California Baja Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

California Baja Grill

California Baja Grill

Several years ago, I introduced my good friend John Bennett to the exhilaration of verbal sparring with the shopkeepers at the mercados of Juarez, Mexico, a vibrant border city in which aggressive bartering is considered not only an honorable sport, but the only way to ensure any semblance of a fair exchange. The shopkeepers expect it and will respect your attempts to purchase their baubles, bangles and trinkets at the price you believe is fair.

When John decided to bring back some Mexican coins for his son, a novice numismatist, I advised him to get no more than a quarter’s worth of coinage. As usual he didn’t heed my advice and asked one of the shopkeepers to exchange a five dollar bill for as many coins as it would buy him. Not only did he clean out the shopkeeper’s register, the exchange rate being what it was, John wound up weighing down all his pants and shirt pockets with coins. Struggling to keep his pants up, he jingled all the way back across the border, looking and sounding like a circus clown in the process. He’s never lived down the experience.

As we studied the menu at California Baja Grill & Bar in Rio Rancho, I wondered if some of the prices were in pesos not in dollars. It’s not everyday you see seafood entrees–even in landlocked Albuquerque–priced in the mid-forty dollar range. Then again, it’s not everday you find seafood of the high quality and astounding quantities of the seafood entrees served at the city of vision’s first mariscos restaurant.

We didn’t quite know what to expect as we approached the shopping center edifice which for years served as the home of Weck’s in Rio Rancho. “California cuisine” is a pretty overarching term that covers everything from fish tacos which are all the rage in the San Diego area to the sophisticated culinary fare of San Francisco to the grunions which are caught by beach goers as they (the grunions, not the beach goers) flop on shore to lay their eggs.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

You’ll have a better clue as to what this restaurant is all about as you’re being escorted to your table. Decorative fishing nets and other marine-life accoutrements evince clearly that the restaurant specializes in mariscos, or Mexican seafood. One rear wall is dedicated to the golden bear flag of the great state of California and to what appears to be the shirt of a sports team emblazoned with the name of the city “Chicago” with the subtext “California Baja Grill.” Potted faux coconut trees and their hard-shelled fruit are positioned throughout the restaurant.

You won’t be seated long before a small bowl of salsa and a basket of chips and crackers are delivered to your table. The salsa is somewhat watery and at first appears to have virtually no piquancy. It’s got the kind of heat that sneaks up on you and before long your tongue may catch fire. The chips are low in salt and perfect for dipping into the salsa because, thin as it is, you won’t be able to scoop it up.

Tostada Mixta

Tostada Mixta

The menu includes an entire pageful of ceviche, some of which may send you into sticker shock. Three of the ceviche offerings are priced at just under $25 for a medium portion and only a penny less than $45 for a large portion. We were assured the portion sizes were prodigious, but if you don’t want to empty your wallet or purse to confirm that, order a tostada de ceviche.

Make it a tostada mixta, a melange of fish, octopus, imitation crab and shrimp atop a crisp tortilla shell. all invigorated with lime, cucumber and tomato. Shrimp is an oxymoron for this delicious decapod. What is delivered to your table are some of the largest, most crisp, fresh and delicious crustacean you’ll ever have on an order of ceviche. They are wholly unlike the tiny shrimp you generally find on Mexican ceviche.

Prodigious purplish hunks of octopus and sweet imitation crab complement the shrimp well. What makes the seafood special is that it’s allowed to shine on its own accord. It’s not dominated by the tartness of lime or the acidity of tomato. It’s equally, deliciously briny and sweet, a real treat.

Empanada de Camaron

Empanada de Camaron

Shrimp is a specialty of the house at the California Baja Grill and it’s prepared in various ways. One unique way is enrobed in a light, flaky cornmeal crust–empanadas de camaron, or shrimp empanadas. These individual-sized empanadas are engorged with sweet, succulent shrimp and served with a green salsa with even more piquant potency than its red counterpart. That piquancy is the perfect countermand for the sweetness of the crust and shrimp. These empanadas are a genuine treat and can be purchased by the half or full dozen. You’ll want to take some home with you.

Mariscos Siete Mares

Mariscos Siete Mares

Shrimp is but one of the terrific ingredients in another specialty of the house, Caldo Siete Mares(Seven Seas Soup). Other ingredients include octopus, crab legs, fish, mussels, scallops and an entire langoustine. Langoustine, if you’ve never had it, is sometimes known as Norweigian lobster and indeed it does resemble its larger cousin, albeit with a thinner shell and slimmer body. Even more than lobster, langoustine has a sweet, subtle flavor and delicate texture.

