2011: The Thrilling & Filling Year in Food

Friends who Feast: Paul Lilly, Bill Resnik, Gil Garduno and Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver

Tis the season…for year-end retrospectives in which the good, the bad and the ugly; the triumphs and tragedies; the highs and lows and the ups and downs are revisited ad-infinitum by seemingly every print and cyberspace medium in existence.  It’s the time of year in which the “in-your-face” media practically forces a reminiscence–either fondly or with disgust–about the year that was.  It’s a time for introspection, resolutions and for looking forward with hope to the year to come.  The New Mexico culinary landscape had more highs than it did lows in 2010. Here’s my thrilling (and filling) recap.

From Budai, Albuquerque’s best Chinese restaurant–Crispy Duck Stuffed with a Taro Root Paste

In January, Bon Appetit magazine named Tomasita’s of Santa Fe, one of America’s “best chili spots.” Alas, it was the exclusive “chile” named in the company of purveyors of “chili” in such hot beds of pepper piquancy and cumin contamination as Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C., Cincinatti, Ohio; Springfield, Illinois and New York City. Bon Appetit declared, “This is one of the best places to try stew-like New Mexican green chili (named after its green Hatch chiles), filled with your choice of pinto beans, posole, beef, chicken, or cheese. A crispy sopaipilla (puffy fry bread) comes on the side.”

In January, Roadrunner Food Bank’s Souper Bowl,  Albuquerque’s foremost tasting competition–featured more than thirty of the Duke City’s finest restaurants showcasing their very best soups and desserts.  The event serves as the Food Bank’s premier annual fund-raising event.  The Souper Bowl winner (critic’s choice) for 2011 was the cream of mushroom soup with bacon from the Cold Water Fusion Restaurant.  The grilled butternut squash soup from the Santa Ana Cafe finished second.

Chicken Curry Stew with Mixed Vegetables from Cafe Dalat

Shortly before Valentine’s Day, 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 Hidden Valley Steakhouse on Albuquerque’s restaurant alley, Fourth Street, was the sole honoree from the Land of Enchantment.

In February, TheWondrous.Com Web site named Santa Fe one of “America’s top ten cities for food lovers.” The article seemed as impressed with the fact that Santa Fe has two Whole Foods stores as it was with “New Mexican’s twist on Mexican fare using blue-corn tortillas and locally grown chiles.”

Green Chile Philly with Fries from Itsa Italian Ice

In February, the Daily Beast asked the provocative question, “if America is fast-food nation, which city should be crowned capital?”  Alarmingly, over a five year period ending in 2010, the United States saw a five percent increase in the number of chain restaurants, accounting for more than 15,000 chains.  Meanwhile, there was a one-percent decline in the number of independent restaurants.  Evaluating the thirty largest chains in nearly 500 cities, each with a population of at least 200,000 citizens, the online site determined that Albuquerque ranked 31st per capita in the number of fast food and chain restaurants.  The Duke City has more than 300 fast-food and chain restaurants–56.7 per 100,000 residents.  The chain with the largest presence in Albuquerque is Subway.

For the second year in a row, Albuquerque’s über chef Jennifer James was nominated and was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southwest.  Also nominated was Santa Fe’s Martin Rios, thus far the only chef to have participated on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America competition.  New Mexico was not shut out from the most prestigious awards in the culinary world.   Edible Santa Fe, an edition of the Edible Communities food network, won the James Beard award as the 2011 Publication of the Year.  The quarterly publication promotes and celebrates the abundance of local foods in North Central New Mexico.

One of the Turtle Mountain’s inventive pizzas: Prime rib, A1 steak sauce, blue cheese dressing, mushrooms and onions

In April, Poor Taste Magazine took a stab at naming the 100 best spots in America for brunch.   Two Santa Fe institutions made the list.  Harry’s Roadhouse was touted as “a green-certified southwestern gem that takes to heart the notion of blending quirky comfort and hearty square meals.”  The Pantry Restaurant was highlighted for its unique omelets which are “crammed full of chile relleno and covered in more chile and cheese, served with a side of carne adovada.”  Only one New Mexico restaurant made the magazine’s list of America’s 100 greatest “cult” restaurants which are defined as “restaurants having a highly devoted customer base and which appeal to both locals and tourists.”  The lone honoree was Albuquerque’s El Pinto.

