Introducing The New Mexico Culinary Treasures Trail

Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who posited the theory of natural selection concluded that “the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting to their environment.”  Though his theory centered around all species of life, could a case be made that the theory applies to restaurants as well?  Do the very best restaurants stand the test of time because they succeed in adapting to their environment?  I, for one, don’t think so!

As restaurants demonstrating longevity often demonstrate, adapting to their environments doesn’t  mean changing with the times to become what they’re not.  Restaurants with a timeless appeal tend to be true to themselves–trendsetters, not followers.  Restaurants with a timeless appeal survive because they generally have a good product to begin with.  They provide good value, excellent service and perhaps most of all, a memorable dining experience.

Truly timeless classics traverse the span of years and generations, often creating a bond of shared memories between parents and their children. As celebrity chef Mario Batali says, “it’s not all about food, it’s about memories.”

The world-famous El Rancho de Chimayo

Americans are a nostalgic people.  We long for the good old days and don our rose-colored glasses when we reminisce about the sights, sounds and memories of our past.  Though we can’t journey back to those bygone eras which seem more sweet and innocent than perhaps they really were, we can recreate those experiences when we visit the vintage restaurants we loved in our youth and cherish in our adulthood.

This fact wasn’t lost on Cheryl Alters Jamison, the scintillating culinary liaison for the New Mexico Tourism Department.  When contemplating how to follow up the wildly successful New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, Cheryl figured why not honor New Mexico’s culinary treasures–those independent mom and pop restaurants which have stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.

That inspiration came as she attended the James Beard Foundation awards celebration in New York City in which Mary & Tito’s was recognized as an America’s Classic, the Foundation’s award for locally-owned restaurants which have distinguished themselves by their timeless appeal.  Mary & Tito’s is the third New Mexico restaurant honored with this award, following Cafe Pasqual and The Shed, both from Santa Fe, as honorees.  A culinary treasure herself, Cheryl reasoned that New Mexico is rich with fabulous family-owned restaurants visitors and residents should know about.

Mary & Tito's, a James Beard award-winning timeless classic

The New Mexico Tourism Department solicited input statewide and received dozens of nominations from loyal patrons, restaurant owners, chefs, cooks and waitstaff.  Cheryl then convened a team of culinary experts–the brilliant Kate Manchester, publisher of Edible Santa Fe; Martin Leger, the advertising manager for the Tourism Department; and this humble blogger–to validate that the nominees met the criteria and to add our own qualifying choices.

We painstakingly sifted through the list of nominated restaurants, selecting only those rare and precious family owned- and operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31st, 1969.  The end-result is a  comprehensive list of more than seventy culinary treasures, all of which are profiled on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Web site.  The Web site also includes the culinary trail map (also posted below), an interactive guide to the culinary treasures.  Both are designed to whet your appetite and invite you to create new memories of new old soon-to-be favorites.

The list of New Mexico’s culinary treasures includes many restaurants profiled on this blog as well as others I’ll be visiting in the future.  The “New Mexico Culinary Treasures” category on the menu at right will include those reviews.

New Mexico Culinary Treasure Map: Click on the map above to open the interactive map in a new window Roll over items on the map with your mouse to join "The Culinary Treasure Hunt"

GoNuts Donuts – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

GoNuts Donuts on Albuquerque's West Side

Their Points of View.
‘Twixt optimist and pessimist
The difference is droll;
The optimist the doughnut sees –
The pessimist the hole.
New York Sun, 1904

It’s almost deliciously ironic that the “Optimist’s Creed” references the oft-maligned donut. In recent years, donuts and their high-carb brethren have been damned and all but banned by the “nutritionally correct” who believe America should supplant these decadent orbs of sugary deliciousness with tofu, celery sticks, carrots and beef juice.  Donuts went through a period in which they were nearly as popular as terrorist extremists at a New York City fire department party.  Even the once sanctified Krispy Kreme saw its stock prices plummet.

In such a climate of adversity, it is donut purveyors who have to be eternal optimists even as their product is assailed and vilified. Albuquerque has in recent years seen the demise, departure or diminished numbers of Krispy Kreme, Shipley’s Donuts, Winchell’s Donuts and even Dunkin’ Donuts. Whether it was an onslaught of health-crazed fanatics, reduced ranks in the police force or a combination of other factors, the Duke City can hardly be called the Donut City.

The interior of Go Nuts Donuts

In an article for Saveur, writer extraordinaire John T. Edge, who spent a year on the road researching Donuts: An American Passion (Putnam, 2006), posited that America is undergoing a resurgence in its “love for fried, glazed, filled, and jimmie-sprinkled poufs of dough,” declaring that “the best American doughnuts transcend fads.”  If the recent upsurge in the number of donut shops in Albuquerque is any indication, perhaps donuts also transcend the so-called nutrition police.

In April, 2010, Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side saw the launch of GoNuts Bakery & Sandwich Shoppe, a colorful little shop in the Paradise Hills Shopping Center.  It’s one of a handful of donut stores in Albuquerque, most of which have launched in the past five years or so, perhaps signaling somewhat of a renascence in the Duke City of the popularity of the donut.  GoNuts is located at the former site of the fabulous Painted Horse Coffeehouse and prior to that a bagel shop.

Go Nuts With these Four: Glazed Donut, Chocolate Glazed Donut, Caramel Turtle and German Chocolate

Appropriately the marquee on the store’s frontage depicts a long-tailed squirrel holding a donut in its paws.  The shop’s interior is festooned with pink, blue, ocher and purple colors.  A slate board lists several sandwiches, tempting to be sure, but it’s the donuts under glass to which most patrons seem magnetically drawn.  These are no ordinary donuts, nor are they even the same donuts day-after day.  The donut menu rotates frequently with new additions added whenever the baker has a fit of creativity.

GoNuts Donuts has been locally owned and operated since its inception.  It is currently owned by Daniel Galindro, an entrepreneur with big plans for the donut shop he bought from the family which founded it.  He plans, for example, to bring in pastrami from New York City–pastrami he says will be better even than what is offered at nearby California Pastrami, my local benchmark for great pastrami.  It’s an audacious claim, but if the donuts are any indication, he may be able to pull it off.

GoNuts Donuts are yeast-based which helps them rise and gives them a light and airy texture.  They’re not dense and filling nor are they overly sweet.  Best of all, they’re creatively different.  It’s not everywhere you find caramel turtle and German chocolate donuts.  It’s not everywhere you find donuts this good.  Alas, once they run out of the day’s donut menu, the donuts you fall in love with today may not be available for a while.  That just means you’ll have to try something new and exciting during your next visit.

GoNuts Donuts
9311 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 November 2010
BEST BET: Glazed Donut, Chocolate Glazed Donut, Caramel Turtle Donut, German Chocolate Donut

GoNuts Donuts on Urbanspoon

China Best – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

China Best on Albuquerque’s far west side

In the United States Navy and Coast Guard, no one is as revered, respected or admired as a sailor promoted within the enlisted naval ranks to Chief Petty Officer.  The “Chief” is expected to be a source of sagacity, a paragon of good will, an authority on personnel relations and the undisputed technical expert.  In the Navy, if you want to get something done, everyone knows to ask the Chief.

Sailors in the three Chief Petty Officer ranks are accorded distinctive privileges such as a separate lounge, sleeping area and galley (kitchen for you landlubbers) on board  large naval vessels.  These areas reserved for Chiefs are known as the “goat locker” and by tradition all other personnel–up to and including the commanding officer–must request permission to enter the goat locker.

If someone is invited to dine in the Chief’s Mess (a military dining room, for you civilians), it is customary to eat everything on the plate, regardless of what condiments may be added by members of the Mess to “enhance” the dining experience.  From the late 1800s to the  early 1960s, the United States Navy, in respect and recognition of the senior position of the Chief Petty Officer provided durable, hand-glazed and hand-stenciled personal dinnerware made specifically for the goat locker.

The interior of China Best

Having served on joint service operations during my Air Force career, I often marveled at the respect commanded by Chief Petty Officers. There are many reasons Chiefs are considered the “backbone of the Navy” and are sought out by senior and junior personnel alike for their breadth of experience and knowledge.  Chiefs are the “E. F. Hutton” of the armed forces; when they speak, people listen.

