Leilani’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Leilani’s Cafe on Gibson just west of Kirtland Air Force Base

Restaurants come and restaurant’s go.  It’s not hard to tell when a bad restaurant is nearing its demise. The telltale signs practically scream at you. Service is indifferent in spite of (or maybe because of) only a handful of guests to look after.  The food is uninspired, seemingly just something thrown together haphazardly.  A pall of gloom and malaise seems to pervade the ambiance, hastening your meal so you can get out of there quickly.  Such was the case when in August, 2015 I first visited the burger and fast food restaurant which formerly occupied a red, white and blue structure just west of Kirtland Air Force Base on Gibson. Needless to say, it wasn’t a restaurant about which I’d write, much less visit a second time. 

This is a tale of two restaurants at one location.  My experience at the former is described above.  It’s an experience validated by several  Yelp and Zomato respondents.  The latter is the complete antithesis of the former as I experienced it–as different in every way as one restaurant could be from another.  The latter, sporting a the not-so-New Mexican name of Leilani’s is a family-owned-and operated gem.  In terms of ambiance, it’s isn’t much different from its predecessor.  Attitudinally, there’s a world of difference.  At Leilani’s, guests are greeted warmly, invited to sit and looked after warmly during the duration of your meal.  Moreover, the food is obviously prepared to order and delivered fresh and delicious.

Two Types of Salsa with Chips

Leilani’s operating model is spelled out in its Web site: “We believe that great tasting food shouldn’t break the bank. That when our customer sits at our table it’s as if they pulled up a chair at their own dining room table. And that our staff feels like your extended family.”  These aren’t just words for the Segura family; it’s how they treat all their guests.  In my first two visits, the charming Lydia took very good care of me, rendering the same personable attention to every guest and still managing to make everyone seem special.

Based on name alone, you might expect Leilani’s would serve Hawaiian food and that it would be arrayed in luau splendor.  Leilani, which translates from Hawaiian to “heavenly flowers” or “royal child” is actually the name of the owner’s daughter.  Instead of poi, lau lau and poco moco, the cafe serves Mexican and New Mexican food and is open every day but Sunday for breakfast and lunch.  Before launching at its Gibson location in September, 2015, Leilani’s operated for three years as a private restaurant for employees of The Downs racetrack in Albuquerque.

Chicken Tacos with Beans and Rice

At many restaurants, the practice of serving complimentary salsa is going the way of the Coelophysis (New Mexico’s official state dinosaur).  Leilani’s doesn’t just bring you one salsa. You’re treated to two distinctly delicious and incendiary salsas, one green and one red. The salsas aren’t served in thimble-sized dispensers, but in sizable plastic ramekins. You’ll run out of chips before you run out of salsa. Both the red and the green are equally piquant and addictive. The red salsa is a bit thicker with the punch of jalapenos, the invigorating freshness of cilantro, the sharpness of white onions and the juiciness of tomatoes. The chips are crisp and low in salt.

4 November 2015: If you’ve ordered tacos recently, you’ve probably been taken aback at how pricey they’ve become. Though inexpensive to prepare, restaurants have marked them up so much you’d think they were made of rare and treasured ingredients. During my inaugural visit to Leilani’s, chicken tacos were the special of the day and they weren’t priced like gold bullion. Three tacos brimming with marinated, grilled chicken, shredded white and yellow Cheddar, lettuce and tomatoes were served with refried beans and rice. Though inexpensive, this generously plated lunch is a real steal considering the quality and deliciousness of the ingredients. The cubed chicken was impregnated with a savory-smoky marinade that enlivened the chicken.

