Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Marco Pollo serves some of the best rotisserie chicken you can have.

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken

While eating a store-bought rotisserie chicken is somewhat more appealing than than consuming the very last one of Quickie Mart’s perpetually rotating, alutaceous (seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno) hot dogs, the prospect of a desiccated rotisserie chicken carcass for dinner is hardly tempting. Experience has taught us that while slightly less leathery, restaurant rotisserie chicken would be a challenge for the most advanced desalination technologies. That’s what we expected during our inaugural visit to Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken.

Were we ever in for a pleasant surprise! As it turns out, Marco Pollo serves some of the best char-broiled chicken we’ve had in a long time. Best of all, Marco Pollo is the first instantiation of a local restaurant chain with the gloss and grandiosity of a national franchise. It is not related to a similarly named chain enterprise out of Texas.

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken is the brainchild of Mark Harden, a plucky local entrepreneur who managed New Mexico’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in the ’80s and later ran the now defunct (in New Mexico at least) Pollo Asado. Harden created the recipes, marinades and concept for a restaurant venture he hopes to expand further. The concept includes a red and yellow plumed mascot who very closely resembles the famous San Diego Chicken.

Under plexiglass in each of the restaurant’s circular tables is a map of the world with clever cartoon illustrations of local interest events, fauna, flora and personalities. A child with an imagination (even a 48-year old child like me) could get lost for hours circumnavigating the globe and interacting with all the wonder depicted on each table.

Marco Pollo’s menu is replete with poultry a plenty–not only the charbroiled chicken in which the restaurant specializes, but chicken wings, chicken burritos, chicken tacos, chicken enchiladas, chicken nachos and more. The chicken is marinated in a garlic, fruit and spice mix developed by Harden then is grilled over an open flame. Charbroiled chicken is available in quarter, half or whole sizes. You’ll want to have some left over for dinner so order the 12-piece chicken which includes three large side items and tortillas.

Unlike its store-bought brethren, Marco Pollo’s charbroiled chicken is moist, tender and delicious. The garlic, fruit and spice mix (while perhaps just a bit too salty) permeates throughout the chicken, not just the skin. Despite being truly finger-licking good, this is a multi-napkin chicken.

Except for the Lara Flynn Boyle thin tortillas, the sides were excellent. The Fiesta coleslaw is made with a sweet salad dressing and is crunchy and crisp. The rice was perfectly cooked with just a hint of spice. The best side, however, was the sweet corn and zucchini (calabasitas) which melded sweet yellow corn and fresh zucchini in a marriage of sweet and savory contrasts.

The restaurant’s salsa bar features a pico de gallo salsa with mushy tomatoes, a house salsa with little bite and an avocado salsa which lacked salt but was better than the other two. You’re free to abscond to your table with as many chips as you can carry.

A separate part of the capacious restaurant is dedicated Galileo’s Galley which serves frozen custard and Italian ices. Italian ice flavors are rotated daily, but the soft-serve frozen custard is available in chocolate and vanilla every day. If you can’t make up your mind which to have, ask for an Italian parfait in which vanilla custard is layered with the flavor of the day Italian ice. We’ve lucked out during our visits and have had both lemon and watermelon flavored Italian ices that complement the velvety smooth and creamy (and dreamy) ice cream wonderfully.

All adventurous culinary explorers should navigate to Marco Pollo soon!

Marco Pollo Charbroiled Chicken
9880 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Charbroiled Chicken, Rice, Fiesta Cole Slaw, Sweet Corn & Zucchini, Italian Parfait

Kim’s Vietnamese Gourmet Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Kim's offers Gourmet Vietnamese

Kim's offers Gourmet Vietnamese

During a memorable 1974 episode of MASH, it was Hawkeye Pierce’s turn at being physician of the day. Throughout the day he treated local indigenous personnel, all of whom identified themselves as “Kim Luck” when they reported in.

