Joe’s Real BBQ – Gilbert, Arizona

No ordinary Joe is this, critics would have you believe. Instead, they insist, this is one of the best 59 restaurants in the Phoenix area (Phoenix magazine, 2002). Located in a 1929 brick building that saw its “hay day” in the golden age of agricultural Arizona, it retains the charm that helps make downtown Gilbert a popular destination. A 1948 John Deere tractor holds a position of honor in the restaurant’s dining room and might remind you of the opening sequence of Green Acres (a popular 1960s television comedy) in which Oliver Wendell Douglas bounced up and down on his chugging tractor as he surveyed his worse for wear farm.

Joe’s menu features large selections of meat, each cooked “low and slow” over pecan logs. The closer you draw to the restaurant, the more the enticing aromas enrapt your taste buds and olfactory senses. By the time you’ve parked your car and queued up to order, you’re likely going to be drooling (which presents an interesting ordering challenge). That’s how alluring the fragrant bouquets emanating from the restaurant’s smokers are.

A wonderful introduction to Joe’s meats is the BBQ sampler plate with two sides. The sampler includes over 3/4 pounds of ribs, chicken, pork and a slice of Texas toast. The pork ribs are moist and tender–not quite fall off the bone quality, but as good as you’ll find anywhere. The shredded pork and beef brisket are even better choices, each imbued with a tenderness made possible only through slow preparation at low temperatures. The sauce is slightly sweet and vinegary and has a tangy spiciness that sneaks up on you like a wonderful birthday surprise.

Among the sides, the baked beans are extraordinary. Comprised of kidney, lima and Navy beans and amalgamated with sausage, chicken and beef, they are worth a visit to Joe’s on their own merit. Joe’s homemade “real” root beer is available on tap and is quite good, albeit not nearly as hearty as the adult root beer served at Albuquerque’s Route 66 Malt Shop.

Joe’s Real BBQ
301 North Gilbert Road
Gilbert, AZ
(480) 503-3805

LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pecan Smoked Ribs; Baked Beans

Casa Grande Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America and serves as the most impressive remnant left by the Hohokam (those who are gone) culture. In many ways, Albuquerque’s Casa Grande restaurant may be a remnant, too–albeit, a remnant of restaurants which prepare unadulterated New Mexican food made to order with the realization that tourists really might want to try authentically piquant and seasoned food as the locals would prepare it.

More than most restaurants in Albuquerque, particularly those in the Old Town area, Casa Grande does prepare meals that taste as if your own abuela might have made them. It doesn’t insult tourists by serving them the Anglciized concoctions proffered at the chains of pseudo Mexican restaurants in their own cities.

A hearty bowl of green chile, for example, maintains the olfactory arousing aroma of chile roasted on a comal. Ameliorated with well seasoned hamburger, the green chile is among the city’s very best. It’s exceptional on its own or on enchiladas.

You certainly want all your olfactory receptors working optimally when you bite into the beef burrito or beef enchiladas with red chile. It’s a chile you can respect–not hot enough to singe your tongue, but perfectly piquant so that you can also enjoy the beef. Alas, sometimes that chile’s great taste is detracted from because of extraneous chile seeds.

Speaking of beef, make sure to order the well seasoned tacos with your meal as they are also among the best in town.

If you’re not necessarily in the mood for New Mexican food, Casa Grande has a pretty extensive menu of American entrees, including some of the best restaurant made fried chicken we’ve had in New Mexico (which has nothing on the Deep South in terms of preparing great chicken).

The salsa has the distinct flavor of cilantro, but in relatively subtle quantities. It’s a perfect prelude to an excellent meal in a restaurant we passed by often. My thanks to fellow Chowhound and friend Steve Coleman for recommending the “big house” to me.

Casa Grande Restaurant
2424 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Homemade Green Chile, Beef Burrito; Fried Chicken; Green Chile Enchiladas

Nouveau Noodles – Cedar Crest, New Mexico

In the west, it’s generally accepted that the human tongue can discern only four different tastes and that all tastes in the dining experience are combinations of those four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese have long believed that the human tongue possesses a fifth taste sensation–one that can detect pungent foods.  Chinese postulate that each of the five taste sensations corresponds to one of nature’s five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.

Dine at Nouveau Noodles and you’ll be convinced that there are at least five taste sensations and that they’re all present in each and every savory morsel of the innovative Asian fusion dishes masterfully crafted by chef Robert Griego.

Griego’s restaurant, a 2003 entrant into the Duke City area dining scene, features cuisine with an inventive big city sophistication and cachet served within the confines of a small town edifice reminiscent of a train car.

Fabulous would be a good word for describing the mango chutney chicken egg rolls with pickled ginger and an orange-chile dipping sauce.  These egg rolls would stand out on their own, but that sauce elevates them to a stratospheric level where they would find great company in the spring rolls (matchstick veggies and lettuce wrapped in a rice wrapper and served with an apricot ginger sauce).

Also extraordinary are the lightly battered and tempura fried vegetables served with a goat cheese dipping sauce.  The calamari ranks among the very best in the Albuquerque area.  Like all great appetizers, these two will heighten your anticipation for things to come.

A most worthy successor to those delicious antecedents is the Nouveau Duck L’Orange, described on the menu as “spicy braised duck gone tropical.”  A mélange of Mandarin orange, pineapple, mushrooms, and water chestnuts in a sesame butter sauce with soba noodles, it is infused with sensational flavors that will tantalize your taste buds and possibly give you pause to ponder that je ne sais quoi ingredient so hauntingly subtle.  We determined it to be five spice powder, a seasoning used frequently in Chinese dishes, and which supposedly embodies each of the five tastes in Chinese cooking.  If duck isn’t your thing, an outstanding orange beef entrée is also available.

On our third visit, rather than ordering off the menu, I asked Robert to surprise me and he exceeded all expectations with a red chile encrusted tuna in a green chile sauce with assorted fresh vegetables.  It was easily one of the best pieces of fish I’ve had in New Mexico–but not the best fish I’ve had at Nouveau Noodles.

That distinction would have to go to of all things, an appetizer–the amazing seared Ahi tuna and seaweed Timbale (sauced food molded in a straight-sided metal form and unmolded directly onto a plate) with greens, pickled red onion, sesame seaweed and soba noodles with an unbelievable wasabi crema.  Your eyes may water not only because of the wasabi’s tear inducing heat, but from the realization that you are tasting greatness.

For a complete Ahi experience, have as your main entree, the Spicy Tuna Salad–Ahi tuna marinated in a spicy Vietnamese sauce served rare (or seared) over greens in an incredible apricot ginger sauce and topped with fresh seaweed.  The piquant burn of the Vietnamese sauce is cut by just the right amount of rice vinegar and the tangy ginger sauce.  It’s a sensational salad.

If the drunken beef mushroom soup imbued with Merlot and sherry or a black bean and molasses soup are any indication, the Soup Nazi would goose-step as quickly as possible to Nouveau Noodles.

There’s no surcease to quality cuisine with the desserts, particularly the sublimely moist and luscious apricot bread pudding which is of New Orleans quality and the ginger flan (alas, no longer on the menu) which melds seemingly discordant ingredients in a preternatural way.  Also available are several cheesecake offerings created by the Cheesecake Factory.

Nouveau Noodles
12216 North 14
Tijeras, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 March 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Apricot Bread Pudding, Mango Chutney Chicken Egg Rolls, Nouveau Duck L’Orange, Spicy Tuna Salad, Drunken Mushroom Soup

Conrad’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

There was a time when the name “Hilton” didn’t conjure up images of a ditzy blonde airhead whose celebrity is based largely on promiscuity. Well, maybe not. More than 50 years ago, another ditzy blonde, Zsa Zsa Gabor honeymooned at La Posada in Albuquerque with her then husband Conrad Hilton, a New Mexico native and founder of the historic downtown hotel in which Conrad’s is housed.

Since the hotel’s launch in 1939, the guest registry at La Posada de Albuquerque has been signed by a veritable who’s who in celebrity and politics. Most come for the hotel’s Spanish colonial charm, opulent ambience and impeccable service, but I’ll bet some return for the innovative Yucatan Peninsula Region cuisine at Conrad’s, the hotel’s signature restaurant.

After imbibing the lobby’s lavish accouterments and proceeding to your table, you’ll be hard-pressed to select from among the menu’s platos pequenos (small plates or appetizers), enseladas (salads), sopas (soups) and platos grande (big plates or entrees), the descriptions of which might leave your mouth watering. Luckily the wait staff is on the spot to satiate your hunger slightly with a basket of warm bread and a small plate of Spanish olives. A good start, particularly on a cold autumn or winter night is the sopa de frijoles negros, a braised black bean soup that will warm the cockles of your heart and bring a smile to your face.

If you’re a fan of pork tenderloin, an absolute must have is the chuleta de puerco con mostaza, cafe y fruta seca (spicy mustard and coffee seasoned pork tenderloin steaks with sun-dried apricots and mango in a sweet chile sauce). The mélange of seemingly discordant ingredients created wonderful harmony on our taste buds.

Conrad’s offers two types of paella–the more traditional Spanish one with seafood (lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari) and a Latin version that includes sausage, pork and chicken as well as mussels, shrimp and clams. A dinner serving of paella was enough for two meals, however, if it had been good enough, I would have consumed it in one (an indictment more likely of my not liking paella than it is of the dish itself).

Conrad’s lunch menu is also dotted with poetic sounding plates–like the torta de Jaiba, a spicy blue crab salad on a crisp corn tortilla with tomato, avocado, chiles and a chipotle mayonnaise that enlivens the entire salad. The Tijuana’s Burrito de Cerdo with shredded griddle pork, guacamole, queso fresco, diced tomato and shredded Romaine is one of the best burritos in New Mexico. The smoky pork flavor might remind you of the northern New Mexico matanza (open pit preparation of a butchered hog) tradition–even if you’ve never been to one. More flavorful pork there may not exist anywhere.

125 2nd Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Pork Burrito, Chuleta de Puerco, Paella

Chilepeños – Sandia Park, New Mexico (CLOSED)

How many of us are old enough to remember the amusement park test of strength in which testosterone laden men slam an oversized hammer on a target in an effort to propel an object up a pole to ring a bell at the top? Ringing the bell labeled you a powerhouse while propelling the object to a lesser level attached a label corresponding to your relative strength (such as wimp, wuss, milksop or worse).

At Chilepeos, red and green chile scales label the heat of the day’s chile. The scale’s labels are wimpy, gringo, macho and muy hombre (much man). Far too many New Mexican restaurants serve chile deserving the wimpy or gringo label. As such we were very much looking forward to sampling the chile at Chilepeos, a chile two very reliable sources assured me would get our attention.

As is often the case with restaurant recommendations, Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head and the restaurant recommended to us had an off night. Such was the case during our inaugural visit to Chilepeos. Not only was the chile not particularly piquant (gringo at best), it was drastically over-salted (a problem plaguing many New Mexican restaurants). Despite Murphy, we genuinely liked our meals and agreed the chile was flavorful and delicious. How good then must Chilepeos be when it’s on its game?

My entree, Nanas enchiladas–layered corn tortillas and beef stacked with red chile and cheddar cheese and topped with an egg–was quite good. Better were the rellenos, two large whole green chiles stuffed with cheddar cheese, dipped in batter, deep fried then smothered in chile and topped with melted cheddar cheese. The salsa was reminiscent of the salsa at Sadie’s although not quite as hot. We had two bowls full and were tempted to ask for a third. The sopaipillas were light, flaky cloud-like puffs of dough–as good as they could be made.

Chilepeos is one of the triumvirate of New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City area owned by The Perea/Gutierrez family, a restaurant lineage that brought us Perea’s in Albuquerque and Seferino’s in Rio Rancho.

12467 North Highway 14
Sandia Park, NM
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2005
COST: $$

California Witches – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

California Witches, “where you can taste California” is the brainchild of two Korean born California transplants who happen to like witches–not the Wiccans who practice ritual observances of seasonal and life cycles or the repulsive old women credited with usually malignant supernatural powers. They assured us they don’t practice the arcane arts, but like “white” magic as practiced by television characters such as Sabrina. Our hope was that they were practitioners of culinary magic. Chef Rachel Park owns three other California Witches restaurants in Los Angeles so she and her owner cousin must be doing something right.

A great start to a meal at Witches is one of the 20 boba teas and slushes. The bottom of each glass is lined with tapioca globules you suck up through an oversized straw. Those globules have the consistency of gummy bears that have been soaking in liquid (which they have). Both the green apple and mango slushes were refreshing, delicious and will make for a great summer drink.

Witches’ menu is unconventional–not quite Asian, not quite American, but as eclectic as the state of California. That menu includes salads, curries, cutlets, pastas, pesto, snow cones and parfait. A surprisingly good pasta dish is the carbonara with rich heavy cream and bacon.

If you are a curry connoisseur, the curried hot pot seafood cheese with rice dish is an interesting option. It’s a hodgepodge of ingredients–two types of cheese, potatoes, carrots, green beans, rice, green lip mussels, scallops and shrimp–served with a Japanese curry (not as sweet as Thai curry or as pungent as Indian curry). I expressed such an admiration for that curry that the owner brought me a gravy bowlful with which to finish off the remaining rice.

Complementary palate cleansing pickled ginger, pearlescent onions and bean sprouts accompanied our meals and were reminiscent of the small vegetable dishes often served with Korean meals. California Witches has begun to cast its spell on Albuquerque diners and should ensnare many of them with meals that have delicious, if not magical properties.

California Witches
7202 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT:12 February 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Boba Slush (Green Apple & Mango); Curried Hot Pot Seafood Cheese With Rice

Azuma Sushi & Teppan – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Unfulfilled promise, unrealized potential, what should have been, what could have been–these are among the most tragic sentiments of any vernacular. For the most part, those were also the sentiments echoing through our minds while and after we dined in one of the Duke City’s most serene and attractive Japanese restaurant settings.

We should have known better. Azuma is owned by the same gentleman who owns Albuquerque’s two China Star buffets, the Sam’s Club (with apologies to the Walton family) of Chinese buffets. China Star features sprawling troughs of nearly every conceivable Chinese food item in existence at a ridiculously low price that speaks volumes about the quality of the food. Azuma is “eye candy,” a beautiful establishment that may leave you agape at the realization it once housed a Black Eyed Pea restaurant. Unfortunately, as with many gorgeous women, attractive packaging doesn’t always translate to inner beauty, or in the case of Azuma, great food.

Our meal started off in grand fashion with a leafy salad graced by an orange ginger dressing my dining companions and I agreed was indeed something special. It melded sweet, savory and tangy flavors in a harmonious fashion that enlivened a fairly typical lunch salad. The downward spiral began with what was supposed to be miso soup, but which was more reminiscent of a slightly better version of the broth hospital patients are served after surgery.

Even more disappointing, albeit masterfully crafted and lovely to look at, was the sushi. In his typical cut-to-the-chase manner, my friend Bill Resnik described the “crazy roll” as “starting off really well, but never finishing the job.” What a perfect assessment! With our first bite of this tuna based maki style roll, we were both pleasantly surprised with the sudden burst of flavor combinations, but the more our taste buds did their job of flavor discernment, our surprise turned to disenchantment. The unrealized potential of the crazy roll was followed by sheer boredom with the caterpillar roll, an avocado imbued sushi whose green patina must be the color of envy for much better caterpillar rolls served elsewhere.

The most crushing blow, however, was when the seared tuna salad Bill and I each ordered arrived sans any searing. While neither of us disdains raw tuna there’s just something about a little searing that goes a long way. Worse, the salad was comprised primarily of iceberg lettuce, an ordinary lettuce to accompany an ordinary tuna. Our friend Mike Muller had salmon which he indicated wasn’t even as good as served at Pappadeux. Coulda, shoulda, woulda–maybe Azuma just can’t!

Azuma Sushi & Teppan
4701 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 10 February 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Orange Ginger Salad Dressing

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