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

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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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Sharky’s Fish and Shrimp – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sharky’s Fish & Shrimp on Central Avenue just west of Old Coors

Never mind your tired, your poor or even your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Carlos Zazveta, the effusive proprietor of Sharky’s Fish & Seafood told us to bring our dogs, our cows and our goats next time we visit. That was after we explained we didn’t bring our children because they’re of the four-legged variety that barks. He was just kidding, of course. Carlos does that a lot. When he espied me taking pictures of the Sharky’s complex, he flashed a toothy grin and flexed his pecs from within the confines of the oyster bar he was manning at the time.

In New Mexico, Sharky’s just may be the closest you’ll get to being in a Mexican coastal resort—not because of proximity, but by virtue of look and feel. The overhanging corrugated metal roof and lower half of the building’s walls have the tincture of deep azure, harkening to mind the clear Pacific waters of Puerto Penasco in the Mexican state of Sonora. Sonora is where Carlos calls home and where he cultivated his deep love of Mexican cuisine, especially the type of mariscos he’s sharing with his adopted hometown of Albuquerque.

Owner Carlos mans the Oyster Bar

There are other elements to Sharky’s that evoke the sense that coastal Mexico has been brought to your neighborhood. Similar to many of the hut-like structures on the beaches of Sonora, Sharky’s is strictly a “to go” operation, not that you’ll have to go far. After placing your order at a counter, saunter on over to the covered patio which does a surprisingly good job shielding you from the elements. When the mercury climbs higher, soothing water misters cool the air. The picnic tables are much more functional than they are comfortable.

Before (or after) the right picnic table calls you, it’s a quick detour to the oyster bar where freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell are available. You can also ferry to your table, as many plastic tubs of salsas as you want. They’re available with tostada shells or with crackers, not with chips. The salsas range in piquancy from merely incendiary to hellishly hot. Even the Ranch dressing and the guacamole pack a punch. In short order your server will locate you and will deliver your order with alacrity.

Chile Caribe

Perhaps nothing screams “ocean” more loudly or clearly than mariscos, the Mexican seafood from the seaside states south of the border. Sharky’s colorful poster-sized menu not only lists everything that’s available, a photograph of each item is vividly displayed. If you find it hard to order while your mouth is watering, you may want to avert your eyes from those photographs. Doing so will also prevent you from ordering “one of each” from a menu that would be the envy of many a sit-down restaurant.

Fish and shrimp may be the titular items on the menu, but they’re far from having exclusivity. The menu also includes the non-mariscos culinary pride of Sonora—the fabled and fabulous Sonoran hot dog. You’ll also find all the usual suspects in crimes of rampant deliciousness: tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and burritos constructed from either mariscos or the magnificent Mexican meat options of carne asada, al pastor, lengua and carnitas. You can even have a single- or double-cheeseburger though why you’d want to when there are so many other options is beyond me.

Sonoran Hot Dogs

As you’re perusing the menu, you probably won’t even notice all the activity on Central Avenue scant feet away from the restaurant. Sharky’s is located just west of Old Coors where Route 66 is cresting toward the city’s western fringes. It’s hard to believe previous occupants of the colorful edifice included the now defunct Lumpy’s Burgers and long-time Duke City eatery Taco Phil’s. Sharky’s belongs on this stretch of highway alongside such venerable institutions as the Western View Diner & Steakhouse and Mac’s La Sierra Café.

It’s a good thing Sharky’s menu has pictures or many New Mexicans might find themselves on the receiving end of something they’ll contend they didn’t order. For many New Mexicans, Chile Caribe is a concentrated paste made from whole chile pods which serves as the basis for red chile. At Sharky’s, Chile Caribe are more akin to the jalapeno poppers so many restaurants serve, but they’re much better. A yellow chile pepper is engorged with cheese and shrimp then wrapped in bacon and grilled. The chile isn’t especially piquant, but it does have the tantalizing aroma inherent in all chiles. Couple that with the addictive properties of bacon and you’ve got a terrific starter. Served three to an order, you’re well advised to request two orders or risk waging war with your dining companion for the remaining chile.

Tacos Al Pastor

Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog. Tucson should be very proud. These hot dogs are mouth-watering–a thick, smoky dog gift-wrapped in bacon and nestled in a pillowy soft, slightly sweet bun with seemingly every condiment applied. There’s mustard, ketchup and mayo as well as a mild jalapeno sauce. This hot dog is a wonderful study in contrasts: the sweetness of the bun and the smoky savoriness of the hot dog and bacon; the heat of the hot dog and the cool of the ketchup; the piquancy of the jalapeño sauce and the creaminess of the mayo. Moreover, it’s a study in the appreciation of complex simplicity.

