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

Artichoke Cafe on Urbanspoon

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.

229 Galisteo Street at West Alameda
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2011
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
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2011
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

Cosmo Tapas – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cosmo Tapas, a Nob Hill gem

Some of the world’s most elegant and refined cuisine has its genesis in very humble circumstances.  Today, Spanish tapas are widely regarded as sophisticated and exotic, but they didn’t start off that way.  In fact, Spanish tapas are an excellent embodiment of the axiom that when life hands you lemons, you should make lemonade.  The words “tapa” (singular) or “tapas” (plural) are derived from the Spanish word “tapar,” which means “to cover.”  In Spanish, a tapa is also the literal term for a “lid.”  How the word “tapas” became the term used to describe a popular epicurean craze is an interesting tale.

It’s well established that in Spain, it’s traditional for many people to take an afternoon respite from the rigors of their daily lives and jobs to visit the local tavern or inn for snacks and refreshment.  In Old Spain, snacks and refreshment are inseparable, a tradition dating back to the Castilian king Alfonso the Wise who decreed that no wine was to be served in any inn throughout Castile unless accompanied by something to eat.  This precaution was to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on an empty stomach.

Dining Room at Cosmo Tapas

Observing that glasses of wine or sherry served to patrons attracted fruit flies, bartenders began covering the top of the glass with a piece of bread to prevent the pesky insects from doing the breaststroke in the wine.  In time, each tavern concocted its own signature toppings for the bread.  For the most part, the covers or “tapas” were relatively simple–ham or anchovies, for example, but eventually, those simple glass covers evolved into such creative and sophisticated dishes that what is essentially Spanish bar food now rivals any of the world’s most renowned cuisines. 

In modern day Spain, tapas are not only a gastronomic custom, they are a social or communal event.  Taverns are clustered in close proximity to one another, making it easy for patrons to hop from bar to bar sampling the specialty of the house at each.  In America, tapas have become popular as a meal option–eating a number of appetizer-sized plates to constitute an entire meal.  As in Spain, American tapas restaurants and bars attract groups who, by sharing dishes, can sample a wide variety of foods for a relative pittance.

Spanish Charcuterie Plate: Spicy chorizo,  Serrano ham, lomo embuchado, olives, pickled onions and baguette

The concept of tapas made its way to the United States several decades ago to some (mostly local) acclaim.  In some American cities, an announcement of the launch of a new tapas bar was often mistaken as yet another “topless bar” opening up.   Ultimately it took the culinary and marketing genius of Jose Andres to launch the country’s first widely heralded and highly successful tapas restaurant, Jaleo in Washington, D.C.  Since Jaleo’s opening in 1993, tapas bars and restaurants have taken off throughout the fruited plain.

In the Land of Enchantment, Santa Fe, which has long embraced its Spanish heritage, has long been home to two restaurants which offer tapas–the venerable El Farol and relative newcomer (fifteen years) El Meson.  That dynamic duo became a terrific triumvirate in 2006 with the launch of La Boca.  The Duke City’s first notable entry into the tapas arena was probably Gecko’s Bar & Tapas under the auspices of chef Jay Wulf.  Since then a number of restaurants have offered, sometimes rather loosely, an interpretation of tapas.

Baked Beef Empanada: Chilean empanada packed with beef, onions, hard boiled eggs, raisins and olives

July, 2009 saw the introduction of Cosmo Tapas, fittingly making its home in what many consider to be the Duke City’s cultural and social hub, the Nob Hill District.  Situated in the venue that previously housed the Martini Grille, Cosmo Tapas is, as its name implies, a cosmopolitan and hip urban experience–ironically with a storefront facing the historical mother road, Route 66. Its launch was greeted excitedly by critics and diners alike, many hailing it as a much needed change of pace for the city.  When she told me about her first visit to Cosmo shortly after it opened, Melissa Watrin gushed, “you have GOT to go to Cosmo Tapas.  The best meal I’ve had in a really long time.” Despite her effusive praise, it would be a while before my inaugural visit.

Look overhead as you enter and you’ll espy one of the most unique “chandeliers” you’ll ever see.  Instead of crystalline composition, the chandelier is crafted from silverware–spoons, forks and knives dangling above you.  The dining room’s walls are festooned with still-life, near photo-quality paintings depicting decanters of oil and vinegar and other restaurant necessities.  Undulating mesh fabric drapes from the ceiling.  Linen tablecloth drapes over each table with folded napkins nattily in place.  The best seat in the house on a cold winter day is the table nearest the fireplace and with a view of Central Avenue.

Grilled Choke: Grilled marinated artichoke with goat cheese and orange zest

Add the term “family-friendly” to the restaurant’s family owned and family operated modus vivendi.  That’s family-friendly both from the sense that diners of all ages will all feel welcome at the restaurant and that the family which owns the restaurant is as friendly as any restaurateurs in the Duke City.   As Melissa told me they would, both Guillermo Loubriel and his wife-partner Cecilia Kido visited our table to ensure our dining experience was as good as it could be.  Their son Leo was even more attentive, personally delivering every item we ordered. 

When they conceived the idea of Cosmo Tapas, Guillermo and Cecilia determined to showcase a menu which would reflect their  veritable melting pot of cultures and not necessarily subscribe to a true Spanish tapas template.  Guillermo is Puerto Rican while Cecilia, a native Chilean is half-Japanese and part Spanish and French.  The menu, a magnificent mishmash of culturally diverse dishes, succeeds wildly.  Moreover, the shared dining experience succeeds wildly.  Diners have embraced the concept of ordering a number of dishes and sharing them.

Stuffed Dates: Medjool dates stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in bacon

The tapas menu actually begins with three Spanish sampler platters–a Spanish cheese platter, a Spanish charcuterie plate and a Jamon Iberico plate.  The latter is one of those every-once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime indulgences to which you should treat yourself just because you’re worth it.  Jamon Iberico, often considered the gold standard of gourmet ham, is to ham what Kobe beef is to steak. The pigs from which Jamon Iberico is culled are a very exclusive breed, ergo the pampering they receive.  The highest quality Jamon Iberico comes from pigs whose diet is limited to acorns once their slaughtering time approaches.  Hams from the slaughtered pigs are cured for anywhere from twelve months to 48 months.  The word “platter” may be a bit of a misnomer because the portion size you receive is only about two-ounces, but the memorable melt-in-your-mouth quality of the ham makes this a worthwhile indulgence.

It would be hard to consider the Spanish Charcuterie Plate a “consolation prize because it’s quite excellent, but oh that Jamon Iberico.  If you can’t order the Jamon Iberico, the Charcuterie Plate is a very good alternative.  Charcuterie is a French term which refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie.  The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  Cosmos Tapas’ charcuterie plate features spicy chorizo, Serrano ham, lomo embuchado, olives, pickled onions and baguettes.

Lollipop Lamb Chops: Served with olive/feta tapenade, sauteed spinach, garlic aioli and flatbread

The thinly cut Serrano ham is wonderfully marbled dry-cured ham with a salty flavor.  It’s fairly standard in American tapas bars, but is always welcome for its fine flavor.  The spicy chorizo, made from coarsely chopped pork and pork fat, is also a fairly common tapas menu offering.  The chorizo is seasoned with smoked and piquant Spanish paprika and salt.  The lomo embuchado, sometimes considered the “prince of dry cured sausages in Spain,” inherits the flavors of sea salt, smoked paprika and garlic from its 90-day curing process.  One of the biggest surprises in the Charcuterie Plate actually has nothing to do with meats.  It’s the pickled onions which are brined in a solution that includes jalapeños, imbuing them with a pleasantly piquant taste.

A couple of decades ago, Cecilia Kido owned and operated the long defunct Empanadas House which offered some thirty types of empanadas.  Considered the national dish of Chile, empanadas are a natural fit for the Cosmo Tapas menu where at least three are available. If the baked beef empanada packed with beef, onions, hard-boiled eggs, raisins and olives is any indication, empanadas are an absolute must-have.  The melange of flavors makes for a very exciting treat which challenges you to discern the individual components.  The crust enveloping the ingredients is light and flaky, but formidable enough to keep them all in.  This empanada is served with pebre, a Chilean “salsa” with a piquant, refreshing bite.

Ceviche:  fresh barrimundi marinated in citrus juice with onion, cilantro, & jalapeno vinaigrette

Melissa’s favorite tapa, one she described as a beautiful dish with vibrant flavors, is the “Choke,” grilled marinated artichoke with goat cheese and orange zest.  The artichokes are splayed out in an almost floral arrangement with a dewy goat cheese sheen on each petal and the redolence of orange zest.  The Choke is grilled to an absolute perfection and can be consumed in its entirety as you might a piece of nigiri sushi or by the petal if you’re able to show such restraint.  In either case, this is a superb tapa, one of several offerings on the Vegetable Tapas section of the menu.

The most popular tapa on the menu is stuffed dates, a tiny plate brimming with six Medjool dates stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in applewood smoked bacon.  It’s akin to indulging in sweet, savory and smoky meat and cheese candy.  Each bite rewards you with taste explosions that are best tempered with a palate cleanser (such as taking a bite from another tapa before resuming with the next stuffed date.

