Tesuque Village Market – Tesuque, New Mexico

The world famous Tesuque Village Market

The world famous Tesuque Village Market

The most successful Indian revolt in North American history occurred on August 10th, 1680. On that day, more than 8,000 warriors from the various Native American pueblos in New Mexico put aside deep historical differences and banded together to drive the Spaniards from their ancestral lands. This event is celebrated each year in Tesuque Pueblo.

Tesuque Pueblo played an integral role in the rebellion. Two Tesuque runners were dispatched by pueblo leaders to enlist support for the revolt. The runners carried knotted deer hide cords to the various pueblos, each knot signifying a day. On each successive day, one knot was untied. When the final knot was untied it signified the day of attack.

The annual celebration of this event includes a relay run reenacting the famous run. Runners depart from Tesuque plaza carrying a knotted cord made of yucca and an ear of corn. The yucca cord symbolizes the spirit of the people and the ear of corn their physical body. It is an inspiring event.

Always packed

Always packed

Led by Diego Jose de Vargas, the Spanish returned to New Mexico in 1692 and within a year regained full political control of New Mexico. Their return marked a significant change in Spanish policy toward the Pueblos. The Spanish became more civil toward the Pueblo peoples, allowing them to maintain sovereign rule over their own villages. More importantly, the Spanish did not force the Pueblos to accept Christianity.

The venerable Spanish village of Tesuque was founded in 1740 and is situated a few miles south of the current Pueblo and just north of Santa Fe, the heart of Spanish colonial occupation. Today, the village is a haven for the wealthy. A pantheon of Hollywood celebrities and famous artists now make Tesuque their home (or in many cases, their home away from home).

Ironically, Tesuque is a Tewa word which refers to the village’s river’s alternating from and disappearance into the sand. That word may also describe the behavior of many of the village’s celebrities. They appreciate the fact that Tesuque is a place to which they can escape and are not bothered by locals who respect their privacy.

Guacamole, salsa and chips

Guacamole, salsa and chips

For celebrity sighting there may be no better venue than the Tesuque Village Market in the center of the village. Established in 1969, this combination market, deli, bakery and restaurant has the sort of neighborhood feel many Santa Fe restaurants lack.

Moreover, it’s so laid back and unassuming that it’s not uncommon to see pristine Range Rovers and BMWs parked next to careworn pick-up trucks which are hosed down only when it’s time to remove salt residue after a snowfall. That speaks volumes to its broad appeal.

Like much of the village, the Tesuque Village Market is blanketed by a canopy of centuries old cottonwoods. The on and off again river for which the village is named is within easy walking distance.

World famous tortilla soup

World famous tortilla soup

After three decades under an ownership which some say had become indifferent, the Tesuque Village Market was purchased in 2006. Its new owners previously owned restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. With credentials like that come expectations of improved service with no degradation in the quality of the New Mexican food for which the restaurant has long been known.

The restaurant portion of the Market complex includes a relatively small dining room into which a surprising number of diners can be seated comfortably, albeit in close quarters.  It’s not uncommon to wait for a table to become available inside the restaurant which, in the summer, is fine because the porch accommodations include tables and chairs.

In the winter the porch is enclosed (you could call it that) in a thick plastic sheathing with a couple of small fireplaces working assiduously to cut through New Mexico’s sometimes bitter cold. Imbibing the seductive fragrance of wood smoke make this my preferred seating area.

Carnitas and papitas

Carnitas and papitas

In November, 2006, the pulchritudinous Food Network glitterati Giada Delaurentis had lunch at the Tesuque Village Market. As one can assume, her legion of fans visiting her restaurant stops make it a point to order exactly what she had during her weekend sojourn to the City Different.

Giada started off with the restaurant’s guacamole and chips–an excellent choice made even better with the addition of salsa. The guacamole is thick and buttery with a prominent infusion of lime. Fortunately the chips are formidable enough to scoop large amounts. The chips have a pronounced corn flavor and are low in salt. They are infinitely better than grocery store tortilla chips, many of which are direly in need of desalinization. The salsa is somewhat thin and only mildly piquant, but with a fresh cilantro influence.

Giada also had the tortilla soup, regarded by some as the best in the area (they obviously haven’t tried the tortilla soup at the Ó Eating House). The gastronomic goddess proclaimed the soup as “awesome,” calling it “a burst of Southwest flavor.”

Breakfast burrito served Christmas style

Breakfast burrito served Christmas style

This burst of Southwest flavor is made with roasted tomatoes, onions, Anaheim green chiles, red chile powder, jalapenos and cumin in a chicken broth. The finishing touch is a garnish of Cojita cheese, creme fraiche and tortilla chips.

Fresh corn tortilla chips are also blended with the soup. This gives it a thicker consistency than most soups. It is indeed a fine soup with a good smoky taste, but would be even better by subtracting the tablespoon of cumin called for on the recipe.

Hopefully I’ve now appeased the dining diva’s devotees and can proceed with the rest of my observations. The menu certainly offers a variety of options, all reasonably priced. Everything is made-to-order and portion size means you’ll have leftovers to take home.

Patty Melt with potato chips

Patty Melt with potato chips

On Sundays, the breakfast menu is available until noon, but an accommodating wait staff will fulfill your need for tortilla soup or chips and salsa even during breakfast hours if you so desire. The youthful wait staff is on-the-spot and friendly.

One breakfast entree for which you’ll be grateful you got up are the carnitas de puerco (pork carnitas). These cubes of porcine perfection are absolutely delicious–moist, tender and well-seasoned. Each morsel is an adventure in taste bud appeasement.  The carnitas are accompanied by two eggs and some of the very best papitas around. Similar to the carnitas, the papitas are cubed and golden brown. They have the taste and texture of oven-roasted potatoes, skin intact.

Forget what you’ve heard or read about blue corn pancakes, the quintessential New Mexican breakfast entree is the breakfast burrito. The Tesuque Village Market’s rendition is an excellent representation of why New Mexicans get up early in the morning.  The breakfast burrito is available with your choice of meat: chorizo, pork, beef or chicken and with red or green chile. Christmas style (red and green chile) is the preferred choice for many diners–for good reason (but not necessarily for this critic).

Sopressata with Gruyere on Sourdough

Sopressata with Gruyere on Sourdough

The Tesuque Village Market’s red chile has just enough of a hint of cumin to turn off (it doesn’t take much) my cumin disliking taste buds. It’s better red chile than at many New Mexican restaurants, but I’m fanatically anti-cumin in New Mexican food that just a little bit will do me.  Much, much better is the green chile which is an iridescent green and which has a piquant bite that will snap you out of any residual morning drowsiness you may have. It’s a fruity, earthy green chile laden with capsaicin blessed goodness.  The breakfast burrito is topped with shredded Cheddar and white cheeses and is engorged with potatoes and your choice of meat. It is served with the Market’s terrific papitas and a garnish of tomatoes and lettuce.

Lunch and dinner options are also varied. Lunch options include hot and cold sandwiches made with your choice of bread (not that anyone would choose anything other than Sage Bakehouse bread). Burgers and New Mexican entrees are also available.  A menu above a spacious and well-provisioned deli case lists several sandwich options, but there’s also a “build your own” option which will appeal to adventurous diners who understand deli meats and cheeses.

Those include wine-infused sopressata, a coarsely ground, salty Italian dry-cured salami I’ve been hooked on for years.  Fromage fanatics will also appreciate the cave-aged Gruyere cheese, a sweet, earthy and creamy cheese which is as addictive as any French cheese.  Sandwich them together between two glorious slices of Sage Bakehouse toasted sourdough bread, add a bit of lettuce and tomato and you’ve got a terrific sandwich.  Another winner is the market’s green chile infused patty melt with caramelized red onions.  The green chile has a kick to it and the light rye bread is perfectly toasted and delicious.

Chocolate Eclair

Chocolate Eclair

Pedestrian desserts at otherwise excellent restaurants may have the effect of making a great meal anti-climatic. That is, a boring dessert may render a stellar meal far less.  That’s certainly not the case at the Tesuque Village Market where dessert is a stand-out. An oversized under glass display case showcases a wide array of tempting desserts, all of which will beckon even the most sated diner.

Desserts include various pastries: pies, cakes, mousse, tarts and even flan. Many are big enough to share (not that you’d want to) and are deliciously decadent. An enormous chocolate éclair filled with rich, satisfying vanilla custard and topped with a luscious dark chocolate sprinkled with nuts is one such dessert. I’m surprised the dessert case isn’t laden with tongue-tracks.

The Tesuque Village Market is sometimes an overlooked dining option just outside of Santa Fe (maybe some of that has changed since Giada’s visit), but it’s worth a visit or ten.

Tesuque Village Market
Route 22 & Bishops Lodge Road
Tesuque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tortilla Soup, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Breakfast Burrito, Éclair, Carnitas

Tesuque Village Market on Urbanspoon

Frattellis – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Fratelli's in Rio Rancho

Fratelli's Pizza by the Slice or Whole Pies

In New York City, pizza by the slice is as ubiquitous as towering skyscrapers. Many of the city’s nearly 3,000 pizzerias serve pizza by the slice. Most have been doing so since the end of WWII when recently returned American veterans who served in Italy craved the sliced pizza they had enjoyed during their service.  Heck, in the Big Apple, you can even find pizza by the slice proffered by sidewalk vendors. At about two bucks a slice, it’s usually pretty decent thin-sliced pizza blanketed with cheese.

A widespread presence doesn’t mean the practice is universally approved of. The other school of thought snubs its nose at the thought of serving by the slice, the triangle-shaped, tomato sauced pie Americans consume at the rate of 100 acres a day. Many traditionalists, particularly artisan Pizzaiolis with coal-burning oven pedigrees disdain the practice of pizza by the slice, scoffing that the practitioners of this sacrilege have reduced the art of pizza making to a fast-food assembly-line pretense.

While several pizzerias in the Albuquerque metropolitan area serve pizza by the slice, the lack of historical ties to the genesis of America’s pizza might be the reason you don’t hear the slice versus no slice debate rage on.  On August 1st, 2006, Rio Rancho saw the launch of A&K Frattellis in which pizza by the slice isn’t an after-thought; it’s a primary draw. The A&K stood for Aaron and Kyle, the five- and three-year old scions of the restaurant’s owner at the time. Frattelli is Italian for “brother” so the name just makes sense. It also makes sense that a pizzeria in Rio Rancho would serve pizza by the slice; after all, isn’t Rio Rancho still called “Little New York” after all these years.

The western wall at Fratellis serves as an oversized menu

The western wall at Fratellis serves as an oversized menu

The A&K portion of the name was dropped when Fratellis was sold, but the formula–gigantic slices of delicious pizza delivered quickly to your table; efficient and friendly service; and reasonable prices–remains.  It’s one of Rio Rancho’s most popular restaurants of any genre, one which transcends generations as evidenced by the number of happy families which make it their choice for pizza.

24-inch pizzas are the genesis for individual slices which you can order for a shade under three dollars (a two slice special and a drink goes for just over six dollars, including tax) and top with your favorite ingredients for a mere pittance. Each slice is huge, nearly as big as an entire pizza at pizzerias which specialize in thin-sliced gourmet pizza. It comes out of the oven hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth.

The menu also features five house pies including the Hawaiian Pie (Canadian bacon and pineapple), the New Mexican Pie (pepperoni and green chile) and the New York Pie (pepperoni, beef, sausage, onion, mushroom and black olive). Ask for it and free fresh garlic will be added to any pizza.

Up close and personal pie

Combination pizza from Fratelli's

Several salads and a football-sized calzone are also available and there’s also stromboli, meatball hero, subs, bread sticks, cheese sticks, Italian desserts and more.  The entire menu is available for carry-out or for dining-in.  Delivery is also available on large orders.

The menu, by the way, is prominently displayed on the wall by the restaurant’s entrance as a green, white and red banner (the color of the Italian flag) hoisted by a mustachioed chef.

The pizza is usually terrific. The crust is thick enough to sustain ingredients which are generously piled on, but thin enough so that you can fold it laterally (another sign of New York style pizza).  t has just a hint of char and its outside edges are heavily populated with the airy holes that seem to define good pizza. The sauce is applied lightly and is an excellent complement to all other ingredients.

A slice of Hawaiian pizza

A slice of Hawaiian pizza

If the New York Pie (not slice) is any indication, Frattellis crafts a fine pie (we normally order pizza by the slice). The sausage is replete with fennel, the pepperoni is tangy and nicely spiced, the mushrooms are deliciously fleshy fungi and the green chile (on my half of the pie) has a comal roasted taste without being particularly piquant.

A friend and colleague from New York consumed a slice and joked afterwards that the pizza contained triptophan, the sleep inducing chemical found in turkey. You can easily share a slice with a friend. Each slice is 12-inches at the top and tapers down to a perfectly pointed bottom. Two slices and you just might fall asleep, the contented sleep of someone who just had a great meal. Be forewarned, however, that sometimes individual slices tend to be hard-crusted, a sure sign they’ve been sitting under a heat lamp.

Fratelli’s joins several terrific pizzerias in the City of Vision. It will give the others a run for their money–any way you slice it!

3301 Southern Blvd
Rio Rancho, NM

LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2007
BEST BET: New York Pie, Pepperoni Slice, A’s Favorite

Frattellis Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Venezia’s Pizzeria – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Venezia's Pizzeria

Venezia's Pizzeria in Rio Rancho

Being within walking distance of my place of employment makes this old fashioned pizzeria an easy choice while excellent pizza and a surprisingly varied menu for such a small storefront makes it the right choice!  It’s the right choice for Rio Rancho residents, many of whom have their familial roots in New York City just like Venezia’s Pizzeria has.  Moreover, Venezia’s has deeper roots in the mother country where pizza was invented.

The pizzeria is, in fact, named not for a family named Venezia, but for Venice (Venezia in Italian), Italy, the fabled city on the water which the New York Times has described as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.”  A mural on the wall depicts the romantic city of canals and gondolas.  The mural shares space on the walls with certificates of appreciation for the restaurant’s community involvement and sponsorship of youth activities.

On the pizzeria’s northeast corner stands a large plastic statue of the Statue of Liberty complete with stola, crown and sandals. New York City transplants in Rio Rancho appear preternaturally drawn to Lady Liberty’s beckoning, “Give me your huddled masses yearning to…eat pizza.”  Some of them will tell you Venezia’s is the next best thing to being in Metropolis.

