Tune-up Café – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Tune-Up Cafe, already a neighborhood standard

The Tune-Up Cafe, already a neighborhood standard

Dave Who? From 1981 until its closing in 2008, the converted residence at 1115 Hickox Street was the home of Dave’s Not Here, a quaint and quirky neighborhood favorite loyalist locals described as “unforgettable.” Perhaps “memorable” would have been more appropriate, because as the Eagles reminded us in their 1976 hit song New Kid In Town, “they will never forget you ‘til somebody new comes along.” That somebody new…the new kid in town… the usurper who made many of us forget about Dave’s Not Here is the Tune-Up Café.

When it first launched, the Tune-Up Café was always mentioned in the same breath as its beloved predecessor. Over time, however, the equally funky Tune-Up Café has carved out its own identity and it’s no longer just “that restaurant which replaced Dave’s Not Here.” Vestiges of Dave’s Not Here remain if you look closely, but for the most part, it can truly be said that Dave’s now truly gone. The shoulder-to-shoulder personal space proximity dining room hasn’t grown up any, but a small covered patio has been added. Not even a mirror on the dining room’s west-facing wall can make the Tune-Up Café any larger.

Dave Was Here Burger with Green Chile

Dave Was Here Burger with Green Chile

The Tune-Up Café is the brainchild of Jesús and Charlotte Rivera, both veterans of the Santa Fe restaurant scene. Jesús is originally from El Salvador while Charlotte’s roots are in Northern Louisiana. They’re co-conspirators in developing a menu interesting enough to intrigue the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program which showcased the restaurant in an episode called “Neighborhood Favorites.”  Host Guy Fieri called the Tune-Up Cafe “a perfect example of what we’re looking for on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” meaning “they scratch-cook just about everything, the place is full of character and the neighborhood totally digs it.”

Not surprisingly, the Food Network worthy menu features some Salvadoran specialties as well as Mexican and New Mexican entrees with a smattering of American favorites, too. Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch on weekends,  the Tune-Up Cafe can no longer be categorized as just a “neighborhood favorite.”  Fans of the Food Network’s “Triple D” show from throughout the fruited plain have made pilgrimages to the restaurant, too.  Many of them have returned.

The Cubano

The Cubano

The menu once paid a playful mark of respect to its predecessor tenant with a burger named “Dave Was Here,” but that burger has been rechristened the Tune-Up Burger. It’s one of three burgers on the menu, including a vegan made burger–the brown rice nut burger (a housemade patty served on a brioche bun). The similarities between the Tune-Up Burger and the burgers served by Dave’s Not Here start with the sheer size and volume of these behemoth burgers. Dave’s was famous for its 9-ounce beef patty and the Tune-Up Burger has got to approximate that prodigious size. There are similar burger toppings, too, like the green chile, grilled onions and sautéed mushrooms, but the Tune-Up Café also offers Cheddar, Jack, Blue, Manchego and Provolone cheeses.

While Dave’s Not Here obtained its beef from a local market, the Tune-Up Café grinds its beef daily. One of the biggest differences in the burgers is in the bun. The Tune-Up Café uses a sesame seed covered brioche bun instead of the standard, run-of-the-mill bun. The Tune-Up burger comes standard with homemade mayo, lettuce, tomato and a pickle spear. The rest is up to you. The green chile warrants a “gringo” rating in the piquancy scale, but it’s got a nice roasted flavor.

Salvadoran Pupusas

Salvadoran Pupusas

The brioche bun is hard-crusted and formidable. That means that unlike so many standard burger buns, it won’t wilt and wither under the weight and moistness of the ingredients you may choose to pile on. It also means the bun may be a bit chewy, but on the Tune-Up Burger, that’s a good thing. You’ll have to open up as wide as you do for your dentist with this two-fisted masterpiece. It’s a gigantic burger with a lot of flavor. All burgers and sandwiches are served with hand-cut French fries.

The Tune-Up Café serves up its own rendition of the seemingly de rigueur Cuban sandwich. Where many Cuban sandwiches in the area seem to be waifishly thin with parsimoniously portioned ingredients, the Cubano is thick and generously engorged with its ingredient melange. The canvass for the Cubano is a ciabatta roll which is dressed with a citrus and garlic marinated pork loin, cured ham and Swiss cheese. The menu indicates this sandwich is pressed, but you wouldn’t know it the way the ingredients bulge. In any case, the restaurant’s panini grill must be super-sized to accommodate this Cubano. It’s an excellent sandwich, one which can easily be shared. It’s one of three sandwiches on the menu, the most intriguing being a Ginger Chicken Sandwich on ciabatta with Provolone and basil aioli.

Cinnamon Roll

Cinnamon Roll

In New Mexico’s melting pot of cultural cuisine, one cuisine which has captured the fancy of culinarily intrepid diners is Salvadoran cuisine.  New Mexican diners who have embraced Salvadoran cuisine have one-up on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri who had never even had a pupusa until his visit to the Tune-Up Cafe.  He called it “crazy good,” effusively praising the “crispy, crunchy masa on the outside with the corn and the cheese oozing out of it.”  It warranted a high-five for the chef along with the comment, “you have completely train wrecked me, man.”

The pupusa is the national snack of El Salvador; it’s a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients. Unlike New Mexican tortillas, Salvadoran tortillas are made with no baking powder and very little (if any) salt. They’re made with a maize masa. Of all the pupusas we’ve ever had, none have the pronounced corn taste of the pupusas at the Tune-Up Café. None are any bigger. Where the standard pupusa seems to be about four-inches in diameter, these are roughly the size of a pancake. Two different pupusas, served two per order, adorn the menu. Our favorite of the two is stuffed with flank steak, chile pasado and queso fresco.

Huevos Salvadorenos

Huevos Salvadorenos

Accompanying each order of pupusas is a Salvadoran cabbage salad somewhat resembling the pinkish pickled relishes served at some Mexican restaurants. Curtido is made with pickled cabbage, onions and just a hint of red pepper. The Tune-Up Cafe makes the best curtido I’ve ever had, so good it will postpone enjoying the pupusa itself. 

Another delightful Salvadoran entree is the Huevos El Salvadorenos, scrambled eggs with scallions and tomatoes, refried beans, pan-fried banana, crema and corn tortillas.  It’s not exactly a novel concept with similar offerings–the Huevos Motuluenos at Cafe Pasqual and Huevos Yucatecos at Tecolote Cafe–being familiar to Santa Fe diners.  The Tune-Up Cafe’s huevos would be much improved with chile, but with both red and green tinged with cumin, we opted against it.  The highlight of this dish is the melding of sweet, caramelized pan-fried bananas and the slightly sour-savory crema.  The huevos themselves are perfectly prepared.

Banana Pancake with real syrup

Banana Pancake with real syrup

Sweet-toothed diners who look for a high carb morning pick-up will enjoy the cinnamon rolls, spiral-shaped beauties large enough to share.  The cinnamon rolls are redolent with cinnamon and are iced generously.  The Tune-Up Cafe’s buttermilk pancakes are among the very best in town.  Best of all, they’re served with real syrup and can be topped with blueberries, bananas or chocolate chips.

In time we may forget what life was like without the Tune-Up Café.  It may already have supplanted its predecessor for local loyalty, a funky ambiance and a menu replete with deliciousness.

Tune-up Café
1115 Hickox Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 983-7060
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 27 January 2013
1st VISIT: 10 May 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: El Salvadoran Pupusas, Dave Was Here Burger, Cubano, Hand-cut French Fries

Tune-Up Cafe on Urbanspoon

Chez Bob – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chez Bob, one of Albuquerque's very best French restaurants

Chez Bob, one of Albuquerque’s very best French restaurants

Even if you’ve never had the pleasure of a meal there, it’s hard not to like a restaurant named Chez Bob. Much as poetic French words are apt to do, the term “chez” seems to impart instant credibility, authenticity and just a touch of haughtiness to any restaurant sporting that appellation–even though “chez” is just a preposition which means “at the home of.” So, Chez Lucien is essentially “at the home of Lucien.”  On restaurants, the term “chez” usually prefaces the name of the chef or owner, as in Chez Pierre or Chez Emile. 

The ordinary nature of the “Bob” portion of the name Chez Bob counterbalances the haughtiness of the term “chez” because Bob is one of those “every man names” we all trust. It doesn’t have those intimidating metrosexual qualities of Hollywood names such as Troy and Brad or the perceived hauteur of a French name. Bob is a vanilla name, a name your friends and neighbors might have. You would probably feel more welcome at a restaurant named “Chez Bob” than you would at one named “Chez Arnaud” which sounds more than a bit pretentious and expensive.

Simple elegance at Chez Bob

Simple elegance at Chez Bob

The Bob in Chez Bob is Robert “Bob” Maw. Bob’s vision is for Chez Bob to be the type of restaurant with which he grew up in New York, the type of restaurant which emphasizes great food, great service and a great experience for all patrons. He means it when emphasizing service, teaching his staff that it’s much easier to remake an entree than to make a new customer. His goal is to exceed the expectations of each and every guest. Chez Bob is well on its way to doing just that with a young, but very talented kitchen staff that includes chefs Jason Sanchez and Stephen Wood and baker-sous chef Rebecca Rodriguez who prepares the restaurant’s desserts, quiches and pear tart.

Before there was a Chez Bob, there was La Crepe Pierre, a charming little eatery in the plaza at Candelaria and San Pedro.  An year had barely elapsed when the restaurant moved to the far Northeast Heights and was rechristened Chez Bob for its owner.  The restaurant is ensconced in a sprawling shopping center, part of an urban infill effort on the northeast corner of Paseo del Norte and Wyoming.  Its de rigueur stuccoed facade is somewhat obfuscated from traffic and its signage, even though incorporating the Eiffel Tower, is subdued.  Being away from the well-beaten, well-eaten path in an out-of-the-way shopping center have made it a destination restaurant, one which diners from outside the neighborhood have in mind when they set out for a great meal.  My three visits have validated that Chez Bob is a special restaurant, one discerning diners should visit even if it may be a bit out of the way.

French bread at Chez Bob

French bread at Chez Bob

Chez Bob’s interior is as charming as the exterior facade is blase. Industrial style ductwork on the ceiling is barely noticeable considering everything pleasant to look at–from the colorful portraiture festooning the walls to the tile and cabinetry. The center part of the restaurant is lined with small tables in close, neighborly, proximity to one another, while comfortable booths brace against the north and south walls.  Linen tablecloths and napkins  adorn each table as does a full place-setting.  It’s a welcoming and cheery milieu with a casual elegance.

Service at Chez Bob isn’t haughty in the least.  It’s friendly and attentive without the wait staff hovering over you at every turn. The staff is trained well enough to understand that a casual glance here and then is enough to know when customers’ glasses needs refilling or more bread is needed at the table.  Bread is one of the few items not prepared on the premises.  Chez Bob showcases the freshest, wild-caught seafood and premium steaks with everything on the Continental cuisine menu prepared to order.  All sauces are freshly made from the highest quality ingredients.  Instead of sticker shock, your face will register surprise at the reasonable bill of fare.

French Onion Soup and Cream of Potato and Ham Soup

French Onion Soup and Cream of Potato and Ham Soup

The menu is an impressive array of mostly French entrees with a smattering of Italian cuisine for good measure.  All entrees are served with a side salad, starch of the day and fresh vegetables.  The “On the Hoof” section of the menu features only two items–Beef Wellington and Rib Eye Steak–but they’re better than steakhouse quality.  The “Wet and Wild Caught” menu includes seafood delicacies such as Diver Scallops prepared with your choice of three sauces: Provencal, St. Jaques, or Buerre Blanc.  Poultry offerings such as Duck a l’Orange adorn the Winged Creatures menu.  Diners also have their choice from among six savory or sweet crepes or from an impressive selection of Italian pasta dishes.

A thinly sliced loaf of French bread with chilled butter is a French restaurant staple and Chez Bob doesn’t disappoint. It is hard-crusted, airy French bread served with creamy French butter.  Diet be damned, you’ve got to have a few slices of the staff of life with your every meal here–some with butter and some saved so you can sop up the soups or sauces. 


Cheese Plate: Gruyere, Fontina, Goat Cheese and Brie with Strawberries, Grapes and Crostini

The soups at Chez Bob are magnificent, none better than the traditional French Onion Soup. This heart-warming elixir is made from rich Chablis (a dry white wine) enhanced beef-based stock with caramelized onions served with a toasted gratin with bubbly Swiss cheese.  It’s not as aesthetically appealing as some soup crocks on which the golden, melting cheese blankets the entire top, but it is beefy, rich and fragrant and as delicious as soup gets.  Almost as good is a soup du jour offering of cream of potato and ham soup, a thick, creamy soul-warming bowl of sheer deliciousness. 

An Artisanal Cheese Plate appetizer showcases a variety of cheeses and fresh fruits with toasted crostini.  The cheese platter is a quadrumvirate of terrific cheeses any turophile will enjoy.  Good fortune will smile upon you if the four cheeses are Gruyere, Fontina, Goat Cheese and Brie, cheeses with varying flavor profiles, but not as much textural contrast (no hard cheeses, for example) as some would enjoy.  The chevre (goat cheese) is especially flavorful, whether you spread it on the toasted crostini or enjoy it by itself.  The fruits are seasonally fresh and delicious.  They make for an effective palate cleanser in between noshing on the cheeses or for a terrific sweet contrast afterwards.

Green Chili Chicken Alfedo Lasagna

Green Chili Chicken Alfedo Lasagna

The “Pasta de la Casa” section of the dinner menu features five Italian pasta dishes including one in which New Mexico green chile meets Italian chicken Alfredo lasagna. It’s a delicious melding of flavors: fresh pulled chicken with a fromage triumvirate of rich ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan layered and finished with a green chili (SIC) Alfredo sauce. If you’re tired of being beaten over the head with puddles of thick, red marinara sauce and spicy sausage, you’ll luxuriate in the elegance and richness of Alfredo sauce and a complementary cheese trio. The pasta is light and delicate despite being just a bit thicker than some lasagna noodles. This is a creamy, delicious entree served slab-sized.

Accompanying the lasagna is a vegetable medley of sweet carrots and green beans, both reminiscent of the freshness you might experience at a market in Provence. The carrots in particular are sweet and perfectly prepared so there’s just a slight snap when you bite into them–not quite al dente, but in no way mushy. The beans are similarly fresh-tasting and delicious.

Seafood Crepe  Large sea scallops, shrimp and mushrooms in rich lobster cream sauce

Seafood Crepe Large sea scallops, shrimp and mushrooms in rich lobster cream sauce

The pasta menu also features a more conventional New York style lasagna which showcases a house-spiced sweet fennel sausage in a slow-cooked real marinara sauce with three cheeses.  Bob Maw told me once that if his customers want something that’s not on the menu and the restaurant has the ingredients to prepare it, Chez Bob will do so.  His staff didn’t bat an eye when we asked for a couple slices of sausage.  We were brought two huge patties of sweet New York style sausage, blessedly kissed by fennel.  It’s a good sausage, the type of which you might enjoy several hunks of during a meal.

Savory crepes are a specialty of the house.  Prepared on real Krampouz creperies which are renown for their uniform temperature control, these are among the very best crepes in town.  The crepe de resistance is probably the seafood crepe: large sea scallops,shrimp and mushrooms in a rich lobster cream sauce.  The golden crepe is literally bursting at its seams with ingredients, all perfectly prepared and as fresh as if brought to the kitchen from a fishing boat.  The mushrooms explode with a uniquely robust and woodsy flavor.  The scallops and shrimp are sweet and succulent.


Beef Wellington with Yukon Gold truffle mashed potatoes and haricot verts

There are five other crepes on the menu: Crepe Florentine (spinach in a garlic cream with Bechamel and Swiss cheese), Chicken and Mushroom Crepe, Beef Bourguignon, Salmon and Asparagus Crepe and Ratatouille, a traditional French vegetable stew popularized by an animated feature film by that name. It’s an impressive assemblage of savory crepes, but savory crepes tell only part of the menu’s story. Dessert crepes are among the very best way to cap a meal anywhere.

The menu describes the Beef Wellington as “soon to be famous.”  This is one elegant entree which deserves fame and acclaim.  It’s an excellent alternative to steak though it does feature a nine-ounce select beef tenderloin and house-made, rich mushroom duxelle (sauteed and finely chopped mushrooms) wrapped in puff pastry then topped with a brandy peppercorn cream sauce.  In both taste and aroma, the hemisphere of golden puff pastry is reminiscent of the thin crust which tops freshly baked bread.  The tenderloin is prepared to your exacting specifications, but any more than medium and you’ll lose some of the beef’s inherent juiciness.  Chez Bob’s recreation of a Beef Wellington pays a loving and faithful tribute to a timeless classic.

Diver Scallops with a Buerre Blanc Sauce

Diver Scallops with a Buerre Blanc Sauce

Even among people who aren’t especially fond of fish and who think shellfish stinks, you’ll rarely hear a disparaging word about scallops.  The delicately mild-sweet, oceany but not overly briny flavor of scallops and their soft, fleshy texture are oh so endearing.   Chez Bob offers fresh, wild-caught divers scallops seared in butter and served with your choice of three sauces: Provencal, St. Jaques, or Buerre Blanc.  The scallops are plump and delicious, so fresh they nearly melted at the press of a fork.   Buerre Blanc, a rich French sauce made from an acidic reduction whisked together with chunks of fresh butter.  It adds a complex, rich layer of flavor and unctuousness to the scallops.

The luscious home made desserts menu is replete with the types of indulgences with which we should all treat ourselves once in a while.  Though they’re likely heavenly, skip the Creme Brulee and bread pudding and head over to the dessert crepes.  There are six on the menu, all tempting, all juggernauts of flavor if the ones we had are any indication.  It’s ironic that crepes are the quintessential street food of Paris where trained artisans prepare them to perfection considering that in America, crepes are the decadent denizens of fine French restaurants.

Three Cream Lemon Crepe

Three Cream Lemon Crepe

The sweet and delicate Nutella Crepe was showcased in “100+ Things To Eat Before You Die,” a popular list which has been making the rounds throughout the blogosphere for years.  It’s a crepe I’d put near the top of that list  In 2005, Chez Bob earned a “Hot Plate” award from Albuquerque The Magazine for this delicious beauty which the magazine called “a literal taste of France.”  Nutella, a thick, smooth paste made from chocolate and hazelnuts is one of those decadent sweet things you don’t mind smeared all over your face as you lap it up.  It’s that good!  Topped with whipped cream and strawberries then drizzled with confectioners sugar, it is fabulous.  Cut into it with your fork and the sweet succulence oozes out in utter deliciousness.  Oh so good!

At the opposite side of the spectrum, at least in terms of sweetness, is the tart and delicious three cream lemon crepe.  Engorged with lemon curd and cream cheese, this crepe isn’t so tart that it purses your lips, but it will grab your attention and capture your taste buds with explosions of deliciousness.  This is an overstuffed crepe redolent with flavor and freshness.

Nutella Crepe

Nutella Crepe

Though it may not (yet) have earned a Hot Plate award, the favorite dessert of Chef Sanchez is the pear tart made with real almond paste imported from France.  This is a very rich, very buttery dessert you might need to share because it is just that rich.  Thankfully sliced strawberries lend a tangy contrast to the near cloying sweetness of the almond paste.  The golden-brown, buttery pastry shell is light and delicate and the fresh poached pears are glorious.  There are many elements in this dessert to like, but if your sweet tooth isn’t what it used to be, tread lightly.  This is one rich, rich dessert.

As of this writing, Chez Bob is proceeding with its expansion to the Nob hill space once occupied by the former Vivace at 3118 Central, S.E.  The Nob Hill location will be offering breakfast and lunch and should be open in late February or early March.  Dinner will eventually follow.

Pear Tart

Pear Tart

Chez Bob has the commitment of a service-oriented and passionate owner coupled with an energetic and talented kitchen staff now thought of more in terms of excellence than youth. It’s a restaurant at which you’ll feel right at home.

Chez Bob
7610 Carmel, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2013
1st VISIT: 7 November 2009
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Prosciutto and melone, Green Chili Chicken Lasagna, Seafood Crepe, Nutella Crepe, Three Cream Lemon Crepe

Chez Bob on Urbanspoon

Sushi Xuan Asian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sushi Xuan, a neighborhood sushi restaurant on Coors

Sushi Xuan, a neighborhood sushi restaurant on Coors

Nay-saying economic analysts who perpetuate the notion that even neighborhood monopolies would take advantage of a captive market don’t know Carter, chef-owner of Sushi Xuan Asian Grill. Rather than taking an oligopolous stance as owner of the only restaurant in the entire West Mesa to serve sushi, Carter knows he’s serving his friends and neighbors. As a West Mesa area resident for more than ten years, he wants to serve them only the very best and would never remotely conceive the notion of gouging them.

Having been trained by a master sushi chef, Carter plied his knowledge and training in a number of sushi restaurants throughout the Duke City before launching Sushi Xuan. He prides himself on the high quality, freshness and creativity of the cuisine proffered at his restaurant, having fresh fish flown in three times a day. He filets it himself to ensure it meets his exacting standards then to ensure the fish is coupled with the freshest produce, he goes shopping every morning. This is certainly the kind of benevolent businessman we all want in our neighborhoods.

Carter prepares sushi for eager customers

Carter prepares sushi for eager customers

Sushi Xuan is situated in the timeworn Sequoia Shopping Center. Despite a storefront obfuscated from the high volume of traffic on Coors Boulevard, it’s earned a reputation that spans wider than its neighborhood. Much of that is courtesy of word-of-mouth, the very best and least expensive marketing technique any restaurant can employ. Because Carter’s reputation precedes him, guests visiting for the first time have high expectations and more often than not those expectations are exceeded.

In addition to great food prepared by an innovative and conscientious chef, Sushi Xuan prides itself in providing excellent customer service in a relaxed milieu. For the utmost in personal service, sushi savants will station themselves on the sushi counter where they can watch the gregarious Carter perform deft feats of prestidigitation with knives that put the “amazing” Ginsu knife to shame. Maybe it’s a good thing, several maneki-neko cats, a symbol of good luck, are strategically positioned throughout the colorful restaurant.

Egg Drop Soup and Hot and Sour Soup

Egg Drop Soup and Hot and Sour Soup

Despite the name on the marquee, the menu at Sushi Xuan Asian Grill is much more expansive than sushi. The restaurant carries a broad selection of Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese entrees and appetizers, but this is no “fusion” restaurant. Nor is it a traditional Japanese teppanyaki restaurant even though many entrees are grilled. If sushi is what you’re after, you might want to visit during “happy hour” seven days a week from 2:30PM to 5:30PM when sushi is twenty percent off.

As you’re contemplating the menu, your choice of one of three soups–miso, egg drop or hot and sour–will be delivered to your table. It’s a refreshing and very customer-oriented change to have your choice instead of the de rigueur miso soup. The hot and sour soup is among the very best in the city, but it’s available only in winter. It lives up to its name with lip-pursing qualities aficionados will enjoy. The egg drop soup is similarly an exemplar of excellence. Both are served steaming hot which means your enjoyment might be postponed briefly.

The Screaming Roll

The Screaming Roll

In Japanese restaurants, diners often forego appetizers and let the soup serve as a starter. Do so at your own peril at Sushi Xuan because the appetizer menu is a sterling model of authenticity and deliciousness, offering such timeless classics as edamame, gyoza, chicken Yakitori and calamari tempura. The menu also offers a number of salads including the Sunomono Salad (octopus, shrimp, squid with cucumber salad) and the ever-popular Viagra salad.

The sushi menu is extensive, belying the relatively small area in which Carter creates. There’s the requisite nigiri sushi (two pieces per order) as well as sashimi (six pieces per order) and hand rolls, but mostly there’s roll-type sushi, including a number of specialty rolls. Look for the latter on the Chef’s Special Roll and Chef’s Special Request menus. Specialty rolls, created in Los Angeles in the 1960s to attract more Americans to sushi, might be poo-pooed by purists, but they showcase the chef’s creativity and esthetic sense.

The Air Force Roll

The Air Force Roll

Among novitiates, especially New Mexican fire-eaters who believe pain is a flavor, there remains a mistaken notion that sushi rolls should provide an incendiary burn. They’ll use up all the wasabi and maybe even add some Sriracha to get the eye-watering, nose-running burn they want. This adventuresome lot would think the Screaming Roll is too tame. Inside the Screaming Roll you’ll find avocado, cucumber and crab while on top, the combustible quadrumvirate of salmon, tuna, tobiko, scallion and screaming sauce. Wasabi and Sriracha are wholly unnecessary. The screaming sauce, while mild compared even to some New Mexican chile, lends heat but not so much that you can’t enjoy the deliciousness of the other ingredients. That, not some masochistic thrill, really is the point of eating sushi.

As an Air Force veteran, my pride swelled at seeing an Air Force Roll on the menu. Carter invented this roll at the request of airmen from Kirtland Air Force Base who asked for all their favorite ingredients on one roll. My high-flying colleagues did me proud again.. The inside of the Air Force Roll includes shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber. It’s topped with shrimp, tuna, crab meat and a crispy, crunch topping. The Air Force Roll is a concordance of flavors and textures wrapped in a beautifully artistic package. It may just send you into the wild blue yonder with delight.

Thai Curry Chicken

Thai Curry Chicken

Carter proves he’s no one-trick-pony with his terrific rendition of Thai and Chinese food entrees.  As if to curry my favor, he prepared a very good version of Thai Curry Chicken, mostly white chicken and an assortment of vegetables (zucchini, onion, carrots, green and red peppers, cauliflower) in a yellow curry.  The yellow curry is allowed to shine because coconut milk is used in moderation.  This means a curry that’s not dessert sweet.  Vegetables are perfectly prepared, crunchy to the degree they should be and very fresh.

One of the specialties of the house is coffee chicken,  a dish invented by Carter’s father for Chow’s restaurant.  It’s an award-winning dish frequently ordered when sweet and sour entrees won’t do.  The flavor profile of this dish is mostly sweet with a faint hint of non-acidic roasted coffee for good measure.  The chicken has a double-fried texture meaning it’s very crispy and crunchy, almost as if overly breaded.  A few Thai bird peppers add just a hint of piquancy.


Coffee Chicken

Sushi aficionados are torn as to what Albuquerque’s premiere sushi restaurant is. Sushi Xuan is almost always in the discussion. As long as Chef Carter is at the helm, this sterling sushi restaurant which offers so much more, will be on that short list.

Sushi Xuan Asian Grill
3250 Coors Blvd, N.W. # E,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 352-9855
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2013
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Screaming Roll, Air Force Roll, Thai Curry Chicken, Coffee Chicken, Hot and Soup Soup, Pork Fried Rice

View Sushi Xuan on LetsDineLocal.com »

Sushi Xuan on Urbanspoon

Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Zacatecas on Central Avenue in the Nob Hill district

Zacatecas on Central Avenue in the Nob Hill district

The diminishing of the American diner’s disposable income has posed a significant challenge for restaurateurs, particularly those who specialize in fine-dining fare. In a downtrodden economy, Americans are less willing to spend their hard-earned money on meals that cost almost as much as a utilities payment. Instead, the dining consumer has increasingly turned toward a more casual dining experience. This dining trend has prompted enterprising chefs to overhaul and upgrade comfort food favorites.

In recent years, restaurateurs have transformed burgers from a ubiquitous fast-food favorite into a gourmet casual experience showcasing pricier, premium meat patties and sundry upscale ingredients. Similarly, pizzaioli are expressing themselves artistically on their crusty canvasses with creative ingredients heretofore not available on pizza. Even such humble comfort food favorites as mac-and-cheese and the grilled cheese sandwich have metamorphosed from plain and boring to glorious and inventive. Though these gourmet versions of foodstuff from humble beginnings might cost just a bit more, they’re not nearly as steep as the fine-dining experience diners might have opted for in better times.

Zacatecas Totopos: Fire Roasted Guajillo and Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsas

Zacatecas Totopos: Fire Roasted Guajillo and Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsas

It stands to reason that the previously pedestrian taco would eventually evolve, too. So says PBS who took the pulse of esteemed chefs and culinary professionals across the country to discern their insight on the latest food trends. One of those trends is gourmet tacos. It just make sense. Tacos appeal to value-conscious consumers and have become a comfort food that transcends socioeconomic strata. Best of all, they can easily be elevated and made more interesting with high-quality and ingenious ingredients.

Tacos can no longer be stereotyped as the crunchy hard-shelled envelope encasing ground mystery meat, lettuce and shredded cheese popularized across the fruited plain by Taco Bell. Pioneering chefs–including some of the nation’s most influential culinary minds–have uplifted the formerly low-brow, yet much loved taco. It has become an inspired and diverse platform of culinary inspiration–a platform for the fusion of seemingly disparate culinary traditions. Think Asia meets Mexico. Think naan instead of corn taco shells.

Duck Relleno: Anaheim, Canela Duck Confit, Goat Cheese, Manchamantel Canela Sauce

Duck Relleno: Anaheim, Canela Duck Confit, Goat Cheese, Manchamantel Canela Sauce

To traditionalists, this tinkering with the sacrosanct taco might be considered sacrilege, but to progressive diners, these new-age tacos are an idea whose time has come. Food Network glitterati Bobby Flay claims “anything you like to eat can be wrapped in a taco,” and it seems significant effort is being put forward to validate his contention. Korean tacos (Mexican corn tortillas stuffed with bulgogi and kimchee) took Los Angeles by storm in the past few years. They compete throughout LA county with more than a thousand “loncheras,” the food trucks which have elevated the Mexican taco to rarefied air using traditional and indigenous ingredients in creative combinations.

The common elements defining the modern gourmet taco are bold, fresh ingredients and contrasting yet amazingly complementary flavors and textures. You certainly can’t typecast gourmet tacos as the flavorless, hard-shelled ilk proffered by Taco Bell and its brethren. For Americans who grew up noshing on such prosaic mediocrity, the revelation that tacos can be gourmet and delicious is more than a pleasant surprise. It’s a life-altering new way of eating.

Cochinita de Pibil: Pork slow braised in Banana Leaves and Chiles, Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa, Escabeche, Queso Fresco, Cilantro

Cochinita de Pibil: Pork slow braised in Banana Leaves and Chiles, Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa, Escabeche, Queso Fresco, Cilantro

Arguably, Albuquerque’s very best practitioner of the gourmet taco is the aptly named Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila which launched in January, 2012 in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district, widely recognized as the city’s most diverse dining destination. Zacatecas is the brainchild of chef Mark Kiffin, the James Beard Foundation‘s “Best Chef in the Southwest” for 2005. Kiffin didn’t set out to establish a gourmet taqueria, but to honor the authentic culinary traditions of the Zacatecas region of Mexico, a favorite vacation destination for the well-traveled chef.

The Zacatecas region is renowned for wide and varied culinary traditions which have been refined over time, melding strong and diverse pre-Columbian and Spanish cultural and culinary influences. It’s the recipes culled from those influences that Kiffin’s taqueria and tequila bar showcases brilliantly with an array of made-to-order gourmet tacos made from fresh (and soft as all authentic Mexican tortillas are) corn tortillas filled with sundry meat or seafood options as well as organic garnishes.

Tacos de Chicharron: Crispy Pork Belly, Caramelized Onions, Arbol Salsa, Julienned Apples

Tacos de Chicharron: Crispy Pork Belly, Caramelized Onions, Arbol Salsa, Julienned Apples

Tacos may be the name on the marquee, but under the direction of a Zacatecas-born chef, the kitchen offers a full-service lunch and dinner menu reminiscent of the menus at Chicago’s Frontera Grill, excelsior nonpareil in the art of Mexican cookery. The menu includes a number of familiar, but upscaled antojitos (appetizers), eight different “Zaca Tacos” unlike any you’ll find at Taco Bell, sumptuous sopas and ensaladas (soups and salads), magnificent mariscos (seafood) and enticing entradas (entrees).

Zacatecas’ vibrant blue exterior is very conspicuous among its staid neighbors along the Nob Hill stretch of Central Avenue. Its capacious open dining room is equally eye-catching with one wall showcasing hand-made papier-mâché skulls which appear to be looking over the dining public, perhaps in envy over the delicious fare. Dia de los muertos (day of the dead) decor festoons a handmade fifteen-foot zinc bar (featuring more than 70 kinds of tequilas). The south-facing dining room is bathed in sunlight courtesy of large patio windows that overlook the hustle and bustle of Central Avenue. The milieu bespeaks of fun and liveliness.

Pepita Crusted Pork Loin:  Poblano Hominy, Manchamantel Sauce, Onion-Habanero Marmalade

Pepita Crusted Pork Loin: Poblano Hominy, Manchamantel Sauce, Onion-Habanero Marmalade

Shortly after you’re seated, a complimentary basket of Zacatecas Totopos (triangular tortilla chips made from nixtamalized corn masa) with two salsas are delivered to your table. Neither are especially piquant, but both offer distinctive and interesting flavor profiles. The tomatillo-chipotle salsa has a lemony-herbaceous-grassy tang tinged with smoky pepper qualities. The fire-roasted Guajillo salsa is more fruity-piquant and is punctuated with just a hint of cumin.

While the Antojitos menu may list familiar starters such as quesadillas, empanadas, chile rellenos, chicharrones and queso fundido, none are made in the familiar and overdone ways to which we’ve grown accustomed. The relleno, for example, is an Anaheim chile engorged with canela (Mexican cinnamon) duck confit, goat cheese and a Manchamantel canela sauce. Spanish speakers will recognize Manchamantel as a combination of the words “mancha” which means “stain” and “mantel” which means “tablecloth.” In essence, the “tablecloth staining” sauce is a classic fruit-and-chile (probably Ancho chile) sauce with a flavor profile that includes piquancy and sweetness with a smattering of canela. The magnificent melange of flavors, textures and ingredients make this a superb starter.

Aztec NY Steak: Ancho-Chocolate Rub, Mushroom Empanada, Blackened Tomatillo Sauce, Mushroom Salsa, Borracho Beans

Aztec NY Steak: Ancho-Chocolate Rub, Mushroom Empanada, Blackened Tomatillo Sauce, Mushroom Salsa, Borracho Beans

If you’re still having problems wrapping your mind around the concept of gourmet tacos, fret not. It’s more important that you wrap your hands around the tacos themselves. That process is facilitated at Zacatecas which piles ingredients generously on two warm, soft tortillas redolent with the comforting aroma of fresh, sweet corn. Your perusal of the eight taco offerings (two per order) on the menu might rock your world. There are no hard-shelled tacos available, nor will you find any stuffed with ground beef. Even those non-ground beef tacos you might have had elsewhere aren’t made the way you might remember them. Carne asada tacos, for example, are made with grilled marinated rib eye steak, fire-roasted Guajillo salsa, queso fresco and cilantro.

Every taco on the menu is completely antithetical to the Taco Bell type tacos. If you’re an aficionado of fine swine, try the Cochinita de Pibil tacos, constructed of delicately shredded pork which is expertly wrapped then slow braised in banana leaves and chiles then topped with a tomatillo-chipotle salsa, escabeche, queso fresco and cilantro. The banana leaves seal in moisture and flavor while infusing the contents with a subtle, fresh grassy fragrance. The pork is shredded into tender tendrils of moist deliciousness enlivened by a tangy-fiery salsa. The queso fresco serves as a foil to break down the acids of the salsa and chile. These tacos are outstanding!

Tres Leches Cake

Tres Leches Cake

In Mexico the term chicharonnes can mean anything from the fried pork rinds-cracklings with which New Mexicans are well acquainted and chitterling-like pork skin. The latter has been known to make grown gastronomists quake with fear. The Tacos de Chicharron at Zacatecas are made from crispy pork belly and are very much reminiscent of the nurturing-comforting chicharrones made so well throughout the Land of Enchantment. These tacos are an adventure in contrasting flavors, textures and even temperatures with crispy, warm chicharrones ameliorated with caramelized onions, pleasantly piquant salsa de arbol and crisp, cool julienne apples. Every ingredient goes very well together to tantalize your taste buds.

More than at perhaps any restaurant in Albuquerque, the Zacatecas menu is about the concordant blending of ingredients and sauces to create unique flavor profiles. If the resultant blending wasn’t so delicious, you might wonder if the chef has a mad scientist complex. Take the pork loin entrada (entrée). It’s not enough to sheathe it in a pepita crust, the pork loin is topped with a manchamantel sauce and an onion-habanero marmalade with a side of poblano hominy (not posole). The chef can experiment with flavor combinations all he wants as long as every entrée is this good!

Sometimes, however, there can be too much of a good thing. Such may be the case with the Aztec NY Steak which certainly starts off on the right track. The right track is a steak crusted with a magnificent Ancho chile-chocolate rub. The unnecessary additive is a blackened tomatillo sauce “lagoon” around the steak which, though delicious, is a bit redundant, wholly unnecessary. The borracho beans aren’t necessary either. They’re too pedestrian for a steak of good quality. A very nice plus is a mushroom empanada, a cilantro pastry filled with wild mushrooms and queso fresco drizzled with a chipotle crema. It’s empanada excellence.

Zacatecas offers only five desserts: tres leches cake, Ancho chile brownie, Kahlua Coffee Flan, Mango Sorbet and Nieve con Cookies (Wedding cookies, warm Mexican chocolate and vanilla ice cream). All are made on the premises. The tres leches cake is moist and spongy courtesy of the three milks (sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream) for which this Mexican favorite is named. Topped with toasted almonds, this decadent dessert is calorie-laden, but well worth the extra miles to work it off.

The most significant difference between gourmet Zaca tacos and their pedestrian predecessors is the high quality of the former, but it’s also evident that quality costs. It’s also evident Zacatecos Tacos & Burritos is positioned to take tacos and Mexican food to new heights in the Duke City.

Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila
3423 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 January 2013
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Zacatecas Totopos, Duck Relleno, Tacos de Cochinita de Pibil, Tacos de Chicharron, Pepita Crusted Pork Loin, Aztec NY Steak, Tres Leches Cake

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Chile Rio Mexican Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Chile Rio, a Mexican-style grill on Pan American Highway West

In as delicious a dichotomy as you’ll find on any novel, the chapter from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which most terrorized and traumatized children actually provides glorious fantasy material for many adults.  In that memorable chapter, a gluttonous brat child named Augustus Gloop falls into a Chocolate River and is sucked through a pipe into a room in which fudge is manufactured.  By being squeezed through the pipe, Augustus’s once endomorphic body (described in the novel as “fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of his dough ball of a head“) is transformed and he emerges as an extremely svelte shadow of his former self. 

For calorically overachieving chocoholic adults who struggle with the battle of the bulge, the notion of falling into a river of indulgent chocolate then being sucked into a pipe and coming out thin is fantasy indeed.  While some adults might prefer that the river of chocolate be a brook of beer, the food fantasy of true New Mexicans who love our official state vegetable is to fall into a river of rich, delicious chile grown in the Land of Enchantment.  That, alas, is fantasy.  In the real world, we can visit Chile Rio Mexican Grill, perhaps the closest thing (at least in name) to a river of chile we’ll find in reality world.

The fun, festive ambiance at Chile Rio

Chile Rio, which opened on July 23rd, 2012 is hardly a river of chile, but chile does flow through many of the time-tested, traditional recipes executed by  Executive Chef George Abeyta who’s been cooking for four decades, including more than 36 years as chef at Garduño’s of Mexico.  The avuncular chef isn’t the only mainstay from Garduño’s to grace Chile Rio.  Dave Garduño, the founder and long-time owner of his eponymous restaurant empire manages the restaurant which is owned by a partnership which includes Sharon Davidson, Jeannine Kosel and Dave’s daughter Theresa Kelly.  All are peripatetic presences at the restaurant.

Thematically, there are some similarities to the Garduño’s restaurants with which Duke City residents will be quite familiar, especially in the use of vibrant colors, a fun and casual ambiance and of course, some of the most highly-regarded, premium hand-shaken  “skinny” margaritas in town.  Chile Rio is patterned after popular nightlife and dining hotspots in Mexican beach towns such as Cabo San Lucas which are renowned for their festive atmosphere, fun and excitement.  As with Garduño’s, Chile Rio is very much a guest-oriented concept…and have I mentioned that it’s a fun place to dine.

Your first basket of chips and salsa are complimentary at Chile Rio

The vibrant milieu has been so greatly transformed and optimized that it’s hard to believe it once housed the Allure Bar & Grill and before that Dickey’s, a Texas-based barbecue chain.   Situated on Pan American Freeway west of I25, even its signage, resplendent in a flourish of bright red and blue,  bespeaks of an invitation to fun.  So does the  expansive patio and its sun-shielding umbrellas.  Illuminated at night, the signage and patio are like beckoning beacons calling teeming hungry masses to an evening of fun, frolic and food.

The lunch menu is a greatly abbreviated version of the dinner menu with prix fixe entree specials Monday through Friday from 11AM through 3PM daily.  The dinner menu is much more interesting with a mix of Mexican and New Mexican entrees and botanas (appetizers) as well as a smattering of grilled favorites (such as sizzling skirt steak and chicken fajitas which are marinated in-house, slow-roasted carnitas and steak asada), street tacos and a Yucatan-style rotisserie chicken.  Also available are cemita sandwiches, a real treat between sesame bread made famous during an episode of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Chile Rio’s chef George Abeyta prepares guacamole tableside

In a guest-oriented departure from so many New Mexican restaurants, your first basket of chips and salsa are complimentary with additional servings costing a pittance.  The chips are housemade and are thicker than the brittle and thin chips you might be used to.  They’re also lightly salted and have a pronounced corn flavor.  Two salsas, one red and one green, are featured and both are quite good though not especially piquant.  The red is a two bowl minimum quality salsa.

A very special treat for guacamole lovers is having it prepared tableside to your specifications: hot, medium or mild.  Don’t be surprised if the guacamole is prepared specially for you by Chef George or maybe even David Garduño himself.  The guacamole is made with fresh California or Mexico avocados (two per order) depending on the season, fresh lime, white onions, garlic, cilantro and tomatoes (added last so they’re not mashed).  The guacamole has a chunky and creamy consistency and is served with seasoned flour tortilla chips.  The fact that guests can select their level of piquancy (hot is wonderful) places this at the top of my favorite guacamole starters in town.

Queso Blanco dip: tres queso blend, Hatch chile verde and pico de gallo with corn and flour tortilla chips

The Botanas menu offers several ways to have Chile Rio’s terrific chips.  In addition to the aforementioned chips with salsa and chips with guacamole, the menu includes Border Town Nachos (tri-color tortilla chips, frijoles charra, queso, jalapeño wheels, scallions, guacamole and sour cream), something called Tostada en Juantes (four mini corn masa shells with frijoles charra topped with queso fresca, salsa and guacamole) and a Queso Blanco Dip, one of the very best con queso appetizers in New Mexico.  It’s a rich and creamy three cheese blend ameliorated with Hatch chile verde, pico de gallo and scallions  served with both corn and flour tortilla chips.  It’s reminiscent of the con queso made in southern New Mexico and is wholly an antithesis to the gloppy con queso served at ballparks.

Deciding which entree to have is a challenge, one that will have you perusing the menu time and again.  There  are so many options that your most difficult challenge will be ordering one of your usual favorites or something brand new.  The Yucatan Rotisserie half-chicken is a little of both, a rotisserie chicken that’s different from most you’ve had.  The chicken is marinated for 24 hours in a rub of achiote paste and  citrus juices.  The rotisserie seals in the juices and the marinade of earthy achiote and sweet-tangy citrus penetrates deeply.   The Yucatan-style chicken is available with other entrees and should not be missed.

Yucatan Rotisserie Half Chicken served with Rio coleslaw, sweet street corn, pico de gallo, sweet corn cake, salsa and fresh flour tortillas

Not only does this entree exemplify plating as an art form, it’s indicative of the generous portion sizes and variety of accompaniment at Chile Rio. The chicken is served with sweet street corn, Rio coleslaw in a small, crisp tortilla bowl, pico de gallo which bites back and a sweet corn cake (a standard at Garduño’s). The corn-on-the-cob is sprinkled with cojita cheese which lends a saltiness and granular texture to the wonderfully sweet corn.  The Rio coleslaw is not only beautiful to behold, it’s a delicious assemblage of corn niblets, black beans and coleslaw.  The sweet corn cake is not quite dessert sweet, but has always been a unique Garduño’s offering.

My friend Joe O’Neill, founder, owner and on-air personality at KQTM-FM, The Team, Albuquerque’s best and highest-rated sports station, introduced me to Chile Rio.  Already a frequent visitor to the restaurant, he raves about the carnitas stuffed burrito (which can also be engorged with Yucatan chicken or carne adovada), comparing its cheese sauce to the famous sauce used at Charlie’s Front Door, an Albuquerque institution for nearly five decades.  That’s high praise indeed.

Smokin’ Fajitas: Served with sautéed onion, bell peppers, zucchini, guacamole,pico de gallo, sour cream, frijoles charra and flour tortillas. Available with Tequila-Lime Chicken, Beef Skirt Steak or Grilled Vegetables.

Another entree for which Garduño’s was long known was some of the very best fajitas in town.  Chef George takes pride in serving them sizzling and smoking in a cast iron skillet platter.  All eyes in the restaurant are instantly trained on the fajitas as they’re ferried to your table, an inviting fragrance wafting over everyone in the path of the smoke.  Take your pick of tequila-lime chicken, beef skirt steak (my Kim’s favorite) or grilled vegetables.  The beef skirt steak is as tender as a mother’s heart.  Served with sauteed onion, bell peppers, zucchini, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, frijoles charra and flour tortillas, it’s apparent Chef George hasn’t lost a step.  These are excellent.

A recent article on Food Network Magazine entitled “50 States, 50 Sandwiches” has invited debate as to what New Mexico’s best sandwich is.  Savvy sandwich savants would be hard-pressed to argue against the magazine’s selection of the outstanding Southwestern grilled cheese sandwich from the Mucho Gourmet Sandwich Shoppe in Santa Fe, but for the sake of debate, let me introduce a new contender.  As you peruse the Chile Rio menu, don’t overlook the Cemita Sandwich offerings. Often called a “Mexican Dagwood,” the cemita sandwich originated in Puebla, Mexico (also the birthplace of mole and chiles relleno en nogada) is brand new to New Mexico, but not to viewers of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Cemita Sandwich: sesame bread, chipotle crema, avocado spread, and Oaxaca cheese. Available with Yucatan Chicken or Slow-Roasted Pork Carnitas. Served with French Fries.

The Cemita Sandwich is one of the most exciting meals between bread to come around in a long time, a revelation even to those of us which thought we really knew Mexican food.  Culinary experts are so excited about the Cemita sandwich that Bon Appetit Magazine named it one of the top 25 food trends for 2013.   Chile Rio offers three variations, one made with Yucatan chicken, one made with steak asada and one made with pork milanesa.  The canvas for this masterpiece is a sesame bread bun atop of which are layered a chipotle crema, avocado spread and Oaxaca cheese.  Onion, tomato, pickle and large-leaf papalo, a Mexican herb are optional, but wholly unnecessary.  This can be a fabulous sandwich!  The unctuous and creamy guacamole and incendiary chipotle crema may replace mustard as my favorite sandwich condiment.  It’s a combination which adds punch to the slow-roasted pork carnitas which are tender and delicious. 

The secret to this sandwich is the blending of ingredients in perfect proportion.  Too much meat changes the flavor profile and masks the sauce.  Too much sauce and the sandwich is messy.  After bragging incessantly about the Cemita, my friend Paul Lilly and I visited Chile Rio and ordered it made with steak asada and pork Milanesa respectively.  In both cases, the meat was too thick and the chipotle crema-avocado spread was lost entirely.  By itself the carne asada would have made the very best steak sandwich in town, but we weren’t looking for a great steak sandwich.  Similarly, the pork Milanesa was so large that it dominated the flavor profile.  The best of the three Cemitas I’ve had is the one with Yucatan chicken.  That’s because there was a luscious blending of flavors and ingredients that showcase the unique deliciousness of the Cemitas sandwich I named to my “Best of the Best for 2012” list.

The Yucatan Chicken Cemitas Sandwich

Chile Rio offers only one burger on its menu, but it’s a unique burger well worth ordering.  It’s an interesting variation on New Mexico’s iconic green chile cheeseburger in that it’s made with three chiles and is, in fact, called the Rio 3 Chile Burger.  The three chiles are Hatch green chile (of course), breaded jalapeño wheels and pico de gallo.  Not to be understated on the flavor profile, there are also three quesos on the burger along with lettuce, tomato and chipotle mayo on a hand-form ground sirloin patty.  The Rio 3 Chile Burger is a multi-napkin affair brimming with flavor.  Despite the three chiles, most New Mexicans will handle its piquancy easily.

Dessert options include sopaipillas, a favorite of New Mexico’s throughout the state; fried ice cream and churros.  Often referred to as Spanish donuts, churros are indeed a fried pastry with a crunchy exterior and a soft, pillowy interior.  They’re sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with a caramel sauce.  Ask for a scoop of ice cream on the side to cut the sweetness and heat of the churros.

Churros with vanilla ice cream

Chile Rio is sure to become an Albuquerque favorite with its fun and festive ambiance and interesting, delicious food served in generous portions by an enthusiastic wait staff which aims to please.  Because I’ve already been asked numerous times, let me clarify that I’m not related to Chile Rio’s Garduño family though “Cousin” Theresa has quickly become one of my favorite restaurateurs in town.  With a smile that would light up UNM’s Pit and a real customer oriented attitude, she really cares that guests to her restaurant have not only a great meal, but a great time.

Chile Rio
4811 Pan American Fwy
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 January 2013
1st VISIT: 14 August 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Yucatan Rotisserie Half Chicken, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Cemita Sandwich with Carnitas, Cemita Sandwich with Yucatan Chicken, Rio 3 Chile Burger

ChileRio on Urbanspoon

Cafe Istanbul – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cafe Istanbul

Cafe Istanbul

One of the most common responses given as to why people choose to retire in Santa Fe is “because it’s so different.” While it may be true that the “City Different” is different from where respondents came, some native New Mexicans like my buddy Mike Muller postulate that Santa Fe has become the “City Same.” He’s talking about the architectural standards and city ordinances whose uniformity threaten to make Santa Fe a model of adobe-hued homogeneity. Mike points out that Santa Fe’s boring “sameness” hasn’t quite caught up with Albuquerque which in comparison is the rebellious kid in oversized jeans with underwear exposed to Santa Fe’s straight-laced, Catholic uniform-attired school girl.

For evidence he points out two architectural anomalies which would not make it in Santa Fe. One is the United Blood Services building whose sanguine facade can be seen a mile away. The other is the bright yellow building on Wyoming which houses Cafe Istanbul, a Mediterranean Grocery Store and Deli. In truth, Cafe Istanbul isn’t quite as bright today as it was in 2001 when Nick and Del Akkad launched their specialty store and deli. New Mexico’s bright sun has dulled the bright yellow somewhat, but it’s still bright enough to get your attention…and there’s nothing similarly colored in the immediate area. It stands out!

The dining area at Cafe Istanbul

The surprisingly commodious dining area at Cafe Istanbul

Color not withstanding, at Cafe Istanbul, you’ll find 2,200 square feet of deliciousness. Some is in the form of hard-to-find Middle Eastern specialty foods showcased in Cafe Istanbul’s well-stocked shelves and some is in the form of traditional Mediterranean dishes. Before Cafe Istanbul, some of the specialty items were literally impossible to find in Albuquerque. Many of the comestible items are imported directly from the Cradle of Civilization: Lebanon, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries.

You can pick up in bulk such specialty items as your favorite exotic Mediterranean cheeses, olives and even those briny pickles served with many Middle Eastern entrees. There are two freezers dedicated solely to various breads. You can also purchase by the pound, some of your favorite Middle Eastern entrees and appetizers: gyros meat, falafel, kababs, baba ganouj, tahini, taramasalata (carp roe which is sometimes referred to as Greek caviar), baklava and so much more. Do comparison pricing and you’ll find that Cafe Istanbul offers lower prices (and better variety, authenticity, experience, etc.) than the chains.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" peruses the grocery aisles for Middle Eastern commestibles

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver peruses the grocery aisles for Middle Eastern commestibles

That variety includes the taste bud awakening spices that infuse Middle Eastern cuisine with its unique flavor and pungency: curry powder, cumin, coriander, green cardamom, tumeric and ground sumac (the non-poisonous member of the genus). One of the great benefits of shopping at Cafe Istanbul is that you don’t have to wait to get home to partake of Mediterranean fare. Smart shoppers plan a meal around their shopping. 

The name “Cafe Istanbul” seems a bit anomalous in that the restaurant owners are actually Palestinian, not Turkish.  If you consider, however,  Istanbul’s prominence on the spice routes of Marco Polo, the name actually makes great sense.  Even today Istanbul is renowned for spice markets replete with exotic and spices and seasonings which make Middle Eastern cuisine one of the most flavorful in the world.  Those spices are in use on many of Cafe Istanbul’s offerings.

Baba Ganoug and Humus with pita bread

Baba Ganoug and Humus with pita bread

In recent years Cafe Istanbul has expanded its dining area, making it commodious enough for the throngs of  hungry guests it attracts.  Perhaps indicative of its authenticity, many of the female diners (as well as the kitchen staff) don Hijabs, the veils which cover women’s hair in Muslim countries.  A mural on the west-facing wall in the dining area is of a caravan in which camels, the ship of the desert, ferry supplies across an arid expanse.

Arrive at Cafe Istanbul too early for lunch, however, and you might just find that some of the meat items aren’t quite ready. It’s worth the fifteen minute to half-hour wait for these tasty meat and lamb entrees to reach the height of their succulent, juicy peak. Besides, you can wait at the comfortable booths in the dining area while noshing on some of the cafe’s wonderful pre-prandial items. To quote perhaps the definitive blog on the subject of humus “Eat humus. Give chickpeas a chance.”



The humus at Cafe Istanbul is among the very best in the city. Humus, the Arab and Hebrew word for chickpeas, is made with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic. At Cafe Istanbul, ground sumac (which lends a slightly lemony flavor) is sprinkled liberally on top. Green olives, pickles and green tomatoes are strategically positioned for a deliciously, decorative touch. This humus plate is a thing of beauty–rich and redolent in flavor, just beckoning for pita bread.

Consider it folly if you will, but one of the best things to have with humus is baba ganouj (is there any better sounding food in the world?). At its elemental level, baba ganouj starts with roasted eggplant which is ground and mixed with various spices. You might never achieve consensus as to what spices go into baba ganoug. Options range from allspice and cinnamon to garlic and parsley. The only consensus is that, made right, it makes a delicious dip for warm pita bread and whatever else you might want to dip into it.



At Cafe Istanbul, the baba ganouj has a rich, creamy texture and is similarly spice-adorned to the humus. Don’t be repulsed by the greenish tomatoes. Use them to scoop up a hefty portion of humus or baba ganouj and you might just be asking for seconds on the tomatoes. You’ll certainly be asking for a double meat portion on your gyros. Cafe Istanbul’s rendition of this popular Greek sandwich is served with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and “special” sauce (tzatziki). The meat is succulent, juicy and tender, a delicious amalgam of beef and lamb shavings prepared on a vertical spit. These may be the most juicy gyros you’ll find in the Duke City.

The Saudi Arabian sandwich alternative to the Greek gyro is shawerma, marinated beef and lamb seasoned with various spices (sumac is most prominent) tucked into warm pita bread. Wow! Cafe Istanbul’s version of shawerma is unbelievably good. Tender tendrils of meat, onions, chopped tomatoes and spices on a soft, moist pita are in perfect meat to vegetable to bread ratio.  There is also a  nice textural and temperature contrast of warm bread against cool veggies and hot, seasoned meat that make each bite flavorful and adventurous.


Savvy diners will forgo the sandwich options and opt instead for gyros, kabob or shawerma platters.  The platters include rice, humus, pickles, pita bread and tabbooleh, a refreshing salad made with parsley, mint, tomatoes, green onions and various spices. One of the reasons this is a good option is because you can make your own sandwich on the pita provided and still have several wonderful sides.  Better still, order extra pita so you can scoop up those sumptuous sides.  The warm pita at Cafe Istanbul is wonderful!

Traditionally, kebabs are a traditional Turkish dish made from meat roasted vertically on a spit. Kebabs are  closely related to gyros from Greece and other traditional spit-roasted meats from around the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Sometimes the interpretation can be a bit liberal.  The kebabs at Cafe Istanbul barely resemble gyros meat at all.  Instead, the amalgam of beef and lamb is cubed into bite-sized pieces and seasoned liberally with sumac.  The kebab platter (pictured below) is quite good.

Kebab Platter

Kebab Platter

To bring full authenticity to your dining experience at Cafe Istanbul, you’ll want to enjoy a cup (or three) of Turkish coffee, an unusually strong sweetened coffee made with unfiltered coffee grounds.  Turkish coffee (like Vietnamese coffee) is an acquired taste even for coffee aficionados.  It’s served in small cups of perhaps three ounces of liquid.  Drink too much of it and you just might start pinging off the walls. 

Finish your meal with a dessert of Baklava, the most famous of Lebanese pastries, although they are also popular in other Middle East countries and more closely associated with Greece. This sweet pastry is made using numerous sheets of phyllo dough with butter brushed between each layer. My favorite of Cafe Istanbul’s baklava is layered with pistachios which are widely available throughout Turkey.  the ground pistachios help cut the cloying combination of honey and sugar which top baklava

Spinach Pie

Spinach Pie

Everything at Cafe Istanbul is made fresh daily and no preservatives are used. Everything is also delicious and inexpensive. Two can eat very well for about thirty dollars.

Cafe Istanbul
1415 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 294-9900
Cafe Istanbul Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2013
BEST BET: Shawerma, Gyros, Baba Ganouj, Humus, Vegetarian Plate, Spinach Pie

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Meet Andrea Feucht, Author of The Food Lovers’ Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos

Food Lovers' Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque & Taos

Food Lovers’ Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque & Taos

Widely recognized as one of the most foremost authorities on the New Mexico dining scene, Andrea Feucht is very passionate when it comes to the Land of Enchantment’s food. Andrea shares her passion with everyone in her new book, The Food Lovers Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos, a terrific tome all foodies should own.  Better still, buy at least two copies of–one copy in your vehicle and one in your kitchen. That way you consult the guide to help you decide where your next meal should come from as well as consulting it for recipes Andrea charmed some of New Mexico’s best culinary minds into sharing. 

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Andrea about her new book.  As with any conversation with the tenacious author, it was an informative, thought-provoking and revealing interview I hope all of you will enjoy.

Q: Many congratulations on The Food Lovers Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos. It’s an amazingly comprehensive guide, but it doesn’t read like a lot of guides which are so formulaic in their writing. How did you manage to balance providing information with making it fun and interesting for readers?

A: Interestingly, it was the structure that let me cut loose once I started writing. I had a formula to follow based on the other books in the “Food Lovers’ Guide” series: regional chapters with sub-categories like “foodie faves” and “landmarks” and “shopping”. I added the category “All Chile, All the Time” to capture local favorites. Each of the 250+ entries gets about 200 words – incredibly hard to keep my stories that brief. If you read the New Yorker, their “Tables for Two” reviews are in the 200-300 word count length and incredibly dense with information. I *love* those reviews and draw constant inspiration from their brevity.

Q: Please describe your process for deciding which restaurants you were going to feature. With hundreds of options available to you, it must have been quite a challenge.

A: I was able to conjure up at least 2/3 of the restaurants off the top of my head based on personal experience – particularly in Albuquerque where I live and eat. The rest were found by lots of research – asking foodie friends, reading dozens of blogs and magazines for tidbits and gossip, and visiting the promising new spots.

Q: Which number is more significant—the number of miles you put on your car visiting so many restaurants or the calories you consumed eating so many wonderful dishes?

A: Good question! I’d say the miles, actually. I was able to keep the calories shockingly reasonable by sharing, ordering sparingly, or taking a few bites and discarding the rest. The food I threw out was kind of regrettable, but necessary when visiting 2 dozen spots over a weekend! I also used the Railrunner a bit for my Santa Fe visits, which let me write on the ride up and back rather than focus on driving.

Andrea enjoying huevos rancheros

Andrea enjoying huevos rancheros

Q: What were the biggest surprises you uncovered during your travels throughout the Rio Grande corridor?

A: It *shouldn’t* come as a surprise, but the willingness of chefs and owners to talk about their “babies” – once you ask a few questions about the founding of their restaurant most of them will talk your ear off. I had wonderful conversations with folks like Roberto Cordova of Casa Chimayo who have been carrying their family legacy for generations, trying to keep their business afloat through these hard years. He is so proud of his grandmother’s red chile posole recipe he shared a big bowl with me; the restaurant’s front area even has old photos of her rolling tortillas in her 80s.

Q: One of the many things I appreciated about The Food Lovers Guide is how you were able to show that the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment is so much more than red and green chile. Other than the use of chile, even in desserts, what makes New Mexico’s cuisine so unique?

A: In a way New Mexico can be a little honey-badger-like: our restaurants are proud to serve this food with blue corn and posole and sopaipillas and we don’t care what people think. Is the chile too hot? Awww, too bad; maybe you should try Texas instead! We differ from neighboring states in that we don’t try to invent new things or be like another cuisine – we just *are*.

Q: You’ve long been a proponent of farm-to-table and locavore dining and it came across very well in your book. Many of the restaurants you featured in your book embrace those concepts as well. With New Mexico being such an agrarian state, how do you foresee the future of farm-to-table and locavore dining?

A: It will only get better, not just in New Mexico but in the whole country. There are young farmers who have started up after not finding a “regular” job they could love: in Albuquerque we have Monte Skaarsgard as one of the first big celebrities, but it is all over the state. An acquaintance I know from trail running gave up all of that and went back to his family’s farm near Silver City and took over – he’s packed on 30 pounds of muscle on his skinny runner frame and looks like someone who is in LOVE with his life. That is key.

The more consumers get to know where their food comes from, the better things will get at all levels. YES you should know your farmer. YES you should try your own little garden – even herbs to start out, on your windowsill. YES you should buy local meat and eggs! YES you should ask your grocery store to carry these things, and YES you should demand it from your restaurants. Just imagine the impact it would have on struggling local farmers to have every Weck’s and Olive Garden and Subway getting their produce and meat locally!

Andrea with world's largest chopsticks


Q: It was also refreshing to read a guide that doesn’t include any chain restaurants (other than “local” chains such as Il Vicino). Will there ever come a day in which mom-and-pop dining establishments are preferred by the masses to the chains?

A: One can hope. In the meantime, refer to above – ASK every single restaurant you ever patronize if they use local ingredients and if not, when they will. Be that squeaky wheel.

Q: How were you able to coax the wonderful recipes featured on your book from some of New Mexico’s very best chefs?

A: I paid them in French truffles. Just kidding. It was easier than I expected to get each of the chefs to AGREE to contribute something. Usually you just lead in with, “I really adore your food and would be so honored if you could share a recipe with me for my book.” Speaking to the ego works quite often, of course.

The difficulty sometimes came when making sure I actually got my recipe – being there in person helps quite a bit, as chefs are really, really busy. I did send quite a few emails asking if they could please send that recipe on over as soon as possible, but in the end it was all just peachy. I hope they are satisfied with how their creations come through in my words.

Q: Food trucks, which you also recognized in your book, used to be stereotyped as “roach coaches,” but in recent years, a new breed of adventurous chefs are taking to a mobile mode of showcasing gourmet-quality dishes. How do you see the future of the food truck movement?

A: I hope it continues to blossom here in New Mexico. In reality, many of the food trucks nationwide were started out of frustration: inability to find a good space, lack of start-up funds, an unproven concept (kimchee quesadillas?). Permitting and actually opening a restaurant is so much money most folks would be shocked – hopefully they’d also not blanch so much at menu prices as a result.

Ironically, permitting is the downfall of many trucks – you can’t find a place to park or your kitchen needs some upkeep to pass the rigorous testing. I hope that statewide and nationwide that regulations do not stymie future growth (outright outlawing of food trucks has been done in some cities already, with support often coming from established restaurant organizations). In the meantime, go visit our local trucks and enjoy their creativity and value – you won’t regret it.

Q: For years, Santa Fe’s dining scene has seemingly garnered all the attention in New Mexico, but this past year Albuquerque was recognized for its culinary excellence by both Fodor’s and Zagat. To what do you attribute that recognition? Why has the Duke City always been Miss Congeniality to Santa Fe’s Miss America?

A: I’m not sure if Fodor’s and Zagat are waking up to how big Albuquerque is, but the recognition is certainly welcome. Truth be told, there is still more money in Santa Fe to be spent – it is a destination for vacations and a refuge for wealthy retirees and that means the purse strings will be loosened when eating out compared to your everyday eats like here in Albuquerque. There are places in Santa Fe that do still blow Albuquerque’s competition out of the water – it’s true. But in Albuquerque we are doing alright. Jennifer James will be a torchbearer for some time, but don’t discount innovation like Farina, Farm & Table, Torino’s, or even Bailey’s on the Beach.

Q: How on earth did you write this in 10 weeks while holding down a full time job?

A: I still am not entirely sure, but the last four weeks averaged three hours of sleep per night and the final week brought on a full-onslaught chest cold that left me with laryngitis for ten days. It was surreal, stressful and amazingly rewarding. AND I met my deadline. Whew.

Where can readers find a copy of the Food Lovers’ Guide?

I would hope everyone would buy the book locally, but if they prefer online shopping, you can find my book at http://amzn.to/foodloversnm or http://foodloversnm.com/. They can also contact me to ask questions about ANYTHING food related: a@foodloversnm.com and can find me on Facebook at http://fb.me.foodloversnm. 

On Saturday, January 19th, I’ll be at Bookworks  for a signing and would love to meet New Mexico food lovers.  More on the event can be found here