Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico – Taos, New Mexico


The affable Antonio Matus

Note:  Antonio’s has reopened in Taos.  More details to follow. 

A traditional corrido from the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz recounts the story of a smiling woman with magic hands.  The kitchen is the world of Maria Chuchena and the intoxicating aromas and incomparable flavors she concocts in that world are utterly unforgettable.  With her cooking, Maria fills the world with surprises.  If corridos have sequels and characters in folk songs bear offspring, Maria Chuchena’s progeny might well be Antonio Matus, chef and owner of the eponymous Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico in Taos, New Mexico.  Like the corrido, Antonio is from Veracruz and like Maria Chuchena, the kitchen is his world.  It is where he has been filling Taos with utterly unforgettable surprises for more than a decade.

After working in several dining establishments in the Taos area, Antonio launched his self-titled restaurant at the historic El Torreon Hacienda in El Prado, just north of Taos.  The hacienda which dates back to 1847 sits on acreage given to the Valdez family by the famous and infamous Padre Antonio José Martínez, the ecclesiastical leader of northern New Mexico whose unique style of Catholicism was in direct opposition to Archbishop Lamy, the French archbishop who reorganized the Catholic Church in the Southwest.

Antonio's, a block west of the Taos Plaza

Antonio’s, a block west of the Taos Plaza

In 2005, Antonio’s relocated to a modest, but very charming and stylish Norteno adobe hacienda in Ranchos de Taos. Its intimate and welcoming milieu accommodated about 40 patrons in the main dining room with additional seating at the bar.  Naturally distressed dark wood floors, muted yellow viga ceilings and burnt orange walls hosting folkloric murals created a memorable ambience though it was Antonio’s food which made the most lasting impression.

Antonio’s, the restaurant was to close in 2007, but Antonio, the popular chef, opened Rellenos Cafe by Antonio just southeast of the Taos Plaza.  In a maze of tiny rooms, the restaurant focused on less expensive fare including take-away offerings and even free delivery service to businesses on or near the plaza.

Rellenos Cafe wasn’t large enough to contain the flavors that needed to express themselves under Antonio’s skilled hands.  In the spring of 2009, Antonio’s reopened, this time in a historical building on Guadalupe Plaza reputed to have housed the town’s original brothel.  Stories abound about tunnels under the plaza that led from the jail to this den of iniquity.  The tunnels were rumored to have been used by local lawmen to come and go unseen.

One of the dining rooms at Antonio's

One of the dining rooms at Antonio’s

Characteristic of Antonio’s previous restaurants, his new venue is a beautiful shrine to his cuisine.  A bright, airy courtyard befitting the cool Taos evenings complements a bright and expansive restaurant with multiple dining rooms.  The color pallet is muted with walls showcasing the evocative art of Taos artist Charles Collins.  His oil paintings tend to be profoundly spiritual and have a sense of timelessness and peace.

Next door is Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a relatively new church (circa 1961) by New Mexico Catholic church standards.  The peals of church bells resonate as if to call parishioners to mass.  The timbre of their tintinnabulation seems just part of the character and ambience at the restaurant.

Ambience not withstanding, it’s Antonio’s cuisine which is the biggest draw to his restaurant.  His menu strikes a balance between contemporary and traditional, exotic and local.  The genesis for many of his dishes is his native Veracruz, a region influenced by the convergence of cultures and the warm coastal waters of the Mexican Gulf.  The menu also features fare from the Puebla area, considered Mexico’s “cradle of corn.”

Mahi Mahi Ceviche

Mahi Mahi Ceviche

When Antonio introduced one of the dishes for which Puebla is best known, he had no idea the dish would become his restaurant’s most popular entree. Although traditionally a Christmas dish, Antonio enjoyed it year round as a child growing up in Mexico and surmised perhaps his loyal patrons might enjoy it as well. Today, his Chile Relleno en Nogada is so popular his restaurant often sells out well before closing time–much to the chagrin of hungry patrons.

You haven’t had a chile relleno unless you’ve had Antonio’s; it’s wholly unlike any chile relleno you’ve ever experienced. Antonio engorges a poblano pepper with pork, apples, pears, tomato, onion, garlic and raisins then seasons the unlikely amalgam with such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. He then smothers the entire concoction with a walnut brandy cream sauce and serves the beauteous entree with rice and beans.

It may sound like a dessert offering, but it isn’t. Unlike the fusion of sweet and savory tastes in many Asian dishes, there is a clear demarcation between tastes. There is also tremendous synergy as this sweet and savory combination works very well together. Its aroma is like cinnamon-blessed apple pie and there are hints of fruit in every mouthful, but there’s also the flavor of delicious pork. Every morsel is like an orgiastic competition within your taste buds with all 10,000 of them coming out the winner.

Salsa and chips at Antonio's

Salsa and chips at Antonio’s

The three-page menu includes such house specialties as Barbacoa de Borrego, a marinated and roasted leg of lamb; Cochinita Pibil, pork marinated in achiote and citrus juices then roasted; Elk Fajitas served with all the works; and Seafood Paella. A page is also dedicated to appetizers, soups and salads, all of which are beautifully described.

One of Antonio’s most popular appetizers is Guacamole which is prepared table-side from a wheeled cart and is served with salsa and chips. Sure, you’ve had guacamole all over New Mexico and after a while, most of it has a familiar sameness (maybe even boringness). Antonio’s guacamole is unique and not just because of the entertainment value of watching someone prepare it for you. Avocados are mashed at the peak moment of deliciousness then mixed with tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos (essentially a pico de gallo) and lime.  You’re welcome to request the level of piquancy you want in your guacamole, an invitation for chileheads like me to turn it up a notch.

