As a proud native New Mexican, my chest still swells with pride whenever I travel outside the Land of Enchantment (even to Texas, Arizona and Colorado) and espy a vehicle displaying the license plate of the great state of New Mexico. I’m not the only one. While stopping for gas in Iowa a few years ago, a couple from Roswell noticed our license plate and excitedly came over to find out where in New Mexico we were from. We wound up having lunch together, all the while discussing the great state in which we all live in.
For citizens of the fruited plain not fortunate enough to live in New Mexico, seeing our state’s license plate within their borders evokes curiosity, especially if they’re attentive enough to notice that it reads “New Mexico U.S.A.” As the “One of Our Fifty is Missing” column in New Mexico Magazine has demonstrated for more than a quarter of a century, many of our fellow American citizens and ill-informed bureaucrats don’t even realize that New Mexico is part of the United States. When the unwashed and uninformed masses aren’t wondering if we’re carrying our passports as we cross their borders, they’re curious about the symbolism depicted on the license plates and our flag.
Most New Mexicans are aware that our flag depicts the ancient sun symbol of the Zia (which translates literally as “people of the sun”) Pueblo Indians, but not everyone knows what the symbology represents. The Zia believed the giver of all good endowed them with gifts in groups of four. These gifts are represented on the Zia sun symbol as sixteen lines (or rays) radiating from the edge of a central circle representing the sun:
- The rays at the top represent the winds of the four directions – north, east, south and west.
- The rays at the bottom represent the four seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter.
- The rays on the west side of the sun represent the day – dusk, twilight, morning and afternoon.
- The rays on the east side of the sun represent ife itself – childhood, youth, maturity and old age.
These sixteen rays, radiating in each of the four cardinal directions, are bound by a circle of life and love, without a beginning or end. Just as nature divides into fours, so do sacred obligations of all humans. All people are required to cultivate a strong body, a clear mind, a pure spirit and a sense of community within the community. Achieve these obligations and you achieve personal harmony within the universe.
When I first heard about the 4 Aces Grill on Fourth Avenue, my curiosity was piqued as to why a high-end quality New Mexican restaurant would be named for something so un-New Mexican. Sure casinos have a significant presence in the Land of Enchantment, but you could hardly call them one of our state’s cultural or historical treasures. Moreover, I wondered about the symbology of the 4 Aces themselves. Could they possibly have a culinary significance of which I was unaware–maybe four seasonings or four degrees of piquancy?
It turns out the 4 Aces name is in recognition of the restaurant’s chef (ace of diamonds, the mastermind behind the construction effort (ace of spades, restaurant owner (ace of clubs) and the restaurant owner (ace of hearts). That makes sense. Who wouldn’t want the braintrust behind the restaurant to be represented by something signifying the best or highest? Owner Tina Claghorn, a prominent real estate professional knows something about the best or highest, having been involved in the sale of some of New Mexico’s priciest homes. She employed her knowledge of real estate and construction to convert a building which once housed an Allsup’s convenience store into a beautiful edifice.
The 4 Aces Grill seems a bit out of place in its Fourth Avenue location a couple blocks south of I40. Directly across the street is a used car dealership and most of its neighbors are timeworn businesses and warehouses. It’s the proverbial swan in an area replete with ugly ducklings. It’s easy to picture an Allsups on the location, but a pristine New Mexico stucco and Anasazi stonework inspired facade of an upscale restaurant seems startlingly out of place…and if you think 4 Aces is attractive on the outside, you’ll really be impressed when you step inside.
4 Aces doesn’t exactly resemble the stereotype most have of restaurants which showcase New Mexican, Mexican and American culinary traditions. It’s very contemporary with exposed ductwork ceilings, tiled floors and bar and an expansive patio. The walls are festooned with art–fairly monotone framed “words of wisdom” on the day of our inaugural visit, but with the promise for more colorful art rotating on a regular basis. Seating is well-spaced with booths hugging the walls and comfortable chairs encircling round tables elsewhere.
At the helm is Chef Saul Paniagua, an Albuquerque native who’s very proud of his South Valley roots. When I snapped his picture, he joked that he’d normally be sporting his cholo bandana and pointed out his “tats” (that’s tattoos for you Nob Hill elites) as one of the expressions of his art (the other is his cuisine). As personable and endearing as chefs come, he also demonstrated his rapier-sharp wit when interviewed by Ryan Scott for Break the Chain, the terrific radio program which celebrates local non-chain restaurants. He teased that the interview could have gone south because he’s an Oakland Raiders fan while Ryan’s team is the Denver Broncos.
Chef Paniagua, whose last name translates literally to “bread and water” was destined to become a chef. Before returning to Albuquerque, he managed the galley (that’s kitchen for you landlubbers) for Norwegian Cruise Lines. His stints at Duke City restaurants were at La Oja and Cristobal’s, two fine-dining restaurants. At 4 Aces, he’s got more license to create and create he does. The menu and Web site touts the restaurant’s meals as “inspired by family traditions passed down through the generations.”
The key word there is “inspired.” Chef Paniagua’s interpretations of New Mexican, Mexican and American dishes are given a cutting-edge twist. They don’t hold fast to culinary traditions and traditional recipes. He promises to continue creating “crazy New Mexican food” with an eye toward growing the 4 Aces concept. A second instantiation is planned for Albuquerque’s west side then eventually Santa Fe and eventually everywhere else. Chef Paniagua is confident his avant-garde style will win over the masses because he creates from “el corazon” (the heart) as well as his creative mind.
Browse over the menu too quickly and you might skip over some of the intricate details that reveal just how different the 4 Aces menu is. The devil is truly in the details. If you read “chicken taquitos” on the appetizers menu, for example, you might just dismiss it as the humdrum standard pretty much served the same way almost everywhere. Chef Paniagua’s rendition is deliciously different. It’s fabulous!
