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
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$
RATING: *
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
890-5229
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 25 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $
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
LATEST VISIT
: 11 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET:

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Lucia – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Hotel Andalusia is one of Albuquerque's most opulent and historical

The Hotel Andaluz is one of Albuquerque’s most opulent and historical

There was a time the name “Hilton” didn’t conjure up images of a ditzy blonde airhead whose celebrity is based largely on promiscuity. On second thought, maybe not. More than 50 years ago, another ditzy blonde temptress, Zsa Zsa Gabor honeymooned at Albuquerque’s Hilton Hotel with her then husband Conrad Hilton, a New Mexico native and founder of the historic downtown hotel.  It was Hilton’s fourth hotel and the very first modern high-rise hotel in the Land of Enchantment.

The ten-story hotel, launched in 1939, was an example of New Mexico Territorial style architecture, showcasing earth tone stucco and southwest woodwork, furnishings and artwork.  Its imposing two-story lobby, stately arches, hand-carved beams and balconies overlooking the lobby made it one of the finest hotels in the Duke City.  Being within easy walking distance of the city’s transportation hubs–the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Depot and America’s mother road, historic Route 66, made it convenient for weary sojourners and well-heeled travelers.

Though the hotel’s guest registry was signed by a veritable who’s who in celebrity and politics–many of whom came for the hotel’s Spanish colonial charm, opulent ambience and impeccable service–the Hilton Hotel chain eventually outgrew its classic downtown hotel, selling it in the late 1960s to build a larger, more modern Hilton at its present site near the Big I interchange.  The hotel was renamed the Hotel Plaza, a name it would carry until 1984.

Sunday brunch at Lucia

By the early 80s, railroad and bus company crews were quartered in several of the hotel’s floors, earning the hotel a reputation as a “flophouse” and ultimately foreshadowing its closure.  Thanks to grants in aid from the city of Albuquerque and the National Register of Historic Places, a full scale restoration was completed with the goal of returning the hotel to its glory days of the Roaring 30s.  In 1984, the grand hotel was reborn and christened La Posada de Albuquerque.  It was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places the same year

Alas, a storied past, historical significance and the best of intentions proved not necessarily indicative of future success. By 2005, the hotel’s halcyon days were long past and the hotel was sold for four-million dollars at a bankruptcy auction.  Three years and a thirty-million dollar investment later, Albuquerque’s Phoenix rose from the ashes once again, this time as Andaluz.  Self-described as “downtown Albuquerque’s new siren,” Andaluz provides a “tantalizing and sensuous tapestry of past and future,” celebrating yesteryear while embracing today.

An elegant boutique hotel deserves an inspired restaurant and in Lucia, a posh Mediterranean-influenced dining establishment, hotel guests and local diners have one.  In a cosmopolitan milieu replete with subdued opulence and richly appointed furnishings awash in color, they are treated to innovative combinations of fresh ingredients inspired by classic Mediterranean cuisine.  Weather permitting, al fresco dining is available on the outdoor patio.  An exclusive VIP room seating as many as 20 guests allows for intimacy among friends and family.

Brunch fare includes prime rib, Southwest Eggs Benedict with Green Chile Hollandaise, Applewood Bacon, Fruits and so much more

At its start-up Lucia’s was in the superbly capable hands with one of Albuquerque’s most celebrated culinary figures serving as executive chef.  Albert Bilotti, a veteran restaurateur, has garnered a reputation for innovative cuisine and successful restaurant start-ups with previous stints at  the long defunct and much missed fusion restaurant Kanome an Asian Diner; Al’s (now JC’s) New York Pizza Department; and the Slate Street Cafe, all in Albuquerque as well as La Bocca in Tempe, Arizona.  Bilotti is widely heralded as one of the city’s premier chefs and culinary entrepreneurs.  Bilotti is long gone, but his legacy of innovative dining options remains.

The stage in which Lucia’s chefs ply their trade is a well-lit and wide-open exhibition kitchen which operates with the precision and efficiency of a well-tuned orchestra.  The kitchen is buffed and polished with pristine woods and burnished metal, spanning nearly the entire breadth of the spacious restaurant.  It holds–and delivers on–the promise of excellent food.

Delivering–promptly, efficiently and with a smile–is a wait staff as polished as the restaurant.  During our inaugural and subsequent visits, the wait staff has displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the menu–not rehearsed wait schtick, but the type of knowledge which comes from actually having tried everything on the menu and understanding the nuances and subtleties of what she was eating.  The wait staff will lavish attention upon you while simultaneously attending to other tables on their appointed route.

Waffles are standard bunch fare as are omelets and eggs any style you desire

Our inaugural visit transpired shortly after the restaurant started serving Sunday brunch.  Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both.  Generally a heavy meal, it ideally mixes sweet and savory dishes that might make you feel you’re getting away with something, like eating dessert before the main entree.  Lucia’s brunch menu is so good, it might mean fewer trips to Santa Fe on Sundays and more trips downtown.

There’s no longer any need to ponder the wondrous possibilities of an intriguing menu as there was when Lucia first started serving brunch. All you need to know now is that the “Grand Buffet Brunch” is one of the best reasons to get up and get out.  The brunch buffet is one of the best in town–a Vegas quality brunch featuring Southwest eggs Benedict with green chile Hollandaise; waffles, pancakes and eggs made to order, applewood bacon and sausage, an antipasto tray, seasonal fruits and berries, assorted garden greens and dressings; lox, stock and bagels, an assortment of pastries; fresh baked cookies, muffins, danishes and croissants and a carving station. 

There are several items on the grand brunch buffet well worth mentioning (and return trips).  If prime rib is one the carving station, you can be assured it’s a beautifully pink medium-rare slab of pure deliciousness draped across your plate.  Its edges are seared to a caramelized finish and the horseradish has the kick of a mule (it’ll water your eyes).  The fruit–watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, blackberries, raspberries and more–is fresh.  Those fresh fruits are incorporated into coffee cakes that are as good as any you’ll have anywhere.  The green chile Hollandaise on the Southwest eggs Benedict is fairly anemic in terms of piquancy, likely a recognition that out-of-state guests may not be able to handle the heat of our chile.  The coffee is excellent as are the rich dessert options.

Brunch desserts and juices

Lucia is a restaurant with a social conscious, sourcing much of its food locally and offering organically grown foods to the greatest extent possible.  The daily menu always includes meatless options in recognition of the health and environmental benefits.  The water, served only on request, is purified at the restaurant to standards which equal or exceed most bottled waters.  Albuquerque’s water is generally very good; Lucia’s water is even better.  Unused food meeting stringent requirements is donated to the Roadrunner Food Bank while the remainder of the restaurant’s uneaten food is composted into fertilizer for local farming and gardening.  All packaging materials are recycled and even the restaurant’s menu is printed on recycled paper that has not been bleached in chlorine.

The Mediterranean-inspired seasonal menu has changed over time as the menus at great restaurants are apt to do.  Though it means you can’t get too attached to menu items you love because they might not be there during a future visit, it also means there are other options to explore.  One item you should explore if on the menu is the Moroccan Pita. Somewhat similar to a gyro or doner kebab, this fabulous sandwich starts off with a tortilla-sized pita which is engorged with a skewer of roasted lamb prepared at medium.  It’s not the shaved beef and lamb amalgam you’ll find on a gyro.  Instead, the lamb is cut into bite-size chunks, as tender, moist and delicious as any lamb I’ve had in Albuquerque with none of the gaminess for which lamb is often denounced. The pita also includes harissa, a North African equivalent of salsa; black mission figs, the purplish figs with a uniquely mildly sweet flavor; and a lively and fresh cucumber relish.  This is a wonderful sandwich.

Also tailor-made for two is a Steak Frite salad, the restaurant’s delightful interpretation of what the classic French entree of steak and French fries might look and taste like if served on a salad.  In this interpretation, a grilled flatiron steak is sliced into bite-sized chunks and served at about medium.  A large pile of hand-cut, golden-brown French fries somewhere between stiff and flaccid seems a natural next to the steak.  The salad portion is comprised of grilled Romaine hearts, charred asparagus, Cabrales bleu cheese and a to-die-for bacon vinaigrette.

Steak Frite Salad

Steak Frite Salad

In 2010 and 211, Lucia was one of fifteen Duke City restaurants participating in Albuquerque’s inaugural Restaurant Week, a seven-day extravaganza which invited diners to “experience extraordinary menus from the area’s finest restaurants at a price you’ll eat up.”  Offering three-course dinners for just $25 per person, the event was the most delicious economic stimulus Albuquerque has seen in years.

Appetizers such as a warm spinach salad (warm bacon vinaigrette, feta cheese crumbles, shaved red onion and Kalamata olives) and a potato porcini mocha soup (not normally on the menu) would normally command a princely sum, however, during restaurant week, as part of the tasty three-course triumvirate, they were priced right for all pocketbooks.  Both are superb and easily worth the regular menu price.

The potato porcini mocha soup is served in a thick ceramic mug and has the look and feel of a steaming cup of coffee.  One luxurious sip will tell you this is no coffee, but a thick, savory broth with a swirl of chocolate for a slightly sweet contrast.  The warm spinach salad is decoratively plated, a picture-perfect arrangement that made it appear almost as delicious as it is.  Almost.

