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Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits

Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits

Shortly after Louisiana and Mississippi were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, one of the local television stations in South Louisiana actually aired an interview with a woman from New Orleans. The interviewer was a woman from a Boston affiliate, so she asked the interviewee how such total and complete devastation of the churches in the area had affected their lives.  The woman replied,” I don’t know about all those other people but we get our chicken from Popeye’s.” The look on the interviewer’s face was priceless.  That anecdote rings with truism

Contrary to the images the name might conjure, Popeye’s is not a nautical themed restaurant which serves spinach.  That might be why the restaurant’s full appellation is “Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits.”  In reality, Popeye’s is named for the irascible character Popeye Doyle from the movie “The French Connection.”   It is the brainchild of restaurant impresario Al Copeland who founded the New Orleans style poultry palace in 1972 after a failed venture featuring mild, Southern-fried chicken.

New Orleans style chicken is imbued with the exciting, spicy flavor about which Cajuns are passionate.  In our eight years of living in Mississippi, we rarely dined at Popeye’s, preferring local alternatives with even more incendiary cayenne pepper producing heat.  Considering no one loves the heat of piquant foods like New Mexicans, you would think Popeye’s would be embraced yet the 1990s saw Albuquerque’s Popeye’s restaurants succumb to closure.

Fried chicken, biscuit and fried catfish

Fried chicken, biscuit and fried catfish

November 12, 2005 saw the launch of the first of twelve planned Popeye’s restaurants in the Duke City.  If the opening day pageant of vehicles (including ours) snaking around the building at a crawl for up to two hour waits portends future success, Popeye’s is here to stay–for good this time.

At first glance Popeye’s fried chicken resembles the fried chicken you can find at any grocery store. Its crispy coating is akin to the Colonel’s extra crispy offering.  That crispy exterior belies the juiciness within.  Popeye’s fried chicken is moist, tender and infused with cayenne, that spicy seasoning Cajun Americans have come to love although some fire eating New Mexicans might wonder what the hullabaloo is all about because the chicken is fairly tame compared to the incendiary foods on which they were weaned.

Biscuits, which share prominence on the restaurant’s marquee, are buttery with a light golden hue.  Unlike the biscuits proffered by Popeye’s competitors, they don’t crumble on your hands.  Sides include “Cajun” battered fries, “Cajun” rice, mashed potatoes and “Cajun” gravy as well as red beans and rice, another Louisiana favorite.

Fried chicken, dirty rice and coleslaw

Fried chicken, dirty rice and coleslaw

The “Cajun” rice, known as “dirty rice” in the deep South is a blend of meats, shallots and seasonings.  Popeye’s version is among the worse we’ve had, a pitiful pretender that any self-respecting Cajun would toss out.

Popeye’s coleslaw tastes surprisingly like the Colonel’s with a similar surfeit of cloying salad cream.

Our former home state of Mississippi seemingly competed with New Mexico for last place in every ignominious list compiled, but one category in which it leads the nation is in production of pond-raised catfish.  We learned during our eight years in the Deep South what great catfish tastes like and it certainly isn’t what Popeye’s puts on the plate.  The Popeye’s version is desiccated and somewhat flavorless in comparison to what we became accustomed to.

A dessert offering called “Mississippi Mud” might be appropriately named because that’s where it belongs–on the bottom of the murky river for which it is named.  We enjoyed Mississippi Mud throughout the South and will argue that Popeye’s version is a misnomer.

The chicken is the reason most poultry patrons visit Popeye’s and why they return in droves.

Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits
10074 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
792-3350

LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Spicy Fried Chicken

Coyote’s Rooftop Cantina – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Coyote Cafe on Water Street

The Coyote Cafe on Water Street

National Geographic Traveler describes Santa Fe as “a hypercultural hybrid–equal parts Wild West and New Age, Native American and Hispanic, old money and old hippie”…a city “used to mixing things up and still creating an oddly seamless whole.”

To many people, Santa Fe is as much an escape as it is a destination.  It is an adobe colored Mecca that preternaturally calls seekers to a spiritual and creative fulfillment they just don’t find elsewhere. Santa Fe draws them with an amalgam of spiritual tranquility, piñon-perfumed air and its accepting, non-judgmental culture.  It holds them captive with its beauty and its cuisine.  Santa Fe truly has an identity, substance and style all its own. One of the defining elements of contemporary “Santa Fe style” has been the howling coyote, an art phenomenon originated by woodcarver Alonzo Jimenez a couple of decades ago.

