Duke’s Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Duke's Steakhouse at the Far North Shopping Center (Academy and San Antonio)

Duke's Steakhouse at the Far North Shopping Center (Academy and San Mateo

Did you ever see the customers in health-food stores? They are pale, skinny people who look half dead.
In a steak house, you see robust, ruddy people. They’re dying, of course, but they look terrific
.”
-Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby probably didn’t have actor Robert Mitchum in mind when describing the type of people who visit steak houses.  Heralded by movie critic Roger Ebert as “one of the greatest actors of all time,” the masculine Mitchum was certainly robust (evincing strength and vigorous health) and ruddy (inclined to a healthy reddish color often associated with outdoor life), but he wasn’t the type of he-man you might envision in a steak house.  Presiding over a campfire, yes, but sitting down at a restaurant, no.

Over an open flame, Mitchum would, of course, be grilling a sizzling, flame-kissed slab of thick, red beef destined to overfill his plate.  There would be no vegetables in sight nor would you find a tablecloth, candles or soft music.  With the rousing composition “Rodeo” playing in the background, Mitchum would be heard to say, “Beef.  It’s what’s for dinner!”

Largely through Robert Mitchum’s compelling voiceovers, the American Beef Council has been telling America beef is what’s for dinner for more than a quarter-century.  Thanks to its increased availability, not only is beef for dinner, Americans are eating it for breakfast, lunch and brunch, too.  They’re eating it at home and at restaurants, at picnics and at special events, on paper plates and on fine china.  There’s a steak priced just right for every wallet or purse.

One of the first things you see at Duke's is a refrigerator showcasing both a 72-ounce and a 44-ounce steak

One of the first things you see when you step into Duke's is a refrigerator showcasing both a 72-ounce and a 44-ounce steak

Until recent years, Duke City beef buffs wanting sizzling steaks at an economy price were, with few exceptions, forced to choke down the artery-clogging, gristly, anemically flavored mediocrity that passes as steak at a plethora of chain steak restaurants.  Ironically some of those restaurants are named after manly western television shows of yore–classic shows which deserve better than their names taken in vain.

In the summer of 2009, Duke’s Steakhouse, a steak restaurant at the economy to mid-point price range opened at the Far North Shopping Center in the space that previously housed Athens Eclectic Cuisine.  Interestingly, Duke’s is within a couple of miles of two comparably priced restaurants which closed in the late 1990s: Austin’s Steakhouse and the Copper Creek Steakhouse.  Duke’s reminds me of the former.

As with Athens Eclectic Cuisine, Duke’s Steakhouse is owned by Gus Petropoulos, an entrepreneur who prior to setting up shop in Albuquerque, owned six restaurants in Florida, including an affordable steak restaurant.  He must have seen something in the economic winds when deciding to convert from a gourmet Greek restaurant to an affordable steak house.

A complementary bucket of peanuts means you might not order appetizers

A complementary bucket of peanuts means you might not order appetizers

The first thing you see after stepping into the restaurant’s anteroom is a decorative wagon wheel underneath which is a faux vanity plate reading “New Mexico Beef is Great.”  The New Mexico Beef Council would certainly agree with that assertion as would anyone who’s sampled the beef which grazes on northern New Mexico’s lush, verdant mountain pastures.

Enter the restaurant and to your immediate right is a large refrigerated display case which showcases Flintstone sized slabs of beef.  Even the most prolific gurgitator will be intimidated at the 72-ounce steak, a gargantuan steak the size of a large roast.  Similar to the world-famous Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, Duke’s Steakhouse offers a challenge to prolific eaters.  Finish the 72-ounce (that’s a whopping four and a half pounds) steak and all the trimmings (salad, two vegetables, dessert, bread and a skewer of shrimp) in an hour or less and the meal is on the house.  Fail and you owe the house $72.

The 72-ounce mountain of meat dwarfs a 44-ounce steak next to it on the display case.  Both are hand-cut and aged sirloin marinated with olive oil and fresh herbs.  Brawny beef isn’t exclusive to Duke’s steaks.  Behemoth “Ol West” burgers offer their own challenges, the type of which caloric overachievers relish.

Honey glazed bread and soft butter

Honey glazed bread and soft butter

Now you might think a burger called “Motherload” would be Duke’s most substantial burger, but at a half-pound, it’s a bitty burger.  “Duke’s Signature Cheeseburger” weighs in at a whopping three pounds.  It includes “lots of lettuce, tomato, Cheddar cheese, green chili, onions, mustard, a pickle spear and the restaurant’s signature green-chile mayonnaise.  If you feel shortchanged, you can add on several optional ingredients.

The appetizers on Duke’s menu are pretty standard economy-priced starters: buffalo wings, loaded potato skins, onion petals, chicken strips, fried mushrooms, red chili poppers, fried mozzarella cheese and a combination of the aforementioned artery-hardeners.  Three “garden fresh”salads occupy the column opposite the mostly fried appetizers.

Steaks range in size from a smallish USDA choice seven-ounce sirloin to the humongous hunks of meat previously described, but there are plenty of cuts in the more reasonable 10-, 12- and 16-ounce sizes.  Carnivores can also order jumbo grilled pork chops, filet mignon kababs and a number of barbecue entrees.  Some desserts are served in small metal buckets, the type in which complimentary salted peanuts are provided.

A rack of ribs with two sides: baked potato and baked beans

A rack of ribs with two sides: baked potato and baked beans

Normal eaters might have to exercise caution not to fill up on the complimentary bucket of salted peanuts in the shell brought to your table.  In days past restaurants serving such peanuts considered it ambience to allow their customers to discard the empty shells on the floor.  I surmise a costly litigious settlement courtesy of someone slipping and falling on the floor may be the reason this practice belongs to the past.  Either that or Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department and their dreaded red stickers scared peanut-providing restauranteurs straight.

After placing your order, a roundish loaf of honey-glazed bread with soft butter will be brought to your table.  Despite the sharpness of a serrated knife, the bread doesn’t slice cleanly and is apt to leave crumbs all over your table.  It’s not the soft, doughy bread that goes so well with soft butter, but it’s a good “sopping up” bread for excess barbecue sauce (more on that later).

The entree your order will determine the number of sides accompanying your entree.  Available sides are bbq beans, curly seasoned fries, garlic-basil mashed potatoes, country coleslaw, rice pilaf, baked potato, sweet potato, sauteed garden vegetables and sauteed mushrooms.  You can load up your baked or mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon for under a dollar if you wish.

A twelve-ounce New York Strip with sauteed mushrooms and a baked potato

A twelve-ounce New York Strip with sauteed mushrooms and a baked potato

Difficult to resist, impossible not to love (at least among barbecue aficionados), baby back ribs are often a good test of a barbecue restaurant’s mettle.  With meat between and on top of the bone, a rack of baby back ribs follows the contours of a pig’s rib cage which tapers so that the rack is smaller on one end than on the other.  The perfect rack tapers, in fact, like the bamboo Zampona, an Andean instrument made in Peru.  A typical rack of baby backs contains a minimum of eight ribs and generally includes as many as 13 ribs depending on the butcher.

