El Zarandeado – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Zarandeado, Mexican Seafood al Estilo Sinoloa

El Zarandeado, Mexican Seafood al Estilo Sinoloa

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea.
You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it.
Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo.
Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp,
lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup,
shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich.
That- that’s about it.”
Bubba from Forrest Gump

Benjamin Bufford “Bubba” Blue may have thought he knew all there was to know about shrimp, but he didn’t know about camarones and he had no idea about ceviche.  In 1967 while Bubba was in Vietnam helping “save the world for Democracy,” only the jet-setters who spent time in Mexico’s coastal regions had an inkling about the magical things which could be done with mariscos (Mexican seafood) freshly plucked out of the sea.  In 1967 American restaurants–particularly steak restaurants–were still serving butterflied fried shrimp in “surf and turf” entrees and calling it gourmet.  Long John Silvers was still two years away from making inexpensive shrimp available to the masses.  The most exotic use of shrimp during the year of the “summer of love” was probably on Chinese dishes. 

Mariscos restaurants didn’t make significant inroads in America until the 1980s and not surprisingly, not until somewhat later in the “Land of Mañana.” In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it can be said that mariscos restaurants have truly arrived, though some of the restaurants which most artfully and deliciously prepare the pescatarian delights throughout the Duke City  remain virtually undiscovered except seemingly by former residents of Los Mochis, Culiacan, Mazatlan and other towns in the Mexican states sharing the coastline of the Gulf of California.

Salsa and Chips

Salsa and Chips

One such restaurant is El Zarandeado, a crown jewel on Central Avenue across the street from the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque’s International District. Since its launch in October, 2010, this  maven of magnificent mariscos has been a home away from home for Baja transplants longing to quell their mariscos cravings.  In fact, despite  a glowing review from the Albuquerque Journal‘s Andrea Lin, most of the restaurant’s guests (according to the owners) remain the scions of Cortez and Montezuma.  I suspect the area’s erstwhile “war zone” reputation may have something to do with that along with the fact that the restaurant’s facade is somewhat timeworn. 

One of the dichotomies of Mexican food is that there is often an inverse correlation between flavor and ambiance.  Some of the very best Mexican food you’ll find anywhere is served in facilities cynics might decry as almost ramshackle–or putting it more poetically, the ugly duckling restaurants serve often serve the most beautiful food.   El Zarandeado is hardly off-putting; in fact it’s just quite homey.  Let the deep-pocketed chains have their pristine trappings.  El Zarandeado shines where it counts–in the kitchen, in the dining room and in the hearts, minds and stomachs of diners like John Lucas, a long-time friend of this blog who gave me an effusive recommendation for the restaurant several months ago.

 A dozen empanaditas rellenas stuffed with cheese, chile and shrimp

A dozen empanaditas rellenas stuffed with cheese, chile and shrimp

The mariscos at El Zarandeado come from Sinaloa whose western borders hug the azure, seafood rich waters of the California Gulf and the Pacific Ocean. The recipes come from the convivial family which owns and operates the restaurant.  It’s a family which takes tremendous pride in the execution of those recipes.  There are two conjoined dining rooms with table and booth seating.  As with almost every mariscos restaurant in Albuquerque, a blue marlin has a place of prominence on one wall.

The restaurant is named for pescado Zarandeado, a game and eating fish James Beard Award-winning author Jonathan Gold describes as “as intimidating as an entrée can get, a vast, smoking creature split open at the backbone and flopped open into a sort of skeleton-punctuated mirror image of itself, wisps of steam rising around the onions and lemon slices with which it is strewn.”  In 2009, Gold also called pescado Zarandeado “the latest cult object in Los Angeles restaurants.”   Fittingly Zarandeado is on the menu, but because preparation time is approximately one hour, it’s highly recommended that you call in your order in advance. It’s priced at $15.99 per pound (as of January, 2012).

Tostada Mixta (Pulpo and Jaiba)

Tostada Mixta (Pulpo and Jaiba)

Not on the menu, but which was served gratis during our inaugural visit is a cup of shrimp consomme.  Though it may have but one visible shrimp, the consomme is replete with the flavor of Mexico’s favorite decapod crustacean.  This is not a soup for which a couple of cubes of “shrimp bouillon” are thrown into a pan of water and heated.  Preparation is a painstaking process that involves not only deveining each shrimp, but grinding and mashing the shrimp skins and shrimp heads, both of which are used in the preparation of the broth.  The consomme is quite good–better if enlivened with a few drops of the bottled habanero salsa on the table.  Saltine crackers are also provided along with two crisp corn tortillas just beckoning for any of the bottled salsas on the table.  Best of all, each meal comes with a basket of thick, steaming corn tortillas.  They’re among the very best in the city.

El Zarandeado’s botanas (snacks or appetizers) are shrimp and oyster intensive.  One–the ostiones rellenos–invites you to try oysters and shrimp together by offering oysters stuffed with ceviche. Another inventive way to enjoy shrimp is in the form of a half or full dozen empanaditas rellenas stuffed with cheese, chile and shrimp.  The masa with which the empanaditas are made is redolent with the aroma of ground corn and each of these gems is served hot, hot, hot with very little greasiness.   Bite into them and wisps of steam escape, a precursor to the pure deliciousness in each morsel.  Served with the empanaditas is a frothy light green salsa made from jalapeños, cilantro and lime.  Once the froth is gone, the salsa becomes the color of lime Kool Aid, but the taste is a tangy-savory piquancy.

