2012: A Thrilling (and Filling) Year in Food
Tis the season…for year-end retrospectives in which the good, the bad and the ugly; the triumphs and tragedies; the highs and lows and the ups and downs are revisited ad-infinitum by seemingly every print and cyberspace medium in existence. It’s the time of year in which the “in-your-face” media practically forces a reminiscence–either fondly or with disgust–about the year that was. It’s a time for introspection, resolutions and for looking forward with hope to the year to come. The New Mexico culinary landscape had more highs than it did lows in 2012. Here’s my thrilling (and filling) recap.
The dailymeal.com apparently can’t keep a secret. In January, the site revealed America’s ten most secret restaurants, eateries which “remain conundrums to the outside world, with only a select few joining the inner circle of diners privy to their culinary secrets.” The only New Mexico restaurant “outed” was Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse in Albuquerque which the dailymeal described as “a high class speakeasy.”
More than 1,200 guests visited the Roadrunner Food Bank on January 29th to partake of the very best soups and desserts in the Duke City as prepared by nearly 50 restaurants. In addition to sampling soups and desserts, attendees got to vote for their favorite soup, vegetarian soup and dessert.
- The People’s Choice Soup winner was the Artichoke Cafe for its butternut squash crawfish bisque. Kelly’s Brew Pub earned second place for its cream of chicken green chile. Third place went to the Standard Diner for its bourbon lobster bisque.
- The People’s Choice in the vegetarian soup category was Johndi’s BBQ for its gazpacho. Second Place went to the AKayTahRing Company for their Green Chile Chicken Chowder. Finishing third was the Gecko Bar and Tapas for its fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder.
- The “Critics’ Choice” for best soup as determined by a panel of eight celebrity judges went to Sheraton Uptown for a green chile and mushroom soup. Second place went to the Marriot Uptown for their cream of calabasitas with green chile and smoked chicken. Street Food Asia earned a third place finish for its curry laska.
- In the dessert category, the People’s Choice winner was Nothing Bundt Cakes. Second place went to the Artichoke Cafe while Farina Pizzeria and Wine Bar earned a third place showing.
“Going vegan in Albuquerque is easier than learning how to spell the city’s name!” That’s the verdict of the dailymeal.com which in February, named the Duke City one of America’s Most Vegetarian-Friendly Cities. The site advised, “You’ll find tons of vegan options, such as the veggie chicken nuggets and boba tea at the Fei Health Café and the tofu scramble at Flying Star Café. Also check out both locations of Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Café, offering a selection of vegan bakery items and ayurvedic cooking classes.”
In February the James Beard Foundation announced its nominees for 2012 honors. Three of New Mexico’s finest chefs were named semi-finalists for Best Chef Southwest: Martin Rios, owner of Santa Fe’s Restaurant Restaurant Martin; Jennifer James of Jennifer James 101; and Frederick Muller of El Meze in Taos. Both Rios and James are three-time semi-finalists. Santa Fe’s The Compound Restaurant, owned by Mark Kiffin, a previous Best Chef Southwest winner, was nominated in the national restaurant service category.
Zagat celebrated Mexican food week in March, finishing the week off in style by addressing six debates about Mexican food and asking readers to weigh on on what side they support. New Mexicans can relate to most of the debates: Corn Tortillas vs. Flour Tortillas; Hard Shell vs. Soft Shell; Green vs. Red; American-style vs. Mexican-style cheese; and big vs. thin burritos. Who better than New Mexicans to weigh in on the green versus red debate. Eric DiStefano, chef and owner of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe prefers green while Mary & Tito’s owner Antoinette Knight is a staunch advocate of the red chile which she credits with helping the restaurant earn a James Beard America’s Classics Award.
During its Mexican food week, Zagat also compiled a list of 10 Crazy Tacos From Around the U.S. On the list was the Navaho (sic) Taco from Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe which the Zagat writer described as a “disc of Navaho fry bread covered with beans, cheese, chilies (sic), shredded lettuce, tomato and usually a salsa. For most New Mexicans, the only thing crazy about these tacos is how Zagat spelled Navaho. Zagat also recommended washing down these tacos with one of the Coyote Cafe’s habanero margaritas.
