Painted Horse Coffeehouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Painted Horse Cafe, an oasis of great food on Albuquerque's West side.

The Painted Horse Cafe, an oasis of great food on Albuquerque's West side.

In the summer of 2000, prominent artists throughout the Southwest resoundingly answered the call to submit their design ideas for painting on an unconventional medium–a horse cast in a durable resin blend.

This particular canvas was chosen to commemorate the introduction to North America of the horse. More than five centuries ago, Spanish Conquistadores explored New Mexico astride the noble beast.

The painted ponies were intended to promote artistic excellence and for about a year, the “trail of painted ponies” led art aficionados to various galleries throughout the state where the equine masterpieces were on display. In the fall of 2001, the ponies were sold and garnered over half a million dollars for altruistic causes.

Fast forward to March, 2006 when culinary pioneers Debbie and Jud Lewis-Mahon, blazed their own trail on painted ponies of their own, albeit gleaming metal steeds with considerably more horsepower than the Conquistadores’ horses.

That’s when they launched the Painted Horse Coffeehouse in the Paseo del Norte Shopping Center on Albuquerque’s far Northwest corner. Like the Spanish explorers, the Lewis-Mahons have had to surmount vast expanses of wasteland–in this case, a plethora of chain restaurant mediocrity. The Painted Horse Coffeehouse is a rarity in this part of the Duke City, a true mom and pop restaurant.

Sean Padgett (left) and Jud Lewis-Mahon deliver breakfast to a lucky table.

Sean Padgett (left) and Jud Lewis-Mahon deliver breakfast to a lucky table.

The Painted Horse occupies the space once held by the Gourmet Bagel and Coffee Co. and has actually captured many of its predecessor’s loyal patrons…and not solely because they sell fourteen varieties of bagels. Initially the bagels were acquired from Wolfe’s Bagels, a locally owned, family operated favorite, but now they are made in-house and are just as good, if not better.

Despite its shopping center storefront facade, the Painted Horse isn’t your conventional humdrum coffeehouse. It has a distinct upscale avant garde feel to it, a sort of neighborly Santa Fe type place in which you can kick back in comfort, bask in the morning sunlight and imbibe the aromas of steaming coffee and delectable pastries. Bistro tables and comfy chairs beckon.

Operating hours are also somewhat unconventional for a coffee house. Dinner hours vary by day, but most nine-to-fivers on the West side should be able to make it to the Painted Horse for dinner Monday through Saturday. Don’t miss out on the monthly slam (a form of performance poetry that occurs within a competitive poetry event) and open mike event held the third Friday of every month at 6PM.

Eclectic art–whether it’s watercolor paintings of age-worn Northern New Mexico casitas or smiling gargoyles–will catch your attention, but what will hold it are the pastries under a glass case. This is dessert art at its most appetizing, a bevy of calorie laden confections crafted in-house by Jud himself, the visionary instrumental in developing many of the restaurant’s offerings in addition to baking all breads, pastries and desserts.

The Chiptle Chicken Sandwich and a bowl of steaming Sherry Onion Soup

The Chipotle Chicken Sandwich and a bowl of steaming Sherry Onion Soup

The menu, scrawled in different colors on a chalkboard high above the ordering counter, is a veritable treasure trove of chic panini sandwiches, wondrous pastries, exotic coffees, Italian sodas, a salubrious and savory soup of the day and much more. The breakfast menu features the aforementioned bagels and New Mexico’s ubiquitous breakfast burritos.

Gourmet panini sandwiches begin with substantial slices of artisan breads which are engorged with fresh vegetables, meats and condiments. You’ll be challenged to make a selection from among the inventive toasted and non-toasted sandwich choices on the menu.

You can’t go wrong with the Chipotle Chicken sandwich served cold. It features a thinly sliced, unbreaded chicken breast festooned with a sweet chipotle mayo, a sweet and buttery havarti cheese, lettuce and tomato on soft focaccia bread. The melding of ingredients is both creative and delicious.

The Painted Horse's breakfast burrito served Christmas style.

The Painted Horse's breakfast burrito served Christmas style.

