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.


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

LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2011
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
LATEST VISIT: 29 May 2011
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 (CLOSED)

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
LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2011
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Enchilada Plate, Green Chile Cheeseburger, The Cantina Wrap, Quesadilla

Willard Cantina on Urbanspoon

Monte Carlo Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Package Liquor Store

The Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Package Liquor Store

My propeller-headed, Jedi-worshiping, 40-something Luke Skywalker wannabe colleagues would probably utter something like “come out of the light and into the darkness, Luke” when they step into the Monte Carlo Steakhouse from a bright, sunlit Duke City afternoon. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit beef and beer palace by the Rio Grande–and when they do adjust, you’ll wonder if you stepped out of a portal into the 1960s.  The Monte Carlo Steakhouse is an anachronism, a bona fide throwback to a bygone era–and indeed, the restaurant has been in business since 1970.

Kitschy mirrors emblazoned with the logos of beer distributors, anthropomorphic alcohol decanters, faux wood walls, garish neon signs, Velvet Elvis and stereotypical “leatherette” booths were signs of the times then and the restaurant’s management has seen no reason to change. Why should they? This is one of the most comfortable and welcoming restaurants in the city. To those in the know, it’s also one of Albuquerque’s very best steak houses.

Taking you back 40 years--the interior of the Monte Carlo Steakhouse

“Those in the know” now include a nation-wide audience who watched the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode called “Where the Locals Go” in which “local hot spots” got the inimitable Guy Fieri treatment.  Contrary to the episode’s title, not all locals go to the Monte Carlo.  In fact, many people outside the vicinity of Route 66 had probably never heard of it until the Food Network introduced it to them.

As Fieri did, you can enter the steak house through a bustling package liquor store.  You can also enter directly through an entrance on the restaurant’s west side.  One of the first things you’ll notice is a full-service bar which probably can’t concoct the libation of your choice, but can dispense long-neck Budweiser, Schlitz and Pabst like there’s no tomorrow.  The volume is turned way down on the restaurant’s televisions, but then you probably couldn’t hear them amidst the din of an eclectic crowd.

Dinner Salad

There are no distinctions between the lunch and the dinner menu and even though the menu stipulates that baked potatoes and rice pilaf are available only after 5PM, you can generally have either with your lunch. Lunch specials are available Monday through Friday while a prime rib–regarded by many as among the city’s very best–is the evening special Thursday through Friday.  Aside from the aforementioned baked potato (perfectly done) or rice pilaf, each dinner also includes one slice of Texas toast.

The parking lot is generally crowded with mechanical conveyances of every type, size and description and waiting lists tend to be long, especially on weekends.  Despite daunting patronage, the wait staff is among the most accommodating and friendly in the city.  Many regulars opt for the bounteous Greek appetizer plate in lieu of the standard fried appetizers (zucchini, onion rings, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese sticks) and are rewarded with a platter of salami strips, Greek olives, Pepperoncini, tomatoes and one solitary dolma (stuffed grape leaf) all drizzled with Kalamata olive oil.  Sadly, this otherwise outstanding precursor does not include pita bread.

Creamy Green Chile Chicken Soup

Steak dinners are accompanied by your choice of soup or a fresh dinner salad (perfunctory iceberg lettuce only, not the fancy designer lettuces upscale steak houses proffer) made with shredded red cabbage, tomato, carrot slivers and your choice of dressing.  For a full Greek experience, a good bet is the zesty Greek dressing which is liberally sprinkled with bits of fetid Feta cheese.  Among the restaurant’s most popular soups is the creamy green chile chicken soup, a swimming pool-sized bowl of soul-warming soup served hot.  Thickened heavily (probably with corn starch), it is replete with chicken pieces.  The green chile lacks piquancy but has a nice flavor.  Soup and salad not withstanding, this is a meat and potatoes establishment in the anachronistic traditions of the 70s.  Observing the offerings–burgers, steaks, ribs and even a cheesesteak, Fieri noted “you don’t come to this joint for a tomato and avocado on whole wheat.

The menu defines the degree of doneness for each charbroiled steak–from the “cold center” of a rare steak to the “cooked throughout” description of a well done steak–and includes a disclaimer that the restaurant is not responsible or meat ordered well done. The chef is truly master of his broiler domain, typically achieving the exacting specifications requested by discerning diners who would think nothing of sending back a steak not prepared the way they asked for it.

