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Loyola’s Family Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The etymology of the name Loyola obviously comes from the word “loyal” and with this popular restaurant, that just makes sense. A framed placard on one wall proclaims “Mi restaurante es su casa” and you just might feel that way considering how well you’re treated at this expansive restaurant on the eastern fringes of Nob Hill. It’s no wonder the parking lot is always packed.

Loyola’s Family Restaurant is an anachronism, a throw-back to the days when Route 66 (now Central Avenue) bisected the city of Albuquerque, then a more intimate, close-knit city. In some ways Loyola’s is a relic because its genuinely friendly service and wholesome food truly elicits return visits and the type of patron loyalty that has all but evaporated with the onslaught of corporate chains. Loyola’s is the type of restaurant where your coffee is never allowed to cool down too much because faithful servers replenish it at about the time your cup is half full. That’s how attentive the wait staff is, but their secret is being attentive and personable without being intrusive and hovering.

Okay, I’ve established that Loyola’s is a friendly place, but what about the food? The menu has something for everybody–from American comfort foods such as pork chops (delicious), fried chicken and roast beef to hamburgers, sandwiches, New Mexican entrees and a breakfast known by faithful throngs to be among the Duke City’s very best.

Tom’s special burrito certainly earns its sobriquet. A flour tortilla filled with roast beef, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sour cream and topped with cheddar cheese and red or green chile, it’s among the best burritos in town. The red chile has a New Mexico sunset red/orange hue and while not particularly piquant has a memorable taste leaving you wanting another dosage. If piquant is what you’re after, a better choice is the breakfast burrito covered generously with a green chile sauce that has an endorphin stimulating heat you’ll love. With chorizo, this burrito is a terrific eye-opener. Loyola’s salsa is a pureed hot sauce (emphasis on hot) with a sunset red/orange color and addicting properties.

American breakfast favorites include a pork chop and eggs combination that appears to be among the most popular order choices. You can request the eggs any way you want them and invariably, they’re prepared just the way you order them. The pork chops are thinly cut, but meaty and delicious. Loyola’s pancake short-stack is also top tier, among the very best in the city.

An intriguing menu, delicious food, great service–these are the things that make Loyola’s patrons loyal. On the way out the door, make sure to pick up a few biscochitos. At only 25 cents a piece, they’re a bargain and yet another reason to return.

Loyola’s Family Restaurant
4500 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tom’s Special Burrito, Pork Chops, Breakfast Burrito

Pizzeria Bianco – Phoenix, Arizona

To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, aficionado Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, taking a representative pulse of the best from among thousands of pizza purveyors. His terrific tome, Pizza A Slice of Heaven, provides a definitive guide to a much-loved product that in its elemental form is simplicity itself–bread, cheese and whatever toppings a pizzaioli artisan might care to add. To the surprise of many, Levine declared the best pizza in America (and the world, for that matter) to be made in the unlikely town of Phoenix, Arizona where the intensely brilliant Chris Bianco plies his trade as no other.

Before a business trip to Phoenix in 2002, I learned that a writer for Travel & Leisure magazine definitively proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco as “the best place in America for pizza.” I also read that in its 1998 edition, Zagat’s respondents rated Pizzeria Bianco the top restaurant in Phoenix with a lofty rating of 29. Despite these proclamations, I couldn’t accept that a pizza could possibly be that good. The impunity of all these blasphemers to place on the loftiest pedestal, a pizza crafted in the culinary wasteland of Phoenix, Arizona of all places!

As if validating a Pygmalian effect (a self-fulfilling prophecy that essentially says you get what you expect), I wasn’t as enamored during my inaugural visit to Pizzeria Bianco as its legion of fans–fans I thought to be deluded (here I was, Bob Newhart in a world of Daryls and Larrys). Not only did the spangled restaurant fail to live up to its billing, it wasn’t, in my estimation, even as good as some local wood-oven pizzerias.

My disappointment started with an appetizer called speidini in which skewers of Prosciutto de Parma are wrapped around Italian Fontina (a straw-colored Italian cheese with a soft flesh and a mild, delicate flavor) and served warm. It was much too salty for my taste, a consequence of very strong (and very authentic) Prosciutto. This antecedent to my pizza was accompanied by a wonderful crusty bread served with extra virgin olive oil.

The pizza which introduced me to the magic of Chris Bianco was the “Wise Guy,” a twelve-inch, thin-crusted, white (no tomato sauce) pizza with pecan wood roasted onion, house-smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage. Only the mozzarella made an impression thanks to its creaminess and pliable texture. Perhaps an unconscious desire not to succumb to mass hysteria would still not let me accept that perhaps, I was truly tasting greatness–yet, inexplicably this pizza left an indelible impression on my mind and I knew a return visit was inevitable.

Three years elapsed before my second visit, but rather than approach it with an admittedly preset opinion, I was determined that tabula rasa (a blank slate), not a desire to prove everyone else wrong, would dictate my ultimate impression. Count me among the believers! My second meal was an epiphany–a revelation that Pizzeria Bianco just might be the best pizza restaurant in the world. For my penance, I should say 5,000 “Hail Chris Biancos” as I sorrowfully rue the wasted opportunities for multiple visits.

