Kakawa Chocolate House – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe

Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe

In a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, Kramer attempted to deduce George’s ATM code: “You’re a portly fellow, a bit long in the waistband.  So what’s your pleasure?  Is it the salty snacks you crave?  No, no, no, yours is a sweet tooth.  Oh you may stray, but you’ll always return to your dark master, the cocoa bean.”

America is, like George Costanza, a nation of chocolohics.  The Chocolate Manufacturers Association estimates that the per capita consumption of chocolate among Americans is about 11 pounds per person per year.  That translates to 27,000 calories, 1530 grams of fat, 1130 milligrams of cholesterol, 4400 milligrams of sodium, 3150 grams of carbohydrates and 350 grams of protein.  In 2001 Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate at a cost of some $13.1 billion.

More than half the consumption of chocolate occurs between meals and nearly a quarter of that (22 percent) takes place between 8PM and midnight.  More chocolate is consumed in winter than in any other season and increased consumption of chocolate is known to have a direct correlation to stressful events.  In the aftermath of 9-11, consumption of chocolate rose dramatically.

The World Atlas of Chocolate reports that milk chocolate is America’s favorite variety of chocolate.   Because it is made with a lower proportion of cocoa solids and contains milk, chocolate snobs like me dismiss milk chocolate as a sweet indulgence, the type of tooth-decaying chocolate we ate as children when we didn’t know better.  Our pedantic affections have been ensnared by ebony, bittersweet bars with adult levels of cacao, the darker and more bittersweet the better.  We like our chocolate the way we like our coffee–as black as night and as potent as hemlock.

Paradise under glass

Paradise under glass

As if we needed another reason to indulge in the addictively strong, cocoa-rich flavor of dark chocolate, recent research indicates eating a small 1.6-ounce dark chocolate bar is very good for you.  Attribute that to a metabolite called epicatechin, a flavonoid which keeps cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduces the risk of blood clots and slows down immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.  German researchers have also found another health benefit derived from dark chocolate–the lowering of  blood pressure.  Alas, moderation is prescribed since even dark chocolate is calorie-laden.

The Olmec culture preceded the Mayans and Aztecs in  domesticating the cacao tree and unleashing the salubrious qualities and deliciousness of chocolate.  Though the  Meso-American cultures may not have known all the chemical reasons for the healthful benefits of chocolate, they did recognize they had something special.  Warriors consumed cacao wafers, believing the cacao gave them strength for battle.  Chocolate beverages were also believed to have stamina enhancing properties which came in handy when “entertaining” concubines.

In Montezuma’s great city of Tenochtitlan (which the Spaniards later renamed Mexico City), chocolate was considered a luxury drink reserved exclusively for gods and the ruler class. It is believed that Montezuma’s daily constitution included up to 50 goblets of a finely ground, foamy red dyed chocolate flavored with chili peppers, vanilla, wild bee honey and aromatic flowers.


Very few people know or appreciate the origin of chocolate as much as the folks at Santa Fe’s extraordinary Kakawa (an ancient Olmec word for chocolate and the cacao tree) Chocolate House.  Kakawa is passionate about authentic and historic drinking chocolate elixirs spanning the time period 1000 B.C. to the mid 1900s A.D.  That passion translates to outstanding chocolate experiences for connoisseurs.

All of Kakawa’s chocolate creations are hand-made in small batches using the best cacao beans in the world, a process which can’t be rushed.  Utmost care is taken to ensure not only the finest quality and freshness, but historical authenticity.  Although there are no existing Meso-American chocolate recipes per se, Kakawa’s founder Mark Sciscenti (no longer with the shop) pored over archaeological evidence to discern ingredients and proportion.  That  attention to detail is a hallmark of every scintillating scintilla of chocolate.

Elixirs (drinking chocolates) are divided into two categories: Meso-American drinking chocolate and Historic European, Jeffersonian American and Oaxacan drinking chocolate.  The charming artisanal shop is redolent with their intoxicating aromas.

A truffle of Chaya, Mesquite, Prickly Pear Fruit Nectar and Oaxacan Chile Pasilla

A truffle of Chaya, Mesquite, Prickly Pear Fruit Nectar and Oaxacan Chile Pasilla

In the tradition of the Meso-American chocolate pioneers, most of Kakawa’s chocolate drinks are made with water.  A few contain restrained amounts of milk, rice milk or almond milk.  This allows the purity of cacao to shine through while preserving its healthful qualities in ways that are lost when milk is added.  Parsimonious amounts of traditional agave nectar or honey are used to impart a bittersweet quality to the chocolate.  There is some evidence that both honey and agave nectar were sparsely used by the Meso-American cultures because of their high value.  They were also considered to be flavoring agents and not sweeteners as we view them today.

From among the Pre-Columbian Meso-American/Mayan chocolate elixirs, one that will cure whatever ails you is the Acuyo made from the Mexican pepper leaf (sometimes called the root beer plant).  In its plant form, acuyo has a very pleasing fragrance somewhat reminiscent of anise, nutmet and black pepper.  Those qualities translate well in a cup of chocolate elixir sweetened with honey and spiced with a mild chili.

Chilis of several types and degrees of piquancy are used on several elixirs just as Montezuma’s personal chef may have crafted them in the 15th century.  Mild chili is also used on the blue corn atole, an elixir made from roasted corn flour sweetened with honey.  Growing up in northern New Mexico, every time I was sick I was subjected by my grandmothers to blue corn atole, a gruel-like substance I found repulsive.  Abuelitas still love their blue corn atole in northern New Mexico where it is often served like cream of wheat.   Over time I’ve also grown to appreciate its unique qualities.

