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La Risa Cafe – Ribera, New Mexico

La Risa in Ribera, New Mexico

“La Risa es el mejor remedio.”
(Laughter is the best medicine.)

Laughter is a mystery.  Scientists don’t know why among all creatures throughout the Earth, only humans are hard-wired to be able to laugh.  Not even the hyena has this capability.   What scientists do know is that laughter has a variety of benefits to the human mind and body. Laughter: boosts the immune system, oxygenates blood and reduces stress.  Laughter may also reduce pain and it certainly elevates mood.

When Ashley Wegele, a regular reader of this blog, told me about the La Risa Cafe in rural Ribera, New Mexico, I was intrigued…to say the least. Why would a restaurant call itself the Laughter (the English translation of “risa”) Cafe? Could their food truly be the best medicine? Are the restaurant and its food a laughing matter? Ashley assured me that wasn’t the case, emphasizing that she would visit more often if only La Risa was closer to her Albuquerque home. She raved about La Risa’s “delicious made from scratch food” and stressed that “their desserts are even better!”

The Main Dining Room at La Risa

If you’ve never heard of Ribera, New Mexico and La Risa Cafe, you’re probably not alone. Ribera is a small unincorporated village about forty miles northeast of Santa Fe and 20 miles south of Las Vegas on I-25. Its biggest claim to fame may be that the Imus Ranch, a working cattle ranch for children suffering from cancer or serious blood disorders, is located just east of the village. Rolling hills pass in review as you drive to Ribera. You’ll probably be in too big a hurry to get to La Risa to enjoy the scenery much, especially if you’ve visited at least once and know just how good the restaurant is. It’s a scenic drive you’ll enjoy more on the way back home.

La Risa is an exemplar of the term “family owned and operated.” It’s a true “mom and pop” operation serving Ribera since 2005 in a repurposed 100-year old home owned by Jake and Laura Boyd-Martinez. When they purchased the restaurant, it was called the “Sad Cafe” just like the Eagles song of that title. The Sad Cafe operated with nine microwaves. It did not have an oven or a stove. It just made sense that the addition of an oven, a stove and outstanding food would change sadness into laughter, hence the name La Risa. There are many touches throughout the restaurant that will bring a smile, if not laughter, to your face. The unisex bathroom doubles as a laundry room with washer and dryer tucked away behind double doors. The door to that bathroom is held open by a rock.

The Sunshine Trio: Salsa, Guacamole, Con Queso with Chips

Now an oven and a stove alone don’t a great restaurant make. Laura Boyd-Martinez previously cooked and baked at such pantheons of Santa Fe culinary greatness as Cafe Pasqual’s, Harry’s Roadhouse and the Guadalupe Cafe, among others. Your meal at La Risa may well remind you of dining at one of Santa Fe’s best for both New Mexican comfort foods and pastries. While Laura is busily churning out one order after another, her two sons Jason and Randy are attending to the restaurant’s guests with courtesy and genial humor. The two are veritable whirling dervishes who somehow manage to keep up with the hustle and bustle in the dining room and a large screened patio.

As you walk into the restaurant, you’ll espy a slate board listing the specials of the day. New Mexican specialties (not all chile-based) dominate the menu and the specials board, but you’ll also find a nice selection of burgers, sandwiches, salads and comfort food favorites. La Risa showcases a homemade soup of the day and serves breakfast all day long. Appetizers include nachos, salsa, guacamole and queso. Instead of having any one of the former, try the restaurant’s Sunshine Sampler, a terrific triumvirate of salsa, queso, guacamole and chips, all of which are quite good. None have the potent piquancy fire-eaters live for, but they make up for it with great flavor.

Chicken Guacamole Blue Corn Enchiladas with a side of Sticky Peanut Pasta

When she authored Frommer’s Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque Travel Guide, my friend Lesley King listed “Northern New Mexico Enchiladas” as among “the most unforgettable Northern New Mexico Experiences,” indicating that there are few things more New Mexican than the enchilada. I couldn’t agree more and tend to consider enchiladas a good benchmark for restaurants which serve New Mexican food. La Risa’s blue corn cheese enchiladas are excellent–corn tortillas stuffed with your choice of beef and cheese, chicken and cheese or chicken, guacamole and cheese then smothered in a red or green chile (or both). When the menu says “stuffed,” it means over-stuffed. The red chile is rich, earthy and dark red. The green chile is more piquant. Both are superb!

Entrees are served with one or two sides: ham, bacon or sausage; chopped jalapeños, beans or posole, sticky peanut pasta, egg, home fries, salsa, red chile, green chile, Spanish rice, a sliced tomato, toast or English muffin, guacamole or sliced avocado. Conventional wisdom is that New Mexican entrees would warrant beans, Spanish rice or posole. Trust me to defy convention and try something entirely new and different. Okay, admittedly I thought I was ordering spicy peanut pasta (a Thai favorite) not sticky peanut pasta, but it was unconventional nonetheless. My Kim had the posole which was, alas, was tinged with just enough cumin to be discernible (for me, that means inedible).

Carnitas Diablo: Pork medallions marinated with rosemary & balsamic vinaigrette, topped with green chile, tomatoes & Mushrooms. (Side of Posole)

The entree which most surprised us was the Carnitas Diablo: pork medallions marinated with rosemary and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with green chile, tomatoes and mushrooms. These carnitas are in rarefied company with the carnitas at El Bruno in Cuba meaning they’re the very best we’ve found in the Land of Enchantment. The “Diablo” part of the entree’s name may be a bit of a misnomer because the prevalent flavor profile doesn’t come from the green chile’s piquancy, but from the balsamic vinaigrette and rosemary. The pork is as tender as the most tender of carne adovada and so delicious we’d make the trip back to Ribera just for another helping.

La Risa’s dessert menu is formidable, reminiscent of the great dessert line-up at Harry’s Roadhouse. Deciding which of the decadent half-dozen or so sweet treats to order is a challenge as one temptation seems more inviting than the other. If you need visual confirmation of the wait staff’s descriptions, the house-made desserts are on display in a glass case in the front room. The Mexican-chocolate-mousse pie is too good to sit under glass. The rich adult chocolate mousse is dense, fluffy and delicious. The three berry (raspberry, blackberry, blueberry) pie a la mode is another dessert of which you’ll want more than a slice.

Mexican Mousse Pie

La Risa is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11AM through 8PM and Sunday from 8AM to 6PM. Portions are more than generous and the service is friendly and attentive, but it’s the terrific flavors that will keep guests coming back even from long distances. You can always appreciate the great scenery on the way back home.

I started this review by discussing the importance of laughter.  Allow me to share below, an example of how laughter, love and courage touched me very personally.

In 1999 my friend Bill Resnik’s wife Janet was diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer.  Doctors told him her condition was grave and that she wasn’t going to make it.  Understandably this news was devastating.  The Resniks had just built their dream home and were hoping to someday raise a family of their own in that home.  Now cancer threatened their idyllic plans.  Bill and Janet had a storybook romance that began when she responded to a personal ad he had placed in a local newspaper–an ad tinged with humor that resonated with her.  For years a successful stand-up comedian, Bill immediately discerned that she had a wry sense of humor compatible to his.  They corresponded for a while before progressing from phone calls to dating and ultimately to marriage in 1992.  Family and friends called Bill and Janet the perfect couple, true soul mates. Their love and laughter were contagious.  Everyone enjoyed being around them. 

Three Berry (Raspberries, Blackberries, Blueberries) Pie a la mode

Coping with cancer was sometimes more than Bill and Janet thought they could handle.  At times when it became nearly overwhelming, they found solace in their Christian faith and in the sense of humor that had initially brought them together.  Janet was a fighter, determined not to let cancer control her life.  Together she and her ever attentive husband devoured every book they could find about her type of cancer.  They also studied the effects on laughter on terminal illnesses and while studies were inconclusive, they figured that feeling bad didn’t make her feel any better.  Fighting cancer meant neither Janet or Bill could give in to desolation and grief. They were determined to lead as happy and normal a life as possible under the circumstances and to face and combat her illness with humor. 

Janet’s unique sense of humor bolstered the spirits of everyone around her, particularly those of her loving husband who was at her side throughout the ordeal. It didn’t take long before the health care professionals attending to Janet also reveled in her natural buoyancy and great humor. Similarly, other cancer patients garnered strength from her determination and joy in life. There were times when all she and Bill could do was laugh at their situation. Once when a blue marker was used to paint a point of reference on her body for radiation therapy, Janet told Bill it looked like half a happy face. With her own marker, she then proceeded to complete the smiley face. After chemotherapy had taken her wavy locks and left only a few wispy strands, Janet was standing in front of a mirror when Bill walked in. He asked her how she was doing and she replied, “I look like an ass with eyes.” They both had a good laugh.

Janet Resnik lost her battle with cancer on July 5, 2002.  She had outlasted all her doctors’ expectations and some had even come to believe that she would receive the miracle for which they had all hoped.  When anyone mentions her name, those who knew and loved her can’t help but smile.  She had touched so many people in a life that was cut short all too soon.   After his beloved wife passed away, Bill began to look for ways to keep Janet’s legacy alive–to do more than remember the wonderful times they shared.  He wanted to honor her memory with something lasting and which would benefit others. He  concluded that Janet’s legacy would also be served by sharing her great humor and the lessons they had learned during her battle with cancer about humor’s therapeutic value. He would create a humor workshop for cancer survivors (anyone who has ever received a diagnosis of cancer, whether or not the disease is active), their families, friends and caregivers. He called it Dare to Laugh: A Workshop for Cancer Survivors, Their Families, Friends and Caregivers on the Therapeutic Value of a Good Sense of Humor

Through a combination of humorous exercises, tools and a healthy dose of comedic material, Bill made the workshop not only educational, but a lively audience participation session in which lightness, joy and hope would be the topics of the day. Participants learned how to find or create humor themselves whenever a “dose of laughter” was needed. Determined to take their minds away from the sadness and stress they faced daily–even if just for a few hours (but hopefully for much longer than that), Bill shared invaluable information regarding the therapeutic value of laughter, frequently peppering his discourse with humorous anecdotes that kept the mood light and joyful.

In sharing freely of his own personal experiences as a care-giver, he was also able to get participants to relate to him on a very personal level. Before ending the workshop, he asked the audience to draw a face that reflected how they felt at the end of the session. The happy faces  confirmed that the workshop had been a resounding success. Even stronger confirmation of the workshop’s success–every one of the participants asked that the Dare to Laugh workshops be repeated and volunteered their time to support additional sessions. Not only had Bill armed workshop participants with information they could use to self-medicate through laughter, he helped lighten their burdens and recruited an army of “laughter ambassadors” to help lighten the burden for others. Somewhere his loving wife Janet is looking down at him and smiling.

La Risa Cafe
State Rd 3 Mile Marker 73
Ribera, New Mexico
575-421-3883
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carnitas Diablo, Chicken Guacamole Blue Corn Enchiladas, Sunshine Trio (Guacamole, Salsa, Con Queso with Chips), Three Berry Pie, Mexican Mousse Pie

La Risa Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sengdao Bar-B-Q Asian Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sengdao Bar-B-Q Asian Cuisine on San Mateo just north of Gibson

Despite my (then) near eidetic memory and a sesquipedalian lexicon, it was my bumpkinly naivete my friends in Boston found most surprising (and amusing) about me.  By having absorbed Encyclopedia Britannica (before the internet and Wikipedia were a twinkle in Al Gore’s eyes), I had as much or more “book knowledge” about Boston as any of them did, but became wide-eyed and mesmerized at seeing all those sights and cultures which heretofore existed for me only on the printed page.  My friends delighted in introducing me to things you’d just never see in bucolic Peñasco, New Mexico. 

They also did their best to shock me (though for sheer shock and Wes Craven movie fear-inducing value, nothing was as shocking as the catch-as-catch-can driving style of Bostonians).  By taking me to Boston’s notorious “Combat Zone,” a name given to the red light district (which no encyclopedia could have prepared me for), they sought to tear down the enceinte built up by my conservative Catholic upbringing.  It certainly did shock and awe me.   Not at all as shocking as my friends would have enjoyed were the cuisines of the world to which they introduced me.   Rather than shock me, they whetted my appetite to experience even more.

The interior of Sengdao

If the aroma of fermenting kimchi (which has been known to blind Americans at 100 paces) didn’t faze me much, my friends should have expected that visiting a Chinese barbecue house in Boston’s Chinatown wouldn’t either.  Little did they know that seeing flocks of golden-skinned ducks–fully denuded with their heads intact–hanging on the windows, was fairly tame compared to the matanzas in which I had participated virtually all my life.  Next to the ducks were shining metal tubs of suckling pig, barbecued tripe, homemade sausages and racks of ribs.  It conjured up fond memories of collecting the blood of a freshly slaughtered hog for morsillas, a wonderful blood sausage none of my Massachusetts friends would have been able to stomach.

