Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: January, 2018

Green Chile Cheeseburger from Cafe Laurel

If you visit a New Mexican restaurant and you’re offered red or green “sauce,” you might have to question if (like Bugs Bunny) you made a left turn in Albuquerque and wound up in Denver.  Virtually no one calls our sacrosanct red and green chile “sauces.”  That is virtually no one who’s lived in the Land of Enchantment for a while or the Travel Channel.  In an episode of Food Paradise entitled “Saucy,” the Travel Channel showcased some of the best sauce-driven dishes across the fruited plain. Recognized for its red and green chile “sauces” was Santa Fe’s Tia Sophia’s, a veritable institution on the famous Plaza.

In its February issue, Sunset Magazine named Albuquerque as one of “20 Game-Changers That Are Redefining the West,” ranking the Duke City 17th.  “Considering the strong public-art program, miles of hiking trails, and 310 annual days of sunshine, it’s no wonder the locals don’t boast. They’re too busy living,” wrote Sunset’s editors.  Sunset also noted “coffee roasters, restaurants, and food trucks are launching to keep up, many of them focused on local, organic produce, especially New Mexico’s beloved green chile.”

Foie Gras (Hudson Valley Foie, Caramelized Apple, Pickled Strawberry, House Ciabatta) From M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria in Albuquerque

To get all existential about it – how do I know the perfect donut for me is the perfect donut for you? The truth is there really is no Perfect Donut because we all love different things. So at Rebel Donut, we are all about options.”  How’s that for an appealing mission statement or operating philosophy, not that Rebel Donut’s Web site calls it that.  With that level of commitment to variety and people pleasing, is it any wonder Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut was named “The Best Donut Shop in New Mexico” by Delish.  Like Rebel Donut, Delish believes “there’s no wrong way to eat a donut.”  To compile its list of each state’s best donuts, Delish consulted Yelp, increasingly the most reliable crowd-source on culinary matters.

In most of America, winter sucks. It is cold out. You don’t feel like doing anything, so you get fat. Pipes freeze. Lips, noses, and cheeks get chapped and raw. Black ice kills.”  That’s how Thrillist began its feature “Every State Ranked By How Miserable Its Winters Are.”  Not surprisingly the state whose winters were deemed most palatable was Hawaii while Minnesota’s winter was rated most miserable.  New Mexico was ranked 45th in the winter misery index, meaning our winters are the fifth best across the fruited plain.  It may raise your temperature to learn that Thrillist believes “New Mexico is basically Colorado” because we both “have high plains, mountain ranges, deserts, basins, and affiliations to green chile.”

Nutella and Cinnamon Cream Crepe from Breve

BuzzFeed which purports to have “all the trending buzz you’ll want to share with your friends” consulted Yelp to uncover the top new restaurant that opened in 2017 in every single state.  Taking into account the number of reviews and star ratings for every new restaurant on the site, Buzzfeed then compiled a list of “the one restaurant to try in every state in 2018.”  New Mexico’s very best new restaurant, according to Yelp’s algorithm was Fresh Bistro in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.  Yelper Bella B. described Fresh as “Lovely French- and Italian-inspired creations will keep you enticed at this charming, cozy, and newly transformed restaurant in Los Ranchos.”

Cheapism, an online presence which scours the internet for news stories and resources that are informative and fun and can help you save money, acknowledges that “no shortage of cheap, delicious pizza across America, but sometimes something that demands a little more finesse, like veal parmigiana or ravioli heaped with red sauce, is required.”  In tracking down “the best old-school Italian restaurant in every state,” believed there could only be one choice for the best Italian restaurant in New Mexico.   Joe’s Pasta Houseoffers an oasis of Italian just north of Albuquerque. Go traditional with a dish like carbonara, ziti alla vodka or gnocchi, or try the well-reviewed Southwestern fettucine, which has green chile and crushed red peppers for a local twist.” 

Salad with Green Chile Ranch Dressing from Seared

A coffee shop’s design often reflects its neighborhood.”   Perhaps only an architect would think in those terms.  The rest of us typically walk into our favorite coffee shops in a weary and bleary state and only after a caffeine fix do we even notice the ambiance which surrounds us.  The Architectural Digest published its list of the most beautiful coffee shop in every state in America.  The Land of Enchantment’s most beautiful coffee shop was deemed to be Zendo in Albuquerque.  Here’s what the Digest had to say: “On warm days, the outdoor patio at Zendo is open for seating, marked by a colorful mural and covered by sailcloth. The minimalist interior—white-washed brick walls and concrete floors—is pretty sweet, too.” 

Grabbing guac? Craving queso? Dips reflect history, a sense of place and evoke a strong sense of home-state pride, whether they feature locally caught seafood, export-worthy cheese or indigenous produce. So grab that cracker, chip, fry or veggie, and dig into the dips that give each state something to sing about.”  That’s how the Food Network Magazine began its feature 50 States of Dips.  Arizona’s best dip is salsa while California goes gaga for guacamole and Colorado gets mountain high over choriqueso (from a restaurant called Chili Verde).  Representing the Land of Enchantment is the Frontier Restaurant’s Green Chile Salsa. “The salsa gets a double dose of heat from flame-roasted green chiles and jalapenos, which are simmered with sautéed onions, tomatoes and spices and served warm.” 

Green Chile Cheeseburger from the Pecos River Cafe in Carlsbad. Photo Courtesy of Melodie K.

A Travel Channel program called Roadside Eats: Top 20 counts down the “top 20 restaurants in America that might just require a little extra mileage to get to. Just off I-25 in the desert hamlet of San Antonio is the world-famous Owl Cafe where the original owner Jose Miera is credited with having invented the green chile cheeseburger.  The Owl Cafe was the only restaurant in New Mexico to have made the list, but savvy New Mexicans know that the Buckhorn Tavern another destination roadside eat lies just across the street from The Owl and it’s not just The Owl’s overflow crowds who visit.  San Antonio is an exemplar of roadside eats! 

The 2018 Roadrunner Food Bank Souper Bowl in Albuquerque

Every year on the Saturday preceding some much ballyhooed football game, Albuquerque’s Roadrunner Food Bank hosts the Souper Bowl, an annual soup and dessert event which brings 1,200 people into the Food Bank facility to enjoy the wonderful creations of restaurants from throughout the metro area.  While at the event, attendee are able to vote for and select People’s Choice winners by submitting a ballot voting for their favorite soup and dessert.   Drumroll, please. The 2018 Souper Bowl winners were: 

People’s Choice – Overall Soup Winners
1st: The Corn Maiden at the Hyatt Tamaya (Sweet Corn Chowder)
2nd: 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen (Vegetarian Soup- plantain fennel and butternut squash)
3rd: Indigo Crow (Lavender and corn bisque with smoked crema)

People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup Winners
1st: 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen (Vegetarian Soup- plantain fennel and butternut squash)
2nd: The Daily Grind  (Blue cheese root vegetable)
3rd: Zacatecas Tacos (Negro Modelo-Tillamook Cheddar Soup

People’s Choice – Dessert Winners
1st: Nothing Bundt Cakes
2nd: Garduños
3rd: Theobroma Chocolatier

Best Booth
1st: Zactecas Tacos + Tequila+ Bourbon
2nd: 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen
3rd: Sage Dining @ Albuquerque Academy

Critic’s Choice Awards were chosen by a panel of six judges (including yours truly) who rated each soup based on appearance, aroma, texture, spice blend, flavor and overall impression.

Critics’ Choice Winners
1st Place: Sage Dining @ Albuquerque Academy (“Street” Elote Soup- Roasted Corn Chowder topped with Cotija Cheese)
2nd Place: Ranchers Club of New Mexico (Crab and Green Chile Chowder with Corn)
3rd Place: Garduños (Elote Soup)

Celebrating its 24th anniversary, Santa Fe’s version of the Souper Bowl was also a huge success. In 2017, over 160,000 meals were served that might otherwise been missed, thanks to the generosity of soup lovers, who supported this event. Some of the city’s very best purveyors of soup accorded themselves very well:

Best Overall Soup: Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine (Chicken Tom Yum Soup)
Best Savory Soup: Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine (Chicken Tom Yum Soup)
Best Vegetarian: Kingston Residence of Santa Fe (Cold Pistachio Soup)
Best Seafood Soup: Dinner For Two (Lobster Bisque)
Best Cream Soup: Jambo Cafe (Curry Roasted Garlic & Coconut Cream Bisque)

Seared – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Seared on San Pasqual in Albuquerque’s Old Town

While you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, sometimes a book title will resonate deeply and you know you’re going to enjoy reading it very much. That’s especially true when a book title warmly reminds you of nostalgic memories long buried in your past. Such was the case when I espied Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood by award-winning raconteur Regi Carpenter. That title aptly described daily life for the long suffering Peraltas, our childhood neighbors in Peñasco. Mama Peralta, one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, was such a scatterbrained cook that she used the smoke alarm as a timer. She didn’t sear meat, she cremated it. Even the cockroaches at the Peralta home ate out. So did her children who had more meals at our kitchen table than they did at home.

“Wait,” you ask, “isn’t searing a technique practiced by great chefs?” In the hands of the right person, searing is indeed a culinary technique used to build deep savory flavors. Searing meats, chicken, fish and other proteins at high heat caramelizes their surfaces, imparting a deep-brown crust, especially on thick cuts. Searing crisps the skin on fish and imbues pork chops and other animal proteins a deep layer of flavor in a short amount of time. Alas, Mama Peralta’s idea of searing meat involved heat that was much too low (which allowed her to focus on the marathon phone call sessions in which she engaged at around meal prep time). As a result, the inside of the meat cooked at the same rate as the outside, resulting in very little browning, a zombie-gray pallor, ”carne seca” texture and a perpetually disappointed (and hungry) family.

The Dining Room at Seared

For entirely different reasons, a visit to Seared, a high-end American bistro on San Pasquale Avenue in Albuquerque’s Old Town, also reminded me of our deliciousness-deprived neighbors. At Seared we experienced the type of deliciousness our neighbors never enjoyed when Mama Peralta practiced her unique brand of meat mummification and her family prayed after they ate. Perhaps divine intervention would have occurred had the Peraltas lived on a street named for the patron saint of cooks and kitchens. Then again, Mama Peralto often used the San Pasqual retablo hanging on her kitchen wall as a place to drape dish towels (we could never understand why she needed dish towels when all meals she prepared were served on paper plates).

