Sandia Crust Pizza Company – Cedar Crest, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Jerry Garcia in a place of honor

Jerry Garcia and other San Francisco icons festoon this wall

Deadheads and pizza have been inextricably tied since 1993 when (legend has it) an audacious pizza delivery boy absconded with several cassette tapes from Jerry Garcia’s kitchen counter.  It didn’t take long before late-night Grateful Dead radio programs around the country were playing second- and third-generation “dubs” of the rough mixes that have come to be known as “The Pizza Tapes.”

The Pizza tapes featured the collaboration of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, mandolinist David Grisman and guitarist Tony Rice, all legendary figures in the music world.  The 12-song improvisation gives every indication that the session was warm, intimate and replete with the joyful spontaneity and rapport of friends not used to playing together but having a genuinely good time nonetheless.

In 2000 the Pizza Tapes were released as an album with all its warts and blemishes (talking between musicians, false starts and mistakes).  Alisa Young, who hardly looks old enough to have been born in the 70s (much less the 60s), saw her first Grateful Dead concert in 1978.  Today Sandia Crust, the restaurant she and her husband Jamie, launched in December, 2005 celebrates the Grateful Dead and both the unique music and culture (or counterculture depending on your perspective) of San Francisco during the generation of love that was the 60s.

The Sandia Crust Pizza Company in Cedar Crest, New Mexico

The restaurant’s pumpkin and paprika walls are festooned with several lithographs of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995) along with autographed photos of other Grateful Dead members. Also immortalized are Janice Joplin (1943- 1970) and Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970).  Jefferson Airplane aficionados will appreciate the poster announcing a concert at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom featuring Jefferson Airplane and a local folk-rock group called the Great Society.  The Airplane is considered the flagship act for the burgeoning psychedelic music scene developed in San Francisco during the mid 1960s.  The lead singer for Great Society was Grace Slick who would later become a member of the Airplane.

A psychedelic theme continues with a framed limited edition (278 of 420) two-paneled print depicting 1960s counterculture icon Timothy Leary.  An advocate of psychedelic drug research and use, Leary coined and popularized the catch phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  A sign over the front door expresses some of the “establishment’s” sentiment of the era: “Hippies use the side door.”  If you look closely, you’ll also see a Haight-Ashbury label on the back side of the restaurant’s open/closed signage.  The 60s American counterculture era is synonymous with the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco, a district that served as the center of the 1960s hippie movement.

The Black n' Blue pizza

The Black n’ Blue pizza

It is definitely the Young’s intent to inspire nostalgia among their patrons though I suspect that many of them have only read or seen documentaries about the 60s and didn’t live it the way some of us geriatrically advanced fogeys did.  Having lived within easy walking distance of New Mexico’s branch of the Hog Farm Collective (in the 60s, Hog Farm members were a mixture of hippies, political activists and mainstream society drop-outs), the art and ambience at Sandia Crust resonated greatly with me.

Also resonating strongly is the menu at the diminutive pizzeria.  At first glance there’s not much to distinguish it from any menu at any shopping center pizza parlor: pizza, calzones, Ciabatta sandwiches, pasta, soups, salads and desserts.  Study it a bit further and you might just surmise that the unique pizza combinations were inspired by the tie-dyed tee-shirts popular in the 60s.  These are not your mama’s pizzas.  Sure some of the standards are there, but you can have a Margherita anywhere (albeit probably not as good as at Sandia Crust).

Try instead the Black n Blue, a pie topped with blackened steak, gorgonzola, shallots, sun-dried tomato pesto and mozzarella.  This gourmet pizza is terrific!  The gorgonzola is of medium sharpness and gives the pie a wonderfully pungent aroma.  The blackened steak is cut into small bite-sized pieces and while you might be tempted to pluck off and eat each piece separately, don’t dare desecrate the harmonious marriage of flavors on this inspired pizza.

White Pizza

White Pizza

The traditional pizza bianca or white pizza generally has no sauce, just a covering of mozzarella cheese atop of garlic, olive oil and herbs.  At Sandia Crust, some artistic liberties are taken with the White Pizza offering.  Alisa, a creative pizzaioli artisan if there ever was one, tops this pizza with Mascarpone cheese, olive oil, Roma tomatoes, roasted garlic, caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese.  It’s a marvelous melding of ingredients on an artistic canvas of perfectly charred dough.

All pizzas are 12-inches though a 16-inch option is also available.  With a day’s advance notice Sandia Crust will also prepare a gluten-free pie for you.

The Sandia Crust Pizza Company was initially ensconced in a strip mall on the west side of the Turquoise Highway, then  moved to the former site of Nouveau Noodles, a stand-alone facility before settling on a site just south of the Sandia Park entrance to the Sandia Mountains.  It’s a heavily trafficked restaurant, much of its business being a robust take-out operation. Eating in is also an option and a great way to imbibe San Francisco culture on the East Mountains.

The restaurant’s salad repertoire is as intriguing as the pizza menu.  The spinach salad is composed artistically of fresh baby spinach, smoked bacon, caramelized onions, walnuts, goat cheese and embellished with a gorgonzola vinaigrette dressing.  The dressing may sound like a joining of unlikely ingredients, but in the hands of the Youngs, it’s likely good enough to convert the most staunch of carnivores.

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Sandia Crust Pizza Company a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its grilled vegetarian lasagna as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

Whether you’re into 60s era nostalgia or just want terrific pizza, the Sandia Crust Pizza Company is more than a worthwhile drive on one of America’s most scenic highways.  It’s a destination restaurant that will make you wish it was closer to home (or more likely that you had the good fortune to live on the back side of the Sandias.)

Sandia Crust Pizza Company
1218 North Highway 14
Cedar Crest, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Black n’ Blue Pizza, White Pizza

Sandia Crust Pizza on Urbanspoon

Tucanos Brazilian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Tucano's on the intersection of 1st and Central in the downtown area.

Many New Mexico born Hispanics of my generation grew up watching not only American “shoot ’em up” Westerns featuring rugged cowboys, rowdy rustlers, round-ups and home on the range, but the Mexican equivalent–movies featuring the exploits of charros, the traditional cowboys of central and northern Mexico. My friends and I could only dream about overcoming marauding Indians, desperate rustlers and flooding rivers as we drove our cattle to the stockyards in Abilene just like our white hat wearing heroes. 

It’s conceivable that in Brazil, cinematic exploits glamorized the equivalent to America’s cowboy–the gaucho, a South American cattle herder who tended his herds on the rich, verdant pampas. For generations the pampas is where the very best cattle herds in Brazil have been raised.  Like American cowboys, gauchos had their version of the chuckwagon of the old West in which horses pulled a mobile kitchen from which they were fed during roundups…and similar to cowboys, gauchos became adept at preparing meals over an open fire.  Gaucho rotisseries are renown for the delicious preparation of beef. 

Rotisseries prepare meats

The gaucho style of grilling, called churrasco (roughly the Portuguese equivalent of “barbecue”), is today celebrated from Rio de Janeiro to Albuquerque in Brazilian steakhouses called Churrascarias. In modern Churrascarias, an entertaining and filling “rodizio” style buffet and service are provided.  Servers come to your table with a skewer on which are speared several kinds of meat.  Almost all rodizio courses are served sizzling right off that skewer and are sliced and plated right onto your table. 

Accommodating servers bring one meat after another until you say “nao obrigado”–no, thank you.  Not literally.  Each table includes a wooden “cue” which tells your servers where you stand.  The green side indicates you want more selections brought to your table while the red side of the cue indicates you’re done.

Tucano's salad bar

In 2000, Albuquerque matriculated to the Churrascaria dining craze when Tucanos opened its spacious restaurant on the corner of Central and First (the only other Tucanos restaurant in America can be found in Provo, Utah).  Tucanos churrasco includes assorted breads, fried bananas, an unlimited salad festival and all churrasco offerings.  The salad festival is fresh and abundant with hot and cold items that include stroganoff, mashed potatoes, black beans and rice and various fruits.  

Tucanos churrasco features an assortment of beef, poultry and pork selections sure to please any carnivore.  Other selections include a daily seafood (Frutos do Mar) offering; legumes, seasonal grilled vegetables and grilled pineapple (Abacaxi) which is used as a palate cleanser in between portions.  If memory serves me, for the dinner version of the churrasco, seventeen different items are brought to your table. Not every selection will have you singing the praises of this restaurant.  It’s been our experience that some of the beef sirloin courses tend to be served on the rare side (if you can’t stand the sight of blood, you might not want it dripping onto your plate from a skewer).  Other courses are in dire need of desalinization.

The dessert tray at Tucano's

There are some selections that have absolutely captivated us–the linguica (a lightly spiced Brazilian sausage), the tender (a fresh ham served with pineapple) and some of the barbecue and teriyaki flavored meats are absolutely delicious.  Top off your meal with a Brazilian lemonade–lime and lemon juices prepared with condensed milk to give you a liquefied “key lime pie” sensation. 

