A Taste of Soul – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

A Taste of Soul Restaurant on San Mateo

1 think it is important to point out that barbecued ribs,
black-eyed peas, grits, and collards may,
in fact, be a choice dish to many black Americans.
But it also sounds pretty darn good to me, a white man.
I grew up on soul food. We just called it country cooking.
My grandmother cooked it. My mother cooked it
– Lewis Grizzard

American writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard, a fiercely proud Southerner, delighted in assailing Yankees, liberal politics, feminists and political correctness.  It was the latter which rankled his ire and prompted a rather incisive diatribe from which the above quote is taken.  Grizzard, who even named his beloved Labrador “Catfish,” rose up in defense of barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collards when they were pulled from the menu of an automobile plant in Illinois because of complaints that these dishes stereotyped “black dining habits.”

Having lived in Mississippi for eight years (1987-1995), I can attest to the fact that these dishes stereotype the dining habits of most Southerners, not specifically those of black diners.  Those dishes were inculcated into our dining habits, too…and we didn’t care if the name on the restaurant’s marquee read “soul food,” “Southern food” or “country cooking.”  All that mattered is that these dishes were hearty and delicious.  Almost invariably they were.

The interior at Taste of Soul

There are several things about living in the Deep South we don’t miss in the least: the oppressive humidity; evacuating our home every time a hurricane approached the Gulf, and not knowing what, if anything we’d come back to; the scarcity of green chile…  What we have missed immensely is the excellent soul food and its plenitude.  Here, with apologies to Lewis Grizzard, I actually distinguish “soul food” from “country cooking.”  The difference, we found was sometimes attitudinal…and yes, racial.  Not racist!  Racial! Soul food reflects the cultural spirit and culinary traditions of black Americans.

In the fifteen years since our return to the Land of Enchantment, we’ve seen the much ballyhooed launch of several promising soul food restaurants only to be left disappointed scant months later when those restaurants closed.  For the most part, these restaurants served very good to excellent soul food, at least one restaurant being on par with some of the best we experienced on the Gulf Coast.  Considering the Duke City’s broad-minded acceptance of diverse culinary cultures, it’s always surprising…and sad, to see soul food restaurants go by the wayside.

The "Mess-Around-Basket" (Half Order) - 1 fish, 1 chicken, 6 fried oysters, fried pickles, French fries

When Shannon McKigney, a New Orleans native, gave Albuquerque’s newest (as of July, 2010) soul food restaurant a rousing endorsement, we had to try it.  Like me, Shannon doesn’t mind waiting for food to be prepared from scratch if the wait proves worthwhile.  In her estimation, the food at the aptly named “A Taste of Soul” is “totally worth it.”  A Taste of Soul cafe is situated at the former home of Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant, a magnificent shooting star which fizzled away much too quickly, but left an indelible impression.

A Taste of Soul is a family-owned and operated cafe with Alvin Bailey at the helm.  Before striking out on his own, Alvin  spent the better part of two decades working at several hotel restaurants including the Pyramid and Hotel Albuquerque.  Originally from Texas, he prepares some of the very best home-cooking style soul food we’ve had in fifteen years–and that includes soul food from several highly regarded  soul food restaurants in Las Vegas, Nevada and Chicago.  Alvin told us there’s more to come.  He plans on introducing soups and gumbos to the menu over time, describing them as mouth-watering.

Tasty Chicken and Waffles--Fried chicken and home-made buttermilk waffles

The restaurant’s mission statement, printed on the menu, should heighten your expectations: “We put our hearts and soul into the food and service that is provided.”  Isn’t that an approach every restaurant should take?  Service is cordial and accommodating, friendly without being obtrusive.  Alvin’s lovely better half is A Taste of Soul’s hostess and ambassador, a gracious lady who makes all guests feel welcome.   The ambiance is also quite welcoming, starting from the cranberry red exterior that makes the restaurant very conspicuous in an earth-tone dominated street.

Signage on the roof is nondescript, while signage on an exterior wall depicts a mammy, the most enduring racial caricature of African American women.  The interior walls are also cranberry as are the table cloths, atop of which are  condiments which grace many a Southern table: ketchup, Trappey’s hot peppers, barbecue sauce in a plastic squeeze bottle and McIlhenny brand hot sauce.  A wooden planked floor painted beige lends a creaky character.  Only about a dozen tables adorn the restaurant, but they’re well-spaced for privacy.


A Taste of Soul is open six days a week: Tuesday through Sunday and features daily soul soup specials ranging from meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes on Tuesday to smothered oxtails with rice, greens and black-eye peas on Sunday.  All daily specials come with cornbread or white bread and a beverage–either tea (sweetened or unsweetened) and Kool-Aid.  There are only ten items on the menu, all prepared to order so it will take time for you to be served.  The kids’ menu includes a free drink or a scoop of ice cream.  A number of side orders and a la carte items are also available.

Hearty appetites will gravitate to “The-Mess-Around-Baskets,” available in half-order or full-order sizes.  The full-order, we were told, feeds three or four people.  A half-order would easily feed two.  The half-order includes one fish (either catfish or red snapper), one piece of chicken, six fried oysters, fried pickles and French fries.  The platter is brimming with delicious fried goodness, but also includes sliced dill pickles, onion slices and a hot Louisiana cherry pepper.

The catfish is sliced into several long strips (they must start with a very large catfish) and coated in a light cornmeal batter. The golden-hued batter provides a textual contrast to the light, flaky catfish which maintains a nice juiciness despite being fried and battered. The chicken is moist and delicious, surprisingly meaty considering the piece I got was a rather large wing. The fried oysters are crunchy on the outside and explode with characteristically briny flavor within, just the way oysters should taste. Fried pickles are a Southern delicacy and an acquired taste with a delicate coating complementing the tangy dills. The mountain of fries is best eaten when dipped in a ketchup-hot sauce mix.

Peach Cobbler

Perhaps the most popular soul food combination across the fruited plain is the marriage of crispy, Southern-style fried chicken with waffles draped in maple syrup and butter.  A golden, orb-shaped waffle sliced into four pieces, has just a slight crunch that belies a silken texture.  The syrup, flavored with butter and vanilla, is served warm, covering an already warm waffle with even more comforting heat. The combination of sweet and savory makes for an excellent meal, better than an entree and dessert pairing.

From the single items menu, a real winner is the Mac-N-Cheese, a bowlful of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, a complete antithesis of the popular child’s favorite that comes from a box. This Mac-N-Cheese is served hot, but not quite bubbly so you can dig right in. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth macaroni and cheese dish that exemplifies the best of “down home” mac-and-cheese with none of the pretensions high-end restaurants like to add.

The dessert menu features peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, banana pudding and a green chile apple pie.  The peach cobbler is fabulous, some of the very best we’ve had in the Duke City.  It is served warm and is redolent with the spicy fragrance of cinnamon and cloves.  The crust is buttery, fluffy and light while the peaches have a fresh and moist deliciousness.  The cobbler is neither too sweet nor is it replete with pectin.    The foundation of the sweet potato pie is a light, flaky crust.  The sweet potato pie is very nicely sweetened with just a hint of nutmeg.  Served warm, the only way to improve it would have been with a dollop of vanilla ice cream for which I forgot to ask.

Sweet Potato Pie

Famished masses longing for a taste of soul food will find none better than at A Taste of Soul!  This is a crowd-pleasing, appetite satisfying restaurant that will hopefully be making Duke City diners smile for a long time.

A Taste of Soul
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Waffles, Mess-Around-Basket, Sweet Potato Pie, Mac-N-Cheese, Peach Cobble

A Taste of Soul Cafe on Urbanspoon

Blue Cactus Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Blue Cactus Grill

In the early 80s I tried to impress my very traditional grandmother by taking her to a recently opened restaurant on Academy Boulevard.  What was not to like?  The restaurant shared the mellifluous name she had proudly worn for over fifty years.  It was a locally owned and operated and had earned several awards.  It boasted a multi-page menu.  Surely Garduno’s of Mexico offered something she would like.

It turns out the restaurant’s name was the only thing she liked.  One nod of disapproval after the other ensued as she meticulously perused the menu, a compendium of Mexican and New Mexican appetizers, entrees and desserts.  Scanning the descriptions carefully, she dismissed the contemporary interpretations of the foods on which she was raised and had prepared for more than eight decades.

The interior of the Blue Cactus Grill

My mind floods with sweet memories of my cherished Grandma Piedad every time I visit a restaurant offering contemporary twists on traditional New Mexican food.  Such was the case when my friend Bill Resnik and I first visited the Blue Cactus Grill, a modern and attractive new restaurant on Albuquerque’s West side, just north of Paseo del Norte on Coors Boulevard.

Bill reminded me that the Blue Cactus Grill is situated at the former site of  La Salita which lasted less than two years at the location.  Even though we hadn’t enjoyed our sole visit to the west side rendition of La Salita, Bill considers it a community service to accompany me on visits to new restaurants (especially when I’m buying) so he was game to try something new.

Salsa and chips from the Blue Cactus Grill

The Blue Cactus Grill was launched by Mark Corsonatti and his fiance Jamie, both of whom endeared themselves to guests by their peripatetic presence.  Like all true ambassadors for their businesses ,they treated their guests like family and became as beloved as their restaurant’s food.  In February, 2010, Mark and Jamie sold the restaurant to Janis and Eddie Crispin, native New Mexicans. who have kept everything on the menu save for revamping the red and green chile and adding “& Bakery” to the restaurant’s appellation.  Bakery treats under glass are one of the first things you see when you step into the east-facing restaurant.

The Blue Cactus Grill is about a mile away from restaurant row on Coors Bypass where a phalanx of mediocre chain restaurants blights the landscape.  Tragically the parking lots in front of those chains are generally packed and worse, sometimes you’ll see lines of diners waiting outside to be called to a table.  On Friday nights, the parking lot in front of the Blue Cactus Grill fills up, too.  Many of the diners who used to  head to horrible chains nearby have realized the Blue Cactus Grill is something special.

Sandia Dip

In terms of ambience, the decor at the Blue Cactus has a New Mexico traditional meets new west contemporary feel to it.  Faux adobe half-walls, stripped pine latilla poles and braided chile ristras seem at home among the exposed ceiling ductwork and painted concrete.  Metal sculptures of several types of tall cactus hang on adobe colored walls.  There is relatively little color in the restaurant…until you get to the menu where there’s plenty of red and green.

The menu is replete with traditional New Mexican offerings interspersed with the contemporary interpretations my grandmother would have frowned upon.  Hand-cut angus beef steaks, green chile spare ribs, tequila-lime chicken, empanada burgers and more surprises make it an interesting and exciting menu.

The Cactus Combo Plate

The complementary salsa with yellow and blue corn tortilla chips is an early indicator that perhaps the promise of exciting food will be delivered upon. The chips are crisp and thick enough to dredge up the large amounts of salsa I like on my chips.  The salsa is good, make that very good, as in good enough to be bottled and sold good.  It’s of medium thickness so it doesn’t run off your chips onto your hands.  It’s also of medium piquancy with a jalapeno based bite.  It’s the type of salsa you might have two bowlfuls of before your entrees arrive.

Counting calories is an exercise in large numbers if you have some of the appetizers.  The Sandia Dip appetizer, for example, is crafted from the restaurant’s signature green chile white cheese sauce and refried beans topped with sour cream and served with warm fried tortillas cut into chip-like triangles.  That green chile white cheese sauce is one of those contemporary twists even traditionalists will have a hard time disliking.

An Angus Filet Burrito with refried beans and rice

Traditional entrees include chile rellenos, tamales, enchilada plates, stuffed sopaipillas and tacos, all of which are served with beans, rice and sopaipillas and by request, a side of sour cream.  Your best bet is the Cactus Combo plate with either two or three selections.  With combo plates you also get a soft or hard taco.

The combo plate pictured above includes a stuffed sopaipilla, chile relleno and tamale.  Conspicuous by their absence are red and/or green chile.  That’s because I ordered both.  They were delivered in crispy tortilla shells, the type of which are sometimes used for taco salads.  The refried beans are very good with shredded white cheese melted on top.

The Guacamole Burger

As for the chile, both red and green are quite good.   Neither are especially piquant, but  the green, in particular, possesses qualities that remind you with every bite that chile is a fruit (never mind that it is New Mexico’s official state vegetable, along with the pinto bean).  The green chile has a hint of smokiness from the roasting process.  The red chile is light in texture and rich in flavor, seasoned very well.

From among this combo, the stand-out is the chile relleno which is among the best in the city.  Two things make it a stand-out.  First, instead of stuffing an anemic chile with no bite (Poblano or Anaheim come to mind) with Cheddar of mild sharpness, the Blue Cactus Grill stuffs a real New Mexico chile with a flavorful white cheese then tops the relleno with a green chile white cheese sauce that’s positively addictive.  Secondly, while the batter may not be tempura thin, it’s thin, crispy and sheathes the chile in flavor.  It doesn’t crumble off when you cut into the relleno.

An eight-ounce Angus Filet with calabasitas and papitas

Although green chile cheeseburgers are practically a religion in New Mexico, it might be possible to tire of them (not that I’ll ever reach that level).  If so, the Blue Cactus Grill offers two alternatives.  One is the Empanada Burger, a half-pound Angus beef hamburger wrapped in a flour tortilla, stuffed with Monterrey Jack cheese and green chile then deep-fried to a golden brown hue.  According to the wait staff, this burger already has a legion of fans.

Another alternative is the Guacamole Burger (pictured above), an eight-ounce Angus beef hamburger wrapped in a soft tortilla filled with green chile white cheese sauce and guacamole.  This is an ultra-rich burger bursting at its seams with flavor.  You won’t miss mustard and ketchup with this one.  It’s served with homemade papas, a mix of sweet and white potato fries cut thick.  I may have a new favorite papa in town and it’s these sweet potato papas, plus-sized circular-cut potatoes which are crispy on the outside and tender inside.

Seasoned Angus Ribeye

The grill section of the menu includes two steaks that won’t be outdone by any steak on Albuquerque’s west side, especially the one served at that pseudo Australian steakhouse just up the street.  These steaks are hand-cut upon order and are absolutely fantastic.  Your two options are a seared and seasoned eight-ounce (larger cuts available) Angus filet or a 14-ounce seared or blackened Angus ribeye, both priced well under $20.

Not only are these beauties prepared to your exacting specifications (order them “medium” and you get a hint of pink with plenty of juiciness), they’re seasoned to perfection with a seasoning mix that includes salt, pepper, garlic and a menagerie of other ingredients ownership won’t divulge.  If taste bud clues are on target, the seasonings hint at piquancy, citrusy and maybe even smokiness.  Only the now defunct Great American Steakhouse seasoned their steaks this well.

Breakfast Empanada at the Blue Cactus Grill

Breakfast Empanada at the Blue Cactus Grill

The Angus cut of beef has an optimum level of marbling for a high degree of flavor and tenderness.  The Blue Cactus Grill’s ribeye is as tender and delicious as any steak in town as is the Angus Filet.  I’ll stake my reputation on this steak!  For the best of two worlds–steak and New Mexican food–try the Angus Filet Burrito, a thick flour tortilla engorged with bite-sized chunks of tender filet, potatoes and beans slathered with your choice of chile.

The dawn of 2009 as with the promise of any new year was exiting for many reasons, not the least of which was the inauguration of breakfast and Sunday brunch at the Blue Cactus Grill.   The breakfast menu makes up for its brevity with  the high quality for which the restaurant is earning a reputation.  Standards such as the ubiquitous New Mexican breakfast burrito are available, but for a special and unique treat, ask for the breakfast empanada with red and green chile (Christmas style).

The Snickers Empanada

The breakfast empanada is a deep-fried tortilla encasing eggs, potatoes and your choice of bacon, sausage or chorizo.  Despite being fried, this is not a greasy or heavy breakfast entree.  In fact, it’s surprisingly light and absolutely delicious.  Every ingredient is prepared to perfection, a hallmark of this restaurant.  In its May, 2010 issue Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the breakfast empanada a Hot Plate award, a select honor accorded to the Duke City’s most intriguing foods, wines, events and people.

The menu was once limited to two desserts–an apple empanada akin to apple pie a la mode or a Snickers empanada, the Blue Cactus Grill’s twist on an old favorite–until Janis Crispin added her baked treats to the menu. I’ve had and have loved deep-fried Snickers, but this dessert takes Snickers to a new level.  A Snickers bar is actually wrapped in an egg-washed flour tortilla then deep fried and drizzled with chocolate and powdered sugar.  As if that’s not rich enough, it’s served with two scoops of ice cream.  This is the definition of decadence.

The Blue Cactus Grill has more than 30 varieties of cupcakes available

The new dessert additions to the formidable Blue Cactus Grill menu are baked goods, including more than 30 different cupcake flavors.  Light, moist and frosted with  ethereally rich butter cream frosting applied generously, the cupcakes come in such creative and delicious flavors as bubble gum, cotton candy, pineapple, chocolate turtle and cheesecake.  The pineapple cupcake is akin to a pineapple upside down cake in miniature topped with a dollop of heavenly pineapple flavored frosting.  Other baked good offerings include cakes, cookies, muffins, pastries and more.

If you’re headed to the Coors Bypass restaurant row for a predictably boring meal at one of the chains, take a slight detour and visit the Blue Cactus Grill.  My grandmother might not have approved of the restaurant’s approach to all the menu entrees, but I’ve been won over by some of those contemporary twists this terrific restaurant offers.  This is a fun restaurant with personality, warmth and great food.