Four chicken taquitos resembling thick blue corn cigars are engorged with finely shredded chicken so tender, smoky and utterly delicious no accompaniment is necessary. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Chef Paniagua includes two ramekins, one brimming with salsa and the other with a white chocolate pistachio mole. The mole is special. It captivated (for good reason) both Andrea Lin of the Albuquerque Journal and Break the Chain’s Ryan Scott.
Ryan’s spot-on assessment of most moles is that chefs tend to be rather heavy-handed in preparing them. As a result he’s not met a mole he’s enjoyed. The 4 Aces mole is the dark greenish color of guacamole gone bad, but it has the flavor of mole elevated to the level of sublime. As with most moles in which chocolate is an ingredient, the chocolate is rather subdued, serving a complementary role to breads, spices and nuts in perfect proportions for maximum flavor. A small “salad” (queso fresco, lettuce, chopped tomato) is served on the plate with the taquitos.
Salsa and chips are complimentary at 4 Aces. I mention that because it’s increasingly rare for New Mexican restaurants to serve salsa and chips, much less truly great salsa and chips, without charging for them. Chef Paniagua roasts the vegetables used on his restaurant’s salsa. The prevalent flavors are of smoky, roasted tomato and chipotle. Blue, red and yellow corn chips are made on the premises. They have a crispy crunch, are low in salt and are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops. It’s a perfect combination.
The “main” menu is offered during both lunch and dinner. Only eight items, not counting daily specials, are featured. Of those, only one (blue corn enchiladas) might be considered truly New Mexican though New Mexican ingredients such as blue corn are showcased on other items. The menu also includes two steak entrees including a New York Strip and chile rellenos plate served with two sides. The New York Strip is nicely seasoned, all twelve tender and juicy ounces of it. The chile rellenos are thickly encrusted with a blue corn and sesame batter. Cut into the crust and you’re treated to poblanos engorged with gooey, melted cheese. The blue corn batter makes these special.
The other steak is part of a surf and turf plate. The surf part consists of three blue corn and sesame battered jumbo shrimp served with a raspberry-chipotle dipping sauce and the turf is a red chile ribeye steak. The light blue corn batter on the shrimp is crispy and the shrimp is perfectly prepared with a nice snap to it. At medium, the ribeye has a nice pink center and is surprisingly tender (though not as tender as the New York Strip). The red chile is only mild on any piquancy scale, but it imbues the steak with a rich flavor and just a hint of smokiness.
The main entrees are served with two sides. Those include calabasitas, refried beans, poblano rice and garlic mashed potatoes. The calabasitas caught the fancy of Break the Chain blogger Cheri Frost whose “big guy” liked them a little too much. It’s easy to see why. These calabasitas are terrific–crisp, moist, buttery and seasoned to perfection. The refried beans have that familiar cooked with lard taste. Make sure to ask for red chile with which to top the refried beans. The chile, probably from the Sandia pepper, is terrific!
My friend Dave, a world-traveling bon vivant who’s not easily impressed was blown away by Chef Paniagua’s culinary wizardry, calling the food “elegant” and “a parade of surprises.” What enthralled him most were the blue corn chicken enchiladas which he believes are “the standard all others will have to be judged by.” For Dave to be impressed by something means it’s got to be great. The blue corn enchiladas are! These enchiladas are stacked Northern New Mexico style, showcasing perfectly round, perfectly prepared blue corn tortillas stuffed with a flavorful Cheddar cheese and topped with red and green chile. The chile rates mild on any piquancy scale, but it’s got a nice flavor. Best of all, there’s plenty of it and you can use the excess as a “gravy” on the mashed potatoes and refried beans (my two sides).
Chef Paniagua even makes his own desserts. One of his specialties is a flourless red chile chocolate torte, one of the best flourless cakes I’ve ever had. It’s dense and rich with a deep cocoa flavor tinged with a red chile that warms the back of your throat with that unique red chile heat that doesn’t burn. This dessert is topped with raspberries and whipped cream, the former of which provide a tangy contrast to the rich chocolate.
Another Chef Paniagua specialty is sorbet, the palate-cleansing, refreshing and flavor-packed fruity variety. The mango sorbet has a pronounced fresh mango flavor and a velvety soft texture that includes crystalline bits. Too much sugar makes sorbet too soft. The right amount gives it the combination of soft and icy crystal texture I like.
The 4 Aces Grill serves breakfast seven days a week starting at seven o’clock. In a recent breakfast burrito challenge sponsored by Albuquerque The Magazine, the 4 Aces breakfast burrito was among the very best in the city from over 100 competitors. (Chef Paniagua, by the way, also competed in the Chef Knockout competition in 2010.) That’s a good reason to start your morning at this refreshingly different April, 2011 entrant into the Duke City dining scene. Other reasons include blue corn pancakes and huevos rancheros.
The type of pride the staff at 4 Aces Grill has for its cuisine and restaurant operation reminds me of the pride I feel for the Land of Enchantment. Chef Paniagua beams with pride about his menu. The staff is happy, smiles abound. This is a fun restaurant in which to dine. More importantly, it’s a restaurant going places — maybe to the very top!
4 Aces Grill
1527 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2011
1st VISIT: 13 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Chicken Taquitos with Chocolate Pasticcio Mole, New York Strip with Two Chiles Relleno, Calabasitas and Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Surf and Turf: Ribeye Steak, Blue Corn and Sesame Battered Jumbo Shrimp, Calabasitas and Refried Beans, Mango and Lemon Sorbet, Flourless Red Chile Chocolate Torte,