“Of all places in the country where you could have opened a restaurant, why Truth or Consequences, New Mexico?” You can bet Joseph Schmitt has been asked that question many times, especially when people find out his previous address was in Palm Springs, California where he was an accomplished travel writer with a special affinity for cooking and dining. Schmitt’s introduction to T or C started off as business but wound up as pleasure. Assigned to write about New Mexico’s salubrious spas, he enjoyed the T or C area so much that he hawked the story idea to several publications, the impetus for several return trips. With each return trip he found more to love about the area until ultimately relocating in April, 2013.
In all fairness, one of the reasons guests to Schmitt’s Latitude 33 Asian fusion restaurant ask “why T or C” is because they don’t expect to find a restaurant offering such sophisticated fare. That’s especially true if they haven’t visited America’s most affordable spa town in a while. In recent years, the influx of free-thinking quirkiness, eclectic artsiness and a bohemian spirit have touched all aspects of life in this small city, including its restaurants. If you visit T or C expecting only the solid, but unspectacular comfort food of yore, you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised to find unconventional and excellent eateries offering cosmopolitan cuisine with a local flair.
No longer are K-Bob’s, Denny’s and Subway among the highest rated Truth or Consequences restaurants on Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor. Those paragons of chain mediocrity have been supplanted by fresh, innovative independent restaurants which, quite frankly, would be competitive in larger, more cosmopolitan cities. These interlopers sport such names as the Passion Pie Cafe, Cafe Bella Luca and Latitude 33, the latter being the most recent addition to a burgeoning dining scene.
Latitude 33 is so named because it’s on the latitude (33.12889 to be more precise) in which the restaurant and T or C sit. Portions of Japan and China, two of the pan-Asian countries honored on the restaurant’s fusion menu, also lie on that latitude. Situated near the heart of the historic bathhouse and spa district, Latitude 33 fits right in with the district’s bright color palette. Distressed brick and corrugated window treatments give the exterior a rustic look and feel while the artsy interior is a melange of Southwestern art with Asian accoutrements on wasabi green walls. Three picnic tables are available for al fresco dining with your four-legged children.
The menu is fresh and innovative, a much-welcome respite from the copycat fare many other so-called “fusion” restaurants tend to offer. It’s a menu reminiscent not of Albuquerque or Santa Fe Asian fusion restaurants, but of the wildly eclectic and creative fusion restaurants in such cosmopolitan cities as Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. The price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality, diversity and in-house preparation of all soups, sauces, dressings and stocks.
For dinner, the most expensive item (crispy duck confit) is $17 with other items ranging from $9 to $15. Lunch specials, served until 3PM, are all south of ten dollars. The full menu is offered Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 3PM. The dinner menu is available from 3PM to 9PM on Saturdays. While you peruse the menu, make it a point to enjoy a sparkling strawberry-ginger lemonade, a homemade puree with soda water. It’s a wonderfully refreshing blend of sweet-tangy strawberries, tart lemonade and lively ginger with just a hint of fizz.
Starters include the house Thai-style chicken noodle soup with coconut milk and rice noodles; a small Asian salad (cabbage mix, peanut dressing, veggies, sesame seeds); and a triumvirate of appetizers. At a bare minimum, you should order at least two because if you order only one, you’ll certainly regret you didn’t sample the others. If there’s an appetizer you haven’t previously found in New Mexico, that’s one you should consider. The other should be a favorite appetizer so you can compare your previous favorite with Latitude 33’s made-from-scratch version.
Among the former, green chile aficionados should order the shishito peppers, a mild Japanese pepper not entirely unlike our own New Mexico green chiles. Shishito peppers are three to four inches long and inherit the olfactory-arousing aroma of green chile when flash-fried until their skin is lightly blistered. Unlike green chile, you don’t peel them after they’re flash-fried. Latitude 33 serves them with a green chile ponzu (a watery citrus-based sauce) sauce that complements the shishito peppers wonderfully. You will absolutely fall in love with shishito peppers. Note: The only place we’ve been able to find the addictive shishito peppers has been the Santa Fe Grower’s Market. Shame on Asian restaurants in the Duke City and Santa Fe for not showcasing this green chile “mini me.”
In recent years, fried green beans have become a rather trendy finger food appetizer health-conscious parents are actually able to get their children to enjoy–even if their persnickety children otherwise hate green beans. Whether ordered in lieu of fattier French fries or for healthful considerations, fried green beans are quite delicious when prepared correctly. At Latitude 33, the green beans are lightly breaded and fried to a golden hue then served with a Chinese remoulade sauce. Each about the length of your index finger, they’re crispy just beyond al dente. The remoulade is a savory-tangy-slightly piquant dip which may remind you of the dip you dredge up with your favorite snack.
One of the most popular entrees on the menu are spicy peanut noodles, an entree for which the name falls well short of describing its deliciousness. Normally offered with tofu or chicken, the accommodating staff will substitute flank steak for a pittance more. The flank steak is seasoned magnificently and is as tender as the song of a summer wind. It’s a worthy protein for the elongated strands of wild rice noodles in a house-made spicy peanut sauce served with edamame (immature soybeans in the pod) and red peppers garnered with green onion, a wedge of lime and cucumber. The spicy peanut sauce is only mildly piquant, but imbues the noodles with a delightful flavor that marries especially well with the other ingredients. Be very judicious with the lime wedge because too much citrus will change the flavor profile significantly (and not necessarily for the better).
In years of eating at Thai and Asian restaurants, few entrees have surprised me nearly as much as Latitude 33’s coconut green curry chicken. New Mexico’s Thai restaurants tend to prepare green curry dishes with bamboo shoots in a sweet-spicy coconut milk-enhanced curry. Latitude 33’s housemade version is made with Jasmine rice and no noodles. The curry is imbued with a touch of Hatch green chile, fresh broccoli, onion, red pepper, chicken and toasted coconut. The toasted coconut was heretofore not something my pedantic lips had ever experienced with green curry. Texturally and from a flavor perspective, it’s a nice touch. Latitude 33’s green curry isn’t overwhelmed by coconut milk as so many Thai curries in America tend to be. Instead, it treated us to a wide variety of thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture combinations.
Desserts are limited to green tea ice cream and coconut black rice pudding with whipped cream. Made with sticky whole grain black rice, just a modicum of coconut milk and a generous sprinkling of toasted coconut, this rice pudding is creamy, mildly sweet, a little savory, and very coconutty. Unlike most of the black rice puddings you’ll find, this one is served cold. It took one bite to get used to the cold sensation and focus on just how good this dessert can be when made correctly.
Latitude 33 is just one more reason we’ve grown to love Truth or Consequences, a city which surprises us more and more every time we visit. This is one restaurant with which you’ll fall in love, too.
304 South Pershing Street
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Spicy Peanut Noodles, Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce, Coconut Green Curry Chicken, Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce Coconut Black Rice Pudding,