Eventually Hawkeye turns to Radar O’Reilly and says “Kim Luck? This is the fifth one today.” He then asks the local, “Can you identify yourself?” Patting his chest and smiling broadly, the local responds “This is me!”. Hawkeye’s retort: “This must be my Kim Lucky day.”

Albuquerque’s Kim Lucky day came on September 22nd, 2006 with the launch of Kim’s Vietnamese Gourmet Cuisine, named for sisters both named Kim. In this case, Kim is a diminutive of Kimhang and Kimha.

The sisters emigrated to Albuquerque from the commune of Nancy, France in 1998 and brought their mother over in 2003. The family triumvirate’s restaurant has a decidedly more French influence than other Vietnamese restaurants in the city while retaining the unique charms and delicious specialties of their ancestral homeland.

Kim’s Vietnamese Gourmet Cuisine is situated on the same strip mall in which the outstanding sandwich shop Relish is ensconced. Though one of the smallest Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque, it is quickly establishing a following. We were the first to arrive during our inaugural visit but by the time we left an hour later every one of the dozen or so tables was taken.

The ambiance includes a bit of whimsy and not a lot of color, but what color there is will catch your eye. A wallpaper border depicting mustachioed, cherubic chefs separates the walls which atop are colored a creamy yellow and at bottom, an almost shockingly bright cranberry. Framed signage points to Parisian landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe. An altar to Buddha, complete with incense, candles and an offering of plump red grapes sits on the floor by a rear wall.

It’s not only the ambience that has a striking blend of French and Vietnamese cultural influences; the menu includes several items that seem to be a fusion of cuisines from both nations. A pastry case under glass is most assuredly European with French fruit tarts and baked flan. It’s almost a surprise not to see gateaus, those wonderful French cakes that rely on the native properties of ingredients rather than sugar for flavor.

One of the restaurant’s popular appetizers is a white asparagus and crab soup to which Kimhang encourages patrons to add a few droplets of a red vinegar to accentuate the flavor of the crab. The broth, not quite as thick as a congee, is served piping hot and goes down smoothly. It’s the type of comforting soup that’s especially good on a cold winter day, but is delicious any time.

An order of coconut-braised chicken is rewarded with two pieces of perfectly prepared poultry–a thigh and a leg, both braised in a coconut juice (probably young coconut because it lacks the cloying flavor of some Thai coconut enriched curries). The chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender and absolutely delicious, albeit not very filling. Luckily this entree also includes white rice, cold pickled vegetables and a side bowl of the coconut au jus (good enough to be served as an entree itself).

If you’re tired of rich, cloying desserts, Kim’s baked flan might be just what you’re looking for. Unlike some Mexican and New Mexican flans, this one isn’t overly sweet and the portion size is probably twice what you’d get at other restaurants. This flan is meant to be shared.

Make your own Kim Luck and head over to yet another wonderful Vietnamese restaurant. You’ll thank your Kim Lucky stars you did.

Kim’s Vietnamese Gourmet Cuisine
8019 Menaul, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 October 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: White Asparagus & Crab Soup; Coconut-Braised Chicken; Baked Flan

Kim's Vietnamese Gourmet Cuisine on Urbanspoon

La Hacienda Express – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

You know you’re in New Mexico when you can order breakfast burritos under the golden arches or green chile cheeseburgers at Wendy’s. In doing so, however, you just might be sacrificing tastiness for the sake of expeditiousness.

An excellent alternative to chain-induced heartburn and burger boredom is a stop at La Hacienda Express, a favorite of locals in the know. While it may not have as many restaurants as the ubiquitous chains, you can still find one in the Nob Hill area (4400 Central, S.E.), one in the far northeast heights (11200 Montgomery, N.E.) and one at Albuquerque’s Sunport where you can get your last (or first) fix of New Mexican food before flying out (or after landing). There’s a fourth Hacienda Express in Bernalillo.