Ever since Lebanese immigrants moved to Mexico in the early 1900s and introduced the technique of spit-roasted meat, Mexicans have been in love with the “al pastor” or “in the style of the shepherd” cooking. Tacos al pastor are constructed from small cubes of pork that have been marinated in spices and chiles. New Mexicans have fallen in love with tacos al pastor and have uncovered several restaurants in which they’re prepared very well. Add Sharky’s to the growing list of Mexican restaurants whose tacos al pastor are par excellence.

Shrimp Taco and Fish Taco

Since most people visit mariscos restaurants for…well, mariscos, our inaugural visit couldn’t be solely about hot dogs and al pastor, wonderful as they are. Not when there are fish tacos and shrimp tacos on the menu. Both are superb! Nestled in soft, moist tortillas redolent of corn, both tacos include chopped tomatoes and a cabbage slaw very light on the mayo. The flavors most prominent are that of fish and shrimp, not some overly creamy slaw. These tacos are accompanied by a piquant sauce that you should apply judiciously lest you risk changing the flavor profile of the tacos. You won’t want to do that.

It’s only fitting that the ceviche at Sharky’s be served in a bowl shaped like a boat. There’s a netful of fish and (or) shrimp in each order of ceviche and it’s very good. Served with sliced limes just in case they’re not sufficiently “citrusy” for you, the ceviche is refreshing and flavorful. It’s the perfect summer dish—light, bright and it won’t weigh you down during a sweltering day. The fish and shrimp are unfailingly fresh as are the chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and avocadoes, the latter of which are at the epitome of rich ripeness.

Ceviche

About the only thing you won’t find on the menu at Sharky’s is shark, a fish which is not only edible, but which can be delicious if prepared fresh. A visit to Sharky’s is like a visit to Puerto Penasco and just as delicious. Just don’t bring your dogs, cows and goats.

Sharky’s Fish & Shrimp
5420 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 831-8905
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Caribe, Ceviche, Al Pastor Tacos, Fish Taco, Shrimp Taco, Sonoran Hot Dog, Fanta Grape Soda

Click to add a blog post for Sharkys Fish and Shrimp on Zomato

Papa Nacho’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papa Nacho's Mexican Food Restaurant

Papa Nacho’s Mexican Food Restaurant

No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary,
a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past,
the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
~Laurie Colwin, Novelist

The notion of cooking alone is unthinkable to Ignacio and Brigette “BeBe” Lopez, proprietors of Papa Nacho’s. Since they launched their popular Mexican restaurant in 1995, the restaurant has embodied the aphorism “the family that cooks together, stays together.” Papa Nacho’s is and always has been a family affair, with daughters Gloria and Marcial practically having grown up in the kitchen. Now as their still spry and youthful parents are in their 60s and beginning to contemplate retirement, Gloria and Marcial are poised to someday assume the helm. As Gloria puts it, “it wouldn’t be a family restaurant if it wasn’t about family.”

More than most restaurants in Albuquerque which promote themselves as being “family owned and operated,” Papa Nacho’s lives it. Some of Gloria’s most cherished times are when she and her dad come in at four in the morning to begin the extensive preparatory work it takes to serve their patrons. At Papa Nachos, there are no short-cuts. Vegetables are hand-cut and all sauces are meticulously prepared. Pinto beans are simmered slowly for six hours. It’s time-consuming and it’s arduous, but it’s also a labor of love. You can taste it in the cooking.

The delightful and radiant Gloria Lopez, one of the most personable restaurateurs in Albuquerque

The delightful and radiant Gloria Lopez, one of the most personable restaurateurs in Albuquerque

Serving wonderful food and having friendly service isn’t always enough, however. Restaurateurs will tell you that the three critical elements to success are location, location and location. The dining public must be able to see you and be willing to get off the well-beaten path to where you are. Papa Nachos is situated in a timeworn strip mall on Louisiana between Paseo Del Norte and San Antonio. It is not clustered among other restaurants or near any other popular draw to the area, yet it has become a destination restaurant–one its guests specifically have in mind when they turn onto Louisiana. That speaks volumes about how wonderful the food and service are.  It may also prove that great food trumps a not-so-good location.

Ironically, in 2008, Papa Nachos was almost responsible for forever changing the fabric of the neighborhood when the Food Network came calling. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the popular series which showcases local mom-and-pop gems wanted to feature Papa Nachos in one of its segments. Because BeBe had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and the family’s focus was understandably on her health and recovery, the family declined to be featured. It’s unlikely the resultant fame and notoriety of being showcased to millions of Americans would have changed the down-to-earth, hominess of Papa Nachos.

Papa Nachos' Papa Nachos

Papa Nachos’ Papa Nachos

Not surprisingly, Papa Nachos had a storybook beginning steeped in humility. The inspiration for the restaurant were the homemade burritos Ignacio would prepare for Bebe’s lunch–burritos so good that co-workers continually absconded with them. Undaunted, Bebe told them she’d make burritos for them if they paid for the ingredients. One thing led to another and before long she and Ignacio were selling burritos from an ice chest. Eventually they launched Papa Nachos on Fourth Street in 1995 and moved to its present location in 1998.

Determining what the restaurant should be called was a family decision. For some reason, it seems every Hispanic person christened Ignacio is nicknamed “Nacho” just as every Francisco or Frank becomes “Pancho.” In that Ignacio was the family patriarch, Papa Nachos just made sense. Papa Nacho’s menu has its roots in Mexico (particularly the coastal state of Sinaloa), but is also heavily influenced by the culinary traditions and flavors of California and of course, New Mexico.

Carne Asada Tacos with beans, rice, guacamole and pico de gallo

Carne Asada Tacos with beans, rice, guacamole and pico de gallo

At Papa Nachos, culinary traditions and flavors means cumin ameliorates the sauces and even the chicken is braised with it. Sensing that cumin is more an aversion than an allergy for us, the ever astute Gloria explained that cumin is used at the restaurant to build a flavor profile; cumin isn’t the flavor profile as it is at too many New Mexican and Mexican restaurants. She then brought us a tray loaded with nearly a dozen samples of every sauce and meat in which cumin is part and parcel. Though the cumin is discernible, its influence is very much in the background, lending support and not at all impinging on the flavor profile of any of the chiles used.  It’s  impossible to dislike any of Papa Nachos sauces.

16 April 2013: It goes without saying that a restaurant named Papa Nachos would have an entree named Papa Nachos.   That’s Papa Nachos’ Papa Nachos.  How could that not bring a smile to your face?  Available in half and full-sized portions (both prodigious), these nachos are meant to be shared.  They’re absolutely terrific: homemade tortilla chips, beans, green-chile ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, sour cream, and guacamole in perfect proportion to each other.  The crisp chips are formidable enough to scoop up sizable amounts of every other ingredient and don’t go limp neath the moistness of the ground beef and melted cheese.  Not even the chips at the bottom are soggy.

Picadillo

Picadillo

While the great state of New Mexico has two official state vegetables, only one of them (chile) seems to inspire respect bordering on reverence.  The other, the magnificent pinto bean, is more often the subject of sophomoric humor.  Perhaps if the deriding diners were introduced to better prepared pinto beans, they would give them the respect due these high protein gems.  If those scatological skeptics were introduced to pinto beans at Papa Nachos, they’d quickly become addicted.  These are not soupy, just off the stove pintos nor are they the often dreaded and desiccated refried beans. At Papa Nachos, a plate of beans simmers every day and when an order is placed that includes beans, a portion of those beans is refried in vegetable oil and chiles.  The result is beans as good (if not better) than what your abuelita served. 

New Mexican comfort food, especially during frosty fall and winter days, always seems to include a hearty and hot green chile stew.  Papa Nacho has an interesting take on green chile stew. It’s called Picadillo and it’s similar in composition and taste to what surely has to be New Mexico’s official state stew.  Think diced lean steak, cubed potatoes, bell peppers, onions, cilantro and green chile and you have the makings of a great green chile stew.  The big difference here is that the entire concoction is served in a plate and not on a bowl. No matter how it’s served, it would be a peccadillo not to share the Picadillo with someone you love.  It is as filling and comforting as any green chile stew you’ll find in the Duke City. 

Tostadas de ceviche

Tostadas de ceviche

Papa Nacho’s menu brags about “more burritos than you can shake your maracas at,” but since there are only seven burritos on the menu, the slogan must have more to do with the size of these behemoths. Each burrito weighs in easily at close to one pound. The flour tortilla is hard-pressed to hold in all those ingredients though if it falls apart, eating them with a fork or spoon would be just fine. The Machaca Burrito is one such treasure. Papa Nacho’s version of Machaca is fresh, spicy shredded beef sautéed with cilantro, bell peppers, jalapenos, onions, tomatoes and the restaurant’s own special blend of spices. The beef is enrobed in a fresh, warm tortilla along with beans and cheese.

