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Mardi Gras Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mardi Gras on the southwest intersection of Broadway and Avenida Caesar Chavez

Mardi Gras on the southwest intersection of Broadway and Avenida Caesar Chavez

Over the centuries, Mardi Gras has evolved in America from a sedate French Catholic tradition to a hedonist’s holiday in which revelers indulge–and overindulge–the day before Ash Wednesday.  Every year Mardi Gras celebrations lure millions of rollickers and revelers to New Orleans where Mardi Gras is celebrated in grand scale.  Extravagant parades, masked balls, raucous convivality and copious consumption are hallmarks of the Crescent City event where shouts of “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the good times roll) resound from rooftops and alleyways.

Laissez les bon temps rouler is also now the resounding sentiment from Albuquerque’s South Valley where in February, 2009, a new Cajun restaurant opened for business.  Now Duke City diners can celebrate “Fat Tuesday” five days a week instead of once a year.  Appropriately, Albuquerque’s newest Cajun eating emporium is named the Mardi Gras Grill.

Situated on the southeast intersection of Avenida Caesar Chavez and Broadway, the Mardi Gras Grill is an example of a neighborhood revitalization and community development program that is working.  The South Broadway neighborhood was once among the city’s most undesirable with substance abuse and gang violence a thriving part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

Laissez Bon Temps Roulette

Laissez Bon Temps Roulette

Proprietor Josh Salaz is proud of his neighborhood and invites all Duke City residents, but in particular Cajun country transplants, to visit his New Orleans inspired restaurant.  Josh’s father is originally from Algiers, Louisiana, a community within the city of New Orleans and home to a number of New Orleans Mardi Gras carnival krewes.  Mardi Gras and Cajun cooking are in Josh’s blood.  Better yet, his father’s family recipes are in his repertoire.

The Mardi Gras Grill is a relatively small–yet very cozy and inviting–restaurant with fewer than ten tables.  It is festooned in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power).  A soundtrack of festive New Orleans jazz plays continuously.

The restaurant reminded us instantly of some of the wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants we discovered during the eight years we lived outside of “The Big Easy.”  Sure New Orleans has some of the most highly regarded and popular restaurants in America, but save for special events, most “real people” eat in the small mom-and-pops.  The Mardi Gras Grill would fit right in with those.

Sausage, chicken and shrimp gumbo

Sausage, chicken and shrimp gumbo

The menu belies the restaurant’s cramped quarters.  In fact, it’s downright ambitious considering both the diminutiveness of the restaurant’s size and the greatness of distance to Bayou country.  Josh has crawfish flown in from New Orleans and after auditioning several distributors, has found one that keeps him well-stocked in more than passable shrimp and surprisingly good Andouille sausage.

The menu features only two appetizers, but one is a Cajun country standard–fried okra served with a zesty Remoulade sauce.   Also available are five po-boys, the traditional Louisiana submarine sandwich served on a baguette-like Louisiana French bread.  The po-boys are available dressed (generally lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise with onion and pickles optional) or undressed.   Six seafood dishes grace the menu, too, as do two rice dishes and two burgers (including Josh’s Bayou Burger which is topped with sauteed onions, bell peppers and mushrooms with Swiss cheese and mayo).

The proof, as it’s been said, is in the pudding–or in the case of Cajun food, in the gumbo.  Josh’s rendition is made with chicken, shrimp and Andouille sausage served on top of a bed of white rice.  This gumbo passes muster!  Its thick, hearty broth has a smoky bouquet and a nice spice kick (not the piquancy of New Mexico green chile, but a respectable kick).  The roux (an amalgam of butter and flour cooked over low heat) is lighter than we’ve seen at other Cajun restaurants in New Mexico, an indication that it isn’t just this side of being burned.  It’s also subtle–solid and rich while allowing other ingredients to shine.  The Andouille sausage is very good–coarse grained the way it should be with a pronounced smokiness.

