Tomato Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Tomato Cafe on Academy

The Tomato Cafe at its former site on Academy

You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off
Ira & George Gershwin

Let’s call the whole thing off.  If the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century had had its way, the tomato might not be a ubiquitous ingredient in the cooking of many cultures today.  So, just what is it about the seemingly innocuous tomato that once earned it a scurrilous reputation in the Church, the type of reputation which made it the  Paris Hilton of the nightshade family?  Brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, it was initially viewed with apprehension, thought not to be edible but purely decorative–and poisonous.  Leave it to the French to change that perception by ascribing aphrodisiac properties to what they called pomme d’amour or love apple.  This prompted the Roman Catholic Church of the time to declare the tomato the “fruit of the devil,” a sinful indulgence. 

The scandalous tomato, its sensuous red color and sweet-tangy flesh spurting with red juiciness, was even thought to be the fruit Eve offered to Adam.  Because of its role in original sin, the Church believed the tomato to have been cast off to the furthest reaches of man, where it could no longer be the tempting source of transgression.  More disconcerting to the Church fathers was that the tomato was deemed a symbol of tempting, bewitching femininity, a threat to the patriarchal boy’s club of the age.  Worse, the hermaphroditic tomato plant self-pollinated, needing not the seed of man. 

The exhibition kitchen at the Tomato Cafe on Montano and Coors

For nearly a century and a half after being brought from the new world, the forbidden fruit was avoided throughout Italy.  Its use was eventually spurred on by the poor in Naples who cared more about filling empty bellies than subscribing to the wrongful notions of the Church.  It was in Naples that in 1889, the tomato became forever entrenched in culinary history when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza whose colors reflected the red (marinara sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil colors of the Italian Sabauda flag.  He named the pizza the Margherita, for his queen.  

Today the once scandalized tomato is as revered as it once was reviled.  The notion of Italian food without tomatoes is nearly impossible to conceive–like a day without sunshine.  Can you imagine salsa–America’s favorite condiment–made without tomatoes?  Without tomatoes, there would be no Bloody Mary, no Caprese salad, no BLT sandwich, no ketchup and no gazpacho.  Soups, barbecue sauces, stews, ceviches, meat loaf–they would all be forever different without the ubiquitous, nutritious, delicious tomato.  To say tomatoes are the fabulous foundation of many a meal is a vast understatement. 

Slice of vegetarian pizza, ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) and meatballs

In 1993, Deborah Gagnon and Don Watroba founded an upscale, all-you-can-eat Italian buffet restaurant named Mama Lena’s.  Within a year, the restaurant changed its name to the Tomato Cafe, but by any name, this award-winning treasure can’t be mistaken for anything but a unique restaurant concept that provides great value while serving generally very good Italian favorites.  The Tomato Cafe’s mission statement is to “Provide our guests with delicious, high quality food, friendly service in a pleasant atmosphere at a good value.”  Mission Accomplished!  The restaurant has earned a gaggle of accolades, consistently winning or placing high on the Alibi’s coveted “best all-you-can-eat restaurant” category in its annual restaurant poll.  In 2002, manager Deborah Gagnon was named “restaurateur of the year” by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to this restaurant’s success.

For me, however, the endorsement I trust most comes from my esteemed friend Jacob Muller, the most precocious fourteen year old I know, who considers the Tomato Cafe his favorite restaurant.  Considering he already knows more about dinosaurs than I’ll ever learn, I put a lot of stock on his opinion.  Like Jacob, I’ve never tried any of the salad ingredients, so eager am I to dig into the main event–five handcrafted pizzas, two homemade soups, three types of pasta, breadsticks, polenta, garlic green beans, fresh broccoli, six sauces, meatballs, ravioli and ice cream with toppings included.

