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

Shogun Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

It stands to reason that what is conceivably one of Albuquerque’s best sushi restaurants is named for the Shogun, the title accorded the supreme ruler of Japan for about eight centuries.

What most people may not realize, however, is that sushi originated in China as a method to preserve fish by pickling and fermentation. Sushi, as we know it today, began to take form in the 18th century Japan when seafood vendors wrapped fish with seaweed and rice as an edible and decorative package which ultimately evolved into the roll (maki) style. The nigiri style, consisting of a piece of fish on a bed of rice, originated in Tokyo sometime later. Sushi’s integration into the American culture began in the 1970s and today there are over 5,000 sushi restaurants in the United States.

In my 48 years on planet Earth, I’ve sampled probably 30 to 40 different sushi restaurants and won’t pretend to be an expert, but can say unequivocally that Albuquerque’s Shogun is among the very best I’ve ever had and may be in a class by itself in Albuquerque. The wasabi colored walls are the first indication that this restaurant is something special. Then there’s the sushi bar, an oval island encircled by floating boats that convey sushi treats to you. Ask to be seated in close proximity to the sushi chefs so you can watch their deft hands craft various sushi treats which are then launched on their floating platforms. Next prepare for a parade of freshly-made sushi floating right before your eyes.

You can pick and chose from the sushi line-up and at the end of your meal, your fare is based on the number of plates at your table. You can also opt to have your sushi meal custom-made for you from a menu that includes a wide variety of nigiri and maki style sushi as well as sashimi and vegetarian rolls. You’ll be hard-pressed to pick a favorite from among the delicately crafted gems that are not only palate pleasing, but which provide a feast for the eyes–truly edible art.

The rainbow roll is one such gem, living up to its name with an ultra-violet spectrum of different ingredients inside and out. It’s also drizzled lightly with just the right amount of Teriyaki sauce for a sweet and savory taste contrast. If you’re a New Mexico native, you’ve got to order the green chile roll in which the chile tastes as if freshly roasted on a traditional comal. With a little wasabi and soy sauce, it sizzles on your tongue. The calamari roll and shrimp tempura roll are served with warm calamari and shrimp respectively. Both of these rolls provide a crunchy sensation that seems to heighten the sushi’s texture. A spicy tuna hand roll lives up to its name with a flavorful piquant goodness. Shogun lives up to its name and reputation, too.

Shogun Japanese Restaurant
3310 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 15 October 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Shrimp Tempura Roll, Spicy Tuna Hand Roll, Rainbow Roll, Green Chile Roll

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Texas Reds – Red River, New Mexico

    Texas Reds in picturesque Red River, New Mexico

Texas Reds in picturesque Red River, New Mexico

Note: On Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004 Texas Reds burnt to the ground, but like a Phoenix, it has been rebuilt, albeit no longer as a two story monolith on Red River’s main street. In 2006, Texas Red’s also launched a second Colfax county restaurant, this one in Eagle Nest.

What does the alpine village of Red River in the picturesque Moreno Valley have in common with San Marcos, Texas, the beautiful gateway to the Texas Hill Country? Aside from both being heavily populated by Texans, they both can boast of a Texas Reds restaurant.

The original Texas Reds has been a Red River dining destination serving generous portions of friendly service and old west ambience since Thanksgiving, 1967. With an overdone touristy atmosphere that includes checkerboard tablecloths, wooden planked floors and the perfunctory peanuts you can toss on the floor, Texas Reds is a carnivore’s paradise. Its old west saloon is at ground level while the dining rooms are upstairs.

While it’s true that dining at nearly 9,000 feet makes the food seem to taste better and your appetite more robust, it’s also true that Texas Reds proffers one of the very best steaks in New Mexico. Charbroiled in butter, the porterhouse is 18 ounces plus of perfectly seasoned meat which seems to have addictive properties. It’s so good, you’re challenged to partake of the “odds ‘n’ ends” that accompany your meal. Even better is the nearly inch thick New York strip steak. Almost tender enough to cut with a fork alone, it’s one of the best slabs of beef you can find anywhere. For steak alone, Texas Reds is one of the two or three best restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.

The dinner salads are bountiful and creative, but are especially delicious when bathed in Texas Reds salad dressing or the blue cheese dressing rich with crumbles. Unfortunately, the baked potato is nearly as ordinary as the steaks are spectacular. Worse yet, you have to fully dress your potato (chives, sour cream, butter, bacon bits) yourself out of packaged ingredients. For dessert, a brownie sundae is ample enough for two to share, but after consuming a steak, you’ll have to loosen your belt at least two more loops.

Texas Reds, like Red River itself, is an experience!

Texas Reds
111 East Main
Red River, NM

LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Porterhouse Steak, New York Strip, Texas Reds Salad Dressing

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