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Ay Caramba – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ay Caramba!  That tired old Spanish expression was part of American pop culture long before Bart Simpson popularized its usage on episodes of The Simpsons animated television series.  The expression translates to “confound it!” or maybe “Holy Cow” and is generally used to register surprise.  You can almost imagine the Mexican equivalent of Robin, the Boy Wonder of Batman fame exclaiming “Ay Caramba” as he and his crime-fighting partner stumble onto yet another perilous plight.  

My hopes were that I’d be exclaiming “Ay Caramba” at how great the food is at this mom-and-pop restaurant which launched in 2005.  After all, my friend and colleague Steve Coleman has a relatively high opinion of the restaurant’s “sister” restaurant in Canutillo, Texas, a restaurant owned by the brother of Albuquerque’s Ay Caramba.  It appears good cooking runs in the family.

Ay Caramba’s menu is replete with many traditional favorites of northern Mexico as well as the wonderful mariscos found along Mexico’s coastal seaways…but Ay Caramba!…the menu doesn’t include Ceviche, one of the items that defines Mexican seafood.

Complementary salsa arrives at your table shortly after you do.  The jalapeno and roasted tomato salsa makes sparse use of cilantro and cumin, two overused spices which sometimes detract from the salsa’s inherent flavor.  The chips are thin but robust enough to scoop up the salsa.  Expect to consume two bowlfuls before your entrees arrive (that’s saying the salsa is excellent not that the service is slow).

The beverage bounty includes traditional Mexican aguas frescas including horchata, the beverage made from ground-up rice, sugar and cinnamon.  Ay Caramba’s version isn’t as cereal sweet as you might find at other Mexican restaurants, but it’s quite refreshing.  

Hoping to duplicate the incomparable flavor and magical properties of seafood marinated and “cooked” in lime juices, I ordered Ay Caramba’s plate of three tostadas con camarones (shrimp tostadas) with three limes.  The magic just wasn’t there.  The shrimp is of perfect texture (not rubbery or flaccid) and delicious in its own right, but when you’ve got Ceviche on your mind, there just isn’t a worthy substitute.  

Carnivores will enjoy the pork tamales bathed in red chile.  The masa isn’t so thick it dominates the pork and the chile is an ameliorant, not an overly prominent flavor.

Business is slow at this southwest heights restaurant, hopefully a sign that Albuquerque diners have yet to discover it and nothing else.  

Ay Caramba
5555 Zuni, S.E. #24
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $
BEST BET: Tostadas con Camarones, Salsa, Tamales

El Paragua – Española, New Mexico

El Paragua Restaurant in Espanola

El Paragua Restaurant in Espanola

If small businesses are the backbone of American commerce, then the good old-fashioned lemonade stand is the spinal cord.”  That sagacious metaphor (for which I unfortunately cannot take credit) is an apt description for how El Paragua transcended its humble beginnings to become one of the culinary crown jewels of Northern New Mexico.

In 1958, the Atencio brothers, two precocious entrepreneurs growing up in the enchanting Española valley did the old-fashioned lemonade stand one better.  They built a stand in which they sold their mother’s tacos and tamales.  The stand’s overhanging roof provided respite from the rain, hence the name “El Paragua” or “the umbrella.”  By 1965, the Atencio boys’ business was booming and the family home was transformed into a sit-down restaurant in which hungry patrons could partake of all of Mama Atencio’s culinary magic.

Today El Paragua is a dining destination that has achieved worldwide acclaim.  Dr. N Scott Momaday, the UNM educated (Bachelor’s degree) Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a glowing review for the New York Times.  The restaurant’s walls are papered with reviews from such industry standard publications as Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Sunset magazine as well as numerous newspapers.

El Paragua’s decor combines the varying influences of the traditional Hispanic culture unique to northern New Mexico, but you might also swear you’re dining in old Mexico.  That means an eclectic mix of eye-catching brickerbrack strewn throughout the capacious restaurant’s several dining rooms.  In one of those dining rooms, the bases of the cloth covered tables were constructed of old treadle-type Singer sewing machines.  The ceilings were fashioned of heavy wooden beams and the dark, alluring ambience is of stone and wood.  The floors are red-tiled while multi-hued, hand-painted Saltillo tile trimmings accentuate the walls on which are also hung vintage family photographs and Catholic iconography.

Despite the aforementioned trappings, once your eyes have adjusted to the dimly lit front room, they will probably train instantly on the stately, multi-trunked cottonwood that grows through the restaurant’s roof.  That imposing tree extends upward for fifty feet or more–still providing an umbrella of shade for El Parasol, the taco stand next door.

You won’t be seated long before a basket of complementary low-salt chips (thin and crisp) and a bowl of fiery, Christmassy (red and green) jalapeno-based salsa is brought to your table.  The salsa is replenished faithfully and despite more than a hint of cilantro, is quite good.  Expect to consume two or three bowls before your entrees are served.

The menu is unlike that of other New Mexican restaurants.  It’s more than an eclectic mix of American, Mexican and New Mexican items and includes a surprising array of mariscos (Mexican seafood) and steak.  The steak selections includes Churrasco Argentino, cooked in a green herb salsa chimichurri and served for two on a hot brazier.  Steaks and fish (try the pan-fried breaded trout almondine) are grilled over a mesquite-wood fire.  For less meaty fare, the lime-basted chicken with apple sauce is a delicious option.

