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
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 17
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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
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
243-1019

LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Double Meat Cheeseburgers, Chile Dogs, Chile Hamburger, French Fries, Frito Pie

Dog House Drive In on Urbanspoon

Dagmar’s Restaurant & Strudel Haus – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Dagmar’s Delectables on Juan Tabo in the Northeast Heights

According to the 2000 United States Census, there are 47 million Americans of German ancestry, making them the largest self-reporting ethnic group in the country. German Americans represent 16 percent of the total U.S. population.  With such a large ancestry group, you might wonder why German cuisine isn’t as popular as the cuisine of its European neighbors Italy and France.  It’s a question which also seems to baffle the National Restaurant Association which posits that Americans characterize German food as “rich, indulgent foods; good, hearty portions; and irresistible desserts.” 

With reasons like those, you might expect that there would be more German restaurants across the fruited plain (and more than one German restaurant in the Land of Enchantment).  Bon Appetit‘s restaurant and drink editor Andrew Knowlton gives hope that this will change, “In a refreshing departure from the Italian comfort food craze, America is enjoying a Germanic cuisine boom.  I chalk it up to the perfect storm of craft beer and charcuterie and the overall pork-obsessed times we live in.”

Liverwurst with dark German rye bread

If you grew up in the Midwest where German is the most reported ancestry, chances are you’re well acquainted with German food. My Kim grew up in Chicago where she was introduced to braunschweiger and weinerschnitzel years before she found out about tacos and tortillas. If you grew up in New Mexico, however, your first impressions of German food may have been formed (as mine were) from watching Hogan’s Heroes, the television situation comedy set in a German prisoner of war (POW) camp during World War II.

During one particularly memorable 1969 episode, Colonel Klink, the prison’s commandant, hosted an Italian POW commandant who had studied under Klink. This meant a visit to a local hofbrauhaus in which copious portions of German beer and food were served. Although the gastronomic distress suffered by the Italian commandant was hilarious, it made me wary of such German dishes as weinerschnitzel, bratwurst and especially the dreaded sauerbraten. Worse, there was nowhere in New Mexico, where my wariness could be allayed.

Roulade

My first actual experience with German food took place in a Boston suburb in 1978. Contrary to the Italian commandant’s reaction (a combination of disgust, distress and disdain), I fell in liebe with the flavorful cuisine and the preponderance of pork, beef and poultry deliciousness and its stick-to-your-ribs qualities. It would be eighteen years before Dagmar Schulze Mondragon would launch her eponymous restaurant on South Broadway and seventeen years until I returned to the Land of Enchantment for good.  What a wonderful convergence of fates!

Save for well traveled New Mexicans and those who served in the armed forces,  Dagmar’s is likely where many of my fellow New Mexicans  first sampled the rich diversity of German cuisine. She has shared the cuisine of her maternal homeland throughout the Duke City in four different locations since her inauspicious launch in 1996. The current home of her full-service restaurant is in the Brentwood Hills shopping center in Albuquerque’s far Northeast Heights. On March 29, 2012, Dagmar launched a satellite operation in Rio Rancho, but it was open for fewer than six months, much to the consternation of Rio Rancho residents like me who love Dagmar and her food.

Kassler

Unlike some ethnic restaurants in Albuquerque, Dagmar’s doesn’t overwhelm diners with colorful nationalistic displays celebrating all that is great about that ethnicity. It’s got some steins here, a few banners there and several framed posters and sketches of German landmarks, but not enough to steer your focus away from your meal. You won’t need traditional German oompah-pah music resonating from ceiling speakers to let you know you’re feasting on terrific Teutonic treats.

The cover of the menu does feature a photograph of Ludwig the Mad’s Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle and one of the most beautiful castles in all of Europe. Within the menu are pages of German favorites as well as several sandwiches and even a green chile cheeseburger that was once voted best in the city during a polling of a radio station’s listeners.

Sauerbraten

Most entrees include a salad of mixed field greens. A dressing of Balsamic vinegar and canola oil at your table means is all the salad dressing you’ll need. Slices of traditional rye bread along with pads of butter are also brought to your table though you can also dip the rye in a mixture of Balsamic vinegar and canola oil. The rye, either dark or light, is outstanding and it’s homemade.