The menu also includes New Orleans’ favorite sandwich, the muffaletta. In reality, it’s more akin to a fancy ham sandwich in that it features thinly sliced ham, provolone cheese and a Balsamic pesto spread. If you’re a stickler for authenticity, this sandwich won’t provide it, but if a great tasting sandwich is what you’re after, this one will fit the bill.

A steaming bowl of the soup of the day will warm the cockles of your heart and make you ready to face the most daunting of New Mexico winter days. The Painted Horse’s flavorful Sherry Onion Soup may be the most subtle French onion soup I’ve ever sampled in that it isn’t dominated by saltiness. You can really discern the individual tastes of savory beef broth, sweet caramelized onions and melted cheese.

If you manage to bypass the Meryl apple pie, the dessert case is bound to have your favorite pastry dessert, whatever it might be. A popular favorite is the bumbleberry pie.

Since there’s no such thing as a bumbleberry, pastry chefs typically use in-season berries. The Painted Horse’s version, during a December visit was made with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. It showcased the delicious tanginess of three distinct berries in a flaky crust.

The "Big Breakfast"

The "Big Breakfast"

New Mexicans might opt for the piñon brownie which features one of the state’s best natural treasures–piñon. This is a rich dark chocolate brownie drizzled with white chocolate glaze and replete with delicious crunchiness. It’s so good you might not want to share it. Nor will you want to give up any of the bourbon pecan pie, as good as any you’ll find in the deep South.

Maxwell House had it all wrong. The best part of getting up isn’t a steamy cup of coffee, it’s an outstanding breakfast burrito served Christmas style (both red and green chile), especially if the person taking your order is co-owner Debbie (she of the luminous smile and effervescent personality).

The Painted Horse’s version of the quintessential New Mexico breakfast entree is wonderful. Moreover, it’s a testament to the talent of the owners who certainly didn’t grow up eating chile in Vancouver. They’re now as addicted to chile as any native and prepare it as well, too.

That breakfast burrito can be had smothered in either red or green (or both) or as a hand-held burrito. It is engorged with home fries, bacon and eggs.

Challah Bread French Toast---Wow!

Challah Bread French Toast---Wow!

The “Big Breakfast” is aptly named–home fries, two eggs, two pieces of bacon, a bagel or your choice of toasted bread and tomato slices. The home fries are crispy on the outside and tender inside, the antithesis of similar offerings at other restaurants.

If you start out your mornings craving something sweet, the answer to your yen is the Painted Horse’s French toast crafted from homemade Challah bread lightly dusted with cinnamon and sugar. This is tree thick slices of utter deliciousness, some of the best French toast in the city.

For smaller breakfast fare, you can’t go wrong with the Painted Horse bagels–fourteen varieties in all, ranging from chocolate to garlic to green chile and so much more. These bagels are chewy and dense with a doughy interior and perfectly browned exterior. You can have them toasted or untoasted and with butter, peanut butter or cream cheese (four housemade varieties, including green chile).

In 2006 the McDonald’s Corporation honored Herb Peterson with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his creation of the Egg McMuffin, McDonald’s popular breakfast sandwich. The Egg McMuffin consists of a slice of Canadian bacon, a grill-cooked egg and a slice of cheese on a buttered, toasted English muffin. A sausage patty may also be selected in place of the Canadian bacon.

The Painted Horse's wondrous breakfast sandwich. Who needs the Egg McMuffin?

The Painted Horse Coffeehouse has its own breakfast sandwich that rivals (and may even exceed) the heralded Egg McMuffin in terms of flavor. This rendition consists of any bagel (try the green chile bagel) with a savory scrambled egg, Cheddar cheese and crispy bacon. It is a delicious waker-upper. Even better, try this sandwich on a buttery croissant.

The Painted Horse is a horse of a different color from all the tired, mangy corporate chain nags on the Northwest side. It’s streamlined and built for comfort and deliciousness! It’s the type of restaurant Albuquerque patrons should muster all their horsepower to get to soon and often.

