The Burrito Wagon – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Elvis Presley once crooned about “Memories pressed between the pages of my mind–memories sweetened through the ages just like wine.” Sometimes memories take you back to an idyllic time or place when things were simpler and food tasted better.

Such is the case with my memories of the Burrito Wagon, a Taos institution I began frequenting shortly after its 1970 launch. No stereotypical “roach coach” to be derided and laughed at was this mobile kitchen serving the finest overstuffed burritos in Northern New Mexico. In my romantic’s mind, my unabashed affection for the Burrito Wagon took me to that idyllic time and place.

Alas, the reality was that because the Burrito Wagon is not open on weekends, we hadn’t visited since 1999. A September, 2004 visit saw my idyllic memories shattered and cruel reality set in.

The Burrito Wagon just isn’t the same restaurant that warranted delicious dreams. That reality set in when we discovered beans, ground beef and chile ensconced in store bought tortillas similar to the inferior products proffered by real roach coaches. If memory serves me right, The Wagon’s burritos once featured tortillas that tasted as if they were freshly extricated from a hot comal. My recollections were of ingredients apportioned and melded to perfection, not segregated within the tortilla so that you taste beef with one bite and beans with the next.

Worse yet was a Frito pie that has to rank with the worse we’ve had in New Mexico. The sole saving grace were two soft tacos in which well seasoned ingredients surmounted their store bought tortilla encasement. The Burrito Wagon features seven different burritos with cheese and red or green chile. We hope to someday visit one of the best reasons to visit Taos and find the Burrito Wagon has reclaimed past quality.

The Burrito Wagon
519 Paseo del Pueblo Sur
Taos, NM

LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2004
BEST BET: Burritos, Tacos

Cafe Pink – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

For people watching, there may be no better Santa Fe venue than the outdoor patio at Cafe Pink, a 2004 addition to the “City Different” dining scene. The people watching is free and a meal at Cafe Pink is only slightly more expensive. Priceless might be a good term for the colorful mural depicting the Santa Fe fiesta scene past and present. That mural provides a backdrop history buffs might prefer studying to watching tourists with their mouths agape and their eyes wide with wonder at Santa Fe’s many historical attractions (the most striking of which is our incomparable blue sky).

Despite being a relative newcomer, Cafe Pink has an impressive pedigree as a member of the famous Pink Adobe Cafe restaurant family. The Pink Adobe Cafe is the oldest family run restaurant in Santa Fe and is one of the city’s most popular dining destinations.

Cafe Pink’s hip cafe ambience is somewhat reminiscent of patio dining in Portland, Oregon, albeit under more friendly skies. Its concept is simple–place your order at a counter, take a seat and wait for your meal to be served.

Panini sandwiches are a lunch specialty while an assortment of breakfast entrees are also available. The sandwiches are grilled to order with a light drizzle of garlic infused olive oil and seasoned with salt and cracked pepper. You can choose from sourdough, whole wheat or rye bread and each sandwich is served with homemade green chile chips. A good sandwich choice is the #4 which features Genoa salami, proscuitto and provolone served with a Caribbean spread and for a pittance more, sherry caramelized onions.

Better than the sandwich were the green chile chips which had a sweet and piquant flavor. The green chile stew features cubes of pork loin, potatoes, tomatoes. onions, green chile and other spices. It’s served thicker than most and is a great belly warming treat. Cafe Pink’s salsa is imbued with a red chile powder that gave it a salute worthy taste.

In its 60 plus years of operation, the Adobe Cafe’s world famous Rosalea’s French apple pie with rum sauce has earned a legendary reputation as one of the very best pies in the country–for good reason. This is an extraordinary apple pie that defines the very best of its genre.

