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Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nick & Jimmy's Bar & Grill on Pan American Frontage Road

Nick & Jimmy's Bar & Grill on Pan American Frontage Road

Legendary American chef, author and television personality Julia Child was often exasperated with what she perceived as American’s propensity for culinary laziness, once commenting that “the trend in the U.S.A. was toward speed and the elimination of work.”   “Americans,” she noted, equated as “gourmet” such “horrible glop” as “TV dinners, frozen vegetables, canned mushrooms, fish sticks, Jell-O salads, marshmallows and spray-can whipped cream.

Julia Child obviously didn’t know Dave Hurayt, a fellow gastronome who’s shared some wonderful recipes with me.  While Dave may not have spent two years and nearly 300 pounds of flour attempting to bake the perfect loaf of French bread as Julia Child once did, he experiments painstakingly with the recipes he creates, laboring assiduously until those recipes achieve his high standards of perfection.  Perfection can sometimes be painful as he found out while experimenting with a recipe utilizing burnt bourbon.  Much like a mad scientist adding a catalytic chemical to a burning beaker, the results were dramatic.  He blew the glass right out of his new KitchenAid oven.

A basket of bread at Nick & Jimmy's

A basket of bread at Nick & Jimmy's

When a true kitchen warrior and gourmet such as Dave eschews his culinary domain and eats at one restaurant for seven out of nine consecutive weeks, that restaurant has got to be special.  A restaurant capable of besotting his sophisticated palate has got to offer extraordinary quality and quality.  Like me, Dave is not a monogamous gastronome when it comes to restaurants.  When he does go out to eat, he typically will visit a variety of restaurants, not a select few like the truly culinarily lazy Americans to which Julia Child referred.

The restaurant which captured Dave’s heart and taste buds is Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill on restaurant row off the Pan American Highway on the west side of I-25.  Nick & Jimmy’s has been wowing dining patrons since it launched in September, 2009 which means that only a few weeks have elapsed without a visit from Dave.  One of the high wow factors is the restaurant’s redesign which might more appropriately be called a metamorphosis because Nick & Jimmy’s occupies what was once Johnny Carino’s, a middling quality Italian chain.

Preparing our flaming Kaseri cheese appetizer

Preparing our flaming Kaseri cheese appetizer

The estimate as to what the transmogrification cost ranges from one-million to two-million dollars, either amount impressive.  The restaurant is an oasis of elegance in a restaurant row landscape dominated by chains.  The walls are festooned in muted earth tone colors that seem to beckon hungry diners.  Overhead, large wooden beams painted brown seem to signify strength and solidity.  As you walk in, you have the option of dining in a sprawling dining room in which tables are in fairly close proximity to one another or in a more casual room in which a well-provisioned bar holds prominence.  The two rooms are separated by smoked glass accented half walls.

A semi-exhibition kitchen is partially obfuscated from diners by the smoked glass accents.  It’s a nice touch that gives you a hint of the bustling activity at a busy kitchen without being too distracting.  As luxurious as the setting is, not all the improvements are readily apparent.  One thing diners can’t see, but which is most definitely a hallmark of the restaurant is the 1400-degree broiler reputed to sear in all the juices and flavor.

Dolmades Avgolomono

The menu is inventive and eclectic, offering a smattering of steak and seafood entrees as well as Greek, Italian and American inspired cuisine.  What you won’t see is a perfunctory tribute to the Land of Enchantment’s red and green chile, although the soup of the day might just turn out to be posole.  More than half the entrees on the lunch menu are also available for dinner, albeit dinner is when carnivores should visit.  That’s when the menu includes steak, chops and chicken entrees the likes of which every great steakhouse offers, but few prepare exceptionally well.

Most entrees are served with your choice of soup or salad, seasonal vegetables and one of the following: oven-roasted potatoes, rice pilaf, old-fashioned mashed potatoes or au gratin potatoes.  Unlike some of their peers in the upscale casual market, Nick & Jimmy’s have a price point to which more patrons will relate and no a la carte offerings.  Portions are generous so you shouldn’t walk out hungry.