A lovely slab of beef and French fries

We can’t imagine ever sending the steak back.  The bone-in 20-ounce Porterhouse steak is charbroiled to perfection with just enough marbling for flavor.  Unless otherwise requested, each steak is prepared with Seasonall, an all-purpose seasoning (no MSG) used liberally.  An excellent alternative is asking for salt, pepper and garlic on each side of your steak. While on the grill, the chef will also brush on some melted butter.

One of the things that makes a Monte Carlo steak stand out is the fact that the restaurant still cuts its own steaks fresh daily, a practice begun by founder Michael Katsaros when the restaurant launched nearly thirty years ago.  The Katsaros family still runs the restaurant.  After his first bite of a ribeye, Guy Fieri’s uttered then reiterated the statement “that’s just great.”  You’re probably thinking “he’s the host of the show and is supposed to be enthusiastic about the restaurants featured,” but his sentiment pretty much echoes that of most people who discover the Monte Carlo Steakhouse.

Louie's Special, maybe the best steak sandwich in town.

Fieri also pointed out that “it ain’t just killer steaks that get hand-cut here.”  The souvlaki, “made with mama’s classic Greek recipe with a family twist” is made from pork tenderloin cut at the restaurant.  Each souvlaki portion is 12 to 14 ounces of some of the most tender and delicious, albeit non-traditional, skewered meat you’ll ever have.  The souvlaki is allowed to age for five to six days in a marinade of lemon juice, white wine, salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano and vinegar before it hits the grill.  After it’s done on the grill, it’s brushed on with a mix of olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and lemon juice.  Watching this inspired creation, Fieri exclaimed “I hear the national anthem of flavor town going off right about now.”  In between utteranes of “wow” and “this is monster flavor, he called the flavor “so deep and so rich” and after a few forkfuls, he proclaimed “I’m moving in.”

The charbroiled green chile cheeseburger is a role-model for how this New Mexico staple should be served. While the chile isn’t particularly piquant, it does have an excellent flavor. What sets this cheeseburger apart is the freshness and moistness of the beef patty which is essentially ground steak. Wholly unlike the desiccated Frisbees served at other burger establishments, these meaty orbs are oh so wonderfully juicy. The Monte Carlo’s green chile cheeseburger was selected for inclusion on both the 2009 and 2011 editions of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  It’s one of the favorite green chile cheeseburgers of Cheryl Jamison, the New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary liaison and architect of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger initiative.

Old-fashioned meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans

Another “not to miss” entree is the Greek style chicken. The loquacious Fieri admitted to “not having talked much or taken a breath” while sampling this perfectly prepared poultry which he described as “killer,” one of the adjectives he uses effusively when he really likes something. He also noted that “it’s about as basic as you can make it” and “as tender and juicy as you can get it.” The key is getting it. If you haven’t visited the Monte Carlo Steakhouse, it’s worth the drive from anywhere in the Duke City area just for this chicken.

If you have to work overtime to make up for an extended lunch hour to drive across town for a lunch special, it’s worth it, especially if the lunch special is the hamburger steak with grilled onions.  My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik describes it as “75-percent as good as its counterpart at San Antonio’s fabled Owl Cafe.”  Bill, who matriculated at New Mexico Tech loves the Owl’s hamburger steak almost as much as he loves his car.  To compare the Monte Carlo’s rendition is a high compliment indeed.  Another old-fashioned lunch special made in the style of 1960s cafes is the meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes and green beans.  The meatloaf is served hot enough to burn your tongue and it’s heavily seasoned with pepper, garlic and onion, but it’s a memorable meatloaf.

Hamburger steak with grilled onions and French fries

The spaghetti’s golf ball sized meatballs have a little flavor “je ne sais quoi” that most diners try to figure out. The secret is a bit of Greek mint which just seems to invigorate the meatballs with flavor. Fieri called it a “money meatball.”

The meats are so well flavored, the service so accommodating and the ambiance so 60s, you’ll wonder why anyone would visit an inferior chain restaurant for a lesser steak or spend nearly $100 for a steak dinner at one of those hoidy toidy, fancy schmanzy restaurants.  Fieri called the Monte Carlo “just an average off-the-hook steakhouse with homemade Greek.”  Everyone else calls it special.

