ECLECTIC URBAN PIZZERIA AND TAP HOUSE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My Friends Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor Leaving the Magnificent Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House

Looking around our table, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott astutely pointed out the relative scarcity of pizza at our table. Considering the Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap Room may have been the most eagerly awaited pizzeria to open in Albuquerque in years, you’d think a phalanx of foodies would  be devouring our weight in pizza…and while three pulchritudinous pies did grace our table, so did such eclectic fare as pho, chicken wings, roasted chicken and Chimichurri skirt steak a la plancha.   Despite the term “eclectic” on the pizzeria’s appellation,  the menu’s vast diversity actually surprised us.

It’s a testament to his tremendous creativity and talent that Chef Maxime Bouneou can still surprise diners who for nine years reveled in his fabulous Italian creations at Torinos @ Home, the restaurant he founded with his beautiful bride and partner Daniela.  Surprises at Torinos were usually of the “I can’t believe how good this is” variety.  At Eclectic, surprises fall under the “I can’t believe he can prepare this so well” category, emphasis on “this.”  Frankly we shouldn’t have been surprised at the diversity of dishes he prepares so well.  Maxime isn’t a great chef who prepares great Italian food.  He’s a great chef who can prepare virtually anything!

Daniela and Maxime Bouneou

Maxime’s pedigree as a chef is very impressive though more diners are acutely aware he wowed (absolutely blew away is more like it) Food Network celebrity Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives than know that in his native France, he worked in Michelin two- and three-star restaurants.  Maxime’s ability to coax unbelievable deliciousness out of everything he prepares isn’t just a matter of talent.  He and Daniela are committed to using the highest quality, locally procured organic ingredients wherever possible.  Moreover, he absolutely loves what he does and continually works at improving his craft.

Daniela is the yin to Maxime’s yang.  They complete one another with a work and life synergy few couples ever achieve.  It’s been that way since they met in Nice, France where she was working as maitre d’ at a four-star hotel and he was the hotel’s promising sous-chef.  They were married shortly thereafter and moved to Santa Fe where they launched Torinos @ Home in 2006.  While the kitchen has always been Maxime’s domain, Daniela runs the “front of the house” with an incomparable elan.  Her buoyant personality makes her the perfect hostess where she shines unlike no other in New Mexico.  To say the Bouneous were beloved is an understatement.

An Eclectic Dining Room

In February, 2016, Maxime and Daniela sold Torinos, an event their adoring patrons believed warranted an apron flying at half mast. For months, we all speculated as to where they would land and even if they would remain in New Mexico.  Fortunately the Bouneous have fallen in love with the Land of Enchantment and in early April, 2016 announced the forthcoming launch of their next restaurant venture, an undertaking they named “Eclectic. Urban Pizzeria and Tap House.”    For months, legions of Facebook friends anxiously awaited the next snippet of news about the Bouneous return.  Along with a Web site depicting construction progress, the Facebook page was both a big tease and an appetite-whetting medium.

On Saturday, August 27th at precisely 11AM, Eclectic opened its doors, a “soft opening” in which Daniela and Maxime may have set a one-day record for most hugs dispensed (although Tim Harris might have something to say about that).   Guests were as happy to see the Bouneous as they were to sample their culinary fare.  By Eclectic’s official September 17th launch date, it’s probably accurate to say many of us fed by the Bouneous for years will already have fallen in love with Eclectic, a restaurant which more than lives up to its name.

Spicy Eclectic Olives Mix

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House is located on Menaul, about three blocks east of University.  Because there isn’t a direct turn-in to the restaurant from east-bound Menaul, you’ll have to double back if you took the University exit.  And because the pizzeria doesn’t have vivid, eye-catching signage and its storefront is a bit recessed from the street, you might miss it if you’re headed west from Carlisle.  If you are headed west from Carlisle and you see Twisters, you’ve gone just a bit too far.  Though your inaugural effort to find Eclectic might engender increased familiarity with Menaul, you’ll never again pass it by.  Nor will you forget it.

Eclectic’s ambiance is industrial, but warm with blonde woods, distressed red bricked walls, hand-scrawled menus on the wall, a corrugated bar and industrial style polished concrete floors.  Table legs are made from metal pipes, the type used in plumbing.  Menus on clipboards hang from hooks on each table.  Large south-facing windows let in sunlight.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable though we’ve lingered long and happily during our first two visits with no ill effect.  Even al fresco dining is available thanks to a pet-friendly patio that doubles the pizzeria’s seating capacity.  This is just one cool place to be, especially if you’re dining with friends.

Wings Hot and Tangy.  Photo courtesy of Kimber Scott

31 August 2016:  My friends Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor who, because of this blog, enjoyed a kinship without ever having met, accompanied me on our inaugural visit.  Walking into the restaurant was like old home week, a reunion of new and old friends.  No sooner had we stepped in than we espied the charismatic Ryan Scott, his winsome wife Kimber and their precious angel Judah.  Daniela and Maxime greeted us all like long-lost family.  That’s pretty much how they treat everyone–and one of the reasons Eclectic will soon become Albuquerque’s favorite pizzeria and watering hole.  Well that and the food.  Oh, the food… 

While a disclaimer cautions that the menu is subject to change without notice, in our experience every item on that menu is an absolute winner, a perfect ten.  The first section of the menu is titled “Start With” and it included eight starters, each as appealing as the other.  There are ten pizzas on the menu, including a “build your own” option.  Save for the Reina Margherita, a vegetarian pizza, and the Quattro Formaggi, the pizzas are unlike any you’ll find in the city.  Instead of the de rigueur “meat lovers” pizza for example, you’ll find a Nordik pizza with smoked salmon and capers.  There are four items on the “Not A Pizza” section of the menu, entrees truly befitting the term “eclectic.”  Those include roasted chicken, fish and chips, Chimichurri skirt steak a la plancha and beer braised short ribs.  Three sides are also available as well as four decadent desserts.

Hot “PHO” YOU

31 August 2016: As we perused the menu, we enjoyed a bowl of spicy, eclectic olives (some with pits). Brine-cured green and reddish, the olives are meaty, fresh and rubbed with a pleasantly piquant chile.  It’s not often, if ever, the flavor combination of briny and piquant is discussed on this blog, but the combination is surprising (there’s that word again).  The piquancy level of the chiles is a degree or two of magnitude more intense than pimentos stuffed into olive centers (as in the olives used on martinis), but without compromising on aroma and flavor.  Bruce Schor graciously allowed me to eat the single Thai bird pepper that helped give the olives their piquancy.  It was an eye-opener.

31 August 2016:  If he’s not Albuquerque’s foremost authority on chicken wings, Ryan is certainly their most prolific “appreciator.”  My friend loves chicken wings, but not just any chicken wings.  They’ve got to be better than good.  When chicken wings earn the Ryan Scott seal of approval, you know they’re imbued with greatness.  Ryan loved the “get your hands dirty” sriracha-lime wings at Eclectic.  The unlikely combination of intense piquancy coupled with tangy, citrusy lime works surprisingly well with an optimum balance of two strong flavors.  These meaty wings are accompanied with a buttermilk ranch dressing so good you’ll want to spoon it out of the ramekin, but it’s wholly unnecessary on the wings.

Big Dips and Dough

31 August 2016:  “Don’t tell me Maxime does pho, too?”  If that sentiment wasn’t outwardly expressed, it was certainly contemplated.  Yes, Maxime does pho and it’s one of Daniela’s favorite items on the starters menu.  Listed as Hot “PHO” YOU, it’s a spectacular soup though it could be debated as to whether it is or isn’t pho.  Pho is technically a noodle soup and there are no noodles on this piping hot dish nor will you find the distinctive, aromatic essence of star anise, but those are technicalities.  Call this “faux pho” if you will, but you’ll also be calling it absolutely delicious.  Instead of the swimming pool-sized portion served at Vietnamese restaurants, Eclectic’s version is served in a small bowl with  ladle.  Maxime’s interpretation of pho is made with generous pieces of chicken, bamboo shoots, cabbage, nuoc mam, garlic and cilantro.  It will blow you away!

