NM Rodeo Burgers – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

NM Rodeo Burgers In Rio Rancho

“Traveling with the rodeo
It’s the only life I’ll ever know
I started in New Mexico
Must have been a thousand years ago.”
~Lyrics to “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” by Paul Davis

Although my friends and I were all fairly accomplished horse riders in the svelte and carefree days of our youth, Peñasco didn’t have a high school rodeo team so we couldn’t show off our skills in the arena of competition.  Instead we entertained ourselves with such non-sanctioned “rodeo” events as hand-fishing for bottom-feeding suckers and tossing them into a chicken coop where a frenzied take-away melee would ensue with feathers and fish entrails flying.  We also enjoyed tossing wet bailing wire into electrical wires overhead.  if done right, the bailing wire returned to earth a smoldering ashen heap reminiscent of snake fireworks. 

Risking life and limb with thousands of volts of electrical current was child’s play compared to riding rambunctious young bulls who would invariably toss us to the ground with impunity.  My days of bull riding ended when a recalcitrant bull was spooked by a horse who aimed a kick at my flank, leaving me no recourse but to jump off into a fresh, fetid pile of horse and cow sh…er, excrement.  Memories of walking home to face my mom covered head-to-toe in manure were rekindled when a Burger King commercial for its new “rodeo burger” aired.  It wasn’t the brawny beef on the hoof we rode I associated with that commercial, but the dung pile into which I fell.  That’s the “appeal” chain restaurants seem to have with me.

The Rodeo Burgers Menu

I did a double-take when first spotting the NM Rodeo Burgers restaurant in Rio Rancho.  My first thought was of the maverick rodeo days of my youth then of America’s eagerly litigious society and its affinity for copyright infringement lawsuits.  A quick Google search revealed a number of Rodeo Burgers throughout the fruited plain and even Canada so copyright shouldn’t be an issue.  Side note: Even though Rio Rancho can’t claim the very first Rodeo Burgers restaurant across the fruited plain, the Land of Enchantment is one of several claimants to having held the very first rodeo in America.  That rodeo transpired in Santa Fe some 65 years before New Mexico joined the Union. Take that Texas!

The NM Rodeo Burgers is more a “joint” than a “restaurant.”  There are no indoor sit-down amenities save for a handful of concrete picnic tables where you can dine al fresco (or “al viento” on windy days).  To place your order, you can either drive up or walk up to the counter at the front of the edifice which once housed a  Weinerschnitzel (which long ago misplaced its “Der”).   While its address (900 36th Place, N.E.) may sound residential and unfamiliar, look for it off Southern Boulevard in the same cul-de-sac which is home to the Turtle Mountain Brewery.

The Rodeo Burgers Unique Hamburger Menu

The Rodeo Burgers menu (pictured above) may be limited in terms of sheer numbers, but for sheer variety look within the burgers themselves.  The Cowboy Burger, for example, includes spam and green bell peppers, two ingredients not often found in burgers around these parts.  The 8 Second Burger is even more uniquely adorned.  If you’re inclined to think these burgers were designed by a rodeo clown, you really need to lasso one before passing judgment.  

You’d think that with my personal rodeo experiences, my inaugural burger would have been the 8 Second Burger (in the rodeo vernacular, eight seconds is the length of time a rider should remain on a bucking bull for it to be considered a good ride).  Even cowboys start with baby steps, ergo the Cowboy Burger.  What caused me most trepidation is actually one of the best aspects of this burger.  That would be the Spam (ukuleles playing Home on the Range in the background) which, though a bit salty, complemented the beef very well.  The green chile, described as mild chopped green chile, actually has more bite than found in most green chile cheeseburgers.  The beef patty extended beyond the sesame seed buns and the burger was made fresh to order.  On the debits and credits side of the ledger, these were the credits.

The Cowboy Burger

On the debits side, the beef is prepared at medium-well, a degree of doneness which almost always means desiccated beef (no napkins necessary).  The green peppers are sliced into rather thick ribbons which makes them more prevalent an ingredient than all but the most ardent green pepper lovers would enjoy. The lettuce was a bit wilted.   Still, this is a burger I’ll order again if only to confirm how good Spam can be on a burger. 

The same can’t be said for the Rancher, a hot dog whose composition isn’t described on the drive-up menu.  Certainly the ranching profession is far from glamorous, but a restaurant creative enough to add Spam to a burger can certainly gussy up a hot dog with exciting and innovative ingredients.  Alas, upon wrapping the Rancher at home, it was nothing more than a toasted bun with a sliced hot dog.  No mustard.  No onions.  No relish.  No sense of rodeo adventure.  If the ordering protocol is to stipulate the ingredients with which you want your hot dog prepared, it certainly wasn’t described anywhere.  Grrrrr!

The Rancher

Rodeo Burgers shows some imagination and creativity in its menu, but must perform well on every single order or discerning diners won’t return.

NM Rodeo Burgers
900 36th Place, N.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT:  5 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET:Cowboy Burger

Nm Rodeo Burgers on Urbanspoon

Bouche – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Bouche, an extraordinarily elegant restaurant with breathtaking food

Career paths do not always unfold as stereotypes might dictate.  Heavily recruited out of Mission, Texas, a high school football hotbed, Frans Dinklemann, a 6’6″ 241-pound defensive end, signed with the University of New Mexico where his Lobo teammates included perennial National Football League (NFL) All-Pro Brian Urlacher.  By his senior year, Frans had grown to 6’7″ and 270 pounds and moved to the offensive line where he set the team weight room record for offensive linemen with a 33-inch vertical leap. 

The stereotype of the offensive lineman is of a brutish behemoth heavy on brawn and light on brain, a misanthrope with very little personality or charisma.  In his inimitable manner, Hall of Fame NFL coach and longtime television analyst John Madden stereotypes the offensive lineman as a “big ol’ mean and nasty guy who tries to knock the snot out of the guy across from him.”  With these stereotypes, you might surmise that after his Lobo career ended, Frans Dinklemann would become a nightclub bouncer or pursue some other similar profession requiring muscle and mass.

Bread with garlic butter

Coach Madden, however, also pointed out that offensive linemen tend to be neat and precise, to be polite and have well-ordered lockers.  This fits with their job of carrying out precise assignments in connection with each play the quarterback directs the team to execute.  Those traits–neatness, precision, politeness and orderliness–seem to defy stereotypes and are actually more often associated with a chef than with an offensive lineman.  As Frans Dinklemann, offensive lineman turned chef, proves every day, if you’ve got the passion and determination, you can follow your dreams no matter what they might be. 

Frans Dinklemann is realizing his dreams.  While toiling at another Duke City restaurant, he and the restaurant’s manager Dolores Welk-Jack frequently fantasized about striking out on their own.  For years they shared ideas and planned for an eventuality that took years to culminate.  Chef Dinklemann and Dolores launched Bouche on October 26, 2013 in a Lilliputian space nestled within the La Bella Spa Salon complex on Coors just south of Alameda.

Cheese Plate

To see the beautiful plating coming out of the kitchen is to experience esthetically pleasing, appetite arousing, edible art.  Chef Dinkleman obviously recognizes that great cuisine may be eaten with the mouth but it’s with the eyes that the first impression and sense of appreciation are formed.  Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know.  If you still believe in stereotypes, you might ask yourself “an offensive lineman did that?”.