Seafood Soup

As you peruse the menu, a basket of bread will be brought to your table and your attendant will prepare a dish of olive oil and seasonings in which to immerse the bread (which just happens to be some of the very best bread in town).  The bread is courtesy of Fano’s Bakery, a local institution.  It encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread.  Also served in the bread basket are small wedges of the restaurant’s pizza bread which are infiltrated with parmesan cheese and chili flakes.

All but three of Nick & Jimmy’s ten appetizer options are succulent selections from the sea: shrimp cocktail, crab cake, Parmesan prawns, baked crab and artichoke heart dip, sesame seared Ahi tuna, fried calamari, shrimp scampi and pan-seared scallops (raved about by Dave).  The sole landlubbers are hummus served with toasted pita wedges and Saganaki, flaming Kasseri cheese, also served with toasted pita wedges.

Beef and barley soup at Nick & Jimmy's

Beef and barley soup at Nick & Jimmy's

The Saganaki is almost as much fun to see prepared tableside as it is to eat it.  Alit courtesy of a common lighter, the flames ascend toward the heavens, leaving blue and orange plume trails in their aromatic wake.  Your well-trained attendant turns the cheese over with but a steak knife, manipulating the flames so they lick the cheese, imparting high heat through and through and with an evenness that ensures every bit of the cheese is flame-kissed.

In Greece, Kasseri cheese is made from sheep’s milk while its American counterpart is made with cow’s milk.  Nick & Jimmy’s Kasseri is made from an amalgam of goat milk and cow’s milk.  Its flavor is of medium sharpness with a salty prominence.  It’s not meant to be spread on the pita wedges so much as it’s intended to be placed atop the pita, akin to a crown of cheesy deliciousness.

Spicy Beef Short Ribs with Roasted Potatoes and a Vegetable Medley

Spicy Beef Short Ribs with Roasted Potatoes and a Vegetable Medley

Dolmades (grape leaves rolled around rice, ground beef and herbs) Avgolomono (an egg and lemon sauce) is another great Greek starter.  If you’ve ever lamented the fact that most dolmades in the Duke City come from a can, you’ll appreciate these housemade gems which, also unlike at most other Albuquerque restaurants, are served warm.  The herbaceous aroma and flavor of the ground beef and rice combination coupled with the tangy richness of the Avgolomono sauce make these (five to an order) stubby cigar-shaped beauties some of the very best in the city.

The soup of the day rotates frequently and as noted previously, is served complementarily with many of the restaurant’s entrees.  Separately, soup is available for five dollars a bowl.  Alternatively, the menu offers five salads: Caprese Salad, Iceberg Wedge, Dinner Salad, Greek Salad and a Caesar Salad with your choice of dressing: Bleu cheese, Ranch, Greek, Caesar, Thousand Island or Raspberry Vinaigrette.

Gyros with potatoes au gratin

Gyro Sandwich with tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce, served with pita bread

Legendary French chef and restauranteur Auguste Escoffier once said “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.”  Not all soups warrant such lavish praise, but some soups seem to have been the inspiration for Escoffier’s sage words.  Nick & Jimmy’s Beef Barley Soup is one of these.

The beef and barley soup is rich, hearty and tasty, replete with a thick, savory beef stock ameliorated by a generous amount of tender beef.  It is served piping hot with steam wafting upwards to tease and tantalize your olfactory senses.  This soup exemplifies all that people equate with the comforting and nurturance of a truly good soup.  It is a soup Nick & Jimmy’s should consider for the daily menu–or at least as a seasonal offering available in cold weather.  The other soup offered during our inaugural visit was posole, but its flavor profile was tarnished with cumin which I disdain on New Mexican food.

Greek Style Roasted Chicken with Rice Pilaf and a Vegetable Medley

Greek Style Roasted Chicken with Rice Pilaf and a Vegetable Medley

Another soul-warming soup, one which might make you long for a cold day, is the seafood soup, showcasing calamari, squid, crab, fish and shrimp in a heavily-seasoned broth with potatoes.  Heavily seasoned in this case doesn’t mean the seafood flavor is obfuscated in any way.  Especially delightful are the calamari ringlets which are chewy and delicious.  This is wholly unlike most chowder-like seafood soups which are thick and seem to beckon for oyster crackers.  The only things this soup cries out for are a large spoon and a second helping.

The lunch and dinner menus both include eight Italian inspired pasta dishes as well as four wood-oven fired pizzas.  For lunch you can also order a hamburger with green chile, a traditional gyro sandwich or a chicken gyro sandwich, all served with French fries and a house salad served with your choice of dressing.

Beef Tenderloin Tip Rigatonii in cayenne cream sauce with wild mushrooms and red peppers

The lunch menu lists five items on the steaks, chops and chicken section, a number which doubles on the dinner menu.  You might be surprised to find such upscale meat entrees as oven braised lamb shank and spiced, braised short ribs on the lunch menu.  Don’t hesitate to order either.

The spiced, braised short ribs come six to an order.  Braised slowly and marinated for hours, they are fall-off-the-bone tender and taste like very good, very expensive Irish pot roast seasoned very well though the “spiced” adjective doesn’t appear to equate to piquant.  Coupled with roasted potatoes, this entree reminded me very much of the wonderful comfort meals we’ve had in Irish restaurants.  The sole let-down in our inaugural visit was the vegetable medley, an al-dente and under-seasoned offering of carrots, zucchini and red onions.  Compared to the spectacular vegetables at Chez Bob, these were of pedestrian quality.

Another entree at which Nick & Jimmy’s excels is the roasted spring chicken which is slow-roasted with fresh herbs, prominent among which are garlic and oregano.  The chicken is comprised of a breast, leg, thigh and wing, all moist and thoroughly delicious.  Easily large enough to share, you probably will want this chicken all to yourself.  An excellent complement to the chicken is the buttery and rich rice pilaf, each grain of which is imbued with flavor.

Pineapple Upsidedown Cake at Nick & Jimmy's

Pineapple Upsidedown Cake at Nick & Jimmy's

If Greek entrees are what appeal most to you from the menu, but you also want a sandwich, Nick & Jimmy’s offers a gyro sandwich with tomatoes, onion, tzatziki sauce and an amalgam of beef and lamb nestled in a thick, warm pita.  Though a good sandwich, this one isn’t overstuffed with beef and lamb the way I enjoy my gyros. Thankfully it is very moist and very well-seasoned, a perfect foil for the thicker than usual tzatziki sauce.

Dave Hurayt often extols the excellence of Nick & Jimmy’s pasta dishes.  No longer exclusively the domain of Italian restaurants, pasta dishes are often better prepared in fine-dining  eclectic establishments than they are in their more well-practiced Italian brethren.  That’s certainly the case with the Beef Tenderloin Tip Rigatoni, a swimming pool-sized bowl brimming with rigatoni in a cayenne cream sauce with wild mushrooms and red peppers studded with beef tenderloin.  The cayenne cream sauce is redolent with a peppery piquancy that New Mexicans will love.  The pasta is perfectly prepared at a shade beyond al dente while the beef tenderloin, at medium-rare, is tender and succulent, a real treat.

Baklava Sundae

The dessert menu includes such seemingly de rigueur standards as creme brulee and bread pudding.  It also showcases a pineapple upsidedown cake, not a very common dessert offering in New Mexico restaurants.  This is wholly unlike other pineapple upsidedown cakes I’ve ever seen as it’s not sliced from a large sheet cake.  These are individually portioned cakes sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and surrounded by rich whipped cream and fresh berries.  The cake is moist and thoroughly delicious, not too sweet as some of its ilk are apt to be.

Another Greek-inspired dessert favorite is the Baklava Sundae, a sundae glass in which two mounds of Blue Bunny’s vanilla ice cream are topped with a triangle of moist and rich baklava replete with sweet honey.  The baklava sweetens the ice cream all the more, forming a decadent marriage sure to appease the most discerning of dessert aficionados.

Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill is owned by Albuquerque’s dynamic partnership duo of Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos.  The former is a veteran restaurant impresario, having owned Yanni’s for more than a decade.

Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill
5021 S Pan American Freeway,  N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 344-9169
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 30 October 2010
1st VISIT: 14 November 2009
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:   Pineapple Upsidedown Cake, Spicy Beef Short Ribs, Greek Style Roasted Chicken, Saganaki, Gyros Sandwich, Baklava Sundae, Dolmades Avgolomono, Beef Tenderloin Tip Ravioli, Seafood Soup

Nick & Jimmy's Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico

Annapurna on 4th Street in the North Valley

Annapurna on 4th Street in the North Valley

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”

Anthony Bourdain’s dour diatribe on the “evils” of vegeterians and vegans is hardly unwonted.  The internet is rife with mean-spirited assailments against people who choose a plant-based diet that includes fruits, cereal grains, seeds, nuts and vegetables and may or may not exclude dairy products and eggs.  Reciprocation in kind is also well represented on the Internet by vegetarians and vegans who lambast the carnivorous cravings of meat-eaters.

Annapurna and its sprawling space

Annapurna and its sprawling space

This lack of civility and parochial discourse is usually reserved for politics and ideologues (on both sides of the aisle) who can’t concede any merit whatsoever about the opposing viewpoint.  It’s not enough to disagree with someone else’s opinion or choice, dissenters on both sides seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives.

So, just how do you resolve differences of opinion without resorting to name-calling?  The answer may lie in an article published in the Society page of the New York Times Sunday edition on May 5, 1918 which posited that “soap-boxers emitting hatred and trust” may be having trouble with their stomachs which sometimes direct human action more than the mind does.   The writer observed that where there are points of disagreement, a good dinner usually settles them.

Thaali Plate: A cup of each of our Vegetables  of the day, a cup of Dal, a cup of Sambhar, Basmati rice or brown rice,  Chapati (flatbread), and your choice of a chutney, yogurt or raita.

Thaali Plate: A cup of each of our Vegetables of the day, a cup of Dal, a cup of Sambhar, Basmati rice or brown rice, Chapati (flatbread), and your choice of a chutney, yogurt or raita.

The question then becomes just where to have that dinner.  Obviously in the case of vegetarians and meatatarians, it would be a challenge worthy of a sagacious Solomon.  For me, it’s enough of a challenge to get some of my friends and colleagues to try something new and different, something outside their comfort zone–somewhere like Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine, a world vegetarian cafe which touts itself as “the place for healing cuisine.”

Most of my colleagues equate “healing cuisine” with medicine and believe vegetarianism should be practiced exclusively by rabbits.  Their idea of world cuisine is pizza, tacos and egg rolls.  Fortunately my friend and fellow Air Force retiree Randy Lake (who risked merciless taunting from our crew in ordering a veggie burger at the Stone Face Tavern) and his beauteous better half Bonnie, like me, welcome a periodic respite from the mundanity of the “usual suspects.”  They were more than eager to visit Annapurna with me.

South Indian Sampler Plate: One Miniature Masala Dosa, a piece of Vadai, a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis and a side of coconut chutney

South Indian Sampler Plate: One Miniature Masala Dosa, a piece of Vadai, a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis and a side of coconut chutney

Annapurna is a Sanskrit (the ancient language of the Hindus) word that literally means “complete food.”  As the goddess of food and abundance, Annapurna is also responsible for the nourishment of the family.  This isn’t nourishment in the American sense of caloric overachievement, but in the Hindu traditional sense and medical treatise for healing and prolonging life called Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is a 5,000 year-old system of healing and well-being.  “Ayur” means “life” and “veda” means “knowledge,” hence the knowledge of longevity.  Ayurveda offers healing, rejuvenation and self realization through balanced foods, herbs, yoga, massage, aroma and meditation.  Ayurveda teaches how to pay attention to how and what is eaten and to take responsibility for our health.

