Sunshine Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Sunshine Cafe on Mountain Road, S.W.

The Sunshine Cafe on Mountain Road, S.W.

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the waters looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high
-John Denver

A gloomy, gray winter day in Minnesota was the inspiration for John Denver’s number one song “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” During a visit to the Gopher State in 1974, he experienced the type of “cabin fever” with which many New Mexicans are familiar after one gloomy winter day after another (ask anyone from Chama).

Minnesota, as we know, is a far cry from New Mexico when it comes to winter warmth and sunshine. Still, after the winter of 2007-2008, many New Mexicans are able to empathize with Denver’s being ready for spring and wanting to go outdoors again where the sun itself can make you feel good.

Albuquerque boasts of 310 days of sunshine, making it an ideal milieu for outdoor activities year-round. With a mile-high elevation, ours is a penetrating sun made warm and bright thanks to our rarified, thin air.

It’s a rare season in which Duke City residents are stranded indoors for too long without the life-giving, Vitamin-D imparting rays of our sun.

Even when the thermometer says it’s cold outdoors, New Mexico’s shining sun cuts the biting cold. It’s no wonder so many of us are sun-worshippers (in a secular sort of way).

It’s also no wonder the idiom reflected in John Denver’s song, “like a ray of sunshine” typically means someone or something that makes you happy…such as the 2007 launch of the Sunshine Cafe on Albuquerque’s historical Mountain Road.

The deli counter and menu

The deli counter and menu at the Sunshine Cafe

 In recent years the Mountain Road area has experienced significant commercial renovation which has both modernized time-worn structures built decades (if not centuries) ago while preserving their historical integrity. Mountain Road itself was used by the Spaniards as early as the 1700s.

The Sunshine Cafe is located in the building that for generations housed the Sunshine Market which was opened in 1925 by the Puccetti family. Vestiges of the market are still in evidence–a wooden door to the market’s meat locker, exposed roof trusses and other wood accents taken from the market.

The Sunshine Cafe is indeed a welcome addition to a venerable area. Within easy distance of both Old Town and Downtown, it has the feel of a true neighborhood cafe–and its windows allow in plenty of sunshine.

The Cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and follows in the archaic footsteps of its predecessor with a small market offering a limited selection of comestibles (mostly daily use items) as well as beer and wine with an international flair.

Smothered breakfast burrito

Smothered breakfast burrito

Two daily blue-plate specials are offered after 5PM and are posted on the daily board. They are a popular offering for diners fortunate to have Mountain Road on their commute route home.

The Sunshine Cafe is absolutely pristine while maintaining a welcoming, warm ambience. Walk in and you’ll magnetically drawn to the glass cases showcasing some of the cafe’s sumptuous fare. This treasure trove includes salads and foods which can be purchased by the pound as well as a nice selection of pastries and desserts.

A selection of house-roasted meats, cured cheeses and gourmet cheeses can also be purchased by the pound. The Cafe also offers a wide assortment of coffee drinks made with New Mexico Aroma Coffee and a broad range of loose leaf teas from the New Mexico Tea Company.

The Sunshine Cafe is one of an increasing number of Albuquerque and Santa Fe restaurants embodying the locavore spirit–offering locally grown and produced foods as much as possible. Not only does it provide a sense of community, it supports hard-working New Mexicans.

The architect of the sumptuous menu is Scott Downs, formerly of the Artichoke Cafe. The menu features gourmet sandwiches, comfort foods and breakfast worth climbing out of bed for even on an overcast winter day. It’s a menu that will inspire many future visits.

Green Chile Cheese Omelette

Green Chile Cheese Omelette

A nice selection of lighter fare is laden with healthful options and not just salads. Housemade hummus and toasted pita wedges with Kalamata olives and feta cheese tops the list. All salad dressings, including a green chile dijon, are made from scratch.

Gourmands who for years lamented the absence of inventive gourmet sandwiches in the Duke City can add the Sunshine Cafe to the expanding list of sandwich pioneers (including Relish and Cafe Roma) serving extraordinarily creative and delicious sandwich fare.

The Sunshine Cafe’s gourmet sandwiches are made with house-roasted meats. The impressive sandwich arsenal includes a tarragon chicken salad sandwich crafted from house roasted chicken, almonds, grape halves, tomato and lettuce served on a tasty croissant.

A nice selection of panini gourmet sandwiches are served warm and include a Cubano sandwich with slices of house-roasted ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, grainy mustard relish and pickled shallots on a baguette.

Breakfast entrees include a somewhat unconventional smothered breakfast burrito fashioned on an enormous whole wheat tortilla which is engorged with eggs, potatoes, white Cheddar cheese and black beans all smothered in a green chile sauce. For a mere pittance you can raise the burrito to another plain by adding smoked bacon. This is an excellent burrito redolent with the inimitable aroma of roasted green chile and replete with fresh ingredients which meld concordantly to give your taste buds a ray of sunshine feel.

Hummus and toasted pita wedges

Hummus and toasted pita wedges

The green chile is a starring attraction on the green chile chicken omelet, a two-egg concoction of house-roasted chicken, green chile, fresh herbs and fontina cheese served with oven-roasted potatoes.

If you’ve ever bemoaned the fact that the prevalent taste of some omelets is egg, you’ll love this beauty. Sure the egg is integral, but it doesn’t overwhelm other flavors. Each forkful explodes with flavor combinations which go especially well together. The roasted potatoes are exceptional!

Lunchtime’s light fare includes housemade hummus with toasted pita wedges and crostini (pictured at right). The hummus is rich and creamy and includes a dousing of chili oil. It is a very good hummus, but could be improved even further with more garlic.

Served on a bed of Romaine lettuce with this starter are several Kalamata olives and shards of coarse, grainy goat cheese. There are many flavor combinations to be had with an order of this terrific plate.

It seems every Albuquerque sandwich purveyor has a variation of the Cuban sandwich on the menu and the Sunshine Cafe is no exception.

