“If salt is the odorless spice, smoke is the ephemeral magical invisible spice.
You can’t feel it, you can’t touch it, but you can taste it.”
~Chef Seamus Mullen, Tertulia Restaurant, New York City.
Have you ever wondered why some people drool when they pass by a computer displaying a fireplace screen saver? They’re not thinking about romance. They’re thinking about barbecue. There’s just something about smoked foods that has excited humans across the millennia. It’s been that way since a lightning bolt struck a mastodon and rendered its flesh delicious. Since then humans have been genetically predisposed to crave the flavors created by the penetration of smoke. We associate fire and the fragrant bouquet of wood smoke with grilling, barbecues and mostly, eating things we love.
When my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott told me of an Albuquerque chef incorporating the element of smoke into virtually every ingredient of every dish he creates, my initial inclination was to think Ryan had been smoking something. It hadn’t surprised me to read in Around the World in 80 Dinners that Bill and Cheryl Jamison ate smoked zebra carpaccio in South Africa as much as it did to learn that the chef of whom Ryan spoke, Chef Paco Aceves, smokes marshmallows, peanut butter, tomatoes, bananas and so much more at Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine. Because smoking techniques are applied to all sorts of meats and fish, it’s almost a paradigm shift to hear of smoking techniques used outside of meat, fish and vegetables.
For Paco Aceves, the lure of aromatic smoke plumes emanating from a smoker began at an early age because his first job was as the “pit boy” at Geezamboni’s, a popular eatery which put the “cue” in Albarbecuerque for many years. It was Paco’s job to tend to the smoker, stoking it with fragrant woods to keep the smoker at an optimal temperature for the “low and slow” preparation of meats. Low and slow, as barbecue purists know, has nothing to do with Española’s low-riders, but everything to do with the preparation of meats utilizing low heat over an extended period of time.
Paco’s baptism by fire fueled his interest in the culinary arts. After graduating from St. Pius High School in Albuquerque, he matriculated at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI) culinary arts program then later studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the country’s most respected school for culinary arts training. Paco returned to the Duke City in 2012 and partnered with Sue Heistermann to launch his eponymous restaurant. Coincidentally, Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine is situated at the former site of Geezamboni’s (and later Johndhi’s) on the southwest intersection of Rio Grande and Griegos. The launch reunited him with the well-seasoned smoker on which he cut his teeth.
Dismiss any notions you might have that Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine continues the barbecue traditions of Geezamboni’s and Johndhi’s. Paco’s predecessors practiced American barbecue traditions, garnering their reputations on the strength of their smoke and sauce. Paco’s is more sophisticated; it’s American barbecue grown up, evolved and evangelized across the world stage. Chef Aceves captures the essence of smoke and applies it to a repertoire of dishes inspired by his training and his travels.
Savvy diners will eschew the indoor dining room and, weather permitting, will gravitate toward the aroma of smoked food wafting toward them from the outdoor patio. That aroma comes from delicate apple and hickory woods which will envelop you in a comforting fragrance Chef Aceves should bottle and sell as a cologne. Trepidation set in (thank you to Albuquerque’s ubiquitous winds) during our inaugural visit and we ate indoors. We had the entire dining room to ourselves while more intrepid, more savvy diners ate outdoors in the presence of smoky Shangri-La.
The seasonal menu is full of surprises, offering items from various countries, but not prepared as they would be prepared in their country of origin. Instead, Chef Aceves imparts the element of smoke to otherwise traditional dishes. Because of this element, the bigger surprises won’t occur until you bite into the foods you order. Menu descriptions can’t do justice to the flavors imparted by the just right amount of smoke. After tasting Paco’s variations on international foods with which you may have thought you were familiar, you might come to the realization that those foods were missing something.
Salads and starters include four very inventive salads as well as a spinach and olive strudel and brisket nachos, an appetizer destined to become a Duke City favorite. The menu lists only six entrees, the descriptions of which won’t blow you away (but eating them will). Entrees come with your choice of two sides, but you can order more a la carte for a pittance more. On the Spring, 2013 menu, those sides are French green beans, grilled squash and onions, glazed carrots, almond and cranberry brown rice, roasted potatoes and Cheddar grits.
