Toro Burger – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Toro Burger in Rio Rancho

While watching a “sanitized for television” version of the audacious satirical comedy Blazing Saddles, my precocious six-year-old niece asked several questions with deep sociological implications: “Why is everyone in the town of Rock Ridge named Johnson? Why were all the town’s citizens white?” From her silence, you’d think my Kim was a “perp lawyering up” at a police inquiry. Rather than responding herself, she enjoyed seeing my brother and I hem and haw in trying to give accurate and age-appropriate answers. Far easier to answer were Blazing Saddles questions which inspired nostalgic reflection: “Is there a Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Albuquerque? Does Howard Johnson’s really serve only one flavor?”

For those of us who grew up in the dark ages, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were almost as ubiquitous as McDonald’s are today. During its halcyon days (peaking in 1975), more than 1,000 “Ho Jo’s” restaurants and motor lodges dotted the American landscape, their distinctive orange roofs a familiar beacon for hungry sojourners. Among the restaurants’ culinary draws were its 28 flavors of butterfat-enhanced ice cream and fried clam strips, an exotic offering theretofore available only in New England. The Marriott Corporation’s 1982 acquisition of all Howard Johnson’s properties signaled the precipitous beginning of the end of the once popular and profitable restaurant. Today, a sole remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant (in Lake George, New York) remains from among more than 1,000 original restaurants.

Toro’s Welcoming Dining Room

Having returned to the Land of Enchantment in 1979 after a two-year Air Force assignment to Massachusetts, this inveterate fried clam aficionado craved the plump, intensely-flavored paragons of deliciousness. Only Howard Johnson’s provided an approximation, albeit waifishly thin, desiccated strips (sorry Bob) vastly inferior to the tender, juicy whole bellied clams available seaside throughout New England. Despite having to settle for crummy clams, Howard Johnson’s became a frequent stop, a milieu of memories.  When the Albuquerque Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Eubank gave up the ghost in the early 1980s, I mourned.  Where now would fried clams be found?

When Mary Ann Schaefer, a long-time friend of this blog wrote to tell me about the Toro Burger Bar in Rio Rancho’s Howard Johnson hotel, it wasn’t the prospect of juicy, beefy burgers which came to mind, but my beloved fried clams.  Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the burgers would be the impetus for a visit.  We hadn’t visited the hotel since it housed Wine and Roses, a rather good German restaurant.  That was more than a decade ago when the hotel was the Inn at Rio Rancho.  The Inn became a Howard Johnson’s property in 2014.

Chile Cheese Fries

Since Wine and Roses shuttered its doors so many years ago, a number of restaurant concepts gave it the old college try in the Inn’s restaurant space but none had the staying power engendered by customer loyalty.  The seemingly du jour concept during the conversion from Inn at Rio Rancho to Howard Johnson’s was the Toro Bar and Grill which offered dinner service seven days a week.  It garnered the same level of enthusiasm as another tumbleweed rolling onto the street.  We surmised the name change to Toro Burger was just a rebranding-repackaging effort offering the same uninspiring fare.  Boy were we wrong!

Toro Burger is a terrific restaurant, one every burger aficionado in the metropolitan area should visit.  Ryan, an inventive Indiana born-and-bred chef has suffused the menu with some of the most superb and innovative burgers in the Land of Enchantment.   Chef Ryan’s previous gig in New Mexico was at Annapurna.  Now he’s doing his own thing and creating culinary magic.   You’ll be hard-pressed to decide which burger or sandwich to order, so tempting are the choices.  Even better, the beef is ground daily on the premises from three different cuts of steak.  That means superior burgers!  All burgers come with your choice of patty–house ground beef, turkey, veggie, chorizo-beef blend or lamb–on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger sauce (unless noted) and your choice of side.  You can also ask for your burger to be wrapped in a flour tortilla.

Fried Pickles

Before rushing out the door to get your burger fix, you should know that Toro is open only from 5PM through 10PM Tuesday through Saturday.  Much as you’d love to have one of Toro’s fabulous burgers for lunch, you’ll appreciate the reason for the restaurant’s limited hours.  Not only does Chef Ryan prepare everything to order, he spends a lot of time sourcing fresh ingredients, grinding the beef, creating sauces and even curing and smoking the restaurant’s bacon and pastrami.  That pastrami is cured for 18 days then smoked for another 12 to 16 hours.    The bacon undergoes a similar meticulous hands-on curing and smoking process.  These are the difference-makers, the reasons burgerphiles will return often.

The menu is another reason.  To get you started, you can select from one of six appetizers, three soft tacos (ground beef, adobado chicken, blackened tilapia) or four salads.  Be cautioned that the appetizers are generously portioned and you’ll want lots of room for those burgers.  There are twelve highly imaginative burgers on the menu as well as a build-your-own-burger option with seemingly unlimited options considering you can choose your meat, cheese (seven choices), veggies (eight choices) and sauces (eleven choices).  It’s a mad burger scientist’s dream!  There are three entrees on the menu: catfish dinner, New Mexico hot chicken and beef ribs.  There are also ten sandwich options, each intriguing.  All sandwiches include your choice of side.  If you’re not already planning a visit, I haven’t done my job well.  If the burgers are any indication, you should rush right over!

Jack and Dianne Burger with Onion Things

18 November 2016: When we ordered our appetizers we had no idea how generously portioned they’d be.  An order of chile cheese fries rewarded us with a mountain of house-cut fries and a generous sprinkling of New Mexico green chile with a cheese blend dousing and Ranch dressing on the side.  The green chile has a pleasant piquancy–enough heat for me to notice and for my Kim to call it “hot.”  Anytime you can find house-cut fries, you should jump on them.  Infinitely better than out-of-a-bag fries, these golden planks of salty deliciousness are terrific repositories for cheese and green chile.

18 November 2016: Our server, the ambassadorial and indefatigable James recommended the fried pickles, one of the more popular appetizers on the menu.  Served with a ramekin of Ranch dressing (ask for one with blue cheese, too) is a pile of thinly sliced, lightly breaded dill pickles which would really purse your lips were it not for the breading.  In our eight years down South (on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), we never received such a generous portion of fried pickles as we did during our inaugural visit to Toro Burger.  We wound up taking half of them home and found them as delightful the next day as we did when they first graced our table.

Mo’ Better Burger with Fries

18 November 2016: Until just before we placed our order, I fully intended to order what Mary Ann’s hubby had enjoyed so much–the Toro burger (Hatch green chile, house made bacon, cheese and chipotle aoli), but perusing a full-sized menu instead of one online gave us new perspective on just how inventive Toro’s burgers are.  If, like me, you enjoy flavor combinations that pair disparate (sweet and savory, tangy and piquant, etc.) taste profiles, you’ll love the Mo’ Better Burger (grilled pineapple jam, house-made bacon and Sriracha aioli) which teases and tantalizes every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  While the combination of pineapples and bacon has long been exploited on pizza, we found it to be tailor-made for burgers, too.  The bacon has a wonderful smokiness paired with a sweet-peppery element that renders it positively addictive.  One taste of the pineapple jam and your imagination will conjure up all the different ways you can enjoy it.

18 November 2016: My Kim’s choice was a slightly modified Jack and Dianne (which she ordered not because she likes the John Mellencamp song by that name) which comes standard with sauteed garlic mushrooms and Jack cheese.  Kim asked that the Jack cheese be eighty-sixed and substituted grilled onions instead.  The last trade that good was when the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta for a song and dance.  There’s something almost magical about earthy garlic-infused mushrooms paired with sweet, almost caramelized onions.  Lest I forget, the beef is of superior caliber, a delicious, nicely seasoned patty of about six-ounces.  Burgers at Toro are so good you can dispense with mustard and ketchup.

