Independence Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)
NOTE: The Independence Grill became another casualty of the economy, shuttering its doors on Sunday, March 14th, 2010. Below this review is a photo retrospective of some of the many things which will be missed about this terrific restaurant.
On January 6, 1941 as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt closed his state of the union address to Congress, he described his vision for a better way of life through what he considered the four essential human freedoms: freedom to worship, freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of speech. Those four freedoms, now widely considered the central tenets of modern American liberalism, inspired a set of Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell, the most famous and successful commercial artist of the time. The Four Freedoms are depicted on framed Rockwell prints in the foyer at Independence Grill.
In an age in which the patriotism of candidates for political office is called to question by opposing candidates, there is no question as to where Jerry Wright stands on the matter of loving his country. Jerry is the proprietor of the Independence Grill which he launched on Monday, November 16th, 2008, several months after closing the Great American Steakhouse, my favorite Albuquerque steakhouse.
Jerry’s vision for his new restaurant is that everyone, regardless of political ideology, should be able to share a meal and civilly (if not amicably) discuss their differences in the hopes that they will arrive at the realization that we all have more in common than we do differences. Ideally that meal should be at the Independence Grill.
The Independence Grill celebrates Americana with an ambience awash in patriotism. From the American flag on Jerry’s lapel to the Gadsden flag (which depicts a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike and the words “Don’t tread on me”) to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the restaurant reminds one and all that the Constitution is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens. Don’t forget to ask Jerry about the flag (pictured above) given by Betsy Ross to his great grandmother Prudence Wright several generations removed.
Patriotism even pervades the menu, and not just the Americana inspired appetizers, entrees and desserts. Jerry took some liberties with Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s famous painting Drafting the Declaration of Independence which depicts Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin at work writing the Declaration, several preliminary drafts crumpled on the floor. The reproduction on the menu has Franklin uttering “I’ll have the burger.”
The burger is just one of the American entrees on the Independence Grill’s menu from which Franklin would have been able to choose. The senior statesman would not, however, have ordered one of the restaurant’s American Kobe (Wagyu beef) cheeseburgers. Franklin was actually a vegetarian, eschewing beef and advocating a vegetarian diet as being healthier than a diet filled with meat. That doesn’t mean Franklin would have gone hungry at the Independence Grill, nor does it mean he couldn’t have had a burger.
Franklin would have had the “World’s Most Dangerous Portabella Burger,” which includes a “carnivores beware” warning on the menu, apprising beef-eaters that it “may make you swear off meat.” The Portabella Burger, which Jerry claims is so good he plans to have at least one a week, features fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomato and pesto stuffed in a juicy Portobello mushroom served on Ciabatta bread. The menu includes several other vegetarian-friendly entrees, but not Thomas Jefferson’s favorite food, green peas.
Jefferson was well acquainted with and fond of the beef of Hamburgh, Germany and had hamburgers been available in his time, he would undoubtedly have indulged. Fond of rich French foods, he would have loved the Independence Grill’s menu which showcases the rich, unctuous American Kobe cheeseburgers. Jerry considers American Kobe beef the very best beef available) and has made this flavorful meat the foundation of his menu.
Because man cannot live on burgers alone, Jerry’s menu is replete with Americana favorites such as Kobe hot dogs, prime rib, steak, fish and so much more. It’s an ambitious menu sure to please even the most discriminating diners.
American ambition means an assemblage of appetizers you don’t find just anywhere. The list starts with a shout out to a previous tenant of the building. That would be the Liquid Assets famous calamari and the Thai dipping sauce which made that starter one of the most popular in town.
While many restaurant serve calamari–squid for the uninitiated–as an appetizer, it’s not easy to find a restaurant (especially in landlocked locales like Albuquerque) which serves it well. In most cases it’s overdone, a chewy, rubbery amalgam of twisted slime. Rarely will you find squid with a delicately fried and painfully thin crust and seemingly rarer yet is a dipping sauce more innovative than the standard and boring marinara.
The Independence Grill gets it right on the first count. The calamari is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, a calamari as good as you’ll find in the city. Alas, the dipping sauce is more than a bit on the cloying side, perhaps even a bit syrupy. Real Thai dipping sauces strike a beautiful balance between sweet, tangy and piquant.
Also available as an appetizer are “American Kobe Doggies,” three corn dogs taken to another level. In the Land of Enchantment, you can’t have appetizers sans green chile and the Independence Grill honors that formula with green chile chicken corn chowder and green chile chicken enchilada.
