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

Brasserie La Provence – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Brasserie La Provence

Brasserie La Provence

The French have long cultivated the idea–some would say myth–that their cuisine is the very best in the world. This self-aggrandizing hype has been carefully and condescendingly orchestrated for centuries.

Even Alice B. Toklas, the American writer far ahead of her time (in 1954, she published a literary memoir with a recipe for “hashish fudge”) was caught up in the myth. Toklas wrote “The French approach to food is characteristic; they bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts, for painting, for literature, and for the theatre.”

Where other nations prepare and serve food, the French festoon the tables with cuisine. Where cultural mores in America take a relaxed approach toward table manners, the French insist upon prim, proper and prudish etiquette at any repast.

Salade Provencale

Salade Provencale

Where Americans practically inhale their food, barely stopping to taste it, the French savor their food. They actually focus on it and give themselves time to enjoy each and every morsel.

Where our blood pressure elevates if we’re forced to wait more than two minutes at our fast food drive-ups, the French set a time and place for eating. They actually eat food sitting at a café or at the family table, not in front of the television. Where an American meal seems like a sprint, a French meal is a marathon.

Where Americans swill beer with the same attack mentality with which we approach food, the French enjoy wine with their meals, taking the time to savor its nuanced flavors, color and body.

French baguette slices and real butter

French baguette slices and real butter

While many Americans don’t seem to care that the food at their favorite corporate chains (the abhorrent Chili’s comes to mind) is shipped frozen then heated to order, no French brasserie would ever consider serving dehydrated, frozen food.

Many Americans believe French cuisine has connotations of unapproachable, haughty and expensive. You have to wonder if that’s because it’s so antithetical to the American dining experience which I’ve contrasted here. Maybe it just sounds snooty because it’s so hard to pronounce any of it.

While I personally do not subscribe to the notion of French cuisine’s superiority, I have long appreciated both the cuisine and the experience of a French meal, especially the digestion-friendly pace and the freshness of its ingredients.

Pate de Foie

Pate de Foie

For freshness of ingredients, there is no region in France more renown than the Provence region in southern France. The cuisine raised in this verdant, sun-drenched region has earned the nickname “la cuisine du soleil” or “the cuisine of the sun” a tribute to freshness and quality. Is it any wonder French cafés associate their freshest cuisine with this food-lover’s paradise?

Albuquerque, New Mexico is an ocean and several time zones separated from the Provence region, but that didn’t stop local restaurant impresario Steve Paternoster from naming his Nob Hill restaurant for France’s most fecund culinary region. It’s an ambitious challenge, but one for which the restaurant throws down the gauntlet on its Web site: “We invite you to come experience a little touch of Provence. With food to delight your palate, service to relax your stay and wine straight from France all designed to create a little piece of French countryside in Albuquerque.”

La Brasserie Provence is situated on a well-trafficked corner at the western extreme of Nob Hill. Previous occupants of the venerable space include an ice cream shop and Stella Blue’s, a live music joint. The venue has been transformed into what might actually pass as a European eatery.

Moules Frites

Moules Frites

The ambience is laid back and welcoming–no pretensions here. A “wine cave” off the main dining room is the closest thing the restaurant comes to any xenophobe’s conception of French condescension.

The menu is a veritable compendium of French cuisine. Fortunately each menu item is described in English directly below its title. Unfortunately, there is no corresponding number next to each menu item for those of us who are a bit linguistically challenged.

Even culinary xenophobes, however, will find something familiar even if they can’t pronounce it. French cuisine has inculcated itself into the American culture to the point where most of us will recognize specific entrees if not their French nom d’ cuisine.

Croque Madame

Croque Madame

Thanks to the explosion of the Food Network’s popularity, most of us have now heard of mussels, crepes and quiche and many of us have been grossed out at the notion that snails could be consumed by humans. Thanks to Julia Child, our comprehension of French cuisine now includes more than French fries (which are actually a Belgique) and French toast (pain perdu).

An excellent way to start a meal at the Brasserie La Provencale is with something that best celebrates and demonstrates the touted freshness of ingredients for which the Provencale region is renown. The menu features several creative salads that get things started off well.

Though it’s highly unlikely the ingredients comprising the Salade Provencale actually come from anywhere near France, they are fresh, crisp and delicious: fresh caramelized apples and pears with honey candied walnuts served over baby greens with a warm cider vinaigrette.

Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict

The caramelized apples and pears might evoke memories of a great apple pie while the greens deliver on the promise of freshness. This is a terrific salad and a great way to start a meal. You can easily imagine yourself consuming it at a sidewalk café in Avignon.

