Crab House at Pier 39 – San Francisco, California

The Crab House at Pier 39

The Crab House at Pier 39

Every town has them–the touristy attractions every out-of-town visitor wants to hit and locals avoid like a Lobo basketball team coached by Ritchie McKay. To visitors, these attractions represent what your town is all about and nothing you tell them will dissuade them from thinking so.  After all, your local Chamber of Commerce paints these attractions as “can’t miss” and “absolutely must see.”

Generally packaged with these touristy attractions are  dining destinations that promise to deliver authentic local flavor–the cuisine de culture so to speak.

In Albuquerque that generally means a meal at a New Mexican restaurant–usually one with the stereotypical accoutrements that more closely represent Old Mexico than New Mexico. Invariably, in the Duke City those package deal restaurants feature cuisine whose red chile has the piquancy of Chef Boyardee tomato sauce and its green chile, the heat equivalent of a bell pepper.  An authentic experience?  Hardly, but many out-of-town visitors wouldn’t have a clue.

To most first-time visitors, a San Francisco vacation or business trip would be incomplete without a trek to the storied Pier 39 and a meal at one of its seafood restaurants.  Never mind that locals will try to talk you out of it.  Most of us will disregard the fact that nearly everyone else visiting this landmark area is gawking in awe and bumping into other tourists as they photograph heretofore unseen attractions that look just like the pictures on the guide books.

During at least half of my dozen or so visits to San Francisco, I’ve played “host” to colleagues visiting the “The City” for the first time.  Being a good host, it’s meant about six visits and six meals at Pier 39. It’s meant sacrificing a fabulous meal at Michael Mina or Aqua and partaking of a nice meal at a Pier 39 restaurant.  While the former are highly regarded by locals in the know, the latter are known by tourists thanks to guide books extolling their culinary virtues.

Don’t get me wrong.  Almost every one of the seafood restaurants at Pier 39 serves seafood that’s vastly superior and infinitely more fresh (like right out of a boat) than we can possibly ever get in land-locked Albuquerque.  Similarly, a tourist visiting one of our locally eschewed New Mexican restaurants would likely consider the meal fabulous (despite the perceived “heat” of the chile.)

With three colleagues in tow (two of whom had never visited the city) during a 2008 business jaunt to San Francisco,  the de rigueur visit and meal at Pier 39 was inevitable.  Fortunately, my inaugural visit to the Crab House several years ago left enough of an impression for a repeat visit.  Michael Mina and Aqua would have to wait–again.

Crab Cocktail

Crab Cocktail

Throughout San Francisco, signs pointing the way to Fisherman’s Wharf feature the distinctive shape of Dungeness crab, the symbol of the Golden Gate fishing industry.  Dungeness crab is a meaty crustacean and the signature entree at the Crab House where it weighs in at two pounds plus.  Its minimum legal size is 6.25 inches across the carapace (upper shell).

The most popular entree at the Crab House is a sizzling iron skillet-roasted platter brimming with crab and mussels or shrimp.  All eyes follow the wait staff when they deliver this treasure trove to a nearby table where diners are practically salivating in anticipation.

The aroma of the roasted seafood intensifies when the wait staff drizzles on garlicky crab butter sauce.  If you didn’t order this entree yourself, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having done so.

It’s not that other entrees on the menu are relegated to “consolation prize” status.  It’s just that there’s nothing quite like roasted Dungeness crab with all the trimmings.

Dungeness crab, in all its manifestations, is deliciousness incarnate.  At the Crab House there are many ways in which to have it, including crab enchiladas which a friend and colleague had and enjoyed very much.  About the only thing you won’t see on the menu are crab desserts.

Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew

Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew

A nice way to start a meal at the Crab House  is with a steaming cup or bowl of crab chowder.  Similar to clam chowder, its East coast counterpart, crab chowder cuts through the damp air and warms the cockles of your heart.  This version of crab chowder is replete with crab, absolutely no scrimping on portions here.

Another excellent starter is the crab cocktail made with housemade cocktail sauce.  This crab cocktail is more akin to a crab salad than a traditional shrimp cocktail.  A generous bounty of crab meat is piled on top of mixed baby greens and tomatoes drizzled with a light ginger dressing.  The cocktail sauce is rather on the tepid side with barely any horseradish influence.  Still, this is an excellent way to start a meal.

If you’re famished, the Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew will cure what ails you.  It’s served in a swimming pool sized tureen with a whole bay’s worth of seafood–fish, mussels, crab, octopus.  The tomato-based broth is lightly seasoned so as not to detract from the seafood’s natural brininess.  Zuppa di Pesce is one of my favorite meals in San Francisco and the Crab House does a good job with this entree. The Crab House may be situated in a tourist-laden destination, but I sure wish it was in my neighborhood.

Crab House at Pier 39
203C Pier 39
San Francisco, CA
(415) 434-2722

LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Zuppa di Pesce, Crab Cocktail

Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop & Soda Fountain – Las Vegas, Nevada

The world-famous Ghirardelli in San Franciso

The world-famous Ghirardelli in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square

While Ghirardelli chocolate is available worldwide, there are only a few shop locations–mostly in California with outliers in Las Vegas, Chicago and in two Florida cities.

Named after Italian chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli who brought his chocolate from Peru to San Francisco, Ghirardelli Shops are a true chocoholics dream where you can purchase a tempting assortment of chocolate confections and gifts.

The San Francisco location on Ghirardelli Square is a historical site near Pier 39 (where the pictures on this review were taken) that is evenA rich, delicious dark chocolate sundae equipped with chocolate making equipment so you can see artistry at work.

Truly one of the most progressive cities in the world, Las Vegas has a Ghirardelli chocolate shop near Harrah’s.  It’s designed like an old-fashioned soda shop with a checkered floor, ceiling fans and a long counter at which you place your order.

Detractors might say, these soda fountains are also staffed with soda jerks, emphasis on the word “jerk.”  On a hot summer day, it’s obvious the staff wants to get you in and out quickly.

The menu is replete with decadent ice cream sundae masterpieces, floats, malts and shakes, some of which are named for San Francisco area landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  There’s also a sundae called the “Domingo” named for the shop’s founding father.  Perhaps not in such good taste (but it sure tastes great) is a sundae called the “Earthquake” which is meant to be shared.  Other clever sundae sobriquets are the “Strike it Rich,” “Fog Horn” and the “Cable Car,” all of which are heavenly.

The goblet on which sundaes are served is piled high with ice cream and hot fudge or caramel as well as other ingredients such as bananas, nuts and whipped cream depending on which sundae you order.  Invariably you’ll make a mess out of your table as the contents of the overfull goblet crawl down the side of their vessel the second you insert your spoon.  You’ll also go through several napkins as you consume these tempting treats.

Both Ghirardelli Square and Las Vegas have charms all their own, but on a balmy summer day, Ghirardelli’s offerings might taste even better in Sin City.  They’re the perfect “beat the heat” treat.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop & Soda Fountain
3767 Las Vegas Blvd S.
Las Vegas, NV

LATEST VISIT: 21 Feburary 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Ice Cream Sundaes, Banana Split

Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro – San Francisco, California

Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

In 2004, The Economist (a British weekly news publication) proclaimed that “Peru can lay claim to one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines.” In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian “the next hot cuisine,” extolling its “vibrant ceviches, crispy, spiced rotisserie chickens and packed-with-flavor empanadas” then encapsulating its declaration with “this is one cuisine we could eat every day.”

A year later, at the world’s premier gastronomic forum, the International Summit of Gastronomy, Lima (the coastal nation’s capital city) was touted as the “gastronomic capital of the Americas.”

What’s surprising is not that the culture-rich cuisine of a small, multi-ethnic nation rarely on the world’s stage received such acclaim, it’s that it took so long.  Peru’s culinary traditions, after all, began in pre-Columbian times. Peru was home not only to the oldest known civilization in the Americas (the Norte Chico civilization flourished as early as the 30th century BC) but later to the largest civilization in the Pre-Columbian Americas–the Incan empire.