The salsa is a beautiful, rich red with just a hint of a piquant bite and the hint of smoky chipotle.  Chips are low in salt and formidable enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa.  The salsa isn’t watery so it doesn’t run off the chips and onto your lap.

Guacamole made tableside

Guacamole made tableside

Chips are also served with another popular appetizer, Mahi Mahi Ceviche. In Hawaiian, Mahi Mahi translates to “strong-strong,” but is more commonly known as Dolphinfish (even though the fish isn’t related to the dolphin) or Dorado.  Its flesh is firm and has a sweet flavor with little of the characteristic “fishy” flavor of some aquatic foods.  It’s an exceptionally delicious fish, especially when served in flavor combinations of sweet and tangy.

Antonio’s Mahi Mahi Ceviche is not only delicious, it is beautiful courtesy of chopped tomatoes, cilantro, and avocado.  The citrus infusion makes the combination sing, but if lip-pursing seafood starts to get to be a bit much, you can cut the taste with an accompanying chipotle dressing that’s got bite and flavor.

Carne Asada a la Tampiquena is so prominent in Mexican restaurants that it’s become passé. At Antonio’s, we discovered the most tender Tampiquena style grilled beef tenderloin steak we’ve ever had in New Mexico. Marinated in spices and lime, it also had absolutely no fat or sinew, giving it a “melt in your mouth” quality. As Barbara Streisand might say, “it’s like butter.”

Chiles rellenos en nogada

Chiles rellenos en nogada

It’s only fitting that Antonio’s would excel at another Yucatan specialty, Cochinita pibil, a traditional slow-roasted pork dish in which an entire suckling pig is marinated in a strongly acidic citrus juice, colored with annato seed ( a derivative of achiote) then wrapped in banana leaf for roasting.  Unwrapping the banana leaf is similar to unwrapping a tamale or even a Christmas gift.  Enveloped by the banana leaf is some of the most tender and juicy pork you can find.

The banana leaves, although completely inedible, are used for slow, moist cooking of tough (or tender as in the case of cochinita pibil) meats as well as for quicker steaming, baking or grilling of delicate ingredients such as chicken and fish. Used while still fresh and green, they lend a very moist quality to any food prepared in them and also imbue foods with a delicious herbal flavor.  The marriage of citrus tanginess and herbal freshness is heavenly.

Entrees are served with pinto beans, rice and just a bit of pico de gallo.  The pinto beans are perfectly prepared, but the rice is fairly unremarkable.

Cochinito pibil

Cochinito pibil

Flan is an Antonio’s dessert specialty, but other post-prandial options are available. One of the best is a chipotle infused  chocolate cake served with a rich vanilla bean ice cream. The cake is as light and moist as flourless cakes with a brown sheen of rich frosting and just an intimation of chipotle. The cold lushness of the ice cream added a dimension of teeth-chattering cold to the warm cake.

Having visited the more intimate and warm Antonio’s restaurant in Ranchos de Taos nearly three years before dining at the louder, more festive Antonio’s near the Taos Plaza, our preference would be for the former.  Antonio’s is a lively restaurant with tremendous appeal for crowds, but we found it just a bit loud.  Service is not quite as personable and attentive as we remembered from our inaugural visit, but the food was still first-rate—and the chile relleno en nogada is worth a visit in and of itself.

Maria Chuchena would be proud!

Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico
122 Dona Luz
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2009
1st VISIT:  29 September 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Guacamole, Salsa and Chips, Carne Asada a la Tampiquena, Chile Relleno en Nogada, Mahi Mahi Ceviche

Seferino’s – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Seferino's New Mexican restaurant in Rio Rancho.

Seferino’s New Mexican restaurant in Rio Rancho.

One of the first things you notice when you step into Seferino’s New Mexican Restaurant is the large portrait hanging just above the hostess station of an avuncular bearded gentleman with an air of dignity and class.  Though he’s been gone for about a decade and a half and the restaurant which bears his name is in a new location, you can almost feel the comforting presence of Seferino Perea looming like a charming host bidding you welcome to his restaurant.

Seferino’s daughter Cathy sports the same snowy white halo as her father, dignified argentine locks everyone should be fortunate enough to age into.  Cathy, who along with her husband Joe Guitierrez own Seferino’s is a frequent presence at the Rio Rancho restaurant her father helped start.

The family patriarch, Seferino managed Perea’s restaurant with his son in Albuquerque before helping Cathy start up the restaurant named for him.  For nine years, Seferino’s was located on Rio Rancho’s main north-south thoroughfare, Highway 528.  A move to Southern Boulevard placed them in another heavily trafficked area and in an edifice nearly twice as large (4300 square feet) as their previous location (2400 square feet).

The interior at Seferino's

The interior at Seferino’s

Those comfortable confines served Seferino’s very well for years, but in 2009 the restaurant moved to its third Rio Rancho home since 1985.  It is now situated in the building which housed Weck’s for years.  The steady streams of dining traffic throughout its hours of operation are starting to find Seferino’s at its new location.  Many come for the all day breakfast menu and others for some of their favorite New Mexican food in the Rio Rancho area.  Portions are prodigious and service is excellent.

