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The Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse – Los Lunas, New Mexico

The Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse for the best in fine dining in Los Lunas

New Mexico is truly a dichotomous land, a state in which seemingly contrasting qualities exist in symbiotic harmony with each other. While most of those contrasts exist spectacularly in nature, the Land of Enchantment’s architecture is no stranger to contradictions. One such example is the Luna Mansion, a stately manor built in the Southern Colonial architectural style, but whose basic construction material is adobe. The Luna Mansion was built in 1880 by the Santa Fe Railroad Company in exchange for right-of-way through lands owned by the Luna family. In the 1920s, the Luna-Otero family added to the grandeur of the Los Lunas showcase by building a front portico and grand solarium. White Grecian columns bid all visitors welcome.

In the 1970s, the Luna Mansion was transformed into a restaurant, perhaps rankling the ire of Josefita Otero, one of the original family members to dwell in the Mansion. Her apparition, attired in 1920s regalia, began to appear. Several other apparitions, including Cruz, a groundskeeper, are said to haunt the restaurant while others have been seen or felt on the grounds of the estate. Perhaps they continue to visit the Luna Mansion for the food.

One of the first floor dining rooms

While Auld Lang Syne faded with the dawning of 2009, the Luna Mansion was put up for sale by Earl Whittemore who had owned the property for more than three decades. It wasn’t for sale for long. Fittingly, the Mansion was purchased by Pete and Hortencia Torres, longtime owners of the Wittwer House, another historic property converted to a restaurant (the award-winning Teofilo’s Restaurante). Moreover, the Torres family has a restaurant pedigree in Valencia County that goes back more than six decades. Pete’s parents opened the eponymous Pete’s Cafe in 1948. Teofilo’s is directly across Main Street from the Luna Mansion, now a registered national historic landmark.

Under the auspices of the Torres family, the Luna Mansion remains a monument to the way good food used to be served in bygone days before America became a fast food nation, back when hearty portions of delicious cuisine could be enjoyed in a relaxing milieu. Though not by design, the restaurant brings to mind the clean, elegant Harvey House restaurants which introduced a touch of refinement and civility to an untamed frontier while serving good food at reasonable prices throughout the Old West. There’s a Harvey House a few miles south in Belen though it no longer serves food.

Sourdough bread

The Luna Mansion name is now appended by “Landmark Steakhouse,” a recognition of its historic place in the community as well as the Torres family commitment to providing a memorable fine dining experience for their patrons. As the name implies, the specialty of the house is USDA prime beef aged 21 days for flavor and tenderness and hand-carved by local butchers exclusively for the Luna Mansion. The menu also offers fresh fish, seafood and poultry. Several menu items popularized during the tenure of previous owners have been retained (including one of my favorite desserts) while New Mexican chile inspired items no longer have a place on the daily menu.

The nattily attired and attentive Luna Mansion wait staff is as energetic as any in the Duke City area, but with a small town neighborliness you don’t often find in the big city. They’ll be happy to engage you in small talk or discuss the history of the Mansion if you wish, but they’re also professional enough to leave you alone if that be your preference. Best of all, they’re always on-the-spot with hard-crusted sourdough bread and soft butter as well as ice water or your beverage of choice. The sourdough isn’t baked on the premises, but it’s served warm and is replenished faithfully.

The Maytag Wedge: Crisp iceberg lettuce layered with bleu cheese dressing, crumbled Maytag bleu cheese, chopped tomato and crisp bacon

This appetizer menu includes some traditional (some might say anachronistic) steakhouse starters such as shrimp cocktail, Oysters Rockefeller and calamari, but throws in shrimp wontons as a surprising change of pace. These wontons aren’t your typical desiccated dumplings fried to a crackling, crunchy and empty shell. These are roughly the size of a beverage coaster and stuffed with a generous bounty of cream cheese, green onion and shrimp. Best of all, they’re served with a jalapeño sweet and sour sauce that packs a punch. The calamari are small ringlets of squid goodness–not too chewy or too thickly coated. The accompanying cocktail sauce is packed with a potent horseradish.

The menu also offers a Maytag Wedge constructed from crisp iceberg lettuce layered with bleu cheese dressing, crumbled Maytag bleu (sic) cheese, chopped tomato and crisp bacon. As a bleu (or blue) cheese aficionado who routinely asks servers to bring me as much bleu cheese as they can carry, it does my heart good (only figuratively) to see the generous dollops of my favorite salad dressing. Maytag blue cheese has been hand-formed and cave-aged since 1941 and is one of the most flavorful of all bleu (or blue) cheeses. The other salad components are quite good, but it’s the pungent cheese that stars here.

A 24-ounce Porterhouse steak (21 day aged beef hand-carved by local butchers exclusively for the Luna Mansion

You might not consider Los Lunas (or anywhere in landlocked New Mexico) a destination for seafood, but the Luna Mansion might just change your mind. Daily offerings include two lobster tails, tipping the scales at about a pound, at market price. There’s also a pound or pound and a half of sweet, juicy Alaskan King Crab also at market price. A long-time restaurant favorite is the Mansion Steak, a six ounce filet smothered by crab meat and Béarnaise sauce. Both the filet and the crab are good in their own right, but don’t necessarily combine all their best qualities when paired together.

The purity of beefy deliciousness is best exemplified by the 24-ounce Porterhouse steak, as good a prime cut of beef as we’ve had in the Albuquerque area. It is prepared to your exacting specifications (at medium, it’s got that pinkish center that ensures juiciness and flavor) and is seasoned with exactly the right amount of sea salt, pepper and garlic. This beauteous beef has marbling for flavor, but not much of the excess fat you cut out and leave on your plate. As with other entrees, steaks are accompanied by your choice of potato (a fully loaded baked potato, French fries or whipped Yukon Gold potatoes). The baked potato is perfectly cooked all the way through and is roughly the size of a child’s football.

Lamb chops with creamed spinach in the background

Another spectacular plate features four lollipop (what lamb rib chops are called when they’re “Frenched” (when the meat is cut away from the end of a rib or chop, so that part of the bone is exposed)) lamb chops served with mint sauce. Lamb chops essentially come with a built-in “handle” which makes them easy to pick up and eat (yes, even at a fine dining restaurant). Each lamb chop is pert and petite, but it’s packed with flavor and is very tender. When asked the degree of “doneness” for your chops, it’s best to leave it to the chef’s discretion. Most chefs prepare lamb chops by broiling, grilling or pan-searing them for only a few minutes on each side. At medium, the Luna Mansion lamb chops are moist and delicious.

The menu offers several “sides including creamed spinach, steamed asparagus, sauteed garlic spinach, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, baked potato and French fries. The creamed spinach is a winner thanks to the infusion of intensely garlicky heavy cream playing off the natural acerbic qualities of the spinach. The cream is a bit on the watery side, but is good enough to sop up with the restaurant’s sourdough bread.

The Mansion Mud Pie, a Luna Mansion specialty

Only three desserts–the Mansion Mud Pie, classic cheesecake and housemade key lime pie–grace the menu, but savvy diners look no further than the Mansion Mud Pie, one of my favorite desserts in the area. The foundation for the pie is a thick Oreo crust which is topped with about two inches of mocha flavored ice cream, a chocolate ganache and whipped cream garnished with almond slivers. This is a pie for the ages, a pie I might haunt the Luna Mansion for someday.

The Luna Mansion has long been one of Valencia county’s culinary crown jewels, but it’s good enough to warrant mention among the most highly regarded fine dining establishments in the metropolitan Duke City area.

The Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse
Highway 6 & Highway 85
Los Lunas, New Mexico
505-865-7333
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mud Pie, Shrimp Wontons, The Maytag Wedge, Porterhouse, Lamb Chops

Luna Mansion on Urbanspoon

Dudley’s Barbecue – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The smoker in which porcine perfection is prepared

The United States Department of Agriculture defines barbecue as “any meat cooked by the direct action of heat resulting from the burning of hardwood or the hot coals therefrom for a sufficient period to assume the usual characteristics” including the formation of a brown crust and a weight loss of at least thirty percent.” To the citizens of the great state of North Carolina, that definition is heresy, an example of government ineptitude and maybe even reason enough to secede from the union.

Everyone in the Tar Heel state knows barbecue is all about pork. In fact, the words “barbecue” and “pork” are synonymous…and don’t ever call pork “the other white meat.” Doing so would be to utter fighting words (similar to suggesting to a Norteño that a little bit of cumin will improve chile) and to disparage centuries of tradition. You can get away with saying that in North Carolina tobacco is a vegetable, but to suggest beef as a viable barbecue option is blasphemy.

That's one perfect pig

North Carolinians go especially hog wild for pulled pork that’s been slow roasted for hours over low heat rendering it so tender that it’s “pulled” from the roast with one’s fingers or forks. In the state’s eastern region, the “whole hog” is barbecued with meat from every part of the pig–shoulder, butt, ham, cheeks–pulled and mixed together. North Carolina prides itself on the variety of its barbecue sauces (tomato-based, ketchup-based, vinegar-pepper based and mustard-based), depending mostly on geography.

My first exposure to a (tangy-offset with a bit of sweetness) mustard-based sauce occurred several years ago when a university professor colleague of my Kim’s sent her several bottles. Alas, she didn’t tell us we were to use the sauce exclusively on pork so we slathered it on brisket, turkey, sausage and even baloney (my favorite). Because of that transgression, there’s a warrant out for my arrest should I ever set foot again in the Tar Heel state.

Don Dudley in front of his smoker

When our friends Chris and Franzi Moore invited us to the Memorial Day 2012 christening of their new outdoor kitchen and covered patio, we were told to expect North Carolina barbecue catered by Dudley’s Barbecue. It was an opportunity for redemption; there would be no brisket, turkey, sausage or (gasp) baloney on which to slather the mustard-based sauce and embarrass myself. Instead, there was one 120-pound humanely-raised whole hog procured from Keyser Farms in Albuquerque’s South Valley. These are the same great folks who provide the fabulous pork belly served at Farm & Table.

Native North Carolinian Don Dudley is the pitmaster, lovingly tending to a 500-pound smoker and judiciously rationing a fragrant fruit and mesquite wood combination to maintain the low-and-slow balance which allows the pork to cook fully without burning or drying it out. Through indirect heat (not exposing the pork directly to the fire’s heat), he carefully controls the smoke so it imparts flavor and depth without overwhelming the sweet porcine flavor. Don does not sauce the pork on the smoker, leaving that choice to the person eating the pork. Besides, great barbecue should stand alone without sauce.

Pulled pork is a Dudley barbecue specialty

Dudley’s Barbecue does indeed stand alone (and stand out) with or without sauce. As Don carefully extricates every bit of pork from the butterflied carcass, he hands larger pieces to his lovely better half Penny who gently pulls the pork into tender, bite-sized tendrils and delivers bowlfuls to the waiting masses. Me, I stay pretty close to Don to make sure I try every edible portion of the pig–literally from snout to tail. Franzi, the beauteous barrister and my intrepid culinary kindred spirit (who prepared some fantastic side dishes–coleslaw, macaronis salad, cucumber salad, beans impregnated with mustard sauce) joined me in sampling bacon, pork cheeks, brains, crackling skin and even the pig’s eyes, a feat which impressed even Don.

Mostly, however, we all enjoyed the succulent, moist, absolutely delicious pork–from the pure as Ivory Snow bits (99 and 44/100 percent pure pork deliciousness) to the caramelized edges and especially the cherished bacon and pork cheeks, perhaps the very best parts of the precious pig. Don’s technique ensured just a faint hint of smoke, enough only to leave your mouth mirthful and your nostrils delightfully intoxicated. Don’s traditional mustard sauce, though wholly unnecessary, changes the pork’s flavor profile by imparting the tangy, sweet and slightly piquant elements. Penny gave me a small container to take home and none of it will touch brisket, turkey, sausage or even baloney.

Dudley’s Barbecue isn’t a storefront-restaurant operation, but it’s available for catering events large and small. You can experience Dudley’s for yourself at the upcoming Route 66 Summerfest and at other civic events. It’s barbecue as good as you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico.

Dudley’s Barbecue
505-243-8100
Web Site
LATEST FEAST: 27 May 2012
# OF FEASTS: 1
RATING: *
COST: *
BEST BET: Pulled Pork, Bacon, Brains, Pork Cheeks, Eyes

Mamba’s Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mamba’s Kitchen on San Mateo

When my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott and I first visited Mamba’s Kitchen, we deliberated the genesis of the restaurant’s name. The possibilities were intriguing. The restaurant must be named for the black mamba, one of the world’s most venomous snakes, I thought. Ryan surmised then quickly dismissed the notion that the restaurant’s name honors Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who calls himself the “Mamba” because he wants to have the type of basketball precision the snake has (it can strike with 99 percent accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession). Could it share the Mamba sobriquet with Beatrix Kiddo, the protagonist of the brilliant Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill, we wondered. Perhaps it’s named for Mambo Italiano, the 1954 hit song by Rosemary Clooney.

Because the edifice which is now home to Mamba’s Kitchen twice previously housed two soul food restaurants, we finally reasoned Mamba’s Kitchen must be a sort of hybrid Soul food-Mexican food fusion restaurant.  Clever though our conjecture was, the reason for the restaurant’s name is far more down-to-earth and beautifully innocent.  Mamba is actually named for the grandmother of restaurant founder and owner Rebecca Sandoval.  When a grandchild couldn’t pronounce “grandma,” he began calling her “mamba.”  Perhaps given a year or two Ryan and I might have figured that out.

Naquitos: bite-sized taquitos covered in chile con queso and jalapeños

Mamba’s Kitchen is the most recent occupant of a deep cranberry red home converted to a restaurant decades ago.  Previous tenants include the Mediterranean Cafe, A Taste of Soul and Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant, the last two very short-lived restaurants seemingly on the brink of break-out success before closing all too quickly.  Mamba’s Kitchen, a family owned and operated restaurant appears to have more staying power largely because it subscribes to the motto “where it feels and tastes like home.”  It also offers a unique Mexican-New Mexican menu with traditional favorites interspersed among some surprises heretofore unseen in any other Duke City restaurant.

The surprises begin in the antojitos (appetizers) section of the menu where in addition to tacos, taquitos, chile con queso, guacamole salad and chips n’ salsa, you’ll find a hybrid of taquitos and nachos called Naquitos.  This is a must order item!  In fact, you’ll be best served ordering two.  Naquitos are bite-sized taquitos covered in chile con queso and jalapeños.  While that sounds simple enough, there’s quite a depth of complexity in the melding of flavors which go great together.  The taquitos are engorged with brisket, tender tendrils of delicious beef.  The chile con queso is not the gloppy, off-putting cheese from a can served in many a ballpark, but an amalgam of wonderful Mexican melting cheeses.  The jalapeños are freshly chopped, not baked or roasted.  This is one of those rare appetizers which stands out as a highlight of a meal and that’s saying something because everything we had at Mamba’s was memorable.

Asado Burrito: Deep-fried pork carnitas simmered in red chile, beans and chile

One of the specialties at Mamba’s Kitchen are burritos, and not just the standard, run-of-the-mill burritos you’ll find just about anywhere in the Duke City.  The menu offers Po’ Boy Burritos which bear no resemblance to the Po’ Boy sandwiches made famous in New Orleans.  These burritos are called Po’ Boy because they’re so budget conscious at under a dollar each.  They’re also stuffed with novelty ingredients, the complete antithesis of what you’ll typically find engorging the usual burrito suspects.  Simplicity itself, the Po’ Boys are available with such unique fillings as spam and egg, bologna and egg and hot dog and egg. 

Having grown up within the confines of the Picuris Pueblo reservation where I first experienced the delights of a fried baloney burrito, I can attest to its deliciousness (decades later barbecued baloney became my very favorite barbecued anything in Memphis, Tennessee).  The bologna and egg burrito at Mamba’s is a real treat though there wasn’t quite as much bologna as this barbecue aficionado would have liked.  My advice is to spring for a double portion of bologna and green chile.

New Mexico Burger: Cheeseburger topped with green chile, dressed with mayo and garnished with lettuce and tomatoes

If the Po’ Boy burritos are intended for all but the one-percenters, diners of all wealth demographics will easily be able to afford every burrito on the menu, the most expensive of which is still under five dollars.  Not counting the seven Po’ Boy burritos, there are ten burrito options on the menu.  The Asado Burrito is an early candidate for my favorite though in future visits the Fajita and Chicharron burritos might prompt a change of mind.  The Asado Burrito is engorged with deep-fried carnitas simmered in red chile, beans and cheese.  It’s a large burrito enrobed in a griddled tortilla with perfect pinto pony char.  The chile is relatively mild, but has a nice flavor.

There are five burgers on the menu including a taco or tortilla burger described on the menu as a cheeseburger cut in half to make two tacos or two tortilla burgers with green chile and lettuce.  Mamba’s version of a green chile cheeseburger is called the New Mexico burger and it’s dressed with mayo and garnished with tomatoes, lettuce and cheese.  It’s a very moist burger, somewhat reminiscent of the burgers at Griff’s, a long-time favorite.  The green chile has no real discernible bite, but has a nice roasted flavor.

Though not named for the quick-striking African serpent, Mamba’s Kitchen may just as quickly ensnare your affections and kill your hunger with delicious food priced reasonably and served by a very nice family.

Mamba’s Kitchen
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Naquitos, Asado Burrito, Bologna & Egg Po’ Boy Burrito, New Mexico Burger with Fries

Mamba's Kitchen on Urbanspoon