All but the Sunport versions of Hacienda Express are housed in A-frame buildings whose signage announces “breakfast burritos served all day” starting at 6:30 in the morning. If you can find a table, you can eat in or you can drive up and order from an impressive array of New Mexican favorites, including a breakfast burrito that’s worth getting up for in the wee hours.

Burrito, taquitos and horchata

Burrito, taquitos and horchata

These aren’t the banal burritos you’ll choke down under the golden arches. La Hacienda Express crafts formidable burritos overstuffed with traditional New Mexico ingredients and embellished with a red or green chile that packs a flavorable and piquant punch. Being overstuffed, they’re prone to messy spillage (there’s only so much you can stuff into a tortilla) so drivers should be extra attentive should they attempt to consume them in traffic.

From carne asada to carne adovada and everything in between, the burritos are generally very good. Everything in between could mean such unique burritos as chile relleno burritos, fajita burritos and a unique burrito overstuffed with ham, guacamole, pico de gallo and your choice of red or green chile. This particular burrito has become my very favorite.

The “Express” part of the restaurant’s name might be a slight exaggeration, however, because everything is made to order. These burritos don’t sit under a heat lamp waiting for the next customer to pull up. Breakfast burritos are available all day long, but there’s also an impressive array of lunch or dinner type burritos as well.

There is much more on the menu than burritos. In fact, the menu is surprisingly beefy considering the relatively cramped quarters. Not quite as beefy is the green chile cheeseburger features a chile and onion puree that sits atop a waifishly thin beef patty. It’s a good burger, but it takes two to make a meal. Think a very good version of McDonald’s single burger but with real meet and great chile. Rather than having the traditional burger on a bun, ask for a tortilla burger which is much better for some reason. The tortilla burger is served with fries, the type for which it takes three or four packets of salt to induce any flavor.

At La Hacienda Express, the taquitos are terrific (not quite of Espanola caliber, but very good nonetheless), the enchiladas are almost enchanting and the tacos (hard or soft) are tasty.

Wash down your meal with horchata which doesn’t appear on the drive-up menu but is available if you ask for it (at least in the Bernalillo location).

La Hacienda Express
218 Highway 44 West
Bernalillo, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 19 October 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Taco Plate, Enchilada Plate, Carne Asada Burrito

La Hacienda Express on Urbanspoon

Sal-E-Boy’s Pizzeria – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Sal-E-Boy's Pizzeria in Rio Rancho

Sal-E-Boy's Pizzeria on the western fringes of Rio Rancho

For decades Rio Rancho has been called “Little New York” and indeed, for decades New Yorkers made up a large percentage of the population. It wasn’t the proverbial “swamp land in Florida” marketing scheme that brought sophisticated New Yorkers to the barren western wasteland that was Rio Rancho. It was the promise of sunshine and outdoor activities in a bustling, vibrant community that attracted them.

It should stand to reason therefore that there would be at least one pizzeria in Rio Rancho that would serve real (or as real as you could possibly get in the Land of Enchantment) New York style pizza.  Frankly, considering the differences in water quality (reputed to be the secret ingredient in authentic New York style pizza) and availability of ingredients between this desert hamlet and America’s most burgeoning megalopolis, skeptics will argue that you’ll never find authentic New York style pizza.

Obviously not an eat-in restaurant

Sal-E-Boy’s is perhaps as close as you’ll find in the Albuquerque areas, and unlike some local pretenders to the New York legacy, they do it without modifying their water filtration system!

The walls of this strictly take-out pizzeria are adorned with memorabilia from the big apple–from a map of the New York City subway system to posters of the New York skyline (many of which include the Twin Towers). More impressively, those walls also speak volumes about owner Sal Lirosi’s sponsorship of local youth activities.

Okay, back to the pizza. It’s good! Very good–as in among some of the best we’ve had in New Mexico good. The tomato sauce is perfectly seasoned, the crust is of the perfect thickness and texture and the ingredients are first-rate. You can even fold it in half lengthwise as it’s done in New York. Even the sausage is good and you generally can’t get good sausage in New Mexico. The green chile Sal’s uses is also better than you’ll find in most pizzerias–not necessarily piquant, but with a nice roasted flavor.

