Guicho’s Authentic Mexican Food Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Guicho's, a unique Mexican dining experience

Guicho's, a unique Mexican dining experience

There have been Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment for as long as there have been restaurants.  While the distinction between Mexican restaurants and New Mexican restaurants has become less obfuscated over time, there is still a tendency among many casual diners to think “a Mexican restaurant is a Mexican restaurant.”  That errant thinking is probably due to the preponderance on this side of the border of Mexican restaurants from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The cuisine of Chihuahua is characterized by its simplicity, reflecting the resilience of its people, settlers of a land steeped with rugged terrain, craggy mountains and rough lands in which great temperature variations exist between scalding heat and almost freezing cold.  Dehydrated chile is a staple of Chihuahua.  When reconstituted, flour is added to thicken it for such popular favorites as enchiladas, tacos, chile rellenos, quesadillas, beans and tamales, all foods with which New Mexicans are intimate.  The cuisine of this region is also characterized by the use of melted or roasted cheese, much of it courtesy of the large Mennonite population in the area.

Art abounds on the walls of Guicho's

Art abounds on the walls of Guicho's

In the past decade or so, New Mexico has seen a growing number of restaurants from states other than Chihuahua.  Because Mexico spans several climatic zones and a diverse topography, its cuisine varies from region to region.  The favorite foods of the Mexican coast may not even be available further inland.  Inland foods may not be as commonly served on the coasts.  Ah, those coasts!  Mexico’s beautiful and varied coastal waters are not only pristine in their azure purity, they yield an abundant and unsurpassed assortment of deliciously prepared delicacies from the sea.  Restaurants such as Mariscos Altamar celebrate that cuisine.

The introduction of mariscos restaurants featuring the succulent seafood of Michoacan and Nayarit was followed shortly by the launching of Papa Nacho’s, a restaurant featuring cuisine from the state of Sinoloa.  Patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City is Los Equipales, a fine-dining establishing offering foods with which even the despotic Montezuma would have been acquainted.  Guadalajaran gastronomy from the the largest city in the state of Jalisco which borders the Pacific ocean, could be found at Dahla’s Central Mexican Cuisine in Rio Rancho until it closed in 2010.  The culinary traditions of the Veracruz-Chiapas region were honored at Bernalillo’s La Bamba Grill, an off-the-road gem which closed in 2009.  There are other examples, but if you’ve been to these treasures, you get the picture-any generalization of Mexican food is unfair and it is wrong.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

A visit to any of the aforementioned restaurants is, in fact, an adventure in the discovery that the cuisine of Mexico is as varied as its 31 free and sovereign states.  Still, that culinary diversity seems under-represented in the Duke City because the cuisine of Puebla is not more prominent..  Puebla, known as Mexico’s “cradle of corn” is considered by many culinary scholars as the birthplace of Mexican food as we know it today.  It was in the tile-clad kitchens of Puebla’s convents where dignitaries were entertained that lavish dishes such as mole poblano and chiles en nogada were first made.

Puebla’s culinary significance spans time immemorial–from its roots in the ancient techniques and rudimentary ingredients of its indigenous peoples to the Spanish influenced cuisine of the colonial period and the resultant mix and subsequent and continuous evolution.  Not only is Puebla famous for its incomparable culinary diversity, it is renown or the beauty of its kitchens which tend to be colorful in their utilitarian function.  Beautifully painted clay pots and exquisite Talavera tile and pottery are integral to the culinary experience.

Quezadilla Synchronizada

A cursory perusal of the menu is all it takes to figure out that Guicho’s Authentic Food Restaurant is a compendium of the incomparable cuisine of Puebla.  The name Guicho itself has nothing to do with Puebla, but is a nickname given to the restaurant’s owner Jose Luis (much as in the way men named Ignacio are often nicknamed “Nacho”).  Jose Luis and his family are from the Mexican state of Puebla and they are proud to showcase their state’s incomparable cuisine.

They are also proud to showcase the incomparable beauty of their state on colorful murals painted on the restaurant’s walls.  One mural depicts an Aztec warrior kneeling beside what might be a funeral pyre on which lies a beautiful maiden, perhaps a sacrifice to appease the gods.  The model for the maiden is Jose Luis’s daughter, a teenager equally at home speaking in English or Spanish.  A painting of a citadel aflame depicts Puebla’s role in the Mexican Army’s defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862 (today celebrated as Cinco de Mayo).

Barbacoa y Consome de Borrego al Estilo Puebla

Barbacoa y Consome de Borrego al Estilo Puebla

The windows throughout the dining room are framed with what appears to be Talavera tile, the tin-enameled earthenware.  The time-honored techniques used to create this rich earthenware produce a hard opaque white glaze which serves as a canvass for colorful, enamel-painted designs.   On closer inspection you’ll find that the window frames are not Talavera tile, but an artist’s rendition (a very good one).  A large ceramic statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and the Americas, stands on a tall niche carved into one wall.  There is truly something to see at every turn at Guicho’s.

Unfortunately there’s also something…too much…to hear as well.  The booming sounds of Mexican rap emanating from tinny speakers competes with the raucous sounds of a Mexican comedies from a blaring television.  This is the sole detractor from an otherwise very good–and very authentic–meal.

Milanesas Rellenas

Milanesas Rellenas

That authenticity begins with licuados, the fresh and delicious Mexican aguas frescas (Spanish for fresh waters).  Aguas frescas are a combination of either fresh fruits, seeds, cereals and sugar and water blended together to make a refreshing drink.  Sometimes served from large barrel-shaped containers, aguas frescas tend to be almost cloying in their sugar content.  That is courtesy of the increasing use of vendor provided aguas frescas throughout Mexican restaurants in America.  At Guicho’s, the aguas frescas are made on the premises and they are definitely not overly sweet.  Instead, they taste as the fruit should taste, whether in season or not.

Salsa and chips are complementary at Guicho’s.  Similar to many Mexican salsas, this one is somewhat thin, though not to the extent that it runs off your chips like a sieve.  The salsa relies heavily on cilantro and a blend of chiles (perhaps arbol) for flavor and heat intensity.  The chips are homemade and substantial.  They’re also fresh, low in salt and delicious.

The menu showcases a number of intriguing appetizers, most substantial enough for sharing.  One of the best is the quezadilla (sic) synchronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together).  Two paper-thin flour tortillas envelop very thinly sliced ham and a thin sheen of the requisite melted queso.  That’s it!  Nothing else!  Surprisingly, these are terrific quesadillas thanks in large part to some of the very best pico de gallo in Albuquerque, a pico constructed of very fresh, hand-chopped bell pepper, white onion, jalapeño and tomato.

Longanizada, rajas con papas, arroz y frijoles (Pork sausage, potatoes with jalapeños, rice and beans)

The menu is as intriguing and appealing as a menu you’d find at a restaurant on Puebla itself.  A number of dishes feature mole poblano, the thick rich chocolate-tinged sauce whose very origin is steeped in legend.  One chile relleno entree includes several of the ingredients used to make chile rellenos en nogada, a traditional Puebla Christmas dish, but falls short on only a few ingredients.

What facilitated the ordering process during my inaugural visit was the fact that our first visit took place on a Sunday, the only day of the week in which another famous and uniquely Puebla entree is featured.  That would be Barbacoa y Consome de Borrego al Estilo Puebla, essentially grilled mutton (lamb, if you prefer) and a clear consomme.  The mutton arrives at your table exactly the way it was prepared–right on the bone.  It’s up to you to extricate the tender meat from the bone, a task you can undertake with fork or fingers.  The borrego is seasoned very well, removing any gaminess you might expect from mutton. It is also quite good, some of the best borrego I’ve had in years, in fact.

Chiles Rellenos De Queso: One poblano pepper and one jalapeño pepper stuffed with cheese and served with rice, beans, nut cream and pomegranate with corn tortillas.

The consome actually comes from a pan at the bottom of the roaster which catches the drippings from the borrego.  It is a richly flavored stock though quite “filmy” from the fat which drips down onto he soup pan.  Don’t let that detract you in the least.  This is a comforting soup, the type of which embraces you warmly and makes you feel good all over.

The oversized platter also includes grilled nopalitos (cleaned, sliced and lightly sauteed cactus pads), grilled jalapenos, sliced avocado and Mexican queso fresco. The nopalitos are sauteed with thinly sliced radish, tomatoes, onions and a little cilantro. They are reminiscent in flavor of a tame green pepper. The grilled jalapenos are terrific–incendiary enough to get your attention, but with a full-bodied flavor.

Platano Frito

Platano Frito

If you’re not in the adventurous mood or if you loathe lamb, Guicho’s has several more “conventional” (though not boring in the least) entrees available.  Milanesas Rellenas, breaded pork steak stuffed with yellow cheese and ham, are a popular favorite.  The pork steak is sliced thinly then pounded for tenderness.  The breading is light and well-seasoned while the addition of ham and cheese surprisingly doesn’t give the entree the saltiness you might expect.  This entree is served with rice, beans, French fries and corn tortillas.  The beans are refried and they are outstanding!