Brownies extraordinaire

Brownies extraordinaire

In an episode of the Food Network’s “Heat Seekers,” hosts Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most piquant plates.  Kakawa’s caramel and chocolate dipped arbol chilis watered their eyes and left them coughing and sputtering in delicious agony.

Practically contemporary in comparison to the millenniums-old style of indigenous Meso-American chocolate is an English chocolate elixir, circa 1680.  This rich, complex semi-sweet chocolate is made with milk, egg yolks, cinnamon, sherry and orange blossoms.  Like all chocolate drinks, it is served in three-ounce cups.  You’ll rue your next cup of Swiss Miss.

Kakawa’s amazing menu also features chocolate truffles, brownies, cookies, tortes, cakes and other desserts made with a unique blend of flavorful top quality chocolate ameliorated with the highest quality spices and natural flavor extracts in creative combinations to delight the body and soul–combinations such as a truffle crafted from chaya (known sometimes as tree spinach), mesquite and Oaxacan pasilla chili sweetened with prickly pear fruit nectar.  This is a truffle to savor slowly, a rare indulgence of chocolate heightened to its peak of flavor with disparate ingredients only a chocolate master would dare.

The Mexican brownie, made with cinnamon, pecans and chile with floral waters is decadent and delicious, a rich and moist brownie with pecans in every bite.  It is a perfect counterpoint to the chocolate decadence brownie, resplendent with chocolate chunks.  Neither is cloying like out-of-the-box brownie mixes tend to be and both are absolutely delicious.

If you’re besotted with the coco bean and in particular its dark children, there may be no better place in New Mexico for that love to be requited.

Kakawa Chocolate House
1050 Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-0388
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chocolate Elixirs, Brownies, Truffles

Tomasita’s – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Tomasita's in Santa Fe


The decade following America’s Civil War was one of burgeoning expansion westward with railroads leading the way.  Railroads helped open up the Wild West which included the then territory of New Mexico.  They transported wool, hides, piñon, lumber, coal, chile and other agricultural products.  They served as “connectors” between villages, towns and pueblos.  They bridged cultures and transcended distance, traversing through rocky promontories, barren mesas and fecund river valleys.  Railroads spread the news, enlightened the culture and introduced modern amenities to outposts separated by miles and time.

The long defunct Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGWR) even had grandiose plans to connect Denver, Colorado and Mexico City  with its narrow-gauge railroad.   During its halcyon days, the 125-mile, seven-hour branch from Antonito, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico earned the sobriquet “The Chile Line” in recognition that much of the freight it hauled was chile peppers .

The railroad reached Santa Fe in 1881, but never went further south.  By the 1930s, the decline in the demand for lumber and competition from buses and trucks reduced traffic on the line greatly and on September 1st, 1941, the Chile Line departed Santa Fe’s Guadalupe Station on its final northbound run.

The interior at Tomasita's

The sun-bathed interior at Tomasita's

The southern terminus of the Chile Line was a red brick station house constructed in 1904.  Today that station house is the home of Tomasita’s, one of the most popular New Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe.  Tomasita’s prides itself on authenticity, preparing its cuisine using recipes handed down for generations.  Those recipes have borne witness over generations to the melding of cultures once dependent on the agrarian products of the area–chile, beans, corn and more–all transported on the Chile Line.

Tomasita’s serves over 80,000 pounds of chile every year, every ounce of that having been grown in New Mexico.  Both red and green chile are beloved by locals and critics alike.  It’s a chile for which warnings are posted for out-of-town guests in bold red proclamation: “The chile is hot!”  Please ask your waitperson for a sample or order it on the side.  We are not responsible for too hot chile!

It’s also a chile recently heralded on the air and in print by The Food Network and Bon Appetit magazine respectively.  During a 2008 visit to Santa Fe for a taping of Rachael Ray’s Tasty Treats, the megawatt Food Network personality proclaimed Tomasita’s a local favorite for its chile (more on the local favorite theme later).  The Food Network also gave Tomasita’s plenty of love in an episode of “Heat Seekers” which first aired in August, 2011.  Hosts Aaron and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most piquant plates.  Tomasita’s was their first stop.  Though the carne adovada didn’t exactly water their eyes with its incendiary qualities, the hosts certainly enjoyed it.

A warning to non-chileheads

A warning to non-chileheads

In its January, 2009 print edition Bon Appetit magazine named Tomasita’s one of America’s “best chili spots.”   Alas, it was the exclusive “chile” named in the company of purveyors of “chili”  in such hot beds of pepper piquancy as Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C., Cincinatti, Ohio;  Springfield, Illinois and New York City (which reminded me of a Pace Picante sauce commercial in which a city rube was strung up for bringing New York City salsa to a campfire).  The passing of time didn’t quell Bon Appetit’s ardor for Tomasita’s chili (sic) which published the same article in 2009–only this time on its Web site.

Bon Appetit declared, “This is one of the best places to try stew-like New Mexican green chili (named after its green Hatch chiles), filled with your choice of pinto beans, posole, beef, chicken, or cheese. A crispy sopaipilla (puffy fry bread) comes on the side.”   It made me wonder if anyone on the magazine staff had ever actually tried Tomasita’s green chile.

Savvy New Mexicans don’t need a national publication to tell them about New Mexico green chile though if we do want validation of our opinions, we trust local publications such as the Santa Fe Reporter and Santa Fean magazine to tell us, to no one’s surprise, that Tomasita’s chile is a perennial “best of” award winner in their respective annual polls.

Guacamole and blue corn tortilla chips

Guacamole and blue corn tortilla chips

The greatness of Tomasita’s chile is validated by the hordes of patrons lining up half an hour before the restaurant opens up to get seated.  Most of them don’t mind waiting for a table.  The waiting area is spacious and you’ll invariably run into other prospective guests debating the official New Mexico state question “red or green” and its manifestation in the entrees at Tomasita’s.

The crowds range from locals who visit Tomasita’s two or three times a week to eager tourists, some of whom were introduced to the restaurant by Rachael Ray and others who pilgrimage to Santa Fe as often as they can.  My friend Joey Martinez , a Santa Fe native, owns a BMW in part because it gets him from Albuquerque to Tomasita’s quickly.

There are some vestiges of the century-old red station house still visible, but you have to look for them.  It is a brightly illuminated restaurant with chandelier lighting suspended from a high ceiling buttressed by massive beams.  Hanging plants are suspended from those beams while red chile ristras hang on the vintage red brick walls.  Though Tomasita’s has been visited by a veritable compendium of glitterati–Linda Ronstadt, Arnold Schwartzennegar, Hillary Clinton, Don Imus, Shirley McLaine and others–there are no  framed autographed photographs of any of them on the walls.

Ground beef enchilada with a fried egg on top

Ground beef enchilada with a fried egg on top

Despite its reputation as a nonpareil purveyor of chile, the menu has some interesting departures from New Mexican cuisine.  Appetizers include stuffed grape leaves (the owner is the daughter of Greek immigrants), deep-fried chicken wings, mushroom caps and shrimp cocktail while the entrees include something called the Randy Travis plate–two grilled pork chops with posole and refried beans with green chile and cheese.  Travis, a country music superstar and long-time Santa Fe resident, also has a dining room named for him at the restaurant he apparently considers a favorite.

Unfortunately, the salsa is one of two menu items (the other is carne adovada) desecrated with that accursed demon spice cumin.  Interestingly one spice you won’t see on the entrees is cilantro.  The emphasis is regional with an emphasis on red and green.  That’s the way it’s been since Georgia Maryol founded Tomasita’s nearly four decades ago, albeit in a Hickox Street location that today houses the Tune-Up Cafe.  She purchased the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad building and moved in to the restaurant’s current location in 1978.

Lack of salsa not withstanding, there are plenty of delicious preprandial options including guacamole and blue corn tortilla chips.  The guacamole, served in a crisp corn tortilla fashioned like a bowl, is unctuous and thick, a complement to the formidable low-salt chips.  The guacamole is ameliorated with onions, tomatoes, garlic and salt.  Unlike at some restaurants, sheaves of shredded lettuce aren’t hidden under the guacamole to give you the impression you’re getting more than you actually are.

Carnitas Antonio

Carnitas Antonio

Enchiladas are always a good benchmark for New Mexican food in general and chile specifically.  Tomasita’s enchiladas are served Northern New Mexican style–flat with Monterrey Jack cheese, pinto beans and your choice of red, green or vegetarian red or green chile (although savvy diners will opt for both red and green).   You also have the option of cheese, ground beef, chicken or shrimp enchiladas with or without a Taos fresh egg.

The ground beef is seasoned wonderfully and layered generously atop a corn tortilla.  The red chile is intensely flavored without being overly piquant, complex without confusing your taste buds with spices and additives that shouldn’t be there.  The green chile is the essence of freshness.  It is roasted to perfection and has a fruity redolence with a tongue-tingling piquancy New Mexicans love.   It’s no wonder this chile is beloved!

The piquancy of that chile is undoubtedly one of the reasons margaritas are so popular at Tomasita’s which serves 20 to 40 gallons of the tequila based cocktail per day depending on whether served on a weekday or weekend.   The margaritas are reputed to have a siesta-inducing potency.

Sopaipillas with honey butter

Sopaipillas with honey butter

Daily specials include carne adovada on Fridays.  On Saturday it’s Carnitas Antonio, tender strips of beef marinated with onions and green chile cooked in a special sauce and served with Spanish rice and refried beans.  This has the look and taste of New Mexican comfort food, albeit covered in brown sauce instead of red or green (some might consider that sacrilege).  The beef is as tender as Mother Theresa’s heart, not at all leathery like some fajita meat tends to be.  The sauce is rich and delicious.

All entrees and specials include a sopaipilla served with honey butter and New Mexico honey.  The sopaipillas invite you to slather them with that savory-sweet butter then pile on more sweet decadence with pure honey.  The sopaipilla is fluffy and cloud-like.  Open it up and steam wafts upward to your waiting nostrils.  These are some of the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico.

Normally sopaipillas with honey are all New Mexicans need for dessert, but when piñon cheesecake is available not even a paragon of saintly patience like San Pasqual can resist.  Everything–from the Graham cracker crust to the rich, thick caramel–on this cheesecake is made in-house.  This is a dense cheesecake, a far a departure from those waxy facsimiles some restaurants serve.  The piñon is intense–sweet with a subtle hint of pine that will transport your mind and taste buds to New Mexico’s pine forests.

piñon cheesecake with caramel

There are many reasons Tomasita’s is a favorite of locals and visitors alike and they’re not all related to the superb quality of red and green chile laden entrees.  Service is absolutely impeccable, portions are reasonable and prices are fair.   When you serve in excess of a quarter million meals a year as Tomasita’s does and greatness permeates your operating model, the term local institution is bandied about.  Tomasita’s is a local institution!