Duke’s menu touts their baby backs as “our signature baby backs,” and describes them on the menu as “our incredibly tender baby back ribs are charcoal grilled and basted in our delicious homemade BBQ sauce.”  Alas, our waitress broke my heart in telling me the “baby backs” were actually larger pork ribs–so large, in fact, that the rack of ribs extended beyond the plate on which they were served.  The Flintstone-sized ribs were meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, but the annoying membrane made it difficult to cut and separate one rib from the other.

The “do you remove the membrane or not” question has long been debated by better grillers than I. Leave the membrane on and your ribs are going to hold much more of their natural juices, but that messy annoyance of separating ribs can be an exercise in frustration.  The sauce is more tangy than sweet and it’s generously applied though not so late in the preparation that it’s dry (or worse, lacquered on).  It is still so moist, you’ll need several wipes to remove the evidence off your hands and face.

Bread pudding topped with a mound of whipped cream

Bread pudding topped with a mound of whipped cream

My two sides–a loaded baked potato and baked beans–suffered from the same cooking faux-pas.  Both were just slightly undercooked–not so much that they were inedible, but enough that it was noticeable.  Signs of a perfectly baked potato include a skin just crispy enough that it begins to separate from the fluffy potato inside.  My preference is for the asada style potatoes offered by some Mexican restaurants, but it’s steak restaurants with which people tend to associate baked potatoes.  As such, there’s no excuse for underdone potatoes.

My Kim asked for a twelve-ounce New York strip steak with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides and boy did she ever get what she asked for.  It was a bit too garlicky for me, but my Kim likes her food garlicky enough to ward off werewolves.  The steak was tender, juicy and perfectly prepared at medium.  It was much better than the type of steak you might find at the chains which dare to co-opt the names of classic western television shows.

Instead of a bucket dessert, we opted for bread pudding which turned out to be more bread than pudding.  It lacked the characteristics of great bread puddings: moistness, balance of flavors and that “wow” factor you’ll find in the bread pudding at one of Albuquerque’s best purveyors of bread pudding, Barry’s Oasis.

Duke’s Steakhouse fills a niche.  It offers budget-priced steak in a fairly stereotypical milieu (country music, cowboy accoutrements, wood paneling, etc.).  It’s a better steakhouse than the economy chains and it’s a fun restaurant to visit. Duke’s is open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday from 11AM to 9PM and Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM.

Duke’s Steakhouse
6300 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-2900
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bucket of Peanuts, New York Strip, Sauteed Mushrooms

Duke's Steakhouse and Ribs on Urbanspoon

Lotus Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Lotus Cafe: Thai Cuisine and More

Lotus Cafe: Thai Cuisine and More

Balance.  The Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region have a word for it: “hózhó.”  The word embodies the idea of striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order.  Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.

Balance.  America’s favorite everyman philosopher Homer J. Simpson might define it as “a donut in each hand.”  Obviously politicians discussing the budget should definite it as something unachievable, an ephemeral concept, a meaningless and baseless promise uttered simply to mollify their constituency.  The dictionary might define it as a state of equilibrium.

Balance.  The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter.  Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.

Gigantic fish tank

Gigantic fish tank atop altar to Buddha

Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced.  In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary.  In Thai red curry, for example, the ingredients are a red chili paste (spicy), coconut milk (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and lemongrass or lime leaves (sour), covering four of five basic tastes.  Striking the optimum balance between these tastes is an art, some might say magic.

The most skillful of Thai cooks rely far less on precise measurements to arrive at the exacting levels and quantities of each ingredient used to craft that balance.  Instead, they tend to rely on years of experience and taste to achieve the optimal balance in ingredients that results in utter deliciousness.  We didn’t have the opportunity to check, but it’s a good bet you won’t find measuring cups in Diana Nguyen’s kitchen in Albuquerque’s Lotus Cafe–and if you do find them, they’re probably decorative.

Diana is the owner of one of the Duke City’s best (the best according to Sneaky Sunday.com) Thai restaurants.  Ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on Osuna just west of San Mateo, it’s not situated in a well-trafficked area which could account for its relatively low profile among casual Thai cuisine fans.  Among true aficionados–those who discern and appreciate the balance of flavors in a great Thai entree–however, it is very well known.

Grilled Mushrooms

Grilled Mushrooms with a peanut sauce

Diana is originally from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Interestingly, the Lotus Cafe doesn’t showcase the wonderful foods of Laos, but features several Chinese and Korean dishes along with a compendium of Thai dishes.

Despite being the country’s most common flower, the lotus for which Diana’s cafe is named plays an integral part in Thai life where it is not only prevalent in literature, but is associated with heavenly beings. Buddhists use the lotus in paying homage to the image of Buddha and Brahman goddesses are generally portrayed with lotus blooms in their hands.  The Lotus Cafe has two altars to Buddha, one beneath the fish tank in which marine life busily swims.  Food offerings to Buddha are visible on both altars.

Being diminutive in size has a definite advantage for the Lotus Cafe–the captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen are confined to a smaller space.  The entire restaurant is an olfactory arousing denizen of flavors and aromas wafting out of the kitchen with the irresistible appeal of a siren’s call.  The traditional Navajo prayer “Walk In Beauty” seems remarkably appropriate for this Thai restaurant.  To step into the Lotus Cafe is to walk among beauty, a restaurant with beguiling art on the walls.  It’s an immaculate milieu in which to enjoy a well-paced meal.

Thai Chicken Wings

Thai Chicken Wings

Even the large refrigerator that separates diners from the kitchen is more than functional.  Its shelves are meticulous with canned beverages (including durian and coconut drinks) lined up in orderly formation like Air Force cadets.  Atop the refrigerator, you’ll find gleaming silver tureens, a clay sculpture of elephants frolicking in the mud and silk lotus blossoms, all arranged in a decorative and meticulous manner.  Dare I say, even the functional arrangements are balanced.

Service is attentive without being obtrusive–“in the moment” when you need something in the manner of excellent service providers everywhere.  If you’re uncertain as to what to order, they will gladly make suggestions without being pushy about it.  Our waitress, for example, noticing our dilemma in selecting from among the twenty or so appetizers, recommended the grilled mushroom appetizer, a starter we may or may not have seen at other Thai restaurants, but strangely had not considered ordering

Our adventure in balance began with three skewers, each impaling four organic char-broiled mushroom caps inheriting a golden sheen from an oyster sauce. Served with ground peanuts in a sweet and sour sauce, the mushrooms were an absolute delight!  The fleshy fungi were perfectly prepared, as light and delicate as any we’ve had while retaining a just picked freshness.  The oyster sauce imbued them with a subtle sweetness wholly different than the sweetness attained by dipping each mushroom into the piquant sweet and sour sauce.  Balance is achieved!

Green Curry Catfish

Green Curry Catfish

Six chicken wings marinated in Thai herbs and deep-fried to a crispy golden hue also achieved a nice balance of flavors.  The wings are enrobed in a light, slightly sweet batter that seals in the chicken’s inherent juiciness.  The Lotus chicken sauce is the color of honey, but it packs a piquant potency.  You can have Buffalo wings if you want them.  I’ll take these any day.

The menu is divided into thirteen sections, but rather than experiencing triskaidekaphobia, thirteen will be your lucky number: appetizers, Thai Tom Yum Soup, Thai Pho, Thai Yum Salad, Thai Curry, Thai Fried Rice, Thai Stir-Fried Noodles, Fish Lover, Chinese Dishes, Korean Dishes, Beverages and Desserts.  There are several items heretofore unseen in Albuquerque Thai restaurants.

