Zia Diner – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Zia Diner in Santa Fe

In the year 1880, La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís” (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”) bore little semblance to the popular vacation destination and tourist town it is today.  In fact, it was still pretty much a dusty frontier town of the old west with statehood more than a quarter century away.  Despite a population growth of nearly forty percent over the previous decade, Santa Fe was hardly considered a burgeoning center for commerce, much less tourism.  That would all change with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, an event which heralded a new period of prosperity and growth.

The railroad facilitated trade between the New Mexico territory and the United States.  In addition to trade in dry goods, foodstuffs, clothing and books, the railroad ferried materials such as bricks and galvanized tin which paved the way for architectural diversity.  The facade of the Santa Fe Plaza, for example, would be transformed from a Spanish-Pueblo architectural style to a hybrid Spanish-Pueblo-Territorial style that persists today.  Victorian style brick buildings became very much in vogue throughout the town.  The arrival of the railroad  signaled the passing of the Santa Fe Trail as a front page epitaph in a Santa Fe newspaper declared: “The Old Santa Fe Trail Passes Into Oblivion.”

The interior of Zia Diner

The railroad also brought adventurous new residents and enthusiastic tourists enthralled by the exotic frontier west depicted by artists and photographers hired by the rail line.  Local Native American and Hispanic arts and crafts were marketed to rail travelers, engendering artistic leanings which persist today.   New neighborhoods sprung up around the Railyard for workers and their families.  The Railyard became a hub of activity. 

With advances in alternative transportation–primarily airlines and the interstate highway system–the railway system so instrumental in Santa Fe’s growth began a period of decline after World War II.  By the mid 1980s, the area surrounding the Railyards was declared  blighted and  in dire need of redevelopment.  The city’s plan called for developing new economic opportunities while insisting on the protection of the historical and cultural integrity of adjacent neighborhoods and retaining the original look and feel of the sprawling rail complex.  

Homemade potato chips with warm Wisconsin blue cheese

Today the Santa Fe Railyard is home to a vibrant and diverse assemblage of tenants, an eclectic mix which includes art galleries, shops, performance art spaces, one of the country’s best farmers’ markets and several much acclaimed restaurants.  Commuter services run again, regularly ferrying passengers to and from the historic depot.  Since its grand reopening in September, 2008, the Railyard has once again become a center of activity, commerce and tourism. 

One of the early pioneers in the new Railyard era is the Zia Diner.  Housed in a building originally built in 1880 as the railyard’s coal warehouse, a building now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the diner has been one of the city’s most enduring and popular restaurants since it opened on December 31st, 1986.  Locally owned and operated, the Zia is renowned for its refined down-home American and regional comfort food served in an art deco environment.

Zia’s Famous Meatloaf: Grass-fed beef with green chile and toasted pine nuts

The diner is the antithesis of the traditional greasy spoon diner and in fact, defies dictionary definitions which would have you believe a diner has to be a prefabricated building.  The Food Network’s megawatt star Guy Fieri astutely pointed out during his taping of a Diners, Drive Ins and Dives segment, “in Jersey, it’s all about the stainless steel diner.  In Santa Fe, New Mexico, welcome to the adobe Diner.”  The sprawling multi-level dining room punctuated by large columns is the restaurant’s cynosure, moreso even than a semi-open kitchen.  Despite the commodious accommodations, which also include a lunch counter and a separate bar area, the Zia can be a busy and bustling hub of activity during peak hours. 

The lively restaurant prides itself on serving high quality, fresh and wholesome ingredients, many of them organic and locally sourced with sustainability in mind. Zia uses only New Mexico grass-fed organic beef procured from the River Canyon Ranch in Watrous, New Mexico.  Free-range and additive-free chicken and eggs (from Taos Farm) are a standard as is fair-trade coffee.  The full bar offers beer, wine and cocktails.

Yankee Pot Roast: All natural, slow-braised beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables

Perusing the diner’s offerings, Guy Fieri described it as “diner gone wild.”  The menu may include many traditional diner standards, but they’re given the Zia treatment which usually means New Mexico-inspired variations on the classic interpretation of diner favorites.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day.  The small plates and little snacks (appetizers) section of the lunch and dinner menu includes a smoked salmon quesadilla (with avocado, caramelized onions and Asadero cheese) which captivated the effusive Fieri.  He described it as “a balance of flavors which complement each other so well” and declared this starter as “really good.” 

