If we really are what we eat, I’m fast, cheap and easy.
Fast, cheap and easy. That would certainly describe the stereotypical college diet, especially for freshmen. On their own for the first time, freshmen eat what they want when they want it. They load up their trays with junk food in heaping helpings so mountainous it would make Dagwood Bumstead envious. They fuel marathon study sessions with sugary snacks. Exercise consists of sixteen-ounce curls, clicking the remote and fork lifts. It’s no wonder the “freshman fifteen” myth–the belief that many college students pack on 15 pounds during their first year at school–exists.
A study out of Oregon State University concluded that college students are not eating enough fruits, vegetables and fiber in their diets (not even close) and that both male and female students derived more than 30 percent of their calories from fatty foods. Not since an internet security company revealed that the most common computer password is “123456” has such an obvious nugget been divulged. Anyone who’s attended college knows that students pretty much survive on anything they can get their hands on. It’s also much easier to drive through the nearest grab and gobble emporium than it is to walk into a store and purchase fruit.
Now, if there’s at least a smidgen of truth in some stereotypes, you can take this one to the bank: the five food groups that form the building blocks for that stereotypical college diet are pizza, burgers, French fries, sandwiches and beer. Statistics—and I’ll provide only one–will bear this out. According to PMQ Pizza Magazine, the top-rated pizza trade publication, 25 percent of all college students order pizza three or four times per month while 17.5 percent order it five times or more. That’s a lot of pie!
Similar to many, if not most, institutions of higher learning, the University of New Mexico (UNM) area is practically glutted with providers of the aforementioned five food groups. UNM’s Anderson School of Business might attribute that to savvy businesses being in close proximity to where their target demographic lives. Within blocks of UNM, you’ll find dozens of inexpensive eateries including at least a half dozen independent and corporate purveyors of pizza. Many of them stock beer, the adult beverage of choice for students (some of whom would make beer the school mascot if they could).
It’s easy to understand the concept of captive markets (and students, many of whom don’t have vehicles, are precisely that), but what accounts for the fact that UNM area restaurants are heavily trafficked by an older, more affluent demographic decidedly not of the student persuasion? Could it be we’re all trying to relive our collegiate experience? Do we like communing with younger, cooler crowds? Is it possible that restaurants in the UNM area are really that good? For me, it’s all about the latter. The UNM area has some very good restaurants providing outstanding value for the dollar. Moreover, they don’t all fall under the five food group categorization.
The Brick Light District, a long-established area boasting of both residential and commercial development and a very hip Bohemian vibe is a hub for several popular eateries. Directly across the street from UNM on Harvard between Central and Silver, the area is named for the street’s brick sidewalks and a pedestrian-friendly, relaxed pace exemplified by its logo, a turn-of-the-century (20th) cyclist leaning on his bike. It’s the quintessential college area for hanging out.
In January, 2011, restaurant impresario Peter Gianopoulos launched a fast casual Italian restaurant in the District offering three (four if you count the occasional burger special) of the five collegiate food groups: pizza, sandwiches and beer. Fittingly its name is the Bricklight Dive. The “Dive” part is figurative because this quaint eatery hardly qualifies as either disreputable or run-down. If anything, this 1,200 square-foot Dive shouts fun, especially when the city’s ubiquitous winds allow use of the expansive outdoor patio.
Painted in “tagger” style directly over the exit to the porch are the words “manzetta” and “porchetta,” two of the restaurant’s sandwich options. The menu (even the one on the Web site) resembles the black-and-white composition notebooks college students of last century used. Flat screen televisions flank the slate board menu on which featured fare is scrawled in multi-hued chalk. On the day of our inaugural visit, two notices were inscribed on the community board: “ Chicken, pot, pie…my three favorite things” and “Ass, grass or cash. No one dines for free.” Anywhere else, these aphorisms would constitute workplace harassment; in a college dive, it’s all good fun.
The menu has a distinctive approach to calling attention to its priced-right-for-students structure. At the top of the page listing salad and pizzetta (a small pizza) options is the hand-scrawled note “Eat for $7.25” with the price crossed out, supplanted directly below with the even more reasonable $6.00. On the next page, porchettas, bruschetta, manzettas and panino started off at $6.25 but are marked down to $5.00. This discounted price approach works for used car sales and it works in college area restaurants. When school is in session, throngs of diners converge on the restaurant. It’s not quite as hectic on slow, sleepy Sunday mornings when students are in…church (?).
Our inaugural visit to the Dive was prompted by the promise of “amazing Chicago style Italian beef.” It’s a promise we’ve heard before, but rarely outside of Chicago is it delivered upon. In the Windy City, Italian beef is practically a religion, albeit one in which the faithful worship at high counters on which we prop our elbows, careful to avoid excessive spillage of shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy on our attire. The menu describes the “La Bella” as “tender Italian beef, giardiniera, garden herbs, fresh Italian baguette.” By Chicago standards, it’s a middling quality Italian beef. The beef isn’t cut nearly as thinly as true Italian beef and it isn’t nearly as “moist” even though dipping it into an “au jus” made it moreso. The giardiniera is crisp and has a briny quality, but it’s chopped a tad too big to be sandwich friendly. This sandwich comes with your choice of housemade pita chips or a Caesar salad, both of which are quite good. Frankly, for the price, you’d have to say the Italian beef sandwich is quite good, too.
In other restaurants purporting to serve pizzetta, the resultant pie resembles something prepared in an Easy Bake oven (a functional toy oven popular in the late middle 20th century). Typically its crust is dry and brittle, ingredients are desiccated and burnt and sauce is indiscernible. At the Bricklight Dive, the pizzetta is an individual-sized Neapolitan-style, thin-crust pizza made on white or wheat crust and topped with natural ingredients. It’s also better than many more highly regarded pizzas in town (and it’s not the college student in me talking here).
The Prima is crafted with natural pepperoni, fire-roasted Hatch green chile, slow-cooked tomato sauce and mozzarella (on top of which I requested goat cheese). More oblong than it is round, the pizzetta is indeed thin-crusted, but formidable enough to support the high-quality ingredients generously heaped upon it. The green chile has more piquancy than at some New Mexican restaurants. The Pizzetta Bianca (mozzarella, spinach, prosciutto and garlic on an artisanal white crust) may be even better courtesy of the interplay of ingredients with salty (prosciutto), creamy and pungent (mozzarella), lightly astringent (spinach and garlic) qualities. Thin doesn’t mean you won’t have left-over pizzetta to take home, and if you do, you’ll find the pizzetta is almost as good cold as it is out of the oven.
Even if you can’t relive the good times of your college days, on occasion you should still eat like a college student. With restaurants such as the Brickyard Dive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
115 Harvard SE, Suite 9
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 April 2012
# of VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pizzetta Bianco, Pizzetta Prima, La Bella (Italian Beef Sandwich), Pita Chips with Olive Tapenade, Caesar Salad