Gourmet pizza

Gourmet pizza

An exhibition kitchen gives you the opportunity to watch as pizza pies are deftly tossed into the air and fashioned into thin crusted orbs of deliciousness.  If a specific type of pizza isn’t available on the buffet line, one of the accommodating pizzaioli artisans can craft it for you.  The gourmet pizza is sometimes ameliorated by non-traditional pizza ingredients–feta cheese, barbecue sauce, piñon nuts, and other savory offerings.  You’ll only find thin-crusted pizza here, but it’s substantial enough to hold the great ingredients that adorn each pizza.  My very favorite is the barbecue chicken pizza in which the barbecue sauce has just the right amount of tang to make it interesting.  The chicken is applied parsimoniously, but what lands on the pizza is moist and delicious.    Also quite good is any pizza in which New Mexico green chile is added. 

Two types of soup–a vegetarian posole and a tomato basil–are positioned next to the salad ingredients in the family-style buffet line-up.  The roasted tomato basil soup is one of those comforting home-style soups which will give you pause to contemplate the greatness that is the tomato.  This flavor-rich elixir for whatever ails you is redolent with the aromas of fresh vegetables and Italian seasonings in perfect proportions.

Meatballs and penne pasta with green chile Alfredo sauce

Meatballs and penne pasta with green chile Alfredo sauce

Six sauces such as roasted tomato garlic, white clam, green chili Alfredo, sausage and Bolognese will embellish your choice of pasta.  The white and red clam sauces actually reminds me of my halcyon days in Massachusetts when my palate (and waistline) began to expand as I experienced theretofore foods outside my New Mexican comfort zone.  There’s nothing better on a cold winter day than a bowl of pasta with a generous amount of deliciously chewy clams and a tangy tomato sauce.

New Mexicans might prefer the tasty green chile Alfredo sauce (pictured above) as a pasta topper.  This sauce has a surprisingly piquant taste chile aficionados appreciate.  Next to the pizza, the favorite fare for children of all ages just might be the meatballs.  A tray of meatballs swimming in a tangy tomato sauce is frequently replenished as it seems most diners load their plates with these delicious orbs.  Other patrons prefer the ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) which is nearly as big as a Big Chief tablet.

Tomato Basil Soup

After fifteen years at its original location on Academy, the Tomato Cafe moved to the Holly Place Center at Paseo del Norte and San Pedro.  In 2010, the restaurant expanded, adding a second store in the Montano Plaza (Coors and Montano).  Since 2002, the Tomato Cafe has donated all unused food to feed the homeless, the type of civic mindedness which endears this terrific restaurant to its patrons almost as much as the food does.

Tomato Cafe
5920 Holly Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gourmet Pizza, Ravioli with Green Chile Alfredo Sauce, Red Clam Sauce, Meatballs

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Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery on Central Avenue in Albuquerque

History has shown that cultures which thrived and advanced most rapidly are those which settled in arable areas rife with  natural resources.  The “Cradle of Civilization” where many of the earliest human civilizations evolved is in a seemingly unlikely region of the Middle East in which most of the land is too dry for farming.  In this largely desolate region lies a narrow strip of land known as  the “Fertile Crescent” because of its fecund soil and life-giving waters. 

The Fertile Crescent lies in the ancient area stretching in an arc from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates, an area the Greeks of Biblical times called Mesopotamia which means “between the rivers.”  This historical region, which includes some of the very best farmlands in the world, includes parts of or the entirety of the modern day nations of Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.  The Bible–from Genesis to the Gospels–overflows with references to the foods of the time as grown in this region.

Omar Neshewat, Sahara's friendly owner

In Biblical times the most common and important foods were bread (the staff of life), olive oil (used instead of butter), milk and cheese from flocks of goats and sheep, vegetables (the most common of which were lentils and beans) from gardens and fruits (usually grapes, figs and pomegranates) from orchards.  Those living close to waters would enjoy fish and only on very special occasions might a family partake of meat.  Because there was no sugar, honey was the only sweetener available. 