Painted Horse Coffehouse
9311 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 14 October 2007
BEST BET: Chipotle Chicken Sandwich, Bourbon Pecan Pie, Bumbleberry Pie, Pinon Brownie, Sherry Onion Soup, Challah Bread French Toast, Breakfast Burrito Christmas Style

Cafe Voila – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Voila

Cafe Voila

Mon ami Francophile who spends months vacationing in France likes to talk about his dining experiences in the land of haute cuisine and haughty waiters, regaling anyone who will listen with tales of surliness, scorn and condescension the likes of which Americans are unused to.

His favorite tales of woe involve a churlish waiter at a sidewalk cafe in Paris adept at ignoring customers to the full extent of their patience then tossing menus at them. When taking their order, he will roll his eyes and tap his pencil on the menu as if aggravated that his valuable time is being wasted.

Leaving the table, he will swing the menu around and hit at least one customer on the head (an eye on a good day). Invariably he will deliver the wrong entrees and blame the mistake on the patron’s horrendous French pronunciation of simple dishes.

My Francophile friend (whom I suspect has more than a little mean streak) sees such surliness as part of the charm of the stereotypical French waiter. He says they’re in a hurry and if you leave in a dither, someone else will take your place who won’t be so sensitive about “a little” abruptness.

Brent Rochford, the affable owner of Cafe Voila

Brent Rochford, the affable owner of Cafe Voila

The service at Cafe Voila in Albuquerque’s Journal center is completely antithetical to the much maligned maliciousness of the stereotypical French waiter. At Cafe Voila you’ll be treated with the utmost of courtesy by a wait staff whose very mission seems to be making your dining experience a memorable and enjoyable one.

That’s probably because the wait staff reflects the high professional standards of youthful owner Brent Rochford (pictured at left). In 2007 Rochford assumed ownership of Cafe Voila, taking the reins from his parents Christian and Debbie Tournier who opened the restaurant in 2003.

Rochford’s experience belies his youth. He has worked in all aspects of the restaurant business for years, progressing from dishwasher to waiting on customers to serving as host. Eventually he headed the entire staff, imparting his flair for personable, attentive service.

Cafe Voila is ensconced in a Journal Center retail area which is bustling during the eight to five hours but becomes a veritable ghost town thereafter. Think of Cafe Voila as an oasis of tranquility amid Albuquerque’s bustling traditional well-beaten, well-eatin’ path. As such, it has become a destination restaurant–patrons have Cafe Voila in mind when they turn onto Jefferson.

Being off that well trodden path does have its disadvantages, one being that if you’re on one of those restaurant rich Albuquerque streets (such as Montgomery or Menaul), you just might not take a few extra minutes to visit the more staid Jefferson.

Cafe Voila's chef salad is a work of edible art

Cafe Voila's chef salad is a work of edible art

Over the years Cafe Voila has adjusted its operating hours in response to customer traffic. Breakfast is no longer served, a true tragedy considering the restaurant offered probably the very best French toast in Albuquerque as well as buttery, flaky and delicious croissants and assorted French pastries all baked in-house. Similarly, a terrific Sunday brunch was short-lived.

Current operating hours are Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 2:30PM for lunch and 5PM through 9PM Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Cafe Voila is closed on Sundays and Monday evenings.

In terms of ambience, think intimate and relaxing. Think great place to get away from it all. The restaurant is modestly appointed with pastel artwork and muted colors. There is nothing to distract you from your dining experience.

Even better, weather permitting, is the south-facing patio where you can enjoy a repast under umbrella tables with a view of the rolling tree-studded, green lawn.

From the onset, the emphasis at Cafe Voila has been on authenticity and quality featuring French country cooking brimming with fresh ingredients and an abundance of vegetables. Plating is an art form while portions are generous, reasonably priced and delicious.

Le Champs Elysées (Salami, Butter, Cornichons)

Le Champs Elysées (Salami, Butter, Cornichons)

The menu offers something for every appetite and while French dishes are featured fare, you’ll also find several Italian entrees including Fettuccini Carbonara and lasagna as good as anywhere in Albuquerque.

Lighter fare includes a nice selection of salads, crepes, quiches, soups and four sandwiches which are available only during lunch hours.

