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Blake’s Lotaburger – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Blake's Lotaburger (Photo courtesy of Sarah Rose)

Blake’s Lotaburger is a New Mexico only institution founded in 1952 by long-time proprietor Blake Chanslor who owned it for half a century before selling it in 2003. While the marquee may still carry Blake’s name, the 76 store franchise with a presence in most of New Mexico’s larger cities and towns (23 in all) is now owned by Brian Rule, an Albuquerque resident.  On April 10, 2009, Chanslor passed away, having left a legacy based not only on having founded a New Mexico institution, but for his philanthropic endeavors.

Thankfully, Lotaburger has, for the most part, retained the high quality that has allowed it to thrive despite the onslaught from deep-pocketed, worldwide corporate megaliths.  At least that’s the case for many of the state’s Lotaburger restaurants. As is often the case with multi-store chain restaurants, not all links in the chain are equally strong.  All too frequently, we have visited Lotaburger restaurants throughout the state in which service is spotty and the burgers don’t quite meet the high preparation standards for which Lotaburger has been known.

Blake's Lotaburger in Rio Rancho

Blake's Lotaburger in Rio Rancho

Though I have not tried all of New Mexico’s LotaBurger restaurants, those I frequent most often (one in Rio Rancho and one in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque) exemplify the high standards that make Lotaburger a state institution.  The wonderfully performing Lotaburger restaurants form the basis for the positive things written on this review, but I’ll also explain my rancor for lesser performing franchises.

The restaurant’s motto, “If you are what you eat, you are awesome” may describe in part why New Mexicans are fiercely loyal to Lotaburger. It’s a restaurant we proudly call our own; you can’t find them even in bordering states (pity them). LotaBurger was grandfathered into the inaugural New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2009, an indication of just how beloved this institution is throughout the Land of Enchantment.  In 2011 the affection New Mexicans have for Lotaburger was not assumed with voters being asked to select their favorites for the second New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  The leading vote-getter from among more than 100 nominees was Lotaburger.  No other restaurant was close.

A well-seasoned Lotaburger grill

In a 2006 edition of National Geographic’s Passport to the Best: The 10 Best of Everything book, Lotaburger was acclaimed as the “Best Green Chile Cheeseburger in the World“.  You won’t find many locals who’ll dispute that it’s definitely one of the very best.  On the Alibi’s 2003, 2004 and 2005 Readers Choice restaurant polls, Duke City residents proclaimed loudly that Lotaburger serves the very best hamburger in town. While generations of New Mexicans have grown up appreciating Lotaburger, this local gem is also appreciated by many (though certainly not all) newcomers, some who have been known to become devoted loyalists after only one visit.

In 2010, Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant and hilarious author of Ask a Mexican, a widely syndicated newspaper column published mostly in weekly alternative papers, asked the question “Forget Five Guys Burgers: Why Can’t We Get a Blake’s Lotaburger.” It was his response to the influx of Five Guys Burgers in Southern California.  Arellano reasoned, “If we’re going to have a regional burger chain invade our county and go up against our In-n-Out’s and TK’s, why couldn’t it have been Blake’s Lotaburger, the country’s most-ardent proponent of what’s perhaps burgerdom’s greatest manifestation: the green chile hamburger?”

In recent years, Lotaburger has modernized many of its buildings, all of which are built by the company’s construction division. One constant has been the presence on the marquee of a jolly-faced ringmaster attired in top hat and red striped coat and bow tie. It’s a familiar site to all New Mexicans. With the exception of buns and drinks, everything that goes to a Lotaburger Stand comes from or through the company’s main commissary, just off Candelaria in Albuquerque. That might account for the unfailingly fresh ingredients that make it onto a Lotaburger.

