Fresh Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico
“Life is similar to a bus ride.
The journey begins when we board the bus.
We meet people along our way of which some are strangers, some friends and some strangers yet to be friends.”
Perhaps no mobile conveyance in the Land of Enchantment has ferried as many interesting people on as many colorful journeys as the “Road Hog,” the psychedelic bus which shuttled its passengers from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock to Llano Largo, New Mexico. The Road Hog’s 1969 arrival in Llano Largo heralded the start of the “summer of the hippie invasion” as The Taos News called it. There unwashed masses settled into a Utopian agrarian commune they called the Hog Farm. The Road Hog with its familiar duck hood ornament and Grateful Dead-style tie-dyed design became a common sight in Peñasco, my childhood home. Sadly, for want of a part nowhere to be found, the Road Hog is slowly rusting away at its home in Llano Largo.
If the Road Hog represented the counter culture and anti-American bourgeois of the 60s, the KOB TV mobile News bus represented the staid establishment. For years, the classic Fageol Twin Coach (circa 1955), emblazoned with the station’s call letters proudly reminded viewers that KOB TV was the first station across the Land of Enchantment to broadcast in color. Ultimately, more sleek and maneuverable motorized conveyances came along and the KOB TV bus became obsolete. It wound up a rusty, hollowed-out scrap heap in La Hoya, New Mexico where the time-weathered bus seemed fated to fade into oblivion. Unlike the Road Hog, however, the former News bus didn’t remain in the “island of misfit buses.”
Where others saw an unused, unloved, unwashed motorized mess, Corrales Chef Jon Young and his radiant bride Melissa, saw their opportunity to become a part of the food truck revolution sweeping across the fruited plain. In 2014, they purchased the vintage bus and began the painstaking process of transforming it into a mobile food kitchen where Jon could ply his passion for creative fine dining. The renovation process required the patience of Job. Obsolete parts had to be retooled by hand. In fact, the entire refurbishment process was arduous and manual. With Jon and Melissa working assiduously, the ugly duckling slowly began blossoming into a graceful swan. Timeworn seats gave way to swanky booths more comfortable and spacious than first class airline seats. A small, but fully functional kitchen was installed at the back of the bus. Kitchen utensils such as a spatula and spoon were converted into door handles.
Alas, sometimes bad things happen to good people. During the restoration project, Melissa was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy. Healing became their focus and priority with the conversion project taking a back-burner for a while. Their dream was postponed for about a year. Today, the reservations-only luxury bus themed after the famous Orient Express is home to creative fine dining that comes from the heart of a very determined, very talented chef with a high likeability quotient. Spend just a few minutes with Jon and Melissa and you’ll find yourself rooting for them to succeed in a very tough business.
At an early age, the precocious chef knew he was destined to become a chef. While watching Julia Child prepare omelets on television, he complained to his mom that the revolutionary chef had stolen his idea. By age fourteen, he was slinging pizza dough in his hometown’s beloved Village Pizza. Later on, he took a job as a dishwasher at what was then New Mexico’s finest restaurant, the Casa Vieja, also in Corrales. Renowned chef Jean-Pierre Gozard started Jon at the very bottom—washing dishes. When a busboy left, Jon moved up and continued a steady ascent up the kitchen ranks. Like a sponge, he absorbed as much as he could from the fiery Gozard, acquiring classic French culinary techniques without having to attend a credentialed culinary school.
If Jon has a high likeability quotient, Melissa’s is off the charts. She is a buoyant bundle of energy with smiling eyes. Gracious and kind, she’s the restaurant’s hostess, operations manager and ambassador. A native New Mexican like Jon, Melissa has an entrepreneurial background. She keeps things moving efficiently and steadily with an attention to detail which ensures a smooth operation. Moreover, she’s got a smile and a kind word for every guest. Her sweet sister Jahqwah, also an ebullient whirling dervish and perpetually smiling beauty, was our server during our first two visits. She took very good care of us.
Fresh Bistro, not to be confused with its mobile sibling Fresh Mobile Bistro, is located on Fourth Street in the converted home which previously housed Desert Grows. Several small and smartly appointed dining rooms evoke a homey feeling. Modern impressionist portraits festoon the walls while fresh flowers adorn the tables. Towering deciduous trees and yawning umbrellas shield guests from New Mexico’s dazzling (Hi Deanell) sun in a capacious patio where our dachshund The Dude (he abides) enjoyed the rapt attention of other guests. A lone troubadour regaled us with easy listing and folk tunes.
Fresh Bistro, the brick-and-mortar restaurant, is actually a spin-off of Fresh Mobile Bistro, the bus, which is parked behind the restaurant. The full-service restaurant actually spawned because of the popularity of the mobile kitchen. It was only natural that Chef Young would need a more expansive canvas for his edible art. Before launching their traditional sit-down restaurant, the Youngs operated much as other mobile food kitchens, albeit one in which diners were embraced by quiet luxury evocative of a small Parisian cafe. Ironically the mobile Bistro parked often at La Casa Vieja where the chef learned to master French culinary techniques.
Whether you dine in the restaurant, on the patio or on the bus, you can be assured of a meal prepared from scratch by a very passionate chef who thrives on creating memorable meals that are as much a delight to the eye as they are to taste. Reservations are required to dine on the bus where you’ll be transported to a timeless and rare elegance and indulgence with seasonal menus that will take you on a gastro-tour of taste. Jon lovingly prepares each dish to order, imparting sage tidbits along the way. Chef Young describes very clearly and accurately just where your taste buds will discern various elements of your meal. The mobile bistro offers six- and ten-course dinners, all served at an old-world pace to allow guests to fully appreciate each course.
Fresh isn’t solely the name on the marquee. It’s an operational model and a philosophy. The Youngs source as many ingredients from local growers so that most of what their guests enjoy is local, in season and, of course, fresh. Structurally, the menu is similar to the menus at other bistros with appetizers, salads, soups, pastas, entrees and desserts. Where you’ll notice the differences is in reading the vivid descriptions of each item–tantalizing descriptions punctuated with cooking techniques and premium ingredients. It’s practically an invitation to drool.
Coincidentally, our inaugural visit (on a Saturday when brunch is featured fare until two o’clock ) was on the day the village of Los Ranchos was celebrating its annual lavender festival. Lavender is a rarity among flowering plants in that it goes as well with savory dishes as it does decadent desserts. It has a penetrating floral and spicy aroma with a flavor profile similar to rosemary and thyme. It’s got a residual bitterness that’s overridden by its flavor and aromatic bouquet. To some, it tastes like soap (the same thing is often said about cilantro). To others, lavender can do no wrong. We were determined to enjoy this versatile, fresh, floral, clean flower in as many dishes as we could find.
16 July 2017: French toast are described on the menu as “sourdough bread topped with sweetened mascarpone cheese topped with your choice of fruit and powdered sugar” with fruit choices being bananas, peaches and strawberries. When our savvy server suggested lavender, we jumped at the opportunity. Syrup need not apply for a place on these four golden slices of eggy bread flecked with lavender. Sweetened mascarpone made them sweet enough with the lavender often making its presence felt in tempering any residual sweetness. In the spectrum of sweet that runs from mild to cloying, these French toast were…just right.
16 July 2017: Similar to French toast, the bistro’s Monte Cristo is lightly dipped in egg batter then grilled. This beauteous sandwich is constructed on sourdough bread and filled with ham and Gruyere cheese. It’s topped with a cherry-brandy reduction. More commonly, a Monte Cristo is topped with a small amount of powdered sugar and traditionally served with a ramekin of raspberry or strawberry jam you can apply yourself. There’s nothing common about this sandwich. The cherry-brandy reduction is a superb complement to the savory elements of the sandwich, working with them instead of overpowering them with sweet notes. Both the rich, nutty Gruyere and the salty ham worked well, too.
16 July 2017: It’s a rarity in Albuquerque to find a brunch menu without any number of dishes showcasing the Land of Enchantment’s addictive red or green chile. On Fresh’s brunch menu there are only two. One is eggs Benedict served with carne adovada. The other is a dish created by the inventive chef. It’s called a Frenchilada and it’s a sort of New Mexico meets France featuring layers of crepes filled with chicken breast, green chile, mushrooms and roasted garlic cream sauce with an egg on top. This is a magnificent dish! Chef Young doesn’t shy away from piquant chile and he doesn’t use it sparingly. The foil to the chile’s heat is the mushroom’s earthiness. You’ll want to lick your plate to ensure you don’t leave behind any of the roasted garlic cream sauce.
16 July 2017: Perhaps the piece de resistance of our inaugural meal at Fresh was Chef Young’s lavender bread pudding. It may not be on Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame, but that’s only because the professor with the perspicacious palate hasn’t yet had it. This is a superb bread pudding, the antithesis of so many cloying versions of a dish whose genesis has been traced back to 13th century England. Sure it’s sweet, but not nearly overly so. It’s light, delicate and spongy, topped with whipped cream and surrounded by a pool of sweet, creamy sauce. The lavender has its desired effect of introducing the elements of flowery freshness to a bread pudding which would have been wonderful without it, but becomes transformative with it.
