Scarpas Brick Oven Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Scarpa's cheesy bacon pizza is an example of a good thin-crust pizza.

Scarpa's cheesy bacon pizza is an example of a good thin-crust pizza.

In another review, I discussed the debate concerning pizza by the slice versus pizza by the pie.  That debate is tepid in its intensity compared to the debate between proponents of thin-crust and aficionados of thick crust–and we’re not talking about gourmet pizza (which is typically thin) versus deep dish pizza, not to mention New York style versus Chicago pizza (there’s an almost religious intensity in that debate).

Dissenting voices will argue that thin-crust pizza is paper thin, has a cracker-like consistency, is dry and dense and doesn’t hold up against the weight of toppings.  The anti thin-crust crowd becomes a little thin-skinned themselves when their favorite pizza is called a quiche and is described as droopy, soggy bread.

Debating this contentious issue takes time away from what both sides should be doing and that’s eating the pizza of their choice.  “Live and let eat” is the motto to which subscribe those of us who love their pizzas thin, thick and everything in between.

One of the best known and heavily patronized purveyors of thin-crust pizza in the Duke City is Scarpas, a California inspired restaurant with two city locations.  Scarpas isn’t just renown for its brick-oven “anything goes as a topping” gourmet pizzas.  Many diners visit for gourmet salads and some, like Albuquerque’s most pulchritudinous pugilist Holly Holmes prefer the pasta.

The Montgomery location of Scarpas is a popular dining destination.

The Montgomery location of Scarpas is a popular dining destination.

Scarpas is owned by Albuquerque restaurant impresario Jim Schumacher who also owns the Cooperage.  In 1999, he earned a community recognition award from for keeping Scarpas 100% smoke-free (this was back in the dark days when smoking was permitted in restaurants).

The first Scarpas was launched in 1995 at 5500 Academy, N.E.  A second, somewhat larger location on Montgomery followed suit four years later.  The facade on the Montgomery location is an architectural dichotomy featuring Anasazi inspired stonework on a modern edifice.

Anasazi style stonework is also prevalent inside the restaurant where modern touches abound—quarried stone tile under your feet and colorful modern art on the walls. The brick oven is actually ensconced behind burnished copper.  Though the seating is sturdy and supportive, the chairbacks aren’t made for long visits.

That’s apparently by design.  Scarpas is known for getting you in and getting you out quickly.  It’s a great restaurant if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.  It may take longer for you to decide what to have from among copious menu options than for your order to be filled.

Scarpas restaurant is an architectural dichotomy.

Scarpas restaurant is an architectural dichotomy.

Years ago I timed the preparation of a pizza on a 1,200 degree coal-burning oven at New York City’s world famous Grimaldi’s at just under three minutes.  Thin-crust pizzas are in and out of a brick oven in a much shorter time–barely over a minute at Scarpas.

There are some consequences to the shorter baking time.  Although the crust may have a hint of char on a crispy crust and its outside edges may be replete with airy holes, you won’t finish your first slice before the pizza has cooled down (with thick-crust pizzas, you’d probably have burned the roof of your mouth with your first bite).

Scarpas pizzas are fired with a blend of Mozzarella and Fontina cheeses, unless otherwise specified.  California inspired ingredients such as Thai chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, shitake mushrooms and even rosemary potatoes are available on a menu that features nineteen different pizzas.  You can, of course, create your own.

The quartered Four Seasons pizza is made with a garlic cream sauce and is populated with artichoke hearts, pancetta bacon, shitake and domestic mushrooms and smoked salmon.  It’s topped with Kalamata olives and goat cheese.  Though I’ve never been able to discern which season is represented on any particular quarter, this pizza is indicative of the menu’s California creativity.

Scarpas torta di meli is large enough for two.

Scarpas torta di meli is large enough for two.

You don’t, of course, have to be creative.  If you prefer the simplicity of a relatively unadorned pizza, you can have that, too.  The Italian sausage pizza, for example, is comparatively barren with only garlic cream sauce, roasted bell peppers, caramelized onions and fennel-rich sausage.

Pasta dishes include a basic but very well done Spaghetti Italienne, extra long spaghetti topped with a homemade marinara sauce and meatballs.

More sophisticated pastas are available, such as the New Orleans Linguini, Andouille sausage, oak-grilled chicken, tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions and parmesan cheese over linguini.  Not nearly as spicy as the city for which it is named, you might consider adding New Mexico’s own green chile to this dish.  It’s a flavor enhancer that seems to work very well with the other ingredients, particularly the Andouille sausage.

