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Standard Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Standard Diner in Albuquerque's East Downtown District

The Standard Diner in Albuquerque's East Downtown District

While New Mexico is most assuredly the Land of Enchantment, most locals also accept that it’s also the “land of mañana” where things that can be put off until tomorrow usually are, where the pace of life is more relaxed and slower. George Adelo, Jr., an enterprising Pecos resident even coined (and copyrighted) a phrase to describe the New Mexican way: “Carpe Mañana”–Seize Tomorrow.  The spirit of Carpe Mañana was certainly prevalent in the long-awaited, much-anticipated opening of the Standard Diner, a Matt DiGregory restaurant venture which in opening March 2nd, 2006, was nearly eight months behind its planned launch.  If ever a restaurant has more than made up for lost time, it may be this one.

DiGregory, a local restaurant impresario owns the Standard Diner with his brothers Chris, Vince and Jon. He also owns the very popular Range restaurants in Bernalillo and Albuquerque as well as 2009 Duke City newcomer, the Rodeo Grill.  The Brothers DiGregory couldn’t have found a better location for their high-end diner which specializes in fresh, homemade comfort foods. The restaurant is situated in Albuquerque’s East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming” areas in the nation.”  DiGregory defines standard as “a benchmark that all others are compared to.”  That’s become the case for the neighborhood as well as the restaurant.

The Standard Diner's herb bread

Housed in what was once a classic car dealership (vintage photographs show it was called Caruthers & Maudlin), a tremendous amount of refurbishment obviously went into restoring the property. The decor is reminiscent of a 1930s or 1940s dining room with exposed brick walls and wood-beamed ceilings lending to the period piece authenticity.  A soundtrack featuring the soothing stylings and dulcet tones of the best big band era artists and romantic crooners of the 1940s inspires hushed tones and a relaxed dining pace. Vintage photographs of the Duke City festoon the walls in the restaurant’s two dining rooms.

An evidently well-prepared wait staff is cordial, professional and eager to share their knowledge of both the building’s history and the restaurant’s diverse menu. When our waitress couldn’t answer a question we asked about the bar towels used instead of napkins, she quickly dispatched the day manager who regaled us with interesting details on where the idea for bar towels came up.  We also learned that the herb bread brought to our table has a history even more interesting than that of the restaurant. The bread comes from a culture whose progenitor traveled the Oregon trail in 1845. It is baked in-house and has that yeasty bouquet true connoisseurs of the “staff of life” crave. Best of all, we’ve had it served to us with a brilliant orange-red oil made from achiote a subtly flavored paste which has a pleasant flavor. Better still is the achiote butter (pictured above) which enlivens the bread even further.

Coconut Key Lime Shake, one of several creative shakes on the Standard menu

In the February 2nd, 2009 airing of a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode called “Return to Route 66,” host Guy Fieri declared “there’s nothing standard about the Standard Diner.”  That is very evident in the restaurant’s diverse menu which somewhat belies the “Diner” label by not serving traditional diner food.  The menu is very interesting to say the least, interspersing several upscale American comfort food favorites with cuisine whose genesis is the Orient, Latin America and even Australia (where DiGregory discovered the “Otis Burger” which is made with roasted beets, a fried egg, bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayo). You’ll be hard-pressed to make a quick selection and will undoubtedly want to make several return visits to try one of the other intriguing items on a menu that’s truly unique.

In a handful of visits since the restaurant opened in 2009, we have often opted (as we almost always do at restaurants we visit) to order adventurously in lieu of ordering the “safe” sounding menu items.  This is a philosophy that has introduced us to a wealth of otherwise untried deliciousness  at many restaurants and at the very least lets us say we gave it a shot.  Alas, at the Standard Diner our success rate with this approach is somewhere around fifty percent; that is, we’ve only liked about half of what we’ve ordered.  Though we applaud the inventiveness of the menu, it’s in execution that some items truly fail to win us over.  That’s especially true of appetizers (coincidentally many of which are no longer on the menu (I wonder why)).

Roasted Beef Salad: Frisee endive bibb / bleu cheese / candied pecans / balsamic vinaigrette

Appetizer options (they change frequently) have included BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, slow-cooked lamb top-round, housemade BBQ sauce and Jarlsberg cheese grilled in a tortilla and served with a tangy yogurt, cucumber raita (a traditional Indian style yogurt-based condiment). While the BBQ sauce was surprisingly ordinary, the raita was refreshing and delicious–almost a cross between Greek tzadziki sauce and the cucumber sauce which often accompanies satay in Thai restaurants.  The lamb deserved better!

An intriguing meal starter is the flap jack trio which is essentially three petite peach and scallion flap jacks topped with an inventive array of ingredients. One is topped with a tomato chutney, one with herbed goat cheese and one with a strawberry basil relish. The flap jacks are small in circumference, about the size of a biscuit, but they’re imbued with a gigantic amount of flavor from taste combinations that go very well together. This is a very nice appetizer!

Watermelon & Tuna Ceviche: Sashimi Tuna, Endive, Lemon Cilantro Coulis, Hatch green chile

One appetizer we won’t have again if it’s brought back on the menu are the tuna salad spring rolls made with sesame marinated Saku tuna wrapped in rice paper with micro greens and pickled carrots. There just wasn’t much to this appetizer as the tuna was lost among the other ingredients and was somewhat recessed even further into the background by a tangy chile sauce.  That tangy chile sauce proved to be the salvation for the steak salad, described on the menu as “Thai marinated flank steak, grilled and served on our house greens with a sesame vinaigrette.” Talk about under-performing. The sesame vinaigrette was virtually tasteless, lending absolutely no appeal to an otherwise ordinary salad which needed rescuing by something lively and with pizzazz. We were also unable to discern anything “Thai” tasting in the five thin strips of flank steak that came on the salad.

Yet another intriguing starter which failed to deliver on the intriguing promise of excellent ingredients is a watermelon and tuna ceviche.  Nested on endive leaves is a ceviche made from sashimi tuna, Hatch green chile, red onions and chopped tomatoes.  Unlike traditional Mexican ceviche found in so many local restaurants, the Standard Diner’s ceviche is not marinated in citrus juices.  That may be the start of its downfall, but the accelerant is most certainly the endive leaves which are bitter receptacles for what might have otherwise been at least passable ceviche.  The lemon cilantro coulis was also uninspired,  the flavor of tangy lemon and refreshing cilantro failing to coalesce into any semblance of deliciousness.

The Standard Mac and Cheese with Smoked Salmon and Green Chili

Much better luck have we had with the restaurant’s entrees, among which are chicken and dumplings made with garlic roasted poultry-a-plenty simmered in a green chile broth with masa, feta cheese and cilantro dumplings. This is New Mexico style comfort food at its best with hearty, robust flavors and aromas that you want on a blustery winter day.

You can’t say “comfort food” without mentioning macaroni and cheese, a fact obviously recognized by the Standard Diner. The Standard Mac and Cheese features baked shells with crisp bacon, Guinness and fine Irish Cheddar cheese sauce covered with herbed bread crumbs. For a pittance more, you can add green chile and smoked salmon to the mix. The only item we would dispense with entirely are the herbed bread crumbs. Our entree arrived with herbed bread crumbs a plenty, so many that we wondered if a clumsy chef had spilled the box’s entire contents onto the entree. The bread crumbs serve only to desiccate what is otherwise a moist and very good entree.

Lobster Roll: Baguette / tarragon aioli / drawn butter

The one entree which seemed to captivate Guy Fieri most was the diner standard of meatloaf, done Standard Diner style, of course, which means wrapped in bacon.  Fieri loved the texture and depth of flavor.  Called the “Finer Loaf” on the menu, it is served with smashed potatoes and a red wine gravy.  The red wine gravy is terrific, one of the very best mashed potato toppers in the city and a nice departure from the more conventional chicken or turkey gravy.

Another fun entree evinces a whimsical side that many nouveau restaurants just don’t have. It’s country fried tuna. Our close proximity to Texas means many New Mexico restaurants serve up a mean, artery-clogging country fried steak or chicken, but tuna is (as Texas chamber of commerce commercials say) “like a whole other country.” Rather than the thick coating used on steak, it’s a light coating of tempura fried batter that covers several half-inch thick pieces of sushi grade Ahi tuna.  One bite and Guy Fieri’s eyes rolled back in obvious appreciation, maybe even homage.  His litany of adjectives was perhaps over the top, even for the effusive host.

