Puerto Peñasco – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Puerto Penasco

Puerto Penasco

Mexico’s Sea of Cortez has been likened to an enormous net for its capacity to support more marine life than any other body of water on Earth.  Over 3,000 marine species, including more than 900 species of fish, call its azure waters home.  The bounties of the Sea of Cortez sustained the indigenous tribes of pre-Colombian times and today delight aficionados of mariscos with delicious oysters, clams, scallops and shrimp.  It’s no wonder the Mexican Coast is a favorite destination  of seafood lovers throughout the world.

Situated on the edge of a rocky promontory in the Sea of Cortez is the aptly named Puerto Peñasco which translates in English to Rocky Point.  In recent years, the humble fishing village of Puerto Peñasco has burgeoned into a popular beach resort favored by Arizonans.  It’s only a four and a half hour drive from Phoenix to this mushrooming marine resort.

Puerto Peñasco offers miles of pristine white sand in beaches strewn with millions of tiny shells.  It embraces its visitors in warm waters and gives them respite in comfortable accommodations.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

This seaside resort is renown for beautifully plated and fresh mariscos which literally go directly from the nearby sea to the kitchen to your plate.  These mariscos are served by attentive servers amidst spectacular backdrops.

It was with the hopes of recreating a meal on the Sea of Cortez that we first visited Santa Fe’s Puerto Peñasco restaurant.  Considering our landlocked, desert location, that may have been asking a bit much.

Puerto Peñasco is ensconced in a nondescript strip mall on Airport Road which we noticed is increasingly taking on a decidedly Mexican flavor.  Various Mexican businesses serve as anchor tenants for other strip malls.

From its exterior Puerto Peñasco is fairly innocuous with a ubiquitous stucco facade.  Only the restaurant’s name and a boat’s steering wheel on the restaurant’s signage provided any indication that seafood might be served.

Tostada de Ceviche

Tostada de Ceviche

Interior-wise, Puerto Peñasco is relatively austere compared to other mariscos restaurants in New Mexico.  It doesn’t subscribe to the template followed by other mariscos establishments and their stereotypical nautical themed ambiance.

Instead, its sunflower and light pumpkin colored walls are stark save for a couple of framed, vintage style black-and-white photographs of adult beverages.  A map of Mexico hangs on a wall near the kitchen while a flat-screen television competes with tinny speakers blaring with the sounds of Norteño music.

The menu is replete with mariscos, but does not include the wonderfully refreshing aguas frescas and liquados that go so well with Mexican seafood. As you peruse the menu, the accommodating wait staff will deliver a basket of chips lightly dusted with red chile and accompanied by a piquant red salsa and a creamy guacamole based dip.  Both are excellent.

The salsa is redolent with the freshness of cilantro, onion jalapeno and possibly fire-roasted tomatoes based on the light smokiness of this chunky sauce.  What the guacamole based dip lacks in piquancy, it more than makes up for in creaminess and flavor.  It is comparable to the dip offered at Mariscos Costa Azul, another Santa Fe mariscos gem.

Discada Estilo Chihuahua

Discada Estilo Chihuahua

Similar to other ceviche dishes in New Mexico’s mariscos restaurants, Puerto Peñasco’s Tostadas de Ceviche fall short of duplicating the freshness and flavor of their counterparts in coastal Mexico.

Still, these tostadas de ceviche are very good, not Sea of Cortez good, but very good for New Mexico.  A light sheen of mayonnaise tops the crispy tostada shell which is topped with ingredients the colors of the Mexican flag: red tomatoes, green cucumber and cilantro and white seafood (shrimp and fish).

Insofar as a citrus infused taste, Puerto Peñasco’s tostadas de ceviche fall a bit short on the mouth-puckering scale.  That means more acute tasting of the seafood’s inherent briny deliciousness.

Another way to experience the bounty of the Sea of Cortez is with the Mariscada Puerto Peñasco.  Generally speaking, mariscada refers to a Spanish shellfish stew replete with lobster, clams, shrimp and scallops.  Many Mexican restaurants don’t serve this entry as a stew, but rather as a grilled plate of shrimp, octopus, scallops, mussels and more.

Mariscada Puerto Penasco

Mariscada Puerto Penasco

Puerto Peñasco’s version follows the Mexican template, serving a net full of delicious seafood on a metal plate.  Your server will offer a jellied heat source (maybe Sterno) to keep your meal warm, but it’s been our experience that it’s not only not needed, it may well dry your meal.

That would be a sin, because the only way to eat this is fresh and moist, just off the grill.  Smear a little of the avocado based dip on a tortilla and scoop in as much seafood as you can and you’re in for some of the very best seafood tacos in New Mexico.  It may even remind you of the taco stand fare on the beaches near the Sea of Cortez.

Landlubbers have several options, too, including quite likely the best Discada we’ve tried (and that includes at Mariscos La Playa and Mariscos Costa Azul) in New Mexico.  Discada is considered ranch food.  It’s simply whatever meats you have on hand prepared over a wood fire.  It’s generally served as a filling for corn tortillas.  Puerto Peñasco’s version is called Discada Estilo Chihuahua, ostensibly because it’s prepared in the style of that Northern Mexican state.

Have a refreshing dessert next door

Have a refreshing dessert next door

Whatever the derivation of its name, this is a terrific dish–particularly if you love bacon (and most humans are genetically predisposed to do so).  This dish is created with grilled dice beef, grilled tomatoes, onions, peppers (including jalapenos) lots of salty Mexican bacon, and shredded Cheddar and white cheese served on a metal plate.  It’s a mouth-watering entree.

Puerto Peñasco may not look like a seafood emporium, but it delivers where it counts–with delicious bounties of the sea from the Sea of Cortez.

If Puerto Peñasco has a dessert menu it’s probably not often requested.  That’s because next door is Refresqueria Las Delicias, where dozens of frozen concoctions await.  Refreshing treats include paletas, Mexico’s answer to popsicles and they come in flavors you won’t see at Smith’s.  Think mango, passion fruit and even avocado and chile.

Also available is some of the most flavorful, rich and creamy ice cream you’ll find anywhere, again in delectable flavors.  During my forays to Mexico, I heeded the “don’t drink the water” advice given to all visitors, but practically overdosed on paletas and ice cream.

Puerto Peñasco
4681 Airport Road, #1
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 26 January 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET:Salsa & Chips, Tostada de Ceviche, Discada Estilo Chihuahua, Mariscada Puerto Peñasco

Mucho Gusto – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate

On the surface, Laura Esquivel’s wonderful 1990 tome Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate) is about the struggles of a couple passionately in love but cruelly fated to be kept apart.  Below the surface, however, is a brilliant novel that celebrates the passion food can–and does–inspire.

Tita de la Garza longs her entire life for her lover Pedro Muzquiz.  Alas, her life’s path has already been established by a tyrannical mother who decrees that Tita must remain unmarried and take care of her aging parents.

Unable to have a life with her lover, Tita infuses her passion and love for Pedro into her cooking.   When her ingredients coalesce and simmer into subtle and unusual flavors, people who taste her cooking experience what she feels: love, hope, passion, sorrow and longing.

This brilliant novel is actually divided into twelve sections, each beginning with a traditional Mexican recipe.  Each chapter details the preparation of the dish and ties it to an event in Tita’s ill-fated life.  Tita’s life may also have been celebrated on the walls of a now defunct Santa Fe restaurant.

The walls at Santa Fe’s Old Mexico Grill were festooned with art which must have been inspired by Como Agua Para Chocolate.  Tita de la Garza herself appears to have modeled for the colorful paintings.

It wasn’t solely the art on the walls that reminded us of Como Agua Para Chocolate.  The cuisine seemed to have been imbued with magical, emotion-stirring properties or crafted by Tita’s deft hands.  It’s no wonder Zagat’s proclaimed the Old Mexico Grill as the best Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe, a sentiment shared by many savvy Santa Fe diners.

Mucho Gusto will bring you much pleasure

Mucho Gusto will bring you much pleasure

The Old Mexico Grill’s closing in 2002 left a large void that was filled in February, 2003 with the launch of Mucho Gusto on Paseo de Peralta at Alameda behind the Inn on the Alameda.  Mucho Gusto’s founders are Alex Castro and German Avila, both former chefs at the Old Mexico Grill.  They brought with them many of the familiar entrees that earned adulation at their former restaurant.

Mucho Gusto has seating for only 32 diners in a modest one-room plus restaurant overlooking a parking lot.  Furnishing is austere, but several colorful paintings adorn the walls, including a Frida Kahlo self-portrait and an ubiquitous Diego Rivera scene.

