Cafe Milano – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

My original introduction to this review became yet another vitriolic rage against corporate chains, a passionate spiel I added to my ratings page. What prompted that diatribe was our discovery of Cafe Milano (formerly Rosa’s Italian Kitchen), yet another wonderful mom and pop restaurant competing for hungry diners with middling chains who deign to offer food which can’t grace their mediocre menus unless it goes through rigorous usability testing (can you say human lab rats).

There I go again–railing against chains when I should be on the rooftop singing the praises of Cafe Milano, a “breath of fresh air” Italian restaurant in a city polluted with the likes of Zio’s and Bucca Di Beppo.

Affable proprietors Rick and Rosa Matthews and their wonderful restaurant are the antithesis of the chain restaurants and their artificially sweetened hospitality. With good reason to be very proud of their inaugural restaurant venture, the Matthews greet all patrons with a genuine warmth you can’t fabricate. Being convivial is great, but what will bring us back is the great food–reasonably priced victuals in family sized portions.

The toasted ravioli appetizer–lightly breaded ravioli deep fried and served with a tangy, tomato rich marinara sauce–won us over quickly. We nearly fought for the last one.

The spaghetti with meat sauce is first rate on its own, but treat yourself and ask for meatballs and Italian sausage on the side. Both (especially the Italian sausage) were very good to excellent.

The best way to maximize your dining experience is by ordering the “build your own combination platter” which can be had with your choice of three or four items. If the chicken parmigiana, lasagna and manicotti are any indication, you can’t go wrong no matter what you order.

The manicotti is topped with a three blend Italian cheese combination that will have you crooning “Oh Solo Mio” (oh, only mine). The lasagna is even better if that’s possible. With its luscious layers of pasta, ricotta cheese, Italian sausage crumbles, homemade Italian meat sauce and that marvelous three blend Italian cheese combination, it was the best traditional lasagna we’ve had in the Duke City.

We were thoroughly engorged, wonderfully satiated and wholly won over after our first visit, but best of all we had leftovers enough for dinner the following night.

Cafe Milano is one of those rare gems for which I’m grateful not to follow the line of Pavlovian diners to the corporate cabal.

Cafe Milano
500 Marquette, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Toasted Ravioli, Manicotti, Sausage, Meatballs

Peppers – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

True to the restaurant’s name, Peppers chefs play tribute to chiles and peppers so ubiquitous to New Mexico cooking. In many of their creations, they incorporate New Mexico green and red chile, chipotle, Chimayo red chile, Habañero, Serrano, Pepperonici and red and green bell peppers (a chile icon denotes all items in which chiles or peppers are used in the preparation). Despite the often clever use of chiles and peppers, Marriot’s signature restaurant suffers from inconsistency that has kept us from patronizing this Pueblo themed restaurant more often.

Among the items we’ve enjoyed most is the hot spinach and artichoke dip served in a sour dough bowl with red, blue and gold tortilla chips. The salads are bounteous and the salad dressings are innovative, particularly the thick honey mustard dressing. Peppers version of this party favorite is among the best we’ve found in Albuquerque. Ditto for the crème brulee, a wonderfully light dessert done exceptionally well. Peppers specialties include a steak and enchiladas combination in which an eight ounce sirloin and three enchiladas fill your plate. The enchiladas, in particular, are pretty good in a city where everyone knows good enchiladas.

Not so good are the fajitas which–contrary to conventions–are made with prime rib not skirt steak. Worse yet, instead of fajita marinade, an au jus is used and it just doesn’t complement the accompanying peppers and onions. Also below par is the Spanish rice which appears bathed in cumin, an accursed spice which does nothing but detract from the native flavor of chile based entrees. Chops craving carnivores might enjoy the apple brandy pork chop, a bone-in 12 ounce pork loin chop marinated and fire grilled with a caramelized onion, apple, brandy demi-glace (which unfortunately has the consistency of gravy.

Peppers is a warm, inviting restaurant whose Pueblo theme includes formidable vigas from Jemez, chile ristras, pottery and bronze cast Kachinas.