Moroccan Pita: spiced beef & black mission fig kabob with cucumber relish, harissa & a Greek salad

Moroccan Pita: spiced beef & black mission fig kabob with cucumber relish, harissa & a Greek salad

One standard menu entree normally priced ($19.95) nearly as much as the entire Restaurant Week price is the Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli, an artfully plated melange of baby artichokes, pear tomatoes, cipoliini onions, brown butter sauce and  Parmigiano Reggiano.  This entree might best be described as a concordance of flavors and ingredients which bring out the best in each other.  Though butternut squash is generally thought of as a fall comfort food, Lucia’s preparation is so sublime and fresh, you might think you’re consuming it during a windy October day when colorful leaves are departing their arboreal homes.  We’ll order this entree again and again.

Lucia’s desserts are a crowning jewel, the calorie-rich culmination of a tremendous meal.  The chocolate layered cake is an intensely chocolate experience, so intense it might even have adults pining off the wall from the rich sweetness.  The vanilla bean creme brulee garnished with fresh berries offers a similar explosion in sweet intensity, fortunately in a smaller delivery.  The chocolate layered cake is a veritable slab, easily large enough for two; the creme brulee, a smaller, but no less flavor rich dessert.

Lucia is the right restaurant at the right place for the rebirth of an Albuquerque hotel that is part of the very fabric of the downtown area, a historic institution offering respite for the weary and deliciousness for the hungry.

Lucia
Hotel Andaluz
125 Second Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 31 January 2010
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Steak Frite Salad, Andaluz Bakery Basket, Moroccan Pita, Brioche French Toast Stuffed With Figs, Warm Spinach Salad, Potato Porcini Mocha Soup, Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli, Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee, Chocolate Layered Cake

Lucia on Urbanspoon

Gecko’s Bar & Tapas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gecko's Northeast Heights location opened in the fall of 2006.

Gecko’s Northeast Heights location opened in the fall of 2006.

The British have had the right idea for a long time! You can go to just about any pub in the British Isles and get treated to a good meal, fantastic libations and a family friendly ambiance.  Years before the term “gastropub” was coined, the concept had actually already started to be practiced and proliferated.  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.

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.  Until recent years, mentioning bar food in America has conjured images of dank, dark, smoky and loud watering holes serving greasy, tasteless food you have to be four sheets to the wind to consume.  Not so at Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, the very first gastropub in the Nob Hill area, where chef genius Todd Lovell lovingly crafts an imaginative menu of upscale comfort food favorites plus exceptionally well done traditional bar appetizers.

Chef Todd Lovell, a genius in the kitchen and a fun guy all the time.

Chef Todd Lovell, a genius in the kitchen and a fun guy all the time.

A chef for a quarter-century, Lovell has plied his craft in fine food dining restaurants and has served a tour of chef duty in Las Vegas, Nevada, but has found his niche at Gecko’s where he’s been given the freedom to create. His inspiration comes from a desire to serve excellent food at reasonable prices.

A long-time Nob Hill fixture, the second instantiation of Gecko’s launched in the far Northeast Heights (5801 Academy Road, N.E.) in December, 2006. At first glance, the new Gecko’s (where all the pictures on this review were taken) looks as if it should be called “The Bijou” or something cinematic. It’s a colorful antithesis of the Nob Hill location in many ways.  Aside from its gaudy polychrome facade, the exterior frontage includes an anthropomorphic gecko (a true lounge lizard) performing a champagne toast.  The gecko closely resembles the British accented Geicko gecko (say that five times fast).

Baba Ghanoush with Feta (Baba-Fet)

Baba Ghanoush with Feta (Baba-Fet)

The original Gecko’s might not be the type of pub David Frizell had in mind when he penned the lyrics to his country hit “I’m going to hire a wino to decorate our home.” Several tastefully done and colorful murals by famed local muralist Karen Deaton festoon the South-facing wall.  One mural, “Deviled Eggs at Gecko’s” depicts happy hour patrons at Gecko’s enjoying tapas and spirits. Another “Who Left the Curtain Open” shows the serving staff unwinding (in various states of undress including one “cheeky” waitress with a gecko tatoo) after a busy shift at Gecko’s.

The interior of the new Gecko’s isn’t nearly as dark as the original. It’s ultra-modern with none of the dark woods so prevalent in the founding restaurant. It’s got a mural, too, albeit one of a seaside cityscape in which two geckos dance under a starry, moonlit sky.  Smoking is no longer permitted at either Gecko’s location, though the malodorous ghost of cigarettes past is faintly noticeable at the original which had years’ worth of a head start for the odoriferous emanations to penetrate.