Crawfish and shrimp etouffe

Crawfish and shrimp etouffe

The roux in the crawfish and shrimp etouffee is also lighter (and not as orange-red) than we we’ve seen in New Mexico, but in line with some of our favorite New Orleans Cajun and Creole kitchens.  The Mardi Gras Grill’s etouffee, which means “smothered,” is made with a beautiful brownish sauce replete with red bell pepper, onion and celery (the “Trinity” of Creole cuisine) along with a dose of cayenne pepper for added piquancy.  The crawfish and shrimp are cooked to perfection and are as tender and flavorful as if these buttery crustaceans were caught from local waters.

A basketful of French bread accompanies the seafood dishes.  Its flaky crust and soft, airy center is the perfect canvas for butter or for sopping up any surplus sauces.  Not too dense and not too airy, it is as ideal for po-boys as it is as a side.  True to New Orleans style French bread, this one leaves copious crumbs on the table.

On Saturdays, in-season, the restaurant features a Louisiana style crawfish boil served with whole crawfish, smoked sausage, Cajun boiled corn on the cob and boiled Cajun potatoes.  Memories of ninety percent humidity, ninety degree heat days in the sun flooded back as the crawfish approached our table, its unmistakably familiar steamy aromas wafting toward us.

Crawfish boil

Crawfish boil

Crawfish boils are about peeling tails and sucking heads and you get to do a lot of that with the generous portion served at the Mardi Gras Grill.  The crawfish are meaty and succulent.  Served on newspaper, you’ll quickly dispatch of this seafood bounty.

During an upcoming trip back to Bayou country, Josh plans on locating a vendor who can supply him with the inimitable Italian bread on which New Orleans restaurateurs craft muffulettas.  The large, round and somewhat flat loaf about ten-inches across isn’t easy to duplicate, but Albuquerque is ready for an outstanding muffulettas and Josh may just be the man to provide it.  In fact, he may just be the guy to bring New Orleans back to Albuquerque–or at least a semblance of its kitchens.

Mardi Gras Grill
1402 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-4299
LATEST VISIT:  21 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crawfish Boil, Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffe, Gumbo

The Chili Stop Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Chili Stop Cafe on Albuquerque's West Side

The Chili Stop Cafe on Albuquerque's West Side

Over the years it’s been my experience that almost invariably, New Mexican restaurants which violate traditional New Mexican grammar don’t prepare the object of their grammatical faux pas very well.  The grammatical transgression of which I speak is forgetting the “i” before “e” rule and committing the piquant peccadillo of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable with two “i’s” and no “e’s.” It’s entirely forgivable that chile is technically a fruit, albeit one which packs an incendiary capsaicin punch, but like many New Mexicans, I feel personally insulted when presented with a menu offering “chili.”

That grammatical malapropism wasn’t lost on Calvin Trillin, a legendary American journalist and novelist known for his humorous writings about food and eating.   In an October, 2002 article on Gourmet magazine entitled “Bowlful of Dreams,” he described a visit to the New York City “New Mexican” restaurant Los Dos Molinos: “One of the places I’d heard about, Los Dos Molinos, seemed to have been designed for citizens who have gotten about ten years past spring break at Daytona Beach but had not lost their taste for specialties like a “Kick-Ass Pitcher” of Margaritas. Although the red and green chile served as a dip with the chips would have been perfectly recognizable to a New Mexico purist, he would have been put off by his first glance at the menu. Sopaipillas were listed under desserts.

In the most serious deviation from the gospel, the red and the green were identified on the menu as “chili”—a spelling that would make any New Mexican connoisseur shudder. Chili is what people in Texas and California eat at chili contests and, to the astonishment of people from Northern New Mexico, even in between chili contests—chopped meat and chili powder and maybe beans. It has no relation to a bowl of New Mexican red or green, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of a sauce or a soup or a stew, perhaps with a few pieces of meat in it, and is spelled “chile.”

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

When he launched the Chili Stop restaurant in June, 2008, Ron Chavez had absolutely no compunction about the spelling of his restaurant’s name. His brother, a retired teacher who made several trips to South America told him “chili is a vegetable and Chile is a country,” a contention backed up by several sources.  Perhaps Chavez and his brother had never read Trillin.