31 May 2013: In 2006, the Wall Street Journal named the nachos created in two New Mexico restaurants as among the fifteen very best nachos across the fruited plain. Should the Wall Street Journal revisit New Mexico, they will most certainly find nachos that supplant some of the top fifteen nachos in America. Among them would be the Brisket Nachos at Paco’s. These are outstanding nachos, some of the very best you’ll find anywhere. What makes these nachos special is the tender pulled brisket which has been smoked low and slow for nearly fourteen hours. Brisket is one of those cuts of beef which is both lean and fat depending on where you cut it. That combination makes it very flavorful when prepared correctly. Paco’s pairs the tender brisket with fresh green onions, Cheddar, smoked tomatoes and a green chile con queso (sour cream need not apply). This is a mouth-watering introduction to Paco’s.
31 May 2013: As an amuse bouche (a complimentary introduction to the chef’s cuisine), Chef Aceves brought us one of the most unique (for lack of a better name) tortilla roll-ups we’ve had: a lightly toasted tortilla engorged with a sweet-tart pepper relish, sharp feta cheese, ethereal smoked pork, sweet raisins and guacamole. Sometimes the most surprisingly delicious dishes are those which pair seemingly incongruous ingredients. This tortilla roll-up is an example of contrasting elements complementing each other to form terrific bursts of flavor in surprising combinations: the sweetness of the raisin against the unctuousness of the guacamole, the sharpness of the feta against the tartness of the pepper relish, for example.
31 May 2013: A surprise starter on the night of our inaugural visit is a favorite of Mexican restaurants everywhere. It’s Campechana, a Mexican seafood cocktail constructed of sundry seafood, usually white fish, shrimp, oysters, mussels, squid and more. The seafood swims alongside diced tomatoes, onions and cilantro in a large goblet of Clamato and lime juice. It’s a fresh, healthy and invigorating. The delicious difference at Paco’s is that the seafood is smoked. If you’ve ever had good smoked oysters, you’ll appreciate what the element of smoke can do to seafood. It’s a transformative influence.
26 September 2013: Whenever a menu, seemingly any menu, offers lettuce wraps, the seemingly de facto comparison is to the lettuce wraps made popular at Paul Fleming (PF) Chang’s. Dialogue which typically ensues is “these lettuce wraps are better (or worse) than the ones at PF Chang’s. As someone who finds lettuce wraps insipid, boring and usually almost candied, such comparisons are lost on me. That is, until sampling what Paco can do with lettuce wraps. The difference-maker is the smoked pork which is shredded (not minced) and mixed with woody mushrooms and celery in a light sauce of ginger and soy. Paco’s lettuce wraps made a believe out of me.
31 May 2013: It didn’t take much perusal through the menu to decide that the Thai-inspired mussels dish would be making its way from the kitchen to my table. This dish is a fusion of flavors and ingredients: sautéed Prince Edward Island mussels with potatoes and leeks in a smooth coconut milk and chipotle broth served with grilled bread. The broth is an exemplar of comfort food, so good you’ll ask for more bread so you can sop up every delectable drop. The sweetness of the coconut milk and the piquancy of the chipotle don’t offset one another so much as they form a dynamic duo that showcases the best qualities of each. The potatoes are perfectly prepared, an excellent foil for the briny mussels.
31 May 2013: One of the specialties of the house and perhaps the restaurant’s most popular dish is the lemon coriander brick chicken. Served in a half chicken portion size, you’re almost guaranteed to take some home with you. It’s a chicken on steroids, poultry so profuse it makes those desiccated birds at the grocery store look anorexic in comparison. Best of all, it’s absolutely delicious–moist, meaty and seasoned perfectly. The most eye-opening aspect of this pulchritudinous poultry is the complexity of the lemon and coriander rub which isn’t confined to the skin. It penetrates deeply and imbues the chicken with a magnificent flavor profile. This is one chicken my friend Sr. Plata needs to try on his quest to find Albuquerque’s best non-fried chicken dish.