Absent from the walls were the colorful kitchen scenes that caught our attention years ago at the Old Mexico Grill.  Their absence, fortunately, does not portend a diminished menu.  While the paintings are devoid of kitchen scenes, the menu certainly pays homage to the masterful work done in preparing traditional Mexican cuisine in uniquely wonderful ways.

Dos salsas y totopos

Dos salsas y totopos

The menu includes only six appetizer choices and three soup and salad offerings, but you’ll be hard-pressed to select only one of each.  A great way to start is with dos salsas y totopos, featuring a salsa de chile arbol and a cilantro tomatillo salsa served with blue, red and white tortilla chips.  Neither salsa was particularly piquant, but both were fresh and delicious…and almost as nice to look at as some of the restaurant’s paintings.

We’ve had tomatillo based salsa on many occasions, but the Mucho Gusto version was unique in its freshness and taste–definitely one of the very best salsas we’ve had.  A profound lime infusion melded with the distinctively pungent taste of green tomatillo, white onion and red tomato to provide a refreshing taste experience.

Nearly as colorful was the sopa del dia, the restaurant’s freshly made soup of the day.  It will be your lucky day if the soup of the day is a tomato vegetable soup infused with fresh vegetables and poblano peppers.  The restaurant’s blue, red and white tomato tortilla chips circumnavigate the bowl while softening in a hardy and delicious broth.  You’ll want to order another bowl of this exquisite elixir, but make sure you have enough room for the main dishes.

Camarones en tequila

Camarones en tequila

If you wish to eschew the restaurant’s most popular and famous entree, pollo relleno con salsa de crema, there are other equally appealing dishes calling.  Calling loudest might be the camarones en tequila, five sautéed shrimp with an orange tequila lime cream sauce served with rice, whole black beans and grilled vegetables.  The shrimp are fresh, succulent and flavorful, but they absolutely come to life with the infusion of the sauce.

The orange tequila sauce is reminiscent of orange juice and orange zest mixed together with a potent chile to give the entree a definite sweet, savory and spicy kick.  The grilled vegetables (squash, red onions, green peppers) are of perfect texture and have a garden-fresh taste we love.  The black beans are similarly delicious.

My experience with fajitas in restaurants throughout America confirms that the name of this popular entree fits it to a tee.  In Spanish, fajita is the diminutive form of the word faja which translates to belt.  Most fajitas are belt-leather tough and difficult to chew.  My dear wife, however, will order fajitas at the expense of trying some of the adventurous sounding entrees I always urge her to try.  More often than not, she is grievously disappointed.

Mucho Gusto's fajitas sizzle with flavor

Mucho Gusto's fajitas sizzle with flavor

Mucho Gusto’s fajitas are the antithesis of the tough and chewy fajitas of inferior quality beef you’ve ever had.  The skirt steak is perfectly marinated and grilled to a tenderness rare in this cut of beef.  Even the red and green peppers and red onions are grilled to perfection–they’re neither crunchy nor mushy.

Dessert offerings pose yet another challenge.  You’re probably going to be well sated when done with your meal, but if you don’t at least try one of the desserts, you’ll kick yourself afterwards.  One of the most popular dessert offerings is the chocolate toffee pie constructed on a Graham cracker crust and topped with a frozen chocolate and mocha ice cream with tiny bits of toffee.  The semi-sweet nature of this dessert coupled with a slight coffee taste will appeal equally to chocoholics and caffeine fiends.  It is a terrific dessert.

In Spanish, “mucho gusto” translates to “much pleasure,” a feeling derived by most diners at one of Santa Fe’s very best Mexican restaurants!

Mucho Gusto
839 Paseo De Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico
505 955-8402
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 January 2007
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Dos Salsas Y Totopos, Vegetable Tomato Soup, Camarones En Tequila, Chocolate Toffee Pie

Best Lee’s – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Best Lee in Rio Rancho

Best Lee's in Rio Rancho

When does confidence become audacity? Is there a point at which a claim becomes braggadocio? To what extent can you trust a review on a hometown magazine? These were all questions we sought to answer during our inaugural meal at a Rio Rancho Chinese restaurant with the quaint name “Best Lee’s.”

Best Lee’s is ensconced in the Southern Plaza Shopping Center in the same suite that held Peking House, a Chinese restaurant so mediocre I chose not to write anything about it during our one and only visit.

