MALAGUEÑA’S LATIN TAPAS – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Not long after Superbowl XL’s halftime show began, a veil of theatrical smoke enveloped the stage, dissipating slowly to reveal the legendary featured performers, the immortal Rolling Stones. First the camera panned to a gyrating Mick Jagger who got the frenzied crowd rollicking with Start Me Up. When the camera focused on Keith Richards, my sister-in-law asked when the Cryptkeeper (from the 1990s horror anthology television series Tales From The Crypt) joined the Stones. We spent the halftime show making fun of the then-63-year-old rocker who looked much older thanks to a life of debauchery.
When the last commercial began before the game resumed, I reminded our guests that despite looking like a decrepit old duffer, Keith Richards was considered one of the best guitar players in the world (in 2015, Rolling Stone named him the fourth greatest guitarist in history.) That didn’t impress them as much as watching a video afterwards of Richards playing Malagueña, a classical Spanish Guitar composition that evokes the spirit of Spain. Malagueña, a composition which requires exceptional deftness and skill, was actually the very first song Richards learned. No one in our party joked about the Granny Clampett look-alike playing the banjo.
For Chef Javier Montaño, an Albuquerque native and (like me) a scion of Galicia in Spain, Malagueña resonates deeply. When he and his beauteous bride Molly relocated from San Francisco to the Duke City, it made sense that their restaurant venture would be named for the profoundly soulful song which captures the essence of Spain so well. While well cognizant of the barbarous atrocities perpetrated throughout the Americas by Spanish conquistadores, Javier’s focus is on the positive cultural and culinary aspects of the Spanish influence. Promising a fresh twist on Spanish and Latin American Cuisine, the Montaños are taking traditional ingredients and culinary ideas from throughout Latin America and interpreting them in delicious ways. After our inaugural sampling of Malagueña’s fare, my Kim called it “five-star food from a food truck.”
Yes, some of the very best Latin American cuisine in the Duke City exists not in a brick and mortar operation, but in a mobile food kitchen. With thirty years experience as a chef, Javier well knows that the three keys to success as a brick and mortar restaurant are location, location and location. A brick and mortar might come later. For now, the Montaños are having a blast meeting and interacting with very savvy and receptive diners. They’ve now had their mobile food kitchen for three months (as of July, 2017), but have enjoyed a promising start.
Before moving to San Francisco, Javier plied his chef skills at some of New Mexico’s most highly acclaimed restaurants including Scalo in Albuquerque and the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. In the City by the Bay, he served as chef at Fog City and at Guckenheimer, a corporate food service provider. Also in San Francisco he met and married Molly who worked at the time as a gourmet food representative. Their passion for food is obvious. Speak with them for just a while and you’ll come away impressed with their commitment to creating a harmonious interplay from the premium ingredients they use.
Take, for example, their use of beautifully marbled wagyu beef from Lone Mountain Wagyu in Golden, New Mexico. Wagyu beef is beef self-actualized, as good as it can be. It’s luxurious, buttery and high in saturated fats (which, contrary to some nutrition know-it-alls tell us has many health benefits). Wagyu is regarded as some of the best beef in the world. Beef this exclusive and premium shouldn’t be prepared on just any old grill. Javier worked with an Argentine friend (and few people know beef as well as Argentines do) to construct an Argentinian-style pit for grilling meats low and slow in a shallow pile of glowing coals.
8 July 2017: The results are some of the most unctuous, tender, rich and absolutely delicious beef we’ve had in quite a while. Three thinly sliced seared strips of wagyu prepared at medium-rare graced the surf and turf special of the day that also included chimichurri, a spicy shrimp skewer on roasted Spanish potatoes with an aji amarillo aioli. A surf and turf special of this caliber is usually served with cloth napkins and silverware, not on a paper food tray. The three shrimp on a wooden skewer are fresh and firm with a characteristic snap when you bite into them. They’re lightly dusted with a spice mix that gives them a lively flavor profile that complements a grilled flavor. The roasted Spanish potatoes are sliced into small cubes and have sweet-savory notes that go so well with the aji amarillo aioli.
8 July 2017: Amarillo aji, a ubiquitous fixture in Peruvian cuisine, also plays a prominent part in another fabulous entree–the ceviche mixto. Ceviche is the national dish of Peru and the coastal nation’s most popular dish: fresh, raw, white fish cut into smaller than bite-size cubes, marinated and “cooked” in lime juice and seasoned with Peruvian chili peppers (often aji), onions and salt. There are literally hundreds of variations of Peruvian ceviche. Malagueña’s version includes not only the fish of the day, but calimari and chicharrones as well as ginger, garlic and pepitas. The aji amarillo, a thick-fleshed chile with a medium to hot heat level works very well with the lime and ginger to imprint the sensation of invigorating freshness in your mouth. You haven’t had ceviche until you’ve enjoyed a Peruvian version of this manna from the sea. Malagueña’s version would make a Peruvian swoon.
