La Casita Cafe – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Casita Cafe

La Casita Cafe in Bernalillo

Is there still a place in the American restaurant scene for hometown mom and pop institutions? According to the Nation’s Restaurant News, a respected trade magazine, almost fifty percent of the 100 largest chains saw flat or declining growth rates in sales in 2006.  Those rates are largely attributed to the sheer volume of restaurant concepts (chains) cluttering the landscape.

I like to think that another reason for the decline of the ubiquitous chains that blight American streets is the increasing realization among the dining public that better food, value and service can be found in mom and pop dining establishments.  La Casita Cafe in Bernalillo is one restaurant validating that contention as evidenced by the overflowing throngs that consider it a favorite dining destination.

Chips and salsa are complimentary at La Casita Cafe

Chips and salsa are complementary at La Casita Cafe

La Casita is a local institution, beloved by Bernalillo residents and Albuquerque diners who don’t mind driving a few miles for generous portions of good New Mexican food at reasonable prices.

Family owned and operated since 1982 by Bernalillo residents Donna and John Montoya, La Casita was destroyed by fire in July, 2005.  It took nearly two years before it would open again. The restaurant’s re-launch in June, 2007 was a day for celebration for dining patrons eager to renew their acquaintance with some of their favorite New Mexican staples as La Casita prepares them.

Entering the premises, those faithful flocks may have thought they were in a different restaurant altogether–and in a sense they were.  La Casita underwent a complete refurbishment.  Esthetically and functionally, it is almost entirely different from its predecessor.

The three enchilada combination plate served Christmas style

The three enchilada combination plate served Christmas style

The original La Casita Cafe proudly celebrated its Bernalillo heritage by displaying framed posters, all painted by local artists, of all the Bernalillo Wine Festivals held since that event’s inception. The new La Casita is less colorful by design.  Its earth-tone and wood exterior is intended to complement the neutral color scheme of other businesses along Camino del Pueblo.

The restaurant is more expansive than the original structure and includes two distinct dining rooms.  A large foyer comfortably accommodates patrons on the inevitable waiting list though weather permitting, it seems most prefer waiting on the capacious porch.

A mosaic design on the foyer’s multi-hued earthen tile and faux Anasazi stonework lend to the Southwestern ambience.  The visual centerpiece in the main dining room seems to be a reddish Kiva fireplace.  Wrought-iron designs festoon the walls while tables and chairs include the sunburst design so prominent in Spanish furniture crafted in New Mexico.

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

Service is attentive and amiable.  Best of all, salsa is complementary with your first bowl arriving just shortly after you’re seated.  It’s salsa with a bite, maybe not enough to bring a glisten to your brow, but enough to awaken your taste buds.  The chips are fresh, crisp and lightly salted.

The menu is replete with New Mexican food favorites, both traditional and contemporary.  Appetizers include jalapeno cheese poppers served with Ranch dressing, a non-traditional offering that has been popularized by a pseudo Mexican chain.  All plates are garnished with lettuce, tomato and cheese unless you request otherwise.  Plates also include rice, beans and two sopaipillas.

La Casita’s create your own combo gives diners a lot of flexibility to craft a plate featuring either two, three or even four of their favorites from among cheese and onion enchiladas, chicken enchiladas, a side of carne adovada, chicken taco, green chile chicken tamale, ground beef enchilada, chile relleno, ground beef taco or red chile pork tamale.  The only restriction to this cart blanche is that the enchiladas must be rolled.



There’s even flexibility in the enchilada offering.  The enchilada plate features three corn tortillas, rolled or flat, filled with your choice of cheese and onion, ground beef, chicken or a combination of the three.  Best of all you can have your enchiladas Christmas style with both red and green chile.  All three enchiladas are good, especially if you love cheese.   The plate is crowned with melted strands of Cheddar cheese.  It even blankets the beans and rice.

Entrees at La Casita are served hot–as in steaming on the plate.  This always earns extra points from me.  In terms of piquancy hot, the red chile is only mild.  The green generally has more bite.  A “heat” indicator is one of the first things you see when you walk in so you’ll know just what to expect from the chile. 

Alas there is one entree we haven’t found particularly exciting.  Sadly it’s La Casita’s carne adovada which is overpowered by a spice I believe is Mexican oregano.  There’s so much of it, my dining companion asked if crushed peppercorns were part of the restaurant’s recipe for carne adovada.  What would otherwise be a very good, well marinated and extremely tender adovada is rendered difficult to eat by the almost bitter aftertaste imparted by the potent spice.

Stuffed Sopaipilla with red and green chile

Another dish which could be better is the stuffed sopaipilla plate served Christmas style.  As shown in the image above, both the red and green chile are almost soupy in their liquidity. So is the Spanish rice which practically swims in a tomato sauce.  The whole pinto beans, on the other hand, are quite good as is the seasoned ground beef and bean combination engorging a single rounded sopaipilla.  There are many options with which you can stuff the sopaipilla, including carne adovada.  The sopaipilla, as with several entrees at La Casita, is topped with enough cheese to keep a family of mice happy for a month.

There are many good reasons La Casita Cafe has been welcomed back by Bernalillo dining patrons and not all of them are reflected on the menu.  La Casita is like home only you don’t have to cook or do the dishes.  It’s owned by people you might want as friends and neighbors and it serves much better food than you’ll find in most chains.  Welcome back, La Casita.

La Casita Cafe
567 Camino del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico

1st VISIT: 5 October 2007
LATEST VISIT: 25-April-2010
CLOSED: April, 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Combination Enchilada Plate

La Casita Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cafe Cornucopia – Bisbee, Arizona

Cafe Cornucopia, named one of the 25 best restaurants in Arizona by Arizona Highways magazine

Cafe Cornucopia, named one of the 25 best restaurants in Arizona by Arizona Highways magazine

The Hollywood stereotype of restaurant critics paints them rather unflatteringly as condescending misanthropes to be feared. Those stereotypes would have you believe restaurant critics are eager to pounce on and expose the slightest imperfection.  Armed with pedantic palates and polysyllabic vocabularies overflowing with unfavorable adjectives, critics are painted as joyless beings whose quest it is to impart their misery on the restaurants they evaluate.  To the critic, the exemplar is French cuisine and everything else is so much schlock to be disdained.

Consider the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza in which a snobbish restaurant critic renown for his “make or break” reviews deigned to visit a pizza parlor of all places.  With a stern countenance and belittling attitude, he based his entire review on having sampled little more than one bite.  Ostensibly his palate was sophisticated enough to render a verdict on the pizza after a minuscule sample.

Even the restaurant critics on animated features tend to be snotty. The aptly named Anton Ego from the delightful 2007 Pixar movie Ratatouille may have summed it up best: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.  We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and read.”

The very inviting ambience at Cornucopia

The very inviting ambience at Cornucopia

Sometimes stereotypes aren’t far from the truth.  There are some restaurant critics, particularly in largely populated metropolises, who wear those dour stereotypes like badges of honor.  That’s especially true when expressing their learned preference for “cuisine” as opposed to “food.”  All of their anointed restaurants tend to be of the haughty high-brow variety and readers are treated to a cavalcade of reviews heralding the critics’ haute cuisine favorites.  Some of these critics won’t deign to visit “real people” restaurants, much less recommend them.

That’s certainly not the case with one of my very favorite food critics, Phoenix-based Nikki Buchanan.  She defies Hollywood stereotypes, not only reviewing and recommending the off-the-well-eaten path treasures and humble havens of real food, but listing them as among her favorites.  Moreover, she writes in a light-hearted, personable manner and unlike “restaurant” critics, writes about bakeries, cafes, cocinas, pizzerias, sushi bars and even taco trucks.

In the April 2010 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, Nikki named Arizona’s best restaurants for 2010.  It’s a great list, a true “best of” and not an enumeration of the elite and elegant.  The list includes some of the most highly regarded restaurants in Phoenix, Sedona and Tucson, but it also includes far lesser-known and much more modest diners and cafes in rural enclaves such as Lake Havasu City, Page, Snowflake, Cornville, Yuma and Bisbee, none of which is a budding hub of population.

The hand-written menu and some of the pastries of the day

The hand-written menu and some of the pastries of the day

Far from being a burgeoning boom town, Bisbee has seen its population decline since the exodus of the little city’s copper-mining operations.  It remains, however, a town that’s too beautiful not to survive.  It is now an idyllic artists colony capitalizing on a climate the Chamber of Commerce claims has “the best climate on Earth.”  The southernmost mile-high city in America, its average year-round temperature is about 74-degrees.  Attitudinally and in the way multi-hued homes are splayed on steep hillsides accessible only on foot, it might remind you of San Francisco–only friendly.

Bisbee’s best lunch spot, according to Nikki Buchanan, is Cafe Cornucopia in the heart of a Main Street which could pass for a 1930s movie set.  Occupying the first floor of a historical building, its exterior stone facade reminiscent of days of yore, Cafe Cornucopia has none of the flash and panache of modern restaurants.  Its signage is plainly lettered with a monochromatic horn of plenty image.  A large picture window, though tinted, doesn’t entirely obfuscate views of the restaurant’s interior.  It is a bright and cheery ambience, floors clean enough to eat from.

Cafe Cornucopia is much longer than it is wide with tables for two lined up against the east wall and picture window.  A small bar counter sits three more patrons in close proximity to one of the most enticing displays of pastry perfection you’ll ever find.  At the rear of the restaurant are beautiful stained glass windows and a small balcony, remnants of the days in which a saloon occupied the venue.  Scrawled on two slate boards is the restaurant’s menu.  It’s hardly a compendium of lunch favorites, but rather a showcase of a select number of sumptuous sandwiches, soups and pastries.

Made to order strawberry lemonade and a raspberry razzmatazz

Made to order strawberry lemonade and a raspberry razzmatazz

The menu features two comforting soups de jour accompanied by a buttered slab of freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm, towering sandwiches crafted on artisan bread, an inventive specialty quiche and soup and sandwich combinations.  Fresh-squeezed lemonade (or an alternate ade such as strawberry-lemonade) as well as superb smoothies are available to wash your meal down.  Baked goods of the day might include cookies, brownies and scones.

Cafe Cornucopia is bustling with activity, but the amicable staff is capable and upbeat, treating all guests to welcoming smiles.  We got there at precisely eleven o’clock and fifteen minutes later not a seat could be found.  Some, like us, came because of Nikki Buchanan’s enticing invitation to one of Arizona’s 25 best restaurants.  Others are frequent visitors, locals who recognize they’re in the presence of gastronomic greatness.

The made-to-order strawberry lemonade is the epitome of freshness–freshly squeezed lemons and ripe, red strawberries all naturally sweetened and wholly unlike the cloying, kids’ Kool-Aid-like strawberry lemonade some chains offer.  Cafe Cornucopia’s rendition is several orders of magnitude better than any other strawberry lemonade we’ve ever had.  The raspberry razzmatazz, a frothy pink smoothie served ice cold might be even better, a refreshing elixir for what ails you.  You might even long for a thirst-inspiring hundred-degree day so you could have two or three.

Hatch green chile and Cheddar sandwich on housemade ten grain bread with a cup of butternut squash soup

Hatch green chile and Cheddar sandwich on housemade ten grain bread with a cup of butternut squash soup

Having been away from the Land of Enchantment for five days, we needed a green chile fix and Nikki assured us we would find it at Cafe Cornucopia in the form of “much-loved Hatch green chile and cheddar.”  This sandwich is crafted on a canvas of homemade ten grain bread.  The first thing you’ll notice about this bread is just how moist it is. It’s wholly unlike the desiccated,desert dry bread you might buy at a grocery store.  It’s also slicked thickly and has the memorable aroma of bread just out of the oven.  It brought back memories of the ten-grain bread we enjoyed at the Mermaid in Burford, England.

The next thing you’ll notice on the sandwich is just how simple it is–strips of Hatch green chile and melted Cheddar cheese.  The green chile is only mild on the piquancy scale, emphasizing instead the fruitiness of the chile and not its heat.  The Cheddar provides a sharp and complementary contrast while fresh tomato slices add a bit of acidity.  You probably won’t call this a designer sandwich, but it is fabulous in its delicious simplicity.

Few things are as simple and comforting as the combination of soup and salad.  Cafe Cornucopia’s soup du jour offerings will wrap you in a cocoon of warmth and comfort.  The butternut squash soup is absolutely wonderful and it actually tastes like butternut squash and not artificial seasonings.  It’s not as thick as some of its genre, but it’s rich and creamy and it doesn’t have any unnecessary “attention grabbers” that are sometimes included in inferior soups.  The soup is served with a thick, buttered slice of heavenly freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm.

