Bricklight Dive – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bricklight Dive, a UNM area favorite

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.

The interior of Bricklight Dive

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).

Housemade pita chips with an olive tapenade

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.

La Bella: Chicago-style Italian Beef with giardiniera and au jus; side of Caesar salad and pickle

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.

Prima Pizzetta: Natural Pepperoni, Fire-Roasted Hatch Green Chile, Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella and Goat Cheese

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.

Pizzetta Bianco: Mozzarella, Spinach, Prosciutto and Garlic on an Artisan White Crust

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.

Bricklight Dive
115 Harvard SE, Suite 9 Map.d131e90
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site
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

Bricklight Dive on Urbanspoon

The Cooperage – Albuquerque, New Mexico

This unique structure punctuating the Lomas skyline is the Cooperage.

This unique structure punctuating the Lomas skyline is the Cooperage.

Reading my sisters’ Archie comic books on the sly 30 plus years ago taught me two things. First, it taught me that teenage boys shouldn’t admit to ever reading Archie much less admit to preferring the girl next door Betty over the siren Veronica. Secondly, Archie comics taught me that a “cooper” (as in Betty’s last name) is a barrel-maker. Everything a cooper produces–casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, pipes and more–is referred to collectively as a “cooperage.”

In 1976, a barrel-shaped building called the Cooperage appeared in a Lomas Boulevard area dominated by car dealerships. Armed with knowledge provided by Archie comic books, I impressed those very same friends who had teased me about reading Archie comics by explaining the meaning of this strange building (they thought it had something to do with the Roswell alien invasion). Later on we discovered that the barrel motif encompasses not just the restaurant’s exterior, but the interior as well. Some complain that not only does the restaurant look like a barrel, at times it may sound as if you’re in a barrel. The acoustics aren’t always optimal for quiet dining, particularly on the nights in which live music is provided.

A bowl of green chile chicken chowder and a plate of salads

The Cooperage is the brainchild of local restaurant impresario Jim Schumacher who also founded the city’s two Scarpa’s Brick Oven Pizza restaurants (brick-oven pizza, Italian pasta, gourmet salads) and the now defunct seafood emporium Seagull Street. Continuity has been the hallmark of his restaurants. The Cooperage is renown for its surf and turf menu which features prime rib, steak, chicken lobster, salmon, shrimp, crab legs and even some New Mexican entrees.

It’s also known for having one of the most popular soup and salad bars in town. Available as an all-you-can eat option for one price or at a substantially reduced price for lunch if you have it with an entree (and it’s complimentary for dinner with an entree), it’s replete with fresh ingredients prepared daily on the premises.  It’s a salad bar detractors consider an anachronism, a “throwback” belonging to a bygone era.  Maybe that’s the idea.  The salad bar may not be as eclectic and extensive as some contemporary salad bars, but when you have an occasional yen for the days in which lettuce was synonymous with “iceberg” and salad dressings were thick and creamy, you’ll appreciate the Cooperage’s salad bar offerings.  During a visit in 2012, we observed that during our hour-long stay, only one guest did not take advantage of the salad bar option.

The salad bar includes several 70s style dessert salad items

If you think the salad dressing line-up–Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Ranch, Italian and French–is also a bit dated, you might be surprised to learn that according to the Food Channel, all five of the aforementioned dressings are still among the top ten most popular in the country as of 2010.  The blue cheese dressing has a very thick viscosity and is redolent with crumbled blue cheese.  As with the salad ingredients and even the plates on which your salad is constructed, the salad dressings are cold.  Beds of crushed ice surround the steel vessels in which each ingredient and dressing is kept. The selection of soups changes daily, but you can always be assured of a tureen of hot, delicious soup including a green chile chicken soup as good as some New Mexican restaurants make it. It’s not especially piquant, but it’s replete with chunks of chopped chicken (not all white).

In a 2012 episode of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, the voluptuous Mad Men star Christina Hendricks introduced an elimination challenge requiring contestants to prepare proleptic favorites from the 1960s.  Chef Floyd Cardoz had the unenviable challenge of preparing an “Ambrosia” salad, a dish he (and most of the other contestants) had never even heard of. Visitors to the Cooperate would know.  An Ambrosia salad (a traditional fruit salad made in sweetened whipped cream) is one of the several frothy and colorful salads also available on the salad bar.  Also available are a Waldorf salad (apples, mayonnaise, walnuts), a pistachio salad and tapioca.

Sourdough bread and whipped butter

As advertised, the Cooperage is the place for prime rib, where you can feast on grain fed, Nebraska prime rib served with au jus and creamed horseradish. The prime rib comes in three sizes: a standard cut, the manager’s cut and the gigantic Cooper cut. The best prime rib is richly marbled with fat which lends itself to dry roasting. At the Cooperage, roasting it to perfection means just above medium rare so that the beef’s natural juices have more than a hint of pink. The horseradish is on the mild side.  Each entree includes your choice of potato, seasoned rice or steak fries as well as some of the best baked San Francisco sourdough bread in town and of course,  trips to the bountiful soup and salad bar.

An interesting variation on the prime rib is a lunch menu smoked prime rib quesadilla which is glazed with chipotle and layered with a blend of Monterrey Jack and Cheddar cheeses and topped with an avocado salsa. We liked that appetizer so much that we’ve actually asked for our prime rib entrees to be prepared with that tongue-tingling chipotle. It’s really not that difficult for the chefs to accommodate that request because the Fresh Salmon Santa Fe entree is prepared with that chipotle glaze. It’s one of the very best salmon entrees in town, but not the only great salmon entree served at the Cooperage.

Prime Rib Quesadillas: Chipotle glazed prime rib,layered with a blend of Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, topped with an avocado salsa.

Fresh British Colombian salmon is a real treat at the Cooperage. It’s bright pink and flaky, the color and texture combination that signifies fresh salmon from cold waters. The restaurant prepares salmon in several ways–broiled (served with Hollandaise sauce), grilled (topped with the aforementioned chipotle glaze of blended chipotle peppers, lime juice, cilantro, garlic and brown mustard), Vera Cruz (lightly blackened with Cajun spices and topped with salsa fresca, Monterrey Jack and Cheddar cheeses) and Royale (a delicate sauce of Dijon mustard, dill and sour cream topped with pine nuts).

Another seafood favorite, the Seafood Melt, is available only for lunch. It’s an open-faced croissant sandwich topped with rock shrimp, scallops, surimi crab (an imitation crab which translates literally in Japanese to ground fish) and white wine sauce then covered with Cheddar cheese and topped with avocados and tomatoes.  It’s not the type of sandwich will magically transport your taste buds to a seaside coast, but this being Albuquerque, it may remind you the Rio Grande is a few miles away.

Blackened catfish with steak fries

Mississippi catfish, both deep-fried and broiled are available. On occasion you might even find blackened catfish. Longtime readers of this blog know of my quest to find a catfish in New Mexico  comparable to the catfish in the Magnolia State.  None of the Cooperage’s catfish offerings is comparable.  Least inspired is the blackened catfish which is direly lacking in the Cajun and Creole seasonings in which it is prepared throughout the Deep South.

Over the years several menu items have proven so popular that an entire section of the menu is dedicated to these favorites. First on that list is the BBQ Bits of Beef, a casserole dish of tender bits of beef in a tangy barbecue sauce. The Cooperage has been serving this dish for 30 years and there appears to be surcease to its popularity. The only thing “casserole” about the BBQ Bits of Beef is the dish in which it is served. Even though the beef is tender and delicious, you may, in fact, find it to be too much of a good thing especially since it is absolutely covered in sauce.

Roasted Grain Fed Nebraska Prime Rib: Served with Au Jus and creamed horseradish, steak fries (or rice pilaf) and oven fresh bread

The Cooperage has long been reputed to be one of the best places in the city in which to enjoy Salsa dancing. Music runs Thursday through Sunday night with Latin music the featured fare on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Cooperage
7220 Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-1657
LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2012
Web Site
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Prime Rib, Fresh Salmon Santa Fe, Teriyaki Top Sirloin, Soup & Salad Bar, Smoked Prime Rib Quesadillas, Blackened Catfish, Sourdough Bread

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Cooperage on Urbanspoon

Vintage 423 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Vintage 423 in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights

My friend Bill Resnik, a professional stand-up comedian for more than two decades, performs a bit in which he “translates” Spanish terms for linguistically challenged audiences.  “Paseo del Norte,” for example, translates to “Paseo of the Norte.” For Duke City residents, the “Northern Route” is no joke.  It’s the corridor from the Northeast Heights to Albuquerque’s burgeoning West side, ferrying nearly 100,000 vehicles a day.  Paseo del Norte is widely credited with the rapid development–from 30,000 residents in 1980 to more than 85,000 in 2006–of the city’s growth north of Interstate 40 and west of the Rio Grande.  What most city residents don’t realize is that the official Department of Transportation designation for the 25-mile passage is State Highway 423.

