JB’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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

Gabriel’s – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Located fifteen miles north of Santa Fe, just south of Pojoaque and within minutes of two garish native American casinos, Gabriel’s is a culinary oasis back-dropped by nearby cedar and pine tree laden hills and the Santa Fe mountains further to the southeast.  Gabriel’s entrance is flanked by unpeeled latillas, a precursor to one of the best restaurant settings in the Santa Fe area.  In the early spring and fall, weather permitting, the sprawling dining room and its Spanish colonial theme are often rebuffed in favor of an outdoor dining experience.  

Whether on the large flower-filled courtyard, spacious portal (porch) or light-bathed sunrooms, the aforementioned views are spectacular.  If you’re so inclined, you can partake of a man-made view–that of having your waiter prepare guacamole at your table.  It’s an $10 plus thrill you might want to do without even though the guacamole is a real treat–meaty ripe avocados, fresh lime, cilantro, minced garlic fused with other ingredients before your eyes.

Gabriel’s specializes in the foods of the great Southwest and of Old Mexico.  The predominantly Mexican wait staff is attired in black trousers and white shirts.  Service is unfailingly polite and formal.

During our inaugural visit in June, 1999, I opted for fish tacos, which may be the rage in Southern California, but in many New Mexico restaurants they should throw the fish (and any chef who prepares them) back.  That’s because there are so many better meal options.  

For instance, there are Gabriel’s Lone Star barbecue ribs which are absolutely fall-off-the-bone tender and as succulent as any beef ribs we’ve had in New Mexico.  They are prepared with a tangy citrus sauce that gives the ribs plenty of zing without overwhelming them.  The ribs are accompanied by sliced fried potatoes and gaucho beans, both of which are first-rate.  

The flavorful and piquant jalapeno based salsa is served in a generous faux molcajete (unfortunately, bureaucrats decided the authentic molcajete made from lava rock pose health risks) with plenty of lightly salted chips.  There salsa packs plenty of cilantro and garlic, but it’s the jalapenos that will impress themselves upon your taste buds.  Friends swear they were unable to taste anything else after having their taste buds seared by salsa they considered “too good to stop eating” delicious, but tongue-scorching.

Another Texas treat, tender skirt steak fajitas arrive sizzling at your table and invariably draw the eyes and nostrils of all other patrons.  Supplementing those fajitas is a pico de gallo as colorful (with red, green and yellow peppers and sweet white onions) as it is delicious.  If mariscos are more to your liking, seafood fajitas (tender scallops, tiger prawns and red snapper) are also available and equally delicious.  Both corn and flour tortillas are first-rate.

Perhaps even better than the fajitas is a plato de carnitas, a sizzling combination of pico de gallo and Jalisco shredded pork.  The formidable portion size means you’ll have left-overs for the following day’s lunch.  To wash down your meal, try the inspired lemonade, a lively and sparking version.  

The Combinacione appetizer plate is a popular starter option.  A platter of nachos covered in a ranchero sauce and melted cheese competes for your rapt attention with cheese quesadillas and blue-corn tortilla taquitos all kissed by a generous dollop of the restaurant’s signature guacamole.

For dessert, you’ll be besotted by the tres leches cake with chocolate frosting.  Served in a plate sprinkled liberally with cinnamon, it is one of the very best and most moist tres leches cake we’ve ever had.  I’d drive the 75 miles from Albuquerque just for a slice.

U.S. 285/84
Santa Fe, NM

LATEST VISIT: 13 August 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Lone Star Ribs, Fajitas, Salsa, Tres Leches Cake

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