North Indian Sampler Plate: One cup of Saag with two paneer, one cup of  Mataar with two paneer, one cup of our Bean of the Day, and your choice of  Basmati or brown rice, one Chapati, one mini Dosa, or three Puri

North Indian Sampler Plate: One cup of Saag with two paneer, one cup of Mataar with two paneer, one cup of our Bean of the Day, and your choice of Basmati or brown rice, one Chapati, one mini Dosa, or three Puri

Ayurveda prescribes purity of food (Sattvic) for healing and maintaining good health.  Sattvic food incorporates the six tastes in every meal: sweet, bitter, sour, astringent, salty and pungent.

Interestingly, in the west, it’s generally accepted that the human tongue can discern only four different tastes and that all tastes in the dining experience are combinations of those four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese have long believed that the human tongue possesses a fifth taste sensation–one that can detect pungent foods.  The Sattvic recognition that there are six discernible tastes should be a siren’s call to all adventurous foodies.

ABC (Avocado, tempeh Bacon, Cheddar cheese, spinach, tomatoes, and chipotle dressing)

ABC (Avocado, tempeh Bacon, Cheddar cheese, spinach, tomatoes, and chipotle dressing)

As Randy, Bonnie and I found out during our inaugural visit to Annapurna, the depth of flavors in virtually every bite will certainly invigorate and stimulate seemingly every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  Even if you don’t consciously attempt to discern each of the taste sensations, you’ll swear you’re tasting them in every mouthful.  Of course adventurous, exotic and taste awakening sensations don’t mean as much if the cuisine doesn’t measure up in deliciousness.

At Annapurna, deliciousness is part and parcel of every dining experience.  It’s Indian cuisine to the nth degree and an order of magnitude better than most vegetarian cuisine.  It’s cuisine that provides pleasure in every forkful, a sensual delight in every meal.  The Alibi described every platter at Annapurna as a “delicacy.”

Masala Dosa (Dosa filled with a spicy vegetable mixture. Served with Sambhar and coconut chutney)

Masala Dosa (Dosa filled with a spicy vegetable mixture. Served with Sambhar and coconut chutney)

First-time visitors need not despair about what to order, especially if you’re already somewhat familiar with Indian cuisine.  The menu is extremely user friendly with vivid color pictures of many entrees as well as inviting descriptions of the entrees.  To the greatest extent possible, the food is locally grown and is always freshly prepared every day.  That is an amazing feat considering the breadth of the menu, a multi-page compendium of Ayurvedic deliciousness.

An Annapurna dining experience is not only meat-free, you won’t find white flour, white salt, white sugar, sodas or alcohol and with the exception of homemade paneer (a traditional, unaged, non-melting farmer’s cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or other food acid) and a traditional milk-based chai (a tea brewed with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs), you won’t find much dairy either.

Annapurna’s Gourmet Pizza adorned with green chile, Kalamata olives and tempeh bacon

The menu changes seasonally–another Ayurvedic principle based on the seasons knowing what you need during each quadrant of the year.  In addition to the mostly traditional Indian cuisine, the menu also includes some “western” or rather “westernized” entrees such as pizza, sandwiches, veggie burgers, lasagna, wraps and even a brunch burrito.

One of the very best ways to acquaint yourself with the menu is by ordering one of the sampler plates.  Fortunately the first three items on the menu feature three grand sampler plates with an impressive array of delicious dishes.  The Thaali Plate, for example, includes a cup of each of the restaurant’s vegetables of the day, a cup of Dal (a yellow split mung bean soup with vegetables), a cup of Sambhar (a spicy, brothy yellow split mung bean soup with vegetables), Basmati or brown rice, Chapati (flatbread) and your choice of chutney, yogurt or raita.  This is a stellar plate with a lot going on.  It will put a smile on your lips and bring warmth to your heart.

Shepherd’s Pie: Lentils, carrots, celery, and greens smothered in a sweet potato topping and baked until golden. Served with a side salad

The South Indian Sampler Plate is referred to on the menu as a “combination for the curious.”  It features one miniature masala dosa (an Indian crepe filled with a spicy vegetable mixture), a piece of Vadai (a deep-fried cake akin to an Indian hushpuppy), a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis (soft, fluffy white, round discs made of rice and lentil batter which might remind you of dumplings) and a side of coconut chutney.  Every bite of every item is absolutely delicious, a joy to eat.