Immigration melded the culture and cuisine of the Spanish, Basque, African, Moorish, Sino-Cantonese, Japanese and in the 19th century, the Italian, French and British with Peru’s indigenous peoples, the descendents of the pre-Incas and Incas, to combine the flavors of four diverse and distinct continents.

The interior at Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

The interior at Destino Nuevo Latino Bistro

With such a cultural and racial amalgam, it any wonder Peruvian cuisine has been constantly evolving and expanding?  Peru’s openness facilitated a veritable fusion of ancient traditional dishes with contemporary global influences.

Years before Peruvian cuisine began being recognized for its delicious diversity, some culinary pioneers had already started the trend in the United States towards this innovative and flavor-rich cuisine.

One of them was James Schenk who launched Destino in 2000. From a family with deep roots in Peru, Schenk helped put Peruvian cuisine on the nation’s culinary map.  His charming bistro certainly fueled the explosion in popularity of Peruvian cuisine in San Francisco, one of the United States’ culinarily revolutionary cities.

Within four years of its launch, Destino began receiving national recognition.  In 2004, the restaurant was named one of the United States “top fifty Hispanic restaurants” by Hispanic magazine which underlined the “overall appeal of this special nuevo latino bistro where the accents are Peruvian.”

Destino repeated as a Hispanic magazine choice as one of the United States “top fifty Hispanic restaurants” in 2005.  The magazine raved about Schenk taking “extra care to tap rich Latin flavors and preparations for his innovative dishes.”

In 2006, it was Destino’s chef and owner, James Schenk himself, who was recognized by Hispanic magazine.  In an article honoring eight Latino chefs “creating magic in the kitchen,” Schenk was praised for “honoring authentic tastes, even though his plating is contemporary.”

That same year, Saveur magazine introduced the culinary world to a specialty of the house at Destino–Alfajores, South American butter cookies filled with dulce de leche.  Schenk sets a plate of alfajores on the table at the end of every meal so as to “give people something that will let them leave with a smile on their faces.”

Smiling faces are a common sight at Destino, a long, charming bistro whose ambience is warm and inviting and whose wait staff is attentive and knowledgeable.  Destino’s muted-lighting, rich colors (alluring reds and beguiling shades of orange), oversized mirrors and dark woods make it a perfect neighborhood hang-out where the cares of the day are washed away by food and wine pairings that will impress themselves on your taste buds for a long time.

A delicious way to start any meal

A delicious way to start any meal

In truth, the bill of fare isn’t exclusively Peruvian.  It’s advertised as “Nuevo Latino,” a fusion of dishes inspired by the cuisines of Central and South America served with a “nuevo” or contemporary flair that has won over critics and patrons alike.

The front of the menu is dedicated to tapas, the name in Spain for a wide variety of appetizers or “small plates.”  Schenk lived in Madrid for a year where he learned all about Spanish tapas traditions.  His time in Spain was, in fact, his muse for opening Destino.

At Destino, some diners will follow the Spanish tradition of ordering several different tapas, combining them for a full meal.  Others will opt instead to order from Destino’s three-course prix fixe menu.  This menu includes an appetizer, main entree and delectable dessert.

While you’re making up your mind (and it will be a challenge), your server will bring wonderfully yeasty bread rolls along with a Peruvian Ocopa sauce to your table.  The Ocopa sauce, a light, creamy sauce is seasoned with chiles to give it a nice pizzazz.  It’s not an overly piquant sauce and in fact, its pronouncements are almost equally sweet, piquant, savory and even a bit tangy.  It tops the de rigueur bread dipping sauces served elsewhere.

Fresh conchas (scallops) ala Parmesana

Fresh conchas (scallops) ala Parmesana

The tapas selections are so enticing, you’ll be hard-pressed not to order more than you can eat.  That’s one of the reasons a meal at Destino is meant to be shared–although sharing is not what you’ll have in mind when the Ceviche Sampler is brought to your table.

You may have to fight the primal urge to devour this paragon of deliciousness all by yourself.  It is, after all, three different sashimi- quality ceviche plates, each brimming with flavor.

