Cafe Green – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Green, just a few blocks south of Central on Fifth

Cafe Green, just a few blocks south of Central on Fifth

Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both. It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree.  The feeling that you’re getting away with something delightfully illicit is reenforced as you lap up mimosas and Bloody Marys as fast as the wait staff can bring them to you.  Brunch even allows you to get away with laziness at least once a year when you have the excuse to drag mom to a restaurant where she and countless other moms can be pampered on their special day.

Americans have loved brunch since the 1930s when, according to culinary historians, passengers on transcontinental train rides would disembark in Chicago for a late morning meal in between trains.  It wasn’t until after the second war to end all wars that brunch became popular on Sundays.  Apparently the promises made in foxholes (where there are no atheists) were quickly forgotten because after World War II, there was a precipitous decline in the number of churchgoers across the fruited plain.  Instead, Americans began to sleep in late on Sundays as they recovered from Saturday night hang-overs.  After reading the funnies and lolling around the house for a while, they went out for brunch.  All the cool people were doing it.

The term brunch, a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch” is believed to have originated in Britain in the late 19th century.  The phrase was coined in 1896 by Guy Beringer, in of all places, the long defunct Hunter’s Weekly.  He exalted the concept of brunch because it allowed staying up later and getting drunker on Saturday night then not being expected to wake up early for breakfast.

Croque Madame

La Croque Madame: Grilled ham and Fontina with a béchamel sauce fried egg on top with a side of fresh fruit

Alas, not everyone has a high opinion of brunch.  In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, fellow sybarite Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.”

New York Times columnist and writer Mark Bittman calls brunch “a huge fat-bomb,” no doubt a recognition that Americans will eschew fresh fruit and veggie frittatas to swill a few Bloody Marys with their heavy on the Hollandaise eggs benedict.  In his defense, Bittman’s recent foray into Michelle Obama inspired healthy food activism has probably starved his thought processes of the clarity made possible only with a diet replete with processed foods and animal products.

Some brunches offer sumptuous all-you-can-choke-down buffets with gleaming silver trays overfilled with fried, gloppy, saucy, sweet, savory and otherwise not-good-for-you options sure to be a big hit among caloric overachievers.  This is the arena in which ordinary Americans do their best to emulate the behavior of gurgitators, the competitive eaters who can eat more in one seating than most of us can eat in a week.  It’s where belts are loosened, fabric is stretched and civility (especially table manners) goes out the window.

Crab Benedict

Crab Benedict Two house-made crab cakes topped with poached egg and tarragon hollandaise

Albuquerque has its share of bounteous buffet brunches, the magnetically appealing, calorie-laden Vegas-style all-you-can-eat Bacchanalian feasts, but it also has the type of high-quality, off-the-menu brunch offerings that have lessened the frequency of my trips to Santa Fe on Sunday.  Restaurants such as the Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, Lucia, the Gold Street Caffe, Sophia’s Place and a spate of others serve up brunch that’s worth climbing out from under the covers to indulge in.

Add the Cafe Green to the list of terrific brunch purveyors.  If the “Green” portion of the restaurant’s name evokes unappetizing thoughts of getting out of bed for a menu of dandelion salads and leafy vegetables, you’ll be happy to hear this charming cafe just a few blocks south of Old Route 66 on Fifth Street isn’t solely about raw foods.  Nor does the “Green” on the marquee necessarily perpetuate the concepts of the broad-based environmental “green” movement sweeping America.  For Sunday brunch, the restaurant offers a plethora of palate-pleasing, putting on the pounds entrees that defy any preconceptions you might have based on its name.

If you’re still not convinced this is not the type of healthful restaurant you avoid like the plague, perhaps the fact that there are only four salads on the menu will sway you.  One of those salads is a tarragon crab salad featuring fresh blue crab with butter lettuce topped with spring peas, radishes and creamy tarragon dressing.  A diet with a few salads like that hardly sounds torturous.

A side of wheat toast, bacon and green chile

A side of wheat toast, bacon and green chile

The restaurant’s Web site describes Cafe Green’s cuisine as “down-home, American style cooking offering only the freshest and best ingredients with great wine and excellent service.”  House specialties include seared scallops, gnocchi potato dumplings and chorizo ravioli, the last of the three being next on my list.  Sides include truffle fries, fried green beans, sweet potato fries, potato salad, side salad or seasonal fruit.   There are six sandwiches on the menu, perhaps the most intriguing being a blackened Tilapia Po’Boy (pan-seared tilapia filet with cilantro cabbage slaw and piquillo aioli on a French roll).  Surprises abound throughout the menu.

