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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
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
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.

Snickerdoodle

Snickerdoodle

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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jade Red Chicken, Jerk Fried Rice, Emerald Chicken Quesadilla, Snickerdoodle