Double-meal Itsaburger with green chile and grilled onions

Double-meal Itsaburger with green chile and grilled onions

One concession Lotaburger has made over the years is adding drive-up service. While this may be a wonderful convenience, trying to devour a Lotaburger while you drive can be a messy proposition because each burger (prepared to order) can be crammed with lettuce, tomato, green chile (optional), onions and mustard.  If you’ve got the time, it’s still best to eat in and observe the cooks in action, listen to the sizzle of the grill and especially imbibe of the aroma of your burger being prepared to order.  That grill is so well seasoned that my buddy Bill Resnik has thought seriously about taking a weekend job at Lotaburger just to figure out how Lotaburger seasons its grill so perfectly.

The green chile cheeseburger is Lotaburger’s signature menu item–though there is no such burger listed on the menu–and one of the things we missed most about the Land of Enchantment all the years we were away. Delicious angus beef orbs are ameliorated by toasted buns and unfailingly fresh ingredients. The green chile has never been piquant, but it is unfailingly fresh and delicious. There are only two burgers on the menu, the “Lotaburger” and the “Itsaburger,” the latter being the smaller of the two.  Both are constructed with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mustard.  You can also ask for mayonnaise, cheese, bacon and any burger can be made with double meat for a pittance.  If you like grilled onions on your burger, Lotaburger will accommodate you here, too.  Then, of course, there’s the green chile.

In 2010, Lotaburger started promoting its “hotter” chile.  On the premises posters depict the top-hat wearing character on the Blake’s marquee holding what is apparently a flaming burger, the implication being that the chile is almost too hot to handle.  Alas, even a double portion of the green chile failed to give me the endorphin rush addicts like me crave.  Though not quite as mild as the garnish some restaurants pass off as green chile, most New Mexicans will find it a bit tepid.  Interestingly the restaurant manager told me several complaints were received about the chile’s piquancy.

Barbecue sandwich at LotaBurger

Barbecue sandwich at LotaBurger

A Lotaburger is wholly unlike any of the ubiquitous institutionalized fast-food burgers on every street USA.  You’ll never find a Lotaburger sitting under a heating lamp for ten minutes before your order.  In fact, the beef doesn’t hit the grill until you place your order–and the grill is cleaned after each burger is done, one of the reasons the restaurant earns recognition for its cleanliness.  It’s taste, however, that makes Lotaburger aficionados crave these incomparable burgers.  If freshness has a flavor, it might taste like a Lotaburger just off the grill.  The coalescence of fresh ingredients with perfectly seasoned beef sandwiched by lightly toasted buns is positively addictive.

Lotaburger also serves some of the best French fries in town, offering both the standard thin cut tuber and a seasoned variety with a double-fried texture and taste.  A popular way to enjoy these fries is  with shredded cheese and red chile (pictured below).  The red chile is replete with ground beef and is almost brownish in color, but it has more piquancy than the green chile used on the burgers.

Chili Fries

If you want piquant, a good option is Lotaburger’s rendition of the Frito pie, listed as “chili pie” on the menu. A messy mix of beans, chili, onions, cheese and Fritos, these tasty gems are, like everything else on the menu, made to order.  Chili fries are another option.  The fries are lightly coated with various spices and are stiff on the exterior and soft on the inside.  The chili is made with hamburger and has a nice pleasant heat to it.  Though it’s spelled and made with hamburger the Texas way, the chili is all New Mexico with no cumin.

To this point, I’ve praised LotaBurger ad-infinitum, so why the reason for my relatively low rating. It’s forgivable that the green chile lacks in the piquant bite many New Mexicans crave, but it’s sacrilege for some of the restaurant’s chefs to absolutely mash the beef to the grill with the spatula. My skin crawls at seeing the meat mashing cooks take away whatever moistness any slab of beef may have with their spatula pressing. So there–discard the spatulas; they don’t accelerate the preparation process by that much.

Breakfast burritos

The Lotaburger breakfast burrito

Several years ago, Lotaburger began serving breakfast burritos at select locations. The burritos are more like burrotes; they’re enormous and require two hands to hold. Offered with Hatch grown green and red chile, most of them come standard with hashed browns, scrambled eggs and your choice of other ingredients such as beans, sausage and bacon. As much as I revere Lotaburger’s green chile on its famous burgers, there just isn’t enough of New Mexico’s favorite condiment on the burritos for my liking. Ditto for the red chile. 

