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

Just A Bite! – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe

Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe

An April, 2009 article in the Taos News reveals just how much cultural attitudes have changed in the county in which I grew up toward men in the kitchen.  The article profiled a Taos High School culinary arts team–comprised of three boys and one young lady–which triumphed over 16 other New Mexico schools in a state-wide cooking competition to earn a berth on the national stage.

In the dark ages when I attended high school, any male student deigning to admit to enjoy cooking would have been dismissed as a (select your own pejorative) and might even have incurred physical harm.  When I enrolled in Home Economics as a senior, I spared myself merciless taunting and possibly painful beatings by telling my friends it was solely so I could eat the food prepared by the female students (not surprisingly my pals thought it was a good idea, too).  As if by malevolent design, the first semester of the class was dedicated to sewing, a torturous ordeal for which my profound lack of interest proved an early undoing. I quit well before semester’s end.

My next flirtation with participating in the culinary arts came when I enlisted in the Air Force.  With vocational aptitude scores higher than the average bear (thank you Jim Millington for that line), I naturally believed the stereotype that the military makes mechanics out of accomplished chefs and cooks out of brainiacs like me (obviously I had no appreciation for just how much intellect it takes to be a good cook).  It was not to be.

Paradise under glass at Just A Bite!

Paradise under glass at Just A Bite!

Some people are destined to showcase their talents in the kitchen.  Some, like me, are obviously not.  At the opposite spectrum of this “would be chef” are people upon whom the culinary gods smiled–beatific bakers like Amy Markham-Sandoval, proprietor of Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe on San Pedro.  Before she launched her bakehouse business she worked at a police station where her peace officer pleasing pastries (and not just donuts) so enamored her work colleagues that they convinced her to open a bakery.

Talk about misnomer!  “Just A Bite!” is, like the potato chips in the old Lays potato chips commercials, not something of which you can have just one bite.  Nor are the decadent and delicious baked goods something you will want to wolf down voraciously.  You’ll want to savor each morsel slowly and luxuriate in its sugary scrumptiousness.  Even among the “bite-sized” confections, you’ll want to take your time and drive your taste buds crazy with delight.

Just A Bite! is located in a characterless shopping center on San Pedro just south of Paseo del Norte.  It is situated just before the bend on the L-shaped complex, occupying one of the smaller retail spaces.  It’s not the type of store which will catch your eye, but it is the type of store which will earn a reputation strictly by word of mouth.  That’s how I found out about it.  Barbara Trembath, a fellow gourmand, told me about Just A Bite in her own inimitable way, “These are the best damn cupcakes on the planet. Little, tiny, deceptive mouthfuls of sugary happiness.  I might be persuaded to do just about anything for a dozen of their red velvet mini cupcakes.”

Small in size, humongous in flavor

Small in size, humongous in flavor

Just A Bite!’s cupcakes are indeed mouthfuls of sugary happiness with the “large” cupcakes (strictly by virtue of the increased number of bites provided) offering more happiness than the bite-size, irresistibly cute mini cupcakes.  Perhaps nothing epitomizes “lovin’ from the oven” better than a great cupcake or ten.  Whether your pleasure is the moist and marvelous triple chocolate cupcake (chocolate cake with a house-made fresh chocolate cream filling topped with chocolate frosting) or the intensely flavored cinnamon spice cupcake (made with cinnamon and cloves), Just A Bite!’s choices are sure to please.

Tiny though they might be, the mini cupcakes are often the inspiration for wedding cakes.  Just A Bite! offers bridal consultation by appointment, showcasing wedding cakes that don’t look as if they are constructed of plaster of Paris and taste like an overdose of sugar.  In fact, the inspiration for many of the wedding cakes are sometimes the cupcakes which can be turned into a wedding cake.  These cupcakes really do take the cake.

All baked goods–fresh pies, cookies, cheesecakes, brownies and oh, so much more–are made on the premises and are made fresh to order.  Not only will you be stuffed when you’ve sated your sweet tooth, the stuff which fills you up may also be stuffed.  Cinnamon roll spirals stuffed with a cream cheese mixture then baked and smothered with a butter cream frosting are a popular favorite, but an even more exotic offering are stuffed strawberries, huge strawberries stuffed with cheesecake then dipped in imported Belgian chocolate.