My turnaround started with a salad of homemade mozzarella, local tomato and basil with extra virgin olive oil. The mozzarella was smoked to absolute perfection with a taste that left me wondering if I had just experienced the best mozzarella in my 47 years of fromage fanaticism. The flavor combination of fresh basil, garden fresh tomatoes and that trademark virgin olive oil made for a tremendous antecedent to what I hoped would be a better pizza than I first experienced in 2002.

Rather than risk another Wise Guy, I opted for the Rosa, another white pizza–a gem made with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary and Arizona pistachios. Let me say unequivocally that it was one of the two or three best pizzas I’ve ever had–at least the equal of some the very best pizzas of my youth in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The crust, although thin, is substantial enough to support the high-quality ingredients with which Bianco tops his creations. It is crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside–a masterful canvas for a masterpiece by a true maestro.

During both my visits, I arrived within seconds after the restaurant opened and within minutes, the small red-brick structure (built in 1929) had people waiting to come in. Situated in the historic Heritage and Science square, Pizzeria Bianco is not only loved by the masses, but by this once skeptical “doubting Thomas” who has seen the light of a wood-burning oven which crafts the best pizza in America, perhaps the world.

623 East Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ
(602) 258-8300

LATEST VISIT: 27 October 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Rosa; Mozzarella Salad

Cornish Pasty Company – Tempe, Arizona

There’s a European joke that uses stereotypes to deride British cooking, the most maligned cuisine in the world culinary stage. As the joke goes, in the European conception of heaven, the French are the chefs, the British are the police, the Germans are the engineers, and so forth, while in the European conception of Hell, the Germans are the police, the French are the engineers and the British are the chefs. Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than British cuisine.

While fish and chips are probably what most Americans would answer if asked what constitutes traditional British food, the truth is British food is as diverse as its many regions. During the three plus years we lived in England, we made the most of our opportunities to explore the mystical land of mystery and lore and experienced not only much of its renown pub grub, but classic high-end cuisine that is as good as any in America. At the pubs, we consumed many a ploughman’s lunch (consisting of crusty bread, various pickles, a wedge or two of local cheese and sometimes salad) and ate steak and kidney pudding (with a suet crust) like locally indigenous personnel (a MASH term that has remained on my lexicon).

During many a weekend sojourn to the appropriately sobriqueted “Land’s End” at the extreme southwestern tip of the British mainland, we dined on Cornish pasties (pronounced pass-tee), a type of pie originating in Cornwall in the 1200s. Baked by wives and mothers of tin miners when tin mining was prosperous, pasties were formed into a semicircular shape with a crimped edge along one side so the miners could hold onto them while eating. One end of the Pasty would usually contain a sweet filling which the wives would mark or initial so the miner wouldn’t eat his dessert first, while the other end would contain meat and vegetables. Today, traditional Cornish Pasties are filled with steak, potatoes, onions and swede (rutabaga).

The concept of a simple miner’s pie served in cosmopolitan Phoenix, Arizona might sound antithetical, but it’s a concept that appears to be taking off well. The Cornish Pasty Company is the brainchild of Dean Thomas, a native of Gunnislake, Cornwall, in England, who came to America five years ago to seek his fortune. His restaurant is situated on University Boulevard not far from Arizona State University, an institute of higher learning in which students want their dollars to stretch far and their meal portions to sate them for a long time. At the Cornish Pasty Company, a hearty and delicious meal can be had for a meager pittance.

The restaurant’s interior, dimly lit during evening hours, is striking with a long bar in which to imbibe imported libations, tiny tables and photographs on the black (or grey) walls of miners plying their arduous trade. Loud rock music (real rock, not the cacophonous noise played on the radio today) blares from a speaker system while the intoxicating aromas of sauces and ingredients waft gently toward incoming patrons who will be challenged to select just which pasty to partake of.

Aside from the traditional pasty (steak, potato, onion and rutabaga), a lengthy listing of options is available for patrons of all persuasions–Italian, Hispanic, Indian, Cajun, Greek, vegetarian and more. Shaped somewhat like a deflated football (the American kind), one pasty will make a meal even for the most robust of eaters. Aside from salads, there are no appetizers or sides on the menu. Several non-pasty sandwiches made on homemade bread and served with chips (the American kind) are available for the meat and potatoes Joes who don’t want to venture out of their sandwich comfort zone.

If “The Porky” is any indication, the Cornish Pasty Company will be the site of many future visits. This picture-perfect pasty featured a baked bread pocket stuffed with pork, sage, onion, apple and potato served with a side of red wine gravy. In true miner tradition, the pasty is meant to be eaten with your hands much as you’d eat a sub sandwich. What makes The Porky so tasty is the pronounced taste of sage which is liberally sprinkled on the other ingredients. The uniquely aromatic and fresh seasoning melds well with the other ingredients to fashion a memorable meal.

The menu also includes two dessert options, one of which you opt for if bananas are your fruit choice of the day and the other for diners who subscribe to the “apple a day” edict. The banana is but one component that makes the Banafee Pie a tantalizing sweet-tooth option. A Graham cracker crust is topped with caramel, sliced banana and whipped cream to create a memorable finish to a remarkable dining experience. The Cornish Pasty Company is here to stay!

Cornish Pasty Company
960 West University
Tempe, AZ
(480) 894-6261

LATEST VISIT: 25 October 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Porky; Banafee Pie