Monte Carlo Steak House
3916 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 27 May 2011
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Greek salad; Greek Appetizer Plate; Porterhouse Steak; Green Chile Cheeseburger

Monte Carlo Steak House on Urbanspoon

Introducing the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011

You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.
We have munched Bridge burgers in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and Cable burgers hard by the Golden Gate,
Dixie burgers in the sunny South and Yankee Doodle burgers in the North. We had a Capitol Burger — guess where.
And so help us, in the inner courtyard of the Pentagon, a Penta burger
Charles Kuralt, journalist, television host of “On the Road”.”

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies. Kuralt loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment. In his book America, he declared the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.

For years, maybe decades, the Owl Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger was the standard against which all green chile cheeseburgers were measured.  Not only did Charles Kuralt rave about it, so did every travel guide published about the Land of Enchantment.  Few would dispute that the green chile cheeseburger made tiny San Antonio, New Mexico a popular travel and dining destination.  That was validated daily by the many license plates from several states  which could be seen at the Owl’s parking lot.

New Mexico Tourism Department Secretary Monique Jacobson introduces the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011 During a Press Conference on May 26th, 2011

The advent of the information-internet age truly made the world a smaller place and by the close of the 20th century, the Owl Cafe had several contenders for New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger–including the Buckhorn Tavern just a few hundred feet away from the Owl Cafe in San Antonio.

An authoritative proclamation (made by New Mexicans who know what they’re talking about, not out-of-staters) certifying New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger, however, would not be made until 2009 when in the span of just a few months, two burgers could lay claim to the title of New Mexico’s best.  Neither was Kuralt’s beloved Owl Cafe.  In May, 2009, the Buckhorn Tavern became world-famous when its gregarious owner Bobby Olguin bested celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a “green chile cheeseburger throwdown.”  The judges in the blind taste test were all New Mexicans.

Bobby Olguin, world famous proprietor of the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, New Mexico and Cheryl Jamison, New Mexico Culinary Liaison and Four-Time James Beard Award Winning Author

Capitalizing on the momentum, Governor Richardson called for a statewide green chile cheeseburger challenge to be held at the New Mexico State Fair on September 22nd, 2009.  Neither the Owl  Cafe nor the Buckhorn Tavern participated, leaving the field wide open for an interloper to lay claim to serving New Mexico’s very best green chile cheeseburger. When the smoke had cleared and the judges’ seared tongues had cooled, Badlands Burgers (now closed) from Grants was announced as the winner of the inaugural Governor’s Challenge, earning acclaim as purveyor of New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger.

November, 2009 saw the introduction of the “New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail,” a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys.  The Trail became the indispensable guide to one of New Mexico’s most iconic foods.  To paraphrase Charles Kuralt, you can find your way across the Land of Enchantment using the map developed for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

The world famous green chile cheeseburger at the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio Restaurant (Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

The New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was such a resounding success that it was brought back in 2011.  Restaurant owners, staff and patrons nominated nearly 200 purveyors of New Mexico’s iconic green chile cheeseburger for inclusion on the updated Trail.  The 30 restaurants receiving the most votes received an automatic bearth on the Trail while a panel of culinary experts added additional choices to ensure recommendations are available to visitors in all corners of the Land of Enchantment.

More than 10,000 votes were cast and when results were tallied, the top five vote-getters were New Mexico’s unique and ubiquitous Lota Burger; the Taco Box, a staple in Clovis and Portales; Bobcat Bite, selected by the editors of Bon Apetit Magazine as America’s best burger in 2007; and the Buckhorn Tavern and the Owl Cafe, the two legendary San Antonio burger establishments probably most responsible for the worldwide fame of the green chile cheeseburger.

New to the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011: The Blue Ribbon Grille & Bar in Estancia, New Mexico

The updated New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail celebrates 66 restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys which serve the best green chile cheeseburgers in the universe.   They come from tiny hamlets to burgeoning metropolises and from Abiquiu to Zuni and everywhere in between.  One commonality among them all–aside from piquant deliciousness–is the exclusive use of green chile grown and roasted in the Land of Enchantment.

