Zea Rotisserie & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Zea Rotissserie & Grill, a popular Northeast Heights Dining Establishment

Our first visit to Zea followed the day after it was savaged by an erstwhile Albuquerque Journal restaurant critic, but any trepidation we might have had quickly dissipated when we were greeted enthusiastically at the hostess station by Betty, the luminous former waitress at the incomparable and much missed (to this day, I dream of its timbale tuna) Nouveau Noodles restaurant in Tijeras.

At Nouveau, Betty was a whirling dervish of perpetual motion and the restaurant’s consummate ambassador. As warm and effusive a waitress as you’ll find anywhere, Betty’s unabashed enthusiasm for Nouveau’s cuisine was evident in her flowingly eloquent descriptions of the restaurant’s menu items–polysyllabic descriptions which she peppered with adjectives synonymous with fabulous. We trusted her recommendations and appreciated the personable and attentive service she lavished upon us.

After seating us at Zea, she cautioned against any pre-conceived notions we might have about chain restaurants, indicating this one was was different. She explained that Zea was founded in New Orleans in 1997 and that its founders’ goal is to celebrate the cultural phenomenon that is eating and drinking for the sheer pleasure of it (sounds like my kind of people).

Calamari, lightly breaded and fried until crisp. Served with Zitziki sauce and topped with Feta cheese.

There are currently five Zea locations in the New Orleans area, a tough restaurant market.  Zea also has locations in Lafayette, Covington and Baton Rouge, Louisiana as well as Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama with franchise locations in Plano, Texas, Pensacola, Florida and Albuquerque–all apparently markets  which covet dining and drinking for the sheer pleasure of it.  The Albuquerque restaurant is stylish and modern with Anasazi stonework complementing neutral colors.  It is an attractive venue with good spacing between tables to allow for privacy.

Betty recommended an appetizer called Mediterranean Hummus Supreme, the consorting of sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, roasted garlic, Roma tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and herbs layered on a bed of creamy hummus and served with grilled pita bread and seasoned rotisserie lamb. It was an excellent starter when we first sampled it shortly after Zea opened and it remains an excellent starter years later.  In its annual food and wine issue, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded its prestigious Hot Plate Award to this appetizer.  The magazine indicated it is “impossible to stop dipping, dunking and devouring.”

Following Betty’s recommendation, I had the St Louis ribs prepared Thai style, a half-rack of fall-off-the-bone tender ribs bathed in a sweet and spicy  Thai sauce reminiscent of the chili sauce you might find at a Vietnamese restaurant. The ribs , which are served wet, dry or Thai were good and thankfully not quite as sweet as Betty whom we discovered has legions of fans in the Duke City who appreciate her attentive service and sage recommendations. Alas, Betty left Albuquerque in 2008 and we have yet to find a waitress nearly as attentive.

Mixed Rotisserie and Grill: Half a rack of ribs, half a chicken and a quarter-pound of the rotisserie meat of the day

While Betty may be gone, the remaining wait staff is friendly and attentive, not the sort to hover while you’re trying to hold a conversation or time their visits to when your mouth is full.  In fact, sometimes the best thing that can be said about a wait staff is that it’s not especially noticeable.  Save for Betty, others who have saved us haven’t made a memorable impression, but that’s not a bad thing.

Zea’s concept is based on “inspired American food,” a broad concept describing a melting pot of Mediterranean, Thai, Cajun and New Mexican inspired entrees and appetizers.  Soup du jour selections, in fact, include two featuring green chile.  Salads are inventive and large enough to share, the type of salads which fill you up in the manner of large entrees.  Unless you’re a professional gurgitator, you probably wouldn’t be able to finish a salad and an item from the rotisserie meats and poultry menu.

Items on this menu are served with two sides, all large enough to put a dent on any appetite. The sauteed corn is so heavily buttered, it may put a dent on your waistline, too.  What corn wouldn’t be delicious when swimming in a pool of melted butter.  Other sides include roasted corn grits, Zea potatoes, Thai snap beans, buttered sweet potatoes, red beans, vegetable du jour, French fries and sugar snap beans.