31 August 2016: My friend Sr. Plata was on the first day of a low-carb diet when he espied big dips and dough on the menu.  Needless to say, his low-carb effort was delayed by one day.  Served with focaccia bread sticks is a triumvirate of terrific dips: humus, smoked trout and goat cheese, each a magnificent complement to the best focaccia you’ll find in the Duke City.  If the notion of “smoked trout” dip channels memories of slick-talking salesman Dan Aykroyd hawking a Bassomatic, you’re probably not alone.  Don’t let that notion stop you from enjoying this magnificent dipping sauce.  Great as the dips are, the foccacia is fabulous–a precursor to the quality of the pizza crust to be enjoyed later.

Eat Your Brussels Carley (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

31 August 2016:  There are two versions of Brussels sprouts on the menu, one with bacon and one without.  Sporting the curious appellation “Eat Your Brussels Carley,” they’re delicious with our without the pork candy.  Named America’s “most hated vegetable” in a 2008 survey conducted by Heinz, Brussels sprouts are almost universally reviled.  Many diners hate them without ever having tried them (probably because they heard someone else express their disdain for this villainous vegetable).  Andy Griffiths even wrote an anti-tribute to Brussels sprouts.  Entitled “Just Disgusting!,” its lyrics posit: “Who wouldn’t hate them? They’re green.  They’re slimy.  They’re moldy.  They’re horrible.  They’re putrid.  They’re foul.  Apart from that, I love them.”  You’ll certainly love Maxime’s version!

Mac & Cheese Jalapeño

1 November 2016: A Google search for “Ode to Macaroni and Cheese” will fruitfully return results, some of which are inspired and creative. One especially catchy ode was put to music, taking liberties with the Celine Dion song “Because You Loved Me.” I half expected my friend Bill to belt out a chorus or two of that ode. That’s how much he enjoyed Eclectic’s mac & cheese jalapeno dish. Anyone who’s been comforted by the warmth and deliciousness of macaroni and cheese can certainly understand that. Macaroni and cheese has uplifting qualities that make it the most revered of comfort foods…and if ever there was a poster child for how mac and cheese should look and taste, it would be Maxime’s version. Served in a cast iron pan, this turophile’s dream is a medley of cheeses: Fontina, Gorgonzola, Cantal and Mozzarella atop of which sit several sliced jalapenos. A little truffle oil gives it earthy notes your taste buds will appreciate. This dish is decadent enough to satisfy a nostalgic “back to childhood” pang for mac and cheese but it’s also sophisticated enough for grown-ups. What really makes this dish stand out, however, is that it’s both cheesy in a melty, gooey way (but not to the extent of ballpark nachos) and it’s caramelized, especially at the bottom of the pan. Caramelized cheese is so good, it could be used on a caramel apple. 

Fish Tacos

1 November 2016: There’s a disclaimer on Eclectic’s Web site which cautions that “menu is subject to change without notice.” You’ll want to visit Eclectic’s Web site daily so you’ll be up-to-speed on what the daily special is. In the past week, daily specials have included such alluring offerings as a green chile cheeseburger, patty melt, oyster po’ boy and the Tuesday special—tacos. Tacos, which come in all shapes, sizes, colors and price points have become as American as apple pie and baseball. At Eclectic, soft, steamed white corn tortillas are engorged with your choice of carne asada, chicken or fish and they’re value-priced so you can afford two or ten of them. Filled generously with planks of tender, fried Pollock and cabbage slaw, these beauties are served with a wedge of lime, a perfect foil for the fish.

Roasted Chicken (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

31 August 2016: For many gastronomes the very notion of roasted chicken elicits if not an outward yawn, an ennui.   Leave it to Maxime to enliven what is often a ho-hum dish.  A generously applied pasilla chile and lime rub precedes a deeply penetrating heat roasting in the brick oven.  The pasilla imbues the chicken with a unique flavor.  Pasilla, the dried form of the chilaca chili pepper, is an aromatic, brownish red chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness.  It’s increasingly finding favor among bold chefs such as Maxime who are skilled at building concordant flavors with diverse ingredients.  The roasted chicken is served with a green mango chutney which complements the chicken very well. 

Fish & Chips

1 November 2016: Had King George III’s government attempted to tax fish and chips, it’s conceivable the revolutionary war would have started earlier (presuming that the colonists brought fish and chips across the pond). It’s become increasingly rare in cafes and restaurants across the fruited plain to find a menu that doesn’t offer fish and chips, an indication that Americans, too, love this dish. Most of the time fish and chips at American restaurants are passable…or at least better than what you’ll find at Long John Silver’s. Every once in a while, you find a version of fish and chips so good, you wonder if maybe one of Her Majesty’s culinary staff prepared it. Eclectic’s version is such a dish. Instead of the heavily-breaded, golden-hued planks with a mountain of French fries to which you might be accustomed, what arrives at your table are driftwood-sized logs that are more Dijon-colored than canary gold. That’s because Maxime uses Stout on his batter. Not only does the Stout impart a darker hue, it tempers the strongly flavored Pollock, a lovely whitefish with a flaky texture. Instead of British “chips” (French fries), the fish is served with housemade potato chips, infinitely better than you’ll find at any grocery store. 

Oyster Po Boy with Curry Fries

9 December 2016: During the eight years we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I must have consumed at least one boatload’s worth of  po’ boys.  What differentiates New Orleans’ most famous sandwich from your run-of-the-mill sub sandwich is its humble origin as a sumptuous sustenance provided to striking streetcar drivers.  Because of the abundant local resources of the Gulf Coast and bayous, fried seafood–particularly shrimp and oysters–po’ boys are the most popular option.  In New Mexico, it may be easier to find a prize pearl inside an oyster than to find an outstanding oyster po’ boy or sandwich.  Leave it to the genius of Maxime Bouneau to construct one that’s every bit as good as the very best you’ll find in New Orleans.  Nestled in Maxime’s incomparable soft, chewy, delicious focaccia are a netful of oysters, a single lettuce leaf and a housemade remoulade you’d swear came out of Louisiana.  The oyster po’ boy is served with a ramekin of tangy coleslaw which (hmm, wish I’d thought of this sooner) would go well inside the po’ boy.  Even better, ask for a side of curry fries, the best you’ll have anywhere.

Green Chile Cheeseburger

15 April 2017:  On June 16, 2017, the Albuquerque Isotopes will officially change their names for the day in honor of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger. On that day, the Isotopes will become the Albuquerque Green Chile Cheeseburgers and will sport a custom uniform adorned with a special green chile roaster patch on the left sleeve , a New Mexico state flag with a toothpick for a pole on the right sleeve and a black hat with a burger. It promises to be the hottest promotion in the history of the franchise, but it won’t be as hot as a green chile cheeseburger at Eclectic. Maxime doesn’t chop and dice the chile he uses on the burger. He unfurls an entire chile and nestles it atop a molten slice of Pepperjack cheese which blankets a thick beef patty. Lettuce, red onion and tomatoes are served on the side. The chile has a pleasant piquancy with enough heat to get this volcano-eater’s attention. It’s also got a nice roasted flavor that hearkens to mind the aromas of green chile being roasted under our salubrious skies. This is a green chile cheeseburger which goes best with truffle fries. If you’d like additional heat, don’t opt for the standard American mustard. Ask for a dollop or two of the whole grain mustard which has got the kick of horseradish, but won’t take anything away from the great flavor of the green chile cheeseburger.

Corn Grits

15 April 2017: When perusing Eclectic’s menu, it surprised us to find corn grits. Considering Maxime cut his teeth In European restaurants, we would have expected polenta. “Aren’t grits and polenta the same thing?”, you ask. Well, they’re both made from stone-ground cornmeal, but they’re traditionally made from two different types of corn. Southern grits are traditionally made from dent corn while polenta is made from flint corn which has a finer texture. Texturally, grits can come across as somewhat mushy, while polenta tends to be more coarse and toothsome. At any regard, both can be delicious if prepared correctly. Maxime prepares grits as well as most chefs in the Deep South do. Imbued with gorgonzola, a veined Italian blue cheese with a strong, sharp flavor and cream to temper that sharpness, the grits are surprisingly good. They shouldn’t be. Everything Maxime prepares is excellent or better. 