Scarpas torta di meli is one of the most popular dessert items in the City.  This specialty dessert is easily big enough for two to share.  It starts with a warm puff pastry apple tart baked in the wood burning brick oven then it gets good from there.  This pastry is topped with your choice of either Vietnamese cinnamon ice cream or Cappuccino Commotion ice cream (both are deliciously decadent), cinnamon, caramel sauce and whipped cream.  Unfortunately you can’t have both ice creams because portions are measured.  Still, with either ice cream, it’s a delicious dessert you won’t soon forget.

Scarpas is a favorite of business people and families alike.  It’s frequently packed and usually noisy, but is always a restaurant on which you can count for a solid, if unspectacular meal.

Scarpas Brick Oven Pizza
9700 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Torte Di Mele, Sausage Pizza, Cheesy Bacon Pizza

Scarpas on Urbanspoon

Great Fortune Chinese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Great Fortune Chinese Restaurant typifies the "hole in the wall" restaurant concept that serves very good food.

The Great Fortune Chinese Restaurant typifies the "hole in the wall" restaurant concept that serves very good food.

According to the Chinese Restaurant News, a respected trade publication, there are now approximately 36,000 Chinese restaurants in America.  That’s nearly three times as many Chinese restaurants as there are McDonald’s franchises.  That’s more than the number of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King franchises combined.

No longer considered exotic, Chinese restaurants are part of the fabric of American culture. There is virtually no American city in which Chinese restaurants aren’t plentiful.

A survey by a food product development company revealed that 39 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 13 prefer Chinese food over any other ethnic cuisine (interestingly only nine percent chose American).

The online Yellow Pages indicate there are more than 50 different Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque, some of which have several stores throughout the city.  By sheer volume alone, you might think there would be more than the scant Chinese restaurants reviewed on Gil’s Thrilling Web site.  You might also wonder why Scott Sharot only listed two Chinese restaurants (Ming Dynasty and ABC Chinese) in his outstanding book New Mexico Chow.

I can’t speak for Scott, but there’s a reason I haven’t published reviews of more Chinese restaurants.  At the risk of not being politically correct and to paraphrase a stereotype, most of them look and feel exactly alike.  For the most part that means mediocre to horrible buffets specializing in such American inventions as po po platters, sweet-and-sour pork, chop suey and Crab Rangoon.  Meals at such paragons of mediocrity are generally finished off by yet another American creation–the fortune cookie (amusingly, a few decades ago, a Hong Kong entrepreneur imported “genuine American fortune cookies” into China).

I genuinely love Chinese food, the more authentic the better.  To that end, I’ve dined at many of Albuquerque’s Chinese restaurants, hoping to find another rare, but precious gem.  Invariably, most visits end up being disappointments thanks to the prevalent copycat template to which most Chinese restaurants seem to subscribe.

When I received an e-mail from Jared Hobbs raving about the Great Fortune Chinese Restaurant, I was naturally skeptical, suspecting yet another middling quality restaurant serving an abysmal buffet of syrupy, candied and heavily breaded dark meats.  Research on the Internet revealed little about this restaurant other than its address and a review Jared himself wrote for a Web site no longer in existence.

A lack of information on the Internet isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Chinese restaurants; some of the best ones turn out to be relatively unknown–hidden gems, little holes-in-the-wall.  They’re not as heavily patronized as the cheap “all you can choke down” buffets I disdain, but their patrons are unfailingly loyal.

It was indeed my great fortune to take up Jared’s invitation to try this small restaurant ensconced in a nondescript shopping plaza and sharing a roof with Sushi Hama, a popular Northeast Heights sushi restaurant.  The Great Fortune is relatively devoid of the stereotypical gaudy trappings of the big buffet restaurants.  A few colorful but tasteful accoutrements decorate the otherwise sparse walls.

Could Great Fortune's orange beef really be better than Ming Dynasty's?

Could Great Fortune's orange beef really be better than Ming Dynasty's?

The menu features all the American (and Americanized) Chinese favorites you’ll find at almost every other Chinese restaurant, but thankfully no buffet troth.  Luncheon specials which include soup, an egg roll and fried rice are available daily until 3PM.

For certain menu items, you can request mild, spicy or extra spicy.  Most self-respecting New Mexicans should be able to handle at least the spicy level.

My inaugural visit was scant days after Albuquerque’s first significant snowfall of 2006 so soup was definitely in order.  In the winter, perhaps no Chinese soup warms you up quite as well as hot and sour soup.  A small cup did indeed offer respite from the cold.  The operative adjective would have to be hot, as in piquant and spicy.

In his review, Jared made the assertion that Great Fortune “has better orange beef than Ming Dynasty”–an audacious claim I had to either refute or validate.

The orange beef is very good, maybe the best I’ve had in Albuquerque outside of Ming Dynasty.  The beef is sliced into thin, small bite-sized pieces and is slightly crunchy just like at Ming Dynasty.  At extra spicy the orange sauce has a tangy piquant bite and unmistakable flavor of good orange zest, not at all like the lacquered sweet sauce you find at inferior restaurants.  Surprisingly the spiciness didn’t come from a preponderance of those dynamite hot Thai peppers often found in spicy Chinese cuisine.

