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
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 March 2012
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 (CLOSED)

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
LATEST VISIT: 22 March 2012
COST: $$

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 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
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shrimp Soup, Ceviche, Marisco’s Specialty Plate, Cheesecake, Flan, Camarones Costa Azul, Garlic Mojarra with Mushrooms,

Mariscos Altamar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Silvano’s New Mexican Food Restaurant

My friend Carrie Seidman, the elegant and erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Tribune prefaced one restaurant review by saying “sometimes pleasure comes with a price tag.” That pithy aphorism should probably be appended by paraphrasing Luke 12:48: “from those who charge a lot, much will be expected.”   Expensive meals come with  expectations of intoxicating aromas and tastes, impeccable service and a classy, relaxed milieu in which to bask in the glory of a decadent, memorable meal.  Such meals are worth it only if afterwards you consider every dollar well spent.  Any regrets and the experience will leave you (and your wallet or purse) empty.

Fortunately for the most penurious and parsimonious among us, there is no absolute correlation of price tag to enjoyment.  There is no guarantee that an expensive meal will be a good one…but there is most certainly a correlation between spending a lot of money and the pain and regret you feel afterwards if the meal didn’t achieve lofty expectations.  Conversely, some of the very best restaurant meals to be enjoyed are often those that not only provide great value for the money, they serve genuinely good food and provide simple, but very pleasant and rewarding dining experiences you will want to repeat.

The interior of Silvano’s

The Albuquerque restaurant which might best exemplify the “bang for the buck” idiom is Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant, an eatery with a long and storied history in the Duke City.  The cover of the menu says it best: “Home where it all started, where we love you from the inside out.”  “Home where it all started” is a reference to the fact that Silvano’s occupies the original edifice it called home until 1985 when Silvano’s was sold to Frank R. Barela who promptly renamed it Los Cuates in honor of his newborn twins.  After sixteen years on the premises, Los Cuates closed its original location and was replaced in 2011 by Silvano’s, a full-circle turn few would have expected.

The “Where we love you from the inside out,” I suspect is an affirmation of the traditional New Mexican dicho “pansa llena, corazon contento” or “full stomach, happy heart.”  A meal at Silvano’s will most certainly fill your belly and leave you happy.  Portion sizes are prolific and prices are more than reasonable, but what diners will appreciate and remember most is the delicious food.  Old timers like me who dined at the original Silvano’s will also appreciate the memories the aromas and flavors will evoke–memories of good times with friends at an old and trusted favorite.  Others with better memories (Jim Millington and Tommy) also have memories of a short-lived Silvano’s on San Mateo just south of Menaul.

Chips with complimentary salsa and con queso

Few vestiges of the Los Cuates days remain at Silvano’s, a simple, no frills restaurant back home in the time-worn shopping center where it got its start.  The closed-in crowdedness of its predecessor is gone.  Silvano’s seems more spacious, but that may be illusory considering the lack of diners at the after-after rush hour of my inaugural visit.  The restaurant is much longer than it is wide with booth seating against the east and west walls and table seating in between.  Diamond-shaped mirrors framed with colorful garland festoon the otherwise unadorned light green walls.

You won’t be seated long before a cheery attendant arrives with a basket of complimentary chips, salsa and con queso.  At many other New Mexican restaurants, the price point for chips and salsa approaches that of some entrees so it’s refreshing to find one lavishing its diners with preprandial pleasure.  The salsa will be familiar to anyone who’s eaten at Los Cuates.  It’s a unique salsa–wholly unlike the traditional New Mexican salsa of tomatoes, onions, garlic and either green chile or jalapenos. It has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness and texturally, it’s tailor-made for dipping more than scooping. It’s an “either you love it or you don’t” type of salsa with plenty of fans and detractors. Count me among those who love its uniqueness.

Relleno Plate: Two chile rellenos served with beans topped with melted cheese, Spanish rice, cheese, red and green chile and two sopaipillas

The complimentary con queso is a temptress (maybe that’s the point) you’ll want more of.  It’s redolent with the bouquet of green chile and a Cheddar blend and it’s served warm.  The chips are relatively thin, but formidable enough to scoop up a few chips full of the con queso.  Alas, some of the chips are too large for the tiny plastic bowl, ergo another reason to order an appetizer-sided con queso.  The appetizers menu also includes chile fries (French fries topped with con queso and red or green chile), quesadillas (olives and jalapenos with melted cheese) and nachos.

