Bert’s Burger Bowl – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Bert's Burger Bowl in Santa Fe

Bert’s Burger Bowl in Santa Fe

The tee shirts worn by a nattily attired and enthusiastic wait staff at Bert’s Burger Bowl say it all: “Since 1954: One Location Worldwide.” Celebrating its golden anniversary in 2004, Bert’s seems to transcend time with a winning formula: great burgers, terrific service and reasonable prices. Generations of New Mexicans and visitors have made Bert’s a beloved Santa Fe dining destination.  It is such a beloved local institution that then-Representative Tom Udall entered it into the Congressional Record in September, 2004 to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

It’s easy to believe Bert’s popularity is an anomaly. It’s open only until 7PM six days a week and until 5PM on Sundays. There’s nowhere to sit inside the restaurant and if you’re in a hurry, you’re out of luck because every burger is prepared to order. So why do generations of burgerphiles make Bert’s Burger Bowl a popular indulgence? World famous chef Martin Rios of the Anasazi may have said it best in the May, 2007 edition of Santa Fean magazine, “no one beats these burgers.” That’s high praise indeed from a culinary artiste who has been named Chef of the Year by both the city of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico.

Bert's kitchen is always busy

Bert’s kitchen is always busy

Bert’s claim to fame is the invention of the green chile cheese burger (something I don’t believe has been authenticated and is certainly in dispute because the Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio has been serving them up since 1945). It should stand to reason that the inventor of New Mexico’s favorite burger should do it exceedingly well and Bert’s does–so well, in fact, that it was one of 48 restaurants selected for the inaugural New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2009. Bert’s was a repeat selection for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011.

Each burger is made to order. It takes about 12 minutes per order (and as long as 15 minutes for the lamb burger) which means your burgers don’t sit under a heat lamp. The meat is invariably well seasoned and the condiments are unfailingly fresh with crisp onion, fresh tomato, pickle slices and piquant green chile (Bert’s uses 120 pounds per week). The green chile cheeseburger is the reason Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives visited Bert’s in September, 2008.  The signed poster on display under glass at Bert’s displays Fieri’s sentiments toward that burger: “You gotta love Bert’s green chile cheeseburger.”

Make it a double

A double-meat  Green Chile Cheeseburger at Bert’s Burger Bowl

Bert’s burger is sometimes maligned by critics because the hamburger patty is anorectic compared to the gigantic slabs of hamburger proffered at restaurants such as the Bobcat Bite. Maybe that’s why altruistic owner Fernando Olea added five upscale gourmet burgers to the restaurant’s menu in the spring of 2007. The meat for each gourmet burger weighs in at a whopping half pound. Each burger is dressed to the nines with atypical ingredients.  In any case, you can always get a double-meat, double-cheese, double-green chile burger as a recourse.

The line-up includes a Kobe burger adorned with the same ingredients as Bert’s standard burger, but hey, we’re talking some of the most decadently oleaginous beef around. It’s the most expensive of the five gourmet burgers. The other four newcomers are a lamb burger (topped with pineapple chunks, chopped cilantro and pastor sauce), a pork burger (crafted with red chile and mashed beans ala San Antonio, Texas style), an ostrich burger (also bedecked with the ingredients found in Bert’s standard burger) and a bison burger.

The bison burger, a real handful

The bison burger, a real handful

Bison meat is very high in essential fatty acids that can aid in the reduction of cholesterol levels. It’s a burger served best at no more than medium done so as to preserve its juiciness. Bert’s complements a thick beef patty with grilled onion ribbons and a fiery hot Morita sauce. Morita sauce is made from the smallest jalapeno in the last picking of the crop then is lightly smoked. Alas, a great burger is a sum of all its components, including the bun. During our inaugural experience with the bison burger, the brawny buns were toasted to the point of being desiccated. It detracted from an otherwise interesting and delicious burger. 

The lamb burger (pictured below) is so very different from any other burger on the menu in that it’s prepared with an al pastor (shepherd style) sauce.  If you’ve ever had tacos al pastor, you’re familiar with the marinade used on the lamb burger.  A sauce of lime, vinegar, garlic, oregano, onion, salt and guajillo chiles is liquefied on a blender and incorporated into the ground lamb.  The lamb is topped with seared pineapple and cilantro, two other tacos al pastor touches.  It’s not a burger everyone will love (we found it rather dry), but it’s a unique and creative option you might not expect to find in a small mom-and-pop restaurant renowned for conventional green chile cheeseburgers.

Lamburger with Onion Rings

Cost conscious Bert’s loyalists might opt instead for the barbecue burger emboldened with a sweet barbecue sauce. A nice alternative to burgers altogether are the carnitas tacos served in soft Mexican corn tortillas with either green or red salsa.

Bert’s chocolate shakes have lots of chocolate flavor and are of the consistency of a thick chocolate milk served very cold. They’re a magical elixir for whatever energy draining heat ails you on a balmy New Mexico summer day.  They’re so good you’ll want to order two of them.

Single-meat green chile cheeseburger

The fries are so-so, but the onion rings are oh so wonderful. We debated just what it was that makes those onion orbs so good and eventually concluded it was the onions themselves. Bert’s onion rings aren’t dominated by that greasy batter you find almost everywhere else. They’re made with real onions whose flavor is allowed to come across wonderfully with a crunchy batter which doesn’t fall away from the onions.

In this age of golden arches and creepy burger monarchs, it’s a treat to dine at a burger stand in which old-fashioned burgers and innovative new burgers can still be had.

Bert’s Burger Bowl
235 N. Guadalupe St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-0215

LATEST VISIT: 28-August-2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Burgers, Shakes, Onion Rings

Bert's Burger Bowl on Urbanspoon

Rooftop Pizzeria – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Rooftop Pizzeria in Santa Fe: Located on the top floor of the Santa Fe Arcade facing Water Street

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof (up on the roof)
The Drifters: Up On The Roof

In the early 1990s, Fortune magazine named Santa Fe one of America’s top ten dining destinations. The City Different has earned and solidified that reputation over the years with cutting edge restaurants that have culled worldwide acclaim. One of the cuisine types for which Santa Fe (and New Mexico for that matter) is not highly regarded on a national stage is pizza. Launched in March, 2006, the Rooftop Pizzeria appears to have made it its mission to prove that the inventiveness for which Santa Fe’s chefs are renown can extend to one of America’s favorite culinary obsessions–pizza.

The Rooftop Pizzeria is a sister restaurant to Santa Fe restaurants La Casa Sena, Rio Chama Steakhouse and the Blue Corn Cafe as well as the Chama River Brewing Company in Albuquerque, all properties of Santa Fe Dining, the restaurant company owned by Santa Fe art dealer and developer Gerald Peters. It seems every few years, Peters introduces a new concept restaurant and now has as impressive a restaurant repertoire as there is in the state.