When Walt Pomrenke, a retired Chief, told me about a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque that serves “some of the best Chinese this side of Hong Kong,” it behooved me to pay rapt attention.  During his distinguished career, Walt crossed the Pacific several times and spent quite a bit of time in Hong Kong.  He knows Chinese food very well.  Heck, he knows food period!  When he served on small frigates and destroyers in which a Chief’s galley wasn’t available and the quality of food  was found lacking, he knew to add kimchi, about which he says “nothing worked better at making something edible.”

Walt fondly recalls serving on a large destroyer tender (a ship designed to provide maintenance support to a flotilla of destroyers or other small warships) with enough Chiefs to warrant their own galley and chefs.  Lobster tail was served every Friday and tenderloin roasts were featured fare on Saturday.  Upon returning to the ship in the wee hours of the night, the Chiefs would whip up omelets or other delicacies out of whatever they could scrape together.  He gained about twenty-pounds on that ship, an experience somewhat mirroring my own when I was stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base outside of Boston the year it earned a Hennessy Award for excellence in food services.

Crab Rangoon

The restaurant Chief Pomrenke (Chiefs are Chiefs even after they’ve retired from active service) recommended is called China Best and it’s ensconced in a nondescript shopping center off Golf Course just south of Paseo Del Norte. Though the restaurant looks brand new, it’s been serving the far northwest since 2006, specializing in Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese cuisine.  China Best purports to prepare its food in the traditional ways prepared by chefs with more than 13 years experience cooking authentic Chinese cuisine.

When I asked the Chief what it was about China Best that earned comparisons to the Chinese food he experienced in Hong Kong and throughout the Far East, he quickly rattled off several things.  First, he said, “China Best serves Chow Mei Fun, a staple at the street stalls in Hong Kong,” explaining that “most Chinese restaurants have their version of Singapore Chow Mei Fun made with varying amounts of curry, but it’s rare to see the everyday version.”  True foodies would rather feast at a street stall than at a four-star restaurant.

He also praised the lengths to which China Best will go to accommodate guests, explaining that his sister is allergic to soy (which might otherwise place all Chinese restaurants off limits), but China Best “goes out of its way to ensure all dishes made with white sauce were in fact soy-free.”  With rousing endorsements like those coupled with the fact that they were made by a savvy Chief, I had to visit the restaurant he said serves some of the best Chinese food this side of Hong Kong.

Plump dumplings

Your first impressions of China Best will be of an immaculate restaurant, the antithesis of so many Chinese restaurants which seem to earn a preponderance of the bane of any restaurant’s existence, the dreaded “red sticker” from the Department of Health.  The frontage of this north-facing restaurant is smudge-free reflective glass.  The restaurant’s interior is similarly spic and span.  Clear photographs of menu items are proudly displayed above the entrance to the kitchen as well as on the plastic menus.

China Best is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.  Lunch specials have as many as thirty combinations from which to choose, all served with an egg roll and white or pork-fried rice.  The menu is a veritable compendium of Chinese food with a smattering of street stall type food interspersed among the popular Americanized Chinese favorites.  The menu is sectioned off into several categories: appetizers, soup, fried rice, chow mein or chop suey, lo mein, chow mai fun, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, sweet & sour, curry, egg foo young, mixed vegetables, vegetable dishes, moo shu, chef’s specialties, diet specials and combination plates.

Crab Rangoon is a popular American Chinese starter and party favorite.  It’s a deep-fried dumpling stuffed with a combination of cream cheese, lightly flaked crab meat (usually imitation or canned crab), scallions and garlic.  These dumplings are fashioned into a four-sided star shape.  Most Chinese restaurants, it seems, prepare Crab Rangoon to be almost dessert-sweet and China Best is no exception.  That’s almost criminal considering these dumplings are engorged with ingredients and are perfectly deep-fried.  Not even hot mustard can assuage the cloying nature of what should be a savory starter.

