Cafe Bien – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Bien in Albuquerque’s Downtown Area

My friend Hannah, a brilliant linguist who’s become rather expert in the etymology and evolution of languages, speech patterns and morphology would find it dismaying should she hear someone attribute the term “Romance language” to the seductive sweet nothings spoken by such onscreen Lotharios as Ricardo Montalban.  With the mere utterance of “Corinthian leather,” Montalban could make women (and some men) swoon, but while his smooth intonations and thick, sophisticated accent may sound “romantic,” “Romance languages have nothing to do with love and romance. 

Romance languages (the R is always capitalized) are languages that developed out of the Latin used in the Roman Empire between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D..  By the beginning of the 21st century nearly one billion people claimed a Romance language as their mother tongue, 300 million people as a second language. The five most widely spoken Romance languages are Spanish (410 million), Portuguese (216 million), French (75 million), Italian (60 million), and Romanian (25 million).     Romance languages still share several commonalities and a surprisingly high proportion of basic vocabulary.

The dining room at Cafe Bien

Though more a polyglot (if knowing cuss words in multiple languages qualifies me as such) than a linguist, my first inclination at hearing about Cafe Bien was to wonder if “Bien” was indicative of the restaurant’s cuisine.    Depending on how it’s used (in combination with other words), “bien” can translate to “very well” or “very good” in both Spanish (muy bien) and French (tres bien).  Though just slightly different in Italian (abbastanza bene ) and Portuguese (muito bem), there’s no mistaking that these four terms have their genesis in a Romance language.  There are dozens of “common” phrases in use today. 

Subscripted directly below the name “Cafe Bien” is the term “a fine creation,” confirmation of what the term “bien” means without attributing it to the cuisine of any country.  Fine cuisine is fine cuisine, apparently…and that’s not necessarily synonymous with fine dining.  Peruse the menu and you’ll find delightfully eclectic offerings that are just a little different from those served at most “American” eateries throughout the city.  It’s got burgers, sandwiches, entrees and other “fine” dishes that have been bringing in breakfast and lunch crowds since Cafe Bien first launched in the autumn of 2013.

Brioche Toast and Croissant

Cafe Bien’s first home was on the bottom floor of the Simms Building on Gold Avenue, a block south of Central Avenue.  Not quite two years later, the restaurant relocated to Route 66, within easy walking distance of its first home.  Comfortably ensconced in the former home of Nick’s Crossroads Café, Cafe Bien is sure to benefit from increased traffic and the visibility of being on the corner of a very busy intersection (Fourth and Central).  East-facing windows let the sun shine in while the walls on the western wall are festooned with several televisions tuned to the Food Network (as if imbibing the intoxicating aromas emanating from the kitchen isn’t incentive enough). 

Ever since The Spot shuttered its doors in Corrales, we’ve been craving biscuits and gravy.  Cafe Bien’s rendition (chive biscuits with white gravy, green chile sausage, eggs sunny-side-up, house fries) sounds as inviting as a warm smile.  Alas, by the unholy hour of eleven o’clock on the Saturday morning of our inaugural visit, the restaurant had run out.  Not bien!  Housemade brioche toast and a croissant are poor substitutes when you’ve got a craving for biscuits.  It’ll take some doing for any restaurant’s biscuits to be nearly as good as The Spot’s, but on paper alone, Cafe Bien’s just might do the trick.

Bacon & Eggs

As she consoled us for having run out of biscuits, our server promised a breakfast entree sure to cheer our disconsolate hearts.  Telling us the “bacon and eggs” was one of Cafe Bien’s most popular dishes seemed as empty as a campaign promise during the primaries.   As she described it, the entree sounded more and more like “deconstructed Eggs Benedict” until she got to the “bacon” part of the entree: two half-inch thick slabs of caramelized pork belly.  That’s right.  Pork candy!   Though she had us at caramelized pork belly, the deal was sealed with the mention of green chile potato pancake. Everything else–toasted brioche, poached eggs and Hollandaise–was more of the “been there, done that” variety.  The caramelized pork belly lives up to expectations as a fatty, meaty, sweet, smoky, seductive bacon on steroids.  Similarly the green chile potato pancakes are par excellence with a pleasant piquancy enlivening what is often a boring, bland item. 

As if to prove cobbler isn’t just for barbecue restaurants, Cafe Bien offers a number of cobbler dishes, none of which will have you craving ribs lacquered with a sweet-sticky sauce.  The mixed berry (raspberry, blueberry, blackberry) cobbler a la mode is a winner courtesy of tart-sweet berries and a glorious sweet crust.  By serving the ice cream in a separate dish, you’re allowed to introduce the element of cold to the hot berries as you see fit.  Vanilla ice cream is a perfect foil for tart berries, its sweet creaminess providing a nice contrast to the lip-pursing berries.  Whipped cream is provided on the side, but it’s wholly unnecessary.

Mixed Berry Cobbler A La Mode

Cafe Bien is one of the reasons “todo esta bien” (all is well) in the downtown area.  Now if they could only manage not to sell out of biscuits before we get there…

Cafe Bien
400 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bacon & Eggs, Mixed Berry Cobbler A La Mode
Cafe Bien Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loving Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Loving Vegan Closed Its Doors on Friday, November 13th, Two Days After My Inaugural and Only Visit

My adovada adoring amigo Ruben likened the irony to an episode of Seinfeld.  Two weeks into his experiment with an ostensibly healthier vegan diet, he was craving sushi and needed his sushi-specific pangs of hunger sated.  No sooner had we finished a very satisfying sushi soiree at Albuquerque’s only vegan sushi restaurant than our waitress apprised us the restaurant would be closing for good two days later.  “Serenity now,” we cried, mimicking Frank Costanza when faced with a stressful situation.  It just didn’t seem fair that we would make such a delicious discovery only to have plans for future meals dashed. 

