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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

Namaste Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Naste Restaurant in Rio Rancho

Namaste: Cuisine of India and Nepal

Several years ago while leading my organization’s e-business marketing and communication effort, I had the great fortune of hiring a phenomenal Web developer recently arrived from India. In the process of filling out one of our complicated employment forms he transposed his name, writing his last name then his middle initial and first name instead of the way hinted at on the form. As a result, during the entire time he worked for us we all called him Kolli, his last name. He was too polite to tell us his first name is actually Srini.  Over time Srini became more acculturated, maybe even a bit “Americanized” (he’s now a huge Dallas Cowboys fan), but he’s never lost his personal warmth, good humor and impeccable manners.

Namaste's interior

Namaste’s interior

Politeness and great manners seem to be a hallmark of Indian people. When colleagues ask for a romantic dinner recommendation, I frequently suggest one of the area’s Indian restaurants where impeccably attentive service and consistently excellent food impart the effect of making diners feel like welcome royalty.

The lunch buffet at Namaste

Namaste’s lunch buffet

Most Indian restaurants, like my friend Srini, embody the spirit of a traditional Indian salutation, “Namaste” which is said while holding one’s hands pressed together near the heart with head gently bowed. Namaste is translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” a sign not only of respect but of deference in that the greeter recognizes not just good, but the fact that there is divinity in other people. It is something from which we oft unpolished and uncouth Americans can learn.

Rio Rancho now has a restaurant named for that most reverential of greetings. It opened in late July, 2008 in the small, age-worn strip mall which previously housed Tawan Thai cuisine and before that a number of other restaurants. It’s a seemingly cursed location in which restaurants seem destined to fail. If outstanding service and cuisine are portend success, Namaste may just reverse that trend and become a very popular dining destination in the City of Vision. Namaste is owned by Hem Gurung who was a mainstay at the India Palace for several years before striking out on his own. His wife Sandhya is in the kitchen preparing not only the cuisine of India, but several Nepalese dishes as well.

Some of the buffet’s bounty at Namaste

It’s with increased rarity (at least in Albuquerque) that you find any restaurant which greets you before the door with irresistible aromas. In that respect, Namaste is indeed an anachronism because it does capture you before the door with wafting emanations that bid you welcome and which just may have a Pavlovian effect on your taste buds.  Along with Siam Thai, it may be the most aromatically arousing restaurant in the Albuquerque area.

Similar to most Indian restaurants in the Duke City area, Namaste offers a very inexpensive for the quality lunch buffet. It’s not quite as Bacchanalian as the buffet at India Palace, but it provides an excellent introduction to its diverse and delicious offerings. As much as you’ll enjoy the buffet, your dining experience is Namaste is incomplete if you don’t take it to the next level. That would be returning for dinner when the quality is an order of magnitude better. During dinner, the ambiance speaks of refinement and only part of that is attributable to the absence of diners who visit the buffet three or four times in one seating. The lights are subdued and tones are hushed in the evening.

Naan

The best Naan in Albuquerque (as good as tortillas)

Among the appetizer selections on the buffet, you might find vegetable samosa, crisp patties stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. Samosas have reportedly been an Indian specialty since before the tenth century. They are delicious as is or dipped into one of the various chutneys. Namaste offers several excellent chutneys–onion, mint, tamarind and more–none of which are subtle in their impact on your taste buds. Flame imbibing New Mexicans will love the jalapeño chutney, a neon green amalgam of the fiery pepper, vinegar and other spices. The vinegar balances the heat of the jalapeño while the jalapeño cuts the tartness of the vinegar. It’s as good, if not better, than many salsas we’ve had.

Of course one of the best ways to enjoy the chutneys is with naan, the incomparable Indian flat bread which is a staple accompaniment to most hot meals in India. Naan bears some resemblance to pita bread and, like pita bread, is usually leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven fired by charcoal where the temperature at the bottom is maintained at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The tandoor oven is from which tandoori cooking derives its name.

Kashmiri Naan

The menu features several variations on the freshly baked white flour bread. Those include garlic naan in which the naan is garnished with minced garlic. There’s also cheese naan in which the white flour bread is, you guessed it, stuffed with cheese. Another intriguing naan is the kashmiri, freshly baked white flour bread stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. At first glance you might think think-sliced pizza or even lavosh, the flat, thin Armenian flat bread. After a bite or two, you might notice a semblance in flavor to the ubiquitous Christmas fruit cake. That’s because of the cherry and raisin influence which not only adds sweetness, but color to the naan. That sweetness isn’t overwhelmingly cloying like fruit cake; it provides a nice contrast and balance of flavors.

When you mention tandoori cooking, you’ve got to include tandoori chicken in the discussion. Namaste marinates its chicken in a fabulous array of exotic spices then broils it over mesquite in the tandoor oven. The mesquite imparts a smoky redolence to the chicken that renders it impossible to stop eating. Namaste’s tandoori chicken may just be the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.

Tandoori chicken

Tandoori Fried Chicken and Meatballs

The dinner menu offers several tandoori specialties, all prepared in the cylindrical clay tandoori oven and fired by charcoal to a constant temperature at the bottom of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Pictured below is a mix grill tandoori dinner, a combination of chicken and lamb. The menu calls for this dinner to be offered with fish and prawn, but you can opt for all meat or all seafood if you prefer.

Two types of lamb are featured in this specialty–lamb tikka kabob which is lamb marinated in herbs and spices and lamb seekh kabob, spicy ground lamb molded on skewers and broiled in the tandoor oven. The lamb on the tikka kabob is cut into slightly larger than bite-sized cubes. The lamb seekh kabob might is cylindrical in shape, like a short, fat cigar, and in texture might remind you of rolled up gyros meat. The plate on which the lamb dishes are presented arrives at your table with a sizzling flair. It is lined with grilled onions and peppers which lend to the flavor explosions. Both lamb dishes will convert even the most staunch non-lamb eaters. In part, that’s because none of the characteristic “gaminess” of lamb is evident, but also because both dishes are very well flavored and enjoyable to eat.

Chicken Tikka Masala: Boneless chicken baked in the tandoor with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices

The tandoori chicken is similarly delicious and also served two ways. The first is chicken tikka kabob, or delicately spiced boneless chicken breast cut into large pieces. This chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned. The second presentation is of tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh combination marinated and broiled over mesquite.  Still the very best chicken dish on the menu is the chicken tikka masala, boneles chicken  with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices.  Preparation of chicken tikka masala is a two-step process.  First the chicken is baked in a tandoor then cooked in a thick, creamy “gravy” of tomato sauce, cream and spices.  The charcoal tandoor oven imparts an unmistakably distinctive smoky flavor to the chicken while the creamy tomato sauce imparts a sweet piquancy to an absolutely marvelous dish.

My very favorite vegetarian entree at any restaurant is mattar paneer, green peas with Indian farmer cheese (paneer) in a creamy gravy.  Paneer is a fresh, unaged, non-melting cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or some other food acid.  It’s not necessarily the type of cheese you’d want to snack on as you might a slice or two of Kraft singles, but it’s the perfect cheese for the creamy gravy seasoned to perfection.  Mattar paneer is rich and utterly delicious, prepared to your level of piquancy.  No one in New Mexico does it better than Namaste.

Mattar Paneer: Green peas and homemade cheese in gravy and touch of cream

You might also opt to make dinner an adventurous event by trying one of the menu’s six Nepali dishes. Santa Fe has had a Himalayan restaurant for a few years, but Nepali dishes in Albuquerque have been scarce until Namaste. The Nepalese diet consists heavily of lentil and rice dishes along with vegetable curries and a side dish called anchar, which are pickled vegetables and fruits (tomato, mango, cucumber, etc.), much like a chutney. There are many similarities to Indian food in Nepalese cooking.

It may surprise you to discover similarities to Chinese food as well.  That’s especially true in Kathmandu where  the most popular lunch and snack item served are steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings known as “Momo.”  Namaste features both chicken and lamb momo.  The lamb momo plate consists of ten dumplings stuffed with ground and spiced lamb served with a piquant and delicious tomato achar.  It’s easy to see why this would be the most popular dish in Nepal.  The only downer for me is that the achar is served cold and the momo just warm.  Submerge the momo into the achar and it cools off quickly.  Still, this is a minor inconvenience and should not deter you from trying a delicious entree.

Lamb Momo

Meals at Namaste are extraordinary and you’ll savor each and every bite as you experience flavor combinations and taste explosions that will enrapt all ten-thousand of your taste buds.  As challenging as it is to stop eating, make sure to save room for a dessert specialty that this restaurant prepares better than any other Indian restaurant of my acquaintance.  It’s Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet and dense confection made with carrots, butter and milk.  Though the julienne carrots are served warm, they’re not mushy in the least, but retain a discernible crunchiness.  Namaste adds shaved almonds for an even crunchier contrast.  This is a rich dessert as good, if not better, than any carrot cake.

You might notice that my rating for Namaste is the highest I’ve accorded to any Indian restaurant in New Mexico.  Namaste may not be as big or ostentatious as its competition, but in my estimation, it’s much better.  My friend and colleague Tushar Desai, a Bombay native and world-traveler who’s traveled extensively across the fruited plain as a project manager for Microsoft confirms this, saying Namaste is in the top three to five Indian restaurants at which he’s dined in North America.  That’s exceedingly high praise from a true connoisseur whose opinion I value.

Gajar ka Halwa: Indian style carrot cake with cashew

The only thing that could have improved our visits to Namaste would have been sharing our meal with Srini, who in his infinite politeness, tells me I can still call him Kolli as long as I call him friend.

Namaste Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
(505) 896-3126
Web Site
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 24 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori


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