Sauteed corn–sweet, succulent and swimming in butter

The menu is further segmented into grilled entrees, seafood, pasta and sandwiches.  Portions are profuse, most big enough to share.  The Mixed Rotisserie and Grill entree is a veritable meatfest and perhaps the largest entree on the menu: half a rack of ribs, half a chicken and a quarter-pound of the rotisserie meat of the day with two sides.  The chicken has an almost lacquered sheen on the outside and is grilled to perfection so it remains moist on the inside.  The ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty. The rotisserie pork, served with a rosemary roasted garlic glace, is also quite good, albeit heavily salted.

Not quite as appetizing is the twice cooked crispy duck, a Maple Leaf Farms duckling slow-roasted then crisped and served with Asian herbs and a honey soy sauce.  One of my pet peeves is seafood or duck served with either a fruity or cloying sauce that masks the inherent flavors of the duck or seafood item. Zea’s honey soy sauce is cloying, almost dessert-sweet.  This entree’s saving grace is the crispy duck skin–and a few napkins to wipe away some of the sauce.  The duckling is otherwise good–tender, moist and delicious, but that sauce has got to go.

Another item Betty steered me toward is the Asian Tuna Salad, made with enough Romaine lettuce to keep a migrant farmer employed for a week. It is served with marinated and seared sashimi tuna (four strips about half-inch thick), carrots, fried noodles, Asian herbs, sesame seeds and roasted almonds laced with peanut vinaigrette.  The peanut vinaigrette is reminiscent of the peanut sauce often served with satay in Thai restaurants.  It’s a bit on the sweet side, but not overly so.

Shrimp Etouffe with Rice

One item not on my plans for future visits is the shrimp etouffe served with brown rice.  On the sole occasion in which we had this entree, the shrimp, though plentiful, had a mealy texture.  It was enough to detract from the flavorful roux and its otherwise good flavor.

Zea Rotisserie & Grill has the look and feel of a restaurant you visit only on special occasions, but it’s priced reasonably, especially considering the portion size.

Zea Rotisserie & Grill
4800 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Mediterranean Hummus Supreme, St Louis Ribs Thai Style

Zea Rotisserie & Grill on Urbanspoon

Angelina’s Restaurant – Espanola, New Mexico

Angelina's, the perpetually crowded Espanola favorite

“I get no respect.”  Comedian Rodney Dangerfield parlayed that catch-phrase into a lengthy and lucrative career.  With his uniquely self-deprecating sense of humor, Rodney invariably made himself the butt of his own brilliant one-liners: “I could tell my parents hated me.  My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”  Despite his schtick as a perpetual loser, Dangerfield was a beloved comedic icon about whom Jim Carrey once wrote, “Rodney is, without a doubt, as funny as a carbon-based life-form can be.”  True to the formula which made him a success in life, his tombstone is engraved, “there goes the neighborhood.”

The citizenry of the beautiful Española valley can certainly empathize with Rodney Dangerfield.  Inexplicably, Española has, for decades, been the punch line of cruel jokes.  My friend Bill Resnik, a stand-up comedian for nearly three decades, says every  stand-up comedian performing in New Mexico has at least one Española joke in their repertoire, but admits that in the comedy circuit, the name of the town being made fun of changes from state to state.  Española jokes are, to some extent, just repackaged jokes.  Many of those jokes will work if you substitute “blond” or “Aggie” or “Redneck” for Española.

Other Española jokes, however, are more antagonistic, mean-spirited–and most definitely targeted.  In a 1984 article, the New York Times noted “few of them are free of an obvious anti-Hispanic bias,” observing that the target of derision in many of those jokes is Española’s low rider culture: “Why are low rider steering wheels so small?  So you can drive them handcuffed.”  In the 1980s, traversing the “low road to Taos”  through Española often meant following elaborately painted late-model cars at their low and slow pace as they hugged the pavement on both lanes for the entire length and breadth of the city limits.  The frustration was the genesis of many Espanola jokes.