The crab leg is sliced down the middle so you can easily extricate its sweet meat. The mussels are of the New Zealand green lip variety while the scallops are fleshy and tender. The broth is imbued with the flavors of the bounties of the sea, but it’s also meant to be flavored with red onion and chile de arbol. Pinch the chiles so the chile “dust” and seeds fall into the broth for an excitingly piquant flavor complement.

This Caldo Siete Mares is served in a swimming pool sized bowl (it has to be that large to accommodate all the ingredients). It’s the only caldo of its kind we’ve had in the Albuquerque area which isn’t in dire need of desalinization. That allows for flavor discernment and appreciation the way it’s meant to be.

Camarones Costa Azul

Camarones Costa Azul

Still another terrific shrimp entree are the Camarones Costa Azul, shrimp wrapped with bacon strips then smothered with cheese and a sauce of sauteed green and red peppers and onions on a chile enhanced, tomato based sauce. This is an entree not usually served with a sauce and more often than not, it’s an entree as dry as an early summer day. California Baja Grill’s rendition is probably the best we’ve had in the Duke City area. It’s rich and flavorful, replete with complementary and contrasting sweet, piquant and savory flavors.

This entree is served with rice and beans, both of which are quite good. The rice is cooked perfectly with each kernel seemingly separated from the other and not clumped like rice is sometimes apt to be. It has a nice, buttery flavor. The beans are mashed, but not refried. It’s another restaurant specialty.

The California Baja Grilled is owned by several business partners out of the Mexican state of Nayarit on the Pacific Coast. The group has ambitious plans for their restaurant and has leased the space next door which they will use as a sort of Mexican style, family-oriented sports bar connected to the restaurant. The only thing that might put a damper on their plans is lack of patronage. It’s ensconced in a low-trafficked area and is not well known. That hopefully won’t be the case for long because this is a special restaurant which should be around for a long time.

California Baja Grill
1690 Rio Rancho Blvd, #B
Rio Rancho, NM

LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Camarones Costa Azul, Tostada de Camaron, Caldo Siete Mares, Empanada de Camarones

Juan’s Broken Taco – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Juan's Broken Taco

Juan’s Broken Taco

Fusion–the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre–has yet to become commonplace in the Land of Enchantment

Some restaurants in New Mexico have dabbled in their conception of fusion, primarily by offering dishes from several southeast Asian countries alongside one another as well as dishes that are “inspired” combinations of those countries’ cuisines.

In large metropolitan areas, particularly in California, restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine are especially popular.

Here’s one fusion I’ll bet you’ve never heard of, much less tried–New Mexican and Romanian.

Albuquerque has one restaurant in which that rarest of fusion can be found. To be honest, it’s not the wholly disparate cuisines of New Mexico and Romania that are featured. The fusion is in the ambience at Juan’s Broken Taco.

Juan’s Broken Taco is housed in the edifice which once served as the home of Baciu’s Bread and Wine, the popular European style restaurant operated for years by Romanian expats Nellu and Elena Baciu. When the Bacius abandoned their restaurant, they also left behind many of their unique decorating touches.

Romanian meets New Mexican at Juan's Broken Tacos

Romanian meets New Mexican at Juan’s Broken Tacos

The Bacius not only offered a more relaxed pace of dining and exceptional service, they provided a stunning visual array of unique decorative touches. Framed copies of European masterpieces, mirrors, figurines and statues, decorative china and artificial greenery strewn throughout the restaurant provided an eccentrically charming, albeit somewhat cluttered milieu in which to dine.

Today, many of the Baciu treasures remain in place at Juan’s Broken Taco. You don’t have to look too closely to find New Mexican iconography such as chile ristras, native American pottery and even the multi-hued felt Mexican sombrero.

Patriotic touches abound, too. The flag of the United States hangs on a wall opposite the flag of New Mexico. The glass counter where you settle your bill includes red, white and blue ceramic figurines of the donkey and elephant, the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively.

Ironically Juan’s Broken Taco also supplanted the Bacius at their first restaurant in an Albuquerque strip mall on Menaul. In 1998 when the Bacius left Albuquerque for a few years, Juan’s took over the space vacated by the Bacius. Juan’s would remain there until the Bacius second departure from the Duke City again provided the opportunity to land in an established restaurant space.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

Juan’s Broken Taco is locally owned and operated by Dolores and Juan Lopez who are as nice as can be. In fact, one of the highlights of a meal at their restaurant is the service which is, if not attentively European, is capable and friendly.