26 August 2017: Mycologist and author Paul Stamets who founded Fungi Perfecti to educate the world on the benefits of using mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people, once said “never underestimate the cleverness of mushrooms to find new food!” Nor should you ever underestimate the talents of a great chef to use mushrooms in truly delicious ways. Chef Young’s stuffed mushrooms are a must-have starter–four large mushrooms caps stuffed to overfilling with crab, ricotta cheese and fresh herbs in an addictive red wine reduction. The crab, ricotta and herb mix is almost mousse-like in its consistency and ethereally light in its mouth feel. The fleshy fungi are earthy and fresh. Though we polished off the red wine reduction with our spoons, a few slices of bread would have been welcomed to sop up the soupy sumptuousness.
26 August 2017: As has oft been chronicled on this blog, your humble blogger loves risotto–almost as much as one of George Costanza’s girlfriends did during one memorable Seinfeld episode. So much so that I ordered the seared shrimp with chile and pineapple mostly to partake of the risotto. Predictably, Chef Young understands the challenges and nuances of preparing a great risotto. It’s rich and creamy with individual grains prepared at just past al dente–exactly as they should be. Oh, and the seared shrimp were pretty good, too. It’s not every chef who’s intrepid enough to embolden the sweet flavor of shrimp with a pleasantly piquant red chile and make the results pay big dividends. Perhaps more chefs should take the risk. The sweet, juicy pineapple, grilled to a light caramelization, are a terrific foil for the heat of the chile. Then there’s the accompanying vegetables, best of which are asparagus spears. They’re prepared as well as vegetables possibly can be and are crisp, fresh and delicious.
26 August 2017: During our inaugural visit to Fresh, Chef Young gave us a sample of his housemade red chile barbecue sauce. Just as he predicted, his barbecue sauce–emboldened with Chimayo chile–imparts a nice heat about four seconds after you’ve tasted it. First, your taste buds will discern a smoky sweetness that will trigger a wanton desire for more. Then the endorphin-generating heat kicks in and that wanton desire becomes unbridled lust. It’s an outstanding barbecue sauce. Now, we’ve seen red chile barbecue sauce before, but no other has the combination of heat and flavor this one does.
My Kim ordered the red chile barbecue pulled pork sandwich so she could enjoy the nuances of the sauce even more. This sandwich is engorged with a generous amount of pulled pork with nary any fat or sinew. The sauce is counterbalanced by melted Cheddar cheese of medium sharpness on a canvas of fresh, soft bread. How much did we enjoy this sandwich? It made it to my list of list of highest rated sandwiches. If on the menu, the perfect accompaniment is Chef Young’s French onion soup, an exemplar of this paragon of deliciousness. The wondrous combination of sweet, caramelized onions and blistered, molten, cheesy blanket make this a favorite.
26 August 2017: Just as it doesn’t have to be the Christmas season to enjoy crooner Andy Williams singing Christmas carols, it doesn’t have to be Christmas season to enjoy Buche de Noel, a traditional French dessert normally served at Christmas celebrations. Chef Young offered it on an August day when the thermometer approached ninety-degrees. It’s a wonderful early Christmas gift. Often referred to as yule log or holiday log, this glorious cake is shaped and decorated to look like a tree log, albeit a chocolate log. This deliciously light and moist chocolate sponge cake is filled with chocolate whipped cream, rolled into a cylinder, then frosted with chocolate ganache. Sure it’s a chocolate overdose, but what a great way to go.
Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp describes his inaugural experience at Fresh (The Mobile Bistro) as “probably my favorite find in Albuquerque over the last year.” Larry McGoldrick tells us on his Yelp review that “Jon is a wizard in the kitchen. He has a passion for good, fresh, excellently prepared food, and that’s precisely what you’ll get here.” If you need further proof that the Fresh Bistro and its mobile sibling are a not-to-be-missed dining destination, read the Yelp reviews. Yelp critics tend to be a tougher crowd than I am and they give Fresh Bistro four-and-a-half stars. It’s a perfect ten in my book.
Fresh Bistro and its mobile sibling may be the culmination of the dreams of a very talented chef and his beautiful bride, but it’s a good bet you may find yourself dreaming about your next meal there.
7319 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 26 August 2017
1st VISIT: 16 July 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Lavender Bread Pudding, Lavender French Toast, Monte Cristo, Green Chile Chicken Frenchiladas, Stuffed Mushrooms, Buche Noel, Red Chile Barbecue Pulled Pork, Seared Shrimp with Chile and Pineapple