On a wall just before the restaurant's entrance

You might think any city or town subjected to cruel derision for decades might wish for anonymity or would suffer from an inferiority complex, or  perhaps worse, bitter resentment.  Española has instead embraced the attention, in recent years turning lemons into lemonade with marketing campaigns that have drawn many to all that Española has to offer–and what it has to offer is the type of preternatural beauty  which exemplifies New Mexico’s sobriquet “The Land of Enchantment.”

In delivering his forecasts, KOB TV meteorologist Steve Stucker drives home that point.  When predicting the weather in New Mexico’s most maligned city, he invariably emphasizes the term “the beautiful Española valley.”  The media savvy Stucker isn’t just pandering to the community of some ten-thousand; he really means it.

The brilliant watercolor artist Jan Hart may have best captured the essence of the first capital city in America: “Española is what it is. No apologies. It is the punch line of jokes and the bearer of some grim tales. It doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t. Sprawled across the Rio Grande river, it isn’t tidy or trendy. But it is very real and its location is perfect – surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east, the Jemez mountains on the west, Taos to the north 40 miles and Santa Fe 20 miles south! Española sits in the very heart of northern New Mexico!”

A large serving of chips and salsa

Española, whose very name translates to “Spain,” is indeed predominantly Hispanic ethnically and as recognized by the New York Times, remains a “hub of Spanish-American craftsmanship in weaving, pottery and carving.”   It’s not Taos and it’s not Santa Fe, but it’s not trying to be.
Unlike the aforementioned hubs of multiculturalism, Española holds fast to its many Spanish traditions.  That may be especially true of its devotion to the cuisine which has graced  family homes throughout Northern New Mexico for hundreds of years. Española’s restaurants don’t cater to tourist tastes; their market is the local palate, a discerning lot who insist on authenticity, not some watered-down hybrid. Try finding chicos, posole, quelites and costillas at Santa Fe or Taos restaurants.  You can find these traditional stapes of Northern New Mexico family homes in Española’s restaurants.
A May, 2010 visit to Angelina’s Restaurant in Española, reinforced Española’s stance on tradition and authenticity.  When we asked if cumin was used in the restaurant’s carne adovada, our waitress had never heard of the spice, but offered to find out.  Within minutes, Chris Quintana, the restaurant’s owner, visited our table to expressly denounce the use of cumin, saying “if you want cumin, drive about 200 miles south of here.  Traditional New Mexican food does not include cumin.”   A man after my own heart!

Some of the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico

Angelina’s Restaurant was founded in 1984 by Fidel and Angelina Gutierrez as a way to honor their recently deceased son’s love of  his mother’s red chile and beans.  Rather than take the family name, the restaurant was named for Angelina since  traditional New Mexican home cooking is traditionally passed on from mother to daughter.  The original restaurant was ensconced in a somewhat dilapidated old edifice with a memorable charm.   In 1998, Angelina’s Restaurant moved into a bright, open and airy building with capacious accommodations.

Drive past Angelina’s on any day, but especially on Sundays, and you might be amazed at the number of two- and four-wheeled vehicles parked in the restaurant’s east and west parking lots.  It’s the type of parking you might otherwise see at a county fair and you’ll wonder how Angelina’s could possibly seat everyone.  Enter the restaurant and you’ll see large  tables accommodating ten or more people, many of them families several generations deep.  You’ll find guests eating al fresco at the umbrella-shielded picnic tables in the courtyard prefacing the restaurant’s entrance.

What you won’t find is guests waiting for too long.  Somehow, despite the constant flow of guests, Angelina’s wait staff turns them around quickly without hurrying anyone.  In fact, you’ll see no shortage of diners visiting friends at other tables with friendly abrazos and besos (hugs and kisses) all around.  The reverberation of conversations in both Spanish and English creates a rather noisy din, but it’s more joyous than raucous, more neighborly than discordant.

Fried chicken and a baked potato

The specialty of the house at Angelina’s is lamb, raised on the verdant high-mountain pastures of Northern New Mexico by the Patricio Martinez family, sheep herders for generations. The “other white meat” has long been a staple in Northern New Mexico kitchens though it’s increasingly uncommon to find it on restaurant menus, save for  pricey Colorado lamb entrees served in high-end dining establishments.  Angelina’s offers lamb in several forms–and it’s the real thing, with its characteristic gaminess and flavorful fat.

You can engorge enchiladas (rolled or flat), stuffed sopaipillas, burritos or fajitas with lamb or you can have lamb chops, roast leg of lamb or lamb costillas (ribs).  You can even have a lamb burger or lamb sandwich if you wish.  The lamb flies off the menu and is especially popular among senior generations.  Lamb entrees are served with beans, fluffy sopaipillas and your choice of red or green chile.

For me, there’s no better way to enjoy lamb than in the form of costillas, succulent lamb ribs served five to an order.  These are unpretentious and undoctored ribs with meat and fat coalescing into a crispy and flavorful riblet treat.  Gnawing on the bones and extricating the meat is an adventure in flavor appreciation.  You might think you like lamb, but if all you’ve ever had is expensive lamb served at fine-dining establishments, you haven’t really had lamb.  Angelina’s serves lamb New Mexico style and it’s terrific!

Carne Adovada with a fried egg and Spanish rice

Salsa is not complementary at Angelina’s, but it just isn’t a meal at a Northern New Mexico restaurant without salsa and chips so splurge on the large-sized order.  The salsa is fresh and delicious, rating about medium on the piquancy scale.  It will make your taste buds pay attention without singeing them.  Prominent flavors include fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapenos.  The chips are large and low in salt, formidable enough for large scoops of salsa.

Most entrees come with two sopaipillas.  Now, sopaipillas have become so commonplace in New Mexican restaurants as to engender blase reactions.  Not so at Angelina’s which may offer the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico.  That’s an audacious claim to be sure, but it’s a claim for which I’d get plenty of support from the Albuquerque Journal North’s brilliant restaurant critic Anne Hillerman.  In her 2009 review of Angelina’s, Anne admitted she hasn’t done a “professional sopaipilla study,” but would be willing to bet Angelina’s “would get the trophy.”

The sopaipillas are large golden, deep-fried deliciousness served fresh and hot.  Don’t wait to break open a sopaipilla and cut off a piece while it’s still hot.  The sensation of steamy puffs wafting upwards is an experience not to be missed.  The sopaipillas beckon for the cooling effect of sweet honey to be drizzled onto them, again an experience best had when they’re hot.

Chicos with green chile

Chicos are another Northern New Mexico staple found in few restaurants outside of Española.  The menu describes them as “made from locally grown corn.  Picked young, it is then roasted in a traditional horno and sun-dried.  Prepared by simmering with pork, this dish is a true native specialty.”  Try them with green chile, a mildly piquant, neon green variety with a nice roasted flavor.  For those of us from the north, chicos are a taste of home, of youth and of mom’s home cooking.

Angelina’s rendition of carne adovada is very traditional, too.  The pork, cubed and marinated in red chile caribe (concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency), is fork-tender, shredding easily.  You’ll want to fashion a tortilla into “New Mexican spoons,” triangle-shaped wedges into which you deposit carne adovada for quick consumption.  It takes carne adovada from a fork food to a hand-held, bite-sized treat.  The carne adovada plate is served with Spanish rice and beans.  The rice is a bit on the soupy side, but the beans (with red or green chile) are excellent.

At Angelina’s, guests who might not want Northern New Mexican specialties (gasp, that sounds almost heretical) have a nice selection of traditional diner far from which to choose.  That includes liver and onions, steaks (hamburger, T-bone and rib-eye), seafood (catfish, halibut, trout, salmon and shrimp) as well as a surprisingly good honey-batter dipped fried chicken served with your choice of potato.  The fried chicken is so good, the Colonel should be demoted for serving such an inferior rendition.

Costillas (lamb ribs) with a bowl of beans

The beautiful Española valley has been home to the Gutierrez family for centuries and home to their wonderful family restaurant for going on two decades.  Forget any disparaging comments or jokes you may have heard about this beautiful little city and discover some of the best dining treasures in Northern New Mexico.

Angelina’s Restaurant
1226 North Railroad Avenue
Espanola, New Mexico
(505) 753-8543
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Costillas, Sopaipillas, Fried Chicken, Bowl of Beans, Salsa and Chips, Carne Adovada

Angelina's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

New Mexico Magazine Presents The Land of Enchantment’s Best Eats for 2010

The June, 2010 edition of New Mexico magazine

Having spent nearly two decades away from my beloved Land of Enchantment, what I cherished most were letters from home (in the years before e-mail) and my monthly copy of New Mexico Magazine.  Every issue transcended  time and distance and transported me back home.  Every vivid photograph was like a series of brushstrokes from God, awash in ethereal, other-worldly colors on a breath-taking topographical canvas. Every word stirred a longing to return home and swelled my chest with pride. Every issue was dogeared from my reading it over and over again.

Fifteen years later, New Mexico Magazine still moves me.  I marvel at the fact that the venerable elder statesmen among America’s official state magazines still showcases the Land of Enchantment in a fresh, dynamic and respectful manner. Launched in 1923, just nine years after New Mexico attained statehood, the magazine is an ambassador in print.  To expatriated New Mexicans, it is a  refuge and a reminder of what they are missing every day they are away from the Land of Enchantment.

New Mexico Magazine‘s pages have been graced by almost all of the state’s best-known authors and journalists–literary icons such as Tony Hillerman, Rudolfo Anaya and John Nichols and journalists like Pulitzer Prize award winning  correspondent  Ernie Pyle .  The tradition of superb writing continues today with writers whose words inspire and invite imagination–writers such as Lesley King whose monthly “King of the Road” column allows readers to immerse themselves in her  enthralling adventures throughout the friendly byways of New Mexico.

When Associate Editor Ashley Biggers invited me to collaborate on an issue celebrating the cuisine of New Mexico, I leaped at the opportunity.  Ashley and the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Tricia Ware have infused an infectious energy  and passion to my favorite magazine.  It bode well that they would treat my favorite topic, the foods and restaurants of New Mexico, with the same energy and passion.  They did!

The June, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine introduces readers to “New Mexico’s Best Eats,” eight of the very best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment: Huevos Rancheros, Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Green Chile Stew, Comfort Food, Deli Sandwich, Tacos, Local Seasonal Ingredients and Desserts.  Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and an uptown version–are showcased in lyrical prose by Lesley King; Rocky Durham, culinary director of the Santa Fe School of Cooking; and this humble blogger.

Those stellar dishes come from some of New Mexico’s most popular restaurants while others are best prepared in tiny gems far from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.  New Mexico’s best eats come from burgeoning cities–Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces–as well as agrarian communities:  Angel Fire,  Pie Town, Silver City, Penasco, El Prado, San Antonio and Espanola.

Without further ado, 2010’s Best Eats picks are:

Best Burger: Down-home: Buckhorn Burger, Buckhorn Tavern, San Antonio; and Uptown: The Daily Grind, Rio Chama restaurant, Santa Fe

Best Huevos Rancheros: Down-home: Huevos Rancheros, El Camino Dining Room, Albuquerque; and Uptown: the Taoseño, Gutiz, El Prado

Best Deli Sandwich: Down-home: Hot Pastrami on Rye, Back Street Bistro, Santa Fe; and Uptown: Southwest Spin, Lula’s, Taos

Best Comfort Food: Down-home: Sopaipilla Compuesta, Nellie’s Café, Las Cruces; and Uptown: Zia’s Famous Organic Meatloaf, Zia Diner, Santa Fe

Best Taco: Down-home: Pollo con Guacamole Taco, El Parasol, Española; and Uptown: Filet Mignon Tacos, The Roasted Clove, Angel Fire, $12.95 for four-to-six

Best Green Chile Stew: Down-home: Bowl of Green Chile with Tortilla, Duran’s Central Pharmacy, Albuquerque; and Uptown: Green Chile Bison Stew, Sugar Nymphs Bistro, Peñasco

Best Dessert: Down-home: Chocolate Cream Pie, Pie-O-Neer Café, Pie Town; and Uptown: Chocolate Red Chile Soup, La Casa Sena, Santa Fe

Best Local, Seasonal Ingredients: Down-home: Farmers Salad, The Grove, Albuquerque; and Uptown: Candied Pork Belly Blue Corn Taco, Café at the Kumquat, Silver City

The magazine also reveals the winner of New Mexico Magazine‘s inaugural Salsa Contest.  Lesley, Rocky and I, all native New Mexicans who recognize that in our state pain is a flavor, tasted and re-tasted almost three-dozen nominees from throughout the Land of Enchantment, considering the overall flavor, piquancy and viscosity of each one.  The winner now holds a place in my refrigerator and it probably will yours as well.

Just in time for the onset of summer’s blazing onslaught, frequent magazine contributor Wendy Sue Gist explains how to churn out delectable, homemade ice cream with local ingredients.  Recipes for French Vanilla Ice Cream, Chile Chocolate Ice Cream and Lavender Ice Cream will have you drooling, but don’t do it on the magazine.  You’ll want to save this one.

Blue Cactus Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Blue Cactus Grill

In the early 80s I tried to impress my very traditional grandmother by taking her to a recently opened restaurant on Academy Boulevard.  What was not to like?  The restaurant shared the mellifluous name she had proudly worn for over fifty years.  It was a locally owned and operated and had earned several awards.  It boasted a multi-page menu.  Surely Garduno’s of Mexico offered something she would like.

It turns out the restaurant’s name was the only thing she liked.  One nod of disapproval after the other ensued as she meticulously perused the menu, a compendium of Mexican and New Mexican appetizers, entrees and desserts.  Scanning the descriptions carefully, she dismissed the contemporary interpretations of the foods on which she was raised and had prepared for more than eight decades.

The interior of the Blue Cactus Grill

My mind floods with sweet memories of my cherished Grandma Piedad every time I visit a restaurant offering contemporary twists on traditional New Mexican food.  Such was the case when my friend Bill Resnik and I first visited the Blue Cactus Grill, a modern and attractive new restaurant on Albuquerque’s West side, just north of Paseo del Norte on Coors Boulevard.

Bill reminded me that the Blue Cactus Grill is situated at the former site of  La Salita which lasted less than two years at the location.  Even though we hadn’t enjoyed our sole visit to the west side rendition of La Salita, Bill considers it a community service to accompany me on visits to new restaurants (especially when I’m buying) so he was game to try something new.

Salsa and chips from the Blue Cactus Grill

The Blue Cactus Grill was launched by Mark Corsonatti and his fiance Jamie, both of whom endeared themselves to guests by their peripatetic presence.  Like all true ambassadors for their businesses ,they treated their guests like family and became as beloved as their restaurant’s food.  In February, 2010, Mark and Jamie sold the restaurant to Janis and Eddie Crispin, native New Mexicans. who have kept everything on the menu save for revamping the red and green chile and adding “& Bakery” to the restaurant’s appellation.  Bakery treats under glass are one of the first things you see when you step into the east-facing restaurant.

The Blue Cactus Grill is about a mile away from restaurant row on Coors Bypass where a phalanx of mediocre chain restaurants blights the landscape.  Tragically the parking lots in front of those chains are generally packed and worse, sometimes you’ll see lines of diners waiting outside to be called to a table.  On Friday nights, the parking lot in front of the Blue Cactus Grill fills up, too.  Many of the diners who used to  head to horrible chains nearby have realized the Blue Cactus Grill is something special.

