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Vinaigrette – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

Vinaigrette, a salad bistro in Santa Fe

During a 1994 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine’s boss, Mr. Pitt becomes obsessed with finding a spaceship obfuscated within a stereogram, a computer-generated image that presents an optical illusion in which a 3D image is hidden within a single 2D image to be revealed only when the viewer focuses his or her eyes correctly.  To the detriment of a pressing business deal, Mr. Pitts loses three days trying to find the spaceship.  First he tries blurring his eyes as if staring straight through the picture before eventually finding success by employing an intensely deep focus.

Placitas resident Gary W. Priester calls creating 3D stereographic images his “all-consuming passion for almost 15 years.”  Gary has authored three books on stereogram images and is one of two contributors to a Japanese stereogram magazine series which has sold close to four-million copies.  His work is mesmerizing in its ability to captivate the viewer.  Fortunately for those of us who don’t always focus correctly, Gary does us all a favor on his Custom Stereographic Web site by explaining exactly how to see stereograms.

Garden Salad, a bright mix of baby greens, carrot ribbons, bell peppers and parmesan cheese. Tossed in a zippy Romesco dressing.

Gary’s clarity and focus aren’t  limited solely to stereograms.  He’s become a trusted advisor on dining options I might not otherwise know about or maybe even consider,  including introducing me to more healthful options.  For years I was of the ilk which associated salads with the word “diet,” an extension of the word “die.”  Though my advancing geriatric progression has changed that perception, I’m still not always as attuned to healthful alternatives as I am to where you can find the best new purveyor of green chile cheeseburgers.  Fortunately clearer-minded readers of my blog like Gary keep me honest.

Alas, it took almost two years before I followed Gary’s recommendation to try Vinaigrette, an environmentally aware “salad bistro” in Santa Fe.   Perhaps indicative of my meaty myopia and carnivorous cravings, I also neglected a recommendation from immensely talented writer Wolf Schneider when she interviewed me for Edible Santa Fe.   Had the restaurant been named “Blue Cheese” I surely would never have waited.

Cherry Tart: Dried cherries, mild feta cheese, peppery baby arugula and toasted pecans with Champagne vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette opened its Santa Fe doors in November, 2008, the unintended brainchild of Harvard graduate Erin Wade who had never previously worked in, managed or owned a restaurant.   Obviously a novitiate no longer,  she now owns and operates two of New Mexico’s very best and most highly regarded farm-to-table restaurants, having expanded to Albuquerque’s Old Town district in November, 2012.  Much of the medley of multicolored organic greenery used in her restaurants comes from an absolutely unimpeachable source–her own organic ten-acre farm about half (which includes a 1,200 square-foot greenhouse) an hour north of Santa Fe in the village of Nambe.  Local sources are used widely in the Albuquerque operation.

Wholly unlike the middling quality all-you-can-eat salad bar restaurants dotting the fruited plain, Vinaigrette offers a menu showcasing healthful salads in bountiful, but not profligate portions.  You won’t waddle out of this restaurant wondering how salad can be so filling.  Nor will you find such un-salad-like offerings as chocolate muffins, focaccia bread and other high-carbohydrate, high-calorie offerings.  That doesn’t mean every plate is heaping with barely edible “rabbit food” lacking in flavor or imagination.

The very best Cobb salad in the universe!

The very best Cobb salad in the universe!

The only rabbit-like aspect to Vinaigrette is the tendency for diners to hop from option to option unable to decide which salad to order, so replete with creativity is Vinaigrette’s inspired menu. Featuring ten signature salads and seven classic salads, the menu may eliminate any preconceived notions about salad restaurants you may have.  It did me…and that’s even before studying the available salad pairings, none of which are needed to make any  Vinaigrette salad outstanding, but any of which makes it just that much better.

You can pair your salad with meat (lemon-herb chicken breast, grilled flank steak, grilled pork tenderloin, hibiscus-cured duck confit), seafood (seared tuna steak, seared diver scallops, grilled shrimp and the day’s fresh fish) or choose from a category called “et cetera” which includes roasted seasonal vegetables, grilled tofu, grilled marinated baby artichokes and baked Panko-crusted goat cheese.  Sight unseen, these offerings are more taste bud tantalizing than ingredients which sit in steely repositories for who knows how long at those “other” salad restaurants.

