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The Safari Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Safari Grill launched in June, 2014

“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.”
~ Africa by Toto

Shrouded in mist and steeped in myth and mystery, Mount Kilimanjaro attracts visitors from all over the world.  Often called “the roof of Africa,” the towering, snow-capped, conically-shaped mountain is the crown jewel of the United Republic of Tanzania.  At 19,340 feet, the magnificent freestanding peak commands the skies, looming over the plains of the bushveld savannah like a majestic sovereign keeping vigilant watch over her people. 

Majestic as it may be, Mount Kilimanjaro is far from Tanzania’s sole travel destination.  The country boasts of dozens of beautiful white sandy beaches such as those found in the island of Zanzibar.  A number of national parks, conservation areas and game reserves allow visitors to get up close and personal with lions, leopards, elephants, cheetah, giraffes, zebras,  jackals and thousands of migratory birds.  Tanzania is also one of Africa’s most popular safari destinations.

The Restaurant’s Interior Might Just Transport you to Tanzania

Now, safaris need not entail hunting animals in their natural habitat and trophies need not be stuffed and mounted.   Set against a backdrop of unrivaled natural beauty makes Tanzania one of the greatest wildlife photography safari destinations on the planet.  Photography safaris reward participants with an incomparable portfolio of wildlife and landscape images they’ll cherish for a long time. 

Whatever your reasons are for visiting Tanzania, you’ll also find the cuisine to be memorable and delicious.  The food culture of Tanzania is a fusion of Indian, Middle Eastern, and local African ingredients and cooking techniques. Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and samosas on a menu at a Tanzanian restaurant and you’ll certainly discern the spices and aromatics of India when you taste the curries.

A very generous sample includes Samosas, Zucchini Chips, Calamari and a Variety of Sauces

The spirit and cuisine of Tanzania are alive and well in Albuquerque thanks to the June, 2014 launch of The Safari Grill on Albuquerque’s burgeoning far west side.  The Safari Grill occupies the space which previously housed California Pastrami, The Chili Stop and the Bombay Grill.  If the exterior architecture seems more befitting of a Chinese restaurant than an African-Indian restaurant, that’s because the edifice’s original tenant was indeed a long defunct Chinese eatery. The Safari Grill occupies the western-most section of the building, a small space accommodating but a handful of tables.

Before there was a Safari Grill, there was the Safari Street Grill, a food truck often parked at some of the city’s breweries which don’t serve food.  The Safari Street Grill gained a significant following, in some cases becoming the primary reason some patrons visited those breweries.  While not all mobile eatery operators aspire to diversifying their offerings by launching a brick and mortar operation, after nearly five years, the Safari Street Grill left the streets and settled into a cozy space.

Goat Stew with Rice

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the Safari Grill’s new digs aren’t significantly larger than its mobile predecessor.  In a Lilliputian space offering limited seating, the Safari Grill has already established a fairly robust take-out operation.  Your first visit, however, should be an eat-in venture so you can interact with one of the most friendly and attentive families to operate a restaurant in Albuquerque.  The family is justifiably proud of the cuisine of their Tanzanian homeland and will bend over backwards to ensure you have a great dining experience. 

Your first visit should also include intrepid friends who’ll order something adventurous and don’t mind sharing their bounty.  For our inaugural visit we were joined by Hannah and Edward, themselves prolific food bloggers as well as nonpareil podcasters. Together we set off on a dining safari, exploring and experiencing as wide a swathe across the menu as we possibly could.  A fairly impressive menu belies the restaurant’s diminutive digs.

All beef short ribs

True to the restaurant’s name, featured fare includes a number of char-grilled entrees, each created from fresh prime cuts of meats marinated for more than 24 hours to ensure the peak of flavor.  For fire-eaters, sauces are applied before, during and after the grilling process to ensure the meats “bring the heat.”  Unless otherwise requested, all meats are cooked to Medium.   

12 July 2014: Your introduction to your dining safari should begin with a sampler platter, one featuring each of the three Indian-style samosas: veggie, marinated chicken and beef.   Samosas are delectable, triangle-shaped savory pastries stuffed with a variety of spiced ingredients and having a delightfully crispy exterior.  The Safari Grill serves them with a variety of housemade sauces: green chile, red chile, tamarind chutney and coconut chutney.  All three samosas are a real treat either by themselves or with the sauces, among which the green chile packed a piquant punch.