I  had the privilege and pleasure to be one of five bloggers selected by Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine to contribute to an article called “America’s Best Food Regions” published in its May, 2011 issue. Each of us was given 500 words to explain why the cuisine of our respective regions reigns supreme over other the cuisine of other culinary regions.  If you’re interested, the other regions showcased were the New Orleans area Cajun Country, Austin, Texas’s barbecue, Portland, Oregon’s fresh foods and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Old World cuisine.  The “Chile Country” region truly does stand out!

Flan from Mariscos Altamar

The 2011 edition of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was announced during a press conference on May 26th.  The thirty purveyors of New Mexico’s iconic burger receiving the most votes were automatically placed on the trail along with an additional 36 choices selected by a committee of culinary experts.  Receiving the most popular votes was LotaBurger, a long-time Land of Enchantment institution.  The other top five vote-getters were Bobcat Bite, Taco Box, Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern.

In June, 2011, New Mexico Magazine published its second annual “Best Eats” issue. The magazine showcased dishes ranging from fine-dining to New Mexican “soul food.” They came from some of New Mexico’s most popular restaurants as well as from tiny, off-the-beaten path gems which have become dining destinations in their own right. Seven culinary experts weighed in on New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger, New Mexican soul food, fine-dining meal, enchiladas, vegetarian New Mexican food, road food, local seasonal ingredients, contemporary Native American food, chocolate and carne adovada.

Beauty and the Beasts? Break the Chain host Ryan Scott and Bill Resnik flank Antoinette Knight, owner of Mary & Tito’s

On May 14th, the charismatic and personable Ryan Scott made the dialogue about food in the Duke City more interactive by launching a revolutionary radio program called “Break The Chain.”  Break The Chain wasn’t about breaking or bankrupting heavily bankrolled chain restaurants. It’s about breaking the chain “habit,” the inclination many have to visit the ubiquitous and convenient chains. Break The Chain was a celebration of local mom-and-pop restaurants, aiming to show the many outstanding alternatives to the familiar chains.  The show had a home on 1550 KIVA AM until November 15th.  During its six month run, Break the Chain introduced listeners to many of the movers and shakers in the dining scene.

When he traveled to Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) a stop at Grandma Warner’s K&I Diner was a must for host Adam Richman.  No longer an active competitor in man’s quest to eat ridiculous amounts of food, Richman recruited three Albuquerque residents–all named Travis–to test their gurgitator’s mettle against the Travis on a Silver Platter:  three flour tortillas, beef and beans, sausage-infused red chile and shredded Cheddar.  Man vs Food Nation also visited two other purveyors of prodigious platters–The Frontier Restaurant and Sadie’s Dining Room.

A double-meat green chile cheeseburger from Perea’s Tijuana Bar in Corrales

June saw the launch of an outstanding new food blog called Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings.  Written by Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, the blog not only showcases some of New Mexico’s best restaurants in very well-written reviews, it provides information on a variety of food-related topics.  Larry’s reviews are brutally honest and they’re based on years of studying and understanding cuisine of all genres–its provenance, its traditions, its components.  New food blogs–most very poorly written and soon to be abandoned–seem to crop up weekly, but Larry’s has got staying power because he knows what he’s talking about.

The July edition of Sunset Magazine invited readers to start their cars and bring their appetites for a journey to the “absolutely best places to eat along Western highways.” The magazine rated the “top 41 road food spots in the West, giving the Land of Enchantment plenty of love.  Both of San Antonio’s famous purveyors of green chile cheeseburgers nonpareil, the Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern were among the five burgers selected as best in the west.  Also showcased was the great road food route which starts just outside Santa Fe at the San Marcos Cafe then proceeds along the Turquoise Trail to the Mine Shift Tavern to a delicious terminus at Cedar Crest’s Greenside Cafe.

Sophia’s regular pancakes and blue corn pancakes (Photo courtesy of Bruce “Señor Plata) Silver

In the season premier of the Sundance Channel’s Ludo Bites America show which first aired on July 19th, nomadic chef Ludo LeFebvre transformed Santa Fe’s Tecolote Cafe into Ludo Bites Tecolote.  The premise of the show is that the eccentric chef travels across the country and creates a “pop-up” restaurant on an existing restaurant premises.  Only New Mexico’s piquant peppers were a match for Ludo’s temper in this entertaining half hour.

In its July-August, 2011 issue, National Geographic Traveler showcased Albuquerque’s Golden Crown Panderia’s biscochitos. An article entitled “five American desserts worth the trip” described them as “fragrant, infused with anise, this flaky shortbread coated with cinnamon.” A more succinct way to describe them is absolutely wonderful!  It was a huge year for the Duke City’s most famous bakery whose turkey bread sculpture was featured in a November 22nd article on BBC Travel Magazine

My friend Sandy Driscoll enjoys a green chile cheeseburger from Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe

A study released by Business Insider in July confirmed that Albuquerque loves its chain restaurants, particularly those specializing in fast food. The report rated the Duke City as 68th from among the largest 100 cities in America in terms of fast-food spending. Using a consumer data service called Bundle, the study analyzed spending data to see where consumers spend the most and eat most often at the most prominent fast food denizens: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s,KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Arby’s.

The August, 2010 edition of the Food Network Magazine named the “best pizza” in each state. The Land of Enchantment’s representative on this list was a pizza named the “Santa Fe” and fittingly, it can only be found in our state capital’s Rooftop Pizzeria.  This award-winning pizza, available by the slice or whole pizza, is crafted with grilled chicken, Alfredo sauce, piñon nuts and green chile on a blue cornmeal crust.

From Pasion, one of Albuquerque’s most exciting new restaurants–a fruit ceviche: pineapple, apple slices, grapes, bananas and creme fraiche

The Food Network’s popular “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program gave New Mexico just a modicum of love. The premise of this show is that restaurateurs and chefs know where to eat. It answers the question “where do food stars and chefs eat in their free time–when they’re paying.”  The three New Mexico restaurants showcased were the Pie Town Cafe which pastry chef extraordinaire Duff Goldman declared serves America’s best pie (a green chile apple pie); Santa Fe’s Pink Adobe, purveyor of the amazing Steak Dunigan which chef Rahm Fama declared as “better than mine”; and Santa Fe’s Cafe Pasqual’s.  In an episode entitled “Eggstraordinary,” chef Chris Santos declared the Huevos Barbacoa the best egg dish he’s ever eaten.  Chef Fama returned to his hometown of Santa Fe for a “Best Thing” episode entitled “Childhood Favorites.”  In the episode, he recalled the joys of noshing on Frito pie from the original Five & Dime General Store.

Santa Fe’s incendiary cuisine was the sole focus of “Heat Seekers,” another Food Network show which aired in August, 2011. Hosts Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most incendiary cuisine. They started by sampling the mouth-watering, eye-watering carne adovada at Tomasita’s then proceeded to Kakawa for hot, hot, hot chile truffles and chocolate-chile elixirs.  The most piquant plate on their visit was a pulled pork sandwich from Cowgirl BBQ & Western Grill ostensibly so hot even locals couldn’t take it. 

Two flavors of the Chocolate Cartel’s incomparable gelato served at Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria

Gridskipper, an online service providing maps and news for urban travelers wrote in September that “despite what AMC’s Breaking Bad would have you believe, Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t all meth cookery and fried chicken franchises. Instead, the city’s most sought after vice is undeniably the vaunted green chile cheeseburger, so popular in the state that it has its own government-funded trail (of tears, depending on how emotional you get about food).  The site listed some eight purveyors of green chile cheeseburger perfection throughout the Duke City.

