Mad Max’s BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mad Max BBQ - the best in New Mexico

Mad Max BBQ - the best in New Mexico

NOTE:  In March, 2010, Max and Fran Montano entered into a lease to buy agreement with an enthusiastic owner who continued to use the recipes which made Mad Max’s the very best barbecue in the Albuquerque area.  By September, 2010 the restaurant was closed.  Max and Fran will continue competing in competitions throughout the region and will also cater events.  They will be missed as much for their warmth and great humor as for their outstanding barbecue.

Since the discovery of fire, man has viewed his domain as the great outdoors. The outdoors is from where man brought home the day’s victuals for early woman to prepare.  As the centuries progressed, descendents of troglodytic man (many of whom haven’t evolved much) have perceived cooking as a feminine affectation, taunting any other man who deigned to acquire culinary skills.

In 1952, George Stephen invented the original Weber kettle grill and with his innovative design, sparked a backyard revolution that transformed man. As a result of the Weber grill, the XY chromosome complement was no longer a handicap (or more accurately, an excuse) for men throughout the world when it came to preparing meals for their families. With Stephen’s invention, grilling outdoors was seen by man as an extension of his manly domain. Not surprisingly, man didn’t consider cooking outdoors as a liberating way to explore a “feminine side” he long denied.

Mad Max (at left) and his smoker. Brother-in-law Joe at right.

Today, backyard grilling is an year-round phenomenon plied by men attired with aprons emblazoned with the words “Kiss the Chef” and wielding the tools (which, in the kitchen would be called utensils) of their backyard domain. “Real” men still see cooking as woman’s work. Grilling is another matter. Man rationalizes that since the dawn of time, only he has had domain over fire while outdoors. The Weber grill made it possible for men lacking in any culinary skill (unless you consider eating a culinary skill) whatsoever to prepare edible–even tasty grilled food.

By nature competitive, man needed an arena in which he can display his mastery of the flame. That’s how competitive barbecue came about. Today, there are more than 130 sanctioned barbecue competitions across the fruited plain.

In competition barbecue, contestants (and not necessarily all testosterone-laden) vie for prize money sometimes reaching into thousands of dollars. Competitors prepare one or more item–beef brisket, pork ribs, chicken, sausage and sauces–to be judged on a variety of criteria.

Some of the many trophies and ribbons earned by Mad Max's barbecue

Some of the many trophies and ribbons earned by Mad Max's barbecue

Barbecue competition usually includes entertainment and sometimes fireworks, midway carnivals, beverage tents and a host of other family-friendly events. Competitions are generally a Chamber of Commerce dream, bringing barbecue fanatics, competitors and their money from miles around.

Since 2004, Rio Rancho has hosted the New Mexico Pork & Brew barbecue state championship, an event sanctioned by the prestigious Kansas City Barbecue Society whose mission it is to “celebrate, teach, preserve and promote barbecue as a culinary technique, sport and art form.”

The Pork & Brew event has truly brought outstanding barbecue to New Mexico. I know what you’re thinking–outstanding barbecue in New Mexico is an oxymoron. It’s almost as rare as say, green chile stew in Maine and clam bakes in Montana.

Mad Max's BBQ is portable

Mad Max's BBQ is portable

With but a handful of exceptions (Sugar’s, Josh’s and Powdrell’s) I thought so, too, until partaking of the sensational smoky meats at the Pork & Brew competition. Now I’m an unabashed shill for this annual event where, at least once a year, it’s possible to partake of porcine perfection, lip-smacking beef, mouth-watering chicken, delectable sausage–all imbued with flavors generated by low and slow smoke under the watchful eyes of fire masters.

Maybe it’s the combination of hot sun, long queues and the olfactory-arousing aromas with their irresistible siren’s call, but I truly believe the barbecue served during competition is unrivaled. No barbecue restaurant can hope to approach the outdoors experience and none can match the quality of outstanding competition barbecue.

Like most of the weekend warrior competitors at barbecue competitions, Corrales resident Max Montano “cut his teeth” in his back yard with his very own Weber grill. Family and guests fortunate enough to be invited to one of his backyard barbecues encouraged him to enter the competitive barbecue circuit, so proficient is his prowess at the pit.

The very best barbecue pork sandwich in New Mexico

The very best barbecue pork sandwich in New Mexico

Two years of competitive barbecue has validated the opinion of everyone familiar with Max’s culinary skills. He’s placed at every competition he’s entered, in most cases in several categories. Some seasoned veterans go years without ever placing while Max totes trophies and ribbons home every time, including from Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew.

With the sobriquet “Mad Max” on his portable competition smoker, he took it a step beyond competition barbecue in February, 2008 when he launched Mad Max’s BBQ in Rio Rancho.

Because of requisite city inspections Max had to wait more than a month before taking his business indoors into the tiny, time-worn building that previously housed Cazuela’s Mexican Grill. He moved indoors on March 20th, 2008 after passing the white-glove going-over from the fire marshal’s office.

Barbecue brisket sandwich with baked beans

Two orders of baked beans and a barbecue sandwich

In the interim, he plied his business outdoors using a concession trailer which he parked in front of the building destined to be his restaurant. His portable competition smoker was stationed next to the trailer.

My inaugural visit to Mad Max’s came on the day before he got the fire marshal’s blessing to open. I was blown away. It was immediately obvious why he is earning awards in barbecue competitions. Mad Max knows barbecue!

Now, it’s one thing to prepare out-of-this-world barbecue outdoors. It’s another to bring that smoke-imbued greatness indoors. Several winners of the world barbecue championships in Memphis, Tennessee have launched restaurants in which their barbecue just isn’t as good as the ‘cue they prepare during competition when they baby-sit their smoke all night long.

