El Bandido Hideaway Del Valle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Armed with Andrea Lin’s terrific Duke City Fix review of the El Bandido restaurant on Central, we set off on a Friday night to visit a branch of a restaurant at which we hadn’t dined since 1999. El Bandido Hideaway del Valle, we figured was affiliated with the Central Avenue restaurant renown for its creative advertising (stationing a sign carrying man wearing a Mexican wrestling mask on the busy median). Alas, while the affiliation no longer exists, the North Valley restaurant’s name remains unchanged. That, as it turns out, was perfectly okay because we uncovered a real find.

Some people have a passion for their culinary craft. Not all of them have the opportunity or desire to ply their craft to quasi-celebrity status at restaurants anointed by reviewers as the places to dine. In Javier Rocha we uncovered just such an artist. A chef for more than 15 years, Javier attended to us personally while simultaneously feeding a room full of boisterous barflies. Thankfully the dining room was segregated from the combination dance hall and bar area in which a mostly Latino crowd grew increasingly louder as the evening wore on and the alcohol exerted its influence.

Chef Rocha is a perfectionist, but in this milieu, he’s like a Michelangelo extracting alchemy out of marble at a flea market. Rocha’s marble equivalent is in the ingredients he uses. He cuts his own sirloin steak himself, a choice cut aged for 21 days before serving. His salads feature Romaine lettuce, not only because iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value, but because he wants his salads to be a cut above. He creates his own vinaigrette dressings, using olive oil instead of the more traditional vegetable oils other restaurants use.

You won’t find pre-formed patties on his hamburgers; he uses only fresh ground beef which he shapes himself. Give him two days notice, he says, and he can prepare anything you want, even sushi. Despite his prodigious talents in the kitchen, his menu is somewhat limited given his clientele and the restaurant’s location. When we found out this Bandido had no ties to the Central Avenue location, Rocha told us confidently that our meals would be free if we didn’t like what he served. No surprise to him, we liked everything.

Start your meal with his salsa and chips and you’ll gain an immediate appreciation for his skill. The pico del gallo-like salsa marries tomato, white onion, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro and lime, a union of fresh ingredients which resonate with taste. The chips were warm and crispy with just the right amount of salt. The salads include fresh tomato, thinly sliced carrots and your choice of dressing (ask for the cilantro vinaigrette). I don’t usually order or like chimichangas, but Rocha talked me into it with his passionate description of what turned out to be one of the best chimis I’ve had. A fried tortilla encased shredded beef, Romaine lettuce, beans, yellow onions (for their sweetness) and tomatoes, a combination which sprung to life on my taste buds. Kim had carne asada which was tender, well seasoned and absolutely delicious.

Chef Rocha appears perfectly happy to ply his craft simply and without fanfare and while it’s unlikely he’ll gain the celebrity accorded other chefs, he’s got the talent to compete and that seems to be enough for him.

El Bandido Hideaway Del Valle
1119 Candelaria, NW
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 24 June 2005
BEST BET: Salsa; Carne Asada; Chimichanga

The Blue Dragon – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In truth, the Blue Dragon is a coffee house in the style of New Orleans or San Francisco more so than it is a Cajun restaurant, but since it serves better Cajun food than anyone else in Albuquerque, Cajun is as good a category as any in which to place it.

This Dragon serves up the best muffalatta in town, by far–just the right amount of Italian olive salad on four slices of bread (two slices if you wimp out and have only a half muffalatta) with Genoa salami, ham, baby Swiss cheese and provolone. The Dragon doesn’t use the traditional muffalatta round bread, substituting instead with Po’ Boy French bread made by the Paris Bakery just minutes away. During two visits the restaurant was out of Po’ Boy bread but the substitutes–chile cheese bread and sourdough bread–were fabulous.

Want an interesting pizza? Try the muffalatta pizza, replete with olive salad just dripping with flavor (literally). The Mediterranean pizza with Kalamata olives and feta cheese is also quite savory. Pizza can be ordered with a traditional red sauce (marinara with fresh basil, Italian herbs), a Cajun pesto sauce (pesto glaze sun dried tomato, red chile) or the white glaze sauce (garlic and herb infused). These vegan sauces, like much of the menu, emphasize healthy and fresh ingredients with an organic touch.

Several eye-opening breakfast pizzas grace the menu as well. The list of pizza toppings allows you to be as creative as your imagination will allow you to be with such exotic, non-traditional pizza choices as andouille sausage (the restaurant truly has a Cajun soul).

When on the menu, the gumbo is positively brimming with flavor and is much better than the one served at local chain Cajun restaurants. The tomato basil soup, made with crushed tomatoes and fresh basil is one of those soups you crave on cold, winter days, but it’s great any time.

The Blue Dragon features all natural soft drinks made in New Mexico including the refreshingly delicious Carrizozo cherry drink served cold over ice and several smoothies. Among the smoothies, the aptly named “Sun Salutation” is an invigorating mix of papaya, pineapple, honeydew melon with a pinch of cardamom thrown in.

The Blue Dragon is a quaint establishment frequented by ultra left-leaning students (who appreciate the wi fi capabilities) of all ages and disciplines (me, I study restaurants). The ambience is reminiscent of Maulpin’s Tales of the City. Even though eating here makes us feel old beyond our ears, conservative beyond our political bent and parental beyond our status, we love the food and the ambiance.

The Blue Dragon
1517 Girard, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 June 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Muffeletta, Carrizozo Cherry Drink

Typhoon – Portland, Oregon (CLOSED)

Among restaurant critics the term “edible art” is so overused it’s become trite, but it really is an apt description for the incredible Thai cuisine crafted by chef Bo Kline. Hailed by Bon Appetit as “one of the hottest chefs in America,” Kline has become somewhat of a regional impresario with six successful Typhoon restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

Kline’s restaurant’s menu is inspired by the humble pushcarts of the peasants and the opulent palaces of her native Thailand where an incomparably delicious balance of sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors in all their glorious combinations, subtleties and exotic explosiveness has been perfected over the millennia. At Typhoon, traditional dishes share the spotlight with cutting-edge nouvelle cuisine in an inviting setting that features a muted patina, mirrored walls and busts of Buddha (in Thailand, there are more Buddha statues than its 60 million plus inhabitants).

Intoxicating aromas tease your olfactory senses while your eyes are visually aroused by a menu unlike any I’ve seen in the Southwest. Introduce all your senses to Miang Kum, a rare Thai peasant dish which requires tactile dexterity as you wrap or roll (children of the 60s will be well acquainted with the technique) a pinch of toasted coconut, shallot, ginger, lime, peanut, dried shrimp and Thai chili in a spinach leaf which you then dip into Kline’s signature sauce and pop in your mouth to a medley of eye-opening and mouth-watering flavors. In her outstanding book Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl provides a recipe for this wonderful street food sold in every Thai market. She calls Miang Kum “a wonderful little snack to feed your lover.”

Tantalize your taste buds with a crisp fried Ahi tuna spring roll which features slightly seared tuna wrapped in Menlo and seaweed, given texture with sesame seeds then made scintillatingly piquant with a wasabi paste the color of lime. Given Kline’s propensity for authenticity and quality, you can ensure it’s real wasabi, not the doctored horse radish most often served in Asian restaurants throughout America.

At Typhoon, only the finest cuts of meat, the freshest ingredients and the most succulent seafood is served. Consequently you pay more, but every bite is worth it. An entree of Royal Duck Curry, for example, includes tender duck, crisp pineapple chunks, vine fresh grapes and tiny currant tomatoes, all of which swim in a glorious red curry. This culinary work of art left an indelible impression on each of my 10,000 taste buds. It was pungent, sweet, salty and savory all at once–so good I didn’t touch the jasmine rice.

Portland’s spirited restaurant scene has become a recognized gastronomic Mecca for chefs and gourmands alike–and Typhoon is a big reason for that. With an artistic presentation, bountiful portions and an adventurous menu, it’s a restaurant as intense as the tropical weather system for which it is named.

410 SW Broadway
Portland, OR
(503) 224-8285
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 13 June 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Ahi Spring Rolls; Miang Kum; Royal Duck Curry