Sushi King – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sushi King on Albuquerque's West side

Sushi King on Albuquerque's West side

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost

The path to becoming a sushi aficionado is, in some ways, an assertion of individualism. You might also consider it an expression in audacity.

Sushi, as most of us know, is not for everyone. Even the decision to try it the first time can be daunting. Some otherwise intrepid diners will never even get that far, the notion of consuming “raw fish” being too extreme for them.

Some will take the safe path and partake primarily or exclusively of “cooked” sushi, grilled fish enrobed in tempura batter and served warm.

Others, like my friend Maui Brian, take almost masochistic pleasure in dousing their sushi with wasabi incendiary enough to stream tears down their cheeks and leave them coughing and sputtering at every bite.

Still, others like Duke City Food’s adventurous blogger Andrea Lin are absolutely fearless, delighting in sampling sushi only the most broad-minded sushiphiles can appreciate. Think uni, the edible part of the sea urchin, a spiny echinoderm.

I also know sushi lovers who are base traditionalists. They shutter at the “spurious” nature of sushi served in Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese restaurants. Some are more contemptuous of Japanese sushi chefs who “Americanize” sushi by embellishing it with non-traditional ingredients and preparing it in non-traditional methods.

Unlike most Japanese sushi restaurants

An ambience unlike most Japanese sushi restaurants

The staunch traditionalists probably wouldn’t appreciate the West side branch of Sushi King even though many of its offerings are traditional.

For one thing, Sushi King looks more like a malt shop than a sushi restaurant. That’s because the Sun Country strip mall store which houses the Sushi King was once Tip’s Coffee Shop, a 50s style burger and malt shop.

The 50s style speckled teal tables; teal and red vinyl seats and black, red and teal floor tile from the days of Tip’s Coffee Shop still remain as does the blue ceiling. Discordant (to my “left in the 70s” musical tastes) rap music resonates throughout the restaurant.

For another, Sushi King does not subscribe to the Buddhist teaching of “wabi” which means “quiet of tranquility.” Wabi values the ability to make the most of starkness and poverty by cherishing the subtle beauty found only in a very simple environment.

In neither decor nor music is Sushi King tranquil. In fact, it may be somewhat noisy in both.

Thirdly, the sushi chef might be from the Western hemisphere with no ties whatsoever to the Land of the Rising Sun. It brings to mind an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s fabulous No Reservations show in which the host visited a sushi bar in a Texas border town being run by a Mexican sushi chef who learned his trade from another Mexican. Such is the melting pot that is our fruited plain.

Miso soup

Miso soup

The original Sushi King opened in 2005 in a well trafficked downtown location on Central Avenue. It is considered one of the downtown area’s most hip and happening restaurants. The downtown Sushi King is renown for the freshness and variety of its fish. Andrea Lin assures me its uni is uniquely wonderful and in fact, her review for the Albuquerque Journal indicates “all of the sushi I have sampled here has been among the best in town.”

Similar to other Duke City sushi restaurants (and akin to New Mexican restaurants and salsa), Sushi King will have a bowl of steaming miso soup at your table within minutes after you’re seated. Seasoned with a salty miso paste, wakame seaweed and green onions, it is some of the best miso soup in the city and an excellent prelude of things to come.

Monkey balls

Monkey balls

Other appetizer choices include edamame (soy beans), egg rolls and various tempura and teriyaki offerings.

An interestingly named alternative are monkey balls (which have nothing to do with simians). Monkey balls consist of hot, cooked spicy tuna wrapped in a fresh mushroom then deep fried in tempura batter. They are then topped with thin, dried fish strips and a sweet and piquant sauce of Japanese mayonnaise and eel sauce.

You’ll love Sushi King’s version of monkey balls if you’re partial to mushrooms which are the prevalent ingredient you’ll taste. A thinner mushroom would allow a better balance of flavors such as with the monkey balls at Sakura Sushi

An assortment of palate pleasing maki rolls

An assortment of palate pleasing maki rolls

Sushi aficionados who appreciate the subtleties of sushi and its multifarious flavors will want to apply it with caution because just a bit will water your eyes.