Camarones “Culiche” en salsa de chile chilaca con aroz y ensalada

El Zarandeado is somewhat of an anomaly among mariscos restaurants in Albuquerque in that it offers both camaron crudo (raw shrimp) and camaron cocido (cooked shrimp) on its ceviche and tacos.  The tostada de ceviche is available with shrimp, fish or any combination of two or three seafood ingredients, options of which also include pulpo (squid) and jaiba (imitation crab).  As with most Mexican ceviche, each tostada is heaped with not only the seafood of your choice, but with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, slices of fresh avocado and a lime juice marinade which “cooks” the shrimp.

The menu showcases camarones (shrimp) in the many ways in which they can be prepared: A La Diabla (devil-style shrimp prepared with a piquant sauce), Rancheros (shrimp served in a salsa, albeit not as spicy as the a la diabla sauce), Al Mojo De Ajo (garlic shrimp), Empanizados (breaded and fried shrimp), Costa Azul (shrimp stuffed with cheese and jalapeño then wrapped in bacon), a la plancha (shrimp prepared on a metal plate, usually a cast iron skillet) and Camarones “Culiche” (shrimp prepared in a sauce of Mexican crema and chile chilaca).

Molcajete Sinaloense

Our introduction to El Zarandeado’s Camarones Culiche was an eye-opener, the first truly unique shrimp preparation style we’ve had in Albuquerque in quite a while.  Culiche (usually spelled culichi) is, in fact, what residents of the city of Culiacan in the state of Sinaloa call themselves.  When you see “Culichi” on a menu in a restaurant, it often means nothing more than “Culiacan style” and that can be a very liberal term.  El Zarandeado’s interpretation of Culiacan style features a sauce made with Mexican crema and the chilaca chile, a green chile with medium heat.  More than a dozen perfectly prepared shrimp add an element of sweet brininess.  This plate is served with a fluffy, buttery rice and a small salad.

The dish which captivated both John Lucas and Andrea Lin is the Molcajete Sinaloense, one of three molcajete-based entrees on the menu.  A molcajete is a three-legged cooking and serving vessel made from pure volcanic basalt.  Not surprisingly, it retains heat very well.  In fact, the contents with which the deep pucked cauldron is filled, remain every bit as hot when you finish your last bite as they were when the first bite burnt your tongue.  The Molcajete Sinaloense includes three types of shrimp–Camarones Costa Azul, Camarones Empanizados and Camarones Al Mojo de Ajo–along with two butterflied fish filets and ringlets of octopus served in a mildly piquant green salsa served almost bubbling.  This is an entree large enough for two, but so good you might not want to share it. 

Natilla de coco and Natilla de Canela

There’s only one dessert on the menu, but it’s done two ways.  That dessert is natillas, the delicate custard dish made with eggs and milk.  One rendition is topped with coco (coconut flakes) and one with canela (cinnamon).  Both are served in a plastic bowl with a lid, perhaps lending an impression that they’re not homemade.  Like the Jello brand pudding of Bill Cosby commercial fame and the pudding George Costanza enjoyed on Seinfeld, these natillas have a “skin” which you have to puncture to get to the moist, creamy custard which is thankfully not too sweet. 

Second Visit: March 10, 2013:  Our second visit transpired on a Sunday, which for Mexican families, is a family day.  When families aren’t getting together at home for a meal, they dine at restaurants which can offer an authentic taste of home.  No longer served is the complimentary shrimp consomme.  Instead, Culiacan-style tostadas and salsa arrive at your table shortly after you do.  You can break off the tostadas into chips and dip them into the salsa or better yet, scoop up as much of the piquant pepper-based salsa as you can tolerate.  The salsa is incendiary with a bit of lime to cut the heat.

Molcajete Aguachile

Molcajete Aguachile

One of the most unique offerings we’ve seen at a Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment is the Molcajete Aguachile (literally chile water).  It’s not a unique dish in Mexico, but it’s not that common north of the border.  Aguachile is essentially a very piquant version of ceviche mixto (camarones, pulpo, jaiba, pescado) in a cold citrus fruit, lime and Serrano chile broth.  The incendiary nature of this broth won’t hit the back of your throat as some chiles do, but you will find your tongue afire quickly.  The citrus mitigates the heat and lends a complementary flavor profile.  With every spoonful, you’ll extricate chopped shrimp, imitation crab, squid and fish, the type and quality of which you generally find on ceviche.

The third Molcajete dish on the menu is the Molcajete Mar Y Tierra (literally sea and Earth), a hollowed-out volcanic vessel brimming with a butterflied fish filet (the mar), a single salchica (sausage), chicken, beef, Mexican cheese, homemade corn tortillas and a large nopal (cactus pad).  It’s similar in deliciousness and portion-size to the Molcajete Lupe at Antojitos Lupe in Bernalillo.  The cavity of the molcajete retains its heat for the entire duration of your meal which means every morsel is as hot as the first.  Each morsel is also as delicious as the first.  This entree is large enough for two, but so good you won’t want to share.

Zarandeado13

Molcajete Mar Y Tierra

Since 1967 American diners come a long way in the ways we appreciate shrimp.  It’s too bad Bubba didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the many wondrous ways in which El Zarandeado prepares its camarones or his little paean would have included a few more stanzas.  Close your eyes and El Zarandeado just may transport you to a beachside restaurant in Sinaloa.

El Zarandeado
6500 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 266-0143
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 3 May 2016
1st  VISIT: 14 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Consomme de Camaron, Empanaditas Rellenas, Tostada de Ceviche, Tostada Mixta, Camarones “Culiche, Molcajete Sinaloense, Natillas, Molcajete Aguachile, Molcajete Mar Y Tierra,

El Zanrandeado on Urbanspoon

Taqueria El Paisa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taqueria El Paisa on Bridge Avenue in Albuquerque

The immediacy of a taco, handed to you hot from grill and comal, can’t be equaled. 
You can stand there and eat yourself silly with one taco after another,
each made fresh for you and consumed within seconds. 
A great taco rocks with distinct tastes that roll on and on,
like a little party on your tongue, with layers of flavor and textures:
juicy, delicious fillings, perfectly seasoned; the taste of the soft corn tortilla;
a morsel of salty cheese and finally, best of all,
the bright explosion of a freshly-made salsa that suddenly ignites and unites everything on your palate.
At the end of our two or three-bite taco you just want to repeat the experience until you are sated.”
~Deborah Schneider, 1000 Tacos | Mexico, One Bite At A Time

If you’re wondering why such a heartfelt expression of sheer appreciation and unfettered love has been so eloquently conveyed about something as humble and–some would say pedestrian–as the taco, perhaps you’ve haven’t heard about the taco evolution-slash-revolution taking America by storm. And no, I’m not talking about Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco Supreme (that’s a mutation, not an evolution). Nor am I talking about artisan cooks exploiting the limitless possibilities of what is essentially a rather simple concept–a corn or flour tortilla stuffed with sundry and delicious ingredients.

The small dining room at Taqueria El Paisa

To be sure, a paean could be written about the creative use of multi-ethnic ingredients in constructing tacos bursting with flavor profiles heretofore unexplored. Judges and guests alike certainly waxed poetic about the fusion evolution vividly on display at the 2015 Taste of Rio Rancho where Street Food Blvd earned three first place awards (best appetizer, best entree and People’s Choice) by showcasing its unique tacos. Over the years we’ve also been enthralled by temptingly toothsome tacos at such exemplars of cutting edge cooking as Pasion Latin Fusion, Sophia’s Place and others, but none of them exemplify the taco evolution/revolution of which I write.  

No, my friends, the taco evolution/revolution of which I write is the widespread availability of the humble Mexican taquerias which have exploded across the culinary landscape over the past two decades or so. Though not nearly as ubiquitous as Taco Bell (which Anthony Bourdain would probably say is as widespread as herpes), the number of quality Mexican taquerias across the fruited plain might surprise you. These taquerias have introduced teeming masses yearning to eat well to the concept that sometimes simple, fresh and relatively unadorned is best. Most of these taquerias are the antithesis of fancy, but they’re paragons of deliciousness.

The exterior patio at Taqueria El Paisa

For many savvy taco aficionados across the Duke City, the taco trek begins and ends on the west side of Bridge Boulevard scant yards from where it crosses the Rio Grande. That’s where you’ll find Taqueria El Paisa, a delicious little slice of Mexico in the Land of Enchantment. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, El Paisa maintains an operating schedule that would exhaust many of us. It opens its doors when some of us are still sleeping (7AM) and closes at midnight, long after we’ve gone to bed.

Despite its diminutive digs, El Paisa is heavily trafficked, its Lilliputian dining room accommodating only a few diners while a sprawling covered porch handlies the overflow crowds. And they do overflow! Just how good is this taqueria? According to an article entitled “15 Restaurants in New Mexico That Will Blow Your Mind” published in the Movoto Insider blog it’s so good, it “will ruin all other Mexican food for you.” That’s an audacious claim considering the surfeit of superb Mexican restaurants across the Land of Enchantment, but some devotees won’t go anywhere else for their tacos.

Aguas Frescas: Pina and Melon

While it bears the name “Paisa,” a diminutive of “Paisano” which translates from Spanish to “countryman,” diners of all stripes and colors are welcome here. It’s a friendly milieu in which it may help to know a little Spanish, but it’s not absolutely requisite. You and the servers at the counter can make yourselves mutually understood even if it means pointing at the menu (which is also in Spanish). That menu hangs to the right of the counter where you place your order and you’ll espy it the second you walk in.

At first glance, the menu may appear to be rather limited. Its offerings are categorized into burritos, gorditas, tacos, tortas and aguas frescas. The variety increases exponentially because you’re able to have your tacos, burritos, gorditas and tortas constructed from the same basic ingredients (al pastor, buche, barbacoa, carne asada, etc.). For example, not only can you have a taco al pastor, you can order a burrito stuffed with the same al pastor pork. If the menu doesn’t make you drool, the “cheap eats” pricing structure just might. Two can eat rather well (and probably take some home) for around twenty dollars.

Six Tacos: El Pastor, Carnitas and Asada

1 February 2015: In addition to eating well, you can drink merrily. Not only does El Paisa offer Mexican Coke in a bottle (which is sweetened with real sugar and not the high-fructose corn syrup used in America), you’ll find some of the very best aguas frescas in town.  Served from large barrel-shaped containers, these refreshing beverages actually taste like the fruits (or almond milk and cinnamon in the case of horchata) from which they’re derived.  The melon, platano (banana), sandia (watermelon) and piña (pineapple) are absolutely amazing!  The accommodating wait staff may even acquiesce if you ask them nicely to give you a mix of any two.  Banana and pineapple make a wonderful combination.  Simply amazing!

1 February 2015: So are the tacos although the more appropriate descriptor would be “muy ricos,” the Mexican term used for food items which are “very delicious.”   The quality of riquisimo (even more delicious) begins with the soft corn tortillas in which all other ingredients are nestled.  A pronounced corn flavor coupled with an inherently pliable texture make them the perfect vessel for the ingredients of your choice, topped if you desire with chopped onions and cilantro.  

Top: Chile Relleno Burrito; Bottom: Mole Burrito

1 February 2015: Four different salsas of varying piquancy are also available, but the more incendiary among them will serve more to obfuscate other flavors than to ameliorate them.  The salsa offering perhaps the most refreshingly pleasant and just right heat level may be the tomatillo-jalpeño salsa which you might be tempted to chug.  It’s very good!  You won’t want anything masking the glorious flavor of the meats, especially the al pastor.   That the al pastor is so delicious was no surprise, but its just slightly crispy texture (not quite chicharron-like, but in the vicinity) was a pleasant surprise.  The other meats (carne asada and carnitas) we sampled had similar qualities and were equally enjoyable.  

1 February 2015: Burritos are of the hand-held variety and are about seven inches in length.  Each tightly-wrapped flour tortilla plays host to some of the very best burritos in Albuquerque.  You’ll exclaim “Holy Mole” at your first bite of the mole burrito, love-me-tender tendrils of pork prepared in a complex and numerous blend of ingredients, some with a discernible sweetness and all coalescing to provide a back-of-the-throat heat you’ll enjoy.  It’s an amazing mole made even more impressive by its low price.  It’s not every Mexican restaurant which serves a chile relleno burrito so if you see it on the menu, you’re well advised to try it.  In contrast to the mole which is dominated by sweet notes, the chile relleno burrito has a pleasant bite. It won’t water your eyes, but your tongue and the back of your throat will feel its bite.

Ceviche

19 June 2015: There are so many Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque offering ceviche that sometimes the only thing distinguishing one from another isn’t the freshness and flavor of the seafood, but the influence of citrus.  Some border on an almost lip-pursing lime-infused flavor while others have a much lesser presence of citrus juices.  There’s comfort in the consistency of getting what you’re expecting at virtually every Mexican restaurant.  El Paisa’s rendition of Ceviche is the first to surprise me in months.  At first glance, it resembles every other ceviche and in composition, it has all the standard ingredients: fish, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and avocado slices atop a crispy corn tortilla.  What distinguishes this one is the tomatoes which are wholly unlike the artificially ripened, flavorless variety so prevalent everywhere.  These tomatoes have a flavor profile very much like a sweet tomato jam.  It’s a pleasant departure from the usual.

19 June 2015: When pining for a delicious sandwich, the notion of finding one at a Mexican restaurant doesn’t always jump to the surface.  Perhaps it should, especially if you’ve become budget conscious and tired of parting with your Alexander Hamiltons.  In Mexico, just as in the United States, the sandwich has become a ubiquitous staple.  What it hasn’t become is unaffordable.  For just about what you’d pay for half a sub at one of those abysmal chains, you can get a torta stuffed with sundry ingredients and you’ll wonder why you sunk your children’s inheritance at Subway.  El Paisa offers a phalanx of tantalizing tortas,  Among them is the torta de jamon, a savory, crusty bolillo engorged with two slices of fried jamon, a thin Mexican ham; lettuce; tomatoes; cheese and avocadoes.  It’s moist, delicious and flavorful.  Frankly, it’s got everything you crave in a sandwich and so much more.

Torta de Jamon

10 June 2015:  Gorditas which translate from Spanish to “fatties” are a popular street food in Mexico and have gained a foothold in the culinary culture of its bordering states.  Loosely described as “flat bread sandwiches,” gorditas are constructed from masa (corn or flour) and are about the size of the corn tortillas used for tacos only much thicker.  They’re usually split open and stuffed with sundry ingredients.  El Paisa’s gorditas are terrific and they can be stuffed with any of the wondrous ingredients with which you can stuff a burrito or sandwich.  The al pastor is my early favorite. 

20 April 2016: When my friends and frequent dining companions Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell met me for lunch at El Paisa I welcomed them with “Bienvenidos a Mexico.”  It isn’t far from the truth.  Both recognize that El Paisa is as authentically Mexico as you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.  Among the buffet table of items we shared (for a ridiculously low price), was a quesadilla for which we requested an al pastor filling.  Larry called it the very best quesadilla he’s ever had while Deanell was surprised at just how good a quesadilla can be.  Stuffed with queso (naturally), beans and al pastor, this quesadilla is indeed an adventure in delicious, perhaps equal to the quesadilla synchronizada  at La Familiar as Albuquerque’s very best.  This tortilla treasure is accompanied by cheesy and delicious beans and a rich guacamole.

Quesadilla con El Pastor

Taqueria El Paisa is the real thing–as authentic a taqueria as you’ll find in Old Mexico without pretentions or compromise.  It’s the home of riquisimo!  

Taqueria El Paisa
820 Bridge Blvd, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 452-8997
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2016
1st VISIT: 1 February 2015
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Mole Burrito, Chile Relleno Burrito, Al Pastor Burrito, Verde en Puerco Burrito, Carne Asada Tacos, Al Pastor Tacos, Carnitas Taco, Gordita de Al Pastor, Torta De Jamon, Tostada De Ceviche

El Paisa Restaurante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cazuela’s Mexican Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cazuela's Mexican Grill

Cazuela’s Mexican Grill

Here’s an interesting bit of Jeopardy level trivia which you might contemplate the next time you dine at this Rio Rancho spot: In the Spanish golden age, a “cazuela” was the gallery located above the tavern in the back wall of a theater–the area in which women were segregated. Today “cazuela” is a Mexican word for casserole meal.  Cazuela’s restaurant is a friendly, family-owned operation, which in 2007 saw significant change,  precipitated in part by a motorist crashing through the diminutive dwelling which had been the restaurant’s home for several years.   That original site was a tiny, time-worn building imbued with charm and warmth that belied its Lilliputian size.

Cazuela’s new location is an expansive edifice which once housed Rio Rancho’s Sports Corral. The Corral’s batting cages are still part of the property, but gone are other facets of the long-time sports complex. Owner Francisco Saenz practically gutted the building, investing significant capital in completely transforming it into a classy restaurant. With a lease to buy option, he has big plans for Cazuela’s.  The new location allows the Saenz family to expand their menu, extend hours of business and even cater large events. It’s got a banqueting facility that will accommodate large crowds.

A cazuela

A painting of a cazuela at Cazuela’s

As with all successful restaurants, Cazuela’s has evolved and grown beyond just physical space.  An expansive menu befitting larger accommodations has been added.  Mariscos became part of the menu in 2009.  In 2012, the restaurant added a brewery and tap room showcasing several award-winning adult libations (and a pretty good Root Beer, too).  In 2015, Cazuela’s added a stone oven in which pizzas are made with scratch-made dough infused with New Mexico honey.

Enter through the north-facing door and you’ll see why the restaurant is named Cazuela’s. A large painting of a casserole dish hangs prominently. There are several Mexican paintings hanging on the restaurant’s walls, all framed in the unique style of Old Mexico. An arched doorway takes you from the front dining room to a more expansive dining room. Several half-moon shaped arches throughout the restaurant give you visibility to a beautiful venue that facilitates tranquil and relaxing dining.

Cazuela’s Capacious Dining Room

The dining rooms are bright and airy with plenty of room to spread out. Ceiling fans allow for air to circulate and help drown out the sound of the televisions in each dining room. Both table and booth seating are comfortable. The two most important thing about Cazuela’s didn’t change with its move to a larger facility.  The first would be service. Cazuela’s wait staff is among the most attentive in town. It’s a knowledgeable wait staff whose recommendations you can trust. From the moment you’re greeted until the minute you leave, the wait staff will make you feel like a welcome guest.  They check up on you frequently without being intrusive and they anticipate when you need a refill.

The second is the food. Sure, the menu expanded, but that’s just more of the same delicious food residents of the City of Vision have come to love. It’s fresh, flavorful and almost all made on the premises.  That starts with the chips and salsa. The chips are made from deep-fried corn tortillas. These are some of the best chips in town–thick and redolent with the flavor of corn. Your first order of chips and salsa is complementary and subsequent orders cost a pittance.  The salsa is delicious. It’s a bit on the thin side, but makes up for that with a smoky and mildly piquant flavor invigorated with cilantro, tomato and jalapeno. If you can taste freshness in a salsa, this might be what it tastes like.

Chips and Salsa

31 March 2010: Cazuela’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which includes traditional Mexican favorites such as chilaquiles, pancakes, eggs and bacon as well as New Mexico’s ubiquitous breakfast burritos.  The chilaquiles are terrific, some of the very best in New Mexico in large part because they’re made with those fabulous Cazuela’s chips.  This dish is simplicity itself–deep-fried tortilla chips smothered in green chile and cheese then topped with a fried egg.  The green chile is of medium piquancy and imbues the chips with both a softening quality and a memorable flavor.  The runniness of the yolk makes it even better.

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

31 March 2010: You might not expect a Mexican grill to excel at pancakes, but Cazuela’s would give any pancake house a run for their money.  Whether you order a full-sized portion or a short stack (two pancakes), you’re in for a treat.  The pancakes are  nearly the circumference of the plate and are served with syrup tinged with more than a discernible hint of vanilla.  They’re served steaming hot so the butter melts easily.

A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela's doesn't mean a small stack

A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela’s doesn’t mean a small stack

18 January 2008Taquitos with salsa and sour cream are another not-to-be-missed option. Cazuela’s taquitos aren’t rolled up cigar-tight as you might find them in Española (which I’ve long contended makes the best taquitos in the state).  Corn tortillas are engorged with a beef and bean amalgam then deep-fried. Served in orders of four, they’re sizable enough to share (not that you might want to, they’re so good). 

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

18 January 2008: Other staples of the expanded menu include daily specials, gorditas (considered the specialty of the house), tacos, burritos, enchiladas, combination plates and handmade tamales and tortillas. Visitors expecting New Mexico style cooking (and especially New Mexican chile) will be in for a pleasant surprise. This is old Mexico in all its culinary glory.  You might also be surprised by the restaurant’s rendition of gorditas (which mean fatties). Typically thick, deep-fried tortillas stuffed similarly to pita bread, Cazuela’s version actually has its ingredients piled on top.  These gorditas start with handmade corn tortillas topped with shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and melted butter then smothered with red and (or) green chile. Beef, chicken or carnitas (braised pork cut into small cubes) can also be added.

Gorditas plate

Gorditas plate

26 December 2015: In 2009, Cazuela’s added more than a page’s worth of mariscos to the menu including ceviche which you can order as an appetizer or as a plate with rice and beans.  The tostadas de ceviche are available with either camarones (shrimp) or pescado (fish) marinated in citrus juices then piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices.  Cazuela’s does something other Mexican restaurants don’t do.  It provides a small plastic cup of jalapeño juice infused with lime so you can add even more citrus flavor as well as a piquant kick to your tostadas.  It’s something other restaurants should duplicate because the mix of tangy citrus and piquant jalapeños is terrific.

Tostadas de Ceviche

18 January 2008: When on the menu at the previous location, parrillada lived up to its billing as a “special of the day,”  becoming one of my very favorite Mexican entrees on the Cazuela’s menu. No matter where you travel in Latin America, you’ll find grilled meat (carne asada) on the menu. Restaurants called parrillas specialize in grilled meats and sometimes grill seafood (mariscos) and poultry as well. Only a few restaurants in the Albuquerque area offer parrillada.

Cazuela’s offers two parrilladas plates. The Nortena is made with carne asada, sizzling bacon, bell peppers, onions, chorizo and white cheese. The Carnitas Parrillada substitutes cubed pork for the carne asada. Served in one or two person portions, parrillada is served in a cast iron plate which seems to retain its heat throughout the meal. While heavily laden with ingredients for which angioplasties should come on the side, this is an excellent dish. The parrilladas plates are served with beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and corn or flour tortillas. Some diners make tacos out of the grilled ingredients; others use their forks to stab mouthfuls of grilled goodness. Any way you eat it, parrillada is delicious. 

Parrillada with Carnitas

Parrillada with Carnitas

26 December 2015: If you’re a fan of grilled meats, Cazuela’s has two additional options to consider: molcajete de carne and molcajete de pollo.  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 aesthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels.  As serving vessels is how Cazuela’s uses them.  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 de carne features grilled top sirloin steak and shrimp with onions, bell peppers and mushrooms topped with melted mozzarella cheese.  Similar to an order of fajitas, this entree is served with Spanish rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole and flour tortilla.  As good as the top sirloin is, my Kim’s favorite element is the grilled onions which are sweet and pearlescent.  The melted mozzarella lends an element of saltiness while the succulent shrimp serves as a nice foil for the meat.  Molcajete dishes were popularized in the Duke City area by Antojitos Lupe.  Cazuela’s version is a worthy contrast.

Molcajete de Carne

26 December 2015:  The Especialidades Marisco (Seafood Specials) section of the menu is brimming with netfuls of fresh, succulent seafood featuring pescado (fish), camarones (shrimp) and pulpo (octopus) entrees.  Although seafood isn’t widely thought of as “rich,” with the right sauce, seafood can be made as rich and calorific as virtually any meal.  The camarones crema de hongos (whole grilled shrimp in a cream sauce with mushrooms) is one of those almost too rich to finish dishes so good you’ll soldier on despite the sensation of being sated.  There’s a wonderful contrast between the earthy, fleshy fungi and the sweet, succulent shrimp you’ll find addictive.  This dish is served with a simple salad and your choice of Ranch or Italian dressings.

Camarones Crema de Hongos

Dessert options include sopaipillas, fried ice cream and tres leches cake. Your server will ask if you want your tres leches cake topped with a drizzle of chocolate or with fresh strawberries. In either case, it’s a delicious and unfailingly fresh cake that you’ll enjoy.

There are many things about Cazuela’s you’ll enjoy. It’s a hometown favorite Rio Rancho residents can’t get enough of. It’s on Sara Road directly across from Intel’s RR4 complex, but even though it’s not on the well-beaten path, it’s a destination restaurant to which you’ll return if you give it one visit.

Cazuela’s Mexican Grill
4051 Sara Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 994-9364
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada (Carnitas), Chile con Queso, Taquitos with Salsa & Sour Cream, Gorditas, Chilaquiles, Tostadas de Ceviche, Pancakes, Camarones Crema de Hongos, Molcajete de Carne

Cazuela's Mexican Grill and Brewery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
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
1ST VISIT
:  17 October 2009
LATEST VISIT: 11 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Chicken Mole, Huaraches, Tomatillo Salsa, Bisteca Ranchera, Molcajete Lupe, Molcajete Asada, Bionicos, Mole de Oya, Chilaquiles, Torta al Pastor

Lupe's Antojitos on Urbanspoon

Mariscos La Playa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mariscos La Playa, a Mexican Seafood Restaurant on San Mateo

There’s deliciousness and there’s delicious irony on the menu at Mariscos La Playa.  The deliciousness is more readily apparent.  It’s part and parcel of virtually every item on the menu.  You have to understand a little Spanish to grasp the delicious irony which is outwardly manifested in the form of a soup called “Caldo Vuelve a la Vida,” literally ” Come-back-to-life-soup.”  The soup is a metaphor for the restaurant itself, the irony being that the restaurant itself has come back to life in Albuquerque after a hiatus of almost two years. 

Mariscos La Playa operated in the Duke City from November, 2006 through mid-2013.  Located on Central Avenue just west of Atrisco, the colorful Mexican seafood restaurant received significant critical acclaim from every online and print medium in the city.  Moreover, it earned popular acclaim among Mexican seafood aficionados.  Large crowds typified lunch and dinner at Mariscos La Playa, the third instantiation of a Mexican seafood dynasty founded and operated by Luis Ortega and his family who also own two locations in Santa Fe and one in Española.

One of the two dining rooms in the colorful and capacious restaurant

From a demographic standpoint, the original location was probably more ideally situated for the Duke City’s Mexican population.  The new location–on San Mateo just north of McLeod–is in what long-time friend of this Blog (and charter FOG member) John L calls “Mortgage Heights.”   It’s situated in a “challenged” (some might say “cursed”) location previously occupied by such tenants as the Prickly Pear Bar & Grill and before that Sabroso’s, both New Mexican restaurants. 

Visit the restaurant during a busy traffic day and you’ll quickly discern why the location is so challenged. If you’re driving south on San Mateo, you’ll find that there is no direct right turn to the restaurant and traffic can be so dense and busy that you may have to wait for a while to turn in.  Then there’s the phenomenon of the far right lane headed north.  For some reason, this lane is as tightly packed as a procession of ants headed toward a picnic.  But I digress…

Chips with three types of salsas

As with its predecessor on Central and its siblings in Santa Fe an Española, Mariscos La Playa is one of the most colorful restaurants in Albuquerque–not on the outside which is pretty homogeneous, but in the two capacious dining areas which are arrayed in a vivid pageantry of color.  From the vibrant ochre and sunshiny yellow walls to the painted seats, there’s something to catch your eye at every turn.  The sound system is tuned to a Pandora genre featuring Mariachi music, most of which is festive and all of which is thoroughly enjoyable. 

