Maya – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Maya for the Finest in MesoAmerican Fusion Cuisine From Chef-Genius Dennis Apodaca

My precocious niece doesn’t miss a beat. Ever attentive to adult conversation, she often stumps my brother and me with her surprisingly deep and thought-provoking questions. Case in point, when she overheard me telling my brother Mario about the Mesoamerican-inspired cuisine at Maya, she asked what I have against Americans. Perplexed by her assertion, I gently asked what she was talking about. “First you said Americans are ugly (obviously remembering a discussion Mario and I once had about the “ugly American syndrome”) and now you’re calling them messy, too.” From the mouth of babes…

Her comment got me thinking about the last time we saw a great chef who wasn’t a bit on the “messy” side. No, not like the Charlie Brown character Pig Pen, but with a light dusting of flour or a splash of sauce bespattered on their white coats or aprons. Hands-on chefs–those who not only conceptualize their menus, they prepare everything themselves—don’t always embody the axiom that cleanliness is next to godliness. These do-it-all chefs are veritable whirling dervishes in the kitchen—chopping, shredding, grating, slicing, dicing, mincing, broiling, boiling, simmering, frying, sautéing, plating… It’s inevitable that a smattering of sauce or a sprinkling of crumbs will land on those immaculate whites.

Chef Dennis Apodaca and Partner Cecilia Schmider

Practicing chefs wear those little stains like edible badges of honor, emblematic of the noble profession. When Chef Dennis Apodaca stepped out from the kitchen at Maya, it made us happy to see a small chile stain on the sleeves of his jacket. It meant he was in the kitchen preparing meals for his guests. Cooking, as savvy Duke City diners know, is something Dennis does better than just about anybody else in New Mexico. Even though having been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program has made him more of a public persona, it’s in the kitchen where he’s most comfortable. It’s where he plies his craft with incomparable skill and dedication.

My friend Carlos once described Dennis as “a five-star chef in a one-star kitchen.” That’s an apt description for how Dennis has been able to coax incredible flavors at Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s), a timeworn, ramshackle eatery with no freezer, oven or even burners. Not surprisingly, “five-star chef” was also the term used by Cecilia Schmider in describing her partner in Maya, the downtown venture that promises to blow the lid off the Duke City dining scene. If you loved Dennis’s culinary skills at Eli’s Place, you’ll be blown away by what he’s doing in the more expansive digs at Maya.

Salsa and Chips with a Side of Guacamole

Cecilia explained that the name Maya was inspired by the bright, vibrant cuisine prepared by the dynastic Mesoamerican civilization and their descendants. Bright, vibrant and colorful are apropos terms for Maya, but so are inviting and homey. While Dennis conceptualized the menu—a fusion of New Mexican, Mexican and neo Latin cuisine–Cecilia took the reins in designing the 1,500 square-foot milieu. The restaurant environs are a perfect home for Dennis’s inspired cuisine. Surprisingly, this is Cecilia’s inaugural foray into the restaurant world, having previously worked in retail jewelry and before that as a speech pathologist.

Maya is situated on the first floor of the commodious Imperial Building on Second and Silver. You might recognize the mixed-use Imperial Building as the home of the Silver Street Market, Downtown Albuquerque’s only grocery store. Immediately next door and in partnership with Maya is The Monk’s Corner which features libations brewed at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu. A reciprocal arrangement between The Monk’s Corner and Maya means guests of either may partake of both—Maya’s diners can enjoy their cuisine with libations from The Monk’s Corner and vice-versa.

Burrito Ahogado

Maya’s menu is hung on framed slate boards on the wall behind the counter where you place your order. It’s an uncomplicated menu devoid of the overly descriptive ingredient lists which seem to characterize contemporary menus. Weekly specials for each day of the week are listed first then appetizers. On the second slate board you’ll find ensaladas, a section called “Nuevo Mexico” which showcases culinary fare from the Land of Enchantment (prepared in the inimitable Dennis Apodaca manner, of course) and finally sides such as papas, fries and slaw. Tortas with salsa headlines the third slate board along with tacos. Three smaller slate boards are dedicated to desserts, “to warm you up,” and specials. It’s not a huge menu, but you’ll have a hard time deciding just which of the beguiling dishes to order.

2 January 2017: Long-timers among us fondly remember Dennis’s stint as chef at the long defunct Fajitaville where he got us addicted to chips and salsa so unlike those offered by New Mexican restaurants. He’s still at it. Chips and salsa are always a good bet at one of his restaurants, but you’ll want to make it a threesome with guacamole. One of the salsas is akin to a pico de gallo with fresh, chopped tomatoes, red onions and jalapeno. The other is a smoky fire-roasted salsa with a terrific flavor. Neither is especially piquant, but both are addictive. The guacamole is thick, creamy and redolent with the freshness of avocados in-season.

Guajillo-Pecan Mole Chilaquiles

2 January 2017: As we mulled what entrees to order (knowing they would all be fabulous), we asked Dennis for advice. He recommended either of the specials. Both sounded so good we couldn’t select just one. First to hit our table was a Burrito Ahogado which translates to smothered or drowned burrito. It’s unlike any burrito we’ve had at any of Dennis’s other restaurants. Though vegetarian, it’s a burrito carnivores will love, too. The burrito is engorged with collard greens and corn swimming in a spicy tomato broth with a garnish of pickled carrots and red onions and a sprinkling of cobija cheese. My Kim, who’s never been a fan of collard greens, absolutely loved these. The spicy tomato broth will tantalize your taste buds with a pleasant piquancy and nice acidity. This is one special which should be on the daily menu.

2 January 2017: Of course that could be said about the other daily special, Guajillo-Pecan Mole Chilaquiles. When Dennis makes mole, you’re well advised to order it. His mole has a profound earthiness and a discernible depth of complex flavors working together very harmoniously. The use of guajillo bespeaks of the authenticity he pursues in his cooking. Guajillo, the dried form of the mirasol chile, is a mild, slightly sweet chile with notes of berries and tea. It’s an excellent basis for mole with which he covers tortilla chips. As you enjoy the mole, you’ll find it’s been garnished with finely chopped pineapple, cobija cheese, shaved radishes and more, all of which combine to give you different flavor profiles in every bite. This mole dish is served with papitas and the best refried black beans we’ve had. This is a mole worthy of Oaxaca.

Duck Cubano

2 January 2017: While there isn’t a protein Dennis can’t make interpret into its self-actualized best, one of his favorites has long been duck. Duck enchiladas, you might recall, is one of the dishes with which he wowed Food Network glitterati Guy Fierri. When my Kim saw Duck Cubano on the Tortas menu, she couldn’t wait to see what delicious liberties Dennis would take with the traditional Cuban sandwich. True to form, the pressed sandwich was stuffed with roast beef, ham and cheese but it also had bacon and instead of yellow mustard, it was constructed with pickled mustard seeds and spicy mayo. To say it’s one of the tastiest Cubanos we’ve ever had is an understatement. There’s deliciousness in every morsel.  The duck is plentiful, rich and delicious with nary a hint of sinew or excess fat. The Cubano is served with a side of housemade chips and a tangy tomatillo-avocado dressing. 

5 January 2017:  A former Intel colleague from Las Cruces used to chide me about being a “Norteño,” a term she used to label Hispanics who grew up in Albuquerque or north thereof.   She insisted that other than me (and she thought me weird), she’d never met a Norteño who liked mole, perhaps the most Mexican of all dishes.  While it’s true that very few Norteños grew up eating mole, Mexico’s legendary multi-ingredient sauce with its nuanced complexity and deep flavor profile, I was sure her contention was ill-founded and absolutely fallacious.  Unfortunately aside from myself, I couldn’t think of a single born-and-bred Norteño who enjoyed mole.  To this day, only a handful of my Norteño friends, all of whom have red and green chile running in their veins, admit to enjoying mole.