Sushi King
9421 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 890-6200

LATEST VISIT: 24 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Teriyaki Chicken (Maki Roll), Unagi (Maki Roll), Alaska (Maki Roll), New Mexico (Tempura Roll), Crunchy Shrimp (Tempura Roll)

Sushi King on Urbanspoon

Ruben’s Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ruben's Grill on Candelaria

Ruben's Grill on Candelaria

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many women joined the army both in response to the tremendous need for their service, but also to accompany their husbands, many of whom were conscripted into service.

Traveling with the revolutionary armies, it was often the role of women to forage for food and cook meals. As much as possible, the women who followed the armies tried to provide a homey meal experience complete with tablecloth, decorative plates and vases for flowers.

As soldaderas, their contributions to the Mexican Revolutionary were not limited to “traditional” roles of the time–serving as caregivers and as cooks. Many women distinguished themselves on the battlefield and are today remembered in such songs as La Adelita.

It was a bit of a disappointment not to see any of these women celebrated on the sunflower colored walls of Ruben’s Grill, a popular Northeast Heights Mexican restaurant whose walls are adorned with black and white posters of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution.

My favorite of the lot is a “Wanted” poster issued in 1916 by the Columbus, New Mexico chief of police who offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of Francisco “Panco” Villa.

History will recall that the only time a foreign army has invaded the United States was when Villa and his men stormed the city of Columbus. While the price on Villa’s head was substantial for the time, his raiders–Candelario Cervantes, Pablo Lopez, Francisco Beltran and Martin Lopez–warranted only a $1,000 reward.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

One wall of Ruben’s Grill is festooned with a single unadorned Mexican sombrero, the kind worn by Mexican Revolutionary War hero Emiliano Zapata. Hung on another is an flamboyant velvet sombrero embellished with brightly colored patterns.

I don’t know whether or not the sombreros are intentionally meant to recall the class warfare that helped incite the Revolution.

What I do know is that Ruben’s Grill serves the type of food ordinary Mexican citizens would eat. For the most part it’s simple food as it might be prepared in the cocina of any campesino. That means no exorbitant ingredients or exotic spices. This is authentic food, too simple to be called cuisine.

The salsa, for example, is redolent only with the fragrance of Mexican oregano, jalapeno and smoked tomatoes. It is somewhat watery, only mild on the piquancy scale and has a slightly sweet pronouncement, but it’s a terrific salsa, the kind for which you return to Mexican restaurants. It deserves better than the chips which accompany it.

The chips are housemade, low in salt and crispy. They’re served warm and would have been delicious were it not for the fact that during our inaugural two visits, they were fried in old oil. Hopefully this is an anomaly, one of those Murphy’s Law things that everything goes right until you visit a restaurant.

Ceviche

Ceviche

As a gastronome, it’s easy to point out a restaurant’s blemishes–the glass is half empty approach. Ruben’s Grill is the type of restaurant you love warts and all. The many things it does well outweigh the few things about which complaints are usually rendered.

What complaints you might hear are likely going to be directed at the slow pace at which food orders are delivered. Ruben’s Grill is situated in a Lilliputian facility with very few tables and it’s heavily trafficked.

During peak times every table is likely to be occupied, so it’s not uncommon to see long lines of patrons lining up to place their orders to-go. Perhaps because of space constraints, the restaurant also seemed woefully understaffed during my two visits–a cashier who doubles as a waitress and a cook attending the grill. You may have to wait for your order to be fulfilled, but this is food worth waiting for.

One of the things worth waiting for is ceviche, a ship’s bounty of shrimp and fish “cooked” in citrus juice and served with chopped white onions, tomato, cilantro and avocado.

I always marvel at landlocked Mexican restaurants who serve ceviche that tastes fresh. Ruben’s ceviche has that taste. The shrimp don’t necessarily have the snap of just-caught shrimp, but they’re not exactly flaccid either. Best of all, their inherent sweetness still comes out despite being catalyzed in citrus juices. The other ingredients are similarly fresh tasting and delicious.

Tacos ala carte: asada, carnitas and pastor

Tacos ala carte: asada, carnitas and pastor

The menu includes many traditional Mexican favorites for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner plates are served with beans, rice and tortillas and you can have a cup of soup for less than a dollar more. An entire page is dedicated to mariscos (seafood).

A popular option at any time are the tacos ala carte, hard or soft tacos with a variety of meat fillings: chicken, shredded beef, carne asada, carnitas, al pastor and chicharron.

Fresh ingredients–meats, white onion, cilantro and a hot sauce–are stuffed into soft corn tortillas, two per taco to prevent disintegration on account of the moistness of the ingredients.

