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

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

Rodeo Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Rodeo Grill, a modern cowboy experience

The Rodeo Grill, a modern cowboy experience

Who’s gonna fill their shoes?,” laments the legendary Country music crooner George Jones over the loudspeakers at the Rodeo Grill.  “Who’s gonna stand that tall? Who’s gonna play the Opry and the Wabash Cannonball?  Who’s gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you?  Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes.”

Ironically I was thinking something similar as we stepped into the kitschy and brash restaurant on Wyoming which purports to feature “nuevo vaquero chow.”  My thoughts, though, were of the iconic figures of American pop culture and historical legacy–the cowboys portrayed in the movies of my youth by stalwart stanchions  of masculinity and virtue such as John Wayne, Jimmy Steward, Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum.  I wondered who, if anyone could possibly fill their shoes.  That led to contemplating what these rough-riding, tough-fighting, quick-shooting cowboys would think of the Rodeo Grill, a restaurant and cuisine they might consider “feminine.”

Colorful and creative: The Rodeo Grill

Colorful and creative: The Rodeo Grill

Save for Gene Autry whose famous cowboy code advocated truthfulness, respect and patriotism, the cowboys of Western lore were certainly not politically correct, despite their other virtues.  Were one of them (I have John Wayne in mind) to write a review about the Rodeo Grill, I imagine it would be peppered with pejoratives, laced with epithets and flowing with foul invectives.  There’s no way “The Duke” would have tied his horse on the pavement fronting the restaurant to dine at what he might have considered frilly and lady-like and whose menu would have seemed strange and unnatural.

Listening to George Jones bemoaning the old-time Country singers, also made me wonder if there would be a place in America today for John Wayne and other paragons of masculinity.  In the age of Oprah, men are in touch with their feminine sides, show uncommon sensitivity and think nothing of publicly describing their feelings and emotions as they confess past indiscretions to the world.  It’s so unlike John Wayne.  So is the Rodeo Grill.

Rodeo Rellenos    Spicy jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, bacon — served with Buttermilk Onion Rings & cool, creamy dip

Rodeo Rellenos: Spicy jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, bacon — served with Buttermilk Onion Rings & cool, creamy dip

That last statement doesn’t equate to a dismissal on my part.  While the Rodeo Grill may not exemplify the conceptions of masculinity showcased in cinematic portrayals of the Old West, two of the first people who recommended I visit this restaurant are throwbacks to the Old West Cowboy.  They’re unfailingly honest and direct and they wouldn’t hesitate to tell me a restaurant stinks. If the Rodeo Grill is masculine enough for John Skinner, a tactical flight officer for the Albuquerque police department’s Air Support Unit and for Roberto a retired Hollywood executive who is no stranger to manly movies, it’s masculine enough for me.

John Skinner and Roberto would have made good scouts in the Old West, the type who would have been able to locate vague clues to track and find lost calves, desperate outlaws and fair damsels needing to be rescued from scurrilous scoundrels.  I’ve long trusted them to scout visit worthy restaurants and they’ve never let me down.  Roberto who’s never met a slice of meatloaf he didn’t like, told me the Rodeo Grill’s comfort food is quite good, describing in his inimitable way, all the things he liked and those he didn’t.  Neither Roberto or John mentioned anything about quartered watercress sandwiches and tea served on fine bone china, two things John Wayne surely would have dissed in his down home drawl.

Homemade chips topped with blue cheese, chopped tomatoes and chives

Duke City diners began mozeying on down like stampeding cattle to the Rodeo Grill from the day it opened its doors over the Labor Day weekend in 2009.  It helped that the location was already familiar and that the founding owner Matt DiGregory has a reputation as a culinary pioneer, previously having established The Range and the Standard Diner as local institutions.  Appropriately, the Rodeo Grill and its vaquero chow can be corralled at the former site of The Range on Wyoming, a yawning 4,500 square-foot edifice which has been renovated to look nothing at all like its predecessor.

The exterior is painted a reddish shade reminiscent of the deeply earthy hues seen on the magnificent cliffs and colossal canyons which slice through New Mexico’s Route 4, the magnificent two-lane highway which forms the main artery of the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway.  Yellow campfire flames ascend the center third of the sprawling frontage.

Mayan Chocolatl Deep, dark Mexican chocolate shake with a bit of cinnamon and spice – add cayenne for an extra kick!

Mayan Chocolatl Deep, dark Mexican chocolate shake with a bit of cinnamon and spice – add cayenne for an extra kick!

There’s so much more to see inside the restaurant.  Walls are festooned by the folk art sculptures of acclaimed Placitas artist Gene McClain, renown for depicting cowboy life in uniquely rich and colorful ways.  Lashed from the ceilings are New Mexican latillas, the familiar peeled aspen poles.  An attractive bar is available for cowboys and cowgirls wanting something stronger than sarsaparilla.  Seating, whether on tables or booths, is more functional than comfortable.

Thematically, the restaurant’s focus is on “modern cowboy chow with Latin influences.”  There are some components to the chow which might be familiar to John Wayne, but probably not in the combinations in which those components are put together.  One of the menu items showcased is called the “Burgito,” a tortilla burger using your choice of Angus beef, chicken, Mahi Mahi or a house-made veggie pattie.  The concept behind the burgito is apparently that cowboys are resourceful enough to use tortillas when some low-down varmint has absconded with the hamburger buns.

CHICKEN FRIED CHICKEN & WAFFLES    Breaded chicken breast atop a crisp waffle with sweet potato mash and creamed spinach – served with maple cream sauce on the side

Chicken Fried Chicken With Waffles: Breaded chicken breast atop a crisp waffle with sweet potato mash and creamed spinach – served with maple cream sauce on the side

No ordinary tortilla burgers are these.  The menu features seven different Burgito combinations including one in which the restaurant’s barbecue meatloaf is used instead of a conventional beef patty.  New Mexican cowboys or vaqueros would, of course, insist on a green chile cheeseburger and the Rodeo Grill has a Burgito version of one.  It’s called the “Nuevo Mexicano” and it includes not only roasted Hatch green chile, but chile con queso as well.  Still another burgito features  fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth Yucatan pulled pork (along with roasted Hatch green chile strips, queso fresco, lettuce and tomato).

The menu, which would undoubtedly have brought a few choice words to the lips of John Wayne, also includes soups, salads, “campfire platters,” all day breakfast, and some of the most unique ice cream shakes you’ll find anywhere.  John Wayne would probably appreciate the cold beers, but not the wine or cocktails (unless a good rock-gut whiskey is available).  The price point is reasonable and the portions would certainly sate the hard-working cowboy about town.

BBQ MEATLOAF    Ancho BBQ glazed meatloaf, served with Chipotle Creamed Corn and Sweet Potato Mash - topped with Buttermilk Onion Rings

BBQ Meatloaf: Ancho BBQ glazed meatloaf, served with Chipotle Creamed Corn and Sweet Potato Mash - topped with Buttermilk Onion Rings

Appetizers include some of the “usual suspects” with modern cowboy  twists.  One modern cowboy starter which might make even the toughest Old West cowboy flinch is the Rodeo Rellenos, spicy jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and bacon then served with a ladylike portion of three buttermilk onion rings and cool, creamy dip.  The stuffed jalapenos are indeed piquant, so much so that the city slickers among you might offer up their portion after just one bite.  For those of us who consider pain a “flavor,” the jalapenos are just about right.  They’ll get your attention and singe your taste buds a bit, but in combination with the cream cheese and bacon, they’ll make your lips tingle happily.  The buttermilk onion rings are terrific, but it’s a pity there aren’t more than three on this appetizer.

Another terrific starter features housemade chips topped with blue cheese dressing, chopped tomatoes and chives.  The chips are terrific, thin and crisp but soft and pliable when moistened by the blue cheese dressing.  The dressing is light, almost watery, but the addition of blue cheese crumbles accentuates the pungent flavor of my favorite salad dressing.  Chopped tomatoes and chives are a nice touch.

