La Sirenita – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Sirenita on Fourth Street

My good friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik is one of the most altruistic and selfless people I have the privilege of knowing. Every year he grows out his naturally white beard so he can portray Santa Claus at hospitals and nursing homes throughout the metropolitan area. Because he stands 6’5″ most of his friends look like elves standing next to him and there’s probably not a chimney he can slide down, but when he dons his padded red and white Santa suit, he IS Santa. With his characteristic light-hearted and whimsical approach, he keeps children of all ages and dispositions spellbound, their wide-eyed wonder reflecting the magic of the season.

The rest of the year when he’s not playing Santa, Bill joins me in performing another type of public service. That’s what we call it when we visit a restaurant about which very little information is available (not even on Urbanspoon). Boldly going where no other critic has gone, we’ve discovered some gems over the years—restaurants which remain among our favorites–but we’ve also had more than our share of disappointments, most of which aren’t chronicled on this blog (if you can’t say something nice….). Public service can be painful!

Salsa and chips at La Sirenita

The spirit of adventure in visiting heretofore undiscovered restaurants is usually accompanied by a bit of trepidation, uncertainty and doubt. Fortunately we’ve learned not to judge a restaurant by its street-facing façade or we might not have visited La Sirenita, a Mexican restaurant which opened in December, 2011, but eleven months later had still not been added to Urbanspoon. Considering some restaurants have Urbanspoon listings even before they’re open for business, we wondered if that was a portend of (mediocre) things to come.

La Sirenita, which translates from Spanish to “the little mermaid” is almost directly across the street from the Mexican Consulate on Fourth Street. Its immediate next door neighbor to the north is La Familiar, a Duke City institution founded some thirty years ago. To its south is the defunct 4 Aces Grill. As might be expected from its name, the specialty of the house is Mexican seafood or mariscos. La Sirenita is housed in a sprawling one-room complex with a seating capacity of eighty. Seating is more utilitarian than it is comfortable. Save for a few framed photographs of Zacatecan architecture and scenery, there’s not much to look at.

Ceviche Mixto

You could almost say that about the menu, too, because it’s relatively austere, offering only about thirty items with maybe a third of those being breakfast entrees. Even the mariscos offerings are limited to a handful. A large menu does not, however, a great restaurant make and sometimes a small menu packs a lot of great food. We were optimistic that was the case when the complimentary salsa and chips were ferried to our table. The salsa is thin and fiery with a discernible hint of cucumber powder whose influence made the salsa’s flavor profile much more interesting. It’s a very good salsa, one made for dipping because it’s too thin for scooping. The chips are low in salt, fresh and crisp.

One of the few mariscos items on the menu is tostadas de ceviche, a favorite (if not obsession) of Bill’s. The ceviche is available in three varieties: pescado (fish), mariscos (seafood) or mixto (a combination of fish and seafood). The ceviche mixto is somewhat different than we’ve found in other mariscos restaurants. Unlike the pescado and pulpo (octopus) which are redolent with lime, cilantro and cucumber, the shrimp are not catalyzed in the citrus juices which make ceviche so good. The shrimp are also pink which means they’ve been boiled and they’re whole, not chopped. Additional sliced limes were not provided should we have wanted a squeeze or two for more citrus flavor.

Empanadas: cheese, chicken and carne desebrada with rice and beans

Empanadas are among the pleasant surprises on the menu and not solely because they’re offered as entrees, not as appetizers. Available in three varieties—cheese, chicken and desebrada (shredded beef)—these empanadas are like those grandma used to bake (if your grandma was a great cook). The empanadas are hand-made and freshly baked so they arrive at your table steaming hot. Even though covered with lettuce and crema fresca, wisps of fragrant steam will escape as your fork cuts into the fresh bread cover. The empanadas are generously stuffed with high-quality ingredients and no annoying fillers. You’ll want to ask for one of each type. The chicken (my favorite) is moist and tender–mostly white meat. The melted Mexican white cheese is thick and melty, but not gooey and messy. The desebrada is moist, tender tendrils of well-seasoned shredded beef.

Another surprisingly good entrée is the chile relleno. A large poblano is overstuffed with cheese, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and crema fresca. The poblano has no piquancy, but if that’s what you crave, the relleno is served with an almost luminescent green salsa which you can spoon over the relleno. With or without the kryptonite-colored salsa, the chile relleno is delicious. As with most entrees at La Sirenita, the chile relleno is served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

Chile Relleno with beans and rice

Public service can be delicious! Bill and I are always elated when we visit an undiscovered gem. La Sirenita is one such gem, a restaurant we’ll visit again.

La Sirenita
1601 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 November 2012
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Salsa and Chips, Empanadas, Chile Relleno

La Sirenita on Urbanspoon

Rey’s Place – Albuquerque, New Mexico (RELOCATED)

Rey’s Place Mexican Restaurant on Edith

Rey’s Place has relocated and now shares space with La Familar, the terrific Mexican restaurant owned by Michael “Rey’s” lovely bride Luz.  La Familiar is located at 1611 4th Street, N.W.  Its menu includes all the wonderful foods you’ve loved for years at Rey’s Place: gorditas, enchiladas, caldo de rez and so much more.  Whether you visit for excellent Mexican food or Michael’s mellifluous guitar and sensational singing voice, Rey’s La Familiar will soon become one of your favorite restaurants.    Call Rey’s La Familiar at 808-242-9661 for more information.

Human brains are wired so that the way we perceive the flavor of food is actually a synthesis of how it looks, tastes, smells and feels.  Four senses are actively engaged as we’re masticating, licking, sipping or sucking our food.  The one traditionally recognized method of perception apparently not crucial to enjoying the dining experience is the sense of hearing.  Until rather recently, the effect music has on the enjoyment of our food hadn’t been thoroughly studied scientifically. 

In 2011, the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology determined through a series of experiments that food tastes best when served with quiet classical music in the background.  If the music was played at a level higher than the optimal 62-67 decibels, diners enjoyed the taste of their food less.  The experiments also revealed that silence–the absence of at least some ambient sound–actually detracts from the enjoyment of eating and makes the restaurant setting uncomfortable.

The comfy, cozy confines of Rey’s Place

The skeptic in me wonders how classical music impacts people who liken “long hair music” to the sound made by mating cats while the quasi-scientist in me wants to know what the enjoyment of food would be like with rap, rock and country music playing in the background and at various decibel levels.  Ostensibly, various types of musics were used in the experiments, but readers are left to speculate their effects.  One can surmise, for example, that the rock music with a fast beat would probably increase the rate of chewing.  Rap music would probably have many of my wizened friends looking for a short rope and a tall tree.

Duke City diners need go no further than Rey’s Place at 6400 Edith Boulevard, N.E. to enjoy excellent Mexican and New Mexican food and, if your timing is good, get to listen to an impromptu jam session.  A large decorative-only blue guitar in front of the restaurant is a precursor to things to come.  There are two smaller (but functional) guitars on one corner of the dining room.  Both the staff and diners have been known to pick up those guitars and belt out a tune or two.  You can check out some of the staff’s musical stylings on Reverbnation then imagine yourself enjoying an enchilada dinner at Rey’s Place as the music plays in the background.

Salsa and chips

Rey’s Place has been serving Albuquerque since 2010, but remains a fairly well-kept secret largely because of it’s off-the-well-beaten-and-well-eaten-path.  Its location, in an industrial and warehouse area, means it will remain largely a destination restaurant albeit one very popular with savvy neighborhood blue and white collar workers.  Rey’s is open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 3PM and on Saturdays and Sundays from 8AM to 3PM.  More than most restaurants in Albuquerque, it’s a restaurant with personality–one which jams.  The heart of the restaurant is its owner Michael Sierra, an affable host who takes the time to visit with his guests to ensure they’re enjoying their dining experience.  Michael is a larger than life personality with a very high likeability quotient and a great singing voice.  Dining at Rey’s is like dining at his home.

Rey’s also has a very customer-oriented four-point mission statement: (1) We give you our best Albuquerque welcome; (2) We are attentive to your needs; (3) We advise you that every dish we serve is prepared from scratch, that it takes a little longer than most; and (4) We serve you a hot delicious New Mexican food plate that we’re proud to say, ” is hard to match.”  Rey’s recognizes that slower hand-made food is the key to the very high quality of their Mexican and New Mexican food.  Shortcuts aren’t taken in the preparation of the food.  It’s all made from scratch with no additives (and thankfully no cumin) to “stretch” the red chile.   That uncompromising attention to detail and authenticity is reflected in some of the very best red chile I’ve had this year, a pleasantly piquant a pure, earthy blend with a rich flavor.

