Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 827 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6300 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Corrales Bistro Brewery – Corrales, New Mexico

Corrales Bistro Brewery

Corrales Bistro Brewery

What is it about French words that make them sound haughty and pompous to some people and elegant and refined to others? Think I’m kidding? In Massachusetts, I knew a guy who sported the nickname “Le Cochon” like a badge of honor for two years before someone had the heart to tell him it meant “the pig.” He had thought that sobriquet was a testament to his prowess with the ladies (on second thought, maybe it was).

Still questioning my observations on French words? Take an informal poll of men (women are smarter) in the office and ask them what the word “bistro” means. I did and most respondents gave me some variation of “snobbish, hoity-toity, fancy, upscale” restaurant. In truth, a bistro is a small restaurant which typically features simple fare and sometimes provides entertainment. So, if you’re looking for a fancy, upscale French brewery when you see the name “Corrales Bistro Brewery” you’ll be in for a disappointment. If, however, you’re looking for terrific sandwiches you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Salsa and chips from the Corrales Bistro Brewery

Salsa and chips

The Corrales Bistro Brewery opened shortly after New Years Day on 2007 at the former site of Essencia, a wonderful fine-dining establishment which closed in 2006. It’s the brainchild of entrepreneurial Fritz Allen, proprietor of another business, Hanselmann Pottery in the same commercial center as his brewery.

Allen had to request a change in Corrales zoning laws to clear the path for his undertaking. An amendment to a village commercial zoning ordinance allows him to brew no more than 5,000 barrels of beer a year. The Bistro offers nine New Mexican beers on tap, carrying some of the area’s most popular labels: Tractor (Los Lunas), Il Vicino, Chama River and Turtle Mountain. Not one to imbibe adult beverages, my interest is solely in the bistro’s food. Initially the menu featured fairly typical pub grub: sandwiches, burgers, salads, soups and bar-type appetizers. An expanded menu was introduced on August 10, 2007 that also includes wraps, new appetizers and a section for “Superburgers.”

The Corrales Blue Quesadilla

Some of the very best quesadillas in the Duke City area

The Bistro has three distinct dining areas. As you walk in the door, you’ll see what almost appears to be a waiting area, but is in fact, an inviting casual lounge in which you can relax on oversized couches and armchairs. A tropical fish tank (on top of which are several teddy bears) has an almost hypnotic feel to it. A long wooden bar with a granite top separates the lounge from a more conventional dining room with tables and chairs.

The restaurant’s walls are adorned with unframed limited edition giclee prints by BC Nowlin, an Alameda, New Mexico native with a dramatic flair for vibrant and colorful paintings depicting Native Americans as sojourners toward brighter destinations.

The third dining area is seasonal as it’s outdoors on a shaded patio offering magnificent views of the Sandia Mountains. During balmy summer days the patio is made even more comfortable with a mister which dispenses fine, cooling mist. Appetizers include chicken wings, nachos, quesadillas, green chile cheese fries and roasted garlic and feta bread dippers. For New Mexicans who have salsa running in their veins, the old stand-by, chips and salsa, are also available.

The New Mexico Tortilla Burger

Tortilla burger

The chips are lightly dusted with red chile but are otherwise lightly salted. These are substantial chips–thick enough to support the weight of any size scoop of salsa. The fire-roasted salsa has the pronounced taste of New Mexico green chile and is made with finely chopped tomatoes. The only downer is that there just isn’t enough of it.

Fire-roasted salsa and sour cream come standard with the Corrales Blue Quesadilla appetizer. This is one of the very best quesadillas in the metropolitan area, easily on par with the breakfast quesadilla at the Calico Cafe. What makes this quesadilla special is that it’s crafted with two complementary cheeses, an ultra-sharp bleu (not blue) cheese and a mild Cheddar. It also includes New Mexico green chile, tomato, onion and Mexican herbs all grilled on flour tortillas.

The Superburger section includes an impressive array of creative burgers all starting off with a half-pound of beef. Basic toppings are lettuce, tomato and onion. Your creativity will dictate what else goes on. For a New Mexico inspired departure from the traditional burger on the bun concept, try the New Mexico Tortilla Burger, a half-pound of beef wrapped in a tortilla with chopped lettuce, chile con queso and fire-roasted salsa. It’s an outstanding burger grilled to your exacting specifications. At medium done its pinkish insides are dripping with flavor.