For breakfast and brunch lovers, Guicho’s offers a number of eye-opening dishes, most quite simple and both filling and fulfilling.  One of these is a combination platter showcasing longanizada, a pork sausage light on the flavor profile compared to chorizo; papas con rajas (potatoes with jalapeños), rice and beans.  The rajas are sliced in a long and thin fashion, looking like bell peppers.  One bite of the roasted hot peppers will certainly tell you these are several degrees of magnitude more piquant than the bell pepper.  Three small mounds of rice in the colors of the Mexican flag (red, white and green) along with refried beans are excellent, especially for scooping with the accompanying corn tortillas.

One of the most special dishes for which the state of Puebla is renown is chiles rellenos en nogada which are wholly unlike the chiles rellenos with which most New Mexicans are intimately acquainted.  On this dish, a poblano pepper is engorged with such unconventional ingredients as pork, apples, pears, tomato, onion, garlic and raisins all seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger then smothered with a walnut brandy cream sauce. Guicho’s doesn’t offer chiles rellenos en nogada, but it does serve what might be termed as a poor third cousin–chiles rellenos de queso, one poblano pepper and one jalapeño pepper stuffed with cheese and topped with a nut cream and pomegranate.  Unlike the more famous rellenos en nogada, these are not a melding of sweet and savory flavors.  The queso fresco makes this most decidedly a savory dish.  It’s not nearly as good as chiles rellenos en nogada, but it’s good in its own right.

Fresas y crema

Fresas y crema

Several dessert entrees will catch your eye though you might not have much of an appetite left after consuming the large portions served at Guicho’s. The platano frito, a banana sliced from top to bottom is slathered in a strawberry marmalade, drizzled in chocolate sauce, bordered by whipped cream topped with sprinkles and is served with two thin wafer cookies. Talk about a sugar rush. This pile of sweetness is a caloric overdose, the type of dessert your arteries can tolerate only infrequently.

Far less sugar-intensive are fresas con crema, strawberries with cream.  The strawberries are just about equally tart and sweet while the cream is not of the sweet whipped cream variety Americans gravitate towards.  It’s real cream, the rich, savory type.

Another mural at Guicho's, this one depicting several of the dishes on the menu

Guicho’s reflects the high standards for which cuisine in Puebla is renown.  It is a welcome addition to the New Mexico dining scene and goes a long way toward continuing to show that all Mexican restaurants are not alike.

Guicho’s Authentic Mexican Food Restaurant
4801 Central, N.E. (at Monroe)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2011
1st VISIT: 26 April 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Milanesas Rellenas, Barbacoa Y Consome de Borrego, Licuado de Melon, Licuado de Sandia, Chiles Rellenos de Queso, Quezadilla Synchronizada,
Platano Frito, Longanizada con rajas y papas, Fresas con Crema

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Rocco’s Pizzeria – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Rocco's Pizzeria (formerly Pettito's) in Rio Rancho

In an age of sensory bombardment, we all occasionally experience a phenomenon known as an “earworm.” Earworm is a literal translation of a German term for a song (particularly an annoying one) stuck in someone’s head. For some it’s the Gilligan’s Island theme song. For others, it might be “It’s a Small World” or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

In the 1960s, one television commercial was responsible for an earworm that afflicted many of us in the Albuquerque viewing area. It was a commercial for Peppino’s Pizza Joint and the words to its annoyingly catchy jingle were “The p-pizza’s p-perfect at Peppino’s, the p-pizza’s p-perfect at Peppino’s p-pizza joint.” I’ll bet some of the more “seasoned” (geriatrically advanced like me) members of the Duke City Fix’s Born in ‘Burque group reading this post are cursing me because now they can’t get that jingle out of their minds.

Professional sports team memorabilia from Pennsylvania adorns the walls at Petitto's

Peppino’s Pizza Joint and that catchy jingle have been gone now for close to forty years, but the jingle is reborn every time I passed by or thought about Petitto’s Pizzeria in Rio Rancho. Petitto’s, which opened in 2007, was ensconced in a fairly nondescript strip shopping center on Southern Boulevard and was not at all easy to spot.  I’m writing in the past tense, of course, because in 2011, Pettito’s was renamed Rocco’s Pizzeria where it now shares signage and space with Esperanza’s Cocina Mexicana.  Esperanza’s offers a pretty ambitious menu considering the relatively cramped quarters and the fact that the only visible ovens in the store are pizza ovens.  Apparently the Mexican food is prepared in the back room.

Rocco’s is wholly unlike the phalanx of New York influenced or New York style pizzerias in Rio Rancho. The state’s third most populous city is often referred to as “Little New York” on account of the hundreds of New Yorkers who moved to the then untamed western fringes overlooking the Rio Grande. In fact, you might call Rocco’s “Pennsylvania” style pizza (though the marquee calls it “Eastern style pizza.”

Cheese bread from Petitto's

Rocco’s proprietor is blessed with the perfect name for an Eastern pizzeria. Though originally from New Jersey, Rocco Petitto is as Pennsylvania as they come as evidenced by his pizzeria being a veritable shrine to the keystone state’s professional sports teams. Framed under glass are autographed jerseys worn by some of the best professional athletes to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies or 76ers. The jerseys of Donovan McNabb, Pete Rose and others along with signed pictures of other Pennsylvania sports luminaries flank flat-screen televisions poised above the two seating areas.

Rocco’s is primarily a take-out enterprise with eat-in accommodations for just a handful of pizza patrons. It’s locally owned and operated competition for Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s and other chain restaurants of that ilk. Its pizza is better than the aforementioned corporate giants can offer.

Philly Cheesesteak Pizza, a rich, cheesy indulgence

Philly Cheesesteak Pizza, a rich, cheesy indulgence

The menu includes four signature pizzas, which may seem pretty standard (meat lovers, veggie, the works), but look closely and you’ll see that its Hawaiian pizza is called the “Porker” and it includes not only ham and pineapple (pretty traditional), but also almonds and cinnamon (non-standard). Specialty pizzas include a buffalo chicken pizza complete with chicken and wing sauce and dressed with your choice of bleu cheese or ranch, a Philly cheese steak pizza and a White Pizza (olive oil instead of tomato sauce).

Pizza comes in sizes ranging from 10-inches to 24-inches. If neither the signature or specialty pizzas will do, Rocco’s has about a dozen toppings from A (anchovies) to T (tomatoes). You can also add these toppings to the calzones which start pretty basic with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.

Philly Cheese Steak : Philly Meat mixed with American Cheese (Add Mushrooms, Onions or Bell Peppers at no extra charge)

Philly Cheese Steak : Philly Meat mixed with American Cheese (Add Mushrooms, Onions or Bell Peppers at no extra charge)

The menu also includes six- and twelve-inch hoagies served on an Italian roll with oregano, lettuce, tomato and onions; hot sandwiches (including a Philly cheese steak, albeit made with American cheese instead of Cheese Whiz), calzones and salads. Other offerings include buffalo wings (hot or mild), breadsticks and cheese bread.

The cheese bread is bubbling with herb infused melting cheese. The first thing you’ll notice is that the crust, both on the cheese bread and on the pizza, is wholly unlike New York style crust. For one thing, it barely has a hint of char and its crust is chewy and dense with nary any crispiness. Its outside edges don’t bulge out excessively and as such, are lacking in the airy holes so prevalent in some New York style pizza. In fact, on the pizza, the outside edges are not that much thicker than the pizza itself.

A beauteous Italian sub

A beauteous Italian sub

Anyway, the cheese bread is, well…cheesy. Melted to a perfect consistency (so it’s neither stringy or oily), the cheese and bread combination are best right out of the oven when hot. Unable to finish all six slices, we tried the next day to eat the cheese bread cold and were disappointed. The cheese bread is served with your choice of pizza dipping sauce or Ranch dressing. We found the pizza dipping sauce, not that it was needed when the pizza was hot, over-salted. A good substitute is Catalina dressing, a sweeter rendition of French dressing. The sweetness of the Catalina is a flavorful contrast and complement to the cheese.

Now Catalina dressing on cheese bread or pizza is either going to repulse you or you’ll love it instantly. We were turned on to it while living in Mississippi when about the only pizza we could get was from one of the aforementioned chains. The truth is, good pizza should not need Catalina dressing or any other flavor boost. Good pizza should be able to stand out on its own without help.

The American Hoagie

The American Hoagie

I’m torn between calling the pizza at Petitto’s good pizza or dismissing it altogether as not to my liking. The fact that we employed the old reliable Catalina dressing has me leaning toward the latter. The ingredients (pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and onions) on “The Works” were all fresh and delicious, but the saltiness of the tomato sauce detracted from our ability to discern other traditional pizza seasonings such as oregano and basil. The saltiness may have been an anomaly and we just hit the pizzeria on an off-day. A second pizza was in order to know for sure.

