Cafe Milano – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

My original introduction to this review became yet another vitriolic rage against corporate chains, a passionate spiel I added to my ratings page. What prompted that diatribe was our discovery of Cafe Milano (formerly Rosa’s Italian Kitchen), yet another wonderful mom and pop restaurant competing for hungry diners with middling chains who deign to offer food which can’t grace their mediocre menus unless it goes through rigorous usability testing (can you say human lab rats).

There I go again–railing against chains when I should be on the rooftop singing the praises of Cafe Milano, a “breath of fresh air” Italian restaurant in a city polluted with the likes of Zio’s and Bucca Di Beppo.

Affable proprietors Rick and Rosa Matthews and their wonderful restaurant are the antithesis of the chain restaurants and their artificially sweetened hospitality. With good reason to be very proud of their inaugural restaurant venture, the Matthews greet all patrons with a genuine warmth you can’t fabricate. Being convivial is great, but what will bring us back is the great food–reasonably priced victuals in family sized portions.

The toasted ravioli appetizer–lightly breaded ravioli deep fried and served with a tangy, tomato rich marinara sauce–won us over quickly. We nearly fought for the last one.

The spaghetti with meat sauce is first rate on its own, but treat yourself and ask for meatballs and Italian sausage on the side. Both (especially the Italian sausage) were very good to excellent.

The best way to maximize your dining experience is by ordering the “build your own combination platter” which can be had with your choice of three or four items. If the chicken parmigiana, lasagna and manicotti are any indication, you can’t go wrong no matter what you order.

The manicotti is topped with a three blend Italian cheese combination that will have you crooning “Oh Solo Mio” (oh, only mine). The lasagna is even better if that’s possible. With its luscious layers of pasta, ricotta cheese, Italian sausage crumbles, homemade Italian meat sauce and that marvelous three blend Italian cheese combination, it was the best traditional lasagna we’ve had in the Duke City.

We were thoroughly engorged, wonderfully satiated and wholly won over after our first visit, but best of all we had leftovers enough for dinner the following night.

Cafe Milano is one of those rare gems for which I’m grateful not to follow the line of Pavlovian diners to the corporate cabal.

Cafe Milano
500 Marquette, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Toasted Ravioli, Manicotti, Sausage, Meatballs

Peppers – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

True to the restaurant’s name, Peppers chefs play tribute to chiles and peppers so ubiquitous to New Mexico cooking. In many of their creations, they incorporate New Mexico green and red chile, chipotle, Chimayo red chile, Habañero, Serrano, Pepperonici and red and green bell peppers (a chile icon denotes all items in which chiles or peppers are used in the preparation). Despite the often clever use of chiles and peppers, Marriot’s signature restaurant suffers from inconsistency that has kept us from patronizing this Pueblo themed restaurant more often.

Among the items we’ve enjoyed most is the hot spinach and artichoke dip served in a sour dough bowl with red, blue and gold tortilla chips. The salads are bounteous and the salad dressings are innovative, particularly the thick honey mustard dressing. Peppers version of this party favorite is among the best we’ve found in Albuquerque. Ditto for the crème brulee, a wonderfully light dessert done exceptionally well. Peppers specialties include a steak and enchiladas combination in which an eight ounce sirloin and three enchiladas fill your plate. The enchiladas, in particular, are pretty good in a city where everyone knows good enchiladas.

Not so good are the fajitas which–contrary to conventions–are made with prime rib not skirt steak. Worse yet, instead of fajita marinade, an au jus is used and it just doesn’t complement the accompanying peppers and onions. Also below par is the Spanish rice which appears bathed in cumin, an accursed spice which does nothing but detract from the native flavor of chile based entrees. Chops craving carnivores might enjoy the apple brandy pork chop, a bone-in 12 ounce pork loin chop marinated and fire grilled with a caramelized onion, apple, brandy demi-glace (which unfortunately has the consistency of gravy.

Peppers is a warm, inviting restaurant whose Pueblo theme includes formidable vigas from Jemez, chile ristras, pottery and bronze cast Kachinas.

Courtyard by Marriot
5151 Journal Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 823-1919

LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip, Salsa & Chips, Crème Brulee

Fil-Am Fast Food Mart – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The pursuit of the secret to a happy life has led people to metaphysical, psychological and religious paths. Where it really should have taken them is to a tiny Albuquerque restaurant in a nondescript shopping center where the secret to happy living is posted for one and all to see. The elusive secret consists of only six simple steps: (1) Come to Fil-Am Fast Food Mart; (2) Check out mouth watering menu; (3) Select items that appeal to your tastes; (4) Pay and leave tip; (5) Leave happy; and (6) For best results, repeat tomorrow and the day after, and the day after, and the day after. I can vouch for one thing–dining at Albuquerque’s only Filipino restaurant will definitely make you happy.

Launched in November, 2004, Fil-Am (shortened version of Filipino-American) Fast Food Mart may sound like competition for 7-11 stores, but it’s so much more. Austere to a fault, Fil-Am includes a small market with Filipino products, but it’s the undersized cafe that will be the huge attraction, particularly because of its proximity to Kirtland Air Force Base. Place your order at a counter for one of the six combination plates (rotating daily) and in minutes, your order will be filled from a steam table supporting trays in which your meal is kept warm.

One combination includes three links of longoniza, the wonderful spicy sweet Filipino sausage along with steamed rice, stir fried vegetables and a soup. The longoniza is a real treat any savvy sausage sage would savor. Another great combination features pork pancit noodles, lumpia (Filipino egg roll) and a grilled pork stick, all of which were delicious.

Filipino cuisine as we know it today is a multi-layered expression of culture and history with various cultural influences: from the Indonesians and Malays, the first foreign settlers on Philippine shores; to the Spaniards who colonized the Philippines for almost 500 years; to Americans and Japanese who took over from the Spaniards; and to Arabs and Indians with whom Filipinos traded long before Magellan landed on the islands.

Considering Filipinos absolutely eat with the gusto of a people who live to eat, it’s a wonder Filipino cuisine isn’t revered in the same vein as Thai or Chinese food. If Fil-Am Fast Food Mart has anything to say about it, someday Duke City residents just might.

Fil-Am Fast Food Mart
600 Louisiana, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 December 2004
BEST BET: Pork Pancit Noodles, Pork Sausage, Lumpia

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