Travis Pastrami

19 November 2016: So impressed were we after our inaugural visit that we couldn’t wait to return.  It took us only one day to make like McArthur.  To avoid marital strife, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would order the pastrami sandwich (Kim wins so many coin tosses she must have a two-headed coin).  Called the Travis Pastrami, the sandwich is constructed on grilled light rye bread smeared with hot mustard and piled generously with the housemade pastrami about which James, our affable guide had waxed poetic.  The sandwich comes standard with sauerkraut, but Kim opted to have it on the side.  As with all great pastrami, this one’s got plenty of marbling.  That’s where so much of the flavor comes from. Well, that a meticulous, painstakingly monitored brining, curing, smoking process.  It’s obvious Chef Ryan knows what he’s doing.  Only at Joe Rodriguez’s California Pastrami will you find pastrami this good. 

19 November 2016: Our inaugural visit taught us to be more judicious about ordering appetizers. Instead of, for example, ordering an overly generous platter of chile cheese fries and risk being near-full when entrees arrive, opt for the pulled pork sliders (three slow-cooked pulled pork sliders with a red chile BBQ sauce and house slaw).  Tender tendrils of pork nestled between pillowy soft bread rolls is just the beginning.  The red chile BBQ sauce is more tangy than it is piquant, but it infuses the pork with a delightful liveliness.  Ditto for the coleslaw which imparts tangy, creamy notes. There’s only one thing wrong with these sliders–you’ll want at least two (or eight) more.

Pulled Pork Sliders

19 November 2016: Having lost the coin flip and thus the opportunity to order the pastrami sandwich didn’t make me a Miss Congeniality.  There are just too many terrific options on the menu, each one a winner.  James recommended the catfish dinner (buttermilk soaked fried catfish fingers tossed in a spicy cornmeal dredge and served with house-cut fries, slaw and a roasted corn tartar sauce).  Who would have thought Rio Rancho would become my go-to destination for catfish–first at K’Lynn’s Cuisine and now at Toro Burger?  The two planks of catfish placed gently atop a haystack-sized pile of French fries are terrific–light, flaky and delicate with a bit of personality courtesy of a spice blend.  Dip the catfish into the roasted corn tartar and the flavor profile changes altogether.  This is the tartar sauce for those of us who don’t like tartar sauce courtesy of sweet corn niblets that serve as a nice foil to other savory elements.

Catfish Dinner

18 November 2016: Even among the most creative and experienced chefs, desserts are often a challenge, one usually left to an assistant or pastry chef.  Chef Ryan may be just as adept at desserts as he is with savory elements.  As with everything that comes out of his kitchen, there’s plenty of imagination in every dish.  There’s also quite a bit of magic.  Our introduction to his prowess with postprandial aspects of a meal was with a crustless cheesecake.  Well, there is a crust, but it’s not Graham crackers or anything of the like.  This “crust” is comprised of thinly sliced red apples atop of which rests a molded round cheesecake topped with a green chile compote punctuated by more thin apple slices.  The green chile compote has both piquant and sweet elements, a perfect foil for the tangy apples and even sweeter cheesecake.  We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this masterpiece.

Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote

19 November 2016: We weren’t surprised at how much we enjoyed Chef Ryan’s housemade ice cream sandwich.  Now, this one does have a Graham cracker crust which sandwiches a layer of chocolate ganache and a thick wedge of chocolate ice cream.  The ice cream sandwich arrives at your table in a frozen state.  You’ll be advised to let it sit for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.  Would that we had such discipline.  No sooner had it arrived at our table than we began to gnaw on it.  Our sole complaint about this delightful ice cream treat is how small it is–maybe four inches.  It’s not the ice cream sandwich behemoth you’ll find at Rude Boy Cookies, but it’s just as good.

Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich

19 November 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, will be happy to hear Toro Burger’s dessert menu includes a bread pudding, perhaps one worthy of inclusion on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  This particular bread pudding, resplendent with the presence of sweet-tangy peaches and topped with a vanilla icing is reminiscent of peach cobbler, albeit just a bit sweeter.  Though some might consider them anachronistic, bread pudding and cobbler are two of my very favorite desserts and for some of the same reasons.  What we enjoyed most about Toro’s rendition is the interplay of different flavors to compose a cohesive, absolutely delicious whole.  Next time, however, we may ask for the green chile compote instead of the vanilla icing.

Peach Bread Pudding

Peach Bread Pudding

If you visited any one of Toro Burger’s predecessors at the Rio Rancho Howard Johnson’s, you likely weren’t very impressed.  Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Toro Burger.   It’s better…much better.  Chef Ryan’s burger creations are not to be missed and you’ll be well taken care of by James, the restaurant’s whirling dervish server whose recommendations you can take to the bank.

Toro Burger
1465 Rio Rancho Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1700
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Cheese Fries, Fried Pickles, Jack and Dianne Burger, Mo’ Better Burger, Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote, Peach Bread Pudding, Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich, Pulled Pork Sliders, Catfish Dinner, Travis Pastrami, French Fries, Onion Things

Toro Burger Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saigon 2 Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Saigon 2 Restaurant in Rio Rancho

In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, numerology is very important.  If you’ve traveled extensively, you may have wondered why the term “Pho” followed by a number is so commonplace.  Often these numbers are considered lucky–and not necessarily across an entire culture.  A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner.  Espy a restaurant named Pho 66and the number  66 may well represent the year the owner fled Vietnam during the war.  Restaurants named Pho 75 may well be honoring 1975, the year Saigon fell.  Numerical repetition is also considered fortuitous.  The City of Vision certainly counts the number eleven as a lucky number.

November 11th, 2011 at precisely 11 o’clock AM (11/11/11 at 11AM) saw the launch of Rio Rancho’s third Vietnamese restaurant when Saigon 2 Restaurant opened its doors on Southern Boulevard.  The restaurant is situated in an 1,800 square foot space that’s about a thousand feet smaller than Saigon Restaurant, its elder sibling on San Mateo.  Because the Rio Rancho restaurant is smaller, the menu is somewhat abbreviated–115 items instead of 145 items.  Fish dishes are not be served in Saigon 2, but for the most part, the dishes prepared incomparably well at the original Saigon are also available in its sibling.

Saigon 2 Main Dining Room

Owner Vicki Truong could well have named her first restaurant Pho 88 in honor of 1988, the year she left Vietnam or she could have named it Pho 2000 in honor of the year she arrived in Albuquerque and launched her first restaurant.  She chose instead to honor the former capital of South Vietnam, now more often called Ho Chi Minh City.  Since launching her first restaurant, she’s garnered a tremendous following among devotees of Vietnamese cuisine.  She still spends most of her time at her original restaurant, entrusting her capable staff in Rio Rancho to uphold the high standards for which her restaurants are known. 

Vicki does try to spend Sundays in her Rio Rancho restaurant, flitting between the kitchen and the dining room, addressing her guests as “honey” or “sweetie” and ensuring their comfort.  She is one of the most personable restaurateurs in the metropolitan area and one of the very best Vietnamese chefs in New Mexico.  The latter is especially surprising considering that when she first arrived in the States, she couldn’t cook.  She learned how to cook at the Vietnamese restaurant in which she worked in San Jose, California.  That makes her mastery of Vietnamese cooking a marvel.

The best egg rolls in the Albuquerque area

SaiGon is the only restaurant for which I’d list egg rolls as an absolute “must have” (typically, especially at Chinese restaurants, egg rolls should be categorized as “must avoid.”) These cigar shaped treasures, served with a tangy fish sauce, are among the very best I’ve had anywhere. They explode with the flavor of perfectly seasoned ground pork and vegetables encased in a crispy, deep-fried yellow wrapper. Served six to an order, it might be advisable to request two orders to keep peace in the family. As with other appetizers, the greenery (cilantro, mint and Thai basil) isn’t there solely as plate decoration. Vicki expects that her guests will wrap just about their egg rolls on a lettuce leaf and add cilantro and Thai basil to taste–and if you don’t, she’ll certainly talk you into it.

If you ever espy a diner at one of the Duke City’s Vietnamese restaurants wrapping something that’s already wrapped (egg rolls) in lettuce, chances they picked up that habit at SaiGon under Vickie’s tutelage. It’s the way we now like them, but only at SaiGon where generous amounts of Thai basil and cilantro along with some of the very best fish sauce in town enliven the best egg rolls in town. The only drawback is dipping them into the fish sauce which can be a pretty messy proposition.

Steamed Vermicelli with Grilled Onion Beef

Very much a “beefaholic,” my very favorite entree, found in the “salted dishes” portion of the menu, is grilled onion beef, an order of which features ten cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled white onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion. Every bite is like an adventure in culinary flawlessness with tastes that awaken and tantalize your taste buds. The beef rolls are thin (but not carpaccio thin) and have a more than subtle smoky sweet fragrance. You can eat these sans fish sauce or with fish sauce. They’re terrific either way.

Another way to have the grilled onion beef is with steamed vermicelli fashioned into one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern.  At May Hong, these noodles are called patter noodles.  The noodles are cut into squares about four-inches in diameter.  This entree (#46 on the menu) is served with a bowl of lettuce, carrots, daikon, cucumbers, bean sprouts, basil and cilantro.  Obviously, the intent is to use the lettuce as the outer wrap in which you layer the vermicelli noodles, grilled onion beef and vegetables into a lettuce roll to be dipped in fish sauce.  It’s a messy option, but unbelievably good.

Rare Beef with Rice Noodle Soup

If you suffer from triskaidekaphobia (fear or avoidance of the number 13), you might not order the #13 beef noodle soup at Saigon 2.  You’d be depriving yourself of one of the best pho dishes in the metropolitan area, a brimming, swimming-pool sized bowl of luxurious beef pho with rare beef, buttery rice noodles, scallions, cilantro and sundry herbs.  Perhaps the only aspect of this soup more pleasurable than how it tastes is the aroma which precedes its arrival at your table.  Steam wafts toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils, a precursor to a soup that known to make grown men (at least this one) swoon. 

There are Vietnamese cuisine aficionados who will tell you the only restaurant equal to or better than Saigon 2 is the original Saigon.  Both have made visitors believe in luck and it’s all good.

Saigon 2 Restaurant
2003 Southern Blvd Suite, S.E., 105-106
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505-896-0099
LATEST VISIT: 12 November 2016
1st VISIT:  18 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Egg Rolls, Rare Beef With Rice Noodle Soup, Special Clay Pot with Grilled Chicken

Saigon 2 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

ChocGlitz & Cream – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ChocoGlitz & Cream in Albuquerque (Just Barely)

To whom should you turn when you want a recommendation you can trust for great ice cream?   Your natural inclination is probably to ask a kid.  Kids, particularly those in the age group two through twelve, consume more ice cream than any other American demographic.  Alas, kids in the aforementioned age group are like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials. They like everything (except maybe coffee flavored ice cream) and aren’t quite as discerning as ice cream paramours in other age groups.  So, why not trust an adult for a recommendation?  Research has shown that contrary to children, adults tend to prefer the same few flavors for which they’ve developed a preference over the course of their lives (talk about getting set in their ways and losing the sense of adventure).

So, to whom does this overgrown kid in an adult’s body turn for advice on great ice cream?  Would you believe I get my ice cream advice from Stefan, one of my two favorite baristas at Rio Rancho’s sublime Cafe Bella.  Here’s why.  Baristas tend to have rather refined palates–they have to considering coffee has almost twice as many flavor characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does–and are able to discern flavor nuances and qualities most of us can’t detect.   When barista extraordinaire Stefan, told me about his favorite place for ice cream, he didn’t just tell me he liked it.  He gave me a detailed flavor profile analysis, describing flavors, ingredients, textures, milk fat content and other qualities only a connoisseur would understand.

Deliciousness Everywhere you Turn

When we stepped into ChocGlitz for the first time, owner-chocolatier Celeste Davis asked how we found out about her charming establishment.  No sooner had we told her our barista recommended it than she responded with “oh, you must mean Michael” as in Michael Gonzales, the effusive owner of Cafe Bella.  Michael, it turns out, frequents ChocGlitz with his beautiful family.  It didn’t surprise us in the least that culinary professionals we respect so much would visit ChocGlitz which just might be Albuquerque’s very best chocolate and ice cream shop.  It’s almost Rio Rancho’s very best chocolate and ice cream shop, too, being situated just south of the Presbyterian Rust Medical Center on Unser Blvd. near the demarcation line between the Duke City and the City of Vision.

ChocGlitz & Cream opened its doors in July, 2014 and almost immediately began garnering not only local accolades, but national attention.  In February, 2015, ChocGlitz staffers created a five-foot chocolate sculpture depicting trees, fairies and woodland creatures for a Food Network program called Outrageous Chocolate.  That painstaking effort took a bit longer than 200 hours.  While Celeste doesn’t have to take nearly as much time in crafting the tempting chocolates on display daily at the shop, it’s obvious hers is a labor of love…and of deliciousness.   ChocGlitz literally surrounds you with eye candy everywhere you turn.

Caramel Apples for Kids of All Ages

Celeste hand-crafts almost all the chocolates sold at the store using fair-trade certified chocolate (ensuring cocoa farmers are paid fair wages and don’t use child or slave labor).  ChocGlitz offers a treasure trove of beguiling treats such as fudge, caramel apples, caramel corn, chocolate-dipped Oreos, hand-made truffles, cheesecakes and many other chocolate specialties.  A whopping 95-percent of the chocolates sold at ChocGlitz are made on the premises with a handful of fair-trade chocolates (and such rarities as Mallow Cups) brought in to complement the locally made product.  All ice creams are also made on the premises.

21 November 2015: With a sensory overload of aromas and sights threatening to engulf us, we started our ChocGlitz adventure with ice cream: a scoop each of raspberry-red chile and salted caramel on a waffle cone for me and a scoop each of egg nog and pumpkin spice, also on a waffle cone for my Kim.  The raspberries for the raspberry-red chile ice cream come from Heidi’s Raspberries in Corrales so you know they’re of the highest quality.  Common denominators in all four ice cream flavors are smoothness, creaminess, delicateness and richness.  These are the hallmark of ice cream greatness, the qualities of which Stefan bragged.  Those qualities make for the type of ice cream with which you want to take your time, the type that releases its nuanced flavors as it melts on your tongue.  A good amount of milk-fat contributes the quality of “mellowness,” coupling with the natural flavors to seduce your taste buds, not attack them.

Left: Raspberry-Red Chile and Salted Caramel; Right: Egg Nog and Pumpkin Spice

21 November 2015: The Cracker Jacks jingle with which some of us grew up boasts of “candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize!  That’s what you get in Cracker Jacks!”  After sampling the bacon caramel corn at ChocGlitz, I became immediately convinced that Cracker Jacks got it wrong.  Instead of candy-coated peanuts, Cracker Jacks should have used bacon.  During the third annual Southwest Bacon Fest, ChocoGlitz introduced a number of bacon products which were very well received.  The bacon caramel combines two great ingredients–possibly the very best caramel corn you’ve ever had and bacon, that addictive pork candy America loves.

11 September 2016:  Though the raspberry-red chile ice cream could easily become a lifetime habit, how can you possibly know whether or not you’re going to enjoy another flavor more unless you try them all.  That’s my attitude and the sole reason for not ordering it again.  At ChocoGlitz there are no consolation prizes, no Miss Congenialities.  Every flavor is a winner.  That includes one scoop of malted milk balls ice cream and one scoop of Rocky Road on a waffle cone.  The malted milk balls ice cream, in particular, is rich and utterly addictive with a nice malted milk ball to ice cream ratio.

Chocolate Oreos and Walnut Clusters (Milk Chocolate and Dark Chocolate)

11 September 2016:  A cavalcade of chocolates in a glass display case would tempt the most disciplined of dieters.  Every conceivable chocolate confection possible is available including some of which Willie Wonka never imagined.  My Kim’s favorites are the chocolate Oreos covered in milk chocolate while my preference are walnut clusters, one milk chocolate and another dark chocolate.  They’re so good they’ve never made it home where we can have them with milk.  We’re barely out of the parking lot before they’re gone, pleasant memories left in their delicious wake. 

