The Cup – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Cup

The Cup

Back in the mid 70s, anyone in Albuquerque’s southeast quadrant who wanted privacy knew they could find it at the Burger Chef restaurant in the Gibson and San Mateo area. It was the place in which employees from nearby Sandia and Kirtland conducted one-on-one meetings when they didn’t want to be disturbed.

Once a burgeoning franchise second only to McDonald’s in the fast food arena, Burger Chef was in a state of rapid decline and even during lunch hours, few diners patronized it.

Our inaugural dining experience at The Cup awakened memories of Burger Chef and the sheer feeling of aloneness I once felt when on the receiving side of bad news (the “Dear John” kind).

That’s because on a Friday night when every other restaurant along the Pan American frontage road was overflowing with hungry patrons, we were the only diners at The Cup for nearly forty minutes. Considering The Cup is sister restaurant to the popular Gold Street Caffe, the emptiness seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone.

We’re talking the Gold Street Caffe here–one of downtown Duke City’s darling dining destinations, the restaurant with the very best bacon (the thick cut honey chile glazed marvel) in the world.

The Cup Not Yo's

The Cup Not Yo's

We’re also talking the Pan American frontage road area within easy walking distance to the Century 24 theater. All the restaurants clustered in this area and their parking lots are typically nearly filled to capacity on Friday nights.

We never miss Cynthia Izaguirre’s “Red or Green” restaurant report in which she exposes Albuquerque’s best and worst restaurants when it comes to food safety, so we knew The Cup hadn’t been singled out for rodent infestation or not complying with cold or hot storage requirements.

So why the dearth of diners? I surmise it’s partially because the Northeast Heights crowd isn’t as into leisurely paced meals at locally owned and operated restaurants as are the downtown hipsters and movers and shakers.

The Cup is ensconced in an area replete with chain restaurants, some with national prominence: Texas Land and Cattle, Subway, Cold Stone and further down the frontage road, Papadeux, Fuddrucker’s and Dickey’s Barbecue. The Duke City is very much still a town that loves its chains.

The quintessential burger with green chile and gorgonzola

The quintessential burger with green chile and gorgonzola

Still, this is the sole scion of the fabulous Gold Street Caffe we’re talking about so my hopes are it gets “discovered” quickly because it serves a niche market in an area infested by corporate chains.

Though the menu mirrors its more established sister’s, The Cup renamed the names of its entrees, some taking their title from campy 80s hits (such as Shot Through the Heart of Romaine Lettuce) and others taking phonetic liberties (The Cup Not Yo’s, Flash Fried Kalamarheehee, Phish Tahkos).

It pays to be very familiar with the Gold Street Caffe’s dinner menu, which we were not. As a result, we didn’t know (and our waitress never told us) until walking out the door that The Cup features four entrees not listed on the menu including a seafood stew I certainly would have ordered. We also forgot to ask about the nightly dinner special and the waitress didn’t tell us about it (it’s not as though she was too busy).

Sirloin French Dip

Sirloin French Dip

So what we were left with were familiar appetizers, salads, sandwiches and “South of Albuquerque” items we’ve seen on the Gold Street Caffe’s lunch menu.

One of those appetizers is The Cup Not Yo’s (nachos, get it?), a mountain of corn tortilla chips topped with black beans, Jack and Cheddar cheese, sour cream, fresh salsa and “the freshest guacamole this side of the Rio Grande.” You can also choose from grilled marinated shrimp, chicken breast or veggies.

The Cup Not Yo’s lack the piquant bite with which some nachos in town are imbued by adding jalapenos, but where they lack in bite, they more than make up for in freshness. The ingredients go well together.

Like the Gold Street Caffe, The Cup uses as its canvas for sandwiches and burgers only bread from Santa Fe’s Sage Bakehouse, a state treasure. That means some of the very best bread anywhere: farm, whole wheat, sourdough or focaccia. It was tempting not to order a side of Sage Bakehouse toast with jam for dessert–and we would have had we not seen a red velvet cake under glass.

Red Velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.

Red Velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.

If you’ve ever pondered the quintessential (representing the perfect example of a class or quality) burger in town, The Cup makes an audacious claim with a burger by that name. The Quintessential Burger is a half-pound of ground sirloin on focaccia with all the fixings. You select the cheese you want then top it with either green chile or caramelized onions. For an extra buck, you can also have bacon, guacamole or sautéed mushrooms.

Green chile and gorgonzola are a taste combination which can really enliven the taste of beef (not that it’s needed in this case). There’s just something about mildly piquant chile and a pungent cheese that complements beef. Then there’s red onion, crisp lettuce and that heavenly light Bakehouse focaccia to ameliorate the rest. This might not be the quintessential burger, but it’s pretty darn good.

The sirloin French dip sandwich, also on a canvas of focaccia, features sliced sirloin steak with roasted red peppers, provolone and a wonderful green chile au jus so good you’ll want to drench your sandwich Italian beef style in it. The au jus, in fact, makes a terrific dip for pan fries should you select them as your side.