The menu includes many traditional New Mexican favorites such as chile rellenos, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, fajitas, tamales, carne adovada and huevos rancheros.  A vegetarian combination plate (one chile relleno, one bean tostada, one cheese enchilada topped with red or green chile and two sopaipillas) is also available.  All entrees are priced south of the ten dollar mark.  My friend Andrea Lin of the Albuquerque Journal raves about Silvano’s chile rellenos, one of the entrees for which the restaurant was (and will be) best known.


Chile rellenos are often a hit-and-miss proposition, more often than not featuring an insipid, oversized chile stuffed with vapid, gooey cheese and battered with a thick coating resembling fried stucco.   Silvano’s chile rellenos are the opposite of that sorry stereotype.  The chile is battered a bit more thickly than most, but as Andrea describes it, it’s a “light almost tempura-like batter that holds a bit of crunch even under a ladle of chile.”  This entrees works best with both red and green chile, both of which are quite good, albeit not as incendiary as some fire-eaters might like.  As with several entrees, the rellenos are served with beans and Spanish rice.  The beans are terrific, as good as they come, but the Spanish rice is….well, it’s Spanish rice, one of those inexplicable anomalies in that most New Mexican restaurants serve it though you’ll never find anyone who says they love Spanish rice.  The relleno plate is also accompanied by two large, puffy sopaipillas just beckoning for honey. 

Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant is proof that you can go home again and home can be delicious.

Silvano’s New Mexican Restaurant
5016-B Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 March 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Rellenos, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Con Queso

Silvano's New Mexico Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mario's Pizza & Ristorante

Mario's Pizza & Ristorante on San Pedro just west of the Coronado Mall

In the 1978 movie Same Time Next Year, Ellen Burstyn’s character lamented that her husband considered his years in the Army the best years of his life. When Alan Alda’s character, her partner in a 26-year adulterous affair, commiserated that many men felt that way about their time in the military, Burstyn retorted, “but he spent two years as a prisoner of war.” Only a husband who wants to sleep on the couch would admit to any source of happiness outside of marriage… and only an honest answer to the loaded question “does this dress make me look fat” is more deleterious to any amorous prospects.

When I speak fondly to my lovely bride about my years in Massachusetts, it’s always prefaced or followed by “I wish you had been with me.” My two years in the Bay State were the best years of my life…outside of my married years, of course. Massachusetts converted this once gangly and naive lad of 19 who grew up in bucolic Peñasco, New Mexico into a more worldly and sophisticated young man ready to conquer the world.

Minestrone Soup

Minestrone Soup

Having been raised on a diet of northern New Mexican staples such as chile, beans and farm-raised vegetables, Massachusetts awakened my taste buds to an electrifying new world of cuisine. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, I wanted to sample it all. Here’s how culinarily virginal I was–until my years in Massachusetts, the only pizza I had ever eaten outside of Pizza Hut was out of the box, a wafer thin Chef Boyardee product with a cardboard-like crust. Is it any wonder Pizza Hut was my baseline for good pizza.  I’d never even had Chinese food not to mention Thai, Vietnamese, French, etc. My experiences with “seafood” were limited to the fish sticks we ate during Lent (unless you count the German Browns and Cutthroats we caught in Peñasco’s high mountain streams).

In the Boston area, particularly in the North End, Italian restaurants are not only authentic and refined, they’re extraordinary–among the best in the country. I couldn’t always afford many of the North End restaurants so it’s a good thing every Boston metropolitan area neighborhood seemed to have a few personality-packed Italian restaurants. Most of the neighborhood Italian restaurants were of the “red sauce” and pasta variety whose genesis stems from the cuisine of Southern Italy. The cream sauce and meat dish Northern Italian cuisine was in vogue at the more expensive restaurants, while the little neighborhood Italian restaurants could always be counted on to serve hearty portions of soul-warming pasta and pizza.