Cafe Pink
410 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM

LATEST VISIT: 18 September 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: French Apple Pie with Hard Rum Sauce, Panini Sandwiches

Parcel 104 – Santa Clara, California

Freshly caught trout, free-range chickens, hand-picked fruits and vegetables–those are what most influence Bradley Ogden, an uber chef and restaurant impresario dedicated to seasonal, farm-fresh American fare. Like a sculptor who painstakingly fashions inspiring masterpieces, Ogden crafts memorable dining experiences from the freshest ingredients available, melding them so that their inherent flavors, colors and textures combine to bring out the best in each other.

Proprietor of several high-end restaurants primarily in northern California, his name has become synonymous with new American cuisine. Las Vegas chowhounds wax poetic about Ogden’s eponymous restaurant, most often singing the praises of the Maytag blue cheese soufflé. In 2003, that Vegas restaurant earned James Beard accolades as the “best new restaurant” in America.

While not as nationally celebrated, Parcel 104 (whose name comes from the tract of land on which sits the Marriott which houses this restaurant) has earned a lion’s share of awards in the San Francisco area where competition for plaudits is keen. My expectations were high, but dashed almost immediately when I couldn’t be seated in the dining room.

Assurances by the hostess that the restaurant’s menu was also available on the spacious lounge placated me somewhat, but the long wait for service (the beginning of a pattern) tried my patience. A sole, hurried and ultimately haggard looking waitress tried hard to keep up with orders of appetizers, entrees and libations, but struggled to do so. Perhaps as a result, I was not treated to an amuse bouche, a complementary chef’s surprise for which Bradley Ogen’s restaurants are famous.

The restaurant calls its appetizers “beginnings” and my introduction came in the form of Mediterranean mussels and Willapa Bay clams served with a fennel-leek confit. Freshness was evident in every savory morsel and best of all, not a grit of the annoying sand could be found that often makes its way into mussels. Alas, there are several Albuquerque area restaurants (the Indigo Crow comes to mind) which serve better mussels and certainly in bigger portions.

Entrees ranged in price from $22 to $36. My choice was the Central Valley rabbit “pot-au-feu” with summer truffles. A pronounced sage and garlic taste permeated both the rabbit and truffles, but didn’t necessarily make either resonate with flavor as I had hoped. In fact, I’ve had simple rotisserie chicken that did more for my taste buds than did this lagomorph (Latin for rabbit).

The sole redeeming facet of my meal was the dessert, a triumvirate of terrific chocolate that included a thimble-sized milk shake, two miniscule volcanic chocolate cakes and a ceramic spoon of ice cream. While the chocolate troika was deliciously decadent, it was so small that just as my taste buds began to discern its composition, there was nothing left.

Perhaps the one thought that helps synopsize my inaugural experience at a Bradley Ogden restaurant comes from Luke 12:48, “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.” Both the chef and the restaurant have been given much acclaim and I certainly expected Parcel 104 to live up to its reputation, but defining my review as a “dining disappointment” certainly indicates my expectations were far from met.

Parcel 104
2700 Mission College Blvd.
Santa Clara, CA

Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2004
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Dessert

Plaza Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The world famous Plaza Cafe

The world famous Plaza Cafe

Just as with people, a city is best defined by its heart. For Santa Fe, that would be its historic Plaza which has been, for much of four centuries, the city’s hub of commerce, culture and government.

The Plaza is at the confluence of El Camino Real (the Spanish Royal Road from Mexico City), The Old Pecos Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. These historic transportation routes made settlement possible and facilitated trade and commerce.

Today the Plaza is comprised of numerous shops, museums and restaurants surrounding a central park lined with towering shade trees. Because many of its buildings have changed little since Spanish colonial times, the Plaza is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The city’s oldest restaurant, the Plaza Cafe which has been serving Santa Fe since 1918, is on the southwestern side of the quadrant which comprises the Plaza. As it approaches its centennial, the Plaza Cafe remains one of the city’s most popular dining destinations, sought out by locals and tourists alike.

The 2006 edition of the New Mexico Blue Book published by the Secretary of State’s office documents that in 1947, the Plaza Cafe was purchased by Dionysi Razatos, a Greek immigrant who married a local girl from the Vaughn, New Mexico area. The Razatos family, which grew to include six children continues to operate the restaurant. Andy, the youngest son currently serves as chef.