It makes sense therefore that a restaurant in which people connections are made daily would incorporate into its name the highway designation for the bridge (figuratively and literally) between Albuquerque’s residents.  Because of its extensive wine offerings, the word “Vintage” (as in the year or place in which wine of high quality was produce) also makes sense, ergo Vintage Four Twenty-Three, a sophisticated and trendy milieu unlike any in the Duke City.  Launched in January, 2012, Vintage has since been a source of mixed opinions with vocal supporters and detractors alike expressing themselves passionately, especially on Urbanspoon.

A dining room at Vintage 423

Vintage 423 is the brainchild of owners Jason Daskalos and Rudy Guzman. Daskalos, a well-known Duke City developer and entrepreneur has been racing competitively since 2006 when he earned Rookie of the Year accolades in the Viper Racing League.  His love of competitive racing is apparent throughout the restaurant in the form of thematic framed photographs depicting vintage race cars and motorcycles.  By now means, however, is Vintage 423 just another sports bar trying to be an upscale eatery.  Nor is it a high-end bar and grill (for one thing, there’s no grill on the premises).  In some ways, it defies categorization.

The exterior facade, a departure from the abobe hued stereotype which dominates Duke City restaurant and residential architecture, belies a swanky interior unlike any in the city. An opulent cosmopolitan world of subdued lighting, black walls and dark woods provides a distinctly intimate ambiance coupled with a high energy, hip and happening atmosphere. From the minute you step in, you’ll get the feeling you’re no longer in Kansas. One of the first sights you’ll espy are mesmerizing rivulets of shimmering water cascading from the ceiling, a wall of wine bottles directly behind this lighted waterfall.

Lightly toasted buttered bread with an oil-Parmesan dusted dip

Vintage 423 sports an even larger wine wall which separates the dining area from the bar and lounge, boasting the largest selection in Albuquerque with some 500 bottles. It’s the type of wine wall you might expect to find at a high-end restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada or maybe South Beach, Florida. The serpentine blonde onyx bar is also backlit, not so dark that you can’t read the wine labels but dark enough to set a relaxed mood.  An outdoor patio replete with fireplace and fire pits is available for seasonal dining.

Unlike at some fine-dining restaurants, there is no demarcation between lunch and dinner menus. You can order off the entire menu at all hours in which the restaurant is open. That menu not only showcases steaks, chops and seafood (such as steamed mussels, sauteed scallops, salmon, seafood linguine), but a number of sandwiches and burgers. Conspicuous by its absence is chile and, for that matter, other New Mexican food favorites. The menu does include a number of Asian inspired appetizers, some of which provide their own brand of piquancy, but for the most part, the menu is “American” in all its nuanced glory.

Ahi Tuna Roulade: red chile and cayenne rubbed ahi tuna,  jicama-mango guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo wrapped in cucumber and drizzled with honey wasabi vinaigrette

Perhaps because portions are so profuse, you’ll be asked whether or not you want bread with your meal. You’ll want this bread. Two slices of thickly sliced, lightly toasted, buttered bread are brought to your table along with a rectangular bowl of an olive oil and Parmesan mixture in which to dip or dunk the bread. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the de rigueur olive oil and Balsamic vinegar mix. The exterior of the bread is hard-crusted while the interior is chewy.

Appetizer options include such popular starters as an antipasto plate (mozzarella, artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, salami hummus and flat bread), bacon wrapped quail, five layer spinach fondue and an Asian inspired ahi tuna roulade. Frankly we were expecting sashimi style ahi tuna. What our server delivered was instead reminiscent of a three-inch high maki sushi roll, albeit made with a cucumber wrapper. The red chile and cayenne rubbed ahi tuna is ground like hamburger to which a jicama-mango-carrot guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo are added. A drizzle of honey wasabi vinaigrette completes the flavor profile. 

A side of creamed corn topped with bread crumbs and made with four cheeses (Parmesan, Monterrey Jack, Fontina and Cheddar)

A number of sides, each enough for two, are available.  Two of them, in the fine tradition of the world-famous Lawry’s: The Prime Rib, are creamed spinach and creamed corn.  Vintage 423’s rendition is very different from Lawry’s.  While the creamed corn is most assuredly the star of the dish, the flavor profile also includes a four cheese medley of Parmesan, Monterrey Jack, Fontina and Cheddar.  The dish is topped with a thin layer of toasted bread crumbs.  This is an excellent dish, creamed corn taken to its highest potential.

You won’t find a grill at Vintage 423. Chef Zach Johnson prepares each prime aged steak and chop to order on an infrared broiler which seals in all the juices and flavor. The temperatures on this broiler reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit which means the heat intensity penetrates all exposed surfaces of the meat, creating a meaty “crust” while allowing the interior of the steak to remain moist and juicy. This broiling process, by the way, is the same one used at high-end, high-dollar steakhouses such as Ruth’s Chris. Thankfully you’ll won’t pay Ruth’s Cris prices for a very good steak.

Bone-in rib eye steak with blue cheese mashed potatoes and asparagus spears

The steak is seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and onion salt and is prepared to your exacting specifications.  At medium, there’s a discernible pink center which couples with a crusty exterior to form a picture perfect steak.  It’s as tender and juicy as advertised and even better tasting.  The steak is served with your choice of garlic mashed potatoes or blue cheese mashed potatoes and asparagus spears.  Blue cheese mashed potatoes are a real treat–fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes impregnated with the pungent, sharpness of blue cheese.  The asparagus spears are nicely seasoned and delicious. 

The Cuban sandwich (slow roasted pork, pit ham, mustard, tomato, Gruyere cheese, and banana peppers) is one of the restaurant’s most popular sandwich options.  The menu also lists two burgers, each crafted with an eight-ounce 100-percent Angus chuck beef patty.  Green chile is not an offered option so these burgers aren’t candidates for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  The hickory burger is a candidate for best burger in the city, however.  As its name implies, the hickory burger includes a smear of hickory barbecue sauce along with melted Swiss cheese, crispy bacon and fried onions which by themselves would make terrific onion rings.  Even if you pluck the onion rings off the top, the burger is still thicker than you can put in your mouth.  At medium the black Angus beef is juicy and delicious.

Hickory Burger: 100% Angus chuck, hickory sauce, melted Swiss cheese, crispy bacon and fried onions

 Burgers and sandwiches are accompanied by a number of sides, some fairly standard and others certainly non-traditional.  One of the latter is a Thai peanut coleslaw which is creamy and fresh, but a bit on the salty side.  It’s antithetical to many of the Thai peanut based dishes which tend to be overly sweet.  French fries are also available.  These are of the seasoned variety with a double-fried texture and taste. 

Tragically there is no bread pudding on the desserts menu.  We opted for a trio of sorbets: vanilla, orange mousse and a chocolate rum ball.  Frankly, “sorbet” may be a misnomer for what we had.  Though it had a smooth texture like sorbet, the vanilla tasted like a very good ice cream more than a sweet sorbet.  The orange mousse was unlike any sorbet we’ve had.  It was, well, very moussey–frothy, light and airy.  The mousse was topped with a gelatinous marmalade.  The chocolate rum ball was the most unlike any sorbet we’ve had.  Texturally it resembled a dense cake-fudge amalgam shaped into a ball and covered in chocolate sprinkles.

Three Sorbets: Vanilla, Orange Mousse, Chocolate Rum Ball

Before our visit, I read all the diner reviews on Urbanspoon and was surprised at both the passion and diversity of opinion. Studies show that diners who have an unpleasant experience at a restaurant will tell twenty people, but diners who have a good experience will tell only four. The Urbanspoon reviews on Vintage 423 seem to bear this out. We had a good experience with a mix of hits and misses. None of the misses were overly frustrating while the hits (especially the creamed corn and hickory burger) were return visit worthy.

Vintage 423
8000 Paseo Del Norte, N.E., Suite A1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-1918
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2012
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Rib eye Steak, Cream Corn, Hickory Burger, Ahi Tuna Roulade

Vintage 423 on Urbanspoon

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