“Here’s an idea: Quit playing on the Internet and get over to 5017 Menaul, N.E. for lunch. And dinner.” That’s not Gil Garduño admonishing you to take a break from the invaluable research you’re conducting on the Internet. That’s ZS&T’s Web site inviting you to what could very well be one of the best Duke City restaurants you’ve never heard of, a restaurant so confident in its cooking that its Web site boasts, “If you don’t think it’s the best food in Albuquerque, we’ll refer you to a good Ear, Nose and Throat doctor to get your taste buds adjusted.” Audacity, braggadocio or confidence?
As Muhammad Ali used to say, “it’s not bragging if you can back it up.” ZS&T’s owners have the pedigree to back it up! While the restaurant itself is a relatively new player on Albuquerque’s culinary stage, having opened in March, 2012, Suzie and Daniel Baca are certainly not newcomers to the city’s dining scene. In fact, under their stewardship, La Fonda Del Bosque, the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s flagship restaurant, garnered significant critical acclaim and hosted international glitterati from both the political and the cinematic arena.
When the National Hispanic Cultural Center decided to take the Center’s restaurant operation in a different direction, it was the impetus the Bacas needed to launch their own eatery, the culmination of a long-held dream. The Bacas named their first restaurant venture for their three sons – Zachary (Z), Sean (S) and Trevor (T). The restaurant’s walls are much like the walls of any family home in which proud parents showcase their children’s accomplishments. Those walls are a veritable shrine to the Baca scions’ athletic achievements with a number of trophies, plaques and even a championship belt. All three boys are stalwart kick boxers.
Interspersed throughout the walls are Oakland Raiders collectibles honoring the favorite NFL team of the Baca men. Mom Suzie is alone in supporting the St. Louis Rams, but that may be the only area of dissention among the Baca clan. In every respect, ZS&T’s Great Grub is a family-owned, family-operated restaurant. When Suzie and Daniel conceptualized their mom-and-pop restaurant, they envisioned “great grub, simply made and served with love” where “guests would be surrounded by the feeling of being at home.” Mission accomplished! During our inaugural visit, we were well attended by Trevor, a very well-mannered and personable young man.
The menu is inspired from recipes and favorite foods of friends and relatives with several items named for family members. It’s executed by Daniel, a professionally trained chef who has delighted guests with his food at hotels and restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment as well as in Arizona and California. Befitting the tiny but homey 1,400 square-foot milieu, the menu is relatively simple featuring soups and salads, sandwiches and burgers, traditional New Mexican plates and sumptuous sweets for the sweet. ZS&T’s is open for breakfast and lunch every day but Monday and for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Delicious food and a family environment are why Chris Pinkston, who raved about the restaurant to me, visits two or three times a week.
The very first must-have on the menu is chips and salsa. What sets this salsa apart from the rest is its freshness. It is made-from-scratch daily from fresh ingredients. One ingredient you don’t see often in salsas throughout New Mexico is carrot, but you will see tiny flecks of orange carrot on the ZS&T salsa. The carrots provide a touch of sweetness and serve as a counterpoint to more astringent ingredients such as garlic, jalapeño, tomato, cilantro and bell pepper. The salsa isn’t especially piquant, but it’s very, very good. The chips are just a tad on the salty side, but they’re crispy and formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa.
There are three burgers on the menu, each one ostensibly better than the other, at least according to their sobriquets—Basic Burger, Better Burger and Best Burger. Basic pretty well describes the entry-level burger which is constructed with grilled beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Bacon makes it a Better burger. Add guacamole and green chile and you’ve got the Best Burger. There are seven sandwiches on the menu including two named for sons Zach and Trevor.
Then there’s Aunt Patty’s Melt, a unique take on the patty melt. This is a patty melt the way only a New Mexican would make it. If you surmised that’s a sly way of saying it’s got green chile, you’re spot-on. The foundation for this excellent sandwich is a lightly grilled light rye bread. It’s topped with a perfectly grilled beef patty, American cheese, grilled onions, 1000-Island dressing and green chile. The sweetness of the grilled onions and the sweet-tanginess of the 1000-Island dressing are a nice foil for the piquant-fruitiness of the green chile. The beef is juicy and well-seasoned.
During their seven-year tenure at La Fonda Del Bosque, the Bacas enthralled visitors with their traditional New Mexican food. Ten New Mexican dishes are on the menu at ZS&T’s, all served with beans and your choice of Spanish rice or calabasitas with a flour tortilla. Carne adovada is available only on the breakfast menu and it’s the only item which includes cumin. Everything is made to order and arrives at your table steaming hot.
The menu showcases the versatility of enchiladas, which are available with beef, chicken, carne adovada or solely cheese and served with your choice of red, green or “Christmas” style chile. A grilled vegetable and avocado enchilada plate is also available. The enchiladas are made flat, three corn tortillas per order and with onions unless otherwise requested. Top them with an egg for another unique New Mexico touch. These are Chamber of Commerce quality enchiladas, the type of which you’d serve visitors to the Duke City to win them over about our cuisine. Neither the red or green chile is especially piquant, but both have a nice roasted flavor. Both the beans and the calabasitas are quite good. The fresh, crisp calabasitas include tomatoes, a very nice touch.
During our visits to La Fonda del Bosque, one of our favorite dessert combinations were natillas and biscochitos. More specifically, we enjoyed dipping the biscochitos into the natillas. The biscochitos, New Mexico’s official state cookie, are made with butter and have a just right amount of anise and cinnamon. The natillas are served cool. They’re light, creamy and cinnamon-rich. Only a handful of restaurants make natillas and biscochitos nearly as good.
The breakfast menu describes each of the eight items listed. The description for the Caramel Pecan Roll reads simply “LEGENDARY!!!!.” That’s four exclamation points and capital letters. Someone is emphasizing (shouting) that you’ve got to try these. The caramel pecan rolls are indeed exclamation point worthy. They’re excellent. The rolls are yeasty and buttery with a glaze of caramelized cinnamon sugar. Spread on some butter to cut the sweetness a bit and you’ll soon be swooning.
I’ll forgive you if you’ve stopped playing on the Internet and made a beeline for ZS&T’s, a family restaurant which makes you feel like you’re visiting a very nice family who will feed you very well.
ZS&T’s Great Grub
5017 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Natillas, Biscochitos, Caramel Pecan Roll, Aunt Patty’s Melt