Frequent diners can tell you exactly what specials will be available on any day of the week in which Papa Nachos is open.  When the weather is cold, the Friday special means albondigas, a traditional Mexican soup featuring spicy meatballs offset by the fresh flavors of vegetables and herbs.  Bruce, a long-time friend of this blog, named Papa Nachos albondigas as one of the best dishes in the Duke City, a dish he looks forward to every winter. 

Albondigas, a Friday special during fall and winter months

Albondigas, a Friday special during fall and winter months

25 October 2013:  For some reason, albondigas (along with biblioteca) is one of those rare Spanish words that seems to imprint itself upon the minds of non-Spanish speakers who once took a course in Spanish.  Some, like my Chicago born-and-bred Kim (who still can’t speak Spanish after 18 years in New Mexico) actually know what albondigas are because they’ve had them.  Albondigas are a real treat, so good you might wish for inclement weather year-round.  At Papa Nachos, a large bowl brimming with meatballs and vegetables arrives at your table steaming hot.  The vegetables–carrots, zucchini, celery, green beans, potatoes–are perfectly prepared.  The meatballs are seasoned nicely and they’re plentiful.  The broth has comfort food properties.

When the weather warms up, the albondigas are replaced as the Friday special by tostadas de ceviche in which diced shrimp marinated in citrus juices are placed atop a crisp tostada along with cilantro, tomato and cucumber. It is as delicious as its component ingredients are beautiful together. Papa Nacho’s version isn’t quite as “citrusy” as at other Mexican restaurants, but that just allows the shrimp’s natural briny taste to shine.

Machaca burrito

Machaca burrito

16 April 2013: There have been times in my past in which my near addiction to quesadillas nearly warranted a twelve-step recovery program.  Today when those urges strike, it’s far more rewarding to succumb to them.  The shrimp quesadilla at Papa Nachos is so good, recidivism is a certainty.  They’ve dominated my waking thoughts since having consumed them.  A large tortilla speckled the color of a pinto pony is engorged with shrimp, melted white cheese, onions and cilantro. The shrimp is fresh and delicious.  Introduce just a bit of salsa and the element of piquancy enhances the flavor profile of an addictive quesadilla. 

11 April 2015: It’s been long speculated that the fish Jesus multiplied and fed to the masses at the Sermon on the Mount was tilapia which is native to the Sea of Galilee.  Tilapia is the type of fish most people like even if they don’t ordinarily like fish.  Cynics will tell you it doesn’t even taste like fish, an acknowledgment of its lack of “fishiness.”  Tilapia is indeed a mild-flavored fish that seems to go well with almost everything.  Papa Nacho’s serves a tilapia quesadilla that may be the second best quesadilla in Albuquerque (the best being the aforementioned shrimp quesadilla).  If you’re crazy for quesadillas, you’ll love this one.

Shrimp Quesadilla (served after 3PM)

Shrimp Quesadilla (served after 3PM)

16 April 2013: If the shrimp quesadillas can be considered “surf” indulge yourself with a “turf” entree, a carne asada taco plate as good as you’ll find in Albuquerque.  The beauty of these tacos is simplicity.  Your choice of flour or corn tortillas are absolutely engorged with carne asada cut into small pieces and topped with white onions and cilantro.  That’s it.  Nothing else!  Papa Nachos’ tacos are the antithesis of those “salad” tacos in which annoying hard-shelled tacos are stuffed with lettuce and just a bit of mystery meat.  The platter includes only two tacos, but they’re stuffed with more carne than you’ll find in a half dozen tacos at those pseudo Mexican chains.  Beans, those glorious and delicious beans, and rice accompany the tacos.

11 April 2015: When asked where to find the best fajitas in Albuquerque, I’ve always been loathe to respond.  Fajitas is one of those dishes I long ago gave up on, never having found fajitas which truly blew me away.  My Kim, however, has more perseverance and continues her quest to find the very best fajitas in the city.  At Papa Nacho’s, we may have just found them.  At far too many New Mexican restaurants, fajitas are preceded by a fragrant vapor trail and an audible sizzle.  There was no precursory fanfare at Papa Nacho’s, just a simple plate of grilled steak, onions, sour cream, guacamole, rice, beans and flour tortillas delivered to our table.  After one bite, we were smitten.  A very unique fajita marinate impregnates the beef with sweet, tangy and piquant notes reminiscent of a teriyaki-Hoisin sauce perhaps tinged with chipotle.  Gloria wouldn’t divulge the secret formula for the sauce, apprising us only that her mom came up with the recipe after much trial and effort.  Alas, fajitas aren’t on the daily menu.  It’s a special of the day that is truly special–maybe the best fajitas in the Duke City.