Other sides which come standard with each sandwich include a cup of soup, chipotle potato salad or chips and salsa.

Desserts are baked in-house in an exhibition bakery. If you’re into retro, rich and ruby-hued, the red velvet cake has your number. Red velvet cake was all the rage in the 60s and it’s easy to understand why when you bite into The Cup’s red rendition. It’s a multi-layer cake filled and frosted with cream cheese frosting. Though basically a devil’s food cake whose batter is doused with food coloring to give it its red patina, red velvet cake is oh so good. You’ll love The Cup’s version.

There are, in fact, many things to love about The Cup. Given time it will carve out its own identity and thrive in the Northeast Heights as its sister has in the burgeoning downtown area. Given time it won’t be the loneliest place in town for dinner.

The Cup
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 June 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Quintessential Burger, Sirloin French Dip, Red Velvet Cake, The Cup Not Yo’s

Sushi Eye – Tempe, Arizona

Sushi Eye in Tempe, Arizona

Sushi Eye in Tempe, Arizona

To Western diners used to restaurant ambience defined by an effusive, sensory bombarding, over-the-top flamboyance, many Japanese restaurants feel stark and barren in comparison. That austerity is actually by design.

The Buddhist teaching of “wabi” which means “quiet of tranquility” posits a non-attachment to material things. Wabi values the ability to make the most of starkness and poverty by cherishing the subtle beauty found only in a very simple environment.

In some sushi restaurants, the minimalist decor is not much more than functional and and nearly as raw as sashimi. Lighting is subtle, perhaps even romantic. The ambience seems to inspire hushed tones and an almost reverent mood, in some cases almost as if you’re at a Buddhist temple. That’s the concept of wabi.

In wabi fashion, the not quite wasabi colored walls at Sushi Eye are relatively stark, festooned with but a few framed images. The restaurant’s activity center and heart, the sushi bar, is more brightly illuminated. A single neko cat, symbolizing good luck, sits on that bar.

Sushi Eye is situated in a nondescript Tempe strip mall practically next door to the Fascinations Superstore where sensual shopping can precede sushi sampling if you’re so inclined. It opened in early 2006 and by year’s end had earned “best of Phoenix” honors in the sushi category from Phoenix New Times.

A briny boatload of sushi

A beauteous boatload of sushi

If my first visit is any indication, Sushi Eye is very popular with Arizona State University co-eds, several tables of which were placed together to accommodate parties of celebrating revelers.

While wabi is readily apparent in the restaurant’s decor, the attitude is definitely upbeat and hip. Even the sushi chefs (characteristically dour at some restaurants) were into the revelry, chiming in on a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday to a percussion accompaniment.

It’s unlikely the restaurant’s partying purveyor Richard Cho would ever let things get too out of hand, but it’s refreshing to visit a sushi restaurant with some life in it. This is definitely not grandma’s sushi restaurant.

Obviously attuned to his youthful clientele, Cho also goes for the “cheap pop” (in professional wrestling, a pop refers to the reaction of the crowd) with locals by naming several of his maki rolls for local landmarks. Fortunately the Cardinal Roll, named for the local professional football team, doesn’t reflect the perenially woeful performance of the hapless Cardinals.

Maki rolls appear to be the specialty of the house. While the menu lists traditional sushi, specialty rolls rule the menu where a picture of each vibrant, multi-hued roll is succeeded by a thorough description of each roll.

More succulent sushi

More succulent sushi

According to our waitress, one of the restaurant’s most popular rolls is the Climax Roll (spicy tuna and cucumber rolled with tuna and dressed in wasabi and unagi sauce, macadamia nuts and tobiko [crunchy flying fish roe]). No doubt many patrons order this roll after a visit to the Fascinations Superstore next door.

Name not withstanding, the Climax Roll is absolutely terrific, one of the best specialty rolls I’ve had in a long time. Alternating the contrasting tastes of sweet unagi sauce with the more pungent and piquant wasabi sauce creates a party on your taste buds. The tuna is amazingly fresh considering landlocked Tempe’s distance to the briny seas.

Fresh fish seems to be the restaurant’s mission statement. You won’t encounter a single morsel of fish that doesn’t have that “just off the boat” freshness. It’s a welcome change from restaurants who serve fish obviously past its shelf life.

The RSM roll (deep fried salmon, fresh water eel, cream cheese, avocado, assorted fish topped with spicy scallops, tobiko, scallions, wasabi and macadamia nuts) is a veritable treasure trove of great ingredients and but one example of the innovative maki rolls for which Sushi Eye is known.

There is much more on the menu than maki rolls so this is one restaurant to which repeated visits are an absolute must.