Courtyard by Marriot
5151 Journal Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 823-1919

LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip, Salsa & Chips, Crème Brulee

Fil-Am Fast Food Mart – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The pursuit of the secret to a happy life has led people to metaphysical, psychological and religious paths. Where it really should have taken them is to a tiny Albuquerque restaurant in a nondescript shopping center where the secret to happy living is posted for one and all to see. The elusive secret consists of only six simple steps: (1) Come to Fil-Am Fast Food Mart; (2) Check out mouth watering menu; (3) Select items that appeal to your tastes; (4) Pay and leave tip; (5) Leave happy; and (6) For best results, repeat tomorrow and the day after, and the day after, and the day after. I can vouch for one thing–dining at Albuquerque’s only Filipino restaurant will definitely make you happy.

Launched in November, 2004, Fil-Am (shortened version of Filipino-American) Fast Food Mart may sound like competition for 7-11 stores, but it’s so much more. Austere to a fault, Fil-Am includes a small market with Filipino products, but it’s the undersized cafe that will be the huge attraction, particularly because of its proximity to Kirtland Air Force Base. Place your order at a counter for one of the six combination plates (rotating daily) and in minutes, your order will be filled from a steam table supporting trays in which your meal is kept warm.

One combination includes three links of longoniza, the wonderful spicy sweet Filipino sausage along with steamed rice, stir fried vegetables and a soup. The longoniza is a real treat any savvy sausage sage would savor. Another great combination features pork pancit noodles, lumpia (Filipino egg roll) and a grilled pork stick, all of which were delicious.

Filipino cuisine as we know it today is a multi-layered expression of culture and history with various cultural influences: from the Indonesians and Malays, the first foreign settlers on Philippine shores; to the Spaniards who colonized the Philippines for almost 500 years; to Americans and Japanese who took over from the Spaniards; and to Arabs and Indians with whom Filipinos traded long before Magellan landed on the islands.

Considering Filipinos absolutely eat with the gusto of a people who live to eat, it’s a wonder Filipino cuisine isn’t revered in the same vein as Thai or Chinese food. If Fil-Am Fast Food Mart has anything to say about it, someday Duke City residents just might.

Fil-Am Fast Food Mart
600 Louisiana, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 December 2004
BEST BET: Pork Pancit Noodles, Pork Sausage, Lumpia

Great Harvest Bread Co – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Great Harvest Bread Co.

The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. Fragrance is considered one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory. True enough, one of the most enduring sensory memories of my youth is associated with the amazing aromas that greeted me each time my mom baked bread in her oven.

We also were able to experience olfactory orgasms and sensory sensations in the bakeries of England where we lived for three years. Alas, the singular joy of incredible yeasty bouquets wafting through the air is one younger generations may never experience.

That’s because individually owned bakeries have been replaced by corporate behemoths interested more in mass production and profit. That’s why I’m so thrilled that Albuquerque finally has a Great Harvest Bakery (launched in 2004) which still bakes bread the old-fashioned way. Using premium wheat berries from America’s “golden triangle” where North Dakota, Montana and Canada meet, Golden Harvest kneads its bread not by machine, but by hand where tender loving care is best possible.

Among the first and best breads we discovered is the Nine Grain which is reminiscent of the granary bread we fell in love with in England. The Nine Grain bread may find its genesis in healthy fiber, but it’s incredibly delicious and the closest we’ve found to the granary bread served in the Mermaid restaurant in picturesque Burford (one of England’s treasures).

For a great sandwich creation or breakfast toast, a wonderful alternative to traditional white bread is the cheddar cheese bread with a sharp cheese and buttery taste.

If you don’t feel like crafting your own sandwich, Great Harvest will do it for you, offering grilled panini sandwiches served warm as well as full flavored cold sandwiches and classics such as ham and cheese. Among the panini, my early favorite is the spicy smoked turkey and pepper jack sandwich, a two-fisted sandwich that bites back.

A great dessert offering is the six inch orb called the “snickerdoodle”, a sugar cookie imbued with genuine goodness.

Resurrect your olfactory senses at this wonderful bakery!

Great Harvest Bread Co
11200 Montgomery Blvd NE # 4
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 293-8277

LATEST VISIT: 8 December 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Nine Grain Bread, Cheddar Cheese Bread, Snickerdoodle Cookies

Burger Bar Las Vegas – Las Vegas, Nevada

In light of protracted enmity between America and France in recent years, you might think the notion of a French chef crafting an American institution, the hamburger, would be considered audacious at the least and heretical at the worse. True burger aficionados, however, are neither Francophiles nor Francophobes. We’re just crazy about burgers–the bigger, the better.

That’s why when French chef Hubert Keller launched the Burger Bar, burger maniacs flocked to the restaurant’s sky bridge location connecting Luxor and Mandalay Bay. Keller improved on the concept of “build your own burger” by giving diners more options than Burger King ever thought possible with its “have it your way” campaign. Well heeled patrons with money to burn might well opt for the Rossini burger, a treasure trove made with Kobe beef, sautéed foie gras and shaved truffles. At $60, that burger is one of the country’s most costly.

The Burger Bar bears little resemblance to the typical American diner. Its cherry wood booths include small-screen televisions showing what appears to be 8 millimeter restorations of family vacations from the 50s and 60s as well as somewhat risqué for the time ads depicting the human body in as much undress as permitted to be shown decades ago.

The array of burger toppings includes bacon, prosciutto, ham, pan-seared foie gras, brown gravy, fried egg, peppers, sliced zucchini, asparagus, pineapple, smoked salmon, grilled lobster, grilled shrimp, marinated anchovies, a variety of cheeses, and cranberry sauce or black truffles while bun selections include sesame, onion, whole wheat, plain or ciabatta.

Aside from the Rossini, available burgers can be made with Ridgefield Farm beef ($8), Black Angus beef ($9), Kobe beef ($16), Colorado lamb ($9), turkey ($8) or vegetarian ($6). All meats are organically grown and hand-processed on-site in the Burger Bar’s own butcher shop.

The only problem with ordering a premium beef burger is that you don’t want to desecrate it with condiments which might detract from the meat’s native flavor. That would explain why I preferred the Black Jack Burger Kim ordered to the Kobe Beef burger I had. Each morsel of Kobe beef is to be savored slowly and like most of the fast-food generation, I’m more used to wolfing down my burgers even before driving away from the diner’s parking lot. While it was a burger to be experienced, next time I’ll settle for a more traditional American burger I won’t have to worship to enjoy.

Burger Bar Las Vegas
3930 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 632-9364

LATEST VISIT: 23 November 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: The Kobe Beef Burger, The Black Jack Burger, Buttermilk Onion Rings

Cathay House – Las Vegas, Nevada

There are two things I rail against which might classify some of my restaurant reviews as a bully pulpit. One is the incursion of chain restaurants, a pitiable parade of mediocrity that has largely resulted in the homogenization and “dumbing down” of the American palate. The other is the lack of authenticity in so-called ethnic restaurants, a lacking that often goes hand-in-hand with the culinary chaining of America’s restaurants.

In my reviews of New Mexican food restaurants, I refer to this phenomenon as the “anglosizing” of New Mexican food (the Taco Bell phenomenon). In Chinese restaurants, this “Americanization” phenomenon manifests itself in the offering of deep fried, heavily coated meats bathed in a syrupy sauce (nee P.F. Chang’s). Restaurants which excel in the preparation of outstanding meals without compromising their cultural and ethnic traditions have become far and few in between.

When Chinese Restaurant News listed the top 100 Chinese restaurants in America, I had high hopes that the honorees would provide both a genuine and an excellent dining experience. In the Cathay House, I was right in one respect. The Cathay House, the only Las Vegas restaurant on the list, was as authentic as you could hope to find.

Renown for its dim sum, it is a China town establishment in which the 80/20 rule applies (80% or more patrons being Chinese), a huge plus in my book. Dim sum, the Chinese word for “a little bit of heart” is the specialty of the Duke City’s Ming Dynasty so it would be interesting to consider the best Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque with one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the country. There was no comparison. Ming Dynasty is infinitesimally better.

The Cathay House dim sum includes several items not offered at Ming Dynasty–roasted duck, barbecue pork, barbecue pork ribs, lo mein noodles and more–but these offerings were not prepared nearly as well as Ming Dynasty would have prepared them. The Ming Dynasty would also not have served them as cool as the other side of the pillow nor would they have been paraded in uncovered dishes.

While we were sorely disappointed that a mediocre restaurant would make a top 100 list, we were also made proud that in Albuquerque, we have a restaurant that’s better than at least one restaurant on the top 100.

Cathay House
5300 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 876-3838

LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2004
COST: $$$

Pastrami & Things – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

During a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” George Costanza and his girlfriend du jour discussed introducing food into their lovemaking. George listed as potential candidates: strawberries, chocolate sauce, pastrami on rye with mustard and honey. His girlfriend, unfortunately, failed to appreciate the erotic qualities of pastrami. Ultimately George met up with a woman who declared pastrami to be “the most sensual of all the salted cured meats.” Their lustful appetites took over and they succumbed to the pastrami inspired throes of passion.

I don’t know about pastrami being the most sensual of all salted cured meats, but do know there are few sandwiches quite as wonderful as a pastrami sandwich.

Alas, not all pastrami is created equal. The perfect pastrami finds its genesis as brisket given a salt and spice rub, dry cured, smoked, and cooked. Having grown up in bucolic Northern New Mexico, I had no idea pastrami existed until the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts. It was love at first bite. For two years I visited delis throughout New England and New York City in search of the best pastrami.

Since returning to New Mexico, I’ve lamented the fact that Albuquerque has been short-changed insofar as Duke City restaurants or delis offering a world-class pastrami product. Fortunately frequent trips to Chicago have proven to be fulfilling pastrami pilgrimages.

In 1999, the first Pastrami & Things restaurant launched its operations in the far Northeast Heights. Pastrami & Things is owned and operated by a lady originally from Miami, Florida–which may as well be a suburb of New York City where some of the best pastrami in America is made.

Just as it’s debated as to which city–Chicago or New York–makes the best pizza, you’ll get arguments from both sides as to which city makes the best pastrami. For my money, the Windy City beats Metropolis in this area and Pastrami and Things has done nothing to convince me otherwise.

In fact, I’ve appreciated the Reuben sandwich even more than the pastrami sandwich. A pound of pastrami, by the way, goes for $19.95. The most costly sandwich sells for nearly $9, but it’s a major downer to see that its preparation includes unwrapping pre-packaged meats ala Subway then shoving those meats into a thick, doughy sub roll. You won’t find such a chintzy practice at any New York City deli. An even better sandwich is called the “Empire” which features pastrami, coleslaw and Russian dressing. The chicken soup with matzo balls is quite good as is the potato salad.

For years people have jokingly called the hamlet of Rio Rancho “Little New York” for all the Big Apple transplants who now make their home in New Mexico’s fastest growing city. As such, it made sense that a second “New York style deli” make its home in the “city of vision.” Rio Rancho’s Pastrami and Things II had a nice breakfast menu that included several kosher items that just aren’t served in most other Albuquerque dining establishments. For example, you could get lox, kippers, matzo brie and lox schmear. The luncheon menu included several smoked fish platters, soups, sandwiches, combos and noshes (not just a Jewish thing any more).

When it first opened, customers were given the opportunity to wax poetic on the Rio Rancho restaurant’s walls with tributes to New York City. Ever the mischievous Dallas Cowboys devotee, my tribute read, “The New York Giants are the worm in the Big Apple. Dallas Cowboys rule!” Alas, like my poetry, the Rio Rancho version of Pastrami & Things are no more, having closed within two years of a promising opening.

Pastrami & Things
11200 Montgomery, N.E. #35
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 19 October 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pastrami, Reuben Sandwich, Potato Salad

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