Ravioli Italian Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ravioli Italian Kitchen at 4320 The 25 Way, N.E.

The older I get, the more my favorite part of the Academy Awards every year is the teary-eyed tribute to all the famous screen legends who passed away during the preceding twelve months.  The montage of glitterati greatness on the “In Memoriam” segment not only provides a much-needed respite from self-absorbed acceptance speeches and tedious dance numbers, it  evokes a flood of memories and emotions as viewers pause to remember the movie makers who have touched us all.

Similarly, the closure of a favorite restaurant gives diners pause to reflect on meals we’ve had at restaurants gone, but not forgotten. Even in booming economic times, restaurants have a higher mortality rate than most, if not all, businesses.  It’s the natural order of the restaurant business that not all restaurants are destined to survive.  Closures aren’t always the consequence of an economic malaise.  Nearly thirty percent of restaurants close within their first year of operation.

So why a dour diatribe instead of my usual effusive celebration of a restaurant I just visited?  Ravioli Italian Kitchen, we found out, will be closed for good on Friday, September 1st, 2012.  Launched in November, 2011, Ravioli demonstrated promise and potential, but was never able to consistently draw in the types of crowds needed to succeed over a long term.  Ravioli joins a number of chain and independent restaurants which have failed in The 25 Way, a contemporary mixed office and retail environment with good exposure to I-25.

Ravioli Italian Kitchen has many of the elements and attributes of a restaurant which should have succeeded.  Owner Kathy Punya has a proven track record of success with her Sushi King restaurant enterprise throughout the metropolitan area.  Its The 25 Way storefront is functional, attractive and inviting.  The menu is diverse and interesting with housemade pastas and desserts a plenty as well as made-to-order cooking.  Service is friendly and attentive.  With staunch competition for disposable dollars, these factors were apparently not enough.  Perhaps in another time and place…

Garden salad with blue cheese dressing

True to the name on the marquee, the Ravioli Italian Kitchen menu does showcase ravioli, the traditional Italian pasta dish made of pasta dough stuffed with filling.  Diners have their choice of sauce: Alfredo, marinara, green chile-jalapeño, basil, pesto, ancho cream, mushroom cream, vino blanco, Arribiata and meat sauce.  Ravioli fillings are lobster, cheese, beef and portobello.  The ravioli are made in-house as are other Italian pastas.

The menu holds no real surprises and is sectioned logically: appetizers, salads, soups, pasta, entrees, ravioli, “on the lighter side” and desserts.  It’s not an especially innovative Italian menu, so the difference-maker here has to be execution–the quality of ingredients, their preparation, how they’re presented, the authenticity of the dishes and how they’re delivered.  It’s in execution (lack thereof) that Urbanspoon reviewers have rated Ravioli poorly.  Our inaugural experience was a mix of highlights and low spots, the latter of which could be remedied with time and attention.  Alas, Ravioli Italian Kitchen won’t be given a second chance.

Pork and Fennel Ragu:
Ground pork slow cooked with rosemary, fennel, pancetta, vegetables with freshly grated parmesan cheese and bucatini pasta!

The appetizer menu has some de rigueur standards such as calamari fritti, fried mozzarella cheese and fried zucchini.  As with many Italian restaurants, an antipasto is also offered, but this one is presented just a bit differently.  It’s in the form of three skewers of black and green olives, slices of salami, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and grape tomatoes served with toasted bread, artichokes, buttercrisp crackers and an olive tapenade.  As antipastos go, this one is a nice mix of vegetable to meat though a greater diversity of cheese would have made it even better.

All entrees are served with a side salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, julienne carrots and mixed greens) with several salad dressings from which to choose.  A housemade berry vinaigrette, the color of beets, has a balanced flavor of fruitiness and sweetness.  The blue cheese dressing has a plethora of veiny blue cheese crumbles and is both thick and redolent with the flavor of blue cheese and not some thick mayo-base.