Green chile and Cheddar Quiche with a slice of honey rolled oats bread and a cup of split pea soup

Green chile and Cheddar Quiche with a slice of honey rolled oats bread and a cup of split pea soup

We lucked upon another green chile enlivened special of the day in the green chile and Cheddar quiche.  Cafe Cornucopia’s version is simply the very best quiche we’ve ever had–the quintessential quiche!  A feather-light crust is the canvas for velvet-smooth eggs punctuated by fresh, fruity green chile.  Fragility and delicate yet robust in flavor, it is the essence of egg-based satisfaction.

Worthy accompaniment to the quiche is yet another warm, comforting bowl of soup with a thick slice of that “to dream about” honey rolled oats bread.  Try the split pea soup and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing all those years you’ve thought all split pea soup was like Campbell’s Soup aberration.  Though it’s not rib-stickingly thick, it’s rich, creamy and extremely satisfying.  On top of that it’s high in fibre and good for you being a source of low in fat plant protein.

Cafe Cornucopia’s baked goods are as delicious as they are pleasing to the eye.  They provide the climatic finish all meals should have.  The chocolate brownies are light, delicious and chocolatey.  Moist and tender on the inside, they need no embellishment or additives.  The lemon bars are similarly terrific with the definite and pronounced tanginess of lemon.

Chocolate brownie and lemon bar for dessert

Chocolate brownie and lemon bar for dessert

I’ve dined at about a hundred restaurants in Arizona and Cafe Cornucopia ranks with the very best of them.  In fact, given a choice as to one restaurant to return to next, it would be Cafe Cornucopia where the horn of plenty symbolizes a plethora of flavors and deliciousness.

Cafe Cornucopia
14 Main Street
Bisbee, Arizona
(520) 432-4820
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hatch Green Chile & Cheddar Sandwich on Ten Grain Bread, Hatch Green Chile and Cheddar Quiche,  Chocolate Brownie, Lemon Bar, Strawberry Lemonade, Raspberry Razzmatazz, Split Pea Soup, Butternut Squash Soup

Cafe Cornucopia on Urbanspoon

Cafe Poca Cosa – Tucson, Arizona

Cafe Poca Cosa in downtown Tucson, Arizona

Cafe Poca Cosa in downtown Tucson, Arizona

Stereotypes would have you believe English food and Mexican food are at the opposite end of the spectrum from one another…as different as day and night.  Those stereotypes paint English food as bland and unimaginative while Mexican food is depicted as spirited and exciting.  That makes it deliciously ironic that perhaps the foremost authority on Mexican food is an adventurous English woman named Diana Kennedy.  In 1957, she moved to Mexico and has spent most of her life since researching and documenting the culinary history of Mexican cuisine.

For her inestimable contributions to the documentation of regional Mexican cuisine, the government of Mexico awarded her the “Order of the Aztec Eagle” award, the Mexican equivalent of knighthood while Queen Elizabeth herself dubbed her “Member of the British Empire,” an award of similar distinction.  Once described in The Seattle Times as “the diva of doing it right,” Diana Kennedy champions authenticity in technique and ingredients and she’s a stickler for precision.

A lively and vibrant ambiance

A lively and vibrant ambiance

The late Craig Claiborne, pioneering food critic for the New York Times, once described Mexican cuisine as “peasant food raised to the level of high and sophisticated art,” an apt description of how Diana Kennedy elevated the cuisine of her adopted homeland.  Alas, not all Mexican restaurants share her passion for precision, her insistence on incomparable ingredients or her respect for one of the world’s truly great cuisines.  It is perhaps because of pseudo Mexican restaurants (particularly chains) that Mexican food isn’t held in the same regard as French and Italian food.

In one of her magnificent tomes, The Art of Mexican Cooking, Kennedy wrote, “Far too many people outside Mexico still think of them [Mexican foods] as an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with shrill tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy deep-fried chips. Although these do represent some of the basic foods of Mexico-in name only-they have been brought down to their lowest common denominator north of the border, on a par with the chop suey and chow mein of Chinese restaurants 20 years ago.”  Ouch!

Salsa and Chips

Salsa and Chips.

To be sure, that indictment of Mexican foods and the ways in which they are prepared and presented do not apply universally.  There are countless Mexican restaurants celebrating the cuisine and culture of Mexico which prepare its foods in traditional, time-honored ways, using high-quality and authentic ingredients.  Some of these restaurants plate their cuisine so artfully and ostensibly with so much love that they play tribute to the culinary traditions of Mexico and its champion, Diana Kennedy.  One of those paragons of presentation and tradition is Tucson’s Cafe Poca Cosa.

Tucson’s most celebrated Mexican restaurant, Cafe Poca Cosa (translating literally as little thing) unabashedly trumpets its passion for Mexican cuisine, stating in its Web site that, “When you dine with us, expect attentive, efficient service.  Be assured that every dish is infused with passion, using the freshest ingredients hand-selected every morning.”  Passion is one of the hallmarks of all successful restaurants and is the building block behind Cafe Poca Cosa — that and the culinary talents of its proprietor and chef Suzana Davila.

The constantly changing menu is brought to your table and carefully explained by the wait staff.

The constantly changing menu is brought to your table and carefully explained by the wait staff.

A native of Guaymas, Sonora, Suzana is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant, its perpetually smiling ambassador not tied to her kitchen.  She is a whirling dervish of motion, constantly checking up on her dining patrons, winning them over with the same charm, grace and style she must have exhibited in her previous life as a fashion model.   As for her cooking, Tucson Weekly believes it has the same enchanting properties as the extraordinary dishes prepared by Tita De La Garza in the fabulous novel Like Water For Chocolate.

In that novel, Tita’s unrequited love is channeled into her cooking, resulting in dishes that elicit passionate responses from those who partake of them.  Suzana Davila’s own enchantment has elicited passionate responses from (among others): Gourmet magazine, the New York Times, Wine Spectator magazine, Better Homes and Gardens and  In the April, 2010 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, Cafe Poca Cosa was selected as one of Arizona’s 25 very best restaurants.  It is part and parcel of every travel and food guide for Tucson and by most accounts, one of the city’s two or three very best restaurants.

