Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

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Let Us Eat Soup – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Some of Albuquerque's very best chefs at the 2009 Souper Bowl

Some of Albuquerque's very best chefs at the 2009 Souper Bowl

Genesis 25:34 recounts the story of Isaac’s two sons Esau and Jacob.  Talk about a sibling rivalry.  Coming home from an unsuccessful hunt one day, Esau was exhausted and famished.  The aroma of hot, steaming red lentil soup filled the air and he would do anything to have some.   His brother Jacob, a crafty schemer, agreed to give his brother some soup in exchange for the birthright to which the elder son was entitled.  Esau acquiesced.

There are two things about this popular Old Testament story that have always perplexed me.

(1)  Just how good can soup possibly be that someone would renounce a birthright to have some?  On Saturday, January 24th, 2009, I was privileged to serve as a judge in the tenth annual Souper Bowl where I found out just how good soup can be.  The 2009 Souper Bowl, Albuquerque’s foremost tasting competition, featured more than thirty of Albuquerque’s finest restaurants showcasing their very best soups and desserts.  More importantly, it served as the Roadrunner Food Bank’s premier fund-raising event.

On an overcast winter day when the cloudy grey skies reflected the mood of uncertainty and anxiousness surrounding the economy, the Duke City needed comfort food–the warmth and nurturance of soup.  Soup is restorative, it is healing, it can uplift a troubled soul.  As 32 Albuquerque chefs proved, it can also be inspired.

Even the sagacious King Solomon would have struggled to select a winner from among the scintillating fusillade of soups brought before the panel of six judges.  There were savory soups;  dessert sweet soups; sublimely scented soups;  tongue-tingling, tangy soups; incendiary, piquant soups and rich, creamy soups all seemingly seeking out, finding and tantalizing every one of our taste buds.

A compendium of ingredients, spices and seasonings were deployed.   Bischochitos were used in place of croutons on one soup.  Popcorn was a surprising find in another.  Still another saw the captivating convergence of cayenne and curry in a Tiki Masala soup.

Results were tallied and winners were announced, but the true winners were the hundreds who sipped and slurped some of the very best soup conceivable.  A bigger winner still are the hungry masses throughout the Land of Enchantment in need of sustenance and hope.

(2)  How could someone not feed a brother when he is hungry?  New Mexico is considered the hungriest state in the nation with one of six New Mexicans at risk of going hungry every day.  Nearly twenty percent of the Land of Enchantment’s citizens wonder where their next meal will come from.  New Mexico is third in the nation in childhood poverty with more than a quarter of our children living day-to-day in poverty .  These are our brothers and sisters…and there but for the grace of God go many of us, particularly in this trying economy.

Since 1980, the Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico has been serving the state’s hungry and is the leader in creating solutions to end hunger in New Mexico.  In the nearly three decades since its inception, the Roadrunner Food Bank has distributed more than 170 million pounds of food.  It solicits, collects and transports over 16 million pounds of food yearly.

The Roadrunner Food Bank  distributes the food through a statewide network of over 600 emergency food pantries, group homes, low-income day care centers, shelters, soup kitchens, and six smaller, regional food banks.  In turn, these organizations provide emergency food boxes, group meals, and direct distribution to approximately 240,000 low-income people each year.

These are trying times in New Mexico with government and private contributions to charitable organizations on the decrease while demand for their services is on the rise.  Non-profit charitable organizations such as the Roadrunner Food Bank depend upon contributions to support their activities.

There are several ways we can all contribute and we don’t have to wait until the annual Souper Bowl to do so.  In fact, volunteers play a key role in Roadrunner Food Bank’s mission of feeding the hungry. Roadrunner Food Bank relies heavily on volunteers to supplement its 40 staff members. Volunteers help sort, package and box all the donated food.

Speaking from personal experience, there is no more rewarding “team building” experience than for colleagues to get together to do something for others less fortunate.  It may not be as much fun as judging a Souper Bowl, but it is infinitely more important.  Other ways in which you can help feed your brothers and sisters is through monetary donations  and by conducting food drives on behalf of the Roadrunner Food Bank.