For me, the true test of a Thai restaurant is how well they prepare curry dishes.  Unfortunately too many of the Duke City’s Thai restaurants tend to “Americanize” their curry dishes by making them almost cloying in their sweetness.  Though they may heat things up a bit with Thai chilis, the overwhelming flavor of many Thai curries tends to be sweetness.

Bulgogi

Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea

As with many Americans, particularly machismo fanatical New Mexican men, my preference for curry is with plenty of piquancy. Lotus Cafe will accommodate the thrill-seekers among us whose palates are accustomed to the burning sensation of chili enhanced curry dishes.  That being said, to distill curry so that it emphasizes one flavor sensation, particularly the heat of chili, is to dumb it down, to strip if of the layers of flavor, not to mention culture, history and balance.  Preparing a curry that focuses too much on heat is to obfuscate the glorious complexity curry has to offer.

The Lotus Cafe did an excellent job in striking the balance I like in my curry.  My green curry catfish dish showcased my precious piquancy while retaining the luxurious richness of coconut milk, the lip-puckering kiss of lime juice, the floral aroma of green peppers and so forth.  The catfish had no batter therefore absorbing the flavors of the curry while retaining the moistness of a well-prepared fish.  Served with jasmine rice, this is a curry dish to be savored slowly though it will leave a lasting impact on your taste buds.

The Korean section of the menu includes eight dishes starting with Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea.  Bulgogi  is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.  Though not a Thai dish, we were surprised at how balanced in flavors the Lotus Cafe prepares “Korean barbecue.”

Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream

Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream

When it comes to dessert, some of my chef friends tend to downplay just how formidable and delicious Thai desserts can be.  That’s probably because most traditional Thai desserts are relatively simple.  An example of simple ingredients melding together to form a sublime explosion of flavors is Lotus Cafe’s Sticky Rice with Coconut Ice Cream.  The sticky rice is purplish, the result of boiling black rice with sticky rice for hours.  Unlike some sticky rice which can be sticky and even mushy, this has a nutty, crunchy texture that makes it a pleasure to eat.  The hot rice is a wonderful contrast to the cold ice cream, melting it into a creamy custard-like consistency.  This is a dessert we’ll be back for.

Plating at the Lotus Cafe is an eye-pleasing art form. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, appearance and yes, balance. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know

Lotus Cafe is the perfect restaurant when you need a little balance in your life.

Lotus Cafe
5554 Osuna Road, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Sticky Rice with Thai Coconut Ice Cream, Green Curry Catfish, Bulgogi, Grilled Mushrooms, Thai Chicken Wings

Lotus Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saigon Far East – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saigon Far East on San Pedro

Saigon Far East on San Pedro

Breaking a paradigm.  That’s a modern corporate buzz phrase that essentially means approaching a situation or routine from a different perspective instead of the standard or typical way.  In the parlance of dining out, breaking a paradigm means eating somewhere other than the “usual suspects.”  That  means getting out of your rut and visiting a restaurant you’ve never visited, especially one  that no one has recommended to you.

Breaking a paradigm is eating at a restaurant like Saigon Far East,  one of Albuquerque’s most venerable Vietnamese restaurants.  Despite being around for nearly a quarter of a century, Saigon Far East is surprisingly not very well known.    It wasn’t mentioned a single time by any of the 60 plus respondents to a “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Town” discussion on the Duke City Fix’s “Chow Down in Burque Town” group which tends to be very well-versed on all matters culinary.

Saigon Far East

A beautiful and functional pergola at Saigon Far East

If you’ve ever visited Giovanni’s Pizzeria in its nondescript San Pedro shopping center, you may have noticed Saigon Far East on the northeast corner.  Like its host timeworn shopping center, it has seen better days and indeed may have been quite stylish when it first launched in 1987 with its beckoning pagoda style roof painted over its door.

Being in a windowless building might account for why some see Saigon Far East as an ominous, maybe mysterious restaurant.  It definitely doesn’t have the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate the Duke City’s restaurant scene. It doesn’t need any of that superficiality.

Two Happy Rolls

Two Aptly Named Happy Rolls

The restaurant’s interior is somewhat more appealing than its exterior facade.  Chinese style lanterns illuminate the cavernous dining room and hanging plants suspended from the ceiling add color.  The center of the large room is dominated by a pergola, a purplish, roof-less structure resembling an uncompleted porch.  An adjacent room serves as a pool hall.

So who frequents Saigon Far East?  It’s popular with employees of the Veterans Administration, Lovelace Hospital, Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Air National Guard–veterans like Carlos Apodaca and his fellow Guardsmen who eat there every drill weekend.  It’s been my experience that veterans of the armed forces aren’t scared off by foreboding windowless buildings or by exotic cuisine.  If you want to know where to eat, ask a well-traveled veteran.

Stir Fried Green Mussels in a Garlic and Ginger Sauce

Stir Fried Green Mussels in a Garlic and Ginger Sauce

When Carlos wrote to tell me about some of  Saigon Far East’s treasures, I knew instantly one of my paradigms would be broken–a long overdue visit to that mysterious old restaurant on San Pedro.  Carlos suggested that we leave our dining experience in the hands of Kim.

Kim, it turns out, is the restaurant’s caretaker.  She has been running Saigon Far East since its owner Diane Nguyen passed away in 2008.   A petite lady with boundless energy, Kim has an intimate knowledge of the menu and can be counted on for recommending something great (although I surmise that’s an easy task with a menu as broad-reaching.)

SaigonFarEast10

Imperial Rolls from Saigon Far East

Broad-reaching means a menu replete with appetizers, entrees and desserts we haven’t seen at other Vietnamese restaurants.  Considering Albuquerque has so many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, surprises are rare.  Saigon Far East is full of surprises.

One of those surprises is  ginger limeade, a refreshing beverage with the salubrious flavor of concentrated ginger.  At many Vietnamese restaurants, ginger is only hinted at when ginger limeade is offered.  At Saigon Far East, it’s the lime that plays a supporting role.  This limeade is neither too savory or too sweet or even too tart, but if you’re a fan of strong, aromatic ginger, you’ll love this brackish-colored drink because it’s all about ginger.

The beauteous Kim delivers pho to our table

The vivacious Kim delivers pho to our table

Similar to other Vietnamese restaurants, Saigon Far East offers both fried (imperial) rolls and fresh spring rolls made with thin, translucent flour wrappers which are never fried.  Both are available as vegetarian options.  Among the spring rolls, the Happy Roll is a nice surprise.  Although it sounds like a sushi roll, it’s essentially a traditional Vietnamese spring roll engorged with vegetables and shrimp.  The surprise here is the inclusion of grilled beef.

The Imperial Rolls, a sobriquet bestowed by the French, are wholly unlike the simple, translucent spring rolls.  They are wrapped in rice paper as opposed to the more conventional Chinese egg roll wrapper.  One of the true signs of a Vietnamese Imperial Roll is that one of its ingredients is taro, a starchy root.  Other ingredients include pork, shrimp and fresh herbs. Served two per order on a decorative lettuce leaf, they are quite good.