Italian Burrito at left, Calzone at right

What’s most impressive to us is that we’ve never had a Sal-E-Boy’s pizza piping hot out of the oven. For us, it’s a fifteen minute drive back home and by the time we get there, the pizza has cooled down a little. We can only imagine how terrific Sal’s pies would be out of the oven. It’s good to know that if you can’t go to New York, you can still get good pizza in the Albuquerque area.

In past years Sal-E-Boy’s served a limited but impressive array of sandwiches, but today’s menu focuses on fewer menu items done very well. With the exception of a 12 wing offering, the menu items have some commonalities–pizza dough, sauce and invariably fresh ingredients.

Two slices of the calzone

One of the local favorites is the Italian burrito, a cross between a calzone and a pizza roll. The Italian burrito is, for all intents and purposes a mildly sauced (it really could use more sauce) meatball and green chile stuffed pizza shaped like an elongated calzone. It is a behemoth of a sandwich that few can eat in one sitting. It is better even than the 16″ stuffed pizza dough rolls which are offered with a variety of ingredients. The sausage, peppers and onions pizza roll is one of the most popular, but it, too, can use some of Sal-E-Boy’s terrific pizza sauce.

Sal-E-Boy’s Pizzeria
1706 Southern, S.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 13 October 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pizza, Italian Burrito, Stuffed Pizza Dough Rolls

Sal-E-Boy's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

La Costa Azul – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Costa Azul, Mexican Food and Mariscos on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Costa Azul…The Blue Coast…the name evokes images of brilliant sapphire blue waters, perilous promontories and pristine sandy beaches which seem to go on without end. With over 1,000 miles of coastline along the translucent Pacific, Mexico has spawned a thriving tourist trade, particularly in heavily developed resort locations.

Increasingly, Mexico has also become known for high-quality seafood (mariscos) so fresh that even in land-locked locations like Albuquerque, the mariscos taste as fresh as if caught off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, not far from the famous Costa Azul resort.

La Costa Azul launched in 2005 on the former site of Mariscos Altamar, one of Albuquerque’s very best and longest running mariscos dining establishments. While similarly named, it is not affiliated with Santa Fe’s fabulous Mariscos Costa Azul though the quality of its cuisine might invite favorable comparisons.

La Costa Azul is awash in bright colors–three interior walls reflecting various tones and shades of the Pacific’s translucent waters. The back wall separating the dining room from the kitchen is a shimmering green, perhaps the color of some of Mexico’s most iridescent inland jungle foliage.

The waitress stand sits under an overhanging interior roof replete with grass and reminiscent of the beachside food and beverage stands in some of Mexico’s touristy beach resorts. A large plastic marlin lies on that roof, directly above a high-definition television tuned to what must be the Mexican version of MTV. An aquarium teeming with small, multi-hued sea life sits below the television.

Costa Azul, an excellent mariscos restaurant on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Costa Azul, an excellent mariscos restaurant on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Even the salsa is of an unconventional color, more orange than red. It is also quite piquant. Thin, but not quite watery, it’s probably too hot to scoop up and eat like the chunky salsas, but immerse it part way and you’ll still get a good kick.

Even better than the salsa is the restaurant’s guacamole, the color of radiating kryptonite. While lime isn’t uncommon in guacamole, the lime on La Costa Azul’s guacamole was definitely more pronounced. It melds wonderfully with the fresh avocado and the jalapeno which gave it a kick.

The tostada de ceviche mixo, is among the very best you’ll find in New Mexico, matched only by the version served at the aforementioned Mariscos Costa Azul. Raw seafood (crab, shrimp, fish) is marinated (almost pickled) with raw onion, lemon juice, cilantro and green pepper to form not only an absolutely delicious appetizer, but a colorful one as well.