Mad Max's plate with two meats (brisket and hot link)

A two meat platter with two sides of baked beans

My second visit to Mad Max’s transpired a day after my first, the result of not being able to get the great taste of his barbecue out of my mind. This visit was on the day the fire marshal cleared the way for Max to move his business indoors. It would be a good test as to whether or not Max’s barbecue could pass muster indoors. It does–and then some! This is the Albuquerque metropolitan area barbecue restaurant I’ve been waiting for as evidenced by four visits during its first two weeks in business.

Now that he’s finally indoors, Max will tell you that the restaurant is his wife’s domain. He’ll joke that it’s got his name on it because “Mad Fran” just doesn’t sound right. He also kids that Fran won’t share the recipe for the restaurant’s sauce, but only he knows the formula for the eight secret ingredient rub.

Max’s indoor smoker (pictured above left) is well-seasoned. It’s got the type of aroma you might want to bottle and sell to men like me who would use it in lieu of aftershave. Lucky the meats that enter this smoker!

A delicious fried appetizer at Mad Max's

Aside from making the smoke do his bidding, one of the secrets to Max’s barbecue is his eight ingredient rub. The flavors it imparts coalesce beautifully with the light and fragrant smoke generated by apple and fruit woods. The smoke is subtle and sweet, wholly unlike the astringent smoke you might find in barbecue in which mesquite or even hickory are used.

The sauce is also wonderful and you’ll applaud the fact that it’s served in small plastic containers instead of being slathered on thickly like a couple of local barbecue restaurant favorites do (perhaps to mask the flavor of inferior smoking). Max’s, or rather, Fran’s sauce, is more sweet than it is tangy and it also packs just a hint of piquancy. It’s somewhere between thick and thin and it’s terrific.

So, too, is the barbecue. Smoked sandwiches (your choice of pork, brisket, sausage or carne adovada) are served on a bolillo bread roll. Each sandwich is engorged with deliciousness, almost enough meat to make a second sandwich altogether.

Carne Adovada on a bolillo roll

Carne Adovada sandwich with coleslaw

There is no competition barbecue category specifically for smoked carne adovada, but Max’s carne adovada has earned awards in the “anything else” category. It’s a winner! The carne is moist and redolent with just a hint of smoke. It’s shredded into tender pieces and is slathered with pure, unadulterated New Mexican red chile with nary a hint of cumin. This is terrific carne adovada and it makes a great sandwich option.

Mad Max’s brisket sandwich will also imprint itself on your taste buds. It will make them very happy. This brisket isn’t sliced; it’s shredded into long, tender strands of beauteous beef. A handful of a sandwich, it serves as a wonderful canvas for Fran’s terrific barbecue sauce, but with or without sauce, it’s an excellent sandwich.

If you’re not in the mood for sandwiches, try a two-meat Mad Max’s plate with at least a couple of sides. It’s comes with about a pound of meat.

Mad Max's tacos

Mad Max's tacos

The shredded pork is reminiscent of the pork once proffered at the long defunct Johnny Ray’s which I consider the very best barbecue I’ve had in New Mexico. The brisket is sliced thin. It is tender and has the discernable smoke ring aficionados salute.

Other meat options include smoky adovada, beef sausage, hot link or chicken thighs. The sausage and hot link are long and thick with the hot link packing much more punch and flavor.

Unlike some barbecue restaurants, Max actually serves worthy accompaniment to his meat offerings. He offers several sides–baked beans, a German potato salad and coleslaw–and all are wonderful.

Flat enchiladas with smoked carne adovada

Flat enchiladas with smoked carne adovada

The baked beans are without a doubt the best in the Duke City area. They’re the type of beans you could eat by the plateful with just the right amount of sweetness ameliorated with brisket and a hint of chile. They’re the type of beans I order two portions of.

Lest I forget, Mad Max’s menu also includes several New Mexican entrees including flat enchiladas, tacos and quesadillas.  Country-fried steak and country-fried chicken are also available.  The enchiladas are served Northern New Mexican style which means flat and stacked (pictured above).  Stacked means engorged with layers of smoked carne adovada and topped with an excellent, rich red chile.  If Mad Max’s focused solely on New Mexican food, it would be one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area.

The handheld burrito with smoked carne adovada, hash browns, eggs and cheese could well be the very best in the metropolitan area. It’s a wonder the tortilla can hold all the ingredients, so generously are they stuffed. Breakfast is served from 6:30AM through 11AM. These burritos make it worth getting up.

Three rib dinner at Max's

Three rib dinner at Max's

No ordinary tacos are Max’s tacos which smart diners will order by the twelve pack. Though I would prefer soft tortillas to the crispy hard-shells, when those shells are engorged with carne adovada, beef brisket and shredded pork topped with lettuce and shredded cheese, you’ve got some of the best tacos around. Either or both salsa and barbecue sauce work equally well. An order of tacos includes a bowl of green chile invigorated beans and rice.

Two dessert options will provide you with a day’s worth of calories. Grandma Bea’s world famous deep fried cheesecake isn’t accompanied by an angioplasty, but maybe it should be.

Caloric overachievers might also opt for the curiously named Fran’s pickled piggy cake, a decadent masterpiece almost as tall as a cake plate is wide. It is a rich and delicious three-layer beauty replete with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and other mouth-watering ingredients. It will make a piggy out of you.