Spaghetti Carbonara: Pancetta, Parmesan and Egg Tossed Together To Form a Creamy Sauce

One entree not standard at most Italian restaurants is Ravioli’s pork and fennel ragu.  Now, if you’re thinking Ragu as in the ubiquitous bottled-and-heated spaghetti and pasta sauce, remedial Italian Cuisine 101 is in dire need.  Ragu, derived from the French word “ragout” which translates to “stew,” is actually any sauce to which meat is added.  Ravioli’s pork and fennel ragu uses ground pork which is slow-cooked with rosemary, fennel, pancetta and finely chopped vegetables (such as carrots and celery) and served with a bucatini pasta, a long, hollow Italian pasta that resembles a thick spaghetti.  The best aspects of this dish are, of course, the pancetta, an Italian cured meat made from pork belly and the fennel with its sweet anise-like flavor. 

Years ago when we lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Fridays were, for about six consecutive months,  carbonara night at Salvetti’s Italian Grill.  Never before and not since have we had carbonara quite that good or quite that rich.  How good and how rich?  It was so good you couldn’t stop eating it even though you knew you’d literally be sick afterwards.  The spaghetti carbonara at Ravioli’s isn’t nearly that rich.  It’s not even in the same ballpark.  Pancetta, Parmesan and egg are tossed together to form a mildly creamy sauce, but it’s not creamy enough.  Nor is there enough pancetta (is there ever?).  

Tiramisu and Cannoli

Desserts include a number of unique offerings such as a cinnamon apple and pear “pizza” (apple compote topped with sweetened ricotta, fresh pears and caramel sauce) and a blueberry citrus calzone (citrus blueberry reduction spread on nutella and ricotta cheese).  Perhaps the latter dessert is where the carbonara’s richness went.  Also available are such standards as Tiramisu and cannoli.  The cannoli shells are dipped in chocolate then rolled in crushed almonds while the filling is a mix of sweetened ricotta, candied orange and mini chocolate chips.  It’s not as sweet as some cannoli tends to be.  Neither is the tiramisu which is moist and redolent with a mellow coffee flavor.

The Ravioli Italian Kitchen will soon be referred to in a past tense terms and will be relegated to the “Gone But Not Forgotten” menu of this blog.  It’s a restaurant at which memories have been made, hopefully mostly good ones.  Duke City diners, especially those who count it among their favorites, still have nearly a week to add to those memories. Others of us who haven’t yet visited Ravioli can still do so before it’s too late.

Ravioli Italian Kitchen
4320 The 25 Way, N.E. Map.41286b1
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 25 August 2012
COST: $$

Ravioli Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Miss Saigon Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Central Cabana and Miss Saigon on Central Avenue

When it closed on Broadway in 2001, the three-time Tony Award-winning musical Miss Saigon had been seen by some six million people during a running of 4,092 performances, making it the sixth longest running show in Broadway history.  Outside of Broadway, Miss Saigon was opened by 26 theater companies worldwide, translated into eleven different languages and played in 23 countries throughout the world.  The epic musical even had an eight performance run in Albuquerque’s Popejoy Hall in 2003. 

During of our inaugural visit to Miss Saigon Bar & Grill in July, 2012, the restaurant was celebrating an eight month run of its own.  Though it may not be playing to turn-away crowds…yet, there are some indications this is a restaurant with staying power.  It may not be entirely accurate, however, to call it a restaurant and even the “bar & grill” portion of its name doesn’t do it justice.  Along with Central Cabana with whom it shares a commodious edifice, Miss Saigon is part of a large, multifarious entertainment complex.

The commodious complex accommodates 400 guests

That complex includes a nightclub which showcases live Mexican bands on Fridays and Saturday nights.  There isn’t a seat in the house which doesn’t have a view of a large flat screen television (16 of them) on which pay-per-view boxing matches and other sporting events are telecast.  A large, full-service bar proffers adult libations of all types.  Catering is available for parties, birthdays, weddings and quincinieras.  The dining area, easily and by far the largest of any Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City, can accommodate as many as 400 people and has a professional stage and dance floor.