The New Mexico Cheeseburger with a mountain of Ribbon Fries

10 November 2015: In the Land of Enchantment, the green chile cheeseburger has become synonymous with New Mexico’s burger. Seeing a burger called “New Mexico Cheeseburger” on Leilani’s menu, therefor, piqued my interest. Surely it would be a green chile cheeseburger in the fashion we’ve all come to know and love them. Instead, Leilani’s New Mexico Cheeseburger is an intriguing twist on our sacrosanct state burger. It’s constructed from a hand-formed quarter-pound patty, slice of mozzarella, breaded chile relleno, bacon, lettuce and tomato. The chile relleno is the most compelling aspect of this burger, but not necessarily the most delicious. That honor belongs to the hand-formed beef patty which is perfectly seasoned, juicy and perfectly delicious at an 80/20 beef to fat ratio. There’s only one “bummer” to this burger and it’s that the buns fall apart from the sheer volume and moistness of the ingredients. Still in all, it’s a burger so good you won’t mind sharing it with your hands.

10 November 2015: Burgers are available with your choice of French fries or ribbon fries. Savvy diners will opt for the ribbon fries. Not only do you get a mountain of them on your plate, they’re absolutely terrific. By strict definition, however, they’re not fries, but potato chips, some of the best you’ll have. In fact, only the patates at Gyros Mediterranean are on par with these terrific tubers. The ribbon fries are so good they don’t need anything else, but if you want to spice things up a little, ask for Valentina hot sauce, a tangy-piquant way to liven up anything.

As if an excellent meal served by a very pleasant family isn’t enough, Leilani’s Cafe offers a reward card. After nine entrees, the tenth entree is free. Here’s betting a lot of reward cards will be redeemed.

Leilani’s Cafe
5901 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 349-8820
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 November 2015
1st VISIT: 4 November 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa with Chips, Chicken Tacos, New Mexico Cheeseburger, Ribbon Fries

Leilani's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Antojitos Lupe – Bernalillo, New Mexico

Antojitos Lupe Authentic Mexican Cuisine in Bernalillo

Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant and hilarious author of Ask a Mexican, a widely syndicated newspaper column published mostly in weekly alternative papers, has become one of my go-to sources of entertainment and information, particularly regarding our common and beloved Spanish lexicon.  His inimitable wit and perspective is amusing and enlightening.  Take for example his translation of the word “antojitos.”

in an article published in his parent newspaper, the Orange County Weekly, Arellano observes that “the Spanish menu entry antojitos translates as “appetizers,” but the expression connotes more than mere snacks. It derives from the noun antojo, which describes the cravings unique to pregnant women. Antojitos, then, is “little cravings,” and Latinos know that their before-the-main-meal bites should be so appetizing that expectant females snarl at husbands to seek these delights at ungodly hours.”

Antojitos Lupe Dining Room

Expectant mothers snarling! Ungodly hours!  Obviously antojitos should be good enough to elicit the type of carnal response usually reserved for something more than special…something great.  One could surmise that in a sense, antojitos are the Mexican equivalent of dim sum, but where antojitos translates to “little cravings,” dim sum translates to “a bit of heart” or “heart’s delight.”  In either case, Mexicans are passionate about their antojitos which in every sense are a heart’s delight.

Barry Popik, food etymologist extraordinaire explains in his fabulous blog that the word “antojitos” has been cited in American newspapers since at least 1937.  He credits Claudia Alarcon writing for  Chefs.com for shedding more light on the topic of antojitos: “Perhaps the most difficult group of dishes to explain in all of Mexican cuisine, antojitos are best described as small dishes that are meant to be consumed informally, either from street vendors at lunchtime, in cantinas with drinks before dinner, or at home or in the street as late night snacks.”

Salsa and Chips

In October, 2009, a new restaurant named Antojitos Lupe opened on the ill-fated corner of Camino del Pueblo and Avenida Bernalillo, a corner which has seen many restaurants come and go, all in short order.  The site’s previous tenant was Charlie’s Burgers & Mexican Food which lasted less than a year in that location.  Antojitos Lupe, it turns out, is the second instantiation of a popular and similarly named restaurant in the Duke City.  Lupe’s Antojitos and Mexican food on Zuni Road has been pleasing palates in southeast Albuquerque since 2007.  There are several other Mexican restaurants in that area, but Lupe’s has established a faithful following.  One reason might just be Lupe herself.  She is a delightful woman with a luminous smile and happy glow reserved almost exclusively for her Bernalillo restaurant.  She rarely visits her Albuquerque restaurant, but leaves it in the hands of a trusted staff on whom she relies to provide high quality victuals and service.

