I Love Sushi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Who doesn't love I Love Sushi.

Who doesn't love I Love Sushi.

According to the US Census Bureau, more than half (49.3) of all Americans reported they did not “dine out” between Fall, 2009 and Fall, 2011. That’s the lowest percentage since 2007 and could be indicative of the pervasive economic malaise or perhaps of the uncertainty as to what constitutes “dining out.”  The Census Bureau did not define the term so it’s conceivable “dining out” was interpreted as a meal at a “fancy restaurant” with table service and a wine menu as opposed to say, a meal at a fast food restaurant or  picking up a burger from a food truck.

One data point the Census Bureau did not research is the percentage of people who don’t like sushi.  A sushi chef acquaintance tells me sushi isn’t something people merely just “like” or are indifferent to.  They either love it or hate it.  He contends that most, not all, people who claim to hate it have never tried really good sushi.  A quick perusal through Google seemingly contradicts his theory, revealing numerous sites and Facebook pages dedicated to the derision of sushi.  In almost all cases, the haters had tried sushi and found it not to their liking (to say the least). 

Savvy sushi savants sit at the sushi bar

Not surprisingly, one demographic which loves sushi is white people.  Confirmation of this “unimpeachable” fact can be found in the amusing Stuff White People Like Web site.  Before you accuse me of xenophobia or racism, the author–a self-admitted “veteran white person”–employs generalizations and stereotypes in a humorous manner to poke fun at the most prominent American demographic to which he belongs (in other words, he’s trying to be funny).   The author contends that “regardless if you are vegetarian, vegan, or just guilty about eating meat, all white people love SushiTo them, it’s everything they want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the ‘uneducated.’ 

He further observes that there is a definite hierarchy of sushi loving white people, ranging from the “spicy tuna/California roll eaters” (who don’t really care about the authenticity of the sushi as much as they do the experience of eating it) to the “white sushi snobs” who “only sit at the sushi bar, will try to order in Japanese” and will complete the authentic experience by washing their sushi down with sake. One sushi restaurant which will appease all white people is the aptly named I Love Sushi restaurant at the Del Norte Plaza shopping center on San Mateo.

Salad and Miso Soup

White people or not, visitors to I Love Sushi will be greeted with a warm “Irasshaimase,” the Japanese word for “Welcome.”  I Love Sushi has been making everyone feel welcome since it opened in 2000.  The 36-seat restaurant, a multiple-time “best sushi” award-winner in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual poll has become one of the most popular Japanese restaurants in the Duke City.  It’s been that way practically since it first launched, its popularity further cemented when in 2004, a teppan grilling station was added. 

While many diners visit I Love Sushi to watch the prestidigitation of the knife-wielding teppan chefs, most seem to gravitate toward the sushi bar where they can commune with the restaurant’s owner and sushi chef Tom Yun.  As personable a restaurateur as you’ll find in Albuquerque, he’s all business when deftly creating unique maki rolls, the likes of which few restaurants will attempt.  A wall of faux river stones and a stuffed marlin backdrop the sushi bar in which chef Yun plies his craft.

Vegetable Tempura

Shortly after being presented with the sushi menu, an attentive server will bring to your table, a warm bowl of traditional miso soup and a salad with orange-ginger dressing. Neither are particularly exciting, but then you’ll probably be so eager to get to the sushi that they wouldn’t leave much of an impression even if they were noteworthy. Appetizers are much more interesting, albeit fairly standard: Chicken Yakitori, Egg Roll, Fried Calamari, Vegetable Tempura, Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura Aged Tofu, Edamame and Gyoza.  The vegetable tempura is excellent, each succulent vegetable crispy on the outside and perfectly cooked inside.

The menu offers sushi, sashimi and a variety of maki rolls, but it’s an illuminated hand-scrawled menu by the sushi bar where you’ll find chef Yun’s most creative work.  This includes the aptly named Burrito Roll: spicy baby lobster, avocado and Kanpyo (gourd strips) encased in a warm egg roll skin and served with Sriracha, a semi-sweet and piquant Japanese chili sauce made from sun-ripened chilies.  The impression of “burrito” is more visual than it is from a taste perspective though the Sriracha does bear a resemblance to some New Mexican salsas.  The burrito roll is quite good.

A boatload of sushi rolls

The Amigo Roll is another unique offering on the non-traditional menu, a beauteous maki roll made with tuna, salmon, red snapper, crab and roasted green chile.  The green chile is more piquant than the green chile offered at many New Mexican restaurants.  The uniquely named Yummy Crunch is even more unconventional.  It starts with a Japanese “nacho,” a single “chip” topped with tuna, salmon, cucumber, avocado, cream cheese and a “special” sauce.  It’s as much fun to look at as it is to eat.  Then there’s the “football,” spicy scallops inside a sweet fried tofu skin.  

There are a number of more traditional maki rolls on the menu and for purists who dismiss roll-style sushi as a flight of fancy, the nigiri-style sushi (particularly the mackerel, unagi (eel) and tuna) is fresh and delicious.  In the hands of a true master sushi chef, you don’t have to be a white person to love I Love Sushi.  It’s one of the Duke City’s best for sushi.

I Love Sushi
6001 San Mateo, Suite F-4
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2011
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Burrito, Tuna Tempura Roll, Spider Roll, New Mexico Roll, Amigo Roll, Yummy Crunch, Salmon Tempura Roll,  Football, Mackerel, Unagi, Tuna

I Love Sushi on Urbanspoon

Ezra’s Place – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ezra’s Place, the second restaurant launched by extraordinary chef Dennis Apodaca

When it comes to food, most bowling alleys strike out.  Ardent keglers are subjected to such catastrophic “cuisine” as perpetually rotating hot dogs seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno, soppy messes of nachos bathed in gloppy processed cheese topped with gelatinous jalapeños and greasy onion rings with the texture of fried rubber bands and as oily as well-slicked lanes.  Getting something edible at most bowling alleys is as tough as picking up a seven-ten split.

Los Ranchos de Albuquerque has somehow managed to buck the national trend of bad bowling alley food–or at least the Lucky 66 Bowling Alley on Fourth Street has.  The Lucky 66 (then known as Sun Valley Bowl) was once the home of Sadie’s Dining Room, one of the Duke City area’s most popular dining destinations.  After Sadie’s split for more commodious confines, Dean’s Mexican Food moved in and fed Duke City bowlers and diners in the know for a few years.  When Dean’s departed, other victual vendors tried, but couldn’t pin down the secrets to success in serving food at a bowling alley

The interior of Ezra’s Place, hardly your typical bowling alley restaurant

Visitors to the historical Fourth Street bowling alley will notice colorful signage on the exterior north-facing wall of the yawning complex and might initially attribute it to some of the city’s very creative taggers, but it’s not some gang named Ezra’s staking its territory with graffiti that’s at work here.  Ezra’s Place is the second Fourth Street restaurant venture of the phenomenal chef Dennis Apodaca, braintrust behind Sophia’s Place, one of the city’s very best restaurants.

Ezra’s Place is named for Dennis’s son, a well-mannered teenager who helps out on weekends.  Sophia’s Place is named for Dennis’s daughter so if the naming conventions formula holds true, he probably won’t open another restaurant since he’s only got two children (and a lovely step-daughter who also helps out at both restaurants).

Salsa, chips and guacamole at Ezra's

Salsa, chips and guacamole at Ezra’s

Ezra’s Place is antithetical to Sophia’s in terms of seating capacity.  While Sophia’s is tiny and crowded, Ezra’s is capacious.  Ezra’s Place launched in late September, 2008, but the word got out quickly and it wasn’t long before Dennis’s dining disciples made the pilgrimage almost directly across the street from Sophia’s.

It’s not only the seating area that’s capacious.  The kitchen at Ezra’s dwarfs the confining kitchen at Sophia’s (although as Guy Fieri said, “little place, huge flavors.”)  As a result, Dennis has been able to expand his menu and feature even more of the creative and funky, New Mexican influenced dishes that have garnered him acclaim as an Über chef.  He’s also been able to expand hours of operation and serve dinner five nights a week.  Ezra’s Place is open from 11AM to 9PM Tuesday through Saturday and from 9AM to 2PM on Sundays.