Loving Vegan gave it the “old college try,” initially launching in June, 2012 on Coors Blvd before relocating in November, 2013 to a much more heavily trafficked Nob Hill location.  In its relatively short life, Loving Vegan garnered a loyal following and a very prestigious honor.  Within a year of opening, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) named Loving Vegan the “top restaurant for vegan sushi” in the United States and Canada.  The citation from PETA read: “Loving Vegan earned our top prize because it truly proves that any food can be made deliciously and healthfully without animal products. Cheers and congratulations to Loving Vegan — this number-one award is well deserved!”

Interior of Loving Vegan

Despite being a relative newcomer competing against vegan restaurants in such population centers as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Ontario (Canada) and Baltimore, to veteran observers of the Duke City dining scene, it  came as no surprise that Loving Vegan would be accorded such an honor. After all, it was founded by Kathy Punya, one of Albuquerque’s most active restaurant impresarios.  Among Kathy’s other eateries are a number of Sushi King restaurants throughout the Duke City as well as one in Rio Rancho.  Kathy Punya knows sushi! 

Kathy also knows restaurants.  After all vestiges of Loving Vegan have been cleared out, one of her other restaurants, Soul and Vine, a downtown fine-dining gem will be moving in.  Parking in Nob Hill is probably only slightly better than in the downtown district, but Nob Hill may be more heavily trafficked in the evening hours than is the downtown area, especially by the dining demographic.

In 2013 PETA named Loving Vegan the best Vegan Sushi Restaurant in America

Ruben and I were pleasantly surprised at the diversity and depth of the Loving Vegan menu.  Not only did the menu list a tremendous variety of sushi (nigiri, sashimi, rolls, hand rolls and chef’s specials) options, a separate  menu showcased Bento boxes, rice dishes, pan-fried noodles, noodle soups, Chinese stir-fried dishes and chef specials.  The chef specials included Pad Thai and three curry dishes including a vegan duck curry dish that beckoned me to try it.  Loving Vegan’s menu was as ambitious and inviting as any menu in any of Albuquerque’s many Asian restaurants. 

As we discovered, diners didn’t need to be of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion to enjoy a meal at Loving Vegan.  If we hadn’t known better, in fact, we would have sworn there was little discernible difference between some of the vegan sushi we enjoyed and sushi at traditional “fishy” sushi restaurants throughout the Duke City and that’s not just the horseradish-heavy wasabi talking.  Before finding out about the restaurant’s impending closure, it pleased Ruben to no end that despite his new healthful dietetic lifestyle, he’d be able to continue enjoying sushi.

Miso soup

By no stretch of the imagination is miso soup veganThe basis for this traditional Japanese favorite is dashi, a fish-based (fermented bonito or skipjack tuna fish shavings) broth and a salty fermented soybean paste.  A vegan-friendly version can be made fairly easily by substituting vegetable stock for the dashi.  Loving Vegan’s rendition has the pungent, salty qualities of traditional miso soup and had it been served hot instead of lukewarm, it would have been even more enjoyable. 

We initially wondered if the sheer number of ingredients on each sushi roll was a deliberate attempt at “masking” the flavor of the vegan ingredients, but it dawned on us that most American sushi rolls also tend to constructed from a preponderance of ingredients.  The vegan spicy tuna crunch roll was an exception in that the sole listed ingredients were vegan spicy tuna and cucumber inside with tempura flakes and sweet sauce on top.  Frankly, we didn’t spend much time trying to discern the nuanced differences between vegan tuna and its “regular” sushi counterpart.  That’s more indicative of our genuine appreciation for its deliciousness than any perceived lack of scientific curiosity.  This was a very good roll.

Left: Loving Vegan Roll; Right: Vegan Spicy Tuna Crunch Roll

We also disposed of the Loving Vegan Roll (green chili tempura, avocado, cucumber, vegan lobster inside; deep fried with spicy mayo, sriracha, and sweet sauce on top) rather quickly.  It wasn’t until we had wiped it out that we asked ourselves about the flavor of the vegan lobster.  Neither of us discerned, either texturally or flavor-wise, any lobster-like flavor.  We did, however, note that the “green chili” wasn’t especially reminiscent of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile.  Any heat we gleaned from this roll had its genesis in the wasabi and sriracha.  Still in all, we enjoyed the Loving Vegan Roll very much. 

Framed and captioned photographs on the walls proved very enticing–true food porn, none more alluring than the grilled portobello (SIC) roll (a unagi roll with cucumber, salmon and sweet sauce on top).  “Mock” unagi was nearly as good as its eel-based counterpart thanks largely to a generous application of the sweet “eel sauce.”   If the rapidity with which we dispensed of this roll is any indication, we enjoyed it thoroughly…and as with our previous vegan sushi conquests, we didn’t spend much time trying to determine its composition though I now surmise roasted eggplant may have been the basis for mock unagi.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll

Albuquerque apparently didn’t love Loving Vegan enough to keep it operating, but Ruben and I certainly wish it would have survived the test of time.  With sushi this good, a vegan lifestyle might be even be more than palatable. It just might be delicious.

Loving Vegan
3409 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Soup, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll, Loving Sushi Roll, Vegan Spicy Tuna Roll

Gravy – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gravy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on Central Avenue in the East Downtown (EDO) District

“Gravy is the simplest, tastiest, most memory-laden dish I know how to make:
a little flour, salt and pepper, crispy bits of whatever meat anchored the meal,
a couple of cups of water or milk and slow stirring to break up lumps.”
~Dorothy Allison, American writer

Some would say that the discovery (invention?) of gravy is one of mankind’s crowning achievements.  Others would deride it as the work of the devil, likening gravy to a beguiling temptress which bends the will to its bidding.  Dolly Parton acknowledges that “every single diet I ever fell off of was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.”   It’s no surprise that similar to many of the world’s best tasting foods, gravy is generally fattening.  Most commonly, it’s the byproduct of pan drippings and juices derived from cooking meat.

