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Marcello’s Chophouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Marcello's Chophouse in Albuquerque's Uptown

Marcello’s Chophouse in Albuquerque’s Uptown

Steak–even the word conjures stereotypes of power brokers in suits and ties. There’s just something about sizzling, flame-kissed beef that seems to appeal to the wheelers and dealers and movers and shakers among us. Steak may just be the ultimate power food!  That power is also wielded in the ultimate thumbing of the nose at vegetarians when carnivores emphasize that they didn’t claw their way to the top of the food ladder only to eat vegetables.

Vegetarians may retort that steak is antithetical to a healthful lifestyle. To carnivores, however, it’s not as important that steak may not be good for you as it is that steak is oh so good. Meat lovers emphasize that there is nothing like a perfectly prepared steak!

The Wine Lockers at Marcello's Chophouse

The Wine Lockers at Marcello’s Chophouse

As a 1995 episode of Seinfeld illustrated, steak is also not just a guy thing anymore. When Jerry took a blind date to the Old Homestead Steakhouse, he admitted “I’m not really that much of a meat eater” to which his date replied “You don’t eat meat? Are you one of those…” Questions about his masculinity persisted when she ordered a porterhouse medium rare and Jerry had a salad.

Some of our neighbors take their steak more seriously, by far, than we do. Witness the 1998 suit of Oprah Winfrey under Texas’s “False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products” statute.  America’s multiple-Emmy Award winning host of the highest rated talk show in television history was accused, in essence, of defaming a product fattened for slaughter in the feedlots outside of Amarillo, Texas then served up at the Big Texan Steak Ranch.

Sacrilege! Audrey Hepburn, a paragon of virtue, looks on innocently where only men should dare to tread

Alas, until recent years, the only potential steak related lawsuit contemplated in Albuquerque would have been by Duke City diners forced to choke down the artery-clogging, gristly, weakly flavored mediocrity that passes as steak at a plethora of chain steak restaurants.  Until the past decade or so, Albuquerque’s carnivores didn’t have many options when it came to velvety, buttery textured, nearly sweet, perfectly aged, optimally marbled steak.

Today, our fair city can boast of several steak houses that aren’t just good by Albuquerque standards. Some of the Duke City’s steakhouses would be competitive in larger markets where steak has been king for a long time. The November, 2006 launch of Marcello’s Chophouse may have signaled that this Duke City steakhouse is confidently throwing down the gauntlet and will vie for accolades not just with the locals, but with some of America’s best steak restaurants.

Lobster bisque

Lobster bisque

The appellation “Chophouse” in and of itself means more than just another steakhouse. In cities like Chicago, chophouses are where you find the best prepared slabs of USDA prime bone-in steaks, chops and seafood served in elegant milieus with attentive tableside service amidst classy decor. We’re talking selected, hand-cut on the premises prime steaks served charred and bursting with prime-aged flavor.

Marcello’s Chophouse is the fifth Albuquerque restaurant launched by Frank Marcello, a restaurant impresario responsible for bringing to the Duke City Copeland’s of New Orleans, Zea Rotisserie & Grill, Gruet Grille and the Gruet Steakhouse. Marcello’s Chophouse is the most lavish and upscale of his impressive array of restaurants. At nearly 7,000 square-feet, this swanky anchor tenant of the ABQ Uptown, has already earned several accolades, including an award of excellence from Wine Spectator.  Many Duke City oenophiles (wine aficionados) have even purchased their own wine lockers (pictured above) at Marcello’s. Every time they visit the restaurant, their favorite wines await them at optimum temperature.

Lobster Mac-n-Cheese - a blend of lobster cream, cheese & Maine lobster pieces in a cast iron skillet

Lobster Mac-n-Cheese – a blend of lobster cream, cheese & Maine lobster pieces in a cast iron skillet

The dinner menu is replete with chophouse steaks, bone-in specialties, chops, seafood and so much more. The lunch menu is abbreviated in both menu selections and prices. In fact, only two steaks grace the lunch menu, a seven-ounce petite filet mignon and a four-ounce steak Diane. Not everything on Marcello’s menu is exorbitantly priced. In fact, there are many items on the dinner menu within the easy reach of most price-conscious diners.

The lunch menu features many reasonably priced entrees that–although portioned somewhat smaller than dinner menu entrees–will let you feel like a million bucks without having to spend nearly that much. One dish available on both menus is the extraordinary lobster bisque, a soup which hearkens back to another Seinfeld episode in which Elaine recounts her date with a lawyer. “Yeah, I met this lawyer and we went to dinner. I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada, yada, yada, I never heard from him again.”Jerry rejoined with “but you yada yada’d over the best part” to which Elaine responded “No, I mentioned the bisque.”

Petite Filet Mignon

Petite Filet Mignon

You will never yada yada the lobster bisque at Marcello’s! It is simply one of the most sublime soups in Albuquerque. The soup, a rich and creamy bowl of deliciousness, circumnavigates a solitary reddish-hued lobster claw while other lobster bits are submerged beneath a steamy broth. The soup is ameliorated with brandied Crème fraîche, a high in fat content cream that improves the flavor of anything in which it is used. The lobster is sweet and delicious. Close your eyes and you might think you’re in America’s Northeast where this transcendent decapod swims from cold Atlantic waters practically onto your table.

If the lobster bisque doesn’t sate your lust for lobster, there’s always Marcello’s Lobster Mac-n-Cheese, a blend of lobster cream, cheese and Maine lobster pieces in a cast iron skillet.  This is a rich, adult macaroni and cheese but perhaps too heavily dusted with parmesan, leaving it a bit desiccated. Save for the lobster bits, it’s not quite as good as the Ultimate Mac & Cheese at Chef Jim White’s restaurant (now defunct). Mind you, it’s still very, very good.

Chilled “Really Big” Shrimp with green chile & red chile cocktail sauce

Marcello’s brines its steaks for 24 hours then flash fries them to order at very high temperatures, a technique mastered by few. Have the Lilliputian petite filet for lunch and you’ll be thinking about the “Chophouse Cut,” a 22-ounce bone-in rib eye cut from a slow-roasted prime rib, for dinner.  At three times the size of the petite filet, the bone-in rib eye cut will have to go a ways to match the flavor of its smaller brethren.

The petite filet mignon, a mere seven-ounces, takes a back seat to no steak. Order it prepared at medium and it will arrive to your exacting specifications. That means a crusty exterior redolent with herbs and spices and seared to perfection. It means a slightly pinkish and moist interior replete with flavor.  A great steak requires little or no help other than salt, pepper and garlic, but Marcello’s seasonings are extraordinarily flavorful. They seem to bring out the meat’s inherent flavors and heighten their impact on your taste buds.

Housemade pastrami on sourdough

The petite filet is served with a dinner salad crafted from a mix of greens and very lightly drizzled with a dressing that seems to heighten the greens’ native freshness. You might think a loaf of ciabbata bread might be more appropriate for an Italian restaurant, but somehow it works at Marcello’s. This crispy, fragrant herbaceous loaf is a welcome change from the de rigueur hard crusted breads at other high-end restaurants.

Marcello’s manages to incorporate New Mexico’s official state vegetable in a manner heretofore not seen at other restaurants throughout the Duke City.  I’ve long contended that chile can improve everything it touches (including some desserts) and Marcello’s substantiates this by offering green chile and red chile cocktail sauce with its chilled “Really Big Shrimp” appetizer.  Six jumbo shrimp (an oxymoron if there ever was one) looking more like miniature lobsters are offered with the chile offerings.  The red chile cocktail sauce is especially good with a combination of horseradish bite and red chile piquancy.  The shrimp are fresh with a nice snap to them and none of the mealiness you sometimes find in shrimp cocktails.

