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

Bobby Q’s – Arlington Heights, Illinois (CLOSED)

I first read about Bobby Q’s on Chowhound’s Chicago board in November, 2003. A newcomer to the Chicago area barbecue scene launched in July, 2003, it was immediately embraced by barbecue aficionados who tend to dismiss most interlopers as pretenders and frauds. Within months, the restaurant named for the owners’ toddler’s pronunciation of “barbecue” was earning accolades and honors in a specialized area which tends to be cynical and unwelcoming.

The house sauces, a spicy Cajun sauce and a sweet Texas sauce have both been accorded with national recognition–20th best barbecue sauce in the entire country and a third place honor for the Cajun sauce in Kansas City’s American Royal competition. In 2004, AOL’s City Guide Chicago made Bobby Q’s their pick for barbecue in the Windy City.

Even before you enter Bobby Q’s, you’re greeted in the parking lot by the wafting, seductive and smoky aroma of meats smoked slowly over hickory (cherry for poultry). Those aromas beckon with the alluring charm of a beautiful siren. Answer the aromatic siren’s call and you’re treated to some of the best barbecue in the Chicago area.

The baby back ribs aren’t of the “falling off the bone” genre (in fact, they may lean toward being slightly tough), but they’re substantial and the sauce is oh so good. Even better is the Memphis style pulled pork sandwich which is smoked for up to 19 hours and slathered in that delicious sauce. Tennessee transplants wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

A smoked meat appetizer featuring “sliders” of brisket, pulled pork and slow-smoked turkey breast is a meal sized introduction to three different meats, all of which are main event caliber on their own. Bobby Q’s sides are also worthy of adulation. The corn on the cob is sweet and juicy and only my brother-in-law Chuck makes better pork and beans.

The one item on the menu we had to send back was a bowl of chili which wasn’t even in the same class as the chili served at Wendy’s. In fact, we considered it inedible and marveled when our waitress told us what a huge hit the chili has been. It goes to show, there just isn’t good chili in Illinois.

The pilgrim-like migrations of barbecue worshippers from the city of big shoulders to the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights can certainly be attributed to Bobby Q’s, an outstanding entrant into a talented yet crowded epicurean arena.

Bobby Q’s
1279 North Rand Road
Arlington Heights, Illinois

LATEST VISIT: 17 June 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Memphis Style Pulled Pork Sandwich, Corn on the Cob, Bobby Q Pork and Beans

Graziano’s Brick Oven Pizza – Niles, Illinois

Italian beef, barbecue ribs, deep dish pizza–these delectable delights don’t come close to fully defining the Windy City’s culinary scene, but they are the foods most often associated with with America’s most populous lakeside epicurean hotbed–and rightfully so. When it comes to that tasty triumvirate, no American city does it better.

It takes an excellent product to compete when prospective diners are savvy and sophisticated as is my brother-in-law Tim who introduced me to this great pizzeria. Graziano’s Brick Oven Pizza is certainly no pretender, featuring honest-to-goodness food that can be categorized only as “terrific” or any synonym thereof. A casual ambience, tables in close proximity to one another, movie posters and a cacophonous din of rushed wait staff and hungry patrons give this suburban restaurant all the atmosphere it needs. Wonderful food gives it returning patrons.

Before you even order, a basket of fresh focaccia bread is placed on your table but you’re left to your own devices as to mixing the olive oil and spice mixture in which to dunk that bread. My concoctions weren’t too bad, but not of the professional quality a trained expert might have crafted. Fortunately, we didn’t have to prepare our own meals. Graziano’s chicken parmesan sandwich, a lightly breaded, half-inch thick chicken cutlet with a tad of marinara sauce (more is provided on the side for your dipping pleasure) might be the best of its genre I’ve ever had.

Also quite good is the eponymous Graziano brick oven pizza dressed with Italian sausage, peppers, mozzarella cheese and a rich tomato sauce. Consider it heresy if you will, but it was at least as good as most of the deep dish pizzas we’ve had in the Windy City. Graziano may be a name better known in pugilistic circles than in the restaurant world, but this is one restaurant which just might change that!

Graziano’s Brick Oven Pizza
5960 West Touhy Avenue
Niles, IL

LATEST VISIT: 10 June 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chicken Parmesan Sandwich, the Graziano

Gino’s East of Chicago – Lake Zurich, Illinois

Ostensibly no one knows more about a city’s best dining destinations than the taxi drivers who ferry famished fares there…or at least, that’s the theory. The original Gino’s East was founded in 1966 by taxi drivers who lured away the pizza chef at Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno and started their own pizzeria. Gino’s East now relies on those taxi drivers for those precious and essential word of mouth referrals when passengers inquire as to the best pizzeria in a city of outstanding pizzerias. Once a year, the original Gino’s East rewards cabbies for those referrals by giving them a free personal pan pizza.

That’s just a little bit of marketing genius, but in a blue collar city, slick marketing isn’t good enough; you’ve also got to make a blue collar pizza–a thick, hearty pizza with a generous application of traditional ingredients. The fru-fru pizzas they serve in California with their line-up of sushi, avocado and celery genre ingredients just don’t cut it.

With a deep dish pizza that just may be the city’s best, Gino’s East has branched out in recent years and can now be found in the burbs, including the northwestern village of Lake Zurich. There’s no graffiti on the pristine walls in the Lake Zurich restaurant as there is in the Chitown original. Here you’ll find only posters celebrating local luminaries and notable events in the city’s history. You’ll also find a pizza that doesn’t deviate from the way it’s been done for generations at the original Gino’s East.

The ingredients are generously positioned so that every morsel includes at least one bite of the quality veggies and meat toppers. Sausage can be applied patty style or in the more traditional manner. In either case, it’s great Italian sausage, not some pathetic pretender. The sauce is made from thick Roma tomatoes not from some watery tomato sauce. It’s substantial and it’s delicious. Pizza isn’t the only restaurant offering.

Several appetizers (including “must have” garlic bread), soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees are also available. A fried calamari appetizer with marinara and cocktail sauces is a good introduction to your meal. With a Gino’s East in its midst, Lake Zurich has truly arrived.

Gino’s East of Chicago
561 West Main Street
Lake Zurich, IL
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 June 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Pan Pizza (sausage, onions, garlic, black olives, cheese)

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