Cazuela’s Mexican Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cazuela's Mexican Grill

Cazuela's Mexican Grill

Here’s an interesting bit of Jeopardy level trivia which you might contemplate the next time you dine at this Rio Rancho spot: In the Spanish golden age, a “cazuela” was the gallery located above the tavern in the back wall of a theater–the area in which women were segregated. Today “cazuela” is a Mexican word for casserole meal.

Cazuela’s restaurant is a friendly, family owned operation, which in 2007, saw some significant changes, including the move to a much larger facility. The new location allows owner Francisco Saenz to expand his menu, extend hours of business and even cater large events. It’s got a banqueting facility that will accommodate large crowds.

The original site of Cazuela’s was a tiny, time-worn building that had seen better days. Saenz managed to infuse it with charm and warmth. A west-facing window included a bamboo curtain image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas (and, oh by the way, New Mexico, too).

A cazuela

A painting of a cazuela at Cazuela's

Over the years, Cazuela’s became part of the fabric of the community. When a motorist crashed through the building and forced the restaurant to close for several months, loyal patrons practically went into withdrawal. Though then ensconced in a tiny building, Cazuela’s obviously has a big heart–and a big menu that belied the restaurant’s size.

Cazuela’s is now situated in an expansive edifice which once housed Rio Rancho’s Sports Corral. The Corral’s batting cages are still part of the property, but gone are other facets of the long-time sports complex. Saenz practically gutted the building, investing significant capital in completely transforming it into a classy restaurant. With a lease to buy option, he has big plans for Cazuela’s.

Enter through the north-facing door and you’ll see why the restaurant is named Cazuela’s. A large painting of a casserole dish hangs prominently. There are several Mexican paintings hanging on the restaurant’s walls, all framed in the unique style of Old Mexico. An arched doorway takes you from the front dining room to a more expansive dining room. Several half-moon shaped arches throughout the restaurant give you visibility to a beautiful venue that facilitates tranquil and relaxing dining. Each table has the name “Cazuela’s” carved into it.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa at Cazuela's Mexican Grill

The dining rooms are bright and airy with plenty of room to spread out. Ceiling fans allow for air to circulate and help drown out the sound of the televisions in each dining room. Both table and booth seating are comfortable. The two most important thing about Cazuela’s didn’t change with its move to a larger facility.

The first would be service. Cazuela’s wait staff is among the most attentive in town. It’s a knowledgeable wait staff whose recommendations you can trust. From the moment you’re greeted until the minute you leave, the wait staff will make you feel like a welcome guest.  They check up on you frequently without being intrusive and they anticipate when you need a refill.

The second is the food. Sure, the menu expanded, but that’s just more of the same delicious food residents of the City of Vision have come to love. It’s fresh, flavorful and almost all made on the premises.

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

That starts with the chips and salsa. The chips are made from deep-fried corn tortillas. These are some of the best chips in town–thick and redolent with the flavor of corn. Your first order of chips and salsa is complementary and subsequent orders cost a pittance.

The salsa is also delicious. It’s a bit on the thin side, but makes up for that with a smoky and mildly piquant flavor invigorated with cilantro, tomato and jalapeno. If you can taste freshness in a salsa, this might be what it tastes like.

Cazuela’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which includes traditional Mexican favorites such as chilaquiles, pancakes, eggs and bacon as well as New Mexico’s ubiquitous breakfast burritos.  The chilaquiles are terrific, some of the very best in New Mexico in large part because they’re made with those fabulous Cazuela’s chips.  This dish is simplicity itself–deep-fried tortilla chips smothered in green chile and cheese then topped with a fried egg.  The green chile is of medium piquancy and imbues the chips with both a softening quality and a memorable flavor.  The runniness of the yolk makes it even better.

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

You might not expect a Mexican grill to excel at pancakes, but Cazuela’s would give any pancake house a run for their money.  Whether you order a full-sized portion or a short stack (two pancakes), you’re in for a treat.  The pancakes are  nearly the circumference of the plate and are served with syrup tinged with more than a discernible hint of vanilla.  They’re served steaming hot so the butter melts easily.

Several caldos (soups) are also in the offering–posole, menudo, caldo de pollo (chicken soup) and albondigas (meatballs).  Appetizers include chile con queso with the same amazing chips that accompany orders of salsa. This con queso doesn’t become gloppy as some con queso is apt to become. It’s a multi-cheese blend with a nice consistency and good flavor.

