JB’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

JB's Restaurant is a popular dining destination in Rio Rancho.

JB’s Restaurant is a popular dining destination in Rio Rancho.

The first thing that comes to mind when someone invites me to a buffet is a paragraph from E. B. White’s 1952 classic Charlotte Web.  In that paragraph, an old sheep describes the county fair to Templeton the lovingly irascible rat:

“A fair is a rat’s paradise. Everybody spills food at a fair. A rat can creep out late at night and have a feast. In the horse barn you will find oats that the trotters and pacers have spilled. In the trampled grass of the infield you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese. In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone home to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat–in tents, in booths, in hay lofts–why, a fair has enough disgusting leftover food to satisfy a whole army of rats.”

I don’t know of any restaurant critic who can describe slop quite as appetizingly as White, but that’s beside the point (and my point is NOT that that a buffet’s discarded remains become a treasure trove for filthy vermin).  My point is that when provided with the multitudinous options of a buffet, American diners become like the gluttonous Templeton in their gratuitous lust for food.  They metamorphose into the proverbial kid in the candy store whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs (talk about an impossible analogy); instead of sampling what they really like, they overload their plates with a lot of of everything, ultimately gorging themselves.  Buffets have become like Bacchanalian orgies for ravenous diners…which leads me to JB’s.

JB’s is renown for its inexpensive all-you-can-eat (AYCE) buffets.  From its endless platters of shrimp with fries and AYCE soup, salad and fruit bar to the bountiful Sunday breakfast buffet, JB’s seemingly has something for everyone (Templeton would love this restaurant).  The menu features generous portions of comfort foods (such as pot roast and chicken fried steak) as well as healthy options (such as chicken taco salad) and contemporary entrees (such as Chicken Florentine Pasta).

Years ago, the world-famous Big Boy name, concept, menu and mascot were franchised to JB’s, a regional chain (Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Rhode Island, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and West Texas).  When JB’s affiliation was severed, one of the best burgers in all creation went with it.  That would be the Big Boy’s original double-decker hamburger (two patties, American cheese, lettuce and a special sauce that would put the Big Mac to shame).  I’ve long cursed both Big Boy and JB’s for depriving me of that delicious burger.

So, what’s good at JB’s?  Well, if you like to eat a lot, the buffet options are unbeatable (far better than most AYCE restaurants in the Albuquerque area).  If you’re watching your figure, the salad and fruit bar are an excellent option.  If you don’t have much money to spend, a visit to JB’s might be in order.  It’s a good family restaurant with a wide variety of options.  It’s a restaurant that New Mexico’s revered author Tony Hillerman frequents.

I’m noncommittal when it comes to pointing out any particular favorite, but with such a large menu, there’s bound to be something for everyone’s tastes.

JB’s Restaurant
6621 4th Street, NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

La Norteñita – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Nortenita at its former home on Wyoming

La Nortenita at its former home on Wyoming

The only disappointment (and it was a minor one) we experienced during our inaugural visit to La Norteñita was in not hearing the lively Mexican polka “Mi Nortenita” crackling over the restaurant’s tinny speaker system. That would have made our visit to “Old Mexico” complete.

More than most Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque, La Norteñita (the little northern girl) has the look and feel of a restaurant in one of Mexico’s northern states.

That means a kitchen and wait staff (and most customers) barely conversant in English, a lustrous color palate on the stark walls, mañana paced service and flavorsome food not adulterated for American tastes.

The original La Norteñita has been around for several years, situated on Central Avenue in an edifice most Americans might consider a “dive.” Business was so good that its owner (ironically from Puerto Vallarta which is in central Mexico) launched a second La Norteñita restaurant about three miles from the original.

A second La Norteñita was launched at the site which once housed Cha Cha’s, DeLillo’s All American Cafe and Christina’s restaurant, all very good restaurants in a heavily trafficked yet seemingly doomed to failure location. If you had wagered that La Norteñita would succeed where its predecessors failed, you would have lost. That is despite the primary reason it should have succeeded–authentic and delicious Mexican food at Old Mexico prices.

La Nortenita Mexican Food & Mariscos on busy Wyoming Boulevard.

La Nortenita Mexican Food & Mariscos on busy Wyoming Boulevard.

La Norteñita’s second location had several dining rooms in the luminous colors of the ultraviolet spectrum. On one dining room, you were surrounded by almost unnaturally, shockingly bright orange and yellow hues while equally intense blue walls were visible in another room. In contrast, the dark brown vigas on the ceilings seemed boring and out-of-place. On one dining room, the sole decorative touch was a framed picture of a vibrantly plumed rooster.

Belying its stark ambience, La Norteñita serves wonderful food. The jalapeño-based salsa is your introduction to taste sensations which will remind you of Old Mexico. Onion, cilantro, garlic and even jalapeño seeds coalesce in piquant bursts of flavor. Housemade chips have a pronounced toasted corn taste and are lightly salted, crispy and fantastic.

Both breakfast and lunch menus offer tantalizingly tempting options, some of which you don’t often see in Albuquerque restaurants. One such rare treat is the caldo de albondigas. A simple translation would be “meatball stew,” but that wouldn’t do justice to what turns out to be a hearty broth in which swim carrots, onions, meatballs (of course) and a whole red potato. This is Mexican comfort food at its finest.

Chilaquiles is another rare gem. A Mexican casserole originally intended as a way to use up stale tortillas, it has been refined at La Norteñita into a layered dish of corn tortillas, potatoes and beans covered in red chile. Layers of flavor is more like it. Best of all, this dish also comes with carne asada, very well seasoned and flavorful cubed beef.

Entrees are accompanied by your choice of flour or corn tortillas. Savvy diners will always opt for the corn tortillas which might have no equal in any Albuquerque restaurant. The tortilla warmer holds four housemade tortillas, the thickness (not quite as thick as tortillas used in pupusas but close) of which you don’t often see. At the bottom of the tortilla warmer is a hand-laced doily which helps hold in the moistness and heat to ensure your tortillas don’t cool off–not that they’ll have a chance to as quick as you’ll devour them. Did I already mention these are the best corn tortillas served in any Albuquerque restaurant?

La Norteñita is a relatively small restaurant, but it’s big on flavor and ultimately, that’s where it counts.

La Nortenita
9119 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 19 August 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tortillas de Maiz, Salsa, Caldo de Albondigas, Chilaquiles

La Nortenita on Urbanspoon

Cloud Cliff Bakery & Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Cloud Cliff Bakery & Cafe, a culinary oasis in an industrial complex.

The Cloud Cliff Bakery

In the 1880s, Northern New Mexico was a prolific wheat growing region. More than 250 varieties of wheat grew in its rocky but fecund soil. Thanks to a rural revitalization program called the Northern New Mexico Organic Wheat Project, the region’s wheat production is becoming genetic diverse once again.

Today under the program’s auspices, more than 20 families are growing several heirloom wheat varieties which are marketed under the very popular Nativo label.

The driving force behind the program is Willem Maltem, a former Zen monk who arrived in Santa Fe in the mid 1980s. To earn bread, Maltem sold bread, in 1984 founding the Cloud Cliff Bakery, Cafe and Artspace. The artisan Bakery now produces 35,000 loaves of bread a month, but the staff of life is but one of the many things that makes Cloud Cliff truly unique and special.

Grace, beauty and harmony–hallmarks of Zen–are immediately obvious when you stride into the sprawling 8,000 square-foot complex whose distressed oak floor was recycled from a high school gymnasium. The walls are adorned by intricate paintings and weavings, the work of the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian Amazon. The patterns are said to have spiritual healing properties, and indeed there is a sense of tranquility and harmony about the complex. There’s no doubt the restaurant is committed to nourishing its customers’ souls as well as their appetites.

In Santa Fe, there may be no stronger sense of community than when breaking bread than at the Cloud Cliff. Tables seem overfilled with couples, friends and family; you just don’t see anyone dining alone. That sense of “oneness” seems to inspire gaiety and laughter as if the world’s ills disappear when you enter the restaurant. No one seems to mind the raucous laughter coming from one corner, the fussy baby at another or the entangled, groping couple who maybe should get a room at some motel.

On weekends the restaurant tends to be even more crowded as hungry dining patrons seem preternaturally drawn to the olfactory arousing fragrances emanating from the exhibition kitchen and the artisan bread products under glass as you walk in. The Cloud Cliff Bakery is truly nirvana for your nostrils and a feast for your eyes and stomach.

The menu’s reverence for local, fresh produce is obvious. Organic eggs (from Taos Farms), fruits and vegetables are used whenever possible. For a dollar more, you can even have real maple syrup on your hot cakes (delicious, fluffy orbs served with fresh, seasonal fruit) instead of Aunt Jemima. The hearty breakfasts include your choice of grilled home fries (absolutely wonderful) or organic red wehani rice, salsa, and a homemade hearth oven bread basket that showcases the bakery’s best.

The Sunday brunch menu features several Mexican or New Mexican entrees, including migas which you just don’t see in many restaurants outside of Texas. Originally a Lenten dish, migas are scrambled eggs tossed together with torn bits of tortilla, diced fresh tomatoes, diced onions, cheese, green chile and pico de gallo. Neither the green chile or the pico have any heat and that may detract from your enjoyment of an otherwise terrific entree.

Smoked chicken enchiladas start with free-range chicken cubed and blanketed under blue corn tortillas, spinach and cheese then smothered with red or green chile. The highlight of this particular entree is the wonderful smokiness of the chicken. Once again, the chile could be hotter.

You can’t leave the restaurant without picking up some of the bakery’s wheat-based bounty–a loaf of homemade ciabatta, a plump cinnamon roll, a croissant stuffed with goat cheese and green chile….the possibilities are deliciously limitless.

Cloud Cliff Bakery & Cafe
1805 2nd Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 August 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Migas, Smoked Chicken Enchiladas, Mexican Hot Cocoa, Pancakes

Graze – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Graze by Jennifer James, one of Albuquerque's most beloved...and most missed restaurants.

Graze by Jennifer James

When uncredentialed food critics (like me) sing the praises of a restaurant, their fulsome rants might not garner much notice, but when professional chefs and critics are unabashedly effusive about that same restaurant, you’d be well advised to listen.

Graze, launched in December, 2002 by chef luminary Jennifer James, has had all the cognoscenti waxing poetic. La Cocinita magazine’s best chef award winner for 2002, James has been all but beatified, so prolific is her reputation. Renown for melding seemingly disparate ingredients into concordant meals, she is as much an artist as a chef.

Note: In September, 2006, Jennifer James ended her affiliation with Graze, leaving it in the hands of her business partner Michael Chesley. On January 27, 2007, Graze closed for good.

Appropriately named, Graze specializes in tapas, Spanish appetizers that can also form an entire meal when several are ordered together. Tapas dishes are generally quite small and can be both simple or elaborate. Even though I understood that dining concept, I didn’t quite “get it” during our inaugural visit accustomed as I am to the huge portions served at most restaurants.

  • We lamented the short-lived pate grand-mere with cornichons (sour crisp pickles made from tiny gherkin cucumbers), grainy mustard and walnut bread and bemoaned the tantalizing tease that was a perfectly seasoned satay.

  • We mourned after consuming the last essence of grilled tournedos of beef, potato gratin with arugula, pepper jus and crispy peppers and we paid loving tribute to a plate of orange-tequila braised pork ribs with smashed potatoes and greens garnished with roasted peanuts.

Every nibble was a pleasurable dining adventure for each of our 10,000 rapt taste buds, but the transitory gratification was somehow superceded by the sense of loss we felt as each morsel on each plate had been lustily consumed.

During our second visit, rather than fret because each plate left us wanting more, we relished the opportunity to once again try several tapas and in ordering plates that provided complementary taste contrasts. That second visit took place during the second week in which Graze featured a Sunday brunch to go along with its seasonal menu. A better brunch we’ve never had in Albuquerque.

  • Our gustatory orgy began with a “Graze plate” in which we noshed on harissa (a North African spice mixture containing chiles ground with cumin, garlic, coriander and olive oil) spiced olives, pickled asparagus (the best I’ve ever had) and an Indian curried vegetable salad somewhat reminiscent of the chow-chow served in the Deep South. Organic greens were brought to life by a lively mango-chipotle vinaigrette in a salad we shared.

  • We slathered unsalted apricot and cherry butter on fluffy biscuits then topped them with generous amounts of mango preserves, an indulgence in consonant excellence.

  • Hunanese potatoes, fingerling roasted potatoes with scallions and Thai chilis, a creative alternative to conventional roasted potatoes, wowed our taste buds.

  • Seared Hawaiian sunfish with a spicy peanut-lime sauce was the coup de grace. The lightly breaded, flaky white fish filet was a fabulous fish–not too “fishy” tasting and ameliorated, not dominated by the spicy, citrus sauce. It’s the type of filet of which you’d never tire.

  • The dessert menu features several tempting sweet treats including a bowl of cardamom chocolate chip ice cream imbued with the flavor of Swedish cardamom cake and premium chocolate chip ice cream. It was a fitting topper to a tapas meal you can’t top in Albuquerque.

I could expend several pages feebly trying to describe other plates we had during subsequent visits, but words fall woefully short of describing just how wonderful the Graze experience is. I can try to describe the ancho BBQ spare ribs and tell you about the lacquered BBQ sauce the color of orange marmalade that glazes the tender, meaty ribs…or wax poetic about housemade desserts (such as the refreshing key lime and red chile ice cream), but really, you’ve got to try them to really understand.

It’s readily apparent from her almost preternatural melding of ingredients that Jennifer James has a vivid imagination and the creativity to translate that imagination into plates of utter deliciousness. It also appears her creativity extends beyond the kitchen. Some of the ads she ran on the Alibi might be considered blasphemous, prompting the wickedly brilliant Albuquerque blogger Pika Brittlebush to proclaim on the Duke City Fix that Jennifer James is going to hell.

Graze by Jennifer James
3128 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Graze Pate; Satay; Seared Hawaiian Sunfish; Hunanese Potatoes; Artisan Cheese Plate; Sweet Corn Tamale With Mango Salsa and Poblano Cream; Thai Beef Salad; Ancho BBQ Spare Ribs