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Federico’s Mexican Food – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Federico's in Rio Rancho

Federico's in Rio Rancho

The former site of a Kentucky Fried Chicken and its familiar red and white edifice has been transformed into the lemon green and sunshine yellow home of Federico’s Mexican Food where authentic treasures from the northern Mexican states (with a touch of California) are available for dining-in or taking-out 24 hours a day.

Launched in April 2005, Federico’s features an extensive menu with more than 20 combination plates in which inexpensive Mexican favorites are served.  A second edition of the California and Arizona chain owned by Lorena and Juan Almanza launched four months later in a far Northeast Heights (1109 Juan Tabo) strip mall.

Duke City area dining patrons are a dichotomous lot when it comes to burritos.  The cavalcades of cars crowding Taco Bell’s parking lots and queuing like a parade route around its drive-up window  seem to indicate Duke City diners don’t care so much about quality of their burritos; as long as it’s cheap, many will eat it.  That theory is quickly dissipated when you hear vociferous criticism of burritos which are otherwise deemed to be “not New Mexican enough.”

The shrimp burrito weighs in at about one pound.

The shrimp burrito weighs in at about one pound.

It was the latter aspect of the Duke City area dining patron personality that made me wonder if Federico’s would be able to compete in the tough Burque burrito market. With more than a dozen burritos, the house specialty, Federico’s burritos are several orders of magnitude superior to the scrawny, tasteless burritos at Taco Bell, but they’re also vastly different from New Mexico style burritos.

The difference perhaps most noticeable is the absence of New Mexico’s favorite fruit and state vegetable, the ubiquitous red and green chile we love so much.  Many of the burritos at Federico’s don’t feature any piquancy whatsoever, relying instead on other ingredients to provide flavor.  Chile not withstanding, locals also love prodigious portions and Federico’s doesn’t disappoint there with each burrito weighing in at a strapping full pound.  The tortillas are engorged near the bursting point with quality and delicious ingredients.

Aside from the visual assault of an unnaturally bright, but certainly not offensive color pallet, the first thing that will hit you when you approach Federico’s is the aroma of meats and onions on the grill.  It’s a pleasant precursor of things to come.  The challenge will be picking from a wide and varied menu that in addition to the aforementioned burritos (and breakfast burritos) includes tortas, various combination plates, tostadas, tacos and tortas.

Chorizo and egg torta with guacamole and lettuce

Chorizo and egg torta with guacamole and lettuce

Tortas (a popular Mexican sandwich typically made from a soft Mexican roll called a bolillo) of several varieties are as popular in Mexico as burgers are in America.  The ham torta features Mexican ham which isn’t nearly as salty as its American counterpart while the beef torta showcases shredded beef.  Neither is nearly as tall as the skyscraper high “Dagwood”sandwiches Americans love, but they are both very tasty sandwiches.  My only complaint is that the ham torta would be even better with two or three more pieces of ham (but wouldn’t everything, including some desserts).

Perhaps the most pleasing torta is Federico’s fish torta stuffed with hoki (misspelled on the menu as “hoky”) fish, cabbage, tartar sauce and chunky salsa.  Hoki fish is a white fish that only recently has gained wide acceptance as a prime fish.  It is light and flaky and complemented well by the slightly tart tartar sauce and piquant salsa.

Conversely, the fish burrito which also features hoky fish has been a major disappointment the two times we’ve tried it.  Although the burrito is engorged with several pieces of fish, the fish has been overdone–so much so that it was dry and overly crispy.  Not even the tangy coleslaw style cabbage could salvage this burrito.

Rolled tacos covered with shredded cheese and guacamole

Rolled tacos covered with shredded cheese and guacamole

We’ve had better luck with the shrimp burrito (pictured above) which is stuffed with several pieces of shrimp, Spanish rice, cabbage and a tangy piquante sauce.  Shrimp is a misnomer for this two-fisted burrito with a boatload of taste.

Federico’s features a passable fountain quality (definitely not homemade) horchata, but you can also wash down your meal with traditional Mexican beverages such as jamaica, tamarindo and pina.