New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger with Chophouse Creamed Spinach

Not on Marcello’s daily menu, but perhaps it should be is a housemade pastrami sandwich.  A half-pound of nicely marbled, just smoky enough and perfectly seasoned pastrami is served on thick, lightly toasted sourdough.  The bread is slathered with a Dijonnaise (Dijon mustard blended with mayonnaise) sauce, lettuce and pickles.  Though rye and mustard is normally my preference, this is a surprisingly good sandwich courtesy of the melt-in-your-mouth pastrami sliced into thin ribbons of deliciousness.

One of the challenges in selecting New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail worthy burgers is that many restaurants (even Lotaburger) offer green chile as a side and don’t necessarily have a green chile cheeseburger on their menus.  Marcello’s leaves nothing to chance, calling its offering the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger.  It’s a beefy half-pound behemoth topped with New Mexico green chiles, caramelized onions and a three cheese blend (white Cheddar, Fontina, Monterey Jack).  The green chile is fairly mild, but the three chile blend is terrific.  Normally served with fries, ask for the Chophouse Creamed Spinach instead.  While some creamed spinach dishes have an acerbic aftertaste, this one is rather sweet, the result of a generous sprinkling of anisette and nutmeg.

Frank's Favorite "Bananas for Sundae"

Frank’s Favorite “Bananas for Sundae”

A stunning selection of desserts completes the package. Perhaps in tribute to his Louisiana heritage, Marcello adds his name to only one–Frank’s Favorite “Bananas for Sundae,” a take-off on Bananas Foster. Frank’s favorite just might become your favorite. This dessert features a vertically split banana caramelized with cajeta (a Mexican confection made from goat’s milk) surrounding scoops of chocolate, vanilla and dulce de leche ice creams which are topped with a fresh raspberry compote, chocolate ganache and housemade whipped cream. This is a “died and went to heaven” dessert–sinfully rich, unbelievably delicious and totally terrific. It’s no wonder it’s Frank’s favorite!

One caution about another of Marcello’s dessert offerings–if you’re going to order the chef’s selection of cheesecake, ask for spoons instead of forks because if you’re sharing this postprandial treat, you might stab your companion, so enthusiastic will you be for the next bite.  The cheesecake selections are seasonal.  Summer is apparently the season for milk chocolate cheesecake on a Graham cracker crust paired with white chocolate cheesecake on an Oreo crust drizzled with a dark chocolate ganache.  Shaped more like flan than cheesecake, this delicious duo will leave a memorable impression on your taste buds.

Chef’s Selection of Cheesecake: Milk Chocolate on Graham Cracker Crust and White Chocolate on Oreo Crust Drizzled with Chocolate Ganache.

There’s a strong chance Marcello’s Chophouse may become your favorite steakhouse in Albuquerque. It’s got the pedigree to be successful and the arsenal of deliciousness to win over even the most staunch of critics. It’s steak at its best and oh so much more.

Marcello’s Chophouse
2201 Q Street N.E., Suite 9B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 837-2467
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2012
1st VISIT: 11 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Lobster Mac-n-Cheese, Petite Filet Mignon, Lobster Bisque, New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger, Pastrami Sandwich, Chilled “Really Big Shrimp,” Chef’s Selection of Cheesecake, Frank’s Favorite Bananas for Sundae


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Marcello's Chophouse on Urbanspoon

Timbuctu Bistro – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Timbuctu Bistro is on the southeast corner of the Mariposa Information Center

Growing up in bucolic Peñasco back when fires were still started by rubbing two sticks together and mastodons roamed the Earth, I distinctly remember hearing playmates uttering the term “going all the way to Timbuktu.”  Considering we all thought Albuquerque was a million miles away, we couldn’t imagine just how far away Timbuktu must be.  Some of us reasoned it  existed only as a figment of the imagination similar to Oz, Neverland and Atlantis (Hogwarts, Narnia and Jurassic Park for you Generation Yers).  Even adult teachers whom we asked dismissed it as a distant land in deepest, darkest Africa though it was obvious they weren’t quite sure where it actually was…or if it existed at all.