The black and bleu

Black and bleu burger

Alas, our sole experience with a more conventional burger (albeit one with bleu cheese and peppercorn encrusted beef) proved the Bistro Brewery doesn’t always get it right–or maybe they wanted to emphasize the “black” portion of the burger’s name. By the standards of other restaurants, the Black and Bleu Burger would have been fine–that is if you don’t mind a well-done burger when you requested medium and expected pinkish juiciness.

This breath-wrecking burger is served on a Kaiser roll. Prepared to my exacting specifications, it would have been a fabulous burger. After all, how can you possibly go wrong with this pungent, powerful seasoning and bleu cheese, a favorite fetid fromage?

The Essencia

Sumptuous sandwiches in Corrales

There are nine sandwiches on the menu, including one named for the former occupant of the edifice. The Essencia lives up to its name. It packs bountiful amounts of turkey, cream cheese and salmon lox on lightly toasted sourdough. The salmon has the prominent flavor of brine and appears to have been cold-smoked. Detractors may retort that it has a “fishy” taste, but lox lovers will appreciate its freshness and concentrated flavor. Despite being piled high, the turkey barely makes a flavor impact.

The Ruben sandwich is a grilled triple-decker sandwich skyscraper high with corned beef, turkey, Swiss cheese, mild sauerkraut on lightly grilled rustic rye bread. Russian dressing is in there somewhere, too, but it’s lightly applied to give the meat the opportunity to shine. Shine it does. This is one of the best Ruben sandwiches in the Duke City area. A propeller-headed mathematician friend of mine with a penchant for French words said it was “an order of magnitude” better than others he’s had in town, including Lovell’s Ruben at Gecko’s. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but agree it is a very good Ruben.

The Ruben Sandwich is a towering grilled triple decker

A robust Ruben

Faithful readers of this blog have been subjected ad-nauseam to reading about my passion for pastrami, a passion shared only by Meg Ryan in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” when she gave Katz Deli diners an impassioned appreciation for this mildly smoked corned beef.  Alas, with few exceptions (Sophia’s) pastrami in the Albuquerque area tends to evoke one reaction–disappointment.  Still my pursuit for pastrami perfection goes on.

A the Corrales Bistro Brewery, pastrami is showcased in a uniquely named sandwich called El Pancho Greenblatt (pastrami, green chile and Cheddar cheese in a tortilla).  It’s a nice idea, but not very well executed.  Outstanding pastrami literally melts in your mouth; you barely have to chew it.  This is not outstanding pastrami.  It is chewy and tough, fairly typical of the pastrami delivered by corporate distributors which seem to favor relatively thick slices of pastrami instead of thinly sliced shards that delis on the East Coast use.  Distributors also seem to eschew marbling on their pastrami. There’s a lot of flavor in the marbling of a good pastrami and there wasn’t much flavor in this one.

The Pancho Greenblatt

The Pancho Greenblatt

Still, the Corrales Bistro Brewery’s sandwiches are made the way you might make a sandwich for yourself. You wouldn’t scrimp on ingredients and neither does the Bistro Brewery. You wouldn’t haphazardly toss tomatoes and lettuce on your sandwich; you’d position them carefully so they complement your sandwich. That’s the way the Bistro Brewery makes them. These are excellent sandwiches!

Our waitress told us everything on the menu is made with an extra ingredient–love. The chef, by the way, is the entrepreneurial Fritz Allen himself. Obviously his talents extend far beyond owning and managing the complex in which the Bistro is situated.

Sandwiches are served with thin-cut French Fries, the flaccid, droopy ones that taste best. These are not the pale, golden and cardboard stiff super-salted fries served at chains.

Okay, if you’re still inclined to believe French words show refinement and class, I’ve got one that describes the sandwiches at the Corrales Bistro Brewery–magnifique!