The parsimony with which the chile is applied and its lack of piquancy was certainly no deterrent to the staff of Albuquerque the Magazine who, in the September, 2011 undertook the ambitious challenge of naming Albuquerque’s very best breakfast burrito.  Lotaburger’s breakfast burrito was the second rated from among dozens of choices evaluated.  It’s the most popular breakfast item proffered at the restaurant.

Better than the breakfast burritos is a simple breakfast sandwich in which fluffy eggs, cheese, bacon and green chile are sandwiched in between two slices of toasted bread. It’s a morning picker-upper that tastes great.  Breakfast is served only until 11AM which may be a shame because a burrito for lunch might be another draw.

LotaBurger Breakfast Sandwich

The Lotaburger breakfast sandwich is a great morning pick-up

Lotaburger’s barbecue sandwiches are abounding in beef and dressed with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The hot dogs are another burger alternative and are as good as some hotdog themed restaurants in town.

The chocolate and strawberry shakes are cloying and both have the “artificial flavoring” taste.  Better, but still pinging-off-the-walls sweet is the cherry Coke (which Blake’s served well before it was a commercial product).

Blake’s Lotaburger
6210 Fourth Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
505 345-0402
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 29 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 25
RATING: 17
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Chili Pie, Breakfast Sandwich, Barbecue Beef Sandwich

Blake's Lotaburger on Urbanspoon

Plum Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Plum Cafe

The branches of the aspen plum
To and fro they sway
How can I not think of her? 
But home is far away,”
- Confucius

According to Urban Farm Online, “plums were domesticated in China more than 2,000 years ago and have figured in written documents since 479 B.C. These fruits were the plums Confucius praised in his writings and the ancestors of today’s Asian plums.” In China, plums symbolize good fortune while the blossom of the plum tree is considered a symbol of winter and harbinger of spring.  The Taiwanese consider the plum blossom a symbol for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity during the harsh winter.  In both Korea and Japan, the plum blossom also symbolize spring while in Vietnam, the plum tree and its flowering blossoms symbolize feminine pulchritude.  

Despite its longevity, plums are not as significant on Asian dishes as one might expect, especially considering its versatility and complementary flavor potential.  In excellent Chinese (Ming Dynasty) and Thai (Siam Cafe) restaurants throughout Albuquerque, plum sauce (sometimes called duck sauce) is a staple, a sweet sauce as thick as a jam with a slightly tart  flavor which compliments egg rolls, spareribs and other appetizers and entrees.  It’s better, by far, than the candied, unnaturally red sweet and sour sauce some restaurants offer.

Potstickers: Wok fried dumplings filled with minced chicken, Napa cabbage, shallots and scallions served with ginger garlic soy

Perhaps as a portend of great fortune, brothers-owners Wyn Chao and Brian Triem named their newest restaurant venture–which they launched on November 17, 2012–the Plum Cafe Asian Grill.  The brothers are veteran restaurateurs and no strangers to the Duke City area, having started Rio Rancho’s Banana Leaf restaurant in 2005.  The Plum Cafe Asian Grill is located in the former home of the Asado Brazilian Grill and the Charcoal Mediterranean Grill in the  Jefferson Commons area commonly referred to as the Pan American Freeway restaurant row.  It’s within easy walking distance of the Century Rio multiplex theater. 

Its operating model–ordering at a counter–isn’t exactly unique, but more than at some restaurants, you might long for tableside service.  Almost as soon as you arrive at the counter, expect the perplexing question “are you ready to order.”  It’s especially perplexing if you’re a first-time visitor who likes to peruse the menu carefully before ordering.  The Plum Cafe’s menu is one you want to spend time studying.  It’s a fusion of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes with several intriguing surprises.  After you place your order, you’ll settle the bill of fare which includes adding a tip without knowing what the quality of service will be.  Then you’ll find your own table, retrieve your own beverages, napkins, condiments and plates.  At least the wait staff will deliver your order to your table.