Surprisingly, Tucanos charges almost exactly half what you would pay for a similar meal in Las Vegas and while there was an expected degradation in food quality, Tucanos is formidable in its own right.  It’s only in service where Tucanos is sometimes lacking.  The meat carvers are typically Johnny-on-the-spot, however, on busy days, you practically have to chase down the wait staff for drink refills.

Adjacent to the downtown’s Century theater, this restaurant will pack them in for years.

Tucanos Brazilian Grill
110 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 17 September 2007
COST: $$$
BEST BET:  Sausage, Chicken, Cod With Mango Sauce

Tucanos Brazilian Grill on Urbanspoon

Tawan Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Tawan Thai in Rio Rancho

Tawan Thai in Rio Rancho

Note: This review was written about a Tawan Thai Cuisine location in Rio Rancho that no longer exists. The original Tawan Thai at 200 Wyoming Blvd, S.E., also closed in late 2008.

For Rio Rancho’s Thai cuisine aficionados the sky was bleak only briefly. The despair they felt after the closure of Hong Thai was replaced scant weeks later by elation at the August, 2007 launch of Tawan Thai Cuisine. With that launch, the sun began shining brightly as City of Vision residents could once again Thai one on.

Tawan, the Thai word for sun, is quickly becoming a shining star (a sun) in the City of Vision’s restaurant scene. Ensconced in the nondescript Lujan Plaza, it is, for many reasons, appropriately named for the sun.

One of those reasons is that the sun might be high in the sky when you get there and behind the horizon when you leave, a testament to service as slow as an Alaskan sunset in June…but I digress.

Rio Rancho’s Tawan Thai Cuisine restaurant is the second restaurant by that name in the Albuquerque metropolitan area. The first is on Wyoming Boulevard about a mile north of the Kirtland Air Force Base entrance. Both are owned by Monica and Harris Nonnapha.

Bill Resnik fills his plate for the fourth time on Tawan's buffet

Bill Resnik fills his plate for the fourth time on Tawan's buffet

Rio Rancho’s Tawan occupies the space once held by the aforementioned Hong Thai which succeeded China Luck in a corner suite which has seen many tenants in its day. One commonality among the last three occupants is a lunch buffet.

A lunch buffet isn’t necessarily an accurate barometer of a restaurant’s quality, but it does give you an opportunity to sample several different items. If you’re lucky you’ll find one or two intriguing items which might prompt a dinner visit sometime in the future. For me, the future was all of six hours away. That’s how much promise several buffet items showed. The most promising were pot stickers with an aftertaste of delicious grilled char. Interestingly, those pot stickers aren’t on the regular menu, but they should be.

The rotating buffet menu also included minced chicken larb, a Thai meat salad flavored with chili, mint leaves, lime juice and assorted herbs and spices. Tawan’s larb has the consistency of sausage out of the casing and in fact, tastes like a very good sausage.

From the buffet

From the buffet

The ubiquitous egg roll also made an appearance on the lunch buffet. It’s a vegetarian egg roll, the primary vegetable ingredient being cabbage. These egg rolls also have the delicious grilled char smokiness of the pot stickers without any hint of being burnt.

Tawan’s sweet and sour sauce is somewhat clear and watery with the consistency of Vietnamese fish sauce. It’s also more sour than it is sweet, courtesy of generous amounts of vinegar, and not at all lacquer-like in appearance and candied in taste like so many egg roll sauces.

Interestingly, the buffet’s red curry included one ingredient typically served only with green curry in Albuquerque area Thai restaurants. That ingredient, bamboo shoots, goes well with any curry.

From among the buffet items, the only item which truly disappointed was the fried rice which wasn’t quite done. If there’s such a term as al dente for rice, this rice would fit that definition. It wasn’t quite crunchy, but like al dente pasta had just enough resistance to be felt “by the tooth.”

Tawan’s lunch buffet was a bargain at $6.95 per person. It was served from 11AM through 3PM Monday through Friday but was discontinued within months after the restaurant’s launch.

More treasures from the buffet: chicken larb, red curry and rice

More treasures from the buffet: chicken larb, red curry and rice

One other thing nine-to-fivers will appreciate about Tawan’s buffet is the “get in and get out quickly” factor. If you’re in a hurry, however, you might not notice just how lovely (in a typically subdued manner) the restaurant is.