Sushi Eye
780 West Elliot Road
Tempe, Arizona
(480) 820-3376

LATEST VISIT: 25 June 2007
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Climax Roll, RSM Roll, ASU Roll, Rainbow Roll, California Deluxe Roll

Banana Leaf – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Banana Leaf Restaurant in Rio Rancho

Banana Leaf Asian Cuisine in Rio Rancho

Banana leaves, although completely inedible, are used for slow, moist cooking of tough meats as well as for quicker steaming, baking or grilling of delicate ingredients such as chicken and fish. Used while still fresh and green, they lend a very moist quality to any food prepared in them and also imbue foods with a delicious herbal flavor.

While Southeast Asian nations have used banana leaves in food preparation for generations, only recently have innovative American chefs begun to explore their infinite possibilities. It’s no wonder there are so many Asian restaurants named for this utilitarian, albeit inedible food ameliorant.

Rio Rancho’s Banana Leaf restaurant opened in January, 2005 to some popular acclaim. Bringing you the culinary cuisine of Southeast Asia kitchens to your table, it features Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese items on a diverse, multi-page menu. What it doesn’t feature is any items prepared with the item for which it is named (bummer).

Owned and operated by a Vietnamese family which also operates restaurants in Roswell, New Mexico as well as in California, it is another sign that the “city of vision” has arrived with a flourish.

Wonton chips and sweet-and-sour sauce

Wonton chips and sweet-and-sour sauce

Complementary wonton chips are brought to your table while you peruse a menu that will have you hard-pressed to select from among many delicious sounding options. The slightly salty chips are great when dipped into the restaurant’s piquant sauce. Good appetizer options abound.

The imperial rolls (crispy fried Vietnamese egg rolls) with ground pork and shrimp are an excellent start and served with a plum sauce that’s emboldened with chilies that made the sauce sweet, tangy and piquant.

The peanut dipping sauce accompanying the chicken satay, is not as cloying as offered at many Thai restaurants and it’s got more chile than most. Still, you won’t want to cover up the wonderfully marinated chicken skewers which are redolent with the intoxicating aroma of yellow curry.

The Banana Leaf’s chicken wrap features minced chicken, black mushroom, scallion, onion, basil leaf, silver noodle, chopped peanuts and sesame seeds served with iceberg lettuce. It’s as good, if not better than the wraps at the Americanized Chinese dynasty, P.F. Chang’s.

Chicken satay

Chicken satay

If you’re a fan of Vietnamese style spring rolls, the misnamed “cool and crisp salad rolls” feature lettuce, mint, cucumber, bean sprout, vermicelli and shrimp wrapped in rice paper. They’re not quite as good as you’ll find at May Hong, but when ameliorated with that peanut sauce, are a taste treat.

Among the entrees, it’s always difficult to pass up curry, but the Tama Cod Fillet, a grilled Alaskan cod, is a great alternative. Two half-inch fish slabs are decorated with cilantro, scallion and onion in a tamarind chile sauce. There is no “fishy” taste in the cod which is of surprisingly high quality.

When you can’t pass up curry (as is usually the case for me), the Thai yellow curry is a welcome departure from curry which is sometimes served nearly dessert sweet at some Thai restaurants. Although coconut milk figures into this curry, it’s in subtle quantities that don’t overwhelm the curry.

Yellow Curry

Yellow Curry

Served with either fried rice or standard white rice, this curry dish is constructed with potato, bell pepper, onion, carrot and sweet basil. Portion sizes are enormous so you’ll definitely have left-overs for dinner. If anything, curry tastes even better when reheated. It must have something to do with its complex flavors permeating the other ingredients even more than when first prepared.

The Vietnamese Beef Vermicelli salad with a chile vinaigrette is a refreshing mix of contrasting and complementary ingredients: lettuce, mint, cucumber, bean sprout, egg rolls and vermicelli. Served in a huge bowl, it is an excellent entree when you’re in the mood for something filling and delicious that’s also relatively healthy.

Banana Leaf doesn’t serve the de rigueur Thai dessert of mangoes with sticky rice, but it does serve several other alternatives that might make you forget what is probably your favorite Thai post-prandial offering.

Decadent dessert option

Decadent dessert option

One of the more popular dessert choices and one not seen in many Thai restaurants in New Mexico provides a variety of tastes. At first glance, this dessert (pictured at right) looks like donut holes you might find at Dunkin Donuts covered in powdered sugar and honey, but one bite will tell you this is something else entirely.

Inside the donut-hole like exterior are nuggets of sweet corn and coconut and the topping drizzled atop isn’t honey, but a caramel sauce. Despite appearances, it’s not especially sweet, but it is quite good.

It’s uncommon for a single restaurant to be categorized as the best Chinese, best Thai and best Vietnamese restaurant in town, but Banana Leaf probably holds that distinction. It’s a restaurant with many surprises, but what doesn’t ever come as a surprise are the unfailingly fresh ingredients in every menu item, the impeccable service and the variety of a menu which treats you to a taste of Asia.

Banana Leaf
355 Rio Rancho, S.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 24 June 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tama Cod Fillet, Imperial Rolls

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