contemporary American restaurant which helped pioneer the city’s slow-food movement.  He’s been wanting to make high-quality burgers widely accessible and affordable in a fun and welcoming venue for several years.  The Shake Foundation is the culmination of those dreams.

ShakeFoundation03

Shoestring Fries and a Lavender Shake

Built on a site which previously housed a gas station for fifty years, the Shake Foundation isn’t much bigger than a roadside stand, but offers an ambitious menu belying its Lilliputian size.  This burger hop is strictly a walk-up operation with a number of picnic tables for seating.  A number of stately deciduous trees provide seasonal shade and help block New Mexico’s winds.

Burgers are the featured fare: cheese burgers with or sans green chile and the classic burger, both available as singles or doubles.  A number of free and optional toppings are available, the latter including such revolutionary items as whipped lardo (seasoned, cured pork fat), house-brined pickles and jalapeños and garlic mayo.  The menu also offers a turkey burger, a portobello burger and a New Mexico Shepherd’s Lamb Burger as well as a fried oyster sandwich with red chile mayo.  Green chile stew and a Caesar salad round out the food menu.

ShakeFoundation04

Double meat green chile cheeseburger with bacon

If for no other reason than we’re in America and we like to super-size our burgers, you’ll want to order a double meat burger.  The single is all of three ounces (just an ounce shy of the quarter-pounder), but by all appearances doesn’t look much bigger than some “sliders.”  A better reason to order a double meat burger is the beef’s healthful deliciousness.  The beef blend is a combination of sirloin and brisket with no hormones or antibiotics.  All burgers are cooked to medium unless otherwise requested.  True to Chef Knox’s heritage, buns are buttered though not dripping in butter as you’d find in Milwaukee. 

The menu warns that “Our New Mexico green chile is hot!”  That’s hot with an exclamation point.  Frankly, most New Mexicans won’t wince at its piquancy (or relative lack thereof), but we’ll certainly appreciate its roasted flavor and fruity nuances.  A few strips of bacon are a perfect, salty complement to the green chile as is the rich, gooey Monterey Jack cheese.  Even with a double, you might want to order two of these burgers.  With a bun not more than four inches around, they have a subliminal effect of appearing small even though with double meat, they tower above most chain burgers.  The Shake Foundation’s burgers are juicy and absolutely delicious, well worthy of New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail consideration. 

Fried Oyster Sandwich with Red Chile Mayo

Having lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for nearly eight years, I consumed oyster po’ boys by the boatful, my favorite being the behemoth bivalve sandwich from Cafe Maspero in New Orleans.  In New Mexico, it may be easier to find a prize pearl inside an oyster than to find an outstanding oyster po’ boy or sandwich.  The Shake Foundation’s version, a Gulf Coast meets the Land of Enchantment sandwich may be changing that with its fried oyster sandwich with red chile mayo.  The oyster is moist and delicious and the red chile mayo is slathered on generously.  The combination of flavors is a winner.

Hand-cut shoestring fries, available in single or double portions, are a nice accompaniment to your burgers.  Made from potatoes grown in Colorado, they’re fried to a crispy, but not potato chip-like texture and don’t require desalinization as do so many other fries.  They’re also not quite as greasy as conventional fries.  Being shoestring thin means they’re also not as moist as other fries. 

True to the name on the marquee, shakes are a point of pride. Rightfully so! These are not the cloying, syrupy, made-from-a mix shakes the chains dispense. You can actually taste the ice cream with which these shakes are made…and it’s great ice cream made from Taos Cow ice cream (one of the “ten best ice cream parlors worldwide” according to Fox News.  It’s a rich, creamy, smooth ice cream available in “viva la differencia” flavors such as lavender and piñon caramel.  Even better is the Mexican Chocolate shake which my Kim calls the best shake she’s ever had.  Unless you’ve got the suck power of a vacuum cleaner, you’ll need a spoon because a straw just won’t cut it. 

It could be debated that the Shake Foundation isn’t as much about “the preservation of the original green chile cheeseburger” as it is taking it to a new level with the type of creativity which made Chef Knox one of Santa Fe’s most acclaimed culinary minds.  

Shake Foundation
631 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988.8992
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 October 2014
1st VISIT: 31 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $
BEST BET: Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger with Bacon, Fried Oyster Sandwich with Red Chile Mayo, Double Meat Hamburger, Shoestring French Fries, Lavender Shake, Piñon Shake, Mexican Chocolate Shake, 

Shake Foundation on Urbanspoon