Viet Rice – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Viet Rice

Viet Rice Restaurant in Rio Rancho

In Vietnamese, “an com”‘ translates as “eating rice,” but it’s a phrase that more accurately implies the act of partaking of food. At Viet Rice, they know rice and they make the act of partaking of food a memorable one! The motto “We Know Rice” is declared on the menu and it’s part of the restaurant’s logo. It’s even on the restaurant’s entrance. More importantly, it’s obvious in the way Rio Rancho’s very first Vietnamese restaurant operates. True to its name, well crafted rice dishes are a specialty, but there’s so much more than rice at this small gem operating out of a sprawling shopping center.

Viet Rice is one of the more visually appealing Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City area with a decorous style and color scheme (lime green is very prominent) very similar to Viet Q and Viet Taste.  The counter at which you’re greeted and take-out orders are placed and picked up is under a bamboo awning.  Walls are festooned with inspired large, framed black and white photographs depicting life in Vietnam.

Grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves

Grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves

Viet Rice’s opening day, March 23rd, 2005, is a day that will live on my taste buds and olfactory memories for a long time. That’s because it’s not every restaurant that will blow me away with something so totally different or unique, but Viet Rice did so with an appetizer of grilled beef wrapped in grape leaf. Grape leaf is typically associated with Greek food, but it is also quite prevalent (although not in New Mexico) in Vietnamese food as well.

Entirely different than Greek dolmades, Viet Rice’s version features the anise, lemon grass and cinnamon blessed grilled beef encased in a small, tightly wrapped, cigar shaped grape leaf and served with fish sauce. Four pieces to the order might inspire rapacious drooling–if prepared properly (during subsequent visits, the grilled beef and grape leaf were overdone and tough).  When prepared properly, the grilled beef is redolent with the fragrance of grilled meat and spices in harmony with one another.  The

Lemongrass and chili with vermicelli

Lemongrass and chili with vermicelli

If you’re not in the mood for traditional rice, try Viet Rice’s only bun (rice vermicelli) dish. The lemongrass and chili with rice vermicelli is topped with lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, mint, peanuts and sweet fish sauce which you can have with either grilled pork, beef, chicken, shrimp or egg roll. It’s healthy and delicious, a combination of sorts of salad and grilled beef that melds flavor combinations of sweet, savory, tangy and piquant.  Ladle on fish sauce and the flavor profile now includes a bit of pungency.  Contrasts are also in play when the cold vegetables meet the hot grilled pork.  This dish also plays contrasting textures with one another–the crunchiness of the vegetables, the ethereal qualities of the noodles, the chewiness of the pork and the snap of crushed peanuts.

Relatively new (as of 2011) to the Viet Rice menu is a “Vietnamese sandwich,” the longest one in the Duke City area, in fact. At an even twelve-inches, this sandwich is twice the length of the banh mi served at some Vietnamese restaurants. Length, however, doesn’t translate in this case to best. The sandwich is offered with your choice of four grilled meats: pork, beef, chicken, meatball and beef wrap. The bread is a bit more crusty than traditional French baguettes, but it’s a very good bread. Unfortunately, the ingredients nestled within its crusty confines are parsimonious. On the two sandwiches I’ve had–grilled pork and grilled beef wrap–the only sandwich ingredients between bread were cilantro and one jalapeño for every three inches of sandwich. Unlike my favorite banh mi (at May Hong and Banh Mi Coda), it did not include pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber and Vietnamese mayo. Interestingly, it is accompanied not by fish sauce, but by a peanut sauce very reminiscent of Thai peanut sauces.

Pat Thai

Pat Thai

As good as some entrees are, it’s been a surprise to encounter some relatively uninspiring entrees on the menu.  Leave it to me to find two.  An aberration called country style diced beef (bell pepper, mushrooms and onion) is served with fried rice or steamed rice. The fried rice is fabulous, but the diced beef is reminiscent of tough stew meet with very little of the olfactory arousing spice adornment for which Vietnamese food is renowned.

The other sub-par item is the pho which I had with well done beef. Compared to the pho at May Hong or Saigon, Viet Rice’s version was like dish water.  My friend Christine whose mother is Vietnamese and father is French recounted several problems with this rendition of the national dish of Vietnam.  At the top of her list is aroma, or rather the lack of it.  As Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the prolific palate points out, “scent is crucial to a good pho.”  The other, more obvious, issue is that this pho seems made with a minimum of real bone marrow, another key to a comforting pho.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than most noodle soups you’ll find in American restaurants, but there are better phos in the Duke City area.

The longest Vietnamese Sandwich in the Albuquerque area

Viet Rice does redeem itself with a mean durian shake. Durian, the world’s most stinky fruit is such an acquired taste that my dining companions don’t even want the malodorous fruit wafting toward them, but it makes for a delicious, refreshing fruit drink and it leaves neither a funky aftertaste nor halitosis.

Viet Rice
1340 Rio Rancho Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
892-7423

LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fresh Spring Roll; Grilled Beef Wrap with Grape Leaf; Rice Noodle Bowl

Viet Rice on Urbanspoon

Jo’s Place – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Jo's Place for contemporary Mexican cuisine interpreted by chef Dennis Apodaca

By their fruits ye shall know them.
Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?

-Matthew 7:16

As Americans are often prone to judge fruit by the pleasingness of its appearance, the fragrance of its bouquet and the sweetness of its flavor, huitlacoche may not stand a chance.  A fungus which forms on the ears of corns, huitlacoche resembles a malignant tumor with postulous  black secretions  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement. In more pleasant company it’s called corn smut.  As if that isn’t bad enough, it’s created from a disease formed by a pathogenic plant fungus.  Is it any wonder persnickety Americans have been slow to accept that huitlacoche could possibly be considered a delicacy?

Perhaps Americans would be wise to remember that the ancient Aztecs were one of the world’s most advanced civilizations in medicine, math and science and they incorporated huitlacoche into their cooking as have generations of their descendants.  Perhaps if American farmers understood its potential as a culinary delight, they wouldn’t work so hard to eradicate it.   Perhaps if nutritionists recognized that huitlacoche is replete with unique proteins, minerals and other nutritional properties, it might be advocated as a healthful alternative to what is found acceptable within the American diet.

The interior of Jo's Place on 4th Street

In Mexico, street markets are brimming with vendors selling fresh huitlacoche, often from buckets where mounds of this purplish-blackish fungus are available both on the cob and as kernels scraped from the cob. Vendors at those same markets proffer other Aztecan delicacies such as chapulines (crispy fried crickets), gusanos (worms of the maguay cactus) and escamoles (ant eggs). Compared to these creepy crawlies (usually eaten live, rolled up in a tortilla with a squeeze of lime and a dash of salt), maybe huitlacoche doesn’t sound so bad after all.

A number of failed marketing ploys have been attempted to make huitlacoche more palatable to the “sophisticated” American palate and to disassociate it from its grotesque origin and scatological name.  It’s been called “Mexican truffles,” “Aztec caviar” and “maize mushrooms,” but for some reason, huitlacoche just has not caught on.  It didn’t catch on after Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, introduced this delicacy to the world in her timeless classic Cuisines of Mexico: “Huitlacoche…produces big, swollen, deformed kernels, black inside and covered with a silvery-gray skin.  As the fungus cooks it exudes a black juice.  It is perfectly delicious, with an inky, mushroomy flavor that is almost impossible to describe.”

A trio of Salsas

It didn’t catch on when in 1989, the James Beard Foundation hosted an “all huitlacoche” dinner, touting it as the “Mexican truffle.” It didn’t catch on after Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist Martha Mendoza (who worked for the Albuquerque bureau of the Associated Press from 1995 to 1997) wrote about its nutritional properties in 2010. Perhaps in the Duke at least, it will catch on when adventurous Albuquerque diners tell their friends about the amazing Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger at Jo’s Place on Fourth Street. If you haven’t heard about Jo’s Place, don’t worry. You will…and you’ll hear about it a lot.

Jo’s Place is the most recent (launched on January 17, 2011) brainchild of restaurant impresario and incomparable chef Dennis Apodaca who also owns and operates two of Albuquerque’s highest regarded eateries: Sophia’s Place (named for his daughter) and Ezra’s Place (named for his son). Jo’s Place is named for Dennis’s mother Josie. It is within easy walking distance of both Sophia’s Place (6313 Fourth Street, N.W.) and Ezra’s Place (6132 Fourth Street, N.W.), making it easy for Dennis to oversee his operations. Though his current focus is on getting Jo’s Place on its feet and primed for success, his other restaurants remain in good hands with CIA trained chefs at the helm. CIA, by the way, stands for the Culinary Institute of Apodaca.

Turkey Achiote Quesadilla with pico de gallo and salad

Dennis can probably relate to the plight of the huitlacoche. Sophia’s Place is situated in a timeworn edifice you might pass by without a second thought save for wondering why the parking lot is so full. Ezra’s Place is housed in a bowling alley, traditionally not a venue in which you can expect to find outstanding food. By their fruits, Albuquerque has come to know that Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place serve some of the very best and most exciting food in New Mexico. In fact, the culinary world arrived at that realization when Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri visited Sophia’s in 2008 for an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Jo’s Place showcases Dennis’s interpretation of contemporary Mexican food. As has come to be expected from the inventive chef, he does not subscribe to anyone’s template of what contemporary Mexican food should be and how it should look. His menu is not some compendium of every stereotypical “contemporary” Mexican food item any cognoscenti might believe should be on such a menu. Nor are there any obvious indications from the restaurant’s simple signage to its exterior color pallet what Dennis’s vision for his new restaurant is. Jo’s Place is housed in the same space that was previously used by Hurley’s Coffee, Tea and Bistro, an Irish-themed eatery.

Passers-by might surmise by its hunter green exterior that Jo’s Place remains an Irish restaurant, but you won’t any time soon see Dennis painting the structure red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. Nor does the restaurant’s interior bear any telltale signs that Jo’s Place is about contemporary Mexican food as others might interpret it. This is all indicative of the genius of Dennis Apodaca who does not subscribe to stereotypes, templates or expectations. He is very much his own man and he does what he wants. As at the walls of his two other restaurants, Jo’s Place is festooned with colorful contemporary art including several intriguing paintings from Cecilia M. Schmider’s “face off” series.

Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger with Fries

The menu is festooned with intriguing items.  Headlining the abbreviated menu is a trio of burgers served with fries or a salad.  What makes these burgers “contemporary Mexican” is the ingredients with which they are concocted.  Consider the Mole Puebla burger with Jack cheese, the Poblano burger with Jack cheese and the aforementioned Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom burger.  When is the last time you saw a burger line-up that inventive?  The Comida Economicas (cheap eats) section of the menu features a plain burger with cheese (yawn), a chicken and lime tortilla soup and a trio of salsas.

Open from 7AM to 7PM, Jo’s Place offers only a handful of breakfast items: a breakfast quesadilla; potatoes, scrambled eggs and black chili oil; chorizo scramble; and huevos with salsa ranchera. All are available with or without meat.  The menu also includes a number of salads served with or without meat (fish o’ day, shrimp, chicken, sirloin).  Salads are adorned with avocado, black beans, corn, Cojita cheese and tomatoes and can be topped with your choice of dressing: jalapeño ranch, green onion vinaigrette, roasted garlic, fresca, charred tomato and pineapple vinaigrette.  Also available are a red chile lime Caesar salad and a unique rendition of a Cobb salad which includes chorizo, achiote, turkey, black beans, tomatoes, corn and cheese.  As at Sophia’s Place, specials of the day are plentiful and varied and you place your order at a counter before taking a seat.

Long-time followers of Dennis Apodaca’s culinary career might remember that prior to launching Sophia’s Place, he served as chef at the long-defunct Fajitaville.  One of Fajitaville’s hallmarks was its creative salsas, the flavors of which remain imprinted in my memories.  In the salsa trio with chips, those memories are rekindled.  The triumvirate of terrific salsas are a fire-roasted tomato salsa, a pico de gallo and a pineapple salsa (pineapple, red onion, cilantro, red pepper).  None of the salsas are especially piquant, but all have depth of flavor and deliciousness.  The chips are housemade and served warm.

Mole Puebla Burger with Jack Cheese

A special of the day during our inaugural visit, a turkey achiote quesadilla served with a side salad and a ramekin of pico de gallo is reflective of Dennis’s unique genius.  Instead of one large tortilla being sliced pizza-style (triangle-shaped wedges), this quesadilla appears to be four small flour tortillas.  Each is engorged with finely cubed turkey, Cheddar, black beans and onions.  The quesadillas are grilled to a consistency somewhere between slightly crispy and soft and pliable.  They’re made even more flavorful when one of the salsas is applied to the proportion of your choice.

The Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger was easily the highlight of our inaugural visit, impressing on my taste buds a deliciousness that not even Diana Kennedy, the grande dame of Mexican cuisine, was able to describe adequately.  Huitlacoche truly does have a flavor that may be impossible to describe.  It’s unlike any other flavor, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  This is a burger which you dare not adulterate with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or any other ameliorant.  It needs absolutely no help.  Not even green chile would make it any better.  It’s a fantastic burger!

In New Mexico, green chile cheeseburgers are sacrosanct, a state treasure we cherish and celebrate.  It would be too easy for Dennis to craft a green chile cheeseburger worthy of the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  Instead, he dares to be different and it pays off in huge dividends of flavor.  The Mole Puebla Burger with Jack Cheese is listed second on his revolutionary burger menu, but may be the equal of the aforementioned huitlacoche burger.  Dennis’s mole is the main reason.  With an explosive flavor reminiscent of reconstituted dried chiles flavored redolent of chocolate, raisins, cinnamon (I’m just guessing here) and other sweet-piquant-tangy ingredients.  Mole is a highly complex sauce, but Dennis has the formula down pat.  Unfortunately, there are no other items on the menu that showcase what is some of the best mole in Albuquerque.  One word of warning–the mole is very messing.  Expect your fingers to be painted a brownish-red color.  Burgers at Jo’s Place are served with tomatoes, lettuce and chopped onion, all fresh and crisp.

Poppy Seed Scone and Chocolate Walnut Brownie

The mole would be terrific as a dipping sauce for the fries, one of two options (the other is a salad) you can have with your burger.  Though my preference would have been for the sublimely sexy shoestring fries served at Sophia’s, these fries have a personality all their own.  They appear to be double-fried which imbues them with a crispy stiffness wholly unlike the flaccid fries served by some restaurants.  The fries are sprinkled with a spice mix that includes both red chile and just a hint of cumin (no comment here).

Desserts, mostly pastries and cookies, are available in a glass case by the counter at which you place your order. The poppy seed scone is impregnated with a bit of tangy orange zest. It’s light and flaky, a perfect scone for dipping into coffee or a British milk tea. Even better is a chocolate brownie studded with chunks of walnut. The brownie has an adult chocolate flavor and is moist and delicious.

In Jo’s Place, Dennis Apodaca has yet another winner, a restaurant that might soon be spoken of in the same reverential tones as Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place.  Though other Duke City restaurant impresarios may do it in grander, more opulent style with the flash and panache made possible with bigger bankrolls, when it comes to pure deliciousness and personality, you can’t beat Dennis Apodaca’s Fourth Street restaurant trio.

Jo’s Place
6100-B 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2011
1st VISIT:  1 February 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Trio of Salsas, Huitlacoche Mexican Mushroom Burger, Turkey Achiote Quesadilla, Mole Puebla with Jack Cheese Burger

Jo's Place on Urbanspoon

Weck’s – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Weck's

Weck's Restaurant with locations throughout the metropolitan area

Arguably the very best programming all year long on KNME, Albuquerque’s Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) comes during its four annual fund-raising campaigns.  For sandwich lovers all over New Mexico, no PBS feature is more greatly appreciated than Sandwiches That You Will Like, a documentary by Rick Sebak of television station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The documentary showcases unique sandwich offerings from throughout America.