30 October 2016:  The painful trauma of having lost a tooth to an especially sticky caramel apple kept me away from the delectable autumn treat for several decades.  It wasn’t until Dazzling Deanell told me how much she enjoyed the caramel apples at ChocGlitz that the thought of indulging in one even revisited my mind.  Deciding which one to order proved a challenge.  Behind a multi-level glass case at ChocGlitz, you’ll find irresistible artisanal caramel apples nothing like the boring monochromatic caramel apples of my youth. Caramel apples, it turns out, have become grown-up and gourmet.  They’re made with imagination as well as love.  The English Toffee Caramel Apple is so much better than my memories could recall, so good it’s still on my mind.  A slightly sour Granny Smith apple coated in a rich, buttery English toffee drizzled in chocolate and sprinkled with a salty foil in the form of chopped pecans.  It’s the perfect combination of sweet, savory and sour in an attractive package, sliced for easy handling.

English Toffee Candy Apple

If you’re not happy with the ice cream you’re finding in your neighborhood, there’s no guarantee your barista will be able to recommend something better.  That is, unless that barista has been to ChocGlitz & Cream, quite possibly the best chocolate and ice cream shop in the metropolitan area.

ChocGlitz & Cream
10660 Unser Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-898-GLTZ (4589)
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 30 October 2016
1st VISIT: 21 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Raspberry-Red Chile Ice Cream; Salted Caramel Ice Cream; Egg Nog Ice Cream; Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream; Bacon Caramel Corn; Dark English Toffee; Cashew Turtle, English Toffee Caramel Apple

ChocGlitz & Cream Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Shake Foundation – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Shake Foundation in Santa Fe (front 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.

The Shake Foundation in Santa Fe (side 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 for fifty years housed a gas station, 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

31 March 2014: 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

17 September 2016: 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. Note: On occasion, Santa Fe’s Bang Bite Filling Station constructs an even more amazing oyster po’ boy.

17 September 2016:  From 1983 through 1993, a tiny restaurant on Cornell Avenue named Sheepherder’s Café made eating lamb not only fashionable, but immensely satisfying and incomparably delicious. Its specialty was the Lamburger, a thick, charbroiled lamb patty served on a sourdough bun with homemade salsa.   Since its much lamented closure, I’ve sought to replicate that uniquely wonderful dining experience to no avail.   That is, until we discovered the Shake Foundation’s New Mexico Shepherd’s Lamb Burger, a burger I topped with Monterey Jack cheese and green chile.  If taste buds have a memory, my first bite of this super-sized slider transported me back to the Sheepherder’s Cafe and every bite thereafter reinforced the experience.  This burger quickly became my second favorite burger in Santa Fe behind only the Santa Fe Bite‘s green chile cheeseburger.  It’s an amazing burger!  That is, it’s an amazing burger when it’s made with double meat.  To taste and appreciate that meat, you’ll have to strip the burger of the ripe, red tomatoes and crisp lettuce.  Even then, it brought to mind the Wendy’s commercials of yore which lamented “where’s the beef.”

New Mexico Shepherds Lamb Burger

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: 17 September 2016
1st VISIT: 31 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
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, Double Meat New Mexico Shepherd’s Lamb Burger

Shake Foundation Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Plaza Cafe Southside – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Plaza Cafe Southside

Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant (circa 1918), the Plaza Cafe is so popular that long waits to be seated are commonplace. Compound that with the hassle of trying to find a parking spot that isn’t a marathon’s length to walk to and from the Cafe then having to navigate through throngs of awestruck tourists and it’s a restaurant we don’t visit as often as we’d like.  Our visits might become even more infrequent thanks to the 2003 launch of the Plaza Cafe’s sister restaurant (albeit a sister that’s 84 years younger) on Santa Fe’s south side.

Neon Spangled Interior Festooned with Colorful Art

The Plaza Cafe Southside, situated in San Isidro Plaza on Zafarano Drive, is a welcome respite from the challenges inherent with trying to dine in the teeming tourist traversed Plaza area. It’s one of an increasing number of excellent restaurants situated well outside Santa Fe’s well beaten, well eatin’ Plaza area.  It’s also one of several very good restaurants within easy walking distance of the Regal Cinemas 14.  It’s the Plaza Cafe Southside’s second home.  For its first six years, the Cafe occupied cozy, but cramped confines within a motel off Cerrillos.

You Can’t Help But Smile

The Plaza Cafe Southside is the brainchild of Leonard Razatos who “wanted to bring a little of the old Santa Fe to the new Santa Fe.” A “new” Santa Fe can certainly describe the burgeoning south side which has shown tremendous growth over the past decade. “Old” Santa Fe begins and ends with the famous Santa Fe Plaza, fittingly home to the Plaza Cafe, the city’s oldest restaurant. In 1947, Greek immigrant Dionysi “Danny” Razatos, purchased the restaurant and together with his wife and six children has fed Santa Fe ever since. Leonard upholds the family tradition within the trappings of a modern edifice which might not work well in the architectural restricted plaza area.

Karen Webb, One of Santa Fe’s Most Famous (And Beloved) Waitresses

Where the Cafe’s first digs were cramped and cozy, its new home is capacious and comfortable. Despite the modernity of high ceilings, industrial-style ductwork and steel girders, the Cafe retains the appearance of an old-fashioned diner. Undulating neon festoons the service area where an industrious wait staff delivers and picks up orders. Suspended from the ceiling is a colorful four-sided mural depicting the culture of Santa Fe, not so much in an idyllic fashion, but in a mode which might best describe the things that make it the “City Different.” The bar soffit mural painted by local artist Robb Rael depicts the Zozobra, skeletal images from el Dia de los Muertos, pueblo-style architectural homes and more, all in the artist’s unique interpretive style. It, too, is festooned by 1950s style neon.

The first thing you notice when you walk in to the Plaza Cafe Southside is a dessert case that’s wider than it is tall. Behind glass are some of the most sumptuous, calorie-laden confections ever crafted. It’s a wonder there aren’t tongue trails on the glass because behind it, just waiting for hungry diners, are the Plaza Cafe’s famous cajeta apple pecan pie, served in huge slabs with or without ice cream. There’s also the fabulous coconut cream pie (in a macaroon shell), pastel tres leches and other mouth-watering desserts.

In The Event of An Emergency

Step into the restaurant on a lazy Sunday morning and it’s a good bet you’ll be cheerfully greeted by Karen Webb, one of the city’s most famous and beloved hostesses. Karen gained a modicum of fame on the terrific documentary American Waitresses: New Mexico, a feature film that examines the lives, attitudes, perceptions and experiences of waitresses. Karen came across as the very effusive and warm soul she is. A mainstay at the Plaza Cafe Southside, she greets guests with an endearing “darling” or “baby,” eliciting hearty hugs from many of them. She’s a true ambassador for the Cafe, pointing out the historical photographs on the wall and inviting guests to make themselves at home. When I asked if I could photograph her, she joked with another guest about “posing for a nudie.”

The Dessert Case

Their classic American diner showcases traditional cooking methods and time-honored ingredients that would make many a New Mexican abuelita proud indeed.  In addition to excellent New Mexican  and Mexican food, the restaurant features a few Greek entrees as well as American diner favorites and blue-plate specials.  The menu is a veritable compendium of home-style diner cuisine New Mexico style with something for everyone.  Some time-honored recipes have been “improved upon” with inventive ingredients in exciting combinations.  Other recipes haven’t been “tampered” with and might remind you of the home cooking you got at home as a child. 

Peruse the menu and quality-conscious diners will certainly appreciate reading “A Few Things We’re Proud of.”   “We use local New Mexico heritage ranch, grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef.  We use only cage-free eggs.  We bake all our pastries and desserts from scratch daily using only the highest quality ingredients.  All our breads are from scratch using only the highest quality ingredients.  Our corn and flour tortillas are from a local tortillera and are free of preservatives and artificial ingredients.”  How can you not love that if you care about quality?

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

The Southside Cafe shares most of the same menu with its sister restaurant. There are a few notable exceptions, one being the absence of the elder sibling’s roasted garlic and carnitas quesadillas, an appetizer for which you’d brave the teeming throngs.  Similar to the Plaza Cafe, the Southside Cafe features oversized plastic menus emblazoned with a round image of the heavily trafficked Santa Fe plaza at the height of bustling activity. The menu is several pages long and reads like a great novel; it’s very hard to put down and even harder to make a decision as to what to order.

That menu includes several “aguas frescas,” the refreshing at any time beverages becoming increasingly popular in New Mexico. The Cafe has its own interesting twists on traditional aguas frescas.  That includes a prickly pear lemonade made with tangy prickly pear puree and even prickly pear horchata, an exotic blend of almond, cinnamon and rice water with tangy prickly pear puree. The latter is an interesting departure from what can be a cloying beverage and will amaze you at how well two unique flavors meld together.  For those cold mornings in which your belly needs some anti-freeze, the Ibarra Mexican hot chocolate has your number.  It’s a strong hot chocolate with a rich flavor.

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

The appetizer section features New Mexican, Mexican, Greek and American options.  If in the mood for something Greek, hummus and pita are available. The hummus, a puree of tahini, lemon, garlic, onion and garbanzo beans is oh so garlicky delicious. This terrific appetizer is served with warm pita bread.  Typical of the surprising inventiveness of the menu is the fried calamari with jalapeños, tender calamari dusted with flour, flash-fried and garnished with salt, pepper and jalapeños then served with a habanero dipping sauce that’s positively piquant.

28 July 2007: If a more traditional Mexican appetizer is what you’re after,  the Cafe’s housemade blue, yellow and red corn tortilla chips and three salsas (Chipotle, tomatillo and pico de gallo) is a terrific triumvirate. All three salsas are sensational and all have capsaicin enriched potency (translation: they bite back). The Chipotle salsa has a wonderfully smoky taste and is perhaps the most piquant of the three. It may also be the most addicting and will probably be the first one you finish. Guacamole and chips are also available as is a mountainous plate of nachos (tortilla chips, beans, chipotle salsa, chile con queso, chorizo, jalapeños, lettuce and tomato).

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

28 July 2007: The “Specials” section includes several items in which the chef’s artistic interpretations crossed into the realm of non-traditional mixing of cultures. That would apply to the Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero lasagna.  The salmon filet is entree sized in and of itself. It’s a flame-grilled six-ounce slab of salmon marinated in garlic, cilantro and olive oil. It is fork-tender and surprisingly moist as well as imbued with discernable smokiness courtesy of the grill.  See the word “Habañero” attached to any entree and you’re bound to think incendiary, pain-inducing, eye-watering, mouth-scalding, too hot to handle, torturous pepper.

At the Cafe, the Tomato-Habañero Lasagna is surprisingly scaled down heat-wise. In fact, the hotter-than-Hell pepper’s most discernable quality is the fruitiness with which it imbues the lasagna. It complements the acidic tomatoes and rich ricotta cheese very well. This is an excellent lasagna.  As with other Italian inspired entrees at the Cafe, the tomato sauce is applied lightly so that it ameliorates, not dominates, the flavor profile.  The sauce has a flavor quite like fresh tomatoes seasoned with garlic and basil.  It’s an excellent sauce for lasagna or any other Italian pasta.

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

28 July 2007: What best defines comfort food?  Many surveys will tell you it’s meatloaf and that just happens to be the Cafe’s specialty. Appropriately, it used to be found on the menu’s Blue Plate section; now it’s  the special of the day on Tuesdays. This isn’t your mama’s meatloaf, unless you’re from New Mexico. This is New Mexico meatloaf stuffed with vegetables (sweet corn nibblets stand out), cheese and green chile.  Unlike the meatloaf at many a diner, the Cafe’s version doesn’t have that annoying crust you have to cut through to get to the moist part. This is one of the most moist meatloaves you’ll find anywhere…and the green chile, vegetable and cheese combination imbues it with qualities that render it sublime. The meatloaf is served with mashed potatoes and gravy as well as sautéed broccoli and carrots.

23 January 2011: From the blue-plate special comes a spaghetti and meatballs entree which might have you saying “That’s amore!” with every bite.  It’s the Plaza Cafe’s spaghetti with meatballs served with a tomato-marjoram sauce, bacon and Parmesan cheese.  Bacon, as everyone knows, makes everything better and the Cafe’s menu boasts of “Santa Fe’s best bacon.”  You won’t find bacon in every bite, but oh those spoonfuls blessed with bacon are special.  The tomato-marjoram sauce is light and thin, emphasizing the flavor of tomatoes and not some thick tomato paste.  Marjoram, by the way, is a member of the oregano-mint family.  It’s similar to oregano, but somewhat milder.  The spaghetti noodles are perfectly al dente.

Spaghetti & Meatballs with Bacon Tomato Sauce: Meatballs, tomato-marjoram sauce, spaghetti, bacon + parmesan cheese, grilled focaccia

23 January 2011: Yet another blue plate special which takes off where ordinary fish and chips leave off is a spicy rendition made from beer-battered cod served with a habanero tartar sauce and jalapeño malt vinegar.  It’s the type of fish and chips the irascible Captain Quint from the movie Jaws would eat while daring the scholarly Matt Hooper to follow suit.   Just as the two tried to out-macho one another by showing off their “battle” scars, it’s easy to imagine the two dousing their beer-battered cod filets in the jalapeño malt vinegar then chasing them down with the habanero tartar sauce all the while daring the other to spice it up even more.

To be honest, neither the jalapeño malt vinegar nor the habanero tartar sauce are that piquant, but it makes for a good story to tell.  It also makes for a very good, very different fish and chips dish.  The cod filets are light and flaky with a beer-batter that’s light enough to allow the superb malt vinegar to impregnate the filets with a terrific tartness.  The “chips” are red chile fries, actually just fries lightly dusted with red chile.  They’re great fries.  Instead of some insipid salad cream, the slaw is made with an apple cider vinegar-like sauce that makes the slaw lip-pursing tangy.

Spicy Fish & Chips: beer-battered cod fillet with habanero tartar sauce, jalapeño malt vinegar and red chile fries, slaw

28 July 2007: For just a pittance, you can add a dinner salad to any entree. As is the case with every item on the menu, this isn’t a blasé and boring salad. It’s mixed greens, strips of jicama, julienne carrots, wedges of tomato, garbanzo beans and more. Ask for the citrus vinaigrette to enliven the salad even further.  If a satisfying salad is what you crave for your entree, consider the menu’s six salads which include a Greek Chicken Souvlaki salad and an inspired Middle Eastern salad (mixed greens, roasted beets and carrots, red cabbage, toasted almonds, cumin seeds, hummus, falafel, pita bread served with a cumin-lemon vinaigrette).

It may be entirely possible that breakfast, served day and night, is even better than lunch and dinner. The menu lists five early morning themes–eggs & omelets, pancakes & French toast, breakfast specialties, bakeshop offerings and platos nativos–and it will be a challenge to figure out what eye-opening entree to have.  One certainty is the thick-cut, sugar-cured bacon which surely must be the best bacon in Santa Fe.  It’s a must have.

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

5 August 2007: The platos nativos (native plates) section features traditional New Mexican entrees such as blue corn enchiladas. Layers of blue corn tortillas, Cheddar cheese and eggs are slathered with the Plaza Cafe’s dark red chile and served with hashed browns and beans.  Because the red and green chile are equally wonderful, ask for your enchiladas “Christmas” style and each mouthful will be a treat. Neither chile is mild.  Red and green chile are available at medium-hot or extra hot and if you’re not certain as to your tolerance level, ask for a sample or order your chile on the side.  The menu’s disclaimer reads “We cannot be responsible for chile that is too hot.” 

14 August 2016: For some strange reason, my Kim prefers her breakfast burritos “deconstructed,” that is with the tortilla on the side. She prefers folding bits of tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” and loading them up with the burrito’s constituents in the proportions and combinations she wants. Usually that means I inherit at least half the frijoles. Whether served the way New Mexico’s chile gods intended or deconstructed, the Plaza Cafe’s breakfast burritos are the bomb! Credit much of that to the piquancy and deliciousness of the chile. The green chile, in particular, not only bites back but has a fruitiness that’ll open your eyes (and nasal passages).

Breakfast Tacos

A word about the hashed browns–they’re amazing! Most hashed browns look and taste like confetti, but not at the Plaza Cafe. These shredded tubers are prepared with onion and are just slightly crispy. Best of all, they actually taste like potatoes and not some paper derivative. You won’t leave any on your plate. The beans are also terrific.  They’re the type of means your abuelita might have prepared years ago. 

14 August 2016Breakfast tacos are oft-attempted, but rarely imbued with the eye-opening deliciousness you crave first thing in the morning.  Plaza Cafe Southside’s version are the best, by far, we’ve ever had.  Picture two soft corn tortillas engorged with scrambled eggs and calabasitas with your choice of meat (Santa Fe’s best bacon, of course) or veggie sausage as well as avocado, cheese, cilantro, onion, chipotle salsa and a side of pinto beans and hash browns.  Individual ingredients coalesce into a mouth-watering whole with several flavor stand-outs.   Among them are the al dente calabasitas, as fresh and delicious as you’ll find anywhere.  The chipotle salsa is so good we requested a second ramekin which we spooned directly into our eagerly awaiting mouths.   The accompanying frijoles, blanketed by molten white Cheddar, and hash browns are wonderful.

“Deconstructed” Breakfast Burrito

14 August 2016: For some reason my Kim prefers her breakfast burritos “deconstructed,” that is with the tortilla on the side.  She folds pieces of tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” into which she piles on the other ingredients in the proportions and combinations she wants (meaning fewer frijoles).  Whether in the form New Mexico’s culinary gods intended or deconstructed, the Plaza Cafe’s breakfast burrito is a paragon of deliciousness.  Credit much of that to an incendiary chile that’s not only piquant, but oh, so flavorful.  It’s impossible for me to chide her for her non-traditional approach to burritos because I usually inherit most of the beans on her plate.

5 August 2007: If your sweet tooth is acting up in the morning, the lemon ricotta pancakes will take care of it. Topped with fresh blueberries, these magnificent orbs are so sweet you might not even need syrup. An equal pronouncement of tanginess and sweetness make these pancakes dessert-like and absolutely delicious. The pancakes are available in quantities of one or two per order.  The Plaza’s pancake line-up also includes made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes and blue corn pancakes with orange butter and cinnamon syrup.  It’s a terrific triumvirate.

Lemon ricotta pancakes

Lemon ricotta pancakes

14 August 2016: Perhaps better than the pancakes, amazing as they are, are the restaurant’s signature French toast made from a thick-cut crunchy coated (with Kellog’s Corn Flakes) Challah bread.  Challah bread, a traditional Hebrew bread makes the best French toast, especially when sliced thick.  It has a pillowy-soft texture and an rich, egg enhanced flavor.  Challah bread also absorbs syrup (or honey, if you prefer).  The French toast are served in half (pictured below) or full-sized portions.

Challah Bread French Toast

14 August 2016: No matter how good your entrees might be, you absolutely must save room for desserts.  Make that a lot of room.  The desserts are humongous!  The green chile apple pie with a Cheddar crust, for example, is a huge slab of pie with about seven layers of stacked apples.  The Cheddar crust bottom and the crunchy top crust provide textural and flavor contrasts.  Ask for the pie to be served warm and for a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side, an unbeatable combination.

The other apple pie dish, the one made famous at the original Plaza cafe, is topped with cajeta, a Mexican caramel made from goat’s and cow’s milk.  It’s fully addictive, a far better caramel than the squeeze bottle variety.  The pie, of course, is delicious with sweet-tart apples.  A la mode is the best way to experience it because the Plaza Cafe uses a premium vanilla ice cream in which flecks of vanilla bean are prominent.

Green Chile Apple Pie with a Cheddar Crust

The Plaza Cafe Southside Cafe is so good it should be considered a dining destination in its own right, not a consolation prize for not wanting to face the challenges of eating at the Plaza. A reasonable bill of fare, excellent food, accommodating service and almost as important, easy parking make this an excellent choice at any time.

Plaza Cafe Southside
3466 Zafarano Drive (San Isidro Plaza)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 424-0755
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, New Mexico Meatloaf, Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero Lasagna, Prickly Pear Horchata, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Challah French Toast, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Spicy Fish & Chips, Breakfast Tacos, Chipotle Salsa, “Deconstructed” Breakfast Burrito

Plaza Cafe Southside Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Piatanzi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Piatanzi, the stuff of wishes…

Italy is an illusion, indeed, a mirage, the stuff of wishes.”
~Mario Luzi

In the 1996 motion picture Big Night, two Italian restaurants across the street from one another operate in diametric opposition to one another both philosophically and in practice.  One is enormously successful because it gives customers what they want and expect (even though savvy diners would consider the culinary fare mediocre and uninspired).  In the other restaurant, the chef is a perfectionist who will labor all day to create a perfect dish and becomes exasperated when diners don’t recognize the authentic culinary art he creates, preferring  “Americanized” Italian food instead.

You might think the American dining public would prefer the latter and reject the former.  Our inaugural visit to Piatanzi seems to indicate the opposite may be true in Albuquerque.  Our route to Piatanzi took us past an Olive Garden where throngs of patrons lined up to get their fill of mediocre Americanized Italian food.  When we arrived at Piatanzi, we practically had our choice of seating.  The cavernous restaurant was nearly empty on a Saturday at noon.  We could only hope this was an anomaly because diners should be beating down the doors to dine at any restaurant owned and operated by Chef-Owner Peter Lukes.

Piatanzi, an intimate milieu for magnificent Italian deliciousness (This is the Juan Tabo location)

Chef Lukes and his wife Maggie launched Piatanzi in May, 2014 after a 16-year-stint at Terra Bistro, one of the Duke City area’s very best Italian restaurants, despite violating the three most important tenets of successful restaurants: location, location, location.  Situated in the North Valley on heavily trafficked (mostly commuters trying to get to and from the west-side) Alameda, Terra was the very definition of a destination restaurant, one with a strong enough appeal to draw customers from beyond the city’s burgeoning Northwest side.

Piatanzi is much more centrally located than was Terra, although Girard is somewhat less trafficked than Alameda.  Located just a few blocks north of the University of New Mexico, Piatanzi occupies the space long held by the Grocery Emporium in a neighborhood that’s more residential than it is retail.  No vestiges of the grocery store remain.  Piatanzi is a beautiful space courtesy of Maggie Lukes, an über-talented interior designer with a flair for creating spaces which are both comfortably cozy and upscale.  A second instantiation was launched in 2015 in a 6,000-square-foot venue that used to house R & S Yamaha motorcycle dealership.  The transformation is spectacular!

Fano bread with a mix of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar

As much as we’ll miss Terra (and selfishly, our proximity to it), in time the lure of innovative and well-executed Italian cuisine will make Piatanzi a favorite.  Where Terra was more formal and upscale, Piatanzi is just a bit more casual and relaxed.  While Terra featured a more conventional antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci format, Piatanzi ‘s focus is on small plates similar to Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum.  Many of the familiar favorites from Terra are still available though scaled down to fit the format. 

The dinner menu at Piatanzi is segmented somewhat differently than at Terra, at least in terminology.  Starters or appetizers are called “Boccone” which translates to “morsels.”  Next on the menu is the “Giardino” or “Garden” section which lists the restaurant’s salads.  The “Fattoria or “Farm” section lists small plates of meats and cheeses while the “Mare” section lists seafood items.  The “Farina e Acqua which translates to “Flour & Water” is a compilation of pasta dishes.  Then there’s the “Pietra” or “Stone” which lists Piattini’s pizza selections.  The “Contorni” section lists sides. 

Ceviche Italiano

The Pièce de résistance is the “Grandi Piatti” or “Large Plates” section of the menu. This section features several items with which we were familiar from having dined at Terra.  On his outstanding blog Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings, my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, was especially effusive about the dinner menu which, unfortunately, is not available during the lunch hour.  Serendipitously, we did visit on the day Piattini introduced its new weekend brunch menu so even though we missed out on the fabulous dinner menu, there were many terrific options available.  Note:  Brunch is no longer served on weekends, but you can sleep in and visit for dinner.

Alas not available at Piattini is the warm, fresh, house-made bread right out of the oven which was a staple at Terra.  It’s entirely unfair to consider bread from Albuquerque’s artisan Fano Bread bakery a consolation prize since it’s excellent bread, but the bread at Terra was peerless in the Duke City.  Still, Fano bread encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread.  When dipped into mixture of virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar the character of the bread really stands out.  If you’re not careful, however, you can easily fill up on bread.

Asparagi

27 September 2014: Time was the only restaurants in which you could find ceviche were either Peruvian or Mexican.  Today ceviche can be found in Japanese restaurants as well as avant-garde Italian eateries such as Piatanzi .  Each restaurant puts its own spin on a dish which is essentially seafood catalyzed in citrus juices.  At Piattini, the Ceviche Italiano ( scallop, shrimp, tuna, tomato, cucumber, lime, parsley, basil) would never be mistaken for the ceviche at a Mexican restaurant where the citrus flavors can be a bit overwhelming.  The emphasis at Piattini is on the freshness and natural flavor of the seafood and the way it plays against a lesser citrus influence.  The invigorating Italian basil and its peppermint-anise notes is a terrific twist. 

27 September 2014: Many adults grow up to rue the wasted years in which foods such as spinach, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus were feared and hated.  Fussy eaters as children sometimes become adventurous diners who grow up to love those foods they once avoided like a plague.  Asparagus is usually near the top of public enemy number one lists.  If asparagus was prepared everywhere as it is at Piatanzi, even persnickety diners would enjoy it.  The Asparagi (grilled asparagus, prosciutto di parma, balsamic vinaigrette, Gorgonzola cheese) is an amalgam of ingredients and flavors that complement one another very well though the grilled asparagus is excellent in its own right.

Salsiccia, a magnificent pizza!

29 July 2016: A cynical quote posits “who needs friends when you have pizza?”  During a Friends of Gil (FOG) dinner hosted by Piatanzi, several FOG members, including my Kim, ordered the pizza.  Perhaps the aforementioned quote should be reworded “When you have pizza, you have friends” (or vice-versa). Our long-time friend Jim March (Albuquerque’s bartender nonpareil, now plying his craft at Piatanizi) recommended the Salsiccia, knowing Kim is originally from Chicago where the sausage is sourced.  The Salsiccia (fennel sausage, roasted peppers, tomato sauce, blended cheeses) is a magnificent pie and the fennel sausage lives up to its name.  The fennel imparts an aromatic, mild licorice flavor that marries wonderfully with the pork-based sausage.  With a balance of crispiness and pliability, the crust is a terrific canvas for the bubbling cheese blend, roasted peppers and sausage. This pizza belongs on the pantheon of great pizzas along with the Funghi & Tartufo which you’ll read about next. 

19 January 2016: There are some ingredients on pizza that, at least for some of us, are solely “supporting cast.” For example, the “more is better” crowd wouldn’t conceive of constructing a pizza whose sole topping is black olives, red onions, green peppers or mushrooms. No, these are complementary ingredients, toppings which go well with pepperoni, sausage, bacon and the like. When my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling Deanell raved about a “mushroom” pizza, my first inclination was to dismiss it as “boring!” Larry went so far as to declare it the best pizza he’s ever had while Deanell confessed to having dreamed about it. It was a pizza I held off trying until I could share it with Larry and Deanell who’ve never steered me wrong. If anything, they may have undersold it.

Funghi & Tartufo (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

Piatanzi’s Funghi & Tartufo, a mushroom pizza is a masterpiece—constructed with a lavish field of criminis from each tapered slice’s triangular endpoint to the cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza. A sprinkling of Gruyere, strategically placed scallions and a liberal dousing of truffle oil on a crust that’s crispy or soft where it should be allowed the criminis to shine, imparting their earthy flavor profile in every bite. Truffle oil, the one ingredient surly cur Gordon Ramsey contends no self-respecting chef should have in his or her pantry, imparts an earthy, pungent aroma that complements the criminis very well. Ramsey should try this pizza. This probably isn’t a pizza everyone will enjoy, but if you’re a fan of the fetid, fleshy fungi, you’ll fall for this one.

29 July 2016: There are several items available for dinner that you won’t find on the lunch menu.  Since Piatanzi’s launch, Larry has raved to me about several of them, none more effusively than the Pescatore, an entree he ordered the first two times he visited the restaurant.  Pescatarians and landlubbers alike will love this dish which just may transport you back to San Francisco where similar dishes abound. Swimming in a delightfully assertive marinara and Pinot Grigio broth enlivened with chile flake are clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and some of the best potato gnocchi we’ve ever enjoyed.  The next time someone laments that you can’t find great seafood in Albuquerque, mention this dish.  Words can’t do it justice.

Pescatore for the Pescatarian in you

19 January 2016: While not quite as effusively as they raved about the mushroom pizza, Larry and Deanell waxed poetic about the deliciousness of Piatanzi’s calamari.  A plateful of calamari ringlets delicately dusted with a rice flour and lightly fried is the antithesis of the fried rubber band (typically denoting overcooking) calamari some restaurants serve.  Each ringlet is textbook perfect, described by Larry as “almost butter soft and tender.”  Though you can have the calamari with marinara, it’s best with the restaurant’s lemon aioli which lends the qualities of acidity and richness to some of the best calamari you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.

29 July 2016: Another of the aforementioned foods of my wasted youth are beets which novelist Tom Robbins described as “the most intense of vegetables.”   As a child, beets ranked with spinach and verdolagas (purslane) as vegetables to be feared and loathed.  Beets were so awful not even our omnivorous scrounging dogs would eat them.  In my estimation as an adult, beets can’t be beat.  They’re among my favorite vegetables.  Only at the phenomenal Blade’s Bistro in Placitas have we had beets as good as the Barabietola (beets, tomato, pickled fennel and red onion, goat cheese, walnuts) at Piatanzi.  Your taste buds will do a happy dance over the melange of flavors while your sense of esthetics will appreciate the sheer beauty of this dish…and if you’ve never had yellow beets, you’re in for a treat.  Paired with goat cheese, they’re spectacular.

Barabietola, a fabulous beet salad

Several years ago, a case could easily be made that great Italian restaurants in the metropolitan area were far and few in between.  Restaurants such as Piatanzi have certainly changed that perspective.  Piatanzi ranks with the best!

Bistro Piattanzi
1403 Girard, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 792-1700
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 27 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Asparagi, Fano Bread, Barabietola, Pescatore, Funghi & Tartufo, Salsiccia

Piatanzi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Poki Poki Cevicheria – Albuquerque, New. Mexico

Poki Poki Cevicheria on Central Avenue in the UNM area

Having settled comfortably into middle age, my favorite participatory sports of basketball and tennis have been replaced by more sedentary, safe and slothful pursuits.  Instead of getting my shot rejected almost as often as the cheerleaders in Peñasco spurned my offers of a burger at Victor’s Drive-in, I now delight in catching every grammatical faux pas, malapropism and inaccuracy uttered by the media–not a difficult challenge since the legendary and near infallible anchor Dick Knipfing retired.  