Con queso with chips

The menu is a refreshing change of pace from the humdrum (but usually delicious)  menu you come to expect from Mexican and New Mexican restaurants in the city.  The Mexican dishes section of the menu includes such mouth-watering delicacies as lengua (tongue) a la Mexicana, barbacoa (a restaurant specialty), and gorditas, an entree Rey’s touts as a meal and a half.  The menu also features nine different types of tacos, some of which you won’t find anywhere else in town.  Four tortas (sandwiches crafted on bolillo bread), seven types of hand-held burritos, four caldos (including caldo de rez, a Gil favorite), six burgers and six different types of enchiladas are also available.  This is a menu from you’ll want to sample every item.

You’ll want to start your Rey’s experience with salsa and chips.  The salsa is special, some of the very best in town.  It’s reminiscent of the salsa at Sadie’s Dining Room in terms of piquancy, viscosity and flavor.   Best of all, the plastic molcajete in which the salsa is served is nearly full when it arrives at your table.  You’ll probably run out of chips before you finish the salsa.  The chips are thin, light and crispy which is fine for this salsa because unless you’re a bona fide fire eater, it’s made for dipping more than for scooping.

Stuffed sopaipilla with beans and rice

Fundido, a Spanish term for melted or molten cheese, has been used to describe everything from the gloppy, pedestrian baseball stadium nacho cheese to richly indulgent fondue quality cheese.  Neither is a good representation of true queso fundido, the type of which is served at Rey’s Place.  Rey’s queso is an amalgam of molten cheeses and a spicy chorizo in perfect proportion to one another.  The cheese starts off hot and thick and like most queso fundido, will coagulate and harden as it cools and because the portion is rather sizable, it will cool down..  That’s when you ask the accommodating staff to reheat it for you.   It’s just as good reheated.

Seeing diners at adjacent tables all enjoying stuffed sopaipillas had a not-so-subliminal effect during my inaugural visit.  It’s no wonder this dish is so popular.  Talk about an orchestra effect on your taste buds.  The sopaipilla is engorged with ground steak, beans and a lettuce-tomato garnish then slathered with chile.  The red chile has a nice bite to it without the residual bitterness of impure chile.  It’s got endearing earthy qualities that will imprint themselves on your taste buds and memories.  The whole beans are perfectly cooked and delicious while the rice is fluffy, light and better than most Mexican-style rice. 

Caldo De Res

If you’re the type of person who likes curling up in front of the fireplace with a steamy mug of cocoa on a cold winter day, you’re probably the type of person who appreciates a good soup.  Mexicans appreciate a good soup very much, especially caldo de res, a rich beef stock brimming with rich, fork-tender bits of meat from a beef hock and vegetables (celery, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and even corn-on-the-cob) topped with cilantro.  Made well, it will cure whatever ails you more effectively than any chicken noodle soup.  Rey’s rendition of caldo de res will most assuredly cure the winter blahs or any other time blues.  It’s an excellent soup with a broth you’ll  slurp up with gusto.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared, fresh and delicious.  It’s served with rice and a small plastic cup of finely chopped green peppers and tomatoes.

While Rey’s Web site is effusive about the restaurant’s entire menu, only one item occupies a place of prominence on a wall where it shares space with framed artwork.  The poster extolling the virtues of Rey’s gorditas is both explanatory in nature and a delicious marketing tactic. Read the poster and you’ll probably order the gorditas plate.  Gorditas are basically deep-fried pockets of cornmeal or flour dough engorged with a savory mixture.  At Rey’s the corn or flour cakes are slow-cooked on the grill, sliced open and stuffed with your choice of carne asada, carne adovada, barbacoa, carne desebrada (tender, slow-cooked shredded beef), shredded chicken, carnitas and carne molida (ground steak). The carne adovada-stuffed gorditas are terrific. The combination of the corn masa cake and the red chile marinated, tender pork make for a very interesting and wholly delicious pairing.  The gorditas plate is served with rice, beans and red or green salsa.  By the way, shame on Taco Bell for that abomination they’ve tried to pass off as a gordita.

Gorditas engorged with carne adovada, beans, tomatoes and lettuce

If you prefer your carne adovada unencumbered by such trivialities as a cornmeal pocket, lettuce and tomatoes (delicious though they might be), you’re going to love Rey’s carne adovada plate.  This is carne adovada prepared the way your sainted abuelita might have made it.  The red chile marinated pork is so tender you could chew it with your gums, so good it might make you swoon.  It’s a carne adovada so good I’d introduce my friend Ruben Hendrickson to it.  Ruben, as faithful readers know, is an adovada aficionado who prepares it better than most restaurants.  Getting his seal of approval on carne adovada means it’s not only good, it’s in rarefied company.  I believe he’d place Rey’s carne adovada in that category.

As much as Ruben loves carne adovada, he doesn’t wax eloquently about his love for it on a thematic blog as does a Duke City blogger so passionate about her culinary passion that she launched a blog to celebrate the best huevos rancheros in New Mexico.  Her Huevos Addiction blog is a terrific read with her review of Rey’s huevos rancheros inspiring me to try her favorite dish.  Rey’s huevos rancheros are simplicity itself–corn tortillas on the bottom, fried eggs on top and the whole thing slathered with chile (red and green for me).  The huevos are served with sides of beans and papitas (some of the best in town).  Simplicity does not mean plain or boring, not as long as you’ve got Rey’s red chile (described on Huevos Addiction as “for those who have said their prayers.”)  

Huevos Rancheros with papitas and beans

One item which rarely warrants more than a mention on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog are tacos.  It perplexes me as to why diners would ever order a taco plate.  Tacos are among the least expensive items to make, tend to be overstuffed with lettuce and tomatoes and are rarely worth writing about.  I could write a book about Grandma Gloria’s tacos.  At three tacos per order, you won’t go away hungry because an order also includes beans and rice.

So what makes these tacos so unique?  It starts with a fried corn tortilla that’s obviously not out-of-the-box.  The tortillas are lightly fried with char marks which seem to indicate some time on a comal.  The tacos are engorged not with shredded or ground beef, but with a well-seasoned hamburger patty.  That’s a first for me.  The de rigueur lettuce, tomatoes and shredded cheese are there, too, and while some restaurants serve a side of house salsa for their tacos, Rey’s provides a ramekin of chile pequin salsa made from a 112-year-old family recipe.  You’ll want to spoon it on generously or maybe even dip your tacos into this unique salsa.

Grandma Gloria’s Tacos

Many diners, no matter how sophisticated they might consider themselves to be, have an aversion to eating tongue (lengua in Spanish).  Contrary to some opinion, the texture of lengua is not akin to shoe leather nor is it comparable to menudo.  At Rey’s, the lengua is sliced into small cubes and is prepared with onions and green chile.  If you didn’t know what you just ate, you might think you had roast beef, albeit a very moist and delicious roast beef.  The lengua isn’t tough, sinewy or chewy in the least.  It’s the type of tongue action you can brag about to your mom. 

Rey’s burger menu includes one whose name is sure to appeal to the macho among us.  It’s the “Man Size” burger, a full pound of beef on lightly toasted sourdough.  The burger is served with lettuce, onions and a white-yellow cheese blend.  Of course you’re going to want to garnish it with Rey’s terrific green chile.  The sourdough is a surprisingly good canvas for the moist beef patty and garnishes.  The burger is served with a nice amount of fries.

Rey’s Place features home-cooked Mexican and New Mexican food prepared with love and served by a cheerful staff who wants nothing more than for you to enjoy your dining experience.  It’s ambitious goal is to be the best New Mexican food restaurant in Albuquerque.  It may well get there.  The question is whether it will receive honors and accolades before and more often for its music as for its food.

Rey’s Place
6004 Edith Blvd NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 January 2013
1st VISIT:  16 October 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Queso Fundido, Calde de Rez, Gorditas, Carne Adovada Plate, Huevos Rancheros, Grandma Gloria Tacos, Lengua, Man Size Burger

Rey's Place  Mexican  Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Kim Long Asian Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED 1 JULY 2015)

Kim Long Asian Cuisine, a Vietnamese restaurant which launched on September 9, 2010

Growing up on a relatively unsophisticated Northern New Mexican diet featuring such staples as beans, tortillas and chile could hardly be considered a training ground for gastronomic appreciation. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my mom’s cooking it was hardly with the realization that I was feasting on one of America’s very best regional cuisines. Frankly, in the 1960s, only someone with prescience would have thought New Mexican cuisine could eventually garner worldwide acclaim. My siblings and I actually thought we were deprived because we weren’t eating Wonder bread sandwiches, pizza and Big Macs.