If Chef Dinklemann is the proverbial ex-jock with hidden talents, Dolores is the gracious lady hostess, the heart and soul of the operation.  Dolores runs the “front of the house” which means she’s the restaurant’s public face, the person with whom guests will interact.    The hospitality and personal, attentive service guests receive from Dolores ensures they’ll be back.  In fact, as of this writing, Bouche has a 100% “like it” rating on Urbanspoon whose readers can be very persnickety and obstinate.  Urbanspoon readers rave as much about the service at Bouche as they do the amazing cuisine.

Melon Salad

It’s pretty obvious Dolores prefers the restaurant’s intimacy.  Because Bouche has only thirteen seats, she’s able to provide that personal touch so endearing to her guests.  Dolores is an effusive and warm person, the type of whom makes a great best friend.  Aside from her people skills, she’s the mastermind behind the restaurant’s fabulous desserts, bakery-quality deliciousness with which to finish a perfect meal. Oh, and she may not be a certified sommelier, but her wine-pairing recommendations are savant.

If you like the predictability of menus you can practically recite, Bouche will throw you a real curve ball.  There is no formal menu, the only predictability being the knowledge that everything you order will be fabulous.  The  selections of the day–typically two or three entrees, appetizers, a soup, a salad, and dessert–are scrawled on a chalkboard.  Don’t get used to today’s selection because tomorrow they may not be there.  Everything is prepared based on what quality local organic produce can be found on the market. Despite the appellation “Bouche,” which translates from French to “mouth,” featured fare is “new American” prepared with French techniques.

Potato and Bacon Soup

It’s only fitting that my inaugural visit to Bouche was with my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate.   For months Larry had raved about Bouche and to me, he’s like E.F. Hutton in that when Larry speaks, Gil listens.  We were accompanied by my much better half Kim and the dazzling Deanell.   In a stormy night replete with surprises, perhaps the biggest surprise is that Bouche didn’t have an overflow crowd.  Dolores explained that reservations have become absolutely necessary for Friday and Saturday night seating and that lunch crowds abound, but some evenings are surprisingly light. That meant more single-focused attention from the delightful Dolores for us. 

Even though it’s not complimentary, make sure to order the bread.  It’s a terrific French bread and on the night of our inaugural visit, it was served with a superb herb-garlic butter resplendent with clove halves.  The bread is fresh and delicious with a crusty exterior and soft interior.  The herb-garlic butter is a more than welcome respite from the ad infinitum parade of olive oil amalgams too many restaurants serve.

Bone-In Pork Chop

For decades, photographers who want their subjects to smile have instructed them to “say cheese.”  Saying “cheese” causes the mouth to form into a semblance of a smile-like shape.  Savvy diners will do well to order the cheese plate when it’s on the menu.  It’ll make you smile for sure.  Now, the concept of the cheese plate sometimes seems foreign in New Mexico and if you do find one it’s typically rather austere and unimaginative.  At Bouche, the cheese plate is both an objec d’art and a misnomer.  The “plate” is an artistic array of toasted Brazil and hazel nuts; fresh blackberries, strawberries and raspberries; crackers; slices of Jarlsberg cheese; and in the center of a cutting board, a herbaceous goat cheese ball made from the Old Windmill Dairy‘s finest.  The handle of the cutting board is drizzled with honey and bee pollen.  Sitting on a heated stone are slices of Brie which continue their molten transformation until you extricate them from the hot stone.  It’s the very best cheese plate we’ve found in New Mexico.  No other is even close.

Offensive linemen are more often associated with all-you-can-eat buffets than with salads, especially “pretty” salads.  Bouche’s melon salad is the antithesis of the boring, haphazardly strewn-together salad you might find at a football team’s training table.  It’s esculent esthetics, a melange of summery colors and ingredients which look like a painting and taste even better than they look.  The melon triumvirate for which the salad is named includes honeydew melon, cantaloupe and watermelon.  Aside from the fresh, crisp greens, other ingredients from which this salad is constructed include shaved almonds and mozzarella drizzled with a strawberry vinaigrette. If you love the bounty and freshness of summer, you’ll love this salad.

Ribeye

Wheel of Fortune star Vanna White once quipped “When I was having that alphabet soup, I never thought that it would pay off.”  Having served several times as judges for the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl has paid off for Larry and me as we’ve garnered expertise in soup we might not otherwise have.  Bouche’s potato and bacon soup is absolutely souperb with much more flavor complexity than its name might imply.  It’s also rather uniquely plated.  A lightly fried corn tortilla shell with three cut-out circular “windows” reveals three of the ingredients used to construct the soup.  One window showcases finely chopped bacon, another scallions and the third gives you a voyeur’s view of unctuous melted butter.  This is one of the most inventive and delicious soups you’ll find in the Duke City.  If the melon salad invokes a summery feel, the soup is perfect for rainy and cold nights. 

On most restaurant menus bone-in pork chop is as descriptive as you’re going to see on the plate.  At Bouche, bone-in pork chop fails miserably to describe its presentation.  A two-inch thick bone-in pork chop arrives under a tight-fitting, fogged up plastic dome.  When Dolores removes the dome, smoky vapors waft upward revealing a fragrant bouquet of hard woods melded with porcine deliciousness.  The tender pork practically melts in your mouth imparting the flavors of sweet, savory, and smoke on your tongue and taste buds.  The pork chop is served with fresh, buttery corn and French-style snap peas, both prepared as well as vegetables can be prepared.  These are carnivore converting quality vegetables.

Vanilla Spice Cake

Similar to the bone-in-pork chop, the two-inch thick ribeye (which resembles a small roast) arrives under its own foggy dome.  You’ve got to experience the wood smoke fragrance as it escapes the dome.  The smoke pervades the entire dining room, prompting prying eyes and very aroused nostrils to seek its origin and let the smoke envelop them, too.  At medium, the ribeye has a nice band of light pink through the middle.  Sides are rich brown in color.  The steak is firm to the touch with just a bit of play in the middle.  It’s absolutely delicious, as good as any steak we’ve had in New Mexico.  Garnished with micro-greens and served with sweet snap peas, it’s steak the way it should be prepared and served.

You might think that with all we enjoyed, we’d be too full for dessert and while that may have been the case, sugary lust superseded satiety. Desserts, Larry assured us, are as fantastic as everything else at Bouche.  Our first dessert was a vanilla spice cake, far surpassing the simplicity of its name.  This wonderful cake featured three separate slabs drizzled with a raspberry topping and laying on a decorative pool of goat cheese cream.  The other dessert was a berry cobbler topped with an addictive sweet goat cheese cream and lots of loose berries on the plate.  Both desserts included pulled sugar twill.

Berry Cobbler with Goat Cheese Cream

Among savvy diners in the know, Bouche is already regarded as one of the Duke City’s very best dining establishments, a diminutive and non-traditional gem with a brilliant chef who coaxes optimal flavors from each and every ingredient and an ambassadorial manager who’ll win you over with her charm and wit.

Bouche
10126 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Ribeye, Bone-In Pork Chop, Potato and Bacon Soup, Melon Salad, Vanilla Spice Cake, Cheese Plate, Berry Cobbler

Bouche on Urbanspoon

Back-Sass BBQ – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Back-Sass01

Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo

Every few years, the eyes of the world fixate on a tiny chimney perched on the roof of the Sistine Chapel as millions await the telltale plumes of white smoke which signify that a new pope has been elected.  Since November, 2012, savvy Duke City area barbecue aficionados have been following plumes of smoke emanating from a mobile eighteen-foot grilling machine, a sign that great barbecue is imminent.  Fittingly “Follow the Smoke” is the motto of the Back-Sass BBQ team which has been hauling its mother ship of barbecue all over the city.

