Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine

If salt is the odorless spice, smoke is the ephemeral magical invisible spice.
You can’t feel it, you can’t touch it, but you can taste it.”
~Chef Seamus Mullen, Tertulia Restaurant, New York City.

Have you ever wondered why some people drool when they pass by a computer displaying a fireplace screen saver? They’re not thinking about romance. They’re thinking about barbecue. There’s just something about smoked foods that has excited humans across the millennia. It’s been that way since a lightning bolt struck a mastodon and rendered its flesh delicious. Since then humans have been genetically predisposed to crave the flavors created by the penetration of smoke.  We associate fire and the fragrant bouquet of wood smoke with  grilling, barbecues and mostly, eating things we love.

When my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott told me of an Albuquerque chef incorporating the element of smoke into virtually every ingredient of every dish he creates, my initial inclination was to think Ryan had been smoking something. It hadn’t surprised me to read in Around the World in 80 Dinners that Bill and Cheryl Jamison ate smoked zebra carpaccio in South Africa as much as it did to learn that the chef of whom Ryan spoke, Chef Paco Aceves, smokes marshmallows, peanut butter, tomatoes, bananas and so much more at Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine. Because smoking techniques are applied to all sorts of meats and fish, it’s almost a paradigm shift to hear of smoking techniques used outside of meat, fish and vegetables.

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Chef-Proprietor-Genius Paco Aceves

For Paco Aceves, the lure of aromatic smoke plumes emanating from a smoker began at an early age because his first job was as the “pit boy” at Geezamboni’s, a popular eatery which put the “cue” in Albarbecuerque for many years. It was Paco’s job to tend to the smoker, stoking it with fragrant woods to keep the smoker at an optimal temperature for the “low and slow” preparation of meats. Low and slow, as barbecue purists know, has nothing to do with Española’s low-riders, but everything to do with the preparation of meats utilizing low heat over an extended period of time.

Paco’s baptism by fire fueled his interest in the culinary arts. After graduating from St. Pius High School in Albuquerque, he matriculated at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI) culinary arts program then later studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the country’s most respected school for culinary arts training. Paco returned to the Duke City in 2012 and partnered with Sue Heistermann to launch his eponymous restaurant.  Coincidentally, Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine is situated at the former site of Geezamboni’s (and later Johndhi’s) on the southwest intersection of Rio Grande and Griegos. The launch reunited him with the well-seasoned smoker on which he cut his teeth.

Ryan "Break the Chain" Scott stands in front of the massive smoker used to create smoked deliciousness

Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott stands in front of the massive smoker used to create smoked deliciousness

Dismiss any notions you might have that Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine continues the barbecue traditions of Geezamboni’s and Johndhi’s. Paco’s predecessors practiced American barbecue traditions, garnering their reputations on the strength of their smoke and sauce. Paco’s is more sophisticated; it’s American barbecue grown up, evolved and evangelized across the world stage. Chef Aceves captures the essence of smoke and applies it to a repertoire of dishes inspired by his training and his travels.

Savvy diners will eschew the indoor dining room and, weather permitting, will gravitate toward the aroma of smoked food wafting toward them from the outdoor patio. That aroma comes from delicate apple and hickory woods which will envelop you in a comforting fragrance Chef Aceves should bottle and sell as a cologne. Trepidation set in (thank you to Albuquerque’s ubiquitous winds) during our inaugural visit and we ate indoors. We had the entire dining room to ourselves while more intrepid, more savvy diners ate outdoors in the presence of smoky Shangri-La.

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Brisket Nachos: Tender Smoked Pulled Brisket, Green Onions, Cheddar, Tomatoes & Green Chlle Queso

The seasonal menu is full of surprises, offering items from various countries, but not prepared as they would be prepared in their country of origin. Instead, Chef Aceves imparts the element of smoke to otherwise traditional dishes. Because of this element, the bigger surprises won’t occur until you bite into the foods you order. Menu descriptions can’t do justice to the flavors imparted by the just right amount of smoke. After tasting Paco’s variations on international foods with which you may have thought you were familiar, you might come to the realization that those foods were missing something.

Salads and starters include four very inventive salads as well as a spinach and olive strudel and brisket nachos, an appetizer destined to become a Duke City favorite. The menu lists only six entrees, the descriptions of which won’t blow you away (but eating them will). Entrees come with your choice of two sides, but you can order more a la carte for a pittance more. On the Spring, 2013 menu, those sides are French green beans, grilled squash and onions, glazed carrots, almond and cranberry brown rice, roasted potatoes and Cheddar grits.

Appetizers

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Tortilla Roll-Up: Feta Cheese, Guacamole, Pepper Relish, Smoked Pork

31 May 2013: In 2006, the Wall Street Journal named the nachos created in two New Mexico restaurants as among the fifteen very best nachos across the fruited plain. Should the Wall Street Journal revisit New Mexico, they will most certainly find nachos that supplant some of the top fifteen nachos in America. Among them would be the Brisket Nachos at Paco’s. These are outstanding nachos, some of the very best you’ll find anywhere. What makes these nachos special is the tender pulled brisket which has been smoked low and slow for nearly fourteen hours. Brisket is one of those cuts of beef which is both lean and fat depending on where you cut it. That combination makes it very flavorful when prepared correctly. Paco’s pairs the tender brisket with fresh green onions, Cheddar, smoked tomatoes and a green chile con queso (sour cream need not apply). This is a mouth-watering introduction to Paco’s.

Campechana

Campechana

31 May 2013: As an amuse bouche (a complimentary introduction to the chef’s cuisine), Chef Aceves brought us one of the most unique (for lack of a better name) tortilla roll-ups we’ve had: a lightly toasted tortilla engorged with a sweet-tart pepper relish, sharp feta cheese, ethereal smoked pork, sweet raisins and guacamole. Sometimes the most surprisingly delicious dishes are those which pair seemingly incongruous ingredients. This tortilla roll-up is an example of contrasting elements complementing each other to form terrific bursts of flavor in surprising combinations: the sweetness of the raisin against the unctuousness of the guacamole, the sharpness of the feta against the tartness of the pepper relish, for example. 

Paco's unique take on lettuce wraps

Paco’s unique take on lettuce wraps

31 May 2013: A surprise starter on the night of our inaugural visit is a favorite of Mexican restaurants everywhere.  It’s Campechana, a Mexican seafood cocktail constructed of sundry seafood, usually white fish, shrimp, oysters, mussels, squid and more.  The seafood swims alongside diced tomatoes, onions and cilantro in a large goblet of Clamato and lime juice.  It’s a fresh, healthy and invigorating.   The delicious difference at Paco’s is that the seafood is smoked.  If you’ve ever had good smoked oysters, you’ll appreciate what the element of smoke can do to seafood.  It’s a transformative influence. 

26 September 2013:  Whenever a menu, seemingly any menu, offers lettuce wraps, the seemingly de facto comparison is to the lettuce wraps made popular at Paul Fleming (PF) Chang’s.  Dialogue which typically ensues is “these lettuce wraps are better (or worse) than the ones at PF Chang’s.  As someone who finds lettuce wraps insipid, boring and usually almost candied, such comparisons are lost on me.  That is, until sampling what Paco can do with lettuce wraps.  The difference-maker is the smoked pork which is shredded (not minced) and mixed with woody mushrooms and celery in a light sauce of ginger and soy.  Paco’s lettuce wraps made a believe out of me.

Entrees

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Mussels: Sautéed Mussels with Potatoes & Leeks in a Smooth Coconut Milk and Chipotle Broth, served with Grilled Bread

31 May 2013: It didn’t take much perusal through the menu to decide that the Thai-inspired mussels dish would be making its way from the kitchen to my table. This dish is a fusion of flavors and ingredients: sautéed Prince Edward Island mussels with potatoes and leeks in a smooth coconut milk and chipotle broth served with grilled bread. The broth is an exemplar of comfort food, so good you’ll ask for more bread so you can sop up every delectable drop. The sweetness of the coconut milk and the piquancy of the chipotle don’t offset one another so much as they form a dynamic duo that showcases the best qualities of each. The potatoes are perfectly prepared, an excellent foil for the briny mussels.

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Brick Chicken: Half Chicken, oven roasted till crispy and dressed with Coriander Dressing, parsley and Peanuts

31 May 2013: One of the specialties of the house and perhaps the restaurant’s most popular dish is the lemon coriander brick chicken. Served in a half chicken portion size, you’re almost guaranteed to take some home with you. It’s a chicken on steroids, poultry so profuse it makes those desiccated birds at the grocery store look anorexic in comparison.  Best of all, it’s absolutely delicious–moist, meaty and seasoned perfectly. The most eye-opening aspect of this pulchritudinous poultry is the complexity of the lemon and coriander rub which isn’t confined to the skin. It penetrates deeply and imbues the chicken with a magnificent flavor profile. This is one chicken my friend Sr. Plata needs to try on his quest to find Albuquerque’s best non-fried chicken dish.

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Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott holds up a Cast Iron Chuck Filet (Juicy House Rub Steak Gently Seared on Cast Iron)

31 May 2013: Several years ago, we experienced a carnivore’s dream come true in dining on a coffee spice-rubbed rotisserie filet mignon at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill.  It’s a steak I’ve dreamed about several times, much to the detriment of my pillow.  At Paco’s, we found an even better steak.  It’s the cast iron chuck filet as tender as possible (you can cut it with a fork) and more delicious than should be legal.  The filet is prepared with a spice rub that includes smoked paprika, espresso, cayenne and garlic salt.  The triumvirate of espresso, smoked paprika and cayenne should be mandated on every steak.  The cayenne lends a bit of piquancy while the smoked paprika imbues the steak with even more meatiness.

Grilled House Steak Smoked Shallot and Bourbon Compound Butter + cedar roasted mushrooms

Grilled House Steak Smoked Shallot and Bourbon Compound Butter + cedar roasted mushrooms

26 September 2013: Ironically, many of the very best steaks available in the Duke City area don’t come from expensive steak restaurants, but from restaurants specializing eclectic offerings such as Blades’ Bistro in Placitas and P’Tit Louis Bistro in Albuquerque.  Add Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine to that list.  It would be easy to ascribe the many fine qualities of the grilled house steak to the grilling process which imbues each meaty morsel with a faint smokiness, but that would shortchange the deep penetrating influence of the smoked shallot and bourbon compound butter, not to mention the earthy accompaniment of cedar roasted mushrooms.  The cut of meat, an exquisite tri-tip, is about three-quarters of an inch thick and despite being relatively low in fat, has a surprising moistness and rich, full-bodied flavor.   Served with two sides, it goes especially well with roasted shallot and chive mashed potatoes and glazed carrots.

Desserts

S'Mores Paco style

S’Mores Paco style

31 May 2013: There’s absolutely no surcease in quality on the dessert menu.   Desserts are a must-have, so if it means filling up a few doggie bags with entrees, sides and starters so you’ll have room for dessert, all the better.  Perhaps the most wonderful of four desserts is one the charismatic Ryan Scott calls the “Elvis Presley” although it’s missing one element (bacon) from Elvis’s favorite sandwich.  This Paco’s dessert pairs a split caramelized banana with peanut butter cheesecake mousse drizzled over by a rich caramel.  The peanut butter cheesecake mousse is amazing, a sweet-salty-rich amalgam as ephemeral as a wisp of smoke.  Come to think of it, ephemeral, which means short-lived, is the most apt description for this dessert because it’ll go quickly.

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Peanut Butter Cheesecake Mousse, Roasted Bananas

31 May 2013: Is there any back-to-nature pairing as tasty as S’mores, that campfire favorite of children of all ages?  Paco’s has created a more adult version of the S’more with smoked marshmallows, cinnamon caramel and powdered sugar on a Graham cracker crust. It’ll take you back to days of yore when New Mexico’s forests weren’t on fire and you could enjoy a S’more or ten.

Smoked Pecan Pie Ala Mode

Smoked Pecan Pie Ala Mode

26 September 2013:  If you’ve never heard grown men swoon, you should have been with Ryan and I as we experienced a foodgasm or two with every morsel of Paco’s smoked pecan pie ala mode.  Pecan pie is one of those richer than it needs to be foods which is often dismissed from the pantheon of great desserts.  At Paco’s, the smoking influence lends a campfire quality to what might otherwise have been a rather ordinary pecan pie, transforming it into an extraordinary dessert.  The ice cream provides a nice foil and textural contrast.   

Lunch

Paco began serving lunch in September, 2013. The pairing of a warm autumn day with the capacious patio at Paco’s is idyllic for a great lunch. The lunch menu includes a number of sandwiches and salads interpreted in Paco’s unique style, but the accommodating restaurant will serve dinner entrees whenever possible. Lunch is served Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 until 2.

Service at Paco’s is exceptional, especially if you’re attended to by JB, a 25-year veteran of the food service industry.  JB is attentive, friendly and knowledgeable, a paragon of professionalism.

Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine was featured on the third episode of Break the Chain.  If this review doesn’t convince you that you need to visit Paco’s soon, Ryan Scott will.

Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine
3851 Rio Grande Blvd. NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 September 2013
1st VISIT: 31 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$$
BEST BET:Brisket Mussels; Brick Chicken, Lemon Coriander Dressing; Cast Iron Chuck Filet; Mussels; Cheddar Grits; Campechana; S’more, Cinnamon Caramel & Powdered Sugar; Peanut Butter Cheesecake Mousse, Roasted Bananas

Paco's International Smoked Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille in Bernalillo

“Ancient spirits dwell in New Mexico, since before the existence of humanity.”
The Husband: A Novel by Dean Koontz

FROM THE ANCIENT SPIRITS BLOG ON JULY 17:  Due to unforeseen circumstances Ancient Spirits Bar and Grille has had to close its doors. We have lost one of our owner/investors and are searching for someone to take his place. We are hoping that this is only a temporary setback and that we will be able to open back up very soon. Sorry for the inconvenience and thank you for your support.

The presence of ancient spirits is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico.  It’s a presence as palpable as a soft caress or a small, still voice.  You can feel that presence while standing reverently under a canopy of stars when the hushed stillness of an ebony night is punctuated by a gentle breeze.  You can sense those ancient spirits around craggy canyon walls which reach precipitously upwards to cerulean skies.  Contrary to what is popularly postulated, these spirits are earthbound not because of unresolved issues, but because they can’t bear to leave the preternatural beauty of the Land of Enchantment.

Some will call it sacrilege, others will argue it’s a tribute, but in March, 2013, a new restaurant named for those ancient spirits was launched in Bernalillo.  Those who consider it sacrilege should remember that some of those spirits earned their reputations as pranksters, the most famous of which is Kokopelli. Known also as a fertility god, healer and raconteur, the flute-playing Lothario has come to embody what is colorful and fun about the Southwest.  It’s only fitting that effigies of the hunch-backed flutist festoon the Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille.

The main dining room at Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille

The main dining room at Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille

Ancient Spirits is situated to the immediate east of the Santa Ana Star Casino in a capacious edifice owned by the Pueblo of Santa Ana (which is not involved in the operation of the restaurant in any capacity).  Area residents will recognize the complex as having previously housed Capo’s Bottega Ristorante Italiano and before that the Milagro Brewery & Grill.  Perhaps because of the mediocrity of previous tenants, several of my foodie friends were trepidacious about dining at Ancient Spirits, believing it would be more of the same.

Any trepidation or uncertainty we may have felt ourselves quickly dissipated when we ran into executive chef Enrique Guerrero, one of the most accomplished and personable chefs in the Land of Enchantment. Chef Guerrero has a very impressive culinary pedigree that includes having served for more than four years as personal chef for Mexican President Carlos Salinas. During that stint, he had the privilege of having prepared state dinners for Pope John Paul, II as well as President George H.W. Bush.

Cowgirl Quesadilla with Sweet Potato Fries

Cowgirl Quesadilla with Sweet Potato Fries

In New Mexico, Chef Guerrero presided over the kitchens of some of most highly acclaimed restaurants during their halcyon periods, including the now defunct La Mancha at Galisteo Inn when it garnered recognition from Bon Appetit as among “ten of our favorite dining spots in vacation destinations around the country.” Under his watch, La Mancha was also named by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the nation’s 26 “Hot Tables.” More recently, Chef Guerrero was the founding chef for both the O Eating House in Pojoaque and Mangiamo Pronto in Santa Fe.

Chef Guerrero could not have selected a more inviting milieu in which to ply his considerable talents. Ancient Spirits is a very attractive, very well laid-out establishment with a sprawling patio providing awe-inspiring views of the bosque and Sandias. Blonde wood floors, massive floor to ceiling vigas and kiva fireplaces adorn the main dining room. Oneophiles will appreciate the separate bottle room in which they can select from among different wines. Plans are also in motion to relaunch the brewery operation.

Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada

Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada

Ancient Spirits is described on its Facebook page as a “Southwest Steakhouse,” which offers an eclectic array of food styles: American (new), Mexican, sandwiches, seafood, Southern, steakhouse and vegetarian. You can trust that Chef Guerrero will infuse unique and innovative touches–sometimes with a bit of whimsy, sometimes with a bit of sophistication, but always with a delicious actualization of flavors in each dish.