The Cubano

The Cubano

The Cubano is lightly toasted panini style and is sliced diagonally. It may be a very good Cuban style sandwich, but if you make the mistake I did, it may not leave the desired impression.

My mistake was in consuming both mine and my Kim’s Pepperonici, an exceptionally strong pickled chili of medium piquancy. The Pepperonici was so lip-puckering tart that it dulled my taste buds. Worse, I also consumed two Cornichon gherkin pickles, a briny, vinegary pickle that further obfuscated my sense of taste.

The most prevalent taste and one I normally appreciate immensely was the grainy mustard, yet another tongue-tingling ingredient to what might otherwise be an excellent sandwich.

My taste buds recovered enough to enjoy Scott’s Favorite BLT, a gourmet panini sandwich in which sourdough bread is engorged with smoked bacon, proscuitto, pickled shallots, arugula, tomato and citrus aioli.

This is a very good BLT, not nearly the equal of the BLT offered at Gecko’s, but a very flavorful, albeit salty, rendition of America’s favorite non-burger sandwich.

Visit the Sunshine Cafe’s Web site and, if you hadn’t figured it out already, you’ll learn that the words “freshness, quality and community” are more than words. They’re the standard to which the Cafe holds itself to in everything it does–from the use of locally-grown produce to the house-made products on the shelves and the interesting items that populate the menu. The Sunshine Cafe lives up to its name!

Sunshine Cafe
1134 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 June 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Smothered Breakfast Burrito, Green Chile Chicken Omelette

Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico – Phoenix, Arizona

Richardson's Cuisine of New Mexico

Richardson's Cuisine of New Mexico is proof there is good New Mexican food outside the Land of Enchantment

Note: Not long after I wrote this review, the original Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico burned down.  It has since reopened in a different location.  Reliable sources tell me it is still as wonderful as described on this review.

My friend and colleague Steve Caine will forever rue the day he asked me to help him with an expense report for a business trip he made to Portland, Oregon. His itemized expense report indicated he had dined twice at Chevy’s, a middling quality Americanized Mexican restaurant which wouldn’t survive in the tough Albuquerque market.   I teased him mercilessly. Worse, when my boss saw what the commotion was all about, he immediately put Steve on double-secret probation. Steve has never lived down visiting a Chevy’s in Portland where he could have had some of the country’s freshest and best seafood.

When the din died down, Steve admitted somewhat sheepishly that after two days in Portland, he was missing New Mexican food so desperately that he visited the closed facsimile he could find. It was either Chevy’s or a restaurant named Machissimo Mouse (seriously).  In truth, I’ve been there, too…well, not to Chevy’s, but at a point in my business travels where the craving for New Mexico’s inimitable cuisine strikes like an addict’s need for a fix.

We New Mexicans are understandably proud, maybe even haughty about our cuisine. We don’t think anyone can prepare it the way we can. We scorn and deride what passes as chile (usually called chili sauce on the menu) in restaurants across the fruited plain. Some of us feel sorry for the states in which our chile can’t be found; others see that lack of chile as a reason not to visit those states.

The familiar interior

The familiar New Mexico style interior in Phoenix

The most frequent victims of our derision tend to be our immediate neighbors to our east and west. Both Texas and Arizona are proud of their Mexican food heritage, most of which self-respecting New Mexicans find inedible.  Phoenix, Arizona, a frequent destination of my business travels, has several restaurants claiming to serve New Mexican food. I’d known about them for years, but have never visited any of them. How, after all, can any restaurant in the culinary wasteland (I emphasize only in terms of New Mexican food) of Phoenix serve anything even vaguely resembling our great cuisine?

The most frequently mentioned New Mexican restaurant of note is Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico whose sobriquet has nothing to do with our governor. Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico is named for Richardson Brown, a part-time resident of the Land of Enchantment.  No doubt that, like anyone expatriated from New Mexico for only a few days, Brown had a powerful hankering for chile. He did something about it. He opened one of the highest regarded restaurants of any genre in Phoenix, a restaurant which will sate the cravings of any New Mexican.

Aside from my own personal cravings, what it took to get me to Richardson’s was Seth Chadwick’s eloquent review on Feasting in Phoenix, the wonderfully entertaining and informative blog in which “Zagat meets Sex and the City.”  Seth is not only a great writer, he’s a tough critic. He’s honest and direct in his evaluations and I’ve found him, by far, the most trustworthy source of information on the burgeoning Phoenix dining scene.  Not prone to hyperbole, Seth’s review of Richardson’s was (chile) peppered with adjectives such as “fantastic,” “memorable,” “delicious” and “incredible.”  Still, I had my reservations as to whether or not Seth really understood New Mexican food. I should not have doubted my esteemed colleague and after my inaugural visit to Richardson’s immediately uttered fifty “Hail Seth’s.”

Chile stuffed baked potato

Chile stuffed baked potato

Richardson’s seems both in and out of place in a mostly residential neighborhood. It’s ensconced in a small strip mall, but otherwise conforms to the neighborhood’s color scheme and stucco textured template.  Step inside the dimly lit restaurant and you can’t help but think of New Mexico. To the immediate left of the front door is a kiva fireplace the likes of which you might find in any Santa Fe home. The same adobe hued stucco used on the fireplace backdrops the booths.

Windows are shaded with screens crafted from the reddish salt cedar twigs so prevalent in New Mexican decor. The familiar reddish hue of Saltillo tile adorns the floor while several Native American blankets, including some made by Pendleton Woolen Mills hang on the walls. It’s not entirely New Mexican, but it’s in the neighborhood.

The restaurant’s focal point seems to be a well equipped bar around which are situated two distinct dining areas. Because Richardson’s is so well trafficked, diners eating solo may be asked to sit on one of the barstools surrounding the bar.  The day’s specials are scrawled on slate chalkboards. Placemats serve as the menu. Two toothsome coyote caricatures flank a cartoon banner on the placemat which proclaims “Richardson’s, Home of the Original Green Chile Potato.”

Blue, red and white enchiladas

Blue, red and white enchiladas

The menu includes several New Mexican favorites (including our legendary green chile cheeseburger), but it’s also apparent much latitude was taken in the design of the menu. The menu’s creative flair might better categorize the cuisine as New Mexico inspired Southwestern with an emphasis on wood-grill-fired entrees, including an array of wood-fired pizzas.

Appetizers include some items rarely, if ever, seen on a menu in New Mexico. Starters such as “New Mexico sausage” piqued my interest, but not as much as an item for which the restaurant is best known, the aforementioned green chile potato.  The green chile potato is in essence a twice-baked and whipped potato stuffed into a roasted green chile. The chile is of the Anaheim variety which is also known in some circles as a New Mexico chile. It is a very mild chile of medium size. On the Scoville heat index for chiles, it barely registers above a bell pepper.

Lack of piquancy not withstanding, Anaheim chiles inherit a fabulous smoky flavor when roasted. The flavor combination of roasted green chile and fluffy whipped potatoes, while quite good, heightened my preconception that Richardson’s chile would be of the “gringo” variety with absolutely no heat.  I should commit to memory that often used adage about assuming. Thankfully my preconceptions were absolutely without merit. Richardson’s chile is not only wonderfully tongue-tingling piquant, it is absolutely delicious and wholly authentic. The red chile is a dark, rich red burgundy color and comes from Hatch, New Mexico (where else?).

Fabulous Flan

Fabulous Flan

Consider this heresy if you will, but I believe Richardson’s red chile compares favorably to the chile served at La Choza in Santa Fe, one of the best purveyors of red chile in northern New Mexico. Much to my surprise, it is far better chile than I’ve experienced in hundreds of restaurants throughout New Mexico. Wow, I never thought I’d ever say that! Hopefully Governor Richardson won’t make me renounce my citizenship.

One of the best ways to experience that fabulous chile is with an order of blue, red and white enchiladas. The blue represents the blue corn tortilla base for the triumvirate of chicken, cheese and grilled shrimp enchiladas served with your choice of green or red chile (or both if you prefer though my waitress didn’t get the term “Christmas style”). Even without the worship-worthy chile, the enchiladas would have been very good. With the chile, they obtain a rarified status.

The grilled shrimp enchilada, in particular, is memorable. The shrimp is sweet and has the snap of freshness. I don’t know how many shrimp engorge the blue corn tortilla, but it is a generous amount. Every bite includes at least a morsel of shrimp.

Richardson’s will, at your request, even fry an egg or two on top of the enchiladas. This is a New Mexico nuance that we used to call our own. New Mexicans know that the optimum degree of “fried” on our eggs is medium and Richardson’s has medium down to an art form. At medium, there’s just enough runniness on the yoke to enhance the enchilada flavor without leaving a mess.

For dessert, if you loosen your belt, Richardson’s serves a very good flan, the ubiquitous pastry tart made with a sweet custard filling and topped with a light caramel sauce.

My friend Steve Caine would have been entirely forgiven had he dined at Richardson’s, as good a New Mexican restaurant as there is in New Mexico. That’s saying a lot!

Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico
6335  North 16th Street
Phoenix, AZ
(602) 287-8900
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Green Chile Potato; Blue, Red and White Enchiladas; Lemonade

Chino Bandido – Chandler, Arizona

Chino Bandido in Chandler, Arizona

Chino Bandido in Chandler, Arizona

Gustavo Arellano has the right idea. The brilliant and hilarious author of Ask A Mexican, a widely syndicated alternative newspaper column, confronts the “bogeymen of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance” with humor. In his weekly column, he defeats stereotypes and those who wield them by using deprecatory wit to exaggerate those stereotypes to the point of the ridiculous.

In the Language chapter of his uproariousbook, he provides a list of commonly used Mexican terms and phrases so that “you, too, can become a Mexican.” The book defines a “Chino” as “literally “Chinese,” but the catchall phrase Mexicans use for all Asians regardless of nationality.” This is clarified with the example: “Vietnamese food is my favorite Chino cuisine.”

I found it deliciously ironic when my friend and fellow gastronome Bill Hanson told me about a Phoenix restaurant named Chino Bandido which supposedly takes “fusion” cuisine to a new level.

Fusion cuisine is the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre. In large metropolitan areas, particularly in California, the fusion of different cuisines is commonplace. Restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine are especially popular.

Guy Fieri loved Chino Bandido

Guy Fieri loved Chino Bandido

The joining of Mexican and Chinese cuisine is nothing new to me. The now defunct Maverick Cafe in San Antonio, Texas, which I frequented back in the 80s became famous for their “East Meets West” dining concept. It wasn’t so much a fusion of cuisines as it was the plating of different cuisines (Mexican and Chinese) on the same salver.

Chino Bandido takes fusion cuisine to a level far beyond what the Maverick Cafe envisioned. That fusion was celebrated on a Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives program celebrating a veritable smorgasbord of inspired international cuisine in America.

It stands to reason that host Guy Fieri would relate to the cuisine. Several years ago Fieri launched Tex Wasabi, a restaurant serving Southwestern barbecue and California-style sushi, as innovative a fusion of disparate cuisine as you’ll find anywhere.

Raw fish and ribs on the same plate seem perfectly normal to the hyper-energetic Fieri who is never at a loss for catch phrases such as “off the hook” and “out of bounds,” two of the buttery axioms he used to describe Chino Bandido.

His effusiveness for the restaurant is obviously genuine. He scrawled “This is the greatest place in the USA! If I lived here, I’d eat it 3X a week!” on a signed poster now posted in a prominent space within the restaurant. Now that’s a rousing endorsement, one that has generated a lot of new traffic to and interest in a restaurant concept that as Fieri might say is “too cool for school.”

Chino Bandido is the brainchild of Frank and Eve Collins who started the business in November, 1990. The restaurant’s name was initially suffixed with the term “Takee-Outee” reflecting much of its business. At only 1,000 square feet, it didn’t accommodate too many patrons. Today the original Chino Bandido in Phoenix is over 5,000 square feet and seats around 150 patrons. In June, 2005, a second location, this one over 6,000 square feet plus an outdoor patio, launched in the burgeoning city of Chandler.

A two item combination plate

A two item combination plate

The Chino Bandido way of placing a food order is unique and fun. An accommodating wait staff will help you every step of the way and will even provide you with samples to help you decide what to order.

All meat items are listed in the “rice bowls” section of the menu. A sole item in this section means a bowl of white rice with a single item on top. For a pittance, fried rice can be substituted for the white rice.

A combination is any two items and includes beans and rice. Those two items can be ordered in any of three ways:

  • If you want the meat alone, place a checkmark on the takee-outee menu next to the meat you want.

  • If you want your meat in a quesadilla, scrawl the letter “Q” by the number.

  • If you want the meat in a burrito, place a “B” by the number.

In addition to the rice bowl combinations, you have your choice of black beans or regular refried beans and either white rice or fried rice. The rice bowl possibilities are almost endless. There are 96,420 different combinations possible so it would take a lifetime of visits to try them all. It’s possible, for example, to have Emerald Chicken on a quesadilla and a Jerk Chicken Burrito. Talk about variety!

In addition to the rice bowl combinations, you have your choice of black beans or regular refried beans and either white rice or fried rice. The rice bowl possibilities are almost endless. There are 96,420 different combinations possible so it would take a lifetime of visits to try them all. It’s possible, for example, to have Emerald Chicken on a quesadilla and a Jerk Chicken Burrito. Talk about variety

Now it’s one thing to feature a clever food gimmick; it’s another to deliver. Chino Bandido does so with award winning food sure to please even the most discerning palate.

Your palate will certainly enjoy an Emerald Chicken quesadilla (pictured above right). This is tender grilled, skinless chicken breast meat served with a fresh ginger and green onion sauce resembling Argentinean chimichurri in appearance. The ginger and green onion sauce packs a punch despite any discernable piquancy. In the proportions used on the chicken, the sauce will have a fresh and invigorating effect on your taste buds.



Jade Red Chicken, lightly coated, deep-fried chicken glazed with a slightly spicy sweet sauce, is the most popular item on the menu. Though it resembles the lacquered candy-coated sweet and sour stuff served in many Chinese restaurants, it’s better than most. My only complaint is that thigh meat is used instead of breast meat. While juicier than breast meat, thigh meat may be sinewy and tough.

The refried beans are topped with shredded white and yellow cheese and are as good as any refried beans I’ve had in Chandler.

For a taste of the Caribbean, try the jerk fried rice, a Chinese-style fried rice with chopped jerk chicken and green onions. This is a fiery fried rice thanks to the Jamaican spice mixture that makes jerk style cooking one of the most tongue-tingling and delicious cuisines in the Western hemisphere.

Each combination plate includes a Snickerdoodle, a sugar cookie characterized by its cracked surface. There’s plenty of cinnamon on these cookies, but the sweet taste is balanced by the slightly savory flavor of cream of tartar.

Guy Fieri called Chino Bandido “one of the neatest places shot on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” I’ll echo that!

Chino Bandido
1825 West Chandler Blvd.
Chandler, AZ
(480) 889-5990
LATEST VISIT: 25 June 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jade Red Chicken, Jerk Fried Rice, Emerald Chicken Quesadilla, Snickerdoodle

Milton’s Family Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Milton's Restaurant--always open, always consistent, always delicious.

Milton’s Restaurant–always open, always consistent, always delicious.

In a 2002 column Jason Sheehan, one of the best in a succession of outstanding Alibi restaurant critics assembled a dream menu of the best foods he had ever eaten, a “desert-island top ten” from which he’d choose if ever asked the question, “If you could eat only one thing every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?”  His top ten list included the phenomenal red chile breakfast burritos from Milton’s Family Restaurant in Albuquerque. As a restaurant critic I’d flatter myself disingenuously if I compared myself to Sheehan, but at least in terms of our mutually high opinion of Milton’s breakfast burritos, we’re completely simpatico.

I first discovered those tortilla encased treasures when stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in the late 1970s.

Milton’s burritos are simplicity itself–grilled tortillas enwrapping eggs and potatoes then smothered in some of the best, most earthy red chile (or alternatively, a savory, fruity green chile that’s just as wonderful) as any served anywhere in New Mexico. Make sure to order these burritos “Christmas style” so you can have both red and green chile.

Eggs burrito, #13 on the menu, #1 in your heart!

Eggs burrito, #13 on the menu, #1 in your heart!

These breakfast burritos (pictured at left) are a truly mellifluous marriage of great ingredients prepared uniquely well and crowned with a chile that’s not adulterated and which has just the right amount of heat. They’re number thirteen on the breakfast menu, but even if you suffer from triskaidekaphobia, this will be your lucky number.  These burritos include a lettuce and tomato garnish which I save for last and have them as a salad with any remaining chile as a piquant salad dressing.

If the melding of eggs, potatoes and chile just won’t quell your carnal urges for meat, Milton’s also has breakfast burritos with a spicy Mexican chorizo or with bacon. They, too, are absolutely delicious. The breakfast burritos are served with pinto beans and the aforementioned lettuce and tomato garnish.

A short stack of Milton's delicious pancakes.

A short stack of Milton’s delicious pancakes.

There was a time the Duke City had two Milton’s Family Restaurants, both of which were founded by Milton Tzouvaras. The one in closest proximity to Kirtland opened in the mid-1970s, but changed hands and names several times and today exists as Roper’s. It is no longer owned by the Tzouvaras family.  The sole Milton’s is on the fringes of Albuquerque’s downtown area. The sidewalk on the restaurant’s northeast corner is inscribed with Milton’s name and the date in which it was opened (4-19-1988). This Milton’s is situated on the building which housed what is reputed to be Albuquerque’s very first Denny’s way back in 1964.