A second Seferino’s restaurant is located at 5801 Central Avenue in Albuquerque, ironically in the same complex that previously housed Perea’s New Mexican Restaurant, Cathy’s brother’s restaurant.  Chilepeno’s, a defunct restaurant in Cedar Crest was owned by Cathy’s son Rodney Guitierrez and his wife, Dianna.  The long line of restaurateurs in the Perea family has served New Mexicans for generations with no surcease in sight.

The menu at Seferino’s is a veritable compendium of New Mexican favorites.  While prices have increased over the years, chips and salsa are still complementary.  That in itself is becoming a rarity.  The salsa derives its heat from jalapenos and its freshness from tomatoes (not the mushy stuff out of a can).  Onion is a subtle additive to the salsa.  More pronounced is the flavor of garlic, but it’s pronounced in a perfective manner.  The chips are formidable and sufficiently weight-bearing to sustain Gil-sized scoops of salsa.

Chips and salsa at Seferino's

Chips and salsa at Seferino’s

If you’re famished for fine New Mexican food or want to share a gargantuan meal with your dining companion, order the “super combination” plate which tips the scale at several hundred carbohydrate-laden calories.  The “star” of that combination plate is a carne adovada burrito which would make a huge meal by itself.  Tender pork chunks bathed in red chile are enveloped by a thick, house-made tortilla (definitely not the paper-thin tortillas served at many restaurants).

On a piquancy scale the red chile would fall somewhere between mild and medium (leaning toward mild).  It’s not an anemic chile from a “heat” perspective, but neither does it give you the endorphin rush of a piquant chile.  A less desirous quality in the red chile is the excessive use of a thickening agent (perhaps corn starch).  A pinch of flour is sometimes necessary to keep the chile and water from separating too much, but too much of any thickening agent (roux) ultimately impacts the purity, earthiness and flavor of the chile.  That’s the case with Seferino’s red.

The prodigious super combination plate also includes a wonderfully seasoned ground beef taco, a cheese enchilada, a cheesy relleno, Spanish rice and refried beans, enough food to feed a small family.  The refried beans have a “bacony” aftertaste, a huge plus.  They’re also topped with shredded, melted Cheddar.  The Spanish rice is a bit on the dry side, fairly characteristic of this misnamed but ubiquitous standard.

Enchiladas three ways from Seferino's

Enchiladas three ways from Seferino’s

Enchilada enthusiasts have several options at Seferino’s including a combination that includes a carne adovada enchilada, an enchilada engorged with chicken and an enchilada bursting with ground beef.  All three are rolled and topped with melted Cheddar cheese and chile as well as a heaping portion of the ubiquitous lettuce and tomato garnish so many people discard.

The best of the triumvirate are the chicken stuffed enchiladas.  That’s courtesy of very flavorful, well-seasoned, mostly white meat chicken, the kind which would make a great stewed chicken entree.  It’s moist and tender without being mushy.  During future visits, chicken enchiladas with green chile are definitely warranted.

Unlike with the generously stuffed carne adovada burritos, there just isn’t enough carne adovada on the enchilada to suit adovada aficionados, but what is there, is tender and delicious.  The adovada appears to have been marinated in a chile caribe, a more concentrated chile made from crushed pods.  Only the ground beef enchilada is unremarkable and in fact, a cheese enchilada might have been a better option for this combination plate.

Tamales at Seferino's

Tamales at Seferino’s

When the menu calls something a “plate,” it means the entire plate is likely to be covered in New Mexico food goodness.  The tamale plate (pictured above), for example is roughly the size of a frisbee and might challenge even Takero Kobayashi, the renown gurgitator to finish it all.  Two tamales (the size of the tablets on which the ten commandments were written) resemble a crimson and amber (red chile and cheese) island surrounded by a generous amount of refried beans and Spanish rice.

Even though they don’t provide the unwrapping (corn husk) experience some people cherish especially around Christmas time, the tamales are quite good.  The masa has a nice texture and is of perfect thickness–not so thick the corn taste overwhelms its meaty innards, but not so thin you can’t taste it.  Tender tendrils of pork are well seasoned and very flavorful.  In fact, my least favorite aspect of this entree might (for reasons previously mentioned) be the red chile.

Complementary sopaipillas are yet another endearing touch that has made Seferino’s a long-time family tradition in Rio Rancho.  The sopaipillas are thicker than most, but they manage to retain the puffy pockets that serve as perfect repositories for honey.  Alas, you won’t find real honey on the table.  Seferino’s serves honey flavored syrup, a short-cut too many New Mexican restaurants take.  Sure, real honey has the unfortunate tendency to crystalize and has some maintenance requirements, but it’s far better than the artificial pretender.

Sopaipillas at Seferino's

Sopaipillas at Seferino’s

Seferino’s breakfast burritos, particularly those featuring chorizo, make getting up in the morning worthwhile.  If you want a more traditional American breakfast, several combination plates featuring eggs and crispy bacon (at least nine-inch strips) are available.  At the very least, order Seferino’s pancakes which are light, fluffy and wonderful.

It wouldn’t be the City of Vision without Seferino’s, a local institution beloved by generations.

1690 Rio Rancho Blvd, #B.
Rio Rancho, NM

LATEST VISIT: 20 May 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Super Combination Plate, Pancakes, Bacon, Enchilada Combination Plate, Tamale Plate

Seferino's New Mexican on Urbanspoon

Roque’s Carnitas – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Roque's Carnitas on the Plaza

Roque's Carnitas on the Plaza

In more cosmopolitan metropolises it isn’t uncommon to see sidewalk vendors plying their trade over chuck wagon stands and proffering high quality fast food such as hot dogs, tacos, gyros and sundry quick meal items. Some of the best food in cities such as Portland, Oregon can be found near city parks where enterprising street vendors concoct culinary magic on portable kitchens and what we typically deride as “roach coaches.”

Roque Garcia has made such a business an art form–a very successful one. In fact, Roque claims carnitas paid for his home outside Puerto Vallarta in Mexico and for the Mercedes Benz automobiles he likes to drive. Roque’s cart is stationed on the southeast corner of the Santa Fe plaza where the irresistibly smoky aroma of sizzling, marinated beef draws repeat customers and tourists like a siren’s call.

Despite posting a sign explaining what carnitas are, Roque is unfailingly patient with tourists who don’t necessarily know what it is they’re ordering; they only know they can’t resist the intoxicating aromas wafting from the strange cart.

Carnitas on the grill

Carnitas on the grill

During the past decade or so, national publications including the New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, National Geographic, Roadfood and others have waxed poetic about Roque’s Carnitas Stand which operates daily from Easter to Thanksgiving, weather permitting.

Roque keeps track of the publications in which his famous stand has been featured–132 as of May, 2006. Were it not for a scheduling conflict, he would also have been featured in a Food Network program in 2006.

Roque makes the most of his cart’s “advertising space” by listing several of the publications in which his stand has been featured. The cart also points out that Roque’s Carnitas are available for weddings, meetings, divorces and other events in which people gather to eat.

Santa Fe's famous cart--some of the many publications in which Roque's has been featured

Santa Fe's famous cart--some of the many publications in which Roque's has been featured

When you’ve got an outstanding product, you don’t need great menu variety and in carnitas, Roque has a fabulous product!

Roque’s version of carnitas are hand-sliced thin strips of prime beef steak marinated in sauce then grilled on an open fire together with onion and chile verde and served on flour tortillas (from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company) topped with homemade salsa.

Chicken carnitas are also available and are nearly as wonderful with their beef counterparts. Both are best eaten while standing and leaning slightly forward so as not to have the succulent juices splash all over your clothing. Napkins certainly come in handy.

The world famous Roque Garcia

The world famous Roque Garcia

Other menu items include pork and green chile tamales as well as excitingly refreshing jamaica (hibiscus) and lemonade drinks.

The word “institution” is bandied about too frequently, but in Roque’s Carnitas, Santa Fe has an institution for which we can all be grateful.

Roque’s Carnitas
Santa Fe Plaza
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2009
: 7
COST: $$
BEST BET:Beef Carnitas, Chicken Carnitas

The Shed – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The award winning Shed

The world famous Shed restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico

In the culinary world, the name James Beard is revered perhaps above all others. Considered the “Dean of American Cookery,” Beard established a legacy of culinary excellence and became a household name to generations of home cooks and professional chefs.

The cookbooks he authored between 1940 and 1983 are considered “a slice of American history” because those tomes span America’s culinary regions and served as a premonition of the global epicurean expanse to come.

Today, the James Beard Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization is dedicated to celebrating, preserving, and nurturing America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence.

Guacamole, salsa and chips at The Shed in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Guacamole, salsa and chips at The Shed in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Earning a James Beard award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world. It’s the restaurant world’s equivalent of the Academy Award.

In 2003, The Shed restaurant earned the Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award,” a prestigious accolade honoring locally owned and operated regional restaurants that have withstood the test of time and are beloved in their communities.

The Foundation’s Web site describes The Shed as “A restaurant begun in a burro shed on a dusty alley in a then-sleepy little town might not sound as if it would be – 50 years later – hailed as a venerable institution. The Shed, though, has become the standard-setter for northern New Mexican fare, Santa Fe charm, and warm hospitality.”

Carne Adovada at the Shed, some of the very best in New Mexico

Carne Adovada at the Shed, some of the very best in New Mexico

The lobby’s multi-hued visual fodder makes it easy to miss the framed certificate commemorating the award, but you get the feeling the restaurant’s proprietors are okay with that. The Shed has been a family tradition–three generations of Carswells serving three generations of patrons–since it launched on July 4, 1953. Patrons queue up for as long as it takes to be seated in one of the restaurant’s nine rooms behind Prince Patio, a flagstone courtyard oasis drenched in sunlight and shaded by verdant vines. The Shed is housed in what was once a rambling adobe hacienda, circa 1692.

Mere steps away from the Santa Fe Plaza and an easy two blocks away from its original Burro Alley location, The Shed is a institution beloved not only by locals, but by tourists who continue to discover (or rediscover) it during sojourns to the City Different. A visit to The Shed is akin to a pilgrimage; it’s as if you’re visiting a sacred place and in a way, you really are. The Shed has been called “the soul of Santa Fe” and many patrons consider it the embodiment of Northern New Mexico hospitality and its unique cuisine–a harmonious and delicious convergence of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican influences.

Native New Mexicans returning home after a period of expatriation don’t consider themselves to be back home until they’ve had a meal featuring exceptional red and green chile. My wish would be for all New Mexicans returning to the Land of Enchantment to partake, as their first meal back, of The Shed’s exceptional chile. The red chile is brick red and deeply earthy with a slightly sweet taste you remember long after your meal. It’s the quintessential New Mexico chile–the result of the Carswells purchasing the entire chile bounty of two Hatch, New Mexico chile fields. Red chile is ground every day in the restaurant’s mills to prevent oxidization and ensure freshness.