Curry Corn

12 July 2014: Our sampler platter also included zucchini chips served with Ranch dressing and calamari served with cocktail sauce.  Shaped rather like Coke bottle tops, the zucchini chips are lightly battered then fried to a golden hue.  Though not quite al dente, the zucchini chips are moist and crisp.  The calamari strips are light and delicate, wholly unlike the rubbery ringlet-shaped calamari.  The only appetizer we didn’t sample were the tandoori-style “elevated” wings. 

12 July 2014: For many people the world over, stew is the ultimate comfort food.  The special of the day during our inaugural visit was goat stew with rice, a rich, filling and nicely spiced exemplar of comfort food stews.  Long and slow simmering renders the goat meat falling-off-the-bone tender.  That’s an absolute necessity because there are a lot of bones in goat stew.  This allows for long, loving lingering of every morsel.

Indian-Style Fish and Chips with Sliced Sauteed Potatoes

12 July 2014: The all-beef short ribs, available in quantities of three, six or a dozen, will probably remind you of Korean beef kalbi without the sweet barbecue sauce.  The Safari Grill’s short ribs are marinated and seasoned to imbue them with bold, addictive flavors.  You’ll enjoy gnawing on each meaty morsel of these finger-licking ribs though it may take more than a half dozen to sate you.  Fortunately all entrees come with your choice of one side. 

12 July 2014: The consensus best side from among the four we enjoyed was the curry corn.  While corn is often thought of as a summer dish, it’s transformed into a dish for all seasons with the addition of a hearty curry.  Each sweet corn niblet is punctuated with mildly spicy, wonderfully pungent and delightfully aromatic curry.  Curry corn is an idea whose time has come.  It’s a wonderful departure from buttered corn.

Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew with Lays Potato Chips

12 July 2014: The Safari Grill’s unique twist to classic “fish and chips” features two filets of somewhat thickly-battered salmon fused with East Indian flavors served with lightly pan-fried, seasoned sliced potatoes.  Perhaps attributable to high heat, the salmon is just a bit on the desiccated side, but it’s still light and delicate.  The sliced sauteed potatoes are a highlight, especially with a little bit of the green chile. 

12 July 2014: As a precocious child, I often experimented with food, adulterating dishes otherwise lacking in personality with sundry ingredients.  Crumbled potato chips on pinto beans was among my favorites.  I’d long thought only children liked crumbling potato chips on their food, but at the Safari Grill, one dish actually encourages it.  Who are we to argue with savvy cooks.  That dish is the curried chickpea and potato stew which is actually served with a side of Lays potato chips.  The staff calls it an Indian Style Frito Pie.  You’ll call it surprisingly good.

Southwest Burger, Salsa and Chips and Curry Corn

14 November 2014: While my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and his assistant, the dazzling Deanell Collins, have enjoyed the Safari Grill’s exotic offerings, they also rave about the burgers.  All too often international restaurants don’t infuse their nation’s culinary elements and personality into American food favorites such as burgers.  As a result, burgers at international restaurants tend to either mimic burgers you can get at virtually every American restaurant or they fall short. 

At the Safari Grill, the hand-formed ground beef patties are infused with Tanzanian seasonings that liven up the beef which is then char-grilled to the level of juicy deliciousness and topped with roasted green chile and thinly-sliced avocado all deposited gently on a toasted brioche bun. Very thinly-sliced onion, tomatoes and lettuce are served on the side along with ramekins of mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, none of which are needed. This is a burger you can enjoy “competition style” with only beef, bun and green chile.  It’s an excellent burger with more personality and flair and best of all, it doesn’t detract from the high standards of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburgers.

Fruit Cup Sorbet

12 July 2014: The menu features only one dessert, but it’s a good one. The fruit cup sorbet dessert features fruit “cups” made from actual fruit shells: a pineapple shell for pineapple sorbet, a coconut shell for coconut sorbet, a lemon shell for pomegranate sorbet and a hollowed-out orange half for mango sorbet. Unlike some sorbets, these taste like the fruits they’re supposed to be. They’re served chilled and provide a wonderful respite from the sweltering summer heat.

With a little imagination, the Safari Grill could become your own culinary safari adventure on the Serengeti with an exotic and delicious cuisine all adventurous diners will enjoy.

The Safari Grill
3600 Hwy 528, Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-0505
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2014
1st VISIT: 12 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Appetizer Sampler (Samosas, Calamari, Zucchini Chips), Goat Stew, Curry Corn, Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew, Fruit Cup Sorbet, Indian-Style Fish and Chips, All Beef Short Ribs, Southwest Burger

The Safari Grill on Urbanspoon

Viet Noodle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Viet Noodle on Montano in Albuquerque’s West Side

On April 3, 2013, University of New Mexico (UNM) Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs sent out a very simple and succinct tweet confirming the hire of head men’s basketball coach Craig Neal. The one-word tweet read simply “Noodles.”  Noodles, of course, is the sobriquet Neal received in high school on account of his tall and thin stature.  The hire was very enthusiastically received by both fans and players who were witness to the strong impact he had on the program as long-time assistant coach. 

Albuquerque has always been a Lobo basketball crazed city and it has embraced Noodles who guided his team to 27 wins during his first season as head coach.  While the UNM Lobo Club would like to believe that “Everyone’s a Lobo! Woof, woof, woof!,” there are a smattering of New Mexico State Aggie supporters strewn throughout the city.  There is also (and this will be hard for diehard Lobo fanatics to grasp) a large segment of the local populace who not only don’t like the Lobos, they don’t like sports.

The interior of Viet Noodle

Among the latter are people for whom a one-word tweet reading “Noodles” has an entirely different meaning than the hiring of a basketball coach.  To them noodles are a soul-satisfying comfort food the audible inhalation of which is heartily enjoyed whether those noodles are chilled or steamy hot.  Whether thin and translucent or thick and dense, noodles evoke warm memories of childhood (when we first discovered that food could be both delicious and fun) and of times when they nourished and comforted us.  When times get rough, noodles have always been there for us. 

Arguably the metropolitan area’s preeminent practitioners at preparing perfect  noodles are the 37 Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.   Most of the city’s Vietnamese restaurants are clustered in the International District, a section of Southeast Albuquerque stretching roughly from the state fairgrounds area to Kirtland Air Force Base.  There are two Vietnamese restaurants in Rio Rancho with the only other Vietnamese restaurant west of the Rio Grande being Viet Noodle in the Paradise Hills area.  It’s sandwiched between Spinn’s Burger & Beer (home to one of the city’s very best green chile cheeseburgers) and Little Caesar’s Pizza.

Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

As the only game in this section of town, Viet Noodle has a captive market, but Duke City diners are a persnickety bunch.  If a restaurant doesn’t cut it, it’s not going to last long.  Viet Noodle has been going strong now for five years and there’s no surcease in sight.  On the day of our inaugural visit the number of sit-down diners was greatly eclipsed by to-go orders.  Friends who live in the area tell me that’s about par for the course for this popular eatery. 

Unlike many of the area’s Vietnamese restaurants, Viet Noodle’s menu is somewhat abbreviated, not a compendium listing over a hundred dishes.  Viet Noodle is also not a traditional sit-down restaurant in which you peruse the menu and a server takes your order.  Instead, you’ll place your order at a counter above which are posted lighted meal and beverage options.  Don’t mistake the concept for Vietnamese fast food.  It’ll take a few minutes for your order to be delivered to your table.  While you wait, you’ll want to take a gander at the colorful photographs festooning the walls of life in Vietnam.

Egg Rolls with Fish Sauce

Forget the perfunctory Pepsi products.  Viet Noodle has one of the most comprehensive beverage menus of any  Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque.  The most popular (and my early favorite) is the Iced Vietnamese Coffee, a concoction of sweetened condensed milk and strong black coffee poured over ice.  A number of smoothies and shakes are also available as are boba beverages.  Whether in tea or shake form, boba are gooey, gelatinous globules that seem to inherit the flavor of the drink (strawberry-banana is a good combination). 

There are fewer than fifty items on the food menu including a limited number of appetizers and several vegetarian options.  The most popular starters are egg rolls and spring rolls.  The egg rolls are tightly-packed, golden-hued rolls stuffed mostly with vegetables and served with a clear fish sauce for dipping.  Translucent rice paper wrappers envelop vermicelli noodles and vegetables on the spring rolls which are served with a Hoisin and peanut sauce.

Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

One of the most popular noodle entrees on the menu is vermicelli which you can order with tofu or with pork and egg roll.  It’s interesting that in Italian “vermicelli” translates to English as “little worms.”  While that doesn’t sound especially appetizing, vermicelli in the hands of a Vietnamese chef is a delicious combination of long and thin pasta, julienne carrots and daikon, cucumbers, lettuce, crushed peanuts and fish sauce added to taste.  The pork has the characteristic sweet and savory grilled flavor that makes Vietnamese style pork a very special entree. 

The association that comes first to mind when you mention Vietnamese noodles is pho, the luxurious broth-based noodle soup centering on a broth base made from chicken, beef, or seafood.  The combination noodle soup (rare steak, brisket, tendon, tripe and beef ball) is a popular option.  Served in a swimming pool sized bowl, it’s replete with tangles of noodles, green onions, cilantro and the unique spices that give pho its addictive flavor profile.   My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, described Viet Noodle’s rendition of pho as “tasty with a nice aroma,” adding that “there is better pho in the Duke City, but not on the west side.”  It’s a spot-on assessment as always.  A few squeezes of sriracha will  give the pho more “personality.”

Combination Noodle Soup

Viet Noodle’s Web site boasts of the restaurant’s “strict commitment to quality” and “the highest standards for food, service, atmosphere and value.”  These are elements to which all restaurants should adhere, especially restaurants serving noodles, an entree that elicits nostalgic feelings of warmth and joy for many of us.

Viet Noodle
4411 Montano Road, N.W., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 792 – 5252
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spring Rolls, Egg Rolls, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Combination Noodle Soup, Vermicelli with Pork and Egg Roll

Viet Noodle on Urbanspoon

Mac’s La Sierra – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop on Route 66

But the Lights of Albuquerque, will soon be shining bright,
Like a diamond in the desert, like a beacon in the night.
And I wonder if she’ll take me back, will she understand?
Will the Lights of Albuquerque, shine for me again?
Jim Glaser: The Lights of Albuquerque

Imagine yourself a weary traveler motoring along a two-lane blacktop half an hour west of Albuquerque.  Moments ago, having espied a preternatural palette of colors on your mirror, you stopped to gaze in awe and wonder at the breathtaking sunset spraying the sky with vibrant reds, oranges, yellows and purples.  Rejuvenated by the slow descent of the sun giving way to an ebony canopy speckled with twinkling stars, you resume your climb of Nine Mile Hill.  At its summit, you’re rewarded with one of the most inspiring sights in the west as the lights of Albuquerque come into view.  It’s a sight Elvis Presley enjoyed often during his travels across the country in his pink Cadillac. 

The year is 1952.  The closer you get to Albuquerque, the more prominent the neon-spangled lights become.  Vibrant neon signage cuts a luminous swath through the city, beckoning motorists with unique roadside architecture and welcoming motor lodges.  You’ll take in the sights tomorrow.  Now you’re parched and hungry.  Fortunately there are a number of promising restaurants on Albuquerque’s sprawling western expanse and you don’t have to leave the Mother Road to find them.  Just beyond the Western View Diner at which you’ve previously dined, you catch sight of a nascent newcomer with an interesting name and a fatted cow over its signage.  Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop it is.

Chips and Salsa at Mac’s La Sierra

Fast forward sixty-two years.  Motorists rarely take the exit from I-40 that traverses the length and breadth of Route 66 through the Duke City.  A visit to Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop would be a great reason to do so.  Now a venerable elder statesman among Albuquerque’s restaurants, Mac’s is one of the city’s oldest continuously operating eateries.  The reason for its success?  Award-winning author Sharon Niederman contends that “no friendlier place exists along the entire road.”  Friendliness and good food go a long way in Albuquerque. 

Mac’s La Sierra no longer has the pristine look and feel that pulled in so many motorists during the waning days of Route 66.  Peruse the parking lot and you’ll quickly notice that virtually every vehicle in the sprawling parking lot is festooned with license plates from the Land of Enchantment.  Finding an empty parking spot is a challenge.  That’s always a great sign.   An external sign will whet your appetite with the promise of “Steaks, Mexican Food, Breakfast All Day.”

Super Mac’s Combo: Three steak fingers, three taquitos, three chicken fingers,  French fries and guacamole

If the “seat yourself” sign is posted, you may have to visit every one of the restaurant’s three dining rooms (one of which is adorned with framed paintings of bullfighters) to find a vacant table.  Seating is in personal space proximity.  Mac’s La Sierra seems as popular with blue- and white-collar workers as it is with families and celebrities (including Steven Michael Quezada), many of whom are regulars who need not peruse the menu to know what they want.  Breakfast Specials, including two south of four dollars, include short steak fingers and eggs.  Steak fingers, a long-time specialty of the house, are deep-fried and coated ground beef shaped like a “finger.” 

The menu is a veritable compendium of New Mexico coffee shop and diner favorites.  That means a good mix of New Mexican specialties as well as American favorites.  The breakfast specials are available from 6AM through 11AM, but you can have anything else all day long.  That includes a 12-ounce New York cut.  It’s a menu first-timers will want to study though a casual glance toward adjacent tables may be even more effective.  Green chile adorned burritos, tamale plates and enchiladas are obvious favorites.

Special Mexican Plate

6 November 2014: You won’t be seated long before an attentive and friendly server visits your table.  If, like me, your approach to New Mexican food is to precede your entree with an order of chips and salsa figuring you’ll be done with them before your entree arrives, Mac’s La Sierra will surprise you.  You won’t be too far into your chips and salsa before your entree arrives–and it’s piping hot, too.  Alas, the chips and salsa are too good to be rushed.  The rich, red salsa has a bite.  It’s a salsa to be enjoyed and respected.  The chips are light, crisp and not overly salty.

11 November 2014:  If you’re into threesomes, the Super Mac’s Combo is your hook-up.  Available as an entree or a generously sized appetizer, this prodigious platter includes three steak fingers, three taquitos, three chicken fingers, French fries and guacamole.  The steak fingers, a long-time restaurant staple, are lightly battered and well-seasoned.  The guacamole is so much more than mashed avocados.  it’s actually got a discernible though not overpowering heat.  Only the taquitos missed the mark, the meat inside the rolled taco shell being more than a bit overdone.

Tamale Plate

6 November 2014: Every first-time visitor should order the Special Mexican Plate, a cheese enchilada, taco, beans and rice all covered with your choice of red or green chile (or both) with sopaipillas on the side.  “Mexican” plate is a misnomer because this combination plate is New Mexican through and through.  The tamale is the most special item on this special plate.  It’s engorged with tender tendrils of red chile marinated pork enrobed in a sweet corn masa.  The hard-shelled taco is stuffed with ground beef and shredded cheese (none of the oft-annoying preponderance of lettuce and tomatoes).  You’re free to add the contents of a plastic squeeze bottle of salsa.  The enchilada and beans are top shelf quality, too.  Both the red and green chile have a nice bite and endorphin-enhanced addictive properties.  Everything is served steaming hot the way it should be. 

11 November 2014: There aren’t many restaurants whose menus include fried chicken so my Kim tends to order it whenever she finds it.   At Mac’s La Sierra there’s a 25-minute wait time for the chicken to be prepared.  It’s served with coleslaw, your choice of soup or salad and your choice of potato (baked, mashed or French fries).  Alas, the fried chicken delivered to our table was overly breaded and a bit rubbery (a sign it’s been overcooked).  While that may have been an anomaly, we probably won’t order it again considering the New Mexican food has been consistently good.

Fried Chicken

11 November 2014: Consider it heretical if you will, but it’s entirely possible to have too much red chile on an entree.  That’s the case with the tamale plate, three meaty tamales covered with your choice of red or green chile.  Here “covered” means practically deluged and overrun with chile.  While the chile is good and has a pleasant piquancy, it overwhelms the tamales, which despite being marinated in chile have a rather delicate flavor profile.  You’ll find yourself shoveling the chile onto the beans and rice so you can enjoy the tamales light on chile the way they should be.

6 November 2014:  The sopaipillas are light and puffy with airy pockets perfect for depositing honey. Alas, they’re served with squeeze bottles of “sopaipilla syrup” (which some taste bud deprived genius–probably from the government–figured would fool diners) instead of real honey.  If you do ask for honey, your server will gladly bring a number of small packets of honey, the type of which are annoyingly challenging to open.  Despite the challenge for ham-fingered diners like me, honey is still the only way to go.

Sopaipillas

Mac’s La Sierra is one of those rare restaurants which transcends time thanks to a time-proven formula of great food, great service and great value…just the way it was during the era of Route 66.

Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop
6217 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 836-1212
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2014
1st VISIT: 6 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Special Mexican Plate, Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Super Mac Combo, Tamale Plate

Mac's La Sierra on Urbanspoon