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Turtle Mountain Brewing Company – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Turtle Mountain

The Turtle Mountain in Rio Rancho

The Tewa name “Oku Pin”  which translates in English to “Turtle Mountain” has three meanings of significance to the people of Okay Owingeh, one of New Mexico’s great Tewa speaking Northern New Mexico Pueblos. “Oku Pin” was the the Indian name given to Dr. Alfonso Ortiz who obtained worldwide prominence as an anthropologist and ethnologist until his death in 1998.  Ortiz was born and raised in San Juan Pueblo which in 2006 officially changed its name to Okay Owingeh.

“Oku Pin” is also the Tewa name for Sandia Peak, the 10,678-feet high mountain which provides a spectacular backdrop for Albuquerque, Bernalillo and Rio Rancho.  When Nico Ortiz, son of the famous anthropologist launched his inaugural restaurant and microbrewery in 1997, it just made sense that it should be called Turtle Mountain, a name which pays homage to his father and to the magnificent peaks under whose shadow his enterprise would flourish.

Hummus with Pita at Turtle Montain

Hummus with Pita at Turtle Montain

Today, Turtle Mountain has also become synonymous with good food and (ostensibly) very good beer.  Nico Ortiz has dedicated his life to the pursuit and production of good beer and has garnered tremendous recognition for his efforts, including a multi-page spread on the November, 2005 edition of New Mexico magazine.  His brainchild has also been discovered by Brewpub magazine, All About Beer magazine and other national and local publications, all of which have come away singing the praises of Rio Rancho’s first and only brewpub.

The inaugural Turtle Mountain microbrewery and restaurant was situated in a strip mall on Southern Boulevard, across from what was then the City of Vision’s City Hall. In addition to quality libations, it quickly earned a reputation as a friendly neighborhood tavern in which you could actually get a very good pizza, calzone or grinder (the term used in the Northeast United States for a large sandwich), all named for New Mexico’s incomparable natural landmarks and several being crafted with an inventive flair you don’t find in many brewpubs.

Potato Skins: Crispy potato boats stuffed with cheese, bacon tomatoes and chives with sour cream on the side

There was no pretense as to what the original Turtle Mountain was–a microbrewery which just happened to serve high quality food.  Parents wanting their children to experience some of the very best pizza in the metropolitan area knew it meant subjecting them to the choking haze of cigarette smoke (before New Mexico banned smoking in restaurants),  the cacophonous din of adult beverage inspired revelry and sometimes long waits for a table to come available.  Those factors may have made the Turtle Mountain a less than family friendly environment.

This wasn’t lost on Ortiz who, in November, 2006, opened a larger, family-friendly Turtle Mountain location about half a mile away from its Rio Rancho birthplace.  Smoking isn’t permitted at the new location and the menu has expanded to include panini-style sandwiches, salads, appetizers and burgers heretofore unavailable to Rio Rancho residents.

Thai peanut soup

Thai peanut soup

Turtle Mountain’s previous location (3755 Southern) is now home to the Fat Squirrel Bar & Grill, also owned by Nico Ortiz and his wife.  None of the inventiveness that has made Turtle Mountain a local favorite has been lost on the new restaurant and pub which launched in the summer of 2008.  In 2011, Ortiz joined the ranks of Duke City area restaurant impresarios with more than two restaurants when he launched Timbuctu Bistro in the city’s westernmost fringes. 

The guiding principle of Turtle Mountain Brewing Company is to provide the people of Rio Rancho and surrounding communities with delicious, high-quality foods and beverages at an affordable price in a comfortable, friendly environment. Turtle Mountain’s employees are encouraged to get to know customers by name. If this sounds like the show “Cheers,” it’s by design.  That’s how Nico wants it.

Niff Sticks – Pizza bread topped with bacon, garlic oil, jalapeños and mozzarella.

The Turtle Mountain’s appetizers include the Cochiti Combo, house-made tortilla chips with the terrific triumvirate of salsa, con queso and guacamole.  While the salsa recipe has changed over time (it used to have a sweet bite that had its genesis in sunflower seeds, a crunchy treat we’ve never seen before in salsa), it’s still quite good.  Its current rendition is much more piquant, a bit tangy and more akin to a pico de gallo.  The chile con queso is no longer the most piquant of the three saucy appetizers despite the prominent presence of jalapeno.  It’s still the velvety smooth, creamy guacamole that steals the show.