A Turkey Sandwich

Lest you think this is all about delicious decadence and scrumptious sweetness, Just A Bite!’s menu includes breakfast sandwiches served with fruit.  Box lunches are also available.  They include a sandwich, chips or pasta, salad, fruit and a cupcake.  Sandwiches are made with your choice of croissant, whole grain white, wheat or sourdough.  From an Italian inspired Italian sandwich (pepperoni, ham and cheese) to the rudimentary old-fashioned egg salad sandwich, the options are deliciously appealing.  A Veggie and Cheese sandwich (no sprouts or cucumbers) is also available.

Alas, as was my experience the first time I visited Just A Bite hoping to try one of the more “inventive” sandwiches on the menu, the only remaining options (at 12:15) were ham or turkey (and not the Albuquerque Turkey listed on the Web site).  It was a rather plain sandwich–turkey, Cheddar and lettuce along with a packet of mustard.  Luckily my disappointment was quelled by three mini cupcakes (two mini chocolate and one lemon curd).

Even my neanderthal classmates would find much to love at Just A Bite!, a bakery brimming with delicious options lovingly crafted by someone fortunate and talented enough to excel in the culinary arts.

Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe
7900 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2012
1st VISIT: 11 April 2009
BEST BET:  Cinnamon Spice Cupcake, Triple Chocolate Cupcake, Chocolate Chip & Oatmeal Gooey Bar, Eclair, Turkey Sandwich

Just a Bite on Urbanspoon

Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Silvano’s New Mexican Food Restaurant

My friend Carrie Seidman, the elegant and erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Tribune prefaced one restaurant review by saying “sometimes pleasure comes with a price tag.” That pithy aphorism should probably be appended by paraphrasing Luke 12:48: “from those who charge a lot, much will be expected.”   Expensive meals come with  expectations of intoxicating aromas and tastes, impeccable service and a classy, relaxed milieu in which to bask in the glory of a decadent, memorable meal.  Such meals are worth it only if afterwards you consider every dollar well spent.  Any regrets and the experience will leave you (and your wallet or purse) empty.

Fortunately for the most penurious and parsimonious among us, there is no absolute correlation of price tag to enjoyment.  There is no guarantee that an expensive meal will be a good one…but there is most certainly a correlation between spending a lot of money and the pain and regret you feel afterwards if the meal didn’t achieve lofty expectations.  Conversely, some of the very best restaurant meals to be enjoyed are often those that not only provide great value for the money, they serve genuinely good food and provide simple, but very pleasant and rewarding dining experiences you will want to repeat.

The interior of Silvano’s

The Albuquerque restaurant which might best exemplify the “bang for the buck” idiom is Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant, an eatery with a long and storied history in the Duke City.  The cover of the menu says it best: “Home where it all started, where we love you from the inside out.”  “Home where it all started” is a reference to the fact that Silvano’s occupies the original edifice it called home until 1985 when Silvano’s was sold to Frank R. Barela who promptly renamed it Los Cuates in honor of his newborn twins.  After sixteen years on the premises, Los Cuates closed its original location and was replaced in 2011 by Silvano’s, a full-circle turn few would have expected.

The “Where we love you from the inside out,” I suspect is an affirmation of the traditional New Mexican dicho “pansa llena, corazon contento” or “full stomach, happy heart.”  A meal at Silvano’s will most certainly fill your belly and leave you happy.  Portion sizes are prolific and prices are more than reasonable, but what diners will appreciate and remember most is the delicious food.  Old timers like me who dined at the original Silvano’s will also appreciate the memories the aromas and flavors will evoke–memories of good times with friends at an old and trusted favorite.  Others with better memories (Jim Millington and Tommy) also have memories of a short-lived Silvano’s on San Mateo just south of Menaul.

Chips with complimentary salsa and con queso

Few vestiges of the Los Cuates days remain at Silvano’s, a simple, no frills restaurant back home in the time-worn shopping center where it got its start.  The closed-in crowdedness of its predecessor is gone.  Silvano’s seems more spacious, but that may be illusory considering the lack of diners at the after-after rush hour of my inaugural visit.  The restaurant is much longer than it is wide with booth seating against the east and west walls and table seating in between.  Diamond-shaped mirrors framed with colorful garland festoon the otherwise unadorned light green walls.