But it was brunch that first drew us to this converted home on Fifth Street, the promise of a new place to sate Sunday’s cravings for the sweet and savory melange of flavors that typify a succulent Sunday morning soiree featuring crepes, frittatas, quiche, pancakes, French toast, eggs and crab Benedict.  Now, that’s what you want to wake up for on a Sunday though Cafe Green does offer a few brunch salads for the die-hards.

Don’t dare call the restaurant’s La Croque Madame a French hot ham and cheese sandwich.  It’s not only more sophisticated than its American counterpart, it’s several orders of magnitude better.  Cafe Green’s version is crafted with grilled ham and Fontina cheese with a béchamel sauce and a fried egg on top.  The béchamel, an ultra-rich sauce that incorporates the calorific trio of butter, milk and cheese, covers even the fried egg, the flavor of which blends magnificently with the rich sauce.  As my friend Bill Resnik would say, it should come standard with a side of angioplasty.

Banana Cajeta Crepe:  Caramelized bananas and Goats-milk caramel with vanilla ice cream

Banana Cajeta Crepe Caramelized bananas and Goats-milk caramel with vanilla ice cream

Equally diet-devastatingly decadent is Cafe Green’s Crab Benedict, two house-made crab cakes topped with poached egg and tarragon hollandaise on an English muffin base.  This is a pretty traditional interpretation of the classic breakfast and brunch dish first created in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria more than a century ago.  This being New Mexico, I’ve long contended it should be a state law that all Eggs or Crab Benedict dish be embellished with green chile.  Since Cafe Green doesn’t subscribe to that notion, a ramekin of green chile did the trick, ameliorating the otherwise delicious, but wholly traditional dish, with piquancy and pizzazz.

Cafe Green’s brunch menu includes both savory (a spinach and ham crepe as well as a veggie crepe) and dessert crepes.  The star of the latter is a banana cajeta crepe, caramelized bananas and goats-milk “caramel” with vanilla ice cream. Though not a caramel in the true sense of the word, cajeta is cooked very slowly with sugar to form a complex and rich thick syrup much like a caramel.  In combination with vanilla ice cream and ripe bananas, it is fabulous–again, something that will make you feel you’re getting away with something sinfully delightful.

The Duke City has a few anointed restaurants on most people’s brunch circuit.  Cafe Green is off-the-beaten-path and perhaps off-the-radar for some, but it’s a restaurant which just might win you over, especially on those dreary, grey Sundays in which a late morning repast is in order.

Cafe Green
319 5th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crab Benedict, La Croque Madame, Banana Cajeta Crepe, Bacon

Cafe Green on Urbanspoon

Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers – Embudo, New Mexico

Sugar's--one of America's best diners

Sugar's--one of America's best diners

The winding highway meandering alongside the murky Rio Grande through Embudo is among the most scenic in the state. You’ll want to drive slowly to take in the foliage, but especially to make sure you imbibe the hazy smoke plumes emanating from Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers which waft into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try a combo platter.

The first time we met Nancy and Neil “The Rifleman” (as in originally from Rifle, Colorado) Nobles, we were blown away by their genuine humility. Until we told them, the genial proprietors of this corrugated tin trailer kitchen only a couple of hundred feet from the meandering Rio Grande had no idea that they were showcased on Roadfood.com. Their giddiness was unique and refreshing. While Neil prepared our meal, Nancy looked up Michael Stern’s eloquent review on the Roadfood Web site.

Neil Nobles serves the best barbecue in Northern New Mexico

Neil Nobles, the genial proprietor of Sugar's

That review is now framed and posted on the walls of the restaurant’s kitchen. Another glowing accolade–recognition as one of America’s ten best drive-ins by no less than Gourmet magazine–is posted on the restaurant’s exterior wall. That recognition came in May, 2005, culminating five years of growing acclaim.

Although Sugar’s has made the big time, it remains in every way the modest, unassuming roadside kitchen named for a darling, drooling bulldog who lounged on the front lawn until her passing in 2004.  Today Sugar rests in her favorite place just west of the restaurant, an excellent vantage point where she can keep watch over the family and restaurant she loved.  The Sterns, by the way, also have bulldogs.

Sugar, the darling, drooling bulldog for whom the restaurant is named

Sugar, the darling, drooling bulldog for which the restaurant is named.

Neil’s preferred name for his drive-in would have been “Two Fat Guys” but he figured that was just “too red-necked” for the area. Neil is one of the most down-to-earth and genuine people you’ll ever meet.  He’s traveled all over the world and is conversant on just about any topic, but retains an endearing folksy and homespun humor.  He’s in love with his riverside venue, but will also tell you that he’d be happy just about anywhere.

Like the Sterns, we quickly became enamored not only of Sugar’s proprietor, but of the brisket burrito in which tender brisket is piled on a tortilla and ameliorated by green chile and shredded cheddar cheese. Those folded treasures are truly wonderful with a smokiness that remains on your hands when you’re done (you may never want to wash those hands again).