Sandia Dip

In terms of ambience, the decor at the Blue Cactus has a New Mexico traditional meets new west contemporary feel to it.  Faux adobe half-walls, stripped pine latilla poles and braided chile ristras seem at home among the exposed ceiling ductwork and painted concrete.  Metal sculptures of several types of tall cactus hang on adobe colored walls.  There is relatively little color in the restaurant…until you get to the menu where there’s plenty of red and green.

The menu is replete with traditional New Mexican offerings interspersed with the contemporary interpretations my grandmother would have frowned upon.  Hand-cut angus beef steaks, green chile spare ribs, tequila-lime chicken, empanada burgers and more surprises make it an interesting and exciting menu.

The Cactus Combo Plate

The complementary salsa with yellow and blue corn tortilla chips is an early indicator that perhaps the promise of exciting food will be delivered upon. The chips are crisp and thick enough to dredge up the large amounts of salsa I like on my chips.  The salsa is good, make that very good, as in good enough to be bottled and sold good.  It’s of medium thickness so it doesn’t run off your chips onto your hands.  It’s also of medium piquancy with a jalapeno based bite.  It’s the type of salsa you might have two bowlfuls of before your entrees arrive.

Counting calories is an exercise in large numbers if you have some of the appetizers.  The Sandia Dip appetizer, for example, is crafted from the restaurant’s signature green chile white cheese sauce and refried beans topped with sour cream and served with warm fried tortillas cut into chip-like triangles.  That green chile white cheese sauce is one of those contemporary twists even traditionalists will have a hard time disliking.

An Angus Filet Burrito with refried beans and rice

Traditional entrees include chile rellenos, tamales, enchilada plates, stuffed sopaipillas and tacos, all of which are served with beans, rice and sopaipillas and by request, a side of sour cream.  Your best bet is the Cactus Combo plate with either two or three selections.  With combo plates you also get a soft or hard taco.

The combo plate pictured above includes a stuffed sopaipilla, chile relleno and tamale.  Conspicuous by their absence are red and/or green chile.  That’s because I ordered both.  They were delivered in crispy tortilla shells, the type of which are sometimes used for taco salads.  The refried beans are very good with shredded white cheese melted on top.

The Guacamole Burger

As for the chile, both red and green are quite good.   Neither are especially piquant, but  the green, in particular, possesses qualities that remind you with every bite that chile is a fruit (never mind that it is New Mexico’s official state vegetable, along with the pinto bean).  The green chile has a hint of smokiness from the roasting process.  The red chile is light in texture and rich in flavor, seasoned very well.

From among this combo, the stand-out is the chile relleno which is among the best in the city.  Two things make it a stand-out.  First, instead of stuffing an anemic chile with no bite (Poblano or Anaheim come to mind) with Cheddar of mild sharpness, the Blue Cactus Grill stuffs a real New Mexico chile with a flavorful white cheese then tops the relleno with a green chile white cheese sauce that’s positively addictive.  Secondly, while the batter may not be tempura thin, it’s thin, crispy and sheathes the chile in flavor.  It doesn’t crumble off when you cut into the relleno.

An eight-ounce Angus Filet with calabasitas and papitas

Although green chile cheeseburgers are practically a religion in New Mexico, it might be possible to tire of them (not that I’ll ever reach that level).  If so, the Blue Cactus Grill offers two alternatives.  One is the Empanada Burger, a half-pound Angus beef hamburger wrapped in a flour tortilla, stuffed with Monterrey Jack cheese and green chile then deep-fried to a golden brown hue.  According to the wait staff, this burger already has a legion of fans.

Another alternative is the Guacamole Burger (pictured above), an eight-ounce Angus beef hamburger wrapped in a soft tortilla filled with green chile white cheese sauce and guacamole.  This is an ultra-rich burger bursting at its seams with flavor.  You won’t miss mustard and ketchup with this one.  It’s served with homemade papas, a mix of sweet and white potato fries cut thick.  I may have a new favorite papa in town and it’s these sweet potato papas, plus-sized circular-cut potatoes which are crispy on the outside and tender inside.

