“In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
As an unabashedly proud native New Mexican, I can accept that New Mexican food isn’t for everyone. What’s much more difficult to accept are misbegotten stereotypes and outright misinformation (if not prevarication) about the food of enchantment. While trawling the internet, I came across a site called LTH Forums, a self-professed “Chicago based culinary chat site” in which a recent Windy City visitor lamented his dining experiences in Albuquerque. His assessment: “New Mexican cuisine if fine, but Mexican food in Albuquerque can be less than Chicago. The main thing to remember is that nearly all the cooks in New Mexico that are of Mexican descent hail from the Chihuahua state, so all the cooking is standard, a little boring, and muddled with Tex-Mex.”
Another misinformed nay-sayer piled on: “I have often commented that much of NM cuisine is a far less vibrant version of the original Mexican recipes from which they were derived over the past few hundred years. Chile is too often used to mask a lack of creativity or quality ingredients. The comida nativa can be an incongruous blend of Spanish, Mexican, and Native American influences that was historically limited by an unforgiving climate.” Lack of creativity? Lack of quality ingredients? Incongruous blend? These Chicago sophisticates obviously didn’t visit the restaurants celebrated on this blog.
Perhaps we New Mexicans are partially to blame for at least some of the misinformation, lack of information or failure to promote all that is great and exciting about the diversity and deliciousness of our cuisine. Check out some of the forums and chat sites in which the cuisine of New Mexico is a topic of discussion and some locals weigh in with recommendations ad nauseum for the same restaurants. You’d think all we have to offer visitors to the fair city of Albuquerque is the Frontier Restaurant and El Pinto, both very popular, but hardly the be-all and end-all for Duke City dining. No matter how internet savvy visitors may be, when they strike out on their own after visiting the Frontier and El Pinto, they’re bound to strike out.
Thanks to my faithful readers, I rarely strike out. The restaurants you recommend invariably turn out to be so good, I’m happy to share them through this blog. Take for example a recent recommendation by fellow IT professional Chris Reddington. It was a recommendation peppered with passion, fittingly for a restaurant in which passion is on the menu. It’s imbued in the ambiance and it’s in the heart and soul of its owners. It’s redolent in the ingredients and spices which give the food a lively, enticing and exciting flavor profile. Even the name bespeaks loudly of passion. Welcome to Pasion Latin Fusion.
Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of owners Elvis Bencomo and Monica Martell, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors. It’s unfortunate the Chicago visitor who maligned the cooking of chefs from Chihuahua hasn’t experienced Elvis’s culinary talents. He’d certainly think twice about ascribing a lack of culinary prowess to Chihuahua’s chefs, not all of whose cooking is “standard, a little boring and muddled with Tex-Mex.”
Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina. Get the picture?
Monica, the statuesque hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago (how’s that for irony), but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Together Monica and Elvis not only make beautiful food together, they actually enjoy working together. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?
Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain in the striking milieu that is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. Fireplaces suspended from the ceiling are both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening. Colorful wall hangings and framed photographs festoon the walls. Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.
The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items combine those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.
Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.
Antojitos (appetizers) are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You’ll want to order the generous offering of any two appetizers or two ceviches or a combination of the two for $13.95. The Quesadilla al Pasion should be one of the two; it’s one of the very best quesadillas you’ll have anywhere, certainly not the type of which Napoleon Dynamite’s grandmother referred to as a “dang quesadilla.” Your passions will be inflamed by a grilled flour tortilla engorged with roasted poblanos, chorizo and onion served with a creamy corn dipping sauce. With or without the dipping sauce, the flavors coalesce to create a veritable party in your mouth.
Requeson, a cheese typically eaten on crackers or spread on bread, is a Latin American favorite Elvis utilizes in his own inimitable manner. Instead of using it as a spread, he nestles it in fresh corn tortillas where it serves as a taco filler along with roasted garlic and peppers. While there’s nothing unique about cheese in tacos, requeson itself is a unique cheese, perhaps best described as a “kissing cousin of ricotta.” It’s a fresh cheese made of milk and has a semi-sweet flavor and a soft, grainy and moist texture. A three taco appetizer order of requeson will blow you away. The garlic and peppers are perfectly roasted and imbued with sweet underpinnings which serve as a wonderful counterpoint to the requeson.
Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings and a ceviche of the day. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna or shrimp) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Atun, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero/coconut sauce and lime sorbet served with garlic tortilla chips. The habanero/coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut. The lime sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche. Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients. This is genius!