One of the Albuquerque Italian restaurants which most reminds me of those wonderful neighborhood Italian “red sauce” restaurants of my days in Massachusetts is Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante, a venerable Duke City institution. That’s likely because fragrance is one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up memories. Among the most enduring sensory memories of my days in Massachusetts are those associated with the amazing aromas that greeted me each time I visited my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurants.

Mario’s conjures up those memories as well. The familiar aroma of garlic-laden tomato sauces over a stovetop and yeasty pizza dough in the oven envelop you like a warm hug from the minute you enter the restaurant. Mario’s culinary lineage goes back to the mother country. The Burgarello family immigrated to America in 1949, settling in the Knickerbocker area of Brooklyn, New York. Mario, the family patriarch, worked as a pizza maker before launching his own pizzeria in Queens back in 1965. As fate would have it, a 1972 family vacation in New Mexico reminded the Burgarellos of the climate in Sicily so much that they moved to the beautiful Southwest. The rest, as they say, is history.

A work of art--Mario's pizza

Enamored of its traditional Sicilian cooking, Albuquerque has accorded Mario’s seven People Choice awards. That’s a lot of love–and it’s a love that’s reciprocated in the form of delicious food. If love can be served on a bowl, it might taste like Mario’s minestrone. This thick Italian vegetable soup might just be the essence of an Italian comfort soup. Mario’s version includes peas, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and other hearty vegetables, the type of which you hated as a child but would love in such a soup.

In 1995, Pizza Today, the leading trade publication in the pizza industry listed Mario’s among its “Hot 100” as one of the top independent pizzerias (#87) in the United States. By 2007, Mario’s had climbed to #76 among America’s highest grossing independent pizzerias. Even though the menu’s pizza section is entitled “Gourmet Pizza,” this is New York style pizza, not some colorful California concoction of disparate ingredients competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds.  Mario’s will accommodate (within reason) any weirdness with which you may be inclined to imbue your pizza. The “create your own pizza” includes a treasure trove of ingredients (no sashimi grade sushi or in-season mangoes if you’re aching for a California pizza).

Gouba Nachos: Chips Layered with Green Chile Cream Sauce, Roasted Peppers, Mixed Cheeses, Jalapenos, Lettuce and Tomato Garnish

This is pizza stretched to the edges where it puffs out like the sweet and savory yeasty oven-baked dough it is. Its outside edges are replete with tasty char and airy pockets of deliciousness. Even kids who don’t like the crust will love Mario’s pizza edges. They’ll also love the tangy tomato sauce and piled-on ingredients. Garlic is minced and potent, sausage is fennel-kissed and spicy, white onions are sweet and flavorful and the green chile has the roasted flavor New Mexicans love (though it doesn’t have the piquant kick fire-eaters like me relish so much.

There’s a lot to love in Mario’s stromboli, a meaty version of Mario’s calzones. It’s like a doughy half football stuffed with ham, salami, onions, green peppers, black olives, provolone and mozzarella cheeses. For a bit more zest, ask for it “Greek style” and the accommodating kitchen staff will add feta cheese and Kalamata olives. The stromboli is enormous, easily big enough for two to share. It is served with a small bowl of marinara sauce for dipping. The sauce is tomato rich and tangy, the quintessential red sauce I remember so well from Massachusetts.

The Goodfella: Combination Plate of Chicken Parmigiana, Stuffed Shells and Lasagna

The menu also includes all the favorite red sauce pastas Americans love so much. Steaming bowls of spaghetti, ravioli and lasagna are among the best-selling items according to the wait staff.  Mario’s offers several pasta combos which allow diners to try a triumvirate of pasta dishes on one plate.  The Goodfella combination plate, for example, includes chicken parmigiana, stuffed shells and lasagna.  Easily the best of the three is the chicken parmigiana which, unlike so many of its brethren isn’t beaten into an envelope thin, desiccated slab of chicken then sheathed in heavy breading.  Instead, Mario’s chicken is thick and moist even though the breading is a bit thick.  The lasagna and stuffed (with ricotta) shells are completely covered over in a nicely seasoned meat sauce which has both sweet and savory qualities, the former probably from a high grade of tomatoes. 

