Chef Jim White’s Cafe & Catering – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Albuquerque's celebrity chef, the indefatigable Jim Whte

Albuquerque's celebrity chef, the indefatigable Jim Whte

Long before the Food Network made chefs legitimate on-air celebrity icons, Albuquerque had its own larger-than-life, media-savvy celebrity chef who, it seemed, spent almost as much time on the airwaves as behind the stove.

Chef Jim White was a peripatetic presence on television where he hosted short cooking segments on two Duke City television news programs in addition to having a three-minute format airing in a San Diego station. He also wrote a highly-regarded food column for the Albuquerque Journal.

So well known was (and is) Chef Jim White that in Albuquerque his name is always prefaced with his title, “Chef.” In society, only doctors and professors seem to earn that level of respect and in Hollywood, the celebrity equivalent might be being known by first name (i.e., Oprah, Beyonce).

Chef Jim White was everywhere. He had the energy, enthusiasm and credentials (graduating no less than at the top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America) to carry off bona fide celebrity. He also had an endearing effusive personality that engendered genuine affection among many loyal patrons.

From 1999 until July, 2005, the indefatigable chef also owned Casa Vieja, a venerable Corrales restaurant. At Casa Vieja he popularized a “progressive regional cuisine” concept in which he created different menus on a monthly basis to reflect each of America’s thirteen culinary regions. A “best of” menu from among those regions resulted.

Chef Jim White's Cafe

Chef Jim White's Cafe

After selling Casa Vieja, you could substitute Chef White’s name in the “Where’s Waldo” game. Rumors abounded as to what he was doing and when he would resurface in the public eye.

For a while, Chef Jim was involved in a kitchen design enterprise, but soon found out what home builders know–contractors in the construction game are notoriously unreliable and their inability to meet schedules impacts everyone down the line.

In 2007, the entrepreneurial chef began plying his culinary talents from a 46-food mobile kitchen. His catering company can go virtually everywhere and offers a wide variety of dining options.

2007 also saw Chef Jim return to a more conventional venue, a restaurant ensconced in the New Mexico Design Center, a sort of home design superstore on Alameda. It’s where this chef belongs!

The chef’s new restaurant venture is tastefully appointed in a modernistic fashion. The walls are a veritable festival of colors that go well together. Umbrella-like canopies are suspended from the ceiling.

The restaurant’s menu is displayed on three framed whiteboards hanging behind the order counter. That menu is segmented into logical categories: Wake Up Albuquerque (breakfast), Salads, Pasta, Our “World Famous” Hero Sandwiches, Burgers, Additional Necessities (appetizers), New Mexican, Worth Special Mention (every day specials) and Sweets for My Sweet.

Ultimate Mac & Cheese

Ultimate Mac & Cheese

Chef Jim White’s Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch, from 7AM through 2PM. Some of the menu items will be familiar to diners who visited Chef Jim at the long defunct Humphrey’s Cafe and at Casa Vieja.

“World Famous” Hero Sandwiches may sound like an audacious claim, but considering the number of Air Force personnel for whom Humphrey’s was a very popular dining choice for years, it’s probably an accurate claim. There was a time in which Humphrey’s the place for sandwiches in Albuquerque.

One of the chef’s best sandwiches is the steak and peppers sandwich which is loaded with thinly sliced and perfectly tender strips of beef along with grilled red, yellow and green peppers on a lightly toasted sub roll. Every bite is an adventure in eating pleasure.

One of the chef’s most popular dishes from his tenure at Casa Vieja was the Ultimate Mac & Cheese and it, too, is on the menu–appropriately listed in the “Worth Special Mention” section. You’ll agree it earns the title of special.

Made with a four cheese blend, this may well be the ultimate mac and cheese. It is sinfully rich and creamy, an adult mac and cheese which will have you forever swearing off Kraft dinner. Lightly dusted with parmesan, it is the perfect melding of complementary cheeses. It will devastate any diet, but you won’t care about that until afterwards.