Salads are creative and unfailingly fresh. Cafe Voila’s rendition of the Chef Salad, for example, is made with mixed greens, blue cheese crumbles, walnuts, apples, celery and croutons served with a simple dressing made from wine vinegar, mayonnaise and Dijon mustard.

This is an excellent salad presenting a variety of flavor combinations–from the tartness of the apple slices to the fetid flavor of the blue cheese. The dressing is subtle and light, serving more in complementary fashion than taking over as some dressings are apt to do.

Lest I forget, Cafe Voila bakes some of the very best bread in town. It is hard-crusted, airy French bread served with creamy French butter. Diet be damned, you’ve got to have a few slices of the staff of life with your every meal at Cafe Voila. The bread, like the restaurant’s fabulous French pastries and desserts are all baked in-house. Treat yourself to crème brulee, profiteroles, fruit tarts and more.

Cod with diced tomatoes

Cod with diced tomatoes

You can’t go wrong with any of the menu’s sandwiches, all of which offer a uniquely French country cooking experience. If you’ve ever been to a hypermarket, say at Calais or Boulogne (across the Straits of Dover), you know that a sandwich doesn’t need to include a trove of ingredients to be delicious.

The Le Champs Elysées–Salami, Butter and Cornichons on a baguette is such a sandwich. It is simplicity defined, but the ingredients go so well together that your taste buds won’t have to discern complicated flavor combinations. They’ll just relax and let the simple flavors sing.

The sandwiches at Cafe Voila remind me of my visits to France’s hypermarkets where we loaded up on French bread, cheese, butter, salami and wine and enjoyed some of the very best meals of my years in Europe.

One of the hallmarks of French country cooking is that its basis is not in complicated techniques or exotic ingredients, but in bringing out the satisfying tastes and textures of fresh, in-season vegetables. Cafe Voila does just that.

Fresh spring peas cooked with white onion at Cafe Voila are almost ethereal in their flavor. If it’s possible for freshness to have a flavor, these peas epitomize that flavor. Vegetables might not be the highlight of your meal, but they’ll never be something you discard entirely as at other restaurants. In combination with the restaurant’s potatoes au gratin and baked cod topped with diced sweet tomatoes and delicate capers, this is a first-class meal–one of the very best French meals we’ve had in Albuquerque.

Whether it be sauces or soups, meats, fowl or fish that adorn your plate and tantalize your palate, the verdict at Cafe Voila is always C’est Magnifique.

Cafe Voila
7600 Jefferson Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 13 October 2007
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Bread and Butter, French Onion Soup, Fettuccini Carbonara, Lasagna, Le Champs Elysées Chef Salad, Crème Brulee

Honey Bear’s Barbecue – Phoenix, Arizona

Honey Bear's Barbecue in Phoenix

Honey Bear's Barbecue in Phoenix

Depending on the type of egg, the minimum temperature for frying an egg is said to be 144-158F and on scorching summer days in Phoenix, television news shows perennially traumatize visitors and tourists by frying an egg on the city’s sidewalks.

If blistering heat is the reason the Phoenix area has so many outstanding barbecue restaurants, I’m all for Albuquerque’s temperature climbing a few degrees in the summer.

The venerable Honey Bear’s Barbecue is easily equal to, make that superior to Hap’s Pit Barbecue which I had thought to offer the best barbecue in the greater Phoenix area.

Honey Bear’s has been serving Memphis-style barbecue since 1986 when the proprietors launched the first of three Phoenix area restaurants.  In close proximity to the airport, it’s a popular destination for people flying in and out of Phoenix–and one of the few reasons I enjoy business trips to the Land of the Sun.

Two slogans define the secrets to the restaurant’s success: “You don’t need no teeth to eat our meat” and “Put a little south in your mouth.”

Hot links sandwich

Hot links sandwich

One word of caution about all the sandwiches at Honey Bear’s–the bread just isn’t resilient enough to hold all that flavor (and sauce).  Expect for that bread to crumble and for sauce and meats to tumble onto your plate.  That’s the reason the barbecue gods invented forks.

Among the standout sides are the “Cowbro” beans.  Not your typical plain-Jane molasses based baked beans, they are emboldened with generous amounts of hot links, brisket and hot peppers and reside in a thin tomato sauce.

