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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.

Mac-N-Cheese

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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
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
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
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.

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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
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
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

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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.