The Plaza Cafe remains a charming dining destination and is largely unchanged over the years. It is one of New Mexico’s most authentic examples of a traditional American diner, albeit one in which the menu features American conform food favorites as well as New Mexican specialties prepared exceptionally well and even a few Greek standards from Razatos’ ancestral homeland.

Framed posters on the wall depict vintage Santa Fe back when it was a more innocent frontier town yet to be discovered by new-agers and counter culturalists. Cowboy legend Randolph Scott graces other posters of movies made in the Santa Fe area when sound was a cinematic novelty.

Near the entrance to the kitchen is a unique piece of functional artwork. It’s a map of the southwest in which the state of New Mexico is framed by blue neon. The map shows only the the states major towns, city’s and roadways.

For years the Plaza Cafe was a mainstay on Chile Pepper magazine’s “Best of Zest” categorization of the best Mexican restaurants in the country. A half hour wait for a seat isn’t atypical. When locals have to wait too long to get a seat, you might the impression that their willingness to share this restaurant with tourists is done so begrudgingly. Santa Feans are too polite to really say anything that would be impolite, but when stomachs growl they might not be that welcoming either.

Your mood for the day will also dictate what you’ll have for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are so many sublime options, any one of which is bound to improve the disposition of anyone suffering the pangs of hunger. The greatest challenge will be in deciding what to have; there are so many options.

A great way to start your dining excursion is with roasted garlic and carnitas quesadillas which explode with flavor. Thin tortillas with a nice amount of char from the grill enwrap tender grilled beef, roasted garlic and a white Mexican cheese. It’s hard to contain so much flavor in between tortillas so you can expect excess “flavor” to drip onto your plate and if you’re not careful, down your arms.

It’s surprising non-traditional combinations that make some of the entrees so uniquely wonderful. Take for example, an entree called enchiladas placeras featuring the unlikely but surprisingly savory amalgam of griddled Guajillo cheese enchiladas topped with crema, grilled zucchini, Mexican cheese, cabbage and onions. For vegetarians who still eat cheese and cream, it’s a feast. Heck, even the most ardent of carnivores will enjoy this delicious enchilada plate.

The Plaza Cafe’s mouth-watering cashew mole blends Mexican chocolate, mole, cashews, chicken, onions, beans and sour cream into a savory entree you won’t find anywhere else. Many New Mexicans shun mole because outwardly it has some semblance to red chile, but doesn’t taste like their favorite piquant sauce. The Plaza Cafe’s cashew mole may make converts out of those diehards.

The carne adovada plate leaves a wonderfully different aftertaste because the chile most certainly includes a bit of achiote, a seasoning which imbues food with a rich, earthy flavor with just a residual hit of sweetness. The tender pork shards are absolutely delicious.

The Plaza Cafe's world-famous cajeta apple pie

The Plaza Cafe’s desserts are to die for and include the cajeta apple pecan pie, a huge slab in the finest tradition of America, mother and baseball.

Plaza Cafe
54 Lincoln Avenue
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 July 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cajeta Apple Pecan Pie, Enchiladas

Wingstop – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Wing Stop

During his illustrious NFL career Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman passed for 32,942 yards and 165 touchdowns. What it seems he can’t pass is the opportunity to add to his wealth by endorsing mediocre products. How else can you explain the marketing campaign touting Aikman as their “biggest fan?” Maybe he did receive one concussion too many during his playing career?

Whatever the case, it appears the future Hall of Famer may have fumbled on this one. Sure Albuquerque is in the northernmost portion of the Chihuahuan desert but that’s no reason chicken wings and legs should be so wrinkly dry. The menu claims the garlic parmesan wings are “worth wrecking your breath for” but what really wrecks this offering is the dust bowl sized dousing of parmesan. Even cheese lovers might pass on the garlic parmesan wings while garlic enthusiasts are left wondering where the garlic is. Slightly better are the Hawaiian barbecue wings, a gooey, sticky mess sweetened with pineapple and honey. Your wings are served with bread rolls–no butter, just the rolls.

There are several sides on the menu, but if they’re anything like the bourbon baked beans, we’ll pass. These beans were nearly as dry as the wings and that’s saying something.

4400 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-9464

LATEST VISIT: 3 July 2004

Fiesta Flavors – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Mixed fruit cups, buttered corn nibblet cups, fruity refreshing beverages and frozen fresh fruit treats are the centerpieces of several quickly growing niche chains, one of which launched an Albuquerque shop in the spring of 2004. That niche includes both diet and health conscious treat seekers as well as the growing Hispanic market, making the Duke City a natural choice for Fiesta Flavors.

Niche or not, the intriguing menu has something for everyone. The fruit cups, whether mixed or as a single fruit offering, are served with your choice of three toppings: a sweet and creamy blend of sweetened and flavored sour cream, a low-fat and sugar free yogurt and best of all, the Fiesta chili blend of salt, lime and chili. As served on the bananas con crema, the homemade sweet cream enlivens the fruit and leaves you craving more.

The star of the show, however, are the corn cups which feature hot buttered corn cut from the cob then mixed with the Fiesta chili blend, cheese and sour cream. There’s no picking at your teeth after a bowl of this masterpiece. Fruity freezes made with your two choices of fruit blended with your fresh juice choice are the perfect cure for a balmy summer day. They are both refreshing and delicious.

As for noshes, your choices aren’t quite as exotic or interesting. I made the mistake of ordering a hot dog with cheese which included that gloppy cheese normally reserved for bad nachos. That hot dog perpetuated all the worse hot dog stereotypes and jokes. An order of taquitos was somewhat better, especially since the accompanying guacamole was wonderfully piquant.

Fiesta Flavors’ South Valley location is somewhat off the beaten path and may deter some prospective diners.

Fiesta Flavors
1511B Goff, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2004
BEST BET: Fruit Cups, Corn Cups, Fruit Freezes

Kimchy Cabana – Niles, Illinois

To the unenculturated, the pungent emanations of Korean kimchy (pickled and fermented cabbage) are malodorous and offensive to the olfactory senses. To the Korean people, however, kimchy is so much more than a national dish; it’s a family treasure handed down from one generation to another over the millenniums. The influx of Korean war brides following the Korean War and beyond has meant the gradual introduction into the American mainstream of kimchy and other Korean culinary arts.

Having experienced Korean cuisine from coast to coast, it has always impressed me to find Korean food remarkably consistent–usually at least good and often excellent. Kimchy Cabana certainly ranks with the best I’ve had yet. Our inaugural dining experience was made even better because we shared our meal with two of Niles’ finest law enforcement officials, my brother-in-law Chuck and his commander, true gentlemen for whom the badge truly represents integrity and dedication to the public.

Our meal started with the traditional Korean family meal offering of small dishes featuring spicy and pickled vegetables. Most Korean restaurants alternate these vegetables on a daily basis but always include kimchy which is typically the eye-watering star of the show. Every vegetable tantalized our taste buds with taste sensations which ran the gamut from piquant to sweet. Another perfect prelude to our meal was a kimchy pancake appetizer which is certainly among the very best of its kind I’ve ever had.

Incomparable Korean barbecue was featured fare as we enjoyed all we could eat of beef and pork bulgogi–broiled, thin-sliced tender beef and pork marinated in a barbecue sauce which creates a harmonious melding of sweet, savory and spicy tastes. The pork was slightly more spicy and therefore more to my liking. Our bulgogi was prepared at our table on a sizzling cast-oven plate and had no discernable fatty or sinewy pieces.

During our second visit, we also had chicken bulgogi which just didn’t meet the high standards of its pork and beef counterparts, but would otherwise still be considered very good.

Kimchy Cabana
9020 Greenwood
Niles, IL

LATEST VISIT: 18 June 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Pork Bulgogi, Kimchi Pancake

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