Surprisingly the lunch menu doesn’t list appetizers unless you consider the four taquitos on the “taquito divertido” menu as starters.  Divertido, a Spanish word which translates to “fun or enjoyable” makes sense.  The lunch menu also includes four “from the garden” salads and a taquito soup.  The sixteen item Platos De Almuerzo (lunch plates) menu features New Mexican entrees, burgers, a petite steak, red chile battered Alaskan cod, quesadilla and sandwiches.  Several, but not all, of the Mexican and New Mexican items are prepared with cumin.  The lunch menu features thirteen entrees south of ten dollars.

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New Mexico Cheese Steak with Fries

Though it’s on the Platos de Almuerzo menu, the Cowgirl Quesadilla makes a very good appetizer.  As quesadillas go, this one is more appetizer sized than it is entree portioned.  It’s one of the more creative quesadillas in the Albuquerque area with two  pinto pony color charred flour tortillas stuffed with bleu and asadero cheeses, fresh apple slices and spicy pecans.  An apricot-habanero glaze is drizzled on the tortillas.  The contrasting flavors of the ingredients, especially the bleu cheese and the apple slices, go very well together as do the textural differences of pecans and soft asadero cheese.

The New Mexican entrees proudly showcase New Mexico chile.  The slow-roasted turkey enchilada plate is served with your choice of Chimayo red chile or Hatch green chile, both of which exemplify what it is we all love about our state’s official state vegetable.  The Chimayo red chile has a rich, earthy flavor and a notable piquancy.  The green chile will also bite you back and has a fresh, fruity flavor.  The enchiladas are served flat, the preferred way in Northern New Mexico and they’re served with house rice and black beans.

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Apple Pie Tamal with Cinnamon Ice Cream.  (Chocolate and Cajeta Ice Cream also Pictured)

Move over Philadelphia cheese steak.  The New Mexico cheese steak (beef tenderloin tips, roasted bell peppers, New Mexico green chile, Cheddar cheese) will make even the most devout of Philly transplants forget “wiz wit” (“with cheese whiz, “wit” onions).  While green chile isn’t a novelty on cheese steak sandwiches, Ancient Spirits pulls no punches because it dresses this sandwich with a chile you can respect.  It’s green chile with heat as well as flavor.  Great as the chile is, you’ll come away remembering and perhaps pining for another bite of the beef tenderloin tips.  If they’re indicative of the quality of the restaurant’s steaks, we’ll be trying those soon. 

Six dessert offerings, in addition to the house ice cream selection, are available to crown your meal.  The desserts are as creative (i.e., jalapeño cheesecake) as many of the entrees.  Perhaps the most imaginative dessert is the apple pie tamal (apple pie, moonshine crema)  Sheathed within singed corn husks are apple pie filling inside a cinnamon crust served with cinnamon ice cream.  As interesting as this dessert is, my preference would have been for masa with a pronounced corn flavor to go with the sweet apples. 

Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread (Smoked Local Tomatoes, Caramelized Onions, New Mexico Goat Cheese)

Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread (Smoked Local Tomatoes, Caramelized Onions, New Mexico Goat Cheese)

SECOND VISIT – 11 APRIL 2013:  The beef tenderloin tips on the New Mexico Cheese Steak made such an impression on us that we knew we’d return in short order to try the steak.  Any restaurant which calls itself a “Southwest Steakhouse,” especially a restaurant in which Chef Enrique Guerrero presides over the kitchen certainly must know its steak.  The grill menu offers eight tempting entrees, not limited to steak.  You can also order barbecue pork ribs, a three-quarter pound burger (with pork belly, among other ingredients), two smaller (a meager eight-ounces) burgers and a twelve-ounce pork chop. 

Much as we might have wanted to attack a steak the moment we pulled up to the parking lot, other items on the menu beckon “try me first.”  One such item is slow-baked Cowboy Bread served with a sweet house butter.  There are five breads from which to choose, each one baked individually at ten minutes baking time and each one seemingly more creative than the other.  Our choice included smoked local tomatoes, caramelized onions and New Mexico goat cheese.  The bread arrives at your table in a too-hot-to-the-touch cast iron baking pan (which could probably have used a bit of baking spray to prevent the bread from sticking to the pan).  It’s a very good bread which would have been even better had we been able to extricate it wholly from the pan.

Taquito Soup (Tomato Broth, Avocado, Charred Corn, Pulled Chicken, Cheese Taquito, Crema

Taquito Soup (Tomato Broth, Avocado, Charred Corn, Pulled Chicken, Cheese Taquito, Crema

Another starter not to be missed is the aptly named Taquito soup, a beautiful expression of flavor and texture in a flying saucer sized bowl.  The basis for this excellent elixir is a nicely seasoned and rich tomato broth in which you’ll find unctuous avocado, charred corn, pulled chicken, crema and a cheese taquito.  The cheese taquito is a very pleasant surprise texturally in that it retains just a bit of a crispy crunch.  The soup is served warm (not hot) and its portion size isn’t really substantial enough for sharing (not that you’d want to).  Those are the two minuses for an otherwise terrific soup.

In the 70s, “stacking” food was a gourmet restaurant trend that lingers on and on.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  In the latter category is the Ancient Spirits bone-in center-cut rib eye entree nestled atop potato puree and topped with a chile relleno and charred tomato sauce.  The reason stacking this entree didn’t work for us is that the chile relleno erupted its molten cheesy innards all over the steak.  Grrrrr!  Even after scraping away the gooey, cheesy and charred tomato mess, their residual flavors remained imprinted on the steak.  What might otherwise have been an excellent steak was diminished.  The steak is thick, juicy and it’s prepared to your exacting specifications.  Should we order it again, the sides will be on the side.

Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye (16-ounce hand-cut bone-in rib eye, chile relleno, charred tomato sauce, mashed potatoes

Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye (16-ounce hand-cut bone-in rib eye, chile relleno, charred tomato sauce, potato puree

THIRD VISIT – 27 June 2013:  In his near-obsessive quest to find the best non-fried chicken in the Duke City area, my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver has devoured several chicken coops worth of rotisserie chicken, roasted chicken, chicken al carbon, barbecue chicken, baked chicken and chicken made in ways of which the Colonel never conceived.  He’s got a phalanx of poultry loving people providing feedback on chicken dishes he hasn’t yet sampled.  When someone recommended the iron skillet roasted chicken at Ancient Spirits, he took it in the spirit that “all feedback is a gift,” forgetting that fellow foodie Bruce Schor had found the penurious portions of the chicken to be just one of the things he didn’t like about it.

The menu describes the iron skillet roasted chicken as half a chicken marinated in cardamom and Ancho chile.  The term marinade implies “before cooking,” but the marinade appeared to have been applied after-the-fact.  Instead of marinated, the chicken had a slathered-on feel with marinade ingredients not penetrating much below the surface.  The marinade itself is wholly unnecessary and any cardamom influence is obfuscated by a  chile which completely dominated any roasting flavor profile.  The chicken is served with roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables and fresh avocado.

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Iron Skillet Roasted Chicken

Much better than the chicken are the Ancient Spirit burgers. The Cowboy Deluxe Burger, a beefy behemoth topping the scales at eight ounces and topped with onion rings, bacon, Cheddar and Oooo Eee barbecue sauce (did Bob of the Village People name that?) is a stellar burger–and it would be even better sans onion rings–or at least onion rings not so heavily breaded.  As effective a desiccant as you’ll find anywhere, onion rings on a burger are a mistake which will make you wish for more of the Oooo Eee sauce or at the least, grilled onions.  At medium, the beef is perfect.  The bun is solid and formidable enough to hold up against all the moist ingredients.  Burgers are served with your choice of regular or sweet potato fries.

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Cowboy Deluxe Burger

The ancient spirits who inhabit the Land of Enchantment have one more reason to remain earthbound–a delightful bar and grille named for them with a chef who prepares preternaturally good food.

Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille
1016 West Highway 550
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 June 2013
1st VISIT:  6 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$-$$$
BEST BET: Cowgirl Quesadilla, Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada, New Mexico Cheese Steak, Apple Pie Tamal, Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread, Taquito Soup, New York Strip, Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye

Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon

The Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant (CLOSED)

My friends Paul "Boomer" Lilly and Bruce "Sr Plata" flank Gary West, owner of The Smokehouse

My friends Paul “Boomer” Lilly and Bruce “Sr Plata” flank Gary West, owner of The Smokehouse

The very best restaurants–those we’re proud to call our favorites–aren’t always the swankiest and most elegant venues.  They’re not even usually the restaurants you visit on special occasions.  They’re our favorites because for the duration of our meal, all our cares dissipate and our faith that everything will be okay is restored as we’re fed comforting, delicious food by servers we know and trust.  The Smokehouse has been such a refuge to hundreds of Rio Rancho area residents for nearly two and a half decades. 

The Smokehouse’s last full day of operation was Saturday, June 22nd, 2013.  Then on Sunday night, June 23rd at 6PM, owner Gary West invited guests to a farewell soiree where he  exhausted his remaining food inventory: amazing smoked turkey, ribs and so much more.  There wasn’t  a charge for the meal though Gary jokingly had a jar in which guests could contribute to his retirement.  Gary will be leaving the desert climes of New Mexico for Hawaii where he plans to lead a life of leisure.  Aloha, Gary.  You and the Smokehouse will be missed.

Jay Leno loves the Smokehouse

The Smokehouse on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

In his headlines segment on April Fools Day 2001, Tonight Show host Jay Leno had a good laugh at the Smokehouse BBQ’s coupons which gave patrons a generous discount on breakfast burritos. Normally offered at $200, the coupon provided an instant rebate of $199 for a total price of $1. As barbecue aficionados in Rio Rancho have known for years, barbecue at the Smokehouse is no laughing matter. The Smokehouse BBQ restaurant is one of the three or four best barbecue restaurants in the Albuquerque area, a bastion of bodacious barbecue which can compete anywhere against formidable smoke ring competition–even in Texas.

Texas is where founding proprietor Gary West cut his teeth in the smoke ring business, managing a barbecue restaurant in Lubbock.  Texas-style barbecue as he learned to prepare it means you’ll see a pink hue on the ribs and the traditional pink smoke ring on the sliced beef brisket.  It’s the real thing–barbecue that’s not obfuscated by a deluge of sauce to mask the flavor of poor quality meats.  The meats at the Smokehouse are top notch and sauce is added only if you request it.

Rio Rancho's Smokehouse BBQ restaurant, a local institution!

Smokehouse BBQ in Rio Rancho

When Gary returned to New Mexico he managed a Golden Pride chicken restaurant for a few years before buying the franchise and transforming it to the Smokehouse BBQ restaurant, opening on January 3, 1989. He was at it for nearly twenty years before selling his restaurant in 2008.  In July, 2010, Gary bought the business back after two years managing an Albuquerque Cracker Barrel restaurant.  During his tenure at Cracker Barrel, he picked up a few things to introduce to the Smokehouse’s menu, including chicken fried chicken and country fried steak.  His return also signaled the return of the incomparable smoked meats which waft into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try them.

The number of times I’ve visited the Smokehouse–over one hundred– is not a typo–I actually have dined here that many times (or more) primarily on Wednesdays or Fridays when the outstanding smoke burger is featured fare for lunch.  Yes, contrary to the opinion of amateur smokers who obviously haven’t mastered the trick, it is possible to smoke burgers (and no, this isn’t one of my flashbacks to the 60s). Go for dinner (or in fact any time past three o’clock) and you won’t find the smoke burger.

My friend Mike Muller consumes one of the dozens of smoked burgers he's ordered over the years.

My friend Mike Muller consumes one of the dozens of smoked burgers he’s ordered over the years.

For almost a year, my friend Mike Muller (pictured above) and I made the Smokehouse our inner sanctum and refuge from the rigors of a challenging multi-million dollar project by visiting this Texas style barbecue emporium every Wednesday and sometimes on Fridays, too.  It remains one of our very favorite lunch stops though our visits became more scarce when Gary West moved on.  His return means the frequency of our visits  increased.  Gary tends to the smoker with the same affection parents tend to their children.  The result is high quality ‘cue.  The primary object of our affection during our weekly pilgrimage quickly became the aforementioned smoke burger, one of the best, albeit most unconventional green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico. That’s saying something!

On Wednesdays and Fridays, you’d better get to the Smokehouse early because once the smoke burgers are gone, you’ll have to wait a few days to get the next one.  On Wednesdays and Fridays, the restaurant will a limited number of burgers.  They go fast.  One patron enjoyed double meat smokeburgers (pictured below) so much and so often, the Smokehouse named a double meat special for him.  Today, the Cal’s Special, a double meat smoke burger smothered in green chile, a side of your choice and a drink is the best bet for the hungriest of patrons.  Each patty is close to or perhaps even a half pound so a double meat smoke burger weighs in at a pound, at least.  It takes two hands to hold this behemoth burger and a big mouth (literally) to take a bite of it.  Little-mouthed folk will cut it with a fork.

A double meat smokeburger with cheese and green chile. A side of potato salad is on the left.

Don’t dare desecrate the smoke burger with mustard and ketchup. Barbecue sauce and green chile are the only embellishments required and even without the barbecue sauce, this is one outstanding burger.  The Smokehouse offers two sauces, the house sauce and a piquant sauce. The house sauce is a bit on the thin side with an almost equal flavor pronouncement between sweet, tangy and piquant.  The piquant sauce packs real heat.   The meat patty is thick and bun sized with a pinkish hue within. Contrary to what you might think, it’s also a moist burger…at least it is when Gary West is tending the smoker.  He’s got the touch.  The green chile is only mild on a piquant scale, but when combined with the sauce, its piquancy is enhanced.

On November 1st, 2011, the Smokehouse began using a bolillo bun on the Smokehouse, replacing the familiar and more traditional hamburger bun.  The bolillo bun ostensibly stays fresh longer though the round patty extends out beyond the round buns.  Each smoke burger is accompanied by one side of your choosing. The Smokehouse features some of the very best potato salad around and very good spicy pinto beans.  Other options include green beans, fried okra, mashed potatoes and gravy, French fries and other sides.

The most unique Frito Pie anywhere–made with your choice of chopped beef or carne adovada

As for the Smokehouse’s meats, the sliced beef brisket, smoked pork ribs, smoked turkey, hot links, beef ribs and Polish sausage are all quite good–and not just by New Mexico standards.  The restaurant menu features sandwiches, plates and party packs that serve anywhere from two to twenty people.  The most popular menu item, as it is at many Texas barbecue emporiums, is the sliced beef brisket which is consumed at a rate of about twenty pounds per day.  Your best bet is a two- or three-meat platter with two or three sides. 

Both the smoked pork ribs and the beef ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender.  My friend Sr. Plata considers the beef ribs to be at the very top of his food pyramid though with his Flintstonian appetite, he yearns for the day they are offered at all-you-can-eat quantities.  The smoked pork ribs have a wonderful bark, that intensely flavorful crust which occurs when a meat’s natural sugars caramelize.  Sanctioned barbecue competition judges in some of the most prestigious barbecue events love a good bark and would appreciate the fine bark on the Smokehouse’s meats, especially on the pork ribs.  The hot links live up to their name with a heartburn-inducing spiciness you will love.  Only Powdrell’s serves comparable hot links.

A two meat combination plate with pork ribs, spicy links, fried okra, corn on the cob and a bread roll

The smoke burger isn’t the only unconventional twist on a New Mexico favorite. The Smokehouse also serves a smoked carne adovada made from chopped beef. A mild red chile complements the smoky beef taste very well.  Unconventional also describes the Smokehouse’s Frito pie, constructed of smoked beef, spicy pinto beans, barbecue sauce (instead of chile), shredded cheese and of course, Frito’s corn chips.  This Frito pie may be an acquired taste because the first time I sampled this oddity, I thought it an aberration. The second time, I was hooked–thanks in large part to excellent smoked meat and the spicy pinto beans which are always cooked to perfection.  The Frito pie is also available with a more conventional carne adovada or you can have it half-and-half with born smoked beef and carne adovada.  The operative term is “have it!” 

In 2000, the Smokehouse began offering breakfast including the legendary Frontier Rolls.  Breakfast had a thirteen year run, but will no longer be served as of June 1st, 2013.  Breakfast burritos have been the specialty of the house from day one.   The tortillas encasing each burrito are charred like a pinto pony and bulge at the seams holding back all those lovely ingredients and their flavor.  The green chile is more piquant than the red.

A two meat platter with brisket, sliced pork, French fries, green beans and a bread roll

How good are the meats at the Smokehouse?  They’re so good other restaurants use them.  There may be no better pairing in Rio Rancho than the combination of Smokehouse meats and pizza at the Turtle Mountain Brewing Company.  Smokehouse meats also feature prominently on the slow-smoked carne panini from Cafe Bella.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, calls it the “best panini” he’s ever had.

For dessert, the Smokehouse features blackberry, peach, cherry and apple cobbler alamode as well as Itlian ices. You might think you’re in the deep south as you bite into the warm, tangy blackberries and flaky crust as rich vanilla ice cream melts on the plate.

Cherry and Blackberry cobbler

Cherry and Blackberry cobbler

The Smokehouse’s Web site is a member of the Smoke Ring, a linked list of BBQ websites throughout America.

The Smokehouse Barbecue
4000 Barbara Loop
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 101
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Smoke Burger, Cobbler, Frontier Roll, Brisket, Pulled Pork, Frito Pie, Sliced Pork, Pork Ribs, Spicy Links,  Smoked Turkey

Smokehouse BBQ on Urbanspoon

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