Bravo! Cucina Italiana – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bravo! Cucina Italiana in Albuquerque's Uptown Area

Perhaps the most memorable slogan to surface during the politics “dirtier than usual” Presidential campaign of 2008 was the frequently used American idiom “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” That expression is intended to mean something akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a piece of junk and selling it for full price. In other words, it aptly describes most political campaigns which tend to be exhaustingly negative repeats of previous campaigns.

I promised myself not to ever let my blog slink and slither into the unappetizing muck and mire of politics and with the exception of the previous paragraph, I won’t. The expression “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig” ties in nicely with my inaugural visit to Bravo! Cucina Italiana. “How so,” you ask.

It’s been my experience that you can adorn Italian themed chain restaurants with a pristine veneer and over-the-top flamboyance, but they’re still chains in all their homogeneous fungibility. For the most part, that’s come to mean a stereotypically Italian (Tuscan is a current favorite) ambiance complete with faux artifacts and cheesy murals designed to appear priceless and genuine. So that the common paisan don’t feel left out, there’s also usually a lot of brickwork.

It means saccharine service in which the nattily attired chummy wait staff invades your personal space to the point at which you rush your order. Invariably this means you order something covered in an Alfredo or Marinara sauce that’s almost interchangeable between restaurants, but increasingly it also means grilled “Northern Italian” specialties. Mostly it means predictable, pretty as a picture cuisine with the characteristic ability to lull your taste buds to sleep,

Foccacia bread

The truth is most people know exactly what they’re getting when they visit Italian chain restaurants and the predictability and consistency of experience is something with which they’re comfortable. There’s justs something reassuring about it all. I myself will admit to an odd and uninvited Olive Garden craving every three or four years. If you like predictability, you will love Bravo! Cucina Italiana.

Bravo! is a Midwestern based chain that has made significant inroads throughout the fruited plains. Thanks to an aggressive but well-managed expansion track, you can now find Bravo! in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas and since 2007, in New Mexico where it is situated in the chic ABQ Uptown shopping Mecca. The Land of Enchantment’s rendition is the furthest west of any of the franchise’s restaurants.

In terms of concept, Bravo! might be called a “tweener”–somewhere between casual and fine-dining. It’s slightly more upscale than the Olive Garden, Carraba’s and the nearby Macaroni Grill. It’s a large restaurant, in line with the restaurant’s template of about 6,800 feet with accommodations for 200 guests. Bravo!’s Web site purports to emphasize “food that is fresh, made-to-order and made using authentic Italian cooking methods.” All food preparation is done in an exhibition kitchen visible from throughout the restaurant.

Crispy Mozzarella Ravioli

The concept also specializes in “Northern” Italian cuisine which in America has come to mean emphasizing wood-grilled meats and fish instead of pasta and tomato sauce. Pasta and tomato sauce are on the menu; they’re just the only options as at some old-style Italian restaurants. At Bravo!, pasta shares space on the menu with dishes made with cheesy cream sauces, rice dishes, salads, pizza and flat breads and grilled entrees.

While you’re perusing the menu, a member of the chummy wait staff will deliver a basket of warm, fresh, herb-infused focaccia bread to your table. The focaccia appears more “torn asunder” than it does sliced, a nice touch in my book considering most restaurant bread is under-sliced and you have to tear through that last bit of bread clinging to its doughy neighbor. It’s a buttery-tasting bread in which the herb infusion is redolent of basil and oregano.

The bread is served with the de rigueur bowl of olive oil spiced with, among other things, a bit of fiery red pepper. If that doesn’t do the trick for you, add Balsamic vinegar to the mix. Contrary to the tired adage about oil and vinegar not mixing, they’re often complementary.

Pesto Tortelloni

The appetizers section of the menu is relatively sparse and includes a mix of predictable standards (such as calamari) and some unique offerings. A Saint Louis, Missouri standard not that common in the Land of Enchantment is among that latter. That would be crispy mozzarella ravioli , fried ravioli stuffed with cheese and served with two sauces, a basic herb-laden marinara and a creamy horseradish dressing. The horseradish dressing is somewhat on the sweet side with barely a horseradish kick, but it’s a good complement to the ravioli. We love the fact that sprigs of Italian basil are laid atop the ravioli. Few things in this world are as refreshing as basil.

One of the more intriguing options on the menu is christened with the oh-so-Italian name of “Mama’s Lasagna Bolognese,” made with creamy Alfredo sauce and the restaurant’s classic meat sauce. According to our waitress, it is a huge portion easily big enough to share.

If you’re not inclined toward prolific portions of pasta, a less prodigious option is the pasta torteloni, fresh cheese and spinach stuffed pasta tossed in a housemade basil-pine nut pesto sauce topped with sun-dried tomatoes, red onions and pine nuts.

If you’re tired of tomato and bored with Bechamel, this a nice, taste-bud pleasing departure. The torteloni are generously stuffed and prepared to just above al dente. What makes this entree a hit is the creamy basil-pine nut pesto sauce and the complementary toppings. This is a dish of complementary yet contrasting ingredients that come together very well.