Vietnamese Taco: Grilled beef, scallions, cucumbers, daikon, carrots, and cilantro served with corn tortillas with Sriracha mayo (Tacos are served with mango salsa and sweet potatoes fries)

The menu lists five starters, all but the Vietnamese spring rolls being Chinese.  Hot and sour soup and wonton soup constitute the entire soup section of the menu which surprisingly has no Vietnamese pho.  Three beautifully plated salads are available for the health-conscious.   Items on the fried rice and noodles section of the menu can be made with your choice of vegetables and tofu, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or a combination of any.  Eight items on the “Signature” section of the menu provide perhaps the greatest intrigue; some, like the Vietnamese taco, are quite interesting.  There are also eight items on the “Entrees” section.  The menu is very descriptive and enticing. 

Pot stickers have become so commonplace as to become practically passe.  Very few–the sublime pot stickers at Hua Chang come to mind–actually stand out.  The Plum Cafe’s rendition are good, if not memorable.  Six per order pot stickers filled with minced chicken, Napa cabbage, shallots and scallions are served with a ginger garlic soy dipping sauce that would be better with a little heat.  These wok fried dumplings are steaming when brought to your table and may burn your mouth if you’re not careful.

Vietnamese Vermicelli: Vermicelli noodles, egg rolls, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, mint, cilantro, scallions and crushed peanuts served with a chili lime vinaigrette

In a surprising “Vietnam meets Mexico” twist reminiscent of the creativity found in China Poblano, the Signature section of the menu includes the Vietnamese Taco, an anomalous appetizer-sized entree melding the culture and cuisine of two diverse and distinct nations.  Picture if you will, two corn tortillas engorged with your choice of grilled beef or chicken (you can’t have both), scallions, cucumbers, daikon, carrots and cilantro with Sriracha mayo.  It’s unlike any taco you’ll find in Mexico.  The corn tortillas are soft and oil free, bursting with contents.  The tacos are served with a sweet-piquant mango salsa and sweet potato fries.

The Vietnamese Vermicelli entree—vermicelli noodles, egg rolls, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, mint, cilantro, scallions and crushed peanuts served with a chili lime vinaigrette–arrives in a swimming pool-sized bowl.  The chili lime vinaigrette, served in a small ramekin, is reminiscent of Vietnamese fish sauce in that it is redolent with sweet, piquant and tangy elements.  It’s a very good sauce which penetrates deeply into the fresh ingredients.  This entree, from the Fried Rice/Noodle section of the menu, is served with your choice of vegetables and tofu, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or combinations thereof.  The chicken, mostly thigh meat, is moist and delicious, but is cut in long strips that are more than bite-sized.  It’s the only downside to an otherwise good, fresh, healthful entree.

Thai Mango Curry: Mango, pineapple, bell pepper, bamboo shoot, onion, cashews, basil and red curry coconut sauce

My favorite entree is the Thai mango curry made with both mangoes and pineapples as well as bell peppers, bamboo shoots, onion, cashews, basil and a red curry coconut sauce.  The curry has a nice balance of flavors–piquancy, sweetness, savoriness and tanginess and is served steaming hot.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared– fresh and crisp.  As with other entrees, it’s available with your choice of meat or shrimp.  Alas, as with the Vietnamese vermicelli, the chicken is cut into long strips that are somewhat larger than bite-sized.  The mango curry is available with your choice of rice and comes with steamed vegetables on the side.

The Plum Cafe’s Web site bespeaks of promise and potential: “We want to introduce Asian Fusion cooking that incorporates all types of Asian cuisine. Our fusion cooking techniques adapts modern and traditional ideas from various cultures while combining herbs and spices from these cultures to enhance each dish for volumes of flavor. Another integral part of this concept is to serve healthy, fresh, and made to order meals at a comfortable price. Plum receives fresh meat and produce each week which are all utilized in the daily preparation of our dishes. Nothing is cooked till it’s ordered. This ensures each dish comes out hot and fresh.”

It’s in the execution of its operating model that the Plum Cafe may be off-putting to some.  When done with our meal, we contemplated dessert, but didn’t want to repeat the ordering process at the counter.  Consider us spoiled in that way.  We would have preferred tableside service to match what was mostly pretty good food.

Plum Cafe Asian Grill
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 433-3448
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Vietnamese Taco, Vietnamese Vermicelli, Thai Mango Curry, Potstickers

Plum Cafe Asian Grill on Urbanspoon

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen opened in October, 2011 at the site formerly occupied by the Rodeo Grill

 “The definitive recipe for any Italian dish has not yet appeared.
We are still creating.”
Luigi Barzini

The categorization and labeling some diners tend to ascribe to Italian restaurants bespeaks not only of strong emotional preferences, but of an unwillingness to assign any merits to the “other side.”  At one side of the spectrum are the old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurants and at the other are Northern Italian restaurants.  To those who love red sauce Italian restaurants, they represent Italian comfort food in a festive and friendly ambiance stereotyped by red and white checkerboard tablecloths and bottles of Chianti at every table.  The menus–often green, white and red–feature familiar American Italian entrees such as spaghetti and meatballs served in profuse portions.  To its proponents, red sauce restaurants are homey, rustic and simple in the best sense of those terms.

Detractors usually speak of red sauce restaurants in derogatory and condescending terms.  To its “haters,” red sauce restaurants represent overcooked, mushy pasta dredged in a profligate amounts of tomato sauce “gravy.”  This, they will tell you is low-end food served by Old World restaurants as opposed to the more sophisticated “cuisine” that draws aficionados to Northern Italian restaurants and their nouveau menu offerings served in swanky milieus.  Northern Italian restaurant zealots  trumpet their genre of choice’s grilled meats, seafood and sauces based on creams and cheeses.  They appreciate that their pasta is served on the al dente side and instead of noodle type pasta, they can opt for polenta or risotto.

A kitschy ambiance

Not to be outdone, red sauce restaurant devotees joke that Northern Italian restaurants are simply Italian restaurants that wish they were French.  They consider Northern Italian cuisine haughty and pretentious, an overpriced and stuffy repast for the rich and those who wish they were.  The elegant and cultivated cuisine of the north, they argue, is a denial of the true and authentic culture of Italian cooking. 

If the aforementioned point-counterpoint debate sounds a bit like the ad infinitum diatribes in which political ideologues engage, then it accurately depicts the passion some diners actually have about their choice for Italian food.  The truth is many of us appreciate both “red sauce” and Northern Italian restaurants, maybe one a bit more than the other.  That’s why restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory’s new restaurant concept should do very well in Albuquerque.  In an enthralling interview on Break the Chain, Matt described Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen as not wanting it to be “stuck with being labeled Northern, Southern or Peasant Italian.”  He wants his restaurant to be “flexible and fun” and “all about family.”

A photo of the DiGregory family circa 1978 hangs on the foyer

If my inaugural visit, admittedly only a couple weeks after the restaurant’s launch, is any indication, Matt DiGregory is well on his way toward making Gregorio’s a restaurant in which families will genuinely enjoy themselves. Family is very important to the entrepreneurial owner.  The restaurant is replete with pictures of the DiGregory family history, including a playful one circa 1978 of his entire family attired in white on a white background.  Framed photographs of his grandparents, parents and siblings share space on the walls with a multitude of interesting and kitschy items.  There are even photographs on the menu. 

Other than family-friendly and fun, perhaps the most apropos description for Gregorio’s would be “kitschy.”  That, too, is by design.  Matt intends for his restaurant not to take itself too seriously…except for the food, of course.  The decor isn’t quite circus clown contemporary meets wacky western with a bit of rib-tickling rustic thrown in for good measure, but it’s very entertaining and fun.  There’s no way you could stereotype this as an Italian restaurant, but there’s also no way you can visit without thoroughly enjoying the mirthful milieu.  There is literally something interesting and enjoyable to look at no matter where you turn.

