Mariscos Mazatlan – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Mariscos Mazatlan in Rio Rancho

A rotund, ripening, red tomato is featured prominently on license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  This is indicative of the state’s prominence in growing the “love apples” from which its rich salsas are made. In 2013, Sinaloa exported nearly one-billion tons of vegetables–primarily tomatoes–across the fruited plain, netting (mostly industrial) farmers nearly one-billion dollars. More than half the tomatoes consumed across the United States during the winter season are, in fact, grown in Sinaloa. While Sinaloan tomatoes are indeed sweet, juicy, meaty and delicious, an argument could easily be made that a more worthy subject for the state’s license plates would be mariscos, the bounty of the sea extricated from the azure waters of the Bay of Cortez.

With nearly four hundred miles of spectacular, varied and fecund coastland, Sinaloa is brimming with some of the finest, most delectable seafood available anywhere on Planet Earth. Waters teeming with an assortment of delicacies from the sea are especially bountiful during winter months when pescados y mariscos (fish and shellfish) are at their at their peak of freshness. The variety of seafood options can boggle the mind, especially in the restaurants of Mazatlán, the most popular beach town destination in Sinaloa. In Mazatlán, the daily seafood harvest literally goes from the docks to restaurants renowned for delivering consistently superior seafood meals.

The capacious dining room

Rerun-watchers and the geriatrically-advanced among us may remember that Mazatlán was one of the ports-of-call for the “Love Boat,” a campy 1970s television series set on a cruise ship. Cerevisaphiles know Mazatlán as the home of the Pacifico brewery while American tourists who apparently miss home know it as home to the first Senor Frog’s restaurant. Mazatlán has also long been a very popular location for collegiate types gone wild during spring break. For shrimp lovers simpatico with Bubba Gump, however, it matters only that Mexico’s largest shrimp fleet is based in Mazatlán. Not only are shrimp aficionados in our element when we visit Mazatlán, so are paramours of the pescetarian lifestyle who love mahi mahi, red snapper, tuna and sea bass, all abundant in the “Pearl of the Pacific.”

Since it’s not always easy to drop everything you’re doing to fly down to Mazatlán for Pacific Blue Shrimp caught off the Sea of Cortez, you’ll be happy to read that approximately half the 850 tons of shrimp harvested every year makes it to the United States, much of it to restaurants.  From purely an anecdotal perspective, Mexican restaurants showcasing mariscos is one of the fastest growing segments in the Mexican restaurant market, especially in the states bordering the Land of Montezuma.  Even Mexican restaurants which once offered more traditional and familiar fare are increasingly adding mariscos entrees to their menus.

Chips and Salsa

Note:  As of 2014, there were some 54,000 Mexican restaurants across the fruited plain, making Mexican food the third most popular menu type in the United States, representing eight-percent of the total restaurant landscape.  By any statistical measure, the consumption of Mexican food is increasing faster than any other segment of the restaurant industry (including burger restaurants which today number at about 50,000). Today, Mexican foods such as chips and salsa, tacos, enchiladas and burritos are today as mainstream American as hot dogs and cheeseburgers.

Despite the great quantity of mariscos restaurants across the fruited plain, for citizens of the City of Vision, mariscos may as well have been as far away as Mazatlán. For years “Visionaries” have had to drive deep into Albuquerque or about an hour away north to Santa Fe to get our mariscos fix.  It was with the excitement of a prospector finding a gold nugget that my friend Michael Gonzales, the gregarious proprietor of Cafe Bella, told me about Mariscos Mazatlan.  Michael is not only a successful entrepreneur, he’s an ambassador for his hometown and he’s a classically trained chef whose word you can take to the bank.  When he raved about Mariscos Mazatlan’s succulent seafood, we knew it had to be good.

Tostada Mixta

Mariscos Mazatlan is ensconced in a thriving shopping center on heavily trafficked Southern Boulevard just east of its intersection with Unser. Its exterior subscribes to a familiar template in which the signage is lettered in a tranquil blue color. Step inside and even deeper blues envelop you. The walls are festooned with colorful art depicting life on the azure waters. Mariscos Mazatlan is much deeper than it is wide with comfortable booths hugging the east wall and tables and chairs at the ready in the center seating space. Partitioned behind a half wall is an area in which the wait staff preps beverages and passes orders to the kitchen staff.

The menu at Mariscos Mazatlan isn’t replete with the “usual suspects” found at other mariscos restaurants in New Mexico and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any items that aren’t seafood based. As in mariscos restaurants throughout Mazatlán, you’ll find several dishes prepared “aguachile” style, meaning the seafood is marinated in green chili and lime. You’ll also find a variety of ceviche dishes, served both in a goblet and on tostadas.  Dishes served in the volcanic rocks used traditionally as a mortar for grinding spices are also available  as they are at the Mexican city for which the restaurant is named.  Frankly if you didn’t know you were in Rio Rancho, a meal of fresh, succulent mariscos may just convince you you’re in Mazatlán.

Tostada de Ceviche

9 April 2016: Remember the tomatoes which grace license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  Well, they make one heckuva basis for salsa.  Seriously, this is some of the very best salsa in the metropolitan area.  It’s not overly piquant, but those tomatoes have such a rich, sweet flavor  you’d swear they were imported from the Italian farm which sources Joe’s Pasta House.  With a smooth, not overly watery texture, the salsa is replete with chopped onions and cilantro.  The chips are low in salt and formidable enough to stand up to Gil-sized scoops of salsa (dipping is for sissies).

9 April 2016: Where every other mariscos restaurant (and even a few New Mexican restaurants) in the metropolitan area offers tostadas de ceviche topped with pescado (fish), camaron (shrimp) or a mix of the two, Mariscos Mazatlán offers six different options.  Ceviche choices include tostadas topped with jaiva (crab), pulpo (squid and octopus), mixta-camaron, pulpo, caracol y jaiva (shrimp, squid and octopus, snail and crab), pescado y callo de hacha (fish and scallops) and callo de hacha (scallops).  They’re not all prepared the same way with the same citrusy marinades.  The pescado y callo de hacha option, for example, is marinaded in an aguachile blend of citrus juices and chili, imbuing this option with a very pleasant piquancy that pairs oh so nicely with the tongue-tingling tang of lime.  You’ll also find red onions and finely chopped cucumbers on this dish, but no tomatoes.

Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo

9 April 2016: The more traditional tostada de ceviche con pescado sports the red (tomatoes), green (cilantro) and white (fish) colors of the Mexican flag.  The same sweet tomatoes which enliven the salsa make this ceviche a stand-out, perhaps the very best we’ve had in New Mexico.  The fish is as fresh as if just extricated from a net.  The citrus juice catalyst in which the fish is “cooked” is not quite of the lip-pursing variety, but it comes close.  It’s a challenge for the thick corn tortilla to hold the mound of ceviche with which it is topped.