Red Molé Grilled Sirloin Tacos with roasted pablano chile crema

Red Molé Grilled Sirloin Tacos with roasted pablano chile crema

Chef Lovell’s specialty is tapas, the ubiquitous small snacks most people associate with Spain.  Gecko’s menu explains that tapas represent a dining philosophy where small plates of small appetizers are to be shared amongst friends and family in a relaxed fashion.  Lovell transforms simple ingredients into elaborate creations that with a few, can make a meal in themselves. The tapas menu changes periodically which may be a good thing in that you get variety, but may be a downer if you get too attached to some of the great little plates which might not make it back into the “rotation” for a while. Many of them are served with sauces obviously inspired by genius tempered with experience and creativity.

The shrimp and cabbage spring rolls, for example, are served with a hot, sour and sweet soy dipping sauce that while not Asian created, are inspired by the spirit and taste of Asia. They are better than 95% of the spring rolls served in Albuquerque’s Asian restaurants, many of which only hint at shrimp, but which are mostly cabbage.

Sweet Avocado Relish with Crispy Chips

Ditto for the tempura chicken skewers accompanied by a fiery chipotle cherry barbecue sauce that melds sweet, savory and piquant flavors to create a sensational taste sensation.  Tempura lightly sheathes the chicken so that it’s poultry you taste, not batter.  Similarly the sauce complements the chicken instead of making it taste like candied chicken.

Another A+ appetizer is the jerk spiced pork short ribs smothered with a smoky barbecue queso sauce–again, a pairing of seemingly disparate tastes that work exceptionally well together…and who but a creative genius might pair smoked kielbasa with a twany port reduction to form perhaps a sausage dish you might find to be the best of its kind in the Duke City.

C.R.’s Crawdaddy Cake Sammich: a golden crawfish patty with leaf lettuce, and piled high with house o-rings and a gob of Cajun tasso ham and corn dressing on a kaiser roll

My Luke Skywalker worshiping colleagues will agree the force is with Chef Lovell when they espy Baba-Fet on the menu.  It’s unlikely this tapa is named for the “best bounty hunter in the galaxy” as the combination of baba ghanoush and feta cheese just seems to be a natural.  At Gecko’s this mashed and seasoned eggplant dish is made as well as it is at some Mediterranean restaurants in the city.

It’s not just tapas at which Chef Lovell excels. His “bar apps” (referred to as the “ol’ standby” on the menu) include thinly-sliced and lightly spiced buttermilk onion rings which are most assuredly the very best in town. If chile con queso is what you crave, Gecko’s treats you to an extraordinary creation of chorizo blue cheese queso, perhaps the best in town of that genre. We’ve tried to duplicate some of Lovell’s masterpieces but have fallen consistently short.

Not surprisingly, Gecko’s also serves some of the best soups in town, including a rich and savory green chile chicken stew and a flavorful red chile clam chowder. While the green chile stew is standard daily fare, the chowders are rotated daily. Just how good are the soups at Gecko’s? Look above you as you walk in to the Academy restaurant and you’ll see three Souper Bowl awards including a third place award in 2012 for a sumptuous fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder. Gecko’s has also been recognized by Local IQ readers as the best place in Albuquerque to take your dogs.

Gecko's version of a grilled cheese sandwich--Cheddar and Swiss cheese, ripe tomatoes and Dijon mustard

Gecko’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich–Cheddar and Swiss cheese, ripe tomatoes and Dijon mustard

Where Gecko’s is nonpareil is in its sandwiches. The beer battered shrimp po’ boy slathered with jalapeno tartar sauce on a roasted onion baguette is better than similar sandwiches I consumed by the boat load on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. The shrimp are lightly battered and perfectly seasoned while the tartar sauce zings with a tangy, tongue-pleasing flavor.  Seafood fanatics will also appreciate C.R.’s Crawdaddy Cake Sammich, a golden crawfish patty with leaf lettuce, and piled high with house o-rings and a gob of Cajun tasso ham and corn dressing on a kaiser roll.  This sandwich was named one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual food and wine issue for 2012.

The one sandwich we’ve ordered more often than any other is Gecko’s T.B.L. This is no simple sandwich and it’s not just B.L.T. with its letters transposed. Stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread, it puts to shame just about every other BLT we’ve ever had. It’s maybe even better, if possible, with a fried egg.  The wheatberry (a term which refers to the entire wheat kernel) bread is lightly toasted and the applewood smoked bacon is the type of bacon only restaurants seem able to find.  The tomatoes are indeed ripe, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous artificially ripened but consistently green tomatoes most restaurants serve.

