Pelican’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

The remonstrance from a group of my foodie friends was vocal and animated when I contended that good seafood in the Duke City dining establishments not only exists, some of it borders on greatness.  One ardent detractor asserted that good seafood in our landlocked community is as rare as a good steak was on Gilligan’s Island.  Another argued that only at Pappadeaux, a national chain, could good seafood be found while a third reminisced that in the 1990s there were actually three restaurants–Cafe Oceana, the Rio Grande Yacht Club and Pelican’s–vying perennially for “best seafood” honors.

My rejoinder was to remind them of the half-dozen or so mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants in the Duke City, most of which serve very good to excellent seafood.  “Duplicity,” they cried, “when we think of seafood, we’re thinking of King crab, Ahi tuna, lobster and halibut.”  I then reminded them that Pelican’s continues to thrive in two Duke City locations–the original on the Heights (9800 Montgomery, N.E.) and a newer location on the burgeoning Northwest side (10022 Coors, N.W.).  They unanimously found merit in the case for Pelican’s, a popular seafood emporium that has served Albuquerque since 1975.

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

That’s more than three and a half decades of surviving, even thriving, in a tough restaurant market.  That means pleasing a widely divergent and persnickety range of Duke City diners–everything from the well-traveled sophisticates who have partaken of seafood fresh off the boat in a city by a shore somewhere to those who believe the end-all and be-all for seafood is Red Lobster and that Pelican’s is strictly a special occasion restaurant.

As with many seafood restaurants in landlocked areas, Pelican’s subscribes to a nautical theme designed to evoke the calming and peaceful feeling associated with the ocean.  Anyone who’s laid on the beach and watched the undulating waters can attest to the effect the salty sea air and the motion of the ocean have in stimulating the appetite–usually for seafood.

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of butter

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of garlic

The nautical theme is most pronounced in the original Pelican’s which includes a woody interior reminiscent of the creaky underbelly of an old fishing boat.  Ornamental bronze finished pendant lamps hang from the ceiling; it’s easy to imagine them swinging to and fro from the rocking of the waves.  Heavy ropes are lashed on beams, the symbol of strength and security.  Decorative life rings, the type of which are tossed overboard to rescue seafarers who fall overboard, are used throughout the restaurant as are other oceanic ornaments such as oars, fishing nets, and even a surfboard.  Sure it’s stereotypical, but a stucco New Mexico motif wouldn’t cut it.

The West side Pelican’s supplanted a failing Carraba’s Italian Grill restaurant in the Cottonwood Crossings development on the northeast corner of the Coors and Seven Bar Loop intersection and thematically is more like a woody fisherman’s wharf.  It is situated next door to the Outback Steakhouse, offering an excellent alternative to the popular Australian themed meatery.  A small fishing boat hangs from the ceiling while bubbling aquariums teem with colorful sea life.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

Perhaps by default (especially with the 2005 closure of the Rio Grande Yacht Club), Pelican’s has been the very best seafood (non-mariscos) restaurant in Albuquerque by a nautical mile or more (although the December, 2010 launch of Desert Fish may change that landscape). Best of all, it’s locally owned and operated although there are two other Pelicans in El Paso. From the moment you’re seated, the friendly wait staff dotes on you.  It’s not the saccharine service you’ll get at the chains which dot restaurant row along the Coors Bypass; the wait staff at Pelican’s works to earn your business, the way it should be.

While you contemplate the menu, the wait staff will start you off with a basket of out-of-the-oven bread with whipped butter and roasted garlic, both of which are faithfully replenished when you finish them (and you undoubtedly will, they’re so good).   The bread has a hard-crusted exterior and a soft interior in which both butter and the roasted garlic spread easily.  This is true garlic bread!

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

One of the most inviting appetizers on the menu and one at which Pelican’s excels is Oysters Rockafeller, a dish first created in 1899 at the famous Antoine’s in New Orleans.  Because of the richness of the sauce (liberally interpreted at restaurants throughout the world), the dish was named for John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in America at the time.  Pelican’s rendition is five plump oysters on the half shell topped with Pernod-spiked spinach and melted cheese.  It’s a rich and indelicate starter that will win over even the most onerous oyster hater.

Another appetizer sure to please are the Sizzling Mussels sautéed in white wine and garlic served with two slices of toasted bread.  The white wine and garlic broth are tailor-made for the bread which you’ll use to sop up and lustily consume as much of that savory broth as you can.  Characteristic of good mussels, they don’t really need the broth, but the sizzling metal plate on which they’re delivered is a nice touch because it keeps the mussels and broth warm.

New York Strip

New York Strip

Pelican’s menu showcases fresh fish, thick slabs of Angus beef steaks, shrimp and surf-and-turf.  The “Fresh Fish Report” includes tilapia, halibut, salmon, ahi tuna and rainbow trout.  Daily specials range from Alaskan King Crab Legs to Australian Lobster Tail and “All you can eat peel n’ eat shrimp.”  A Sunday brunch menu includes some of the most popular dinner menu items as well as traditional breakfast items such as French toast.  Entrees come with your choice of baked potato, wild rice pilaf, or French fries and Pelican’s famous bottomless bowl of salad.

A common element among the seafood is uncommon freshness.  The menu boasts of fresh and fresh-frozen seafood (and I’m not talking about Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks here).  Modern trawlers are equipped to process and freeze the fresh catch immediately.  Some fish is best shipped fresh-frozen while other fish is best shipped fresh, albeit at low temperatures.  The result–fish at Pelican’s have a fresh and mild smell not that “fishy” smell that turns people off seafood.

If there are any complaints about Pelican’s, it’s that the restaurant’s menu is a bit anachronistic–a throwback to the 80s.  That’s especially true of the appetizer menu which includes such “yesterday” starters as mozzarella sticks and fried zucchini and mushrooms, both battered to order.  Old-fashioned surf and turf entrees are also a bit dated.  Then again, if something works, why change?

Shrimp Pelican with Sweet Potato Fries

One entree which really works is the Shrimp Pelican which may well be the restaurant’s most popular dish–even though there’s nothing radical or avant-garde about it. Butterflied and golden brown in beer batter, the shrimp are humongous (forgive the oxymoron) and gloriously sweet.  Even though my preference is generally for peel-and-eat shrimp with incendiary cocktail sauce, Pelican’s shrimp flood my memories with reminiscences of the first really great battered shrimp I ever had.

With some menu items, Pelican’s subscribes to the adage that “when in New Mexico, do as New Mexicans do” and in the Land of Enchantment, we serve our food–almost all of it–with chile.  Pelican’s menu tends to have at least entree with either green or red chile, including a piñon crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter.  Because of its clean, mild flavor and because it tends to inherit the flavor of seasonings very well, tilapia is sometimes described as fish for people who don’t like the taste of fish.  Alas, while the tilapia is delicious, flaky and tender, the chile is hardly of the caliber of New Mexico chile served at a New Mexican restaurant.

Pelican’s is almost as highly regarded for steaks and prime rib as it is for seafood.  Carnivorous cravings will be sated with a line-up that includes teriyaki beef kabobs, choice center-cut top sirloin, choice ribeye filet mignon, market teriyaki center-cut top sirloin, New York strip and slow roasted prime rib au jus as well as a “Ranchero” center-cut top sirloin with Cheddar and green chile.  The New York strip (pictured above) is grilled to your exacting specifications.  At medium, it is juicy and delicious.  It’s also very tender with no sinew or excess fat.

Pelican's famous ice cream mud pie, a slab of decadence

Football sized baked potatoes include your choice of toppings (butter, sour cream, bacon bits, green onions).  Wisps of steam from the aluminum foil enveloped potatoes waft upward, hinting at perfectly baked potatoes.  Alas, appearances can be deceiving as we found out during a January, 2010 visit when undercooked potatoes were the sole let-down in an otherwise good meal.  The clam chowder is rich and very thick, but it would take Sherlock Holmes to find more than two bits of clam and the clams he might find are bound to minuscule and somewhat chewy.

Desserts are large enough to feed entire families.  Offerings include large wedges of New York style cheesecake topped with a strawberry or chocolate sauce (or both), a lip-pursing key lime pie and perhaps the single largest slab of pie in the Duke City, a humongous ice cream mud pie.  This slab of waist-expanding decadence is easily four-inches tall and that’s even before the whipped cream crowns this dessert.  Two types of ice cream–chocolate and mocha–layered on top of a thick Oreo crust make this a teeth-chattering post-prandial treat.  It’s a fine dessert, but much more than one person can handle.

Pelican’s is a very solid, if unspectacular restaurant that has survived nearly four decades and several generations in the Duke City’s constantly changing dining scene.  It deserves a place in any conversation about good seafood in Albuquerque.

Pelican’s Restaurant
10022 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Shrimp, Oysters Rockafeller, Cracked Pepper New Yorker, New York Strip, Sizzling Mussels, Bread with Garlic Cloves, Ice Cream Mud Pie

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Pacific Paradise Tropical Grill & Sushi Bar – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pacific Paradise Tropical Grill & Sushi Bar on the northeast corner of Candelaria and San Pedro

Shangri-La. Eden.  Paradise. Heaven on Earth.  The concept of a remote and exotic utopia, a faraway haven or hideaway of idyllic beauty and tranquility, has long intrigued mankind.  Paul Gauguin, the famous French post-impressionist artist thought his persistent pilgrimage for Paradise was over when he moved to Tahiti in the tropical South Pacific.  Alas, his picturesque paradise, as with anything that seems too good to be true, was also discovered by French colonists who quickly transformed Tahiti into the antithesis of the “sensual loafer’s paradise” he had envisioned.

For aficionados of Asian cuisine, paradise might be defined as a restaurant from whose kitchen emanates the culinary diversity of the Pacific: time-honored and traditional delicacies, contrasting yet complementary flavors, exotic and healthful ingredients, varied and interesting textures, exquisite freshness with all cuisine reflecting the geography, culture and history of its originating nation.  It would be a restaurant offering the culinary treasures of China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia, Korea and Hawaii and it would be an adventure in authenticity and deliciousness.

The interior of Pacific Paradise Tropical Grill & Sushi

There are several restaurants in the Duke City which proffer entrees from more than one Pacific nation.  The most ambitious, by far, is the aptly named Pacific Paradise Tropical Grill & Sushi which features fare from all the aforementioned locations.  The menu is staggering in its breadth of coverage, showcasing cuisine representative of  many prominent locales within Pacific Ocean, an area covering more than 64 million square miles, about one-third of the Earth’s surface.  Now, it’s one thing to to claim authentic flavors; it’s another to deliver on that audacious promise.

My Singaporean friend Ming Lee, a prolific epicurean and student of Asian cuisine, often tells me that restaurants which purport to be “all things Asia” tend to serve watered-down, inauthentic parodies of the real thing.  He’s also incensed that such restaurants perpetuate the stereotype that all Asians are the same, joking that Americans not only think Asians all look alike, but eat the same things.  It’s unlikely my great friend would appreciate Paradise Paradise too much.

Hot & Sour Soup at left, Egg Drop & Corn soup at right

In addition to cuisine specific to nearly ten different nations,  Pacific Paradise also crosses cultural boundaries to feature entrees which very discernibly combine elements of two or more nations.  The restaurant definitely takes creative license in some of its entrees, even employing eye-catching naming conventions (such as “Seafood Rice Pizza”) to spur interest.  That, too, would leave my friend Ming less than mirthful.  He’s as much a stickler for authenticity in Asian cuisine as I am about New Mexico chile without cumin.

Pacific Paradise, located on the northeast side of the small strip mall on the intersection of Candelaria and San Pedro, might surprise my friend.  Several dishes were surprisingly authentic (at least to this gaijin who won’t pretend to know nearly as much about Asian cuisine as my friend) while others employed as much creative license as they did the “dumbing down” of flavors to suit American tastes.  The dumbing down manifested itself most in slightly exaggerated sweet and sour properties.

The Albuquerque Roll

The restaurant’s exterior frontage depicts the tranquil azure waters for which the ocean was christened the Pacific.  The signage on the pitched tin roof is a bit misleading; the “Tropical Grill & Sushi Bar” standing out and partially obfuscating the much smaller “Pacific Paradise” portion.  The interior is awash in color with a pronounced island theme.  A tiki bar in the style of the Polynesian restaurants which were the rage in the 60s is the best seat in the house for a sushi soiree.  Elevated booths overlook wicker chairs tucked under comfortable tables.

An abbreviated fourteen item “lunch rush” menu is available for diners in a hurry, but a world of adventures opens up to diners who can linger longer.  The first page of the compendium-like menu lists appetizers, salads, light soups, specialty soups and a “kid’s paradise” selection of items for children 12 and under.  Showcased on the menu’s center page is a menu of signature dishes as well as a Japanese combo special for one or two diners.  Grilled entrees, “vegetable celebration,” seafood, stir-fried chicken and beef, fried rice and noodles, sushi, sashimi and desserts make up the remainder of the menu.

The Lobster Roll: Crabmeat, Avocado and Cucumber Inside, Baked with Lobster & Chef's Special Sauce on Top

Entrees are served with your choice of a garden salad or steamed vegetables, your choice of a light soup and steamed rice or plain noodles, a refreshing departure from the seemingly de rigueur standard of miso soup and a garden salad.  The garden salad (mostly iceberg lettuce) has a light drizzle of a citrus-based vinaigrette dressing.  The steamed vegetable medley features green beans, carrots, broccoli, onions and mushrooms all prepared al dente.  You could hardly call the noodles “plain” because they have a distinct sweet-soy flavor and are quite good.

The light soup offerings are surprising–a cup of miso soup (Japan), minced chicken and corn soup (China), vegetable soup (Singapore) and hot and sour soup (China), not solely because of the variety offered, but  because of their flavor profiles.  The hot and sour soup was indeed both hot and sour, but best of all, it wasn’t overly thickened with corn starch as many of this ilk tend to be.  The bigger surprise was the minced chicken and corn soup whose basis is a traditional egg drop soup. The soup is served piping hot as they should be.

Sambal Scallops: Sautéed scallops with fresh mushrooms and bell pepper in a curry coconut sauce.

The sushi menu is extensive, highlighting regular (maki) rolls, not all containing raw fish as well as more pricey “Chef’s special rolls.”  The versatility of the Dragon Roll is demonstrated in four different ways.  Nigiri sushi (vinegared rice with a piece of fish on top), sashimi, hand rolls and tempura rolls are also available.  As do most sushi restaurants in Albuquerque, Pacific Paradise panders to locals with a maki roll named for our fair city.  The Albuquerque Roll (green chili (sic) tempura, avocado, cucumber) is quite good although the tempura sheathe somewhat masks the piquancy of the green chile.

On the day of our inaugural visit, the sushi special of the day was the intriguingly named “Lobster Roll,” which conjured memories of the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine where the best lobster roll in the universe is made.  While we didn’t expect any maki roll could come close to approximating the Maine specialty, we hoped for something accentuating the unctuous flavors of sweet, succulent lobster.  Alas, this roll (crab meat, avocado and cucumber on the inside baked with lobster and “chef’s special sauce” on top) obfuscated the flavor of lobster because of a cloying sauce.  Not even an immersion in the wasabi-soy bath mitigated that sweetness.

Hawaiian Golden Crisp Chicken (Hawaii): Tender chicken breast in a light coat of tempura batter, deep-fried until crispy and served with a tasty pineapple sauce.

My personal preferences in the wide diversity that is Asian cuisine start with Malaysian, Singaporean and Vietnamese dishes, all of which display a wider range of flavors (piquant, sweet, savory, tangy) than their Pacific brethren.  There are no Malaysian or Singaporean restaurants in the Duke City, but a few restaurants pay a cursory tribute to these nations with one or two entrees.  Pacific Paradise serves an entree with which I fell in love at a Malaysian restaurant in Mountain View, California.  It’s Sambal Scallops (sauteed scallops with fresh mushrooms and bell pepper in a curry coconut sauce), a fiery and exotic curry dish with eye-opening flavors.  Pacific Paradise’s Sambal is an excellent rendition with an authentic chili-based sauce that will singe the taste buds of the uninitiated.

Several Hawaiian dishes punctuate the menu, America’s contribution to the Pacific themed menu.  For non-risk-takers, a safe and delicious bet is the Hawaiian Golden Crisp Chicken (tender chicken breast in a light coat of tempura batter deep-fried until crispy and served with a pineapple sauce) which bears a striking resemblance to the chicken cutlets served at the fabulous Kokoro restaurant.  The pineapple sauce is about as thick as a typical sweet and sour sauce, but distinctively different in that it showcases the pineapple with an attitude, just enough piquancy to surprise and titillate your taste buds.

Ginger Ice Cream at left and Avocado Ice Cream at right

Desserts also play homage to the Pacific nation of their origin.  In addition to mangoes and sticky rice (Thailand) and crispy banana (Malaysia), you’ll find several Pacific Paradise unique desserts whose genesis is the fertile mind of the chef.  Quite popular are the tropical ice creams: mango, avocado, coconut, green tea, plumwine, ginger and red bean.  These ice creams are creamy and delicious with a light texture and flavors that resonate with the flavor of their named ingredients.  A sure cure for the heat of a summer day, they’re delicious any time.

A visit to Pacific Paradise may not be paradise on Earth, but it does offer a culinary journey to the flavors of the Pacific and you won’t have to travel across the ocean to get them.

Pacific Paradise
3000 San Pedro Dr NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-0999
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 December 2010
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Ginger Ice Cream, Avocado Ice Cream, Albuquerque Roll, Sanbal Scallops, Hawaiian Golden Crisp Chicken

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