Ceviche is served in almost every Peruvian restaurant in which the specialty of the house is fish and seafood.  The ceviche can range from sublimely simple to intensely complex, but is in most cases, very flavorful.

There’s the Ceviche A la Peruana in which the inherently briny flavor of Pacific sea bass is ameliorated with aji Amarillo (a yellow Peruvian hot pepper), cilantro and canchas (toasted Peruvian corn with a little bit of salt and oil).  It is a pleasant adventure for your taste buds as contrasting tastes and textures compete for their rapt attention.

The Destino Chino honors the Chinese who settled Peru’s coastal areas in which the richness of aquatic life contributes significantly to the bio-diversity, economic and ecological make-up of the country.  This ceviche features yellowtail tuna, tiger prawns, ginger and lemongrass oil.  It is more tangy and complex than the other ceviche plates on the sampler.

Chile Relleno

Chile Relleno

The third offering in the sampler, Ceviche A la Mexicana is crafted of Ahi tuna, avocado, organic mango and Achiote oil.  It is wholly unlike the ceviche proffered at many Mexican restaurants in which the tanginess of lime sometimes overwhelms instead of complementing the natural briny flavor of the fish.

Destino’s rendition of Mexican ceviche reminded me more of the type of ceviche you sometimes see in Japanese sushi restaurants in which the fish is the featured attraction and everything else is an ameliorant meant to bring out its taste.  This is a ceviche at the level of sublime.

At that level you’d also have to include Destino’s Chile Relleno, a poblano chile engorged with Niman Ranch ground sirloin, farmhouse Cheddar, chipotle salsa and citrus Crème Fraiche.  It’s a Peruvian dish with the full California treatment starting with ground sirloin from a cooperative which raises livestock traditionally, humanely and sustainably to deliver some of the best tasting meat you’ll have anywhere.

While the poblano chile is the canvas and the Niman Ranch ground sirloin the showcase, it is the smoky chipotle salsa and tart, citrusy Crème Fraiche that put it all together with complementary, yet contrasting tastes.  Having consumed chile rellenos at hundreds of restaurants, I can attest to these being among the very best I’ve had anywhere.

Grilled Niman Ranch sirloin is also a featured component of another fabulous tapas dish–Churrasco.  Churrasco is a Spanish and Portuguese term referring to meat or grilled beef.  Destino’s churrasco is perfectly grilled to about medium.  It is adorned with Maldon sea salt and Chimichurri salsa, an Argentine specialty.

Another tapas hit, the Conchitas a la Parmesana starts with Hokkaido Day Boat Scallops, the famous Japanese scallops which have earned “epicure-grade” and “sushi-grade” ratings from culinary cognoscenti.  That will tell you something about this tapas dish.  Each scallop is extremely flavorful in and of itself with an invigorating briny wildness, but add a bit of garlic butter and rich Parmesan and you’ve got a terrific treat.

Last, but certainly not least among top-grade tapas we sampled are Arepas de Queso, uniquely shaped cornmeal biscuits sandwiching Fontina cheese very similarly to a quesadilla then topped with a roasted corn and bell pepper salsa.  The combination of flavors works very well together, but it is the light texture that made this a special dish.

Churros with hot chocolate

Churros with hot chocolate

If after a sumptuous repast of tapas you still have room for a main entree, an excellent option are the Raviolis de Aji de Callina, housemade pasta, shredded chicken, an Aji Amarillo reduction and toasted walnuts.  Similar to yet distinctive from Italian ravioli dishes, it will appease the most finicky diners.

The ravioli tablets, more closely resembling dumplings than Italian ravioli are engorged with tender, well-seasoned chicken and topped with a mildly piquant pepper sauce with just slightly more heat than tomato sauce.  This is an excellent entree.

If there’s one absolute must in a dining experience at Destino, it’s that you MUST have dessert irrespective of how much you have to loosen your belt.  Desserts are fabulous, maybe none more so than Churros Y Chocolate. Churros have a reputation for having cardboard-like textures and empty calories with little flavor to show for it.