Kale & Collard Greens Enchiladas

While not a Norteño by ethnicity, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott grew up in the Duke City where he was weaned on red and green chile, attended Albuquerque High and counts several Norteños among his many friends.  Although I knew he didn’t like mole, I thought surely he’d like Dennis’s mole.  Alas, he’s more Norteño than I’d thought (an maybe I’m just a little bit weird).  To his credit, he did sample a forkful of the special of the day, kale and collard greens with guajillo chile mole, and didn’t spit it outt or disparage my taste buds (which are besotted with the guajillo chile mole which manages to make even kale (never did jump on that kale bandwagon) palatable). 

5 January 2017:  Ryan did like the Caramelized Onion and Poblano Raja Queso, another special of the day.   This is a wonderful departure from the de rigueur con queso served in many New Mexican restaurants.  It has a perfect degree of meltedness.  It scoops easily and there are no foot-long cheese strings to get passed before you can eat it.  The chips are thick, crispy and have a just-right amount of salt.  This would make an excellent party dip.

Fried Snapper and Fried Broccoli on Sweet Corn Rice with Mole

7 September 2017:  The genius of Dennis Apodaca is such that he can coax deliciousness out of ingredient combinations perhaps no one else would consider.  Inventiveness has always been one of the many traits he’s always exemplified.  So, when you see something on the Maya menu that doesn’t immediately whet your appetite, try it anyway.  You might happen upon a surprisingly wonderful hodgepodge of ingredients that work very well together.  Such was the case when my friend Bill Resnik and I enjoyed yet another Apodaca original: fried snapper and fried broccoli on sweet corn rice with mole lightly sprinkled with cotija cheese.  Though my preference would be for enough of Dennis’s mole in which to to swim, he served just enough of the enchanting elixir to allow the other ingredients to display their own deliciousness.  The fried snapper and fried broccoli are coated in a light batter and are perfectly prepared, the broccoli a crisp al dente.  The sweet corn rice would be a star on its own.

7 September 2017:  When two fellow gastronomes whose opinions on food I trus, st explicitly rave about Maya’s Wagyu beef green chili (SIC) cheeseburger, the question isn’t “when are you going to try it?,” but “why haven’t you tried it already?”  First, the sage epicure Sarita listed it as one of the best dishes she enjoyed in 2016.  Then Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, ranked it sixth best among New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburgers.  In all honesty, wagyu beef burgers have never done much for me, but that’s probably because it takes a chef of Dennis’s caliber to coax optimum deliciousness out of the mouth-coating unctuousness and nearly obscene richness of this beef.  Prepared to your exacting degree of doneness and served virtually naked save for white Cheddar and green chile, this is a magnificent burger which emphasizes all the delicious qualities of beef paired with a flavorful (but not piquant) chile.  There’s no mustard, tomatoes, onions or other miscellany to impede your enjoyment.  If you love beef, you’ll love this burger.

Wagyu Beef Green Chili (SIC) Cheeseburger

2 January 2017: There are only four desserts on the menu, all of which would tempt Job. My Kim, who’s got the sweet tooth in the family (which stands to reason considering she’s so much sweeter than me) wanted the cinnamon doughnuts which are served with a chocolate ganache and a crushed cherry compote. Because the ganache wasn’t ready, we were given cajeta (sweetened caramelized goat’s milk caramel) instead. What a great stroke of fortune! The cajeta proved magnificent, absolutely delicious with the slight sour component found in goat’s milk complementing the sweetness of the caramel. The cherry compote provided a tangy component which cut the sweetness of the doughnuts. In all, this is an excellent dessert. 

5 January 2017:  Maya is open seven days a week.  From Monday through Saturday doors open at 11AM and close at 10PM.  Featured fare on Sundays (10AM – 2PM) is brunch, long a staple of Eli’s Place…and if you’ve frequented Dennis’s flagship restaurant, your mouth is probably salivating at the prospect of pancakes.  No one in New Mexico makes pancakes quite as good as Dennis’s masterpiece orbs.  Whether it’s blue corn, lemon-ricotta or pumpkin, he’s a true griddle master.  It surprised me to hear that in the three months Maya has been open, only a couple orders of pancakes have sold.  Dennis will soon be introducing Dutch Boy-style pancakes (though they’ll have a more apropos name).  The sample he gave us was terrific with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar and a tangy cherry compote on top.

Cinnamon Doughnut with Cherry and Cajeta

Our inaugural visit transpired on a national holiday when only one other couple was at the restaurant at the time. As they walked out, Gil and Julia Clarke introduced themselves, indicating they are long-time readers of Gil’s Thrilling… They were as nice as could be. Gil kidded that one of the drawbacks of me getting to be well known is having to eat cold food. Meeting readers has always been a huge—and humbling—privilege for me. It is a thrill to hear from you—whether it be in public at a restaurant or through your comments on this blog.

The next time you visit Maya, check Dennis’s whites for the chef’s badge of honor and relish the opportunity to enjoy the magic and creativity of one of New Mexico’s very best hands-on chefs. Maya is a find!

Maya
205 Silver, S.W., Unit F
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 938-6292
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2017
1st VISIT: 2 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Guajillo-Pecan Mole Chilaquiles, Cinnamon Doughnuts, Chips and Salsa, Guacamole, Duck Cubano Torta, Burrito Ahogado,  Caramelized Onion and Poblano Raja Queso, Kale & Collard Greens Enchiladas, Wagyu Green Chili Cheeseburger

Maya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Malagueña’s Latin Tapas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Malagueña’s Latin Tapas, Five-Star Dining From a Mobile Food Kitchen

Not long after Superbowl XL’s halftime show began, a veil of theatrical smoke enveloped the stage, dissipating slowly to reveal the legendary featured performers, the immortal Rolling Stones.    First the camera panned to a gyrating Mick Jagger who got the frenzied crowd rollicking with Start Me Up. When the camera focused on Keith Richards, my sister-in-law asked when the Cryptkeeper (from the 1990s horror anthology television series Tales From The Crypt) joined the Stones.  We spent the halftime show joking at the expense of the then-63-year-old rocker who looked much older thanks to a life of debauchery.

When the last commercial began before the game resumed, I reminded our guests that despite looking like a decrepit old duffer, Keith Richards was considered one of the best guitar players in the world (in 2015, Rolling Stone named him the fourth greatest guitarist in history.)  That didn’t impress them as much as watching a video afterwards of Richards playing Malagueña, a classical Spanish Guitar composition that evokes the spirit of Spain.   Malagueña, a composition which requires exceptional deftness and skill, was actually the very first song Richards learned.   No one in our party joked about Granny Clampett playing the banjo.

Molly and Javier Montaño

For Chef Javier Montaño, an Albuquerque native and (like me) a scion of Galicia in Spain, Malagueña resonates deeply.  When he and his beauteous bride Molly relocated from San Francisco to the Duke City, it made sense that their restaurant venture would be named for the profoundly soulful song which captures the essence of Spain so well. While well cognizant of the barbarous atrocities perpetrated throughout the Americas by Spanish conquistadores, Javier’s focus is on the positive cultural and culinary aspects of the Spanish influence.  Promising a fresh twist on Spanish and Latin American Cuisine, the Montaños are taking traditional ingredients from throughout Latin America and interpreting them in delicious ways.  After our inaugural sampling of Malagueña’s fare, my Kim called it “five-star food from a food truck.”

Yes, some of the very best Latin American cuisine in the Duke City exists not in a brick and mortar operation, but in a mobile food kitchen.  With thirty years experience as a chef, Javier well knows that the three keys to success as a brick and mortar restaurant are location, location and location.  A brick and mortar might come later.  For now, the Montaños are having a blast meeting and interacting with very savvy and receptive diners.  They’ve now had their mobile food kitchen for three months (as of July, 2017), but have enjoyed a promising start.  

Chef Montaño Shows Off Beautifully Marbled Wagyu Beef from Lone Mountain Wagyu in Golden, New Mexico

Before moving to San Francisco, Javier plied his chef skills at some of New Mexico’s most highly acclaimed restaurants including Scalo in Albuquerque and the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe.  In the City by the Bay, he served as chef at Fog City and at Guckenheimer, a corporate food service provider.  Also in San Francisco he met and married Molly who worked at the time as a gourmet food representative.  Their passion for food is obvious.  Speak with them for just a while and you’ll come away impressed with their commitment to creating a harmonious interplay from the premium ingredients they use.