Sicilian Pizza

Pizza and flat bread offerings range from the traditional Margherita and Napoli style pizzas to a Sicilian pizza layered with sweet Italian sausage, pepperoni, meatballs, mushrooms, banana peppers, mozzarella and provolone. Pizzas are in the “personal pan” size range of about ten-inches. They’re closer to thin-crust than to the conventional New York style crust. The crust isn’t nearly as pliable as New York style crust, but it’s crispy and has a nice char on the edges.

The Pizza Napoli is offered with Mozzarella di Bufala, the fresh water buffalo cheese which is more creamy, rich and delicious than standard mozzarella. For a mere pittance, you can ask for any other pizza to be “upgraded” to include this cheese. The sauce is applied lightly so that it complements other taste components. The sweet Italian sausage has just a hint of fennel, not nearly as much as we like, but it’s good nonetheless.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana, for all its predictability, does have some nice surprises here and there, but some aspects of dining at a chain Italian restaurant are missing. For example, the restaurant doesn’t capture you when you walk in with the irresistible aromas of well-seasoned sauces. That could be due, in part, to its high ceilings and yawning spaces. Service was somewhat transparent and rehearsed, wholly unlike the dynamic interaction you might be treated to at a family owned Italian restaurant. Still, Bravo! has its place and its loyal clientèle. Just don’t count me among them.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana
2220 Louisiana Blvd NE
Albuquerque, NM 87110
(505) 888-1111
LATEST VISIT: 27 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Focaccia Bread, Pesto Tortelini, Sicilian Pizza

Bravo Cucina Italiana on Urbanspoon

Aqua Santa – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Aqua Santa, one of Santa Fe’s very best restaurants of any genre

But the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty, so different from the equally pure, equally pristine and lovely morning of Australia, which is so soft, so utterly pure in its softness, and betrayed by green parrot flying. But in the lovely morning of Australia one went into a dream. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”

In a 1928 essay called “New Mexico,” prolific writer D.H. Lawrence wrote that “New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had.”  Lawrence believed New Mexico liberated him from the present era of civilization.  In a sense, the Land of Enchantment healed his spirit.

There is so much about New Mexico that is salubrious to the health of mind. body and spirit.  What spirit wouldn’t be buoyed by our cobalt skies with their endless depth of  graduating color intensity as they are frequented by fluffy white clouds, the type from which fairy tale castles are built?

A very busy open kitchen at Aqua Santa

Not only are New Mexico’s skies and clean, fresh air blessed with healing qualities, Mother Earth issues from her core, a seemingly endless supply of steamy, bubbling hot mineral water known for centuries to contain medicinal properties.  Both the indigenous Native Americans and Spanish Conquistadors considered those mineral springs sacred ground,  This “agua santa” or holy water was thought by some to be the source of the fabled and elusive Fountain of Youth.

I suspect New Mexico’s soothing waters may have been the inspiration for chef Brian Knox naming his restaurant Aqua Santa.  Certainly his menu pays tribute to the spirit of those qualities which make New Mexico a healthful haven and respite for the ill of health and the weary.

Knox is a proponent of farm-to-table meals, frequenting the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market for the freshest in seasonal organic produce.  Frequent guests have come to realize that the menu at Aqua Santa changes frequently, major portions of it, in fact, changing daily.  Knox literally reinvents his menu to correspond with the best and freshest ingredients available that day at the farmer’s market and what is otherwise organic and seasonal.  His propensity for changing the menu daily was recognized in an October, 2007 article  on Gourmet magazine highlighting America’s best farm-to-table restaurants.

Considered one of Santa Fe’s most staunch advocates of the “slow food” movement, Knox actively promotes the preservation and use of local and traditional food products.  His slow food practices are the antithesis of fast food in that they are healthful and flavorful.

The staff of life at Aqua Santa

During the 2008 filming of Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels show, Knox explained, “when you eat here, we want you to experience a flavor explosion and something different than you’ve either eaten at home or at another restaurant in any part of the world.  What we want is a really fresh, clean, simple presentation and taste.”  By most standards, he succeeds, meeting his self-imposed challenge with a refined, inventive and sophisticated menu featuring distinctive ingredients at the height of freshness.

Knox launched Aqua Santa in 2004, nearly eight years after closing Escalera, one of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe.  A homey, dimly-lit one-room restaurant in which the exhibition kitchen seems spotlighted like the focal point it is, Aqua Santa invites comparisons to  rural European restaurants.  An oval antique table in front of the exhibition kitchen is set with a basket brimming with large loaves of artisanal country bread, a crystal vase of flowers and several bottles of wine.  Aqua Santa is reputed to have one of the most sophisticated wine lists in Santa Fe.

The wait staff is courteous and attentive, reflecting the geniality of Chef Knox who flits from table to table greeting guests and ensuring their comfort.  He is the consummate host and his wait staff his disciples of dining decorum.