Fran's Pickled Piggy Cake

Fran's Pickled Piggy Cake

Barbecue skeptics who question why I would rate Mad Max’s above other well-established and very popular barbecue restaurants might be assuaged somewhat by a review published on the Alibi by Maren Tarro, a virtuoso of vocabulary. Maren spent many a year in Kansas City, one of America’s bastions of barbecue. She knows her stuff and she really liked Mad Max’s. Her credibility, when it comes to barbecue, is impeccable. So there…

If it’s true that there’s a fine line between madness and genius, Mad Max straddles toward the genius side. His barbecue is phenomenal! Now that he’s moved indoors, he’s able to expand his menu to offer St. Louis style ribs and other entrees. You might not even miss the outdoor dining experience because in Mad Max’s BBQ, there’s outdoor-quality, competition-certified barbecue indoors.

Mad Max’s BBQ
1600 Sara Road
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 23
COST: $
BEST BET: Handheld Burrito (Carne Adovada, Hash Browns, Cheese); Smoked Carne Adovada Sandwich; Smoked Brisket Sandwich; Combination Platter (Pork, Brisket, Sausage); Baked Beans; Coleslaw; Fran’s Pickled Piggy Cake

Mad Max’s BBQ on Urbanspoon

Pho #1 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pho #1 where beef is number one seven times over!

Pho #1 Vietnamese Grill, home of the seven courses of beef

Beef.  How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my pho spoon can reach. Okay, I’m no Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but if I were to count the ways I love beef, the count might stop at seven–as in the special seven courses of beef offered at Pho #1, yet another outstanding Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City.

Launched in 2004, Pho #1 may well be on its way to earning its name. The seven courses of beef is one–make that seven–reasons why.  Other reasons include a stellar rendition of the name on the marquee; the restaurant’s pho has earned a reputation as among the city’s very best in a city that has embraced pho.

In a “Chow Down in Burque Town” forum entitled “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Town” on the omnibus Duke City Fix, Albuquerque’s pho-fanatics weighed in on their favorites.  One of the most frequently mentioned was Pho #1.  Common reasons given were the large number of local Vietnamese families who eat there, the “to die for”soups and the genuinely nice family who owns and runs the restaurant.

Malodorous but delicious--a Durian Shake

Malodorous but delicious--a Durian Shake

With more than one-hundred items on the menu, not including the seven courses of beef, Pho #1 offers a veritable compendium of Vietnamese food favorites including a large selection of pho bo (beef noodle soup).  Pho is the classic Vietnamese fast food, served in a large soup bowl with fresh rice noodles topped with your choice of beef slices (rare steak, well-done flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, skirt flank and beef ball) then sprinkled with chopped green onion, cilantro leaves and sliced onion.  Each bowl is accompanied by a plate of bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos, lime and basil.

Pho #1 specializes in beef noodle soup, the menu referring to it as “the adventurer’s choice” because of the near limitless flavor combinations in which it is available.  A small bowl of pho is the size of a wading pool, a large bowl the size of a swimming pool.  For a pittance, you can even upsize to an “extra large” bowl which is virtually the size of a pond.  It’s common at Pho #1 to enjoy an asynchronous symphony of slurping, the audible inhalation of noodles being heartily enjoyed by entire families, each member partaking of a different size bowl of pho (similar to the A&W restaurant of old concept of Papa, Mama, Teen and Child burgers).

Pho is believed to have salubrious qualities, but as a cold and flu remedy, nature’s very best soup is chicken noodle soup.  A prominent pulmonary specialist at the UCLA School for Medicine and his team of researchers have concluded that chicken soup contains drug-like agents similar to those in modern cold medicines.  Healthful to be sure, but you can’t discount the sheer pleasure of the deliciousness of a good chicken noodle soup.  Pho #1’s rendition is among the very best in the city; it’s no wonder Pho #1 is such a popular dining destination during cold and flu season.

Sate Beef Noodle Soup

Sate Beef Noodle Soup

One of the more popular phos is the #38, the saté beef noodle soup which originates in the Mekong Delta in the extreme Southwest part of Vietnam.  Saté is a roasted chili paste made with garlic, shrimp paste, shallots and other sundry ingredients.  Saté imparts a heartiness and spiciness to the broth and a fragrance that titillates the olfactory senses.  Floating atop the broth are cucumber and tomato slices which are softened by the heat of the broth and impregnated with its rich flavors.  The noodles are thin rice noodles almost too long to wrap your fork around so you’ll be well practiced in the art of slurping by meal’s end.  This is an excellent pho.

Lest I leave you with the impression that sensational soups and the aforementioned seven courses of beef are Pho #1’s sole claim to excellence, fewer than a quarter of the more than one hundred items on the menu are soup.  The menu includes a nice selection of rice dishes served with Jasmine rice, vermicelli bowls and chicken and beef entrees as well as several chef’s specials.  One thing I’ve discovered about Vietnamese menus is that they don’t aptly describe the deliciousness of the item you order.  That’s best left to gourmet high-end restaurants whose colorful descriptions don’t always measure up.

The menu doesn’t so much describe each entree as it does name it.  For example, #78 on the menu is listed simply as “stir-fried soft or crispy egg noodles with beef, chicken or seafood.”  That’s hardly inspirational, but one bite and you will be inspired.  My Kim has a passion for crispy egg noodles which are reconstituted in a sweet and savory brown sauce and topped with vegetables.  She’s had this entree at every Vietnamese restaurant in town which offers it and considers Pho #1’s rendition the very best in Albuquerque.  I’m inclined to agree.  The flat egg noodles are delicious in both their crispy or reconstituted versions and the sauce is simply fabulous.  It’s more sweet than savory, but with a pronounced hint of garlic.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared, just beyond the al dente stage so that they have a fresh and crispy texture and flavor.

