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
Web Site
LATEST FEAST: 27 May 2012
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
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Naquitos, Asado Burrito, Bologna & Egg Po’ Boy Burrito, New Mexico Burger with Fries

Mamba's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Jamon’s Frybread Cabana – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Jamon's Frybread Cabana, Indian Tacos & Brasilian Street Fare on Central Avenue

Jamon’s Frybread Cabana, Indian Tacos & Brasilian Street Fare on Central Avenue

Several years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, multi-player gaming meant sitting at a table and playing board and card games with friends actually sitting across the table from you as opposed to the disembodied online kind of ‘friends.” My compadre Brad and I had been trounced several times by our pop culture savvy spouses at Trivial Pursuit, a primitive game contemporaneous with throwing rocks at mastodons.  After four games, we finally had a chance to win one, but it came down to the toughest question Kim and Vicki could muster in a pop culture category which had been our downfall all night.  The question was “Who is called the Marilyn Monroe of South America?”   You could hear a pin drop when I calmly answered “Sonia Braga.”

Shockingly (for me), no one else at the table had even heard of Sonia Braga, a sultry seductress from Brazil…and tragically none of them had seen Gabriela and Flor and Her Two Husbands, two wonderfully spicy movies showcasing the raw voluptuousness of the sexy siren.  As if Sonia’s erotic qualities weren’t sufficiently alluring, in both movies her cooking was as integral to the plot lines as her lovemaking.  A stunning woman who can cook!  It’s no wonder Sonia epitomized the ideal Latin woman to American males in the 80s.  What red-blooded American man wouldn’t be reduced to a quivering mess watching a glistening (women don’t perspire) Sonia in the role of Gabriela as she cooked a sweet rice dessert in a clingy, curve-accentuating dress.

The interior of Jamon’s Frybread Cabana

A carnal association between Sonia Braga and the cuisine of Brazil remains imprinted in the engrams of my memory even today.  Alas, most of my experiences with the cuisine of Brazil have been at Churrascarias, the orgiastic celebrations of meats prepared on a rotisserie.  Watching skewered meats rotate slowly over an open flame is hardly as exciting as watching Sonia slowly stirring sweet rice over a wood oven (and if you don’t think that can be exciting, you need to see Gabriela). 

Rudy Vigil, one of my most trusted sources of information regarding visit-worthy new restaurant openings, recently told me about an exciting and quaintly named Brazilian restaurant which launched in March, 2012 on Route 66 just west of the Rio Grande.  He raved effusively about the food, described the colorful ambiance and even told me about the service but didn’t mention any pulchritudinous Sonia Braga lookalike preparing and serving it.  Drat!  It looks like I’m going to have to visit Brazil for myself.

Churrascos: Carne, Peru con Bacon, Sausage, Abacaxe (pineapple)

Despite the curious appellation, Jamon’s Frybread Cabana is as authentic as the cuisine of Brazil gets in Albuquerque.  The name comes about because owner James Trujillo previously served as the manager of the Pueblo Harvest Cafe, a peerless purveyor of Native American frybread.  A native New Mexican born in Las Cruces, James is also half Brazilian, having lived throughout South America for seven years, including three years in Brazil.  The fusion of  his two culinary loves–New Mexican style Native American cuisine (a prominent component of which is chile) and Brazilian street food–just made sense to him.  After my inaugural visit, it made plenty of sense to me, too.

Among the familiar menu offerings are Indian frybread and Indian tacos as well as red and green chile, pinto beans, taco salads and carne adovada which is used as a filling within a pastel.  In New Mexico the word pastel conjures images of pies and in a sense, pastels in Brazil are a form of a pie though they more closely resemble a sopaipilla.  The restaurant’s pastels are stuffed with such diverse fillings as pizza (pepperoni, mozzarella, Cheddar cheese and marinara sauce), BMT (basil, Mozzarella and tomato), hazelnut chocolate and banana and carne (ground beef seasoned with garlic and onions) as well as the aforementioned carne adovada.

Brazilian style rice, pinto beans and Frango Churrasco (chicken breast)

Brazilian options include several of the familiar churrasco items Duke City diners will recognize if they frequent Tucanos Brazilian Grill, heretofore Albuquerque’s only Brazilian restaurant.  There’s carne churrasco (sirloin tips infused with kosher salt), peru con bacon (grilled turkey breast wrapped with peppered bacon), verduras vinaigrette (grilled seasonal vegetables drizzled in Brazilian vinaigrette and dusted with Parmesan), frango churrasco (grilled chicken breast marinated in Brazilian citrus vinaigrette), sausage and  abacaxe (grilled pineapple slices glazed with a brown sugar and molasses syrup).

