Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 865 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6900 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nick & Jimmy's Bar & Grill on Pan American Frontage Road

Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill on Pan American Frontage Road

Legendary American chef, author and television personality Julia Child was often exasperated with what she perceived as American’s propensity for culinary laziness, once commenting that “the trend in the U.S.A. was toward speed and the elimination of work.”   “Americans,” she noted, equated as “gourmet” such “horrible glop” as “TV dinners, frozen vegetables, canned mushrooms, fish sticks, Jell-O salads, marshmallows and spray-can whipped cream.

Julia Child obviously didn’t know Dave Hurayt, a good friend and fellow gastronome who’s shared some wonderful recipes with me.  While Dave may not have spent two years and nearly 300 pounds of flour attempting to bake the perfect loaf of French bread as Julia Child once did, he experiments painstakingly with the recipes he creates, laboring assiduously until those recipes achieve his high standards of perfection.  Perfection can sometimes be painful as he found out while experimenting with a recipe utilizing burnt bourbon.  Much like a mad scientist adding a catalytic chemical to a burning beaker, the results were dramatic.  He blew the glass right out of his new KitchenAid oven.

Basket of bread and Spanakopita

When a true kitchen warrior and gourmet such as Dave eschews his culinary domain and eats at one restaurant for seven out of nine consecutive weeks, that restaurant has got to be special.  A restaurant capable of besotting his sophisticated palate has got to offer extraordinary quality and quality.  Like me, Dave is not a monogamous gastronome when it comes to restaurants.  When he does go out to eat, he typically will visit a variety of restaurants, not a select few like the truly culinarily lazy Americans to which Julia Child referred.

The restaurant which captured Dave’s heart and taste buds is Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill on restaurant row off the Pan American Highway on the west side of I-25.  Nick & Jimmy’s has been wowing dining patrons since it launched in September, 2009.   One of the high wow factors is the restaurant’s redesign which might more appropriately be called a metamorphosis because Nick & Jimmy’s occupies what was once Johnny Carino’s, a middling quality Italian chain.

Preparing our flaming Kaseri cheese appetizer

Preparing our flaming Kaseri cheese appetizer

The estimate as to what the transmogrification cost ranges from one-million to two-million dollars, either amount impressive.  The restaurant is an oasis of elegance in a restaurant row landscape dominated by chains.  The walls are festooned in muted earth tone colors that seem to beckon hungry diners.  Overhead, large wooden beams painted brown seem to signify strength and solidity.  As you walk in, you have the option of dining in a sprawling dining room in which tables are in fairly close proximity to one another or in a more casual room in which a well-provisioned bar holds prominence.  The two rooms are separated by smoked glass accented half walls.

A semi-exhibition kitchen is partially obfuscated from diners by the smoked glass accents.  It’s a nice touch that gives you a hint of the bustling activity at a busy kitchen without being too distracting.  As luxurious as the setting is, not all the improvements are readily apparent.  One thing diners can’t see, but which is most definitely a hallmark of the restaurant is the 1400-degree broiler reputed to sear in all the juices and flavor.

Dolmades Avgolomono

The menu is inventive and eclectic, offering a smattering of steak and seafood entrees as well as Greek, Italian and American inspired cuisine.  You’ll also see more than just a perfunctory tribute to the Land of Enchantment’s red and green chile, starting with posole which is often the “soup” of the day.  Almost all the entrees on the lunch menu are also available for dinner.  It’s a very diverse menu which includes steak, chops and chicken entrees the likes of which every great steakhouse offers, but few prepare exceptionally well. 

Most entrees are served with your choice of soup or salad, seasonal vegetables and one of the following: oven-roasted potatoes, rice pilaf, old-fashioned mashed potatoes or au gratin potatoes.  Unlike some of their peers in the upscale casual market, Nick & Jimmy’s have a price point to which more patrons will relate and no a la carte offerings.  Portions are generous so you shouldn’t walk out hungry.