Similarly, my friend and Intel colleague Huu Vu who grew up in Vietnam had no realization that the simple foods on which he was raised would someday be considered part of the world’s most delicious, artfully composed and healthy cuisines. To him and other citizens of impoverished Vietnam, food was sustenance, fuel to keep them going. Huu related to me that in Vietnam, you ate to live. You learned to stretch your meals with fillers such as rice. The vegetables and herbs (typically fresh mint, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts) which accompany pho (the superb Vietnamese beef noodle soup) weren’t just flavor additives. They were added to pho to make it go further…to fill hungry bellies.

The interior of Kim Long’s Asian Cuisine

Most people eventually come to the realization that the cuisine on which they grew up is special, and for many of us, no other cuisine will ever replace it as our favorite. My epiphany as to just how special New Mexican food really is came in 1977 when the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts. While you could hardly call fried clams, tuna subs and incomparable Italian food a “consolation prize,” they could not take that place in my heart that was exclusively reserved for New Mexican food.

My friend Huu was sixteen when he moved to San Francisco where a world of culinary exploration awaited. With an open mind and an inquisitive nature, he tried it all, but ultimately concluded that nothing was quite as wonderful as the Vietnamese food on which he grew up–and which his mother began sharing with the Golden Gate City when she opened up Le Cordon Bleu, a wonderful hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant I visited in 2001, about a decade before meeting Huu.

Bloating Fern-Shaped Cake with Ground Pork and Shrimp

When Quoc Luu invited me to visit Kim Long, an uptown area Vietnamese restaurant he and his family opened in September, 2010, it was a foregone conclusion that Huu would accompany me on what would be the inaugural visit for both of us. I wanted Huu to refute or validate an audacious claim on Kim Long’s Web site: “There are many Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque that are not authentic. Because the only way to get authentic food is to cook it at home; we took the opportunity to capitalize on this market.” Huu’s educated palate and sense of smell can ferret out any pretenders quickly. With one spoonful of pho, he knows whether or not it’s made the traditional ways. He’s as much a stickler for authenticity in Vietnamese food as I am about the foods of my Land of Enchantment.

Alas, the east-facing signage belies its authenticity. That signage reads “Kim Long Asian Cuisine,” not a name many would associate with a Vietnamese restaurant. Having driven by it several times, Huu, in fact, thought it to be yet another in a seemingly endless parade of bad Chinese restaurants dotting the Duke City’s culinary landscape. That assumption is heightened by the twin dragons flanking the sign. As it turns out “Kim Long” is not the name of anyone in the Luu family, but a term which translates from Vietnamese to English as “Golden Dragon.”

Egg Rolls

As if further confusion is needed, the restaurant’s interior clearly indicates the previous tenant was an American restaurant of some sort. The black and white tiled floors seem more apropos for a fifties throwback diner while wall panels bordering the ceiling read “Grill,” “Deli,” “Sandwiches” and “Salads.” A large flat screen television hangs on a faux Anasazi style fireplace. A single songbird serenades the large dining room while an aquarium of colorful sea life adds an air of tranquility. The aspect most telling that this is a Vietnamese restaurant is in the hospitality and friendliness of the staff. Quoc, as it turns out, is a fellow Intel employee who toils on the night shift, not that he wouldn’t have been absolutely gracious and welcoming otherwise.

A few Americanized touches not withstanding, Kim Long is a paragon of authenticity.  The Luu family has raised its own chickens, making organic poultry and home-grown eggs standard offerings.  Quoc has bold plans for the restaurant, planning a menu expansion that will include banh mi, the fabulous Vietnamese sandwich.  Unlike other Duke City purveyors of banh mi, Kim Long will bake its own baguettes.  The aroma of freshly baked breads and the wondrous seasonings, herbs and spices used on other menu items will make the restaurant one of the city’s most olfactory arousing.  “Olfactory arousing” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a term anyone would use for durian, the world’s “stinkiest” fruit. Durian exudes an aroma reminiscent of garlic and tropical fruit to those rare souls who enjoy it.  Dissenters such as my stand-up comic friend Bill Resnik insist its malodorous emanations are more reminiscent of feet and perspiration.  Kim Long’s durian shake is one of the best, most authentic I’ve had.

Spring Rolls (2 rolls): Vietnamese Pork, Shrimp, Lettuce, Basil and Vermicelli Noodles Rolled in Fresh Rice Paper; served with a sweet peanut sauce

The menu features a few surprises neither Huu or I had seen in other Albuquerque Vietnamese restaurants. For instance, Huu pointed out that one of the ingredients on the egg rolls is taro, an ingredient prevalent in health-conscious California, but not in the Duke City. The egg rolls, served three to an order, are quite good–so good, in fact, that the Web site touts them as an example of the menu’s authenticity, indicating the recipe has been passed on from generation to generation. The taro influence is somewhat muted because taro tends to absorb the flavors of ingredients with which it’s paired.

Another surprise (for me) was something called a bloating fern-shaped cake with ground pork and shrimp, essentially a gelatinous rice-flower cake topped with chopped dry shrimp, dehydrated pork and scallions and served with undiluted fish sauce and potent chilis. This appetizer, served in ten small plates in dim sum fashion is a specialty of Hue in Central Vietnam. This dish has a very unique flavor and texture and is an absolute joy to eat though as I quickly found out, it’s not to be eaten oyster-shooter style. Following Huu’s lead, I liberally spooned on the undiluted fish sauce and ate it as I might eat jello. This is adventure eating and it’s a real treat.

Fried Flour Cake with Egg and Green Onion

Kim Long’s spring rolls are yet another terrific appetizer–Vietnamese pork, shrimp, lettuce, basil and vermicelli noodles rolled in fresh rice paper. These met with Huu’s seal of approval as he lamented that some restaurants have stooped to using Chinese egg roll wrappers which are not of the quality he demands. The spring rolls (three to an order) are served with a Hoisin peanut sauce studded with julienne carrots and daikon. The invigorating freshness of the basil and the snap of perfectly prepared shrimp are my favorite qualities in spring rolls and these qualities are very much in evidence at Kim Long.

The appetizer about which Quoc is most excited is a fried flour cake with egg and green onion, a surprise considering it is a Chinese dish. The recipe for this treasured family dish is several generations old though it has yet to be passed on to Quoc or his siblings. It’s a secret recipe I want! At first glance, the cubes of fried flour look vaguely like fried tofu and even have a similar texture, but the flour cakes are redolent of a faint bacon-like smokiness and are absolutely delicious when coupled with a piquant sriracha-hoison sauce. The faint sensation of bacon is only fitting considering the fried flour cakes are served on a bed of what looks like scrambled eggs or more appropriately like the eggs used on fried rice. This is yet another terrific starter.

Hue Style Vermicelli Soup: Spicy Lemongrass Noodle Soup with Beef

My friend Huu, like many Vietnamese people, can eat pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner with pho snacks in between. It’s his favorite dish, what he considers the benchmark for great Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a dish he makes often at home and still orders when he goes out. With one spoonful, he validated the authenticity of Kim Long’s pho. One telltale sign of authentic pho, he says, is whether or not the beef stock is made with bones, preferably leg and knuckle bones with the unctuous marrow which makes pho taste meaty and rich. The pho at Kim Long comes in a bowl the size of a small swimming pool. It’s served steaming hot with a bowl of vegetable and herbs.

My choice was the Hue-style Vermicelli soup, a spicy lemongrass noodle soup with beef. The beef, perhaps flank steak or eye-of-round, is sliced painfully thin and cut across the grain for a smooth texture. The soup also includes Bo Vien (Vietnamese style meatballs), an entire pig’s foot and even blood sausage. It’s not dumbed down for American tastes and is as flavorful as any soup in town. The fragrance of spices–cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel and star anise–is intoxicating, a perfect counterbalance for the refreshingly light ginger-like taste of the lemongrass.

Pho Sate Kim Long: Kim Long Rice Noodle Served with Dried Sate Chili

While the Hue-style Vermicelli soup might well be the star attraction at many a Vietnamese restaurant, it’s not the best soup at Kim Long. That honor goes to the Pho Sate Kim Long, a rice noodle pho made with dried sate chili. The sate elevates this pho above other phos, imparting a potent spicy-smokiness that transforms an otherwise wonderful bowl of pho into a transcendent fiery flavored experience. It’s got a kick that’ll clear your sinuses, but it’s not just the heat that you’ll fall in love with. When combined with cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel and star anise, the sate is addictive.

Spices alone don’t a great pho make.  The Pho Sate Kim Long includes thinly sliced rare beef, meatball, soft tendon and skirt flank as well as lemongrass and scallions.   Tiny globules of marrow float on top of the soup, evidence of the pho’s authenticity. You can add as much as you’d like from a separate plate of cilantro, mint and bean sprouts.  Everything you add contributes to a flavor profile as beguiling and perhaps second in deliciousness only to the transformative spicy beef stew at Cafe Dalat among all phos in the Duke City.