The “Broken Taco” in the restaurant’s name may be a bit of a misnomer because the crisp tortilla shells aren’t broken; they’re cut in half. At eight inches in diameter, they’re also almost twice the size of a conventional taco.

The shells are made on the premises by deep-frying flour tortillas. Not only are they infinitely better than the Taco Bell variety hard-shelled tacos, they hold up very well against the substantial amount of ground beef, lettuce, tomato and cheese on each taco.

Each order of Juan’s broken tacos is four to an order if you consider that each taco is cut in half. Your order also comes with rice and beans along with salsa. My only snipe at the tacos is that they’re essentially buried under the lettuce and tomato garnish. It’s almost salad like in proportion.

As for taste, it’s easy to see why the eponymous tacos are so popular. The ground beef is seasoned very well and shredded cheese goes well with just about everything. The salsa is fresh and lively, albeit not especially piquant. It’s also a bit on the watery side so it may drip off your tacos onto your clothing if you’re not careful.

Juan's broken tacos

Juan’s broken tacos

The best thing about the salsa is that it’s made with plenty of green chile instead of jalapenos. Green chile lends salsa a richer, more refined and less acidic taste to salsa than the more common jalapeno.

An order of chips and salsa includes crisp, thin and flat tortilla chips. Considering the watery consistency of the salsa, scoopage is a challenge.

The menu includes just about all the New Mexican favorites plus a few surprises such as Chilacas. Juan’s rendition of this popular dish starts with four “broken” corn tortillas on top of which are stacked bean and beef smothered in chile. It’s not quite enchilada and not quite casserole in consistency, but it’s quite good.

The chile is only mild in piquancy with neither the red or green having a discernable edge over the other in terms of bite. The chile is strictly vegetarian.

One of the best dishes with which to experience the chile is with beef enchiladas (rolled) served Christmas style (red and green chile) with a fried egg (over medium) on top.

Beef enchiladas

Beef enchiladas

One of the things that stands out about these enchiladas is that they’re served hot with wisps of steam wafting toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils. I’m always dismayed that restaurants would serve New Mexican food lukewarm when it takes just a bit more effort to serve it hot.

The enchiladas are not only hot, they’re absolutely delicious. The beef is well seasoned and generously rolled into each rolled shell. Shredded cheese is added afterwards and it melts beautifully on the dish. With more piquancy in the chile, I’d rate these enchiladas with the best in town.

Plates are served with sopaipillas and real honey, not the honey flavored syrup some restaurants serve. The sopaipillas arrive at your table piping hot, the perfect receptacles for honey.

Juan’s Broken Taco is one of Albuquerque’s unique gems, a homey restaurant with the incomparable tastes of New Mexico and the classic European feel of Romania.

Juan’s Broken Taco
2740 Wyoming, N.E., #8
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Broken Tacos, Beef Enchiladas Christmas Style, Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas

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Chow’s Asian Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chow's Asian Bistro at the Cottonwood Mall

Chow’s Asian Bistro in the Cottonwood Mall

With but few exceptions, the Duke City’s Chinese restaurants have a boring sameness (perpetuating the stereotype that all Chinese food tastes the same) with an increasing emphasis on super-sized portions of Americanized Chinese food (fried, breaded and candied meats of poor quality).  One of the few Chinese restaurants which does not perpetuate that stereotype is Chow’s Chinese Bistro in Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall which launched in Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall in November, 2005.

Chow’s motto is “gourmet, not buffet.” The Web site promises slight variations in the menu among its restaurants, claiming those variations are suited to the taste buds of the community. That must mean Chow’s patrons like it either very sweet or extremely salty (more on that below).

East meets west at Chow's

East meets west at Chow’s where Anasazi style brickwork coexists harmoniously with Chinese lanterns

Chow’s has been the most popular Chinese restaurant in the City Different (not that there’s much competition) practically since it launched in 1992. Accolades festoon the restaurant’s walls.

2005 was a banner year for the Chow’s restaurant family. Not only was the Cottonwood restaurant launched, but the Santa Fe restaurant was voted one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in America by the Chinese Restaurant News, the only New Mexico based Chinese restaurant to earn that distinction. Chow’s Web site also indicates the restaurant was named among the top 100 Asian restaurants in America by the National Restaurant Association.

At the Cottonwood Mall location, Chow’s “East Meets West” fusion concept applies not only to its non-traditional cuisine, but to the restaurant’s ambience. Exquisite Chaco style stonework melds with Asian art and faux dynastic period vases to form an elegantly appointed setting.