Voracious viewers like me practically salivate at the scrumptious sandwiches on display and lament the fact that most of them can’t be found within the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Watching the documentary is torture of the most delicious sort, no doubt prompting a rush to the refrigerator for even the least tortured among us.  One of the sandwiches featured, a staple in the Buffalo, New York area, is called a “Beef on Weck.” Weck is a colloquial diminutive of Kummelweck, a salty roll topped with pretzel salt and caraway seeds.

A 50s/60s movie and pop theme at the Riverside Plaza Weck's

A 50s/60s movie and pop theme at the Riverside Plaza Weck's

The first time I passed by an Albuquerque restaurant named “Wecks,” the sandwich fanatic in me hoped against hope, the menu would showcase the fabulous Beef on Weck sandwich, but it wasn’t meant to be. The name Weck’s is a shortened form of the original owner’s last name, Weckerly.  Doug Weckerly launched the restaurant in 1991 and opened two other Weck’s in the Albuquerque metropolitan area before selling the local chain in 2004 to local restaurateur Art Kaplan and his wife Toya. Today there are six Weck’s restaurants in Albuquerque, one in Rio Rancho, one in Los Lunas and one in Santa Fe.

The restaurant’s motto is “A full bellied tradition since 1991.” Rarely have truer words been uttered. Weck’s is renown for serving titanic portions. Weck’s mission statement reads in part: “We will consistently serve our community great tasting foods, promptly and politely. We will greet all our customers with a smile and provide them with courteous service in a clean and orderly environment. We will do this with the knowledge that if we take care of business today, we will build business for tomorrow.”  While many mission statements, particularly in the corporate world, seem to be just so many words on paper, Weck’s lives up to its.  The wait staff is attentive and rarely does a visit go by without a visit from the manager on duty ensuring on your comfort and satisfaction.

Homemade chips and salsa

Homemade chips and salsa

Humongous portions and a customer orientation that’s much more than lip service are but two of the reasons Weck’s is a family favorite. Other reasons include good value for your money and some genuinely wonderful menu items.  Weck’s serves only breakfast and lunch and you’ll sometimes experience short waits as faithful patrons finish the platters of food gracing their tables. More often than not they leave the restaurant hefting dinner in doggie bags the size of shopping bags.

Breakfast is served all day long and in full bellied tradition may fill you up for the entire day. Pancakes are the size of car tires, an order of papas (hash browns with your choice of red and/or green chile, Cheddar and Jack cheeses and two eggs any style) is mountainous and omelets are made with four eggs.You could feed a developing nation on lunch portions from a menu that includes big sandwiches, belly busting burgers, really big salads (where are you now Elaine Benes) and substantially portioned New Mexican food.

Green chile cheeseburger with homemade potato chips and fries

Green chile cheeseburger with homemade potato chips and fries

Burgers and sandwiches are served with your choice of two sides, among the most popular being the fresh, homemade potato chips and unique crinkle wedge fries. Two sides means prodigious portions of each–sides which dwarf any competitor’s offerings. The potato chips can be terrific if not left too long on the fryer. They’re slightly thicker than the bagged chips which all too easily crumble into annoying little pieces. The chips are also relatively lightly salted. The crinkled wedge fries are Texas sized and delicious.  Other sides options include gourmet onion rings, fresh fruit, cottage cheese.  You can also substitute a small salad or bowl of soup for the two sides 

The mound of tortilla chips Weck’s serves with its salsa are also homemade, unfailingly fresh and lightly salted. The salsa is jalapeno based and slightly reminiscent of Pace Picante Sauce without the acerbic aftertaste. This chunky salsa is mild on the piquant scale but that doesn’t detract from a pleasant flavor.  Weck’s guacamole is also quite good. Constructed from fresh avocados, it has a distinct hint of lime which some of the best guacamoles use for flavor (and to keep guacamole from browning too soon with exposure to the air).

Chicken enchiladas

Chicken enchiladas

The green chile cheeseburger is a handful with a beef patty easily exceeding eight ounces (twice the size of the Quarter Pounder). I’ve always asked for my burger to be prepared at medium rare–and rarely have my exacting specifications been met. Burgers typically seem to be served at medium or medium well.  The green chile could use some wildness as it is tame even by “gringo” standards. Melted Cheddar cheese and a slightly toasted bun are the burger’s saving graces.

Although Weck’s doesn’t feature the Beef on Weck, it does serve several very good, very big sandwiches. In fact, Weck’s sandwiches–all ten of them–are my favorite reason to visit. My current favorite is the “Different Philly:” roast beef, sauteed mushrooms, onions, bell pepper and mozzarella cheese on griddled sourdough.  By no stretch of the imagine will this rendition of the “Philly” remind anyone of, say, the sublime Philly at Itsa, but it’s a good sandwich in its own right.   Weck’s makes their sandwiches the way you’d make them for yourself at homes.  That means they don’t scrimp on the portions.  The Different Philly is skyscraper high with a very tender and delicious roast beef.  Though it’s offered with an au jus, ask for green chile instead.

"Different Philly": roast beef, sauteed mushrooms, onions, bell pepper and mozzarella cheese on griddled sourdough.

New Mexican food is available for both breakfast and lunch. Breakfast burritos are the size of a motorcycle’s sidecar. They start with three scrambled eggs folded inside a flour tortilla smothered with your choice of red and/or green chile, Cheddar and Jack cheeses served with hash browns (out of the bag and nothing special).  Both the red and green chiles are made with a surfeit of cornstarch, an unnecessary thickener which may actually detract from the flavor of the chile.

One of the best New Mexican entrees is the chicken enchilada plate served with beans, hash browns and a garnish of guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and tomato. The chicken is moist and delicious, wholly unlike the desiccated poultry you sometimes find in enchiladas. The red chile has a discernible amount of cumin.  With green chile, the enchiladas are much better.

The breakfast burrito with green chile

While some of Weck’s portion sizes would challenge the most edacious of gurgitators (competitive eaters), most people do walk out with dinner in tow.  One reason not to finish your meal is so you can indulge in one of Weck’s tummy stretching desserts. These include saucer sized cookies, brick sized brownies and best of all, cinnamon rolls big enough to share.

The cinnamon rolls are glazed with a generous sheen of icing and are redolent with the aromatic essence of thickly spread cinnamon. For best results, ask your server to grill the cinnamon roll instead of microwaving it. The grilling lends a delightful flakiness to the crust while a thin coat of melted butter will cut the sweetness ever so slightly.

Grilled cinnamon rolls

Grilled cinnamon rolls

Even without the Beef on Weck sandwich, there are plenty of reasons for repeated visits to Weck’s. It truly is a family restaurant which has earned the loyalty of long-time patrons by treating them like new customers whose repeat business they want.

Weck’s
1690 Rio Rancho Drive
Rio Rancho, NM
896-1411
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Homemade Potato Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Cinnamon Rolls, Salsa & Chips, “Different Philly”

Weck's (Rio Rancho Drive) on Urbanspoon

El Farolito – El Rito, New Mexico

El Farolito: Tiny restaurant, Huge Flavors

The most contentious seasonal difference of opinion between Northern and Southern New Mexico residents isn’t whether Chimayo produces better chile than Hatch (though this will forever be in dispute). The great civil debate dividing the Land of Enchantment has all to do with semantics. More specifically, it has all to do with the appropriate name for the little paper bag lanterns which house a votive candle and light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve.

Misguided citizens of New Mexico’s lower half (just about anywhere south of and including Albuquerque) mistakenly call those lanterns luminarias while their more enlightened Northern brethren call them farolitos. Luminarias–stacked and crossed piñon boughs ignited on Christmas Eve to light the Holy Family’s path to shelter–were brought to the new world from Spain, first to Mexico then to the American Southwest.  When delicate paper lanterns made their way from China to the Southwest via Mexico, they were called farolitos, or little lanterns.

El Farolito's cramped, but cozy interior

No one seems to know for sure how farolitos came to be called luminarias and even a children’s book by Rudolfo Anaya, one of New Mexico’s most prolific novelists, didn’t illuminate the truth.  His book “The Farolitos of Christmas” is a fictional telling of a New Mexican girl using her ingenuity to devise the paper-bag lights as a replacement for the traditional Christmas Eve luminarias.  Anaya, a stickler for history and tradition, is in the camp of northern New Mexicans like me who wince when the paper-bag lights are referred to as luminarias.

El Rito’s world famous El Farolito has people from all over the world blazing a path to a one of the first Spanish settlements in Northern New Mexico in quest of some of the best New Mexican food in the state, hence, the world.

Salsa and Chips at El Farolito

Who says it’s among the best? How about Gourmet magazine which featured the restaurant in a 2003 edition? Not good enough? El Farolito’s praises have also been sung loudly by Michael and Jane Stern of Roadfood fame as well as by Sunset magazine, Travel & Leisure magazine, the New York Times, New Mexico magazine and in 2004 by Rand McNally which recognized it with a “Best of the Road” award, making it the only restaurant in the state to be accorded with such an honor during the year.

My friend Lesley King, author of the wonderful “King of the Road” columns in New Mexico Magazine began her feature on El Rito with a confession: “I’ll drive hours for good chile.  Not that I ever have to in New Mexico where it’s almost as common as sunshine.  But the idea is that I can, and the journey is, of course, half the fun.”  We’re quite simpatico in that sentiment.  Many of my own explorations throughout the Land of Enchantment have started as a quest for red or green chile of some repute.  Rarely have I been disappointed.

Two ala carte tacos

El Farolito occupies a simple adobe building that from the outside looks abandoned. In fact, if you’re even slightly exceeding the at-a-crawl speed limit of 25 miles per hour, you’ll miss the restaurant’s weathered plywood sign and will have to turn around and slow down to find the restaurant. Inside, seven picnic tables constitute El Farolito’s dining area. It’s certainly not ambiance that made this restaurant world famous. It’s the green chile which won the blue ribbon at the New Mexico state fair for three years running (1987-89) and was once named “best chile” by the International Chile Society.

With all those impressive credentials and accolades, El Farolito has a lot to live up to, but it’s been doing so for more than four decades.  El Farolito is listed among New Mexico’s Culinary Treasures, a New Mexico Tourism Department initiative to introduce tourists and locals alike to mom-and-pop restaurants which have stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their communities and beyond.  El Farolito was also listed–both in 2009 and in 2011–on the Tourism Department’s 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.

Frito Pie, one of New Mexico's best

A green chile cheeseburger at El Farolito’s is not quite the size of a Frisbee, but it’s a handful.  Stacked high in between two golden buns, one smeared with mustard, are crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, onions and New Mexico’s favorite fruit, green chile.  The green chile isn’t especially piquant, but it has a nice flavor.  It’s easy to see why so many people tread off-the-beaten-path for one of these delicious burgers.  It’s one of the ten best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico, one very much reminiscent of the green chile cheeseburgers you’ll find at the annual parish fiestas in Northern New Mexico’s small villages.

Though El Farolito’s reputation has been built on the flavor of its green chile, its red chile is no slouch in the flavor department.  Ladled on generously on the restaurant’s Frito pie, the chile has a pleasant piquancy and a depth of flavor that honors its simplicity.  This red chile isn’t adulterated by cumin or other additives.  There’s no need for such ameliorants as you can’t improve on perfection. The Frito pie is served in a rather large bowl large enough to share or to constitute an entire meal.  As with all New Mexican food served at El Farolito, shredded cheese is a standard and plentiful ingredient.

Green Chile Beans

Similar in size, meaning meal-sized, is a bowl of green chile beans (red chile beans are also available).  The beans are of a soupy consistency to which chunks of pork, tomatoes, shredded cheese and of course, El Farolito’s amazing green chile are added.  More often than not, green chile beans are made with whole pinto beans.  The difference between whole beans and soupy beans is more than textural.  Soupy beans are more similar in flavor to refried beans than to whole beans, meaning they have a prepared with lard flavor.  The green chile and pork chunks are plentiful and the bowl is served hot, making it a perfect elixir for a blustery day.

The salsa has a pureed texture, like a thick tomato soup.  In fact, it’s got a similar rich red color to tomato soup.  The salsa is just a bit runny and may run off the chips, but it’s a delicious salsa you’ll want to consume by the bowlful–make that, two or three bowls full.  As in so many New Mexican restaurants, the salsa is the most piquant item on the menu and similar to an increasing number of restaurants, it’s not complimentary.  Pay the pittance.  It’s an excellent salsa.  The chips are crisp and low in salt, formidable enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa.

One of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico and a mainstay on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

The hard-shell tacos are thoroughly enjoyable–engorged with well seasoned beef, crisp shredded lettuce, salsa and generous amount of shredded Cheddar cheese.  If it rankles you to pay premium entree prices at most restaurants for skinny tacos, El Farolito offers ala carte tacos for a reasonable cost.  These tacos are quite good and not just for the money. 

Some entrees such as the green chile beans and Frito pie are accompanied by sopaipillas hot off the fryer. The honey is also served hot. They’re so hot to the touch that you’ll have to let them cool off a bit before you can enjoy them.  Tear into them and wisps of steamy flavor will escape, moreso when you pour some honey into the cavity you cut into the pillowy puffs of deliciousness.

Sopaipillas

El Farolito is a wonderful establishment respected and cherished by people who, like Lesley King and me, don’t mind driving for hours for outstanding chile and the adventure the quest for it will bring.

El Farolito
1212 Main Street
El Rito, New Mexico
581-9501

LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2011
1st VISIT: 20 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Frito Pie, Green Chile Beans, Tacos, Sopaipillas, Tacos

Farina Pizzeria – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Farina Pizzeria on Central Avenue

Farina Pizzeria on Central Avenue

On May 14, 2011, I had the great pleasure and privilege of being the first guest on Break the Chain, the weekly radio show dedicated to showcasing the great independent mom-and-pop restaurants in and around Albuquerque.  When the show’s charismatic host, my friend Ryan Scott asked me to name the five best pizza restaurants in the Albuquerque area, I omitted Ryan’s very favorite — and he yelled at me (good-naturedly (I think)).  I asked forgiveness for my transgression, stating in my defense that I couldn’t well include Farina, having visited only once with attempts for a second visit being quashed by long waits.

The only pizza for which I’ve ever waited more than half an hour–in 115-degree temperature, no less–is the transcendent pizza at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.  It was a pizza worth the near dehydration and painful sunburn resultant from standing in blistering sun for nearly an hour with other equally ardent aficionados (masochists?).  I’ve often considered it heretical madness that some Duke City diners have compared Farina with Pizzeria Bianco.  How, after all, can a pizza crafted in Albuquerque compare with the pizza James Beard award-winning author Ed Levine considers the very best in the world?  Ed should know.  He spent an entire year eating nothing but pizza throughout the fruited plain and concluded there is no pizza quite as good as the one crafted in Phoenix at Pizzeria Bianco.

At any regard, Ryan made it his personal mission to make a convert out of me.  To ensure waiting in a long line wouldn’t dissuade me, we met for a late lunch.  Even at the unholy hour of 1PM, Farina was packed and seating was in personal space proximity.  We sat on a table for two adjoining another table for two.  Fortunately the couple with whom we sat was delightful, a joy to converse with.  We even shared slices of pizza so we could all partake of even more variety and enjoy even more of the creativity Farina’s pizzaiolis practice on their crispy canvases.

The classy interior of Farina

Farina is an exemplar of “new world” pizza–supermodel thin and with a variety and creativity of toppings limited only by the imagination of the pizzaioli.  In recent years, pizza has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon with various regions stamping their unique local touches onto what was once a fairly uniform and relatively unimaginative food that Americans consume with a love they have for no other food.

The creative floodgates in the evolution of pizza opened in the 1980s courtesy of fusion cuisine pioneer (or should that be “pie-o-neer”) Wolfgang Puck who transformed pizza from a boring, unimaginative and fairly standard offering to something elegant, creative, upscale and exciting.  In his flagship restaurant Spago, Puck dared offer personal-sized, thin-crusted pizzas adorned with such inventive ingredients as fresh goat cheese, roasted duck, barbecue chicken, smoked salmon and even caviar. Today those toppings would be considered fairly blasé.

My friend Ryan Scott, host of Albuquerque's very best radio show "Break the Chain," On the Air Every Saturday at 4PM

Not surprisingly, the mozzarella and pepperoni crowd poo-pooed the heretical Puck and his apocryphal, obviously misguided thinking.  “Sacrilege!,” they cried, “no one will eat pizza studded with such strangeness.”  It didn’t take long, however, before “New World” pizza (sometimes referred to as “California style”) appeared on menus throughout the fruited plain.  Even in New Mexico, the “land of mañana” where fads and trends tend to be adopted, shall we say, a bit more slowly than in other states, pizzas bedecked with ingredients much more revolutionary than green chile found their way to the pizzerias throughout the Land of Enchantment.

To be sure, green chile is probably considered a unique ingredient everywhere but New Mexico.  Still, the addition of green chile is hardly enough to earn a label of “New Mexico style” pizza,” an astute observation made by Kevin Hopper, the brilliant writer for Local IQ, “Albuquerque’s Intelligent Alternative.” Hopper reasoned that a counter-argument will always be made that it’s just New York or Chicago or some other regional style pizza with green chile.  Instead, he makes a case for “Farina-style” pizza.

Meatballs al forno

Meatballs al forno

Farina-style pizza can be found in only one location worldwide.  Launched in October, 2008, Farina Pizzeria sits on Old Route 66 in the East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming” areas in the nation.”  This pizzeria has the pedigree to succeed in a tough Duke City market.  It’s the younger sibling of the Artichoke Cafe, the ”saucy little bistro at the heart of creative cuisine” and one of city’s most revered and highly esteemed restaurants.

Farina Pizzeria bears little resemblance to the picture most of us have in our minds when we think about the old-world pizzerias we grew up with, although two facets speak to the antiquity of the building in which Farina is housed.  The exposed brick on the restaurant’s eastern wall appears to have been the exterior wall of an old-fashioned cash and carry business (at least that’s what the faded white lettering indicates).  An imprinted tin ceiling is a testimonial to the people who manufactured the decorative ceiling decades ago.  The shiny tin of the exposed ductwork speaks to its modernity.

Pasta e fagioli ( bean & pasta soup )non-vegetarian

Pasta e fagioli ( bean & pasta soup ) non-vegetarian

The rest of the Farina Pizzeria is as hip and modern as it gets, showcasing a serpentine bar on the restaurant’s west wall.  Wines, served by the glass or by the bottle, are expertly selected by the Artichoke Cafe’s long-time sommelier Stewart Dorris, a partner in the restaurant.  Seating is in close–community style–proximity and is more functional than decorative.  The cacophonous din of happy diners reverberates throughout the restaurant; a quiet restaurant it’s not.

The menu is part of what distinguishes the Farina-style menu from other pizzerias.  At first browse it appears somewhat standard: antipasti, insalata, pizza, calzone, panini and dolci.  Peruse further and you’ll find surprises unlike at any other pizzeria in Albuquerque–ingredients you won’t find elsewhere, combinations you haven’t seen before.  If this is New Mexico style, it’s caught on.  In its 2009 “Best of the City” edition, Albuquerque The Magazine voters selected Farina Pizzeria as the city’s best new restaurant.  Overflow crowds during lunch and dinner validate its popularity.

Pizza Bianca: Fresh mozzarella, parmigiano, ricotta, truffle oil, sage and artichoke hearts

Unlike at some pizzerias, Farina has no pretensions to being a compendium of pizzas.  The menu lists only eight pizzas, each adorned with quality ingredients in combinations that will have you doing a double-take.  Customization via the addition of optional ingredients extends your choices to the limit of your imagination.  Ostensibly, you might even be able to have a pizza crafted with cucumber as one of its ingredients as the consumate free-spirit Cosmo Kramer of Seinfeld fame once requested, much to the chagrin of an old-world pizzaioli.

Aside from ingredients of the highest quality, another factor which makes it Farina-style is the oven which bakes the restaurant’s signature thin pies in an inferno of heat.  By virtue of their thin crust, these twelve-inch orbs don’t require a lot of oven-time.  The thin crust also means you’re likely to see more char on the pizza’s edges and bottom than you would on a thicker crust.  The taste of char should be relatively innocuous, even pleasant, but it’s also an acquired taste.  If you accept it, if you like it, you’ll enjoy Farina’s pies because char is a flavor.  In fact, Farina’s pizzas are the antithesis of the  doughy pizza at Il Vicino.

Formaggio di Capra: mozzarella, farmhouse goat cheese with leeks, scallion and pancetta

If the char on a Farina pizza isn’t to your liking, the menu includes several alternatives you should enjoy greatly.  You can even make a meal from one or two items on the antipasti section of the menu, the most popular item being meatballs al forno.  These are wholly unlike the meatballs which usually accompany spaghetti and in fact, at first glance they look more like Swedish meatballs on a brown gravy than anything Italian.

Four meatballs per order accompanied by toasted crostini bread means this appetizer is big enough to share although the meatballs are so good you might not want to.  Each meatball is studded with pine nuts and (it could just be my imagination) sultana raisins.  They are immersed in a sweet Balsamic sauce you’ll be tempted to drink.  Unlike some Balsamic inspired sauces, vinegary tartness isn’t the most prevalent taste sensation of the meatballs or the sauce.  Instead, there’s a nice balance of sweet and savory flavors with more subtle pronouncements of tanginess.  These meaty orbs are a unique taste sensation!

Funghi: Mushrooms, fontina, tallegio, mozzarella, thyme, shallot

If the Olive Garden’s version of pasta e fagioli is your benchmark for this popular pasta and bean soup, you’re overdue for a visit to Farina Pizzeria where this traditional meatless dish is prepared the way it should be.  That means three different Italian beans prepared to a degree which might be called al dente, a rich marinara style tomato broth and small pasta all seasoned to perfection.  The pasta e fagioli is topped with ground Italian basil which imparts a light, fresh flavor.  It’s served hot which makes it an excellent remedy for the blustery day.

In his Local IQ review, Kevin Hopper indicated “each pie’s individual ingredients come together to form a synergistic symphony of flavors.”  That’s certainly the case with the Salciccia Pizza, one of the few pizzas which might make it to an old-world pizzeria’s menu.  The featured attraction on this pie is the sweet Italian sausage (Salciccia) which has a big city taste and is replete with fennel.  The supporting cast–mozzarella, roasted garlic, onion and basil–is very complementary, imparting their own individual flavors without taking anything away from the sausage.  When you’ve got a primo quality ingredient, you’ve got to showcase it and Farina does.

Tiramisu: Savoiardi cookies soaked in espresso with marsala zabaglione

Alas, sometimes the qualities which make ingredients special on their own, don’t always coalesce into pizza greatness.  That’s the case with the Carni Curate pizza in which the inherent qualities–saltiness, spiciness and aroma–which make three phenomenal cured meats–pepperoni, proscuitto and salami–terrific on their own right, might be just too much of a good thing (or three) in one pizza.  That’s especially true of the quality of saltiness.  This is a pizza which could use modern desalinization technologies.  It’s lip-puckering salty, so much so I couldn’t finish half of it and that’s a rarity for me with any pizza.

Those were my initial impressions of the first two pizzas (one I liked and one not so much) I sampled at Farina.  My inaugural visit didn’t impress me enough to warrant an early return, much less to wait in line for pizza which may or may not be that good.  Ryan’s assurances (he of the radio pitchman’s voice and salesman’s charm) that Farina was the city’s best wasn’t so much met with skepticism as with eager anticipation. Ryan’s favorite is the Pizza Bianca (fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano, ricotta, truffle oil, sage and artichoke hearts), a pizza he stands up against any other in town.  Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has declared truffle oil “one of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to chef,” deriding  a Master Chef contestant for deigning to use it.  Used moderately, this artificial odorant can elevate the flavor profile of other dishes with which it is paired.  It has that effect on the Pizza Bianca, proving an excellent complement to the earthiness of the artichoke hearts and the peppery, pungency of the sage.   

Ricotta cheese cake

Ricotta cheese cake

The other pizza Ryan ordered for us was the Formaggio de Capra (mozzarella, farmhouse goat cheese with leeks, scallion and pancetta), a cheese and bacon lover’s dream.  The goat cheese imparts a mild, slightly acidic, slightly tart quality while the mozzarella is reminiscent of fresh milk.  Both are generously applied to this pizza, but it’s their interaction with the pancetta that’s most notable.  Pancetta may be the most “porky” tasting of all pork products, rightfully so considering its genesis is pork belly.  Goat cheese and pancetta are among my favorite flavor combinations anywhere so it goes without saying, this pizza is one I’ll order again.  The nice couple sitting next to us described their Funghi (mushrooms, Fontina, Tallegio, mozzarella, thyme, shallot) as a pizza which tastes like French onion soup.  Wow!  I wish I had thought of that.  What an apt description of the slice they shared.

Farina Pizzeria menu has plenty of sweet (but not too sweet) desserts to mollify any saltiness or char you may not have enjoyed in your pizza. A nice choice is the ricotta cheesecake which blessedly does not have a Graham cracker crust. The ricotta is rich, but not unctuous and sweet without being cloying. It is served cool and is big enough to share.  The tiramisu (Savoiardi cookies soaked in espresso with Marsala Zabaglione) has a more pronounced espresso flavor than most tiramisu desserts in Albuquerque.  That elevates it to among my favorites (along with the tiramisu at Torinos @ Home and at Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria).

Farina Pizzeria is definitely a new-world pizza, perhaps the definition of “Albuquerque-style” pizza.  Did I err in not naming it one of Albuquerque’s five best pizzas?  Highly likely, but an equally great sin of omission was in not naming Golden Crown Panaderia’s pizza.  My top five pizza list now has seven pizzas with Farina firmly ensconced in that list.

Farina Pizzeria
510 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-0130
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 July 2011
1st VISIT: 4 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Meatballs al Forno, Pasta e Fagioli, Salciccia Pizza, Funghi Pizza, Formaggio di Capro, Pizza Bianco, Ricotta Cheese Cake, Tiramisu

Farina Pizzeria & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen on Cordova Road in New Mexico

In 1712, the provincial governor for the kingdom of New Mexico decreed that henceforth, an annual reenactment of Diego De Vargas’ triumphant reentry into Santa Fe would be celebrated every year. Santa Feans have dutifully obeyed the proclamation ever since, making the Fiesta de Santa Fe the oldest civic celebration of its kind in North America.  Approaching its 400th year, the Fiesta is renown not only for its pageantry and pomp, but for its respectful reflection on a significant historical event.

By 1951, however, the Fiesta as we know it today, had degenerated into a parody of its former self, a victim of crass commercialism which Santa Fe’s Pulitzer Prize winning writer Oliver La Farge called “a shabby commercial carnival.”  Incensed that the Fiesta was overrun by concessionaires who turned the Fiesta into “a hot dog and popcorn affair,” La Farge recruited a contingent of Santa Fe’s movers and shakers in the business, religious and arts communities to restore dignity to the Fiestas.  Both the Museum of New Mexico and the Catholic Church sided with La Farge’s group.

The tortillera at Maria’s shows how it’s done

It took the ouster of several Fiesta Council members who had fostered the circus-like atmosphere wrought by deep pocketed concessionaires before the Church, the Museum and Santa Fe’s business community would once again lend their support to the Fiesta. Together they sought to make the 1952 Santa Fe Fiesta the very best ever. It can be disputed as to whether or not this admirable goal was or was not accomplished, but one thing is indisputable–dignity was returned to the Fiesta.

The Santa Fe Fiesta in 1952 was significant for another reason–the intoxicating aromas and delicious flavors emanating from a modest take-out kitchen on Cordova Road.  This was Santa Fe’s introduction to the cooking of Maria Lopez.  Belying its relatively small digs, the kitchen produced an ambitious menu of popular New Mexican favorites including the tortilla burger which Maria herself claims to have invented.

Salsa and Chips

In short order, Maria’s traditional Northern New Mexican cooking became so popular that her husband Gilbert built a patio, alas on a rare year in which rains were relentless.  Covering the patio with the vigas and roof that are still in place today, the humble kitchen would grow into a restaurant which has since become a Santa Fe landmark and one of the city’s most popular dining destinations.

The Lopez family sold Maria’s to Don Hammond, then Chief of the New Mexico State Police.  Maria’s would pass hands several more times–from Chief Hammond to his bartender Charlie Lopez, then to Peter Gould and Priscilla Hoback (daughter of Rosalea Hoback, founder of Santa Fe’s iconic Pink Adobe) and finally to Santa Fe native Al Lucero and his wife Laurie who owned Maria’s from 1985 through 2013 when they sold to restaurant impresario Gerald Peters’ Santa Fe Dining group.

Green Chile Egg Rolls

The venerable Maria’s retains vestiges of its age, but it wears them well.  The original take-out kitchen and patio were in the area which today houses Maria’s bar and modern kitchen.  As you walk into the main dining room, the host station is what may once have been a colonial dresser atop of which pitchers of tea and ice water are perched.  The distressed wood planked floors are timeworn and uneven. White-washed walls are festooned with Western art.  Carved wood beams painted white support blond planks.  Suspended from the ceiling are wagon wheels which have been converted into light fixtures, some spangled in neon.

At one corner of the main dining room is a small (maybe 10X10) room bisected by glass and tile.  A solitary figure, a tortillera, works behind the glass, assiduously kneading dough into small balls then rolling them into flat disks about a foot in diameter.  The tortillera then places the raw tortillas on a preheated cast iron plate, turning them frequently to ensure they are cooked evenly.  The tortilla is ready when it begins to puff up with air pockets and becomes the color of a pinto pony.  Making flour tortillas is a time-honored process that requires experience and expertise.  Maria’s tortilleras know what they’re doing.

Margaritas from Maria’s: Peach at right, mango at left

As you peruse the menu, a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa are brought to your table.  The chips are a bit over-salted, perhaps an inducement to order a margarita or five (more on margaritas later), but they’re crispy and delicious.  The salsa is fiery, easily the most piquant item on the menu.  It appears to be made from dried chiles, seeds and all.  Owner Al Lucero is a renown expert on salsa, having served as judge for New Mexico Magazine‘s second annual salsa contest.

On the foreword to The Great Margarita Book, Robert Redford wrote, “When people have asked of a place to eat in Santa Fe, I find myself referring them to Maria’s. Is the food good? Yes. But the margaritas they are the best. When you read this book, you’ll know why.”  The Great Margarita Book is Al Lucero’s magnus-opus, one of a number of books on the subject he has written.  Lucero has made Maria’s THE place for margaritas, earning “best of the city” honors for more than a decade.

Carne Adovada with Rice (Soupy Beans not pictured)

The menu explains why Maria’s margaritas are so special: “At Maria’s, we have over 100 REAL Margaritas from which to choose!  But, what is a “real” Margarita? Simple. It’s one that’s made with “REAL” tequila, “REAL” triple-sec and “REAL” lemon or lime juice (we use fresh-squeezed lemon juice instead of lime, because of it’s year-round consistency). Real Tequila is a liquor made ONLY in Mexico, which has been distilled from the sugary juices extracted from the cooked heart of the Weber blue agave plant. To be considered true tequila, it must contain at least 51% of this agave juice (sugar). Most off-brands or “cheap” tequilas sold in the USA do not contain the required 51% agave sugar and by regulation, are not considered tequila.”

Maria’s menu includes many traditional Northern New Mexico entrees as well as some unique surprises such as the Santa Fe meets Philadelphia green chile Philly, thinly sliced Philly steak sauteed with new Mexico green chile and onions topped with melted Monterrey jack served in a folded homemade tortilla.  There may be no bigger surprise than the green chile egg rolls, two per order egg rolls stuffed with pork, shredded cabbage and carrots and green chile.  They’re served with a green chile dipping sauce.   If I’ve made the point recently that the worse egg rolls are those served in Chinese restaurants, Maria’s egg rolls emphasize that point.  These are fabulous!  My only complaint is that an order should include six to eight egg rolls.

Maria’s Stuffed Cheddar Burger

Among the New Mexican entrees, you can’t go wrong with carne adovada, fork-tender pork marinated in red chile and served with rice, beans (either refried or soupy) and a tortilla or sopaipilla (you should request both).  The pork shreds easily, a sign it’s been marinated slowly at low temperatures.  The chile is mild, but quite flavorful.  Use the tortilla as a “spoon” to scoop up the carne as native New Mexicans have been doing for generations.  The rice and soupy beans are both quite good, too.

Two bars on the same street in South Minneapolis became famous for serving a burger known regionally as the “Juicy Lucy.”  The Juicy Lucy is a cheeseburger in which the cheese melts inside the meat patty rather than on top of it.  The resultant molten core of cheese tends to erupt in volcano-like fashion when you first bite into it and has a tendency to scald the tongue and mouth.  Maria’s one-ups the Juicy Lucy with a burger called the Stuffed Cheddar Burger.

Sopaipillas

A large beef patty is stuffed with sharp Cheddar cheese, chopped sweet onion and New Mexican green chile then is charbroiled to your specification. It’s not only an adventurous burger, it’s a delicious one though the green chile could have been a bit more piquant. The beef patty is so thick, it takes a thick hamburger bun to hold it all together and true to Juicy Lucy tradition, the Cheddar erupts at first bite. If you love Cheddar, this is the burger for you!  It should be noted that Al Lucero was one of the two judges in the Green Chile Throwdown in which the Buckhorn Tavern‘s Bobby Olguin vanquished Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay.  Olguin knows green chile cheeseburgers very well and his restaurant’s unique rendition is quite good.

Many diners opt to have sopaipillas with honey for dessert.  The piping hot puffed treats are complimentary with several entrees, but additional sopaipillas can be purchased for a pittance.  Maria’s serves them with real honey.  Before you decide on having only sopaipillas for dessert, make sure to peruse the menu.  You might not want to pass up the homemade flan, traditional New Mexican natillas or homemade Mexican chocolate mousse.  The natillas are served in a goblet ringed with a wholly unnecessary whipped cream.  Get past the whipped cream and you’ll thoroughly enjoy the thin custard dish with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

Natillas

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen is usually packed, a testament to how highly regarded it is among locals and tourists alike.  At nearly sixty years of age, like the Santa Fe Fiesta, it is still going strong with no surcease to its popularity in sight.

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen
555 West Cordova Road
Santa Fe, NM
983-7929
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 04 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Stew, Sopaipillas, Carne Adovada, Maria’s Stuffed Cheddar Burger, Natillas, Tortillas

Maria's New Mexican Kitchen on Urbanspoon

ABQ Brew Pub – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Abq Brew Pub in the Uptown area just south of the Coronado Mall

It wasn’t that long ago the terms “pub grub” and “bar food” conjured images of peanuts, potato chips, pickled eggs, a perfect coupling for plenty of pints.  By design, everything served in pubs and bars was loaded with salt which made patrons even more thirsty, ergo they consumed even more beer.  Sure the salty snacks were often free, but the savvy pub owners knew they could easily recoup the pittances they spent on snacks with parched customers quaffing one often watered-down pint after the other.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, economics, social conventions and strict drunk driving laws made drinking at home a preferred option to visiting the local pub or bar.  Convenience stores, supermarkets and even gas stations  undercut the local pubs, making it much cheaper to drink at home.  At about the same time, drunk driving became socially unacceptable and legislators began to enact stricter drunk driving ordinances.  To remain a viable business enterprise, pubs had to do something.

The interior of the Abq Brew Pub

Recognizing that people still liked the socialization and atmospheric aspects of the pub, many pubs were transformed into what they are today–restaurants which serve beer and alcohol on the side, a concept called the “gastropub.” A gastropub is a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-end, high-quality food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to define food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub,” but in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.  It wasn’t long before the concept crossed the pond.  Understandably, the colonists embraced the concept.

Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices.  In order to be successful, pubs had to retain a milieu of casualness.  Eating out at a pub should never be as formal as at a restaurant. The menu, of course, has to complement an assortment of wines and beers, the latter being a staple of pub life in England as in America.

From the tapas menu: Apple Wood Smoked Bacon Wrapped California Dates Complemented With A Cranberry Balsamic Dipping Glaze

Though not all of them call themselves “gastropubs,” the Duke City has, over the past decade or so, seen an increase in the number and quality of pubs, taverns and bars serving high-quality food you don’t have to be “four sheets to the wind” to consume.  In fact, some of them accord themselves quite well in restaurant reviews and are held in high regard by their patrons as much for their food as for their libations.  On March 19, 2010, the Abq Brew Pub entered the fray and in a short time began to earn acclaim as one of the best places in the city for adult beverages and excellent food.

The ABQ Brew Pub is located on Uptown Boulevard just south of the Coronado Mall.  It is situated next door to the Uptown Sports Bar with which it shares a kitchen.  There’s a distinct line of demarcation between the Abq Brew Pub and  the Uptown Sports Bar.  Though both have an adobe-hued stucco facade, the latter’s is just a bit more earthy and dark.  The distinction extends to the tin roof.  The ABQ Brew Pub’s is reddish while the Uptown Sports Bar’s is a light gray or silver.  Other differences can be found when you step into both.

House Salad: Mesculin Lettuce, Cucumber, Crimini Mushrooms, Country Tomato, Bermuda Onion, Greek Feta Cheese with a Mango Cilantro Citrus Dressing

The Uptown Sports Bar lives up to its name with more than fifteen television screens all tuned to sporting events.  The ABQ Brew Pub is more akin to a restaurant with a bar at its cynosure.  There are far fewer televisions and a lot more art at the Brew Pub.  High ceilings and Chaco style stonework lend a more upscale feel.   Owner Adam Krafft invites patrons to “unfranchise your taste” with a selection of ten award-winning micro-brews produced by New Mexico’s largest producer of beer, Sierra Blanca.  Among its beer menu is the Pancho Verde Chile in which New Mexico’s official state vegetable is a featured ingredient.

The menu is surprisingly upscale, a far cry from the days of peanuts, potato chips and pickled eggs–none of which are featured fare on the “Pub Fare” section of the menu.  The ABQ Brew Pub’s ten-item pub fare menu includes appetizer-type items unlike any you might have seen a couple of decades ago.  The menu also includes a four-item “tapas” menu, showcasing such “little dishes” as black cultured mussels and marinated cured ahi tuna.  Two soups, including a Sierra Blanca inspired variety are available as are six salads.

The Southwest Burger, Winner of the 2010 Governor's Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge

Eight entrees, some the type of which you might find at a high-end restaurant, showcase the dinner menu, but the one most popular entree on the menu is a not-so-simple, not-so-humble burger.  In 2010, the ABQ Brew Pub’s Southwest Burger was selected by an esteemed panel of judges as the winner of the second annual Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge during the New Mexico State Fair.  In doing so, the burger earned automatic inclusion on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

The Southwestern Burger is an eight-ounce behemoth constructed from Angus beef, two slices of American cheese, three strips of bacon and garlic mustard topped with a crunchy green chile tempura and chipotle mayonnaise on a fresh ciabatta bun.  Cheryl Alters Jamison, the scintillating food and travel author who served as one of the judges says “it sounds a little frou-frou, but it’s anything but.”  You can trust Cheryl, the New Mexico Culinary Tourism Liaison and five-time James Beard Award winning author who does more for promoting the New Mexico culinary experience than anyone.

10oz Grilled Pork Chop Topped With A Smoked Chipotle Piquillo Pepper Chutney

Shortly after the Southwest Burger was selected as New Mexico’s very best green chile cheeseburger, throngs of hungry patrons stormed the restaurant to get theirs.  The demand was so great that for a while Le Paris French Bakery couldn’t supply enough of their unique ciabatta buns and the Pub had to use standard burger buns until the ciabatta  could be replenished.  Though the demand has since tapered off somewhat, it remains the most ordered item on the menu though repeat visitors now tend to share one.

Weighing in at nearly a pound, the Southwest Burger is easily big enough to share.  It’s certainly an unconventional burger, a fact not lost on traditionalists who might frown upon the liberties taken with the sacrosanct burger New Mexicans love like no other.  Adventurous diners will enjoy it.  The beef is prepared to your exacting specifications.  Medium for me ensures plenty of pink and a profusion of juiciness.  The bun is substantial enough to hold in all the ingredients without dominating the flavor profile.  The tempura sheathed green chile retains a hint of roasting, but isn’t quite as piquant as fire-eaters like me might like.

Sauté Of Wild Mushrooms In Sherry

Perhaps out of curiosity or to say “been there, done that,” the Southwest Burger will likely be what you order on your first visit, but taking in the menu, you’ll certainly plan a repeat visit or ten to try other menu items.  The tapas menu is especially intriguing and if the apple wood smoked bacon wrapped California dates complemented with a cranberry Balsamic dipping glaze are any indication, the tapas are hard to top.  Bacon, dates and cranberry Balsamic  are a classic sweet, savory and tangy troika that may make your taste buds dance.

A more healthful, but no less delicious option is the House Salad.  If the term “house salad” evokes images of iceberg lettuce, artificially ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and a large dollop of gloppy salad dressing, you’re in for a treat.  The ABQ Brew Pub’s rendition is an artful plating of mesculin lettuce, cucumber, Crimini mushrooms, country tomato, Bermuda onion, Greek feta cheese and your choice of dressing.  The mango cilantro citrus dressing is a winner with equal pronouncements of tanginess and piquancy.

ABQ Cranberry Bread Pudding With A White Chocolate And Caramel Drizzle

The flavor profile of the ten-ounce grilled pork chop topped with a smoked chipotle piquillo pepper chutney includes sweet, savory, smoky, piquant and tangy in well-balanced proportions that will thrill adventurous diners.  Reminiscent of Chop Houses throughout the Midwest, this is a substantial bone-in chop decorated with grill marks.  It would be an excellent chop without the chutney, but the chutney elevates it by an order of magnitude or more.  The chop is prepared to your exacting specifications and is surprisingly tender for a near one-inch thick piece of porcine perfection.

An excellent accompaniment to the pork chops is the Saute of Wild Mushrooms in Sherry.  The mushrooms are fried briefly over high heat then served in a sherry broth, a combination which might make you swoon.  It has an expensive flavor, but can be ordered as a side dish which complements meat dishes very well.  It also makes an excellent mushroom soup.

Carnita Pork Quesadilla: In A Flour Tortilla With Jack & Cheddar Cheese, Green Chile, Country Tomatoes, Green Onions And Cilantro

Desserts are out-of-the-ordinary as well.  The ABQ Cranberry Bread Pudding with a white chocolate and caramel drizzle is wholly unlike any other bread pudding we’ve had in Albuquerque.  Four triangle-shaped wedges resembling a crustless French toast are impregnated with a white chocolate and drizzled in a tangy cranberry glaze with a decorative trail of caramel and a sprig of mint.  It’s a fine way to end a meal.

Our inaugural visit so impressed us that we returned within a year (a good indication the restaurant has potential to become a semi-regular). Alas, the ABQ Brew Pub was beset by kitchen and service issues. An anomaly? It’s hard to know for sure. Neighbors at the tables near us indicated service and kitchen issues are commonplace, but the “great food” is worth waiting for.  That’s not what we wanted to hear about a restaurant with potential to be on our erratic rotation.

Green Chile Roasted Ribs with Garlic Fingerling Potatoes

The first SNAFU (situation normal, all fouled-up) was with an appetizer order of carnitas pork quesadillas.  The menu indicated these quesadillas were crafted in a flour tortilla with Jack and Cheddar cheeses, green chile, country tomatoes, green onions and cilantro.  Instead of green chile, however, the quesadillas were replete with jalapeños–not the grilled variety we appreciate so much, but greenish sliced peppers.  When you’ve got your heart set on green chile, no substitute will do–no matter how good the quesadillas may be (and they were quite tasty).  The quesadillas, big enough to be served as an entree, too,  are served with sides of guacamole and salsa, both of which are surprisingly good.

Green chile was the subject of another kitchen faux pas.  When the menu offers “green chile roasted ribs,” you might expect for the green chile to be incorporated into the roasting process or at the least to be a prime ingredient in the sauce with which the ribs are slathered.  That wasn’t the case.  The green chile was served in a ramekin, intended to be applied onto the ribs after-the-fact.  Worse, the green chile was served cold.  While the ribs were meaty and substantial, this case of misleading enticement was hard to forgive–even though the ribs were quite good.  The chile, too, was quite good and it had a piquancy I love, but it wasn’t delivered as promised (or at least hinted about) on the menu.

10oz Angus Choice Cut Of Top Sirloin: Enhanced With A Sherry Wild Mushroom Glace

The ten-ounce Angus choice-cut of top sirloin came highly recommended by a trusted colleague with a sophisticated palate.  He calls it the “best west of the Mississippi.”  That’s high praise indeed for a slab of beef costing fifteen dollars, much less one offered at a brew pub.  Thankfully the kitchen delivered on its promise.  This is indeed an excellent steak, as tender and flavorful as any in town.  You would be hard-pressed to find a hint of sinew or fat on this meaty marvel, probably because this cut of beef comes from the gluteus maximus, a thick cut of which is often used for Chateubriand.  The only way to top this steak is with sherry-wild mushroom glace.

The top sirloin is offered with your choice of sides.  A surprising summer sensation is watermelon gazpacho, a refreshing and flavorful soup served cold.  This sweet-savory soup is the perfect cure for the sweltering summer doldrums, melding the flavors of cilantro, green onion, cucumber and watermelon in a semi-pureed soup you’ll be slurping up.  Watermelon has very few calories from fat, making this a very guilt-free to enjoy this super soup.

Watermelon Gaspacho

The ABQ Brew Pub’s may have been a “hit and miss” experience during our first two visits, but when it hit, it was a home run, delivering on the promise of the more refined and upscale experience  of gastropub cuisine done very well.

ABQ Brew Pub
6601 Uptown Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884-1116
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2011
1st VISIT: 23 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: ABQ Cranberry Bread Pudding, Southwest Burger, Saute of Wild Mushrooms in Sherry, Grilled Pork Chop, Garden Salad, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon Wrapped California Dates, Ten-Ounce Angus Choice Cut of Top Sirloin, Carnitas Pork Quesadillas, Watermelon Gaspacho

ABQ Brewpub on Urbanspoon