Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee. As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I worked for eighteen years provided free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as employees can drink. All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.
There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee. It’s not that we like our coffee weak. It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems. Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and Texans cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.” It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.
Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens. Only in the past fifteen years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir. Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend. As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).
Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries. Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe. It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable liquid commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.
Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless. Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not. Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window. A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.
Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner. Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed. Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers. Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.
Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world. He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio. From an experiential standpoint, those are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies. To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”
In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side. It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital. The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six. The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.
Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is. The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras. The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound. None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker. Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine.
The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico. A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader. Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic. Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes. During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.
Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days. The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had. Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more. All food items are served with plasticware, reason being that Cafe Bella is a coffee shop which serves outstanding food. It is not a restaurant (though many of its culinary offerings would put restaurants to shame).
20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity. Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular. One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread. The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.
When it first launched, Cafe Bella Coffee offered its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis, all procured from bakery partners, all of which are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors. While partner relationships remain strong, they’re no longer exclusive. Cafe Bella staff has begun baking its own scones. The staff has the latitude to be creative in designing delicious flavor combinations. Think double espresso and red chile, chocolate chip and maple, and more.
15 March 2013: For years after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time. Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe. Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2’s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012. Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event. However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so. Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.
Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating in a number of events on and off location. On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados. Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights. With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek.
8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well. One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread. It’s even better than it sounds if possible. Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload. The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas and it’s lightly toasted so that the flavor of char doesn’t obscure the flavor of chocolate.
16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella. One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese. For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens. The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most.
14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.” He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012. It’s easy to see why. Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini. When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats. When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours. The result is pure, unadulterated edible art. Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce. Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness.
7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey. You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella. Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini. The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey. This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham). This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks.
19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization. For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico. You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another. In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili. The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy. The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili. It’s a marriage made in heaven. Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation. If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it. I did!
8 July 2014: While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand. These tacos were paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be. In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out. On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon. What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions.
An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit. Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all. The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema. The sauteed carne packs a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema. Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions. Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!.
9 May 2015: Keeping a pulse on national culinary trends, Michael determined early on that avocado toast would become a national phenomena (just Google “avocado toast” to see how prescient he was). Toast is a veritable tabula rasa, a blank slate which can be topped by sundry ingredients in limitless combinations. Similarly, avocado pairs very well with numerous ingredients. After much trial and experimentation, in 2014, Michael debuted his version of a soon-to-be national sensation, pioneering the Duke City’s very first avocado toast. Generously spread atop lightly toasted focaccia this open-faced canvas of deliciousness includes butyraceous avocado at the height of ripeness and freshness along with a single poached egg. Puncture the poached egg with your fork and the yolk trickles over the toast and onto the plate where it melds with Michael’s fabulous crema. Words fail in expressing just how good Cafe Bella’s avocado toast is (this coming from someone who considers avocados rather boring).
9 May 2015: As a culinary professional, Michael understands better than most that in order to grow business year-upon-year, the menu has to remain interesting. Though wholesale changes aren’t necessary, he and his creative staff have continued to introduce amazing new items we now can’t live without. In 2013, it was the addictive Slow-Smoked Carne Panini and the Chocolate Panini. In 2014, Cafe Bella pioneered the revolutionary avocado toast. Those outstanding additions set the bar high, but 2015’s offering meets or exceeds the high standards set by its predecessors. How could it not? Its a Sriracha Bacon Sandwich (eggs, green onions, mozzarella, Parmesan and bacon on a grilled green chile cheddar bun with sriracha mayo). The green chile Cheddar bun, specially baked for Cafe Bella, is somewhere between the size of a burger and the size of an English muffin. It’s surprisingly light and delicate so as not to be too “bready,” allowing the other ingredients to shine…and shine they do. This is a superb sandwich, a candidate for my “best of the best” for 2015.
In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque. The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays. Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building. Proximity to the drive-through has meant increased frequency of visits, most often for the aforementioned red chili mocha. Thankfully Cafe Bella offers a loyalty card–buy ten and get one free. As of May 9th, I’ve enjoyed six red chile mochas for free.
My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home. The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality. Waitresses donned period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots. The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back. Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities. If this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2015
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos