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Kasbah Mediterranean – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Marrakech Restaurant for the best in Moroccan and Greek cuisine

Marrakech Restaurant for the best in Moroccan and Greek cuisine

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen up to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
All on board that train
- Crosby, Stills & Nash

For decades, Hollywood has portrayed the ancient Moroccan city of Marrakech as a venue in which mystery and intrigue can be found along every narrow street and behind every sharp turn, a place of fantasy where fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and snake charmers perform–a city with a dizzying array of food stalls, richly adorned palaces and alleyways crowded traditional shops in which intricately woven tapestries and brass works dazzle the eyes.

Alfred Hitchcock certainly exploited those characteristics in his suspenseful 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much where middle class Americans played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day vacationing in Marrakech find themselves embroiled in a nefarious plot to assassinate an ambassador after their son is kidnapped.  The movie has me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it, as much for the suspense which builds to a surprising climax as for the unique way in which the 1956 Best Song Oscar Que Sera Sera plays a role in the plot’s resolution.

A colorful interior at Marrakech

A colorful interior at Marrakech

Although they couldn’t catch the Marrakech Express of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame, from 1998 through the millennium year, Duke City diners managed to make their way to Marrakech in droves–not to the Moroccan desert, but to Central Avenue where Tunisian owner and chef Ridha Bouajila created an alluring menu of North African and Greek cuisine favorites at his fabulous restaurant, appropriately named Marrakech.  To aficionados of the uniquely seasoned, vibrant melding of heretofore unavailable flavor combinations, the closure of this inimitable restaurant warranted a flag flying at half mast.

Bouajila returned to the Albuquerque dining scene in 2004 when he launched the Mediterranean Cafe–essentially Marrakech reborn.  The Mediterranean Cafe on San Mateo (at the site which most recently housed Quesada’s) operated under Boajila for two years before he sold it to his business partner.  Within a year, the restaurant folded and once again savvy Albuquerque diners were left in mourning for the Moroccan cuisine with which they had fallen in love.

On December 11th, 2009, the discerning Duke City diners captivated by Moroccan cuisine had a reason to celebrate again when Bouajila launched his second instantiation of Marrakech.  It was situated in the shopping center which for years was the site of Robb’s Ribbs.  Ensconced in the corner shop between an old-time barber shop and an Asian restaurant, its tiny storefront belied the nearly 3,000 square foot space, by far the largest restaurant Bouajila has operated.  

Delicious Dolmas: surprisingly flavorful though not homemade

Delicious Dolmas: surprisingly flavorful though not homemade

Step through the blue door and let the captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen waft over you like a delicious, enveloping breeze.  Those aromas perfume the air with incomparably rich dishes melding sweet and savory on the same plate–dishes which incorporate dried fruit such as dried plums and apricots; aromatic spices like cinnamon, paprika and dried ginger; and ingredients which make seasoned chefs swoon such as preserved lemon, rose water and saffron.  The ingredient and flavor combinations are inspired and bold, the results memorable.

Marrakech is a large open space awash in color from intricately woven tapestries and their multihued mosaic patterns; sheer, whisper thin silken fabric coverings and bright colored walls on which artful accouterments are hung.  The high ceilings and the industrial-style ductwork are painted blue similar to the original Marrakech on Central Avenue.  The tasteful color array is warm and inviting.

Tables are well-spaced to allow for private conversations though because of the restaurant’s openness, you can’t help but gawk in admiration as large plates of stunning food arrangements are delivered to other patrons.  Laine, our waitress during our inaugural visit, is friendly and accommodating and like all great waitresses, takes it personally when guests like the food.  She beamed radiantly with pride with each (and there were many) compliment we paid and when she couldn’t answer a question, she stepped into the kitchen and retrieved the answer from the chef.

Baba Ganouch and pita

Baba Ganouch and pita

Just as he did at his previous Albuquerque restaurant stops, Bouajila made it a point to come out of the kitchen to welcome diners and ensure a pleasant dining experience.  Now, pleasant is probably the most understated adjective any diner will use after a meal at Marrakech. Be daring in your ordering (translation: go for the Moroccan entrees, not the familiar Greek standards) and you’re assured a dining experience in which your taste buds are titillated, your imagination is unencumbered and your soul is satisfied.

That’s not to say the Greek items aren’t fabulous.  They’re just so familiar–you can have gyros, dolmas, hummus, Greek salads and Spanakopita at several Greek restaurants throughout the city.  Do what Marco Polo would have done and take a different culinary route through a Moroccan menu that might seem strange and different, but which offers an adventure you won’t soon forget.

Aside from the aforementioned Greek dolmas, hummus and Spanakopita, the appetizer section of the menu includes a soup du jour, baba ganouch (Arabic), falafel (Arabic) and brika (Tunisian).  Brika, a Tunisian turnover, is an excellent start to your dining adventure, a delicate pastry filled with seasoned potato mousse, fresh parsley, herbs and egg then fried to perfection. It’s a starter with which we were quite familiar from visits to the original Marrakech and the Mediterranean Cafe and one we’ll have during future visits.

King's Bastilla

King's Bastilla, a surprisingly delicious entree for lunch, dinner....or dessert?

In discussing the appetizers with the buoyant Laine, she raved about the restaurant’s dolmas, indicating most guests have praised them highly.  It’s easy to see why.  Served cold and nearly saturated in olive oil, the five grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice are arranged in a star-shaped pattern surrounding a bowl of cucumber sauce.  They are not made in-house, but they’re a definite keeper.  At first bite, you’ll experience the sensation of what can only be described as effervescence, as if biting into a fizzy lemon-lime drink.  That, we discerned, is courtesy of the dynamic mingling of dill and mint, a sensation heightened by dipping the dolmas into the mint and yogurt enhanced cucumber sauce.  These are the best non-homemade dolmas we’ve had in Albuquerque.

Given a choice of hummus or baba ganouch (usually spelled baba ghanouj), we always seem to prefer the latter in part because the name just rolls off your tongue so exotically, but mostly because it offers more textures and flavor than hummus.  An Arab dish made of mashed eggplant mixed with various seasonings, it’s also not quite as ubiquitous in the Duke City as is hummus.  The version at Marrakech is lighter, sweeter and less garlicky than others we’ve had.  Served with six wedges of pita bread, it is a very good baba ganouch.

The entrees section of the menu includes a Mediterranean plate (Greek salad, dolmas and Spanakopita served with pita bread), a Mezza Plate (Greek salad, hummus and baba ganouch served with pita bread), a Falafel Plate, a Tunisian plate (brika served with rice or house salad), a Vegetarian Delight (Spanakopita, dolmas and pita bread), a Gyros plate and Moussaka.  It’s an inviting panoply of entrees, but they’re mostly Greek and at the risk of over-emphasizing this point, the Moroccan dishes offer more flavor.

Tagine of Chicken Mruzia

Tagine of Chicken Mruzia

The Moroccan dishes are appropriately listed in the “Specialties” section of the menu, but that title could be reduced by a few letters.  Call it “Special” and leave it at that because this section of the menu is indeed special.  The specialty of specialties, according to the menu cover, is the couscous.  Couscous is a North African staple and is the main ingredient in many dishes in the way rice is the main ingredient in so many Asian dishes.  In shape, color and texture, it even resembles rice.  It’s made from small grains of semolina with vegetables and sometimes meat.  Marrakech offers several couscous dishes.

As an essayist of restaurant visits, it’s not very often I’m surprised by something I’ve never tried before.  The last time, in fact, I remember being surprised was at Pars Diner with a dish called Fesenjoon, a stew made from sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce.  Marrakech completely took me aback with an entree called King’s Bastilla. Though the word Bastilla, a Spanish word for “hem” is completely lost on me, the exotic dish blew me away.  It’s called “King’s Bastilla” because it’s served to esteemed guests at special occasions such as weddings. It is indeed a special dish worthy of royalty.