Calamari with a lemon aioli

Similar to the decor at The Range Cafe, another of Matt’s  successful concept restaurants, the art on display is wildly eclectic and mostly tasteful.  There are no velvet Elvis paintings, but there is a backlit painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  Lighting above the bank of booths on the north wall is a series of 1960s style lamps hung upside down so that the shades are at the bottom.   Suspended from the ceiling are latilla-style branches.  The most “serious” decorative touches are a gas stove and refrigerator, both dating from at least the fabulous 50s.

Matt describes menu offerings as “Italian comfort food,” much of which is based on family recipes.  Some of the recipes are playful, too, including a spaghetti meat sauce which includes a bit of chocolate for richness.  You’ll get the feeling that the visionary owner is having a blast creating in the kitchen instead of devising some new restaurant concept.  He also enjoys stepping out from the kitchen and delivering entrees to the patrons who ordered them.  When is the last time you saw a restaurant owner do that?  If, by the way, you think your recipe is better than Gregorio’s, you’re invited to submit it to the affable owner.  If Matt likes it, it will be run as a special for the month and will be named for the submitter.    

Appetizer: Artichoke casserole with breadcrumbs and cheese served in a cast iron pan

Gregorio’s is situated at the former site of the Rodeo Grill, a rare Matt DiGregory concept restaurant in that it wasn’t a huge success as the Range Cafe and Standard Diner are.  Unlike his other restaurants, Gregorio’s does not have a street-facing storefront and is somewhat obfuscated by a small strip mall.  One of the holdovers from the Rodeo Grill is an invitation for diners to wash down their meal with lusciously thick shakes which are made with Haagen Dazs Super Premium ice Cream.  The shakes are not only made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk, they’re served in a shake glass with the tin on the side.  It’s much like getting a shake and a half.  Better still, the flavors include the standards–vanilla, chocolate and strawberry–as well as shake specials such as spumoni shakes and lemon curd shakes.

Now for the serious stuff–the food. Gregorio’s has gone a long way to provide variety that defies stereotyping.  All pasta dishes, made from Italian quality dried pastas, are cooked to order including al dente if you desire.  The restaurant offers several pasta types: spaghetti, rigatoni, bowtie, gnocchi, penne and more, each pasta order weighing in at a robust half-pound sans sauce.  Your choice from a variety of sauces–the aforementioned spaghetti meat sauce with chocolate, Bolognese (made with turkey instead of beef), Gorgonzola cream, carbonara, arabiata, olive oil and garlic and more–will adorn the pasta you order.  Thin crust pizzas are prepared on a stone oven.  Sauces are sourced from the Santa Fe Sausage Company and salads are constructed from organic, locally sourced produce.

Bowtie pasta in an olive oil and garlic sauce with a side of sweet Italian sausage

The appetizer menu includes several intriguing options in portions large enough to be shared. A baked artichoke parmesan casserole with breadcrumbs and cheese served in a cast iron pan is a great bet. The artichoke is fresh and earthy and it absorbs the flavor of the seasoned bread crumbs and cheese. It’s served with lightly toasted Italian bread which can be used to dredge up the utterly delicious sauce.  The cast iron pan keeps the dish hot down to its last morsel.  Another super starter is the semolina dusted calamari with a lemon aioli served with marinara sauce.

Sometimes the secret to an excellent pasta dish is its simplicity.  Gregorio’s bowtie pasta in an olive oil and garlic sauce passes muster and then some.  The pasta is perfectly cooked–not too al dente and certainly not at all mushy.  It’s perfumed with just a light fragrance of fresh garlic, enough to let you know it’s there without wrecking your breath.  An excellent counterbalance is a side of sweet Italian sausage.  A single link will do.  The sausage is of medium coarseness and has a nice fennel influence.

Pan-Roasted Mahi Mahi With Grapefruit and Fennel Salsa and Risotto

At the opposite side of the simplicity scale is a special which will hopefully make it to the everyday menu.  It’s a pan-roasted mahi mahi with grapefruit and fennel salsa and risotto.  The mahi mahi is melt-in-your mouth tender with the requisite flakiness all high quality white fish have.  The grapefruit and fennel salsa includes a few slices of sweet Mandarin oranges which balance the tanginess of the grapefruit.  It’s an excellent salsa and best of all, it doesn’t mask the flavor of the fish as some sauces are prone to do.  The risotto is terrific, this compliment coming from a cynic who’s had truly great risotto only a handful of times.  Add Gregorio’s risotto to the mix.  

Darn those specials!  On our second visit, I was bound and determined to try Grandma Mary’s spaghetti and meatballs where the sauce is made with chocolate.  With an impassioned case borne out of pure love for the dish, our waitress convinced me the tomato vodka sauce penne is one of the best dishes she’s ever had and that I should forgo all others.  She saved me from struggling to wrap those long spaghetti strands around my fork while serving me my very favorite pasta, one that’s easy to stab with a fork.  The tomato vodka sauce is redolent with flavor, an olfactory-arousing sauciness with a hint of prosciutto, basil and shaved Parmesan.  It’s an excellent dish served in a flying saucer sized bowl which means you’ll be taking some home with you.

Tomato Vodka Sauce Penne

On Saturday and Sunday, Gregorio’s serves brunch from 9AM until 3PM.  The brunch menu includes breads and sweets, fritattas and breakfast specials and you can also order from the restaurant’s lunch menu.  The breakfast specials include such specialties as Italian “biscuits and gravy,” a ricotta and green onion scone, wilted spinach, two eggs with sausage gravy.  For sweet treat cravings, there’s lemon ricotta pancakes made with a berry compote and served with a tarragon butter and a pannetone French toast (pecans, cinnamon, marscapone). 

The brunch dish calling us most loudly was a breakfast pizza, a thin-crust pizza topped with bacon, sausage, mozzarella and Munster cheeses and topped with tomato sauce and two scrambled eggs.  In reading the menu’s description of “two eggs,” we had visions of two eggs over easy and unctuous yoke running all over the pizza.  Alas, that was the restaurant’s vision, too, however, the vision was better than the actual design.  Getting the eggs “just right” wasn’t always a consistent execution.  This is still a terrific pizza, a good twelve-inch pie as good as any specialty pizza in the Duke City.  The crisp bacon, fennel-blessed sausage and the two cheese blend go very well together.

Breakfast Pizza: bacon, sausage, mozzarella, two scrambled eggs

Because portions are so prolific, you have to wonder if the restaurant’s dessert menu receives more than a cursory glance, but the fact that most diners egress with doggie bags probably means desserts are quite popular, too.  As with many menu items, desserts are inventive and “different” with some liberties taken.  “This ain’t your momma’s tiramisu.”  Gregorio’s citrus tiramisu, served in a sundae glass is wholly unlike any tiramisu in Albuquerque.  If you’re looking for ladyfingers soaked in coffee, you won’t find it here, but if the literal translation of tiramisu is “pick me up,” this one will do it.  It’s a lip-pursing, sweet-tart dessert dish that’ll win you over unless you’re staunchly unable to buy into its non-traditional approach to a very traditional dessert.

Chocolate Sundae and Citrus Tiramisu

With Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen, Matt DiGregory has shown that he’s not only one of Albuquerque’s foremost restaurant impresario’s, he’s one heckuva chef.  As Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate says, it’s a winner!

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen
4200 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2012
1st VISIT:  15 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pan-Roasted Mahi Mahi with Grapefruit and Fennel Salsa and Risotto, Bowtie Pasta with Olive Oil and Garlic Sauce, Artichoke Casserole, Milk Shakes, Calamari, Tomato Vodka Sauce Penne, Breakfast Pizza, Citrus Tiramisu

Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon