Joe’s Real BBQ – Gilbert, Arizona

No ordinary Joe is this, critics would have you believe. Instead, they insist, this is one of the best 59 restaurants in the Phoenix area (Phoenix magazine, 2002). Located in a 1929 brick building that saw its “hay day” in the golden age of agricultural Arizona, it retains the charm that helps make downtown Gilbert a popular destination. A 1948 John Deere tractor holds a position of honor in the restaurant’s dining room and might remind you of the opening sequence of Green Acres (a popular 1960s television comedy) in which Oliver Wendell Douglas bounced up and down on his chugging tractor as he surveyed his worse for wear farm.

Joe’s menu features large selections of meat, each cooked “low and slow” over pecan logs. The closer you draw to the restaurant, the more the enticing aromas enrapt your taste buds and olfactory senses. By the time you’ve parked your car and queued up to order, you’re likely going to be drooling (which presents an interesting ordering challenge). That’s how alluring the fragrant bouquets emanating from the restaurant’s smokers are.

A wonderful introduction to Joe’s meats is the BBQ sampler plate with two sides. The sampler includes over 3/4 pounds of ribs, chicken, pork and a slice of Texas toast. The pork ribs are moist and tender–not quite fall off the bone quality, but as good as you’ll find anywhere. The shredded pork and beef brisket are even better choices, each imbued with a tenderness made possible only through slow preparation at low temperatures. The sauce is slightly sweet and vinegary and has a tangy spiciness that sneaks up on you like a wonderful birthday surprise.

Among the sides, the baked beans are extraordinary. Comprised of kidney, lima and Navy beans and amalgamated with sausage, chicken and beef, they are worth a visit to Joe’s on their own merit. Joe’s homemade “real” root beer is available on tap and is quite good, albeit not nearly as hearty as the adult root beer served at Albuquerque’s Route 66 Malt Shop.

Joe’s Real BBQ
301 North Gilbert Road
Gilbert, AZ
(480) 503-3805

LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pecan Smoked Ribs; Baked Beans

Casa Grande Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America and serves as the most impressive remnant left by the Hohokam (those who are gone) culture. In many ways, Albuquerque’s Casa Grande restaurant may be a remnant, too–albeit, a remnant of restaurants which prepare unadulterated New Mexican food made to order with the realization that tourists really might want to try authentically piquant and seasoned food as the locals would prepare it.

More than most restaurants in Albuquerque, particularly those in the Old Town area, Casa Grande does prepare meals that taste as if your own abuela might have made them. It doesn’t insult tourists by serving them the Anglciized concoctions proffered at the chains of pseudo Mexican restaurants in their own cities.

A hearty bowl of green chile, for example, maintains the olfactory arousing aroma of chile roasted on a comal. Ameliorated with well seasoned hamburger, the green chile is among the city’s very best. It’s exceptional on its own or on enchiladas.

You certainly want all your olfactory receptors working optimally when you bite into the beef burrito or beef enchiladas with red chile. It’s a chile you can respect–not hot enough to singe your tongue, but perfectly piquant so that you can also enjoy the beef. Alas, sometimes that chile’s great taste is detracted from because of extraneous chile seeds.

Speaking of beef, make sure to order the well seasoned tacos with your meal as they are also among the best in town.

If you’re not necessarily in the mood for New Mexican food, Casa Grande has a pretty extensive menu of American entrees, including some of the best restaurant made fried chicken we’ve had in New Mexico (which has nothing on the Deep South in terms of preparing great chicken).

The salsa has the distinct flavor of cilantro, but in relatively subtle quantities. It’s a perfect prelude to an excellent meal in a restaurant we passed by often. My thanks to fellow Chowhound and friend Steve Coleman for recommending the “big house” to me.

Casa Grande Restaurant
2424 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Homemade Green Chile, Beef Burrito; Fried Chicken; Green Chile Enchiladas

Nouveau Noodles – Cedar Crest, New Mexico

In the west, it’s generally accepted that the human tongue can discern only four different tastes and that all tastes in the dining experience are combinations of those four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese have long believed that the human tongue possesses a fifth taste sensation–one that can detect pungent foods.  Chinese postulate that each of the five taste sensations corresponds to one of nature’s five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.

Dine at Nouveau Noodles and you’ll be convinced that there are at least five taste sensations and that they’re all present in each and every savory morsel of the innovative Asian fusion dishes masterfully crafted by chef Robert Griego.

Griego’s restaurant, a 2003 entrant into the Duke City area dining scene, features cuisine with an inventive big city sophistication and cachet served within the confines of a small town edifice reminiscent of a train car.

Fabulous would be a good word for describing the mango chutney chicken egg rolls with pickled ginger and an orange-chile dipping sauce.  These egg rolls would stand out on their own, but that sauce elevates them to a stratospheric level where they would find great company in the spring rolls (matchstick veggies and lettuce wrapped in a rice wrapper and served with an apricot ginger sauce).

Also extraordinary are the lightly battered and tempura fried vegetables served with a goat cheese dipping sauce.  The calamari ranks among the very best in the Albuquerque area.  Like all great appetizers, these two will heighten your anticipation for things to come.

A most worthy successor to those delicious antecedents is the Nouveau Duck L’Orange, described on the menu as “spicy braised duck gone tropical.”  A mélange of Mandarin orange, pineapple, mushrooms, and water chestnuts in a sesame butter sauce with soba noodles, it is infused with sensational flavors that will tantalize your taste buds and possibly give you pause to ponder that je ne sais quoi ingredient so hauntingly subtle.  We determined it to be five spice powder, a seasoning used frequently in Chinese dishes, and which supposedly embodies each of the five tastes in Chinese cooking.  If duck isn’t your thing, an outstanding orange beef entrée is also available.

On our third visit, rather than ordering off the menu, I asked Robert to surprise me and he exceeded all expectations with a red chile encrusted tuna in a green chile sauce with assorted fresh vegetables.  It was easily one of the best pieces of fish I’ve had in New Mexico–but not the best fish I’ve had at Nouveau Noodles.

That distinction would have to go to of all things, an appetizer–the amazing seared Ahi tuna and seaweed Timbale (sauced food molded in a straight-sided metal form and unmolded directly onto a plate) with greens, pickled red onion, sesame seaweed and soba noodles with an unbelievable wasabi crema.  Your eyes may water not only because of the wasabi’s tear inducing heat, but from the realization that you are tasting greatness.

For a complete Ahi experience, have as your main entree, the Spicy Tuna Salad–Ahi tuna marinated in a spicy Vietnamese sauce served rare (or seared) over greens in an incredible apricot ginger sauce and topped with fresh seaweed.  The piquant burn of the Vietnamese sauce is cut by just the right amount of rice vinegar and the tangy ginger sauce.  It’s a sensational salad.

If the drunken beef mushroom soup imbued with Merlot and sherry or a black bean and molasses soup are any indication, the Soup Nazi would goose-step as quickly as possible to Nouveau Noodles.

There’s no surcease to quality cuisine with the desserts, particularly the sublimely moist and luscious apricot bread pudding which is of New Orleans quality and the ginger flan (alas, no longer on the menu) which melds seemingly discordant ingredients in a preternatural way.  Also available are several cheesecake offerings created by the Cheesecake Factory.

Nouveau Noodles
12216 North 14
Tijeras, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 March 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Apricot Bread Pudding, Mango Chutney Chicken Egg Rolls, Nouveau Duck L’Orange, Spicy Tuna Salad, Drunken Mushroom Soup