Traditionally, bastilla is made with pigeon, but Marrakech uses chicken instead.  A crisp, whisper-thin pastry shell made from Moroccan warqua or phyllo dough encloses an amalgam of moist chicken, ground almonds, rose water and spices.  The shell is sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  Quite honestly, it looks like a dessert and is in fact rather sweet, but definitely not cloying.  Its sweetness is acquired primarily from the delicate rose water and ameliorated by the powdered sugar.  It’s one of the most unique and delicious dishes I’ve had in the Duke City and frankly, I can’t wait to have it again.

At most Moroccan restaurants, the most popular dishes tend to be Tagines, named for the special pot in which they’re prepared.  Tagines are slow-cooked stews braised at slow temperatures which result in aromatic vegetables, sauces and tender meats (generally lamb or chicken).  The Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, a marinated chicken breast cooked with dried plums, dried apricots, almonds and honey, topped with sesame seeds and served with rice, is a wonderful entree with a fine balance of sweet and savory flavors complemented by the tanginess of the reconstituted fruits.

The Marrakech Express should head straight to 4801 Central Avenue for an exotic dining experience Duke City diners will want to repeat time and again.

Kasbah Mediterranean
4801 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 881-4451
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Dolmas, Baba Ganouch, Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, King’s Bastilla

Kasbah Mediterranean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Mary & Tito’s Recognized as an American Classic

Mary & Tito's, the very best New Mexican restaurant in the universe!

Mary & Tito's, the very best New Mexican restaurant in the universe!

The pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world. That’s what a James Beard Foundation award signifies.  Deemed “the Oscars of the food world,” by Time magazine, The James Beard Foundation Awards are the country’s most coveted honor for chefs; food and beverage professionals; broadcast media, journalists, and authors working on food; and restaurant architects and designers.

Considered the “Dean of American Cookery,” Beard established a legacy of culinary excellence and became a household name to generations of home cooks and professional chefs.  Today, the James Beard Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization is dedicated to celebrating, preserving, and nurturing America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence.

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award,” a prestigious accolade honoring “a restaurant with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community. The establishment must have been in existence at least 10 years and be locally owned; preferably it is also informal and moderately priced.”  Each year, only five America’s Classic Awards are bestowed.

Letter from the James Beard Foundation Congratulation Mary & Tito's

Letter from the James Beard Foundation Congratulation Mary & Tito's

So that honorees can make arrangements to attend, the America’s Classics Award is the only James Beard Award announced in advance.  Mary and her daughter Antoinette, the heart and soul of Mary & Tito’s, will be traveling to the awards ceremony at New York City’s fabled Lincoln Center in March, 2010.

Mary & Tito’s has been earning devotees since 1963 with the best, most authentic New Mexican cuisine in the Land of Enchantment.  It is the third restaurant in New Mexico to be honored with the America’s Classic Award, joining Santa Fe’s Cafe Pasqual (honored in 1999) and The Shed (honored in 2003) as honorees.

Congratulations, Mary and Antoinette and the terrific crew at Mary & Tito’s on a very well-deserved honor!  You can  read my full review of Mary & Tito’s here.

A Mexican Turnover, One of the Many Reasons Mary & Tito's is an American Classic

A Mexican Turnover, One of the Many Reasons Mary & Tito's is an American Classic

NOTE:The James Beard Foundation is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment and its incomparable cuisine.  Aside from the three American Classics (Cafe Pasqual, The Shed and Mary & Tito’s) honored by the James Beard Foundation, other New Mexicans who have been accorded a prestigious James Beard Award are:

  • Authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison who have earned four James Beard Awards (Best American Cookbook of the Year in 2000: American Home Cooking: Over 300 Spirited Recipes Celebrating Our Rich Tradition of Home Cooking; Award for Excellence in 1995 for Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue; Award for Excellence in 1996 for The Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico; and Award of Excellence in 2007 for The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining).
  • Author Deborah Madison who earned an Award of Excellence in 1998 for Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone, an Award of Excellence in 2002 for Local Flavors, and a James Beard member of Who’s Who in American Food and Wine in 2005.
  • Author Lois Ellen Frank who earned a James Beard Award in 2003 in the Americana Category for her cookbook, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.