In Bernalillo, Antojitos Lupe has no competition from other Mexican restaurants and in fact, only a half-dozen or so restaurants of any kind call the City of Coronado home.  As such, when the corner complex which housed Lupe’s shuttered its doors in 2013, savvy diners went into mourning.  Our sorrow was short-lived because on October 30, 2013, Antojitos Lupe launched in a shiny new strip mall off heavily trafficked Highway 550.  Lupe’s, a veritable compendium of deliciousness from Central Mexico, was back and for that, we are extremely grateful.

Tostada de Ceviche

17 October 2009: Tostada de Ceviche

Contrary to the name on the marquee, the menu isn’t solely about appetizers.  There are a number of breakfast, lunch and dinner entrees available.  As you contemplate the menu, a complementary bowl of salsa with thick, crispy chips is brought to your table.  The salsa may be a nearly luminescent neon green tomatillo based salsa (called salsa verde) or it may be a thin, fiery red salsa.  The tomatillo salsa is only mildly piquant, but most definitely fresh tasting.  More prevalent flavor sensations come from the tanginess of limes and the sharp, fresh flavor of cilantro.  It’s a very good salsa, a bit on the watery side, but the chips are formidable enough to hold large quantities of it.  The chips are thick, crisp and low in salt.

A rotating array of Aguas frescas (including Pina, Jamaica and Horchata) to slake your thirst are served in Styrofoam cups.  If you wish to reduce your carbon footprint, try an ice cold bottle of Jarritos, the famous Mexican soda pops which come in nine delicious and colorful fruit flavors: Tamarind, Mandarin, Fruit Punch, Jamaica, Lime, Grapefruit, Guava, Pineapple and Strawberry.  The horchata is cold and delicious with a flavor more than vaguely reminiscent of the milk left over after eating a bowl of children’s breakfast cereal.  The pina (pineapple) is even better.

Huarache con carne asada

Huarache con carne asada

17 October 2009: It wouldn’t be a true antojitos experience if you don’t partake of at least one preprandial treat.  Perhaps the most intriguing are the Huaraches.  No, not the Mexican sandals popular with the Bohemian set. Barry Popik explains that huaraches are “thick, oval-shaped corn tortillas, often topped with meat, cheese, beans, and cooked cactus leaves.”  The name “huaraches” was either coined or popularized by a popular Mexico City restaurant named El Huarache Azteca.

The name fits.  Huaraches are shaped roughly like a human foot, and just as a human foot needs covering, the thick corn tortilla needs toppings.  Indented by hand so that it has “borders” to hold its component ingredients, one huarache at Antojitos Lupe is topped with ground beef, shredded lettuce, Mexican crema and queso fresco.  The ground beef is well seasoned and best of all, it isn’t refried  (fried once then reheated) as at some restaurants.  Even if you don’t add a smidgeon of salsa, this is a surprisingly flavorful meal starter.  Perhaps even better is a huarache topped with chorizo and potatoes.  The chorizo is nicely seasoned and imbues everything it touches with flavor.

March 1, 2012: A three taco plate with rice, beans and salsa

One entree highly recommended by the wait staff is the Bisteca Ranchera which at many Mexican restaurants is a supermodel thin slab of beef.  At Antojitos Lupe, that slab is cut up into small pieces and based on how well the flavors meld together, is sauteed with tomatoes and onions.  At least, this entree tastes as if it is all prepared together instead of the tomatoes and onions being added later.

17 October 2009: The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles,”–moles which can be found in such colors as red, green, black, brown and yellow.  Moles are an intricate sauce made by grinding and toasting chiles, seeds, spices and sundry ingredients.  Though they appear to be rather simple, moles are, in fact, highly complex and unique, no two cooks preparing it the same way.  While some New Mexicans won’t “deign” to eat mole, others find it a surprising alternative or even supplement to their beloved chile.One of the most common ways to have mole is over chicken and at Antojitos Lupe, “over” is an understatement.  A full chicken leg and thigh are thoroughly covered in mole.  In fact, the entree looks as if it chocolate has been applied by trowel, so densely covered is the poultry.  This is a messy entree guaranteed to require several napkins and copious finger-licking.