You won’t be seated long before a cheery attendant arrives with a basket of complimentary chips, salsa and con queso.  At many other New Mexican restaurants, the price point for chips and salsa approaches that of some entrees so it’s refreshing to find one lavishing its diners with preprandial pleasure.  The salsa will be familiar to anyone who’s eaten at Los Cuates.  It’s a unique salsa–wholly unlike the traditional New Mexican salsa of tomatoes, onions, garlic and either green chile or jalapenos. It has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness and texturally, it’s tailor-made for dipping more than scooping. It’s an “either you love it or you don’t” type of salsa with plenty of fans and detractors. Count me among those who love its uniqueness.

Relleno Plate: Two chile rellenos served with beans topped with melted cheese, Spanish rice, cheese, red and green chile and two sopaipillas

The complimentary con queso is a temptress (maybe that’s the point) you’ll want more of.  It’s redolent with the bouquet of green chile and a Cheddar blend and it’s served warm.  The chips are relatively thin, but formidable enough to scoop up a few chips full of the con queso.  Alas, some of the chips are too large for the tiny plastic bowl, ergo another reason to order an appetizer-sided con queso.  The appetizers menu also includes chile fries (French fries topped with con queso and red or green chile), quesadillas (olives and jalapenos with melted cheese) and nachos.

The menu includes many traditional New Mexican favorites such as chile rellenos, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, fajitas, tamales, carne adovada and huevos rancheros.  A vegetarian combination plate (one chile relleno, one bean tostada, one cheese enchilada topped with red or green chile and two sopaipillas) is also available.  All entrees are priced south of the ten dollar mark.  My friend Andrea Lin of the Albuquerque Journal raves about Silvano’s chile rellenos, one of the entrees for which the restaurant was (and will be) best known.


Chile rellenos are often a hit-and-miss proposition, more often than not featuring an insipid, oversized chile stuffed with vapid, gooey cheese and battered with a thick coating resembling fried stucco.   Silvano’s chile rellenos are the opposite of that sorry stereotype.  The chile is battered a bit more thickly than most, but as Andrea describes it, it’s a “light almost tempura-like batter that holds a bit of crunch even under a ladle of chile.”  This entrees works best with both red and green chile, both of which are quite good, albeit not as incendiary as some fire-eaters might like.  As with several entrees, the rellenos are served with beans and Spanish rice.  The beans are terrific, as good as they come, but the Spanish rice is….well, it’s Spanish rice, one of those inexplicable anomalies in that most New Mexican restaurants serve it though you’ll never find anyone who says they love Spanish rice.  The relleno plate is also accompanied by two large, puffy sopaipillas just beckoning for honey. 

Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant is proof that you can go home again and home can be delicious.

Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant
5016-B Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 March 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Rellenos, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Con Queso

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Pacific Rim Asian Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Pacific Rim Asian Bistro on Montgomery

In 1520, after sailing past South America’s Tierra del Fuego and through a perilous strait which he named for himself, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan laid eyes on the expansive South Sea. At the time, the waters were calm and peaceful. He renamed it the Pacific Ocean (from the Latin Mare Pacificum which means “peaceful sea.”) Magellan vastly underestimated the Pacific, thinking he would be able to cross it in a matter of days to reach his goal, the Spice Islands.

For most of Magellan’s four month crossing, the waters of the Pacific did little to belie the name he had bestowed upon it. During that crossing, however, Magellan and his men suffered terrible hunger. They ran out of fresh food and were relegated to eating grubs and rats. Unfortunately Magellan did not have the benefit of knowledge we now possess. We now know, for example, that the Pacific covers 32 percent of the world’s total surface and that it separates the countries bordering its western and eastern rims by eight time zones and the International Date Line.

The Pacific Rim's bar area

The Pacific Rim’s bar area

Magellan would be amazed that today, a sea crossing by the fastest ship will take a mere two week. There’s no way he could fathom the concept of air travel or comprehend that a typical air crossing between population centers in North America and a counterpart in one of the Pacific Rim’s Asian countries takes only 15 hours non-stop.  The notion of gourmet meals and sumptuous meals on board ship would be unfathomable, too.

The advent of information and technology has made the world significantly closer since the days of Magellan and fortunately, insects and rodents are no longer culinary fare during a journey across the Pacific. Dining at the Asian countries bordering the Pacific Rim is now considered a sublime culinary experience, albeit one for which great wealth is required. Since most of us can’t afford such an experience, we can be grateful for Albuquerque’s burgeoning growth over the past three decades. That growth has meant the introduction into our dining culture, of restaurants crossing many ethnic groups and demographics.

Miso soup

Miso soup

Today, it’s easy to travel throughout the city to partake of the great cuisine of Asia’s Pacific Rim nations. Restaurants abound which feature the cuisine of Vietnam, Japan, China, Thailand, Korea and more.  A handful do so under one roof.  On November 1st, 2007, a restaurant launched in Albuquerque which purports to provide the best culture and cuisine of all those great Pacific Rim nations.

That restaurant is the Pacific Rim Asian Bistro which according to its Web site, “combines the flavors of the Pacific Islands with the freshness of California cuisine…the spices of the Southwest with the exotic tastes of the orient.” That’s a pretty audacious claim, but don’t bet against this restaurant. With a founding ownership pedigree that once included Albuquerque’s first Fortune Cookie restaurant as well as the Samurai Grill and Sushi Bar, success is an expectation.

Kinoko Mushrooms

Kinoko Mushrooms

The Pacific Rim Asian Bistro is housed in a free-standing, 6500 square foot complex that was previously home for Eurasia Bistro and Sushi Bar and before that, the Minato Japanese Restaurant. While similar in concept to Eurasia, the Pacific Rim’s price point is more reasonable for Albuquerque’s per-capita. Even though it is situated near some of the city’s most expensive real estate (Tanoan and High Desert to name but two), swanky and upscale doesn’t mean residents aren’t price conscious.

Another reason to bet on Pacific Rim is the presence of adept sushi chefs who know their way around sushi knives.  The  sushi and fusion menu were designed by one of Albuquerque’s most recognized and acclaimed chefs James Oh.  Though his skilled hands no longer perform spectacular feats of prestidigitation with the knife at the Pacific Rim, the sushi remains quite good and a popular choice for diners.

Pot Stickers

The Pacific Rim is a sight to behold and experience. Walk into the restaurant’s front room and you might feel the way Magellan felt when he first set eyes on the Pacific. There’s a sense of calm and peace even in the front room. Attribute some of that to obvious feng shui principles in application. The soothing sounds of rivulets of water cascading down a rock design greet you in that front room and follow you into the restaurant where a larger waterfall design continues the soft percussion of water against stone. There is harmony and balance throughout the restaurant design. This is a beautiful restaurant!

Two ceiling panels on either side of the industrial ductwork simulate the twinkling of the night sky on an ebony canvas (although nothing can compare to the night skies in Northern New Mexico.) A unique dinner offering at the Pacific Rim are the bulgogi tables. Prime cuts of tender marinated beef are brought to your table where you can prepare it to your exacting specifications. This service is only available for two or more diners.

Green Chili Tempura

Green Chili Tempura

Even the menu portends great things in store for your meal. The appetizer section is called “Great Beginnings” which is subtitled with “a perfect way to start your meal.” Signature dishes are served with miso soup and steamed white rice. The miso soup arrives even before the appetizers. It is a very good soup with more wakame seaweed and less salt than miso soup at other Asian restaurants in the Duke City.

Chile addicted New Mexicans will enjoy the restaurant’s green chile tempura which is lightly battered and deep fried to allow the chile’s flavor to stand out. The green chile has a fresh flavor, but we could not discern the distinctive aroma of the roasting process. It is only medium on the piquancy scale, but quite good nonetheless. The green chile tempura is served with the restaurant’s signature “Tokyo sauce,” a sweet soy sauce with ginger, sugar and other seasonings. It is wholly unnecessary as great green chile needs no ameliorant.

Pineapple curry

Pineapple curry

Another excellent starter, especially if you love fleshy fungi, are the Kinoko Mushrooms, which are stir-fried wild mushrooms from Japan.  Kinoko is often used as a generic term for mushrooms, but not all mushrooms are created equally.  Pacific Rim’s kinokos are prepared with scallions and garlic and served with a whisper-thin broth as light and delicate as possible, wholly unlike a more intense porcini stock. It would make a wonderful soup. 

The Pacific Rim restaurant offers both conventional pot stickers (described on the menu as homemade dumplings pan-fried) and gyoza (deep-fried pork dumplings).  Both can be ordered pan-fried and steamed or boiled.  The primary difference, for the most part, is that gyoza are Japanese pot stickers.  The Pacific Pearl’s rendition of pot stickers have a crunch crust at the bottom, but when you bite into them, they are moist and soft.  With each bite you’re rewarded with the flavor of seasoned pork.  The pot stickers are served with a chilled soy dipping sauce in dire need of desalinization.

Bulgogi with namul (assorted salads)

Bulgogi with namul (assorted salads)

I’ve always said that if you want to curry my favor, treat me to a curry blessed dish. When you’re ensnared by the addictive properties of great curry (particularly when it’s ameliorated by fresh coconut milk), it makes ordering anything else a challenge. Fortunately the Pacific Rim has several curry dishes and if the pineapple curry is any indication, they’re quite good. This pineapple curry balances sweet and piquant flavors with the juicy tanginess of pineapple and the pungent exoticism of a yellow Thai curry.

This curry isn’t dessert sweet as you might find it in some Thai restaurants. Because the chef went easy on the coconut milk, the yellow curry truly stands out. This dish is made with green peppers, onions, flecks of red chilis and other Thai seasonings. The pineapple curry is served with two egg rolls sliced diagonally so as to present the ingredients: shredded pork, cabbage, carrots and sundry ingredients. The egg rolls are served with a “Shanghai dipping sauce” which is an iridescent red color and is nearly cloying in its sweetness.

911 Roll (Crab, Spicy Tuna, Jalapeno, Cream Cheese and Spicy Crab Meat) and Green Chili Special Roll (Crab meat, shrimp tempura inside, spicy tuna, fried chili on top)

If ordered for one, bulgogi is prepared and served hot off a grill in the kitchen. You may lose out on the fun experience of preparing it yourself, but you’ll still enjoy the harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy flavors. Thin strips of lean beef are marinated in the restaurant’s signature bulgogi sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with green and white onions then topped with sesame seeds. At Pacific Rim, the meat is fork tender with absolutely no sinewy or fatty pieces.

The bulgogi is served with assorted salads known as namul. These salads are comprised of pickled, spicy and hot vegetables. The pickled cucumbers and bean sprouts are quite good, but the centerpiece is the kimchi, a fiery cabbage-based staple of Korea which is heavily seasoned with garlic and chile.

Orange Duck: A half roasted duck served with a tangy orange sauce

The sushi menu includes the standard maki (rolls) and nigiri (fish atop rice) as well as sashimi. It also includes sections featuring baked sushi rolls and tempura sushi rolls for diners who may not want “raw fish.”  True sushi savants place themselves in the hands of an expert chef by ordering omakase, literally “chef’s choice.”  The chef will present a series of plates, beginning with light fare and graduating to rich, heavy dishes.  It’s an experience everyone should try.   Best of all, the Pacific Rim continues to serve sushi late into the evening (in Albuquerque that generally means past ten o’clock). 

Aficionados of incendiary sushi rolls will find several which will make ordinary humans wish for an asbestos lined mouth.  One such tear-inducing roll is appropriately named the 911 Roll.  It’s constructed of crab, spicy tuna, jalapeño, cream cheese and spicy crab meat.  The cream cheese tempers the heat somewhat.  An even more eye-watering mouthful is the green chili (sic) special roll made with crab meat, shrimp tempura inside, spicy tuna and fried chili on top.   Both these rolls render wasabi redundant.

Orange chicken

In the Orange Duck entree, you’ll experience what diners love and dislike most about duck.  What we love most is the unctuous deliciousness of a rich, savory meat.  What we dislike most about duck is all those annoying bones.  Yes, duck is very fatty, but when you consider the lusciousness of duck confit, it seems to help the fattiness go down easier.  It helps that the orange duck is awash in a sweet orange sauce punctuated with orange peel and its tangy zest.  Not all meats go as well with such a sweet sauce, but duck is such a flavorful fowl that the flavor pairing is a natural.

Also quite good with an orange sauce is chicken, especially when the orange sauce has piquant qualities courtesy of those potent rehydrated red peppers and a little orange zest.  The Pacific Rim’s orange chicken is beautifully plated–bite-sized pieces of chicken stacked atop thinly sliced oranges.  The chicken is mostly white meat and is moist and delicious, but the breading is just a bit thick.  Still, it’s several orders of magnitude better than the Chinese buffet quality orange chicken which is mushy and boring.

Thanks to the Pacific Rim, you no longer have to drive to different restaurants around town to get your fix of your favorite Asian delights. Most of them are available in one restaurant–the culture and cuisine of the Pacific Rim right here in Albuquerque.

Pacific Rim Asian Bistro
10721 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2012
1st VISIT:  15 December 2007
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Pineapple Curry, Korean BBQ, Kinoko Mushrooms, Green Chili Tempura, Orange Chicken, Orange Duck, Pot Stickers

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Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen opened in October, 2011 at the site formerly occupied by the Rodeo Grill

 “The definitive recipe for any Italian dish has not yet appeared.
We are still creating.”
Luigi Barzini

The categorization and labeling some diners tend to ascribe to Italian restaurants bespeaks not only of strong emotional preferences, but of an unwillingness to assign any merits to the “other side.”  At one side of the spectrum are the old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurants and at the other are Northern Italian restaurants.  To those who love red sauce Italian restaurants, they represent Italian comfort food in a festive and friendly ambiance stereotyped by red and white checkerboard tablecloths and bottles of Chianti at every table.  The menus–often green, white and red–feature familiar American Italian entrees such as spaghetti and meatballs served in profuse portions.  To its proponents, red sauce restaurants are homey, rustic and simple in the best sense of those terms.

Detractors usually speak of red sauce restaurants in derogatory and condescending terms.  To its “haters,” red sauce restaurants represent overcooked, mushy pasta dredged in a profligate amounts of tomato sauce “gravy.”  This, they will tell you is low-end food served by Old World restaurants as opposed to the more sophisticated “cuisine” that draws aficionados to Northern Italian restaurants and their nouveau menu offerings served in swanky milieus.  Northern Italian restaurant zealots  trumpet their genre of choice’s grilled meats, seafood and sauces based on creams and cheeses.  They appreciate that their pasta is served on the al dente side and instead of noodle type pasta, they can opt for polenta or risotto.

A kitschy ambiance

Not to be outdone, red sauce restaurant devotees joke that Northern Italian restaurants are simply Italian restaurants that wish they were French.  They consider Northern Italian cuisine haughty and pretentious, an overpriced and stuffy repast for the rich and those who wish they were.  The elegant and cultivated cuisine of the north, they argue, is a denial of the true and authentic culture of Italian cooking. 

If the aforementioned point-counterpoint debate sounds a bit like the ad infinitum diatribes in which political ideologues engage, then it accurately depicts the passion some diners actually have about their choice for Italian food.  The truth is many of us appreciate both “red sauce” and Northern Italian restaurants, maybe one a bit more than the other.  That’s why restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory’s new restaurant concept should do very well in Albuquerque.  In an enthralling interview on Break the Chain, Matt described Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen as not wanting it to be “stuck with being labeled Northern, Southern or Peasant Italian.”  He wants his restaurant to be “flexible and fun” and “all about family.”

A photo of the DiGregory family circa 1978 hangs on the foyer

If my inaugural visit, admittedly only a couple weeks after the restaurant’s launch, is any indication, Matt DiGregory is well on his way toward making Gregorio’s a restaurant in which families will genuinely enjoy themselves. Family is very important to the entrepreneurial owner.  The restaurant is replete with pictures of the DiGregory family history, including a playful one circa 1978 of his entire family attired in white on a white background.  Framed photographs of his grandparents, parents and siblings share space on the walls with a multitude of interesting and kitschy items.  There are even photographs on the menu. 