Plato Poca Cosa, a triumvirate of tasty dishes courtesy of the chef's whims at the moment

Cafe Poca Cosa is awash in the vibrant and festive colors of Mexico attired in its most lively finery with an ambience melding contemporary chic meets whimsy with more than a touch of reverence for the traditional. It is both upscale and casual, an inspired bistro setting that doesn’t forget its roots. Folk art from Old Mexico festoons the walls while ornate plant arrangements add to the vitality.  Large picture windows across the length of the restaurant’s frontage belie the fact that the restaurant is much wider than it is deep.

Reservations are absolutely essential though they don’t necessarily ensure you’ll be seated at your appointed time.  Cafe Poca Cosa seems to invite lingering–even before you’re seated at your table.  Throngs of diners typically fill the restaurant to capacity and the entire edifice with the sounds of revelry.  No one seems to mind the noise levels.  They’re an expected part of the restaurant’s charm.  So too is the subdued lighting which unfortunately doesn’t allow for a complete visual appreciation of the culinary treasures laid out before you.

Carne Asada Zapoteca

The ill-fated Mr. Murphy (the luckless gentleman who posited the epigram “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) was our guest on the moonless night of our visit.  We were seated in perhaps the darkest corner of the restaurant with but candlelight to illuminate our table.  My camera’s flash doesn’t do justice to the artistic presentations of beautiful food we ordered.

There are no menus at Cafe Poca Cosa–at least not in the traditional sense.  The menu, which changes twice daily, is printed in Spanish on a portable chalkboard which the wait staff carries from table to table.  Your attendant will describe the entrees (there are no appetizers) in as much detail as you need.  Their descriptive flair, coupled with the challenge of recalling every item recited, seems to encourage spontaneity in ordering.  More likely than not, you’ll order the first item that really strikes your fancy.

Savvy diners will place themselves in the capable hands of the chef by ordering the restaurant’s safest and most frequently placed order, the Plato Poca Cosa, a trio sampler of the chef’s choosing.  Shortly after you’re seated and before the menu is presented, chips and salsa are brought to your table.  The salsa is fresh, but by New Mexico’s standards would rate no more than mild on a piquancy scale.  On a deliciousness scale, however, it is a force to be reckoned with.  Alas, the accompanying chips are pedestrian by any measure.  They are of store-bought quality and not worthy of the salsa.

Mexican chocolate mousse

Mexican chocolate mousse

It’s often been said that a large percentage of the appeal of any meal is in how it’s presented.  How an entree looks can greatly influence how much we enjoy it.  Along with the aroma emanating from any entree, one of the first mental stimuli we receive before we taste the flavor of the food is in seeing what is laid out in front of us.  At Cafe Poca Cosa, two deterrents detracted from the visual appreciation of what may have been an outstanding meal.  The first was the sheer darkness which obfuscated our visual acuity.  The second was the large leafy salad which dominated our plates.

From the little we could visually discern of our entrees, the named entrees were relatively minuscule in comparison with the greenery on our plates.  Though fresh, crisp and delicious, we didn’t visit Cafe Poca Cosa to partake of salad no matter how fresh the red and green peppers, large leaf lettuce, julienned vegetables and cantaloupe and watermelon slices.  The little there was of our carne asada Zapoteca was redolent with flavor, but there wasn’t enough of it on the plate that wasn’t covered in salad for us to really discern its ingredient composition and its ostensibly fine flavors.

The Plato Poca Cosa was similarly blanketed in salad ingredients.  My chef’s choice triumvirate featured machaca de poblano (shredded beef slow-simmered with egg, cilantro, garlic and fresh grilled poblano), pollo Toluca y chipotle (white meat chicken breast in tomato and garlic reduction with smoked red jalapeno chipotle) and pastel de elote en cilantro (a green corn tamale pie baked with white cheese and topped with cilantro and garlic cream with roasted serrano). Unobstructed by the salad, each of these might have been memorable, but when each spoonful included green ingredients, we could not discern much beyond the wonderful sweetness of the tamale pie.

Fortunately desserts are not covered in salad.  The chocolate mousse, a light and frothy whipped dark chocolate with a crushed Oreo base and flavored with Tia Maria, cinnamon, Kahlua and espresso is fabulous!  It was easily the highlight of our visit to Cafe Poca Cosa, a terrific dessert.

Should we have the great fortune to spend more time in Tucson, we’ll visit Cafe Poca Cosa when daylight hours illuminate the restaurant enough for the visual appeal process to be part of the complete meal appreciation process.

Cafe Poca Cosa
110 East Pennington Street
Tucson, Arizona
(520) 622-6400
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2010
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Mexican Chocolate Mousse, Pastel de Elote en Cilantro,


BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs – Tucson, Arizona

BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs for fabulous Sonoran style hot dogs

BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs for fabulous Sonoran style hot dogs

Every region across the fruited plain seems to have its iconic foods–incomparable dishes that define the area because they’re prepared better in that region than anywhere else.  Though there may be many capable practitioners in the preparation of these beloved and celebrated regional favorites, invariably there are restaurants with legitimate claims to superiority–stand-outs which, by virtue of consistent excellence over time, have earned acclaim from savvy locals and pundits.

When these paragons of mastery in the iconic cuisine are in close proximity to one another, spirited disputes generally ensue among locals as to which restaurant’s rendition truly reigns above all others.  The City of Brotherly Love, for example, becomes a dysfunctional family when proponents of its eponymous Philly Cheesesteak sandwich get together to debate the supremacy of either Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s.   To a lesser and certainly more civil extent, New Mexicans will dispute who makes the better green chile cheeseburger–the venerable Owl Cafe or the relative upstart, Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern.

The premise of the Travel Channel’s Food Wars program is to settle rivalries among those most celebrated of local favorites, pitting “the nation’s most famous culinary rivals against one another for a final showdown, where a blind taste test will settle the debate:Who makes the Best Dish in Town.”  Food Wars debuted in 2010 to much acclaim.  The show is hosted by the effusive and entertaining Camille Ford, the Travel Channel’s answer to Rachael Ray, the kitchen diva on the Food Network.