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream are another option. Cazuela’s taquitos aren’t rolled up cigar-tight as you might find them in Espanola. Corn tortillas are engorged with a beef and bean amalgam then deep-fried. Served in orders of four, they are sizeable enough to share (not that you might want to, they’re so good).


A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela's doesn't mean a small stack

A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela's doesn't mean a small stack

Other staples of the expanded menu include daily specials, gorditas (considered the specialty of the house), tacos, burritos, enchiladas, combination plates and handmade tamales and tortillas. Visitors expecting New Mexico style cooking (and especially New Mexican chile) will be in for a pleasant surprise. This is old Mexico in all its culinary glory.

You might also be surprised by the restaurant’s rendition of gorditas (which mean fatties). Typically thick, deep-fried tortillas stuffed similarly to pita bread, Cazuela’s version actually has its ingredients piled on top.  These gorditas start with handmade corn tortillas topped with shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and melted butter then smothered with red and (or) green chile. Beef, chicken or carnitas (braised pork cut into small cubes) can also be added.

In 2009, Cazuela’s added more than a page’s worth of mariscos to the menu including ceviche which you can order as an appetizer or as a plate with rice and beans.  The tostadas de ceviche are available with either camarones (shrimp) or pescado (fish) marinated in citrus juices then piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices.  Cazuela’s does something other Mexican restaurants don’t do.  It provides a small bowl of lime juice mixed with onion, cilantro, green chile and just a bit of flour so you can add even more citrus flavor to your tostadas.  It’s something other restaurants should duplicate because the mix of tangy citrus and piquant chile is terrific.

Gorditas plate

Gorditas plate

The green chile is incendiary and it’s not of the “Grown in Hatch” variety. It’s a thin, smoky sauce with the fiery constitution of jalapenos and an excellent flavor that may have you scrambling for a heat quencher such as milk.

Cazuela’s gorditas may not follow the gorditas template, but they’re very good. They’re served with Spanish rice and some of the best refried beans in the metropolitan area. Eat several of the specialty of the house and you’re bound to become a gordito yourself.

When on the menu at the previous location, parrillada lived up to its billing as a “special of the day.” It’s one of my very favorite Mexican entrees. No matter where you travel in Latin America, you’ll find grilled meat (carne asada) on the menu. Restaurants called parrillas specialize in grilled meats and sometimes grill seafood (mariscos) and poultry as well. Only a few restaurants in the Albuquerque area offer parrillada.

Parrillada with Carnitas

Parrillada with Carnitas

Cazuela’s offers two parrilladas plates. The Nortena is made with carne asada, sizzling bacon, bell peppers, onions, chorizo and white cheese. The Carnitas Parrillada substitutes cubed pork for the carne asada.

Served in one or two person portions, parrillada is served in a cast iron plate which seems to retain its heat throughout the meal. While heavily laden with ingredients for which angioplasties should come on the side, this is an excellent dish.

The parrilladas plates are served with beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and corn or flour tortillas. Some diners make tacos out of the grilled ingredients; others use their forks to stab mouthfuls of grilled goodness. Any way you eat it, parrillada is delicious.

Tostadas de Ceviche with Rice and Beans

Tostadas de Ceviche with Rice and Beans

Dessert options include sopaipillas, fried ice cream and tres leches cake. Your server will ask if you want your tres leches cake topped with a drizzle of chocolate or with fresh strawberries. In either case, it’s a delicious and unfailingly fresh cake that you’ll enjoy.

There are many things about Cazuela’s you’ll enjoy. It’s a hometown favorite Rio Rancho residents can’t get enough of. It’s on Sara Road directly across from Intel’s RR4 complex, but even though it’s not on the well-beaten path, it’s a destination restaurant to which you’ll return if you give it one visit.

Cazuela’s Mexican Grill
4051 Sara Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 31 March 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada (Carnitas), Chile con Queso, Taquitos with Salsa & Sour Cream, Gorditas, Chilaquiles, Tostadas de Ceviche, Pancakes

Las Cazuelas on Urbanspoon

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
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 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
LATEST VISIT: 21 March 2010

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

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