One of the ways in which the Rodeo Grill invites you to wash down your meal is with their thick shakes which are made with Haagen Dazs Super Premium ice Cream.  The shakes are not only made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk, they’re served in a shake glass with the tin on the side.  It’s much like getting a shake and a half.  Better still, the flavors offered are inventive and different; you won’t find the standards–vanilla, chocolate and strawberry–on the shakes menu.

A short stack of blue corn and blueberry pancakes with maple cream sauce

Instead, treat yourself to “Mayan Chocolatl,” described on the menu as “deep, dark Mexican chocolate shake with a bit of cinnamon and spice” to which you can “add cayenne for an extra kick.”  Anthropologists are well aware that the Mayans enjoyed their chocolate with chile.  It’s the way I prefer chocolate, too.  Alas, the “deep, dark Mexican chocolate” is a bit too sweet for my liking, the type of sweet flavoring children (and maybe the modern cowboys) like.  Sweeter still is the “Biscochito” shake, a “cookie in a glass rimmed with cinnamon spiced sugar.”  We also did not discern anise in the shake and New Mexicans know anise is a critical component of the state’s official cookie.  Still, both are better shakes by several orders of magnitude, than served at most restaurants.

Despite the recommendations of John Skinner and Roberto, what ultimately drew me to Rodeo Grill was a recommendation by Morgain, a faithful reader of this blog, who thought I might enjoy the Rodeo Grill’s unique take on chicken and waffles.  Instead of fried chicken, the restaurant uses chicken fried chicken, or more precisely a breaded chicken breast atop a crisp waffle with sweet potato mash and creamed spinach served with maple cream sauce on the side.  One of the things that makes chicken and waffles a wonderful combination is the coalescence of sweet and savory flavors.

Unless you enjoy your food dessert sweet, don’t make the mistake I made in dousing both the waffles and the chicken fried chicken with the maple cream sauce (two portions worth).  That sauce is maple sugar sweet and perfect for the waffles, but somewhat overwhelming on the chicken.  Sans the maple cream sauce, the chicken is delicious, like having fried chicken without the bones.  The sweet potato mash also made the combination sweeter than I usually like, but by itself, it’s also a welcome respite from the garlic mashed potatoes so many restaurants seem to think are unique.  The creamed spinach is just a bit on the watery side.

Burgito with Yucatan-Style Pulled Pork, Hatch green chile strips, lettuce and tomato

If breakfast is what you crave, the blue corn pancakes with blueberries is like a sweet morning kiss from someone you love.  The term “short stack” may be apropos in describing two pancakes instead of three or four, but when those pancakes cover the circumference of the plate, you’re probably going to consume a day’s worth of calories.  Instead of conventional syrup, these pancakes are sweetened with the restaurant’s maple cream sauce.  The addition of blueberries punctuates the pancakes with just a bit of tanginess, a nice contrast.

The Rodeo Grill’s unique twists on comfort food favorites extends to meatloaf which is glazed with an Ancho barbecue sauce and topped with two buttermilk onion rings.  The meatloaf is served with chipotle creamed corn and sweet potato mash.  The meatloaf is very flavorful, a concordant melding of piquant and savory flavors with just a hint of sweetness.  Alas, the meatloaf is just a bit on the dry side though at its deep inner core, it’s plenty moist.  Roberto described the chipotle creamed corn as “a puzzle, not creamed at all, but kernels.”  That’s an apt description for the chipotle infused corn medley which we really enjoyed.

The Rodeo Grill’s take on modern cowboys might remind you of the old Miller Lite commercial in which legendary baseball manager Billy Martin, nattily attired in rhinestone cowboy regalia, proclaimed “I didn’t punch no doggie (a cowboy term for an orphaned calf).”  Billy Martin was certainly no cowboy in the tradition of John Wayne, but he would have enjoyed the Rodeo Grill.  You will, too, if you don’t over-think the “modern cowboy” dilemma as I did.

The Rodeo Grill
4200 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2010
1st VISIT:  21 November 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Barbecue Meatloaf, Chicken Fried Chicken With Waffles, Rodeo Rellenos, Shakes

Rodeo Grill on Urbanspoon

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