Stir-fried crispy egg noodle with beef and onion

Stir-fried crispy egg noodle with beef and onion

Several years ago, the Beef Council hired deep-voiced actor Robert Mitchum, a paragon of manliness, to voice over its commercials with its slogan “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner.”  In Vietnam, seven courses of beef are what’s for wedding feasts.  Not so in Albuquerque where two Vietnamese restaurants–Pho #1 and Pho Linh–make seven a lucky number every day of the week by offering seven delicious courses of beef.

Before your first course is served, a bowl of uniquely wonderful fish sauce is brought to your table, but unlike the semi-clear fish sauce served elsewhere, Pho #1’s is a brackish brown with a pronounced peanut taste and includes julienne carrots, jicama and chile. It’s the fish sauce preferred by Asians (at heart) like me.

Next to your table is a large bowl of greens which includes jalapenos, mint, thinly sliced green apples, lettuce leaves, cucumbers and vermicelli noodles. A bowl of hot water and several spring roll wrappers accompanies the greens along with a “not yet” warning from the wait staff.

Loaf Leaf Wrapped Beef

Loaf Leaf Wrapped Beef

The first two courses you can actually consume are foreplay for your taste buds: grilled Hawaiian loaf leaf beef (pictured above) and grilled beef wrapped with pickle onion. Both have the consistency and look of sausage links but with unique taste combinations of sweet, spicy and slightly tart that will heighten your anticipation for the next courses.

The next two courses–fondue-style beef and sliced beef marinated in lemongrass and spices–are prepared at your table. A nimble fingered waitress will then teach you to craft spring rolls with the aforementioned greens, spring roll wrappers and the thinly sliced beef. You might never have better spring rolls and even if they fall apart on your hands, the residual aromas will linger pleasantly on your hands and on your olfactory memories.

The fifth course features razor thin slices of raw tenderloin and onion tossed with lime, crushed peanuts and basil. It may have been my favorite of the seven courses–even without drenching it in fish sauce–and is very similar to the beef Capriccio served at the incomparable Cyclo in Chandler, Arizona.

The sixth course is a steamed beef paste/meatball mixed with glass noodle and spices. The glass noodle has the consistency and look of a white pork rind but with a far superior taste while the beef paste/meatball will blow you away. It’s not the most attractive looking beef you’ll ever see, but beyond its lack of esthetics, it is a fabulous beef mound.

The last course, beef congee, is reminiscent of a the New Mexican entree arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) both in taste and consistency. It is our least favorite of the seven courses, but was still a wonderful way to end a meal.  It’s especially warming in the winter or on a rainy day.

Naturally you’ll want to wash down a delicious meal at Pho #1 with one of the restaurant’s outstanding shakes: avocado, jackfruit, green bean (yes, that’s green bean), pineapple, strawberry and durian, my favorite.  Durian, the world’s stinkiest fruit somehow makes for an outstanding shake.

Albuquerque is blessed to have several outstanding Vietnamese restaurants.  It’s disputable which one really is number one in the hearts, minds and appetites of Duke City diners, but one thing’s for sure–trying to figure out which one reigns supreme is a delicious adventure.

Pho #1
414 San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
268-0488

LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Special Seven Courses of Beef, Durian Shake, Pineapple Shake, Stir-fried crispy egg noddle with beef and onion, Sate Beef Noodle Soup

Pho #1 on Urbanspoon

Village Grill – Moriarty, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Village Grill in Moriarty

Village Grill in Moriarty

Since the mid 1920s, New Yorker magazine has been providing insightful commentary on popular American culture in all its star-spangled idiosyncrasies.  One of its most popular features in the 1970s  was the “American Journal” written by the inimitable Calvin Trillin who traversed the continent in search of where real people ate.  The “Walt Whitman of American eats” chronicled his dining experiences with the same enthusiasm with which he ate the native cuisines most appreciated by locals.  Peppering his reviews with humor, he culled a reputation as one of America’s best food writers.

Trillin was adamant that America’s most glorious food was not the culinary fare proffered at the uppity upscale restaurants he cynically referred to generically as “La Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine.”  Eschewing the trendy restaurants where “everything is served on a bed of something else,” he instead preferred the simplicity and authenticity of local specialties–posole in Santa Fe,  boudin in Louisiana, pumpernickel bagels in New York City and especially barbecue in Kansas City.

Kansas City was also home to Trillin’s favorite burger, a declaration he made in 1970 in Life magazine about Winstead’s, a burger emporium he said served the best hamburgers in the world.  A Kansas City native, he also pronounced that “anybody who doesn’t think the best hamburger in the world is in his hometown is a sissy.”  To its detractors, perhaps this is one explanation for Lota Burger’s popularity.

Judy owns the Village Grill in Moriarty

Judy owns the Village Grill in Moriarty

There’s no way you can ever call someone a sissy who smokes all his own meat and makes his own rubs and sauces, but Ryan Scott affirms that he’s not a sissy by Trillin’s criteria in declaring the hamburgers at the Village Grill in his hometown of Moriarty “the best I have ever had–and yes I have eaten at Bobcat Bite and other better known places.”   Better than Bobcat Bite!  I have friends who would call that audacious claim “fighting words.”

When I asked Ryan what made these burgers so special, he informed me that they are “hand-pounded and hand-formed daily.  There is a “toppings” bar and all the toppings are made fresh daily.  The owner is named Judy and she looks and cooks like your grandmother, and she consistently makes high quality burgers.  It’s simple food cooked the best way she knows how.  I’ve had nearly everything on the menu but the burgers shine the brightest.

The Village Grill sits on historic Route 66, the Mother Road which parallels I-40 through Moriarty, a ranch and farm community which celebrates America’s highway.  While the city has its share of the spangled neon signage so prevalent on Route 66, the Village Grill is almost entirely antithetical of the inviting luminescence which characterized the Mother Road.  That doesn’t mean the Village Grill looks out-of-place.  In fact, it looks as if it’s been there since the halcyon days of Route 66, albeit with a couple of facelifts.

