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Ajiaco Colombian Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro on Silver Avenue in Nob Hill

If your perception of Colombia is of a nation beleaguered with drugs, terrorism and violence, you may just have to recalibrate your thinking.  In 2014, for the second consecutive year, a WIN-Gallup poll conducted in 65 countries revealed that Colombia has earned the distinction of being the world’s happiest country.  Known as the “Barometer of Happiness and Hope,” the survey reported that of 1,012 Colombian respondents, 86 percent consider themselves “happy” while only 2 percent report themselves as “unhappy.”   The United States, by the way, ranked as only the 31st happiest nation surveyed.

So what could possibly account for Colombia’s surprisingly high happiness quotient?  In discussing the survey results with my friend John (who’s married to a beautiful Colombian woman), I joked that if all Colombian women looked like Sofia Vergara and Shakira, it’s no wonder there’s so much happiness.  His response was that not only are all Colombian women beautiful, they can all cook, too.  What they’re cooking most he told me is ajiaco, a traditional Colombian chicken and potato soup.

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver in the front dining room at Ajiaco Colombian Bistro

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Albuquerque’s sole Colombian restaurant is named Ajiaco for the feel-good comfort food favorite of a nation increasingly celebrated for its gastronomic splendor.  Launched in 2014, Ajiaco Colombian Bistro, which is located on Silver Avenue in The Village, a complex which also hosts P’Tit Louis Bistro and Limonata Trattoria, isn’t the Duke City’s first Colombian restaurant. That distinction goes to the now defunct El Pollo Real which earned its reputation as much for Mexican food favorites (in particular the charbroiled chicken) as it did for Colombian cuisine. 

As was El Pollo Real, the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro is owned by Colombian immigrants Pedro and Nubia Sabogal, but unlike at El Pollo Real, the singular focus is solely on Colombian cuisine.  Adventurous diners who eschewed El Pollo Real’s Mexican offerings in favor of ajiaco, arepas and empanadas couldn’t be happier–both with the food and with the  stylish new digs.  Elegant hardwood floors throughout the restaurant impart an airiness and homey feeling which is enhanced by the main dining room’s open view to the kitchen.  You can’t help but stand agape at the burlap curtains in the front room which appear to have been made from large bags used to ship coffee.

Sancocho (Short Rib Soup) with Rice

Menu items are listed in Spanish with an English translation directly below.  It’s an intriguing menu with a very reasonable pricing structure.  Only a few items exceed the ten dollar price point and for the most part, those items are meant to be shared.  If you’re tired of paying entree prices for appetizers, you’ll also be thrilled with the aperitivos menu.  None of the eight appetizers crosses the six dollar barrier and empanadas can be had for under two dollars.  The menu offers two sopas (soups)–Ajiaco and sopa del dia (soup of the day). 

Not including the special of the day, the Platos (entrees or main courses) menu offers nine entrees including a vegetarian plate.  The amiable wait staff will also work with guests to craft a meal low-carb dieters can enjoy that doesn’t include rice or potatoes.  For an amazing introduction to Colombian cuisine that two can share, order the Picada which is brimming with steak, pork rinds, morcilla, chorizo, yuca, plantains and arepas.  A la carta items are also available to supplement your platos.  The postres (desserts) include torta de platano (plantain cake) and flan de cafe (coffee flan).

Platano Con Queso

As tempting and delicious as ajiaco is, it’s not sacrilegious to order the sopa del dia instead.  If the Sancocho or short rib soup is offered, it’s a worthy alternative.  Served with fluffy white rice on the side, the soup is served piping hot, perfect for a cold winter day.   While Sancocho, a term which translates loosely to “stew,” can be a complex soup made with a plethora of ingredients, Ajiaco’s version is deliciously simple–a seasoned broth; tender, de-boned short ribs and potatoes.  It’s the type of soup which should be ordered not by cup, but by bowlful. 

