You don’t have to go out of town to dine to feel like you’re dining out of town. A drive to Sandiago’s Mexican Grill on the base of the Sandia Tramway will do that for you. This colorful restaurant in which everything but the ceiling appears tiled in multi-hued splendor evokes images of coastal Mexico Lindo Y Querido in all its glory. If you’re an atheist, the spectacular view of the city lights, particularly on a cold winter night, might just convince you that there is a God. The summer view of the entire city bathed in light under Albuquerque’s cerulean skies is equally awe inspiring.
Sandiago’s is part of the sprawling, multi-story complex which houses the boarding station to the world’s longest tramway. Situated at 6,300 feet above sea level, it is the highest (in altitude anyway) restaurant in the city. If you’re seated against the windows on the restaurant’s east side, your view is of Sandia Peak and of tramway cars climbing to the 10,378 foot peak. If you’re seated on the restaurant’s west side or on the patio, your view is of the Duke City. It’s a picturesque panorama, particularly on nights in which a spectacular sunset decorates the western skies with depths of color man can’t duplicate.
Serving coastal Mexican favorites as well as New Mexican entrees, Sandiago’s has become a popular dining destination and it’s for more than the incomparable ambiance. The ambiance is festive and bright, the attitude fun and loud. Even in winter, the wait staff is nattily attired in Hawaiian style shirts of vibrant colors, floral patterns and oceanic themes. An indoor bar patterned after a Mexican beach hut turns out the fruity, multi-colored adult beverages and margaritas many diners appreciate with their meals.
Your taste stimulation starts with the best pico de gallo in Albuquerque (perhaps even all of New Mexico) offered up with crisp tostada chips. At first bite, the pico appears to be simplicity itself–chopped jalapenos, purple onions, cilantro, fresh tomato and lime–but the proportions of each make for a wonderful combination. It’s so good many diners don’t touch the salsa which accompanies the pico. Lunchtime platos pequeños (small plates or appetizers) in which chips are a part include guacamole, nachos and con queso. Rather than have any of these, a couple or ten bowlfuls of the pico de gallo will be far more palate pleasing.
The platos pequeños include a scallop and shrimp ceviche, chicken flautas, grilled quesadilla, a tres queso relleno, shrimp mariscos and the aforementioned platos with chips. Considering the thematic coastal concept, it’s no surprise that Sandiago’s appetizer line-up includes ceviche. What is surprising is just how uninspired the ceviche is compared to other menu items. Lime and cilantro infused shrimp and scallops seem overwhelmed by tomato, jalapeño and red onion which were the dominant flavors. The shrimp and scallops are unfailingly fresh, but they deserve to be the star of this starter, not the supporting cast.
During a visit in the summer of 2011, as we do whenever we see New Mexican entrees on the menu, we asked whether or not the carne adovada was prepared with cumin (which all my readers know is the bane of my existence). Naturally when the answer came back with a reluctant “yes,” we admonished (but with a jocular smile) our waitress as to the evils of cumin. Alas, we didn’t ask whether or not the nachos also had cumin. Worse, our waitress didn’t tell us even after hearing my spiel about the repulsiveness of the foul demon spice. The chicken was positively bathed in cumin which, for all intents and purposes, rendered the nachos inedible. What might have otherwise been an inspired nacho plate–fresh chips, melted cheese, green chile, pico de gallo, lettuce, sour cream and guacamole–was sent back (hopefully to buried in a toxic waste dump; did I mention I hate cumin?).
Evening diners come for the signature plantain wrapped halibut. It is pan seared and served with mango salsa, braised greens and cilantro rice. There are many seafood items with which a sweet or sweet-tangy sauce just doesn’t work well, but Sandiago’s mango sauce is a perfect complement to the mild, pleasant-tasting halibut which is one of the least “fishy” tasting fish you can have. The halibut is but one of several seafood items on the menu, another being the thickest ahi tuna I’ve ever experienced. Easily a half inch thick, it is perfectly seared and has a pinkish hue that tells you it’s fresh.