The burger fixings bar

The burger fixings bar

The Village Grill opened on April 5, 2001 in an edifice which previously housed Chubby’s Restaurant which was built in 1988, so it’s a relatively new restaurant by Route 66 standards.  Though a novitiate in terms of chronology, the restaurant embodies the spirit of restaurants on Route 66 which characteristically served great food to weary travelers.

Judy McDonald is the Village Grill’s third owner, who does indeed look and cook like a grandmother (albeit a very young and spry grandmother).  She’s got that thick accent–make that drawl–a lot of New Mexicans east of Albuquerque pull off so well.  That would be people like New Mexico state attorney general Gary King whom we met at the restaurant during our inaugural visit.  Gary, like his father, former governor Bruce King and like our hostess Judy, has an endearing homespun charm and easy manner that gives one pause to ponder if life 37 miles east of the Big I inspires such affability.

The restaurant is, as Ryan Scott described it, a proverbial “hole in the wall.”  From the outside, the flax-colored structure has a beckoning feel to it.  Inside the most prominent color is a powder blue shade which covers most of the restaurant’s walls.  Festooned on those walls are framed photographs taken by Judy’s husband as well as glossy photographs of Hollywood luminaries.  The former are the type of photographs us amateurs wish we had the imagination and talent to capture.

Green chile cheeseburger at the Village Grill in Moriarty

Green chile cheeseburger at the Village Grill in Moriarty

Literally the first thing you see as you walk in is a counter separated by a soft-drink dispensing apparatus into “pick up” and “order” sections.  Above the counter is the menu, not a long menu by most restaurant standards, but a menu that packs them in.  A fellow diner and Moriarty resident told us the Village Grill is the most popular place in town Monday through Friday with lines out the door.

What the locals order most are burgers,  These are big burgers in which the beef extends beyond the buns.  It’s the type of beef that makes for the best burgers–hand-formed and nicely seasoned.  The buns are lightly toasted and the fixings bar is generous: two types of dill pickles, red and white onion, tomato, ketchup, mustard, pepperonici and more.  At the Village Grill you can truly have your burger your way.

My way is a green chile cheeseburger, the most popular sandwich in the Land of Enchantment.  Melted Cheddar cheese drapes over the beef and is covered by roasted green and red chile chopped finely.  Though the green chile has a nice flavor, it lacks the piquancy appreciated by food masochists like me who believe pain is a flavor.  Still, it’s easy to understand Ryan’s hometown pride in this excellent green chile cheeseburger.

Hamburger with French fries and onion rings at the Village Grill

Hamburger with French fries and onion rings at the Village Grill

A standard hamburger (sans cheese and green chile) is a better way to gauge how good the beef is–and how good a burger can be.  A little mustard, white onions and ketchup and you’ve got burger Nirvana.

All American accompaniment for the burgers can be found in the form of onion rings, French fries, potato salad and coleslaw.  The coleslaw is sweet and light on the salad cream which allows the crisp cabbage to shine.  The onion rings are crisp and sweet.

The Village Grill has a hamburger locals undoubtedly consider the very best in the world.  Moriarty has no place in it for sissies.

The Village Grill
136 Route 66 E
Moriarty, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Hamburger

Village Grill on Urbanspoon

Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Quesada's New Mexican Restaurant

Quesada's New Mexican Restaurant

When we get together, native New Mexicans of my generation who grew up in the state’s mountainous regions sometimes reminisce about trudging a mile or more in feet-deep snow to get to school.  We wonder how we survived the furious snowstorms which killed  reception for weeks to all four (yeah, four) Albuquerque television stations in the dark, pre-historic days before color television (not to mention, cable), the Internet and iPhones.

Mostly, we trumpet the fact that we were  weaned on chile–and not just any chile.  We grew up eating the most gastronomic distress-inducing, tongue-searing, sweat-arousing chile possible–the type of chile which embodies the axiom that with some New Mexican food, pain is a flavor.  Listen to us and we’ll  have you believe that in comparison, the  stuff served in most  New Mexican restaurants today is as wimpy as ketchup and as piquant as spaghetti sauce.

Salsa and Chips at Quesada's

Salsa and Chips at Quesada's

Thankfully, the Internet has provided visual–albeit Photoshop image manipulated–evidence of the incendiary stuff on which we were weaned. A frequently forwarded image on many computers depicts a jar of Gerber Picante Sauce, but instead of the familiar cherubic baby with the tousled hair, pursed lips and smiling eyes, the red-faced baby on the manipulated image is in obvious and alarming distress.

The truth is, there are few remaining New Mexican restaurants which serve chile as piquant as our memories tell us it once was.  In fact, most of the chile served today has just slightly more piquancy than the innocuous bell pepper which on the Scoville scale is the baseline for “no heat” (this makes it doubly funny to see tourists unable to handle our chile’s “heat”).  Sometimes the red chile just sits there like some flour-thickened food coloring while the green chile would be green with envy of  the heat generated by a Greek pepperoncini.  Most restaurants acquire their chile from one of two distributors and seem, for the most part, to order and serve chile of the “mild” variety.

Carne adovada, eggs and potatoes

Carne adovada, eggs and potatoes

Expecting chile to be fairly tame in most restaurants, about the most we can hope for is chile with that unmistakable New Mexico sun-blessed flavor we’ve all come to love.  New Mexican restaurants generally do a better job in the flavor department than in the province of piquancy.  For the most part, green chile has a freshly roasted flavor while red chile can be velvety, earthy and rich.  The operative terms here are “for the most part” and “can be.”  With few exceptions (Mary & Tito’s and their amazing red chile come to mind), you never know what you’re going to get.