On January 29, 2014, Back-Sass BBQ put down roots in Bernalillo, launching its bodacious barbecue operation in a restaurant storefront.  Located on North Camino del Pueblo less than half a mile north of heavily trafficked Highway 550, Back-Sass is easy to find if you follow the smoke which wafts into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try some baby backs.  Back-Sass BBQ is situated in a fairly nondescript edifice which formerly housed La Bamba Grill among other businesses.  Its signage is bold, sassy and inviting.

Back-Sass03

The interior of Back-Sass BBQ

Attempts to define any new barbecue restaurant’s “style” as either Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, or the Carolinas are inevitable, but Back-Sass BBQ’s style doesn’t subscribe to any of those hallowed templates.  Instead it might best be described as “Cleveland style.”  No, not the Cleveland in Ohio which set the Cuyahoga River on fire back in 1969.  I’m talking about the other Cleveland, the one in New Mexico bordered by Holman and Mora; the Cleveland on the “other side” of the Jicarita Peak from my hometown of Peñasco.

Back-Sass BBQ founder and owner Gina Valdez grew up in Cleveland, New Mexico, a village one travel site described as “where cars go to die.”  She’s been a barbecue enthusiast all her life and although she’s a sanctioned judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society, doesn’t barbecue competitively, not even in Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew.  In fact, Gina didn’t get super serious about honing her craft until a broken leg laid her off, giving her the impetus to build the mobile unit.  The eighteen-foot barbecue behemoth can smoke more than one-hundred full-sized turkeys at one time.  In her new restaurant, however, she relies on barrel smokers that aren’t quite as prolific.  Though hours of operation are posted, once the barbecue runs out, the restaurant closes.

Back-Sass02

Baby Back Ribs with Chile Beans and Potato Salad

You won’t want to miss out on this barbecue!  Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, made sure I didn’t, extolling the ribs and coleslaw so enthusiastically I had to visit Back-Sass BBQ the following day.  Shawne was also enamored of the sauce which she described as “pretty complex.”   Obviously more persuasive than I, she managed to coax Gina into telling her what’s in the sauce: molasses, apple pie spices, pineapple and a “bunch of other things.” 

Back-Sass BBQ is essentially a one-room operation with booth seating on one side of the room.  The dining room is sparsely appointed.  Fittingly therefore, the menu lists fewer than twenty items: four sandwiches, four plates (with your choice of two sides), three meats by the pound, baby back ribs, turkey legs, three sides (chile beans, coleslaw, potato salad) and for dessert, peach cobbler and gingerbread men.  

Two meat plate: hot links and pulled pork with two sides: potato salad and coleslaw

Two meat plate: hot links and pulled pork with two sides: potato salad and coleslaw

26 March 2014: Some purists will tell you  that one of the marks of great barbecue is whether or not sauce is needed.  Other barbecue enthusiasts don’t want their barbecue naked, preferring it slathered with a sauce.  Back-Sass BBQ is quite good with or without sauce.  The baby backs pull away from the bone easily and have an addictive bark, the deeply dark, flavor rich, sweet, caramelized rind suffused with magnificently complex flavor.  Barbecue without bark has no bite.  The sauce, by the way, is indeed pretty complex.  The flavor components Shawne described are easily discernible, but the source of a pleasant piquancy can only come from chipotle, a fact Gina confirmed.

One of the other hallmarks of Back-Sass BBQ is an aromatic smokiness courtesy of apple woods which dispense a very mild flavor and imbue foods with a slight sweetness.  Because a little smoke goes a long way with meats, most aficionados prefer light-smoking hard woods such as apple which tend to be complementary of all meats.  The fragrances at Back-Sass BBQ’s dining room would make a wonderful aftershave or aphrodisiac.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" takes a bite from a turkey leg as big as his arm

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” takes a bite from a turkey leg as big as his arm

27 March 2014: Your best bet if you want to sample more than one meat is the two meat plate with your choice of two sides. Make one of those meats the hot links, emphasis on the word “hot.” That’s hot as in hotter than eighty percent of the chile served at New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City area. Not only are these luscious links hot, they’re moist and delicious. You’re well advised to eat these last because you might not be able to taste the other meat on the plate…and if the other meat is pulled pork, you’ll want to be able to discern every nuance. The pulled pork has a pinkish hue with a darker “ring” denoting the smoking process. It’s sweet, moist and absolutely delicious–with or without sauce.

Smoked Turkey and Broccoli Soup

Smoked Turkey and Broccoli Soup

27 March 2014: The turkey legs at Back-Sass BBQ look like throw-backs to the age of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. They’re bulbous, chewy, delicious drumsticks the size of Popeye’s forearm or a pterodactyl wing. Bad cartoon metaphors aside, you’ll channel your inner troglodyte as you gnaw on perhaps the best turkey legs in the Duke City area (with apologies to The Cube). There’s almost something primal about holding these legs by their built-in handle and piercing through the glistening bark to expose pinkish smoked turkey meat. Who cares that turkey is all dark meat. The smoked flavor and surprising moistness will convert even the most cynical. 

Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach

Potato and Leek Soup with Spinach

3 April 2014: During an April, 2014 visit to Back-Sass BBQ, Gina told my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and I that before she was a barbecue lady, she was a soup lady and that she planned on introducing soup to the menu once she perfected her recipe. She then treated us to a magnificent example of her soup handiwork, a steaming hot bowl of smoked turkey and broccoli soup. This soup is perfect as is and should be on the daily menu starting now! It’s a rich and creamy soup with a strong pepper influence coalescing with the smokiness of turkey and the al dente crispness of broccoli, celery and other vegetables. Both Sr. Plata and I took home 32-ounces of this enchanting elixir to share with our respective wives, but we secretly hoped they don’t like it as much as we do so we could have all of it. Unfortunately for us, they loved it. 

9 April 2014:  The soup of the day during a subsequent visit was a potato and leek soup with spinach.  It’s a hearty, creamy and very tasty soup served hot.  The flavors of leek and potato harmonize very well and the spinach lends nutrients, texture and its very own unique flavor profile.  This is the type of soup you’ll love best during cold winter days, but it’s wonderful any time.

A quarter-pound of brisket

A quarter-pound of brisket

3 April 2014: If your experiences with brisket are akin to what masticating shoe leather must be like, it’s because you haven’t had great brisket. Trust Gina to smoke your brisket. It’s tender, offering just the right amount of chew and it’s and smoky with a pink smoke outline. Best, it’s delicious with or without sauce and has the perfect qualities for dressing a sandwich. A quarter-pound will do you for lunch.

Brisket Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

Brisket Sandwich

09 April 2014: If you prefer your brisket on a sandwich, Back-Sass serves an overstuffed sandwich just brimming with moist, tender brisket nestled in a soft hoagie bun. My friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Mike Muller uses brisket as his benchmark for how good a barbecue restaurant is. He loved this one and was surprised at just how moist and tender the brisket is. The brisket pulls away easily and you won’t find any annoying sinew or fat.