The chef chose only one sandwich to share his name, Lovell’s Rueben. Fittingly it’s the quintessential sandwich invented in a Manhattan delicatessen about a century ago. Adorned with corned beef brisket, bacon sauerkraut, Muenster cheese and a zesty Russian dressing on a grilled marbled rye bread, Lovell should take pride in a namesake sandwich which might be the best of its kind in Albuquerque (sounds like a pattern here).

A bowl of green chile chicken soup with Lovell’s Reuben, one of the best of its kind in the Duke City

Fromage fanatics will appreciate Gecko’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich.  It’s made with Cheddar and Swiss cheese, ripe tomatoes and Dijon mustard on wheatberry bread.  The melted cheese practically oozes as you bite into the sandwich, but the oleaginous richness of cheese is tempered by the acidity of the ripe tomatoes and the sharpness of the Dijon.  It’s an adult grilled cheese sandwich.

Not quite as cheesy are Gecko’s cheeseburger which comes with your choice of cheese (cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack or feta) and a bevy of toppings from which you can choose (green chile, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, grilled peppers, and avocado). The meat patties are hand-formed into thick, well-seasoned orbs. Not surprisingly, even the burgers are wonderful at Gecko’s.

T.B.L. (a Gecko’s original): stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread

There’s a lot to like at either location of Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, a surprisingly good gastropub with tapas that can’t be topped and sandwiches ranging from sensational to sublime.

Gecko’s Bar & Tapas
3500 E. Central
Albuquerque, New Mexico

(505) 262-1848
Web Site

LATEST VISIT
: 11 August 2012
# OF VISITS
: 10
RATING
: 18
COST
: $$
BEST BET:
T.B.L., Green Chile Stew, Cheeseburger, Smoked Kielbasa, Onion Rings, Lovell’s Reuben

Gecko's Bar & Tapas on Urbanspoon

Gecko's Bar & Tapas on Urbanspoon

Village Subs – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Village Subs in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

Village Subs in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

To paraphrase John 15:13, “No greater love a man has than this, that a man give up his life for a….sandwich?”

In an uproariously funny episode of the television show Friends, Joey, Chandler and Ross go on a ride-along with Phoebe’s policeman boyfriend. Believing a back-firing muffler was actually a gunshot, Joey (sitting in between his two friends) dives, seemingly to protect Ross from harm.  Naturally Chandler was upset that Joey would choose to protect Ross instead of him…until he learns that Joey was actually trying to protect his sandwich.  In the finest tradition of Dagwood Bumstead, Joey Tribbiani loved sandwiches; they were his favorite food.

I don’t know how many Americans would “take a bullet” for their sandwich, but America is most definitely a nation of sandwich lovers. According to one of my favorite books, American Sandwich by the fabulous Becky Mercuri, Americans consume more than 45 billion sandwiches per year, with the average American consuming 193 sandwiches per year.

A foot-long tuna salad sandwich.

A foot-long tuna salad sandwich.

That’s a lot of sandwiches! One restaurant that has serving a lot of sandwiches is Village Subs, appropriately situated in the village of Los Ranchos De Albuquerque.  Allow me another paraphrase, this time of an African proverb: “it takes a village to make a great sub!” Or at least that’s been my experience of late. Aside from the now defunct Deli Mart, there has been a tremendous dearth of truly outstanding sandwich shops in Albuquerque’s west side where I live and work.

Village Subs occupies the space once held by Fremont’s Fine Foods, a sacrosanct shopping and dining destination now in San Mateo’s Courtyard. It seems to be the hub of an otherwise nondescript shopping center much of which has been left vacant by former tenants who set up shop elsewhere.  It’s hard to miss Village Subs. A cerulean blue awning competes with New Mexico’s incomparable sky blue. Several wall-mounted chairs hug the restaurant’s east-facing wall. As capacious as the restaurant is, it’s a good thing the yellow lettering on the awning doesn’t list what this sub shop’s true name should be.

A bounteous Italian sub

That would be Village Subs & Pizza & Wings & Italian & Ice Cream and so much more. The true test of a restaurant’s greatness is not in the size or diversity of the menu; it’s in the quality of its product (more on that later).  The floors at Village Subs are black and white checkered tile reminiscent of a 1950s era diner. Throwback floors are appropriate because this sup shop is a bit of an anachronism with service that’s both enthusiastic and cordial. It’s a welcome change from the rehearsed wait “schtick” to which you’re subjected at the industry leading chain.

