Pasion Latin Fusion – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
Tammy Mollai

Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show has some nerve!  In an episode which first aired in March, 2014, the tough-talking British mesomorph had the audacity to tell America that Pasion Latin Fusion wasn’t the beautiful, graceful swan with which many of us had fallen in love.  Although he didn’t directly call Pasion an ugly duckling paddling about aimlessly, Irvine certainly intimated that things at Pasion weren’t as rosy as some of us may have thought. 

The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  If you’ve ever been to Pasion Latin Fusion, words like failure, dysfunction and drama won’t ever come to mind.  Since its launch in 2011, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, much moreso than reviews for other “failing” restaurants featured on Restaurant: Impossible.

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible show

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show

While the Food Network’s preview synopsized the issues at Pasion as “tension between Monica and their main investor, Elvis’s brother, and a menu that’s leaving customers confused and frustrated,” the most obvious revelation when the episode aired is that Elvis, Monica and Orlando Bencomo are extremely likeable and extraordinarily passionate about their restaurant.  If the Food Network came to Pasion expecting the dysfunction and drama of a soap opera, they instead got a true feel good story accentuating the love of a beautiful family. 

Robert Irvine’s renovation of Pasion was much more than cosmetic though that’s what visitors will notice first.  The interior has been wholly transformed from a milieu of dark jumbled gracelessness into a bright, airy and intimate two-level dining room.  The menu has also been revamped, both in content and in style.  All menu items are now clearly described so there’s no room for confusion.  Some fourteen items make up the “Latin tapas” section of the menu with another five entrees on the “Platos Principales (main courses) menu, but they’re so varied and good you won’t need more.

The Redesigned Interior of Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine

Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of  Elvis  and Monica Bencomo, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors.  The third in the family triumvirate who own and operate Pasion is Orlando Bencomo, Elvis’s brother and main investor in the restaurant.  Orlando, a veteran of Afghanistan, runs the front of the house.  If the Food Network exposure gave any of them a big head, you certainly can’t tell.

Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina.  Get the picture?

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna | Coconut | Habanero | Passion Fruit Sorbet

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna

Monica, the statuesque occasional hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago, but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Together Monica and Elvis have not only made beautiful food together, they actually enjoyed working together when Monica ran the front of the house. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain especially now that Pasion has been renovated.  It is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. A sole fireplace suspended from the ceiling is both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening.  Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.

The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items have combined those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.

Duck Taquitos Green and Yellow Chile | Pickled Vegetables | Mexican Cotija Cheese

Duck Taquitos

Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.

29 March 2014: Latino tapas are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You can make a meal out of the tapas.  Three per person is what our server advised, but he probably based that on my “svelte” physique.  One of those tapas (if it’s on the menu) should be the pasion fruit salsa with chips.  In New Mexico, chips and salsa are pretty de rigueur, so much so that it’s a rare salsa which can distinguish itself.  The pasion fruit salsa is unique, a combination of piquancy, tropical fragrance and tanginess.  It’s a welcome respite from the usual with chips.  Now, if you like your salsa to provide the flavor element of pain, this salsa won’t do it, but it does pack enough heat to titillate your tongue.

Carnitas Tacos

29 March 2014: Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Fire and Ice, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero-coconut sauce and passion fruit sorbet served with tortilla chips.  The habanero-coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut.  The passion fruit sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche.  Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients.  This is genius!

29 March 2014: In the 1980s, restaurants such as Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the West Beach Cafe in Venice, California started a trend still going strong today when they introduced duck tacos.  Being a trend doesn’t equate to being good, however.   Unlike so many others, the duck taquitos at Pasion are worth the build-up and hype.  They’re, in fact, sensational!  There’s only one thing wrong with the three rolled taquitos engorged with pickled vegetables and slow-simmered duck meat seasoned with Caribbean spices topped with yellow and green chile sprinkled with Mexican Cojita cheese.  If there are two of you, splitting that third taqito could end up in the type of drama the Food Network would appreciate.

Caribbean Chicken Adobo

29 March 2014: Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Quesadilla Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches.  Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé  as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based.  At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a hybrid corn-flour tortilla.  Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.” 

22 October 2015: For many New Mexicans the term “chicharron” conjures images of deep-fried cubes of crispy pork cracklings.  We enjoy them in much the way other people eat popcorn.  In parts of Texas and Mexico, chicharrones are more akin to menudo or strips of wiggly, squiggly pork tripe.  Only in Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas had we previously seen chicharrones fashioned from seafood (mariscos).  Leave it to Elvis to introduce Albuquerque to this uniquely delicious entree.  The combination of crispy mixed seafood (African white fish and calamari), pickled vegetables and small mango cubes is a winner, elevated to rarefied air with a habanero tartar sauce so good and so bold and assertive, you may just ask for a second ramekin.

Chicharron de Mariscos

16 July 2016: Absent from the revamped menu are several favorites, but my sense of loss is mitigated by the addition of Caribbean Chicken, among the very best I’ve ever had.  Caribbean chicken isn’t synonymous with jerk chicken.  In fact, Pasion’s Caribbean chicken doesn’t have a piquant punch.  Its flavor profile is derived from non-jerk Caribbean adobo spices and from having been wrapped and roasted in banana leaves which seal in freshness and flavor.  This is outrageously good chicken–two thighs and two legs.  The chicken is served with a white rice and mashed ripe plantain mound, a surprisingly good combination.

16 July 2016: The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet, savory and sour goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.

Pastel de Queso: Goat Cheese Style Cheesecake Drizzled with Mango Caramel

16 July 2016: The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, ranking number ten on Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten best bread puddings in New Mexico. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding though a scoop of vanilla ice cream may help quell the heat for visitors who may not be used to it.

29 March 2014: Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is the Pasion Platano Cake, a banana custard cake topped with passion fruit mousse.  It’s rich, sweet and tangy in every bite.  The lip-pursing tartness isn’t quite lemon-like, but it’ll excite your mouth more than a handful of pop rocks.  Notes of cinnamon and vanilla occasionally sneak the tanginess of the passion fruit and the gentle sweetness of the banana.  If it sounds as if there’s a lot going on in this dessert, that’s because there is.  There’s a taste adventure in every bite.  

Aztec Bread Pudding Con Cajeta with a hint of Red Chile and a Milk Caramel Sauce

Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion.  That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and  unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years.  It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine. 

Note:  Because Pasion Fusion Restaurant changes its menu with some regularity, some of the items described on this review may not be available when you visit.  No matter what’s on the menu, if Elvis is in the building, your meal will be great.

Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2016
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa, Chicharron De Mariscos

Pasión Latin Fusion Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill

For at least the past seven years, the most famous “biker cafe” in the Land of Enchantment has been the fictional Maggie’s Diner in Madrid on the Turquoise Trail.  Constructed in 2007 for the made-in-New-Mexico comedy Wild Hogs, Maggie’s Diner was frequented by bikers of all ilks, whether they be white collar executives in the throes of mid-life crises or the stereotypically rowdy, raucous bikers who terrorize the Madrid’s citizenry and  demand food and adult beverages gratis.

After January 14th, 2015 when the Food Network aired a Restaurant: Impossible episode entitled “Revved Up,” New Mexico’s most famous biker cafe probably became the Shade Tree Customs & Cafe in Albuquerque.  Chef-host Robert Irvine and crew spent a couple of days in October “transforming” the restaurant.  The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence. 

The redesigned Shade Tree Cafe

To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows. If anything, what the show revealed is that when two worlds—a motorcycle shop and a restaurant—collide, issues are bound to arise. Irvine quickly determined the ownership quintumvirate didn’t have clearly defined roles and that operational transparency (food and beverage costs, labor costs, revenue) was lacking. Irvine also discerned the ownership passion for the motorcycle shop, indicating that similar passion for the restaurant would make the concept “amazing.”

Convening a meeting of the minds with staff and management, he pinpointed operational issues and recommended an increase in the frequency and openness of communication as well as role definition and managerial involvement. He also helped the kitchen staff rework the menu, creating exciting new dishes designed to wow patrons. To increase kitchen cohesiveness, team-building and morale, he asked that they create a team dance. It was one of the more entertaining segments of the show.

Part of your dining experience should include visiting the patio and repair shop

The show’s restaurant designer described the restaurant design as “college dormish” and “super macho.” Her goals for the make-over was to “make it cool, rough-and-tough, but still have a feminine touch.” Mission accomplished! The metamorphosed Shade Tree Café was even better than the vision ownership had in mind, described by Irvine as “the coolest place on Route 66.” The redesign inspired a rekindled passion that, coupled with the implementation of sound management practices, promises to restore the restaurant to profitability and prominence.