Take, for example, their use of beautifully marbled wagyu beef from Lone Mountain Wagyu in Golden, New Mexico.  Wagyu beef is beef self-actualized, as good as it can be.  It’s luxurious, buttery and high in saturated fats (which, contrary to some nutrition know-it-alls tell us has many health benefits).  Wagyu is regarded as some of the best beef in the world.  Beef this exclusive and premium shouldn’t be prepared on just any old grill.  Javier worked with an Argentine friend (and few people know beef as well as Argentines do) to construct an Argentinian-style pit for grilling meats low and slow in a shallow pile of glowing coals.

Surf & Turf Special

The results are some of the most unctuous, tender, rich and absolutely delicious beef we’ve had in quite a while.  Three thinly sliced seared strips of wagyu prepared at medium-rare graced the surf and turf special of the day that also included chimichurri, a spicy shrimp skewer on roasted Spanish potatoes with an aji amarillo aioli.  A surf and turf special of this caliber is usually served with cloth napkins and silverware, not on a paper food tray.  The three shrimp on a wooden skewer are fresh and firm with a characteristic snap when you bite into them.  They’re lightly dusted with a spice mix that gives them a lively flavor profile that complements a grilled flavor.  The roasted Spanish potatoes are sliced into small cubes and have sweet-savory notes that go so well with the aji amarillo aioli. 

Amarillo aji, a ubiquitous fixture in Peruvian cuisine, also plays a prominent part in another fabulous entree–the ceviche mixto.  Ceviche is the national dish of Peru and the coastal nation’s most popular dish: fresh, raw, white fish cut into smaller than bite-size cubes, marinated and “cooked” in lime juice and seasoned with Peruvian chili peppers (often aji), onions and salt.  There are literally hundreds of variations of Peruvian ceviche.  Malagueña’s version includes not only the fish of the day, but calimari and chicharrones as well as ginger, garlic and pepitas.  The aji amarillo, a thick-fleshed chile with a medium to hot heat level works very well with the lime and ginger to imprint the sensation of invigorating freshness in your mouth.  You haven’t had ceviche until you’ve enjoyed a Peruvian version of this manna from the sea.  Malagueña’s version would make a Peruvian swoon.

Ceviche Mixto

When my Kim ordered Malagueña’s lomo burrito, my first inclination was to dismiss it as just another boring burrito, the same as so many others.  Even after Javier cut it in half to reveal edible art reminiscent of a beautiful stained glass window, I remained a cynical skeptic.  Then my Kim slid a heaping forkful into my mouth.  The lomo burrito (marinated beef with chopped red onions, fries, tomatoes, rice, lettuce, sour cream and rocoto chile sauce wrapped in a thin flour tortilla) may be the very best burrito we’ve had in three years or longer.  Rocoto is one of Peru’s most piquant chiles, an incendiary pepper that’ll set your mouth on fire if you eat it straight off the plant.  Javier tames the chile in sauce form so that its emphasis isn’t solely heat, but the sweet-fruity notes that really define this pepper. The rocoto sauce allows the lomo (the Spanish term for loin) to shine. It’s tender and delicious with a magical marinade that compliments its beefy flavor.

After polishing off our entrees and being fully sated, you’d think we could walk away contented, but we wanted to have even more of the explosions of flavors that characterized our inaugural visit to Malagueña’s.  Our solution: take home two Choripan (Argentinian spicy sausage sandwich with chimichuri and salsa fresca on a toasted bun).  Choripan is in Argentina what the hot dog is in the United States, perhaps the ultimate street food.  Choripan is obviously a portmanteau from the words chorizo, a sausage, and pan, meaning bread.  Take my word for it, Malagueña’s choripan is better than about one-hundred-percent of the hot dogs you’ll find in the Duke City.  It’s better than a Wisconsin brats, too.  Wow, is this an excellent sandwich.

Lomo Burrito

As might be expected from a mobile food kitchen, Malagueña’s menu is on the small side, listing fewer than a dozen items.  If our initial visit is any indication, you’ll want to try them all.  Aside from the items so inadequately described above, the menu on the date of our visit listed chicken pintxos (sherry, garlic chicken skewers), salt and vinegar fries, papas bravas (seasoned crispy fries with smoked tomato aioli), a spring salad (greens, nectarines, feta, almonds and mint in a charred lime vinaigrette) and a coconut pudding (with coconut, peanuts and sesame).  Javier apprised us that he and Molly plan to change up the menu frequently to keep things lively and fresh.  Lively, fresh, delicious…these are the hallmarks of Malagueña.

When he’s not prepping for his busy days on Malagueña, Javier teaches students knife skills and how to prepare everyday foods at New Day Youth & Family Services’ Gourmet Grub, a cooking class with the goal of helping Albuquerque’s at-risk youth stay off the streets and gain valuable experience in the food service industry for their future. In this capacity, he works closely with his brother Sean, part owner and general manager of Monroe’s, one of Albuquerque’s most popular New Mexican restaurants.

Choripan, an Argentinian Sausage Sandwich

My Kim may have said it best: “Malagueña offers five-star cuisine in a food truck.”  It may be…make that it is the best mobile food kitchen we’ve experienced in the Duke City.  Javier and Molly are taking Latin American cuisine to new heights.  If you hear of them rolling down your neighborhood, run, don’t walk to this wonderful addition to the Duke City culinary scene.

Malagueña’s Latin Tapas
(Location Varies)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(415) 342-1461
Web Site | Facebook Page | Instagram
LATEST VISIT: 8 July 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lomo Burrito, Ceviche Mixto, Choripan, Special Surf & Turf

Malagueña Latin Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Poki Poki Cevicheria – Albuquerque, New. Mexico

Poki Poki Cevicheria on Central Avenue in the UNM area

Having settled comfortably into middle age, my favorite participatory sports of basketball and tennis have been replaced by more sedentary, safe and slothful pursuits.  Instead of getting my shot rejected almost as often as the cheerleaders in Peñasco spurned my offers of a burger at Victor’s Drive-in, I now delight in catching every grammatical faux pas, malapropism and inaccuracy uttered by the media–not a difficult challenge since the legendary and near infallible anchor Dick Knipfing retired.  

Instead of double-faulting on my serve eighteen times in a row, it’s answering questions which stump Jeopardy contestants that now gets my adrenaline pumping.  Alas, as a fogey who believes music died in the 70s and could not care less about Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling but count among my closest friends, the Albuquerque Adonis, Ryan “Break the Chain”  Scott, pop culture questions are my downfall. Case in point, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” was my answer to a recent question about a video game franchise from Japan.  The correct answer, of course, was Pokemon.  Pokemon?  I could have answered nearly all there is to know about Poke, the Hawaiian culinary craze that’s sweeping the mainland, but had absolutely no clue about this Pokemon creature.

Place your order and in a few minutes, your Poke adventure begins

Now let me tell you about Poke. Poke (sometimes spelled “poki” and always pronounced poh-kay) refers to a “chunked” marinated or seasoned raw fish dish that’s been served primarily as an appetizer in Hawaii for centuries. In fact, the Hawaiian term “poke” simply means to “chunk” or to “cut crosswise into pieces,” both aptly descriptive terms for the salad-like preparation of seafood that has been cut into small chunks and marinated. Largely influenced by Asian flavors and ingredients, poke can be–and is–made with almost any type of seafood and topped with a vast array of garnishes and sauces. As with sushi, the chef’s imagination often determines the composition and diversity of poke.

In Hawaii, poke is a ubiquitous comfort food, served in venues ranging from surf shacks to gourmet restaurants. The advent of poke’s popularity across the fruited plain can be attributed to our shrinking world and the popularity of Hawaii as a travel (and increasingly, a dining) destination. It’s only natural that enterprising chefs who fall in love with poke during forays to the island paradise would want to share this pescetarian phenomenon with their own customers. It may be an overstatement to say these chefs have reshaped the American mainland’s culinary culture, but it’s safe to say they may have introduced its most exciting new food trend in recent memory. Sushi hotbeds such as Los Angeles and San Francisco were among the first to embrace poke, but even landlocked destinations in the heartlands now boast of poke restaurants.