Though not listed as a dessert, the platano de queso (plantain with cheese and guava) is dessert sweet and dessert delicious.  A large hollowed-out roasted plantain is stuffed with melted quesito and caramelized guava chunks.  The Colombian quesito (cheese) is texturally similar to Mexican queso fresco and has a mild, slightly sweet taste that becomes exaggerated with the addition of the guava.  There’s not much sweet-savory contrast in this dish.

Grilled Chicken Breast with Pineapple, Salad, Plantains and Vegetables

The special of the day during our inaugural visit was a pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast) served with plantains, a salad and a plate of sauteed vegetables.  Topped with grilled pineapple which provides a sweet contrast, the exceptionally moist and tender grilled chicken breast is simple yet remarkably tasty.  A simple salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers) with a sweet-spicy mango-mustard dressing pairs well with the chicken breast as do sauteed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, squash). 

Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), believed to be a Creole variant of Spanish paella, is a traditional dish of Spain and Latin American countries.  Traditional, however, doesn’t mean it’s prepared the same way or with the same ingredients in all the countries in which it’s served.  The version served in New Mexican family homes (forgive me, mom) may be the most boring, especially in comparison with the Colombian version.  Featuring a medley of vegetables, seasoned rice and moist shredded chicken breast, it’s as beautiful to ogle as it is delicious to eat.  With a texture somewhat similar to risotto and a vibrant color (courtesy of achiote), it’s one of those rare dishes it’ll be difficult to pass up in future visits to Ajiaco.

Arroz Con Pollo with Plantains and Salad

Dining at the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro may not fully explain why Colombia is the world’s happiest country, but you’ll get the feeling that Colombians are happy in large part because their cuisine is so good.  Visit Ajiaco and you’ll be happy, too.

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro
3216 Silver Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-2305
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Arroz Con Pollo, Platano Con Queso,  Short Rib Soup, Pechuga a la Plancha

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Jhett’s Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Rio Rancho Country Club, home to Jhett’s Restaurant

In its halcyon days, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club in Rio Rancho was considered one of the city’s crown jewels.  Its undulating 18-hole championship course with strategically placed deciduous trees and challenging water hazards once hosted the Charley Pride Golf Fiesta, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the state.  Built in 1970, the 212-acre development was flanked by upscale gated communities and boasted of magnificent panoramic views showcasing the reddish hues of the Sandias at sunset and the twinkling city lights of Albuquerque at night. 

Alas, over time reclaimed water rates made operating the course economically onerous.  Soon denuded fairways and eroded bunkers replaced the once verdant grounds.  In 2013, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club was auctioned off to be purchased nearly a year later by visionary entrepreneurs Bob Gallagher and Jhett Browne who immediately began putting into action their plans for restoring the operation to prominence and profitability.  The two negotiated significant water rate reduction rates and plan for reduced turf areas to conserve water.  At fruition, they hope to revivify the facility into one of the area’s best event centers, not just golf clubs.

View to the East from the dining room patio

Rebranded as Club Rio Rancho, the sprawling complex includes two nine-hole golf courses, six resurfaced and lighted tennis courts, a remodeled swimming pool, a members-only restaurant and lounge with an outdoor cigar bar, a three-level bar and grill with televisions and outdoor patio seating and a remodeled indoor restaurant with a patio facing the Sandias.  While some of the facilities and amenities remain available only to club members, the priceless “billion-dollar views” are available to the general public as is what promises to be an exciting fine-dining venture.

From its sprawling patio, the eponymous Jhett’s Restaurant may just have the very best views of any restaurant in the metropolitan area with the possible exception of Sandiago’s Mexican Grill.  There’s a view for all seasons and times of day from the east-facing large picture windows, too.  Jhett’s offers live music and dancing every Friday and Saturday starting at 8PM and a bountiful Sunday brunch, the type of which have seemingly become an anachronism.