Pate de Foie, black truffle mousse pate served at the Brasserie with assorted accompaniments, is one of those delicacies many French restaurants offer, but not all do well.  Done well, the pate has a rich, almost luxurious and unctuous flavor.  At the Brasserie, it is sliced thinly and spreads well, but there isn’t much of it.  What there is, is quite good, served with an intensely flavored coarse  grain mustard, delicate and delicious cornichons (French gherkins) and a salad.

It would be hard to imagine better French bread than the sliced baguettes served at the Brasserie. The baguettes are baked by Albuquerque’s famous French Riviera Bakery. Each slice is hard-crusted on the outside and soft and tender on the inside, perfect canvasses for the real butter (albeit served cold) served with the bread.

That makes it the perfect bread for sopping up the wonderful broth served with the restaurant’s Moules Frites. Moules are Bouchot mussels steamed with white wine, garlic and thyme. Frites are French fries served with parmesan truffle fries.  These fries are available as an appetizer and are one of several items on the menu I characterize as “must have.”  For the most part, French fries in Albuquerque are slightly more than edible; these are terrific.

Desserts are decadent at Brasserie La Provence

Desserts are decadent at Brasserie La Provence

Bouchot mussels are harvested from huge wooden piles driven into the seabed for them to grow on. Their unique habitat allows them to grow underwater at high tide but also exposes them to sea sun and air.  The unique habitat and production methods also mean a unique flavor and plump, tender orange meat. Bouchot mussels are sweeter and not as briny as other mussels and have become my favorite mollusk.   The fleshy deliciousness of the mussels is complemented by its white wine, garlic and thyme home.

Ordering mussels is like ordering an entree with soup accompaniment and there’s no soup more meant for bread than the broth served with mussels.  Mussels and frites go together like the winning tandem on Dancing With The Stars. We rarely finish the fries served with any entree, but polish these babies off with gusto.

During many a sojourn to France, my favorite cafe offering was the Croque-Monsiur, a hot ham and cheese (generally Gruyere) grilled sandwich made with sourdough bread. As such it was a thrill to see a variation of this terrific sandwich on the menu at the Brasserie. The Croque-Madame is served with Bechamel sauce and an egg over easy on top. This is an extraordinarily rich sandwich that explodes with flavor. The runnier the egg, the better for this sandwich, but the key is melting the Gruyere cheese to the point at which it is just slightly oily. La Provence serves the perfect Croque-Madame.

Alas, one brunch entree which falls decidedly short of perfection at the Brasserie are its version of Eggs Benedict.  It’s fairly standard–poached eggs on an English muffin bed topped with Hollandaise sauce–with crab instead of ham.  What should be a fairly moist breakfast entree (despite the English muffin) is somewhat desiccated with only a parsimonious amount of crab.  In New Mexico, the best eggs Benedict include green chile, something many self-respecting French might consider absurd or heretical, but it’s a flavor combination that just works.  It’s also a flavor combination you won’t see at this Nob Hill Brasserie which very much holds true to Provence restaurant traditions.

Dessert options include a very rich and very chocolaty cake made with a thick Oreo crust, chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and bits of cheesecake.  It’s half the altitude of Sandia Peak and is topped with shaved almonds.  If anything, it’s almost too much of a good thing–or several good things.  Chocolate lovers will revel in the rich sweetness even as they ping off the walls later.

The Brasserie La Provence just might convince you that French cuisine is, if not the best cuisine in the world, a cuisine you can thoroughly enjoy at a relaxed un-American pace.

Brasserie La Provence
3001 Central NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2009
1st VISIT:  19 July 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Croque Madame, Moules Frites, Salade Provencale

Brasserie la Provence on Urbanspoon

Mangiamo Pronto! – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Mangiamo Pronto: Small menu, huge flavors...

At first browse of a directory listing Santa Fe restaurants, the entree “Mangiamo Pronto!” (an Italian term which translates to “Let’s eat now!) might elicit the impression that the City Different has an eatery offering Italian fast-food: post-haste pasta, accelerated antipasto, insalata al instante.   You get the picture.

At Mangiamo Pronto! you certainly won’t find desiccated pizza slices seared to a leathery sheen under heat lamp infernos just waiting for the next drive- or walk-up victim, er…customer, nor will you see a nattily uniformed wait staff running amok trying to fill orders even as new ones come in at a breakneck pace.