Sausage Burrito with green chile

Sausage Burrito with green chile

The green chile is of the mild variety, but where it lacks in bite, it makes up in taste. It is some of the best low and slow ‘cue you’ll find in the state.  Equally sublime are the tortillas encasing some of the very best smoked sausage you’ll find anywhere. The sausage isn’t overly spiced as some sausage is apt to be and it’s more lean and far less fatty than most.

Behind the ramshackle kitchen is a huge black smoker in which meats are slow cooked to perfection.  That means sausage and brisket in the winter and the addition of ribs in the summer.  The brisket is cooked low and slow to imbue it with just a hint of smokiness.  It’s as tender as any brisket in New Mexico.

Sugar's brisket burrito

Sugar's brisket burrito

Barbecue dinner plates are served Friday through Sunday all summer long where you have your choice of pork spare ribs, sausage, brisket or a combo plate–all smoked on the premises and hand-cut.  The combo plate means ribs, sausage and brisket–the tantalizing Texas triumvirate no barbecue loving man or woman can resist. The ribs are of the meaty variety Fred Flintstone loves and the brisket is melt-in-your-mouth tender, but it may be the sausage that steals the show.

If your experience with sausage results in the spewing of such adjectives as greasy, tough and tasteless, you’ll have to expand your vocabulary with such superlatives as tangy, brimming with flavor and mouth-watering to describe Sugar’s sausage.  The barbecue is slathered with a tangy, maybe even slightly piquant Texas style sauce. The Nobles once owned and operated two successful restaurants in Texas so they’re well acquainted with sauces that complement meats.

Green Chile Cheeseburger

Green Chile Cheeseburger

While their meats need absolutely no accompaniment, the sauce is so darn good, you might want to drink some of it. Fortunately you can buy a small or large container of the stuff.  All dinners are served with homemade corn muffins, pickles and onions as well as your choice of two sides: potato salad, bbq baked beans, onion rings, corn on the cob, coleslaw or French fries.

The sides are terrific–so good that each one would make a wonderful meal all by itself.  The best of the lot are the bbq baked beans which are perfectly baked so they’re neither mushy nor chewy. Even if you don’t like barbecue baked beans (or if they don’t like you), these will win you over with an equal pronouncement of sweet and tangy flavors complemented by shards of beef brisket.

A combo platter with baked beans and corn on the cob

A combo platter with baked beans and corn on the cob

An outstanding alternative to barbecue is the green chile cheeseburger, a monster sized burger with monster sized taste which doesn’t require a monster sized budget to purchase.  Featuring lightly toasted buns, a half pound sphere of ground chuck and unfailingly fresh ingredients, it’s a two fisted burger that will quell the heartiest of appetites. The green chile cheeseburger is among the top ten in New Mexico, so good it was selected for inclusion on the exclusive New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

Another terrific alternative is the Frito pie which is replete with well seasoned chile, beef, cheese and Fritos corn chips which, in New Mexico, have found a new life and purpose.  The menu may be abbreviated, the seating sparse to non-existent but the ambience is unbeatable and the barbecue worth the drive from just about anywhere in New Mexico.  Sugar’s is open every day but Tuesday from 11AM to 7PM.

Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers
1799 Highway 68
Embudo, NM
852-0604
LATEST VISIT: 21 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 24

Sugar's BBQ & Hamburgers on Urbanspoon
COST: $
BEST BET: Brisket Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Combination Plate, Baked Beans

Independence Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Independence Grill will be much missed

The Independence Grill will be much missed

NOTE: The Independence Grill became another casualty of the economy, shuttering its doors on Sunday, March 14th, 2010.  Below this review is a photo retrospective of some of the many things which will be missed about this terrific restaurant.

On January 6, 1941 as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt closed his state of the union address to Congress, he described his vision for a better way of life through what he considered the four essential human freedoms: freedom to worship, freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of speech.  Those four freedoms, now widely considered the central tenets of modern American liberalism, inspired a set of Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell, the most famous and successful commercial artist of the time.  The Four Freedoms  are depicted on framed Rockwell prints in the foyer at Independence Grill.

In an age in which the patriotism of candidates for political office is called to question by opposing candidates, there is no question as to where Jerry Wright stands on the matter of loving his country.  Jerry is the proprietor of the Independence Grill which he launched on Monday, November 16th, 2008, several months after closing the Great American Steakhouse, my favorite Albuquerque steakhouse.

Jerry’s vision for his new restaurant is that everyone, regardless of political ideology, should be able to share a meal and civilly (if not amicably) discuss their differences in the hopes that they will arrive at the realization that we all have more in common than we do differences.  Ideally that meal should be at the Independence Grill.

