Typhoon – Portland, Oregon (CLOSED)

Among restaurant critics the term “edible art” is so overused it’s become trite, but it really is an apt description for the incredible Thai cuisine crafted by chef Bo Kline. Hailed by Bon Appetit as “one of the hottest chefs in America,” Kline has become somewhat of a regional impresario with six successful Typhoon restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

Kline’s restaurant’s menu is inspired by the humble pushcarts of the peasants and the opulent palaces of her native Thailand where an incomparably delicious balance of sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors in all their glorious combinations, subtleties and exotic explosiveness has been perfected over the millennia. At Typhoon, traditional dishes share the spotlight with cutting-edge nouvelle cuisine in an inviting setting that features a muted patina, mirrored walls and busts of Buddha (in Thailand, there are more Buddha statues than its 60 million plus inhabitants).

Intoxicating aromas tease your olfactory senses while your eyes are visually aroused by a menu unlike any I’ve seen in the Southwest. Introduce all your senses to Miang Kum, a rare Thai peasant dish which requires tactile dexterity as you wrap or roll (children of the 60s will be well acquainted with the technique) a pinch of toasted coconut, shallot, ginger, lime, peanut, dried shrimp and Thai chili in a spinach leaf which you then dip into Kline’s signature sauce and pop in your mouth to a medley of eye-opening and mouth-watering flavors. In her outstanding book Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl provides a recipe for this wonderful street food sold in every Thai market. She calls Miang Kum “a wonderful little snack to feed your lover.”

Tantalize your taste buds with a crisp fried Ahi tuna spring roll which features slightly seared tuna wrapped in Menlo and seaweed, given texture with sesame seeds then made scintillatingly piquant with a wasabi paste the color of lime. Given Kline’s propensity for authenticity and quality, you can ensure it’s real wasabi, not the doctored horse radish most often served in Asian restaurants throughout America.

At Typhoon, only the finest cuts of meat, the freshest ingredients and the most succulent seafood is served. Consequently you pay more, but every bite is worth it. An entree of Royal Duck Curry, for example, includes tender duck, crisp pineapple chunks, vine fresh grapes and tiny currant tomatoes, all of which swim in a glorious red curry. This culinary work of art left an indelible impression on each of my 10,000 taste buds. It was pungent, sweet, salty and savory all at once–so good I didn’t touch the jasmine rice.

Portland’s spirited restaurant scene has become a recognized gastronomic Mecca for chefs and gourmands alike–and Typhoon is a big reason for that. With an artistic presentation, bountiful portions and an adventurous menu, it’s a restaurant as intense as the tropical weather system for which it is named.

410 SW Broadway
Portland, OR
(503) 224-8285
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 13 June 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Ahi Spring Rolls; Miang Kum; Royal Duck Curry

Quizno’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Just as owning a BMW might diminish your appreciation of any other car you’ll ever have (unless it’s another BMW), eating sub sandwiches in New England will devalue your estimation of any sub sandwich you’ll ever have anywhere else. From Maine to Delaware, sub sandwiches in all their sobriquets (grinders, torpedoes, heroes, etc.) are so far superior to sandwiches served anywhere else in the country that you’ll invariably find yourself making unfair comparisons. Nothing else quite fills the bill.

After moving to Denver, New York native James Lambatos wanted Mile High City residents to experience an Italian sub similar to what he experienced growing up in the Big Apple. He founded Quizno’s in 1981 as an upscale version of Subway but with the intention of duplicating the New York sub sandwich experience.

At its worse, Quizno’s does provide a better product than the ubiquitous industry leader, but it still pales in comparison to the sandwiches you’ll find throughout the East Coast. Quizno’s motto is “Deliziosa e rinfrescante–delicious and refreshingly good! Quizno’s oven toasted sandwiches do taste better–a fact that wasn’t lost on franchise leader Subway who in 2005 began its own toasted sub campaign.

A burgeoning franchise, Quizno’s appeared poised to make a run at the big boys as evidenced by its marketing campaign which kicked off during 2002 Superbowl. I don’t know if they made many inroads into an already glutted sandwich market, but their commercials were certainly clever and its product definitely upscale compared to Subway.

Unlike assembly line sandwich competitors, each Quizno’s sub is made to order and each is toasted. Size doesn’t necessarily matter if the product is big on taste. Quizno’s makes big sandwiches in which the ingredients are not pre-packaged and scrimped on, but they aren’t particularly memorable, albeit better than Subway.

My early favorite is the Angus, a well seasoned roast beef sandwich with a tangy sauce. Quizno’s toasted tuna sandwich is also pretty good unless you make the mistake of taking it home and “nuking” it. Another nice sandwich, the chicken carbonara sandwich didn’t do well enough during its short run to stick to the daily menu, but there are enough good alternatives to make this one of my sub choices in the Duke City. That last statement in itself decries the woeful state of sub sandwich restaurants in the Duke City.

