Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 840 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6500 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Three Forks at Rancho De San Juan – Ojo Caliente, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The manicured landscaping leading to the Three Forks restaurant at Rancho de San Juan

Expansive views of the Jemez Mountains and of Georgia O’Keeffe country–whether bathed in pink, coral and gold sunset hues or under New Mexico’s incomparable cerulean skies–combine with the surreal topography of unnaturally contorted rock formations and juniper laden foothills to form the unique vistas which await guests at Rancho de San Juan, New Mexico’s premier country inn and restaurant.  At night those views are obfuscated by a canopy of stars spilling from  an ebony sky so clear and unencumbered that you might swear you can see forever.

Secluded in an idyllic setting just off US Highway 285 between Española and Ojo Caliente, Rancho de San Juan pays loving tribute to its tranquil high desert surroundings, blending in as if positioned by nature itself amid the statuary sandstone cliffs.   The 225-acre complex is located at the confluence of three rivers: the Ojo Caliente, Rio Chama and Rio Grande.  It’s a veritable Eden for bon viveurs, a carefully planned escape to a transcendent world of luxurious pampering, exquisite dining and voluptuary accommodations.

You’ll breathe long and deeply of the clean, crisp, salubrious air as you stroll leisurely from the parking lot to the inn.  It’s a short walk you’ll take slowly so as to take in the stunning panorama that is the convergence of unlimited sky bowing down to touch the earth. The cynosure of the 225-acre complex is the verdant oasis surrounding the country inn and restaurant, a capacious adobe hacienda.  The garden courtyard around the inn seems perpetually in bloom with impeccably manicured deciduous foliage flanking the terraced walkway leading to the inn.

The dining room at the Three Forks restaurant. Notice the pitch dark night beyond the open doors on a cool late summer night.

As you approach the inn, the aroma of the evening’s bill of fare starts to compete with the fragrant bouquet of the incomparably fresh New Mexico outdoors.  Rather than a sensory bombardment, it’s a gentle teasing by divergent yet complementary fragrances as gourmet meets nature in your nostrils.  Step into the inn and you’re embraced by the warmth and grace of seasoned hospitality providers David Heath and John Johnson, the hands-on owners who recognize no strangers, only friends they haven’t yet made.

David and John both left successful careers to pursue their dream of owning and operating an elegant inn and creative restaurant in a setting offering unrivaled views and four distinct seasons.  They launched Rancho de San Juan in 1995, employing their design (David) and architectural (John) backgrounds to build a complex encompassing private casitas, spacious accommodations, a luxury residential subdivision and the country inn and restaurant. Guest rooms are carefully appointed with an eclectic mix of carefully selected antiques, splendorous southwest furnishings and original art, the envy of many a collector.

Fourteen months after opening, Rancho de San Juan was selected for inclusion in the very exclusive Relais & Châteaux, a collection of some of the world’s most beautiful individually owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants around the world.  This elite group has fewer than 500 members in 58 countries on five continents.  Rancho de San Juan was the first restaurant in the Southwest accorded this prestigious honor, one of a spate of accolades it has earned since launching fewer than two decades ago.

Rustic bread from LaBrea Bakery

Those accolades include being named a Mobil four-star designee for several years, an honor bestowed to “exceptional restaurants featuring food that’s creative and complex, and emphasizes seasonality and culinary technique” with “a highly-trained dining room staff providing refined personal service and attention.”  In 2009, the restaurant was recognized by Conde Naste as the best restaurant in New Mexico and was, since its inception, one of the two or three highest rated restaurants in Zagat’s survey of New Mexico restaurants.

In 2009, the restaurant was recognized by the James Beard foundation after which Chef Johnson and his staff had the opportunity to prepare a meal for the elite body.  It has been a perennial recipient of the Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” and has been honored by several publications: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Travel & Leisure, Country Inns, Harper’s Hideaway and Spa Review.  Perhaps no restaurant in New Mexico has been recognized as widely, leaving no dispute that it is in rarefied air as one of, if not THE best restaurant in the Land of Enchantment.

In 2009, after fifteen years of operation, the restaurant heretofore known simply as “The Dining Room” was christened “Three Forks,” a designation which singled out the restaurant.  The name was an easy choice that recognizes Rancho de San Juan’s location at the fork of three rivers: the Ojo Caliente, Rio Chama and Rio Grande.  Not coincidentally, plating does include three forks–a fish fork, a salad fork and a dinner fork, the protocol dictated by etiquette experts who know more about place settings than I’ll ever know.

An “amuse bouche,” a bite-sized shredded pork “sandwich” on puff pastry

Plating at the Three Forks restaurant is an eye-pleasing art form, each plate setting forming a syzygy that may give you pause to reflect on the beauty surrounding you before your taste buds confirm what your eyes foretell.  The adobe hued front dining room is longer than it is wide with high ceilings bolstered by thick, blond vigas.  Artwork festoons the walls while a kiva style fireplace lends warmth and ambiance whether lit or not.  In the late spring or early fall, weather permitting, the large French doors leading to the west porch might be left open, allowing the fresh, piñon-fragranced air to enter the room.

Fresh flowers (perhaps birds of paradise, carnations or tulips) adorn each table as do pristine, hand-starched table linens.  Sterling silver place settings, custom-designed French porcelain, Riedel crystal and attractive white and gold plates festooned with a Mimbres-style quail complete each place setting.  The dulcet tones of soothing soft jazz and classical music playing soft and low may, in the words of crooner Johnny Rivers, make the rest of the world seem so far away and small.

During our inaugural visit to Rancho de San Juan in 2004, the restaurant offered a four-course prix-fix menu of “world eclectic” cuisine.  Our dinner seating was at 6PM, but we were assured the table was ours for the evening, affording a leisurely dining pace throughout the evening.  At the time, the  prix-fixe menu changed daily and featured a meat entree for $55 and a fish entree for $50.

The “Rancho Summer Salad” with Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil, Feta Cheese, Kalamata Olives and Mexican White Prawns

Before our first course was served, our waitress  presented an “amuse bouche” or palate pleasing chef’s gift, a bite-sized complementary appetizer.  That amuse bouche turned out to be a tomato sorbet with a Balsamic reduction which my Kim and I both proclaimed the best sorbet we’ve ever had.  To this day, I’ve never had a better sorbet.   A half-pint would be heavenly during a balmy New Mexico evening; a gallon would be even better.

Our first course, an escarole soup with Peruano beans, Chanterelle mushrooms and crisped Jamon Serrano was a perfect prelude to exceptional entrees. I opted for a sautéed Hawaiian Mon Chong (sea bass) with blood orange butter sauce, red pepper essence, ginger-Basmati rice pilaf and basil oil. Delicious would be an understatement. Usually one to disdain the gamy taste of lamb, my Kim none-the-less selected the braised organic New Mexico lamb shank with smoky pan jus, herb-bacon mashed potatoes and sun-dried tomato tapenade. It made a convert out of her as she called it the very best lamb she’s ever had.

Our entrees were followed by a “cleanse the palate” house smoked Napa cabbage slaw (Napa cabbage is vastly under-utilized) with local hot house tomatoes and pancetta lardons (diced bacon that’s fried). It was easily one of the top two or three salads I’ve ever had in my life. For dessert, Kim had a fresh spring berry tart with whipped cream and white and dark chocolate. It was refreshing and delectable. My dessert featured a hunk of Roquefort with fresh strawberries, Port Cloud house chips and fresh mint. The Roquefort was exquisite, as sharp and delicious a cheese as I’ve ever had.  Fetid fromage this good should be part of every meal.

Fried Green Tomatoes with a Mint Yogurt Sauce

The Three Forks restaurant no longer offers a prix-fixe menu.  Instead, the menu is ala carte featuring appetizers, entrees and desserts with options that change weekly and showcase local Southwest ingredients in season.  The restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday evenings (closing on Sunday and Monday evenings).  Advance reservations are required and dress for evening dining is “smart casual” which means jackets are not required.  An ala carte breakfast menu is available daily for guests staying at the inn.

Though the prix-fixe menu is gone, two standards remain.  One is the amuse bouche, a complementary hors d’oeuvre not much bigger than a single bite-size.  The term “amuse-bouche” translates to “mouth amuser,” but is often regarded as a n introduction to the chef’s style; a way the chef can get guests’ palates excited with a glimpse as to what is coming.  We didn’t think anything could top the tomato sorbet, but the shredded pork sandwich on puff pastry came close.  To call it merely a “shredded pork sandwich” is to do this delicious morsel an injustice.  The pork was obviously carefully tended to and seasoned to perfection.  It was so good, a tray of these little gems would not have been enough.

The other remaining standard is the rustic ciabatta bread from the world-famous LaBrea Bakery in VanNuys, California.  This classic Italian bread is characterized by its thin, golden crust and moist, light interior with beautiful airy holes.  It’s a cut–make that a slice–above other artisan bread.  Plain butter is all the accompaniment this bread needs to be memorable, but you might want to save a slice or two to sop up some of the delicious sauces to come later.

Sauteed Filet of Salmon with Tomato Risotto and Olive Tapenade, Creamed Corn and Reisling Grapes.

The Rancho Summer Salad has no excess dressing for that bread to dredge up.  In fact, the dressing is solely an oil, lightly drizzled to give the salad a sheen.  This salad is all about the ingredients–heirloom tomatoes halved into bite-sized little “love apples;” fresh, aromatic basil; pungent, fetid Feta cheese; meaty, briny Kalamata olives and grilled Mexican white prawns.  There’s nothing complicated about this salad, a melding of highest-quality ingredients which go well together.  The grilled prawns, imbued with a faint smokiness, were simply outstanding!

Our other appetizer, fried green tomatoes with a mint-yogurt sauce, was better than any fried green tomato appetizer or entree we ever had during eight years of living in the Deep South.  These fried green tomatoes were better than Fannie Flagg’s award-winning novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe.  The tomatoes were perfectly green and thoroughly fresh, moist and delicious.  Best of all, they were allowed to shine courtesy of a very light, golden crust and a mint-yogurt sauce that ameliorated the flavor of those tomatoes.

There was one other appetizer on the menu–a chilled avocado soup with pickled Mexican white prawns–and we were sorely tempted to order it, too.  There are three menu items on both the “beginnings” and “main course selections” section of the menu so more than a bit of indecision and contemplation is in order.  It’s almost assured that you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu (I say almost because there’s always a chance you might be allergic to one of the ingredients in the entree you don’t order).

Grilled double-cut pork chop with roasted fingerling potatoes, pesto and local summer squash

The main course selection calling most loudly during our visit in August, 2010 was a sauteed filet of salmon with tomato risotto and olive tapenade, creamed corn and Reisling grapes.  Salmon is one of the most common fish entrees served across America, an almost seemingly de rigueur entree at fine dining establishments.  Almost invariably, “inventive” chefs try doing things with that salmon which don’t necessarily complement it.  It would be interesting to see what Chef Johnson had in mind for the farm-raised salmon.

As always, he didn’t disappoint.  Nor did he embellish the salmon with some fruity atrocity.  Instead the large, luscious filet of salmon was allowed to shine on its own. The salmon was perfectly prepared with no fishy aftertaste in its firm, yet delicate pinkish flesh which gave way gradually to a slightly redder core of pure deliciousness.  The olive tapenade, a finely chopped dish made of distinctively strong, sharp and biting olives usually intended to be spread complemented the salmon very well, a sharpness that accentuated the briny mildness of the salmon.

The tomato risotto was almost ethereal in its lightness and wholly unlike some of the “clumpy” risotto most restaurants seem to serve.  The creamed corn was phenomenal, each nibblet bathed in a golden sheen, but not super-saturated and overly buttered like inferior creamed corn.  In appearance, it was very much like fresh corn right off the cob with a garden-picked freshness.  A bundle of Reisling grapes just picked from vines on the property provided a slightly tart, slightly sweet foil to the other tastes on this main course.  Ingredients that work well together to surprise and titillate–that’s what Chef Johnson did with this salmon.

Fresh sauteed summer peach compote with housemade vanilla ice cream, warm bourbon sauce, whipped cream and toasted almonds

The other “must have” entree on the menu was the grilled double-cut pork chop with roasted fingerling potatoes, pesto and local summer squash.  This was a pork chop of Flintstonian proportions, the type of pork chop you’ll find in Chicago’s fabled chop houses.  The grilling process for a chop this thick and large must be extremely precise or you risk serving a desiccated and chewy chop.  This was a perfectly grilled pork chop–a gorgeously bronzed chop oozing meat juices.  At medium, it had just a hint of pink.  The pesto’s fresh, aromatic influence made this chop even more sublime, like adding a gold frame to a masterpiece.

Though we generally split desserts, the “finish” offerings are so appealing that we each had to have one.  My choice was the fresh sauteed summer peach compote with household vanilla ice cream, warm bourbon sauce, whipped cream and toasted almonds.  What a world of difference fresh peaches make over canned peaches and these tasted as if they had been picked right off a peach tree at the absolute peak of perfection.  They were juicy, sweet, succulent and good enough to stand out on their own.  The housemade vanilla ice cream, warm bourbon sauce, whipped cream and toasted almonds were the proverbial frosting on the cake, incremental improvements to something we didn’t think could be improved.

The Rancho’s Chocolate Truffle Tart with whipped cream and toasted Macadamia nuts was a delightfully hedonistic, paragon of pleasure on a plate–a velvety masterpiece punctuated by a decadent dollop of whipped cream with toasted Macadamia nuts.  Only one thing could have made this dessert better–a larger piece and not having to share it (don’t tell my wife).

Rancho’s Chocolate Truffle Tart with Whipped Cream and Toasted Macadamia Nuts

The Three Forks Restaurant and Rancho de San Juan are destinations in which memories are made.  Though most will visit during special celebratory occasions, a visit is special occasion enough to celebrate.

Three Forks Restaurant at Rancho De San Juan
Highway 285 Mile Marker 340
Ojo Caliente, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 August 2010
1st VISIT: 20 March 2004
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Braised Organic Lamb Shank, House Smoked Napa Cabbage Slaw, Rustic Bread, Sauteed Filet of Salmon, Fried Green Tomatoes with Mint Yogurt, Rancho Summer Salad,

Three Forks at Rancho De San Juan on Urbanspoon

Model Pharmacy – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Model Pharmacy, a welcome anachronism!

The Model Pharmacy, a welcome anachronism!

Albuquerque’s Model Pharmacy is an anachronism–a genuine throwback to the days in which old fashioned drug counters shared retail space with lunch counters and soda fountains.  In every sense, the Model Pharmacy is chronologically out of place as an independently owned, family operated business in a world of corporate conglomerations that dominate the pharmaceutical business (such as the megalithic Walgreen’s store directly across the street).

The pharmacy’s apothecaries still prescribe and dispense drugs, but an even bigger draw than sundry medicines are the high-end European beauty products and perfumes on the venerable pharmacy’s shelves.  Renown food author Jane Stern indicates on the Roadfood Web site she and her former husband and writing partner Michael have made a foodie standard that Model Pharmacy stocks “rare items she’s seen in no pharmacies anywhere else in the world.”

The Model Pharmacy’s lunch counter and dining room

The store’s retail section is a paradise for curiosity seekers who can spend hours browsing through hand-made cards, journals and stationary or scour the glass cases for Swiss Army knives, fine pens, coin purses and women’s jewelry. It wasn’t these curiosities or the pharmaceuticals that brought the Sterns to the Model Pharmacy. It was the lunch counter…and even in the lunch counter, nostalgia abounds.  Suspended from the ceiling just over the counter is a Ray Ban sunglasses poster depicting portraiture of General Douglas MacArthur sporting sunglasses which would be in style even today.

The lunch counter offers several very creative sandwiches and salads along with daily specials.  Some of my male friends and their stereotypical male affectations chide me  because I enjoy the Model Pharmacy so much while they see it as a “ladies’ restaurant.”  Portions are not of the “he-men” size my troglodytic friends love.  Much of the menu seems to focus on entrees for  well-heeled, (the average sandwich is in the eight dollar price range) health-conscious patrons.   The menu’s motto even reads “Taste is a matter of choice. Quality is a matter of fact.”

A chocolate egg cream

Among the “ladies’ lunch” entrees  for which some of my friends might disown me is the salad sampler plate in which you receive a generous sampling of chicken, egg and tuna salads on a  bed of lettuce, red cabbage and other leafy legumes. The salad is served with some of the best vinaigrette in town.  Though my less civilized pals might shove the chicken, egg and tuna salads between two slices of bread, top it all with ketchup and devour the behemoth in as few bites as possible, my preferred way to eat this is honor the entree’s name and sample it all slowly, lingering over each morsel.  This is an excellent salad!

Creativity and fun seem to define many of the sandwich options, perhaps especially the healthy ones.  Though most wouldn’t consider peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be particularly healthy, the Model Pharmacy’s rendition seems to be trying to offset the deleterious effects of white bread by serving its PB&J on whole wheat.  You  can opt for rye or French baguette if you believe the whole wheat is too healthy. Some sandwiches come with potato chips (the thick, crispy Kettle style), a pickle and apple sauce (sometimes cranberry applesauce).  In its annual food and wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named Model Pharmacy’s grilled ham and brie sandwich one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches.

In the category of “not as healthy” is the All-American BLT on marble rye.  What makes this sandwich special is the stack of applewood smoked bacon–not just a mere thin layer of bacon, but several tiers of porcine perfection.  The bacon is thickly sliced and fried to a delicious crispiness.  A thin sheen of mayonnaise, ripe red tomatoes and Romaine lettuce complement the bacon very well.  This sandwich is served with a couple of handfuls of Kettle potato chips and applesauce (or in the case of an August, 2010 visit, a cranberry applesauce).

A BLT on Marble Rye with Kettle Potato Chips and Cranberry Apple Sauce

Carnivores like my Homer Simpson-like friends won’t find beef laden burgers on the menu and probably wouldn’t deign to try the gardenburger. There’s really no veracity to the claim by some vegetarians that this meatless substitute tastes just as good as the old-fashioned American burger, but it’s not a bad burger overall. Dressed with caramelized onions and red chile mayonnaise on a French roll, it’s more than palatable.  I certainly wouldn’t kick it off my table.

When feeling nostalgic for New York City and there’s no pastrami in sight, my cravings are best sated with a chewy New York style bagel topped with a dill-enlivened cream cheese, capers, ripe tomatoes, red onions and smoked salmon. (the only thing missing is figs and if you think I’m kidding, don’t dismiss my rant until you try it).  The Model Pharmacy spreads the dill cream cheese on thickly so it runs off the bagel when you bite into it. The smoked salmon is thinly sliced, firm yet delicate with a slight brininess.

Aficionados of piquant green chile stew might not find the searing green chile taste they crave in the Model Pharmacy’s version of this New Mexico staple, but they will find large chunks of cubed pork treading a thick broth along with potato, tomato and carrot. While not particularly piquant, it is a delicious, hearty stew you will appreciate greatly on a cold winter day.

Smoked salmon on a bagel withc cream cheese, dill, capers, red onions and tomatoes

If you’ve ever spent a balmy day in New York City or Boston and have received much-welcome respite from the sun’s scorching rays at a soda fountain, you’ll love the Model Pharmacy’s authentic soda fountain. It’s one of the few Duke City venues in which you can still find not only have sundaes, banana splits, floats, ice cream, milk shakes and malts but phosphates, egg creams, rickeys and ades. Wow!