While several Albuquerque area restaurants offer calamari, it’s not Camel Rock Calamari with a pesto aioli and marinara.  The difference is that most restaurants feature the batter-coated, deep-fried squid in the shape of ringlets.  At Turtle Mountain, the calamari is Spanish rabas de calamar–deep-fried squid tentacles.  They’re of the thickness of human fingers and about twice the length.  They’re also tender and delicious with a light batter coating.  The pesto aioli and marinara are flavorful accompaniment, but not absolutely necessary as these calamari are quite tasty on their own.

The Adam Bomb

The Adam Bomb

The appetizer we’ve enjoyed least is Turtle Mountain’s hummus with triangles of pita bread.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad hummus.  It is, in fact, a good hummus.  It’s just the type of hummus you might expect a brew pub to serve.  Where we found it lacking is in some of the subtle touches that the more practiced hands of a Mediterranean restaurant’s hummus chef would impart: the sheen of olive oil and lemon juice to provide moistness, a tad more garlic to provide fragrance and flavor.

The Turtle Mountain’s specials of the day sometimes surprise even frequent visitors.  One special imparting a dramatic effect is the Thai peanut soup, a thick, rich, comforting soup the flavor of which you normally don’t find in American restaurants, much less a brew pub.  This soup is comparable to the sweet peanut sauce often served with satay at Thai restaurants.  It is replete with vegetables such as onion, okra and tomato, all sliced small.  A bowl of this isn’t quite the swimming pool size of a Vietnamese pho, but one bowl is more than filling.

Buffalo Pizza: Chicken Tenders, Buffalo Wing Sauce, Tomatoes, Green Olives, Ranch Dressing

Another special of the day we hope will someday make it to the daily menu is a pizza called the Spicy Blue, a 12-inch canvass of peppercorn encrusted dough topped with a base of cream cheese blanketed by salty prosciutto and smoked jalapenos draped by melted mozzarella cheese.  It is a thing of beauty, more oblong than round with its sole hint of red coming from the prosciutto.  Its most prominent flavors are saltiness and heat, a palate-pleasing combination.

Not quite a pizza, but close to it is a curiously named starter called Niff Sticks, yet another special-of-the-day good enough to make the starting line-up for just about any other restaurant in town.  Niff sticks start off with the restaurant’s thin-crust dough which is then topped with garlic oil, bacon and jalapenos all covered by mozzarella.  Normally I don’t advocate a bread appetizer prior to having pizza, but this is just too good to pass up especially for bacon lovers who will love the generous portion of bacon in each bite.

Spicy Blue Pizza - Pepper encrusted dough, smoked jalapenos, prosciutto and mozzarella on a cream cheese base.

Spicy Blue Pizza – Pepper encrusted dough, smoked jalapenos, prosciutto and mozzarella on a cream cheese base.

Incomparable might be a good adjective for the pronounced roasted green chile taste you’ll find in all the Turtle Mountain’s pizzas.  Call it heresy if you will, but this restaurant’s pizzas are better than  just about all Duke City purveyors specializing in the thin-crust, gourmet ingredient genre.  Move over Il Vicino.  Stand aside Farina Pizzeria.  Surrender Scarpa’s.  Turtle Mountain’s pizza reigns supreme, particularly the Adam Bomb pizza (Mozzarella, pepperoni, green chile, sausage, spinach, pine nuts, sauce).  Not only does the green chile have the roasted taste New Mexico’s citizens demand, it’s got a bite to it.  It is truly the bomb!  If you want your bomb to be twice as explosive, ask for the Turtle Mountain’s cracked peppercorn crust.  Coupled with green chile, it’ll give your taste buds a thrill.

The pizzas are about twelve inches of thin-crusted deliciousness.  Though thin crust, they’re definitely not New York style with the type of pliability that allows you to fold them vertically.  The crust is painfully thin, stiff and crunchy in places, but it’s not overdone and has only hints of char.  It’s a great canvass for the creative ingredients offered at the Turtle Mountain.  Each pizza leaves its own unique imprint on your taste buds, quite unlike at some pizzerias where every pizza seems to be a cheese pizza whose sole taste differentiation comes from the different ingredients piled atop.  There is serious inventiveness going on at the Turtle Mountain.

The Cabezon: Fresh Tomatoes, Proscuitto, Shallots, Roasted Garlic, Mozzarella and Fontina

Some of those pizzas showcase the brew pub’s award winning brews.  One is the Ojo Caliente, a pizza crafted with Habanero stout barbecue sauce, mozzarella, chicken and Cheddar.  Some might consider barbecue sauce on a pizza a heretical concept, especially when topped with chicken.  The Ojo Caliente will make converts out of the nay-sayers.  First of all, the sauce is tangy, piquant and absolutely tongue-tingling delicious.  The chicken is shredded instead of cubed as served in some pizzas.  The two cheeses are complementary.