The lively potato salad would be a standout anywhere else, but it’s those Cowbro beans that steal the show.

Dessert options include traditional Southern favorites: peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.  In all honesty, I’ve never had room for them, but based on the quality of main entrees, imagine they’re probably outstanding.

Honey Bear’s receives criticism in that the meat is sometimes laden with “imperfections” and while I disdain sinew, a little bit of fat here and there sometimes enhances the flavor of barbecue.  That’s the case at Honey Bear’s.

Sandwiches are overstuffed with moist meats slathered with a vinegar based sauce with plenty of zip and zest.  It’s not piquant in the style of New Mexico chile, but will tease and tantalize your taste buds.

The hot links sandwich is practically bursting at the seams with sliced links.  If you’re used to hot links being desiccated and leathery, you’ll be happy to bite into moist and tender links replete with spiciness.  Marry those links with the tangy sauce and you may just have the very best hot links sandwich you’ve ever tasted.

The beef on the barbecue beef sandwich extends beyond the edges of the six-inch buns on which it is piled.  Similar to other sandwiches at Honey Bear’s, you’ll pick off almost as much meat with your fork as you’ll consume as a sandwich.

The mesquite grilled meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and served with a thin, slightly sweet, smoke blessed and just noticeably spicy sauce that did remind me of our Memphis barbecue indulgences.  The daily menu features pork ribs, chicken or a combination of the two.  You can also have pork, beef, chicken or hot links sandwiches.

Daily specials include other entrees such as fried catfish and baby back ribs.  If you’re fortunate enough to visit on Fridays, the day’s special is burnt ends, the Kansas City barbecue style delicacy.  Burnt ends are among the most flavorable pieces of meat on a brisket.

My introduction to Honey Bear’s came in the form of a large barbecue pork sandwich which was easily among the best I’ve had outside the Deep South.  The pork impressed itself upon my olfactory memories and educes a Pavlovian effect every time I think about it.  It’s the type of pork for which you want to save the napkins you used to wipe your mouth.

Some barbecue restaurants (Super Smokers in Missouri comes to mind), meats are like Ivory Snow soap–99 and 44/100% pure.  You won’t find any fatty or sinewy pieces anywhere on their meats.

Pulled pork sandwich

Pulled pork sandwich with Sweet Potato Fries

Honey Bear’s receives criticism in that the meat is sometimes laden with “imperfections” and while I disdain sinew, a little bit of fat here and there sometimes enhances the flavor of barbecue.  That’s the case at Honey Bear’s.

Sandwiches are overstuffed with moist meats slathered with a vinegar based sauce with plenty of zip and zest.  It’s not piquant in the style of New Mexico chile, but will tease and tantalize your taste buds.

The hot links sandwich is practically bursting at the seams with sliced links.  If you’re used to hot links being desiccated and leathery, you’ll be happy to bite into moist and tender links replete with spiciness.  Marry those links with the tangy sauce and you may just have the very best hot links sandwich you’ve ever tasted.

The beef on the barbecue beef sandwich extends beyond the edges of the six-inch buns on which it is piled.  Similar to other sandwiches at Honey Bear’s, you’ll pick off almost as much meat with your fork as you’ll consume as a sandwich.

Barbecue beef sandwich

Barbecue beef sandwich

The little bit of “ambience” the restaurant has is in the form of framed photographs of local sports icons.  The “front” room includes a counter where you place your order and a soft drink dispenser.  The dining room includes a few tables and mostly bare brick walls.

If you want ambience, go elsewhere.  If you want wonderful barbecue, go to Honey Bear’s which has been voted “Best of Phoenix” by New Times magazine practically since the restaurant’s inception.  It’s a haven for sports fans who appreciate outstanding Southern style barbecue.

Honey Bear’s Barbecue
2824 North Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ

LATEST VISIT: 11 October 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Barbecue Pork Sandwich; Barbecue Beef Sandwich; Cowbro Beans; Potato Salad

Patsy Grimaldi’s Pizzeria – Scottsdale, Arizona

Patsy Grimaldi's in Scottsdale, Arizona

Patsy Grimaldi's in Scottsdale, Arizona

America’s most storied non-franchised pizzeria is Patsy Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, New York.  Grimaldi’s can trace its pizza lineage to the opening of the very first pizzeria in America in 1905.

