Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 819 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6200 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Taco Shel – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taco Shel New Mexican Food

Taco Shel New Mexican Food

Having left New Mexico in the mid 1980s, the pangs of pining for New Mexico’s incomparable, capsaicin-rich cuisine have left Brian Riordan sleepless in Seattle.

I can certainly commiserate, having spent much of 18 years away from the “Land of Enchilement,” (an appropriate sobriquet courtesy of the brilliant Andrea Lin).  After discovering this Web site, Brian e-Mailed me recently to share his musings on and memories of the Duke City dining scene, many of which we shared in common.

We both recall fondly when Taco Sal’s served some of the best New Mexican cuisine in the city.  For Brian, it was the #11, beef burrito plate, that captured his heart to the tune of nearly a visit per week.  For me, the stuffed sopaipillas were the prototype New Mexican entree.

That was before the restaurant (but not the recipes) was sold and went from a restaurant whose name you’d swear was short for “salivating” (because that’s the effect it had on most diners) to a dining disappointment.  Fortunately Brian responds to his hunger with occasional visits to New Mexico and uncovered the next best thing to the Taco Sal’s of old–Taco Shel.

Taco Shel (the second “l” was dropped as a mnemonic) has been around for about 20 years, tucked into a nondescript Northeast Heights shopping center.  It is owned by Gary Maestas and his vivacious mother Theresa whose sister owned Taco Sal until the early 1980s.  Like her sister, Theresa is as genuinely warm and friendly as can be.  Her wait staff is equally effusive, greeting all patrons like old friends.  You just might make friends with other patrons thanks to the close proximity of seating at the diminutive dining area.

The #11, Beef Burrito Plate

The #11, Beef Burrito Plate

The menu is posted on the east wall’s whiteboard and includes all the old Taco Sal’s favorites including the aforementioned stuffed sopaipillas which are as good as my mind’s eye remembered them.

Seasoned ground beef is stuffed generously into the pockets of perfectly accommodating sopaipillas which are then slathered with a rich red chile and topped with a generous garnish of lettuce and tomatoes.

What the chile lacked in piquancy, it more than made up for with taste.  Accompanied by pinto beans, Taco Shel’s stuffed sopaipilla platter lives up to its name; it will indeed leave you stuffed.

Brian’s beloved number eleven plate (pictured at left) is as wonderful as he remembers.  It’s also humongous–two beef burritos smothered in red and green chile (Christmas style) and served with some of the best refried beans in town.  The beef is seasoned for optimum flavor and is fairly low in salt (which we love).

Unlike at some New Mexican restaurants where it’s only the plate that’s hot (as in just out of the microwave), all dishes at Taco Shel are out of the oven hot–definitely prepared to order.  My colleagues and I once attended a seminar in a nearby hotel conference room in which the air conditioning would have given a polar bear the chills.  Taco Shel warmed us up with its hot food and delicious chile.

The #6, Tamale Plate

The #6, Tamale Plate

Save room for the restaurant’s golden sopaipillas, puffy clouds of goodness a child might refer to as “sofa pillows.”  You’ll work out your wrist on your table’s squeeze bottle, eking out dripping honey onto each puffy treat.  You’ll also want an order of salsa and chips.  The salsa has the appearance of Christmas with tomatoes and green chile forming a delicious decoration on the bowl of salsa (which, along with the chips are faithfully replenished).

While Taco Shel may elicit memories of the past, it doesn’t dredge out your wallet.  Prices aren’t much higher than they were 20 plus years ago when Brian and I were regulars at “the old” Taco Sal’s.

About the best I can do for Brian is thank him for the great lead that led to my rediscovery of an old favorite.  Maybe someday he, too, can return for good to the home of enchilement.

Taco Shel
7001 San Antonio Dr NE
Albuquerque, NM
828-0260

LATEST VISIT: 29 April 2008
# OF VISIT: 3
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stuffed Sopaipillas; Sopaipillas With Honey; Salsa; Beef Burritos

Taco Shell on Urbanspoon

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