Pate and Focaccia

15 April 2017: Maxime’s focaccia bread is the best we’ve ever had! It’s better-than-bakery-quality bread that goes well with virtually anything you can imagine, but is wonderful all by itself. Though we could subsist happily on the big dips and dough, our very favorite starter, the pate & focaccia also beckons. The pork pate, a small, dense brick of ground pork, unctuous pork fat, herbs and spices fashioned into a spreadable mini-loaf is terrific on its own, but elevated in flavor when spread on the focaccia. At under ten dollars, it’s a bargain. The pate and focaccia are served with an eye-watering whole grain mustard that will clear your nasal passages as well as a small ramekin of cornichons, the delightful miniature sour French pickles made with mini gherkin cucumbers, each about two inches in length. The cornichons have an addictive crunch and an acidic bite which balances the richness of the pate.  

Build Your Own Pizza: Gorgonzola, Sausage

31 August 2016:  Eclectic’s “Build Your Own” pizza offers more options than just about any pizzeria you’ll ever find–and not just the boring “usual suspects” line-up of toppings.  The build your own starts with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Cantal (a raw cow’s milk cheese with a pleasant milky aroma and a nutty, buttery flavor that finishes just slightly acidic).  It’s the canvas atop which you can build your own masterpiece.  Bruce (to avoid confusion with the other Bruce (Sr. Plata), let’s call him Bruce 1.0) added pork sausage and imported Gorgonzola, both excellent choices.  The first thing you’ll appreciate about an Eclectic pizza is the aroma which precedes it out of the brick wood-burning oven.  The taste and texture deliver on the promises made by the aroma.  Waifishly thin, the pizza is imprinted with a pinto pony char and just a slight cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza.  Both the sausage and imported Gorgonzola are first-rate.

North Shore

31 August 2016: Who says pizza has to be based on tomato sauce?  Certainly not Maxime who also offers one based on cilantro-pesto and another based on buttermilk.  Yes, buttermilk!  Unable to decide from among five tempting options, I asked the more decisive (and infinitely cuter) Kimber to order for me.  Her choice, the North Shore (cilantro pesto, roasted chicken, smoked bacon, pineapple, cantal and mozzarella cheese) was outstanding!  The cilantro pesto has a real zip that impregnates the wondrous crust thoroughly.  As always, the combination of pineapple and bacon proved magical, the two disparate ingredients playing off one another in contrasting harmony.  The bacon is thick and smoky, wholly unlike the tiny bacon bits some pizzerias use.  The true test of pizza greatness, however, is how it holds up to refrigeration–essentially how good it is for breakfast.  The North Shore is just as good cold the next day as it was out-of-the-oven.  This is true pizza greatness! 

The Nordik Pizza

6 September 2016: “How about dinner.  I know a place that serves great Viking food.”  Those words, uttered by the immortal Police Squad Lieutenant Frank Drebben gave me pause to reflect on Viking food and whether or not any restaurant in America actually serves it.  Not even Google  the Infallible (doesn’t that sound like a Viking name?) could find a single Viking restaurant across the fruited plain.  If a Viking restaurant did exist, they’d be well advised to copy Maxime’s Nordik Pizza (buttermilk, smoked salmon, capers, red onion, cantal and mozzarella cheese).  Only a pizzaioli genius could conceive of such a masterpiece.  He hadn’t finished his first slice when my friend  Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, declared it second only to the Funghi & Tartufo from Piatanzi as his favorite pizza in the world.  It is indeed a delicious pie, albeit one not everyone will enjoy.  The smoked salmon, in particular, has an intensely smoky, fishy flavor and aroma. 

Make Your Own Pizza

6 September 2016:  As a self-admitted mad scientist in the kitchen, experimentation with ingredient combinations brings me as much joy as frustration, as many successes as failures.  When the ingredient combinations don’t complement one another, it’s “curses, foiled again!”  Dazzling Deanell, on-the-other-hand, seems to have a Midas touch.  She always seems to know what to order at restaurants and, as we discovered at Eclectic, she knows how to put together a perfect pie.  The make your own beauty pictured above includes roasted red peppers, black olives, mushrooms and sausage.  Sounds pretty standard, right?  Not when the sausage is so magnificently fennel-kissed with notes of pleasant piquancy.  Excellent ingredients make for an excellent pizza.  Sausage will evermore grace any pizza we order at Eclectic. 

Paysanne

6 September 2016:  When my Kim espied a pizza named “Paysanne,” she thought the menu’s creator may have misspelled “Paisano”, an Italian term for compatriot.  While that might make good sense, the pizza’s actual name really is “Paysanne” and if there’s one term which defines Maxime’s genius it might be this one.  Paysanne describes meals prepared simply.  Even Maxime’s most complex dishes and most creative combinations aren’t a mishmash of designer ingredients thrown together.  Take the namesake “Paysanne” pizza, for example.  It’s constructed with buttermilk, smoked bacon, mushroom, red onion, olives, cantal and mozzarella cheese.  Simple, right.  It’s simply delicious, a flavorful feast for the eyes and taste buds.

Beer Braised Short Ribs

2 September 2016: My father-in-law loved short ribs, maybe even more than Adam did.  He would have flipped over the beer braised short ribs at Eclectic.  Martha Stewart once declared “there is perhaps no purer beef flavor than that of a short rib.”  Ironically, short ribs were once disdained by chefs as “poor man’s food.”  Under the right hands, however, this fairly modestly priced cut can be coaxed to rich, unctuous tenderness and complexity thanks to a basic braise.  At Eclectic, the short ribs are served sans bone, but somehow they retain the silken richness of bone-in short ribs.  Braised in beer, cherries and Pasilla chiles, the ribs are available in three sizes: small, medium and large.  The medium is the size of a small roast with huge flavors.

Rhubarb Cobbler

2 September 2016: With only five desserts on the menu, you’d think it would be easy to decide which one to order.  Under Maxime’s deft touch, they’re all bound to be great.  Bread pudding not being an option made the choice easier for me.  With fresh memories of the sumptuous peach cobbler at The County Line Restaurant there could only be one choice.  Served in a cast iron pan, the rhubarb cobbler is superb!  With a lip-pursing tartness, the rhubarb is counterbalanced by the sweetness of the ice cream and the savoriness of the pie crust.

Friends of Gil: Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Eclectic Urban Pizzeria & Tap House a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Chocolate Chile Shake as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. 

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria may be the new kid on the block, but it may already be the answer to the supplications of pizza lovers across the Duke City for a transformative pie, one that’s not merely very good, but truly outstanding.  As Ryan pointed out, however, pizza may not even be the best item on the menu.  Repeat visits are a must!

ECLECTIC URBAN PIZZERIA AND TAP HOUSE
2119 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 322-2863
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2017
1st VISIT: 31 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy eclectic olives mix, Wings hot and tangy, Hot “PHO”YOU, Big dips and dough,Eat your Brussels Carley, Roasted chicken, North Shore, Beer Braised Short Ribs, Rhubarb Cobbler, Nordik Pizza, Paysanne Pizza, Fish & Chips, Fish Tacos, Mac & Cheese, Oyster Po’ Boy, Curry Fries, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Corn Grits, Pate and Focaccia

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pana’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pana’s Cafe for Excellent New Mexican Food

The term “red or green” has connotations beyond New Mexico’s sacrosanct chile.  For restaurateurs across the Duke City, red or green can spell the difference between a good or bad reputation and even success or failure.  All food service establishments across the city must display the results of the most recent restaurant inspection conducted by the Albuquerque Environmental Health Department.  Those results are displayed on a “current grade” sticker in a visible inspection, typically the front door.  Savvy diners look for a green sticker which signifies that a food establishment received a passing grade at their most recent inspection.  It means the restaurant staff has demonstrated skills and knowledge that create a safe and sanitary food service environment. 