Chicken Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

Chicken Sandwich with Lays Potato Chips

09 April 2014: The very last item on the menu I had from Back-Sass was the chicken. True to form, it’s very clucking good. The chicken is available as a sandwich or you can opt for a half-chicken (thigh and leg). Any way you have it will become your instant favorite. As with all meats smoked by Gina, the chicken is moist, tender and redolent with apple wood smokiness. The half chicken has a wonderful crust which, at first glance, may appear to be on the burnt side, but that patina comes from the marinade she uses on her beer can chicken recipe.  That crust is poultry’s answer to pork skin and is absolutely delicious.

A half chicken

A half chicken

1 May 2014: Credit renowned author Calvin Trillin for exposing the world to burnt ends, what some have called “nuggets of barbecue gold.”  Though born of tougher, drier, misshapen end pieces of brisket, burnt ends are imbued with mouth-watering qualities, a coalescence of melted-down fat and meat slowly grilled into smoky, crunchy, meaty bark.  They’re a delightful delicacy not always appreciated by barbecue purists as they tend to be not only fatty, chewy and tough, but often very smoky.  For those of us who concur with Trillin’s sage opinion, they’re truly special.  Back-Sass BBQ’s version is Kansas City worthy, like delicious meat candy.

Burnt Ends

Burnt Ends

One other essential element in the barbecue experience is sides, the accompaniment needed because even barbecue addicts can’t live on meats alone. Back-Sass BBQ offers three terrific sides. The chile beans are true New Mexican chile beans with red chile and not Texas “chili” beans with whatever mystery spices they add. The coleslaw is light on the dressing and heavy on crispness and freshness. The potato salad, which includes finely cut pickles and celery, is similarly light on the mayo or salad cream. All are terrific.

Peach Cobbler and Gingerbread Men

Peach Cobbler and Gingerbread Men

27 March 2014: Back-Sass BBQ offers only two desserts, one of which is seemingly de rigueur in barbecue restaurants.  That would be peach cobbler, one of those desserts often described as both homespun and old-fashioned.  More often than that, it’s described as delicious.  Covered with a crumbly sweet crust and imbued with moistness, it’s a good cobbler, one which can be improved only by a scoop or four of ice cream.  The other dessert is gingerbread men (five for three dollars) which children of all ages will enjoy.

Meat up with some friends and follow the smoke to Back-Sass BBQ in Bernalillo for apple wood smoked deliciousness.

Back-Sass BBQ
N. 213 Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 Mayl 2014
1st VISIT: 26 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Chile Beans, Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Hot Links, Pulled Pork, Peach Cobbler, Gingerbread Men, Turkey Leg, Smoked Turkey-Broccoli Soup, Brisket, Brisket Sandwich, Half Chicken, Chicken Sandwich, Burnt Ends

Back-Sass BBQ on Urbanspoon

Gullah Cuisine – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina (CLOSED)

GullahCuisine01

Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

No culinary tour of South Carolina’s Lowcountry would be complete without sampling Gullah cuisine at least once.  In the Lowcountry, Gullah represents several things: people, culture and language.   As a people, the Gullah represent a distinctive group of African Americans living along the island chains and coastal plains which parallel the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The Gullah people are directly descended from the  thousands of slaves who labored on the rice plantations in the moist, semitropical country bordering the South Carolina and Georgia coastline. 

Because of their relative isolation, the Gullah have managed to preserve their dialect and culture more completely than virtually any other group in the country.  Where Gullah culture is most in evidence is in the foods of the region.    Gullah cuisine reflects the rich bounty of the islands: crabs, shrimp, fish, oysters as well as vegetables (greens, corn and tomatoes).  Rice is omnipresent, served at nearly every meal.  You can’t really say you’ve experienced Lowcountry cuisine unless you’ve had Gullah cuisine.

GullahCuisine02

Chef Charlotte Jenkins

It’s often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Because the original Gullahs had very few cookware provisions, many of the dishes they prepared were cooked in one large pot. Fish, poultry and meat were cooked together with rice, vegetables, peppers, potatoes and/or legumes to create stews and soups still served today. Meats, fish and poultry were also smoked over an open flame, advancing the development of barbecue techniques still in use. Traditional Gullah cooking uses a special spice blend similar to Cajun seasonings in their assertiveness.

It can also be said that without the presence of the Gullah culture, there would be no Lowcountry cooking; it would all be Southern cooking. To the Gullahs, preparing and sharing food has always meant more than sustenance. Preparing and serving meals was often almost ritualistic in nature, feeding the soul as well as the body. The Gullahs describe their cuisine as “food that speaks to ya.” It certainly did speak to me!

GullahCuisine03

Cornbread with butter

The epicenter of contemporary Gullah cuisine lies just east of Charleston in the burgeoning hamlet of Mount Pleasant.  That’s where Chef Charlotte Jenkins plies her creativity, serving the best Gullah-soul food in the country.  That’s not just my opinion.  Southern Living magazine, Gourmet magazine, The New York Times and a phalanx of other publications have said so as well.  Chef Jenkins is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant and is as friendly as can be.  When she asked to see the photograph I took of her, she intercepted my “you’re very photogenic” response, replacing “photogenic” with “cute.” I’ll grant her that.  She is very cute.

Chef Jenkins had to surmount humble origins to achieve the acclaim she has earned.  She learned to cook Gullah the way her mother, grandmother and all other mothers that preceded her–by working alongside one another.  The work ethic and discipline she learned from her upbringing prepared her well for more regimented training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston where she learned to adapt healthful elements into traditional recipes.  She launched Gullah Cuisine in 1997.

GullahCuisine04

Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

While pondering the menu, a single cupcake baking cup nestling a sweet crumbly cornbread with butter was delivered to my table.  It’s as simple and no-frills as cornbread can be, but that purity is what makes it so good.  The only thing wrong with the cornbread is that two or six more weren’t brought to my table.

If it’s sexist to admit preferring she-crab to he-crab, picture me a male chauvinist pig.  A week in South Carolina has left me besotted with she-crab soup.  Made from crab stock, blue crab meat, heavy cream and most notably, crab roe then finished with a splash of sherry, it’s a Charleston specialty.  The “she” portion of this soup, of course, is courtesy of the female crab roe.  Charlotte’s she crab soup is unctuous and replete with blue crab.  The sherry is discernible with its crisp, sweet, spicy and refreshing properties. 

GullahCuisine05

Smothered fried chicken with collard greens and red rice

Daily specials are priced ridiculously low, especially considering the quality and portion size. Great fortune smiles upon diners when smothered chicken is served. This isn’t a de-boned chicken breast out of a bag.  It’s a whole, moist thigh with an attached wing.  White meat a plenty is just below the surface of a thin-crusted skin.  Smothered means gravy and though thin, this brown gravy is flavorful (corn bread would have been useful here).  The collard greens and red rice are excellent, too.

The dessert menu lists only five items, but savvy diners stop reading after bread pudding. This is no pedestrian bread pudding. It’s in the pantheon of great puddings I’ve ever had, in no small part due to its simplicity. Served hot, it’s stuffed with spiced peaches and punctuated with raisins.  The spiced peaches are a revelation, pairing wonderfully with a soft, spongy bread.

GullahCuisine06

Bread Pudding

American cuisine owes much to the Gullah culture.  So much more than Southern cuisine, soul food and even Lowcountry cuisine, it’s great cooking incomparably exemplified by Chef Charlotte Jenkins.