Honey Roasted Quail

Honey Roasted Quail

An even more pleasant surprise is the accompanying sauce.  It’s wholly unlike most of the fish sauce generally offered with spring rolls which tends to be very sweet.  While Saigon Far East’s rendition does have the characteristic sweetness, it is much more piquant with chili seeds floating on the vinegary mixture alongside julienned carrots.  The sauce also doesn’t have the pronounced “fishy” taste of some nuoc mam.

Another appetizer sure to sate the discerning diner are the stir-fried green mussels in a basil and garlic sauce.  The artful star-shaped arrangement of six New Zealand green lip mussels swimming in a piquant sauce speaks volumes about the restaurant’s plating.  This is not only a delicious appetizer, it is a beautiful one as well.   Minced cilantro, garlic, red pepper, scallions and ginger coalesce to enliven the bivalve mollusks with flavor as well as color and texture.

Stir-fried Noodles with Barbecue Pork in a Ginger and Garlic Sauce

Stir-fried Noodles with Barbecue Pork in a Ginger and Garlic Sauce

The French influenced yet another traditional Vietnamese appetizer, honey-roasted quail–two perfectly roasted and impeccably seasoned quail.  This is the epitome of finger-licking good. That’s due, in part, to the delicately small quail itself, which by virtue of its size has to be held by both hands even as you nibble tiny bites of the sinewy flesh.  A slice of lime is squeezed onto small plate of spices (salt, pepper, garlic and more) to provide a unique dipping sauce which impacts a wonderful flavor to the quail.

Sensational soups are a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine and it seems all the best soups are celebrated on Saigon Far East’s multi-page menu.  Vietnamese soups  showcase a rich, flavorful broth in a  swimming pool sized bowl big enough to feed a small family.  The broth is like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails the partaker.   It invigorates the senses and tantalizes the taste buds.

Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong (an egg noodle soup with various ingredients)

Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong (an egg noodle soup with various ingredients)

The most popular soup is pho (pronounced pha or phuh), a soup of beef and rice noodles.  It’s become so popular among non-Asians that the Campbell Soup Company is introducing a commercially prepared pho aimed at mainstream eateries.  Pho promises to continue to grow in popularity as an ethnic food trend.

American tastes which gravitate toward the piquant will absolutely love Saigon Far East’s Hu Tieu Sate, a spicy bowl of rice noodle soup which the menu promises “will make your mouth water and your body sweat as soon as you taste it.”  This rice noodle pho rare features slices of paper-thin eye round that cook directly in the hot spiced soup.  It is the perfect pick-me-up, a pho on par nearly as good as the best Cafe Dalat and May Hong have to offer (although nothing can compare with the spicy beef stew at Dalat and May Hong).

Vermicelli Noodles with Barbecue Pork

Vermicelli Noodles with Barbecue Pork

This soup is rich and fragrant, sweet and savory, piquant and intensely beefy with a comforting balance of vegetables and thick noodles.  There’s a burst of flavor with every spoonful.   The pho is accompanied by the usual herbal trimmings (mint, basil, cilantro and bamboo sprouts) and one surprise–banana blossoms.  If the quality of its broth is the true measure of greatness in pho, the fresh herbal accompaniment is like the proverbial cherry on top, the only possible way to improve on near perfection.

Another terrific soup, one replete with an astounding number of ingredients is an egg noodle soup (#M1 on the menu) named Mi Dac Biet Vien Dong.  It’s Saigon Far East’s special combination bowl of prawn shrimp, BBQ pork, fish ball, crab and quail egg in a tasty clear broth.  Instead of a side bowl with the aforementioned herbal trimmings, the herbs are already on the soup.  You can have this soup prepared to your exacting specification of spiciness, up to and including the level of pain.  It’s a delicious soup, absolutely perfect for wintery days.  It comes with an “Asian Donut” which is wholly unlike anything you’ll ever see at Krispy Kreme.  If anything, it tastes more like a sopaipilla than any dessert donut.  Because the soup arrives at your table steaming hot, the donut comes in handy for dipping into the ambrosiatic broth.

Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice

Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice

Stir-fried rice noodles are not only tasty, they’re fun to eat as they’re reconstituted by the sauce with which they’re served.  Case in point, Saigon Far East’s stir-fried rice noodles with barbecue pork in a garlic and ginger sauce.  The noodles start off crunchy and dry, but stir them just a bit and they reacquire the soft noodle texture so typical in soups.  Scallions, onion and cilantro provide a sweet and savory balance while the barbecue pork is just plain deliciousness.

So are the vermicelli noodle bowls all served with fresh shredded lettuce, cucumber, basil and bean sprouts garnished with carrots, peanuts and grilled onions.  Meat or seafood options include a marinated, sliced BBQ grilled pork which blankets the wide bowl in which this entree is served.  The BBQ grilled pork is more savory than sweet as it should be.  You can douse this dish with as little or as much fish sauce as you’d like.   It’s an entree that combines Vietnamese staples such as noodles, vegetables and sauces in a surprisingly interesting and delicious manner.

Young tofu in ginger

Young tofu in ginger

Saigon Far East offers several fried rice options including a Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice that combines shrimp, pork, beef, chicken, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, chopped green onion, peas and carrots.  Fine ingredients all, but none quite as flavorful as Chinese sausage.  If you’ve never had fried rice with Chinese sausage, you owe yourself a trip to Ming Dynasty where it’s made to perfection.  No fried rice in town comes close, not even one replete with ingredients.

Perhaps the very best dessert at Saigon Far East isn’t even on the dessert menu.  It’s a dessert Kim may recommend if you’re particularly effusive about the ginger limeade.  It’s a dessert that showcases the versatility of ginger.  Young tofu swims in a steaming hot broth of ginger and sugar to form one of the most fragrant and intriguing desserts we’ve had.  It’s sweet, savory and salubrious, like the very best medicine you’ve ever had.  How very typical of this surprisingly good restaurant.

If you’ve found yourself in a rut and want to try something refreshingly different and delicious, go east–to Saigon Far East.

Saigon Far East
901D San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-7408
1st VISIT: 31 January 2009
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Happy Roll,  Ginger Limeade, Stir Fried Green Mussels, Pho, Stir Fried Noodles

Saigon Far East on Urbanspoon

Il Vicino – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Il Vicino's Northeast Heights restaurant is a popular dining destination.

Il Vicino, the type of neighbor I'd like to have

Undoubtedly the most often quoted line on Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, a four-time Pulitzer Prize award winning American poet certainly didn’t have Il Vicino (“the neighbor”) in mind when he penned that proverb.  Fortunately fences are no obstacle to patrons of this popular contemporary Italian trattoria. A well-regarded neighborhood eatery with three Albuquerque locations, Il Vicino is probably best known for its wood-oven pizza and award-winning brewery with popular micro-brewed ales but it offers much more than that.  Known in some circles for prized beers, Il Vicino has a private wine label designed to complement its menu.  Victuals include salads, panini-style sandwiches and baked lasagna, too.

Il Vicino has long been a fixture in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill area (3403 Central Avenue, S.E.) with a second location in the far Northeast Heights (11225 Montgomery Boulevard, N.E.).  In November, 2009, a third Il Vicino was launched in the burgeoning Northwest side (10701 Coors Blvd, N.W.).  You’re never too far away from Il Vicino.