My second pizza at Rocco’s was a Philly Cheesesteak Pizza and it may have proven that my inaugural pizza experience at Rocco’s was an anomaly.   This pizza is essentially the restaurant’s chewy pizza crust topped with the fabulous, creamy white American cheese used on Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches, topped with the other sandwich ingredients: mushrooms, onions and bell peppers.  This is a very rich indulgence sans tomato sauce, but it’s not a traditional “white” pizza.

Neither is the Buffalo Chicken Pizza (pictured below) crafted with the ingredients that grace the world-famous Buffalo chicken wings, save for the bones, of course.  The chicken is tender and mostly white meat.  The buffalo sauce has a penetrating piquancy, a surprising bite though not anything a native New Mexican can’t handle easily.  As with other Rocco’s pizzas, the crust is delicious and the cheese is of very high quality.


Buffalo Chicken Wing Pizza

One thing that is certain–Rocco’s offers the one of the two best Philly Cheese Steaks I’ve had in New Mexico (the other is at Itsa Italian Ice).  You might think that’s not a tremendous accomplishment considering the dearth of good Philly Cheese Steaks–and not only in New Mexico, but this one could compete in Philadelphia.  Heresy, you say.   I’ve had Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches in some of the City of Brotherly Love’s most hallowed pantheons of cheese steak and found many of them were more hype than substance.  I’m talking rubbery, tasteless bread; razor-thin shards of leathery meat, and gloppy Cheez-Whiz with onions.

Rocco’s Philly Cheese Steak is artfully crafted with thinly shaved shards of beef (imported from Philadelphia) and a creamy white American cheese that has an almost sensual relationship with the meat.  That means every bit of the meat that’s intertwined with that cheese is terrific…so much so that more of the cheese might have made it a new favorite guilty pleasure.  In fact, I recommend you order a double portion of cheese as my friend Paul Lilly does.  Add caramelized onions, mushrooms and small bits of green pepper on a twelve-inch hoagie roll and you’ve got a Philly that’s better than (forgive the sacrilege) some of best I’ve had in Philadelphia.  In its annual food and wine issue for 2010, Albuquerque The Magazine featured Petitto’s Philly CheeseSteak in a feature entitled “An Ex-Pat’s Guide to the Food You Miss.”


The hoagie roll, by the way, is made by Amoroso’s Baking, which “makes the rolls that make Philly sandwiches famous.”  Rocco’s tried using hoagie rolls baked in the Albuquerque area, but–and even the proudest Duke City residents will agree–our water’s “chemical” taste influences so much of what is prepared here.  Rocco’s would rather spend a little more on outstanding Philadelphia quality bread than compromise a great Philly cheese sub with an inferior bread.

If your preferences lean toward unheated sandwiches, Rocco’s has several options for which you should forego any thoughts of visiting Subway, the ubiquitous chain presence that has dominated the sandwich market for years.  Rocco’s Italian hoagie is better by several orders of magnitude than any sandwich I remember having at Subway back in the dark ages when I wasn’t enlightened and occasionally visited chain restaurants.

As with all Rocco’s hoagies, the Italian is served on an Italian roll with oregano, tomato, lettuce, tomato and onions, but what makes it a sandwich masterpiece is how the bread and condiments meld with provolone cheese, Genoa salami, Capicola ham, pepperoni and olive oil.  The bread is soft, but substantial enough to handle the moistness and volume of the ingredients, all of which are top notch.  The meats are delicious and of very high quality.

The American Hoagie is another 12-inches of sandwich deliciousness.  Crafted with American cheese, Genoa Salami, ham and turkey ameliorated with lettuce, tomatoes and sliced onion, it’s the type of sandwich you might make for yourself if you had access to the terrific ingredients from which this sandwich is made.  Those ingredients are packed tightly into the pillowy soft bun.  Rocco’s doesn’t scrimp on ingredients or on flavor.

Rocco’s Meatball Sub, a twelve-inch behemoth made with seven meatballs, several thick slices of provolone, a dusting of parmesan and a tangy tomato sauce all laid out in the wonderful hoagie rolls from Amoroso’s Bakery is one of the better meatball subs in the Duke City area.  The meatballs, though not made on the premises, are quite good with little discernible filler.  It’s the sauce, a celebration of the acidic qualities of tomatoes, that makes the meatballs zing.

Rocco’s has several menu options which warrant return visits even if it means not getting that annoying earworm out of your head.

Rocco’s Pizzeria
2418 Southern Blvd
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2011
1st VISIT:  9 October 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cheese Bread, Philly Cheese Steak, Italian hoagie, American Hoagie, Meatball Hoagie, Buffalo Chicken Pizza

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The Cajun Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Albuquerque's Cajun Kitchen

Albuquerque's Cajun Kitchen

Note:  After 24 years of serving Albuquerque in two locations, the Cajun Kitchen closed its doors on Friday, March 11, 2011.  On a notice in the menu, the Hebert family wrote, “It has been a privilege serving the Albuquerque community and have been equally blessed by the support of those who have graced our tables making the restaurant the institution it has become.”

When we moved back to Albuquerque in 1995 after eight years of living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we begrudgingly accepted the fact that in New Mexico, we would never experience the type and quality of  Cajun and Creole cuisine with which we had fallen head-over-heels in love.  Our taste buds, we thought, would be deprived of  the very lively, very colorful and very varied rustic cuisine characterized by the use of the “holy trinity” (bell pepper, onion and celery), just-off-the-boat seafood, spicy sausage and perfectly prepared rice.  Where, we wondered would we receive our meals with the “laissez bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll) attitude so prevalent in the Deep South?

Obviously we didn’t know about the Cajun Kitchen, where Duke City diners have been getting their Cajun and Creole cooking fix for nearly a quarter of a century.  In that time, several usurpers–including chains–have come and gone.  The Cajun Kitchen is the real deal, an unpretentious and authentic, straight-forward purveyor of Cajun and Creole cuisine as well made as it can probably be done in Albuquerque, especially considering the distance to the Gulf and to seaside suppliers.  This should not be interpreted in any way that the Cajun Kitchen is some sort of “consolation prize.”  It is a very good restaurant with a loyal following that includes many other Gulf Coast transplants who recognize and love its food.

Hungry alligator headed toward Cajun Kitchen

The Cajun Kitchen is 1,162 miles from New Orleans, 1,082 miles from Baton Rouge and 918 miles from Natchitoches.  How do I know this?  Similar to the iconic signpost from the television series MASH, the walls on the kitchen at Albuquerque’s  Cajun Kitchen are adorned with signs indicating the distance to those three Louisiana bastions of Cajun and Creole cuisine.  Greatness of distance to Cajun country does not  mean greatness of distance to good Cajun food in Albuquerque.

The Cajun Kitchen is festooned in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). One wall is bespangled with expressions of “Fat Tuesday” celebrations: multi-colored beads and bangles, Mardi Gras masks and more.  Some of the green comes in the form of a large mural depicting a bayou swamp replete with a large alligator and other fauna and flora indigenous to the bog.  The gator’s mouth is open wide, a mere foot or so away from the open kitchen.

One wall has a Mardi Gras theme

Yet another wall (pictured below) lists the lexicon of Louisiana–po-boys, French Market, krew, Hebert (the family name of the restaurant’s owners) and more along with pronunciations for some of the words not widely spoken outside of the deep south. Immediately above this dictionary are some of the trappings of the Mississippi Gulf Coast fisherman, the life’s blood of Cajun and Creole cuisine. A painting of Louisiana manor named Lemeuse takes up much of the easternmost wall.

While all the symbolism is reflective of the Cajun culture and life in Louisiana, nothing shouts Cajun louder than the restaurant’s food.  It’s the food that tugs most at our heart strings.  It’s the food that brings us back.  The Cajun Kitchen’s menu is hardly a compendium of all the great foods showcased on the menus in the great restaurants of New Orleans.  Instead, it focuses on a select few familiar offerings, those entrees that even those barely conversant in Cajun would recognize.

Cajun lexicon

Most would recognize gumbo–if not the dish, certainly the word which is actually a corruption of the African name for okra.  Okra is only one of the vegetables on traditional gumbo where it shares the stage with the aforementioned holy trinity of vegetables (celery, bell peppers and onion).  The strength of the Cajun Kitchen’s gumbo is its roux, a thickening agent made from flour and fat (perhaps clarified butter).  Gumbo options include seafood (fish, shrimp and scallops) and crawfish, both of which are quite good. This is a flavorful, full-bodied soup!