To truly make the most of that rye bread, ask for a side order of braunschweiger, a type of liverwurst (pork liver sausage). This meat has a very soft texture and spreads very well on rye bread, even better if it’s dark rye. Though it does have a distinctive liver-based flavor, it’s not at all overwhelming. Dagmar’s version is even better than some we’ve had in Chicago where garlic is more liberally applied during the smoking process.

Brautwurst and sauerkraut with German fried potatoes

Brautwurst and sauerkraut with German fried potatoes

Portions at Dagmar’s are profuse. It’s not uncommon to take home enough for your next meal. It’s also heartening that most of the entrees are accompanied by several side dishes, each of which might elsewhere constitute an entire meal.  Some entrees are accompanied by saltzkartofteln (German-style baked potatoes) and perfectly seasoned, homemade sauerkraut.  While many American hot dog stands serve a sauerkraut that will purse your lips, Dagmar’s version is much more refined and not nearly as tart. It’s among the very best sauerkraut you’ll find anywhere.   Other sides include German potato salad which is punctuated with perfectly fried bacon.

One of the restaurant’s more popular entrees is Kassler (pictured above), a delicately smoked bone-in pork loin (German smoked pork chop) that is pickled before it is smoked. It looks and tastes like a smoky ham albeit not as salty and a tad drier. Dagmar’s Kassler is about half an inch thick and has an absolute minimum of fat with a mild and sweet aftertaste.  Los Angeles Times restaurant critic calls it “German food for beginners.” Most will call it absolutely delicious.

From Dagmar’s in Rio Rancho: knackwurst with German potato salad and saurkraut

My favorite entree, one that the menu refers to as “The Ultimate,” is Roulade (pictured above), a beef roll stuffed with bacon, onion, pickle and mustard. Roulade is slow simmered in a rich brown gravy. Despite the tanginess of mustard and pickle, the preeminent taste is beef, a fork-tender cut that may have been braised in wine or perhaps burgundy. It is delicious.  The Roulade is accompanied by traditional German potato dumplings and vinegary red cabbage, both of which are noteworthy. The taste contrasts make this meal special.

Another popular entree is the Jaegerschnitzel (Hunter’s Schnitzel), a large moist pork cutlet prepared similar to chicken-fried steak which is covered in a brown sauce known as “Hunters sauce” or “sauce Chasseur.”  It’s made with mushrooms, shallots, garlic, white wine and possibly cream.  Jaegerschnittzel is served with traditional spaetzel noodles. Spaetzel, a term which literally translates to “little sparrows,” are technically little dumplings, though most people refer to them as noodles.  The Hunters sauce complements the spaetzel very well.

Black Forest Ham and Cheese Sandwich

As for the sauerbraten the Italian commandant dreaded as much as he did being found complicit with the allies, it is absolutely wonderful.  Dagmar’s rendition is in the Rhineland tradition which means the braised roast beef is marinated in vinegar and a sweetening agent with seasonings that include cloves.  It is served with a sauce redolent with crushed lebkuchen (a type of gingerbread) spice cookies.  Also on the plate is Dagmar’s red cabbage which marries well with the sauerbraten.  The red cabbage is well spiced and has a terrific sweet-tart flavor. 

Dagmar’s offers a full-service menu including a number of sandwiches.  Sandwich options include Black Forest ham and cheese, breast of turkey and cheese, roast beef and cheese, albacore tuna, chicken salad, egg salad and vegetarian.  The Black Forest ham and cheese sandwich is terrific with a generous amount of ham piled on some of the very best sandwich bread roll you’ll ever have anywhere. The bread roll is good enough to stand on its own or with a smear of spicy mustard and mayo, but the Black Forest ham and cheese elevate it.

Dagmar’s Reuben, among the very best in the Duke City

Another sandwich option is your choice of bratwurst or knackwurst.  The latter is a short, fat and highly seasoned frankfurter, the skin of which makes a “cracking” sound when bitten into (similar to the “snap” of great American hot dogs).  The knackwurst is a couple of inches shorter than a standard hot dog, but it’s thicker than most.  Most people dress knackwurst the same way they dress hot dogs, too.  That is they add a good mustard, preferably a spicy German mustard which complements, but doesn’t detract from the spiciness of the sausage.  The knackwurst is served on a brochen (more about his magnificent bread later) and is accompanied by sauerkraut and German potato salad.

Dagmar, an absolutely delightful person, will tell you her restaurant serves the very best hot Reuben sandwich in Albuquerque.  I won’t argue with her–especially since she may just be right.  The Reuben is piled high with corned beef, sauerkraut and cheese on a bread roll that may also be the best home to any sandwich in the city.  The last bread roll we’ve had that is comparable to this one was a floury bap in Lechlade, England.  It’s a bread roll to inspire rhapsodizing especially with high-quality ingredients such as those Dagmar procures.

Apple Cheese Strudel and Cherry Strudel

Dagmar’s bakery features more than thirty varieties of German strudel, some of which are seasonal and others which are, to say the least, unique. Among the former are pumpkin strudel at Thanksgiving and eggnog strudel at Christmas. Among the latter is a raspberry green chile strudel that showcases the taste of New Mexico’s favorite fruit (no, not raspberry; chile is a fruit, a member of the nightshade family).  Heat these decadent darlings in a microwave and the intoxicating aroma of green chile wafts toward your happy nostrils.  The raspberry green chile strudel actually has more piquancy than entrees at some New Mexican restaurants, but that piquancy is balanced beautifully by the tartness of the raspberries.  This is a winner!

The bakery sells cookies, pies and cakes and can custom make just about anything you request. You can even purchase handmade pirogis made Polish style.  We often buy a dozen or so broetchen, the breakfast roll with the gruff exterior and doughy heart of delicious gold.  Time magazine described the broetchen this way, “It lacks the elegance of the croissant, the sophistication of the English muffin, the intrigue of the bagel.  But for millions of West Germans, the day begins with Broetchen, the hand grenade shaped breakfast roll so tough that it travels will in trouser pockets and can bear giant charges of Schmalz or butter and jam without buckling.”  This is a breakfast roll tailor-made for butter.

Traditional German Christmas Stollen and Lemon Raspberry Strudel

Traditional German Christmas Stollen and Lemon Raspberry Strudel

Not surprisingly, Dagmar’s German chocolate cake is delicious, but those strudels are so good you’ll behave like Sergeant Schultz at the mere mention of this flaky pastry. The thin sugary strudel crust enveloping tart raspberries or apple-cheese (pictured above) are two of our favorites.

Equally good are the apple turnovers in which paper-thin flaky dough covers sweet apples. Though the crust falls apart all over your clothes as you bite into it, this messy treat is worth every crumb you pick off your shirt. Dagmar’s coconut maroons are as light as air and sinfully delicious. In fact, just about everything we’ve sampled at Albuquerque’s only German restaurant is wonderful. From the minute you walk in the aromas of bread in the oven covers you like a warm blanket. 

Holidays are special at Dagmar’s.  Valentine’s Day specials include chocolate covered strawberries.  For  Christmas a must-have is the traditional German stollen (pictured above left).  Though Dagmar doesn’t agree with calling it a fruitcake, that’s essentially what it is–though it’s several orders of magnitude better than the much maligned fruitcake many people treat with derision.  The traditional stollen is shaped like a bread loaf and is covered with powdered iced sugar.  Cut into it and you’ll taste candied orange, lemon, and citron peel as well as raisins, sultanas and other fruits.  It’s a very dense loaf and despite the added fruit, is quite low in sugar.  At Dagmar’s each loaf weighs in at a hefty two pounds or more.  Baking it is a two-day process.  Eating it will take less time, it’s so good.

When you’re done with your meal, you’ll feel as if your mother herself fed you in anticipation of warding off a cold winter day. This is comfort food at its German best prepared by what would probably be the best German restaurant in Albuquerque even if it wasn’t the only one.

Dagmar’s Restaurant & Strudel Haus
2120 Juan Tabo NE
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 23
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Kassler, Jaegerschnitzel, Roulade, Apple Cheese Strudel, Raspberry Strudel, Cherry Strudel, Sauerbraten

Dagmars Strudel House on Urbanspoon

 

The Pueblo Harvest Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, home of the Harvest Cafe

Pedro de Castaneda, a Spanish explorer who chronicled Coronado’s expeditions through the southwest from 1540 to 1542 observed that corn, beans, and squash were the main staples of the pueblo diet. Of the three, which have come to be known as “Three Sisters,” corn was the most important. It was boiled whole, toasted on the cob, or dried and ground into a fine powder easily cooked as bread or gruel.  Every day female family members knelt before metates (grinding stones), grinding corn to feed their gods, fetishes and kin. One crushed the maize, the next ground it and the third ground it even finer. Castaneda observed that the women worked joyfully at this task.  The three sisters of corn, beans and squash remain an integral part of the pueblo diet.

Think “pueblo harvest” and the first image the term evokes is likely of the classical “horn of plenty” motif depicting a bountiful cornucopia in which corn, beans and squash spill out of a goat’s horn.  This rich symbolism of pueblo life also represents the cuisine at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe, a restaurant which celebrates the culinary traditions of New Mexico’s nineteen Indian pueblos and showcases the three sisters in various delicious dishes.   Among those culinary tradition are several shared with Spanish settlers.  New Mexico’s Native American Pueblos utilize red and green chile in their cooking as much as anyone in the Land of Enchantment.  Chile is a prominent ingredient on the Pueblo Harvest menu.

Entrance to the Harvest Cafe

The Cafe is housed within the sprawling Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.  The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center was launched in 1976 to highlight the historical and contemporary accomplishments of New Mexico’s pueblos from pre-Columbian time to the present. Its mission is “to preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture and to advance understanding by presenting with dignity and respect, the accomplishments and evolving history of the Pueblo people of New Mexico.”  A prominent symbol throughout the Cultural Center as well as in the art of New Mexico’s pueblos is that of Avanu, the water serpent.  Avanu  represents both water and the prayer for life-giving waters which are so critical for life in the desert.  

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s focus is a 10,000 square foot museum visited by more than 200,000 people per year. A permanent exhibit highlights the creativity and adaptation which made possible the survival, diversity and achievements of each of the nineteen Pueblos. In addition to the on-site museum, the Center includes a children’s museum, gift shops, a smoke shop and the Pueblo Harvest Cafe. One of the most popular museum attraction is the several hornos, beehive-shaped outdoor adobe ovens in which breads…and more are baked.  The “more” includes horno-baked pizza, all-you-can-eat with live music on the patio on Friday and Saturday evenings from 6-9PM.

Tricolor Corn Chips – served with homemade salsa, guacamole and chile con queso.

Although we’d been in Albuquerque for nearly eight years, it took a recommendation from celebrity chef Bobby Flay to first shame us into first trying the Pueblo Harvest Cafe. Before he became a primadonna glitterati, Flay actually seemed  to spend more time in New Mexico than in his native New York.  He raved about the Pueblo Harvest’s tamales in one of his many Food Network shows and he knows a bit about tamales, featuring them on the menu throughout his restaurant empire.

The Cafe is tastefully decorated with the art of talented Pueblo artists. It is a large restaurant with comfortable accommodations for the copious visitors who frequent the Center.  On many of the restaurant’s tables you’ll find a artfully decorated bowl called a “spirit bowl.” It’s purpose is for diners to give thanks for their bounty to ancestral spirits. This act of gratitude is undertaken by placing a very small portion of your meal into the spirit bowl.

Cinnamon Roll from the Pueblo Harvest Bakery

The menu is a showcase of the southwestern cuisine which resulted from a fusion of Native American, Spanish and Mexican ingredients and culinary traditions. It is a multi-page menu that features exciting and delicious dishes. Portions are as generous as the Pueblo peoples.  The menu calls its breakfast “Sunrise Over the Sandias,” which as residents of the Albuquerque metropolitan area know tends to be a spectacular display of otherworldly colors. It’s one of the reasons locals tend to have sunnier dispositions than say, residents of a dreary climed area. 

A more conventional (at least for New Mexico) breakfast entree is the Cafe’s Zuni blue corn pancakes cooked on the Pueblo Harvest’s hot rock. Blue corn is very common throughout the Southwest. It imbues the pancakes with a rich nutlike flavor (this doesn’t mean grainy). Served with piñon butter, maple syrup (the real stuff) and your choice of bacon, ham, or sausage, they’re absolutely addictive.  A more “acquired” taste is the cafe’s blue corn atole, a blue corn porridge served with raisins, pecans, milk and brown sugar (and a side of oven-bread toast).  If you like oatmeal, you’ll love blue corn atole.

Blue corn pancake

Blue corn pancake

The breakfast menu includes several “build your own breakfast” options such as “build your own omelet” and “build your own burrito.”  Unfortunately no longer on the menu is one of the more traditional Native American burritos.  At the Pueblo Harvest, it was called Mama’s burrito, which started with a large homemade tortilla, but instead of the usual bacon, ham or sausage, the meat of choice here is fried baloney. Alternatively you can substitute Spam for the baloney. Don’t laugh. Having grown up within the confines of the Picuris Pueblo reservation, I can attest to the deliciousness of fried baloney in a burrito. (Decades later barbecued baloney became my very favorite barbecued anything in Memphis, Tennessee).  The fried baloney was sliced a little thinner than I’m used to, but it had a great smoky taste which is better than just about any hot dog. The Cafe added green chile (medium in the piquancy scale), cheese and hashed browns to Mama’s burrito. I may start a grassroots campaign to reinstate this delicious treasure onto its rightful place on the menu. 

From the Pueblo Harvest Bakery, you can take home a loaf of ovenbread or a green chile-cheese bread, both of which form the foundation of an excellent sandwich and an unbelievable French toast.  The bakery also offers Pueblo cookies, homemade Pueblo pies (peach, cherry, prune or apple), homemade scones, assorted muffins, cinnamon rolls and an ovenbread pudding with caramel sauce.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, will have to forgive me for not yet having tried the ovenbread pudding.  Bread pudding is a passion we share and though we’ve both tried dozens of bread puddings throughout the Land of Enchantment (and beyond), ovenbread pudding is probably a first for both of us.  Because my marriage is very egalitarian, my dutiful bride got her way during our most recent visit and we split a cinnamon roll instead of having bread pudding.  Good choice!  Roughly the size of a bail of hay, these are truly cinnamony and delicious.

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

The lunch menu includes only four appetizers, but with legions of sides available, you’ll certainly find a sumptuous starter to your liking.  Maybe it’ll be a bowl of beans, fry bread, a homemade tortilla or perhaps tricolor corn chips will tempt you loudest, especially since they’re served with homemade salsa, guacamole and chile con queso.  The tricolor–red, blue and yellow–chips are a veritable mountain of chips.  You’ll finish the salsa, guacamole and con queso while making barely a dent on the chips.  The chips are low in salt and work well whether you’re a “chip dipper” or prefer shovel-sized-scoops of salsa.  Prominent in this salsa’s flavor are cilantro, garlic and jalapeno.  Not so prominent is piquancy.  It may as well have been made from bell peppers.  The guacamole and con queso are both better than the salsa though neither has much bite.  

Another Pueblo Harvest favorite no longer on the menu is a mountainous appetizer featuring corn fries (French fry shaped soy coated with a corn meal mixture then fried) slathered with melted cheese and topped with lettuce, tomatoes and seasoned beef then served with a side of guacamole.  The golden corn fries had a unique texture that may take some getting used to and by themselves were only so-so, but were wonderful when dipped into the guacamole.  Come to think of it, a grassroots campaign might be needed to bring the corn fries back to the menu.

Mutton Stew

Mutton Stew

While MTV generation pop culturalists might only recognize mutton from an episode of Seinfeld, to many New Mexicans, mutton stew is one of the many delicious benefits of living in a diverse, multi-cultural state. For me, mutton stew evokes images of Navajo sheepherders tending their flocks beneath the shadows of Monument Valley’s imposing megaliths on a cold autumn day.  At the Pueblo Harvest, the vegetable rich mutton stew is hearty, delicious–and maybe a tad under-salted (you’ve got to appreciate that). A cup or bowl of this excellent stew comes from the menu’s “Pueblo soups and stews” section. The Cafe’s green chile stew is also quite good. 

The Pueblo Harvest might not be one of the first restaurants you think about when considering a great burger, but it belongs in the conversation.  Trust me on this one!  It’s one of the best burgers in the Duke City–and you truly can have it your way.  The “build your own burger” option lets you choose your own bread (homemade tortilla, frybread, corn dusted bun, or ovenbread), your own “burger” (hand-pressed beef patty, chicken breast or garden burger) and your own toppings (Swiss cheese, Cheddar cheese, American cheese, green chile, red chile, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, bacon, guacamole, chopped green chili (sic) and sliced jalapeños.  A ground beef patty is available for a few dollars more.  All burgers come standard with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle with mustard and ketchup on the side.  They are served with French fries, but you can upgrade to blue corn onion rings or stew for a pittance.

Build your own burger with Swiss cheese and bacon (blue corn onion rings on the side)

The hand-formed beef patty is terrific–grilled to your exacting specifications (medium for me), seasoned perfectly and with a nice degree of moistness.  It also covers the entire bun.  Ovenbread is an outstanding choice.  The ovenbread is lightly toasted and absolutely fantastic.  At first glance it may not appear formidable enough to hold up against the weight of other ingredients, but that won’t prove to be a problem.  With Swiss cheese, two slices of bacon, red onion and mustard, this is a terrific burger, one that introduced us to the possibilities of so many ingredient combinations.  A side of blue corn onion rings beats French fries any day.

Years ago we attended a Native American Pow-Wow on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and were crushingly disappointed by an Indian taco the purveyors of which boasted was “the best in the world.” Since then we’ve been wary of so-called Indian tacos.  While the ingredients of most Indian tacos appear fairly standard, in many cases, we’ve found the preparation and quality of those tacos to be very unequal–in most cases, bordering on abysmal.  The Pueblo Harvest’s version is among the best we’ve had, thanks in large part to the fry bread lovingly crafted by fry bread makers  (in the tradition begun by Acoma Pueblo’s renown fry bread maker Zelda Chaplin). This “Tiwa Taco” is crafted with seasoned beef, grated cheese, tomatoes and beans sandwiched between two golden fry bread orbs.

Sandia Southwestern Meatloaf – bison meatloaf baked in a chipotle ketchup, mashed potatoes and squash-corn-red pepper medley

The lunch menu includes some surprises, including a unique interpretation of one of America’s favorite comfort foods.  The Sandia Southwest Meatloaf is meatloaf with an attitude.  The attitude comes from a chipotle ketchup with a kick to it.  Frankly, the meatloaf wouldn’t have much of a personality without it.  It’s a rather stiff meatloaf bound together tightly and rather one-note in composition.  That note is bison and it’s very lean and more than a bit desiccated.  It comes with mashed potatoes (no gravy) which also benefit from the chipotle ketchup.

The Cafe’s Pojoaque carne adovada plate is as good as any carne adovada at most New Mexican restaurants (and would be even better without the barely discernible cumin influence). Tender tendrils of shredded pork are delicious. The carne is topped with melted cheese and is offered with your choice of Indian fried bread or a tortilla, both of which are humongous.

Prune pie and biscochito

Prune pie and biscochito

The Pueblo Harvest Cafe will feed you very well. The prolific portions will make dessert an option for only the heartiest of appetites. That’s too bad because the menu lists several tempting dessert offerings. At the very least, try to save room for the restaurant’s biscochitos (pictured above right). Biscochitos are the official state cookie of New Mexico. The Cafe’s version of this terrific holiday cookie is thin and blessed with plenty of anise. 

If you thought a burrito with baloney strange, you might think me nuts for recommending the Cafe’s prune pie. Prune pie has long been a standard among New Mexico’s northern pueblos. Go to any high school graduation or even wedding involving a Pueblo citizen and you’ll find prune pie among the dessert offerings. Most guests prefer it to the cloying, inch-thick frosted, store-bought cakes. There’s a good reason for that. Prune pie, whether heated or served cold, is delicious with nice pronouncements of sweet and tangy flavors.

Mama's burrito

Mama’s burrito

Characteristic of New Mexico’s Pueblo peoples, the Pueblo Harvest Cafe will treat you like a welcome guest. Like the people it represents, the Cafe is a state treasure.

The Pueblo Harvest Cafe
2401 12th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
505-843-7270
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 01 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tiwa Taco, Corn Fries, Mutton Stew, Blue Corn Pancakes, Pojoaque Carne Adovada Plate, Mama’s Burrito, Biscochitos, Prune Pie, Cinnamon Roll, Sandia Southwestern Meatloaf, Hamburger, Tricolor Corn Chips

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