The Shade Tree Customs & Cafe first launched in February, 2012 before relocating to a larger Nob Hill venue some twenty months later.  As its name implies, the Shade Tree is a motorcycle-themed restaurant  and custom motorcycle shop within one complex.  The restaurant storefront is visible from Central Avenue just a few doors west of Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila.  The suite also houses a shop area where Shade Tree builds, sells and repairs custom cycles.  Weather permitting, an expansive patio in the alley behind the restaurant extends  capacity beyond indoor capacity of 70.

Spark Plugs

The Cafe portion of the Shade Tree operation offers wide-ranging beer and wine options as well as lunch and dinner menus ostensibly celebrating American biker favorites such as burgers and sandwiches.  The Cafe is also open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11AM until 2PM.  The menu isn’t overly expansive (five appetizers; four soup and salad options; five burgers, including one custom-made; four sandwiches and three popular entrees) or vegetarian friendly, but it does offer good variety and interesting specials. 

A good way to start your dining experience at the Shade Tree is with Spark Plugs, not the humble electrical contrivance that “sparks” to ignite the fuel on combustion engines, but what non-“motorheads” might call a “jalapeño popper.”  If that term practically reeks of greasy, breaded, bite-sized stuffed jalapeños, you’re in for a surprise.  These spark plugs are baked, not fried, and they’re stuffed with cream cheese and Cheddar topped with bacon bits.  The jalapeños aren’t incendiary, a likely consequence of being rather large (generally the smaller the pepper, the more heat it generates).  These spark plugs will rev your motor.

STC (Southern Tasty Chicken) Sandwich

One of the Shade Tree’s most popular entrees is the Southern Tasty Chicken (STC), a fried chicken breast served with green chile chutney, smashed potatoes and the veg o’ day.  A more portable variation of this “sounds like Sunday dinner” entree is the STC Sandwich, a towering behemoth constructed from a fried chicken breast, Habanero-Jack, Cajun mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle.  Do yourself a favor and dispose of the lettuce, tomato and onion even before biting into the sandwich; their biggest contribution to the sandwich is in providing a cooling effect.  The fried chicken breast is meant to be eaten hot with the molten cheeses and Cajun mayo slathered on generously.  As far as chicken sandwiches go, in the Duke City the only better option may be at the Stone Face Tavern

Fortune smiled upon us on the Sunday morning of our inaugural visit when one of the brunch specials was a Southwestern Patty Melt, an Angus patty, poblano, caramelized onions, Habanero cheese and green chile aioli on a brioche bun.  Perhaps because the patty is so prodigious, the ostensibly piquant influence of poblano, Habanero cheese and green chile aioli aren’t especially notable.  A larger tangle of caramelized onions would also be welcomed.  If these sound like shortcomings, kudos are still in order to the Shade Tree for providing a unique take on a sandwich that all-too-often provides a boring sameness from one restaurant to another.

Southwest Patty Melt

From the “Entrees” portion of the menu comes the Green Chile Mac, a plateful of macaroni smothered in Cheddar and Habanero-Jack cheese with a New Mexico green chile topping.  The rich combination of cheeses is sure to please the turophiles (cheese connoisseurs) among us, but the lack of real piquancy may leave volcano-eaters wanting more.  Alas, we didn’t learn until more closely perusing the menu after-the-fact that you can give any entree a kick-start by adding the “XXX hot “Backfire Sauce.”  We’ll request it next time. 

The veg o’ day served with the green chile mac was baby asparagus, as good as we’ve had them anywhere in Albuquerque.  Sauteed (probably in butter) and seasoned with black pepper and garlic, they should be made a permanent addition to the menu or at the very least offered as a substitute for the fries served with sandwiches and burgers.  These baby asparagus are adult-pleasing good.

Green Chile Mac smothered in Cheddar and Habanero Jack Cheese served with Baby Asparagus

If the food is good and the ambiance welcoming, the concept of a biker’s cafe should have a much wider appeal than solely to the biker culture.  At the  Shade Tree Customs & Cafe, the food is good and the ambiance make-over up-classed the restaurant from being inviting primarily to bikers to being a draw for all demographics.

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe
3407 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 December 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Mac, Southwestern Patty Melt, STC Sandwich, Spark Plugs

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