Prosciutto Stuffed Crimini Mushrooms

True to its name, the Rooftop Pizzeria is located on the top floor of the Santa Fe Arcade. Dining outdoors, especially on a clear and slightly breezy spring day lets you breathe in New Mexico’s salubrious mountain air and gaze reverently at the incomparable blue skies that no Santa Fe painter has ever been able to fully duplicate. Gaze lower down and your view is of the Water Street parking lot and nearby rooftops.

The restaurant’s appealing antipasti selection is served with house-made breads and crackers as well as herb-infused oil. You may feel the siren’s call of warm roasted garlic cloves with lemon, oregano and cracked pepper. The marriage of seemingly disparate ingredients will play four-part harmony on your taste buds. After all the garlic cloves are gone, dipping the remaining bread (if any) into the lemony broth will remind you just how great an appetizer you just had.

Wire basket of bread

You might opt instead for an appetizer of Prosciutto Stuffed Crimini Mushrooms, four mushroom caps engorged with prosciutto covered with melted mozzarella and drizzled with truffle oil.  It’s served with sweet picked red onions and aged balsamic vinegar.  The crimini mushrooms are meaty and moist, a perfect repository for the slightly salty prosciutto.  The aged balsamic vinegar and its sweet tanginess provides a nice counterbalance to the savory strengths of the mushrooms and prosciutto.

The menu includes five different salad options including a smoked duck salad with roasted peppers, pistachios and mixed greens doused with Balsamic sesame vinaigrette. If you don’t order a salad, you’ll lustily ogle the salads destined for other tables. They appear to be an exciting array of leafy creations.  A soup of the day, available in cup or bowl sizes, offering is an alternative starter option.

Could this be New Mexico’s very best pizza?  Food Network Magazine thinks so. It’s a pizza constructed of grilled chicken, green chile, cotija and Asadero cheeses and toasted piñon with Alfredo sauce on a blue corn crust.

The restaurant features eleven house specialty pizzas as well as “build your own” options served on either of two premium house-made pizza doughs–a traditional “Artisan Crust” and a locally inspired “Blue Corn Crust.” The gourmet ingredients topping the specialty pies will have you doing a double-take. If the air wasn’t so crispy and clean, you might think you’re in Los Angeles where pizza toppings range from the sublime to the frou-frou. Of course, to gastronomes such ingredients as lobster, shrimp, apple-smoked bacon and smoked duck fall under the category of sublime. What makes it challenging is whether to order a specialty pizza or build your own masterpiece, limited only by your imagination.

Ultimately you might settle on a house specialty crafted with smoked duck, roasted garlic spread, spinach, basil, peppercorns and four cheeses on artisan crust. Wow! This will provide a lot of competition for your rapt attention thanks to ingredients that go together like bread and butter. The crust is thin and just slightly crispy while the sauce is subdued, letting other ingredients do the talking. There is more smoked duck in a 12-inch pie than you might have on entire duck meals and it is delicious, albeit slightly dry.

Half of this pizza is made with Smoked Duck, Green Pepper Corns, Spinach, Basil, Roast Garlic Spread, and Four Cheeses on Artisan Crust; the other half is a BLT Pizza: Apple-Smoked Bacon, Ripe Tomato, Mozzarella, Provolone & Bleu Cheese topped with Avocado and Lettuce with Red Sauce on Artisan Crust

Sure Americans have long had a love affair with bacon, lettuce and tomato (BLT) sandwiches, but who’s ever heard of a BLT pizza. The pizza artisans at the Rooftop have and they’ve perfected it. This unlikely pie features apple-smoked bacon, ripe tomato and three cheeses (provolone, mozzarella and bleu cheese) topped with avocado and lettuce with a red sauce on an artisan crust. The real star of this outstanding orb (as it is on the BLT sandwich) is the applewood smoked bacon which is always first in name and first in the hearts of savvy diners.

If your tastes lean toward the Mediterranean, Rooftop will craft a flat bread beauty replete with Mediterranean roasted vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives with a basil pesto on an artisan crust. Surprisingly, Feta cheese isn’t a standard on this pie, but the restaurant will substitute goat cheese if you request (and you should).

In the August, 2010 edition of the Food Network Magazine, an article entitled “50 States, 50 Pizzas” named the “best pizza” in each state. The Land of Enchantment’s representative on this list was a pizza called the “Santa Fe” and fittingly, it can only be found in our state capital’s Rooftop Pizzeria.  This award-winning pizza, available by the slice or whole pizza, is crafted with grilled chicken, green chile, cotija and Asadero cheeses and toasted piñon with Alfredo sauce on a blue corn crust.  While my Kim absolutely loved it and agreed with the Food Network’s assessment, this hard-liner found the chicken just a bit dry (as it almost always is on pizza), but the other ingredients worked quite well together. 

Defining “the best ever” for any food category is an audacious premise, but one the Food Network took on when in 2015, it launched a series of “best ever” programs.  In its inaugural episode which aired on January 5th, “The Best Pizza Ever” named the eleven best pizzas across the fruited plain.  Chef-restaurateur Roger Mooking  made a a case for the chicken green chile and cheese pizza at Santa Fe’s Rooftop Pizzeria being “the best spicy slice ever.”  Its corn meal canvas is topped with Alfredo sauce; onions; garlic; Pecorino, Asadero and Cotija cheeses; roasted chicken and spoonfuls of roasted, chopped green chile.   When the pizza comes out of the oven, it’s topped with piñon and fresh herbs.  Sounds like a “best of” to me.

Several other pizzas are intriguing enough to warrant many visits to the top of the roof where the top pizza in Santa Fe has a home with a view.

Rooftop Pizzeria
600 East San Francisco Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 984-0008
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 August 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Warm Roast Garlic Cloves with Lemon, Oregano and Cracked Pepper; Smoked Duck, Roast Garlic Spread, Spinach, Basil, Peppercorns and Four Cheeses on Artisan Crust Pizza; Grilled Chicken, Green Chile, Cotija and Asadero Cheeses and Toasted Pinon with Alfredo Sauce on Blue Corn Crust Pizza; BLT – Apple-Smoked Bacon, Ripe Tomato, Mozzarella, Provolone & Bleu Cheese topped with Avocado and Lettuce with Red Sauce on Artisan Crust Pizza; Prosciutto Stuffed Crimini Mushrooms

Rooftop Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Ravioli Italian Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ravioli Italian Kitchen at 4320 The 25 Way, N.E.

The older I get, the more my favorite part of the Academy Awards every year is the teary-eyed tribute to all the famous screen legends who passed away during the preceding twelve months.  The montage of glitterati greatness on the “In Memoriam” segment not only provides a much-needed respite from self-absorbed acceptance speeches and tedious dance numbers, it  evokes a flood of memories and emotions as viewers pause to remember the movie makers who have touched us all.

Similarly, the closure of a favorite restaurant gives diners pause to reflect on meals we’ve had at restaurants gone, but not forgotten. Even in booming economic times, restaurants have a higher mortality rate than most, if not all, businesses.  It’s the natural order of the restaurant business that not all restaurants are destined to survive.  Closures aren’t always the consequence of an economic malaise.  Nearly thirty percent of restaurants close within their first year of operation.

So why a dour diatribe instead of my usual effusive celebration of a restaurant I just visited?  Ravioli Italian Kitchen, we found out, will be closed for good on Friday, September 1st, 2012.  Launched in November, 2011, Ravioli demonstrated promise and potential, but was never able to consistently draw in the types of crowds needed to succeed over a long term.  Ravioli joins a number of chain and independent restaurants which have failed in The 25 Way, a contemporary mixed office and retail environment with good exposure to I-25.

Ravioli Italian Kitchen has many of the elements and attributes of a restaurant which should have succeeded.  Owner Kathy Punya has a proven track record of success with her Sushi King restaurant enterprise throughout the metropolitan area.  Its The 25 Way storefront is functional, attractive and inviting.  The menu is diverse and interesting with housemade pastas and desserts a plenty as well as made-to-order cooking.  Service is friendly and attentive.  With staunch competition for disposable dollars, these factors were apparently not enough.  Perhaps in another time and place…

Garden salad with blue cheese dressing

True to the name on the marquee, the Ravioli Italian Kitchen menu does showcase ravioli, the traditional Italian pasta dish made of pasta dough stuffed with filling.  Diners have their choice of sauce: Alfredo, marinara, green chile-jalapeño, basil, pesto, ancho cream, mushroom cream, vino blanco, Arribiata and meat sauce.  Ravioli fillings are lobster, cheese, beef and portobello.  The ravioli are made in-house as are other Italian pastas.

The menu holds no real surprises and is sectioned logically: appetizers, salads, soups, pasta, entrees, ravioli, “on the lighter side” and desserts.  It’s not an especially innovative Italian menu, so the difference-maker here has to be execution–the quality of ingredients, their preparation, how they’re presented, the authenticity of the dishes and how they’re delivered.  It’s in execution (lack thereof) that Urbanspoon reviewers have rated Ravioli poorly.  Our inaugural experience was a mix of highlights and low spots, the latter of which could be remedied with time and attention.  Alas, Ravioli Italian Kitchen won’t be given a second chance.

Pork and Fennel Ragu:
Ground pork slow cooked with rosemary, fennel, pancetta, vegetables with freshly grated parmesan cheese and bucatini pasta!

The appetizer menu has some de rigueur standards such as calamari fritti, fried mozzarella cheese and fried zucchini.  As with many Italian restaurants, an antipasto is also offered, but this one is presented just a bit differently.  It’s in the form of three skewers of black and green olives, slices of salami, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and grape tomatoes served with toasted bread, artichokes, buttercrisp crackers and an olive tapenade.  As antipastos go, this one is a nice mix of vegetable to meat though a greater diversity of cheese would have made it even better.

All entrees are served with a side salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, julienne carrots and mixed greens) with several salad dressings from which to choose.  A housemade berry vinaigrette, the color of beets, has a balanced flavor of fruitiness and sweetness.  The blue cheese dressing has a plethora of veiny blue cheese crumbles and is both thick and redolent with the flavor of blue cheese and not some thick mayo-base.

Spaghetti Carbonara: Pancetta, Parmesan and Egg Tossed Together To Form a Creamy Sauce

One entree not standard at most Italian restaurants is Ravioli’s pork and fennel ragu.  Now, if you’re thinking Ragu as in the ubiquitous bottled-and-heated spaghetti and pasta sauce, remedial Italian Cuisine 101 is in dire need.  Ragu, derived from the French word “ragout” which translates to “stew,” is actually any sauce to which meat is added.  Ravioli’s pork and fennel ragu uses ground pork which is slow-cooked with rosemary, fennel, pancetta and finely chopped vegetables (such as carrots and celery) and served with a bucatini pasta, a long, hollow Italian pasta that resembles a thick spaghetti.  The best aspects of this dish are, of course, the pancetta, an Italian cured meat made from pork belly and the fennel with its sweet anise-like flavor. 

Years ago when we lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Fridays were, for about six consecutive months,  carbonara night at Salvetti’s Italian Grill.  Never before and not since have we had carbonara quite that good or quite that rich.  How good and how rich?  It was so good you couldn’t stop eating it even though you knew you’d literally be sick afterwards.  The spaghetti carbonara at Ravioli’s isn’t nearly that rich.  It’s not even in the same ballpark.  Pancetta, Parmesan and egg are tossed together to form a mildly creamy sauce, but it’s not creamy enough.  Nor is there enough pancetta (is there ever?).  

Tiramisu and Cannoli

Desserts include a number of unique offerings such as a cinnamon apple and pear “pizza” (apple compote topped with sweetened ricotta, fresh pears and caramel sauce) and a blueberry citrus calzone (citrus blueberry reduction spread on nutella and ricotta cheese).  Perhaps the latter dessert is where the carbonara’s richness went.  Also available are such standards as Tiramisu and cannoli.  The cannoli shells are dipped in chocolate then rolled in crushed almonds while the filling is a mix of sweetened ricotta, candied orange and mini chocolate chips.  It’s not as sweet as some cannoli tends to be.  Neither is the tiramisu which is moist and redolent with a mellow coffee flavor.

The Ravioli Italian Kitchen will soon be referred to in a past tense terms and will be relegated to the “Gone But Not Forgotten” menu of this blog.  It’s a restaurant at which memories have been made, hopefully mostly good ones.  Duke City diners, especially those who count it among their favorites, still have nearly a week to add to those memories. Others of us who haven’t yet visited Ravioli can still do so before it’s too late.

Ravioli Italian Kitchen
4320 The 25 Way, N.E. Map.41286b1
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 25 August 2012
COST: $$

Ravioli Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Christy’s Food Factory – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Christy’s Food Factory, a sandwich shop

A few years ago at the urging of an obviously taste-deprived, chain restaurant loving colleague, I had breakfast at a misnomer of a restaurant named Goody’s, a now defunct restaurant on Yale. He bragged about Goody’s breakfast burrito being as good as Milton’s Family Restaurant, sacrilege if it was ever uttered. A business trip provided the opportune time to debunk my colleague’s blasphemy. Not only did Goody’s version of a breakfast burrito provide one of the most insipid breakfasts I can remember, it led to a sacred pledge that defines my last meal in Albuquerque each and every time the friendly skies take me away from the Land of Enchantment.

My sacred pledge is that my last meal in Albuquerque will always be one worthy of the last meal for a “dead man walking.” More often than not, that meal is at Christy’s Food Factory, a mere mile or so from the Albuquerque International Airport. A sandwich would have to be pretty darn good to be a potentially last meal ever. The sandwiches at Christy’s Food Factory are!

Guests line up to order sandwiches and more at Christy’s

Whether you partake of Christy’s Food Factory as a dine-in, carry-out or catering option, you’re in for a treat. Christy’s has been serving the Duke City since 1981 and in more than a quarter-century of doing business has consistently provided quality sandwiches. Christy’s calls itself Albuquerque’s business luncheon catering specialist, but it may be as well known for its smallish, intimate restaurant and its many sandwich options. A second Christy’s location on Central Avenue was short-lived.

Your sandwich choices are actually limited only by your imagination. Christy’s will build you the “perfect” sandwich with your choice of meats, cheeses, breads and dressings. That type of customization can’t be beaten. At Christy’s you can truly have it your way. That means you can choose from any of four meat choices (breast of turkey, roast beef, Danish ham, corned beef), five different cheeses (Monterey Jack, Cheddar, Swiss, Provolone, cream cheese), six dressings (mayo, low-fat mayo, mustard Italian 1000 Island, sweet mustard) and seven wonderful bread options (whole wheat, white, sourdough, flour tortilla, light or dark rye, French roll). You can also order off the menu as I typically do because the menu has one of the best sandwiches you can have anywhere.

The aptly named Super Sandwich

It’s called the “Super Sandwich” and rightfully so as it combines turkey, ham, roast beef and salami with jack, cheddar and provolone cheeses plus lettuce, tomatoes, onions and bell peppers on a French roll. Yeah, I know. Every time a menu describes something as “super,” the restaurant delivers something more akin to the milquetoast nerd Clark Kent than the man of steel. In other words, they bring you something  boring and lacking imagination.

Not so with Christy’s Super Sandwich. It is an excellent, two-fisted mountain of deliciousness, easily one of the Duke City’s very best sandwich creations and one you won’t want to share with anyone. You can have your Super Sandwich grilled (my preference) or cold, but either way, it’s worthy of high adulation as so many different sandwich ingredients coalesce in deliciousness. All-star accompaniment for Christy’s sandwiches comes in the form of potato salad, homemade potato chips or pasta salad as good as mom might make.

The Philly

The Philly

When I can pry myself away from the Super Sandwich, it’s generally for either the tortilla roll-up or the grilled roast beef sandwich which includes New Mexico caliber green chile.  The menu also includes a “Philly” sandwich, not at all to be mistaken for a Philly cheesesteak.  Christy’s Philly features roast beef  along with melted Provolone cheese, lettuce, sliced tomato and Philadelphia cream cheese. It’s a very good sandwich, made even better if you add green chile.

Christy’s offers nine cold deli sandwiches, six hot grilled sandwiches and the custom combo option. It is one of the increasingly rare sandwich restaurants in which you can still get an old-fashioned egg salad, chicken salad or tuna salad sandwich, all of which are reputed to be quite good (since I won’t share my Super Sandwich, I’m never offered a bite of my dining companions’ sandwiches).

Carrot cake and chocolate cake

Carrot cake and chocolate cake

Christy’s offers several dessert options. The carrot cake is moist and delicious as is the chocolate cake. Both are topped with a vanilla frosting that’s anything but plain.

Were I on death row, I’m not really sure I’d order my last meal from Christy’s Food Factory, but for a last meal prior to a short respite from Albuquerque, it’s one of my favorite choices.

Christy’s Food Factory
2301-A Yale, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2012
CLOSED: May, 2013
BEST BET: Super Sandwich, Carrot Cake, Grilled Roast Beef Sandwich

Christy's Food Factory on Urbanspoon

Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe – Taos, New Mexico

Orlando's Marquee Bids All Welcome?

Orlando’s Marquee Bids All Welcome?

During his 2005 visit to Taos for the taping of the Food Network’s Food Nation program, über-celebrity chef Bobby Flay, likely the best known grill chef in the world, probably didn’t do as much to put Orlando’s New Mexican restaurant on the culinary map as you might think. Ditto for all the many first place awards hanging on the restaurant’s walls–“Best Mexican Food in Taos County” every year since 2005, best red chile, best green chile, and more than 25 other awards.  Flay’s visit and the accolades on the wall are merely validation of what locals and visitors in the know have long known: Orlando’s is a “must visit” dining destination in Taos.

Located in El Prado, a “suburb” of Taos about two miles northwest of the world-famous Taos Plaza, Orlando’s is as colorful a restaurant as you’ll find in Northern New Mexico.  Its marquee is that of a huarache-shod, mustachioed skeletal figure attired in a Mexican sombrero and serape.  In his left hand, he holds a bottle of hot sauce with the label “Taos.”  His bony right hand holds a skillet with a single flaming red chile, which does not–as some might surmise–denote the manner of his demise.

A meal at Orlando's is colorful and delicious

In the summer there’s no better venue than Orlando’s outdoors.

The skeletal figure has returned to this world for El Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  During this Mexican holiday, the profusion of skeletons of all sizes performing day-to-day activities signifies the return to this world of the dead who remain who they were when they lived, doing what they did.  For example, the skeletal figure on the marquee, would have been a Mexican cook in life.  Therefore in death, he remains a Mexican cook.  The marquee is typical of the fun and folly which emanates at every turn at Orlando’s.

Orlando’s is colorful all year round, but certainly more-so in the summer when nature lends a hand and Orlando’s is backdropped by incomparable cobalt blue skies graduating in depth of color the higher above the horizon you look.  Climbing toward the sky are deciduous trees in various verdant hues complemented by multicolored hollyhocks.  Large polychromatic umbrellas shade the metal grate tables in which diners enjoy an al-fresco repast with dishes even more colorful than the umbrellas.  On some winter days, weather permitting, Orlando’s fires up a raised fire pit outdoors for patrons who might have to wait for a seat.

Orlando's is one colorful restaurant

Orlando’s is one colorful restaurant

The restaurant itself is relatively small (perhaps 20 tables), essentially a cramped main dining room with what appears to be an adjourning closed-in patio.  Red ristras hang from the east-facing window while on the west-facing window sit glasses and candles adorned with the skeletal image on the marquee.  One wall includes more than two dozen framed “People’s Choice” awards celebrating the esteem in which Taos County residents hold Orlando’s.  A wooden statue of San Pasqual, the patron saint of kitchens, sits on a shelf above the wait staff’s counter where affable owner Orlando Ortega oversees the operation when he’s not glad-handing with customers.  Desserts are on display under glass in a unique glass cabinet.