Blue Cactus Grill
9780 Coors Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 May 2010
1st VISIT:: 1 December 2008
COST: $$-$$$
BEST BET:  Angus Ribeye, Guacamole Burger, Cactus Combo Plate, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Sandia Dip, Snickers Empanada

Blue Cactus Grill on Urbanspoon

Independence Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Independence Grill will be much missed

The Independence Grill will be much missed

NOTE: The Independence Grill became another casualty of the economy, shuttering its doors on Sunday, March 14th, 2010.  Below this review is a photo retrospective of some of the many things which will be missed about this terrific restaurant.

On January 6, 1941 as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt closed his state of the union address to Congress, he described his vision for a better way of life through what he considered the four essential human freedoms: freedom to worship, freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of speech.  Those four freedoms, now widely considered the central tenets of modern American liberalism, inspired a set of Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell, the most famous and successful commercial artist of the time.  The Four Freedoms  are depicted on framed Rockwell prints in the foyer at Independence Grill.

In an age in which the patriotism of candidates for political office is called to question by opposing candidates, there is no question as to where Jerry Wright stands on the matter of loving his country.  Jerry is the proprietor of the Independence Grill which he launched on Monday, November 16th, 2008, several months after closing the Great American Steakhouse, my favorite Albuquerque steakhouse.

Jerry’s vision for his new restaurant is that everyone, regardless of political ideology, should be able to share a meal and civilly (if not amicably) discuss their differences in the hopes that they will arrive at the realization that we all have more in common than we do differences.  Ideally that meal should be at the Independence Grill.

The Betsy Ross Flag (ask Jerry about his great grandmother Prudence)

The Independence Grill celebrates Americana with an ambience awash in patriotism.  From the American flag on Jerry’s lapel to the Gadsden flag (which depicts a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike and the words “Don’t tread on me”) to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the restaurant reminds one and all that the Constitution is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.  Don’t forget to ask Jerry about the flag (pictured above) given by Betsy Ross to his great grandmother Prudence Wright several generations removed.

Patriotism even pervades the menu, and not just the Americana inspired appetizers, entrees and desserts.  Jerry took some liberties with Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s famous painting Drafting the Declaration of Independence which depicts Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin at work writing the Declaration, several preliminary drafts crumpled on the floor.   The reproduction on the menu has Franklin uttering “I’ll have the burger.”

The burger is just one of the American entrees on the Independence Grill’s menu from which Franklin would have been able to choose.  The senior statesman would not, however, have ordered one of the restaurant’s American Kobe (Wagyu beef) cheeseburgers.  Franklin was actually a vegetarian, eschewing beef and advocating a vegetarian diet as being healthier than a diet filled with meat.  That doesn’t mean Franklin would have gone hungry at the Independence Grill, nor does it mean he couldn’t have had a burger.

When Pigs Fly Monster Pig Wings

Franklin would have had the “World’s Most Dangerous Portabella Burger,” which includes a “carnivores beware” warning on the menu, apprising beef-eaters that it “may make you swear off meat.”   The Portabella Burger, which Jerry claims is so good he plans to have at least one a week, features fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomato and pesto stuffed in a juicy Portobello mushroom served on Ciabatta bread.  The menu includes several other vegetarian-friendly entrees, but not Thomas Jefferson’s favorite food, green peas.

Jefferson was well acquainted with and fond of the beef of Hamburgh, Germany and had hamburgers been available in his time, he would undoubtedly have indulged.  Fond of rich French foods, he would have loved the Independence Grill’s menu  which showcases the rich, unctuous American Kobe cheeseburgers.  Jerry considers American Kobe beef the very best beef available) and has made this flavorful meat the foundation of his menu.

Because man cannot live on burgers alone, Jerry’s menu is replete with Americana favorites such as Kobe hot dogs, prime rib, steak, fish and so much more.  It’s an ambitious menu sure to please even the most discriminating diners.

Kobe Double Dog Dare

American ambition means an assemblage of appetizers you don’t find just anywhere.  The list starts with a shout out to a previous tenant of the building.  That would be the Liquid Assets famous calamari and the Thai dipping sauce which made that starter one of the most popular in town.

While many restaurant serve calamari–squid for the uninitiated–as an appetizer, it’s not easy to find a restaurant (especially in landlocked locales like Albuquerque) which serves it well.  In most cases it’s overdone, a chewy, rubbery amalgam of twisted slime.  Rarely will you find squid with a delicately fried and painfully thin crust and seemingly rarer yet is a dipping sauce more innovative than the standard and boring marinara.

The Independence Grill gets it right on the first count.  The calamari is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, a calamari as good as you’ll find in the city.  Alas, the dipping sauce is more than a bit on the cloying side, perhaps even a bit syrupy.  Real Thai dipping sauces strike a beautiful balance between sweet, tangy and piquant.

The Assets famous Calamari

The Assets famous Calamari

Also available as an appetizer are “American Kobe Doggies,”  three corn dogs taken to another level.  In the Land of Enchantment, you can’t have appetizers sans green chile and the Independence Grill honors that formula with green chile chicken corn chowder and green chile chicken enchilada.

The appetizer sure to garner a few patriotic salutes and perhaps inspire an anthem of their own are the “When Pigs Fly” Monster Pig Wings. The menu describes them as “great big crispy piggy wings from when they fly too close to the sun.” In actuality, these piggy wings aren’t chicken or even turkey wings. They’re pork “wings” made with the Ossobuco cut of a pork shank.  These wings are lacquered with a chipotle barbecue sauce that’s sweet, tangy and more than slightly sassy.  They’re served three to an order with a Jalapeno Ranch dipping sauce which the menu claims “brings them back to earth.”

The World's Most Dangerous Portabella, an outstanding appetizer

If you like to live on the edge, try the world’s most dangerous Veggie Portabella appetizer, grilled mushrooms stuffed to the gills with pesto, fresh Mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes.  Several fleshy fungi are indeed engorged with the mouth-watering trio that go oh so well together.  This is one of the better mushroom based appetizers in the Duke City.

America’s favorite pastime, I’ll argue is not baseball, but picnics and one thing sure to be a huge hit with the boys of summer is the Kobe Double Dog Dare, a hot dog “raised to the level of art.”  At the Independence Grill, the revered American institution is indeed placed on a pedestal.  The frankfurter is made from American Kobe beef, sliced diagonally and nestled on toasted sourdough.  If you’re inclined, you can add chile sin carne, green chile or Cheddar cheese, but traditionalists might consider that akin to desecrating the flag.

The Italian Burger

Several garnishes (red onion, pickle, lettuce) accompany the Kobe Double Dog Dare as do standard American mustard and a more adult Dijon mustard (and ketchup for all you perpetrators of culinary taboos), with which you can dress your dog.  This hot dog is good enough on its own not to need any amelioration whatsoever.

During the 2009 Souper Bowl in which I was privileged to serve as a judge, the Independence Grill’s soup entry placed third among in the critic’s choice tally.  That entry, a cream of mushroom soup with garlic roasted sage is one of the very best soups I’ve had in Albuquerque.  It’s almost criminal that it’s not on the daily menu at the Independence Grill, but it would be even worse for the restaurant not to feature a soup of the day.  They’re all good.

Sandwiches include one side, platters two.  In a culinary skirmish you’ll want these sides on your side.  They include the veggie of the day, pineapple coleslaw (a holdover from the Great American Steakhouse days), bottleneck fries, onion rings, sweet potato fries, garlic mashers and pink and purple chips.  You haven’t lived if you’ve not partaken of purple potatoes which were some of the very first potatoes ever harvested.  For old times sake, long-time fans of the Steakhouse might opt for the pineapple coleslaw which Jerry has improved even more, if that’s possible, with red cabbage.

Wood Fired Prime Rib

There are several American Kobe Cheeseburgers on the menu, all inventive and intriguing.  While “Kobe burgers” seem to have become de rigueur on many menus, other restaurants treat Kobe beef as a sideline, almost as a gimmicky (albeit, very expensive) afterthought.  Jerry Wright has made American Kobe the basis for his burger menu.  In fact, you won’t find regular beef in the burger section.  Jerry calls American Kobe the burger for the common person and prices it just above the price point of burgers shipped frozen then thawed out and heated at the popular national chains (the ones I rail about).

Serving American Kobe exclusively to an American fast food culture is a risky venture since many of us are used to wolfing down our Big Macs before we even drive away from the parking lot.  My own past experiences with Kobe burgers have left me a bit nonplussed about Kobe.  Some of that is because I didn’t want to “desecrate” the beef with condiments which might detract from the meat’s natural flavor.  It’s hard to enjoy a burger when you practically worship its traditions.  At the Independence Grill, the enjoyment of the Kobe is made much easier because prices are so reasonable.  The American Kobe burgers are available in one-third or half-pound sizes.

Perhaps because America is named for an Italian explorer (but more likely because the ingredients go so well together), the Independence Grill offers an “Italian Burger,” crafted with fresh basil, tomato, mozzarella and a garlic olive oil drizzle on a buttery Kaiser roll.  That combination makes a pretty good salad (Insalata Caprese) and it makes for a pretty good burger as well.  There’s rarely enough basil to suit me, but the buffalo mozzarella (the best) is rich, creamy and delicious.

The Green Monster with a blueberry lemon lime drink and pineapple coleslaw

The Green Monster with a blueberry lemon lime drink and pineapple coleslaw

In 2009, Albuquerque The Magazine went in search of the best burger in Albuquerque. Pairing staffers to sample burgers at forty different burger purveyors, their systematic testing methodology involved ordering two burgers at each restaurant: the specialty of the house and a basic cheese burger prepared at medium.  The entire staff then got together and ate at the five restaurants garnering the highest ratings.  With more than two-hundred burgers consumed, the winner of the Duke City’s best burger was the Independence Grill.

The latest edition to the Kobe cheeseburger family is a called the Green Monster (not named after Fenway Park’s left-field wall).  It’s a unique burger that doesn’t subscribe to the ho-hum template green chile cheeseburgers all seem to follow.  As much as I love and adore that template, this burger is a welcome change.  The burger is made with New Mexican grown full-blooded Wagyu beef.  Green chile is mixed directly into the beef along with a touch of garlic and spices.  Each patty is hand-formed with a pocket formed within the patty for Cheddar cheese.  Melted on top of the burger on a flattop is a cheese crostini which is then topped with more green chile and Cheddar.

The Green Monster has quickly become one of the restaurant’s most popular burgers.  It was one of twenty burgers participating in the governor’s green chile cheeseburger challenge at the New Mexico State Fair and though it didn’t win, it has established a following among burger aficionados.


A beautiful steak in the style of the Great American Land and Cattle Company

When the Great American Steakhouse closed, carnivores wondered where their cravings for their favorite steak would get sated.  Because Jerry didn’t want to recreate his former restaurant, his new menu includes only one steak, the classic sirloin, but the menu also includes chicken-fried steak, wood-fired pork ribs and wood-fired prime rib, all reasonably priced.

The oven-fired prime rib is swathed with a rosemary and sage rub and served with a green chile au jus and a horseradish sauce.  Order it medium rare and you get it as you ordered–with plenty of pink, lots of flavor and juiciness to spare.  The horseradish is somewhat anemic, but that places the focus on the prime rib, as it should.  As for that green chile au jus, my friend Bill Resnik thinks so highly of it that if given the choice as to the matter of his death, would choose to drown in a vat of that au jus.

The top sirloin is somewhat reminiscent of the magnificent meats proffered at the Great American Steakhouse, albeit not as thick and juicy.  It’s available for lunch and dinner as a first come, first served option.

You can’t have an Americana themed restaurant without apple pie, the quintessential American dessert.  The Independence Grill’s rendition is as pretty as a picture, layers of sweet and tart apple slices on a cinnamon streusel crust with a rich caramel topping. My preference would be for it to be served warm, perhaps with a scoop or two of ice cream, instead of cold and right out of the fridge.

Apple Pie

The Independence Grill has terrific libations, adult and otherwise, with which to wash down a great meal.  Among the latter are Jones bottled beverages, cane sugar sweetened sodas in glass bottles.  Including such flavors as strawberry lime and green apple, they are refreshingly different and delicious.  Also available is Coca-Cola de Mexico.

The Independence grill invites you to break free from the chains (corporate) that bind you and try something different, something American.

NOTE:  Though I do not believe in censorship, a spate of emails denouncing the perceived ideological stance of Independence Grill owner Jerry Wright, prompted me to pull those emails or risk losing this blog.  The blogosphere is replete with sites designed for ideological discourse.  This site is not one of them.  I’d like to keep this site light-hearted and fun.  Like the restaurants I write about, this site is meant to be enjoyed not to provide yet another venue for raising your blood-pressure over ideologically charged content.

The cultural and ideological schism plaguing America has made political discourse mean-spirited and wholly lacking in civility.  Ideologues (on both sides of the aisle) don’t seem capable of conceding any merit whatsoever in the opposing viewpoint, but it’s not enough to disagree.  Dissenters on both sides seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives.  I suppose it’s easier than discussing those differences in a mature and civil manner, but in the end nothing is resolved and the divisiveness grows.

Jerry Wright is a very open-minded gentleman.  I believe he truly meant it when he developed the vision for the Independence Grill: Everyone, regardless of political ideology, should be able to share a meal and civilly (if not amicably) discuss their differences in the hopes that they will arrive at the realization that we all have more in common than we do differences.  Over the years, Jerry and I have respectfully and maturely discussed our own differences of opinion.  We may not always agree on everything, but we respect one another’s right to have our own opinions.

I urge anyone disagreeing with Jerry on anything–whether it be portion size or politics–to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him.  If you feel like reviling him afterwards, that’s entirely your prerogative, but it won’t be published here.

Independence Grill
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 25 November 2008
LATEST VISIT: 13 March 2010
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Italian Burger, Kobe Double Dog Dare, Wood-Fired Prime Rib, Monster Pig Wings

Independence Grill on Urbanspoon

Some of the things we’ll miss about the Independence Grill

Strawberry and Chocolate Shakes made with real ice cream and served cold

Strawberry and Chocolate Shakes made with real ice cream and served cold


Drunken Fish Wrap — Lime & beer-batter fish with cucumber & pineapple coleslaw wrapped in flour tortilla.

Prime Rib Dip w/ Green Chile Au Jus — Oven Roasted Prime Rib sliced thin & Swiss and served with our au jus with a touch of green chile.

Prime Rib Dip w/ Green Chile Au Jus — Oven Roasted Prime Rib sliced thin & Swiss and served with our au jus with a touch of green chile.

Bacon Wrapped Kobe Doggies plate of 3 minis - Kobe Dog wrapped in bacon and Corn Doggied.

Bacon Wrapped Kobe Doggies plate of 3 minis - Kobe Dog wrapped in bacon and Corn Doggied.

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill

Perhaps in time, the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho metropolitan statistical area will be thought of in much the same vein as America’s two most famous “twin city” metroplexes–Dallas-Fort Worth and Minneapolis-Saint Paul.  Don’t be surprised if Rio Rancho winds up being the Dallas to Albuquerque’s Fort Worth, the Minneapolis to Albuquerque’s Saint Paul.  People have been selling Rio Rancho short for a long time, but that’s starting to change.

By 1980, the end of its first decade in existence, the fledgling city which in 1970 didn’t even have a measurable population by U.S. Census standards had more than 10,000 residents.  Ten years later, census reports showed the “little city which could” had grown to more than 32,000 residents and had become the sixth most populous city in the state. Rio Rancho added another 20,000 residents by the millennium.  2007 population estimates now indicate Rio Rancho has supplanted Santa Fe as the third largest city in the Land of Enchantment with nearly 76,000 residents calling the City of Vision home.

Rio Rancho residents who once traversed a two-lane road down the hill to Albuquerque to do their shopping, partake of entertainment and dine at a variety of restaurants offering a diversity of cuisine are increasingly keeping their disposable income in Rio Rancho, especially when it comes to dining.  The city may not yet have a truly transformative restaurant (though Noda’s might be close) but it has several very good to excellent restaurants, some of which are luring in diners from the Duke City and beyond.

Focaccia with butter at Black Olive

Focaccia with butter at Black Olive

In the shadow of an economic malaise that precipitated the closure of several popular upscale casual restaurants on the “west side,” restaurateur Matt Havey chose Rio Rancho as the site of another restaurant which should lure in diners from throughout the area.  He named his dream restaurant which opened in September, 2009, the Black Olive Bar and Grill.  With years of experience as general manager of the highly decorated Gruet Steakhouse and the now defunct Copeland’s of New Orleans, Havey knows what it takes to build a successful operation.

The Black Olive promises “a new fresh taste and spin on everybody’s favorite comfort foods like the Black Olive’s version of New Mexico green chili stew and the special half-pound “The Black Olive Burger.”  An expansive menu includes “the finest steaks and wines, along with classic Italian pasta dishes.”

The Black Olive is situated in the Country Club Center on Southern Boulevard and Pinetree, the shopping center in which Albertson’s is the largest anchor tenant and in which you’ll find Joe’s Pasta Cafe, the best Italian restaurant on the west side.  The restaurant is open daily from 11AM through 10PM Sunday through Thursday and 11AM through 11PM Friday and Saturday.  The restaurant’s Web site offers a reservation service, but you can also reserve your table by calling 891-2690.

Farm House Cheeses (Goat Cheese, Blue Cheese, White Cheddar)

Farm House Cheeses (Goat Cheese, Blue Cheese, White Cheddar)

Straddling the fine line between casual and upscale dining, the Black Olive showcases a massive bar above which are hung four huge flat screen high-definition televisions tuned to ESPN, but that doesn’t mean this is exclusively a domain for the beer drinking man.  Oenophiles will appreciate the fine wines available by the glass.

The restaurant is a yawning complex with both booth and table seating as well as seating by the bar.  While the walls are a neutral earth-tone, the booths and chairs are black and even the tables are draped with black tablecloth.  The black hardly seems ominous; it’s the type of black which seems to signify power or prestige.

The menu is obviously well thought-out so as not to be a compendium of everything for everybody, but a carefully chosen representation of items designed to provide a diversity of flavorful options.  This is exemplified by the starters portion of the menu which offers ten different options ranging from grilled ham and cheese mini sandwiches to an offering of farm house cheeses.  The soups and salads menu offers three soups (including the aforementioned green chili stew) and eight salads, most of which showcase the creativity and versatility possible with salads.



There are seven entrees on the pasta menu, all Italian.  Sandwiches and burgers range from the comfortably simple (grilled cheese and tomato soup) to the inventively different (chicken muffuletta).  Burgers are a half-pound and made from ground sirloin.  The steaks and other meats section of the menu are placed into four categories: roasted, braised and grilled; prime rib; steaks and surf and turf.  The steaks are seasoned on high-heat and finished in an over-fire broiler to lock in the taste.

Only four items adorn the seafood menu, but they include Australian cold-water lobster and king crab legs which can be served with the prime rib or steak for a classic surf and turf dinner.  There are ten a la carte sides such as baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese and sweet corn gratine.

The menu also includes five desserts, all tempting.  In what seems to be characteristic of a well-developed menu, the desserts range from the simple (fresh-baked cookies and milk) to the more sophisticated (a trio of key lime pie, peanut butter chocolate and carrot cake).

Pasta Pomadoro

Pasta Pomadoro

As you contemplate the menu, a plate with a wedge of warm focaccia bread and soft butter is brought to your table.  The focaccia is soft and surprisingly not as crumbly as this type of bread tends to be. The butter spreads easily.  Depending on what your order, you may want to hold back some of the focaccia for dredging up a sauce.

Fromage fanatics will gravitate toward a starter of Farm House Cheeses, described on the menu as “honeycomb, candied nuts, fruit compote and artisan breads.”  Unless you consider crostini (slices of toasted bread) an artisan bread, the bread is hardly special though it is a good base for the other components of this starter plate.  Another example of taking artistic liberty in describing the menu items is the term “honeycomb” which in this case turns out to be a ramekin of honey–real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup some restaurants serve with sopaipillas.  It’s very good honey.

The three cheeses served on our plate were a luscious, fresh and creamy goat cheese; a white Cheddar of medium sharpness and a pungent blue cheese.  All were quite good and proved perfect toppings for the artisan bread.  The fruit compote was both sweet and tangy, its emphasis being on its natural flavors, not some pectin pretender.  The candied nuts are an addictive lot, the type of which you could eat by the handful.  In all, this is a very nice appetizer.

Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream and Apple Slices

Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream and Apple Slices

Every once in a while, I receive feedback critical about one of my reviews that leads me to ask, “why did they order that?”  Frankly that’s the question I asked myself after one bite of the Cioppino, Dungeness crab, black mussels, Manila clams, shrimp, calamari and fresh fish in a hearty tomato-herb stew.  While it’s about as good as you can expect in land-locked New Mexico, I’m very nit-picky about Cioppino, one of my very favorite seafood stews.  Several trips to San Francisco reenforced that cioppino should be a lusty, flavorful, and full-bodied comfort stew with a fine balance of acidity, savoriness and freshness.  Black Olive’s rendition didn’t live up to those standards.

The Pasta Pomadoro, on the other hand, is a nice rendition of this quintessential Italian dish.  Pomodoro, an Italian word which means “golden orb” is an apt description for tomato considering its brilliant color at a ripened state.  Pasta Pomadoro should emphasize fresh tomatoes and the Black Olive does.  This dish, which also includes basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil tossed with an angel hair pasta is light and delicious, the antithesis of heavy marinara sauces.

The Black Olive has only three burgers on the menu, but that doesn’t mean your choices are limited.  The restaurant’s signature burger is the Black Olive Burger which is stuffed with your choice of cheese.  The Classic Sirloin Burger includes lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and white Cheddar cheese.  Where you can really get creative is with the “Create Your Own Burger” option where, for a buck apiece, you can add any of the following ingredients: New Mexico green chile, applewood-smoked bacon, sliced mushrooms, blue cheese, caramelized onions and grilled portabella mushrooms.

The Black Olive Burger: House-Made Burger Stuffed With Choice of Cheese

The Black Olive Burger: House-Made Burger Stuffed With Choice of Cheese

Each burger weighs in at a half-pound of ground sirloin beef and ostensibly is prepared to your exacting specifications.  I say ostensibly because that wasn’t the case for both me and a dining companion during a February, 2010 visit.  We both ordered the Black Olive burger at medium, but as the photo above shows, mine arrived at well-done.  What could have been a great burger had it had the requisite juiciness of all great burgers, was merely a fair burger, too dry for my taste.  Stuffed with goat cheese and topped with very fresh ingredients, it deserved better than near incineration.  Because we were in a hurry, we didn’t send the burgers back.

A dessert option sure to please even the most finicky of sweet teeth is the bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream.  The bread is lightly toasted, soft and moist and is infiltrated by sliced, baked apples.  Cinnamon and raisin are also prevalent in this excellent example of what is essentially a peasant dish turned refined.

Philip Pate who recommended the Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill to me compared it to Geo’s Fine Food Restaurant, a short-lived but much beloved Rio Rancho restaurant whose closing surprised many.  Philip believes that with its “very favorable selection of food” and “not the usual” menu, it has a chance for greatness.  The Black Olive is a restaurant which bears watching as it does have the pedigree and menu to be another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho.  The key will be in how the restaurant executes at even the minute details–keeping portion sizes reasonable, preparing food to exacting specifications, providing good value for the money.  If it doesn’t, Rio Rancho residents certainly know the route to Albuquerque.

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill
3301 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2010
1st VISIT:  12 October 2009
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pasta Pomadoro, Bread Pudding, Farmer House Cheeses

Black Olive on Urbanspoon

Duke’s Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Duke's Steakhouse at the Far North Shopping Center (Academy and San Antonio)

Duke's Steakhouse at the Far North Shopping Center (Academy and San Mateo

Did you ever see the customers in health-food stores? They are pale, skinny people who look half dead.
In a steak house, you see robust, ruddy people. They’re dying, of course, but they look terrific
-Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby probably didn’t have actor Robert Mitchum in mind when describing the type of people who visit steak houses.  Heralded by movie critic Roger Ebert as “one of the greatest actors of all time,” the masculine Mitchum was certainly robust (evincing strength and vigorous health) and ruddy (inclined to a healthy reddish color often associated with outdoor life), but he wasn’t the type of he-man you might envision in a steak house.  Presiding over a campfire, yes, but sitting down at a restaurant, no.

Over an open flame, Mitchum would, of course, be grilling a sizzling, flame-kissed slab of thick, red beef destined to overfill his plate.  There would be no vegetables in sight nor would you find a tablecloth, candles or soft music.  With the rousing composition “Rodeo” playing in the background, Mitchum would be heard to say, “Beef.  It’s what’s for dinner!”

Largely through Robert Mitchum’s compelling voiceovers, the American Beef Council has been telling America beef is what’s for dinner for more than a quarter-century.  Thanks to its increased availability, not only is beef for dinner, Americans are eating it for breakfast, lunch and brunch, too.  They’re eating it at home and at restaurants, at picnics and at special events, on paper plates and on fine china.  There’s a steak priced just right for every wallet or purse.

One of the first things you see at Duke's is a refrigerator showcasing both a 72-ounce and a 44-ounce steak

One of the first things you see when you step into Duke's is a refrigerator showcasing both a 72-ounce and a 44-ounce steak

Until recent years, Duke City beef buffs wanting sizzling steaks at an economy price were, with few exceptions, forced to choke down the artery-clogging, gristly, anemically flavored mediocrity that passes as steak at a plethora of chain steak restaurants.  Ironically some of those restaurants are named after manly western television shows of yore–classic shows which deserve better than their names taken in vain.