Though Chavez might not be able to win a spelling bee anywhere in northern New Mexico, his green chile was the very best in the Duke City area.  When simmering on the stove, its aroma was like an irresistible siren’s call or a life-altering religious experience, the effect of which was rendering native New Mexicans like me weak in the knees and light in the head.  Effusive salivating akin to Pavlov’s dogs and absolute olfactory arousal ensued the moment our nostrils caught a whiff of that chile.  No, my friends, this wasn’t “chili” as Trillin aptly described it.

Readers suffering from “advanced geriatric progression” like me might remember the Winston cigarettes slogan “what do you want good grammar or good taste.”   Chavez’s green chile was so good, it was easy to forgive and forget that atrocious spelling of “chili.”  It was so good, it was easy to forgive the occasional too well-done beef on a bowl of green chile or the charred edges on the burger patties.  What we wanted was good taste, not good grammar.

Green chile cheeseburger

Green chile cheeseburger

Alas, Chavez sold the Chili Stop five months after opening it.  Now called “The Chili Stop Cafe,” there are many indications this is not the same restaurant.  Most telling might be the “sub-title” on the signage which reads “Best Chile in the Westside.”  Better still, every entree on the menu on which it is used, spells it “chile.”  Still, as described above, spelling alone is not indicative of how good (or bad) the chile might be.

Also indicative that this is not the Chili Stop of old is a larger menu than that of its predecessor, a menu which includes daily specials.  The breakfast menu features burritos (including a veggie burrito) and egg breakfasts (including omelets).  The lunch menu includes burritos, enchiladas, burgers, tacos, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas and other items.  The restaurant now has a more artsy ambience and much more comfortable seating.  Cleanliness seems more prevalent and best of all, Chavez’s often confused and youthfully air-headed kitchen and wait staff has been replaced by more seasoned and attentive employees who actually care about their guests’ dining experiences.

Conspicuous during my inaugural visit in March, 2009 was the seductive siren smell of green chile, but that’s a rarity in many New Mexican restaurants anyway.  The specialty of the house, I was told, is the green chile cheeseburger.  It was great to hear some things haven’t changed.

The green chile cheeseburger at The Chili Stop Cafe

The green chile cheeseburger at The Chili Stop Cafe

The salsa is of mild piquancy–garlic, jalapeno, onion–and is fairly thick so it doesn’t run off the chips, which are served warm in a basket.  The chips are also low in salt and have the fortitude to scoop up Gil-sized amounts of salsa.

Burger options no longer start and end with the ubiquitous New Mexico favorite, the green chile cheeseburger.  You can now have a barbecue bacon burger, mushroom Swiss burger, tortilla burger (with chile and cheese), chicken tortilla burger or you can have your burger open-faced.

The green chile cheeseburger is made with hand-formed, well-seasoned beef patties.  Served on a sesame seed bun about five-inches in circumference, the beef is draped by well-melted cheese (which also covers the green chile).  White onion, tomato, lettuce and pickle are available on the plate while mustard and ketchup can be found on each table.  The green chile has neither the bite nor the flavor of the old Chili Stop burger, but this burger isn’t solely about chile.  This burger is most definitely about the beef which is  prepared to slightly more than medium doneness.  As a supporting character, the green chile imparts a nice flavor that doesn’t overwhelm everything else on the burger.  That’s a good thing.

The Chili Stop Cafe has established a loyal following among west-siders and has even won over some of the die-hard green chile addicts who, like me, thought they had found green chile Nirvana at the old Chili Stop.  After one visit, I’m not ready to proclaim the Chili Stop Cafe equal to or in the same league as its predecessor, but it definitely warrants repeat visits.

The Chili Stop Cafe
3600 Highway 528
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 12 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
BEST BET: Green chile cheeseburger, chips and salsa

The Chili Stop Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Original Realburger – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Real Burger in the Santa Fe outskirts

Real Burger in the Santa Fe outskirts

Her sunrise could bring light into a blind man.
Her sunset could put tears there in his eyes.
Her colors are laying there in brush strokes.
Underneath those peote skies
.