Milton’s Family Restaurant remains in the Tzouvaras family with the eldest son Issa ensuring the continuity and consistency that has made it my very favorite family restaurant in the city, albeit a restaurant from whose windows dining patrons can watch some of the city’s most down-in-their luck citizens walk by. Milton himself has spent most of the past twenty years in Greece.

The "Greek Breakfast"

The “Greek Breakfast”

What makes this anachronism the best? Milton’s is truly a throw-back; it is absolutely unpretentious, not bowing to nouveau trends in bathetic (yes, it’s spelled with a b; look it up) ambiance or the latest in haute cuisine. It relies on hearty portions of delicious, albeit unsophisticated cuisine at reasonable prices as its primary draw.

While many restaurants may lay claim to one menu item that distinguishes itself as truly memorable, Milton’s lays claim to several. Aside from serving the very best breakfast burrito in town, Milton’s makes some of the very best pancakes (and variations such as pigs in a blanket) I’ve ever had.  The pancakes are fluffy buttermilk orbs plucked out of the griddle at the right instant. A dollop of butter, some syrup and you’re in carbohydrate heaven. Who needs fruit or chocolate garnished pancakes when the simplicity of plain buttermilk is so good?

On occasion Milton’s showcases the family heritage with Greek specials such as the Greek breakfast, two eggs any style, gyro lamb, cheddar and goat cheeses, Pepperonici, Kalamata olives and your choice of pita bread or toast. The gods of Mount Olympus would have bypassed ambrosia for a plate of this delicious breakfast.

Milton’s breakfast is incomparable, a restaurant my late Chicago born and bred father-in-law (whose opinion I value even more than Jason Sheehan’s) said served the very best breakfast he had ever had.

Not just a breakfast joint, Milton’s serves some of the best comfort food favorites for lunch and dinner: meatloaf, roast beef, barbecue and even liver and onions.

In the dark thriller The Flock, filmed in the Albuquerque area, Milton’s was the favorite restaurant of the protagonist played by Richard Gere. I’ll bet he loved the breakfast burrito and pancakes, too.

Milton’s Family Restaurant
725 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Breakfast Burrito, Pancakes, Huevos Rancheros

Milton's Family on Urbanspoon

Leona’s Restaurante de Chimayo – Chimayo, New Mexico

Leona's under the catalpa trees in Chimayo

Leona’s under the catalpa trees in Chimayo

In his book Authentic Happiness, Dr. Martin Seligman posited that there are two kinds of smiles. The first is called the Duchenne smile, named for its discoverer, French neurologist Guillame Duchenne. This is considered a genuine smile in which the corners of the mouth turn up and the skin around the corners of the eyes crinkle (ala crow’s feet). This type of smile may sometimes begin with laughter that generates a wide smile which causes the skin around the eyes to crease. The Duchenne smile is very hard to fake and is therefore often used to detect sincerity.

The other type of smile, called the Pan American smile, is named after the smile airline stewardesses (or at least those on television commercials) supposedly gave their passengers. The Pan American smile is considered a courtesy or perfunctory smile. It is deliberately formed by contorting one’s mouth into the shape of a smile. It’s both easy for most people to slap on or to detect a Pan American smile.

Roast beef burrito on whole wheat tortilla

Roast beef burrito on whole wheat tortilla

You get the impression that when Leona Medina smiles, it’s as warm and genuine as the chile she prepares in her small restaurant situated just feet from the world famous Santuario de Chimayo. It’s visible in the corners and in the gleam of her eyes. Leona is very proud to have served as a Pan American Airline stewardess for many years. Photographs depicting Leona nattily attired in her stewardess uniform and of the aircraft in which she served are proudly displayed above the order counter in her restaurant. It’s unlikely she ever rendered a Pan American smile to any of her passengers.

The eldest daughter in a Chimayo family of eleven, Leona began mass-producing tortillas in 1984, a venture that eventually led to the establishment of a full-time, family owned and operated restaurant to showcase her products. With perseverance and a dream behind her Leona became a major tortilla wholesaler, selling her wares throughout the Southwest.

I’m not talking about a few dozen tortillas here. Leona’s industrial tortilla oven have produced as many as 40 thousand tortillas daily, all from recipes it took her two years to perfect. The gamut of flavored tortillas includes whole wheat, chile, garlic and even apple-cinnamon tortillas reminiscent of mom’s apple pie. Her tortillas include only all-natural ingredients and sugar, when appropriate.


Roast beef burrito on whole wheat tortilla

Leona’s Restaurante is as modest as the nice lady who greets all her customers with a smile. That would stand to reason considering its genesis is as her childhood home’s storage shed which she converted into a mostly take-out operation. The restaurant is nestled under large catalpa trees, one of which peeks out from the corrugated roof. Only a courtyard separates Leona’s from the Santuario which is visited during Holy Week by some 40 to 50 thousand pilgrims, many of whom are fed by Leona and her family.

Their thirst is slaked by homemade horchata and lemonade, some of the best in northern New Mexico. Their hunger is abated by a menu featuring traditional New Mexican favorites crafted from recipes in which only all natural ingredients free of any preservatives are used. That’s the manner in which they were prepared when Leona’s family settled in the Chimayo valley hundreds of years ago. Some patrons contend that Leona’s carne adovada is without peer in northern New Mexico. The chile marinated pork is tender and delicious and the chile in which it is bathed is incendiary, just the way locals like it.

One of the things for which Leona’s is known are tamales. These are some of the best in the state. A thin sheath of flavorful corn masa envelops tender tendrils of red chile marinated pork. They are wrapped in corn husks and steamed to a flavorful perfection. The chile is tongue-tingling and delicious. You’ll want to take home a dozen or more of these packages of gold, but when you get them home, don’t desecrate them by using a microwave. Steam them to elicit the melding of flavors from corn, chile and pork.

Handheld burritos are another popular item. Try the wheat tortilla engorged with roast beef, bean and red chile burrito for a real treat that will elicit a glisten from your brow. The tortilla is robust enough to hold in the ingredients, but not the flavor.

