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St Clair Winery & Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

St Clair Winery & Bistro

St Clair Winery & Bistro

While conducting research to write this review, I uncovered varying accounts as to the genesis of wine-making in New Mexico.  The New Mexico Wine Country Web site indicates the first Spanish explorers and settlers brought their European wines grapes with them as they made the Rio Grande valley their new home in the early 1500s. The original grape stocks supposedly remain the source of many of New Mexico’s vinters to this day.

Another source relates that in 1629, Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico in defiance to Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world. Those first wines were planted  on the east bank of the Rio Grande slightly north of the village of present day San Antonio by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan monk. Despite conflicting accounts, one fact appears incontrovertible–New Mexico is the oldest wine-making region in the country.

A loaf of bread with an herbed (parsley, thyme, garlic) butter

Today the fruit of the vine is cultivated in more than 5,000 acres throughout the Rio Grande valley. St. Clair Winery, situated in the fecund Mimbres Valley is the state’s largest winery. Thanks to day and night time temperature variances that can range by as much as 30 degrees and a growing elevation of 4,500 feet, the winery is reputed to grow some of the best grapes in New Mexico.  Forty different types of grapes produce several award-winning wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah.

The Deming-based winery sits on several hundred acres and has a 500,000 gallon capacity distributed among seventy different wines under eight labels.  It is among the 100 largest wineries in the United States with an annual production of 80,000 cases of wines.  Its grapes are trucked from its 200-acre vineyards fifty miles away just outside Lordsburg.  At the winery, the grapes are filtered and pressed.  Some are barrel-aged for as long as 18 months.  In the January, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, my friend Lesley King profiled the wine-making process at the St. Clair Winery for her monthly King of the Road feature.

European Nosh

European Nosh

In 2005, St. Clair Winery launched a wine-tasting room and bistro on the outskirts of historic Old Town Plaza and on the site of the now defunct Rio Grande Cantina. Bacchus would be proud.  An extensive wine list showcases St. Clair wines which may be enjoyed in the bistro or the stylishly appointed wine bar. The wine shop also features some of our favorite gourmet offerings as well as wine accessories. St. Clair Bistros can also be found in Las Cruces and Farmington in addition to the tasting room in Deming.

The bistro’s menu is a vehicle for the diversity of St. Clair wines which are used to accentuate the sauces and gravies on most menu items as well as salad dressings and even the bistro’s signature soup d jour.  The menus describe the best wine pairings for the bistro’s delicious French country dishes.  An old-world style dining room and spacious outdoor patio provide an enjoyable venue for generally very good dining.  Live jazz music Wednesday through Sunday nights will enliven your dining experience.

Mac & Cheese Wedge: homemade mac and cheese baked with fresh Alfredo sauce and penne pasta topped with creamy cheese sauce and grated Cheddar.

One of the best precursors to a meal at the bistro has got to be the Artisan nosh platter which will challenge you to select three from among ten different cheeses to relish with Kalamata olives (thankfully pitted), grapes, chocolate, mango chutney and homemade crostini. In three visits, these some of the cheeses we’ve opted for:

  • Manchengo (a hard-textured, relatively mild Spanish cheese made from sheep)
  • Emmental (a sweetly aromatic hard cheese characterized by large holes)
  • Asiago (a fruity, slightly sharp cheese with an interior full of small holes)
  • New Mexico goat cheese (soft and creamy with a slightly sour taste)
  • hard Cheddar (a smooth-textured, sharp cheese named for one of our favorite English villages).

Each cheese resonates the inherent flavor of the other items on the platter (and it is one prodigious platter), whether that flavor be sweetness or acidity or anything in between. It instantly became one of our very favorite appetizers in town. You don’t have to be a turophiliac (someone who is obsessed with cheese) to enjoy the wide-variety and surprisingly high quality of the cheeses available.

NM Goat Cheese & Roasted Peppers on Panini bread.

NM Goat Cheese & Roasted Peppers on Panini bread.

The menu includes two other nosh platters–the American nosh and the Crostini nosh, both of which include their own pleasant surprises. Other sumptuous appetizers are also available.  The Bistro’s Mac & Cheese Wedge, homemade mac and cheese baked with fresh Alfredo sauce and penne pasta topped with creamy cheese sauce and grated Cheddar, is sinfully rich, a decadent bowlful of richness.  This is an entree-sized appetizer  easily big enough for two to share.  It’s an adult mac and cheese with heady cheeses and perfectly prepared penne.

Though it may appear at first glance that the lunch menu is dominated by sandwiches and salads, upon further study, you’ll find that there are a multitude of entrees with only a handful not available for lunch. The dinner menu showcases slow-roasted selections which take a bit longer to prepare.  Also available only after 4PM daily is the bistro’s prime rib.  During dinner servings, which begin at 4PM, the sandwiches and lunch pastas come off the menu.  All in all, the menu selections are extensive in both quantity and variety.

Flat iron steak topped with Cabarnet infused bleu cheese crumbles and potatoes au gratin

Many lunch and dinner entrees are served with the house bread, a wonderful loaf accompanied by an herbed (parsley, thyme, garlic) butter.  It’s a delicious, crusty bread enlivened by a terrific butter.  That bread is the perfect canvas for the bistro’s panini sandwiches.  The ham and brie sandwich, however, is served on a multi-grain bread  dressed with a honey Dijon mustard. A more pungent mustard with a powerful presence would have accentuated, maybe even made too strong the sharp, creamy cheese.  The honey Dijon instead provides a nice contrast and marries wonderfully with the shaved ham.

Even better is the New Mexico Goat Cheese & Roasted Peppers panini sandwich in which the goat cheese should be and is the starring attraction. The sweetness of the roasted peppers (primarily red) are a real complement to the sharpness  and slightly sour taste of the goat cheese.  New Mexico should be very proud of its award-winning goat cheeses, most of which are good enough to convert even the most staunch chevre chastising diner.

Panino di Prosciutto y Mozzarella

Panino di Prosciutto y Mozzarella

The slow-roasted dinner entrees, including the “king of roasts” prime rib are slow-roasted and therefore not available until after 4PM.  These are served with homemade  mashed potatoes and a fresh vegetable medley.  Perhaps more than any other menu items, the slow-roasted dinner entrees truly accentuate the wines with which they are prepared.  The garlic chicken, for example, is slow-cooked in Chardonnay along with enough garlic (an amazing 40 cloves) to ward off a family of werewolves. Thankfully the slow cooking renders the cloves sweet and as tender as dumplings.  On this French country style dish, the  chicken falls off the bone in a manner reminiscent of coq au vin.

My Midwestern born and bred wife certifies the Merlot braised pot roast as among the best she’s had outside of her native Chicago. Tender enough to be eaten with a fork, the pot roast is well-seasoned and delicious.  It is seared and slow-roasted in its own delicious juices.  This is pot roast the type of which you might find directly above a picture of comfort food.  It’s a meaty elixir for whatever ails you, a true carnivore’s delight.

Pasta del Faro: Fresh garlic and olive oil with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Greek olives, red peppers and capers sauteed in Chardonnay and topped with feta cheese.

Available for both lunch and dinner is an eight-ounce flat iron steak topped with Cabernet-infused bleu cheese crumbles and accompanied by potatoes au gratin.  Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak.  The bleu cheese sauce and crumbles accentuate that beefy flavor with the pungent sharpness of one of my favorite cheeses, making me wish there were more than eight-ounces to enjoy.  The potatoes au gratin are perfectly prepared with just enough more than a hint of cheese, but not so much that it dominates the sweet flavor profile of the potatoes.

Aside from the sandwich menu, the only other section of the menu which doesn’t seem to be  entirely a vehicle showcase for  St. Clair wines is the pasta section where various sauces adorn a phalanx of pastas.  The pasta cordon bleu features seasoned chicken, ham and garlic sautéed in olive oil and basil  tossed with a Dijon cream sauce and topped with  Provolone cheese. Served on a bed of penne pasta, it is nearly as rich as pasta carbonara.

Bailey's Chocolate Delight

Bailey's Chocolate Delight

The Pasta del Faro is another adventure in pure pasta pleasure and flavor discernment.  This creative entree–fresh garlic and olive oil with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Greek olives, red peppers and capers–is sauteed in Chardonnay and topped with feta cheese.  There is a lot going on in this dish–a lot of flavor contrasts pitting very strong tastes against one another that go surprisingly well together.  It’s a bountiful dish big enough for two to share or for a nice meal the next day when the flavors have penetrated even further.

The bistro has the audacity to call one of its desserts Jackson Square bread pudding. Having sampled almost every bread pudding offered within blocks of Jackson Square, we savored the opportunity to debunk or validate whether this dessert warranted its name.  This wonderful bread pudding passed muster! A New Orleans French toast thick slice of bread is topped with golden raisins, white and dark chocolate, egg custard and topped with homemade butter rum sauce. This bread pudding ranks as one of the five best in New Mexico on both mine and excelsior Larry McGoldrick‘s rankings.

Praline Bread Pudding topped with a homemade butter whiskey sauce

Don’t ever and I mean never let the sweet-talking wait staff talk you into trying another dessert, least of all another bread pudding.  In 2011, the Bistro introduced a second bread pudding, this one showcasing the flavor of pralines and pecans, two staples of the deep south.  Topped with a homemade butter whiskey sauce, this bread pudding suffers from the same fate which befalls other bread puddings.  It is absolutely cloying, not tempered at all by just a dash of salt.  It’s definitely not in the same league as the fabulous Jackson Square bread pudding.

Chocolate lovers and those who don’t necessarily appreciate the fine qualities of bread pudding (and for this, they should seek therapy) might delight in the Bailey’s Chocolate Delight offering, two sheets of chocolate cake separated with a chocolate and Bailey’s Irish cream mousse and topped with confectionery sugar. You can almost feel those calories piling on and your teeth’s mock protesting as you eat forkful after forkful of this decadent, oh-so-chocolaty treat.

Whether you’re an oenophile (someone who appreciates and knows wine) or a gastronome around town, you’ll find both creative and delicious wines and very good food at the St. Clair Winery & Bistro, a French country treasure in Old Town Albuquerque.

St Clair Winery & Bistro
901 Rio Grande
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 243-9916
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 26 February 2011
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Nosh Platter; Jackson Square Bread Pudding, Pasta del Faro, Mac & Cheese Wedge

St. Clair Winery & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Chama River Brewing Co. – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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, NM
Web Site

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

Chama River Brewery on Urbanspoon

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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