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
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,”

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
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
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

Theobroma Chocolatier – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Theobroma Chocolatier on Tramway and Montgomery in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights

For many men, February 14th is the most dreaded day of the year. It’s a day in which our boundless capacity for bad taste comes to the fore. Though well-intentioned, when it comes to women and romance, we’re clueless.  You might not know it, but shopping for women is the biggest cause of anxiety among American men. There’s nothing like the crushingly disappointed look on your lover’s face as she unwraps the latest bad gift to quell the ardor in a man’s heart.

Worse, our anguish has been made public thanks to the annual global dissemination of an e-mail entitled “ten worse Valentine’s Day gifts.” Most men would rather find themselves on the annual “Darwin Awards” e-mail similarly circulated worldwide than to recognize their contribution to the infamous worse Valentine’s Day gifts e-mail.  The truth is, many of us would have a better chance of completing a Rubik’s Cube in record time than picking out the perfect Valentine’s Day gift. It’s no wonder you hear so many men whining about the “obligatory” nature of gift-giving during this “commercial” holiday.

The display case at Theobroma

The display case at Theobroma

Let’s be honest. The XY chromosome pairing has better equipped us for shooting at things and watching sports than it has for buying gifts. Yeah, blame our chromosomes for the cavalcade of tacky, terrible and inappropriate Valentine’s Day gifts given by men throughout the world.  Still we persevere with our rampant, well-intentioned consumerism which accounts for most of the $100 million spent in Valentine’s Day gifts. The smart ones among us will forgo using our limited imaginations and don’t endeavor to buy something unique and creative.

Instead, we buy acres of roses and enough bling to cover an NBA star for a year. We kill entire forests so that mushy cards can be printed that express the sentiment we usually reserve for our favorite quarterback. We buy enough stuffed animals to fill entire zoos and mostly, we buy chocolate.  According to the National Retail Federation, some 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are purchased each year for Valentine’s Day. We must do that right because the day following Valentine’s Day has been declared National Cheap Chocolate Day for the tons of chocolate left on shelves.

Maybe the best chocolate turtle in the Duke City.

Maybe the best chocolate turtle in the Duke City.

Some men, being men, still manage to screw this up and will give our sweeties inappropriate chocolate–either cheap, marginally edible chocolate or worse, anatomically correct (except for the exaggerated proportions) chocolate depicting body parts not meant to be associated with chocolate.  There’s no excuse for buying bad chocolate if you live in Albuquerque. Yes, Albuquerque. As hard as it might be to believe, you can actually find very good chocolate in Albuquerque and you don’t have to import it from Europe. One of my favorite places for chocolate in New Mexico is Theobroma Chocolatier. Its chocolate is more than good enough to save Valentine’s Day for even the most Ralph Kramden-like troglodytes among us.

The name Theobroma is derived from two Greek words, “theo” and “broma” which translate to the “food of the gods.” In the polytheistic culture of the ancient Mayans, chocolate was considered a luxury reserved exclusively for gods and the ruler class. The Mayans became the world’s first chocolate aficionados, revering chocolate for its mood-enhancing, restorative properties. It became an integral part of the Mayan society.  Today, chocolate is no longer considered exclusive to a privileged class and the celebrity-worshiping modern world no longer holds the “god of chocolate” in reverence. No longer are temples built in his honor or sacrifices of chocolate made in his name.

A chocolate lovers' delight: Piñon covered dark chocolate

Instead “temples” such as Theobroma make excellent chocolate available to everybody. Located near the foothills of the Sandias, it’s not exactly within convenient driving range for most chocolate worshippers in Albuquerque, but it’s worth the drive from anywhere in the city. Men will hopefully not have to stop to ask for directions (we actually do that when women aren’t around) to find it.  Theobroma is the brainchild of Chuck and Heidi Weck, two Kansas City transplants who launched their first Duke City chocolate emporium in 1996. In making and selling the food of the gods, the Wecks are committed to perpetuating and nurturing the chocolate traditions begun by the Maya.

Only the Swiss (22.4 pounds per person per year) consume more than the 11.7 pounds of chocolate each American will consume each year. During my visits to Theobroma, it’s been tempting not to consume an entire year’s average in one day. Theobroma makes me feel like Charlie, the kid in the Willy Wonka movie who found the last golden ticket.  That’s because Theobroma has chocolate of every imaginable type and shape (more than one hundred different molded chocolates) and it’s all delicious and affordable.