In October, the New York Times Travel Magazine spent 36 hours in Albuquerque.  From the article’s inauspicious beginning (FREE association with “Albuquerque” used to yield “Bugs Bunny” and “that airport you go through to get to Santa Fe.”), you had to know the article had nowhere to go but up (as in very favorable toward the Duke City).  It wouldn’t be a good visit without sampling some of the city’s best dining.  The Magazine raved about the double-shot espresso milkshake and baked goods at the Golden Crown Panaderia.  It called carne adovada the “lifeblood” of Mary & Tito‘s and praised the “bowling alley location, farm to table produce and a chef-owner with Chez Panisse credentials” at Ezra’s Place as adding “up  to hipster overload” anywhere but Albuquerque.  As with many national publications, no visit to the Duke City would be complete without a meal (or several) at the Frontier Restaurant where you can get “a killer cinnamon roll dripping with molten cinnamon goo.” 

In November, Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods visited New Mexico to test the mettle of his iron cast stomach against some of the Land of Enchantment’s unique foods.  Though the show is really about investigating culture through food, most people tune in to see if Zimmern can eat the unique local foods.  He proved up to the task, enjoying blood pudding (morcillas) at a matanza in Valencia county and buffalo kidneys, testicles, liver and heart at the Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe.  Zimmern also sampled prairie dog at the Zia Pueblo.  It wasn’t all adventure eating, however.  He also filled up on green chile cheeseburgers at the Bobcat Bite. 

Moules Curry at P’tit Louis Bistro on Gold Street

Geronimo, widely regarded as the best restaurant in the state, was the only New Mexico restaurant recognized by the Forbes Travel Guide (formerly the Mobil Travel Guide) as a four-star restaurant.  The travel guide names four- and five-star restaurants and spas.  Only 25 restaurants across the country achieved a five-star designation.

In the December, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine Cheryl Alters Jamison was introduced as contributing editor for all things culinary. Cheryl, who along with her husband Bill, is a four-time James Beard award-winning author is an authority on New Mexican food. She has served as the New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary tourism liaison for three years, conceiving and implementing such initiatives as the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail and the New Mexico Culinary Treasures Trail. In December, Cheryl launched the Tasting New Mexico blog, a scintillating read.

Monica and Rene Coronado, proprietors of Pollito Con Papas, one of the very best new restaurants launched in 2011

In December, James Beard award-winning blog Serious Eats created a list depicting “29 touristy spots in America that are actually good,” “tried and true tourist destinations that are actually worth your time and effort.”  Only one New Mexico restaurant–Tomasita’s in Santa Fe–made this list.  To Tomasita’s credit, it’s as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

Several restaurants fell victim to the worldwide economic malaise.  Closing their doors for the final time after years of enthralling diners were such favorites as the Cajun Kitchen which served Albuquerque for 24 years and Leona’s Restaurante de Chimayo, a northern New Mexico staple for nearly two decades.  Also closing were restaurants with a national profile such as La Fonda Del Bosque which garnered recognition from Hispanic magazine as one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the United States in 2003 and 2004–a remarkable achievement that came within three years of its launch.

White chocolate and cherry bread pudding from the Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery in Taos

2011 was another banner year for readers of Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog who aren’t at all shy about expressing themselves with passion, humor and one-upmanship. Faithful readers Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos and Larry McGoldrick both achieved the 100 comments milestone.  There are now more than 3,300 reader comments on my reviews.  I value your comments immensely and appreciate that you thought enough of my blog this year to have voted me as one of the Duke City’s five best bloggers for 2010 in Albuquerque The Magazine’s annual “best of the city” issue.

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Tomme – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Tomme: 229 Galisteo Street at West Alameda in Santa Fe

As the end of an year draws near, the inclination to reflect on the closing year seems natural.  Auld lang syne practically resonates from the pages of most  periodicals as they reflect on the year that was with writers providing their year-end retrospectives.  Quite naturally my favorite reflections are of New Mexico’s continuously evolving, culturally vibrant and deliciously diverse culinary scene.  Several of my favorite writers–and readers–provided an year-end snapshot of the very best dishes they had during 2011.  You can read the latter starting here.

There’s generally a wide diversity of opinion among restaurant critics and diners as to what constitutes the “best dishes,” so it behooves us all to pay attention when consensus or near consensus is achieved by any one dish at a restaurant.   Most of my astute readers who contributed their top ten dishes of the year agree on the greatness of Blade’s Bistro, Mary & Tito’s, Budai Gourmet Chinese, Torinos @ Home, San Pedro Middle East Restaurant and Jennifer James 101.  These are all easily among my favorite restaurants and shouldn’t be missed.

The interior at Tomme

When two of my very favorite food writers in New Mexico (or anywhere else, for that matter) waxed poetic about the best dishes they had during 2011, my interest was more than piqued because two of their anointed dishes came from a relatively new restaurant in Santa Fe.  Because those writers are so highly credentialed and have national profiles, their opinions warranted not only my attention, but a visit to the restaurants they declared as having some of the very best dishes they sampled during 2011. 

My friend, the scintillating author and four-time James Beard award-winner Cheryl Jamison reflected on her favorite dishes in the Tasting NM blog she debuted in November, 2011.  One of her favorite dishes for 2011 was the “pozole” at Tomme in Santa Fe, a late-comer to the Santa Fe dining scene which launched in September, 2011.  She lauded the “mini-souffle of hominy in a light sauce sparked by red chile and topped with a tangle of pulled pork,” rhapsodizing on how Chef Brian Rood “took a beloved everyday dish and delighted diners with a witty new play on it.”

Slow Braised Short Rib Gougeres: Point Reyes Blue Cheese, apricot gremoulata

In the December, 2011 – January, 2012 edition of Local Flavor Magazine, renowned chef and writer Johnny Vee put together his list of dishes which wowed him during the year.  One of them was the fried chicken with braised greens, potato croquette and brown gravy at Tomme (pronounced Tum).  He described the “down-home classic” as “anything but rustic with impossibly crunchy poultry.”  He had me at fried chicken.  Any fried chicken sufficiently worthy of making it to such an acclaimed writer’s “best of” list is a fried chicken we had to try.  Not even in the Deep South (which we called home for eight years) did we encounter fried chicken worthy of such an accolade.

Tomme, named for a fairly generic class of cheeses produced in France, is anything but generic.  It’s a modern bistro offering a melange of sophisticated dishes at very reasonable prices.  It’s high-end quality with affordable prices.  The menu is relatively small–a handful of appetizers plus a soup of the day, fewer than a dozen entrees and a small number of desserts.  One promised constant is the restaurant’s playful take on Southern fried chicken.  Situated on the southeast corner of Galisteo and West Alameda, scant blocks away from the famed Santa Fe Plaza, Tomme is attractive in a sort of minimalist way with nothing to distract you from the cuisine.  That’s the way it should be.

Southern Fried Chicken: Hand mashed potatoes, bacon braised kale

With your focus squarely on the menu and not on a distracting milieu, contemplating your dining options is sheer pleasure.  You may ponder how, or if, a restaurant can successfully execute such a mishmash of upscale and fusty dishes or how the moderate price point will translate in terms of quality.  Mostly, however, you’ll probably deliberate the place of fried chicken on other than a fast food menu.  Despite the small number of options on the menu, you’ll be hard-pressed to decide which to have and which to hold off until a future visit.  Our decision not to have pozole during our inaugural visit was based on the fact that we were all “posoled” out from the Christmas season, but we look forward to sample it next time.

Our inaugural appetizer choice was slow-braised short rib gougeres (a French style of savory pastry made from choux pastry and some type of cheese).  The cheese used is Point Reyes blue cheese, a creamy, pungent, full-flavored blue cheese.  The short ribs are shredded into tender tendrils of moist, thoroughly delicious beef.  The shredded beef is sandwiched in between the  choux pastry puffs and topped with an apricot gremolata, a sweet-tangy garnish.  Served three per order, the gougeres may resemble roast beef sliders, but one bite confirms this is an elegant and sophisticated starter.  The melding of strong blue cheese and unctuous shredded short ribs is particularly notable.