Blue corn enchiladas and a taco

Blue corn enchiladas and a taco

Traditional New Mexican entrees are served with blue corn tortillas, a perfect vehicle for some of the very best enchiladas in New Mexico. The enchilada and taco plate features one rolled, blue corn enchilada abounding in cheddar cheese and onion then covered in the aforementioned red chile. The soft blue corn taco is replete with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and lean ground beef marinated in red chile. It’s not the type of taco you eat with your hands; you eat it with a fork because it, too, is slathered with that oh so wonderful red chile.

The carne adovada is fork tender with a profundity of earthy flavor permeating each wonderful shard of the marinated pork cubes bathed in red chile. A thin flour tortilla makes a wonderful “spoon” into which to ladle mouthfuls of what may be some of the best carne adovada in the state.  Who says so?  For one, my friend Ruben Hendrickson who has made it a holy grail quest to find then duplicate the best carne adovada in New Mexico.  He places The Shed’s carne adovada in rarified company along with the carne adovada at Mary & Tito’s and Duran’s Central Pharmacy.

The green chile stew features roasted, perfectly pungent green chile, cubed potatoes (including the skin) and lean pieces of tender pork swimming in a rich, hearty broth. It’s New Mexican comfort food at its finest and may have you longing for a cold winter day in which it will warm your stomach–and the cockles of your heart.

Toasted French Bread instead of Sopaipillas - only at The Shed

Toasted French Bread instead of Sopaipillas - only at The Shed

Entrees are accompanied by slow-simmered pinto beans and white-corn posole as well as a thick slice of French garlic bread, a non-New Mexican tradition apparently begun in the Burro Alley days.  It’s one of those endearingly quirky things that only an outstanding New Mexican institution can get away with.  The bread comes in very handy when you want to sop up any remnants of red chile.

You’ll want to start your meal with the house guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips. The salsa features lush red tomatoes (not the mushy stuff out of a can) redolent with pungent green chile and a liberal application of cilantro. It has a slightly sweet aftertaste. The guacamole is buttery and delicious made with in-season avocado.

Despite being fully sated by profligate portions, The Shed’s patrons know they absolutely must have one of the restaurant’s luscious desserts, the most celebrated being the fresh lemon soufflé which Food Network celebrity Rachael Ray called “divine and delicate” and “worth two or three times its price.” The soufflé is indeed delicate. It is also light and frothy with an intensely creamy lemon flavor that may leave you swooning in contentment.

Mocha Cake

Mocha Cake

If possible, the mocha cake may be even better thanks to a special blend of coffee and dark chocolate mousse cake topped with fresh whipped cream. The mocha cake is served cold, but it’ll warm within the confines of your mouth.

Perhaps in keeping with the loveably quaint, uniquely The Shed tradition of serving French garlic bread with your meal, the dessert menu also includes an international twist, an Italian dessert called zabaglione, a creamy custard made with Cointreau and white port.  Cointreau, an orange flavored liqueur, enlivens the custard in the ways a good liqueur punctuates a great meal.

Zabaglione has been described as “one of Italy’s great gifts to the rest of the world,” an apt description.  Considering the well-earned reputation and flawless execution of its desserts, it didn’t surprise me that the zabaglione at The Shed is better than you’ll find in many Italian restaurants.

Zabaglione, some of the very best in town

Zabaglione, some of the very best in town

Being situated so close to the tourist laden Santa Fe Plaza means long lines are fairly common at The Shed.  Savvy diners who don’t want to wait will drive about a mile and a half to The Shed’s sister restaurant La Choza, another Santa Fe treasure.
The Shed
113 1/2 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, NM
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas, Blue Corn Tacos, Carne Adovada, Green Chile Stew, Lemon Soufflé, Mocha Cake

Delux Burger – Phoenix, Arizona

Delux on Camelback in Phoenix

Delux on Camelback in Phoenix

I ordered a cheeseburger at lunch the other day. I had never eaten at this particular restaurant before, and whenever I am unsure about the quality of the food at a place, I always order a cheeseburger. How many ways can you foul up something as simple as a cheeseburger? The bread can be too hard, or the meat might not be cooked to your liking, but that can be fixed quite easily. After I ordered my cheeseburger – medium well with a soft bun – the waiter asked me, “Do you want a plain cheeseburger or one of our specialties?” There is such a thing as a specialty cheeseburger? A cheeseburger is a piece of hamburger meat with some cheese on top of it served on a hamburger bun.”

Leave it to humorist Lewis Grizzard to succinctly sum up the truth to which “purists” across the fruited plains hold fast about their beloved burgers–that it’s all about the beef with “some” cheese.  Alas the burger in which the sacrosanct flavor of beef is the focus rarely earns accolades for its solid, if unspectacular and unadorned qualities.  Invariably when you read about a burger earning acclaim as “best in town,”  that burger is crowned with diverse and innovative ingredients.

Indeed, a century after its invention, the hamburger has evolved from the epitome of simplicity crafted at Louis Lunch in Hartford, Connecticut to one of the most option-laden and decorated sandwiches on Earth. The toppings added to burgers is limited to the cook’s imagination.