Mangiamo Pronto! is, in many ways, the antithesis of a fast-food restaurant–even though entrees are prepared in advance then heated upon order.  In fact, one of the first things you see as you walk in is a glass case displaying the gustatory bounty d’giorno.  It’s almost as if the Roman deity Bacchus himself laid out a sumptuous feast of engorged panini sandwiches crafted on crispy crusted focaccia, artisanal piadini arrayed with gourmet ingredients, diet-devastating desserts, soul-comforting soups, crisp salads and so much more.

A tiny restaurant belies great flavors

A tiny restaurant belies great flavors

True to its name, Mangiamo Pronto! won’t keep you waiting long.  Only scant minutes will elapse from the time you place your order at the counter until it’s delivered by one of the restaurant’s amiable waitresses.  The wait only seems interminable as you lustily await certain appetite sating succor.

Mangiamo Pronto! is one of those rare gems which delivers explosive flavors belying a Lilliputian size.  It might be generous to compare the size of the restaurant’s kitchen to the kitchen of an average sized American home, yet from that tiny kitchen are crafted those explosive flavors.  The restaurant’s sole dining room is about the size of a dining room in an average sized home and fittingly, you’ll be treated like a very welcome guest at a warm family home.  Even the patio with its European cafe style sun-shielding umbrellas and inviting alfresco dining is relatively small.  Fortunately Mangiamo Pronto! has a robust take-away business because getting a table may not always be possible.

Mangiamo Pronto! more than lives up to its motto of “a little slice of Tuscany in Santa Fe.”  While it doesn’t offer spectacular views of Tuscan hills and it doesn’t face magnificent Medici villas, it’s situated on a tree-lined street with venerable stuccoed homes.  Despite its proximity to the bustling Santa Fe plaza and the heavily trafficked Guadalupe district, it imparts the sensation that it’s a restaurant on a quiet residential area–again, very European.

Friendly service is a standard at Mangiamo Pronto

Friendly service is a standard at Mangiamo Pronto

Since its launch in the late fall of 2008, Mangiamo Pronto! has earned accolades from every local publication.  The New Mexican called it “a small, bright, cheerful new cafe offering exceptionally good fresh “fast food” at fair prices.”  Local Flavor magazine proclaimed it “chic and casual with seriously good flavor.”  According to Entrepreneur, “For exceptionally good, fast food at a very fair price, you can’t beat Mangiamo Pronto!.”  Pasatiempo said it served among Santa Fe’s “best meals of 2008.”

The kitchen is in the supremely capable hands of Enrique Guerrero, whose impeccable credentials include a four-year stint as personal chef to the president of Mexico.  Before partnering with Fritz Holland in launching Mangiamo Pronto!, he served as executive chef at the Ó Eating House, a highly regarded gem in Pojoaque.  Previous to that, he was head chef at the distinguished La Mancha restaurant at the world-renown Galisteo Inn. During his tenure there, the restaurant was named one of the 82 best restaurants on the planet by Conde Naste Traveler magazine.  While serving as executive chef at Scalo years before La Mancha, he guided the restaurant to recognition as “the best Italian restaurant in New Mexico.”

The bright and blissful Italian bistro or espresso bar ambience includes photos and memorabilia from Italy.  Largely from Italy is an impressive wine list featuring offerings in the categories of Spumante, Bianco, Rosso, Il Vino De Aceto and Dolce.  The menu reminds diners that there are five reasons to drink wine: “the arrival of a friend, one’s present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.”

Quattro formaggi pizza

Quattro formaggi pizza

There are even more reasons to eat at Mangiamo Pronto! than there are to drink its terrific wine (but savvy diners will do both).  Those reasons include a breakfast menu featuring frittatas (a type of Italian omelet with a variety of fillings), Pane Dolce, baked in-house in the aforementioned tiny kitchen and a house granola and honey yogurt.  You can also dispense with dining conventions and have lunch entrees during breakfast hours…or why not mix and match breakfast and lunch entrees.

In the June edition of Santa Fean magazine, food writer non-pareil John Vollertsen published his “bucket list,” a compilation of twenty Santa Fe restaurant dishes he wants to devour before he “kicks the bucket.”  The article’s title page included an oversized photograph of a piadini from Mangiamo Pronto!”  Piadini resembles a smaller, thinner pizza or more accurately, an Italian flatbread.  Contrary to what might be your initial impression, it’s not cracker crisp.  It’s chewy and pliable.  Also unlike pizza, it is leavened with baking powder or soda.

Perhaps in deference to visitors who might not know the difference between piadini and pizza, the menu does refer to this fabulous flatbread as Pizze del Giorno or Pizza of the day.  Stacked atop the daily bread is a toss of parmesan sprinkled mixed greens which you can pluck off and consume like a fresh salad or which you can incorporate into each savory morsel of your palate-pleasing piadini.

Albacore Tuna, Roasted Tomato, Capers, Pepperoncini & Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli

Albacore Tuna, Roasted Tomato, Capers, Pepperoncini & Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli

While more embellished offerings may be available on any given day, even a plain (although you can hardly call it that) quattro formaggi piadini rises to the level of exquisite under the chef’s inspired interpretation.  Perhaps because of the crust’s waifish thinness, but more likely in combination with superb ingredients, the intensity of the cheese blend is the first thing that will grab your rapt attention.  Each bite is like an orgiastic experience for your taste buds.

The restaurant’s selection of panini may be limited, but their deliciousness might be unlimited.  Take for example the Albacore tuna panini (roasted tomato, capers, pepperoncini and sun-dried tomato aioli), so very different from the hundreds of tuna grinders I consumed in Massachusetts, but like them uniquely wonderful.  The crispy focaccia sandwiches the best prepared tuna I’ve had in New Mexico–tuna that isn’t encumbered by mayonnaise dominated conventions and which isn’t served “just off the boat” cool.  My preference is for heated tuna and Mangiamo Pronto! accommodates very well.  The capers and pepperoncini impart a tangy contrast to the briny tuna flavor while the roasted tomato gives the panini a sweet and slightly acidic quality.

Panini is accompanied by a garbanzo bean salad in a small cup.  Garbanzos are among the world’s most diverse and appreciated legumes, grown on every continent except Antarctica.  Uniquely flavored and with a texture unlike other legumes, they really are an acquired taste.  Some people won’t ever eat them unless they’ve been ground into hummus.  The garbanzo bean salad at Mangiamo Pronto! might make a convert out of them.

Pastrami and sauerkraut

Pastrami and sauerkraut

Panini perfection can also be found on the pastrami and sauerkraut offering.   Pastrami, as I’ve chronicled repeatedly on this blog, is something to which I was introduced in Massachusetts back in the late 70s.  Like George Costanza, the “short, stocky, slow-witted bald man” from the television comedy Seinfeld, I consider pastrami “the most sensual of all smoked meats,” though unlike the irascible Costanza, my appreciation isn’t carnal.

It’s almost a certainty that the source for Mangiamo Pronto!’s pastrami isn’t local (we can thank vendors and importers from San Francisco and New York for the quality of many ingredients on the menu).   This is excellent pastrami, smoked to perfection with the optimum brininess.  It’s sliced into thin shreds and has nice marbling for flavor.  The sauerkraut doesn’t have the lip-pursing qualities of strong pastrami which is good because this panini includes a smear of coarse grained deli mustard, the good stuff.  A better pastrami sandwich can’t be found in New Mexico.

Zuppa del Giorno usually includes two choices, one of which might be Italian Wedding Soup, an Italian-American soup so named because of a mistranslation of the term “minestrata maritata” or “married soup,” a reference to the fact that meats and green vegetables go well together.   Mangiamo Pronto!’s rendition starts with a base of clear, chicken broth to which is added tiny meatballs, small round pasta and kale.  It arrives at your table steaming so that the aromas waft upwards to excite your nostrils.  This is a delicious, perfectly seasoned soup!

Italian Wedding Soup

Italian Wedding Soup

Pane Dolce offerings also vary daily.  As with the restaurant’s other high-quality offerings, it’s astonishing to comprehend that these delectable desserts were created in such diminutive digs.  It’s a testament to Chef Guererro’s talents that his pastries are of bakery quality–fresh, moist and absolutely delicious.

The pan dolce pictured below is a moist, dense pineapple cake punctuated with tangy orange zest and topped with piñon. It is a fitting way to finish a fabulous meal.

Pane Dolce (pineapple, orange zest, pinon nuts)

Pane Dolce (pineapple, orange zest, pinon nuts)

Mangiamo Pronto! is one of those restaurants to which you should head pronto.  Never mind its diminutive size, it’s simply one of the very best Italian restaurants in the state.

Mangiamo Pronto
228 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 989-1904
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Albacore Tuna Panini, Pastrami & Sauerkraut Panini, Quattro Formaggi Pizza, Pane Dolci, Italian Wedding Soup

Mangiamo Pronto! on Urbanspoon

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill

If comedian Jeff Foxworthy was Armenian, his repertoire of one-liners might include such gems as, “You know you’re Armenian if you have philo dough, string cheese or See’s candy in your freezer.”  Or perhaps, “You know you’re Armenian if you serve hummus and tabbouleh with your taco chips.”  Then there’s the classic, “You know you’re Armenian if you shovel food on other people’s plates when they aren’t looking.”  Who can forget the oft-told “You know you’re Armenian if you think pilaf is one of the four food groups.”

A quick Google of Armenian food will return results that reveal Armenian’s self-deprecating sense of humor regarding their culinary culture.  Search results will also show the culinary influence of the regions and countries neighboring the ancient nation of Armenia.   Wedged in  what has been one of the world’s most volatile–some would say unstable–regions, Armenia is at the crossroads between the Middle East, Asia. Minor and Europe.  During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.

It’s a Middle Eastern cuisine punctuated with dishes that are very aromatic and flavorful.  It is a cuisine that is not rushed, but for which great care is exercised and time is taken.  It’s a cuisine that will certainly remind you of meals you’ve had in Albuquerque’s Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and Palestinian owned restaurants.  If you think you’ve never had Armenian cuisine, a quick perusal of the menu will  assure you there’s nothing strange or foreign about it.

Hummus and Pita Chips

Hummus and Pita Chips

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill serves the traditional cuisine of Armenia.  That authenticity is assured because the yawning restaurant is owned and operated by youthful Armenian Kostan Gasparyan who knows what he’s doing on the grill.   The restaurant’s name describes its concept.  All meats and fish are prepared with mesquite charcoal–not mesquite wood or briquets that have mesquite added.  Mesquite charcoal comes from the ubiquitous Southwestern tree converted under specially controlled conditions to charcoal.     Mesquite charcoal imparts faintly smoky overtones and sweet, slightly acidic flavors that more greatly influence delicately flavored fish and poultry than it does pork, veal and beef.  Many grill chefs have been swearing by mesquite charcoal since the 1970s.

Charcoal is situated where Asado Brazilian Grill sat for nearly five years–on the backside of the Pan American frontage road’s restaurant row within easy walking distance to the Century 24 theater.  It’s a tough area for restaurants, several of whom have met an early demise in large part because they are not visible from the frontage road.  The problem is exacerbated because it’s ensconced in an area replete with chain restaurants, some with national prominence: Texas Land and Cattle, Subway, Cold Stone and further down the frontage road, Papadeux, Fuddrucker’s and Dickey’s Barbecue. Though the Duke City is very much still a town that loves its chains, in immediate proximity to Charcoal is the fabulous Cafe Jean Pierre and behind it is the Chama River Brewing Company, an excellent restaurant in its own right.

The ambience hasn’t changed significantly from the Asado days.  Charcoal has an industrial look and feel with high ceilings and exposed duct work.  Against one wall is a large wrought iron sculpture of a musical scale set against a colorful mosaic of tiles, a carry-over from Charcoal’s predecessor.  Suspended from the rafters are bedizened sun-faces, perhaps only the artist’s idea of beauty.  Sit at the wrong table and one of these menacing faces will look down on you.

Lamb chops and three sides

Lamb chops and three sides

Armenian cuisine as featured at Charcoal includes such familiar standards as shish kabob, barbecue, shawerma and falafel, all Mediterranean standards.  You’ll also see borsht, a stew-like soup that is very popular in Eastern European nations where it is served both hot and cold.  One section of the menu is dedicated to sandwich wraps which are wrapped in either pita bread or lavash, a soft, thin flatbread of Armenian origin which also serves as an excellent platform for pizza.

The menu also includes a section dedicated to kabob plates, all of which are served with four (yes, that’s four) side dishes and pita bread.  The pita bread is made on the premises and it’s served steaming.  Considering so many other Mediterranean restaurants in the area extricate their pita from hermetically sealed bags, Charcoal’s fresh pita is a real treat.

A veritable phalanx of cold and hot side orders also set Charcoal apart.  While other restaurants are parsimonious with their sides, this restaurant fills your oversized plate with very flavorful and authentic sides: mutabbal (an eggplant dip), hummus, tabouleh, dolmas, eggplant caviar, rice pilaf and corn.  Interestingly, each of these sides go for three to six dollars a piece if you order them by themselves.

Beef and lamb gyros

Beef and lamb gyros

Perhaps because there are so many sides, the menu includes only a few appetizers, one of which (the hummus) is available as a side.  Hummus is made from garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) and is one of the world’s most versatile foods.  In Armenia as throughout the Middle East, it can be served as an appetizer, side dish or main course.  Arguably, it tastes best when scooped up with a piece of warm pita bread.   Alas, as an appetizer Charcoal’s hummus is served with crispy pita chips which just don’t cut it as well as pita bread.  The hummus, while good, could use a bit more garlic.

Charcoal is one of a handful of restaurants in the Duke City area offering lamb chops for under twenty dollars.  Discard any notions you might have of overpowering gaminess and tough cuts. Charcoal-grilled lamb is tender and succulent.  It is also quite tasty though served at about medium-well which is a bit more done than gourmet-quality lamb chops are typically served.  These chops are also quite thin, not nearly the half-inch to inch thick beauties served at premium costs elsewhere.

Mediterranean Coffee and Desserts

Mediterranean Coffee and Desserts

The gyros plate includes the thinly sliced beef and lamb amalgam carved from a perpetually rotating spit over the grill.  The meat is served outside the pita bread so you can stuff it as much as you’d like or stab it with your fork.  In either case, the tzatziki is quite good, a tangy combination of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and more.  It’s a refreshing additive to the charcoal blessed meat.

Most of the sides are quite good.  Notable are the corn niblets which don’t have an out-of-the-can taste and the pickled vegetables which have just enough tartness to get your attention without pursing your lips too much.  Desserts are all under two dollars and include baklava, sweet rolls and other desserts made with finely ground (pulverized) walnuts or pistachios, honey and phyllo dough.  Desserts are served with Mediterranean coffee which is brewed in sand on top of the charcoal grill.  It is a strong coffee, but very rich and deliciously flavored.

The Charcoal Mediterranean Grill certainly has the chops, figuratively and literally, to survive in a competitive Albuquerque restaurant market.  All it will take is for Duke City dining patrons to look beyond the Pan American frontage road for their meal options.

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Lamb & Beef Gyros, Hummus & Pita Chips, Baklava, Sweet Rolls

Charcoal Mediterranean Grill on Urbanspoon

Cafe Choroni – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Choroni, Albuquerque's first Venezuelan restaurant

Cafe Choroni, Albuquerque's first Venezuelan restaurant

In the late 1970s before political correctness taught us how racist we all are, it seems every man born to the last name Gonzalez, whether or not they liked it, sported the nickname “Speedy.”  Speedy was, of course, the “fastest mouse in all of Mexico” in the popular Looney Tunes animated series.  The premise of the cartoon was that Sylvester, a tuxedo cat with an exaggerated lisp, terrorized a horde of mice trying to abscond with cheese from the cheese factory under his charge.  Only the intrepid Speedy, a sombrero wearing machismo mouse on perpetual hyper-drive could deter the “gringo pussy gato.”  Amid cries of “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!” (colloquial Mexican Spanish for Come on! Hurry up!), the excessively energetic Speedy usually gave Sylvester a painful comeuppance.

My Air Force buddy Vladamir Gonzalez wasn’t spared the sobriquet of Speedy, never mind that he was Puerto Rican and lived life as if conserving energy.  A gregarious, self-deprecating madcap, Speedy good-naturedly took liberties with his cartoon namesake’s trademark cry.  In his version, it was “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arepa! ¡Arepa!”  My friend, a man of many appetites loved the culinary standards of his beloved Puerto Rico: sofrito, black beans, yuca, plantains and especially arepas, fried rounds of flour-based dough stuffed with seafood or sundry ingredients.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of the culinary heritage of arepas, a  maize-based bread originating in South America’s northern Andes region.  The genesis of the word “arepa” is thought to be the language of the Caracas natives on Venezuela’s north coast.   For centuries, arepas were an important staple in the diet of impoverished Venezuelans and Colombians, but today they are eaten by rich and poor alike and are considered one of Venezuela’s national foods.  Arepas are part of the daily diet in place of bread for most Venezuelans who love their versatility.  They can be fried or baked, served plain or with a filling and at any time of the day as a snack, starter or appetizer.

The interior of Cafe Choroni

The interior of Cafe Choroni

Restaurants and food stands known as Areperas abound in Venezuela and they specialize in preparing these small delights, splitting them in half then stuffing them with all manner of fillings like a sandwich.  Because they’re so good, it’s been years since Venezuela and Colombia have held exclusivity over arepas.  Their popularity has spread to other areas in Latin America, including Puerto Rico where my friend Speedy is from.

Arepas were originally made from dried corn kernels soaked in water and lime (much like posole) to remove the skins.  They were then cooked, drained, dried and ground into flour.  Today, ready to use masa harina (flour) is readily available which means arepas can be prepared in just a few minutes.  Arepas bear some similarity to New Mexico’s ubiquitous tortilla, but even more so to El Salvador’s pupusa.

The Duke City has had a Salvadoran pupuseria (a restaurant specializing in pupusas) since 2005, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2009 that Albuquerque’s first Venezuelan restaurant was launched.  Cafe Choroni is owned and operated by Nemo Morantes and Carlos Figueredo (pictured below), Venezuelan natives who have lived in the Albuquerque for about four years after emigrating from New York City.  The formula for their restaurant’s operation relies on variables such as tradition, culture, local motivation, and a cast of supporting families which include accomplished chefs.

Carlos Figueroa, one of the restaurant proprietors delivers quesillo to our table

Carlos Figueredo, one of the restaurant proprietors delivers quesillo to our table

It’s a formula that promises to draw more than the forty or so Venezuelan families who live in the Duke City, all of whom have been very supportive of Cafe Choroni and at least one of whom seems to be an unofficial ambassador to newcomers.  During our inaugural visit, a rather effusive young lady greeted us like lost family members, talking up the cuisine with the savvy and pride of a native.  She then adjourned to a community table in the center of the restaurant where several Venezuelan families enjoyed each other’s company, a Saturday afternoon ritual.  That sense of community and closeness reminded me very much of weekends spent in Bronx bodegas with my friend Speedy and his extended family.

Cafe Choroni is named for an inland hamlet boasting one of Venezuela’s best Caribbean beaches.  The Figueredo family has had a summer home in Choroni for generations, braving hairpin turns winding through a dense mountainous forest to visit on many a weekend.  A painting of Choroni’s beach by Carlos’s son Enrique hangs on one wall while a collage of photos hangs on another.

The restaurant has a homey and inviting feel.  In addition to standard seating arrangements, a corner section of the restaurant includes comfortable couches, ostensibly for post-prandial parlance.  The festive sounds of Venezuelan music resonate from the restaurant’s sound system, but not so loud you can’t enjoy conversation at normal levels.   The counter where you place your orders bears a semblance to an overhang from a beach cabana.  It’s a casual and down-to-earth milieu.

Pabellon Criollo

Pabellon Criollo

The menu is hardly sizable, but is very well balanced between elegant entrees (comidas) and what might be categorized as street foods in the most complimentary sense of the term.  Rather than list the litany of ingredients in the restaurant’s four ensaladas, let’s give the dressings their due: fresh lime juice cilantro, yellow Peruvian sweet aji and pineapple lemon vinegar.  These dressings, as the ingredients from which the salads are crafted, evoke a longing for clear, azure Caribbean waters and fresh, breezy sea air.

The comidas section of the menu includes only three entrees, one of which is a form of lasagna from Greece.  Pastichio is very popular in many Latin American countries where it is often made with plantains.  Cafe Choroni’s version–chicken lasagna with “New Mexico’s green chili sauce”–plays tribute to the Land of Enchantment.  Carlos recommends it highly.

Not only because of the experiential aspect, but because they’re just good, the arepas are absolutely not to be missed.   Stuffed with an impressive array of ingredients such as carne mechada (shredded beef), cerdo (pork loin), pollo (shredded chicken), ques blanco (white cheese), and even de atun (tuna), the arepas are a nice alternative to the ubiquitous American sandwich.  If, however, you have to have a sandwich, Cafe Choroni will oblige with an array of panini sandwiches–where Latino flavors meet the Italian cuisine within the confines of a restaurant in New Mexico.   Paninis are available in four-inch and eight-inch sizes at throwback prices especially considering the prodigious portions and ingredient quality.

Arepa de Atun (Tuna Salad)

Arepa de Atun (Tuna Salad)

If your tastes lean more toward sweet than savory, but you still crave the fresh, sweet taste of corn, the menu answers your craving with two cachapas (sweet corn pancakes).  One is served with butter and the other with white cheese.  Because they’re made with kernels of corn, they tend to be thicker and lumpier than pancakes.  Like pancakes, they’re popular for breakfast, but unlike pancakes, they’re often sold in roadside stands.

If arepas are considered one of Venezuela’s national dishes, Pabellón criollo is, according to the Venezuelan Food and Drinks blog, “emblematic of the country; a hearty plate of simple food that mirrors the national flag and highlights the special mix of races that has made Venezuela a country of beauty queens.”  Pabellón criollo is translated as “Crole Flag,” in recognition of the patriotic significance it holds for some Venezuelans who see the yellow, red, blue and white of the national flag in the colors of the ingredients.  Pabellón criollo is commonplace in restaurants throughout Venezuela, but by any measure, it is hardly common.