Stacked Enchiladas "Christmas" style

Stacked Enchiladas "Christmas" style

Daily specials might include other pasta and cheese sensations such as tortellini with brie and spicy chicken breasts. This is a sinfully rich and thoroughly delicious entree that melds many tastes–the creamy richness of the brie, the sumptuous texture of pasta and the almost Cajun piquancy of the chicken whose redolence and taste were somewhat reminiscent of the blackening process.

If the daily special includes a side salad, by all means ask for the blue cheese dressing. Chef Jim adds cracked pepper and Tabasco sauce to a pungent blue cheese for a great taste sensation.

Chef Jim makes no secret of the fact that he received an essential part of his culinary training well into his career. That’s when he learned to prepare New Mexican food from his Los Lunas born and raised mother-in-law Luz and her sister Cecilia.

New Mexican food became an integral part of Casa Vieja where the self-proclaimed “Mr. Gringo” held fast to chile preparation traditions he learned, traditions culled from generations of great chile makers.

Green chile cheeseburger

Green chile cheeseburger

The one tradition the menu’s author didn’t follow is in spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable “chili,” a faux pas for any restaurant serving New Mexican food. Spelling notwithstanding, Chef Jim White’s Cafe prepares excellent New Mexican food if the stacked enchiladas are any indication.

The stacked enchiladas feature layers of fried corn tortillas, chile and your choice of chicken, ground, beef or carne adovada all blanketed with either red or green chile. For the best of both worlds, order “Christmas” style and don’t forget to order a fried egg on top of this entree.

The red and green chile are about medium on the piquancy scale, but both are hearty and delicious. The red chile is a deep, rich red color reminiscent of red chile served in restaurants in Belen and Los Lunas. One surprise addition to the enchiladas are strips of crispy bacon. Add bacon to anything and it’s instantly better.

Add New Mexican green chile to a cheeseburger and you’ve got a winner. Chef Jim’s burgers are enormous in both size and flavor. The meat patty is thick, well-seasoned and prepared to your exacting specifications (it’s just about perfect at medium).

Tortellini with brie and spicy chicken

Tortellini with brie and spicy chicken

The green chile is only mildly piquant, but has a fruity flavor and is delicious. This is an excellent green chile cheeseburger and it’s accompanied by French fries seasoned with oregano, salt and pepper, an excellent seasoning array.

On your way out, don’t forget to pick up oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies. It might be about all the room you’ll have after a superb meal prepared by a legitimate celebrity chef.

There’s a bit of an “all is right with the world” sentiment with Chef Jim White back where he should be–preparing some of Albuquerque’s favorite dishes and effusively hobnobbing with his customers.

Chef Jim White’s Cafe & Catering
4501 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 24 January 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Ultimate Mac & Cheese, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Stacked Enchiladas, Steak & Peppers Sandwich

Downtown Gourmet – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

“People who know nothing about cheeses reel away from Camembert, Roquefort, and Stilton
because the plebeian proboscis is not equipped to differentiate between the sordid and the sublime.”

– Harvey Day

The Downtown Gourmet on Central Avenue

The fabulous fromagerie, Albuquerque's much-missed Downtown Gourmet

I don’t know whether or not Mr. Day intended his quote as a condescending affront toward those lacking appreciation for some of the world’s most fetid fromage, but the truth is, not everyone really “gets it” when it comes to stinky cheeses. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

That’s because there really is a cheese for everyone. It’s one of the world’s most versatile and beloved foods and it has been since the very first cheese was made somewhere in the Middle East around 6000 B.C.

Its versatility ranges from overwhelming (to some) to subtle. In taste, it can range from bland to sharp, from buttery and rich to light and delicate and from pleasantly astringent, even mild, to powerful and assertive.