Spicy Bowl

In a recent discussion about food trends, my friend David, an accomplished chef and barista, lamented how often the Duke City is slow to embrace culinary trends that have captured seemingly every other major metropolitan market. He’s very happy to hear Albuquerque isn’t late to the poke party. On May 18th, Burque celebrated the official grand opening of Poki Poki Cevicheria, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant specializing in Hawaiian poke bowls with Latin flair and influence. Poki Poki is a family owned enterprise which allows intrepid diners to assemble their own poke bowls in a fashion similar to Chipotle’s assembly line process. Poki Poki Cevicheria is located on Central Avenue in the Brickyard District just across the street from the University of New Mexico.

If you’re a true foodie, two items on the preceding paragraph probably caught your eye. The first is the inclusion of the term “Cevicheria” on the restaurant’s name. The second is the term “Asian-Latin” fusion. Poki Poki actually takes a creative departure from the standard poke restaurant template by incorporating “Latin” ingredients and flavors with ingredients and flavors rooted in Hawaii. In Albuquerque, when Latin flavors are discussed, it’s often hand-in-hand with the name Elvis Bencomo, the brilliant chef-owner of Passion Latin Fusion. Elvis collaborated on the development of the restaurant’s sauces and chips (more on them later).

Hawaiian Bowl

Though not a true “cevicheria” as you might find throughout Latin America, Poki Poki, it can be said, is a sushi-meets-ceviche-meets-donburi (Japanese rice bowl dish) restaurant, the first, best and only of its kind in Albuquerque. It was difficult to contain my excitement when introducing my friends Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell to Poki Poki. Larry, the professor with the perspicacious palate, told me he’d “been looking for a restaurant like this for a long time.” Deanell,a culinary bon-vivant who’s probably smarter than Larry and I combined, marveled at how the flavors just popped.

The build-your-own poke bowl concept has five distinct steps: (1) select your bowl (regular, large or unlimited and base (white rice, salad or chips); (2) Go fishing. Choose from albacore tuna, ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon or octopus. A regular bowl rewards you with three ounces of your choice, a large bowl with five ounces and an unlimited bowl with seven ounces. (3) Sauce it up. Choose from the house sauce, roasted jalapeno, passion fruit, red pepper, poki sauce, tosa-mi or fusion mayo. Heat ratings for the sauces range from mild to hot. (4) Toppings. With a regular bowl, you can select three toppings; with a large bowl, it’s five toppings and with an unlimited bowl, you can top the bowl until it’s full. (5) Finish it! Elevate its deliciousness with chipotle mayo, spicy mayo, teriyaki sauce, chimichurri or Sriracha.

Latin Bowl

15 May 2016: Unless or until you understand the flavors resultant from combining ingredients and sauces, you’re probably better off ordering one of Poki Poki’s “Special Bowls,” composed poke bowls ostensibly constructed by restaurant staffers after much delicious trial and effort.  Knowing my own gluttonous tendency to overstuff  salads with favorite ingredients, often to the detriment of flavor optimization, I opted for the Spicy Bowl during my inaugural visit.  With a base that’s half rice and half garlic chips;  spicy tuna and salmon; passion fruit; crab, avocado, cucumber, jalapeño, lime, green onion, pico de gallo and furikake (a Japanese seasoning) as toppings with chipotle mayo and Sriracha for sauces, this “better than any sushi roll” poke is an adventure in complementary flavors and textures, an addictively delicious bowl of stuff you probably never thought would be so good together.  The fresh, invigorating flavors will imprint themselves on your taste buds and for a while, all you’ll be able to think about is your next poke bowl.

17 May 2016: That next poke bowl transpired two days after my inaugural visit with the Hawaiian Bowl gracing my table.  This beauteous, bounteous bowl with a salad base; salmon, albacore and octopus; fusion mayo; a boatload of toppings (crab, avocado, seaweed salad, cucumber, pineapple, mango salsa, edamame, masago, ginger, sesame seeds and furikaki) and a teriyaki sauce is the antithesis of the Spicy Bowl.  Sweet notes are the prominent flavor profile though the sweetness of the teriyaki and the fructose tanginess of the mango salsa and pineapple are tempered by savory ingredients.  Because New Mexicans like their heat, ask the accommodating staff for some spicy mayo to give this bowl a hint of piquancy that marries well with other flavors. 

A Build-Your-Own Masterpiece

19 May 2016: The promised fusion qualities are best experienced in the Latin Bowl (white rice, octopus and albacore tuna, roasted jalapeño and red pepper sauce, avocado, jalapeño, plantain chips, lime, pico de gallo, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds with a chimichurri dressing).  All too often in New Mexico, Latin fusion means an insistence in using New Mexican green chile.  Wonderful as it is, green chile isn’t missed on the Latin Bowl which has plenty of other delicious heat generating ingredients.   With lime slices, you’re free to impart citrusy flavors to the albacore and octopus a la ceviche mixto, the popular Mexican restaurant offering.  The plantain chips as with the restaurant’s yam chips and garlic chips provide a textural contrast and delightful flavor complement to other ingredients.

29 July 2016: Since introducing my friend Bill Resnik to Poki Poki, it’s become a regular lunch destination for him.  He long ago graduated from ordering the prefab bowls and has been masterfully concocting his own creations.  A mathematician who graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology, Bill has an engineer’s mind with a mad scientist’s whimsy.  To see him point out ingredient combinations is to watch mad science or abstract art in action.  It’s not just “give me some of this and some of that.”  In his mind’s eye, he can actually taste what the intricate flavor combinations will be.  That’s why when we celebrated his birthday at Poki Poki, my instructions to our server were “just give me exactly what he’s having.”   Essentially, it was a melange of vegetables, seafood and sauces in complementary proportion to each other.  Alas, I probably wouldn’t be able to duplicate his masterpiece precisely, but should be able to create deliciousness on my own.  So can you!

The Poki Poki Cevicheria is so good, so radically different, so welcome that you just may do the Hokey Poki dance to celebrate finishing your first poke bowl even as you anxiously await your next.

Poki Poki Cevicheria
2300B Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1077
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 15 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Bowl, Hawaiian Bowl, Latin Bowl, Make-Your-Own Bowl

Poki Poki Cevicheria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pasion Latin Fusion – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
Tammy Mollai

Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show has some nerve!  In an episode which first aired in March, 2014, the tough-talking British mesomorph had the audacity to tell America that Pasion Latin Fusion wasn’t the beautiful, graceful swan with which many of us had fallen in love.  Although he didn’t directly call Pasion an ugly duckling paddling about aimlessly, Irvine certainly intimated that things at Pasion weren’t as rosy as some of us may have thought. 

The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  If you’ve ever been to Pasion Latin Fusion, words like failure, dysfunction and drama won’t ever come to mind.  Since its launch in 2011, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, much moreso than reviews for other “failing” restaurants featured on Restaurant: Impossible.

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible show

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show

While the Food Network’s preview synopsized the issues at Pasion as “tension between Monica and their main investor, Elvis’s brother, and a menu that’s leaving customers confused and frustrated,” the most obvious revelation when the episode aired is that Elvis, Monica and Orlando Bencomo are extremely likeable and extraordinarily passionate about their restaurant.  If the Food Network came to Pasion expecting the dysfunction and drama of a soap opera, they instead got a true feel good story accentuating the love of a beautiful family. 

Robert Irvine’s renovation of Pasion was much more than cosmetic though that’s what visitors will notice first.  The interior has been wholly transformed from a milieu of dark jumbled gracelessness into a bright, airy and intimate two-level dining room.  The menu has also been revamped, both in content and in style.  All menu items are now clearly described so there’s no room for confusion.  Some fourteen items make up the “Latin tapas” section of the menu with another five entrees on the “Platos Principales (main courses) menu, but they’re so varied and good you won’t need more.