NOTE:  Tomasita’s is within easy walking distance of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market,  New Mexico’s largest farmers’ market and one of the most widely recognized markets in the United States and beyond.  If you haven’t watched Rick Sebak’s wonderful documentary “To Market to Market to Buy a Fat Pig” you’re missing out on a  fabulous celebration of market houses, market places and farmers’ markets across the United States.  The first farmers’ market featured is Santa Fe’s own.

Tomasita’s Restaurant
500 South Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 983-5721
LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Carnitas Antonio, Guacamole and Chips, Piñon Cheesecake

Tomasita's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sweet Tomatoes – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sweet Tomatoes features the freshest salads around.

Sweet Tomatoes features the freshest salads around.

In the early 1980s, Albuquerque native and Tokyo Olympian Buster Quist (whose brother Terry I worked for at the time) launched within the Coronado mall, one of the Duke City’s very first salad bars.  The salad bar concept was a few years ahead of its time and the restaurant venture went belly up—a condition portly Americans have, not coincidentally, experienced en masse (no pun intended) over the years.

Salad has been a popular dietary staple for a long time, but only in recent years have creative cuisine crafters added imagination, flair and flavor to what used to be bland and unimaginative greenery.  The lack of imagination in crafting salads has always reminded dieters that the word “diet” is simply “die” without the letter “t.”  Today restaurants such as Sweet Tomatoes have added a creative flair that includes high calorie ingredients that can be diet devastating.

At Sweet Tomatoes, a burgeoning franchise, it will take self-discipline to steer clear of such diet destroying delicacies as the chocolate chip muffins, chocolate muffins, warm apple cobbler, Asiago focaccia and tomato focaccia bread, all of which are not only tempting, but pretty good.

A bounteous salad plate

A bounteous salad plate

Sweet Tomatoes lets you craft every salad combination conceivable with a bounteous array of options and dressings.  From among the daily offerings, the wonton salad is also first rate while the Tarragon tuna salad is a paragon of macaroni magnificence.  It is one of my very favorite macaroni salads anywhere.

Limited time taste treats which will hopefully be well enough received to make it to the daily menu include a Mandarin spinach tossed salad with a tangy citrus sauce and crunchy walnuts.  Another limited time favorite is the Dijon potato salad with garlic dill vinaigrette.  Even better is the limited time edition gorgonzola spinach salad which I improve upon by adding blue cheese crumbles.  A fourth limited time salad which captured our fancy is the “Strawberry Fields” (but not forever) salad with sliced strawberries, raisins and a vinaigrette dressing to embolden the entire experience.

Sweet Tomatoes Chili

Sweet Tomatoes Chili

Sweet Tomatoes serves soups to warm the cockles of your heart.  I must admit to indulging on the chili on occasion because it reminds me of the limited chili options (usually just Wendy’s) I had when living in Massachusetts from 1977-1979.  (For my penance, I’ll say 500 Hail Hatch prayers.)

Yam bisque, chocolate muffin and focaccia

Yam bisque, chocolate muffin and focaccia

At Sweet Tomatoes you can get a good, healthy meal at a reasonable price and come away quite satisfied.  You can also indulge in a high carbohydrate, high calorie meal.  The choices are delicious.

Sweet Tomatoes
10126 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 February 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gorgonzola Spinach Salad, Wonton Salad

Almost Gourmet Soul Food – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Almost Gourmet Soul Food

Almost Gourmet Soul Food

NOTE:  Although the Almost Gourmet Soulfood restaurant is now closed, owner Genice Monroe remains in the catering business, working out of a commercial kitchen in the city.  She is working on a Web site from which you will be able to order the fantastic soul food you fell in love with at her restaurant.  Call Genice at (505) 353-0799 for all your catering needs.

One of my favorite catechism words, concupiscence, might best describe my passion for soul food.  Concupiscence of the body, I was taught, is “the blind tendency of your feelings and animal appetites to seek satisfaction, regardless of intelligence and reason.”

Having lived for nearly eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and within short driving distance of New Orleans, we became intimately, even passionately, familiar with soul food.  It was among our very favorites of any cuisine. To quell our yearnings for soul food (the more authentic the better), we often frequented less than savory” neighborhoods which even Mother Teresa herself might have avoided.  Such “boldly go where no white man has gone before” excursions resulted in our introduction to, among other things, the pit barbecuing of goats, an experience which reminded me somewhat of the matanzas with which I grew up in New Mexico.

Sadly our return to New Mexico would mean dim prospects for finding not just palatable soul food, but any soul food whatsoever.  Since our return to the Land of Enchantment in 1995, we have seen about half a dozen soul food restaurants open to critical acclaim only to close shortly thereafter.  It seems no sooner do we discover a new soul food gem that our hearts are broken by its closure.

Fried Chicken with two sides: Okra and Mac & Cheese

Fried Chicken with two sides: Okra and Mac & Cheese

We’ve got our fingers crossed that the Almost Gourmet Soul Food Restaurant will buck that heinous trend–even though at month’s end (February, 2009), the restaurant will vacate its San Pedro and Copper premises in search of new digs. preferably on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side.

The San Pedro area where the restaurant is situated is directly across the street from one of the main entrances to the New Mexico State Fair complex.  This part of San Pedro is very heavily trafficked, but that hasn’t necessarily worked to Almost Gourmet’s advantage.  The restaurant sits back on an inconspicuous storefront location and sometimes southbound traffic is so heavy that it completely blocks northbound traffic’s visibility to the restaurant.  Coupled with an austere parking situation and it’s no wonder the restaurant isn’t better known.