The BK Mascot carved from wood

A wooden carving of the BK mascot

On April 6th, the Travel Channel’s Food Wars program visited Tucson to settle a long-standing dispute and determine, once and for all, which of its two most famous purveyors prepare the most celebrated and iconic food in the city, the Sonoran-style hot dog.  This food fracas pitted El Guero Canelo against BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.  The former is a claimant to being the original purveyor of the Sonoran hot dog in Tucson while the latter has innovated the concept with delicious variations on the traditional.

Both El Guero Canelo and BK are situated in Tucson’s famous “Eat Street” within a quarter-mile of one another on Twelfth Street.  You can literally cross the street and walk a couple of hundred yards from one to the other.  The Eat Street neighborhood and Tucson are divided  as to which is best.  Though both have earned “best Sonoran hot dog” honors from Tucson Weekly, in recent years El Guero Canelo, the elder statesman by two years, has dominated the award.

The Food Wars format calls for blind taste tests in which an odd number (five) of judges taste each of the fabled foods and votes on their favorite.  Two of the judges are “superfans,” one for each of the two restaurants competing.  Ostensibly these superfans are so loyal to and so intimately familiar with their favorite restaurant that they can easily recognize its product even when temporarily deprived of sight.  For the Tucson Food Wars, the judges were a restaurant critic for Tucson Weekly, an anchor from a local television station and a former NFL football player.

Visitors from all over America head to BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs

The superfans were actually brothers, the younger so loyal to BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs that he carries a picture of a Sonoran hot dog from his favorite hotdoguero (a term describing Sonoran hot dog vendors), but his wallet doesn’t include a picture of his girlfriend.  The older brother declared his unwavering loyalty to El Guero Canelo.  Neither conceded much merit in the other’s preference, both adamant that their favorite would prevail.

When the grill smoke cleared, the former NFL player and the television anchor declared their preference for BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs while the restaurant critic for Tucson Weekly (the only female judge) preferred El Guero Canelo’s dog.  With the tally two to one in favor of BK’s, the most dramatic and surprising moment in the show’s young history occurred.  Both superfans preferred BK’s.  You can well imagine the older brother will never live it down that he couldn’t recognize his favorite Sonoran hot dog when blindfolded.

A number of rabid fans from both camps cheered on their favorite and appeared to have a great time watching the process.  The episode showcased the difference between the two Sonoran hot dogs.  El Guero Canelo prides itself on staying true to tradition while BK’s has taken liberties with the condiments.  The recipe for BK’s award winning Sonoran hot dog, by the way, can be found on my friend Becky Mercuri’s fabulous Great American Hot Dog Book.  Frankly I’m not sure that many people will be able to discern the difference between the Sonoran hot dogs at BK’s and El Guero Canelo.

A Sonoran Hot Dog with a grilled pepper

A Sonoran Hot Dog with a grilled pepper

The law of primacy (being first) in learning posits that information learned first creates such a strong, almost unshakable impression that it’s difficult to unlearn incorrect information.  I’ve long believed there’s a law of primacy in eating, too.  The first truly great pizza you ever had, for example, often sets the standard by which you’ll measure all other pizzas.  The very first Sonoran hot dog we had was at El Guero Canelo so it would be interesting to see how pervasive the law of primacy would be and whether or not my contention would hold true.

Similar to its neighbor, BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs is tailored for alfresco dining, a semi open-air restaurant in which the dining room is a concrete slab covered by a canopy which provides shade to protect diners from the onslaught of Tucson’s scalding heat and monsoon showers.  An anthropomorphic smiling hot dog, the restaurant’s mascot “greets” you as you walk in.  The menu is strategically positioned directly above the order counter.  It’s a menu dominated by Mexican fast foods: tacos, caramelos (similar to quesadillas), tortas, burros and of course, the Sonoran hot dog.

The menu includes several variations on the simple taco: carne asada, pollo, pastor, frijole, cabeza, borrego, fish and taco.  As you place your order, take a gander at the kitchen where a number of industrious people are engaged in the behind the scenes action that often goes unappreciated: chopping meat, grating cheese, flipping tortillas on the comal, preparing salsa.  Place your order and in a manner of minutes you’ll be called to a stainless steel cart to pick up your hot dogs.

Carne Asada Tacos

A trio of Carne Asada Tacos

BK’s rendition of the Sonoran hot dog is, at first glance, a prototype of the standard.  Frankly by mere glance alone, we couldn’t tell the difference between BK’s and the hot dog at El Guero Canelo’s.  The difference is in the tasting.  Similar to El Guero Canelo’s rendition, BK’s doesn’t use a conventional split-top roll.  Instead, a bolillo-style Mexican bread roll seems almost hallowed out to serve as a repository for a treasure trove of ingredients: pinto beans topped by the grilled, bacon-wrapped dog then diced red onions, chopped tomatoes, salsa verde and finally an embellishment of mustard and mayonnaise decoratively criss-crossing atop it all.

BK’s Sonoran-style hot dog is fantastic!  Perhaps if it had been the first of its genre we had sampled, it might be the standard-setter by which we will forever judge Sonoran-style hot dogs, but the law of primacy prevailed.  Unlike the Food Wars judges, we preferred El Guero Canelo’s version of this Tucson favorite, but the margin of preference wasn’t so significant that we wouldn’t return to BK’s.  In the end, the two differentiating factors were the slightly better grilled flavor and just slightly less soggy (from steaming) but sweeter buns at El Guero Canelo.  Both rate among the very best hot dogs we’ve ever had anywhere.

Because carne asada precedes hot dogs on BK’s marquee, we had to try a trio of tacos engorged with carne asada.  The carne is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces and is nestled in warm corn tortillas.   Nary a hint of sinew or excess fat could be found on the carne asada, a very good sign.  These terrific tacos would be reason enough to visit BK’s.

BK’s serves more than 10,000 Sonoran-style hot dogs a week. You can count on contributing to that total with every visit.
BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs
2680 North 1st Avenue
Tucson, Arizona
(520) 207-2254
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2010
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dogs, Carne Asada Tacos, Aguas Frescas: Pina and Jamaica

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Sakura Sushi & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico


Sakura Sushi & Grill in Paradise Hills

In describing “food porn,” The New Yorker once wrote, “The point is to get very close to what you are filming, so close that you can see an ingredient’s “pores” which then triggers some kind of Neanderthal reflex.  If you’re flicking from channel to channel and come upon food that has been shot in this way, you will be hardwired as a human being to stop, look, and bring it back to your cave.”