The Redesigned Interior of Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine

Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of  Elvis  and Monica Bencomo, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors.  The third in the family triumvirate who own and operate Pasion is Orlando Bencomo, Elvis’s brother and main investor in the restaurant.  Orlando, a veteran of Afghanistan, runs the front of the house.  If the Food Network exposure gave any of them a big head, you certainly can’t tell.

Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina.  Get the picture?

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna | Coconut | Habanero | Passion Fruit Sorbet

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna

Monica, the statuesque occasional hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago, but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Together Monica and Elvis have not only made beautiful food together, they actually enjoyed working together when Monica ran the front of the house. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain especially now that Pasion has been renovated.  It is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. A sole fireplace suspended from the ceiling is both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening.  Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.

The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items have combined those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.

Duck Taquitos Green and Yellow Chile | Pickled Vegetables | Mexican Cotija Cheese

Duck Taquitos

Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.

29 March 2014: Latino tapas are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You can make a meal out of the tapas.  Three per person is what our server advised, but he probably based that on my “svelte” physique.  One of those tapas (if it’s on the menu) should be the pasion fruit salsa with chips.  In New Mexico, chips and salsa are pretty de rigueur, so much so that it’s a rare salsa which can distinguish itself.  The pasion fruit salsa is unique, a combination of piquancy, tropical fragrance and tanginess.  It’s a welcome respite from the usual with chips.  Now, if you like your salsa to provide the flavor element of pain, this salsa won’t do it, but it does pack enough heat to titillate your tongue.

Carnitas Tacos

29 March 2014: Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Fire and Ice, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero-coconut sauce and passion fruit sorbet served with tortilla chips.  The habanero-coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut.  The passion fruit sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche.  Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients.  This is genius!

29 March 2014: In the 1980s, restaurants such as Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the West Beach Cafe in Venice, California started a trend still going strong today when they introduced duck tacos.  Being a trend doesn’t equate to being good, however.   Unlike so many others, the duck taquitos at Pasion are worth the build-up and hype.  They’re, in fact, sensational!  There’s only one thing wrong with the three rolled taquitos engorged with pickled vegetables and slow-simmered duck meat seasoned with Caribbean spices topped with yellow and green chile sprinkled with Mexican Cojita cheese.  If there are two of you, splitting that third taqito could end up in the type of drama the Food Network would appreciate.

Caribbean Chicken Adobo

29 March 2014: Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Quesadilla Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches.  Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé  as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based.  At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a hybrid corn-flour tortilla.  Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.” 

22 October 2015: For many New Mexicans the term “chicharron” conjures images of deep-fried cubes of crispy pork cracklings.  We enjoy them in much the way other people eat popcorn.  In parts of Texas and Mexico, chicharrones are more akin to menudo or strips of wiggly, squiggly pork tripe.  Only in Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas had we previously seen chicharrones fashioned from seafood (mariscos).  Leave it to Elvis to introduce Albuquerque to this uniquely delicious entree.  The combination of crispy mixed seafood (African white fish and calamari), pickled vegetables and small mango cubes is a winner, elevated to rarefied air with a habanero tartar sauce so good and so bold and assertive, you may just ask for a second ramekin.

Chicharron de Mariscos

16 July 2016: Absent from the revamped menu are several favorites, but my sense of loss is mitigated by the addition of Caribbean Chicken, among the very best I’ve ever had.  Caribbean chicken isn’t synonymous with jerk chicken.  In fact, Pasion’s Caribbean chicken doesn’t have a piquant punch.  Its flavor profile is derived from non-jerk Caribbean adobo spices and from having been wrapped and roasted in banana leaves which seal in freshness and flavor.  This is outrageously good chicken–two thighs and two legs.  The chicken is served with a white rice and mashed ripe plantain mound, a surprisingly good combination.

16 July 2016: The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet, savory and sour goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.

Pastel de Queso: Goat Cheese Style Cheesecake Drizzled with Mango Caramel

16 July 2016: The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, ranking number ten on Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten best bread puddings in New Mexico. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding though a scoop of vanilla ice cream may help quell the heat for visitors who may not be used to it.

29 March 2014: Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is the Pasion Platano Cake, a banana custard cake topped with passion fruit mousse.  It’s rich, sweet and tangy in every bite.  The lip-pursing tartness isn’t quite lemon-like, but it’ll excite your mouth more than a handful of pop rocks.  Notes of cinnamon and vanilla occasionally sneak the tanginess of the passion fruit and the gentle sweetness of the banana.  If it sounds as if there’s a lot going on in this dessert, that’s because there is.  There’s a taste adventure in every bite.  

Aztec Bread Pudding Con Cajeta with a hint of Red Chile and a Milk Caramel Sauce

Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion.  That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and  unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years.  It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine. 

Note:  Because Pasion Fusion Restaurant changes its menu with some regularity, some of the items described on this review may not be available when you visit.  No matter what’s on the menu, if Elvis is in the building, your meal will be great.

Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2016
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa, Chicharron De Mariscos

Pasión Latin Fusion Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Guava Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Guava Tree Cafe on Richmond in the Nob Hill District

A few years ago, my friend Bill Hanson, a gastronome of the first order, was hosting several of his Costa Rican employees  at Intel’s Ocotillo (Arizona) plant.  Like me, Bill delights in introducing his friends to new culinary adventures.  Unfortunately, not all our colleagues were similarly inclined (despite one of Intel’s corporate values being “risk-taking”).  One of them convinced the “Ticos” that the restaurant they should not miss for a “true American dining experience” was Claim Jumper, a regional chain (and slight upgrade from Chili’s).

Ever the gracious host, Bill acquiesced to the Ticos’ request.  I’ll let him describe the rest (from his gastronomic blog The Tao of Chow): “As each dish was produced and delivered to the table I sank further into my chair as the American decadence of over indulging was displayed in glorious Sysco provided plates heaping with food. Each dish could have easily have served three people as I sat and wondered how much food was actually consumed versus how much went into the dumpsters out back.”

Two hungry patrons waiting to order

If the Ticos were disappointed in any way with the cavalcade of calorie-laden comestibles brought to the table, you’d never know it.  To break bread (or arepas) with a Tico is to experience Pura Vida, the vibrant joie de vivre that is not only the national phrase of Costa Rica, it’s the national attitude.  Pura Vida translates literally to “pure life,” but the actual meaning is more akin to “life is good!”  Ticos live life the way they eat–to the fullest.

Pura vida is the attitude Diego and Mari Barbosa have infused into the Guava Tree Cafe, a Latin American restaurant on Richmond Drive just south of Central Avenue in the Nob Hill district.  Though neither are from Costa Rica (Diego is from Colombia and Mari is from El Salvador), they met in and lived in the scintillating Central American tropical paradise for eight years. Their philosophy is that “food is art and food is life.”   Their vision is for the Cafe to be a neighborhood gathering space in which their guests can enjoy each others’ company in the spirit of pura vida while enjoying slow-cooked home-style food, the best kind.  They invite guests to make this space their own and promise to have something good to eat whenever you visit.

Left: Orange Juice-Mango-Milk; Right: Orange Juice-Passion Fruit-Milk

The Guava Tree Cafe opened in November, 2010 in a converted old home on Yale Boulevard before moving five years later to its current location in a more heavily-trafficked area.    Though situated in a larger two-story edifice, the Cafe seems even more crowded.  You may find yourself paraphrasing the old western cliche “this hallway’s not big enough for the two of us” as you make your way to the counter at which you place your order.  It’s not uncommon for the queue to start just outside the restaurant and end at that counter.

The dining area consists of only a few tables in personal space proximity to one another.    Lively Latin music plays in the background, not too loud for conversation and not loud enough for dancing should the spirit of pura vida overcome you.  Once you place your order, expect a bit of a wait.  The Guava Tree prepares food to order.  You won’t find food sitting under a heat lamp here!  All these factors were considered in MSN’s decision to name The Guava Tree one of the 50 best restaurants in America list.  In naming Guava Tree as the 31st best restaurant in the fruited plain, MSN indicated “this little restaurant has great Caribbean and Latin American-inspired food. With many Cuban type sandwiches and avocados in most of their food, this place definitely has the delicious lunch thing down.” 

