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Happy Belly Deli – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

The Happy Belly Deli in Truth or Consequences

One of the inevitable truths about life is that the sins of our youth will revisit us in our middle age and beyond. We feel it especially in the morning when every bone in our bodies aches as we struggle to get out of bed. That’s also when we’re most reminded that what doesn’t hurt no longer works, that the spring in our step has been replaced by a creak in our knees and that our backs go out more often than we do. It’s then that we regret our youthful impetuousness and perceived immortality.

My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and the most energetic septuagenarian I know, gave me this advice: “go south, young man.” More precisely, he advised going to Truth or Consequences to luxuriate in the healing waters of the city’s hot springs. For some 12,000 years, the city’s geothermal hot mineral waters have been frequented for their restorative powers. Even Apache warrior Geronimo brought his wounded men to the waters so they could heal from battle.

The patio at the Happy Belly Deli

Truth or Consequences (“T or C” to most New Mexicans) has long been a popular destination for snowbirds, tourists and those of us who love its salubrious waters. Water is also a popular draw for recreation seekers who frequent Elephant Butte Lake, the largest and most popular lake in the Land of Enchantment. The 40-mile long reservoir is especially popular during the Memorial Day weekend when the number of visitors approaches 100,000 or the population equivalent of what would be New Mexico’s second largest city.

Unlike Santa Fe and Albuquerque, T or C has not, however, been widely regarded by cognoscenti as a dining destination, most of its eateries being considered “small town good.” That’s not a bad thing by any stretch. While most small towns restaurants in New Mexico may not provide exciting, cutting edge dining, they generally make up for it with consistent “stick to your ribs” comfort food favorites served in homey milieus by attentive and friendly servers who make you feel right at home. Nearly forty independent and chain restaurants operate within the city

Friday and Saturday are Pizza Nights at the Happy Belly Deli. Here’s a Green Chile Philly (Philly steak, mushrooms, green chile and onions)

Many of T or C’s best restaurants are within easy walking distance of the historic bathhouse district which means that after a relaxing session of letting your stress melt away and your body detoxify, you can saunter over for a leisurely meal. One of the city’s most popular eateries is the aptly named Happy Belly Deli, mere feet away from the Fire Water Lodge where hot mineral water tubs are available in most rooms. Only a patio separates the 50′s style motor court Lodge and its guest rooms from the Deli.

That patio is a haven for hungry diners and their four-legged children. It’s also a favorite gathering place for people who appreciate discussing, debating and deliberating the topic of the day with other close proximity diners, whether they’re like-minded or not. Starlings like it, too, recognizing that most diners will toss them a  crumb or two. Larry believes the Happy Belly Deli serves the best breakfast in T or C.

A chocolate croissant and a chocolate chip cookie

If the pizza is any indication, lunch and dinner must be pretty good, too.  Friday and Saturday are pizza nights at the Happy Belly Deli.  The pizza menu showcases six specialty pizzas and a build-your-own-pizza option in which you can select from among a number of ingredients (pepperoni, sausage, ham, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, green pepper, artichoke hearts, green chile, spinach, black olives, pineapple, jalapeños, pepperoncinis and basil.  Two sizes–medium and large–are available as are dinner salad and garlic knots appetizers.

The Green Chile Philly pizza is a thin-crusted canvas topped with Philly steak, mushrooms, green chile and onions topped by melted mozzarella.  It’s a good pizza–bordering on greatness were it not so salty and if the chile had just a bit more bite.  The sauce is ladled on thickly and has more of an oregano influence than it does garlic.  The Philly steak is apportioned generously and the mushrooms are fresh and perfectly prepared.

Green chile bagel with egg and cheese

Pastries are even better than the pizza, especially the chocolate croissant (Pain au chocolat for mon amis Francophile).  It’s a light, flaky and buttery croissant roll filled with enough chocolate to leave a lip-smacking chocolate mustache.  The intrepid bakers also create a wondrous raspberry cheese filled croissant warranting a few lip smacks of its own.  My Kim prefers the chocolate chip cookies which are also quite good.

Breakfast on the patio means coffee, even if the temperature threatens to visit triple digits.  The coffee is Red Rock Roasters Premium Coffee out of Albuquerque.  Three pots of coffee are brewed, each a different gourmet blend.  You’ll pour your own coffee, as much as you want…and you will want lots of it, especially the piñon coffee.  Native New Mexicans love piñon almost as much as we love chile.  This coffee truly is the best part of waking up.

Kielbasa Scramble: Kielbasa, potatoes, scrambled eggs, red and green peppers and onions with two pieces of sourdough bread toast

If you stay at the Fire Water Lodge, you’ll receive a coupon for a complimentary bagel with egg and cheese or a six dollar equivalent.  Other bathhouse district motels may provide similar coupons.  The bagels are chewy and thick with several varieties available.  Naturally my choice was a green chile bagel stuffed with lightly salted scrambled eggs and melted cheese.  With a bit more piquancy, the green chile bagel would have been even better, but I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth here.