Corrales Bistro Brewery
4908 Corrales Road
Corrales, NM
897-1036
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 24 April 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, The Essencia, Ruben Sandwich, New Mexico Tortilla Burger, Corrales Blue Quesadilla, Viking Roast Beef Sandwich

Corrales Bistro Brewery on Urbanspoon

Best Lee’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Best Lee Gourmet Asian Restaurant

Best Lee's Gourmet Asian Restaurant

When John Lucas, Elizabeth Eisner Reding and Mike Reding, three trusted gastronomes who frequent this blog, heartily recommended I try Best Lee’s, my initial reaction was, “they’ve got to be kidding.”  Our sole visit to Best Lee’s in Rio Rancho exemplified the mediocrity and boring “sameness” that plagues many of New Mexico’s Chinese restaurants–a homogeneity my discerning friend Bill Resnik refers to as “copycat menus full of candied, fried and breaded mystery meats that all taste the same.”

It’s a good thing Chinese Restaurant News (CRN) doesn’t read my blog.  CRN, a highly respected monthly trade publication serving the more than 43,100 Chinese restaurants across America, selected Best Lee’s as one of America’s best Chinese restaurants for 2008.  In fact, during the “year of the mouse,” Best Lee’s earned distinction as one the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the categories of “Top 100 Local Favorites” and “Top 100 Overall Excellence.”  The latter is the publication’s highest honor.

The “Local Favorites” award is presented to restaurants which have “proven their success over many years and through difficult circumstances.”  Such honorees must also “maintain an important community presence and have a significant and devoted customer base.”  The award for “Overall Excellence” is accorded to restaurants with the highest overall score in all areas (food, decor, atmosphere, service, cleanliness and presentation and value).  Awards are based on “mystery diner” evaluations and public votes.”

One of America's top 100 Chinese restaurants?

One of America's top 100 Chinese restaurants?

Interestingly one of the selection criterion used by CRN to assess nominated restaurants is that 50 percent of the menu items must be “related to Chinese cuisine.”  Note that the criterion says nothing about authenticity and tradition.  Most Chinese restaurants in America would be disqualified from this prestigious competition if required to serve an entirely authentic, wholly traditional Chinese menu. Chinese restaurants across the fruited plain have made “faux” Chinese entrees ubiquitous–and that’s the way American’s like them.

Among the faux items on the menus at many Chinese restaurants are the pu-pu platter, a cutesy appetizer first served as a gimmick at Trader Vic’s, an Americanized Polynesian restaurant.  Chop suey and chow mein, two Chinese-American dishes were invented during the California Gold Rush to feed large number of miners cheaply.  The fortune cookie was invented in Los Angeles and remains a strange concept in China.

In fact, much of what passes as Chinese cuisine in Chinese restaurants throughout the western world would appall a traditional Chinese gourmet.  In addition to the aforementioned dishes, some of America’s favorite sweet and sour concoctions are sometimes made with such Western ameliorants as barbecue sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, cooking sherry and other non-traditional ingredients.  Other ingredients which would stupefy a traditionalist include canned fruit (including fruit cocktail) and vegetables, as well as monosodium glutamate (MSG), an addictive additive.

Delicious dumplings

Delicious dumplings

It wasn’t its lack of commitment to authenticity that turned us off Best Lee’s.  It was the lack of deliciousness in the appetizers and entrees we had that prompted my less than favorable review.  Still, the fact that trusted readers raved about Best Lee’s made me wonder if I could have been entirely mistaken in my initial assessment of Best Lee’s or whether we visited during an anomalous “off-night” courtesy of Murphy’s Law.

Best Lee’s certainly didn’t have an off-night when we visited in April, 2009.  In fact we were so impressed that we visited again two days later.  These visits were not to the Rio Rancho restaurant, however, but to its second instantiation.  This one is in Albuquerque just a block north of Paseo del Norte and Wyoming.  It’s the restaurant recommended to me.

The Albuquerque version of Best Lee’s is ensconced in a modern shopping center, an amalgamation of niche retail stores in an area experiencing considerable urban infill.  Its signage is suffixed with “Gourmet Asian Food,” a claim the Rio Rancho restaurant doesn’t make.  The restaurant’s interior includes many of the stereotypical trappings of the modern Chinese restaurant which is much more reserved than its older predecessors.

Beef Satay

Beef Satay

This Best Lee’s has something the Rio Rancho rendition doesn’t have–a “Chinese uncle.”  At least that’s what the bespectacled waiter with the perpetual impish smile calls himself.  A peripatetic presence, Chinese uncle visits every table, spicing his recommendations with his own version of Confucius-like wisdom.  With an ambassadorial flair, he also lavishes compliments on his guests (I think calling me “nice mustache man” is a compliment) and seems especially adept at entertaining children (of all ages).