A slice of cheese pizza

A slice of cheese pizza

Family patriarch Adolfo Venturino and his wife Maria migrated to America from Italy in 1964 and lived in New York until 1977 when they were enticed to the desert hamlet by the slick brochures and dubious salesmanship of the American Realty and Petroleum Company (AMREP for short).  AMREP’s laid it on as thick as a syrupy marinara sauce to attract hundreds of New Yorkers (among others) to the then untamed western fringes overlooking the Rio Grande.

In 1978, Maria began working in the kitchen of Adolfo’s brother Frank, at Venezia’s Pizzeria which quickly became a little piece of home for the many New York transplants.  For seventeen years, Venezia’s thrived in the City of Vision, but in 1995, Frank moved to Arizona to be near his children.  Venezia’s remained shuttered until the millennial year when Aldo and Renato Venturino, the sons of Adolfo and Maria, reopened the restaurant with the support and blessing of their uncle.

Though Frank launched Venezia’s Pizzeria stores in Chandler and East Mesa, Arizona, the Rio Rancho version of the pizzeria he founded is ensured continuity with the stabilizing presence of Maria in the kitchen. Maria is still at it a decade later, preparing her now famous marinara sauce–a sauce which is perfectly seasoned, not too tangy or overwhelming, a sauce which complements pasta perfectly.

Lasagna with garlic bread

Lasagna with garlic bread

Unlike other claimants to “New York style pizza,” Venezia’s has the pedigree and product to pull it off.  The crust is foldable and chewy (ala New York style) while the ingredients are unfailingly fresh.  Battleship sized slices are triangle-shaped wedges that puff up like a bantam rooster at the edges and taper to a thin bottom.  The outer crest is crisp, the rest chewy with a nice char at its underside.  Venezia does a robust take-out business, but the lunchtime crowd generally comes in for slices right out of the oven with their favorite toppings.  These slices will burn the roof of your mouth if you don’t let them cool down a bit, but they’re so good, few diners wait.

It’s almost an established law of nature that if a restaurant serves great pizza, it serves mediocre sandwiches and vice-versa.  There are some sandwiches which defy that unwritten, unproven law.  One is Venezia’s meatball sub, a nine-inch behemoth served out of the oven on bread that’s soft on the inside and crispy-crunchy on the outside.

Unlike some meatball sandwiches, this one doesn’t swim in sauce.  In fact, the sauce is conservatively applied; it doesn’t run down your arm or smear your face.  The meatballs are huge and they’re also meaty, not filler-based.  A blanket of melted mozzarella cheese helps keep the meatballs in place.  It’s a much better meatball sub, by far, than you’ll find at any of the chains.

Cheese Ravioli from Venezia's in Rio Rancho

Cheese Ravioli from Venezia's in Rio Rancho

It’s also unusual for a pizzeria ensconced in a relatively small storefront anywhere to provide such a varied menu, one that extends far beyond pizza and sandwiches.  The pasta menu would give much larger Italian restaurants a run for their money with an ensemble that includes baked ziti, cheese ravioli, meat lasagna, spaghetti with sausage (meat sauce or marinara), and fetuccini Alfredo.  The pasta menu is mostly of the “red sauce” variety that most associate with Italian comfort cooking.

Mama Maria makes her pasta dishes, homemade meatballs and marinara sauce from scratch in the tradition of wholesome old world traditions she learned in her Italian hometown.  The personal touch shows in sauces that are simmered to bring out the enticing aromas and delicious flavors with which Italian food is associated.  The ricotta stuffed cheese ravioli in that homemade marinara sauce is delicious with a dozen or so tablet-sized raviolis nestled in sauce.  The raviolis are not al dente nor are they too mushy, just perfectly-sized pillows of rich, savory ricotta.

Lasagna is another Venezia’s favorite, a brick-sized slab of pasta layered with ricotta then covered with melted mozzarella and covered in meat sauce.  The plastic utensils cut into the lasagna like a knife cutting into butter save for the melted cheese which stretches beyond your plate like pulled taffy. The ricotta is applied rather parsimoniously, my only complaint about lasagna, a dish for which Garfield the cat and I both share an affinity.

Baked ziti with garlic bread

Baked ziti with garlic bread

Baked ziti has a reputation as being somewhat of a “cheesy gut bomb” prone to dryness.  Sure, it’s an indulgence, a rich, heavy and filling diet-devastator, but made right, it can be terrific.  Venezia’s version is a good one, a rich tomato sauce, oodles of noodles and rich cheese coalescing into a flavorful, not overly heavy entree.  I’ve had baked ziti almost nauseatingly rich.  This one is rich, but not overly so.  It’s got a nice balance of ingredients in proper proportion to enhance flavors.

Venezia’s Pizzeria is a Little New York institution which has expanded into Albuquerque.  In 2004 Venezia’s expanded its operations to include two Northeast Heights restaurants, both of which are highly esteemed.

Venezia’s Pizzeria
1690 Rio Rancho, Suite E
Rio Rancho, NM

LATEST VISIT: 5 March 2010
BEST BET: Pizza, Meatball Sub, Cheese Ravioli, Lasagna

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La Casa Sena – Santa Fe, New Mexico

La Casa Sena in Santa Fe

La Casa Sena in Santa Fe

He was an academic prodigy, one of the first two persons admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico.  He had a distinguished military career in the Union Army before being mustered out with the rank of Major.  He served as sheriff of Santa Fe county for more than ten years and was a political power broker for both the Republican and Independent parties.

Despite such an impressive pedigree, Civil War-hero Major Jose Sena might have been forgotten by the annals of history had it not been for his fabulous Territorial-style adobe house a block east of the Santa Fe Plaza.  A prime example of a Spanish hacienda, the stately home has 33 ground-level rooms arranged as a square around a garden patio with towering shade trees and a gurgling fountain.

Today Casa Sena is owned by prominent Santa Fe gallery owner Gerald Peters who has transformed what was once called home by Major Sena into a veritable art gallery with museum-quality landscapes on the walls, spectacular watercolor paintings in the outer rooms and hand-crafted Taos-style furniture throughout.  Casa Sena abounds in ambience, exemplifying “old Santa Fe” style.

Blue Corn Muffins with Green Chile

Blue Corn Muffins with Green Chile

Replete with shops, offices and one of Santa Fe’s most highly regarded restaurants, Sena Plaza gives visitors and residents alike a glimpse of what aristocratic family life in territorial Santa Fe must have been like in the 19th Century when Major Sena, his wife and their thirteen children lived there. It’s more than fitting that the restaurant, La Casa Sena, is named for the prominent family who once lived there, moreso when you consider that “sena” translates from Spanish to English as “meal.”

Weather permitting–usually April through October–there may be no more relaxing milieu for a meal than La Casa Sena’s patio which is surrounded by hollyhocks and other flowering shrubs as well as towering shade trees.  If the trees don’t provide sufficient shade, large, strategically positioned umbrellas will.

Perhaps cognizant of the fact that music not only has charms that sooth the savage breast, it helps with digestion (research indicates people take fewer forkfuls per minute when listening to slow rhythms), La Casa Sena’s Sunday brunch features the musical stylings of a classical guitarist.  Coupled with light breezes, rustling leaves and the mesmerizing rivulets of water gurgling from the water fountain, the music helps provide an ambience which is tranquil and relaxing.

Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp

Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp

Broadway show tunes are at the thematic core of the adjacent La Cantina where the talented waitstaff–comprised of experienced thespians and singers–belts out show tune as they foist platters from the kitchen to the table.  Musical meals are available every night of the year but Christmas.  Reservations are highly recommended.

Oenophiles as well as Wine Spectator esteem highly the nearly two-thousand vintages offered on the restaurant’s wine list.  The restaurant prides itself on food and wine pairings.  Its philosophy is that the wines should be appropriate for the food.  Most wines come from the United States, France and Spain.

In conceptualizing the restaurant’s cuisine, the goal when the restaurant was first launched decades ago was to serve the types of food which would have been served at Major Sena’s dinner table during a special occasion in the halcyon days of the great hacienda.  A more ambitious menu seems to indicate, as the terrific tome La Casa Sena: The Cuisine of Santa Fe confirms, that the question now asked is “what would Major Sena have served, had he had an airplane?”

La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict

La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict

Though some ingredients no doubt find their way to La Casa Sena by plane, train and automobile, many–such as the red chile–are procured locally as La Casa Sena endeavors to use indigenous ingredients wherever possible.  That distinctive chile is grown exclusively for the restaurant in a farm near Dixon where the shorter growing season imparts a uniquely delicate (translate that to tourist-friendly) flavor.

Local growers are the restaurant’s preferred suppliers for its eclectic Southwestern cuisine The New York Times described as “Northern New Mexican with a continental flair.”  The cuisine’s varied influences include Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European, a cultural hodgepodge that blends together to offer the restaurant’s guests a very good meal and an excellent dining experience.

La Casa Sena serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and brunch on Sunday.  Many of the items on the brunch menu were previously available on the restaurant’s breakfast menu though La Casa Sena hasn’t offered breakfast in years.  Still, the brunch menu is one of the city’s best in a city which specializes in breakfast and brunch.

Flap-Jack Griddle

Flap-Jack Griddle

Shortly after you’re escorted to your table and presented with the menu, a basket of blue corn muffins impregnated with just a tinge of red chile is delivered.  The muffins are only mildly sweet and the chile lacks piquancy, but they are moist and thoroughly delicious.  With or without pats of butter, you may want a second complementary batch.

The appetizers are an interesting mix of primarily New Mexican starters such as guacamole and green chile stew and seafood such as flash-fried crab cake.  A popular favorite that melds both New Mexican food and seafood is the sauteed mussels and black tiger shrimp in a broth of green chile-chipotle, cilantro, garlic and white wine.  The portion size is not profuse as served at some restaurants, merely a handful of shrimp and fewer than a dozen mussels.  It matters not as both the shrimp and mussels abound in flavor, particularly when imbued with the rich broth.  Now, that broth is something you will want more of–or at least you’ll want more of the lightly toasted bread with which to sop up that delicious broth.

Years ago at a long shuttered Taos restaurant named Jacquelina’s, I was introduced to a New Mexican twist on a popular breakfast and brunch favorite–Eggs Benedict with a green chile Hollandaise.  La Casa Sena’s brunch menu offers a transcendent, albeit slightly different version of that fondly recalled brunch offering.  La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict is crafted with Canadian bacon and poached egg blanketed by Chimayo red chile Hollandaise on a buttermilk biscuit.  It is served with smoked paprika red potatoes and is simply fantastic.

Sena Sampler green chile –pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp, asadero cheese – chicken flauta, mango salsa

Sena Sampler: Green chile –pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp, asadero cheese – chicken flauta, mango salsa

Sweet succor is also available for brunch in the form of a flap-jack griddle comprised of French toast, pecan waffles, blue pancakes, sweet butter and fresh berries.  All are quite good and fortuitously not even as big as one of those plate-filling short stacks some breakfast joints proffer.  The fruit is fresh and sweet, a perfect complement to the pure maple syrup.

New Mexicans will appreciate La Casa Sena’s interpretation of a New Mexican combination plate.  The Sena Sampler features a green chile pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp with a tangy mango salsa and a crispy chicken flauta.  The best of the lot is the green chile pork tamale which is draped atop a banana leaf.  The pork is shredded, tender and absolutely delicious with flavor pronouncements of smokiness and a slight citrus tanginess.  The tamale is adorned with a mild red chile and crema fresca, but it’s that pork that will enrapt you.  The tortilla crusted shrimp is sweet and flavorful, especially when coupled with the mango salsa which is flecked with finely chopped red and green peppers for contrast.

La Casa Sena has achieved fame far beyond New Mexico’s borders.  Legions of repeat visitors to Santa Fe make it one of the first restaurants they visit or to which they return.  In 2007, Food Network luminary Rachael Ray filmed a segment at the restaurant for her show Tasty Travels, but she wasn’t the first Food Network glitterati who fell captive to La Casa Sena’s charms.

Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile

Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile and steak-cut fries with smoked ketchup

Years prior to Rachael Ray’s visit, Bobby Flay featured the restaurant on Food Nation.  To this day he still credits the green chile cheeseburger at La Casa Sena as the most memorable burger he’s eaten from across the United States.  He enjoyed it so much that he revamped a version of it for his own restaurant, Mesa Grill.  Its flavors inspired the “Santa Fe burger” featured in Flay’s new cookbook, Burgers, Fries and Shakes.

Perhaps Flay was inspired by the local organic grass-fed beef used by La Casa Sena for their cheeseburger–beef that comes from cattle fed nothing but green grass and alfalfa hay.  The health benefits of organic grass-fed beef are well-documented.  What  is often understated is how tasty it is.  It’s an unctuous beef redolent with a more robust and “beefy” flavor, but with less marbling.  Casa Sena drapes what appears to be a half-pound beef patty with mild green chile which is blanketed with melted Asadero cheese, a creamy cheese with a light, fresh taste similar to fresh mozzarella.

The cheeseburger is thick enough to require two hands to hold, especially if you dress it with the plate accompaniment: lettuce, tomato and red onion.  Served with the cheeseburger are thick steak-cut fries with a smoked ketchup.  The smoked ketchup also goes well with the burger, but with the fries it zings.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than the standard and boring ketchup.

Chocolate Red Chile Soup, one of the very best desserts in New Mexico

Chocolate Red Chile Soup, one of the very best desserts in New Mexico

For dessert, one of several can’t miss offerings is a chocolate red chile soup in which swim a handful of honey-sugared pinons and fresh, halved strawberries.  This is an ambrosial sweet offering, one you won’t want to share, even with someone you love.  The “soup” is served cool and though it might be even better as cold as refrigerated pudding, it is quite wonderful.  The restaurant’s Chimayo red chile is barely perceptible, but that only allows the chocolate to shine all the more.

In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as  state’s very best uptown dessert  to the chocolate red chile soup at La Casa Sena.  It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute.

There are many things about La Casa Sena that will inspire future visits.  It is simply a restaurant to be experienced…and to experience it is to love it.

La Casa Sena
125 East Palace
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988-9232
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chocolate Red Chile Soup, Flap-Jack Griddle, La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict, Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp, Blue Corn & Green Chile Muffins, Sena Sampler, Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile

La Casa Sena on Urbanspoon

Cafe Phenix – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Phenix in Santa Fe's Eclectic Triangle District

Cafe Phenix in Santa Fe's Eclectic Triangle District

“A mythical bird that never dies, the Phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space.
It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it.
The Phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration
– Feng Shui Master Lam Kam Shuen, The Feng Shui Handbook

It’s only appropriate that a cozy little restaurant named Cafe Phenix would be part and parcel of a neighborhood revitalization effort being spearheaded by a close-knit community of artists. Much like the advent of Soho, a New York City neighborhood regenerated by a community of Bohemian artists and activists, Santa Fe’s “Triangle District” is emerging as a destination for dining and a sense of community.