Progressive Spanish (unlike any New Mexican music I’ve ever heard) is continuously piped in through speakers strategically placed throughout the restaurant. As colorful and interesting as the interior restaurant is, weather permitting, you absolutely have to dine out-of-doors under one of the restaurant’s colorful umbrellas where the shade will shield you from the heat of the day while allowing you to bask under the most gloriously blue skies anywhere.

Red, yellow and blue corn tortillas with salsa at Orlando's

Red, yellow and blue corn tortillas with salsa at Orlando’s

Shortly after menus are brought to your table, your dining experience begins in a colorful and delicious manner. Orlando’s salsa, served with red, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips may be the most piquant item Orlando serves. It is also one of the most beautiful salsas you’ll ever see at any restaurant. Rich red tomatoes, pearlescent onions and verdant cilantro decorate the salsa dish. For a mere pittance more, order the trio of salsa, chips and guacamole and your table will be graced with an edible and mouth-watering table decoration.

The salsa and chips are no longer complimentary.  In fact, at $3.50 an order, they’re the least expensive appetizer on the menu, but well worth the price.  Other appetizers include nachos (with or without beef), papas Y chile (a bowl of beer-battered French fries smothered with red chile, green chile or chile caribe topped with Jack and Cheddar cheese and tomatoes) and a quesadilla.  Save for the salsa and chips, the appetizers are priced comparably to entrees.

Shrimp is one of the most popular ingredients on the menu, found in three entrees.  Baja style fish tacos filled with deep-fried cod provide another seafood option.  Some of the very best entrees on the menu can certainly be considered unique, not your standard New Mexican fare.  Bobby Flay happened upon one such entree–Orlando’s grilled carne adovada.

Los Colores (Three rolled blue corn enchiladas, one chicken with green chile, one beef with red chile, and one cheese with chile caribe.  Served with beans and posole.

Los Colores (Three rolled blue corn enchiladas, one chicken with green chile, one beef with red chile, and one cheese with chile caribe. Served with beans and posole.

Orlando’s carne adovada plate features three grilled, quarter-inch thick marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe and served with mouth-watering posole, pinto beans and a tortilla. What makes the carne adovada unconventional is that it isn’t shredded (desebrada) as it is in most New Mexican restaurants. What makes it special is the chile caribe, a chile preparation style practiced for hundreds of years in Northern New Mexico.

The carne adovada has a smoky grilled taste inherited after only two minutes per side on a pre-heated grill.  On high, the pork medallions cook quickly and remain moist.  Chile caribe is a concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency.  It’s a staple in Northern New Mexican homes and some restaurants, but perhaps nowhere as thoroughly integrated into the menu as at Orlando’s.  During his visit, Bobby Flay learned and published on Food TV’s Web site, Orlando Ortega’s secrets for some of the best (albeit unconventional) carne adovada in New Mexico.

Grilled Carne Adovada - three grilled marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe.  Served with beans, posole and a flour tortilla.

Grilled Carne Adovada – three grilled marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe. Served with beans, posole and a flour tortilla.

Even though Orlando’s chile caribe isn’t necessarily overly piquant, the menu does disavow responsibility for chile which might be too hot (a necessary warning for tourists (and my sister in Phoenix) who can’t stomach anything more piquant than Chef Boyardee tomato sauce). If anything, the chile caribe might be too good. It is highly flavorful, mildly piquant and absolutely delicious–a concentration of the wonderful flavors we love in chile.

The carne adovada plate is served with pinto beans and posole, both of which are quie good (even though the posole has more than a hint of cumin).  If I have one complaint about these terrific standards, it’s that we weren’t provided with a spoon.  A fork just doesn’t cut it when you want to consume the bean “juice” and you’ll want to finish off every trace of these perfectly prepared whole pintos.  Both beans and posole are also lightly salted, a real plus considering other restaurants’ beans and posole could stand some desalinization.

To blue corn tacos stuffed with shredded beef topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions with a bowl of salsa

Two blue corn tacos stuffed with shredded beef topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions with a bowl of salsa

Rarely, if ever do I compliment the traditional garnish which decorates many New Mexican platters, but Orlando’s tomato and lettuce garnish warrants accolades. The tomatoes are at the peak of their edible lives, a rich red color that complements the shredded lettuce which also seems to be preternaturally green.  This garnish is not of the “molting” variety some restaurants shamefully present to their diners.

There’s a reason “Los Colores” (the colors) is Orlando’s most popular entree.  This entree–comprised of three rolled blue corn enchiladas: one chicken with green chile,one beef with red chile and one cheese with chile caribe–is absolutely terrific, among the very best enchiladas you’ll find anywhere.  Invariably the three chiles end up mixing with each other, but that’s not a bad thing since they’re all quite good, albeit only just above mild on a piquancy scale.

Buffalo enchiladas on blue corn tortillas covered with chile caribe and served with beans and posole.

The beef in the beef enchilada is shredded, not ground beef as Taco Bell caliber restaurants use.  The ground beef is marinated and well-seasoned so that its deliciousness is independent of the red chile atop it.  That red chile is a dark red, characteristic of excellent chile which hasn’t been adulterated by a profusion of corn starch or other thickening agents.  It’s a pure, delicious and wonderful chile, the way it should be prepared.

The green chile is perhaps the least piquant of the three, but it has a sweet, smoky flavor you’ll enjoy greatly.  The chicken is shredded and moist, mostly white meat.  The blue corn tortillas are a welcome treat and they’re perfectly prepared–easy to cut into with your fork and not greasy in the least.  I’ve had this entree in each of our three visits to Orlando’s and have yet to remember to ask for a fried egg atop, so mesmerized have I been by the vibrant colors and even more exciting flavors of an excellent enchiladas entree.

Frozen Avocado Pie, a fabulous dessert!

Frozen Avocado Pie, a fabulous dessert!

The shredded beef on the enchiladas is so good, you’ll want more of it.  Sate your fix with a couple of a la carte blue corn tacos which are overstuffed with shredded beef then topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions accompanied by a bowl of salsa.  These tacos are the antithesis of every greasy, ground beef taco you’ve ever had with a profusion of freshness and moistness you’ll enjoy.

Several dessert options are available (if you somehow have room), including biscochitos, the official state cookie of New Mexico. In keeping with its convention-defying nature, Orlando’s serves a dark- or white-chocolate dipped biscochito. The dark chocolate and the anise/cinnamon cookie go very well together.

An even more unconventional dessert is Orlando’s frozen avocado pie.  My Filipino friend Fred Guzman has long told me of the delicious dessert potential of avocados and I’ve long enjoyed avocado shakes at Vietnamese restaurants, but an avocado pie is something my well-practiced palate had heretofore not tried.  It had me at first bite.  Not quite frozen as its name implies, the Graham cracker crusted pie is imbued with the taste complements of fresh avocado and lime.  This pie is not quite as lip-puckering as key lime pie or as rich as guacamole, but seems to inherit the best qualities of both.  This is a must have dessert!