The lay of the land stirs all of my emotions.
She heals me with a laid back energy.
She holds onto my broken lifeless spirit.
And molds me just like pottery.
And nowhere that I’ve ever been can make me feel this way.
That’s why I’m going there to stay
.
– The Bellamy Brothers

Santa Fe’s preternatural beauty is so captivating that even the plethora of writers, artists and musicians who pilgrimage to this jewel of the Southwest are at a loss for adjectives to adequately describe it.  Perhaps because of their scarcity of synonyms, some of them refer to it as “Fanta Se” as in fantasy, a city so singularly soul-stirring that its mystical qualities seems to transcend reality.

Even Santa Fe’s cuisine is lavished with laudation.  Critics and patrons alike  lionize Fanta Se’s restaurants and the world class chefs which preside over  traditional earthen ovens, ultra-modern steely stoves  and Spanish style tapas grills to prepare the mouth-watering marriage of traditional and contemporary cuisine that has made Santa Fe one of the country’s foremost dining destinations.

Salsa, Con Queso and Chips

Salsa, Con Queso and Chips

For every fantasy indulging restaurant and every hot-bed of haute cuisine, there are plenty of “down to earth” restaurants in Santa Fe.  The appellation for one of  them, the Original Realburger, even speaks to its earthiness.  Perhaps that’s why it appeals so much to diners who who don’t necessarily want the taste bud confusion of disparate exotic ingredients competing for their rapt attention; diners who want something filling and delicious without having to spend a week’s salary; diners who don’t need or care to be impressed–in other words real people who want real food.

Contrary to its name, RealBurger isn’t solely about burgers.  In fact there are only three burgers listed on the menu–a six-ounce Angus beef burger, a double patty Angus beef burger and a tortilla or sopaipilla burger.  What you will find on that menu is a compendium of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs American comfort food along with traditional New Mexican favorites, innovative vegetarian entrees, steak, pasta and a few surprises thrown in for good measure.

RealBurger’s domicile is in a spacious ranch-style edifice on Old Pecos Trail, a space previously occupied by the Red Skye Grill, Peppers, Chilacas and the Pecos Trail Pizzeria among others.  Though somewhat on the outskirts of the city, it is certainly not off the beaten trail (no pun intended).  There are several fine restaurants in the area and all have their following.

Fried Chicken and Rice Pilaf

Fried Chicken and Rice Pilaf

RealBurger is by no means a new, up-and-coming restaurant.  In fact, it’s got a long history in Santa Fe, dating back to 1974 as both a restaurant and a catering business.  RealBurger took up residence at its current Pecos Trail Inn location in the early part of 2008 and according to Larry Love, a faithful reader of my site, may just be the restaurant which breaks the “location curse” that severed any promise its predecessors may have had.

Shock and awe might be your reaction at first perusal of the menu.  The appetizers include Yakidori Orange Chicken Kebabs, Yakidori Grilled Shrimp, Mini Egg Rolls with Orange Sauce and Taco Dogs ( a hot dog and slice of American cheese wrapped in a tortilla and served with a paprika-based dipping sauce).   More traditional New Mexico appetizers include  chili (the spelling on the menu, not mine) con queso and salsa with red, yellow and blue corn chips.

Neither the chili con queso or the salsa are particularly piquant, but they’re both good.  The jalapeño-based salsa is thick, chunky and maybe just a bit on the salty side.  The chips are formidable enough to scoop up a lot of salsa without breakage.  The chili (my spell-checker is going berserk over this aberrant spelling)  con queso is made with a higher grade of processed cheese than at most restaurants and is better than most homemade con queso, but isn’t quite as creamy as the wonderful queso fundido served at some excellent Mexican restaurants.

Enchiladas Christmas Style

Enchiladas Christmas Style

Breakfast is served from 7AM through 11AM.  Mike Lee, another fan of the RealBurger and faithful reader of this blog, tells me the carne adovada is absolutely top-notch, but laments the fact the restaurant doesn’t offer breakfast all day long–which means if you get there after breakfast hours, you’ve got to order lunch.  Not that that’s a bad thing.

RealBurger is one of two Santa Fe restaurants (outside of the chains) which offers fried chicken and since the other one charges $25, RealBurger is the better bargain at about a third the price.  Three pieces (breast, leg and thigh) of honey-stung chicken don’t need the Colonel’s eleven herbs and spices to be moist, tender and absolutely delicious.  The white meat on the breast is juicy and redolent with the aroma of the south.  Its light batter coating has just a hint of honey, the type of which you’d slather on a biscuit.