Among the beef entrees, the ribeye steak stands out…sometimes. Stuffed with serrano and garlic, then grilled and served with corn chow chow, papitas and seared chard, this steak will tease, tantalize and titillate your taste buds with sweet, savory and hot delineations unlike most slabs of beef. Alas, that same steak may also arrive as a fatty piece of meat, once again proving the inconsistency in ribeye steak cuts. Consistency is the hallmark of all great restaurants. The fact that we’ve had both perfectly prepared ribeye as well as ribeye as tough as shoe leather may be indicative of consistency issues.
More consistent and nearly as good as the ribeye is a bistec marinated in lime and other flavorful, spicy (but not piquant) ameliorants. Several medallions of very tender steak are grilled to your exacting specifications and served with a vegetable medley that typically includes red, green and yellow peppers as well as jicama. An avocado corn relish served cold and a spicy green rice finish off this entree which is served in a shield-shaped red plate (pictured below).
Sandiago’s daily specials are sometimes so good, customers ask for them when they’re not offered. That’s the case with the chipotle pesto shrimp topped with Mexican Cojita cheese and served on an unctuous risotto base with a medley of vegetables. The shrimp are fresh and sweet while the chipotle pesto provides a piquant punch. Served on a triangle shaped, oversized plate, this is a melding of ingredients that may take your breath away. Three burners are needed to prepare this entree, one of the reasons it hasn’t made it to the daily menu.
It’s often been said that if you let someone else blow your horn, the sound will carry twice as far. Sandiago’s did just that by reminding its Web site visitors to vote for inclusion of its green chile cheeseburger on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011. Loyal visitors did just that. Sandiago’s garnered enough votes to be included on New Mexico’s most delicious Trail for 2011. There are many other restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment that ran similar promotions, but not all of them have a green chile cheeseburger quite this good.
Available only during lunch, this green chile cheeseburger is a behemoth on a grilled bun. Prepared on a flattop grill, it’s a half-pound Angus beef patty topped with a pleasantly piquant green chile blanketed by molten Cheddar cheese. The bun is a bit thick; it has to be to hold in all the fresh, juicy ingredients. Sandiago’s chefs will prepare your burger to your exacting specifications (medium for me). Toppings include crisp lettuce, red onions and fresh tomatoes with mustard and ketchup available. It’s a messy burger in a good way meaning there’s so much green chile, you’ll have some left on your plate to scoop up with the double-fried French fries. This is an excellent burger!
A bowl of green chile stew hits the spot at any time, but particularly on balmy or cold days. Also available only during the lunch hour, it’s served warm with a green chile that has a discernible bite that won’t send tourists packing. Small cuts of pork and shredded Cheddar cheeses swim in a delicious broth that’s ameliorated with the pleasant flavor of Mexican oregano (but not too much of it). The green chile stew is served with two painfully thin tortillas.
Decadent is overused to describe rich desserts, but in the cinnamon chocolate flan (one of three different flans we’ve seen offered at Sandiago’s), you truly have a decadent, almost lascivious dessert that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. The flan is smooth, rich and delicious, easily one of the best flans in the city.
Sandiago’s bakes all desserts in-house. The pastry chef’s creations are inspired and include a magnificently moist and just sweet enough mango bread pudding, a Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake and a blueberry and peach streusel topped with a caramel blessed duce de leche ice cream. Each of these desserts might be a star attraction anywhere else, but oh, that flan is just too good.
Forgive me while I digress. I forgot to mention the spacious outdoor patio where you can enjoy not only the salubrious, mile high plus air, but in the summer take in dozens of hummingbirds in flight. There are more than 300 varieties of hummingbird throughout the world and New Mexico is blessed with many of them. Sandiago’s strategically positions hummingbird feeders to provide diners with entertaining aerial displays.
In 2006 Sandiago’s expanded to include a dining room for private parties. There may be no better location in the city for a party than a restaurant so close to the majestic purple colored mountains that form Albuquerque’s glorious backdrop. There certainly aren’t better views anywhere within the city.
Sandiago’s Mexican Grill
38 Tramway Place
LATEST VISIT: 29 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Ribeye Steak, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Pico de Gallo, Salsa, Green Chile Stew, Chocolate Flan, Plantain Wrapped Halibut