Orlando’s also serves an all-natural root beer bottled in Carrizozo, New Mexico called “Way 2 Cool Root Beer.” Like the restaurant, the root beer is too cool.

Orlando’s Northern New Mexican Cafe
1114 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, NM
(575) 751-1450
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tres Colores Enchiladas, Grilled Carne Adobada, Shredded Beef Tacos, Frozen Avocado Pie, Biscochitos, Salsa and Chips

Orlando's New Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon

Jinja Bar & Bistro – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Albuquerque rendition of Jinja

As of 2009, Albuquerque has two Jinja Restaurants. This one is in the Northeast Heights off Paseo Del Norte

Fusion cuisine.  The term often makes the most stodgy of purists cringe.  Even those among us with the most liberal of palates have been known to cower at its mention.  All too often, fusion cuisine is a loosely defined excuse for restaurateurs to unleash any number of unnatural flavor combinations upon the chaste, unsuspecting taste buds of diners seeking a memorable meal.  Like a shotgun culinary marriage, felonious acts have been perpetrated in the name of fusion, with disparate exotic ingredients forced together by the imagination of sadistic chefs. 

It would be impossible, however, to dismiss fusion cuisine entirely.  In one respect or another, much of the food we eat is a product of fusion.  There is no one national cuisine entirely self-contained and isolated.  Food is a work in progress–always adapting, always assimilating, always evolving.  Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the melting pot that is America where the influence of immigrant cuisine from throughout the world has resulted in a true fusion of culinary cultures, where the sum of the whole is more delicious than the cuisine of each culture individually.

Yin Yang Shrimp

Over the centuries–through brutal conquests, peaceful immigration and mutually beneficial trade–Southeast Asian nations in close geographic proximity to one another have shared culinary techniques, recipes, ingredients and implements to the extent that the dishes of one nation were adopted by other neighbor nations.  Korea, Japan and Thailand (among others), for example, can thank Chinese traders for such everyday stapes as black vinegar, noodles and cured pork.  This culinary evolution over time is not what purists decry.  That would be reserved for the chefs who, like the proverbial mad scientist with bubbling beakers, toss into a pot ingredients which have no business together.

When Jinja  (think about how a citizen of the great state of Massachusetts  might pronounce “ginger”) Bar & Bistro launched in 2002, I wondered just how much, if any, disparate ingredient and culinary technique mixing there would be and whether or not Jinja would even pretend to honor the culinary traditions of the Southeast Asian nations its menu purports to showcase: Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.  The restaurant’s Web site indicates “we use fresh, authentic ingredients, inviting our chefs to add distinctive twists to popular favorites such as pot stickers, noodle bowls, tempura, and beef and fish dishes.”  That sounds innocuous…and interesting enough.

Malay Coconut Soup

More importantly, I wondered if it really mattered whether or not Jinja honored the culinary traditions of Southeast Asia–not by copying them to the letter, but by not making them unrecognizable parodies of the originals–if the cuisine is delicious and the diners enjoy their experience.  Resigned to letting my taste buds, not my over-analytical mind decide for me, I found myself enjoying my inaugural dining experience at Jinja very much.  Jinja  just  seemed to resonate a contemporary, fun attitude and boundless energy.  Looking around me, it was evident other diners genuinely seem to enjoy themselves and the dishes they ate.  In the grand scheme of the dining experience, isn’t that what really matters?

With an intimate neighborhood restaurant setting and and a unique menu, Santa Fe’s Jinja became an immediate success because it filled an untapped niche in the “City Different” dining scene. Remarkably, it did so despite being situated on the northwest fringes of the plaza (the city’s tourist Mecca) and within easy walking distance of the struggling DeVargas mall. Jinja may be the most attractive and welcoming Asian restaurant in north-central New Mexico although if you wear transition lens glasses, you might not be able to tell until your eyes adjust.

Singapore Noodles

Jinja’s walls are adorned with slightly risqué, vintage travel and advertising posters and black and white photos of southeast Asia. Mood lighting, high-backed oversized booths with comfortable throw cushions, plenty of dark wood accents, curvilinear banquettes and appealing pottery add to the restaurant’s unique and inviting ambiance. The look and feel is upscale Polynesian nightclub, circa the 1930s or 1940s. A drink menu highlights exotic Polynesian libations and the bar setting (pictured above left) appears to resonate fun as it dispenses Singapore Slings, Mojitos, Sazeracs and lots of those cutesy drinks with tiny umbrellas.

The chef’s staff employs only authentic, traditional and exotic ingredients, among them galangal root, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf in crafting nearly thirty different sauces. The meats and seafood are of the highest quality.  The not-so-secret ingredient in everything from stock for soups to cocktail mixes is Jinja, er…make that ginger, a versatile spice that enhances both sweet and savory items while providing healthful benefits.

Teriyaki Lacquered Beef Skewer

The “classic starters” (appetizers) menu offers eleven items, some large enough for two to share while others are sizable enough to make a small entree.  Perhaps the most popular starter are the Imperial Lettuce Wraps, four crisp lettuce cups filled with a mixture of chicken, smoked ham, shitake mushrooms, water chestnuts and fresh green onions garnished with fried bean thread noodles and served with a sweet Thai chili sauce.  Lettuce wraps have become a de rigueur offering among Asian fusion restaurants, most notably the popular chain P.F. Chang’s.  Jinja’s version is better.  It’s a messy hand-held dish, but one that’s enjoyable to eat.

Another popular starter are the Yin Yang Shrimp, twelve crispy black tiger shrimp served butterfly style and dusted in salt and pepper, garnished with green onions and served with a yin and yang of sweet, plum ginger sauce and spicy Vietnamese sauce.    In the wild, black tiger shrimp can grow rather large, but because they have a higher moisture content, they tend to shrink significantly when prepared.  They have a very mild flavor some compare to lobster and because of that mild flavor, are excellent vessels for flavorful sauces.  The plum ginger sauce and spicy Vietnamese sauce are both rather on the sweet side, but are greatly improved if you throw in some of the green onions on the plate.

Key Lime Cheesecake

Anne Hillerman, the terrific restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal North, has a very high regard for Jinja’s Malay Coconut Soup.  It’s a Jinja best-seller, the most popular of the three soups on the menu.  The Malay Coconut Soup combines the spice of housemade Tom Yum (a very popular Thai soup) with the sweetness of coconut milk,  mellow flavor of shrimp,  thickness of chewy udon noodles, crispness of carrots, sharpness of green onions and delicate sweetness of bean sprouts.  The Tom Yum components provide distinct hot and sour flavors, with fragrant herbs judiciously used in the broth.  There’s a lot going on in this bowl of deliciousness.

Among the entrees, the Singapore Noodles (an American Chinese restaurant invention and not native to Singapore) have so totally blown me away that in three visits, I’ve violated a personal convention by ordering it every visit to the exclusion of other potentially delicious entrees.  Jinja’s Singapore Noodles are simply among the best yellow curry dishes I’ve had in the Southwest with a tangle of curry imbued vermicelli noodles which are a delight to eat.  The yellow curry has a kick, but most New Mexicans won’t have a problem with its piquancy.  Ingredients include a generous amount of Char Sui BBQ pork tenderloin (or marinated tofu if you prefer), painfully thin rice noodles, green onions, chopped bell peppers, bean sprouts and egg garnished with chopped peanuts and fried shallots.  The Char Sui barbecued pork is perfectly done with a pleasantly subtle sweet sauce.

Because of my addiction to those fabulous Singapore noodles, it’s been up to my Kim to order other items on the menu and let me try them.  One of her favorites has been the Teriyaki Lacquered Beef Skewer, a skewer of grilled beef tenderloin marinated in Jinja’s signature teriyaki sauce accompanied by a skewer of red and green peppers, red onion and pineapple (you can choose to omit any of those) and served with your choice of Thai Jasmine white rice or Tsuru Mai brown rice.  One of the things that sets the Teriyaki sauce apart is that it’s not overly sweet and has a complex flavor profile that includes savory and tangy notes.  The beef is prepared at medium-rare unless you specify otherwise.  Each bite-size chunk of meat is tender and delicious, not a hint of sinew or fat anywhere. 

Perhaps even more fabulous than the excellent entrees is dessert, especially the dark, molten chocolate silk cake served with Vietnamese coffee ice cream and toffee sauce. It’s one of the best desserts we’ve had in New Mexico and equal to a similar flourless cake served at Roy’s in Las Vegas.  Another post-prandial sweet treat at which Jinja excels is cheesecake.  A rotating repertoire of wondrous cheesecakes will test your willpower.  One of the most tempting is a key lime cheesecake topped with a pomegranate-cherry sauce on a Graham cracker-coconut pie crust.  It’s sweet, it’s tangy, it’s a bit sour, but it’s mostly decadent and delicious.

Jinja Bar & Bistro is a restaurant which gives the term “fusion cuisine” a good name.  Moreover, it’s a restaurant which prepares Asian cuisine in interesting and delicious ways.  Since the 2002 launch of the original Santa Fe restaurant, two Albuquerque locations have also opened to critical acclaim.

Jinja Bar & Bistro
510 North Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-4321
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 5 August 2012
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chocolate Silk Cake, Singapore Noodles, Shaking Beef, Imperial Lettuce Wraps, Teriyaki Lacquered Beef Skewers, Key Lime Cheesecake

Jinja Bar & Bisto on Urbanspoon

Jinja Bar & Bistro on Urbanspoon

The Town House Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The fatted cow lets you know you’ve arrived

America’s highway system expansion which began in the 1930s not only “shrank” America, it introduced the entertaining, educational–some might say bizarre–phenomenon of the roadside attraction.  Entrepreneurs competed with each other to create gawk-inspiring, curiosity motivating, must-see-to-believe attractions to snare the attention of motorists and motivate them to part with some of their money.  Neon lights festooned Route 66 while fiberglass and concrete statues became part-and-parcel of America’s highways and byways.  This was true roadside art which became a part of the fabric of Americana, albeit a kitschy tradition fading with the passage of time (which aptly describes many of the statues themselves). 

Among the most famous statuary art are life-sized fiberglass statues of stocky steers (corpulent cows and beefy bulls, if you prefer) which became the symbol of steakhouses along the motorways and byways.  Ironically, this statuary was not designed for use as symbology for restaurants.  In the 1950s, Bob Prewitt, a manufacturer of fiberglass trailers created life-sized fiberglass animals to prove the trailers were large enough to accommodate the real thing.  Soon the manufacture of animals became the primary focus of his business.  He created almost as many types of animals as Noah took on board his ark.  The steer became one of the most popular.  Restaurants such as the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Massachusetts actually have corrals full of Hereford and black Angus statues on display.

The Townhouse Dining Room on Central Avenue just east of Wyoming

One of the Duke City’s  longest-standing and most famous steers served as a beacon for 45 years to Albuquerque diners, letting them know that they were within steak sniffing, sizzling sound hearing distance of the Town House Lounge & Restaurant on Central Avenue just west of Washington.  To detractors, the steer on the roof helped reinforce the stereotype that Albuquerque is a “cow town,” but to its many long-time diners, it was an open invitation to dine on grilled steak and lamb, prime rib and chops, hamburgers and salads as well as many popular American and Greek favorites. 

The Town House was just as welcoming once you stepped inside its friendly confines and were enveloped by its oversized tuck-and-roll Naugahyde booths.  The Town House had all the stereotypical trappings of steak houses launched in the 1960s including the use of anthropomorphic adult beverage decanters as decorative touches.  Amber sconces provided a low lighting milieu that helped ensure privacy. Service was attentive and personable with frequent visits by your server assured during every visit.

Texas toast and an olive oil-feta cheese dip

The Town House was founded by George Argyres, a Greek immigrant who opened his restaurant in 1962 and was a ubiquitous presence until its closing on Saturday, May 5th, 2007.  His success followed in the long tradition of successful Greek restaurateurs in the Land of Enchantment, many of whom still own and operate some of the state’s most popular eateries.  When Argyres closed the Town House, it was a sad day for generations who had spent many a special occasion within its comfy confines.  

Sadness turned to joy with the announcement that the Town House would reopen in November, 2011, albeit in a different location several blocks east of the original venue.  Alas, because of permit issues, the opening date was pushed out several times and several months until finally the restaurant  reopened on Thursday, February 16, 2012.  The restaurant’s new owner as well as its chef is Dino Argyres, scion of the restaurant’s founder.  Even long-time Duke City denizens might not recognize the Town House’s new digs as once having been home to The Mint, a restaurant which served the most piquant chile in the city.  That’s how remarkable the transformation of a once dark and dank edifice has been.  The new Town House is bright and airy, also quite unlike its own former instantiation.

Townhouse Combination Platter (Antipasto): Stuffed Grape Leaves, Olives, Mild Peppers, Greek Feta Cheese, Casseri, Ham, Salami, Garlic Dip, Taramosalata (fish roe spread)

At first browse, the menu may appear to be solely a carnivore’s delight, a meat fest and protein party, but there’s actually something for everyone.  Only four of the dozen appetizers include meat or fish based dishes and three of five a la carte salads also include meat.  A number of sandwich and burger specialties can be had as well as several low-calorie items.  The “From the Lakes and Seas” menu includes a number of seafood items, including market priced twin lobster tails while the surf and turf combinations give you the best meat and seafood items. 

Most guests, however, visit for the “from the broiler” selections including the house specialty, an all beef shish ka-bob, chunks of lean top sirloin, chicken and pork tenderloin marinated in the Town House’s special marinade and prepared to your exacting specifications.  Steaks and chops and choice prime rib with au jus round out the broiler menu.  Entrees and luncheon specials, served from 11AM to 2PM, are served with a tossed salad (with your choice of dressing from among Bleu Cheese, 1000 Island, French, Vinegar and Oil, Feta or Ranch), bread and your choice of baked potato, rice pilaf, French fries or oven-roasted Greek potatoes.

Choice spring lamb chops (four chops, 16-18 ounces) Greek style with a baked potato and mint sauce

Shortly after the menu is brought to your table, a basket with Texas toast and a bowl of olive oil and feta cheese is delivered to your waiting hands.  It’s a refreshing change from the de rigueur bread and olive oil-Balsamic vinegar offering at many restaurants.  The Texas toast is lightly toasted and thick with absorbing qualities which make it a perfect for sopping up the olive oil and feta mix.  It’s an excellent introduction to the Town House and you’re likely to be tempted to request a second helping.  Do so at your peril because you’ll want to save room for either the restaurant’s sumptuous soups (the soup-of-the-day is always tempting) or amazing appetizers.

One of the items for which the Town House has been and will be best known is a behemoth combination antipasto platter the cognoscenti once considered the very best in town–for good reason.  You might visit with carnivorous cravings, but you’ll fall in love with the antipasto combination plate, the restaurant’s star attraction.  By definition if not function, antipasto is meant to pique one’s appetite, not sate it; however, at the Town House, the antipasto plate is an oversized appetizer for two or a gargantuan meal with for one.

Rib Eye with Mushroom Marsala Sauce and Baked Potato

The antipasto plate has a bit of everything and then some: stuffed grape leaves, Kalamata olives, Pepperonici, feta cheese, Kasseri cheese (a sharp, salty and hard cheese with a Cheddar-like texture made from sheep or goat’s milk), ham, salami, garlic dip, pita bread, and taramosalata as well as a number of pickled vegetables (carrots, artichokes, cauliflower and more).  If you’ve never had taramasalata, you’re in for a treat. It’s a Greek style “poor man’s” caviar traditionally served as an appetizer. Consisting of carp roe, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, olive oil and more, it is whipped until light and fluffy. It’s wonderful on its own or spread onto the restaurant’s signature pita bread.

Chops connoisseurs generally agree that the best degree of “doneness” for lamb chops is always to let the chef prepare them to his or her preference as ostensibly the chef should best know what the optimum doneness is for the restaurant’s chops.  For the most part, lamb chops seem to be prepared at medium rare with a warm red center and copious juiciness.  It takes a very confident and skilled chef to serve lamb chops well done.  That’s how my lamb chops were delivered.  Well done is not synonymous with desiccated at the Town House.  In fact, these chops are wonderfully delicious–four chops, each at least four ounces, with a surprising degree of juiciness despite an exterior char.  The chops are served with a mint sauce the color of lime Kool Aid.  The mint sauce doesn’t have herbaceous qualities that make it “minty.”  Instead it’s quite sweet, a nice contrast to the slight gaminess of the chops.

Char Burger with Baked Potato

The luncheon special on the day of our inaugural visit was a rib eye steak with a mushroom Marsala sauce.  This is one of those specials so special it should be part of the daily menu.  A twelve-ounce rib eye as tender and juicy as possible is topped with a mushrooms sauteed in a Marsala wine.  Unlike some Marsala sauce, the Town House’s rendition isn’t gravy-like in texture or flavor.  You can actually appreciate the wine reduction, a dry sweet flavor that punctuates each of the thinly shaved mushrooms and permeates into the steak.  It’s a very good steak! 

Opt for a baked potato instead of rice pilaf, French fries or oven-roasted Greek potatoes and you’ll be rewarded with a football-sized potato baked to absolute perfection.  It’s served with butter, sour cream and chives, but an equally good topping is the aforementioned olive oil and feta mixture.  The accompanying salads are anachronisms, the type of salads which might have been served in the  60s when the Town House first opened.  That means iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, croutons and lots of dressing.  The feta and bleu cheese dressings are quite good, albeit thin and light.

Shish Ka-Bob

A house specialty is an “all meat” shish ka-bob, chunks of lean meat (your choice of top sirloin, chicken or pork tenderloin) marinated in the Townhouse’s special marinade. Unfortunately you have to select only one of the three meats and can’t have a mix of all three. Nor does the shish ka-bob include grilled onions and bell peppers, two seemingly de rigueur shish ka-bob standards. This is a meatfest, a carnivore’s delight. The marinade appears to be a fairly standard Greek recipe that includes lemon and olive oil. The broiler sears in a light char that gives the bite-sized ka-bobs a slight crust, but doesn’t detract from the moistness of the top sirloin.

The Townhouse also offers a “Char-Burger” that has no bun and isn’t accompanied by the burger toppings to which we’re all accustomed. The char-burger is a half-pound of choice ground round stuffed with the Townhouse’s cheese mixture (primarily Cheddar) broiled to your exacting degree of doneness. At medium, the exterior has a seared-in crust while the interior is moist with a barely bubbling cheese interior. There’s not as much cheese as you’ll find in the stuffed Cheddar burger at Maria’s of Santa Fe where the cheese is molten and positively erupts out. Still, it’s a nice round slab of chopped steak that probably could use a steak sauce of some sort.

Chocolate Layered Cake and Baklava

Desserts are made in-house save for the spumoni ice cream.  There are five dessert items and unless you’ve asked for a doggie bag or three, you’re not likely to have room for them.  Make sure to leave room because these desserts are terrific.  The baklava is layers of flaky phyllo pastry, ground pistachios and of course lots of rich honey.  It’s nearly cloying in its sweetness, but absolutely delicious.  According to Dino Argyres, if you offer someone in Greece a slice of chocolate cake, you might be asked why you’re handing out bread.  Ironically, the Town House serves one of the very best layered chocolate cakes in the Duke City.  It’s the antithesis of the store-bought cakes and their thick, cloying frosting.  This cake is rich and moist, but not overly sweet. 

If anything, the near five-year hiatus may actually have improved the Town House Restaurant or maybe that’s just its new bright and airy ambiance.  Though its new digs bear little resemblance to its former home, a visit to the Town House is like coming home.  You’ll be welcome.  You’ll be well-fed.  You’ll leave happy. 

The Town House Restaurant
9019 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 255-0057
Town House Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 4 August 2012
1st VISIT: 18 February 2012
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Antipasto, Lamb Chops, Rib Eye with Mushroom Marsala Sauce, Baklava, Chocolate Layered Cake

Town House Dining Room on Urbanspoon

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