The Otis Burger: Sliced beet, grilled pineapple, bacon, Cheddar and fried egg

In addition to “different” the adjective which best describes the aforementioned Otis burger is messy. The egg will run down your hands as you try to hold this two-fisted burger which is trapped within the confines of a desiccated bun made from the restaurant’s signature bread. Other than the egg, the  ingredient which most distinguishes itself is the bacon which has the smoky taste aficionados like.  Once we extricated the grilled pineapple and sliced beet from the confines of a very good hamburger bun, we enjoyed them tremendously, but they were lost within the burger itself.  All burgers are made from char-grilled 100-percent Black Angus beef (or you can upgrade to Kobe beef for a price).

Perhaps residents of the Badger State have an affinity for unhealthy foodstuffs which start with the letter “B” (beer, brats, burgers) because in Wisconsin you can’t spell burger without butter.  Artery-clogging Wisconsin butter is slathered on both sides of the  Wisconsin butter burger which is then topped with cheese.  My friend Dale, an ectomorph from the Green Bay area loves the Standard Diner’s Bourbon Butter Burger upon which is slathered a bourbon-maple compound butter.  It’s about twice the size of many of the butter burgers proffered throughout the Milwaukee area and ostensibly has at least as many calories.  Though this burger should come standard with an angioplasty, it’s a very good burger.

The Bourbon Butter Burger: Bourbon-maple compound butter

A popular entree on the lunch menu during one visit, the Sheep Herder (pictured far above) is a New Mexico meets the world treat you will thoroughly enjoy. It starts with two over-medium eggs atop Irish Cheddar home fries with melted Gruyere cheese, a combination which upscales the popular breakfast standards of fried eggs and potatoes. Also upping the ante are a “tortilla roll-up” cut in three. A large flour tortilla enveloping corned beef, sauerkraut and green chile makes for a tangy, savory and piquant flavor combination in which the marriage of sauerkraut and green chile is surprisingly good. It’s wholly unlike some of the boring Philadelphia cream cheese and ham tortilla roll-ups you sometimes see at office parties.

The dessert menu is also not your standard hum-drum parade of cloying boringness. After much deliberation (and if it’s on the ever-changing dessert menu), you might opt for the Twisted Tiramisu made with Espresso-soaked lady fingers, dulce de leche Mascarpone with agave poached pears and candied piñon. It is light, frothy and delicious with wonderfully complementary and contrasting flavor sensations.

Caramel and Sea Salt Panna Cotta

Mascarpone is also a principle ingredient in an off-the-menu special you might luck on. It’s a delicious twist on strudel featuring phyllo dough engorged with Marscapone then topped with a scoop of Rum Raisin ice cream. The semi-sweet nature of the phyllo dough and Marscapone in combination with the shivering cold sweetness of the ice cream is inventive and delicious.

It wouldn’t hold true to the pattern of our visits to the Standard Diner if we liked every single dessert.  The one we didn’t like–and this is very uncharacteristic for me–is the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding.  Regular readers might recognize my carnal passion for great bread pudding.  Made with a dark rum caramel sauce and poured sugar tuile, this is not among the good ones–not by a long shot.  What made it so disagreeable to me was just how cloying and rich it is.  Considering my ideal bread pudding is studded with adult (dark) chocolate, this one was as sweet as honey and syrup together.

Bananas Foster Bread Pudding

Standard Diner isn’t your standard, everyday run-of-the mill diner. It’s a restaurant going places thanks to an innovative and delicious menu full of surprises.  You may not like all those surprises, but you’ve got to admire the never say die attitude of a chef  who dares to be different and in doing so, has as many hits as misses.  Every restaurant should be as enterprising.   Don’t “carpe manana” before you dine at this restaurant.

Standard Diner
320 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
243-1440
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 01 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 18
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: BBQ Lamb Quesadilla, Twisted Tiramasu, Country Fried Tuna, The Otis, The Sheep Herder, Bourbon Butter Burger

Standard Diner on Urbanspoon

Japanese Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Japanese Kitchen in Albuquerque's Uptown area

For generations, traditional New Mexican food as it had been served for generations by Hispanic families in Northern New Mexico was surprisingly rare in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment.  Many restaurants throughout the state served “Mexican” style food similar to what our neighbors in Arizona and Texas offered.  That meant insipid chile lacking the flavor and piquancy which has become a hallmark of New Mexican cuisine.  Once restaurants such as Rancho de Chimayo began serving traditional New Mexican food, the genre immediately made tremendous inroads, quickly usurping the popularity of the interlopers.