The menu refers to the North Indian Sampler Plate as “a combination for the hungry.”  It features a cup of Saag (a spinach and mustard leaf based curry dish) with two paneer, a cup of Mataar (a creamy, spiced tomato and pea soup) served with three paneer, a cup of the bean of the day and your choice of Basmati or brown rice as well as one Chapati, one mini dosa or three Puri (a puffed, savory fried bread.  Mataar Paneer is my very favorite Indian dish and Annapurna’s rendition is among the very best I’ve ever had, so flavorful, so soul-warming that days later it still pervaded my mind.  If the menu didn’t offer so many other intriguing options, this sampler platter could become a habitual favorite.

Two stack gluten- free pancakes made from scratch with a batter containing freshly ground cardamom and a variety of seasonal fruit. Served with organic maple syrup

“As easy as ABC,” an idiom which describes something that’s very easy is an apt name for one of the least complex items on the menu.  “ABC” in this case stands for Avocado, tempeh bacon and Cheddar cheese which along with spinach, tomatoes and chipotle dressing form a wrap which might have you thinking “BLT.”  That’s in large part due to the tempeh bacon (sometimes referred to as fake-on) which has the flavor and consistency of bacon with far fewer calories and fat.  Served with salad and your choice of masala fries or a cup of the soup of the day, it’s Annapurna’s version of an American classic–sandwich and fries.

A far more exotic culinary adventure can be had with a Masala Dosa, a South Indian crepe/pancake made with rice and urad dal (a whitish lentil), rolled and filled with a spicy vegetable mixture that includes carrots, potatoes, onions and more (perhaps lentils).  Indian spiciness is not nearly the same as the spiciness found in New Mexican food.  While this entree has some piquancy, it’s spice-based and not chile-based and doesn’t have the “burn” of New Mexico’s official vegetable.  The spicy vegetable mix is intensely spiced and strongly flavored in the most pleasant sense.  The Dosa is whisper thin and crisp.  At about ten inches in length, it may at first glance appear daunting in size, but it’s light and substantial at the same time so finishing one shouldn’t be a problem for even smaller eaters.

Lasagna: Thick pasta, house-made marinara, butternut squash, zucchini, and eggplant, baked golden. Served either vegan or with Mozzarella

Annapurna’s menu is eye-catching for its surprises.  It’s a rare vegan restaurant and even more rare Indian restaurant in which you’ll find Shepherd’s Pie, Lasagna, Pizza, Pancakes and even Burritos.  A line-up with such diverse items seems more appropriate for one of those all-you-can-eat restaurants which server every conceivable item under the sun, but none of them well.  The difference is that Annapurna’s rendition of the aforementioned items is very well executed…and that’s no longer a surprise to anyone who frequents this outstanding restaurant.

Take, for example, the gourmet pizza. Its canvas is a wheat-free and yeast-free herb crust.   (As an aside, Nations Restaurant News, a respected trade magazine, reports that the most popular pizza toppings in India are pickled ginger, minced mutton and paneer.)   Standard toppings are a house-made classic marinara, organic mozzarella, zucchini, eggplant and onion.  Optional toppings include portabello mushroom, tomatoes, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, green chile, roasted bell peppers and tempeh bacon.  With perhaps the exception of tempeh bacon, doesn’t that sound like a pie you might find at a pizzeria?

Greek Wrap: Babaganoush (eggplant), spinach, feta, and tomatoes. Served with a side salad (red pepper vinaigrette) and a creamy lentil soup

You don’t even have to close your eyes to imagine it’s a pie from one of Albuquerque’s fine pizzerias.  Your eyes and nostrils won’t deceive you; it looks and smells like a very good pizza.  Better still, it tastes like a very good pizza.  My inaugural offering included three optional toppings: green chile, tempeh bacon and Kalamata olives.  The combination of a tangy sauce generously applied on the pie and a nicely roasted green chile made for a lively flavor tease.   The tempeh bacon, while not bringing to mind a fennel-kissed sausage or Canadian bacon, imparts a porcine smokiness to the pie. The crust doesn’t have the chewiness or char you might find on a pizza, but it holds up well against the weight of all the toppings.

The lasagna, a favorite of my friend Señor Plata, is very much reminiscent of lasagna you might find at an Italian restaurant.  It’s constructed from thick pasta, a house-made marinara, butternut squash, zucchini and eggplant baked golden.  Señor Plata orders it with mozzarella, but vegans can opt to have it sans cheese.  Served in a casserole dish, it arrives at your table some twenty to thirty minutes after you order it and it remains steaming hot throughout your meal.  Several Duke City restaurants offer a vegetarian lasagna, but Annapurna’s is the best.

Pasta special of the day: pasta, beans, tomatoes, cheese, red peppers and parsley with a dinner salad.

Lovers of breakfast at anytime, even low-carb diners, will be thrilled to find Annapurna serves pancakes–a short (but definitely not small in circumference) stack of gluten-free pancakes made from scratch with a batter containing freshly ground cardamom served with organic maple syrup.  The pancakes are delicious with or without the syrup but purists might miss spreading butter on these tasty orbs.  Nearly the circumference of the plate in which they are served, they’re easily big enough to share, but you might not want to because they’re quite good.

My Cotswolds friends in England might accuse the colonists of heresy if they saw the ingredient list on Annapurna’s Shepherd’s Pie.  Traditionally made with a mashed potato crust and lamb mince, Shepherd’s Pie is as English as the Queen’s jewels.  Taking liberties with this popular English standard, Annapurna’s rendition is made with lentils, carrots, celery and greens smothered in a sweet potato topping baked until golden.  With all due respect to my English home of more than three years, Annapurna’s Shepherd’s Pie is better than any I had in England.

Annapurna is owned by Yashoda Naidoo, a former accountant who pursued her passion for healing food and launched the first instantiation of her restaurant in 2002 near the University of New Mexico.  Today there are three Annapurna restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, including one in Santa Fe.  The most recent to launch is on North Fourth Street in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.

Annapurna Chai House
5939 4th St NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 254-2424
LATEST VISIT:  7 June 2011

1st VISIT:  25 August 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Thaali Plate, South Indian Sampler Plate, North Indian Sampler Plate, Mango Lassi, Masala Dosa, ABC, Gourmet Pizza, Shepherd’s Pie, Lasagna, Cardamom Pancakes, Greek Wrap

View Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Cafe – 4th St. on »

Annapurna's World Vegetarian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Maid Rite – Osceola, Iowa

Maid Rite, an Iowa staple

Several years ago my friend and colleague Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I had the opportunity to do what most employees only dream of.  We got to insult a corporate vice president for half an hour in the presence of even higher ranking corporate officials.  The occasion was the vice president’s retirement and we got to roast him– figuratively, but from the blush on his cheeks you might have thought it was literally.  It was one of the easiest from among the twenty or so roasts we’ve done because we had so much fodder with which to work.  The vice president was retiring to Iowa, a move which provided a wealth of material with which we could insult him.

The roast was laced with references to farm animals, outhouses, Green Acres, American Gothic and the bridges of Madison County.  We even devised an Iowa “Slim Slow” diet that featured corn flakes and corn fritters for breakfast; corned beef hash, corn on the cob, corn chips, corn muffins and corn ice cream for lunch; homemade corn whiskey for an afternoon snack; and cornmeal encrusted Cornish game hens, creamed corn and candy Korn for dinner followed by a leisurely smoke on a corn cob pipe.  If you’ve ever driven through Iowa, you’ll understand; the “scenery” is comprised of miles and miles of corn.

Large Maid Rite with cheese, mustard and pickles

Even though the opportunities for double-entendre would have been priceless, we didn’t include a single reference to Iowa’s famous “loose-meat” sandwiches because, frankly, we didn’t think anyone would know what they are.  That is perhaps no one but fans of the situation comedy Roseanne.  In the show’s later seasons, Roseanne co-owned (with a character played by real-life husband Tom Arnold) a restaurant situated in Lanford, Illinois called the Lunchbox which specialized in loose-meat sandwiches.