Chiliquiles with red chili-roasted tomato sauce and black beans with bacon

As at Sophia’s, the ambiance at Ezra’s is colorful and interesting.  Unframed and very colorful paintings festoon the walls.  Most, particularly those of anthropomorphic dogs will have you do a double-take in an appreciative sort of way.  The restaurant is situated on a second level of the brightly illuminated bowling alley, but the sound of pins crashing down is muffled by distance.  What you’re more likely to hear are compliments to the chef and utterances of sheer enjoyment.

The Saturday and Sunday brunch is like a “best of” from among some of the wonderful specials with which Dennis tantalized taste buds at Sophia’s.  There are only about a dozen standard items on the brunch menu plus the special (in every sense of the word) pancakes and scrawled on a slate board near the entrance are brunch specials, some of which I don’t recall ever seeing at Sophia’s.

Sour cream and lemon pancakes

Because brunch means breakfast and lunch, you can also order from the expansive lunch menu, adding another dozen or so options from which to choose.  We had the pleasure of sharing our inaugural brunch at Ezra’s Place with Sandy Driscoll, our friend from Los Angeles.  Brunch is best with friends like Sandy who have sophisticated palates and a great sense of adventure–friends from whose plates you can sample, friends who won’t order the same thing you do.  It allows for trying more of the menu and comparing notes on what’s good and what’s not as good.

We didn’t find anything at Ezra’s for which the adjective “good” would suffice. Everything started at “great” and got better from there. Greatness would certainly be ascribed to the fried calamari with the house dipping sauces.  Each whisper-thin, batter-coated ringlet is surprisingly fresh with the perfect texture that’s neither too chewy or too crispy, but a balanced medium.  Two sauces accompany the calamari.  The first is a Balsamic reduction with equal pronouncements of sweet and tangy.  This one is so good that I tried it with pancakes and it passed muster.  The second is a jalapeño Ranch dressing.  This one has a piquant bite to it, but also a hint of dill.  No doubt Dennis made these dipping sauces from scratch as he’s apt to do with most things on the menu.

Two fried eggs over medium, pork chop topped with green chile, refried black beans, papitas and a tortilla

In New Mexico, chips, salsa and guacamole are the three amigos people most want on their dinner tables.  The chips are homemade and served warm.  They’re also thin and low in salt, a healthful, delicious combination.  Neither of the salsas–a roasted tomato and chipotle salsa and a salsa fresca akin to a pico de gallo–are particularly piquant, but both are very flavorful and tend to complement rather than dominate the flavors of anything to which they are added.

The special pancakes of the day is a brunch tradition at Sophia’s Place and it continues at Ezra’s.  With any luck, you’ll visit Ezra’s when the featured pancakes are the ricotta and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with fresh berries.  The tartness of the berries and lemon create a palate pleasing harmony with the maple syrup (yes, the real stuff). The sour cream changes the texture of standard pancakes by adding moistness while retaining the fluffiness inherent in great pancakes.

Chiles Rellenos

Chiles Rellenos

Some of the aforementioned specials which sometimes graced Sophia’s menu are standard offerings at Sophia’s.  One such special at Sophia’s but standard at Ezra’s are the chiliquiles with red chili-roasted tomato sauce served with black beans and two long strips of crispy bacon.  Chiliquiles are an interesting dish, seldom prepared the same way by different cooks.  Dennis’s rendition holds true to some of the dishes traditional aspects, but being the maverick (eat your heart out John McCain) he is, he also imparts his own creative flair into what is otherwise a simple dish.

The basis of chiliquiles are soft tortillas on top of which eggs (any style) are added.  In Dennis’s version, the chili-roasted tomato sauce is actually layered below the eggs which are topped with queso fresco.  This dish truly brings with it an explosion of flavors, textures and contrasts–the medium piquancy of delicious red chile, the acidity and tanginess of a homemade tomato sauce and so much more.  It is a very enjoyable entree.

Two shrimp tacos (Santa Barbara shrimp) with a guacamole salsa, refried black beans and a greens salad

A chile relleno trio sure to tantalize your taste buds starts with chilaca chiles, a mild to medium-hot chile with a rich flavor.  Fully mature the chilaca chiles have a dark greenish or maybe even dark brown appearance.  When dried, these chiles take on a dark, wrinkled skin and are known as pasilla chiles.  What Dennis does with the chilaca chiles is akin to culinary wizardry, stuffing them three ways.  One is stuffed with black beans refried in duck confit (a flavor escalation that places the beans in rarified company as some of the very best I’ve ever had).  One is stuffed with tomatillo and one with a roasted tomato and red chile sauce.  All three are topped with goat cheese and Asadero cheese then drizzled with a creme fraiche.

From the lunch side of the menu, you might want to try the Poblano chili relleno with calabasitas, Asadero cheese and tomatillo sauce.  The poblano has slightly more piquancy than a bell pepper, but when roasted properly imbues the qualities of freshness and fruitiness to an entree.  This is a poblano on steroids, a corpulent pepper engorged with fresh calabasitas and Asadero cheese.  The tomatillo sauce is a Dennis Apodaca specialty, one which he demonstrated for host Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Wagyu Beef Burger with Grilled Onions and Blue Cheese accompanied by Ezra’s famous shoestring fries

The tomatillos are grilled and blackened while Dennis prepares the foundation for the sauce (onion, garlic, chipotle adobo and pure honey).  He then adds the tomatillos to the mix and allows them to simmer for a few minutes before blending the entire amalgam then reducing it.  This is a spectacular sauce with a lot going on.

One of the seemingly de rigueur offerings at many inventive Southwestern restaurants in New Mexico is duck quesadillas,  a very good idea not always executed well.  For me, the standard has always been the Coyote Rooftop Grill in Santa Fe.  It shouldn’t surprise me that Dennis does them better.  The duck is as tender as a bird’s heart with none of the gaminess and fattiness of duck at the hands of chefs who don’t have Dennis’s skills.  He’s generous with the duck to which he applies a sweet-savory barbecue sauce wholly unlike the vinegar-tomato sauce you’ll find at barbecue restaurants.  The tortillas are browned to a nice crispness and have the brown spot appearance of a pinto pony.

Duck Quesadillas

Duck Quesadillas

Served with the quesadillas is a fresh salad, a hallmark of Dennis’s restaurants.  Ezra’s  salads are always crafted with fresh, crisp greens and a subtle dressing that marries well with the greens so that their flavor is what you get with every forkful, not some sweet or tart flavor suppressor.  The quesadillas also include a fresh pico de gallo and some of the very best guacamole in America.  The guacamole has a nice lime and cilantro infusion to complement the buttery richness of fresh, creamy avocado.

Sophia’s was home to my favorite pastrami sandwich in Albuquerque.  Ezra’s one-ups Sophia’s with a grilled Ezra pastrami sandwich. Lightly toasted Sage Bakehouse sourdough bread is the canvass on which sauerkraut, pastrami and homemade Thousand Island dressing imprint their deliciousness.  Rather than masking the flavor of sauerkraut as some restaurants do by sweetening it or saucing it highly, Dennis allows the sauerkraut to be sour–not lip-pursing sour, but with a definite tang.  The Thousand Island dressing is thick, rich and somewhere between sweet and sour.  This sandwich is served with a mountain of Ezra’s fries, julienne fries that are one of the restaurant’s most popular draws.  In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Ezra’s a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its julienne fries  as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

Grilled Ezra Pastrami Sandwich with Ezra Fries

Grilled Ezra Pastrami Sandwich with Ezra Fries

On October 23rd, 2011, the New York Times travel section celebrated “36 hours in Albuquerque.”  The article was perhaps a revelation to residents of Metropolis who may not be cognizant of all there is to see and do…and eat in the Duke City.  Likening the “lush farmland” “along the banks of the Rio Grande” to a “quiet oasis,” the Times indicated those farmlands provision the city’s “vibrant organic movement” with “heirloom beans, corn and more.”  The Magazine praised the “bowling alley location, farm to table produce and a chef-owner with Chez Panisse credentials” at Ezra’s as adding “up  to hipster overload” anywhere but Albuquerque.

The aforementioned Sophia’s is one of a handful of restaurants in Albuquerque I believe can compete in larger, more culinarily sophisticated markets.  Ezra’s, if possible, could be even better.  That’s because Dennis Apodaca now has a bigger canvas for his art, a more expansive venue in which to display his vast talents.

Ezra’s Place
6132 Fourth, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
 LATEST VISIT: 12 July 2012
1ST VISIT: 23 November 2008
: 25
:  $$
Poblano Chili Relleno, Breakfast Burrito, Breakfast Sandwich, Fried Calamari, Ezra Pastrami Sandwich, Ezra Fries, Chile Rellenos Three Ways, Chips and Salsa, Guacamole, Pork Chops and Eggs, Shrimp Enchiladas

Ezra's Place on Urbanspoon

JR’s Bar-B-Que – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

JR’s Bar-B-Que on Gibson just outside the gates to Kirtland AFB

Ryan Scott, the affable host of the enlightening and entertaining Break the Chain radio program has rapidly become the voice for Albuquerque’s mom-and-pop restaurants.  When it comes to celebrating the Duke City’s independent eateries, he’s like E.F. Hutton in that when he speaks, people listen…literally.  The Break the Chain Web site receives more than 10,000 visits per week, many visitors stopping by to catch up on programs they may have missed or more likely, listening to those they enjoyed most a second (or tenth) time.

While Ryan is unabashed in his promotion of New Mexico’s non-chain restaurants, he will admit to being a snob about only one type of food.  That’s barbecue.  Ryan won’t hesitate to tell you he hasn’t found barbecue greatness anywhere in New Mexico.  He’s found good barbecue (his favorite being Josh’s in Santa Fe), but he’ll tell you if you want great barbecue, you’ve got to visit our neighbor to the east.  He should know.  His beautiful better half Kimber is from the Houston area where Ryan lived for a few years.

The interior of JR’s Bar-B-Que

Ryan has major street cred when it comes to barbecue.  He smokes his own meats at home–as in low and slow over fruit woods, not  the quick grilling we amateurs do.  He’s made pilgrimages to the holy grail of Texas barbecue–Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas and home to Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue, the tastiest triumvirate in the Lone Star State.  He’s even visited Snow’s Barbecue which Texas Monthly Magazine rated as having the best barbecue in Texas, an honor as sacrosanct in Texas as having the best green chile cheeseburger is in New Mexico.  Barbecue sauce flows in his veins though he’ll tell you great barbecue needs no sauce.

Many of New Mexico’s barbecue restaurateurs actually had their start in the Texas of Ryan’s barbecue dreams.  Lubbock is where Gary West of Rio Rancho’s Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant cut his teeth.  Daniel “Pepper” Morgan of Pepper’s Ole’ Fashion BBQ smoked meats in the Dallas area before moving to Albuquerque.  Pete Powdrell moved his entire family from Texas to open the historical Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House in Albuquerque.  Neil Nobles owned and operated two very highly regarded barbecue restaurants in Texas before opening Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers in Embudo.  The County Line Restaurant was founded in Austin while the first Rudy’s Country Store & Barbecue first launched outside of San Antonio.   Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a Dallas chain didn’t survive long in the Duke City.

JR’s bread rolls

Then there’s JR’s Bar-B-Que in Albuquerque which got its start in Houston where the Rogers family launched a number of successful barbecue restaurants.  In the late 1980s, Howard and Julie Rogers brought the family recipes and traditions to Albuquerque where they launched restaurants throughout the Duke City and even into Rio Rancho.  Today only one JR’s remains.  Fittingly it’s located just outside the Louisiana gate to Kirtland Air Force Base. It’s fitting because barbecue is as American as baseball, apple pie and patriotism.

There  aren’t many restaurants in New Mexico as patriotic as JR’s Bar-B-Que where tribute after tribute to the veterans of America’s armed services are proudly displayed.  So are the stars and stripes.  It’s no wonder the restaurant is frequented by men and women in uniform.  They feel right at home among the framed posters and photographs you almost have to be a military veteran or family member to fully understand and appreciate.  It’s not only military personnel who will appreciate JR’s which is a popular favorite to barbecue aficionados throughout the area.

JR’s unique onion rings

Barbecue options include beef brisket, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, ham and chicken all cooked over a mesquite pit for sixteen hours.  The sauce is simmered for six to seven hours. Barbecue figures prominently on the appetizer menu where nachos are made with chopped brisket.  A barbecue burrito deluxe is made with barbecue beef, beans, cheese, sauce and lettuce with sour cream or green chile on request.  Your best bet is a barbecue plate, either the Sunwest Special (one barbecue meat and two sides), the Kirtland Combo (your choice of two barbecue meats and two sides) or if you’re really hungry, the Gibson Trio (choice of three barbecue meats and two sides).

There’s more to barbecue to like at JR’s whose full appellation includes “seafood, too!” The seafood includes Mississippi hand-breaded catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters and clams.  The menu also offers three burger choices, a super stuffed spud (butter, cheese, sour cream and chopped beef), a chef’s salad, green chile chicken stew, chicken fried steak and a combo dinner that lets you have one seafood item and one barbecue meat.  Even vegetarians will find something on the menu they can have though vegetarian options are greatly outnumbered by carne.

The “Gibson” Platter Features Three Meats and Two Sides: Turkey, Pulled Pork, Brisket, Okra and Green Beans

As you peruse the menu, a tasty trio of yeasty, muffin-shaped rolls are brought to your table along with those annoying, hard to open plastic tubs of butter.  The rolls are soft and have a slightly golden sheen. The homemade onion rings are a unique must-have item.  What makes them special is the crispy coating which made me think panko (Japanese bread crumbs) because of their gritty texture.  More than likely, the crispy coating is resultant from a double-frying technique.  In any event, the barbecue chef wouldn’t share the secret to these terrific rings.  The crispy coating sheathes wonderfully sweet onions in perfect ringlets served with creamy ranch dressing. 

The Gibson platter (three meats and two sides) is brimming with meats slathered with barbecue sauce unless otherwise requested.  Despite the long simmering process, the sauce is fairly unremarkable as if it’s trying to determine what its personality should be.  It’s a little bit sweet, slightly tangy, somewhat savory and just a tad piquant, but none of those qualities really stand out.  The meats would be much better sans sauce, especially the turkey which has a faint, but discernible smokiness.  The pulled pork and brisket are similarly overwhelmed by the sauce.

Combination Plate: Fried Oysters, Pork Ribs, Mashed Potatoes with Gravy and Beans

The pork ribs have a thick bark permeated with remnants of the somewhat salty rub applied to the ribs. Peel back the bark and you’ll find plenty of moist, tender meat in these pig ribs. A side of sauce accompanies the ribs, but the sauce is wholly unnecessary.  Fried oysters are a perfect counterpoint to the ribs.  Beneath the lightly crunchy breading is a gooey, not at all briny uniquely flavored oyster innards.  Having lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for eight years, it would be so easy to complain that these oysters weren’t just off-the-boat fresh, but the truth is, they were pretty good for being offered in land-locked New Mexico.

Sides–and there are a lot of them–include green beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, fried okra, corn on the cob and beans.  The beans are of the barbecued (meaning just a bit of Southern seasoning) pinto variety, not the conventional molasses-based baked beans many barbecue restaurants tend to offer.  The fried okra, a southern favorite with barbecue, is lightly breaded but just a bit mushy.

Whether or not JR’s Bar-B-Que is yet another in a long line of good barbecue restaurants in New Mexico or a great, Texas quality barbecue restaurant is a matter of personal taste and preference.  Both my visits have been hit and miss with some items (that turkey is terrific) being quite memorable while others are only so-so.  Still, it’s a good option for communing with great American patriots eating an All American food favorite.

