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Trombino’s Bistro Italiano – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Trombino's Bistro Italiano on Academy

Trombino's Bistro Italiano on Academy

In describing George Lindsay’s character Goober on his self-titled show, Andy Griffith said Goober was the type of person who would sit down at a table and say, “Hey, this is great salt.”  Had he dined at Trombino’s Bistro Italiano, I believe Goober might have limited his compliments to the salt (okay, maybe he would have added the bread).

Our three experiences at this venerable Northeast Heights Italian bistro have us shaking our head in wonder at how this very popular dining destination continues to thrive–and more amazingly how its loyal patrons invariably send me e-mail questioning my parentage after I write something disparaging about Trombino’s.  We feel like Bob Newhart as the only sane diners in an assemblage of taste bud deprived patrons who continue to pack what we believe to be a restaurant the quality of its cuisine which is a step down from the corporate chains that are often the target of my derision.

We can understand one bad meal–an unappetizing appetizer here, an occasional overdone entree there–but to go three visits and have our taste buds either lulled to sleep or tortured into submission is too much.  Ironically, it was the axiom “Mangia bene, Viva Bene” (“he who eats well, lives well”) on the menu that first caught my eye and heightened my expectations that we might indeed have a good meal at the restaurant formerly known as “Trattoria Trombino.”

So, am I the only Albuquerque diner who’s ever experienced a bad meal at this extremely popular restaurant…the only diner who isn’t bought in?  Trombino’s “Best of City” awards in just 2005 include Best Italian Restaurant from the Alibi Reader’s Choice Restaurant Poll, Albuquerque The Magazine’s Best of the City and Citysearch…but I’m not crazy.  Everybody else is.

The parade of mediocrity started during our introductory meal at Trombino’s in 2000 when we were left aghast by fried shrimp reminiscent of the heavily breaded “all you can eat” shrimp served at restaurants such as Sizzler and an uninspiring marinara sauce not even as good as the one served at the Olive Garden.  Remarkably the service was slow and lines were out the door (this being Albuquerque, the Olive Garden must have been packed) with ravenous customers salivating at the prospects of their meal.

During our second visit, we were determined to try something more unconventional in the hopes that it would give us a truer (or at least a reasonably favorable) impression of this highly regarded and yawning dining establishment.  It started off well with an appetizer of Mussels Zafferano, Atlantic blue gold mussels steamed in a spicy saffron white wine sauce.  This was among the very best saffron sauces we’ve had in the Duke City, but several of the mussels were either gritty, too chewy or we couldn’t extricate them from their shells.

An entree of Chicken Involuntini featured three lightly breaded chicken breasts stuffed with proscuitto ham, fontina cheese and sage served over spinach with a side of garlic butter pasta.  The proscuitto, in particular, was de-fanged with no discernable taste, a commonality it had with the entire entree.  Similarly mundane was an entree of grilled homemade Italian sausage (mild and spicy) served with seasoned red potatoes. We couldn’t envision any self-respecting Italian restaurant in Chicago or Boston serving such lifeless sausage.

Not even dessert could save the day.  Not surprisingly considering our luck at Trombino’s, the chocolate delight (delizia al cioccolate), a French baked brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, Torani chocolate sauce and whipped cream didn’t leave much of a lasting impression either.

A “third strike and you’re out” visit in 2006 resulted in the uneven performance we had come to expect from Trombino’s.  An appetizer of stuffed clams was baked to a crusty, crumbly and desiccated brown.  An order of lobster ravioli was so mind-numbingly boring in comparison to the Indigo Crow’s version of this entree that we wondered how Trombino’s could possibly have gone so wrong. Next time we want to “mangia bene” at an Italian restaurant, we’ll go elsewhere.

Trombino’s Bistro Italiano
5415 Academy, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
821-5974
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2006
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 14
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Lemonade

The County Line Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

If the New Mexico State Legislature’s focus on such issues as naming an official state cookie (the biscochito) doesn’t do much to buoy your confidence as a voter, consider the Senate of the State of Texas. In May, 2005, that august body passed a resolution to recognize the County Line barbecue restaurant on “the occasion of its 30th anniversary of serving legendary barbecue to the state of Texas.” Silly us if we expected our elected officials to focus on apparently less weighty issues such as the enacting DWI laws to protect New Mexicans from those same elected officials.

The Country Line BBQ was founded in 1975 in Austin, Texas and has been winning over barbecue aficionados throughout much of the Southwest (Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma) ever since. The Albuquerque franchise launched about five years later and is still going strong with a devoted following of smoke ring enthusiasts.

The foothills of the spectacular Sandia Mountains form a dramatic backdrop for Albuquerque’s County Line which is just two minutes from the Sandia Tramway. You don’t actually have a very good view of the Sandias until you step outside the restaurant. From inside the restaurant’s main dining room, the best views are panoramas of the city’s multi-hued summer sunsets and city lights the rest of the year.

The County Line’s upscale ambience is stereotypical roadhouse with distressed wood appointments and legacy brickerbrack strewn throughout. The cover of the menu is patterned after the “Big Chief” writing notebooks of my youth, complete with a stern countenanced Native American in full headdress (funny how the PC police haven’t gone on the warpath about that). That menu is dominated by barbecue and smoked entrees.

Three all-you-can-eat (AYCE) options are available only if the entire party on a table orders them. Respectively the AYCE options are the “Country Style Meal,” “The Cadillac” and the “All You Can Stand.” All three options provide prodigious platters of barbecue meats bathed in a tangy sauce and are served family-style with the main differences being cost and entrees provided in each.

The “Cadillac,” for example includes beef ribs, pork ribs, sausage, chicken and brisket for just under $23 a person. Peppered turkey breast may be substituted for brisket if you prefer. The Cadillac is served with three sides: potato salad, coleslaw and beans as well as the County Line’s signature loaf of bread (white or wheat).

All the meats (even the peppered turkey breast) are served on a large platter and swim in a vinegar-based barbecue sauce. The best of the lot are the pork ribs which are slathered with a slightly sweeter sauce and the sausage which is served in links. The barbecue won’t blow you away, but there is a lot of it and many diners take AYCE at its word.

Among the sides, both the coleslaw and the potato salad are more tangy than sweet with pickle being an obvious ingredient. Neither is particularly creamy, but they’re good alternatives to their runny, cloying counterparts served at other restaurants. The mushroom caps and corn-on-the-cob (in season) are usually good sides.

Alternatives to barbecue include several steak choices. Had we been ones who can’t stand the sight of blood, we might have have fainted upon receipt of a “medium well” New York cut which was promptly sent back for further grilling. Needless to say we’ll stick to barbecue.

Even though not all our meals have been memorable, you certainly can’t beat the County Line’s location and those magnificent panoramic vistas.

The County Line
9600 Tramway, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
856-7477

LATEST VISIT: 23 June 2006
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 17
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Babyback Ribs

Taco Cabana – Albuquerque, New Mexico

One of Albuquerque's two Taco Cabana restaurants

Few, including founder Felix Stehling, would have envisioned that the humble San Antonio taco stand he launched in 1978 would eventually expand to more than 130 restaurants throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and a few other states or that it would serve over 46 million guests in a year.  In a scant few years, the self-proclaimed “original Mexican patio cafe” has become a popular and powerhouse alternative to Mexican fast-food industry leader Taco Bell and restaurants of that ilk.
Today Albuquerque has three Taco Cabana restaurants, all thriving.  Much of the attraction is the generous portions of relatively inexpensive and mostly familiar Mexican food served in a colorful, lively environment.  An extensive offering of “cooked to order” Mexican fare includes nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and rotisserie chicken.  In the respect that meals don’t languish under a heat lamp, it’s more of a full-service restaurant than Taco Bell and is infinitesimally better, too.  While the Duke City has much better Mexican restaurants, Taco Cabana provides a faster alternative.

Chicken Flameante, an entire chicken

For us, the draw to Taco Cabana (especially on balmy summer days) has always been the aguas frescas (literally translated as fresh waters) in watermelon and cantaloupe flavors as well as the traditional Mexican rice beverage, horchata.  Unfailingly fresh, they can slake the most stubborn of thirsts.  Alas, their availability is subject to the whims and pratfalls of distributors who may not always be as reliable as thirsty patrons would like.  True to its Texas roots, Taco Cabana also serves a red cream soda, albeit one made by Barq’s.

Our first dining experience in a New Mexico Taco Cabana didn’t take place until more than nine years had elapsed since we returned to the Land of Enchantment.  From past experiences in Texas, we wanted to avoid the Tex-Mex stylings of Cabana’s cuisine, so we both ordered the grilled chicken which was marinated in a blend of citrus juices, herbs and seasonings then grilled over an open flame.  It was certainly better than the loathsome rotisserie chicken sold in so many local grocery stores (you know, the hummingbird sized chicken with a leathery coating).

Cheese Quesadilla

In June, 2006, we made a U-turn when we noticed that Taco Cabana was offering grilled pupusas, the thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients (El Salvador’s national snack).  Alas, Taco Cabana’s version bear little resemblance to the pupusas you’d find at any self-respecting Salvadoran restaurant.  The corn tortillas are much thinner with a gritty corn masa texture and resemble thick tacos.  The “grilled” part turned out to be fajita meat, tomatoes, melted cheese and grilled onions.  Not surprisingly, the pupusas aren’t served with curtido (a pickled-cabbage relish with a taste more than vaguely reminiscent of something between coleslaw and sauerkraut).   To say these pupusas were a disappointment is a vast understatement.

Rice and beans

Taco Cabana offers a nice salsa bar with thin, fresh chips and several salsas of varying heat intensity.  The pineapple salsa may bring to mind a doctored up image of a jar of Gerber baby food spiced with hot peppers.  While it looks like baby food, it does pack a punch.

Taco Cabana
3301-01 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
836-1650

LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET: Roasted Chicken