The texture of cheese can range from the softness of melting butter (such as a fine Burrata) to a crumbly firmness that makes it literally flake off in pieces when you cut or bite into it (think Leicester cheese). The aroma of some cheeses can clear a room and turn the stomach, but other cheeses have a pleasing, aromatic bouquet. Still other cheeses have virtually no discernable aroma.

Carey Smoot, the real Downtown Gourmet!

Carey Smoot, the real Downtown Gourmet!

Cheese should be served during special and formal occasions and it’s almost always served with the most American foods of all–sandwiches and burgers. Cheese can be served as a family snack or as the crowning finale to a great gourmet meal. It is nourishing, soul-warming comfort food at its best.

Cheese serves as the perfect complement to fine wines. Both symbolize refinement over time; like fine wine, some cheeses improve with age. Wine and cheese pairings can range from sublime and sophisticated to fun and festive.

Cheese has been written about by Homer (the renown Greek poet, not Homer Simpson) and Aristotle, but its essence may have been captured best by an American writer named Clifton Fadiman who once said “cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality.”

In Albuquerque, a veritable altar to some of the best cheeses in the world can be found at the Downtown Gourmet, a fabulous 1200 square foot fromagerie and grocery store across Central Avenue from Robinson Park. Though technically on the western fringes of Downtown and technically not a grocery store (at least not in the traditional sense) by anyone’s definition of location and store, it’s a little piece of heaven–especially if you love cheese.

The Downtown Gourmet is a full-service retail shop offering over 90 cheeses from around the world. It also has a treasure trove of locally grown and/or organic vegetables and fruits (when available) and offers a wonderful selection of fresh and frozen entrees.

Potato and leek soup

Potato and leek soup

If you’ve ever looked upon shopping as a tedious, but necessary evil, the Downtown Gourmet will change your outlook. Who wouldn’t have fun if they could sample anything in the store before buying it? Who wouldn’t delight in the type of personalized attention that makes you feel special? That’s the feeling you get when you walk into Downtown Gourmet and meet that special lady behind the counter.

The heart and soul of Downtown Gourmet is its effusive proprietor Carey Smoot, the true Downtown Gourmet. Carey is the consummate hostess and she’s designed her shop to reflect her culinary passions. As genuine and friendly as any restaurateur, she genuinely loves introducing her customers to some of the unique products she offers. Visit often enough and you’ll eventually sample everything.

Carey also loves to ply her extraordinary talents in her kitchen where she prepares gourmet quality entrees for take-out. Her specials vary daily and lean toward healthy, comforting entrees prepared extraordinary well. Health-conscious consumers will appreciate both the reasonable portion size and the lightly salted quality of her culinary fare. Most of all, they will appreciate the taste.

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

An apt description for a meal prepared by Carey and intended for immediate consumption might be “fine China quality gourmet food heated in a microwave and served in plastic containers.” The ambience for this repast might be provided by the historic Robinson Park’s verdant surroundings where picnic tables serve as your dining platform.

None of that is a bad thing. In fact, it makes for a very enjoyable dining experience. I’m just so pleasantly surprised and happy to find such high-quality cuisine being served outside of a high-priced restaurant.

Credit that to the delightful Ms. Smoot who revels in taking treasured family recipes (yours or hers) and concocting something delicious–something which resurrects memories. If it’s true that fragrance is among the most potent medium for conjuring up a memory, let Carey apply her talents toward recreating one of your childhood favorites.

She did that for me–not by design, but in offering Beef Stroganoff as a special of the day during my inaugural visit in January, 2008.

My very first memories of this Russian dish stem from having prepared a reconstituted version as a Boy Scout some thirty plus years ago. No one else in Troop 512 would even sample this “sophisticated,” albeit packaged dish, which as it turns out, was a good thing for me. Since then, I’ve ordered Beef Stroganoff every chance I get.

Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff

Carey’s rendition of Beef Stroganoff (pictured at right) was not only infinitely better than the one I prepared over a campfire, it brought back treasured memories of my youth when my energy was boundless and calories melted off my then svelte frame.

