Buckhorn Saloon – Pinos Altos, New Mexico

The Buckhorn Saloon

In 1859, 49ers returning home from California discovered gold 7000 feet above sea level among the tall pines (Pinos Altos) north of Silver City. Rampant lawlessness, an anything goes attitude in the pursuit of gold and frequent raids by marauding Apaches made prospectors lives exciting to say the least.

The Buckhorn Saloon, circa 1985, offered respite and sustenance in the form of alcohol, entertainment and food, three things still available in this true Old West town. Walk into the saloon and you’re magically transported almost 150 years back in time.

The ambience remains seemingly unchanged as reflected in dim lighting, velvet curtains, wood beamed ceilings and other accoutrements of the day. The menu is more contemporary, featuring seafood, USDA choice steaks and salads, soups and homemade desserts. Libations include Sioux City sarsaparilla, one of the creamiest root beer drinks available anywhere.

To remain consistent with our Old West surroundings, Kim and I both had steaks. The Porterhouse steak is easily an inch and a half thick and prepared with salt, pepper and garlic. It was juicy and succulent with just a hint of pink when ordered medium. At medium well the New York steak isn’t nearly as juicy, but is still highly flavorable. The warm bread has a hint of honey and is served in small loaves.

Order your salad with the ranch dressing and you’ll be asking the wait staff why they haven’t bottled and sold it. It’s rich, creamy and tastier than commercial offerings. Also quite good is the chicken noodle soup which is made with thick egg noodles and white chicken with a broth so savory, it would be criminal to add crackers. The menu includes several homemade desserts but unless you have two stomachs, you probably won’t have room for them.

When done with your meal, stagger on over to the adjacent Old Opera Melodrama playhouse for a raucous evening of revelry and fun. The Opera’s Western plays are bawdy and bodacious with just enough double-entendre to make them more appropriate for adults than children. Pinos Altos has other attractions which make it a must stop in the Land of Enchantment’s wild and history laden Southwest quadrant.

Buckhorn Saloon
Main Street
Pinos Altos, NM
538-9911

LATEST VISIT: 17 April 2004
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 19
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Porterhouse Steak, New York Steak, Sarsaparilla

Carrabba’s Italian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Carrabba's Italian Grill

Carrabba's Italian Grill

This usually means a meal at one of those copycat national chains I avoid like the plague. Although I don’t generally write about such restaurants (if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all), being a good team player, I do (sometimes begrudgingly) participate in outings to these purveyors of mediocrity.

It never fails to amaze and amuse me to see throngs of diners doing their best imitations of Pavlov’s dogs as they line up to consume what is generally pretty horrible food. It’s obvious those clever Madison Avenue brainwashers have done their job well and thanks to years of subjecting their taste buds to the cruel onslaught of mediocre food, America’s dining public just doesn’t seem to have a clue. It’s also apparent that most chain restaurants have a pretty similar template that includes mass-produced food shipped frozen from corporate headquarters thousands of miles away, a kitschy ambience that assaults the senses and copycat recipes that vary very little from one chain to another.

Cozze in Bianco, Prince Edward Island mussels

Cozze in Bianco, Prince Edward Island mussels

One of the very rare national chains which actually has impressed me over the years is Carrabba’s Italian Grill which just doesn’t subscribe to the same template. At Carrabba’s, the Italian dishes are made to order and are served fresh. High quality ingredients are procured from throughout the world. Only USDA choice beef, chicken and fish are served and they’re never frozen. Imagine that.

Albuquerque’s west side played host to the city’s first Carrabba’s restaurant. Our initial impressions were favorable as we enjoyed the new Italian innovations, effusive service and lively atmosphere of a restaurant who had exploded nation-wide over the past five years.

Over time, however, it seemed this particular Carrabba’s restaurant began to take the little things for granted and the quality of food preparation and service suffered. Immensely popular as most new franchise restaurants are in Albuquerque, it was still a surprise to see it close in 2001.

Colorado trout

Colorado trout

That’s why it surprised me to read a glowing review of Carrabba’s by the Las Vegas Review Journal’s brilliant food critic Heidi Knapp Rinella who listed it as one of her favorite restaurants for 2001. In Las Vegas, Heidi can pick and choose from among restaurants owned and, in some cases operated, by some of the world’s most famous chef glitterati. There had to be a reason she would list a chain restaurant as a favorite.

We made our first return visit in June, 2003 after more than two years’ absence. It didn’t take long for Carrabba’s to win us over again. Warm bread accompanied by olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and herbs started that process and the Calamari Ricardo (served with Italian pepper and lemon butter sauce) sealed the deal.

An even better appetizer is the Cozze in Bianco, fresh Canadian Cove mussels from Prince Edward Island steamed in white wine, Pernod and aromatic basil for the right touch. While the mussels in and of themselves are delicious, the best aspect of this appetizer just might be the broth in which those mussels swim. In addition to the aforementioned ingredients, the broth has evidence of finely chopped onion, zesty lemon and even a hint of fennel for a licorice-like contrast to the brininess of the mussels. You’ll want to dredge up every bit of this broth with that warm bread.

Pasta Sostanza

Pasta Sostanza

Most entrees are accompanied by your choice of soup or salad. The ingredients used to construct each salad have the hallmarks of freshness–crispy mixed field greens, ground Romano cheese, flavorful olives and Pepperonici with a bite.

The lentil and sausage soup is brimming with flavor and includes some of the best Italian fennel sausage we’ve had in Albuquerque. Carrabba’s sausage is indeed special as it is ameliorated with the right amount of oregano and spices to make it wonderfully contrasting in sweet and spicy flavors.

If you fall in love with this sausage as we did, you can get a much bigger portion of sausage on the Rigatoni Campagnolo which features Italian sausage, peppers and Caprino cheese in a Pomodoro sauce.

Although the pasta entrees are superior to those we’ve experienced at other Italian chains, it’s the grilled entrees with which Carrabba’s pulls away from the pack to distinguish itself as a special restaurant.

The grilled Colorado trout, for example, tastes like trout you caught in a high mountain stream then ameliorated with gourmet ingredients and grilled over a campfire. At Carrabba’s, that trout is prepared in a light butter lemon sauce topped with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The trout is light and flaky, the sauce is delicious and the grilled taste just makes it a stand-out.

A fabulous dessert: Blue Bell vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and roasted cinnamon rum pecans

Grilled shrimp are showcased in an entree called Pasta Sostanza, the restaurant’s most garlic-laden entree. This pasta dish is served in a “Picchi Pacchiu” sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil and is topped with the restaurant’s signature crushed Italian breadcrumbs. The shrimp are sweet and have that crisp snap when you bite into them that signifies their freshness, but it’s the grilled taste that truly makes them special.

Dessert options are bountiful. The homemade chocolate brownie with Blue Bell ice cream is a treat, especially if you’ve never had Blue Bell ice cream. Blue Bell ice cream is a Texas institution and is, in fact, named for the Lone Star state’s official state flower. It is superior by far to the Blue Bunny ice cream sold in New Mexico’s grocery stores.

An even better dessert which also features the incomparable Blue Bell vanilla ice cream is called the John Cole with caramel sauce and roasted cinnamon rum pecans. It is one of the best desserts in town. Ask for a side of chocolate sauce for yet another adventure in taste.

Though Carrabba’s is as much a chain as so many cookie-cutter Italian restaurants in town, it truly distinguishes itself. It’s so good that I sometimes stray from my usually inviolable anti-chain policies. It’s so good, you’ll want to buddy up with your office’s social director in hopes of influencing a future visit!

Carrabba’s Italian Grill
4921 Jefferson, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 April 2004
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lentil soup, Calamari, Chicken Parmesan, Rigatoni Campagnolo

Chilacas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

In the vernacular of the cannabis consuming culture “rollin’ fat ones” means something entirely different than what it means at Chilacas where a “fat one” is a giant flour tortilla stuffed with your choice of Spanish rice or cilantro and lime spiked rice; black beans, posole or refried beans; your choice of meat–spiced beef, carne adovada, barbacoa, pollo; salsa or red or green chile; cheddar cheese or sour cream and such additives as lettuce, tomatoes and onions. All of these ingredients can also find a home layered on a Chilacas bowl, served on an order of three tacos or atop a crisp romaine salad and even served low carb style.

Chilacas, which according to a placard on a restaurant wall is a Mexican slang word for New Mexico chiles, is a 2004 entrant into the Albuquerque dining scene. Although innovative for Albuquerque, it follows the concept of Chipotle’s which has a national presence. Chilacas first restaurant in the Land of Enchantment launched in Santa Fe in 2003 but closed within three years. With a production line preparation style reminiscent of Subway, it has a special appeal to people on the go and to youth. That might account for the loud rock music and metallic ambience.

Kim’s version of the fat one was a breakfast burrito complete with carne adovada and various other fixings. For a change, the carne adovada bit back with a nicely piquant flavor. My lunch burrito included spiced beef–traditional ground beef, chile caribe, small diced potatoes and spices. Adding red chile made it worthy of my respect and provided a nice tongue burn. True to Chilacas slogan, the fat ones were indeed prodigious. They are served wrapped in foil so you can peel back just a bit at a time or else have the fat one come apart altogether. We also sampled both spiced beef and carne adovada tacos which were quite good.

Chilacas
10701 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 3 April 2004
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Burritos, Tacos, Salsa and Chips

The Keg Steakhouse – Chandler, Arizona

A Canadian steakhouse in the silicon desert city of Chandler, Arizona? You bet! In fact Canada’s most renown steakhouse has made expansive forays into the United States with restaurants in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Washington among its more than 80 restaurants in North America.

Founded in 1971 in Vancouver, the Keg Steakhouse is a cut above many American dining establishments, particularly in terms of service. You won’t find stereotypical Canadian ambiance at the Chandler location, much of whose walls look as if they had been built by Chacoan stone masons. What you will find is a casual and relaxing atmosphere and some of the most attentive and knowledgeable wait staff around. In fact, if rated solely on the attentiveness of the wait staff and management, the Keg would be a top tier restaurant.

Because our wait exceeded the 20-minute wait promised, my dining companion Bill Resnik and I were each treated to a complementary appetizer during our inaugural visit. My choice was baked goat cheese which was coated in crushed almonds and served with a savory tomato basil salsa and toasted bread. We both had a lettuce wedge which we asked be doused with as much bleu cheese dressing as our waitress could carry. The dressing was above average but didn’t have the sharpness that makes true bleu cheese one of the world’s best salad accompaniments.

True to my tradition of ordering the menu’s most unique sounding entree, I ordered the bleu cheese filet, a 10-ounce filet grilled then covered in a bleu cheese crust which was served golden brown and sprinkled with roasted garlic cloves. Alas, while the filet was tender, juicy and grilled to my exact specifications, the bleu cheese crush served only to detract from its flavor. During a subsequent visit I had a lunch-sized New York strip loin seasoned with the Keg’s spices. It was better than the dinner portion steaks served in many American steakhouses.

Ultimately, the deciding factors weighing against this better than average restaurant were (perhaps unfair) comparisons to the now defunct Albuquerque’s Great American Steakhouse and that bleu cheese filet which might be an anomaly better forgotten and forgiven.

The Keg Steakhouse
3065 Chandler Boulevard
Chandler, Arizona
(480) 899-7500

LATEST VISIT: 25 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Outstanding service

Nopalito Mexican Restaurant – Las Cruces, New Mexico

One of two Nopalito Mexican Restaurants in Las Cruces

Enter the front room of this converted Baptist church and you’re greeted by white washed walls on which are inscribed significant dates in the history of Las Cruces. One notable date is July 1st, 1964, the date in which the Gallegos family launched their first restaurant venture–Nopalito’s.

So popular did that restaurant become that it moved to a larger location, the aforementioned site of a former church. It also expanded to another site. I first became acquainted with Nopalito’s when my sisters attended New Mexico State University in the late 70s and early 80s, but hadn’t been back since 1987. At first glance, not much had changed.

A history of Las Cruces on the foyer wall at Nopalito

The salsa isn’t as liquefied as many salsas in southern New Mexico seem to be, but was flecked with bits of onion, bell pepper and jalapeno. It is good, albeit lacking in bite.

During a visit home from college in the late 70s, my sisters introduced their Norteño family to sour cream enchiladas, a rarity in our part of the state. In honor of that introduction, that’s what I ordered at Nopalito’s. While highly tasty, the accompanying red chile was benign. I should have remembered that my sister Jean’s preference for chile is with as low a Scoville unit count as possible.

Nopalito’s pork chops are well seasoned but just a bit dry.

Nopalito’s doesn’t appear to be considered among the city’s top tier New Mexican restaurants, but it holds fond memories for me, the food is delicious and the wait staff treats you like royalty. Those are three good reasons to return.

Nopalito’s
310 South Mesquite
Las Cruces, NM
524-0003

LATEST VISIT: 7 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pork Chops, Sour Cream Enchiladas

Outpost Bar & Grill – Carrizozo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Much of the seemingly desolate 60 miles of desert topography separating San Antonio, New Mexico and Carrizozo, New Mexico is steeped in history–more specifically the history of “the bomb.” The Trinity site on which was tested America’s first atom bomb lies somewhere between the two relatively nondescript Old West towns.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the brilliant scientists who built the forerunner of the nuclear age at least occasionally found recreation and sustenance in or near those towns. True enough, San Antonio’s tie to fame is the Owl Cafe, claimant of the most famous green chile cheeseburger in the world. Detractors downplay the Owl’s hype, often touting other restaurants’ green chile cheeseburger, sometimes with vehemence.

Among the competitors for New Mexico’s (and therefore, the world’s) best green chile cheeseburger is the Outpost Bar and Grill on the eastern corridor of the aforementioned 60 mile stretch of barren terrain. There are (gasp at the irreverence) those who say the Outpost outdistances the Owl for green chile cheeseburger supremacy. Count me among them.

You won’t be impressed by the restaurant’s (if you can call it that) ambience–wood planked ceilings, wooden floors, and paneled walls on which are mounted what a New Mexico safari might yield–a brown bear, deer, antelope, ibex, mountain goat, javelina, buffalo and even a non-native blue marlin. Thankfully none of those are on the menu, a lighted marquee hung just above the kitchen’s order window.

The menu features burgers, steaks, a bowl of red chile and not much more. After having the green chile cheeseburger and fries, I see no reason to add anything to the menu. It was one of the top two or three green chile cheeseburgers I’ve ever had, prompting me to (gasp again) downgrade the Owl’s rating significantly. That’s how much better the Outpost’s version is. Hand-formed patties, fresh roasted chile and great ingredients combine to inspire mouth watering utterances of yum and wow. A small order of fries was more than we could handle.

America’s scientists terminated our war with the Japanese. It’s likely the Outpost’s burgers terminated their hunger as it does for hungry patrons today.

Outpost Bar & Grill
415 Central
Carrizozo, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries

Korean Barbecue House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Korean B.B.Q. House on Central Avenue.

The Korean B.B.Q. House on Central Avenue.

For dining patrons in the know, the 2002 closure of the Fu Shou House was one of the most heartrending moves in the Duke City restaurant scene. In the Korean B.B.Q. House, Fu Shou was reborn.

While the Fu Shou proprietors don’t own the Korean B.B.Q. House, they did hold court in the kitchen for a while after the restaurant’s launch crafting the delicious entrees for which they were renown. Another chef now stewards the kitchen, but has maintained the high standards of his predecessors.

Initially serving both Korean and Chinese food, this Central Avenue restaurant now focuses exclusively on Korean food and has already captured quite a loyal following–for good reason.

The bulgogi is spicy, sweet, tangy and absolutely delicious. Ditto for the bulkalbi which thankfully was also meaty and relatively free of fat. Unlike bulgogi and bulkalbi served at some other Duke City restaurants (primarily Japanese and Chinese restaurants), the Korean B.B.Q. House version was made of high quality meat, not the sinewy, fatty stuff which should be saved for the house pets. Both the bulgogi and bulkalbi are served with five side dishes, including one of the spiciest kimchees in town. An accompanying egg drop soup was also quite good.

As an appetizer you might want to try the beef kimbob, a sort of Korean sushi served with a soy sauce heavy dipping sauce, but which was nonetheless delicious. Our sole appetizer complaint is about the vegetable egg rolls which were of the quality served at many buffet restaurants (in other words, not very good).

Korean Barbecue House
3200 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
33-82424

LATEST VISIT: 7 February 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Bulkalbi, Kimchee

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