Baby artichokes topped with Burrata, a fabulous cheese

Even the “non-adult” beverage selection at Aqua Santa shows refinement.  Hot and cold teas are sweetened with your choice of natural sugar or honey, no artificial sweetener here.  Nor will you find Coke or Pepsi products offered.  If you want a carbonated beverage, it’s either San Pellegrino Limonada or Orangina, both of which are quite good.

As you peruse the menu in awe-struck amazement at the seemingly preternatural melding of ingredients, a half-loaf of sliced bread and pads of butter are brought to your table.  We were lucky enough to have been served an unsalted white bread as delicious as any bread we’ve had.  A hard-crusted exterior belies a pillowy soft interior on which butter spreads easily.

As often as he can get it shipped fresh, chef Knox includes an appetizer featuring burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Its outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream, rendering it unnaturally soft. My friend and fellow gourmand Sandy Driscoll  (the very best dog trainer in Los Angeles, by the way) introduced me to burrata last year and absolutely loves it.  She’s fortunate enough to live very close to where this cheese is made and incorporates it in many of her own recipes.

pan-fried black pepper oysters

For the rest of us fromage fanatics, Aqua Santa is one of a select few restaurants in New Mexico to offer burrata.  Chef Knox displays his passion for ingredients and his inventiveness by offering burrata in combination with the fresh vegetables of the day, be they porcini mushrooms, mustard greens or crisp baby artichokes.  Baby artichoke is somewhat of a misnomer because these are fully mature versions of the traditional artichoke, only smaller than most of us are used to.

The baby artichokes are roasted to a delicious crispiness then blanketed with a large “dollop” of burrata.  The combination is an adventure in textural appreciation–from the coarse yet delicate artichokes to the unique textures (exterior and interior) of the creamy burrata.  This is a fabulous appetizer you have to experience to truly appreciate.

Another fabulous appetizer are the pan-fried black pepper oysters with aioli and watercress.  The oysters have just a whisper of breading, just enough to hold in all the plump oyster meat, allowing the slightly briny, slightly sweet flavors to shine.

Shepherd’s Lamb

From among the entrees, there are several “must have” options, but since most us of have neither an unlimited budget or appetite, one I recommend highly is the Shepherd’s Lamb, a certified grass-fed organic lamb, which is braised ’round the clock’ with fennel and rapini greens. Chef Knox may not be able to tell you who the lamb’s parents were, but he can certainly tell you where it was raised and its diet.  He certainly will share his appreciation for the heritage breed.

My experience with entrees made with fennel is that it’s either not discernible in the least or the flavor absolutely dominates the entree, in some cases imparting an almost licorice strong flavor.  Under Chef Knox’s skillful hands, the fennel is a terrific contributor and complement to several other flavor combinations.  The hint of fennel melds wonderfully with the delicate simplicity of the lamb which lacks all of the characteristic gaminess for which the species is sometimes known.

The other indication this is no ordinary dish is the sheer tenderness of the lamb.  I’m talking fork-tender, falling apart meat partially submerged in a flavorful ragu.  The rapini greens have a slightly pungent, maybe even a bit of an acidic taste, but they are very complementary in combination with the other ingredients.

Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail

Another fabulous entree is Aqua Santa’s Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail with arugala crostini and an onion raisin sauce.  We were amazed at just how much garlic sausage can be stuffed into the cavity of a quail, not an especially sizeable bird.  As with many of Chef Knox’s inventive creations, there is a lot going on with this entree in terms of flavor discernment.  The sausage has just enough garlic to let you know it’s there.  The onion raisin sauce offers just enough sweetness to provide a flavor contrast in the most complementary manner.

A testament to the chef’s propensity for risk-taking was demonstrated in the amuse bouche with which we were presented even before ordering.  An amuse bouche is a bite-size morsel traditionally served before the first course of a meal.  It is not something you order.  Consider it a “gift from the chef.”  Anyway, our amuse bouche was two  grilled quail legs covered with a tangy tamarind sauce.  Rather than dissuade us from ordering something else featuring quail, it may have inspired us to have more.

Panna cotta

 

Desserts, all created in-house, are equal to the entrees.  The buttermilk panna cota with bittersweet chocolate sauce and raspberries came highly recommended by our waitress.  Panna cotta is not unlike flan in that both are light, silky egg custards often flavored with caramel.   Aqua Santa just does it better thanks to the infusion of rich buttermilk and the complementary sweet, tangy and bittersweet flavors of chocolate and raspberries.

Angel food cake

Perhaps even better is an angel food cake with a raspberry and strawberry compote and housemade whipped cream with edible flowers.  The angel food cake is moist, soft and creamy with just a bit of characteristic sponginess.  It’s the best angel food cake I’ve ever had, a dessert that earns its name.

Aqua Santa is everything superlative said about it and so much more.  It is one of the best restaurants in Santa Fe, a unique gem under the helm of an equally unique chef and owner.  Put it near or at the top of your “must visit” list.

AQUA SANTA
451 W Alameda St
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Black Pepper Oysters, Baby Artichokes and Burrata, Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail, Shepherd’s Lamb, Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Angel Food Cake

Guadalupe Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Guadalupe Cafe on Old Santa Fe Trail

1974, Mexico’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.” Though perhaps not to the same degree of reverence as people of Mexican descent have for Our Lady of Guadalupe, many diners literally make pilgrimages to Santa Fe’s Guadalupe Cafe. You might say they trek to this beloved institution with a type of fervor which could be considered almost spiritual.