Though tradition has certainly not gone by the wayside, New Mexican food has both grown and evolved over the years largely through the influence of “Santa Fe style” whose genesis may be rooted in the confluence of Pueblo adobe style and Spanish territorial architecture, but whose influences have branched to other aspects of the city’s laid-back culture of joie de vivre and self-expression.  Mark Miller, the high priest of Southwestern cuisine and other inventive chefs recognized the potential for chile, the centerpiece of New Mexican cooking, to be used in ways heretofore unexplored.  They have revolutionized the use of New Mexico’s official state “vegetable” and in the process expanded the diversity and popularity of New Mexican food.

The interior of the Japanese Kitchen

As far as I know, there has been no popular backlash against the adulteration and metamorphosis of New Mexican cuisine.  Nor have a phalanx of abuelitas steeped in the traditional ways protested vehemently against perceived injustices done to New Mexican food. New Mexicans, renown for our “live and let live” attitude, have acceded to the new genre with the recognition that traditional New Mexican food continues to exist and thrive on its own.  We recognize that there’s a place for the traditional and the unorthodox.  Credit it to our characteristic tolerance and laissez faire, but don’t underestimate our pride in tradition.

When it comes to pride and haughtiness in culinary traditions, the Japanese may be unrivaled.  They do not take lightly the effrontery being heaped upon their culinary culture and traditions.  The Japanese consider their cuisine  a time-honored and highly-developed art involving all the senses–from the aesthetic to the olfactory.  Their passion for authenticity is reflected in the use of timeless ingredients prepared by chefs who undergo rigorous training regimens.  To see Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai restaurants offer “Japanese” cuisine or to see supermarkets proffer inferior sushi is an insult to this prideful culture.

"Green Earth:" Inside--green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, spinach, shrimp; Outside--wrapped soy paper, creamy green chile sauce

According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, there are more than 24,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan and they account for $22 billion in revenue a year.  The number of Japanese restaurants in the United States  alone doubled in the decade of the nineties to more than 9,000 with no surcease to their popularity.  Unfortunately, the global demand for highly trained Japanese chefs  can’t be met by the tiny nation.  That accounts, in part, for cooks from other Asian nations being brought in to prepare “Japanese” food.  Heck, in an episode of “No Reservations,” host Tony Bourdain profiled a Mexican sushi chef in Laredo, Texas.

The use of chefs who are not properly trained and steeped in the culture behind the cuisine has rankled the ire of Japanese chefs, prompting the creation of advocacy groups, even within the United States, aimed at protecting their highly traditional and exquisitely artistic form of cooking.  They’ve got their work cut out for them.  Most people outside of Japan wouldn’t recognize traditional Japanese food, particularly sushi.  In fact, much of what Americans consider traditional sushi, was actually developed because Americans were so wary of “raw” fish.

Albacore Tuna Green Chile Roll (top); Crunch Roll (bottom left); Unagi (bottom right)

When we peruse a sushi menu offering California rolls, spider rolls, salmon sushi and rolls engorged with Philadelphia cream cheese, most of us don’t stop to consider whether or not they’re traditional (they’re not).  We only know how much we appreciate the melding of flavors and the pleasure they bring. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.  While purists may lament the burgeoning onslaught of Pan-Asian and fusion restaurants serving sushi, they can’t ignore the popularity and imagination which goes into the creation of the faux sushi enjoyed by so many.

The Japanese Kitchen, one of Albuquerque’s most venerable sushi restaurants, actually offers the very best of both worlds.  In addition to offering Omakase prepared by Japanese trained sushi chefs, the Kitchen also serves the whimsical sushi Americans love so much.  Omakase means the chef decides the menu and prepares it according to strict and elaborate rules, presenting a series of plates beginning with lighter far and proceeding to heavier, richer dishes.  At the Japanese Kitchen, you can trust the chefs.

Baja California: Inside--Real crab leg, tempura, cucumber, avocado; Outside--Sliced mango, tuna, strawberry with mango sauce, sweet and sour sauce

The Japanese Kitchen is actually comprised of two separate and distinct restaurants separated by the Park Square courtyard in Albuquerque’s uptown area.  The main Japanese Kitchen restaurant is the elder sibling, a pioneer of Teppan grilling  in Albuquerque, while the Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar, a free-standing restaurant opened in 2001.  Owners Jeff and Keiko Bunts expanded the restaurant in 2006, adding a Robata Bar.  Robata, which translates from Japanese as “fireside” honors yet another centuries-old form of Japanese cooking.  Robata is served as small appetizers, allowing diners to pick and choose as many combinations as they wish.