Destino’s churros were lightly crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside with a light sprinkling of canela (the Portuguese and Spanish word for cinnamon).  The chocolate is made from winter-spiced hot cocoa and being thin, is prone to spillage on your shirt.  That’s a small price to pay for a decadent dessert treat you’ll dream about.

It won’t take alfajores for you to leave Destino with a smile on your face.  It’s a smile that will return with every sweet remembrance of the wondrous cuisine with its roots in gastronomic heaven, the modest nation of Peru.


1815 Market Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 552-4451
LATEST VISIT: 20 February 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Ceviche A La Peruana, Ceviche Destino Chino, Ceviche A La Mexicana, Chile Relleno, Arepas de Queso, Churrasco, Conchitas a la Parmesana, Raviolis de Aji de Gallina, Churros Y Chocolate

Blue Heron Restaurant at Sunrise Springs – La Cienega, New Mexico

The Blue Herron Restaurant is part of the sprawling Sunrise Springs complex

The Blue Herron Restaurant is part of the sprawling Sunrise Springs complex

Fewer than ten miles separate the historic Spanish village of La Ciénega from Santa Fe, and though both have largely retained vestiges of their storied and proud histories, the differences that set them apart are as vast as El Camino Real, the Royal Road that has connected them for centuries. While Santa Fe has entered the 21st century as a burgeoning cosmopolitan city, La >Ciénega remains a rural enclave, parts of which have remained unchanged for generations–that despite becoming somewhat of a bedroom community for Santa Feans.

Once a rural Indian pueblo outpost, La Ciénega  was abandoned in the seventeenth century only to be resettled by the Spanish after Don Diego de Vargas’ celebrated reconquest of New Mexico. During the second Spanish colonial period (1692-1821), haciendas and ranchos dotted the Rio Grande valley.  Dons (landlords) and their peones (workers) cultivated the fertile alluvial soils, raised livestock and tended orchards of fruit.  Hard work was a way of life.  It had to be! Ranchos HAD to be self-sufficient.  The tremendous distance from Mexico City coupled with the laborious and perilous 2,000-mile trek made visits from supply caravans infrequent.  Even when they did arrive, rarely did they transport the necessities of daily life.  Fortunately La Ciénega was blessed with an abundance of surface water fed by springs, accounting for several small ponds and marshy areas (ciénegas).  Area streams included the Santa River and the Guicu Creek.

The Blue Herron Restaurant

The Blue Herron Restaurant is part of the sprawling Sunrise Springs complex

As with many Northern New Mexico villages, the acequias (ditches) dug by early settlers were the heart of the agricultural economy that was the way of life in colonial times by La Ciénega’s residents. Mayordomos (essentially water commissioners) were responsible for overseeing water allocation and maintenance of the water conveyance systems.  This is a form of community governance that exists even today throughout Northern New Mexico.

Ranchos in the La Ciénega area served as important way stations (parajes) along the Camino Real, nearly a full-day’s ride during Spanish colonial times.  The parajes provided hospitality and food for weary travelers tired of being bounced around the rough camino.  The most famous of the parajes was El Rancho de Las Golondrinas (the ranch of the swallows) which is today leased by the Colonial New Mexico Historical Foundation.  Open to the public, the Rancho’s buildings and grounds serve as an educational and cultural museum.  Today El Rancho de Las Golondrinas includes restored 18th-century buildings, a molasses mill, blacksmith and wheelwright shops, several primitive water mills, a Penitente morada (chapel) and campo santo (graveyard) and vineyards, all serving to recall the life of the Spanish colonists.  As a proud Spanish descendant, it is one of my favorite museums in the Land of Enchantment.

Wild mushroom ravioli

Wild mushroom ravioli

Another paraje on the last significant stage coach stopping place en route to Santa Fe was called Sunrise Springs.  It was a place of lush solitude with a tradition of providing much-needed respite for weary travelers.  Then, as today it was then a source of rejuvenation.  Today it is also a venue for physical and spiritual nourishment. Sunrise Springs is a sprawling 70-acre eco-resort which includes a world-class spa, 58 elegant rooms and casitas, a Japanese tea house, biodynamic gardens and an arts center where one can enjoy yoga, Tai Chi and Raku pottery.  It also houses the fabulous Blue Heron Restaurant.