From the outside the restaurant still resembles any of a number of previous restaurant occupants, but step inside and the look and feel is most definitely not New Mexican.  Only the blonde bamboo ceiling is monochromatic.  The walls are festooned in bold, lively hues.  Along with Bailey’s on the Beach, it’s as close to a contemporary beachside eatery as you’ll find in landlocked Albuquerque.  Even the slate boards on which menu items are scrawled are colorful.  James will walk you through the ordering process and will describe the menu options if you need, but ordering is really as simple as one, two, three, four. 

Exquisite fry bread and two skewers (peru con bacon and sausage)

Option one is any two skewers, a half frybread and any side.  Option two is a Brazilian taco (fried corn tortillas filled with black bean puree, rice, your choice of ground beef, carne adovada or shredded chicken, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese), a side of red or green salsa and a twenty-ounce beverage.  Option three is any pastel, any side and a Brazilian taco.  Option four is an Indian taco (beef, chicken, carne adovada or vegetarian) and a beverage.  Every one of these combinations is comparably priced to a Big Mac, fries and a Coke (I looked it up) and infinitely better.  A number of a la carte options are also available. 

Murphy (anything that can go wrong will go wrong) accompanied us during our inaugural visit, but the true mark of character is how you handle adversity.  Because of a technical difficulty in the kitchen, the restaurant was unable to prepare fry bread and pastel, the two items we most wanted to try.  Rather than send his guests away hungry, James had his kitchen staff prepare a sumptuous repast of churrasco items along with rice, pinto and black beans, and red and green chile.  He then proceeded to serve us family style. 

Pastel filled with nutella and bananas

The churrasco items were all terrific, better than those at the aforementioned Tucano’s which tends to have heavy hand with the salt shaker.  The Peru con Bacon (grilled turkey breast wrapped with peppered bacon) was easily my favorite, but then almost anything which includes bacon takes its rightful place at the top.  The sausage was equally good and the abacaxe (grilled pineapple slices glazed with a brown sugar and molasses syrup) was excellent.  We missed the visual stimulation of seeing our grilled skewers atop the frybread as they’re usually served, but were very happy with what we did have. 

James’s New Mexican background is apparent in the red and green chile, neither of which utilize cumin, the foul demon despoiler of chile’s purity.  The red and green chile both have a piquant bite, not the perfunctory nibble of some restaurant chile. The red is especially incendiary.  The pinto beans are also very much New Mexican in form and flavor.  Much better than  Spanish rice at any New Mexican restaurant in town is the Brazilian style rice flavored with onion and garlic.  The only thing which could have improved on that rice is watching Sonia Braga prepare it.

My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott and James Trujillo, proprietor of Jamon’s Frybread Cabana

Six weeks after my inaugural visit, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott convinced me I was already overdue for a return visit to the Frybread Cabana.  During his first visit Ryan had the good fortune not to be joined by the proverbial ill-fated Murphy as I had been.  As such, he became enamored of the frybread which he says is the very best he’s ever had, better even than the frybread served at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds.  He also enjoyed the pastel filled with nutella and banana, one of my favorite combinations in crepes.

In 2012, frybread became even more engrained into America’s culinary fabric than ever before when the FryBread House in Phoenix was one of five honorees for the James Beard Foundation Awards America’s Classics category given to restaurants with timeless appeal and that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.   During my next visit to Phoenix, I hope to visit the FryBread House to see for myself if it’s as wonderful as the frybread at Albuquerque’s Frybread Cabana which is every bit as good as Ryan described. 

Roughly the size of a discus, the frybread is more reminiscent of a New Mexican buñuelo than it is a sopaipilla though it could be argued that save for their shapes, the three fried bread treats are essentially the same.  At the Cabana, the frybread is better than 95 percent of the sopaipillas in Albuquerque.  Though frybread doesn’t puff up as sopaipillas do, they’re excellent with honey.  Tear into the fresh, right out-of-the-fryer frybread and fragrant steam is released to intoxicate your nostrils with the unmistakable aroma of fried dough.  The flavor delivers on the promise made by the aroma.  These are indeed addictive.

Addictive would also describe the pastel, a deep-fried envelope filled with nutella and banana and eaten directly from your hand.  In Brazil, the pastel is a favorite snack or light lunch.  Pastels are rectangular, roughly the size of a Pop Tart (but it’s an insult to pastels to even mention them in the same sentence) and can be filled with either a sweet or savory filling.  Naturally, they’re served hot right out of the fryer.  Fillings are limited only by the imagination.  The Frybread Cabana offers pastels are filled with imagination and with love.  If the pastel filled with nutella and banana (as good as any crepe in town) is any indication, Albuquerque will love these decadent fried treats.

By the way, the curious appellation “Jamon’s” has nothing to do with ham, the Spanish translation of the word.  James explained that during high school a classmate called him “Jamon” for two years, teasing that “Jamon” was Spanish for “James.”  Duke City diners continue to discover that “Jamon’s” means a culinary adventure with a flavorful surprise in every order.

Jamon’s Frybread Cabana
3915 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2012
1st VISIT: 7 April 2012
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carne Churrasco, Peru con Bacon, Frango Churrasco, Abacaxe, Brazilian style rice, pinto beans, red chile, green chile, Frybread, Pastel with nutella and banana

Jamon's Frybread Cabana on Urbanspoon

Socorro Springs Brewing Company – Socorro, New Mexico

Socorro Springs Brewing Company

Socorro, New Mexico is a dichotomous town.  It is the second oldest inhabited community in our culturally blessed Land of Enchantment, yet it boasts one of the nation’s premier research universities.   It is steeped in history and tradition, inextricably linked to its storied past while embracing the technologies which are laying the groundwork for future peace and prosperity.

Socorro, it seems, is also a “jumping off” point to other destinations.  It is within minutes of the Bosque del Apache National Life Refuge where 12,900 acres of boggy bottomlands host tens of thousands of ducks, Canadian geese and Sandhill cranes, transient visitors which make their annual trek to this winter habitat.  It is scant miles away from the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945.

Chips and salsa at the Socorro Springs Brewery

Chips and salsa at the Socorro Springs Brewery

If culinary tarriance is what you seek in your sojourns throughout the Land of Enchantment, Socorro probably isn’t at the top (or perhaps anywhere near) of your list.  In fact, among  some savvy southbound foodies, Socorro is just the town you pass on your way to San Antonio, home of the world-famous Owl Cafe, the becoming just as famous Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern and the deserving of fame San Antonio General Store.

One restaurant is slowly changing that perception.  The Socorro Springs Brewing Company is quickly establishing a reputation as a destination restaurant, a reason to get off I25 and pause for a good meal.  It is a rarity in a town facing the incursion of corporate chains and the aging of hometown restaurants in timeworn edifices.  It is a multihued swath of color in a monochrome town.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip with Cheddar Batard Loaf

The Socorro Springs Brewing Company just may be the town’s version of Cheers, a pub and restaurant all the locals visit and ostensibly, a local tavern in which everyone knows your name.  Get there on a Friday or Saturday night and you just may have to wait for a seat to come open.   Most of the cars in the parking lot bear New Mexico, U.S.A. license plates, but you’ll also espy plates from other states not nearly as enchanting.

The walls in the back dining room are festooned with amazing  framed prints taken at El Bosque del Apache.  There’s something remarkably calming about being backdropped by the imagery of majestic birds in flight and at play in one of the state’s natural treasures.  The cynosure of the main dining room is the large wood-fire oven fired with pecan wood grown in the Rio Grande Valley.  Pecan is a very clean and hot burning wood that imparts a slightly sweet and nutty flavor that you’ll be able to discern on the pizza.

Thin crust pizza at Socorro Springs

El Cerdo (Red chile marinated pork loin thinly sliced with locally grown red chile sauce, Capicola ham, Cheddar-Jack cheese, Roma tomatoes, scallions, black olives topped with fresh cilantro

The Socorro Springs Brewing Company is a full service restaurant with an on-the-premises brewery whose ales and lagers have earned accolades and awards from aficionados of adult beverages.  If your tastes in beer lean toward sarsaparilla, you’ll love the home brewed root beer.  It’s an adult root beer–not too sweet or acidic with a nice herbal bouquet.  It’s a better root beer than you’ll find at Albuquerque’s Il Vicino restaurant which also brews its own.  It may even be better than the root beer at Rio Rancho’s Turtle Mountain Brewing Company.  Don’t just take my word for it.  Read what Luke’s Root Beer reviews have to say.

The menu is surprisingly sophisticated with entrees ranging from wood-fired gourmet pizza or calzones to hand-cut rib eye steaks grilled over a 100 percent pecan wood-fired grill.  The restaurant’s mission is to offer the absolute best dining experience at an affordable price in a casual yet classy environment.  Mission accomplished!

The Black and Bleu (Olive oil, roasted garlic, mozzarella and bleu cheese, grilled onions, mushrooms and thin sliced steak

The menu offers nightly specials and scratch-made soups of the week.  The soup might be mulligatawny, the special grilled mahi mahi.  There’s a lot of variety and creativity on the menu.  Ingredients are of surprisingly high quality.  All the restaurant’s beef is from the Buena Vista Ranch in northern New Mexico.  All ground beef is 100 percent top round.  The New York strip and Ribeye are 100 percent USDA choice or higher.

An early indication that the kitchen staff knows what it’s doing is how good the fresh made salsa with fire-roasted jalapeños is.  It’s a fresh salsa of medium piquancy and maximum flavor, a surprisingly good salsa with the invigoratingly fresh flavor combination of chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and fire-roasted jalapeños.  It’s served with yellow, blue and red corn tortilla chips which are lightly salted, crisp and formidable enough not to crumble under the weight of large salsa scoops.

Hawaiian Pizza: Marinara, mozzarella, pineapple and prosciutto ham.

Another excellent appetizer is the Spinach and Artichoke Dip made with a quadrumvirate of queso–four delicious cheeses: Parmesan, Feta, Brie and Cheddar-Jack as well as fresh spinach and artichokes served with a toasted Cheddar batard (a torpedo-shaped loaf of bread that is thicker and stubbier than a baguette) loaf.  The dip is thick and creamy, served at molten warmth.  The four cheese combination has a lot of personality and flavor complemented very well by the ever so slightly toasted Cheddar bread which is sliced thinly.

Wood-fired pizzas are, according to the wait staff, the most popular draw at the restaurant. It’s easy to see why. These are hand-tossed ten-inch round pizzas made with homemade dough, sauces and gourmet toppings all baked in a pecan wood-fired brick oven until “kissed by the fire.” You may want to kiss the pizza chef by the time you’re done with one of these beauties.

Penne Pasta Arrabiata

Penne Pasta Arrabiata

Just listen to the ingredients on the “El Cerdo” (translated to English as “the pig”): red chile marinated pork loin thinly sliced with locally grown red chile sauce, capicolla ham, Cheddar-Jack cheese, Roma tomatoes, scallions and black olives topped with fresh cilantro.  It’s every bit as terrific as it sounds and is on par with the gourmet pizzas served at Rio Rancho’s Turtle Mountain Brewery (and better than any pizza at the aforementioned Il Vicino).  It’s even good cold.

Also quite good is the auspiciously named Black and Blue pizza, a pie crafted with olive oil, roasted garlic, mozzarella and bleu cheese, grilled onions, mushrooms and thin sliced steak. That’s quite an ingredient line-up for quite a pizza. The spelling “bleu cheese” as opposed to “blue cheese” denotes little in terms of the actual cheese because “bleu” is simply the French spelling of “blue,” but attitudinally, it says a lot. It says Socorro Springs wants patrons to know they’re not getting some cheap, watery salad cream quality blue cheese. It makes a difference. The other ingredient stand-outs are the thinly sliced steak, kissed with just a hint of pecan-wood smoke.

Wood-Oven Lasagna (Layers of spinach, egg pasta, roasted red bell peppers, red onions, mushrooms, Canino’s Italian sausage, roasted garlic, marinara, ricotta and mozzarella. Finished with basil-pesto.

It’s not often you’ll find restaurants serving wood-oven lasagna so ordering it is a no-brainer for adventurous diners.  Socorro Springs rendition is made with layers of spinach, egg pasta, roasted red bell peppers, red onions, mushrooms, Canino’s Italian sausage, roasted garlic, marinara, ricotta and mozzarella topped with just a smear of basil-pesto.   Served the temperature of molten lava, your first impression might be of wispy steam wafting upwards or it might be of the roof of your mouth being scalded by the molten cheeses.  Let it cool off enough and you’ll be rewarded with a surprisingly good lasagna. 

There is one item on the Socorro Springs menu which hasn’t win me over.  Surprisingly it’s the restaurant’s version of a green chile cheeseburger, a beefy behemoth named the World-Famous Burger.  A half-pound patty of lean ground beef is impregnated with New Mexico green chile then grilled on the restaurant’s pecan wood-fired grill and topped with your choice of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions and pickles.  The green chile has a nice roasted flavor though it’s a bit on the mild side.  The ingredients are of high quality.  Alas, the pecan wood influence is a strong one, imparting an off-putting ashy flavor that pretty much overwhelms the entire burger.  Barbecue purists recognize that a little smoke goes a long way.  It’s a lesson which should be applied to this burger, too.

World-Famous Burger: 1/2 pound of lean ground beef, Cheddar cheese, New Mexican Green Chile right into the patty. Grilled on pecan wood-fired grill. Served with roasted potatoes

One special which just might make it onto the daily menu is the Penne Pasta Arrabiata, a word which means “angry style” due to the heat of the peppers with which it’s made.  This pasta dish is comprised of a garlic, tomato, basil and red chile sauce cooked in olive oil.  If the red chile isn’t enough for you, a small cup of red pepper flakes comes with it.   The restaurant’s rendition also includes a spicy Italian sausage and heady olives.  The highlight of this entree is the sausage, as good an Italian sausage as you can find in New Mexico.

“As good as you can find in New Mexico.”  That seems to describe several items on the menu.  It’s no wonder the Socorro Springs Brewery is starting to be mentioned alongside some of the area’s famous restaurants.  It’s another reason to visit the great small city of Socorro.

Socorro Springs Brewing Company
1012 North California Street
Socorro, New Mexico
(575) 838-0650
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2012
1st VISIT:  13 February 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Root Beer, Salsa and Chips, El Cerdo, Penne Pasta Arrabiata, Wood-Oven Lasagna, Spinach & Artichoke Dip, Black and Bleu Pizza, Hawaiian Pizza

Socorro Springs Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

Mint Thai – Gilbert, Arizona

The Mint Thai Cafe in Gilbert, Arizona may be the very best Thai restaurant in the Grand Canyon State

You might assume that because of my unabashed online promotion of culinary adventures, I would be the classic prostheletizer seeking to convert to the joys of more adventurous dining all lost and wayward souls who frequent chain restaurants. Alas, when traveling with colleagues who are either pedestrian about their dining preferences (they eat to live) or are wholly resistant to trying anything new or different, I tend to defer to their lifestyle choices. It beats listening to comments such as “yech, how can you possibly eat that?” and “that’s not in any of the food groups I know.”

The offshoot is that I eat in more chain restaurants than you’ll ever hear me admit to (I don’t write about them for risk of being called a nattering nabob of negativism). By being able to compare and contrast restaurant chains with my beloved independently owned eateries, I’m able to derive a sense of perspective that hopefully makes any disparaging comments I may make about those chains more credible. At the very least, visiting chains heightens my appreciation for mom and pops all the more.

Tod Mun Plar: deep fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste, served with cucumber salad with chopped peanuts.

Traveling with colleagues to the Phoenix area has meant choking down chow at a lamentable litany of local losers such as Macayo’s (Mexican), Oregano’s (Italian) and Paradise Bakery (soups, salads and sandwiches) and national chains such as California Pizza Kitchen, Claim Jumper’s and Buca de Beppo. Now, my “open-mindedness” only goes so far and eventually my cravings for non-carbon copy food borders on rapacious. Fortunately I’m sometimes able to convince other like-minded weary travelers to try the local, non-chain fare. For more than ten years, that has often meant a visit to the Mint Thai Café in Gilbert, Arizona.

The Mint Thai Café is a proverbial parole from the mundanity of chains. Despite several ownership changes over the years, it has remained consistently good, the type of restaurant “Murphy” doesn’t visit when you’re trying to impress others. Among the reasons for its success is its authenticity.  The Mint doesn’t take the type of liberties some so-called Thai restaurants take in creating a fusion of flavors from various Asian cultures.  You can always count on authentic, home-style Thai food prepared to your exacting specifications for spiciness.  It’s no wonder the Mint was named one of Arizona’s 101 best restaurants in 2007 and was named Arizona’s Best by the Arizona Republic.

Pumpkin Curry

The Mint Thai Cafe is the crown jewel of a nondescript strip mall just north of Gilbert’s Old Town district.  Its timeworn pastel and evergreen interior might not be dressed to impress, but it will envelope you in the aroma of wonderful spices.  Those aromas may render you weak in the knees with involuntary salivation almost assured.  These sensations are heightened as you peruse the nearly 100-item menu with Thai treasures sure to please. Appetizers will confirm what your nostrils discern–that the Mint Thai Cafe can deliver on the promise of outstanding food.

The Sah-Tay, marinated chicken breasts barbecued on bamboo skewers served with toast and two sauces (peanut and cucumber) is a must have.  This traditional Thai street food favorite features five skewers of grilled chicken breasts which have been marinated in a sauce of curry and spices.  The chicken is moist and perfectly grilled.  The cucumber sauce is fresh, tangy and sweet with a peanut influence that provides a nice contrast.   The peanut sauce is thick and rich with a flavor profile that is savory, sweet and just slightly piquant.  Both sauces complement the sah-tay very well. Another appetizer favorite is the Tod Mun Plar, deep fried fish-cakes mixed with curry paste and served with a cucumber salad tossed with chopped peanuts. Each of the six fish cakes per order is fork-tender and redolent with the flavor combination of curry and fish (not fishy).

Mint Thai Coconut Ice Cream Pie

The Mint’s nine curry dishes tend to have a siren’s call effect on me.  Whether it be the alluring green curry (coconut milk, green peas, bamboo shoots and sweet basil), the mussaman curry (mildly spiced brown curry paste, coconut milk, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and peanuts) or a nightly special, they are pleasingly pungent and absolutely delicious without being cloying.  One such special, a pumpkin curry is unique to the Mint Thai Cafe.  Its base is the restaurant’s red curry, redolent with herbaceous and spicy qualities made rich and creamy with coconut milk.  Marry the curry with pumpkin and you’ve got a wonderfully unique flavor combination you’ll dream about.

No Mint Thai Cafe specialty has infiltrated my dreams as much as the Mint Thai Coconut Ice Cream Pie, a homemade treasure so good it’s advisable to reserve a slice (or six) the minute you walk into the restaurant.  Seriously, this is one outstanding pie, one of the very best you’ll find anywhere. It’s a relatively simple pie: a chocolate crust topped with a thick ice cream and toasted almond slivers.  The coconut ice cream is sheer bliss, a coconut-infused slab of frozen goodness.  The chocolate crust has hints of ginger, a favorite Thai spice. 

The Mint Thai Cafe is one of my “go to” restaurants in the Phoenix area.  It’s a restaurant which gives me hope that it’s possible to convert even the most staunch and stubborn of the chain gang.  Every person to whom I’ve introduced this terrific restaurant has fallen in love with its outstanding culinary offerings.

Mint Thai Cafe
1111 N Gilbert Rd Map.1d0517a
Gilbert, Arizona
(480) 497-5366
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 May 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pumpkin Curry, Tod Mun, Mint Thai Coconut Ice Cream Pie, Satay, Mussaman Curry, Mangoes with Sticky Rice

Mint Thai Cafe on Urbanspoon

Just A Bite! – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe

Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe

An April, 2009 article in the Taos News reveals just how much cultural attitudes have changed in the county in which I grew up toward men in the kitchen.  The article profiled a Taos High School culinary arts team–comprised of three boys and one young lady–which triumphed over 16 other New Mexico schools in a state-wide cooking competition to earn a berth on the national stage.

In the dark ages when I attended high school, any male student deigning to admit to enjoy cooking would have been dismissed as a (select your own pejorative) and might even have incurred physical harm.  When I enrolled in Home Economics as a senior, I spared myself merciless taunting and possibly painful beatings by telling my friends it was solely so I could eat the food prepared by the female students (not surprisingly my pals thought it was a good idea, too).  As if by malevolent design, the first semester of the class was dedicated to sewing, a torturous ordeal for which my profound lack of interest proved an early undoing. I quit well before semester’s end.

My next flirtation with participating in the culinary arts came when I enlisted in the Air Force.  With vocational aptitude scores higher than the average bear (thank you Jim Millington for that line), I naturally believed the stereotype that the military makes mechanics out of accomplished chefs and cooks out of brainiacs like me (obviously I had no appreciation for just how much intellect it takes to be a good cook).  It was not to be.

Paradise under glass at Just A Bite!

Paradise under glass at Just A Bite!

Some people are destined to showcase their talents in the kitchen.  Some, like me, are obviously not.  At the opposite spectrum of this “would be chef” are people upon whom the culinary gods smiled–beatific bakers like Amy Markham-Sandoval, proprietor of Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe on San Pedro.  Before she launched her bakehouse business she worked at a police station where her peace officer pleasing pastries (and not just donuts) so enamored her work colleagues that they convinced her to open a bakery.

Talk about misnomer!  “Just A Bite!” is, like the potato chips in the old Lays potato chips commercials, not something of which you can have just one bite.  Nor are the decadent and delicious baked goods something you will want to wolf down voraciously.  You’ll want to savor each morsel slowly and luxuriate in its sugary scrumptiousness.  Even among the “bite-sized” confections, you’ll want to take your time and drive your taste buds crazy with delight.

Just A Bite! is located in a characterless shopping center on San Pedro just south of Paseo del Norte.  It is situated just before the bend on the L-shaped complex, occupying one of the smaller retail spaces.  It’s not the type of store which will catch your eye, but it is the type of store which will earn a reputation strictly by word of mouth.  That’s how I found out about it.  Barbara Trembath, a fellow gourmand, told me about Just A Bite in her own inimitable way, “These are the best damn cupcakes on the planet. Little, tiny, deceptive mouthfuls of sugary happiness.  I might be persuaded to do just about anything for a dozen of their red velvet mini cupcakes.”

Small in size, humongous in flavor

Small in size, humongous in flavor

Just A Bite!’s cupcakes are indeed mouthfuls of sugary happiness with the “large” cupcakes (strictly by virtue of the increased number of bites provided) offering more happiness than the bite-size, irresistibly cute mini cupcakes.  Perhaps nothing epitomizes “lovin’ from the oven” better than a great cupcake or ten.  Whether your pleasure is the moist and marvelous triple chocolate cupcake (chocolate cake with a house-made fresh chocolate cream filling topped with chocolate frosting) or the intensely flavored cinnamon spice cupcake (made with cinnamon and cloves), Just A Bite!’s choices are sure to please.

Tiny though they might be, the mini cupcakes are often the inspiration for wedding cakes.  Just A Bite! offers bridal consultation by appointment, showcasing wedding cakes that don’t look as if they are constructed of plaster of Paris and taste like an overdose of sugar.  In fact, the inspiration for many of the wedding cakes are sometimes the cupcakes which can be turned into a wedding cake.  These cupcakes really do take the cake.

All baked goods–fresh pies, cookies, cheesecakes, brownies and oh, so much more–are made on the premises and are made fresh to order.  Not only will you be stuffed when you’ve sated your sweet tooth, the stuff which fills you up may also be stuffed.  Cinnamon roll spirals stuffed with a cream cheese mixture then baked and smothered with a butter cream frosting are a popular favorite, but an even more exotic offering are stuffed strawberries, huge strawberries stuffed with cheesecake then dipped in imported Belgian chocolate.

A Turkey Sandwich

Lest you think this is all about delicious decadence and scrumptious sweetness, Just A Bite!’s menu includes breakfast sandwiches served with fruit.  Box lunches are also available.  They include a sandwich, chips or pasta, salad, fruit and a cupcake.  Sandwiches are made with your choice of croissant, whole grain white, wheat or sourdough.  From an Italian inspired Italian sandwich (pepperoni, ham and cheese) to the rudimentary old-fashioned egg salad sandwich, the options are deliciously appealing.  A Veggie and Cheese sandwich (no sprouts or cucumbers) is also available.

Alas, as was my experience the first time I visited Just A Bite hoping to try one of the more “inventive” sandwiches on the menu, the only remaining options (at 12:15) were ham or turkey (and not the Albuquerque Turkey listed on the Web site).  It was a rather plain sandwich–turkey, Cheddar and lettuce along with a packet of mustard.  Luckily my disappointment was quelled by three mini cupcakes (two mini chocolate and one lemon curd).

Even my neanderthal classmates would find much to love at Just A Bite!, a bakery brimming with delicious options lovingly crafted by someone fortunate and talented enough to excel in the culinary arts.

Just A Bite! Bakery Cafe
7900 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2012
1st VISIT: 11 April 2009
BEST BET:  Cinnamon Spice Cupcake, Triple Chocolate Cupcake, Chocolate Chip & Oatmeal Gooey Bar, Eclair, Turkey Sandwich

Just a Bite on Urbanspoon

Cafe Castro – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cafe Castro on Cerrillos in Santa Fe

The rich folklore of the Hispanic culture of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is preserved largely through cuentos and dichos passed down from one generation to the next. Cuentos are stories, legends and myths, the type for which Aesop is renown. Dichos are pithy folk sayings or proverbs much in the style of Confucius. Both cuentos and dichos are replete with the wisdom of the ages expressed in simplistic terms even a child can easily comprehend. They offer words to live by.

One of my favorite dichos goes, “A la primera cocinera se le va un chile entero,” which means “To the best cook goes the whole chile.” This dicho recognizes that the best cooks know how to maximize the flavors of chile to bring out its full complement of deliciousness. It also expresses the sentiment New Mexicans have for their favorite purveyors of chile, whether they be the growers which harvest fecund fields for the staple of New Mexican cuisine or the innumerable restaurants which serve it.

One of the two dining rooms at Cafe Castro

While chile is a ubiquitous offering in the Land of Enchantment, its preparation is as widely diverse as opinions are as to what constitutes the best chile. Even among traditionalists, there are wide and disparate opinions as to how to prepare chile, a frequent point of contention being whether or not cumin should be used. Purists like me will argue that chile is one of nature’s perfect foods and that it requires absolutely no amelioration whatsoever. To many of us the addition of cumin is a desecration, a defilement of a sacred food. Regular readers of my reviews know my stance on cumin, that foul despoiler of flawlessness and they’ll forgive me if I make this point ad-nauseum.

Some of us believe the addictive piquancy of chile must bring sweat to our brows, tears to our eyes and blisters to our tongues. If chile doesn’t have these effects, it may as well be chili, that Tex-Mex offering some self-respecting New Mexicans deride. Pepper spray has nothing on chile for some of us capsaicin addicted masochistic diehards. Combine a pure, earthy chile with the capsaicin heat of a piquant chile and you’ve got the bet of both worlds.

Con Queso, Salsa, Guacamole and Chips

When it comes to New Mexican red chile, many of the restaurants which most meet my criteria for great chile seem to be clustered in Santa Fe where the chile is reminiscent of the chile on which I was weaned. Santa Fe’s purveyors of chile, unlike many of their brethren in Taos and Albuquerque, have not “anglicized” their chile for tourist tastes. Santa Fe chile tends to be potent; it bites back.

Santa Fe restaurants offer a chile which tends toward being a dark red, characteristic of not employing corn starch or other thickening agents. It is more “earthy” and suggestive of nature in all its fresh and delicious purity. It is the essence of New Mexico chile the way it is meant to be. There may be a lesson here for Taos and Albuquerque restaurants which have “dumbed down” their chile in catering to unacculturated tourist tastes.

A trio (cheese, ground beef, chicken) of enchiladas served Christmas style and with an egg on top

Compared to some of Santa Fe’s venerable New Mexican food restaurant mainstays, some of which have been delighting generations of locals and tourists alike, Cafe Castro is a relative newcomer to the Santa Fe restaurant scene.  Owners Julia and Carlos Castro had a winner in their hands from the onset with a winning formula of unadulterated chile purity, generous portions and some of the most friendly service in town.  The Castros’ first restaurant venture in Santa Fe, the defunct older sibling Castro’s Restaurante, on Rodeo road was ensconced in secluded Rodeo Road which made it an off-the-beaten-path dining destination.  Cafe Castro is situated on Cerrillos, one of Santa Fe’s most trafficked streets.

The menu is replete with traditional favorites prepared in the manner in which abuelitas and cocineras have done so for generations. The restaurant is almost directly across Cerrillos from Jackalope, but if you’re driving a bit fast you might miss it. It is a homey little restaurant with limited parking and short waits are not uncommon. Its walls are festooned with very eclectic New Mexican and Mexican art including one wall depicting Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) skeletal figures in various poses, for example, a sombrero attired caballero kneeling at the feet of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Massive vigas on the ceiling, terra cotta floors and amber and white stuccoed walls lend to the ambiance.

Carne Adovada with two fried eggs and papitas

At most New Mexican restaurants salsa is not always a barometer as to the piquancy of the restaurant’s chile. In many cases, the salsa is the sole dish with any piquancy. The salsa at Cafe Castro has a nice bite to it. It is about as thick as ketchup, but you’d never make that mistake in terms of flavor and piquancy. This salsa is potent, a sassy mix of chile, garlic, onion and rich, red tomato. Our only complaint is that it’s not complementary, an increasingly frequent trend in New Mexican restaurants.

As piquant as we found the salsa, we were somewhat disappointed in the guacamole, the sole discernible flavor of which was mashed avocado. While avocado is the key component in the construction of guacamole, its flavor is usually complemented with salsa, garlic or even lime. If you like buttery, unadorned guacamole, Castro’s will accommodate you.  The con queso is much better, the piquant influence of green chiles apparent in every bite.  Chips are low in salt.

Sopaipillas served with real honey

The menu is not a compendium of everything New Mexican. Rather, it is a limited selection of New Mexican treasures prepared exceptionally well. All the standards are there–enchiladas, tacos, burritos, stuffed sopaipillas, chile rellenos, combination platters and even a New Mexican steak. The only item on the dinner menu which might be argued is not New Mexican is the chalupa (a specialty of the states of Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca) dinner.

If excellent enchiladas are the true measure of a New Mexican restaurant’s cuisine, Cafe Castro has enchiladas for everyone–blue corn, cheese, chicken or ground beef. You can also have them all by ordering the triple enchilada, a bounteous platter featuring one cheese, one chicken and one ground beef enchilada, rolled and smothered with your choice of red or green chile (or both) and served with Spanish rice and beans.

Apple pie a la mode

The green chile is merely delicious, chopped finely and unspoiled. The red chile is as described by the Albuquerque Journal’s Anne Hillerman, “some of the best in town–smooth, thick, spicy and irresistible.” It is also pleasantly piquant with the type of burn some of us leather-tongued aficionados love. It is a dark chile almost the color of kidney beans and you get plenty of it on your plate.  New Mexicans might be tempted to lick their plates while tourists will likely say “no mas” to its bite.

The triple enchiladas are triply terrific when topped with a fried egg over medium so that the yoke is easily punctured by your folk to allow it to run over the enchiladas. Melted Cheddar cheese and a garnish of lettuce and tomato add contrast and flavor. The beans are excellent while the Spanish rice is, well, it’s Spanish rice. This is a humongous plate you might not be able to finish, but you will want to make sure you finish off every bit of the chile.

The carne adovada is some of the very best in Santa Fe, if not the Land of Enchantment.  Picture tender tendrils of shredded pork marinated in red chile so rich and delicious you’ll want to make out with it.   Picture it served with two eggs prepared any way you want them and served with a side of papitas.  Picture a pinto-pony colored char on the tortilla which you’ll use to sop up all the chile.  The cooks at Cafe Castro exemplify the dicho with which this review began.

The portions are prodigious at Cafe Castro, but you’ve got to save room for the sopaipillas. I’ve heard children refer to sopaipillas as “sofa pillows” and these might be, in terms of size only, the closest I’ve seen to matching that description. These sopaipillas are enormous. Cafe Castro delivers a basket of steaming warm sopaipillas immediately after bringing the entrees to your table. That’s a good practice for a couple of reasons. You can eat these puffy pillows of deliciousness before you’re too engorged to eat another bite. Secondly, with a little bit of honey, the sopaipillas will cut the piquancy of the chile for folks whose tongues aren’t lined with asbestos.

Cafe Castro offers several other menu options–chocolate brownie, flan, apple pie, tres leches cake–and most diners won’t have room left to enjoy them.  The apple pie a la mode is probably pretty good, but with every bite my thoughts were of the old Alka Seltzer commercial in which an overstuffed diner repeatedly uttered “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

Cafe Castro understands the concept of “getting the whole chile” and they sure know what to do with it. This is a very good New Mexican restaurant which adheres strictly to traditions, especially when it comes to chile. That’s the way I like it.

Cafe Castro
2811 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM
(505) 473-5800
LATEST VISIT: 6 May 2012
1st VISIT: 3 October 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Triple Enchiladas, Chile Rellenos, Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Horchata, Con Queso, Guacamole, Coffee

Cafe Castro on Urbanspoon

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