These are excellent tacos, particularly the al pastor, the famous “shepherd” style pork tacos sometimes cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie. Ruben’s marinade renders the tacos deliciously savory with a subtle hint of sweetness. The hot sauce then contributes a piquant touch.

It’s not all Mexican restaurants which can excel in both meat-based entrees and mariscos though many restaurants offer both. Aside from the aforementioned ceviche, Ruben’s mariscos menu includes several camarones (shrimp) plates, seafood soups and two seafood cocktails served cold–the Campechana (shrimp, octopus and scallops) and the Coctel de Camaron (shrimp).

Camarones al Mjojo de Ajo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)

Camarones al Mjojo de Ajo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)

Don’t hesitate to order the camarones al mojo de ajo, shrimp in garlic sauce, a terrific entree prepared as well or better than at restaurants specializing solely in mariscos.

If you’ve ever hesitated to order this entree fearing garlic’s tendency to overpower some dishes, you need not worry. The shrimp are seasoned magnificently in a buttery, garlicky seasoning that brings out the natural sweetness of the shrimp, not the strong flavor of the garlic.

The shrimp have just a bit of snap which signifies their freshness and are served in a bed of sweet, sautéed onions. Despite the garlic and onion, this is not a breath-wrecking, reeking out of your pores entree. It’s one of the better camarones dishes in the Duke City.

Escorting the camarones are delectable refried beans topped with melted Cheddar and small-grained rice. The beans are terrific and the rice, while somewhat desiccated, is salvageable if you mix it with the beans and scoop it up with “Mexican spoons” (corn tortillas).

Ruben’s Grill even entertains a departure into American foods, serving both a hamburger and a bacon burger, both of which can be ordered with cheese. Daily breakfast specials include traditional American breakfast dishes up to and including French toast and pancakes.

Breakfast special

Breakfast special

Breakfast special number three sounds as if it could come from one of the chain breakfast purveyors–two eggs, ham and your choice of pancakes or French toast.

This special is quite good save for the pancakes which are almost rubbery (at least during the visit in which we had them). Usually this is a function of the type of flour used or the way it’s treated. I surmise the pancake mix wasn’t stirred enough.

Beverages to wash down your meal include the usual fountain drinks plus cerveza and wine by the glass, orange juice, hot chocolate, coffee and hot tea. Forego those and try one of the aguas frescas–horchata, lemonade or tamarindo.

The horchata is as sweet as the leftover milk from a bowl of Captain Crunch, but it’s served cold and easily assuages any thirst.

Ruben’s is ensconced in a timeworn strip mall and is situated in the long time home of long gone Bugsy’s Subs.

Ruben’s Grill
9708 Candelaria, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
294-1900

LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa, Camarones al Mojo de Ajo, Ceviche, Tacos Ala Carte (Asada, Carnitas, Pastor), Horchata

Christy Mae’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Christy Mae's Restaurant

Christy Mae's Restaurant

If you want to know the best places to eat in any part of any town, don’t buy a tourist guide. Don’t even consult Zagat’s Restaurant Reviewsor the local restaurant critic. Your best bet is to ask a policeman because “everybody knows that cops always know the best places to eat.”

That’s the advice of Chris Cognac, a police detective for a South Bay police department in Los Angeles. Walking his beat gave him the opportunity to investigate off-the-beaten path and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that usually only locals know about–the real local gems.

Aside from being a police detective, Cognac is an “informant” for the Daily Breeze newspaper in Los Angeles. He’s their restaurant critic, authoring a column entitled The Culinary Detective.

In 2006, Cognac began parlaying his culinary detective skills in a Food Network program appropriately entitled “The Hungry Detective.” In half-hour episodes, he expands his jurisdiction to cities across America in his mission to uncover the best hidden gems in each city.

Over the past two years, I’ve come to believe Cognac that cops always know the best places to eat. That’s because I’ve got an informant of my own–John Skinner, a tactical flight officer for the Albuquerque police department’s Air Support Unit. Officer Skinner has tipped me off to several wonderful restaurants, many offering meals at a steal of a price.

In April, 2008, he recommended Christy Mae’s Restaurant, “a relaxing dining establishment popular with officers assigned to the Southeast Area Command (precinct).” Officer Skinner calls it “one of Albuquerque’s gems.” My inaugural visit confirmed that once again, my informant has given me a solid lead that promises to solve my hunger during every visit.

