The Flying Star – Albuquerque, New Mexico
In the ancient Chinese art and science of Feng Shui, flying stars are used to assess the quality of the energy flow (qi) in a given place at a given time. The positive and negative auras of a building are charted using precise mathematical formulas to determine the wealth, academic, career, success, relationships and health of a building’s inhabitant. By understanding the course of harmful and beneficial flying stars, appropriate Feng Shui cures can be employed to mitigate the effects of those harmful stars while enhancing the positive effects of the beneficial stars.
While owners Jean and Mark Bernstein may not have renamed their successful local restaurant chain for the Feng Shui principles of flying stars, there’s no denying the qi (energy flow) at Flying Star is active, vibrant and positive. It’s been that way from the very beginning, even before their restaurant was rechristened Flying Star (likely for its meteoric rise in popularity). The Flying Star chain got its auspicious start in 1987 when the Bernsteins launched a high-energy restaurant named Double Rainbow in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district. A franchisee of a San Francisco ice cream store of the same name, Double Rainbow was an immediate hit. It was renamed Flying Star in the millennial year when the restaurant struck out on its own. A quarter-century later, it remains one of New Mexico’s most popular and successful independent restaurants.
The Flying Star is a ubiquitous presence–some would say institution–in the Duke City with six locations situated seemingly not too far from every neighborhood. It seems the only area in which Flying Star has not been successful is in fulfilling the first part of its mission statement–“to fly below the radar of the larger chains and to cook where no one has cooked before.” Flying Star is on everyone’s radar–restaurant chains, singles and families, blue- and white-collar workers, hipsters and nerds, doctors, lawyers and probably even a few Indian chiefs.
From its onset, Flying Star has been a welcome departure from the ubiquitous gobble-and-go fast food franchises. It’s an inviting milieu, a haven from the mundane and a hangout for huddled masses. It’s as unpretentious as restaurants of its high quality come with absolutely no tablecloths, reservations or waitstaff. Over the years its menu has expanded from its core offerings of sandwiches, soups and salads to pastas, rice dishes, a variety of blue plates and regional specialties, serving food that’s “not fancy, but really delicious and plentiful.” The Flying Star’s bakery makes some of the best artisan bread in the city and its desserts continue to earn accolades a plenty.
In 2008 Albuquerque The Magazine readers voted the Flying Star Albuquerque’s “Best Place to Overindulge,” indicative perhaps of the profuse portions American diners have come to expect. Ironically, much of the feedback from readers who frequent the restaurant more frequently than I do has two themes: the Flying Star’s portions are increasingly parsimonious and its prices are increasing. Two September, 2013 visits in three days certainly bore witness to the second contention–a burger which was nine dollars the last time I had it in 2009 is now nearly thirteen dollars. I don’t visit the Flying Star often enough to validate the shrinking portion sizes, but had to smoosh the oversized burger down to be able to put it in my mouth.
As savvy restaurateurs are well-advised to do, the Bernsteins took to heart their customers input and re-engineered Flying Star’s menu, offering lower-priced items and new desserts without compromising its high standards. While a value-priced menu helped allay perceptions that Flying Star was a bit on the pricey side, several economic factors contributed to the restaurant’s descent. By 2014 the Flying Star Cafe filed for a Chapter 11 business reorganization and closed under-performing restaurants in Santa Fe and Bernalillo as well as Albuquerque downtown. In January, 2017, Flying Star remunerated unsecured creditors, effectively removing the restaurant from bankruptcy and allowing the cafes to continue operating under the Bernsteins.
In September, 2002, Bon Appetit magazine named The Flying Star one of the “ten favorite places for breakfast in America.” That’s an incredible honor considering the tens of thousands of restaurants across the fruited plain that serve breakfast. Best of all, every item on the menu is available all day long. You can have the Flying Star’s amazing French toast for dinner and you can have the rosemary chicken with couscous risotto for breakfast and the counter staff won’t look at you quizzically. It’s the best of both worlds, a perpetual brunch for diners who can’t decide what to have.
15 September 2013: Because of the menu’s “everything all day long” approach, you could easily plan to start off your morning wanting breakfast, but changing your mind as you peruse many options on display over the counter. Any meal goes well with the Flying Star’s coffee which earned “best coffee or espresso” accolades from Alibi readers in 2009. An invigorating option is the Mexican latte (Espresso, steamed milk, cocoa powder, sugar and cinnamon) Grande-sized. A little chile would make it even better. The Mexican latte pairs very well with a chocolate croissant, made in-house. It’s flaky, buttery deliciousness laced with dark chocolate.
15 September 2013: If the Mexican latte doesn’t wake you up, perhaps the Morning Sundae will. Served in a glass goblet, it’s a rejuvenating elixir served slightly chilled. The goblet is brimming with organic vanilla yogurt, fresh and dried fruits, walnuts, house-made granola and honey. It offers an amazing world of contrasts in flavor (sweet, sour, tangy) and texture (nutty crunchiness, chilled firmness of the fruit). More importantly, it’s as delicious a yogurt dish as you’ll find in the Duke City.
15 September 2013: The Ranch is a more conventional American breakfast offering with an optional New Mexico touch you’ve got to have. That option is turkey green chile sausage patties, one of the very few proteins good enough for diners to eschew an excellent smoked bacon. Green chile doesn’t just make a cameo appearance on the sausage. It’s very prominent in the flavor profile of a sausage which would still be quite good without it. The Ranch also includes two eggs prepared any way you want them as well as your choice of a bagel or whole grain toast and home fries. The home fries would be exceptional were they not in need of desalinization.
13 September 2013: If you’re craving a moist and juicy green chile cheeseburger, the Flying Star’s Green Chile Cheese, served on a potato brioche bun, is an excellent option. The green chile, an autumn roast blend is only slightly piquant, but the accompanying red onion, lettuce and tomato are garden fresh and the melted Cheddar cheese tops a perfectly seasoned slab of hamburger to form an excellent rendition of New Mexico’s favorite burger. Meatatarians will also appreciate the ABC Patty Melt–“A” as in avocado, “B” as in smoked bacon and “C” as in Jack cheese all served on grilled rye. It’s a beautiful sandwich when ordered medium done with a pinkish hue that would be the envy of many a blushing bride. In 2009, the ABC Patty Melt was accorded the city’s “best burger” honors by Albuquerque The Magazine readers.
Sandwiches and burgers come with your choice of French fries, homemade potato salad, coleslaw or a fresh fruit salad. For a mere pittance you can also substitute a little greens salad or soup. While the fries are actually pretty good (crispy on the outside and soft on the inside), a refreshing alternative is a unique coleslaw flecked with red and green peppers as well as red onion. It’s not overly sweet or creamy and its component parts are invariably fresh and crunchy. Most coleslaw in Albuquerque is boring, but not at the Flying Star. If you’re having a burger or sandwich, make sure your meal also includes a chocolate shake. It’s served cold and thick with what doesn’t fit in the glass served to you in a steely vessel. The chocolate isn’t teeth-decaying sweet as so many chocolate shakes tend to be.
The Flying Star’s menu provides food raised with a conscience. The Bernstein were among the first Duke City restaurateurs to establish relationships with producers and growers of sustainable and humanely farmed meats, dairy and eggs. Burgers are crafted with 100% fresh and drug-free beef raised by seven New Mexican ranches while the chicken is cage-free, veg-fed and drug-free. Health conscious diners will appreciate the wide variety of inventive fresh salads; the menu showcases 45 freshly cut vegetables and fruits. All dressings are even made from scratch in the restaurant’s kitchen: Ranch, Bleu Cheese, Caesar, Spicy Sesame or House Vinaigrette.
5 May 2007: One of my favorite salads anywhere is the Miami Shrimp Stack (no longer on the menu), a timbale of seasoned shrimp, black beans and fresh avocado chunks drizzled with Ancho BBQ sauce. This salad is served with freshly made blue corn tortilla chips and a crunchy little salad (cucumber, carrots, jicama and green onion). Its pretty as a picture plating resembles an expensive fusion dish and the high quality of ingredients belie the price (under ten dollars). Despite the seemingly disparate ingredients, flavors coalesce to create a happy harmony on your taste buds. Hopefully the Flying Star will someday resurrect this happiness generating salad.
26 October 2008: The Flying Star’s inventiveness is often best expressed in taking comfort food favorites and giving them a personality, an unconventional twist. Sometimes this creativity works and sometimes it doesn’t. When the latter occurs, it actually comes as a surprise. Such was the case when the restaurant’s Mac & Cheese, a 2008 “best in the city” honoree by Albuquerque The Magazine readers “morphed” into “Papa’s Gotta Brand New Mac” The Papa dish was more of the same…with a twist. That would be the addition of sauteed crimini mushrooms, green onions and crispy chicken breast to the Curly Q cavatappi and creamy cheese sauce. The highlight of this macaroni and cheese is resoundingly the crispy chicken breast which is tender and delicious. The low point is letting Velveeta anywhere near the dish.
15 September 2013: One of the more interesting menu items to hit the Flying Star menu in quite a while is a risotto not made with arborio rice, but with couscous, a coarsely ground semolina paste. Somewhat similar to rice in color, texture and shape, couscous is often used in dishes just as rice would be. Despite being more filling than rice, it’s actually a bit lighter and more airy. By itself couscous is a bit on the boring side, but the Flying Star prepares it with an herbed, grilled chicken breast, asparagus, fresh peas and feta crumbles with plenty of rosemary. It’s an excellent entree with more creaminess and flavor diversity than you might expect.