An appetizer not quite as daring, but very good nonetheless showcases homemade potato chips studded with warm Wisconsin blue cheese.  It’s an appetizer we’ve had at other restaurants, but none have done it quite as well.  The chips are crispy and relatively low in salt.  Fried to a dark golden hue, they’re substantial enough for scooping salsa, but not so thick as to be off-putting.  A generous amount of wonderfully fetid and salty blue cheese provides a wonderful contrast.  An order is large enough for a family of four.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

The menu’s “Classic Comfort Entrees” are served in profuse portions.  The entrees include American regional favorites such as Southern fried chicken, beef liver and onions (a rare diner offering nowadays) and Yankee pot roast as well as global comfort food fare such as English inspired fish and chips and shepherd’s pie and Mexican style Pescado Veracruz.  A number of salads and sandwiches are available as are three burgers.  Vegan and vegetarian-friendly entrees can also be found. 

Any word association exercise invoking the term “comfort food” would probably draw “meatloaf” as its immediate response.  The Zia Diner’s interpretation is very New Mexico-friendly.  A large slab of grass-fed beef is made with both green chile and piñon, two Land of Enchantment favorites.  The meatloaf is easily two-inches thick and it’s moist throughout, but the addictive roasted flavor of the green chile could be more pronounced.  There may be more “piquancy” from pepper and garlic than there is from the chile.  The piñon provides a nice textural contrast as well as its own unique “woodsy” flavor profile.  The meatloaf is served with a mound (small mountain might be more accurate) of homemade mashed potatoes with a thick brown gravy. 

Another traditional comfort food favorite popular throughout the East Coast and Midwest is Yankee Pot Roast, an entree my Chicago-born bride’s family had every Sunday.  The Zia Diner’s rendition is made from all-natural, slow-braised beef.  The slow braising renders it nearly fork tender, moist and succulent.  It’s an entree which might just bring back memories of leisurely Sundays when family meals weren’t eaten in front of the television. 

The Zia Diner has long been recognized for its desserts, especially for its pies, though many eschew dessert altogether in favor of the diner’s hand-blended shakes and malts.  While the dessert offerings include a custard-based bread pudding (my favorite), you can also have its British “cousin,” sticky toffee pudding.  Sticky toffee pudding is a light and very moist steamed cake drenched in a very sweet toffee sauce and covered with whipped cream or ice cream.  It’s melt-in-your-mouth good, but oh so decadent and rich.  As much as you’ll enjoy it, you may have to share it lest you watch your waist expand with every bite. 

After a quarter-century, the Zia Diner remains a formidable force in the Santa Fe dining scene with no surcease in its popularity despite fierce competition now even within its Railway environs.

Zia Diner
326 South Guadalupe Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 August 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sticky Toffee Pudding, Homemade Potato Chips with Warm Wisconsin Blue Cheese

Zia Diner on Urbanspoon

Twisters Burgers & Burritos – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Twisters, a familiar and favorite New Mexican restaurant.

Twisters, a familiar and favorite New Mexican restaurant.

One of the sure signs of spring and summer in New Mexico is the presence of dust devils, those haphazardly whirling, dirty, dusty dervishes which seem to whip up out of nowhere to vacuum up all surface detritus on their unpredictable paths. Tumbleweeds, trash and soil spin skyward to heights of up to 100 feet only to be deposited–torn, tattered and worse for wear– sometimes great distances from their points of origin.

Normally lasting no longer than a few seconds, dust devils are nature’s hot wind temper tantrum, capable of wreaking havoc quickly and with tremendous force. At their worse, they can rip siding off buildings, snap power lines, overturn lawn furniture, send trash cans careening down the street and propel sheet metal through windows.  If a home isn’t well insulated, being on the path of a dust devil will mean a covering of fine sand throughout the home. A dust devil might not transport Dorothy and Toto to Oz, but it will certainly bug the heck out of them.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Curly Fries

As prominent a presence as dust devils are throughout New Mexico, they aren’t exactly popular.  You certainly won’t find any schools proudly proclaiming the Dust Devil as their mascot.  Nor will our state legislature ever designate the dust devil as New Mexico’s official nuisance (an honor it would share with the tumbleweed).  Businesses, especially restaurants, certainly won’t go out of their way to name themselves after the dust devil.  Smart move!  Not a lot of people would eat at a restaurant called “Dust Devil Burgers and Burritos.”