The prep station at Delux

The prep station at Delux

Gourmet toppings at high-end restaurants include foi gras, black truffles and even lobster. In the Hawaiian Islands, burgers may include pineapple slices. Some areas in the south add coleslaw or fried eggs to their burgers. In Wisconsin, butter burgers are famous. Then, of course, there’s green chile, the choice of New Mexico’s purveyors of fine burgers.  It’s these adorned and ingredient-laden burgers that earn the adulation of the teeming masses and the pretentious pundits while their homely counterparts which focus on beef rarely receive similar homage.

Case in point, in the May, 2009 edition of Food Network magazine, a feature entitled “50 States, 50 Burgers” heralded “the one burger you absolutely have to try in every state.“*  A plain cheeseburger as Lewis Grizzard would have ordered didn’t even make Miss Congeniality.  Instead, the burgers feted included a panoply of ingredients which might have Louis Lassen (recognized as the inventor of the hamburger by the Library of Congress) turning in his grave.

The hamburgers at Lassen’s restaurant have changed little since 1895. Each one is made from beef ground fresh every day and served between two slices of toast. Cheese, tomato and onion are the only acceptable garnish. It is considered a “corruption” of the burger’s classic taste for mustard or ketchup to be added.  Lassen would probably not have thought much of the burger selected as Arizona’s best, the habanero cheeseburger which Food Network magazine indicated “may cause temporary blindness or loss of hearing” on account of the two ounces of habanero pepper added to each burger.

Combination French and Sweet Potato Fries

Combination French and Sweet Potato Fries

Years of business trips to Arizona have introduced me to a number of burgers I now count among the best I’ve ever had–especially the fabulous Orange Table’s Belvedere Wine Cheeseburger, a burger so resplendent in flavor that its mere mention or thought thereof elicits involuntary carnal lust.  In 2007, a burger at the Orange Table was selected by Phoenix New Times as the best burger in Phoenix, a lofty honor considering the formidable competition.

The Orange Table’s beatified burger was supplanted as the best in Phoenix in 2008 by the eponymous Delux burger from Delux, a swanky and stylish bar and grill ensconced in a fashionable strip mall on upscale Camelback Road in central Phoenix.  Any burger considered better than a burger masterfully crafted at the Orange Table is a burger I had to try.

The Delux burger is the restaurant’s signature offering–a half-pound of freshly ground Harris Ranch beef on a toasted demi-baguette topped with Maytag and Gruyère cheeses, sweet caramelized onions, applewood-smoked bacon and arugula.  It is indeed a wondrous burger, but get this: its best feature is the beef.  Prepared at medium-rare showcases the beef’s juiciness; it practically oozes flavorful, beefy juiciness.  It’s a burger that might elicit a Meg Ryan “When Harry Met Sally” reaction–only any moans of unadulterated delight won’t be faked here.

The award winning Delux Burger

The award winning Delux Burger

As a supporting cast, the other ingredients don’t detract from the beef’s award-winning performance.  This is an ensemble supporting cast that is very complementary, each flavor taking up where the previous left off.  The cheeses are superb, the onions gloriously sweet and the applewood smoked bacon…my only complaint is that the burger doesn’t come with an entire rasher of this stuff.  Still, in answer to a Wendy’s commercial a few decades ago, this burger is where the beef is.

If anything, Delux’s “Standard Classic Burger” may showcase the beef even more than its more avant-garde and ballyhooed burger sibling–or at least, it’s more conventional (without being boring in the least).  The Standard Classic Burger, as Lewis Grizzard might have ordered is Delux’s gourmet version of the All-American burger.  It’s made with a premium blend of corn-fed ground beef topped with fresh lettuce, juicy tomatoes, dill pickles, red onion and your choice of cheese.

My brother George, who makes all his words count, couldn’t stop talking about this burger (pictured below).  Even though he committed sacrilege by ordering it medium-well, the burger was surprisingly moist with just a hint of pink in the middle.  In addition to the standard condiment offering he asked for the sweet and hot relish offered on Delux’s all-beef hot dog and it made a great burger even better.  To George and me, the sign of a great burger is whether green chile is needed to make it great.  A burger that can hold its own or even excel without green chile is a great burger.  This is one!

The Standard Classic Burger

The Standard Classic Burger

Delux’s burgers are sizable and will quell the most ardent appetite.  The only appetizer necessary (though there are other options) are the restaurant’s fabled french fries, skinny cut russet potatoes fried in zero trans-fat oil and served with ketchup and a house aioli (sour cream, garlic and sundry ingredients).  Better still, order a combination basket that includes sweet potatoes (fried in Canola oil) and you’re sure to be satisfied.  The fries are fabulous!

There’s much more on the menu than burgers and fries.  Delux has an inventive menu with options sure to please the most discerning diners.  I still won’t place the Delux burger in the same company as my beloved Belvedere Wine Cheeseburger, but it’s no Miss Congeniality either.  It’s a real winner in its own right!

*According to Food Network magazine, the one burger in New Mexico you absolutely have to try is the green chile cheeseburger (what else) at Clancy’s Irish Cantina in Farmington.  This is an unconventional green chile cheeseburger.  It’s served between a flour tortilla and includes a sauce of “local hatch (as printed in the magazine) green chiles boiled with pork shoulder, potatoes, garlic and cumin (you know where I stand here) smothered in cheese.”

3146 E Camelback Road
Phoenix, Arizona
(602) 522-2288
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Delux Burger, Standard Classic Burger, Combination Sweet Potato and French Fries

Delux on Urbanspoon

Orange Table – Scottsdale, Arizona (CLOSED)

The Orange Table in Scottsdale

The Orange Table in Scottsdale

There are several scenes in the delightfully heartwarming animated Disney movie Ratatouille that resonate with all gastronomes who delight in the sensual pleasures of the dining experience–those for whom food is an enchanting adventure in the discernment and love of its subtle nuances and overt fragrances, tastes, textures and colors.