At its elemental form, Beef Stroganoff is a dish comprised of strips of lean beef sautéed and served in a rich sauce infused with sour cream. Onions, mushrooms, egg noodles and various spices are part of the entree, too.

In its sublime form, the aforementioned ingredients meld into utter deliciousness–the creaminess of a rich, flavorful sauce; the pleasant texture and earthy flavor of tender mushrooms; the hearty aroma of sautéed beef and a noodle accompaniment that puts it all together.

Carey’s rendition is sublime, probably the best I’ve had in New Mexico. Never mind the plastic container and utensils, this is Beef Stroganoff the type of which you might find served on fine China with the best silverware.

Another memory-triggering special of the day was a Leek and Potato soup, the likes of which we hadn’t had since dining at the Mermaid Inn in picturesque Burford, England. While Europeans (particularly the Welsh) love leeks, they are vastly underutilized in America and that’s a shame because this relative of the humble onion is replete with flavor. Carey herself might describe her leek and potato soup as soul-warming and that would be an accurate description. Comparatively, this is not a rich soup, but it is a delicious one that will truly warm the cockles of your heart and leave your taste buds gloriously happy.

If the Beef Stroganoff and Leek and Potato Soup rekindled old memories, Carey’s Pasta e Fagioli made new ones. Few Albuquerque restaurants serve Pasta e Fagioli and by default, that had rendered Olive Garden’s version my heretofore favorite in the Duke City. No more! Carey’s rendition is not the tomatoey, soup-thin facade served at Olive Garden. It’s a hearty, heart-warming dish with a thick, delicious broth and succulent, fresh vegetables.

If I haven’t written about your favorite or soon-to-be favorite cheese, that’s solely because YOU need to visit the Downtown Gourmet where Carey is waiting to make a new friend out of you. You can thank me after you’re done imbibing all the aromas and flavors of a little shop on Central Avenue that’s a little bit of heaven.

Downtown Gourmet
900 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Stroganoff, Leek & Potato Soup, Pasta e Fagioli

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe

Leave it to the wonderfully irascible and irreverent comedian George Carlin to put things in perspective in his retort to a popular English idiom. “When people say, ‘Oh you just want to have your cake and eat it too.’ What good is a cake you can’t eat? What should I eat, someone else’s cake instead?“.

The idiom “to have one’s cake and eat it, too or simply have one’s cake and eat it” actually means wanting more than one can handle or deserves, or to trying to have two incompatible things. Still, Carlin makes a sage point.

In Albuquerque’s Far North Valley, Albuquerque diners can have their cake and they can eat it, too. They can also have and eat delicious sandwiches, salads, cupcakes, empanadas, pies and other wonderful breakfast and lunch treats.

This is all courtesy of the Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe which opened in December, 2007 in a hundred year old adobe building just south of the capacious El Pinto New Mexican restaurant.

The bakery/cafe is owned by Kathy Medero, an Albuquerque native who trained at the French Culinary Institute of New York. The century plus old building previously housed other restaurants as well as a motorcycle repair shop and a church. Its transformation was nearly a two-year labor of love.

A "Have Your Cake" Dagood Sandwich

A "Have Your Cake" Dagood Sandwich

Kathy’s restaurant is spotless and has a bright, sunny feeling to it. Glass block on both sides of the front door along with several north-facing windows bring in plenty of light while the off white walls and tan tiles help disburse it.

Walls are nicely appointed with framed pastels, mostly of flowers and nature scenes. Alongside the north walls of the main dining room is a banco, an ochre colored bench that expands seating capacity for this relatively tiny cafe.

When you walk in, you’re immediately drawn in to the side-by-side glass display cases which showcase wondrous pastries and other baked goods. The cases display muffins, cupcakes, brownies and other delectable treats. It’s a wonder there aren’t drool trails running down the cases.

The lunch menu is inscribed on chalk boards just above the pastry case. The left board features the cafe’s hot sandwiches while the one on the right lists the cold sandwiches. It’s an impressive array of sandwiches the likes of which few restaurants can match.