31 May 2013: Several years ago, we experienced a carnivore’s dream come true in dining on a coffee spice-rubbed rotisserie filet mignon at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. It’s a steak I’ve dreamed about several times, much to the detriment of my pillow. At Paco’s, we found an even better steak. It’s the cast iron chuck filet as tender as possible (you can cut it with a fork) and more delicious than should be legal. The filet is prepared with a spice rub that includes smoked paprika, espresso, cayenne and garlic salt. The triumvirate of espresso, smoked paprika and cayenne should be mandated on every steak. The cayenne lends a bit of piquancy while the smoked paprika imbues the steak with even more meatiness.
26 September 2013: Ironically, many of the very best steaks available in the Duke City area don’t come from expensive steak restaurants, but from restaurants specializing eclectic offerings such as Blades’ Bistro in Placitas and P’Tit Louis Bistro in Albuquerque. Add Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine to that list. It would be easy to ascribe the many fine qualities of the grilled house steak to the grilling process which imbues each meaty morsel with a faint smokiness, but that would shortchange the deep penetrating influence of the smoked shallot and bourbon compound butter, not to mention the earthy accompaniment of cedar roasted mushrooms. The cut of meat, an exquisite tri-tip, is about three-quarters of an inch thick and despite being relatively low in fat, has a surprising moistness and rich, full-bodied flavor. Served with two sides, it goes especially well with roasted shallot and chive mashed potatoes and glazed carrots.
31 May 2013: There’s absolutely no surcease in quality on the dessert menu. Desserts are a must-have, so if it means filling up a few doggie bags with entrees, sides and starters so you’ll have room for dessert, all the better. Perhaps the most wonderful of four desserts is one the charismatic Ryan Scott calls the “Elvis Presley” although it’s missing one element (bacon) from Elvis’s favorite sandwich. This Paco’s dessert pairs a split caramelized banana with peanut butter cheesecake mousse drizzled over by a rich caramel. The peanut butter cheesecake mousse is amazing, a sweet-salty-rich amalgam as ephemeral as a wisp of smoke. Come to think of it, ephemeral, which means short-lived, is the most apt description for this dessert because it’ll go quickly.
31 May 2013: Is there any back-to-nature pairing as tasty as S’mores, that campfire favorite of children of all ages? Paco’s has created a more adult version of the S’more with smoked marshmallows, cinnamon caramel and powdered sugar on a Graham cracker crust. It’ll take you back to days of yore when New Mexico’s forests weren’t on fire and you could enjoy a S’more or ten.
26 September 2013: If you’ve never heard grown men swoon, you should have been with Ryan and I as we experienced a foodgasm or two with every morsel of Paco’s smoked pecan pie ala mode. Pecan pie is one of those richer than it needs to be foods which is often dismissed from the pantheon of great desserts. At Paco’s, the smoking influence lends a campfire quality to what might otherwise have been a rather ordinary pecan pie, transforming it into an extraordinary dessert. The ice cream provides a nice foil and textural contrast.
Paco began serving lunch in September, 2013. The pairing of a warm autumn day with the capacious patio at Paco’s is idyllic for a great lunch. The lunch menu includes a number of sandwiches and salads interpreted in Paco’s unique style, but the accommodating restaurant will serve dinner entrees whenever possible. Lunch is served Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 until 2.
Service at Paco’s is exceptional, especially if you’re attended to by JB, a 25-year veteran of the food service industry. JB is attentive, friendly and knowledgeable, a paragon of professionalism.
Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine was featured on the third episode of Break the Chain. If this review doesn’t convince you that you need to visit Paco’s soon, Ryan Scott will.
Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine
3851 Rio Grande Blvd. NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 September 2013
1st VISIT: 31 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET:Brisket Mussels; Brick Chicken, Lemon Coriander Dressing; Cast Iron Chuck Filet; Mussels; Cheddar Grits; Campechana; S’more, Cinnamon Caramel & Powdered Sugar; Peanut Butter Cheesecake Mousse, Roasted Bananas