28 July 2012: Chile Rellenos with Beans and Rice

16 August 2011: Among the most intriguing items on the menu are three molcajete dishes.  A molcajete is essentially a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt by a skilled artisan.  Not only are they esthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels.  That’s how Antojitos Lupe uses them.  The minute you place your order for one of the molcajete dishes, the round, three-legged mortar goes into the oven before your meal is prepared.  Your entire meal will be served in the cavity of the molcajete which retains heat for the entire duration of your meal.  This is “too hot to handle” heat that keeps your meal steaming hot for as long as half an hour.  The Molcajete Lupe is the house specialty, a spectacular melange of Mexican favorites: carne asada–thinly sliced grilled beef flank steak; pollo asado–grilled chicken; carne al pastor–marinated pork; queso fresco–a creamy, soft white cheese that tastes like a mild feta; nopalitos–verdant strips of nopal (prickly pear pads) cooked with onions; and finally, homemade corn tortillas.

Individually, each item on this entree is quite good, but as a collective, the entire dish is fabulous.  The juices from the sauteed onions and nopalitos coalesce with the al pastor to penetrate the chicken and beef, imbuing them with a surprisingly delicious flavor and a moist texture.  The corn tortillas make excellent tacos, engorged with a little bit of everything on the molcajete plus the side of beans and rice that comes with this entree.  The other two molcajete dishes are a chicken-based Molcajete Pollo dish and a meat based Molcajete Asada.

Red chicken Mole

Red Chicken Mole

1 March 2012: The caldo de res, a hearty beef and vegetable soup, is a meal in itself.  Served in a bowl equal in size to the swimming pool sized bowls used for Vietnamese pho, it’s big enough to share–not that you would want to.  To compare caldo de res with some Vietnamese soups wouldn’t be much of a stretch.  Both have restorative properties and are especially wonderful in cold weather.  Both are elixirs for whatever ails you, offering the comfort only a mother can match.  Both are flavored with marrow from bones.  Lupe’s caldo de res is made with bone-in beef shanks boiled for hours until tender. Mixed in are chunks of zucchini, carrots, chopped cabbage and mini corn on the cobs. It’s the beef broth which will absolutely delight you.  You’ll relish each spoonful, maybe even disposing of the spoon to slurp it up right from the bowl. 

22 March 2015:  One of the more intriguing dishes on the menu has the curious name “mole de oya.”  If you’re expecting mole in a pot, you’d be wrong.  Our server explained that the mole de oya dish has nothing to do with mole other than to share a name.  Instead, she elaborated, it more closely resembles the aforementioned caldo de res, the main difference being that the mole de oya is prepared with a hot chile.  Several of the signature vegetables on the caldo de res are absent from the mole de oya.  In fact, the spicy crimson broth includes mostly carrots, zucchini and the bone-in beef shanks aficionados de caldo (soup fanatics) love.

My friend Señor Plata enjoys his very first Molcajete Lupe

11 October 2015: Most often enjoyed during breakfast, chilaquiles are a good-at-any-time dish that’s both simple and complex.  At their essence, chilaquiles are constructed from the triumvirate of corn tortillas, salsa (or chile) and cheese.  The foundation for the dish is the tortillas which are cut up into quarters then fried and simmered in red chile until they absorb the sauce and become soft and pliable.  Queso fresco is then sprinkled on top.  The complexity is in any other ingredients (typically eggs, beans, meat and rice) added to the dish.  Lupe offers chilaquiles with carne asada, a very thin steak. 

