Ay Caramba – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ay Caramba!  That tired old Spanish expression was part of American pop culture long before Bart Simpson popularized its usage on episodes of The Simpsons animated television series.  The expression translates to “confound it!” or maybe “Holy Cow” and is generally used to register surprise.  You can almost imagine the Mexican equivalent of Robin, the Boy Wonder of Batman fame exclaiming “Ay Caramba” as he and his crime-fighting partner stumble onto yet another perilous plight.  

My hopes were that I’d be exclaiming “Ay Caramba” at how great the food is at this mom-and-pop restaurant which launched in 2005.  After all, my friend and colleague Steve Coleman has a relatively high opinion of the restaurant’s “sister” restaurant in Canutillo, Texas, a restaurant owned by the brother of Albuquerque’s Ay Caramba.  It appears good cooking runs in the family.

Ay Caramba’s menu is replete with many traditional favorites of northern Mexico as well as the wonderful mariscos found along Mexico’s coastal seaways…but Ay Caramba!…the menu doesn’t include Ceviche, one of the items that defines Mexican seafood.

Complementary salsa arrives at your table shortly after you do.  The jalapeno and roasted tomato salsa makes sparse use of cilantro and cumin, two overused spices which sometimes detract from the salsa’s inherent flavor.  The chips are thin but robust enough to scoop up the salsa.  Expect to consume two bowlfuls before your entrees arrive (that’s saying the salsa is excellent not that the service is slow).

The beverage bounty includes traditional Mexican aguas frescas including horchata, the beverage made from ground-up rice, sugar and cinnamon.  Ay Caramba’s version isn’t as cereal sweet as you might find at other Mexican restaurants, but it’s quite refreshing.  

Hoping to duplicate the incomparable flavor and magical properties of seafood marinated and “cooked” in lime juices, I ordered Ay Caramba’s plate of three tostadas con camarones (shrimp tostadas) with three limes.  The magic just wasn’t there.  The shrimp is of perfect texture (not rubbery or flaccid) and delicious in its own right, but when you’ve got Ceviche on your mind, there just isn’t a worthy substitute.  

Carnivores will enjoy the pork tamales bathed in red chile.  The masa isn’t so thick it dominates the pork and the chile is an ameliorant, not an overly prominent flavor.

Business is slow at this southwest heights restaurant, hopefully a sign that Albuquerque diners have yet to discover it and nothing else.  

Ay Caramba
5555 Zuni, S.E. #24
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2006
BEST BET: Tostadas con Camarones, Salsa, Tamales

Topolobampo – Chicago, Illinois

A quote attributed to Marcel Marceau, the French mime famous for his sad-faced clown, aptly describes my attempts at describing a meal at Topolobampo: “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words.” Life’s vicissitudes often include moments which move you deeply and stir your very soul. Our inaugural dining experience at Topolobampo was not so profound and cathartic as to move us to drastically change our lives, but it certainly prompted a stirring awakening as we experienced what was conceivably the best restaurant meal we’ve ever had. Perhaps more impressively, a second visit affirmed that opinion with an equally stunning array of unsurpassed delights.

Several of the other effusive reviews I’ve written are mere hyperbole in comparison to what I’d like to say about Topolobampo if I was skilled enough to do so. Topolobampo is simply the best restaurant in which we’ve dined, so far superior to other restaurants I previously thought were outstanding that I scaled down my ratings for many of them.

The sister restaurant of Frontera Grill, “Topolo” shares its front door and bar with its sibling, but is even more classy and elegant, more than a notch above. On the day we first visited, chef nonpareil Rick Bayless and 30 members of his staff had just returned from an extended culinary excursion in Mexico City where they imbibed culture and culled secrets of Mexico City’s cuisine. Annual pilgrimages to Mexico’s regions continue to inspire his creativity with Oaxaca, the “land of the seven moles” being a favorite.

We were fortunate enough during our inaugural visit to meet Bayless who is as humble and gracious as the Mexican people he loves. From his modest demeanor you might never suspect he has been a multiple time James Beard award winner. It’s in partaking of his culinary creations that you quickly determine he is a gifted and special chef. Topolo has been listed among America’s top 50 restaurants by Condé Nast Traveler and a Playboy restaurant survey placed it among the country’s top 25 restaurants.

Bayless also stopped at our table during our second visit. When he inquired as to my heavily bandaged hand, I replied that I had incurred carpal tunnel from the nasty letter I wrote to the Iron Chef judges who indicated Bobby Flay’s cuisine reigned supreme during their mano a mano competition in 2004. Bayless smiled broadly, steepled his hands together as in prayer and bowed–acknowledgement of my compliment.

Like Frontera Grill, Topolobampo is unlike any stereotypical Mexican restaurant you’ve ever visited. It is electrical in its energy, edgy in its ambience, boisterous in its rhythm and vibrant in its delivery. It’s like an eye-opening, invigorating sensory overload for all your senses. The fragrance of bold spices; the multi-hued walls festooned with festive art; the bold, complex yet refined tastes of fresh, organic ingredients–dining at Topolobampo is like a religious conversion! Every bite is an adventure in unbridled joy. Every appetizer, entree and dessert will make rapturous love to your taste buds, titillating and teasing them with sensations you might never before have experienced.