Geographically defined as the triangle formed by St. Francis Drive, St Michael’s Drive and Cerrillos Road, the Triangle District is the antithesis of Santa Fe style and its Anasazi inspired adobe facade. In fact the Triangle District seems to be an architectural hodgepodge of neo-industrial warehouse structures, studios, cafes and galleries. It does not fit the stereotypical Santa Fe template that seems to preternaturally draw so many seekers to “The City Different.”

Tragically, architectural standards and city ordinances threaten to make Santa Fe a model of adobe-hued homogeneity. It’s khaki-colored uniformity everywhere you turn, a true “City Same.” That’s why little pockets or architectural resistance are such a draw to those of us who don’t necessarily subscribe to the type of boring sameness one might call the Wal-Martization of a neighborhood. That’s why we cherish neighborhoods like the Triangle District.

The colorful and intimate Cafe Phenix

The colorful and intimate Cafe Phenix

That’s also why we seek out and cherish restaurants that dare to be different–restaurants which don’t accede to the boring template of the modern American chains and their LED-spangled lighting; saccharine wait schtick; flamboyant, over-the-top ambience and food wholly devoid of personality and flavor but profuse in portion size.

Though we may toil in the corporate world for our daily bread, restaurants such as Cafe Phenix bring out the Bohemian soul within us. They nourish our artistic afflatus while giving sustenance to our unexpressed creative core. They provide momentary respite, a temporary escape and most importantly, give us a sense of community in a cold and impersonal world polarized by politics and greed.

Community is what the Cafe Phenix aspires to build. Its mission is to have a community cafe that “offers amazing food, the best espresso and coffee in town, and a large selection of loose leaf tea with the goal of offering everyone a chance to enjoy healthy, great tasting food and drinks at a reasonable price.

Ham and Brie Galette (Ham, Brie and Sauteed Apples Served With Maple Syrup)

Ham and Brie Galette (Ham, Brie and Sauteed Apples Served With Maple Syrup)

That sense of community was certainly not lost on Julia Lapis Blakeslee, a faithful reader of this blog, who excitedly told me about her experiences at “a pretty funky place” with a “really homey atmosphere” in which “the couple that owns the place makes you feel quite welcome.” She then proceeded to regale me in with mouth-watering descriptions of peasant-style savory buckwheat crepes, some of the best coffee she’s ever had and a “revelation in eggs,” scrambled eggs the type of which she imagined New York Times’ columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman would prepare.

Julia’s sense of community was heightened by the fact that the Phenix Cafe offers as an occasional special, Russian borscht reminiscent of what she grew up eating. Having grown up with a Russian mother and grandmother serving borscht at most meals, she was impressed with the restaurant’s rendition and authenticity.

That authenticity is credited to co-owner Yevgeniya “Jane” Gozenpud, who left the mother country of Russia at age six and migrated to Chicago where her family remains to this day. Jane’s husband Joshua Drummond, a Cordon Bleu trained chef, is originally from Las Cruces. Together they have transformed what was once an old bike repair shop into a charming little cafe that savvy diners have taken notice of.

La Tetue (Thick cut bacon, chevre, caramelized red onion, leek and garlic, lightly sauteed tomatoes and fresh basil)

La Tetue (Thick cut bacon, chevre, caramelized red onion, leek and garlic, lightly sauteed tomatoes and fresh basil)

Cafe Phenix didn’t escape the notice of the New York Times which, in a “Where to eat in Santa Fe” segment had this to say: “a family-owned operation specializing in crepes and galettes not only has the best breakfast dish in town — galettes with eggs, cheese and roast green chile — but the best coffee.” Interestingly, the New York Times, who’s been publishing “All The News That’s Fit To Print” since 1851, scooped local periodicals which, as of this writing, have not reviewed Cafe Phenix.

You’ll quickly get the feeling that to the locals who have discovered it, an endorsement from the New York Times means far less than the fact that Cafe Phenix prides itself in using fresh, organic ingredients purchased locally whenever possible. A restaurant with a true social conscience, Cafe Phenix enthusiastically supports Buy Local, Farm to Restaurant, Shop Santa Fe, sustainability, living wage, individuality, spontaneity and the green movement. How can you not love that? Further, everything is made to order with the highest attention to presentation and flavor and a goal of having something for everyone–vegans, vegetarians and those who cannot or don’t wish to eat gluten.

Intent on nurturing a sense of community–its operating motto is “whatever your talent or flavor is, you’ll always find a home at Cafe Phenix”–the cafe invites local artists, musicians and filmmakers to showcase their work at no cost. Artists can participate with, and get recognition from, each other and the wider Santa Fe community. To that end, the cafe will be hosting events to showcase local talent. Rotating monthly art exhibits festoon the cafe’s walls. This is creativity fostering creativity, community fostering community.

Banana, Cream Cheese and Nutella Crepe

Banana, Cream Cheese and Nutella Crepe

The concept of “made to order” is taken to heart at Phenix Cafe where very limited kitchen space makes it impossible for Chef Drummond to mass-produce large quantities of food.  That just means he pays more attention to each individual order.  It also means that while you’re waiting for your food, you can luxuriate in the glorious bouquet (a medley of fragrance, aroma and aftertaste) of hot, fresh and utterly delicious coffee.  Julia, who is very picky about coffee, told me the cafe serves some of the best coffee she’s ever had.  For her that’s saying a lot.

The coffee menu features Espresso, Macchiato, Latte, Mocha, Cappuccino, Cafe Au Lait, Organic Chai and a house specialty called “The Ultimate,” three shots of Espresso, Half and Half and sweetened, condensed milk.  You might think you’re in Seattle, not Santa Fe as the fragrance of coffee envelops you.  It’s amazing coffee, as smooth and full-flavored as any coffee made by any barista anywhere.  The Ultimate lives up to its name though it’s not for the faint of heart.  If you need to sweeten it, little Russian treasure boxes on every table contain all your favorite artificial sweeteners—or you can ask for agave, a natural sweetener.

Printed menus showcase a variety of galettes and crepes, not the “usual suspects” you see at every French restaurant.  Chef Drummond treats the galette (essentially a crepe with savory components) and crepe as a veritable canvas for his culinary creativity.  Both crepes and galettes are available in buckwheat, wheat, quinoa or vegan quinoa.  Don’t forget to check out the specials of the day, nattily scrawled on a blue slate board.  It’s where you’ll find borscht when it’s offered.

Blood Orange Crepe Suzette

Blood Orange Crepe Suzette

One special of the day of our inaugural visit was a ham and brie galette (ham, brie and sauteed apples served with maple syrup), a fabulous marriage of sweet, tangy and savory flavors.  The ingredients go so well together, you’ll be amazed–a concordant melding of salty ham cut into little cubes, apples cut even smaller and with a delicate tanginess, real maple syrup and a light, slightly sweet galette enveloping this delightful, perfect-for-breakfast entree.