Cubano: House‐roasted pork,sweet ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard,warm‐pressed on 8.5"Cuban bread

Cubano

In January, 2015, the Movoto Blog, a blog celebrating the lighter side of real estate, did a seriously great job of naming “15 New Mexico Restaurants Which Will Blow Your Taste Buds Out Of Your Mouth.”   According to Movoto “You’ll never find a better balance of Caribbean spices in New Mexico then you will at Guava Tree Café.  With cuisine heavily influenced by Latin America and island life, menu items like the stuffed arepas and the Cuban sandwich will leave you craving more.  Just make sure you don’t leave without trying the yucca fries.” 

In its October, 2014 issue, Women’s Day magazine named Albuquerque as home to one of the country’s up-and-coming food scenes. Taking input from Yelp, the magazine evaluated cities with a large proportion and variety of highly rated new restaurants, delis, grocery stores and other purveyors of comestibles. The article didn’t cite the usual suspects in the pantheon of outstanding New Mexican restaurants. Instead, Women’s Day touted a “handful of new Peruvian, Costa Rican and Cuban spots” which have “reenergized local palates.” Three Duke City restaurants were singled out: Pollito Con Papas, Guava Tree Cafe and Pasion Latin Fusion.

Pernil: slow roasted Caribbean‐rubbed pork with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and home‐made garlic sauce

Pernil

1 May 2016: While you wait, you’ll want to luxuriate in a cafe con leche (Spanish for “coffee with milk”), a strong coffee mixed with scalded milk.  Sometimes called Cuban coffee, it’s the type of coffee which will envelop you warmly as you contemplate how strong coffee can be so mellow.  Usually sweetened to taste, it’s the type of coffee which goes well with Latin American cuisine and the pura vida attitude. 

14 December 2013: At the opposite end of the spectrum are the tropical fruit blends called “juice en leche” on the menu.  En leche means with milk.  The OJ & Mango and Milk, served chilled and thick but not overly sweet is one of the very best smoothie type beverages I’ve ever had. The catalyst is the sweetened condensed milk which counterbalances to the perfect extent, the citrusy flavors of the mango and orange juices. Equally good is the mango juice sans milk.

Ajiaco: Traditional chicken, corn and potato chowder,with authentic Guasca herb topped with avocado, corn on the cob and shredded chicken, and served with a side of cream and capers

Ajiaco

20 May 2011: The menu is segmented into three sections: sandwiches, arepas and tamales, and soups and salads.  Sandwiches are described as “8-inches full of flavor.”  They’re crafted on fresh bread pressed panini-style and wrapped in thin butcher paper.  The bread, a Puerto Rican bread known as “pan de agua” is baked specially for the Guava Tree Cafe by Albuquerque’s Fano Bread Company.  The specialty of the house is the Cuban Sandwich, Miami-style heaven.  It’s crafted with home-roasted pork shoulder which has been marinated for several days until “it’s all happy” (which the chef can tell by it’s singing of the “Tico Tico” in the fridge).  The pork is sliced thickly and combined with sweet or “bolo” ham, Swiss cheese and pickles on the flat, crunchy bread.

The Cuban Sandwich so enamored Larry McGoldrick that the professor with the perspicacious palate described it as “the absolute best that I have ever had anyplace in this universe or its parallels.”  That’s high praise indeed from a well-traveled bon vivant who’s not often given to hyperbole.  If anything, Larry may have undersold this Cuban Sandwich.  It is one of the very best sandwiches of any kind in the Duke City.

Guava Tree Salad: House roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions,roasted peppers black olives and queso fresco dressed with house‐made vinaigrette

Guava Tree Salad

The roast pork, in particular, is superb, more than several orders of magnitude better than the pre-sliced variety offered on many sandwiches throughout the Duke City.  The bolo ham is cured and sweet, a complete antithesis the overly-salted hams which seem to be in favor among sandwich purveyors.  The crusty exterior and soft inside texture provide a delicious home for outstanding ingredients prepared exceptionally well.  The  Cuban Sandwich is truly a little piece of Miami heaven Duke City diners will love.

20 May 2011: Vegetarians who may feel left out by the dearth of sandwiches crafted with them in mind will love the Luciano, a plancha-pressed beauty on wheat bread.  Layers of flavor is an apt description for this panini piece of art.  A generous smear of chimichirri (a flavor-packed green sauce made from finely chopped parsley, minced garlic and a host of other seasonings) starts the flavor parade which is ameliorated by grilled provolone cheese and house-roasted red peppers.

Plantains

20 May 2011: I’ve often lamented the desiccation of dishes showcasing chicken.  With few exceptions, show me a sandwich, pizza or pasta dish in which chicken is used and I’ll show you a dry and dull dish.  It’s as if some chefs are out to prove chicken is not an aquatic fowl.  Guava Tree’s El Guava Pollito sandwich proves chicken doesn’t have to be desert-dry.  The shredded chicken breast is moist and succulent, obviously the product of the chef’s attentiveness and mastery over temperature and time.  The chicken is absolutely bursting with flavor and would be good on its own, but its greatness shines when melded with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, mushrooms, greens and tomatoes.

14 December 2013:  It’s well acknowledged that a true Cubano is an ode to pernil (roast pork shoulder), and while the Cubano showcases the versatility of pernil, there are many ways to enjoy it.  The Guava Tree offers the Pernil, a panini constructed with irresistible slow-roasted Carribean-rubbed pork, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and homemade garlic sauce.  The garlic sauce is the perfect foil for the sweet caramelized onions and both pay tribute to the magnificence of the pork.  Then, of course, there’s the magical pan de agua, likely the best canvas for panini-style sandwiches in the Duke City.  If you’re tired of panini that tears up the roof of your mouth, you’ll appreciate the loving tenderness of The Guava Tree’s cloud-like panini.

Pastel Tres Leche

Tres Leches

20 May 2011: The vast diversity of the countries and cultures comprising Latin America means there are so many things to explore and learn about the cuisine.  Even among nations bordering one other, the same dishes are often prepared in vastly different but always delicious ways.  New Mexicans might be surprised at tamales the way they’re prepared throughout Latin America.  It’s not corn husks which sheath the masa-covered ingredients but banana leaves which impart a delicious herbal flavor and uncommon moistness to food prepared within them.  Within the masa of Guava Tree’s tamales are the incomparable roast pork, a vegetable medley and sweet peppers.

Among the most ubiquitous of dishes served throughout Latin America are the tasty triumvirate of black beans, rice and sweet plantains, all three of which are prepared well at the Guava Tree.  My Puerto Rican friends in the Air Force could subsist on this tasty trio, but American tastes which are more accustomed to heavily seasoned flavor profiles might not be as enamored. Perhaps that’s one reason the three are served as sides and not as main entrees. 

Pastelito de Guayaba

14 December 2013: Ajiaco, a type of Colombian soup, may be the quintessential soul-warming soup, a true exemplar of the term “comfort food.”  It’s nurturing and warm with a unique deliciousness.  The ingredients on this traditional corn and potato chowder include shredded chicken, Guasca (a herbaceous plant often called the potato weed), avocado and corn-on-the-cob served with a side of cream and capers.  This jumble of ingredients melds into an absolutely delicious concoction though New Mexicans might, like me, wonder what it would taste like with a little green chile.  The corn-on-the-cob is a wonderful surprise as is the unctuous avocado.

14 December 2013: If you’re tired of salads in which ingredients are obfuscated by strong dressings, the Guava Tree Salad is your huckleberry.  This is a salad which emphasizes its constituents with only a lightly drizzled housemade vinaigrette, not some overly sweet or tangy masking agent.  The ingredients which are allowed to shine on their own are house-roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, black olives, queso fresco and a tangle of crisp, fresh greens.  It’s a salad in which freshness stands out.  

