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Marley’s Central Texas BBQ – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Marley’s Central Texas BBQ on the Northeast Corner of Montgomery and San Pedro

In Central Texas, Barbecue is more than a way to cook meat -
it’s a way of life, a path to salvation, and
a sure-fire way to start an argument at the dinner table.”
~Central Texas Barbecue

Texans hold certain truths to be self-evident: everything is bigger (and better) in Texas, the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team (who can argue with that), George Strait is the king of country music, Nolan Ryan was the greatest baseball pitcher who ever lived and the best barbecue in the universe is pit-smoked along the Central Texas Barbecue Belt.  Although Texas may be “like a whole other country,” the rolling plains of Central Texas are like a whole other world when it comes to barbecue. 

That’s not to say pit masters at Texas’s three other barbecue regions–East Texas, South Texas and West Texas–don’t prepare great barbecue or that they don’t regard barbecue as practically a religion.  In fact, pit masters from each Texas barbecue region will defend the honor and bragging rights of their respective regions with the same vigor shown in 1836 by a small group of volunteer soldiers at The Alamo.

The Texas proud interior

While conceding that there is great barbecue to be found throughout the Lone Star state, purists and aficionados almost unanimously agree that the state’s best barbecue is to be found in Central Texas with Austin as the region’s epicenter and pockets of barbecue excellence nonpareil found in such small towns as Lexington, Lockhart, Driftwood and Taylor.  Historically, it makes sense.  The Central Texas region was settled in the 19th century by German, Polish and Czech immigrants carrying forward their old country traditions for making sausage and smoking meats.

Central Texas barbecue has a number of distinguishing hallmarks.  First and foremost, beef is king.  That means moist, smoky brisket.  Secondly, barbecue means spice and seasoning rubs (heavy on salt and pepper), not sauces.  Some of the best bastions of barbecue serve their meats naked–no sauce.  Others will give you sauce on the side if you request it.   If you’ve got to have it, sauce is typically tomato-based complemented by vinegar and Worcestershire.  Thirdly, barbecue means low and slow cooking over Texas post oak wood or pecan woods, both of which impart mild smokiness.  For best results, the wood is “cured” for nine to twelve months which creates very little soot when it burns.

Sliced Brisket and Elgin Sausage with Bacon Potato Salad and Coleslaw

June, 2014, saw the launch in Albuquerque of a new barbecue joint brandishing the name “Marley’s Central Texas Barbecue.”  Located on the northeast corner of Montgomery and San Pedro (at the former home of the beloved Tickles & Snooks Wings & Things), Marley’s has a pedigree which promises authenticity.  It starts with pit master Gene Woodson who cut his barbecue teeth in the Texas Hill Country.  Woodson lovingly tends to the smoker, slowly smoking meats anywhere from 15 to 18 hours over post oak obtained from an Austin area source.

Restaurant employees sport shirts emblazoned with the slogan “we smoke the good stuff.”  For the most part, the “good stuff” comes from the Lone Star state.  The restaurant’s Black Angus beef is sourced from trusted Texas suppliers and sausage comes from Elgin, the self-proclaimed “Sausage Capital of Texas.”  Even pecans for the restaurant’s signature dessert, pecan pie, come from another central Texas city, San Saba which purports to be the “Pecan Capital of the World.”

Pork Spare Ribs and Elgin Sausage with Beans and Bacon Potato Salad

Texans treat their flag with such reverence, respect and esteem that it’s not uncommon to see the state flag used to accent a home’s decor and furnishings.  The flag of the great state of Texas has a place of prominence in the dining room.  Other Texas accents include looped lassos and cowboy accoutrements on the walls as well as other stereotypical trappings.  One of my favorite Texas accents is Big Red soda which, not coincidentally, is bottled in Austin.  I believe it’s a Texas state law that Big Red should be served with barbecue.

The menu is relatively small.  Meats–sliced brisket, chopped brisket, Elgin sausage (regular or “hot”), pork spare ribs and pulled pork–are available by the half-pound.  Sandwiches and plates are also available.  Sides include pinto beans with fresh herbs and New Mexico green chiles, coleslaw and bacon potato salad.  Your best bet is a combination plate, your choice of any two meats served with two sides.  Plates include sweet Vidalia onions, pickles and slices of white bread (often considered a veggie in barbecue circles).

