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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
# OF VISITS: 6
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