Cajun Kitchen starters include seasoned Cajun fries which are much better than the flaccid fries most restaurants serve–so good, in fact, they’re starting to catch on in other restaurants.  As good as the crispy seasoned fries  (coated in Cajun seasonings) are, most diners will start off with a crawfish basket, an oyster basket or a shrimp basket, all three of which feature fried, delicately breaded seafood.  The popcorn crawfish tend to be the most fresh, with the surprising sweetness crawfish tend to have.  All are served with traditional cocktail sauce, but are better with the “po’boy sauce,” a sweet, tangy orange marmalade sauce that contrasts nicely with the briny seafood taste. It goes without saying that the well-dressed oyster po’boy should have plenty of that po’boy sauce.

Seafood Gumbo

Better yet, if fried seafood is what you crave, order the large combo platter and you’ll be treated to a fisherman’s fried dream: Louisiana style oysters, crawfish tail meat, catfish, and shrimp. Because these treasures of the sea are lightly battered, it’s their native flavors  that will captivate you, not some thick coating which masks those flavors.  In all honesty, it’s with the fried seafood where you can most tell you’re not on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where it’s not uncommon to partake of freshly caught, just-off-the-boat seafood treasures.  Oysters, in particular, are best when that fresh and when you’ve had these pearlescent gems just plucked out of the water, you’ll notice the difference.  From among the large combo platter, the catfish stands out.  In Mississippi, we lived in the catfish capital of the world and will attest to Cajun Kitchen’s preparation of catfish being some of the best we’ve had anywhere–and certainly the best we’ve had in New Mexico…by far.

The fried seafood entrees are served with your choice of red beans and rice or seasoned fries. The red beans and rice, with or without sausage (and it would be a sin not to have the sausage), are in a class of their own in the Duke City.  This Louisiana Creole dish, traditionally served on Mondays is good seven days a week (although the Cajun Kitchen is only open Monday through Friday).  Red beans and rice get their kick from cayenne pepper, but their flavor from the holy trinity as well as  smoky Andouille sausage.  By the way, at the Cajun Kitchen, all the wait staff can pronounce Andouille correctly which is always a good sign.

Chicken Sauce Piquant: two fried chicken breasts in a very hot and spicy sauce made with jalapeños and cayenne peppers simmered in a tomato roux

It’s because we love the fried catfish so much that the entree I’ve had most often is catfish smothered in crawfish etouffee, an absolutely stunning dish brimming in the rich, flavorful spices that make Cajun cooking so popular. The basis for the Cajun Kitchen’s etouffee, a French word for “smother” is a thick, well-seasoned tomato sauce served over perfectly prepared white rice. The sauce wholly dissimilar to the tomato sauces used in Italian cooking. It’s redolent with the fragrance of the holy trinity and the olfactory-arousing seasonings so prevalent in Cajun cooking.

Another saucy and spicy offering New Mexicans will appreciate is the restaurant’s chicken sauce piquant, two fried chicken breasts in a very hot and spicy sauce made with jalapeños and cayenne peppers simmered in a tomato roux.  Hot and spicy Cajun style isn’t synonymous with hot and spicy New Mexico style.  Anyone who’s had Tabasco sauce can attest to the zesty heat the capsaicin-rich cayenne can generate, but it wouldn’t, for example, be very good on enchiladas.  What cayenne does is invigorate acidic-based sauces such as the tomato roux used on this dish.  The fried chicken is terrific, as good as any fried chicken in town.  It’s lightly breaded, moist and delicious.

Catfish filets topped with crawfish etouffe

On the “Personal Favorites!” section of the menu is a delightful surprise for diners who like flavor combinations.  It’s blackened salmon chipotle, salmon lightly glazed with raspberry chipotle and served on a bed of herbed rice and red beans and sausage.  On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, blackened entrees are de rigueur, but not many restaurants blacken salmon.  Give the Cajun Kitchen an “A” for originality and high marks for execution, too.  This entree is surprisingly good with a flavor profile that includes piquant, savory, sweet, smoky and tangy combinations.

A highlight of any meal at the Cajun Kitchen is the buttery, toasted French bread.  It’s accompaniment for most of the non-sandwich options, but so good you might want a slice or two even with a po boy, so good it doesn’t need butter or any topping.  This stellar bread is wonderful for dredging up any of the wonderful sauces and roux.  The only problem with this bread is that you’ll have a few slices too many and might not finish some of the other Cajun delights.

Oyster Po Boy with seasoned fries

Among the Cajun specialties no self-respecting Cajun restaurant would be without are po boys.  While some essayists will tell you a po boy is essentially synonymous with other sandwich types–submarines, heroes, grinders and others, Louisiana natives will argue that the po boy is different, that it’s better.  One of the things that distinguishes the po boy from other sub-type sandwiches is the French bread, baked into two-foot-long “sticks” then sliced into “half” (a six-inch sandwich called a “Shorty”) and “full” at a full foot long.  Po boy are served “dressed” with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise with pickles and onions optional. Traditional po boys are served hot.  That’s the way the Cajun Kitchen makes them.  The po boy menu includes catfish, crawfish, shrimp, oyster, a shrimp-oyster combination, blackened catfish and chicken.  Po boys are served with red beans and rice or seasoned fries.

Though portions tend to be very generous, diners should never leave the Cajun Kitchen without finishing their meal with Lynn Hebert’s famous bread pudding, a version my friend Larry McGoldrick,  New Mexico’s preeminent expert on bread pudding rates among New Mexico’s best.  His assessment of the Cajun Kitchen’s bread pudding: “smooth, velvety texture, and the taste is enhanced by a light honey-based syrup and a slight cinnamon taste.  Pretty delicate dessert.”  The only thing I’ll add is that this bread pudding isn’t cloying as some syrup-enhanced bread puddings tend to be.

Lynn Hebert's famous Bread Pudding, one of Albuquerque's very best

Cajun Kitchen has been our respite when missing the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a terrific reminder of that there is laissez bon temps rouler in New Mexico.

The Cajun Kitchen
5505 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 3 March 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fried Crawfish, Fisherman’s Platter, Crawfish Bisque, Garlic Bread, Crawfish Etouffee, Chicken Sauce Piquant, Beans and Rice, Oyster Po Boy, Seafood Gumbo, Bread Pudding

Cajun Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Outlook Cafe – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Outlook Cafe in Rio Rancho

Some would argue that the city of Rio Rancho was spawned as a dubious marketing ploy designed to bilk gullible New Yorkers out of their savings by enticing them to a vast wasteland under the pretext  that their  “lucrative investment” would  ensure a comfortable retirement in “among the greenest, most fertile valleys in the world.”  Others see those pioneers who sought to civilize the wilderness on the plateaus west of Albuquerque as visionaries possessing a clarity and prescience that escapes most of us.

Frankly, on our inaugural trek to the Outlook Cafe, we began to question our own sanity as we traversed what seemed to be an endlessly empty enormity of sage and sand beyond any vestige of civilization save for the two-lane Unser Boulevard on which we drove.  Any restaurant this far out in Rio Rancho’s vast outskirts would have to be a veritable oasis in a high desert expanse untouched and unsullied by modernity.   It would have to be a true destination restaurant, an  exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the City of Vision’s dining scene.

The interior of the Outlook Cafe

In truth, from the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, the Outlook Cafe is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall.  There are far fewer traffic lights, no traffic snarls and once you’re past the turnoff to Northern, virtually no other traffic and only a couple of residential neighborhoods.  So, we could perhaps owe the perception of distance to hunger and the anticipation of quelling it with food Susan, a faithful reader of my blog, described as “WOW!!!” and “great.”  Well, there is that, but it also seemed far because our paradigm is that most great restaurants are clustered in populated areas.  Our mistake!

You’ll know you’re getting close when you’ve driven about three miles north of the  Santa Ana Star Center and you see the signage for Mariposa, an environmentally-responsible master-planned community in the northwest outskirts of Rio Rancho.  Mariposa blends state-of-the-art homes and community buildings with the natural splendor of the hilly desert topography in which the 6,500-acre community is situated.  The delicate balance of nature, architecture and community blend in harmoniously with each other.

Cheesy Grill'as: Mozzarella-stuffed bruschetta wedges with Home on the Ranch dressing

The Outlook Cafe is ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views.  From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio.  The restaurant’s interior is charming in a contemporary European sort of way.  Walls are festooned with photo prints from throughout Europe and the Middle East.

The cafe is the brainchild of Linda Woestendiek who runs the restaurant with her affable husband Uwa and their son.  With an outlook that could only be described as optimistic, the Woestendieks launched the Outlook Cafe in March, 2009, seemingly in opposition of one of the rules of restaurant success–“location, location, location.”  Less than two years later and with minimal advertising, the cafe is frequented by diners from throughout the metropolitan Albuquerque area, Santa Fe and beyond.  One particularly enthusiastic patron from Four Hills visits weekly for the cafe’s lamb chops.

A cup of goulash, one of three "stoups" on the menu

The cafe is also frequented by a bobcat, perhaps drawn in by aromas emanating from the kitchen.  Other indigenous wildlife have been spotted in the neighborhood, a realization that the community is truly leaving the area as undisturbed as possible.   With tables in relatively close proximity to one another, it may not be possible for patrons to have a completely undisturbed dining experience, but as Uwa explains, a unique phenomenon  occurs at the Outlook Cafe.  Rather than stay to themselves, patrons often join their tables together and make new friends.

The cafe serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and breakfast until 3PM on weekends.  The menu is surprisingly ambitious considering the tiny confines.  Even more surprising is the concept change that sees a transformation from comfy cafe to sophisticated bistro during dinner hours and a menu featuring such eye-openers as skewered swordfish and portobello stroganoff.  If you’re not in an upscale, uptown mood, at eveningtide, there’s also a “pub” menu that includes popular lunch favorites such as burgers and sandwiches.

An XXL Hot Dog with mustard and relish served with a large pickle

All menus will have you doing a double-take.  There’s not only something for everyone, there’s something different than is offered just about anywhere else.  For example, rather than the de rigueuer two or three soups many restaurants serve, the Outlook Cafe serves a variety of “stoups” which are not quite a stew, but more than a soup.  If it’s on the menu, the stoup of the day–any day–is the goulash.  Uwa explained that this is German-style goulash, the difference being that his rendition is better than conventional goulash.

The goulash is fantastic–chunks of beef tenderloin, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes in a well-seasoned broth showcasing the dynamite flavor of Spanish paprika, a lively and piquant seasoning that Uwa roasts himself.  Available in cup or bowl sizes (always order a bowl or you’ll find yourself requesting a second cup), the soup arrives at your table steaming hot, a perfect elixir for cold or wet weather.  Without exaggeration, this is some of the very best goulash I’ve ever had–and certainly the very best “stoup.”

Brie Burger: A third-pound of lean, ground beef stuffed with melted Brie, served with mango salsa

Few things go as well with a piping-hot stoup as grilled cheese sandwiches and the Outlook Cafe offers an interesting variation.  On the “Off The Charts” section of the menu you’ll find Cheesy Grill’as, mozzarella-stuffed bruschetta wedges offered with your choice of one of three sauces: Bloody Mary (spicy marinara), Home on the Ranch (a green chile Ranch) and New Orleans Blues (Tabasco blue cheese).  The grill’as are sliced thinly and have diagonal grill marks that complement a buttery glisten.  Where the Home on the Ranch dressing lacks in piquancy, it makes up for in sheer deliciousness.

The “Off The Charts” menu also celebrates the diversity of the hot dog, offering four XX hot dogs. The “basic”–onions, relish and condiment–is the least interesting, at least in ingredient composition, but it’s an excellent grilled dog served on bakery bread. The other hot dogs are the German (sauerkraut, grilled onions and stone-ground mustard), Castilian (sauteed sweet peppers and onions) and the Chicago (yellow mustard, sweet relish, green chili (sic), pastrami, chopped onions, dill pickle spear and celery salt. The latter doesn’t quite fit the Windy City hot dog template, but locals will appreciate the green chili.

Panini Marinara with Meatballs: An open-faced, mozzarella-stuffed garlic bruscetta panini topped with four Italian meatballs and marinara sauce

Panini Marinara with Meatballs: An open-faced, mozzarella-stuffed garlic bruscetta panini topped with four Italian meatballs and marinara sauce

Panini sandwiches have become so commonplace as to be considered passe.  Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in the pressed bread arena.  When Outlook’s lunch menu listed some of their panini sandwiches as “original,” we were skeptical, expecting slight variations on the same standard offerings you’ll find just about everywhere.  As we quickly discovered, with a little imagination, high-quality ingredients and a willingness to take a departure from the norm, the panini sandwich can be transformed into a surprisingly tasty meal.

Such is the case with the Panini Marinara with Meatballs, a sort of deconstructed-reconstructed rendition of a meatball sandwich.  Instead of a few messy meatballs being stuffed into a hoagie type bread, four sizable meaty orbs covered in a rich red marinara and sprinkled with mozzarella rest atop a mozzarella-stuffed garlic bruscetta panini.  This is a sandwich you eat with a fork, though it would be excellent on its own right as a cheese sandwich with meatballs on the side.  The meatballs are this sandwiches best feature.  They’re well-seasoned without a profusion of gritty filler.  The marinara has a tangy, fresh tomato taste and would make a great sauce for pasta.

"Let Them Eat Bread"

"Let Them Eat Bread" - sliced baguette served warm with assorted butters and a vegetable spread

The menu’s specialty burgers are an enticing invitation to try something safe yet unconventional, familiar yet different.  That’s especially true if you think you’ve sampled almost every conceivable ingredient combination possible on a burger.  A new one on me was the Brie Burger, a third-pound of lean, ground beef stuffed with melted Brie served with mango salsa, a sliced tomato, large-leaf lettuce and a dill pickle spear on wonderful bakery buns smeared with mayonnaise.  The brie is of medium sharpness, a crumbly variety with a nice flavor.  The salsa is fresh and delicious, an amalgam of onion, red pepper and juicy mango.  This is a find!

Now, it’s one thing for a restaurant to excel at lunch.  The real test, especially for a small restaurant with an ambitious menu, is to perform exponentially better at dinner.  Lunch is like a preliminary bout; dinner is the main event.  That’s when expectations are highest.  That’s when you know you’ll be shelling out the big bucks, but you also expect to get your money’s worth.  Our expectations of the Outlook Cafe were so high from our inaugural lunch that we returned for dinner three nights later.  The “little cafe that could”…did.  It surpassed our expectations.

Crab Stuffed Deviled Eggs: Four egg halves filled with a creamy deviled egg and crab mixture, topped with red and black lumpfish caviar

The “Snacks and Starters” section of the Bistro Nights menu includes an appetizer throwback from the 1950s  which seems to be making a comeback, even in fine-dining restaurants.  Deviled eggs are no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of any restaurant’s starter menu.  They’re getting respect because chefs are employing their creativity to do more than evoke nostalgia.  The Outlook Cafe’s rendition is a beauteous tray showcasing four egg halves  filled with a creamy deviled egg and crab mixture topped with red and black lumpfish caviar.  They’re as tasty as their plating is elegant.

The dinner portion of the Bistro Nights menu features seven entrees, four of which are asterisked with the designation “an Outlook Cafe original.”  To say anything is original is an audacious claim, but the Outlook Cafe may just have pulled it off with eye-opening combinations such as the lamb chop entree which helped me understand just why someone would drive from the Four Hills neighborhood for these every week.  Now, there’s nothing original about lamb chops.  It’s the entire plate that earns that designation.

Lamb Chops (ten-ounces) served on a bed of orzo with streams of mint/jalapeno and roasted pepper sauces

Four lamb chops, ten-ounces in all, are perfectly prepared at medium which means they’re juicy with just a hint of pink inside.  These meat lollipops have none of the characteristic gaminess for which lamb chops are often disdained.  They’re absolutely delicious, a wonderful foil for the mint and jalapeno sauce.  Lamb and meat sauce are meant for one another; jalapeno adds a little zest to the freshness of the mint.  This stuff should be bottled and sold.  The orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, is buttery and delicious with a creaminess unique to this pasta.  The roasted pepper sauce was pure dynamite with more than a hint of piquancy and a nice pepper-flavored intensity.  These are lamb chops I’d order again and again and again.

Another entree that bears repeating is the Steak Au Poivre, a ten-ounce flatiron-style peppered beef tenderloin served with rustic garlic mashed potatoes.  This is a remarkable steak with a nice crust derived from the peppercorns which provide its pleasant pungency, a complementary counterpoint to the beef’s rich flavor.  This steak is tender and delicious with a gravy-like pan sauce hinting of perhaps a cognac reduction.  By design, the rustic mashed potatoes have a lump here and there, but they’re so darned deliciously garlicky you won’t care.

Steak Au Poivre - Flatiron-style peppered beef tenderloin served with rustic mashed potatoes

Dinners include a complementary serving of “let them eat bread,” a sliced baguette served warm with assorted butters and a vegetable spread.  On the night of our inaugural visit, our bread was accompanied by an herb butter, a cream cheese with garlic spread and a third spread which escapes me.  The baguette is terrific–a hard-crusted beauty with a soft, airy inside.

Desserts are housemade treats showcased under glass.  Linda is the inspired genius responsible for such gems as cinnamon roll cookies.  Bite into these orbs of deliciousness and you’ll see a cinnamon swirl that just seems so right considering these cookies are topped with an orange-flavored glaze.  Another excellent sweet treat is the blueberry cheesecake, a not-so-traditional confection that starts with a bar cookie which is topped with a blueberry-infused cheesecake.