Pan Seared Scallops

As you peruse the menu, a basket of bread will be brought to your table and your attendant will prepare a dish of olive oil and seasonings in which to immerse the bread (which just happens to be some of the very best bread in town).  The bread is courtesy of Fano’s Bakery, a local institution.  It encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread.  Also served in the bread basket are small wedges of the restaurant’s pizza bread which are infiltrated with Parmesan cheese and chili flakes.

More than half of Nick & Jimmy’s appetizer options are succulent selections from the sea: shrimp cocktail, crab cake, Parmesan prawns, baked crab and artichoke heart dip, sesame seared Ahi tuna, fried calamari, shrimp scampi and pan-seared scallops (raved about by Dave).  The sole landlubbers are hummus served with toasted pita wedges, jumbo steamed artichoke, chicken quesadilla, dolmades avgolemono and Saganaki, flaming Kasseri cheese, also served with toasted pita wedges.

Seafood Soup

14 November 2009: The Saganaki is almost as much fun to see prepared tableside as it is to eat it.  Alit courtesy of a common lighter, the flames ascend toward the heavens, leaving blue and orange plume trails in their aromatic wake.  Your well-trained attendant turns the cheese over with but a steak knife, manipulating the flames so they lick the cheese, imparting high heat through and through and with an evenness that ensures every bit of the cheese is flame-kissed.

In Greece, Kasseri cheese is made from sheep’s milk while its American counterpart is made with cow’s milk.  Nick & Jimmy’s Kasseri is made from an amalgam of goat milk and cow’s milk.  Its flavor is of medium sharpness with a salty prominence.  It’s not meant to be spread on the pita wedges so much as it’s intended to be placed atop the pita, akin to a crown of cheesy deliciousness.

Beef and barley soup at Nick & Jimmy's

Beef and barley soup at Nick & Jimmy’s

30 October 2010: Dolmades (grape leaves rolled around rice, ground beef and herbs) Avgolomono (an egg and lemon sauce) is another great Greek starter.  If you’ve ever lamented the fact that most dolmades in the Duke City come from a can, you’ll appreciate these housemade gems which, also unlike at most other Albuquerque restaurants, are served warm.  The herbaceous aroma and flavor of the ground beef and rice combination coupled with the tangy richness of the Avgolomono sauce make these (five to an order) stubby cigar-shaped beauties some of the very best in the city. 

16 May 2015: Finding scallops on an appetizer menu is as rare as a “good hair day” for Donald Trump.  In fact, Nick and Jimmy’s might be the only restaurant in the metropolitan area to do so.  Best of all, an order of pan-seared scallops won’t break the bank…and we’re not talking the smallish bay scallops here.  This appetizer features three large scallops served over a single grilled tomato and topped with bay shrimp in a lemon-caper butter sauce.  Usually “fruity” sauces, especially tart-tangy sauces detract from the natural sweet brininess of scallops, but not so at Nick and Jimmy’s where the lemon-caper butter sauce is so rich, so delicious and so complementary of the scallops that you’ll sop up any remaining sauce with bread.

Spicy Beef Short Ribs with Roasted Potatoes and a Vegetable Medley

Spicy Beef Short Ribs with Roasted Potatoes and a Vegetable Medley

The soup of the day rotates frequently and as noted previously, is served complementary with many of the restaurant’s entrees.  Separately, soup is available for five dollars a bowl.  Alternatively, the menu offers five salads: Caprese Salad, Iceberg Wedge, Dinner Salad, Greek Salad and a Caesar Salad with your choice of dressing: Bleu cheese, Ranch, Greek, Caesar, Thousand Island or Raspberry Vinaigrette.

Legendary French chef and restauranteur Auguste Escoffier once said “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.”  Not all soups warrant such lavish praise, but some soups seem to have been the inspiration for Escoffier’s sage words.  Nick & Jimmy’s Beef Barley Soup is one of these.

Gyros with potatoes au gratin

Gyro Sandwich with tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce, served with pita bread

14 November 2009: The beef and barley soup is rich, hearty and tasty, replete with a thick, savory beef stock ameliorated by a generous amount of tender beef.  It is served piping hot with steam wafting upwards to tease and tantalize your olfactory senses.  This soup exemplifies all that people equate with the comforting and nurturance of a truly good soup.  It is a soup Nick & Jimmy’s should consider for the daily menu–or at least as a seasonal offering available in cold weather.