Not everything is old-fashioned at Village Subs. It’s one of an increasing number of restaurants in the Duke City providing free wireless internet (WiFi) access. Village Subs is larger than most of the city’s sub shops. Counter space is divided into two distinct sections–an area in which you order main entrees and another in which ice cream is featured fare.

The Club Sub: Ham, Turkey, Bacon, American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced onion and tomatoes.

No ordinary ice cream is this. It’s Blue Bunny Ice Cream, the largest family-owned and operated ice cream manufacturer in the United States. The Blue Bunny folks have been creating ice cream since 1913 and now distribute their 500 tantalizingly tasty ice cream flavors, frozen dairy desserts and delectable novelties throughout all 50 states and Mexico.  If you’re watching the scale, Blue Bunny makes lighter, sugar free and low or no fat versions of favorite flavors.

On a white board directly above the food ordering counter is a hand-scrawled menu listing the wide array of items available to hungry diners. Pizza is a relatively new addition to the menu and it’s available by the slice with a wide variety of toppings available.

Sausage, Pepper and Onion Sub

Sausage, Pepper and Onion Sub

Your biggest challenge will be in deciding what to order, especially if you’re cravings are for an appetite sating, two-fisted, ingredient-packed sandwich of greater proportions than most sandwiches in the Duke City.  The sandwich selections includes cold subs, hot heroes and several specialty sandwiches, all made with bread baked fresh daily, topped with your choice of veggies and served with a pickle spear and a pepperonici.  Subs are available in two sizes: ten-inches and six-inches.  What will surprise you most about these behemoth sandwiches is that they’re priced two to three dollars less than many other sub sandwiches in the Duke City.

The ingredients on a great sandwich have to work well together and it all starts with the bread. At Village Subs, the bread is quite good though no longer baked on the premises. Both white and whole wheat bread are available.  Wrap some of that bread around tuna salad and you’ll have a sandwich any landlubber or sea-faring wanderer would love. The tuna is made with diced celery, onion and a sweet pickle relish. Add crisp lettuce and fresh tomato and it’s even better.

A slice of pizza with sausage.

A slice of pizza with sausage.

Another good cold sub is named solely the “Italian” and it’s generously endowed with ham, Capacola ham, salami, Provolone cheese, onions and roasted red peppers then embellished with mayonnaise, oil and vinegar.  Italian subs consisting of assorted luncheon meats are popular throughout America and it’s easy to see why. A great Italian sub features a coalescence of flavors and aromas that any American meat-eater will enjoy. The Village Sub’s version is one of the better ones in town!

If a hot hero is more your style, the Sausage, Pepper and Onion hero might just have your number. It’s a messy assemblage of ingredients you’ll probably have to eat with a fork because those ingredients push the bread to its capacity and despite being toasted, may leave it a bit soggy (in a very good way).  The sausage is spicy, maybe even a little bit piquant. Green and red peppers and onion are grilled to perfection. Melted Mozzarella cheese blankets the entire sandwich.

Pastrami sandwich

Pastrami sandwich

As with many sandwich restaurants (or restaurants of any kind for that matter) we have not been enamored of every item on the menu. The sandwich which we found disappointing is the pastrami sandwich. We weren’t expecting Chicago Jewish deli caliber pastrami, but it would have been nice to find something good by Albuquerque standards. Listed as a “specialty sandwich,” a few stiff slices of pastrami were topped by melted Swiss cheese and were laid out between two slices of good light rye bread.

Village Subs committed three of the criminal offenses you can commit in serving a pastrami sandwich–not providing deli caliber mustard (squeeze jar mustard is a no-no), using relatively thick slices of pastrami instead of thinly sliced shards and using pastrami with no marbling. There’s a lot of flavor in the marbling of a good pastrami and there wasn’t much flavor in this one.

Green chile cheeseburger

Green chile cheeseburger

Contrary to the notion that all it takes to make a good green chile cheeseburger are the component parts named in that sandwich, a good green chile cheeseburger is much more than a sum of its parts.  Village Subs understands that and crafts a burger with a neon green chile that packs plenty of capsaicin kick, two slices of American cheese, grilled buns, mustard, ketchup, onions, tomatoes and pickles. At about medium well, the beef still retains the requisite juices inherent in good beef.

Milk shakes and malts are both available at Village Subs and they can be made from all available ice cream flavors. Our early favorites are mint chocolate chip and coffee, both of which are rich and delicious. Best of all, they’re served cold to beat the heat.

Mint-chocolate malt and chocolate shake

Mint-chocolate malt and chocolate shake

It may not take a village to make a great sub, but the Village certainly knows the secret to making Joey Tribbiani’s favorite food (and one of mine, too).