The best route to Sunrise Springs (and for experiencing the village’s venerable beauty) is taking the La Ciénega exit off I-25 just north of La Bajada Hill.  It’s a bit longer than the southern route near Santa Fe Downs and the narrow two-lane road meanders slowly, but that only makes for more optimal viewing.  It’s a beautiful drive along red rock sand. The La Ciénega area is resplendent with aromatic piñon and juniper as well as mature, gnarled cottonwoods.  Residents have room to breathe with well-spaced acreage housing almost as many mobile homes as adobe-hued stucco dwellings.

Three egg omelet

Three egg omelet

Sunrise Springs is not only idyllic in its quiet serenity, it espouses meditative techniques designed to attain Samadhi, a Sanskrit term used in Buddhist and Hindu meditations.  Samadhi is quite simply “bliss” and the spa teaches that bliss can be attained through mindful breathing and loving kindness.  Walking through the grounds’ well trodden foot paths, it’s easy to forget the cares of the day.  The soothing sounds of cascading water harmonize with the call of the many birds which spend much of their time in these tranquil settings.  One of those birds is the blue heron, a large wading bird with a wingspan of almost six feet.  Sunrise Springs named its fabulous restaurant for this magnificent bird.

The Blue Heron is a blissful oasis from the maddening crowds drawn to Santa Fe.  It is a very attractive milieu in which to dine at any season of the year, particularly if you have either a view of the spring-fed pond or, weather-permitting, you dine on the deck beneath the centuries-old cottonwoods.  An article entitled “New Directions in New Mexico Cuisine” in the March, 2008 edition of New Mexico Magazine touted the Blue Heron’s use of local, sustainable ingredients “whenever possible.”  The article included photographic evidence of the restaurant’s seasonally inspired innovations.  The article inspired our first visit to La Ciénega in years and our inaugural visit ever to the Blue Heron.  By mid-meal, we contemplated returning for dinner.  Santa Fe quality cuisine without tripping over other visitors made for a very pleasant dining experience.  The Blue Heron inspires hushed tones and a relaxed pace.

Creme Brule

Creme Brule

You’ll do well not to be in a hurry because no one else is.  Take the time to imbibe the beauty by which you’re surrounded before taking in the menu (which is a thing of beauty in its own right).  Beverages include exotic loose leaf teas from China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka as well as gourmet coffee, Sunrise smoothies and the best ginger lemonade you’ll ever have.  The slight tartness of lemon melds harmoniously with the pungent fragrance of the ginger.  Visit at around noon on a Saturday or Sunday and you’ll be treated to a relatively limited brunch menu with fewer than ten entrees.  At first glance those entrees may seem parochial–like the brunch menu you’ve seen a hundred times–but what the Blue Heron Restaurant delivers is exquisite–better than just about anywhere you’ve had brunch.

You might opt for the three-egg omelet constructed of Sparbo heirloom eggs, Cheddar and Jack cheeses, green chile, spinach, mushroom, onion and tomatoes.  The ingredients engorge the omelet to the point that the oleaginous ova can’t quite be folded over to blanket those ingredients.  The ingredients are fresh and delicious, and the eggs are nonpareil, like the fresh farm eggs on which I was raised.The omelet is served with roasted Yukon and sweet potatoes along with housemade toast.  The sweet potatoes, in particular, are terrific. If you’ve ever lamented the desiccated sweet potato fries that seem typical of sweet potato offerings, you’ll rejoice at the moist, tender deliciousness of these orange hued starch tubers.