Please click on the image above to launch a larger, more interactive map.  By hovering your cursor over each of the numbered burger icons, information about the green chile cheeseburger restaurant represented will display.  For much more great information on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, please click here.  While you’re on the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail page, don’t forget to download a personal map you can take with you throughout your travels in the Land of Enchantment.

Note: I have added a “New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail: 2011” category to the menu at right. Every restaurant on the Trail I have reviewed can be found in this category.

New Mexico Magazine Celebrates the Land of Enchantment’s “Best Eats” for 2011


New Mexico Magazine’s Second Annual “Best Eats” Issue

Every four years since the year 2000, news anchors and analysts have depicted America’s  voting preferences on colored maps.  States which tend to vote for the Democratic party are colored blue while states which tend to vote for the Republican party are colored red. What the maps don’t show–but the political pundits certainly discuss ad nauseum–is the increasingly acrimonious political and ideological divide between red and blue states.  The talking heads would have you believe the answer to Rodney King’s lament “can’t we all just get along” is a resounding “no.”

There are 49 chromatically quarrelsome states which could learn a thing or two from the Land of Enchantment.  In New Mexico, the colors red and green have lived together in perfect harmony for centuries.   Perhaps to keep it that way, our sagacious state legislature passed a resolution approving the official state answer of “Christmas” to the state’s official state question “red or green.”  Christmas signifies a diner’s preference is to have both red and green chile on their entree.

Certainly there are avid proponents of both red and green chile–some even quite vocal about their preference–but New Mexico is a land of tolerance.  Though most of us have a stated preference, we also love the other color of chile, only not as much.

Red and Green Chile Covers for the June, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine

In its second annual “Best Eats” issue, New Mexico Magazine celebrates New Mexico’s official state vegetable by publishing two different covers.  The cover of the magazine sent to subscribers adulates  green chile while the cover of New Mexico Magazine which hit the newsstands in mid-May, 2011 salutes red chile.  If your preference is Christmas, collect both versions.  The magazine also invites readers to state their preference for red, green or Christmas by casting your vote for your favorite way to enjoy New Mexico chile.

The Magazine introduces readers to ten of “New Mexico’s Best Eats,” several of which utilize chile in their composition.  The dishes showcased range from fine-dining to New Mexican “soul food.”  They come from some of New Mexico’s most popular restaurants as well as from tiny, off-the-beaten path gems which have become dining destinations in their own right.  Seven culinary experts weigh in on New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger, New Mexican soul food, fine-dining meal, enchiladas, vegetarian New Mexican food, road food, local seasonal ingredients, contemporary Native American food, chocolate and carne adovada.

To whet your appetite, the Magazine shares New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger and best New Mexican soul food on its Web site.  If you didn’t buy the magazine, here are the other dishes were selected as New Mexico’s best eats (the links will take you to my reviews, not the articles on the magazine):

  • Best Green-Chile Cheeseburger: Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue & Espresso, Hatch
  • Best New Mexican Soul Food: Stuffed Sopaipilla from Tia Sophia’s, Santa Fe
  • Best Fine Dining Meal: Seared Diver Scallops and Pork Belly, Terra at Encantado Resort, Tesuque
  • Best Enchiladas: Chope’s Bar & Café, La Mesa
  • Best Vegetarian New Mexican Food: Plato Vegetariano, Rancho de Chimayó, Chimayó
  • Best Road Food: Hatch Benedict, Diane’s Restaurant and Bakery, Silver City
  • Best Local, Seasonal Ingredients: Roast Leg of Lamb Burrito, Atrisco Café & Bar, Santa Fe
  • Best Contemporary Native American Food: Pecan-Crusted Rabbit Loin, Pueblo Harvest Café & Bakery at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque
  • Best Chocolate: Todos Santos, Santa Fe
  • Best Carne Adovada: Mary & Tito’s Café, Albuquerque

Don’t like the results of this poll thus far? Click on the poll to express your chile preference.

The Best Eats edition also announced the winner of the magazine’s second-annual salsa contest.  Competition for “best salsa” accolades was hotly contested in more ways than one with more than twenty contest entrants.  All salsas vying for top honors are made in New Mexico and are available in stores or online.  The judges (four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Jamison, co-owner of Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen Al Lucero and New Mexico Magazine’s own Tricia Ware) selected, via blind taste test, the salsa which best exemplified strong New Mexican flavors with a good texture for dipping.

