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Calico Cantina & Cafe – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Calico Cantina & Cafe

The Calico Cantina & Cafe

The first time my friends and I visited the Calico Cafe at its original Corrales location, we wondered if the restaurant suffered from an identity crisis. Exterior signage read “Calico Cafe” but the menus indicated we were dining at “Cowgirl’s.” Apparently the restaurant was initially christened Cowgirl’s, but a name change was court-ordered after a naming dispute with Santa Fe’s long-established Cowgirls BBQ restaurant.

On December 2nd, 2004, the popular and intimate lunch and breakfast restaurant owned by Corrales residents Vernon and Angel Garcia, was consumed by fire. In 2006, the Calico Cantina & Cafe launched in a new and much expanded location, the 19,000 square foot Village Shops at Los Ranchos–in the heart of the original Route 66. Coupled with outdoor seating in a spacious patio, the Cafe now accommodates as many as 189 diners.

The Village Shops at Los Ranchos is a burgeoning complex usually beset by the parking woes of popular destinations. The Calico Cantina & Cafe is an anchor tenant along with its sister restaurant Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse, located directly behind the Cafe’s bakery. Vernon’s, patterned after a probation era speakeasy, can be accessed through the Los Ranchos Liquors store.

The ambience shouts Southwestern with an emphasis on Western.

The ambience shouts Southwestern with an emphasis on Western.

Thematically, the Calico Cantina & Cafe could be described as “Southwestern with an emphasis on Western.” Peeled knotted pine vigas on the ceiling support copper burnished light fixtures. A waxy plaster finish on the walls hosts several western watercolor paintings, most by popular Corrales artist Doreman Burns.

Burns’ watercolor compositions juxtapose the American cowgirl against multi-hued sunsets, azure skies and other romantic settings that portray a spirit of independence and beauty. The cowgirls’ eyes are always shaded, making the viewer wonder what the windows to the soul are transfixed upon.

I’m getting ahead of myself in describing the restaurant. The very first thing you see when you step into the restaurant is a bakery case perhaps unlike any other in any Albuquerque dining establishment. You’ll wonder how drool stains and tongue trails don’t cover the glass under which some of the very best cakes and cookies in town are displayed.

The desserts at the Calico Cafe are delicious, decadent and diet devastating.

The desserts at the Calico Cafe are delicious, decadent and diet devastating.

The German Chocolate Cake is certainly one of the very best of its kind we’ve sampled in the Duke City. Rich and delicious, it is served slab-sized and is easily big enough for two to share, not that you’d want to. The cookies are the size of a motorcycle tire. Oatmeal, chocolate chip, sugar cookies–they’re all there under glass and all beckoning you to abandon the diet du jour.

The menu is replete with all the comfort food favorites Americans love in huge portions: chicken-fried steak, pot roast, meat loaf and more all with mashed potatoes and gravy and buttered corn. A mom-and-pop restaurant to the nth degree, the Calico Cantino & Cafe also specializes in New Mexican food favorites.

The prime rib sandwich provides the type of comfort you might want wrapped around you like a cocoon.  This sandwich features tender prime rib-style beef shaved thin and piled high on a warm, crusty ciabatta roll.  It is available with either Swiss or Cheddar cheese and is served with a seasoned au jus and a small tub of horseradish.  The au jus is hot and delicious, served in a cup big enough for sandwich dipping.  The horseradish has the distinctive taste of well, horseradish with just enough bite to get your attention.

Prime rib sandwich on Ciabatta

Prime rib sandwich on Ciabatta

Breakfast at the Calico Cantina & Cafe is a popular family event, especially on weekends when traditional American and New Mexican breakfast entrees are served.

The restaurant has a unique twist on the quesadilla, most of which are served elsewhere as wafer thin and oozing cheese. The Calico’s breakfast quesadilla is engorged with scrambled eggs; your choice of bacon, sausage or ham (or carne adovada for a bit more) and country potatoes.

The breakfast quesadillas at the Calico Cafe.

The breakfast quesadillas at the Calico Cafe.