The Tricario Family

The Tricario Family

Having watched hundreds of cop shows on television, many of us might have these stereotyped ideas that police officers eat only at greasy spoon, take-out hot dog joints in the worse part of town. Christy Mae’s is the complete opposite of that stereotype.

For one thing, there are no macho affectations on display. If anything, the walls are adorned with the nurturing and comfortable symbols of home. Come to think about it, this is exactly the time of place you might expect a policeman after hours of patrolling the concrete jungles in Albuquerque’s “war zones.”

Christy Mae’s walls are adorned with vintage brickerbrack, much of it kitchen thematic. Hung on the wall directly over the cash register are muffin and cake pans of all sizes.

Other antique kitchen appliances such as hand-turned egg beaters have similar places of honor. On a small area near the entrance hang several aged washboards. Ceramic ducks share space with a time-worn plow on a window ledge. One wall is dedicated to vintage signage from back in the days when Madison Avenue advertisers were much more clever.

Green chile chicken soup

Green chile chicken soup

On the restaurant’s north-facing wall is a mural depicting the Tricario family which has owned the restaurant since 1985. Joe Tricarico, a retired New York police officer of twenty years, is flanked by his family, all but grandpa who are smiling.

Still, the first thing you might notice when walking into Christy Mae’s for the first time is the intoxicating aroma of a very strong spiced cinnamon orange tea. You can have it with your meal then buy it by the gallon on the way out. If you like cinnamon, you’ll love this tea!

During our inaugural visit to Christy Mae’s, it was comforting to see two of Albuquerque’s finest among the dozen or so people ahead of us in waiting to be seated. We thanked them for their service to the community as all citizens should.

From the first time–probably at age four or five–she saw Norman Rockwell’s immortal 1958 print “The Runaway,” the presence of police officers at a restaurant has given my Kim a sense of comfort and safety.

That print, if you’re not familiar with it, depicts a young runaway sitting on a stool next to a burly policeman in an old-fashioned lunch counter. The police officer and a short-order cook are conversing smilingly with the little boy, undoubtedly making the little boy at ease.

Green chile cheeseburger with home fries

Green chile cheeseburger with home fries

The Tricarico family prides itself in providing consistent food quality, good value and friendly service in a clean and comfortable atmosphere. As you’ll read on the menu, the Tricaricos believe in healthy sized portions and using only the finest ingredients available. They prepare their fresh soups, stews and chicken pot pies from scratch daily. These ideals are the foundation of Christy Mae’s success.

Christy Mae’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day but Sunday. The menu is predominantly American comfort food interspersed with some New Mexican favorites such as huevos rancheros for breakfast and green chile cheeseburgers for lunch.

If you’re not in the mood for breakfast, you can instead order one of four popular sandwiches or any of the restaurant’s burgers. There are more sandwiches available on the lunch menu.

Comfort foods are featured fare for dinner and as you might expect, that includes bounteous plates of chicken fried steak, ground sirloin, country ham and much more.

One daily offering is green chile chicken soup, a warm and nurturing bowl of deliciousness. It’s served steamy hot so that the aroma of roasted chile wafts toward your happily awaiting nostrils. This is a delicious, creamy soup replete with mostly white meat shredded chicken. For a mere pittance, you can have a cup of soup with one of Christy Mae’s “Country Fare Blue Ribbon Burgers.”

The triple-stacked Uncle Reuben

The triple-stacked Uncle Reuben

All burgers are a broiled one-third pound of choice ground beef served on a Kaiser roll with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and your choice of Swiss, Cheddar or Jack cheese. These beauties are prepared to your exacting specifications and are served with either potato salad or country fries and a crunchy pickle.

The green chile cheeseburger is very good! The ingredients are all fresh and they’re piled on your plate, not on the burger, rendering you in charge of portion control. Mustard and ketchup are provided in squeeze bottles.

The green chile is barely piquant enough to register, but hey, it’s green chile and it makes New Mexico go round. The Kaiser roll has a pleasant, nearly sweet flavor and a nice softness while still being formidable enough to contain the juiciness of this burger.

The country fries are Texas sized and otherwise not something about which to write home (but that can be said about most fries in Albuquerque).