The Guadalupe Cafe, long removed from Santa Fe’s Guadalupe District and Guadalupe Street, does indeed inspire a fierce devotion. It is one of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe, a venue often included in discussions about the best New Mexican restaurants in Northern New Mexico. It’s not uncommon to find yourself seated next to families who drove from Albuquerque or Taos (as has been our experience) just for breakfast at this institution. It’s not uncommon for tourists to make this the first restaurant they visit when they return to Santa Fe (and the City Different always inspires return visits).

During a return visit to Santa Fe for her Tasty Travels show, the effervescent kitchen diva Rachael Ray touted the Guadalupe Cafe as “no more affordable way to wake up your taste buds Santa Fe style.” A New York Times travel writer who’s obviously spent quite a bit of time in Santa Fe writes, “when I want New Mexican food, I go to this restaurant, and like many Santa Feans, I go there often.” Gayot.com, the self-styled “guide to the good life” proclaims the Guadalupe Cafe “one of Santa Fe’s most beloved restaurants.”

Within easy walking distance of the “Roundhouse,” the New Mexico state capital building, the Guadalupe Cafe is frequented by the state’s power brokers (especially when the legislature is in session), some of whom might be seen rubbing elbows with part-time Santa Fe residents who ply their thespianic trades in Hollywood.

One of the Guadalupe Cafe's dining rooms

It’s well established that the Guadalupe Cafe is loved by both locals, politicians, tourists, stars and food writers, but what makes it so special? Without a doubt, it’s a time-tested and proven formula that hasn’t changed in more than three decades. When Isabelle Koomoa launched her iconic restaurant, her dream was a “from scratch” restaurant in which everything humanly possible is made from scratch on the premises. She’s been faithful to that recipe for success and it’s paid off. It’s probably just as important that the recipes used in the kitchen are inspired (gourmet New Mexican at its finest) and that service is attentive and friendly.

The term I’ve most often heard or read to describe the Guadalupe Cafe is “casually elegant.” That fits. Housed in a light adobe hued stucco edifice, the restaurant imparts a sense of hominess as it bids guests welcome with its warm colors and heavily trodden oaken floors. There are several dining rooms whose walls are festooned by Southwestern art, including portraits of John Wayne and other Western glitterati. Nichos include folk art such as ceramic pigs (no lipstick) or Catholic iconography such as San Pascual, the patron saint of kitchens.

The preferred venue for dining, weather permitting, is the outdoor patio from which guests can check out passers-by on Old Santa Fe Trail. In most cases the guests themselves–an eclectic mix of starched-shirt white-collar employees; tatooed, under-dressed Bohemians and nattily attired tourists–make for pretty interesting people watching, too. When wind or cold call for a surcease in outdoor dining, it’s nice to know you can retreat indoors where kiva fireplaces await.

Hot chocolate the way it should be made

The menu is expansive and awash with creative departures from traditional New Mexican recipes. You might say New Mexican entrees are extended beyond the ordinary into the inventive realm. Even traditionalists will quickly forgive those departures because the resultant entrees are just so good (and besides, they don’t involve the use of cumin).

Santa Fe is not only the state capital. It is undoubtedly the breakfast capital of New Mexico, if not the entire Southwest. The Guadalupe Cafe and its eye-opening menu is a great way to start the day. The coffee is salubrious with its steamy fragrance and soul-warming heat, but my preference is for the restaurant’s unique hot chocolate. It’s served in a beverage glass instead of in a mug and the glass is lined with chocolate syrup which melts into the frothy hot chocolate to further sweeten it. It’s an instant cure for cool morning blues.

Casey Enchiladas

Generating even more heat is the chile which has a well-deserved reputation as among the very best in town. It’s a wonderful chile–pleasantly piquant, deeply earthy and perfectly seasoned. Some critics warn that the chile can be hot and the chef won’t put it on the side for you, but it’s a chile most locals should be able to handle easily.

One of the best ways in which to experience that chile is with a breakfast burrito (if it’s not the official state breakfast food, it should be) and the Guadalupe Cafe’s is one of the best in town, but other chile laden items make it worth passing up that great breakfast burrito. One such item are the Casey Enchiladas, two rolled blue corn tortillas with scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese served Christms style (with both red and green chile). This entree is served with home-cut potatoes and your choice of toast (sourdough or cinammon bread) or muffin.

The red chile definitely packs a punch. It is a deep red chile and it’s thick and flavorful. The green chile is more subtle, a neon green colored sauce with plenty of flavor. and fragrance. Both red and green chiles are absolutely delicious, perhaps the inspiration for the state legislature to declare an official state question (red or green?). The home-cut potatoes are sliced thin and seasoned to perfection.