Zagat must have had a few too many habanero margaritas in declaring “Southwestern” style Mexican food in Arizona and New Mexico as “pretty darn similar,” that reasoning based on the fact that they’re both on the border of Mexico’s Sonora state. Dan Garcia, vice president of Albuquerque’s Original Garcia’s restaurant family stressed that green chile is what makes New Mexican food best and touted hand-rolled tortillas which are “nicer, thicker, fuller and more filling” and sopaipillas.” At least Zagat didn’t compare New Mexico’s unique and superior cuisine to Tex-Mex.
In April, the Huffington Post‘s food blog proclaimed the green chile cheeseburger the “hottest roadside dish in the U.S.,” crediting its ascendency to the Food Network “Throwdown” episode in which San Antonio’s Bobby Olguin bested Bobby Flay in a green chile cheeseburger throwdown. According to the writer, New Mexico’s iconic burger “suddenly took on nearly mythic proportions across the country as the rodeo food of the cowboy gods.” (huh?) Surprisingly he wasn’t as impressed by Olguin’s Buckhorn Tavern burger as he was with the green chile cheeseburger at Santa Fe’s “practically unknown dive cafe,” Horseman’s Haven. (huh, again)
in a May, 2012 article entitled State Dinners, 2012: Food Pilgrimages You Must Make This Summer, Grub Street New York, the daily food online magazine from New York Magazine published a list of 50 dining pilgrimages its readers should undertake. The ambitious list was limited to only one restaurant per state which meant leaving off hundreds of potentially worthy choices. It’s hard to argue that New Mexico’s “not-to-be-missed” restaurant is Mary & Tito’s, but there are so many other wonderful restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. Grub Street got it right in saying Mary & Tito’s has been “serving up what most agree is the best red chile in town” since 1963.
In May, New Mexico’s four-time James Beard award-winning authors Bill and Cheryl Jamison released Tasting New Mexico: Recipes Celebrating One Hundred Years of Distinctive Home Cooking, a terrific tome which should grace the kitchen and library of every home in the Land of Enchantment. Their passion for the traditional foods of their adopted home state is reflected in their raconteur approach toward describing the state’s restaurants, cooks, food products and local dishes. Tasting New Mexico is a love story–more than a cookbook, better than a travel guide. Featuring 100 distinctive recipes, it is the best and most important culinary compilation about New Mexico ever written. Cheryl is also the contributing culinary editor for New Mexico Magazine where she publishes the wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog which dishes out the latest from the New Mexico dining scene.
On May 9th 21st Century Business, an award winning targeted business show, visited the Golden Crown Panaderia to spotlight the bakery’s online ordering system and how the orders come into the bakery and are displayed to the employees. Owner Chris Morales praised the reliability and efficiency of the panaderia’s point of sale system, indicating the system makes it easy for the restaurant to process its orders and perform inventory to ensure the availability of needed ingredients.
In its May, 2012 issue Taste of Home magazine celebrated the “Great American Drive-Through,” a compilation of “regional foods that make significant deposits to the culinary treasure of the country.” Four distinct culinary trails were spotlighted: the Colorado Ale Trail, the Vermont Cheddar Trail, the North Carolina Barbecue Trail and the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. According to the magazine, four spots in particular “reveal the true meaning of “hot on the trail.” Those four spots were the Bobcat Bite, Monte Carlo Steakhouse, Buckhorn Tavern and Sparky’s.
The May 21, 2012 issue of People Magazine featured popular Albuquerque restaurant Tim’s Place and its affable proprietor Tim Harris. In a feature entitled “Serving Hot Food and Warm Hearts,” the magazine profiled the “world’s friendliest restaurant” serving breakfast, lunch and hugs. Harris, likely the only person in the United States with Down Syndrome to own and operate his own restaurant has given more than 18,000 hugs to customers according to the “official hug counter” in the dining room that tallies each hug.
New Mexicans tend to shy away from lists because of the notoriety the Land of Enchantment seems to garner in many quality of life lists. In June, National Geographic published its “Top 10 Best of Everything” book that includes lists of magnificent museums, stylish ski runs, superb cigars and the ten best hamburgers under the spacious skies. Blake’s Lotaburger was named America’s fourth best burger. Serving New Mexico for six decades and now with 75 restaurants, Lotaburger’s motto is “if you are what you eat, you’re awesome.” Who can argue with that?
Just before Fathers’ Day in June, Tim Harris was profiled in a CBS News “On the Road” segment. As the only person in America with Down’s Syndrome to own his own restaurant, Tim is the architect of the “family feel” concept behind the popular Tim’s Place. CBS cited hugs as the restaurant’s measure of success, pointing out that Tim was nearing the 19,000 hug plateau as of the program’s airing.
Starting July 1st, the Land of Enchantment enacted a law that protects chile farmers from pepper pretenders. The New Mexico Chile Advertising Act declares that chile can only be labeled New Mexico chile if it is actually grown in New Mexico soil. Nefarious producers have for years marketed charlatan chile as “Grown in New Mexico” even though it is brought in from China, India and maybe even New York City. The law prohibits vendors from claiming such products as salsa and enchilada sauce contain New Mexico chile unless the chile was actually grown in the state. Violators will be forced to stop selling chile products (and should probably be subjected to eating the faux fiery stuff).
In July, USA Today named Giovanni’s Pizzeria the very best purveyor of pizza in the Land of Enchantment, the second time in two years Giovanni’s was accorded that honor by the daily periodical. USA Today indicated: “This is New York style thin-crust pizza crispy with a blackened spot or two and a good, yeasty taste. But being New Mexico, green chile shows up frequently as a topping.”
On July 25th, the Travel Channel aired “Best of the Road,” an hour-long program honoring small towns in the categories of best food, most beautiful, most fun, most patriotic and most friendly in a competition created by Rand McNally, USA Today and The Travel Channel. Online voting determine the finalists before each town was visited by a two-person team of judges, one team for each category. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Santa Fe was selected as the small city with the Best Food in the country. The judges were treated to some of the best Santa Fe had to offer: breakfast at Tia Sophia’s, dinner at the Coyote Cafe, pizza and beer at the Marble Brewery, margaritas at Maria’s and more.
In July, Conde Naste Traveler, the world’s premier travel magazine, named 10 Food Trails Worth the Flight (and the Calories), ten places around the world where it’s easy to sample the local specialty. New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was one of the trails selected. A few highlights from the 66 restaurants and 100 locations that made the cut included the Buckhorn Tavern, Blake’s Lotaburger and The Owl Bar & Cafe.
A Hamburger Today, a weblog about America’s national dish, was in Albuquerque in July to sample the green chile cheeseburger at Q Burger, a Central Avenue burger restaurant previously called bRgR. The blog mentioned that “the menu features more run-of-the-mill, fancy-pants burger offerings,” such as kangaroo burgers and Wagyu beef burgers with Kaseri cheese, but it was the iconic green chile cheeseburger which the writer cited as “one of the better green chile cheeseburgers I’ve had in state.”
Meals on Wheels of Albuquerque hosted its eleventh annual Breakfast Egg Stravaganza on Saturday, July 14th, 2012. The breakfast is an all-you-can-eat plethora of deliciousness that includes freshly made pancakes, build-your-own omelets, made to order waffles, a fresh fruit bar and much more. Thanks to the generosity of civic minded (and hungry) Duke City citizens more than 500 people attended the event and Meals on Wheels raised over $20,000! That is BY FAR their best year ever! Thank you, my dear readers, for supporting this most worthwhile cause.
In July, Edward Sung, a long time friend of this blog, and his lovely better half Hannah Walraven launched a delightful blog called Once Again We Have Eaten Well. Once Again…is a delightful change of pace from the mundanity of most food blogs (and food writing in general). The blog employs a novel conversational approach so entertaining and realistic, you’ll find yourself transported to the table with Edward and Hannah. It’s almost as good as being there with them.
In July, two New Mexico restaurants were recognized for providing meals with a view–incomparable views. OpenTable, an online real-time reservation site took the pulse of more than five-million restaurant reviews in which “scenic view” was highlighted and compiled a list of the top 100 restaurants with a scenic view. The two enchanting restaurants were the High Finance at the top of the Sandia Peak Tramway and Sandiago’s Mexican Grill at the Tramway’s bottom.
Taking input from its readers, Zagat published an article in August hailing “superlative out-of-town patties that might actually be worth a road trip.” The “Destination Burgers: 10 Patties Worth a Trip” included the Bobcat Bite’s legendary burger. Zagat credited the Bobcat Bite‘s “secret-recipe green chile sauce” for giving the burger its “addictive that has fans making the trek out to the joint off the Old Las Vegas Highway year after year.
In August, Pacific Standard asked the question “Is New Mexico Hoarding All the Good Chile, or Just Really Bad at Selling It?” Acknowledging that “Mass roasting of the smokey-yet-sweet-yet-piquant nightshade will make Albuquerque the best-smelling city in America for the rest of the summer,” the blog waxed pondered why “New Mexico’s singular crop has never earned the national fame that Maine lobsters, Idaho potatoes or Midwest sweetcorn enjoy, though anyone who tries them tends to find his or her life improved, in a minor but permanent way. Ultimately, Pacific Standard surmised that “It would appear the New Mexicans are quietly content keeping their best stuff to themselves. A test: try asking one about sopapillas.”
American Profile magazine celebrated Hatch as the ““chile capital of the world” in a flattering profile published in August. Shayne Franzoy of Hatch’s “first family of chile acknowledged that “everyone [in Hatch] eats chile at least once a day,” but it was a chile devotee from Little Rock, Arkansas who best expressed the sentiment of many New Mexicans: “It’s almost like having salt and pepper on the table.”
While the Land of Enchantment has achieved international acclaim for our incomparable green chile cheeseburgers, New Mexico is not known for our sandwiches. There is no one sandwich we can point to and proclaim it our definitive sandwich. Maybe there is. In the September, 2012 issue of Food Network Magazine, an article entitled “50 States, 50 Sandwiches” listed one sandwich for every state, ostensibly the state’s very best feast between bread. At first browse, a grilled cheese sandwich may not seem especially noteworthy, but add Cheddar cheese slices, tomatoes, green chile and crunchy bacon and you’ve got something special. New Mexico’s best sandwich comes from Mucho Gourmet Sandwich Shoppe in Santa Fe.
The 2012 New Mexico State Fair, in association with the New Mexico Tourism Department and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, hosted the Green Chile Cheeseburger Centennial Challenge at the State Fair on Tuesday, September 18th. Twelve competitors vied for the honor of being named New Mexico’s very best and earning a trophy which, in an example of delicious irony, misspelled New Mexico’s official state vegetable as “chili.” Despite the sacrilege, none of the competing burgers actually served a “chili” cheeseburger, “chili” being a Texan creation. The winner of the event was BZ Rockin’ Burgers, a newcomer from Alamagordo whose “build your own burgers” are made with fresh ground chuck. “
James Beard award-winning blog Serious Eats had no problem spelling “chile” correctly in a feature entitled “Snapshots from New Mexico: Obsessed With Chile.” In a sixteen photo slideshow published in October, the writer enjoyed chile rellenos at La Placita Dining Rooms, green chile enchiladas at El Pinto, a green chile omelet from Daily Grind Coffee, green chile cheese bread from the Golden Crown Panaderia, green chile with polenta and a green chile BLT from Cafe Pasqual, green chile mac and cheese from the Standard Diner, green chile apple pie from Cecilia’s Cafe, fried sopaipilla bread from El Parasol and chocolate red “chili” fudge from the Candy Lady. It wasn’t the writer who committed the spelling faux pas, but the candy maker who in 2012 gained notoriety for is selling what it calls “meth candy,” rock candy dyed blue to resemble the much-coveted blue meth made on “Breaking Bad.”
In October, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, the most prolific commenter on this blog mentioned a new culinary find he described as “the porn of pickles!!!…the enrapture of Sweet & Hot!!!” He was talking, of course, about Not Cha Mama’s gourmet pickles which are every bit as wonderful as he described them. Other readers who tried the Hatch chile-infused pickles chimed in and eventually so did Victoria Smith, the sweet lady who puts lots of love (and a little magic) in each jar of her pulchritudinous pickles. If you haven’t already tried them, make it a New Year’s resolution to do so.
October saw the launch of Food Lovers’ Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque & Taos: The Best Restaurants,, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings by Andrea Feucht. You’ll be well advised to keep one copy in your vehicle and one in your kitchen. That way you consult the guide to help you decide where your next meal should come from as well as consulting it for recipes Andrea charmed some of New Mexico’s best culinary minds into sharing. Andrea is one of the most tenacious food writers in the Land of Enchantment and keeps the pulse of the local dining scene.
A New Mexico institution of higher learning got a failing grade from The Daily Meal which revealed the worst college food in America in a November 15 post. The cafeteria at St. John’s College in Santa Fe didn’t endear itself to its diners by offering such culinary curiosities as vegan loaf with pineapple salsa or even by offering pizza for Sunday brunch. Despite all the wonderful New Mexican food throughout the Land of Enchantment, no New Mexico school made The Daily Meal’s 52 best colleges for food in America.
Santa Fe obtained some level of redemption in December when MSN named the Kakawa Chocolate House as one of the “ten most luxurious places in the world to drink hot chocolate.” Kakawa (an ancient Olmec word for chocolate and the cacao tree) features chocolate prepared from traditional, time-honored recipes. In the tradition of the Meso-American chocolate pioneers, most of Kakawa’s chocolate drinks are made with water. A few contain restrained amounts of milk, rice milk or almond milk. This allows the purity of cacao to shine through while preserving its healthful qualities in ways that are lost when milk is added.
In the “Headlines” segment of the December 3rd episode of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno shared a laugh with the audience over a newspaper clipping for a Rio Rancho Oktoberfest event. The clipping showed the extent to which Rio Rancho celebrates its diversity: Oktoberfest, culturally diverse version of this traditionally German celebration includes music by Norio Hayakawa, Rio Rancho’s Japanese country and western singer, 6-11 p.m. Saturday at the Italian American Association Hall.
In December, Santa Fe’s fabulous Geronimo was the sole New Mexico restaurant earning a much-coveted place on OpenTable’s Top 100 Best Restaurants in the U.S. More than five million diner reviews were reviewed for more than 15,000 restaurants in all 50 states. If Geronimo isn’t New Mexico’s very best restaurant, it’s on a very short list of restaurants which can lay claim to that distinction.
In December, Zagat, a guidebook America has been trusting for ratings and reviews for restaurants, nightlife, hotels and more, named its 20 Awesome Winter Foodie Destinations. The terrific twenty included such exotic locations as Tulum, Mexico; Prague, Czech Republic; Montreal, Canada; West End, Anguilla; Grand Cayman Islands and…Albuquerque, New Mexico. You thought I was going to say Santa Fe, didn’t you? The feature lauded Los Poblanos, “a historic inn and farm that’s perfect for a foodie getaway.”
Albuquerque was also highlighted in Fodor’s Travel Guide “Go List” for 2013 as one of the “25 trips to book right now.” Visitors were encouraged to visit Farina Pizzeria for “some of the best pizza you will find anywhere.” No matter when you go, Fodor’s recommends a visit to the Candy Lady for a bag of “Blue Ice” candy, the stand-in for Breaking Bad’s signature Blue Sky crystal meth.
Every year in December, Saveur magazine publishes its Saveur 100 Travel edition, a celebration of its greatest gustatory discoveries over the year. New Mexico was represented among the elite 100 by Silver City’s The Curious Kumquat. Saveur described The Kumquat’s offerings as “most far-flung modernist cuisine.” Chef Connoley incorporates elements of molecular gastronomy with locally foraged ingredients to create a menu unlike any in New Mexico…or possibly anywhere. Visiting the Curious Kumquat has been a New Years Resolution for several years now. Maybe 2013 will finally be the year in which it actually happens.
Drive through Corrales during harvest time in autumn and you’ll see roadside signs for “gourmet hay.” Historically even horses and cattle have eaten well in Corrales, however, its human inhabitants won’t eat quite as well hereafter because two of the villages restaurant gems, El Rancho de Corrales and La Casa Vieja, closed. 2012 was a tough year for New Mexico restaurants with nearly 30 restaurants reviewed on this blog closing. As much as those restaurants will be missed, we will miss T.C. Perea even more. T.C., the much beloved proprietor of Perea’s Tijuana Bar & Restaurant, passed away in July. He left a legacy of hospitality and family that touched every guest who has dined at his restaurant.
2011 was another banner year for readers of Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog who put up with more than two months of inconsistent page launches as the site was under constant attack from malicious hackers. There are now more than 4,350 reader comments on my 725 reviews. I value your comments immensely and appreciate that you thought enough of my blog this year to have voted me as one of the Duke City’s five best bloggers for 2012 in Albuquerque The Magazine’s annual “best of the city” issue.
Special thanks to my friend Paul “Boomer” Lilly for the magnificent photos which grace the banner of this blog and for his annual photo of the “friends who feast” at the top of this article.