Perhaps the very best Fajitas in Albuquerque

Homemade chips and a fiery roasted tomato chile are the perfect antecedent to any meal at Papa Nacho’s.  The salsa has bite and is easily the equivalent of Sadie’s salsa in terms of its piquant kick.

After each visit, I kick myself for not visiting Papa Nachos more frequently.  It’s a wonderful family restaurant  owned and operated by a wonderful family.  For them it’s not enough that no one leaves Papa Nachos hungry; their goal is that all guests leave happy.

Papa Nachos
7648 Louisiana, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-4900
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Machaca Burrito, Tostados de Ceviche, Picadillo, Papa Nachos, Shrimp Quesadilla, Tilapia Quesadilla, Carne Asada Tacos, Albondigas, Fajitas

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Los Potrillos – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Los Potrillos, my favorite Mexican restaurant in New Mexico

Faced with a situation that renders us incredulous, many of us might yammer incoherently, complain vociferously or maybe even utter colorful epithets.  Such moments, it seems, are best expressed with succinct precision, a rare skill mastered by a select few wordsmiths from which eloquence flows regardless of situation–polymaths such as Anthony Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man.”

Flummoxed at the discovery of a Chili’s restaurant a mere five miles from the Mexican border, I might have ranted and raved about another inferior chain restaurant and its parody of Mexican food. With nary a hint of contempt, Bourdain instead compared the spread of Chili’s restaurants across America to herpes.  How utterly brilliant and wholly appropriate was that?

Mexican Vaquero Art Festoons the Walls at Los Potrillos

Indicating that chain restaurants are “the real enemy, the thing to be feared, marginalized and kept at a distance at all costs,” he wondered aloud why anyone would eat institutionalized franchise food when the real thing is available nearby.  Bourdain, a cultural assimilator, would love Los Potrillos, an unabashedly authentic Mexican restaurant which serves the food Mexican citizens eat everyday, not the pretentious touristy stuff or worse, the pseudo Mexican food proffered at Chili’s and restaurants of that ilk.

That authenticity may be one of the reasons Los Potrillos became one of Santa Fe’s most popular Mexican restaurants within months of opening in 2006. Today it’s no longer just transplanted Mexicans who frequent this colorful dining establishment situated in what was once a Pizza Hut (another chain Bourdain undoubtedly disdains).

Three Salsas and Chips at Los Potrillos

Los Potrillos celebrates the horse, or more specifically the “potrillo,” which translates from Spanish to a “colt” or more precisely, a young horse of less than twelve months of age.  The restaurant’s back wall is festooned with a colorful mural depicting several handsome horses including a noble Mexican charro horse with rider astride. The back of each wooden chair features a colt with head reared back as if in the throes of bucking off an unwanted rider. Cacti indigenous to Mexico lends to the thematic ambiance which also includes burlap curtains and sundry charro clothing and accessories. On the walls hang horseshoes, charro sombreros and other Mexican accoutrements, but you won’t find the multi-hued, touristy blankets.

Los Potrillos is owned by Gustavo and Jose Tapia who owned Pepe’s Tacos next door for years before converting the space to Tapia’s Used Cars. The Los Potrillos menu speaks volumes about what the Tapia’s promise for your dining experience: “Not just an ordinary Mexican meal…the means of tasting how delicious our beloved Mexico is.”

Quesadilla synchronizada

Fabulous quesadillas at Los Potrillos

Mexico is not only delicious. It is a festive country in which life is celebrated and sometimes loudly. The sole complaint we have about this fabulous restaurant is the cacophonous din of excessively loud music competing with stridently blaring televisions. When the restaurant is packed (which is quite often) carrying on a conversation at normal voice is a challenge.

19 January 2015: The menu is replete with lively choices, many of them heart-healthy and many quite the opposite. Mariscos (Mexican seafood) occupies more than a page of the menu which features the varied cuisines of several regions of Mexico. You’ll be hard-pressed to narrow your choice of fare; it all sounds absolutely delicious.  A magnificent mariscos starter not to be missed is the tostadas de ceviche which are available in appetizer or entree (three per order) portions.  A thin layer of mayonnaise atop a thick, crispy tostada canvas is crowned with citrus cooked fish, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and avocado.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While you’re contemplating what to order, the amiable wait staff will bring to your table a salsa trio–salsa de arbol, chipotle salsa and a guacamole and sour cream salsa–that serves as a precursor of just how good the rest of your meal will be. The chipotle salsa, in particular, has fruity, smoky qualities that will enrapt your taste buds. The salsa de arbol is the most piquant of the three, a few levels below habanero.  The guacamole and sour cream salsa is watery which means you’ll have to dip the chips into the salsa instead of scooping it up.  Each of these salsas has a taste unique unto itself, but all are complementary.