The crepe de resistance, for me, however, is La Tetue (thick cut bacon, chevre (goat cheese), caramelized red onion, leek and garlic, slightly sauteed tomatoes and fresh basil), a savory galette on the daily menu.  Chef Drummond’s mastery of balanced flavors is in evidence here as no one ingredient dominates the taste profile.  Instead, pedantic palates will be able to discern each and every flavor component and they’re all perfectly prepared.  The chevre has a sharp, creamy flavor; the vegetables have the zip of freshness and the bacon is smoky and crispy.

The crepe menu is replete with the types of luscious indulgences with which we should all treat ourselves once in a while–like every time we visit Cafe Phenix.  The sweet and delicate Nutella Crepe was showcased in “100+ Things To Eat Before You Die,” a popular list which has been making the rounds throughout the blogosphere for years.  The cafe one-ups the basic nutella crepe by offering one with bananas and cream cheese.  It’s a little piece of heaven on earth, a sweet work of art sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

At the other end of the sweetness spectrum is a blood orange Crepe Suzette, another special of the day we fortuned upon.  Blood oranges are simultaneously sweet and tart as if an orange was crossed with a grapefruit.  Neither the sweet nor the tart flavor dominates; it’s literally the best of both, a balance of flavors.  Blood oranges are crimson red, as if injected with the red ink my English teacher used on my writing assignments.  You can only imagine how lively and flavorful this crepe is.  Bursts of flavor will make your mouth very happy.

There are many things about Cafe Phenix that will make you happy and it’s not limited to the terrific food.  Jane and her wait staff are sincerely happy and grateful to have you as their guests and they feed you like it.  This is an undiscovered Santa Fe gem that won’t be a secret for much longer.

Cafe Phenix
1414 Second Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blood Orange Crepe Suzette; La Tetue; Banana, Cream Cheese and Nutella Crepe; Ham and Brie Galette

Café Phénix on Urbanspoon

Paul’s Monterey Inn – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Paul's Monterey Inn, a throwback to the 1960s

Paul’s Monterey Inn, a throwback to the 1960s

The year was 1971.  Albuquerque’s population had reached a quarter of a million.  The San Juan-Chama project, a system of diversion structures and tunnels for trans-mountain movement of water from the San Juan River Basin to the Rio Grande Basin, was completed.  The area’s three military installations: Kirtland, Manzano and Sandia Bases merged under Air Force jurisdiction.  Civil unrest was in the air in pastoral Roosevelt Park where a riot ensued that saw more than 130 arrested and more than 2,000 armed men called in to quell the situation.  Albuquerque ballooning pioneer Sid Cutter took his first balloon flight.  Paul’s Monterey Inn opened on Juan Tabo.

Four decades later Paul’s Monterey Inn continues to serve the Duke city with a menu that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in lo these many years.  While the menu may not have changed, times have.  In the 70s, longer cooking times to avert potential diseases resulted in the the most popular degree of preparation for steak being anywhere from medium to well-done. Today, aficionados of steak prefer shorter cooking times so that their favorite slabs of beef retain more juice and flavor.

In the 1970s, thick, hazy clouds of cigarette smoke permeated virtually every corner of almost every restaurant–despite perfunctory efforts to segregate smokers from non-smokers.  In 2004, the city of Albuquerque followed the national trend and implemented an Indoor Clean Air Ordinance which prohibited lighting up in restaurants, unenclosed restaurant bars, coffee shops and cafeterias.  For Paul’s Monterey Inn, the smoking ban resulted in a twenty percent drop in customer traffic, mostly on Friday and Saturday nights.

Large booths envelop diners at Paul's Monterey Inn

Large booths envelop diners at Paul’s Monterey Inn

Paul’s Monterey Inn has survived for decades, not necessarily because it has constantly changed or adapted, but because it has and continues to provide an excellent product at great value in a relaxing milieu.  It’s a formula that has seen the restaurant survive the onslaught of the nutrition police who came along and declared meat protein non-grata.  It’s why Paul’s survived the mad cow disease scare.

In many ways, one of Albuquerque’s longest surviving steakhouses hasn’t changed at all.  Paul’s Monterey Inn is an anachronism–a throw-back to a bygone era in which the template for steakhouses meant a dimly lit, smoky ambience with rich leatherette seating which swallowed up diners; an era in which menus were dominated by thick slabs of hand-cut beef and fried seafood entrees.  It’s the template followed by steakhouses in New York City and Las Vegas, Nevada back in the day.  It’s the template that made steakhouses the haven of Frank Sinatra and other luminaries of the period.

Paul’s remains a dimly lit restaurant with gold glass fixtures and low-watt wall sconces illuminating barely enough for the menu to be read. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit beef and cocktail palace in the far Northeast Heights–and when they do adjust, you’ll wonder if you stepped out of a portal into the 1960s.  You’ll also wonder where the rest of the world went.  Paul’s gives one the impression that the rest of the world (and time itself) has been shuttered behind its dark-paneled walls.

A dinner steak (Iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, croutons)

A dinner salad (Iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, croutons)

Thankfully the darkness of the restaurant is no longer exacerbated by the choking blue haze.  Thanks to the city’s clean air ordinances, Paul’s is now a breath of fresh air (literally). What a wonderful treat it now is to walk into Paul’s and not inhale the ghosts of cigarettes past which once lingered stagnantly and dulled the taste buds.  It’s also a treat to be escorted to your table or booth by a hostess who asks if you want to sit side-by-side or facing one another, a quip so long-practiced that it’s probably used accidentally on single diners.

Mostly it’s a treat to be able to peruse a menu that some might consider a veritable museum piece, a menu that–save for price increases–hasn’t changed in four decades.  It’s a menu that still features hand-cut, char broiled hunks of beef prepared to your exacting specifications.  It’s a menu in which seafood is still breaded, fried and served with both cocktail sauce and tartar sauce.  It’s a menu that shirks the avant garde designer appetizers of today’s trendy restaurants and serves the standards of the 70s steakhouse: jumbo shrimp cocktail, deep-fried onion rings and fresh mushrooms sauteed in wine.

Paul’s still offers a soup of the day, made from scratch and served fresh daily in a bowl or cup.   On Tuesdays, that means green chile chicken soup, the restaurant’s comfort food favorite.  The recipe hasn’t changed much over the past 40 years, that consistency perhaps the reason the restaurant serves up as much as fifteen gallons of the stuff every time it’s offered.  One steakhouse standard which goes well with soup is salad and Paul’s sticks to tradition here, too with an old-fashioned Cobb salad.  Its version of a designer salad is an “epicurean salad” whose chief components are Alaskan king crab and Gulf shrimp with tomato wedges, ripe olives, egg slices, lemon wedges and avocado wedges on a bed of mixed greens.

Some of the very best onion rings in town

Some of the very best onion rings in town

Entrees are accompanied by an old-fashioned dinner salad: iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, plum tomatoes and bread croutons with your choice of dressing.  Though the plates aren’t chilled, the salad ingredients and dressing seem to be.  Chilled is the way iceberg-based salads should be served.  You won’t find the designer du jour salad dressings on the menu.  It’s the old standards: Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Ranch and so forth.  The Blue Cheese is thick and gloppy with nary a hint of actual blue cheese or the fetid qualities aficionados love about it.

Perhaps the starter most often served at Paul’s are the deep-fried onion rings, large ringlets of sweet battered onions.  Years of practice has resulted in onion rings that retain juiciness when you bite into them, onions you can actually taste and a complementary batter that doesn’t dominate the flavor profile or leave your hands a greasy mess.  These are onion rings the way they should be made.