A red sticker, on the other hand, means the food service establishment has been downgraded for non-compliance with the Food Sanitation Ordinance. The dreaded red sticker can be the proverbial kiss of death. Although food service establishments are given the opportunity to correct critical violations, sometimes the damage to reputation is done. For years, the “red or green report” was a weekly staple of KOAT Action 7 News with appropriate dramatic emphasis accorded restaurants earning red stickers. As with inspections of any type, restaurateurs who strive consciously to maintain a safe and sanitary food service environment look forward to proving their mettle.

Pana’s Dining Room

Despite my years of reviewing restaurants I’d never actually witnessed a restaurant inspection until my inaugural visit at Pana’s Cafe.  It was the cafe’s first inspection.  Inspector Rosanna Trujillo was the consummate professional, providing constructive feedback, dispensing praise, imparting training and providing helpful tips as warranted.  She was the antithesis of any negative perception about restaurant inspectors you may have.  When she completed her inspection–no violations–owners Joe and Michelle Repichowski were so proud they immediately posted a photo of the inspection results on their Facebook page.  That’s not something you see many restaurants do.  Then again, Pana’s Cafe isn’t like many other restaurants.

Pana’s Cafe is ensconced in the space which previously housed Patricia’s Café and before that Choroni Café. The café is set back from heavily trafficked San Mateo and doesn’t especially stand out visually among the multitude of stores and shops with which it shares space in a timeworn shopping center. Where Pana’s Café does stand out is with the New Mexican fare it serves. It’s New Mexican food with a pedigree. The restaurant is named for Michelle’s mother whose sister Mary has owned and operated the immensely popular Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen for decades. Joe admits Pana’s recipes are essentially the same family recipes which have made Padilla’s beloved in the Duke City.

Salsa and Chips

Unlike the venerable Padilla’s, Pana’s Café isn’t serving to overflow crowds—at least not yet. As with many relatively new mom-and-pop restaurants, sometimes word is slow to get around. Pana’s launched in January, 2016, exactly four days after Patricia’s Café shuttered its doors. Remnants of its previous tenant remain on the walls where the north wall is painted with a mural depicting the Santuario de Chimayo. On the south wall are painted three other murals, each with a New Mexico theme. Pana’s Café is fairly small in an intimate sort of way. The menu is somewhat abbreviated, too, but it’s got many of the traditional New Mexican favorites. Cumin is added only to the carne adovada.

Pana’s is currently open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday. Breakfast is served from 8AM through 11AM and lunch is served from 11AM through 3PM. Among the smattering of breakfast items are pancakes, huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos. Lunch plates–which include beans, rice and two sopaipillas—feature such traditional New Mexican favorites as tamales, chile rellenos, enchiladas, tacos, burritos and a phalanx of ala carte items. “This and that” are available in the form of guacamole and chips, salsa and chips, a Frito pie or a hamburger with fries. As you peruse the menu, a bowl of salsa and basket of chips are ferried to your table. The chips are crispy and thick, ready to scoop up as much salsa as you’re able to lay on them. Alas, the salsa is a bit on the thin side and is better for dipping than for scooping. The jalapeno-based salsa has very distinctive flavor notes courtesy of cumin and bay leaves (yes, bay leaves). It’s not especially piquant, but it’s quite good.

Blue Corn Enchiladas with Red and Green Chile

16 June 2016: You can have your enchiladas constructed with cheese, ground beef, chicken or carne adovada and on either blue- or yellow-corn tortillas. Regardless of filling you choose, make it an early Christmas and ask for both red and green chile. For good measure ask for at least one fried egg (over easy) on top. The chile is hot! For a fire-eater, it’s not necessarily piquant, but it’s served piping hot, not lukewarm. It’s a very good, earthy chile, unadorned with seasonings that don’t belong on New Mexican food. Both the red and green are about even on the piquancy scale and both are absolutely delicious. The accompanying beans will remind you of those prepared by your abuelita while the Spanish rice is…well, it’s Spanish rice.

12 April 2017: What do you do when a combination plate asks you to select three items from among four choices?  You pay a little bit extra for the forth item, of course.  Pana’s combination plate offers three choices from among four equally delicious items: a cheese enchilada, tamale, chile relleno and ground beef taco.  That’s akin to ask you to pick three of your children to the exclusion of the fourth.   You just can’t do it!  All four items are exemplars of how they should be prepared.  The taco, a crescent-shaped corn tortilla housing well-seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato is excellent, the likely first item you’ll finish.  The tamale features features a nice balance between corn masa and chile marinated pork topped with shredded cheese and more of Pana’s addictive chile.  Puncture the chile relleno with your fork and it practically oozes molten cheese.  Cheese enchiladas are usually pretty boring to me, but not so at Pana’s where the red and green chile enliven the dish.  The chile is memorable!

Combination Plate

Complimentary sopaipillas are becoming increasingly rare in New Mexican restaurants. Lunch plates at Pana’s include not one, but two of them. They’re large, puffy and fresh with deep pockets beckoning for honey to be poured in. If you’re so inclined, you might also want to stuff your savory entrée into those deep pockets, a sort of stuffed sopaipilla in miniature.

14 April 2017: Every year on Holy Thursday at about 7PM, by brothers would set off on the 25-mile pilgrimage to the Santuario De Chimayo, a torturous walk through winding roads that climb and descend precipitously. They would arrive home the next day thoroughly exhausted–too exhausted, it turned out, to enjoy my mom’s traditional Good Friday lunch of tortas de huevo. That left more for me. Tortas de huevo are a traditional Lenten dish typically served on Fridays when New Mexican Catholics are expected to abstain from meat. Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious. Picture a sort-of egg fritter whipped into a light, fluffy texture and fried then topped with red chile. Five or six of these eggy chile delivery vehicles with pinto beans, quelites, calabasitas and fideos and there’s no way you can bemoan the fact that you didn’t have a single hamburger on a Lenten Friday.

Pana’s Magnificent Lenten Special

14 April 2017: Every Friday during Lent in 2017, Pana’s served all the aforementioned Lenten treats, preparing them nearly as well as my mom did. The quelites (lamb’s quarters, commonly referred to as wild spinach throughout Northern New Mexico), calabacitas (sautéed zucchini, onions and corn) and fideos (a pasta dish with short spaghetti noodles and a mild tomato sauce) made me wish Lent would last longer than forty days. The fideos rekindled many fond memories. Unlike spaghetti which is seasoned (sometimes heavily) with oregano and garlic, this New Mexican vermicelli noodle dish is lightly seasoned and light on the tomato sauce, too. Pana’s adds a few beans to the quelites, perhaps acknowledging that quelites are an acquired taste. To me, they taste like my mom’s home.  The calabasitas are fresh, crisp and addictive.

Joe and Michelle are the consummate hosts. Their customer-orientation became apparent when, despite having an inspector performing a white-glove routine on their café, they were timely to take my order, quick to replenish my beverage and ever present to ensure my dining experience was a good one.   Pana’s Café is the type of restaurant you pull for to succeed and not only because of its culinary lineage. It’s a very good New Mexican restaurant.

Pana’s Cafe
3120 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)884-4260
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2017
1st VISIT: 16 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chips and Salsa, Sopaipillas, Blue Corn Enchiladas with Ground Beef and Beans Christmas Style, Combination Plate (Ground Beef Taco, Cheese Enchilada, Tamale, Chile Relleno), Tortas de Huevo, Quelites, Fideos, Calabasitas

Pana's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Forghedaboudit – Deming, New Mexico

Forghedaboudit–far more than New York pizza, pasta and wings. This is one of the very best Italian restaurants in America!

Several years ago, former New York Times food editor Sam Sifton posited the “Pizza Cognition Theory” which declared “the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike level) becomes, for him, pizza.  He will defend this interpretation to the end of his life.”  Because Sifton grew up in Brooklyn Heights, New York and was exposed to great pizza at a very early age, the Pizza Cognition Theory makes sense  It makes sense, in fact, for everyone whose introduction to the sheer magical deliciousness that is pizza transpired at a venue which prepared truly transformative pizza.   But what about the rest of us whose grew up in rural American and who may not have had our first “great” pizza until our shadows darkened the doors at Pizza Hut…or Domino’s or Papa John’s?  Surely, the Pizza Cognition theory holds no personal weight for us.

The Garduño siblings were first introduced to pizza in the dark ages when our mom prepared an “Appian Way” pizza from a Chef Boyarde “Pizza Kit,” a cache of crust mix, tomato sauce, a mixture of Parmesan and a dry spice mix in a box.  Surely, we wondered, this can’t be what those urban sophisticates in Albuquerque were raving about.  Back then, the Duke City’s premier pizza parlors were Shakey’s and Peppino’s on Indian School and Wyoming, almost (who can ever forget the Peppino’s annoyingly catchy jingle: “The p-pizza’s p-perfect at Peppino’s, the p-pizza’s p-perfect at Peppino’s p-pizza joint.”).

Forghedaboudit! You won’t find better pizza anywhere in the Southwest!

I was in high school when a Pizza Hut opened up in Taos, some 25 miles from our home in Peñasco.  For teenagers, Pizza Hut was as close as we could come to being treated as adults. We would be escorted to tables  adorned with red and white checkered tablecloths and a lit candle.  We were even waited on by a person who brought us silverware and refilled our beverages.  We thought Pizza Hut was pizza self-actualized, as good as it could possibly get.  What does that say about my rural naivete?   Had I not joined the Air Force immediately out of high school, Pizza Hut might have forever been my ideal, my reality.   The pizza of my Pizza Cognition Theory might have been Pizza Hut’s Supreme.

Plucking me out of the bumpkinly backwoods and plopping me just outside of Boston was the best thing the Air Force ever did for me.  For two years, I was perpetually wide-eyed and mesmerized at seeing all those sights and cultures which heretofore existed for me only on the printed page.  Moreover, I was introduced to a panoply of delicious and exotic dishes, most of which are still not available in Peñasco.  My very first “real” pizza from Steve’s House of Pizza in Bedford immediately shattered any ill-founded misconceptions I may have had about Pizza Hut’s pizza actually being great.  Within a year, my ceiling for what constitutes life-altering pizza was forever raised with the first bite of Frank Pepe’s transformative white clam pie in Hartford, Connecticut.  Pepe’s has been named America’s very best pizza on numerous occasions by numerous national online and print publications, most recently having a four-year run as America’s best pizza according to the Daily Meal.

Robert and Kimberly Converted a 100-Year Old Structure into a Homey Restaurant

It would be another twenty-seven years before another pizza as wonderful as Pepe’s would cross my lips–in of all places, Phoenix, Arizona.  Just as Pepe’s has, Pizzeria Bianco has earned critical acclaim as the best pizza in the land on multiple occasions and by multiple sources.  In 1995, to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, celebrated author Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, ultimately concluding that Pizzeria Bianco served the best pizza in the world.  Not just Arizona or even the United States, but the entire world.

In 2013, our friend Sandy Driscoll introduced us to Pizzeria Mozza, a landmark restaurant that almost immediately became the toughest reservation to get in Los Angeles.  The brainchild of a triumvirate of culinary legends (including Food Network glitterati Mario Batali), Pizzeria Mozza has also garnered “best pizza in America” acclaim by both the cognoscenti and the general public.  By now you might be thinking “Gil’s obviously a pizza snob.  He only considers pizza great if it’s won national awards.”  I’ll admit that thought has crossed my mind, too.  How I’ve longed for New Mexico to have a pizza that competes for my affection with the pizzas par-excellence I’ve encountered in my travels.

Another View of the Dining Room

In February, 2017,  when Kimberly Yacone contacted me  about visiting Forghedaboudit, the popular restaurant she and her husband Robert own and operate in Deming, skepticism set in.  I knew that a year earlier, Forghedaboudit had earned a second place finish at the National Buffalo Wing Fest for their unique maple-bacon wings, but wings do not a great pizzeria make.  Five weeks later, Robert contacted me with the amazing news of Forghedaboudit’s tremendous success at the 33rd annual International Pizza Expo, the largest gathering of pizza professionals in the world with more than 7,000 in attendance from 36 countries.  The International Pizza Challenge at the Expo is the pizza equivalent of Memphis in May, the world barbecue championship.  It’s considered the best pizza-making competition in North America–the pinnacle of pizza.

Competing against sixty other pizzaioli from the Southwest Region (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas), Kimberly prepared a pepperoni and sausage pie adjudged “Best Traditional Pizza” in the entire region.  In addition to its win in the Southwest region, Forghedaboudit placed second in the United States and fourth in the world in the traditional pizza category.  An esteemed panel of judges composed of impartial chefs, food critics (far more credentialed than me) and others from the pizzeria industry scored each pie for taste (crust, sauce, cheese, toppings and overall taste) and appearance (bake and visual presentation).

Robert and Kimberly Yacone with Kitchen Manager Ray Chavira

It wasn’t solely the judges who were enamored of Forghedaboudit’s pulchritudinous pizza.  A phalanx of pizzaioli from the highly competitive field approached Robert and Kimberly in hopes of gleaning the secrets to their magnificent pies.  When word got out about the heralded dining destination off I-10, foodies and curiosity-seekers began to beat a path to the restaurant.  We arranged to visit Forghedaboudit on April 8th, 2017, still dubious about a pizza from the desert hamlet of Deming being the best in a region that boasts of Pizzeria Bianco.  Oh, we of little faith. 

Arriving well before the restaurant’s opening so I could take photographs, we were greeted warmly at the door by Robert and Kimberly.  As is typical for all great restaurants, the Yacones and their loyal staff (including several members of the family) were there early to begin the meticulous hand-on prep work required to give their guests a memorable dining experience.  The Yacones were proud to showcase the Italian cuisine which, for four years, has been winning over the hearts and appetites of locals and sojourners alike.  Robert related that travelers frequently traverse I-10 from Las Cruces and even Tucson to partake of the restaurant’s culinary treasures.  As if confirmation of Robert’s contention was necessary, we met a couple who drove in from Silver City because they craved the restaurant’s tomato soup.

If these pizza ovens could talk…

Considering that type of guest loyalty, a high degree of popular and media acclaim and the restaurant’s recent successes, you might expect that the restaurant would be helmed by an experienced, classically trained chef.  Instead, until his early retirement some seven years ago, Robert was a very successful broker in the Big Apple.  After relocating to Deming, he and Kimberly found themselves craving and unable to find the authentic New York Italian food and dining experiences they had enjoyed for years…what Robert terms as “the real places, the real meals, the real ingredients that distinguish the true Italian menu from its embarrassing imitators across the country.”  They began hawking pizza and salads from their home kitchen.  Savvy Deming diners quickly clamored for more.

In 2013, the Yacones purchased a hundred-year-old building in Deming’s historic district.  Determined to do it right “as it’s been done for generations and even centuries by Italians across the world,” they converted the timeworn edifice into a magnificent milieu perfect for serving incomparable meals to their guests.  The ambiance is homey, very much reminiscent of the New York “red sauce” restaurants with which I fell in love with half a lifetime ago.  You can’t help but appreciate the intimately lit dining room with its red and white checkered tablecloths and framed posters of big and small screen Italian crime legends.

The award-winning pepperoni and sausage pizza, one of the very best pizzas we’ve ever had.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the sprawling kitchen of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurant at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The gleaming, almost antiseptically immaculate kitchen is often staffed by as many as sixty people working in the kitchen and its various stations.  Forghedaboudit’s kitchen is Lilliputian in comparison, but it’s optimally organized for efficiency and it’s neat, clean and a harmonious hub of activity.  Robert has cultivated a very trusted kitchen staff led by kitchen manager Ray Chavira which allows him to step out and glad-hand with his guests.  He’s as gregarious and genial as any restaurateur we’ve met.  The elegant Kimberly, who runs the front of the house, has a very gracious and easy manner with guests.  Both have a very high likeability quotient.