Cinnamon Roll Cookies and Blueberry Cheesecake

Cinnamon Roll Cookies and Blueberry Cheesecake

It’s interesting that with our appetites sated and our taste buds contented, the “endlessly empty enormity of sage and sand” seemed suddenly rich with beauty. As Rio Rancho continues its expansion and more people discover this little gem, the road to the Outlook Cafe will be a bit more congested and the topography won’t seem as blessedly, desolately empty. It’s a drive we’ll take more often to what is truly an off-the-beaten path jewel.

Outlook Cafe
2500 Parkway Avenue, N.E., Suite 104
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 January 2011
1st VISIT:  31 October 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Cheesy Grill’as, Goulash, XXL Hot Dog, Brie Burger, Cinnamon Roll Cookies, Blueberry Cheesecake, Panini Marinara with Meatballs, “Let Them Eat Bread”, Crab Stuffed Deviled Eggs, Lamb Chops, Steak Au Poivre

Outlook Cafe on Urbanspoon

GoNuts Donuts – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

GoNuts Donuts on Albuquerque's West Side

Their Points of View.
‘Twixt optimist and pessimist
The difference is droll;
The optimist the doughnut sees –
The pessimist the hole.
New York Sun, 1904

It’s almost deliciously ironic that the “Optimist’s Creed” references the oft-maligned donut. In recent years, donuts and their high-carb brethren have been damned and all but banned by the “nutritionally correct” who believe America should supplant these decadent orbs of sugary deliciousness with tofu, celery sticks, carrots and beef juice.  Donuts went through a period in which they were nearly as popular as terrorist extremists at a New York City fire department party.  Even the once sanctified Krispy Kreme saw its stock prices plummet.

In such a climate of adversity, it is donut purveyors who have to be eternal optimists even as their product is assailed and vilified. Albuquerque has in recent years seen the demise, departure or diminished numbers of Krispy Kreme, Shipley’s Donuts, Winchell’s Donuts and even Dunkin’ Donuts. Whether it was an onslaught of health-crazed fanatics, reduced ranks in the police force or a combination of other factors, the Duke City can hardly be called the Donut City.

The interior of Go Nuts Donuts

In an article for Saveur, writer extraordinaire John T. Edge, who spent a year on the road researching Donuts: An American Passion (Putnam, 2006), posited that America is undergoing a resurgence in its “love for fried, glazed, filled, and jimmie-sprinkled poufs of dough,” declaring that “the best American doughnuts transcend fads.”  If the recent upsurge in the number of donut shops in Albuquerque is any indication, perhaps donuts also transcend the so-called nutrition police.

In April, 2010, Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side saw the launch of GoNuts Bakery & Sandwich Shoppe, a colorful little shop in the Paradise Hills Shopping Center.  It’s one of a handful of donut stores in Albuquerque, most of which have launched in the past five years or so, perhaps signaling somewhat of a renascence in the Duke City of the popularity of the donut.  GoNuts is located at the former site of the fabulous Painted Horse Coffeehouse and prior to that a bagel shop.

Go Nuts With these Four: Glazed Donut, Chocolate Glazed Donut, Caramel Turtle and German Chocolate

Appropriately the marquee on the store’s frontage depicts a long-tailed squirrel holding a donut in its paws.  The shop’s interior is festooned with pink, blue, ocher and purple colors.  A slate board lists several sandwiches, tempting to be sure, but it’s the donuts under glass to which most patrons seem magnetically drawn.  These are no ordinary donuts, nor are they even the same donuts day-after day.  The donut menu rotates frequently with new additions added whenever the baker has a fit of creativity.

GoNuts Donuts has been locally owned and operated since its inception.  It is currently owned by Daniel Galindro, an entrepreneur with big plans for the donut shop he bought from the family which founded it.  He plans, for example, to bring in pastrami from New York City–pastrami he says will be better even than what is offered at nearby California Pastrami, my local benchmark for great pastrami.  It’s an audacious claim, but if the donuts are any indication, he may be able to pull it off.

GoNuts Donuts are yeast-based which helps them rise and gives them a light and airy texture.  They’re not dense and filling nor are they overly sweet.  Best of all, they’re creatively different.  It’s not everywhere you find caramel turtle and German chocolate donuts.  It’s not everywhere you find donuts this good.  Alas, once they run out of the day’s donut menu, the donuts you fall in love with today may not be available for a while.  That just means you’ll have to try something new and exciting during your next visit.

GoNuts Donuts
9311 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 November 2010
BEST BET: Glazed Donut, Chocolate Glazed Donut, Caramel Turtle Donut, German Chocolate Donut

GoNuts Donuts on Urbanspoon

Sevyn’s Cafe – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Sevyn's Cafe in Rio Rancho, New Mexico

During a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza, a self-proclaimed “short, balding, unattractive man” made the mistake of telling his fiancee he wanted to name his child “Seven” after his idol Mickey Mantle.  To George’s chagrin, his fiancee’s cousins liked the idea so much they decided to name their own child Seven.  Even as the female cousin was being wheeled by an orderly into the delivery room, George tried in vain to convince them to name the child something else.  Six,  Thirteen, Fourteen, even…Soda.  “it’s bubbly, it’s refreshing!,” he cried.

Driving by the familiar yellow roofed building that previously housed the now defunct Mad Max’s BBQ, I couldn’t help but laugh while recalling that hilarious episode.  There on that yellow roof was new signage for a cafe named Sevyn’s Cafe–George Costanza’s coveted baby name only spelled differently.  Sevyn’s Cafe opened for business on Wednesday, November 5th, 2010, the retirement dream of Pamela and Ralph Hartsock.  Pamela, a nurse, and Ralph, who’s in the construction clean-up business, haven’t retired yet, but it’s never too early to start planning.

Enchiladas with two fried eggs

Pamela explained that the cafe is named for her granddaughter, jokingly adding that her son picked the name in recognition of the seven top reasons to get a tattoo.  Her son, a noted tattoo artist, created the artwork hanging on the walls at the cafe.  It’s good stuff.  One depicts a skeletal bride and groom in the style of El Dia De Los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead in which a profusion of skeletons of all sizes perform day-to-day activities signifying the return to this world of the dead who remain what they were when they lived, doing what they did.  Another depicts Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint and martyr, tied to a post and shot with arrows.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sevyn’s menu showcases New Mexican food with single- or double-meat burgers , a chicken sandwich (grilled or breaded), chicken tenders, grilled cheese sandwich, a hot dog and a chili dog thrown in for good measure.  The breakfast menu features an assortment of plates or burritos.  You can, for example, have a plate with eggs, hash browns, cheese, bacon or sausage, and red or green chili (sic) or the whole lot can be piled in a tortilla and served as a burrito.

Cheeseburger with Fries

In the 12th edition of Frommer’s Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque Travel Guide, author Lesley King listed “Northern New Mexico Enchiladas” as among “the most unforgettable Northern New Mexico Experiences,” indicating that there are few things more New Mexican than the enchilada.  I couldn’t agree more with my friend and tend to consider enchiladas a good benchmark for restaurants which serve New Mexican food.  If a restaurant can’t make a good enchilada, chances are the rest of its New Mexican food won’t be good either.

Sevyn’s Cafe serves a good enchilada.  Make that three.  Three enchiladas engorged with your choice of beef or chicken and served with your choice of red or green chile (or Christmas style) made for a good introduction to the cafe.  Instead of one measly egg, my enchiladas were topped with two eggs, completely blanketing the entree.  The chili (my spellchecker is going crazy with this spelling, but it’s how it’s spelled on the menu) is rich, dark red and tasty though it lacks much of a discernible bite.  The ground beef is well-seasoned and doesn’t have a reheated flavor as you’ll find at some restaurants.  The accompanying rice is fluffy and delicious as are the beans.

My buddy Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik had a cheeseburger which he praised for its hand-formed, fresh beef patty though the overly toasted bun detracted from his overall enjoyment.  The beef patty appears to be about six ounces.  It is joined on sesame seed buns by red onion, crisp lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mustard and mayo.  French fries seasoned with salt and pepper are also available as a side.

I don’t know if George Costanza would get upset over the use of the name Sevyn for this charming little cafe, but it’s a good bet Seinfeld’s portly friend would enjoy the food.

Sevyn’s Cafe
1600 Sara Road
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 4 November 2010
BEST BET: Enchiladas

Sevyn’s Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wings ‘N Things – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Tickles & Snooks Wings 'N Things

Tickles & Snooks Wings 'N Things

The “language of love.”  It can reduce the most eloquent of women to twaddling teeny boppers and the most macho of men to cooing grade schoolers.  It is most active–some would say most infantile–when the biochemical pathways of love are waxing to a peak during the relationship stages between infatuation and falling in love.  It’s when cute nicknames–those mushy, syrupy terms of endearment–are created and used in place of actual names, when phone calls don’t end because neither party can hang up.