Broken Rice Served with Six Flavors: Chinese Fried Rice, Grilled Pork, Shredded Pork Skin, Pork Pie, Shrimp and a Fried Egg

My second visit was as delightful as the first with an introduction to new flavors prepared in true and authentic ways, certainly in ways not prepared by other Vietnamese restaurants in the Duke City.  While other restaurants serve broken rice dishes, in many cases not even the broken rice is authentic.  Broken rice is more expensive than standard rice so in some cases, the “broken rice” dishes are made with conventional steamed rice.  Not so at Kim Long.

The broken rice is fashioned into a cube strategically placed at the twelve o’clock position on a square plate which is artfully decorated with an array of six different flavor components: Chinese fried rice, grilled pork, shredded pork skin, pork pie, shrimp and a fried egg.  The broken rice is intended to be eaten with the fried egg served over easy so the yolk runs down onto the rice.  With a little of the diluted fish sauce, it’s a delightful treat.  From among the six flavors on the plate, the most surprising is the grilled pork, a bone-in pork chop grilled to perfection, not served as two to three-inch grilled pork strips  as often served at other Vietnamese restaurants.  The grilling influence is apparent in the light smokiness, but the savory, smoky flavor profile also includes a hint of sweetness I suspect comes from just a bit of brown sugar and fish sauce.  In any event, it’s one of the best “pork chops” in Albuquerque.

Fried Rice with Chinese Sausage

Another Chinese-influenced dish on the menu is fried rice with Chinese sausage. If you’ve never had Chinese sausage, you’re in for a treat. Texturally it’s similar to some hard, dry pork sausage, but its sweet-salty-smoky flavor is what stands out. On the fried rice, it’s cut into small cubes, joining carrots, peas and bean sprouts.  Only at Ming Dynasty will you find Chinese sausage fried rice as good as this one.

One of the most healthful and delicious of Vietnamese entrees is Vermicelli, thin and translucent rice noodles in a bed of small ribbons of lettuce, mint, cilantro cucumber, bean sprouts and onions surrounded by a generous portion of grilled pork and egg rolls.  The vermicelli noodles, grilled beef and egg rolls are warm while the salad ingredients are cool, a contrast that works exceptionally well.  Add the contents of the accompanying bowl of fish sauce only upon the salad because the grilled beef is absolutely perfect as is.  

Vermicelli served with Grilled Pork and Egg Rolls

Kim Long has every right to tout its authenticity in preparing Vietnamese cuisine in traditional ways passed down from generation to generation. It has every right to lay claim to being one of Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese restaurants.

Kim Long Asian Cuisine
2325 San Pedro, N.E., Suite 1E
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7279
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2012
1st VISIT:  25 March 2011
# of VISITS: 3
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Lemongrass Noodle Soup with Beef, Bloating Fern-Shaped Cake with Grinded Pork and Shrimp, Spring Rolls, Fried Flour Cake with Egg and Green Onion, Vermicelli with grilled pork and egg rolls, Pho Sate Kim Long

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Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Il Piatto

Santa Fe’s fabulous Il Piatto, an outstanding Italian restaurant

As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary condition, I used to think the most prominent delta in quality between restaurants in the Land of Enchantment and those in large metropolitan cities are in the areas of seafood, barbecue and Italian food. It’s easy to understand the dearth in outstanding seafood restaurants. We are, after all, a landlocked state some 800 miles or so from the nearest ocean. While many New Mexican restaurants have fresh seafood flown in frequently, it’s not quite the same as having seafood literally off the boat and onto your plate.

In recent years, the launch of several very good to excellent barbecue joints has done much to narrow the gap in the barbecue arena: Sugar’s BBQ in Embudo, The Ranch House in Santa Fe, Sparky’s in Hatch and Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House in Albuquerque. This terrific quadrumvirate has given us barbecue you can enjoy every day of the week, maybe even more than once a day. We may not ever have transcendent barbecue like Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, but the same can be said about everywhere else in the world.

One of the homey dining rooms at Il Piatto

My argument used to be that New Mexico does have some nice, maybe even very good, Italian restaurants, but there’s a world of difference between a nice or very good Italian restaurant in Albuquerque and say, a very good or excellent Italian restaurant in San Francisco or Boston.  A friend of mine from Santa Fe took a defensive stance with my assertion about Italian restaurants in New Mexico, contending that you need not go further than Santa Fe to partake of an excellent Italian experience. He rattled off several Italian restaurants he believes are on par with Italian restaurants anywhere in America.

My ill-fated and misinformed retort was that Santa Fe is where you go for Southwestern cuisine in all its uniquely inventive and diverse deliciousness. It’s not a dining destination for Italian. Fearful that my opinions on Italian food in New Mexico would be influenced by a pessimistic Pygmalion effect (a self-fulfilling prophecy that essentially says you get what you expect), it took far too long before I finally succumbed to Santa Fe’s irresistible, siren-like charms and visited an Italian restaurant.

Pumpkin Pistachio Soup

Pumpkin Pistachio Soup

Ironically that restaurant, Il Piatto, reminded me of being anywhere but Santa Fe. From the outside, Il Piatto’s color palette is stereotypically Santa Fe–an adobe stucco facade trimmed with Taos blue. Step inside, however, and you might experience a sort of temporary astral projection in which you might feel as if you’re dining in a large urban area or maybe even a European cafe.  Il Piatto has the feel of a rustic neighborhood trattoria in Italy with an ambiance wholly antithetical to the stereotypical Italian restaurant and its thematic red, white and green template. It manages somehow to be both understated and elegant, upscale yet modest.

The front room has limited seating, but because all patrons enter and exit through that room, it’s not a preferred seating location.  The main dining room is more spacious. Surprisingly even though the restaurant is very small and tables are in tight proximity to one another, Il Piatto doesn’t have the sardine-can crowded feeling other small Santa Fe restaurants can’t escape, though in the when crowded, it’s more than a bit noisy.  In 2010, the restaurant added another dining room with high-rise tables fashioned from wine barrels and began offering an “enoteca” service in which Italian style tapas (small plates) such as cheeses, antipastos, soups and sausage are served between 2 and 5PM.

Endive and Radiccio Salad

Endive and Radiccio Salad

The walls on the main dining room are decorated with a few contemporary art pieces, but also with menus from some of the most exquisite and exclusive restaurants in the planet–France’s Joel Rubuchon and Napa Valley’s French Laundry to name but two.  It’s how I’d decorate my “man cave” given carte blanche to do so (reminiscent  of the David Frizzell ditty “I‘m Going To Hire A Wino to Decorate Our Home”). All tables are adorned with fastidiously starched white tablecloths.  On each table you’ll find a decanter of olive oil with herbs and peppers.

Il Piatto is the brainchild of chef/owner Matt Yohalem who plied his talents at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the United States (Le Cirque, Commanders Palace, Union Square Cafe, Coyote Cafe) as well as serving stints in Paris and the south of France. The front of the house is in the capable hands of Honey Howard, erstwhile owner of LeMoyne’s Landing and the chef’s dutiful spouse. Honey keeps things moving and prevents the chaos which can ensue in busy restaurants. We would rather she relaunch her fabulous Cajun-Creole restaurant, but she indicating that isn’t currently in the plans.

Antipasto del Giorno

In 2011, the restaurant underwent a name change–from Il Piatto Cucina Italiana to Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen–which more accurately reflects Yohalem’s culinary philosophy, synopsized in the expression “what grows together, goes together.”   He is one of Santa Fe’s most staunch advocates among restaurateurs of using local and sustainable ingredients and  has forged very close relationships with farmers and local producers.  The food prepared at Il Vicino is delivered directly from the farm in the back of a pickup truck, ensuring the peak of flavor and freshness. 

By any name, this is a fabulous Italian restaurant with a sumptuous menu of traditional and contemporary Italian dishes crafted with fresh and innovative ingredients. The menu changes seasonally (as much as six times per year) to take advantage of seasonal harvests from New Mexico’s fecund farms with several standards offered in perpetuity.  Il Piatto has long been a mainstay on the Santa Fe Reporter’s annual listing of top Santa Fe dining destinations, and has garnered accolades from such national publications as Esquire magazine, Travel & Leisure, Bon Appetit and the New York Times.  On a personal professional level, Yohalem was a James Beard Foundation “Best Chef Southwest” nominee. The accolades are very well deserved.

Chicken Liver Mousse Terrine with garlic crostini, mustard and capers

In 2007, Il Piatto added another reason to visit–a prix fixe menu for lunch that includes an appetizer, entree and dessert for well south $20 a person. The Prix Fixe menu is also offered for dinner seven days a week where you can have three courses for just over $30. Prix Fixe at dinner is defined as one full entree or full pasta as main course or any combination of appetizer, salad, appetizer pasta or dessert for the remainder courses.  The fixed price menu is just one of the many reasons you’ll rarely see empty tables at Il Piatto.  Reservations are recommended, but if you can’t get there during peak times, there’s always late night dining which is available seven days a week from 9 to 10:30PM.  Because of the menu’s seasonality and the chef’s creativity, the dishes described below may or may not be available when you visit. 

