Chama River Brewing Co. – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chama River Brewery

Chama River Brewery

We were mellowing out to the haunting three-part harmony of the Bee Gees as they crooned “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” when we drove into the Chama River Brewing Company’s parking lot during one unseasonably warm January day. How appropriate. At that moment my answer to the Bee Gee’s poignant question would have been “with an order of mango chutney chicken egg rolls served with a pickled ginger and an orange-chile dipping sauce followed by seared Ahi tuna and seaweed Timbale.” These were two of the wonderful appetizers masterfully crafted by Robert Griego, erstwhile chef and proprietor of the tragically now defunct Nouveau Noodles.

While Nouveau Noodles no longer exists (a March 31, 2005 casualty of unadventurous diners not venturing to Tijeras to partake of incomparably wonderful and innovative Asian fusion cuisine), the immensely talented and contagiously affable Mr. Griego now serves as general manager for the Chama River Brewing Company, a brewpub restaurant which has impressed us more with every visit.  Our  inventive friend has continued to elevate the restaurant to greater heights even though he’s not in the kitchen crafting his inspired culinary masterpieces.

Mussels with Andouille sausage and Ale

Mussels with Andouille sausage and Ale

The Chama River Brewing Company is a sister restaurant to Santa Fe restaurants La Casa Sena, Rio Chama Steakhouse and the Blue Corn Cafe, all properties of Santa Fe Dining, the restaurant company owned by Santa Fe art dealer and developer Gerald Peters.  Situated on the Pan American frontage road and within walking distance of the Century Rio 24 movie theaters, it is one of only a few restaurants on what has become “restaurant row” that isn’t a national chain.

The restaurant’s ambiance reeks of upscale masculinity, but not in such a manner that it would turn off women. A copper-clad bar provides ample views of the vats in which the resident brew master handcrafts award winning ales and lagers. The dining areas offer comfort and intimacy while a very attentive wait staff is at your beck and call. The menu promises “high quality steaks, seafood, pasta and sandwiches, all prepared fresh on the premises using the highest quality ingredients.”  Over the years there have been several changes to the menu since our inaugural visit, all for the best.

Butternut Squash Pasta

Butternut Squash Pasta

During our first visit, we gorged ourselves on Chama Chili Nachos and came away impressed only by the chili (sic), which my brilliant colleague and friend Andrea Lin aptly described as “a happy cross between carne adovada and Tex-Mex chili.”  The carne adovada portion of that marriage is what stands out with savory chunks of tender and well seasoned pork that you might want to horde for yourself. This chile is only mildly piquant and arrives adorned with crispy tortilla chips rimming the bowl and jalapenos atop the chile.

Another excellent appetizer option is the restaurant’s signature green chile and ale fondue, a house favorite redolent with gourmet cheeses served with crusty bread, vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower) and Granny Smith apples for dipping. While some may consider fondue just a throwback to the 60s, it really is a fun, delicious and potentially messy precursor to a meal. Bon vivants, in particular, will enjoy the flavor contrasts of tangy-sweet, crisp and juicy apples and cheeses of medium sharpness.

Truffled Bleu Cheese Fries: Hand-cut fries tossed with truffle oil, bleu cheese crumbles, applewood bacon and scallions

Make it a terrifically tasty appetizer troika and order the roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato hummus served with flat breads (a cheese coated lahvosh and warm pita) and vegetables (celery, carrots and red peppers).  The hummus isn’t quite as garlicky as you might find at a Mediterranean restaurant, but it’s quite good and has a prominent citrus flavor to complement the sweet sun-dried tomatoes and a more than passable hummus. The cracker-like lahvosh is great on its own or with a dollop or two of hummus.

In recent years, particularly in French brasseries and bistros, French fries doused with truffle oil have become almost de rigueur   Because actual truffle oil is so expensive, almost all restaurant truffle oils are a synthesis of olive oil and an organic  odorant found in truffles.  The truffle oil used at the Chama River Brewery  on their truffled Bleu cheese fries is very reminiscent of real truffles and it works wonders on the French fries, hand-cut gems fried to a crispy golden hue.  The fries are bespattered with truffle oil, blue cheese crumbles, applewood smoked bacon bits and chopped scallions, an improvement over fries with ketchup by several orders of magnitude.

Southwest Pot Pie

Southwest Pot Pie

Another terrific appetizer is the restaurant’s mussels with andouille sausage with an ale and garlic broth served with rustic bread. The mussels are fleshy with a delicious briny flavor that seems enhanced by the broth. Even better is the spicy pork andouille sausage, one of the things we’ve missed most about living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s one of our favorite American sausages with a pronounced flavor Cajuns love.  Listening to andouille being mispronounced (usually butchered) is almost as much fun as eating it, though the wait staff at Chama River seems to have no problem with this Cajun word.

Meatatarians might not make the sautéed pecan pork cutlet their first choice from among the beef entrees, but we enjoyed it thoroughly. Rarely have we seen lighter breading on a pork cutlet, allowing the focus on the flavor of the pork which was also tender enough to slice through with a fork. This entree is accompanied by a Thanksgiving worthy piñon-chile green chile stuffing and an apple chutney which goes well with the pork.