The Calico Cafe’s version is a far cry from the Nicole Ritchie thin quesadillas you may have had elsewhere. The quesadilla is easily three-quarters of an inch thick and bulging with ingredients. Alas, it’s served with a chunky tomato salsa served just-out-of-the-refrigerator cold. It would be better with a hot and piquant green chile.

Vernon’s Favorite,” an eye-opening breakfast of three eggs prepared any style, a rasher (three) plus one of bacon, country style potatoes and a short-stack (what a misnomer) of pancakes. The pancakes are about six-inches around and served with a hot syrup. The country-style potatoes are cubed and baked. The bacon is crisp and thick-sliced. It’s a day’s worth of delicious calories in one meal.

The wait staff at the Calico Cafe is on-the-spot with free coffee or soft-drink refills. It’s a courteous staff prone to folksiness that seems more sincere than rehearsed.

Fourth Street in historic Los Ranchos De Albuquerque houses some of the area’s most popular restaurants (Sadie’s, Sophia’s Place, Cafe Benavidez, Garduno’s). With the Calico Cafe joining the fray, diners have yet another great dining destination not too far from anywhere else in the Albuquerque area.

Calico Cafe
6855 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: German Chocolate Cake, Prime Rib Sandwich, Breakfast Quesadilla

Calico Café on Urbanspoon

Johndhi’s BBQ – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Johndi's on Rio Grande

Johndi’s on Rio Grande

With the wafting aroma of smoked meats, Johndhi’s, a charming smokehouse restaurant on picturesque Rio Grande Boulevard welcomes you to Bar-B-Querque, a well-earned and time-tested sobriquet. Known as Geezamboni’s since its inception in 1988 until a name change in 2005, Johndhi’s is a North Valley institution popular all year round.

Owned and operated by John Nellos of Albuquerque’s first family of barbecue (the philanthropic Nellos clan owns three Quarters restaurants in the Duke City), Johndhi’s has an ultra hip, mega casual feel to it that belies the converted home structure in which it sits.  The artsy ambience includes French posters, multi-hued Mexican ceramic masks and pictures adorning the walls.  Strewn about the restaurant’s many nooks and crannies are interesting accoutrements such as an antique telephone painted in colors I often saw on a hippie bus bound for the Hog Farm near Peñasco where I grew up.   The framed poster most appealing to foodies like me depicts Dagwood Bumbstead precariously perched on his tip-toes on a chair with his trademark, multi-story sandwich in one hand as he reaches for a jar of olives with the other.

From the outside, Johndhi’s has the appearance of a family home.  There is no glaring, sensory-bombarding signage screaming at passers-by telling them it’s a barbecue restaurant.  The telltale signs are the hazy smoke plumes which emanate from the premises and waft onto motorized conveyances like smoke signals beckoning them to stop and the number of those vehicles which turn right on Griegos to respond to those smoke signals. The parking lots are usually crowded.

The interior at Johndi's

The interior at Johndi’s

Preceding the restaurant’s entrance is a wooden plank ramp replete with the distressed wood of a heavily trodden walkway.  At the restaurant’s foyer stands a pillar completely covered in wine corks.   Fittingly, two of the foyer’s four walls showcase well-provisioned refrigerators stocked with an enticing array of libations, including locally crafted micro-brews. The wine selection is reputed to be quite good.

Ironically when Geezamboni’s first opened, barbecue wasn’t even on the restaurant’s menu as Nellos endeavored a departure from the family’s barbecue tradition.  Though often prompted to serve barbecue, it wasn’t until Al Unser of Albuquerque’s famous racing family provided the impetus (a small donation) for a barbecue pit to be built that the course of history would be altered, many would say for the better.  Today, barbecue is the restaurant’s most popular draw, but certainly not the only one.

Johndhi’s diverse menu has something for everyone including sandwiches for which Dagwood Bumstead would risk life and limb.  Sandwich options include gyros, the popular Greek sandwich constructed of a lamb and beef amalgam, tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce.  Nellos also honors his Greek heritage with Greek style chicken, hummus and pita and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves).  Other sandwich fillers include a seven-ounce top sirloin steak, a catfish filet, a grilled Reuben, a pastrami sandwich and even a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.  Of course, barbecue pork, link, beef and chicken sandwiches are featured fare.  Vegetarian sandwich options include a tortilla-based hummus wrap replete with fresh vegetables.