Firecracker Dumplings

The restaurant exudes class with its subdued lighting, attentive service and comfortable, well spaced seating. The Juan Tabo location, while not quite as stylish is also pleasing to the eye.  An inventive, contemporary menu offers an energizing departure from the oh so mundane Chinese cuisine proffered by most Chinese restaurants.

While some items (such as the ubiquitous sweet and sour chicken) are standard fare in America’s Chinese restaurants, an emphasis on presentation is apparent when these dishes are brought to the non-adventurous diners who order them.  Chow’s plating is esthetically pleasing, providing a visual appeal that heightens a diner’s anticipation.

One commonality among some of the appetizers and entrees at Chow’s is the liberal application of sauces, some of which are so cloying that the American Dental Association should take note. Subtlety is not among any of the sauces’ traits. They do make your taste buds take notice–not necessarily in appreciation. Some are wholly lackluster and others dominate the entrees they’re supposed to showcase.

Lemon pepper salmon with tempura shrimp

Lemon pepper salmon with tempura shrimp

When the Cottonwood version of Chow’s first launch, it served ranch style rolls, with an anemic wasabi sesame sauce, a boring misnomer unworthy of the name wasabi. This sauce had the kick of a legless mule.  Despite the boring sauce, the beef, celery and green onions on the spring rolls are delicious, making these spring rolls are first-rate. Fortunately a more taste bud inspiring orange ginger sauce is now served with those excellent spring rolls.

More indicative of the uninspired appetizer sauces is the honey sesame sauce glazing on the honey sesame ribs. There’s no zest whatsoever to that sauce. It’s lifeless and trite.

The restaurant’s two dumpling appetizers are infinitely better. The firecracker dumplings are boiled and stuffed with carrots and ground turkey then topped with a bright green spinach pesto that has a surprising kick.

Marquis Au Chocolat

Marquis Au Chocolat

More deserving of the “firecracker” name are the peek-a-boo dumplings, boiled chicken dumplings in a spicy sauce heavy on soy sauce, scallions and chili. It’s a sauce that livens up even the brown or Jasmine rice.  It’s a sauce that saved a dinner special of lemon pepper salmon with tempura shrimp (pictured at left) served with a coconut lime sauce. While the lemon pepper salmon is just fine, you’re better off discarding the listless sauce and asking for the peek-a-boo sauce.

Some entrees, like the Orange Peel Beef, Dragon Sesame Chicken and even the usually incendiary Kung Pao Chicken are almost exceedingly sweet.  The lacquered duck comes with a boring plum sauce we found so lifeless that we asked for the sweet and sour chili wing ding sauce which at least has some life to it.

An interesting entree variation is Chow’s Coffee Chicken, stir-fried chicken rubbed with French coffee and glossed over heavily with a “sweet spicy sauce.”  When the menu indicates “sweet spicy,” it means mostly sweet. If you find any spice, it will be in accidentally masticating one of the tear-inducing chili peppers used on some entrees.

By now you’ve probably got the picture that Chow’s sauces, especially the sweet ones, aren’t to our liking. When we want sweet, we want dessert. Fortunately Chow’s excels at dessert, but first a momentarily dalliance.

In Chow’s green bean chicken, you’ll find what is conceivably the saltiest dish in Albuquerque. Green beans. Chicken. At any glance, that sounds like a healthy, delicious dish and, in fact, the menu indicates it is the staff’s favorite dish.  Israel has developed technology to desalinate the Dead Sea. It’s very much needed on this entree which is not only replete with salt, but the chief ingredient in the “black beans and brown chili sauce” promised appears to be soy sauce.

As with many Asian restaurants, Chows dessert assembly includes green tea ice cream, but there are better options–such as one of the five different mousse-based desserts.

The Marquise Au Chocolat earns its pedigree with an adult chocolate (translation: mostly dark chocolate) blend of chocolate genoise, chocolate ganache and baked hazelnuts topped with a mini chocolate leaf. It’s a timbale-shaped dessert far less cloying than some of the restaurant’s sauces.

In some respects Chows may remind you of the overwhelmingly popular P.F. Chang’s, but it is far less gaudy and not nearly as boisterous. Like P.F. Chang’s, Chow’s does excel in presenting a visually appealing menu seemingly dominated by Americanized Chinese food sweetened and sauced to American tastes.

Chow’s Asian Bistro
Cottonwood Mall G-217
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 6 July 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Coffee Chicken, Firecracker Dumplings, Peek-A-Boo Dumplings

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