14 December 2013: Desserts are easily a worthy equal to the savory portion of your meal.  You owe it to yourself to save room and splurge on the tres leches, prepared Costa Rican style.  Can I have a “pura vida” here?  At its essence, a tres leches cake is made from three milks: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk (or regular milk) and heavy cream, making it one of the most rich, moist and decadent desserts you can have.   The Guava Tree version is served in an aluminum foil muffin cup and is topped with a frothy whipped cream.  Below the whipped cream is pure, calorie-laden deliciousness, a tres leches cake as good as any you’ll ever have.

14 December 2013: Another must-have dessert is the Pastelillo de Guayaba, a Cuba pastry very much resembling an empanada.  Its light, flaky, multi-layered crust gives way to a wonderful mixture of guava and cream cheese.  The interplay of flavors and textures–the rich and dense cream cheese, the savory, puffy crust and the sweet tartness of the guava–is a terrific combination.  Purchase a half dozen to take home and it’s not likely they’ll make it there.  This is an addictively delicious and memorable pastry.

The Guava Tree Cafe invites you to partake of a piece of la pura vida as well as some of the most delicious sandwiches and sumptuous surprises in the Duke City. 

Guava Tree Cafe
216 Yale Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 990-2599
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 May 2016
1st VISIT: 20 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Latin Tamale, Plantains, Cuban Sandwich, El Guava Pollito, The Luciano, The Pernil, Ajiaco, Guava Tree Salad, Pastel Tres Leche, Pastelillo de Guayaba

Guava Tree Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cafe Caribe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cafe Caribe on Fourth Street Just North of Central

When you’re on one of the Caribbean islands, sometimes it’s hard to picture
how they fit in with the rest, but when you see them all joined together
like a necklace from space, you see the natural geographic connectedness of them all.
~Chris Hadfield

In virtually every sense, the Caribbean is a “melting pot.” It’s an amalgam, a hodgepodge, mishmash…a potpourri.  It’s a gallimaufry, a  confused jumble or medley of things.  It’s a blend of African, Amerindian, European, East Indian, Arab and Chinese influences.  Attitudinally, it’s  festive and vibrant, bold and beautiful, fun and exciting.  It inspires a joie de vivre.  So does the diverse and delicious cuisine prepared throughout the island nations. 

If you’re wondering how you may have missed out on such exciting culinary fare, chances are you haven’t. Every time you’ve visited one of Albuquerque’s Cuban restaurants, you’ve indulged in the cuisine of one of the many Caribbean’s island nations. You may have even visited the short-lived Jamaican restaurant that plied its wares on Central Avenue…and if you’ve ever visited the fabulous Talking Drums restaurant, you’ve experienced not only the most sumptuous African cuisine, but some of the very best food the Caribbean has to offer.

The colorful interior of Cafe Caribe

In recent years, the diversity of the island cuisine has been broached, though not featured exclusively, in such heralded eateries as the Guava Tree Cafe and Pasion Latin Fusion, both of whom were singled out by Woman’s Day Magazine for having “reenergized local palates.” The reception Duke City diners has given these Pan-Latin fusion eateries seems to indicate Albuquerque is ready for much more. We’re ready to embrace Caribbean cuisine in all its splendor.

In no way does that constitute my endorsement for the Bahama Breeze restaurant chain, an interloper now found in nearly forty cities across the fruited plain. Bahama Breeze claims to “bring you the feeling of a Caribbean escape, offering the food, drink and atmosphere you’d find in the islands.” While some members of the “chain gang” will enjoy the faux island ambiance and facsimile food, for the rest of us, er…let’s put it this way…Bahama Breeze is to Caribbean cuisine what the Outback Steakhouse is to Australian culinary fare.

Mango-Lemonade and Passion Fruit-Lemonade

With the January, 2015 launch of Café Caribe, adventurous Duke City diners need look no further than Fourth Street, just north of Central for an authentic Caribbean look and feel (not to mention taste and smell) that will transport you to the clear, azure waters of the Caribbean. Café Caribe specializes in the types of dishes you’d find in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. These dishes are all made with tradition and authenticity in mind.

At the helm is veteran chef Alejandro Arteaga whose previous restaurant stints were in Los Angeles and New York City. Over his two decades plus as a chef, Alejandro has cut a wide swath across various cuisines, ranging from Mexican to Italian, Argentinian to Spanish. He surmised that a menu of Cuban and other Latin-Caribbean specialties would go over big in Albuquerque which has a reputation as a pretty open-minded hub of culinary diversity.

Empanadas Trio

You’ll know you’re getting close to Café Caribe well before you get there. Two telltale signs serve as precursors to your visit. One is the festive, up-tempo music emanating from the restaurant’s speakers. It’s feel-good music with a beat even the rhythmically-challenged among us will enjoy. Even more inviting than the music are the evocative aromas coming from the kitchen. They may affect you in much the way the tintinnabulation of bells affected Pavlov’s dogs. 

By the time you espy the slogan “Grab it.  Bite It.  Love It,” below the restaurant’s marquee, the pangs of hunger will have struck.  Savvy diners won’t even wait for the menu.  As soon as your server approaches, order the empanadas trio.  Now, if you’ve lived in New Mexico for a while, there’s a very good chance you’ve had an empanada or a thousand.  New Mexican abuelitas have been proudly making and serving these “turnovers” for generations and they won’t concede that anyone can make an empanada as well as they can.  With apologies to my own grandmothers, the empanadas at Cafe Caribe are pretty darned good.

Ensalada con Piña Y Pollo / Pineapple and Chicken Salad

The empanadas trio offers your choice of Chicken Sofrito, Beef Picadillo or Four Cheese.  You’ll want to try at least one of each.  You’ll also want to visit on Mondays between 4 and 6 because every Monday is “empanada night” and you can have as many one dollar empanadas as your heart desires.  These gilded, crescent-shaped treasures are art on a plate, each addictively delicious.  The chicken sofrito (the Spanish trinity of chopped onion, garlic and bell pepper) and the Beef Picadillo (a melange of ingredients)  empanadas are stuffed deliciousness while the four cheese empanada exemplifies gooey, cheesy goodness.  The trio is served with a pleasantly piquant sauce that enlivened the empanadas even further. 

Cafe Caribe has the answer to any questions you might have about how to cool down on a balmy summer day. The answer, of course, is lemonade and not just any lemonade. Wash down your meal with an organic lemonade, limeade or mint lemonade. Better still, indulge in a fruit lemonade made with your choice of strawberry, guava, coconut, mango, mixed berries or passion fruit.  The tropical fruit flavors seem a natural complement to the tangy lemonade.

Pernil Asado (Roasted Pork)

Cafe Caribe’s salad menu lists four innovative and inviting salads.  The golden pineapple chicken salad may be the most “tropical” of the lot, a beautifully plated arrangement of mixed mesclun (a salad mix of assorted small, young salad green leaves), pineapple, dried cranberries, toasted almonds and grilled chicken.  There’s not much (if any) dressing on this salad which means the other ingredients had better be able to stand out on their own.  They do–and very well.  Texturally, the toasted almonds and dried cranberries provide a nice contrast to the crisp greens, juicy pineapple and perfectly grilled chicken all of which together create a very good flavor profile. 

With all due respect to the salad and even the empanadas, we visited Cafe Caribe for the pernil asaldo or Caribbean roasted pork.  The pernil is marinated in a myriad of Latin spices that imbue it with garlicky and citrus notes, a flavor profile made possible only through slow, meticulous preparation.  The roasted pork more closely resembles the pulled pork of Southern barbecue than it does cochinita pibil, the luscious shredded pork dish prepared so wondrously at El Norteño.  The shredded pork, served in a plentiful portion, is fluffy and moist, tempered with pickled red onions and served with a yellow rice.

Arroz Con Pollo with Pinto Beans

Perhaps even better than the pernil asado (which is excellent) is the arroz con pollo, a chicken and rice dish made with saffron rice, shredded chicken, sofrito, peas and carrots.  My Kim called it the best arroz con pollo she’s ever had while I’d be challenged to choose between Cafe Caribe’s version or the one served at Ajiaco Colombian Bistro.  It’s amazing how moist and delicious a rice dish can be made (if only someone could teach New Mexicans how to make it).  It’s so good you may want to finish it all in one serving, but so plentiful, you could have a second meal.