In the summer of 2009, Duke’s Steakhouse, a steak restaurant at the economy to mid-point price range opened at the Far North Shopping Center in the space that previously housed Athens Eclectic Cuisine.  Interestingly, Duke’s is within a couple of miles of two comparably priced restaurants which closed in the late 1990s: Austin’s Steakhouse and the Copper Creek Steakhouse.  Duke’s reminds me of the former.

As with Athens Eclectic Cuisine, Duke’s Steakhouse is owned by Gus Petropoulos, an entrepreneur who prior to setting up shop in Albuquerque, owned six restaurants in Florida, including an affordable steak restaurant.  He must have seen something in the economic winds when deciding to convert from a gourmet Greek restaurant to an affordable steak house.

A complementary bucket of peanuts means you might not order appetizers

A complementary bucket of peanuts means you might not order appetizers

The first thing you see after stepping into the restaurant’s anteroom is a decorative wagon wheel underneath which is a faux vanity plate reading “New Mexico Beef is Great.”  The New Mexico Beef Council would certainly agree with that assertion as would anyone who’s sampled the beef which grazes on northern New Mexico’s lush, verdant mountain pastures.

Enter the restaurant and to your immediate right is a large refrigerated display case which showcases Flintstone sized slabs of beef.  Even the most prolific gurgitator will be intimidated at the 72-ounce steak, a gargantuan steak the size of a large roast.  Similar to the world-famous Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, Duke’s Steakhouse offers a challenge to prolific eaters.  Finish the 72-ounce (that’s a whopping four and a half pounds) steak and all the trimmings (salad, two vegetables, dessert, bread and a skewer of shrimp) in an hour or less and the meal is on the house.  Fail and you owe the house $72.

The 72-ounce mountain of meat dwarfs a 44-ounce steak next to it on the display case.  Both are hand-cut and aged sirloin marinated with olive oil and fresh herbs.  Brawny beef isn’t exclusive to Duke’s steaks.  Behemoth “Ol West” burgers offer their own challenges, the type of which caloric overachievers relish.

Honey glazed bread and soft butter

Honey glazed bread and soft butter

Now you might think a burger called “Motherload” would be Duke’s most substantial burger, but at a half-pound, it’s a bitty burger.  “Duke’s Signature Cheeseburger” weighs in at a whopping three pounds.  It includes “lots of lettuce, tomato, Cheddar cheese, green chili, onions, mustard, a pickle spear and the restaurant’s signature green-chile mayonnaise.  If you feel shortchanged, you can add on several optional ingredients.

The appetizers on Duke’s menu are pretty standard economy-priced starters: buffalo wings, loaded potato skins, onion petals, chicken strips, fried mushrooms, red chili poppers, fried mozzarella cheese and a combination of the aforementioned artery-hardeners.  Three “garden fresh”salads occupy the column opposite the mostly fried appetizers.

Steaks range in size from a smallish USDA choice seven-ounce sirloin to the humongous hunks of meat previously described, but there are plenty of cuts in the more reasonable 10-, 12- and 16-ounce sizes.  Carnivores can also order jumbo grilled pork chops, filet mignon kababs and a number of barbecue entrees.  Some desserts are served in small metal buckets, the type in which complimentary salted peanuts are provided.

A rack of ribs with two sides: baked potato and baked beans

A rack of ribs with two sides: baked potato and baked beans

Normal eaters might have to exercise caution not to fill up on the complimentary bucket of salted peanuts in the shell brought to your table.  In days past restaurants serving such peanuts considered it ambience to allow their customers to discard the empty shells on the floor.  I surmise a costly litigious settlement courtesy of someone slipping and falling on the floor may be the reason this practice belongs to the past.  Either that or Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department and their dreaded red stickers scared peanut-providing restauranteurs straight.

After placing your order, a roundish loaf of honey-glazed bread with soft butter will be brought to your table.  Despite the sharpness of a serrated knife, the bread doesn’t slice cleanly and is apt to leave crumbs all over your table.  It’s not the soft, doughy bread that goes so well with soft butter, but it’s a good “sopping up” bread for excess barbecue sauce (more on that later).

The entree your order will determine the number of sides accompanying your entree.  Available sides are bbq beans, curly seasoned fries, garlic-basil mashed potatoes, country coleslaw, rice pilaf, baked potato, sweet potato, sauteed garden vegetables and sauteed mushrooms.  You can load up your baked or mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon for under a dollar if you wish.

A twelve-ounce New York Strip with sauteed mushrooms and a baked potato

A twelve-ounce New York Strip with sauteed mushrooms and a baked potato

Difficult to resist, impossible not to love (at least among barbecue aficionados), baby back ribs are often a good test of a barbecue restaurant’s mettle.  With meat between and on top of the bone, a rack of baby back ribs follows the contours of a pig’s rib cage which tapers so that the rack is smaller on one end than on the other.  The perfect rack tapers, in fact, like the bamboo Zampona, an Andean instrument made in Peru.  A typical rack of baby backs contains a minimum of eight ribs and generally includes as many as 13 ribs depending on the butcher.

Duke’s menu touts their baby backs as “our signature baby backs,” and describes them on the menu as “our incredibly tender baby back ribs are charcoal grilled and basted in our delicious homemade BBQ sauce.”  Alas, our waitress broke my heart in telling me the “baby backs” were actually larger pork ribs–so large, in fact, that the rack of ribs extended beyond the plate on which they were served.  The Flintstone-sized ribs were meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, but the annoying membrane made it difficult to cut and separate one rib from the other.

The “do you remove the membrane or not” question has long been debated by better grillers than I. Leave the membrane on and your ribs are going to hold much more of their natural juices, but that messy annoyance of separating ribs can be an exercise in frustration.  The sauce is more tangy than sweet and it’s generously applied though not so late in the preparation that it’s dry (or worse, lacquered on).  It is still so moist, you’ll need several wipes to remove the evidence off your hands and face.

Bread pudding topped with a mound of whipped cream

Bread pudding topped with a mound of whipped cream

My two sides–a loaded baked potato and baked beans–suffered from the same cooking faux-pas.  Both were just slightly undercooked–not so much that they were inedible, but enough that it was noticeable.  Signs of a perfectly baked potato include a skin just crispy enough that it begins to separate from the fluffy potato inside.  My preference is for the asada style potatoes offered by some Mexican restaurants, but it’s steak restaurants with which people tend to associate baked potatoes.  As such, there’s no excuse for underdone potatoes.

My Kim asked for a twelve-ounce New York strip steak with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides and boy did she ever get what she asked for.  It was a bit too garlicky for me, but my Kim likes her food garlicky enough to ward off werewolves.  The steak was tender, juicy and perfectly prepared at medium.  It was much better than the type of steak you might find at the chains which dare to co-opt the names of classic western television shows.

Instead of a bucket dessert, we opted for bread pudding which turned out to be more bread than pudding.  It lacked the characteristics of great bread puddings: moistness, balance of flavors and that “wow” factor you’ll find in the bread pudding at one of Albuquerque’s best purveyors of bread pudding, Barry’s Oasis.

Duke’s Steakhouse fills a niche.  It offers budget-priced steak in a fairly stereotypical milieu (country music, cowboy accoutrements, wood paneling, etc.).  It’s a better steakhouse than the economy chains and it’s a fun restaurant to visit. Duke’s is open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday from 11AM to 9PM and Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM.

Duke’s Steakhouse
6300 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-2900
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2009
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bucket of Peanuts, New York Strip, Sauteed Mushrooms

Duke's Steakhouse and Ribs on Urbanspoon

Lotus Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Lotus Cafe: Thai Cuisine and More

Lotus Cafe: Thai Cuisine and More

Balance.  The Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region have a word for it: “hózhó.”  The word embodies the idea of striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order.  Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.

Balance.  America’s favorite everyman philosopher Homer J. Simpson might define it as “a donut in each hand.”  Obviously politicians discussing the budget should definite it as something unachievable, an ephemeral concept, a meaningless and baseless promise uttered simply to mollify their constituency.  The dictionary might define it as a state of equilibrium.

Balance.  The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter.  Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.

Gigantic fish tank

Gigantic fish tank atop altar to Buddha

Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced.  In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary.  In Thai red curry, for example, the ingredients are a red chili paste (spicy), coconut milk (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and lemongrass or lime leaves (sour), covering four of five basic tastes.  Striking the optimum balance between these tastes is an art, some might say magic.

The most skillful of Thai cooks rely far less on precise measurements to arrive at the exacting levels and quantities of each ingredient used to craft that balance.  Instead, they tend to rely on years of experience and taste to achieve the optimal balance in ingredients that results in utter deliciousness.  We didn’t have the opportunity to check, but it’s a good bet you won’t find measuring cups in Diana Nguyen’s kitchen in Albuquerque’s Lotus Cafe–and if you do find them, they’re probably decorative.

Diana is the owner of one of the Duke City’s best (the best according to Sneaky Sunday.com) Thai restaurants.  Ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Osuna just west of San Mateo, it’s not situated in a well-trafficked area which could account for its relatively low profile among casual Thai cuisine fans.  Among true aficionados–those who discern and appreciate the balance of flavors in a great Thai entree–however, it is very well known.

Grilled Mushrooms

Grilled Mushrooms with a peanut sauce

Diana is originally from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Interestingly, the Lotus Cafe doesn’t showcase the wonderful foods of Laos, but features several Chinese and Korean dishes along with a compendium of Thai dishes.

Despite being the country’s most common flower, the lotus for which Diana’s cafe is named plays an integral part in Thai life where it is not only prevalent in literature, but is associated with heavenly beings. Buddhists use the lotus in paying homage to the image of Buddha and Brahman goddesses are generally portrayed with lotus blooms in their hands.  The Lotus Cafe has two altars to Buddha, one beneath the fish tank in which marine life busily swims.  Food offerings to Buddha are visible on both altars.

Being diminutive in size has a definite advantage for the Lotus Cafe–the captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen are confined to a smaller space.  The entire restaurant is an olfactory arousing denizen of flavors and aromas wafting out of the kitchen with the irresistible appeal of a siren’s call.  The traditional Navajo prayer “Walk In Beauty” seems remarkably appropriate for this Thai restaurant.  To step into the Lotus Cafe is to walk among beauty, a restaurant with beguiling art on the walls.  It’s an immaculate milieu in which to enjoy a well-paced meal.

Thai Chicken Wings

Thai Chicken Wings

Even the large refrigerator that separates diners from the kitchen is more than functional.  Its shelves are meticulous with canned beverages (including durian and coconut drinks) lined up in orderly formation like Air Force cadets.  Atop the refrigerator, you’ll find gleaming silver tureens, a clay sculpture of elephants frolicking in the mud and silk lotus blossoms, all arranged in a decorative and meticulous manner.  Dare I say, even the functional arrangements are balanced.

Service is attentive without being obtrusive–“in the moment” when you need something in the manner of excellent service providers everywhere.  If you’re uncertain as to what to order, they will gladly make suggestions without being pushy about it.  Our waitress, for example, noticing our dilemma in selecting from among the twenty or so appetizers, recommended the grilled mushroom appetizer, a starter we may or may not have seen at other Thai restaurants, but strangely had not considered ordering

Our adventure in balance began with three skewers, each impaling four organic char-broiled mushroom caps inheriting a golden sheen from an oyster sauce. Served with ground peanuts in a sweet and sour sauce, the mushrooms were an absolute delight!  The fleshy fungi were perfectly prepared, as light and delicate as any we’ve had while retaining a just picked freshness.  The oyster sauce imbued them with a subtle sweetness wholly different than the sweetness attained by dipping each mushroom into the piquant sweet and sour sauce.  Balance is achieved!

Green Curry Catfish

Green Curry Catfish

Six chicken wings marinated in Thai herbs and deep-fried to a crispy golden hue also achieved a nice balance of flavors.  The wings are enrobed in a light, slightly sweet batter that seals in the chicken’s inherent juiciness.  The Lotus chicken sauce is the color of honey, but it packs a piquant potency.  You can have Buffalo wings if you want them.  I’ll take these any day.

The menu is divided into thirteen sections, but rather than experiencing triskaidekaphobia, thirteen will be your lucky number: appetizers, Thai Tom Yum Soup, Thai Pho, Thai Yum Salad, Thai Curry, Thai Fried Rice, Thai Stir-Fried Noodles, Fish Lover, Chinese Dishes, Korean Dishes, Beverages and Desserts.  There are several items heretofore unseen in Albuquerque Thai restaurants.

For me, the true test of a Thai restaurant is how well they prepare curry dishes.  Unfortunately too many of the Duke City’s Thai restaurants tend to “Americanize” their curry dishes by making them almost cloying in their sweetness.  Though they may heat things up a bit with Thai chilis, the overwhelming flavor of many Thai curries tends to be sweetness.


Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea

As with many Americans, particularly machismo fanatical New Mexican men, my preference for curry is with plenty of piquancy. Lotus Cafe will accommodate the thrill-seekers among us whose palates are accustomed to the burning sensation of chili enhanced curry dishes.  That being said, to distill curry so that it emphasizes one flavor sensation, particularly the heat of chili, is to dumb it down, to strip if of the layers of flavor, not to mention culture, history and balance.  Preparing a curry that focuses too much on heat is to obfuscate the glorious complexity curry has to offer.

The Lotus Cafe did an excellent job in striking the balance I like in my curry.  My green curry catfish dish showcased my precious piquancy while retaining the luxurious richness of coconut milk, the lip-puckering kiss of lime juice, the floral aroma of green peppers and so forth.  The catfish had no batter therefore absorbing the flavors of the curry while retaining the moistness of a well-prepared fish.  Served with jasmine rice, this is a curry dish to be savored slowly though it will leave a lasting impact on your taste buds.

The Korean section of the menu includes eight dishes starting with Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea.  Bulgogi  is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.  Though not a Thai dish, we were surprised at how balanced in flavors the Lotus Cafe prepares “Korean barbecue.”

Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream

Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream

When it comes to dessert, some of my chef friends tend to downplay just how formidable and delicious Thai desserts can be.  That’s probably because most traditional Thai desserts are relatively simple.  An example of simple ingredients melding together to form a sublime explosion of flavors is Lotus Cafe’s Sticky Rice with Coconut Ice Cream.  The sticky rice is purplish, the result of boiling black rice with sticky rice for hours.  Unlike some sticky rice which can be sticky and even mushy, this has a nutty, crunchy texture that makes it a pleasure to eat.  The hot rice is a wonderful contrast to the cold ice cream, melting it into a creamy custard-like consistency.  This is a dessert we’ll be back for.

Plating at the Lotus Cafe is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, appearance and yes, balance. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know

Lotus Cafe is the perfect restaurant when you need a little balance in your life.

Lotus Cafe
5554 Osuna Road, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 December 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream, Green Curry Catfish, Bulgogi, Grilled Mushrooms, Thai Chicken Wings

Lotus Cafe on Urbanspoon

Porky’s Pride Real Pit BBQ – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Porky's Real Pit Barbecue in its new home on 4th Street

Porky's Real Pit Barbecue in its new home on 4th Street

The genesis of America’s popular music–country, jazz and even rock and roll–is rooted in the soul and sounds of Mississippi Delta blues–sounds born in the disgraceful shadow of slavery and lyrics which echoed the grievous plight and painful lament of workers in plantations and fields.  It is a tribute to the resilience of a people that the music of their lament evolved over the centuries to bring succor, alacrity and pride to generations.

Given poor quality meat, those plantation workers dug pits in the ground in which they cooked the poor cuts of pigs or meat they were allowed to raise. When emancipated, the pit masters introduced their prowess over the barbecue pit throughout the United States. The American epicenters of barbecue excellence–Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and the Carolinas–all owe their barbecue roots to the deep south.

Today, the term “real pit barbecue” rarely refers to a big hole in the ground. A barbecue pit is almost always above ground in a steel “oven” in which meat revolves on racks until just right.  The pit master’s prowess is showcased in the way he or she deftly manipulates indirect heat and wood smoke to produce the inimitable flavor that has made barbecue not only a national tradition, but a veritable piece of Americana.

Combination plate with sausage and rib tips

Combination plate with sausage and rib tips

Southern-born (Southern New Mexico) pit master Guy Nix has been “messing around with BBQ since I was a teenager…more seriously since about 1992’ish.”  As a 14-year old he bought his father a smoker for Father’s Day, but it wasn’t his father who was interested in the craft; it was Guy, who relates that he ruined thousands of dollars worth of meat in perfecting the smoking process.  Now that he’s got it down pat, he’s been plying his craft in restaurants throughout New Mexico, Oregon  and Arizona.

In January, 2008, he launched Porky’s Pride Real Pit BBQ in a 2400-square foot edifice in the barbecue-starved Northeast Heights. Five months later he opened a second restaurant in another barbecue deprived section of the city, Albuquerque’s far North Valley.  The worldwide economic malaise forced the closure of the original location on Juan Tabo while fortuitous fate precipitated a move about a quarter mile south of his initial Forth Street location.

Porky’s is now situated in a heavily trafficked section of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, an area quickly becoming a dining destination.  Clustered in a one block radius within easy walking distance of each other are Sadie’s Dining Room, Ezra’s Place, Sophia’s Place and Hurley’s Coffee, Tea & Bistro.  Porky’s Pride won’t take a back seat to any of them.

Combination plate with chicken and pulled pork

Combination plate with chicken and pulled pork

Porky’s Pride is down-home, down-to-earth and as American as Waylon and Willie whom you’re more likely to hear on the sound system than any Mississippi Delta blues. It’s only natural that country music be the music of choice at a Guy Nix restaurant. That’s because the affable proprietor has been making good country music even longer than he’s been making good barbecue. Guy has temporarily shelved his CMT (that’s Country Music Television for you sophisticates) ambitions to concentrate on his restaurant.  Admittedly a man of many passions (cars, music, motorcycles, etc.), Guy has shelved them all (at least temporarily) to invest all he’s got into his barbecue restaurant.  That’s how much he believes in it.

As good as his music is, his barbecue is even better. It’s the type of barbecue that transcends cultural and social divides; it’s white and blue collar food with nary an aspect of highfalutin to it. It’s slow-smoked and fast-eaten, the American way.  It’s the type of barbecue which can trace its genesis to the Mississippi Delta.  It’s barbecue that feels like the South, but it’s also barbecue that can’t be pigeonholed into one category.

Though the ambience and aromas may resonate stereotypical barbecue joint, Porky’s Pride has the most ambitious menu of any barbecue eatery in town.  It’s as diverse a menu as you’ll find anywhere, offering not only bodacious barbecue, but New Mexican food entrees in the style of Las Cruces where he grew up and steak so good Porky’s might just become your destination of choice for USDA choice or better top sirloin, flat iron, rib eye and even Porterhouse steaks (more on that later).

Pulled pork deliciousness wrapped inside a tortilla

Pulled pork deliciousness wrapped inside a tortilla

Porky’s Pride makes it possible to enjoy three square meals a day with little semblance among each of the three (though the commonality will be deliciousness).  The breakfast menu includes as impressive a line-up of breakfast burritos as there is in the city as well as a stuffed French toast the likes of which are rarely seen in these parts. It’s casserole style French toast with the syrup built in along with bits of bacon and cream cheese. It’s dusted with confectioner’s sugar and includes a side of maple syrup.  This is a popular breakfast entree and if you don’t get to Porky’s early, the restaurant may have run out.

If you’re feeling a little bit country and a little bit New Mexico (with apologies to Donnie and Marie), lunch options include Porky’s Q-Ritto where you can wrap up any meats in a “big ole flour tortilla” burrito style. There’s a little bit of irony here since the first Porky’s Pride 4th Street restaurant was on the former corrugated steel edifice that once housed the Albuquerque Tortilla Company.  At any regard, the O-Rittos are terrific–eight-inch tortillas enveloping nicely smoked pulled pork and, if you request it, green chile.

Build your own combo platters for lunch and dinner will satisfy even the most rapacious of carnivores. One, two, three and four meat platters can be crafted from pulled pork, pulled chicken, hot links, beef brisket and rib tips. All platters are served with triple baked beans and your choice of coleslaw, potato salad, garlic mashers or fries and garnished with diced onion and a dill pickle spear.  In addition to these sides, the menu includes a creative array of appetizers: fried mac-n-cheese, pop-a-tops (breaded jalapeno halves stuffed with cream cheese), peel and eat shrimp, jumbo wings, catfish nuggets and corn fritters, rib tips and more.

Meaty rib tips are also off-the-bone tender and juicy. Each rib tip has a nice crusty outer core just above the smoke ring that typifies great barbecue. There’s a lot of meat on them there bones and it’s absolutely mouth-watering.

Onion rings at Porky's Real Pit BBQ

Onion rings at Porky's Real Pit BBQ

In his Dilbert Blog, nationally syndicated cartoonist Scott Adams questions why “so-called natural meat eaters feel the need to disguise their food by cutting it into steaks, cooking it, and covering it with barbecue sauce.” He posits that “if eating meat is natural, you would expect it to make you hungry in its natural condition. Looking at a cow should make you salivate when you are hungry.”

He does make one salient point in that few, if any of us, would salivate at the sight of fatted cows grazing on green grass, but you’ll need extra napkins to wipe your mouth upon receipt of a Porky’s Pride combination platter. You’ll immediately dig in lustily.

The hot links, stuffed in a natural casing, snap when bitten into and release their tangy spiciness. The links are sliced diagonally into slightly larger than bite-sized chunks. With or without sauce, they star.

Porterhouse steak, a powerful piece of meat!

Porterhouse steak, a powerful piece of meat!

Porky’s meats are the antithesis of the type of meat to which I refer as Ivory Snow in that they’re NOT 99 and 44/100 percent pure. You’ll find a fatty or sinewy sliver of meat here or there and plenty of dark meat, but that, too, is Americana. The pulled pork falls apart at the touch of a fork. It’s a moist and tender pulled pork imbued with more than a hint of hickory smokiness.

That smokiness is also imparted on the barbecue sauce which is slathered generously on your platter. The sauce hints more than subtly at being spicy, smoky and sweet, an unbeatable barbecue sauce combination.  You’ll want to take home a bottle of that sauce which Guy is in the formative stages of bottling and distributing (not only the sauce, but his salsa and more).  The sauce, by the way, is served hot.  That’s because Guy knows if you serve smoked meats hot, they have a tendency to dry quickly.  To keep them moist and juicy, he serves the meats warm and the sauce hot.  It’s a fantastic sauce which you won’t find sitting on the table.  It’s served to order so you can get it hot, the way it should be.  It’s a sauce that’s very complementary of the dry rub Guy uses which isn’t always the case at barbecue restaurants which offer five or six different sauces but use only one dry rub.

Several so-called grill masters I know wonder if I’m smoking something when I explain it’s possible to smoke a great burger.  Rio Rancho’s Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant has proven me right several times with a smoke burger that has prompted nearly a hundred visits to that restaurant.  At the risk of being accused of heresy, Porky’s Pride makes a better smoke burger than the Smokehouse.  Porky’s smokey cheese burger is a half-pound Angus all-beef patty smoked then broiled to order and topped with two types of cheese.  It’s available in single, double, triple and even quad sizes.  You’ll want yours with green chile and bacon with barbecue sauce on the side for baptismal style immersion of bite-sized portions of the burger.  This smoked burger has both a smoky flavor from the smoking process and a charbroiled flavor from being heated on the grill upon order.  It’s the best of both worlds.

Porky's Smoke Cheese Burger and Fries

Porky's Smoke Cheese Burger and Fries

The most worthy accompaniment to any barbecue is baked beans and Porky’s Pride shines in that department with triple baked beans, the likes of which I last had at Hap’s Pit Barbecue in Phoenix, Arizona.  It didn’t surprise me that Guy developed the concept and menu which has made Hap’s one of the most highly regarded barbecue restaurants in the Phoenix metropolitan area (Porky’s Pride is better).   The trio of Navy, kidney and lima beans joins ground beef and bacon in a sauce of equal pronouncements sweet and savory. This isn’t a triple; it’s a home-run, some of the best baked beans in town.

Available for either lunch or dinner are steaks and chops the likes of which you might find at a Chophouse in Chicago.  All chops are cooked to order on a Montague Steak Broiler which broils with infrared radiant heat which sears in all the juices and flavor.  The temperatures on this broiler reach 2,500 degrees which means the heat intensity penetrates all exposed surfaces of the meat.  This broiling process, by the way, is the same one used at high-end, high-dollar steakhouses such as Ruth’s Chris.

The Duke City won’t pay Ruth’s Chris prices for an outstanding steak at Porky’s Pride.  In fact, at under $23, an outstanding steak can be had at Porky’s Pride for about a third of what you’d pay at Ruth’s Chris.  The most expensive cut of steak offered is the Porterhouse, a beefy behemoth at 20-ounces of glorious, perfectly seasoned and perfectly broiled meat.  This is a very tender, very juicy steak which explodes with flavor.  If you love a great steak, this is one you’ve got to try.

Enchiladas with fire-roasted chile

Enchiladas with fire-roasted chile

Exemplifying just how much Guy Nix wants his cuisine to stand out is his willingness to pay almost a dollar a pound more for the green chile he uses on his New Mexican food.  If you’ve ever noticed a boring sameness among the green chile at many Albuquerque restaurants, it’s because many of them obtain their chile from the same supplier.  Not Porky’s Pride which pays a premium for fire-roasted chile which has a discernible flavor that stands out.  Not especially piquant, it accentuates the fruitiness and flavor of chile.  An excellent way to sample it is on enchiladas, three corn tortillas stacked with beef, pork or chicken then topped with Cheddar cheese and that terrific green chile.

Porky’s Pride exemplifies the type of barbecue that has become as American as barbecue and country music, a combination that can’t be beaten.

Porky’s Pride Real Pit BBQ
6136 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 16 October 2009
1st VISIT: 1 July 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combination Platter (pulled pork, chicken, rib tips, hot links), triple beans, Porterhouse steak, onion rings, Porky’s Smokey Cheese Burger & Fries, Q-Rittos

Porky's Pride Real Pit BBQ on Urbanspoon

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