Oak Tree Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico
This isn’t Burger King!
You can’t have it your way.
You get it our way or you don’t get it at all.
For some reason, human beings seem inclined to level criticism by the shovelful while apportioning praise and plaudits by the thimbleful. We seem genetically predisposed to put more stock into negativity than we are to believe the best of others. We consider compliments to be based on insincerity or ulterior motives. Even our television viewing preferences gravitate toward gratuitous depictions of misbehavior and depravity. We consider unwatchable any movie or television show portraying kindness and humanity.
That grim indictment of humanity is, by virtue of its own unflattering characterization, itself an example of misanthropic pathos. In the spirit of John 8:7, I will cast the first stone at myself. For years, I heard about a humble little sandwich shop in which customer service was said to be more than a slogan; it was a way of doing business. Instead of embracing this supposed people-pleasing panacea, my first inclination was skepticism and a willingness to lump the Oak Tree Cafe with any number of other eateries which provide good service, albeit with transparent insincerity.
You’re no doubt familiar with the type of restaurant of which I’m talking (chains are especially good at this). The minute you walk in, a painted-on smile approaches you and begins the well-rehearsed wait “schtick” that typically begins with something like, “I’m Julie and I’ll be your server tonight.” Periodic visits to your table (usually when your mouth is full) include perfunctory chit chat as well as refills and more napkins. Though typically not unpleasant, this type of service is still rather impersonal and unmemorable. It’s essentially a game of reciprocal expectations between customer and client; both parties know what to expect and fulfill their respective roles. It’s basically harmless.
Unfortunately, as feedback to this blog will attest, for some restaurants, harmless would be a vast improvement. Some restaurants, it seems, don’t seem to understand that good customer service is the lifeblood of any business. All too often, customer service appears to be of the “This isn’t Burger King! You can’t have it your way.” variety. This type of service is characterized by a haughty disregard for the axiom that the customer is always right. Its rendition of the golden rule stops at “do onto others” as in “do ignore them,” “do belittle them,” do patronize them.” Quite naturally it dissuades return visits.
Since most customer service seems to fall somewhere between the impersonal and well-rehearsed wait schtick and the “you get it our way or you don’t get it at all” approach, you’ll forgive me if I was skeptical about the Oak Tree Cafe. It really is too easy to be cynical about a restaurant which has made its reputation not only because of its great sandwiches, but because of its genuinely warm, personable and attentive service. Though I’m not from Missouri, Oak Tree would just have to show me.
The Oak Tree Cafe was founded just over a quarter century ago by the father-son duo of Michael and Rob Carson who worked side-by-side until Michael’s death at age 86 in 2009. Today Rob is ably assisted by a kitchen staff which abides with the cafe’s long-standing tradition of excellent customer service. In the tradition of Cheers, television’s friendliest bar, it seems everyone–or at least Rob–knows the name of all regulars as they walk in. He also knows each regular’s “usual,” what those regular patrons like to order when they visit. If my first few visits are any indication, the regulars outnumber new visitors undoubtedly eager to find out if the cafe’s reputation for outstanding food and exceptional service is well deserved.
In April, 2013, the Oak Tree Cafe relocated from its Uptown location to a new shopping center at 4545 Alameda, N.E. (just west of Jefferson). The Oak Tree Cafe’s digs are 2,500 square-feet of welcome to west side diners whose sandwich options were primarily chain restaurants which blight their neighborhoods. An outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables accommodates another forty guests or so. At its expansive new location, the Oak Tree Cafe now serves burgers, beer, wine and appetizers.
As of my initial visit to the Alameda location on 10 May 2013, only the famous Oak Tree bell hasn’t made it to its new home. At the Uptown location, once you took your seat, conversations with your dining companions were periodically be punctuated by the tintinnabulation of a bell positioned by the cafe door. As customers exited, they were invited to please ring the bell “if the food was great and service was crazy.” Without exception, everyone exiting the premises rang the bell. Even if Rob doesn’t bring the bell back, the service remains great and the service as crazy as ever.
For a restaurant with a reputation for service, it’s surprising to find that there is no tableside wait service. Instead you’ll place your order at a counter, interacting with an affable server (maybe even Janet, Rob’s pulchritudinous fiance as of August, 2015) who’s happy to answer any questions you may have or to make recommendations if you need them. When you first walk in don’t be surprised to be greeted with a friendly handshake and an introduction “I’m Rob Carson. Welcome to the Oak Tree Cafe.” It probably won’t be the only time you interact with Carson who’s a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting throughout the premises with an ambassadorial flair.
The sandwiches warrant not only bell-ringing, but cheers. They’re that good! The sandwich and wraps menu is formidable, nearly two dozen different sandwiches crafted on fresh bread, (sub rolls, wheat, rye, white, Kaiser rolls and French rolls) either toasted or untoasted. Meat products come from Boar’s Head. Sandwiches are named for faithful customers, New Mexico landmarks and celebrities such as Monty Hall and Al Capone. Each sandwich towers with meats, condiments and ingredients, some of which are infrequently found at other Duke City sandwich shops.
5 July 2011: If you’re uncertain as to what sandwich to order, focus your study of the menu on those crafted with roast beef, a specialty of the house. The roast beef is slow-cooked on the premises from choice top round. It’s as tender as a marshmallow and as moist and delicious as any roast beef you’ll ever have anywhere! The Taos–hot USDA choice top round roast beef, melted Monterey Jack, grilled onions, grilled green chile, tomato, mayo and lettuce on a fresh-baked Kaiser roll–showcases layer upon layer of roast beef, so juicy and unctuous it resembles a hamburger patty until you taste it. That’s when you gain an appreciation for how wonderful roast beef can be. It’s especially wonderful when its flavor profile melds with the other ingredients which make this my choice for best roast beef sandwich in town.
5 July 2011: During my inaugural visit to the Menaul location, the special of the day featured an ingredient combination–hot corned beef on rye toast topped with grilled onions, Monterey jack cheese, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and deli mustard–that made my taste buds very happy. The combination of banana peppers, deli mustard and grilled onions was especially notable, a complementary mix of sweet, savory and tangy flavors. This sandwich is piled about twice as high as many other sandwiches you’ll find in local eateries. It also stands tall above the rest in terms of pure deliciousness.
The sprawling Alameda location is every bit as accommodating and friendly as its previous home. Even the menu bespeaks of friendliness with the slogan “A warm, friendly atmosphere full of camaraderie and congeniality.” Location aside, the biggest difference between one location and another is the menu which now includes three gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and appetizers. Sandwiches are the Oak Tree Cafe’s raison de’etre and will probably always be the most popular draw, but burgers and chicken sandwiches will beckon, too.
Although all sandwiches are served with a pickle spear and your choice of homemade apple coleslaw, homemade macaroni salad or fresh fruit, you owe it to yourself to try some of the other sides on the menu: hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries or beer-battered onion rings. The beer-battered black and tan onion rings are among the two best in the city (the others being from Flamez Burgers & More). These golden hued beauties are served on a tree-like apparatus, just ready to be plucked. Bite into them and onion juiciness squirts out, a wonderful departure from the usual desiccation you experience with out-of-the-bag onion rings most restaurants serve.
10 May 2013: Much as the burgers and chicken sandwiches beckon, chances are you’ll succumb to the stronger calling of a sumptuous sandwich. One of the best is the Oak Tree Combo, a sandwich honoring the years spent at the San Mateo (Uptown) location. This is a sandwich’s sandwich, a meaty behemoth on a Kaiser roll. The ingredients–USDA top round roast beef, turkey breast, corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, melted Cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes–go very well together. It’s such a good sandwich, you may mourn finishing your last bite.
13 June 2013: On the day of my second visit to the Alameda location, it did my heart good to see more cars parked in front of the Oak Tree Cafe than there were in front of Panera Bread, a chain restaurant five miles away which also serves sandwiches. It goes to show Duke City Diners can be a discerning lot that recognizes the superiority of locally owned and operated restaurants and home-grown touches such as the Oak Tree Cafe’s green chile Ranch dressing which accompanies the fried green beans. While no dressing is necessary for these perfectly breaded, perfectly fried green beans, a little piquancy and roasted flavor goes a long way.
13 June 2013: The best new green chile cheeseburger I’ve had in 2013 is the quaintly named Janet’s Bacon Green Chili (SIC) Burger, a burger so good the Oak Tree Cafe can get away with the Texas-like spelling of New Mexico’s official state vegetable. The burger is named for the delightful Janet, Rob’s fiance and a partner in the restaurant. All the burgers at the restaurant are made from fresh ground beef from Nelson’s Meat Market formed on the premises daily and served on a fresh bakery bun. The Janet invites you to “Cowgirl It Up” (a phrase meaning stop being a sissy) with this half-pound behemoth topped with pecan-smoked bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, New Mexico green chile, red onions, lettuce and tomatoes. The green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough bite to let you know it’s there. The beef is moist and perfectly prepared at about medium. The bacon is terrific as is the cheese. It’s a burger which goes very well with the onion rings.
13 June 2013: If you’ve ever wondered what “heaven in a sandwich” tastes like, try the Father Paul Sandwich, named for a Catholic priest friend of Rob Carson. Although Father Paul is now in Florida, this sandwich is a terrific legacy to leave behind. The sandwich is constructed on a baguette which is ungashtupt (that’s Yiddish for overstuffed) with USDA top round roast beef, melted Swiss cheese, red onions, deli mustard, lettuce and tomatoes. The deli mustard pulls no punches, enlivening the sandwich with an eye-watering flavor that complements the tender as butter roast beef. If you’ve discerned a predilection for ordering roast beef sandwiches, it’s simply because The Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best roast beef in Albuquerque.
18 June 2013: While turkey is often blamed for post-meal Thanksgiving lethargy, chicken actually has more of the serotonin-boosting tryptophan than turkey does. Perhaps that’s why most chicken sandwiches bore me to the point of sleepiness. In the spirit that the Oak Tree Cafe can do no wrong, I didn’t put up much resistance when Janet recommended Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, a six-ounce grilled chicken breast, jalapeño bacon, Pepperjack cheese and honey mustard topped with lettuce and tomatoes. This is what all chicken sandwiches should aspire to. The chicken (no breading) is grilled to perfection, but what makes this sandwich special is the combination of smoky-piquant bacon, slightly incendiary Pepperjack cheese and the honey mustard. This is a multi-napkin affair, a very juicy and delicious chicken sandwich that won’t leave you sleepy after consuming it.
8 July 2013: It’s entirely conceivable that if the 1982 best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche were to be rewritten for the new millennium, quiche would be replaced on the title by tortilla wraps or maybe quesadillas. It’s practically an XY chromosome expectation that real men order behemoth sandwiches overstuffed with ingredients. Real men certainly wouldn’t order a tortilla wrap with raspberry sauce of all things. That is unless real men are really comfortable in their own skin or who don’t want to miss out on a terrific tortilla wrap constructed with superb ingredients. The Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap is bursting with roasted turkey breast, cream cheese, New Mexico green chile, spring mix, tomatoes and raspberry chipotle sauce wrapped in a tortilla. The combination of green chile and raspberry chipotle gives the wrap a piquant personality with a sweet kick. The turkey, and there’s plenty of it, is terrific, the antithesis of the boring turkey. Real men would love this sandwich…if only they would try it.
Contemporary culinary culture is so competitive (forgive the alliteration) that a purveyor of sandwiches can’t just slap some meats and cheeses on bread and expect to stay in business for long. The very best restaurateurs are constantly reinventing their menus, looking for exciting new options with which to entice their diners. Since the Oak Tree Cafe moved into its commodious new digs, the opportunities for tinkering with an already outstanding menu have been more readily available. A number of new burgers (including an excellent blue cheese burger) show up in the menu of daily specials. The most successful among them will hopefully make it onto the everyday menu
27 March 2014: Call it audacious if you will, but the Oak Tree Cafe serves the very best fish and chips in the Duke City area. Yes, better than the fish and chips at Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill and the Two Fools Tavern. Rob Carson and his crew didn’t just decide one day to start serving fish and chips then immediately started doing so. They worked on the batter for two months (going through boatloads of fish) before considering it worthy of the guests they value so much. It’s a light and crispy beer batter that sheathes two large pieces of tender and flaky haddock. The light batter allows for excellent penetration by malt vinegar and pairs well with the superb tartar sauce with which the fish are served. The fish is delicate and delicious and because it’s virtually grease-free, you can eat it with your hands. The fries have a twice-fried texture and also absorb malt vinegar well. An accompanying coleslaw is crisp, fresh and delicious.
28 August 2015: My friend Franzi, Albuquerque’s most beauteous barrister, books time with a “personal shopper” at Gucci when she flies into Chicago. I can one-up her by having my very own personal sandwich advisor every time I visit the Oak Tree. Not only are reservations not required to book this service, anyone can avail themselves of getting great sandwich advice every time you visit. All you’ve got to do is ask Janet for a recommendation. She’ll ask some questions to discern your tastes and desires before recommending your next favorite sandwich at the Oak Tree.
My Kim is eternally grateful to Janet for recommending the Don Juan (which isn’t named for the legendary libertine, but for John who conceptualized it). The Don Juan (ham, pepperoni, melted Provolone cheese, Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, red onion, artichokes, lettuce and tomatoes on a baguette) is a concordant masterpiece of ingredients which work so very well together. The Balsamic vinegar and artichokes are a very nice touch, lending a tangy contrast to otherwise savory ingredients. The baguette is the perfect canvas, lending the properties of chewiness and staff-of-life deliciousness to the meats and cheeses.
13 November 2015: Most sandwich restaurants tend to have a turkey sandwich and invariably it lives up to its name, turkey being a term used to describe something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful. The Oak Tree Cafe’s version of a turkey sandwich is the antithesis of every boring turkey sandwich out there, second in my estimation only to the turkey sandwich at the legendary Smokehouse. The canvas for this terrific turkey is toasted sourdough bread topped with green chile, melted Monterey Jack, homemade guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes. The turkey breast is moist and delicious, a natural complement to the other ingredients and a perfect foil for the incendiary green chile and rich, buttery guacamole.
13 November 2015: In her terrific tome American Sandwich, my friend Becky Mercuri explains that the origin of the Reuben sandwich is hotly contested with at least three sources claiming to be its progenitor. None of those sources credit the sandwich as being named for Baroque painting genius Peter Paul Rubens, but an argument could easily be made for his cause. That’s especially true if you consider his preference for plus- or real-sized women, the genesis for the term Rubenesque meaning plump or voluptuous. Those terms could apply to the sandwich as well, especially its homonym, the Rueben sandwich. The Oak Tree’s rendition is a triple-decker beauty constructed of housemade lean corned beef (cooked in Guinness which imparts a dark, rich, complex flavor); tart and tangy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing on a beautiful light rye. It’s one of Albuquerque’s very best!
The Oak Tree Cafe has made a believer our of this cynic who often laments the absence of truly sincere, truly personable service coupled with excellent sandwiches. This cafe is an anachronism, a throwback to the days in which the customer was always right and you could get things done your way. At its new Alameda location, the Oak Tree Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 8PM.
Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 November 2015
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: The Taos Sandwich, Hot Corned Beef Sandwich, Oak Tree Combo, Onion Rings, Fried Green Beans, The Father Paul Sandwich, Janet’s Green Chili Burger, Mike’s Chicken Sandwich, Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Wrap, Apple Coleslaw, Fish & Chips, The Don Juan, The Pauley, Triple Decker Reuben