The 2009 Souperbowl Award Winning Trophy

The 2009 Souperbowl Award Winning Trophy

A variety of burgers is also available, including one of the very best blue cheese embellished burgers in the Duke City.  The dinner menu is indicative of the kitchen’s culinary talent.  Beef eaters favor the New York strip steak while seafood lovers esteem the smoke salmon most.  No meal would be complete without dessert and Johndhi’s is highly regarded in this gastronomic aspect as well.

What may surprise even the most savvy diners is the number of accolades earned by the restaurant, many not in the arena of barbecue.  In 2009, Johndhi’s earned the critic’s choice award during the 2009 Souper Bowl in which I had the privilege of serving as a judge.  Johndhi’s entry in that hallowed competition was a gazpacho soup, a long-time favorite, particular in the summer.  This Spanish soup (generally made of chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers and herbs) is served cold but is refreshing any time of year.

Summertime at Johndhi’s means dining on the patio.  The outdoor dining area remains surprisingly comfortable even in balmy summer thanks to an ingenious outdoor “swamp cooler” which is more akin to a mist generating pipe. Several trees add functionality with shade and esthetics with their greenery.  The black steel smoker from which magic smoke emanates is another reason the patio is preferred seating as is the live music featured on occasion.

Brisket Sandwich with fries

Brisket Sandwich with fries

Other award-winning items include some of the best (and at times, most wonderfully piquant) green chile stew in town, far better than the green chile stew that helped made the Frontier Restaurant famous. With some entrees you also receive a sensational salsa with fresh, chopped up, not pulverized ingredients. It’s some of the best salsa in town, several years ago having earned “best salsa” in the Duke City honors.

Johndhi’s is full of pleasant surprises.  During one memorable visit, my Kim and I shared a memorable almond orange salad which featured various greens, honey roasted almond slivers and tiny orange slices bathed in a tangy citrus dressing good enough to drink.  With all there is to like about Johndhi’s, what may surprise you most is how little I regard the barbecue itself.

For a start, it’s better than the ‘cue served at Quarters, but there are similarities to the dynastic Nellos family barbecue.  Similar to Quarters the sauce is far too generously applied to your meat orders, the differences being that Johndhi’s version is thicker and even more pronounced in its tanginess, sweetness and piquancy. The sauce has a tendency to overwhelm some entrees that might otherwise be quite excellent by virtue of the meat’s smokiness.  My advice is to ask the very accommodating and friendly wait staff to go easy on the sauce.

Links sandwich with Cheddar cheese and onions

Links sandwich with Cheddar cheese and onions

The sliced, smoked brisket sandwich is served on a hero roll as are the smoked pork, barbecue turkey and spicy pork link sandwich (called “The Missing Link” on the menu). The BBQ spare rib sandwich is served open-faced while the chicken BBQ style (a boneless chicken breast) is served on a bun.  It may not matter as my experience has shown the least messy way to consume these sandwiches is sans bread.  That’s attributable to the surfeit of sauce.

The smoked brisket sandwich, when light on the sauce, is quite good.  The brisket is tender and moist with a pronounced smokiness.  A sandwich I won’t order again is the “Missing Link” in which several spicy pork links are topped with a tangle of onions and gloppy, sloppy, melted Cheddar cheese.  While the links are also quite good, the onions and cheese subtract from the experience–and of course, there’s the sauce in which the entire sandwich swims (pictured above.

Sandwiches are served with your choice of fat fries, homemade potato salad, baked beans or coleslaw and pickle on request.  The fries are indeed fat, big Texas sized fries we use to sop up surplus sauce.  The baked beans are very good, some of the best in the city.