Grilled Quail: Spice rubbed and grilled quail served with bourbon beans, sautéed spinach and a bbq vinaigrette

From among the sandwich menu, our ever gracious host (the aforementioned Robert Griego) recommends the chicken salad sandwich. I know what you’re thinking–what can possibly be special about chicken salad, usually a blasé sandwich choice if there ever was one. The Chama River’s version is replete with basil and artichoke and is served on a delicious pretzel roll. It may not have an explosion of flavors, but the ingredients complement one another very well.  Another sandwich sensation is the smoked turkey pita club which features a house-smoked turkey with cheeses, avocado and BLT on three layers of pita. This triple-decker sandwich is fresh and delicious and can easily feed two.

There are other options than sandwiches on the lunch menu. One brimming with flavor is the Southwest Pot Pie, roasted chicken in a green chile gravy with root vegetables and peas in a light, flaky pastry crust. It’s better than the one we make at home which is saying something considering our pot pie was the best we’ve ever had. What makes the Chama River’s version so wonderful is the veritable explosion of flavors–the creaminess of the sauce, piquancy of the chile and the texture of the root vegetables.

Jerk Crusted Red Trout: Served with lobster-basil mashed potatoes, green bean sauté and mandarin glaze

Another popular lunch entree is the Butternut Squash Pasta, orechiete pasta with a medley of shitake mushrooms, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, shallots and spinach in a red chile-truffle butter. This entree is available with grilled chicken or rock shrimp. It’s not the type of entree that explodes on your taste buds. In fact, its flavor is rather subtle, but very pleasant and pleasing.

The Chama River Brewing Company doesn’t have a dinner menu per se, but you can order from the “entrees” section of the menu even during lunch hours.  The only drawback is that some of the sides aren’t prepared until evening hours.  As such, instead of your entree accompaniment being lobster-basil mashed potatoes, boursin “mac n cheese,” or any of the other entree sides, you’ll  have to settle for a lunchtime side such as French fries or coleslaw.  It’s a trade-off because the entree sides are quite good in their own right, better by far than the lunch sides.

Piñón Cup: A Belgian chocolate cup filled with vanilla bean ice cream. Topped with dulce de leche, Mexican chocolate sauce, and piñones

One example is the Jerk Crusted Red Trout which is normally served with lobster-basil mashed potatoes and green bean saute.  Order it even for a late lunch and you can forget about the potatoes and green beans.  You might not miss them too much because the jerk crusted red trout is excellent.  The jerk seasoning mix imparts several flavor combinations that go very well with the trout–flavor combinations that don’t overwhelm the delicate trout with incendiary heat so often prevalent in jerk seasonings.  The trout is also lightly drizzled with a “Mandarin glaze” the color of baby food.  Unlike some Americanized Chinese glazes which can be absolutely cloying, this one is light on the sweet and sour properties,  again complementing the fish quite well.

Grilled quail showcases the chef’s mastery of the grill.  Although quail is among the least “meaty” of the poultry family, it does have a surprisingly high ratio of breast meat relative to the bird’s size.  It also does not taste like chicken though its meat does vaguely resemble the dark meat from chicken in color and texture.  At Chama River, the quail is rubbed with a spice mixture that accentuates the just ever so slightly gamy flavor of the quail.  It’s utter deliciousness that will have you wishing quail was the size of a chicken.  This entree is served with bourbon beans and sauteed spinach tossed with a bbq vinaigrette.  Both are worthy accompaniments to the small in stature, large in flavor quail.

Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding: Drizzled with dulce de leche and topped with vanilla bean ice cream

Desserts at Chama River are a not-to-be-missed event–almost as inventive as they are delicious.  The Piñon Cup showcases a combination of flavors, textures and even nationalities.  It starts with a Belgian chocolate cup, whisper-thin at the sides but formidable at its base to hold in a couple of scoops of premium vanilla bean ice cream.  The ice cream is then topped with dulce de leche (a thick caramelized sauce used throughout Latin America) and Mexican chocolate sauce then topped with piñones.  The roasted piñon flavor so reminiscent of pine is the topper in many ways, but the entire dish is really a tribute to creativity.  The marriage of Belgian and Mexican chocolates is a marriage of contrasts, but contrasts which complement one another so very well.  This is a memorable dessert…but it’s not even the best dessert on the menu.

That honor would have to go to the cinnamon roll bread pudding which is drizzled with dulce de leche and topped with vanilla bean ice cream.  Why more restaurants don’t craft their bread pudding out of cinnamon roll bread is a mystery considering just how fabulous this Chama River dessert is.  This bread pudding has moved into my recently revised list of New Mexico’s very best bread puddings and I’ll go out on a limb and surmise that my friend and learned bread pudding connoisseur Larry McGoldrick will enjoy this one immensely.  Unlike some bread puddings, this one is not cloying, thanks perhaps to the absence of the icing so often applied profusely to cinnamon rolls.  It’s also apparent that just a little bit of salt is used on the cinnamon roll, a culinary technique designed to cut the sweetness while imparting salt’s unique flavor profile to desserts.  The vanilla bean ice cream is an excellent topper.

The future bodes well for the Chama River Brewing Company and with Robert Griego at the helm, maybe someday I’ll get over my broken heart with that order I’ve been craving of mango chutney chicken egg rolls with pickled ginger and an orange-chile dipping sauce followed by seared Ahi tuna and seaweed Timbale.

Chama River Brewing Co.
4939 Pan American, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 February 2011
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Butternut Squash Pasta, Southwest Pot Pie, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Smoked Turkey Pita Club, Chama Chili Nachos, Jerk Crusted Red Trout, Grilled Quail, Truffled Bleu Cheese Fries, Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding, Piñon Cup, Root Beer

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Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue & Espresso – Hatch, New Mexico

Sparky's in beautiful downtown Hatch, the green chile capital of the world

Sparky's in beautiful downtown Hatch, the green chile capital of the world

New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail not only celebrates one of the Land of Enchantment’s most iconic foods, it showcases the restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys which prepare our ubiquitous, incomparable green chile cheeseburger.  To New Mexicans, there is nothing as thoroughly soul-satisfying and utterly delicious!

What elevates a burger from the ordinary to the extraordinary is taste bud awakening, tongue tingling, olfactory arousing green chile, New Mexico’s official state vegetable (even though it’s technically a fruit).  In the continually evolving mosaic that describes New Mexico’s cultural intermingling, one constant is green chile, an essential ingredient in many of our recipes and THE centerpiece of any outstanding green chile cheeseburger.  Even such corporate megaliths as McDonald’s and Sonic try their hand at the green chile cheeseburger.

Sparky greets all visitors to his eponymous restaurant

It stands to reason that one of, if not THE very best green chile cheeseburger in the Land of Enchantment would be served in Hatch, the undisputed epicenter of New Mexico’s chile production.  Widely regarded as the “chile capital of the world,” the village’s population of around 1,200 citizens increases by twenty times as people from all over the world converge for its annual chile festival.  It’s a chile addict’s paradise, a celebration of chile in the milieu in which it is grown.

Every other day, locals and visitors alike converge at Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue & More, one of the most colorful restaurants in the state as well as one of its best purveyors of both green chile cheeseburgers and barbecue.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the most prolific Urbanspoon contributor in New Mexico, is taking his educated palate on a quest to discover all the best of New Mexico’s cuisine says Sparky’s serves up “quite possibly the best Green Chile Cheeseburger you are likely to get anyplace.”

Sparky's world-famous green chile cheeseburger with a side of pineapple coleslaw

To get to Sparky’s, you’ll take Exit 41 off Interstate 25, one of the most interesting and colorful stretches of highway in the state.  After crossing the murky and meandering Rio Grande, you’ll start to wonder if you’re in the Land of the Giants, the iconic fiberglass and concrete statues that were so prevalent along America’s highways and byways in the 1950s and 1960s.  This roadside art is part of the fabric of Americana, albeit a kitschy tradition that is fading with the passage of time (which aptly describes many of the statues themselves).

The epicenter of fiberglass statue land appears to be Franciscan RV, about a quarter of a mile in town.  A restored Muffler Man is the most prominent and prolific statue.  Holding a tiny model of a Winnebago RV in his upturned right hand, Muffler Man easily dwarfs other fiberglass statues in the fenced in complex. He’s much taller than any of the recreation vehicles in the complex, too.  The office area holds a veritable museum displaying everything from antique toys to old time jukeboxes and pianos.

Traverse about three-quarters of a mile further and you’ll be treated to even more fiberglass artwork on display.  On the south side of the street is an old-fashioned (circa 1962 or so) Chevrolet van with “Hatch Welcomes You” signage flanked on both sides by red and green chiles. Standing atop the van is a gigantic rooster, its chest puffed up like a bantam bodybuilder.

A mango and guajillo chile shake

A mango and guajillo chile shake

Directly across the street is the motherlode, a veritable village of fiberglass folk.  That’s where you’ll find Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue & Espresso.  Nattily attired in his red, white and blue spangled outfit is Uncle Sam, as tall as Muffler Man.  On the building’s roof are the progenitors of the A&W Burger family, Mama Burger and Papa Burger, both holding a large frosted mug of A&W Root Beer.  At sidewalk level, Colonel Sanders sits on a bench conversing with Ronald McDonald.

Wading in a concrete pool is a strange metallic creature, a bucket of bolts, gears and sprockets fashioned into an anthropomorphic being with what appears to be washboard abs (a real metal washboard). This would be Sparky, the restaurant’s mascot. Picnic tables in front of the restaurant include an explanation of how you can contribute to Sparky’s college fund, a most worthy cause.

Though the college fund donation is whimsical in nature, there is a very worthy cause for which you might want your voice heard. Bureaucrats from the New Mexico state Department of Transportation have apparently decided that some of Sparky’s roadside attractions are not in compliance with the Beautification Act of 1965. State officials have attempted to force Sparky’s to remove a giant fiberglass pig on a trailer as well as humongous hot dog shaped sign on the side of the road. Even an exemption from the city of Hatch has failed to dissuade state officials wanting to flex their jurisdiction over New Mexico Highway 26 which runs through Hatch.

When in Hatch, do as the locals do and order a green chile shake (right) or act like a tourist and have a chocolate shake (left)

Waging the good fight for common sense and freedom of expression are Josie and Teako Nunn, the popular proprietors of Sparky’s.  This dynamic duo is living their dream and thrilling their customers on a daily basis.  Josie Nunn is the restaurant’s designer and chief barista.  She procures premium coffee, roasted locally by Ocotillo Roasters of Las Cruces and serves it in a milieu in which there’s something to see at every turn–even a gigantic moose head mounted on the main dining room wall.

The barista’s other half is the barbecue man, Teako Nunn, a very experienced practitioner of the low-and-slow disciplines.  A certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge, Teako is usually seen tending to the large smoker behind the restaurant.  He patterns his barbecue after the barbecue in and around the hills of Austin, Texas where some of the nation’s best barbecue can be found.