5 March 2007: Appetizer options abound–such as the Quesadilla Sincronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together). This is one of the very best quesadillas you’ll find anywhere: ham, chorizo, bacon, onion, bell pepper, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeno and the requisite queso to “synchronize” the entire concoction together.  While not exactly a heart-healthy appetizer option, this quesadilla is absolutely delicious, an excellent way to begin what portends to be an excellent dining experience all the way around.  Bite into the jalapeno and you’ll need the cheese to quell the fire on your tongue.

Molcajete Al Pastor

19 January 2015: One of the more popular items on the menu (which includes entrees and appetizers you won’t find anywhere else) is the molcajete al pastor. Most restaurants don’t use real molcajetes (bowls fashioned from volcanic pumice) which are painstaking to “cure” or make usable for everyday use, but Los Potrillos does. Somehow serving marinated pork in a molcajete really seems to improve the taste and to keep the entree hot through the duration of your meal.  Los Potrillo’s Molcajete al Pastor is a vast improvement over the tacos al pastor on which this popular dish is based–and even those once served at the Coyote Cafe’s Rooftop Cantina which we had thought to be the best we’d ever had.

This dish is comprised of chopped pork and pineapple marinated with a special chef’s sauce and cooked over onions over a sizzling grill then served on a hot molcajete. Fresh homemade tortillas (your choice of flour or corn) and a pineapple pico de gallo salsas finish this fabulous dish. The pico is one of the two best (the other is at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill) we’ve had in New Mexico.  Fiery jalapeños balance the sweet-tangy chopped pineapple nicely.

Costillas Pancho Villa

Parillada at Los Potrillos

Among the mariscos entrees are several fish fillets inventively stuffed with various items. The Niño Envuelto (which translates from Spanish as “wrapped infant”), for example, is a fish fillet stuffed with white and yellow cheese, ham, shrimp and bacon. Despite its saltiness, this entree is delicious, particularly if you’re always begging for more bacon.

The Niño Envuelto is accompanied by rice and Mexican fries (superior by far over their French counterpart). Other entrees come with some of the best Ranchero Beans you’ll find anywhere.  The menu also  features several variations on parrillada (items prepared on a grill) for two. Grilled options include mariscos, meat or both–a Mexican surf and turf.

Chile Rellenos en Nogada

14 July 2007: One of the interesting parrillada entrees is called Costillas Pancho Villa. The starring attraction on this entree are perfectly prepared, fall-off-the bone tender ribs which don’t lose any of their inherent moistness on the grill. They practically ooze flavor and are marinated only in seasonings. It would be blasphemous to add barbecue or picante sauce to these babies.  With food enough to feed Pancho Villa’s army, this parrillada plate also includes a highly seasoned and thoroughly delicious chorizo, the very best nopalitos I’ve ever had and eight quesadillas.

The nopalitos, made from the young stem segments of the prickly pear cactus, have a delightfully tart (without pursing your lips) flavor. Spoon them into a flour or corn tortilla then add chorizo and costillas and you’ve got some of the very best tacos in town.  Fear not if you’re concerned about being “stung” by a prickly cactus quill; quills are extricated carefully and completely fro the cactus pads before they’re prepared.

Carne Asada Tampiquena

Arrachera (skirt steak) Mi General

19 January 2015: Mexican history recounts that in 1821, Catholic nuns from Pueblo created a dish to honor a visit from a revolutionary general who helped Mexico win its independence from Spain.  That dish, chile rellenos en nogada, were the color of the Mexican flag: a green poblano pepper, a white walnut sauce and red pomegranates.  The version prepared at Los Potrillos doesn’t subscribe to the original recipe, omitting the vibrant red pomegranate seeds which usually serve as a garnish which just happens to taste great in combination with the sauce and chile.

Despite the variance in recipes, Los Potrillos’ Chiles en Ahogada are rich, creamy and sinfully delicious, one of the best entrees we’ve had at any Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. It’s so wonderfully non-traditional that we’ll have it again and again (and again and…). It is also the favorite dish of my friend Skip Munoz, a man of tremendous courage and fortitude who has managed to duplicate this dish at home.

Cabrito, the very best I've ever had

Cabrito, among the very best I’ve ever had

3 May 2009: One commonality among many of the entrees at Los Potrillos is that, almost invariably, we leave remarking to ourselves how one dish or another was “among the best we’ve ever had.”  That goes for the cabrito, tender young goat meat marinated and sautéed in peanut and almond sauce, served with charros, beans and fresh, garlicky guacamole.  The sauce is absolutely beguiling.  I surmise it includes a puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo chiles which are redolent with bright flavors, combining spiciness, tanginess, smokiness and warmth.   At any regard, it imparts a fabulous flavor to the tender cabrito.

3 May 2009: Dessert options include the quintessential Mexican post-prandial sweet treat, tres leches cake. It’s a vast understatement to call the Los Potrillos version moist because this beauty positively oozes with the cloying richness of three types of milk.  Several refreshing aguas frescas are available to quench your thirst. The horchata is terrific as is the sandia (watermelon)!

Pastel Tres Leches

Pastel Tres Leches

My initial impression of Los Potrillos is that it would compete with Mariscos La Playa and Mariscos Costa Azul as the very best Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe.  After my second visit, I reconsidered that assessment and concluded that it might be the very best Mexican restaurant in Northern New Mexico–better than Los Equipales and even better than El Norteño. It’s a restaurant about which Anthony Bourdain could not utter a disparaging word. He would thoroughly enjoy the taste of real Mexico in the City Different.

Los Potrillos
1947 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 992-0550
LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Nino Envuelto, Molcajete Al Pastor, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Salsa & Chips, Guacamole, Parrillada Costillas Panco Villa, Chiles en Ahogada, Cabrito

Los Potrillos on Urbanspoon

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Epazote01

Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.

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The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

Chef Fernando Olea (right) and his very talented Sous Chef Leroy Alvarado (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll).

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.

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Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.

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A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.

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Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!

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Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.

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Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.

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Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.

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Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.

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Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 20 March 2014

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.

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Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.

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Abalone

Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Poblano Soup (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.

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Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck

The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought Sweet Symphony to our table, he described in alchemical terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

Sweet Symphony: Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 15 November 2014

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining, she wrote “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.  And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  My conversation about food with my friend Sandy Driscoll began in October, 2007 when she discovered my blog shortly before visiting New Mexico.  We’ve been talking about food (and virtually everything else) ever since and have broken bread (and sopaipillas) together in New Mexico and California. 

During a recent conversation about food, we discussed our mutual admiration for Spanish chef Jose Andres, a restaurant impresario and celebrity chef.  In a fit of bravado and New Mexico pride, I posited that Chef Olea is “right up there with Andres” as a chef (frankly I think Chef Olea is a superior chef, but he’s a very modest man and wouldn’t want me bragging on his behalf).  Because the proof is in the huitlacoche, we introduced Sandy to Chef Olea’s fabulous chef’s tasting menu where can be found at least two items on my theoretical “last meal” wish list.

Porcini Mushrooms and Bean Thread Noodles with an Asian Sauce and Sprigs of Mint (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our perfectly paced three-hour meal, Sandy, who’s not nearly as prone to hyperbole as yours truly, used the term “fabulous” to describe virtually every item (in between other utterances of delight).  Afterwards she described her meal as “one of my best ever culinary experiences!!” and “the best meal I’ve ever had in Santa Fe.”   Considering she’s dined at several Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, that’s high praise indeed.  

Epazote has been in a lot of conversations lately.  In October, 2014, USA Today’s 10 Best named Epazote the very best option for lunch in Santa Fe.  Billie Frank, who’s pretty fabulous in her own right, was effusive in her praise for Chef Olea’s loving culinary preparations.  Lest you think “it’s just lunch,” Hillside owner Tisha Sjosfrand assured me that Epazote will enter the dinner restaurant fray on receipt of its beer and wine license.  The question then will be whether or not Epazote is the best dinner destination in Santa Fe, too.

Chef Fernando Olea and our very capable server bring Poblano Soup to our table (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef Olea’s coat is emblazoned with the term “Inspired New World Cuisine.”  It’s an apt description for his masterful execution of cuisine which defies pigeonholing.  He laments that when Santa Fe concierge recommend Epazote for its Mexican cuisine, some diners are disheartened and leave when they don’t find tacos and enchiladas on the menu.  What a shame!  Perhaps if they had stuck around, they would have experienced an Asian inspired work of art with which our tasting menu experience began.  This starter showcased porcini mushrooms and bean thread noodles with the chef’s own Tabuca sauce and sprigs of mint.  The woodsy  earthiness of the mushrooms, the Thai chili pepper heat of the Tabuca sauce and the evergreen freshness of the mint coalesced into a balanced flavor profile in which all elements are deliciously discernible on your palate. 

Our second course was the sublime Poblano soup about which I wax poetic in my review of my previous tasting menu experience.  Served in a martini glass, this soul-warming elixir was not, however, a repeat of the Poblano soup I had previously experienced (though that would have been joyously welcomed).  Chef Olea changed things up subtly yet with great effect.  Instead of the magnificent shrimp from my first visit, a sole “crouton” created from seared wild Pacific salmon luxuriated in the broth.  The brininess of the salmon and the alchemical interplay of other ingredients reenforced why this is my highest rated soup in New Mexico.  It’s on the very top of my proverbial “last meal” list.

Rolled Chapulines (Baby Grasshoppers) Tacos, Sun Gold Tomatoes with a jalapeño sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Our third course–one neither my Kim nor the worldly Sandy had imagined they would ever experience–was two rolled tacos engorged with chapulines (baby grasshoppers) encircled by a jalapeño sauce and served with three Sun Gold tomatoes.  It’s only the thought of eating the “icky” insect that’s repulsive.  Get past that revulsion and you might, like everyone to whom I’ve introduced this tasty treat, enjoy (or at the very least, be able to brag about) the experience.  If you can’t get past the chapulines alone, the jalapeño sauce adds flavor and heat elements that may make them less off-putting to you.  Then there are the Sun Gold tomatoes, the reddish-orange beauties with an explosively sweet, fruity flavor.  They’re addictive (and so are the chapulines). 

Should you treat yourself to the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Epazote, make it a point to request bread before any course is brought to your table.  You’ll don’t want to lose a single drop of any of the fabulous sauces which ameliorate each course.  Not only is the bread utilitarian for sopping up those precious sauces, Chef Olea’s baking skills are on display with such creative and delicious breads as a dense grain bread punctuated with apricot and walnuts.  It’s a fabulous bread, the type of which you’ll want an entire loaf. 

Bread infused with walnuts and apricots (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not every chef is intrepid enough to pair bold, assertive flavors with delicate flavors and not every chef knows that seemingly disparate flavors can actually be complementary.  Chef Olea’s flavor and ingredient pairings are legendary.  Perfectly tender, rich and rosy rare Muscovy duck with a light, succulent ring of fat is one of those light, delicate flavors not often paired with assertive and bold flavors.  Chef Olea dared pair the magnificent Muscovy duck with an incendiary (courtesy of jalapeños) Oaxacan mole verde which isn’t quite as sweet as some moles tend to be .  A smear of the equally piquant Tebuca sauce decorated the plate.  Other delicate elements on the dish were crispy spinach and crispy bean threads. The ethereally light and flaky spinach is a real treat.  The seemingly disparate pairing actually worked very well with flavors playing off each other in harmony.  I’m convinced Chef Olea can pair an Army chukka boot with a Bruno Magli loafer and make a fashion statement haute fashionistas would drool over. 

Over the years, lamb has obtained (perhaps earned) a reputation for being gamey (resembling the flavor and odor of wild hunted game) and having a strong flavor not all carnivores enjoy.  The strength of “gaminess” actually ranges among different breeds of sheep.  Northern New Mexican sheep, the type of which Epazote procures, has a rich and robust flavor without being off-putting and overly gamey.  Chef Olea paired two thick, lollipop lamb chops with a sweet potato puree and Poblano mole, both of which have sweet notes that complement the lamb very well.  With their built-in “handles,” the lamb chops are made to be picked up (etiquette be damned) and used to scoop up some of the puree and mole.  Three purplish dots on the plate are courtesy of a red cabbage reduction which just might reduce you to tears of ecstasy.

Muscovy Duck, Oaxacan Mole Verde, Bean Threads, Crispy Spinach and a Tabuca Sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Our dessert was the fabulous Sweet Symphony, the second Epazote offering on my proverbial last meal.  Words can’t adequately describe just how wonderful this sublime sweet course really is, but you can read my feeble efforts at such above Sandy’s photo of the dessert.  Having previously had Sweet Symphony, it made me tremendously happy to see my wife and dear friend first try to discern the ingredients of this masterful concoction, then watching them swoon with each treasured bite.  Two days after having partaken of this greatness, Sandy is still raving about it.

Although our initial seating was by the tranquil waterfall on the restaurant’s bottom level, we asked to be moved on account of the sunlight.  Our accommodating server gave us the other best seat in the house–right under the portrait of the New Mexico mole ingredients on the second level.  The culmination of our meal was a conversation with the great gentleman chef whom Sandy looks forward to seeing again when he serves as guest chef at the Los Angeles restaurant where his daughter works. There’s no doubt this won’t be Sandy’s sole visit to Epazote.

Northern New Mexico Raised Lamb Chops, Mole Poblano, Sweet Potato Puree, Red Cabbage Reduction (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

EPILOGUE

From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup, Symphony

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