Seasoned Angus Ribeye

The grill section of the menu includes two steaks that won’t be outdone by any steak on Albuquerque’s west side, especially the one served at that pseudo Australian steakhouse just up the street.  These steaks are hand-cut upon order and are absolutely fantastic.  Your two options are a seared and seasoned eight-ounce (larger cuts available) Angus filet or a 14-ounce seared or blackened Angus ribeye, both priced well under $20.

Not only are these beauties prepared to your exacting specifications (order them “medium” and you get a hint of pink with plenty of juiciness), they’re seasoned to perfection with a seasoning mix that includes salt, pepper, garlic and a menagerie of other ingredients ownership won’t divulge.  If taste bud clues are on target, the seasonings hint at piquancy, citrusy and maybe even smokiness.  Only the now defunct Great American Steakhouse seasoned their steaks this well.

Breakfast Empanada at the Blue Cactus Grill

Breakfast Empanada at the Blue Cactus Grill

The Angus cut of beef has an optimum level of marbling for a high degree of flavor and tenderness.  The Blue Cactus Grill’s ribeye is as tender and delicious as any steak in town as is the Angus Filet.  I’ll stake my reputation on this steak!  For the best of two worlds–steak and New Mexican food–try the Angus Filet Burrito, a thick flour tortilla engorged with bite-sized chunks of tender filet, potatoes and beans slathered with your choice of chile.

The dawn of 2009 as with the promise of any new year was exiting for many reasons, not the least of which was the inauguration of breakfast and Sunday brunch at the Blue Cactus Grill.   The breakfast menu makes up for its brevity with  the high quality for which the restaurant is earning a reputation.  Standards such as the ubiquitous New Mexican breakfast burrito are available, but for a special and unique treat, ask for the breakfast empanada with red and green chile (Christmas style).

The Snickers Empanada

The breakfast empanada is a deep-fried tortilla encasing eggs, potatoes and your choice of bacon, sausage or chorizo.  Despite being fried, this is not a greasy or heavy breakfast entree.  In fact, it’s surprisingly light and absolutely delicious.  Every ingredient is prepared to perfection, a hallmark of this restaurant.  In its May, 2010 issue Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the breakfast empanada a Hot Plate award, a select honor accorded to the Duke City’s most intriguing foods, wines, events and people.

The menu was once limited to two desserts–an apple empanada akin to apple pie a la mode or a Snickers empanada, the Blue Cactus Grill’s twist on an old favorite–until Janis Crispin added her baked treats to the menu. I’ve had and have loved deep-fried Snickers, but this dessert takes Snickers to a new level.  A Snickers bar is actually wrapped in an egg-washed flour tortilla then deep fried and drizzled with chocolate and powdered sugar.  As if that’s not rich enough, it’s served with two scoops of ice cream.  This is the definition of decadence.

The Blue Cactus Grill has more than 30 varieties of cupcakes available

The new dessert additions to the formidable Blue Cactus Grill menu are baked goods, including more than 30 different cupcake flavors.  Light, moist and frosted with  ethereally rich butter cream frosting applied generously, the cupcakes come in such creative and delicious flavors as bubble gum, cotton candy, pineapple, chocolate turtle and cheesecake.  The pineapple cupcake is akin to a pineapple upside down cake in miniature topped with a dollop of heavenly pineapple flavored frosting.  Other baked good offerings include cakes, cookies, muffins, pastries and more.

If you’re headed to the Coors Bypass restaurant row for a predictably boring meal at one of the chains, take a slight detour and visit the Blue Cactus Grill.  My grandmother might not have approved of the restaurant’s approach to all the menu entrees, but I’ve been won over by some of those contemporary twists this terrific restaurant offers.  This is a fun restaurant with personality, warmth and great food.

Blue Cactus Grill
9780 Coors Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 May 2010
1st VISIT:: 1 December 2008
COST: $$-$$$
BEST BET:  Angus Ribeye, Guacamole Burger, Cactus Combo Plate, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Sandia Dip, Snickers Empanada

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