The menu includes a 200 percent guarantee that “we don’t use MSG” and a 100 percent guarantee that “we use vegetable oil.”  That menu is a veritable compendium of Chinese and Americanized Chinese favorites as well as more than a perfunctory smattering of other Asian (mostly Thai) favorites.

Appetizers include steamed or pan-fried homemade pork or vegetable dumplings.  These half-moon shaped dumplings are much larger than most dumplings, in part because they are engorged with a generous amount of well-seasoned sausage.  At eight to an order, this appetizer almost ensures you’ll be taking left-overs home with you.  The dumplings are served with a light semi-sweet and slightly tangy sauce (not that you really need it) with soy sauce as its base and other complementary ingredients such as green onion, chili and ginger.

Red Curry Soup with Tofu

Red Curry Soup with Tofu

Interestingly, Best Lee’s offers an appetizer portion red curry tofu soup, something we haven’t seen at any Thai restaurant in Albuquerque.  It’s an excellent soup, served steaming hot and brimming with flavor.  Coconut-infused with the rich, fresh flavor of aromatic red curry, it is the type of comfort food soup whose flavor increases exponentially as the temperature outside drops.  The vegetables swimming in the bowl are fresh and delicious while the tofu inherits the flavor of the rich amalgam.  If the soup is this good, it’s likely other Thai offerings are, too.

Another Thai appetizer sure to please is satay, available in beef or chicken.  These little skewers of thinly sliced meat are perhaps the most popular street food in Thailand, but you’ll also find them in high-end restaurants.  The beef is marinated in an amalgam of complementary ingredients intended to give it a balance of sweet, savory and rich flavors.  The satay is served with a bowl of peanut sauce, a version that is not nearly as cloying as served at many Thai restaurants.

Appetizers are apportioned for sharing and even when split between two, the portions are prodigious and you risk filling up before your main entrees are delivered to your table.  It’s a risk worth taking because the appetizers are delicious and the take-home portions reheat wonderfully.  In fact, reheating some things just seems to bring out even more of its flavor richness.

House Pan Fried Noodles with Mango Sauce

House Pan Fried Noodles with Mango Sauce

I’ve never quite understood the concept of crispy, pan-fried noodles; more specifically why you would eat something that’s only going to reconstitute when you add a sauce to it.  My Kim loves them–as much in their crispy state as when they’re soft and “noodley,’ but to my obviously unacculturated taste buds, the crispy noodles are reminiscent of Durkee’s french fried onion strings (which midwesterners add to green bean casseroles).

Best Lee’s pan-fried noodles can be made with your choice of shrimp, chicken or mixed vegetables with the “chef’s delicious sauce.”  The ever-accommodating kitchen staff will tailor this dish to your tastes, such as making it with a brown mango sauce and excluding or adding more of any vegetable you desire.  The taste combination of mango sauce and red onions, by the way, is surprisingly delicious.

Plating at Best Lee’s is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks.  Their taste buds will follow suit, confirming what their eyes are telling them.

Scallops & Beef, Shanghai Style

Scallops & Beef, Shanghai Style

It may be hard to tell through all the steam just how esthetically appealing the dish pictured above is.  It’s scallops and beef Shanghai style from the chef’s special section of the menu.  Large sea scallops with flank steak and assorted vegetables in a brown sauce are served on a sizzling plate.  Even had my camera been able to penetrate that veil of steam, a photo wouldn’t do justice to this entree.

The scallops are indeed large.  They’re also sweet and delicious.  The flank steak is not as tough and chewy as this particular cut of beef tends to be and while you’d never call it tender, you certainly won’t need the jaws of a boxer to masticate it.  Now, many Chinese dishes are prepared with a “brown sauce” but that term is rather vague because there is no standard way to prepare it.  Best Lee’s version seems to have its basis in beef broth, but also hints of brown sugar, garlic and other ingredients.  Whatever its composition, it’s a worthy sauce.

During our inaugural visit Chinese uncle paraded by our table to show us an artfully appealing fish on a platter destined for a table in a different section of the restaurant.  Showcasing that dish had his desired effect–we were back in two days to try it.