Almost Gourmet Soul Food began as a catering business in 2006 with the restaurant following suit some two years later.  The name “Almost Gourmet” is seemingly a contradiction in terms.  Soul food is generally antithetical to gourmet.  Where gourmet is cuisine, soul food is the kind of stuff ordinary people eat at home every day.  Proprietor Genice Monroe defines soul food as “country cooking.”  It’s what she grew up with here in Albuquerque even though the genesis of her family recipes is the Dallas, Texas area.

BBQ Babyback Pork Ribs

BBQ Babyback Pork Ribs

Almost Gourmet Soul Food is also antithetical to fast food.  Everything is made from scratch and to order.  Genice will escort you to your table, take your drink order (the sweet tea is exactly the way we grew to love it in Mississippi) and hand you a menu.  When she returns with your drinks, she’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have on the preparation of the entrees on her menu.

It’s a terrific menu replete with smoked, fried, barbecued and gravy-laden entrees all Soul food aficionados love. The most “gourmet” sounding entree is baked salmon, the most hard-core is pig feet.  There are main entrees such as fried pork chop dinners and catfish plates.  There are also sandwiches and stews.  Because she grew up in the Duke City, Genice even offers red or green enchiladas with beans, probably not the most frequently requested item on the menu.

That honor probably goes to the fried chicken dinner–two hulking pieces of juicy Southern-fried chicken with a brittle, lightly peppered crust.  This is chicken the way it’s supposed to be made–a 20-minute preparation time ensures it arrives at your table at the height of juiciness and fried to a golden sheen.  Cut into the crust and steam wafts upwards with the aroma of pure deliciousness.

The fried chicken dinner is served with your choice of two sides: blackeye peas, cabbage, greens, mac and cheese, sweet potato, fried okra, potato salad, rice, black beans, pinto beans, red beans or salad.  A single slab of cornbread also accompanies this plate.

The Mac and cheese is terrific–artery-clogging cheese coagulating around perfectly cooked macaroni. The best parts are where the cheese has just a bit of crust.  The fried okra, a simple Southern classic, is lightly breaded to a golden sheen that leaves it just slightly crispy.  On the inside, it’s soft, chewy and terrific.

Another must-have entree is Almost Gourmet’s BBQ babyback pork ribs (the most expensive entree on the menu).  The ribs are slathered in a slightly vinegary tomato-based sauce with just a hint of sweetness.  These are meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender ribs with nary any fat.  These are the type of ribs you want about a dozen of.

A dozen visits (at least) to Almost Gourmet is what the future should bode for savvy soul food lovers–should Genice decide to reopen her restaurant.  In the meantime, her catering business will continue to please Duke City soul food fanatics.  This is soul food too good not to find a good home, hopefully one close to me.

Almost Gourmet Soul Food
303 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 353-0799
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2009
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Fried Chicken Dinner, BBQ Babyback Pork Ribs, Sweet Tea

Charlie’s Burgers & Mexican Food – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Charlie's Burgers & Mexican Food in Bernalillo

Charlie's Burgers & Mexican Food in Bernalillo

Ashley’s Convenience Store on the ill-fated corner of Camino del Pueblo and Avenida Bernalillo achieved the type of notoriety which will be forever associated with a tragedy visited all too often upon New Mexico’s streets.  In November, 2006, a driver already inebriated during a U.S. Airways flight, purchased alcohol at the convenience store before resuming his journey home and causing a tragic head-on collision that killed five members of a Las Vegas, New Mexico family.

The state of New Mexico banned the airline from serving alcohol while flying to and from the state.  The state also took the convenience store’s liquor license, forcing it to close.  At the time the convenience store was leased by Albuquerque gasoline distributor Ever-Ready Oil which, in turn, leased its liquor license from Giant Industries.

Charlie Williamson, a long-time contractor and owner of the complex, had absolutely nothing to do with the tragedy but was–and this is not intended in any way to diminish the horrific loss of life–one of its victims, too.  His property’s reputation was sullied by a business enterprise perceived to be irresponsible.  The building threatened to fall into disuse and prospects were dim.

The interior at Charlie's

The interior at Charlie's

In September, 2007, the owners of the Bernalillo gas station attached to the convenience store re-opened the restaurant portion of the complex, a short-lived venture called American Cuisine.  About a year later, American Cuisine’s plain signage was replaced by an equally insipid sign indicating “Charli’s Burgers & Mexican Food” was the restaurant’s new tenant.

Rather than let the restaurant portion of his building fall into disuse, Charlie Williamson decided to run a restaurant himself on the complex he built and owns.  Charlie’s (this is the correct spelling despite the signage)  might never erase his building’s association with a dolorous tragedy (nothing ever can) but slowly and surely, guests are starting to visit with increased frequency.

The entrance to Charlie’s is through the convenience store.  The restaurant’s color palate is mostly monochromatic, a shockingly red color that looks as if it belongs on a John Nieto painting.  A hand-scrawled menu hangs on a wall to the left of the latilla-laden counter on which you place your order.  Charlie, an engaging gentleman who’s lost none of his Oklahoma accented twang, will wait on you himself.

Green chile cheeseburger with French fries

Green chile cheeseburger with French fries

As the name on the marquee suggests, the menu does feature burgers–double-meat burgers, buffalo burgers and even veggie burgers–but it also includes bacon-wrapped hot dogs, Texas chili cheese dogs, corn dogs and green or red chili cheese dogs.  There’s even a section on the menu called “Charlie’s chicken” showcasing all things chicken–boneless chicken baskets, chicken sandwiches, chicken burritos, chicken wings, chicken nuggets and even chicken salad.