8 July 2017: When my Kim ordered Malagueña’s lomo burrito, my first inclination was to dismiss it as just another boring burrito, the same as so many others. Even after Javier cut it in half to reveal edible art reminiscent of a beautiful stained glass window, I remained a cynical skeptic. Then my Kim slid a heaping forkful into my mouth. The lomo burrito (marinated beef with chopped red onions, fries, tomatoes, rice, lettuce, sour cream and rocoto chile sauce wrapped in a thin flour tortilla) may be the very best burrito we’ve had in three years or longer. Rocoto is one of Peru’s most piquant chiles, an incendiary pepper that’ll set your mouth on fire if you eat it straight off the plant. Javier tames the chile in sauce form so that its emphasis isn’t solely heat, but the sweet-fruity notes that really define this pepper. The rocoto sauce allows the lomo (the Spanish term for loin) to shine. It’s tender and delicious with a magical marinade that compliments its beefy flavor.
8 July 2017: After polishing off our entrees and being fully sated, you’d think we could walk away contented, but we wanted to have even more of the explosions of flavors that characterized our inaugural visit to Malagueña’s. Our solution: take home two Choripan (Argentinian spicy sausage sandwich with chimichuri and salsa fresca on a toasted bun). Choripan is in Argentina what the hot dog is in the United States, perhaps the ultimate street food. Choripan is obviously a portmanteau from the words chorizo, a sausage, and pan, meaning bread. Take my word for it, Malagueña’s choripan is better than about one-hundred-percent of the hot dogs you’ll find in the Duke City. It’s better than a Wisconsin brats, too. Wow, is this an excellent sandwich.
As might be expected from a mobile food kitchen, Malagueña’s menu is on the small side, listing fewer than a dozen items. If our initial and second visits are any indication, you’ll want to try them all. Aside from the items so inadequately described by me above, the menu on the date of our inaugural visit listed chicken pintxos (sherry, garlic chicken skewers), salt and vinegar fries, papas bravas (seasoned crispy fries with smoked tomato aioli), a spring salad (greens, nectarines, feta, almonds and mint in a charred lime vinaigrette) and a coconut pudding (with coconut, peanuts and sesame). Javier apprised us that he and Molly plan to change up the menu frequently to keep things lively and fresh. Lively, fresh, delicious…these are the hallmarks of Malagueña.
18 November 2017: Habitues of Gil’s Thrilling… may have noticed that Malagueña’s Latin Tapas has now earned the very first rating of 25 I’ve ever accorded to a mobile food kitchen, placing it in rarefied company as one of my highest rated restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. That’s not just one of my highest rated food trucks. It’s among my highest rated restaurants of any type: brick and mortar, mobile food kitchen, fine dining, etc. The flavors coaxed by Chef Javier and Molly from the highest quality ingredients can’t be contained. Nor can they go without notice. Before celebrating its one year anniversary, Malagueña’s has earned so much critical acclaim that it was one of ten nominees for the Edible Local Heroes award in the food truck category. It’s the best vote you’ll cast.
18 November 2017: Javier reminisced about the creative liberties he enjoyed as a young chef working at Fuego, then the high-end fine-dining gem at La Posada de Santa Fe. Working alongside another youthful prodigy named Maxime Bouneou, he fondly recalled creating a dinner salad offered for the then (and maybe even now) unfathomable price of thirty dollars. Despite that lofty price point, the salad flew off the menu (and that was more than two decades ago). The reason–it was constructed with quite literally the finest ingredients available: jamon Iberico, aged Balsamico, premium olive oil, etc.
Javier is well aware that in a food truck market where the expectation is often nachos and tacos, he can’t possibly proffer a gourmet salad approximating the price of Fuego’s lavish gallimaufry. What he does offer is the best five dollar salad you’ll ever have. Talk about a different kind of sticker shock. For a salad of such quality, we would have paid three times the amount. The canvas for Malagueña’s autumn salad is locally grown little gem lettuces from a north valley farmer. Not only are locally grown greens much more fresh and flavorful, they retain the nutritional value absent in greens shipped for hundreds of miles before making it to your grocery. Playing six-part harmony with the little gem lettuces are thinly sliced apples, cranberries, goat cheese and cinnamon pecans in a maple vinaigrette. The interplay between ingredients, textures and flavors–sweet, savory, tartness, earthiness–will enthrall your taste buds.
18 November 2017: One of the most surprising culinary trends across the fruited plain over the past two years has been the ascendancy of cacio e pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” or as described by some sources as a “minimalist mac and cheese.” Essentially just long, stringy noodles tossed in olive oil, Parmesan cheese, Pecorino and cracked pepper, cacio e pepe is terrific, but hardly worthy of the adulation it’s received. Much better by several orders of magnitude is the simply named garlic noodles from Malagueña’s.
