Sophia’s Place – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Exterior signage for Dennis Apodaca’s new restaurant venture sports the name of the previous tenant, a short-lived eatery named MIXX. In a February blurb announcing Dennis’s return, the Albuquerque Journal called his new venture “REMIXX.” A handwritten note scrawled on the front door, however, informs you that you’ve arrived at “Sophia’s – that you knew & loved on 4th St. NW.” Not taking any chances, Yelp lists entries for both “REMIXX by Sophia’s Place” and “Sophia’s.” So which is it? Ask Dennis and he’ll tell you that despite what the sign says, his restaurant is a relaunch of Sophia’s Place, the celebrated restaurant that made him one of Albuquerque’s most talked-about and respected chefs. “I’d rather spend money on serving great food than replacing a sign” he laughs.
Dennis points out that the exterior signage for Trois Mec, one of the most revered fine-dining restaurants in Los Angeles, still bears the name of its predecessor, Raffalo’s Pizza. That’s entirely by design, the point being that despite a constantly changing five-course tasting menu approaching a C-note price point, the restaurant is unpretentious, its focus being on the food not peripherals such as signage. The term “unpretentious” probably fits Dennis more than it does any other chef in Albuquerque. He’s as down-to-earth as they come, a straight-shooting guy whose passions are family, fine cigars and cooking. Despite an enviable pedigree that includes cooking side-by-side with some of the country’s best chefs at some of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in the fruited plain, he would rather turn out an affordable menu of New Mexico-inspired Mexican food than a more pricey menu of fine-dining entries.
Ensconced on the southwest corner space on the first floor of the capacious Silver Moon Lodge apartment building along historic Route 66, Sophia’s Place reborn is the antithesis of its namesake predecessor. Where the Sophia’s on 4th Street was situated in a homey ramshackle old structure and for a time didn’t even have signage to tell you you’d arrived, the new Sophia’s has a more contemporary feel to it. Parking at the new venue on the fringes of both downtown and Old Town is a bit tricky, but at least you’ll be parking on pavement. The parking lot at the old Sophia’s Place was prone to muddiness during inclement weather.
While Sophia’s Place would remain Dennis’s flagship restaurant, operating from 2002 through its unexpected closure in 2017, the enterprising chef would launch several other restaurant ventures over the years, all but one named for family members. First came Ezra’s Place (2008 – 2013) which was named for his then teenage son. Next came the magnificent, but short-lived Jo’s Place (2011 – 2012) named for his mother. Just before the dawning of 2017, he launched Maya, a name inspired by the bright, vibrant cuisine prepared by the dynastic Mesoamerican civilization and their descendants. He left Maya to launch the second instantiation of Sophia’s Place in March, 2017.
Dennis’s cachet was elevated from local to nationwide when he wowed Guy Fieri, the Food Network’s spiky-coiffed host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives during a 2008 episode. He would parlay that appearance into an invitation to compete in the Food Network’s Chopped program where he displayed his chops to another nationwide audience. Exposure on the Food Network made Sophia’s Place a restaurant to which visitors pilgrimaged. His other restaurants, all fabulous in their own right, were frequented more by Duke City devotees of dining Dennis style. Some of us will follow him anywhere.
Count my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell among them. After his first visit to the original Sophia’s Place, Larry wrote “I have done some stupid things in my life, but waiting almost three years after moving to Corrales from the east coast until eating at Sophia’s Place ranks near the top. With that stupidity cured, I am now hooked.” He wouldn’t wait three months after its launch to dine at the new Sophia’s Place. We were greeted at the door by Dennis’s delightful mother Josie an effusive ambassador for the restaurant’s food and her son’s prodigious talents. A spry and youthful grandmother, Josie is a perpetually smiling ray of sunshine, a terrific hostess.
The menu at Sophia’s Place isn’t a mirror image of the menu at its previous instantiation, but you will find several familiar favorites such as the duck enchiladas, shrimp tacos and a sirloin and green chile sandwich. Sophia’s Place is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week and has a dog-friendly patio. For the time being, Sophia’s is cash only. On select Friday evenings (call ahead), Dennis prepares a different thematic dinner. Whether it be Italian, Thai or some other ethnic cuisine, you can bet it will be outstanding. Dennis isn’t solely a chef who specializes in New Mexico inspired Mexican food; he can prepare anything you want and prepare it well. That was certainly validated during our inaugural visit.
1 May 2018: You’d be surprised how challenging it is to decide what to order from a relatively small menu, moreso when you’re also contemplating the daily specials. Josie doesn’t make it any easier because she raves about everything her son prepares. As we perused the menu, we shared a bowl of chicken chicharrones. They weren’t on the menu. Dennis just thought we’d like them…though he wouldn’t commit to calling them chicken chicharrones (there’s a pattern here). It’s a relatively simple offering of lean chicken thighs cut into thin pieces and tossed with Cotija cheese, cilantro, scallions and sea salt. Sometimes, as in the case of this dish, simple is best.
1 May 2018: At first browse, our second starter seemed equally simple–a bowl of black beans with avocado slices, Cotija cheese and pork rinds. Appearances can be deceiving. The black beans were impregnated with a pleasantly piquant chile that elevated them significantly. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve never liked black beans that much, preferring the sacrosanct pinto, New Mexico’s official state vegetable.) These black beans I liked…a lot! We used the pork rinds as a scoop mechanism to extricate those black beans from the bottom of the bowl and used the avocado as a palate-cleansing, tongue cooling aide. From a textural and flavor perspective, this dish was yet another huge success.
1 May 2018: Since discovering the transformative elotes at El Cotorro, my affections for corn-on-the-cob have been rather singularly focused. No other elote has been able to capture my fancy…until Sophia’s Place, that is. As with the elote at El Cotorro, this sumptuous starter begins with a flame-grilled sweet ear of corn. It’s elevated with the infusion of a lime aioli, chile powder and Cotija cheese. While that makes for a very messy proposition, you’ll enjoy licking any delicious residue off your fingers. You’ll also need a couple napkins to wipe your mouth afterwards. All corn-on-the-cob should be this good!
1 May 2018: While every dish Dennis prepares is a paragon of creativity and deliciousness, perhaps the dish which best shows off his versatility is vegetable curry with papaya salad, a special of the day during our inaugural visit. If you thought his repertoire was limited to New Mexico inspired Mexican food, this dish will convince you otherwise. It’s curry as well-prepared as the curry at the very best Thai restaurants in Albuquerque. Dennis has mastered the delicate balance of flavors–pungent, sweet, savory–characteristic of Thai food, not compromising the integrity of flavors to pander to American preferences for cloying Thai dishes. The vegetables are perfectly prepared, somewhere between al dente and fork-tender. In a masterstroke of genius, Dennis tops the vegetable curry with a tangy papaya salad, again as good as you’ll find at any Asian restaurant in town.
1 May 2018: Not that long ago, an inquiry by BOTVOLR about grilled cheese sandwiches launched an avalanche of comments with several respondents providing input as to where the Duke City’s best can be found. Sophia’s Place provides yet another contender, a rarefied exemplar of tradition meets innovation. Between buttery, lightly toasted bread are nestled the unlikely combination of Manchego cheese and mango slices. Yes, mango slices. Manchego, a cheese made with sheep’s milk has a distinct acidity and flavor profile reminiscent of a tangier Monterey Jack. It’s a perfect complement to the sweet richness of mango. I ordered this grilled cheese sandwich because it was “different,” but will order it again because it’s absolutely terrific. As with other burgers and sandwiches on the menu, it’s served with Dennis’s shoestring fries, the best in New Mexico.
5 May 2018: It’s often been said that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Perhaps a more accurate aphorism might be “you knew what you had, you just never thought you’d lose it.” That was the case with Dennis’s magnificent lemon ricotta pancakes, the very best we’ve ever had. Those pancakes were our favorite from the rotation of fabulous flapjacks Dennis served at the original Sophia’s Place, a luscious line-up that includes blue corn pancakes, pumpkin pancakes and mixed berry pancakes. It’s great to see he hasn’t lost his touch. Available in quantities of one, two or four, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t have four, especially if you’re sharing.
One of the things that makes Dennis’s pancakes a panacea is his homemade butter, a culinary rarity that blew even Guy Fieri away. Fieri who has probably seen just about everything on his road tours seemed amazed that Dennis would go to that extent. After sampling Sophia’s homemade butter (made from separated heavy cream mixed with toasted pine nuts, dried cherries and honey), Fieri called it “outstanding.” A generous slather of that butter tops the pancakes along with fresh blueberries and strawberries. As expected, the pancakes are punctuated with a lemony flavor that tempers the sweetness of the syrup. These pancakes are available only on weekends, another reason to love Saturdays and Sundays.
5 May 2018: Josie got a kick out of it when I told her, in front of my Kim, that I wanted a divorce. Not from my bride of thirty-two years. I wanted one of the specials of the day, the curiously named Huevos Divorciados, a term which translates to divorced eggs. This dish is an exemplar of the official New Mexico state question: red or green. This dish features two fried eggs atop two tostadas topped with shredded white and yellow Cheddar and black beans . One egg is slathered with a tomatillo sauce (the green), the other with red chile. Both are absolutely superb! The tomatillo sauce is tart and herbaceous, the red chile piquant and rich. Dennis knows his way around Mexican sauces as well as most of us know our names. The tostadas are crispy around the edges and soft in the middle. The eggs are fried to your exacting specifications. Every divorce should be this good!
5 May 2018: Another special of the day, emphasis on the word “special,” is the roasted organic achiote chicken tostada with black beans, avocado slices and a fried egg served with a salad. Achiote is a orange-red spice with a subtle, earthy flavor and peppery aroma, but a little goes a long way. Dennis knows exactly how much to use and how to use it. Thin strips of organic chicken are a perfect vehicle for the achiote. The richness of the avocados provides a pleasant counterbalance while the fried egg lends a savory deliciousness. A light sprinkled of Cojita cheese adds a light feta-like saltiness. This is yet another terrific dish.
12 May 2018: Long-time Duke City diners may remember that before there was a Sophia’s Place in that dilapidated 4th Street location, there was Fajitaville and a young chef named Dennis Apodaca. When Fajitaville closed in 2002, Dennis rented the location and named it for his daughter Sophia. One holdover from Dennis’s days at Fajitaville are some of the best salsas in town. An order of salsa and chips rewards diners with two salsas–a smoky chipotle salsa and a pico de gallo style salsa coupled with housemade chips served warm. Neither of the salsas are especially piquant, but both are redolent with freshness and flavor. The chipotle salsa is among the very best in New Mexico and that’s saying a lot. The chips are lightly salted and oversized for Gil-sized portions of salsa. Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.
12 May 2018: Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times, the only food writer ever to earn a Pulitzer Prize, once wrote “when it’s done properly, taco should be a verb.” In Albuquerque, Dennis has made taco not only an active verb but a possessive adjective (as in my taco), an exclamation and an interjection (as in aha, great tacos). His scallop tacos are superb, his shrimp tacos a revelation and his carnitas tacos are transformative. In his breakfast nopales tacos, we found a new favorite. Nopales or nopalitos are the flat paddles of prickly pear cactus (nopal). Remove the thorns, slice them up, bottle them in brine and they’re delicious, albeit a bit on the slimy side. Dennis pairs nopales with scrambled eggs, fresh salsa and cojita cheese then packs them tightly into two warm corn tortillas. The tortillas can barely contain their contents. You won’t be able to contain your smile as you enjoy them.
12 May 2018: A couple of years ago, Business Insider published a feature entitled “How to make any quesadilla better.” Obviously very few people in Albuquerque need help finding the quintessential quesadilla but if they do, all they need to do is point their GPS toward Sophia’s Place. The carnitas quesadilla with salsa, eggs and papas is one of the best reasons to get up in the morning. It’s several orders of magnitude better than the best Business Insider could do. Four triangular wedges of cheesy, meaty love can only be improved with some of Sophia’s magnificent salsa.
Sophia’s Place is located directly across Central Avenue from Robinson Park, home of the Downtown Grower’s Market. The market operates on Saturdays from April 14th through November 3rd from 8AM to noon. Parking is often a challenge when the market is in full swing, but it’s worth walking an extra block or six to visit one of the most dynamic and vibrant markets in the city followed or preceded by a fabulous breakfast or lunch at Sophia’s Place.
By any name, Sophia’s Place is an outstanding restaurant and platform for the culinary genius that is Dennis Apodaca. Albuquerque is a far better place with Sophia’s Place as its culinary heart.
918 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 May 2018
1st VISIT: 1 May 2018
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Grilled Cheese with Mango, Chicken Chicharrones, Black Bean Stew, Vegetable Curry with Papaya Salad, Elote, Huevos Divorciados, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Roasted Organic Chicken Achiote Tostada, Nopaies Tacos, Carnitas Quesadilla, Chips and Salsa