Fabulous fish

Rex Sole, a fabulous fish

There are, in fact, several steamed or crispy fish entrees on the menu: yellow fish, red snapper or rex sole.  Chinese uncle confided that the rex sole was the best of the three.  Quite often when the wait staff effusively pushes an entree, it’s because that entree is the most expensive or the entree closest to an expiring shelf life, but when Chinese uncle recommends something, he speaks with conviction.

Rex sole is a member of the flounder family.  In fact, this small fish (normally under two pounds) is considered one of the tastiest fish in the flounder family with a sweet, delicate white flesh.  It is a flat fish with both eyes on the same side of its head.  The fillets from the bottom side of the sole tend to be thinner and white-fleshed while fillets from the top side are thicker and darker (grayish).

Instead of having to extricate the delicate white flesh from between the sole’s quill-like bones (a delicate operation requiring surgeon-like precision), several chunky fillets are served atop the flat fish’s carcass.  The fillets are lightly breaded and served with either a ginger scallion sauce or a “chef’s special sauce.”  The latter is reminiscent of the type of Vietnamese fish sauce sold in Asian grocery stores.  It is more sweet than tangy with the consistency of a light syrup, but it complements the fish very well.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

From the Southeast Asia Style section of the menu comes one of the most popular entrees entrees served in Thai restaurants throughout America.  Pad Thai is actually one of Thailand’s national dishes and similar to satay, is equally at home as a street food or served in a nice restaurant.

Best Lee’s version of this stir-fried rice noodle dish is fairly standard and hints of tangy fish sauce and tamarind, piquant chili peppers and other complementary flavors.  It is garnished with crushed peanuts and served with lime which you’re free to squeeze onto the dish.

Not at all standard are the chocolate covered fortune cookies, a delightful twist we’ve seen at only one other Albuquerque Chinese restaurant.  The chocolate actually gives the light, delicate cookie some substance (and many would argue, taste).  It’s a nice treat to end a meal.

Chocolate covered fortune cookies

Chocolate covered fortune cookies

Best Lee’s is one of the better Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque and confirms something I state in my FAQs page–that diners should take a “caveat emptor” approach to any restaurant review written by any critic (even me).  I was wrong about Best Lee’s (at least the one in Albuquerque) and am big enough (by about two pounds after two vey good meals at the restaurant) to admit it.

Best Lee’s Authentic Gourmet Asian Restaurant
7900 Carmel Avenue, Suite F
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 798-0999
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2009
1ST VISIT: 10 April 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: House Pan Fried Noodles, Scallops & Beef Shanghai Style, Steamed Pork Dumplings, Satay, Pad Thai, Crispy Fried Fish, Chocolate Fortune Cookies

Best Lee's on Urbanspoon

La Bamba Grill – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Bamba Grill in Bernalillo

La Bamba Grill in Bernalillo

In its April, 2009 edition Saveur magazine feted “12 restaurants that matter,” profiling a dozen restaurants that “represent the best of dining in America today.”  Although that title may at first browse sound a bit condescending, the premise of the article was that restaurants are special places.  “Everybody has to eat, but going out to eat is a choice.”

Americans certainly exercise that freedom of choice with their wallets and purses.  According to the National Restaurant Association, forty-five percent of adults surveyed indicate restaurants are an integral part of their lifestyle and one in three say they’re not eating out as often as they would like.  The Association reports that nearly half of Americans’ food budget in 2009 will be spent in restaurants, accounting for a total economic impact of $1.5 trillion.  New Mexico’s restaurants are forecast to post the fourth highest restaurant sales growth in the country during 2009 with a 3.3 percent increase (amounting to $2.7 billion).

Given her choice, fellow gastronome Barbara Trembath will choose, like me, to spend much of her disposable income at mom-and-pop restaurants.  With tastes very similar to mine, she often  eschews the “anointed” restaurants everyone visits and combs through off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods for culinary finds.  Among other restaurants’ she’s introduced me to are the humble and homey Hua Chang and a little place I have yet to review which serves “the best damn cupcakes on the planet…little, tiny, deceptive mouthfuls of sugary happiness.”