Homemade Churros: Berries, Dulce de Leche and Hazelnut Chocolate

Another very popular tapa is the Lollipop Lamb chops, four succulent and meaty chops atop a bed of sauteed spinach with a garlic aioli and an olive-feta tapenade. At medium-rare, the lamb chops are tender and juicy, wholly capable of excelling on their own. The tapenade and aioli elevate the chops to a higher level, imparting complementary flavors which bring out the best qualities of the chops.

From the seafood tapas section of the menu, one sure to be a favorite is the Peruvian-style Ceviche, fresh barrimundi marinated in citrus juice with onion, cilantro and a housemade jalapeño vinaigrette.  The ceviche is unlike the ceviche served in Mexican restaurants throughout New Mexico in that it does not contain a single chopped tomato.  The jalapeño vinaigrette enlivens the barrimundi and complements the citrus with a pleasant piquancy.  Served in a concave glass over ice, this ceviche is comparable to that served in great Peruvian restaurants.

Membrillo & Manchego Cheese: Imported sweet quince paste with fresh Manchego cheese

Dessert tapas are a specialty of the house.  Seven of them are available including churros, the threaded fried dough pastry sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut.  The churros are stuffed with an assortment of sweet goodness: hazelnut chocolate, dulce de leche or berries.  You can mix and match the four churros per order.  The dulce de leche is especially good  for my sweet tooth.  You might appreciate another flavor even more. 

In the Tasting NM section of its January, 2012 collectors’ edition celebrating New Mexico’s centennial, New Mexico Magazine showcased quince, a fruit high in pectin with a strong “perfume.”  My friend, the scintillating author Cheryl Alters Jamison, provided a wonderful recipe for quince butter.  Her recipe in mind inspired me to order a dessert tapa called Membrillo and Manchego Cheese, imported quince paste with fresh Manchego cheese.  The Manchego proved a perfect foil for the ultra-sweet quince paste made even better with a leaf of basil. 

The menu at Cosmo Tapas even includes an “Entrees” section listing six full-sized dinners, one of which is Spanish paella (made-to-order with chicken, tiger prawns, clams, mussels, scallops, calamari, crawfish, Spanish chorizo, vegetables and Valenciana saffron rice). It’s easy to imagine a tapa or two for an appetizer followed by paella or another of the entree items.

One of the reasons it took me so long to visit Cosmo Tapas is because every critic and publication in town reviewed it within weeks of its opening. Acclaim was pretty much universal. Now that Cosmo Tapas has been open for almost two and a half years, the time was right for me to visit and see for myself whether or not the acclaim was justified. If anything, some of the high praise may be understated. Tapas is at or near the top of Spanish restaurants I’ve visited. Best of all, each visit will be a new adventure thanks to the wide variety of tapas offered.

Cosmo Tapas
4200 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2011
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Spanish Charcuterie Plate, Baked Beef Empanada, Grilled Choke, Stuffed Dates, Lollipop Lamb Chops, Ceviche, Membrillo & Manchego Cheese, Churros

Cosmo Tapas on Urbanspoon

Mr. Tokyo – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mr. Tokyo in Albuquerque's far Northeast Heights

In a 2011 interview, Green Bay Packers Superbowl winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers revealed that during the National Football League season, the comments he hears most often from fans and the questions they ask him most have to do with Fantasy Football: “Is Jermichael (Finley) playing this week?” “Who’s starting at running back?”

Until rather recently, the questions most frequently asked this humble blogger were “what’s your favorite (restaurant or food)?” and “what restaurant would you recommend for a (birthday, anniversary or special event)?”  Those questions have  been supplanted by curiosity about Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR), the most prolific (126 comments as of this writing) commentator to this blog.  “What’s Bob like?”  “Where does Bob get his ideas?” “What are Bob’s favorite foods?”

Miso Soup

Bob’s comments are not only insightful and entertaining, they often reflect his civic-mindedness.  He’s an unabashed promoter of his adopted hometown of Albuquerque, greeting visitors to our fair city as an ambassador for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau.  Although he’s quite fearless when it comes to trying new restaurants and food trends, some of his favorites include the old standards which have graced the area for decades: The Monte Carlo Steakhouse, The Dog House Drive In, Paul’s Monterrey Inn and one he’s recommended to me for years, Mr. Tokyo.