Madison Avenue, which is virtually synonymous with advertising, recognizes the impact food porn has on the American consumer.  That’s why we’re bombarded with television commercials and magazine ads depicting spectacular displays of visually stimulating, sleek and sexy, glorious deliciousness–food not only as edible art, but as a medium that elicits a carnal response.

Perhaps no modern medium utilizes food porn more effectively than the Food Network whose programming seems tailored to arouse a salivatory response and a lascivious desire to eat.  Its veritable pantheon of celebrity chefs recognizes that the appeal to viewers (who obviously can’t smell or taste their creations) is in the way food looks on a plate–its colors, symmetry and design patterns.

Sakura Sushi & Grill in Paradise Hills

Sakura Sushi & Grill in Paradise Hills

Perhaps the most visually appealing moment on any Food Network program occurred during a 2005 Iron Chef battle between challenger Michael Symon and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.  In one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, Morimoto created a complex sushi roll resembling an ornate stained glass window that incorporated asparagus, the secret ingredient for the evening.

The roll was so geometric, so visually stunning and beautiful that rather than wanting to attack it lustily, the judges remained agape at its beauty.  Judge Alex Guarnaschelli commented, “that stained glass window could have been a family crest from somewhere in the 14th Century in Japan.  Like, “this is my stamp, this is who I am.”  Morimoto managed to transcend food porn and elevate an item of beautiful food back to the realm of edible art.

Many Asian cultures, especially the Japanese, have a different attitude toward food than what Madison Avenue tries to convey.  It’s an attitude of appreciation for meals prepared with care, presented beautifully and consumed in moderate portions.  Contrast that with what has become an American obsession for food meant to appear almost sexy on the plate served in profligate portions.

Miso soup and salad

Miso soup and salad

In Asian restaurants, plating–the presentation of beautifully arranged food–tends to be an art form with plates of various shapes, finishes and colors the canvas on which the edible art is presented.  Food also tends to be more “three-dimensional” in that the shape and cut of ingredients and the way they are arranged on a plate is synergistic and symmetrical, not necessarily and completely uniform, but esthetic.

Reviewing the menu at Sakura Sushi & Grill in Albuquerque’s Riverside Plaza on the West side, you’ll certainly get the sense that the restaurant has an appreciation for the art form of plating food on the plate.  The menu includes color pictures of every menu item in its appetizer, fresh roll, tempura roll and baked roll sections and select items on the entree, fried rice, noodle, Korean dinner, lunch special and dessert sections.

The pictures depict food that is beautiful with colors that jump out at you with their vibrancy and which seem to hint strongly at freshness of ingredients.  The pictures show artful arrangements which suggest great care in the precise and deliberate placement of ingredients on the plate. Whether food porn or edible art, I suppose, is contingent on how hungry you are when ogling that menu.



Sakura Sushi & Grill opened in the summer of 2009, but despite the name, it is not related to Sakura Sushi on Wyoming.  The latter has a menu featuring sushi as well as Thai and Laotian entrees while the former focuses primarily on Japanese (mostly sushi) and Korean food.  Sakura is a Japanese word meaning “cherry blossoms” which are very important to Japanese culture.  The name Sakura is also apparently a very popular name for girls in anime, an abbreviation of Japanese animation.

Situated off Coors Boulevard on Albuquerque’s burgeoning West side, Sakura Sushi & Grill joins Ichiban and Sushi King as reasons West-siders no longer have to cross the Rio Grande to find good sushi.  It was recommended to me by Barbara Trembath, one of my personal E.F. Huttons (when she speaks, I listen) when it comes to great food in Albuquerque, Boston and San Francisco.  Barbara raves about the freshness of Sakura’s sushi and sashimi and the chef’s prowess in selecting great fish.

Sakura’s storefront is unremarkable, just one of many nondescript shops ensconced in the sprawling Riverside Plaza, a vast assemblage of professional offices, boutique shops and restaurants.  Step into the restaurant, however, and the restaurant is anything but plain.  Its cynosure is the sushi bar backdropped by a vibrant red wall festooned by framed art.  A small pergola sans climbing plants provides yet another visually appealing point of focus while you dine.



The menu is segmented into several sections with glossy photographs of entrees and appetizers accompanied by vivid descriptions detailing the ingredients of each.  Some entrees, such as the Korean dinners, are served with steamed rice, miso soup and salad while others,such as the Noodle dishes are served sans rice (most restaurants will not serve two starches together).  The “Entrees” section of the menu features several Teriyaki dishes (salmon, chicken, shrimp, beef, seafood and vegetable) as well as traditional Japanese dishes such as pork katsu and grilled unagi.

Four fried rice dishes–beef, shrimp, chicken and vegetable–are available as main entrees.  One entire page on the menu is dedicated to sushi and sashimi dinners as well as donburi dishes which might best be described as sushi in a bowl.  Three sizes of “love boats” are available in which sushi and sashimi are decorative shipmates on a unique boat-like serving vessel.  Lower priced lunch specials take up an entire page on the menu.

Sushi occupies the largest part of the menu and Sakura offers it in various forms: baked rolls, vegetable rolls, house rolls, tempura rolls and fresh rolls.  An entire page lists Sakura’s salads, only one of which is of the boring garden variety.  These salads showcase fresh fish: tuna tataki, spicy tuna, salmon, sashimi, albacore and seafood.  The appetizers are inventive sights to behold.

The Heart Attack: Deep-fried spicy tuna, cream cheese in a jalapeno with masago and house sauce

The Heart Attack: Deep-fried spicy tuna, cream cheese in a jalapeno with masago and house sauce

Sakura’s miso soup is fairly standard, at least in the the way in which it is prepared in Japanese restaurants throughout America.  Tragically that means miso soup has become the bouillon cube of Asian soups, made by dissolving miso paste into a stock (usually vegetable).  Very few restaurants actually use the traditional Japanese dashi stock.  Served steaming hot, it is nonetheless a comforting soup that diners have come to expect with sushi.

The salad is fairly nondescript–a brimming bowlful of iceberg lettuce with a parsimonious sprinkling of a peanut and ginger based salad dressing.  It’s served cold and is good, but hardly memorable.  If you want salad, go for one of the seafood salads; those you’ll remember.