JR’s Bar-B-Que
6501 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 October 2011
BEST BET: Barbecue Turkey, Fried Oysters

JR's BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fu Yuang – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fu Yuang, Albuquerque's best Korean restaurant

Fu Yuang, Albuquerque's best Korean restaurant

“I’ve eaten a river of liver and an ocean of fish!
I’ve eaten so much fish, I’m ready to grow gills!
I’ve eaten so much liver, I can only make love
if I’m smothered in bacon and onions”
~ Hawkeye Pierce
MASH 4077, Korea

For eleven years, televisions across the fruited plain were tuned in to CBS where the antics of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) enthralled audiences with a unique blend of crude hilarity and heartfelt humanity.  Set in South Korea during the Korean War, the series centered around a group of resilient doctors, nurses and support staff in an isolated hospital compound which saw more than its share of wounded.  We grew to love the ensemble cast of Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, Hot Lips Hooligan, Henry Blake, Frank Burns and Max Klinger.

Not only did each half hour episode depict–sometimes rather graphically–the horrors of war, it painted a rather poignant and entirely accurate picture of sacrifice and hardship.  Man’s inhumanity toward man was not only portrayed on the battlefields, but in the kitchen presided over by a cook as much outside his element as a vegan at a chophouse.  In its infinite wisdom, the Army assigned Private Igor, a trained mechanic, not to the motor pool where he belonged, but to the kitchen where he concocted such unappetizing dishes as creamed turnips, spam lamb and cream of weenie soup.

The interior of Fu Yuang

Fed up with the never-ending parade of powdered food and the post-prandial gastronomic distress (not to mention taste bud torture) it caused, Hawkeye instigated a near revolt when Igor offered him a choice of liver or fish. “Are we gonna stand for this? Are we gonna let them do this to us? No! I say, No! We’re not going to eat this dreck any more! (chanting) We want something else!”  Indigenous cuisine was apparently even worse because no matter how bad Igor’s chow was, Hawkeye and crew didn’t walk down to the nearby village for a meal of delicious Korean food. 

My father-in-law, who served in the Korean War (where he says he passed out blankets) once told me most Koreans in war-ravaged Korea barely eked out a subsistence and basically lived day-to-day.  On the rare occasions in which he partook of Korean food, it didn’t agree with him (an understatement).  Because of those experiences, it would be another sixty years before he next ate Korean food.  In 2003, we took him to Fu Yuang, Albuquerque’s premier Korean restaurant.  At Fu Yuang he fell in love with a cuisine he thought he’d never eat again and had no idea would be so good.

Some of the very best potstickers in Albuquerque with a terrific dipping sauce

Like my father-in-law, Chris Lovato served in Korea where he met his wife Kye (and ostensibly, enjoyed much better Korean food).  After his military career, the Lovatos settled in Albuquerque where they began a three decade plus Korean restaurant venture that continues today.  Chris passed away in 2008 and Kye has since retired, but their restaurant remains in good hands with their effervescent daughter Mia Lasco succeeding her mother in the kitchen.  Mia obviously paid very close attention; she’s every bit as good a cook as her mother was.  The front of the house is also in good hands with Mia’s husband Chris, the hyper-energetic host and waiter, making sure everyone feels welcome.

Fu Yuang, which translates from Korean to “prosperous garden,” has been comfortably ensconced in the Scottsdale Village shopping center since 1993.  Prior to that, the Lovatos owned and operated the beloved Fu Shou House just outside Kirtland Air Force Base.  Aside from the outstanding food, one commonality all Lovato family restaurants have shared over the years is friendly, attentive service.  Fu Yuang is as convivial and inviting a restaurant as you’ll find in the Duke City. It is sparsely decorated, nearly austere when compared to the over-the-top flamboyance of some of the city’s Asian chains, but it offers a quiet coziness, reasonable prices and generous portions of the best Korean food in New Mexico.

The best egg drop soup in Albuquerque

The best of the restaurant’s appetizers, all of which are excellent, is the exquisite golden fried mandu (Korean style dumplings), luscious pockets of beef served with a soy sauce based dipping sauce with a flavor profile that is sweet, tangy, piquant and savory. Alas, sometimes the day’s ration of mandu goes fast and you might have to start your meal with something else.  A good choice are the crab and cream cheese stuffed wontons, an appetizer for which at other restaurants you might have to form search party to locate anything but the wonton wrappers.  Not so at Fu Yuang where the cream cheese practically oozes out as you bite into it.  This is a rich treat sure to please everyone at the table and it’s not cloying as at some restaurants.

As it is at many Korean restaurants, Fu Yuang’s most popular entree is bulgogi, Korea’s signature dish which many Americans refer to as Korean barbecue. Bulgogi  is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi.  It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food.  They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.  At Fu Yuang, the meat is tender with nary any sinewy or fatty pieces.  The “barbecue” sauce is wholly unlike any American barbecue sauce you’ve had.  It’s not “lacquered” on as some American barbecue sauces are, but its sweet-citrus (the hint of pineapple is notable) profile is addictive.

Bulgogi, a house specialty

Bulgogi, a house specialty

If your tastes lean toward the spicy or piquant but you don’t want to stray far from the sweet and savory tastes of bulgogi, the Taejigogi Kochu’jang (just call it spicy pork) might call out to you.  Extra lean pork slices are marinated in a chili pepper sauce then stir-fried with carrots and yellow and green onions. Like the bulgogi, it is served on a sizzling cast iron hibachi that arrives at your table steaming.  Similarly, rib aficionados will absolutely love bulkalbi, organic bone-in beef short ribs marinated in Fu Yuang’s sweet and savory soy and garlic sauce then stir fried. Similar in taste to bulgogi, these bite-sized ribs are lean and absolutely delicious.

While Korean meals traditionally feature small plates of sundry appetizers and side dishes all served at the same time, they are served only by request at Fu Yuang. Assorted salads (known as namul) comprised of pickled, spiced and hot and spicy vegetables accompany kimchee, the fiery cabbage-based staple of Korea which is heavily seasoned with garlic and chile (and at Fu Yuang is also seasoned with anchioves). The best description I’ve read of these appetizers equates them to “like Korean tapas, only better.”

My friend Sr. Plata with a steaming hibachi of bulkalbi

Fu Yuang’s menu includes several “Jieges & Gook” or dinner soups.  Similar to Vietnamese phos, they are served in swimming pool-sized bowls ideal for sharing (not that you might want to considering how good they are). If your tastes lean to soup of the nasal-clearing variety, it’s the Yukejang which will call loudest. Not quite as piquant as served at other Korean restaurants, it is still redolent with the olfactory arousing aroma of chili pepper paste. Served at nearly scalding temperature, this rich red-orange hued elixir includes spicy beef, fresh garlic, daikon radish slices, bean sprouts, yellow onions, green onions and chapch’ae noodles.

In yet another memorable episode of MASH, Major Frank “Ferret-Face” Burns panicked when he saw local farmers burying what he believes to be a landmine.  Hawkeye revealed “It‘s a kimchee pot, Frank.  Kimchee.  Pickled cabbage.  They ferment it in the ground. There are millions of these buried all over Korea.”  This episode served to reinforce stereotypes many people have about kimchee which can certainly have odoriferous properties.  In comparison to kimchee I’ve had at the homes of Korean families in the Air Force, Fu Yuang’s rendition is rather mild.  It’s also not as piquant as other kimchee I’ve had, but it’s still a very good kimchee.

Assorted salads (known as namul)

Assorted salads (known as namul)

“Bibimbap” may sound like a word describing a hip hop beat, but other than bulgogi, it may be the most popular and well-known Korean dish in existence.  Some cynics actually decry it as leftovers disguised as a gourmet dish.  There may be some merit to that description.  Bibimbap starts with rice served in the hot stone bowl in which it is prepared, the rice at the bottom of the bowl crackling as it continues to cook.  Layered atop the rice are slender strips of perfectly seared sirloin and namul, the aforementioned pickled and spiced vegetables in all their flavorful and colorful glory.  The dish is then crowned with a single fried egg.  You will then stir in gochujang, a Korean chili pepper, to taste. 

Bibimbap can be literally translated to “mixed meal,” because it’s constructed from sundry items often already prepared.  If this is a leftover, you can have me over for a Bibimbap dinner any time, but it’s a good bet it won’t be nearly as good as Fu Yuang’s rendition.  It’s simply the best I’ve ever had.  There are many reasons it’s the essence of deliciousness, the least of which is the coalescence of flavors and textures, the mixing of great individual items combining to form rare greatness.

Bibimbap, a delightful dish

Fu Yuang certainly excels in Korean food, but the menu also includes two entire pages of Chinese specialties in the categories of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, vegetables and fried rice. The Chinese food is fairly Americanized (sweet and sour type entrees), but better prepared than Chinese food at most Chinese restaurants.  Variety (as if you could ever get tired of the wonderful Korean entrees) or temporary insanity might be the only reasons to order Chinese food over Korean food at Fu Yuang, but on the one time in which we’ve had Chinese food (a memorable lemon chicken), we found it quite good.

If you are in a sweet and sour mood, the Korean version of sweet and sour pork or chicken is excellent.  Unlike the thickly breaded meats lacquered with a crimson candied sauce served in many Chinese restaurants, the sweet and sour sauce at Fu Yuang is nearly transparent and the breading is very light.  Best of all, the sauce most definitely has a sour pronouncement; it does not taste like candied meat.  The pork has nary a hint of sinew or fat.  It’s tender and juicy and slathered with just enough sauce for flavor.



The lunch menu is relatively abbreviated though you can order off the diner menu during the noon hour as well. Lunch specials include the very best egg drop soup in Albuquerque as well as two crab and cream cheese wontons.  The egg drop soup is of a thick consistency with generous bits of chicken and miniscule pieces of carrots, onion and celery.  The soup has a very smooth, comforting flavor and is always served hot.

Fu Yuang is one of Albuquerque’s most vegetarian friendly restaurants, offering a variety of options–and not solely of the salad variety, but if salad is what will sate you, the Korean salad is not to be missed. A generous plateful of organic greens drizzled with a sweet sesame vinaigrette is good enough to make converts out of carnivores.

Korean style sweet and sour pork with brown rice

There are other restaurants in Albuquerque which serve Korean food, but none have been doing it as long or as well as Fu Yuang.  Had Private Igor served food as wonderful as Duke City diners enjoy at Fu Yuang, even the perpetual get-out-of-the-Army schemer Corporal Klinger would  have reenlisted.

Fu Yuang
3107 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 20 October 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Bulkalbi, Golden Fried Mandu, Taejigogi Kochu jang, Korean Sweet and Sour Pork, Lemon Chicken, Bibimbap

Fu Yuang Korean & Chinese on Urbanspoon

Johnny’s Homemade – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Johnny’s Homemade Takeout & Delivery on Eubank

In the 1930s, Harland Sanders, the owner of a small service station in Corbin, Kentucky began an improbable journey that eventually led to the forging of a worldwide culinary empire.  In the living quarters of that service station, Sanders fed hungry travelers on his own six-seat dining  table.  Word of his culinary prowess spread and to accommodate throngs of hungry travelers stopping by solely for his food, he had to move his kitchen operation across the street to a motel and restaurant with a seating capacity of 142. The most popular item on his menu was fried chicken, made from a closely guarded secret recipe combining eleven herbs and spices and prepared in a pressure cooker.

The fried chicken was so good that in 1935 the governor of Kentucky named Sanders a Kentucky Colonel.  With an unwavering belief in the quality of his fried chicken, the Colonel devoted himself to franchising his chicken business, traveling across the country by car and selling franchises to restaurant owners.  By 1964, Colonel Sanders had more than 600 franchised outlets across America for his chicken.  Today more than one billion “finger lickin’ good” Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners are served every year in more than 80 countries and territories.  

The interior of Johnny’s Homemade Takeout & Delivery

Perhaps someday, the Biography Channel will be telling the story of Johnny Vialpando’s revolutionary New Mexico Fried Chicken in much the same way Colonel Sanders rags to riches story has been chronicled.  Johnny, the owner and executive chef of Johnny’s Homemade Takeout & Delivery doesn’t call it “New Mexico Fried Chicken.”  That’s me taking artistic liberties about some of the very best and most unique fried chicken we’ve had since leaving the Deep South in 1995. It’s reminiscent, in fact, of the cayenne and garlic spiced Cajun fried chicken we loved throughout Mississippi.

What Johnny’s menu calls it is gourmet green or red chile fried chicken.  That’s right.  Johnny has found a way to impregnate fried (or grilled) chicken with the inimitable flavor of New Mexican green and red chile.  The red chile is injected into tender, juicy white meat chicken breasts while the green chile is stuffed into slits cut into the chicken breasts.  The homemade batter which coats the chicken is applied lightly so it complements the flavor of pure poultry deliciousness and seals in flavor and juices.  The menu promises “juicy green chili in every bite” or that it will “astound you with some red,” but if “you just don’t want to mess with perfection, try Johnny’s Fried or Grilled Chicken.”

Forget complimentary salsa and chips. At Johnny’s, it’s mini sopaipillas with real honey

Homemade Takeout & Delivery is an apt description for this small operation on Eubank (just north of the popular La Salita New Mexican restaurant) which first opened its doors in August, 2011.  It’s the first restaurant venture for Johnny Viapando, but certainly not his inaugural experience cooking for others.  Admitting to being “one heck of a cook,” Johnny has long enthralled friends and family with his kitchen wizardry.  Encouraged to open his own restaurant, he plans to do it right by preparing everything from scratch.  When the ubiquitous food distribution businesses come calling, Johnny sends them away.  The only thing he procures from them are non-food products such as napkins. 

Johnny takes the “homemade” portion of his restaurant’s name very seriously.  He makes just about everything himself and the few things he doesn’t prepare come from local sources he can trust.  For example, he obtains his salsa from a local person and some of the desserts from another local source.  Though the name may suggest otherwise, Johnny’s does have a dining room.  It’s small and homey with a limited number of tables.  The takeout and delivery side of the business is growing as the restaurant becomes better known.

Chile Cheese Papas, Gourmet Red Chile Fried Chicken, Fartless Beans

Shortly after you’ve placed your order, a complimentary plate of mini sopaipillas and a ramekin of real honey are delivered to your table.  Anyone and everyone else can do salsa and chips.  Johnny chooses to serve mini sopaipillas with honey.  The sopaipillas are more dense than the conventional regular sized sopaipillas.  They tear apart, not fall apart to become perfect, steamy repositories beckoning for honey.  As good as they are, they can be quite filling and you won’t want to fill up before your entrees are delivered. 

One of my psychology professors might describe the menu as having a multiple personality, but would certainly exclude the word “disorder.”  The menu is replete with surprises, showcasing New Mexican food, Italian food, American food and even steak and seafood (including snow crab and lobster tail). The multiple personality mishmash features three combination plates for diners who like profligate portions.  The Johnny “Two Stomachs” Italian Feast includes heaping helpings of chicken Parmesan, lasagna and fettuccini Alfredo.  The menu brags “you’ll need two stomachs just to put it away in one sitting.”  Captain Johnny’s Surf ‘n Turf offers a sirloin steak cooked to your liking, lobster tail, grilled shrimp and shrimp scampi–all for under thirty dollars.

Gourmet Green Chile Fried Chicken, Baked Potato, Spanish Rice

For those of us who have to continuously tell the wait staff “just a minute more” because we can’t make up our minds, there’s a combination plate called “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.”  For a fixed price, you can choose any two or three items from the menu.  Red AND green chile fried chicken, anyone?  Italian AND New Mexican foods.  That’s possible too.  Combination plates come with your choice of sides (baked potato, mashed potatoes, French fries, broccoli, Spanish rice, fartless beans, broccoli in cream sauce, corn on the cob.  Johnny can even whip up some red or green chili mashed potatoes to complement the New Mexican dishes.   