Seared is located on southwest side of the weirdly confusing, labryinthic Old Town intersection in which Lomas Boulevard meets Central Avenue and San Pasquale crosses both. Getting there is a challenge, but your patience will be rewarded—just as it was more than a decade ago when Jennifer James–then a relative newcomer to the Duke City–plied her craft at the then occupant, Chef DuJour. More recently, the “plain Jane” edifice has been the home of Cheese & Coffee, a popular purveyor of specialty sandwiches, made-from-scratch soups and crisp, fresh salads. Habitues of Cheese & Coffee can still get their favorite sandwiches at the tried, true and trusted San Pasquale location. They just won’t be able to get them after 3PM.

Fried Asparagus with Green Chile Ranch Dressing

Since late-August, 2017, at precisely 3PM, the 2,100-square-foot space begins its daily transformation from simple sandwich shop to Seared, an upscale American bistro “with a French and Italian twist.” The metamorphosis takes an hour during which white linen tablecloths are draped over dining room tables, silverware is laid out meticulously, moveable walls are rearranged and even the art is changed out. The art, by the way, includes colorful portraits of some of your favorite characters from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Signage is also changed out, a relatively easy feat considering there’s no flashy neon or LED involved.

Seared is the brainchild of Jan Barringer-Tenchipe and her husband and business partner Alejandro. Jan has owned the San Pasquale location of Cheese & Coffee for seven years, but with the notorious Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project having proven deleterious to business, she decided to offer Duke City diners another reason to visit the beleaguered Old Town area. Besides that, she and Alejandro had wanted to work together for a while. Seared aptly describes Alejandro’s cooking style, a style he honed in upscale and fine-dining restaurants throughout the city. During our inaugural visit, both Jan and Alejandro checked up on us several times. Their hospitality and commitment to great food and impeccable service is genuine and one of many reasons we’ll be back.

Salmon Crudo

Another reason, of course, is the menu, a compelling bill-of-fare that defies ordering quickly. You’ll be hard-pressed to decide what to order. Everything listed is appealing. Should you visit on Sunday for brunch, you’ll have two equally enticing menus from which to choose–an intriguing brunch menu and the sumptuous daily menu.  We opted for the daily menu, reasoning that we now have an excuse to return on a lazy, brunchy Sunday afternoon.  Another excuse, not that one is needed, is a pleasant dog-friendly patio with plenty of shade behind the restaurant.  You’ll want to peruse the herb garden where such fresh ameliorants as rosemary, basil, parsley and more can be found.

What surprised us most about the menu is how relatively inexpensive each entree is considering the generous portion size and quality of preparation.  This is fine-dining at near cheap-eats prices.  The appetizer menu ranges from salmon crudo to encrusted brie and a cheese platter offering a diversity of local and imported fromage.  The soup and salad menu includes one of the best described chopped salads we’ve seen on any menu.  If it tastes as good as it reads, it’ll be a hit among Duke City diners.  Entrees showcase all your favorite proteins: pork, beef, chicken and fish.  There’s also a vegetarian entree which just might convert some of us carnivores.

French-Cut Pork Chop

17 September 2017: It took us nearly ten minutes to decide which appetizer to request. Our choice, the fried asparagus served with a green chile ranch is a winner.  Lightly coated in a tempura batter, the half-dozen asparagus spears are firm and crisp with none of the stringiness you find in poorly fried asparagus (Mama Peralta).  Though addictive on their own, the housemade green chile ranch dressing elevates the fried asparagus to the “must have” appetizer level.  The green chile ranch isn’t as piquant as the one now offered at Dion’s, but it, too, is so good it should be bottled and sold.  Seeing a generous portion of the green chile ranch remaining after we had polished off the asparagus made it easy to decide what dressing would be gracing the salad accompanying my entree.  The salad, an old-fashioned dinner salad with fresh, crisp greens, croutons, cherry tomatoes and shredded carrots is terrific. 

28 January 2018: In Japan, until some three decades ago salmon was eaten only cooked or grilled.  That meant no salmon sashimi, salmon sushi or salmon crudo.  Wait, aren’t salmon sashimi and salmon crudo the same thing?  Both involve mastering the art of raw fish, but that’s where the similarities stop.  Sashimi is about appreciating the purity of masterfully sliced fish while crudo, an Italian term, is very ingredient-driven.  Seared’s appetizer menu includes a salmon crudo (citrus-cured salmon, pickled onions, carrot salad, wasabi aioli and soy ginger sauce) dish that’s not only beautiful, but is constructed from ingredients which work so very well together.  The mild-flavored, pink-fleshed salmon is neither too rich or oily and it sings neath the wasabi aioli and soy ginger sauce.  It’s meant to be eaten with the carrot salad which is garden-fresh and lively under the same saucy influences.  Together this starter is a great way to start a meal at Seared.

House Cut Loin Steak

17 September 2017: Often when unable to choose from two equally evocative entrees, I ask our server to surprise me, always assuring him or her that either choice will make me happy.  The slow-braised French-cut pork chop made me very happy indeed.   As with proteins which are “Frenched,” the meat is cut away from the end of the chop so that part of the bone is exposed, essentially giving it a built-in “handle” which makes it easy to pick up and eat.  Another portion of the pork chop is roughly six-ounces of artfully prepared, absolutely delicious porcine perfection.  The chop is positioned atop a creamy, delectable grain mustard sauce that’s been tempered a bit so as not to obfuscate the delicate flavor of the pork.   The chop is served with a mound of rich potatoes au gratin and a fennel apple salad that rings with freshness. This chop competes with the bone-in pork chop at Mykonos Cafe for “best in town” honors.

17 September 2017: My Kim’s house cut loin steak proved equally formidable, reminding us of the many times we enjoyed loin steak in England.  Though usually basted with chimichurri sauce, Kim asked that it be served on the side.  No sauce was needed.  Sliced thinly into medium-rare visions of pink pulchritude, the loin steak was fulsome and flavorful with a rich beefy flavor.  The herbaceous notes imparted by the chimichurri appealed to me, but my Kim is much more a purist than I when it comes to the flavor of beef.  Accompaniment for this terrific steak came in the form of roasted red potatoes and calabasitas (a substitute for broccolini).  Both are equal to the task of sharing space on a plate with that magnificent loin steak. 

Grand Slam Chicken

28 January 2018: When used in the context of  food, the term “grand slam” may inadvertently trigger thoughts of Denny’s grand slam breakfasts, a pick your favorite four-item array of breakfast favorites.  Visit Seared for Sunday brunch and you’ll never again associate grand slam with Denny’s.  Seared’s Grand Slam Chicken (thick chicken fried chicken nestled in two fluffy, homemade buttermilk biscuits along with a molten blanket of Cheddar, crispy sliced bacon all topped country sausage gravy) will forever be your favorite grand slam breakfast.  This sumptuous sandwich reminds your humble blogger of the Charleston Nasty Breakfast from the Hominy Grill in South Carolina and if you read my review, you’ll see just how highly I think of that sandwich.  Served alongside the grand slam chicken are some of the best roasted red potatoes in town.  Not only are they perfectly roasted, they’re flecked with rosemary which imparts invigorating freshness.

28 January 2018: When Chef Alejandro ferried the Filet De Boeuf (an eight-ounces of local, grass-fed beef, roasted red skin potatoes and red onions, asparagus, red wine demi-glaze reduction and roasted garlic butter)  destined for my Kim’s side of our table, I almost reached up to intercept it.  The Chef’s mastery of meats and complementary sauces is in rarefied air.   An artistic stacked food plate on a white background is how professionals do it, but a pretty meal doesn’t always translate to a delicious one.  This one is both beautiful and delicious.  Prepared at medium-rare, the filet is tender, juicy and tasty as well as devoid of any extraneous fat and sinew.  The red wine demi-glaze is superb, so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate so as not to leave any.  The roasted red skin potatoes  and red onions are worthy accompaniment as are the asparagus spears.  This is the most expensive item on the menu, but it’s well worth the price.

Filet De Boeuf

17 September 2017: Jan is the baker in the family though Alejandro wishes she prepared her German Chocolate Cake more often at home.  It’s simply the best German chocolate cake I’ve ever had at any restaurant, equal to the version made by my not-at-all Teutonic mom.  One of the things we appreciated in this cake is that it is served at room temperature, not obviously thawed to order.  The coconut-pecan frosting is slathered on generously, but not so much that it overwhelms the delicate chocolate cake itself.  Another surprise we enjoyed is the sweet-tart raspberry jam spread atop the frosting.  It’s goodness on top of goodness.  The portion size is very lavish.  Call it a sizeable slab of sumptuousness.

17 September 2017: For my Kim, the perusal of a dessert menu stops and ends when she espies sorbet.  Her excitement is in triplicate when a sorbet trio is available.  Seared’s sorbet trio features three of her favorites: mango, lemon and raspberry.  All three flavors are fresh, lively and delicious with the icy coolness you appreciate most when temperatures are unseasonably warm.

German Chocolate Cake

Seared is one of the very best reasons to make your way to the Downtown area.  Jan and Alejandro aim to please and their aim is certainly true. 

Seared
119 San Pasqual, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 999-8414
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 January 2018
1st VISIT: 17 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Fried Asparagus, French-Cut Pork Chop, House Cut Loin Steak, German Chocolate Cake, Sorbet Trio, Filet De Boeuf, Grand Slam Chicken, Salmon Crudo
REVIEW #999

Seared Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Agave – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

El Agave Mexican Restaurant in Rio Rancho’s Lujan Plaza

“Why, this here sauce is made in New York City!”
“New York City? Git a rope!”

No matter how broad-minded we may perceive ourselves to be, most of us are burdened by covert biases and prejudices that reveal themselves at inopportune times.  One of mine was divulged during my inaugural visit to El Agave Mexican Restaurant in Rio Rancho.  After being greeted warmly by effusive hostess Lilly Venegas (who could not possibly have been nicer), I began my usual “twenty questions” routine to learn everything I could about the restaurant.  Beaming with pride, she told me her brother-in-law had owned and operated two Mexican restaurants for more than twenty years in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

North Carolina!  North Carolina!  My mind raced to the circa 1980s Pace Picante Sauce commercial in which several hungry cowboys threatened to string up the cook for serving a “foreign” salsa (translation: not made in Texas).  To be fair, my ridiculous notion that good Mexican food couldn’t possibly be prepared in North Carolina was based on having lived and traveled in the Deep South for eight years.  During those octennial years of Mexican food deprivation, we found only one restaurant in Dixie which served good Mexican food.  We didn’t find any good Mexican food in New Orleans, Atlanta or Nashville.  We should have visited Raleigh!