The appetizer sure to garner a few patriotic salutes and perhaps inspire an anthem of their own are the “When Pigs Fly” Monster Pig Wings. The menu describes them as “great big crispy piggy wings from when they fly too close to the sun.” In actuality, these piggy wings aren’t chicken or even turkey wings. They’re pork “wings” made with the Ossobuco cut of a pork shank. These wings are lacquered with a chipotle barbecue sauce that’s sweet, tangy and more than slightly sassy. They’re served three to an order with a Jalapeno Ranch dipping sauce which the menu claims “brings them back to earth.”
If you like to live on the edge, try the world’s most dangerous Veggie Portabella appetizer, grilled mushrooms stuffed to the gills with pesto, fresh Mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. Several fleshy fungi are indeed engorged with the mouth-watering trio that go oh so well together. This is one of the better mushroom based appetizers in the Duke City.
America’s favorite pastime, I’ll argue is not baseball, but picnics and one thing sure to be a huge hit with the boys of summer is the Kobe Double Dog Dare, a hot dog “raised to the level of art.” At the Independence Grill, the revered American institution is indeed placed on a pedestal. The frankfurter is made from American Kobe beef, sliced diagonally and nestled on toasted sourdough. If you’re inclined, you can add chile sin carne, green chile or Cheddar cheese, but traditionalists might consider that akin to desecrating the flag.
Several garnishes (red onion, pickle, lettuce) accompany the Kobe Double Dog Dare as do standard American mustard and a more adult Dijon mustard (and ketchup for all you perpetrators of culinary taboos), with which you can dress your dog. This hot dog is good enough on its own not to need any amelioration whatsoever.
During the 2009 Souper Bowl in which I was privileged to serve as a judge, the Independence Grill’s soup entry placed third among in the critic’s choice tally. That entry, a cream of mushroom soup with garlic roasted sage is one of the very best soups I’ve had in Albuquerque. It’s almost criminal that it’s not on the daily menu at the Independence Grill, but it would be even worse for the restaurant not to feature a soup of the day. They’re all good.
Sandwiches include one side, platters two. In a culinary skirmish you’ll want these sides on your side. They include the veggie of the day, pineapple coleslaw (a holdover from the Great American Steakhouse days), bottleneck fries, onion rings, sweet potato fries, garlic mashers and pink and purple chips. You haven’t lived if you’ve not partaken of purple potatoes which were some of the very first potatoes ever harvested. For old times sake, long-time fans of the Steakhouse might opt for the pineapple coleslaw which Jerry has improved even more, if that’s possible, with red cabbage.
There are several American Kobe Cheeseburgers on the menu, all inventive and intriguing. While “Kobe burgers” seem to have become de rigueur on many menus, other restaurants treat Kobe beef as a sideline, almost as a gimmicky (albeit, very expensive) afterthought. Jerry Wright has made American Kobe the basis for his burger menu. In fact, you won’t find regular beef in the burger section. Jerry calls American Kobe the burger for the common person and prices it just above the price point of burgers shipped frozen then thawed out and heated at the popular national chains (the ones I rail about).
Serving American Kobe exclusively to an American fast food culture is a risky venture since many of us are used to wolfing down our Big Macs before we even drive away from the parking lot. My own past experiences with Kobe burgers have left me a bit nonplussed about Kobe. Some of that is because I didn’t want to “desecrate” the beef with condiments which might detract from the meat’s natural flavor. It’s hard to enjoy a burger when you practically worship its traditions. At the Independence Grill, the enjoyment of the Kobe is made much easier because prices are so reasonable. The American Kobe burgers are available in one-third or half-pound sizes.
Perhaps because America is named for an Italian explorer (but more likely because the ingredients go so well together), the Independence Grill offers an “Italian Burger,” crafted with fresh basil, tomato, mozzarella and a garlic olive oil drizzle on a buttery Kaiser roll. That combination makes a pretty good salad (Insalata Caprese) and it makes for a pretty good burger as well. There’s rarely enough basil to suit me, but the buffalo mozzarella (the best) is rich, creamy and delicious.