9 April 2016: Situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Mazatlán enjoys temperate semi-tropical weather year-round and temperatures which average between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With an average of 300 sunny days per year (about 20 more than Albuquerque averages), it’s always beach weather.  It should come as no surprise, therefor, that coconut grows in abundance in the Mazatlán area.  Coconut is also very prominent on the Mariscos Mazatlán menu.  The “Mariscos en Coco” menu lists several dishes new to me, a feat that doesn’t happen often.  The Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo (coconut, shrimp, oysters, squid and octopus) is a revelation, one of the most unique plates to grace my table in quite a while.  Picture if you will a hollowed-out young coconut brimming with citrus-infused seafood, cucumber, red onions and tomatoes.  The coconut meat extricated from the coconut shell is on the platter as are a number of fresh, crisp, cold shrimp.  Served with this delicious boatload of seafood is a goblet with the clear, slightly sweet and refreshing juice of a young coconut (ostensibly the one hollowed out to make my meal).  This dish is delicious, filling and so unique it’s unlikely any of your friends have had anything like it.

Molcajete con Camarones, Pulpo, Callo de Hacha and Caracol in Aguachile

9 April 2016: My Kim who eschewed seafood for the duration of our eight years in Mississippi, has embraced embraced mariscos.  Over the years she’s become increasingly intrepid, enjoying even the more yucky and slimy seafood she once poo-pooed.  Twenty years ago she wouldn’t have ordered Mariscos Mazatlán’s  Molcajete dish teeming with once icky stuff.  Often used as a sizzling vessel to hold in heat, the molcajete is a versatile implement (as previously noted, it’s traditionally used as a mortar to grind spices) and forms an attractive serving dish for cold dishes, too.  Who wouldn’t love a molcajete overstuffed with camarones (shrimp), pulpo (squid and octopus), callo de hacha (scallops) and caracol (snail) in aguachile.  This is a magnificent entree, so richly colorful and sumptuous that it’ll be tempting not to order it again and again.

16 April 2016Toritos, a yellow chili stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese then wrapped in bacon, may just be fated to become one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers just as they are at beachside restaurants in Mazatlan.  With bacon and shrimp, they’ve already got two of the most popular ingredients on any dish anywhere.  Translated from Spanish to “little bull,” these little sticks of dynamite pack a lot of flavor, but not necessarily a lot of piquancy (though the cream cheese and bacon would probably quell any heat anyway).  At six per order, these will go quickly.

Pescado Culichi

16 April 2016: Residents of the city of Culiacan often call themselves “Culichi” but when you see a dish on a Mexican restaurant menu called “Culichi style,” you’re not necessarily getting something canonically traditional.  Culichi style basically means just about anything a chef believes to be typically “Culichi.”  One commonality most Culichi style dishes do have is a mild green sauce often with a jalapeño influence.  At Mariscos Mazatlan the Pescado Culichi very rich and has very little bite, but it goes so well on a tilapia filet.  Crispy on the outside and flaky and tender on the inside, the tilapia would be delicious on its own, but is elevated to greatness with the sauce.  The pescado is served with a handful of silver dollar sized potato slices and a delightful rice dish.

16 April 2016:  When my Kim ordered langosta (lobster tail) mojo de ajo (garlic butter), a twenty-two dollar dish, she knew what she’d be getting what she paid for–somewhat rubbery and chewy lobster tails lacking the characteristic seafood sweetness she loves.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one she’d happily repeat.  My wife is a lobster fiend.  Three small lobster tails complete with tomalley (the soft, green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters, that fulfills the functions of both the liver and the pancreas) were polished off quickly as were the handful of silver dollar-sized sliced potatoes and rice. 

Langosta

31 July 2016: Growing up in Peñasco, about one-hundred miles away from Albuquerque, the term “seafood” meant Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and Mrs. Paul’s breaded shrimp.  Lobster, clams and crab were ethereal concepts, delicacies we read about in books.  Fortunately rivers teeming with German Brown and Cutthroat Trout  flowed (sometimes trickled) in our backyard so we could have seafood’s fresh-water cousins whenever we caught them.  Though experience should have taught me better, seeing parillada de mariscos (literally grilled seafood) on the menu at Mariscos Mazatlan must have rekindled nostalgia.  How else would you explain ordering breaded, grilled seafood when the menu offers so many other (and better) options?  Not surprisingly, Mariscos Mazatlan’s version of fried shrimp and fried fish fillets are infinitely superior to Mrs. Paul’s overly breaded version, but the restaurant’s other preparation styles are the way to go.

31 July 2016:  And while we’re at it, when you visit a mariscos restaurant, what the savvy diner should order is mariscos.  Not burgers.  Not pizza.  Not something to sate your carnivorous cravings.  Just as ordering parillada de mariscos was a mistake, ordering a landlubber’s version of parillada is not something of which we’re especially proud.  At many other restaurants, a veritable netful of meat in a tray–grilled chicken, grilled pork chops and grilled beef–would probably have been satisfying, but at a superb mariscos restaurant, the meat served mostly to remind us how much more we would have enjoyed seafood.  As with the parillada de mariscos, the Parillada Mexicana is served with refried beans and silver dollar sized fried potatoes.

Parillada de Mariscos

When my latest IT project prevented me from joining my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, and the Dazzling Deanell  for our weekly lunch, I suggested they visit Mariscos Mazatlán.  Larry enjoyed it so much that he returned the following day.  That’s the type of restaurant loyalty this superb seafood restaurant will engender.  If it’s not the best mariscos restaurant in the metropolitan area, it’s on a very short list as one of the best.

Mariscos Mazatlan
2003 Southern Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2016
1st VISIT: 9 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Molcajete; Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo; Tostada de Ceviche; Tostada Mixta; Salsa and Chips, Horchata, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Agua Fresca de Melon

Mariscos Mazatlan Seafood and Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Desert Grows – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Desert Grows on 4th Street

And he gave it for his opinion,
that whoever could make two ears of corn,
or two blades of grass,
to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before,
would deserve better of mankind,
and do more essential service to his country,
than the whole race of politicians put together.”
–  Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

 Had Jonathan Swift not uttered those words of sagacious cynicism, there’s a good chance Armand Saiia would have.  It’s a sentiment that resonates with Armand, the effusive chef-owner of Desert Grows.  Sensing our confusion as we approached the towering trees providing sweet, salubrious shade to a charming courtyard at his first Albuquerque location, Armand welcomed us to one of the Duke City’s most unique and most welcoming milieus, assuring us that we were indeed at the right place.  Only partially joking, he explained that the goal of his restaurant is to “provide food on Route 66 for the 99-percent”  and that he would like to “turn the Route 66 upside-down as a sign that the 99-percent of us are in distress.”

Route 66, or at least the original route that meandered south from Santa Fe through Fourth Street is where Desert Grows is located.  Unlike at its inaugural location a few blocks south of its present venue, there’s plenty of signage to let you know you’ve reached your destination.   Banners will apprise you of the “Fresh Fabulous Food” and “The Best Burritos” within the premises.   Then there’s the mobile food kitchen in a utility trailer so proximate to the restaurant that you’ll wonder if the two are connected.  A walkway to the entrance bisects a comfortable patio, albeit one not shaded by towering cottonwoods as the first Albuquerque instantiation of Desert Grows had been.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Armand is a true Renaissance man with a passion for sustainable, healthy food, but unlike so many of the celebrated chef luminaries plying their trade in New Mexico, his path to a culinary career in the Land of Enchantment doesn’t include the usual matriculation at an accredited culinary school.  Instead of artistry on a plate, Armand’s chosen career path was as a painter and sculptor who attained success in New York City (and if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere), but being an artist only begins to define his assiduous life.  He’s also been a filmmaker, yogi, healer, wilderness camp instructor, organic farmer, restaurateur and chef.