The Mexican food part of the menu includes tacos, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, taquitos, enchladas, menudo and many other favorites.  According to Charlie, the Mexican food has been the restaurant’s big draw, especially among the area’s Hispanic population.

Aguas frescas (fresh waters) are rotated daily and like many menu items, are made on the premises, not purchased from some vendor.  The aguas frescas include horchata (a rice milk beverage), sandia (watermelon), fresa (strawberry) and piña (pineapple).  The piña is a refreshing answer to any warm day.  Not too sweet, not too tart, it is the essence of fresh-squeezed pineapple chilled by crushed ice.

Pineapple fresh water

Pineapple fresh water

Charlie’s restaurant operating edict includes such terms as house-made, made-to-order, made from scratch, fresh and delicious.  He shops locally for fresh products.  That freshness shows in the green chile cheeseburger which is adorned with lettuce, tomato, pickles and a mildly piquant green chile sandwiched on a sesame seed bun.  Other items are available on the condiment bar.  This is a juicy burger–about three napkins worth–without being overly greasy.  Even though the beef patty isn’t hand-formed, it’s thick and well-seasoned.

If it’s been too long since you’ve had thick, perfectly salted and absolutely delicious hand-cut French fries, Charlie’s is a godsend.  These French fries are made from unpeeled potatoes cut into long, thick slices.  These are some of the best fries in the Duke City area.

A visit to Charlie’s may not be a cathartic, healing experience, but it does provide a good meal at a reasonable price served by an engaging entrepreneur who wants to restore his little corner of Bernalillo to the respectability it once had.

Charlie’s Burgers & Mexican Food
1100 South Camino del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 17 February 2009
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Aguas Frescas, French Fries

Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Dahlias Central Mexican Cuisine in Rio Rancho

Because Mexico spans several climatic zones and a diverse topography, its cuisine varies from region to region. As such, it’s grossly unfair to stereotype Mexican food. It’s true that until recent years, most of the Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque’s area featured the cuisine of the border state of Chihuahua, Mexico, typified by menus offering refried beans, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and the like. The past decade or so, however, has seen the influx of Mexican restaurants serving mariscos, the surprisingly fresh cuisine of the Mexican states bordering its coastal waters.

Dahlia and Juan

Dahlia and Juan (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

The 2008 introduction of Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine in Rio Rancho was therefore intriguing. My hopes were that Central Mexican cuisine might mean the cuisine of Oaxaca and Puebla, two regions renown for moles. Alas, the family who owns Dahlia’s is from Guadalajara, the largest city in the state of Jalisco which borders the Pacific ocean and is not, as the restaurant’s name might imply, centered geographically in the nation of Mexico. A common misperception might be that the menu would then include, if not specialize, in mariscos, the incomparable seafood prepared so well in the Mexican states bordering the Pacific.

The colorful interior of Dahlia's Central Mexican Cuisine

Mariscos do indeed have a prominent place on the menu, but so do several house specialties not commonly found in other Albuquerque area Mexican restaurants. It isn’t, as we found out quickly, necessarily any regional cuisine or specialty that makes Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine a special restaurant. What makes it special is the operating principles by which this family owned restaurant operates.

Those principles center around preparing healthy and delicious meals for their customers with the use of all-natural ingredients such as grain-fed, hormone-low meats. Many meals featuring meats are prepared by using marinades of limes, grapefruits and oranges to kill off enzymes. The restaurant prides itself on not using trans-fat oils on any of its meals, all of which are prepared fresh on a daily basis. That includes the seafood which is prepared using wine butter and self-ground spices for flavor.

In no way does all natural mean dietary and bland. Dahlia’s family has been in the restaurant business for more than a decade and is well-versed in pleasing hungry patrons. The recipes used have been passed on from generation to generation and are intended not only to nourish the body, but to please the palate. If you want a variation to something on the menu, accommodating cooks will prepare your meal to your exacting specifications.

Salsa and chips at Dahlia's are unfailingly fresh and delicious

Also prepared fresh daily are the blue, red and yellow tortilla chips made on the premises from white corn. The chips are made throughout the day and are kept crisp and fresh on a dual warmer. They are served with a fiery salsa which is complementary. It is a delicious salsa, the type of which you will devour two bowlfuls of before your entrees are brought to your table. Fresh onion, cilantro, garlic and jalapeño are its constituent ingredients, but deep flavor is its byproduct. The chips are crisp, thin and low in salt.

To wash down the salsa and chips, Dahlia’s offers traditional horchata and offered sandia (watermelon) until the vendor proved unreliable.  That’s too bad. It actually tasted like natural watermelon not like an overly sweetened fruit punch.

The menu features several appetizers fairly typical of Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area. Opt instead for a cup or bowl of albondigas, a light and delicious Mexican comfort soup with hearty vegetable chunks and meatballs. Instead of several rice-filled meatballs, Dahlias cup-sized rendition includes only one meatball, but it’s a large meatball, the type of which you might find served with spaghetti.

The vegetables–celery, carrots, tomatoes, red and green peppers–are cooked to perfection and the broth is lightly salted. There is a lot of flavor emanating from a steamy cupful–even with the slight whiff of cumin, a spice I’m not particularly fond of.

(Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Albondigas, the best in Albuquerque (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

From among the house specialties, you’ll find several not commonly found in Albuquerque area restaurants including banderillas. The term banderillas itself is quite interesting. In Spain and Mexico, bandilleras are the barbed metal tipped spikes that bullfighters drive into the bull’s shoulders to subdue them before the kill. In Spain, bandilleras are the most common form of tapas. Essentially, this tapa consists of skewering sundry ingredients on a toothpick.

Fortunately, the banderillas at Dahlia’s are gruesome only to vegetarians and the word is an offshoot of bandera, or flag. In fact, the menu calls banderillas “our patriotic dish, likely because some of the ingredients are the same colors (red, green and white) as the Mexican flag and because the skewer can be equated to the flagpole.

Seafood lovers will salute the camarones (shrimp) or scallops banderillas which are served with grilled bell peppers. onion, tomato and smothered with sauteed mushrooms on a bed of rice. This is a dish warranting a salute or two. For one thing, Dahlia’s uses real scallops, not the imitation scallops some restaurants serve. Prepared in wine butter, the scallops are a perfect blend of sweet and savory flavors that coalesce beautifully. The vegetables are all grilled to absolute perfection. The sauteed mushrooms impart their fungi flavor onto the rice, making it moist and flavorful.

Bandilleras with scallops

Carnivorous cravings will be sated by meat or chicken banderillas. A skewer of tender and flavorful meat banderillas is pictured below literally covered by fresh vegetables, a grilled pineapple slice and fresh guacamole. Each meaty chunk is roughly an inch cubed and grilled to the peak of flavor. Honestly, the meat on these skewers is as flavorful as some of the best steak in Duke City area steakhouses.

Banderillas made with beef

Another Dahlia’s specialty not frequently found in Duke City area Mexican restaurant are Enchiladas Suizas. Many of us don’t think “melting pot” when considering the nation of Mexico, but the truth is, Mexico is a multi-cultural country. Any dish in Mexico labeled “Suiza” can be attributed to the country’s Swiss immigrants, many of whom gravitated to the dairy country where they produced cheeses, yogurt and a unique version of creme fraiche called crema Mexicana.

Enchiladas Suizas are among the richest and most delicate in Mexico. Dahlia’s version features rolled enchiladas topped with a green cream-based sauce topped with avocado and sour cream and imbued with the distinctive hint of lime. These enchiladas are not piquant in the least, but they are very flavorful and delicious. They are served with rice and beans.

Enchilada Suiza

Still another mouth-watering entree involves camarones (shrimp) wrapped in bacon and served with a cheesy rice, a grilled pineapple slice and a tangy, smoky barbecue sauce.  The shrimp is kissed with the flame of a well seasoned grill and has a faint smokiness.  The bacon is fried just enough so that it wraps completely around the shrimp.  The barbecue sauce is a surprising complement to the sweetness of the shrimp.

Camarones con queso y tocino

Camarones con queso y tocino

Guadalajara, the second most populous municipality in Mexico, has much in common with Rio Rancho. Both are situated at an altitude just above one mile. Guadalajara is known as Mexico’s “silicon valley” in recognition of its strong electronic industry. It is considered Mexico’s high-tech capital on account of its leadership in software and informatics development. Rio Rancho, as many New Mexicans know, is situated on the “silicon mesa” along the middle Rio Grade valley.

Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine
2003 Southern Blvd., Suite 116
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas Suiza, Banderillas, Salsa and Chips, Aguas Frescas, Camarones

Dahlia's Central Mexican Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Buckhorn Tavern – San Antonio, New Mexico

The world famous Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, New Mexico

Dusk is falling on the western town at the very edge of the parched plains.  Fewer than a dozen buildings line the dusty main street.  Howling winds impel tumbleweeds forward with no regard for obstacles in their path.  Even though neither of the protagonists has uttered the old western cliché “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us,” the scene is always ripe for a confrontation between the two long-time rivals.  You can cut the tension with a knife and fork and it would be utterly delicious.

This confrontation isn’t between the black-hearted, black hat wearing villain of western lore and his rival, the clean-cut, white chapeaued cowboy. It’s a rivalry between the Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern, two heralded hamburger havens separated by less than a block yet inextricably bound by national publications which champion them as among the best of their genre (in westerns, this would be the fastest guns in the west).

The interior at Manny's Buckhorn Tavern

The interior at Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern

The Owl Cafe is among the most celebrated restaurants in New Mexico, touted for its incomparable green chile cheeseburger.  In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern, rated the Owl’s green chile cheeseburger on Epicurious.Com as one of the top ten burgers in America.  GQ magazine may have done one better, in 2005 naming  Buckhorn Tavern the seventh best burger in America.  Alan Richman who authored the article trumpeted the Buckhorn Burger as “the ultimate in a burger with a burn,” adding that the “Buckhorn makes the best green-chili cheeseburgers in a tiny town devoted to little else.”  Not to be outdone, in 2009, Marlboro.com’s “Nightlife Flavor Roundup” named the Buckhorn’s green chile cheeseburger number three “baddest burger in the land.”

Confrontation has become commonplace in San Antonio–and not just between the most prolific purveyors of burgers in town.  On May 14th, 2009 “bad boy” Bobby Flay, one of the world’s preeminent grill masters and a celebrated Food Network glitterati made his way, camera crew in tow, to challenge the Buckhorn’s proprietor Bobby Olguin, not to an old west style draw, but to a green chile cheeseburger “throwdown.”  The concept of his show “Throwdown With Bobby Flay” is based on Flay challenging chefs from throughout the fruited plain to prepare the specialty for which they are known and to have judges decide which is tastier.  The episode aired for the first time on July 22nd, 2009.

The GQ magazine in which the Buckhorn Burger was rated among America's best

The GQ magazine in which the Buckhorn Burger was rated among America’s best

The Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern have proven over the years that there is more than enough room in San Antonio, New Mexico for two outstanding practitioners (three if you count Bobby Flay) of the fine culinary art of crafting among the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the universe.

The chile (though spelled “chili” Texas style) at the Buckhorn is unmistakably New Mexican with a piquant bite that makes your lips tingle.  Ironically, it’s not exclusively green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from Bueno Chile combined with chile from Sichler Farms and Rosales Chile. The reason given (and it makes sense) is that Bueno Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness.

The Buckhorn Burger, brought to your table cut in half, is a stout, fresh and lean ground chunk of beef dressed with the requisite green chile, cheese, lettuce, pickles, chopped onions, tomatoes and mustard.  It is a huge burger, easily big enough to share though you won’t want to.  The beef used is 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat to give it a flavor as big as the stars that decorate night sky above the burger blessed town of San Antonio.  The meat is pressed under a dinner plate, a family tradition that accounts for each burger’s uniformity.

The world famous Buckhorn Burger

The 7th best burger in America according to GQ magazine

Ingredients are unfailingly fresh as each burger is plucked off the grill at the optimum time with cheese melted to the point that it drapes itself over the beef without any residual oiliness.  The Buckhorn Tavern uses only American cheese on their green chile cheeseburger and it drapes the cheese over chopped red onions.  The beef is seasoned with granulated garlic, a little touch that imparts a surprising amount of flavor without the sometimes overwhelming pungency of garlic.  The flavor combinations will make your mouth sing.

Every ingredient complements the green chile which most burger aficionados say is every bit the equal of the one served at the world-famous Owl Cafe, if not better.  As the restaurant’s affable proprietor Bob Olguin put it so succinctly on the Throwdown With Bobby Flay episode, “the green chile cheeseburger should taste like going to heaven or being married to somebody that you love and want to be with the rest of your life.  It’s just indescribable.”

In between utterances of appreciation, the Food Network judges actually did describe the burgers very well.  Rating the green chile cheeseburgers on three criteria–green chile flavor, authenticity and overall taste–the judges praised the combination of heat and flavor on Olguin’s entry.  One judge found the green chile so hot he had to wipe his brow.  In the final judge’s tabulation, Olguin’s burger reigned supreme, but the real winner was the Land of Enchantment which Flay praised effusively.

In recognition of Olguin’s victory, Governor Bill Richardson declared Friday July 24, 2009 “Buckhorn Tavern Day.” “Congratulations to the Buckhorn Tavern and its owner Bobby Olguin for the impressive victory over one of the world’s most recognized chefs,” Governor Richardson said. “Through his win,Mr. Olguin did an excellent job of showcasing one of New Mexico’s culinary treasures, the green chile cheeseburger.”

The Rio Grande Special

The Rio Grande Special

Manuel “Manny” Olguin relocated the Buckhorn Tavern to its present location in 1943 when, after leaving the service, he took over the family business from his father Manny who started the family tradition in 1918.  Although Manny passed away in 1998, the business until rather recently bore his name and has been managed by Manny’s son Bob since a few years before his father passed away.  Bob, who is burly and brawny enough not to catch any flack for wearing an apron in a manly western town, is a larger than life personality, an effusive and bombastic character who gave his Food Network namesake more than he could hand handle in terms of banter.

The restaurant is replete with eye-catching brickerbrack and haberdashery (okay, they’re just motorcycle tee-shirts), but most male eyes affix on a GQ cover featuring Jessica Simpson pre-Tony Romo in a barely there bikini.  Simpson was on the cover of the magazine in which the Tavern was named the 7th best burger in America, so it’s only fitting that her image graces the restaurant’s walls and tables.  Several racks (keep it clean, this is a family Web site) also adorn the walls.

Fresh-cut French fries and onion rings are popular accompaniment to the Buckhorn’s burgers.  A better way to have the French fries are on a menu item called the Rio Grande Special (pictured above).  When delivered to your table you might wonder why you got a salad instead of what you ordered, but push away some of the lettuce and tomato and you’ll find a small mountain of French fries covered in green chile (or red if you prefer) and cheese.  It’s a nice starter.

Onion rings and French fries

Onion rings and French fries at the Buckhorn Tavern

An excellent alternative is the salsa and chips.  The salsa features finely chopped chile, tomato and onion and has a nice bite to it.  The chips are thin and lightly salted.

It’s a matter of opinion as to which of San Antonio’s highly touted green chile cheeseburgers is best.  Savvy diners will eat one at either the Buckhorn Tavern or the Owl Cafe then cross the street and have the other.   To me, these burgers are so evenly matched that it’s not even worth discussing.  Both are outstanding!  Both are a credit to the great village of San Antonio.  Both are on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail!

In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as  state’s very best downhome green chile cheeseburger to the Buckhorn Tavern. Whether or not that honor will quell any disputes as to the best in San Antonio remains to be seen.

The Buckhorn Tavern is open Monday through Friday from 11AM to 7:50PM and on Saturday from 11AM to 3:30PM.  Despite these posted hours, I encourage all prospective diners to please call ahead to ensure the restaurant is open.

Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern
68 US Highway 380
San Antonio, NM
(575) 835-4423
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 13 February 2009
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Buckhorn Burger, Salsa and Chips, French Fries, Onion Rings, Rio Grande Special

Manny's Buckhorn Tavern on Urbanspoon

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