The Betsy Ross Flag (ask Jerry about his great grandmother Prudence)

The Independence Grill celebrates Americana with an ambience awash in patriotism.  From the American flag on Jerry’s lapel to the Gadsden flag (which depicts a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike and the words “Don’t tread on me”) to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the restaurant reminds one and all that the Constitution is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.  Don’t forget to ask Jerry about the flag (pictured above) given by Betsy Ross to his great grandmother Prudence Wright several generations removed.

Patriotism even pervades the menu, and not just the Americana inspired appetizers, entrees and desserts.  Jerry took some liberties with Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s famous painting Drafting the Declaration of Independence which depicts Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin at work writing the Declaration, several preliminary drafts crumpled on the floor.   The reproduction on the menu has Franklin uttering “I’ll have the burger.”

The burger is just one of the American entrees on the Independence Grill’s menu from which Franklin would have been able to choose.  The senior statesman would not, however, have ordered one of the restaurant’s American Kobe (Wagyu beef) cheeseburgers.  Franklin was actually a vegetarian, eschewing beef and advocating a vegetarian diet as being healthier than a diet filled with meat.  That doesn’t mean Franklin would have gone hungry at the Independence Grill, nor does it mean he couldn’t have had a burger.

When Pigs Fly Monster Pig Wings

Franklin would have had the “World’s Most Dangerous Portabella Burger,” which includes a “carnivores beware” warning on the menu, apprising beef-eaters that it “may make you swear off meat.”   The Portabella Burger, which Jerry claims is so good he plans to have at least one a week, features fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomato and pesto stuffed in a juicy Portobello mushroom served on Ciabatta bread.  The menu includes several other vegetarian-friendly entrees, but not Thomas Jefferson’s favorite food, green peas.

Jefferson was well acquainted with and fond of the beef of Hamburgh, Germany and had hamburgers been available in his time, he would undoubtedly have indulged.  Fond of rich French foods, he would have loved the Independence Grill’s menu  which showcases the rich, unctuous American Kobe cheeseburgers.  Jerry considers American Kobe beef the very best beef available) and has made this flavorful meat the foundation of his menu.

Because man cannot live on burgers alone, Jerry’s menu is replete with Americana favorites such as Kobe hot dogs, prime rib, steak, fish and so much more.  It’s an ambitious menu sure to please even the most discriminating diners.

Kobe Double Dog Dare

American ambition means an assemblage of appetizers you don’t find just anywhere.  The list starts with a shout out to a previous tenant of the building.  That would be the Liquid Assets famous calamari and the Thai dipping sauce which made that starter one of the most popular in town.

While many restaurant serve calamari–squid for the uninitiated–as an appetizer, it’s not easy to find a restaurant (especially in landlocked locales like Albuquerque) which serves it well.  In most cases it’s overdone, a chewy, rubbery amalgam of twisted slime.  Rarely will you find squid with a delicately fried and painfully thin crust and seemingly rarer yet is a dipping sauce more innovative than the standard and boring marinara.

The Independence Grill gets it right on the first count.  The calamari is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, a calamari as good as you’ll find in the city.  Alas, the dipping sauce is more than a bit on the cloying side, perhaps even a bit syrupy.  Real Thai dipping sauces strike a beautiful balance between sweet, tangy and piquant.

The Assets famous Calamari

The Assets famous Calamari

Also available as an appetizer are “American Kobe Doggies,”  three corn dogs taken to another level.  In the Land of Enchantment, you can’t have appetizers sans green chile and the Independence Grill honors that formula with green chile chicken corn chowder and green chile chicken enchilada.

The appetizer sure to garner a few patriotic salutes and perhaps inspire an anthem of their own are the “When Pigs Fly” Monster Pig Wings. The menu describes them as “great big crispy piggy wings from when they fly too close to the sun.” In actuality, these piggy wings aren’t chicken or even turkey wings. They’re pork “wings” made with the Ossobuco cut of a pork shank.  These wings are lacquered with a chipotle barbecue sauce that’s sweet, tangy and more than slightly sassy.  They’re served three to an order with a Jalapeno Ranch dipping sauce which the menu claims “brings them back to earth.”

The World's Most Dangerous Portabella, an outstanding appetizer

If you like to live on the edge, try the world’s most dangerous Veggie Portabella appetizer, grilled mushrooms stuffed to the gills with pesto, fresh Mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes.  Several fleshy fungi are indeed engorged with the mouth-watering trio that go oh so well together.  This is one of the better mushroom based appetizers in the Duke City.

