El Patio – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Patio in the UNM area

El Patio in the UNM area

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt had the type of job any aspiring sojourner would envy.  He hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing  the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies.  Observing that “thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything,” Kuralt avoided the interstates, instead traversing America’s back roads and byways in search of real people with interesting stories to tell.

Kuralt loved New Mexico, which he noted in his terrific tome America, is really a misnomer.  In his estimation, New Mexico “should be called Precambria for the sea that crashed upon its shores for tens of millions of years, or Mastadonia, for the mammals that later roamed its plains..; or Sandia for the mountain where the camp of an ice age hunter, the earliest known American was found in a cave…New Mexico is old, stupendously old and dry and brown, and wind-worn by the ages.”

Chips and salsa at El Patio

Chips and salsa at El Patio

Kuralt also loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment.  In his book America, he declared the Own Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.  During his peridoc visits to the Duke City, the peripatetic wanderer also frequented Old Town’s La Placita restaurant which he considered one of his favorite feeding stations.  In 1988, the legendary newsman featured El Patio in a CBS “Sunday Morning On The Road” segment.

El Patio was then but ten years old, but already becoming a formidable presence in the Duke City dining scene.  It was then one of the few New Mexican restaurants in the UNM area, but that wasn’t solely the reason it garnered rave reviews and legions of loyal fans.  Discerning UNM students appreciated the authenticity and deliciousness of the food; for many of them, it represented a home away from home where they could get cooking as good or better than mom’s.  Those former students have raised a generation, many of whom followed their parents to UNM and to El Patio.

Carne Adovada Burrito with a fried egg on top

Carne Adovada Burrito with a fried egg on top

El Patio is ensconced in a converted home just south of Central Avenue on Harvard Drive.  A telltale sign you’ve made it to the popular restaurant on this relatively low traffic drive is the can’t miss Taos blue Mexican picket fence.  Beyond the fence lies the patio (El Patio), essentially the entire front yard, which is shaded by tall trees, a welcome respite from the sun’s heating rays.  El Patio’s patio also welcomes dogs.

For the duration of its three decade plus, El Patio has been family owned and operated.  Founding owners Dave Sandoval (a fellow Taoseño) and wife Gloria Sandoval remain involved, but much of the day-to-day operation has been transitioned over to their progeny, sons Thomas and Christopher who have made some changes, including the addition of a catering service and a sales operation which markets El Patio’s fabulous salsa and green chile.  Both can be purchased in the restaurant and at several stores throughout the Duke City.

Carne Adovada plate (no beans)

Thomas Sandoval, the elder sibling, is the chef while Christopher is the restaurant’s front-end man.  Thomas acquired his culinary skills literally at his maternal grandfather’s apron strings.  His grandfather taught him well.  El Patio’s food is as good today as it was decades ago when it first blew me out of the water.

Interestingly, El Patio considers itself primarily a vegetarian restaurant, but that distinction isn’t readily apparent in its meat dishes which are as good, if not better, than meat-based New Mexican entrees at other restaurants.  Even the most ardent carnivores, however, should at least try the vegetarian entrees which go a long way toward showcasing the delicious versatility of New Mexican cuisine.  The restaurant’s vegetarian enchiladas, for example, are made with spinach instead of meat.  The spinach imparts a spring-like freshness and healthful, but surprisingly (at least to meatatarians) delicious qualities to the enchiladas.

Beef and chicken enchiladas Christmas style

Beef and chicken enchiladas Christmas style

Many pundits rank El Patio among the top four or five New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque, leaving one to wonder if voters on “best of” polls mistakenly stuff the ballots for “El Pinto” when meaning to vote for El Patio which is several orders of magnitude better.  You’d think after the “dangling chad” episodes during the presidential elections in Florida, more extreme care would be taken in the voting process.