Some among us who consider gravy one of mankind’s most glorious achievements (even as it flows through our veins) may salivate involuntarily when turning onto Central Avenue and espying a large sign reading simply “Gravy” subtitled with the three events with which gravy goes so well: “breakfast, lunch, dinner.”  One of the most eagerly anticipated restaurant launches in recent memory, Gravy is the brainchild of the partnership which in 2011 opened Holy Cow, one of the city’s  most celebrated purveyors of burgers.

Chocolate-Cherry Shake

Gravy is located at the site of the former site of Milton’s, a long-time East Downtown institution.  Despite nearly two years and more than half a million spent in renovating the edifice,  architectural constraints make it nearly impossible not to hearken back to the days in which the facade housed a Denny’s Restaurant.  That’s not to say the renovation was like “putting lipstick on a pig.”  It’s just that there’s only so much you can do with a building originally constructed in 1964. 

What you can do, however, is place a premium on providing an attractive venue for guests.  It’s a venue which pays homage to previous tenants in a retro-modern diner fashion without a thematic regression to the 60s.  The exterior (which had probably been neglected for years) has a pristine appearance; even the river rock facade now has a polished look.  The interior received similar attention though the sound system’s bassy speakers have a one-note (boom, boom) cacophony that makes discourse at conversational tones a challenge.

Steak Frites

Where Gravy will shine most is with a diner menu that bespeaks of inventive and traditional diner foods, many prepared with a New Mexico twist while others offer a contemporary interpretation of classic dishes.  Diner foods generally translate to comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken fried steak, fried chicken and beef stroganoff, all staples of Gravy. Salads range from the classic chopped salad to the lobster-avocado salad.  You can start your morning off with such eye-opening favorites as biscuits and gravy or opt instead for a breakfast pot pie.  Nine types of pancakes grace the breakfast menu.

13 December 2014: In the tradition of diners everywhere, milkshakes are prepared to order for kids of all ages.  These aren’t the milkshake machine variety shakes proffered at chain restaurants.  The chocolate-cherry shake, for example, is made with real ice cream, chunks of adult (dark) chocolate and a multitude of maraschino cherries, not some artificial cherry-flavored sweetener.  It’s served cold the way shakes used to be and should always be made.

Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle with Cucumber-Mint Yogurt and Tomato-Olive Salsa

13 December 2014: One of the more contemporary menu items offered at some diners is steak frites. While some might decry steak frites as just a fancy name for steak and French fries, in France there are restaurants whose entire menu is comprised solely of this sacrosanct dish.  Gravy’s rendition is a marinated top sirloin topped with a maitre d’ butter served with hand-cut fries.  At medium-rare, the steak oozes beautiful pink juices.  The maitre d’ butter, a compound butter with parsley, adds a complex layer of flavors and a rich unctuous quality that enlivens the meat.  The fries are just a bit on the flaccid side and are prepared at just past the stage at which they’re golden hued. 

13 December 2014: Another entree unlikely to be found in an old-fashioned diner of yore is a spinach, artichoke and feta triangle served with a cool cucumber-mint yogurt and a tomato-olive salsa.  Not entirely unlike Greek spanokopita, this filo dough pastry is a winner, so good you can enjoy it on its own or with the delightful cucumber-mint yogurt and (or) tomato-olive salsa.  Luckily there’s enough of the cucumber-mint yogurt that you can use it in lieu of ketchup for the fries.  The tomato-olive salsa has a discernible bite whose genesis we weren’t able to determine. 

Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes

13 December 2014: There’s a reason restaurant critics don’t typically review new restaurants until restaurateurs have had the opportunity to iron things out, a process that sometimes takes several weeks, if not months.   Virtually all restaurants experience “Murphy’s Law-esque” start-up issues that belie the countless hours of planning and preparation for a smooth launch.  We visited Gravy scant days after its opening and suffered through a number of issues that detracted from the enjoyment of our meal, however, the restaurant’s seasoned ownership makes it very likely these issues will be resolved in short order and Gravy will more than live up to the hype it’s received. 

22 August 2015: We waited nine months for a return visit and while the service issues we endured during our inaugural visit were largely resolved, we experienced mixed results with what we ordered, thoroughly enjoying a couple of items and sending two other items back.  There are never any guarantees that every item at every restaurant will appease every diner, but the items we sent back were praised highly on other online forums and frankly, aren’t that difficult to prepare well.

Breakfast Sandwich

22 August 2015: The Air Force sent Kim and I to Mississippi in 1987, the year in which Fannie Flagg’s memorable Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published.  Fried green tomatoes are a Southern staple, as part of the culture as good manners.  Before we even read the book or watched the movie, we were  besotted by tangy fried slices of succulent fresh-from-the-garden green tomatoes.  Though restaurants throughout the fruited plain jumped on the fried green tomato bandwagon, only in the deep south have we enjoyed them.  Gravy’s rendition takes a contemporary approach to the sacrosanct fried green tomato, topping each slice with pimento cheese, chopped pork belly and tomato jam, negating the need for sauce of any type.  Though not quite “Southern,” these are very enjoyable.  The tomatoes are indeed green with nary a touch of mushy yellow or worse, red.  They’re fried lightly and pair well with the unique and clever toppings, especially the sweet tomato jam which nicely contrasts with the savory tartness of the green tomatoes.