Chipotle Salsa and Chips, both Housemade

For nearly two decades, Hector Venegas and his family owned and operated Los Tres Magueyes, winning over Raleigh with their delightful array of authentic Mexican dishes.  The Venegas family didn’t “dumb” down their Mexican food as so many restaurants in the Deep South tended to do when we dwelled in Dixie.  Confident that the more savvy citizenry of New Mexico would love the authenticity and deliciousness of their fare, they left the menu completely intact–even retaining the leather-bound menu cover emblazoned with the name of their restaurants in North Carolina.

As in Raleigh, the Venegas family owns and operates two Mexican restaurants.  Both are christened El Agave.  The original operates in Santa Fe in the famous Burro Alley.  It’s been pleasing palates since 2015 and is owned by elder scion Hector Vinegas.  His brother Carlos and lovely bride Lilly launched the second instantiation of El Agave in Rio Rancho in October, 2017.  My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver was there three days later and loved it.  He was confident I would, too.

Left: Mole Ranchero | Right: Camarones A La Crema

If you haven’t seen El Agave during your travels through the City of Vision, it’s probably because its storefront doesn’t face heavily trafficked Rio Rancho Boulevard. Instead, it’s set back on the northeast corner of the timeworn Lujan Plaza shopping center which also houses Namaste and Stack House Barbecue. The same obfuscated corner where El Agave is situated was once home to such short-lived eateries as immediate predecessor El Maguey in addition to Ahh Sushi, Relish (although the original in Albuquerque remains a city favorite), Pastrami & Things and other restaurants. It’s a tough location in which to succeed.

Carlos and Lilly are in it for the long haul.  They recognize the challenges of operating a restaurant just a bit off the well beaten-and-eaten path.  Moreover, they realize they have to cultivate customer loyalty one guest at a time, that they have to prove themselves with every  single dish they prepare and serve.  With a menu featuring virtually every familiar Mexican dish as well as some unique specialties, El Agave has a great chance to succeed.  All it needs is to be discovered.  Visit once and it’s a certainty you’ll return time and again.

Refried Beans and Spanish Rice with Corn Tortillas

As you peruse the menu, Lilly will ferry over a basket of chips and plastic molcajete of salsa to your table.  Both are made on the premises first thing in the morning as are the terrific corn tortillas accompanying many entrees.  The chips and salsa are first rate, among the very best in the metro.  What distinguishes this salsa from so many others is that it’s made with chipotles, the smoky dried jalapeño.  With a depth of flavor and kick of piquancy, this salsa is addictive–and it’s as good as the exemplar chipotle-based salsa served at the Plaza Cafe South Side in Santa Fe. To think Raleigh had such a delightful salsa before Rio Rancho did gave me hope the rest of the menu would deliver, too.

Unable to decide between the Mole Ranchero and Camarones A La Crema, I asked Lilly to surprise me.  The surprise was the Carlos was willing to prepare a half portion of both.  Now that’s the type of service that cultivates loyalty.  This pleasurable combination was served with refried beans topped with melted white cheese, Spanish rice and four hot corn tortillas.   The Mole Ranchero, reputedly one of the easiest moles to prepare (though still very complex) with fewer ingredients than other moles, was a delicious and pleasant surprise in that it wasn’t overly sweet as some mole tends to be.  That mole covered a moist, tender sliced chicken breast. 

Even better than the Mole Ranchero was the Camarones A La Crema (grilled shrimp topped with a savory cream sauce concocted from chipotles, sour cream and spices).  The grilled shrimp had a snap of freshness with a delicate flavor tinged with the smokiness of the grilling process.  It’s a perfect foil for the rich cream sauce with its faint smokiness and sour-savory notes.  You’ll be grateful for the steamy corn tortillas with which you’ll sop up every bit of that delicious sauce. 

If like me, your initial inclination is to dismiss a Mexican food restaurant that came from North Carolina, El Agave will quickly change your mind.  It’s a very good, very authentic and absolutely delightful little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s as Mexican as a Mexican restaurant can be.

El Agave Mexican Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-8006
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
BEST BET: Camarones A La Crema, Horchata, Chipotle Salsa and Chips, Mole Ranchero

El Agave Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Devon’s Pop Smoke Wood Fired Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Devon’s Pop Smoke Wood Fire Grill on Osuna

The book of Genesis in the Old Testament explains that after the great flood, God commanded humankind to “increase in number and fill the Earth” (be fruitful and multiply, if you prefer). Instead, humanity decided to do the exact opposite–to build a city with a tower reaching to the heavens where all the population could live so as not to be scattered over the face of the Earth. In response, God “confused” the languages of humanity so they could no longer communicate with each other. As a result, people who spoke the same languages departed and settled other parts of the world…just as God wanted.

You might assume that those of us who served in the armed forces would all share a common lexicon.  Sure, we have a common military alphabet (alpha, bravo, Charlie, etc.) and subscribe to military time (about which Colonel Henry Blake lamented on the television comedy MASH “I wish the Army would tell time like everybody else!”).  Alas, like the gibberish-speaking people of the Tower of Babel, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all have their own jargon. We don’t always understand what our comrades in arms are talking about. That’s especially true among the Air Force veterans among us who “flew a desk.”

Imported Meats, Cheeses, Olives and Almonds Basket

When my friend Jack, a retired Army grunt (an Army and Marine Corps acronym which stands for “General Replaceable Untrained”), recently told me about “pop smoke,” I immediately assumed he was using an Army term this desk pilot doesn’t understand. The term was made doubly confusing because he used it in the context of describing beer and grilling, which I immediately suspected was another Army term. As it turns out “pop smoke” is indeed an Army term. It’s used to describe when troops use smoke to signal an incoming helicopter. Beer and grilling, on the other hand, has no Army connotation other than some of my retired Army friends consume both in mass quantities.

Jack’s association of pop smoke with beer and grilling has nothing to do with his nostalgia for the good old Army days. He was trying to tell me about a recently launched (December, 2017) wood-fired grill and draft house called Devon’s Pop Smoke Wood Fired Grill. Devon is the name of owner Jeremy Dow’s year-old son. Pop Smoke, as you might have surmised, is a reference to the Army term, but more in a peacetime connotation than when used in under hostile conditions. When not under fire, the term “pop smoke” means “let’s get out of here and grab a beer” or “let’s go somewhere to relax.” What do you know? All my years in the Air Force I was popping smoke and didn’t even know it.

Spicy Wild Game Gumbo

The curiously named Devon’s Pop Smoke Wood Fired Grill is located in a suite within a former 28,000 square-foot warehouse-office space on Osuna immediately west of Monroe’s. That entire space is being retrofitted into a lifestyle and restaurant development property. Already such tenants as Breve Coffee and Crepes have moved in with several other eateries slated to open their doors soon. A capacious, dog-friendly patio prefaces the south-facing entry. Step inside and the siren’s call of a wood-fired grill will envelop you. The best seat in the house, in fact, just may be in front of the grill where you can watch the kitchen staff master the flames to concoct something delicious. Alternatively, you can sit in a larger dining room or relax in the upstairs lounge.

Devon’s menu is rather small, but very interesting with some offerings unique to the Duke City. Your eyes will probably gravitate to the red wattle sandwiches on the menu (more on these later). Red wattle hogs are large, red swine with a fleshy, decorative, wattle attached to each side of their necks. These hogs are raised at the Dow family ranch in Chilili and are butchered in-house at Devon’s. The menu also includes some wild game entrees including albondigas with elk, venison and boar. A bevy of adult beverages is available to slake your thirst, but if you have yet to reach adultery, Rocky Mountain sodas (brewed in small batches with love) out of Denver are a very nice option.

Red Wattle Pork Sandwich with Porcini Fries

Devon’s is a rarity among restaurants throughout New Mexico in that it doesn’t offer an appetizer of chips and salsa.  The closest thing to a salsa is a housemade romesco sauce our server called “Spanish ketchup.”  If you’re craving a starter sans sauce, you can’t go wrong with Devon’s imported meats, cheeses, olives and almonds basket (Brie, smoked Gouda, sopressata, wine and lavender roasted olives, rosemary and sea salt roasted almonds, crostini).  The almonds are of the Spanish Marcona variety, a sweeter, plumper almond than most.  The olives are Italian as is the sopressata, a dry salami.  Turophiles will love the textural and flavor contrasts between the smoked Gouda and Brie.  This basket is a winner.

An entree sure to comfort Duke City diners on blustery days is Devon’s spicy wild game gumbo (elk, venison, boar and red wattle with rice and beer bread) made with La Cumbre’s Noche and Bosque’s lager.  For my Kim, this gumbo didn’t have enough file powder (a seasoning made from the ground, dried leaves of the sassafras tree), but in my estimation, the spiciness more than made up for it.  This gumbo has more heat that many bowls of chile served throughout the Duke City.  The elk, venison, boar and red wattle are plentiful and each has a own unique texture and flavor profile (I say this because of past experiences with wild game meats that all tasted the same).

My Kim ordered one of the two sandwiches on the menu in which red wattle pork was the featured protein.  Her red wattle pork sandwich and fries (sliced red wattle pork with grilled pineapple and caramelized onions) entree actually turned out to be two sandwiches.  More specifically, two slider-sized sandwiches.  Though having the circumference of a slider, each sandwich included a skyscraper tall portion of shredded pork with a generous toss of caramelized onions and grilled pineapple.  Devon’s gives you three French fry options from which to choose: garlic fries, salt fries or porcini fries. 

You might not remember the full name of Devon’s Pop Smoke Wood Fired Grill, but you’ll probably find yourself popping smoke to get there. Say “hi” to Jack if you see him there. He likes it so much, he plans on moving in.

Devon’s Pop Smoke Wood Fired Grill
6001 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-2829
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 January 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Red Wattle Pork Sandwich; Porcini Fries; Spicy Wild Game Gumbo; Imported Meats, Cheeses, Olives and Almonds Basket

Devon's Pop Smoke Wood Fired Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taqueria El Paisa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taqueria El Paisa, Maybe New Mexico’s Very Best and Most Authentic Mexican Taqueria

The immediacy of a taco, handed to you hot from grill and comal, can’t be equaled. 
You can stand there and eat yourself silly with one taco after another,
each made fresh for you and consumed within seconds. 
A great taco rocks with distinct tastes that roll on and on,
like a little party on your tongue, with layers of flavor and textures:
juicy, delicious fillings, perfectly seasoned; the taste of the soft corn tortilla;
a morsel of salty cheese and finally, best of all,
the bright explosion of a freshly-made salsa that suddenly ignites and unites everything on your palate.
At the end of our two or three-bite taco you just want to repeat the experience until you are sated.”
~Deborah Schneider, 1000 Tacos | Mexico, One Bite At A Time

If you’re wondering why such a heartfelt expression of sheer appreciation and unfettered love has been so eloquently conveyed about something as humble and–some would say pedestrian–as the taco, perhaps you’ve haven’t heard about the taco evolution-slash-revolution taking America by storm. And no, I’m not talking about Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco Supreme (that’s a mutation, not an evolution). Nor am I talking about artisan cooks exploiting the limitless possibilities of what is essentially a rather simple concept–a corn or flour tortilla stuffed with sundry and delicious ingredients.

The small dining room at Taqueria El Paisa

To be sure, a paean could be written about the creative use of multi-ethnic ingredients in constructing tacos bursting with flavor profiles heretofore unexplored. Judges and guests alike certainly waxed poetic about the fusion evolution vividly on display at the 2015 Taste of Rio Rancho where Street Food Blvd earned three first place awards (best appetizer, best entree and People’s Choice) by showcasing its unique tacos. Over the years we’ve also been enthralled by temptingly toothsome tacos at such exemplars of cutting edge cooking as Pasion Latin Fusion, Sophia’s Place and others, but none of them exemplify the taco evolution/revolution of which I write.  

No, my friends, the taco evolution/revolution of which I write is the widespread availability of the humble Mexican taquerias which have exploded across the culinary landscape over the past two decades or so. Though not nearly as ubiquitous as Taco Bell (which Anthony Bourdain would probably say is as widespread as herpes), the number of quality Mexican taquerias across the fruited plain might surprise you. These taquerias have introduced teeming masses yearning to eat well to the concept that sometimes simple, fresh and relatively unadorned is best. Most of these taquerias are the antithesis of fancy, but they’re paragons of deliciousness.

The exterior patio (now enclosed) at Taqueria El Paisa

For many savvy taco aficionados across the Duke City, the taco trek begins and ends on the west side of Bridge Boulevard scant yards from where it crosses the Rio Grande. That’s where you’ll find Taqueria El Paisa, a delicious little slice of Mexico in the Land of Enchantment. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, El Paisa maintains an operating schedule that would exhaust many of us. It opens its doors when some of us are still sleeping (7AM) and closes at midnight, long after we’ve gone to bed.

Despite its diminutive digs, El Paisa is heavily trafficked, its Lilliputian dining room accommodating only a few diners while a sprawling covered porch handles the overflow crowds. And they do overflow! Just how good is this taqueria?

  • According to an article entitled “15 Restaurants in New Mexico That Will Blow Your Mind” published in the Movoto Insider blog it’s so good, it “will ruin all other Mexican food for you.” That’s an audacious claim considering the surfeit of superb Mexican restaurants across the Land of Enchantment, but some devotees won’t go anywhere else for their tacos.
  • In 2017, Business Insider teamed up with Yelp to “find out which restaurants, trucks, and food stands are serving up the very best tacos in America.” Ranked 43rd was Albuquerque’s El Paisa where even a trencherman can eat well for a few pesos. 
  • in 2016, BuzzFeed compiled its own list of the most popular taco spot in every state. Popularity was measured using an algorithm considering the number of reviews plus the star rating for every business on Yelp. New Mexico’s most popular taco comes from El Paisa in Albuquerque. One astute devotee commented on Yelp, “The only comparison is the street tacos in downtown Puerto Vallarta, because this is as authentic as it gets.”

Aguas Frescas: Pina and Melon

While it bears the name “Paisa,” a diminutive of “Paisano” which translates from Spanish to “countryman,” diners of all stripes and colors are welcome here. It’s a friendly milieu in which it may help to know a little Spanish, but it’s not absolutely requisite. You and the servers at the counter can make yourselves mutually understood even if it means pointing at the menu (which is also in Spanish). That menu hangs to the right of the counter where you place your order and you’ll espy it the second you walk in.

At first glance, the menu may appear to be rather limited. Its offerings are categorized into burritos, gorditas, tacos, tortas and aguas frescas. The variety increases exponentially because you’re able to have your tacos, burritos, gorditas and tortas constructed from the same basic ingredients (al pastor, buche, barbacoa, carne asada, etc.). For example, not only can you have a taco al pastor, you can order a burrito stuffed with the same al pastor pork. If the menu doesn’t make you drool, the “cheap eats” pricing structure just might. Two can eat rather well (and probably take some home) for around twenty dollars.

Three Tacos: El Pastor, Carnitas and Carne Asada

1 February 2015: In addition to eating well, you can drink merrily. Not only does El Paisa offer Mexican Coke in a bottle (which is sweetened with real sugar and not the high-fructose corn syrup used in America), you’ll find some of the very best aguas frescas in town.  Served from large barrel-shaped containers, these refreshing beverages actually taste like the fruits (or almond milk and cinnamon in the case of horchata) from which they’re derived.  The melon, platano (banana), sandia (watermelon) and piña (pineapple) are absolutely amazing!  The accommodating wait staff may even acquiesce if you ask them nicely to give you a mix of any two.  Banana and pineapple make a wonderful combination.  Simply amazing!

1 February 2015: So are the tacos although the more appropriate descriptor would be “muy ricos,” the Mexican term used for food items which are “very delicious.”   The quality of riquisimo (even more delicious) begins with the soft corn tortillas in which all other ingredients are nestled.  A pronounced corn flavor coupled with an inherently pliable texture make them the perfect vessel for the ingredients of your choice, topped if you desire with chopped onions and cilantro.  

Chile Verde con Puerco Burrito

1 February 2015: Four different salsas of varying piquancy are also available, but the more incendiary among them will serve more to obfuscate other flavors than to ameliorate them.  The salsa offering perhaps the most refreshingly pleasant and just right heat level may be the tomatillo-jalpeño salsa which you might be tempted to chug.  It’s very good!  You won’t want anything masking the glorious flavor of the meats, especially the al pastor.   That the al pastor is so delicious was no surprise, but its just slightly crispy texture (not quite chicharron-like, but in the vicinity) was a pleasant surprise.  The other meats (carne asada and carnitas) we sampled had similar qualities and were equally enjoyable.  

1 February 2015: Burritos are of the hand-held variety and are about seven inches in length.  Each tightly-wrapped flour tortilla plays host to some of the very best burritos in Albuquerque.  You’ll exclaim “Holy Mole” at your first bite of the mole burrito, love-me-tender tendrils of pork prepared in a complex and numerous blend of ingredients, some with a discernible sweetness and all coalescing to provide a back-of-the-throat heat you’ll enjoy.  It’s an amazing mole made even more impressive by its low price.  It’s not every Mexican restaurant which serves a chile relleno burrito so if you see it on the menu, you’re well advised to try it.  In contrast to the mole which is dominated by sweet notes, the chile relleno burrito has a pleasant bite. It won’t water your eyes, but your tongue and the back of your throat will feel its bite.

Ceviche

19 June 2015: There are so many Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque offering ceviche that sometimes the only thing distinguishing one from another isn’t the freshness and flavor of the seafood, but the influence of citrus.  Some border on an almost lip-pursing lime-infused flavor while others have a much lesser presence of citrus juices.  There’s comfort in the consistency of getting what you’re expecting at virtually every Mexican restaurant.  El Paisa’s rendition of Ceviche is the first to surprise me in months.  At first glance, it resembles every other ceviche and in composition, it has all the standard ingredients: fish, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and avocado slices atop a crispy corn tortilla.  What distinguishes this one is the tomatoes which are wholly unlike the artificially ripened, flavorless variety so prevalent everywhere.  These tomatoes have a flavor profile very much like a sweet tomato jam.  It’s a pleasant departure from the usual.

19 June 2015: When pining for a delicious sandwich, the notion of finding one at a Mexican restaurant doesn’t always jump to the surface.  Perhaps it should, especially if you’ve become budget conscious and tired of parting with your Alexander Hamiltons.  In Mexico, just as in the United States, the sandwich has become a ubiquitous staple.  What it hasn’t become is unaffordable.  For just about what you’d pay for half a sub at one of those abysmal chains, you can get a torta stuffed with sundry ingredients and you’ll wonder why you sunk your children’s inheritance at Subway.  El Paisa offers a phalanx of tantalizing tortas,  Among them is the torta de jamon, a savory, crusty bolillo engorged with two slices of fried jamon, a thin Mexican ham; lettuce; tomatoes; cheese and avocadoes.  It’s moist, delicious and flavorful.  Frankly, it’s got everything you crave in a sandwich and so much more.

Torta Al Pastor

10 June 2015:  Gorditas which translate from Spanish to “fatties” are a popular street food in Mexico and have gained a foothold in the culinary culture of its bordering states.  Loosely described as “flat bread sandwiches,” gorditas are constructed from masa (corn or flour) and are about the size of the corn tortillas used for tacos only much thicker.  They’re usually split open and stuffed with sundry ingredients.  El Paisa’s gorditas are terrific and they can be stuffed with any of the wondrous ingredients with which you can stuff a burrito or sandwich.  The al pastor is my early favorite. 

20 April 2016: When my friends and frequent dining companions Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell met me for lunch at El Paisa I welcomed them with “Bienvenidos a Mexico.”  It isn’t far from the truth.  Both recognize that El Paisa is as authentically Mexico as you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.  Among the buffet table of items we shared (for a ridiculously low price), was a quesadilla for which we requested an al pastor filling.  Larry called it the very best quesadilla he’s ever had while Deanell was surprised at just how good a quesadilla can be.  Stuffed with queso (naturally), beans and al pastor, this quesadilla is indeed an adventure in delicious, perhaps equal to the quesadilla synchronizada  at La Familiar as Albuquerque’s very best.  This tortilla treasure is accompanied by cheesy and delicious beans and a rich guacamole.

Quesadilla Al Pastor with Beans and Guacamole

Taqueria El Paisa is the real thing–as authentic a taqueria as you’ll find in Old Mexico without pretentions or compromise.  It’s the home of riquisimo!  

Taqueria El Paisa
820 Bridge Blvd, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 452-8997
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2018
1st VISIT: 1 February 2015
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Mole Burrito, Chile Relleno Burrito, Al Pastor Burrito, Verde en Puerco Burrito, Carne Asada Tacos, Al Pastor Tacos, Carnitas Taco, Gordita de Al Pastor, Torta De Jamon, Tostada De Ceviche

El Paisa Restaurante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’TUCCI’S MARKET & PIZZERIA – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria

Greek mythology recounts the story of Tantalus, progeny of a divine parent (Zeus himself) and a mortal one.  Uniquely favored among mortals by being invited to share the food of the gods, Tantalus abused that privilege by slaying his own son and feeding him to the gods as a test of their omniscience.  The gods immediately figured out what Tantalus had done and in their rage condemned him to the deepest portion of the underworld where he would be forever “tantalized” with hunger and thirst.  Though immersed up to his neck in water, when Tantalus bent to drink, it all drained away.  When he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

For years, Duke City diners have been tantalized by the promise of signage beckoning us to visit “delis” only to realize, much like the gods of Olympus, that all is not as it appears.  A sign does not a deli make nor do products from peripatetic distributors.  As with Tantalus, we’re left to pine for the authenticity of a true deli, the type of which Albuquerque has not seen since the bygone days of Deli Mart.  Savvy diners may not be able to vanquish the ersatz delis to the underworld, but we can banish these pretenders to the realm of chain restaurants we choose not to frequent.

Huge Flavors Come out of This Small Space

By strict definition a “deli,” an abbreviated form of delicatessen, is a term meaning “delicacies,” “fine foods” or “delicious things to eat.”   Over time delicatessen and its diminutive form came to represent the store, restaurant or combination thereof in which these delicacies, fine foods and delicious things to eat are sold, either for take-out or eat-in.    For many of us who have lived in large cities, the term deli is synonymous with Jewish deli while for others a deli proffers specialty foods indigenous to Italy, Poland (see Red Rock Deli) or other European nation. 

The hard-liners among us will never accept  that Schlotzky’s, Jason’s, McAlister’s and others of that ilk are delis despite what their signage may say.  Nor will we ever be duped by the deception of diners daring to call themselves delis.  It goes without saying that we don’t believe a deli should  feature products burnishing the labels of Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Kirkland, Butterball or even the ubiquitous Boar’s Head.  An authentic deli should preferably cure, salt, dry and cut its own meats and make at least some of its cheeses–and if it doesn’t do that, it should procure and sell only the finest, most authentic meats and cheeses available.

Italian Charcuterie Board

With the December, 2014 launch of M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli, Albuquerque once again has an authentic Italian deli in the tradition of delis for which hard-core deli aficionados have pined for far too long.  It’s a deli in which I’d proudly break bread with Dave Hurayt, Bruce Schor, Bob Sherwood and Gary Feaster with whom I’ve commiserated about the absence of an authentic deli in Albuquerque.  Best of all, it’s a deli with a pedigree that promises authenticity and deliciousness. 

Trust the ownership triumvirate of John Haas, Katie Gardner and Jeff Spiegel to do for their Italian market and deli what they’ve done for their restaurant. The trio launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in 2013 and accolades quickly piled on (including “Best New Restaurant” honors from Albuquerque The Magazine readers and being named one of the top 100 neighborhood restaurants in the US by Open Table).  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli is located about 150 feet away from its elder sibling in the Montaño Plaza shopping center.

Pickled Board

Ensconced within Lilliputian digs, M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli embodies the axiom “little place, huge flavors.”  Add huge aromas and you might feel you’ve been transported to a small corner New York City Italian deli.    You’ll be amazed at just how much is crammed into such a small space.  Seating for about ten guests is to your immediate left and right as you walk in.  Because of space constraints, the deli’s take-out business will be a robust part of the operation.  The rest of the space is devoted to mouth-watering Italian products, many of which are created on the premises. 

In fact, the talented staff at M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli bakes its own breads (sourdough, rye, whole wheat, baguette, ciabatta, foccacia), makes its pastas and sausages, cures many of its own meats (prosciutto, cotto, sopressata, mortadella, etc.) and makes its cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, etc.).  What isn’t made on the premises is procured from trusted, high-quality sources.  On the shelves you’ll also espy jars of fresh herbs (basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.) while refrigerated deli cases showcase pickled goods (eggplant, sweet or spicy cucumbers, cardamom carrots, giardinera, Sicilian green olives, Macedonian peppers and more).  Your taste buds might go into sensory overload, not to mention involuntary salivation.

Muffaletta with Farro Salad

Optimally, you’ll be able to score one of the four tables for a unique eat-in experience that will allow you to browse and sample as you wait for your meal which, by the way, is so much more than sandwiches.  First on the menu are three Italian charcuterie boards, all of which are accompanied by house-made artisan bread.  After you peruse the four enticing appetizers and three scrumptious salads, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose from among seven featured sandwiches, including a build-your-own option and all served with one side.  You can opt instead for one of three pastas.  Either way, you might not have room left for one of the three luscious desserts.

If, like me, you believe Italian delis start and end with meats and cheeses, you’ve got to try one of the three Charcuterie Boards (Salumi Board, Pickled Board, Cheese Board).  In America, the ancient European culinary art of charcuterie has recently started to become a highly revered and well-practiced art.   Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli not only offers charcuterie, it is a charcuterie!

Pastrami

14 December 2014: The Salumi Board offers three options: pick two, pick three or pick four from among the meats.  An outstanding option is the spicy coppa (short for capicolla), a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat with a taste and texture similar to prosciutto.   If you’re a Sopranos fan, you might recognize capicolla by its slang name “gabagool.” By any name it’s delicious.   Speck, which is cured with such spices as juniper berries, nutmeg, garlic and bay leaves before being cold-smoked, is another terrific option.  It wouldn’t be a salumi (Italian cold cuts) board without Toscano salami, a dry, salami with large bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns surrounded by leaner meat which provides a robust, distinctive but not overpowering flavor.  It goes without saying you’ll also want prosciutto on your board.  Accompanying these meats are slices of Italian bread, an addictive onion jam, house-made mustard, tomato relish and probably the very best spicy pickles you’ll ever have.

12 April 2015: M’Tucci’s pickled board is the very best we’ve had in New Mexico though there aren’t that many to compare with.  Available in quantities of two, three or four pickled vegetables, it’s essentially a vegetable plate even vegetable-haters will love.  Usually served with a local goat cheese, we lucked out during our April, 2015.  Because the deli had run out of what is undoubtedly an outstanding goat cheese, a Bucherondin de Chevre, a luscious and creamy French goat cheese was substituted.  Pierce the Bucherondin’s rind and you’ll enjoy a near-buttery soft, creamy and mild goat cheese that complements pickled vegetables very well.  Our pickled board included sweet and hot pickles, carrots and eggplant, all of which were oh, so delicious with distinctive notes in each.  Those pickles are absolutely addictive!

BLT

14 December 2014: The sandwich menu includes several familiar favorites such as the Cubano, BLT, Pastrami and Muffaletta, but while M’Tucci’s pays homage to traditions which spawned these sacrosanct sandwiches, it does not attempt to duplicate them.  The muffaletta, for example, is not an exact replica of the muffaletta you might have at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, but it’s an outstanding Italian inspired sandwich in its own right.  The canvas for this superb sandwich is housemade ciabatta which is generously topped with housemade capicola, mortadella, salami, an olive tapenade and house-smoked mozzarella. It takes two hands and a wide-open mouth to handle this mighty, meaty, magnificent sandwich.  The yin to the muffaletta is a ferro salad  (fresh grape tomatoes, walnuts, Tucumcari feta, pickled red onions on a lettuce leaf), one of the four available sides.

14 December 2014: Pastrami paramours often consider it heretical for pastrami sandwiches to be topped only with a good deli mustard with a dill pickle on the side.  Before they become apoplectic at learning M’Tucci’s pastrami (made on the premises) sandwich is made with herbed goat cheese, fresh red onions, a housemade mustard on housemade rye, they had darned well better try it.  It’s unlike any pastrami this aficionado has ever had and it’s a bit lean (fat is flavor) for my tastes, but it’s still a pretty good sandwich with that herbed goat cheese really standing out.  This sandwich pairs well with oven-roasted herbed potatoes, red potatoes seasoned with rosemary, thyme and fresh garlic. 

Carbonara

12 April 2015: For years, the benchmark against which I’ve measured all BLTs in New Mexico has been the TBL, a Gecko’s Bar & Tapas original stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread.  It took more than a decade to find a BLT that’s better.  Like the TBL, M’Tucci Market’s version is also an original.  In its standard form, it, too, is made with applewood smoked bacon though for a mere pittance, you can substitute bourbon-glazed bacon.  Splurge!  It’s the best bacon we’ve had in New Mexico, better even than the red chile-honey glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe.  The BLT (butter leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, blue cheese aioli and wheat bread made on the premises) is all a sandwich should be though the hard-crusted bread scrapes against the roof of your mouth just a bit.  The blue cheese aioli is rather mild which is perfectly fine because it lets the bacon shine.  The lentil salad (pickled onion, carrot, zucchini, rosemary, sage, thyme and Tucumcari gouda) is an excellent accompaniment.

12 April 2015: While judging the Taste of Rio Rancho in February, 2015, my friend Mario D’Elia, the uber-talented executive chef for the Albuquerque Isotopes, commiserated that guanciale (an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks) isn’t that widely used in Albuquerque restaurants, Chef Maxime Bouneou, formerly of  Torinos @ Home being one of the few to use it.  Add M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli to what will hopefully become a trend.  M’Tucci’s makes its own guanciale and it’s terrific.  The guanciale is perhaps my favorite ingredient in a Carbonara dish constructed of superb ingredients (housemade cured egg yolk, Pecorino, sage, pepperoncini flakes, shallots and tagliatelle made on the premises).  The tagliatelle (long, flat pasta ribbons) is fortified with an unctuous, but not overly excessive, sauce.   The portion size is relatively modest, but being so rich, Carbonara isn’t a pasta dish on which many diners can over-indulge.  This is a great one!

Italian Mac & Cheese

7 June 2016:  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, has (as of this writing) visited MTucci’s Italian Market & Deli some 48 times.  It’s easy to see why he loves this restaurant so much–as well as why your humble sesquipedalian blogger needs to increase the frequency of his visits.  The Italian Mac & Cheese (Rosemary ham, Morbier Mornay, handmade penne, fresh Mozzarella, Aleppo pepper bread crumbs) warrants a visit or ten all by itself.  After one forkful Larry declared it the best mac and cheese he’s ever had.  High praise indeed.  There’s a lot to love about this skilletful of deliciousness and inventiveness.  Instead of the usual half-and-half mixture of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, the Mornay sauce is made with Morbier, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which, interestingly, is fashioned with a black layer of tasteless ash.  The Morbier not only coalesces the penne, some of it melts into a delightfully oily pool at the bottom of the skillet.   Chunks of Rosemary ham imparts resinous, savory and sweet qualities that blend magnificently with other ingredients while the Aleppo peppers (about 10,000 on the Scoville scale) lends a pleasant piquancy.

7 June 2016:  When she hangs out with Larry and me, Dazzling Deanell  is like a delicate flower among two wilted weeds.  She not only graces our table with beauty, wit and charm, she always seems to order the right things.  Take for example, the Market Reuben (fresh market-cured corned beef, homemade sauerkraut, red chile mostarda on rye bread) she ordered during our June 7th visit.  Even as she ordered it, she declared the Reuben at O‘Hare’s Grille and Pub in Rio Rancho to be her favorite Reuben then conceded that M’Tucci’s version will probably be even better.  She has the gift of prophecy!  This is a fantastic Reuben, one she paired with a glorious beet salad.  The housemade rye is the perfect canvas for the other components.  The red chile mostarda (which has nothing to do with mustard and more closely resembles a relish) is a magnificent blend of fruity sweetness, piquancy and tanginess.  As we enjoyed the sandwich, we discerned a flavor similar to cloves (or perhaps crushed lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread spice cookies), but weren’t quite sure what its genesis was.  We surmise it may have come from the roasting of the corned beef itself.  The corned beef is even better than M’Tucci’s pastrami and that’s saying something.

Market Reuben (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

11 December 2016:  There appears to be no limit to the talents of Chef Cory Gray and sous chef Shawn Cronin , the uber-talented chefs who “bake, cook, age, and cure their way to creative culinary bliss.”    In November, 2016, the dynamic duo transformed M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli  into M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria.  It’s not just a change in concept or solely an exercise in re-branding, but rather an ambitious expansion that reflects the addition of 12 pizzas into an already outstanding menu.  When you think about it, it just makes sense.  They were already hawking some of the best cheese, meat and bread in the city.  Why not put them all together?  And, if you’re thinking to yourself, there’s already a top tier pizza at M’Tucci’s Kitchina, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria has one-upped its elder sibling.  In fact, in our estimation, the only pizza in the Duke City that’s even in the same zip code is at the Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House. 

Custom-made ovens that heat to 800-degrees will ensure your pie is baked quickly and evenly.  You’ll find plenty of char on each pie, a hallmark of the pizza at Farina  where Shawn and Cory cut their teeth.  If char is not a flavor you like much, you can ask for light char.  The menu indicates “Our pizza dough uses wild sourdough starter instead of yeast, giving a better flavor and texture. We cook it until a deep caramelization occurs. We source the best ingredients, either house made, local, or imported.”  Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found a pizza menu like this one.  Instead of last decade’s sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives and the like, this menu lists such ingredients as orange-herb gremolata, baby kale, smoked buffalo mozzarella and caramelized onion coulis.  The result will make a believer out of you!

Caprese Trio

11 December 2016:  Mike Greenberg, the metrosexual nerd who pairs with the brutish former NFL player Mike Golic to host the morning sports talk show Mike & Mike (on Albuquerque’s ESPN 101.7 The Team) contrasts the difference in their personalities by condescendingly pointing out he enjoys Caprese salads while his endomorphic partner prefers donuts.  The implication here is that the Caprese salad (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction and olive oil) is enjoyed by worldly sophisticates while donuts are an opiate for the hoi polloi.  In truth, Caprese salads are a favorite of all of us who enjoy salads. 

Though listed in the Insalata (salad) section of the menu, the “Caprese Trio” is unlike any composed Caprese salad you’ve ever seen.  Served on a slate board is a treasure trove of deliciousness: fresh mozzarella, Balsamic roasted tomato, fresh basil, smoked mozzarella, house Italian tomato jam, pesto, Burrata, fresh tomatoes, basil oil, ten-year old Balsamic vinegar and wedges of lightly toasted bread.  It’s sheer genius to compile such individually delicious ingredients into a cohesive array of complementary, harmonious magnificence.  Every single component is a shining star.  Our favorite may have been the burrata, an unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Translated to “buttered,” it bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.   The smoked mozzarella is absolutely amazing and the tomato jam is addictive!

Carbonara Pizza

11 December 2016:  Ordering the Carbonara pizza brought a broad smile to our server’s face.  She said it was her favorite pizza.  It’s easy to see why.   M’Tucci’s pizzaiolos nonpariel have taken Carbonara to the nth degree, actualizing its potential and fashioning a pizza as good as it can possibly be.  Not since Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California have we found a pizza that amazed us as much as this one did (Jim Millington, are you reading this?).  This fourteen-inch masterpiece redolent with char is topped with house-cured and smoked Guanciale, caramelized onion coulis, sauteed spinach, Tallegio cheese and Rosemary cured egg yolk.  The caramelized onion coulis imparts sweet notes while the Tallegio cheese provides an unusually fruity tang.  Our favorite ingredient, however, is the guanciale (about which I rave above).  The Neapolitan crust is light and chewy with the distinctive flavor of sourdough in evidence.

11 December 2016:  While the Margherita may be the forerunner of all pizzas, it’s never been one of my favorites.  It’s just too basic and unadorned to suit my “more is better” tastes.  M’Tucci Market & Pizzeria has made a convert out of me with its Buffalo Margherita (smoked buffalo mozzarella, basil-infused olive oil, tomato jam and roasted garlic).  Buffalo mozzarella, made from the milk of domestic Italian water buffalo, is a difference-maker.  With a high butterfat content, it’s got a seductive tang you just don’t get from mozzarella made from cow’s milk.  Then there’s the tomato jam with its rich, sweet-savory notes. It’s wholly unlike the savory acidity of the tomato sauce which typically graces pizza. Every Margherita should be this good!

Margherita Pizza

25 June 2017:  My friend Larry McGoldrick writes on his blog, “For my last dozen or so visits, I don’t even look at the menu. Cory and Shawn know what I like and what is healthy for me, and automatically start a custom meal as soon as I walk in the door.”  You, too, can eat like Larry and not just vicariously.   All you’ve got to do is roll the dice.  A small placard over the door reads, “Don’t know what to eat?  Roll the dice and let us decide with Chef Roulette.”  Yeah, it requires a high level of trust and not every chef warrants such trust.  Cory and Shawn do!

What is most amazing about the Chef Roulette concept is that the dish tailor-made for you may not be made exactly the same for the next intrepid diner who decides to roll the dice.  I wouldn’t change a thing about the mushroom stuffed pork tenderloin, two thick tenderloins stuffed with mushrooms and local-roasted leeks over roasted potatoes, cannellini beans, piñon and scallions over a roasted tomato cream sauce.  Along with Forghedaboudit‘s transformative pepperoni and sausage pizza and magnificent meatballs, this is the best dish I’ve enjoyed in 2017.  The roasted tomato cream sauce has an element of piquancy that pairs perfectly with the sweet-tanginess of the roasted tomatoes.  There is a complexity to this dish that extends far beyond its ingredients.  This is a dish which will enrapt your taste buds.  Knowing it may never again cross my lips is almost painful to contemplate.

Mushroom Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

21 October 2017:  Almost universally, New Mexicans tend to consider autumn their favorite season and rightfully so.  Autumn means the incomparable aroma of chile roasting, warm sunny days and cool crisp nights and canopies of brilliant yellow leaves on cottonwoods and aspens.  Autumn also means pumpkin pie and even better, hearty butternut squash stews and soups.  The very best we’ve ever had comes from M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria.  It’s an amazing melange of magnificence, a coalescence of complementary ingredients that bring out the best in each other.  This enchanting elixir is made with grade A Iberico house-cured bacon made from free-range, 100% Ibérico breed pigs that eat acorns.  Iberico ham is considered the “Beluga caviar of hams.”  That means it’s the absolute best. 

Though Iberico house-cured bacon gives this stew a pedigree, it’s just one of several ingredients put together so well that each spoonful may elicit a swoon or ten.  The sweetness of the butternut squash is counterbalanced by the piquancy of a local cayenne.  Yes, cayenne.  Louisiana may have made cayenne famous, but New Mexico-grown  cayenne is more flavorful and it rates higher on the Scoville scale than the jalapeño.  Other ingredients on the stew include cubed potatoes, cubed pear, kale and farro.  The stews is served hot the way autumnal stews are supposed to be served.  It’s the type of soul-warming soup which is synonymous with comfort food greatness.

Butternut Squash Soup

21 October 2017:  We all know diners who find something on a menu they love and would never consider ordering anything else.  Then there are the adventurous among us who rarely order the same thing twice…or at least not until we’ve tried everything on the menu at least once.  For us, M’Tucci Market & Pizzeria’s Chef Roulette concept makes great sense.  Believe me, you can trust Cory and Shawn to create something absolutely wonderful every time.  They’re the proverbial mad scientists only instead of steaming beakers and malevolent cackling, they experiment with ingredients, their quest being to concoct something delicious and different for all of their guests.  Sarah, our delightful server, told us about a recent evening in which everyone at a table of six ordered the chef’s roulette.  Every one of them was enthralled to receive something entirely different. 

As an aspiring cook, my own efforts at concocting delicious dishes with disparate ingredients often result in discordant and contradictory ingredient combinations that just don’t taste good.  As such, my admiration for Cory and Shawn grows with each Chef Roulette.  They truly have the Midas touch when it comes to creating the harmonious interplay of ingredients seemingly reserved for only the most delicious dishes.  Take for example the Chef Roulette pictured below–a pasta dish with the aforementioned Iberico house-cured bacon, kale and a butternut squash mostarda cream sauce.  Though it’s tempting to pluck out the rich, fatty (well marbled) Iberico bacon and let it linger on your tongue like a fine wine, it goes best with the sweet mostarda cream sauce and the slightly bitter kale.  This is one of those dishes a habitual “order the same thing” person should never order because chances are they’ll never experience anything quite this good.

Rolling the Dice Again…

21 October 2017: It’ll probably be a while (if ever) before my Kim can be convinced to roll the dice and order the Chef Roulette especially since she knows she can reach over and have a forkful or ten of mine.  She’s enamored of the Neapolitan pizzas (characterized by its thin, slightly crispy texture; hand-kneaded and wood-fired preparation) and plans to try them all eventually.  Her newest favorite (and it will be until her next pizza) is the Truffle (Morbier cheese, wild mushrooms, orange-herb Gremolata, white truffle oil and goat cheese).  If you’re wondering what the differences are between mushrooms and truffles, those differences can be described in two words–scarcity and flavor. 

Truffles need the right tree roots to grow on, some rain to fall, and the perfect temperature.  Then it takes special teams with dogs to find them underground.  Compared to the intensely robust flavor of truffles, mushrooms are fairly mild in flavor.  Truffle oil either is made with high-quality olive oil that’s been infused with white truffles or it’s manufactured with aromatic components.  M’Tucci’s uses the former, the good stuff. As a result, the white truffle oil imparts intensely earthy qualities–like mushrooms on overdrive.  Kudos to the chefs for their use of an orange-herb Gremolata whose citrusy notes sneak through every once in a while.  So does the Morbier and goat cheese blend with their salty, creamy deliciousness.  This is a great pizza!

Truffle Pizza

22 October 2017:  Though the menu offers a buffalo pâté (house buffalo-heart pâté, tapenade and candied pecan on a baguette), my Kim asked instead for duck pâté, a Chicago area favorite.  “Wait,” you ask, “didn’t Chicago ban pâté a few years ago?”  Close, but no cigar.  The Chicago City Council actually banned foie gras, a decision Mayor Richard M. Daley called “the silliest law that they’ve ever passed.”   And yes, there is a difference between pâté and foie gras, which is actually a popular form of pâté.   Pâté is actually French for “pie,” but it’s quite simply a mixture of seasoned ground seafood, poultry, meat or vegetables, and often a combination of several different base ingredients.  Duck  pâté is terrific on its own.  With the addition of a sweet-tangy tapenade and candied pecans, it’s certainly not the “livery” taste you might expect.  Instead, its flavor profile is a mild combination of duck seasoned very well.  It’s spread generously on a baguette and will spread delight all over your face.

Duck Pâté

22 October 2017: On a lazy Sunday morning, Cory proved himself a mind-reader in addition to being an absolute genius in the kitchen.  How could he have known that the perfect Chef Roulette for such a day would be two farm-fresh eggs over-easy, roasted potatoes, grilled red peppers, fresh local arugula and Iberico house-cured bacon with a housemade mustard.  My breakfast preferences lean toward enchiladas, tacos and burritos, but this Chef Roulette–even sans New Mexico’s sacrosanct red and green–is as good an Albuquerque breakfast as I’ve ever had.  Even without the iberico house-cured bacon, it would have been an off-the-charts breakfast.  That bacon just makes everything better.

Breakfast Roulette

14 January 2018: Late in the evening of Saturday, 13 January 2018, we learned that Cory and Shawn had introduced a new menu.  Cursing the lateness of the hour,  we had to wait until Sunday afternoon to learn what wondrous surprises awaited.  Instead of a wholesale purge, the new menu is a combination of popular favorites interspersed with new items.  Among the latter is a ham and pineapple salad.  While that may sound like ingredients on a Hawaiian pizza, any pizza would be greatly elevated the way M’Tucci’s transforms ingredients. 

No ordinary ham graces the salad; it’s rosemary ham which melds the sweet, salty, smokiness of ham with the fresh, piney flavor of rosemary.  Nor is the pineapple your garden variety pineapple; it’s pickled pineapple with discernible ginger notes (all pineapple should be pickled with ginger).  An olive tapenade gives the salad an umami intensity while feta cheese crumbles lend a sharpness which contrasts well with the apple and sweet pepper vinaigrette.  Red onions and kale, that ubiquitous leafy green vegetable you either hate or love, are perhaps the most common salad ingredient on the plate.  As with all great salads, this is a medley of ingredients which come together so very well.

Ham and Pineapple Salad

14 January 2018:  Over time we’ll try every new item on the menu and somday I’ll break my streak of ordering the Chef’s Roulette.  Another new menu item, a 14-hour braised pork collar almost accelerated that “someday.”  My Kim wanted it, too, but doesn’t particularly like the sauteed spinach with which it’s served.  I reminded her that Cory and Shawn could walk over to the nearby bosque, rake up a pile of leaves and make them absolutely delicious.  The only other words she uttered about the sauteed spinach were “wow” and “oh, my gosh”–and the sauteed spinach may have been what she enjoyed least about this magnificent entree. 

Pork collar may be destined to be the “next pork belly,” in other words a food trend that’ll sweep the nation.  We became acquainted with it in England and are heartened that it finally made it across the pond.  Pork collar is beautifully marbled and very flavorful.  It’s the perfect braising meat because its flavor intensifies.  M’Tucci’s version, a slow-cooked Duroc (a red hog) is served with red chile potatoes, red onions, the aforementioned sauteed spinach and a generous dollop of roasted apple mustard.  This is not an entree you eat one component at a time.  It’s meant to be enjoyed with a bit of everything in each forkful though you really need to savor the braised pork by itself.  It’s porcine perfection!

14-Hour Braised Pork Collar

14 January 2018:  My Kim jokingly chided me “you always order the same thing!”  That’s true only in that my recent trend has been to trust Cory and Shawn with feeding me whatever they want by ordering the Chef’s Roulette.  It not only saves time perusing the menu, but guarantees a pleasant surprise every visit.  Your humble blogger’s New Year’s Resolution will never be “try something new.”  As faithful readers have come to realize, “something new” is one of my favorite dishes.  If indecision is part of your make-up or if unexpected surprises are what you love most, the Chef’s Roulette is for you, too. 

My first Chef’s Roulette of 2018 included some of my very favorite items served on a slate serving board. On one side of the unique serving vehicle was a jumble of deliciousness: sauteed spinach, oven-roasted potatoes, roasted zucchini and the crowning ingredient Iberico house-cured bacon.  On the other side of the slate plate was a single roasted butternut squash gourd glistening with melting butter.  In between was a dollop of herbed goat cheese.  If you’re wondering how best to eat such an array of deliciousness, my recommendation is as much of everything as you can get in each forkful, but enjoy the butternut squash by itself.  It’s the butternut squash for people who think they don’t like squash.  It’s the antithesis of the syrupy novelty pumpkin-spiced coffee drink some of us hate as much as we do mountains of snow..

My FIrst Chef’s Roulette of 2018

14 December 2014: There are only three desserts on the menu and if they’re all as good as the two we chose, you’re sure to sate, if not titillate, your sweet tooth. The molded cheesecake topped with a fig jam renewed my faith in cheesecakes which of late have all been plagued by a boring sameness.  The crostata, a delicate Italian tart enveloping buttery butternut squash infused with sage is nearly as good.  Somewhat small by contemporary dessert size standards, they’re not to be missed.

12 April 2015: Not that long ago you could practically count on one hand, the number of Italian restaurants offering cannoli as a dessert option.  For the most part, it’s been pretty standard–tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta and often, mascarpone.  “Radical” versions sometimes included chocolate toppings.  Yawn!  During our visit in April, 2015, M’Tucci’s served a cannoli pila (an Italian term meaning “stacked” or “piled”) that was essentially a deconstructed cannoli.  Instead of the standard stuffed shell, bits of shell were topped with a mascarpone-ricotta mix topped with a cherry-walnut compote.  It’s a deliciously different way to enjoy one of the most popular of Italian desserts.

Italian Bread Pudding (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  When Larry first tried M’Tucci’s Italian bread pudding, it immediately rocketed to the coveted number one spot on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  It was so good that both he and Deanell regretted not having ordered one each instead of sharing a portion.  One of my life’s greatest regrets is not having driven over immediately as soon as they told me (months ago) how fabulous this bread pudding is.  There are several reasons it’s so good.  First, the bread isn’t the mushy, squishy mess so often used on bread pudding.  It’s a housemade foccacia.  Secondly, it’s not cloying as bread pudding is oft to be.  Third, it’s made with premium ingredients.  The version to which I was introduced included blueberries and piñon and was topped with a seasonal melt-in-your-mouth gelato.  This is transformative stuff!

Pop culture enthusiasts will remember the scene from the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan experienced delirious joy from her sandwich at New York City’s revered Katz’s Deli. Similar reactions at M’Tucci’s are sure to be repeated and when they are, you can tell your server “I’ll have what she’s having.”

M’TUCCI’S  MARKET & PIZZERIA 
6001 Winter Haven Road,  N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 January 2018
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Italian Charcuterie Board, Pickled Board, Pastrami Sandwich, BLT, Muffaletta, Carbonara, Farro Salad, Lentil Salad, Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes, Cheesecake with Fig, Crostata with Butternut Squash, Cannoli Pila, Italian Mac and Cheese, Market Reuben, Italian Bread Pudding, Carbonara Pizza, Buffalo Margherita Pizza, Caprese Trio, Mushroom Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, 14-Hour Braised Pork Collar

M'Tucci's Market and Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

AK Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

AK Deli, a True Chicago-Style Sandwich Shop

“You’ll never be one of us,” my brother-in-law Chuck quipped in his best Baron von Trapp voice. He wasn’t talking about me being part of the family. He was talking about me being a Chicagoan. Chuck wasn’t being mean-spirited or condescending in any way. The only person not born in the Windy City whom he considers a true Chicagoan is da coach Mike Ditka. “He’s the embodiment of Chicago. It’s in his soul. It’s his attitude.” he explained. Michael Jordan? “Nah, his Royal Airness probably has never even had a real Italian beef sandwich.” Oprah? “Too Hollywood. Not a real person.” Barack Obama? (Surely a former President for whom Chuck voted twice would have to be given a pass). “Politicians are what make Chicago the “Windy City,” he joked. “To be a Chicagoan, you have to have been born here, not transplanted here in your 20s,” Chuck qualified. He isn’t alone in his thinking. A lot of people in the Windy City feel that way and they’re not xenophobic in the least.

Throughout Chicago the walls at many small cafes, diners and hot dog stands are festooned with a poster entitled “You know you’re from Chicago when…” This colorful, fact-filled poster was created by Vienna Beef, the true sausage king of Chicago (with apologies to Abe Froman, the mythical sovereign of tubed meat immortalized in the 1986 classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)” Among other things, the poster will tell you that you’re from Chicago if…”you know what the phone number is for Empire Carpet (it’s 588-2300, by the way),” “you commute 20-feet above street level,” “you have two favorite football teams—the Bears and anyone who beats the Packers,” and of course, “you know you’re from Chicago when you insist on a Vienna Beef hot dog with all seven condiments” (more on this later).

Chicago Hotdog Made with Vienna Beef Hot Dogs

Vienna Beef’s famous poster festoons one wall at AK Deli, the Chicago-style sandwich shop which opened its doors shortly after Labor Day in 2017. The Deli is named for Allan and Kameko, the friendly husband-and-wife couple who own what has already become one of my favorite sandwich destinations in Albuquerque (four visits in two weeks).  Allan is originally from the south side of Chicago which legendary troubadour Jim Croce described as “the baddest part of town,” while Kameko is from Aurora.  AK Deli is located in a nondescript shopping center on Wyoming Blvd just north of Comanche. It’s next door to Ortega’s New Mexican Restaurant. Sadly it isn’t nearly as capacious as Ortega’s. In fact, it’s downright Lilliputian. Within feet of its entrance, you run into the counter where you place your order. There’s a menu on one wall and a few chairs where you can sit while you wait for your order.  There’s not much else.

Unlike two classic Saturday Night Live (SNL) skits which immortalized Chicago, there aren’t many telltale signs that AK Deli is destined to be a second home for Chicago transplants living in the Duke City (and for those of us who love the City of Big Shoulders). No, you won’t hear the exaggerated Chicago accent embodied by George Wendt playing Bill Swerski on the Saturday Night Live “Super Fans” skit. Nor will you hear anything approximating “cheeburger, cheep and Pepsi” as you might at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern (and in another classic SNL skit). What you will find is amiable people who are happy to see you…and contrary to stereotypes, there are very nice people in Chicago.  They’re happy to answer your questions on their little restaurant and big menu.

Italian Combo with Hot Giardinara

That menu is very similar to what you’d see at restaurants and cafes throughout Chicago where the distinction between blue-collar and white-collar is blurred because real Chicagoans tend to love the same foods.  Three breakfast sandwiches–available in your choice of bread: bagel, English muffin or toast–as well as bagel and cream cheese will open your eyes in the morning, but Chicagoans (including wannabe-Chicagoans like me) will gravitate toward the “Chicago Favorites” menu.  That’s where you find Chicago hotdogs, Italian beef, Italian combo (sausage and beef) and the ribeye steak sandwich.  Other sandwich choices include pastrami, corned beef, fried bologna and more.

You can have your sandwich dressed with such condiments as mustard, spicy mustard, mayo, A1 steak sauce and BBQ sauce.  Available cheeses include Cheddar, Havarti, Provolone and Swiss.  Sandwiches can be constructed on a canvas of rye bread, sourdough, kaiser roll, English muffin or bagel.  Extras include whole pickles and chips–Lay’s or Jay’s.  The latter is a 90-year old Chicago institution.  Of course, you know you’re from Chicago if you grew up eating Jay’s potato chips.  My Kim got me hooked on Jay’s, especially the open pit BBQ chips with their hint of heat.  AK Deli offers these gems and will soon be carrying regular potato chips, too.

Fried Bologna Sandwich

If you know only one thing about eating a hot dog in Chicago, it’s probably the hard and fast rule: absolutely, under penalty of ridicule or torture, no ketchup!!!  Even Dirty Harry, who’s not even from Chicago, will tell you (in the movie Sudden Impact) in his inimitable manner: “Nobody, I mean nobody, puts ketchup on a hot dog.”  Though he didn’t declare a presidential fiat, Barack Obama (sounding very much like a real Chicagoan) chimed in: “You shouldn’t put ketchup on your hot dog.”  The most definitive anti-ketchup declaration, however, came from Chicago’s legendary columnist Mike Royko: “No, I won’t condemn anyone for putting ketchup on a hot dog. This is the land of the free. And if someone wants to put ketchup on a hot dog and actually eat the awful thing, that is their right. It is also their right to put mayo or chocolate syrup or toenail clippings or cat hair on a hot dog. Sure, it would be disgusting and perverted, and they would be shaming themselves and their loved ones. But under our system of government, it is their right to be barbarians.”

18 September 2017: There is absolutely no ketchup in a Chicago Hotdog, whom Chicagoans lovingly tease is “dragged through the garden” because of the many accoutrements with which it is constructed: yellow mustard, chopped white onions, neon green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash or two of celery salt on a poppy seed bun (preferably from Rosen’s).   Then there’s the Vienna Beef hot dog in a natural casing with its first-bite-snap.  By the way, you should never say “Chicago style hot dog” because “style” implies Chicago’s hot dogs are a variation of an original. No self-respecting Chicagoan can accept that.  AK’s rendition of the Chicago Hotdog is exemplary (my Kim called it “spectacular.”).  It will trigger memories of your very first Chicago Hotdog.  This is what most transplanted Chicagoans will order their first visit to AK Deli.

Pastrami on Rye

Ask any Chicago transplant in Albuquerque or anywhere else to list the five things they miss most about the Windy City and it’s a good bet the list will include Italian beef sandwiches, a staple in Chicago. Citizens of the Toddlin’ Town are almost as passionate about this sloppy sandwich as they are Da Bears. Chicagoans grow up worshiping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing. An Italian beef sandwich is made with roasted sirloin tip which is massaged with a blend of herbs and spices (oregano, black pepper, basil and more) before roasting. The beef is sliced Nicole Ritchie thin and is so tender it shreds into pieces.  Kameko’s favorite Italian beef sandwich, by the way, comes from Portillo’s.

18 September 2017: At many Chicago restaurants, it is momentarily immersed (dipped) in the gravy to make it even juicier. It is often served with either hot or mild giardiniera (a concoction of spicy, pickled, chopped-up vegetables such as peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery), but sometimes with sautéed mushrooms and bell peppers. The entire creation is extremely messy; you dare not ever try to eat one while driving.  My favorite variation is an Italian combo which pairs Italian sausage with the Italian beef.   AK Deli’s rendition is very good though I regret not having had it served “wet” (dipped).  The gravy is a wonderful counterbalance to the heat of the hot giardiniera.  During her inaugural visit with me on September 30th, my Kim had an Italian Beef sans everything–and she had it wet.  “It’s just like home,” she declared.

Jay’s Open Pit BBQ Chips, a Chicago Staple

20 September 2017: Midwesterners have long claimed fried bologna sandwiches as their own, but if you’re from Northern New Mexico (particularly if you lived on or near an Indian pueblo), you’ve probably consumed dozens of fried bologna sandwiches in your day.  In that regard, having a fried bologna sandwich from AK Deli was for me like going home.  Another way in which it was akin to going home is that AK Deli prepares sandwiches the same way we do at home.  That means they’re not chintzy in their portions.  With three thick slices of bologna fried just the way I like it, mustard and onions on lightly toasted sourdough, this is a sandwich’s sandwich.  Comedian Mitch Hedberg calls bologna “a deli meat for people with eyes.”  It’s also for people with great taste who love deli meats that taste great!

30 September 2017: In two of my first four visits, my choice has been a pastrami sandwich–a regular-sized sandwich my first visit and an “AK Max” sandwich on my second.  Both times the pastrami has been served on a canvas of light rye with mustard–the way Chicagoans like pastrami.  The pastrami served at AK Deli is quite a bit thicker than the fabulous pastrami served at California Pastrami.  While Joe Rodriguez slices his pastrami into thin shards, at AK Deli the pastrami is sliced into thick ribbons.  Aside from the distinctive brine flavor that characterizes great pastrami, this pastrami has a peppery influence–large flecks of pepper that compete with the mustard as the most assertive element of the sandwich.  It reminded me very much of the wonderful pastrami sandwiches shared with Aunt Emily at Siegelman’s Deli in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb.

Ribeye Steak Sandwich on a Kaiser Roll

21 September 2017:  Determined to have something other than a pastrami sandwich or Italian combo, I asked Kameko what her favorite sandwich is.  Without hesitation she recommended the Ribeye Steak Sandwich on a kaiser roll with A1 sauce, onions, tomato and lettuce.  That’s just how Allan prepared it for me and I loved every single bite.  Ribeye is tender, juicy and full-flavored, with nice marbling throughout.  It loses none of those qualities the way it’s prepared at AK Deli.  This is a terrific sandwich!  By the way, you should always order the combo which includes chips (Jay’s, of course) and a soda.

13 January 2018: Located in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, Maxwell Street is a mile-long venue beloved by Windy City denizens because of its diversity of commerce and cuisine. A legendary sandwich was invented on the corner of Maxwell and Halsted Streets some seventy years ago.  That sandwich is almost as famous as the street in which it was born. In the Duke City you can find the Maxwell Street Polish Sausage sandwich only at the AK Deli.  Take a bite and you might swear you’re strolling along the Maxwell Street market.  It’s every bit as good as you’ll find in Chicago.  The canvas for this paragon of deliciousness is a soft celery seed bun in which is nestled a thick, well-seasoned beef and pork sausage with a smear of mustard, a tangle of grilled Spanish white onions and a couple of sport peppers.  The aroma and flavor of those sweet onions is so addictive, you could make a meal of just those alliaceous beauties, but you wouldn’t want to.  This is a sandwich that’s great because of the sum of its terrific ingredients.  This is sandwich greatness!

Maxwell Street Sandwich

You may have noticed that AK Deli is the 1000th review published on Gil’s Thrilling…  While achieving a millennial occasion of any sort is one worthy of celebration with friends and family, the truth is I often dine alone.  I wanted to be alone on this momentous occasion to take pause to reflect on the many wonderful friends this blog has brought into my life.  My journey to 1000 reviews has been made special because it’s been shared–on at least one meal–by great friends such as Andrea Lin, Barbara Chase, Bill Resnik, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, Bruce and Grayce Schor, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver, Bruce Terzes, Bryan Byun, Captain Escalante Tuttle, Carrie Seidman, Dave Hurayt,  Dazzling Deanell, Delightful Darren, Elaine Rising, Esther Ferguson, Franziska Moore,  Dennis Gromelski, Hannah Walraven, Henry Gabaldon, Howie Kaibel, Huu Vu, Jim Millington and The Child Bride, Jim and Sylvia Westmoreland, John Colangelo, John and Kay Lucas, John and Zee Baldwin, Joe Vaughn, Karen Baehr, Professor Larry McGoldrick, Mary Ann Spencer, Mike Muller, Nader Khalil, Nikko Harada,  Paul Lilly, Ruben Hendrickson, Ryan “Break the Chain” and Kimber Scott, Schuyler, Scott McMillan, Shawn Riley, Tom and Elyn Hamilton, Tuan Bui and others whose names may not appear here, but which are forever impressed in my heart.  Thank you for accompanying me on this cavalcade of calories.

AK Deli
3615B Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 639-4249
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 January 2018
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pastrami Sandwich, Chicago Hot Dog, Italian Combo Sandwich, Ribeye Steak Sandwich, Jay’s Open Pit BBQ Chips, Fried Bologna Sandwich, Maxwell Street Polish Sausage Sandwich
REVIEW #1000

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