11 October 2015:  If you’re in the mood for sandwiches, look no further than Antojitos Lupe which offers about a dozen different tortas, the delectable Mexican sandwich.  One of the more popular filler options is the torta al pastor, marinated pork cut up into tiny pieces and stuffed in between a soft, split bolillo bun with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and jalapeños.  As beautiful a sandwich as it is when it’s just sitting on your plate, it becomes a falling apart mess when you unwrap and pick it up, as seemingly half your sandwich falls onto the plate.  That’s just a minor inconvenience, the spillage of excess ingredients.  There’s still plenty between buns and you’ll have some left over to eat with a fork.

Chilaquiles with Carne Asada

When we first discovered Antojitos Lupe, dessert options abounded, but the only way you’d have room for any is if you asked for a to-go box (some entrees, such as the Molcajete dishes, actually taste even better the next day).  Dessert options included flan, arroz con leche (a sweet rice with milk dish) and bionicos.  The very word “bionico” is intriguing.  For those of my generation, it conjures images of the Six Million Dollar Man, a television show chronicling the adventures of an astronaut “rebuilt” with “bionic” implants that enhance his strength, speed and vision

2 July 2010: Bionicos are so-named because they impart quick energy.  Lupe explains that bionicos are very popular for breakfast in parts of Mexico, not only because of their quick energy but because of their healthful qualities.  They are constructed of fresh, hand-cut fruits–strawberries, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple, banana, apples–topped with granola, coconut, unsweetened yogurt and just a bit of syrup for sweetness.  Unlike some granola-based breakfast dishes, bionicos aren’t cloying in their sweetness; instead, the fruits impart their naturally fresh flavors–natural tanginess, sweetness, juiciness and tartness.  The dessert is easily large enough for two to share. 

Caldo de Res

Alas Antojitos Lupe no longer offers desserts.  As wonderful as the sumptuous sweets were, they weren’t moving very quickly and have been removed from the menu.  I kept the two previous paragraphs and the photograph on the review to remind patrons of what they’re missing.  Perhaps they’ll inspire a grass roots effort to bring them back (or at least the bionicos).

The lofty menu at Antojitos Lupe means future visits are inevitable.  Good cooking, attentive service and reasonable prices means there’ll be plenty of company at Bernalillo’s newest and only Mexican restaurant.  Then there’s Lupe herself, a perpetually smiling woman with the energy to multi-task as hostess, waitress, cashier and cook.  She’s sweeter than any of the desserts formerly offered at the restaurant.

Antojitos Lupe
180 East Highway 550
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 867-2145
:  17 October 2009
LATEST VISIT: 11 October 2015
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Chicken Mole, Huaraches, Tomatillo Salsa, Bisteca Ranchera, Molcajete Lupe, Molcajete Asada, Bionicos, Mole de Oya, Chilaquiles, Torta al Pastor

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Pop Fizz – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pop Fizz on the National Hispanic Cultural Center

The geriatrically advanced among us who grew up during the golden age (1950s through the 1970s) of the “jingle” were constantly bombarded with earworm-inducing singing commercials, those catchy and memorable short tunes used to convey advertising slogans.  We couldn’t help but sing along, often to the annoyance of our parents.  When, for example, the Garduño family visited the big city (Taos), the kids would belt out the familiar jingle “Let’s all go to A&W.  Food’s more fun at A&W. Have a mug of root beer, or maybe two or three.”  Our dissonant din rarely persuaded our parents to take us to A&W.  More often than not, we were ferried back to Peñasco for a home-cooked meal.

Researchers suggest that women may be even more susceptible to earworms than men.  That research was borne out when I suggested to my Kim that we visit Pop Fizz for lunch.  Instead of asking what kind of food Pop Fizz serves as she usually does when I suggest a heretofore untried restaurant, she began singing “plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.”  That jingle, as we seasoned citizens all recognize, once touted the heartburn healing properties of Alka Seltzer, an effervescent antacid still in use today.

The colorful ambiance of a delightful eatery

The name “Pop Fizz” obviously has nothing to do with effervescence or with Alka Seltzer.  The “Pop” portion of the name is short for “Popsicle” while “Fizz” represents the sound made when you open the carbonated beverages available on the premises.  Learning the reason for the name did nothing to mitigate my Kim’s singing of the jingle (now I know how my parents felt), but our inaugural visit went a long way toward helping us understand just why Pop Fizz has become such a phenomenon. 