22 August 2015: In 2014, I spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina, a city widely regarded as one of America’s culinary treasures.  At the James Beard award-winning Hominy Grill, I had the tremendous pleasure of partaking of the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, a beauteous behemoth in which sausage gravy is slathered on a mile-high biscuit bisected by a Southern-fried (in a skillet) chicken breast topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.  It’s one of the very best sandwiches these lips have ever enjoyed.  Gravy’s breakfast sandwich takes the term “nasty” as in awesomely big to another level.  It should come standard with an angioplasty.  Messily nestled within a UFO-sized biscuit are a fried chicken thigh topped with bacon, a fried egg and as much gravy as the Rio Grande has water.  On paper it sounds deliciously decadent, an indulgence not for the faint of heart.  Alas, the gravy lacked personality (a cardinal sin in a restaurant named Gravy) and would have benefited greatly from sausage.  The chicken was tough, rather heavily breaded and lacked seasoning.  We tried our darnedest to enjoy this beast of a biscuit sandwich, but couldn’t get past its shortfalls.

Pineapple Upside Down Pancake

22 August 2015:  The Gravy menu features a number of unique pancake offerings heretofore unseen in these parts.  The triumvirate, called “The Pancake Flight” includes a red velvet pancake, a cinnamon roll pancake and a pineapple upside down pancake.  Each is about the size of a manhole cover and unless you’re a lineman for the UNM Lobos is easily large enough to share.  The pineapple upside down pancake is terrific with tangy pineapple chunks providing a tangy contrast to the pancakes (which would have benefited from real maple syrup).

Gravy is a bit of an anomaly to us. The dishes it does well, it does very well, but shortcomings in other dishes are rather glaring. It’ll take time and a few more visits to find the sweet spot, a complete meal in which our enjoyment crosses several dishes.

Gravy
725 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2015
1st VISIT: 13 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Steak Frittes; Chocolate-Cherry Shake; Caramelized Banana Shake; Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle; Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes;

Gravy on Urbanspoon

New Yorken Cafe & Bakery – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The New Yorken Cafe & Bakery on Juan Tabo

Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach
Or to Hollywood
But I’m taking a Greyhound
On the Hudson River Line
I’m in a New York state of mind.”
~Billy Joel

Perhaps only in New Mexico does the term “New York state of mind” evoke images of a desert hamlet atop the mesa overlooking the largest city in the state. Such was the effectiveness of the slick marketing campaign by the American Realty and Petroleum Company (AMREP for short) that Rio Rancho, the city it founded less than fifty years ago, may be more often referred to as “Little New York” than as the “City of Vision,” the sobriquet it would prefer.  AMREP’s clever marketing attracted hundreds of middle-income New Yorkers to the then untamed western fringes overlooking the Rio Grande.  

To almost everyone else, however, “New York state of mind” calls forth the melting pot character that can take you around the world in five boroughs where as many as 800 languages are spoken.  That multicultural diversity has become what former President Jimmy Carter described as “a beautiful mosaic” with “different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”  That diversity extends to the city’s culinary scene where within a span of two or three blocks and scant minutes, you virtually have a world’s worth of dining options.

Patrick and Lisa Archibald, proud owners of New Yorken

It’s been said that you may leave New York, but New York never leaves you.  Patrick Archibald, a transplanted New Yorker who’s been in Albuquerque for more than two decades, can certainly attest to that.  Having cut his culinary teeth in Staten Island by baking bagels, he was immediately smitten with the food business and determined to someday make a living in the profession.  It’s taken a twenty-year detour to someday for him to achieve his dreams. 

As owner of New Surface Cabinets and Countertops on Juan Tabo, he witnessed several restaurants come and go from the restaurant space next door before embarking on his inaugural restaurant ownership venture.  A few months after Dagmar’s Restaurant & Strudel Haus shuttered its doors in the summer of 2014, Patrick and his beauteous better half Lisa, a native New Mexican, launched New Yorken.  Determining what the featured fare would be was a no-brainer.  Patrick wanted to bring New York to New Mexico.  For that it’s not only transplanted New Yorkers who are grateful.

Dinner Salad with Blue Cheese

Perusing the menu, it would be easy to conclude that Patrick is of Italian descent, but he’s as Irish as a field of shamrocks.  While heavy on Italian “red sauce” restaurant favorites, the menu also reflects the multicultural diversity of the neighborhood in which he grew up.  That means a smattering of Jewish and German favorites, too.  New Yorken also salutes Lisa’s home state with such enchanting dishes as a breakfast burrito, Frito pie and green chili (SIC) stew).  New Yorkers aren’t the only ones who’ll appreciate the fried or dirty water hot dogs, pork cutlet sandwich, chicken cutlet parmigiana sandwich and burgers redolent with Big Apple touches.

While the breakfast and lunch menus bespeak of New York’s melting pot diversity, the dinner menu could have emanated from a restaurant named Guido’s, Santori’s or any number of other Italian names.  It lists ten Italian dishes, not all of which might be recognized in Italy, but all of which are absolutely beloved in the Italian American communities of New York.  Family recipes are the source of such New York favorites as linguine with clam sauce, baked ziti and meatballs.  Patrick smiles broadly when describing those meatballs and is fittingly proud that the New Yorken menu includes shrimp parmigiana, a dish not often found in the Land of Enchantment.

Italian Bread with Garlic Cloves

The New Yorken Cafe & Bakery is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.  All dinner entrees come with a tossed side salad and fresh Italian bread, the latter of which is served with garlic cloves and butter.  The hard-crusted bread with a soft, pillowy interior is a perfect vessel for sopping up sauces.  That includes the housemade salad dressings such as the house specialty, a garlic vinaigrette.  (The bread, by the way, comes from Sergio’s on Wyoming).

18 April 2015: My standard salad dressing request is “as much blue cheese as you can carry.” What is ferried to my table usually isn’t enough. Lisa brought me two ramekins brimming with some of the best blue cheese we’ve had in a long time. It’s replete with plenty of blue veined, thick, creamy and wonderfully fetid blue cheese crumbles. This blue cheese dressing pairs well with New Yorken’s tossed side salad which is constructed from an organic salad mix, carrots, cucumber, tomato, broccoli, red onions and mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms, a vastly underused salad ingredient which goes especially well with blue cheese.

Lasagna

18 April 2015: Because my own New Mexican mom makes my favorite lasagna in the universe, I rarely order lasagna in restaurants for fear of being disappointed.  It’s usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Lisa’s effusive description of New Yorken’s lasagna swayed my decision as to what to order.  It’s an excellent choice: layered pasta, homemade marinara sauce, creamy cheese blend and Italian sausage “baked to perfection.”  Several elements on this dish stand out.  The marinara sauce is reminiscent of the sauce served at New York’s many “red sauce” Italian restaurants.  It’s not as heavy on oregano as marinara around here tends to be and the tomatoes are rich and sweet.  The coarsely-blended sausage is redolent with fennel and is very flavorful. 

18 April 2015: We thought the lasagna has a lot of sausage (and it does), but it’s sausage-impoverished compared to the Italian Sausage entree (mild Italian sausage, peppers and onions served over spaghetti with garlic and herbs).  Often called sausage and peppers on Italian restaurant menus, it’s a favorite in red sauce Italian restaurants.  None we’ve ever visited serves as many diagonally sliced sausage coins as New Yorken.  My Kim, who believes in sparing the sauce (heretical, yes I know) appreciated the relatively sparse sauce as well as the perfectly al dente spaghetti.  The red and green peppers were absolutely perfect, too, neither soft and mushy nor raw and hard.  The diversity of sausage and peppers can be seen throughout the menu.  They’re available on the New Yorken omelet and on the “Little Italy” sandwich.  Wise diners will try them all.

Sausage and Peppers

On many a balmy evening in Massachusetts when we needed plenty of carbs for marathon sessions of ultimate Frisbee, my friends and i would visit Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Lexington.  One of our favorite energy boosters was baked ziti served in too-hot-to-handle casserole dishes.  Baked ziti is one of those Italian-American hybrids for which there isn’t one standard recipe.  It’s essentially a penne pasta with some type of sauce.  The infusion of the sauce through the dish’s preparation is where the secret to its deliciousness lies.  First the pasta is cooked then combined with the sauce in a casserole dish.  The ziti is then placed in an oven and allowed to bake.

18 July 2015: If there’s one immutable law about Italian food, it’s that it’s going to taste even better the second time around…even if it means reheating a dish.  That’s especially true of good ziti and at New Yorken that’s what you’ll enjoy–very good ziti.  This rendition is made with a blend of rich and creamy Italian cheeses, herbs, pasta and the housemade marinara.  Not needing an infusion of carbs for ultimate Frisbee, we couldn’t finish the generous portion, but enjoyed the remainder thoroughly.  It’s not left-overs when it’s as good, if not better, the second time around.

Baked Ziti

The term “Parmigiana” is a sort of “catch-all” used to describe meals cooked and served with grated Parmesan cheese.  Traditionally, Parmigiana is a dish consisting of layers of Parmesan over fried slices of eggplant though there are numerous variations including chicken, veal and even shrimp.  Over time–and some consider this sacrilege–Parmigiana has been made with other types of cheese such as mozzarella.  You’ll probably never meet a New Yorker who doesn’t use the diminutive of this dish.  That would be “Parm,” a term almost as revered as “mother.”

18 July 2015: Serious Eats, an award-winning online publication contends that “It’s pretty hard to mess up a fried breaded chicken cutlet smothered with red sauce and melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.”  Alas, in New Mexico finding a good Chicken cutlet Parmigiana is an exception, not a rule.  Chicken cutlet parmigiana is apparently the dish enchantment forgot.   We count on two fingers–one for Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho and one for New Yorken–the restaurants which prepare an outstanding chicken Parmigiana dish.  One of the aspects of New Yorken’s version which stands out is the golden-hued breading which lends a crunchy texture while insulating the chicken as it’s being fried.  Amazingly, the breading accomplishes this despite being light and thin, somehow allowing the chicken to retain its moistness.  Then there’s the sauce and the cheese, both applied optimally for a blend of acidity and creaminess which render this dish wholly wonderful.

Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana

There are many foods associated with New York, but perhaps the most beloved of them all is the classic cheesecake.  It may be the most enduring, too, having survived America’s low-cal, low-fat, low-carb and low-sugar manias to be served today in more than 2,000 of the city’s restaurants.  New York cheesecake has been a rich, creamy, delicious staple of the New York dessert scene since the 1920s.  Among its telltale signs are its denseness, thickness and creaminess.  There are many imitators, but none are as good.

It took a lot of trial and effort before Patrick was able to bake a cheesecake as good as his mother’s.  Over the years he’s added to his repertoire, eventually building a brand and a business from his passion.  For almost five years, he’s offered his delectable cheesecakes under the Patty Cakes brand, selling them in limited quantities.  With a more expansive platform, it shouldn’t be long before Duke City diners discover and get hooked on possibly the very best cheesecakes outside New York.

Fabulous Cheesecake

18 April 2015: The luminous treasures displayed in jewelry cases pale in comparison to the cheesecakes behind glass in the pastry cases at New Yorken.  Most of them might be classified as “plain” if sheer, utter deliciousness can ever be termed as plain.  In this case, plain only means they’re unadorned with any toppings.  “Classic” is a better descriptor.  Patrick encourages you to make your inaugural slice a classic cheesecake so that nothing comes between your taste buds and the purity of this rich, creamy dessert.  My Chicago born-and-bred Kim, who’s no stranger to cheesecake, conceded with alacrity that Patrick’s classic cheesecake is better than Eli’s, a Windy City staple.

18 April 2015: The turtle cheesecake (pecans, caramel and chocolate) is at least as good as the last slice of Junior’s Cheesecakes to cross my lips (and hips) several years ago.  That places it in rarefied company.  Unlike far too many cheesecakes which are made with a Graham Cracker or Oreo crust, New Yorken’s cheesecakes are absolutely crustless.  The denseness of the cream cheese holds up against the generous layer of chocolate topped with whole pecans and drizzled with caramel.  The beauty of the turtle cheesecake is the layer of flavorings with varying degrees of sweetness within the tangy cream cheese, dark chocolate and sugary caramel.  The pecans are a perfect foil.  This is the perfect cheesecake!

Even Better Turtle Cheesecake

The New York state of mind is alive, well and delicious at the New Yorken Cafe & Bakery, a little bit of the melting pot character that defines America’s largest city.  By the way, don’t ever buy into the stereotype that New Yorkers are cold and unfriendly.  Patrick is one of the nicest restaurateurs you’ll meet, a perfect complement to the lovely Lisa and their son Patrick, Jr., who aspires someday to head Apple.

New Yorken Cafe & Bakery
2120 Juan Tabo,  N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2015
1st VISIT: 18 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Turtle Cheesecake, Cheesecake, Lasagna, Sausage and Peppers, Lemon Cheesecake, Baked Ziti, Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana

New Yorken Cafe and Bakery on Urbanspoon

Witch’s Brew – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Witch’s Brew Coffee House

“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
~Macbeth Act 4 Scene 1

Each of the lunch ladies at the Peñasco Elementary School cafeteria undoubtedly earned a pair of wings, a harp, and a halo for all they were subjected to from the recalcitrant kids who lined up for our daily gruel. Whenever (and it was quite often) something unappetizing was served, we would burst into a chorus of “double, double, toil and trouble. Dump this slop on the double.” Most of us were six or seven years old and had certainly never heard of the three witches immortalized in the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth. We’d improvised the little ditty from something we’d heard on an episode of Bewitched (or was it Gilligan’s Island?), a situation comedy of the 1960s.

It wasn’t those sainted lunch ladies who first came to mind when I espied the sign for “Witches Brew,” a coffee house in the Altura Park neighborhood. Now much more geriatrically advanced (and ostensibly more “grown up”) I tried to recall the remarkably precise and detailed incantation (was it “eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog?”…) uttered by Macbeth’s three witches as they concocted the most famous witches brew of all. Alas, my mind was too cluttered with the “dump this slop on the double” chant of my childhood.

From the dining room

Fittingly Witch’s Brew occupies the space previously held by another mythical character, the long defunct Blue Dragon, a coffee house and eatery whose eight year absence has made Duke City hearts grow fonder. As with its predecessor on Girard, Witch’s Brew is quirky and comfortable, a homey milieu in which you can procure enchanting eats and bewitching coffee. The dining room is an upgrade, offering cozy booths that seem tailor-made for long visits as you luxuriate over a pizza or sandwich. The cynosure of another expansive room is a pool table. Walls are festooned with the works of local virtuosos plying their craft in various artsy mediums.

Esthetics and ambiance aside, what sets Witch’s Brew apart is its vibe, the sense of déjà vu and belonging you feel when you first step into the joint. Even if you never set foot in the Blue Dragon, there’s something more than vaguely familiar about Witch’s Brew. For the more seasoned among us, perhaps it’s the sense of nostalgia gleaned from having studied assiduously in similar venues even as live music or a poetry slam unfolded (sometimes rather loudly) in the background.

Apricot Teacake

If you need help getting started in the morning, the Witch’s Brew can hook you up with hot Red Rock Roasters coffee or an 18-hour cold-brewed coffee as well as an assortment of eye-opening breakfast sandwiches and pastries. Return for lunch and you’ll revel in a selection of pizzas baked in the same Baker’s Pride oven once used by the Blue Dragon. The menu, scrawled on a slate board, also offers soups, burritos, salads, nachos and much more. You’ll be hard-pressed to tear your eyes away from the pie case which may be replete with pies, cakes, cheesecakes, Danishes, fruit and several types of cookies.

Feast your eyes on the apricot teacakes then let your taste buds confirm what your eyes tell you. These are perhaps even better than they look—thick, dense, apricot-infused teacakes with a generously slathered on apricot glaze. These aren’t artificially ripened, overly sweetened canned apricots, my friends. They’re imbued with Mother Nature’s freshness and the musky tartness of apricots that not long ago hung from a branch on a tall apricot tree.

Granola with Fruit

It wasn’t that long ago, granola was ascribed with such characteristics as rustic, tree-hugger bran, organic, natural and boring. Today, artisans and innovators are doing interesting things with granola, elevating it from the aforementioned to something inspired and maybe even chic. Witch’s Brew’s take on granola is neither. It might be easier to find Forrest Fenn’s treasure than to find something other than oats on the plate and we love our fruits and nuts, too. The yogurt itself is unsweetened which is a major plus as are the fruits (kiwi, watermelon, grapes, apple slices) served on a separate bowl.

What Bohemians and long-ago frequenters of the Blue Dragon want to know is if the venerable oven can still weave its magic on a pizza. If you believe pizza ovens have a memory and that, like a good pan, they can be “seasoned,” the answer is “the magic is still there.” There are a number of pizza options on the menu, including a taco pizza (black bean-red chile sauce, roasted chicken and al-fresco toppings) and a white pizza sans tomato sauce, but with plenty of garlic. You’re sure to find one you’ll love.

Pizza Margherita

Traditionalists and historians will enjoy the Pizza Margherita, the acknowledged progenitor of every pizza. Tradition dictates that the Margherita is adorned simply in the colors of the Italian flag: white from mozzarella, red from tomato sauce and green from basil. Add the color of char around the braided cornicione (the edge or lip of a pizza) and a bit of golden sheen from semolina flour and you’ve got a beauteous pie, one that’s chewy on the inside and crisp on the outside. The pie itself is rather thin, but it doesn’t wilt when picked up. Though the tomato sauce is generously applied, it doesn’t overwhelm the cheese. Thankfully salt isn’t a prominent part of this pie’s flavor profile.

Some would argue that the premise of a combination pizza is to get as many ingredients on one pie as you possibly can. Others look for combination pizzas to have a more thematic (Hawaiian, meat lovers, veggie, for example) appeal. Still others look for combinations that work well together. That’s what the combination pizza at Witch’s brew does. Constructed with pepperoni, black olives, onions and mozzarella, it’s not a profligate pile-up of ingredients, but the toppings do go very well together.

Combination Pizza

The Witch’s Brew is an enchanting coffeehouse in the heart of the Land of Enchantment. One can only wonder what type of ditty the Gil of my childhood would have composed about its culinary alchemy.

Witch’s Brew
1517 Girard Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combination Pizza, Pizza Margherita, Granola with Fruit

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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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Mac, Southwestern Patty Melt, STC Sandwich, Spark Plugs

Shadetree Cycleworks and Cafe on Urbanspoon

Viet Q – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Viet Q Vietnamese Grill Restaurant on Montgomery and San Pedro

When helicopters were snatching people from the grounds of the American embassy
compound during the panic of the final Vietcong push into Saigon,
I was sitting in front of the television set shouting, ‘Get the chefs! Get the chefs
!'”
Calvin Trillin, American writer, New Yorker Magazine

It’s unlikely Trillin, a humorist renown for his love of food, was entirely serious about his seemingly callous reaction to the poignant imagery of thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing their besieged city.  In his own inimitable way, he was using his sardonic wit to express  appreciation for the exotic cuisine he loves so much.  In fact, he considers the influx of Asians into American restaurant kitchens divine intervention of a sort: “God felt sorry for us because we lost a war to such a small country as Vietnam and sent the Vietnamese to us–where they were really needed.”

Three decades after the evacuation of Saigon, the Travel Channel’s articulate bon viveur Anthony Bourdain, wrote about Saigon: “I think I’ve gone bamboo…I’ve gone goofy on Vietnam, fallen hopelessly, hopelessly in love with the place.”  For Bourdain, that’s rare, unfettered praise.  Most viewers recognize that Bourdain’s approach to his culinary adventures is antithetical to the burbling style of Rachel Ray who visits only the most sanitary, hip and happening restaurants then anoints everything that touches her toothsome mouth as “yummo.”  Bourdain doesn’t sugarcoat anything, exposing his featured fare’s warts and blemishes yet somehow finding deliciousness in the experience and describing it with the honesty that has made him an iconic personality.

Papaya Salad

Bourdain champions the experience of dining in Saigon’s makeshift street markets in which kitchens are ad-libbed by inventive cooks.  The fragrant bouquet of ambrosial foods being prepared on small, sometimes homemade, charcoal braziers wafts throughout the alleyways and side streets in which these, mostly uncovered, markets are located.  Though many tourists fear the Vietnamese version of Montezuma’s revenge, the incidence of food-borne illness is relatively low.

Alas, we’re not going to find improvised street markets in Albuquerque’s International District or anywhere else in our fair city and not even a fun shopping day at the Talin Market World Food Fare can match the experience of a day  of dining in  a Saigon open air market or a soiree at a side street “cafe.”  Fortunately the Duke City is home to several very good to outstanding Vietnamese restaurants, a concentration of which are centered in the city’s southeastern section.  A number of outliers (May Hong and Saigon come to mind) make Vietnamese cuisine proximal to most neighborhoods east of the Rio Grande.

Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves

In June, 2010, the Northeast Heights welcomed a new, yet seemingly familiar, Vietnamese restaurant.  It’s no coincidence that the lime green signage at Viet Q resembles the color pallet at Viet Taste, a popular strip mall eatery near Coronado Mall.  The ownership of both Viet Q and Viet Taste is related, but that’s not the only semblance.  Step inside Viet Q and you’re in the lap of upscale stylings, starting with a pergola you walk under to enter the dining room.  Lighting is subdued and the spacing between tables allows for some privacy.  Framed photographs depicting the curvature of sultry women accentuate the ambiance.

22 August 2010: Viet Q purports to be the most upscale Vietnamese restaurant in town.  To that end, service is very personable and attentive.  Every meal begins with a complementary papaya salad, a very nice touch.  Green papaya is shaved into thin slices with julienne carrots then drizzled with a sauce of soy, coconut milk and sugar topped with sprigs of cilantro and crushed peanuts.  This is an addictive salad showcasing fresh, crispy vegetables and a sauce that’s both sweet and piquant, deliciously so.  It’s very similar to the papaya salad offered at many Thai restaurants, but we enjoyed it more–so much more that in future visits, we’ll order the appetizer portions which are made with shrimp or chicken.

Meat Ball Soup

22 August 2010: Unacculturated diners visiting a Vietnamese restaurant for the first time tend to do a double-take when they see grilled beef wrap grape leaf on the menu, wondering if they stepped into a Greek restaurant. Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Q’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased is a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf.  It’s served with a light, slightly piquant and not too sweet fish sauce.   Five pieces to the order might inspire rapacious drooling.

7 December 2014:  Few things in life are as satisfying as biting into a well-crafted dumpling–the steamed or fried wrapper hermetically sealing concordant ingredients in a steamed or fried wrapper.  Preceded by an intoxicating aroma wafting toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils, the  first bite is always a revelation as to whether you’re partaking of dumpling greatness.  At the very least, Viet Q’s dumplings are very good.  Engorged with pork and a tangy-piquant dipping sauce, their only fault is in quantity–there are only six per order.

Potstickers

22 August 2010: As Bourdain fans know, he considers pho, a wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup, his favorite comfort food, claiming that he would “jerk a butter knife across his best friend’s throat” for a bowl of pho.  Fortunately the portion size for pho at most restaurants is about the size of a small swimming pool, so a bowl of pho is usually large enough for two to share.  If you’re not hungry enough for a large bowl, the appetizer menu comes to the rescue with two small portioned soups–a meat ball soup and a wonton soup. 

22 August 2010: The meat ball soup is a warm elixir for whatever ails you, so warm and good you’ll long for the cold bite of winter so the soup can warm you up.  The broth is delicious with cilantro and red onions floating atop to amend the flavor profile.  The meat balls are quite dissimilar to the meatballs you might associate with an Italian spaghetti dish.  These meat balls aren’t wholly spherical, but rather sliced like thick sausage on a pizza.  Come to think of it, texturally the meat balls resemble a sliced Italian sausage.  In any case, they’re delicious and there are plenty of them on the soup.

Banh Mi

7 December 2014: Bourdain describes banh mi as a “symphony in a sandwich.”  Not very long ago, the number of Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque offering the sacrosanct sandwich of Vietnam was somewhat limited.  Today almost every Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City offers a version with levels of quality varying from very good to excellent.  That’s quite a testament as to just how good banh mi can be.  Viet Q offers two banh mi though on the menu they’ve been translated to English. 

The canvas for Viet Q’s banh mi is a warm baguette which is crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside which is stuffed with a number of robust herbs and vegetables such as coriander, parsley, jalapeño, daikon, cucumber and carrots along with your choice of meat (pork is an excellent option).  It’s a scrumptious sandwich that will wake up your palate.  It’s not, however, an Americanized “Dagwood” sandwich overstuffed with ingredients, but the ingredients that it does have are indeed symphonic in the way they coalesce into absolute deliciousness.

Hot Claypot Rice Combination with Grilled Beef, Squid, Crab and Vegetables

22 August 2010: One of Bourdain’s favorite restaurants in Vietnam adds an entertaining touch to the dining experience.  When a claypot rice dish is ready to serve, the claypot is broken open and the rice is tossed across the room.  Smashing claypots can be heard every few minutes.  The practice is probably too cost prohibitive and probably prohibited by the city’s Environmental Health Department, too, so you won’t hear smashing crockery at Viet Q.  What you will hear is hungry diners ordering this very popular entree.  There’s a good reason for this. 

22 August 2010: There are two claypot rice entrees on the menu–a rice dish with your choice of meat (pork, beef, shrimp) and a combination claypot rice dish with the aforementioned three choices plus squid.  The combination claypot rice dish is the dish for adventurous diners who don’t mind mixing seafood with meat.  The rice is sweet and delicious, the rice at the bottom of the dish sporting a nice caramelized texture.  Fresh vegetables–sugar snap peas, broccoli and more–blend well with fresh, well-prepared seafood and meat for a flavor combination that will keep diners happy.

Special Noodle Soup

7 December 2014:  Is there any term in the American restaurant menu that has been as cheapened over time as much as the word “special.”  Bourdain, in fact, advises diners to never, ever order the special of the day especially if it’s a seafood item. This is a way the kitchen staff gets rid of items about to spoil or go bad.  Seeing the term “special of the day” related to seafood now makes me cringe, however, seeing the term “special” used to describe a Vietnamese soup makes my mouth water.  Viet Q’s Special Noodle Soup ranks just below Cafe Dalat’s Spicy Beef Stew as my very favorite Vietnamese soup. 

If ever a soup earned the designation “special” it’s this one.  Our lovely server confessed that it’s as close to what she grew up with in Vietnam as she’s found in America. The enthusiasm with which she recommended it inspired me to bypass other desirable options.  As with the aforementioned Spicy Beef Stew, this soup packs a pleasantly piquant punch, the kind of which generates an endorphin rush sure to please your palate.  Its piquancy is punctuated by the discernible sweetness of anise and cinnamon.  Swimming in the reddish hued broth are thinly sliced raw beef slices which cook in the soup.  A large tangle of rich, unctuous noodles impregnated with the flavor of the broth is delightful.  This is indeed a special soup!

Stir-Fried Egg Noodle with Pork

22 August 2010: The stir-fried egg noodle with pork dish evinces why Viet Q’s signage includes “Vietnamese Grill.”  The grilled beef is delicious, tinged with the fragrant smokiness imparted by grilling.  The egg noodles are perfectly prepared as are the vegetables.  A light, slightly sweet broth is a flavorful addition to an excellent noodle dish.

Experientially, a meal at Viet Q is wholly unlike the unique experience of dining at a Saigon street market, but it does provide comfortable seating, excellent service, a varied menu and entrees (especially that addictive special noodle soup) that will having you coming back again and again.

Viet Q Vietnamese Restaurant
6205 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 December 2014
1st VISIT: 22 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stir-Fried Egg Noodle with Pork, Hot Claypot Rice Combination, Meat Ball Soup, Grilled Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves, Papaya Salad, Durian Shake, Potstickers, Special Noodle Soup

Viet Q on Urbanspoon

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