Tecolote Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The world famous Tecolote Cafe

The world famous Tecolote Cafe, a long-time Santa Fe gem

Everyone knows the most sagacious of all creatures in nature is the owl. The owl is to whom all other creatures go to get answered some of life’s most pondered questions–questions such as “how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”

After having posed the question to a cow, a fox and a turtle, a young boy decides to ask the wise owl. “Good question, let’s find out,” the owl retorts. “A One…A two-hoo…A three (crunch sound effect). Three!”

It took three licks for the erudite owl to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie roll, prompting the boy to declare, “if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a smart owl.”

General Manager Chris Valdez

The Tecolote Cafe's Charismatic General Manager Chris Valdez

Three is also the number of visits to New Mexico restaurants made in December, 2007 by Guy Fieri while filming episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives for the Food Network. Fieri was wise enough to make one of those visits to Santa Fe’s own owl, the famous and fabulous Tecolote Cafe.

Tecolote is the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for “owl,” but proprietors Bill and Alice Jamison actually named their restaurant for an all-but-deserted Northern New Mexican village alongside the railroad tracks just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico about 55 miles east of Santa Fe.

Throughout history, the owl has played a significant role in the myths and legends of many cultures. Just as in Old Mexico, in northern New Mexico the owl often represents “la bruja” or the witch–either the malevolent or benevolent kind (as masterfully represented by the title character in the outstanding Rudolfo Anaya novel Bless Me Ultima. As such, to many the owl is either to be feared or revered.

Bakery Basket with strawberry preserves and whipped butter

Bakery Basket with strawberry preserves and whipped butter

The attribution of wisdom to the owl actually started with Ancient Athenians who called the owl the bird of wisdom. It’s conventional wisdom for Santa Fe residents to start their days with breakfast at the Tecolote Cafe, one of the city’s most popular dining destinations. It became even doubly popular after the Food Network first aired the episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featuring the restaurant.

The December filming occurred shortly after the staff had decorated the restaurant for Christmas. Because the Food Network airs each episode several times throughout the year, the Tecolote staff had to take down the Christmas decorations so that the restaurant would appear seasonally agnostic.

The Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew spent about 23 hours over a two-day period in the restaurant. Host Guy Fieri’s focus was on the Tecolote’s famous red and green chile which he helped prepare under the watchful eye of general manager Chris Valdez, one of the coolest and down-to-earth restaurant personalities we’ve met–an excellent foil for the effervescent Fieri.

Chips and salsa with chile piquin

Chips and salsa with chile piquin

The Tecolote received the coveted third segment on the program, meaning it the segment was bisected by a commercial. The segment lasted little more than six minutes, but it reintroduced America to a Santa Fe treasure which was named one of Santa Fe’s ten best dining destinations by Fortune magazine in the early 1990s

Since it opened in June, 1980, the Tecolote Cafe has earned a bevy of accolades. It is a perennial winner of “best breakfast” awards from local and national publications. Quite simply, it’s one of the best reasons to get up in the morning in Santa Fe.  In fact, you’d better get up early and get to the Tecolote shortly after it opens at 7AM because within an hour after opening, you can expect to wait for a seat.

One of the cafe’s mottos is “Great Breakfast–No Toast.” That’s okay because you won’t miss toast in the least. Breakfast entrees are accompanied by your choice of a bakery basket or a tortilla. In its July-August, 2010 issue, Food Network magazine celebrated the “most important meal of the day” in a feature entitled “50 States, 50 Breakfasts.”  The magazine featured “the best breakfast” in every state in the union.  The New Mexico selection was the Tecolote Cafe’s atole piñon pancakes (more on these gems later).

Huevos Yucatecos

Huevos Yucatecos

The bakery basket includes a variety of muffins, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, strawberry preserves and whipped butter. It arrives at your table shortly after you place your order and it arrives just out of the oven fresh, hot and delicious. If the basket doesn’t fill you up, it’ll put a dent on your appetite.

Save room for the Tecolote’s chips and salsa. Although New Mexico is the world capital for chile, many of our restaurants don’t use chile on their salsa, heating it up instead with jalapenos. That’s a shame because red and (or) green chile can really liven up salsa.