The dining room in which Sunday brunch is served from 11AM to 2PM

The dinner menu bespeaks fine-dining belied by a price-point that’s surprisingly competitive with fine-dining establishments in far less ostentatious digs.  Whether your choice emanates from the land (such as the Bleu Cheese Crusted Angus Filet, Ribeye Steak or Lamb T-Bone) or sea (Stuffed Filet of Sole, Honey Ginger Shrimp or Lobster tail), you’ll find it on the menu.  Soups and salads as well as “nothing but noodles” entrees (such as Baked Lasagna Bolonaise and Spinach Ravioli) are also available. 

The all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch is quickly becoming a Rio Rancho Sunday tradition.  Available from 11AM through 2PM, the buffet-style brunch is the antithesis of the grab, gobble and go fare one associates with the terms “all-you-can-eat” and “buffet.”  A fusillade of well-laid out tables with silver heating trays offer dish after dish of beautifully edible creations arranged esthetically.  An omelet station with eight different fillings is at the ready as is a carving station where a deft server cleaves generous slices from a large roast beef prepared at medium rare.  Desserts aplenty and a beverage table round out the cavalcade of deliciousness.

Some of the magnificent brunch offerings

Rightfully so, the hand-carved roast beef is the primary draw.  The roast beef has a deep brown, crisp, crackly, unctuous crust around the edges.  The medium-rare interior is moist and tender, signs of optimum temperature control and cooking time.  You can have your roast beef with au jus or with a creamy horseradish that’ll water your eyes.  There are a number of other proteins on the buffet trays: bacon, sausage, fish and more.  The macaroni and cheese is some of the best we’ve had in a while while the Eggs Benedict dish is delightfully creative.  Instead of an English muffin, the poached egg and Hollandaise sauce rest inside a hollowed-out tomato. 

The dessert table doesn’t have tremendous variety, but what it lacks in quantity, it made up for in deliciousness.  Alternatively you can sate your sweet tooth with the various fruits.  The cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple have an in-season freshness and flavor.  Throughout our meal we were well taken care of by an attentive server staff who replenished our beverages and made savvy recommendations.  All this and million dollar views of the Sandias.

Desserts

Jhett’s Restaurant is a welcome addition to the Rio Rancho fine-dining scene. An excellent brunch is just the prelude to future fine-dining ventures in what is once again becoming one of Rio Rancho’s crown jewels.

Jhett’s Restaurant
500 Country Club Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-5000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

Jhett's on Urbanspoon

Firenze Pizzeria – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Firenze Pizzeria at 900 Park Avenue, S.W., near Central Avenue and 8th Street adjacent to Robinson Park

We’ve got a wood-burning pizza oven in the garden
- a luxury, I know, but it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made.”
~Gwyneth Paltrow

There really is a lot of veracity in the axiom that “your eyes are the mirror to your soul” because eyes truly do provide visual clues as to what we’re thinking. Some psychologists would have you believe that your choice of pizza toppings is also a window to your soul. So what do your favorite pizza toppings say about your personality and behavior?

One psychologist and longtime pizza lover would have you believe people who adorn their pies with pepperoni are “good team players, prepared to sacrifice their personal interests to those of the majority.” Another purports that people who prefer pepperoni have “been shown to “forget” obligations on occasion and miss out on opportunities at work and home.” Hmmm, contradictory assessments by two so-called experts. Perhaps such assessments say more about their creators than they do about the personality traits of subjects they claim to understand so well.

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The interior of Firenze Pizzeria

Extending the premise that an accurate personality assessment could be discerned from your choice of toppings, why not a personality assessment based on your preference for slices instead of a whole pie? What does it say about you if you’d rather have a thick Brobdingnagian pizza over a thin wisp of a pie? Somewhere out there, an analyst is creating a profile of diners who prefer pizza from a mobile conveyance (food truck, if you will) over pizza from a pizzeria.

For those of us who love the Italian wood-fired pizzas from Firenze Mobile Wood Fired Pizza and the Italian wood-fired pizzas from the Firenze Pizzeria equally, the personality assessment would probably read something like “indecisive, timid and easily manipulated, fearful of offending others” and other such psycho-babble. From a pizza preference standpoint alone, it’s impossible to decide which is better–dining al fresco on a pizza from the Firenze mobile oven or dining under climate-controlled comfort in the pizzeria.

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The unique pizza oven in which your pie is prepared

If you didn’t know the good folks who brought us Firenze pizza on wheels have expanded their operation and given Duke City pizza lovers another option for enjoying their pizza, you’re probably not alone. The Firenze Pizzeria opened its doors in May, 2013. Now, however, if you didn’t know of Firenze Mobile Wood Fired Pizza, you might not be attuned to the Duke City’s burgeoning food cart scene. Albuquerque has become a cosmopolitan cow town, joining such cities as Portland, Los Angeles and Austin as a haven for (take your pick) food trucks, food carts, mobile canteens, catering trucks and mobile kitchens. Just don’t call them roach coaches.

Firenze may well be the first of the Duke City’s mobile eateries to diversify its offerings by launching a brick and mortar operation. It wasn’t solely the success of the mobile operation that precipitated the move. Felicia and Steve Meyer matriculated into the food service world with the intention of determining whether or not they would enjoy the challenge and all the work entailed without going broke. Purchasing an Italian-made oven was less expensive than renting a storefront. Long story short, the Meyers found out they not only enjoyed making pizzas for hungry patrons, they were pretty darned good at it. Firenze quickly made it to every diner’s short list, leaving us pining for the next time we happened upon the location in which the magnificent mobile oven was parked.

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The Don Corleone Pizza

Being booked every weekend for nearly two years for special events, catering and a semi-permanent gig at the Downtown Growers’ Market at Robinson Park facilitated the decision to seek a permanent venue. They found the perfect spot at 900 Park Avenue, S.W., virtually adjacent to Robinson Park. The two-story edifice Firenze now calls home has plenty of character and personality, previously having housed an art gallery and before that, El Hispano News.

The pizzeria’s cynosure is an inlaid brick oven imported from Italy. It’s not an exact replica of the mobile oven, but works similarly. Firenze burns locally sourced elm, a soft wood which isn’t especially good for smoking meats, but imparts a nice flavor to pizza dough. The oven generates temperatures of up to 800 degrees. That doesn’t portend getting your pizza quickly. Expect your order to take up to fifteen minutes to be filled as the Firenze pizzaioli stretch the dough by hand and meticulously apply the ingredients for your pie.

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​Quattro Formaggio: Garlic Oil, Mozzarella, Ricotta, Feta, Pecorino Romano, Roasted Garlic & Parsley

Firenze pizzas are individually sized at eleven-inches–perfect for one. The pizza isn’t exactly thin crust and not exactly New York style, but somewhere in between. The dough is made on the premises and is hand-stretched. Firenze touts its use of “only the freshest, most organic ingredients” sourced locally as much as possible. “Market specials” are made with ingredients from local farmers and purveyors. Firenze also offers a ten-inch gluten-free crust and gluten-free salad options. All pizza crusts are dairy-free and if you ask, any pizza can be made without cheese. Signature teas are housemade daily and lightly sweetened with pure cane sugar. No fountain drinks or artificially flavored beverages are served.

8 June 2013: The Pizzeria’s menu lists three “classics:” the Margherita (the pizza which started it all), a cheese pizza and a pepperoni pizza (don’t expect the Meyers to conduct a personality assessment should you order this one). The real showcase of the important Italian oven is in its preparation of eleven artisan pizzas, some of which are very inventive. For her inaugural taste of Firenze, my Kim opted for the Quattro Formaggi, a turophile’s delight made with four cheeses: mozzarella, ricotta, feta and Pecorino Romano as well as garlic oil, roasted garlic and parsley. It’s amazing how the four cheeses complement and contrast one another: the pungent sharpness of the feta against the delicate richness of the ricotta; the familiar creaminess of the mozzarella with the hearty sheep’s milk undertones. Fromage fanatics, this one’s for you!

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The Firenze mobile pizza oven

8 June 2013: Sign up for the Firenze newsletter and you’ll receive periodic updates and news. That’s how we found out about the Don Corleone special, a pizza available only to newsletter subscribers. If ever a pizza was worthy of being considered the “Godfather” of pizzas, this would be it. Picture on a slightly charred dough canvas: tomato sauce, mozzarella, Italian sausage from Keller’s Farm, pepperoni, green olives and Copocollo ham. This is a magnificent pizza, so good I eschewed my usual practice of saving three slices for later…so good I wanted a couple more slices…so good it made it to my short list of best pizzas in New Mexico.

What makes the Don Corleone so good? Farina fanatics might find it blasphemous to learn that not everyone believes char should be part of a pizza’s flavor profile. The pies at Firenze have a light char, just enough so that you might catch a hint of it on a bite or two; it’s not the taste of “burnt” some diners complain about at Farina. The ingredients are top notch and are apportioned just a bit on the parsimonious side which lets you glean a good appreciation for the well-seasoned tomato sauce and magnificent crust. Your pie isn’t weighed down with excess which makes eating it a challenge. Moreover, it is a delicious, uncomplicated pie.

The Godfather

3 January 2015: In its January, 2015 report Pizza Magazine Quarterly revealed that only four states across the fruited plain love pizza less than New Mexico does  (another quality of life category for which we can be grateful for Mississippi).  With only 1.55 pizza joints per 10,000 residents, the Land of Enchantment ranks 46th in terms of number of pizzerias.   Worse, only 38.4 percent of those pizzerias are independent.  Perhaps if more pizzerias in New Mexico offered a pizza as good as The Godfather, our ranking would be much higher.  The Godfather (tomato sauce, mozzarella, Keller’s Farm Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and Kalamata olives) is a beautiful pie that arrives at your table steaming hot with the mozzarella burbling to a tempting sheen.  The high-quality toppings are strewn atop a golden dough canvas in the manner worthy of Michelangelo with each bite rewarding you with pleasurable deliciousness.

3 January 2015: With a name like “Picante,” you might expect a pie pulsating with piquancy.  Instead, the “wow” factor on this pizza comes from a melange of ingredients (tomato sauce, mozzarella, Capocollo ham, rosemary pineapple and fresh sliced jalapeños) that go very well together.  The jalapeños are baked with the pizza which renders them nearly caramelized and tame.  With pineapple and Capocollo ham, the Firenze folks could have paid tribute to the Aloha state in naming this pie, but unlike far too many “Hawaiian” pizzas, this one isn’t nearly as fruity and sweet as others.  It’s got just enough sweetness from the pineapple to meld magnificently with the saltiness of the ham and the slight heat of the jalapeños.

The Picante

The menu also includes three salads: house salad (Romaine, cherry tomato, cucumber, Pecorino Romano, house vinaigrette), creamy pesto salad (Romaine, Parmesan, cracked black pepper, croutons and a creamy pesto dressing) and the one which most piqued our interest, the Gorgonzola salad (mixed greens, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and Balsamic vinaigrette). Wash down your meal with Firenze’s basil mint iced tea, a black tea infused with basil and mint or with a lavender lemonade, an herbal bend of lavender tea, Italian lemon juice and pure cane sugar. You won’t miss Coke or Pepsi in the least.

Whether or not you buy into the notion that your choice of pizza ingredients says a lot about your personality, you’ll probably join the soon to be legions of pizza aficionados headed for the Robinson Park neighborhood for one of the best pies in town–a wonderful pizza whether you get it from the oven on wheels or the venerable two-story building.

Firenze Pizzeria
900 Park Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242.2939
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 3 January 2015
1st VISIT: 8 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Don Corleone, Quattro Formaggio, Lavender Lemonade

Firenze Pizzeria on Urbanspoon