Chinese barbecue was one of those delicacies about which I knew absolutely nothing.  To me barbecue was synonymous with grilling meats on charcoal briquettes then slathering on a sweet tomato-based sauce.  At the time (1977) there were no barbecue restaurants in Taos county and the only “barbecue” you could find was a barbecue sandwich at Lotaburger.  You also couldn’t find Chinese food in Taos county so  the very first time I tried it in Lexington, it was a life-altering revelation.  I would probably have been mad at my parents for having deprived me of such deliciousness had it not dawned on me that they had never had Chinese food themselves.  

Shrimp-flavored chips

To my nescient mind, restaurants serving basic Americanized Chinese food–sweet and sour everything, egg rolls, chop suey, chow mein and the like–were pantheons of culinary greatness.  Then I discovered Chinatown’s dumpling houses and Chinese barbecue restaurants.  If the foods at your run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants were mouth-watering, the culinary offerings at those serving dumplings and barbecue evoked foodgasms, the euphoric sensation experienced by taste buds and olfactory senses upon tasting incredibly delicious food (think Paula Deen eating butter). 

Among barbecue purists, one of the most sought after properties of smoked meats is the “smoke ring,” a blushing pink discoloration of meat immediately below the surface crust.  A good smoke ring is as prominent in Chinese barbecue as it is in American barbecue.  It signifies the meats are prepared “low and slow”–slowly smoked in low heat to render those meats moist and tender (in the interest of full disclosure, the smoke ring in Chinese barbecue is often the result of food coloring).  Chinese barbecue (char siu) is actually very popular throughout Asia.  Instead of on a smoker, Chinese barbecue utilizes a technique in which strips of marinated meat on forked skewers are roasted in an oven or open fire.

Lao Papaya Salad (Green papaya, tomato, anchovy, chili, lime and fish sauce)

Since leaving the Boston area in 1979, the prospects of the perfection on a plate that is authentic Chinese barbecue have been dim and fleeting.  Only in London and San Francisco have we since experienced anything approximating one of the transformative foods of my youth.  When fellow IT professional Chris Reddington raved about an Albuquerque restaurant specializing in Chinese barbecue, my first inclination was one of skepticism–even though the name on the marquee does indeed include “Bar-B-Q.”  Moreover, the menu he gave me includes a section of “Bar-B-Q Chef’s Specials,” including BBQ Chicken, BBQ Pork, BBQ Duck (whole or half) and crispy pork.

The Sengdao Bar-B-Q Asian Cuisine restaurant is, at its heart and essence, a Thai restaurant, but it does indeed include the aforementioned selection of Chinese barbecue specialties.  Sengdao is named for the husband (Seng) and wife (Dao) couple who own and operate the restaurant which is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center on San Mateo a few blocks north of Gibson and next door to Acapulco Tacos & Burritos.  Previous occupants of the restaurant include Thai Ginger and a number of other restaurants, none of which were long-lived at the location.

Fried rice

Fried rice

Despite a somewhat garish exterior, Sengdao is one of the most attractive Thai restaurants in the Duke City.  Rhapsodically cascading rivulets of water from small fountains provide a soothing melody while you dine.  Thai screens and room dividers give the illusion of privacy even though tables are mere feet apart.   Tables and seats are sheathed under white linen.  At the front of the restaurant are two areas showcasing traditional Thai triangle pillow seating, versatile and attractive pieces used for hundreds of years for sitting, sleeping and decoration.

The menu is hardly a compendium of Thai and Chinese items, but it was hard to look beyond the Chinese barbecue items anyway.  Only a handful of appetizers are available as are Lao and Thai versions of papaya salads and four soups.  Noodle and rice dishes, curries, vegetarian dishes and Chinese entrees round out the menu.  Seng runs the front of the house and is as friendly and helpful as can be.   Shortly after you place your order, a bowl of shrimp flavored chips are brought to your table.  In terms of appearance and texture, they resemble Styrofoam packing peanuts, but they really do pack a shrimp flavor.  It’s a nice introduction to the restaurant–and maybe not the only complimentary item you’ll be presented.

BBQ Pork served with steamed rice

Sengdao is one of a small handful of Thai restaurants offering both a Lao and a Thai version of papaya salad.  There are some similarities.  The Lao version is made with green papaya, tomato, anchovy, chili, lime and fish sauce.  The Thai version is made with green papaya, tomato, dried shrimp, lime, peanuts, fish-sauce and sugar.  Anchovy, not just an ingredient on pizza, is one of the reasons we opted for the Lao offering.  By itself green papaya is surprisingly bland, but in combination with other ingredients, it can be very refreshing.  The contrast of lime and fish sauce with anchovy is especially flavorful.  We found it interesting that the papaya salad was served with three pork rinds (chicharrones, according to Seng) which reconstitute nicely with a bit of the lime and fish sauce.

Sengdao’s fried rice (chicken, pork or beef with egg, onion, celery, peas, carrots and sauce) is fairly standard stuff, maybe not seasoned or salted as assertively as at some Chinese restaurants.  As with most rice dishes, it’s quite good with any remaining sauces you may leave on your plate.  The fried rice is garnished prettily with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, both of which are fresh, delicious and healthful.

Green Curry (chicken, eggplant, bell pepper, bamboo shoot, basil)

Okay, let’s dispense with the preliminaries.  The main event, the piece de resistance and reason for our visit was Chinese barbecue.  In 2011, a readers’ poll compiled by CNN Go rated Chinese barbecue pork one of the world’s 50 most delicious foods.  Sengdao’s rendidtion didn’t quite take us to a higher place (Boston), but it is better char siu than we’ve had anywhere in New Mexico, a wonderfully roasted Chinese barbecue pork on par with bacon for sheer decadent pleasure.  The pork is succulent, tender, lean and moist impregnated with a light, spicy sweetness and just a hint of caramelization around the pinkish crust.  The sauce is sweet, but not cloying as sweet and sour sauce tends to be. 

The green curry (chicken, eggplant, bell pepper, bamboo shoots, basil and coconut milk) is an exotic alternative to the barbecue pork, with ingredients coalescing to provide a balanced taste sensation of sweet, savory, creamy, piquant and salty tastes.  As with all great curries, it has a floral scent that entices diners.  Two aspects render this green curry different from green curry served at other Thai restaurants in Albuquerque.  The first is the conservative use of coconut milk which allows the curry to shine without being dessert sweet.  The second is the thinness of the broth.  All the ingredients are fresh and delicious.  The eggplant is firm and fresh while the bamboo shoots are perfectly prepared.

Tapioca and coconut milk dessert

Before we could order (or even study the menu for options), Seng brought us a tapioca and coconut milk dessert.  The tapioca  were shaped like greenish gummy worms swimming in a slightly frothy coconut milk bath.  Though the dessert was warm, interestingly it included two ice cubes, perhaps to help mold the tapioca.  It’s a very good dessert, one you start off eating with a spoon but finish by drinking.

My friends in Massachusetts might find it shocking that New Mexico’s largest city has only one restaurant proud enough of its Chinese barbecue to include it on the marquee.  They might also find it surprising to find that Sengdao actually does the term “Chinese barbecue” proud.

Sengdao Bar-B-Q Asian Cuisine
834 San Mateo, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-255-5930
LATEST VISIT: 22 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET:

Sengdao Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Mariscos Altamar – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mariscos Altamar, one of Albuquerque's finest Mexican seafood restaurants.

Mariscos Altamar on Coors

“Forget what you thought you knew about Mexican food!” That should be a cardinal rule for unacculturated diners when traveling to Mexico–or visiting Mariscos Altamar–for the first time. Many of the dishes some Americans commonly believe typify Mexican cooking are either not Mexican at all (chimichangas and fajitas, for example), or are prepared using inauthentic techniques and ingredients (such as “nachos” crafted from melted Velveeta heaped over a dish of corn chips, a recipe I’ve actually seen on a cookbook published by a charity for which I almost withdrew support based on such recipes).

Because Mexico spans several climatic zones and a diverse topography, its cuisine varies from region to region.  The favorite foods of the Mexican coast may not even be available further inland.  Inland foods may not be as commonly served on the coasts.  Ah, those coasts!  Mexico’s beautiful and varied coastal waters are not only pristine in their azure purity, they yield an abundant and unsurpassed assortment of deliciously prepared delicacies from the sea.

Salsa and chips at Mariscos Altamar

Salsa and chips at Mariscos Altamar

When Hector Hernandez moved to Albuquerque from Ronald Reagan country (Orange County, California), it didn’t take him long to determine that the Duke City restaurant scene lacked traditional Mexican seafood (mariscos) restaurants–the type you might find in Guanajuato or Mazatlan, Mexico.  He filled that niche market with Mariscos Altamar (literally seafood from the high seas), originally situated in the Volcano Plaza, a nondescript strip mall.

With only 18 tables, the strip mall location just wasn’t big enough to hold the oceans of flavorful seafood prepared in his restaurant and in 2005, Mariscos Altamar relocated to a much larger, more modern and more attractive and accommodating edifice.  Throngs of diners, about a third of the men wearing Cowboy hats and snakeskin belt buckles and boots, are easily accommodated in the well-lighted, spacious and comfortable restaurant though at peak times, lines may snake out the door.  It’s especially popular on the weekend lunch hour when the soothing musical stylings of a crooning guitarist fill the dining room with music and even more boisterous when mariachis sing on weekend evenings.

Tostada de ceviche and queso fundido con chorizo.

Tostada de Ceviche (left) and queso fundido con chorizo

Colorful murals of the bounty of the sea festoon the walls.  Under glass in each table are hand-drawn prints of the trappings of Aztec life–molcajetes for grinding corn, platters of fish, and more.  Even the menu is colorful–as in vivid plastic menus complete with photographs of the entrees with descriptions in both English and Spanish.  You’ll be well attended by a very accommodating wait staff almost as fluid in English as they are in Spanish.  Some, such as Margarita (pictured far below) are so friendly and helpful that you might be tempted to ask them to join you at your table.

Two types of salsa are brought to your table shortly after you’re seated.  A watery red salsa is replete with flavor but not very piquant while a green chile salsa might open your nasal passages with its hearty hot bouquet.  The chips are crispy, fresh and altogether nearly impossible to stop eating.  Both chips and salsa are faithfully replenished.

Flamed Oysters

Flamed Oysters

The flautitas combo platter is a popular appetizer that features small flour tortillas filled with chicken or shredded beef, rolled and fried to a golden brown hue.  Served with guacamole and sour cream, they are great for sharing.  Save room for Marisco’s cocktails, all served in their juices with pico de gallo and avocado.  The best of the appetizer array might be Tostada de Ceviche, a deep-fried corn tortilla topped with a layer of guacamole then piled high with shrimp, fish and snow crab.  It’s garnished with sliced, fresh avocados.  Drizzle on some lime, close your eyes and you’ll swear you’re sitting on a pearlescent sandy beach.

Another excellent appetizer is the restaurant’s queso fundido, a dish of melted cheese…or more specifically two kinds of melted cheese.  Mariscos Altamar uses a white and yellow Cheddar cheese blend which you can have “natural” or with chorizo.  Hot oozing cheese goes so well with corn or flour tortillas.  It’s always a fun and delicious adventure to scoop up cheese which will stretch from the bowl all the way to your mouth.

Carne Asada

Carne Asada with a papa asada (baked potato)

A worthy successor to the ceviche is Mariscos Altamar’s specialty plate, a prodigious platter featuring four kinds of seafood: fish, shrimp, octopus and snow crab sautéed with pico de gallo and served with your choice of corn or flour tortillas, guacamole and rice.  The tortillas are served warm and stand ready to be stuffed like a taco with your well-seasoned seafood bounty.  Squeeze some lime and maybe add a bit of salsa on the seafood tacos you’ve just crafted and with a little imagination you’re in Mazatlan.

Not even in Mazatlan might you find Ostiones flamedos (flamed oysters)–at least in the manner prepared at Marisccos Altamar.  This seems to be a specialty of the house, but if there is any actual flaming done, it must be back in the kitchen because an order of a half or full dozen on the half-shell arrives at your table with nary a hint that they’ve been subjected to an intense flame.  These oysters are sauteed with butter and topped with a melted cheese, but even at that, they arrive at your table more lukewarm than hot.  Perhaps the “flaming” has to do with the spicy sauce somewhat reminiscent of the sauce used in oyster shooters, but not quite as incendiary.

Mariscos Costa Azul: Shrimp stuffed with jalapeno and wrapped in bacon served with French fries and rice

AskMen.com calls oysters “the cliche of all aphrodisiac foods” for their high zinc content (zinc controls progesterone levels, which have a positive effect on the libido).  I’m inclined to believe that attribution is for oysters at their essence of purity–slippery, on the half-shell and served over crushed ice.  Served warm and especially with gooey, melted cheese obfuscates the natural sea-saltiness some aficionados say make them “taste like the sea.”

A more traditional way to eat oysters Mexican style is in triumvirate with shrimp and octopus as part of a Campechano Cocktail.  This seafood cocktail, a pescatorian feast sure to please, is served in a huge glass with onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado and sundry spices.  It’s a cold cocktail served with slices of lime, crackers and a couple bottles of flavorful fire in the form of Cholula Mexican hot sauce.  You can add as little or as much of this liquid fire as you’d like.

Shrimp with a spicy sauce served with rice and beans

For something served hot and soothing, there’s nothing like Mexican soup, as much a comfort food in the land of Montezuma as it is in the United States. The caldo siete mares (literally seven seas soup) features seven types of seafood (including fish, clams, crab and squid) and is served in a swimming pool-sized bowl.  At many other restaurants this is a dish in dire need of desalinization, but at Mariscos Altamar, it’s salted just right.  It’s also hearty and filling.  Arriving at your table steaming hot, the caldo siete mares is wonderful year-round, but is especially satisfying on cold days.

Pescatorian delights include mojarra served several different ways.  Mojarra, a prominent fish on mariscos menus throughout Latin American, is a name given various species of fish, including tilapia.  At Mariscos Altamar, the mojarra is served whole–head to tail–and is deeply (maybe overly so) fried.  The garlic mojarra with mushrooms is crisp and a bit dry on the outside, but penetrate that gruff exterior with a fork and you’re rewarded with a firm-fleshed white fish complemented very well by the garlic-mushroom topping (which would be even better using freshly chopped garlic instead of minced garlic out of a jar).  This dish is served with French fries (accompanied by cold ketchup) and rice.

Garlic Mojarra with Mushrooms

Landlubbers need not feel as if they’ve been left on the dock of the bay.  Meaty options abound for carnivores of all dispositions as well as do Mexican menu standards such as enchiladas, tacos, chile rellenos and burritos (none of which are adorned with Velveeta).  The menu includes a section dedicated solely to steaks and no pedestrian slabs are these.  They include the charbroiled and marinated Tampiquena Steak; the Steak A La Duranguense, a grilled top sirloin topped with a roasted Anaheim chile; Steak Milanesa, a steak breaded in a house specialty mix and even a traditional grilled New York steak, albeit one served with mushroom sauce.

The least “adventurous” steak is the Carne Asada (pictured above), a simple steak garnished with guacamole and pico de gallo.  Simple, in this case, doesn’t mean flavorless nor does the thinness of this slab of beef signify a penurious portion.  This is a very tasty, surprisingly tender steak.  Even though it is perhaps not even a half-inch thick, this slab spreads out to about ten ounces of meat.

Margarita, one of the very best waitresses in Albuquerque brings flan to our table

All steak plates are served with rice, beans and your choice of tortillas (corn or flour).  The accommodating wait staff will even let you substitute a baked potato for rice and beans if you ask nicely.   You’ll want to ask.  With apologies to the Irish, no one bakes a potato like a Mexican and Mariscos Altamar does it better than just about anybody.  These are not puny, wrinkly potatoes.  They’re about half the size of a football, baked to absolute perfection and just dripping in real butter.

One of the restaurant’s most popular and unique desserts is akin to a cheesecake chimichanga.  Creamy cheesecake (we had  banana caramel) is wrapped in a pastry tortilla which is then fried until flaky and golden then dusted with cinnamon and sugar.  It’s served with strawberry and vanilla ice cream and is as rich and refreshing as any dessert we’ve had at any Mexican restaurant.

This rich dessert features strawberry ice cream and a banana cheesecake chimichanga drizzled with chocolate.

A unique cheesecake at Mariscos Altamar

In its annual Food and Wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff sampled “every dish of nachos in the city” and selected Marisco Altamar’s nachos as the tenth best in the city.  The magazine praised these nachos for making its own sour cream in-house, fresh and every day.

A visit to Mariscos Altamar is much less expensive than a trip to the Mexican coast, but with a bit of imagination, you can imagine yourself lounging at a little seaside cabaña with your toes in the powdery sand as you consume a pile of shrimp or an oversized cocktail. Mariscos Altamar will have that effect on you.

Mariscos Altamar
1517 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 831-1496
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shrimp Soup, Ceviche, Marisco’s Specialty Plate, Cheesecake, Flan, Camarones Costa Azul, Garlic Mojarra with Mushrooms,


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