In 1978, I was introduced in the Bronx to egg creams, a New York City soda fountain drink. Egg cream is a misnomer because these refreshing, frothy drinks contain nary a speck of egg. They’re made with a mixture of milk and chocolate syrup into which seltzer water is spritzed, causing a foamy drink that resembles the concoction you often see mad scientists drink on old movies. The Model Pharmacy’s version of egg creams takes me back to those innocent days of my youth in Gotham City. Similarly, the chocolate and dreamcicle shakes explode with the flavor of quality ice cream.

Peach cobbler with two scoops of Dreyer’s vanilla ice cream

For dessert, the hot fruit cobblers (in particular the cherry and blackberry alamode) are exceptional! Fresh fruitiness exudes from the crust with every bite. The peach cobbler, served hot (not warm) with at least two scoops of Dreyer’s vanilla ice cream is little piece of heaven for dessert.  The crust is buttery and decadent, the peaches juicy and flavorful, but it’s the ice cream topper that puts it all together.

Although a few blocks north of where Route 66 meandered through Albuquerque, the Model Pharmacy is a living remnant of America’s highway which connected Chicago to Los Angeles and made transcontinental travel fun. While still embracing the best values and traditions of half a century ago when it first launched operations, the Model Pharmacy has certainly kept up with the times menu-wise. 

Because its eleven tables and even fewer counter stools fill up quickly, even on Saturdays, you’re well advised to get your seat at the Model Pharmacy’s lunch counter early or you’ll miss out on a great part of America’s past.

Model Pharmacy
3636 Monte Vista, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-8686

LATEST VISIT: 28 August 2010
BEST BET: Milkshakes, Fruit Cobbler, Salad Sampler Plate, Green Chile Corn Chowder, BLT on Marble Rye, Gardenburger, Smoked Salmon on Bagel

Model Pharmacy on Urbanspoon

Wings ‘N Things – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Tickles & Snooks Wings 'N Things

Tickles & Snooks Wings 'N Things

The “language of love.”  It can reduce the most eloquent of women to twaddling teeny boppers and the most macho of men to cooing grade schoolers.  It is most active–some would say most infantile–when the biochemical pathways of love are waxing to a peak during the relationship stages between infatuation and falling in love.  It’s when cute nicknames–those mushy, syrupy terms of endearment–are created and used in place of actual names, when phone calls don’t end because neither party can hang up.

Not even Jerry Seinfeld was exempt from the language of love.   Renown for his cooly detached approach towards commitment and for breaking up with women for the the most picayune of reasons, Seinfeld may have, in fact, taken the language of love to new depths (or heights, depending on your perspective).  In his eponymous television sitcom, Seinfeld nauseated his friends George and Elaine with his openly affectionate behavior, baby talk and especially a term of endearment they found particularly offensive–Schmoopie.

The interior at Wings & Things--west wall festooned with car images

The interior at Wings & Things--west wall festooned with car images

The only thing that could cool his ardor was a thickly-accented, stone-faced chef renown for enforcing a strict protocol of queuing, ordering and paying for Manhattan’s best soup.  Rather than incur the “Soup Nazi’s” ire and be subjected to the dreaded admonishment “No soup for you,” Seinfeld pretended he didn’t know the object of his affection, his Schmoopie.  Her transgression– violating the Soup Nazi’s queuing process by kissing Seinfeld at the soup line.

Just as love morphs and changes over time, the language of love undergoes its own transformations, usually reflecting the stages of that crazy little thing called love.  Whether the relationship stage is infatuation, lust, romance or attachment, stage appropriate terms of affection are used.  Newly smitten lovers tend to idealize the object of their affection, amplifying their virtues and downplaying their flaws.  The terms of endearment at this stage tend to be especially mushy–sobriquets such as “Tickles and Snooks.”

Wings & Things at the food court in Albuquerque's Cottonwood Mall (Photo courtesy of Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

When Barbara Trembath, one of my most trusted foodie sources, told me about a new restaurant named “Tickles & Snooks Wings ‘N Things,” my ears perked up.  En route to obtaining a Psychology degree (would you like fries with that), I once wrote a thesis on the language of love, hence the little diatribe to start this review. You’re probably grateful that the rest of this essay won’t be an exploration of terms of endearment in a relationship, but an essay on a surprising restaurant with something for everyone.

Tickles and Snooks are pet names used for each other by Rusty (Snooks) and Tikashi (Tickles) McConnell, the dynamic entrepreneurial duo who recently purchased Wings & Things in a small nondescript strip mall on Montgomery just east of San Pedro.  The name “Tickles and Snooks” is the most cutesy aspect of the restaurant which has a decidedly masculine feel to it.  The walls on the walls are festooned with framed photographs of muscle cars which share wall space with tools of the auto racing trade. The drawers on a Craftsman tool chest is where the restaurant’s silverware is kept.  A potted plant rests on that chest.

Eight Spicy Barbecue Wings

Eight Spicy Barbecue Wings

Rusty, a native Ohioan, and Tikashi, originally from Mobile, Alabama (and who previously worked as a project manager for ESPN) are a well-traveled couple with a budding business portfolio that includes Tickles and Snooks Sweet Creations & Event Titillations, a catering enterprise offering a dazzling array of cakes for all occasions.  In assuming the mantle at Wings ‘N Things, they are taking on an established business that previously received “best wings in Albuquerque” acclaim from several sources.  In August, 2010, they launched a scaled down version of Wings ‘N Things at the Cottonwood Mall with much of the menu intact.

Barbara, my savant source, gave me the scoop: “Not gourmet, but very good food. Wings, tenders, pizza, a very close to authentic cheesesteak ( with Whiz if you want ) and some seafood (oyster po boy, shrimp, fish and chips ) and will be starting to do breakfast soon.”  She liked it so much, she put Wings ‘N Things on her fairly exclusive restaurant rotation, a select line-up of favorite dining establishments she visits with some regularity–the few, the proud, the most delicious.

The "Wall of Pain" shows several anguished eaters unable to finish the Armageddon Challenge.

My personal rotation has long been bereft of chicken wings thanks, in some measure, to a rather disappointing visit to a chain wings restaurant pitched by Dallas Cowboys hall of fame quarterback Troy Aikman.  Sure Albuquerque is in the northernmost portion of the Chihuahuan desert but that’s no reason chicken wings and legs should be so wrinkly dry.

Wings ‘N Things offers more than thirty different flavors of wings from which to choose–some such as Carolina BBQ, Chile Lime, Curry, Lemon Garlic, Wasabiyaki–heretofore unavailable in Albuquerque.  Sauces, which can be sampled before ordering, come in heat intensity ranging from mild to nuclear and everything in between.  The most incendiary sauce is a raging inferno level of heat called Armageddon.  Armageddon has more Scoville units than all the competitors put together. I’ve only managed a sample–a toothpick dipped into an incendiary combination of ghost peppers (the hottest peppers in the world), Scotch Bonnet peppers, habaneros and maybe napalm.  Though I pride myself on having an asbestos-lined mouth, I certainly won’t be participating in the Armageddon challenge.

The Maspero (seafood platter with large catfish filet surrounded by calamari rings and Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp and oysters on a bed of beer-battered fries)

The Maspero (seafood platter with large catfish filet surrounded by calamari rings and Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp and oysters on a bed of beer-battered fries)

The Armageddon Challenge will tattoo your tongue with pain and sear your taste buds with a fiery intensity bordering on cruel and inhumane punishment. It will moisten your brow with profuse sweat, traumatize your nervous system and stain your face with tears. It will contort that face into a misshapen tangle of emotions. You will suffer a painful post-traumatic stress disorder the day after–a true after-burn. To say it’s definitely not for the faint of heart is a vast understatement The challenge–six wings in six minutes with a six minute after-burn which starts after you’re done with the six wings–if you get that far. Few people–about one in seven–get that far.

My friend Bill Resnik was one of the first to surmount the challenge.  I’ll let him describe the experience: “So Rusty brings out these Armageddon wings – 6 of them soaking in sauce.  He hands me some plastic gloves, a really nice thing to do as I was to discover later.  He also brought a dish of ice cream and a wet washrag to use after the after-burn.  The clock started and I started eating.  Hoooooo Boy!  The first 5 seconds were OK, then an assault of epic proportions filled my head.  My lips, mouth, tongue, sinuses and eyes were screaming as I silently uttered the prayer, “Dear God, please don’t let me choke or get the hiccups!”

Fried Mussels with Marinara Sauce (Photo by Bill "Roastmaster" Resnik)

My strategy was to get those firecrackers down as quickly as I could and deal with the aftermath later. I finished my 6 wings in about 4 minutes. The only thing harder than taking a huge bite was chewing it, and the only thing worse than that was swallowing it. The 6-minute after-burn started after the initial 6-minute eating period. NOT after I took my last bite, so I got an 8-minute after-burn. The pain peaked about 2 minutes after I finished eating and I knew the challenge was a painful downhill ride from there. By the end of the 6 minutes, I was feeling pretty good (endorphins are great!) and I didn’t have an urgent need to dive into the ice cream or the glass of water in front of me.”

Overall, it was a lot of fun. If you finish, you get your picture on the wall (my eyes were so red I looked like I’d been smoking reefer all my life) and you get this cool tee-shirt. Of course you get bragging rights and the knowledge that you have lived through something that not everyone who attempts will be able to complete.”

Gator Bites - a half pound of alligator tenderloin dredged and fried in a Creole Cajun seasoned with a Remoulade or Zesty Orange Sauce (Photo by Bill "Roastmaster' Resnik)

Sure enough, the restaurant’s northernmost wall is dedicated to photographs of the survivors of Armageddon, a motley crew of anguished victims expressing stunned expressions akin to the tortured souls in Dante’s Inferno. Another wall, aptly titled “The Wall of Pain” celebrates the game competitors who tried and failed the challenge. They look even worse than the survivors–much worse.

Wings are available in quantities of eight (one flavor) to one-hundred (four flavors). If you prefer your chicken boneless, chicken tenders are available in the same flavors as the wings and in quantities of three to twenty-five. Wings ‘N Things is no one-trick pony. The menu also features five pizzas (with such clever sobriquets as Sleepin’ With The Fishes and Fugetaboutit), including a build your own option. The five item seafood menu–including New Orleans style Po Boys (catfish, oyster, shrimp or shrimp and oyster)–sounds more Mississippi Gulf Coast than desert Southwest, but it’s certainly welcome.

Seared and lightly crusted tuna

The menu’s half-pound burgers, made with fresh, hand-formed beef, are an impressive lot with such offerings as a Philly Cheese Burger, Pastrami Burger, Pizza Burger and even a Caribbean Jerk Burger. Carnivores can even request a second half-pound beef patty if they desire. A number of subs and wraps are also available as are salads, everything from a standard garden salad to a meat lover’s salad. As of this writing, however, none of the Tickles & Snooks cake creations are available on the menu at Wings ‘N Things.

The menu’s wonderful diversity is to be celebrated, but a visit would be incomplete without sampling the name on the marquee, the amazing wings. With more than thirty flavors available, you’ll be hard-pressed to decide which to order. Don’t hesitate to accept the offer to sample a few of the sauces. You’ll find these sauces aren’t the dumbed down, lacquered on sauces served at some chains. Wings ‘N Things’ sauces have audacious personalities. They’re intensely flavored, heavily spiced, generously applied and some are eye-watering and nasal-clearing.

Heather Pomme Frites (Beer Battered Fries Dressed in Garlic Parmesan)

Heather Pomme Frites (Beer Battered Fries Dressed in Garlic Parmesan)

The “Spicy BBQ” flavor sounds fairly innocuous, but it packs a piquant punch. It won’t water your eyes or bring sweat to your brows, but it will leave an impression on your taste buds. Wings are well saturated in the sauce which means eating them is a messy proposition. Fortunately each table has a roll of paper towels with which to wipe off your fingers and mouth. It goes without saying that the wings are moist, but they would be so even without any sauce. They are also meaty and delicious with a tangy and smoky sauce that doesn’t completely obfuscate the flavor of the wings themselves.

The flavor intensity isn’t solely focused on piquancy. The Spicy Lemon sauced wings manage to be both lip-pursing tangy and salute-worthy piquant to totally make you scrunch up your face in the throes of intense flavor-wrought delight. For sheer sublime magnificence, however, you can’t beat the curry sauce. It’s an Indian curry, an aromatic, olfactory arousing bouquet with no discernible cumin aftertaste. Whether served with chicken tenders (pictured below) or on wings, it’s an excellent curry, sure to win over even people who don’t think they like curry. It’s also an excellent dipping sauce for fries.

Chicken Tenders with a sublime curry sauce

Chicken Tenders with a sublime curry sauce

Now, the name “Heather Pomme Frites” sounds benign enough, but don’t let the name fool you. These aren’t the garden variety boring fries so typical in Albuquerque. The fries are beer-battered then dressed in a garlic parmesan sauce that will knock your socks off, especially if you love garlic. There’s enough garlic here to ward off a family of famished vampires. It’s breath-wrecking garlic at its very best. The fries are then sprinkled with a generous amount of shredded parmesan for a cheesy kick that complements the garlic flavor very well.

Having visited New Orleans more than seventy times during the eight years we lived in Mississippi, we quite naturally became enamored of the Crescent City’s cuisine, particularly its Cajun and Creole offerings. The seafood section of Wings ‘N Things’ menu rekindled our hopes that we could relive memorable meals of years past. Though only seven items comprise Wings ‘N Things seafood selections, four of the seven possess names which could have come out of a menu at one of our favorite New Orleans eateries.

Caribbean Jerk Burger

Caribbean Jerk Burger

That Southern-inspired line-up (thank you, Tikashi) includes Po Boys (choice of catfish, oyster, shrimp, or shrimp and oyster), Billy Bob’s Belly Buster (a large filet of fish sandwich), The Maspero (a combination seafood platter) and The Decatur (Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp). One of those four, The Maspero, shares a name with one of our favorite New Orleans Po Boy establishments, Cafe Maspero, which is within easy walking distance of Jackson Square. The Maspero is a seafood platter with a large catfish filet surrounded by calamari rings and Creole seasoned Gulf shrimp and oysters on a bed of the restaurant’s signature beer-battered fries.

The starters section of the menu includes three seafood items–seared ahi tuna, fried mussels and gator bites.  The seared tuna appetizer features four generously-sized medallions of lightly crusted tuna as red, rare and beautiful as sashimi-grade tuna.  The crust is a sheath of paprika, fennel, rosemary and other spices we couldn’t discern.  It’s a flavor-rich component to the freshness of the tuna.

The "New Mexican," a pizza with green chile and pepperoni

Anyone who tells you alligator tastes like chicken hasn’t had good alligator.  Tickles & Snooks serves good alligator–an entire half-pound of alligator tenderloin dredged and fried in a Cajun Creole seasoning and served with a Remoulade or Zesty Orange sauce (ask for both).  The texture of alligator is somewhat more chewy than say chicken tenders.  It’s lightly coated in a crispy batter, but when you bite down on each tasty morsel, there’s very little crunch.  It doesn’t have an especially wild flavor and may, in fact, remind you of a chewy white fish.  The Remoulade and Zesty Orange sauces are excellent accompaniment.

A more conventional starter for seafood lovers is fried mussels though at first glance, they hardly resemble mussels rolled in flour and battered.  Each mussel resembles an oblong chicken nugget.  Each is lightly battered with a golden-hued, slightly sweet sheath that keeps the mussels moist and delicious.  They are surprisingly less “fishy” tasting than most fresh mussels and are fun to pop in your mouth and devour.  Though served with a marinara sauce, they might be better with the restaurant’s piquant homemade Remoulade.

Fried pickles

One of the most recent additions to the seafood line-up (as of March 24th, 2010) is inspired by Rusty’s love of Japan, an island nation with which he is very familiar from his travels with the semi-conductor company for which he works.  The Ichiban is a quarter-pound Ahi tuna steak blackened and seared to perfection topped with a Wasabi butter infused slaw and served on a sourdough bun accompanied by a “sweet Tsunami” sauce and sweet potato fries.

Though not quite of the caliber of seafood plucked out of the Gulf Coast then making the short trek to a New Orleans cafe, the Maspero, a combination seafood plate is quite good. The catfish filet is light and flaky with a delicate flavor, a cut above other catfish we’ve had in New Mexico (most of which have the texture of sawdust). The Creole seasoned shrimp are fresh, sweet and have a nice snap of freshness to them. The oysters are a bit on the dwarfish side, but nonetheless have that distinctive briny flavor and characteristic sliminess that doesn’t go away when you fry them. All were lightly breaded in a well-seasoned coating. The seasoned fries are just the way we remembered them from the Gulf Coast where seasoned is the preferred way to have fries.

Pastrami sandwich: Rusty smokes and brines the pastrmi himself

The Maspero comes with a make-it-yourself cocktail sauce (because the restaurant’s house version is too strong for many patrons) of ketchup and horseradish as well as tartar sauce (pretty standard stuff) and an eye-watering Wasabi butter sauce with which Rusty became enamored during extensive travels to Japan.

Japan is where Wings ‘N Things procures its Akaushi beef. If you’ve never heard of Akaushi beef, you’re probably not alone. It’s a richly marbled, very tender and flavorful beef used in Kobe restaurants throughout Japan. Akaushi, a Japanese word meaning “Red Cow” are considered a national treasure in Japan and is the ONLY natural 100-percent source verified Kobe beef in America. It is not American wagyu beef. The menu offers three Akaushi burgers.

The Caribbean Jerk Burger is but one of the intriguing non-Akaushi burger selections on the menu. It’s a half-pounder seasoned with the house jerk rub topped with Pepper Jack cheese and Tikki slaw. Years of experimentation at home with jerk burgers has taught us that ground beef is not a great canvas for jerk seasonings, no matter how good the beef or the seasonings might be. Our best results have come from ground pork which allows the jerk rub to shine. The result at restaurants are similar to what we’ve experienced at home. That holds true for the jerk burger at Wings ‘N Things. That’s not to say the burger isn’t good; it just would be much better with ground pork and with a sweeter apple-based slaw.

The Junk Yard Dog: a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried then topped with onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll

The Junk Yard Dog: a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried then topped with onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll

While we liked the Caribbean Jerk burger well enough, we loved the Junk Yard Dog, a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried in the tradition of northern New Jersey hot dogs then topped with a phalanx of fantastic ingredients: onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll.  The hoagie roll is sturdy enough to hold in all the deliciousness, but it’s unlikely your mouth can open wide enough to take in everything at once so you’ll eat bits and pieces of the ingredients in various combinations.  Thank you to Tina Chavez for recommending this hunky hot dog.

The menu, which is constantly evolving (frog legs were added in May, 2010) is amazingly diverse with something for all appetites. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that everything on the menu, at least all I’ve tried, is good enough to be the featured item on the menu at most restaurants. That goes for the pizza, too. The New Mexican pizza whose chief ingredients are green chile and pepperoni, is terrific, an incendiary chile on a chewy, no-char, well sauced crust. The pizza is sauced all the way to its edges; it’s not just slathered on indiscriminately. Available in a personal-sized seven-inches or a full sixteen inches, it’s a very good pizza.

Tickles & Snooks Wings ‘N Things may sound like a children’s fantasy movie, but it’s replete with adult flavors that may have you uttering some terms of endearment of your own.

Wings ‘N Things
6219 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 7 March 2010
LATEST VISIT: 17 November 2010
: $$
BEST BET: Caribbean Jerk Burger, The Maspero, Spicy BBQ Wings, Spicy Lemon Wings, Curry Chicken Tenders, Heather Pome Frites, The Junk Yard Dog,The New Mexican, Ahi Tuna, Gator Bites, Fried Mussels

Tickles and Snooks Wings & Things on Urbanspoon