30 October 2010: Another soul-warming soup, one which might make you long for a cold day, is the seafood soup, showcasing calamari, squid, crab, fish and shrimp in a heavily-seasoned broth with potatoes.  Heavily seasoned in this case doesn’t mean the seafood flavor is obfuscated in any way.  Especially delightful are the calamari ringlets which are chewy and delicious.  This is wholly unlike most chowder-like seafood soups which are thick and seem to beckon for oyster crackers.  The only things this soup cries out for are a large spoon and a second helping. 

Greek Style Roasted Chicken with Rice Pilaf and a Vegetable Medley

Greek Style Roasted Chicken with Rice Pilaf and a Vegetable Medley

16 May 2015: Menus at New Mexican restaurants don’t usually offer soups unless they involve green or red chile and more often than not, they’re more along the lines of a stew than they are a soup.  At Nick and Jimmy’s, the soup-of-the-day might also include posole, a Land of Enchantment standard.  Though this rendition is more akin to hominy than to true posole, it does include a generous amount of cubed pork and a chile sauce that livens things up quite a bit. 

The lunch and dinner menus both include eight Italian inspired pasta dishes as well as four wood-oven fired pizzas.  For lunch you can also order a hamburger with green chile, a traditional gyro sandwich or a chicken gyro sandwich, all served with French fries and a house salad served with your choice of dressing. The lunch menu lists five items on the steaks, chops and chicken section, a number which doubles on the dinner menu.  You might be surprised to find such upscale meat entrees as oven braised lamb shank and spiced, braised short ribs on the lunch menu.  Don’t hesitate to order either.

Beef Tenderloin Tip Rigatoni in cayenne cream sauce with wild mushrooms and red peppers

14 November 2009: The spiced, braised short ribs come six to an order.  Braised slowly and marinated for hours, they are fall-off-the-bone tender and taste like very good, very expensive Irish pot roast seasoned very well though the “spiced” adjective doesn’t appear to equate to piquant.  Coupled with roasted potatoes, this entree reminded me very much of the wonderful comfort meals we’ve had in Irish restaurants. 

16 May 2015:  New Mexicans have been known to incorporate red and green chile into virtually every savory entree.  Intrepid cooks will even add a smidgeon or more to various dessert dishes.  It makes good sense then that green chile be part and parcel of an American comfort food standard.  Nick and Jimmy’s green chile meatloaf is an amalgam of two great tasting items that taste even better together.  A thick slab of dense, moist meatloaf punctuated with a discernibly piquant green chile and slathered with a peppery red gravy goes very well with mashed potatoes in which a well has been dug out for even more gravy.  These are real mashed potatoes, not out-of-a-box.  During our inaugural visit to Nick and Jimmy’s in 2009, my sole complaint was about the uninspired vegetable medley.  How things have changed!  The vegetable medley is reminiscent of the French preparation style for vegetables.  Carrots, pea pods, zucchini and red peppers all are redolent with sweet freshness.  All vegetables should taste this good!

Green Chile Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Vegetable Medley

14 November 2009: Another entree at which Nick & Jimmy’s excels is the roasted spring chicken which is slow-roasted with fresh herbs, prominent among which are garlic and oregano.  The chicken is comprised of a breast, leg, thigh and wing, all moist and thoroughly delicious.  Easily large enough to share, you probably will want this chicken all to yourself.  An excellent complement to the chicken is the buttery and rich rice pilaf, each grain of which is imbued with flavor. 

16 May 2015: A half dozen pizzas fired on the restaurant’s wood oven are a popular draw.  if the Athenian Pizza (spinach, roasted garlic and feta) is any indication, Nick and Jimmy’s could compete with the city’s pizzerias.  This thin-crusted beauty is generously endowed with ingredients: enough roasted garlic cloves to ward off a werewolf or two, enough feta to wreck your breath for a day and a nice blanket of spinach over a crusty canvas lightly slathered with tomato sauce.  It’s not always the case that a pizza will taste even better cold than it does warm, but this one does.  Thankfully we took half the pizza home and enjoyed it for breakfast the following day.

Athenian Pizza

30 October 2010: If Greek entrees are what appeal most to you from the menu, but you also want a sandwich, Nick & Jimmy’s offers a gyro sandwich with tomatoes, onion, tzatziki sauce and an amalgam of beef and lamb nestled in a thick, warm pita.  Though a good sandwich, this one isn’t overstuffed with beef and lamb the way I enjoy my gyros. Thankfully it is very moist and very well-seasoned, a perfect foil for the thicker than usual tzatziki sauce.

30 October 2010: Dave Hurayt often extols the excellence of Nick & Jimmy’s pasta dishes.  No longer exclusively the domain of Italian restaurants, pasta dishes are often better prepared in fine-dining  eclectic establishments than they are in their more well-practiced Italian brethren.  That’s certainly the case with the Beef Tenderloin Tip Rigatoni, a swimming pool-sized bowl brimming with rigatoni in a cayenne cream sauce with wild mushrooms and red peppers studded with beef tenderloin.  The cayenne cream sauce is redolent with a peppery piquancy that New Mexicans will love.  The pasta is perfectly prepared at a shade beyond al dente while the beef tenderloin, at medium-rare, is tender and succulent, a real treat.

Pineapple Upsidedown Cake at Nick & Jimmy's

Pineapple Upsidedown Cake at Nick & Jimmy’s

14 November 2009: The dessert menu includes such seemingly de rigueur standards as creme brulee and bread pudding.  It also showcases a pineapple upsidedown cake, not a very common dessert offering in New Mexico restaurants.  This is wholly unlike other pineapple upsidedown cakes I’ve ever seen as it’s not sliced from a large sheet cake.  These are individually portioned cakes sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and surrounded by rich whipped cream and fresh berries.  The cake is moist and thoroughly delicious, not too sweet as some of its ilk are apt to be.

30 October 2010: Another Greek-inspired dessert favorite is the Baklava Sundae, a sundae glass in which two mounds of Blue Bunny’s vanilla ice cream are topped with a triangle of moist and rich baklava replete with sweet honey.  The baklava sweetens the ice cream all the more, forming a decadent marriage sure to appease the most discerning of dessert aficionados.

Coconut Cream Pie

16 May 2015:  Not even Gilligan’s crew enjoyed coconut cream pie as good as prepared at Nick and Jimmy’s.  From its frothy whipped cream top sprinkled with shreds of toasted coconut to its flaky Graham cracker crust, this thick pie served cold is an absolute delight.  Texturally, it’s thicker than most puddings though not quite as thick as a cheesecake.  It’s the type of dessert for which you’d risk your svelte figure.

Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill is owned by Albuquerque’s dynamic partnership duo of Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos, restaurant impresarios with a small empire of restaurants throughout the Duke City.  A hallmark of their restaurants is great service.  You can’t do better than Michelle, one of the best servers in town.  Ask for her.

Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill
5021 S Pan American Freeway,  N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 344-9169
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 May 2015
1st VISIT: 14 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:   Pineapple Upsidedown Cake, Spicy Beef Short Ribs, Greek Style Roasted Chicken, Saganaki, Gyros Sandwich, Baklava Sundae, Dolmades Avgolomono, Beef Tenderloin Tip Ravioli, Seafood Soup, Coconut Cream Pie, Athenian Pizza, Green Chile Meatloaf.

Nick & Jimmy's Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cafe Bella in Rio Rancho

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
~Author Unknown

Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee.  As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I worked for eighteen years provided free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as employees can drink.  All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.

There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee.  It’s not that we like our coffee weak.  It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems.  Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and Texans cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.”  It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.

Cafe Bella, for the very best coffee and so much more…

Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens.  Only in the past fifteen years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir.  Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend.  As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).

Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries.  Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe.  It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable liquid commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.

Operating partner Michael Gonzales and his son (a future barista?)

Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless.  Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not.  Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window.  A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.

Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner.  Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed.  Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers.  Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.

Sriracha Bacon Sandwich

Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world.  He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio.  From an experiential standpoint, those  are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies.  To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”

In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side.  It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital.  The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six.  The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.

Panini (grilled Red Delicious apples with caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on local Fano rustic artisan bread) with a large Cafe Au Lait.

Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is.  The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.  The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound.  None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker.  Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine. 

The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico.  A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader.  Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic.  Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes.  During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.

Breakfast Bagel of the Day: Warm toasted Parmesan bagel, Italian herb bread with mozzarella, sundried tomato cream cheese spread and Canadian bacon

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more.  All food items are served with plasticware, reason being that Cafe Bella is a coffee shop which serves outstanding food.  It is not a restaurant (though many of its culinary offerings would put restaurants to shame).

20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity.  Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular.  One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread.  The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

When it first launched, Cafe Bella Coffee offered its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis, all procured from bakery partners, all of which are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  While partner relationships remain strong, they’re no longer exclusive. Cafe Bella staff has begun baking its own scones.  The staff has the latitude to be creative in designing delicious flavor combinations.  Think double espresso and red chile, chocolate chip and maple, and more.

15 March 2013:  For years after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time.  Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe.  Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2’s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012.  Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event.  However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating  in a number of events on and off location.  On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados.  Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights.  With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek. 

8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well.  One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread.  It’s even better than it sounds if possible.  Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload.  The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas and it’s lightly toasted so that the flavor of char doesn’t obscure the flavor of chocolate. 

CafeBella12

Smoked Turkey Panini with Garlic Mustard Barbecue Mayo, Melted Mozzarella, Organic Field Greens on Local Fano Artisan Bread

16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella.  One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese.  For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens.  The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most. 

14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.”  He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012.  It’s easy to see why.  Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini.  When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats.  When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours.  The result is pure, unadulterated edible art.  Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce.   Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness. 

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini (with an egg)

7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey.  You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella.   Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey.  This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham).  This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks. 

19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization.  For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico.   You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another.  In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili.  The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy.  The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation.  If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it.  I did!

Street Tacos, becoming a Tuesday tradition in Rio Rancho

8 July 2014:  While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand.  These tacos were  paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be.  In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out.  On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon.  What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions. 

An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit.  Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all.  The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema.  The sauteed carne packs  a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema.  Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions.  Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!. 

Avocado Toast

9 May 2015: Keeping a pulse on national culinary trends, Michael determined early on that avocado toast would become a national phenomena (just Google “avocado toast” to see how prescient he was).  Toast is a veritable tabula rasa, a blank slate which can be topped by sundry ingredients in limitless combinations.  Similarly, avocado pairs very well with numerous ingredients.  After much trial and experimentation, in 2014, Michael debuted his version of a soon-to-be national sensation, pioneering the Duke City’s very first avocado toast.  Generously spread atop lightly toasted focaccia this open-faced canvas of deliciousness includes butyraceous avocado at the height of ripeness and freshness along with a single poached egg.  Puncture the poached egg with your fork and the yolk trickles over the toast and onto the plate where it melds with Michael’s fabulous crema.  Words fail in expressing just how good Cafe Bella’s avocado toast is (this coming from someone who considers avocados rather boring).

9 May 2015: As a culinary professional, Michael understands better than most that in order to grow business year-upon-year, the menu has to remain interesting.  Though wholesale changes aren’t necessary, he and his creative staff have continued to introduce amazing new items we now can’t live without.  In 2013, it was the addictive Slow-Smoked Carne Panini and the Chocolate Panini.  In 2014, Cafe Bella pioneered the revolutionary avocado toast.  Those outstanding additions set the bar high, but 2015’s offering meets or exceeds the high standards set by its predecessors.  How could it not?  Its a Sriracha Bacon Sandwich (eggs, green onions, mozzarella, Parmesan and bacon on a grilled green chile cheddar bun with sriracha mayo).  The green chile Cheddar bun, specially baked for Cafe Bella, is somewhere between the size of a burger and the size of an English muffin.  It’s surprisingly light and delicate so as not to be too “bready,” allowing the other ingredients to shine…and shine they do.  This is a superb sandwich, a candidate for my “best of the best” for 2015.

Cafe Bella's drive-up window means coffee to go at any time

Cafe Bella’s drive-up window means coffee to go every day but Sunday

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.  Proximity to the drive-through has meant increased frequency of visits, most often for the aforementioned red chili mocha.  Thankfully Cafe Bella offers a loyalty card–buy ten and get one free.  As of May 9th, I’ve enjoyed six red chile mochas for free.

My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home.  The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality.  Waitresses donned  period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots.  The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back.  Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities.  If  this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 9 May 2015
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 19
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos

Cafe Bella Coffee on Urbanspoon

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo

Everyman philosopher Homer Simpson once posed the profound existential question “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?” One thing at which donuts seem especially adept is ensnaring the hearts and affections of youth—and not just American youth. The Huffington Post reported recently that in Japan, “the younger generation is increasingly eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts and McDonald’s, not rice.” Fast food chains such as the aforementioned Krispy Kreme and McDonald’s as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza and others have become ubiquitous in Japan—much to the detriment of traditional Japanese culinary traditions, many of which are closely linked to family relations.

The popularity of fast food is the likely culprit for the steep decline in annual rice consumption across the Land of the Rising Sun. In recent decades, rice consumption has fallen 17 percent, from 9.44 million tons to 7.81 million tons per year. According to the Post, the fast food diet and its “spicy oily food” has also largely decimated the ability of young people to discern “umami,” a fundamental taste in the Japanese palate along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The exodus from Japanese culinary traditions has also had an esthetic impact. While Japanese food and its plating have always been beautiful and pleasing to the eye, fast food has a more “thrown together” visual quality.

The interior of Nagomi

In my own callow and shallow youth, the addictive properties of fast foods laden with carbohydrates and fats were an enticing mistress and similar to so many of my peers, I succumbed to the lure of caloric overachievement. My epiphany as to alternative (and much better) culinary options occurred when the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts where a world opened up of gustatory delights theretofore rare in New Mexico. The rich, diverse and exotic culinary offerings of Asian cultures became my passion, each new experience teasing and tantalizing my taste buds in so many new and beguiling ways.

So, you’ll forgive me if my first impulse at reading about Japanese youth eschewing their traditional cuisine is to want to shake some sense into them. How could anyone possibly prefer the empty calories and negative nutritional values of American fast foods to the much more delicious, not to mention dietetically healthier Japanese style of eating? My friend Andrea Lin describes the former as “akin to planting a flower in your garden that blooms beautifully for a day and then your soil is destroyed.” The latter is a healthy balance of delicious, filling lower-calorie foods presented beautifully with reasonable portion control.

Miso Soup

Author Naomi Moriyama who wrote Japanese Women Don’t Get Fat believes the Japanese way of dining “encourages you to “eat with your eyes” by enjoying the beauty of your food. The result? You’ll want to slow down to savor every bite, which means eating less, because it gives your brain time to realize your body is full.” Eating with your eyes, savoring every bite…if you didn’t know better, you might wonder if these phrases were written to describe a meal at Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Juan Tabo.

The name Nagomi represents “the comfort you feel after a good meal. Imagine, you take time off from your busy schedule and the stress of everyday life to treat yourself to a really, really good meal. The minute you take your first taste, you feel a warm, comforting, serene feeling that envelops your entire body. You feel a satisfaction deep in your body and your soul. This is the sensation we hope you will feel when you eat our food.” That’s what you’ll read on the cover of the menu and that’s what Nagomi strives to deliver.