German chocolate cake

German chocolate cake

Sandwich options fall into three categories: Old-Tyme Favorites, Croissants and Uncle Henry’s Famous Chicken Sandwiches. Among the Old-Tyme Favorites is one of the very best Reuben sandwiches in Albuquerque, the Uncle Reuben, a triple-decker engorged with hot corned beef, turkey, Swiss cheese, red onions, sauerkraut, lettuce and tomatoes prepared with the restaurant’s special dressing on grilled rye bread.

It takes two hands to hold the Uncle Reuben and once you grab onto it, you might not want to let it go until you’ve consumed every morsel of this moist, delicious sandwich. Both the sauerkraut and the dressing are applied generously, but not so much that they dominate your sandwich or leave it a sopping mess as Reuben sandwiches are sometimes apt to be. You can actually discern all the ingredients at play with each other, a definite plus in my book.

If you somehow manage to leave room for dessert, you may have a hard time deciding which one to order. All desserts are baked by Jane “Mom” Tricarico who definitely has a knack for baking. Whether you try a slab of German chocolate cake, a slice of apple pie ala mode or any of the other tasty sweet treats, you’re in for a delicious indulgence. These are the type of desserts only a mom can make.

Take a tip from a guy who took a tip from a police officer in the know and head to Christy Mae’s, one of Albuquerque’s best comfort restaurants.

Christy Mae’s
1400 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
255-4740
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 18 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Green Chile Chicken Soup, Uncle Reuben Sandwich, German Chocolate Cake, Apple Pie ala Mode

Christy Mae's on Urbanspoon

Taj Palace – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Taj Palace on Eubank

The Taj Palace on Eubank

Indian cuisine is one of the world’s most diverse and sophisticated cuisines, fashioned over time by ancient traditions, diversity of religion, climatic variety and the influence of neighboring countries.

It is so diverse, in fact, that the characterization “Indian cuisine” would be wholly inaccurate. There are more Indian cuisines than there are regions in this ethnically diverse subcontinent comprising 17.5 percent of the world’s population.

While categorization by geographical region–North Indian, South Indian, East Indian and West Indian–is prevalent, such groupings are at least partially exclusionary of cuisines whose basis is religious, especially the Hindu and Muslim faiths.

One of the great things about being an aficionado of Indian cuisine is that we can appreciate both its tremendous diversity and the unifying threads that make it one of the world’s great cuisines. One commonality is the wide range of spices which produce its inimitable aromas and flavors.

The buffet provides excellent value and variety

The buffet provides excellent value and variety

Indian restaurants have long graced the Duke City dining scene, albeit in relatively small numbers compared to restaurants of other ethnicities.

A commonality among most Albuquerque Indian restaurants is the ubiquitous presence of the buffet. Buffets are more responsible for introducing diners to Indian cuisines than any other factor. This is evidenced by Duke City diners voting their appreciation for Indian buffets during annual “best of” polling.

Unfortunately, longevity has been a problem for Indian restaurants and closures–based largely on insufficient diner patronage–hit aficionados especially hard. When a city only has a handful of restaurants of a type and one closes, it’s like the loss of a good friend.

That’s how Duke City residents throughout the city felt when the beloved Bombay Grill closed its doors in the early months of 2008. Never mind that the Cottonwood Mall area restaurant pleased our palates for fewer than four years; its impact was significant and its closure heartfelt.

Not long after the Bombay Grill closed its doors for good, another Indian restaurant was getting ready to launch on Albuquerque’s east side. The Taj Palace is located in a strip mall on the corner of Eubank and Constitution, housed in the same space that in previous years housed Damon’s Fine Cuisine, Vincenzo’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria and Lo Stivale.

More offerings from the buffet

More offerings from the buffet

The Taj Palace offers a lunch buffet seven days a week, the desired affect being that customers will enjoy the buffet enough to order off the menu for dinner. If the smorgasbord we enjoyed during our inaugural meal is any indication, Duke City diners will flock to the Taj.

Mind you, there are several drawbacks to buffets that make it difficult to truly assess the quality of the product. Dishes tend to sit in serving trays with poor temperature control and may become dry and lukewarm. Despite these expected downsides, the Taj buffet offers several pleasant surprises.

The saag paneer is one of them. Saag is a spinach and mustard leaf based and mildly aromatic curry dish which contains a non-melting, salt-free “farmer’s cheese” called paneer. In most indian restaurants, this combination is usually pleasant enough but not especially memorable.