Two of the many essential ingredients in my Kim’s kitchen repertoire are noodles and garlic, ingredients which not only go very well together, they complement virtually everything else. Yeah, I know there are plenty of you who share a vampire-like affinity with garlic, but for those of us with heightened tasted buds, garlic is glorious. Malagueña’s garlic noodles lists only two other ingredients ( butter and Parmesan), but there’s so much more going on in this simple dish with complex flavors. There is, for example, the delightful caramelization of garlic, an alchemic process made possible by its catalytic interaction with Turbinado sugar (from pure cane sugar extract). The caramelization doesn’t take away garlic’s strong, sharp, pungent flavor. It makes it more interesting. Then there’s the acidic notes of shredded Parmesan, the creaminess of butter and the experiential delight of slurping up noodles. Let’s face it, these are self-actualized garlic noodles, as good as they can be!
18 November 2017: Throughout Mexico and often using makeshift grills on ramshackle roadside stands, intrepid cooks aren’t afraid to let chicken skin blacken on the outside while the chicken cooks through on the inside. Their technique involves two steps: a simple achiote-based marinade and slow-roasting over charcoal. Known as pollo al carbon (literally “to the coals”), this poultry preparation style hasn’t caught on as widely across the fruited plain (perhaps because the technique isn’t exactly the most clean). The Duke City’s sole sit-down purveyor (El Pollo Real) of pollo al carbon closed down in 2014 while a poultry purveying mobile kitchen (El Chicken 100% Carbon) has been inactive since the onset of the dreaded Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project.
It’s no surprise that Javier and Molly would be great fans of pollo al carbon. Nor should it comes as a surprise that their interpretation of chicken carbon is absolutely delicious and wholly unique. Instead of the spatchcocked chicken favored in Old Mexico, Malagueña’s rendition showcases marinated juicy chicken skewers topped with a smoked tomato salsa. The marinade includes Worcestershire sauce and achiote, a bright orange-red spice vastly underutilized in New Mexico. Achiote marinade imparts a distinctively peppery aroma and a subtle flavor described by The Kitchn as nutty, sweet, and earthy. The marinade also facilitates the beauteous blackening of the skin that seals in juices and flavors. The fresh smoked tomato salsa is yet another example of Malagueña’s commitment to freshness and fine ingredients. Neither sauce-like nor runny as some salsas tend to be, it’s premium tomatoes and red onions cut up into small chunks.
18 November 2017: Among carnivores, the matter of baby back ribs or St. Louis ribs is oft debated. Baby backs are favored in the barbecue community because their meat is ubiquitous. It’s found between the bones and on top of the bones. Baby backs are shorter, curved, and usually meatier and leaner than St. Louis ribs. Those of us who favor the latter know St. Louis ribs have more fat content (and fat does mean flavor) and tend to be more tender then baby backs. Sure, St. Louis ribs have more bone, but they also have more meat.
It made me very happy to see Malagueña’s featuring St. Louis ribs with coffee red chile rub on the late Fall menu. Coffee, Javier explained, is an underused ingredient in cooking and as aficionados know, coffee has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that oenophiles). Pair coffee (Javier uses New Mexico Piñon Coffee) with red chile and you’ve got two of the most flavorful ingredients conceivable. It makes for a fantastic rub. Neither the coffee nor the red chile dominate. Instead, notes from each coalesce into a delicious dream slathered on top of meaty ribs. Wow! Javier knows ribs! He also knows New Mexico and knows there’s no better accompaniment for ribs than beans. No, not the molasses-based beans served at barbecues across the fruited plain. When in New Mexico, you serve pinto beans, the official state vegetable of the land of Enchantment. A single bread roll completes a plate that feels like summer but would be great any time of year.
When he’s not prepping for his busy days on Malagueña, Javier teaches students knife skills and how to prepare everyday foods at New Day Youth & Family Services’ Gourmet Grub, a cooking class with the goal of helping Albuquerque’s at-risk youth stay off the streets and gain valuable experience in the food service industry for their future. In this capacity, he works closely with his brother Sean, part owner and general manager of Monroe’s, one of Albuquerque’s most popular New Mexican restaurants.
My Kim may have said it best: “Malagueña offers five-star cuisine in a food truck.” It is the best mobile food kitchen we’ve experienced in the Duke City. Javier and Molly are taking Latin American cuisine to new heights. If you hear of them rolling down your neighborhood, run, don’t walk to this wonderful addition to the Duke City culinary scene.
MALAGUEÑA’S LATIN TAPAS
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 18 November 2017
1st VISIT: 8 July 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Lomo Burrito, Ceviche Mixto, Choripan, Special Surf & Turf, Autumn Salad, Garlic Noodles, Chicken Carbon, St. Louis Ribs with Coffee Red Chile Rub