They do frequent in droves, a local restaurant chain called “Twisters Burgers and Burritos.”   Why Twister?  A twister is a slang term for a tornado, a violent windstorm characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud (hence the term “twister).” The word “tornado” finds its genesis in the Spanish word tornar which means “to turn.” Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that everywhere you turn there seems to be another Twisters Grill restaurant. As of this writing, this ubiquitous presence has eleven locations in Albuquerque, two in Rio Rancho, one in Bernalillo and three in Colorado (Aurora, Lakewood and Parker).

Chicken Wrap: Crispy Chicken Strips, Cheddar, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Guacamole and Creamy Ranch Dressing Wrapped in a Fresh Flour Tortilla

Founded in 1998, the premise behind Twisters is that customers want quality food at fast food prices and speed. Place your order at a counter and your meal is delivered to your table. Drive up and your meal is handed to you promptly. Twisters calls it a “fast casual dining experience.”  The restaurant’s goal is to exceed customer expectations in value, quality and service.  Its menu features red and green chile enhanced New Mexican dishes as well as American favorites.

I must admit that my inaugural visit in 2005 was very much a disappointment.  Whether attributable to an off-day or a poor-performing location, it would be six years before my next visit.  That return visit prompted a second visit only a week thereafter.  The third visit validated the findings of my previous visit, confirming that this is a restaurant going places (and not just to Colorado).

Indian Taco

Only five “traditional” burritos are available on the lunch menu.  That is if you don’t count the Twister Burrito, an unconventional burrito anywhere but New Mexico.  The Twister burrito is engorged with your choice of meat (beef, chicken or carne adovada) and beans then is topped with fries and smothered with red or green chile (or both), cheese, lettuce and tomato.  It’s very similar to and undoubtedly inspired by the world-famous Travis at Grandma Warner’s K&I restaurant. The Twister burrito is available in one-eighth, one-quarter, one-half and full-sizes, any size of which would sate most famished diners.

The Twisters experience starts at breakfast, not a diverse starter to your day, but a satisfying one. Eleven breakfast burritos, many named for New Mexico cities or landmarks (such as Taos, Eubank, South Valley and others), include a “basic” option in which you start with eggs and potatoes then pick your own ingredients.  Breakfast burritos are available as a hand-held option or smothered with chile and cheese on top.  In September, 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff undertook the enviable task of determining the Duke City’s very best breakfast burrito.  Twister’s breakfast burrito was rated number six from among very keen competition.

Two tacos with ground beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato

New Mexico platters–enchiladas, chimichangas, burritos, combination–come with beans, rice, lettuce, tomato and cheese as well as your choice of chile and meat (seasoned ground beef, carne adovada, chicken and shredded beef).  The menu also includes New Mexican specialties such as an Indian taco, taco salad, green chile stew, nacho supreme, chicken wrap and a “macho” burrito grande.  Also available are seven burgers, each a third pound and dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard and ketchup.  Grilled chicken sandwiches offer an alternative to the burgers.

The green chile cheeseburger is terrific!  It starts with a unique sesame seed bun (baked on the premises) that’s substantial enough to hold in what is a very moist beef patty (without being greasy) yet not so large and “bready” that it dominates the flavor profile.  The beef, all third-pound of it, is prepared to a medium degree of doneness and is seasoned nicely then blanketed with a molten slice of cheese.  The green chile would rate mild on a piquancy scale, but it has a pleasant flavor.  Burgers are served with curly fries, a nice change of pace.

Shredded Beef Burrito (Potato, Green Chile and Cheese) and Carne Adovada Burrito (Potato, Red Chile and Cheese)

The chicken wrap is also quite good, reminding me of an upscale, well-adorned tortilla roll-up.  A fresh, albeit painfully thin, flour tortilla tightly envelops crispy chicken strips, Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and creamy ranch dressing.  The combination of tomatoes, guacamole and ranch dressing make this a very moist and juicy sandwich.   It is served with chips and salsa, the latter of which has a piquant bite.

Among the burritos are two stand-outs, the shredded beef burrito (potato, green chile and cheese) and the carne adovada burrito (potato, red chile and cheese).  Consider it heretical if you will, but these burritos are as good or better than the extremely popular burritos at Golden Pride.  The carne adovada burrito, in particular, showcases tender tendrils of perfectly moist, delicious and rich pork marinated in a flavorful red chile.  The shredded beef is equally tender and though not marinated in chile, is quite good.