At the Taj Palace, the saag paneer has a wonderful piquant flavor–not the kind of piquancy that will burn the back of your throat, but rather an enjoyable spiciness that lets you know it’s there in an addictive fashion.

The aloo beans are similarly piquant with the genesis of their heat coming from red chili powder. If you’ve never had aloo beans, you’re in for a treat. Aloo actually refers to potatoes, but the starring attraction on this dish are the string beans which are cut about medium in length. This nicely spiced dish also includes cinnamon, curry, coriander, mustard seeds and other ingredients in proportions that render the dish not quite incendiary, but hot enough to get your attention.

Naan and mango chutney

Naan and mango chutney

Another pleasant surprise and (according to the wait staff) the only Southern Indian item on the menu is sambar, a vegetable and pea based dish seasoned with seventeen different spices including tamarind and chili. Sambar is salty in an almost briny sort of way, but it makes an excellent chutney for use with naan.

Naan, of course, is the wonderful Indian flatbread I may be disowned for saying is as good as or better than New Mexican tortillas. The buffet includes complementary tandoori baked naan brushed with ghee, a clarified butter. Dip it into chutney or use it to scoop up other items on the buffet, but either way, it’s a treat.

The beverage of choice at many Indian restaurants is mango lasse, an addictive mango pulp and yogurt based drink that will quench your thirst with the same satisfaction you’d receive from a decadent dessert.

Mango lasse is not quite as thick or sweet as a milk shake and in terms of consistency may more resemble a smoothie. It’s served with cubed ice, but is never served teeth-chattering cold.

Pista Kulfi

Pista Kulfi

The menu features several desserts, including pista kulfi , a housemade Indian style ice cream flavored with pistachios and cardamom. You can also ask for a portion of half pista kulfi and half mango ice cream.

Indian ice cream tends to be somewhat more coarse than American ice cream and not nearly as smooth, creamy and rich. It’s also served very cold. At the Taj Palace, the ice cream is quartered into odd sizes.

The mango ice cream is far superior than its cardamom counterpart. It tastes, in fact, like a frozen mango lasse drink and is quite good.

Every first visit to an Indian restaurant should be to its buffet–and if the buffet captures your fancy, order off the menu during subsequent visits. Menu items don’t have the temperature issues inherent with buffets. Ordering off the menu also allows you to focus singularly on the sublime flavors and intoxicating aromas that make Indian cuisines among the world’s best without the taste and smell confusion of five or six dishes on one plate.

Taj Palace
1435 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 296-0109

LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Saag Paneer, Aloo Beans, Samber, Mango Chutney, Naaan, Pista Kulfi

Eldorado Court – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Eldorado Court for Sunday brunch

The Eldorado Court for Sunday brunch

In Spanish, the word Eldorado translates to “the gilded one” or the “golden one” and refers to an imaginary place of great wealth and opportunity sought in South America by 16th-century explorers.

In Santa Fe, Eldorado means a stately landmark hotel just off the historic Plaza in which guests are graced by the art of hospitality in lavish accommodations. The heart of the hotel is the Eldorado Court, located just off the main lobby.

During our first visit in 2005, the Eldorado Court was “guarded” by two multi-hued, bigger than life coyotes (the type that helped define Santa Fe style years ago). Those coyotes have been repositioned onto ledges where they still remain in vigilant watch.

On Sundays, Eldorado Court hosts one of the very best brunches in Santa Fe, a sumptuous buffet that might have quelled the Spanish explorers’ lust for gold and supplanted it with a yearning for Sunday mornings.

A Bacchanalian feast of dining extravagance features bounteous spreads of thematically arranged tables showcasing such brunch delights as seafood, salads, fruits and cheeses, desserts and oh so much more. You’ll be tempted to camp out at any one of these culinary stations, but there’s so much you’ll miss out on if you do. For a sampling of as many of the Eldorado’s treasures as possible, smallish portions are advisable, but then, you’re bound to find at least two or three items you’ll want to load up on.

Some of the brunch specialties

Some of the brunch specialties

For me, one of those items were the toasted coconut macaroons, the best I’ve ever had. Soft on the inside and topped with a luscious layer of chocolate, they are literally melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

Alas, with rotating fare, the macaroons are not always featured, but fear not. The decadent dessert tables might include a terrifically tart key lime pie with a Graham cracker crust or churros, the sweet, fried snacks often referred to as Mexican doughnuts. Bread pudding with a vanilla sauce as well as several other temptations might also be available.

If you prefer fructose based sweets, a veritable orchard of fruits are available–from succulent pineapple to sweet, juicy melon. The fruits and cheeses provide contrasting flavor experiences with a mélange of sharp cheeses and fresh, sweet fruits.

While many Sunday brunch buffets offer steamship round or prime rib, they’re generally of buffet quality lacking in the requisite tenderness or juiciness for which prime rib is loved. Not so at the Eldorado Court where the prime rib is of expensive entree quality.

Prime rib

Prime rib

A generously thick slab of perfectly marbled prime rib is pink through and through with the exception of the edges which are encrusted and crispy the way really good prime rib is prepared. This prime rib is succulent in its juices and covers much of your plate. Alas, the accompanying horseradish is barely more mild than your standard sour cream. Amusingly, a wooden mountain lion stands guard over the carving station as if to prevent interlopers from stealing its bounty.

Carnivores might also find Pork Putanesca with roasted sweet corn on the cob offered on the meat tables. A tangy tomato sauce is applied on a thinly sliced pork with just a hint of fat to form this tasty creation. You might also be inclined to try the tender chicken fajitas and bathe them in the restaurant’s exceptional guacamole. In either case, load your plate up with the restaurant’s red curry seasoned roasted potatoes which are delicate cubes of slightly sweetened potato perfection.

The salad table just might feature a hand-tossed Caesar salad drizdrizzled lightly with a dressing worthy of the Roman emperor’s name. Red chile crusted croutons provide an eye-opening taste contrast.

Waffles

Waffles

The breakfast component of brunch is well executed as well with an action station in which omelets and waffles are skillfully prepared to your exacting standards. The omelet accoutrements include New Mexican standards such as green chile and Mexican cheese while waffles can be dressed up with strawberries and other fruits.

You can wash down your brunch with complementary coffee or with Sunrise orange juice (a Santa Fe favorite) which has a fresh squeezed taste. In either case, you’ll want to toast to what is one of the very best Sunday brunch offerings in the Land of Enchantment.

A twenty percent gratuity is automatically tacked on to your bill of fare, but with on-the-spot service by true professionals, you might still be inclined to tip. The Eldorado Court staff is gracious and accommodating.

Eldorado Court
309 West San Francisco
Santa Fe, NM
955-4455

LATEST VISIT: 6 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Coconut Macaroons; Prime Rib; Bread Pudding; Key Lime Pie

Barelas Coffee House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Barelas Coffee House

Barelas Coffee House

Quick, name the oldest neighborhood in Albuquerque. Most people would say Old Town which was settled in 1706 near the banks of the Rio Grande. Most people would be wrong. The oldest neighborhood in Albuquerque is actually the Barelas neighborhood, formally established as a ranching settlement in the late 1600s. The history of the central Rio Grande region began at and expanded from Barelas, once a thriving hub of commerce bustling with activity.

Both the Camino Real, the royal road to Mexico City and Route 66, America’s mother road passed through the Barelas neighborhood. Barelas was the seat of a flourishing railroad enterprise which facilitated a burgeoning economy.  The neighborhood began a precipitous decline in the 1950s when odoriferous emanations from an area sewage treatment plant drove people away. Then in the 1960s, shopping mall developments proved too formidable competition for long-established mom and pop businesses, the economic heart of the community.

Before long, the federal government was calling Barelas a “pocket of poverty” and what was once a thriving neighborhood languished. By the 1970s, Barelas was all but forgotten–perhaps a blessing in disguise because that allowed the preservation of historic buildings for which the community is best known today.

Everyone congregates at Barelas Coffee House.

Everyone congregates at Barelas Coffee House.

The 1978 launch of the Barelas Coffee House predates by almost a decade the revitalization of what has once again become a thriving neighborhood. A government neighborhood revitalization program later provided the means by which the restaurant could update its facade while retaining the look and feel that has made it a very popular dining destination.

Today, if you want to take the pulse of the city, you go to Barelas Coffee House where Albuquerque’s movers and shakers congregate for a great meal. They go there not only because the restaurant serves their favorite New Mexican food entrees, but because it’s where they can mingle with their constituency or with tourists exploring the off-the-beaten path charm of the neighborhood.