16 May 2017: If the notion of “Asian comfort food” leaves you salivating, Flying Star’s Buddha Bowl may evoke lusty thoughts. Picture fresh veggies and the protein (chicken, organic tofu, shrimp) of your choice flash sautéed in a ginger-lemongrass sauce over warm, organic brown or Jasmine rice. The simplicity of this dish belies a complexity of rich, deep flavors. Vegetables (carrots, pea pods, broccoli, edamame) are crisp and fresh and the chicken is delicate and delicious, but what really enlivens this dish is the ginger-lemongrass sauce which has personality to spare with a sharp, spicy, sweet flavors. This dish will win over even those of us who think we don’t like vegetables.
16 May 2017: Even better, more comforting and delicious is the Thai Steak Salad (marinated, char-grilled steak strips, fresh ramen noodles tossed with glazed pineapple, crisp Thai veggies, fresh basil, mint, cilantro, sesame seeds and peanuts in a sesame coconut dressing). In spirit and execution, it’s as “Thai true” as any such salad you’d find at a Thai restaurant. There’s a lot going on in this dish with a multitude of complementary flavors competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. There, for example, is the sweet-tangy-juiciness of pineapple and the fresh, invigorating mint and Thai basil. Texturally, there are plenty of captivating contrasts. Your fork may well spear crisp vegetables and the crunchy peanuts with soft, tender noodles. This is a fun, delish dish.
16 May 2017: The seasonal menu for spring, 2017 includes what my Kim touted as “the best Cubano I’ve ever had.” Because my mouth was full and my mood buoyant with enjoyment of the Torta Cubana (roasted pork loin, toasted till crunchy bolillo roll, punchy pickled veggies and spicy brown mustard) it was impossible to argue. The canvas for most Cubanos made in the Duke City is panini pressed bread resplendent with grill marks. Not so for the Flying Star’s rendition. The bolillo is less grating on the roof of your mouth than panini-pressed bread tends to be. It’s an excellent canvas for the delicately roasted pork loin. What really brings this sandwich to life are the punchy pickled vegetables and spicy brown mustard. Those pickled vegetables are indeed punchy and lively. So is the spicy brown mustard. This is truly a Cubano self-actualized, as good as you’ll find in Miami.
As the Double Rainbo, this powerhouse restaurant was named in Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine as one of the best places in their routes for the most important meal of the day–dessert. The dessert offerings are lavish indeed, including the ice cream which is sinfully rich and creamy. In its Food and Wine issue (May 2007), Albuquerque The Magazine (ATM) accorded a “Hot Plate” award to the restaurant’s Raspberry Blackout, a decadent dessert worthy of adulation. A display case showcases some of the best looking desserts you’ll see anywhere. They’re so “pretty as a picture” perfect you might think they’re wax imitations of the real thing. Thankfully they don’t taste waxy.
Singling out one dessert at Flying Star is akin to singling out a single star from a Northern New Mexico night sky. It’s a daunting task sure to invite deliciously contentious debate. One choice, especially on a hot summer day is the turtle sundae, still the very best in Albuquerque by a mile or more. Perpetually on display under glass are some of the most mouth-watering baked desserts, baked fresh daily in the old-fashioned, hand-crafted manner of yore. The Flying Star is one of New Mexico’s most lauded and lionized artisinal bakers. Some of its decadent desserts are works of art in the form of irresistible post-prandial deliciousness.
You can almost imagine Mary Ann in her tight, skimpy shorts serving you the coconut cream pie, which like the one served on Gilligan’s Island isn’t overpoweringly sweet as some of its genre tend to be. The caramel apple pie topped with sumptuous vanilla ice cream is “mom worthy.” Still, my vote might go to a gigantic wedge of bread pudding cake, served with a luscious caramel sauce. The adjective decadent has nothing on this oh so rich dessert. It’s so rich you’ll have to share it with a dining companion.
Being the proud “dad” of the most handsome dachshund (The Dude) ever conceived, I also appreciate the Flying Star Cafe’s commitment to our four-legged children who sometimes eat from the floor. The restaurant is helping the Animal Humane Association of New Mexico build a low-cost or free medical treatment center for pets. The center will help families who can’t afford to provide even basic medical care for their beloved pets. How can you not love this altruism?
As one of Albuquerque’s very favorite fun places to dine, Duke City diners agree the Flying Star really is in orbit around the city with its six palate-pleasing restaurants.
LATEST VISIT: 16 May 2017
# OF VISITS: 16
BEST BET: Turtle Sundae, Machacado, Baked Bread, New Mexico Burger, Coleslaw, Raspberry Blackout, Bread Pudding, ABC Patty Melt, Miami Shrimp Stack, Morning Sundae, Mexican Latte, Ranch Breakfast, Rosemary Chicken With Couscous Risotto, Buddha Bowl, Thai Steak Salad, Torta Cubana