The menu’s selection of New Mexican food is incomparable.  Authentic New Mexican treasures (such as menudo) and variations (such as chorizo enchiladas) on those treasures abound.  The best way to sample the restaurant’s savory New Mexican fare is by ordering a combination plate which includes a tamale, enchilada, taco, carne adovada, refried beans and rice.  The shredded beef taco is the same one you’d get next door at El Parasol.  Everything on the combination plate save for the carne adovada (too much cilantro) is absolutely delicious.

It’s easy to see why the carnitas are a popular favorite.  The chunks of pork marinated with grilled onions and tomatoes are delicious bite-sized pieces of some of the very best carnitas you’ll find in New Mexico.

The complementary sopaipillas are light, flaky and huge, maybe the largest sopaipillas we’ve seen.  Despite their prolific size, they form perfect, accommodating pockets for honey or the restaurant’s house-made apricot preserves.

If you’re a caloric overachiever and you’ve got the room for it, don’t dare pass up two New Mexican dessert comfort foods–natillas, an egg-based custard and capirotada, New Mexican bread pudding.  I don’t know of any other restaurant menus in New Mexico that feature capirotada and though it’s not nearly as wonderful as the one my mom makes, it’s quite good for a restaurant offering.

El Paragua is only 24 miles north of Santa Fe, just off the Taos Highway on State Road 76.  It’s the type of restaurant you wouldn’t mind driving 100 miles for.

El Paragua
603 Santa Cruz
Española, NM
753-3211
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combination Platter, Natillas, Chips & Salsa

El Paragua Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Spice Islands Cafe – Mountain View, California

Spice Islands in Mountain View, California

Spice Islands in Mountain View, California (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

During a two-hour layover en route to a business meeting in Silicon Valley, I managed to devour every single delectable word of Garlic and Sapphires, the raucously entertaining bestseller to be by Ruth Reichl, erstwhile restaurant critic for the New York Times.  The book–woven with the same incomparable alchemy with which she crafts her restaurant reviews–was transcendent in its ability to paint vividly palpable pictures with unmatched clarity and flair.

I can only hope a modicum of that alchemy rubbed off on me because the Spice Islands Cafe, the first restaurant I visited after reading the book, deserves the Ruth Reichl treatment.  Not being Ruth Reichl, I’ll probably subject you to my usual parochial repertoire of tired adjectives in describing a meal a Japanese dining patron might say had moments of unami–moments in which something is exactly right.

Spice Islands is tucked away in a woodsy idyll less than an hour away from San Francisco.  For aficionados of Asian cuisine, downtown Mountain View is Nirvana with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Sushi restaurants occupying many of the area’s edifices.  Your greatest challenge will be selecting from which cuisine to partake.

The interior of Spice Islands in Mountain View, California

The interior of Spice Islands in Mountain View, California (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

For me, the recognition that Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian dishes form a unique intermingling of tastes and aromas from the various cultures of Southeast Asia made it a “no-brainer.”  In Asia there is no cuisine as diverse yet as inclusive as those of Southeast Asia–cuisine which skillfully melds Indian curries, Chinese seasonings and the pungent herbs and spices of the region: hot chili, garlic, curry, basil, lemon grass and more to create aromatic flavors and even better memories.

With over 150 menu selections (all of them tempting) from which to choose, it may be daunting to make a final selection, but it’s unlikely you’ll make a bad selection.

Katong Laksa

Katong Laksa (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

An excellent prelude to an outstanding meal should begin with poh piah, steamed Singaporean spring rolls that melt in your mouth.  Stuffed with jicama, lettuce, bean sprouts and prawns, four spring roll halves arrive sliced diagonally in a triangular black plate on which is drizzled in a linear arrangement, a spicy, sweet peanut sauce.  The presentation is truly worthy of these succulent, moist and delicious rolls.

A second Singaporean appetizer option is the Lamb Murtabak, essentially a crepe-thin pancake stuffed with minced lamb, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, egg, cloves and other ingredients then served with a pungent curry.  Like the rest of your meal, the only thing that would make it better would be sharing it with someone you love.

Poh Piah closeup

Poh Piah closeup (Photo courtesy of Ming Lee)

A worthy successor to these outstanding appetizers is the Chicken Nenas, a hallowed-out pineapple filled with a curry of tender, sliced chicken and pineapple then made even more rich and redolent with flavor by the infusion of coconut milk laden curry, lemon grass, scallions and mint.  It was a dish on par with any curry dish I’ve had anywhere including the fabled Las Vegas institution Lotus of Siam.

For dessert, a popular choice is the house specialty, the peanut pancake.  A crispy yet chewy pancake is filled with ground peanuts and honey on top of which is dolloped a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce.  It was plate-licking good.  The Spice Islands Cafe is a rare restaurant, one whose food will imprint itself on your memories for a long time and a restaurant in which you will truly experience unami.

Photos courtesy of my friend Ming Lee.

Spice Islands Cafe
210 Hope Street
Mountain View, California
(650) 961-3500

LATEST VISIT: 10 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Murtabak; Poh Piah; Chicken Nenas; Peanut Pancakes