It was his experiences in the restaurant field that would define his current life’s path.  Those experiences didn’t cultivate a myopic, profit-driven mindset; they awakened a passion to combat the “industrial food plague” which he contends contributed to the deaths from cancer of two wives.  He also believes that poor consumer health and suspect food quality is the ultimate cost of corporate agriculture and its mass production of inexpensive, chemically modified food.  The alternative, he says is sustainable, local agriculture which may cost more, but is so much better and more importantly, better for you.

Brisket Tacos

About a decade ago, Armand’s passions led him to Ribera, New Mexico where he bought a nine-acre farm he christened Infinity Farms.  After tending to vegetable gardens and greenhouses for three years, the gentleman farmer expanded his operation, establishing Desert Grows, a nonprofit agency he chartered to encourage and support other small farmers in the valley.  For eight years, Armand even served as mayordomo for the acequias which are the life’s blood for all farms in the area. 

In 2014, Armand launched a restaurant he named The Desert Rose at the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe, offering simple fare–sandwiches, salads, pastas and baked goods–to enthusiastic diners.  Despite critical and popular acclaim, he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the mall owners and relocated to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque where he launched Desert Grows.  The menu boasts of “serving 90% New Mexico locally and naturally grown or eco-sourced food,” The restaurant is provisioned with fresh local produce from his new acreage in the South Valley as well as his farm in Ribera and from La Montañita Co-op.

Brisket Ribs with French fries and Coleslaw

Whether you’re passionate about sustainability and maintaining a small footprint or you’re just passionate about great food, Desert Grows has something for you.  It’s got breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday and dinner by reservation only.   The lunch menu features salads, sandwiches and chef’s specialties such as an Italian meat loaf plate, carne adovada tacos and more.  Whatever you order is best washed down with organic apple cider (cherry, ginger, mint or lemonade apple).  It’s, by far, the best we’ve had in New Mexico. 

26 September 2015: While the menu is replete with temptation, daily specials are equally alluring.  Armand is proud and passionate about everything on the menu, perhaps proudest of all of the heirloom tomato salad, a lush, lavish in-season cornucopia of freshness plated with artistic flair.  This bounty of the garden showcases beauteous red and yellow heirloom tomatoes whose juicy deliciousness belies their plum size, julienne carrots, red onions, red peppers and mozzarella slice drizzled with a beet vinaigrette.  It’s beautiful to ogle and delightfully delectable to eat.

Bread Pudding Cake

26 September 2015: If you see potato wedges scrawled on a slate board on one of the mobile kitchens window, you’re well advised to order them.  While technically not wedge-shaped (they’re more silver-dollar shaped), these terrific tubers, each about an eighth of an inch thick, are superb–maybe even better when dipped into the housemade (with fresh tomatoes) ketchup.  If you like the papitas served with so many New Mexican dishes, you’ll love these, though they may make you pine for red or green chile. 

26 September 2015: Even though you won’t see a smoker on the premises, there are many ways to impart a barbecue-like smokiness to meats.  The brisket tacos are certainly imbued with the type of smokiness you’ll find in sanctioned barbecue competition.  It’s a light smoke intended to impart flavor and personality, not overwhelm the meats.  Tender tendrils of brisket blanketed by molten cheeses nestled in moist, pliable tortillas define these tasty tacos.  Carne adovada tacos are also on the menu, but this isn’t your abuelita’s carne adovada.  Armand uses five different chiles, not all New Mexican, on the adovada, imparting a piquancy that’ll please fire-eaters.

Mama’s Italian Meatloaf Plate

26 September 2015: Barbecue aficionados will appreciate the boneless brisket ribs (any comparisons with Applebee’s riblets should subject you to flogging), a plateful of moist, meaty ribs glistening with a chocolate-mole barbecue sauce.  The unique sauce alone makes these ribs a great choice, but it’s the magnificent meat carnivores will appreciate most.  Though not quite fall-off-the-bone tender, each mouth-watering rib has a fresh-off-the-grill flavor.  The ribs are served with French fries (which are best eaten with the chocolate-mole barbecue sauce) and a tangy coleslaw. 

26 September 2015: Desert Grows is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  Armand’s partner Betina Armijo bakes some of the best bizcochitos in town.  Four per plate of these anise-kissed cookies will leave you pining for more when they’re done.  Neither cake nor pie, bread pudding can be a carb-overload, ultra-decadent dessert too rich for some.  For others, bread pudding is a little slice of heaven.  Desert Grows’ bread pudding cake is so sinfully rich, moist and delicious it may leave you swooning.

Pancakes with Star Anise Syrup and Bacon

30 April 2016:  One of the saddest terms in the English language is “what if” as in “what if I hadn’t worn my plaid jacket and striped pants to that job interview.”  Alas, that sad term was oft spoken as we attempted to enjoy Mama’s Italian Meat Loaf Plate, described on the menu as “not your ordinary boring meatloaf.  Our Sicilian Mama developed a sumptuous blend of local pork, lamb and beef that you will remember.”  We won’t remember it too fondly.  If only it hadn’t been so dry (edges were more than caramelized, they were nearly burnt).  Shaped more like a rectangular burger patty, Mama’s Meat Loaf had a nice flavor, but lacked moistness.  If only the accompanying skin-on mashed potatoes had a little gravy, they, too, wouldn’t have been so desiccated.  The saving grace for this dish was a salad drizzled with the house beet vinaigrette.

30 April 2016: Nowadays it’s a treat when a restaurant offers real maple syrup with pancakes.  Desert Grows one-ups those restaurants with a star anise syrup in which you’ll find star anise as big as Chinese throwing stars.  It was no surprise that the star anise influence on the syrup reminded us so much of Vietnamese pho ( on which star anise is a distinct ingredient).  To cut the sweetness of the syrup, the pancakes are also served with a tangy blueberry compote.  Few things in life are as satisfying as three fluffy pancakes topped with blueberry compote and star anise syrup, a plate made even better by three pieces of thick, smoky bacon.

Granola Cereal

30 April 2016Granola Cereal (house-baked granola served over organic yogurt with seasonal New Mexico fruit and nuts) is a real treat at Desert Grows.  The organic yogurt is neither as savory as Greek yogurt nor as sweet as some commercial yogurt brands tend to be.  Yogurt may have lactobacillus and an assortment of other bacterial fermentation, but what we appreciate most from this sweet-sour-savory bowl of deliciousness is its diverse flavor and textural profile.

If you find yourself in the North Valley and you see a sign telling you you’re on Route 99, make your way to Desert Grows where all your cares melt away as you luxuriate in fresh food you can trust.

Desert Grows
7319 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2016
1st VISIT: 26 September 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Heirloom Tomato Salad, Potato Wedges, Brisket Tacos, Brisket Ribs, Bizcochitos, Bread Pudding Cake, Pancakes with Star Anise Syrup, Granola Syrup

Desert Grows Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Vernon’s Open Door – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Vernon’s Open Door in Albuquerque’s Northwest Quadrant

However well-intended, the corporate world’s “open door policy” doesn’t always have the desired effect of establishing trust between employees and their managers.  This became evident during my first corporate gig after leaving the Air Force.  My boss, whom Jerry Seinfeld would describe as a “loud talker” spoke at a decibel level rivaling the University of New Mexico’s fabled Pit during a Lobo fast break.  Compounded with the fact that our offices were housed in a pod of flimsy mobile offices affectionately called Jurassic Park and it was a recipe for disaster. 

