Garcia’s Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Original Garcia's on Juan Tabo, N.E.

The Original Garcia's on Juan Tabo, N.E.

According to the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, the most common surname in America is (not surprisingly) Smith, a name shared by over two and a half million people. Contrary to popular belief Jones is not the second most common surname.  With only one and a half million citizens, Jones is the fourth most common surname in the census.  The Jones are trying to keep up with the Johnsons (two million) and Williams (1.7 million).

The most common Hispanic surname in America is Garcia.  With more than 630 thousand citizens bearing the name, it is the eighteenth most common surname in the fruited plain followed by Martinez with 581 thousand plus bearers.

In Albuquerque one of the most common restaurants is The Original Garcia’s Kitchen with seven locations throughout the metropolitan area.  Common does not necessarily connote average or ordinary.  In this case it speaks to the sheer number of instantiations bearing the name of one of the city’s most popular dining establishments.

The caricature of Andy Garcia can be found throughout the restaurant

The caricature of Andy Garcia can be found throughout the restaurant

The Original also does not mean the first one of the seven Garcia’s Kitchen restaurants.  Each of the seven restaurants is called The Original Garcia’s Kitchen.  I surmise it might have something to do with a short-lived interloper named Garcia’s of Scottsdale which opened and closed in the early 1980s in the uptown area.

The Original Garcia’s Kitchen has been serving Albuquerque diners since 1973.  That’s nearly 35 years of people pleasing that says it’s doing many things right.

Garcia’s is a restaurant with a personality, albeit in the form of a caricature of Andy Garcia, the restaurant’s owner.  That caricature depicts a sombrero wearing Andy with a cherubic smile holding a plateful of tacos on one hand and a towel on the other.  It is prevalent throughout his restaurants; you can find it on colorful paintings, the menus and even on napkins.

Every one of the seven restaurants is brightly and festively decorated with an ambiance tailored to the specific neighborhood it is serving.  Garcia’s Web site offers several Betty Boop themed novelties that seem to go hand-in-hand with the Andy caricature.

One of the things that makes Garcia’s so popular is its breakfast at any time option.  There’s a separate section called “Gringo Breakfast” if you prefer not to have any chile laden entrees.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

Make that “chili” or at least that’s the way it’s spelled on the menu.  It’s one of several menu malapropisms the purist in me finds hard to accept as cutesy.  Other liberties taken on the menu include “Karnita’s” and the listing of fajitas under the New Mexican food.

Yeah, I know.  What do I want–good grammar or good taste?  Obviously there’s nothing as important as great tasting New Mexican food and that’s where Garcia’s has won over legions of fans.  Alas, you can’t count me among them.

I receive more e-mail asking me to review Garcia’s than just about any other restaurant in the Duke City.  There are several reasons Garcia’s isn’t on my list of favorite New Mexican restaurants and every one of them was confirmed during my most recent visit (October, 2007).

The first reason is the saltiness of the chips.  Modern technology has made possible the desalinization of ocean water.  It shouldn’t be that difficult to desalinate chips.  It’s too bad such overly salted chips are served with an excellent, rich red salsa with the piquant bite purists crave.  With better chips, it’s a two bowl pre-meal salsa.

Enchilada plate with a fried egg atop

Enchilada plate with a fried egg atop

The second reason is that I’ve never had a plate from Garcia’s served at more than lukewarm.  To me it’s a near criminal offense not to serve New Mexican food piping hot.  Other restaurants (La Esquina comes to mind) don’t seem to have a problem serving hot food.  I, for one, appreciate the warning, “be careful, the plate’s hot.”

The third reason has to do with the papas (along with rice, beans or French Fries being the sides you can have with your entrees) which might be good if they didn’t consistently look as if scraped from the bottom of the frying pan.

Garcia’s chile is a bit on the insipid side, barely registering on the piquant scale.  It’s the type of chile (I can’t bring myself to spell it “chili”) you would serve visitors from the Midwest who aren’t used to highly spiced, piquant food.

On the plus side there are some things I do appreciate about Garcia’s.  The service is always first-rate with an attentive, highly skilled wait staff.



The Karnitas, despite that atrocious spelling, are tender and delicious–like carne adovada without chile.

Garcia’s sopaipillas are also quite good–and they are served steamy hot.  They’re not quite pillowy as at other restaurants, but they always feel and taste freshly made and delicious.

Garcia’s also serves excellent biscochitos.  The official New Mexico state cookie, the best biscochitos are topped with plenty of anise for sweetness and flavor.  These are some of the best!

Garcia’s does its very best to live up to its motto “Stamp Out Gringo Food.”  With a loyal fan base and seven restaurants throughout the Duke City, it certainly puts a dent on it.

Garcia’s Kitchen
3601 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 October 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Biscochitos, Salsa

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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

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