America’s favorite pastime, I’ll argue is not baseball, but picnics and one thing sure to be a huge hit with the boys of summer is the Kobe Double Dog Dare, a hot dog “raised to the level of art.”  At the Independence Grill, the revered American institution is indeed placed on a pedestal.  The frankfurter is made from American Kobe beef, sliced diagonally and nestled on toasted sourdough.  If you’re inclined, you can add chile sin carne, green chile or Cheddar cheese, but traditionalists might consider that akin to desecrating the flag.

The Italian Burger

Several garnishes (red onion, pickle, lettuce) accompany the Kobe Double Dog Dare as do standard American mustard and a more adult Dijon mustard (and ketchup for all you perpetrators of culinary taboos), with which you can dress your dog.  This hot dog is good enough on its own not to need any amelioration whatsoever.

During the 2009 Souper Bowl in which I was privileged to serve as a judge, the Independence Grill’s soup entry placed third among in the critic’s choice tally.  That entry, a cream of mushroom soup with garlic roasted sage is one of the very best soups I’ve had in Albuquerque.  It’s almost criminal that it’s not on the daily menu at the Independence Grill, but it would be even worse for the restaurant not to feature a soup of the day.  They’re all good.

Sandwiches include one side, platters two.  In a culinary skirmish you’ll want these sides on your side.  They include the veggie of the day, pineapple coleslaw (a holdover from the Great American Steakhouse days), bottleneck fries, onion rings, sweet potato fries, garlic mashers and pink and purple chips.  You haven’t lived if you’ve not partaken of purple potatoes which were some of the very first potatoes ever harvested.  For old times sake, long-time fans of the Steakhouse might opt for the pineapple coleslaw which Jerry has improved even more, if that’s possible, with red cabbage.

Wood Fired Prime Rib

There are several American Kobe Cheeseburgers on the menu, all inventive and intriguing.  While “Kobe burgers” seem to have become de rigueur on many menus, other restaurants treat Kobe beef as a sideline, almost as a gimmicky (albeit, very expensive) afterthought.  Jerry Wright has made American Kobe the basis for his burger menu.  In fact, you won’t find regular beef in the burger section.  Jerry calls American Kobe the burger for the common person and prices it just above the price point of burgers shipped frozen then thawed out and heated at the popular national chains (the ones I rail about).

Serving American Kobe exclusively to an American fast food culture is a risky venture since many of us are used to wolfing down our Big Macs before we even drive away from the parking lot.  My own past experiences with Kobe burgers have left me a bit nonplussed about Kobe.  Some of that is because I didn’t want to “desecrate” the beef with condiments which might detract from the meat’s natural flavor.  It’s hard to enjoy a burger when you practically worship its traditions.  At the Independence Grill, the enjoyment of the Kobe is made much easier because prices are so reasonable.  The American Kobe burgers are available in one-third or half-pound sizes.

Perhaps because America is named for an Italian explorer (but more likely because the ingredients go so well together), the Independence Grill offers an “Italian Burger,” crafted with fresh basil, tomato, mozzarella and a garlic olive oil drizzle on a buttery Kaiser roll.  That combination makes a pretty good salad (Insalata Caprese) and it makes for a pretty good burger as well.  There’s rarely enough basil to suit me, but the buffalo mozzarella (the best) is rich, creamy and delicious.

The Green Monster with a blueberry lemon lime drink and pineapple coleslaw

The Green Monster with a blueberry lemon lime drink and pineapple coleslaw

In 2009, Albuquerque The Magazine went in search of the best burger in Albuquerque. Pairing staffers to sample burgers at forty different burger purveyors, their systematic testing methodology involved ordering two burgers at each restaurant: the specialty of the house and a basic cheese burger prepared at medium.  The entire staff then got together and ate at the five restaurants garnering the highest ratings.  With more than two-hundred burgers consumed, the winner of the Duke City’s best burger was the Independence Grill.

The latest edition to the Kobe cheeseburger family is a called the Green Monster (not named after Fenway Park’s left-field wall).  It’s a unique burger that doesn’t subscribe to the ho-hum template green chile cheeseburgers all seem to follow.  As much as I love and adore that template, this burger is a welcome change.  The burger is made with New Mexican grown full-blooded Wagyu beef.  Green chile is mixed directly into the beef along with a touch of garlic and spices.  Each patty is hand-formed with a pocket formed within the patty for Cheddar cheese.  Melted on top of the burger on a flattop is a cheese crostini which is then topped with more green chile and Cheddar.

The Green Monster has quickly become one of the restaurant’s most popular burgers.  It was one of twenty burgers participating in the governor’s green chile cheeseburger challenge at the New Mexico State Fair and though it didn’t win, it has established a following among burger aficionados.

independence12

A beautiful steak in the style of the Great American Land and Cattle Company

When the Great American Steakhouse closed, carnivores wondered where their cravings for their favorite steak would get sated.  Because Jerry didn’t want to recreate his former restaurant, his new menu includes only one steak, the classic sirloin, but the menu also includes chicken-fried steak, wood-fired pork ribs and wood-fired prime rib, all reasonably priced.

The oven-fired prime rib is swathed with a rosemary and sage rub and served with a green chile au jus and a horseradish sauce.  Order it medium rare and you get it as you ordered–with plenty of pink, lots of flavor and juiciness to spare.  The horseradish is somewhat anemic, but that places the focus on the prime rib, as it should.  As for that green chile au jus, my friend Bill Resnik thinks so highly of it that if given the choice as to the matter of his death, would choose to drown in a vat of that au jus.

The top sirloin is somewhat reminiscent of the magnificent meats proffered at the Great American Steakhouse, albeit not as thick and juicy.  It’s available for lunch and dinner as a first come, first served option.

You can’t have an Americana themed restaurant without apple pie, the quintessential American dessert.  The Independence Grill’s rendition is as pretty as a picture, layers of sweet and tart apple slices on a cinnamon streusel crust with a rich caramel topping. My preference would be for it to be served warm, perhaps with a scoop or two of ice cream, instead of cold and right out of the fridge.

Apple Pie

The Independence Grill has terrific libations, adult and otherwise, with which to wash down a great meal.  Among the latter are Jones bottled beverages, cane sugar sweetened sodas in glass bottles.  Including such flavors as strawberry lime and green apple, they are refreshingly different and delicious.  Also available is Coca-Cola de Mexico.

The Independence grill invites you to break free from the chains (corporate) that bind you and try something different, something American.

NOTE:  Though I do not believe in censorship, a spate of emails denouncing the perceived ideological stance of Independence Grill owner Jerry Wright, prompted me to pull those emails or risk losing this blog.  The blogosphere is replete with sites designed for ideological discourse.  This site is not one of them.  I’d like to keep this site light-hearted and fun.  Like the restaurants I write about, this site is meant to be enjoyed not to provide yet another venue for raising your blood-pressure over ideologically charged content.

The cultural and ideological schism plaguing America has made political discourse mean-spirited and wholly lacking in civility.  Ideologues (on both sides of the aisle) don’t seem capable of conceding any merit whatsoever in the opposing viewpoint, but it’s not enough to disagree.  Dissenters on both sides seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives.  I suppose it’s easier than discussing those differences in a mature and civil manner, but in the end nothing is resolved and the divisiveness grows.

Jerry Wright is a very open-minded gentleman.  I believe he truly meant it when he developed the vision for the Independence Grill: Everyone, regardless of political ideology, should be able to share a meal and civilly (if not amicably) discuss their differences in the hopes that they will arrive at the realization that we all have more in common than we do differences.  Over the years, Jerry and I have respectfully and maturely discussed our own differences of opinion.  We may not always agree on everything, but we respect one another’s right to have our own opinions.

I urge anyone disagreeing with Jerry on anything–whether it be portion size or politics–to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him.  If you feel like reviling him afterwards, that’s entirely your prerogative, but it won’t be published here.

Independence Grill
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 25 November 2008
LATEST VISIT: 13 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Italian Burger, Kobe Double Dog Dare, Wood-Fired Prime Rib, Monster Pig Wings

Independence Grill on Urbanspoon

Some of the things we’ll miss about the Independence Grill

Strawberry and Chocolate Shakes made with real ice cream and served cold

Strawberry and Chocolate Shakes made with real ice cream and served cold

Independence16

Drunken Fish Wrap — Lime & beer-batter fish with cucumber & pineapple coleslaw wrapped in flour tortilla.

Prime Rib Dip w/ Green Chile Au Jus — Oven Roasted Prime Rib sliced thin & Swiss and served with our au jus with a touch of green chile.

Prime Rib Dip w/ Green Chile Au Jus — Oven Roasted Prime Rib sliced thin & Swiss and served with our au jus with a touch of green chile.

Bacon Wrapped Kobe Doggies plate of 3 minis - Kobe Dog wrapped in bacon and Corn Doggied.

Bacon Wrapped Kobe Doggies plate of 3 minis - Kobe Dog wrapped in bacon and Corn Doggied.

Barry’s Oasis – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The irascible Barry Schuster

Barry Schuster, Albuquerque’s famous “grumpy chef.”

I don’t know if there’s any veracity to the adage “don’t trust a skinny chef,” but one thing is for certain. Albuquerque has been trusting a very grumpy chef to prepare excellent meals for more than a quarter century. That grumpy chef is the irascible Barry Schuster, serving great cuisine in Albuquerque since 1979.

One of the first things you see when you walk into the restaurant is a caricature of a somewhat younger Barry. Scrawled below his countenance are the words “grumpy chef.” Barry cultivates the image of a surly curmudgeon, but underneath that gruff exterior lies a heart of gold, a hospitality professional who wanders from the kitchen to check in on his guests and engage them in discourse.  He continues to come to work day-after-day instead of enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

 

Richard, one of the best waiters in Albuquerque and a mainstay at Barry's

Richard, one of the best waiters in Albuquerque and a mainstay at Barry’s

Okay, maybe he’s not exactly an avuncular fellow, but he really does care that his patrons enjoy their dining experiences at his eponymous restaurant. He’s got a great sense of humor and his witty repartee will enhance your experience. The banter between Barry and his nearly as churlish waiter Richard Lopez is particularly entertaining.  Richard has been with Barry for more than a decade.  The two of them are the heart and soul of the restaurant.

Originally from New York (where he once cooked for a Chinese restaurant), Barry can cook anything and, in fact, honed his craft in advanced courses at the prestigious Cordon Bleu, a culinary school of worldwide repute. His staff brags about his prowess with New Mexican food and his restaurant’s menu features the cuisine of the Mediterranean region–Spain, France, Italy, Greece and for good measure, some Middle East countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Barry's Oasis on the intersection of I25 and Osuna.

Barry’s Oasis on the intersection of I25 and Osuna.

Barry moved to Albuquerque in 1978 so he could play golf year round. He launched the “Sizzling Oasis” a year later in an edifice which previously house an A&W Root Beer restaurant.  Barry dropped the “Sizzling” in 1982 (so as not to be mistaken for a middling quality chain steak restaurant) and changed the restaurant’s name to “Barry’s Oasis” when he moved to a San Mateo location in which his restaurant would stay for the next 20 years.

In October, 2002, the restaurant moved to its current location on Osuna at the intersection of I-25 and Osuna (Exit 230).  Barry owns both the property in which the restaurant is situated and the steel building in which it is housed.  You can’t miss Barry’s Oasis. For one thing, it’s one of the few buildings on the northwest corner of the intersection. Secondly, two painted palm trees on the restaurant’s east-facing wall seem so out-of-place in an overkill adobe facade city.  Look closely at the bluish-gray stucco and you’ll see it was applied in a seashell-shaped pattern.

Barry's Oasis is awash in color.

Appetizer Combination at Barry’s Oasis

The tropical theme (or at least the palm trees) continues inside the restaurant. The high-ceilinged dining room is awash in color, particularly of the Mediterranean.  Greek style balconies, one of which features a rooster looking downward, are replete with potted plants. Large canvas umbrellas are suspended over tables on the restaurant’s north side in a fashion similar to Parisian outdoor cafes.

Still other canvas umbrellas are suspended upside down from the high ceiling. While decorative, these umbrellas are also utilitarian, functioning to mute the lighting. Cafe lights are also strung from the ceiling and are turned down low at night to provide the illusion of out-of-doors nighttime in a Cosmopolitan European city. Seagulls flying overhead continue the seaside theme.

Hummus and pita

Hummus and pita

The restaurant’s menu includes a glossary of sorts, defining and describing the various cuisines of the Mediterranean region. The glossary also explains that though meals had long been served in taverns, coffee houses and cook shops, the first place designated a “restaurant” was the Champ d’ Oiseau which opened in Paris in 1765.

At the entrance to the first restaurant in Paris was inscribed the Latin motto “Venite ad me, omne qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabor vos” which translates to “Come to me, anybody whose stomach growls, and I will sustain you,” a creative derivative of Matthew 11:28-30 (Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”)

Green Chile Gyros

Green Chile Gyros

That motto (not the one from Matthew) could well apply to Barry’s Oasis. Because the portions are reasonably sized (as opposed to the gargantuan portions you find in nearly every other restaurant in town) you’ll leave Barry’s with a contented…and yes, fully sustained (but not bloated) and happy stomach.

There are more than 30 items on the menu in addition to international beers and wines. Barry’s dessert offerings are also not to be missed as you traverse through the tastes of the Mediterranean. For the culinarily unadventurous, a section of American entrees is also sure to please.

Gyros Plate

Gyros Plate

While the menu certainly resonates “fine dining,” the atmosphere is casual. Barry wants his patrons to dress comfortably so they can enjoy their repast.

That enjoyment might start with the Oasis Appetizer Plate, an assemblage of various starters from Greece and the Middle East. This platter can be ordered for two or for three diners and while big enough to share, isn’t quite substantial enough to make a meal for one.

The sampler includes spanakopita (a spinach pie with a baked phyllo dough crust) dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), falafel (deep-fried balls of ground, spicy chickpeas), garlicky homous spread on pita bread with feta cheese and Greek olives for good measure.  Alternatively you can have an appetizer of garlic and lemon kissed homous with pita.