Federico’s Mexican Food
1590 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
891-7218
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Fish Torta; Ham Torta; Shrimp Burrito, Rolled Tacos, Chile Relleno Burrito, Carne Asada Burrito, Chorizo Torta

Federico's on Urbanspoon

Evergreen Buffet – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Evergreen Buffet on Menaul

Evergreen Buffet on Menaul

America held hostage!  That was the aptly named title of an ABC late-night news program anchored by Ted Koppel from November, 1979 through January 20, 2001.  For 444 days, the mighty United States of America was indeed paralyzed while 52 Americans were held hostage–tied and blindfolded–in the U.S. Embassy in Iran.  The captors were student revolutionaries incensed at the United States decision to admit Iran’s deposed Shah for medical treatment.

The moment Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, those hostages were released.  An adoring nation welcomed the returning heroes, lavishing them with gifts and accolades.  Among the gifts was a tiny box from Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.  Within that box was a lifetime pass to any major or minor league baseball game.

Upon hearing of this, then ABC college football analyst and avowed baseball hater, the irascible Beano Cook remarked, “haven’t they suffered enough?”

Several buffet stations feature a treasure trove of buffet items.

Several buffet stations feature a treasure trove of buffet items.

Beano’s sentiment is my first reaction whenever I hear of a new Chinese buffet restaurant launching in Albuquerque.  In truth, however, Chinese buffet restaurants are so well patronized in the Duke City that the only suffering that occurs is after the meal.  That’s when gastroenterological distress sets in which prompts diners to lament “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

Chinese buffets–or buffets of any type, for that matter–are the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week.  It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window.

Bruce Balto, a much traveled fellow gastronome has commiserated with me on the state of Chinese buffets in the Duke City so it was a surprise when he told me of a Chinese buffet restaurant that was “overall not too bad, and in some areas, a real stand-out.”  He emphasized that “if you can make your way past the gauntlet of the mediocrities, there are some unusual delights to be had there.”  Considering Bruce’s sophisticated palate, that’s the equivalent of a resounding recommendation.

 

The restaurant to which he referred is the Evergreen Buffet on the northwest corner of Menaul and Juan Tabo.  The inaugural Albuquerque version of the Evergreen Buffet opened in late 2003 at the site of the former Marie Callendar’s on Eubank’s Promenade Shopping Center but closed within months.  Evergreen IV opened shortly thereafter on Menaul.  Evergreen is owned by Wei and Yong Lu who also own two Evergreen restaurants in New York.

The buffet features several seafood items

The buffet features several seafood items

Although the Evergreen Buffet has a full-service menu, it’s the 150-item daily buffet that seems to ensnare most of the restaurant’s traffic.

The daily buffet features shrimp, beef, chicken, pork, fish, fried dumplings, BBQ boneless spareribs, Lo Mein, fried rice, soup, salad bar, ice cream, fresh fruit, sushi and several desserts.

The dinner buffet (also served all day Sunday) includes New Zealand green mussels, oysters, crab legs, clams, mussels, stir-fried shrimp, fried shrimp, “Happy Family” and many other items, including several dim sum treats.

For Sinophobes and unacculturated Americans, the buffet also includes such American standards as pizza, stuffed potato skins, a Westernized salad bar, garlic bread and a sprawling dessert bar featuring cheesecake, peanut brittle and a standard at every Chinese buffet in the universe–chocolate pudding.   There’s also plenty of 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.”

A sushi stations includes several standards while a Mongolian barbecue station allows you to select from among several raw meat items and vegetables for a custom stir-fry creation prepared just for you in a large Teppan grill.

Alaskan King Crab on the Sunday buffet

Alaskan King Crab on the Sunday buffet

Where the Evergreen Buffet surpasses its brethren is in its seafood offerings.  The cost of the buffet is about half of what you’d pay elsewhere to have Alaskan King Crab alone.  At Evergreen you can feast on that sweet, succulent decapod crustacean to your heart’s content.

Characteristic of King crab, the meat extracted from the legs is somewhat stringy (maybe courtesy of the scrawny crab legs) though you will find more firm and rich meat on the shoulder.  Evergreen provides warm butter though not with a canned heat source as in many seafood restaurants.

There are several types of fish on the buffet including halibut in a butter sauce.  Shrimp offerings include the usual peel-and-eat variety as well as a salt and pepper shrimp served round-eye style (a Bill Resnik aphorism) which means they’ve been beheaded so you don’t have to look into those dreamy shrimp eyes.

If you’re craving Cajun cooking, the buffet even serves crawfish, a New Orleans delicacy.  The salad bar includes a colorful octopus salad, but if you’re not accustomed to seeing octopus that hasn’t been battered and deep-fried, it might not be something to which you’d gravitate.

The dim sum selection isn’t especially bountiful, but it does include several kinds of dumplings and steamed rolls, some of which are stand-outs.

Sushi and peanut brittle

One of my favorite non-Chinese items on the buffet is the kimchee, a fiery Korean staple heavily seasoned with chile and garlic.  Evergreen’s version is not dumbed down for Western tastes which makes it appealing to a volcano-eater like me.

Aside from the ubiquitous chocolate pudding, one of the things that seems to define Chinese buffets is items which cool down considerably by the time you get them to your table–despite the fact that they’ve been under heat lamps for who knows how long.

That didn’t seem to be the case at Evergreen where buffet items are turned around regularly.  In the case of a few dim sum items, the kitchen could barely keep up with customer demand.

Evergreen Buffet was surprisingly good (or at least a few items on the buffet were)–maybe not good enough to make me a regular, but if I am going to dine at a Chinese buffet, this will be the one.

Evergreen Buffet
11001 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2009
1st VISIT:  28 October 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 14
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: King Crab Legs, Dim Sum

Evergreen Buffet on Urbanspoon

Siam Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Siam Cafe Thai Restaurant on San Mateo

Siam Cafe Thai Restaurant on San Mateo

The Siam Cafe is quite possibly the most aromatically enticing, olfactory arousing restaurant in the Duke City.  Its exotic spices and herbs waft like a gentle summer breeze over all diners entering what is conceivably Albuquerque’s best Thai restaurant. For years the marquee named its previous occupant, Pollo Loco, before the owners of the Siam Cafe finally changed the marquee in 2003. With its new signage, this gem declared “Siam, I am!.” The common denominator among all the dishes I’ve had here is consistent excellence, particularly among the curry dishes.

Curry is one of those dishes about which inexperienced diners tend to generalize, tending in many cases to believe, for example, that any experiences–good or bad–they may have had with Indian curry will be duplicated with Thai, Japanese or Malaysian curry. While all curry has an unmistakably pungent fragrance, there are more than subtle differences between the curries of Southeast Asia’s countries. Those differences extend beyond a degree of spiciness that may have you wanting to drink out of a fire hydrant to extinguish the tongue searing piquant onslaught of incendiary Thai chili peppers.

Thai dishes generally (and Thai curries specifically) feature fewer spices but more herbs than Indian dishes, the ultimate outcome being a harmony of sweet, sour, salty and hot flavors.  What distinguishes the curry at Siam Thai is that it consistently manages to find that balance of flavors; other highly regarded Thai restaurants in the Duke City tend to over-emphasize sweetness. Most Thai curries start with a curry paste composed of an assortment of spice blends and herbs. The amount and combination of ingredients determine pastes for the five main Thai curries: red, yellow, green, massaman and Panang.

Red Curry Noodles with Vegetables and Pork

Red Curry Noodles with Vegetables and Pork

Among Americans, the most popular Thai curries appear to be coconut-based: red, yellow, green and massaman, for example. These curries are especially aroy-dee (delicious), warming you from the inside out with flavor explosions. Chile loving New Mexicans may find curry nearly as addicting as their beloved green chile. That’s because Thai chilies, a rich source of Vitamin C and capsaicin, are a key component of excellent curry dishes and provide that same endorphin generating “high” you get from New Mexican chile. In Albuquerque, no one does curry better than the Siam Cafe where curry dishes will take you from ecstasy to Nirvana with every bite.

It’s no surprise that the favorite among many New Mexicans is red curry which tends to be spicier than other curry dishes thanks to the influence of red Thai chilies and red bell peppers. At Siam Cafe, you can enjoy red curry with chicken, beef or shrimp. Spooning red curry (or any of Siam’s curries) over plain steamed Jasmine rice helps cut the heat and intensity of the flavors. For a less fiery experience, try the massuman curry, an Islamic influenced mild curry from Southern Thailand. This sweet curry dish includes more coconut milk than other Thai curries and is traditionally cooked with beef, potatoes, onions, carrots and peanuts.

Siam Cafe’s diverse menu also celebrates the sheer complexity and art of noodle based dishes, featuring noodles of various width crafted from different traditional ingredients. You can enjoy stir fried noodle dishes, noodle entrees eaten with gravy or curry and even noodles served dry. A popular favorite is Pad Thai (Thai fry), the national dish in which noodles are parboiled and doused in a secret recipe of spices and oil then stir-fried quickly with peanuts, spring onions and other ingredients.

Chicken Satay with peanut sauce

Chicken Satay with peanut sauce

Friends who want to curry my favor know they can do so with a bowl of red curry noodles.  While rice absorbs the flavor of curry very well, its texture may become gummy as the dish cools down.  Noodles absorb the flavor of curry just as well, but don’t have any texture issues.  At Siam Cafe, the red curry noodles are laden with vegetables: cabbage, carrots, zucchini, onion, bell pepper and spinach.  It’s also laden with explosive flavors–just enough incendiary curry to get your attention, coconut milk that’s sweet but not dessert sweet, and the fresh, crispy vegetables.

Curry even finds its way onto one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, chicken satay.  Siam Cafe used to serve pork satay but surprisingly it didn’t move very well.  No matter.  The chicken satay is the very best in town.  Traditional satay is marinated strips of chicken, pork or beef skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over an open flame or broiled in the oven.  Somewhat reminiscent of thinner and much smaller Kebabs, satay is distinctly fragrant and delicious.  The marinade, as at Siam Cafe, includes yellow curry which accounts to a large extent for the satay’s golden hue.

Satay is served with a homemade peanut sauce as well as a cucumber salad.  The peanut sauce is imbued with coconut milk for sweetness and crushed red pepper for piquancy.  Sweetness along with the pronounced–maybe even intense-flavor of peanut butter, are the prevalent flavor sensations.  The cucumber salad is made with thick cut cucumbers and carrots, but the prevalent flavor here is an almost cloying sweetness.

Siam Rolls with Sweet and Sour Plum Sauce

Siam Rolls with Sweet and Sour Plum Sauce

Among other fantastic Siam Cafe’s appetizers, the Siam rolls and accompanying sweet and sour plum sauce are also among the city’s best.  The egg rolls are luscious, golden hued meal starters–so good it always prompts me to ponder that conundrum as to how the Chinese were able to wield such strong influence on Thai cuisine yet you rarely find good egg rolls in Chinese restaurants.  Siam Cafe’s rolls, for example, are better than any you’ll find in any of the Duke City’s Chinese restaurant.

Dessert is often referred to as the conundrum of Asian meals.  In many cases, especially after ingesting coconut infused curries and cloying sauces, the last thing you need is something exceedingly sweet or rich.  Fortunately the answer to the conundrum is the Thai standard, mangoes with sticky rice.  The sticky rice is imbued with coconut milk, but the mangoes in season provide such a complementary yet contrasting taste sensation that deliciousness abounds.  There are few desserts quite as refreshing.

Mangoes with stick rice, a traditional and delicious Thai dessert

Mangoes with stick rice, a traditional and delicious Thai dessert

The service at Siam Cafe is generally first-rate, especially if you’re attended to by Art, the restaurant manager who shares my passion for European automobiles.  Arrive at the start of lunch time and you’ll often find the entire staff dining together in relative quiet.  They seem more attuned to culinary enjoyment than the American practice of talking all the way through a meal.  Only the arrival of a new customer stirs immediate response, a courteous and hearty welcome to the very best Thai restaurant in the Duke City.

Siam Cafe
5500 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
883-7334

LATEST VISIT: 20 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 22
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Seafood curry, Masuman curry, Satay, Egg rolls, Spicy Chicken Lemongrass

Siam Cafe on Urbanspoon