Many of these foods remain staples of the region today and thanks to the ever-shrinking world, the cuisine of the Middle East can be enjoyed throughout the world–nearly as good and as fresh as if consumed in the ancient environs.  The Duke City is home to several very good to excellent restaurants showcasing the foods of the Fertile Crescent.  Best of all these restaurants are wholly authentic, featuring foods prepared in the time-honored, traditional manner, not dumbed down for the American palate.  The owners of these restaurants are emigrees,  usually no more than one generation removed from the land of their birth.

Shish Kabob Combo (Includes Basmati Rice, Falafel, Hummous, Pickles, Fattoush Salad, Dolmas, Fresh Pita)

Among them are Manny and Helen Neshewat who emigrated from Jordan in their youth to begin lives anew in America.  The Neshewat family owned Robbie’s, a series of delis in the suburbs of New York City.  When Manny decided to retire, he considered Florida and Arizona, but fell in love with New Mexico and its moderate climate.  Retirement was not to be.  After decades of working virtually sun-up to sun-down, he couldn’t make himself sleep in past six.  Three years after moving to Albuquerque, he and Helen returned to the business they love–launching the Times Square Deli Mart, a combination deli and convenience store they opened in 2007 near the University of New Mexico (UNM). 

Within a year, they also launched the Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery about a mile east of the Times Square Deli Mart.  Manny and Helen are still very much involved in the two restaurants–as well as a satellite of the Sahara at the UNM Student Union Building (SUB), a satellite of the Times Square Deli Mart at the UNM Hospital and a supermarket in Belen–but the day-to-day management is now in the hands of their progeny.  Tony Neshewat manages the Times Square Deli Mart while Omar manages the Sahara operation.

Beef and Lamb Shawarmah Combo Plate

A commonality among the sibling restaurants is the hospitality with which diners are treated.  The amiable Neshewats treat one and all as welcome guests whose visits is valued.  It’s a philosophy that cultivates repeat visits and customer loyalty.  The graciousness of the Neshewats is a genuine and refreshing change from restaurants in which customers are treated as faceless, nameless entities.  The food at both the Times Square Deli Mart and the Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery is a bonus. 

The Sahara is actually the family’s first venture into preparing and serving the cuisine of their motherland.  It was a venture into the unknown, both from the standpoint that the deli business was what they knew best and from not knowing whether or not Middle Eastern cuisine would be well accepted in the UNM area.  From the onset, the Sahara has done very well, garnering rave reviews from critics and diners alike.  Save for the pita (which is procured from California), every item on the menu is homemade and prepared authentically from recipes handed down through the generations as well as recipes acquired from restaurants in Jordan. 

Pistachio Baklava

Beef, lamb and chicken are sliced specially for the restaurant from Adam’s Nice and Fresh, the family’s supermarket in Belen.  The quality shows.  The thinly sliced shawarmah is marinated for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours in a seven spice marinade which includes cardamom, allspice, cloves, vinegar and a host of other ingredients.  The marinade penetrates deeply, imbuing the beef and lamb amalgam with mouth-watering flavors.  The shish-kabob, a charbroiled skewer of fresh cuts of lamb, might be even more delicious, each moist and tender bite-sized portion as good as it can be. 

For the big eaters among us, the best bet is a combo platter (otherwise known as the “Break the Chain” special because host Ryan Scott loves it) which is brimming with your choice of beef and lamb shawarma, chicken shawarma, chicken tika, kafta kabob, shish kabob, falafel or Greek gyro and basmati rice, falafel, hummous, pickles, fattoush salad, dolmas and fresh pita.  This veritable family-sized feast will set you back less than twelve dollars.  In today’s austere economic times, you’ve got to appreciate that value. 

Basmati rice is not typically associated with Middle Eastern food, but that didn’t stop Omar Neshewat from wanting to serve it at the Sahara.  He tried a number of different types of rice, but determined Basmati, a long-grain rice grown in India, to have the properties of moistness, fragrance and delicateness he wanted.  Sahara’s Basmati rice is fluffy, moist and delicious, seasoned with tumeric and saffron.  It’s among the very best rice you’ll find anywhere in the city. 

The fattoush salad, a mixed green garden salad with toasted pita croutons drizzled with a simple lemon and olive oil dressing, is also quite good, but it’s the hummous with which Omar takes more pride.  Sahara uses hundreds of pounds of chickpeas per week to create their hummous, rehydrating the chickpeas for twelve hours on a custom-made machine whose express purpose is hummous. 

Helen, the affable matriarch of the Neshewat family, creates the desserts for Sahara from scratch.  The pistachio baklava is over-the-top, a paragon of deliciousness and among the very best I’ve ever had.  Each diamond-shaped slice is unadulterated bliss.  Helen uses ghee (clarified butter) to give the baklava its moistness.  Though soaked with honey syrup, this baklava is not cloying as some Greek renditions tend to be.  Another popular dessert is the homemade rice pudding which is made with rosewater. 

Biblical scholars believe the typical worker’s midday repast was a simple meal of bread with onions.  In contemporary times, it’s great to know that terrific Middle Eastern cuisine in profligate portions can be found in the Sahara Eatery where you’ll be treated like a welcome guest.

Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery
2622-A Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-5400
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2011
1st VISIT: 15 May 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pistachio Baklava, Shish Kabob Combination Plate, Shawarmah Combination Plalte

Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery on Urbanspoon

Vernon’s Speakeasy – Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, New Mexico

The door to Vernon's Hidden Valley Steakhouse. Make sure you know the secret password.

The door to Vernon’s Speakeasy. Make sure you know the secret password.

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution ushered in the era of Prohibition in the United States, an era was to last from 1920 through 1933.  Only liquors used for religious purposes were excluded.  Because alcohol was declared illegal by the Congress, bootleggers and distributors of illicit alcohol thrived.  There was no shortage of enthusiastic scofflaws willing to run afoul of the law in order to enjoy intoxicating beverages.  One of the most popular milieus in which alcohol was served was the speakeasy.

A speakeasy was generally either a restaurant or a bar to which patrons gained admission by knocking on a door and uttering a secret password.  Once inside, patrons were treated very well in a swanky ambiance that may have included elaborate floor shows, fine dining and live entertainment.  Speakeasies flourished throughout the United States.

The elegant trappings of Vernon's Hidden Valley Steakhouse

The elegant trappings of Vernon’s Speakeasy (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Vernon’s Speakeasy (formerly known as Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse), no longer one of the Albuquerque area’s best kept secrets, celebrates the spirit of the speakeasy.  Located in the 19,000 square-food Village Shops at Los Ranchos, there is absolutely no visible sign  that Vernon’s  even exists.  You enter Vernon’s through a heavy steel door.  Knock three times on that door and a sliding peephole opens.  Speak a secret password and you’ll be greeted by a doorman attired in a pinstripe suit delivering heavily accented gangster schtick (more reminiscent of the pitchman for Godfather’s Pizza than Don Vito Corleone of the Godfather movies)  before granting you admission to a surprising world reminiscent of the Prohibition Era speakeasy.

Vernon’s Speakeasy is named for Vernon Garcia who along with his wife Angel founded the restaurant in January, 2007.  Despite a lack of mainstream publicity in its infancy, Vernon’s gradually established itself as a popular dining destination among those in the know and has continued to grow in popularity.  In 2009, entrepreneur Michael Baird purchased the speakeasy-themed steakhouse along with the adjacent package store and the Calico Cantina & Cafe, a popular eatery specializing in American comfort foods with a twist.  Under Baird’s direction, the entire complex has undergone a significant transformation.  Gone is the Calico, replaced by Prime, a high-end delicatessen and specialty food shop.  Additionally, Vernon’s has made the speakeasy experience even more authentic with secret passageways, a new private dining room, a cigar patio and a VIP club.

The minute you enter Vernon’s, the cares of the day melt will away.  True to its speakeasy theme, the entire restaurant is intended to be hidden away from prying eyes.  Black curtains prevent the incursion of any errant sunlight. Passers-by who stride along the sidewalk have absolutely no idea there’s a fashionable, high-end restaurant behind those curtains.  The walls of the entire restaurant are highly buffed to a black diamond finish.  Only the rich red planked ceilings from which muted lighting is parsimoniously meted out offer a surcease to the enveloping darkness. A relaxed mood is further established by a pianist with an endless repertoire of music for all tastes.

The ambiance at Vernon's, though dark, inspires hush tones and relaxation.

The ambiance at Vernon’s, though dark, inspires hush tones and relaxation. (Courtesy of Bill Resnik)

The high-end menu includes the type of cuisine on which Al Capone himself might have dined in a Chicago speakeasy: chops, steak and seafood.  While it might not take a well-heeled outlaw’s ill-gotten gains to eat at Vernon’s, entrees are somewhat pricy (as in the potential for a $200 meal without alcohol).  A 20-ounce USDA prime, center-cut, bone-in ribeye with a port demi-glace reduction and savory chervil butter (called the Los Ranchos Star), for example, goes for $64 (as of this writing).   Entrees are served with the chef’s vegetable du jour and one complimentary accompaniment: white truffle infused Yukon mashed potatoes, herbed new potato hash, wasabi mashed potatoes, Basmati rice, baked potato, loaded mashed potatoes or roasted pepper and onion mashed potatoes.  The wasabi mashed potatoes have a discernible bite and are very good.

With a couple exceptions, the beef is Newport Prime, noted for its high quality, trim standards, yield, appearance and most importantly, taste.  Newport’s cattle are raised on mother’s milk, introduced to and raised on pasture grass then finished with a protein and corn rich diet.  The boneless ribeye and prime rib (twenty-one day, wet aged beef) are all-natural New Mexico raised beef.  Seafood entrees include seasonal salmon and halibut as well as Australian cold water lobster tail.  Petaluma free-range chicken, beef tenderloin medallions, marinated pork loin and New Zealand lamb shank round out the entrees menu.

Appetizers are surprisingly unimaginative for such a high-end dining establishment: blue corn cakes, bruschetta, crab stuffed mushrooms, orange cured salmon gravlox and scallops.  That doesn’t mean they’re not very good.  The bruschetta, for example, is quite good.  Toasted French  Parmesan baguettes are studded with Balsamic marinated tomatoes topped with melted mozzarella.  The crab stuffed mushrooms (lump crab meat, spices and stuffed into mushroom caps) are another popular pre-prandial treat that will fly off the table.  This isn’t faux crab; it’s the real thing and it’s really delicious. Soups and salads provide an alternative to the appetizers.  All are excellent precursors of things to come.

A succulent steak with baked potato and all the trimmings (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

A succulent steak with baked potato and all the trimmings (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

The butter poached lobster salad (fresh arugula, shaved fennel, bell peppers, cucumbers, grape tomatoes and citrus vinaigrette) includes several elements which work well together as well as contrasting flavor profiles that surprised me.  The zesty, peppery flavor of the arugula and the slight bitterness of the bell peppers, for example, could have overwhelmed the delicately sweet butter poached lobster, but they don”t.  The offsetting element may well be the citrus vinaigrette which seems to put it all together for this salad.   The lobster, of course, will leave you wanting more.

Though an excellent entree, the Steak Au Poivre (a Newport USDA prime center-cut New York strip steak) may not be for you if you savor your steak with the grill-influenced taste some aficionados crave.  Steak Au Poivre is pan-broiled and served with a brandy and butter sauce.  At Vernon’s, the Steak Au Poivre isn’t redolent (translation: overwhelmed) with the crushed peppercorns that typify this entree.  It is as tender as any non-Kobe beef you’ll find anywhere, a ten- to twelve-ounce slab of flame kissed beef prepared to your exacting specifications.  Ask for medium if you relish the juiciness of a great steak perfectly prepared.

The New York Strip, a twelve ounce slab perfectly prepared to your exacting specifications might be a better choice for aficionados of unadulterated beef.  It is Newport USDA prime center-cut steak made even better if you ask for salt, pepper and garlic on both sides.  You won’t find any trace of sinew, gristle or fat on this buttery tender steak.  My best bet choice is the aforementioned Los Ranchos Star, the USDA prime center cut 20-ounce bone-in slab of pure deliciousness.  This melt-in-your mouth beef hunkiness is big enough to share though you probably won’t want to.  You’ll want every morsel of this steak for yourself.  Ask for the wild mushroom Bordelaise, the only way you can possibly improve on this magnificent meaty perfection.

A ten-ounce filet served medium rare.

A ten-ounce filet served medium rare. (Courtesy of Bill Resnik)

If the sides aren’t enough, you can also order from among several ala carte items including an adult mac and cheese, braised collard greens, and grilled asparagus with Hollandaise sauce.  The adult mac and cheese is sinfully rich and utterly delicious, thanks in no small measure to an infusion of Gouda cheese and sugar-cured ham.  Who needs Kraft dinner when adult mac and cheese is so wonderful.

The dessert tray abounds with delicious options sure to please the discerning diner.  Rave reviews are sure to follow if you opt for the Chocolate silk, a shortbread pecan cookie crust topped with a rich, frothy chocolate custard and sweet cream cheese.  This is a dessert for which you absolutely have to make room.  It’s one of my very favorite desserts, one I enjoy so much, I employ the “it’ll all go to your hips so you shouldn’t have any” ploy on my loving bride of 26 years. Invariably it never works and I have to share it with her.

In January, 2010, Vernon’s Speakeasy was selected by AOL’s Web site as one of “Twenty Romantic Restaurants We Love Across the Country.”  According to the feature: “This speakeasy-style restaurant is still a bit of a secret to most of the locals. If you didn’t know there was a restaurant behind a hidden door in Los Ranchos Liquors, you’d probably never learn how romantic an underground spot can be. The atmosphere is cozy and warm – a good place to cuddle up with your number one guy or gal.”

A close-up of Vernon's filet served medium rare.

A close-up of Vernon’s filet served medium rare. (Courtesy of Bill Resnik)

Shortly before Valentine’s Day in 2010, Open Table, Inc., which provides a free online restaurant reservation service, named its fifty “most romantic restaurants,” a list gleaned from more than seven million reviews submitted by Open Table diners on more than 12,000 restaurants across the fruited plain. Vernon’s Speakeasy was the sole honoree from the Land of Enchantment. 

Only from Zagat will you find a disparaging word.  Zagat wrote of “trends that may once have seemed fresh and innovative that have simply worn out their welcome.”  Near the top of that list is prohibition-era restaurants which are “getting a little tired at this point.” That, of course is an opinion and Albuquerque diners clearly dissent.  Duke City diners have certainly not grown tired of Vernon’s Speakeasy.  If anything, it continues to increase in popularity.  It’s especially favored for special occasions and celebrations.  If the doorman is to be believed, Vernon’s is frequented by Hollywood glitterati whom he cautions should be allowed to enjoy their repast in peace.

Chocolate Silk, one of the best desserts in Albuquerque…maybe the world 

Vernon’s may no longer be the well-kept secret it once was, but it remains an excellent dinner option when only steak will do and you want to impress a special someone.

Vernon’s Speakeasy
6855 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2011
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Steak Au Poivre, Bruschetta, Chocolate Silk Pie

Vernon's Hidden Valley Steaks on Urbanspoon

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