Chocolate covered caramel with sea salt

Theobroma has got assortments of chocolate truffles in every flavor: hazelnut, butter pecan champagne, coffee, amaretto, mint, cappuccino, rum, raspberry, Irish cream, Tiramisu and orange. It’s got milk chocolate and dark chocolate and everything in between. It’s even got chocolate covered Oreos (the best I’ve ever had) and ChacoPop, popcorn smothered in milk chocolate (or caramel, if you prefer).  It’s got chocolate covered caramel kissed with sea salt, a delicious treat that will make macho men swoon.  It’s got piñon covered chocolate bark that you’d kill for.

There’s a treasure trove of chocolate sure to please the love of your life. The only danger is that you might not be able to resist the temptation to “sample” some of it and if you do, none of it will make it home.

Theobroma Chocolatier
12611 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 293-6565
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chocolate Truffles, Chocolate Covered Oreos, ChacoPop popcorn, Chocolate Covered Caramels with Sea Salt

Cecilia’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cecilia's Cafe on 6th Street

Cecilia’s Cafe, a hidden downtown gem and one of New Mexico’s most famous and popular restaurants

Pasqual Baylon’s devotion to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist was so fervent that even when assigned kitchen duty, he remained so enraptured in adoration of the Eucharist that angels had to stir the pots to keep them from burning.  It’s deliciously ironic, therefore, that San Pasqual is the recognized patron saint of Mexican and New Mexican kitchens, a beloved saint whose smiling countenance graces many a kitchen, including the one in Cecilia’s Cafe, one of Albuquerque’s most authentic (and best) New Mexican restaurants.

On the day Cecilia opened her cafe back in 1999, she found a small retablo (a painting with a religious theme) of San Pasqual on her restaurant’s stoop.  To this day, no one knows who left that retablo which now hangs near the kitchen’s entrance.  If you’re inclined to believe in miracles…or at least in a favorable omen, San Pasqual was portend of greatness for this humble little restaurant.

Cecilia warms herself by the wood stove

The talented and terrific Cecilia Baca

When Cecilia says the secret ingredient in her cooking is love, she knows it comes from her heart, but she also doesn’t discount divine inspiration from her kitchen’s patron saint.  One meal at Cecilia’s Cafe and you’ll probably be disposed to believe her food is inspired.  If you’re a native New Mexican, you might even call it miraculous.  That’s because this is New Mexican food the way it’s been prepared by and for New Mexicans for generations.  It is unadulterated and in no way “anglicized” for touristy tastes.  This is the real thing!

Cecilia worked at several restaurants (including Little Anita’s, Garduno’s and Garcia’s) before embarking on her restaurant venture.  Because her goal is to deliver authenticity and consistency to her customers, she insists on preparing all the food herself (with Pasqual’s angels no doubt lending a hand).  The result is no less than some of the very best New Mexican food in the city–far better than the food at any of the restaurants in which she worked.

Cecilia's charming cafe

Cecilia’s comfortable restaurant

Cecilia was born and raised in Albuquerque’s North Valley and is a stickler for the details–the little things that make a difference between authenticity and a parody.  Preserving centuries old New Mexican culinary traditions is one of the reasons she opened her restaurant.  It’s also one of the reasons she insists her daughters Stephanie and Claudette work with her.  Cecilia wants to ensure they learn traditional New Mexican culinary techniques and is even teaching them how to prepare those dishes (such as meat empanadas) they might not like.  Her daughters have learned much more than cooking.  Their engaging and friendly personalities are obviously a reflection of the old-fashioned New Mexican manners they’ve learned from their mother.

Cecilia’s Cafe is the essence of an off-the-beaten path restaurant.  Situated in a hundred year old plus brick edifice a few blocks south of Central Avenue, it is both amazingly obscure and surprisingly well known.  Cecilia’s loyal clientele include white- and blue-collar workers who have frequented her cafe from the start. That clientele includes former ambassador to Spain Ed Romero, a New Mexico native.  Romero gave Cecilia the wood-burning stove that keeps her homey restaurant warm. Considering its relative anonymity until “discovered” in 2009, you might wonder if the faithful throngs wanted to keep this divine dining destination a well-kept secret.

Salsa and Chips Cecilia style

Salsa and chips at Cecilia’s Cafe

Much of Albuquerque didn’t learn about Cecilia’s until the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin rated it three and a half stars, a rating rarely accorded by the fire-eating Wisconsin native.   Though not a native, Andrea has come to realize that true greatness in chile is rare, even in New Mexico, so for her to use that adjective to describe Cecilia’s chile, it has to be something special.

Today, Cecilia’s is no longer a well-kept secret thanks to an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives which aired on February 16th, 2009.  Host Guy Fieri couldn’t get enough of Cecilia’s chicharrones (more on those later) and appreciated the multiple layers of flavor in Cecilia’s made from pods red chile.   He even took a stab at frying sopaipillas and watching tortillas on the griddle (under Cecilia’s watchful eye, of course).  Today, a monitor on a wall shows the “Triple D” episode perpetually.

Green chile Salsa and chips

In January, 2010, the Travel Channel traveled from coast to coast to uncover the 101 tastiest places to chow down–”joints serving some of the biggest and best dishes of deliciousness around.”  The only New Mexico restaurant to make the list–at  number 45 on the chow down countdown–was Cecilia’s Cafe, a downtown Duke City institution.  The program described Cecilia’s as “where they serve up New Mexican food so messy not even a stack of napkins won’t help.”  The description aptly described the Fireman’s Burrito, “a burrito bursting with so many mouthwatering and mind-blowing fillings, they serve it with a side of…apron.”  The Travel Channel gave it a “four-napkin” rating. 

This behemoth burrito was created by Cecilia at the behest of two local firemen Cecilia describes as “characters” who came into the restaurant famished and asked for something really big.  Cecilia put together sausage, bacon, eggs and hashed browns then loaded them into a homemade tortilla and piled on red chile, green chile, beans and carne adovada.  She topped the “gloriously messy mound of chow” with cheese and red and green chile.  Cecilia says it weighs between two and a half and three pounds, depending on who makes it.  When she makes it, it’s always three pounds.  This is the Fireman’s Burrito on the menu for just over a ten spot.  There’s also a competition-size burrito which goes for $42 (as of February, 2012), but it’s yours at no charge if you can finish it in an hour.  Because it’s roughly the size of a barge (seriously–it’s the length of a table and is more than three-inches high), only one gurgitator has managed to finish it and he did so in 36 minutes.  Nearly eighty others have tried and failed.

Blue corn enchiladas with red chile and a fried egg

Enchiladas with a fried egg on top

Call it sacrilege if you will, but I believe Cecilia’s red chile is in rarefied company along with Mary & Tito’s, The Shed, La Choza and Pete’s Cafe when it comes to capturing the essence of outstanding red chile.  Cecilia uses only Chimayo red chile and has it ground specially for her.  It’s a dark, rich and earthy chile that isn’t adulterated with flour or with cumin, that accursed spoiler of chile (Cecilia and I commiserated on the use of that vermin spice cumin, both aghast that any self-respecting New Mexican cook would use it on chile). 

As has become rather common in many New Mexican salsa and chips are no longer complementary but this is one salsa worth splurging (a pittance really) for.  This salsa’s piquancy will sneak up on you and before you know it the roof of your mouth and tongue will be tingling with the spicy vibrancy of a fresh and delicious salsa.  At many New Mexican restaurants salsa is often the most piquant menu item.  That’s not the case at Cecilia’s whose chile can be quite incendiary.  Another rare treat is that Cecilia sometimes offers a green chile-based salsa.

Carne adovada

Carne Adovada Breakfast with potatoes and beans at Cecilia’s

The menu includes many New  Mexican favorites, all prepared to order.  This isn’t fast food, or worse, frozen food thawed when ordered.  Cecilia frowns on institutionalized restaurants who don’t use the freshest ingredients possible. Though I normally order my New Mexican entrees “Christmas style” so as to sample both red and green chile, Cecilia’s red chile is so good that it might be a while before I find out what the green is like.  It’s that way at Mary & Tito’s, too.

That red chile shines on blue corn enchiladas engorged with shredded roast beef and topped with a fried egg.  If it’s possible for your taste buds to be happy, this entree will do it for you.  The roast beef, like all the meats Cecilia uses, comes from Nelson’s Market, a long-time Old Coors neighborhood institution and for my money, the very best meat market in the Duke City.  The shredded roast beef is tender and delicious.

Chicharones burrito

A humongous burrito at Cecilia’s

Having certified that Cecilia’s red chile is in exclusive company, we picked up Andrea’s gauntlet and ordered the carne adovada breakfast plate (hashed browns, two eggs any style, beans and carne adovada). The carne adovada is achingly tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious–shredded pork marinated in luscious red chile and slow-cooked to perfection.  As my friend Becky Mercuri might say, it’s so good I’d like to comb it through my hair.  Guy Fieri called it “pulled pork gone wild” after spilling the contents of a hand-held carne adovada burrito onto his beard.   Combing it through your hair or spilling it onto your beard might let it linger a bit longer, but in your mouth is where this carne adovada belongs.  This is carne adovada you will dream about.

Not surprisingly, Cecilia’s brings authenticity to a New Mexican specialty few restaurants seem to do well any more.  That would be chicharrones or pork cracklings (not pork rinds, but deep-fried cubes of pork with maybe a bit of pork fat thrown in for flavor).  A six- or eight-ounce portion at Cecilia’s is served with just off-the comal flour tortillas.  Fieri made the mistake of declaring that chicharrones are eaten like potato chips.  “That’s pork rinds, baby.” Cecilia corrected him.  She then showed him how they’re made–four hours of meticulous preparation time.  Another venue for chicharones is in Cecilia’s chicharones and bean burrito (pictured above).  Covered in cheese and smothered in heavenly red chile, it is among the very best burritos in the city.  Guy Fieri declared them “the size of a small football.”  Utterances of “wow” punctuated each bite he took of these delicious burritos.

Huevos Rancheros served Christmas style with Chicharones, Potatoes and Beans

Desserts rotate in and out at Cecilia’s whose prowess at baking is equal to its preparation of main entrees.  Alas, sometimes the entire baking bounty is gone by noon courtesy of savvy diners buying the sweet stuff in bulk.  This is definitely a case of their gain and your loss.  One of the specialties of the house are natillas, a rich Spanish custard that is equally wonderful whether served cold or warm.  Cecilia’s rendition is reputed to be fabulous, but if you don’t get it early, you might not get it at all.  You’ll also want a cup or three of the Red Rock Roasters coffee specially ground for Cecilia.  True to its name, this Albuquerque based coffee rocks!

Visit during the Lenten or Advent seasons and Cecilia might just be serving capirotada.  To call this dessert “bread pudding” is a vast understatement.  Made well, it is a terrific dessert.  Made authentically, it can be extraordinary.  Cecilia’s capirotada is extraordinary!  Like most capirotada, its component ingredients include toasted bread, lots of butter, cheese and raisins.  Cecilia also adds New Mexican roasted piñon which gives it a subtle hint of pine and for good measure, she might throw in cranberries to lend a tart taste.  She also uses piloncillo, a Mexican brown sugar.


Capirotada (New Mexican Bread Pudding)

Capirotada isn’t the only traditional Lenten dish Cecilia prepares.  During Lent, her menu might include quelites (wild spinach) and torta de huevo (a light egg-based dish served on Good Friday when Catholics abstain from eating meat).  Non-Lenten desserts include some of the best chocolate brownies I’ve ever had.  My friend Mike Muller said he’d dream about them after having lustily consumed the very last one left at Cecilia’s.  Being the good friend that he is, he shared it with me.  It’s so good, I might not have shared it.

The walls at Cecilia’s Cafe are adorned with several images of San Pasqual, as appropriate an inspiration as there could be for this wonderfully authentic New Mexican restaurant.  As you partake of Cecilia’s wonderful red chile, visualizing Pasqual’s angels helping out in the kitchen won’t be much of a stretch.  Get to know Cecilia and you’ll come to the realization that working miracles is a specialty for her. 

Cecilia’s Cafe
230 6th Street
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 243-7070

LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas with Shredded Roast Beef, Carne Adovada, Salsa and Chips, Capirotada, Chicharones and Bean Burrito, Chocolate Brownies

Cecilia's Cafe (Downtown) on Urbanspoon

Hua Chang – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hua Chang on 4th Street

Hua Chang on 4th Street

1943’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Casablanca is replete with memorable quotes and scenes. Toward the end of the movie, reluctant hero Rick Blaine helps the beauteous Ilsa Lund and her husband, underground leader Victor Lazlo, escape to Lisbon. In a tearful farewell, Rick tells Ilsa she would regret it if she stayed. “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Having been tipped off to the escape, Major Strasser of the Luftwaffe drives up and tries to prevent it. Rick shoots and kills him. When the police arrive, the opportunistic French police Captain Renault tells them to “round up the usual suspects,” saving Rick’s life.

“Round up the usual suspects” seems to be the unintended mantra of Chowhound and similar foodie message boards. Invariably, a list of “anointed” restaurants is repeated ad nauseam whenever a prospective diner asks where to have a meal. The list of anointed restaurants is short and it’s exclusive. It’s hard to break into the list and once a restaurant is on it, it might take an exposé of roach infestations for the restaurant to come off the list.

Homemade pot stickers (eight per order)

Homemade pot stickers (eight per order)

When it comes to Chinese food in Albuquerque, the list of “usual suspects” is even shorter than for cuisine of other genres. Most people mention Ming Dynasty and Amerasia for dim sum while proponents of Americanized Chinese food (sweet and sour sauce lacquered on fried meats) generally extol the cuisine at Chow’s Asian Bistro and P.F. Chang’s.

Every once in a while, there’s a lone voice crying in the desert wilderness–an adventurous diner who doesn’t follow the well-beaten, well-eaten path to the anointed favorites. Every once in a while, an intrepid culinary adventurer like Barbara Trembath will make a very compelling case for a restaurant that’s not necessarily packaged with the flash and panache of some of the anointed restaurants. It would behoove the rest of us to listen.

Egg drop soup

Egg drop soup

Barbara spent the first ten years of her life, as well as age 23-30 in San Francisco, eating her way up and down Grant and all the alleys in between. She’s also been to Hong Kong almost a dozen times. It’s safe to say she not only likes Chinese food, she really KNOWS Chinese food. Barbara introduced me to Hua Chang, a nondescript -san and papa-san restaurant on Fourth Street. She told me Hua Chang was not the “typical American Chinese restaurant” and that “there are things on and off the menu that I’ve never heard of.”

Mama-san and Papa-san are Mr. and Mrs Lim, two of the nicest restaurateurs I’ve ever met. They treat their customers like welcome guests and feed them like they would family. That means prodigious portions of fresh food prepared to order. Hua Chang is situated at the site in which Tio Oscar’s once plied its business. The Lims actually operated their restaurant at the site for nearly a dozen years before deciding they would rather work shorter hours for someone else than continue to work seven days a week for themselves.

Chicken lo mein

Chicken lo mein

When Tio Oscar’s closed up, the Lims reopened their restaurant. It’s a restaurant I vaguely recalled driving by dozens of times without giving it a second thought. Hua Chang has none of the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains and all-you-can-choke-down buffets that dominate the Duke City’s Chinese restaurant scene. It truly is nondescript. It doesn’t get much better once you’re seated. Simple booths and tables are your accommodations while virtually stark walls provide none of the visual distraction you might experience elsewhere. .

The foyer leading to Fourth Street does have a colorful mural depicting balloons during Albuquerque’s International celebration of the aviation event, but that’s probably a hold-over from Tio Oscar’s. Visual stimulation comes when you open up the menu and gaze in awe at the many intriguing options. There are luncheon specials galore, each served with an egg roll and fried rice. There, too, are chef specialties and combination plates sure to please the most discerning palate.

Salt & Pepper Chicken

Salt & Pepper Chicken

The menu is as stark as the walls in that none of the entrees are described other than by being named. The Lims are more than happy to tell you all about “Happy Family” and other options. A more sagacious option than hazarding to guess what might be good (though chances are, everything is) is ordering what Barbara recommends. That would start with an order of pot stickers hand-made by Mrs. Lim every morning.  The pot stickers are “best in Albuquerque” terrific–eight to an order beauties fashioned like bags of gold and stuffed with minced chicken. A light soy and rice wine vinegar sauce ameliorates the flavor of these delicious dumplings without detracting in the least.

Barbara also recommends the salt pepper chicken which she describes as “to die for.” Hua Chang’s rendition features lightly breaded chicken stir-fried in a wok with fragrant ingredients such as scallions, onions and jalapenos.  Mr. Lim is obviously a master of the wok, knowing how to quick-heat aromatic ingredients at the optimum moment to release their aroma before adding chicken. He also removes the entree from the wok with the precision of a practiced culinary technician, knowing the food is still cooking for a minute or longer after it is removed from the wok. It makes a huge difference and is the reason his salt pepper chicken retains its moisture with just a hint of crispiness. It’s a delicious entree, a mountainous portion of deliciousness.

Ginger chicken

Ginger chicken

Barbara’s barometer for Chinese food is Kung Pao Chicken. She figures if a restaurant can get that dish right, it’s a restaurant worth visiting again. Hua Chang’s Kung Pao chicken is prepared San Francisco style the way she likes it–not too saucy with everything cut into little cubes, with an option to order it extra spicy and extra nutty, too.

Though we didn’t try the Kung Pao Chicken during our inaugural visit, we were very happy with the Chicken Lo Mein combination plate (egg roll, fried rice, BBQ ribs). Lo Mein, a dish of soft, stir-fried noodles and sundry vegetables, is a simple dish yet more often than not, is of mediocre quality or worse. At Hua Chang’s everything on the Lo Mein is cooked to perfection with vegetables having the snap of freshness, the noodles having the perfect balance between firmness and tenderness and the sauce having a light, delicate sweetness without being cloying.

One of the very best Hot and Sour Soups in the Duke City

If you like your sauces a bit more invigorating, the menu has infinite possibilities such as the ginger chicken in which chicken is steamed and served with scallions, bak choy, onions and of course, ginger. Ginger is renown as an excellent palate cleanser in between bites of sushi. Each bite of Hua Chang’s ginger chicken seems imbued with the same properties of freshness and liveliness you find in the ginger eaten with sushi. This is the best version of this dish I have had in the Duke City.

The portions at Hua Chang are so generous that you’ll easily have enough left over for another meal or more–and everything reheats well. We, in fact, reheated all our left-overs (lo mein, fried rice and salt pepper chicken) together and the resultant amalgam was wonderful with the flavors melding together like some perfectly matched formula.

I don’t know if Hua Chang will ever make it to the list of anointed restaurants, but it should be on your culinary roadmap.

Hua Chang
5333 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 February 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salt Pepper Chicken, Pot Stickers, Chicken Lo Mein, Ginger Chicken

Hua Chang on Urbanspoon

Scalo Northern Italian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Scalo, one of the crown jewels of the Nob Hill area.

Scalo, one of the crown jewels of the Nob Hill area.

When we moved back to New Mexico on May 15, 1995, our first priority wasn’t where to live, but where to eat.  Having been away for the better part of 18 years, there were so many old favorites with which to reacquaint ourselves and so many exciting new prospects we just had to try.  By year’s end, we had visited 75 different restaurants (no chains).  One of our favorite sources on where to eat was Albuquerque Monthly, a very well written publication which celebrated the Duke City’s culinary scene with an Annual Restaurant Guide and a “Best of Albuquerque” edition. 

On its tenth anniversary, the magazine created a “Best Of” Hall of Fame, listing the ten establishments–restaurants, bars, card stores, clothing stores, computer stores, galleries and more–which had received more “best of” votes during the decade than anyone else.  The first establishment listed was Scalo Northern Italian Grill, which was also perennial selection on the magazine’s annual listing of the city’s top ten fine-dining restaurants (other mainstays still serving the city include the Artichoke Cafe, Prairie Star and the Rancher’s Club).

The main dining room at Scalo

Call it heretical if you will, but it took a while before Scalo earned my affections.  One song described perfectly my first three experiences at Scalo, long regarded by many as an Italian restaurant in a class of its own–the pinnacle of Italian dining in the Duke City.  That song, a 1960’s baby boomer tune by Polly J. Harvey asked the question, “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball if that’s all there is.”  After every meal at Scalo, I asked myself the same question: Is that all there is?…but I didn’t come away dancing (although the pricey tab usually made me want to take up drinking.)

Because it was one of Albuquerque’s most popular, highly acclaimed and revered restaurants, I expected Scalo to completely blow me away. Instead, my every dining experience was a humdrum event that left me perplexed as to what I was missing.  That changed on Saturday, May 5th, 2005 when like a sudden, powerful and almost spiritual realization hit me–an eating epiphany of sorts. That epiphany came with the second or third bite of the spinach salad (yes, a salad!) with blue cheese, honeyed walnuts and strawberries. Almost ethereal in its lightness, this salad married ingredients that just shouldn’t work that well together, but nonetheless coalesce to create a memorable taste sensation.  The sharpness of the blue cheese, the tartness of the just in season strawberries and the salty sweetness of the honeyed walnuts were like the signature masterpiece of a culinary artist, easily one of the best salads we’ve had in New Mexico.

Great Northern White Bean Soup

Great Northern White Bean Soup

Perhaps not coincidentally, just a few weeks before that transformative visit Scalo’s ownership changed hands with entrepreneur Steve Paternoster assuming the helm.  Paternoster is one of Albuquerque’s most successful restaurant impresarios, having had a hand on several successful start-ups including La Brasserie Provence and Ptit Louis Bistro.  He is also one of the city’s most active philanthropists, garnering the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s (NMRA) Cornerstone Humanitarian of the Year for New Mexico in 2010.  That same year Scalo and Brasserie La Provence shared the NMRA’s “Restaurant Neighbor Award” for their ongoing contributions to many civic organizations, schools and churches. 

It would be presumptuous to believe one person, no matter how influential or dynamic, could be solely responsible for my sudden change of heart about a restaurant.  After all Scalo has been serving Albuquerque since December, 1986 and during its quarter-century of operation has always been regarded as one of the city’s premier destination restaurants. In 2007, it was bestowed a Wine Spectator award of excellence for its outstanding selection of premium wines.  In 1998, it was featured in Gourmet Magazine.  After 25 years, it continues to garner accolades.  During his very entertaining and interesting weekly radio show, Steve Paternoster often gives all the credit to Scalo’s success to the restaurant’s staff, most of whom have been with the restaurant for years.  It’s a good staff, as accommodating and friendly as they come in the Duke City, but Paternoster’s leadership and commitment to keeping his restaurant at the top is inspiring.

Baked cavatelli

Baked cavatelli

The Scalo experience is much more than excellent wines and quality Northern Italian cuisine. Its allure also includes a bright, airy interior bustling with the cacophonous din of constant activity from an open kitchen and an enthusiastic wait staff flitting from patron to patron, seemingly never skipping a beat or screwing up an order.  Weather permitting, al fresco dining is available in a capacious, covered, temperature-controlled patio replete with white linen table cloths and fine silverware.

Scalo’s menu is influenced by seasonal harvests and it prides itself on using locally grown organic produce. The quality shows in some of the most inventive salads and soups anywhere in town.  The Great Northern White Bean Soup is one such soup–a brimming bowl of great ingredients melded together creatively. Those ingredients include shaved Parmesan cheese, a spicy-sweet pancetta, an invigorating Italian pesto pasta and hard-crusted Ciabatta croutons. This is the perfect autumn soup a comforting elixir that will cure what ails you.

Gnocchi Scalo style is an adventure in flavor.

Gnocchi Scalo style is an adventure in flavor.

A meal at Scalo includes complimentary bread baked by the Swiss Alps Bakery which has been serving the Duke City for more than a decade. It’s a hearty, hard-crusted, airy bread just perfect for sopping up Scalo’s savory sauces. The bread is served with an olive oil and Balsamic vinegar mix. Alternatively, you can request butter, but it’s generally chilled and not easy to spread.  For brunch (described below), the bread basket also includes fresh fruit danish.

The Baked Cavatelli starts with a corkscrew shaped pasta baked al dente then topped with a fennel-rich housemade pork sausage, mushrooms, roasted garlic, ricotta, Parmesan and a pine nut gremolata in a marinara cream sauce.  There are a lot of things going on with this entree, but it’s not one of those dishes in which all the ingredients seem to be competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Instead the ingredients work well together in a concordant, complementary fashion.  You may want to isolate the flavors to focus on specific tastes (for example, the richness of the ricotta or the tangy, piquant bite of the sausage), but this is an entree in which the flavors are truly best in combination with each other.

chocolate semi freddo

chocolate semi freddo

The sautéed gnocchi employs even more flavor combinations–a Gorgonzola cream sauce, toasted walnuts, balsamic currants and chives. There’s the pungent richness and sharpness of the Gorgonzola, the fruity tanginess of the currants and the flagrant effervescence of the chives. This gnocchi is rich and delicious. Gnocchi, which is much more than just Italian potato or semolina dumplings, should be light in texture with almost a melt-in-your-mouth quality. That’s what Scalo’s rendition of this taken-for-granted entree is–ethereally light and wholly enjoyable.

The lunch menu includes several wood-fired gourmet pizzas, most crafted with fairly standard, albeit high-quality ingredients.  On occasion, the pizze (sic) menu also includes pizza crafted with ingredients you might not see elsewhere in New Mexico on a pizza. Creativity seems to be a hallmark of all Scalo entrees. One pizza we enjoyed immensely but which isn’t on the standard pizze menu showcased fig preserve, prosciutto, Gorgonzola, mozzarella and arugula. At first browse, these ingredients seem somewhat disparate, yet Scalo made them work in a taste bud pleasing fashion. Scalo’s pizza is a semi-round pie served slightly crispy and waifishly thin. It’s not likely you’ll have any leftovers save for the impressions left  on your olfactory memories and taste buds.

Budino Di Pane: Warm caramel topped bread pudding with vanilla gelato

Dessert (the “dolce” menu) is a celebratory event at Scalo where seven sensational sweet treats will challenge you to select the right one to finish off your meal.  As with the antipasti, insalati, pizze, panini, carne e pesce and fresh pasta menus, desserts are not permanent fixtures as Scalo changes things up frequently to keep things interesting and delicious.  You can generally expect to find homemade gelato on the menu and usually a “sampler’ which introduces you to three desserts at one fixed price.  During our inaugural brunch visit, we rejoiced at finding a Budino Di Pane, an Italian bread pudding topped with warm caramel and served with vanilla gelato.  It’s a dessert which in 1995 could well have been another epiphanic dish.

If you fancy chocolate–and not the dairy chocolate variety tailored for children–you’ll love Scalo’s chocolate semi freddo Genoise cake with a pistachio bark in a warm pool of dark chocolate sauce.  This is not a fork-tender chocolate confection. In fact, it’s darn hard to cut into the cake, but once it’s in your mouth, it practically melts there. This is a dark, rich chocolate that should come with an “R” rating for adults only.

Ostrichi al Forno: oysters baked with artichoke, aoili, reggiano, truffle oil

Scalo For Brunch 

Scalo was a relative late-comer to the brunch bunch, serving the traditional Sunday repast from 11AM to 2:30PM with a Bloody Mary bar starting at noon.  The brunch menu includes five items on the antipasti y insalate menu, four pizzas and a ten-item Primi Y Secondi menu.  In Italy, the traditional meal progression begins with an antipasto followed by a primi (usually soup, pasta or risotto) then a secondi (main course) and finally dolce or formaggi (a cheese course).  Portions in Italy tend to be much smaller than in America so that progression makes sense.  Scalo’s portions are somewhat more substantial and you might not follow the traditional progression.

You would not, however, want to pass on an antipasti as terrific as the ostrichi al forno, four oysters on the half-shell baked with artichoke, aioli, Reggiano and truffle oil.  It’s a wonderful variation on Oysters Rockefeller and much better, too.  The greenish hue of the artichoke-infused, Reggiano blessed oyster appetizer is intriguing, but it’s the flavor of the dish–the brininess of the oysters, the fresh “greeness” of the artichokes, the sharp nuttiness of the Reggiano–that will ensnare your affections. You’ll want a dozen of these beauties.

Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda: pounded bone-in crispy pork chop, onion bacon and grain mustard cream, capers, potatoes

The Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda, a pounded bone-in crispy pork chop with an onion, bacon, capers and grain mustard cream  is somewhat reminiscent of a German weinerschnitzel though much more lightly breaded.  The mustard cream is more akin to a French Hollandaise sauce than to a pungent, tangy German mustard.  This prodigious hunk of porcine heaven is as substantial in flavor as it is in portion-size.  The pork chop is nearly fork tender and is terrific with or without the mustard cream.

A more “breakfasty” brunch offering is the Polenta y Salsiccia, creamy polenta, grilled sausage, poached eggs, roasted peppers and mushrooms.  Polenta (not necessarily synonymous with grits) serves as the base for this dish–literally.  Piled atop the polenta are two sausages, one spicy and one sweet and frothy poached eggs.  The objective of this dish is to spread the runny yokes throughout the dish, making it a melange of flavors.  It may not be as aesthetically pleasing, but the combination of ingredients works very well.

Polenta y Salsiccia: creamy polenta, grilled sausage, poached eggs, roasted peppers, mushrooms

Since my epiphany in 2005, it seems Scalo can do no wrong. My rating for this elegant Nob Hill treasure have risen from 15 to 22 over a period of visits. It wouldn’t surprise me if this trend continues. Scalo is that good–well worthy of all the accolades, well deserving of winning over stubborn converts such as me. It is an Albuquerque dining treasure!

Scalo Northern Italian Grill

3500 Central, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 255-8782
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 February 2012
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Spinach Salad; Penne with Tomato Cream Sauce; Pizza; Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda; Ostrichi al forno; Baked Cavatelli; Chocolate semi freddo;

Scalo Northern Italian Grill on Urbanspoon

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