Paul’s Monterey Inn goes through about a century mark’s worth of beer-bread loaves a day.  This is bread baked in-house in the wee hours of the morning before some people are up.  The mini loaves are easily big enough for two to split and are served with scooped shaped balls of butter.  Your own personal cutting board, a victim of years of slicing and slashing, and knife are provided, too.

A loaf of homemade bread with butter

A loaf of homemade bread with butter

Though “steakhouse” isn’t part of Paul’s marquee, steak is what the restaurant is best known for.  Duke City diners have been of the carnivorous persuasion even before the first time they saw the Flintstone’s car get upended by a rack of brontosaurus beef and Paul’s is one of our favorite sources for sizzling steak.  Brawny beef is what seems destined for most tables at the restaurant, some of it large enough to give the wait staff a work-out.

Paul’s gourmet-cut 18-ounce roast prime rib of beef, au Jus is among the best in the city, its chief competition for that honor being the prime rib at the Monte Carlo Steakhouse, another anachronism which actually predates Paul’s by one year.  This is black angus beef slow-roasted for eight hours.   The staff recommends it be served at rare to medium rare though the restaurant will happily incinerate it if that be your choice (real meat-eaters would consider that a desecration).  Paul’s serves more than 400 orders of the prime rib every week, making it one of the most popular entrees on the menu.

The prime rib is served with small plastic cups of horseradish.  If you like your horseradish powerful enough to make you cough and sputter while tears run down your cheeks, you’re in for a disappointment.  This is pretty anemic horseradish, about as weak as horseradish can be and still be called horseradish. The most popular accompaniment for most meat dishes are baked potatoes with heaping portions of sour cream and butter if you ask for them.  Paul’s goes through nearly five tons of baked potatoes every week.

T-bone Steak with baked potato

T-bone Steak with baked potato

Another popular piece of pulchritudinous beef is the T-bone steak, eighteen-ounces of of saw-cut beef from the center of the short loin.  With its signature T-shaped bone, this broiled behemoth has about 32 grams of protein per three ounces, making it one of Men’s Fitness magazine’s choices as one of the tastiest and healthiest ways “to enjoy the protein source that just may be the best muscle builder around.”  Paul’s T-bone steak is the stuff of legend.  Prepared to your exacting specifications every time, it is a sensational steak with good marbling for flavor and juiciness.  It’s almost fork-tender.

Plate decoration at Paul’s has remained pretty standard over the years: a sole onion ring centered precisely on your slab of beef, a raw green onion laid out like a divining rod, an orange slice and a knife placed underneath your steak as if buttressing its weight on the plate.  It may not be Feng Shui, but it’s something we’ve come to expect at Paul’s and we’re not left disappointed.

Smaller appetites take comfort in Paul’s petit filet, the second most popular item at the venerable restaurant.  It’s wrapped in bacon to imbue it with a little smokiness, but the preeminent flavor is that of beauteous, tender beef.  Filet is the most tender cut of beef, taken from the tenderloin.  Paul’s has perfected this popular ladies’ choice, serving it perfectly every time.

Seafood Platter

Seafood Platter

The menu at Paul’s Monterey Inn includes a “turf and surf” entree, the order in which the two are listed depicting the restaurant’s hierarchy–meat first, seafood next.  That doesn’t mean seafood is an afterthought. The turf and surf entree is comprised of a juicy sirloin and an eight- to ten-ounce Australian rock lobster tail.  Australian rock lobster is a warm-water lobster without claws.  At Paul’s, it’s eight- to ten-ounces of the sweetest and most delicious lobster we’ve had in the Land of Enchantment.  Seriously, it’s a good lobster!

The seafood menu includes shrimp scampi, filet of king salmon, broiled halibut steak, golden fried scallops, Gulf jumbo shrimp, a combination seafood plate and Alaskan king crab.  That’s trawler’s treasure…Poseidon’s bounty, maybe not enough to convince the “glass is half empty” folks that good to excellent seafood can be found in Albuquerque, but enough for those of us who know it can be.

The combination seafood plate includes a deep-fried crab cake, two Gulf jumbo shrimp and five golden fried scallops.  There is probably a generation of Americans who have never had fried seafood, the preference currently being for it being broiled.  Because you can have it fried makes Paul’s Monterey Inn is a popular venue for forty and fifty year olds who grew up with fried seafood.

Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream

Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream

The jumbo Gulf shrimp are butterflied and are nearly the size of a small fish filet.  The crab cake is rich and moist, made with real crab.  The fried scallops are lightly breaded and more moist and juicy than some broiled scallops I’ve had.  Breaded and fried certainly doesn’t mean desiccated and flavorless in the hands of an experienced kitchen crew and Paul’s has been making seafood this way for years.  This seafood triumvirate is sweet and succulent, a very nice treat.

Paul’s desserts are made in-house.  The chocolate cheese pie has been on the menu for more than two decades and is the restaurant’s most popular dessert.  Another homemade gem is the chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.  The dominant flavor profile is chocolate–rich and delicious without being cloying.  Top it with vanilla ice cream for an even better dessert.

Paul’s Monterey Inn is a timeless classic that hasn’t worn out its welcome in Albuquerque because it remains a welcoming restaurant that hasn’t bowed to the pressures of time and culture.  Forty years from now it will probably be serving the same timeless menu.  Surviving customers won’t mind that at all.

Paul’s Monterey Inn
1000 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 13 February 2010
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Australian Rock Lobster, Prime Rib, T-Bone Steak, Combination Seafood Plate, Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Cheese Pie

Paul's Monterey Inn on Urbanspoon

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill

Perhaps in time, the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho metropolitan statistical area will be thought of in much the same vein as America’s two most famous “twin city” metroplexes–Dallas-Fort Worth and Minneapolis-Saint Paul.  Don’t be surprised if Rio Rancho winds up being the Dallas to Albuquerque’s Fort Worth, the Minneapolis to Albuquerque’s Saint Paul.  People have been selling Rio Rancho short for a long time, but that’s starting to change.

By 1980, the end of its first decade in existence, the fledgling city which in 1970 didn’t even have a measurable population by U.S. Census standards had more than 10,000 residents.  Ten years later, census reports showed the “little city which could” had grown to more than 32,000 residents and had become the sixth most populous city in the state. Rio Rancho added another 20,000 residents by the millennium.  2007 population estimates now indicate Rio Rancho has supplanted Santa Fe as the third largest city in the Land of Enchantment with nearly 76,000 residents calling the City of Vision home.

Rio Rancho residents who once traversed a two-lane road down the hill to Albuquerque to do their shopping, partake of entertainment and dine at a variety of restaurants offering a diversity of cuisine are increasingly keeping their disposable income in Rio Rancho, especially when it comes to dining.  The city may not yet have a truly transformative restaurant (though Noda’s might be close) but it has several very good to excellent restaurants, some of which are luring in diners from the Duke City and beyond.

Focaccia with butter at Black Olive

Focaccia with butter at Black Olive

In the shadow of an economic malaise that precipitated the closure of several popular upscale casual restaurants on the “west side,” restaurateur Matt Havey chose Rio Rancho as the site of another restaurant which should lure in diners from throughout the area.  He named his dream restaurant which opened in September, 2009, the Black Olive Bar and Grill.  With years of experience as general manager of the highly decorated Gruet Steakhouse and the now defunct Copeland’s of New Orleans, Havey knows what it takes to build a successful operation.

