The Owl Cafe & Bar – San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

7 March 2017Over the past five years, the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico has been the most frequently launched review on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog.  From January 1st through April 7th, 2017, the review of the Owl has been launched more often than any other review on 37 occasions.  It’s been among the top five most frequently launched reviews 95 times (out of 98 days) since January 1st.  The Owl review is the third most frequently launched review (behind the Buckhorn Tavern and Mary & Tito’s of all time.  What accounts for the Owl’s popularity?  It truly is a timeless institution beloved for its consistently excellent burgers.
San Antonio may be but a blip on the map, but its storied and pioneering history make this sparsely populated agricultural community arguably one of New Mexico’s most important towns.

In 1629, San Antonio was the site on which Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico (in defiance of Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world.) San Antonio was the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, founder of the ubiquitous Hilton Hotels and more importantly, one of New Mexico’s original legislators after statehood was granted in 1912. San Antonio was also the gateway to the Trinity Site in which the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. While these events are historically significant, they are also inextricably bound by one common element–the uncommonly ordinary facade that houses the extraordinary, world-famous Owl Cafe.

owl05

The Owl Cafe and Bar

Conrad Hilton’s father once owned the saloon in which the bar (pictured below) in the Owl Cafe once held prominence and presumably sold the fruit of the vine whose progenitors may have been among New Mexico’s original grape stocks. According to local lore, the fathers of the nuclear age spent much of their free time cavorting at the Owl Cafe where original owner Jose Miera installed a grill and started crafting the green chile cheeseburgers that would ultimately achieve unprecedented acclaim.

Ostensibly, the restaurant was named the Owl because legal gambling was conducted at all hours of the night in the back of the restaurant, ergo by “night owls.” Today feathered fowl are still important to San Antonio’s local economy as thousands of bird watchers flock to the nearby Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to crane their necks for a glimpse of geese, ducks and cranes. The Owl Cafe offers welcome respite from the pleasures of bird-watching.

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

Rowena Baca, a descendent of the Owl Cafe’s founder and current proprietor of the Owl Cafe, holds on to tradition, preparing the world-famous green chile cheeseburger in much the same way as her grandfather did. The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and green chile) are unfailingly fresh. On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns. The meat positively breaks apart (the consequences of not using filler and an optimum fat to lean ratio) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair.

The green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico. Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right. Ironically, it’s not green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company. The reason given is that the Albuquerque Tortilla Company’s Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness. Somehow it makes sense.

Double meat, double cheese green chile cheeseburger, one of the very best in New Mexico (ergo, the universe)

Another Owl tradition you can’t help but notice is all the dollar bills tacked on the restaurant’s walls. Patrons leave messages or write their names on dollar bills then tack them on any available free space. Once a year, the money is collected and given to charity with more than $20,000 donated thus far.

On an average summer day, the Owl Cafe will serve an average of six to seven hundred burgers. The population of San Antonio rivals that of a larger city during lunch and dinner hours when the Owl’s several parking lots are overflowing with hungry diners. The front dining room will accommodate only a few of them. Fortunately the restaurant has several dining rooms; you’ve got to go through one to get to another.

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern, rated the Owl Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger on Epicurious.Com as one of the top ten burgers in America–lavish praise indeed for one of New Mexico’s historic gems. It has garnered similar acclaim by other notable critics, having transcended the generations by sticking to a time-tested formula of providing great food at reasonable prices. Disputably there may be better green chile cheeseburgers out there, but there are none more famous.

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies. Kuralt loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment. In his book America, he declared the Own Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.

The hamburger steak dinner

The hamburger steak dinner

In his celebration of America’s favorite dish, filmmaker George Motz traversed the fruited plain in search of some of the country’s most unique burgers for his 54-minute film Hamburger America which made it to the airwaves in 2004. In 2008, he followed up his award-winning documentary with a state-by-state tome listing what he considers the best burgers throughout the fruited plain. Motz loved The Owl calling it “a friendly place, a family saloon with an excellent burger on the menu.”

The menu isn’t limited to burgers. Savvy diners will order the hamburger steak dinner, a bounteous platter that will fill you up for just over ten dollars. This platter includes a juicy hamburger patty (no charring anywhere), a small mountain of hand-cut French fries, a salad with your choice of dressing (including a pretty good blue cheese dressing), Texas toast and bowls of green chile and beans. Make sure you get the grilled onions atop that hamburger steak. It’s an unbeatable combination.

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans--sheer pleasure!

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans–sheer pleasure!

The other “must have” in addition to an outstanding green chile cheeseburger is a bowl or side of beans with green chile. The aroma of steaming green chile wafts through the dining room as your waitress approaches and you’re the envy of any diner who may not have ordered this favorite of New Mexican comfort foods. The beans are frijoles, whole pinto beans, not refried or black beans you’ll find elsewhere. Ironically, as proud of New Mexicans are to claim green chile as our official state vegetable, we’re often hesitant to admit frijoles share official state honors with green chile. The frijoles at the Owl Cafe will remind you why real New Mexicans love and are proud of their precious pintos.

The Owl Cafe has several other menu items, but rarely do you see anyone foolhardy enough to order say, a hot dog or nachos. It is entirely forgivable, however, to order a patty melt (pictured below), one of the very best of its kind anywhere. One of the reasons this patty melt is oh, so good is obvious. The same wondrous beef patty used on the Owl’s world-famous green chile cheeseburgers is used to create this pulchritudinous patty melt. Two slices of American cheese drape over grilled sweet onions complete the masterpiece sandwiched between two slices of light rye. It’s a fantastic alternative to green chile cheeseburgers.

Patty melt at the Owl Cafe

7 March 2017:  The Owl’s French fries are terrific.  They’re not the homogeneous, flavorless out-of-a-bag travesty, but are hand-cut and fried to a golden-brownish hue.  Texturally, they’re about as perfect as fries can get.  They’re crispy and firm on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside.  Don’t ever make the mistake of ordering these fries with cheese.  Conceptually cheese fries might sound like a good idea, but when the cheese is the gloppy out-of-a-can variety (typically found in ballpark nachos), it’s just blanketing very good fries with cheese glop that’s not worthy to be on the same plate.

Skip the dessert at the Owl and head next door to the San Antonio General Store where Anne Lund serves some of the very best homemade fudge anywhere as well as ice cream (Dreyers), drinks, snacks and sandwiches. Lund actually bought the General Store from Rowena Baca’s daughter and spent about a year perfecting the wonderful fudge (which is made with real butter and cream). Perfect is the operative word for fudge in which you can taste the quality and a whole lot of love from a confectionery artist. 

Chile Cheese Fries

The Owl Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 8AM to 9PM and is closed on Sundays.

The Owl Cafe & Bar
State Hwy. 1 and U.S. 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-9946
Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 7 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger; French Fries, Beans and Green Chile, Hamburger Steak Dinner, Patty Melt

Owl Bar & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

San Antonio General Store – San Antonio, New Mexico

The San Antonio General Store, Home of New Mexico’s Best Fudge

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of
arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather
to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, latte in the other, body
thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “Woo Hoo, what a ride!”
– Motto to Live By

What struck me most about this motto was not the profundity of its words, but their placement–on a placard hanging directly above a glass pastry case showcasing some of the most delicious fudge in the state.  It seems somehow appropriate that the motto hover above gourmet fudge like a radiant halo.  This is fudge crafted with imagination and flair.  It is luscious and decadent, extremely rich and thoroughly delicious.  It is a perfect gift for yourself and for someone you love.

The San Antonio General Store is across the street and catty-corner from the world-famous Buckhorn Tavern and separated by a short parking lot from the equally world-famous Owl Cafe.  There may be nothing better in the entire world than a green chile cheeseburger from either of the village’s world-famous purveyors of burger perfection followed by  fudge warranting the overused “enchanted” adjective.

Some of the best fudge in the state

Some of the best fudge in the state

From the outside, the San Antonio General Store may not warrant a second glance.  It looks like a two-pump gas station in a small, rural New Mexico village–and indeed, motorized conveyances of all kinds drive up and fill up.  If you expect the heady smell of stale gas and oily rags to follow you into the store, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Like many small town country stores, the San Antonio General Store has a little bit of everything to provision locals and hungry sojourners.  There are aisles of shelves well stocked with savory and sweet snacks of all types as well as well-lit refrigerators showcasing America’s favorite cold carbonated beverages.  Small town general stores like this one aren’t slaves to either Coke or Pepsi products and are at liberty to proffer fruity soft drinks such as Big Red, my favorite.

The San Antonio General Store

The San Antonio General Store

There are a couple of tables, too.  This is where diners sit to partake of Dreyer’s ice cream and we’re not talking about something you pluck out of a refrigerator and unwrap.  This is the good stuff–scooped out of tubs and served in cups.  It’s slow churned ice cream renown for its rich creaminess.  The San Antonio General Store has a surprising variety of flavors available.

The tables come in handy for guests who can’t wait to sink their teeth into one of the store’s deli sandwiches.  Constructed of sundry cold cuts, meats and cheeses, these sandwiches are popular take-out items among nature lovers making the short trek to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  From the rudimentary chicken salad sandwich to a complex sandwich arrangement, there’s something for everyone.

Chocolate Fudge

Chocolate Fudge

Ice cream and deli sandwiches not withstanding, the main attraction at the San Antonio General Store is the homemade fudge.  It’s old-fashioned fudge made the way it should be made–with real sugar, real cream and real butter.  It makes for really great fudge, the best in the Land of Enchantment great!

In 2007, Sarah Karnasiewicz, senior editor of Saveur, trekked back to New Mexico where she lived for a number of years to rediscover some of  the Land of Enchantment’s best “filling stations,” service stations in which you can actually find food that is not only fit for human consumption, it’s quite good, too.  She observed that, “we know of no other state in the Union where you can so consistently find such tasty cooking along the asphalt byways, often steps from the gas pumps.”

Rocky Road fudge

Rocky Road fudge

One of the filling stations to which Sarah ventured was the San Antonio General Store whose fudge she described as a “siren song to truckers and day-trippers alike.”  The fudge maven is Ann Lund, a Danish transplant to New Mexico who purchased the store in 2004.  That purchase included the previous owner’s carefully guarded recipes as well as hands-on training to ensure continuity in the making of the village’s legendary fudge.  It took Lund about six months to get it right.  Perfection takes time.

If perfection has a taste, it might taste like the pure milk chocolate fudge or maybe the oh-so-wonderful chocolate walnut fudge.  You might find it in the chewy peanut butter fudge or the luscious Rocky Road fudge where nuts and fluffy marshmallow combine to raise the standards of perfection.

Fabulous Fudge: Chocolate Walnut, Chocolate, Pistachio Nut, Praline

The village of San Antonio is almost indisputably New Mexico’s epicenter for green chile cheeseburger perfection, but a visit to Ann Lund’s San Antonio General Store and memories and dreams of your visit may center around the best fudge you’re likely to ever have.

San Antonio General Store
Us Hwy 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-4594
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2017
# OF VISITS:8
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Rocky Road Fudge, Amaretto Fudge, Milk Chocolate Fudge, Chocolate Walnut Fudge, Praline Fudge, Pistachio Fudge, Peanut Butter Fudge, Salted Caramel Fudge

San Antonio General Store Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hurricane’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hurricane’s Cafe on Lomas

“What is it with you New Mexicans and your fascination for natural disasters?” my Maryland transplanted friend Jessie Miller once asked me. When I inquired as to what he was talking about, he elaborated that two of his favorite Duke City restaurants are named for natural disasters. “Natural disasters,” I asked. “I don’t know of any restaurants named “Forest Fire” or “Drought,” the only New Mexico occurring natural disasters that came immediately to mind. He laughed, “what’s ironic about the restaurants I have in mind is that they’re named for hurricanes and twisters, two natural disasters that don’t occur in Albuquerque.” I reminded him that our ubiquitous spring dust devils are, by definition, twisters.

“”Yeah, but you sure don’t have hurricanes in New Mexico.” I argued that the Land of Enchantment has proudly boasted of hurricanes for decades, adding that New Mexico’s hurricanes even had masculine names long before hurricanes on the Gulf and East Coasts did. “What names?” he asked? In as straight-face as I could muster, I recounted the names Al and Al, Jr., as in New Mexico music legend Al Hurricane and his son Al, Jr. Okay, that’s just me being a smart alec, but Al and Al, Jr. are about the closest a hurricane will ever get to New Mexico though their associated rainfall and resultant flooding have wreaked some havoc on our enchanted state.

Cyclone Burger, Hurricane’s Version of a Green Chile Cheeseburger

Hurricane’s Cafe and Drive-In has nothing to do with the godfather of New Mexico music. Nor, I’ve been told, is the restaurant named for the tropical cyclones that can bring torrential downpours, fierce winds and damaging tornados. Hurricane’s Café and Drive-In was launched in 1987, the brainchild of Greg Desmarais and Gary Hines. When Hurricane’s expanded to eight restaurants, Desmarais and Hines parted ways. In 1997, Hines partnered with Ray Ubieta on a concept they named Twisters. While Twisters has expanded to some nineteen restaurants, including four in Colorado, only the original Hurricane’s remains. Still, in 2010, Desmarais was named the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s “Restaurateur of the Year” in recognition of his dedication to the community, for the hundreds of jobs he’s provided and for his active involvement in the restaurant industry.

Hurricane’s is situated on Lomas in a ‘50s style drive-in reminiscent of those depicted on American Graffiti and Happy Days. The restaurant got its start as Frank’s Drive-In, a popular cruising spot for high school students in the 60’s. Frank’s was renowned for its taco burgers, tater dogs, and fresh limeades, items which are now available on Hurricane’s expansive menu. Hurricane’s retained much of the motif which made Frank’s a Mother Road era classic. Covered parking stalls equipped with menu boards and intercoms are evocative of the car culture of the 50s and 60s though during every one of our visits, we didn’t espy a single person sitting in their cars awaiting their burger or burrito bounty. Perhaps the technology of yesteryear confuses diners or more likely, today’s social media connected restaurant-goers prefer to dine with others.

Patty Melt

As might be expected, Hurricane’s ambiance also brings to mind a bygone era replete with black and white checkerboard tile floors, old-fashioned louver blinds, red vinyl padded booths and a counter where you place your order. To protect the checkerboard tile floor, chair feet are padded with tennis balls. Tables and chairs fastened to the concrete are available beneath the covered patio for al fresco dining weather-permitting (though as previously mentioned, it’s amazing how many diners choose to eat indoors even in good weather and how many of them the smallish dining room will accommodate.

The two menu items for which the restaurant is best known are the “disaster burrito” and the Cyclone, Hurricane’s version of the green chile cheeseburger. Contrary to my friend Jessie’s assertion, the disaster burrito wasn’t named because of New Mexicans’ fascination for natural disasters. Many years ago, a food critic (not me) declared Hurricane’s foods a disaster. Desmarais’ good-natured response was “let’s show them a disaster.” The disaster burrito–a beef, egg and bean burrito smothered with pan-fried potatoes, red and green chile and topped with lettuce and tomatoes—is available in 1/8th, 1/4th, ½ and whole burrito sizes.

Onion Rings (Top) and Tater Gems

The disaster burrito made its national television debut in May, 2014 in a Travel Channel program called “Chow Masters.” In an episode entitled “Santa Fe Burritos,” three purveyors of bounteous burritos were pitted in a piquant melee: La Choza and Dr. Field Goods Kitchen in Santa Fe and Hurricane’s Cafe in Albuquerque (a suburb of Santa Fe?). Judging was based on creativity and flavor. The ten thousand dollar burrito winner was Dr. Field Goods who wowed the judges with a smoked goat chimichanga burrito in mole. Many locals would argue that the disaster burrito should at least have garnered a tie.

Not counting the taco burger, Hurricane’s menu offers five burgers.  The Cyclone, a New Mexico green chile cheeseburger (lettuce, tomato, pickles) is a very popular option.  Hungry diners will ask for their Cyclone “Earthquake burger” style meaning double meat and double cheese.  The cheese melts like a molten blanket over the beef patties.  If you like your green chile to bite you back, this isn’t the green chile cheeseburger for you.  The chile has about as much piquancy as a bell pepper though it does have a nice flavor.  Burgers and sandwiches are served with your choice of French fries, tater gems, coleslaw, cottage cheese or fruit cocktail.  For a pittance you can upgrade to onion rings, fried zucchini or a salad.

Fried Zucchini

If your preference is sandwiches (and burgers are NOT sandwiches), Hurricane’s offers ten choices.  My Kim’s favorite is the Patty Melt, a quarter-pound beef patty, cheese and grilled onions on light rye.  She prefers it over the green chile cheeseburger and hasn’t bought into my suggestion that a patty melt would be even better with green chile.  At any event, Hurricane’s version is quite good courtesy of a lightly toasted rye replete with plenty of rye grains.  The grilled onions aren’t quite caramelized to a brownish hue, but retain a slight crispness.  There’s plenty of melted cheese to bind all the sandwich elements into one cohesive whole.

Fried stuff–onion rings, tater gems and fried zucchini–are a cut above what you find at most burger emporiums.  The fried zucchini resembles the fried mozzarella you might find at an Italian restaurant, but bite into any of these golden hued little logs and the inimitable flavor of zucchini greets you.  The fried zucchini is served with a ranch dressing though it’s not absolutely necessary.  The biggest difference between tater tots and tater gems seems to be shape and size.  Tater gems are larger and more “roundish.” 

Serving Albuquerque for thirty years now, Hurricane’s Restaurant & Drive-In shows no surcease in popularity.  Visit almost any time of day on any day in which it’s open and you’ll be among like-minded devotees of this very popular drive-in.

Hurricane’s Restaurant & Drive-In
4330 Lomas Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-4248
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 April 2017
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cyclone Burger, Patty Melt, Tater Gems, Onion Rings, Fried Zucchini

Hurricane's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: March, 2017

Robert and Kimberly Yacone of Forghedaboudit Pizza in Deming with Their 2017 “Best Traditional Pizza” Award at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Photo Courtesy of Robert Yacone

Most of the accolades signifying New Mexico’s “best” foods or restaurants as chronicled on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food monthly updates are determined by either culinary critics-cognoscenti or by popular acclaim. While both methods are valid and should never be discounted, some restaurateurs are so confident in their culinary specialty that they literally need to prove their mettle in the field of culinary competition. That would be an apt description for the approach taken by Robert and Kimberly Yacone, owners of Forghedaboudit Pizza in Deming. In 2016, the duo earned second place in the dry rub category at the National Buffalo Wing Festival. On Wednesday, March 29th, Forghedaboudit won the Southwest region’s “best traditional pizza” competition at the International Pizza Expo, the largest gathering of pizza professionals in the world. Competing against sixty other pizzaioli from California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, Forghedaboudit’s pepperoni and mushroom pie bested all regional competition. The pizza also earned a very respectable fourth place overall in the worldwide competition. Who says you can’t get outstanding pizza in the Land of Enchantment?

Chef Martin Rios, one of New Mexico’s most heralded chefs has been named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef – Southwest award. A semi-finalist on several occasions and runner-up in 2011, Rios owns the eponymous Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe where award-winning progressive American cuisine is showcased. The two-time Chef of the Year for New Mexico award-winner is in contention with five other chefs from the region for the culinary world’s “Oscar.” James Beard Award winners will be announced on May 1st. The event will be hosted by another New Mexican, actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Will this be the year Santa Fe chef Martin Rios finally breaks through? Stay tuned.

Rancho de Chimayo’s Florence Jaramillo and New Mexico Restaurant Association President Carol Wright (Photo Courtesy of Gerges Scott)

In conjunction with National Women’s History Month, the New Mexico Restaurant Association (NMRA) and the New Mexico Kitchen Cabinet (NMKC) named Florence Jaramillo, owner of historic Rancho de Chimayó, winner of the first annual Women’s Restaurant Award. The award was created to recognize women who have made outstanding contributions to the New Mexico Restaurant industry. Fittingly, the award will henceforth be named for Mrs Jaramillo. In 2016, her legendary restaurant earned the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Classic” honor signifying “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Florence was New Mexico Restaurateur of the Year in 1987, served on the New Mexico and National Restaurant Associations boards and won the top honor from the National Restaurant Association – The Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cooking With Kids has been named Gourmand World Cookbook’s 2017 winner in the “Children” category. Written by Lynn Walters and Jane Stacey, with Gabrielle Gonzales, the Cooking with Kids Cookbook includes “most enthusiastically kid-tested dishes, along with tips for engaging with children in the kitchen and in the garden.” Featuring more than 65 recipes focused on tasty, nutritious meals and snacks, the Cookbook is designed to teach children how to help plan, prepare and cook meals. The Cookbook will now compete with winners from other countries for the honor “Best in the World.” Cooking With Kids has been cultivating positive experiences with healthy foods for Santa Fe’s children since 1995.

Santa Fe High School’s Pro-Start Award-Winning Team with Chef Fernando Olea (Photo Courtesy of Gerges Scott)

More than 100 top culinary students from across the Land of Enchantment demonstrated their mastery of restaurant leadership skills — culinary and management — in a fast-paced competition to win their share of $3.2 million in scholarships at the Santa Fe Convention Center. A culinary team from Santa Fe High and a management team from Cloudcroft High were crowned state champions and will represent New Mexico at the National ProStart Invitational, the country’s premier high school competition focused on restaurant management and culinary arts. The culinary competition highlighted the creative abilities of each team through the preparation of a three-course meal in 60 minutes using only two butane burners. Management teams developed a proposal for an original restaurant concept and applied critical thinking skills to challenges restaurant managers face in day-to-day operations. The performance of teams in both the culinary and management events were observed and rated by expert judges from industry and academia. Taos High and Atrisco Heritage High took second and third in the culinary competition. Taos High and Sandia High took second and third in the management competition.

As illustrated in humorous anecdotes published in New Mexico Magazine’s monthly “One of Our Fifty is Missing” feature, there are still a lot of people who don’t recognize that New Mexico is a state. Sadly, some believe a passport is needed to cross into the Land of Enchantment’s borders. Others believe New Mexico is part of Arizona. Some (including a couple of respondents to a recent poll on Gil’s Thrilling…) think New Mexicans eat “chili.” Not only are these misconceptions a sad indictment of America’s educational system, they demonstrate the New Mexico Tourism Department’s challenge in touting all that is great about our state. To help, Thrillist compiled a list of “the very best thing in each and every of these United States.” To no surprise (except the spelling challenged people who insist on the spelling “chili”), the best thing about New Mexico is green chile which got the nod over blue meth, science and aliens.

Green Chile Cheeseburger from Dick’s Cafe in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Because “you want a perfectly prepared steak without so much as a shred of effort on your part,” Thrillist compiled a list of the best steakhouse in every state. According to Thrillist, the Land of Enchantment’s best hunk of bodacious beef comes from the Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Liquor Store in Albuquerque. “Founded by Greek immigrants who pride themselves on serving not only the best steaks, but the best authentic Greek cuisine in New Mexico, this place is kinda like a Greek restaurant inside a steakhouse inside a liquor store, and it’s all named after a section of Monaco. So very confusing. And while Guy Fieri was impressed by the rib-eye when he visited on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the main attraction is the baklava.” Frankly, if you’ve got room for baklava after polishing off a steak at the Monte Carlo, you’re quite the trencherman.

For generations we’ve been told breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Thankfully the Land of Enchantment is blessed with many wonderful options which allow us to skip cream of wheat, Captain Crunch and other such options that give us little reason to get up in the morning. Delish compiled a list of the breakfast spots everyone is talking about in each of the fifty states. According to Delish, New Mexico’s best breakfast comes from Flying Star, a Duke City mainstay for three decades. That’s not the first time Flying Star has earned such an accolade. Bon Appetit once named it one of the “ten favorite places for breakfast in America.” Flying Star is renowned for prodigious portions of high quality dishes as well as inventive takes on comfort foods.

French Dip (Beef Au Jus) from St. Clair Winery & Bistro in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Delish.com, one of the top ten food-related online destinations, knows that buffets are often perceived as “minimal hotel breakfasts and cheesy resort restaurants.” Rather than waste bytes denouncing these denizens of dreariness, Delish celebrated the highest-rated restaurant buffets according to Foursquare City Guide. In its feature “The Buffet Everyone is Talking About in Your State,” Delish certainly picked a great one from New Mexico, selecting Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho as purveyor of the very best buffet in the Land of Enchantment. Joe’s buffet is the apotheosis of deliciousness, a sumptuous array of favorites that will leave you drooling. Although Joe’s spectacular buffet is available only for lunch, the dinner menu is even better.

State fairs across the fruited plain are renowned for fried indulgences (including fried beer) and foods which make you feel like a neanderthal as you eat them sans utensils (turkey legs). The Travel Channel recently compiled a list of some of the best fair foods in the nation for its Food Paradise series. Two foods from the New Mexico State Fair, both long-standing concessions made the list–Rex’s Makin’ Bacon (fresh, handmade burger, topped with green chile and American cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried to a crispy, brown perfection) and Casa Dog (a foot long all-beef hot dog, wrapped in a New Mexico corn tortilla, then stuffed with thick smoked bacon and cheese, and smothered in green chile).

Breakfast Enchiladas from The Shed in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

BuzzFeed, “the leading independent digital media company delivering news and entertainment to hundreds of millions of people around the world” employed its global, cross-platform network to compile “the best bakery in every state, according to Yelp.” The most popular bakery in every state was determined using an algorithm that considered the number of reviews plus the star rating for every bakery on Yelp. It will probably surprise, shock and awe some of you to read that New Mexico’s best bakery is Albuquerque’s Trifecta Coffee Company. Yelper comments indicated “they have the best scones, coffee cakes, muffins and quiche on a daily basis. The food is outstanding and the coffee is some of the best I’ve had!”

Comedian Rob Riggle jokes that his favorite food is “flapjacks, followed closely by hotcakes. After that, crepes. Y’know, like, pancake-thick.” Now there’s a pancake obsessed man. Riggle is the type of pancake aficionado who’ll take a cross-country trip just to try each and every one of the best pancake houses in every US state (and D.C.). Fortunately MSN compiled that list for paramours of prodigious pancakes such as Riggle. According to MSN, the Land of Enchantment’s best pancake house is Albuquerque’s Grove Café & Market, described as “Albuquerque’s favorite breakfast spot.” MSN noted “You can order breakfast any time of day, with the French-style pancakes topped with fresh fruit, creme fruit, local honey and real maple syrup always a winner.

Kimberly Yacone shows off two of ForghedaboutIt’s Traditional Award-Winning Pizzas.  Photo Courtesy of Robert Yacone

At a more micro level, theChive, an entertainment digital media presence, used Foursquare data to rank the best pie in each state according to reviews, comments and tips. While not naming a specific pie, theChive did indicate the best pie in New Mexico comes from Albuquerque’s Flying Star Café. With a tempting array of handmade bakery desserts prepared fresh daily, the Flying Star has been a Duke City favorite since 1987. A quick perusal of the café’s bakery desserts menu lists such favorites as Dutch Apple Crumb, Cherry, Key Lime, Strawberry Rhubarb and Rio Grande Mud Pie.

“Every state has specific dishes and ingredients that its residents are particularly fond of — Idahoans love their potatoes, and Virginians can’t get enough sweet tea, but when it comes to online food searches, Americans become less predictable.” Delish published its intel on “the most-searched foods in every state.” While Arizonans were searching for chiles and Coloradoans scoured the internet for carnitas, New Mexicans want to know how to make empanadas.

February, 2017

Praline Bread Pudding from St. Clair Winery & Bistro in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

When you pit some of the Land of Enchantment’s best chefs against kitchen luminaries from throughout the fruited plain, you quickly come to the realization that our chefs can compete against the very best from anywhere. One recent showcase for New Mexico chefs has been the Food Network’s reality-based cooking television game show series Chopped. In an episode first airing on January 31st, Chef Carrie Eagle of Albuquerque’s Farm & Table showed her culinary mettle in besting three other competitors. The show’s theme was “game day party” and required each chef to prepare an appetizer, entree and dessert for a chance to win $10,000.

Marie Yniguez, chef and owner of Bocadillo’s was first introduced across the fruited plain in September, 2013 when her sandwich emporium was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program. Beguiled by her charm, wit and talent, the Food Network asked her back, this time as a competing chef on Chopped. In an episode which first aired on February 28th, Marie competed against three other chefs in a episode entitled “Raw Deal” which required that each chef create an appetizer from a deconstructed sushi burger which she converted to a tuna and pork taco with logan berries and wasabi pico de gallo, followed in the entree round by a grilled buffalo steak with porcini mushroom hash. Her dessert, a butter-braised polenta cake with bechamel ganache, proved to be the difference-maker, earning her the title of Chopped Champion.

Tacos Al Pastor from Andele Restaurante in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Valentine’s Day doesn’t necessarily celebrate love at first bite as much as it does romantic love, but some restaurants have mastered the art of presenting food you’ll love sharing with someone you love. One such restaurant is Santa Fe’s Santacafe which Delish.com named the most romantic restaurant in New Mexico. Delish noted “The Southwestern bistro is tucked inside a 19th century adobe house, and features four candlelit dining rooms with fireplaces, as well as an outdoor patio. Menu standouts include crispy calamari, roasted poblano chile relleno, and blue corn chicken enchiladas.”

“Setting the table for romance involves an array of ingredients: scrumptious food, alluring ambience, and bespoke service.” OpenTable diners had their say in declaring the 100 most romantic restaurants in America for 2017, honoring the seductive spots at which couples are creating connections and savoring delicious memories. “Based on an analysis of 10,000,000+ reviews of more than 24,000 restaurants across the country — all submitted by verified diners,” the list included only one restaurant from the Land of Enchantment–perennial honoree Vernon’s Speakeasy in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. Vernon’s also earned a similar distinction from Albuquerque The Magazine.

Cinnamon chipotle chocolate cake truffles from The Chocolate Affair in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

22 Words, “a premier viral publisher, serving up funny, cute, heartwarming, and fascinating stories to over 40 million readers a month across its network” published a list celebrating the United States of Weird or Intriguing Food Facts. Thankfully the list didn’t name eating menudo or carne adovada (see the January, 2017 version of “Year in Food”) as the weirdest food fact about the Land of Enchantment. Instead, our weirdest food fact is that it’s illegal to carry a lunchbox down main street. 22 Words wonders “what happened that made this law go on the books. Did someone just go ape crap crazy and start swinging around a metal lunchbox like a major league baseball player?” New Mexicans know. This law was enacted thanks to the will of all the farm animals and cemetery-dwellers who cast votes in Las Cruces (and throughout New Mexico) elections.

Every year the American Automobile Association (AAA) reviews more than 31,000 restaurants, rating them based on a combination of the overall food, service, décor and ambiance offered by the establishment. Only 2.1 percent make the AAA Four Diamond list, a distinction assigned exclusively to establishments that meet and uphold AAA’s rigorous approval standards for distinctive fine-dining using criteria that considers creative preparations, skillfully served, often with wine steward, amid upscale ambience. New Mexico had two AAA Four Diamond Restaurants in 2017, both in Santa Fe. Both are perennial AAA Four Diamond honorees: Geronimo (since 2004) and Terra at Rancho Encantado (since 2009).

Panang Curry at Renoo’s Thai Delight in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Thrillist compiled a list of the best chicken wings in the United States, “all guaranteed to leave you with dirty fingers and a very happy belly.” According to Thrillist, the Land of Enchantment’s best wings aren’t appendages on our state bird, the roadrunner. Our best wings, at least according to Thrillist, come from Santa Fe’s Cowgirl BBQ. Thrillist described them as “the honkin’ wings, which contain a light smoke, crispy skin, and a hell of a lot of heat, even if you get the straight-up house style. You can also go jerk, but come on. Cowgirl up and go with the Wings of Fire, which are tossed in a fiery habanero-based salsa diablo that might be manageable for the weak of heart(burn) were they not so friggin’ big.”

Three of the Land of Enchantment’s best chefs have been named semifinalists in 2017’s prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, the culinary world’s equivalent of the Oscar. Two of them–Chef Jonathan Perno of Los Poblanos and Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe–who have been nominated several times are up for “Best Chef-Southwest” honors. The third, Colin Shane, of Santa Fe’s Arroyo Vino is a semifinalist in the “Rising Star” category. In 2015 Chef Shane was the first chef from New Mexico selected to compete at Chaine des Rotisseurs, a competition of young chefs from the Far West, where he earned bronze.

Green Chile Bañado Plate from Nellie’s Cafe in Las Cruces. Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

“Obsessed with everything that’s worth caring about in food, drink, and travel,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list of “the most iconic restaurants in every state.” To qualify, a restaurant had to have been around for 30 years or more and “still be a crowd favorite.” As a disclaimer, perhaps, the selected restaurants “may not have the best food or be tourist-free,” but “they’re all famous.” Thrillist’s selection for New Mexico–for the second consecutive year–was El Pinto, a restaurant Thrillist declared is “also one of the best Mexican spots in the country. The red chile ribs are reason enough to schedule a visit soon, but it’s also one of the largest restaurants you’ve ever been in, period. It’s like how big your rich friend’s house seemed when you were a kid: rooms open up into other rooms.”

Parade Magazine, the popular insert in many newspapers, describes comfort food as “like a hug on a plate,” indicating that “comfort food is what folks turn to to sooth their souls when the weather, the world or life in general isn’t going well.” Parade’s list of comfort food from coast-to-coast listed the favorite comfort food in each of the fifty states. New Mexico’s favorite comfort food, according to Parade is the ubiquitous breakfast burrito: “The Land of Enchantment is the birthplace of this morning spin on a Southwest favorite filled with scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheddar and green chiles. (When you visit, you can even eat along the Breakfast Burrito Byway.) Other Faves: green chile cheeseburgers, green chile stew, posole, “Christmas-style” enchiladas (that’s with green and red sauce).” Interestingly, Colorado’s favorite comfort food was deemed to be chile verde: “bowls of this stew made with tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder, tangy tomatillos and local green chiles. Other Faves: chiles rellenos and Navajo tacos (tacos on Indian fry bread).”

French Onion Soup from the RendezvousCafe and French Pastry Shop in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Founded in 1952, Blake’s Lotaburger shows no sign of slowing down. As it celebrates its 65th birthday, the bastion of behemoth burgers continues its burgeoning. Once exclusive to the Land of Enchantment, Lotaburger now boasts of 74 locations across New Mexico, Texas and Arizona with a third location in the works for Tucson and a new restaurant launching soon in Gilbert, its first in the Phoenix metro area. Dion’s, another New Mexico chain too good not to share with the rest of the world is also expanding, recently launching its 22nd store, this one in the Reunion Metro District of Commerce City (Denver). Here’s betting Denver-area pizza aficionados will love Dion’s famous Ranch dressing as much as New Mexicans do.

On a number of blog posts, I’ve half joked about votes being cast by dead people and farm animals in New Mexico’s elections. If recent events have any veracity, perhaps it would also be apropos to blame (or credit) our election results on Russian hacking. One thing is for certain–New Mexicans take elections and the privilege of voting seriously…maybe too seriously. To help make voting a more fun process, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR), the unofficial publicist for Gil’s Thrilling…, suggested a quick poll question feature. You can find the quick poll question on the blog’s right-hand-side navigation. Bob also provided the inaugural question for the poll. If you’d like to submit a poll question, please email me at thriller@nmgastronome.com.

Quick Poll Questions Now on Gil’s Thrilling…

House Bill 118, a measure which will make our sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger the state of New Mexico’s official state burger passed the House 57-8. Introduced by Representative Matthew McQueen of Galisteo, the green chile cheeseburger will join join the state cookie (bizcochito), state question (red or green?) and “red and green” or “Christmas” (state answer) as official state symbols. In 2015, the New Mexico True Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was named the nations number one food trail by USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards.

January, 2017

Beef Tender Bistro with Waffle Fries from Grill 49 in Tularosa.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

As an essayist of the New Mexico culinary scene, it often baffles me to read national print and online publications attempting to speak for New Mexicans in naming our best this or best that.  It’s often as if the writers have never set foot in the Land of Enchantment and instead tossed a dart at a target listing sundry foods.  Take for example, Delish.com’s recent compilation of compilation of The 50 Most Wanted Game Day Food in Your State.  Using findings from DirecTV which ostensibly combed through Instagram to determine which snacks people were scarfing down before cheering on the home team, Delish.com named onion rings as the fried snack of choice here.  Onion rings!!!   In years of having attended Lobo football and basketball games, I don’t recall any tailgaters noshing on onion rings.  Perhps they devour onion rings at home before heading to the University Stadium or Wise Guys Arena.

According to an online survey from the National Coffee Association, 83-percent of adults crave their caffeine jolt.  A separate survey from Zagat revealed about half of respondents get their coffee fix at a nationally owned chain or local coffee shop.  When it comes to finding a great cup of coffee, not every city is created equal.  Yelp data was evaluated to determine America’s fifty caffeine capitals.  With a caffeine score of 86.27, Albuquerque ranks as America’s second most caffeinated city.  Coffee lovers convene for their favorite cup at one of the city’s 124 coffee shops which earned an average Yelp rating of 3.9 (on a scale of one to five) with 80 of them earning ratings of four to five on Yelp reviews.

Chicken and Waffles (with Bacon) from Salud! de Mesilla.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

“Love may be a many-splendored thing, but however you cut it, “splendor” is the operative word.  Cities that bring the beauty almost always crank up the heat, which is why there’s no mistaking a romantic city when you encounter it. Thrillist compiled a rundown of US cities where the scenery doubles as an aphrodisiac, for use as you and boo see fit.”   Not surprisingly, Santa Fe was named one of the most beautiful cities in the US for romantic getaways.  According to Thrillist, the City Different’s most romantic restaurant-bar is the Pink Adobe adding that “the neighborhood’s wonderful collection of bars and restaurants, from the Palace to Secreto Lounge to Tia Sophia’s, is integral to the area’s sultry charm.”

Santa Fe is also home to one of America’s 39 most historic restaurants as named by MSN.  The venerable El Farol on artsy-chic Canyon Road is the city’s oldest restaurant.  MSN wrote: “Serving Spanish tapas this delightful restaurant has been offering “warmth” and “light” (the English translation) since 1835, alongside sharing plates well before they became a trend and nightly entertainment.  El Farol is one of the forerunners of the tapas movement, the sharing of small portions of delectable foods served in groupings.  History meets entertainment at El Farol which features live entertainment seven days a week.

Cannoli from NYP Pizza House in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Just in time for the advent of 2017, Travel Squire,  a digital magazine and travel therapist in one combined, written and edited by destination specialists. organized its picks for the top 28 destinations for the upcoming year in travel.  The list includes every continent with something for every travel style.  “New on Your Radar” destinations providing a variety of cultural and culinary experiences include the Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is the only state that is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Chaco Canyon, Taos Pueblo and Carlsbad Caverns.  It’s also unmatched in terms of culinary experiences.  Travel Squire noted: “Enticing culinary trails like the Breakfast Burrito Byway and the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail will introduce you to New Mexico’s culinary staple—the spicy chile. There are also numerous opportunities to experience the Native American culture from a pueblo cooking class at Okhay Owingeh to sampling pueblo cuisine, exploring Gallup’s Native art and Native-influenced spa treatments.”

While many New Mexicans might have named our official state cookie–the sacrosanct biscochito–as our most delicious cookie, Good Housekeeping made a rather surprising choice.  In naming a dark chocolate chili cookie as New Mexico’s very best cookie in its list of the 50 most delicious cookies by state, Good Housekeeping actually found a cookie that really doesn’t have much New Mexico in it.  Study the recipe and you’ll quickly note its ingredients include a hint of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and chunks of dark chocolate chili chocolate.  Sure, we love cayenne pepper with Cajun food, but it doesn’t grace our recipes for New Mexican food.   As for the “chili” in this cookie, it actually comes from a  Lindt chili excellence bar.  It’s unlikely any New Mexican chile farmers would allow their product to be spelled “chili” so there’s no telling where it comes from.

Menudo from Bravas Cafe in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

During our three years in England, we spent many a lazy day on the banks of the serene River Windrush  luxuriating with a cup of tea coupled with a combination of scones, clotted cream, and jam.  It’s not something we can hope to duplicate on the banks of the murky Rio Grande, but scant miles away, we can experience the genteel pleasure of sipping tea at The St. James Tearroom.  The Huffington Post calls an experience at the St. James Tearoom “the lost art of connection,” indicating that the tearoom “offers its patrons an experience that creates connection and intimacy for those who choose to leave the rushed and stressful day to day duties of work to take time out and connect. It is a place to relax and be fully present to those around you and tea is the magical thread that weaves this experience together.” 

What one person considers delicious, another may deem entirely unpleasant.  Thrillist realizes that “each state has foods that might look unappetizing or downright disgusting to an outsider — but to homegrown kids, they’re a little slice of home.”  Most native New Mexicans will consider it heretical that in a Thrillist feature entitled “Every State’s Grossest Food (That People Actually Love),” declares that our beloved carne adovada “resembles a plate of wet dog food in marinara sauce.”  Hard to believe as New Mexicans will find it, carne adovada was deemed our “grossest food.”  Where do you find this paragon of loathsomeness?  Thrillist recommends Mary & Tito’s Cafe where “you get it paired with a plate of perfectly cooked sunny-side eggs and hash browns.”

Croissant from Belle Sucre in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Ludwig van Beethoven once declared “only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”  Restaurants throughout Albuquerque and Santa Fe are obviously staffed with pure-hearted chefs and cooks who show off their formidable culinary skills every year at each city’s annual Souper Bowl, the most delicious fund-raising events in the state.  Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl benefits The Food Depot, “Northern New Mexico’s Food Bank.”  Approximately one-thousand soup lovers attended the twenty-third annual event where they sipped soup to their heart’s content.  Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen earned both  best overall soup and best savory soup with a Thai Cambodian Coconut Chicken soup.  Other category winners included Terra at the Four Seasons at Rancho Encantado in the best cream category; Kingston Residence of Santa Fe in the best seafood category; and The Palace in the best vegetarian category.

More than twelve-hundred guests enjoyed scrumptious soups and delectable desserts from nearly forty area Albuquerque restaurants in the Roadrunner Food Bank’s Souper Bowl 2017.  Awards were presented in two categories: Critic’s Choice and People’s Choice with attendees casting their ballots for their favorite soup and dessert.  Drum roll please…the 2017 Souper Bowl award winners were:

People’s Choice – Overall Soup Winners
1st Place and Souper Bowl Champion: Bocadillos Café and Catering
2nd Place: Chumly’s Southwestern
3rd Place: Daily Grind

People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup Winners
1st Place: Turtle Mountain Brewing Co.
2nd Place: 99 Degrees Seafood
3rd Place: Corn Maiden at the Hyatt

People’s Choice – Dessert Winners
1st Place: Nothing Bundt Cakes
2nd Place: Theombroma Chocolatier
3rd Place: Vic’s Daily Cafe

Critic’s Choice Awards were chosen by a panel of six judges (including yours truly) who rated each soup based on appearance, aroma, texture, spice blend, flavor and overall impression.  

Critics’ Choice Winners
1st Place: Chumly’s Southwestern
2nd Place: Sandia Golf Club
3rd Place: Zacateca Tacos + Tequila

Quiche Lorraine from The Shed in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

What’s the hottest trending topic in the world of comfort cuisine.  According to The Travel Channel, it’s Mexican food.  With flavors so bold, brash and satisfying, it’s no surprise.  Leaving no tortilla unturned in its search for America’s eight best places to “enjoy maximum Mexican food enjoyment,” it’s also no surprise The Travel Channel would wind up in New Mexico where Albuquerque’s legendary El Pinto ranked number four in the list of Best Mex.  John and Jim Thomas, the famous “Salsa Twins” were featured along with the meaty splendor that is El Pinto’s red chile ribs.  The process of preparing the best ribs since Adam shared one with Eve was showcased along with calabasitas and a 24-ounce bone-in tomahawk steak.

The Travel Channel also counted down eight restaurants known for serving up the best version of a city’s signature dish.  In an episode of Food Paradise entitled “Iconic Eats,” Santa Fe’s Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen was lauded for its blue corn enchiladas, a main player in its menu for more than fifty years.  Another dish on the epic list are Maria’s epic chile rellenos which are stuffed with a pepperjack cheese.  It’s too bad modern technology has not yet developed smell-o-vision or better still, taste-o-vision because both dishes truly represent New Mexico on a plate.  It’s Christmas every day at Maria’s.

Backstreet Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Behind this Entrance to Old Town is the Backstreet Grill and its Capacious Patio

Old Town Albuquerque.  Locals love it.   We appreciate its unique architecture and have tremendous affection for its character and personality.  We hold its religious celebrations in reverence and admire the passion with which its secular fiestas are celebrated.   We delight in reminding “colonists” that it’s older than many New England cities which dominate history books.  Old Town is where we take all our friends and family who visit us.  Much as we love it…and we do love it, many of us don’t visit Old Town as much as its proximity and charm might warrant.