Mango sorbet and a cookie

Mango sorbet and a cookie

There’s only one thing that can improve this brunch entree and that’s high quality honey cured bacon.  Fortunately, you can order a side of this sweet and salty deliciousness for a mere pittance. Another wonderful brunch option is the wild mushroom ravioli made with roasted shallots, sherry cream sauce and Parmesan Reggiano.  This magnificent mélange of ingredients will play a mellifluous tone on your taste buds.  For me, it starts with Parmesan Reggiano, considered by some the “king of cheeses par excellence.”  It is the most famous of all Italian cheese, its genuineness safeguarded by the government through very strict regulations.  Parmesan Reggiano is aged for a minimum of 24 months which accounts for its distinct bouquet and strong flavor.  The sherry cream sauce is rich and savory while the wild mushrooms are robust and fleshy with an intense flavor that is both sweet and woodsy.  It is an inspired flavor combination that covers four or five al dente ravioli tablets each as big as a drink coaster.  Best of all, this is not one of those frustrating “five forkfuls and you’re done” entrees served at some brunches.  You get your money’s worth at Blue Heron.

The dessert menu will appease the most discerning of taste buds.  Though only four desserts are offered, you’ll be challenged to pick one.  They all sound fabulous–and deliver on that promise.  A ramekin filled with heavenly goodness is how you might describe the ginger and lemongrass infused crème brûlée.  Each penetration of the caramelized top layer of caramel was met with a rich, flavorful custard the likes of which you rarely find.

Equally inspired is a housemade mango sorbet with a cookie.  Refreshing as a cool dip on a hot summer day, the mango has the tanginess of mangos out of season.  On mangoes and sticky rice, that would be a major faux pas, but it works well on sorbet which sometimes tastes best when it puckers your lips.  This was excellent sorbet.

The Blue Heron, like Sunrise Springs, is a perfect stopping point on the way to Santa Fe and if you’re like us, you might enjoy it so much, you might not make it to the City Different.

Blue Heron Restaurant
242 Los Pinos Road
La Cienega, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 February 2008
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Three Egg Omelet, Wild Mushroom Ravioli, Ginger Lemonade, Mango Sorbet,

Athens Eclectic Greek – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Athens Greek Restaurant

Athens Eclectic Greek Cuisine

There’s an expression in Greece that all roads lead to Athens. If restaurateur Gus Petropoulos has his way, all Albuquerque streets will take diners to Athens Eclectic Greek Cuisine, the restaurant he launched in August, 2007.

Petropoulos is a veteran of culinary competition, having owned six restaurants in Florida before setting up shop in the Duke City. His new venture is located in the Far North Shopping Center where, just scant years ago, this was about as far north as you could go in Albuquerque.

The eclectic in the restaurant’s name means you’ll find so much more than gyros, Kalamata olives, feta cheese and all the other standards we’ve come to expect from Greek restaurants. It means fresh seafood flown in twice a week and other Mediterranean treats the like of which the Duke City has not experienced.

One of the unique offerings initially promised for Athens is the “lion burger” which is being held in reserve for a steakhouse Petropoulos is planning. Look for it to draw prides of diners to the steakhouse from the minute it opens.

The menu is decidedly upscale with gourmet entrees sharing space with the Greek standards we’ve all come to know and love. There’s a playful local touch to the lunch menu courtesy of a gyros quesadilla that’s sure to be popular around these parts. It’s beef and lamb spliced meat, imported mixed Greek cheeses, onions and roasted green chiles sealed inside a grilled pita (pictured below right). You’ve got to appreciate that the menu spells “chile” correctly, but you’ll appreciate its roasted flavor even more.

Gyros quesadilla

Gyros quesadilla

The restaurant’s blue vibrancy evokes images of the pristine sandy beaches and translucent blue waters of what is essentially the most important “roadway” in the history of civilized man–the Mediterranean.

Greek cuisine is characterized by the use of fresh ingredients such as olive oil, vegetables and fish. Being at the juncture of Europe, Africa and Asia and in close proximity to the Middle East, many Grecian dishes share commonalities with dishes in the Holy Land, Turkey, Italy and even the Balkan countries. That means great variety that isn’t often expressed in the Duke City’s Greek restaurants.

Athens Eclectic Greek is serving notice that with its exciting menu, it’s here to stay and will compete with its long-established Greek restaurant brethren.

Such competition begins with intriguing orektika (appetizers), some of which don’t grace the table at any other Mediterranean restaurant in town. That includes charcoal grilled octopodi, octopus marinated in lemon, extra virgin olive oil and Greek spices. It’s wholly unlike the octopus you might have at say, a Chinese restaurant.