Gullah Cuisine
1717 North Highway 17
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Smothered Fried Chicken, Bread Pudding, Collard Greens, Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

Gullah Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Terra Bistro Italiano – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Terra American Bistro on Alameda

To some extent, people watch Anthony Bourdain for the same reasons they tune in to infamous shock-jock Howard Stern–to see what he’ll say next. Though Bourdain, the best-selling author, world traveler, renown chef and “poet of the common man” is hardly the potty-mouthed bane of the Federal Communications Commission that Stern is, his incisive comments are oft peppered with pejoratives and references to genitalia. They’re also laden with insightful, well-reasoned, highly intelligent and well articulated thoughts uncommon in the world of food television currently dominated by pretty faces with Ultra Brite smiles.

In the 2010 season premier of his No Reservations show, the first words Bourdain uttered were “the optimist lives on a peninsula of infinite possibilities; the pessimist is stranded on the island of perpetual indecision.” It’s not every culinary celebrity who can quote William Arthur Ward, or even know who he is, but Bourdain is not only a fellow sybarite, he is well-read and highly intelligent. His introduction gave me pause to reflect on Ward’s words, one of my very favorite inspirational maxims. Just hours earlier, I was transformed from an eternal optimist to someone mired in indecision.

The interior of Terra American Bistro

The interior of Terra American Bistro

What caused this transformation was nothing less than the perusal of the magnificent menu at Terra Bistro Italiano in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Frankly, every visit to Terra is a peninsula of infinite possibilities followed by perpetual indecision. The menu seems to have that effect on many people. Not only is it a very well written, very enticing menu, it is replete with boundless possibilities. It is a well-balanced menu that reflects seasonal changes. It is a menu that diners can easily understand, not written as a compilation of ingredients that don’t really tell you what you’re going to be eating or how it will be prepared.

Though you won’t need an interpreter to understand the menu, you’ll need time to peruse it thoroughly. The highly professional wait staff at Terra is accustomed to hearing, “just a few minutes more” from patrons, like me, who can’t easily decide what to have. The options are seemingly endless, the possibilities exciting. Now, the menu at Terra isn’t encyclopedic in size–about seven starters, five sandwiches and eleven entrees for lunch and ten of each starters and entrees for dinner, but it is an exciting compilation of contemporary Italian-American cuisine.

Housemade pumpernickel and lavender focaccia just out of the oven

Terra is the brainchild of Chef-Owner Peter Lukes, an Albuquerque native who left home to stamp his imprint on the San Francisco culinary scene before returning home and launching Terra in 1998. His restaurant is situated in the Far North Valley, an attractive stand-alone milieu on heavily trafficked Alameda Boulevard. There are no other restaurants of the fine-dining genre anywhere near Terra and few fine-dining restaurants in the Duke City which can match the near-flawless execution of such an ambitious menu.

Terra is an Italian word for “Earth.” The appellation was chosen because like the earth, Peter Lukes intends Terra to “be a place diners consider their own.” While it has become a popular neighborhood dining establishment, it also draws in diners from throughout the Duke City. It’s a bright, attractive and welcoming milieu, an upscale-casual restaurant with white linen tablecloths and etiquette-appropriate place-settings, but it’s a restaurant in which nattily attired can mean shorts in summertime.

Porcini Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil and Chives

The restaurant’s cynosure is a sparkling exhibition kitchen with bar stool seating arranged in a half circle where patrons can watch Chef Lukes in action. Sterling steel and burnished copper kitchen accouterments glint with newness though they’ve likely been through the mill a time or two. A pot rack suspended from the ceiling holds the pots and pans in which meals are expertly prepared.

Savvy diners will arrive promptly at 11:30 for lunch, knowing that warm, fresh, house-made bread right out of the oven will arrive at their tables shortly after they do. Terra serves some of the best bread in town and it’s all baked on the premises. The staff of life is of artisan quality and it’s replenished faithfully by the on-the-spot wait staff. The lavender focaccia is an early favorite, its fragrant, pine-like bouquet belying a rich, delicate flavor. Lavender isn’t just for bubble baths and sachets any more. It can be used to punctuate and enhance the flavors of everything from ice cream to lemonade. On Terra’s focaccia, it is marvelous!

Seasoned Crab and Corn Cakes with Seasonal Vegetables, Roasted New Potatoes and Tangy Remoulade Sauce

At the other spectrum is Terra’s house-made pumpernickel, a dark-colored bread with a pronounced rye taste and virtually no crust. It’s neither light nor delicate, having a more intense flavor profile than the lavender focaccia, but it is no less delicious. This yin and yang bread offering of breads varying in flavor, texture and appearance is indicative of Chef Luke’s genius.

Starters–a meal’s equivalent of an opening act, a preliminary bout before the main event, a diminutive preview of what’s to come–at the best fine-dining restaurants have become reason enough to visit those dining establishments who care enough to give them the attention to detail that whets the appetite and leaves diners eager for more. The starters at Terra have that effect, as well as the aforementioned effect of rendering diners indecisive. Perhaps the restaurant’s worst kept secret is that all the starters are excellent. If you can’t decide, close your eyes and take a stab at the starters’ menu. You can’t go wrong.

Risotto Arancini

Arancini Di Riso

The applewood smoked bacon wrapped and grilled asparagus with bleu cheese and aged Balsamic vinegar is one of our favorites. This starter plays complementary and contrasting ingredients against each other in delicious, flavor-melding ways. The applewood smoked bacon has a semi sweet-savory flavor and if you close your eyes, you might swear it was fried over an open campfire with light smoke. It’s lightly fried so it can be wrapped around several perfectly grilled asparagus spears. The asparagus spears have an earthy, slightly charred flavor. Primarily a spring-time treat, nothing brings out the freshness and sweetness more than grilling.

Perhaps nothing complements grilled asparagus more than bleu cheese, the pungent, tangy cheese which definitely makes its presence felt…or tasted. Terra uses a blue vein-rich cheese that’s neither too strong nor too subtle. Juicy, herbaceous tomatoes provide a bit of acidity while an aged Balsamic vinaigrette lends a distinctive sweet-tanginess to this sensational starter. If you like the adventure of flavor discernment, you’ll appreciate this appetizer.

Grilled 8 ounce Angus Pub Steak with Griddled Red Onions, French Fries, And House-made Ketchup

In his 1949 classic The Soup Book, Louis P. De Gouy wrote, “One whiff of a savory aromatic soup and appetites come to attention. The steaming fragrance of a tempting soup is a prelude to the goodness to come. An inspired soup puts family and guests in a receptive mood for enjoying the rest of the menu.” What an appropriate description for the effect Terra’s porcini mushroom soup will have on you. Fresh porcini, a heady and meaty fungi, is imbued with a wonderfully earthy aroma. Chef Lukes adds fuel to the fire by adding aromatic truffle oil and chives to the porcini mushroom soup. The resultant bouquet is a siren’s call for hungry diners needing the warmth and envelopment only a great soup can provide. This soup delivers! It’s as flavorful as it is aromatic.

Some of my faithful readers are probably tired of reading about my quest to add to the handful of outstanding risotto dishes I’ve had in my life. It’s entirely possible only one of George Costanza’s girlfriends and i have such a wanton lust for risotto. Unlike George’s girlfriend, however, I’ve yet to experience “le petit mort” (a French euphemism for….er, uh, really enjoying something) from risotto. Terra offers a rather unique take on risotto, serving it inside an arancini or fried rice balls. The arancini di riso, which translate literally to “oranges of rice”, are (duh) shaped like an orange and stuffed with an herbaceous risotto punctuated with a basil pesto and tiny hazelnut bits served with a tomato sauce and basil oil. You’ll want to enjoy two or three of these delightful starters before your meal.