Though held behind closed doors, one-on-one meetings were hardly private.  Paper-thin walls and rickety doors meant everyone within a two block radius could hear my boss.  Consequently employees remained apprised of matters–such as employee discipline, pay raises or promotions, for example–not intended for public consumption.  At its very worse, we learned of a fellow employee’s dilemma as to which she should treat first, her chlamydia or her dandruff.  For fear of bursting out in raucous laughter, we couldn’t look her in the face for a long time.

The Sprawling Interior of Vernon’s Open Door

Memories of those failed “open door policy” meetings flooded back to me at Vernon’s Open Door restaurant when  my Kim and I conversed in normal volumes without worrying about being overheard.  Somehow sound doesn’t amplify as much in the cavernous dining room with its high ceilings and concrete floors as it did in ramshackle Jurassic Park.  Vernon’s Open Door would be an excellent place in which to conduct open door policy meetings though it’s conceivable my old boss’s booming voice would still carry through the commodious restaurant. Moreover it’s an excellent place for a great meal in Albuquerque’s West side.

Vernon’s Open Door is an extension of the “Vernon’s” brand synonymous with Vernon’s Speakeasy (formerly known as Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse) a high-end chop house serving the Duke City since January, 2007.  The Open Door concept is the brainchild of restaurant impresario Michael Baird whose credits also include Prime and Wise Pies Pizza.  Vernon’s Open Door will actually replace Prime at its Rio Rancho and Los Ranchos locations.  It has also taken occupancy of the yawning 25,000 square-foot space which previously housed the Stumbling Steer and before that Quarter’s BBQ.   The entrepreneurial Baird plans to expand beyond the inaugural three locations and may eventually have as many as ten Open Door restaurants across the metropolitan area.

Asparagus Con Carne

While the warehouse look-and-feel and sheer expanse of the capacious edifice made previous tenant spaces seem cold and industrial, Vernon’s Open Door occupies only a portion of the building.  Other tenants, including another instantiation of Wise Pies Pizza will occupy other sections of the structure.  The Open Door’s dining room, while still sizable, doesn’t feel like a Sam’s Club version of a restaurant.  With several wall-mounted flat-screen-televisions placed strategically and tuned to sporting events, the restaurant has the look and feel of a combination sports bar-casual dining restaurant.  It is not–by design or price-point–a high-end restaurant as is Vernon’s Speakeasy.  In fact, you won’t find anything on the menu priced above the twenty-dollar mark. 

The menu at Vernon’s Open Door features “modern American cuisine,” a rather ambiguous term most often associated with a fusion of culinary techniques and ingredients emphasizing high quality, freshness, locally produced, in-season, often organic and healthful foods.  It’s an ambitious and interesting menu sure to appeal to most diners.  The same menu is available for both lunch and dinner, but not during Sunday brunch (served 10AM – 3PM).  The menu includes vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Green Chile Stew

Six starters festoon the appetizers menu.  There are also six choices in the soup (including a soup du jour) and salad menu.  Sadly the sandwich section of the menu is not a mirror image of the superb sandwich menu offered at Prime, but it does afford diners the opportunity to fall in love with new sandwich options.  Instead of listing a phalanx of burger options, Vernon’s Open Door has a “burger builders” option listing a variety of ingredients with which to construct your own burger.  Entrees include some very interesting takes on conventional dishes (a chile relleno stuffed with calabasitas, for example).  Four dessert options are available. 

Among the more intriguing appetizer options is the asparagus con carne (asparagus wrapped with tender New York strip steak, char-grilled and topped with Balsamic reduction and sriracha aioli) on a bed of carrot chips.  To shave the New York strip steak into such thin slices requires that the steak first be frozen.  Making the shaved steak malleable enough to wrap around the asparagus then requires a thawing process.  It’s an exacting process that the chefs at Vernon’s Open House has mastered.  Asparagus never tasted so good.  At first, the carrot chips seemed like an “aside,” but we found ourselves wanting even more of these delectable delights.  They’d give the best potato chips a run for their money.

Grilled Flank Steak

On an unseasonably cold winter day, the only soup du jour which makes sense for many New Mexicans is green chile stew, the elixir which elates and sates us most.  We like it hot, both from a temperature standpoint and from the heat generated by the piquant pepper for which this sacrosanct stew is named.  This stew passes muster on only one of those two aspects.  It is served piping hot, the way all food should be served.  Alas, it lacks the piquancy that warms you to your core.  My Kim, who’s hardly a fire-eater, described it best as “a very good beef stew.”  On the Scoville heat scale, the chile wouldn’t rank much higher than a bell pepper. 

Ordinarily steak entrees elicit much more excitement from my more carnivorous better-half than from me, but the Open Door’s grilled flank steak appealed to my love of diverse flavor combinations.  It’s described on the menu as “expertly grilled flank steak served with a red pepper and blistered grape tomato couscous, topped with blue cheese and haricot vert braised in bacon lardons and onions, paired with your choice of garlic demi, au poivre, mushroom bordelaise or gorgonzola cream.”  The dish had me at “couscous,” a coarsely ground semolina dish that’s a dietary staple of several North African countries, but it sealed the deal with the mushroom bordelaise, a hearty sauce made with wine and earthy fungi.  When it comes to dining, I’m not a monogamous guy, typically ordering something different every visit to a restaurant.  This dish may become a regular.

Roasted Prime Rib Sandwich

When it first launched, Prime showcased high-end delicatessen and specialty food shop offerings such as sumptuous sandwiches made with premium ingredients.  The name of each sandwich (The Hit Man, for example) appeared to have been spit out of a Mafia nickname generator.  The sandwiches at Vernon’s Open Door are more the type you’d find in restaurants that don’t necessarily specialize in sandwiches.  They’re more of the “vanilla” variety compared to the high-end deli sandwiches at Prime.  That doesn’t mean they’re not quite good.  The roasted prime rib sandwich (shaved prime rib, sauteed mushrooms, melted Swiss, green chile and au jus on a ciabatta bun), for example, is thoroughly enjoyable and generously appointed.  The sweet potato fries might be the best in town, too. 

It’s understandable that Vernon’s Open Door wants to carve out its own identity separate from its elder sibling.  That includes featuring a repertoire of dishes unique to each restaurant.  Understanding that philosophy doesn’t imply I’m happy about it.  With its Chocolate Silk, Vernon’s Speakeasy serves one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.  We had so hoped it would be available at the Open Door, but were left disappointed.  The cinnamon roll bread pudding (cinnamon roll white chocolate bread pudding with vanilla creme anglaise on top of white chocolate and caramel sauce topped with ice cream) isn’t consolation prize worthy.  It’s just too sweet and rich for our blood.

Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding

Vernon’s Open Door is primed to be very competitive in the casual dining arena.  It’s got the pedigree to succeed in a venue that wasn’t inviting and the menu to keep diners happy and coming back.