Not even Jerry Seinfeld was exempt from the language of love.   Renown for his cooly detached approach towards commitment and for breaking up with women for the the most picayune of reasons, Seinfeld may have, in fact, taken the language of love to new depths (or heights, depending on your perspective).  In his eponymous television sitcom, Seinfeld nauseated his friends George and Elaine with his openly affectionate behavior, baby talk and especially a term of endearment they found particularly offensive–Schmoopie.

The interior at Wings & Things--west wall festooned with car images

The interior at Wings & Things--west wall festooned with car images

The only thing that could cool his ardor was a thickly-accented, stone-faced chef renown for enforcing a strict protocol of queuing, ordering and paying for Manhattan’s best soup.  Rather than incur the “Soup Nazi’s” ire and be subjected to the dreaded admonishment “No soup for you,” Seinfeld pretended he didn’t know the object of his affection, his Schmoopie.  Her transgression– violating the Soup Nazi’s queuing process by kissing Seinfeld at the soup line.

Just as love morphs and changes over time, the language of love undergoes its own transformations, usually reflecting the stages of that crazy little thing called love.  Whether the relationship stage is infatuation, lust, romance or attachment, stage appropriate terms of affection are used.  Newly smitten lovers tend to idealize the object of their affection, amplifying their virtues and downplaying their flaws.  The terms of endearment at this stage tend to be especially mushy–sobriquets such as “Tickles and Snooks.”

Wings & Things at the food court in Albuquerque's Cottonwood Mall (Photo courtesy of Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

When Barbara Trembath, one of my most trusted foodie sources, told me about a new restaurant named “Tickles & Snooks Wings ‘N Things,” my ears perked up.  En route to obtaining a Psychology degree (would you like fries with that), I once wrote a thesis on the language of love, hence the little diatribe to start this review. You’re probably grateful that the rest of this essay won’t be an exploration of terms of endearment in a relationship, but an essay on a surprising restaurant with something for everyone.

Tickles and Snooks are pet names used for each other by Rusty (Snooks) and Tikashi (Tickles) McConnell, the dynamic entrepreneurial duo who recently purchased Wings & Things in a small nondescript strip mall on Montgomery just east of San Pedro.  The name “Tickles and Snooks” is the most cutesy aspect of the restaurant which has a decidedly masculine feel to it.  The walls on the walls are festooned with framed photographs of muscle cars which share wall space with tools of the auto racing trade. The drawers on a Craftsman tool chest is where the restaurant’s silverware is kept.  A potted plant rests on that chest.

Eight Spicy Barbecue Wings

Eight Spicy Barbecue Wings

Rusty, a native Ohioan, and Tikashi, originally from Mobile, Alabama (and who previously worked as a project manager for ESPN) are a well-traveled couple with a budding business portfolio that includes Tickles and Snooks Sweet Creations & Event Titillations, a catering enterprise offering a dazzling array of cakes for all occasions.  In assuming the mantle at Wings ‘N Things, they are taking on an established business that previously received “best wings in Albuquerque” acclaim from several sources.  In August, 2010, they launched a scaled down version of Wings ‘N Things at the Cottonwood Mall with much of the menu intact.

Barbara, my savant source, gave me the scoop: “Not gourmet, but very good food. Wings, tenders, pizza, a very close to authentic cheesesteak ( with Whiz if you want ) and some seafood (oyster po boy, shrimp, fish and chips ) and will be starting to do breakfast soon.”  She liked it so much, she put Wings ‘N Things on her fairly exclusive restaurant rotation, a select line-up of favorite dining establishments she visits with some regularity–the few, the proud, the most delicious.

The "Wall of Pain" shows several anguished eaters unable to finish the Armageddon Challenge.

My personal rotation has long been bereft of chicken wings thanks, in some measure, to a rather disappointing visit to a chain wings restaurant pitched by Dallas Cowboys hall of fame quarterback Troy Aikman.  Sure Albuquerque is in the northernmost portion of the Chihuahuan desert but that’s no reason chicken wings and legs should be so wrinkly dry.

Wings ‘N Things offers more than thirty different flavors of wings from which to choose–some such as Carolina BBQ, Chile Lime, Curry, Lemon Garlic, Wasabiyaki–heretofore unavailable in Albuquerque.  Sauces, which can be sampled before ordering, come in heat intensity ranging from mild to nuclear and everything in between.  The most incendiary sauce is a raging inferno level of heat called Armageddon.  Armageddon has more Scoville units than all the competitors put together. I’ve only managed a sample–a toothpick dipped into an incendiary combination of ghost peppers (the hottest peppers in the world), Scotch Bonnet peppers, habaneros and maybe napalm.  Though I pride myself on having an asbestos-lined mouth, I certainly won’t be participating in the Armageddon challenge.

The Maspero (seafood platter with large catfish filet surrounded by calamari rings and Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp and oysters on a bed of beer-battered fries)

The Maspero (seafood platter with large catfish filet surrounded by calamari rings and Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp and oysters on a bed of beer-battered fries)

The Armageddon Challenge will tattoo your tongue with pain and sear your taste buds with a fiery intensity bordering on cruel and inhumane punishment. It will moisten your brow with profuse sweat, traumatize your nervous system and stain your face with tears. It will contort that face into a misshapen tangle of emotions. You will suffer a painful post-traumatic stress disorder the day after–a true after-burn. To say it’s definitely not for the faint of heart is a vast understatement The challenge–six wings in six minutes with a six minute after-burn which starts after you’re done with the six wings–if you get that far. Few people–about one in seven–get that far.

My friend Bill Resnik was one of the first to surmount the challenge.  I’ll let him describe the experience: “So Rusty brings out these Armageddon wings – 6 of them soaking in sauce.  He hands me some plastic gloves, a really nice thing to do as I was to discover later.  He also brought a dish of ice cream and a wet washrag to use after the after-burn.  The clock started and I started eating.  Hoooooo Boy!  The first 5 seconds were OK, then an assault of epic proportions filled my head.  My lips, mouth, tongue, sinuses and eyes were screaming as I silently uttered the prayer, “Dear God, please don’t let me choke or get the hiccups!”

Fried Mussels with Marinara Sauce (Photo by Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

My strategy was to get those firecrackers down as quickly as I could and deal with the aftermath later. I finished my 6 wings in about 4 minutes. The only thing harder than taking a huge bite was chewing it, and the only thing worse than that was swallowing it. The 6-minute after-burn started after the initial 6-minute eating period. NOT after I took my last bite, so I got an 8-minute after-burn. The pain peaked about 2 minutes after I finished eating and I knew the challenge was a painful downhill ride from there. By the end of the 6 minutes, I was feeling pretty good (endorphins are great!) and I didn’t have an urgent need to dive into the ice cream or the glass of water in front of me.”

Overall, it was a lot of fun. If you finish, you get your picture on the wall (my eyes were so red I looked like I’d been smoking reefer all my life) and you get this cool tee-shirt. Of course you get bragging rights and the knowledge that you have lived through something that not everyone who attempts will be able to complete.”

Gator Bites - a half pound of alligator tenderloin dredged and fried in a Creole Cajun seasoned with a Remoulade or Zesty Orange Sauce (Photo by Bill "Roastmaster' Resnik)

Sure enough, the restaurant’s northernmost wall is dedicated to photographs of the survivors of Armageddon, a motley crew of anguished victims expressing stunned expressions akin to the tortured souls in Dante’s Inferno. Another wall, aptly titled “The Wall of Pain” celebrates the game competitors who tried and failed the challenge. They look even worse than the survivors–much worse.

Wings are available in quantities of eight (one flavor) to one-hundred (four flavors). If you prefer your chicken boneless, chicken tenders are available in the same flavors as the wings and in quantities of three to twenty-five. Wings ‘N Things is no one-trick pony. The menu also features five pizzas (with such clever sobriquets as Sleepin’ With The Fishes and Fugetaboutit), including a build your own option. The five item seafood menu–including New Orleans style Po Boys (catfish, oyster, shrimp or shrimp and oyster)–sounds more Mississippi Gulf Coast than desert Southwest, but it’s certainly welcome.

Seared and lightly crusted tuna

The menu’s half-pound burgers, made with fresh, hand-formed beef, are an impressive lot with such offerings as a Philly Cheese Burger, Pastrami Burger, Pizza Burger and even a Caribbean Jerk Burger. Carnivores can even request a second half-pound beef patty if they desire. A number of subs and wraps are also available as are salads, everything from a standard garden salad to a meat lover’s salad. As of this writing, however, none of the Tickles & Snooks cake creations are available on the menu at Wings ‘N Things.