PBS viewers may remember that the loose-meat sandwich was also one of 22 sandwiches showcased in Sandwiches That You Will Like, a scintillating 2002 PBS documentary by the brilliant Rick Sebak of WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A companion book version written by my friend Becky Mercuri is a must-have for all sandwich aficionados.  Becky, a self-admitted “inveterate student of culinary history” traces the origin of America’s most celebrated regional sandwich creations, including the aforementioned loose-meat sandwich.

Maid Rite sandwich with A1 Steak Sauce, pickles, mustard and grilled onions

Becky explains that the loose-meat sandwich came about because its nutritional and economical properties made ground beef popular in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The evolution of both the sloppy Joe and the loose-meat sandwich was a natural.  The actual origin of the loose meat sandwich is in dispute with two claimants to its first creation.  The latter claimant was a Muscatine, Iowa resident named Floyd Angell who developed a special grind of meat and cooked it loosely instead of forming it into a hamburger patty.  He then placed it on a roll.  Voila, a loose-meat sandwich.

According to local lore, Angell handed a sandwich to a deliveryman who exclaimed that the sandwich was “made right.”  That was the inspiration for Angell establishing the Maid-Rite restaurant chain in 1926.  Today, Maid-Rite is a franchise boasting more than 80 outlets in Iowa and other Midwest states.  As we found out, a Maid-Rite sandwich is to Iowans what the green chile cheeseburger is to New Mexicans.  During our inaugural visit, we ran into  and broke bread with the Schmidts, Iowa natives now residing in Roswell, New Mexico.  During their two-week stay in Iowa, they planned multiple visits to Maid Rite.

A simple, but outstanding sandwich menu and more at Maid Rite

We can now understand why.  A Maid-Rite sandwich is surprisingly delicious, so good we drove past hundreds of boring miles of corn on our return trip from Illinois to New Mexico to have another, so good we risked filling up even though a visit to  the world’s best barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s was but two hours away, so good any skepticism we may have had about ground beef sandwiches was quickly and irrevocably erased.  We’re sold!

In 2009, James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern published a terrific tome entitled 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late, a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to America.  Iowa’s loose-meat sandwiches were a no-brainer inclusion.  Their description: “a Siouxland sloppy Joe but without the slop, ground beef that is cooked loose — unpattied — and seasoned and drained but sauceless” is better than anything I can contrive, an apt characterization of one of America’s culinary treasures.

After you're done with your sandwich, you still have loose meat left

The menu features three sizes of Maid-Rite sandwiches–the standard-size, the mega-sized (a must have) and the junior (for smaller appetites).  It also offers other sandwich options (such as a fish sandwich and a tenderloin sandwich), but they don’t spell I-O-W-A as the Maid-Rite sandwich does.  Ingredient options include mustard, ketchup, onions and pickles. An inventive Maid-Rite employee even has a sandwich named for him–the Tyler Maid-Rite  which includes A1 Steak Sauce and grilled onions.  Other Maid-Rite options include a Cheese Rite, Chili Rite and a Bacon Rite (or you can have any combination of the three).

All ingredients–mustard, cheese, pickles and bacon, for example–are strategically positioned beneath the loose meat which somehow stays together (well, mostly) sandwiched between two soft, sweet buns.  Any remnant pieces of loose meat are like a savory dessert you’ll scoop up afterwards.  The meat is perfectly seasoned and amazingly greaseless yet wonderfully moist, not at all like the dust-dry ground beef you might imagine.  The buns are piping hot, almost as if steamed, and as good as any hamburger bun you can imagine.

On second thought, a loose-meat sandwich wouldn’t have made good roast material.  I’m not sure I could have gotten through the roast without salivating at the very thought of this delicious sandwich.

Maid Rite
2010 West Clay Street
Osceola, Iowa
(641) 342-7205
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 October 2010
1st VISIT: 7 October 2010
BEST BET: Mega Cheese Rite, Mega Cheese-Bacon Rite, Mega Tyler-Rite, Sweet Potato Fries

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