In 2009, Albuquerque The Magazine went in search of the best burger in Albuquerque. Pairing staffers to sample burgers at forty different burger purveyors, their systematic testing methodology involved ordering two burgers at each restaurant: the specialty of the house and a basic cheese burger prepared at medium. The entire staff then got together and ate at the five restaurants garnering the highest ratings. With more than two-hundred burgers consumed, the winner of the Duke City’s best burger was the Independence Grill.
The latest edition to the Kobe cheeseburger family is a called the Green Monster (not named after Fenway Park’s left-field wall). It’s a unique burger that doesn’t subscribe to the ho-hum template green chile cheeseburgers all seem to follow. As much as I love and adore that template, this burger is a welcome change. The burger is made with New Mexican grown full-blooded Wagyu beef. Green chile is mixed directly into the beef along with a touch of garlic and spices. Each patty is hand-formed with a pocket formed within the patty for Cheddar cheese. Melted on top of the burger on a flattop is a cheese crostini which is then topped with more green chile and Cheddar.
The Green Monster has quickly become one of the restaurant’s most popular burgers. It was one of twenty burgers participating in the governor’s green chile cheeseburger challenge at the New Mexico State Fair and though it didn’t win, it has established a following among burger aficionados.
When the Great American Steakhouse closed, carnivores wondered where their cravings for their favorite steak would get sated. Because Jerry didn’t want to recreate his former restaurant, his new menu includes only one steak, the classic sirloin, but the menu also includes chicken-fried steak, wood-fired pork ribs and wood-fired prime rib, all reasonably priced.
The oven-fired prime rib is swathed with a rosemary and sage rub and served with a green chile au jus and a horseradish sauce. Order it medium rare and you get it as you ordered–with plenty of pink, lots of flavor and juiciness to spare. The horseradish is somewhat anemic, but that places the focus on the prime rib, as it should. As for that green chile au jus, my friend Bill Resnik thinks so highly of it that if given the choice as to the matter of his death, would choose to drown in a vat of that au jus.
The top sirloin is somewhat reminiscent of the magnificent meats proffered at the Great American Steakhouse, albeit not as thick and juicy. It’s available for lunch and dinner as a first come, first served option.
You can’t have an Americana themed restaurant without apple pie, the quintessential American dessert. The Independence Grill’s rendition is as pretty as a picture, layers of sweet and tart apple slices on a cinnamon streusel crust with a rich caramel topping. My preference would be for it to be served warm, perhaps with a scoop or two of ice cream, instead of cold and right out of the fridge.
The Independence Grill has terrific libations, adult and otherwise, with which to wash down a great meal. Among the latter are Jones bottled beverages, cane sugar sweetened sodas in glass bottles. Including such flavors as strawberry lime and green apple, they are refreshingly different and delicious. Also available is Coca-Cola de Mexico.
The Independence grill invites you to break free from the chains (corporate) that bind you and try something different, something American.
NOTE: Though I do not believe in censorship, a spate of emails denouncing the perceived ideological stance of Independence Grill owner Jerry Wright, prompted me to pull those emails or risk losing this blog. The blogosphere is replete with sites designed for ideological discourse. This site is not one of them. I’d like to keep this site light-hearted and fun. Like the restaurants I write about, this site is meant to be enjoyed not to provide yet another venue for raising your blood-pressure over ideologically charged content.
The cultural and ideological schism plaguing America has made political discourse mean-spirited and wholly lacking in civility. Ideologues (on both sides of the aisle) don’t seem capable of conceding any merit whatsoever in the opposing viewpoint, but it’s not enough to disagree. Dissenters on both sides seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives. I suppose it’s easier than discussing those differences in a mature and civil manner, but in the end nothing is resolved and the divisiveness grows.
Jerry Wright is a very open-minded gentleman. I believe he truly meant it when he developed the vision for the Independence Grill: Everyone, regardless of political ideology, should be able to share a meal and civilly (if not amicably) discuss their differences in the hopes that they will arrive at the realization that we all have more in common than we do differences. Over the years, Jerry and I have respectfully and maturely discussed our own differences of opinion. We may not always agree on everything, but we respect one another’s right to have our own opinions.
I urge anyone disagreeing with Jerry on anything–whether it be portion size or politics–to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. If you feel like reviling him afterwards, that’s entirely your prerogative, but it won’t be published here.
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 25 November 2008
LATEST VISIT: 13 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Italian Burger, Kobe Double Dog Dare, Wood-Fired Prime Rib, Monster Pig Wings
Some of the things we’ll miss about the Independence Grill