Old Town Pizza Parlor – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Old Town Pizza Parlor

Old Town Pizza Parlor

Although it seems Albuquerque’s population experiences an unprecedented population growth every decade, perhaps the ten-year period which most transformed the Duke City from an expansive frontier cow town to a modern metropolitan city was the 1950s.  At the start of the decade, the city’s population was 96,815, but bolstered by a post-World War II boom, the population more than doubled to 201,189 by 1960.  No successive decade has seen such growth.

With J.C. Penney’s, Sears and Montgomery Wards (as well as Woolworth’s) all located on Route 66, downtown was the the economic heart of the community.  Consumers reveled in the availability of products and clothing heretofore available only through catalogs.  To show off the high fashion available at those department stores and especially at Kistler-Collister (ironically situated near the city’s eastern outskirts) as well as the city’s hubs of haberdashery, fun-seekers headed for the Old Town Society Hall in the vicinity of Rio Grande and Central for spirited dancing.

One of the dining rooms at the Old Town Pizza Parlor

One of the dining rooms at the Old Town Pizza Parlor

Route 66 was festooned with vibrant neon signage that cut a luminous swath through the city.  Only the historic Old Town district was spared the nocturnal spectacle of glowing and flashing neon.  Savvy diners still managed to find their way to the Old Town Chile Parlor where John P. and Frances Apodaca owned and operated one of the city’s most popular restaurants in the same location (opposite the Old Town Society Hall) for over 40 years.  The restaurant was housed in a hacienda that is more than 150 years old today.

That hacienda has been in Mike Tafoya’s family for nearly three quarters of a century, but it’s been a long time since it’s been used as a family home.  After the Old Town Chile Parlor closed down, the edifice was home to Smiroll’s International Cuisine from 1974 to 2000.  After Smiroll’s came Ambrozia and its contemporary global cuisine.  Tafoya was a partner and chef in that enterprise.

Garlic Herb Bites

Garlic Herb Bites

With a heritage that includes a prominent historical restaurateur and a background as a chef at several fine-dining establishments in the Duke City, it’s only natural that Tafoya would continue the family tradition by launching a restaurant in the location that’s been in his family for nearly eight decades.  That restaurant, the Old Town Pizza Parlor, is named in tribute to Tafoya’s grandparents and the restaurant lineage he inherited.  

He also honors his grandparents with a vintage photograph of them beside an “In Loving Memory” placard under glass on the porch facing Rio Grande Avenue.  It’s just one of the aspects of the restaurant which honors the history and tradition of the Duke City in the 1950s.  Route 66 signage and memorabilia hang on the walls while under glass on every table you’ll find thematic imagery of that storied era.

OTP White Nachos: Corn chips piled high with signature white sauce, crumbled meatballs, smokey bacon bits, green chile, black olives, Roma tomatoes and fresh jalapenos

One table recognizes the music of the beat generation with images of 45RPM (that’s revolutions per minute) phonograph records and pictures of music stars of the day.  One table honors the sport teams prominent in the 1950s.  Under glass in one table are post cards showcasing the memorabilia of the nifty fifties.  There’s something to look at on each table, but it’s not overdone in the gaudy, kitschy style of many self-styled 50s restaurants.

The very first thing you see when you walk into the Old Town Pizza Parlor is the counter where you place your order.  There’s an oversized menu behind the counter listing all the restaurant’s offerings, many of which are unique and intriguing.  The menu starts with pizza which is available as a build it yourself option with sixteen different ingredient options as well as four sauce types: traditional–made with sweet tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and spices; hot & spicy–traditional sauce with extra garlic and spicy chile peppers; white–creamy parmesan and roasted garlic.; and basil pesto with fresh local basil, pine nuts and grated Parmesan cheese.  That’s having pizza your way, but you can also order one of the menu’s eight specialty pizzas.

The "Stampede"

The “Stampede”

Colossal calzones served with your choice of pizza sauce and garlic dip are next on the menu.  The starting point for each calzone is ricotta and mozzarella which you can top with any three items from the available toppings.  Extras include garlic herb bites (homemade pizza crust topped with garlic butter and sprinkled with a herb blend), pepperoni roll (baked dough wrapped around pepperoni and mozzarella and baked until golden) and meatball sliders (homemade meatballs topped with mozzarella and sandwiched between mini buns).

Pasta entrees feature over one pound of pasta and are served with parmesan garlic bread.  The menu also includes crisp salads and hot soup (including mamma’s tomato soup (made with sweet tomatoes, roasted garlic and cream served with a grilled cheese sandwich).  Eight-inch submarine sandwiches prepared deli style and served with chips and a pickle spear crown a menu that is quickly becoming an Old Town attraction in its own right.  The restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta and salad buffet for lunch seven days a week.

Design your own pizza with ham, pineapple and roasted garlic

If you like garlic strong enough to ward off Count Dracula and wreck your breath for days, the garlic herb bites might not do it.  The garlic is discernible, but not overwhelming.  In fact, it’s just one of several herbs well balanced for flavor harmony on a soft, cheesy crust served on a ten-inch tin plate.  The cheesy bread is delicious, so good you probably won’t use much of the accompanying marinara sauce. 

Nachos are not a dish most of us would associate with Italian or pizza restaurants, but the Old Town Pizza Parlor actually offers a nachos-based appetizer similar to the one offered at Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante.  The OTP White Nachos features a mountain of corn chips piled high with the restaurant’s signature white sauce, crumbled meatballs, smokey bacon bits, green chile, black olives, Roma tomatoes and fresh jalapenos.  These are not the gloppy cheese nachos sold at ball parks.  The smokey bacon bits and white sauce were a highlight, but the entire plate (large enough for a family of four) is a good starter.

Green Chile Alfredo

Green Chile Alfredo

Interestingly the menu indicates the garlic herb bites are made on the restaurant’s “homemade pizza crust,” but the crust served on the pizza is quite different than the garlic herb bite crust.  On the pizza, that crust is very thin and very firm.  There are no pretensions to New York style pizza crust here (if you expect pizza dough with a nice char on the bottom and bubbles on top, you’ll be disappointed).  In fact, the crust is so firm it may not be possible to fold it vertically the way New Yorkers prefer their pie.  Even the outer edges are thin, not much thicker than the pie itself.

Despite being waifishly thin, the crust is formidable enough to hold the generous ingredient pile-up the chef arranges on each pie.  It’s formidable enough not to droop and sag beneath the sauce’s thickness and moistness.  Not everyone will like this crust and if it sounds like it’s more serviceable than flavorful, that’s not my intent.  It’s a sweet crust some people will like while others won’t.

Meatball Baked Ziti: Homemade meatballs, marinara, ziti and ricotta. Topped with mozzarella

The “Stampede” we had during our inaugural visit is a carnivore’s dream–Italian sausage, pepperoni, mini meatballs, smoked ham and ground beef–all good enough to convert vegetarians.  Ingredients are locally procured and are unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Bite into a piece of ham or sausage and you won’t get that “frozen, out-of-the-bag” taste you get from some meat ingredients on chain pizza restaurants.  The sauce is lathered on thickly, but it’s a good sauce.  It’s a blend of sweet tomatoes, garlic and that EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) chef Tafoya does so well.

When Matt Herman recommended the Old Town Pizza Parlor, he told me, “without a doubt it is the best pizza in town, bar none, and the pasta is even better. We’ve been there five or six times and it just gets better.”  It’s been my experience that pizzerias don’t often do a good job with pasta (most of them drown the pasta with marinara sauce), but with Tafoya’s pedigree and Matt’s endorsement, pasta was a must.

The pasta dish beckoning most invitingly during our inaugural visit was the green chile Alfredo (fetuccini pasta topped with green chile parmesan cream sauce).  True Alfredo sauce is rich with butter and melted Parmigiana-Reggiano and is light, silky and refined.  You won’t find cream (especially heavy cream) on authentic Alfredo sauce, the way it was first created.  You also won’t find true Alfredo sauce in Albuquerque (at least we haven’t), but the Old Town Pizza Parlor’s rendition is quite good nonetheless.  It’s not overly rich or heavy like cream-laden Alfredo tends to be.  It is a very flavorful sauce with just enough green chile to grab your attention without detracting from the Parmesan.  The fettucini noodles are ribbon-like, perfectly prepared and have a melt-in-your-mouth quality.  Add oven-roasted chicken to this entree for a pittance and instead of the desiccated foul served with many pasta entrees elsewhere, you’ll be treated to impossibly small cubes of juicy, delicious chicken.  This is a very nice pasta dish! 

Alas, as much as we enjoyed the green chile Alfredo, we found the meatball baked ziti (homemade meatballs, marinara, ziti and ricotta topped with mozzarella) during our second dish quite disappointing.  My sauce of choice was the hot & spicy (traditional sauce with extra garlic and spicy chile peppers).  The top layer in which the mozzarella was melted nicely atop the ziti noodles was a good introduction, but at the bottom of the bowl, a watery layer of sauce greeted us.  It can be a challenge to create a pasta dish in which the sauce has a perfect viscosity top to bottom.  It’s a challenge not surmounted on this dish.

The Old Town Pizza Parlor is a nice addition to Albuquerque’s Old Town area.  Chef Tafoya honors Old Town tradition and his restaurant lineage while providing a pizza option for the 21st century.

Old Town Pizza Parlor
108 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 999-1949
Web Site
Latest Visit: 29 July 2012
1st Visit: 25 April 2009
# of Visits: 2
Rating: 17
Cost: $$
Best Bet: Green Chile Alfredo, The “Stampede,” Garlic Herb Bites, OTP White Nachos

Old Town Pizza Parlor on Urbanspoon

Orchid Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Orchid Thai Cuisine

Sydney, Australia has “Thai Tanic” and “Thai to Remember.” In Manila, The Philippines, it’s “Thai Kingdom Come.” Arlington, Virginia boasts of “ThaiPhoon.” “Thai One On” is a Salt Lake City favorite. San Francisco diners frequent “Thai Me Up,” while in Mildenhall, England “En-Thai-Sing” is all the rage. Then there’s “Beau Thai” in Portland, Oregon; “Bow Thai” in Margate, Florida; and “Once Upon a Thai” in Chicago, Illinois. When it comes to Thai restaurants throughout the English-speaking world, it’s a wordplay wonderland.

Urbanspoon lists some eighteen Thai or Asian fusion restaurants in Albuquerque specializing in or which include Thai food, none of which evoked once a pun a name.  Now operating for more than ten years (it launched on May 10, 2012), Orchid Thai Cuisine is seemingly all-of-a-sudden an elder statesman among Thai restaurants, one of four in the Duke City with more than a decade of continuous operation.  It doesn’t seem that long ago Orchid Thai Cuisine was a newcomer creating quite a buzz in Nob Hill.

Colorful mural on Orchid Thai’s east wall

In its decade plus, Orchid Thai has garnered perhaps more acclaim and accolades than any other Thai restaurant in town.  As you enter the restaurant, you’ll espy an “I love me” wall postered with “best of” and “readers’ choice” awards from Albuquerque The Magazine, The Alibi and Local IQ.  Naysayers will attribute much of that love to the Nob Hill proximal demographic which “tends to stuff the ballots for area restaurants” while frequent visitors (and there are many of them) will tell you Orchid Thai earns all the recognition it receives.

If awards and accolades were dispensed for colorful murals, Orchid Thai would compete with Saggio’s for best and most in the city in that category, too.  Three of its four exterior walls are festooned in colorful murals depicting various aspects of life in Thailand.  Not every interior wall is similarly adorned, but one particularly interesting eastern wall portrays Thai kick boxing in all its glory.  There’s something to see everywhere you turn in and outside Orchid Thai and the art of presentation continues onto your meal.

Taud Manpla (Thai Fish Cakes)

Orchid Thai was founded by Seng and Bounnome (Nome for short) Limary, who previously managed the now defunct Hawaiian Restaurant on Louisiana.  A native of Laos, Nome has been cooking in New Mexico since 1981 and has extensive experience preparing Chinese and Japanese cuisine, too, but Thai cuisine is his passion.  He studied every aspect of Thai cooking–from selecting ingredients to cooking and presentation–from a highly regarded Thai master chef and applies his studies daily in preparing award-winning cuisine.

The menu is a virtual compendium of Thai favorites with more vegetarian options than most restaurants tend to offer.  Beef, chicken (extra for all white meat), pork, shrimp and tofu can be added to many entrees, including soups.  Some of the popular Thai soups can be made with or without coconut milk.  Most entrees are served with steamed rice, but you can pay extra for brown or sticky rice and even more for fried rice.  A chili icon denotes dishes which are hot and spicy, but milder versions are available upon request.  Lunch specials and lunch combinations are available Monday through Friday.

Chicken Satay (charbroiled chicken on skewers marinated in Thai spices and served with a Thai peanut curry sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce)

At the risk of sounding like one of those Russian judges of Olympics past, in three visits to Orchid Thai, my chief complaint has been the lack of balance of flavors.  The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter.  Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.

Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced.  In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary.  At Orchid Thai, dishes we’ve sampled tend to be somewhat overwhelmed by near cloying sweetness.  Call it an Americanization of Thai cuisine, perhaps a realization that many Americans prefer their Thai food rather sweet (maybe so it resembles the candied Chinese foods they like, too).  It’s the reason our visits have been infrequent.

Sesame Duck (crispy duck seasoned and roasted with spices and topped with sesame seeds and the chef’s special sauce)

One example of the lack of balance sticklers look for is in the taud manpla (Thai fish cakes).  The fish cakes themselves are pungently aromatic and delicious courtesy of a red curry influence.  Texturally they’re pleasantly chewy, wholly unlike crab cakes, and are fairly moist despite the deep-frying preparation process.  These fritter-like cakes are generally served with a tangy chili sauce.  Orchid Thai’s sauce is dessert sweet.  Not even the finely chopped peanuts floating atop the sauce can lend a savory influence.  The cloying sauce also obfuscates any piquancy there may be.

Similarly the Chicken Satay (charbroiled chicken on skewers marinated in Thai spices) is served with two very sweet sauces–a Thai peanut curry sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce.  The chicken is marinated in a sauce redolent with turmeric (which also imports its characteristic yellowish hue) and is moist and tasty, deserving of sauces which don’t make them taste like chicken satay lollipops.  The Thai peanut curry sauce would have been quite good had the sweetness been cut in half.

Pineapple Curry with Chicken (chicken with pineapple, potatoes, onions and sweet basil in a red coconut curry sauce) served in a hollowed out pineapple

Because we’ve known the unbridled ecstasy of crispy duck at Lotus of Siam, the very best Thai restaurant in America, my Kim tends to order crispy duck whenever she sees it on the menu of any Thai restaurant in hopes it approximates the swoon-eliciting crispy duck we love so much.  Orchid Thai’s version, Sesame Duck (crispy duck seasoned and roasted with spices and topped with sesame seeds and the chef’s special sauce) falls woefully short, but then so does every other duck we’ve had everywhere else.  At the risk of repeating myself, the chef’s special sauce was very much on the sweet side.

One of the most beautifully plated dishes we’ve seen in Albuquerque and the pride of Orchid Thai is a pineapple curry dish served on a hollowed out pineapple half.  Swimming in a red coconut curry sauce are chunks of pineapple, potatoes, onions and sweet basil.  Our server promised the dish wouldn’t be overly sweet and the chef delivered on the promise.  Either that or the Thai hot degree of heat rendered the sweetness impotent.  This is a curry dish that’s good from more than an experiential aspect.  More than any dish we’ve had at Orchid Thai, it does strike a good balance of flavors.

Mangoes with sticky rice

The one dish we expected to be sweet didn’t disappoint.  The mangoes with sticky rice were ameliorated with sweet coconut milk which marries so well with the dense, wonderfully juicy fruit.  We mourn when mangoes are out of season because when served with sticky rice prepared well, there are few desserts quite as refreshing and delicious.

Orchid Thai Cuisine is consistently crowded and most of its patrons seem satisfied, if not delighted with their food and their dining experience.  There certainly are many aspects of a visit to this colorful restaurant even surly curmudgeons like me will enjoy.

Orchid Thai Cuisine
4300 Central Avenue, S.E. Map.66ef55d
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-4047
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Taud Manpla, Chicken Satay, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Pineapple Curry

Orchid Thai on Urbanspoon

In-N-Out Burger – Chandler, Arizona

The In-N-Out Burger

The In-N-Out Burger

During a 2011 episode of Break the Chain, the enlightening and entertaining food-centric radio program hosted by the brilliant Ryan Scott, Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the pulchritudinous palate, made some rather unkind comments about Blake’s Lotaburger, an exclusively New Mexico institution.  I cautioned him that local listeners might show up at the radio station armed with pitchforks and torches. That’s how much New Mexicans love the burger franchise whose motto reminds them that “If you are what you eat, you are awesome.”

It’s not always easy to express your opinion about something as sacrosanct and beloved as Lotaburger, but inspired by Larry’s honesty, let me share my thoughts about In-N-Out Burger, a California institution that’s beloved beyond the Golden State, a burger restaurant National Geographic named the second best burger in the fruited plain in its “Top 10 Best of Everything” for 2012.  When it comes to In-N-Out, I’m most definitely in the minority.  I don’t get it at all…

Throngs of In-N-Out Burger fanatics line up for their favorite fix
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I first found out about In-N-Out Burger in 1987 while developing psychometrics for the United States Air Force in San Antonio, Texas.  Two of my test-writing colleagues were native, In-N-Out Burger obsessed Californians who never seemed to take off their tee-shirts emblazoned with slogans for the popular California-based burger religion. They regaled me with tales that made the burgers almost too good to be true.

Our first close exposure of the third kind came in the millennium year during a visit to Las Vegas, Nevada. At first glance, the window sticker on the back of a low-rider was more advertising for In-N-Out Burger, but closer inspection revealed the logo had been modified. By removing the “B” and the “R” off the ends of “Burger,” clever innuendo resulted. It also prompted our first visit.  “Nice,” we thought, but “not nearly as good as Fatburger,” which had captured our taste buds with a fresh, made-to-order burger that seemed just too good to be made by a chain.  It was certainly not the transformative burger experience we expected, not even close.

The menu is limited but versatile

The menu is limited but versatile

We thought then and believe today that In-N-Out Burger’s product was inferior to Fatburger (and Tommy‘s, another Los Angeles favorite).  We questioned “is that all there is,” wondering what the hullabaloo was all about.  In-N-Out aficionados continue in their efforts to make a convert out of me, none more effusively than my sage  comadre Suzanne Devlin who’s got deep roots in New Mexico but now lives in Oregon.  Suzanne makes a great case:  “When an In-N-Out is served to you, the lettuce is crisp; the tomato covers the patty; the bun is grilled and toasted until it’s crisp in the fat of the cooked patty so the flavor is imbedded in the bun and the burgers in the photos and what little advertising they do is exactly what you get when you are served one at their restaurants not some smashed up burger that looks like Smokey the Bear sat on it.”

For me, it’s about flavor and that’s where In-N-Out Burger falls short of chains (Rally and Checkers, to name two) I have liked in the past…and even short of Lotaburger (green chile has a lot to do with that).  I don’t dislike In-N-Out and in fact, appreciate the freshness of its ingredients, its business model and ethical practices and much more.  There is much to like about In-N-Out, a family-owned enterprise since  1948 which is credited as the progenitor of the drive-through restaurant concept.

Double-Double (Monster Style) with Fries
Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Although carhop-based drive-ins were fairly commonplace in California, In-N-Out Burger featured a two-way speaker box where you would place your order then drive up to pick it up. You’re in, you’re out…a function, not just a name. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal commended In-N-Out Burger for using natural and fresh ingredients and for looking after the interests of employees regarding pay and benefits.  It’s the favorite chain for such hard-to-please chefs as Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsey and Mario Batali.  Nationally syndicated sports talk show icon Jim Rome says when he’s away from California for more than two days, the first restaurant he visits upon his return is In-N-Out.  Obviously, I’m the sane one; everyone else is nuts.

In-N-Out Burger’s menu is as simple as they come with three burgers, French fries, shakes, sodas, coffee and milk. There are no salads, sandwiches, breakfasts or chicken. Over the years, aficionados have also developed a unique lexicon for unpublished burger configurations. That lexicon is based on a numbering system that defines the number of beef patties and slices of cheese you want on your burger. A 3X3 is a three-patty burger with three slices of cheese. According to urban legend, a skyscraper-sized 20X20 has been created.

A double-double “animal” style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Aside from cheese, all In-N-Out burgers officially on the menu come with a special sauce (similar to the sauce on the Big Mac but not quite as messy and profuse), onions, lettuce, and bun.  The burger patties are unfailingly hot and juicy which means the cheese becomes a gooey mess. Adkins dieters order their burgers “Protein-style” which means no bun and patties wrapped in a lettuce leaf.

What really stands out at In-N-Out are the French fries which are crispy on the outside and light on the inside. They’re well salted and delicious, a definite improvement to the flaccid, boring fries of other chain burger restaurants. Milk shakes are creamy and smooth, but taste-wise, nothing special.

In-N-Out Burger is special to Californians and has achieved significant popularity in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.  There’s no doubt this mega-popular chain would fare very well in chain-loving New Mexico even without green chile.

In-N-Out Burger
2790 W. Chandler
Chandler, Arizona
(800) 786-1000
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: French Fries, Double Double

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