Key Lime Pie at Johndi's

Key Lime Pie at Johndi’s

Burgers are hand-formed from fresh ground chuck steak and are garnished with your choice of ingredients. These bountiful beauties include such innovative options as a Hawaiian burger with grilled pineapple rings, a mushroom burger and of course, the ubiquitous New Mexico favorite, the green chile cheeseburger.  The ground chuck steak provides the marbling that gives each burger the requisite juiciness burgerphiles love.  My favorite is the blue burger which is loaded with blue cheese.  It’s a superb burger. Ask for it with green chile and it’s even better thanks to a piquant chile that bites back.

Desserts include a refreshing key lime pie which will purse your lips with its tanginess.  It’s not quite big enough to share which you probably wouldn’t want to do anyway.

Lest I forget, there’s something else about Johndhi’s I admire, not as a gastronome, but as a lexicologist.  The menu is replete with clever slogans: “Home of the Barbecue Profit – Johndhi.”  “We’ve been smokin’ the good stuff for years.” “Hip shakin’, Lip smackin’, Finger Suckin’ Barbecue.” That’s good stuff! So’s the restaurant!

In its October, 2006 post-launch (ballooning) guide to dining in Albuquerque, the Local iQ staff and its many contributors named Johndhi’s among their personal favorite restaurants, citing it “for it’s quiet North Valley location, quaint patio (warm in the winter, cool in the summer) and sheer variety of dishes — BBQ or otherwise.”  It doesn’t take a genius IQ to know that Johndhi’s is a good choice any time of year, pre- or post-launch.

Johndhi’s BBQ
3851 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Stew, Blue Cheese Burger

Johndhi's BBQ on Urbanspoon

Ponderosa Steakhouse – Tijeras, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Tijeras, New Mexico

The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Tijeras, New Mexico

Like the official slogan of the Texas Department of Tourism, the back side of the mountains may as well be “like a whole other country” to some urban dwelling Duke City residents.  Behind the Manzano mountains there exists a rural supra-culture of people who seem more comfortable in their own skin than their urban neighbors fewer than 20 miles away, people not as weighed down by the stresses and pretensions of the dog-eat-dog world.

These folks congregate at the Ponderosa Steakhouse where Wrangler jeans, ten gallon hats, tank tops and Cowboy boots are commonplace but shorts are not; where scruffy, unkempt beards are routine and cigarette smoke billows like a blue haze over the outdoor porch.  The Ponderosa plays both types of music, Country and Western, and remains unchanged by the ravages of time.  It is a haven for the hard-working, blue-collars, many of whom are fortunate enough to work and live off the land–and what land it is.  The Tijeras area is among the state’s most scenic.

The Ponderosa Steakhouse is situated in an old log cabin whose exterior signage extols the popular libations offered at the bar.  If you’ve never been there and you’re not careful you’re bound to drive right by it.  That’s because it sits virtually at the crest of a long vertical climb, just past where the mountain flattens out into a verdant valley.  The winding highway takes you through some of the most picturesque vistas imaginable, particularly in the fall when golden leaves on the Turquoise Trail are at their peak of magnificence.

The inside of the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The inside of the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The interior of the Ponderosa is a continuation of the rustic theme.  Rough-hewn vigas on the ceiling support wagon wheel lights which provide a dimly lit ambience.  The wood planked floors are distressed and well-worn from years of being heavily trod upon.  The charred remnants of branding irons have left their impressions on the walls.  Antique brickerbrack is strewn about.

The bar is usually crowded with thirsty patrons engaged in spirited discussions.  A wood stove distributes warmth throughout the restaurant during those cold winter nights at more than 7,000 feet.  An adjacent room includes a solitary pool table.

Despite the cigarette malodor (a remnant of the days when smoking was allowed within the restaurant), the restaurant’s prevalent odor is the unmistakably distinct aroma of steaks sizzling on the grill.  You won’t find choice or prime beef at the Ponderosa.  Those cuts are too pretentious and expensive for its patrons.  In fact, the beef may well have come from a neighboring ranch where grass-fed cows graze lazily on their verdant high mountain bounty.  It’s good beef–very good beef–for which you won’t pay city prices to get country portions.