It may also be the country’s best pizzeria as its credentials will attest.  Zagat reviewers named it the number one pizza in New York City from 1997 through 2003.  City Search named it the best pizza in the country from 2001 through 2003.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, such accolades.

Alas, the distance and cost of traveling to New York made my visiting Grimaldi’s prohibitive.

Fortunately, Scottsdale, Arizona is much closer to Albuquerque by thousands of miles than is New York City.  As such, when Grimaldi’s opened its first franchise outside New York in mid-2003, I knew a pilgrimage to the transplanted shrine of pizza was inevitable.

My inaugural visit confirmed in my mind what pizza aficionados know–Patsy Grimaldi’s made some of the very best pizza in America, if not the world.

Pizza chef slathers on the sauce

Pizza chef slathers on the sauce

The smoky taste of this fabled pizza comes from coal-fired brick ovens weighing 25 tons and filled with 250 pounds of coal.  Creating a fiery conflagration scaling to 1,200 degrees, it cooked my pizza to perfection–crisp, chewy and absolutely fabulous–in less than three minutes.

Grimaldi’s pizza comes in only three sizes, a personal pan pizza (12″) a small (16″) and a large (18″) and with individual ingredients ranging in price from $2 to $4 (for the oven roasted sweet red peppers), it’s not a cheap pizza.  You get what you pay for and you’re paying for some of the very best toppings available.

Fresh mozzarella, a lively tomato sauce, Italian sausage and ham made it to my first pie which I ravenously devoured.  The mozzarella comes from free range cows.  On most pizza, mozzarella is a boring topping that just sort of lies there, but at Patsy Grimaldi’s, the mozzarella has a pronounced rich taste that I couldn’t get out of your mind.  It was simply incomparable!

Several years ago, in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, aficionado Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, taking a representative pulse of the best from among thousands of pizza purveyors.  His terrific tome, Pizza A Slice of Heaven, provides a definitive guide to a much-loved product that in its elemental form is simplicity itself–bread, cheese and whatever toppings a pizzaioli artisan might care to add.

Levine declared his favorite Grimaldi’s at the moment to be the one in Scottsdale, the very pizzeria that had ensnared my affections. Levine praised the “Latino pizza-making crew who are creating impressive, sparsely topped pies with pliant, slightly chewy crusts.”

That was in 2005.  Within two years, Patsy Grimaldi’s would also have two more stores in Arizona, one in Chandler and a second one in Scottsdale.  There is also a Las Vegas, Nevada franchise as well as one in Dallas, Texas (opened in November, 2007).

With that type of validation and my personal experiences, I bragged incessantly about the pizzeria in the desert that prepared perfect pies. Alas, as is apt to happen when you sing the praises of a restaurant, the nefarious Mr. Murphy raised his loathsome head the first time I took friends to Grimaldi’s.

In the two years between visits, the Old Town Scottsdale Grimaldi’s had metamorphosed from a pizzeria I dreamt about to a pretender not worthy of bearing its proud name.  It should have been apparent from the restaurant’s sparsity that something was amiss.

A fabulous looking pie

A fabulous looking pie

The transformation was most evident in the crust which seemed to have lost its pliancy and had assumed an uncharacteristic desert dryness.  The crust wasn’t quite cracker-like (more like Pizza Hut’s thin crust), but no longer did it easily fold vertically ala New York style.  Worse, the char that typifies great New York style pizza manifested itself in blotchy patches on the pizza’s bottom.

Patsy Grimaldi’s prides itself in being purists when it comes to pizza and with a heritage that can be traced to the very first pizzeria in America, it’s been crafting perfect pizzas for more than three quarters of a century.  I don’t know if he’d roll over in his grave, but don’t think Patsy would be happy with the pies being served in Scottsdale if my most recent visit is any indication.

Patsy Grimaldi’s Pizzeria
4000 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ
(480) 994-1100

LATEST VISIT: 9 October 2007
COST: $$$