France’s preeminent chef Anton Gasteau, a pivotal character in the movie, describes this sensual adventure best: “Good food is like music you can taste, color you can smell. There is excellence all around you. You need only be aware to stop and savor it.”

The scene which may resonate best with this gastronome is when Remy (a provincial rat with a heightened sense of smell and with aspirations of becoming a great chef) places a morsel of cheese in his mouth and closes his eyes as the fabulous flavors of the fetid fromage envelop him. His mind’s eye is awash in vivid shapes and colors as his taste buds truly savor the experience.

Susan Speidel, the restaurant's effusive owner

Susan Speidel, the restaurant’s effusive owner

In combination with other ingredients, those vivid shapes and colors become a complex and brilliant kaleidoscope of beautiful symmetry. This symmetry is reality for those who learn to live to eat–those for whom food is so much more than mere sustenance.

For my inaugural dining experience at Scottsdale’s Orange Table, I had the honor and privilege of joining friend and fellow gastronome Bill Hanson, who shares in my passion for culinary adventures. Bill, an aspiring chef himself, so relishes inspirational food that, like Remy, he shuts his eyes and accedes to the flavors and fragrances of the experience. When he invited me to break bread with him, I knew we were in for the type of dining experience I crave.

Little did I realize we were to meet a kindred spirit in Susan Speidel (pictured above), who along with her brother Eric and boyfriend Jeremiah Maloney comprise Orange Table’s ownership triumvirate.  Susan is an indefatigable whirring dervish and a very visible ambassador of hospitality at her charming restaurant. Moreover, we quickly found out she is one of us–a true gastronome with a rare passion for the dining experience.

imported French brie plate

imported French brie plate

The dining experience is the very reason she and her partners opened Orange Table. They want everyone to enjoy all aspects of a meal–from beginning to end– without rushing through it. Like me, she would rather skip a meal than hurry through one.

Her personal mission statement in owning a restaurant is that food should always be made from scratch, using the freshest ingredients possible. She believes it is the responsibility of restaurant owners everywhere to ensure their guests are served items that are fresh and delicious instead of using “prefab” food…especially when people have less and less time to cook for themselves.

That responsibility, she emphasizes, is not exclusive to upscale restaurants. To that end, Orange Table is committed to using the best ingredients and providing the highest quality, making as much as possible in-house. She does not abide in ever taking the easy way out. What isn’t made in-house comes from other businesses that share the restaurant’s philosophies.

The Belvedere Wine Cheeseburger

The Belvedere Wine Cheeseburger

It’s not by accident that Orange Table and its food are very approachable. Susan’s goal was to create a neighborhood hangout with a casual atmosphere in which outstanding food and awesome coffee are served–an inviting milieu in which patrons feel at home whether in jeans or three-piece suits, where they can arrive via bike or limo and where they can even bring their dogs.

It hasn’t always been easy for the Orange Table which is ensconced in a concrete jungle somewhere between a multi-level parking structure and the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

Its obfuscated location means two things–it’s the perfect neighborhood hangout, not prone to unwanted interlopers whose favorite chain restaurant is closed, and if you’re not from the neighborhood, it’s a destination restaurant. Orange table is by no means on the well trodden, well beaten, well eaten path. Patrons have Orange Table in mind when they navigate to this area (which also seems to be a magnet for construction).

Cigares Sanbusek

Cigares Sanbusek

In four scant years since its April, 2003 launch, Orange Table has surmounted the three biggest challenges to a restaurant’s success–location, location and location. That may be a hackneyed phrase, but one which rings true (as all restaurateurs know). To be as popular as Orange Table has become, it has got to be more than very good. In a city abounding with excellent dining choices, it’s got to be great. Orange Table is!

One cautionary disclaimer–Orange Table prepares every item to order and since quality should never be rushed, it may take a while before your order arrives at your table. It will behoove you to share your table, as I did, with fun-loving food fanatics who don’t mind the wait. Besides, the wait here is worth it.

Take a few minutes to imbibe the ambience. The walls are painted in bright red and pumpkin colors and are festooned with thematic imagery, including one of a beguiling woman (au naturel) holding two strategically positioned orange halves. A beckoning lounge area with comfortable looking leather couches is available should you have to wait.

The Farrago Lavash Pizza

The Farrago Lavash Pizza

The ambience also includes safely stacked boxes of the restaurant’s featured beers. You won’t find pedestrian beverages at Orange Table. The beverage selection complements the restaurant’s menu and in some cases, is incorporated into the featured fare.

One case in point is the restaurant’s “Arrogant Bastard Rustler” Cheeseburger in which a 3-ounce splash of Stone Brewery’s Arrogant Bastard Ale is added. That burger, by the way, was selected in 2007 as the best burger in Phoenix by the Phoenix New Times.

For three dollars more, a tall bottle of this ale will accompany its eponymous burger companion. Its label will tell you it’s an aggressive beer requiring the partaker have an advanced level of taste and sophistication to appreciate it. Lexicologists who appreciate acerbic humor will love reading the entire label which reads like a biting D. A. Byler op. ed. piece.