A much more substantial breakfast is a Kielbasa Scramble, a hearty eater’s feast of potatoes, scrambled eggs, red and green peppers, onions and several slices of kielbasa served with two pieces of toast (your choice of rye, wheat, white and sourdough).  This is an excellent breakfast providing a terrific interplay of strong and subdued flavors.  Among the former are the kielbasa and the red and green peppers which go very well with the eggs and potatoes.  This breakfast is easily large enough for two.

Two pancakes

An even larger breakfast includes two eggs, home fries, toast, a side of two pancakes and your choice of chorizo, bacon or sausage.   The entree-sized pancakes (certainly not a “short stack) are noteworthy, two fluffy orbs covering most of the plate.  Syrup is out of small plastic tubs so it’s not heated.  That’s a nit because the pancakes themselves are steaming and delicious.

The Happy Belly Deli wait staff is an energetic and attentive bunch, some coiffed in colors matching their tie dye attire.  The breakfast guests in particular are an eclectic lot.  Sit on the porch and you’ll be in close proximity to your neighbors so it pays to be an extrovert–or to have two beautiful dachshunds with you.   In no time you’ll be engaging in neighborly discourse, no topic taboo.  It’s spirited and it’s fun, one of the many charms of dining at this truly terrific restaurant.  From an experiential perspective, it’s one of the state’s best.

Happy Belly Deli
313 N Broadway St Map.7142063
Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico
(575) 894-3354
Facebook Page
: 17 June 2012
1st VISIT: 15 June 2012
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Philly Pizza, Green Chile Bagel with Egg and Cheese, Chocolate Croissant, Chocolate Chip Cookie, Kielbasa Scramble, Pancakes

Happy Belly Deli on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bella Luca – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Bella Luca in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin
to those of a successful tightrope walker;
an abiding passion for the task,
courage to go out on a limb
and an impeccable sense of balance
Bryan Miller
Former New York Times food critic

The qualities of a truly exceptional cook do not include plying his or her trade under the spotlight of a heavily trafficked metropolitan restaurant frequented by the glitterati and anointed by the cognoscenti or the Food Network.   Truly exceptional cooks can shine brightly even outside the big city and media spotlight.  Some of the very best cooks and chefs in the fruited plain are relatively unheralded by the teeming masses and remain undiscovered by the the saccharine television food programs.  Some of them toil far from the well-beaten-and-well-eaten path and care more about the craft than they do the pursuit of celebrity. 

Truly exceptional cooks shine so brightly that their reputations for exceedingly high standards and inventive cuisine precede the media stampede.  The very best among these exceptional chefs maintain those standards after they’ve been discovered.  Though they may appreciate any newfound attention, their focus remains on proving themselves with every single meal and to every single guest.  These are the truly exceptional cooks, the ones whose passion for the task shines through!

The dimly lit ambiance at Bella Luca

One such chef is Byron Harrel-Mackenzie, chef and founder of Bella Luca in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico who prefers small town friendliness to the dog-eat-dog world of the fishbowl (wow, two bad metaphors in one sentence). Before settling in relatively sleepy T or C in 2007, he plied his craft under the bright lights and glitz of the Signature at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Unlike the proverbial light under a bushel basket whose brilliance remains hidden, his restaurant quickly earned a reputation as a hidden gem.  Snowbirds, tourists and those of us who love T or C’s salubrious waters began spreading the word about this oasis in the desert.

Fittingly Bella Luca translates to “beautiful light” because that’s precisely what this metropolitan caliber Italian restaurant is.  It’s the brightest culinary shining light in a city named by Budget Travel in 2008 as one of the “ten coolest small towns” in America, an honor accorded to cities with fewer than 10,000 people—but which can rival larger cities when it comes to good food, culture, and quality of life.

Bread at Bella Luca

Beautiful light might not be a term you’d ascribe to Bella Luca’s minimalist ambiance.  From the outside, there are few telltale signs (except maybe the crowded parking lot) as to why Bella Luca has become one of the highest regarded Italian restaurants in New Mexico.  If your expectations are for a swanky fine-dining interior, you won’t find that either.  Instead, Bella Luca is one large dining room whose cynosure is fittingly a brightly illuminated open kitchen. The dine-in experience includes painted concrete floor, seating that is more utilitarian than it is comfortable and north-facing picture windows with not much of a view.