The menu’s wonderful diversity is to be celebrated, but a visit would be incomplete without sampling the name on the marquee, the amazing wings. With more than thirty flavors available, you’ll be hard-pressed to decide which to order. Don’t hesitate to accept the offer to sample a few of the sauces. You’ll find these sauces aren’t the dumbed down, lacquered on sauces served at some chains. Wings ‘N Things’ sauces have audacious personalities. They’re intensely flavored, heavily spiced, generously applied and some are eye-watering and nasal-clearing.

Heather Pomme Frites (Beer Battered Fries Dressed in Garlic Parmesan)

Heather Pomme Frites (Beer Battered Fries Dressed in Garlic Parmesan)

The “Spicy BBQ” flavor sounds fairly innocuous, but it packs a piquant punch. It won’t water your eyes or bring sweat to your brows, but it will leave an impression on your taste buds. Wings are well saturated in the sauce which means eating them is a messy proposition. Fortunately each table has a roll of paper towels with which to wipe off your fingers and mouth. It goes without saying that the wings are moist, but they would be so even without any sauce. They are also meaty and delicious with a tangy and smoky sauce that doesn’t completely obfuscate the flavor of the wings themselves.

The flavor intensity isn’t solely focused on piquancy. The Spicy Lemon sauced wings manage to be both lip-pursing tangy and salute-worthy piquant to totally make you scrunch up your face in the throes of intense flavor-wrought delight. For sheer sublime magnificence, however, you can’t beat the curry sauce. It’s an Indian curry, an aromatic, olfactory arousing bouquet with no discernible cumin aftertaste. Whether served with chicken tenders (pictured below) or on wings, it’s an excellent curry, sure to win over even people who don’t think they like curry. It’s also an excellent dipping sauce for fries.

Chicken Tenders with a sublime curry sauce

Chicken Tenders with a sublime curry sauce

Now, the name “Heather Pomme Frites” sounds benign enough, but don’t let the name fool you. These aren’t the garden variety boring fries so typical in Albuquerque. The fries are beer-battered then dressed in a garlic parmesan sauce that will knock your socks off, especially if you love garlic. There’s enough garlic here to ward off a family of famished vampires. It’s breath-wrecking garlic at its very best. The fries are then sprinkled with a generous amount of shredded parmesan for a cheesy kick that complements the garlic flavor very well.

Having visited New Orleans more than seventy times during the eight years we lived in Mississippi, we quite naturally became enamored of the Crescent City’s cuisine, particularly its Cajun and Creole offerings. The seafood section of Wings ‘N Things’ menu rekindled our hopes that we could relive memorable meals of years past. Though only seven items comprise Wings ‘N Things seafood selections, four of the seven possess names which could have come out of a menu at one of our favorite New Orleans eateries.

Caribbean Jerk Burger

Caribbean Jerk Burger

That Southern-inspired line-up (thank you, Tikashi) includes Po Boys (choice of catfish, oyster, shrimp, or shrimp and oyster), Billy Bob’s Belly Buster (a large filet of fish sandwich), The Maspero (a combination seafood platter) and The Decatur (Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp). One of those four, The Maspero, shares a name with one of our favorite New Orleans Po Boy establishments, Cafe Maspero, which is within easy walking distance of Jackson Square. The Maspero is a seafood platter with a large catfish filet surrounded by calamari rings and Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp and oysters on a bed of the restaurant’s signature beer-battered fries.

The starters section of the menu includes three seafood items–seared ahi tuna, fried mussels and gator bites.  The seared tuna appetizer features four generously-sized medallions of lightly crusted tuna as red, rare and beautiful as sashimi-grade tuna.  The crust is a sheath of paprika, fennel, rosemary and other spices we couldn’t discern.  It’s a flavor-rich component to the freshness of the tuna.

The "New Mexican," a pizza with green chile and pepperoni

Anyone who tells you alligator tastes like chicken hasn’t had good alligator.  Tickles & Snooks serves good alligator–an entire half-pound of alligator tenderloin dredged and fried in a Cajun Creole seasoning and served with a Remoulade or Zesty Orange sauce (ask for both).  The texture of alligator is somewhat more chewy than say chicken tenders.  It’s lightly coated in a crispy batter, but when you bite down on each tasty morsel, there’s very little crunch.  It doesn’t have an especially wild flavor and may, in fact, remind you of a chewy white fish.  The Remoulade and Zesty Orange sauces are excellent accompaniment.

A more conventional starter for seafood lovers is fried mussels though at first glance, they hardly resemble mussels rolled in flour and battered.  Each mussel resembles an oblong chicken nugget.  Each is lightly battered with a golden-hued, slightly sweet sheath that keeps the mussels moist and delicious.  They are surprisingly less “fishy” tasting than most fresh mussels and are fun to pop in your mouth and devour.  Though served with a marinara sauce, they might be better with the restaurant’s piquant homemade Remoulade.

Fried pickles

One of the most recent additions to the seafood line-up (as of March 24th, 2010) is inspired by Rusty’s love of Japan, an island nation with which he is very familiar from his travels with the semi-conductor company for which he works.  The Ichiban is a quarter-pound Ahi tuna steak blackened and seared to perfection topped with a Wasabi butter infused slaw and served on a sourdough bun accompanied by a “sweet Tsunami” sauce and sweet potato fries.

Though not quite of the caliber of seafood plucked out of the Gulf Coast then making the short trek to a New Orleans cafe, the Maspero, a combination seafood plate is quite good. The catfish filet is light and flaky with a delicate flavor, a cut above other catfish we’ve had in New Mexico (most of which have the texture of sawdust). The Creole seasoned shrimp are fresh, sweet and have a nice snap of freshness to them. The oysters are a bit on the dwarfish side, but nonetheless have that distinctive briny flavor and characteristic sliminess that doesn’t go away when you fry them. All were lightly breaded in a well-seasoned coating. The seasoned fries are just the way we remembered them from the Gulf Coast where seasoned is the preferred way to have fries.

Pastrami sandwich: Rusty smokes and brines the pastrmi himself

The Maspero comes with a make-it-yourself cocktail sauce (because the restaurant’s house version is too strong for many patrons) of ketchup and horseradish as well as tartar sauce (pretty standard stuff) and an eye-watering Wasabi butter sauce with which Rusty became enamored during extensive travels to Japan.

Japan is where Wings ‘N Things procures its Akaushi beef. If you’ve never heard of Akaushi beef, you’re probably not alone. It’s a richly marbled, very tender and flavorful beef used in Kobe restaurants throughout Japan. Akaushi, a Japanese word meaning “Red Cow” are considered a national treasure in Japan and is the ONLY natural 100-percent source verified Kobe beef in America. It is not American wagyu beef. The menu offers three Akaushi burgers.

The Caribbean Jerk Burger is but one of the intriguing non-Akaushi burger selections on the menu. It’s a half-pounder seasoned with the house jerk rub topped with Pepper Jack cheese and Tikki slaw. Years of experimentation at home with jerk burgers has taught us that ground beef is not a great canvas for jerk seasonings, no matter how good the beef or the seasonings might be. Our best results have come from ground pork which allows the jerk rub to shine. The result at restaurants are similar to what we’ve experienced at home. That holds true for the jerk burger at Wings ‘N Things. That’s not to say the burger isn’t good; it just would be much better with ground pork and with a sweeter apple-based slaw.

The Junk Yard Dog: a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried then topped with onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll

The Junk Yard Dog: a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried then topped with onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll

While we liked the Caribbean Jerk burger well enough, we loved the Junk Yard Dog, a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried in the tradition of northern New Jersey hot dogs then topped with a phalanx of fantastic ingredients: onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll.  The hoagie roll is sturdy enough to hold in all the deliciousness, but it’s unlikely your mouth can open wide enough to take in everything at once so you’ll eat bits and pieces of the ingredients in various combinations.  Thank you to Tina Chavez for recommending this hunky hot dog.

The menu, which is constantly evolving (frog legs were added in May, 2010) is amazingly diverse with something for all appetites. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that everything on the menu, at least all I’ve tried, is good enough to be the featured item on the menu at most restaurants. That goes for the pizza, too. The New Mexican pizza whose chief ingredients are green chile and pepperoni, is terrific, an incendiary chile on a chewy, no-char, well sauced crust. The pizza is sauced all the way to its edges; it’s not just slathered on indiscriminately. Available in a personal-sized seven-inches or a full sixteen inches, it’s a very good pizza.

Tickles & Snooks Wings ‘N Things may sound like a children’s fantasy movie, but it’s replete with adult flavors that may have you uttering some terms of endearment of your own.

Wings ‘N Things
6219 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 7 March 2010
LATEST VISIT: 17 November 2010
: $$
BEST BET: Caribbean Jerk Burger, The Maspero, Spicy BBQ Wings, Spicy Lemon Wings, Curry Chicken Tenders, Heather Pome Frites, The Junk Yard Dog,The New Mexican, Ahi Tuna, Gator Bites, Fried Mussels

Tickles and Snooks Wings & Things on Urbanspoon

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