The mouth of a ferocious lion is the portal to great pizzas and sandwiches.

The leonine oven at Il Vicino on Montgomery

Pizza selections range from the traditional to the artful, from sublime simplicity to complex contemporary. Among the former is the pizza that started it all in 1889 when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza reflecting the colors of the Italian Sabauda flag and named it for his queen.  More than a century and a quarter later, it is widely acknowledged that the red (marinara sauce), white (white mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil) pizza crafted the fateful day Queen Margherita visited her summer residence at Capodimont is the progenitor of every pizza crafted ever since. Considering Americans alone consume 100 acres of pizza each day, that’s a lot of pies.

The Pizza Margherita needs no additional adornment; add anything to it and it’s no longer a Pizza Margherita. If a restaurant doesn’t do a decent Pizza Margherita, how can you trust it to craft something more elaborate? When it’s on its game, Il Vicino does it well–a wood-oven baked, thin-crusted pie with just a hint of char on a (usually) crispy crust replete in its outside edges with airy holes.  Because of the thinness of the pizza, the pizzaiolis sometimes extricate it from the oven before it’s completely done.  That means you’ll occasionally get a doughy, incompletely baked pizza.  Unlike cookie dough, near raw pizza dough is nearly inedible.  All too often, this is the type of pizza Il Vicino has served me–and other victims…er, guests.  At other times (increasingly rare), the pizza is crispy and done to perfection.  It’s this lack of consistency that prevents me from rating it higher than I have or from returning with more regularity.

Pizza at Il Vicino

At the Northeast Heights location, the mouth of a ferocious lion (pictured above) serves as the door to the oven in which more than a dozen different pizzas are prepared.  Having visited all three Il Vicino restaurants, I believe the leonine oven is responsible for the most consistently well-baked pizzas in the triumvirate of neighborly restaurants.

Non-traditional pizza includes the Pizze Bianca, a white (no tomato sauce) pizza featuring spicy oil, mozzarella, Copocollo ham, Portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, rosemary, goat cheese, gorgonzola and sun-baked tomatoes. Talk about a delicious departure from the comparatively naked pizza adorned with tomato sauce.

The Fino: Marinara Sauce, Mozzarella, Turkey Sausage, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Goat Cheese, Fresh Oregano

There’s also the Rustica (artichoke hearts, clamata olives, capers, roasted garlic and marinara sauce) and the Campagnola (sausage, mushrooms, marinara sauce, roasted garlic) about which my only complaint (and it’s a small one) is that it didn’t have enough goat cheese to suit my taste. There are fourteen different pizzas on the menu, some fairly basic and others adorned with ingredients some people might consider fru-fru.

Il Vicino’s prowess is by no means exclusive to pizza. It also crafts some of the most highly regarded panini sandwiches and most colossal calzones in town as well as sizeable salads and pasta al forno.  Two lasagna entrees are among the latter.  One, the lasagna giardiniere is a vegetarian’s delight, replete with layered pasta, fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, mushrooms, spinach, ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, marinara sauce and pesto.

Rustica: Marinara Sauce, Mozzarella, Artichoke Hearts, Calamata Olives, Roasted Garlic, Capers, Fresh Oregano

Meat lovers will enjoy the Lasagna Bolognese (pictured above), pasta layered with marinara sauce, ground beef, tomatoes, onion, mozzarella, ricotta, mushrooms, fresh oregano and parmesan.  It’s a filling pasta dish though somewhat on the salty side–and the level of doneness may result in a relatively dry lasagna you can literally scrape off the plate.

Somehow Il Vicino has managed to discover the perfect balance of ingredients when crafting both folded flatbread and conventional panini sandwiches. Neither vegetables nor meats nor cheeses or sauces dominate the competition for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Instead, the ingredients meld together like a well-orchestrated musical arrangement.

Il Vicino's lasagna

Among the very best folded flatbread sandwiches on the menu is the Hero, a sandwich sobriquet with copious aliases (submarine, hoagie, grinder, etc.). Like most hero sandwiches, this one is heaped with layers of thinly sliced meats, vegetables and cheeses. In this case, the ingredients would be Capocollo ham, hard salami, dijon mayonnaise, mozzarella, provolone, pepperoncini, red onions, Roma tomato, romaine, house vinaigrette.  As shown below, Il Vicino does not scrimp on ingredients.  Two things make this sandwich special–the dijon mustard which has a definite attention-getting tang and the pepperoncini, a rare additive to sandwiches, but one which definitely belongs on the Hero.

Il Vicino was one of only two New Mexico pizzerias mentioned in Ed Levine’s terrific tome, Pizza, A Slice of Heaven, the definitive guide to the appreciation of America’s favorite food throughout the country.  That doesn’t necessarily mean Levine regarded it that highly; more than likely, he ran out of time and didn’t bother to explore other of New Mexico’s pizzerias. In addition to two Duke City Venues, this neighbor is going places–many places. There are now eight Il Vicino restaurants in four states with sister restaurants in Santa Fe, St. Louis, Wichita, Denver, Littleton and Colorado Springs.

Il Vicino's "Hero" Sandwich

Il Vicino's "Hero" Sandwich

Libations are ostensibly as good as the food–or at least Il Vicino’s root beer is. It’s a hearty, full-bodied adult root beer with little froth and just enough sweetness to appeal to children of all ages.

Il Vicino's famous root beer

One visit and you might wish all your neighbors were like Il Vicino.  Now if only they could figure out the secret to a great pizza is keeping it in the oven until it’s done enough.

Il Vicino
3403 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
266-7855
LATEST VISIT: 01 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 16
COST: $$
BEST BET: Wood Oven Pizza, Panini Sandwiches

Il Vicino on Urbanspoon

The Pink Adobe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The world famous Pink Adobe

Santa Fe's world famous Pink Adobe

Culinary historians credit the advent of the modern Santa Fe fine dining scene to a painter who moved to Santa Fe shortly after World War II to join the burgeoning art community. Having to support herself and a young daughter, Rosalea Murphy turned to something else at which she excelled–the culinary arts.  As with most rags to riches success stories, Rosalea did not immediately set the Santa Fe dining scene on its ear, but then this wasn’t the “City Different” now widely recognized as a tourist Mecca.  Good things take time.  Great things take longer.

When she first launched the restaurant she christened the Pink Adobe after the hue of its facade, her humble menu consisted solely of French onion soup and apple pie.  As her business grew, so did her menu.  She added “Pink Dobeburgers” to the menu and sold them for twenty-five cents each.  Chicken enchiladas followed suit, the first of several New Mexican specialties she would add to the menu.  Eventually her Pink Adobe became the first restaurant in Santa Fe to serve seafood, then a novelty in what was, in her words, “a lazy, sleepy town.”

By the 21st century, the ambitious menu featured variety unlike no other in Santa Fe with steak, seafood, New Mexican specialties, Creole and French dishes and much more.  The Pink Adobe was the place to be seen, one of the city’s most popular dining destinations for both locals and tourists alike.  Commenting once to Katharine Kagel of another iconic Santa Fe restaurant Cafe Pasqual, Rosalea described business conditions during a recession: “Well, we’re not turning away as many customers as we normally do.”

Steak Dunigan, the signature entree on the menu

Steak Dunigan, the signature entree on the menu

Across the courtyard from Santa Fe’s oldest family run restaurant, Rosalea launched the Dragon Room Lounge which remains one of Santa Fe’s most popular bars as well as being named one of the top 19 bars in the world by International Newsweek. The dimly lit Dragon Room is best seen in daylight when you can better appreciate the elm trees growing straight through the ceiling and the tangle of gnarled Medusa-like vines that creep and crawl along the walls and ceilings.  You’ll also want to take in the colorful and eclectic art and nurturing fireplaces in the small dining rooms adjacent to the bar

Still going strong after more than six and a half decades, the Pink Adobe has experienced its share of changes over the years.  One of the most noticeable was the mandated color change that belies the restaurant’s name.  No longer pink, Rosalea’s baby is today a shade of sandstone.  Roselea lobbied Santa Fe’s Historical Design Review board to restore the restaurant to its original pinkish hue, but the board steadfastly refused because “pink is not an earth tone” (the board was obviously comprised of “grey scale visually referenced persons” or persons who have never visited the Abiquiu area or paid rapt attention to a New Mexico sunset).

The biggest change since the Pink Adobe began serving Santa Fe in 1944 is that Rosalea is no longer with us.  After she passed away in 2000 her family ran the restaurant until 2007, when the restaurant and bar were bought by Dave and Christie Garrett of the Garrett Hotel Group which also owned the Inn of Five Graces, one of Santa Fe’s most highly regarded hotels.  Nay-sayers often it just wasn’t the same without Rosalea Murphy, the grand dame of one of Santa Fe’s most famous restaurants and progenitor of the city’s culinary revolution.  That was true on many fronts.  The changes (including tampering with a perfect apple pie recipe) made by the new owners weren’t well received and by November, 2010, the Pink Adobe’s door closed.  On December 17th, Priscilla Hoback (daughter of Rosalea), her son Joe and his wife Jennifer reopened the restaurant.  Now that it’s back in family hands, the continuity of excellence is back.

Fried Chicken at the Pink Adobe

Fried Chicken at the Pink Adobe

The Pink, as it is affectionally known by locals,  is located in the center of the historic Barrio de Analco, across the street from the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States.  It’s just two blocks south of the Plaza.  The Barrio, a modest enclave dating back to the 1620s, is at the confluence of Old Santa Fe Trail and East DeVargas Street.  “Analco” translates to “the other side of the water,” appropriate considering the area is south of the Santa Fe River.  It is one of Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhoods.

The 400-year old building which houses the Pink Adobe predates the Dragon Room by about a century.  In centuries past, it housed military barracks with 36-inch walls and six fireplaces.  Diners can have the best of both worlds at the bar: either the Pink Adobe’s dinner menu or a unique and highly regarded bar menu.  The Dragon Room also has several accommodating little dining rooms which are perfect for Sunday lunch gatherings.  My first visit to the Pink Adobe and the Dragon Room since Rosalea’s family sold the restaurant was for such an occasion, my mom’s thirty-ninth birthday.

First and foremost, service was absolutely impeccable.  Our waiter was accommodating and friendly, a perfect host determined to ensure mom’s special day was memorable and enjoyable.  His knowledge of the menu was encyclopedic, but it was his sense of humor that was most endearing.  Alas, service was THE highlight of our meal!

Chicken Enchiladas

Chicken Enchiladas

Most of us ordered the Steak Dunigan, for years the house specialty at the Pink Adobe.  Named after one of Rosalea’s friends who asked for a steak smothered in green chile and mushrooms, it has been on the menu for at least four decades.  It’s a charred New York Strip with mushrooms, green chile, sauteed vegetables and choice of potato.  It used to be better.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad steak.  It’s just not the steak that earned a reputation as one of Santa Fe’s best.  Though prepared to my exacting specifications (medium, salt, pepper and garlic on both sides), it was uncharacteristically tough with more sinew and fat than a great steak should have.  Everyone who had this steak had a similar experience. In a May, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program, Santa Fe native turned chef Rahm Fama, host of the network’s Meat and Potatoes show, declared the Steak Dunigan “better than mine.” Surely he experienced the steak when it was prepared by Rosalea’s family.

Another dish for which the Pink Adobe has long been known–and based on its exorbitant price ($28 for dinner), obviously thinks very highly of–is Southern Fried Chicken.  Southern fried chicken is a rarity in Santa Fe restaurants, but something we enjoyed on many a Sunday while living in Mississippi.  As they say in the Deep South, “you have to go a far piece to get better fried chicken than the South.”  The Pink Adobe doesn’t go far enough.  To be clear, it’s several orders of magnitude better than anything you’ll find at the Colonel’s, but for the same price you could feed an army at KFC.  Served with a hush puppy (almost as big s the fried chicken), mashed potatoes, gravy and coleslaw, we might have liked it much better at a more reasonable price.

Chicken Enchiladas were the very first New Mexican entree at the Pink Adobe.  Served with sour cream cheese, green chile and a flour tortilla, it’s an entree long esteemed even by hard-liners.  It, too, has seen better days.  Looking at the picture above, it even looks dry, but not as dry as it tasted.  Worse, the enchiladas are served with black beans, a favorite at Santa Fe based New Mexican restaurants, but something many native New Mexicans disdain with the foods we grew up eating.  The chile was so unstimulating that not even my Phoenix transplanted sister found it piquant (she thinks bell peppers are too hot).

The Pink Adobe's famous apple pie

The Pink Adobe's famous apple pie

It wouldn’t be a visit to the Pink Adobe without a slice of Rosalea’s famous homemade French apple pie which many regard as the best you’ll ever eat.  Over a million apple pies have been made at the Pink since 1944.  Served piping hot and smothered in a delicious rum hard sauce and vanilla ice cream, its recipe has been shared for years in the Pink Adobe cookbook though we’ve never been able to make it quite as well.  This French apple pie, along with Rosalea’s French onion soup, are what started The Pink on its ascension into greatness. 

Even long-established restaurants with reputations bordering on legendary such as Pink Adobe have an occasional “off” day.  The test of true greatness is whether such days are few and far in between.  I’m inclined to believe we hit The Pink on a bad day and that we’ll be rewarded with a Rosalea quality meal during our next visit.

The Pink Adobe
406 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico
505) 983-7712
LATEST VISIT: 6 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Steak Dunigan, Chicken Enchiladas, Fried Chicken, Rosalea’s Legendary French Apple Pie

Pink Adobe on Urbanspoon

Coronado Grill – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Coronado Grill in Bernalillo

The Coronado Grill in Bernalillo

In 1540 while searching for the fabled seven Cities of Gold, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado camped with his soldiers near the ancient Pueblo of Kuaua on the western banks of the Rio Grande where the city of Bernalillo exists today. Coronado never did locate the mythical Cities, finding instead a thriving agricultural village inhabited since 1300.

Only the partially reconstructed ruins of Kuaua (a Tiwa word for “evergreen”) remain today, but the “City of Coronado” still celebrates the Spanish explorer whose legacy has been somewhat tarnished by revisionist history.

The conquistador’s namesake restaurant is situated just south of the ruins in a sprawling 5,000 square foot complex sitting on three acres overlooking the Rio Grande. For ambience, you can’t beat the spectacular Rio Grande riverside vistas, especially on a crisp autumn evening when the moon is coming up over the Sandias. It’s one of the most spectacular vantage points in the entire state for luminous lunar gazing.

