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Bandido Hideout – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The masked luchador is a mainstay on Central Avenue by the University of New Mexico

Lucha libre, a Spanish phrase loosely translated into English as “free-style fighting,” is not just a genre of professional wrestling, it is the poor man’s theater in Mexico.  For a mere pittance, the common man can treat his entire family to an incredible world in which classic battles of good versus evil are waged by stalwart heroes (los technicos) and compelling villains (los rudos).

Throngs of frenetic fans suspend their disbelief as muscular luchadores perform spectacular high-flying moves and execute joint-wrenching holds in the squared circle.  Lucha libre’s theatrics are enhanced by the presence of wrestlers whose identities are protected by colorful masks designed to evoke archetypal images of animals, heroes and gods.  The luchadores take on the persona represented by their masks.

A mainstay on Central Avenue by the University of New Mexico

On any given day, on a Central Avenue median between the Bandido Hideout restaurant and the University of New Mexico, you can spot a masked luchador sporting a sandwich board advertising “1/2 Rotisserie Chicken.”  You’ve got to wonder what persona his mask represents–El Taco Technico,  Guacamole Guapo, Señor Salsa…  The staff at Bandido Hideout confirms that like the mail carrier, neither rain, nor sleet nor Albuquerque’s winds will stay this luchador from the entertaining completion of his appointed route on Central Avenue.

The truth is, that now famous masked wrestler has been steering first-time patrons into the Bandido Hideout for several years.  The second time, those diners return on their own to a very good restaurant that’s as colorful as many of Mexico’s favorite masked luchadores.  The Bandido Hideout is a sensory overload for your senses with multi-hued sponge painted walls, murals depicting Aztec life and on Fridays and Sundays, music by Mariachi Tenampa, perhaps New Mexico’s premier professional mariachi group.

The colorful, festive interior of Bandido Hideout

On many a weekend, the Bandido Hideout has also been the salvation for revelers experiencing “la cruda” (a hangover).  Who needs “hair of the dog” when you’ve got menudo, a long recognized cure for what ails you after a long night (or six) of imbibing adult beverages?  For less than the cost of a quart of Mad Dog, diners can consume as much menudo as they’d like at the Bandido.  Since menudo is an acquired taste, many non-drinkers just “settle” for good Mexican food.

Three salsas and a basket of chips reach your table shortly after you do.  The salsa de arbol is the most piquant, but some of its sting is remediated by the infusion of lime.  The guacamole based salsa is only mildly piquant but rich in the buttery smooth flavor of well-ripened avocados.  The third salsa is rarely seen in New Mexico, but is common in the state of Puebla.  It’s salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, a peanut salsa with chile Guajillo.  It may remind you of the peanut sauces so prevalent in Thai foods without the sometimes tooth-decaying sweetness.

Salsas and chips

While just about everything at the Hideout will please your palate, if you’re looking for something incendiary, you might not find it, but just in case you happen upon a particularly piquant chile vein, you can wash it down with some of the best cinnamon-dusted horchata in town.  The limonada is also quite refreshing as are the other aguas frescas: melon and sandia (watermelon).  The aguas frescas are served in gigantic goblets which are faithfully replenished almost as quickly as you drain them.

Tacos and tortas are but two of the specialties at the Bandido Hideout and for less than $5, you can sample three of a kind or mix and match from among several excellent taco options.  The tacos al pastor, a Mexican mainstay comprised of spiced pork garnished with chopped cilantro, onion and pineapple will remind you of the folded treasures sold in Mexico’s taquerias.  Another favorite is the chile relleno taco in which a wedge of Mexican queso is jammed inside a stringy green chile then placed on a steaming corn tortilla.

Agua Fresca de Sandia

Most of the ingredients that fill your tacos are also available on tortas, Mexican sandwiches on warm bolillo bread.  The torta de hamon is a smart choice thanks to a generous smear of savory guacamole, beans and sour cream sharing bun space with some of the best Mexican ham you’ll find north of the border.

A seascape on the restaurant’s far southern wall might just inspire you to try some of the menu’s mariscos, an early favorite of which are the Camarones Costa Azul (literally shrimp from the Blue Coast).  Eight California shrimp are stuffed with queso Mexicana then enrobed in crispy bacon for a taste you’ll risk shark-infested waters to obtain.  A citrus-mustard dipping sauce is provided but to dip the shrimp into anything but your mouth would be desecration.