Bob tells me, “I’ve been eating their Shrimp Tempura for 8 years by driving up from down in the North Valley per the under $10 price for miso soup, rice, 5 shrimp and a half dozen variety of veggies always cooked and presented just right in a peaceful setting by courteous staff. Not to mislead, I have sampled other dishes and give them a thumbs up too, it’s just their Tempura has a hold on me!”  Despite his rousing endorsement, it took a wistful moment of reflecting on the greatness of Noda’s Japanese Cuisine‘s tempura for me to accede to Bob’s recommendation.

Shrimp and mixed vegetable tempura

Mr. Tokyo is tightly ensconced in the fairly nondescript El Dorado Square Shopping Center at Montgomery and Juan Tabo in the far Northeast Heights.  From Montgomery, Mr. Tokyo’s storefront is obfuscated by the ubiquitous Walgreen’s and the restaurant is too tiny to be visible from Juan Tabo.  In fact, if you’re not looking for it, you’ll probably pass it by and that would be a loss.  After my inaugural visit, I found it easy to see why Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos appreciates this paragon of terrific tempura and teriyaki so much.

Mr. Tokyo has two distinct, albeit diminutive dining rooms with perhaps a dozen tables or so.  Its wasabi-green colored walls are sparsely adorned with only a few pieces of Asian artwork on display.  A perfunctory array of Japanese paper lanterns hang from the ceiling while paper screens cover the windows.  Service is not only prompt and attentive, it’s very cute if you’re waited on by the owner’s ten-year-old daughter, a half-pint whirling dervish who seems to know all the regulars.  Though she didn’t wait on me, her Air Force bound brother was quite pleasant and helpful.

New York Steak Teriyaki (on the grill, served with stir-fried vegetables and steamed rice)

Mr. Tokyo has served the Duke City since 1994.  It has no pretensions to offering gourmet cuisine or to performing knife wielding feats of prestidigitation as some teppanyaki restaurants do, but by no stretch is it a shopping mall quality purveyor of Japanese fast-food.  Think of it as a family owned and operated restaurant offering great value and very high quality food in a pleasant milieu.  Think of it as a restaurant in which you’ll be treated to teppanyaki quality beef, chicken or seafood without the high prices and excessive showiness.   Think of it as a little gem.

The menu is hardly a compendium, offering some eight appetizers.  Save for the sushi and sashimi section of the menu, no category–tempura, hibachi, combinations, grilled udon, soup, fried rice or specials–on the menu even approaches a dozen items.  Among the eight tempura items–vegetable, chicken, beef, shrimp, scallops, salmon, red snapper and seafood–are Bob’s long-time favorite, the shrimp tempura with mixed vegetables.  It would behoove me to discover the dish which has ensnared Bob all these many years. 

Though I ordered the shrimp tempura on the menu, what was brought to my table was hardly the bounty–five shrimp and a half dozen variety of veggies–Bob had described.  My order consisted of two shrimp and a tangled nest of tempura battered, deep-fried vegetables, none easily discernible from the other.  The large shrimp (an oxymoron) were quite good, an antithesis of the mushy, greasy tempura you’ll find at bad Japanese restaurants.  The tempura is lightly battered and crisp with nary a hint of greasiness.  Best of all, you can actually taste sweet, succulent shrimp neath the tempura.  The tangle of vegetables is a tease which left me wanting the tempura-battered onions, carrots, sweet potatoes and green peppers Bob enjoys so much. 

My entree, New York steak teriyaki prepared on a hibachi was excellent.  Served with a stir-fry vegetable medley (julienned zucchini, onions, bean sprouts) and steamed rice, the portion size is an easy cure for a robust appetite.  The steak, prepared at medium and cut the way a mother would, is resplendent in a sheen of teriyaki sauce.  The sauce is more savory than it is sweet, quite unlike the thick, syrupy sauces some restaurants offer.  Each piece of steak is tender and juicy with no fat or sinew anywhere.  The stir-fried vegetables are a surprising treat while the rice is perfectly prepared and delicious.

Lest I forget (though it would be entirely understandable), entrees are accompanied by a bowl of miso soup, the only item not particularly noteworthy.  Most miso soup served at restaurants is ready-made so it’s rarely more than edible.  Often what distinguishes one restaurant’s miso soup from another’s is the temperature at which it is served.  Mr. Tokyo’s arrived at my table barely tepid.

Great food, friendly service, good value, the opportunity to perhaps meet Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos.  There are many reasons to visit Mr. Tokyo.  My only regret is that it took me so long to do so.

Mr. Tokyo
11200 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2011
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Shrimp Tempura, New York Steak Teriyaki

Mr. Tokyo on Urbanspoon

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