Raj: “Actually, in India, the names of constellations are different. Where you have the Big Dipper, we have the Big Curry Pot.”
Summer: “You’re making that up.”
Raj: “You got me. Now what are you going to do with me?”
~The Big Bang Theory
On a clear night, rural northern New Mexico’s ebony night skies are punctuated with a magnificent display of heavenly beauty uninterrupted by light pollution. Star gazers stand in reverent awe and wonder at the clarity of a celestial sphere in which the jewels of the night sky are arrayed in the fixed patterns which inspired ancient Greeks to name these constellations for mythological beings. Back-dropped by the stellar Milky Way in the winter skies is the spectacular Big Dipper, a distinct asterism of seven stars recognized from time immemorial.
Al’s Big Dipper, a gourmet soup and sandwich shop in Albuquerque’s Downtown district isn’t named for the most famous of constellations, but for its familiar ladle (or dipper) shape. The shop’s marquee is festooned with an orange ladle, denoting the availability of steaming hot soups ready to be poured. Located on historic Route 66 between Fifth and Sixth Streets, the soup and sandwich shop is named for Alan Chen, who along with partner Cassidy Nein launched the popular eatery in 2010.
Al’s Big Dipper embodies an aphorism used by Food Network glitterati Guy Fieri: “little place, big flavors.” This sandwich shop isn’t just little; it’s Lilliputian–almost to the degree that claustrophobic diners might feel a tinge of anxiety if they try to dine in. The shop has only a handful of two-person tables and they’re in very close personal proximity to one another. Any more than six people queuing to place their order and the line will snake out the door. Fortunately, savvy diners know to place their orders in advance and pick them up. Weather permitting, there are also a couple of tables available on the sidewalk fronting the shop.
The menu is displayed above the counter at which you place your order. It’s an ambitious menu considering the cramped quarters. The menu features ten warm sandwiches, seven cold sandwiches, four salads, three lunch deals (such as soup and sandwich combinations) along with soups and sides. The homemade soup of the day is available in cup or bowl size. Al’s also offers bakery quality homemade cookies four purchase and serves a single cookie with each lunch order.
As with almost every sandwich shop in the Duke City, Al’s Big Dipper uses Boar’s Head products in the construction of its sandwiches. So, if most sandwiches are made with essentially the same ingredients, what’s to distinguish one from the other? First, sandwiches had better be more than an amalgam of cold cuts and cheeses on bread. They’ve got to have personality! What distinguishes Al’s Big Dipper’s sandwiches from others are the inventiveness with which they are crafted. Take for example, the Beeker’s Beef sandwich which is constructed with roast beef, feta, roasted red peppers, spinach and Tahini dressing pressed on a French roll.
Even a relatively insipid tuna sandwich is elevated at the hands of Al’s sandwich savants. Christened “Little Sis’s Tuna,” it’s constructed from albacore tuna, apples, parsley, avocado and mayo on sourdough. Because of its strong flavor profile, tuna isn’t always an ingredient that plays well with others. Al’s manages to couple complementary ingredients in perfect proportion to one another. This sandwich doesn’t mask the strong flavor of tuna, nor does it seek to confuse your palate. You get a hint of tangy apples and unctuous avocado here and there, but tuna remains the star of this sandwich.
Evan’s Heavenly Ham and Cheese is somewhat more simple, but no less delicious sandwich. It’s constructed from Black Forest ham; Swiss, American and Cheddar cheeses and tomato pressed on sourdough. It’s the type of sandwich you might prepare for yourself at home, but that for some inexplicable reason won’t taste quite as good. The sourdough is lightly toasted and delicately pressed.
We’ve established that Al’s Big Dipper knows its way around sandwiches. What about its soups, you ask. This tiny soup-sandwich shop was confident enough in its soup skills to enter the Roadrunner Food Bank’s Souperbowl event in 2013. If the soup of the day is clam chowder, you’re in for a treat. It’s a rich chowder with clams a plenty and it’s served piping hot. It may even win over some nay-sayers who don’t believe a good clam chowder can be had in landlocked New Mexico.
Coleslaw, chips and a seasonal side are available for a pittance. The macaroni and cheese isn’t your child’s Kraft Dinner. Its cheese blend is thick and rich and the macaroni is perfect, neither al dente nor mushy. Sandwiches are served with a complimentary pickle spear (if you want it) and a cookie (which you will want). The cookies are terrific!
Like the constellation which shares its name, Al’s Big Dipper is a luminous presence to which people gravitate. It’s the type of sandwich shop you would want in your neighborhood.
Al’s Big Dipper
411 Central Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 1 March 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Evan’s Heavenly Ham & Cheese; Little Sis’s Tuna; Clam Chowder, Macaroni & Cheese