House made lamb sausage makes this sandwich special

House made lamb sausage makes this sandwich special

The sandwiches are made the way you might make a sandwich for yourself. You wouldn’t scrimp on ingredients and neither does Have Your Cake. You wouldn’t haphazardly toss tomatoes and lettuce on your sandwich; you’d position them carefully so they complement your sandwich. That’s the way this bakery makes them. These are excellent sandwiches–among the very best in Albuquerque!

Have Your Cake sandwiches are made with fresh and innovative ingredients in combinations you don’t see at many restaurants. There are several vegetarian friendly sandwiches on the menu, too. With the exception of one sandwich, you also won’t see these sandwiches called by some annoying “cutesy” name.

The one sandwich called by other than its number on the menu is Have Your Cake’s Dagwood, a mountain high creation with turkey, roast beef, ham, Cheddar cheese, Swiss, Muenster, green chile, mayo and Dijon piled triple-decker on white bread.

One of the best pasta salads I've ever had

One of the best pasta salads I've ever had

Dagwood Bumstead would be proud. It’s likely not even the sandwich worshipping character in the comic strip Blondie could put this eponymous, thick, multi-layered creation into that exaggeratedly expansive mouth of his. There are so many ingredients in this sandwich that you can’t even compress it down to a smaller size.

Enormity aside, this is an excellent sandwich–very flavorful with no one ingredient dominating, but all contributing to the deliciousness of a true work of art. The bread is housemade and sturdy enough to keep it all together (although most people will have to “deconstruct” the sandwich in order to eat it all).

Note: For an appreciation of just how big this sandwich is, visit my Albuquerque Dining page where you’ll find a picture of my friend Bill Resnik trying to bite into the Dagwood.

The hot sandwich area superstar (and Kathy’s favorite) is a sandwich constructed of housemade lamb sausage, roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes and harissa (you might call this North African salsa; it’s a spice mixture containing chiles, olive oil, cumin, garlic, coriander and other ingredients) on a grilled baguette.

Wow! There is a lot going on in this sandwich with respect to the various ingredients and their unique contributions. The lamb sausage has no discernable gaminess or filler–and unlike most sausage, no sinew. It is an excellent sausage. The roasted potatoes taste like out-of-the-oven, lightly seasoned potatoes while the sweet potatoes lend a bit of sweetness and texture. The harissa brings it all together with sweet, savory and just a hint of piquancy flavors.

Pumpkin cream cheese muffin

Pumpkin cream cheese muffin

Another wonderful hot sandwich (again, no name) is made with oven roasted chipotle, chicken breast, roasted red peppers and onion marmalade on a grilled baguette. It’s a heart-healthy sandwich with palate pleasing properties.

All sandwiches are served with a choice of one daily side. That side could be coleslaw or one of the best bowtie pasta salads I’ve ever had. The pasta is flecked with olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and other nuanced ingredients. It is worthy accompaniment to any sandwich.

Although the sandwiches are formidable, you can’t leave Have Your Cake without having (or taking out) one of the decadent dessert treats. You’ll be tempted to order them all.

The pumpkin cream cheese muffin (pictured at right) is a terrific option. It’s an oversized muffin with a large top (remember the Seinfeld episode introducing us to the “top of the muffin”). It’s got a spiced pumpkin pie flavor with a muffin texture. The cream cheese adds even more sweetness.

Have Your cake has a cold case of sodas (including Diet 7Up) and is reputed to serve very good coffee.

The next time somebody uses the tired cliché about not being able to have your cake and eating it, too, tell them about Have Your Cake, a wonderful cafe in which you can have it all.

Have Your Cake Bakery & Cafe
10420 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Have Your Cake Dagwood Sandwich, Pasta Salad, Pumpkin Cream, Lamb Sausage Sandwich, Chipotle Chicken Breast Sandwich