We frankly didn’t know quite what to expect from Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant on San Mateo just north of Copper.  When he told me about Quesada’s, Steve Goatley described it as “a great little New Mexican cuisine restaurant” with “great food.”  He described the green chile as “being very tasty with a bit of a bite” and the carne adovada as “out of this world.”  For me, the proof is in the eating.

Carne Adovada Breakfast (Photo by Sergio Salvador)

Carne Adovada Breakfast (Photo by Sergio Salvador)

Quesada’s is housed in a small converted home on San Mateo just north of Copper, the same edifice which was once home to the Mediterranean Cafe, a rarity in the Duke City in that it served Tunisian and Moroccan entrees.  The restaurant has fewer than a dozen tables and the tables are of the two- to four-seat variety.  You’ll have to put two or three tables together to accommodate a larger group.  Fortunately the take-out traffic is robust because Quesada’s isn’t big enough to handle an overflow.  Parking is also a bit of a challenge, but you should be fine if you figure out how to navigate behind the restaurant.

Quesada’s is a true old-fashioned mom-and-pop restaurant.  It’s family-owned and operated by native New Mexicans.  The chef-proprietor is from Carlsbad, not exactly known as a hotbed for hot (or good) chile.  If the chile enhanced food at the restaurant is any example of the New Mexican food served in the gateway city to the world’s most accessible cave system, capsaicin craving foodies everywhere should descend upon Carlsbad like a colony of bats at a fruit-fly feast.

Three rolled enchiladas stuffed with roast beef, carne adovada and chicken

Three rolled enchiladas stuffed with roast beef, carne adovada and chicken

Before the menu is brought to your table, confusion might ensue as to whether Quesada’s is a New Mexican restaurant, a Mexican restaurant or a hybrid of the two.  On a table by the wait staff station are large jars, one filled with watermelon agua fresca ( a standard at Mexican restaurants) and one with ice tea.  A table tent lists such un-New Mexican specialties as hot and spicy barbecue ribs.  The menu, however, is mostly New Mexican: burritos, quesadillas (not a diminutive of Quesada), burgers, enchiladas, tacos, stuffed sopaipillas, combination platters, tamales, chile rellenos, flautas and more.  Everything–the salsa, aguas frescas, chile and more–is made from scratch from family recipes.

The salsa provided a precursor that we might be in for something special, something perfectly piquant and daringly delicious.  Quesada’s salsa has the type of incendiary bite that impresses itself on your taste buds, titillating them with piquancy, heat and flavor.  If Sadie’s Dining Room is the standard by which the Duke City’s hottest salsas are measured, Quesada’s may just set a new benchmark.  It’s not only piquant; it’s very flavorful, a red-orange jalapeno and tomato based sauce of medium thickness and maximum flavor.

Beauteous Burrito Christmas Style (Photo by Sergio Salvador)

Beauteous Burrito Christmas Style (Photo by Sergio Salvador)

As Steve Goatley told me, the carne adovada is indeed “out of this world.”  It’s the type of carne adovada my friend and frequent dining companion Ruben, an adovada adoring, carne connoisseur loves most (to find out how much, check out the amusing anecdote he relates in the feedback section below).  Unlike the salsa, the carne adovada doesn’t bite back.  The emphasis isn’t on piquancy, but on succulently tender pork marinated in a well-seasoned red chile.  For breakfast, it is served with two eggs and cubed, golden brown papitas.  If there’s one thing wrong with this carne adovada, it’s that there isn’t more of it.  A double-sized portion might not be enough to sate you; it’s good enough to make you weak at the knees.

Insofar as the chile, a worthy canvass for New Mexico’s favorite fruit and official state vegetable is Quesada’s enchilada plate–two or three white corn tortillas served rolled (flat upon request), topped with red or green chile (or Christmas style), cheese and that ubiquitous tomato and lettuce garnish so many people discard.  The chile is attention grabbing.  In its green chile hue, it has the tongue-tingling bite and roasted flavor of my youthful memories.  It also has a hint of sweetness that all members of the nightshade family seem to have, albeit not always discernible.  The red chile is not quite as piquant, but it’s even more flavorful–sweet and complex with a hint of earthiness.  Unlike the chile at Sadie’s which is more piquant than it is flavorful, the chile at Quesada’s is delicious first then piquant.  Ask for your enchilada plate to be topped by an egg for an additional flavor ameliorant, not that the chile needs any help.

Bunuelos at Quesada's New Mexican Restaurant

Bunuelos at Quesada's New Mexican Restaurant

Enchiladas are available in seemingly every variety but tofu.  There are cheese, ground beef, chicken, carne adovada and roast beef enchiladas available which you can mix and match in quantities of two or three.  The enchilada plate is served with the de rigueur beans and rice.  The beans are mashed and good.  The rice has a bit of a bite which places it in unique company considering most Spanish rice in New Mexican restaurants is bland and uninspired.

Quesada’s is one of only a few New Mexican restaurants offering buñuelos, a Mexican dessert made from fried dough.  In taste and texture, buñuelos resemble sopaipillas, but are flattened like Navajo tacos (which are also on the menu).  They are sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and are a good way to mollify any heat remaining on your taste buds and tongue.  Also quite good is the watermelon agua fresca, as refreshing and delicious a fresh water as we’ve had in New Mexico without the cloying quality of aguas frescas made by vendors.