​Anatra: slow-braised duck with red wine risotto,crimini mushrooms, romano cheese

​Anatra: slow-braised duck with red wine risotto,crimini mushrooms, romano cheese

The entrees portion of the menu has a nice balance of meats, seafood and pasta dishes, all of which beckon diners to try them. Lunchtime portions and pricing are a bit smaller, but no less exciting. Take for example, the grilled angus pub steak with griddled red onions, demiglace, steak fries and house ketchup. At well under twenty-dollars, this is one of the most flavorful, well-prepared steaks in Albuquerque. It’s eight to ten ounces of perfectly prepared (at medium) beef with no sinew or excess fat. Ask for it to be seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic.

The demiglace is a rich, concentrated beef stock ameliorated (I believe) by a fine cooking wine and reduced to a slightly thick, but certainly not syrupy sauce. It’s an excellent compliment to the beef, not a sweet sauce that changes its flavor. The griddled red onions are a surprisingly good addition, too. The steak fries are large and thick, but cooked all the way through. The house ketchup is fantastic with the flavor of rich, red tomatoes seasoned very well with, among other spices, mace and nutmeg.

​Fennel Risotto: seared sea scallops, white wine, spinach, romano cheese

​Fennel Risotto: seared sea scallops, white wine, spinach, romano cheese

From among the pasta dishes, one of the real winners is a penne pasta with Molinari hot sausage, hot house tomatoes, spinach and a white-wine-pesto sauce sprinkled with a dusting of Parmesan. This dish is perhaps the best penne dish we’ve had in the Duke City. It’s a magnificent melding of flavors and textures. The Molinari hot sausage has a nice fennel flavor and just enough piquancy to get your attention. The white wine-pesto sauce is rich and buttery, cut by the acidity of the tomatoes and spinach. No Italian restaurant in Albuquerque serves such a good penne pasta dish.

One of Terra’s most popular menu items, alas available only for lunch, is the seasoned crab and corn cakes served with seasonal vegetables, roasted new potatoes and a tangy remoulade sauce. The most telling feature of the crab cakes is that they taste like fresh crab, not some unnecessary filler. The sweet, succulent flavor of the crab is punctuated by the even sweeter flavor of roasted corn niblets. Texturally, the crab stands out too. There’s no surfeit of binder to render these cakes gummy as some I’ve had in Albuquerque. Instead these crab cakes fall apart, not disintegrate, into forkfuls of flavor. My esteemed colleague Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, knows more about crab cakes than anyone else in the Duke City area. I’m betting he’ll love these.

Pineapple upsidedown cake with housemade vanilla bean ice cream

Seasonal vegetables decorate this plate in both appearance and freshness. Peruvian purple potatoes, roasted fingerling potatoes, beets, tomatoes, French green beans, snap peas, asparagus and carrots are all prepared to perfection with a farmer’s market freshness to them. The tangy remoulade sauce, while intended for the crab cakes, complements each vegetable very well. The remoulade (tarragon, dill, French mustard, anchovies) is rich and complex, the type of sauce which improves anything it touches.

Tired of reading about my quest for risotto? You might want to skip the next two paragraphs because the summer, 2013 menu at Terra includes not just one, but two risotto dishes. Both are terrific. Neither elicited le petit mort, but both warrant return visits. The first risotto is called Anatra which translates from Italian to “duck.” Duck is indeed the star of this risotto. It’s braised slowly and served with a red wine risotto (rendering the dish almost purple), crimini mushrooms, Swiss chard and Romano cheese. Most risotto dishes of my past have been rather mellow with subtle flavors coalescing around perfectly prepared round, short grain, high starch rice. The Anatra is bold and exciting in much the manner that French wine dishes are bold and exciting.

Even better, if possible, is the Fennel Risotto, a more traditional risotto dish showcasing the same perfectly prepared rice, this time braised in white wine, spinach, Romano cheese and seared sea scallops. The four scallops are lightly seared and mildly sweet with just a hint of brininess. With a soft, slightly chewy texture, each morsel is thoroughly enjoyable. There is no clumping on the risotto, every grain of perfectly prepared rice punctuated with the flavors of white wine and Romano.

Terra Bistro Italiano has a handful of dessert offerings, the most popular being the Appaloosa, named in honor of the many neighborhood horse lovers who frequent the restaurant and because of its black and white coloring. The Appaloosa cake is served warm and has the texture and feel of a molten flourless cake, but the wait staff will swear it’s not flourless. Nonetheless, a chocolate flourless-style cake is topped with a layer of white hazelnut cream cheese then topped with bittersweet Belgian chocolate and caramel sauces. It’s an outstanding dessert, a fitting way to end a fine meal at one of Albuquerque’s very best fine dining establishments.

To say Chef Lukes is multi-talented is an understatement. He’s not only a chef, he’s a baker and a pastry chef, too. That’s a troika of talent few chefs possess. Among the many surprises on the menu are what he does with ice creams and sorbets, all completely housemade. His sorbets are crafted from seasonal ingredients at their peak of flavor and juiciness. The strawberry sorbet is one of the two or three best sorbets I’ve ever had. It’s the perfect antidote for lethargy, a refreshing kick of strawberry-infused flavor that will get you going. As with all desserts, the sorbet goes well with the Whiting Coffee served at Terra since its inception. Whiting Coffee is roasted in Albuquerque from premium coffee beans. It is one of my favorite brews.

As important as kitchen skills are, some chefs seem to disregard the most important people-pleasing aspects of running a restaurant. It’s apparent Chef Lukes has ensured his dining public is well-served in every way with some of the best, most savvy wait staff in Albuquerque. If you’re a semi-regular, they’ll not only remember your name, but more than likely what you ordered during your previous visit.

If you’re waiting for a special occasion to visit Terra, consider waking up a special occasion and head to Terra for lunch or dinner. It’s an Albuquerque gem.

Terra Bistro Italiano
1119 Alameda Blvd., N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Housemade Bread; Bacon-Wrapped and Grilled Asparagus with bleu cheese and aged Balsamic vinaigrette; Penne pasta with Molinari Italian sausage, hot house tomato, spinach and white wine-pesto sauce; Grilled angus pub steak with griddled red onions, demiglace, steak fries and house ketchup; Warm chocolate appaloosa cake with bittersweet chocolate and caramel sauces

Terra American Bistro on Urbanspoon

Rafiki Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Rafiki01

Rafiki Cafe, Albuquerque’s first and only Kenyan cafe

Let us break bread and celebrate our diversity.”
~Desmond Tutu

Peruvian cuisine…been there, done that!  Moroccan meals…that’s so yesterday.  Persian food…it’s had its day.  Pan Asian dining…erstwhile eating.  Never mind Italian regional cuisine and Spanish tapas.  Once fresh and nouveau, they’re now practically prehistoric.  Who would have thought ten years ago that the Duke City would become so cosmopolitan, so open to multicultural culinary elements from all over the world?  Who would have guessed that cuisine once considered exotic and alien would become just another welcome part of the culinary climate?

In contemporary times fashioned by an interconnected world, a community of intrepid diners in Albuquerque has become very receptive and accepting of new foods. We embrace diversity, craving adventurous eating and won’t hesitate to try anything new. In fact, we sometimes prefer to try something new than to return to something we’ve already experienced. We rarely order the same thing twice. Leave the aversion to change and to trying new things to the “chain gangs,” those diners who find comfort in the mundanity of chain restaurants.