A popular dining destination

A popular dining destination

While the coyote is prevalent in contemporary Native American mythology and generally represents a cunning, treacherous scourge, to New Mexico artisans he has been a blessing, displayed on every conceivable medium.  The howling coyote became so omnipresent that it became synonymous with Santa Fe style. In the culinary arts, Santa Fe style is most often associated with the Coyote Cafe whose logo is surprisingly not a howling coyote, but a flute-playing (ala Kokopelli) coyote about town with an unusually long, shaggy tail.

The Coyote Cafe, founded in 1987 and going strong more than two decades later, is considered by many to have created the template for modern Southwestern cuisine.  At the Coyote Cafe–under the direction of the “High Priest of Southwestern Cuisine” Mark Miller–Southwestern cuisine evolved and reinvented itself time and again, all while staying true to its historical roots. The most recent reinvention is in the form of a new ownership group that includes Eric Distefano, one of the best chefs in the entire southwest.  Distefano has been at the helm at Geronimo for many years and from all indications, is restoring the Coyote Cafe back to its halcyon days when it was widely considered one of Santa Fe’s premier dining destinations.

Fire roasted salsa--there is none better

Fire roasted salsa--there is none better

My favorite Coyote Cafe restaurant family member is the Rooftop Cantina where seasonal open-air dining between April and late October is so quintessentially Santa Fe.  The atmosphere is casual and the views of Santa Fe’s bustling downtown are ever so cosmopolitan. Thematically, the Rooftop Cantina has the taste and feel of Old Mexico and indeed, it does serve up eclectic Mexican cuisine as good as you’ll have it anywhere.  An ever-evolving menu means you’ll never get bored. Boredom, in fact, may be the last word you’d ever associate with the Coyote Rooftop Cantina.  His is one happening joint that has stood the ravages of time and competition because it’s been a pace setter.

The Rooftop Cantina’s fire-roasted salsa (pictured above) and its subtle citrus influence has addictive, capsaicin endowed properties and is my favorite restaurant salsa in New Mexico even though many other salsas are more piquant.  A purchase of Miller’s The Great Salsa Book is in order if you don’t already have a copy.

Duck quesadillas, my favorite

Duck quesadillas, my favorite

Among the many wonderful entrees (albeit found on the appetizers section of the menu), none may be as sublime as the quesadilla de carnitas de pato (duck quesadillas) crafted with roasted poblano chiles, Monterrey cheese and a Tequila Habañero barbecue sauce. The melding of distinctive flavors and textures is worthy of Santa Fe style. These quesadillas are not only incomparably delicious, they decorate your plate. The duck quesadillas are accompanied by something called Mexican coleslaw. Google “Mexican coleslaw” and the popular search engine will return pages of results, alas not including Mark Miller’s recipe. After quickly consuming the portion that came with the quesadillas, we ordered a second portion “for dessert” not only because the taste captivated us, but so we could “deconstruct” the coleslaw and figure out how to duplicate it at home. The Cantina’s Mexican coleslaw starts with a bed of finely shredded cabbage (both green and red). It includes fresh mangoes and pineapples along with some of their residual juices, perhaps some vinegar and oil and Tequila Habañero dressing to give it a piquant bite. It is certainly among the best coleslaw we’ve had anywhere.

Also exceptional are the tacos al Pastor, spit-roasted, thinly shredded pork marinated and served with small pineapple chunks wrapped in golden corn tortillas.  You can order tacos al Pastor at a hundred different Mexican restaurants and you’ll get a hundred different versions of street food snack most often defined as just “pork tacos.” The Rooftop Cantina’s tacos al Pastor are among the best we’ve had everywhere and it’s not solely because of the pineapple’s citrusy contrast to the wonderfully smoky pork.  The tacos are served with tomatillo avocado and tomatillo arbol salsa, neither of which are necessary to enhance the tacos, but which are excellent with the Cantina’s chips. The tacos al Pastor are served with Frijoles Charros, a bowl of pinto beans imbued with smoky sausage, fresh tomatoes, red onions and plenty of cilantro.  Again, you can find Frijoles Charros at many Mexican restaurants but none are quite as good as at the Rooftop Cantina.  For one thing, the beans are cooked to perfection (it’s been our experience almost everywhere that the beans are drastically undercooked).

Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor

More than many Mexican restaurants, the Rooftop Cantina incorporates citrus ingredients in entrees containing succulent grilled meats.  Scan the menu and you’ll quickly note several items in which pineapple and (or) mango is a prominent ingredient.  The marriage of tangy citrusy fruit and savory meats is one made in culinary heaven. Another example, found in the tortas section of the menu, is the mango avocado chicken sandwich which features grilled chipotle chicken with tomato, avocado, lettuce and a mango-banana salsa.  The salsa isn’t quite as sweet as it sounds, maybe because any cloying flavors are offset quite well by the savoriness of other ingredients.

Perhaps the most popular sandwich on the menu is the La Cubana Sandwich, Mark Miller’s take on the popular Cuban sandwich.  This sandwich is constructed with roasted pork loin and ham, guacamole, chipotle sauce and a black bean spread, a unique and delicious interpretation of the trendy sandwich seemingly found at every sandwich shop.

Mexican coleslaw

Mexican coleslaw

If your tastes lean more toward pure carnivorism, the Costilla Estilo Yucatan (Yucatan style ribs) may be calling you.  Meaty ribs are spiced with achiote (a red paste made from the seeds of the annatto tree and used as a seasoning which also gives food a deep red color) topped with a fiery Habanero BBQ Sauce.  These incendiary ribs are not quite too hot to handle, but you just might experience sheer delicious agony.

On the adobe wall just before the final four steps leading to the Cantina is a metal sculpture depicting coyotes frolicking boisterously at a Cantina similar to a fight scene on a Western movie.  One coyote is swinging from a chandelier, there’s a comely coquette coyote on the bar and two members of the Canis Latrans family are ready to come to blows.  While the restaurant is never quite this animated, it does radiate fun and is one of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe.

Coyote’s Rooftop Grill
132 West Water St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
505 983-1615
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 29 April 2007
# OF VISITS: 14
RATING: 22
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Duck Quesadillas, Cuban Sandwich, Tacos Al Pastor, Mexican Coleslaw

Señor Murphy Candymaker – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Senor Murphy

Senor Murphy Candymaker just south of the Santa Fe Plaza

In the Land of Enchantment, piñon is as valuable as gold if not more, particularly in recent years when drought conditions have ravaged acres of piñon forests.  Piñon trees produce good harvests every seven years or so with the best bounties being found at elevations between six and eight thousand feet.  The roasted flavor of good piñon is intense–sweet with a subtle hint of pine that will transport your mind and taste buds to New Mexico’s pine forests.

While nature has increased the scarcity of these nuggets, fortunately they are still plentiful at Señor Murphy’s.  For more than 30 years Señor Murphy has been hand-making some of the most seductively sweet confections in the country and shipping them all over the world from its Santa Fe base of operations.

The sweet smell of success begins with quality New Mexico ingredients such as red and green chiles as well as piñon nuts and is punctuated by the creativity and devotion of true master candy makers.  One of the largest candy manufacturers in New Mexico, Señor Murphy produces more than 70 tons of unique gourmet candies in over 100 varieties each year.

Señor Murphy’s piñon rolls and piñon toffee are absolutely divine with taste contrasts that complement one another perfectly.  Caramales, one of the store’s most popular selling items feature vanilla fudge dipped in caramel and rolled in piñon nuts then wrapped in corn husks to resemble New Mexico tamales, are a Christmas gift favorite.

Pinon Rolls

Pinon Rolls, New Mexico gold

In 2004, Señor Murphy launched a store in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district but moved to the Uptown area within a year.  Several of our visits have been to that destination although I will continue to update visits on this page rather than re-create an Albuquerque listing.

Señor Murphy Candymaker
1904 Chamisa Street
Santa Fe, NM
1-877-988-4311

LATEST VISIT: 29 April 2007
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Piñon Rolls, Piñon Toffee, Pecan Turtles