In the New Testament, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed the multitudes.  The Roadrunner Food Bank returns $9 worth of food for every dollar donated.  Please help the Roadrunner Food Bank continue to perform day-to-day miracles that touch the lives of our New Mexican brothers and sisters.  Your generosity is more important now than ever!

Hello Gyro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Hello Gyro

Hello Gyro in Albuquerque's far Northeast Heights

Many scholars and historians consider  the ancient Greeks to be the germinal culture and progenitor of Western civilization as we know it.  Greek civilization has been immensely influential in the arts and sciences, politics and language, philosophy and education.  It may surprise you then to learn that what many consider the archetypal Greek dish is, in chronological terms, a relative newcomer to one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

There is no historical source to prove definitively that the gyros were first made any earlier than the 1950s when they are believed to have been invented in Livadia, a city in central Greece.  The first souvlaki on a wooden stick, by the way, was also invented in Livadia at about the same time.

As it has done throughout its history, the venerable Greek culture shared its new creation with the rest of the world.  The Chicago area was the first American region introduced to gyros more than forty years ago.  Their popularity has grown like wildfire throughout the United States.

Hello Gyro on a busy Monday lunch hour

Hello Gyro on a busy Monday lunch hour

Gyros refers not only to the thin, stacked slices of meat that rotate slowly on upright spit, but to the cooking process itself.  In Greek, gryos actually means “a full turn,” a reference to the rotation of the meat on the spit one full revolution.  The electric bars behind the spit generate heat which melts the fat which drips from the bottom end of the spit onto a drip pan.  As it rotates on its spherical axis, the fat “cone” of meat becomes nicely brown and slightly crisp.  That’s an important point on which I’ll elaborate a bit more later on.

In Greece, an order of gyros with pita precipitates an exhibition of prestidigitation as the cook deftly sharpens his knives and with hands quicker than the eye, shaves thin strips off the cooked outer surface of the gyros.  The meat is nestled in a warm grilled pita where its heat is balanced with cool chopped tomatoes, onions and yoghurt sauce.  It is sheer, delicious beauty.

In America, gyros are typically made from an amalgam of sliced lamb and minced beef or sometimes just beef.   Chicken is a fairly common alternative with some diners even  daring to serve a “fish gyro,” both of which by definition are misnomers.  One such diner is Albuquerque’s Hello Gyro! which opened in the summer of 2008.

Dolmades Avgolomono at Hello Gyro

Dolmades Avgolomono at Hello Gyro

Hello Gyro! is a sister restaurant to the popular Hello Deli which has served the Duke City since 1985.   Its Web site invites you to “encounter the timeless art of the Greek dining experience,” touting “traditional family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.”  The restaurant is ensconced in a relatively new strip mall on San Pedro just south of Paseo del Norte.

It is a smallish diner smartly appointed with modern trappings such as exposed ductwork.  The counter at which you order is done in mosaic patterns.  Framed photographs showcasing the topography of Greece adorn the walls.  The deep azure gradation of the Mediterranean is perhaps matched only by New Mexico’s skies.  One photograph, to your left as you order, is of Graecian mountains which at a quick glance might be mistaken for the Sandias.

You have to crane your neck a bit to read the menu which is positioned above the counter.  It’s a pretty comprehensive menu of what might be considered Greek fast food.  It’s arranged in categories of entrees, pitas, salates, soupas, sides and glyka (dessert).

A traditional Greek gyro with a Greek salad and potatoes

A traditional Greek gyro with a Greek salad and potatoes

If you picked up the 2008 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine’s “Best of the City” issue, one entree you’ll be tempted to try is the Dolmades Avgolomono, grape leaves stuffed with beef and rice then topped with an egg lemon sauce.  These dolmades earned an “Editors’ Pick” award for “Best Dolma Delights.”  The magazine called them “simple, purely perfect Mediterranean masterpieces.”  My dining companions and I called them a let-down.

Similar to dolmades at several other Albuquerque Greek restaurants, these are obviously not homemade.  If you’ve ever had homemade dolmades (such as at Mykonos on Eubank), it’s hard to settle for anything less than the invigorating freshness and flavor enriching spices you get from homemade.  The Avgolomono on Hello Gyro!’s award winning dolmades is also a bit of a downer with barely any discernible lemony flavor.

As for the entree named on the marquee, the gyros are good, albeit lacking in the slightly crisp edges that typify meat shaved from the outside of the meat cone.  That might be because during our two visits the spit wasn’t rotating.  In any case, the meat was tender and well seasoned, but if you like a little crispiness, too, you might be a bit disappointed.   A thinly sliced lamb and beef amalgam is layered on warm (maybe slightly under-grilled) pita bread with ripe tomatoes, red onion and homemade Tzatziki sauce.  It’s such a moist sandwich (courtesy of the Tzatziki sauce) that the pita is challenged to hold it all together.

The Spartan with Avgolomono

The Spartan with Avgolomono

The gyros sandwich is offered with your choice of a garden salad, Avgolomono soup, orzo or Greek potatoes.  The garden salad is constructed of Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and red onion with your choice of dressing (the house Greek dressing is a stand-out).  The Greek potatoes are boiled and tossed with garlic, oil and lemon juice.  They’re also quite good.  The only side which didn’t win us over is the Avgolomono soup which, honestly, reminded me of a chicken and rice soup barely tinged with lemon.

A nice alternative to gyros is a pita-based sandwich called the Spartan, a grilled marinated chicken breast topped with feta cheese, Romaine lettuce, ripe tomato and red onion all nestled on soft, warm pita bread.  The chicken breast is grilled to perfection and its radiant heat melts the feta into a complementary sauce.  The red onion imparts a slightly sweet flavor that cuts the sharpness of the feta.  If anything, this sandwich may be better than the gyros.

Kataifi

Kataifi, a terrific Greek dessert

The glyka section of the menu includes many traditional Greek desserts such as baklava and one which isn’t as common in Albuquerque’s Greek restaurants.  That would be Kataifi, shredded filo dough baked with walnuts and cinnamon and covered with a sugar honey syrup.  It is a very rich, absolutely delicious dessert which puts an exclamation point on a good meal of Greek delicacies.

Since opening Hello Gyro! has earned a phalanx of fervent fans, most of whom return frequently to what has become a gathering place for good Greek food.

Hello Gyro!
7900 San Pedro, N.E., A-12
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT:  19 January 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Gyros, Kataifi, Spartan, Garden Salad

Bode’s General Merchandise Deli & Bakery – Abiquiu, New Mexico

Bode's General Merchandise in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Bode’s General Merchandise in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Mention food and convenience store in the same sentence and the first thing likely to come to mind is one of those perpetually rotating, alutaceous hot dogs seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno. Not even a large slushie spiked with your favorite adult beverage would make that hot dog palatable.

Mention food and gas station in the same sentence and all of a sudden that leathery hot dog at the convenience store sounds like a gourmet meal. Salty, cylindrically shaped dry meat snacks with the texture of sawdust and air-filled bags of Cool Ranch Doritos are typical gas station fare.

Now mention New Mexican food and gas station in the same sentence and the likely image conjured is scatological, having more to do with “gas” than food and we’re not talking petroleum here.

In 2007, Sarah Karnasiewicz, senior editor of Saveur, trekked back to New Mexico to discover some of  the Land of Enchantment’s best “filling stations,” service stations in which you can actually find food that is not only fit for human consumption, it’s quite good, too.  She observed that, “we know of no other state in the Union where you can so consistently find such tasty cooking along the asphalt byways, often steps from the gas pumps.”

The Deli at Bode's

The Deli at Bode’s

One of the filling stations with which she was most impressed was Bode’s off Highway 84 in Abiquiu.  Sarah cited as  “the highlight of the menu” a “half-pound green chile cheeseburger–a dish satisfying enough for the mightiest road warriors.”  In an accompanying photo essay, she made an even more audacious claim, “Bode’s may make the world’s best cheeseburger: a half pound of ground steak smothered in fresh New Mexico green chiles.”

In New Mexico, green chile cheeseburgers are practically a religion and any claims to being “the best” are quickly and vociferously disputed.  There is no consensus best green chile cheeseburger, and only a small number of serious contenders, but there are plenty of pretenders which don’t live up to the hype.  Count Bode’s among the former, a green chile cheeseburger for which a solid argument could be made that it is  among the very best in the state.

Before making that argument, let me state that Bode’s General Merchandise is worth a trip even if it didn’t offer a bodacious green chile cheeseburger.  Bode’s has been serving the community of Abiquiu since 1919.  Ninety years ago in remote New Mexican villages, mercantiles such as Bode’s were the heart of the community, often the only link to the outside world.  In the 1920s, Bode’s served as post office, gas station and even electrical power plant.

Bode's world-famous green chile cheeseburger

Bode’s world-famous green chile cheeseburger

Today Bode’s remains an essential part of the community as well as a surprisingly popular destination in its own right.  It is a true general store, serving the needs of hunters, fishermen, campers, visitors and locals.  Whether you’re taking it on the trail, to the breakfast nook, or to the dinner table, Bode’s old-fashioned country stock fills your needs.

Bode’s shelves are stocked with unique bric-a-brac, a miscellaneous collection of  eye-catching and decorative curios you might not see anywhere else.   Three racks of postcards showcase bawdy postcards which would hold your attention if there wasn’t so much else to browse.  That includes curious toys and vintage curios some might describe as seedy or even blasphemous.

The bakery provisions guests with fresh pastries, pies, muffins and cookies baked daily.   Sage Bakehouse bread is brought in from Santa Fe.  The deli, open from 11AM through 3PM, serves Boar’s Head meat and cheese products on its sandwich board.  The deli menu also includes Frito Pie, “slyders” with Fries, burritos and the Bode Burger, a half-pound ground sirloin burger to which you can add cheese, bacon and of course, green chile.  Portions are prodigious.

Bode's "Slyders"

Bode’s “Slyders”

The green chile cheeseburger is humongous, a two-fisted burger if there ever was one.  For hands like mine which can easily palm a basketball, it’s the perfect sized burger.  For appetites which travel miles to meet and eat the burger which won Saveur over, it’s delicious validation that the magazine which introduces us “a world of authentic cuisine” knows its stuff–even when it comes to green chile cheeseburgers.

When the sandwich board says “1/2 pound ground sirloin,” it’s not just local lore like the malefic tales of shape-shifting brujas which still frighten many.  It’s a delicious slab of ground sirloin grilled to about medium-well.  It’s a whopping canvas for large-leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, melted cheese, red onion and of course, lots of green chile.  The green chile is definitely of the mild variety with not much more piquancy than a bell pepper, but it’s got that incomparable green chile flavor aficionados love.  The bun is toasted just enough to give it a bit of firmness so it can hold in all those ingredients and all that flavor.

If you want to fill up in smaller doses, order Bode’s “slyders,” five smallish burgers topped with ingredients of your choosing.  These aren’t White Castle type sliders which, while quite good,  just don’t have much substance.  One of Bode’s slyders probably has as much beef as four White Castle sliders.   That beef is sandwiched in what could be a bolillo instead of a traditional burger bun.   Whether consuming five slyders is the equivalent of one green chile cheeseburger is subject to debate.

bode05

Bean and pork burrito with side of green chile

While the green chile cheeseburger may be the highlight of the menu, New Mexican food favorites at Bode’s will appease the most tired, poor and huddled masses of visitors.  The burritos are about half the size of a football and are engorged with fresh beans and mouth-watering shredded pork.  The beans are perfectly prepared with large, whole beans while the shredded pork is akin to carne adovada sans red chile.  We were amazed at just how much shredded pork the burrito contained.

After the Saveur article was published in 2008, many road warriors from New Mexico and beyond made their way to Bode’s, one of the Land of Enchantment’s finest filling stations.  Don’t let too much time pass before you follow suit.  Better yet, follow your nostrils to the source of those terrific green chile cheeseburgers.

Bode’s General Merchandise Bakery & Deli
P.O. Box 100
Abiquiu, New Mexico
685-4422
LATEST VISIT:  3 January 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Slyders, Burritos