Conrad’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

There was a time when the name “Hilton” didn’t conjure up images of a ditzy blonde airhead whose celebrity is based largely on promiscuity. Well, maybe not. More than 50 years ago, another ditzy blonde, Zsa Zsa Gabor honeymooned at La Posada in Albuquerque with her then husband Conrad Hilton, a New Mexico native and founder of the historic downtown hotel in which Conrad’s is housed.

Since the hotel’s launch in 1939, the guest registry at La Posada de Albuquerque has been signed by a veritable who’s who in celebrity and politics. Most come for the hotel’s Spanish colonial charm, opulent ambience and impeccable service, but I’ll bet some return for the innovative Yucatan Peninsula Region cuisine at Conrad’s, the hotel’s signature restaurant.

After imbibing the lobby’s lavish accouterments and proceeding to your table, you’ll be hard-pressed to select from among the menu’s platos pequenos (small plates or appetizers), enseladas (salads), sopas (soups) and platos grande (big plates or entrees), the descriptions of which might leave your mouth watering. Luckily the wait staff is on the spot to satiate your hunger slightly with a basket of warm bread and a small plate of Spanish olives. A good start, particularly on a cold autumn or winter night is the sopa de frijoles negros, a braised black bean soup that will warm the cockles of your heart and bring a smile to your face.

If you’re a fan of pork tenderloin, an absolute must have is the chuleta de puerco con mostaza, cafe y fruta seca (spicy mustard and coffee seasoned pork tenderloin steaks with sun-dried apricots and mango in a sweet chile sauce). The mélange of seemingly discordant ingredients created wonderful harmony on our taste buds.

Conrad’s offers two types of paella–the more traditional Spanish one with seafood (lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari) and a Latin version that includes sausage, pork and chicken as well as mussels, shrimp and clams. A dinner serving of paella was enough for two meals, however, if it had been good enough, I would have consumed it in one (an indictment more likely of my not liking paella than it is of the dish itself).

Conrad’s lunch menu is also dotted with poetic sounding plates–like the torta de Jaiba, a spicy blue crab salad on a crisp corn tortilla with tomato, avocado, chiles and a chipotle mayonnaise that enlivens the entire salad. The Tijuana’s Burrito de Cerdo with shredded griddle pork, guacamole, queso fresco, diced tomato and shredded Romaine is one of the best burritos in New Mexico. The smoky pork flavor might remind you of the northern New Mexico matanza (open pit preparation of a butchered hog) tradition–even if you’ve never been to one. More flavorful pork there may not exist anywhere.

125 2nd Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Pork Burrito, Chuleta de Puerco, Paella

Chilepeños – Sandia Park, New Mexico (CLOSED)

How many of us are old enough to remember the amusement park test of strength in which testosterone laden men slam an oversized hammer on a target in an effort to propel an object up a pole to ring a bell at the top? Ringing the bell labeled you a powerhouse while propelling the object to a lesser level attached a label corresponding to your relative strength (such as wimp, wuss, milksop or worse).

At Chilepeos, red and green chile scales label the heat of the day’s chile. The scale’s labels are wimpy, gringo, macho and muy hombre (much man). Far too many New Mexican restaurants serve chile deserving the wimpy or gringo label. As such we were very much looking forward to sampling the chile at Chilepeos, a chile two very reliable sources assured me would get our attention.

As is often the case with restaurant recommendations, Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head and the restaurant recommended to us had an off night. Such was the case during our inaugural visit to Chilepeos. Not only was the chile not particularly piquant (gringo at best), it was drastically over-salted (a problem plaguing many New Mexican restaurants). Despite Murphy, we genuinely liked our meals and agreed the chile was flavorful and delicious. How good then must Chilepeos be when it’s on its game?

My entree, Nanas enchiladas–layered corn tortillas and beef stacked with red chile and cheddar cheese and topped with an egg–was quite good. Better were the rellenos, two large whole green chiles stuffed with cheddar cheese, dipped in batter, deep fried then smothered in chile and topped with melted cheddar cheese. The salsa was reminiscent of the salsa at Sadie’s although not quite as hot. We had two bowls full and were tempted to ask for a third. The sopaipillas were light, flaky cloud-like puffs of dough–as good as they could be made.

Chilepeos is one of the triumvirate of New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City area owned by The Perea/Gutierrez family, a restaurant lineage that brought us Perea’s in Albuquerque and Seferino’s in Rio Rancho.

12467 North Highway 14
Sandia Park, NM
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2005
COST: $$

California Witches – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

California Witches, “where you can taste California” is the brainchild of two Korean born California transplants who happen to like witches–not the Wiccans who practice ritual observances of seasonal and life cycles or the repulsive old women credited with usually malignant supernatural powers. They assured us they don’t practice the arcane arts, but like “white” magic as practiced by television characters such as Sabrina. Our hope was that they were practitioners of culinary magic. Chef Rachel Park owns three other California Witches restaurants in Los Angeles so she and her owner cousin must be doing something right.

A great start to a meal at Witches is one of the 20 boba teas and slushes. The bottom of each glass is lined with tapioca globules you suck up through an oversized straw. Those globules have the consistency of gummy bears that have been soaking in liquid (which they have). Both the green apple and mango slushes were refreshing, delicious and will make for a great summer drink.

Witches’ menu is unconventional–not quite Asian, not quite American, but as eclectic as the state of California. That menu includes salads, curries, cutlets, pastas, pesto, snow cones and parfait. A surprisingly good pasta dish is the carbonara with rich heavy cream and bacon.

If you are a curry connoisseur, the curried hot pot seafood cheese with rice dish is an interesting option. It’s a hodgepodge of ingredients–two types of cheese, potatoes, carrots, green beans, rice, green lip mussels, scallops and shrimp–served with a Japanese curry (not as sweet as Thai curry or as pungent as Indian curry). I expressed such an admiration for that curry that the owner brought me a gravy bowlful with which to finish off the remaining rice.

Complementary palate cleansing pickled ginger, pearlescent onions and bean sprouts accompanied our meals and were reminiscent of the small vegetable dishes often served with Korean meals. California Witches has begun to cast its spell on Albuquerque diners and should ensnare many of them with meals that have delicious, if not magical properties.

California Witches
7202 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT:12 February 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Boba Slush (Green Apple & Mango); Curried Hot Pot Seafood Cheese With Rice

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