Some would argue that the city of Rio Rancho was spawned as a dubious marketing ploy designed to bilk gullible New Yorkers out of their savings by enticing them to a vast wasteland under the pretext that their “lucrative investment” would ensure a comfortable retirement in “among the greenest, most fertile valleys in the world.” Others see those pioneers who sought to civilize the wilderness on the plateaus west of Albuquerque as visionaries possessing a clarity and prescience that escapes most of us.
Frankly, on our inaugural trek to the Outlook Cafe, we began to question our own sanity as we traversed what seemed to be an endlessly empty enormity of sage and sand beyond any vestige of civilization save for the two-lane Unser Boulevard on which we drove. Any restaurant this far out in Rio Rancho’s vast outskirts would have to be a veritable oasis in a high desert expanse untouched and unsullied by modernity. It would have to be a true destination restaurant, an exclusive enclave far away from the bustling well-beaten and well-eaten path that defines the City of Vision’s dining scene.
In truth, from the intersection of Rio Rancho’s Unser and Southern Boulevards, the Outlook Cafe is almost equidistant to the Cottonwood Mall. There are far fewer traffic lights, no traffic snarls and once you’re past the turnoff to Northern, virtually no other traffic and only a couple of residential neighborhoods. So, we could perhaps owe the perception of distance to hunger and the anticipation of quelling it with food Susan, a faithful reader of my blog, described as “WOW!!!” and “great.” Well, there is that, but it also seemed far because our paradigm is that most great restaurants are clustered in populated areas. Our mistake!
You’ll know you’re getting close when you’ve driven about three miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center and you see the signage for Mariposa, an environmentally-responsible master-planned community in the northwest outskirts of Rio Rancho. Mariposa blends state-of-the-art homes and community buildings with the natural splendor of the hilly desert topography in which the 6,500-acre community is situated. The delicate balance of nature, architecture and community blend in harmoniously with each other.
The Outlook Cafe is ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot corner space in the capacious two-story business center, a modern edifice with plenty of glass to take advantage of wondrous panoramic views. From the ground-level cafe, your views are of the Sandia, Sangre de Cristo, Manzano and Ortiz Mountains, views which seem even more spectacular from the patio. The restaurant’s interior is charming in a contemporary European sort of way. Walls are festooned with photo prints from throughout Europe and the Middle East.
The cafe is the brainchild of Linda Woestendiek who runs the restaurant with her affable husband Uwa and their son. With an outlook that could only be described as optimistic, the Woestendieks launched the Outlook Cafe in March, 2009, seemingly in opposition of one of the rules of restaurant success–”location, location, location.” Less than two years later and with minimal advertising, the cafe is frequented by diners from throughout the metropolitan Albuquerque area, Santa Fe and beyond. One particularly enthusiastic patron from Four Hills visits weekly for the cafe’s lamb chops.
The cafe is also frequented by a bobcat, perhaps drawn in by aromas emanating from the kitchen. Other indigenous wildlife have been spotted in the neighborhood, a realization that the community is truly leaving the area as undisturbed as possible. With tables in relatively close proximity to one another, it may not be possible for patrons to have a completely undisturbed dining experience, but as Uwa explains, a unique phenomenon occurs at the Outlook Cafe. Rather than stay to themselves, patrons often join their tables together and make new friends.
The cafe serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and breakfast until 3PM on weekends. The menu is surprisingly ambitious considering the tiny confines. Even more surprising is the concept change that sees a transformation from comfy cafe to sophisticated bistro during dinner hours and a menu featuring such eye-openers as skewered swordfish and portobello stroganoff. If you’re not in an upscale, uptown mood, at eveningtide, there’s also a “pub” menu that includes popular lunch favorites such as burgers and sandwiches.
All menus will have you doing a double-take. There’s not only something for everyone, there’s something different than is offered just about anywhere else. For example, rather than the de rigueuer two or three soups many restaurants serve, the Outlook Cafe serves a variety of “stoups” which are not quite a stew, but more than a soup. If it’s on the menu, the stoup of the day–any day–is the goulash. Uwa explained that this is German-style goulash, the difference being that his rendition is better than conventional goulash.
The goulash is fantastic–chunks of beef tenderloin, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes in a well-seasoned broth showcasing the dynamite flavor of Spanish paprika, a lively and piquant seasoning that Uwa roasts himself. Available in cup or bowl sizes (always order a bowl or you’ll find yourself requesting a second cup), the soup arrives at your table steaming hot, a perfect elixir for cold or wet weather. Without exaggeration, this is some of the very best goulash I’ve ever had–and certainly the very best “stoup.”
Few things go as well with a piping-hot stoup as grilled cheese sandwiches and the Outlook Cafe offers an interesting variation. On the “Off The Charts” section of the menu you’ll find Cheesy Grill’as, mozzarella-stuffed bruschetta wedges offered with your choice of one of three sauces: Bloody Mary (spicy marinara), Home on the Ranch (a green chile Ranch) and New Orleans Blues (Tabasco blue cheese). The grill’as are sliced thinly and have diagonal grill marks that complement a buttery glisten. Where the Home on the Ranch dressing lacks in piquancy, it makes up for in sheer deliciousness.
The “Off The Charts” menu also celebrates the diversity of the hot dog, offering four XX hot dogs. The “basic”–onions, relish and condiment–is the least interesting, at least in ingredient composition, but it’s an excellent grilled dog served on bakery bread. The other hot dogs are the German (sauerkraut, grilled onions and stone-ground mustard), Castilian (sauteed sweet peppers and onions) and the Chicago (yellow mustard, sweet relish, green chili (sic), pastrami, chopped onions, dill pickle spear and celery salt. The latter doesn’t quite fit the Windy City hot dog template, but locals will appreciate the green chili.
Panini sandwiches have become so commonplace as to be considered passe. Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in the pressed bread arena. When Outlook’s lunch menu listed some of their panini sandwiches as “original,” we were skeptical, expecting slight variations on the same standard offerings you’ll find just about everywhere. As we quickly discovered, with a little imagination, high-quality ingredients and a willingness to take a departure from the norm, the panini sandwich can be transformed into a surprisingly tasty meal.
Such is the case with the Panini Marinara with Meatballs, a sort of deconstructed-reconstructed rendition of a meatball sandwich. Instead of a few messy meatballs being stuffed into a hoagie type bread, four sizable meaty orbs covered in a rich red marinara and sprinkled with mozzarella rest atop a mozzarella-stuffed garlic bruscetta panini. This is a sandwich you eat with a fork, though it would be excellent on its own right as a cheese sandwich with meatballs on the side. The meatballs are this sandwiches best feature. They’re well-seasoned without a profusion of gritty filler. The marinara has a tangy, fresh tomato taste and would make a great sauce for pasta.
The menu’s specialty burgers are an enticing invitation to try something safe yet unconventional, familiar yet different. That’s especially true if you think you’ve sampled almost every conceivable ingredient combination possible on a burger. A new one on me was the Brie Burger, a third-pound of lean, ground beef stuffed with melted Brie served with mango salsa, a sliced tomato, large-leaf lettuce and a dill pickle spear on wonderful bakery buns smeared with mayonnaise. The brie is of medium sharpness, a crumbly variety with a nice flavor. The salsa is fresh and delicious, an amalgam of onion, red pepper and juicy mango. This is a find!
Now, it’s one thing for a restaurant to excel at lunch. The real test, especially for a small restaurant with an ambitious menu, is to perform exponentially better at dinner. Lunch is like a preliminary bout; dinner is the main event. That’s when expectations are highest. That’s when you know you’ll be shelling out the big bucks, but you also expect to get your money’s worth. Our expectations of the Outlook Cafe were so high from our inaugural lunch that we returned for dinner three nights later. The “little cafe that could”…did. It surpassed our expectations.
The “Snacks and Starters” section of the Bistro Nights menu includes an appetizer throwback from the 1950s which seems to be making a comeback, even in fine-dining restaurants. Deviled eggs are no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of any restaurant’s starter menu. They’re getting respect because chefs are employing their creativity to do more than evoke nostalgia. The Outlook Cafe’s rendition is a beauteous tray showcasing four egg halves filled with a creamy deviled egg and crab mixture topped with red and black lumpfish caviar. They’re as tasty as their plating is elegant.
The dinner portion of the Bistro Nights menu features seven entrees, four of which are asterisked with the designation “an Outlook Cafe original.” To say anything is original is an audacious claim, but the Outlook Cafe may just have pulled it off with eye-opening combinations such as the lamb chop entree which helped me understand just why someone would drive from the Four Hills neighborhood for these every week. Now, there’s nothing original about lamb chops. It’s the entire plate that earns that designation.
Four lamb chops, ten-ounces in all, are perfectly prepared at medium which means they’re juicy with just a hint of pink inside. These meat lollipops have none of the characteristic gaminess for which lamb chops are often disdained. They’re absolutely delicious, a wonderful foil for the mint and jalapeno sauce. Lamb and meat sauce are meant for one another; jalapeno adds a little zest to the freshness of the mint. This stuff should be bottled and sold. The orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, is buttery and delicious with a creaminess unique to this pasta. The roasted pepper sauce was pure dynamite with more than a hint of piquancy and a nice pepper-flavored intensity. These are lamb chops I’d order again and again and again.
Another entree that bears repeating is the Steak Au Poivre, a ten-ounce flatiron-style peppered beef tenderloin served with rustic garlic mashed potatoes. This is a remarkable steak with a nice crust derived from the peppercorns which provide its pleasant pungency, a complementary counterpoint to the beef’s rich flavor. This steak is tender and delicious with a gravy-like pan sauce hinting of perhaps a cognac reduction. By design, the rustic mashed potatoes have a lump here and there, but they’re so darned deliciously garlicky you won’t care.
Dinners include a complementary serving of “let them eat bread,” a sliced baguette served warm with assorted butters and a vegetable spread. On the night of our inaugural visit, our bread was accompanied by an herb butter, a cream cheese with garlic spread and a third spread which escapes me. The baguette is terrific–a hard-crusted beauty with a soft, airy inside.
Desserts are housemade treats showcased under glass. Linda is the inspired genius responsible for such gems as cinnamon roll cookies. Bite into these orbs of deliciousness and you’ll see a cinnamon swirl that just seems so right considering these cookies are topped with an orange-flavored glaze. Another excellent sweet treat is the blueberry cheesecake, a not-so-traditional confection that starts with a bar cookie which is topped with a blueberry-infused cheesecake.
It’s interesting that with our appetites sated and our taste buds contented, the “endlessly empty enormity of sage and sand” seemed suddenly rich with beauty. As Rio Rancho continues its expansion and more people discover this little gem, the road to the Outlook Cafe will be a bit more congested and the topography won’t seem as blessedly, desolately empty. It’s a drive we’ll take more often to what is truly an off-the-beaten path jewel.
2500 Parkway Avenue, N.E., Suite 104
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 January 2011
1st VISIT: 31 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Cheesy Grill’as, Goulash, XXL Hot Dog, Brie Burger, Cinnamon Roll Cookies, Blueberry Cheesecake, Panini Marinara with Meatballs, “Let Them Eat Bread”, Crab Stuffed Deviled Eggs, Lamb Chops, Steak Au Poivre