The food-centric magazine also features creative salsa recipes you’ll want in your repertoire as well as a host of other articles which just might inspire involuntary salivation (another reason to buy two copies).

Bailey’s on the Beach – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Bailey’s on the Beach, one of the coolest places in Albuquerque

“The older you get, the less cool you are.” At least that’s what my some of my twenty-something-year-old colleagues have told me when I’m not able to relate to the conventional mindset of the Y-generation (usually on matters such as what constitutes flexible work schedules and professional business attire).  If the term “fuddy duddy” wasn’t so uncool, that’s probably what they’d call me.

Interestingly, just twenty-something years ago, I was among the cool generation of the time–one in the long line of generations that thought we had everything figured out.  Older people, we thought, were just a bunch of clueless doofuses (probably not a cool term either) who didn’t know anything.  Unlike preceding generations, we were cool and thought we always would be.

It’s hard to believe this was once a dojo…

Advanced geriatric progression has taught me there’s nothing as cool as being comfortable in your own skin–not being concerned with what’s deemed cool and what isn’t.  This acquired wisdom has helped make each year happier than the previous, a sentiment shared by most of my fifty-something friends who also aren’t concerned about being cool.  Other friends and colleagues my age who haven’t come to this realization are usually in therapy or at the least, very unhappy.

The cultural anthropologist in me can’t help but enjoy observing the human condition in its natural habitat–such as the cool people and hipsters who frequent Bailey’s on the Beach, a thematic departure from the ubiquitous abobe-hued stucco facade so prevalent in New Mexico.  Bailey’s is cool!  Perhaps by default, the patrons who frequent it are cool…or at least they appear to be as they sashay through the premises in an ostentatiously casual manner adorned in regalia which expresses their youth or desire to be young.

Seafood Stew: Seafood, Grilled Veggies and Onions in Bailey’s Cabernet Bouilliabaisse and Grilled Ciabatta Bread

If you’re wondering how a pseudo beach ambiance in land-locked Albuquerque could possibly be cool, you might be missing the point.  Bailey’s IS on the beach…at least in an attitudinal way and it IS cool in every way.  Bedecked in the stereotypical trappings of a contemporary beach-side eatery, Bailey’s will transport you to the salt aired climes of powdery white beaches and crystalline waters.  Only the water, the sand and the humidity are missing.

The ground-level floor’s motif has an under-the-sea look and feel.  The texture of an entire wall is patterned after undulating waves, the slow, smooth motion that lulls you into relaxation.  Under changing light conditions, the finish also changes colors.  The dominant color pallet on the walls is of foamy white, aqualine blue and palm green.  The veneer of one mirror is a sheet of flowing water.  A wall-mounted flat screen television plays and replays videos of  toned surfers as they ride the waves.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable.

Baked Clams: Baby Clams, Housemade Breadcrumbs, Long Beach Seasoning Baked in Large Pasta Shells with Papaya Apple Slaw, Lemon Wedges and Guacamole

Indecisive guests may slow the lines a bit as they study the menu perched above the counter at which you place your order, but the staff is efficient and very helpful and tends to move things along fairly quickly  Savvy frequent visitors will grab an individual paper menu and peruse it before they reach the counter.  Once you place your order, you’re free to choose where you’d like to sit.

The rooftop cabana is the venue of choice, especially under the sun-shielding umbrellas which face Central Avenue.  Rooftop furnishings are rather eclectic with a high lifeguard chair providing just a bit of thematic whimsy.  Music–thankfully not of the overplayed Beach Boys genre–is piped in with live performances on some evenings.  Happy hour specials are a popular draw, but perhaps not as much as the spectacular sunset views from the rooftop.

Mostly Naked Quesadillas: Cheddar and Jack Cheese Rolled in Flour Tortilla, Double Roasted Green Chile, Grilled and Cut in Wedges with Sides of Guacamole, Sour Cream and Salsa. Grilled Steak Added

A relatively small kitchen belies the ambitious menu which features everything from sand-wiches to beach food, shell pastas to burgers and dogs, big and little salads, soups, sides and specials.  Beverages include beach sodas and orange juice squeezed to order as well as homemade sangria, wine and beer.  A limited breakfast menu is also available, but it includes a few surprises such as coconut milk pancakes and a “beach blanket scramble.”