If you’ve always been under the impression that there isn’t much more that can be done with nachos than what is done at the concession stands of sports venues where salty chips are slathered over with melted, gloppy cheese and topped with jalapeños, you’re in for a surprise at Mario’s.  Almost obfuscated in an appetizer menu replete with the de rigueur standards (fried mushrooms, fried zucchini, fried cheese, garlic bread, etc.) is something called Goumba Nachos, chips layered with a green chile cream sauce, roasted red peppers, mixed cheeses, jalapeños and a lettuce and tomato garnish.  These nachos have two qualities which define all great nachos–they’re messy (courtesy of the cheese and green chile cream sauce) and they’re served in a mountainous platter.  The green chile cream sauce lacks piquancy, but it’s quite flavorful.  For this fire-eater, more jalapeños would have made these nachos even better.



The dessert menu (only the giant chocolate chip cookies and the brownies are housemade) includes several favorites such as real New York style cheesecake (or as reasonable a facsimile of as you can get in New Mexico). The tiramisu is always a hit.   For me, Mario’s is the place in Albuquerque for spumoni, the molded and colorful Italian ice cream with layers of flavor. Spumoni at Mario’s means vanilla and chocolate ice cream with hidden surprises of pistachio and cherries. It’s like opening a box of assorted chocolates with flavor combinations that make your taste buds sing. 

A number of cake desserts are always tempting, including a lemon berry mascarpone cake (cream cake topped with blueberries, cranberries and vanilla crumb.  The cake is filled with lemon cream and finished with vanilla cake crumb on the sides and a dusting of sugar.  It’s a very refreshing cake in which the lip-pursing qualities of tangy lemon and berries are tempered with the richness of mascarpone and vanilla cake crumb.

Mario's on Fourth Street, one of three Mario's in Albuquerque

Albuquerque has been singing Mario’s praises for a long time and there appears to be no surcease to its success in Albuquerque.  In fact, the Mario’s family has expanded in recent years with locations on Juan Tabo and Fourth Street.   Mario’s is an august family-owned restaurant whose veneer may be showing a few signs of age, but it holds fast against a tide of trendy chains. The wait staff is genuine not saccharine. The food is authentic and delicious. It’s the way I remember Italian food in Massachusetts.

Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante
2401 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 18 March 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stromboli, Pizza, Spumoni, Chicken Parmesan, Lemonberry Cake, Gouba Nachos

Mario's Pizza & Ristorante on Urbanspoon

The Chill Zone Frozen Yogurt – Bernalillo, New Mexico

The Chill Zone, Bernalillo's Home for Quality Frozen Yogurt

Returning to the United States in 1985 after my first year in England, there were two things that surprised me.  The first was the difficulty of getting used to driving on the “Yank” side of the road again.  Driving on the “wrong” side had required a high state of alertness and conscious thought until it had become a habit.  Expecting to transition easily upon my return to the fruited plain, my concentration waned until I found myself driving toward several cars on their side of the street (talk about road rage).  The second surprise was the sheer volume of frozen yogurt shops in Chicago and Las Vegas where I spent three weeks before returning to England. 

Frozen yogurt was no stranger to me.  I lived in Massachusetts in 1978 (where some of the country’s very best ice cream is made) when the very first packaged frozen yogurt was introduced.  At its inception yogurt was marketed as a healthier, less caloric alternative to ice cream, but it wasn’t an immediate hit because of its lip-pursing tartness.  Manufacturers went back to the drawing board, modified their recipes to include more sugar and yogurt began to take off.  By 1986, sales of yogurt reached $25 million.  Yogurt shops, it seemed, were to be found at every shopping center in Chicago.

The interior of the Chill Zone

Today ice cream has competition not only from yogurt, but from such frozen desserts as sherbet, flavored ice, gelato, sorbet, frozen custard and more.  In the United States, it’s a market analysts predict to approach $30 billion in 2012, an all-time high.  Ice cream still accounts for nearly 60 percent ($13.8) of the frozen dessert market, but frozen yogurt continues to carve steadily into ice cream’s dominant market share.  This can be attributed as much to creative new flavors as to the American consumers desire for healthy dessert options. 

While visiting a relative in Tucson, Cathy Awe, the founder and owner of Bernalillo’s Chill Zone, began to recognize the potential of a self-serve yogurt shop.  She studied the option of franchising, but determined most New Mexicans have probably not heard of the popular yogurt shops sweeping California.  In creating her yogurt shop’s identity, Cathy jokes that it was a family affair.  Her son came up with the name, her daughter designed the shop’s logo and her husband provided the financing.  Since opening in September, 2010, the Chill Zone has done so well that Cathy is in the process of launching a second shop, this one on the burgeoning intersection of Unser and Southern.

New York Cheesecake on top and Strawberry Lemonade Sorbet at bottom with assorted toppings

The Chill Zone features a line-up of more than twenty self-serve yogurt flavors, four of which are standard and the remainder of which are rotated in and out.  The four standards, retained because of their popularity, are Chocolate Classic, New York Cheesecake, Vanilla NSA (no sugar added) and Pomegranate Raspberry Tart.  Only the vanilla has no sugar added, but other flavors contain only a moderate amount, are fat-free and are low in calories.  Other flavors such as pumpkin (for Thanksgiving) will be brought in to celebrate holidays, seasons or themes.  Vanilla remains the most popular flavor. 

While the yogurt itself may be a healthier alternative to ice cream, the toppings bar is an indulgence of plenty which can add calories to the yogurt and pounds to the waistline.  Toppings range from fresh fruits such as raspberries, blueberries and strawberries to sweet confections such as iced animal crackers, Oreos and vanilla wafers.  Candy toppings include candy corn, whoppers, peanut and plain M&Ms, Reese’s peanut butter and more. 

Georgia Peach and Root Beer Yogurt topped with an assortment of sweet goodness

The objects of my gustatory affections during my inaugural visit were the New York Cheesecake yogurt and Strawberry Lemonade Sorbet with plenty of toppings piled on.  The yogurt and sorbet were so good they rendered the toppings wholly unnecessary (besides that, frozen M&Ms aren’t that good).  The strawberry lemonade sorbet was especially refreshing, an 80-calorie, no-fat nearly guilt-free treat with only 21 grams of carbohydrates.  If you’ve ever lamented how cloying strawberry lemonade can be, you’ll appreciate the tart sweetness of this sorbet. 

The Chill Zone is a sure cure for summer’s swelter, but is sure to please any time of year, especially with the promise of a healthy, low-calorie indulgence that tastes great and won’t break the bank.

The Chill Zone
Venada Shopping Plaza
510 Highway 528, Suite F
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 867-1650
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 March 2012
1st VISIT:  1 October 2011
BEST BET: New York Cheesecake Yogurt, Strawberry Lemonade Sorbet, Red Velvet Cake, Root Beer, Georgia Peach

The Chill Zone Frozen Yogurt on Urbanspoon

Cafe Jean Pierre – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cafe Jean Pierre

Cafe Jean Pierre

A few years ago when France was the target of xenophobic sentiment and  some political commentators even advocated boycotting all things French, my vivacious friend Janet Resnik remained a fervent Francophile.  With the simple retort, “ah, but the food,” she found it easy to diffuse dour diatribes in which not a single good thing was said about France.  Not even the most ardent anti-French could argue that French food isn’t among the very best in the world.

In Albuquerque, chef Jean-Pierre Gozard has been more instrumental than anyone in providing fine French alternatives to the ubiquitous chile laden cuisine that seems to define the city.  Chef Gozard started it all in 1975 with the launch of La Crepe Michel, a hugely popular restaurant that’s still going strong nearly four decades later.  In 1979 he opened Le Marmiton, one of the four or five restaurants I’ve missed most from among all those which have closed since we returned to Albuquerque.  From 1987 through 1995, Chef Gozard plied his talents in Casa Vieja, a Corrales landmark.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

Cream of Mushroom Soup

After leaving Casa Vieja, it looked for a while as if Albuquerque had seen the last of the über chef, but in 2008 he turned up at  La Crepe Pierre, a highly regarded restaurant which has since evolved into Chez Bob, another excellent French restaurant.  By year’s end, Chef Gozard had launched Cafe Jean-Pierre in the space once occupied by two restaurant instantiations both called The Cup.  Cafe Jean-Pierre is within easy walking distance of the Century 24 theater.  It is clustered amid several local independent and chain restaurants, all of which have seen varying degrees of success.

With all due humility, Chef Gozard will tell you he offers simple dishes at good value and while that may be the case, he prepares them so extraordinarily well that every meal is a sublime experience. In an age of larger-than-life celebrity chefs, he is a breath of fresh air, a modest man who buses tables, greets his guests personally and does whatever it takes to ensure a great meal.

French bread

French bread

The high ceiling, exposed ductwork and concrete floors might give the restaurant an uncharacteristically industrial feel if it wasn’t  softened by homey touches.  Faux French windows with shutters, their sills adorned with potted plants, hang high against one wall, giving the appearance of a second story abode.  French movie and art posters festoon the walls.  Linen tablecloth drapes over every table with the appropriate place settings and stemware at the ready.  You’ll know you’re in the presence of French food greatness when you first peruse the menu, or better yet, then its aromas waft toward you.

Rather than being a compendium of every possible French dish possible, the menu focuses on a select–and if our choices are any indication–delicious few. Only two soups grace the menu–soupe a l’oignon gratinee (French onion soup) and a soup du jour. Traditional French onion soup is said to have healing properties, but what it is best at remedying is hunger. Blanketed with melted Gruyere cheese melted to a golden sheen over toasted slabs of French bread and steaming with rich, hearty stock and caramelized onion, it is indeed a fabulous cure-all for mealtime blues–when made well. Chef Gozard’s version is among the very best I have ever had.

House Pate

Ironically, it may not be the best soup on the menu–if the soup du jour is cream of mushroom soup.  If your benchmark for cream of mushroom comes from a red-labeled can, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful the real thing is.   Rich, creamy and steaming hot, it is the essence of French comfort.  It has the flavor of heady wild mushrooms, perhaps portobello and shiitake and (maybe solely in my imagination) a hint of sherry.   With any luck Chef Gozard will someday prepare a soup for an upcoming Souper Bowl, Albuquerque’s premier tasting competition.  It will be even more fortuitous if I’m honored to judge the event again.

You’ll want plenty of the restaurant’s French bread, a lean, airy hard-crusted bread to sop up any remnants of the soup, but also to slather on the real French butter.  French bread is the essence of simplicity–flour, water and yeast– but it is the essence of a French meal. Cafe Jean Pierre procures its bread from the incomparable Fano Bakery, an Albuquerque institution for the staff of life. While many restaurants throughout the Duke City area also offer Fano bread, they tend to slice it envelope thin.  Not so at Cafe Jean Pierre where each slice is wonderfully thick.

Fried Oysters

A quadrumvirate of salads– Nicoise, Endive, Caesar and Maison–are available, and not just for smaller appetites.  These are main course sized salads, plates brimming with garden fresh ingredients plated like fine art.   Appetizers are similarly generous–a smoked salmon plate garnished with capers, red onions, cream cheese and toasts; escargots served the traditional way; La Friture D’Eperlans (smelts, dredged in flour and deep-fried; and the house pate, a housemade pate served with cornichons, moutarde and garnish. 

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking at the mention of pate in a French restaurant–some expensive gourmet duck or goose liver, maybe chopped pork liver.  Cafe Jean-Pierre’s version is a mixture of minced ham, pork, fat and spices.  It’s not easily spreadable, but it cut can be sliced thinly and laid atop toasted bruschetta.  It’s an excellent pate, as good as any we’ve had in Chicago (where some chefs seem to believe you can’t ever have enough garlic on pate).

Fruits de Mer (shrimps, scallops, mushrooms in a cream sauce)

Fruits de Mer (shrimps, scallops, mushrooms in a cream sauce)

The  BBC calls mustard the “unsung hero of the kitchen cupboard, adding a lick of heat and a depth of flavour to a huge range of dishes.”  That is an apt description for the dollop of grainy yellow mustard served with the pate.  It’s one of several items on the plate providing complementary and contrasting taste sensations that take the pate to another level.  Thinly sliced red onions, tangy capers,  tart pickled cornichons, meaty olives and ripe tomatoes all seem to enhance and enliven the pate.  You can have them on their own or with the pate.  Either way, this is a plateful of deliciousness. 

If you ever happen upon Cafe Jean Pierre on an evening in which fried oysters are a featured appetizer special, don’t dally.  In fact, consider having more than one order.  Only at Jennifer James 101 have we had fried oysters comparable to these pearlescent beauties and JJ’s fried oysters are better than at all but a handful of restaurants we frequented on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  One of the secrets to great oysters is breading them lightly and frying them to a light, golden sheen.  When you bite into them, you should be able to discern a slight crunch followed by the incomparable, sensuously gooey texture.  The best description of how they should taste I’ve read is, “they taste as if God prepared them.”  These qualities all define the fried oysters at Cafe Jean Pierre.  A half-dozen oysters are served with a rich-tangy tartar sauce, a seared lemon and capons, none of which can improve on perfection.

Jamon Fromage

Jamon Fromage

The menu features six crepes, including a Ratatouille (stewed zucchinis, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, onions and fine herbs) which should be very popular following the success of the animated movie by that name.  Lunch only items include sandwiches and quiches as well as a lunch portion of Moules Marinieres (fresh steamed mussels served with French fries) and the ever popular Steak Frites (a seven-ounce sirloin charbroiled to order, French fries and garnish).  Crepes are not the name on the marquee, but they’re among many reasons for visiting Cafe Jean-Pierre. 

My love affair with crepes began in 1978 when my dear friend Paul Venne’s mom made them for breakfast one Sunday morning in Pelham, New Hampshire (near the childhood stomping grounds of Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos).  Until then, the most exotic breakfast entree I’d ever had were French toast.  In my review of La Crepe Michel, I share my tale of exasperation, woe, despair and agony in my futile attempts to master the crepe.  I’ve since given up and have decided to leave it to the masters–chefs such as Jean-Pierre Gozard.  The world (and my wrist) is better off for that.

Boeuf en Croute (tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry, mushroom duxelle, Bordelaise)

Seafood aficionados will fall in love with the Fruits de Mer, literally fruits of the sea. This crepe entree has a depth of flavor and richness matched only by the seas in which the seafood bounties–shrimp and scallops– were caught.  Bounty is also a good description for the portion size.  You’ll count five to six sizable scallops, each perfectly prepared and remarkably sweet with none of the “fishy” taste Duke City diners seem destined for when having seafood in our landlocked heaven.    The briny sweetness of the shrimp and scallops is balanced by the earthiness of mushrooms and an ultra-rich sauce. The crepes are perfectly prepared and sheath the seafood so that each forkful includes the light, airy crepe along with either seafood or fleshy fungi all luxuriating neath a rich cream sauce.

Landlubbers will love the Jambon Fromage, a crepe enveloping ham and Gruyere cheese adorned  by a rich, creamy Béchamel.   It’s like having a Croque Monsieur sandwich substituting a crepe for the crustless  sandwich bread.  French ham is perhaps a bit saltier than American ham with little of the American ham’s characteristic (and often overstated) sweetness.  It’s a perfect complement to the sweet and only slightly salty Gruyere.  Crepes are accompanied by a vegetable medley that includes perfectly prepared carrots and zucchini with a sprig of florid rosemary.

Bouillabaisse, the very best in Albuquerque

The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. Fragrance is considered one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory. True enough, one of my most enduring sensory memories is associated with the amazing aromas that greeted me the first time I had Beef Wellington in Chicago.  It’s a memory rekindled instantly as the Boeuf en Croute at Cafe Jean Pierre approached our table.  For all intents and purposes, Beef Wellington and Boeuf En Croute are the same dish, but you’d never get anyone from England and France to agree on that point.  In any event, both feature tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry. From there, creative chefs may indulge themselves with any number of sauces.

Chef Gozard certainly puts the tender in the tenderloin and he wraps it in a puff pastry more reminiscent of the thin crust of freshly baked bread and the cottony light bread just beneath it than it does the puff pastry which disintegrates when penetrated by a fork.  It even looks, tastes and smells like a small, golden hued loaf of bread.  It’s the heady bready aroma which so transported me back to the Windy City.  The tenderloin is prepared in a traditional French manner which means it may appear more raw than rare.  That’s the way it should be for optimum moistness and flavor.  Also sheathed within the puff pastry is a mushroom duxelle, essentially sauteed and finely chopped mushrooms.  The pastry swims in a wondrous Bordelaise sauce.  Julia Child described French sauces as “the splendor and the glory of French cooking.”  That’s a perfect description for Chef Gozard’s Bordelaise sauce, a flavorful accompaniment to the astoundingly wonderful boeuf.

Belle Helene

Belle Helene

Having lived both outside of Boston and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast heightened my appreciation of good seafood dishes in our landlocked state where truly outstanding seafood dishes are almost as limited as green chile enhanced entrees are outside New Mexico.  For seafood lovers, few things are as satisfying as a rich, hearty seafood stew, whether it be cioppino or bouillabaisse.  There are more similarities between the Italian-Portuguese cioppino and the French bouillabaisse, both of which have their genesis in the pots and cauldrons of the scions of ancient Mediterranean fishermen.  When the wait staff recites the specials of the day, he or she need not go any further than cioppino or bouillabaisse.  Invariably that’s what I’ll order. 

Cafe Jean Pierre serves the very best bouillabaisse I’ve had in the Land of Enchantment.  “That’s an easy feat,” you might think considering the relative dearth of seafood stews in New Mexico.  Actually, in recent years, both bouillabaisse and cioppino have shown up on the specials menu at several outstanding restaurants throughout the state and all have prepared it very, very well.  Chef Gozard’s rendition transported me back to the piers in San Francisco and Providence with a bouillabaisse so replete with seafood that it seemingly held all the treasures of the sea within a swimming pool sized bowl–shrimp, oysters, cod, mussels, clams and scallops, all perfectly prepared.  At my request, the chef added a bit more heat (courtesy of cayenne) for my order, rendering the broth absolutely perfect for this fire-eater.  The tomato-cayenne rich sauce ameliorated the sweet, succulent seafood, taking nothing away from its native flavor profile.  The oversized (is that even possible) shrimp and scallops, in particular, were perfectly prepared.

Four Cream Crepe (Sour Cream, Cream Cheese, Whipped Cream, Mascarpone)

Les crepes sucrees (dessert crepes) include the de rigueur Crepe Suzette, but for an adventure in taste and contrast, it’s hard to imagine anything better than the Belle Helene, a crepe playing host to poached pears and vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce,  toasted almonds and a housemade whipped cream.  This dessert is the essence of richness, balancing flavor and texture in an island of deliciousness.  The pear is a mellow, slightly tart counterpoint to the sweetness of the chocolate.  The whipped cream is heaped on in plentiful amounts and is as light and frothy as air.  The shaved, roasted almonds are, well, nutty.  This is a dessert to savor slowly and enjoy immensely. 

For sheer richness, however, it may not be possible to beat the four cream crepe, a light, thin crepe enveloping sour cream, cream cheese, whipped cream and Mascarpone.  Unadorned, in fact, it might even be too rich.  To cut into the richness, Chef Gozard tops the crepe with a tart and tangy lemon sauce then sprinkles powdered sugar.  The result is a very well-balanced dessert that awakens your taste buds with explosions of flavor.  If you enjoy the adventure of flavor discernment, you’ll appreciate the challenge of trying to figure out the flavor contributions of each of the four creams.

Janet would have loved Cafe Jean-Pierre, a restaurant reminiscent of the French countryside she loved so much.  She probably would have shared a crepe or two with the anti-French xenophobes.  It’s a good bet they’d be singing the praises of this fabulous crepe, perhaps even of the land of its origin.

Cafe Jean Pierre
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 March 2012
1st VISIT: 7 February 2009
COST: $$$
BEST BET: House Pate, Soupe a l’oignon Gratinee, Cream of Mushroom Soup, Fruits de Mer, Jambon Fromage, Belle Helene, Boeuf en Croute, Bouillabaisse, Four Cream Crepe, Fried Oysters

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