Village Subs
7901 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $
BEST BET: Tuna Salad Sub; The Italian Sub; Sausage, Peppers & Onion Sub; Mint Chocolate Malt; Chocolate Shake; Pizza by the Slice

Village Subs on Urbanspoon

Señor Dog – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

My friends and culinary colleages Señor Plata and Boomer in front of Señor Dog

H. K. Duff VIII:  Why not break your fast with our brand-new Isotope Dog Supreme?
[Homer sniffs the hot dog.]
Homer Simpson:  Oh, so hard to resist. Mesquite-grilled onions. Jalapeño relish. …
Wait a minute, those are Southwestern ingredients. …
Mango-lime salsa? That’s the kind of bold flavor they enjoy in … Albuquerque!
Lenny: He’s right.
Moe:  Yeah … and the wrapper says “Albuquerque Isotopes”!

Within three months after the Duke City’s Triple-A baseball team, the Albuquerque Isotopes, co-opted its team name from The Simpsons animated television series, it sold more merchandise than the city’s previous Triple-A team, the Albuquerque Dukes, had sold in any entire season.  That was even before a single game had even been played. In that magical, inaugural year of 2003, the team led all of minor league baseball in merchandising revenue.

Unfortunately, the Isotopes moniker wasn’t accompanied by the fictional Isotope Dog Supreme.  Who wouldn’t love a hot dog with mesquite-grilled onions, jalapeño relish and mango-lime salsa?  It certainly would be oh, so Albuquerque.  Alas, the  Isotopes Park concession menu doesn’t include a hot dog nearly as imaginative or, ostensibly, as delicious as the Isotope Dog Supreme.  A case could easily be made that there isn’t a hot dog that cleverly constructed in the entire Duke City.

A root beer shake, one of 32 shake flavors on the menu

My friend Paul “Boomer” Lilly would take a stance contrary to that contention. Paul has become perhaps the Duke City’s biggest fan of Tickles & Snooks’ “Junk Yard Dog,” a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog battered and deep-fried then topped with onions, mushrooms, bacon, pepper Jack cheese, sauerkraut and Cheddar cheese on a hoagie roll. If this behemoth on a bun was available for breakfast, Paul would be there to get his early morning picker-up.

We expected that when Paul’s birthday arrived, he would ask his friends, me among them, to celebrate his thirty-somethingth birthday with a Junk Yard Dog or ten. How the engineers among us would adorn the dog with candles would be our problem, not his. Instead Paul surprised us by asking for his birthday celebration to take place at a brand new restaurant, one to which his joyous surprise, I had not heard of, much less tried.

The Shakes Menu at Señor Dog

That new restaurant, Señor Dog, opened for business on November 16th (with a grand opening on December 9th), the day after Paul’s birthday. Not wanting to fight the maddening throngs which seem to congregate any time a new restaurant (particularly a chain) launches, we decided to wait two days before making our inaugural visit. It was a good decision. Though there was a long line of curiosity-seekers and hot dog aficionados placing their orders, the staff was quick and efficient.

Señor Dog is ensconced in the Ventana Square shopping center on Paradise Boulevard, almost as far west as you can go in Albuquerque before you run out of city.  The burgeoning  Ventana Ranch area  is in dire need of non-chain restaurants to sate the growing population so Señor Dog is Juan-on-the-spot.   The marquee on the restaurant’s frontage depicts a sombrero-sporting hot dog while the restaurant’s motto is “Chillin’ in the Heat,” which we hoped would portend piquant and potent New Mexico chile and not that inedible stuff Texans call chili.

Guacamole Dog (Guacamole, Pico de Gallo, Jalapeños)

Brightly-painted walls festooned with posters; high ceilings; a painted concrete floor and functional tables and chairs give the restaurant a modern, almost antiseptic, industrial look and feel so many strip mall restaurants have nowadays.  The menu over the counter lists fourteen different hot dogs, each available as a basket (with your choice of fries, onion rings or a combination of the two) or as a super basket (two dogs and your choice of fries, onion rings or a combination of the two) plus a medium drink.  The caveat on the super basket is that the hot dogs have to be two of the same kind.  You can also upgrade from a medium drink to a milk shake for a dollar.

The shake menu one-ups Baskin Robbins “31 flavors” slogan by offering up some 42 plus different flavors of shake: apricot, banana, black cherry, black raspberry, blackberry, black walnut, blueberry, bubblegum, butter pecan, butterscotch, cinnamon, cheesecake, chocolate, coconut, creme de menthe, English toffee, espresson, lemon, malt, mango, mocha, orange, peach, peanut butter, pear, piña colada, pineapple, pistachio nut, pumpkin, root beer, strawberry and tutti frutti.  These are thick shakes served cold, not some runny, room temperature fiasco.

Chili Dog with French Fries and Onion Rings

Save for sides and beverages, the menu is all about hot dogs.  There are no burgers or sandwiches on the menu, the type of specialization which usually bodes well.  Alas, the spelling on the menu “chili” seemed  to forebode disappointment.  To mitigate the potential disappointment and improve the odds that at least one hot dog might be good, my friends Boomer and Señor Plata all ordered the super basket and had each hot dog cut in half.  That way we could all sample a half of each type of hot dog.

We need not have worried in the least.  The hot dogs were quite good, not ordinary in the least.  First of, they’re deep-fried, starting off frozen before being immersed in the fryer.  Unlike the famous “Ripper” style hot dogs served in New Jersey, the deep-frying does not tear the dog’s skin.  The frying does impart a chewy exterior texture while retaining a soft, juicy interior with a nice garlicky flavor profile.  Except for the Polish dog and the corn dog, the hot dogs are all beef.  They’re thick and delicious dogs served on a conventional soft bun.

Reuben dog (1000 Island Dressing, Swiss Cheese, Kraut) with French fries and onion Rings

The Guacamole Dog (guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapeños) may be the closest hot dog on the menu to the Isotope Dog Supreme of Simpson’s fame.  It’s a hot dog whose aroma arrives at the table before it does.  The pico de gallo and jalapeño combination is especially olfactory-arousing combination that goes very well with the velvety smooth guacamole.  Coupled with the garlicky, deep-fried hot dog, it’s a nice adventure in flavor appreciation.

The Chili Dog (red or green chile and cheese) is not redolent with the offensive aroma and grainy beef composition of Texas chili.  This chili is good enough to be spelled chile.  It’s good enough, in fact, to be served on a bowl separately from the hot dog.  A friend of mine who’s in the process of putting the finishing touches on a cookbook calls it “New Mexican chile,” better than the chile served at some New Mexican restaurants.  Alas, the gloppy processed cheese topping is not only messy, it detracts from the flavor of the chili and the hot dog.  This type of cheese belongs on ballpark nachos, not on hot dogs.  Without it, I’d still be raving about this hot dog.  Thankfully, Señor Dog also offers shredded cheese, a great improvement over the gloppy processed cheese.

The Senor Dog with green chili, cheese and onions

The green chili on the Señor Dog (green chili, cheese and onions) is nearly as good, albeit not as piquant as the red chili.  The green chili is made with ground beef and has somewhat of a soupy consistency, but it’s a good green chili (again, good enough to be spelled “chile” and served in a bowl).  As with the aforementioned Chili Dog, the gloppy cheese does this hot dog a great disservice.  Evermore I’ll remember to ask that the cheese be omitted (or preferably, taken outside and buried).

The most prominent flavor on the Reuben Dog (1000 Island dressing, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut) is that of the sauerkraut, a lip-pursing, tangy variety with a nice flavor.  We didn’t discern much of the 1000 Island dressing’s influence nor that of the Swiss cheese, but did enjoy this hot dog nonetheless.

A Chicago Dog and a Bacon Dog

Señor Dog’s menu also includes a fire-eater’s challenge–a half-pound, foot-long hot dog called the “Volcano Dog” with “fire chii”, cheese and onions.  You can have this hot dog with regular chili, but then it wouldn’t be a challenge to eat.  Any diner intrepid to try the fire-eater’s challenge must agree to and sign a waiver of liability form.  Challengers must consume the entire Volcano Dog with fire chili and all its contents within ten minutes.  There won’t be any relief from the heat during or for five minutes after all Volcano Dog contents have been certified as consumed by the manager.  Winners will have their photos posted on the restaurant’s “Wall of Flame.” 

The ingredient which gives the chili its incendiary kick is the infamous Naga Jolokia, commonly known as the “Ghost Chili,” the most piquant pepper in the world.  On the Scoville Scale which rates the piquancy level of all peppers, the Ghost Chili pepper tops the scale at 850,000 to 1.3 million Scoville units.  As of August, 2011, only six photographs adorn the restaurant’s “Wall of Flame.”

Señor Dog's "Wall of Flame" honors intrepid diners who finish the Volcano Dog

As more restaurants like Señor Dog make their way out far west, my friend Paul, a resident of the area, will be there to alert me to them.  We won’t even wait until another colleague’s birthday to visit.

Señor Dog
6541 B Paradise Blvd NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 August 2011
1st VISIT:  18 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 17
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Guacamole Dog, Reuben Dog, Chili Dog, Bacon Dog, Chicago Dog

Señor Dog on Urbanspoon