Greek steak with twice baked potatoes

Greek steak with twice baked potatoes

The humous is fabulous, especially if you like garlic. Still, this portion of the appetizer could be improved if it were only spread even thicker on the room-temperature pita. The spanakopita is light, flaky and absolutely delicious. There’s also no doubt that the falafel is the best seasoned, best tasting falafel in town with a taste that sings.

Proof of Barry’s genius with New Mexican food is evident in one of the most popular lunch entrees, green chile gyros.  These are wholly unlike the gyros you find at some Greek restaurants in town, some of which use pre-roasted, pre-cut, thinly-sliced meat so dry that only the saturation of tzatziki sauce can moisten it.  Barry shaves the lean blend of beef and lamb amalgam in thick slices from the gyros spit in his kitchen–much more thickly than any other gyros meat we’ve ever had.  He also seasons that beef amalgam very well.  The thick, juicy, well-seasoned meat is sensational on its own, but it doesn’t stop there at Barry’s.

Also unlike other gyros, Barry doesn’t stuff the meat into a pita pocket.  Instead, he tops “Olympic bread” (a pita without a pocket) with the thickly sliced meat, lettuce, tomatoes and some of the best green chile you’ll find anywhere.  It’s got a nice bite and a terrific flavor, the type of which leave a tangy, happy sensation on your taste buds.  You might never go back to the sandwich type gyro again.

Seafood crepes in a bubbly cheese.

Seafood crepes in a bubbly cheese.

Not even the Gyros plate is served sandwich style.  Instead, a generous amount of Barry’s lean blend of lamb and beef seasoned to flavorful perfection with savory Mediterranean spices is spit-roasted then sliced thickly and piled atop moist, flavorful rice pilaf and served with two slices of Olympic bread and tzatziki sauce.  The meat is thoroughly delicious and moist, probably the best gyros meat in town.

Among the most popular entrees at Barry’s Oasis is the Seafood Crepes, a wonderfully unctuous French dish rich in flavor. This dish features two crepes filled with a medley of seafood (scallops, shrimp, crab) in a creamy cheese filling topped with melted Muenster cheese. Did I mention this dish is cheesy? It is served with a side of savory rice pilaf. The recipe for this dish was requested by the editors of Gourmet magazine no less.  Barry turned them down which means only Duke City diners can partake of its unique deliciousness.

One of the highlights of the Greek portion of the menu is the Greek Shrimp entree, shrimp sautéed in ouzo (a clear, anise-flavored liqueur from Greece) then covered in a savory/sweet tomato sauce, topped with feta cheese and baked until golden brown. The shrimp are redolent with the briny sweetness of freshly caught shrimp while the tomato sauce is better than any marinara sauce we can think of. This is a winner.

Baklava Fingers at Barry's Oasis

Baklava Fingers at Barry’s Oasis

When offered as a nightly special, the Greek steak does indeed earn the special designation. This steak can be cut with the standard table knife and is as delicious and moist as it is tender.  It is served with twice-baked (to perfection) potato

One of the best selections on the Italian portion of the menu is lamb and feta lasagna, a unique twist to a popular favorite done in Barry’s inimitable style. Barry layers ground lamb and feta cheese in between flat pasta then covers it in his incomparable marinara sauce.  The marinara sauce is applied lightly so that it complements the other ingredients.

Desserts include baklava (both in traditional form and as baklava fingers) and a phalanx of other decadent treats Barry himself concocts. The French inspired Banana Crepes are an excellent option. A single crepe, served warm, is stuffed with mashed bananas in the prime of their flavorful best and served with a heaping heart-shaped portion of coffee ice cream.

Barry's fabulous bread pudding with a scoop of heart-shaped vanilla ice cream

Barry’s fabulous bread pudding with a scoop of heart-shaped vanilla ice cream

Close your eyes when you slide your first spoonful of Barry’s chocolate bread pudding into your mouth and let the flavors take over. It’s like eating what a smooth tune by Lou Rawls might taste like–rich, comforting and oh so good. Made with Bailey’s Irish cream and topped with a heart-shaped slab of vanilla ice cream, it is some of the best bread pudding you’ll have anywhere.  My friend Larry McGoldrick calls it a slice of heaven.

True to its name, Barry’s Oasis is a culinary oasis in a relatively isolated area of the desert. Don’t fear the chef because of his grumpy disposition. We should all be so cantankerous.

Barry’s Oasis
4451 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Greek Shrimp, Seafood Crepes, Oasis Appetizer Plate, Chateaubriand, Banana Crepe, Green Chile Gyros, Bread Pudding, Baklava Fingers

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