Salsa isn’t complementary at El Patio, but it’s worth the paltry pittance for which you pay for it, especially considering the attentive wait staff is on the ball to replenish each ramekin just as you’re running low.  The salsa is jalapeno based, but I believe it includes a tinge of red chile powder.  In any case, this is a wonderful salsa, some of the very best in the city.  This flavorful salsa has a nice piquant bite that will get your attention without dulling your taste buds for your entrees.  The accompanying chips are low in salt, crisp and formidable enough to scoop up ample amounts of salsa.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Patio the seventh best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

El Patio’s Combination Plate: Two Cheese Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco (not pictured) Served Christmas Style

The restaurant’s most popular entree, according to the menu, are the green chile chicken enchiladas.  El Patio is so accommodating (one of the main reasons for its popularity), you can have dual meat–beef and chicken–enchiladas and you can have them Christmas style and on blue corn tortillas with the requisite fried egg on top.  This best of all worlds approach for one of New Mexican cuisine’s most versatile entrees is my favorite way to have them.  The shredded chicken is moist and delicious, prepared to absolute perfection.  The beef is ground hamburger, not shredded beef as Mexican restaurants will serve on enchiladas, but the beef is well-seasoned and not refried as some restaurants are apt to do.  The red chile is rich and flavorful at about a medium level of piquancy.  The green chile has a fresh, fruity taste.  Both are par excellence.

Carne Adovada is available in several dishes, including on a smothered or hand-held burrito. Because the chile with which carne adovada is smothered is oftentimes not the same chile in which the pork is prepared, my Kim will never order a smothered carne adovada burrito. She contends it allows her to better enjoy the purity of the adovada. El Patio’s adovada is outstanding, well worthy of a visit from my friend Ruben whose quest for the perfect carne adovada continues. The pork is spoon tender (that means even more tender than fork-tender) and absolutely delicious, a benchmark which competes with some of the very best in the city.

Chicken Taco

Chicken Taco

El Patio’s combination plate is the best way to introduce newcomers to some of the best the restaurant has to offer.  A veritable platter is brimming with two enchiladas engorged with chile, a chile relleno and a taco (thankfully served on a small plate) all topped with shredded Cheddar and your choice of chile.  The chile relleno is especially noteworthy.  A single sweet-piquant chile is stuffed with cheese then battered and deep-fried.   It’s quite good.

Each entree is served with pinto beans (not refried), potatoes and lots of garnish (lettuce and tomato).  The potatoes have a consistency near being mashed.  Similar to the boiled potatoes at Duran’s Central Pharmacy, they appear to be an anomaly at first in that they’re not crisply fried, but by your second forkful, you’ll be hooked.  The potatoes have a sweet-savory marriage that makes them a joy to eat.  The beans are perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious.

Sopaipillas at El Patio

Sopaipillas at El Patio

A la carte options abound for smaller appetites.  A plain chicken taco is hardly plain when adorned with the restaurant’s moist chicken, shredded Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and that sensational salsa.  This is the type of taco about which dreams are formed.

Entrees also include complementary sopaipillas.  Large, cloud-like and puffy, they emit wisps of steam as you cut into them to form a pocket for honey.  These are not doughy as some sopaipillas are made, but rather have thin walls that are easy to penetrate, but not so thin that they’re sieves for the honey.

We’ve found service at El Patio extremely capable and more than accommodating, but then we tend to visit when the restaurant first opens (11AM seven days a week) and the choicest seating is available.  Experience has taught us that this extremely popular restaurant fills up quickly–and for good reason.  This is one of Albuquerque’s very best New Mexican restaurants, a genuine gem.

El Patio
142 Harvard Dr SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-4245
LATEST VISIT: 31 January 2011
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Beef and Chicken Enchiladas Christmas Style, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicken Taco, Combination Plate, Carne Adovada Plate

El Patio de Albuquerque on Urbanspoon

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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The Artichoke Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Artichoke Cafe on Central Avenue, one of the finest fine dining restaurants in New Mexico

These things are just plain annoying.
After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual “food”
out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps.
Have the shrimp cocktail instead.”
Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy, that shrill and garrulous walking side of bacon, may not appreciate the humble artichoke much, but among both health conscious and discerning diners, the artichoke has long been a healthful and delicious dining option.  Considered a “super food” for its high antioxidant, fiber, potassium, phosphorous, iron, calcium and magnesium content, artichokes have long been used in the treatment of gall bladder and liver conditions because it improves liver functions and is recognized for its ability to lower blood pressure.  It’s also been known, in some cases, to help with migranes and to give skin a healthy glow. 