Perhaps the city’s best culinary collaboration is the pairing of barbecue and pizza on the restaurant’s Smokehouse BBQ Pizzas, a pizza partnership between the Turtle Mountain Brewing Company and Rio Rancho’s Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant.  One pizza is topped with sliced pork, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and your choice of red or green chile.  Add a fried egg and you’d technically have an enchilada on a pizza.  The Smokehouse barbecue flavor profile is prominent on this pie with a very discernible hint of smoke.  The red chile packs a punch, moreso than the green chile, but both are a terrific alternative to tomato sauce.

Smokehouse BBQ Pizza

Smokehouse BBQ Pizza

The calzones are roughly the size of a flattened football and prepared in the same wood burning oven as are the pizzas.   In fact, you can have any of the restaurant’s signature pizzas made into a calzone.  The Adam Bomb calzone, for example, is made from the same ingredients as my favorite Turtle Mountain pizza.  They’re just packaged a bit differently.

Also available are five different “grinders,” the name given to sub sandwiches in New England.  For perspective, a grinder is essentially the same as a hero, hoagie, po boy, submarine, torpedo, wedge or zep.  It’s a large sandwich made of a long crusty roll split lengthwise and filled with meats and cheese (as well as sundry condiments such as tomato and onion).

The Adam Bomb on a calzone made with cracked peppercorn crust and served with a side of marinara sauce

The Sun Mountain grinder is constructed of turkey, ham, green chile, provolone, Cheddar, tomato, onion and garlic mayo on a hoagie roll.  It is served warm so that the melted cheese covers all the other ingredients.  Fortunately, the cheeses ameliorate, not cover-up the other ingredients.  This is an excellent sandwich, as filling as a Turtle Mountain pizza and as good as any sandwich you’ll find in the City of Vision.  The green chile and garlic mayo combination is especially flavorful.  There is a lot going on in this sandwich as in a lot of ingredients, a lot of flavor and a lot of sandwich!

The menu has several tempting burgers.  For a wonderful breath-wrecking and absolutely delicious burger, you can’t beat the El Rito.  This beauteous, bountiful burger is engorged with crisp bacon, fetid feta cheese and that rich, creamy guacamole the Turtle Mountain does so well.  It takes two hands to hold his burger and five or six napkins to wipe off your mouth; that’s how juicy this carnivore’s dream is.

Fish and chips

Fish and chips

Macaroni and cheese is yet another entree the Turtle Mountain does surprisingly well–so well that you’ll often see children eschewing pizza to partake of their favorite cheesy treat.  This is an adult mac and cheese made with a blend of five cheeses, the most prevalent being Cheddar.  It’s not an especially creamy mac and cheese, but that also means it’s not as oleaginous as some macaroni and cheese tends to be. 

The fish and chips at the Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill may be the very best in the area (just ask Bob of the Village People, the most prolific commentator on this blog).  Its sibling restaurant, the Turtle Mountain, is a chip off the old block.  Three golden-hued, flaky Alaskan cod planks are dipped in the house beer batter then deep-fried and served with house-made malt vinegar and tartar sauce.  The batter is light and crisp, the flesh firm to the fork and the chips soft, but not flaccid.

Large peanut butter cookie with Reese’s Pieces topped with Vanilla Ice Cream

It’s rare that anyone has much room left for dessert, but if you do, the Turtle Mountain menu includes several popular choices, the local favorite of which is probably the Carrizozo Apple Calzone (caramelized apple calzone fried golden then topped with sugar, cinnamon and caramel sauce with vanilla ice cream). Another cloying option is the Roundtop Reese’s Cookie (freshly baked oversized cookie with Reese’s Pieces topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce). If you weren’t stuffed before having dessert, you certainly will be when you’re done with the sweetness.

Luke’s Root Beer Web page indicated the Turtle Mountain’s root beer is one kids would love (translation: it’s pretty sweet) and rated it 15th among 71 root beer brewed throughout America.  Well, this overgrown kid certainly did love that root beer–it washed down some excellent food.  Alas, both that wonderful root beer and the Turtle Mountain’s heady cream soda (which had a sarsaparilla goodness rare in soda) are no longer offered, the consequence of doing business with Coke.