The menu showcases Teako’s terrific barbecue.  The “Peoples Choice” is a three-quarter pound plate which includes four meats (pulled pork, brisket, sausage and one center-cut rib).  A half-pound plate includes one or two meats and two sides.   You can also opt to have your barbecue bounty on a sandwich or a half-pound of meat a la carte.  In any case, the barbecue is some of the very best in New Mexico.

Two meat combination platter: pulled pork sandwich, ribs, French fries and pineapple coleslaw

Two meat combination platter: pulled pork sandwich, ribs, French fries and pineapple coleslaw

The center-cut barbecue ribs are certainly in a class of their own with none of the annoying membrane that makes them difficult to eat nor any discernible fat save perhaps for just enough to flavor them optimally.  Fall-off-the-bone tender, the ribs are meaty and lightly smoked, the type of ribs of which you might want a dozen or more.  You can add sauce to taste if you desire, but it’s not needed.

The pulled pork is tender, flavorful, moist and as light as frost.  While some so-called barbecue experts can’t seem to infuse much flavor into their pork (and rely on cloying sauces to add that critical component–flavor), Sparky’s pulled pork is absolutely delicious, rich, complex and thoroughly addictive.  How good is Sparky’s barbecue?  Put it in the same class as the ‘cue at Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers in Embudo.  In other words, it’s among the very best barbecue in New Mexico.

The green chile cheeseburger is also in rarified company; it’s one of the three best of its genre in the state. Only the Bobcat Bite and the Buckhorn Tavern should even be mentioned in the same breath and Sparky’s green chile puts the chile in the other two to shame. This is green chile which will get your attention with its piquancy and its smokiness. It bites back and provides such a delicious endorphin rush, you’ll want another. The beef is hand-formed, hand-cut and hand-ground to a quarter-pound thickness and it’s prepared to your exacting degree of doneness. At medium, it’s absolutely perfect with a nice hint of pink and lots of juiciness.

A three-meat barbecue platter: ribs, brisket, pulled pork with a side of the best corn in New Mexico

A three-meat barbecue platter: ribs, brisket, pulled pork with a side of the best corn in New Mexico

When you place your order for a green chile cheeseburger, what will be called out to the line cooks is “one world famous.”  The burger is served naked–no lettuce, tomatoes, pickles or even mustard.  None of those are needed.  This “competition style” green chile cheeseburger includes only what is stated on its name.  For sheer purity and deliciousness, you don’t need anything else.  The beef patty is oversized, protruding well beyond the six-inch buns.  It’s a moist and delicious patty, as good as many steaks.  The green chile is the pride of Hatch, New Mexico, a glorious green with a piquancy that will get your attention, but also with a flavor that will remind you chile is a fruit.

Though its ambience is whimsical and fun, Sparky’s offers some wholly serious sides.  Don’t expect to find flaccid fries.  Sparky’s fries are thick and seasoned, perhaps double-fried to a golden, crispy hue on the outside and a delicious tenderness on the inside.  The pineapple coleslaw is reminiscent of the sensational slaw at the much-missed Independence Grill.  Finely chopped cabbage in a sweet salad cream punctuated by pineapple, it’s perfect accompaniment to both the barbecue and the green chile cheeseburger.

Perhaps the best of the sides is a bowl of green chile sweet creamed corn, large niblets of fresh corn swimming in a cream base infused with the incomparable flavor of green chile.  Wow!  Sweet and buttery, piquant and creamy, it’s the best corn you’ve had multiplied several times over.  Alas, only the seasoned beans fell short of the mark, thanks (you guessed it) to a cumin corruption.

Green Chile Meat and Cheese Burrito

Green Chile Meat and Cheese Burrito

Sparky’s green chile meat burrito is yet another surprise.  Instead of ground or shredded beef, a large tortilla is engorged with brisket and green chile, a combination that goes surprisingly well together.  The slightly smoky, slightly sweet brisket is tender and delicious especially when complemented by the fruity flavors of the green chile.  This is a hand-held treasure.

If espresso isn’t your thing, Sparky’s has a variety of thirst-slaking beverages available, including thick, cold milk shakes and homemade lemonade. The shakes are flavorful and teeth-rattling cold while the lemonade has just enough tanginess to pucker your lips.  If you like mixing sweet and piquant, you’ve got to try a mango and Guajillo shake.  Guajillo, a distinctive chile with a slightly fruity (berry) and piney flavor, is popular in salsas and soups as well as in Mexican mole. Melded with a mango flavored ice cream, it’s an adventure in taste contrasts.  Though it might not water your eyes with its piquancy, the Guajillo will certainly get your attention.

If you want to do as the locals do, order a green chile shake.  It’s essentially a vanilla shake with chopped green chile interspersed throughout.  The cold ice cream renders the green chile nearly frozen, changing the texture of the chile into a chewy, near Popsicle-like deliciousness.  Shakes, made with ice cream and milk, tend to be a good way to quell the piquancy of chile.  Ironically, the green chile on this shake is piquant enough to give you hiccups if you’re not a fire-eating New Mexican.  If for no other reason than to say “been there, done that,” everyone should try a green chile shake at least once.  Me, I liked it a lot and will have it each and every visit.