Just because peaches aren’t native to the Caribbean doesn’t mean enterprising chefs can’t incorporate them into delicious desserts.  Appropriately, one of the best ice cream-based desserts anywhere in Albuquerque, is called the Peach Paradise.  It’s easy to taste why.  A large goblet is hard-pressed to contain the generous scoops of French vanilla ice cream with its characteristically richer and deeper flavor notes than regular ice cream along with whipped cream, a cherry sauce and sliced peach halves.  It’s an excellent dessert with refreshing qualities and the superb flavors of fresh peaches and rich French vanilla.

Peach Paradise

As if you need any more reasons to visit, Cafe Caribe provides live music every Friday.  They offer vegetarian dishes and gluten-free options every day.  It’s a family-owned and operated restaurant with an experienced chef who aims to please.

Cafe Caribe
102 4th Streeet, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-2378
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Peach Paradise, Arroz Con Pollo, Roasted Pork/Pernil, Empanada Trio, Ensalada Con Piña Y Pollo

Cafe Caribe a B Q on Urbanspoon

La Fonda Del Bosque – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Fonda Del Bosque within the sprawling National Hispanic Cultural Center

In the millennium year, after years of planning and lobbying, the dream was finally realized of a haven  dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and advancement of Hispanic culture, arts, and humanities. In 2000, the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), launched along the Camino Real in the Albuquerque’s historic Barela’s neighborhood.  The Center is an architectural anomaly in a largely adobe-hued area, its unique structures including a renovated hacienda-style school, a stylized Mayan pyramid with interior elements modeled on Romanesque architecture and a torreon (tower) housing a 4,000 square foot concave fresco depicting over 3,000 years of Hispanic history.

Ironically the complex chartered to preserve, protect and promote Hispanic culture had to displace several families, thereby disenfranchising some of the very families who embody the Hispanic culture in Albuquerque.  One resident–the late Adela Martinez–stared down bureaucrats and made them blink, refusing to move.  The forty-million dollar Cultural Center had to be redesigned to accommodate her family in the home she moved into in the 1920s.  Today, her family’s two small houses stand out, not like a sore thumb, but as a testament to the courage of one 80-year old Hispanic woman whose treasured memories were worth much more than the monetary treasures government offered.

fondadelbosque02

The home of Adela Martinez, a New Mexico treasure

Since November, 2000, the converted Barelas Elementary School on the sprawling NHCC complex has served as the home of La Fonda Del Bosque, a stylish 280-seat restaurant.    La Fonda, which translates from Spanish to “The Inn” almost immediately garnered recognition.  Within three years of its launch,  Hispanic magazine named it one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the United States for two consecutive years (2003 and 2004).  It was also named one of Gourmet Magazine’s “Best Kept Secrets.” A higher compliment is that many locals love it, too, especially during the Sunday brunch when they can sample a greater bounty of Hispanic favorites.

Over the years, a number of catering and restaurant management companies have tried their hand at running La Fonda Del Bosque.  The most recent to take the helm is A KayTahRing Company which began operating the restaurant in June, 2012.  After several years of serving New Mexican food, the new operators are taking the restaurant in a new direction, showcasing “flavors, cooking styles and ingredients from the 27 countries comprising Central and South America and the Latino Caribbean islands” according to the restaurant’s Web site.

Dining Room at La Fonda Del Bosque

La Fonda is open for breakfast and lunch as well as for brunch on Sundays. Dinner is served only for special events when the upscale milieu really shines.   While the menu offerings may have a Latin fusion flair, the ambiance at La Fonda Del Bosque is most decidedly Southwestern with a pronounced New Mexican influence.  The centerpiece of the dining room is a wood-burning fireplace that may make you wish it was winter so you could imbibe the aromas of piñon wood.  On bright New Mexican summer days, the  tinwork light fixtures aren’t much needed because the large windows let in so much natural light.  Service is impeccable. 

The restaurant’s Web site describes the menu as “one bold statement after another.”   At the very least, it’s an ambitious menu that crosses over several borders and culinary cultures.  That’s especially true of the prix fixe menu for brunch which couples a buffet and a number of items from the menu.  Stainless steel vessels hold such buffet items as smoked salmon lox, Argentine prawn and chili quiche, seasonal fruit, Cuban Torrejas, Peruvian Ceviche Limon and twin crepes.  Don’t fill your plate too much because you’ll also have the opportunity to order an entree from the “kitchen” menu.  This menu ranges from the simple (huevos rancheros) to the complex (Seafood Valencia Paella).

Sunday Brunch Offerings Include Seafood Valencia (Paella made with chicken, chorizo, prawns, mussels and peas); smoked salmon lox; Argentine Prawn and Chili Quiche

The attentive wait staff does their best to ensure the buffet items are replenished so diners will always have fresh and warm food.  Their efforts are more successful when a passel of diners empties the serving vessels almost as quickly as the servers fill them.  Such was the case during our inaugural visit which transpired on the same day the Japanese Fall Festival was being held on the grounds of the Center.  Apparently a number of diners preferred Latin inspired cuisine to Japanese fare because La Fonda was quite crowded when we arrived.

Among the buffet items which would have stood out was the smoked salmon lox with cream cheese, capers, red onions and eggs.  Alas, the toasted bagels intended to be the canvas upon which to heap the other ingredients were stale and dry.  Still, who can resist salmon, capers and cream cheese, a triumvirate of taste. Also good were Cuban Torrejas, essentially pain perdu (French toast) stuffed with strawberry and mamey glaze, and topped with whipped Cream.   The Peruvian Ceviche Limon, fresh raw fish, calamari, octopus and shrimp served with yam and Peruvian corn was rather uninspired, a far cry from Peruvian ceviche we’ve had elsewhere. It lacked the freshness and the citrus-tinged zip of a great ceviche.

Carne Asada con Huevos al Gusto (Native to Northern Mexico): Half-pound charbroiled sirloin with 2 eggs any style, served with breakfast potatoes, adobo sauce

My choice from the menu was paella, but not just any paella. According to the menu, it was Seafood Valencia,  named for the city in Spain in which paella originated.  Valencia isn’t just where paella was first made, it’s where it’s best made.  Paella is a great source of local pride for Valencianos where it’s made so well that, much like some Italian food, its flavors improve into the next day.  Similar to the paella made in Valencia, La Fonda’s rendition has a slightly crunchy edge.  It’s replete with bite-sized pieces of chicken, seasoned pork sausage, prawns, mussels and green peas embedded in a mound of saffron-infused rice.   The portion size is more than generous, but the experience would have been even more authentic and fun had it been served in a paellera, the flat steel pan in which paella is traditionally prepared.  Exercise caution not to ladle out the paella on the buffet table (unless you really like paella) because it will count as your entree. 

Another palate pleasing entree is the carne asada con huevos al gusto, a plate native to Northern Mexico.  The carne asada is a half-pound charbroiled sirloin steak prepared to your exacting level of doneness.  In some Mexican restaurants–both in Mexico and in New Mexico–a half-pound sometimes means two portions of thinly cut, usually tough as leather steak so it’s a surprise to find a thick, juicy steak that’s almost fork tender.  Literally the term “huevos al gusto” translates to “eggs to your pleasure,” but really means “eggs made the way you want them.”  The breakfast potatoes are excellent, but the adobo sauce lacked any real punch.

Tiramisu and white chocolate truffle

The brunch menu also includes a dessert bar featuring such sweet-tooth favorites as tiramisu, truffles, and fruit tarts.  The tiramisu would never be mistaken for the tiramisu made at Torinos @ Home, not by a long stretch, but it’s better than out-of-the-box.

La Fonda Del Bosque offers catering services for special events such as weddings and anniversaries. With a patio which can accommodate as many as 1,500 guests, it’s a perfect venue for a good time.

La Fonda Del Bosque
Hispanic Cultural Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET:  

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