Visitors concerned that chile might scald their tongues or cause gastrointestinal distress can still find an array of delicious offerings on the menu. One popular breakfast entree is the Santa Fe breakfast crepe made with a whole wheat batter and grilled tortilla slathered with low-fat yogurt and topped with fresh fruit and homemade granola. It is very popular among health-conscious diners.

Better still, so they can tell friends and colleagues back home that they partook of an exotic New Mexican treat, visitors should try the blue corn pinon nut bread French toast. The bread is sliced thick and cut in half diagonally. A full-order includes two slices while a half-order is a single slice, but is still big enough to share. Like New Mexico’s famous blue corn atole pinon pancakes, it’s uniquely ours.

Blue Corn Pinon Nut Bread French Toast

If the only sweet thing with which you want to start the day is a good morning kiss but you don’t want overpowering chile, one option are Guadalupe Cafe’s migas. Migas are a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast dish originally crafted as a meatless dish for Lent. The Guadalupe Cafe’s rendition consists of scrambled eggs with torn ribbons of trisp tortilla chips, scallions, cheese and chile throughout. Although the menu indicates the migas include chile, it was barely discernible. Perhaps the chile is in the salsa (which is pretty darn good, by the way). This version of migas would please the most persnickety of Texans.

Migas

I mentioned earlier that many breakfast items come with your choice of toast or muffin. The toast is fabulous. It’s thickly sliced and pillowy soft, toasted ever so slightly and served with melted butter and something that looks like ketchup, but which has the fruity deliciousness of strawberry without cloying additives that sweeten or thicken it artificially. Both the sourdough and cinammon breads make for excellent toast.

Toast with strawberry "jelly"

The Guadalupe Cafe
422 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM
(505) 982-9762
LATEST VISIT: 14 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Casey Enchiladas, Migas, Blue Corn Nut Bread French Toast, Hot Chocolate, Toast

Welcome to Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Gil's Thrilling Web Site

Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Web Site

If you got to this page expecting Gil’s Thrilling Web, you’re in the right place. Don’t let the new look and feel scare or fool you. This is the new home for the restaurant reviews on which you’ve counted for years–different format, same place. The transition from static Web to blog was inevitable and years in coming. There are several reasons why this transition makes sense.

The main reason for me to move to a blog is that blogs are much more interactive than conventional Web sites. You, my dear readers, can leave comments about my reviews and let me know if you agree with my recommendations or if you believe I’ve totally missed the mark. In our increasingly connected and shrinking world, blogs are community while Web sites are islands. Please note that while Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog is more interactive, I hope not to publish any personal attacks (the type of which are replete in the blogosphere) on me or the restaurants I review. From among the hundreds of e-mails I’ve received over the past ten years, 99 percent of them have been positive and constructive. That’s the type of dialogue missing nowadays in our increasingly uncivil world, but it’s typical of the class my readers have displayed.

A more selfish reason for moving to a blog is that care and feeding of a static Web site is sometimes painstakingly manual and time-consuming. Blogs are much easier to create and maintain. This will allow me to focus on reviews instead of formatting. Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog automatically links all my reviews and pages, something I used to have to do manually. All content is organized by date and category so you can more quickly and easily find the specific review for which you might be looking.

Blogs are search engine friendly. My old Web site didn’t have internal search capabilities and although many folks found my reviews using Google, Yahoo or any of the myriad of search engines in the Webosphere, now you can search directly from within my Web site. You can also find your favorite restaurants by clicking on the “Categories” menu on the navigation menu located on the right side of each page. For example, if you wish to find my review of Mad Max’s BBQ, you can either use the search engine or click on the “Barbecue” category and find it there.

If you’re concerned about not being able to track my most recent visits as you did in my old Web site, please note that all postings are in date order from most recent to the first review documented on this site way back in the year 2000. The “Recent Posts” menu on each page lists my most recent fifteen visits. If you don’t want to visit my Web site every day to read about my latest visit, you’ll be happy to know I’ll be implementing subscription capabilities to my reviews using my blog’s RSS (Really Simple Syndication) capabilities. These will essentially deliver my latest reviews automatically to your inbox.

Lastly, maybe now the pulchritudinous KASA Fox news anchor Jessica Garate can wax eloquent about my blog on her segment about the Web. Somehow in her tireless efforts to showcase “the best sites on the Web,” she never found my old Web site.

Note: The lovely and talented Jessica Garate featured this blog on her September 25th, 2008 segment and several other times subsequently.

I’m often asked by people who value my restaurant reviews why I would provide such a service without being paid for it. It’s a question I stopped asking myself years ago. Over the past twelve years of writing about restaurants, my social circle has expanded widely to include many wonderful people I would not otherwise have had the honor and privilege to now call friends.

I’ve received effusive gratitude, enthusiastic praise and even the occasional criticism, but this isn’t about ego. I’d write about restaurants even if no one read my reviews. The fact is many people do read my every word and they use my recommendations to help them decide where to dine. Most indications are that I have not led too many people astray.

Let me recount just one example as to why writing reviews is so very personally rewarding in ways monetary remuneration could not even approximate.

In 2007, I received an e-mail from Skip and Sue Munoz in Orlando, Florida asking for my help in obtaining Los Potrillos recipe for Chiles Rellenos en Ahogada, a fabulous rich Mexican dish which originated in Puebla, Mexico. Before they had the opportunity to try the recipe, Skip became seriously ill and over the course of several months, would wage a courageous battle for his life. Sue, a living angel, stayed at his bedside throughout the ordeal and kept me and his legion of friends apprised of Skip’s progress.

Our friends Skip and Sue Munoz

When he regained enough strength to write, Skip e-mailed me to express his gratitude for my concern over his well-being, touched that I would care so much even though we had never met. We made plans to share his beloved Chiles Rellenos en Ahogada during his next trip to the Land of Enchantment. Kim and I had dinner with Skip and Sue on August 30th, 2008 and did indeed share a dish we all love. Moreover, we shared a wonderful evening of animated laughter and fellowship with two tremendous people we are now proud to call friends. It will be the first of many meals we share with them. How can you possibly put a pricetag on that?

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t profusely thank my friend Seth Chadwick for all his help with the technical, usability and design aspects of creating a blog. Seth’s Feasting in Phoenix blog sets the standard so if you notice similarities between the look and feel of my blog and his, it’s by design–and entirely flattering of Seth’s tremendous creativity. I’ve rarely met anyone as selfless and helpful as Seth has been in getting me up and running. Thank you as well to Joe Vaughan for his very helpful heuristics (usability in design) suggestions. If you like the design of this site, much of that has to do with Joe’s direct and honest feedback.

So, there you have it. Gil’s Thrilling Web is now Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog. Please let me know what you think–about my reviews, the format, the font-size, etc. I look forward to hearing from you.

Honnell’s Late Nite Burger – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Steaks and burgers under glass

Steaks and burgers under glass

Have it your way

Have it your way with a terrific condiment bar

“America’s celebrity psychologist” Dr. Phil McGraw posits that how you interact with your partner in the first four minutes can set the tone for the day.

Those first and most crucial 240 seconds of each and every day can, in essence, dictate your entire mood and, in the long run, either keep your relationship intact or destroy it.

I’d add that even the first four minutes of your workday can have a profound impact on the rest of your day. If the first person with whom you interact is what Dilbert creator Scott Adams would describe as an “office vampire” your entire day will be impacted.

Office vampires are those people from whom a cheery “good morning” greeting will elicit a “what’s good about it” retort. They embody the axiom that misery loves company and are generally avoided like the plague.

Restaurants don’t have 240 seconds to set the tone for their patrons’ dining experiences. It’s been my experience that restaurants have about ten seconds to set the tone for your entire experience.

Restaurants have their own versions of the office vampire. These are generally the greeters whose chief (maybe sole) responsibility is to welcome diners and escort them to their tables.

A grumpy greeter should lead you to question whether or not he or she reflects the professional attitude and customer orientation of the restaurant ownership and staff.

The Late Nite Burger restaurant

The Late Nite Burger restaurant

During the first ten seconds of our inaugural visit to Honnell’s Late Nite Burger on Santa Fe’s Cerrillos Road, we were greeted politely and treated like welcome guests.

This wasn’t the rehearsed “wait schtick” you might experience at a chain restaurant in which saccharine service is as genuine as a politician’s promise. Our server Jerry Griffin was genuinely friendly in an ambassadorial sense–friendly, but not overly familiar; attentive without hovering. It set the tone for a very nice meal. We had, in fact, intended to place a take-out order and leave, but decided to stick around and visit.

The Late Nite Burger restaurant launched just as 2007 was drawing to a close. It is within easy walking distance of Tecolote Cafe and in the same sprawling complex as Carmen’s Pizza. It occupies the former site of Rocky’s Bar & Grill.

Contrary to any images its name may conjure, the Late Nite Burger has the look and feel of an upscale gourmet burger restaurant without any of the condescending implications of that characterization.

White-washed vigas, tiled floors and multi-hued walls make this a very attractive milieu for dining and not necessarily only during late night hours. The restaurant is open from 11AM through 11PM Tuesday through Saturday.

Late Nite Burger with real blue cheese

Late Nite Burger with real blue cheese

Jerry Honnell, the restaurant’s proprietor, is absolutely fanatical about the quality of his product. All burgers are constructed from boneless USDA choice chuck roast which is ground on the premises daily. The burgers are thick and juicy and will take a few minutes to cook.

At the Late Nite Burger, you truly can “have it your way” both in terms of the “doneness” of your beef and in the way you dress your burgers. A toppings bar includes very fresh ingredients (think Fudruckers but better), including some that you don’t see every day. The toppings bar includes sweet relish pickles, red and white onions, pico de gallo and some of the best looking lettuce you’ll see anywhere.

Good looking also applies to the cuts of beef under glass beside the ordering counter. The Late Nite Burger offers T-Bone, Ribeye and New York Strip steaks as well as a grilled pork chop verde (the verde coming from green chile).

A thick, cold and delicious chocolate shake

A thick, cold and delicious chocolate shake

Burgers can be ordered with one beef patty or two. The menu also includes turkey, ground chicken, crab cake and Portobello burgers. The latter is a vegetarian offering topped with fresh calabasitas and Swiss cheese.

In addition to the toppings bar, you can order your burger with caramelized onions, smoked chipotle peppers, green chile strips, grilled pineapple and chili Toredo grilled jalapenos.

For a pittance more, you can even top your burgers with fresh calabasitas, thick sliced bacon, sautéed Portobello mushrooms, homemade guacamole, roasted red peppers and red or green chile. The possibilities are endless.

Fromage fanatics like me will appreciate that you can have a burger with Swiss cheese, Blue cheese, Cheddar cheese, Pepperjack cheese and American cheese. The buns are fresh and flecked with sesame seeds. They have a sweet-savory flavor that enhances the flavor of the beef.

I topped my very first Late Nite burger with blue cheese (the real stuff), red onions and sweet relish pickles. At medium well, this was a delicious burger with tons of flavor. The beef is nicely seasoned and the blue cheese has the pungency I like–strong but complementary to the other ingredients. It’s so good, it doesn’t even need green chile to make it an outstanding burger!

At so many restaurants, it’s apparent an extensive amount of filler is used on burgers, but not so at Late Nite. The beef is juicy and absolutely unadulterated with filler of any sort. Burger aficionados will love that! This is a burger restaurant to which future visits are guaranteed.

Steaks and burgers under glass

Two beef patties, two slices of cheese, boundless flavor

There are several choices with which to wash your burger down. Those of us who have lived through four decades or more will absolutely love the old-fashioned milk shakes at the Late Nite Burger. Only three flavors–chocolate, vanilla and strawberry-are available, but that suits us quadragenarians just fine. That’s what we grew up with.

These shakes are served cold and thick, but you’re given an extra wide straw with which to imbibe the deliciousness. The chocolate shakes include a generous squeeze of chocolate syrup, the rich kind that leaves a chocolate mustache. These are some of the best shakes we’ve had anywhere in the Land of Enchantment!

Honnell’s Late Nite Burger
1201 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Late Nite Burger, Chocolate Shake, Draft Root Beer

Marlene’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Marlene's New Mexican Food Restaurant

Marlene's New Mexican Food Restaurant

And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

For far too many people, work is a drudgery, a tedious, tiring and torturous routine done solely to earn a living. It is mentally draining and monotonous, physically exhausting even if not menial in the least. It makes getting up in the morning a prodigious challenge knowing you’re about fo face more of the same. It is a curse and a misfortune. It is a necessary evil.

Conversely when you love your job and are able to work at something about which you are passionate, work is something to look forward to and relish. Kahlil Gibran described it best in saying “work is love made visible.” It is visible in the enthusiasm and joy with which each task is approached.

I know very few people who love their professions to the extent that it shows. One is Tish Resnik, proprietor of the Great Outdoors Nursery who spends her days under the canopy of New Mexico’s cobalt skies where she is surrounded by the lush greenery she lovingly cultivates from fecund soil. On September 5th, 2008, I met another person who’s love of her profession is manifested in the sheer joy with and enthusiasm with which she pursues it. She is Marlene Mondragon, proprietor of Marlene’s New Mexican restaurant on Fourth Street.

Marlene Lucero

Marlene Lucero

Marlene is an indefatigable whirling dervish who seemingly serves as hostess, waitress, cashier and cook simultaneously. She flits from table to table greeting and engaging her customers in conversation while taking and filling orders without missing a beat.

Like many great cooks, Marlene got her start in a rather inconspicuous manner, and like some of the best cooks, she didn’t have any formal training save for the apron-side training she received from her mother. Before the thought of owning a restaurant was even a glint in her eye, she worked at Honeywell where she sold some of her homemade New Mexican items on the side. From sheer word-of-mouth, the popularity of her home cooking grew to the point at which her employer would no longer allow her to ply her side business.

Buoyed by the popularity of her food, Marlene eventually left Honeywell and launched a full-service mobile roadside restaurant from a converted recreation vehicle parked in a vacant dirt lot on Alameda Boulevard. Marlene’s Mexican Food has now been pleasing blue- and white-collar workers and nearby residents for more than fifteen years and like the peripatetic postal employees, she is there during rain or snow, sleet and dark of night. Make that early morning (5AM) when hungry diners want to get their day started with a breakfast burrito or some sundry treasure prepared by Marlene.

Marlene's homey restaurant on 4th

Marlene's homey restaurant on 4th

The success of her mobile operation made it inevitable that Marlene would launch an actual restaurant on a permanent, albeit tiny structure. Marlene’s is situated in the heart of the North Valley, not quite two blocks south of Montano. With but twelve booths and tables in an elongated dining room, it has a homey feel to it. A framed photograph of New Mexico’s official state fruit festoons one wall while metal Kokopellis flank a colorful wall hanging depicting the Zia sun symbol centered around four multi-hued balloons. The balloon theme continues on the restaurant’s east wall.