Everyone from corpulent Presidents (Clinton) to corpulent governors (Richardson) has broken bread (tortillas) at the Barelas Coffee House.  Despite hosting political and professional glitterati, this modest, maybe even self-effacing restaurant, remains a seat-yourself, absolutely no reservations, dining establishment in which long lines of frothing-at-the-mouth hungry diners are commonplace.

Huevos Rancheros, one of the best reasons to get up in the morning.

Huevos Rancheros, one of the best reasons to get up in the morning.

Vintage signage for carbonated beverages of “back in the day” adorns the walls. Who can forget Nehi Grape (Radar O’Reilley’s favorite) or Orange sodas? If you grew up quenching your thirst with these sweet, bubbly sodas, you’ll reflect nostalgically upon seeing this soda celebrated on the walls at Barelas.

If you’re New Mexican, your heart might swell with pride as you gaze at framed posters by Corrales artist Edward Gonzales, a rare talent whose depictions of New Mexico’s Hispanic peoples celebrate the Chicano experience in New Mexico and the Southwest.  The menu proclaims Barelas to be the “Land of Mi Chante,” chante being a colloquial New Mexican term for home. To area residents, this restaurant is like being home.

Once you’re seated, the menu is replete with popular New Mexican favorites calling for your rapt attention. Will it be huevos rancheros, a steaming bowl of beans and green chile, maybe menudo? The pinto beans–in a bowl by themselves or smothered in red or green chile–are among the very best in the city.

New Mexican plates are served with beans, rice, a tortilla and pork embellished chile. As with an increasing number of New Mexican restaurants, Barelas Coffee House charges for salsa and chips, but in this case, the cost is worth it. The chips are out-of-the-bag and unremarkable save for the fact that they don’t collapse under the weight of the salsa. The salsa is a highlight; it is unfailingly fresh and delicious at about medium on the piquancy scale. It’s a chunky jalapeno based salsa made with white onions, jalapenos and cilantro in proportions that make it memorable.

Enchilada plate

Enchilada plate

All plates arrive at your table steaming hot–not hot enough to scald your tongue, but at an optimum temperature to facilitate enjoyment. Few things are worse than New Mexican food served lukewarm.  The temperature, however, is the only thing that might be considered “hot” in some entrees. Neither the green or red chile are particularly piquant. They aren’t especially memorable either. It’s hard to discern anything either good or bad in the chile; it’s just there like the lettuce and tomato garnish no one requests.

A combination enchilada plate featuring a beef, carne adovada and chicken enchilada served Christmas style (pictured at left) is a thing of beauty with white and yellow cheese melting on top of the enchilada trio. Like a vain and shallow pulchritudinous woman, the best thing about the enchiladas is that they’re hot. It’s rare that beans and rice stand out in a combination plate, but along with tortillas, they do at Barelas. The tortillas arrive at your table just off-the-comal. These are substantial tortillas, not the paper-thin, assembly line tortillas some restaurants serve.

Carne adovada burrito plate

Carne adovada burrito plate

Confirming my observations on the chile is my Comptroller friend Ruben, a perfectionist who, in quest of the perfect carne adovada, painstakingly experimented with that dish to the point that his wife began to consider adovada a possessive mistress.  To say Ruben’s adovada is better than Barrelas’ rendition is a vast understatement. Some of that has to do with chile we both found uninspiring, but also has to do with the pork which didn’t shred easily at the press of a fork. We were also underwhelmed at the sans chile flavor of the cubed pork which just didn’t titillate our taste buds as great adovada is apt to do.

Another entree on the menu I won’t soon try again is the chicharonnes burrito. In New Mexico, chicharones are pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy with just a miniscule amount of fat for a crunchy tenderness. During a 2007 visit to the Barelas Coffee House, the chicharonnes were chewy and brittle, making them difficult to masticate.  Much better is the restaurant’s version of menudo.  In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Barela’s Coffee House  a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its menudo as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

My two most recent visits to the Barelas Coffee House were hopefully an anomaly. After all, the restaurant has been going strong for more than a quarter century with no surcease to its popularity in sight. It is considered a landmark and local treasure just like the neighborhood that houses it.

Barelas Coffee House
1502 4th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-843-7577

LATEST VISIT: 9 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole, Huevos Rancheros, Beans, Rice, Chips & Salsa, Menudo