Other than family-friendly and fun, perhaps the most apropos description for Gregorio’s would be “kitschy.”  That, too, is by design.  Matt intends for his restaurant not to take itself too seriously…except for the food, of course.  The decor isn’t quite circus clown contemporary meets wacky western with a bit of rib-tickling rustic thrown in for good measure, but it’s very entertaining and fun.  There’s no way you could stereotype this as an Italian restaurant, but there’s also no way you can visit without thoroughly enjoying the mirthful milieu.  There is literally something interesting and enjoyable to look at no matter where you turn.

Calamari with a lemon aioli

Similar to the decor at The Range Cafe, another of Matt’s  successful concept restaurants, the art on display is wildly eclectic and mostly tasteful.  There are no velvet Elvis paintings, but there is a backlit painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  Lighting above the bank of booths on the north wall is a series of 1960s style lamps hung upside down so that the shades are at the bottom.   Suspended from the ceiling are latilla-style branches.  The most “serious” decorative touches are a gas stove and refrigerator, both dating from at least the fabulous 50s.

Matt describes menu offerings as “Italian comfort food,” much of which is based on family recipes.  Some of the recipes are playful, too, including a spaghetti meat sauce which includes a bit of chocolate for richness.  You’ll get the feeling that the visionary owner is having a blast creating in the kitchen instead of devising some new restaurant concept.  He also enjoys stepping out from the kitchen and delivering entrees to the patrons who ordered them.  When is the last time you saw a restaurant owner do that?  If, by the way, you think your recipe is better than Gregorio’s, you’re invited to submit it to the affable owner.  If Matt likes it, it will be run as a special for the month and will be named for the submitter.    

Appetizer: Artichoke casserole with breadcrumbs and cheese served in a cast iron pan

Gregorio’s is situated at the former site of the Rodeo Grill, a rare Matt DiGregory concept restaurant in that it wasn’t a huge success as the Range Cafe and Standard Diner are.  Unlike his other restaurants, Gregorio’s does not have a street-facing storefront and is somewhat obfuscated by a small strip mall.  One of the holdovers from the Rodeo Grill is an invitation for diners to wash down their meal with lusciously thick shakes which are made with Haagen Dazs Super Premium ice Cream.  The shakes are not only made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk, they’re served in a shake glass with the tin on the side.  It’s much like getting a shake and a half.  Better still, the flavors include the standards–vanilla, chocolate and strawberry–as well as shake specials such as spumoni shakes and lemon curd shakes.

Now for the serious stuff–the food. Gregorio’s has gone a long way to provide variety that defies stereotyping.  All pasta dishes, made from Italian quality dried pastas, are cooked to order including al dente if you desire.  The restaurant offers several pasta types: spaghetti, rigatoni, bowtie, gnocchi, penne and more, each pasta order weighing in at a robust half-pound sans sauce.  Your choice from a variety of sauces–the aforementioned spaghetti meat sauce with chocolate, Bolognese (made with turkey instead of beef), Gorgonzola cream, carbonara, arabiata, olive oil and garlic and more–will adorn the pasta you order.  Thin crust pizzas are prepared on a stone oven.  Sauces are sourced from the Santa Fe Sausage Company and salads are constructed from organic, locally sourced produce.

Bowtie pasta in an olive oil and garlic sauce with a side of sweet Italian sausage

The appetizer menu includes several intriguing options in portions large enough to be shared. A baked artichoke parmesan casserole with breadcrumbs and cheese served in a cast iron pan is a great bet. The artichoke is fresh and earthy and it absorbs the flavor of the seasoned bread crumbs and cheese. It’s served with lightly toasted Italian bread which can be used to dredge up the utterly delicious sauce.  The cast iron pan keeps the dish hot down to its last morsel.  Another super starter is the semolina dusted calamari with a lemon aioli served with marinara sauce.

Sometimes the secret to an excellent pasta dish is its simplicity.  Gregorio’s bowtie pasta in an olive oil and garlic sauce passes muster and then some.  The pasta is perfectly cooked–not too al dente and certainly not at all mushy.  It’s perfumed with just a light fragrance of fresh garlic, enough to let you know it’s there without wrecking your breath.  An excellent counterbalance is a side of sweet Italian sausage.  A single link will do.  The sausage is of medium coarseness and has a nice fennel influence.

Pan-Roasted Mahi Mahi With Grapefruit and Fennel Salsa and Risotto

At the opposite side of the simplicity scale is a special which will hopefully make it to the everyday menu.  It’s a pan-roasted mahi mahi with grapefruit and fennel salsa and risotto.  The mahi mahi is melt-in-your mouth tender with the requisite flakiness all high quality white fish have.  The grapefruit and fennel salsa includes a few slices of sweet Mandarin oranges which balance the tanginess of the grapefruit.  It’s an excellent salsa and best of all, it doesn’t mask the flavor of the fish as some sauces are prone to do.  The risotto is terrific, this compliment coming from a cynic who’s had truly great risotto only a handful of times.  Add Gregorio’s risotto to the mix.  

Darn those specials!  On our second visit, I was bound and determined to try Grandma Mary’s spaghetti and meatballs where the sauce is made with chocolate.  With an impassioned case borne out of pure love for the dish, our waitress convinced me the tomato vodka sauce penne is one of the best dishes she’s ever had and that I should forgo all others.  She saved me from struggling to wrap those long spaghetti strands around my fork while serving me my very favorite pasta, one that’s easy to stab with a fork.  The tomato vodka sauce is redolent with flavor, an olfactory-arousing sauciness with a hint of prosciutto, basil and shaved Parmesan.  It’s an excellent dish served in a flying saucer sized bowl which means you’ll be taking some home with you.

Tomato Vodka Sauce Penne

On Saturday and Sunday, Gregorio’s serves brunch from 9AM until 3PM.  The brunch menu includes breads and sweets, fritattas and breakfast specials and you can also order from the restaurant’s lunch menu.  The breakfast specials include such specialties as Italian “biscuits and gravy,” a ricotta and green onion scone, wilted spinach, two eggs with sausage gravy.  For sweet treat cravings, there’s lemon ricotta pancakes made with a berry compote and served with a tarragon butter and a pannetone French toast (pecans, cinnamon, marscapone). 

The brunch dish calling us most loudly was a breakfast pizza, a thin-crust pizza topped with bacon, sausage, mozzarella and Munster cheeses and topped with tomato sauce and two scrambled eggs.  In reading the menu’s description of “two eggs,” we had visions of two eggs over easy and unctuous yoke running all over the pizza.  Alas, that was the restaurant’s vision, too, however, the vision was better than the actual design.  Getting the eggs “just right” wasn’t always a consistent execution.  This is still a terrific pizza, a good twelve-inch pie as good as any specialty pizza in the Duke City.  The crisp bacon, fennel-blessed sausage and the two cheese blend go very well together.

Breakfast Pizza: bacon, sausage, mozzarella, two scrambled eggs

Because portions are so prolific, you have to wonder if the restaurant’s dessert menu receives more than a cursory glance, but the fact that most diners egress with doggie bags probably means desserts are quite popular, too.  As with many menu items, desserts are inventive and “different” with some liberties taken.  “This ain’t your momma’s tiramisu.”  Gregorio’s citrus tiramisu, served in a sundae glass is wholly unlike any tiramisu in Albuquerque.  If you’re looking for ladyfingers soaked in coffee, you won’t find it here, but if the literal translation of tiramisu is “pick me up,” this one will do it.  It’s a lip-pursing, sweet-tart dessert dish that’ll win you over unless you’re staunchly unable to buy into its non-traditional approach to a very traditional dessert.

Chocolate Sundae and Citrus Tiramisu

With Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen, Matt DiGregory has shown that he’s not only one of Albuquerque’s foremost restaurant impresario’s, he’s one heckuva chef.  As Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate says, it’s a winner!

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen
4200 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2012
1st VISIT:  15 October 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pan-Roasted Mahi Mahi with Grapefruit and Fennel Salsa and Risotto, Bowtie Pasta with Olive Oil and Garlic Sauce, Artichoke Casserole, Milk Shakes, Calamari, Tomato Vodka Sauce Penne, Breakfast Pizza, Citrus Tiramisu

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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