Dragon & Phoenix

Fortunately the dumplings are excellent, an exemplary rendition of a culinary art form China has been perfecting for centuries.  Available  pan-fried or steamed (they come eight to an order so get  four pan-fried and four steamed), these crescent-shaped potsticker-style dumplings are super-sized and engorged with perfectly seasoned pork as savory as the Crab Rangoon is sweet.  A little bit of chili enlivened soy sauce adds to the flavor profile of some of the very best dumplings in the Duke City.

According to our waitress, the most popular entree at the restaurant is the “Dragon & Phoenix,”a very interesting name for a dish considering the  traditional significance of what the dragon and phoenix represent.  In China, the dragon and phoenix are symbolic of  auspiciousness, the quality of strongly indicating success.  The dragon is a symbol of the ruler while the phoenix is an embodiment of his mate.  Images of the dragon and phoenix are associated with the court and represent imperial nobility and authority.

At China Best, Dragon & Phoenix is an entree of lightly breaded shrimp and chicken served with broccoli and sliced mangoes under a light sweet and piquant sauce.    The shrimp is excellent with a nice snap when you bite into it.  The chicken is mostly white meat and it, too, is of very high quality.  With a bit more piquancy to cut the cloying, syrupy sauce, this would be an excellent dish.  Ask for extra punch on this entree if you like the flavor combination of sweet and piquant.

Hunan Shrimp

The Hunan shrimp is made with a light black bean sauce and it, too, is more sweet than it is piquant.  The shrimp are excellent–fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. The produce–all vegetables  (onion, bell pepper, broccoli, water chestnuts) are perfectly prepared  (crispy without being al dente), the epitome of freshness and of very high quality.  There is absolutely no disputing the high quality of produce and ingredients.

As readers of this blog know, I’m not a fan of Americanized (sweet and sour) sauces and while China Best does them much better than almost every restaurant in the Duke City, there’s much, much more to life than sweet and sour. There is, for example, Singapore Chow Mai Fun, a spicy blend of curry, pork, shrimp, green and white onions and tangles of very thin noodles.  This is the staple of the outdoor food stalls, the street food Chief Pomrenke praises so highly.  It’s easy to understand why.  This is a delicious entree and its name fits.  It is a fun noodle dish indeed.

This entree is asterisked with an icon of a red hot chili pepper signifying it is hot and spicy.   Though that heat barely fazed this fire-eater, it watered my Kim’s eyes. That heat, coupled with the distinctly smooth, exotic flavor of the fresh herbs and spices which make up Singapore curry make this one of the very best Singapore noodle dishes in town.  The chef’s skillful preparation and mastery of the wok are in evidence as all ingredients are perfectly prepared.  The vegetables are fresh and crispy as is the shrimp.

Singapore Chow Main Fun

Another fun entree is China Best’s beef chow mein with vegetables, a stir-fried noodle entree showcasing the fun versatility of crispy noodles.  The crispy noodles are fashioned into a bowl with the other ingredients nestled within its bounteous confines.  Served steaming hot, the steam and the gravy-like sauce reconstitutes the noodles.  They may start off crunchy and dry, but stir them just a bit and let the steam do its work, and they reacquire the soft noodle texture typical in soups and noodle dishes.  White onions and snow peas provide a sweet and savory balance while the beef and sweet-savory sauce lend a nice flavor profile.

China Best has a number of lunch specials all served with white rice or pork-fried rice and soup or egg roll.  Family plates for two, four and six are available at reasonable prices.  Chef’s Specials feature Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan dishes all served with white rice.  The menu even lists five “diet food chef specials,” all low calorie gems prepared with no salt, oil or corn starch and served with steamed sauce (brown, oyster, garlic or white) on the side.

Beef Chow Mein with snow peas, onions and beef

In future visits to China Best, I’ll follow Chief Pomrenke’s recommendations more closely and not succumb to the temptations of the attractively photographed entrees splayed on the menu.  The high ingredient quality and the Chief’s recommendation warrant future visits to uncover new culinary adventures at China Best.

China Best
8201 Golf Course Road, Suite B2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2010
1st VISIT:  28 May 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hunan Shrimp, Dumplings, Singapore Chow Mai Fun

China Best on Urbanspoon

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