Leona’s became famous in 2003 when Michael and Jane Stern introduced the world to this Chimayo institution while writing for Gourmet magazine.

If it’s been a while since you’ve displayed a genuine smile, one visit to Leona’s will change that.

Leona’s Restaurante de Chimayo
4 Medina Lane
Chimayo, New Mexico
(505) 351-4569
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2008
BEST BET: Tamales, Roast Beef Burrito, Horchata, Tortillas

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The Old House Gastropub – Corrales, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Old House Gastropub

The Old House Gastropub

There’s a European joke that uses stereotypes to deride British cooking, one of the most maligned cuisines in the world culinary stage.

As the joke goes, in the European conception of heaven, the French are the chefs, the British are the police and the Germans are the engineers while in the European conception of hell, the Germans are the police, the French are the engineers and the British are the chefs.

When it comes to the culinary arts, England is the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe; its cuisine receives absolutely no respect. English food is regarded as bland and unimaginative, especially when compared with the haute (and haughty) cuisine of France.

Having spent three years in England and having partaken of wonderful food throughout the Isles, I rise to the defense of this nation’s maligned food. We found English food to be inventive and delicious.

Rebecca Carter, the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub

Rebecca Carter, the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub

We left England about four years before the term “gastropub” was coined, but the concept had actually already started to be practiced and proliferated. A gastropub is a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-end, high-quality food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to define food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub,” but in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.

Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices.

The menu, of course, has to complement an assortment of wines and beers, the latter being a staple of pub life in England.

Cambridge, England born Rebecca Carter and her husband purchased the venerable Casa Vieja restaurant in 2005, but only three years later did they change the restaurant’s name and concept. The name “Casa Vieja” has actually been retained, but it has been subordinated under its English translation.

Visitors are quickly discovering that the gastropub concept really fits the Corrales pace and lifestyle. So why the change?

Just like English food, stereotypes were attached to the name “Casa Vieja.” Both tourists and locals assumed that, because of the restaurant’s Spanish name, everything on the menu would include chile. As a result, tourists avoided the restaurant while locals expecting New Mexican food may have left disappointed.

Blue crab claw meat Queso served with tortilla chips

Blue crab claw meat Queso served with tortilla chips

The “Old House” dates back to the early 1700s and is one of the oldest buildings in Corrales, contemporaneous with the founding of Albuquerque. The original walls are constructed not of adobes, but of of thick slabs of earth called terrones. Some walls are 30-inches thick.

At its largest, the building has been described as a 20-room, E-shaped hacienda. A chapel was said to be located at the west end of the 55-foot long room of the house. Although original vigas still support the roof, many of the latillas in the ceiling have been replaced.

During its early years, the Casa reportedly served at various times as a stop on a stagecoach route, a military headquarters for the Spanish, a courthouse, the headquarters for a cavalry unit, a tuberculosis clinic and even a nudist colony.

Until several years ago, it still had gun turrets high on one wall of the chapel, the edifice’s oldest room. When the Casa served as a courthouse, defendants would be tried then marched down Corrales Road with bystanders throwing food and rocks at them. When they reached what is now the Rancho de Corrales restaurant, justice would be meted out on the famous hanging tree.

From 1999 until July, 2005, the Casa Vieja was home to chef Jim White who became somewhat of a local celebrity by hosting short cooking segments on two Duke City television news programs.

Garlic shrimp and chorizo served with Focaccia bread

Garlic shrimp and chorizo served with Focaccia bread

The departure of chef White began a new era for Casa Vieja. In place of the peripatetic and effervescent chef were new owners from England of all places.

Rebecca Carter is the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub. An indefatigable whirling dervish, she has crafted an imaginative and very ambitious menu unlike that of any restaurant in the Duke City area. It is, in fact, one of the best menus in the state!

That wide-ranging menu includes sandwiches and salads as well as steaks and burgers with an assortment of desserts and pastries. The menu is seasonal, reflecting the “fantastic diversity that the full culinary year has to offer” and it is affordable.

Perhaps not since Noah’s menagerie of beast and fowl has there been such an eclectic range of meats as what is offered at the Old House Gastropub. In terms of variety, these meats may be unsurpassed in the Land of Enchantment. They include yak, wild boar, buffalo, kangaroo, ostrich, quail, pork and Kobe beef.

The Old House Gastropub is open continuously for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Brunch is served on weekends starting at 10AM. There are few milieus as inviting and relaxing as the patio where centuries old trees provide cooling shade from the heat of the day (not to mention the ubiquitous winds).

The restaurant’s philosophy is simple–“to delight you with exceptionally delicious and well-prepared meals that are also created with conscience.” After two meals in two days, I’m ready to proclaim “mission accomplished.”

Our inaugural visit to the Old House Gastropub elicited the type of epiphany-like response we rarely have any more. Not only were we thrilled to find an exceptional menu, but its execution was flawless. If anything, there is such tremendous variety in the menu that it was a challenge to pare down to a select few. There’s no doubt frequent visits are in order.

Tenderloin of wild bor served with a pear and golden sultana chutney

Tenderloin of wild bor served with a pear and golden sultana chutney

The “Casa Favorites” section of the menu includes thirteen items, some of which can be classified as appetizers and others as entrees. They include traditional English fish and chips offered, unfortunately, with American type fries. Rebecca jokes that English fries can be tossed against a wall where they would stick. Despite their flaccidity and “stick-to-itiveness” we love English chips and the way malt vinegar complements them. American chips just don’t cut it with malt vinegar.

The Casa Favorites section also includes a blue crab claw meat queso served with tortilla chips that puts to shame most con queso in the Duke City area.

The queso is flecked with genuine New Mexico green chile, courtesy of Rebecca’s chef from Socorro. The green chile has a nice roasted-on-a-comal flavor and just a hint of piquancy. The queso is creamy and rich.