Pulled pork with two sides: green chile corn and pineapple coleslaw

Sparky’s is all about small-town hospitality, outrageous fun and some of the very best barbecue and burgers in the Land of Enchantment.  An avowed Norteno, I may secede to the south just to be closer to this fun and fabulous restaurant.

Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue & Espresso
115 Franklin Street
Hatch, New Mexico
(575) 267-4222
Web Site
1st VISIT: 11 April 2010
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger,  Combination Barbecue Platters (Ribs, Pulled Pork), Pineapple Coleslaw, Green Chile Corn, Green Chile Meat Burrito, Mango and Guajillo Shake, Chocolate Shake, Lemonade, Brisket, Green Chile Shake

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Chope’s – La Mesa, New Mexico

Chope’s, a 150-year old home converted into one of New Mexico’s very best restaurants (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our inaugural visit several years ago, we ran into a former Las Cruces resident now living in the nation’s capital. His near teary-eyed testimony about how much he missed Chope’s was more powerful than a Sunday sermon.   When he kissed the hallowed ground in front of Chope’s, we knew he meant it.  An elderly gentleman recounted the time Chope’s salsa was so hot it made him hiccup for three days.  A middle-aged woman from Las Cruces rhapsodized about Chope’s chile rellenos, her testimony practically eliciting involuntary salivation in the impromptu audience of queued patrons.  Chope’s has had a similar effect on most its guests for six generations.

Chope’s Bar next door serves the very same menu as the restaurant next door

Perhaps the consummate mom-and-pop operation, Chope’s had the most humble of beginnings.  Nearly a century ago,–1915 to be precise–Longina Benavides began selling enchiladas to her neighbors in the farming community of La Mesa.  A   kerosene lantern hanging outside the front door of the circa 1850s family home signaled the availability of  enchiladas just off the stove.  When Longina’s son Jose inherited the home, he and his wife Lupe continued the family tradition of feeding their neighbors.  They named the family business “Chope’s,” the nickname Jose’s father had given him.

Chope passed away in 1990, but his legacy lives on.  So do stories of his decades-long run as Democratic precinct chairman for La Mesa.  Savvy candidates knew that in order to carry the county, an endorsement from the popular restaurateur was a must.    Chope was also a staunch advocate of higher education, his daughters and granddaughters all having attended New Mexico State University and all have or continue to work at the restaurant in one capacity or another.  Chope’s remains an Aggie alumni favorite.

The main dining room at Chope’s (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

The glass-half-empty crowd will lament the “middle of nowhere” journey to Chope’s, a twenty-mile jaunt from Las Cruces along scenic Highway 28, taking virtually the same route Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate traveled in 1598.  It’s a slow, meandering drive that might seem interminable if you’re famished.  Others will enjoy the journey which bisects the historic village of Mesilla and the sprawling Stahmann Farms, the world’s largest family-owned pecan farm with some 180,000 trees producing between eight- and ten-million pounds of pecans per year.  Tree limbs from both sides of the highway meet overhead, providing a shade tunnel that seems like something out of a fairy tale.

First-timers might be confused when they arrive at Chope’s. Their first inclination might be to enter the colorful building with the signage which reads “Chope’s Town Cafe” just above clusters of painted purple grapes on the vine.  The grapes precede the slogan “You can’t miss with Italian Swiss Colony wines…vinos deliciosos.”  That building houses Chope’s bar which is renown for its varied selection of adult beverages: imported beers, premium tequilas and pitchers of margaritas.  The bar does offer the entire menu, but the restaurant is actually next door in the house in which Chope was born.  The bar is favored by bikers as evidenced by bikes of all types parked in front of the complex.

Salsa and Chips at Chope’s

The old house is charming in a homey “having all your relatives in your dining room for Christmas” sort of way.   It’s perpetually crowded with seating in personal-space proximity.  It’s not uncommon for diners in adjacent tables to continue the neighborly discourse they initiated when they stood together in line waiting for the restaurant to open. Until 2009, the  walls on the dining rooms were adorned in faux wood paneling festooned with plaques and certificates. A make-over in 2009 has brought each of the three dining rooms into the twentieth-century.  The walls are now painted in soft colors with several nichos indenting the wall, the perfect spot for art.

Above the door to the kitchen, which is adjacent to the main dining room, is a ceramic placard reading “Lupe’s Comedor.”  To the right are portraits of Chope and Lupe (who still visits the kitchen on occasion to make sure her recipes are followed to the letter).  Lupe’s Comedor is the domain of deliciousness in which the magic happens, where three tons of autumn-harvested Mesilla Valley chile are served to devoted diners.  For the benefit of unacculturated visitors and tourists, the menu includes a small dictionary that defines  traditional New Mexican food (interestingly, enchiladas are misspelled).  The back of the menu regales guests with the history of Chope’s and of the Benavides family.

Chope’s unique con queso with four flour tortillas

The epitome of excellence and perhaps best use of a long green chile anywhere is in the form of a chile relleno from Chope’s which doesn’t use the benign Poblano as many other restaurants do.  The chile is stuffed (though not so much that it puffs up) with a mild white cheese, lightly breaded in an eggy flour batter and fried to a crisp.  The chile rellenos, and there may be none better anywhere in New Mexico, are available as an a la carte item or in quantities of three.   Unlike some chile rellenos throughout New Mexico, these are not smothered in chile or melted cheese.  That’s the way it should be–let the rellenos speak for themselves. The restaurant’s motto “stuff it,” by the way, relates to the relleno and does not, as some might suspect, reflect Chope’s sentiment toward Republicans.

The salsa is liquefied fire.  It is easily the most incendiary item on the menu and it’s complementary.  if you happen to be there when the restaurant opens up, you might espy the wait staff ensuring each table has chips and salsa.  The chips are thick and low in salt.  They’re formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa though if you’re not a fire-eater, you’ll likely just dip the tip of the chip into the salsa.  It’ll still bite you back.  Aside from its potent piquancy, it’s a very flavorful salsa, showcasing the melding of ingredients in perfect proportion to one another.

Combination Plate #4: Two enchiladas Christmas style, one taco, one chile relleno, beans and rice (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

To mollify your scorched tongue, you might want to order the chile con queso, another Chope’s menu item which might be the very best in New Mexico.  It’s an unconventional con queso, the antithesis of the melted glop some restaurants try to pass off as con queso.  It’s more akin to a green chile stew, with or without meat, topped with a melting white cheese…and it is absolutely fabulous.  Instead of chips, the con queso is accompanied by four flour tortillas, each about five-inches in diameter and about an eighth of an inch thick, not the paper-thin abomination inferior restaurants serve.  Use the tortillas to scoop up the con queso and you’ll be amazed at the magnificent marriage of green chile and cheese.

Combination platters will allow you to maximize your adventure in taste.  My favorite is combination plate number four: two enchiladas, one taco, one chile relleno, beans and rice.  Of course, I order this platter “Christmas style,” with both red and green chile.  The green chile is usually slightly more piquant than the red.  The green chile is perfectly roasted and evinces just why chile is considered a fruit and not a vegetable.  Amidst the glorious piquancy, you can taste a succulent sweetness and best of all, it’s not pureed; it’s chopped into small bits. The red chile is a deep red, wholly unlike most of the red chile served in restaurants throughout northern New Mexico.  The color and flavor are reminiscent of a good chile Caribe (concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency) though I have not been able to discern any of the usual pod remnants.

The world-famous Chope’s chile relleno.

The enchiladas are among the very best in New Mexico.  They’re rolled, not stacked, and engorged with cheese then topped with a blend of perfectly melted white and Cheddar cheeses.  The enchiladas are so good, in fact, that a fried egg is wholly unnecessary.   I’ve always contented that southern New Mexico makes better enchiladas than my beloved north and Chope’s validates that opinion. Tacos are also terrific, made with well-seasoned ground beef enveloped by soft corn tortillas and accompanied by lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.  Though combination plate number four includes a taco, it’s advisable to order at least one a la carte taco.  To say they’re fabulous is an understatement.  Both beans and rice are also ridiculously good.  The rice is fluffy and light, wholly unlike the clumpy, liquefied rice some restaurants serve.  The beans are refried and topped with that wonderful white cheese Chope’s uses so well.

For  chile-phobic diners, Chope’s has a unique offering all will love called tapatias, a crispy fried tostada topped with shredded lettuce, white cheese and a vegetable medley (corn, peas, carrots), the type of which grade school students throughout America leave on their plates.  This is an amazing entree, both for its simplicity and for its deliciousness.  The secret has got to be sauteing the meat and the vegetables (definitely not from a can, but likely the frozen variety) together.  The shredded lettuce is made creamy with a dollop or two of mayonnaise and is used as the topper for this wonderful surprise.  The challenge is in keeping the tostada intact because the toppings are generous.

A “Tapatio,” yet another ingenious Chope’s creation

My friend Steve Coleman of Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page says, “at Chope’s you enter the realm of world-class roadfood.” What a perfect assessment! Chope’s is not a pretentious gourmet restaurant, but it has won over the hearts and appetites of diners from throughout the world who recognize it for what it is–New Mexican home cooking as good as it can possibly be. For New Mexican food I rate it just below Mary & Tito’s, the James Beard award-winning treasure in Albuquerque and long, my very favorite restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. That’s my paean to a Land of Enchantment gem in little La Mesa!

Route 28
La Mesa, New Mexico
(505) 233-3420

LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Chile Rellenos, Tacos, Con Queso, Tapatio

Chopes Town Cafe on Urbanspoon

Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill & Burgers – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Bumble Bee’s Burgers on Cerrillos in Santa Fe

The economic malaise of recent years has prompted Americans to become more judicious on how they spend their disposable income (the little that’s left after all the usual bills, expenses and taxes are paid off).  Instead of splurging on gourmet meals at high-end restaurants, Americans are going to those same high-end restaurants for a reliable old favorite that in years past would not have graced their menus.  More than ever, Americans are turning to an American original,  our ultimate comfort food and favorite sandwich–the hamburger–and not the “gobble and go” burgers proffered by the bastions of fast food.

American consumers have made it known through their wallets and purses that despite the current economic environment, the one luxury they are not willing to cut back on is a premium burger.  Technomic, a food service industry consultant, confirms that “consumers are willing to pay more for a specialty burger, especially a premium burger, than they are for a standard burger, regardless of restaurant segment.”  That’s why even high-end restaurants and classically trained chefs make sure there’s a premium burger on their menu.

Chocolate Shake

In recent years, when restaurant traffic has consistently experienced quarter-after-quarter declines, the  NPD Group, a market research expert, reports that the only broad food category to post growth in both full-service and quick-service restaurants is the burger and sandwich segment.  More than 22 billion burgers, sandwiches and wraps were consumed across the fruited plain in 2010 and there appears to be no surcease to their popularity.