Steak Frites: Pan seared strip loin, pommes frites, haricot verts, house made tamarind sauce

The Southern fried chicken also manages a surprising level of sophistication and not just because the comforting crunch has its genesis in a wondrous panko breading though that’s a refreshing difference.   Tomme serves a three-piece boneless, all white  array of pulchritudinous poultry truly befitting of consideration for anyone’s top ten list.  It’s juicy and tender without being greasy.  Reflective of an evolving menu, our chicken was served not with a potato croquette as was Johnny Vee’s, but with hand-mashed potatoes and bacon-braised kale.  The kale is not nearly as “iron” bitter tasting as some kale.  Attribute that to the transformative nature of bacon which improves everything with which it comes into contact.  The mashed potatoes are creamy.

A more conventional bistro offering, steak frites, is very well executed, a pan-seared strip loin served with pommes frites (French fries), haricot verts and a housemade tamarind sauce.   Prepared at a perfect medium, the strip loin is tender, juicy and tasty.  The housemade tamarind sauce proves a perfect complement for the steak, blending the sweet-tangy-sour flavors of tamarind with the savoriness of a great steak sauce.  The haricot verts (very small and slender green beans) are crispy and fresh.  The pommes frites are among the very best in New Mexico with a twice-fried texture and perfect level of saltiness.  Ketchup need not rear its presence anywhere near these fries.

Poached Pear: Smoked chevre ice cream, orange chutney, tarragon syrup

Though the fried chicken may not make my top ten list, there is one item on the Tomme menu which just might supplant one of my choices.  It’s the poached pear dessert pairing a smoked chevre (goat cheese) ice cream atop an orange chutney with sliced pears over a tarragon syrup.  The pears are poached in wine and honey, a combination which bring out the natural sweetness of the pears while imbuing them with richness and sophistication.  The chevre ice cream lends a savory tanginess to the sweetness of the vanilla while the orange chutney adds a punchy zest. 

Tomme is an exciting change of pace from the highly regarded, high-end genre which dominates the Santa Fe dining scene.  With its whimsical menu touches and working class prices, it promises to go far–undoubtedly to many more top ten lists.

Tomme
229 Galisteo Street at West Alameda
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Slow Braised Short Rib Gougeres, Southern Fried Chicken, Steak Frites, Poached Pear

Tomme on Urbanspoon

Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The original Bumble Bee's in Santa Fe

Fittingly for a restaurant whose “mascot” is a rotund, sombrero-wearing bee with a smile on his face and maracas in each hand, almost every review you’ll find of the Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill in Santa Fe since it launched in 2004 employed a clever bee-related play on words to describe it.  “What’s all the buzz about in Santa Fe?”  “This new “beestro” offers a refreshing twist on fast food.”  The Bumble Bee opened to such tremendous acclaim that it quickly expanded to two Santa Fe locations and served Albuquerque diners for six years (2005 through 2011) with the same casual dining experiences heretofore available only to residents of the state’s capital.  Those experiences resulted in readers of the Santa Fe Reporter naming it the “best new restaurant in Santa Fe” two consecutive years against formidable competition.

Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill is the brainchild of Bob and BJ Weil.  Bob, an avuncular septuagenarian, has been a peripatetic presence at the restaurant since it launched,  seemingly serving simultaneously as greeter, cashier, waiter and busboy, but mostly as the restaurant’s genial ambassador.  If he’s at the restaurant on the day of your visit, you can expect him to stop by your table to make sure you’re enjoying your food and dining experience.  Your experience is of Mexican Baja style cuisine, characterized by uncompromisingly fresh ingredients melded together in gustatory exciting ways then apportioned generously to ensure no diner ever leaves hungry.   Seafood ingredients abound in “just caught” freshness, no easy feat in landlocked New Mexico.  Meats and poultry are char-grilled to exacting temperatures that ensure each bite is succulent and juicy.  Bumble Bee’s salsas will awaken your taste buds with just enough bite to complement your entrees without dominating them.

A trio of sensational salsas

One of the restaurant’s instant draws was a complimentary salsa bar which included a quadrumvirate of sensational salsas.  To keep prices low, Bumble Bee’s discontinued the free salsa bar, offering salsas and chips as a low cost option.  It’s an option savvy diners opt for.  The fire roasted salsa has a distinctive smoky flavor and barely registers on any piquancy scale.  Ditto for the pico de gallo.  In Spanish, pico de gallo means “rooster’s bite,” but there isn’t much bite in this condiment of chopped tomato, fresh cilantro, onion and lime juice.  Diners craving piquancy in their salsa can get it from Bumble Bee’s jalapeno-laced tomatillo salsa which will get your attention.  Flame eaters will opt for the habanero salsa though by most standards, it’s fairly tame compared to some habanero based salsas in the Land of Enchantment.  The salsa bar also includes cilantro and chopped onion.

The menu touts “ordering as easy as uno, dos, tres…(1) choose your meat: chicken fish, shrimp, steak or lamb; (2) choose your meal (tacos or burritos, etc.); and (3) It’s fresh and healthy – Enjoy!.”  Easier said than done.  The menu is replete with so many terrific choices that you’ll be challenged to order quickly.   Of course, “uno, dos, tres” can also represent the number of tacos you want to eat.  You’ll find that un taco certainly isn’t enough.

Ceviche at Bumblebee's Baja Grill

Ceviche at Bumblebee's Baja Grill

If tacos and burritos don’t thrill you enough, the menu includes a bevy of treasures sure to please the discerning diner.  The menu section entitled “Favorites” includes a trout filet, quesadilla, nachos and a beans and rice bowl.  Another section of the menu called “El Pollo” features chicken entrees, each marinated overnight in a chile rub and roasted over an open flame rotisserie.  There are several items designed with vegetarians in mind and the entire menu is MSG and lard free.  Salads are also available.

Surprises abound at Bumble Bee’s.  During two visits, the intended object of my appetite were fish tacos, however, my eyes and taste buds wandered toward the specials of the day, neither of which disappointed.  New additions (as of 2009) include aguas frescas (horchata and sandia) and ceviche.  The ceviche is served in a goblet and unlike most ceviche, features large, whole shrimp, onion, cilantro, tomato and a slaw of jicama and cabbage.

Goat cheese and chicken burrito

Goat cheese and chicken burrito

“Baja style tacos” start off with fresh, soft corn tortillas.  Each taco’s bounty is so plentiful that it takes three tortillas to envelop and retain its ingredients so they’re not spilling all over your clothing.  Fish (char-grilled wild Pacific mahi-mahi) and shrimp (char-grilled farm-raised) tacos are made with sliced avocado, cabbage, pico de gallo and Bumble Bee’s secret non-dairy sauce.  The fish tacos are easily among the very best I’ve ever had in New Mexico, and that’s not just an indictment of other restaurants in the Land of Enchantment which endeavor to serve them.

The char-grilled wild Pacific mahi-mahi is nestled in three, warm, steamy corn tortillas where fabulous fish shares accommodations with a heaping slice of avocado, shredded cabbage and Bumblebee’s “special sauce.”  The special sauce is nothing like McDonald’s rendition.  It is creamy, tart, sweet and absolutely delicious, the perfect flavor complement to the mahi mahi.  I dare say the sauce is the closest I’ve experienced to the sauce served with fish tacos in San Diego, perhaps the nation’s most prolific consumer of fish tacos.

Fajita burrito at Bumblebee's Baja Grill

Fajita burrito at Bumblebee's Baja Grill

Meat (char-grilled specialty spiced “fajita” skirt steak, marinated chicken breast and even slow-simmered lamb) tacos are topped with chopped onion, cilantro and a smoky roasted salsa.  If all these delicious offerings challenge you to order just the right one, fret not because they’re all wonderful.  Better still, create your own “chef’s sampler” which would include one of each–fish, shrimp, beef and chicken.  This platter should come with black or pinto beans (according to the menu, grown in high-mountain valleys) prepared with onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices; cilantro-lime rice; homemade corn chips and freshly prepared salsa from the fabulous complementary salsa bar.

The smoky roasted salsa makes its presence felt on the burrito grande, a burrito encasing grilled peppers and onions, melted Jack and Cheddar cheese, beans, rice and sour cream.  This is a two-fisted, five-napkin burrito tipping the scales at nearly a full pound.  It is a thing of beauty to behold and a pleasure to consume. Of comparable pulchritude is one of the aforementioned daily specials called tostada de pollo rostiso, a roasted chicken tostada with a treasure trove of ingredients including roasted chicken, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), pico de gallo and goat cheese.  This special featured two twin tostados each formidably stacked with ingredients and bursting with flavor.  The pepitas are lightly roasted and delicious, an excellent addition to any Mexican inspired entree.

Santa Fe's only Sonoran Hot Dog

Bumble Bee’s daily special entrees often include goat cheese, a pungent and tangy cheese that is an excellent alternative to the gloppy Cheddar cheese often used in New Mexican style burritos.  The goat cheese and chicken burrito on a whole wheat or white tortilla is an inventive alternative good enough to hopefully make the daily menu.  This burrito is engorged with moist, fresh chicken, diced onion, chopped tomatoes, avocado and of course, a tasty smear of warm goat cheese.

Just as owner Bob Weil discerned a niche opportunity for healthy Mexican food, in 2011 he discerned the national premium hamburger craze would go over well in New Mexico, too.  Early indications are that his gamble will pay off.  Rather than launch his burger concept in a new location, Weil added the premium burger menu concept to the Cerillos rendition of his restaurant. Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill and Burgers also offers hot dogs (National Hebrew all-beef), shakes, malts, French fries, onion rings, bee-stings (battered, sliced jalapeños and onions), grilled cheese sandwich and a bee-L.T. 

Inspired by a hot dog graze in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 the innovative entrepreneur introduced Sonoran hot dogs to his restaurant   In Tucson, more than one-hundred vendors ply the Sonoran-style hot dog trade while no restaurant serves them in Santa Fe.  Throughout Tucson, you’ll find a surprising number of inventive variations on the Sonoran hot dog.  Where none deviate is in wrapping bacon barbershop pole style around a wiener then griddling or grilling it until the bacon has practically caramelized into the wiener.  A phalanx of garnishes and toppings are then stuffed into a bolillo style Mexican bread that resembles a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise. 

The Bumble Bee interpretation of the Sonoran Hot dog bears some resemblance to the iconic hot dogs served at Tucson’s El Guero Canelo with the most notable exception being the bolillo bread.  At El Guero Canelo, the bolillo is pillowy soft, but still formidable enough to hold in the sundry ingredients.  Bumble Bee’s bolillo (spelled “Boleo” on the menu) is somewhat reminiscent of pretzel bread in that it’s chewy and firm.  Within the “boleo” bread is a Hebrew National hot dog (Bob jokes that the hot dog is half Jewish because of the kosher style hot dog) wrapped in bacon, fresh chopped onions and pico de gallo smothered in pinto beans and Jack and Cheddar cheese.  It’s garnished with mustard, mayo and sliced, pickled jalapeños.

In keeping with its inventive menu, Bumble Bee’s ambiance practically shouts colorful and fun.  Formica counters and loud colors dominate.  Bumble Bee piñatas are suspended from high, industrial looking ceilings with exposed ductwork while ceramic masks adorn the wall immediately above the salsa bar.  Seating is comfortable, albeit in fairly close proximity to other diners.

The original Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill is the only downtown Santa Fe sit-down restaurant with drive-through service.

Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill
301 Jefferson Street
Santa Fe, NM
505-820-2862
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish Tacos; Shrimp Tacos, Goat Cheese and Chicken Burrito, Ceviche, Salsa and Chips, Sonoran Hot Dog

Bumble Bee's Baja Grill on Urbanspoon

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