The blue crab claw meat is sweet and delicious though parsimoniously meted out. Any more might have altered the flavors of this excellent con queso.

The tortilla chips are made from flour tortillas cut into triangles then deep-fried. They are reminiscent of the tortillas served at El Bruno, one of the state’s best New Mexican restaurants.

The standard queso, by the way is terrific as we found out during our second visit. It’s not gloppy or gooey as we’ve found in several New Mexican restaurants which serve queso with chips.

Sliced sirloin steak with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese in a toasted hoagie roll

Sliced sirloin steak with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese in a toasted hoagie roll

The salsa is chunky and made with great ingredients–white onion, jalapeno and rich, red tomatoes. It’s the type of salsa locals will appreciate for its high quality and tourists will appreciate because it won’t excoriate their taste buds with piquancy.

Appetizers include garlic shrimp and chorizo served with focaccia bread. This appetizer packs a real punch with more piquancy than the queso or salsa.

A broth flecked with smoky and spicy chorizo is seasoned with the refreshing herb combination of rosemary and oregano. A relative of the mint family, rosemary imbues foods with a “woodsy” fragrance, but in quantity, can overwhelm the food it is meant to complement.

The optimum amount of rosemary and seasonings are used in this memorable broth into which several plump garlic shrimp are added. You’ll dispense of those shrimp quickly then will dredge up every bit of the savory broth with the focaccia.

If soup is more to your liking, the menu includes three standard offerings plus a soup of the day. One of the daily standards is green chile, the official soup of the state of New Mexico.

Try the garlic soup for something refreshingly different. This is tempered garlic which won’t be emitted through your pores. It is smoky and just a tad sweet. The soup is somewhere between a thin broth and a thick soup. It is comfort food embodied.

The entrees section of the menu is where many of the exotic meat offerings can be found. Heading this section is a wet-aged, grain-fed Kansas bone-in prime rib-eye steak served with a Jim Beam reduction which can be had for $50. It is the most expensive item on the menu though other prime cuts of beef are upwards of $30.

If the tenderloin of wild boar served with a pear and golden sultana chutney is any indication, the Old House Gastropub’s preparation of meats is top-tier.

Three medallions of wild boar served at medium are as tender a cut of meat as you’ll find anywhere. Boar is a lean meat with only a very slightly discernable gaminess. It is also surprisingly light, not dense and fatty like some game meats tend to be.

The pear and golden sultana chutney reminded me that one of the things we’ve missed most about English cuisine is all the wonderful chutneys. France can have all their sauces. I’ll take chutneys any time.

The tenderloin is served with the chef’s vegetables of the day which will hopefully be the garden-fresh medley pictured above. A choice of starch is also available, including mashed Yukon gold and red potatoes with chives sans gravy.

An impressive array of sandwiches is available for budget-conscious diners who like to venture into the realm of the creative sandwich world. Sandwiches are served with your choice of a small dinner salad, cup of soup, French fries or potato salad.

Thick-sliced rashers of Applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun

Thick-sliced rashers of Applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun

The sliced sirloin steak sandwich with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese on a toasted hoagie roll is a winner thanks to premium quality ingredients. The sirloin steak is tender and of prime steak quality with a surfeit of flavor and juiciness at about medium done.

Stilton is an intensely-flavored blue cheese with veins of pure pleasure. It can overwhelm or greatly improve anything to which it is added. Coupled with the light, sweet flavor of red onion and the slightly acerbic flavor of the baby spinach, this sandwich couples items which go together very well to form composite greatness.

Ascribe greatness to the sandwich crafted from thick rashers of applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun. Telera, a Mexican flat bread is flat and crusty, a perfect canvass for a sandwich. This sandwich, in particular, is fashioned from moist ingredients (tomato and mayo) complementing dry ingredients (bacon and hard-boiled egg) to form a marriage made in sandwich heaven. It is an early favorite.

Garlic soup

Garlic soup

Burger aficionados will fawn all over the gourmet burger offerings. Each burger is crafted on a toasted Telera bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion on the side along with your choice of a small dinner salad, soup, French fries or potato salad.

Your biggest challenge will be in deciding whether to have ostrich, Kobe beef, Colorado yak, wild Alaskan sockeye, buffalo, wild boar or a Portobello mushroom burger stuffed with mozzarella and sage.

You can get around that delicious dilemma by ordering the mini gourmet burger assortment which includes one of each yak, buffalo, Kobe and ostrich mini burgers served with cheeses on mini-rolls.

The yak burger is grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with Gjetost cheese, a uniquely flavored cheese that is both strong and sweet with notes of caramel and goat’s milk. At rare to medium-rare, the yak is richly flavored and delicate with a flavor reminiscent of beef, but with one-sixth the fat and 40 percent more protein than beef.

The ostrich burger is also grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with a French brie cheese. Like the yak, ostrich meat tastes similar to lean beef and it is low in fat and cholesterol as well as high in protein, iron and calcium. Uncooked, it is a darker than beef, so at rare to medium-rare, that color is readily apparent.

English sticky pudding

English sticky pudding

It’s been my experience that it’s not the flavor of rare to medium-rare beef that will turn off proponents of charred meats. It’s usually the texture that will get to them. At rare, the beef is seared on the outside and red and cool on the inside and loose to the touch.

The Kobe burger is also grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with Gruyere cheese. I’ve long contended that to put Kobe beef on a burger is to desecrate one of the most unctuous, delicious and rich meats there is. The Old House Gastropub’s rendition did little to change my mind.

The most enjoyable burger among the quadrumvirate may well be the buffalo burger grilled at about medium and topped with a mature Cheddar cheese. Buffalo meat is very high in essential fatty acids that can aid in the reduction of cholesterol levels. It is also rich and delicious.

Desserts include English sticky pudding, a lush muffin-like mound of bread pudding topped with a rich caramel. It’s a high-calorie indulgence rich in flavor and deliciousness, one of our favorite desserts from the old country. Rebecca’s version is as good as we remembered ever having in the Cotswolds.