A rare sight: an empty Coronado Grill Restaurant

A rare sight: an empty Coronado Grill Restaurant

Weather permitting, diners can take advantage of the spectacular vistas by dining al fresco under a canopy of stars where they can breathe in New Mexico’s salubrious night air.  The exterior patio is a popular venue for parties and golfers alike.  From two tee boxes replete with synthetic turf, golfers can test their driving skills, the target a well-maintained green a couple hundred yards away just in front of the towering cottonwoods on the banks of the Rio Grande.

The name on the restaurant’s marquee “Coronado Grill” is subtitled with “New Mexican Cuisine, Steak and Seafood,” the promise of a versatile menu.  The restaurant’s interior is bright and welcoming, courtesy of large picture windows with unobstructed views of the Sandias and the cottonwoods prefacing the Rio Grande.  A hearth helps keep the main dining room warm in the winter.  The work of local artists festoons one wall.

Alas, ambience isn’t always enough as we found out when a change in ownership diminished the quality of cuisine we had previously experienced at the Coronado Grill. In 2007, the original owners returned to their restaurant and in addition to traditional New Mexican entrees crafted from family recipes and fresh seafood, they added an upstairs sushi bar called Rice N Roll.

Chips and salsa, some of the best in the region

Chips and salsa, some of the best in the region

Rice N Roll, closed by year’s end, offered a glimpse of a unique to New Mexico “east meets west” dining concept. The piquant bite of capsaicin imbued salsa and the earthy hot mustard-like heat of wasabi in one restaurant–it just made sense, especially if you were craving both New Mexican and Japanese cuisine, but not one over the other.

Today the upstairs area previously occupied by the sushi bar is home to Bernalillo’s first hookah lounge where you can choose from an assortment of shishas, tobaccos combined with fruit and molasses or honey.  The upstairs area is also a popular venue for parties.  It also hosts several local clubs and groups.

The menu is as versatile as promised on the marquee.  Appetizers include New Mexico’s ubiquitous salsa and chips as well as some unique offerings you may not expect.  One of those is a plate of sliders, three miniature burgers served with curly fries.  Another is carne adovada egg rolls, a starter we had heretofore seen only at Papa Felipe’s where this unique Southwest meets East starter is called the Botana Crispeante.

Green chile stew and a tortilla

Green chile stew and a tortilla

The lunch and dinner menu also includes a few surprises including Bosque Rainbow Trout which is pan-fried with garlic, capers, mushrooms and white wine.  Native New Mexicans who have fished the cold mountain streams generally like their trout prepared simply over a campfire, but this versatile fish with a thin crimson strip running lengthwise along its body, is a worthy canvass for what may seem to be disparate ingredients.  Rainbow trout, though very bony, has a light, pinkish (not quite salmon-like) flesh and very little “fishiness” in its flavor.  The Coronado Grill’s rendition is quite good.

Also on the lunch and dinner menu are liver, bacon & onions, an entree some people love and others disdain.  A number of sandwiches are also available including the very popular BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato).  Creativity isn’t lost on the desserts which showcase brownies imbued with the incomparable taste of green chile (more on this dessert below) and something called the Ice Cream Adobe Pie: pecan brittle with chocolate and vanilla ice cream layered between chocolate cake topped with butterscotch.

Because both the red and green chile are made from a base of chicken stock, vegetarian options are sans chile.  Vegetarian entrees include a veggie sandwich and some New Mexican entrees made without chile (akin to a New Mexico day without sunshine).

Carne Adovada Egg Rolls

Carne Adovada Egg Rolls

New Mexico state fair attendees say you can’t beat Coronado Restaurant’s salsa which earned both first place and People’s Choice awards in 2001 and 2002. The salsa is indeed good, with lots of cilantro, jalapeno and green onion to give it some heat (about medium on the piquancy scale) and flavorful bite.  It’s served with crispy red, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips.   Your first bowl of salsa is complementary but subsequent bowls will cost you $2.00.

Con queso is even more expensive at more than $6 a bowl, but it just might be worth it. Coronado’s con queso includes both red and green bell peppers as well as jalapeno.  If you’re used to the gloppy con queso made with processed cheese, you’ll love the Coronado Grill’s rendition.  It’s some of the very best con queso in New Mexico.

The aforementioned carne adovada egg rolls are not only intriguing, they’re quite good.  Four halved egg rolls are absolutely engorged with a flavorful carne adovada and cheese amalgam.  As you consider what it is you’re eating and its relative uniqueness, you’ll smile at how well the concept is executed.  These flavorful egg rolls are served with a housemade chipotle dip and enough chopped tomatoes and lettuce garnish to construct a small salad.  Ask your server for a side of the restaurant’s delicious housemade Ranch dressing and you can have that salad.  Ever the experimenter, I’m curious as to how those egg rolls would taste with a Chinese sweet and sour sauce.

Stuffed sopaipilla with red and green chile

Stuffed sopaipilla with red and green chile

In addition to a soup of the day offering, the Coronado Grill features a green chile stew which should warm both the cockles of your heart and your belly.   The tomato based green chile stew includes carrots, potatoes and other vegetables, but it might take Coronado’s advance scout teams to find more than two or three pieces of pork in the entire stew.  It’s a good green chile stew which, with more pork, might achieve rarified status as some of the very best in the area.  A thin flour tortilla is served with the green chile stew.

A “pick three of four” combination plate options give diners the opportunity to sample more than one item from the restaurant’s New Mexican fare. The options featured are a chile relleno, taco, tamale and enchilada with your choice of red or (and) green chile. Each item is well seasoned and tasty, albeit lacking in bite.  Neither the red or green chile provide much bite and for those of us who consider pain a flavor, that lack of piquancy is almost akin to lack of flavor.  I say almost because the New Mexican food at the Coronado Grill is generally satisfying and delicious even without chile that bites back.

For slightly less filling fare than the combination plate, an excellent option are the large stuffed sopaipillas. That’s what they’re called on the menu and that’s how they come served–with an emphasis on large. That comes from being overstuffed with beans and cheese and if you’re willing to pay three dollars more, your choice of beef, chicken or carne adovada.  There’s nothing quite as comforting as the first time your fork penetrates into the doughy envelope which houses pure deliciousness which waft upwards toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils.

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

As shown above, the stuffed sopaipillas are available Christmas style (red and green chile) and unlike some New Mexican restaurants, the garnish doesn’t cover the entire plate.  The puffed pillow of beloved fried bread known as the sopaipilla is believed to have been invented in Albuquerque more than two centuries ago.  Sopaipillas are a good thing made great when stuffed with New Mexican goodness.  Few restaurants serve them as well as the Coronado Grill.

As with other plates, the stuffed sopaipillas are served with your choice of two of the following: beans, papitas and calabasitas. The calabasitas, a colorful and fresh medley of squash, corn and onions are a must-have. No matter what the season, the Coronado Grill’s rendition has the taste of summer freshness.  The papitas, potatoes fried to perfection, are cut into bite-sized cubes and are crisp on the outside and soft and delicate on the inside exactly as they should be.  The pinto beans are also quite good.