Even though she attends to all her guests personally, Marlene still manages to take an active role in everything that goes on in the kitchen where her assistant cooks keep things running. She wouldn’t have it any other way. A perfectionist to the nth degree, she is a stickler for portion and quality control. Every tamale that comes out of her kitchen is uniform in size and has the same amount of chile. She strives to give her guests a consistent dining experience. When the Alibi’s brilliant and witty restaurant critic Maren Tarro, a virtuouso of vocabulary, mentioned in her review that a couple of her taquitos had some cold chicken in the center, Marlene dedicated herself intently to ensuring that never happens again.

In an era in which many restaurants don’t care about your dining experience because if you don’t come back, someone else will take your place, Marlene really cares about her guests. She may ask you several times how everything is, but that’s solely because she takes personal pride in what comes out of her kitchen and wants everything to be absolutely perfect–the right temperature, the perfect seasoning, reasonable portions, etc.. I would imagine that the only time her iridescent smile leaves her face is if one of her guests is unhappy.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

At first glance, you might not be happy with the price of some entrees on the menu. Many entrees approach the ten dollar price point which years ago seemed out of the question for New Mexican plates, but considering the cost of ingredients, a steeper bill of fare is the way things are going in the restaurant business today. Most diners don’t mind paying a little bit extra for good food in reasonable portions. They won’t mind paying at Marlene’s.

Similar to another trend in Albuquerque’s New Mexican restaurants, salsa and chips aren’t complementary. Spring for the cost anyway. The salsa is tomato paste thick and its ingredients include fiery green chile, chopped onion and salt and pepper. We were unable to discern any garlic or cilantro, but that only allowed the components to shine. The salsa is of medium piquancy with just enough bite to give your tongue that tingly feeling. The blue, red and yellow corn chips are light, crisp and low in salt.

Marlene obtains her chile from a vendor in Hatch with whom she’s developed a friendly relationship. The vendor not only supplies her with the chile that adorns her menu, but with the lacquered chile ristras which hang on the walls. It’s a good chile.

Chile Relleno

Chile Relleno

One of the best ways to experience that chile is in the form of a chile relleno. A long Big Jim chile is engorged with Cheddar cheese and topped with even more chile and melted shredded cheese on a plate almost completely smothered in capsaicin goodness. The relleno is lightly battered. Considering all the chile and cheese that tops it, you wouldn’t expect it to be even slightly crispy, but it is. It is neither flaccid nor stringy as some rellenos tend to be. Big Jim chiles have only slightly more piquancy than bell peppers so any piquancy on this plate comes from the chile which smothers this dish.

Since Marlene began advertising on a local AM radio station, take-out orders for her tamales and rellenos have gone through the roof. These are two of her restaurant’s specialties and she’s very proud of them.

A combination plate

A combination plate

Although the menu does include a tamale plate, you can also order these masa encased treasures as part of a combination plate along with an enchilada, taco, beans and rice. My faithful dining companion Bill Resnik, an aficionado of terrific tamales calls Marlene’s among the best. He appreciates the texture of the masa layer which isn’t so thick that it dominates the flavor of this popular New Mexican entree. Instead, the masa serves as a savory sheath for perfectly tender and flavorful shredded pork. It is the highlight of an otherwise good combination plate.

Another highlight is the sole taco on the plate. It is engorged with ground beef and potatoes (not the mashed potato flakes some restaurants use as filler). The ground beef is perfectly seasoned and has a just fried flavor. At far too many restaurants, ground beef has a reheated flavor. Not so at Marlene’s where everything tastes as if just out of the stove. Everything is served at a nice hot temperature, too. Marlene somehow manages to pluck orders right out of the kitchen as soon as they’re ready so there’s no temperature loss by the time they get to her guests’ tables.

At most New Mexican restaurants, you can order burritos, stuffed sopaipillas and enchiladas with your choice of beef (usually ground), chicken or beans (or any combination of the three you desire). Marlene takes it a bit further, offering roast beef, chicharrones, carne adovada and something called “Lucero” which we hadn’t seen at any other restaurant. Lucero, a Spanish word for a luminous celestial body (and a common surname in New Mexico) means bacon (and lots of it) and beans. Why everything isn’t stuffed with bacon is beyond me.

Stuffed sopaipilla

Stuffed sopaipilla

That bacon is crisp and salty, two of the best qualities of good bacon. A stuffed sopaipilla Lucero style (pictured above) means a generously engorged sopaipilla packed with beans and bacon, an irresistible combination. There’s bacony taste in every forkful of this entree. There’s also cheesy goodness from handfuls of melting shredded cheese, but mostly there’s the flavor of Christmas style (red and green) chile to impart its inimitable magic on your taste buds.

Sopaipillas are complementary with many entrees. These are large, puffy pillows of deliciousness with very little of the greasiness for which sopaipillas can be known. Alas, Marlene’s uses that honey flavored syrup too many restaurants use instead of the real thing. There’s nothing like real honey on a sopaipilla.

There’s nothing like loving your job. It’s a blessing and a joy. If you’ve forgotten what it’s like to love your job, have lunch at Marlene’s and watch the owner in action.

Marlene‘s
5312 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tamales, Stuffed Sopaipilla Lucero Style, Tacos, Salsa and Chips

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