Camarones Costa Azul

In Camarones Tropical, the shrimp are prepared in a white wine and orange sauce then served with grilled pineapple slices and grapes for a combination of fruity and briny tastes sure to please any palate.  It’s not all seafood dishes which combine well with citrus flavors, but this is one which does.

No matter where you travel in Latin America, you’ll find grilled meat (carne asada) on the menu. Restaurants called parrillas which specialize in grilled foods also grill seafood (mariscos) and poultry.  Particularly popular in Argentina and Colombia, the mixed grill called Parrillada Mixta (or just parrillada) can be any combination of grilled meats, poultry and seafood. Bandido Hideout offers a parillada entree for three called Parillada con Corona, the “Corona” referring to three bottles of Corona, a popular Mexican beer.  Alas, the parillada at Bandido Hideout is replete with tough, sinewy and fatty shards of beef and chicken.  The grilled onions, tomatoes and jalapeños are the highlight of a relatively expensive entree in which too much of the grilled meats have to be discarded for their toughness.

Parillada

The masked luchador prowling the median bisecting Central Avenue by the Bandido Hideout doesn’t need to body slam you or twist your most vulnerable appendages to get you to try this gem of a restaurant.  All he’s got to do is point you in the right direction the first time.  After that, you’ll find it on your own–perhaps even repeatedly.

Bandido Hideout
2128 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
244-1360

LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 16
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tacos Al Pastor, Salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, Camarones Costa Azul, Horchata, Aguas Frescas

Bandito Hideout on Urbanspoon

Sandiago’s Mexican Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sandiago's has some of the very best views of any restaurant in the city.

You don’t have to go out of town to dine to feel like you’re dining out of town.  A drive to Sandiago’s Mexican Grill on the base of the Sandia Tramway will do that for you.  This colorful restaurant in which everything but the ceiling appears tiled in multi-hued splendor evokes images of coastal Mexico Lindo Y Querido in all its glory. If you’re an atheist, the spectacular view of the city lights, particularly on a cold winter night, might just convince you that there is a God.  The summer view of the entire city bathed in light under Albuquerque’s cerulean skies is equally awe inspiring.

Sandiago’s is part of the sprawling, multi-story complex which houses the boarding station to the world’s longest tramway.  Situated at 6,300 feet above sea level, it is the highest (in altitude anyway) restaurant in the city. If you’re seated against the windows on the restaurant’s east side, your view is of Sandia Peak and of tramway cars climbing to the 10,378 foot peak. If you’re seated on the restaurant’s west side or on the patio, your view is of the Duke City.  It’s a picturesque panorama, particularly on nights in which a spectacular sunset decorates the western skies with depths of color man can’t duplicate.

The interior of Sandiago's is awash in festive colors

Serving coastal Mexican favorites as well as New Mexican entrees, Sandiago’s has become a popular dining destination and it’s for more than the incomparable ambiance.  The ambiance is festive and bright, the attitude fun and loud.  Even in winter, the wait staff is nattily attired in Hawaiian style shirts of vibrant colors, floral patterns and oceanic themes.  An indoor bar patterned after a Mexican beach hut turns out the fruity, multi-colored adult beverages and margaritas many diners appreciate with their meals.

Your taste stimulation starts with the best pico de gallo in Albuquerque (perhaps even all of New Mexico) offered up with crisp tostada chips.  At first bite, the pico appears to be simplicity itself–chopped jalapenos, purple onions, cilantro, fresh tomato and lime–but the proportions of each make for a wonderful combination.  It’s so good many diners don’t touch the salsa which accompanies the pico.  Lunchtime platos pequeños (small plates or appetizers) in which chips are a part include guacamole, nachos and con queso.  Rather than have any of these, a couple or ten bowlfuls of the pico de gallo will be far more palate pleasing.

A view of the patio on a windy spring day

The platos pequeños  include a scallop and shrimp ceviche, chicken flautas, grilled quesadilla, a tres queso relleno, shrimp mariscos and the aforementioned platos with chips.  Considering the thematic coastal concept, it’s no surprise that Sandiago’s appetizer line-up includes ceviche.  What is surprising is just how uninspired the ceviche is compared to other menu items.  Lime and cilantro infused shrimp and scallops seem overwhelmed by tomato, jalapeño and red onion which were the dominant flavors.  The shrimp and scallops are unfailingly fresh, but they deserve to be the star of this starter, not the supporting cast.

