Relish – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Eddie Murphy, Jessie Jackson, entire NBA rosters. Often missing from scandal sheets outing male celebrities who have fathered love children is the name of one Dagwood Bumstead. From all outward appearances, Bumstead is an average white collar employee and loving family man with a penchant for taking naps, luxuriating in a bubble bath and constructing and consuming tall, multi-layered, poly-ingredient sandwiches of gravity defying height topped with an olive on a toothpick. Appearances can be deceiving.
You’re reading it here first. Dagwood Bumstead’s illegitimate son is (brace yourself) Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, a lanky would-be hipster who always seems to have the munchies. Shaggy is a nimble contortionist with a penchant for hiding (cowering) in impossibly small places and for consuming impossibly large (Dagwood-esque) sandwiches in a single bite. When sandwiches aren’t available, Shaggy will often tussle with his dog Scooby-Doo for pet snacks.
DNA evidence hasn’t confirmed Shaggy’s paternity, but telltale (albeit circumstantial) signs seem incontrovertible. The most telling sign is, of course, their mutual love of food. Dagwood married a woman named Blondie, a name she shares with one of his favorite desserts (the non-chocolate brownie). He and Blondie even named one of their children Cookie for yet another of his favorite foods. Both Dagwood and Shaggy like bizarre food combinations. For Shaggy, it’s chocolate covered hot dogs and cheese pizza with pickles, while Dagwood basically just stacks any and everything he can find in the fridge between slices of bread.
Rare is a sandwich shop that doesn’t have a sandwich on its menu not named for Dagwood. Naturally, the Dagwood is an edible superstructure constructed from large quantities and varieties of cold cuts, cheeses, vegetables and additional slices of bread, all usually crowned with a toothpick. As far as I know, there aren’t any sandwiches called the “Shaggy.” The image that name conjures is probably too unappetizing for any food.
In recent years, gourmet sandwiches with high quality ingredients in creative combinations, have replaced skyscraper-sized bread and beef behemoths. It’s a winning concept–an award-winning concept. In 2004, transplanted New Yorker Johnny Orr and his partner Tony Nethery launched a fabulous fromagerie and charcuterie (that’s cheese and meat) shop with a menu of gourmet sandwiches and salads unlike any heretofore seen in the Duke City. They named their gourmet sandwich shop “Relish,” a name which aptly described their shop both as a verb (as in relishing the great tasting cheeses) and as a noun (as in the amazing condiments used on the sandwiches).
Since its launch, Relish has earned every conceivable local publication’s “best of” awards in the sandwich category. Though it hasn’t featured its unique array of glorious imported and domestic gourmet cheeses and magnificent meats in years, Relish still serves up some of the Duke City’s very best sandwiches and salads with products from the ubiquitous Boar’s Head. The most popular hold-over from its days as a cheese and meat market is the mozzarella which is made fresh daily in-house. With a flavor reminiscent of whole-milk with a delicate tang, it’s so good Relish has a strict no-refrigeration, eat that night policy because that’s when the mozzarella is at its optimum in freshness and flavor.
Today, Relish is owned by entrepreneur Tony Trinh, a hands-on, customer oriented proprietor who recognizes that in a fickle restaurant market, an exacting balance between continuing to do what has worked well and continuously innovating and keeping things fresh is the only approach by which any eatery will survive. To the former point, Relish continues to hand-craft all sandwiches from scratch and to order using fresh, high-quality ingredients including homemade dressings and condiments that embellish and complement each sandwich. All sandwich orders are served with one of three sides: potato salad, apple slaw or pasta salad plus a pickle. The canvas for all sandwiches remains the fresh, delicious bread baked by Albuquerque’s Le Paris French Bakery.
To that latter point, he has added soups to the menu–and not just any soups. The soup menu–usually one vegetarian soup and one with meat–is constantly changing, each soup seemingly better than the previous. Relish is now also offering dessert pairings which go very well after a soup, salad and sandwich soiree. At one point, the Relish menu included spring rolls, some of the very best in town. That’s something you’d expect from a member of the family which owns and operates the Basil Leaf Vietnamese Restaurant on Eubank. Surprisingly the spring rolls weren’t as popular as one might expect and were discontinued.
Over the Fourth of July weekend in 2009, Relish underwent a significant expansion, essentially taking over the space vacated by the business next door. The city’s premier sandwich shop lost none of its charm with its additional capacity. On October 11th, 2011, Relish launched a second instantiation, this one in sandwich-starved Rio Rancho.
Albuquqerque the Magazine paid a visit within two days of Relish’s grand opening with visits from Local IQ magazine and the Rio Rancho Observer not far behind. The buzz over Relish in Rio Rancho was reminiscent of how excited Duke City diners were when Relish first launched in Albuquerque. The City of Vision’s Relish was situated in the Lujan Plaza, a small, age-worn strip mall which also houses Namaste, arguably the metropolitan area’s best Indian restaurant. Alas, because of staffing problems, Rio Rancho’s Relish closed in January, 2013.
The sandwiches are more than enough to excite anyone craving a sumptuous repast and not a gut-busting sub or boring burger. The challenge is figuring out which sandwich to have from a menu of hot- and cold-sandwiches that offer inventiveness and excitement. All sandwiches are priced at just under ten dollars, but unlike the “five dollar foot longs” at the chain leader, these will inspire return visits–many of them. That includes the two vegetarian friendly sandwiches–the Mozzarella Sandwich and the Mediterranean, both of which are terrific.
