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

Cooperage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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 

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

 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
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2012
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Rib eye Steak, Cream Corn, Hickory Burger, Ahi Tuna Roulade

Vintage 423 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dog House Drive In – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Doghouse is a Route 66 fixture on Central Avenue.

The Dog House on Albuquerque's Central Avenue

Culinary history is in dispute as to the origin of the term “hot dog” to describe frankfurters, a cooked sausage named for the city of Frankfurt, Germany.  Some historians mistakenly credit a newspaper cartoonist for coining the term “hot dog” when, according to a popular urban myth, he used it in the caption of a 1906 cartoon depicting barking dachshund sausages nestled warmly in rolls. Not sure how to spell “dachshund” he simply wrote “hot dog!”

My good friend Becky Mercuri blows the lid off that theory in her fabulous tome, The Great American Hot Dog Book. She cites several sources which prove without a doubt that the cartoonist did not coin the phrase “hot dog.” So, just where did the term originate.  According to Becky, extraordinary word etymologist Barry Popik “doggedly pored over issues of the Yale Record, and triumphantly found the elusive evidence in the October 19, 1895 issue…describing students who “contentedly munched hot dogs.” Popik’s research is always unimpeachable.

Albuquerque's famous Dog House (Courtesy of Sarah Rose)

Albuquerque's famous Dog House (Courtesy of Sarah Rose)

There’s no dispute that hot dogs are as American as apple pie, baseball and well…hot dogs. In the Duke City, there may be no better example of the definitive hot dog than at the Dog House Drive In on historic Route 66.  The Dog House’s vintage neon sign, circa the 1950s, celebrates the cultural heritage of Route 66 with an animated neon sign that, when lit up, shows a dachshund wagging its tail merrily as it consumes several sausages strung together.

The Dog House is an absolute institution! Its first location was several blocks east of the current location which was built in the 1960s. The actual restaurant itself is the size of a shoebox, a bona fide hole in the wall with no ambiance of which to speak. With extremely limited seating (about five tables and an old-fashioned counter with stool seating), most diners park their cars (there are no shaded canopies under which to park) and wait for the sole (sometimes harried but seldom hurried) waitress to come take their orders. Mid-summer dining under the blazing New Mexico sun can be a smoldering experience.

The Chili Cheese Hot Dog with Onions

Still, there is always a phalanx of parked vehicles with hungry patrons willing to endure the sun’s scorching rays to partake of some of the very best hot dogs in New Mexico, maybe the southwest. The most popular dog is the foot-long chili cheese hot dog (with or without onions). This isn’t the Tex-Mex aberrational “chili” (a pathetic brown sauce with ground beef) we’re talking about. It’s a fiery red hybrid New Mexico style chile (albeit with ground beef) ameliorated with a pinch of cumin (its only flaw).

If, as a fellow Duke City gourmand and I have speculated, you’ve ever wondered about the psychological impulse of the purveyors of “quarter-pound” hot dogs–specifically whether these engorged hot dogs are some sort of “compensatory” machination–fear not. The Dog House wieners aren’t two inches in circumference. In fact, they’re somewhat waifish in comparison, but they’re sliced in half diagonally and are grilled to perfection. The buns are also toasted.

The Doghouse Burger with all the fixings (a much better burger than my photo might indicate)

The same chili offered on the chili cheese hot dog is also the star of the Dog House’s Frito pie which holds court with crisp lettuce and at least a bag of Fritos corn chips. It’s one of the very best, albeit least expensive, Frito pies you’ll find in the city all courtesy of that surprisingly addictive chile of medium piquancy.

Ironically not only does the Dog House make a great hot dog, its burgers are better than those served at many burger joints. A double meat and cheese burger is flavorful and chock full of great condiments, including a great sweet relish whose taste jumps out at you. Better still, order a chile cheese burger and treat yourself to the same great red chile that’s served on the chile dogs. Even the most stubborn of green chile cheeseburger aficionados will have to admit red chile does have a place on hamburgers–at least at the Dog House.

A foot long hot dog with mustard, relish and white onions

As for “American style” hot dogs (mustard, relish, onions), the Dog House doesn’t disappoint. The only Albuquerque hot dog in the same class (until it closed) was the incomparable “Ripper” at Howley’s. The Dog House is also an absolute rarity in that it serves decent French fries. These fries aren’t flaccid and oily like at many other restaurants. They have a crispy texture and are excellent for dipping into the red chile.

Milk shakes and malts are also available. Alas, the chocolate shake has that indistinguishable “generic” shake taste that makes you wonder why they call it chocolate.  It’s also cloying, almost tooth-decaying in its sweetness.  Still, they’re served cold and can put out the fire in your tongue from that oh-so-good red chile.

Foot long hot dog with green chile, cheese and onions

Okay, you’ve read my take on the Dog House Drive In. Now let’s get the perspective of Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) with whom I’ve shared Jack Handy level deep thoughts for a few years about the Albuquerque dining scene. Over the past forty years or so Bob has consumed about 400 feet of chili dogs with onions from the Dog House, so you can trust his observations. Bob observes that:

  • The dogs are split to be cooked on the flat plate grille which I’m guessing is the original. Going that extra mile of splitting obviously brings out the true essence of hot dog flavor which is obviously also enhanced by the grille being seasoned after so many years.
  • Newbies should eat inside till they master not slopping chile all over their fingers and thus, possibly their clothes by eating in a car.
  • Ketchup with one’s fries will help cut the heat for newbies.
  • Wait till after 1 to avoid the lunch crowd.
  • Lastly, a coke to accompany your meal is sooo gauche; besides, its sweetness clashes with the chile. I recommend the orange soda (any year is fine) to really enhance the chile’s flavor ! Muy Sabroso !

When it comes to chili dogs at the Dog House, Bob is E. F. Hutton (remember the commercials touting “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.”). Heed his advice.

The Dog House made a “cameo appearance” and was one of the few saving graces of a sophomoric (sophomoronic?) 2004 movie called “Elvis has Left The Building” which was filmed mostly in the Land of Enchantment.

Dog House Drive In
1216 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Double Meat Cheeseburgers, Chile Dogs, Chile Hamburger, French Fries, Frito Pie

Dog House Drive In on Urbanspoon

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