A basket of bread

Vinaigrette’s palate-pleasing prowess doesn’t stop at salads.  The menu also includes a bevy of sandwiches, soups and sides.  Sandwiches are served with a side Garden, Greek or Caesar salad.  The “sides and soups” include Erin’s Mac & Cheese, fresh seasonal sauteed Nambe greens, mushroom stew and soup of the day.   Vinaigrette also offers beer and wine lists which change periodically to provide variety for guests.  There are a few differences between the Santa Fe and Albuquerque menus. 

Before launching in Albuquerque, Erin Wade had actually considered making Southern California the home of her second restaurant. As fate would have it, she was then introduced to a long vacant a 3,000-square-foot building on the fringes of Old Town with tremendous potential.  Fittingly the edifice was tailored for the type of “green” operation Wade desired, wanting to be “green outside the plate,” too.  The Albuquerque restaurant features reclaimed pine floors from Dixon, high efficiency lighting tracks, Energy Star kitchen equipment, recycled-content tiles, door hardware made from 90% post-consumer waste, eco-friendly fabrics and zero-volatile-organic-compound paint.  Vinaigrette recycles and composes all its organic waste.

In November, 2012, Vinaigrette launched in Albuquerque

In November, 2012, Vinaigrette launched in Albuquerque

The attentive servers at both locations are attired in bright tee-shirts on which the leafy parts of salad ingredients are painted.  It takes away much of the mystery as to what “greens” actually are and if you thought lettuce is the principle component of all salads, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.  Vinaigrette’s salads are sophisticated and inventive without being too fru-fru.  Even some of my troglodytic carnivorous colleagues will enjoy them.

Even Vinaigrette’s most rudimentary salad is an edible work of art.  The Garden Salad, a bright mix of baby greens, carrot ribbons, bell peppers and Parmesan cheese tossed in a zippy Romesco dressing is a colorful concordance of fresh and beautiful ingredients resembling a colorful painting.  It’s more than several orders of magnitude better than what most restaurants call a garden salad, typically a mound of iceberg lettuce, artificially ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and a large dollop of gloppy salad dressing.

Cuban Torta: Mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish.

Cuban Torta: Mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish.

If you’re a fan of bold flavors, it’s possible to enjoy them even with salad.  The Cherry Tart, while it may sound like a pastry dessert, is such an bold-flavored salad.  It’s composed of dried cherries (as fresh and delicious as any I’ve ever had), mild feta cheese, peppery baby arugula and toasted pecans with a Champagne vinaigrette dressing.  Baby arugula has been described as having a “subtle nutty flavor with a radish-like edge.”  While not entirely accurate, it is most certainly a bold and spicy, maybe even peppery green.  It’s clearly the star of this salad.  The Champagne vinaigrette dressing is lightly applied to allow other flavors to shine. 

If you don’t necessarily want to experiment with heretofore untried salad ingredient combinations, the “Classic Salads” section of the menu provides more familiar, traditional and time-honored options.  It may even restore your faith in how “Classics” such as the Cobb salad should be made and remind you why you loved them in the first place.  Kelly Koepke, (erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal) who can turn a phrase better than anyone in Albuquerque, turned me on to Vinaigrette’s Cobb salad.  Though she liked my “best of the best for 2012” choices, she was confident the Cobb salad would make my list once I tried it.  She was right!  I’ll let her describe why it stands out: “It’s not the usual composed Cobb with gloppy dressing that most restaurants serve. Instead, it’s a chopped, tossed Cobb with the perfect amount of tangy dressing. Best. Cobb. Ever.”

Morty & Cheese: Mortadella and tangy melted robbiola with scallion yogurt sauce, on griddled and pressed ciabatta

Morty & Cheese: Mortadella and tangy melted robbiola with scallion yogurt sauce, on griddled and pressed ciabatta

A small basket of bread is available for the asking.  The bread is fresh and delicious with a nice crust surrounding soft, pillowy insides.  Best of all, it’s served warm.  A decanter of olive oil (and malt vinegar if you request it) accompanies the bread to your table.  Beauteous breads are also the canvas upon which some of the best sandwiches in New Mexico are made.  Vinaigrette’s sandwich menu includes some of the classics– Reuben, tuna melt, hot turkey–and some sandwiches upon which inventive liberties are taken to increase their deliciousness. 

You might think you’ve had every variation of the Cubano possible with little discernible difference between most of them.  Vinaigrette’s Cuban Torta (mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish) actually surprised me in many pleasant and delicious ways.  The first surprise is the split roll on which the sandwich is constructed.  It’s not the de rigueur panini-style bread which is often abrasive enough to hurt the roof of your mouth.  It’s a soft bread somewhat reminiscent of just baked bagels without the chewiness.  The combination of chipotle and sweet relish provides a wonderful balance between tangy, sweet and piquant notes that complement the mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, either ingredient of which would make the basis of a wondrous sandwich.  This sandwich doesn’t subscribe to any template of what a Cubano should be and taste like.  Viva la diferencia!

Peach berry pie

Another sandwich replete with surprises is the Morty & Cheese (Mortadella and tangy melted Robiola with scallion yogurt sauce, on griddled and pressed ciabatta).  Mortadella is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of cold-cut cured meats, often regarded as just “Italian bologna.”  As someone who grew up enjoying fried bologna (as well as fried spam) sandwiches, I’ll rise to the defense of this maligned meat.  Italian Mortadella is a fatty, nicely seasoned meat that goes well with any other sandwich ingredient.  That’s especially true of a good cheese such as Robiola, a soft-ripened, slightly tangy (with slight notes of sourness) cheese that couples well with yogurt.  The sandwich construction department at Vinaigrette obviously understands sandwich harmony.  This one has it in spades!

A number of fresh desserts is also available and all hold true to the restaurant’s commitment to serving organic and local as much as possible. One post-prandial treat which will impress itself on your memory is a peach berry pie made with peaches, blackberries and blueberries. The peaches are certainly not the canned variety; they have a recently picked texture and taste. This is a lip-puckering dessert also lacking that artificial pectin sometimes used to over-sweeten pies. It’s all natural and all delicious.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Even better is a pumpkin cheesecake so good you might wish for fall year-round.  The menu describes it simply as “aromatic, autumnal, satisfying!”  It has all those qualities and so much more, especially the satisfying adjective.  Its aromatic qualities are courtesy of using the right spices in perfect proportion to one another and the pumpkin itself which is garden-picked fresh.  For years my Kim and I have experimented with pumpkin cheesecakes and have never managed one quite as good.  

In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Vinaigrette a “Hot Plate” award for its chicken souvlaki.  Hot Plate awards are accorded annually to some of the city’s most delicious dishes as seen by the magazine’s editors and staff.  The magazine warns that you’ll be rooting for an encore after your first slow jam…” with this carrot cake.

Vinaigrette is, dare I say, a welcome departure from the superfluity of Santa Fe style so prevalent in the City Different.  Fortunately Santa Fe style, as represented by the bandana-sporting coyote baying at the moon  (ostensibly a carnivore who probably doesn’t like salads) who has come to symbolize Santa Fe style is adaptive and inclusive and there’s a place for great salads in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  That place is Vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette
709 Don Cubero Alley
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 820-9205
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garden Salad, Cherry Tart, Peach Berry Pie


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Vinaigrette on Urbanspoon

Vinaigrette
1828 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 842-5507
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cobb Salad, Cuban Torta, Morty & Cheese, Pumpkin Cheesecake

Vinaigrette on Urbanspoon

Heaven Dragon – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Heaven Dragon

Heaven Dragon

From Norbert, the Norwegian Ridgeback of Harry Potter lore to Smaug, the greatest and most powerful of all dragons in The Hobbit, dragons are a familiar icon in modern literature, movies, music and pop culture.  Dragons are symbols of fantasy, whimsy and magic, often representing ancient legends and far-off lands.  They range from the malevolent, fiery tempered, scaly fire-breathers (insert your favorite mother-in-law reference here) to the affectionate benefactors of mankind.  What could possibly explain the popularity of dragons?  Could it be because dragons once existed? 

Stories of dragons are pervasive in such ancient cultures as the Chinese, Australian aborigines, Babylonians and Welsh.  Ancient Chinese cosmogonists actually defined four types of dragons.  The Heaven, Heavenly or Celestial Dragon (Tianlong) guarded the heavenly dwellings of the gods.  The Earth Dragon (Dilong) controlled the waterways while the Spiritual Dragon controlled the rain and winds.  The fourth, Fuzanglong, was the dragon of hidden treasure.  

Steamed and fried dumplings

Steamed and fried dumplings

The Heaven Dragon of Chinese mythology may have looked down from its celestial perch as emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties visited Beijing’s Temple of Heaven to pray for a good harvest.  The Temple of Heaven is one of two large, colorful photographs (the other is of Wi Mountain) on the walls of the main dining room.  That’s as ostentatious as it gets in this rather austere restaurant located next door to an Albertson’s grocery store in a busy shopping center.  It’s an attractive restaurant not dominated by stereotypical Chinese restaurant accoutrements.

Ambiance by subtraction or minimalism is sometimes a good formula and in Chinese restaurants, that’s especially true if there are no buffet troughs to detract from the dining experience.  Thankfully Heaven Dragon doesn’t offer a buffet.  It does provide a very robust take-out business.  It’s not uncommon to see throngs of diners waiting to pick up their orders.  The menu is replete with many of the Americanized Chinese favorites diners seem to like.  It’s not a menu that will excite staunch seekers of authenticity, but the throngs of guests who frequent the restaurant does say a lot.

Egg rolls

Egg rolls

While eat-in diners wait for their orders, your server brings over a small, complimentary plate of peanuts liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar.  This “amuse bouche” (sweet peanuts) may not tantalize your taste buds, but it won’t make you thirsty as salty peanuts might and it just could tide you over until something more substantial arrives at your table.

That might be fried or steamed dumplings.  Since this appetizer comes eight to an order, ask for four fried and four steamed dumplings.  You won’t be disappointed. Heaven Dragon’s dumplings are some of the best in the Albuquerque area.  They’re accompanied by a dumpling sauce made from soy sauce, Hoisin sauce and just enough chile oil to add a piquant potency.  The dumplings are quite good by themselves, but that dumpling sauce makes them something special.

Bar-B-Q Spareribs

Bar-B-Q Spareribs

As at many Chinese restaurants, an appetizer order of egg rolls is quite popular.  Rather than order them as appetizers, savvy diners might opt instead to order one of the special combo platters in which an entree is accompanied by egg rolls and pork fried rice.  Heaven Dragon’s egg rolls are nothing special, but that can be said about virtually every Chinese restaurant in the Albuquerque area.  They’re golden brown and crispy on the outside with a standard filling of cabbage and pork inside.  Perhaps owing to their middling quality, the sauce offered with these egg rolls comes in a small plastic, tear to open bag.  The egg roll sauce is also of modest quality. 

Less exciting (or more disappointing depending on whether your perspective is glass half full or half empty) is an appetizer order of Bar-B-Q Spareribs.  Available in small or large sized orders, these ribs are heavily lacquered in a cloying sauce that dominates the flavor profile.  You’ll be hard-pressed to discern any smokiness in this bar-b-q.  Nor can it be described as “off-the-bone” or “fork tender.”  The ribs are chewy and tough, but it’s the sugary qualities that are least endearing.

Roast Pork Lo Mein

Roast Pork Lo Mein

The menu is replete with many standard offerings, but if you prefer something other than the de rigueur sweet and sour offerings, you may want to opt for something designated on the menu as “chef specialties.”  During my inaugural visit, my eyes settled on mango beef, an entree I first had in a Vietnamese restaurant in Denver.  Done well, this is a dish that melds sweet, savory and tart tastes in a gravy of deliciousness.  The only thing lacking in Heaven Dragon’s version was mangoes in-season.  Had the mangoes been just slightly sweeter, this would have been an excellent entree.

Alas, during our second visit, another chef’s specialty nearly proved the undoing of my appetite.  The menu’s description was of “fried scallops and aromatic walnuts, lettuce in brown sauce served in a crispy fried potato nest.” Here’s what was delivered: a fried bowl (ostensibly of potato) reminiscent of the greasy taco salad bowls served in Mexican restaurants piled with scrimpy fried scallops and candied (not aromatic) walnuts sitting atop shredded lettuce.

Orange Chicken

Orange Chicken

Delivered on the side was a bowl of what resembled and tasted suspiciously like a vanilla pudding–wholly unlike any “brown sauce” I’ve ever had at any Chinese restaurant.  While I usually like sweet and savory combinations if the sweet isn’t overly so, I’m averse to anything overly cloying and this was one of the sweetest concoctions ever set before my table. Hoping to salvage this “sauce” I added an entire bowl of house Chinese mustard and even the gunpowder incendiary mustard couldn’t “defunkify” it.  Ultimately I resorted to eating the scallops with Sriracha sauce. In the breath following my admonition to the waiter to bury the aforementioned entree, I praised the restaurant’s rendition of beef chow mein fun which was garlicky and delicious.  The thin rice noodles, white and green onions and profuse garlic melding was almost as good as the scallops were bad.

Smartened up by two disappointing chef’s specialties, my third visit was a venture into Americanized Chinese food.  Any departure from the mundane seems to extend many Chinese restaurants beyond their capabilities and that may be the case at Heaven Dragon.  Such restaurants, however, sometimes do a wonderful job in preparing all the standard favorites.  That’s probably from all the practice they get in turning out large volumes of American favorites such as sweet and sour anything.

Lemon Chicken

Lemon Chicken

Sure enough, Heaven Dragon does a fair to good job in preparing such entrees as Orange Chicken and Lemon Chicken.  Some aspects of these dishes disappoint while others were surprisingly good.  Both are very heavily breaded and the overall quality of the mostly dark meat chicken is not very high.  Their biggest saving grace were the very tangy and nicely piquant orange sauce and the tangy, lip-pursing lemon sauce.  Both sauces deserved better.

I’m not well enough versed in the dragon diet to know whether or not a dragon might enjoy a meal at Heaven Dragon, but recent experiences may make my own visits extinct.

Heaven Dragon
4300 Ridgecrest, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 891-0888
LATEST VISIT: 30 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET: Orange Chicken, Roast Pork Lo Mein, Fried and Steamed Dumplings


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Paisano’s Italian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Paisano09

Paisano’s cooks like your Italian grandmother.

For years, the Duke City dining scene has been infiltrated by a plethora of cookie cutter Italian “chain gangs.” Despite deep corporate pockets, the flash and panache of Madison Avenue marketing machines and scripted, saccharine service, the chains have failed to drive away the beloved local mom and pop establishments to which Duke City diners remain steadfastly loyal?  One of the very best of the mom-and-pop lot is Paisano’s Italian Restaurant which was launched in the 1970s by  Johnny Camuglia.  Paisano’s gained a faithful following well before the plague-like incursion of the Olive Garden, Johnny Carino’s and others of that ilk. Four decades later under his son Rick, Paisano’s is still going strong thanks to doing things right for Duke City customers.

The right things are often the small things such as paying attention to the details, the real difference makers.  It’s things like preparing everything on the premises from scratch.  It’s things like preparing fresh pasta, veal, fish, poultry and beef in the traditional Italian ways.  The motto at Paisano’s is “we cook like your Italian grandma.”  It’s not only an apt description for Paisano’s no short-cuts approach to preparing terrific Italian food, but a tribute to the love with which Italian grandmothers approach cooking for their families.

Shrimp wrapped in prosciutto and covered in marinara sauce with crostini

Shrimp wrapped in prosciutto and covered in marinara sauce with crostini

No short-cuts means nothing is prepared until after you order it.  Your meal doesn’t sit out under some heat lamp waiting for a server to deliver it to your table.  When an order is placed is when the kitchen goes into action, rolling, cutting and cooking your fresh pasta.  The restaurant’s ravioli, lasagna, manicotti and other fresh stuffed pastas are handmade as are sauces which range from fresh basil pesto to white clam sauce.  Made with 100-percent Semolina flour and fresh eggs, the housemade pasta is unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Paisano’s also offers a gluten-free option as well as spinach or tomato pastas.

One other example as to how Paisano’s pays attention to the difference makers is the complementary bread basket comprised of focaccia, black olive bread and more. The bread is served with a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and herbs–not the boring herbs served at other Italian restaurants, but herbs with taste contrasts that complement one another (including flecks of red and black pepper that sizzle on your tongue).  You can purchase bread to take home, too.  It’s bakery-quality bread your family will enjoy.

Stuffed Portabella Mushroom Appetizer

Stuffed Portabella Mushroom Appetizer

Among the other things done right are the roasted garlic appetizer with local goat cheese, roasted peppers, capers and bruschetta toast (pictured above). This appetizer is absolutely perfect almost every time although a bread-based appetizer on top of the complementary bread basket may fill you up quickly.  Fortunately the other appetizer standards are all terrific.  You can also count on the specials menu to include a special can’t miss starter.

There are some flavor combinations which challenge even the most skilled of chefs.  Among them are the unnatural pairing of fruit and seafood.  One item which has proven concordant with almost everything with which it is paired is pork.  At Paisano’s, one of the more intriguing appetizer options is the pairing of prosciutto (a thinly-sliced, cured ham often mistakenly referred to as Italian bacon) and shrimp.  Paisano’s takes a handful of shrimp, wraps them in prosciutto and serves them with a marinara sauce.  The prosciutto has a salty and briny, but delicate flavor which melds beautifully with the sweet, succulent shrimp and the acidity of the marinara sauce.

Lentil and sausage soup

Lentil and sausage soup

Lighter appetizer fare is available in the form of a stuffed portabella mushroom, a large sauteed mushroom cap stuffed with sweet Italian sausage and spinach then topped with melted mozzarella and sweet basil.  Large enough for two to share, the stuffed portabella mushroom is like an island of deliciousness surrounded by a tomato sauce lagoon.  Though you might expect for the tomato sauce to dominate, all flavor components shine brightly on their own, complementing one another as all great flavor combinations do.  The sweet Italian sausage is the star, as good as any Italian sausage in the Duke City.  The portabella, a fleshy and flavorful fungi has a fresh woodsy and deeply rich, strong flavor.  The tomato sauce appears to be made from hand-squeezed Roma tomatoes and is fresh and delicious.

Genesis 25:34 recounts the story of Isaac’s two sons Esau and Jacob. Esau, the elder son was willing to give up his birthright for a pot of fragrant lentil soup prepared by Jacob. I’ve often wondered if Paisano’s managed to get hold of Jacob’s recipe. That’s how good their lentil soups is, particularly when ameliorated with the restaurant’s housemade sausage.  Warming the cockles of your heart, especially during a blustery evening, are an array of these succulent soups, some of the best in the city. This is comfort food soup of gourmet quality–perfectly seasoned, served steamy hot and portioned generously.

Mushroom and spinach soup

Mushroom and spinach soup

With full-order dinner entrees, you have your choice of soup or salad and that’s a tough choice because Paisano’s has a terrific dinner salad–also one of the best in the city (especially if served with the restaurant’s sharp blue cheese).  Every time I think I’ve experienced Paisano’s most superlative soup, the soup of the day changes and a better soup than my prior favorite emerges as the possessor of my heart.

The quadrumvirate of taste bud tantalizing soups currently vying for my affections starts with the lentil soup, a deliciously spicy concoction with the restaurant’s housemade sausage (something you can never have enough of).  Aristophanes, an ancient Greek dramatist called lentil soup “the sweetest of delicacies” and even mentioned it in his plays.  He didn’t praise it because it’s a good source of protein, fiber, iron and potassium.  He praised it because it’s absolutely delicious.

Butternut Squash Soup with Ham

Butternut Squash Soup with Ham

The second soup on my list is a mushroom and spinach soup (pictured above) in which the flavor and fragrance of the fleshy fungi comes to the forefront. It’s not quite as thick and creamy as some mushroom soup tends to be, but that allows for the named ingredients to shine. Only the magnificent mushroom soup at Cafe Jean-Pierre is in the same league

Who doesn’t love tomato soup, the archetypal comfort soup that’s been warming tummies and hearts for generations? No soup better represents American comfort food and few in New Mexico does it as well as Paisano’s.  If you love the purity of fresh, acidic, meaty tomatoes sliding down your throat and warming your belly, this is the soup for you. 

Boston Bluefish

Boston Bluefish

Autumn and winter signal the widespread availability of butternut squash with its bright orange flesh  and a nutty, sweet taste some liken to sweet potatoes.  Butternut squash is prevalent in Italian pasta and soup dishes such as Paisano’s butternut squash soup with ham.  While many restaurants offer butternut squash soup or bisque in season, some prepare it almost dessert sweet.  Paisano’s rendition is only slightly sweet and made even better because it’s punctuated by the salty influence of ham sliced into tiny cubes.

Lest I be remiss and omit mentioning another pre-prandial star, Paisano’s serves a mean Caesar salad (replete with artichoke hearts and olives). Crisp and fresh Romaine lettuce and spicy, housemade croutons dressed with a deliciously light Parmesan cheese and olive oil dressing make this salad a popular choice.

Fettuccini alla Lucchese

Fettuccini alla Lucchese

Paisano’s entrees generally border on excellence and the specials earn that sobriquet as few in town do.  Entrees range from the simple–spaghetti with meatballs or Italian sausage–to sublime–Fresh Boston Bluefish.  Jim Millington, a trusted fellow gastronome, contends that Albuquerque’s best seafood can be found in Italian restaurants such as the much missed Vivace and Paisano’s.  I’ll second him there.  Some of the very best seafood entries we’ve had in the Duke City have come from Paisano’s.  That starts with the fruit of the sea.

The lasagna frutta di mare (fruit of the sea) is among the very best lasagna entrees I’ve had in a restaurant anywhere outside of Massachusetts: black (from squid ink) pasta layered with fresh scallops, shrimp, calamari, clams, snapper, roasted smoked Roma tomato, three cheeses, and marinara and asiago cream sauces.  This is a rich and complex entree that takes four hours to prepare. As such it’s on the menu only as a special of the evening and not as standard fare.  Were it on the standard menu, it might be the only thing I order and for that I’d be missing out on other succulent seafood excellence.

Grilled Sausage Links

Grilled Sausage Links

If it’s on the specials menu, don’t miss out on the fresh Boston Bluefish, an oily and fatty cold water Cape Cod fish with a rich, strong flavor.  It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s typically marinated in acidic foods such as lime or lemon juice, vinegar, wine or tomato sauce.  Strong doesn’t necessarily mean “fishy” and that’s certainly the case here.  The Boston Bluefish entree at Paisano’s is unique in its preparation, wholly unlike any bluefish I ever had in Massachusetts.

Maryland transplant and trusted fellow gastronome Larry McGoldrick happened upon this special months before I did.  He described it as “perfectly prepared” indicating it “exploded in his mouth with complex tastes.”  He christened it “one of the finest dinners he’s had in New Mexico” and urged seafood lovers to do campaign for this entree to be featured on the menu.  ”Beg.  Offer your firstborn.  You’ll be delighted.” he declared in his rousing endorsement of a special I just had to try.

Pan-Seared Sea Scallops: Fresh angel hair tossed with spicy tomato, red sweet pepper sauce with shellfish broth and herbs

Pan-Seared Sea Scallops: Fresh angel hair tossed with spicy tomato, red sweet pepper sauce with shellfish broth and herbs

The bluefish is encrusted with hazelnuts and pan-sauteed, finished with sun-dried tomato butter on butternut squash risotto.   The fillet is easily an inch thick, every bit of its outer core encrusted with finely crushed and toasted hazelnuts.  What a wonderfully refreshing change from the de rigueur flour-coated fish you’ll find on many a menu.  The fish is moist and fleshy, not as light and flaky as some white fish, but much, much more flavorful.  It’s not quite as oily as sardines, but not at all fishy.  Within its hazelnut crust, its richness shines.  This is a fantastic fish entree!

The butternut squash risotto is a worthy accompaniment.  The creamy richness of the risotto bespeaks of buttery starchiness.  Its texture is smooth, maybe not quite velvety, but certainly not crunch as risotto which hasn’t been vigilantly watched over as it’s being prepared.  Perhaps because it requires constant vigilance, few restaurants serve even a passable risotto.  Paisano’s serves a good one.

Stuffed Shells:  Giant pasta shells stuffed with a tantalizing blend of cheeses and spinach served with marinara.

Stuffed Shells: Giant pasta shells stuffed with a tantalizing blend of cheeses and spinach served with marinara.

If seafood doesn’t float your boat, perhaps Paisano’s sweet Italian sausage might.  At several Italian restaurants in Albuquerque, Italian sausage is more than a misnomer, it’s an outright fabrication.  Italian sausage should not taste like Jimmy Dean brand sausage or those mystery links you sometimes see on all-you-can-choke-down buffets.  Italian sausage should be redolent with the flavor of fennel blessed, perfectly seasoned pork.  It should be moist, succulent and delicious, a melding of sweet and savory flavors.  That’s what you’ll find at Paisano’s and it’s housemade.

The sweet Italian sausage is showcased in an entree called Fettuccini Alla Lucchese (pictured above), a spicy tomato-cream sauce with Italian sausage, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, portabella mushrooms and sage served with fresh fettuccini.  As with so many of the restaurant’s tomato-based sauces, this one appears to be made with hand-squeezed, red rich Roma tomatoes.  It makes a difference.  This is a fantastic entree, one in which complex flavors coalesce into a delicious whole crowned by rich, creamy dollop.

Lasagna

Lasagna

An even better canvass for the sausage might be the Grilled Italian Sausage Links special with roasted potatoes, red and green peppers, grilled onions and a crumbled ricotta salata.  If there’s a season made for roasting vegetables, it’s fall and winter when this special is available.  Paisano’s vegetables are roasted to perfection.  You know they’re perfectly roasted when typically bitter vegetables such as red and green peppers and strong vegetables such as onions are imbued with a pleasant, maybe even slightly-sweet flavor.  Not only that, roasting preserves the natural nutrients of the vegetables.  Few things in this world are as wonderful as Italian sausage and roasted vegetables.

An outstanding non-sausage pasta dish is the linguine carbonara (for me, best ordered with rigatoni noodles) which may be the richest entree on Paisano’s menu.  Carbonara is perhaps the richest and creamiest of all Italian pasta sauces, usually made with heavy cream, eggs, pancetta (Italian bacon) and black pepper. Paisano’s version is among the very best in the city, but because it is so rich, it might be advisable to share it with someone you love–someone who perhaps might order the Fettuccini Alla Lucchese. Split these two entrees and you’ll strike a memorable balance of richness and tomato induced greatness.

Sicilian Cannoli

Sicilian Cannoli

If you’re of the school that scallops go best with sauces that are as delicate and sweet as the edible bivalves themselves, you might have some trepidation about ordering a dish in which scallops are paired with a spicy, tangy tomato and pepper sauce.  You needn’t be if the dish is Paisano’s pan-seared sea scallops which are served atop fresh angel-hair pasta tossed with a spicy tomato and red sweet pepper sauce with a seafood broth and herbs.  Each thin strand of the angel-hair pasta is perfectly prepared as are the pan-seared scallops themselves, but it’s the complementary nature of the sweet-tangy-piquant sauce which will surprise you most of all.  With discernible notes of pepper piquancy, it’s a sauce which not only goes well with scallops, but with any other pasta or seafood dish. 

Fromage fanatics will enjoy the stuffed shells entree most.  Four giant pasta shells are stuffed with a trio of terrific cheeses–ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan–and spinach and served with marinara.   The cheese blend is tantalizing, a savory blend of mild cheeses that go well together.  The marinara sauce enlivens the shells with a tangy, herbaceous profile.

Luscious Lemon Pudding Cake with Raspberry Sauce

Luscious Lemon Pudding Cake with Raspberry Sauce

A nice alternative to pasta is a Paisano’s pizza. The restaurant’s dough is made daily and is rolled by hand. It is available with thick or thin crust and is a ten-inch pie. Available toppings include pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, meatballs, anchovies and of course, green chile.  A colleague of mine likes to sing “the pizza’s perfect at Paisano’s” but that’s probably because he likes alliteration even more than I do. Paisano’s does serve a very good pizza with nicely charred edges and gooey, melted cheese. Try it with garlic and plenty of that spicy sausage.

The mere mention of Paisano’s homemade desserts might make your mouth water, especially if you’ve ever had one.  We’re trying to go through the entire dessert menu to determine which dessert is best, but every time we find one we love, we tend to order it three or four times before moving on to the next dessert on the luscious line-up.

The latest sweet treat to capture our affections is the luscious lemon pudding cake (pictured below) with raspberry sauce.  The lemon pudding is lemony, not in the fashion of those made from a box puddings and their obvious artifice.  This is made from scratch lemon pudding that will pucker your lips and tease your taste buds.  The cake itself offers a sweet contrast that accentuates the tanginess of the lemon pudding while the raspberry trail provides a fruity, sweet complement.

The molten chocolate cake and gelato is fresh baked to order which means you’ll have to wait about ten minutes for it, but it’s well worth the wait. The hot molten chocolate is topped with homemade Italian vanilla ice cream flecked with orange peel for a wonderful taste contrast. It is a decadent way to finish a good meal in Albuquerque’s best Italian restaurant.

In Italian the word “Paisano” means “countryman” which can be either someone who lives in the country or someone from the same country or region.  In Albuquerque “Paisano” means Italian food excellence at a restaurant which specializes in doing the right things and has been doing so for nearly four decades.

Paisano’s
1935 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-7541
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Salsiccia Griglio, Lasagna Frutta Di Mare, Fettuccini Alla Lucchese


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