Some readers of this blog have figured out that one way to gauge how much I like a restaurant is how soon after my first visit I make my first return visit.  After my first visit, I started craving Quesada’s carne adovada literally as we were driving away.  Alas, a scheduled lunch with my friend Ruben four days later was not to be due to my inattention (a woeful tale of my ineptitude is wonderfully related by Ruben in the feedback section below).  It wasn’t a total loss as Ruben loved the adovada…and made sure to tell me how much.

Carne Adovada Quesadilla with beans and rice

Carne Adovada Quesadilla with beans and rice

My second visit to Quesada’s  finally occurred five days after my inaugural visit when I introduced two other friends, Mike Muller and Bill Resnik to the chile that had so captivated me.  Carne adovada quesadillas were my choice.  A flour tortilla grilled crisp and folded over with melted cheese and generously engorged with carne adovada, it was melt-in-your-mouth good, one of the best quesadillas I’ve had in the Duke City.  The carne is the color of a magnificent sunset, the result of being marinated for hours in chile so good I could drink a vat of it.  The chile used on the carne adovada isn’t nearly as piquant as the chile served on other entrees.  In fact, it’s not a piquant chile, but it is so utterly delicious that you’ll fall in love with it.

The red chile at Quesada’s is so good, in fact, that the best way to have what would otherwise be a green chile cheeseburger is Christmas style–with both red and green chile.  The beef patty exceeds the circumference of the bun, spilling over by at least a half-inch.  Lettuce and tomato are the sole toppings but squeeze bottles of mustard and ketchup are also brought to your table so you can apply as much as you’d like.  The red chile is easily the star, so good that the best way to have this burger is smothered with the stuff.  Come to think of it, the French fries would be better smothered in the red chile, too.

Most of the highest heralded green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico don’t seem to be prepared in New Mexican food restaurants.  That’s not to say those restaurants who excel in enchiladas and boast of the best burritos can’t make a great green chile cheeseburger; it’s just that they’re not as renown for the most popular burger in the Land of Enchantment as they are for other entrees.  Quesada’s burger is good, but honestly, its other New Mexican food entrees are so much better that I’ll leave green chile cheeseburgers to purveyors who have perfected them.  Similarly I won’t order red chile at the restaurants who specialize in the green chile cheeseburger.  Red chile is what Quesada’s is for.

Quesada's green chile cheeseburger

Quesada's green chile cheeseburger

Not only does Quesada’s trigger memories of the chile of my youth, it elicited the promise of new memories at what promises to be one of my favorite New Mexican restaurants.

Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 August 2009
1st VISIT:  26 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carne Adovada, Enchiladas, Aguas Frescas

Quesada's New Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Pars Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pars Cuisine on the northwest corner of I25 and Jefferson east of Singer

Pars Cuisine on the northwest corner of I25 and Jefferson east of Singer

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”

– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The imagery inspired by this enduring poem–most notably “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou”–can be read on so many levels–some literal and some allegorical.  In the literal sense, these few lines may evoke images of a romantic dalliance in an idyllic wilderness, its lines undoubtedly kindling intense ardor.  In the allegorical sense, some scholars believe one of the core themes of The Rubaiyat is a reiteration of a passage from The Gospel of Luke: “eat, drink and be merry.”

Focusing solely on the literal translation, perhaps the modern day urban equivalent of a romantic outdoors tryst is a meal at Pars Cuisine which specializes in the Persian food Khayyam enjoyed during his time.  At Pars (synonymous with Persian), that cuisine is served in a milieu which may inspire a little romance in its own right.

A beautiful ambience at Pars Cuisine

A beautiful ambience at Pars Cuisine

When Pars opened its doors in 1984, it wasn’t exactly a restaurant which inspired romantic date night moments.  Ensconced in a tiny Montgomery Plaza storefront with a seating capacity of only 13 tables, few visitors lingered at the diminutive diner to look lovingly into their date’s eyes after a movie at the now defunct Montgomery Plaza Theater.  Most of their affection was directed toward the inspired Persian, Greek and Turkish cuisine.

When they first launched Pars Cuisine a quarter of a century ago, owners Mohammad and Shahnaz Tafti operated under a unique business model.  Mohammad worked as a teacher while Shahnaz worked for the city.  He ran the restaurant at night while she ran it in the daytime.  Their cuisine was too good and their drive to succeed too focused to be contained in a small setting.

In 2001, the Taftis moved to their current location adjacent to the Interstate (I-25).  Now situated at 4320 The 25 Way, N.E., a sprawling office and retail complex exemplifying urban infill at its best, Pars Cuisine was transformed from a great place to grab a gyros to an upscale, fine-dining restaurant everyone in the city wanted to experience.  When Pars launched at its new location, it was the toughest ticket in town (with all due respect to Lobo basketball).

Mini Mazeh Combination for two people

Mini Mazeh Combination for two people

After five years, Pars Cuisine expanded again.  A two-year, $150,000 expansion nearly doubled seating capacity to 120 guests and more importantly, made each meal experience even more memorable.  The luxurious offerings now include a banquet room available with a capacity of up to 50 for private or corporate parties. The private banquet room includes full bar, music, decor and some of the best service in town.

The expansion also meant the inclusion on the menu of special green, white and black teas prepared at a Samovar bar (Samovar refers to the artful heating unit used to heat the tea).  The Samovar bar menu lists large premium tea leaves, espresso, specialty drinks, international and domestic beer and wine. You can partake of those teas out in the patio or in one of two private tea rooms.

The restaurant’s epicenter is one of the most opulent and classy settings in town, where families and couples sit together on a cushioned floor under a billowing silk tent and listen to the bubbling fountain while they partake of exquisite cuisine.  Chair-backs on each cushion provide comfort and support.  This beautiful backdrop is visible from other more conventional seating areas.