Ask locals why they don’t frequent Old Town and the more “honest” ones will likely tell you it’s because it’s no longer solely ours.  We have to share it.  While we don’t consider Old Town a “tourist trap,” we feel “trapped by visitors” when we can’t find convenient parking and when maneuvering around a shop is akin to an obstacle course with the primary obstacle being visitors walking around with mouths agape and eyes distracted by our local culture.  It’s a real quandary because we love visitors, too.  We’re very proud that they’ve chosen to spend a little bit of time (and hopefully a lot of their money) in this little paradise we call home.

Backstreet Nachos

The Old Town Merchants Association recognizes the value of local residents who visit and recommend Old Town throughout the year.  In 2015, the Association announced a “We Love Locals” promotion, a tangible way (that includes gift baskets, hotel stays, dining certificates, shopping sprees, guided tours and more) to show their appreciation.  Ever the proud gastronome, the emphasis of my promotional efforts would have centered on all the great restaurants in the Old Town area.  Yes, there are great restaurants in the Old Town area, several of which rank among the city’s most highly esteemed.

If its been years since you last visited Old Town for the sheer pleasure of dining in one of its esteemed eateries, it’s time to get reacquainted with dining at one of the city’s greatest treasures.  Perhaps you might want to take the love of your life to Restaurant Antiquity, named in 2015 as “one of the thirteen most romantic restaurants in America” by TABELog, a highly regarded online foodie community.  Two Old Town area restaurants–La Crepe Michele and Duran’s Central Pharmacy–were touted in 2015 by national real estate resource Moveto as among “15 Albuquerque Restaurants Will Blow Your Taste Buds Out Of Your Mouth.”

Cup of New Mexican Gumbo

There’s probably no better way for locals and visitors alike to immerse themselves in culture than by partaking of our incendiary and incomparably delicious cuisine.  Old Town’s New Mexican restaurants include long established standards such as Monica’s El Portal, Ben Michael’s Restaurant, and La Placita Dining Rooms. There are a number of “new kids on the block,” too.  Recent restaurant additions (perhaps since your last visit) to the Old Town area include the Quesadilla Grille (2010), Vinaigrette (2012), Central Grill & Coffee House (2014) and Backstreet Grill (2012).

After our inaugural visit, my Kim was so impressed that she chided me for not having taken her to the Backstreet Grill before.  My pathetic and pitiful excuse was that I’d been tortured for nearly a decade with songs from the Backstreet Boys, one of the most popular boy bands of the 1990s.  Knowing full well that I actually liked “I Want It That Way,” (forgive the earworm) she didn’t buy my excuse.  Truth is, I’d wanted to try the Backstreet Grill for more than a couple of years, but didn’t want the commotion and hullabaloo of  teeming masses in an all too confining space (seating for fewer than 20 guests).

The Backstreet Supreme

When the Backstreet Grill moved from its Lilliputian location to a more capacious venue in June, 2014, my excuses started to make even less sense than some Backstreet Boys lyrics.  It wasn’t until discovering there’s a “back way” to get to the Backstreet that we finally made it.  The back way involves parking not in the Old Town Plaza (and good luck finding a spot there), but in the commodious parking lot south of the Albuquerque Museum.  From a parking lot space close to Old Town Road, you’ll espy an archway with a viga on which the Backstreet Grill name is scrawled.  It’s literally feet from the parking lot to the restaurant though the noisy world seems further and you’ll hardly notice the parked cars with an east-facing view that includes the verdant Tiguex Park.

The Backstreet Grill has grown up and out since its initial launch in 2012.  Now situated in Old Town Plaza’s former carriage house building, it can accommodate nearly 200 diners.  Weather permitting, many of them opt to dine al fresco in a spacious patio shielded from the sun by towering trees.    The interior dining room is resplendent in dark, masculine woods with a matching ceiling.  Both booth and table seating are available, the latter offering more personal space.  Walls are festooned with vintage black-and-white photographs of Old Town when the area was much more pastoral and certainly would not have been considered a tourist draw.

Duck Tacos

It didn’t take long for us to realize the amiable and extremely knowledgeable server attending to us was chef-manager Christopher “Chris” James. When we peppered him with our usual litany of questions (i.e., does the chile contain cumin) about the menu, his answers were a give-away.  With a rare precision, in-depth knowledge and passion, he explained nuances of the dishes which interested us.  More importantly, not only does he understand his dishes, he can “sell” them.   Chef James is a friendly and peripatetic presence at his restaurant, simultaneously overseeing the kitchen operation while lending a hand wherever it’s needed.  

Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly discern what while it’s got elements of both, it’s neither New Mexican nor Mexican cuisine.  Chef James calls it “an innovative hybrid” that showcases ingredients, dishes and techniques from throughout the Southwest as well as Baja California and coastal Mexico.  Call it a hybrid if you’d like, but in short order, you’ll be calling it delicious.  The menu is segmented into several distinctive categories: breakfast, starters, soups and salads, tacos and burritos, burgers and sandwiches, the Mexican pizza and sides.  Read solely the names of each dish and you might be inclined to think “been there, done that,” but study the composition of each dish and you’ll fully gain an appreciation for the chef’s creativity.

Tenderloin Steak

16 October 2015: The triple-layered Backstreet Nachos, for example, are a wide departure from the gloppy cheese and vapid jalapeño-based nachos found at ballparks and bad restaurants. Think chile con queso, smoked pork shoulder, Hatch green chile and corn and black bean relish garnished with queso fresco, toasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro and cool ranch sour cream.  All nachos should aspire to such deliciousness, such innovation, such sheer bravado.  Every ingredient lends something to the plate, a melding of tried and true flavors that go very well together both texturally and flavor-wise.  The cool ranch sour cream tempers the fiery Hatch green chile while the toasted pumpkin seeds and corn and black bean relish lend delightful textural properties. 

26 March 2017: In 2015, an Albuquerque man craved his mom’s posole so much that he ignored her commands to stay away from her posole, broke into her home and stole it. The posole pilferer was later arrested on a residential burglary charge. Perhaps someone should warn the Backstreet Grill to keep its New Mexico Gumbo under lock and key. It’s good enough to risk breaking and entering. So what does gumbo have to do with posole? The Backstreet Grill’s signature New Mexican gumbo is chock full of Andouille sausage, chicken, rice, okra, Hatch green chile and posole. The posole and green chile no only make this gumbo uniquely New Mexican, but they elevate it in flavor. The posole imparts its corn-imbued savory, hearty qualities to what would be a very good gumbo.

Deconstructed Shrimp Tacos

16 October 2015: Several years ago uber chef Dennis Apodaca showed Albuquerque the delicious possibilities of incorporating rich, fatty duck into New Mexican and Mexican dishes at his pioneering restaurant Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s Place).  Perhaps the most popular dish at the Backstreet Grill also utilizes delectable duck in an innovative way.  Three duck tacos (red chile braised duck legs, topped with corn and black bean relish, mango mole sauce, Cotija cheese, cilantro and toasted pumpkin seeds stuffed into three corn tortillas) may have you craving canard for your next meal.  The mango mole sauce performs some sort of magic on the shredded thin shards of duck deliciousness, imparting that magic on your happy taste buds.  The cool element that seems to define contemporary tacos is provided by the ubiquitous corn and black bean relish.

16 October 2015: Some of those ingredients make their way onto one of the most innovative pizzas in the city. The Backstreet Supreme, described as “the original that started it all – fully loaded and awesome” earns its name. The canvas for this masterpiece is a fourteen-inch flour tortilla with a base of mozzarella and Menonita cheese topped with smoked pork shoulder, corn and black bean relish, pineapple pico de gallo, Hatch green chile, toasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro and Cotija cheese. The cheesy triumvirate lends elements of creaminess and saltiness in nice proportion to other flavor profiles. When the pineapple pico de gallo makes its presence known, it’s a perfect foil for the Hatch green chile. Now, a flour tortilla “pizza crust” means some dry, brittle edges, but they won’t get in your way of enjoying this delicious orb. Supreme seems to be a common descriptor for pizzas. This one earns it!

Sweet Potato Maple Layered Cheesecake

26 March 2017: Because of my indifference to steak, my Kim has threatened to take away my “man card.” Having been born and raised in Chicago, the “Hog Butcher for the World,” she loves meat and pork in all their forms while my tastes are far more eclectic. Her initial shock when I ordered the tenderloin steak at the Backstreet Grill was replaced by the realization that I would only order the steak if it’s served with a phalanx of “meat disguisers.” True enough, the nine-ounce portion of lean, juicy tenderloin steak is seasoned with smoked Spanish paprika and topped with a roasted pineapple demi-glace. The Spanish paprika (pimento) imparts not only a pleasant piquancy, but a slightly woodsy flavor that tempers the tangy-sweetness of the roasted pineapple. The combination is a steak sauce several orders of magnitude superior to what you’ll find at most restaurants (especially those who rely on commercially bottled sauces). Tenderloin, of course, is a juicy, tender and tasty cut of beef that needs no amelioration (unless you’re not of a pronounced carnivorous bent). On the side is a brick of thyme-grana scalloped potatoes and warm, seasonal vegetables.

26 March 2017: As is her custom, my Kim had her Baja Shrimp burrito “de-constructed,” meaning she wanted the tortilla on the side. She cuts the tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” which she uses to scoop up as much of the burrito ingredients as she wants. Don’t ask me how this makes sense to her? Just trust that it does. The Baja Shrimp burrito is prepared “California style” with sautéed tequila-garlic shrimp, lettuce, rice, pineapple pico, cilantro and sour cream ranch sauce served with tomatillo salsa verde. What my Kim enjoyed most were the pineapple pico and sour cream ranch. What she didn’t like (especially the cumin-infused rice), she pushed to the side.

16 October 2015: Desserts are limited, but interesting, especially the Spanish red chile flan.  Alas, sometimes seasonality trumps interesting–as in the case of a sweet potato maple layered cheesecake.   This wedge-shaped cheesecake is ultra-rich and decadent.  It’s not meant for one person alone.  As with so many cheesecakes served at so many restaurants in Albuquerque, this one isn’t baked on the premises, but comes from a restaurant supplier. 

The Backstreet Grill may just be the restaurant that brings locals back to Old Town and once there, it’s a good bet you’ll be back.

Backstreet Grill
1919 Old Town Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 842-5434
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2017
1st VISIT: 16 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
LATEST VISIT: Duck Tacos, Backstreet Supreme, Backstreet Nachos, Sweet Potato Maple Layered Cheesecake, Tenderloin Steak, Deconstructed Shrimp Tacos, New Mexico Gumbo

Back Street Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Daily Grind – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Daily Grind on Cutler

Sometimes–such as when Teri, a faithful reader of this blog, recommended I visit The Daily Grind–being a lexicologist can be a detriment.  The first thing that came to mind was the drudgery of the software development project to which I was assigned.  Since the 1800s, “grind” has been synonymous with boring, tedious work as in “grinding away.”  Why then would I want to visit The Daily Grind when the daily grind was visiting me everyday in the form of SQL databases, configuration scripts and dot-net framework.

My Kim, who’s got all the common sense in the family, clarified that the type of grind to which Teri was referring had nothing to do with the tedium of the dog-eat-dog routine. The Daily Grind Teri recommended is a coffee shop she and her husband consider awesome. The term Daily Grind as used in the restaurant’s name refers to the daily grinding of coffee, a routine prefacing the luxurious indulgence in a steaming cup.  The Daily Grind proudly serves Allegro Coffee, a subsidiary of Whole Foods which roasts flavorful coffee from Arabica beans.  Two cups of cafe au lait sold me on this coffee.

Beyond the landscaping and water feature is the Daily Grind’s patio

The Daily Grind has been making the daily grind easier to bear since 1996.  For seven years–until September, 2013–the coffee shop operated in the East Downtown district before relocating to the Calibers Center on Cutler Avenue just west of Washington.  The Daily Grind is located in a battleship grey corrugated steel building. If not for the signage and picture windows in the restaurant’s storefront, first-timers might think they’ve mistakenly arrived at an industrial complex of some sort.  Compounding doubts newcomers might as to whether they’ve reached the right location is that The Daily Grind is sandwiched between I40 on its south and a diversion channel about a quarter mile north.  Its next door neighbors are a gun store and pro shop and a fly and tackle shop, not the usual coffee shop neighbors.

The weirdness continues when you discover there is no entrance up front.  Instead, you have to navigate a concrete path that takes you past a rock garden with interesting water features.  The coffee shop’s entrance precedes the patio where umbrellas provide cooling shade.  You can choose to dine in a capacious dining room or, weather permitting, a delightful patio.  When you walk in, your eyes will instantly be trained on the glass pastry case in which scrumptious pastries and cookies baked on the premises are on display.  This lexicologist also detected exposed grinding gears on the clock just over the window to the kitchen.  Two grinding gear mirrors hang on a dining room wall.

The capacious dining room

The Daily Grind is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  During our inaugural visit we spent at the coffee shop on a unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, we were surprised both at the eclectic crowd and volume of take-out and eat-in traffic.  Our server told us the crowd was a mix of loyal patrons who followed their favorite coffee shop to its new home and newcomers like us.  The Daily Grind has all the elements that make coffee shops popular: a friendly, attentive wait staff; an inventive and diverse menu; an attractive milieu; and of course, good coffee.

A multi-page menu includes distinctive breakfast, lunch and dinner items, focusing on traditional American favorites prepared with creative touches.  The fourteen item breakfast menu, served all day, includes an array of sweet (pancakes, French toast), savory (Cheddar waffle BLT, breakfast bagel), piquant (huevos rancheros, chile pocket) and healthy (yogurt).  The lunch menu includes leafy greens, panini sandwiches or burgers.  The dinner menu features only seven items, some of which you might find at a gourmet restaurant.  Don’t make your dessert decision based on the menu.  You’ve got to visit the pastry case to select the sweet treat that’s just perfect for you.  In the three years in between our first and second visit, the menu had changed substantially.  As with all good restaurants, changes to the menu are inevitable to keep things fresh.

Gourmet Fries Topped with Blue Cheese and Caramelized Onions

12 October 2013: Appetizers, sub-titled on the menu as “To Share…Or Not” are few in number (five), but they’re sure to please, especially if you love French fries.  Grind gourmet fries (available also from sweet potatoes) are not only  calorically endowed, but inventive.  Consider bacon, cheese, sour cream and green onion fries; Philly cheese steak fries; Truffle Parmesan fries; Blue cheese and caramelized onion fries; Carne Adovada with Cheddar fries; and a loaded sweet potato.  The blue cheese with caramelized onion fries are a turophile’s dream courtesy of sharp, deep blue-veined blue cheese crumbles melted atop medium-cut fries.  The caramelized onions lend a sweet contrast to the blue cheese’s sharp, tangy qualities

12 October 2013: Within the sandwich menu, you’ll find only a couple of paninis, but they’re memorable.  All sandwiches are prepared on locally baked bread from Le Paris French Bakery in Albuquerque.  Sandwiches are served with housemade potato chips or fries and cornichon pickles.  The chips are crispy, but not brittle and they’re low in salt.  A bowlful of cornichons isn’t enough to sate pickle lovers so the four that accompany your sandwich are strictly a tease.

DailyGrind05

The Cubano with housemade potato chips and Cornichon pickles

12 October 2013: As with most sandwich shops in Albuquerque, The Daily Grind offers its own version of The Cubano, the Cuban sandwich or as it might be called in Cuba–a sandwich.  Over the years, many liberties have been taken with the Cubano with tradition pushed by the wayside.  The Daily Grind’s Cubano is a pressed panini stuffed with ham, turkey breast, pickle, Swiss cheese and cilantro mayo.  Many Cubanos are made with mustard which, some might argue, throws off the balance in the sandwich’s flavor profile.  The cilantro mayo provides very complementary flavor notes that allow the ham, turkey breast and Swiss to sing.

12 October 2013: On Nancy’s Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich, a baguette is hollowed out and ingredients are stuffed where soft bread innards used to be.  The chicken salad is constructed from shredded chicken breast, pineapple, golden raisins, celery and curry mayo.  It’s a terrific sandwich with savory and sweet (but not overly so) notes that coalesce into a surprisingly delicious combination.  The curry mayo, pineapple and golden raisins provide the sweet elements while the shredded chicken breast lends savory qualities.  If you love curry, you’ll love this sandwich.  If you don’t love curry, you’ll probably still like this sandwich.

DailyGrind06

Nancy’s Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich with housemade potato chips and Cornichon pickles.

25 March 2017:  For those of you who like word play almost as much as you like sandwiches, the “Dressed Up Pear Essentials Panini” will get your attention.  Picture white wine poached pear, ham, bacon, Swiss, brie and balsamic reduction on a baguette.  The sandwich is a bit on the diminutive size, but it’s huge in flavor and especially in flavor contrasts that complement one another.  The crisp, smoky bacon contrasts beautifully with the crispy poached pear while the ham and brie are a marriage made in kitchen heaven.  Then there’s the balsamic which lends a slight tang to the entire sandwich.

Dressed Up Pear Essentials Panini

25 March 2017: New York City’s prestigious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel is not only renowned for its upscale and luxury accommodations, but for its culinary innovations.  The Waldorf-Astoria is credited for having invented Eggs Benedict as well as the Waldorf Salad which the hotel first served in 1896.  The Daily Grind’s take on the Waldorf Salad, fittingly called “Waldorf – Grand Style,” is a very tribute to the salad made famous at the most famous hotel in New York City.  It’s constructed from a mound of baby greens, red and green apple slices, sliced pear, candied walnuts, dried cranberries and raspberry vinaigrette.  If you like fresh, invigorating flavors with leafy green goodness and sweet-tangy fruit, this is the salad for you.

Waldorf Salad – Grind Style

12 October 2013: Desserts are truth in advertising.  The advertising comes from the glass pastry case under which are displayed some of the Duke City’s most delectable desserts: pies, cakes, cookies and more.  The truth comes as your taste buds confirm what your eyes have been telling you.  These are absolutely amazing desserts, some of the very best in the city.  The French Silk Pie, very much reminiscent of French gateaus, may be the best I’ve had in the United States.   It’s smooth, rich and best of all, not too sweet (courtesy of the semi-sweet chocolates).  The pie is topped with blueberries which provide a terrific contrast to the chocolate.

12 October 2013: Peñasco’s Sugar Nymph’s Bistro has long held the distinction of serving what I believe are New Mexico’s very best scones.  The Daily Grind’s raspberry scones are right up there with Sugar Nymph’s.  That’s rarefied air.   The Daily Grind’s scones are both moist and crumbly, dense and light, sweet and savory and absolutely addictive.   So, too, are the cinnamon rolls which are brick thick with icing spread generously as if by trowel.

German Chocolate Cake

25 March 2017:  When we espied the German chocolate cake destined for our table, we wondered whether we should eat it or challenge Taos mountaineer Dave Hahn to climb it.  Eating it in one seating might prove as formidable as one of Hahn’s twenty-one expeditions to Mount Everest.  A taller slab of German chocolate cake we’ve never seen: three layers of thick coconut layered in between moist chocolate and topped by a chocolate ganache.  It’s a cake you have to eat in layers, too.  We managed to put a dent in it, but had enough left over for two additional desserts.  

25 March 2017: If you’re served green key lime pie, there’s a good bet either food coloring was added or the pie mix came out of a box.  In the Florida keys, no restaurant can expect to stay in business for long if it serves green key lime pie.  Key lime pies should always be pale yellow, usually a good indication that actual key lime juice is used.  The Daily Grind’s key lime pie is very reminiscent of those we enjoyed so much when traveling through Florida where the key lime pie has been designated by the state legislature as “the official pie of the state of Florida.”  The Daily Grind’s version has a tart, but not lip-pursing, flavor.  It’s also very aromatic, another sign of authenticity.  One unique feature of this pie is that it’s drizzled with sweetened condensed milk which proves a nice foil to the tartness of the lime.

Key Lime Pie

The Daily Grind is a true respite from the daily grind, the type of coffee shop you’d frequent if it was in your neighborhood or that you wouldn’t mind driving a half hour for, especially with the promise of warm raspberry scones awaiting you.

The Daily Grind
4360 Cutler Avenue, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-8310
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 25 March 2017
1st VISIT: 12 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Cinnamon Roll, French Silk Pie, Nancy’s Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich, Cubano, Green Chile Cheese Fries, Raspberry Scone, Gourmet Fries with Blue Cheese and Caramelized Onions, Waldorf Salad – Grind Style, Dressed Up Pear Essentials Panini, German Chocolate Cake, Key Lime Pie

Daily Grind Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Huong Thao – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Huong Thao Vietnamese Restaurant on Juan Tabo

In the year 2000 (ancient history by restaurant standards) when the Duke City had only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants, only one was listed on Zagat Survey’s Millennium Edition of the top restaurants in the Southwest. That restaurant was Huong Thao which was widely regarded at the time as perhaps the city’s very best Vietnamese dining establishment. Zagat Survey accorded Huong Thao a rating of “24” which categorized it as “very good to excellent.” The restaurant was praised for its “delicious traditional foods” and was singled out for its “no-puff” policies back when smoking was still allowed in Albuquerque dining establishments.  

In 2002, Huong Thao eked out a win over other highly-regarded Vietnamese restaurants in La Cocinita magazine’s (defunct) 2002 second annual critic’s choice awards. Garnering praise from an august body of panelists were the “herb-filled spring rolls” and “oh-so-crispy grilled pork.” Today, Huong Thao is a venerable presence, an elder statesperson among a phalanx of very good to outstanding Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City. It remains a formidable favorite to this day because it’s not only retained loyal patrons, it’s cultivated new aficionados.

Huong Thao’s Dining Room

From the very beginning, Huong Thao has held a reputation as a Vegan-friendly restaurant, earning accolades throughout the 1990s and beyond from the Vegetarian Society of New Mexico for its “great food” and “many vegetarian options.” Although the word “Huong” translates from Vietnamese to “scent of the flower” and “Thao” translates to “herbal,” the restaurant was actually named for its founder. Though she long ago sold her eponymous restaurant, the fragrant bouquets which always wafted from Huong Thao’s kitchen remain part and parcel of the restaurant experience. Huong Thao (the restaurant’s founder, not the restaurant) continues to perform fragrant feats of culinary magic, albeit at her son Bill’s restaurant An Hy Quan. Not surprisingly, An Hy Quan is not only the city’s very best Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants, but one of its best restaurants of any genre.

Over the years, our visits to Huong Thao have been infrequent, in part because this Northeast Heights restaurant is the furthest east from our home of any Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. My return visit in March, 2017, after an eleven year absence sure makes me wish I’d listened to my friend and fellow epicurean Jim Millington who long ago urged me to return. My flimsy excuse had been that Huong Thao had begun offering sushi (which no Vietnamese restaurant should ever do), but Jim also assured me the restaurant’s sole focus had also long ago returned to its Vietnamese cuisine. If there is one excuse that only partially absolves my transgression of not having visited sooner, it’s that Huong Thao does not have a street (Juan Tabo) facing presence and is set back in a nondescript shopping center.

New Mexico Spring Roll

Unlike several other Vietnamese restaurants in the city, Huong Thao’s menu isn’t a veritable compendium of all possible Vietnamese deliciousness. With fewer than sixty appetizers and entrees, its menu is roughly half the size of the menu at some restaurants. Study the menu and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of your favorites absent. In fact, the menu offers several items not widely seen in the Duke City. The appetizer menu, for example, includes an asparagus and crab meat soup. Among unique entrée offerings are stir-fried curry, shaken beef and mung bean crepes. The menu is a delight to peruse, offering something for everyone who loves Vietnamese cuisine.

22 March 2017: When you do visit Huong Thao, there’s really no excuse for not having the restaurant’s amazing spring rolls. After all these years, these zeppelin-sized spring rolls are still the biggest (and among the very best) in the city–two rice paper rolls per order engorged with pork (and or shrimp and tofu), noodles and fresh vegetables. New Mexicans, of course, will order the New Mexico Spring Roll (green chile and avocado with chicken, tofu or shrimp). This is an idea whose time has come, further confirmation that green chile improves the flavor of everything it touches. The green chile isn’t especially piquant, but it has a nice roasted flavor. Fresh avocado and cilantro lend the essence of freshness. The accompanying fish sauce is a bit on the sweet side, but that’s easily remedied with a liberal application of the chili sauce on your table.

Boneless Stuffed Chicken Wings

24 March 2017: Despite pretty obvious limitations—they’re messy, they don’t give you a lot of meat and they’re so small it takes a lot of them to put a dent on your appetite—chicken wings have become a veritable culinary institution in America. In many cases, however, the only difference between the chicken wing at one eatery and another is the sauce with which they’re served. There’s not much originality in the concept. Some Vietnamese and Thai restaurants have an answer to the homogeneity of the ubiquitous chicken wing—stuff it.

Huong Thao’s boneless stuffed chicken wings are terrific, the complete antithesis of the limitations listed above. Somehow, the chef has managed to debone a chicken wing; stuff it with ground pork, clear noodles and mushrooms; and deep-fry it. Frankly, it resembles a small fried game hen, pumped up like a football (no Tom Brady jokes here) and fried to a crispy, golden brown. The stuffing is addictive with pungent, earthy notes that complement the crispy chicken skin. The accompanying fish sauce is wholly unnecessary.

Spicy Beef Soup (Bun Ho Hue)

22 March 2017: My very favorite entrée is the Hue-style spicy beef soup (bun bo Hue), the spicier, heartier, livelier, more flavorful cousin to pho. It’s the best (and only) reason to eschew pho. Huong Thao’s rendition is, by far, the “beefiest,” most beef-concentrated version of Hue-style soup I’ve ever had. Some of that is courtesy of the beef, meatloaf, tendon and pork hock swimming around in the aromatic beef stock, but look closer and you’ll see lots of the fatty globules which characterize soup that starts with beef and pork bones. Some diners may consider the pork hock and tendon a bit off-putting, but they lend so much personality to a soup already brimming with soul-warming and assertive flavors. Its spiciness comes from lots of lemongrass, shrimp paste and a tangle of aromatic herbs.

24 March 2017: While it seems the Land of Enchantment competes with Mississippi for last place in virtually every quality of life factor, there is one area in which the Magnolia State reigns supreme. That would be in the preparation of catfish. I’ve often lamented (probably ad-nauseum) the lack of great catfish dishes in New Mexico, but should qualify that doesn’t apply to the way Vietnamese restaurants prepare catfish. Café Dalat and before that May Hong have quelled our yen for catfish many times. In Huong Thao’s deep-fried catfish in ginger sauce, we found another superb catfish dish. The ginger sauce is applied lightly as opposed to the lacquered on sauce at Café Dalat, but it is no less potent. That sauce enlivens the flaky fish. Perhaps in deference to queasy diners, Huong Thao serves its catfish sans head which is a shame because there’s plenty of flavorful flesh in fish cheeks.

Deep-Fried Catfish in Ginger Sauce

Huong Thao remains one of the city’s best and most popular Vietnamese restaurants. Don’t just take my word for it (considering the eleven year gap between visits). Ask anyone who knows and loves Vietnamese cuisine and they’ll tell you.

Huong Thao
1016B Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 292-8222
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: New Mexico Spring Rolls, Boneless Stuffed Chicken Wings, Rice Noodle Bowl Grilled With Lemongrass and Sliced Pork, Stir Fried Egg Noodles With Pork, Deep-Fried Catfish in Ginger Sauce, Spicy Beef Soup,

Huong Thao Vietnamese Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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