While such de rigueur appetizers as edamame (fresh green baby soybeans in a pod) are available on the menu, it’s intriguingly named starters such as the “Heart Attack” which savvy diners will order, particularly if you appreciate a little piquancy with your meals.  The Heart Attack starts off with a large jalapeno, the cavity of which is stuffed with cream cheese and spicy tuna, all of which are deep-fried then topped with masago (small orange fish eggs) and a spicy house roll.  This is a terrific way to start a meal at Sakura.  It’s not so piquant that you’ll need a fire-extinguisher for your mouth, but it will get your attention.

The Spicy Tempura Tuna Roll (Spicy tuna sheathed in tempura with eel sauce, spicy mayo and smelt egg)

The Spicy Tempura Tuna Roll (Spicy tuna sheathed in tempura with eel sauce, spicy mayo and smelt egg)

Donburi is a general Japanese term for “bowl,” however, the term also refers to a bowl of cooked rice with some other food served on top.  Some donburi dishes, unagi or tuna for example, might remind you of eating sushi in a bowl which is essentially what you’re doing.  In Japan, donburi is considered a traditional fast food offering though many Americans aren’t adept enough at chopsticks to consume it quickly.

Sakura’s donburi entrees exemplify Japanese plating in its most artistic form.  Steamed rice at the bottom of the bowl form a bed upon which other ingredients are decoratively laid.  Unagi (Japanese freshwater eels) is a delicious option.  unagi is said to have stamina-giving properties.  Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive.  Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night.

In addition to being very good for you, it is very good to eat, perhaps in large part due to the “unagi sauce” generously applied.  Real unagi sauce is made from a reduction of eel bone broth, soy sauce, rice wine and sugar, imparting sweet qualities which complement the eel very well.  The texture of unagi is much like that of any soft fish and like fresh fish, it does not have a “fishy” taste, especially when unagi sauce is slathered on.

Sashimi Dinner: White Tuna, Red Snapper, Tuna and Salmon

Sashimi Dinner: White Tuna, Red Snapper, Tuna and Salmon

Korean food aficionados will be thrilled to find many of the familiar Korean standards: bulgogi, bulkalbi and bimimbap, for example.  Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea sometimes referred to as Korean barbecue, is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.

My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik, a far better cook than many working in the trade, usually orders bulgogi if for no other reason to compare it to the bulgogi he makes at home.  Invariably, restaurant served bulgogi falls short of his rendition.  That was the case at Sakura because the meat was not as tender as the choice meat he uses.  Indeed, the meat did have more sinew than great bulgogi should have.

The 911 Roll: Spicy tuna roll with avocado on top, chili oil, red pepper and sweet dressing

Sushi is the name on the marquee and what Barbara had assured me was of incomparable freshness.  Not only is it as fresh as you can get it in landlocked Albuquerque, it is plated magnificently–far better than my pedestrian camera skills can depict.  As is the case with many diners (and a common way to order in Chinese restaurants of old) we opted for one from column A, one from column B and one from column C.  In this case, one tempura roll, one baked roll and one fresh roll.

The tempura roll was a spicy tuna tempura roll with spicy tuna inside then deep-fried in a tempura batter and topped with eel (unagi) sauce, spicy mayo and smelt eggs.  The plating is somewhat like a kaleidoscope, a cacophony of vibrant colors in a beautiful design on a triangle shaped plate.  Fortunately it’s not too good to eat, because this is a very good maki (rolled) roll.  As we were to discover with other rolls, the vinegared rice is perfectly formed and prepared (not necessarily an easy thing to do). The spicy tuna lives up to its name with enough piquancy to get your attention even without help from the wasabi and spicy mayo.

By virtue of its name, you might also expect the 911 roll to require a mouth lined with asbestos just to eat.  Then there’s the ingredients with which it’s constructed–spicy tuna with avocado on top, chili oil, red pepper and sweet dressing.  That’s akin to pouring gasoline on a fire.  It’s been my experience that with few exceptions, sushi rolls usually don’t achieve the descriptive level of heat touted on the menu without generous wasabi baths and that’s the case with the 911 roll.  Instead, focus on the complementary melding of flavors, just how well they all go together.  This is a delicious roll.

The Volcano Roll: Krab and cucumber inside baked salmon; spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce

The Volcano Roll: Krab and cucumber inside baked salmon; spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce

The Volcano roll also hints at fiery qualities:krab, cucumber and baked salmon inside, spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce.  The Volcano roll comes from the “baked sushi” section of the menu.  It arrives on your table inside a foil wrapping and warm to the tongue.  One of the dictates of sushi protocol is to get it all in with one bite, slowly savoring the concordance of ingredients.  The sheer size of the Volcano roll makes this a tough proposition.  It is an enormous roll, cut thick and brimming with ingredients.  Fortunately it’s also brimming with flavor.

Freshness isn’t exclusive to the sushi rolls.  Sashimi dinners, which come in three price points, showcase fresh fish.  The least expensive sashimi dinner features white tuna, red tuna, red snapper and salmon, all of which have the hue and aroma of healthy freshness.  There’s a lot of purity in sashimi where there’s nothing else between you and the fish, but wasabi and soy sauce should you choose to use it.

Sakura subscribes to a time-honored post-meal tradition by providing all guests a non-alcoholic digestif in the form of a Korean tea.  The tea serves two purposes–to aid in digestion and as a palate cleanser.  It’s served at room temperature and includes ginger, cinnamon and sugar with the surprising addition of pinons floating atop the the liquid.  Aside from its healthful qualities, it’s a delicious way to end a meal.

Sakura Sushi & Grill
6241 Riverside Plaza Lane, NW Suite C-1

Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 890-2838
1st VISIT: 2 February 2010
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2010
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Unaki, Dessert Tea, Sashimi, Sushi

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Chef’s Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chef's Bistro: A humble restaurant owned and operated by a credentialed chef

Chef’s Bistro: A humble restaurant owned and operated by a highly credentialed chef

It’s been called the “Harvard of cooking schools” and has been credited with having “changed the way Americans eat” by no less than the James Beard Foundation.  World-reknowned French chef Paul Bocuse calls it “the best culinary school in the world.”  It has trained more than forty-thousand  culinary professionals and counts among its distinguished alumni such Food Network luminaries as Tony Bourdain, Anne Burrell, Cat Cora, Sara Moulton and Todd English.

In the culinary world, the Central Intelligence Agency is known as “the other CIA.”  The CIA is the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a not-for-profit culinary school which confers Associate of Occupational Studies (A.O.S.) degrees in either Culinary Arts or Baking and Pastry Arts.  Students don’t just receive hands-on training, they spend over 1,300 hours in the kitchen or bakeshop.  At its Hyde Park campus, the CIA operates five public restaurants in which students acquire experience in both back-of-the-house kitchen and front-of-the-house management skills.

A degree from the CIA doesn’t just open doors to exciting possibilities, it confers upon its graduates credentials that are universally respected throughout the vast culinary community.  The CIA also offers a three-tiered American Culinary Federation (ACF) certification entitled Pro Chef, each tier recognizing skills obtained in the kitchen as well as in the classroom.  The pinnacle of achievement and highest level of of certification is as a Certified Executive Chef, a title which signifies the bearer is not only well versed in multiple culinary disciplines, but in advanced personnel and financial management aspects.

Carne Adovada and Eggs

Carne Adovada and Eggs

Albuquerque is home to at least two CIA graduates–the high-profile celebrity chef Jim White and Certified Executive Chef Michael Christensen, Jr. who, despite very impressive credentials, has a much lower profile.  If you’ve never heard of Chef Christensen, it’s because he’s relatively new to Albuquerque, having been somewhat of a wayfarer for more than a decade before settling in the Duke City.  For nearly a dozen years he served as a chef for a multi-location casino corporation before taking a job with the 66 Casino.

During his day off, Chef Christensen began an off-premises catering operation that eventually became Chef’s Elegant Catering, serving Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the surrounding area with a full-service catering business offering custom menus for all occasions–from casual to formal.  The custom menus are thematic, showcasing the chef’s tremendous versatility in preparing surprisingly varied dishes: Italian, French, Southwestern, Mexican, Cajun, Nouvelle, Vegetarian and more.  Ask him what type of food he specializes in and he’ll answer “delicious.”

In March, 2009, Chef Christensen launched Chef’s Bistro, a relatively small restaurant ensconced in the timeworn Sequoia Square shopping center about a mile north of I40 on Coors Boulevard.  It’s minimally visible (if at all) from Coors.  In fact, even driving into the pock-marked parking lot serving the shopping center, you have to look for it.   Befitting the 60s style shopping center, the restaurant’s signage is rather humble, hardly the type of marquee you might expect for such a credentialed chef.

The Big I: A green chile and bacon cheeseburger in an Italian loaf

The Big I: A green chile and bacon cheeseburger in a French loaf

Then there’s the menu.  You might expect that with Chef Christensen’s pedigree, the menu would be replete with expensive haute cuisine served in an elegant milieu by a nattily attired wait staff.  Instead, it’s just the chef and his son Michael serving a breakfast and lunch menu (open 7AM – 2PM Tuesday through Sunday) that’s surprisingly simple, the antithesis of what you might expect.   Specializing in New Orleans inspired po’ boys, a few New Mexican entrees, burgers, classic American breakfast entrees and a number of “lighter side” specialties, it’s the quintessential American diner, no major surprises.

Okay, so the menu and the ambience aren’t exactly what you might picture from a classically trained chef, but you should set your expectations high anyway.  There’s a reason Chef Christensen earned all those gold medals festooning the restaurant’s walls.  There’s a reason he achieved the highest level of certification possible from the American Culinary Federation.  The proof is in the eating.

On Saturdays and Sundays, featured fare includes a New Orleans specialty with a Chef Christensen twist–Bananas Foster (a dessert consisting of lengthwise sliced bananas sautéed in a mixture of rum, brown sugar, and banana liquer, then served over ice cream) served over French toast.  The entree, three pieces of French bread battered in a cinnamon batter topped with Bananas Foster and a dusting of powdered sugar, is one of the bistro’s most popular.

Having lived a Mardi Gras parade’s bead throw from New Orleans for eight years, we were thrilled to see a number of Po’ Boys on the menu.  Po’ Boys are a Crescent City staple, the city’s version of a submarine sandwich (but some would say, infinitely better).  The term po’boy originally referred to striking streetcar conductors then eventually to the austere sandwiches they ate while on strike.  Po’ Boys are constructed with meat or seafood which is overstuffed into Louisiana French bread and served either dressed (lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise) or naked.

If you’ve never had a Po’ Boy at one of New Orleans’ prolific pantheons of Po’ Boys (roast beef from Mother’s Restaurant and shrimp from Johnny’s Po Boys for example), you owe it to yourself to try Chef Christensen’s rendition.  If the Big I is any indication, he does New Orleans proud.  The Big I is a foot-long (or more) French loaf of bread grilled with Cheddar cheese, a thick hamburger patty and green chile.  You can add bacon for a pittance.

Two things make this an intriguing Po’ Boy.  First, Chef’s Bistro participated in Governor Richardson’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge and was selected for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail so he obviously knows about green chile cheeseburgers.  Secondly, a good French bread makes an excellent canvas for meat and ingredients.  This is a very good Po’Boy slash green chile cheeseburger, a delicious departure from the conventional beef on a bun burger you can have anywhere in town.

All sandwiches and burgers are served with crinkle cut French fries, black bean salad or for fifty cents more, sweet potato fries with a “special sauce” very reminiscent of the classic French remoulade served throughout the Deep South.  The sauce is intended for the fries (which are terrific), but goes very well on the Big I, too.

If your hankering is for New Mexican food, Chef Christensen won’t disappoint here either.  The carne adovada and eggs breakfast–two large eggs cooked any style on the side of freshly cooked carne adovada and black beans with fresh home-style potatoes and a tortilla–is surprisingly good and not just for a Wisconsin born chef.  The marinated pork is tender and cut into small cubes which are smothered in a dark red chile devoid of cumin, which helps explain its delicious purity.  It’s also very low in salt which means you can salt to taste.  The chile is of medium piquancy with that addictive flavor New Mexicans love. It shouldn’t have surprised us that a Certified Executive Chef wouldn’t serve chile without having perfected the recipe. The fresh home-style potatoes are a worthy accompaniment, flavored with parsley, rosemary, pepper and other seasonings.

Chef’s Bistro is very reasonably priced, offers generous portions and provides a pleasant dining experience.  You’re in great hands with a CIA trained chef.

Chef’s Bistro
3250 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 April 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Big I, Carne Adovada and Eggs

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