Sour Cream Enchiladas with a fried egg

There are few New Mexican entrees as beloved as the enchilada, a dish so memorable when made well that author Lesley S. King listed Northern New Mexico enchiladas as among “the most unforgettable Northern New Mexico Experiences” in the 12th edition of Frommer’s Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque Travel Guide.  Twisters’ sour cream enchiladas are rather forgettable.  Instead of incorporating sour cream within the rolled corn tortillas, a single dollop of cold sour cream is provided atop the enchiladas.  Worse, the green chile is thickened (probably with corn starch) so much that a friend of mine who wrote a New Mexican food cookbook called the chile “gelatinous.”  In addition to being too thick, the chile lacks piquancy.

Aside from the sour cream faux pas, only the Indian taco has been somewhat of a disappointment thanks in large part to the soupiness of the beans and chile which render the sopaipilla a sopping mess and wilts the lettuce.  As with other Indian tacos (sometimes called Navajo tacos or fry bread tacos), the Indian taco at Twisters is served open-faced and topped with beans, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.  It’s the soupiness, though, which makes this one far from my favorite.

In the near decade and a half it’s been open, Twisters Burgers & Burritos has earned a loyal following among burger and burrito aficionados.  The names on the marquee are only two of the reasons.

Twisters Burgers & Burritos
9358 Eagle Ranch Road, NW
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 25 August 2011
BEST BET: Carne Adovada Burrito, Shredded Beef Burrito, Chicken Wrap, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Indian Taco, Tacos, Salsa

Twisters on Urbanspoon

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saffron Tiger: Indian Cuisine Express in the Northeast Heights

Is there anything that screams monotonous, tedious homogeneity louder than the typical food court at any mall in cosmopolitan America?   “But,” you might argue, “the food court is a paragon of diversity where you can get your fill of pizza, sushi, burgers, cinnamon rolls, sweet and sour mystery meat and a veritable United Nations line-up of ethnic foods all in one place.”  While that might be true, my argument is that the same boring sameness you find in Albuquerque’s mall food courts can be found at any food court in any mall.  Only airports have a similarly comparable array of uninspiring food-court-type selections.

Despite the “culinary diversity” in food courts, there is an almost general scarcity of local culinary representation.  At least that’s the case in the contiguous area shared by multiple food vendors; small private vendors are usually relegated to outlying areas of the mall.  Food courts are, by and large, the haven of fast food chains which can afford the steep rent commanded in the premium heavily-trafficked area. Typical food court tenants may include McDonalds or Burger King, Edo Japan, Sbarro, China Wok, Cinnabon and others of that ilk.

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Alameda

An argument could be made that food courts make the “exotic” affordable–and approachable.  Diners who might not, for example, venture into a Japanese sushi restaurant might find themselves emboldened to try the mall food court sushi where they don’t have to know what and how to order or how to eat their unfamiliar fare.  Mall food court restaurants, boring as they may be, have their place and it’s not necessarily within the confines of a mall.

While some vendors (such as Sbarro) operate almost exclusively in food courts, other mall food court denizens have spread their tentacles across suburbia. One, the Panda Express, is the fastest growing gourmet Chinese food concept in the United States. Its fast casual environment and alluring silver serving trays are popular, in large part, because they give diners options–such as dine-in or carry-out, a la carte or combo–at reasonable prices and in the large portions to which Americans seem to gravitate.

Cafeteria-style serving at Saffron Tiger

For twelve years, K.C. Wang oversaw a regional Panda Express operation, watching the burgeoning franchise win over the hearts and appetites of Americans.  He reasoned that the successful modus operandi would work well with East Indian food, too.  Rather than relegate the concept to a mall food court, he and his business partners launched a restaurant storefront called Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express on Holly Plaza just north of Paseo del Norte.

After his inaugural visit, my frequent dining companion Bill Resnik excitedly told me about the “East Indian version of Panda Express.”   Possessing one of the most pedantic palates of anyone I know, Bill’s assessment of Saffron Tiger was, “about average for an Indian restaurant, but excellent for a food court type operation.”  While not necessarily a rousing endorsement, he did praise the garlic naan, chili chicken and saag paneer, three of my favorite Indian dishes.

Mango Lassi and four entrees

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express has the polish and panache of a brand new restaurant in a brand new shopping center.  Launched in October, 2009, it is a bright and attractive venue with gleaming silver holding trays showcasing more than twenty steaming East Indian dishes, including a wide variety of vegetarian items.  An open kitchen environment backdrops the counter and above the industrial cooking apparatus is a brightly colored menu listing and describing the fare.

The menu is pretty basic.  You can opt for a two entree combo—any two entrees and one side or a three entrée combo—any three entrees and one side, both well under ten dollars.  You can also order from the a la carte menu: any entrée or any side in single or large sizes.  A “family feast” comprised of three large entrees and two large sides is available for under thirty dollars.  Sides, by the way, can be ordered in half orders such as a half order of garlic naan and rice.  In sheer volume, a three-entrée combo approximates the equivalent of an Indian buffet.

Four more entrees

Your order is apportioned into paper plates, each compartment filled to brimming.  One compartment is reserved for sides: naan or garlic naan, steamed rice or Tiger Rice (made with cumin seed, bay leaf and peas) or crispy cabbage.  Your best bet is to order two half sides and even then, the half portions are prodigious. Chutneys are complementary and mango lassi is available to quench your thirst.

My friend Bill’s assessment of Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express was pretty much spot on.  There is better Indian food to be had in Albuquerque, but for a semi fast-food operation, Saffron Tiger is a force to be reckoned with.  Some items are very good and everything we had was fresh, hot and seasoned well.  Reasonable portions, good value for the money, delicious food–for what more can you ask?

My friend Samriti Jain enjoys fine Indian cuisine at Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Alameda

The stand-outs include the garlic naan which is served warm and fresh with a nice amount of char and pungency from the garlic.  It’s not doughy in the least and in fact, some parts crumble off.  The tamarind chutney has a nice balance of sweet and tanginess and makes an excellent dip for the naan.  The Indian pickles, though not made in-house, are excellent with the pungency, piquancy and bitterness you come to expect from Indian pickles though that generalization is wholly inaccurate because there are hundreds of ways to make Indian pickles.

Also quite good is the saag paneer, a mildly aromatic curry dish which contains a non-melting, salt-free “farmer’s cheese” called paneer. Saffron Tiger’s rendition is generous with its paneer and spices this entree very well so that creaminess and piquancy are well-balanced.  The piquancy is subtle, not intended to incinerate your taste buds, but to tantalize them.  The piquancy of the chili chicken, on the other hand, is intended to grab your attention.  This is a very interesting dish which Bill indicated was prepared differently than the first time he had it.  What we were served was reminiscent of a Chinese sesame chicken entree with chilis.  It was good, but more Chinese than Indian.

From the buffet at Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Alameda

Other items weren’t executed quite as well.  The chicken tikki masala (chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and then served in a rich orange, creamy, lightly spiced, tomato-based sauce), was made with the bane of any chicken-based entree, desiccated dark meat.  This was truly tragic because the sauce was quite good.

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express is far from a boring, homogenous copycat mall food court quality operation.  It has no pretensions about being a gourmet East Indian restaurant treating its cuisine with a reverential respect.  It’s cafeteria-style Indian food done surprisingly well.  Its time has come. 

The time for expansion occurred about a year and a half after the opening of the Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express.   The second instantiation is called Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine, sans the Express part of the name.  It’s situated on Corrales Boulevard at the former site of India Palace.  Just as the “Express” portion of the elder sibling’s name fits to a tee, so does the shortened name fit the newer restaurant which is primarily a menu-driven operation (though a lunch buffet is available). 

The Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine restaurant bears little resemblance to its predecessor or to its elder sibling.  It has the look and feel of a fine dining establishment with the flexibility of a lunch buffet.  The cynosure is a decorous bar with an expansive wine menu as well as domestic, imported and Indian beers.  The lunch buffet is obfuscated by a divider.

Whether you visit the Express restaurant on Paseo del Norte or its more upscale and classy sister on Corrales Boulevard, you’ll  be in for a very pleasant dining experience highlighted by food you will enjoy.

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express
6550 Paseo Del Norte, N.E., Suite D1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-2856
Web Site
: 11 May 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Chili Chicken, Saag Paneer, Raja Shrimp

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express on Urbanspoon

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine
10701 Corrales Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 898-4188
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2011
COST: $$

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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