Rafiki02

The interior of Rafiki Cafe

One of the exotic cuisines which has recently gained a foothold in the Duke City culinary scene is African cuisine though that term is very generalized and wholly inaccurate. As the planet’s second largest continent, African is home to hundreds of diverse cultural and ethnic groups. That diversity extends across localized culinary traditions, available ingredients, preparation styles and cooking techniques. It’s a diversity influenced for many by the ongoing struggle for sustenance.

The introduction to African food for many New Mexicans was courtesy of the amazing Jambo Cafe, one of Santa Fe’s very best restaurants of any genre. Jambo is the perennial winner of Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl competition and one of those rare restaurants in which culinary epiphanies (think all 10,000 of your taste buds erupting in choruses of Alleluia) occur with every visit. The genesis of Jambo’s award-winning cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.

Rafiki03

Beef Sambusas

The Duke City’s first African restaurant was Talking Drums, an exciting eatery showcasing the cuisine of West Africa. Talking Drums opened in February, 2012 to significant critical acclaim. Fifteen months later, the Rafiki Café opened its doors. Rafiki, a Swahili word which means “friend” specializes in the cuisine of Kenya, a sovereign nation in East Africa straddling the Equator and bordering the Indian Ocean on its southeast. As with many ancient culinary cultures, Kenyan cooking draws upon diverse ethnic traditions merged with seasonings and techniques of other countries, especially India.

Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and sambusa on Rafiki’s menu and you’ll certainly discern the spices and aromatics of India when you taste the curry. Indian influences have their roots in colonial times when more than 32,000 indentured laborers were brought in from India to construct railroads. When the railroad was completed, many of the laborers chose to settle in the area and brought their families over. The melding of two ancient culinary cultures is a delicious one.

Rafiki04

From top: Ugali, Rice, Cabbage

Ensconced in the timeworn Morningside Shopping Center on a section of Lomas in which restaurants of any type are few and far in between, Rafiki Café could pass from the outside for an Italian café and, in fact, its predecessor in the shopping center was La Dolce Vita Bakery. Interior ambience, however, cannot be mistaken for anything but Africa in its exotic splendor. Colorful tapestries adorn the walls and decorative scarves double as curtains. The flag of Kenya, sporting a traditional Masasai shield and two spears hangs proudly on the servers’ station.

In keeping with the translation of its name, the motto posted on Rafiki’s Facebook page is “a stranger is a friend you are yet to meet.” There are no strangers at Rafiki. From the moment you step through the doors, you are treated warmly, like a welcome guest. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions about the menu or the restaurant. The family who owns and operates Rafiki is very proud of their native land’s cuisine. Gladys, the owner and chef, wants very much for her guests to enjoy their visit and will check up on you faithfully to make sure of that.

Rafiki05

Chicken Curry

Even before you set foot inside Rafiki, the intoxicating aromas will ensnare you. Peruse the menu and unless you’re already well-acquainted with Kenyan cuisine, you still won’t know the genesis of those aromas. Let the staff be your guide if you want, but for a truly adventurous dining experience, just order randomly from the menu. Everything we tried was wonderful. We knew it would be from the first bite of our sambusas. Sambusas are more than a case of “you say samosa, I say sambusa.” Sambusas are Ethiopian samosas, thinner than their Indian counterpart. Sambusas are fried savory pastry dough wrapped around a filling, be it vegetarian or ground beef. The ground beef filling, seasoned with lively Kenyan spices, is terrific. To keep peace in the family, request two orders…or ten. You’ll be hooked.

In addition to assorted salads of the day, the menu offers several vegetarian entrees. Main entrees are accompanied by very complementary sides that include ugali, a very common Kenyan food staple. Ugali is made from corn or maize flour and boiling water heated until formed into a dense block of cornmeal paste. By itself, the ugali seems coarse and heavy, but it’s not necessarily intended to be consumed on its own. Dip it into one of Rafiki’s stews like a sopping quality bread and it’s very enjoyable.

Rafiki06

Gee’s Special Karanga Beef Stew

Another side served with a main dish is cabbage, a vitamin-rich vegetable and staple in Kenya. The cabbage is finely chopped (though not as finely as coleslaw) and prepared with tomatoes and onions, all fried together until crispy. It’s a delightfully simple dish with more flavor than you might imagine. Rice, another Kenyan staple is also served with main dishes. It’s a rather plain rice, not that there’s anything wrong with that. One side you should always order is chapatti, the Indian flatbread made with a flour dough and fashioned into a coil before being rolled into a flat, circular shape. It is then fried on an oily skillet which renders the chapatti crisp on the edges, but moist and doughy on the inside. Rafiki’s chapatti is as good as any you’ll find in Albuquerque’s Indian restaurants.

The fusion of Indian and Kenyan cooking is perhaps no more evident than in chicken curry, an entrée so wondrously fragrant that may remind you of walking into an excellent Indian restaurant. Unlike some Indian curries which tend to be rather creamy and thick, this one is more “brothy,” like a soup. Served in a “right-sized” bowl (meaning it isn’t the swimming pool you get at some Vietnamese restaurants), the soup is redolent with the captivating aroma of curry melding with complementary, exotic Kenyan spices. Rafiki is very generous with chicken, both in the amount and in the size of each piece. This curry dish ranks up there with some of the very best Thai and Indian curries in Albuquerque. It’s a winner!

Rafiki07

Chapati and Cabbage

For comfort food, Kenyan cuisine has got to rank right up there with Southern cooking. One of the best exemplars of Kenyan comfort food is its Karanga beef stew, a well-seasoned, but not spicy, soup constructed with garlic, spices, onions and herbs. It’s easy to imagine yourself luxuriating in a steamy bowl of Karanga beef stew on a blustery day, but it’s delicious in any season. The beef is tender and delicious with the influence of Kenyan spices and herbs permeating deeply. Perhaps even more than the chicken curry, this stew is a perfect vehicle for the ugali.

Kenyan desserts may not be especially well known, but that’s only because they’re not ubiquitous as is chocolate, for example. One dessert which would be a hit with any diner sporting a sweet tooth is the Wali, a white rice cooked with grated coconut meat to create a sweet-savory twist to plain rice. Sprinkled with cinnamon, this dessert will remind you of a combination of Thai sticky rice and New Mexican sweet rice. It’s the best of both worlds, actually, a delicious rice encircled with fresh sliced fruit.

Rafiki08

Ice cream with fruit and Wali (coconut rice with fruit)

Rafiki provides another wonderful option for adventurous diners who recognize there is deliciousness in every cuisine on the world culinary stage. Kenyan cuisine is diverse, delicious, comforting and nourishing and Rafiki prepares it very well.

Rafiki Cafe
4300 Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Sambusa, Chicken Curry, Karanga Beef Stew, Chapati, Cabbage, Rice, Ugali, Wali with fruit

Rafiki Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lumpy’s Burgers – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The second (and more conventional) Lumpy’s opened on November 18, 2011 at 10131 Coors Road, N.W.

Of all the adjectives that can be used to describe something or someone, lumpy is certainly not one of the most complimentary.  Think of all the Archie Bunker-like tantrums thrown during holiday meals when lumpy mashed potatoes are served or the breakfast battles that ensue when the oatmeal is lumpy. In fits of pique, seven-time Academy Award nominated actor Richard Burton often called his voluptuous wife Elizabeth Taylor “lumpy,” perhaps one of the reasons Hollywood’s most volatile couple was twice divorced and their relationship generally tumultuous.