Apple Pancakes

For me adult libations start and stop with carbonated, non-alcoholic refreshment and not surprisingly, Orange Table excels here, too. Why have a prosaic Coke or Pepsi product when you can have High Mountain Huckleberry Soda, a full-bodied, tangy, fruit-flavored soda brewed by the Jackson Hole Soda Co?

There’s another reason, aside from the made-to-order preparation time, it will take a while before your meal arrives at your table. Attribute at least part of that wait to the menu which is replete with tempting options: salads, plates, handmade specialty burgers, sandwiches and lavash pizza for dinner.

The plates section of the menu features several meant to be shared items such as an imported French brie plate (pictured above right). Brie’s nickname, the “queen of cheeses”, was ascribed because several hundred years ago, brie was one of the tributes which had to be paid to the French kings.

The Catlan Omelette

The Catlan Omelette

Orange Table’s rendition of brie is worthy of royalty (in a non-bourgeois way). Baked in a canvass of golden brown phyllo which complements the brie’s naturally sweet, creamy and rich flavor, it is an outstanding precursor to an evening of deliciousness. It is served with sliced seasonal fruits, berries and grapes and with a side of toasted baguettes. If this appetizer is edible art, its plating is nearly as expressive.

While the Arrogant Bastard Rustler Cheeseburger may have received acclamation as Phoenix’s best burger, it may not even be the best burger at Orange Table. For my money that distinction belongs to the “Belvedere” Wine Cheeseburger which is, quite simply, one of the three or four best burgers I’ve ever had. It’s a burger on par with the Bobcat Bite’s green chile cheeseburger, a burger I revere with a pilgrim-like passion.

The Belvedere is a hand-formed, half-pound Angus beef burger cooked to medium with a splash of red wine and topped with melted port wine cheese, tomato, red onion, lettuce and Haji’s garlic sauce then served on a grilled bun.

As with all great burgers, the star attraction is the beef which is prepared to your exacting specifications. When tinged with the port wine’s subtle bouquet, that beef acquires a richer, more complex flavor best appreciated Remy style, with your eyes shut and with your rapt attention focused on savoring and experiencing all its flavor.

One menu item available only after 5PM may have you thinking Cuban cigars solely by virtue of its name, Cigares Sanbusek. I surmise the name is derived from the cigar (or egg roll) shaped nature of this entree.

Served in quantities of three, each cigar-shaped treat is comprised of well seasoned ground beef wrapped in pastry then fried. It is served with Orange Table’s “peculiar Cowboy cocktail sauce” which is wholly unlike any cocktail sauce you might associate with seafood.

This peculiar sauce doesn’t have the horseradish bite of traditional cocktail sauce, but it does have its own tongue-tingling piquancy. It’s also got a curry-like pungency, a slightly fruity tanginess and just a hint of sweetness. It’s a magnificent sauce into which you might want to dip anything left over on your table. The Cigares Sanbusek stand out on their own, but when married with this sauce, are an adventure in taste.

In Albuquerque I’ve long lamented the lack of lavash, an Armenian cracker bread flexible enough to be served pizza-like with assorted toppings. Orange Table features four different lavash pizza options including the “Farrago“, a large lavash topped with hummus, tomato, Kalamata olives, artichoke, red onion, feta cheese and fresh Mediterranean herbs. If you lust for lavash, you’ll love this one.

Lavash is a perfect canvass for high quality ingredients as it complements its toppings while providing just an inkling of its inherently subtle flavor. As we enjoyed the discernment of complementary flavors on the Farrago, it may have been easy to focus on our favorite of the lot, but the melding of so many varied and savory flavors was like a cohesive ballet on our taste buds. This, too, was a fabulous entree!

On weekends, the Orange Table serves breakfast until 2PM (on weekdays until 11AM) and it’s a breakfast worth getting up for.  The breakfast menu features an impressive ensemble of pancakes, hash and flannels, omelettes (the restaurant’s spelling) and scrambles, sandwiches and so much more.  There’s even something for the lighter appetites–fruit plates, fruit cups, fruit yogis and granola yogis, but most of the menu is befitting hearty eaters who prefer prolific portions.

Apple pancakes are a restaurant specialty–two buttermilk pancakes with thinly sliced green apple inside topped with sour cream and sliced apples served with a side of spiced apple pan syrup and your choice of breakfast meat or side fruit.  This sweet and tart marriage is absolutely delicious.  Cut into the pancakes and despite the apple innards, they’re cooked all the way through–to perfection.  The sour cream adds a savory quality to the sweet and tart pancake combination, a taste triumvirate that makes breakfast a special event.

Among the omelettes is The Catlan: Spanish chorizo, white onion, garlic, tomato, Kalamata olives and Manchego cheese served with a side of toast (your choice of sourdough, olive bread or whole wheat).  There is a lot going on with this breakfast entree in which the superb quality ingredients combine in a symphony of flavors worthy of a performance at the nearby Performing Arts Center.  This is the type of omelette I would make for myself in terms of ingredient proportionality and quality.

Dining at Orange Table made it easy to imagine Remy shutting his eyes and letting fragrances and flavors engulf him like a dream from which he wouldn’t want to awaken. The Orange Table is a dream meant to be shared.

Orange Table
7373 East Scottsdale Mall
Scottsdale, Arizona
LATEST VISIT: 16 May 2009
1st VISIT:  27 November 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Belvedere Wine Cheeseburger, Baked Brie Plate, Cigares Sanbusek, The “Farrago,” Apple Pancakes, The Catlan

Orange Table on Urbanspoon