Brixens – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Though he may not have received any votes in the recent Gil’s Thrilling…. poll asking “with whom you would most like to break bread or tortillas or pita or hearts from among the cast of characters with whom Gil has shared his journey of (then) 999 reviews,” my friend Bill Resnik has and will always be one of my favorite dining companions. He’s a brilliant conversationalist and one of the very funniest people you could ever hope to meet (two hours after my appendectomy he had me in more stitches than the actual surgery). When he recently invited me to lunch, he asked if I wanted to go to “the restaurant opened by the love child of Vixen and Blitzen” (two of Santa’s reindeer). It didn’t immediately dawn on me that he was talking about Brixens, the very highly touted new downtown restaurant in the heart of Central Avenue.
Brixens is not named for the love child of any of Santa’s reindeer. Nor is it named for Brixen, a town in Northern Italy. Brixens is named for the brick accents, particularly on the west wall of the venerable Yrisarri building built in 1909. Located on the southwest corner of 4th and Central, the Yrissari building has cast its shadows on both the historic original route and the rerouted path of Route 66. For three decades, the bottom floor corner of that edifice was the home of Nick’s Crossroads Cafe after which it was occupied by the short-lived Cafe Bien whose closure was swathed in infamy. Brixens is wholly unlike either of its predecessors with a vibrancy that bespeaks of modernity and energy.
You’ll do a double-take the minute you walk in and espy 5,000 square feet of space laid out creatively. An year-long construction process was well-spent. Save for the floor-to-ceiling brick wall, nary a vestige of previous occupants remains. The cynosure of the space is a hand-crafted bar above which the name “Brixens” is prominently displayed with the “X” noticeably taller than the other letters. To the left of the bar is a vertical sign, a menu of sorts which from top to bottom reads: Smile, Eat, Laugh, Talk, Kiss, Drink, Sing. Ostensibly these are all activities in which guests can engage during their visit. During our inaugural visit, the words “Eat” and “Drink” were lit up, a reminder perhaps of what we were all there to do. Three flat screen televisions hanging over bar were tuned to a surprisingly diverse troika of programs–a perfunctory sports show, a sultry soap opera and a Christian music program. Talk about catering to all tastes.
Even the ordering process is 21st century. Instead of the conventional paper menu, you’re handed an iPad on which the menu is displayed in as clear and unpixilated a view as modern technology can make possible. Techies among us will drool almost as much about the iPad’s tap-and-drag, one- and two-finger scroll capabilities as we will about the menu. Click on any menu item and you’ll not only see a food-porn-worthy image of the item, but a mouth-watering description that includes such dietary essential information as if the item is gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan. Custom hand-built tables which feature ice coolers built into the center of every table will keep your adult beverages cold.
“Fine Fare and Luxurious Libations” are the tag line below the restaurant name on the Brixens Website which also boasts of “Drawing on flavors and inspiration from our New Mexican culture, as well as regional cuisines from across America, the Brixens’ menu spotlights dishes you know and love done with a surprising new twist that focuses on quality ingredients and thoughtfully crafted, scratch made food.” Indeed, we do know and love the dishes spotlighted on the menu, but many of those dishes can be found at other restaurants. What distinguishes those dishes at Brixens are the quality ingredients, thoughtful crafting and scratch-made preparation…just as it says in the menu. We had the pleasure of meeting executive chef Chelsea Carbin whose enthusiasm for the menu and the Brixens concept are contagious.
The menu is the antithesis of those compendium War and Peace-sized menus which list so many items none of them can possibly be good. Instead, the focus seems to be on a handful of items executed very well. The menu is arranged into four categories: Snacks & Starters, Handhelds, Greens and Sweet Endings. Snacks and starters include such New Mexico standards as chips and dips and tempura-battered green chile strips, but they also include toasted ravioli and a Brussels dish that sounds almost too good to be true. Eight items adorn the Handhelds section of the menu including an open-face meatloaf and broken tacos. Handhelds are accompanied by your choice of fries, sweet potato waffle fries, onion strings or a side salad. Three salads and four sweet endings round out the menu.
Remembering Bill once joked “if you ever see me eating a salad, it’s just a pile of whatever fell out of my tacos,” I didn’t suggest we order the Brussels (crispy Brussel sprouts, apple salad, herb-roasted nuts, Balsamic glaze). Instead we ordered chips & dips (made-to-order corn chips, fresh pico de gallo, guacamole and green chile queso). In New Mexico, you can’t go wrong with this terrific triumvirate. Brixens’ version is among the very best you’ll find. Rarely does pico de gallo have much pico, a Spanish term which translates to bite. This one does. Chopped jalapeños are the reason. Along with red onions, zesty cilantro and chopped tomatoes, it’s got great flavor along with that bite. The guacamole is chunky and fresh, also adorned with red onions, cilantro and chopped tomatoes with a little citrus influence for good measure. Our least favorite (though still good) was the green chile queso which didn’t have nearly as much heat as the pico.
Bill’s introductory meal at Brixens was the triple green chile sliders (three three-ounce Akaushi beef sliders, triple cheese blend, green chile queso, hot New Mexico chopped green chile, tempura green chile strips), a celebration of New Mexico’s official state vegetable. Though the three burgers may resemble a jumble of ingredients, Bill declared this burger a winner, prepared to his exacting medium-rare specifications. He especially loved the Akaushi beef. Akaushi beef, by the way, comes from red livestock, one of four breeds known collectively as Wagyu (which translates simply to “Japanese cow”). Similar to other Wagyu, Akaushi beef is buttery and tender but has no lingering fatty aftertaste. With his burger trio, Bill had fries with a remoulade he enjoyed very much.
For those of us who love our burgers moist and juicy, the “gourmet” ingredients we can’t figure out are those with crispy (typically desiccated) qualities. Onion rings, onion strings and potato strings, I’m talking about you. Why would any self-respecting chef use you? My initial inclination when ordering the 66 Crunch Burger (6.6 ounces of fresh ground beef, American and Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickle, Thousand-Island dressing and a “signature crispy potato topping”) was to ask that that crispy potato topping be taken out back and buried. The desire to honor the chef and consume the burger as intended won out, however. There’s still plenty of moistness in this burger, particularly at medium-rare. There’s also a lot of flavor, especially from the ground beef. The crispness and freshness of the pickles and the Thousand-Island dressing also stand out. Instead of fries, my accompaniment was a side salad with a ranch-blue cheese crumbles dressing. Bill pointed out that arugula sounds like the sound a jalopy’s horn would make. It makes for a very nice salad ingredient, too, and the blue cheese crumbles were a terrific counterbalance to the richness of the ranch.
While your dining companion might not be as funny as my friend Bill, you’ll still have a fun time at this rollicking new restaurant on Old Route 66. The 66 Crunch Burger beckons.
400 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: 66 Crunch Burger, Triple Green Chile Sliders, Chips & Dips