What gives the burger its timeless appeal? Restaurant & Institutions, an industry trade magazine puts it succinctly: “burgers represent the ultimate marriage of value and indulgence.” That is certainly not an assessment of the fast food burger genre, especially the ilk of which are constructed with a mystery meat amalgam of fillers and additives which would make Taco Bell proud.  It’s an apt description of premium burgers, the type of which can now be found in Santa Fe’s Bumble Bee’s Burgers on Cerrillos.

Homemade potato chips at Bumble Bee’s Burgers

If the appellation “Bumble Bee’s” sounds familiar, you’re undoubtedly acquainted with Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill which has been serving healthy Mexican food  in two Santa Fe locations for nearly a decade.  Just as owner Bob Weil discerned a niche opportunity for healthy Mexican food, he’s betting the national premium hamburger craze is a trend that will go over well in New Mexico, too.  Early indications are that his gamble will pay off.

Rather than launch his burger concept in a new location, Weil converted one of his two Santa Fe Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill locations into a premium burger eatery. Bumble Bee’s Burgers also offers hot dogs (National Hebrew all-beef), shakes, malts, French fries, onion rings, bee-stings (battered, sliced jalapeños and onions), grilled cheese sandwich and a bee-L.T.

Half-pound bacon cheeseburger

There are only six burgers on the menu, but with a little creativity and an enviable toppings menu, the number of flavor combinations seem endless.  The first burger on the menu is New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger which, frankly, requires no other toppings than those listed on its name.  Also available are a bacon burger, a bacon cheeseburger, a vegan “Boca” burger, a cheeseburger and a hamburger.  All burgers are constructed from 100-percent fresh certified Angus beef and are available at quarter-pound or half-pound sizes.

The toppings–all free–are Bee’s burger sauce (homemade 1000 Island dressing with a touch of chipotle), lettuce, tomato, pickles, relish, sauteed onions, chopped onions, ketchup, mayo, mustard and jalapeños.  Green chile, cheese and bacon can be added to any burger for a pittance.  You can also “crunchify” your burger by adding Bumble Bee’s homemade chips.  Instead of “having it your way” as advertised by Burger King, you can have it “all the way” with Bee’s burger sauce, lettuce, tomato, sauteed onions and pickles.

Half-pound green chile cheeseburger

The half-pound “all the way” green chile cheeseburger is formidable, a juicy behemoth that threatens to overwhelm the sesame seed buns which  fall apart at the sheer moistness and volume of the toppings and beef.  It makes for a messy, multi-napkin affair.  The Bee’s burger sauce is terrific, better burger adornment than mustard, mayo or ketchup.  The grilled onions are sweet and delicious, but the real surprise is the green chile, a blend of mild and hot green chile cultivated by a New Mexican farmer who hand-washes the crop.  With a discernible piquancy, it’ll leave many of its competitors green with envy.

The homemade potato chips might make you think twice about ordering French fries with your burger.  The chips are relatively low in grease and salt, perhaps a hold-over to the healthy food concept.  One order is large enough for two people.  Wash these chips down with a rich chocolate shake, made with ice cream and served cold.  The chocolate is rich and delicious, a thirst-quenching, teeth-chattering blend.

After the 2004 launch of Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, readers of the Santa Fe Reporter named it “best new restaurant in Santa Fe” two consecutive years against formidable competition.  Based on the popularity of premium burgers, Bumble Bee’s Burgers may follow suit.

Bumble Bee’s Burgers
3777 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chocolate Shake, Homemade Potato Chips, Half-Pound Bacon Cheeseburger, Half-Pound Green Chile Cheeseburger

Bumble Bee's Burgers on Urbanspoon

Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Antonio’s for New Mexican food on Gibson Blvd.

A veritable melting pot of cultures from throughout the world, the Duke City has a laid-back attitude toward diversity, a live and let live realization that our differences aren’t as important as all we have in common. Perhaps nowhere is that  acceptance better practiced than at Kirtland Air Force Base, appropriately bordered by Albuquerque’s International District.  Back in the early 1980s, I had the privilege of being stationed at the largest military installation in New Mexico where my closest friends and colleagues were from New York, Trinidad, Barbados, Georgia, California and Indiana.  Not only were our backgrounds vastly different, so were many of our opinions and ideologies.

Aside from our common patriotic values, what most brought us together was our love of culinary diversity.  We not only broke bread together, we broke tortilla, pita, croissants, arepas, Challah, chapati, naan, lavosh, injera and every other variation of the staff of life we could find.  Ever the proud New Mexican, it pleased me to no end to see how quickly and how deeply a love for New Mexican food became ingrained in my colleagues, some of whom have retired in New Mexico where they continue to enjoy the Land of Enchantment’s  incomparable cuisine.

Chips and salsa at Antonio’s

Our favorites, and not solely because of proximity to the base, were Cervantes and the long defunct Mint Cafe, both of whom served the most piquant chile in the city at the time.  With a sadistic glee, we delighted in taking new members of the dreaded Inspector General (IG) staff for New Mexican food, challenging them to test their mettle against the potent peppers we loved so much.  It gave us more than a measure of satisfaction to see the dreaded nit-pickers’ brows glisten with sweat as their tongues and taste buds were singed by the red and green we loved so much.  Because the IG staff rotated every two or three years, there were always novitiate staffers to break in.

The diversity and broad-mindedness of retired and active duty personnel explains, to a large extent, why the area immediately surrounding Kirtland Air Force Base has always had such broad culinary diversity.  That area–what is now called the International District–is home to one of the city’s oldest Vietnamese restaurants (Saigon Far East) and was, until it closed, home to one of the city’s sushi pioneers (Taka Sushi).  In recent years, it has seen the opening of the Duke City’s second Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño, a highly regarded Asian fusion restaurant in the Asian Grill and several other restaurants my friends would (and some do) enjoy very much.

A carne adovada skillet with papitas, Spanish rice and a fried egg

In 2009, Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina opened its doors–or more accurately reopened its doors–in the Siesta Hills Shopping Center.  It’s situated in the front half of the sprawling complex which houses The Bird of Paradise bar and is next door to the Bird of Paradise Liquor Store, all three owned by the Gabaldon family.  The restaurant sits far back in the strip mall and from Gibson is obfuscated somewhat by the Copper Canyon and Pizza 9 restaurants.  The Gabaldons previous restaurant endeavor in the complex was Jack’s Pizza which is still available in the bar area.  This is the second instantiation of Antonio’s operated by the Gabaldons.  Here’s betting this one makes it–provided the word spreads quickly.  John Lucas, a faithful reader of this blog, is doing his part, recommending Antonio’s highly as a restaurant serving “excellent food.”

Step into the dining room and chances are there won’t be many diners occupying the dozen or so tables. That’s both a shame (considering the quality of the food) and a surprise considering visitors to the restaurant’s Web site will, as of this writing, qualify for a free lunch. The dining room is relatively stark with none of the stereotypical trappings and accouterments of most New Mexican and Mexican restaurants in the city.  Any commotion will come from the back room where an expansive bar and several pool tables draw in larger and more boisterous crowds.

Christmas-style Enchiladas with a fried egg over medium

The menu is somewhat abbreviated–seven New Mexican plates, fourteen New Mexican dinners, five soups and salads, six appetizers and a number of a la carte items and sides.  There aren’t any surprises–no hybrid or reinvented faux New Mexican dishes–only authentic dishes prepared in traditional ways.  Well…mostly. There is this one salsa that’s just a bit different.  It’s wholly unlike traditional New Mexican salsa crafted from tomatoes, onions, garlic and either green chile or jalapeños.  It’s an a dark, sweet salsa which I surmise is made from ancho chiles (known as chile pasilla in the Michoacan region of Mexico), an aromatic, brownish-reddish chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and slightly sweet taste with a hint of residual bitterness.  Anyway, this is an “either you love it or you don’t” type of salsa, but you’ll never get the wait staff to tell you exactly what’s in it that makes it so sweet.  In fact, they no longer even ask the cook who’s made it clear, that’s one secret which won’t be divulged.

This surprise of a salsa is one of two salsas brought to your table along with crisp, low-salt chips resilient enough for scooping up salsa.  The other salsa is more traditional, a jalapeño and tomato-based blend of medium piquancy.  Salsa and chips are complementary with the New Mexican dinners, but additional orders will cost you $1.50.  The New Mexican dinners include beans and rice as well as four of the most puffed-up sopaipillas you’ll ever see served with real honey, not that honey-flavored syrup some restaurants serve.  The sopaipillas are humongous and they’re served straight out of the fryer.  Don’t let them cool down; eat them while the wisps of steam waft upwards to your awaiting nostrils.

Fresh, warm, delicious sopaipillas

An excellent choice from the New Mexican Plates portion of the menu is the carne adovada skillet served with papitas, beans and Spanish rice.  Carne adovada is the quintessential New Mexican dish, a dish we can proudly call our own…a dish that didn’t originate in Mexico, Texas, Arizona or anywhere else.  As such, New Mexican restaurants should be well-practiced and highly proficient at preparing this succulent marinated pork dish.  Antonio’s certainly is.  Their rendition of carne adovada is fork-tender and delicious, each  porcine cube  marinated in a mild, but tasty chile.  The papitas form a perfect partnership for the carne adovada.  Also cubed, the papitas are fried to a golden hue and are perfectly salted.

The enchilada dinner–three rolled chicken, beef or cheese enchiladas with onions, garnished with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and topped with melted Cheddar and your choice of red or green chile–is also quite good.  It’s better if the accommodating kitchen staff will let you have one of each type of enchilada so you can have the best of three worlds.  The best of the three is the chicken enchilada which is moist and tender.  The enchiladas are rolled in lightly fried corn tortillas.  Melted shredded Cheddar decorates and flavors them.  This dinner is served with beans and Spanish rice, both of which are quite good.  The means, in fact, are some of the best in town.

A la carte taco

An a la carte taco, a crispy corn tortilla engorged with ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomato and melted Cheddar is a nice vehicle for the traditional New Mexican salsa.  The ground beef is well-seasoned but is greatly improved by the fresh-tasting salsa.  Tacos are but one of several items on the a la carte section of the menu.

Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina is a fine addition to the International District’s diverse and delicious dining scene.  It’s a restaurant I imagine my Air Force colleagues and I would have added to our restaurant rotation.

Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina
5409 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-3151
LATEST VISIT: 5 February 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Carne Adovada Skillet, Sopaipillas, Tacos