You’ll find the menu nearly as colorful as the restaurant.  It’s a veritable compendium of mariscos with a few landlubber entrees thrown in for good measure.  Menu items are listed first in Spanish with English translations directly below providing clear and detailed descriptions, including ingredients.  As you peruse the menu, you’ll want to indulge in agua de horchata served in a goblet larger than some aquariums.  The horchata is among the best in town.

Ceviche de Camaron

As with its predecessor, the service at Mariscos La Playa is impeccable with one of the most attentive and polite wait staffs around–a hallmark of the Ortega family restaurants. Better still, the wait staff makes sure there’s no surcease to the salsa and chips or the incomparable creamy avocado-based dip. The salsa, a pico de gallo, is at least as good as the very best pico served at other Mexican restaurants in New Mexico. The third “salsa” is a thin bean dip served warm. It’s somewhat watery–like the brownish broth at the bottom of a bean pot after the beans have been extricated–with small bits of mashed pinto bean. A few more beans and slightly less broth would make it even more delicious and certainly neater for your attire.

The avocado dip is indeed something special. It melds sour cream, ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos into a creamy concoction that you might dream about the evening after consuming it. The version at Albuquerque’s Mariscos La Playa is unfailingly creamy but varies in piquancy depending on the potency and quantity of the jalapenos added. It’s terrific on chips or as an additive to any entree. 

Discada Norteña, a bacon lover’s dream

The start of a memorable meal might include tostadas de ceviche crafted from crispy (yet formidable enough to support handfuls of seafood) tostadas first layered with mayonnaise then heaped with either shrimp or a seafood combination, cilantro, onion and chopped tomatoes. It’s a colorful and delicious appetizer you can also have as an entree in which it comes as an order of three.  During our inaugural visit to Mariscos La Playa’s new location, we found the ceviche de camaron (shrimp) in dire need of desalinization, but the ceviche de pescado (fish) has a just right citrus influence.

If it’s true that men really are genetically predisposed to salivate at the aroma, taste or mention of bacon, male diners should try the Discada Norteña, grilled diced beef with bacon, onions, tomato and white cheese served with corn tortillas, lettuce, tomato and avocado. While all the ingredients go together very well, it’s the bacon that comes across as the prevalent taste–and that’s not at all a bad thing. This entree comes in portions for one or for two and is served in a flat, circular pan with a can of Sterno to keep it warm (at some point, turn off the Sterno or your bounty will cake up at the bottom).

Mariscada Fria

If seafood had been intended to be boring, it would be available only in monotonous chain restaurants purporting to “speak fish” and cater to “the seafood lover in you.”   It would mean Americans would be subjected solely to heavily breaded seafood with each item virtually indistinguishable from the other.  Fortunately, there are many ways in which to enjoy seafood and Mariscos La Playa prepares them all very well.  If you enjoy seafood combinations served warm–and this does not mean fried and breaded–there’s the mariscada caliente, a mixed grill of fish, shrimp, scallops, calamari and octopus.

For an entirely different and remarkably refreshing perspective on seafood, try the mariscada fria, a mix of seafood (shrimp, octopus and scallops) tossed with lime juice, shaved onions and chile de arbol.  Much like the amazing molcajete aguachile at El Zarandeado, it’s a dish that combines piquancy and tanginess to enliven very fresh and very well prepared seafood.  The seafood items virtually swim in the lime juice just waiting for your fork to extract them.  The presentation is interesting with the wide bowl ringed by sliced cucumber satellites.

Tres Leches Cake

There are several desserts on the menu, including the pastel tres leches (cake of the three milks). As its name implies, this cake is made with three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream. Butter is not an ingredient and as such, this is generally a very light cake with a lot of air bubbles. As you press your fork down on a tres leches cake, it should ooze with milky goodness without being soggy. Alas, we found the tres leches cake at Mariscos La Playa on the desiccated side, not at all living up to its name.

For seafood lovers, the two year absence of Mariscos La Playa certainly made hearts grow fonder and appetites more ready for a mariscos classic we hope never leaves Albuquerque again.

Mariscos La Playa
5210 San Mateo
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884 1147
LATEST VISIT: 2 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Discada Norteña, Horchata, Tres Leches Cake, Ceviche de Tostada con Camarones, Salsa and Chips, Mariscada Fria

Mariscos La Playa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Viva Mexico – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Viva Mexico Restaurant

All too often faulty premises are based on a lack of information or experience. Take for example, British author Simon Majumdar, a recurring judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America who once declared “given how abysmal Mexican food is in London, I always thought that it was a cuisine made up of remains from the back of the fridge.” It wasn’t until Majumdar experienced tacos de tripa at a restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico that he achieved an epiphany and fell in love with Mexican food. He called it a meal that changed his life.

Majumdar isn’t a man prone to hyperbole. In fact, he’s usually quite the opposite. He’s a no-nonsense, unapologetic cynic who tells it as it is and won’t spare the verbal rod. So, when a man widely acknowledged as the “Food Network’s toughest critic” tells you a Mexican meal changed his life, you’ve got to take notice. The more introspective among us might even ponder for ourselves if we’ve ever experienced any Mexican meal we’d consider life-altering.

A very busy lunch hour

And if not transformative, what about life-improving? Can you say your life is better, maybe even significantly so, because you’ve experienced food so good it renders you momentarily speechless, so utterly delicious it makes you contemplate the divine? Such were my experiences at Epazote in Santa Fe where Chef Fernando Olea’s culinary creations made this grown man swoon. Alas, 2015 has been a very cruel year for those of us who love world-class Mexican food, the type of which Epazote offered. It’ll be a long time before we’re over the May, 2015 closure of this fabulous restaurant.

As if losing Epazote wasn’t grievous enough, in July, 2015, we learned of the closure of the two Mexican restaurants in the Duke City which have perennially dominated the “best Mexican restaurant” category in virtually every online and print medium. First to go was El Norteno, the elder statesperson among Albuquerque’s Mexican restaurants; a restaurant once acknowledged as one of America’s very best Mexican food restaurants. Los Equipales, a fabulous establishment patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City followed suit. Both were the victims of the bane of restaurants everywhere: location, location and location.

Chips, Salsa and Avocado Dip

So where are Mexican food aficionados to turn? Are the halcyon days of Mexican food restaurants over in the Land of Enchantment? If we can’t keep the best Mexican restaurants afloat, how does that bode for aspirants vying to win the hearts and appetites of Mexican food lovers everywhere? As my crystal ball is still fogged over from the tears of losing three stellar Mexican restaurants, I don’t know if we’ll ever see the likes of Epazote, El Norteno and Los Equipales again. What I do know is there are still many Mexican restaurants working hard to earn your trust and who deserve your patronage.

For years we drove by one of those restaurants, a Lilliputian Mexican eatery proudly sporting the colors of the Mexican flag and declaring “Viva Mexico” on its signage. We never visited this diminutive diner because, frankly, we didn’t want to stand in line and based on the number of cars in the parking lot, those waits could be substantial. Several years ago, Viva Mexico was reborn, residing now in a much larger edifice north of Central on Wyoming. Viva Mexico’s parking lots are still full and at peak lunch hours, the lines are still long. During our inaugural visit we figured out why those parking lots are full and those lines are so long.

Empanadas de Camaron

To put it mildly, Viva Mexico offers a virtual compendium of Mexican food favorites–everything from mariscos blessed by the azure waters of the Pacific to the traditional foods of Chihuahua, the Mexican state which borders New Mexico to the south. As the largest of Mexico’s 31 states, Chihuahua’s culinary fare is as diverse and spectacular as its topography. Viva Mexico specializes in the foods of Chihuahua, many of which will be familiar to even the most casual partakers of Mexican food.

As you’re perusing the menu, two bowls of salsa will be delivered to your table. Unless you’ve got an asbestos-lined mouth, you may want to wait for your beverage order (the agua fresca de melon is amazing) to be delivered. These salsas have plenty of personality and enough heat to placate even the volcano-eaters among us. The more conventional red salsa bites back with a Scoville quotient very common to Mexico’s incendiary chiles. The green avocado and mayo “salsa” also offers a fiery punch though that punch is tempered by its two chief ingredients. The chips are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops and are redolent with the presence of corn.

Ceviche Culiacan

Viva Mexico is one of two Mexican restaurants (El Zarandeado is the other) in Albuquerque of which we know serves empanadas de camaron (that’s shrimp empanadas for you Texans). Available in quantities of six or twelve, they’re just a bit bigger than most Chinese dumplings. Tender, flaky, golden-hued pockets engorged with shrimp and cheese are served with a neon green salsa that may water your eyes. That salsa is wholly unnecessary and it alters the flavor profile of these pastry pockets

Anyone who laments the absence of good seafood in landlocked New Mexico has obviously not partaken of mariscos, the magnificent Mexican seafood which isn’t used solely in soups, tacos and burritos. Restaurants such as Viva Mexico serve mariscos in a variety of delicious ways. One of our favorite ways is on a tostada. The ceviche Culiacan features a formidable corn tostada topped with a bounty of tiny shrimp, unctuous avocados, chopped tomatoes and chopped scallions all impregnated with citrus juices (and if the ceviche isn’t citrusy enough, you can squeeze in the juice of accompanying sliced limes). It’s a very enjoyable starter.

Parrillada Para Dos

The most prodigious platter on the menu is the parrillada para dos, a veritable mountain of meat for two. This boon of carnivores and bane of vegetarians is intimidating by virtue of its sheer size. Picture what appears to be about a pound (or two) of beef and pork chops topped with grilled onions and served with two chiles toreados (fried jalapeños).  Though waifishly thin, the bone-in chops are meaty, albeit on the chewy side.  They go especially well with the white onions which are more translucent than caramelized, rendering them both sweet and sauteed-like texture.

The parrillada para dos also includes a papa asada, a roasted potato slathered in butter. It’s long been my contention that no one roasts potatoes as well as Mexican restaurants and Viva Mexico is no exception. Wrapped in foil, the potato is roughly the size of a Nerf football, but it’s as soft and perfectly baked as the baked potatoes of your dreams. Also included is a bowl of charro beans, whole pintos immersed with bacon and cut-up hot dogs in a light broth.  Last and perhaps best is a bowl of ooey, gooey, melty queso fundido served with corn and (or) flour tortillas.  Extricating queso from its bowl is akin to a taffy pull.  If you don’t have a pair of scissors you’ll have to cut the cheese (literally) with your fingers.

Frijoles Charros, Papa Asada, Queso Fundido

With Mexican restaurants such as El Viva Mexico poised to win Duke City hearts and bellies, Albuquerque’s Mexican food scene is in good hands.

El Viva Mexico
237 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-6285
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada Para Dos, Ceviche Culiacan, Empanadas de Camaron, Agua Fresca de Melon, Salsa and Chips

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