As in just about every Thai restaurant, de rigueur photographs of the reigning king and queen of Thailand are prominently displayed. I’ve often wondered what the general public’s reaction would be to framed photographs of Dubya in every barbecue restaurant in America.

The main dining room’s walls are painted a bright lemon yellow and are trimmed in rust. Maroon sheers festoon every window. Over the buffet station are figurines of a troupe of Thai musicians, each member carrying or playing an instrument of some sorts: woodwinds, string and percussion.

Interestingly, instead of the heterophonic (one melody but multiple voices, each playing the melody differently or in a different tempo or rhythm) music, the dulcet tones of woodwinds and strings seem to be Tawan’s music of choice. Frankly, it makes for a more enjoyable dinner ambiance than the nasaly vocals of the heterophonic style.

What really sets the mood is a large hand fan on the dining room’s west wall. The fan is the orange shade of a New Mexico sunset. Appropriately, the fan is hand-painted with a scene depicting a Thai fishing village at dusk. A watery lagoon reflects the sinking sun and illuminates grassy huts on the shore and fishing boats coming in after a day’s catch. It is quite striking.

Also striking is an appetizer selection called golden bags (six per order). Crispy wontons are stuffed with cream cheese mixed with cilantro and crab meat. Whether you call them golden bags or crag Rangoon, they are absolutely delicious. The buttery smooth cream cheese and refreshing cilantro is what you’ll taste most prominently with but a vague hint of crab.

A combination plate appetizer provides the opportunity to sample several items: two egg rolls, three fried wontons, three golden bags and two chicken satays.

Combination plate

Combination plate #1

From among the combination plate, the stand-out are the golden bags and the egg rolls. The satay was somewhat desiccated though an excellent peanut sauce invigorated it.

The Massamun Curry, a dish from the southern part of Thailand, is a spectacular entree containing coconut milk, potatoes, onions, roasted peanuts and pineapple along with your choice of meat. The coconut milk and the curry are complementary with neither dominating, instead both playing concordant tunes on your taste buds.

Massamun curry can be made piquant to your exacting specifications. New Mexico fire eaters should easily be able to handle level five or six.

Two detractors mitigated my enjoyment, the first being crunchy (al dente again) Jasmine rice.

Massamun curry

Massamun curry

The second factor and one I’m still debating is whether any curry, outstanding though it may be, is worth waiting more than an hour for.

The Alibi’s lovely and talented restaurant critic, Jennifer Wohletz reported in her review of Tawan that service got progressively slower as the meal went on. That was our experience as well, hence my earlier comment about the sun being high in the sky when you arrive and beyond the horizon when you leave.

During our third visit, our appetizer (golden bags again) arrived in 25 minutes and our entree 20 minutes later. This was a market improvement from our inaugural dinner visit but still somewhat slow.

The slowness is mitigated somewhat by the wonderful food served at Tawan. An order of drunken noodles with pork was perhaps the best we’ve had in the metropolitan area. The pork had a pronounced grilled taste while the flat noodles were perfectly cooked. Unlike other drunken noodles we’ve had, there was little bite to these. Instead the prevalent taste was of sweetness–almost pad Thai sweet but more closely resembled an anise blessed Vietnamese dish. It was delicious.

Tom G

Tom Kha Gai

Even better is Tawan’s Tom Kha Gai, the comforting soup made from a treasure trove of delicious ingredients: coconut milk, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, boneless chicken, fish sauce, sugar, lime, coriander and Thai chili peppers.

The Tom Kha Gai is served in a unique clay vessel unlike the aluminum tureens used at most Thai restaurants. Instead of the usual Sterno, a flammable jellied alcohol was used and it upped the heat intensity considerably. In fact, at one point we feared the soup would boil over.

Regardless of temperature, this is some of the best Tom Kha Gai in the Albuquerque area–a perfect melding of ingredients that allowed each to shine in a harmony of deliciousness.

Lest it escapes me, you can wash down your meal at Tawan with bubble juice with tapioca or what is called boba juice at other restaurants in the Duke City. Tawan’s version is even more creamy than we’ve had in New Mexico with a texture like ice milk.

The bubble juice is also naturally sweetened, not at all cloying like some boba juice tends to be. You can see and taste pulpy bits of mango and honeydew (the two available flavors).

Don’t let too many suns set before you visit Tawan.

Tawan Thai Cuisine
200 Wyoming Blvd SE
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 14 September 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Golden Bags, Egg Rolls, Chicken Larb, Mussamun Curry, Crispy Duck

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