Pasion Latin Fusion – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Redesigned Interior of Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine

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

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

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

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna

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

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

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasión Fruit Salsa

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

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

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

Duck Taquitos

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

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

Carnitas Tacos

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

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

Caribbean Chicken Adobo

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

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

Chicharron de Mariscos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2016
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa, Chicharron De Mariscos

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

Olive Branch Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Olive Branch Bistro in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights

The depiction of a dove in flight with an olive branch in its beak is common in early Christian art and tradition.  The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit while the olive branch is seen as a symbol of peace.  Christian tradition, as chronicled in Genesis 8:11, describes a dove carrying an olive branch to signal the cessation of flooding throughout the world after forty days and forty nights of rain: “And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” 

Greek mythology mentions the olive branch numerous times, including during a tale of a competition between Athena, the goddess of the wisdom and Poseidon, the god of the sea.  With both immortals vying to become the patron deity of Athens, the victor and recipient of the city itself would be determined by which of the immortals bestowed the city with the best gift.  Poseidon stuck his massive trident into the ground to create a well of briny sea water, a fairly useless gift.  The wise Athena then planted a simple yet infinitely more useful  olive tree beside the well.  Athena’s gift was judged to be superior, earning her the title of patron deity of the city.

Athena and Poseidon Watch Over You As You Dine

A large mural on a dining room wall at the Olive Branch Bistro in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights depicts both deities as well as the Parthenon, the temple on the Athenian Acropolis.  It’s not every restaurant in which two imposing Olympian gods watch over you as you partake of traditional and contemporary Mediterranean cuisine.  Then again, not every restaurant has the history and heritage of the Olive Branch. if you’re scouring your memory banks for recollections of the Olive Branch, you need go no further than March, 2016 when the restaurant opened its doors at the site which, for the previous 34 years, housed the beloved Duke City institution, the India Kitchen.

Before there was an Olive Branch Bistro, however, there were a couple of food trucks prowling the mean streets of Albuquerque plying their mobile kitchen wares for the teeming masses.  One of those food trucks, the Greek Geek specialized in seven-inch pita pizzas and gyros.  The other, Hot off the Press, earned a following on the deliciousness of their Cubano and grilled mac and cheese sandwich.  Ryan Seabrook (Greek Geek) and the duo of Michelle Haskins and Karen Seabrook (Ryan’s mother) joined forces to launch the Olive Branch.  Instead of kitchens on wheels with no permanent seating for their guests, the triumvirate now offers 58 seats for guests and a kitchen in which the walk-in refrigerator eclipses  their previous working spaces

Bread and Olive Oil

Though sporting a Montgomery address, the Olive Branch Bistro is set back quite a ways from the heavily trafficked street (which sometimes doubles as a racecourse).  Its signage doesn’t beckon you either.  In fact, unless you’re looking for it (or at least looking for the India Kitchen), you might not find it.   Fortunately Heidi Pinkerton, the second most prolific contributor (behind my friend Larry McGoldrick) to Zomato waxed poetic about her inaugural experience: “Lamb, lamb, lamby lamb…oh my goodness, the best lamb that I have had in Albuquerque!”  Heidi had me at “lamb.”

Lamb, the other red meat, isn’t as prominent on the menu as you might expect for a restaurant specializing in Mediterranean food.  There’s plenty of beef and chicken, too, as well as several items in which meat doesn’t play a part at all.  The menu is a sort of “best of” compilation of items once offered at the Greek Geek and Hot Off The Press.  That means there’s something for everyone.  The “House Favorites” section of the menu, for example, showcases favorites from the Hot Off The Press days such as twice burnt tacos and the original Cubano.  The Grilled Sandwich section pays tribute to other Hot Off The Press creations such as the Grilled Mac and Cheese.

Italian Nachos

The “Mediterranean” section of the menu lists a number of Greek Geek favorites such as lamb and chicken gyros.  The menu also offers a number of burgers, salads and the incomparable seven-inch pita pizzas made famous by the Greek Geek.  The menu purports to offer an “irresistible blend of Mediterranean and American cuisine” with “recipes inspired by authentic Mediterranean dishes brought back from Greece, Turkey and Italy, with a touch of Albuquerque.”  If that doesn’t have you reaching for your car keys, you should see the housemade desserts, all made from scratch “with love.”

As you peruse the menu and wrestle with the many choices available, a basket of bread with olive oil is brought to your table.  It wasn’t the “peasant bread and a floral-olive oil” Heidi Pinkerton described in Zomato, but that’s probably an anomaly.  It may, in fact, have been fortuitous for us that the bread was somewhat stale because we didn’t polish it off quickly and ask for more.  On the other hand, the bread and olive oil were the restaurant’s opportunity to make a good first impression and it didn’t do so.  Luckily everything else made up for it, but we were dubious.

Lamb and Chicken Gyros

Italian Nachos (tortilla chips, Mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, green and black olives, pepperoncini and balsamic vinegar) would make a good impression on any discerning diner.  Unlike the Mexican and New Mexican nachos to which we’re all accustomed, Italian Nachos are an adventure into the unexpected, offering a flavor profile of contrasting and complementary ingredients that go very well together.  The salty richness of the cheese pair is a nice counterbalance to the pickled, lip-pursing tanginess of the pepperoncini.  You might be surprised at just how different green and black olives taste.  Then there’s the Balsamic vinegar which has both acidic and sweet notes.  You’ll scoop up these nachos with alacrity. 

Gyros, the traditional Greek fast food wrap stuffed with meat, vegetables, and Tzatziki, are served open-face style at the Olive Branch.  A large, flat pita served warm is topped with the restaurant’s signature lamb or chicken, black olives, tomatoes, feta and your choice of traditional or spicy Tzatziki sauce.  For a blend of flavors, ask the accommodating staff for both lamb and chicken.  Both are good.  If you like sharp, tangy feta, you’ll appreciate the large chunks which adorn the gyro.  For me, there can never be enough Tzatziki, that sauce made from Greek-style yogurt, diced cucumbers, dill weed and a small amount of vinegar.  Make sure you ask for a second portion, and make it the spicy version which packs a punch.

The Kraken

“Release the Kraken!”  If everything you ever learned about Greek mythology comes from the campy 80s movie Clash of the Titans, you probably believe the Kraken is a mythological sea monster released by Zeus to destroy Argos for its insolence.  In actuality, the Kraken is nowhere to be found in Greek myths.  Its origins are Nordic.  In any case, you’ll be happy that the Olive Branch has released The Kraken (the restaurant’s signature lamb piled on a ground beef patty topped with feta, spicy or traditional Tzatziki sauce and pepperoncini) on its burgers menu.  The combination of a ground beef patty and lamb brings out the best in both, but my favorite elements on this behemoth creation–where its personality comes from–is the spicy Tzatziki and lip-pursing pepperoncini.  The Kraken is served with fries (out-of-a-bag and nothing special).

The dessert menu is scrawled on a strategically placed slate board you’ll ponder throughout your meal.  It features such intriguing items as a ricotta cheesecake, baklava and pecan pie, again all housemade and made from scratch “with love.”  You can certainly taste the love in the Loukoumades, a type of Greek doughnuts (or more closely resembling donut holes).  Where traditional Loukoumades are generally  served with honey syrup and cinnamon, the Olive Grove takes creative liberties.  The Olive Branch injects chocolate and caramel into the center of a Loukoumades and tops them with even more chocolate and caramel.  What could be better.  Well, maybe one with key lime in the middle or one with cherry and peach.  Served piping hot, they’re a delightful treat.

Loukoumades

Another Olive Branch specialty is the restaurant’s chocolate cheesecake.  Delightfully dense cheesecake on a Graham cracker crust–what’s not to like?  Chef Ryan Seabrook admits to not liking chocolate, but to enjoying this cheesecake which he told us “tastes like ice cream.”  It does indeed, albeit room temperature chocolate ice cream that doesn’t melt.  Sweet and delicious as these desserts may be, they pair well with the restaurant’s pomegranate-lemonade, a thirst-slaking beverage that’s sweeter and not as tangy as regular lemonade.

Chef Seabrook checked up on us several times during our visit.  He’s an engaging fellow with an aim-to-please customer orientation that’s reflected on the restaurant’s wait staff.   Because everything is made to order, a meal at the Olive Branch is nicely paced, not rushed. There’s something to see on every one of the restaurant’s walls, including tea towels with recipes for Greek standards.  Then, of course, there’s the mural of the Olympic gods watching over you as if to make sure you finish everything on your plate.

Chocolate Cheesecake

It’s not every food truck that translates well to a brick-and-mortar operation.  The Olive Branch Bistro has the pedigree and following to be successful, perhaps even to experience the longitude of its predecessor, The India Kitchen.

Olive Branch Bistro
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chocolate Cheesecake, The Kraken, Gyros, Italian Nachos, Loukoumades

The Olive Branch Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bucketheadz – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Bucket Headz in its new home on San Pedro just north of Gibson

“I think it’s easy to dismiss Southern food as nothing but grease and grits.
I happen to like both grease and grits,
And if you call them lardo and polenta, no one would have a problem with it.”
~
John T. Edge

Author John T. Edge acknowledges that negative stereotypes are rampant about Southern food, crediting some of those perceptions to how Southern food is marketed. Instead of Southern food being presented as one of America’s great culinary traditions, all too often it’s presented as bumpkinly and backwater. Instead of focusing on its soul-warming deliciousness and comforting properties, it’s presented as fatty, fried and laden with butter.  It could well be argued that Southern cooking is the Rodney Dangerfield of American cuisine; it gets no respect. Credit media, particularly the aptly named “boob tube” for perpetuating unsavory—and often inaccurate–stereotypes.

If you were a product of the ‘60s and 70s, your perceptions of Southern cuisine were probably gleaned from such television shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons. While these programs were generally family-oriented and depicted homespun values, they often portrayed Southern food in a condescending light. Who, for example, can ever forget the typical Beverly Hillbillies soiree of possum shanks, pickled hog jowls, goat tripe, stewed squirrel, ham hocks and turnip greens, gizzards smothered in gristle, and smoked crawdads? Or Aunt Bee’s homemade pickles on the Andy Griffith Show which were described as tasting “like they’ve been floating in kerosene?”

Bucket Headz Dining Room

It doesn’t get any better in contemporary times where today’s viewers are subjected to a barrage of bizarre and jejune wackery. Though we’ve never made it past the first commercial break on either Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty, two minutes of each was enough to convince us that mealtime scenes were probably as bizarre and annoying as the “stars” of these prime-time reality nightmares. Nor have we endured more than a snippet of Chrisley Knows Best, Atlanta’s equivalent of the Kardashians…at least in terms of both plasticine families being ditzy and unlikeable. We don’t even want to imagine what constitutes a dining experience in their world.

Having lived in the Deep South (the Mississippi Gulf Coast) for nearly eight years, we were fortunate enough to discover what Edge describes as “the cradle of some of our great folk foods,” the traditional foods of a small group of people living in isolated or rural areas. Crawfish is one example of a folk food (and so are quelites (lambs quarters), a spinach-like plant enjoyed throughout northern New Mexico). We also discovered the dichotomy of a fierce pride in Southern culinary traditions and a self-effacing modesty that prevents crowing loudly about those traditions.

Catfish, Fried Pickles, Fried Okra, Cornbread

Southerners may not be prone to braggadocio and self-promotion, no matter how good their cooking is, but they are experts in hospitality. Whether in a restaurant or in a private home, Southern hospitality is more than a turn of phrase; it’s a way of life. Food figures prominently in Southern hospitality with heaping helpings expected at church fellowship suppers and picnics. We hadn’t been in our Ocean Springs home for a day before our neighbor Donna Pace welcomed us with a vinegar pie.  If the food doesn’t win you over, the genuine hospitality and warmth of the citizens of the South most certainly will.

Fond memories of Southern hospitality bubbled up when we drove up to Bucket Headz, a Southern restaurant on Louisiana Blvd which opened its doors in October, 2015.  NOTE: In June, 2016, Bucket Headz relocated to 1218 San Pedro, N.E., just south of Gibson in the former home of Talking Drums.   Even without “Southern Home Cooking” subtitled on the marquee,” we knew that a restaurant named Bucket Headz had to be a Southern restaurant. What we didn’t know until walking in was whether or not “Southern home cooking” also meant “soul food.” What’s the difference? San Jose University explains that “While not all Southern food is considered soul food, all soul food is definitely Southern.” Differentiating between the two can be complicated.

Fried Macaroni and Cheese Balls

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States. In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements. Though still most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

Bucket Headz is a family-owned and operated business grounded in Southern cooking traditions, described on the restaurant’s Web site as “no fancy frills, just good ol’ down home stick to yo ribs cookin’ just the way our Granny use to make it.” The name Bucket Headz, by the way, is a family nickname—what the family patriarch calls all of his grandkids. Step into the restaurant’s homey confines and you’ll find it readily apparent that the owners are a Godly people. Aphorisms attesting to their faith are splayed on the walls as are kitchen implements hung for decorative purposes.

The Big Boy with Red Beans and Rice

Air Force pride is also on display in signage indicating Bucket Headz is a veteran owned business. Owner Malaika Marks served for four years, while her husband, stationed at nearby Kirtland, has four years to go until he can retire. Malaika’s mother, a delightful “Okie from Muskogee” who helps out at the restaurant, is also an Air Force veteran. During her four-year stint Malaika would bake cakes for General officers, a precursor to her launching Trinity’s Custom Cakes when the family was reassigned to Kirtland. On display in a bakery case is some of her handiwork, including a cake you’d swear is one of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 sneakers.

The family’s Southern heritage has its roots in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida and…Chicago (where Malaika’s husband is from). Hospitality is part and parcel of your dining experience as you’ll read in the motto “Come in as a customer, leave as family.” You could also reword that motto to read “Come in hungry, leave full and happy.” In addition to such Southern soul favorites as catfish, chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, smothered pork chops, wings and macaroni and cheese served in more ways that you thought possible, Bucket Heads offers daily specials Monday through Friday. Thursday’s ox tail special is reputed to be exceptional.

Gumbo, the very best in Albuquerque

27 February 2016: As you’ve read (perhaps ad-nauseum) on this blog, one of the foods we’ve missed most from our days in the South is catfish. Most of the catfish we’ve had in New Mexico is so desiccated we wonder if it’s been battered in sawdust. Bucket Headz knows how to prepare catfish, serving lightly breaded, golden-hued filets that are moist, tender and absolutely delicious. Your best bet is the two catish and two sides option. Make those sides fried okra and fried pickles, both as good as you’ll find anywhere in Dixie. The catfish is served with a terrific tartar sauce we practically ignored because of the buffalo-garlic sauce served with another entrée we ordered. The accompanying corn bread relies on sweet niblets of corn for its sweet flavor, not on sugar. It’s a moist corn bread baked “hoe cake” style meaning it’s flat (similar to a pancake).

27 February 2016: Described as “the big brother of po’boy,” the Big Boy has nothing to do with a restaurant of that name. The Big Boy is a behemoth sandwich in which two catfish filets are crammed between a sandwich roll where they share space with a handful of shrimp as well as lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. You can apply as much or as little of buffalo-garlic sauce as you’d like. This sauce packs a bite and has enough garlic to ward off a family of vampires (that’s a good thing unless you’re into Twilight). The shrimp are lightly battered and so fresh, they snap when you bite into them. The Big Boy, much like its little brother the po’ boy, bespeaks of the fine sandwich traditions of the South.  Instead of the usual sandwich sides, ask for the red beans and rice, the best we’ve had outside New Orleans, so good you’ll want a second bowlful.

Bucket Burger Stuffed with Mac and Cheese

27 February 2016: During our eight years in Mississippi, we never ran into anyone who didn’t think Kraft’s version of macaroni and cheese was a travesty. Mac and cheese is always homemade south of the Mason-Dixon line and it’s usually much better than you’ll find north of that demarcation. Obviously recognizing that people are passionate about their macaroni and cheese, Bucket Headz serves it in two unique ways. One is a mac and cheese stuffed burger you’ll have to open wide to bite into. The other is Fried Mac n’ Cheese Balls. Served four to an order, these golden-hued orbs are crispy on the outside and ooey-gooey on the inside with lots of cheesy flavor.  These, as a Southerner might say, are to die for. 

30 March 2016:“There is no dish which at the same time so tickles the palate, satisfies the appetite, furnishes the body with nutriment sufficient to carry on the physical requirements, and costs so little as a Creole Gumbo. It is a dinner in itself, being soup, piece de résistance, entremet and vegetable in one.” That’s how author William Coleman described gumbo, the spicy, hearty, flavorful dish enjoyed throughout the Gulf Coast…and now Albuquerque. The version offered at Bucket Headz is better than many we enjoyed in New Orleans. The swimming pool sized bowl (described by my friend Bill as “a vat”) in which the gumbo is served will feed a small family. Brimming with vegetables, chicken and Andouille sausage in an addictively spiced broth atop rice, the steaming hot bowl is amazingly delicious. Every spoonful is a pleasure trip, the type of which you’ll want to repeat frequently. Though there are a number of hot sauces on your table, it’s a true testament to this gumbo’s greatness that you won’t even be tempted to add more heat to this just right elixir.

Oxtail with Rice and Gravy

30 March 2016: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver is a believer in the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. As he perused the Bucket Headz menu, it was the two photographs of the Bucket Burger that snared his attention. He was intrigued at the notion of a mac and cheese stuffed burger and even more pleased that he could design the burger to his liking with a variety of standard fixin’s and fixin’s for a slight additional charge. Sr. Plata’s masterpiece included lettuce, grilled onions, mushrooms and a fried egg—toppings which increased the girth and volume of this behemoth burger from a half-pound to well over a pound. Not for the faint of heart or calorific underachievers, this burger is as flavorful as it is large. The mac and cheese, stuffed inside hand-formed beef patties, provides the cheese element that makes it a cheeseburger and the element of nostalgia that makes mac-and-cheese a childhood favorite for children of all ages. The mushrooms are fresh, not out of a can. The burger is served with Texas-sized fries about as big as a stick of firewood.

30 March 2016:As she had during my inaugural visit, the delightful Malaika stepped away from her busy kitchen to meet and greet as many diners as time permitted. One of the guests with whom she visited looked very familiar, but it wasn’t until we were leaving that we noticed it was Daniel “Pepper” Morgan, the pitmaster extraordinaire at Pepper’s Bar-B-Q & Soul Food. In that one table at that precise moment, there was more culinary talent than anywhere else in Albuquerque and we were honored to share in conversation with them.

My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott About to Dive Into A Plate of Pork Ribs, Black-eyed Peas and Okra

7 April 2016: Oxtail is to the South what menudo is to New Mexico.  Some people love it and others can’t stomach the notion of eating it (you can probably guess in which camp I stand).  Oxtail is exactly what its name declares it to be: the tail of an ox.  It’s officially classified as offal similar to other organ meats and sweetbreads.  As with other offal, the preparation of oxtail probably arose from the tradition of trying to use every part of every animal butchered.  At Bucket Headz oxtail is available only on Thursdays and if you don’t get there early or pre-order, chances are there won’t be any left.  Served over a bed of rice and a brown gravy, oxtail far from off-putting.  In fact, it’s absolutely delicious, so much so my friend the Dazzling Deanell declared the version at Bucket Headz to be better than oxtail she had in Spain (where amusingly it is known as osso bucco).  It’s better than any oxtail we enjoyed in Mississippi, too. 

15 April 2016: My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott has visited most of the barbecue joints Texas Monthly has anointed as the Lone Star State’s best.  He’s also perfected the low-and-slow smoking techniques used to prepare mouth-watering barbecue at home.  As such, he’s got some serious barbecue creds.  You can’t pull the wool over his eyes.  Within a couple of bites he can tell you exactly how a meat was smoked.  You won’t find a smoker out in back of Bucket Headz, but Ryan quickly discerned the inimitable redolence of low-and-slow smoking on the Flintstonian pork ribs he enjoyed.  An order will bring you three meaty ribs with a lacquered-on sweet and tangy sauce.  The meat isn’t “fall-off-the-bone” tender, but barbecue aficionados know it’s not supposed to be.  Rather, the meat has just a little bit of “give” which means it’s smoked to perfection.

Chicken Fried Steak with Macaroni and Cheese and Sweet Potatoes

15 April 2016: Ryan has been known to tell me “where to go” on several occasions, but that’s only where to go to find great wings.  Only my friend Ralph Guariglio in Ahwatukee, Arizona and maybe an ornithologist or two know as much about wings as Ryan.  About the only thing he can’t tell you is the name of the chickens who gave themselves up so we could enjoy their delicious appendages.  When Ryan raved about the buffalo garlic wings at Bucket Headz, it was a certainty that they’d be superb.  They are!  These wings are huge, obviously coming from chickens who kicked sand in the face of smaller fowl.  Malaika fries them to a golden hued crispiness then slathers on the buffalo garlic sauce which has both the kick of buffalo sauce and the pungent heat of garlic.  The wings are meaty and delicious, as good as wings can be.  On the day Ryan and I visited, a table of six Air Force enlisted men put away some eighty wings.  They made me proud to have served in the world’s finest Air Force.

15 April 2016:  My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” may never forgive me in that I got to visit Bucket Headz on a day in which chicken fried steak with two sides was the special of the day.  Sr. Plata loves chicken fried steak even more than he loves his truck and that’s a lot of love.  While most chicken fried steak is good, it doesn’t always have a lot of personality and often the personality it does have is gleaned from artery-clogging gravy.  Malaika imbues her chicken fried steak with lots of personality, what might be called “sass” in the South.  The breading she uses is impregnated with Cajun spices which will give you an immediate kick.  The peppery white gravy lends its own sass to the tender breaded cube steak.  The perfect side and a wonderful foil for this personality blessed chicken fried steak is sweet potatoes, the very best I’ve ever had.  They’re buttery, sweet and rich, so good you’ll wish you had a sweet potato pie to go with them.

Cinnamon Rolls

27 February 2016: You won’t find better desserts anywhere unless you go online to Trinity’s Custom Dessert Studio where Malaika’s handiwork is on display.  Her repertoire of postprandial deliciousness includes such Southern favorites as sweet potato pie and red velvet cake, the latter being the best we’ve ever had.  Sinfully rich and sweet, it’s also ogle-worthy (but won’t be for long as you’ll want to dive into it quickly).  The cinnamon rolls are the size of bricks and as tasty as any you’ll find in the Duke City.  The operative word here is “cinnamon” and there’s plenty of it though not nearly as much as there is icing.  The interplay between the two is as harmonious as music performed by Musica Antigua de Albuquerque

Red Velvet Cake

One visit to Bucket Headz probably won’t cure you of any ill perceptions you may have about Southern cuisine, but this is not a restaurant to which one visit will suffice.  Bucket Headz could easily become a habit.

Bucket Headz
1218 San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2016
1st VISIT: 27 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Red Velvet Cake, Cinnamon Roll, Catfish, Fried Macaroni and Cheese Balls, Fried Pickles, Fried Okra, Big Boy Sandwich, Red Beans and Rice, Hoe Cakes, Gumbo, Oxtail, Sweet Potatoes, Chicken Fried Steak, Buffalo Garlic Chicken Wings, Pork Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese, Church Punch

Bucket Headz Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Omira Bar & Grill – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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Omira Brazilian Steakhouse on the southeast intersection of Cerrillos and St. Michael’s in Santa Fe

HOLLY: I can’t believe you’ve never taken anybody here before.
JERRY: Well, I’m not really that much of a meat eater.
HOLLY: . . . You don’t eat meat? Are you one of those. . .
JERRY: Well, no, I’m not one of those.
~ Seinfeld

“One of those!”  Around my Chicago born and bred Kim and her family, that term fits me to a tee.  As with many Midwestern families, my in-laws are rapacious carnivores.  Their dining room table is a pantheon of pork and a bastion of beef.  It’s a Bacchanalian feast of multitudinous meats.  Similarly, meals at Windy City  restaurants are veritable meat-fests where diners unleash their innermost meat-eating-machine.  In the city’s chophouses (what every other city calls a steakhouse) heavily marbled flesh is displayed under glass, trophies of edible excess.  Is it any wonder the city’s defining foods include humongous Italian beef sandwiches, slabs of Flintstonian-sized ribs and steaks the size of manhole covers. 

This obsession with meat isn’t solely a Midwestern phenomena.  People throughout the world are eating more meat and fat than ever with worldwide meat consumption expected to double by 2020.  In the western world alone, the per capita consumption of meat is a whopping 176 pounds–or about what my in-laws eat in a week.  When they decide to lose weight or live more healthily, meat mongers eschew carbs and happily sink their teeth into…even more meat, a much-appreciated dietary byproduct of the most popular meat-centric diets in the world.

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The massive Salad Bar at Omira

Carnivores–and those among us who, unlike Jerry Seinfeld, are “one of those”–can dine together in perfect harmony, eating side-by-side at veritable meatatoriums known as Brazilian Churrascarias.  Strictly speaking, calling a Churrascaria a Brazilian “steakhouse” is a misnomer in that you don’t plop yourself down and order a slab of beef (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Instead, you pay a fixed price (preco fixo) for the decadent indulgence of sitting down for bounteous portions of magnificent meats and full access to a sumptuous salad bar.  For carnivores, this is basically heaven on Earth.  For those among us who are “one of those” there’s still  much to enjoy.

The rodizio service is almost as entertaining as it is indulgent.  Machete-wielding servers channeling their inner gaucho traverse the room with oversized skewers of freshly prepared meats.  They risk life and limb to appease ravenous carnivores, some of whom would just as soon not wait for the meats to be sliced and apportioned.  On each table, you’ll find a “signaling” apparatus (not wholly unlike the famous bat signal in the campy Batman series) that apprises your server you want more meat.  This carnivorous cavalcade doesn’t end until you turn off the signaling device.

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While the light is on, your server will continue to bring food to your table

Perhaps someday Santa Fe’s resident carnivores will celebrate the summer of 2013 as the “summer of meat,” a tribute to the launch of the Omira Bar & Grill.   While the marquee is subtitled “Brazilian Steakhouse,” Omira is Brazilian only in the spirit and style of the Churrascaria.  Its world-cuisine offerings are more than a tad more sophisticated and of significantly higher quality than at other Churrascarias we’ve frequented while holding to a much appreciated price point.  Within months of opening, the Santa Fe Reporter named Omira one of Santa Fe’s ten best restaurants for 2013, a tremendous accomplishment considering the quality and diversity of the city’s restaurant scene.

Omira is the brainchild of Ziggy Rzig, a Tunisian-born entrepreneur who also owns the Pyramid Cafe, a popular Mediterranean restaurant on Cordova Road.  Ziggy is as hands-on and personable as any restaurant owner we’ve met.  He’s a peripatetic presence at the cavernous Omira, flitting from table-to-table while simultaneously acting as host, server, busboy and all-around ambassador.  The only job he doesn’t do is chef.  That’s the bailiwick of his beauteous bride Sally.  Ziggy credits being actively involved in every facet of day-to-day operation as one of the reasons Omira is able to maintain such high quality at a surprisingly low price point.

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Owner Ziggy Rzig

It’s certainly not the only reason.  Ziggy frequents the farmers’ market to find fresh, local produce where the tremendous variety and seasonal diversity allows for frequent menu changes.  Meats are also sourced locally.  Lamb and pork, both grass-fed, are procured from the Talus Wind Ranch Heritage Meats in Galisteo.  Beef is sourced from 4 Daughters Land & Cattle Company in Los Lunas.  While technically an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) restaurant, the quality at Omira is wholly antithetical to your typical AYCE pantheon of the pig-out.

Ziggy jokes that Omira is named for the Spanish expression “¡O, mira!’” which translates from Spanish to “oh, look” as in “oh, look at all the wonderful food.” (Actually, Omira is a portmanteau for the names of Zigg’s children, Omar and Samira.)  You won’t just look.  You’ll do a double- or triple-take.  As you walk past the front dining room into the larger, main dining room, your eyes will instantly train on a glimmering, glinting steely salad bar, one unlike any salad bar you’ll find in New Mexico.  It’s a veritable cornucopia of freshness, variety and pulchritude.  The burnished salad containers aren’t overfilled with their contents replenished faithfully to ensure freshness and minimize wastage.

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From the salad bar and a bowl of butternut squash soup

If your idea of salad is the anachronistic concept of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and gloppy blue cheese, you’re in for a surprise.  The salads, about two dozen in all, are already prepared for you.  Clearly marked cards are labeled with the names of artistic composed salads: mushrooms in Balsamic vinaigrette, Greek salad, kale salad, Basmati rice, watermelon and cantaloupe in mint dressing, chopped beets and feta, Asian coleslaw and so much more.  If you discern an Asian influence throughout the menu, credit Sally, of Southeast Asian descent. 

There are a number of very pleasant surprises in the salad bar experience though because of the rotating menu, it’s likely some of those we enjoyed most won’t be available in future visits.  Among our early favorites were a butternut squash soup, as warm and comforting as any soup.  It’s a soup with personality, seasoned assertively but not so much that it takes anything away from the flavor of the squash.  The Thai chicken curry is as good as we’ve had at some Thai restaurants.  Bread rolls are yeasty and delicious, perfect for sopping up the curry and soup.

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Egg Rolls

The fried bananas, a popular dish in Malaysia where they’re known as pisang goring, bring together sweet, ripe bananas sheathed in a light batter.  Traditionally a street food favorite, they’re wonderful even without coconut sprinkles or ice cream (hint here). The mushrooms in Balsamic vinegar are only lightly dresses so  as to allow the fleshy fungi to sing with delicious earthiness.  Surprisingly, the freshly-made Caesar salad is as good as you’ll have at fine dining restaurants.  It’s a daily salad bar standard.

If you’re not carnivorously inclined (or you’re “one of those”) you can opt out of the cavalcade of carne altogether and you’ll be perfectly happy (understatement) with the salad bar.  Better still, focus on the salad bar one visit and the meat next time.  Only certified gurgitators will have the caloric overachieving capacity to eat everything they want on both during one visit.  My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott and I certainly tried, but were woefully inadequate for the task.

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At top, Bottom Sirloin Steak; At bottom: Panko Encrusted Pork Sirloin wrapped in Bacon

Though the meats are slow-cooked to bring out the optimum smokiness and delicate flavors of the nicely marbled grass-fed stock, you may quickly find yourself falling behind if you’re still attacking your salad when the parade of meats begins.  Depending on where in the meaty rotation your server (likely Izzy himself) is, you might start with German sausage, a nicely seasoned, not too assertive sausage with a smoky flavor.  Maybe it will be with the crispy egg rolls stuffed with ground beef.  The egg roll plating isn’t only decorative, it’s deliciously functional with swirls of a Sriracha and a soy-Hoisin sauce for your dipping pleasure.

The meat-fest features both bottom sirloin and top sirloin, two distinctly different cuts of beef from a one to two foot section of the cow.  Top sirloin, along with tenderloin, is considered one of the “better” cuts.  From the bottom sirloin comes a personal favorite, the tri-tip.  Both the top and bottom sirloin are flavor-rich though not necessarily as tender as one might think.  The meat with which I fell most in love is the panko-encrusted pork sirloin wrapped in bacon.  Panko, Japanese breadcrumbs, imbue the sweet, tender pork with a delightful crispiness while bacon imbues everything it touches with deliciousness.  For my friend Ryan, it was the Picanha, the most prized cut of meat in Brazil.  Picanha is the cap that sits on top of the top sirloin butt roast.  It’s a wonderfully beefy, magnificently marbled and superbly flavored cut of beef.

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Two chicken hearts and Tokyo style beef

For the intrepid among you (Franzi, I have you in mind here), chicken hearts are not to be missed. Probably closer in flavor to dark meat chicken than to white meat, chicken hearts have a musky offal flavor and impart a slightly metallic aftertaste.  More to the liking of most diners is Tokyo style beef, folded flank steak with the complementary contrasting flavors of soy and teriyaki for savory and sweet notes.  Among carnivores filet mignon is a universal favorite.  Often referred to as “beef tenderloin,” filet mignon is a tender cut resplendent with superb beefy flavor.  The leg of lamb is a moist, tender dark meat with a wonderful flavor and very little of the gaminess for which lamb is renowned.  One commonality among all meats is absolutely impeccable seasoning.  Every dish is served as well as it can possibly be made–an optimum in deliciousness.  You could happily make a meal of any one of the cavalcade of meats, but you’re treated to all of them.  It’s truly a carnivore’s paradise.

There are about a dozen meat offerings on the lunch buffet with filet mignon and leg of lamb added for dinner.  As an intermediary in between meats, Omira serves grilled pineapple sliced tableside.  It’s a good palate cleanser that prevents a meaty overload.  Moreover, it’s the very best grilled pineapple I’ve ever had.  Glazed with a combination of butter, brown sugar and Amaretto, it may remind you of the best pineapple upside down cake you’ve ever had without the cake part.  Seriously, this is one addictive pineapple.  Great fortune smiled upon us during our inaugural visit as the talented Sally had just prepared a loaf of pecan bread, a moist, tender and delicious post-prandial treat.  Other  desserts may be offered when you visit.

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Pecan Bread

For sheer quality and value Omira Bar & Grill may be unmatched in Santa Fe, but it’s certainly no slouch in the department of deliciousness with something for everyone to love–even if you’re “one of those.”

OMIRA BAR & GRILL
1005 South St. Francis Drive
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 780-5483
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 06 December 2014
1st VISIT: 15 December 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$-$$$
BEST BET: Panko Encrusted Pork Loin Wrapped in Bacon, German Sausage, Fusion Dolmas, Egg Rolls, Grilled Pineapple, Top Sirloin, Bottom Sirloin, Filet Mignon, Tokyo Style Beef, Mediterranean Chicken Wrapped in Bacon, Picanha, Lamb Kefta

Omira Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Marcello’s Chophouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Marcello's Chophouse in Albuquerque's Uptown

Marcello’s Chophouse in Albuquerque’s Uptown

Steak–even the word conjures stereotypes of power brokers in suits and ties. There’s just something about sizzling, flame-kissed beef that seems to appeal to the wheelers and dealers and movers and shakers among us. Steak may just be the ultimate power food!  That power is also wielded in the ultimate thumbing of the nose at vegetarians when carnivores emphasize that they didn’t claw their way to the top of the food ladder only to eat vegetables.

Vegetarians may retort that steak is antithetical to a healthful lifestyle. To carnivores, however, it’s not as important that steak may not be good for you as it is that steak is oh so good. Meat lovers emphasize that there is nothing like a perfectly prepared steak!

The Wine Lockers at Marcello's Chophouse

The Wine Lockers at Marcello’s Chophouse

As a 1995 episode of Seinfeld illustrated, steak is also not just a guy thing anymore. When Jerry took a blind date to the Old Homestead Steakhouse, he admitted “I’m not really that much of a meat eater” to which his date replied “You don’t eat meat? Are you one of those…” Questions about his masculinity persisted when she ordered a porterhouse medium rare and Jerry had a salad.

Some of our neighbors take their steak more seriously, by far, than we do. Witness the 1998 suit of Oprah Winfrey under Texas’s “False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products” statute.  America’s multiple-Emmy Award winning host of the highest rated talk show in television history was accused, in essence, of defaming a product fattened for slaughter in the feedlots outside of Amarillo, Texas then served up at the Big Texan Steak Ranch.

Sacrilege! Audrey Hepburn, a paragon of virtue, looks on innocently where only men should dare to tread

Alas, until recent years, the only potential steak related lawsuit contemplated in Albuquerque would have been by Duke City diners forced to choke down the artery-clogging, gristly, weakly flavored mediocrity that passes as steak at a plethora of chain steak restaurants.  Until the past decade or so, Albuquerque’s carnivores didn’t have many options when it came to velvety, buttery textured, nearly sweet, perfectly aged, optimally marbled steak.

Today, our fair city can boast of several steak houses that aren’t just good by Albuquerque standards. Some of the Duke City’s steakhouses would be competitive in larger markets where steak has been king for a long time. The November, 2006 launch of Marcello’s Chophouse may have signaled that this Duke City steakhouse is confidently throwing down the gauntlet and will vie for accolades not just with the locals, but with some of America’s best steak restaurants.

Lobster bisque

Lobster bisque

The appellation “Chophouse” in and of itself means more than just another steakhouse. In cities like Chicago, chophouses are where you find the best prepared slabs of USDA prime bone-in steaks, chops and seafood served in elegant milieus with attentive tableside service amidst classy decor. We’re talking selected, hand-cut on the premises prime steaks served charred and bursting with prime-aged flavor.

Marcello’s Chophouse is the fifth Albuquerque restaurant launched by Frank Marcello, a restaurant impresario responsible for bringing to the Duke City Copeland’s of New Orleans, Zea Rotisserie & Grill, Gruet Grille and the Gruet Steakhouse. Marcello’s Chophouse is the most lavish and upscale of his impressive array of restaurants. At nearly 7,000 square-feet, this swanky anchor tenant of the ABQ Uptown, has already earned several accolades, including an award of excellence from Wine Spectator.  Many Duke City oenophiles (wine aficionados) have even purchased their own wine lockers (pictured above) at Marcello’s. Every time they visit the restaurant, their favorite wines await them at optimum temperature.

Lobster Mac-n-Cheese - a blend of lobster cream, cheese & Maine lobster pieces in a cast iron skillet

Lobster Mac-n-Cheese – a blend of lobster cream, cheese & Maine lobster pieces in a cast iron skillet

The dinner menu is replete with chophouse steaks, bone-in specialties, chops, seafood and so much more. The lunch menu is abbreviated in both menu selections and prices. In fact, only two steaks grace the lunch menu, a seven-ounce petite filet mignon and a four-ounce steak Diane. Not everything on Marcello’s menu is exorbitantly priced. In fact, there are many items on the dinner menu within the easy reach of most price-conscious diners.

The lunch menu features many reasonably priced entrees that–although portioned somewhat smaller than dinner menu entrees–will let you feel like a million bucks without having to spend nearly that much. One dish available on both menus is the extraordinary lobster bisque, a soup which hearkens back to another Seinfeld episode in which Elaine recounts her date with a lawyer. “Yeah, I met this lawyer and we went to dinner. I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada, yada, yada, I never heard from him again.”Jerry rejoined with “but you yada yada’d over the best part” to which Elaine responded “No, I mentioned the bisque.”

Petite Filet Mignon

Petite Filet Mignon

You will never yada yada the lobster bisque at Marcello’s! It is simply one of the most sublime soups in Albuquerque. The soup, a rich and creamy bowl of deliciousness, circumnavigates a solitary reddish-hued lobster claw while other lobster bits are submerged beneath a steamy broth. The soup is ameliorated with brandied Crème fraîche, a high in fat content cream that improves the flavor of anything in which it is used. The lobster is sweet and delicious. Close your eyes and you might think you’re in America’s Northeast where this transcendent decapod swims from cold Atlantic waters practically onto your table.

If the lobster bisque doesn’t sate your lust for lobster, there’s always Marcello’s Lobster Mac-n-Cheese, a blend of lobster cream, cheese and Maine lobster pieces in a cast iron skillet.  This is a rich, adult macaroni and cheese but perhaps too heavily dusted with parmesan, leaving it a bit desiccated. Save for the lobster bits, it’s not quite as good as the Ultimate Mac & Cheese at Chef Jim White’s restaurant (now defunct). Mind you, it’s still very, very good.

Chilled “Really Big” Shrimp with green chile & red chile cocktail sauce

Marcello’s brines its steaks for 24 hours then flash fries them to order at very high temperatures, a technique mastered by few. Have the Lilliputian petite filet for lunch and you’ll be thinking about the “Chophouse Cut,” a 22-ounce bone-in rib eye cut from a slow-roasted prime rib, for dinner.  At three times the size of the petite filet, the bone-in rib eye cut will have to go a ways to match the flavor of its smaller brethren.

The petite filet mignon, a mere seven-ounces, takes a back seat to no steak. Order it prepared at medium and it will arrive to your exacting specifications. That means a crusty exterior redolent with herbs and spices and seared to perfection. It means a slightly pinkish and moist interior replete with flavor.  A great steak requires little or no help other than salt, pepper and garlic, but Marcello’s seasonings are extraordinarily flavorful. They seem to bring out the meat’s inherent flavors and heighten their impact on your taste buds.

Housemade pastrami on sourdough

The petite filet is served with a dinner salad crafted from a mix of greens and very lightly drizzled with a dressing that seems to heighten the greens’ native freshness. You might think a loaf of ciabbata bread might be more appropriate for an Italian restaurant, but somehow it works at Marcello’s. This crispy, fragrant herbaceous loaf is a welcome change from the de rigueur hard crusted breads at other high-end restaurants.

Marcello’s manages to incorporate New Mexico’s official state vegetable in a manner heretofore not seen at other restaurants throughout the Duke City.  I’ve long contended that chile can improve everything it touches (including some desserts) and Marcello’s substantiates this by offering green chile and red chile cocktail sauce with its chilled “Really Big Shrimp” appetizer.  Six jumbo shrimp (an oxymoron if there ever was one) looking more like miniature lobsters are offered with the chile offerings.  The red chile cocktail sauce is especially good with a combination of horseradish bite and red chile piquancy.  The shrimp are fresh with a nice snap to them and none of the mealiness you sometimes find in shrimp cocktails.

New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger with Chophouse Creamed Spinach

Not on Marcello’s daily menu, but perhaps it should be is a housemade pastrami sandwich.  A half-pound of nicely marbled, just smoky enough and perfectly seasoned pastrami is served on thick, lightly toasted sourdough.  The bread is slathered with a Dijonnaise (Dijon mustard blended with mayonnaise) sauce, lettuce and pickles.  Though rye and mustard is normally my preference, this is a surprisingly good sandwich courtesy of the melt-in-your-mouth pastrami sliced into thin ribbons of deliciousness.

One of the challenges in selecting New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail worthy burgers is that many restaurants (even Lotaburger) offer green chile as a side and don’t necessarily have a green chile cheeseburger on their menus.  Marcello’s leaves nothing to chance, calling its offering the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger.  It’s a beefy half-pound behemoth topped with New Mexico green chiles, caramelized onions and a three cheese blend (white Cheddar, Fontina, Monterey Jack).  The green chile is fairly mild, but the three chile blend is terrific.  Normally served with fries, ask for the Chophouse Creamed Spinach instead.  While some creamed spinach dishes have an acerbic aftertaste, this one is rather sweet, the result of a generous sprinkling of anisette and nutmeg.

Frank's Favorite "Bananas for Sundae"

Frank’s Favorite “Bananas for Sundae”

A stunning selection of desserts completes the package. Perhaps in tribute to his Louisiana heritage, Marcello adds his name to only one–Frank’s Favorite “Bananas for Sundae,” a take-off on Bananas Foster. Frank’s favorite just might become your favorite. This dessert features a vertically split banana caramelized with cajeta (a Mexican confection made from goat’s milk) surrounding scoops of chocolate, vanilla and dulce de leche ice creams which are topped with a fresh raspberry compote, chocolate ganache and housemade whipped cream. This is a “died and went to heaven” dessert–sinfully rich, unbelievably delicious and totally terrific. It’s no wonder it’s Frank’s favorite!

One caution about another of Marcello’s dessert offerings–if you’re going to order the chef’s selection of cheesecake, ask for spoons instead of forks because if you’re sharing this postprandial treat, you might stab your companion, so enthusiastic will you be for the next bite.  The cheesecake selections are seasonal.  Summer is apparently the season for milk chocolate cheesecake on a Graham cracker crust paired with white chocolate cheesecake on an Oreo crust drizzled with a dark chocolate ganache.  Shaped more like flan than cheesecake, this delicious duo will leave a memorable impression on your taste buds.

Chef’s Selection of Cheesecake: Milk Chocolate on Graham Cracker Crust and White Chocolate on Oreo Crust Drizzled with Chocolate Ganache.

There’s a strong chance Marcello’s Chophouse may become your favorite steakhouse in Albuquerque. It’s got the pedigree to be successful and the arsenal of deliciousness to win over even the most staunch of critics. It’s steak at its best and oh so much more.

Marcello’s Chophouse
2201 Q Street N.E., Suite 9B
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2012
1st VISIT: 11 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Lobster Mac-n-Cheese, Petite Filet Mignon, Lobster Bisque, New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger, Pastrami Sandwich, Chilled “Really Big Shrimp,” Chef’s Selection of Cheesecake, Frank’s Favorite Bananas for Sundae

Marcello's Chophouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chow’s Asian Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chow's Asian Bistro at the Cottonwood Mall

Chow’s Asian Bistro in the Cottonwood Mall

With but few exceptions, the Duke City’s Chinese restaurants have a boring sameness (perpetuating the stereotype that all Chinese food tastes the same) with an increasing emphasis on super-sized portions of Americanized Chinese food (fried, breaded and candied meats of poor quality).  One of the few Chinese restaurants which does not perpetuate that stereotype is Chow’s Chinese Bistro in Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall which launched in Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall in November, 2005.

Chow’s motto is “gourmet, not buffet.” The Web site promises slight variations in the menu among its restaurants, claiming those variations are suited to the taste buds of the community. That must mean Chow’s patrons like it either very sweet or extremely salty (more on that below).

East meets west at Chow's

East meets west at Chow’s where Anasazi style brickwork coexists harmoniously with Chinese lanterns

Chow’s has been the most popular Chinese restaurant in the City Different (not that there’s much competition) practically since it launched in 1992. Accolades festoon the restaurant’s walls.

2005 was a banner year for the Chow’s restaurant family. Not only was the Cottonwood restaurant launched, but the Santa Fe restaurant was voted one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in America by the Chinese Restaurant News, the only New Mexico based Chinese restaurant to earn that distinction. Chow’s Web site also indicates the restaurant was named among the top 100 Asian restaurants in America by the National Restaurant Association.

At the Cottonwood Mall location, Chow’s “East Meets West” fusion concept applies not only to its non-traditional cuisine, but to the restaurant’s ambience. Exquisite Chaco style stonework melds with Asian art and faux dynastic period vases to form an elegantly appointed setting.

Firecracker Dumplings

The restaurant exudes class with its subdued lighting, attentive service and comfortable, well spaced seating. The Juan Tabo location, while not quite as stylish is also pleasing to the eye.  An inventive, contemporary menu offers an energizing departure from the oh so mundane Chinese cuisine proffered by most Chinese restaurants.

While some items (such as the ubiquitous sweet and sour chicken) are standard fare in America’s Chinese restaurants, an emphasis on presentation is apparent when these dishes are brought to the non-adventurous diners who order them.  Chow’s plating is esthetically pleasing, providing a visual appeal that heightens a diner’s anticipation.

One commonality among some of the appetizers and entrees at Chow’s is the liberal application of sauces, some of which are so cloying that the American Dental Association should take note. Subtlety is not among any of the sauces’ traits. They do make your taste buds take notice–not necessarily in appreciation. Some are wholly lackluster and others dominate the entrees they’re supposed to showcase.

Lemon pepper salmon with tempura shrimp

Lemon pepper salmon with tempura shrimp

When the Cottonwood version of Chow’s first launch, it served ranch style rolls, with an anemic wasabi sesame sauce, a boring misnomer unworthy of the name wasabi. This sauce had the kick of a legless mule.  Despite the boring sauce, the beef, celery and green onions on the spring rolls are delicious, making these spring rolls are first-rate. Fortunately a more taste bud inspiring orange ginger sauce is now served with those excellent spring rolls.

More indicative of the uninspired appetizer sauces is the honey sesame sauce glazing on the honey sesame ribs. There’s no zest whatsoever to that sauce. It’s lifeless and trite.

The restaurant’s two dumpling appetizers are infinitely better. The firecracker dumplings are boiled and stuffed with carrots and ground turkey then topped with a bright green spinach pesto that has a surprising kick.

Marquis Au Chocolat

Marquis Au Chocolat

More deserving of the “firecracker” name are the peek-a-boo dumplings, boiled chicken dumplings in a spicy sauce heavy on soy sauce, scallions and chili. It’s a sauce that livens up even the brown or Jasmine rice.  It’s a sauce that saved a dinner special of lemon pepper salmon with tempura shrimp (pictured at left) served with a coconut lime sauce. While the lemon pepper salmon is just fine, you’re better off discarding the listless sauce and asking for the peek-a-boo sauce.

Some entrees, like the Orange Peel Beef, Dragon Sesame Chicken and even the usually incendiary Kung Pao Chicken are almost exceedingly sweet.  The lacquered duck comes with a boring plum sauce we found so lifeless that we asked for the sweet and sour chili wing ding sauce which at least has some life to it.

An interesting entree variation is Chow’s Coffee Chicken, stir-fried chicken rubbed with French coffee and glossed over heavily with a “sweet spicy sauce.”  When the menu indicates “sweet spicy,” it means mostly sweet. If you find any spice, it will be in accidentally masticating one of the tear-inducing chili peppers used on some entrees.

By now you’ve probably got the picture that Chow’s sauces, especially the sweet ones, aren’t to our liking. When we want sweet, we want dessert. Fortunately Chow’s excels at dessert, but first a momentarily dalliance.

In Chow’s green bean chicken, you’ll find what is conceivably the saltiest dish in Albuquerque. Green beans. Chicken. At any glance, that sounds like a healthy, delicious dish and, in fact, the menu indicates it is the staff’s favorite dish.  Israel has developed technology to desalinate the Dead Sea. It’s very much needed on this entree which is not only replete with salt, but the chief ingredient in the “black beans and brown chili sauce” promised appears to be soy sauce.

As with many Asian restaurants, Chows dessert assembly includes green tea ice cream, but there are better options–such as one of the five different mousse-based desserts.

The Marquise Au Chocolat earns its pedigree with an adult chocolate (translation: mostly dark chocolate) blend of chocolate genoise, chocolate ganache and baked hazelnuts topped with a mini chocolate leaf. It’s a timbale-shaped dessert far less cloying than some of the restaurant’s sauces.

In some respects Chows may remind you of the overwhelmingly popular P.F. Chang’s, but it is far less gaudy and not nearly as boisterous. Like P.F. Chang’s, Chow’s does excel in presenting a visually appealing menu seemingly dominated by Americanized Chinese food sweetened and sauced to American tastes.

Chow’s Asian Bistro
Cottonwood Mall G-217
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 6 July 2008
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 16
COST: $$
BEST BET: Coffee Chicken, Firecracker Dumplings, Peek-A-Boo Dumplings

Chow's Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Swedish Bakery – Chicago, Illinois (CLOSED on February 28, 2017)

In New Mexico, which is very proud of its “tri-cultural” heritage, the contributions of Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglo-Americans are manifest in its languages, architecture, cuisine and cultural events. While New Mexico has certainly not shunned multi-culturalism, the lack of concentrated communities of residents from other heritages has meant those heritages aren’t celebrated as prominently, if at all. As much as my wife, a very proud Swede, has come to love New Mexico and the contributions of its tri-cultural population, she misses the availability of Swedish cuisine, products and the melodic, sing-song lilt of a Swedish accent.

Kim’s maternal grandparents immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s via Ryker’s Island. They settled in Chicago because of its considerable Swedish presence extending well back into the 19th century. The predominantly Swedish community of Andersonville, established in the 19th century, bids us Välkommen!” during many of our visits. Andersonville has been the home, since the late 1920s, of the Swedish Bakery, the ultimate Swedish neighborhood sweet shop and purveyor of the exquisite pastries, cakes and breads with which she grew up.

The amazing aromas of freshly baked products at the Swedish Bakery are such a potent medium for conjuring up memories of her childhood that my Kim can’t help but reminisce fondly of days long gone when such fragrances wafted from her grandmother’s kitchen. Watching her at the Swedish Bakery reminds me of the wide-eyed children who won a visit to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I’d also be disingenuous if I didn’t admit those aromas didn’t linger on my olfactory memories, too.

As enticing as those aromas are, the visual treat of ogling the bakery’s products under glass display cases provides an irresistible urge to sample some of everything: cakes; logs, rolls, slices; petits fours; pastries; loaves and bunds; coffeecakes; sweet rolls; donuts; pies and seasonal or holiday items. The Swedish Bakery is a veritable panacea for remedying the malaise we have when missing great Swedish foods.

Although the Swedish Bakery has an orderly process for filling orders, the queues of eager diners are usually long, particularly preceding the holiday season. You’re well advised to call in your order the day before so it will be available for pick up. If you do, however, you’re apt to miss having friendly discussions with fellow patrons, many of whom will be speaking with the unmistakable cadence of Swedish Americans. Despite the characteristically long lines, no one seems to lose patience as they wait their turn.

A must-have during a typical visit is limpa, a dense, moist Swedish rye bread flavored usually flavored with anise seed and molasses (and often cardamom and orange peel). This fragrant bread is perfect for toast, buttered lightly or slathered with your favorite jelly or marmalade. It’s hard to find limpa in the United States outside of Swedish communities like Andersonville. We covet this rare treat.

Another of our favorites is the fabulous cardamom coffee cake. Cardamom is an intense spice about which can be said that a little goes a long way. At the Swedish Bakery, the cardamom and cinnamon are perfectly proportioned to complement one another. This has become my very favorite coffee cake in the world.

Swedish Bakery
5348 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL
(773) 561-8919
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 22 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Cardamom Coffee Cake, Limpa, Sweet Rolls, Donuts