Growing up in bucolic Peñasco back when fires were still started by rubbing two sticks together and mastodons roamed the Earth, I distinctly remember hearing playmates uttering the term “going all the way to Timbuktu.” Considering we all thought Albuquerque was a million miles away, we couldn’t imagine just how far away Timbuktu must be. Some of us reasoned it existed only as a figment of the imagination similar to Oz, Neverland and Atlantis (Hogwarts, Narnia and Jurassic Park for you Generation Yers). Even adult teachers whom we asked dismissed it as a distant land in deepest, darkest Africa though it was obvious they weren’t quite sure where it actually was…or if it existed at all.
Though seemingly synonymous with “some far away place,” Timbuktu does exist and imaginative children of all ages do visit it on occasion. Timbuktu is a city of some 50,000 citizens–the most remote city, in fact, in the country of Mali, the crown jewel of West Africa. It’s located between the southern edge of the mighty Sahara and the great bend of the Niger River. Not only is it far away, it is difficult to get there, the only reliable route in or out being by chartered aircraft.
When you visit the Timbuctu Bistro in Rio Rancho, it’s pretty obvious how the restaurant got its name. It’s about four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center which even most of Rio Rancho’s citizenry erroneously believe is as far northwest as you can go and still be in the City of Vision. There’s a vast expanse of sage and sand as far as the eyes can see on both sides of the two lane Unser Boulevard on the way to Mariposa, the environmentally-responsible master-planned community in which the Bistro is located. The Bistro is housed in complex which was previously home to the much-missed Outlook Cafe.
Its perceived distance will likely make the Timbuctu Bistro a true destination restaurant, an exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the Rio Rancho’s dining scene. In truth, however, from the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, the Timbuctu Bistro is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights, no traffic snarls and once you’re past the turnoff to Northern, virtually no other traffic and only a couple of residential neighborhoods.
There’s another reason for the name Timbuctu Bistro. The charming restaurant which opened in May, 2012, is owned by Rio Rancho restaurant impresario Niko Ortiz, proprietor of the Turtle Mountain Brewing Company and the Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille. The first letters of each word in Turtle Mountain Brewing Company (TMBC) are virtually an acronym for Timbuctu, ergo the name. The Bistro is ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views. From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio.
The Bistro has a beer and wine license, but for those of us who appreciate other adult beverages, there’s Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain. The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque. It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.” Only at Cafe Bella have I had a better Cafe Au Lait in New Mexico.
The Timbuctu Bistro is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11AM to 3PM and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday starting at 5PM. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays from 9AM to 3PM. The menu is surprisingly ambitious considering the Bistro’s tiny confines, though it’s not an especially large menu (four appetizers, three salads, seven lunch entrees, six dinner entrees and eight brunch entrees). It’s a menu wholly unlike that at either of Niko Ortiz’s other restaurant ventures and it has a distinct New Mexican influence. Burgers and sandwiches dominate the lunch menu while more sophisticated offerings (including a red chile bourbon glazed salmon) are available for dinner. Aside from the salads, the most vegetarian-friendly items on the menu are a quesadilla (flour tortilla with Monterey Jack, tri-colored bell pepper-onion mix served with guacamole and sour cream) and a hummus cups (red chile hummus piled into crisp cucumber cups, each garnished with diced tomato, a pita chip and fresh basil) appetizer.
Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both. It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree. The Timbuctu Bistro has some of the standard New Mexico brunch favorites such as a breakfast burrito and French toast, but some are distinct enough not to be classified as the “same old, same old.” Take the French Toast, for example. Two slices of locally-made Challah bread are battered with a spiced orange liqueur then grilled golden brown and topped with vanilla whipped cream and fresh berries. The spiced orange liqueur adds a nice citrusy touch and it’s hard to dispute that Challah bread makes the very best French toast.
For a uniquely New Mexico twist on a traditional favorite, you can’t beat the Bistro’s Crab Cake Benedict, two green chile crab cakes topped with poached eggs smothered in house-made Hollandaise and served with hash browns. My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, contends “green chile is strictly forbidden” on crab cakes, but I believe these would make a convert out of him. The crab cakes are fashioned from jumbo lump crab meat which is impregnated with the incomparable flavor of New Mexico roasted green chile–only enough to be discernible, not to dominate. For good measure, the house-made Hollandaise is lightly dusted with red chile. Only at the Gold Street Caffe will you find a comparable Southwest influenced Eggs Benedict dish.
If you’re not in an adventurous mood, the Bistro offers a Classic Breakfast option (two eggs any style with your choice of bacon, house-made chorizo (cumin added) or Canadian bacon served with hash browns and sourdough toast). You can also substitute a tortilla and yogurt with fresh fruit for the hash browns and sourdough toast. The yogurt is sweetened with honey, a nice contrast to the tangy, fresh berries and the creamy, pleasantly sour flavor of yogurt.
Lunch options include three intriguing gourmet burgers, all of which start with a half-pound beef patty on ciabatta. One of the burgers, the Piña burger, answers the question as to what a burger version of a Hawaiian pizza might look and taste like. The beef toppings include a tequila pineapple salsa, Canadian bacon, Provolone and teriyaki sauce. The saltiness of the Canadian bacon (which not even Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman can distinguish from ham) is a nice foil for the sweet-tart flavors of the finely chopped pineapple and the nuttiness of the Provolone. The ciabatta is toasted so the edges are crisp and the insides are soft.
You can also substitute a marinated portabello mushroom cap or eight-ounce chicken breast on any burger for no additional charge. Better still, if you’re on a no- or low-carb diet, substitute the ciabatta for two large portobello buns. My friend Paul “Boomer” Lilly swears by this on “The Green Machine,” Timbuctu’s rendition of a green chile cheeseburger which also includes applewood smoked bacon, green chile, Cheddar, spicy chipotle mayo and a fried egg. All burgers and sandwiches come with your choice of tri-color rotini pasta salad or classic potato salad, but you can substitute a side salad or classic potato salad for a dollar more.
Aside from the burgers, the lunch menu offers a quesadilla, five sandwiches and a Pasta Al Fresco entree (angel hair pasta tossed in garlic white wine sauce with capers, grape tomatoes and basil chiffonade served with garlic toast points and your choice (for a cost) of a four-ounce chicken breast, four-ounce salmon, spicy Italian sausage or citrus-marinated shrimp. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated entree with a richness of flavors. The Italian sausage has a nice kick to complement the buttery silkiness of the fine pasta.
Dinner at Timbuctu is a more upscale event with a smattering of New Mexican and Southwest inspired entrees (Southwest Alfredo, Red Chile Bourbon-Glazed Salmon, Fajitas and Carne Adovada) among a chops menu some steak houses would envy. The veal chop and herb-crusted rack of lamb are knocking on the forty dollar price point, but if they taste nearly as good as they’re described on the menu, they’ll be worth the price. Burgerphiles can also have The Green Machine if they’re so inclined.
Timbuktu has long had the connotation of a place so distant that going any farther is inconceivable. The Timbuctu Bistro may someday be known not for being the furthest away (at least from the city’s population center) of Rio Rancho’s restaurants, but for being a viable, delicious dining option worth the drive from anywhere in the area.
2500 Parkway Avenue
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2012
1st VISIT: 12 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Crab Cake Benedict, Classic Breakfast, French Toast, Coffee Au Lait, Piña Burger, The Green Machine