The horchata is served cold with plenty of ice to keep it that way. It isn’t as sweet as a child’s cereal as some horchata is served.

You’ll be hard-pressed to select from the menu’s ocean treasures. The back page of the multi-page menu lists several non-seafood items for landlubbers. There were no landlubbers at La Costa Azul during our inaugural visit.

When you don’t know what to order, it’s sometimes advisable to select something named for the restaurant. In this case, that would be Camarones Costa Azul, shrimp from the blue coast. About a dozen shrimp are wrapped in crispy bacon then topped with melting mozzarella cheese. This is a hit-and-miss entree that is oftentimes desiccated. You might also prefer a sharper Mexican queso, but the mozzarella does its job and is a wonderful complement to the slightly briny shrimp. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that not only is the shrimp de-veined, the annoying tail has been removed for you. This entree is accompanied by ridged French fries, the kind out of a bag, and saffron rice with pieces of carrots and peas. The platter on which this is served is roughly the size of the Thanksgiving turkey platter which means you’ll have left-overs.

Another hit-and-miss entree La Costa Azul manages to do exceptionally well is paella. In fact there are two paella entrees on the menu. Go for the Paella Valenciana, a large platter brimming with seafood (squid, shrimp, crab, fish, clams and mussels); sausage (almost as sweet as the Filipino sausage longoniza) grilled red, green and yellow peppers and a buttery saffron rice. It is better than the much more expensive paella we’ve had at some Spanish restaurants.

La Costa Azul has only one shortcoming and that’s a sparse dessert line-up. The only dessert available during our inaugural visit was a desiccated chocolate cake. At least none of the seafood was as dry as that cake.

Costa Azul
640 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2006
: $$
BEST BET: Tostada De Ceviche Mixo, Guacamole, Horchata, Paella A La Valenciana, Camarones Costa Azul

The Hole Thing Donut Shop – Red River, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Hole Thing in Red River

The Hole Thing in Red River serves some of the very best donuts around

A less optimistic man than I once lamented that the healthiest part of the donut is the hole, but you’ve got to eat the entire donut to get to it. To me, that’s a “glass is half empty” perspective on one of the most popular breakfast and dessert items in the world. With almost thirty percent of American adults indicating they are trying to control their diets, donuts have also been lambasted and their consumption decreased with the increase of cholesterol conscious consumers.

Adkins himself might have given up his cholesterol denouncing diet had he found The Hole Thing Donut Shop in Red River, New Mexico, easily the best donut restaurant we’ve visited in the Land of Enchantment.

How good is this hole in the wall restaurant? During an unseasonably rainy summer in 2004, a bear broke into the restaurant and consumed an entire pan of cinnamon rolls. Who can blame him? The cinnamon rolls are wonderful warm or cold. They’re not too sweet and have only minimal icing. They’re also enormous–the size of a thick Frisbee–and are usually eaten from the outside in, in strips.

Also gigantic are the apple and peach fritters which are the best we’ve had anywhere. We’ve learned that in order to guarantee these treasures the following morning, you’ve got to “reserve” an order for the next day.

Among the donuts, the maple iced donuts and the plain glazed donuts would put Krispy Kreme to shame. Jay Leno once referred to Krispy Kreme as the “Michael Jordan of donuts.” He might not have the adjectives to describe The Hole Thing’s donuts.

The Hole Thing Donut Shop actually occupies space within a family restaurant which is open only for breakfast. The restaurant’s menu includes traditional breakfast entrees as well as New Mexico breakfast items prepared Texas style (with Texas chili). If you don’t want a full breakfast, the donuts and a steaming mug of hot chocolate will more than satisfy.

The Hole Thing Donut Shop
601 West Main Street
Red River, NM
LATEST VISIT: 1 October 2006
CLOSED:  2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cinnamon Rolls, Maple Iced Donuts, Chocolate Twists