For a few hours each visit, the Old House Gastropub takes us back to the England we knew and loved–the England in which outstanding food can be enjoyed. Best of all, you can enjoy the best of England under a canopy of New Mexico’s blue skies.

The Old House Gastropub
Casa Vieja
4541 Corrales Road
Corrales, NM

LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Blue Crab Claw Meat Queso, Garlic Shrimp & Chorizo, Sliced Sirloin Steak Sandwich, Tenderloin of Wild Boar

Chicago Beef – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chicago Beef on Isleta Blvd, S.W. serves Italian Beef sandwiches

Chicago Beef on Isleta Blvd, S.W. serves Italian Beef sandwiches

Ask any Chicago transplant in Albuquerque or anywhere else to list the five things they miss most about the Windy City and it’s a good bet the list will include Italian beef sandwiches, a staple in Chicago. Citizens of the Toddlin’ Town are almost as passionate about this sloppy sandwich as they are Da Bears.

Chicagoans grow up worshipping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing.

The authentic Italian beef sandwich is, according to Pasquale Bruno, the Chicago Sun-Times dining critic and contrary to the opinion of some purists, a spin-off of the French-dip sandwich. It is never (and I mean ever) made with marinara sauce. You won’t find one in all of Italy, in fact. It is as uniquely Chicago as deep-dish pizza (which you also won’t find in Italy) and hot dogs with sport peppers and green tomatoes.

Chicago Beef, the next best thing to being in the Windy City?

Chicago Beef, the next best thing to being in the Windy City?

An Italian beef sandwich is made with roasted sirloin tip which is massaged with a blend of herbs and spices (oregano, black pepper, basil and more) before roasting. The beef is sliced Nicole Ritchie thin and is so tender it shreds into pieces. At many Chicago restaurants, it is momentarily immersed (dipped) in the gravy to make it even juicier. It is often served with either hot or mild giardiniera (a concoction of spicy, pickled, chopped-up vegetables such as peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery), but sometimes with sautéed mushrooms and bell peppers. The entire creation is extremely messy; you dare not ever try to eat one while driving.

When we found out a new restaurant with the name Chicago Beef had launched in August 2006, we wondered if this was some audacious pretender or if, perhaps, this was the real thing. One thing is certain–you can’t fool a Chicago native and Albuquerque which has its share of Chicago transplants, has been direly lacking an authentic Italian beef sandwich shop since Frank Bellino sold Sweet Peppers in 2005.

Those transplants–especially Rio Rancho residents according to co-owner Hass Aslami–have discovered Chicago Beef, a Chicago-style restaurant specializing in Italian beef and hot dogs. Chicago Beef is situated in the building which until early 2005 housed Doc & Mz. V’s restaurant.

A hot dog dressed your way.

A hot dog dressed your way.

Business has been brisk since Aslami and his partner Tom Epley, both former residents of the City of Big Shoulders, launched their taste of Chicago. The menu features several hot Chicago-style sandwiches, bratwurst, hot dogs and a beef burger as well as some of the very best onion rings you’ll find this side of the Mississippi and Texas-sized French fries you’ll never find in Chicago.

A condiment bar is well stocked with hot and cold condiments which you can lavish on your hot dog. The hot condiments include sautéed bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, chili with beans, sauerkraut and Au Jus (the wonderful beef gravy drippings for the Italian beef sandwich).

The cold condiments include diced tomato, onions, cucumbers, pickles, ketchup, various relishes, mustards, jalapenos and giardiniera.

Not only can you embellish your hot dog Chicago-style, but you can make it a Coney Island hot dog, too…and since this is Albuquerque, the condiment bar also includes nicely piquant green chile.

Quite possibly the very best onion rings in the Duke City.

Quite possibly the very best onion rings in the Duke City.

Though thinly-sliced (it may, in fact, have been deli roast beef), the beef on the Italian beef sandwich doesn’t break apart into shards like it does at our favorite Chicago area restaurants and streetside stands. Nor were we given the option of having the sandwich dipped, a messy option to be sure, but as long as there are napkins a plenty, who cares. Instead, we were given a small plastic container of Au Jus with directions to an Au Jus container near the condiment bar.

Not all Italian beef sandwiches are created equal. We’ve experienced beef with the gristly consistency of shoe leather, giardiniera as limp and soggy as a dishrag and sandwich bread as stale as last week’s leftovers. In comparison to the worse we’ve had, Chicago Beef’s version rates high, but is not nearly as good as the masterfully crafted Italian beef sandwich at Johnnie’s Beef. Overall, it was of mid-range quality for Chicago, but pretty good (by default) for Albuquerque.

Not quite Chicago style pizza, but not bad.

Not quite Chicago style pizza, but not bad.

The bratwurst and hot dog, on the other hand, were more noteworthy. I dressed my “brats” with both green chile and sauerkraut, probably not something you’ll see in Wisconsin. Who can go wrong with that combination? The hot dog was plump, flavorful and snapped when we bit into it. We half expected Chicago Beef to serve Vienna Beef products which are synonymous with hot dogs in The Second City.

Within months after opening, Chicago Beef began offering “Chicago style pizza.” True Chicago style pizza is more akin to a casserole on a deep dish crust than it is to a traditional pizza.

The pizza at Chicago Beef is about a third the thickness of a true Chicago style pizza as you might find at a Windy City pizzeria such as Gino’s East or Pizzeria Uno. Still, it’s thicker than most pizzas in the Duke City and it’s also quite good with a treasure trove of available toppings, including giardiniera.

Our expectations of Chicago quality Italian beef and authentic Chicago style pizza were somewhat dashed, but we have to remind ourselves that Isleta Boulevard more closely resembles the main drag in Espanola than it does Taylor Street (home of Al’s Beef). Still, we’re grateful to have some vestige of Chicago in Albuquerque.

Chicago Beef
3905 Isleta, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 June 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Combo Beef & Sausage; Onion Rings; French Fries

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