Standard salad at the Ponderosa

Standard salad at the Ponderosa

The most expensive steak on the menu is under $25 and unlike at some Duke City establishments, “a la carte” is an expensive and foreign concept.  Each steak dinner comes with a salad, baked potato or Fries, vegetables and a bread roll with butter.  You won’t leave hungry.

Salad sophisticates might marvel at the delicious simplicity of a Ponderosa salad.  It’s constructed of mostly iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and a fleck of bell pepper here and there.  The restaurant offers about a half dozen salad dressings, all served in those little plastic tubs.  The salad dressings are thin, perhaps watered down.  Baked potatoes are served with butter and sour cream embellished with chives.  The bread roll is yeasty and soft, the type of which you might want to consume several.

The T-Bone steak is enormous and will take longer to prepare than anything on the menu.  This is a peerless cut consisting of a supple, tender filet and a robust strip separated by the T-bone.  At about a full inch thick, it is a carnivores’ favorite.  Ask for any Ponderosa steak to be grilled with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a well-seasoned, highly flavorful slab of beef.  It’s not perfect by any means.  You’ll have to trim off some fat from the sides, but you’ll get more steak than sinew, more flavor than fat.

The T-Bone Steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The T-Bone Steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

As tender as just about any ribeye we’ve ever had, the Ponderosa’s ribeye has the juiciness (but not the bloodiness) of a rare steak even if you ask for medium well preparation.  Quite honestly, we’re often surprised at how good the steak is, enjoying it more than we have pricy steak at swanky (and very expensive) big city steakhouses.  It’s not prime or choice beef, but it’s a good choice for tasty beef at a reasonable price.

The third cut of steak on the menu is a simple sirloin.  When you order “sirloin” at a restaurant, you never quite know what you’re getting.  The bottom sirloin which is most often served at restaurants is less tender and much larger than the top sirloin.  Ponderosa offers a bottom sirloin, a good steak but not the most tender or flavorful.

While steak is certainly a highlight of the menu, other entrees are also quite enjoyable.  A steak and enchiladas plate features surprisingly good beef enchiladas with a piquant (albeit cumin enhanced) red chile you can respect.  The beef on the two rolled enchilada jewels is well seasoned and delicious.  That plate comes with a six ounce sirloin steak that isn’t quite as wonderful as the larger ribeye, but by any standards is a passable steak.

The ribeye steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

The ribeye steak at the Ponderosa Steakhouse

An excellent alternative if you want both steak (sirloin) and New Mexican food is the steak rellenos plate in which two cheese oozing chile rellenos, refried beans and Spanish rice leave little room on the plate for the steak, but the combination goes very well together.  The refried beans have a smoky, fried in lard taste while the Spanish rice is fairly blasé.

A jalapeno and canned tomato based salsa with crisp, low-in-salt tortilla chips are brought to your table before your meal.  The salsa isn’t especially piquant, but it’s got good thickness so it won’t run off your chips.    A spinach artichoke dip appetizer with tostados (deep fried flour tortillas) is an appetizer offering for diners who don’t want the salsa and chips.  The artichoke dip has only enough cheese to bind the mostly spinach mixture together and isn’t especially noteworthy.

New Mexican food dinners are served with sopaipillas.  On two occasions in which we’ve had them, the sopaipillas had the taste of being fried in old oil and didn’t have the cloud-like texture we were used to.  On another occasion, they were puffy perfection.

Salsa and chips at the Ponderosa

Salsa and chips at the Ponderosa

The Ponderosa made a “cameo appearance” and was one of the few saving graces of a sophomoric (sophomoronic?) 2004 movie called “Elvis has Left The Building” which was filmed mostly in the Land of Enchantment.

Despite the restaurant’s relatively few shortcomings, you’ll find yourself effusively praising a dining experience where you revert to a better, simpler time among good, honest people who really seem to have the right idea about living and dining.

Ponderosa Steakhouse
10676 State Highway 337
Tijeras, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 9 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Beef Enchiladas; Ribeye Steak, T-Bone Steak, Salsa and Chips

The Ponderosa Steakhouse on Urbanspoon