Some of my more entrepreneurial readers probably never heard about Pop Fizz until it was featured in Inc ., a monthly American publication focused on growing companies.  Inc. doesn’t focus solely on Fortune 500 companies. It’s got a soft spot for the backbone of American business, the traditional mom-and-pop operation such as Pop Fizz, a humble homegrown, family owned and operated gem which has been winning over savvy Duke City diners since day one.

Sonoran Hot Dog with what is left of Agua Fresca de Sandia (Watermelon Fresh Water)

Day one transpired on a balmy summer day in 2013 when brothers Lorenzo and Carlos Alvarez and their father Rafael launched their own version of relief, in this case relief from hot, sunny summer days in the Duke City.  Relief came in the form of homemade paletas (popsicles) made from all-natural, real fruits and cream as well as organic cane sugar (absolutely no high fructose corn syrup).  Also available were popular Mexican favorites such as aguas frescas, ice cream and a delicious innovation they called ice cream tacos. Duke City denizens clamoring for relief converged upon the Lilliputian storefront on Bridge Boulevard. 

The Alvarado family didn’t let grass grow under their feet before relocating their operation to the National Hispanic Cultural Center not quite two years later.  Their new digs are more capacious and include an uncovered patio with picnic tables.  With more spacious accommodations and an expansive industrial kitchen, the family has also been able to expand their menu, now offering a number of savory dishes such as Frito pie, several hot sandwiches and even a Sonoran hot dog.

Mint Chip Ice Cream Taco

The Sonoran hot dog has been referred to as the “quintessential food of Tucson.”  While it has achieved cult status throughout Arizona, it has only recently begun making significant inroads in the Land of Enchantment.  There are even more versions of this savory, smoky treat than it has ingredients.  The version at Pop Fizz is constructed from an all-beef hot dog, avocado, onion, chipotle mayo, cheese, bacon and salsa verde nestled in a bolillo bun.  It’s as delicious as it is messy with spillage guaranteed.  The bolillo bun is pillowy soft and slightly sweet, a nice complement to the smokiness of the hot dog and the piquancy of the salsa verde. 

Tacos are an excellent accompaniment to the Sonoran hot dog, but not the savory, meat-filled tacos of which you might be thinking.  Ice cream tacos, a Pop Fizz specialty are the perfect sweet contrast to the savory-smokiness of the hot dog.  The taco “shell” is a thin waffle shaped very much like a taco.  It is stuffed with dense, sweet, delicious ice cream and topped with chocolate.  We can vouch for the deliciousness of the mint chip, pecan and chocolate ice cream tacos.  The ice cream isn’t soft, creamy and custard-like, but dense and full-bodied.  The mint chip is especially addictive.

Paleta de Pina Y Habanero (Pineapple and Habanero)

While it’s often advised that in Mexico one should not drink the water, you’re also well advised to partake of as many paletas as you can.  Paletas are premium frozen delicacies made with real fruit and cream.  Typically proffered by street vendors with pushcarts, paletas offer a refreshing respite from sweltering summer days, but they’re wonderful any time of year.  Paletas are available in an amazing range of flavors including such exotic offering as pina and Habanero (pineapple and Habanero), a paleta that packs a punch.  It’s got more piquancy than the chile at far too many New Mexican restaurants, but it’s even more delicious than it is piquant. 

While Pop Fizz may have started as a neighborhood eatery, it’s garnered a reputation that far exceeds its South Valley home.  Savvy diners trek from far and wide to partake of cold treats that will warm your heart.

Pop Fizz
1701 4th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 695-1180
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2015
1st VISIT: 4 September 2015
BEST BET: Paleta de Pina Y Habanero, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Sonoran Hot Dog, Mint Chip Taco, Pecan Taco, Chocolate Taco, Watermelon Paleta, Raspberry Paleta

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