The Black Olive promises “a new fresh taste and spin on everybody’s favorite comfort foods like the Black Olive’s version of New Mexico green chili stew and the special half-pound “The Black Olive Burger.”  An expansive menu includes “the finest steaks and wines, along with classic Italian pasta dishes.”

The Black Olive is situated in the Country Club Center on Southern Boulevard and Pinetree, the shopping center in which Albertson’s is the largest anchor tenant and in which you’ll find Joe’s Pasta Cafe, the best Italian restaurant on the west side.  The restaurant is open daily from 11AM through 10PM Sunday through Thursday and 11AM through 11PM Friday and Saturday.  The restaurant’s Web site offers a reservation service, but you can also reserve your table by calling 891-2690.

Farm House Cheeses (Goat Cheese, Blue Cheese, White Cheddar)

Farm House Cheeses (Goat Cheese, Blue Cheese, White Cheddar)

Straddling the fine line between casual and upscale dining, the Black Olive showcases a massive bar above which are hung four huge flat screen high-definition televisions tuned to ESPN, but that doesn’t mean this is exclusively a domain for the beer drinking man.  Oenophiles will appreciate the fine wines available by the glass.

The restaurant is a yawning complex with both booth and table seating as well as seating by the bar.  While the walls are a neutral earth-tone, the booths and chairs are black and even the tables are draped with black tablecloth.  The black hardly seems ominous; it’s the type of black which seems to signify power or prestige.

The menu is obviously well thought-out so as not to be a compendium of everything for everybody, but a carefully chosen representation of items designed to provide a diversity of flavorful options.  This is exemplified by the starters portion of the menu which offers ten different options ranging from grilled ham and cheese mini sandwiches to an offering of farm house cheeses.  The soups and salads menu offers three soups (including the aforementioned green chili stew) and eight salads, most of which showcase the creativity and versatility possible with salads.



There are seven entrees on the pasta menu, all Italian.  Sandwiches and burgers range from the comfortably simple (grilled cheese and tomato soup) to the inventively different (chicken muffuletta).  Burgers are a half-pound and made from ground sirloin.  The steaks and other meats section of the menu are placed into four categories: roasted, braised and grilled; prime rib; steaks and surf and turf.  The steaks are seasoned on high-heat and finished in an over-fire broiler to lock in the taste.

Only four items adorn the seafood menu, but they include Australian cold-water lobster and king crab legs which can be served with the prime rib or steak for a classic surf and turf dinner.  There are ten a la carte sides such as baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese and sweet corn gratine.

The menu also includes five desserts, all tempting.  In what seems to be characteristic of a well-developed menu, the desserts range from the simple (fresh-baked cookies and milk) to the more sophisticated (a trio of key lime pie, peanut butter chocolate and carrot cake).

Pasta Pomadoro

Pasta Pomadoro

As you contemplate the menu, a plate with a wedge of warm focaccia bread and soft butter is brought to your table.  The focaccia is soft and surprisingly not as crumbly as this type of bread tends to be. The butter spreads easily.  Depending on what your order, you may want to hold back some of the focaccia for dredging up a sauce.

Fromage fanatics will gravitate toward a starter of Farm House Cheeses, described on the menu as “honeycomb, candied nuts, fruit compote and artisan breads.”  Unless you consider crostini (slices of toasted bread) an artisan bread, the bread is hardly special though it is a good base for the other components of this starter plate.  Another example of taking artistic liberty in describing the menu items is the term “honeycomb” which in this case turns out to be a ramekin of honey–real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup some restaurants serve with sopaipillas.  It’s very good honey.

The three cheeses served on our plate were a luscious, fresh and creamy goat cheese; a white Cheddar of medium sharpness and a pungent blue cheese.  All were quite good and proved perfect toppings for the artisan bread.  The fruit compote was both sweet and tangy, its emphasis being on its natural flavors, not some pectin pretender.  The candied nuts are an addictive lot, the type of which you could eat by the handful.  In all, this is a very nice appetizer.

Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream and Apple Slices

Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream and Apple Slices

Every once in a while, I receive feedback critical about one of my reviews that leads me to ask, “why did they order that?”  Frankly that’s the question I asked myself after one bite of the Cioppino, Dungeness crab, black mussels, Manila clams, shrimp, calamari and fresh fish in a hearty tomato-herb stew.  While it’s about as good as you can expect in land-locked New Mexico, I’m very nit-picky about Cioppino, one of my very favorite seafood stews.  Several trips to San Francisco reenforced that cioppino should be a lusty, flavorful, and full-bodied comfort stew with a fine balance of acidity, savoriness and freshness.  Black Olive’s rendition didn’t live up to those standards.

The Pasta Pomadoro, on the other hand, is a nice rendition of this quintessential Italian dish.  Pomodoro, an Italian word which means “golden orb” is an apt description for tomato considering its brilliant color at a ripened state.  Pasta Pomadoro should emphasize fresh tomatoes and the Black Olive does.  This dish, which also includes basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil tossed with an angel hair pasta is light and delicious, the antithesis of heavy marinara sauces.

The Black Olive has only three burgers on the menu, but that doesn’t mean your choices are limited.  The restaurant’s signature burger is the Black Olive Burger which is stuffed with your choice of cheese.  The Classic Sirloin Burger includes lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and white Cheddar cheese.  Where you can really get creative is with the “Create Your Own Burger” option where, for a buck apiece, you can add any of the following ingredients: New Mexico green chile, applewood-smoked bacon, sliced mushrooms, blue cheese, caramelized onions and grilled portabella mushrooms.

The Black Olive Burger: House-Made Burger Stuffed With Choice of Cheese

The Black Olive Burger: House-Made Burger Stuffed With Choice of Cheese

Each burger weighs in at a half-pound of ground sirloin beef and ostensibly is prepared to your exacting specifications.  I say ostensibly because that wasn’t the case for both me and a dining companion during a February, 2010 visit.  We both ordered the Black Olive burger at medium, but as the photo above shows, mine arrived at well-done.  What could have been a great burger had it had the requisite juiciness of all great burgers, was merely a fair burger, too dry for my taste.  Stuffed with goat cheese and topped with very fresh ingredients, it deserved better than near incineration.  Because we were in a hurry, we didn’t send the burgers back.

A dessert option sure to please even the most finicky of sweet teeth is the bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream.  The bread is lightly toasted, soft and moist and is infiltrated by sliced, baked apples.  Cinnamon and raisin are also prevalent in this excellent example of what is essentially a peasant dish turned refined.

Philip Pate who recommended the Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill to me compared it to Geo’s Fine Food Restaurant, a short-lived but much beloved Rio Rancho restaurant whose closing surprised many.  Philip believes that with its “very favorable selection of food” and “not the usual” menu, it has a chance for greatness.  The Black Olive is a restaurant which bears watching as it does have the pedigree and menu to be another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho.  The key will be in how the restaurant executes at even the minute details–keeping portion sizes reasonable, preparing food to exacting specifications, providing good value for the money.  If it doesn’t, Rio Rancho residents certainly know the route to Albuquerque.

The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill
3301 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2010
1st VISIT:  12 October 2009
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pasta Pomadoro, Bread Pudding, Farmer House Cheeses

Black Olive on Urbanspoon

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