Seating is more functional than it is comfortable, but from the minute you’re greeted at the front desk, you’re literally enveloped in hospitality.  The two pulchritudinous servers are normally attired in traditional “Ao Dai,” an ensemble of trousers and a gown that accentuates the beauty and grace of the wearers.  The servers are as friendly and attentive as you’ll find in New Mexico.  They’ll happily answer any of your questions and provide recommendations when necessary.

Grilled Pork Sausage Spring Rolls

Miss Saigon’s menu belies the capaciousness of the complex. That’s not to say it’s a small menu. It’s just not as compendium-like as the menu at smaller Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City, some of which have more than 120 items. If it’s true that you eat with your eyes first, the dining experience at Miss Saigon truly begins when you peruse the menu which includes beautiful color photographs of the appetizers and entrees. That’s not something you see at every Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City.

The appetizer menu lists eight items including a “Vietnamese sub sandwich” (banh mi to those of us who frequent Vietnamese restaurants). Appetizers include vegetable rolls which resemble maki (sushi) rolls and a couple of other items heretofore not seen at other local Vietnamese restaurants. Courtesy of the color photographs, you can almost imbibe the fragrance of the steamy pho on the pho menu. Other pages on the menu are dedicated to “Rice Vermicelli,” “Rice Dishes,” “Stir Fried Dishes” and “Vegetarian Dishes,” categories which, were it not for the color photographs, do very little to express the breadth, complexity and deliciousness of the entrees.

Shrimp Sausage in bean curd wrap

In addition to beers, wines and cocktails, the beverage menu features Pepsi products, but that’s what the unacculturated order.  Adventurous diners will opt for Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk or perhaps fresh juice (orange, lemon or pennywort (a member of the carrot and dill family)).  You can also have a Vietnamese version of a shake which tends to be much thicker and colder than its American counterpart.  Miss Saigon offers strawberry, strawberry with banana, avocado, coconut, sour sop, mango, mango with pineapple and though it’s not on the menu, they’ll occasionally offer durian shakes.  Durian is not the most popular fruit, even among Vietnamese, because of its reputation for being the most malodorous fruit in the world.  It’s my very favorite of all the Vietnamese shakes.  Miss Saigon’s version is terrific with a unique bouquet preceding each taste.

Among the appetizers, the grilled pork sausage spring rolls are especially intriguing because they’re not commonly offered at many Vietnamese restaurants, the preferred filler being shrimp in one form or another.  Similar to shrimp stuffed spring rolls, these include thin noodles and mint wrapped in an almost translucent rice wrapper, but it’s the thinly sliced Chinese sausage that imparts the biggest impression on your taste buds.  It’s a slightly sweet sausage with a coarse texture and is as addictive as any sausage known to man.  The spring rolls are served with a very light fish sauce which just doesn’t have the personality we’ve experienced in other fish sauce.  Its most discernible flavor is sweetness, but it’s not overly sweet.  It could use some piquancy.

Steamed Rice Vermicelli Platter with Grilled Beef wrapped in Wild Betel Leaves

The shrimp sausage in bean curd wrap is an interesting starter, first because shrimp sausage almost seems like a contradiction in terms and secondly because shrimp sausage is much more common in Chinese and Filipino cuisine.  At first glance, it appears this starter is wrapped in layers of delicate phyllo dough.  The fact that anyone can give bean curds the texture and feel of phyllo dough is also intriguing.  Insofar as flavor and texture, this, too, is interesting.  There is a nuanced flavor of shrimp, but it’s subtle.  The texture is chewy yet soft. 

Interesting and unique doesn’t stop with the appetizers.  The steamed rice vermicelli platter with grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaves was something new to us.  At least the betel leaves part of the dish was.  We’ve had the steamed rice vermicelli noodles (called patter noodles at May Hong and Cafe Dalat) before.  The noodles hardly seem to be noodles at all.  They appear to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern.  It’s traditional to wrap the grilled pork (which is already wrapped in wild betel leaves) first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with mint, julienned carrots, crushed peanuts and fresh mint leaves inside.  These lettuce wraps are then dipped in fish sauce.  It’s an amazing entree!

Simple, but exquisite pho

There are a number of dishes available only after 4PM including a couple made for two.  The most enthusiastically recommended dish (and not because it’s the most expensive on the lunch menu) is the Miss Sai Gon Special Rice Dish with grilled pork chop, shredded pork, meat loaf, egg, pork sausage and shrimp sausage in bean curd wrap.  This entree is made even more special because it’s prefaced by a small bowl of simple, but absolutely exquisite pho, the type of pho in which the flavor of the beef stock is enhanced by unctuous marrow and bones.  The only additions are dried shrimp, scallions and parsley.  It’s such a terrific pho that I know what I’ll be ordering next visit.

The Sai Gon Special Rice dish is indeed special.  It’s also large enough for two.   From among the beautifully decorated platter, the most surprising dish is the grilled pork, a bone-in pork chop grilled to perfection.  The grilling influence is apparent in the light smokiness, but the savory, smoky flavor profile also includes a hint of sweetness I suspect comes from just a bit of brown sugar and fish sauce.  In any event, it’s one of my favorite “pork chops” in Albuquerque.  The shredded pork is also unique in that the pork resembles noodles in texture and appearance, but has the flavor of dry pork.  The “meat loaf” resembles a cupcake.  It has an interesting texture–soft and chewy–and unique flavor.   The broken rice is intended to be eaten with the fried egg served over sunny side up so the yolk runs down onto the rice.  With a little of the diluted fish sauce, it’s a delightful treat.

Miss Sai Gon Special Rice Dish with Grilled Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, meat loaf, egg, pork sausage, Shrimp sausage in bean curd wrap

The highly esteemed Jim Millington, a long-time friend of this blog, contends “there must be a bad Vietnamese restaurant somewhere on this wide earth but I have never found it.”  He won’t find it on the intersection of Central and Rhode Island.  Instead he’ll find another very good Vietnamese eatery that beckons for return visits.

Miss Saigon
7915 Central Avenue, N.E. Map.d11779f
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 07 July 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miss Sai Gon Special Rice Dish, Steamed Rice Vermicelli Platter with Grilled Beef wrapped in Wild Betel Leaves, Grilled Pork Sausage Spring Rolls, Shrimp Sausage in bean curd wrap

Miss Sai Gon Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Mamba’s Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mamba’s Kitchen on San Mateo

When my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott and I first visited Mamba’s Kitchen, we deliberated the genesis of the restaurant’s name. The possibilities were intriguing. The restaurant must be named for the black mamba, one of the world’s most venomous snakes, I thought. Ryan surmised then quickly dismissed the notion that the restaurant’s name honors Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who calls himself the “Mamba” because he wants to have the type of basketball precision the snake has (it can strike with 99 percent accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession). Could it share the Mamba sobriquet with Beatrix Kiddo, the protagonist of the brilliant Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill, we wondered. Perhaps it’s named for Mambo Italiano, the 1954 hit song by Rosemary Clooney.

Because the edifice which is now home to Mamba’s Kitchen twice previously housed two soul food restaurants, we finally reasoned Mamba’s Kitchen must be a sort of hybrid Soul food-Mexican food fusion restaurant.  Clever though our conjecture was, the reason for the restaurant’s name is far more down-to-earth and beautifully innocent.  Mamba is actually named for the grandmother of restaurant founder and owner Rebecca Sandoval.  When a grandchild couldn’t pronounce “grandma,” he began calling her “mamba.”  Perhaps given a year or two Ryan and I might have figured that out.

Naquitos: bite-sized taquitos covered in chile con queso and jalapeños

Mamba’s Kitchen is the most recent occupant of a deep cranberry red home converted to a restaurant decades ago.  Previous tenants include the Mediterranean Cafe, A Taste of Soul and Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant, the last two very short-lived restaurants seemingly on the brink of break-out success before closing all too quickly.  Mamba’s Kitchen, a family owned and operated restaurant appears to have more staying power largely because it subscribes to the motto “where it feels and tastes like home.”  It also offers a unique Mexican-New Mexican menu with traditional favorites interspersed among some surprises heretofore unseen in any other Duke City restaurant.

The surprises begin in the antojitos (appetizers) section of the menu where in addition to tacos, taquitos, chile con queso, guacamole salad and chips n’ salsa, you’ll find a hybrid of taquitos and nachos called Naquitos.  This is a must order item!  In fact, you’ll be best served ordering two.  Naquitos are bite-sized taquitos covered in chile con queso and jalapeños.  While that sounds simple enough, there’s quite a depth of complexity in the melding of flavors which go great together.  The taquitos are engorged with brisket, tender tendrils of delicious beef.  The chile con queso is not the gloppy, off-putting cheese from a can served in many a ballpark, but an amalgam of wonderful Mexican melting cheeses.  The jalapeños are freshly chopped, not baked or roasted.  This is one of those rare appetizers which stands out as a highlight of a meal and that’s saying something because everything we had at Mamba’s was memorable.

Asado Burrito: Deep-fried pork carnitas simmered in red chile, beans and chile

One of the specialties at Mamba’s Kitchen are burritos, and not just the standard, run-of-the-mill burritos you’ll find just about anywhere in the Duke City.  The menu offers Po’ Boy Burritos which bear no resemblance to the Po’ Boy sandwiches made famous in New Orleans.  These burritos are called Po’ Boy because they’re so budget conscious at under a dollar each.  They’re also stuffed with novelty ingredients, the complete antithesis of what you’ll typically find engorging the usual burrito suspects.  Simplicity itself, the Po’ Boys are available with such unique fillings as spam and egg, bologna and egg and hot dog and egg. 

Having grown up within the confines of the Picuris Pueblo reservation where I first experienced the delights of a fried baloney burrito, I can attest to its deliciousness (decades later barbecued baloney became my very favorite barbecued anything in Memphis, Tennessee).  The bologna and egg burrito at Mamba’s is a real treat though there wasn’t quite as much bologna as this barbecue aficionado would have liked.  My advice is to spring for a double portion of bologna and green chile.

New Mexico Burger: Cheeseburger topped with green chile, dressed with mayo and garnished with lettuce and tomatoes

If the Po’ Boy burritos are intended for all but the one-percenters, diners of all wealth demographics will easily be able to afford every burrito on the menu, the most expensive of which is still under five dollars.  Not counting the seven Po’ Boy burritos, there are ten burrito options on the menu.  The Asado Burrito is an early candidate for my favorite though in future visits the Fajita and Chicharron burritos might prompt a change of mind.  The Asado Burrito is engorged with deep-fried carnitas simmered in red chile, beans and cheese.  It’s a large burrito enrobed in a griddled tortilla with perfect pinto pony char.  The chile is relatively mild, but has a nice flavor.

There are five burgers on the menu including a taco or tortilla burger described on the menu as a cheeseburger cut in half to make two tacos or two tortilla burgers with green chile and lettuce.  Mamba’s version of a green chile cheeseburger is called the New Mexico burger and it’s dressed with mayo and garnished with tomatoes, lettuce and cheese.  It’s a very moist burger, somewhat reminiscent of the burgers at Griff’s, a long-time favorite.  The green chile has no real discernible bite, but has a nice roasted flavor.

Though not named for the quick-striking African serpent, Mamba’s Kitchen may just as quickly ensnare your affections and kill your hunger with delicious food priced reasonably and served by a very nice family.

Mamba’s Kitchen
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2012
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Naquitos, Asado Burrito, Bologna & Egg Po’ Boy Burrito, New Mexico Burger with Fries

Mamba's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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