Hummus with pita

Hummus with pita

There are traditional appetizers as well, including hummus. Athens’ version is ineluctably rich and despite a somewhat coarse texture retains the creaminess inherent in most great hummus. This chick pea and tahini spread has just a hint of lemon and an all but subtle garlic aftertaste.

Best of all, the hummus is served with eight wedges of warm, housemade pita bread. The pita’s brown char and puffy lightness make it the perfect scooping agent for the rich hummus.

The Specialties tu Spitiu (house dinners) are served with vegetables or potatoes. Potatoes doesn’t necessarily mean the oven-roasted potatoes served at other Greek restaurants. Instead expect Texas-sized French fries drizzled with oregano and the ubiquitous olive oil.

Nine Thallasina (seafood) entrees grace the menu’s back page, but these isn’t back-page worthy seafood. This is front-page quality and just-caught delicious. It’s also among the restaurant’s most costly dinner fare.

For the greatest diversity, order the Poseidon platter which includes two broiled stuffed shrimp, a broiled crab-stuffed mushroom and a fillet of broiled grouper.

The Poseidon Platter

The Poseidon Platter

In Athens the sea god Poseidon was second only to Athena in importance so it’s only fitting that a worthy bounty of the sea entree be named for him.

On the terrific triumvirate comprising the Poseidon platter, the broiled crab-stuffed mushroom stands out even though the entree itself may be a misnomer. The mushroom serves as a base for a single crab-cake; it is not stuffed with it.

That’s just as well because the fleshy fungi, a four-inch in diameter Portobello is excellent in its own right with its inherent earthy flavor melding magnificently with Balsamic vinegar and Greek spices.

The crab cake is comprised of crab meat, onions, carrots, celery, pimentos, fresh herbs and spices broiled and topped with butter and bread crumbs. If it’s not broiled for two long, it’s as good a crab cake as you’ll find in the Duke City.

Two broiled crab stuffed shrimp will make you long for about a half-dozen more of these succulent decapod crustaceans, the essence of briny deliciousness itself.

Koutopolo Kebab

Koutopolo Kebab

The broiled grouper is dripping with butter and redolent with spices. It’s as tender and delicious as any grouper we’ve had in Albuquerque.

Landlubbers who appreciate the traditional meat-based Greek entrees might go instead for one of the Koutopolo platters, one of which includes chicken and the other which features pork. New Mexicans used to ordering their chile-based entrees “Christmas style” will be happy to know Athens accommodates a mix of chicken and pork platters.

Anyway, the Koutopolo platter features marinated, charcoal-grilled pork or chicken along with a Greek salata, fries and plenty of pita. Both the pork and chicken are fork-tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

The tzatziki sauce is some of the best we’ve had in the Duke City, so good you’ll dispense with ketchup on your fries and opt instead to dip them in this creamy yogurt sauce. The salata includes plenty of fetid feta cheese and a light and flavorful Greek dressing.

Portions are humongous and a nap might be closer to your mind than dessert, but a second-take at the dessert menu might just change your mind.



Not only does the decadent dessert list include a chocolate baklava, it features my very favorite Greek post-prandial treat, Galaktoboureko. Athens’ version is the size of a huge slab of layered wedding cake.

Tissue-thin sheets of pyllo on the bottom and top of this pastry strain to hold in the lemony semolina custard which two can share and still have plenty remaining. Athens also adds razor-thin shards of fresh fruits including sliced grapes to an already creamy and moist dessert. Waist-expanding richness define this dessert.

Aside from their great taste, another great thing about Athens’ desserts is that Petropoulos’s wife Terryl is an endodontist, a specialty which deals with the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of dental diseases–not that dental diseases will be on your mind as you’re ravenously wolfing down the rich desserts.

Athens Eclectic Greek
6300 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 6 February 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Koutopolo Kebab, Poseidon Platter, Gelatoboutiko, Hirino (Pork) Souvlaki Pita, Arni (Lamb) Souvlaki Pita, Gyros Quesadilla

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