The homemade mozzarella sandwich showcases the restaurant’s housemade mozz by pairing it with roasted red pepper, arugula, aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil on a crusty alpinette roll. You might think the indelicate ingredients might overwhelm the soft and light deliciousness of the cheese, but that’s not the case. The mozzarella shines and there’s just enough of it to have you craving even more. The Mediterranean sandwich is crafted with hummus, haricot verts, Greek feta, tomato, dill pickle, roasted red pepper, arugula and balsamic vinaigrette served on an alpinette roll. It is so flavorful even the most committed carnivore won’t miss meat. The hummus, in particular, is absolutely true to its Middle Eastern roots and would contend for best in the city honors.
The Cubano, loosely based on the Cuban sandwich, features chipotle rubbed roast pork, honey ham, Swiss cheese, sliced pickle and cilantro mayo served on a baguette. Served hot on pressed bread toasted to perfection, it is among the best of its genre we’ve had in the Duke City. The Cubano so impressed Rico Martinez, the brilliant braintrust behind the now defunct Rant Pack blog that he wrote the hilarious “Ode to Relish” in which he lavished gustatory praise and prose on the “scumptiously perfecto” sandwich while deriding the poor service he received during at least one visit to Relish. In its Fall Food and Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque the Magazine named the Cubano one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches.
Rico subsequently wrote an article in which he rated Relish’s Cubano the best among Cuban sandwiches he tried in four different restaurants. In fact, he accorded it “best sandwich in Albuquerque” accolades. He’s got a good case. The Cubano is indeed muy magnifico, but so are other sandwiches on Relish’s repertoire.
Best sandwich in the city honors might also be accorded to Relish’s spicy muffaletta which might be the closest you’ll find to a New Orleans style muffaletta while still allowing for a New Mexican departure. The spicy muffaletta is not quite as big as its near pizza sized counterpart at our favorite French Quarter po’ boy restaurant, Cafe Maspero. Still it’s a handful, a two-fisted sandwich brimming with ingredients and flavor. Sandwiched between muffaletta bread are provolone, Genoa salami, maple ham, sweet and spicy coppacola, pepperoni, and artichoke tapinade with a garlic-chile sauce. The spicy coppacola and garlic-chile sauce will get your attention quickly while the other high-quality ingredients sneak in more with more subtlety.
Still another contender for “best” honors is the double-decker Reuben which includes both pastrami and corned beef along with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing with a hint of horseradish on seeded rye bread. The hint of horseradish is just enough to cut the dill sweetness of the Thousand Island dressing and punch it up just a bit, but not so much that it takes away from the authenticity Reuben fanatics want.
Frequent visitors well acquainted with the daily menu head straight for the slate board in which the specials of the day are announced. The specials are often a tribute to creativity, a realization that sandwiches don’t need to be boring. Take for example the strawberry-basil-bacon sandwich, a compilation of ingredients heretofore not seen elsewhere. This sandwich is crafted on a crusty nine-inch Alpinette, a fitting canvas for a very unique and surprisingly tasty sandwich. A healthy smear of housemade mozzarella on bottom bread provides an interesting contrast to the strawberry coulis (essentially a thick sauce made of puréed fruit) which is topped with the ingredient triumvirate of bacon, lettuce and tomato. The strawberry coulis accentuates the tartness of strawberries more than it does the sweetness.
Sensational salads also dot the menu. A composed salad that will bowl you over with the harmonious coalescence of ingredients is the Chop Chop salad which is artfully crafted of grilled chicken, haricot verts (French green beans), roasted red and yellow beets, cucumber, feta cheese, roasted red peppers, olives, artichokes, mint and grape tomatoes tossed in preserved lemon vinaigrette. You’ll want to taste all the ingredients one at a time and you’ll want to taste them in combination with each other. This is a fantastic salad, one of the very best in the city.
Todd Coleman, the executive food editor for Saveur Magazine, has arrived at the conclusion that if “you want to see a true display of culinary skills, order the soup.” The soups at Relish are gourmet restaurant quality–delicious and inventive while holding true to the nurturing qualities which make soup a comfort food favorite. Early favorites from the Rio Rancho Relish include the green chile chicken soup in an apple cider broth. The tanginess of apple cider, the piquancy of roasted New Mexico green chile, oodles of noodles and poultry a plenty make this a soup you’ll want double portions of.
Unlike so many of the boring beverage and chips offerings in town, Relish dares to be different, offering such Duke City rarities as Dr. Brown’s root beer and Miss Vickie’s unique chips in such flavors as Texas mesquite and sea salt and vinegar.
Relish offers only one dessert type sandwich, but characteristic of the restaurant’s inventiveness, it’s a Chocolate Sandwich. As with Relish’s panini offerings, the canvas for this sandwich is a fresh, delicious bread baked by Albuquerque’s Le Paris French Bakery. The fillings include sliced bananas while the chocolate is Callebaut, a premium Belgian chocolate made by a chocolate maker who still selects, roasts and grinds its own cocoa beans. Although the sandwich makes for an excellent dessert, the texture of the hard-crusted bread may be a little tough on the roof of your mouth, especially if you’ve also had a panini sandwich crafted on the same bread.
The most common complaint I’ve heard about Relish is that it’s overpriced. Sandwiches approach the ten dollar price point and aren’t necessarily the Dagwood-style skyscraper sandwiches you might expect for the money. What you do get is an inventive, high-quality sandwich made to order, not some copycat chain’s rendition of the all American favorite.
Thanks to Sergio Salvador for his fantastic photos. Please visit Sergio’s Web site for more.
8019 Menual, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 03 July 2012
# OF VISITS 10
BEST BET: Cubano, Muffaletta, Double-Decker Reuben, Endive Salad, Chop Chop Salad, Mozzarella, The Meditteranean, Chocolate Sandwich, Bread Pudding, Spicy Italiano, Grinder, Strawberry Basil Sandwich