During our inaugural visit, the ceviche of the day was fashioned from sashimi quality tuna, New Mexican green chile, red onion and passion fruit, a melding of briny, savory seafood with incendiary chile and sweet passion fruit. The garlic tortilla chips are made from both flour and corn, the best of both tortilla worlds. These chips are superb–by themselves or as scooping instruments for the ceviche. Not since the San Francisco ceviche treat at Destino Nuevo Latino have I had such a fabulous ceviche. If this culinary essay was put to paper, it would probably have drool trails courtesy of my fond reminiscences.
The only nit (and it’s infinitesimal) is that the scintillating menu offered one of my two must-haves, preventing me from ordering something I hadn’t had before. That must have is, of course, a green chile hamurgesa. In my quest to locate every New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail worthy burger under the Land of Enchantment’s turquoise skies, very few green chile cheeseburgers escape my notice. To no surprise, Pasion’s rendition is uniquely wonderful, a true two-fisted behemoth: New Mexico ground beef in a fresh, sesame bun with a green chile thousand island dressing, spring mix, tomato, onion, applewood bacon and Oaxaca cheese. It’s Trail worthy!
During Thanksgiving we’ll have even more reasons to give thanks if we can convince Chef Elvis to prepare an entire turkey in the style of his outstanding Pavo Adobo. This is the antithesis of the dreaded desiccated turkey leg that’s leathery, tough and flavorless. The gams on Pasion’s turkey would make Jessica Biel glower with envy. A single turkey leg, uncharacteristically moist and delicious, is marinated in pineapple juice and adobo that imbue it with a wonderful earthiness reminiscent of Caribbean cuisine. Alas, a single turkey leg isn’t nearly enough. You’ll want an entire bird marinated in the Pasion magic. The turkey leg is served with a better than you’ll ever have on Thanksgiving cranberry marmalade.
Another adorable adobo entree, offered as a special during a visit in December, 2011 showcases the versatility of pork. The Pork Adobo plate is a tall mound of crispy pork served over arroz (rice) and chicharos (peas) in an orange mojo sauce. The pork is indeed crispy, but it’s not dry in the least and it’s imbued with the addictive adobo. The arroz y chicharos with an orange mojo is worthy accompaniment. The orange mojo isn’t nearly as tart and acidic as traditional Cuban mojo. Instead, it has just enough tanginess to be discernible and it imparts a zesty, but not overpoweringly tart quality to each forkful of long-grained rice and spring-fresh pea.
If you’ve ever lamented the absence of fish taco greatness in the Duke City area, fret no longer. Los Tacos at Pasion are the true antithesis of the desiccated fish tacos that are the bane of all pescatorians. Two large flour tortillas are engorged to the bursting point with white fish lightly breaded in a banana chip batter and served with pickled cabbage and ripe avocado drizzled with a pleasantly piquant chipotle sauce. On the side is a fresh garden salad with lettuce, cucumbers and pickled onions with two lemons you can squeeze onto either the tacos or the salad ingredients. The tacos are moist and delicious with flavor combinations that will literally explode in your mouth.
Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches. Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based. At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a bolillo bun. Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.” It’s the very best Cubano I’ve had in Albuquerque.
Another “sandwich” option is Molletes, a Mexican-style bruschetta prepared two different ways. One version is made with chorizo, black beans, roasted poblano, queso Oaxaca and avocado pico de gallo. The meat choice on the other is steak which is accompanied by sliced yellow squash, queso cotija, cilantro mojo and tomato. Eating a mollete is akin to eating an open-faced sandwich as all the ingredients sit atop the bruschetta. The ingredients aren’t held together by some cheesy blanket. Eating them can be a messy proposition, albeit a delicious one.
Acompanamientos (sides) include papas de yuca, the starchy South American tuber distantly related to the humble potato and not the yucca (New Mexico’s official state plant). These papas are served with your choice (ask for both) of spicy ketchup or chipotle aioli. Cut and fried to resemble French fries, you’ll quickly discern the textural and flavor differences between fries made from yuca and fries made from potatoes. You’ve had your fill of traditional French fries. Now appreciate something uniquely different and delicious–yuca fries.
The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet and savory goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.
The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, one which just might make it to Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding.
Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is a dessert ceviche Monica told us has been ordered only a handful of times. The dessert ceviche changes with the seasonal availability of fruits. During a December, 2011 visit, the fruits in-season were apples, grapes, bananas and pineapples, all of which were fresh paragons of each fruit. A velvety blanket of deliciously sweet-sour creme fraiche is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the fruit. It’s a dessert very much reminiscent of Bionicos, a very healthful Mexican dessert.
Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion. That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years. It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine.
Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 January 2012
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Quesadilla al Pasion, Ceviche, Papas de Yuca, Green Chile Hamburgesa, Pavo Adobo, Requeson, Atun Ceviche, Los Tacos (Fish), Pork Adobo, Molletes, Cubano, Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Fruit Ceviche