Enchiladas may be the quintessential New Mexican dish and the Coronado Grill’s version are quite good.  Order them “Christmas style” (with both red and green chile) and with a fried egg on top to get them the way most New Mexicans like them.  The enchiladas are rolled corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and your choice of beef, chicken or carne adovada.

Christmas style Enchiladas

Christmas style Enchiladas

Another popular entree is the carne adovada, cubes of pork marinated in chile. The pork is cut into bite-sized pieces and is as tender as a bird’s heart. Melted yellow and white cheeses also top Coronado’s version which blessedly is made without cumin.  As with other New Mexican entrees, portion sizes are generous.  Great carne adovada is melt-in-your-mouth tender and leaves a craving only a future visit will quell.  It’s a testament to the Coronado Grill’s carne adovada is that it’s the entree we’ve had most often when we visit this riverside restaurant.

Dessert options include something uniquely New Mexican–brownies imbued with the incomparable taste of green chile. You don’t as much taste the green chile as you feel it in the back of your throat, not that it’s particularly piquant. The brownies are served atop a bed of blackberries and sprinkled with sugar. It’s a great way to end a nice meal.

Brownies with a surprise inside.

Brownies with a surprise inside.

Had the great explorer for whom this restaurant is named visited the Coronado Grill for lunch or dinner, he might have stopped his quest right then and there. It’s a welcoming milieu with terrific views and very good New Mexican food.

Coronado Grill
870 Highway 44
Bernalillo, NM
LATEST VISIT 5 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Con Queso, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Carne Adovada, Enchiladas, Carne Adovada Egg Rolls

Coronado Restaurant & Cantina on Urbanspoon

Introducing the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

The world famous green chile cheeseburger at the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio Restaurant (Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

The world famous green chile cheeseburger at the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio Restaurant (Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

To New Mexicans, there is nothing as thoroughly soul-satisfying and utterly delicious as our ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger.  We have a fierce pride in that most simplistic, but explosive, flavor-blessed union of a thick, juicy beef patty grilled over an open flame or sizzled on a griddle then blanketed in cheese and topped with taste bud awakening, tongue tingling, olfactory arousing green chile.

New Mexicans throughout the Land of Enchantment’s 33 counties celebrated July 22nd, 2009 with the gusto normally reserved for a Lobo or Aggie victory.  We basked in the glory of one of our own upstanding citizens vanquishing an audacious interloper from New York City in a green chile cheeseburger “throwdown.”  On that fateful summer day, the Food Network aired for the first time, the tasty triumph of the Buckhorn Tavern’s Bobby Olguin over “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay.  Our chests swelled with pride as the Food Network confirmed what all of us know–when it comes to the green chile cheeseburger, New Mexico is the best in the world.

In recognition of Olguin’s victory, Governor Bill Richardson declared Friday July 24, 2009 “Buckhorn Tavern Day.” “Congratulations to the Buckhorn Tavern and its owner Bobby Olguin for the impressive victory over one of the world’s most recognized chefs,” Governor Richardson said. “Through his win, Mr. Olguin did an excellent job of showcasing one of New Mexico’s culinary treasures, the green chile cheeseburger.”

Los Angeles's best dog trainer Sandy Driscoll with New Mexico's best green chile cheeseburger chef Bobby Olguin

Los Angeles's best dog trainer Sandy Driscoll with New Mexico's best green chile cheeseburger chef Bobby Olguin (Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not one to ever let an opportunity pass by for showcasing the Land of Enchantment, Governor Richardson called for a statewide green chile cheeseburger challenge to be held at the New Mexico State Fair on September 22nd, 2009.  “The Buckhorn’s victory sparked excitement all across New Mexico and triggered debate throughout the state on what makes the perfect green chile cheeseburger,” Governor Richardson declared. “With so many great choices and everyone swearing by their favorite, I thought it was time to put them to test, head-to-head. There’s nothing like a little fun and friendly competition to showcase the best from around New Mexico.”

Twenty of New Mexico’s finest purveyors of green chile cheeseburger excellence picked up the governor’s gauntlet for the inaugural Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge.  In a blind taste test in which a fresh burger was delivered to their table every five minutes, a panel of five lucky judges evaluated twenty burgers using a criteria of taste, balance of ingredients and appearance.  Each contestant was required to use New Mexico green chile (as if anything else could possibly do).

When the smoke had cleared and the judges’ seared tongues had cooled, Badlands Burgers from Grants was announced as the winner of the inaugural Governor’s Challenge, earning acclaim as New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger.  Along with Bobby Olguin’s Buckhorn Tavern (which didn’t compete in the Governor’s Challenge), Badlands Burgers anchors the New Mexico Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys.

Green Chile Cheeseburger Perfection (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Green Chile Cheeseburger Perfection (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

I had the great privilege of helping develop the inaugural New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail along with the scintillating, four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison; the brilliant Kate Manchester, publisher of Edible Santa Fe; and one of New Mexico’s finest ambassadors, Martin Leger, the advertising manager for the New Mexico Department of Tourism.  We reviewed dozens of potential candidates with votes cast by some 8,000 people for inclusion into the inaugural Trail.  Competition was very keen with many worthy candidates being nominated by aficionados of the state’s best burger establishments.  It was like selecting the best and brightest stars on a clear, cold New Mexico winter night.

Between the four of us, we had voraciously consumed green chile cheeseburgers at many of the candidates as well as at several others not nominated but worthy of inclusion so we were definitely qualified for the task at hand.  Ultimately we narrowed down the number of selections to what we believe are 48 of the very best green chile cheeseburgers from throughout the Land of Enchantment.

Both the Buckhorn Tavern and Badlands Burgers were “grandfathered” in as was New Mexico’s iconic institution LotaBurger.  Other purveyors of green chile cheeseburger perfection on the trail include the Bobcat Bite, selected in 2007 by Bon Appetit magazine as America’s very best burger; the Owl Cafe, selected in 2003 by Epicurious.com as one of the top ten burgers in America; Clancy’s Irish Cantina in Farmington, selected by Food Network magazine as the one burger in New Mexico you absolutely have to try; and other burgers not nearly as famous, but all with a delicious story to tell.

Please click on the image below to launch a larger, more interactive map.  By hovering your cursor over each of the numbered burger icons, information about the green chile cheeseburger restaurant represented will display.  For much more great information on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, please click here.  While you’re on the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail page, don’t forget to download a personal map you can take with you throughout your travels in the Land of Enchantment.

The New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail (Click on the Map to find your Green Chile Cheeseburger.)

The New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail (Click on the Map to find your Green Chile Cheeseburger.)

Don’t forget to visit Edible Santa Fe for a terrific article by Cheryl Alters Jamison on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  While there, enjoy browsing through the fabulous quarterly publication that promotes and celebrates the abundance of local foods in North Central New Mexico. Edible Santa Fe values local, seasonal, authentic foods and culinary traditions while celebrating family farmers who plant the seeds and work tirelessly to bring you the freshest local produce, the ranchers and poultry farmers committed to creating healthier and more sustainable methods of working with animals and the land; the food artisans who proudly create a creamy cheese and the wines to pair them with, and the local chefs who continually create to excite us with the unique flavors of this region.

Note:  I have added a “New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail” category to the menu at right.  Every restaurant on the Trail I have reviewed can be found in this category.