The interior of La Bamba Grill

The interior of La Bamba Grill

When Barbara told me about a hidden restaurant in Bernalillo I “really have to try,” her credibility with me meant bumping several other restaurants on my list and setting off to the City of Coronado for La Bamba Grill.  Located on North Camino del Pueblo less than half a mile north of heavily trafficked Highway 550, La Bamba Grill is easy to miss.  It’s situated in a fairly nondescript edifice which formerly housed a paleteria among other short-lived businesses.  Its signage is relatively austere, hand-lettered with none of the flash and panache many restaurants seem to need to draw diners in.

Beneath the restaurant’s name is the sub-title “traditional Mexican food,” a point reenforced on the menu: “our dishes consist of only the best recipes of traditional Mexican cuisine infused with the authentic ingredients of Mexico.”  These points of emphasis regarding tradition are evident in the authenticity of dishes coming from a highly skilled and well practiced kitchen.  The restaurant is owned by Flor De Aquino, an effervescent lady whose roots are in the tradition-rich Chiapas-Veracruz region.

La Bamba Grill is a much more attractive restaurant than its predecessors.  It took several months of work painting, laying down tile and finding homey touches to make guests feel welcome.  In one instance they may have done too good a job with the homey touches.  Displayed on a baker’s rack type of shelf are several handmade and hand-painted dolls fashioned primarily of corn husks.  Garlic cloves serve as the dolls’ heads while garlic stems are tied into braids.  The dolls have been literally flying off the shelves courtesy of diners who just have to have them.

Chips and salsa at La Bamba Grill

Chips and salsa at La Bamba Grill

Traditional desayuno (breakfast) offerings include huevos con machaca (scrambled eggs with shredded beef), chilaquiles (fried strips of corn tortillas smothered with red or green salsa), platanos fritos (fried plantains), entomatadas con jamon (four folded, fried tortillas with ham inside topped with green or red salsa) and menudo (soup made from beef tripe).  It’s refreshing to start a morning off with delicious choices beyond the ubiquitous breakfast burrito.  Not only are La Bamba’s desayuno entrees authentic, they’re intriguing and according to Barbara, a big hit with her family.

Surprises continue onto the almuerzo (lunch) menu.  They include mole enchiladas, stuffed corn sopaipillas, and tacos, but not the perfunctory tacos served at most Mexican restaurants.  We’re talking tacos de Barbacoa, tacos al Pastor, and tacos de Cochinita Pibil.  Four come per order or you can mix-and-match as we did (pictured below).

You’re not seated long before a basket of fresh, crispy chips and salsa are brought to your table.  The salsa is freshly made and has the type of piquancy you need when you’re having a hard time getting started in the morning.  Its piquancy has its basis in jalapeños.  Other ingredients include garlic, salt, pepper and the fresh, vibrant taste of white onion and cilantro.  The salsa is served in a plastic molcajete and is so good you’ll probably polish off two bowlfuls.

A triumvirate of terrific tacos

A triumvirate of terrific tacos

A triumvirate of terrific tacos are what Barbara’s family had during their inaugural visit and she recommended them highly.  Our mix-and-match order consisted of two tacos de cochinita pibil, one taco al pastor and one taco de Barbacoa.  All are stuffed generously onto fresh, pliable and warm corn tortillas.  Sides of lime slices and a plastic tubful of white onions and cilantro accompany the tacos.

Cochinita pibil is a traditional (there’s that word again) slow-roasted pork dish from Yucatan.  Marinated in strongly acidic citrus juices, the pork acquires an addictive taste and is tenderized by the high acidity of the marinade.  At La Bamba, these tacos are served with pickled red onions and a green habanero salsa that may bring tears to your eyes if you use it too liberally.  My standard for cochinita pibil nonpareil in Albuquerque is El Norteño, but La Bamba’s version is a very good alternative.

Also quite traditional in Mexico are tacos de Barbacoa (not to be mistaken with Barbacoa de cabeza which is made with cow’s head slow-roasted).  Barbacoa might be loosely translated as a form of Mexican barbecue.  La Bamba’s version of Barbacoa features barbecued beef with onions, cilantro and a tomatillo salsa.  They’re quite good.

Mole Enchiladas

Mole Enchiladas

The tacos al pastor are also almost completely traditional save for the fact that the pork isn’t cooked on a vertical spit the way tacos al pastor are made in Mexico.  La Bamba’s tacos are made with grilled marinated pork served with tangy pineapple, cilantro, onions and tomatillo salsa.  The pork is succulent with a subtle marinade that accentuates its natural flavors.