During all my visits to San Francisco, one of America’s truly great culinary hotbeds, the one dish I absolutely have to partake of is cioppino, a fish stew whose genesis is indeed the City by the Bay.  In Albuquerque cioppino is almost as rare as hanging ten on the Rio Grande so approximations have to make do.  Bailey’s offers a seafood stew described on the menu as “seafood, grilled veggies and onions in Bailey’s Cabernet Bouillabaisse.”  Jacques Cousteau would have been challenged to find more than a few small clams in the piping-hot stew, the star of which is the herb and spice enriched Cabernet and tomato-based sauce which has a nice bite worthy of V8.  The seafood stew is served with grilled ciabatta bread.

Bailey’s Beach Burger: Angus Beef Flame-Grilled, Smashed in Caramelized Onions with Double-Roasted Green Chile and Monterrey Pepper Jack Cheese on a Ciabatta Bun (Red Chile Au Jus on the side)

One of the most popular entrees on the “beach food” section of the menu is the baked clams, large al-dente pasta shells engorged with baby clams and housemade breadcrumbs, both seasoned with Long Beach Seasoning which seem to have a heavy concentration of oregano.  This is an interesting dish in which the baby clams are deliciously discernible despite the somewhat dominating breadcrumbs and seasoning.  Albuquerque The Magazine staffers like this dish so much they awarded it a “Hot Plate Award,” the magazine’s highest honor signifying appetizers, desserts and drinks “that we can’t live without.”  Four shells are served with a refreshing papaya-apple slaw, lemon wedges, guacamole and salsas.

Perhaps named for the beach attire that draws men to the beach, the Mostly Naked Quesadillas are a surprisingly good rendition, the likes of which you’re not likely to find on the Santa Monica Pier.  Naked, in this case, might also have to do with the fact that these quesadillas are rather simple–Cheddar and Jack cheeses rolled in a flour tortilla with a double-roasted green chile that packs a punch.  The quesadillas are cut into wedges and served with sides of guacamole, sour cream and salsa.  You can dress up these cheesy delights with chicken, steak, mahi mahi and veggies which can be prepared in any of three ways: grilled, marinated or blackened.

Mudslide Madness (Dark Chocolate Truffle Brownie Topped With Marshmallow, Roasted Almonds and Hot Fudge) and Bailey’s Beach Blondie (Butterscotch Brownie Topped With Marshmallows and Toasted Walnuts and Doused with Bailey’s Caramel Fudge)

Burgers and beaches go together well in more than an alliterative sense.  Bailey’s Beach Burger is one of three burgers on the menu, a flame-grilled angus beef burger with “smashed-in caramelized onions,” double-roasted green chile and Monterrey Pepper Jack cheese on a ciabatta bun.  It’s a behemoth of a burger with huge flavor.  It’s as hot as beach sand on a scalding summer day courtesy of double-roasted green chile and a Pepper Jack cheese that bites back.  Red chile au jus on the side is available, but it’s as salty as sea water and is wholly unnecessary.

Bailey’s on the Beach offers a number of desserts though our choices–mudslide madness (dark chocolate truffle brownie topped with marshmallows, roasted almonds and hot fudge) and Bailey’s Beach Blondie (butterscotch brownie topped with marshmallows and toasted walnuts doused with Bailey’s caramel fudge)–were cloying with a level of sweetness which would have made children ping off the walls.  More apropos for the beach would have been the tropical key lime pie or Italian ice.

In my younger days I might have wondered whether or not I was  cool enough to hang out at a restaurant like Bailey’s on the Beach.  Now it doesn’t matter.  Bailey’s is cool enough to make its patrons feel cool, too.

Bailey’s on the Beach
2929 Monte Vista, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 May 2011
CLOSED: 20 May 2013
# of VISITS: 1
COST: $$
BEST BET: Baked Clams, Seafood Stew, Bailey’s Beach Burger, Mostly Naked Quesadillas, Mudslide Madness, Bailey’s Beach Blondies

Bailey's on the Beach on Urbanspoon

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