Topolo’s salads are fabulous–masterpieces deserving of the same rapt attention as a Picasso. A tasting plate called Ensaladas Surtidas is comprised of three salads: crunchy shredded chayote salad with smoky pasilla chile; grilled shitake-cactus salad with poblanos and lime; and roasted vegetable “ensalada rusa” with homemade chipotle mayonnaise. Every fantastic forkful will lavish taste wonders that will enliven your tongue.

Amazing appetizers provide a precursory experience that would be the highlight of a meal anywhere else. Exemplary empanadas de chivo (flaky turnovers filled with red chile braised Swan Creek farm goat birria and served with toasted guajillo dipping sauce and baby greens) surfaced the tastes that make goat a much underappreciated meat. Better still are the Mejillones Ahumados con Chile Pasado which are house-smoked Prince Edward Island mussels with luscious lobster broth infused with chile pasado. These marvelous mollusks are better than you’ll find at any seafood restaurant.

Exceptional entrees follow the sensational salads and artful appetizers. Puerco en Mole Verde de Chabacano feature a serrano and garlic-marinated Maple Creek farm pork loin with Querataro-style green mole (sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts, poblanos, plantains and spices) with sweet corn tamal, poblanos rajas and sugar snap peas. Complementary and contrasting taste sensations made this beautifully presented plate a thrill to look at and a delight to consume.

A sampler of Oaxacan delights called Cuatro Cositas Oaxaquenas featured rustic empanadas filled with chicken, yellow mole and hoja santa; grilled Oaxacan chorizo; roasted cactus salad with lime and green chile; and grill-roasted Maple Creek Farm pork loin with red mole. Although I had previously experienced versions of each of the four samplers, the Topolo version was like experiencing them for the first time and certainly, for the best time.

Pato con Lantejas (literally duck with lentils) masterfully melds seemingly contrasting ingredients to form a concordant, taste bud sating entree like no other. Adobo-marinated, pan-roasted Gunthorp duck breast is paired with an ancho chile-lentil braise, jicama-dried cherry salsa (infused with smoky morita chiles) and a garlicky Snug Haven spinach. The duck was virtually fat-free while the cherry salsa and lentils both competed and joined together in competition for your rapt attention.

Desserts are decadent celebrations of Mexican sweet-tooth tantalizing treats. The pastelito de Chocolate Oaxaqueno–a warm, moist dark chocolate “brownie” studded with Oaxacan chocolate and pine nuts with orange zest ice cream (perfumed with anise hyssop and Yucatecan Xtabentum honey liqueur) and bittersweet chocolate sauce–played a blissful symphony on our taste buds. Equally formidable was the Tartaleta de Mango, a mango-brown butter tart topped with crunchy cinnamon streusel; served with mango-chamomile ice cream and crimson prickly pear sauce.

Rick Bayless’s creations punctuate with emphasis that Mexico is indeed home to one of the world’s great cuisines. The country’s remarkably diverse range of styles has found a home in Chicago and has my undying devotion. Topolobampo’s incomparable fare may not be relatable to Mexican food you’ve had previously, but it will be the basis of comparison with every Mexican restaurant at which you’ll dine in the future. It is simply the best!

445 North Clark
Chicago, IL
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 7 July 2005
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Ensaladas Surtidas; Puerco en Mole Verde de Chabacano; Cuatro Cositas Oaxaquenas; Pastelito de Chocolate Oaxaqueno

El Bandido Hideaway Del Valle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Armed with Andrea Lin’s terrific Duke City Fix review of the El Bandido restaurant on Central, we set off on a Friday night to visit a branch of a restaurant at which we hadn’t dined since 1999. El Bandido Hideaway del Valle, we figured was affiliated with the Central Avenue restaurant renown for its creative advertising (stationing a sign carrying man wearing a Mexican wrestling mask on the busy median). Alas, while the affiliation no longer exists, the North Valley restaurant’s name remains unchanged. That, as it turns out, was perfectly okay because we uncovered a real find.

Some people have a passion for their culinary craft. Not all of them have the opportunity or desire to ply their craft to quasi-celebrity status at restaurants anointed by reviewers as the places to dine. In Javier Rocha we uncovered just such an artist. A chef for more than 15 years, Javier attended to us personally while simultaneously feeding a room full of boisterous barflies. Thankfully the dining room was segregated from the combination dance hall and bar area in which a mostly Latino crowd grew increasingly louder as the evening wore on and the alcohol exerted its influence.

Chef Rocha is a perfectionist, but in this milieu, he’s like a Michelangelo extracting alchemy out of marble at a flea market. Rocha’s marble equivalent is in the ingredients he uses. He cuts his own sirloin steak himself, a choice cut aged for 21 days before serving. His salads feature Romaine lettuce, not only because iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value, but because he wants his salads to be a cut above. He creates his own vinaigrette dressings, using olive oil instead of the more traditional vegetable oils other restaurants use.

You won’t find pre-formed patties on his hamburgers; he uses only fresh ground beef which he shapes himself. Give him two days notice, he says, and he can prepare anything you want, even sushi. Despite his prodigious talents in the kitchen, his menu is somewhat limited given his clientele and the restaurant’s location. When we found out this Bandido had no ties to the Central Avenue location, Rocha told us confidently that our meals would be free if we didn’t like what he served. No surprise to him, we liked everything.

Start your meal with his salsa and chips and you’ll gain an immediate appreciation for his skill. The pico del gallo-like salsa marries tomato, white onion, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro and lime, a union of fresh ingredients which resonate with taste. The chips were warm and crispy with just the right amount of salt. The salads include fresh tomato, thinly sliced carrots and your choice of dressing (ask for the cilantro vinaigrette). I don’t usually order or like chimichangas, but Rocha talked me into it with his passionate description of what turned out to be one of the best chimis I’ve had. A fried tortilla encased shredded beef, Romaine lettuce, beans, yellow onions (for their sweetness) and tomatoes, a combination which sprung to life on my taste buds. Kim had carne asada which was tender, well seasoned and absolutely delicious.

Chef Rocha appears perfectly happy to ply his craft simply and without fanfare and while it’s unlikely he’ll gain the celebrity accorded other chefs, he’s got the talent to compete and that seems to be enough for him.

El Bandido Hideaway Del Valle
1119 Candelaria, NW
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 24 June 2005
BEST BET: Salsa; Carne Asada; Chimichanga

Fiesta Flavors – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mixed fruit cups, buttered corn nibblet cups, fruity refreshing beverages and frozen fresh fruit treats are the centerpieces of several quickly growing niche chains, one of which launched an Albuquerque shop in the spring of 2004. That niche includes both diet and health conscious treat seekers as well as the growing Hispanic market, making the Duke City a natural choice for Fiesta Flavors.

Niche or not, the intriguing menu has something for everyone. The fruit cups, whether mixed or as a single fruit offering, are served with your choice of three toppings: a sweet and creamy blend of sweetened and flavored sour cream, a low-fat and sugar free yogurt and best of all, the Fiesta chili blend of salt, lime and chili. As served on the bananas con crema, the homemade sweet cream enlivens the fruit and leaves you craving more.

The star of the show, however, are the corn cups which feature hot buttered corn cut from the cob then mixed with the Fiesta chili blend, cheese and sour cream. There’s no picking at your teeth after a bowl of this masterpiece. Fruity freezes made with your two choices of fruit blended with your fresh juice choice are the perfect cure for a balmy summer day. They are both refreshing and delicious.

As for noshes, your choices aren’t quite as exotic or interesting. I made the mistake of ordering a hot dog with cheese which included that gloppy cheese normally reserved for bad nachos. That hot dog perpetuated all the worse hot dog stereotypes and jokes. An order of taquitos was somewhat better, especially since the accompanying guacamole was wonderfully piquant.

Fiesta Flavors’ South Valley location is somewhat off the beaten path and may deter some prospective diners.

Fiesta Flavors
1511B Goff, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2004
BEST BET: Fruit Cups, Corn Cups, Fruit Freezes

El Ranchito Cafe & Club – Dallas, Texas

In the Mexican neighborhoods of west Dallas, adventurous “gringo” diners who grew up on Tex-Mex cuisine have apparently discovered the wonderful cuisine of Old Mexico. On the night we visited, this was evidenced by the lively and decidedly “white” crowd enjoying their meals almost as much as the generations of Mexican-American patrons craving (and receiving) authentic tastes of home.

Since moving to the United States from Monterrey Mexico, entrepreneur and owner Laura Sanchez has carved a niche in the Dallas Mexican food arena and has done so by not deviating from her roots. Authenticity resonates in the cuisine as it does in the corridos belted out by the Mariachis.

El Ranchito’s salsa packs a punch unlike the tomato and cilantro laden red stuff served in most Tex-Mex restaurants. The horchata is wonderfully sweet with just the right amount of cinnamon. An appetizer called choriqueso (known in New Mexico as queso fundido) combined asadero cheese and chorizo set aflame and was served with flour tortillas. It was the best of its kind I’ve ever had.

The restaurant’s specialty is Cabrito or baby goat, a $21 plus treat served on a grill. Although somewhat bony, Cabrito is a very tender and savory meat with a taste all its own. You’d be well advised to share an order of Cabrito as it’s more than enough for one person.

Kim and my sister Dolores who introduced us to this Mexican treasure, shared an order of Parillada, a mixed grill of beef, chicken, sausage and ribs. It was exquisite.

The menu includes several mariscos (seafood) entrees which we hope to try during a future visit.

El Ranchito Cafe & Club
610 West Jefferson
Dallas, TX

LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cabrito, Parillada, Horchata, Choriqueso

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