6421 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2005
BEST BET: Angus Roast Beef Sandwich; Tuna Sandwich

Asia Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Proprietor Nan Nguyen and his wife launched Asia Restaurant in April, 2002 and have experienced steady, if not spectacular customer traffic.  Repeat business from faithful patrons in a small, intimate setting with only 12 tables give the Nguyens the opportunity to get to know their clients.

Although both from a small village in South Vietnam, Nan worked for years in a Chinese restaurant, hence a menu offering both Vietnamese and Chinese food.  Our inaugural visit was shortly after the restaurant’s grand opening and typical of Albuquerque, the restaurant was packed with curiosity seekers.

We were the only diners during our second visit and had a splendid time discussing the nuances of Vietnamese cuisine.  After learning of my affection for durian, the Nguyens concluded I must have been Vietnamese in a previous life and told me that durian rinds were placed under beds in poor households to keep roaches and bugs away.  They contend that 99.9% of Americans won’t even try durian.  So much for convincing Kim that durian is delicious once you get past its malodorous emanations.

The menu has changed considerably since our first visit.  For example, the Asian golden crispy dragon bone featuring chicken enveloped by a crispy crust and served with delicious fish sauce is no longer on the menu.  It was uniquely wonderful.

An expansive menu features pages of options including several family dinners for two or more.  The family dinner we ordered included two Asia triangle egg rolls with fish sauce, two crab Rangoon pot stickers and to steamed pork baos, all of which were quite good.  The uniquely shaped and not quite flat triangle egg rolls were surprisingly generously endowed with vegetables and shrimp.  The family dinner also included soup–wonton soup for Kim and a meatball soup for me.  Of the two, the meatball soup stood out for its savory broth laced with green onions.

Alas, our entrees were not quite as wonderful as their precedents–probably because we ordered Chinese entrees instead of Vietnamese.  The sesame chicken wasn’t nearly as cloying as served at other Albuquerque Chinese establishments (a good thing) but it didn’t have the “grab you” properties the same entree would have at the Ming Dynasty.  Similarly, the Szechwan orange beef lacked the sweetness so common with that entree at other restaurants, but was instead bequeathed with the sharper flavors of ginger and orange rind.  It was much better than the sesame chicken.

During our first visit we ordered Vietnamese entrees and will do so during future visits.  The steamed vermicelli with grilled beef and shrimp might be on our list, courtesy of some of the best grilling we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The rice noodle with grilled pork and egg rolls was also delicious.  Asia Restaurant is a very good Asian restaurant in a city blessed with outstanding Vietnamese and Thai restaurants.

Asia Restaurant
4200 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 21 May 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Asian Golden Crispy Dragon Bone

Conway’s Red Top – Pueblo Colorado

Bigger may not always be better, but it can be pretty darn good. The gargantuan world famous hamburgers at Conway’s Red Top earn their “one’s a meal” reputation, but fell short in my estimation as one of the best hamburgers in America. A “people’s choice” mainstay in local newspapers, those humongous burgers earned acclaim as among the best hamburgers in America by no less than Michael and Jane Stern’s, America’s preeminent Roadfood experts.

These burgers of legendary proportion have–similarly to patrons who can actually finish them–grown larger over the years. A giant hamburger is an eight ounce ground beef patty prepared to order with lettuce, tomatoes and onions on a six-inch bun baked locally in Pueblo. It’s a no frills monstrosity that can be ordered in whole or half sizes with the half sized burger being as big as the largest burger on many restaurant menus.

Despite its prodigious patty, the gigantic burger and all its accoutrements is surprisingly thin. It does take two hands to handle it, but that’s in part to keep it from falling apart. As with Kincaid’s, another “top ten” burger, green chile would have crowned the burger better than the pepper jack, Swiss, Cheddar, Velveeta, American or Mozzarella offered.

Burgers aren’t the only thing on the menu, but they’re what the restaurant is known for. We didn’t see anyone order any of Grandma’s homemade soup, stew or chili, but we did see quite a few patrons down the old-fashioned shakes and malts. Conway’s Red Top has been a family owned and operated business since 1961 and until recent years could be found only in Colorado Springs. There are six locations in the Pike’s Peak area and all offer take-out or dine-in service. The Pueblo location is the most recent addition to the Conway’s restaurant family and has seen turn-away crowds since its launch.

Conway’s Red Top
112 West 2nd
Pueblo, CO
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 6 May 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Giant Cheeseburger, Chocolate Malt

Mediterranean Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In ancient times, the Mediterranean Sea was a “superhighway” of transportation, facilitating cultural exchange and trade between the region that fashioned Western civilization as we recognize it today. As the sapphire heart that gives life to the countries surrounding her, the Mediterranean was the seat of empires for millennia.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean share more than history. They also share culinary traditions which are celebrated in the Mediterranean Cafe, a diminutive restaurant specializing in the foods of North Africa and the Middle East with popular foods of Greece added because of popular demand.

Proprietor Ridha Bouajila, a Tunisian by birth, previously owned the now defunct Marrakech restaurant near the University of New Mexico and after a three-year hiatus launched his second restaurant venture, aptly named the Mediterranean Cafe. Tunisian style accoutrements and soothing sitar music in the background lend to the charm of the small restaurant with limited seating.

On Fridays and Saturdays at dinner a belly dancer performs tableside. While prudish Americans hold belly dancers in the same regard as ecdysiasts writhing around a pole, we found it strangely mesmerizing–although I must admit it was a challenge to keep my eyes focused solely on the dancer’s undulating movements which are both sensual and artistic.

A two-page menu includes several familiar items along with a list of chef’s specialties we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Albuquerque. A good way to start is with one familiar and one new appetizer. The dolmates, five grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs, is a good choice for the former while the Tunisian brika, a limpia dough turnover stuffed with potato mousse, herbs and parsley is a nice introduction to something new.

Rather than trying the standard Grecian entrees with which you might be quite familiar, visit the restaurant with a dining companion and order entrees with contrasting tastes. The tagine (a Moroccan stew named after the traditional earthenware dish in which it is cooked) of lemon chicken is one of my recommendations. A quarter chicken is marinated in herbs and olive oil then cooked with green and black olives, saffron and lemons that have been preserved for four months in an environment of vinegar, coriander, cumin, salt and other spices. It’s not nearly as tart as say, lemon chicken as served at Chinese restaurants and as such, invigorates the chicken without dominating it.

Another wonderful alternative is the tagine of lamb with honey which is a dish of lamb marinated in herbs and olive oil then cooked with prunes, apricots, almonds and honey. It’s not dessert sweet but sweet enough to defeat any gaminess inherent in lamb and it’s absolutely delicious.

The Mediterranean Cafe prepares its own pita bread only when business is slow. Otherwise they obtain their bread from Chicago where Greek food is incomparable. This is a fabulous restaurant that deserves heavy patronage!

Mediterranean Cafe
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Tagine of Lamb with Honey; Tagine of Lemon Chicken; Tunisian Brika

Gruet Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gruet Steakhouse at the old Monte Vista Fire Station

Gruet Steakhouse at the old Monte Vista Fire Station

Is there anything finer than a sizzling, flame kissed slab of prime beef overfilling your plate at a fine high-end chop house? Steak used to define fine dining and wealth provided the delineation between the type of steak each patron could afford–select, choice or prime, a classification based on marbling (the more the marbling, the more tender the steak).

The proliferation of inexpensive steak restaurants in the 1960s made steak readily available to the common man while the advent of technology has made it available over the Internet and even in mall stores throughout America. The tragic reality is that while ordinary steaks have become ubiquitous, truly memorable steaks are a rarity.

March, 2005 saw the launch of the Gruet Steakhouse in the downstairs portion of the Monte Vista Fire Station, a national historic registry property. Expectations were high that its steaks would be comparable in quality to the highly regarded wines proffered at the local Gruet winery, an award-winning winery with worldwide acclaim.

Understandably Gruet wines are indeed prominent on the restaurant’s wine menu with some by-the-glass selections costing what it might cost for a steak at mediocre chain steak restaurants such as the Outback Steakhouse.

Sophisticated (albeit very masculine) styling resonates class with subtle earth tones, granite counters and comfortable seating. The Gruet family coat of arms and crest is omnipresent. It’s etched on windows and watermarked on the two-page menu which features many intriguing options at premium prices.

Among the artfully described appetizers is “The Wedge and Maytag Blue Cheese,” a pristine lettuce wedge garnished with applewood smoked bacon, tomato, blue cheese crumbles and chives. Maytag blue cheese, creation of the Maytag appliance scion, is among the very best blue cheeses you can find. It’s not overly sharp but brings out the very best in any salad.

The 16-ounce New York steak is tender, well-seasoned and very flavorful. It certainly doesn’t need the optional accompanying sauces–at least one of which detracted from the beef’s inherent flavor. The Herbs De Provence Scented Mustard, my choice, was so acidic and dominating, I had to scrape it off the steak. Each steak is also accompanied by garlic whipped potatoes which aren’t nearly as good as you might expect from a high-end steak restaurant.

The Gruet Steakhouse is comparable in quality to long-time Albuquerque standard, the Rancher’s Club. My overall assessment is one I’m tired of giving–“it’s pretty good for Albuquerque.” The day will hopefully come in which Duke City steak restaurants will set the standard by which restaurants at other cities will be compared.

The Gruet Steakhouse closed in December, 2009.

Gruet Steakhouse
3201 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2005
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: The Wedge, New York Steak

Gruet Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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

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