Assorted Tempura

Nagomi’s culinary techniques and hospitality practices are steeped in traditional Japanese traditions. For owners Masahito and Kelly Sano, it’s the only way they know how. Masahito’s family has owned a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo for 100 years. Wanting to own and operate his own restaurant, he migrated to America and most recently worked as executive chef for Albuquerque’s venerable Japanese Kitchen. Until its closure several years ago, Kelly worked at Noda’s Japanese Cuisine. While influences from both the Japanese Kitchen and Noda’s Japanese Cuisine are evident, Nagomi has a personality all its own.  It’s a personality Nancy D. couldn’t wait to recommend to readers of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog. Thank you, Nancy.

Nagomi’s menu is both very traditional and very varied. American tastes which gravitate toward sushi will find a wide array of nigiri and maki rolls as well as sashimi. The menu also features a ramen sure to sate the current ramen craze. You’ll also find curry dishes, tofu in several forms, salads, seafood dishes and so much more. One of the restaurant’s specialties is shabu-shabu, a sort of Japanese fondue which gives diners the opportunity to prepare at their tables, meat and vegetables in a pot of boiling broth.

Chicken Kara-age

Scant minutes after you place your order, a steaming bowl of miso soup is delivered to your table. Your first spoonful is a revelation that miso soup doesn’t have to require desalinization. The second spoonful might introduce the element of cabbage, an ingredient not often used on miso soup in other Albuquerque restaurants. You’ll also find Wakame seaweed and finely chopped onions among a very satisfying, very warming miso soup sure to start your meal off on a good note.

Although there are only eleven appetizers on the menu, most are familiar even to casual visitors of Japanese restaurants: edamame, gyoza, egg rolls, tempura, chicken katsu and others. The assorted tempura (shrimp, imitation crab sticks, calamari and three types of vegetables) is always a good bet. The assorted seafood and vegetables are sheathed in a light, golden batter and served with a savory-sweet teriyaki sauce. Each piece is delectable with nary a drop of excess oil dripping off. The textures and flavors range widely so it’s easy to discern exactly what you’re enjoying without having to study its shape.

Tonkotsu Ramen

When in Japan, why have KFC when you can have JFC (Japanese Fried Chicken), more commonly known as chicken kara-age?   Chicken kara-age is the antithesis of the uniformly shaped, golden sheened chicken nuggets you find in American fast food restaurants.  It’s not as though they’re misshapen and dreary; they’re just not “manufactured” as their American counterparts.  Chicken kara-age are bite-sized chunks of soy-sake-ginger marinated chicken coated in cornstarch and deep-fried.  They’ll go quickly so it will behoove you to order at least one other appetizer.

The ramen craze in America pales in comparison to the religious fervor with which ramen is regarded in Japan where some spa houses go so far as to offer “ramen baths” for their clientele.  Consisting of ramen, pork broth and synthetic noodles, the bath apparently helps improve patrons skin.   Frankly, it sounds like a tremendous waste of good ramen.  If all ramen is as delicious as Nagomi’s tonk0tsu ramen, anything other than eating it is sinful.  For all intents and purposes, tonkotsu is literally the essence of pork distilled down through the process of pork bones being boiled for hours to spoonfuls of murky broth bathed over chewy noodles.  My Kim considers Nagomi’s tonkotsu ramen the very best in town.

Trio Donburi

Years ago, the sublime Noda’s introduced me to donburi, a dish which became preferable to me even over sushi.  It’s been said that donburi isn’t so much a dish as it is a concept.  Meats, vegetables or seafood and any combinations thereof placed over rice in a deep bowl becomes a donburi though it’s not quite that simple.  The ingredients from which donburi is constructed must be unfailingly fresh and must be able to harmonize together on your taste buds.  Nagomi offers a number of donburi dishes, arguably the most beautiful being the donburi trio featuring tuna, yellowtail and salmon.  Each piece of fish is masterfully sliced and presented.  Each is as delicious as it is beautiful. 

After finishing a meal in Japan, diners express their gratitude for the meal by saying “gochiso sama deshita,” which translates to “it was quite a feast. It might behoove you to learn those words before visiting Nagomi. You’ll be uttering them after every visit.

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant
2400 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E. # G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-3081
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Trio Donburi, Tonkotsu Ramen, Chicken Kara-Age, Assorted Tempura, Miso Soup

Nagomi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon