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El Norteño – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Norteño's Second Albuquerque Location: On Montgomery and Wyoming

El Norteño On Montgomery and Wyoming

No Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque has a pedigree that approaches that of El Norteño, a venerable elder statesperson in the Duke City’s burgeoning and constantly evolving Mexican restaurant scene.  El Norteño has been pleasing local diners for more than a quarter of a century as evinced by its perennial selection as the city’s “Best Mexican” restaurant. Respondents to the Alibi’s annual “best of” poll accorded El Norteño that coveted accolade against increasingly more formidable competition every year for seven consecutive years.

Launched in 1986 by Leo and Martha Nuñez, El Norteño is an Albuquerque institution, a Mexican restaurant which can’t be pigeonholed for serving the cuisine of one Mexican state or another.  That’s because El Norteño offers traditional Mexican specialties while staying true to the Land of Enchantment, using only peppers grown in New Mexico.  In 1993, Monica Manoochehri and her husband Kamran took over the restaurant, maintaining the exceptional standards established by her parents.

A trio of salsas

Three salsas and chips at El Norteno

As consistently excellent as it has been, El Norteño became one of those restaurants even its most loyal patrons may have begun to take for granted.  We all knew it was in a class by itself with incomparable cuisine; warm, friendly service and a homey ambiance in which all guests felt welcome.  We thought it would always be there, but in July, 2008, an early morning conflagration caused extensive damage to this treasure which at the time of the fire was situated at 6416 Zuni, S.E..  With its closure, a little piece of all of us was tragically, seemingly irreplacaebly gone.

In December, 2008, El Norteño reopened at 1431 Wyoming, N.E., (just north of Constitution) the former site of Cafe Miche, one of the city’s very best French restaurants. Cafe Miche’s elegant French appointments were replaced by more colorful, thematically Mexican trappings including the art of Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists. Just as in its former home, El Norteño treats all diners like welcome guests.  Just as in its former home, Monica performed culinary magic as only she can.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

As elegant as its new digs were, frequent guests will tell you they just didn’t seem as welcoming and warm as the original, more humble and more homey Zuni location generations had come to love.  Even  Monica will tell you she felt much more comfortable in her original restaurant home than in the more spacious, more ostentatious strip mall setting her restaurant occupied. 

In November, 2012 Monica launched a second instantiation of El Norteño on Wyoming and Montgomery just a few miles north of its Wyoming and Constitution location which closed when its lease elapsed.  The restaurant is situated in the corner space once occupied by Yen Ching, a popular Chinese eatery coincidentally also consumed by fire.   Monica’s new restaurant includes an expansive banqueting room (which hosted Friends of Gil III) and a panaderia in which such popular Mexican and New Mexican pastries as biscochitos, empanadas, conchas and even sopaipillas will be available for dessert or take-home.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While El Norteño holds a firm grasp on the hearts and appetites of Duke City diners, it’s not just locals who traverse to this family-owned and operated gem.  As an unabashed ambassador for New Mexico’s restaurants, I’m often surprised that Land of Enchantment residents don’t always grasp just how highly regarded our restaurants are across the country.  Restaurants such as El Norteño paved the way for the pantheon of restaurant gems which have recently earned acclaim from the Food Network.

In the year 2000, Michael and Jane Stern conceived Roadfood.com as a Web site devoted to finding the most memorable local eateries along the highways and back roads of America. One of their favorites for years has been El Norteño which they visit during their frequent sojourns to the Land of Enchantment.  In rating El Norteño’s horchata among the very best in the country for their terrific tome, 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns called El Norteño “Albuquerque’s home of meals that are true Mex, not Tex-Mex or New Mex.”

Carne Asada

Carne Asada

When Chile Pepper magazine published a “best of zest” feature, a mainstay for years was El Norteño which the magazine rated as one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the country. According to Kamran, his wife’s restaurant was even named “best authentic Mexican restaurant in America” in 1999 by no less than Gourmet Magazine.

Both the culinary unadventurous and the “epicurious” diners will find something to their liking at El Norteño. Until 2005, El Norteno offered a daily lunch buffet, a repast for the rapacious, but not necessarily adventurous, diner. The lunch buffet offered pretty standard fare prepared exceptionally well–some of the best beans in the city, terrific rice, lively enchiladas and the most tender carne adovada imaginable–as well as some departures into the realm of culinary audacity such as menudo and chipotle sauced chicken.

Some of the best horchata in America

Some of the best horchata in America

True epicureans, however, will always order off the menu because we recognize that El Norteño is probably the one restaurant in Albuquerque where the distinction between the cuisines of New Mexico and Old Mexico is most discernible. You can get enchiladas, burritos and tacos anywhere. Give us barbacoa (meat from a cow’s cheek), lengua (tongue), cabrito (young goat) and nopalitos (nopal leaves).

El Norteño is most appreciated by discerning diners who understand and crave authentic Mexican food as it would be prepared at the region in which it originated. Unlike many other Mexican restaurants in the city, El Norteño doesn’t specialize in the cuisine of solely one of Mexico’s diverse regions; it celebrates Mexican cuisine from throughout the many states of Mexico. Authenticity is certainly a hallmark at El Norteño!

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

The charming Monica is the heart and soul of the restaurant, managing the kitchen, yet seemingly always finding time to check in on her guests.  The charming and beauteous Monica is a real treat to converse with.  She is personable, intelligent and possesses a smile that will light up a room.  The wait staff reflects her customer orientation and is generally on-the-spot and friendly.  Dining at El Norteño is always a treat!

The salsas are also a treat. A guacamole based salsa ameliorated with jalapeño is only mildly piquant but rich in the buttery smooth flavor of well-ripened avocados. El Norteño also specializes in a couple of salsas rarely seen in New Mexico, but common in the state of Puebla. They’re peanut-based salsas, including the salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, a peanut salsa with chile Guajillo. None of the peanut salsas are as cloying as the peanut sauces so prevalent in Thai foods.

Tamales at El Norteno

Tamales at El Norteno

El Norteño’s appetizer selection includes many standard favorites such as queso fundido served in various ways, but it also offers a fairly unique starter you don’t often find in Albuquerque–ensalada de nopalitos, a refreshing salad made from tender nopal (a member of the cactus family sometimes referred to as a prickly pear) simmered in vinaigrette and served with tomato, onion, minced chiles and corn tortillas. It has a tangy flavor that salad savants will love. 

6 January 2013: Not on the appetizer menu, but on the mariscos (Mexican seafood) menu, is another excellent starter, tostadas de ceviche.  In all good ceviche, the briny-savory flavors of seafood should never be obfuscated by citrus juices or by the chopped tomato-cilantro-jalapeño-onion accompaniment.  In other words, shrimp and fish should taste like shrimp and fish and not a seafood and lime Popsicle.  El Norteño accomplishes this very well, but also gives you several limes to add more citrus if you so desire.

Monica and Leo, the heart and soul of El Norteno.  The tres leches cake in Monica's hands is destined for our table.

Monica and Kamran, the owners of El Norteño

Where El Norteño truly excels is in the art of preparing porcine perfection. Every pork-based entree is unbelievably tender (thanks in part to an overnight marinade in a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil) and uniquely delicious:

  • 8 August 2009: Utilizing ancient Mayan techniques, El Norteño prepares the very best Cochinita Pibil we’ve ever had. Citrus and spice marinated shredded pork is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until tender. The pork literally melts in your mouth, imparting with it as it goes, a lively aftertaste of complementary spices and citrus juices that may elicit tears of joy.

  • Monturas are a specialty at El Norteño. From all appearances, this appears to be a very simple dish–medallions of pork topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese and a rich, flavorful green chile–but appearances can be deceiving. You can masticate this pork with your gums; that’s how tender it is. It is one of the very best pork chop-like dishes in the city.
  • If pork chops are what you crave, the Guisado Norteño will assuage your cravings. Two hearty pork chops are topped with a wild tomato sauce that enlivens them with flavor. Need I say the pork is unbelievably tender.
Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

It also goes without saying that the carne adovada is exceptionally tender and delicious (even though it includes a modicum of cumin) as is the al pastor which derives its flavor from as many as 13 different spices. I could rhapsodize for several pages on how wonderful the pork is, but that would be an injustice to the other terrific items on the menu which aren’t pork based.  Pork isn’t the sole treasure at El Norteño where it’s quite possible there is no ordinary entree.  Every dish is extraordinary or better, if possible.

6 January 2013: The cabrito (meat from very young, milk fed kids between 4 and 8 weeks of age) al Horno Estilo Birria (a style of Mexican barbecue) is absolutely wonderful, some of the best non-barbecued cabrito I’ve had in the past 25 years (maybe even better than the cabrito at Santa Fe’s fabled Los Potrillos). Oven roasted, marinated in chile and its own juices then served shredded, it oozes the pungent flavors of a classic Mexican entree. The cabrito is served with a pico de gallo and corn tortillas, perfect for crafting scrumptious tacos.

Chicken Mole with Beans and Rice

7August 2014:  The best mole recipes tend to be very closely guarded.  Monica will concede that the mole served at El Norteño includes seeds, chocolate, nuts and chilies and while they combine to form a greater whole, they’re not always discernible as individual ingredients.  Mole is so rich and complex that each bite is an adventure in flavor and though chilies are part and parcel of mole, piquancy is rarely a prominent feature.  El Norteño’s mole is smooth and creamy with a very slight hint of chocolate flavor.  It permeates the shredded chicken, imbuing it with a delicious richness.  The shredded cheese tempers the sweetness and provides a welcome contrast.

7August 2014:  Some New Mexican and Mexican restaurants make a big deal out of their presentation of fajitas, parading them from the kitchen with a vapor trail which would make jet aircraft envious.  The procession resembles a phalanx of models walking the runway with tortillas, shredded cheeses, sour cream and pico de gallo plated separately.  At El Norteño, there isn’t much fanfare in the presentation of the fajitas.  In fact, these fajitas are simplicity itself: grilled skirt steak, onions, green peppers and pico de gallo share a plate with beans and rice.  Only the tortillas are served separately. The grilled steak is moist, tender and seasoned nicely, a perfect complement to the grilled onions and green peppers.

Fajitas with Beans and Rice

7 August 2014: Dessert at El Norteño is a heavenly experience. The pastel de tres leches is unique in that the cake itself is cut up into small cubes which swim in a huge goblet filled with three types of rich, sweet milks then is dolloped with sweet cream and strawberries. It is sinfully decadent and delicious. Sweet and tangy flavors also combine like a concordant concert in your mouth in a dessert of frescas con crema (sweet strawberries blended with cream). 

6 January 2013: The glass pastry case at the Montgomery location is so enticing, I’d like one in my man cave–provided it’s stocked with the luscious pastries at El Norteño.  The biscochitos, the official cookie of the state of New Mexico, are wonderful with an abundance of anise and cinnamon flavor on perfect shortbread cookies.  Three varieties of empanada fillings–apple, crema and cherry–are available as are a number of other Mexican pastries.  When Monica launches her panaderia, expect even more deliciousness from the oven.

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Mexican restaurants come and go in Albuquerque.  El Norteño has staying power because it continues to deliver great value, terrific service and fantastic food to its loyal patrons.

El Norteno
1431 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 299-2882
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cochinita pibil, Queso Fundido con Chorizo, Tostadas De Ceviche, Horchata, Tres Leches, Guisado Norteño, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Fajitas, Chicken Mole, Bischochitos, Empanadas


View El Norteno on LetsDineLocal.com »

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

El Norteño
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-4372
LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tostadas de Ceviche, Chips and Salsa, Queso Fundido with Chorizo, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Horchata

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio

Just when you think you’ve seen it all and you think nothing else can possibly been done to exploit the versatility in pizza, something comes along which surprises you.  One such example is the “make your own pie” proposal by the entrepreneurial Kramerica Industries, a proposal which prompted extensive water cooler discussions.

Flamboyant CEO Cosmo Kramer envisioned a pizzeria in which “we give you the dough, you smash it, you pound it, you fling it in the air; and then you get to put your sauce and you get to sprinkle it over your cheese, and they–you slide it into the oven.”  His attempts at securing funding falter over a dispute as to whether cucumbers can be pizza toppings.

The classy interior of Nicky V’s

The aforementioned scenario transpired in an episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.”  While the “make your own pie” concept has some fundamental flaws (people shoving their arms into a 600-degree oven), it does illustrate one of the few things that haven’t actually been done with pizza in the United States. Nicole “Nicky” Villareal didn’t have any uncommon business model in mind when she and her husband set out to launch Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio.

She wanted a true neighborhood pizzeria, the type of which she enjoyed so much during her travels throughout Europe where dining is regarded as a social event.  In Europe, friends and family often linger for hours, enjoying dining and discourse in welcoming cafes and sidewalk patios. That’s the spirit she wanted to convey with her pizzeria.  That’s the spirit that readers of Albuquerque The Magazine discerned in Nicky V’s when they named it Albuquerque’s very best new restaurant for 2010.  Nicky has the experience to pull  off her dreams, having served on the operational management side of several restaurants though Nicky V’s is her first venture in a sole ownership role.

Raviolo Fritti (Fried Ravioli and warm marinara sauce)

Nicky V’s is is about a mile away from restaurant row on Coors Bypass where a phalanx of mediocre chain restaurants blights the landscape. It is situated in the same corner space which once housed two other pizza restaurants–a middling quality Florida-based chain named New York Pizza Department (NYPD) and a local, non-related favorite named JC’s New York Pizza Department.  The 3,300 square-foot restaurant includes an east-facing patio featuring spectacular views of the cottonwoods surrounding the Rio Grande as well as the breathtaking Sandias.

Nicky V’s may have an old-fashioned customer-centric attitude, but the ambiance bespeaks of contemporary modernity.  You won’t find any of the stereotypical trappings–such as red and white checkered tablecloths–of neighborhood pizzerias of old, but you will find an old-fashioned attitude in which good service and friendliness abounds.  Nicky makes the rounds frequently to ensure her patrons are enjoying the dining experience while the wait staff is on-the-spot with a recommendation or a refill.

Il Manchango – Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and Manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette

The walls are adorned with framed photographs of Venice, Rome and Orvietto taken by Nicky’s husband when they traveled throughout Europe during their one-year anniversary-slash-honeymoon.  Traveling throughout Europe via Eurorail left an indelible impression on Nicky.  It helped establish her vision for the type of restaurant she would eventually open.

The menu includes an array of familiar and innovative offerings.  Appetizers include throwbacks such as fritto misto (breaded calamari, onion rings, fried zucchini) as well as the seemingly de rigueur anti-pasto platter (cured meats, roasted peppers, olives, fresh mozzarella) and pita points and hummus (cucumber relish, Kalamata olives, hummus and warm pita).  Raviolio Fritti, fried ravioli with warm marinara, each of five the size of an iPhone, are a popular favorite.

Antipasto: prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives, mozzarella cheese

7 August 2010: The Ravioli Fritti are lightly breaded then fried to a golden sheen and served in a conical wrought iron basket.  Each ravioli is sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and oregano and is stuffed with a rich cheese blend.  The consistency of each ravioli is just slightly crispy, but not crunchy.  The marinara is quite good, the type of which would go very well on a pasta dish. 

12 September 2011: Another excellent starter, one of the very best of its genre in the city, is the Antipasto platter, a plate brimming with crostini, prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives and mozzarella.  By themselves, each individual item on the platter is quite good.  In combinations with one another, they’re all even better.  Top a crostini with a slice of prosciutto, spread on some of the near butter soft mozzarella then crown it all with the roasted pepper and olives and you’ve got an improvised sandwich of the first order.  You can also each component immensely by itself as the high quality shines with each and every bite. 

Pita Points and Hummus

20 July 2014: Appetizers at Nicky V’s tend to be not only beautifully plated, but very generously portioned.  Save for the Raviolo Fritti, the appetizers are pretty much intended to be shared.  That’s certainly the case with the Pita Points and Hummus, a manhole cover sized plate artistically plated with warm pita wedges, cucumber relish (cucumbers, kalamata olives, onions, Roma tomatoes), feta cheese and hummus on a bed of mixed greens.  The cucumber relish is delicious and would make a great salad by itself, but goes especially well with the Feta cheese because of how significantly its flavor profile clashes with the fetid fromage.  The hummus is very garlicky but with a discernible tang from a squeeze or two of lemon. 

Pasta dishes are adorned with a variety of sauces: white wine pasta cream sauce, mascarpone and lemon butter sauce, roasted pepper Parmesan cream sauce, fresh herb Veloute sauce and a cracked pepper pesto cream sauce.  None of the pasta entrees are made with a traditional “red” sauce (marinara or meat sauce).  Even the lasagna is made with a Bolognese meat sauce.

The Umbria - Truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts

The Umbria – Truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts

The pizza menu is segmented into a “Smart” category and a “Savvy” category, perhaps an indication that you can’t go wrong regardless of from which pizza you order.  The pizza dough is scratch-made in-house using a sourdough starter that is allowed to ferment for a day before being rolled into dough.  The dough is made from “the finest flours milled.”  Toppings are of “only the best quality, using local and organic whenever possible.” 

Only one size pizza is offered, a twelve-inch pie that’s perhaps a bit too big to be called a personal pizza, but may be too small to be shared.  Eat half at the restaurant and take the other half home; this pizza is just as good out of the fridge as it is out of the oven.  Pies range from the traditional (Margherita with red sauce, mozzarella slices and fresh basil) to the locally inspired (the New Mexican, made with red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, Autumn green chili and garlic crunch) to the innovative.

Tre – red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers, oregano

In the latter category are pizzas topped with non-traditional ingredients, the likes of which few pizzerias in Albuquerque offer.  These toppings range from the rich and sublime (the Novara includes gorgonzola, pears, ricotta cheese, toasted walnuts and olive oil) to the truly unique (the Siena is crafted from red sauce, Yukon potatoes, roasted red peppers, pancetta and fresh basil). It’s not every pizza for which wine pairings might even be a consideration, but Nicky can tell you exactly which wine and pizza combinations complement one another best. 

The restaurant’s phone number, by the way, is 890-WINE (9463), but don’t expect to find the cheap Chinati bottles which seem to adorn the red and white checkerboard tablecloths at the stereotypical mom-and-pop Italian joints. In fact, Nicky V’s earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2012 in recognition of the restaurant’s more than 125 offerings covering all the reaches of the globe.   With our practice of never drinking adult beverages if we’re driving, we could only imagine what red vintage might have gone best with the Umbria, a pizza crafted with truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, Prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts.

Limited Time Special Served on St. Patrick’s Day: Gravy, ground beef, peas, mashed potato and Cheddar cheese (Photo courtesy of Bruce “Senor Plata” Silver)

5 June 2010: What my mind’s eye is still reliving is the wonderful texture of the pie.  Nicky V’s pizzas are thin-crusted, but not waifishly thin.  What sets them apart are their crunchiness which is wholly unlike the cracker-crust variety of pizzas.  It’s a crunchiness that doesn’t offset the pizza’s chewiness if that’s possible.  The Umbria is a terrific pizza with flavor explosions in every bite as excellent ingredients compete with each other for the rapt attention of your taste buds. 

5 June 2010: Another revelation in flavor appreciation is the Chieti, a masterpiece of a pie topped with garlic cream, a cheese blend, roasted butternut squash, Gorgonzola and baby arugula.  The top topper is butternut squash, a creamy, fine-textured, orange-fleshed squash with a taste vaguely resembling sweet potato.  The arugula and its characteristic light bitter flavor seems to bring out the pungency of the Gorgonzola, a blue cheese with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste.  The creator of this pie is an inspired genius!  Alas, it is no longer on the menu, but it’s much missed (at least by me).

The New Mexican: red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch

12 September 2011: Most pizza restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment pander to New Mexican tastes for green chile by offering it as either an optional topping or using it as the centerpiece of a specialty pizza.  Unfortunately, the green chile often has no more bite than parsley.  Nicky V’s offers two pizzas with names near and dear to the heart of many Duke City diners: the New Mexican (red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch) and the Lobo (red sauce, Italian sausage, green chile, red onions, cheese blend, fresh roasted red peppers).  The New Mexican will bring pride to any state citizen who loves chile.  It will also bring sweat to your brow and maybe even singe your tongue.  Not only does the green chile have heat, the red sauce may include red chile powder and even the pepperoni has a kick to it.  Piquancy aside, this is a very good pizza that will impress itself upon your taste buds and your memories. 

7 August 2010: The Tre, an Italian word that means three, is made up of more than three ingredients: red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers and oregano. Those ingredients are of superb quality. The red sauce and Italian sausage are as good as any on any pizza in the Duke City. The red sauce has a slight piquant bite with just a bit of sweetness and very little acidity despite the obvious fresh tomato base. The sausage has a nice fennel-rich flavor. The roasted red peppers are nonpareil, perfection itself. As my friend Larry McGoldrick has observed, Nicky V’s pizzas are as good as any thin-crust pizza you’ll find in Chicago…and yes, the Windy City has outstanding thin crust pizza!

Orvietto – smoked bacon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh basil, Crimini mushrooms, peas and pine nuts tossed with cavatappi with a white wine pasta cream sauce

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2011, Nicky V’s introduced–for a limited time only–a pizza special  citizens of the British Isles would have scarfed-up though Nicky admitted she had a hard time talking  customers into trying it.  One intrepid diner who did try the Shepherd’s Pie Pizza was my adventurous friend Señor Plata.  He ranted about this pizza, a thin-crust canvass with gravy slathered on instead of tomato sauce and topped with mashed potatoes, ground beef  and Cheddar cheese.  Larry McGoldrick had  recommended Nicky offer a corned beef and cabbage pizza which might also have received a cool reception from diners who wouldn’t try it.  Some year, I’ll be there to sample whatever Nicky contrives for St. Patrick’s Day. 

7 August 2010: As outstanding as the pizza is, Nicky invites her diners to try the pasta, recommending most highly the Orvietto, an amazing pasta crafted from smoked bacon (pancetta) crimini mushrooms, peas and cavatappi noodles in a white wine pasta cream sauce. The cavatappi, a double-elbow, corkscrew or spiral macaroni formed into a spiral tube shape with groves on their outside surface, is perfectly prepared, just beyond al dente. The white wine reduction melds with the crimini mushrooms and the beautifully smoked Italian bacon to form flavor combinations that dance on your taste buds. The sauce is just perfect, neither too rich or too subtle. This is one of the best pasta dishes we’ve had in New Mexico.

Il Adelaide: Garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage in a Creole pasta cream sauce

As fans of Garfield, once the world’s most widely syndicated comic, know, the rotund cat loves lasagna.  Once confronted by his owner Jon about having eaten four boxes of lasagna, Garfield’s hiccuped retort was, “It’s not my fault.  They started it.”  Garfield would want at least four boxes of Nicky V’s lasagna, a simple blend of lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese topped with mozzarella cheese made complex with a Bolognese meat sauce that the chef tends to for six to eight hours.  This is no ordinary meat sauce.  The Bolognese is true to time-honored traditions.  It’s also quite good. 

Another complex entree prepared exceptionally well is Nicky V’s Chicken Veloute, an entree made with one of the true classic sauces of French cuisine.   The sauce finds its genesis in the word velvety, an apt term for the sauce which is made from a light chicken stock thickened with a blond roux.  Nicky V’s rendition is also made with an onion confit (onions reduced to an intensified flavor), roasted garlic, Crimini mushrooms, chicken and spinach fettuccine.  My friend Señor Plata was surprised to find a dish of such complexity and depth of flavor in an Italian restaurant.  I was surprised at how good it was.

Gnocci: roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil

14 December 2010: Save for the fabulous Orvietto which is in stratified company as one of the very best pasta dishes in Albuquerque, my favorite of Nicky V’s outstanding pasta dishes is the gnocchi, one of the most complex renditions of this dish I’ve ever had with roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks, red onions and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper Parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil.  The gnocchi are rich dumplings with a texture so light they practically melt in your mouth.  The sauce is lick-the-plate good with flavor accents that impress themselves on your taste buds. 

20 July 2014: Chicken Parmesan is an old school entree some Italian restaurants (especially the haughty Northern Italian restaurants) are “too uppity” to serve.  Though it may seem to be a simple dish, it can be very challenging to make well.  Nicky V’s rendition is made with a very thick chicken breast.  Too long in the oven and the breading chars.  Not long enough in the oven and the inside of the chicken borders on raw.  We experienced both extremes, but in the process wound up falling in love with the side spaghetti.  More specifically, we fell in love with the spaghetti sauce which is made from tomatoes grown in Moriarty, New Mexico.  The sauce has a perfect balance of sweetness and tanginess without the oft-characteristic acidity of some tomatoes.  It’s an excellent sauce. 

Note:  Even though our experience with the Chicken Parmesan wasn’t up to the exceedingly high Nicky V standards, the staff was very accommodating, professional and kind when we sent the dish back.

Chicken Parmesan with Spaghetti

28 March 2011: Conspicuous by virtue of its name is Il Adelaide which frankly sounds more Australian than it does Italian.  Rather than name it for an Italian landmark, the chef who conceptualized the dish named it for Nicky’s spicy little daughter Adelaide.  Il Adelaide is indeed spicy, courtesy of a pasta cream sauce redolent with Cayenne peppers.  Other ingredients include garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage.  It’s a complex dish which pays tribute to the lively flavors of Louisiana.  With the 2011 demise of the Cajun Kitchen, Il Adelaide is a comforting thought that you can still get a semblance of Cajun-Creole cooking in the Duke City.

Six salads are also available. These aren’t the types of salads that remind you that the word “diet” is simply the word “die” with the letter “t” added at the end. These are the type of salads of which you can make a thoroughly enjoyable meal. Three of the salads–a house salad, a Caesar salad and “the Wedge”–are pretty standard, though what will set them apart at Nicky V’s is the quality of ingredients and their freshness. The other three salads are crafted with ingenuity and flair. All are available in half- or full-sizes.

Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Meatballs, Marinara, Parmesan and Provolone all stacked tall and sent into Nicky V’s brick oven until bubbly hot!

5 June 2010: The Il Manchango is festooned with Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette. This is an ingredient-fest combining several different taste and texture sensations–the sweet tartness of the Fuji apples; the sugary sweetness of fresh dates; the tangy zestiness of arugula; the crunchy saltiness of the toasted pecans; the unique buttery-bitter spiciness of endives and the pungent saltiness of the manchango drizzled with the citrusy sweetness of a vinaigrette.

This is an outstanding salad especially if you like adventurous taste discernment, flavor combinations and a variety of textures in one plate. It’s also a fun salad to eat. You can use the endive leaves to form a sort of lettuce taco in which you can pile on other ingredients.

Tiramisu (Espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder

9 October 2012: For lunch only (11AM to 4PM), Nicky v’s offers four paninis, all built on French (not Italian) lightly toasted hoagie rolls served with a bag of Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar chips (or a side salad for two dollars more) and a pepperoncini.  One of the most popular of the four is the Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, named for KOAT-TV’s popular meteorologist who frequents the restaurant.  This panini is constructed from meatballs, marinara, parmesan and provolone stacked tall and sent to the oven until bubbly hot.  

5 June 2010: Nicky V’s desserts, many made in-house (sounds like a repeating theme) are par excellence, a quadrumvirate of fine-dining quality sweets.  The tiramisu, espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder–is an exemplary rendition of this popular Italian cake.  It is neither too sweet nor too moist, but sufficient in both qualities to make it one of the best tiramisu in Albuquerque.

Profiterole – puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate

7 August 2010: A recent addition to the superb Nicky V’s menu is gelato, which is much more than Italian ice cream, having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream. Texturally, it is much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor than American ice cream.  High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally, not shipped from afar. Nicky V’s acquires its gelato from Van Rixel Brothers Gelato, the best local source possible.  It’s outstanding!  In fact, the sea salt and caramel gelato may be the very best gelato we’ve had in Albuquerque.  It’s Nicky’s favorite and mine, too.  Flavors will be rotated weekly.

5 June 2010: The profiteroles, puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate, are also quite wonderful. Even the whipped cream is made in-house (as if that needs to be said) and it’s some of the best we’ve had. The profiteroles are rich and delicious.

Sea salt and caramel gelatto

In business for just a few years years, Nicky V’s Pizzeria has earned accolades and honors restaurants in business for much longer can only aspire to. In July, 2011, Nicky was presented the award for “Best Small Business 2011″ by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Her terrific restaurant was later selected to compete in the “Chef Knockout” competition, an Iron Chef style head-to-head cooking competition pitting some of the city’s very best restaurants. The sky is the limit for Nicky V’s, already one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre!

Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio
9780 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-9463
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2012
1st VISIT: 5 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
BEST BET: Chieti, Umbria, Il Manchango, Profiterole, Tiramisu, Sea salt and caramel gelatto, Orvietto, Tre, Lasagna, Chicken Veloute, Gnocchi, Il Adelaide, Spaghetti

Nicky V's Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

My friends Bruce “Señor Plata” Silver and Paul “Boomer” Lilly in front of Cafe Bella Coffee in Rio Rancho

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
~Author Unknown

Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee.  As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I work provides free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as we can drink.  All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.

There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee.  It’s not that we like our coffee weak.  It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems.  Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and New Yorkers cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.”  It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.

Affable proprietor Michael Gonzales tends to guests

Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens.  Only in the past ten years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir.  Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend.  As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).

Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries.  Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe.  It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.

Coffee Cup Chandelier

Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless.  Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not.  Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window.  A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.

Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner.  Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed.  Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers.  Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.

Panini with roasted organic chicken, micro greens, garlic mustard and cheese

Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world.  He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio.  From an experiential standpoint, those  are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies.  To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”

In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side.  It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital.  The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six.  The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.

Panini (grilled Red Delicious apples with caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on local Fano rustic artisan bread) with a large Cafe Au Lait.

Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is.  The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.  The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound.  None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker.  Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine. 

The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico.  A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader.  Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic.  Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes.  During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.

Breakfast Bagel of the Day: Warm toasted Parmesan bagel, Italian herb bread with mozzarella, sundried tomato cream cheese spread and Canadian bacon

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more. 

20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity.  Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular.  One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread.  The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

Cafe Bella Coffee works with four special bakeries to bring its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis. All its bakery partners are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  The Lemon Budt Cake from Cosmic Euphoria Desserts is available exclusively at Cafe Bella.  It’s made with unrefined, unbleached flour, organic cane sugar, agave nectar, coconut oil and real lemon.  The blueberry scones from Cosmic Euphoria are an early favorite, as good a scone as we used to have on the banks of the River Windrush in Bourton on the Water, England. 

15 March 2013:  Fourteen months after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time.  Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe.  Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2′s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012.  Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event.  However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating  in a number of events on and off location.  On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados.  Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights.  With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek. 

8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well.  One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread.  It’s even better than it sounds if possible.  Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload.  The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas. 

CafeBella12

Smoked Turkey Panini with Garlic Mustard Barbecue Mayo, Melted Mozzarella, Organic Field Greens on Local Fano Artisan Bread

16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella.  One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese.  For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens.  The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most. 

14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.”  He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012.  It’s easy to see why.  Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini.  When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats.  When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours.  The result is pure, unadulterated edible art.  Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce.   Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness. 

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini (with an egg)

7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey.  You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella.   Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey.  This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham).  This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks. 

19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization.  For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico.   You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another.  In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili.  The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy.  The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation.  If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it.  I did!

Street Tacos, becoming a Tuesday tradition in Rio Rancho

8 July 2014:  While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand.  These tacos were  paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be.  In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out.  On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon.  What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions. 

An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit.  Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all.  The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema.  The sauteed carne packs  a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema.  Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions.  Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!.

Cafe Bella's drive-up window means coffee to go at any time

Cafe Bella’s drive-up window means coffee to go every day but Sunday

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.

My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home.  The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality.  Waitresses donned  period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots.  The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back.  Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities.  If  this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 July 2014
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos


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