Though seemingly synonymous with “some far away place,” Timbuktu does exist and imaginative children of all ages do visit it on occasion.   Timbuktu is a city of some 50,000 citizens–the most remote city, in fact, in the country of Mali, the crown jewel of West Africa.  It’s located between the southern edge of the mighty Sahara and the great bend of the Niger River.  Not only is it far away, it is difficult to get there, the only reliable route in or out being by chartered aircraft.

Restaurant impresario and Timbuctu Bistro owner Nico Ortiz (far right) discusses the daily menu

When you visit the Timbuctu Bistro in Rio Rancho, it’s pretty obvious how the restaurant got its name.   It’s about four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center which even most of Rio Rancho’s citizenry erroneously believe is as far northwest as you can go and still be in the City of Vision.  There’s a vast expanse of sage and sand as far as the eyes can see on both sides of the two lane Unser Boulevard on the way to Mariposa, the environmentally-responsible master-planned community in which the Bistro is located. The Bistro is housed in complex which was previously home to the much-missed Outlook Cafe.

Its perceived distance will likely make the Timbuctu Bistro a true destination restaurant, an  exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the Rio Rancho’s dining scene. In truth, however, from the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, the Timbuctu Bistro is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights, no traffic snarls and once you’re past the turnoff to Northern, virtually no other traffic and only a couple of residential neighborhoods.

French Toast: two slices of locally-made Challah bread battered with a spiced orange liqueur, grilled golden brown and topped with vanilla whipped cream and fresh berries; served with warm syrup

There’s another reason for the name Timbuctu Bistro.  The charming restaurant which opened in May, 2012, is owned by Rio Rancho restaurant impresario Niko Ortiz, proprietor of the Turtle Mountain Brewing Company and the Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille.  The first letters of each word in Turtle Mountain Brewing Company (TMBC) are virtually an acronym for Timbuctu, ergo the name.  The Bistro is ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views.  From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio.

The Bistro has a beer and wine license, but for those of us who appreciate other adult beverages, there’s  Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain.  The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque.  It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.”   Only at Cafe Bella have I had a better Cafe Au Lait in New Mexico.

Crab Cake Benedict: Two green chile crab cakes topped with poached eggs smothered in house-made Hollandaise and served with hash browns

The Timbuctu Bistro is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11AM to 3PM and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday starting at 5PM.  Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays from 9AM to 3PM.  The menu is surprisingly ambitious considering the Bistro’s tiny confines, though it’s not an especially large menu (four appetizers, three salads, seven lunch entrees, six dinner entrees and eight brunch entrees).  It’s a menu wholly unlike that at either of Niko Ortiz’s other restaurant ventures and it has a distinct New Mexican influence.  Burgers and sandwiches dominate the lunch menu while more sophisticated offerings (including a red chile bourbon glazed salmon) are available for dinner.  Aside from the salads, the most vegetarian-friendly items on the menu are a quesadilla (flour tortilla with Monterey Jack, tri-colored bell pepper-onion mix served with guacamole and sour cream) and a hummus cups (red chile hummus piled into crisp cucumber cups, each garnished with diced tomato, a pita chip and fresh basil) appetizer.

Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both. It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree.  The Timbuctu Bistro has some of the standard New Mexico brunch favorites such as a breakfast burrito and French toast, but some are distinct enough not to be classified as the “same old, same old.”   Take the French Toast, for example.  Two slices of locally-made Challah bread are battered with a spiced orange liqueur then grilled golden brown and topped with vanilla whipped cream and fresh berries.  The spiced orange liqueur adds a nice citrusy touch and it’s hard to dispute that Challah bread makes the very best French toast.