Chopped Brisket Sandwich with Coleslaw

3 August 2014: The sliced brisket is moist and tender with a faint smokiness, a very pronounced smoke ring and a good amount of marbling around the edges (off-putting to some, absolutely necessary for others).  It doesn’t have the thick, peppery crust characteristic of some legendary Central Texas barbecue establishments, but for taste, tenderness and appearance, it’s a very good brisket.  Procured from the world-famous Southside Market in Elgin, Texas, both the regular and “hot” Elgin sausage live up to their reputation.  They’re succulent, smoky and delicious with a natural casing that’s easy to bite through, but not cut with the plastic utensils provided. 

28 August 2014: There’s yet another way to enjoy brisket at Marley’s and that’s in the form of a chopped brisket sandwich.  When the menu reads “chopped” it’s not “chopped” as in the Carolina style “hack” job done to pork.  In this case, the brisket is cut into very small cubes.  If anything, the brisket seems even more tender prepared in this fashion and a caramelization not as apparent on sliced brisket is readily discernible with the chopped brisket.  This sandwich is served with onions and pickles.

Brisket Tacos

28 August 2014: The newest (as of August 28th) way in which Marley’s showcases its brisket is in tacos. An order of brisket tacos yields three beauteous tacos made on housemade corn tortillas.  The tacos are engorged with chopped brisket and a pico de gallo.  The corn tortillas are quite good and are formidable enough to hold up against the moistness and volume of the brisket and pico.  The brisket is moist, tender and smoky.  Alas, the pico de gallo (tomatoes and green peppers) is rather insipid, lacking any heat.  Fortunately the barbecue sauce has just a tad of heat to lend.

3 August 2014: Although beef may be king in Texas, Marley’s pork spare ribs are no jesters.  While the menu describes them as “fall-off-the-bone tender,” they have just a bit of “give” on them as you pull them off the bone.  That’s the way it should be.  Far too often, fall-off-the-bone denotes overdone.  The ribs are tender and juicy with the spice and seasonings rub more pronounced (you’ll discern a bit more sweetness) than on the other meats.  None of the meats needed sauce to make them palatable, but Marley’s sauce is good for dipping bread into.   It’s sweet, vinegary and has a pleasing bite.

Pecan Pie

3 August 2014: Sides are no afterthought.  The bacon potato salad, made with in-house cured bacon and a spice blend with personality, is very different from most potato salad served in New Mexico which tends to have a surfeit of mayo or salad cream.  Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, called the potato salad the “closest to my Texas grandmother’s I’ve ever had.”  We agreed the coleslaw was wonderful. Even with New Mexico green chile, the pinto beans have the flavor of Texas beans with sundry spices which detract from the natural flavors of the Land of Enchantment’s “other” official state vegetables (pinto beans and chile).

3 August 2014: As a proud native New Mexican well acquainted and enamored with our state’s fantastic pecan crop, try as I might it was difficult to remain impartial about our pecans, especially when a Texas city has the audacity to declare itself “the pecan capitol of the world.”  Alas, the pecan pie was rich, decadent and absolutely mouth-watering.  Nary a disparaging word can be said about it even though it wasn’t made with New Mexican pecans. 

Having visited about a month before I did, Shawne apprised me about an ordering process I might otherwise have found confusing.  Shawne observed that “everything about this place says, “order and pay at the counter, seat yourself and get your drinks, eat and throw away your trash afterward.”   Instead, a very pleasant and friendly wait staff will take care of your every need–even refilling your Big Red though the soda fountain dispenser is mere feet away.

Marley’s is the next best thing to eating at a barbecue restaurant in the Texas Hill Country of Central Texas. Within the air conditioned confines of Marley’s, we were especially grateful not to be waiting in line for two hours for one of Austin’s famous pilgrimage barbecue restaurants to open even as oppressive humidity sapped our energy and mosquitoes the size of helicopters consumed us as eagerly as we would the barbecue.  Give me New Mexico enchantment and Marley’s any day.

Marley’s Central Texas BBQ
6219 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 639-5962
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 August 2014
1st VISIT: 3 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Big Red, Pecan Pie, Sliced Brisket, Pork Spare Ribs, Elgin Sausage, Bacon Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Brisket Tacos, Chopped Brisket Sandwich

Marley's Central Texas BBQ on Urbanspoon

The Alley Cantina – Taos, New Mexico

The Alley Cantina just off the Plaza in Taos

In April, 2014, Gallup conducted a poll to determine state pride across the United States.  More precisely, the Gallup poll surveyed people in all 50 states to find out what percentage of residents say their state was the very best or one of the best places to live.  Sadly, New Mexico was rated the six worst state to live with only 28 percent of respondents indicating the Land of Enchantment was one of the best places to live. New Mexico was the only state among the bottom ten either not bordering or not East of the Mississippi River.

In recent years it seems every quality of life survey conducted lists New Mexico near the very bottom where we compete with Mississippi and Arkansas for “worst” in virtually every aspect of daily life.  So, what does it say about New Mexico when it is rated number one…that’s first…in the auspicious category of being “absolutely absorbed by the abnormal?”  To arrive at this rating, the Moveto Real Estate Blog actually used Facebook data to determine what percentage of each state’s population had an interest in the paranormal, psychic phenomena, conspiracy and shadow organizations and mythical creatures and mysterious beings.

The pet-friendly patio at the Alley Cantina

Research indicated that largely because of the mysterious UFO crash and subsequent cover-up in Roswell back in 1947, New Mexicans are more apt to believe in conspiracies, cover-ups and the Illuminati.  We, it seems, are also quite fascinated by cryptids (mythical creatures, mysterious beings, Chupacabra, etc) and psychic activity.  Only one state’s citizenry had a greater interest in the paranormal which one dictionary defines as “denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.”

Some of the state’s most active paranormal activity revolves around haunted Taos.  The aptly named The Ghosts of Taos blog believes ghosts are “as much a part of the landscape as the towering hollyhocks, dusty petunias, bancos, portals and adobe walls of Taos Plaza.”  One of the most famous of the Taos ghosts is Teresina Bent, daughter of the first governor of the newly acquired New Mexican Territory who was murdered during an uprising in Taos.  Teresina is said to haunt the Alley Cantina just north of the Taos Plaza.  Numerous sightings and incidents have been reported by both employees and guests.

Coconut Chicken Fingers with Apricot-Ginger Sauce and Celery Sticks

The Alley Cantina actually sits in the oldest building in Taos, a structure built in the 16th Century by Pueblo Indians.  The building initially served as an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail and was later occupied by the Spanish government.  In 1846, it became the office of the ill-fated Governor Bent whose family owned the building for several years.  The property became a restaurant in 1944 under the name “El Patio” and has continuously operated since then, becoming the Alley Cantina in 1997.  

In actuality, the entire building isn’t 400 years old, but large portions of the building remain from the original structure, including the south wall of the kitchen and the east wall of the kitchen and bathrooms (the tiniest bathrooms of any restaurant I’ve reviewed).   Despite the Lilliputian facilities (not enough room for you and for  Teserina Bent), the Alley Cantina is a beloved gathering place in Taos, earning several “Best of Taos County People’s Choice Awards.”  The menu is renowned for its New Mexican food (cumin alert: it’s on every item of New Mexican cuisine) as well as its barbecue and surprisingly, its fish and chips.

Green chile Cheeseburger with Fries

The Alley Cantina may also be known someday for its coconut chicken fingers served with an apricot-ginger dipping sauce and celery sticks.  The chicken fingers are somewhat thickly battered, a crispy exterior belying the moist, tender chicken inside.  While the crust has a pronounced coconut flavor, the generously plated chicken fingers (each one almost as large as the bathrooms) are elevated by the apricot-ginger dipping sauce.  It’s a sauce which should be bottled and sold.  Its personality is assertive without being overwhelming, tangy without being tart and aromatic without being perfume-like. 

Though it didn’t make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, the Alley’s version of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct burger is well worth ordering.  The canvas for this behemoth green chile cheeseburger  is a sesame seed bun with housemade qualities (our server couldn’t tell us who made it).  The burger is constructed with a rather sizable beef patty topped with chopped green chiles blanketed by your choice of Cheddar-Jack or Provolone cheese.  It’s a very good burger even though the green chile lacked the piquancy New Mexicans crave…or perhaps the piquancy was obfuscated by the thickness of the beef patty and the other ingredients (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles).  The burger is served with hand-cut fries.

Fish and Chips

It’s rather rare to find fish and chips in New Mexico described as “famous” as the ones at the Alley are.  As has been discussed on this blog, fish and chips in New Mexico are wholly unlike fish and chips in Great Britain where they’re made best.  The Alley’s fish and chips are, in many ways, a complete antithesis of those I enjoyed by the boatful in England.  First, they’re made from Pacific cod as opposed to Atlantic caught fish.  Secondly, they’re battered (sheathed is a better descriptor) rather thickly–so much so that malt vinegar won’t penetrate until you cut through the breading and expose the succulent white flesh.  That’s when you discover a pretty tasty, light and flaky fish that is surprisingly enjoyable. 

Perhaps if Gallup had conducted its poll at the Alley Cantina, respondents would have been more inclined to show their state pride.  Enjoying good food at a fun, pet-friendly patio would do that for you.

The Alley Cantina
121 Teresina Lane
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-2121
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish and Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Coconut Chicken Fingers

Alley Cantina on Urbanspoon

Whole Hog Cafe – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

Whole Hog in Albuquerque

While the etymology of the expression “whole hog” appears to be American, its progenitor is actually an English slang word.  Americans in the new world employed the slang use of hog as a word for dime, intending the term to mean “spend the entire coin at once.”  The word hog had been previously used in the Mother Country as slang for a shilling and came from the depiction of a hog on one side of the English coin.

To barbecue fanatics, however, the term “whole hog” can only mean one thing–the whole hog category in Memphis in May, the annual world barbecue championships in Memphis, Tennessee, an event which has been called the “Superbowl of Swine.”  If you win the whole hog category in Memphis, you have every right to call yourself the very best in the world.  It means you’ve mastered ribs, pulled pork and sausage–virtually snout to tail.

The trophy room

When we saw a restaurant on Cerrillos Road billing itself as the “Whole Hog Cafe,” we wondered if it was an audacious pretender to the pinnacle of pork or the real deal.  The restaurant’s trademark image of a portly porker subtitled “World Championship BBQ” cued us in to the fact that its ‘cue just might have the porcine pedigree to call itself Whole Hog.

Sure enough, the Whole Hog Cafe and Catering Company, which competes in Memphis in May as the “Southern Gentlemen’s Culinary Society” earned first place in the 2002 Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship. It has also earned walls full of awards in premier pork events throughout the country. Memphis in May awards alone include the 2002 world championship, first place in the whole hog category and second place in the ribs category. In the millennium year, they also earned second place in the ribs category at Memphis.

Two of the three Memphis in May championships earned in 2002

Two of the three Memphis in May championships earned in 2002

Based out of Arkansas, the Whole Hog Cafe is but one of five restaurants listed in Fodor’s Travel Guides as “Don’t Miss” as you travel through the Razorback state.  Aside from the original restaurant in Little Rock and satellites in Arkansas, only  Santa Fe,  Albuquerque (as of December, 2007),  Cherry Hill (New Jersey) and Springfield (Missouri) can boast of a Whole Hog Cafe, all licensed franchises of the original.  The Santa Fe restaurant launched in the summer of 2006 and has been pulling ‘em in like the pulled pork on the menu.

True to the restaurant’s name, pork–porcine perfection Memphis style–is the specialty of the Whole Hog Cafe, but that’s certainly not all you’ll find.  Whole Hog also offers chicken and beef brisket you wouldn’t be ashamed to serve in Texas where beef is king.  The restaurant isn’t a slouch at sides either, offering a number of complementary dishes you’ll enjoy.

The essentials

One of the essentials Texans and Southerners order with their barbecue is Big Red soda, a bright red cream soda with effervescence and personality.  It’s a beverage tailor-made for barbecue.  The other essentials are already at your table: a roll of paper towels (you’ll be using up several of them) and a six pack of barbecue sauces, each numbered.  There’s another sauce, but you have to request it at the order counter where you’ll be cautioned that the “Volcano” sauce is enjoyed at your own risk.  It’s pretty incendiary stuff.

Sauce number one is sweet and mild with a molasses flavor.  Sauce number two is a traditional tomato and vinegar sauce and is slightly tangy and acidic.  Sauce number three is a spicier version of sauce number two.  The fourth sauce is more traditionally Southern and features vinegar and spices.  The fifth sauce is sweet with a heavy molasses flavor.  It is practically lacquered on when applied to baby back ribs.  The sixth sauce is reminiscent of the sauce you’d find in the Carolinas with a basis of rich mustard and vinegar.  It’s better than some of the best mustard-based sauce we’ve had in the Southeastern states.

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

Purists will tell you that great barbecue doesn’t need sauce if it’s redolent with smoke and dry rub spices.  The Whole Hog’s meats certainly don’t need sauces, but it’s fun and adventurous to experiment with various sauce and meat combinations.   After an April, 2014 trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I couldn’t get enough mustard and vinegar-based sauces.  Sauces, like meats, are a matter of personal preference. 

So are sandwiches.  Unless you request otherwise, Whole Hog sandwiches are topped with a sweet coleslaw.  This isn’t just Memphis style barbecue, it’s the way barbecue is prepared in Arkansas.  It’s the way former president Clinton loved his barbecue as depicted in a photograph near the restaurant’s entrance.  Sandwiches come in two sizes–regular and jumbo.  Each is abundantly packed with juicy, flavorful and fork-tender meat–either pulled pork, beef brisket, pulled chicken or pork loin.  Each is smoked to perfection for fifteen hours after a delicate application of dry-rub spices.

A half rack of ribs

A half rack of ribs

The pulled pork sandwich is something special.  Shredded, smoky bits of pulled pork marry with the sweet and tangy coleslaw and the sauce of your choosing to form a two-fisted, mouth-watering sandwich you’ll remember long afterward.  The pork is so full-bodied, you can almost imagine it as a carne adovada.  For being a Memphis style barbecue restaurant, the Whole Hog would do Texas proud with its rendition of a beef brisket sandwich replete with fork-tender sliced beef.

The most prodigious plate on the menu is fittingly called The Whole Hog Platter.  Large enough to feed a small family, it includes a triumvirate of smoked meats: pulled pork, beef brisket and baby back ribs (four bones) along with three sides–beans, potato salad, coleslaw and a dinner roll.  The ribs can’t be describe as “fall of the bone” tender which isn’t a bad thing as sometimes that means they’re overdone.  The meat does come off the bone rather cleanly and easily with minimal effort.  The ribs are meaty, tender and smoky.

The Whole Hog Platter

The beef brisket and pulled pork are both redolent with spice and smoke.  They’re tender and moist, the perfect vehicles for any of the sauces if you’re in a saucy mood.  Whole Hog’s pulled pork and beef brisket are the type I refer to as Ivory Snow in that they’re 99 and 44/100 percent pure.  You won’t find any fatty or sinewy meat here, but that type of meat is exactly what people love about restaurants such as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City.  Whole Hog’s barbecue also doesn’t give you a whole lot of smoke, merely enough of a hint to leave your mirthful, another attribute of outstanding barbecue.

The half chicken plate is a paragon of poultry perfection, a panacea for patients suffering from (or enjoying) Alektorophilia.    Within a half chicken, you’ll find both white meat and dark meat all within a thigh, breast, wing and leg.  Mildly flavored and not as smoky as other meats, it nonetheless features flavor which can’t be cooped up.  If you must insist on a sauce, might I suggest the number six, a rich mustard and vinegar sauce reminiscent of the sauces served in the Carolinas.

Smoked Chicken with a cucumber salad

The menu features only a few desserts: brownies, cookies and banana pudding.  The latter is what the great South is famous for and a good choice.  It comes in a small bowl and the portion size isn’t quite big enough for two to share.  The banana pudding is served cool, but not enough for your teeth to chatter.  The vanilla wafers are certainly more assertive than you might be used to.

Santa Fe is one of America’s very best restaurant towns, but it isn’t known for barbecue.  In recent years only the Cowgirl BBQ & Western Grill has seen much success as a barbecue restaurant.  Successive years (2006 and 2007) saw the launch of two barbecue restaurants–Whole Hog Cafe and Josh’s Barbecue (reopened in 2010 as The Ranch House)–which might put Santa Fe on the barbecue map.  It’s much closer than Memphis.

Banana Pudding

Whole Hog Cafe
9880 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-323-1688
Web Site
LATEST VISIT:  26 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jumbo Pulled Pork Sandwich with Coleslaw, Jumbo Pork Loin Sandwich, Babyback Ribs, Baked Beans

Whole Hog Cafe on Urbanspoon