One of several outstanding appetizer options on the menu is Il Piatto’s endive and radicchio salad with roasted beets, goat cheese and walnut pesto. There is a lot going on in this salad and your taste buds will relish each adventure in taste appreciation. The peppery and slightly acerbic radicchio complements the tangy and earthy goat cheese which has the creaminess of butter. Beets are an acquired taste, and if you do acquire it, you’ll appreciate how roasted beets can taste both sweet and salty and the same time. Both endive and radicchio are members of the chicory family and their texture is slightly more firm and crisp than lettuce used on most salads. Together with the walnut pesto, they give this salad an interesting texture.

Gorgonzola walnut ravioli with sundried tomato pesto

Gorgonzola walnut ravioli with sundried tomato pesto

On the opposite spectrum, texturally, is a pumpkin pistachio soup which will warm the cockles of your heart. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the surprisingly earthy and mellow taste of pumpkin sans pumpkin pie spice. This is an excellent soup wholly unlike the dessert sweet pie. It is rich, creamy and heart-warming, the type of soup which is especially wonderful in winter, but which is great any time of year.  It is punctuated with pepper and creme Fraiche. 

The Antipasti del Giorno (appetizer of the day) is a veritable treasure trove of Italian deliciousness.  On any given day, a plate may be brimming with prosciutto (which, contrary to popular opinion does not taste like thin, unfried bacon), Italian olives, a head of garlic, pickled peppers and more.  This is where you will come to appreciate New Mexico’s farm-fresh and in-season vegetables, some of which may well have been in the ground the day prior to being on your plate..

Lemon and Rosemary Grilled Chicken

Lemon and Rosemary Grilled Chicken

Still another fabulous starter, albeit available as a special of the day only, are prosciutto wrapped peaches with basil pesto, goat cheese and a gorgonzola dolce latte sauce.  The contrast between the rich, creamy goat cheese; the well-seasoned, salt-cured, thin-cut prosciutto and the tangy, tart peaches is especially interesting.  It’s a combination you might not expect to work so well.  It’s a combination that will stimulate your taste buds with all its contrasting and complementary flavors. 

Il Piatto’s rendition of Chicken Liver Mousse Terrine may resemble the pates we love so much in Chicago, but that resemblance ends with texture.  The terrine has a somewhat coarser texture than pate.  Both are minced and highly seasoned, but Chicago-based pate tends to be more powerfully seasoned, especially with garlic.  The chicken liver mousse terrine at Il Piatto is delicate with a mild, almost sweet flavor so unlike the “cat food” taste detractors associate with chicken liver.  The terrine is served with garlic crostini, mustard and capers.  It’s an easy terrine to spread.  The mustard and capers are good counterpoints to the mild sweetness of the terrine.

Sauteed chicken livers “Agre Dolce” with pine nuts, raisins, caramelized onions, vinegar and mashed potatoes

The Gorgonzola and walnut ravioli with sun-dried tomato pesto is a beautiful, albeit relatively small, entree. A creamy Gorgonzola sauce and Gorgonzola shavings give it a sharp bite while the sweet pesto imbues it with contrasting qualities that meld so well. Maxime and Daniela Bouneau of Torinos @ Home call Gorgonzola the blue cheese for blue cheese haters.  It’s a pleasantly pungent, creamy cheese which complements pastas and sauces very well.  The Big Chief tablet sized raviolis are perfectly al dente.

If you’re of the mind that grilled chicken has to take like the aleutaceous rotisserie chicken you might find at a grocery store, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise should you order the lemon and rosemary grilled chicken at Il Piatto. Served “stacked” with roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables, it raises the bar for grilled chicken.  The vegetables–red onion, garlic cloves and green and red peppers–are grilled to perfection allowing them to retain a pleasant moistness. The roasted potatoes are similarly prepared, rendering them tender on the inside.  As for the chicken, it is juicy and tender with a nice blending of tanginess from the lemon and distinctively astringent, wonderfully aromatic qualities of the rosemary. There’s virtually no skin to get in the way, just plump, moist poultry.

Squid ink spaghetti with calamari, lemon zest, tomatoes and white wine

If you’re in pursuit of porcine perfection, you’ll find it in Il Piatto’s stuffed pork chop with talleggio (a washed rind Italian cheese), pine nuts, prosciutto, potato gratin and a rosemary wine jus.  The bone-in pork chops are cut on the premises and are about an inch thick, topping the scales at about eight to ten ounces.  It’s as well-seasoned, moist and tender a pork chop as you’ll find in New Mexico and the stuffing is fantastic, an amalgam of complementary ingredients in perfect proportion to one another to maximize their flavor.  The potato gratin is rich and delicious, not overwhelmed by gooey cheese as tends to be the case at inferior restaurants. 

Adventurous diners might opt instead for squid ink spaghetti with calamari, lemon zest, tomatoes and white wine.  Contrary to what you might think, it’s actually squid ink–what squid  emit as a defense mechanism, spraying dark clouds of it into the water to confuse their predators.  It’s also not merely a coloring agent.  Squid ink has its own distinctive flavor profile, too, one that complements seafood (especially squid) very well.  Squid ink pasta has a briny flavor with iodine notes you’ll definitely notice.  Il Piatto’s squid ink spaghetti is al dente and beautifully black.  It’s served with ringlets of calamari and chopped tomatoes in a buttery sauce punctuated with lemon zest.  If you’ve never had squid ink pasta, there’s probably no better restaurant in which to have it than Il Piatto.

Bread Pudding

Another entree children of all ages have turned their noses up at is chicken livers.  Perhaps that’s because they haven’t had truly great chicken livers.  Il Piatto’s sauteed chicken livers are served “Agre Dolce” (an Italian term for bitter-sweet) with pine nuts, raisins, caramelized onions, vinegar and mashed potatoes.  Chicken livers are rich in several nutrients which might account for the “mineral” flavor some find off-putting.  Worse, they can easily be tough and rubbery if the stringy fibers in the chicken livers aren’t adequately broken down by buttermilk or ingredients with acidity.  Hence the agre dolce components.  Il Piatto’s chicken livers are perfectly prepared with a  crispy outer crust and a moist inner organ meat redolent with agre dolce components which don’t detract from the native flavors of the chicken livers.  This is an entree for anyone who has never had or may think they don’t like chicken livers.

From the specials of the day menu comes yet another entree which I would wish to be on the daily menu.  It’s Penne Bolognese Cassoesula with mozzarella, veal and pork.  Served in a casserole bowl, it is a rich (but not overwhelmingly so) entree with a perfectly prepared pasta complemented by some of the best Bolognese sauce I’ve ever had.  That’s despite the fact that the sauce is almost entirely baked into the pasta and its complementary ingredients.  Its flavor is distinctive and delicious.

Sweet Marsala Zabaglione

Desserts are terrific, too. On the plate, the sweet marsala zabaglione just sort of lies there like a lump of mashed potatoes drizzled with a gravy, but on your tongue, it will set off explosions of flavor. I’ve seen marsala zabaglione described as “one of Italy’s great gifts to the rest of the world” and wholly agree. This is one phenomenal dessert!  This sweet Italian egg, sugar and Marsala wine custard is punctuated with an attention-grabbing Balsamic reduction that gives it a sneaky tanginess which melds harmoniously with streaks of dark chocolate sauce and the sinfully rich custard.  In my first two visits to Il Piatto, the zabaglione has been served with thinly sliced strawberries and even more thinly sliced apples which give the dessert yet another flavor dimension.  This may be the single best dessert I’ve had at any Italian restaurant.

Another nice dessert option is the chocolate and pistachio cannoli, served two to a plate. Each crunchy chocolate-covered cannoli filler is engorged with ricotta cheese and topped with green bits of savory pistachios. On any other dessert menu, this might have been the star but the marsala zabaglione usurped all the dessert glory. It is that good!  The zagaglione is also better than Il Piatto’s bread pudding which, though dense, has a very moist texture almost like French toast that have been thoroughly egg-washed.

Il Piatto is that good, too–an Italian restaurant on par with some of the very best Italian restaurants in which I’ve dined across the country. It is, in fact, better than the rest because it’s less than an hour away. It’s the reason I’m kicking myself black and blue for not having listened to my persistent friend’s sagacious advice about Italian restaurants in Santa Fe.

Il Piatto Cucina Italiano
96 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 984-1091
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 23 November 2012
1st VISIT: 19 December 2007
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pumpkin Pistachio Soup, Endive & Radicchio Salad, Gorgonzola Walnut Ravioli, Lemon & Rosemary Grilled Chicken, Chocolate & Pistachio Cannoli, Sweet Marzala Zabaglione, Prosciutto Wrapped Peaches, Penne Bolognese Cassoesula, Parmigiano Potato Gnocchi, Stuffed Pork Chop, Squid Ink Spaghetti, Sauteed Chicken Livers Agre Dolce, Chicken Liver Mousse Terrine

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Two Fools Tavern – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Two Fools Tavern in Nob Hill

Read the table tent placards at the Two Fools Tavern and you’ll learn that this is where the craic is mighty. An old Gaelic term pronounced “crack”, craic refers to the lively essence of the pub experience, a unique and sometimes loud combination of good friends, good times and of course, good pints. Craic is a word for which there is no exact English translation even though there are some 9,000 pubs in the Emerald Isle. In Ireland, pubs, or public houses, are a focal point of the community–as much as the local church. It’s where friends gather for camaraderie and commiseration.

The sale and consumption of alcoholic libations is perhaps the pub function with which most Americans are familiar. Most public houses offer a range of beers, wines, spirits and soft drinks with beer tending to be the most popular adult beverage. In recent years, serving food has become a more important function of the public house throughout the British Isles. Yeah, I know what you’re saying. Good food at an Irish pub is an oxymoron.

The interior of the Two Fools Tavern.

When it comes to the culinary arts, Ireland (just like England) is the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe; its cuisine receives absolutely no respect. Irish food is regarded as bland and unimaginative, especially when compared with the haute (and haughty) cuisine of France. Having spent three years in England partaking of wonderful pub food throughout the British Isles, I rise to the defense of this maligned region’s food, especially “pub grub” which is actually quite good. Even 30 years ago, we found many pubs serving restaurant quality meals.

A defining element of a pub’s identity is its exterior signage. Public houses throughout the British Isles have been required since the 12th century to erect signs outside their premises. Typically, a pub’s signage will include both the pub’s name and a graphical element (essential because in the Middle Ages, a large percentage of the population was illiterate). A pub’s name and graphical identity tell a lot about its character. The name Two Fools Tavern along with its graphical identity of two harlequin-style buffoons seems to convey a fun and relaxed ambiance. In that respect, it fits right into the Nob Hill district.

Scotch eggs

In the British Isles where I’ve seen pubs named The Spread Eagle and Cow & Snuffer’s, the name Two Fools probably wouldn’t warrant a double-take, but it’s pretty unique for Burque. The Two Fools Tavern exemplifies the Irish pub concept that in recent years has caught on like wildfire in America. It’s a concept not without its detractors. One European Web site denounces the “Irish Pub Plague,” equating the Irish pub template as “the McDonalds of the pub trade.” Talk about no sense of humor.

The Two Fools Tavern could not possibly hope to duplicate the authentic Irish pub experience (especially not without the garrulous Irish), but it’s about 4700 miles from Dublin for gosh sakes. For Anglophiles like me, it’s only a few miles away and for that we’re grateful. Besides, the Two Fools Tavern provides just about the most European feel of any tavern in Albuquerque. It’s possible American culture will never lend itself to any pub becoming a social hub for an extended community, but most visitors should enjoy their experience and even the food.

Cashel Blue Cheese Dip: Served with house made Irish brown bread, & Irish potato chips.

From the outside, the Two Fools Tavern could pass for a pub in the British Isles with its bright blue facade, potted plants in box-shaped planters, Old English signage and Tudor style use of wooden planks. The theme continues inside the pub where dark wood accents and Irish bric-a-brac add a homey but masculine feel. Even the small, stylish tables and chairs are traditional and lend an authentic Irish feel.  The Tavern is the braintrust of entrepreneurial Tom White and the fine folks who have given New Mexico such dining establishments as Scalo’s Italian Grill, Pranzo’s Italian Grill (Santa Fe) and Il Vicino.

Adult libations include Guinness, the world-famous Irish beer brewed since 1759. At only ten calories per ounce, Guinness (which claims to have bottled the craic) is the favorite beer of the Emerald Isle. Also available are beers brewed in New Mexico, Mexico, England, Oregon, Holland and Ireland. On tap are Magners Irish Cider and other popular favorites.

Fish and chips

The menu is more akin to what we were familiar at Irish restaurants than what most pubs serve. That means such appetizers as Scotch eggs, hard boiled eggs encased in sausage and covered in bread crumbs then deep-fried to a golden brown and served with pub (Boar’s Head) mustard.  Contrary to its name, Scottish eggs are far from being Scottish.  They were originally created in 1738 by a London-based department store.  More often than not, Scotch eggs are served cold and even though that isn’t the case at the Tavern, these are more than passable. The sausage is mildly spicy with notable herbaceous qualities and the bread crumb covering is not too thick and has a crispy texture.  The hard-boiled egg is perfectly prepared. 

Another appetizer which honors Irish ingredients and traditions is the Cashel blue cheese dip served with housemade Irish brown bread and Irish potato chips.  Cashel blue cheese is the original Irish Farmhouse cow’s milk blue cheese and one of the few blue cheeses made across the British Isles.  It’s a soft, mild blue cheese which is quite a contrast to the much stronger Stilton cheese.  The Two Fools dip is creamy, rich and just slightly salty.  The housemade Irish potato chips are formidable enough to scoop up generous portions of the dip without breaking.  These are terrific chips, much less salty than many restaurant chips.  Then there’s the Irish brown bread which, being quite dense doesn’t so much sop up the dip as it does serve as a vehicle upon which to spoon the dip.

Traditional Irish breakfast

For generations, the most popular working class take-away food has been fish and chips which in Ireland are usually served in paper-bags with grease-proof inner-lining. Not surprisingly, fish and chips are the most popular item on the Two Fools menu. At the Tavern, fish and chips are served in a platter with a faux newspaper lining. Portion sizes range from “one and one,” the traditional Irish way of ordering one piece of fish with chips.  You can order as many as three pieces of fish with chips if you’ve got a larger appetite. The fish is a house ale-battered haddock. It is lightly battered to a golden brown hue.

Diners in Ireland normally eat their chips with salt and vinegar. The chips at the Tavern are very much Americanized (thin and crispy) and don’t sop up the vinegar as well as the flaccid white potatoes used for chips throughout the British Isles.  Still, good fish and chips in America are hard to find and these are better than we’ve had at other so-called Irish taverns in New Mexico. The homemade tartar sauce is equally sweet and savory and in the whole, very good (though you can also drench your fish in vinegar as we did). Served with the fish and chips is a sweet coleslaw with tangy bits of apple. It, too, is quite good.

Paddy O' Malley Melt: 8oz Fresh hand Formed All Natural Beef Burger, grilled onions, 1000 island dressing & Swiss on grilled rye bread.

Paddy O’ Malley Melt: 8oz Fresh hand Formed All Natural Beef Burger, grilled onions, 1000 island dressing & Swiss on grilled rye bread.

On Sundays, a traditional all-day Irish breakfast is a welcome sight indeed. If you’ve never had an Irish breakfast, you’re in for a real treat. At the Tavern, this breakfast consists of two eggs cooked your way, Irish rashers (bacon), breakfast bangers (sausages), mushrooms, grilled tomato, black and white puddings (sausage made from pigs’ blood, suet and seasonings) and Irish brown bread.

Irish rashers is an elite class of bacon, some of the very best in the world. Rashers are made with a meatier belly cut than the streaky American bacon and have an almost ham-like appearance.  Even in the British Isles, many people never acquire a taste for black and white puddings based solely on its composition. Seasoned well, these puddings can become addictive. Among the seasonings easily discernible on the Tavern’s pudding is allspice which has a taste reminiscent of cinnamon or nutmeg.  For a pittance you can add English baked beans to the Irish breakfast. Unlike American baked beans which use molasses, English baked beans are made with a tomato sauce. It’s what we enjoyed least in our meal.

Guinness Beef Boxty: Two house made potato pancakes filled with slow simmered Guinness beef stew.

One section of the menu is entitled Sandwiches That You Will Like, just like the wonderful book written by my great friend Becky Mercuri and the terrific PBS special from the uber-talented Rick Sebak.  Whether coincidence or to take advantage of the popularity of a book and video every serious foodie should have, the menu does indeed have several sandwiches to like.  The Paddy O’ Malley Melt, a fresh, hand-formed eight ounce all-natural beef burger dressed with grilled onions, 1000 island dressing and Swiss on grilled rye bread is certainly near the top of that list.  The grilled rye bread is a wonderfully flavored canvas for the generous toppings though it wilts and droops on account of their moistness.  Two Fools is a rarity in that it will prepare your burger to your exacting degree of doneness (a nice pink center at medium).

The Traditional Favorites section of the menu showcases such favorites as the Ploughman’s Lunch, bangers & mash, fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage and a Guinness beef boxty.  The latter is two housemade potato pancakes filled with slow-simmered Guinness beef stew.  The Two Fools rendition is quite dissimilar to the boxy dish offered by O’Niell’s Irish Pub, but it is no less delightful.  The Guinness beef stew is especially noteworthy.  It’s the type of stew that’s especially heart-warming on a cold wintery day when a cold, tired body seeks the warmth of comfort food.  The Guinness-based beef stock is rich and savory, so good you would enjoy it by itself.  You won’t have to because the the stock is replete with carrots, potatoes and onions, all perfectly prepared.  The potato pancakes have a lot more elasticity than most potato pancakes which tend to fall apart easily.

Bread Pudding : House made Bailey’s Irish cream bread pudding served with a Jameson whiskey sauce.

Five homemade sweets are available with which to finish a grand meal. The bread pudding, made with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Jameson whiskey sauce is roughly the size of a small meatloaf. It’s big enough for a family of four to share, but so good the most you might want to do is give your dining companions a small spoonful so they can see for themselves how good it is.  Unlike so many bread puddings this dense, this one is very moist, courteously of the apple slices and sultanas baked right in.  The Jameson whiskey sauce lends its distinctively smooth characteristics.  Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, likes this bread pudding enough to place it on his bread pudding hall of fame.  It’s well worthy!

Few desserts in the Duke City warrant being carded to verify your age.  Two Fools’ Scotch Ice Cream can only be enjoyed if you’re 21 years old or more seasoned.  That’s because it’s topped with Auchentoshan triple wood Scotch and coffee liqueur.  Even to read about this unique single malt Scotch whiskey on the Auchentoshan Web site, you’ve got to be of legal drinking age.  Scotch ice cream is a wonderfully indulgent adult ice cream coupling the sweet richness of a very good vanilla bean ice cream with two smooth adult beverages.  There’s enough Scotch and liqueur to be noticeable, but certainly not enough to make you tipsy in the least.  It’s an ice cream so good you’ll wish you could buy it by the half-gallon.

Scotch Ice Cream: Vanilla bean ice cream topped with Auchentoshan triple wood Scotch & coffee liqueur. (Must be 21 years old to enjoy)

About the only thing missing at the Two Fools Tavern are the ubiquitous dartboards you find in public houses throughout the British Isles. Certainly not missing is a lively ambiance that while not entirely authentic is about as close as you’ll get in Albuquerque.

Two Fools Tavern
3211 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-7447
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 17 November 2012
1st VISIT:  19 August 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish and Chips, Scotch Eggs, Bread Pudding

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Route 66 Malt Shop – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Route 66 Malt Shop in Nob Hill

In a May, 2009 edition of New Mexico Magazine feature celebrating “20 reasons Rail is Cool Now,” the magazine’s staff and contributors shared the best things to experience via the New Mexico Railrunner Express.”  A Duke City notable was root beer at the Route 66 Malt Shop and Grill, then about three miles from the nearest Railrunner depot.  The magazine encouraged readers to “order a frosty mug of homemade award-winning root beer, or make it a float.”  While you’re at it, the magazine suggested “sinking your teeth into the signature Blue Cheese Green Chile Burger.  Dee-lish.”

Ironically just as the magazine was hitting the newsstands, the Route 66 Malt Shop’s west-facing windows were scrawled with the alarming words “Lost Our Lease, Being Evicted.”  To the consternation of hundreds of loyal patrons who  signed petitions on the restaurant’s behalf, the developer who owns the building in which the restaurant was housed apparently had other plans for it.  Owners Diane Avila and Eric Szeman were unable to reach an accord with their landlord and had to close the beloved institution they operated for so long.

Nostalgia abounds at the Route 66 Malt Shop

To call an 845 square foot hole-in-the-wall an institution is a testament to how firmly entrenched and highly regarded this classic 50’s themed mom-and-pop became in the course of its fourteen years in the Old Town area. With seating for only 20, dining was in cramped quarters, but that somehow only made the restaurant seem more comfy cozy.  Diners got to know the affable, often loquacious owners and usually chatted up their neighbors in the close proximity tables, too.  Dining at the Route 66 Malt Shop always seemed to have a communal feel to it.

In August 2010, the little restaurant with a gigantic personality reopened in a venue more than twice the size of its previous Lilliputian digs.  Now situated in a 2,200 square-foot space in the fashionable Nob Hill area (two blocks east of Carlisle), the new Route 66 Malt Shop resembles a classic neon-spangled 50’s diner with 21st century spit and polish inside and out.  The spacious accommodations are buttressed against an apartment complex.  From Central Avenue, the expansive concrete area in front of the restaurant may, at first glance, resemble a parking lot, but this area is intended for patio seating.  That’s something else the previous location didn’t offer.


Co-owner Eric Szeman has become a bit of a Duke City institution himself

The interior is a mishmash of familiar and new.  Thematic remnants from the original restaurant festoon the walls in the form of Route 66 brick-a-brack. The post art-deco restaurant pays loving tribute to America’s highway and is adorned with thematic posters and period antiques such as an old Coke-A-Cola machine and a retro gas pump. Nostalgia abounds throughout the restaurant, but conspicuous by its absence is Szeman’s conservative ideology which was unabashedly on display on the counter as you walked in to the original restaurant.  It made for interesting banter between the owner and patrons who weren’t like-minded ideologically.

The black-and-white checkerboard square tile motif from the original restaurant was retained as was the old-fashioned jukebox.    The spacious kitchen is no longer visible from anywhere in the restaurant as was the tiny kitchen  (if you could call it that) at the original.  With a 30-foot long cook line (ten times larger than at the previous milieu), the capacious kitchen is a dream for Diane and Eric who have been able to expand their menu and even their serving hours, now offering breakfast, lunch and dinner.

A hot dog at the Route 66 Malt Shop

A hot dog at the Route 66 Malt Shop

Among the lunch and dinner menu additions are French and sweet potato fries, items for which the burger loving public long clamored.  The Route 66 Malt Shop is now open from 8AM to 10PM every day, hours made possible because the restaurant is now staffed with employees nearly as enthusiastic as the owners.  In fact, both Diane and Eric were absent during our inaugural visit to their new restaurant, the cooking duties being handled capably by their son.  Though we enjoyed our meal immensely, we missed visiting with the personable owners, both being Mother Road institutions themselves.

True to its name, it is indeed an old-fashioned malt shop, one of the few restaurants in the Duke City to offer “phosphates,” homemade root beer and even my New York City favorite, egg creams.  The home-made root beer on tap is brewed on site and served up in frosty, ice-code mugs. It’s definitely not the sweetest root beer you’ll ever have, but it’s full-bodied, hearty and has that lingering taste root beer aficionados (like me) love. Szeman calls it an “adult root beer” and the “Guinness of root beers.”  It is wonderfully herbaceous and dry (like a fine, dry wine). Luke’s Root Beer Reviews ranked this exclusive Route 66 offering the third best root beer in America. As good as it is by itself, it’s better as a float because the Route 66 Malt Shop uses Breyer’s Premium ice cream.

Dusen-Burger: Half-pound beef patty, grilled onions, green chile, blue cheese, lettuce, mustard, ketchup, mayo

Get your kicks on Route 66” is the mantra of nostalgic motorists who have lobbied for generations to preserve the heritage that is America’s “mother road”, the 2,448 mile highway commissioned in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985 and which traversed eight states between Chicago, Illinois and Santa Monica, California. “Get your green chile cheeseburger at the Route 66 Malt Shop” has become the mantra for savvy Duke City (and beyond) devotees of outstanding burgers.  Gourmet burgers remain the restaurant’s mainstay.

All burgers come standard with green leaf lettuce, vine ripe tomatoes, sauteed or raw onions and pickle slices on a custom baked bun (toasted) with your choice of ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise.  You can adorn your burger with  your choice of Cheddar, American, Blue or Alpine Lace Swiss cheese for a pittance.  Other options (at a cost) include mushrooms, green chile, avocado, bacon and blue cheese.  Rapacious appetites can even ask for a double-meat burger (each patty weighing in at 1/4-pound).

Meatloaf Sandwich…A Huge slice of meatloaf smothered in grilled onions and Swiss cheese on rye bread (or you can have multi-grain bread)

The green chile cheeseburgers feature a quarter pound of lean beef (best prepared at about medium) provided by a local non-chain butcher shop. It’s easily one of the juiciest (six napkins) cheeseburgers in town. It is endowed with piquant, seasoned green chile, not the cold chopped pretender other burger joints purvey.  It’s the favorite green chile cheeseburger of world famous sculptor Sonny Rivera, an Albuquerque native and like him, it’s a New Mexico treasure.  In 2009, this green chile cheeseburger was selected for inclusion in the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

While fashionistas may frown on a blue and green ensemble, they would fawn over the Route 66 Malt Shop’s bleu cheese green chile burger in which the contrasting yet complementary tastes of oh so hot green chile and sharp bleu cheese compete and coalesce to provide a memorable taste sensation. The buns are toasted on the same grill as the meat patties, so they’re splashed with meaty juiciness. The patties are spritzed while they grill with Route 66’s own “special sauce” for additional moistness.

A basket of sweet potato fries

When you think formidable appetite, think the Route 66 Malt Shop’s Duessen-Burger, a half-pound green chile cheeseburger with bacon, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato. It’s essentially a chopped steak and it’s thick, juicy and only for the most famished of diners.  If a half-pound is just a tad more than you can handle, the Cadillac burger offers the same toppings as the Duessen-Burger, but at a more svelte one-third pound.  You won’t go away hungry, but you will go away planning a future visit.

If you’re a hot dog aficionado, the grilled Two Lane Hot Dog featuring a Hebrew National wiener is for you. It’s an oversized hot dog with oversized taste.  It’s absolutely not one of those bloated wieners that might make you wonder if it’s a compensatory machination of some sorts.  While not two inches in circumferences, these waifishly thin wieners, allow a full-flavor experience: wiener, mustard, relish and toasted buns.  These beauties are  sliced diagonally in half then are grilled to perfection.

Pastrami sandwich at the Route 66 Malt Shop

Pastrami sandwich at the Route 66 Malt Shop

The pastrami sandwich is surprisingly good–even though the Route 66 Malt Shop uses a Boar’s Head pastrami which tends to be much more on the lean side than pastrami paramours like me prefer.  What makes this a more than passable pastrami is the way it is sliced–in razor-thin shards–and the lightly toasted house made light rye bread in which it is stacked thickly.  It is served with mustard–no cheese or pickles–just mustard the way it should be.  Order it with a side of potato salad for an interesting textural and flavor contrast.

An even better sandwich, maybe the best of its kind in Albuquerque is the meatloaf sandwich, one of seven specialty sandwiches on the menu.  This beautiful behemoth is two slices of meatloaf, each about half an inch thick, smothered in grilled onions and Swiss cheese on your choice of whole grain, rye or multi-grain bread.  My friend Andrea Lin, restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, has called it a “to die for” sandwich, an assessment that’s spot on.  The meat loaf is moist and delicious with just a smear of a tangy barbecue sauce for contrast.  The grilled onions are sweet tangles of deliciousness while the Swiss cheese lends a textural contrast.  After having ordered my first Route 66 Malt Shop meatloaf sandwich in December, 2010, I may forever be torn between this sumptuous sandwich and a green chile cheeseburger.

Seven-year old Stevie Sunday will tell you the Route 66 Malt Shop's burgers beat a Happy Meal any day...except on the day of the week named for him when the restaurant is closed.

Seven-year old Stevie Sunday will tell you the Route 66 Malt Shop’s burgers beat a Happy Meal any day…even on the day of the week named for him. (Photo courtesy of Bill Resnik)

For sandwiches and burgers, there may be no better accompaniment than fries, either French fries or sweet potato fries.  The Route 66 Malt Shop hadn’t been able to offer fries in its previous location, but now offers some of the very best in town.  The sweet potato fries certainly are.  They’re thick and perfectly fried to provide a crispy exterior and soft interior.  They’re also served hot to the touch with a room-temperature ketchup.  A basket of these tubers will easily serve two.

Barbara Walters once said “A hot fudge sundae and a trashy novel is my idea of heaven.”  Not only is the ice cream sundae simplicity itself–a scoop or two of ice cream, a sweet topping and the ubiquitous whipped cream and cherry on top–it is truly an American icon.  At the Route 66 Malt Shop, you can have the sundae your way (hot fudge, strawberry, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, pineapple and butterscotch) or you can have a banana hot fudge sundae in which the inimitable flavor combination of chocolate and bananas just melts in your mouth.

Scrumptious Sundaes

Scrumptious Sundaes

The old-fashioned soda fountain features hand-scooped ice cream which can be fashioned into malts or shakes, sundaes, ice cream sodas, banana splits and who can forget black cows (a Coke float with chocolate syrup and chocolate ice cream) and brown cows (a Coke float with chocolate syrup).  The malts and shakes are served teeth-rattling cold and so thick you might dispense with your straw and drink them straight. Malt and shake flavors include chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, pineapple, butterscotch, Oreo, peanut butter, banana, coffee mocha, sherbet shake, crunchberry shake, lime shake and root beer shake.

Dessert du jour offerings showcase Diane’s skills with the sweet stuff.  Alas, she bakes cakes and pies in limited amounts which usually don’t last long.  Show up late and you’ll miss out and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on such sweet treats as the cinnamon rolls.  Not overly thick or large, these sensational spirals are redolent with cinnamon and a sweet, buttery glaze.  Ask for them to be served warm.

Diane’s homemade Cinnamon rolls

Not only does the Route 66 Malt Shop claim a vast local fan base, it has won over all local restaurant critics and has snared national attention in such magazines as True West and Sunset. It’s a restaurant at which memories are made!  In their new home, they’ll be making even more memories.

Route 66 Malt Shop
3800 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2012
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Bleu Cheese Green Chile Burger, Root Beer, Root Beer Float, Two Lane Hot Dog, Banana Hot Fudge Sundae, Meatloaf Sandwich, Homemade Cinnamon Rolls, Sweet Potato Fries

Route 66 Malt Shop & Grill on Urbanspoon

Walker’s Popcorn Company – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Walker’s Popcorn Company on Central Avenue in the UNM area

Who doesn’t love popcorn? Along with hot dogs, apple pie, hamburgers and barbecue, it’s been an American favorite–or should I say tradition–for generations. A humble treat, popcorn can grow in other parts of the world where other corn can’t. It was grown in the Americas, China, Mexico and India long before Columbus journeyed to America. According to urban myth, it was brought to the “first” Thanksgiving” (at least the one taught about in history books) by the Iroquois and since then, a tradition has existed of bringing popcorn to peace negotiations as a token of good will. Today Americans consume over seven billion quarts of popcorn every year.

For generations, throngs of Chicago residents have stood in long lines to get the world’s best popcorn at Garrett Popcorn Shop. A resilient lot, they stand there regardless of frosty air, oppressive humidity, turbulent winds and every other way in which Mother Nature vents her wrath. The popcorn at Garrett is transformative.  It’s life-altering.  It’s a religious experience.  After each visit to Chicago, we crave Garrett for months and though there is no equal, Albuquerque has a popcorn shop which does somewhat assuage our craving.

Generations of Walkers make popcorn

Walker’s Popcorn Company has been serving Albuquerque since October 1st, 2003 with a popcorn specialty store–which might not be Garrett’s (a truly incomparable shop)–but it’s pretty darn good in its own right. Appropriately enough, it’s owned by former residents of McHenry, a northwest suburb of Chicago. The Walkers are passionate about popcorn and pop their product daily the old-fashioned way, in small batches using great ingredients to ensure you always receive an unfailingly fresh popcorn product.

The Walker’s popcorn flavors are innovative and unique. You no longer have to imagine what popcorn might taste like if flavored with hot cinnamon, watermelon, tangerine or green apple because Walker’s has these flavors and many more. It’s not quite the Baskin Robbins of popcorn, but you get the picture. Traditionalists can have their plain buttered popcorn or cheddar cheese flavored popcorn if they’re daring, but you’re well advised to venture into the realm of sensory exploration. Skeptics will be quickly disarmed when they find the fruit flavored popcorn actually has a fruity taste.

A three popcorn combination from Walker’s

Expatriated Chicagoans (like my wife) order their popcorn Chicago style (cheddar tossed with caramel) by the gallon tin size. The sharp cheddar taste and caramel sweetness mingle beautifully and will leave your hands an orange, sticky mess. New Mexico style popcorn features green chile tossed with caramel. The green chile is, in fact, more piquant than what is served in many New Mexican restaurants. A green chile enchilada popcorn is also available.

Walker’s popcorn will put to shame any popcorn made in a movie theater and especially the popcorn sold at the malls around Christmas time (that popcorn should be used as packing material for gifts). It just may have you swearing off the piteous microwave mediocrity. Seasonal specialties include a biscochito flavored popcorn (that does include the flavor of anise and cinnamon) and a licorice flavored popcorn that’s popular around Halloween. Other store specialties include fudge and caramel apples.

Walker’s Popcorn Company
2720 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-7672
LATEST VISIT: 3 November 2012
BEST BET: Green chili and Caramel, Cheddar and Caramel, Cheddar and Buttered, Biscochito Flavored Popcorn