In truth, we thought Peking House was still happily torturing taste buds until reading the December-January edition of Rio Rancho magazine. A published review practically glowed with praise over a dining experience at Best Lee’s.

Then there’s the menu which proudly proclaims “best food in town.” That’s an audacious claim we were eager to validate or debunk. The menu, by the way, is encyclopedic in its volume, listing well over a hundred items in various categories: luncheon specials, diet special dishes, combination platters, family dinner specials and the ever-present chef’s specialties. More specific categories included soup, fried rice, lo mein, sweet and sour, poultry, seafood, etc.

Best Lee’s opened for business on February 1st, 2006. It specializes in New York Chinatown and Hong Kong style Chinese food. Its take-out traffic is nearly as robust as its dining-in business according to our waiter who’s been with the restaurant since day one. He confirmed that the owner’s last name is Lee and that the “Best” part is solely a claim to greatness.

The restaurant is somewhat austere in its decor with just a few silk and sandalwood fans and stereotypical examples of three-dimensional Chinese art hanging on the wall. Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling, but there really isn’t anything “eye-catching” to hold your interest (unless it’s maybe the Christmas tree which hadn’t been taken down as of our January 19th visit).

Complementary wonton chips are brought to your table while you peruse the menu. The chips are somewhat oily and don’t fare that well with the contrasting taste of Lee’s sweet-and-sour sauce which accompanies them.

The Pu Pu Platter

The Pu Pu Platter

Considering my ill-fated luck when ordering traditional Chinese entrees at most Albuquerque area Chinese restaurants, we actually opted to try more Americanized favorites. Though we didn’t stoop so low as to order anything sweet-and-sour, we did lower our standards by trying Best Lee’s pu pu platter.

Long before there was Trader Joe’s, there was Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian themed restaurant that popularized the pu pu platter and claims to have invented the Mai Tai.

The pu pu platter, as found in American Chinese cuisine is a circular, compartmentalized bowl consisting of an assortment of appetizers, typically including egg rolls, spare ribs, chicken wings, skewered beef, fried shrimp and fried wontons. Sometimes pu pu platters arrive at your table atop a can of Sterno so they can stay hot.

Best Lee’s pu pu platter wasn’t anywhere close to the best pu pu platter we’ve had, but it wasn’t the worse either. It is comprised of the appetizers listed above although the fried wontons are actually stuffed with Crab Rangoon. The chicken wings are probably the best of the appetizers. A crispy coating envelops rather moist and flavorful chicken. The egg rolls are a step above what you get at most Chinese restaurants (you can actually find shards of fried pork in these). You can enjoy your pu pu platter with four sauces: hot mustard (somewhat anemic), duck sauce (the ubiquitous red stuff), sweet-and-sour sauce and a soy-based, salty dumpling sauce.

Rio Rancho magazine boasted that Best Lee’s fried rice “sets the standard” and is “nicely seasoned and perfectly moist” as well as “the best we’ve ever tasted.” In truth, the fried rice is pretty good, albeit not a standard setter by any means.

General Tso's Chicken

General Tso's Chicken

About General Tso’s chicken, Rio Rancho magazine said it was “outstanding and delicious.” Ironically, while General Tso is a military warrior of significant historical repute in China, the chicken dish named for him is unknown in China.

This Americanized sweet-and-spicy, deep-fried dish is, however, a good example of Americanized Hunan and Szechuan-style cooking. As at most Chinese restaurants in America, General Tso’s chicken is listed as a “chef specialty” at Best Lee’s allowing the restaurant to command a higher price for this entree.

Best Lee’s version of General Tso’s chicken is described on the menu as “cruncby (SIC) chunks of juicy chicken battered and sautéed in a hot and spicy sauce.” The entree consists of tidbits of battered chicken, lightly steamed broccoli and what looks and tastes suspiciously like a Vietnamese chili sauce. If there are any scallions and hot chili peppers (as called for on a standard recipe) floating around in the sauce, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them.

Best Lee’s certainly does not serve the “best food in town.” In fact, it may not even serve the best Chinese food in town (Heaven Dragon might own that distinction). It is what it is–a popular local eatery offering relatively inexpensive Chinese food that may not appeal to the most discriminating and savvy aficionados of authenticity, but will be liked by the masses who appreciate the Americanization of its entrees.

Best Lee’s
2003 Southern Blvd, N.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken Wings, Fried Rice

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