Pabellón criollo is a combination plate featuring carne mechada (shredded beef), arroz blanco (white rice), caraotas negras (black beans) and tajatas (fried plantains).  In Choroni, the beach community not the restaurant, the shredded beef is often replaced with cazon (baby shark).   Baby shark is hard to come by in Albuquerque, but the shredded beef is no consolation prize.  The carne mechada is deliciously seasoned and moist with nary a bit of sinew or toughness.  In texture, flavor and heritage, it resembles Ropa Vieja (literally “old clothes”), a popular Cuban dish

Arepa Cerdo (Pork Loin)

Arepa Cerdo (Pork Loin)

The rice is fluffy and nicely seasoned, a pleasant surprise.  The black beans are topped with a shredded white cheese and are perfectly prepared, neither too hard nor soft.  Our favorite, however, are the plantains which are ripened and fried.  These soft beauties have enough sweetness to contrast yet complement their plated brethren.

With eleven different arepas from which to choose, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick one so your best bet is to order at least two, preferably two with dissimilar textures and tastes.  If you order a meat based arepa such as the cerdo (pork loin), ask for aji on the side.  Aji is a yellow Peruvian hot pepper whose flavor and texture on your palate resemble Chinese mustard without the lasting effects.  Aji enlivens the flavor of meats and fish and spreads nicely on the corn-based arepas.

The pork-filled arepa is delicious with a generous endowment of pork, quite unlike the chintzy cold-cut sliver slices served at many American sandwich shops.  The pork is also as white and unblemished as the best cuts of pork.

Cuban Panini

Cuban Panini

The arepa de atun (tuna salad) features tuna the way I learned to love it in Massachusetts–heated, oil packed and made only with mayonnaise.  The arepa is overstuffed so you’ll want a spoon handy to scoop up any tuna that spills out.

It’s become almost de rigueur for sandwich shops offering paninis to serve a version of a Cubano.  Cafe Choroni is no different, serving a Cuban Panini crafted with ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese sandwiched on Ciabatta bread with a smear of creamy yellow aji sauce.  The aji invigorates the sandwich with its tongue-tingling heat–just enough to get your attention, not to detract in any way from the complementary ingredients.  This is a delicious Cubano, one of the very best in the city.

The Cuban Panini is served with plantain chips which resemble potato chips in the way they are cut and fried, but also because of their starchy qualities.  Unlike potato chips, however, plantain chips aren’t overly salted.  In fact, they’re just a bit sweet and a bit salty, a good balance.

Asado Panini

Asado Panini

Another excellent panini is the Asado Panini, crafted with sliced round eye beef, tomato, shredded lettuce and white cheese served on a Ciabatta bread with a touch of the restaurant’s Nuevo Latino Caesar dressing.  Similar to the Cuban Panini, it is generously endowed, a bountiful feast between bread slices.  Unlike some panini sandwiches, it isn’t smashed thin.  In fact, it’s literally bursting a its seams with ingredients–and with flavors.

The Asado Panini comes with yuca chips.  Yuca (sometimes spelled yucca like the New Mexico state flower) comes from a starchy tuber and is a very versatile ingredient.  It’s said that anything you can do with a potato, you can do with yuca which does have a taste and texture similar to a potato.  One major difference is that yuca is somewhat lighter tasting than potatoes.  That goes for yuca chips which are a nice alternative to the more salty, more crispy potato chip.

Empanadas con queso aren’t on the menu, but maybe they should be.  Served warm, they are as light as biscuits and the cheesy innards aren’t overdone.

Empanadas con queso

Empanadas con queso

On a good day (and I’m inclined to believe any day dining at Cafe Choroni is a good day), you’ll find under glass in a pastry case at least one dessert.  Try the Venezuelan equivalent of flan which is called quesillo.  The differences are noticeable.  Quesillo is much richer, almost adult-like in comparison to standard Mexican flan.  It is made from eggs, condensed milk and caramel and isn’t as much sweet as it is rich and creamy.

Cafe Choroni invites you to have a cup of coffee and experience unforgettable food and good company.  It’s a restaurant in which you’ll feel welcome and won’t rush your stay.

Cafe Choroni
3120 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Arepas, Paninis, Quesillo, Pabellon Criollo

Cafe Choroni on Urbanspoon

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