In my humble estimation, New Mexicans (especially those of us from the north) don’t give Mole the respect it deserves.  Maybe it’s because so many of us grew up believing it was a poor substitute for our red chile.  My appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of a great Mole have grown substantially over the years as I’ve been introduced to some of it’s delicious variations in restaurants from Puebla, Mexico to Chicago, Illinois to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Mole is a thick, rich, sweet and fragrant chocolate-tinged sauce made with different types of chile (some recipes calling for as many as ten varieties), fried bread, spices and as many as thirty other ingredients.  Preparation is a time-consuming, labor intensive process which is why it is usually made in large batches.  Most Mexican women have their own recipe passed down over the generations.  If you’ve had good Mole, you’ll always remember it.

Caldo de Res

Caldo de Res

La Bamba’s Mole is memorable!   Four corn tortillas are engorged with ground beef then smothered in mole and topped with onions and a Mexican powdered cheese much like parmesan.  The only thing which could have made it better is shredded beef instead of ground beef, but that’s a nit.  This is the type of Mole which brings a smile of satisfaction to your lips and a yearning to have it again soon.

Perhaps the epitome of Mexican comfort food is found in Caldo de Res, a bowl of beef ribs, corn on the cob, boiled potatoes and assorted vegetables in a flavorful beef broth.  There’s absolutely nothing fancy about caldo de res.  It’s basically a beef soup with very few, if any, spices.  It relies on an almost superfluity of beef and vegetables for flavor.  La Bamba’s version reminded me of the type of caldo a family in Mexico might have at home.  My friend Ruben compared La Bamba’s rendition to what he grew up with in south Texas.  That’s high praise indeed.

What my adovada adoring amigo and I didn’t like was the carne adovada.  Ruben, whose holy grail quest to find the best carne adovada in the world has taken us to some premier pantheons of porcine preparation, has become as sensitized to the olfactory offensive odor and malevolent taste of cumin as I am.  Even though we were assured only a small amount of cumin was used, one part per million of cumin is enough to ruin adovada in my mind.  That’s a shame here because the pork used in this restaurant is as tender as a Perry Como love song.

Entomatados

Entomatados

Fortunately there are copious cumin free entrees on the menu such as the entomatadas con jamon, four folded tortillas with ham inside topped with green or red salsa served with beans and topped with a parmesan-like Mexican cheese.  In the parlance of Mexican entrees, the “en” prefix followed by an ingredient such as “tomata” and suffixed with “adas” represent tortillas that have been sauced with the ingredient between the prefix and suffix (for example “en-chil-adas” means the tortilla is sauced with chile).  Entomatadas are sauced with a tomato sauce quite different from Italian tomato sauces–sweeter and diffferently spiced.

The entomatadas are delicious (“muy rico” our waitress exclaimed when we ordered them) and the accompanying beans are very well seasoned.  A side ramekin of salsa habanera was provided so we could pick our own level of piquancy (or in this case pain, which is a flavor in New Mexico).  The salsa habanera was fiercely tempered and merciless.  It started off innocuously then began a slow, endorphin-releasing and pleasurable pain.

The dessert menu includes only two items: natillas (pictured below) and flan.  The natillas, served cold, are light and creamy, not nearly as sweet as many natillas in the Albuquerque area.  Instead of raisins, the natillas are made with golden colored sultanas which are slightly sweeter than normal raisins.  The cinnamon is also sparsely applied which allows the custard to be showcased.

Natillas

Natillas

La Bamba’s beverage offerings include horchata and agua de sandia as well as Mexican Coke a Cola and Jaritos soft drinks.

There are many things about La Bamba Grill that might remind you of Mexico in all its culinary traditions.  It’s the type of restaurant that really matters because it’s family owned and operated, simple and unadorned, authentic and traditional.  It’s the type of restaurant you should choose to visit soon.

La Bamba Grill
213 North Camino del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505)  771-8949
LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2009
1st VISIT: 22 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Caldo de Res, Mole Enchiladas, Tacos Al Pastor, Tacos de Barbacoa, Tacos de Cochinita Pibil, Horchata