When Forghedaboutit first opened, Robert hoped to introduce diners to such New York favorites as braciole, but Deming diners weren’t immediately receptive.  After I joked that maybe he belongs in Little New York (Rio Rancho), he reminded me that Rio Rancho is in great hands with his friend Joe Guzzardi of Joe’s Pasta House.  With Joe Guzzardi in the north and the Yacones in the south, New Mexico is in great hands!  By year’s end, the Yacones hope to launch a second instantiation of Forghedaboudit, this one in Las Cruces.  We may just have to move to the City of Crosses.

Award-Winning Wings–The Very Best in New Mexico

During our tour of the kitchen, we were fortunate enough to watch the construction of the first pizza of the day which Robert contends is always the best pizza.  The canvas for the restaurant’s terrific pizza is a dough fashioned from a combination of two flours–Antimo Caputo, the Neopolitan flour favored by many of the International Pizza Expo winners and King Arthur flour, favored by pizzerias throughout the East Coast– as well as a bit of malt.  In perfect proportion, the flour and malt give the dough a strong rise, great texture, and lovely brown crust.  Forghedaboudit employs a two oven method of preparing its authentic New York style pizza.  The pizza starts its journey on an Italian browning stone dusted with white corn meal inserted into an Imperial convection oven to ensure even heating throughout.  When the cheese is melted and the crust displays a golden sheen, the pizza is transferred to a smaller oven where it acquires the charring so many aficionados love.

Now, did the International Pizza Expo’s best traditional pizza in the Southwest live up to its billing?  Let me put it succinctly–You betcha!  It ranks up there with Frank Pepe’s, Pizzeria Bianco and Pizzeria Mozza as the very best pizza I’ve ever had.  Yeah, I’m prone to hyperbole, but this pizza absolutely blew me away.  With a perfect texture somewhere between chewy and crispy, a delightful golden brown color and just enough cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza), the crust is a magnificent canvas for the pepperoni and sausage.   For the first time in memory, my Kim didn’t scrape off the pepperoni and give it to me.  That’s how good the thinly sliced orbs are.  The sauce has the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness ameliorated by a judicious touch of oregano and garlic.  As are many of the ingredients, the Parmesan is imported from New York.  It’s first rate with perfect melting properties and very little oil.  One of the toughest determinants for pizza greatness is how well it holds up the next day when you’re craving pizza for breakfast.  Forghedaboudit’s pepperoni and sausage pie is every bit as wonderful cold as it is out of the oven!

Meatballs and Garlic Bread

For years I’ve used “Gil’s Thrilling…Year in Food” as a medium (and sometimes bully pulpit) to showcase restaurants and dishes in the Land of Enchantment which have garnered “best of” notice from national media cognoscenti.  I’ve lamented the fact that almost invariably, the anointed dishes come from Santa Fe or Albuquerque.  When Forghedaboudit competed and earned a second place finish in the National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival in (where else) Buffalo, New York, it should have put to rest the question “where can you find the best chicken wings in New Mexico.”  Take that Santa Fe!  Put that in your pipe and smoke it Albuquerque!  Now, if only the national media would discover Deming.  The only wings better can only be found on angels.  Forghedaboudit offers four dry-rub coated wings (that’s sans sauce): Bourbon BBQ, Jerk, Valencia Habañero and the award-winning maple bacon.  When you’re done, you’ll want to pick up a few rubs and spices to take home.

Just as wonderful as the award-winning pizza and maple bacon chicken wings are Forghedaboudit’s meatballs, two large orbs in a wondrous sauce and a molten blanket of cheese.  The sauce is simply amazing.  A large pot of this enchanting elixir been simmering at low temperature for about four hours when the meatballs arrived at our table.  The sauce is made from California-raised Roma tomatoes seasoned with garlic, oregano and laurel leaves.  Perfectly seasoned and of exemplary texture, the differentiator–what makes these  meatballs special–is the meat itself.  Neither of us could discern extraneous filler or flavor-altering binder.  These meatballs taste like meat, albeit delicious, wonderfully seasoned,  truly delicious meat.  Accompanying the meatballs was an extraordinary garlic bread with soft, buttery properties that’ll make grown men swoon.

Chicken Carbonara

Should an analysis of all that flows through my veins ever be performed, doctors might be surprised at just how much carbonara (as well as salsa) does flow through those veins.  Carbonara, one of the most rich, decadent and creamy of all Italian dishes just may be my very favorite of all Italian sauces.  It’s essentially pasta coated in a rich, creamy sauce of eggs, cheese, pork, and black pepper.  Forghedaboudit’s version is made with both bacon and chicken along with fresh green peas with a generous sprinkling of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano artfully garnished with assorted seasonings.  The pasta is perfectly al dente while the sauce is an exemplar of creamy decadence and deliciousness.  Carbonara has been described as ” perhaps the most impossible culinary dish to cook well.”  Perhaps the author of that blurb needs to visit Forghedaboudit where the impossible is made delicious.

When Robert ferried a bowl of New England clam chowder to our table, the immediately obvious question was “why not Manhattan clam chowder.”  Robert, after all, is a proud New Yorker.  His explanation made perfect sense: “Mention clam chowder and seventy-five-percent of people think New England clam chowder.”  My next question, “why no potatoes.”  He explained that the starch in the potatoes breaks down and renders the soup overly thick and gummy, requiring water to thin it out.  This isn’t a problem in New England because of how quickly restaurants turn around a pot of clam chowder.  Not only is he a great chef, he’s an alchemist.  Instead of potatoes, Forghedaboudit’s clam chowder is made with corn, carrots, celery and other fresh vegetables.  A netful of clams also graces what may be the best clam chowder I’ve had outside of New England.  “Best” is just par for this outstanding restaurant!

New England Style Clam Chowder–No Potatoes

We thought we’d be visiting Forghedaboudit for award-winning pizza and wings. When Robert apprised me that “we’re much more than pizza and wings,” little did we know how right he was. Forghedaboudit is one of the very best Italian restaurants to grace the Land of Enchantment. If you’re not already planning your trip to Deming, you’re missing out on a fabulous dining experience hosted by two of the most genial restaurateurs you’ll ever meet.

Forghedaboudit
115 North Silver Avenue
Deming, New Mexico
575-275-3381
Web Site | Facebook Page | Twitter
LATEST VISIT: 8 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pepperoni and Sausage Pizza, Meatballs, Garlic Bread, Chicken Carbonara, New England Clam Chowder

Forghedaboudit Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Latitude 33 – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Latitude 33, a Surprisingly Great Asian Fusion Restaurant

“Of all places in the country where you could have opened a restaurant, why Truth or Consequences, New Mexico?”  You can bet Joseph Schmitt has been asked that question many times, especially when people find out his previous address was in Palm Springs, California where he was an accomplished travel writer with a special affinity for cooking and dining.  Schmitt’s introduction to T or C started off as business but wound up as pleasure.   Assigned to write about New Mexico’s salubrious spas, he enjoyed the T or C area so much that he hawked the story idea to several publications, the impetus for several return trips.  With each return trip he found more to love about the area until ultimately relocating in April, 2013.

In all fairness, one of the reasons guests to Schmitt’s Latitude 33 Asian fusion restaurant ask “why T or C” is because they don’t expect to find a restaurant offering such sophisticated fare.  That’s especially true if they haven’t visited America’s most affordable spa town in a while.  In recent years, the influx of free-thinking quirkiness, eclectic artsiness  and a bohemian spirit have touched all aspects of life in this small city, including its restaurants.  If you visit T or C expecting only the solid, but unspectacular comfort food of yore, you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised to find unconventional and excellent eateries offering cosmopolitan cuisine with a local flair.

Main dining room at Latitude 33

No longer are K-Bob’s, Denny’s and Subway among the highest rated Truth or Consequences restaurants on Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor. Those paragons of chain mediocrity have been supplanted by fresh, innovative independent restaurants which, quite frankly, would be competitive in larger, more cosmopolitan cities.  These interlopers sport such names as the Passion Pie Cafe, Cafe Bella Luca and Latitude 33, the latter being the most recent addition to a burgeoning dining scene. 

Latitude 33 is so named because it’s on the latitude (33.12889 to be more precise) in which the restaurant and T or C sit.  Portions of Japan and China, two of the pan-Asian countries honored on the restaurant’s fusion menu, also lie on that latitude.  Situated near the heart of the historic bathhouse and spa district, Latitude 33 fits right in with the district’s bright color palette.  Distressed brick and corrugated window treatments give the exterior a rustic look and feel while the artsy interior is a melange of Southwestern art with Asian accoutrements on wasabi green walls.  Three picnic tables are available for al fresco dining with your four-legged children.

Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce

The menu is fresh and innovative, a much-welcome respite from the copycat fare many other so-called “fusion” restaurants tend to offer.  It’s a menu reminiscent not of Albuquerque or Santa Fe Asian fusion restaurants, but of the wildly eclectic and creative fusion restaurants in such cosmopolitan cities as Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas.  The price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality, diversity and in-house preparation of all soups, sauces, dressings and stocks. 

While you peruse the menu, make it a point to enjoy a sparkling strawberry-ginger lemonade, a homemade puree with soda water.  It’s a wonderfully refreshing blend of sweet-tangy strawberries, tart lemonade and lively ginger with just a hint of fizz.  The coconut-lime elixir (rich coconut milk with lime juice and a touch of mint) blends smooth mellow coconut milk with what is probably its polar opposite, tangy, refreshing lime juice.  The combination just works well.

Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce

Starters include the house Thai-style chicken noodle soup with coconut milk and rice noodles; a small Asian salad (cabbage mix, peanut dressing, veggies, sesame seeds); and a triumvirate of appetizers.  At a bare minimum, you should order at least two because if you order only one, you’ll certainly regret you didn’t sample the others.  If there’s an appetizer you haven’t previously found in New Mexico, that’s one you should consider.  The other should be a favorite appetizer so you can compare your previous favorite with Latitude 33’s made-from-scratch version. 

29 September 2014: Among the former, green chile aficionados should order the shishito peppers, a mild Japanese pepper not entirely unlike our own New Mexico green chiles.  Shishito peppers are three to four inches long and inherit the olfactory-arousing aroma of green chile when flash-fried until their skin is lightly blistered.  Unlike green chile, you don’t peel them after they’re  flash-fried.  Latitude 33  serves them with a green chile ponzu (a watery citrus-based sauce) sauce that complements the shishito peppers wonderfully.  You will absolutely fall in love with shishito peppers.  Note: The only place we’ve been able to find the addictive shishito peppers has been the Santa Fe Grower’s Market.  Shame on Asian restaurants in the Duke City and Santa Fe for not showcasing this green chile “mini me.”

Crispy Pork Wings

29 September 2014: In recent years, fried green beans have become a rather trendy finger food appetizer health-conscious parents are actually able to get their children to enjoy–even if their persnickety children otherwise hate green beans.  Whether ordered in lieu of fattier French fries or for healthful considerations, fried green beans are quite delicious when prepared correctly.  At Latitude 33, the green beans are lightly breaded and fried to a golden hue then served with a Chinese remoulade sauce.  Each about the length of your index finger, they’re crispy just beyond al dente.  The remoulade is a savory-tangy-slightly piquant dip which may remind you of the dip you dredge up with your favorite snack. 

7 April 2017: So what if nature didn’t imbue pigs with wings, it didn’t stop Latitude 33 from serving crispy pork wings, six meaty (porky?) mini pork shanks topped with sesame seeds in a sweet chili sauce topped with scallions. The “wings” might be the bone “handles” with which each shank is equipped. The handles allow you to pick up each pork shank and extricate the delicate meat with your teeth instead of with a fork. It’s a bit of a messy endeavor, but seriously would you eat these porcine beauties with a fork the way some people (at least in a Seinfeld episode) eat candy bars? While the pork is tender and delicious, the thick, syrupy sauce is a bit cloying and would have benefited from some piquancy.

Spicy Peanut Noodles with Flank Steak

29 September 2014: One of the most popular entrees on the menu are spicy peanut noodles, an entree for which the name falls well short of describing its deliciousness. Normally offered with tofu or chicken, the accommodating staff will substitute flank steak for a pittance more. The flank steak is seasoned magnificently and is as tender as the song of a summer wind. It’s a worthy protein for the elongated strands of wild rice noodles in a house-made spicy peanut sauce served with edamame (immature soybeans in the pod) and red peppers garnered with green onion, a wedge of lime and cucumber. The spicy peanut sauce is only mildly piquant, but imbues the noodles with a delightful flavor that marries especially well with the other ingredients. Be very judicious with the lime wedge because too much citrus will change the flavor profile significantly (and not necessarily for the better).

29 September 2014: In years of eating at Thai and Asian restaurants, few entrees have surprised me nearly as much as Latitude 33’s coconut green curry chicken. New Mexico’s Thai restaurants tend to prepare green curry dishes with bamboo shoots in a sweet-spicy coconut milk-enhanced curry. Latitude 33’s housemade version is made with Jasmine rice and no noodles. The curry is imbued with a touch of Hatch green chile, fresh broccoli, onion, red pepper, chicken and toasted coconut. The toasted coconut was heretofore not something my pedantic lips had ever experienced with green curry. Texturally and from a flavor perspective, it’s a nice touch. Latitude 33’s green curry isn’t overwhelmed by coconut milk as so many Thai curries in America tend to be. Instead, it treated us to a wide variety of thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture combinations. 

Coconut Green Curry Chicken

20 December 2015:  In addition to five daily lunch specials (available until 2PM), the menu lists four “day or night delights” sure to delight discerning diners.  One entree rarely seen in restaurants across the Land of Enchantment is Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa.  If you’ve ever heard of or had Mochiko Chicken, it was likely in the Hawaiian Islands where this poultry dish is served as a sort of island style chicken nugget.  Originating in Japan, these nuggets are coated in Mochiko flour, a cornstarch and rice flour which makes a light batter with a golden hue.

Latitude 33’s version of Mochiko Chicken is somewhat more sophisticated than the chicken nuggets so beloved among Hawaiian children.  Instead of nugget-sized poultry pieces, this entree includes several generously sized thighs lightly coated in the flour and topped with a sweet-tangy mango salsa.  The salsa is punctuated with sliced jalapeños from which it inherits a fresh piquancy. My preference would have been for the even more incendiary Thai bird peppers, but when chopped small enough they’re hard to see and may surprise you with their potency.  For just a bit of savory acidity, the entry also includes small cherry tomatoes.

Turquoise Curry with Grilled Shrimp

20 December 2015:  The “Day or Night Delights” menu includes yet another entree heretofore unseen in the Land of Enchantment.  The pan-seared pork tenderloin entree is a beautifully plated dish showcasing six medallions of marinated pork tenderloin in a housemade strawberry barbecue sauce.  If you’ve never had a strawberry-based sauce on an Asian-style entree, you’re in for a treat.  Strawberry-based sauces are somewhat underutilized in American Asian restaurants, but Latitude 33’s version will make you wonder why.  The lively and pungent ginger-fried rice is a wonderful foil for the sweet sauce.  Punctuated with a vegetable medley (carrots, broccoli, corn), the rice is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico.

7 March 2017: As seen on the state flag, New Mexico’s official state colors are the red and yellow of Old Spain. Perhaps because turquoise has already been designated the official state gem, our state legislature hasn’t lobbied to add it to our state color palette. Turquoise is very important to the Land of Enchantment and to Latitude 33’s menu. We did a double-take when we espied the dish “Turquoise curry with grilled shrimp.” How, we wondered, could a curry be made the color of turquoise. It turns out, the color this very unique curry dish is more akin to freshly mowed summer grass than it is to turquoise. The base for this curry is the restaurant’s green curry with Hatch green chile, jalapeno and cilantro with a dose of vibrant Chlorophyll, the pigment which gives plants their green color. The curry is simmered with fresh broccoli, red bell pepper and onions and is served over jasmine rice with large grilled shrimp. As unique as the dish may be, the curry itself didn’t have the herbaceous notes and piquancy of the Indian subcontinent or the coconut milk sweetness of curry in Thailand.

Asian Fusion Steak Frites

7 March 2017: Perhaps the dish best demonstrating fusion cuisine is the New Mexico meets Asia meets France offering of Asian Style Steak Frites, a choice grade, eight-ounce New Mexican grass-fed flank steak in a house marinade topped with wasabi butter served with sweet potato fries tossed in salted red chili powder. For my beef-loving babe, this dish alone made the drive to Truth or Consequences worth it. Flank steak, derived from the abdominal muscles or buttocks of a cow, are more common in England where we lived for eight years. Sliced against the grain, it’s a tender and lean cut with a strong beefy flavor. Flank steaks absorb marinades, sauces and spicy rubs very well. The wasabi butter was proof of that.

29 September 2014: During our inaugural visit, desserts were limited to green tea ice cream and coconut black rice pudding with whipped cream. Made with sticky whole grain black rice, just a modicum of coconut milk and a generous sprinkling of toasted coconut, this rice pudding is creamy, mildly sweet, a little savory, and very coconutty. Unlike most of the black rice puddings you’ll find, this one is served cold. It took one bite to get used to the cold sensation and focus on just how good this dessert can be. 

Coconut Black Rice Pudding

20 December 2015:  Latitude 33’s key lime pie had us wondering if a Key West resident would be able to tell the difference between this key lime pie and its counterpart at the Florida keys.  Unlike far too many so-called key lime pies, this one isn’t overly sweet with a Graham cracker crust providing much of its sweetness.  Instead, the flavors emphasized were a delightful tangy tartness bordering on the lip-pursing variety.  This is key lime pie with a great balance of flavors and an emphasis where those flavors are needed.

Ginger Key Lime Pie

Latitude 33 is just one more reason we’ve grown to love Truth or Consequences, a city which surprises us more and more every time we visit.  This is one restaurant with which you’ll fall in love, too. 

Latitude 33
304 South Pershing Street
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
(575) 740-7804
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2017
1st VISIT: 29 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Peanut Noodles, Shishito Peppers with Green Chili Ponzu Sauce, Coconut Green Curry Chicken, Fried Green Beans with a Chinese Remoulade Sauce Coconut Black Rice Pudding, Mochiko Chicken with Mango Salsa, Pan-Seared Pork Tenderloin, Key Lime Pie

Latitude 33 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

El Maguey – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

El Maguey Mexican Food in Rio Rancho

On a 2010 episode of The Travel Channel’s No Reservations series, host Anthony Bourdain described pulque as “the sap of the maguey cactus” as well as “man juice” and “Mexican Viagra.” That may explain why so many aspiring middle-aged brewers across the fruited plain rushed to their local nurseries in search of the maguey plant. Although maguey may be plentiful even in the Land of Enchantment, extracting pulque is a laborious process involving four distinct steps, the first of which is called castration. The name of this step may also explain why so many middle-aged men quickly lost their enthusiasm for cultivating maguey.

In parts of Mexico where the maguey is harvested, native Zapotec, Mixtec and Mixe producers actually ask the plant for permission to harvest it. With the utmost respect, they tell the maguey that its use will primarily be for celebratory rituals and not solely for the sake of profit. Soon after the dawning of 2017, Rio Rancho saw the launch of El Maguey, a Mexican restaurant named for the plant held in such high esteem throughout Mexico. At El Maguey, horchata may be the closest thing to the alcoholic beverage made from the sap of the maguey plant and only in appearance do they share any similarity whatsoever.

El Maguey Dining Room

If you haven’t seen El Maguey during your travels through the City of Vision, it’s probably because its storefront doesn’t face heavily trafficked Rio Rancho Boulevard. Instead, it’s set back on the northeast corner of the timeworn Lujan Plaza shopping center which also houses Namaste and Stack House Barbecue.  The same obfuscated corner where El Maguey is situated was once home to such short-lived eateries as Ahh Sushi, Relish (although the original in Albuquerque remains a city favorite), Pastrami & Things and other restaurants.  It’s a tough location in which to succeed.

We knew we’d like El Maguey when we walked in and espied a Cantinflas movie playing on what has to be a nineteen inch flat screen (or PC monitor). Arguably Mexico’s greatest and most beloved comedy film star of all time, Cantinflas was once called “the greatest comedian alive” by no less than Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps because the television is so small, it isn’t the cynosure of the dining room which has undergone an amazing make-over since its previous occupant vacated. To say the room is colorful is an understatement. It is awash in bright colors. A swinging gate door separates the dining room from the kitchen. 

Salsa, Chips and Horchata

No sooner are you seated than chips and salsa are delivered to your table. The salsa is a luminous green, a telltale sign tomatillo is its chief ingredient and not tomato. The salsa is terrific with a nice balance of heat and tanginess from a squeeze or two of lime. Cilantro lends its unique freshness. The chips are crisp and just a bit on the salty side. El Maguey offers several options for washing down the chips and salsa. Alas, the only aguas fresca on the menu are Jamaica and horchata, the refreshing and sweet, cinnamony beverage. As with most horchata served in Albuquerque restaurants, it does taste a bit like the cold milk at the tail end of a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal.

El Maguey’s menu is relatively small with a rotation of daily specials such as Taco Tuesday. Tacos—chicken, steak, barbacoa, rose meat, chicharron and al pastor (as well as shrimp on occasion)–are a specialty of the house. Rose meat, by the way, has nothing to do with the flower. It’s named in honor of the ruddy chef who prepares it. Also on the menu are gorditas, burritos, quesadillas and tortas. Essentially any item on the menu can be crafted from the aforementioned proteins. Pozole and menudo are available on Saturdays and Sundays. Breakfast burritos are served daily from 7AM to 11AM.

El Pastor Taco, Steak Taco and Chicken Quesadilla

Nestled within a folded corn tortilla (about four inches around) along with onions and cilantro, the tacos are reminiscent of those sold by street vendors throughout Mexico. They’re bulging at their sides thanks to being stuffed generously. We enjoyed the al pastor taco most. Al pastor, which translates to “in the style of the shepherd” is indeed a ubiquitous street food option in Mexico where thin cuts of marinated pork are whittled away from a cone of sizzling pork gyrating on a spit (similar to a gyro). At El Maguey, the al pastor is in cubed form reminiscent of tandoori meats in its splendorous patina.

A flour tortilla with its characteristic pinto pony char is home to quesadillas which can be loaded up with your choice of protein and rich, melting cheese. Chicken is a good choice. It goes especially well with the tomatillo salsa. The canvas for the tortas is a split bolillo (white roll) engorged with your protein choice. The barbacoa, which is most assuredly not the Spanish word for barbecue, is a terrific option with its unique taste and texture. This barbacoa is the real thing, as authentic as you’ll find in Mexico. The chicharrones on our gordita are more akin to chicharrones you’ll find in Northern New Mexico than many found in Mexico. They’re crispy, crunchy crackling bits of pork.

Barbacoa Torta, Chicharron Gordita, Steak Taco

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded El Maguey a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Chicharron Nachos as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. 

When my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver discovered El Maguey, he urged me to beat a quick path to this delightful little taste of Mexico in Rio Rancho. Diners venturing outside the well-beaten and eaten path are discovering it, too. For value dining of surprising quality, there may be none better in Rio Rancho.

El Maguey Mexican Food
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 508-6427
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 April 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Barbacoa Torta, Chicharron Gordita, Steak Taco, Chicken Quesadilla, Al Pastor Taco, Horchata

El Maguey Mexican Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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