Unfortunately, this entree comes not with a Southern biscuit but with a dinner roll.  It also comes with your choice of rice pilaf or vegetables and mashed or baked potatoes.  The baked potato is dressed with sour cream, melted butter and chives.  It is baked to perfection.

Posole

Posole

If New Mexican food is  what you’re craving the menu has some popular standards and a couple of non-traditional surprises.  Among the latter is something called a sopapizza, an eight-inch round sopaipilla topped with marinara sauce, cheese and your choice of three standard pizza ingredient offerings.

Among the popular standards are enchiladas made with your choice of ground or roast beef, chicken, carne adovada, shredded pork or cheese served with your choice of two sides: posole, beans, rice, calabacitas or papitas.  This entree also includes your choice of red or green chile and a sopiaipilla or tortilla.

Trust me on this one–you’re going to want the shredded pork.  It’s reminiscent not as much of the pork used on carne adovada, but of pulled pork offered on barbecue sandwiches and plates in Kansas City and North Carolina.  The shredded pork impressed me so much that my order on our next visit to RealBurger was indeed the pulled pork sandwich.

One gigantic sopaipilla at RealBurger

One gigantic sopaipilla at RealBurger

The enchiladas are quite good in their own right with the green chili having an edge over the red in both piquancy and flavor.  The enchiladas are topped with a generous amount of melted, shredded white and yellow Cheddar.   Of the two sides I ordered, the papitas stood out.  They’re small diced potatoes with a flavor and texture similar to really good French fries.  The other side, posole, at first glance a picture of  perfection, was flawed by the addition of enough cumin to diminish the flavor of corn and pork (to be honest, any cumin is too much cumin).

Sopaipillas are large and round with little of the puffiness normally found on sopaipillas.  In fact, they’re more reminiscent of Navajo tacos or buñuelos than of traditional New Mexican sopaipillas.  That doesn’t mean they’re not excellent, because they are.   They’re served steaming hot and to no surprise with real honey.

The pulled pork sandwich is one bodacious barbecue behemoth.  In the style of Kansas City or the Carolinas, the only thing with more pork is any spending bill submitted by the United States Congress.  Unlike that for our fiscally irresponsible Congress, however, the approval rating for this one would go through the roof.  It’s a very good barbecue sandwich with and the pork isn’t the type I refer to as Ivory Snow in that it’s not 99 and 44/100 percent pure.  This is pork with more dark meat than white, bits of fatty pieces here and there and even some crusty skin in places.  That’s the way pork should be on a pulled pork sandwich.

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Sweet Potato Fries

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Sweet Potato Fries

Another characteristic to be appreciated of this pulled pork sandwich is the mild smoke.  You won’t feel as if you’re ingesting a lot of low and slow smoke, just enough to impart its flavor supporting qualities.  The sauce is vinegary and of medium thickness.  It goes well with the pork.

Sandwiches are served with your choice of potato salad, garlic mashed potatoes, real fries, criss cuts or sweet potato fries.  The fries are made the old-fashioned way–medium cut and fried potato skin and all.  The fries are flaccid unlike the McDonald’s genre of stiff potato sticks.  Even better are the sweet potato fries.

With a name like RealBurger on the marquee, the burgers had better be good.  The Real Burger is!  Credit that to a six-ounce freshly hand-packed Angus beef.  It’s served with your choice of condiments and may include a thick slice of white onion, pickles, lettuce, tomato and the usual suspects.

A Real Burger

A Real Burger

One of the things that most surprises regular visitors to RealBurger like Mike Lee and Larry Love is that they still find themselves surprised by some of the down home and real touches on the menu.  RealBurger is keeping it real!

The Original RealBurger
2641 1/2 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 699-5392
1st VISIT: 24 January 2009
LAST VISIT: 8 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET:  Honey Stung Fried Chicken, Enchiladas with Shredded Pork, Salsa, Chili con Queso, Real Burger, Pulled Pork Sandwich