Vernon’s Open Door (Closed in May 2016)
3700 Ellison Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Asparagus Con Carne, Roasted Prime Rib Sandwich, Grilled Flank Steak, Sweet Potato Fries

Vernon's Open Door Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World on Southern Blvd in Rio Rancho

Nay-sayers, those nattering nabobs of negativism, have always had it in for hot dogs. First they plied us with horror stories and urban myths about what hot dogs are made of. Essentially, they decried, hot dogs are made of everything from pigs snouts and chicken feet to snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails. Then they ratcheted up our shock and awe by telling us how hot dogs are loaded with artery-clogging, cancer-causing saturated fats, not to mention those nasty nitrates and nefarious nitrites. They’ve even disparaged hot dogs as processed pink slime in a bun.

Despite all the brouhaha and rigmarole, hot dogs continue to thrive across the fruited plain as aficionados of the tantalizing tubular treats snub their noses at those who would abolish an American institution. What’s next—motherhood, apple pie, the Dallas Cowboys? Recent statistics reveal that the U.S. population consumes 20 billion hot dogs per year. That’s some 70 hot dogs per person per year (or about as many as Joey Chestnut ate in one sitting during Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest). In 2012, CNN compiled a list of America’s top fifty foods and the hot dog ranked fourth. That’s a lot of love for a beloved American icon some would deprive us of.

Nathan’s Hot Dog with Jalapeño Mustard, Onions and Relish

Unlike the humble hot dog which has been disparaged and bad-mouthed to no end, ice cream has been practically beatified. It is both loved and revered, a symbol of all that is good, wholesome and pure. Research findings from Cornell University revealed that both men and women consider ice cream one of their three favorite comfort foods (not that men will admit to it). CNN confirms this: “Think of any modern romantic comedy to come out of Hollywood; what do citizens of the United States reach for when their boyfriend leaves them for their therapist? A gun? A simple solution? Try a tub of ice cream.”

In the entirety of mankind’s history, there is only one ice cream that’s beyond contempt, a turn-off even to the most ardent aficionados. For some inexplicable reason, an ice cream brand in India bears the stern, mustachioed countenance and name of the Führer of Germany.  Sure, branding an ice cream Adolf Hitler is an exercise in the freedom of speech, but moreover, it’s a demonstration of extremely poor taste and insensitivity (and I need a shower just for mentioning it here).

Tamale

Somehow nature decreed that ice cream and hot dogs become inextricably associated with one another, a sort of “saint and sinner” pairing of foods that just seem to go so well together. That’s especially true in sweltering spring and summer days when the outdoors beckon. Fortunately New Mexico averages nearly 400 days of sunshine a year so ice cream and hot dogs are a good idea any time of the year and in any season. The preternaturally delicious pairing of this dynamic duo wasn’t lost on Abrahan Montaño, an entrepreneur who in March, 2015 launched the Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World in Rio Rancho.

Though he may be a first-time restaurant owner, Abrahan is passionate about ice cream, blending unique ingredients into rich, creamy ice cream flavors you don’t often see.  The paleterias (Mexican Popsicle and ice cream shops) he frequented during his youth were one of the inspirations for his restaurant.  The other inspiration was his grandfather Fred Reade, a familiar name in the restaurant community.  Reade owned and operated Antonio’s Mexican Restaurant on Fourth Street for more than two decades before closing shop in 1996.  Reade has become a fixture at the ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World.

Frito Pie

Although not on the menu, a visit to this Southern Boulevard gem is guaranteed fun as might be expected from a shop offering ice cream and hot dogs.  One corner of the shop is dedicated to kids and includes a number of toys which might make the geriatrically advanced among us wish we were kids, too.  The menu also bespeaks of fun.  A number of aguas frescas are at the ready to quench your thirst while Italian ice and fresh fruit paletas (Popsicles) will quell the heat.  Ice cream flavors include two sure-to-become New Mexican favorites: red chile-chocolate and green chile pistachio.

Nathan’s hot dogs are featured fare and you’ll find all your favorite toppings, too, but if you really want to live a little, try “Grama Faviola’s Fabulous Homemade Jalapeno Mustard.” It’s got almost as much personality as Grama Faviola herself. Faviola and her brother Eddie are friends of the owners and serve as the shop’s unofficial ambassadors.  Much as we love them, we can’t live on hot dogs alone.  Fortunately the shop also offers tamales and Frito pies as well as corn-on-the-cob or in a cup.

Sonoran Hot Dog

The tamales are made for the shop in Santa Fe.  Even when not blanketed by chile, they pack a pleasant piquancy and are packed with shredded, tender tendrils of pork marinated in a very flavorful chile.  These are the type of tamales you would want two (or six) per serving.  The Frito pie is also quite good, a mound of Fritos corn chips topped with ground beef, red chile, lettuce, onions, and onions.  The vegetables offer a cool contrast to the hot chile and ground beef.  The chile won’t water your eyes with heat, but it’ll make you happy.

Among the specialty hot dogs are one you couldn’t find in Albuquerque five years ago.  The Sonoran Hot Dog has made its way into New Mexico and it’s been embraced by the masses.  The Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World offers an interesting and delicious version: a thick Nathan’s hot dog, meat candy (er…bacon), chopped tomatoes and an incendiary jalapeño mayo you can respect.  Had this hot dog been served in the traditional Sonoran bolillo style Mexican bread (resembling) a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise), it would have been even better.

Left: Red Chile Chocolate Ice Cream; Right: Chocolate and Vanilla

Our verdict on the red chile chocolate ice cream–if you’re not revving up your engine to head to Rio Rancho for a scoop or two, you probably didn’t read this far.  Surprisingly, this may be the most piquant dish we enjoyed during our visit.  The combination of chile and chocolate has been wowing diners since before Montezuma’s reign.  This one will definitely wow you.  So will the regular (if such a pedestrian word is appropriate) chocolate ice cream.  Then there’s the pumpkin ice cream, a true taste of autumn that’s wonderful all year long. 

The Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World pairs two of America’s very favorite foods in a fun, friendly shop that promises to be a haven for the hungry and solace for all who need soothing comfort.

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World
2003 Southern Blvd., Suite 118
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dog, Tamale, Nathan’s Hot Dog, Red Chile Chocolate Ice Cream, Frito Pie

Ice Cream Palace and Hot Dog World Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jhett’s Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Rio Rancho Country Club, home to Jhett’s Restaurant

In its halcyon days, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club in Rio Rancho was considered one of the city’s crown jewels.  Its undulating 18-hole championship course with strategically placed deciduous trees and challenging water hazards once hosted the Charley Pride Golf Fiesta, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the state.  Built in 1970, the 212-acre development was flanked by upscale gated communities and boasted of magnificent panoramic views showcasing the reddish hues of the Sandias at sunset and the twinkling city lights of Albuquerque at night. 

Alas, over time escalating water rates made operating the course economically onerous.  Soon denuded fairways and eroded bunkers replaced the once verdant grounds.  In 2013, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club was auctioned off to be purchased nearly a year later by visionary entrepreneurs Bob Gallagher and Jhett Browne who immediately began putting into action their plans for restoring the operation to prominence and profitability.  The two negotiated significant water rate reduction rates and plan for reduced turf areas to conserve water.  At fruition, they hope to revivify the facility into one of the area’s best event centers, not just golf clubs.

View to the East from the dining room patio

Rebranded as Club Rio Rancho, the sprawling complex includes two nine-hole golf courses, six resurfaced and lighted tennis courts, a remodeled swimming pool, a members-only restaurant and lounge with an outdoor cigar bar, a three-level bar and grill with televisions and outdoor patio seating and a remodeled indoor restaurant with a patio facing the Sandias.  While some of the facilities and amenities remain available only to club members, the priceless “billion-dollar views” are available to the general public as is what promises to be an exciting fine-dining venture.

From its sprawling patio, the eponymous Jhett’s Restaurant may just have the very best views of any restaurant in the metropolitan area with the possible exception of Sandiago’s Mexican Grill.  There’s a view for all seasons and times of day from the east-facing large picture windows, too.  Jhett’s offers live music and dancing every Friday and Saturday starting at 8PM and a bountiful Sunday brunch, the type of which have seemingly become an anachronism.

The dining room in which Sunday brunch is served from 11AM to 2PM

The dinner menu bespeaks fine-dining belied by a price-point that’s surprisingly competitive with fine-dining establishments in far less ostentatious digs.  Whether your choice emanates from the land (such as the Bleu Cheese Crusted Angus Filet, Ribeye Steak or Lamb T-Bone) or sea (Stuffed Filet of Sole, Honey Ginger Shrimp or Lobster tail), you’ll find it on the menu.  Soups and salads as well as “nothing but noodles” entrees (such as Baked Lasagna Bolonaise and Spinach Ravioli) are also available. 

The all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch is quickly becoming a Rio Rancho Sunday tradition.  Available from 11AM through 2PM, the buffet-style brunch is the antithesis of the grab, gobble and go fare one associates with the terms “all-you-can-eat” and “buffet.”  A fusillade of well-laid out tables with silver heating trays offer dish after dish of beautifully edible creations arranged aesthetically.  An omelet station with eight different fillings is at the ready as is a carving station where a deft server cleaves generous slices from a large roast beef prepared at medium rare.  Desserts aplenty and a beverage table round out the cavalcade of deliciousness.

Some of the magnificent brunch offerings

4 January 2015: Rightfully so, the hand-carved roast beef is the primary draw.  The roast beef has a deep brown, crisp, crackly, unctuous crust around the edges.  The medium-rare interior is moist and tender, signs of optimum temperature control and cooking time.  You can have your roast beef with au jus or with a creamy horseradish that’ll water your eyes.  There are a number of other proteins on the buffet trays: bacon, sausage, fish and more.  The macaroni and cheese is some of the best we’ve had in a while while the Eggs Benedict dish is delightfully creative.  Instead of an English muffin, the poached egg and Hollandaise sauce rest inside a hollowed-out tomato.

13 September 2015: On Sundays in which the roast beef isn’t featured fare, you’ll find a large hand-carved ham served with a cranberry-pineapple glaze.  The ham is hardly a consolation prize.  It’s pulchritudinously pink with a salty-smoky deliciousness that complements the glaze so well.  Few things go as well with ham as au gratin potatoes and Jhett’s version is seconds-worthy.  We honestly couldn’t remember the last time we had a second portion of au gratin potatoes.  That’s how good these are.

Desserts

The dessert table doesn’t have tremendous variety, but what it lacks in quantity, it made up for in deliciousness. Alternatively you can sate your sweet tooth with the various fruits. The cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple have an in-season freshness and flavor. Throughout our meal we were well taken care of by an attentive server staff who replenished our beverages and made savvy recommendations. All this and million dollar views of the Sandias.

Jhett’s Restaurant is a welcome addition to the Rio Rancho fine-dining scene. An excellent brunch is just the prelude to future fine-dining ventures in what is once again becoming one of Rio Rancho’s crown jewels.

Jhett’s Restaurant
500 Country Club Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2015
1st VISIT: 4 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

Jhett's on Urbanspoon

Soul and Vine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Soul And Vine on Gold Street Just West on First Street

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”
~Thomas Keller

A recent tweet from Ortega (yes, that purveyor of “high quality Mexican products”) posed the existential question “What’s your cooking style: cooking from the soul, from your taste buds, from a book or from your gut?” While most cooks and almost all chefs would contend they cook with their souls, their assertions are belied by the absence of the qualities and experiences diners might associate with the term “cooking from the soul.” For many of us, that term kindles cherished memories of our precious mothers lovingly preparing our favorite dishes, every spoonful an expression of their boundless love. For others, “cooking from the soul” may engender fond recollections of a perfectly executed gourmet meal served by a fabulous staff against a spectacular backdrop.

Whatever imagery the term “cooking from the soul” conjures, most of us know when we’ve experienced it just as we can usually surmise that a cook or chef is just “going through the motions” in rote fashion. If you’re uncertain just what constitutes cooking from the soul, let’s turn to the wit and wisdom of The Ramen Girl: “You must learn to cook from the quieter place deep inside of you. Each bowl of ramen you prepare is a gift to your customer. The food that you serve your customer becomes a part of them. It contains your spirit. That’s why your ramen must be an expression of pure love. A gift from your heart.”

View of the dining room as you step into the restaurant

When Tony Punya walked up to our table and introduced himself as the owner of Soul and Vine, a casual fine-dining restaurant in the downtown district, my first question was “why the name?” though I’d already surmised the answer. Not surprisingly, he confirmed that “Vine” represents the fruit of the vine, a sommelier’s dream of red and white wines from California, Oregon, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia and even New Zealand. The “Soul,” he explained, describes the passion and energy with which executive chef David Ruiz prepares each and every meal.

From ambiance alone, it’s hard to feel “cooking from the soul” as you’re seated in a milieu perhaps best described as scrupulously immaculate and maybe even lacking warmth (courtesy of painted concrete floors and a fairly monochromatic palette). It’s not that Soul and Vine is unattractive or unappealing. Far from it. It just doesn’t have those warm, embracing qualities some restaurants have that make their guests feel as though they’re enveloped in a nurturing and comfortable cocoon. Attentive, personable service, the type which seems standard at Soul and Vine, goes a long way toward offsetting an impersonal ambiance. Both our server and the owner could not have been more gracious.

Flatbread with Green chile Butter

Ironically, Soul and Vine is ensconced in a space that previously housed Thai Saweiy and before that Thai Crystal, two restaurants with decorative touches that seemed just a tad more homey. Even more ironic is that the original concept for the restaurant wasn’t fine dining showcasing American tapas and a wine bar, but a food truck.  That’s when serendipity played a hand.  At about the time plans started to move forward with the food truck idea, Chef Ruiz was in search of a new opportunity and Thai Sawely had just closed.  The space on Gold Street just west of First beckoned. Soul and Vine launched in October, 2014.

Lunch and dinner menus include several commonalities as well as distinct differences that extend beyond price.  Because Chef Ruiz meticulously plans and preps dinner entrees for “just in time” service, they’re not available during the lunch serving.   Available during both lunch and dinner, starters include eleven “soulful apps,” tapas-style appetizers big enough to share, but not so large that they’ll leave you too full for your meal.  Soups and salads are also available for both servings.  While the lunch menu showcases crafted sandwiches, for dinner it’s seasonal favorites (such as Papardelle Pasta and Carmelized Sea Scallops) that steal the show.  Value oriented options are available for both lunch and dinner.  For lunch, it’s the “Soul and Vine Trio,” a terrific threesome featuring sinful soup, savory salad and a crafted sandwich.  For dinner, the “Soul and Vine Quartet” offers soup or salad, a soulful app, seasonal favorite and truffles.

Left: Bay Scallop Ceviche on Lettuce cups; Right: Pork Cubano Tacos

As you contemplate your meal, a basket of flatbread and green chile-infused butter is delivered to your table.  The flatbread, thicker than Indian papadum, but not as thick as a corn chip) is impregnated with cracked pepper.  The green chile-infused butter spreads easily on the flatbread and couples with the cracked pepper to provide piquant-savory notes which complement the sweet mildness of the flatbread. 

There’s significant variety in the soulful apps menu where you can find everything from an artisan cheese and charcuterie pairing to white Cheddar truffle mac and cheese.  Any more than three or four of them are filling enough to constitute a meal, but you’ll want to order at least two.  Make one of them the bay scallop ceviche on lettuce cups.  Bay scallops are the 98-pound weakling of the mollusk family as they’re dwarfed by much larger scallops.  The size limitation doesn’t apply to flavor.  Bay scallops put their behemoth brethren to shame when it comes to flavor.  They’re the perfect scallop for ceviche.  Best of all, Chef Ruiz doesn’t obfuscate the natural brininess and flavor of the scallops by drenching them in citrus juices.  The citrus juices complement the bay scallops very well.

Soul and Vine Trio: Smoked BLT, Tomato Basil Bisque, Scarborough Farms Baby Greens

Another soulful app not to be missed is the Pork Cubano Tacos, a trio of open-faced tacos stuffed with wonderfully moist, perfectly seasoned and absolutely delicious pork topped with caramelized onions punctuated with pickled Fresno chili.  Now this is a soulful appetizer!  Its flavor profile includes savory, sweet, tangy and piquant notes that work very well together.  The soft corn taco shells have a pronounced corn taste that serves as a nice foil for the marinated pork and caramelized onions.  These are the type of tacos you might want to eat by the dozen. 

Mathematically there are probably hundreds of combinations possible with the Soul and Vine Trio and it’s likely they’re all delicious.  Think about it.  Is there anything better for lunch than the tasty trinity of soup, salad and a sandwich?  Of the three it’s often the salad that’s most under- if not unappreciated.  The Scarborough Farms Baby Greens salad (candied pecans, goat cheese, grilled onions with a white Balsamic dressing) may sound like many salads you’ve had, but the freshness of the ingredients and the tangy Balsamic elevate it to a rarefied state.  So does the creamy, delightfully tart goat cheese.  Soul & Vine also elevates the BLT to more than your everyday basic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.  Smoked bacon is the most elevated ingredient, rendered absolutely transformative with a light, delicate smoking process.  Pairing perfectly with the sandwich is a tomato basil bisque, the very essence of comfort food and every bit the essence of soul cooking.  It’s a terrific soup any time of year.

Butternut Squash and Sage Ravioli

Not on the menu, but perhaps it should be is the butternut squash and sage ravioli which is served over a bed of toasted rainbow chard and topped with a piñon butter sauce and citrus curls.  There are only seven raviolis per order, but each is roughly the size of a baby’s fist.  Moreover they’re replete with ingredients and flavors which coalesce into a harmonious and yes, soulful platform of rich deliciousness.  That richness is counterbalanced by the earthy, nutty, mineral-rich qualities of the rainbow chard.  The citrus curls sneak in on occasion to provide a delightful contrast. This dish is a winner!

Soul and Vine may not look like a restaurant imbued with soul, but there’s plenty of cooking from the soul going on in the kitchen.  Ultimately that’s what matters most.

Soul And Vine
109 Gold Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Butternut and Sage Ravioli, Soul and Vine Trio, Bay Scallop Ceviche, Pork Cubano Tacos

Soul and Vine on Urbanspoon

Mekong Ramen House – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mekong01

Mekong Ramen House just north of Candelaria on San Mateo

In a 2009 movie entitled Ramen Girl, Abby, a wayward American girl unacculturated to life in Tokyo witnesses the radiant smiles on the faces of diners as they eat ramen and receives an epiphany that her life’s calling is to become a ramen chef. Over time she persuades a ramen restaurant’s temperamental Japanese chef to mentor her. Initially he assigns her to perform the most menial and degrading tasks, but she perseveres and eventually convinces her tyrannical mentor of her sincerity and he teaches her how to make ramen. Alas, it’s ramen with no soul until she also learns that ramen must be prepared from the heart and not from her head.

Ramen with soul? Ramen chefs? Ramen prepared from the heart? That just doesn’t describe the ramen experience for most Americans. In the fruited plain, ramen is typically thought of as “budget” food, something to fill your belly when your bank account is empty. Few foods offer as much bang for the buck as the ubiquitous low-brow meal most often associated with the college student demographic. Fittingly, in Japan ramen is often called “gakusei ryori” which translates to “student cuisine.” It’s not just students and budget-conscious diners, however, who love ramen.

Mekong02

The colorful interior of the Mekong Ramen House

Ramen is beloved worldwide to the tune of 95 billion servings in 2011.  That’s enough ramen to feed 260 million people for an entire year. Invented in 1958 by Nissin Foods, the original “Top Ramen” noodles with which most of us are familiar, rakes in some 3.2 billion dollars a year.  Throw in competing ramen clones made in other countries and you have an estimated world market of ten billion per year.  That’s a lot of noodles. 

When first introduced in Japan, ramen was considered a luxury item and was six times more expensive than homemade noodles found in Japanese grocery stores.  Ramen made its ways across the Pacific in 1972 and was marketed as “Oodles of Noodles” throughout the East Coast  The following year saw the introduction of “Nissin Cup Noodles” in the familiar and convenient Styrofoam cups.  Before long, hundreds of knock-offs flooded the market.

Mekong03

Tom Yum Soup

How important is ramen in the Japanese culture? In a poll  conducted by the Fuji Research Institute, instant ramen was named by Japanese respondents as the greatest “made in Japan” invention of the 20th century, edging out karaoke, headphone stereos, TV game players and compact disks.  Attribute its popularity in part to economics.  It’s been estimated that a person can live off ramen for an entire year at a cost of under $150, approximately three-percent of what Americans spend a year on food.

It’s not solely the inexpensive instant ramen that has captured the hearts and imaginations of connoisseurs throughout the world.   The gourmet ramen craze has dispelled the stereotype that ramen is cheap food reserved exclusively for broke college students and that it’s always served in Styrofoam packages.  Gourmet ramen is an epicurean experience showcasing deeply soulful (there’s that term: soul) ramen dishes such as Tonkotsu soup with roasted Kurobuta pork for which the bones have simmered for hours, if not days.  This ramen is fresh and handmade, not instant or dry.   The quality is telling.

Mekong04

Beef Stick

When fellow gastronome Chris Reddington told us about Mekong Ramen House on the northwest intersection of San Mateo and Candelaria, we entertained faint hopes that the Duke City had finally graduated in culinary sophistication to have its own gourmet ramen house.   I say “faint” because the name “Mekong” has no affiliation with Japan.  The Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, meanders from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all nations with some ramen tradition.

Although ramen is prominent on the menu (and it’s made on the premises), the Mekong Ramen House is not a traditional gourmet ramen house.  Instead, the restaurant offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience which showcases cuisine from several Asian nations including China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos as well as from Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern region which sits just across the Mekong River from Laos.  The chef is from Laos, home in my opinion to one of the world’s most under-appreciated cuisines.  Perhaps because of the restaurant’s “newness,” we found the cuisine relatively unspoiled by the over-the-top Americanized sauces which lean heavily toward cloying sweetness.  The food is refreshingly authentic, clean and untainted.

Mekong05

Cucumber Ramen Salad

Ensconced in a nondescript shopping center, the Mekong Ramen House is tastefully arrayed in walls of many colors festooned with attractive wall hangings.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable. Although English is a second language to the wait staff, service is unfailingly polite, prompt and attentive.  The menu is priced comparably to most Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City and while offering the cuisine of several Southeast Asian nations, is not an especially ambitious menu, listing only 41 items.  A limited menu does not limited flavors make.

22 February 2014: No sooner had we been seated and our beverage order taken than our server brought us a delightful amuse-bouche, a bowl of Tom Yum soup.  If you’re used to Tum Yum soups being served in tureens big enough for a small family with shards of lemongrass, galangal and mushrooms bobbing to the surface, you’ll wonder where those elements went.  Mekong’s version is as “murky” as a light chicken noodle soup with only scallions floating to the top.  Though the aforementioned ingredients aren’t in evidence to the eye, they are pleasantly discernible to the taste buds.  This Tum Yum is simple and delicious, not lip-pursing as too many Americanized versions are made.

Egg Rolls

22 February 2014: One of the ways in which ramen is showcased on the menu is in a crispy appetizer.  The cucumber ramen salad (sliced cucumbers topped with crispy ramen noodles and served with a sweet chili sauce) highlights the diversity of ramen in ways most college students probably haven’t explored.  My Kim frequently orders dehydrated noodles and delights in their squiggly qualities coming to life when introduced to sauces.  She enjoyed the crispy ramen, too.  This is a relatively simple salad emboldened by a sweet-tangy-piquant chili sauce.

22 February 2014: Another simple appetizer popular in street-side stands throughout Laos is the beef stick, Lao style grilled beef skewers served with chili lime sauce.  Their portability make them an ideal street food snack while their simplicity and deliciousness will make them a popular draw to the Ramen Noodle House.  Three perfectly grilled skewers of tender, delicious beef are served with a gunpowder strong chili lime sauce.  The piquancy of the sauce means you’ll likely perform “touch and go” maneuvers with your beef stick instead of dipping or scooping. 

Mekong06

Pad Ramen Noodle

19 February 2015:  Forgive me if you’ve read this before on this blog, but egg rolls–or at least Chinese egg rolls–have morphed into one of the most uninteresting and tasteless appetizers in creation.  What ever happened to Chinese egg rolls stuffed with julienne pork, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and just a bit of cabbage wrapped by crispy, slightly chewy skins. Today, cabbage comprises approximately 90% of the content of Chinese egg rolls.  If you want a good egg roll, you’ve got to visit an Asian restaurant other than Chinese.  While every Asian culture makes its egg rolls differently, the concept is basically the same.  The wrappers on the Mekong Ramen House’s egg rolls have a golden sheen and a crispy exterior that belies an interior of cabbage, carrots, ramen noodles and more.  These egg rolls are slightly larger than a Cuban cigar and are served with a sweet-tangy sauce.

22 February 2014: The menu offers a number of pad (stir-fry) dishes, two made with ramen noodles, one with Udon noodles and one with a simple rice noodle.  The Pad Ramen Noodle (ramen noodles, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts and green onions) dish is perhaps the most simple, but it’s a dish which very well demonstrates stir-fry executed by a wok master.  Available with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu or shrimp, this dish emphasizes the tangle of noodles and their harmonious interplay with other ingredients.

Mekong07

Lao Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice

22 February 2014: There are a number of Lao dishes interspersed throughout the menu, but there’s also a page dedicated solely to the cuisine of Laos.  Alas, there are only six items on that page, but they include some of the Lao dishes with whom acculturated Americans are familiar: Laab, beef Jerky, Lao sausage and Lao papaya.  The menu also includes a Lao grilled chicken served with sticky rice and Mekong chili tomatoes sauce.  The grilled chicken–a leg, a breast and a thigh–is dissimilar to the way grilled chicken is prepared in Mexico in that it’s not infused with charcoal flavor.  Though there is a pleasant smokiness, the grilling influence penetrates deeply and it’s delicious.  The accompanying sticky rice is served in a cute little wicker basket that retains heat.

19 February 2015: It stands to reason that because Laos and Thailand border one another, their cuisines are very similar.  That means rich, coconut-milk based sauces, fresh ingredients and exotic flavors such as galangal, Kaffir lime, and curry paste.  The latter is best on display in the Mekong House’s Red Curry Ramen, a swimming pool-sized bowl brimming with ingredients: cabbage, broccoli, julienne carrots, bean sprouts, chives, bell pepper, red curry and some of the most unctuous, rich and delicious ramen noodles you’ll ever have.  Those noodles would easily be the starring attraction on this excellent soup were it not for the red curry itself.  Not quite as coconut milk-sweet as most Thai curries, it’s got an assertiveness (courtesy of ginger) I’ve often missed in curries which emphasize sweetness.  This is an excellent curry dish, albeit one that’s not available on the daily menu but shows up periodically as a special of the day.

Red Curry Ramen

9 March 2015:  The bordering nations of Laos and Thailand share many culinary commonalities, including a love for larb, a moist, citrusy minced-beef or chicken salad.  There are sometimes subtle differences in the ways it’s prepared, but such differences exist from restaurant to restaurant and home to home.  Mekong Ramen’s version isn’t nearly as citrusy as larb offered at most Duke City restaurants.  It’s still punctuated with citrus influences and remains lively, a melange of lime, shallots, scallions, mint, cilantro and chile with toasty notes from pulverized toasted rice which lends an interesting textural profile.  The larb is available with either beef or chicken.  It’s not a dish everyone will love, but if you do, this is one you’ll appreciate.

Lao Larb

22 February 2014: Our preferred way of enjoying sticky rice is with mangoes, the quintessential Thai and Lao dessert.  Few desserts of any nation are as wonderful as mangoes with sticky rice, especially when the mangoes are in season.  In-season means their flesh is a sweet and intensely tropical with a fragrant aroma and a fibrous texture around the pit.  The intensity of mangoes in-season marries oh so well with the sticky rice which swims with rich, sweet coconut milk.

Mekong08

Mangoes with sticky rice

If you survived on ramen noodles during your collegiate days, the Mekong Ramen House will introduce you to ramen in ways of which you may not have conceived, all of them delicious.  It will also introduce you to some of the best Thai and Lao cuisine you’ll find in the Duke City.

Mekong Ramen House
3115 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 March 2015
1st VISIT: 22 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Cucumber Ramen Salad, Beef Stick, Pad Ramen Noodle, Lao Grilled Chicken, Egg Rolls, Red Curry Ramen, Larb

Mekong Ramen House on Urbanspoon

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