For my gorgeous cousin Andrea, it’s all about sushi and the Japanese Kitchen is her choice.  She’s such a sushi buff that at a recent family gathering, she referred to tortilla pinwheels as “New Mexican sushi.”  She also chided me for the length of time elapsed since my last visit to her favorite sushi restaurant.  Considering she’s the only other person in my family who will eat sushi (unless it’s called something else and looks and tastes like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks), her opinions carry a lot of weight with me…and she’s of the opinion that tradition is nice, but what matters most is how great the sushi tastes.

With a similar open-mindedness, our sushi order was almost entirely nontraditional–a succession of inventive rolls seemingly crafted as much for their pleasing aesthetic qualities, but for flavor profiles which cleverly meld ingredients for optimal deliciousness.  The “Green Earth” maki roll, for example, is crafted with green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, spinach and shrimp all wrapped in soy paper instead of nori (seaweed) or rice.  The most unique aspect of this roll, however, was the green chile sauce pooled at the center of the plate. This is a roll designed not to be consumed with soy sauce and wasabi.

Jewel: Inside--fried soft-shell crab, green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber. Outside--wrapped soy paper, creamy green chile sauce

Also unique is a surprisingly delightful and wholly whimsical maki roll.  It’s only fitting that it’s named “Baja California” because it was the original California roll that began the Americanization of sushi in the 1970s and which was instrumental in the growth of sushi’s popularity across the country.  While the California rolls take on uniqueness was only slightly more than substituting avocado for toro (fatty tuna), the Baja California expands that permissiveness tenfold.  The inside is fairly traditional–real crab leg, cucumber and avocado, but outside, the roll is topped with sliced mango, tuna, a shaved strawberry and mango sauce.  In the middle of the plate is a sweet and sour sauce.  Consider this a dessert sushi if you will, but don’t write it off until you try it.  It’s surprisingly good.

There are two pieces of sushi which define most of my visits to sushi restaurants. One is the grilled unagi (eel), a nigiri style sushi, which is said to have stamina-giving properties.  Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive.  Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night.  After waddling out most sushi restaurants, intimacy is the last thing on our minds. The other is any roll in which green chile plays a part. It baffles me that sushi restaurants often use a green chile with a better roasted flavor than you’ll find at some New Mexican restaurants. That’s the case with “Jewel,” a maki roll with fried soft-shell crag, green chile tempura, avocado and cucumber on the inside and a creamy gren chile sauce on top.

Even better is the albacore green chile roll atop of which is delicately placed a small strip of roasted green chile.  There’s something magical about the dual-heat combination of green chile and wasabi.  The Japanese Kitchen’s rendition of the crunch roll is also quite good with its fried tempura batter sheath enveloping other ingredients.  Perhaps no roll is more ideally suited for the wasabi and soy sauce mix than a crunch roll.

Original Tempura Ice Cream: Icy cold inside, sizzling hot outside; rich vanilla ice cream in a crispy coating is deep fried

Perhaps figuring we had already thumbed our noses at tradition, we opted to end our meal with a wholly Americanized Japanese dessert–tempura ice cream, icy cold vanilla ice cream on the inside and a crispy tempura coating on the outside.  Though a nice end to a great sushi meal, perhaps more fitting would have been green tea ice cream or even better, a plum sorbet (alas, not on the menu).

The Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar adheres to some timeless Japanese traditions while giving Americans the experience they crave.  It’s one of Albuquerque’s most revered and esteemed purveyors of sushi and so much more.

Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar
6511 America’s Parkway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 872-1166
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2011
# of VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Jewel, Green Earth, Baja California, Alcabore Tuna Green Chile, Crunch Roll, Unagi, Tempura Ice Cream

Japanese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Plaza Cafe South Side – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Plaza Cafe Southside just west of the Regal Cinemas 14

Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant (circa 1918), the Plaza Cafe is so popular that long waits to be seated are commonplace. Compound that with the hassle of trying to find a parking spot that isn’t a marathon’s length to walk to and from the Cafe then having to navigate through throngs of awestruck tourists and it’s a restaurant we don’t visit as often as we’d like.  Our visits might become even more infrequent thanks to the 2003 launch of the Plaza Cafe’s sister restaurant (albeit a sister that’s 84 years younger) on Santa Fe’s south side.

The Plaza Cafe Southside, situated in San Isidro Plaza on Zafarano Drive, is a welcome respite from the challenges inherent with trying to dine in the teeming tourist traversed Plaza area. It’s one of an increasing number of excellent restaurants situated well outside Santa Fe’s well beaten, well eatin’ plaza area and one of several very good restaurants within easy walking distance of the Regal Cinemas 14.  It’s the Plaza Cafe Southside’s second home.  For its first six years, the Cafe occupied cozy, but cramped confines within a motel off Cerrillos.

The dessert case at the Plaza Cafe Southside

The first thing you notice when you walk in to the Plaza Cafe Southside is a dessert case that’s wider than it is tall. Behind glass are some of the most sumptuous, calorie-laden confections ever crafted. It’s a wonder there aren’t tongue trails on the glass because behind it, just waiting for hungry diners, are the Plaza Cafe’s famous cajeta apple pecan pie, served in huge slabs with or without ice cream. There’s also the fabulous coconut cream pie (in a macaroon shell), pastel tres leches and other mouth-watering desserts.

Where the Cafe’s first digs were cramped and cozy, its new home is capacious and comfortable.  Despite the modernity of high ceilings, industrial-style ductwork and steel girders, the Cafe retains the appearance of an old-fashioned diner.  Undulating neon festoons the service area where an industrious wait staff delivers and picks up orders.  Suspended from the ceiling is a colorful four-sided mural depicting the culture of Santa Fe, not so much in an idyllic fashion, but in a mode which might best describe the things that make it the “City Different.”  The bar soffit mural painted by local artist Robb Rael depicts the Zozobra, skeletal images from el Dia de los Muertos, pueblo-style architectural homes and more, all in the artist’s unique interpretive style.  It, too, is festooned by 1950s style neon.

The Plaza Cafe Southside, a commodious diner beloved by locals and tourists alike

The Plaza Cafe Southside is the brainchild of Leonard Razatos who “wanted to bring a little of the old Santa Fe to the new Santa Fe.”  A “new” Santa Fe can certainly describe the burgeoning south side which has shown tremendous growth over the past decade.  “Old” Santa Fe begins and ends with the famous Santa Fe Plaza, fittingly home to the Plaza Cafe, the city’s oldest restaurant.  In 1947, Greek immigrant Dionysi “Danny” Razatos, purchased the restaurant and together with his wife and six children has fed Santa Fe ever since. Leonard upholds the family tradition within the trappings of a modern edifice which might not work well in the architectural restricted plaza area.

Their classic American diner showcases traditional cooking methods and time-honored ingredients that would make many a New Mexican abuelita proud indeed.  In addition to excellent New Mexican  and Mexican food, the restaurant features a few Greek entrees as well as American diner favorites and blue-plate specials.  The menu is a veritable compendium of home-style diner cuisine New Mexico style with something for everyone.  Some time-honored recipes have been “improved upon” with inventive ingredients in exciting combinations.  Other recipes haven’t been “tampered” with and might remind you of the home cooking you got at home as a child.

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

The South Side Cafe shares most of the same menu with its sister restaurant. There are a few notable exceptions, one being the absence of the elder sibling’s roasted garlic and carnitas quesadillas, an appetizer for which you’d brave the teeming throngs.  Similar to the Plaza Cafe, the South Side Cafe features oversized plastic menus emblazoned with a round image of the heavily trafficked Santa Fe plaza at the height of bustling activity. The menu is several pages long and reads like a great novel; it’s very hard to put down and even harder to make a decision as to what to order.

That menu includes several “aguas frescas,” the refreshing at any time beverages becoming increasingly popular in New Mexico. The Cafe has its own interesting twists on traditional aguas frescas.  That includes a prickly pear lemonade made with tangy prickly pear puree and even prickly pear horchata, an exotic blend of almond, cinnamon and rice water with tangy prickly pear puree. The latter is an interesting departure from what can be a cloying beverage and will amaze you at how well two unique flavors meld together.  For those cold mornings in which your belly needs some anti-freeze, the Mexican hot chocolate has your number.  It’s a strong hot chocolate with a rich flavor.

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

The appetizer section features New Mexican, Mexican, Greek and American options.  If in the mood for something Greek, hummus and pita are available. The hummus, a puree of tahini, lemon, garlic, onion and garbanzo beans is oh so garlicky delicious. This terrific appetizer is served with warm pita bread.  Typical of the surprising inventiveness of the menu is the fried calamari with jalapeños, tender calamari dusted with flour, flash-fried and garnished with salt, pepper and jalapeños then served with a habanero dipping sauce that’s positively piquant.

If a more traditional Mexican appetizer is what you’re after,  the Cafe’s housemade blue, yellow and red corn tortilla chips and three salsas (Chipotle, tomatillo and pico de gallo) is a terrific triumvirate. All three salsas are sensational and all have capsaicin enriched potency (translation: they bite back). The Chipotle salsa has a wonderfully smoky taste and is perhaps the most piquant of the three. It may also be the most addicting and will probably be the first one you finish. Guacamole and chips are also available as is a mountainous plate of nachos (tortilla chips, beans, chipotle salsa, chile con queso, chorizo, jalapeños, lettuce and tomato).

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

The “Specials” section includes several items in which the chef’s artistic interpretations crossed into the realm of non-traditional mixing of cultures. That would apply to the Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero lasagna.  The salmon filet is entree sized in and of itself. It’s a flame-grilled six-ounce slab of salmon marinated in garlic, cilantro and olive oil. It is fork-tender and surprisingly moist as well as imbued with discernable smokiness courtesy of the grill.  See the word “Habañero” attached to any entree and you’re bound to think incendiary, pain-inducing, eye-watering, mouth-scalding, too hot to handle, torturous pepper.

At the Cafe, the Tomato-Habañero Lasagna is surprisingly scaled down heat-wise. In fact, the hotter-than-Hell pepper’s most discernable quality is the fruitiness with which it imbues the lasagna. It complements the acidic tomatoes and rich ricotta cheese very well. This is an excellent lasagna.  As with other Italian inspired entrees at the Cafe, the tomato sauce is applied lightly so that it ameliorates, not dominates, the flavor profile.  The sauce has a flavor quite like fresh tomatoes seasoned with garlic and basil.  It’s an excellent sauce for lasagna or any other Italian pasta.

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

What best defines comfort food?  Many surveys will tell you it’s meatloaf and that just happens to be the Cafe’s specialty. Appropriately, it used to be found on the menu’s Blue Plate section; now it’s  the special of the day on Tuesdays. This isn’t your mama’s meatloaf, unless you’re from New Mexico. This is New Mexico meatloaf stuffed with vegetables (sweet corn nibblets stand out), cheese and green chile.  Unlike the meatloaf at many a diner, the Cafe’s version doesn’t have that annoying crust you have to cut through to get to the moist part. This is one of the most moist meatloaves you’ll find anywhere…and the green chile, vegetable and cheese combination imbues it with qualities that render it sublime. The meatloaf is served with mashed potatoes and gravy as well as sautéed broccoli and carrots.

From the blue-plate special comes a spaghetti and meatballs entree which might have you saying “That’s amore!” with every bite.  It’s the Plaza Cafe’s spaghetti with meatballs served with a tomato-marjoram sauce, bacon and Parmesan cheese.  Bacon, as everyone knows, makes everything better and the Cafe’s menu boasts of “Santa Fe’s best bacon.”  You won’t find bacon in every bite, but oh those spoonfuls blessed with bacon are special.  The tomato-marjoram sauce is light and thin, emphasizing the flavor of tomatoes and not some thick tomato paste.  Marjoram, by the way, is a member of the oregano-mint family.  It’s similar to oregano, but somewhat milder.  The spaghetti noodles are perfectly al dente.

Spaghetti & Meatballs with Bacon Tomato Sauce: Meatballs, tomato-marjoram sauce, spaghetti, bacon + parmesan cheese, grilled focaccia

Yet another blue plate special which takes off where ordinary fish and chips leave off is a spicy rendition made from beer-battered cod served with a habanero tartar sauce and jalapeño malt vinegar.  It’s the type of fish and chips the irascible Captain Quint from the movie Jaws would eat while daring the scholarly Matt Hooper to follow suit.   Just as the two tried to out-macho one another by showing off their “battle” scars, it’s easy to imagine the two dousing their beer-battered cod filets in the jalapeño malt vinegar then chasing them down with the habanero tartar sauce all the while daring the other to spice it up even more.

To be honest, neither the jalapeño malt vinegar nor the habanero tartar sauce are that piquant, but it makes for a good story to tell.  It also makes for a very good, very different fish and chips dish.  The cod filets are light and flaky with a beer-batter that’s light enough to allow the superb malt vinegar to impregnate the filets with a terrific tartness.  The “chips” are red chile fries, actually just fries lightly dusted with red chile.  They’re great fries.  Instead of some insipid salad cream, the slaw is made with an apple cider vinegar-like sauce that makes the slaw lip-pursing tangy.

Spicy Fish & Chips: beer-battered cod fillet with habanero tartar sauce, jalapeño malt vinegar and red chile fries, slaw

For just a pittance, you can add a dinner salad to any entree. As is the case with every item on the menu, this isn’t a blasé and boring salad. It’s mixed greens, strips of jicama, julienne carrots, wedges of tomato, garbanzo beans and more. Ask for the citrus vinaigrette to enliven the salad even further.  If a satisfying salad is what you crave for your entree, consider the menu’s six salads which include a Greek Chicken Souvlaki salad and an inspired Middle Eastern salad (mixed greens, roasted beets and carrots, red cabbage, toasted almonds, cumin seeds, hummus, falafel, pita bread served with a cumin-lemon vinaigrette).

It may be entirely possible that breakfast, served day and night, is even better than lunch and dinner. The menu lists five early morning themes–eggs & omelets, pancakes & French toast, breakfast specialties, bakeshop offerings and platos nativos–and it will be a challenge to figure out what eye-opening entree to have.  One certainty is the thick-cut, sugar-cured bacon which surely must be the best bacon in Santa Fe.  It’s a must have.

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

The platos nativos (native plates) section features traditional New Mexican entrees such as blue corn enchiladas. Layers of blue corn tortillas, Cheddar cheese and eggs are slathered with the Plaza Cafe’s dark red chile and served with hashed browns and beans.  Because the red and green chile are equally wonderful, ask for your enchiladas “Christmas” style and each mouthful will be a treat. Neither chile is mild.  Red and green chile are available at medium-hot or extra hot and if you’re not certain as to your tolerance level, ask for a sample or order your chile on the side.  The menu’s disclaimer reads “We cannot be responsible for chile that is too hot.”

A word about the hashed browns–they’re amazing! Most hashed browns look and taste like confetti, but not at the Plaza Cafe. These shredded tubers are prepared with onion and are just slightly crispy. Best of all, they actually taste like potatoes and not some paper derivative. You won’t leave any on your plate. The beans are also terrific.  They’re the type of means your abuelita might have prepared years ago.

Lemon ricotta pancakes

Lemon ricotta pancakes

If your sweet tooth is acting up in the morning, the lemon ricotta pancakes will take care of it. Topped with fresh blueberries, these magnificent orbs are so sweet you might not even need syrup. An equal pronouncement of tanginess and sweetness make these pancakes dessert-like and absolutely delicious. The pancakes are available in quantities of one or two per order.  The Plaza’s pancake line-up also includes made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes and blue corn pancakes with orange butter and cinnamon syrup.  It’s a terrific triumvirate.

Perhaps better than the pancakes, amazing as they are, are the restaurant’s signature French toast made from a thick-cut crunchy coated Challah bread.  Challah bread, a traditional Hebrew bread makes the best French toast, especially when sliced thick.  It has a pillowy-soft texture and an rich, egg enhanced flavor.  Challah bread also absorbs syrup (or honey, if you prefer).  The French toast are served in half (pictured below) or full-sized portions.

Signature French Toast: Thick-cut crunchy coated challa

No matter how good your entrees might be, you absolutely must save room for desserts.  Make that a lot of room.  The desserts are humongous!  The green chile apple pie with a Cheddar crust, for example, is a huge slab of pie with about seven layers of stacked apples.  The Cheddar crust bottom and the crunchy top crust provide textural and flavor contrasts.  Ask for the pie to be served warm and for a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, an unbeatable combination.

The other apple pie dish, the one made famous at the original Plaza cafe, is topped with cajeta, a Mexican caramel made from goat’s and cow’s milk.  It’s fully addictive, a far better caramel than the squeeze bottle variety.  The pie, of course, is delicious with sweet-tart apples.  A la mode is the best way to experience it because the Plaza Cafe uses a premium vanilla ice cream in which flecks of vanilla bean are prominent.

Green chile apple pie with a Cheddar crust

The South Side Cafe is so good it should be considered a dining destination in its own right, not a consolation prize for not wanting to face the challenges of eating at the Plaza. A reasonable bill of fare, excellent food, accommodating service and best of all, easy parking make this an excellent choice at any time.

Plaza Cafe South Side
3466 Zafarano Drive (San Isidro Plaza)
Santa Fe, NM
(505) 424-0755
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, New Mexico Meatloaf, Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero Lasagna, Prickly Pear Horchata, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, French Toast, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Spicy Fish & Chips

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