Perhaps worse than describing something as “lumpy” is giving someone that nickname. Consider the Saturday Night Live skit which poked fun at former University of New Mexico golfer and current PGA tour pro Tim Herron because the “less than svelte” golfer’s nickname is “Lumpy.”  Never mind that the self-deprecating Herron embraces the sobriquet, it’s often the target of derision.  The Leave It To Beaver television series of the 50s and 60s portrayed “Lumpy” Rutherford as a “hefty” teenage dullard who’s a bit of a bully.

The unique "menu" that doubles as your order

The unique “menu” that doubles as your order

So why would a hamburger joint on Route 66 christen itself “Lumpy?”  Prospective diners would certainly hope it’s not a descriptive adjective for its burgers.  When owners Jay Kennedy and Jason Mancini were looking for a name befitting their new restaurant enterprise, they considered several options including Wimpy’s (which is already taken by a chain of fast-food hamburger restaurants based in the United Kingdom) before settling on Lumpy’s.  It’s a name, not a descriptive adjective.

For several months after the restaurant’s February, 2010 launch, long lines of hungry burger aficionados were typical, indicating the restaurant’s name is certainly not a deterrent.  If anything, the name is just one of several things about Lumpy’s which seems to inspire curiosity.  Lumpy’s does not subscribe to the stereotypical template of how a burger joint should operate.  It’s an archetype–something original, a burger restaurant daring to be different.

This is how ALL French fries should begin, not pre-sliced and frozen in a bag

This is how ALL French fries should begin, not pre-sliced and frozen in a bag

Albuquerque’s first Lumpy’s Burgers was situated in a very familiar location to residents of Albuquerque’s West Mesa area.  It was located on Route 66 just west of Central Avenue’s intersection with Old Coors Boulevard and about a mile from one of Albuquerque’s most prominent neon spangled signs, one which celebrates Route 66.  Lumpy’s occupied the former home of Taco Phil’s Carry Out, once one of the West side’s most popular New Mexican food destinations.  Designed in the 60s as strictly a carry-out enterprise, the building offered seating underneath a canopy that provided a bit of shade for those days of intense Duke City sunshine, but can’t buffet the March winds.  On November 18th, 2011, the second Lumpy’s opened its second restaurant near the Cottonwood Mall (10131 Coors Road, N.W.) in a building which last housed an Owl Cafe.  It’s a more conventional restaurant with indoor seating.  The original Lumpy’s closed shortly thereafter.

One of the first curiosities your eyes will affix upon is an upright wooden structure holding in place several bushel baskets. Upon further investigation, you’ll find the baskets are filled to varied levels with potatoes, both white Russets and reddish sweet potatoes. Patrons waiting in line will pluck the most pulchritudinous spuds out of those baskets and stuff them into a paper bag.

Lumpy04

“Skrewy” Fries made from regular and sweet potatoes

The paper bag, or rather a stack of them, is the next curiosity.  It doubles as the menu and it’s where you make your selections.  Burgers come in three sizes and are listed first.  There’s the quarter-pound Wimpy burger, the half-pound Lumpy and the three-quarter pound Plumpy.  Listed below the three burgers are the toppings: Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mayo, mustard, ketchup, green chile, jalapenos, Ranch dressing and Cali sauce ( a sort of homemade Thousand Island dressing).  All toppings are free of charge.  The young at heart can opt instead for a mini corn dog or chicken strips.

After you’ve annotated your burger and topping selections on the paper bag, your next decision is how you want your potatoes done: chunky (thick Texas style fries), skinny (shoestring) or skrewy (potato chips). Next you select your beverage of choice–Coke products or tea. You then put a couple of potatoes in the bag and proceed to the order counter where you hand your paper bag to the attendant. In about ten minutes your order will be filled.

Heath Foote holds a “Plumpy,” a three-quarter pounder (Photo Courtesy of Lilly Digital)

The third curiosity are the black shirts worn by the staff, shirts emblazoned with the perplexing slogan “it saved my life.”  The owners will tell you unabashedly that “Jesus Christ saved their lives, the slogan is just something to arouse interest.”  A placard on the window indicates the restaurant is not open on Sundays to allow team members time for worship and family.

Maybe a fourth curiosity is just how friendly people in line are. You’ll find that experienced visitors to Lumpy’s are quite willing to share the quirky ordering processes with neophytes visiting Lumpy’s for the first time. Not only will they walk you through the routine, they will even recommending which potatoes to order. You might even find yourself sharing a table with a man in the queue behind us.

A “Lumpy” (Half-Pounder) with Housemade Chips (Photo courtesy of Lilly Digital)

The fries recommended by most are the “skrewy” fries made from either the white Russet or red sweet potatoes.  These are not conventional fries, but waifishly thin potato chips and they are terrific.  Served warm in white paper bags, they are relatively low in salt and almost entirely greaseless.  The sweet potato chips are some of the best chips we’ve had in a long time.  They’re somewhat smallish, but very crisp and delicious.  The bottom of the bag also doesn’t contain any of those annoying broken chips you find in commercial products.

The three-quarter pound Plumpy earns its appellation. It’s a burger behemoth prepared on a flattop grill with three fresh, never frozen, beef patties and whatever toppings you selected on your paper bag. The Cheddar cheese drapes beyond the circumference of the sweet buns which are just formidable enough to contain the burger’s contents and juiciness. If you love a lot of cheese (and not that processed imitation served by many burger joints), this is your hook-up. The green chile is just piquant enough to get your attention (much more incendiary than the punchless stuff served at LotaBurger), there’s plenty of it and it’s got a smooth roasted flavor. The beef patties are well seasoned and juicy at just a shade over medium. It’s a good burger with fresh ingredients in generous proportions.

A chocolate “shutter,” Lumpy’s version of a chocolate milkshake (available only at the Cottonwood area Lumpy’s)

Even the quarter pounder is prolific.  Though it has one beef patty fewer, it would absolutely dwarf the saltfest served at the golden arches, both in sheer size and in flavor.   Lumpy’s  sold over 175,000 burger patties in their first 16 months of operation.  It was also one of the top vote-getters in the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail voting despite not having a green chile cheeseburger on its menu.

Owners Jay Kennedy and Jason Mancini have faith in their Lord and they have faith in their product.  They’ve got a good business model and the talent, product and gumption to succeed in a tough burger market.  Given a chance, they could grow in time to a viable competitor for Lota Burger, another local burger joint which started small, but became a beloved state-wide institution.  Now that’s an audacious claim, but you might make it, too, after sampling the food at a restaurant whose name you probably don’t want as your own, but whose product you will enjoy. 

Admittedly, I found the burgers at the original Lumpy’s location somewhat better than the burgers in the new location.  Perhaps it was the al fresco dining or the sense of community among the queue crowd or maybe even the novelty, but the new Lumpy’s, despite its closer proximity to home, hasn’t won me over.  Edward Sung recounts his experiences at Lumpy’s on the outstanding We Have Eaten Well blog.

Lumpy’s Burgers
10131 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 June 2013
1st VISIT: 10 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lumpy Burger with Skrewy Fries, Chocolate Shutter

Lumpy's Burgers (Cottonwood) on Urbanspoon

1 2 3 5