Trombino’s Bistro Italiano – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Lemonade

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

LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Roasted Chicken

La Esquina Restaurante – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

It’s pretty common knowledge that several years ago, a state legislator submitted a resolution to declare “red or green chile” the official “state question“. On April 8, 1999, Governor Gary Johnson signed the bill making the resolution law. Less known is the fact that the New Mexico state legislature also passed a resolution approving an official state answer.  It’s no surprise that “red and green” or “Christmas” has been adopted as the official answer of the great state of New Mexico?

Why red or green? In the hundreds of restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment in which chile is served, you’ll invariably be asked to state your preference–red or green.  The fact that the state legislature approved resolutions for both a state question and answer signifies just how important the chile industry is to the economy of the Land of Enchantment. In 2004 New Mexico produced 106,850 tons of chile (25% above 2003) valued at 50.33 million dollars, making it the number one (legal) cash crop in terms of sales in the state.  

One of the Duke City’s best practitioners of the art of preparing and serving excellent red or green chile is La Esquina Restaurante on the Galeria Mall in the bowels of the First National Bank building at Tijeras Avenue and 3rd Street.   La Esquina (the Corner) is one of the Duke City’s best kept secrets, frequented heavily during lunch hour by patrons whose daily occupations happen to place them nearby and during happy hour when those people need a friendly place to unwind.  For those of us who don’t work nearby and don’t otherwise have a reason to be downtown, thank God for Friday when La Esquina serves dinner.  

Although I’ve known about La Esquina for years, it took an intriguing Chowhound post from a Los Angeles resident to motivate our inaugural visit.  That Angelino indicated La Esquina’s unique salsa established the standard by which he has measured all salsa since.  Sure enough, the salsa was both sensational and unique.  It also exemplified why the answer to New Mexico’s official state question isn’t always “red or green.”  Sometimes it’s “Christmas” as in both red and green. 

This salsa is fashioned with red tomatoes and included plenty of hot green chile to give it a festive yuletide appearance.  While not as piquant as the salsa at Sadie’s or Garduño’s, it packed a nice, tongue tingling taste that prompted the endorphin rush which makes green chile so addictive.  The accompanying chips are lightly salted and fresh.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at La Esquina Restaurante the fourth best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

La Esquina’s menu isn’t half a mile long as you’ll find at other New Mexican restaurants.  Instead it features a few New Mexican standards, ostensibly all done as wonderfully as those we experienced.  Each dinner entree is accompanied by your choice of guacamole or con queso, both of which were excellent.  Neither was particularly piquant, but each was a great representative of its grenre.  Entrees also include your choice of two of the following: pinto beans, papitas and posole, all of which were wonderful accompaniments to outstanding entrees.  Very few restaurants serve beans that really make you take notice, but La Esquina does with perfect pintos you could eat by the bowlful.  The posole, dressed with red chile, is also noteworthy while the papitas were cubed and fried to perfection.

The enchiladas are stuffed with your choice of chicken or beef and a sharp cheddar cheese.  With green chile and a fried egg atop, they’re exemplary enchiladas, among the city’s best.  Unlike at other New Mexican restaurants where it’s only the plate that’s hot (as in just out of the microwave), the enchiladas were out of the oven hot–definitely prepared to order.  Even better, La Esquina also serves blue corn enchiladas.

La Esquina’s taco plate features three beef or chicken tacos in which the meat is well seasoned and the shells just soft and greasy enough.  These tacos compare favorably to those served at the legendary Chope’s restaurant.  The burritos are stuffed with beans and shredded pot roast meet and are as good as any burritos you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque.

After this effusive diatribe, it’s probably no surprise that we found La Esquina’s sopaipillas to be among the best in New Mexico, easily among the top five.  They were puffy clouds lacking the seemingly requisite greasiness many other New Mexican restaurants don’t pad off their sopaipillas.  Slightly thicker than most, they were a great way to finish a superb meal at a state treasure that shouldn’t be a secret.

La Esquina Restaurante
30 First Plaza, N.W. #60
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 16 June 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips; Sopaipillas; Posole; Papitas; Enchiladas; Tacos; Beans; Guacamole; Con Queso

La Esquina Restaurante on Urbanspoon

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