Classic Breakfast: Two fried eggs over easy, two slices of bacon, a tortilla and yogurt with fresh fruit

For a uniquely New Mexico twist on a traditional favorite, you can’t beat the Bistro’s Crab Cake Benedict, two green chile crab cakes topped with poached eggs smothered in house-made Hollandaise and served with hash browns.  My friend  Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, contends “green chile is strictly forbidden” on crab cakes, but I believe these would make a convert out of him.  The crab cakes are fashioned from jumbo lump crab meat which is impregnated with the incomparable flavor of New Mexico roasted green chile–only enough to be discernible, not to dominate.  For good measure, the house-made Hollandaise is lightly dusted with red chile.  Only at the Gold Street Caffe will you find a comparable Southwest influenced Eggs Benedict dish.

If you’re not in an adventurous mood, the Bistro offers a Classic Breakfast option (two eggs any style with your choice of bacon, house-made chorizo (cumin added) or Canadian bacon served with hash browns and sourdough toast).  You can also substitute a tortilla and yogurt with fresh fruit for the hash browns and sourdough toast.  The yogurt is sweetened with honey, a nice contrast to the tangy, fresh berries and the creamy, pleasantly sour flavor of yogurt. 

The Piña Burger: Half-Pound Beef Patty topped with a tequila pineapple salsa, Canadian bacon, Provolone and Teriyaki served on ciabatta

Lunch options include three intriguing gourmet burgers, all of which start with a half-pound beef patty on ciabatta.  One of the burgers, the Piña burger, answers the question as to what a burger version of a Hawaiian pizza might look and taste like.  The beef toppings include a tequila pineapple salsa, Canadian bacon, Provolone and teriyaki sauce.  The saltiness of the Canadian bacon (which not even Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman can distinguish from ham) is a nice foil for the sweet-tart flavors of the finely chopped pineapple and the nuttiness of the Provolone.  The ciabatta is toasted so the edges are crisp and the insides are soft.

You can also substitute a marinated portabello mushroom cap or eight-ounce chicken breast on any burger for no additional charge.  Better still, if you’re on a no- or low-carb diet, substitute the ciabatta for two large portobello buns. My friend Paul “Boomer” Lilly swears by this on “The Green Machine,” Timbuctu’s rendition of a green chile cheeseburger which also includes applewood smoked bacon, green chile, Cheddar, spicy chipotle mayo and a fried egg.  All burgers and sandwiches come with your choice of tri-color rotini pasta salad or classic potato salad, but you can substitute a side salad or classic potato salad for a dollar more.

The Green Machine: half-pound beef patty (normally served on ciabatta, but pictured above with two portabello mushrooms in lieu of buns) topped with applewood smoked bacon, green chile, Cheddar, spicy chipotle mayo and a fried egg.

Aside from the burgers, the lunch menu offers a quesadilla, five sandwiches and a Pasta Al Fresco entree (angel hair pasta tossed in garlic white wine sauce with capers, grape tomatoes and basil chiffonade served with garlic toast points and your choice (for a cost) of a four-ounce chicken breast, four-ounce salmon, spicy Italian sausage or citrus-marinated shrimp.  It’s a surprisingly sophisticated entree with a richness of flavors.  The Italian sausage has a nice kick to complement the buttery silkiness of the fine pasta. 

Dinner at Timbuctu is a more upscale event with a smattering of New Mexican and Southwest inspired entrees (Southwest Alfredo, Red Chile Bourbon-Glazed Salmon, Fajitas and Carne Adovada) among a chops menu some steak houses would envy.  The veal chop and herb-crusted rack of lamb are knocking on the forty dollar price point, but if they taste nearly as good as they’re described on the menu, they’ll be worth the price.  Burgerphiles can also have The Green Machine if they’re so inclined.

Pasta Al Fresco: Angel hair pasta tossed in garlic white wine sauce with capers, grape tomatoes and basil chiffonade served with garlic toast points and spicy Italian sausage

Timbuktu has long had the connotation of a place so distant that going any farther is inconceivable.  The Timbuctu Bistro may someday be known not for being the furthest away (at least from the city’s population center) of Rio Rancho’s restaurants, but for being a viable, delicious dining option worth the drive from anywhere in the area.

Timbuctu Bistro
2500 Parkway Avenue Map.13c819a
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT
: 26 June 2012
1st VISIT:  12 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Crab Cake Benedict, Classic Breakfast, French Toast, Coffee Au Lait, Piña Burger, The Green Machine

Timbuctu Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sakura Sushi Thai and Laos Cuisine

Sakura Sushi: Thai, Japanese and Laos Cuisine

Opinions vary as to what the next “hot” cuisine in America will be.  As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary condition, I’m more interested in how long it will take for that heat to make its way to the Land of Enchantment…and whether its sizzle will wow Duke City diners or make them go bow-wow.  In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian the next hot cuisine.  Apparently Albuquerque didn’t think it was so hot because Perumex, the city’s first and only Peruvian restaurant both opened and closed the year of Bon Appetit’s proclamation.  Thankfully Rene and Monica Coronado have since opened Pollito Con Papas to give the Duke City a second chance at a taste of Peru.

If history repeats itself, perhaps Lao cuisine, the cuisine of Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) will follow Thai and Vietnamese cuisines as the hot cuisine embraced by ethnic-food ravenous American diners.  That would be my wish and my prediction.  Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  The influence of neighboring nations can be seen in Lao cuisine.  A French influence is also in evidence.  From 1893 to 1954 when it gained full independence, Laos was part of the Protectorate of French Indonesia.

Sakura Sushi is a beautiful restaurant

The interior of Sakura Sushi

The geography and history of a nation is a strong determinant in its culinary culture, and while the influence of other nations may be in evidence, each country in Southeast Asia has stamped its own distinct mark on America’s palate.  Americans in cities fortunate enough to have a restaurant serving the cuisine of Laos have lustily embraced that distinctiveness.  Alas, Duke City diners have had to trek to Amarillo’s LM Restaurant to partake of this relatively new trendy dining sensation.

So what’s the Cuisine of Lao like?  It might help to understand that its closest “relative” is the cuisine of the Issan region of northern Thailand. New Mexicans who love their food a bit on the incendiary side would love  Issan style Thai food which is more highly spiced than cuisine at other regions of Thailand. Spiciness aside, there are other differences between Thai and Lao cuisine. Where Thai food is colorful and exotic, Lao food is more basic and simple. Interestingly, the savory dishes of Laos are never sweet and the concept of “sweet and sour” is considered foreign and bizarre.

Cheese and Green Chile Egg Roll with Plum Sauce

A Lao saying about its cuisine can be translated as “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.  The cuisine of Laos incorporates a wide variety of bitter ingredients including mint and dill, two herbs generally ignored by their neighbors.  Other cooking herbs of vast importance in Lao cuisine are galangal, fish sauce, garlic, shallots and lemongrass.

Recent years have seen an increasing number of Asian restaurants in the Duke City serving more than one type of Asian cuisine.  Sakura Sushi has the pedigree to do it well. Still, you wouldn’t expect to find Lao cuisine in a restaurant named Sakura Sushi until you read the “subtitle” on the marquee: Thai and Laos cuisine. You might visit for the sushi, but you’ll keep coming back for the Lao.

Japanese Ceviche

Japanese Ceviche

Located in in the former site of Asia Restaurant (which closed in 2007 after more than five years of inconsistent business), Sakura Sushi is owned and operated by Vong and Pialo Soumphonphakdy, both natives of Laos.  Vong, who previously plied his trade as sushi chef at Minato’s (closed) Eurasia (also defunct) and Neko Sushi (also closed) artfully wields his knives behind the sushi bar at Sakura.  His wife Pialo is the kitchen chef, preparing all the Thai and Lao cuisine.

The interior at Sakura reflects a Japanese theme more so than either Thai or Lao. The color palate includes wasabi green walls festooned with framed art depicting Geishas in their beautiful silk kimonos. During our inaugural visit, there were two things that told us this might be a special restaurant. The first was the loyalty of a gaunt septuagenarian seated at the table behind us. He dines at Sakura six days a week and has done so since the restaurant opened in the fall of 2007. We were determined to find out what engendered such loyalty.

The Ruby Red Roll

The Ruby Red Roll

That may have been answered with the second thing that struck us about Sakura Sushi. It was Vong’s sage-like conveyance of the rudimentary facets of sushi to a couple in their forties.  That couple’s sole experience with sushi had been limited to eating sushi from Trader Joe’s.  Under Vong’s tutelage, the couple went from sushi novices to sushi lovers in short order.  It was fun to watch them become more and more adventurous as their dinner went on.

The menu currently features only seven Lao cuisine entrees with the better part of two pages dedicated to Thai cuisine. Not including sushi, there is also a page dedicated to Japanese cuisine as well as a page listing the sushi chef’s specialties. Appetizers include monkey balls (forget the double-entendre). Monkey balls are deep-fried wheat flour tempura balls stuffed with spicy tuna and mushrooms and served with a sauce comprised of fiery Sriracha, savory Japanese mayo, and sweet unagi sauce.

Laos Sauce Special (pork)

Laos Sausage Special

The monkey balls are terrific, but the sauce elevates them to a higher plain.  It strikes a perfect balance between  sweet, savory and piquant flavors and presents them subtly so that you’re able to experience each of these taste sensations individually and in combination with one another.  This is the type of sauce you could literally put on anything and it would improve it.

Another fabulous appetizer is the Japanese ceviche served in a tall goblet. While the refreshing, bright dish of citrus-marinated seafood has its roots in South American cuisine, it is increasingly found in trendy menus everywhere. Conceptually Japanese ceviche is unlike its Latin American counterpart in that the seafood is (ostensibly) catalyzed by citrus juices, but beyond that there are discernible differences.

Laab Lao Style

Laab Lao Style

Sakura’s version includes shredded crab, butterflied shrimp and other sushi favorites such as tuna and salmon in a goblet showcasing micro greens, sesame seeds and spring mix lettuce. Thanks to the catalyzing of the seafood through the process of the limes’ citric acid pickling or “cooking” the seafood without heat, the seafood tastes more like a cooked entree and not like sashimi, Japanese raw fish. 

One appetizer sure to pique your curiosity is a cheese and green chile egg roll.  There are several things that make this an intriguing starter, not the least of which is the fact that cheese is not often used in Asian cuisine (save for that of India).  At first glance, it looks like a traditional egg roll and indeed, it is served with Sakura’s plum sauce.  Bite into it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, but be forewarned.  The cheese is gooey and hot.  So is the chile.  The plum sauce isn’t really necessary, but it’s several orders of magnitude better than most sweet and sour sauce.

Lao Beef Jerky with Fried Rice

A chef’s specialty needing no improvement is the Ruby Red Roll.  Inside, this maki style roll is engorged with shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and Gobo, a Japanese root.  On top, you’ll find fresh tuna, tobiko (flying fish roe) and sweet unagi sauce. The Ruby Red Roll earns its name.  At first glance you might even mistake the tobiko with a fruit jam, but one taste and you’ll know for sure you’re partaking of briny, delicious roe.  There are several inventive maki rolls on the menu, but you can also have sashimi or nigiri style sushi (vinegared rice topped with a bite-size, raw or cooked piece of either egg, fish, or other seafood.

Aficionados of pork sausage will quickly become besotted with Sakura’s Laos Sausage Special, a plateful of pork sausage sliced diagonally. This sausage has the type of unmistakable reddish coloring that comes from a smoking process. The sausage is somewhere between a slightly coarse-ground and a fine-ground texture. Insofar as taste, you’ll be able to discern scallions, garlic, lemongrass and a bit of chile. Overall the taste leans toward mild with just a hint of piquancy. This is very good sausage, somewhat reminiscent of Chinese sausage.

Moo Todd

Moo Todd

Sakura’s rendition of the national dish of Laos is also quite good.  Every household in Laos has its own recipe for Laab, a minced salad crafted from your choice of ground pork or beef seasoned with lime juice, lemongrass, yellow and green onions, toasted puffed rice, rice powder, cilantro and mint. There is a synergy and freshness among the various ingredients.  There is also a profusion of deliciousness in how those ingredients meld with and swim in the citrusy tanginess of more lime than you’ll ever find in a Thai version of this quintessential Southeast Asia salad. 

Several years ago during one of our many visits to Lotus of Siam (the best Thai restaurant in America) in Las Vegas, Nevada, we fell in love with an Issan style beef jerky appetizer.  Yes, beef jerky!  It’s not something you see in many restaurant menus, but you will find a Lao version at Sakura.  This is definitely not the desiccated hardtack quality jerky you might find at a gas station.  It’s surprisingly moist, unbelievably delicious and roughly the dimensions of a small finger.  Eight of these wondrously seasoned gems sit on a bed of thin noodles, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and bean sprouts in a sweet-savory sauce you’d gladly lap up.

Green Curry with Mussels and Rice

The Thai side of the menu includes Moo Todd, stir-fried pork fillets with Thai hot black pepper, garlic and sweet soy sauce. These may be the best pork fillets we’ve ever had at an Asian restaurant. On their own they’re special, but the accompanying sauce, an inventive mango and crushed peanut sauce, imparts even more flavor. The mango-based sauce is rich, piquant and sweet. 

The Thai menu includes several curry dishes including a rather unique green curry which is available with beef, chicken, mussels and shrimp.  Instead of the conventional greenish color, this curry is a brackish brown color.  Perhaps the green is reserved for the New Zealand green-lipped mussels.  There are eight of them on the dish along with green pepper, bamboo shoots, coconut milk and curry, of course.  The curry has a rather mild flavor profile in that both coconut milk and chili are used in moderation.

Sakura’s unique rendition of mangoes and sticky rice

While sticky rice is the preferred way to eat rice in Laos, you can also opt for pork-fried rice.  Doing so will reward you with the second best fried rice dish in Albuquerque (behind the Chinese sausage fried rice at Ming Dynasty).  This rice includes scallions, carrots, green beans and even niblets of corn.  It has a pronounced smokiness resultant from having been fried in the chef’s fried rice sauce.

Dessert options include sweet rice with mangoes as well as green tea, red bean and plum wine ice cream.  The plum wine ice cream is refreshing and delicious, flecked with bits of rich, sweet plum.  In season, a popular choice is mangoes with sticky rice, a version quite different than you’ll find in the Duke City’s Thai restaurants.   The coconut milk is unsweetened and thick, blanketing the mangoes and the black (it’s actually purplish) sticky rice which is naturally sweet.  The mangoes and sticky rice offset the unsweetened coconut milk, providing a delicious and surprising contrast.

I don’t know if the cuisine of Laos will become the next “hot” thing, but I do know that if Sakura Sushi continues to do the things it did to impress us during our first and second visits, it has a chance to be a very successful restaurant in the Duke City.

Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine
4200 Wyoming, N.E. C-2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 294-9696
1st VISIT: 12 January 2007
LATEST VISIT: 23 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Laab, Laos Sausage Special (Pork), Ruby Red Roll, Plum Wine Ice Cream, Pork Fried Rice, Miso Soup, Green Curry, Lao Jerky, Mangoes and Sticky Rice, Green Chile and Cheese Roll

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