During a visit in the summer of 2011, as we do whenever we see New Mexican entrees on the menu, we asked whether or not the carne adovada was prepared with cumin (which all my readers know is the bane of my existence).  Naturally when the answer came back with a reluctant “yes,” we admonished (but with a jocular smile) our waitress as to the evils of cumin.  Alas, we didn’t ask whether or not the nachos also had cumin.  Worse, our waitress didn’t tell us even after hearing my spiel about the repulsiveness of the foul demon spice.  The chicken was positively bathed in cumin which, for all intents and purposes, rendered the nachos inedible.  What might have otherwise been an inspired nacho plate–fresh chips, melted cheese, green chile, pico de gallo, lettuce, sour cream and guacamole–was sent back (hopefully to buried in a toxic waste dump; did I mention I hate cumin?).

Chips, salsa and the very best pico de gallo in New Mexico!

Evening diners come for the signature plantain wrapped halibut.  It is pan seared and served with mango salsa, braised greens and cilantro rice.  There are many seafood items with which a sweet or sweet-tangy sauce just doesn’t work well, but Sandiago’s mango sauce is a perfect complement to the mild, pleasant-tasting halibut which is one of the least “fishy” tasting fish you can have.  The halibut is but one of several seafood items on the menu, another being the thickest ahi tuna I’ve ever experienced.  Easily a half inch thick, it is perfectly seared and has a pinkish hue that tells you it’s fresh.

Among the beef entrees, the ribeye steak stands out…sometimes.  Stuffed with serrano and garlic, then grilled and served with corn chow chow, papitas and seared chard, this steak will tease, tantalize and titillate your taste buds with sweet, savory and hot delineations unlike most slabs of beef.  Alas, that same steak may also arrive as a fatty piece of meat, once again proving the inconsistency in ribeye steak cuts.  Consistency is the hallmark of all great restaurants.  The fact that we’ve had both perfectly prepared ribeye as well as ribeye as tough as shoe leather may be indicative of consistency issues.

Ribeye with calabasitas

More consistent and nearly as good as the ribeye is a bistec marinated in lime and other flavorful, spicy (but not piquant) ameliorants.  Several medallions of very tender steak are grilled to your exacting specifications and served with a vegetable medley that typically includes red, green and yellow peppers as well as jicama.  An avocado corn relish served cold and a spicy green rice finish off this entree which is served in a shield-shaped red plate (pictured below).

Sandiago’s daily specials are sometimes so good, customers ask for them when they’re not offered.  That’s the case with the chipotle pesto shrimp topped with Mexican Cojita cheese and served on an unctuous risotto base with a medley of vegetables.  The shrimp are fresh and sweet while the chipotle pesto provides a piquant punch.  Served on a triangle shaped, oversized plate, this is a melding of ingredients that may take your breath away.  Three burners are needed to prepare this entree, one of the reasons it hasn’t made it to the daily menu.

A mountainous plate of nachos

It’s often been said that if you let someone else blow your horn, the sound will carry twice as far.  Sandiago’s did just that by reminding its Web site visitors to vote for inclusion of its green chile cheeseburger on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011.  Loyal visitors did just that.  Sandiago’s garnered enough votes to be included on New Mexico’s most delicious Trail for 2011.  There are many other restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment that ran similar promotions, but not all of them have a green chile cheeseburger quite this good.

Available only during lunch, this green chile cheeseburger is a behemoth on a grilled bun.  Prepared on a flattop grill, it’s a half-pound Angus beef patty topped with a pleasantly piquant green chile blanketed by molten Cheddar cheese.  The bun is a bit thick; it has to be to hold in all the fresh, juicy ingredients.  Sandiago’s chefs will prepare your burger to your exacting specifications (medium for me).  Toppings include crisp lettuce, red onions and fresh tomatoes with mustard and ketchup available.  It’s a messy burger in a good way meaning there’s so much green chile, you’ll have some left on your plate to scoop up with the double-fried French fries.  This is an excellent burger!

New to the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011, Sandiago's rendition of a green chile cheeseburger

A bowl of green chile stew hits the spot at any time, but particularly on balmy or cold days.  Also available only during the lunch hour, it’s served warm with a green chile that has a discernible bite that won’t send tourists packing.  Small cuts of pork and shredded Cheddar cheeses swim in a delicious broth that’s ameliorated with the pleasant flavor of Mexican oregano (but not too much of it).  The green chile stew is served with two painfully thin tortillas.

Decadent is overused to describe rich desserts, but in the cinnamon chocolate flan (one of three different flans we’ve seen offered at Sandiago’s), you truly have a decadent, almost lascivious dessert that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. The flan is smooth, rich and delicious, easily one of the best flans in the city.

A bowl of green chile stew served with two tortillas

Sandiago’s bakes all desserts in-house.  The pastry chef’s creations are inspired and include a magnificently moist and just sweet enough mango bread pudding, a Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake and a blueberry and peach streusel topped with a caramel blessed duce de leche ice cream.  Each of these desserts might be a star attraction anywhere else, but oh, that flan is just too good.

Forgive me while I digress.  I forgot to mention the spacious outdoor patio where you can enjoy not only the salubrious, mile high plus air, but in the summer take in dozens of hummingbirds in flight.  There are more than 300 varieties of hummingbird throughout the world and New Mexico is blessed with many of them.  Sandiago’s strategically positions hummingbird feeders to provide diners with entertaining aerial displays.

In 2006 Sandiago’s expanded to include a dining room for private parties.  There may be no better location in the city for a party than a restaurant so close to the majestic purple colored mountains that form Albuquerque’s glorious backdrop. There certainly aren’t better views anywhere within the city.

Sandiago’s Mexican Grill
38 Tramway Place
Albuquerque, NM
856-6692
LATEST VISIT: 29 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 18
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Ribeye Steak, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Pico de Gallo, Salsa, Green Chile Stew, Chocolate Flan, Plantain Wrapped Halibut

Sandiago's Mexican Grill at the Tram on Urbanspoon

Willard Cantina & Cafe – Willard, New Mexico

Willard Cantine & Cafe, located near the geographical center of the Land of Enchantment

When it comes to staycations (stay at home vacations), New Mexicans rank near the bottom among America’s traveling public.  Citizens of the Land of Enchantment, it seems, prefer to spend their discretionary income elsewhere.  Monique Jacobson, Secretary of New Mexico’s Tourism Department, hopes to change that with a number of initiatives targeted at reminding New Mexico’s citizenry of all there is to do and see in our state.

During the press conference in which she introduced the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011, Secretary Jacobson stressed that in addition to New Mexico’s natural treasures and storied past, culinary tourism–traveling throughout the state to experience its unique cuisine–is one of the best reasons to travel in New Mexico.  It’s something about which she’s personally very passionate, admitting to having consumed five green chile cheeseburgers during her first week back in the state after a stint as a marketing executive for Pepsi.

The dining room at the Willard Cantina & Cafe

As a practitioner of frequent “daycations” (day-long trips near home) throughout the Land of Enchantment, I take Secretary Jacobson’s words to heart.  Inspired by her heartfelt testimony about culinary tourism and vacationing near home, my first daycation following her press conference would be in pursuit of yet another of New Mexico’s iconic burgers, preferably one on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail I helped put together–or alternatively, a burger which should perhaps have been considered for inclusion on the Trail.

In the latter category is a burger served in a small hamlet just twelve miles northeast of the geographical center of New Mexico.  Willard is home to 240 people in under one square mile of land though “locals” might actually live on small family farms anywhere within a sixty-mile radius or so.  It’s also home to the Willard Cantina & Cafe whose signage proclaims it as the home of “chile with attitude.”  If attitude has arousing olfactory qualities, then attitude wafts toward you the moment you disembark from your vehicle.  The aroma of simmering chile is like a siren’s call beckoning weary and hungry sojourners to this converted home.

Salsa and chips at the Willard Cantina & Cafe

The Willard Cantina & Cafe has served the small village since 1986 though it was closed for a short time before being bought and reopened by Alex and Lisa Garcia in 2005.   It’s open seven days a week and has become a favorite watering hole for bikers who make up a large segment of the dining population on weekends.  The biker business is so valued that the very best parking spaces in front of the restaurant are reserved for them.

The bikers seem to like the cantina which is what you step into as you walk through the front door.  A small, homey dining room with a view to the kitchen is also available.   “Chile with attitude” is emphasized not only with the capsaicin perfumed air, but on the art on the wall where one painting (as well as the menu cover) depicts two anthropomorphic chile peppers–a red chile with hands on hips and a green chile with arms crossed, both obviously copping an attitude.

Quesadilla: Jack Cheese, Green Chile and Ground Beef

Alas, the salsa doesn’t have the attitude we hoped for.  It’s actually quite mild, in fact.    A complementary bowl served with crisp, low in salt chips arrives at your table shortly after you do.  Not having “attitude” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, the salsa is quite good.  We polished off a bowlful quickly and wanted more as we perused the menu which offers several appetizers: quesadilla, fried zucchini, fried cheese, battered mushrooms, nachos supreme, chile con queso and guacamole.

The quesadilla, two large flour tortillas stuffed with Jack cheese and green chile along with your choice of ground beef or chicken, showcases green chile that does indeed have an attitude.  It’s pleasantly piquant with a nice roasted flavor and aroma and there’s plenty of it.  There’s more green chile, in fact, than there is ground beef.  The ground beef is freshly fried, not refried as some restaurants tend to do.  It’s also seasoned nicely and complements the green chile very well.  If you’re tired of “designer” quesadillas with sundry ingredients, this is a “back to basics” quesadilla with memorable qualities.

Cantina Green chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Even though ample opportunity is afforded all New Mexicans to nominate and vote for green chile cheeseburgers they believe should be on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, the committee (of which I’m a part) which puts the Trail together seems to hear as much about which burgers were excluded from the Trail as we do about those selected:  “Why didn’t you pick the burger from…?”  “Where’s the burger from…?”  Though committee members are all certified (certifiable?) burgerphiles, we sometimes miss one…or a few Trail worthy burgers.

The Willard Cantina & Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger is Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail worthy!  It’s an outstanding burger, one of the ten best among those I’ve sampled throughout the state.  Perhaps all the bikers who frequent the restaurant didn’t vote for it for fear their little secret would be discovered.  As at other restaurants, you won’t find a green chile cheeseburger on the menu.  What you will find is a Cantina Burger (served with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and pickles) with extras for a pittance each.  Green chile and cheese (American, Jack, nacho or Swiss) are extras.  They should not be missed!

Enchilada Plate: Two Rolled Enchiladas with Cheese, Onions, Ground Beef and Green Chile Topped with a Fried Egg

The hand-formed beef is at least eight-ounces of thick deliciousness that extends beyond the six-inch buns.  It’s prepared perfectly with plenty of juiciness when done at medium.  The cheese is melted atop the beef patty then the green chile is piled on generously.  There’s so much green chile that some of it falls off the burger.  Use the French fries to dredge up that chile; it’s much better than ketchup.

Should Cheryl Jamison ever decide the culinary tourism initiative needs a New Mexico Enchiladas Trail, the Willard Cantina & Cafe’s enchiladas belong on it, too.  The enchilada plate–two rolled enchiladas with cheese, onions and your choice of chile–is served with New Mexican pinto beans and Spanish rice.  The addition of ground beef and a fried egg on top is icing on the proverbial cake, the only way to improve these enchanting enchiladas.  They’re reminiscent of enchiladas from Southern New Mexico as opposed to those served in my beloved north, reminding me, in fact, of the enchiladas at Chope’s which were named “best enchiladas” in New Mexico Magazine’s “Best Eats” edition for 2011.  That’s high praise indeed.  That’s how good these enchiladas are.

The Cantina Wrap: Bacon, Chopped Chile, Cheese, Lettuce and Tomatoes Rolled in a Warm Flour Tortilla and a side of Guacamole

The Spanish rice is good, too, but the beans are wonderful. They come from Aiken Farms in nearby Estancia. New Mexicans who love beans know that the very best beans are grown in the Estancia valley where more than 120,000 acres are dedicated to the pulchritudinous pinto bean. You can taste the difference! These are the best beans I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time.

The menu features four sandwiches including the Cantina Wrap: bacon, chopped chile, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes rolled in a warm flour tortilla with a side of guacamole and French fries.  There might be a full two rashers of thick, smoky bacon in this sandwich.  The bacon and green chile definitely steal the show.  Only a thicker, more substantial tortilla could improve this sandwich.

The Willard Cantina & Cafe offers several desserts, but they’re not homemade.  New Mexican entrees are served with sopaipillas and honey-flavored syrup and that’s enough dessert for many guests.

For a staycation in the Land of Enchantment, Willard, New Mexico is an excellent choice.  For lunch or dinner, the Willard Cantina & Cafe is an outstanding one!  This is the type of restaurant adventurous travelers will discover for themselves once they venture out and enjoy all our enchanting state has to offer.

Willard Cantina & Cafe
21820 Highway 60
Willard, New Mexico
(505) 384-1322
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Enchilada Plate, Green Chile Cheeseburger, The Cantina Wrap, Quesadilla

Willard Cantina on Urbanspoon