Red chile piquin is discernable in the Tecolote Cafe’s salsa which is the rich red color of invigorating freshness and piquancy. This salsa packs a punch as it should, but where it stands out is in its chile enriched flavor.

Atole-pinon hotcakes

Atole-pinon hotcakes

The cafe’s other motto as sported on the shirts worn by the staff is “Get Your Chile Fix at the Tecolote Cafe.” That’s an appropriate motto for a cafe which serves up some of the best chile in northern New Mexico. In Santa Fe we’ve found no green chile to compare with this one.  It is quite simply outstanding!

That green chile is showcased in one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, Huevos Yucatecos. Initially offered as a special, it became so popular it just had to be added to the menu.

Huevos Yucatecos feature corn tortillas layered with black beans, two eggs any style, green chile, Swiss and feta cheese, pico de gallo, and surrounded with fried bananas. It is served with your choice of beans, posole, or potatoes (ask for all three). It is one of the dishes featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Carne adovada breakfast with two eggs and potatoes

Carne adovada breakfast with two eggs and potatoes

It stands to reason that host Guy Fieri would relate to an entree which melds seemingly disparate ingredients. Several years ago Fieri launched Tex Wasabi, a restaurant serving Southwestern barbecue and California-style sushi, as innovative a fusion of disparate cuisine as you’ll find anywhere. Fieri appreciated the Huevos Yucatecos.

This dish arrives at your table piping hot with the aroma of piquant green chile steaming toward your nostrils. It’s an aroma every New Mexican finds as alluring and irresistible as a siren’s call. The Tecolote Cafe’s green chile is absolutely wonderful, epitomizing the high standards for which our state vegetable is beloved.

At over easy, the yoke from the fried eggs runs onto the green chile to add another flavor dimension. For absolute contrast, however, slice up the fried bananas and use your fork to dip them into the green chile, egg yolk mix. Think Bananas Foster New Mexico style.

Huevos Rancheros with Posole

Huevos Rancheros with Posole

The fried potatoes are crispy and low in salt, a commonality among many menu items. The chile and beans, in fact, are prepared in pure soy oil with very little salt. They contain no meat or cholesterol.

Back to the fried potatoes. They’re sliced almost potato chip thin, but have a great flavor. The pinto beans are not your run-of-the-mill soupy, just-off-the-stove pintos nor are they the often dreaded and desiccated refried beans. These beans have obviously simmered on a stove and are served at the peak of flavor.

Another terrific breakfast entree is carne y huevos. The carne is adovada, a heaping serving of lean pork loin cooked in a blend of chiles (including chile piquin), chopped garlic, cracked pepper and Mexican oregano. The pork is cubed into three quarter-inch size and prepared low and slow to make it tender. This entree is served with two eggs any style and the Tecolote Cafe’s famous potatoes.

Aside from the chile, the one dish which seemed to capture Fieri’s imagination were the atole blue corn-piñon pancakes which he described as having “real texture, not just light fluffy nothing.” He called them “some of the best.”

Forty years ago the word “atole” was among the most dreaded in the vernacular of northern New Mexico for this native. Atole then represented a thick cornmeal cereal which my abuelitas swore had curative properties. They never succeeded in getting me to eat it. Maybe they should have used it to craft pancakes.

The secret to these pancakes is the blue, ground cornmeal which is the chief ingredient in the atole I dreaded so many years ago. Toss in piñon evenly throughout the pancakes, serve them with hot maple syrup and whipped batter and you’ve got just about the best medicine for the morning blues.

Getting seated at the Tecolote Cafe may take a long time, but once you’re seated, the staff is quick to deliver some of the very best breakfast in New Mexico. Let me remind you again, to avoid a lengthy wait, get there when the restaurant opens promptly at 7AM and you’ll beat the crowds of owl-wise diners who love the Tecolote Cafe.

Tecolote Cafe
1203 Cerrillos Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87505
(505) 988-1362
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Huevos Yucatecos, Carne Y Huevos, Atolé Piñon Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Bakery Basket, Huevos Rancheros with Posole

Tecolote Cafe on Urbanspoon