In 16th Century Europe, eating an artichoke was considered scandalous behavior for women because the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac (along with the humble tomato) and was reserved exclusively for men (especially aristocrats like Henry, VIII).  Catherine de Medici, bride of King Henry, II of France, denounced that social more, introducing the artichoke along with traditional Italian foods and cooking to the French kitchen.  Catherine was passionate about artichokes, consuming them in large quantities. Henceforth the French elevated the artichoke to the stature of a gourmet ingredient.  It was treated as such when introduced to the American colonies.

Dining room at the Artichoke Cafe

It’s only fitting that one of Albuquerque’s most highly regarded fine-dining gourmet treasures pay tribute to the artichoke by  festooning its name on the marquee.  When the Artichoke Cafe opened in 1989, the artichoke was hardly ubiquitous on Duke City restaurant menus, many of whom seemed to believe vegetables stopped and ended with green chile.  In its two decades plus  of serving the city, the Artichoke Cafe has helped pioneer culinary trends diners now take for granted.  That includes concepts such as seasonal menus, sustainable foods, a wine bar and…a mission statement. 

Mission statements are commonplace in the military and in the corporate world, but not necessarily among restaurants.  They should be!  The Artichoke Cafe’s mission statement is inspired, especially the part which reads, “The guest is always is always right and we will accommodate every guest’s dietary needs to the best of our ability. We strive to make our guest’s dining experience a delicious and memorable one at the Artichoke Cafe.  We encourage every employee working at the Artichoke Cafe to make this vision a reality. On any given day we are only as good as our best effort. Therefore, every employee is an important link in the chain of our mission statement and is valued as such.”

A basket of bread and muffins with herbed butter

From the onset, the Artichoke Cafe has been a trend-setter, launching in the East Downtown (EDO) district long before it was the burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming areas in the nation.”  In 1989, the district was actually considered failing.  You can’t underestimate the impact the Artichoke Cafe has had on the area nor that it has rightfully earned the sobriquet “heart of EDO.”  In fact, there’s no disputing the veracity of any of the other slogans the Cafe has used: “the saucy little bistro at the heart of creative cuisine” and “where artisan cocktails meet creative cuisine” among them. 

The 5000-square foot, 120-seat establishment is the brainchild of proprietors Pat and Terry Keene.  Pat serves as the restaurant’s executive chef, a vocation for which she was formally trained in New York City while Terry has more than 30 years experience in restaurant management.  While that marital pairing was certainly made in heaven, the restaurant is reputed to serve heavenly pairings of fine wine and exquisite cuisine.  As a non-imbiber of adult beverages, I can’t speak for the wine, but The Wine Spectator certainly can, perennially listing it in its annual dining guide.   

French Onion Soup Gratinee with crostinis and Gruyere

The Cafe’s walls are adorned with art whose beauty pales in comparison to the the truly artistic cuisine, whose artists are merely stick figure novices in comparison to the classically trained masters who create in the kitchen.  From the complimentary bread basket to desserts, this restaurant exudes four star first class with a culinary repertoire which melds the finest in creative American, Italian and French cuisines.  Be aware, however, that it’s easy to fall in love with an entree that may not be available because of a seasonal menu rotation. 

The love starts early as in when the basket of fresh bread is delivered to your table along with a delicious herbed butter.  The basket typically includes a triumvirate of breads including a very good French bread.  It’s an excellent bread for sopping up the restaurant’s inspired soups, among them memory-triggering Potato-Leek soup.   The Artichoke’s rendition transported us back to  The Mermaid Inn in picturesque Burford, England where we luxuriated in its warmth and depth of flavor.  It’s a high compliment to the Artichoke’s version that it can even be mentioned in the same sentence as the wondrous elixir served at the Mermaid Inn.