Falafel with a yogurt sauce

Falafel with a yogurt sauce

If you’re looking for something even more exotic, you can move out to the hookah bar on the outdoor patio where you can choose from an assortment of shishas, tobaccos combined with fruit and molasses or honey.  Flavors include mint, jasmine, mango and the restaurant’s best-seller, a mixture of red and green apples.

Exotic entertainment is available on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6:30PM through closing when belly dancers perform.  While some prudish Americans hold belly dancers in the same esteem as ecdysiasts writhing around a pole, others find it strangely mesmerizing–although most men will admit the challenge of keeping their eyes focused solely on the dancer’s undulating movements which are both sensual and artistic.

The lunch menu is offered Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 3PM, but dinner entrees can also be served at any time upon request.  Both the lunch and dinner menu are ambitious, a wondrous compendium of Middle Eastern delicacies prepared as wonderfully as you’ll find them anywhere in the city.

Soltani serves 1-2 people

Soltani serves 1-2 people

Many couples start with the Mini Mazeh, a combination plate for two, a treasure trove of six sumptuous appetizers: dolmas, hummus, feta cheese and Kalamata olives, falafel, mast o’khiyar and kashk o’bademjoon served with pita bread.  The dolmas are the sole appetizer not made on the premises, a fairly common practice in Mediterranean restaurants who don’t always have the time and inclination to perform the arduous, labor-intensive task.  The falafel is among the very best in the city, two moist oblong seasoned chickpea fritters that are antithetical to most you’ll find in Albuquerque in that they’re actually excellent.

The Mast o’Khiyar, a traditional Iranian side dish made with mint, cucumber and yogurt is served cool and is very much reminiscent of Greek tzatziki.  The Kashk o’bademjoon, a puree of toasted eggplant with sauteed onions, garlic, mint and kashk (Persian cream) is rich and delicious.  The hummus is simply sublime, a perfect puree of garbanzo beans, garlic, sesame butter, lemon juice and olive oil.  This combination plate is one of the Duke City’s very best ways to start a meal.

Combinations seem to work very well at Pars where an entree platter for one or two people is one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings.  The Soltani is a marriage of barg (skewered filet mignon or chicken breast) and kabob koobideh (skewered seasoned organic beef) broiled under an open fire.  Served with grilled tomato and the best saffron-tinged basmati rice in the city, it is plated artistically and covers a large platter.

Fesenjoon--sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce, a fabulous stew!

Fesenjoon--sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce, a fabulous stew!

The filet mignon is perfectly seasoned, moist and tender.  Make that fork-tender.  So is the kabob which is also juicy and spiced very well with Mediterranean spices that don’t impart the piquancy New Mexicans tend to associate with spiciness.  If it’s not already on your table, ask for sumac, a purplish maroon spice with an interesting tart-savory flavor akin to a mix of paprika and lemon.  Lavish it on the filet mignon and the kabob and thank me later.

I’m thankful for the encyclopedic knowledge of a veteran waiter who pointed me toward the Fesenjoon, a stew made with sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce served with chicken and basmati rice.  Though the combination of pomegranates and walnuts is unusual in American dishes, it is a popular Persian combination.  The Fesenjoon, which is simultaneously delicate and rich, is often used as a meat condiment or dip.  As a stew entree, it is also unbeatable.

The chicken is three cut-up boneless breasts (or at least portions thereof) topped with a thick “gravy” of pomegranates and walnuts.  That gravy has a slightly tangy, but absolutely rich and delicious flavor.  It’s unlike any other stew in the Duke City with the characteristic heart and soul-warming qualities that make stew an endearing comfort food favorite.  It’s so good, you might have to force yourself to order something else.

Housemade Key Lime Pie at Pars Cuisine

Housemade Key Lime Pie at Pars Cuisine

The basmati rice at most restaurants doesn’t usually warrant mention, but Pars basmati is in a class by itself.  It is lightly coated with oil or more likely butter which prevented the rice from clumping.  Every long grain of rice can be picked up by itself without bothering its neighbor grain.  It’s wholly unlike the dry, boring rice other restaurants serve.

Desserts also have a personality all their own.  With few exceptions, they’re made in-house by Shahnaz, the culinary heart of the restaurant.  They’re also not made in the cloying, sugar-overdosed manner of many American desserts.  Instead, desserts are sweetened by rosewater.  Sometimes known as rose syrup, rosewater is a by-product of the production of rose oil which is used in perfume.

Rosewater has a very distinctive flavor and is heavily used in Persian cuisine, especially in desserts.  The Pars menu includes traditional Persian ice cream which is housemade vanilla ice cream with pistachio, saffron and rosewater.  As appetizing as it sounds, the savvy waitstaff will often offer a sample to children wanting to try it.  It prevents trauma among children who haven’t been previously exposed to rosewater and its distinctive (but thoroughly delicious) differences.

Persian style baklava

Persian style baklava

Also among the dessert offerings are baklava–both the traditional Greek baklava and Persian baklava which is made with rosewater, but not with phyllo dough.  The Persian baklava is topped with ground pistachios and isn’t nearly as sweet as its honey-flavored Greek counterpart.

The key lime pie, also made in-house, is one of the best pies of any sort in New Mexico, a rich, tangy and thoroughly enjoyable treat. It is kept in a special refrigerator to prevent it from melting.  That’s how rich it is.

Omar Khayyam may not have written any his lyrical magic specifically for Pars Cuisine, but the spirit of his words live on with every dining excursion to one of Albuquerque’s very best Mediterranean restaurants–make that one of the best restaurants of any genre.

Pars Cuisine
4320 The Way, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-5156
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 1 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mini Mazeh Combination, Falafel, Fesenjoon, Soltani, Persian Paklava, Key Lime Pie

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