Located in the historic bathhouse district, the restaurant is one block west of Broadway and within easy sauntering distance of the healing waters.  In terms of ambiance, Bella Luca might be antithetical to most foodie’s conception of a fine-dining quality Italian restaurant, but then it’s conceivable few people even notice their surroundings when they’re raptly enjoying their meals.  Admittedly, my inaugural visit to the beautiful light was to pick up dinner and take it back to our room at the Fire Water Lodge.  Eating out of biodegradable to-go boxes with plastic utensils is hardly the way you’d want to first experience Bella Luca, but the fact it still impressed us speaks volumes about this Italian idyll.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

In terms of a holistic dining-in experience, our inaugural visit was wholly unlike that of Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, who called his first meal at Bella Luca “the best dining experience I have ever had in New Mexico.”  Another friend and fellow foodie Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott places Bella Luca in rarefied company among the very best Italian restaurants in New Mexico.  Local IQ publisher Kevin Hopper may have given the restaurant the ultimate compliment in calling it “a chef’s restaurant.” 

Because it is a chef’s restaurant, Chef Harrel-MacKenzie won’t compromise on quality.  All dishes are prepared from scratch, employing Escoffier cooking fundamentals.  His focus is on taste and balance of flavor, using pristine ingredients to enhance the individual flavors of each element.  He procures ricotta from New York City for recipes which call for it. He flies fresh seafood in daily. His wife’s grandmother Rusty, a octogenarian transplanted from Boston makes the restaurant’s homemade raviolis weekly from a  100-year-old recipe.  The quality shows.

Braised short rib in demi-glaze over gnocchi

Sophia Loren, the ageless movie siren and perhaps the most voluptuous septuagenarian in the world, once said “everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”  Certainly genetics and portion control helped, too, but perhaps her point is that spaghetti has had a ubiquitous presence on her diet as it does for many people.  Spaghetti is something my Kim loves, too, leaving the “experimenting” to me.  The spaghetti at Bella Luca is among the very best we’ve had in New Mexico.  The meatballs certainly are.  Four of them are served on the plate, each large and meaty.  The spaghetti sauce is redolent with Italian seasonings and applied parsimoniously enough for you to enjoy the pasta.  It’s the Italian way. 

It’s the chef’s way to take creative liberties with traditional entrees.  The results are often brilliant.  Take, for example, the braised short rib in demi-glaze over gnocchi, a dish pitting textural and flavor contrasts against each other in a way that differences meld into a superb coalescence.  The gnocchi are delightfully uneven dumplings of deliciousness, usually signifying a hand-made approach.  Each gnocchi is close-your-eyes-and-swoon light on the tongue, as smooth and soft as pillows.  The braised short ribs are melt-in-your-mouth good.

Prickly Pear and Raspberry Sorbet

Dessert options include tiramisu and other traditional Italian favorites, but on a sweltering summer day after soaking in a tub of geothermal hot mineral waters, you can’t beat sorbet and gelato, both made on the premises.  Two terrific flavors are prickly pear and raspberry, both of which taste as their named ingredients should taste and both of which are smooth, delicate and absolutely delicious.

In 2010, Chef Harrel-Mackenzie was invited to prepare dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, an honor bestowed only to exceptional cooks.  For New Mexicans who have discovered Cafe Bella Luca, it’s no surprise the chef would be accorded such an honor.

Cafe Bella Luca
303 Jones St Map.7142063
Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico
(575) 894-9866
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 June 2012
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Spaghetti and Meatballs, Braised Short Rib in Demi Glaze, Prickly Pear and Raspberry Sorbet

Cafe BellaLuca on Urbanspoon

Los Arcos Steak & Lobster House – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Because of the hot mineral springs which issued from the ground, the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico was originally named “Hot Springs.” Seeking to distinguish itself from other cities of the same name and to advertise its plentiful resources free of charge, city residents voted to rename the city in response to a challenge rendered by a successful 1950s NBC television show called Truth or Consequences. The rest, as they say, is history. This small resort town with an year round permanent population of just over 8,000 bustles with activity, much of it centered around nearby Elephant Butte lake.

Also bustling is the city’s most well-known restaurant, Los Arcos, a genuine steak and lobster house with an ambience reminiscent of the 1960s. In part, that means a smoky path to family style tables in close proximity to one another. The menu will have you doing a double-take, starting with a list of sophisticated appetizers which include oysters Rockefeller and innovations such as sirloin taquitos and shrimp won tons. We didn’t order appetizers in anticipation of the alluring beef entrees so persuasively described on the menu.

I opted for the baby back ribs which were mesquite smoked with a pronounced orange pecan barbecue sauce. The sauce was certainly better than the ribs which, while meaty, weren’t off-the-fork tender. Kim had the smoked pork loin, a thick cut loin steak that was about four inches in diameter and about three inches tall. It was tender and tasty, but not necessarily brimming with rememberability. Precursors to our meals were a Campbell soup caliber New England clam chowder for me and a watered down Caesar salad for Kim.

If you’re expecting Chicago quality steak or Boston caliber seafood, you won’t get it at Los Arcos, but if you’re willing to settle for a good, solid meal that will fill you up and which tastes good, Los Arcos certainly does its job.

Los Arcos Steak & Lobster House
1400 N. Date
Truth or Consequences, NM

LATEST VISIT: 5 March 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Smoked Pork Loin