The Great Fortune brought to six the number of Chinese restaurants on Gil’s Thrilling Web site.  I hope to have the great fortune to uncover other gems in the future.

Great Fortune
2918 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Orange Beef, Hot & Sour Soup

Great Fortune on Urbanspoon

Mariscos La Playa – Espanola, New Mexico

    Mom on her 39th birthday

Even though it seems most women celebrate it every year in perpetuity, a woman’s 29th birthday actually occurs only once. On my mom’s umpteenth 29th birthday we wanted everything to be perfect so we took her to her favorite mariscos restaurant for a fabulous meal of Mexican seafood served impeccably. We baked her favorite cake, a rich, moist carrot cake with homemade frosting.

We had the restaurant play her favorite birthday songs–Las Mananitas (a stirring rendition by Vicente Fernandez whose soulful voice plumbs the depths of the emotional scale) and Mananitas Tapatias by Pedro Infante (the undisputed greatest idol in Mexican cinematic history). Knowing what a great sport she is, we even asked the wait staff fete her with flan and photograph her in one of those colorful sombreros. There was only one problem.

When the wait staff came to our table bearing celebratory accoutrements, my mom had just stepped away to the restroom. There we were–music blaring, wait staff in tow and no guest of honor. We had to do the whole thing all over again minutes later.

Mariscos La Playa is the perfect restaurant for a birthday celebration. Moreover, it’s the perfect restaurant for a great meal.

There are actually two Mariscos La Playa restaurants, one in Santa Fe and one in Espanola. The Espanola restaurant is owned by the Jose Ortega family which once shared ownership of the Santa Fe Mariscos La Playa with Jose’s cousin Nora Lopez. Jose also owns Mariscos Costa Azul in Santa Fe. All three Mariscos restaurants are outstanding!

Mariscos La Playa in Espanola, an outstanding Mexican restaurant.

Mariscos La Playa in Espanola, an outstanding Mexican restaurant.

If you’ve been to any of the family Mexican restaurants, the menu is certainly familiar–and not just because it’s a multi-page boatload of fresh Mexican seafood. The menu is shaped like a plump blue snapper.

Like its sister restaurants, Espanola’s Mariscos La Playa is awash in a veritable spectrum of color, particularly of soothing azure shades the color of Mexico’s Pacific coastal waters. Structurally, it is somewhat of an interesting dichotomy–a wood plank exterior facade, adobe and stone colonnades and red brick floors.

The interior is a bit cliché. It seems every mariscos restaurant in New Mexico starts with the same basic template–a large blue marlin (looking more ceramic than taxidermy) on the wall, murals of sandy beaches and more colorful nautical themed decorations than you’ll ever see in coastal Mexico.

The service is impeccable with one of the most attentive and polite wait staffs around–a hallmark of the Mariscos family of restaurants. Better still, the wait staff makes sure there’s no surcease to the salsa and chips or the incomparable creamy avocado-based dip that won us over years ago.

This is a fabulous dip–wasabi-colored and mayonnaise enriched, melding ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos in a creamy concoction that puts to shame some of the best guacamole we’ve found. It’s so good that you might not even touch the wonderful pico de gallo style salsa that along with the chips and dip, forms a great pre-prandial triumvirate.

A colorful interior awash in colors.

A colorful interior awash in colors.

As great as the salsa, dip and chips are, you don’t want to fill up on them because the menu features some of the very best mariscos north of the border.

The start of a memorable meal might include tostadas de ceviche crafted from crispy (yet formidable enough to support handfuls of seafood) tostadas first layered with mayonnaise then heaped with either shrimp or a seafood combination, cilantro, onion and chopped tomatoes. It’s a colorful and delicious appetizer you can also have as an entree in which it comes as an order of three.

If the incomparable taste of bacon is what you crave, try the Discada Norteña, grilled diced beef with bacon, onions, tomato and white cheese served with corn tortillas, lettuce, tomato and avocado. While all the ingredients go together very well, it’s the bacon that comes across as the prevalent taste–and that’s not at all a bad thing. This entree comes in portions for one or for two and is served in a flat, circular pan with a can of Sterno to keep it warm.

Naturally, you’re going to want to wash down all this great food with a gigantic goblet of horchata and Mariscos La Playa’s version is among the best. You can get a work-out lifting the oversized goblet to your mouth.

Mariscos La Playa
2413 North Riverside Drive
Espanola, NM
LATEST VISIT: 9 December 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Avocado Dip, Salsa and Chips, Tostadas de Ceviche, Discada Norteña

Mariscos La Playa on Urbanspoon

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