Turtle Mountain Brewing
3755 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 994-9497
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 20
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Adam Bomb Pizza, The Chimayo Pizza, Root Beer, Calzone, The Ojo Caliente, Thai Peanut Soup, Cream Soda, The Sun Mountain Grinder, Smokehouse BBQ Pizza, Fish and Chips


View Turtle Mountain Brewing Company on LetsDineLocal.com »

Turtle Mountain Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

  • Leah says:

    In addition to great pizza, Turtle Mountain has some of the best beer around. Their house-brewed lagers, ales, and even bocks are awesome after a long day or even if you just go on a Saturday with friends.

    January 13, 2009 at 3:48 PM
  • Glen says:

    Even though we live in Tijeras, it’s still worth the trip.

    Food is always good and reasonably priced, while the service and beer are top notch!

    Try it, you’ll like it!

    January 17, 2009 at 12:33 PM
  • Larry McGoldrick says:

    Don’t overlook the simple, traditional stuff. My Green Chile Cheeseburger yesterday was beautifully prepared, succulent, and as good as any I have had since I arrived here just over a year ago. Adios, East Coast.

    -Larry-
    .

    July 30, 2009 at 3:21 PM
  • Chad says:

    Went here for the first time for lunch the other day with my fiancee. The beer and food were nothing but lackluster. We live in Albuquerque and Chama is a much better option. Don’t go out of your way. Rio Rancho seems to have nothing to offer.

    Chad

    August 11, 2009 at 5:05 PM
    • joe says:

      Chad
      Truth and nothing but! Worst service I’ve ever had. Will never step foot in the place again!!!

      May 26, 2012 at 4:13 PM
  • EnjoyEP says:

    Although I am now (as of mid-2007), foolishly an out-of-towner (I miss ABQ so much!), having been back twice now, both times I have gone to the Turtle Mountain, the last visit being just a few weeks ago for lunch.

    Frankly, I have to very respectfully disagree with Chad’s comments. I really like Chama River, but I prefer Turtle Mountain. I am a big, big Turtle Mountain fan.

    Nothing overwhelmingly special to folks from, say, Denver or Seattle, where there are many good brewpubs, but then again, Turtle Mountain can hold its own with most any of them. It isn’t especially “special”, it just is very, very good, and is what it is…and that is what makes it a GREAT casual (yet outstanding) laid back brewpub to hit for a good meal (with loaded green chile) and a great, cold IPA or other beer (or two).

    Big fan of their IPA. 6.7% ABV, and its good!

    I have now gone for a few of their pizzas, with they are more than happy to customize / tailor to order, and they are willing to jack things up with extra green chile (surprisingly a bit more piquant than maybe one would expect here!). Calzones are also good here.

    The new location is spacious, high ceilings, open, kid-friendly, unsmoky, etc. A great place for taking the family, but a great place for the guy looking to get away to watch an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon too.

    Big T.Mountain fan here.

    October 20, 2009 at 11:23 PM
  • Kathy says:

    I love Turtle Mountain. Everything I have tried has been awesome. I am not a fan of the atmosphere (especially the bare-bones outdoor patios) or the appearance of the wait staff (management should ask them to dress a little nicer) but the food is outstanding. I am a fairly regular customer and will continue to be.

    April 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM
  • Ramon Trujillo says:

    Another that completely disagrees with Chad. Chad can keep his hipster self over in Nob Hill if he wishes. TM beers is on par with Chama River and Turtle Mountain’s food is good. Chama River’s entrees are in the high teens to low $20’s whereas Turtle Mountain is in the low teens. Chama River better have good food for those prices.

    Turtle Mountain is good. Don’t listen to Chad.

    April 7, 2011 at 3:57 PM
  • Morgain says:

    Love, love, love the calamari. Worth the drive to Rio Rancho, in my opinion.

    April 25, 2011 at 4:59 PM
  • Sr Plata says:

    Well, I had high expectations from a time gone by since I hadn’t been to Turtle Mountain in ages. I recalled awesome Fish and Chips and I had been told I would have great micro-brewed root beer. First, alas, they stopped with real root a few years back, that is the 1st thing they need worked. 2nd, the fish was good but not great. I remembered more of a panko style than a battered style. I also compare quality, quantity and price and at $13 for the F & C. My friends had the Smokehouse Pizza, would be nice if they alternative to Pulled Pork such as some form of beef. Sorry Sensei, I wanted to see more for our last inch of the year…

    December 18, 2012 at 3:36 PM

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