Grilled Sliced Steak: Angel hair pasta, pine nuts, basil, asparagus spears, roasted red bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, mixed greens, balsamic vinaigrette, Parmesan.

Also quite inspired is the French Onion Soup gratinee with imported Gruyere.  It’s easily among the very best French Onion Soups in Albuquerque, so good even French-hating xenophobes would appreciate a steamy bowl of aromatic beef broth in which sweet onions and pungent cheese swim merrily with spongy, soft crostinis.   Considered a “peasant food” by virtue of its humble, economically borne origin, French onion soup has risen to the level of much coveted, highly sought after gourmet favorites.

Don’t be surprised if lunch entrees at the Artichoke are exceedingly better than more expensive dinner entrees at other fine dining establishments. Such is the case when the lunch menu includes a grilled sliced steak served atop a bed of angel hair pasta, pine nuts, basil, asparagus spears, roasted red bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and mixed greens drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with Parmesan.  Only the grilled sliced steak is served warm; the rest of the entree is essentially a very clever, very well executed salad.  The steak is grilled to absolute perfection at medium with the familiar diamond shaped grill marks prevalent throughout.

Sustainable King Salmon atop a bed of ginger and scallion sticky rice and topped with pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish. Served with snap peas and carrots.

At the Artichoke, we’ve also discovered one of the very best Italian entrees we’ve had in the Duke City, an inspired lunch entree of Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers, a concordant marriage of sweet, savory and piquant flavors that had us salivating with every delicious morsel.  The Italian sausage is of Chicago or Philadelphia caliber with the perfect amount of fennel.  Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers are a quintessential Italian dish, especially popular throughout the East Coast where they’re often stuffed into sandwiches.

For dinner, perhaps no restaurant in New Mexico serves a lamb quite as luscious as the Artichoke Cafe.  The oven roasted New Mexico rack of lamb, as succulent as you’ll find anywhere in the state, is not to be missed.  It is tender and mouth-watering without the prevalent gamy smell of lamb served in restaurants not of the Artichoke’s caliber.  The only fault you can ever find with outstanding lamb is that you’re always left wanting more.  That’s the case with this luscious lamb.

Mocha Semi-Freddo: chocolate coffee soil, biscotti and chopped Serrano chiles (added at my request)

One of the hallmarks of the Artichoke Cafe is its commitment to sustainable seafood. The menu features a “chef’s daily creation” in which only sustainable king salmon and seafood are used.  You’ll want to pay rapt attention to your server’s description of this daily seafood bounty though doing so may dissuade you from ordering what you thought you had wanted. One daily special we happened upon during a December, 2011 visit showcased sustainable king salmon atop a bed of ginger and scallion sticky rice and topped with pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish served with snap peas and carrots.  This was an entree with one surprise after the other.  The salmon has a near “just caught” freshness that seems enlivened by the mouth-watering combination of pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish.  The combination of tanginess and piquancy is a winner, far better than disguising the native flavors of the salmon with some syrupy sweet sauce as other restaurants are apt to do. The ginger and scallion sticky rice had me longing for ripe Thai mangoes.

The Serrano chile relish so captivated me that I asked for it to be added to my dessert choice of mocha semi-freddo.  To our server’s credit, he didn’t call for a straight jacket or attempt to dissuade me from potentially ruining what is an excellent dessert.  Alas, instead of the Serrano chile relish served with the salmon, chopped Serrano chiles were delivered in a plate.  It didn’t matter.  I garnished the dessert with the chiles and enjoyed my fiendish concoction thoroughly. 

The Artichoke Cafe is one of the Duke City’s premier dining destinations, a fact not lost among the city’s movers and shakers who make it their destination of choice for “power” lunches and dinners.  Whether or not you consider yourself a “player” in the arena of business, politics or any other enterprise, you’ll feel right at home at the Artichoke Cafe, truly one of the city’s very best restaurants of any genre.

The Artichoke Cafe
424 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 243-0200
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2011
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Italian Hot Peppers, New Mexico Rack of Lamb

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