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

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