My inaugural two item combination plate showcased one piece of red chili fried chicken and Johnny’s Chile Cheese Papas (heaping plate of cut potato squares deep-fried and topped with beef, chile, beans and cheddar cheese) with a side of fartless beans.  The red chile fried chicken is fantastic!  The only thing wrong with it is that it doesn’t come in a bucket along with eight to ten more pieces of its chicken kin.  By comparison, the Colonel’s chicken tastes as if was prepared by a corporal using eleven rancid spices.  Johnny’s got a winner in this chicken.  The chile cheese papas are very good, too with the cubed papitas the star.

Butterscotch Cheesecake

My Kim opted for two pieces of the green chile fried chicken with sides of Spanish rice and a baked potato.  The green chile fried chicken is every bit as good as the red chile fried chicken.  It’s poultry perfection–from the light, crispy batter to the juicy, succulent chicken breast–in every bite.

The dessert menu is limited, but formidable.  It includes a butterscotch cheesecake as rich, sweet and delicious as any cheesecake you’ll find in the Duke City.

Whether or not Johnny will franchise his chicken remains to be seen, but it’s the right idea at the right time and place. 

Johnny’s Homemade Takeout & Delivery
1301 Eubank Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gourmet Green Chile Fried Chicken, Gourmet Red Chile Fried Chicken, Chile Cheese Papas, Fartless Beans, Butterscotch Cheesecake

Johnny's Homemade Takeout and Delivery on Urbanspoon

Geronimo – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Geronimo for the finest in fine dining in Santa Fe

Consistency over time, excellence every time–that’s what sets apart the one or two restaurants all the cognoscenti herald as the very best. These few truly extraordinary restaurants don’t so much raise the bar or reinvent themselves continuously as they do maintain the rarefied levels which earned them the distinction of being singled out in the first place.  Almost without exception, the Santa Fe restaurant most consider the best restaurant in a city of great restaurants is Geronimo.  It’s been that way for years. 

If you’ve ever dined at Geronimo, your next visit isn’t likely to provide any revelatory surprises unless it’s being surprised at how the restaurant has managed to maintain its exceptional standards over the years.  It’s as flawless today as it was when we last visited in 2005 and as wonderful as it was when we first visited in 2003.  Approaching two decades as the finest in fine dining establishments, Geronimo has, over the years, survived the onslaught of very stiff competition from a number of pretty new faces, including several trumpeted as potentially Santa Fe’s best.

Geronimo's trademark moose rack on the front dining room

Not for the fierce Apache warrior is Santa Fe’s premier dining destination named, but for Geronimo Lopez, a more humble and certainly less infamous man. More than a quarter of a century ago, Lopez built the territorial style hacienda on which the restaurant stands which now bears his name. Geronimo ranks with the very best restaurants in America and it’s not just my opinion:

  • The Zagat survey rated it the most popular restaurant in New Mexico from 2004 through 2009.
  • It is only one of two restaurants in New Mexico to have earned the prestigious “four stars” designation from the Mobil Travel Guide and it did so from 2003 through 2009.
  • It earned the AAA’s Four Diamond award from 2001 through 2009.
  • During the same eight-year period, it also earned the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRona) Achievement of Distinction in dining, an accolade accorded to fewer than 800 gourmet restaurants on the continent.

Adjectives, adulation and accolades don’t aptly describe this extraordinary restaurant. It must be experienced! Then, and only then, after you are left breathless and fully satiated, can you say you’ve had the very best in Santa Fe, maybe in the Land of Enchantment.

Housemade lavosh and green chile roll

Because at Geronimo food is considered edible art, it’s only fitting that the restaurant is located on Canyon Road, the narrow, twisting home to dozens of trendy art galleries.  About a mile away from the famed Santa Fe Plaza, Geronimo is so popular that reservations are a must.  The lap of luxury treatment begins even before you enter the restaurant.  Eager attendants provide valet parking, a very welcome boon on cold and damp evenings.  Arrive early and if your table isn’t quite ready, you’ll be escorted to an intimate little bar where you can have a cocktail as you wait.  Your genial host will seat you as soon as possible.  Tandem service is very professional and attentive without being overly doting.  The staff is ambassadorial in their service and encyclopedic in their knowledge.  You can’t go wrong by heeding the recommendations of the wait staff.

As you walk in, you’ll immediately take in the tasteful but understated ambiance and you know you’re surrounded by class, not overdone panache. This almost minimalist atmosphere serves as a backdrop for the global fusion creations which will make your taste buds very happy.  The cynosure of the front dining room is a fireplace crowned by moose antlers, an impressive rack that has long been the restaurant’s symbol.  Massive overhead beams, not in the conventional peeled viga style, speak to the restaurant’s solidity while the creamy stucco walls lend to a tranquil neutrality.  Save for the cuisine, there is nothing in the restaurant which shouts loudly. You might not even notice the music piped into the dining rooms and even when the restaurant is crowded, conversational tone is kept to a respectful level.

Maryland Blue Crab Cakes: Caviar Dill Sauce, Braised Leeks & Baby Watercress Salad

Whether attired in ostentatious garb or Santa Fe casual, diners at Geronimo look as though they belong there.  Most don’t flinch when they peruse the wine menu and espy fruit of the vin more costly than any entree, more pricy than a meal at other fine dining restaurants.  For others (like this humble blogger) who can afford to splurge at Geronimo only on special occasions, the opportunity to dress up in other than sneakers and jeans for an extravagant night out makes the visit special.  Frankly I’m not sure Geronimo would be as enjoyable if it was everyday affordable…though based on the satisfied looks upon the faces of well-heeled patrons, it undoubtedly would be.

As with the best among the best restaurants anywhere, Geronimo’s attention to detail is reflected even on matters other restaurants might overlook, things that perhaps only a true foodie might even notice.  That includes bread, the staff of life which is often an after-thought for even some fine dining establishments.  Geronimo bakes its own bread.  It’s better than bakery quality bread, as good as you’ll find anywhere.  The waitstaff plates it with steel tongs, offering sourdough bread rolls, green chile bread rolls and a crispy lavosh, an Armenian flat bread.  All are served warm and are excellent.

Fujisaki Asian Pear Salad: Bleu d’Auvergne “Grilled Cheese”, Arugula, Watercress Cashews & Cider Honey Vinaigrette

The restaurant’s first course menu is never formulaic or predictable.  It’s a diverse menu limited only in the number of starters offered.  The diversity is in the use of different main ingredients on each first course.  Though there may be four seafood items on the starter menu, each item will showcase a different seafood offering.  Whether it be escargot, shrimp, crab or tuna, expect it to be unfailingly fresh, delicious and perfectly prepared.  Salads are similarly unique, each constructed from different greens. 

One of Geronimo’s signature salads is the Fujisaki Asian Pear Salad, a timbale shaped masterpiece of arugula, watercress, cashews and Fuji pears drizzled with a cider honey vinaigrette and served with four no-crust grilled cheese sandwiches made with Bleu d’Auvergne cheese, a pungent and creamy French bleu cheese with herbaceous qualities.  It’s an adult grilled cheese that makes even the contemplation of any other grilled cheese sandwich almost depressing.  The Fujisaki pears are sweet and juicy in an organic, unprocessed manner.  The cider honey vinaigrette is a perfect counterbalance to the chicory-like arugula.

Filet Mignon “Frites”: Sterling Silver Farms Tenderloin of Beef over Sauteed Chard with Bacon, Hot and Spicy Hollandaise, Au Jus, Horseradish Hand Cut Russet Potato Fries, Caramelized Onions

The mesquite grilled cold-water lobster tail salad with watercress, romaine and capers sprinkled with a spicy chili vinaigrette might also rank among the best salads in America. The grilled lobster tail is as fresh and succulent as if caught off the cold Maine coastal waters where true “cold lobster” emanates.  Best of all, there’s enough of it for lobster in every bite.  The spicy chili (sic) vinaigrette serves as a nice foil to the sweet, succulent lobster. 

Crab cakes are seemingly a first-course standard at Geronimo, but how those crab cakes are prepared is seasonal menu dependent.  One constant is the use of Maryland blue crab cakes, the very best in the world.  Whether prepared with red pepper and leeks, spicy pea shoot salad and tobiko butter sauce or with a caviar dill sauce, braised leeks and baby watercress salad, these crab cakes are absolutely mouth-watering.

Peppery Elk Tenderloin and Applewood Smoked Bacon Roasted Garlic Fork-Mashed Potatoes, Sugar Snap Peas Creamy Brandied-Mushroom Sauce

Geronimo’s long-time signature entree is the peppery elk tenderloin with applewood smoked bacon, garlic fork-mashed potatoes and creamy brandied mushroom sauce. Farm raised in New Zealand, the elk is perfectly seasoned, remarkably tender and absolutely melts in your mouth. It ranks with the best portions of meat I’ve ever had anywhere–better than any steak we’ve had in some of the very best of Chicago’s chophouses.  It’s a slab of tenderloin so succulent it will make grown men swoon as they shut their eyes and try to permanently imprint the memories of this deliciousness in our minds.  This is meat so good you’ll savor every bite of lean, juicy and fork-tender perfection. 

Flecked with applewood smoked bacon, the peppery elk tenderloin is prepared to your exacting specifications.  Contrary to its name, it’s not nearly as peppery as your standard steak au poivre. The prevalent flavor profile is elk, but not in the gamey manner you might envision. The creamy brandied-mushroom sauce is the best of its genre we’ve had anywhere, a wholly unnecessary ameliorant that proves you can improve on perfection.  The fork-mashed Yukon Gold mashed potatoes are fluffy and buttery, so good you’ll want seconds.

Warm Granny Smith Apple & Pecan Crostade with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Caramel Sauce

Steak Frites has become so commonplace in restaurants as to become almost mundane.  Usually a chewy hangar steak with fries, that mundanity applies to the way it’s prepared.  At Geronimo, you can replace mundane with sublime, ordinary with extraordinary, average with superb to describe the filet mignon “frites.”  The six-ounce Sterling Silver Farms tenderloin of beef is fork tender and as juicy and flavorful as imaginable.  It’s a fabulous filet, better than any other steak of any kind we’ve had in New Mexico save for the peppery elk tenderloin.   Chophouses don’t do filet nearly this well. 

As for the frites portion of this entree, the hand-cut Russet potato fries are quite good, but there is more worthy accompaniment than fries for a steak as extraordinary as Geronimo’s filet.  Fortunately the fries aren’t served with some pedestrian ketchup.  Instead, four rectangular bowls of sauces are provided with a different sauce in each: hot and spicy Hollandaise, au jus, horseradish and caramelized onions.  Cut somewhere between thin and shoestring, the garlicky fries resound with flavor only when dipped into the sauces (which, by the way, can be used on the filet, but you might not want to detract from its purity of flavor).  The filet is served atop sauteed chard with perfectly fried bacon.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream with Caramel Sauce

Not surprisingly, within this restaurant’s venerable adobe walls are served some of the very best desserts in New Mexico.  The warm Granny Smith Apple & Pecan Crostade with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce speaks to the simplicity of the best desserts.  A buttery, flaky crust envelops seasonally fresh Granny Smith apples and finely chopped pecans, the lot of which are topped with a dense and creamy housemade vanilla ice cream then generously drizzled with a caramel sauce.  There’s no playing with disparate ingredients here, just using very good ingredients in simple ways that maximize their flavor potential.  Ice cream, by the way, is available as a dessert option, too. 

Expectations for a restaurant heralded as the best in Santa Fe might be high, but Geronimo rises to the occasion every time.  It won’t so much wow you with the complexity of disparate ingredient combinations as it will serenade your taste buds with flavors which work very well together.

724 Canyon Road
Santa Fe, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 07 October 2011
: $$$$
BEST BET: Grilled Cold Water Lobster Tail Salad, Peppery Elk Tenderloin, Granny Smith Apple Pecan Crostade, Steak Frites, Maryland Crab Cakes, Fujisaki Asian Pear Salad

Geronimo on Urbanspoon

4 Aces Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

4 Aces Grill on Fourth Street

As a proud native New Mexican, my chest still swells with pride whenever I travel outside the Land of Enchantment (even to Texas, Arizona and Colorado) and espy a vehicle displaying the license plate of the great state of New Mexico.  I’m not the only one.  While stopping for gas in Iowa a few years ago, a couple from Roswell noticed our license plate and excitedly came over to find out where in New Mexico we were from.  We wound up having lunch together, all the while discussing the great state in which we all live in.

For citizens of the fruited plain not fortunate enough to live in New Mexico, seeing our state’s license plate within their borders evokes curiosity, especially if they’re attentive enough to notice that it reads “New Mexico U.S.A.”  As the “One of Our Fifty is Missing” column in New Mexico Magazine has demonstrated for more than a quarter of a century, many of our fellow American citizens and ill-informed bureaucrats don’t even realize that New Mexico is part of the United States.  When the unwashed and uninformed masses aren’t wondering if we’re carrying our passports as we cross their borders, they’re  curious about the symbolism depicted on the license plates and our flag.

One of the two dining rooms in the stylish 4 Aces Grill

Most New Mexicans are aware that our flag depicts the ancient sun symbol of the Zia (which translates literally as “people of the sun”) Pueblo Indians, but not everyone knows what the symbology represents.  The Zia believed the giver of all good endowed them with gifts in groups of four.  These gifts are represented on the Zia sun symbol as sixteen lines (or rays) radiating from the edge of a central circle representing the sun:

  • The rays at the top represent the winds of the four directions – north, east, south and west.
  • The rays at the bottom represent the four seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter.
  • The rays on the west side of the sun represent the day – dusk, twilight, morning and afternoon.
  • The rays on the east side of the sun represent ife itself – childhood, youth, maturity and old age.

These sixteen rays, radiating in each of the four cardinal directions, are bound by a circle of life and love, without a beginning or end. Just as nature divides into fours, so do sacred obligations of all humans.  All people are required to cultivate a strong body, a clear mind, a pure spirit and a sense of community within the community.  Achieve these obligations and you achieve personal harmony within the universe.

The patio at 4 Aces Grill

When I first heard about the 4 Aces Grill on Fourth Avenue, my curiosity was piqued as to why a high-end quality New Mexican restaurant would be named for something so un-New Mexican.  Sure casinos have a significant presence in the Land of Enchantment, but you could hardly call them one of our state’s cultural or historical treasures.  Moreover, I wondered about the symbology of the 4 Aces themselves.  Could they possibly have a culinary significance of which I was unaware–maybe four seasonings or four degrees of piquancy?

It turns out the 4 Aces name is in recognition of the restaurant’s chef (ace of diamonds, the mastermind behind the construction effort (ace of spades, restaurant owner (ace of clubs) and the restaurant owner (ace of hearts).  That makes sense.  Who wouldn’t want the braintrust behind the restaurant to be represented by something signifying the best or highest?  Owner Tina Claghorn, a prominent real estate professional knows something about the best or highest, having been involved in the sale of some of New Mexico’s priciest homes.  She employed her knowledge of real estate and construction to convert a building which once housed an Allsup’s convenience store into a beautiful edifice.

Chef Saul Paniagua

The 4 Aces Grill seems a bit out of place in its Fourth Avenue location a couple blocks south of I40.  Directly across the street is a used car dealership and most of its neighbors are timeworn businesses and warehouses.  It’s the proverbial swan in an area replete with ugly ducklings.  It’s easy to picture an Allsups on the location, but a pristine  New Mexico stucco and Anasazi stonework inspired facade of an upscale restaurant seems startlingly out of place…and if you think 4 Aces is attractive on the outside, you’ll really be impressed when you step inside.

4 Aces doesn’t exactly resemble the stereotype most have of restaurants which showcase New Mexican, Mexican and American culinary traditions.  It’s very contemporary with exposed ductwork ceilings, tiled floors and bar and an expansive patio.  The walls are festooned with art–fairly monotone framed “words of wisdom” on the day of our inaugural visit, but with the promise for more colorful art rotating on a regular basis.  Seating is well-spaced with booths hugging the walls and comfortable chairs encircling round tables elsewhere.

Salsa and Chips

At the helm is Chef Saul Paniagua, an Albuquerque native who’s very proud of his South Valley roots.  When I snapped his picture, he joked that he’d normally be sporting his cholo bandana and pointed out his “tats” (that’s tattoos for you Nob Hill elites) as one of the expressions of his art (the other is his cuisine).  As personable and endearing as chefs come, he also demonstrated his rapier-sharp wit when interviewed by Ryan Scott for Break the Chain, the terrific radio program which celebrates local non-chain restaurants.  He teased that the interview could have gone south because he’s an Oakland Raiders fan while Ryan’s team is the Denver Broncos.

Chef Paniagua, whose last name translates literally to “bread and water” was destined to become a chef.  Before returning to Albuquerque, he managed the galley (that’s kitchen for you landlubbers) for Norwegian Cruise Lines. His stints at Duke City restaurants were at La Oja and Cristobal’s, two fine-dining restaurants.  At 4 Aces, he’s got more license to create and create he does.  The menu and Web site touts the restaurant’s meals as “inspired by family traditions passed down through the generations.”

Chicken Taquitos with Chocolate Pasticcio Mole

The key word there is “inspired.”  Chef Paniagua’s interpretations of New Mexican, Mexican and American dishes are given a cutting-edge twist.  They don’t hold fast to culinary traditions and traditional recipes.  He promises to continue creating “crazy New Mexican food” with an eye toward growing the 4 Aces concept.  A second instantiation is planned for Albuquerque’s west side then eventually Santa Fe and eventually everywhere else.  Chef Paniagua is confident his avant-garde style will win over the masses because he creates from “el corazon” (the heart) as well as his creative mind.

Browse over the menu too quickly and you might skip over some of the intricate details that reveal just how different the 4 Aces menu is.  The devil is truly in the details.  If you read “chicken taquitos” on the appetizers menu, for example, you might just dismiss it as the humdrum standard pretty much served the same way almost everywhere.  Chef Paniagua’s rendition is deliciously different.  It’s fabulous!

New York Strip with Two Chiles Relleno, Calabasitas and Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Four chicken taquitos resembling thick blue corn cigars are engorged with finely shredded chicken so tender, smoky and utterly delicious no accompaniment is necessary.  Instead of leaving well enough alone, Chef Paniagua includes two ramekins, one brimming with salsa and the other with a white chocolate pistachio mole.  The mole is special.  It captivated (for good reason) both Andrea Lin of the Albuquerque Journal and Break the Chain’s Ryan Scott. 

Ryan’s spot-on assessment of most moles is that chefs tend to be rather heavy-handed in preparing them.  As a result he’s not met a mole he’s enjoyed.  The 4 Aces mole is the dark greenish color of guacamole gone bad, but it has the flavor of mole elevated to the level of sublime.  As with most moles in which chocolate is an ingredient, the chocolate is rather subdued, serving a complementary role to breads, spices and nuts in perfect proportions for maximum flavor.  A small “salad” (queso fresco, lettuce, chopped tomato) is served on the plate with the taquitos.

Surf and Turf: Ribeye Steak, Blue Corn and Sesame Battered Jumbo Shrimp, Calabasitas and Refried Beans

Salsa and chips are complimentary at 4 Aces.  I mention that because it’s increasingly rare for New Mexican restaurants to serve salsa and chips, much less truly great salsa and chips, without charging for them.  Chef Paniagua roasts the vegetables used on his restaurant’s salsa.  The prevalent flavors are of smoky, roasted tomato and chipotle.  Blue, red and yellow corn chips are made on the premises.  They have a crispy crunch, are low in salt and are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops.  It’s a perfect combination.

The “main” menu is offered during both lunch and dinner.  Only eight items, not counting daily specials, are featured. Of those, only one (blue corn enchiladas) might be considered truly New Mexican though New Mexican ingredients such as blue corn are showcased on other items.   The menu also includes two steak entrees including a New York Strip and chile rellenos plate served with two sides.  The New York Strip is nicely seasoned, all twelve tender and juicy ounces of it.  The chile rellenos are thickly encrusted with a blue corn and sesame batter.  Cut into the crust and you’re treated to poblanos engorged with gooey, melted cheese.  The blue corn batter makes these special.

Blue Corn Enchiladas Plate with Refried Beans and Mashed Potatoes

The other steak is part of a surf and turf plate.  The surf part consists of three blue corn and sesame battered jumbo shrimp served with a raspberry-chipotle dipping sauce and the turf is a red chile ribeye steak.  The light blue corn batter on the shrimp is crispy and the shrimp is perfectly prepared with a nice snap to it.  At medium, the ribeye has a nice pink center and is surprisingly tender (though not as tender as the New York Strip).  The red chile is only mild on any piquancy scale, but it imbues the steak with a rich flavor and just a hint of smokiness.

 The main entrees are served with two sides.  Those include calabasitas, refried beans, poblano rice and garlic mashed potatoes. The calabasitas caught the fancy of Break the Chain blogger Cheri Frost whose “big guy” liked them a little too much. It’s easy to see why. These calabasitas are terrific–crisp, moist, buttery and seasoned to perfection. The refried beans have that familiar cooked with lard taste. Make sure to ask for red chile with which to top the refried beans. The chile, probably from the Sandia pepper, is terrific! 

Mango and Lemon Sorbet

My friend Dave, a world-traveling bon vivant who’s not easily impressed was blown away by Chef Paniagua’s culinary wizardry, calling the food “elegant” and “a parade of surprises.”  What enthralled him most were the blue corn chicken enchiladas which he believes are “the standard all others will have to be judged by.”  For Dave to be impressed by something means it’s got to be great.  The blue corn enchiladas are!  These enchiladas are stacked Northern New Mexico style, showcasing perfectly round, perfectly prepared blue corn tortillas stuffed with a flavorful Cheddar cheese and topped with red and green chile.  The chile rates mild on any piquancy scale, but it’s got a nice flavor.  Best of all, there’s plenty of it and you can use the excess as a “gravy” on the mashed potatoes and refried beans (my two sides).

Chef Paniagua even makes his own desserts. One of his specialties is a flourless red chile chocolate torte, one of the best flourless cakes I’ve ever had.  It’s dense and rich with a deep cocoa flavor tinged with a red chile that warms the back of your throat  with that unique red chile heat that doesn’t burn.  This dessert is topped with raspberries and whipped cream, the former of which provide a tangy contrast to the rich chocolate.

Flourless Red Chile Chocolate Torte

Another Chef Paniagua specialty is sorbet, the palate-cleansing, refreshing and flavor-packed fruity variety.  The mango sorbet has a pronounced fresh mango flavor and a velvety soft texture that includes crystalline bits.  Too much sugar makes sorbet too soft.  The right amount gives it the combination of soft and icy crystal texture I like.  

The 4 Aces Grill serves breakfast seven days a week starting at seven o’clock.  In a recent breakfast burrito challenge sponsored by Albuquerque The Magazine, the 4 Aces breakfast burrito was among the very best in the city from over 100 competitors.  (Chef Paniagua, by the way, also competed in the Chef Knockout competition in 2010.)  That’s a good reason to start your morning at this refreshingly different April, 2011 entrant into the Duke City dining scene.  Other reasons include blue corn pancakes and huevos rancheros. 

The type of pride the staff at 4 Aces Grill has for its cuisine and restaurant operation reminds me of the pride I feel for the Land of Enchantment. Chef Paniagua beams with pride about his menu. The staff is happy, smiles abound. This is a fun restaurant in which to dine. More importantly, it’s a restaurant going places — maybe to the very top!

4 Aces Grill
1527 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2011
1st VISIT:  13 August 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Chicken Taquitos with Chocolate Pasticcio Mole, New York Strip with Two Chiles Relleno, Calabasitas and Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Surf and Turf: Ribeye Steak, Blue Corn and Sesame Battered Jumbo Shrimp, Calabasitas and Refried Beans, Mango and Lemon Sorbet, Flourless Red Chile Chocolate Torte,

4 Aces Grill on Urbanspoon

1 2