Instead of double-faulting on my serve eighteen times in a row, it’s answering questions which stump Jeopardy contestants that now gets my adrenaline pumping.  Alas, as a fogey who believes music died in the 70s and could not care less about Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling but count among my closest friends, the Albuquerque Adonis, Ryan “Break the Chain”  Scott, pop culture questions are my downfall. Case in point, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” was my answer to a recent question about a video game franchise from Japan.  The correct answer, of course, was Pokemon.  Pokemon?  I could have answered nearly all there is to know about Poke, the Hawaiian culinary craze that’s sweeping the mainland, but had absolutely no clue about this Pokemon creature.

Place your order and in a few minutes, your Poke adventure begins

Now let me tell you about Poke. Poke (sometimes spelled “poki” and always pronounced poh-kay) refers to a “chunked” marinated or seasoned raw fish dish that’s been served primarily as an appetizer in Hawaii for centuries. In fact, the Hawaiian term “poke” simply means to “chunk” or to “cut crosswise into pieces,” both aptly descriptive terms for the salad-like preparation of seafood that has been cut into small chunks and marinated. Largely influenced by Asian flavors and ingredients, poke can be–and is–made with almost any type of seafood and topped with a vast array of garnishes and sauces. As with sushi, the chef’s imagination often determines the composition and diversity of poke.

In Hawaii, poke is a ubiquitous comfort food, served in venues ranging from surf shacks to gourmet restaurants. The advent of poke’s popularity across the fruited plain can be attributed to our shrinking world and the popularity of Hawaii as a travel (and increasingly, a dining) destination. It’s only natural that enterprising chefs who fall in love with poke during forays to the island paradise would want to share this pescetarian phenomenon with their own customers. It may be an overstatement to say these chefs have reshaped the American mainland’s culinary culture, but it’s safe to say they may have introduced its most exciting new food trend in recent memory. Sushi hotbeds such as Los Angeles and San Francisco were among the first to embrace poke, but even landlocked destinations in the heartlands now boast of poke restaurants.

Spicy Bowl

In a recent discussion about food trends, my friend David, an accomplished chef and barista, lamented how often the Duke City is slow to embrace culinary trends that have captured seemingly every other major metropolitan market. He’s very happy to hear Albuquerque isn’t late to the poke party. On May 18th, Burque celebrated the official grand opening of Poki Poki Cevicheria, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant specializing in Hawaiian poke bowls with Latin flair and influence. Poki Poki is a family owned enterprise which allows intrepid diners to assemble their own poke bowls in a fashion similar to Chipotle’s assembly line process. Poki Poki Cevicheria is located on Central Avenue in the Brickyard District just across the street from the University of New Mexico.

If you’re a true foodie, two items on the preceding paragraph probably caught your eye. The first is the inclusion of the term “Cevicheria” on the restaurant’s name. The second is the term “Asian-Latin” fusion. Poki Poki actually takes a creative departure from the standard poke restaurant template by incorporating “Latin” ingredients and flavors with ingredients and flavors rooted in Hawaii. In Albuquerque, when Latin flavors are discussed, it’s often hand-in-hand with the name Elvis Bencomo, the brilliant chef-owner of Passion Latin Fusion. Elvis collaborated on the development of the restaurant’s sauces and chips (more on them later).

Hawaiian Bowl

Though not a true “cevicheria” as you might find throughout Latin America, Poki Poki, it can be said, is a sushi-meets-ceviche-meets-donburi (Japanese rice bowl dish) restaurant, the first, best and only of its kind in Albuquerque. It was difficult to contain my excitement when introducing my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell to Poki Poki. Larry, the professor with the perspicacious palate, told me he’d “been looking for a restaurant like this for a long time.” Deanell,a culinary bon-vivant who’s probably smarter than Larry and I combined, marveled at how the flavors just popped.

The build-your-own poke bowl concept has five distinct steps: (1) select your bowl (regular, large or unlimited and base (white rice, salad or chips); (2) Go fishing. Choose from albacore tuna, ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon or octopus. A regular bowl rewards you with three ounces of your choice, a large bowl with five ounces and an unlimited bowl with seven ounces. (3) Sauce it up. Choose from the house sauce, roasted jalapeno, passion fruit, red pepper, poki sauce, tosa-mi or fusion mayo. Heat ratings for the sauces range from mild to hot. (4) Toppings. With a regular bowl, you can select three toppings; with a large bowl, it’s five toppings and with an unlimited bowl, you can top the bowl until it’s full. (5) Finish it! Elevate its deliciousness with chipotle mayo, spicy mayo, teriyaki sauce, chimichurri or Sriracha.

Latin Bowl

15 May 2016: Unless or until you understand the flavors resultant from combining ingredients and sauces, you’re probably better off ordering one of Poki Poki’s “Special Bowls,” composed poke bowls ostensibly constructed by restaurant staffers after much delicious trial and effort.  Knowing my own gluttonous tendency to overstuff  salads with favorite ingredients, often to the detriment of flavor optimization, I opted for the Spicy Bowl during my inaugural visit.  With a base that’s half rice and half garlic chips;  spicy tuna and salmon; passion fruit; crab, avocado, cucumber, jalapeño, lime, green onion, pico de gallo and furikake (a Japanese seasoning) as toppings with chipotle mayo and Sriracha for sauces, this “better than any sushi roll” poke is an adventure in complementary flavors and textures, an addictively delicious bowl of stuff you probably never thought would be so good together.  The fresh, invigorating flavors will imprint themselves on your taste buds and for a while, all you’ll be able to think about is your next poke bowl.

17 May 2016: That next poke bowl transpired two days after my inaugural visit with the Hawaiian Bowl gracing my table.  This beauteous, bounteous bowl with a salad base; salmon, albacore and octopus; fusion mayo; a boatload of toppings (crab, avocado, seaweed salad, cucumber, pineapple, mango salsa, edamame, masago, ginger, sesame seeds and furikaki) and a teriyaki sauce is the antithesis of the Spicy Bowl.  Sweet notes are the prominent flavor profile though the sweetness of the teriyaki and the fructose tanginess of the mango salsa and pineapple are tempered by savory ingredients.  Because New Mexicans like their heat, ask the accommodating staff for some spicy mayo to give this bowl a hint of piquancy that marries well with other flavors. 

A Build-Your-Own Masterpiece

19 May 2016: The promised fusion qualities are best experienced in the Latin Bowl (white rice, octopus and albacore tuna, roasted jalapeño and red pepper sauce, avocado, jalapeño, plantain chips, lime, pico de gallo, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds with a chimichurri dressing).  All too often in New Mexico, Latin fusion means an insistence in using New Mexican green chile.  Wonderful as it is, green chile isn’t missed on the Latin Bowl which has plenty of other delicious heat generating ingredients.   With lime slices, you’re free to impart citrusy flavors to the albacore and octopus a la ceviche mixto, the popular Mexican restaurant offering.  The plantain chips as with the restaurant’s yam chips and garlic chips provide a textural contrast and delightful flavor complement to other ingredients.

29 July 2016: Since introducing my friend Bill Resnik to Poki Poki, it’s become a regular lunch destination for him.  He long ago graduated from ordering the prefab bowls and has been masterfully concocting his own creations.  A mathematician who graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology, Bill has an engineer’s mind with a mad scientist’s whimsy.  To see him point out ingredient combinations is to watch mad science or abstract art in action.  It’s not just “give me some of this and some of that.”  In his mind’s eye, he can actually taste what the intricate flavor combinations will be.  That’s why when we celebrated his birthday at Poki Poki, my instructions to our server were “just give me exactly what he’s having.”   Essentially, it was a melange of vegetables, seafood and sauces in complementary proportion to each other.  Alas, I probably wouldn’t be able to duplicate his masterpiece precisely, but should be able to create deliciousness on my own.  So can you!

The Poki Poki Cevicheria is so good, so radically different, so welcome that you just may do the Hokey Poki dance to celebrate finishing your first poke bowl even as you anxiously await your next.

Poki Poki Cevicheria
2300B Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1077
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 15 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Bowl, Hawaiian Bowl, Latin Bowl, Make-Your-Own Bowl

Poki Poki Cevicheria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1 2 3 12