Naruto – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Naruto on Central Avenue in the University of New Mexico area

During a 2015 episode of the Travel Channel’s Delicious Destinations, glaborous host Andrew Zimmern articulated what may be the very best–or at least most comprehensive–definition of comfort food ever. “Comfort food,” he explained, “makes us feel good. Every culture has its favorites–satisfying classics carried throughout the generations. Simple recipes loaded with carbs and full of love. It’s the taste of a feeling: warm, cozy, hearty and homey. Comfort foods satisfy more than physical hunger. They’re the feel good favorites that connect us to our past, family and cultural classics that fill us with sustenance and warm feelings at the same time.”

At first browse, it appears that Zimmern’s definition applies solely to the act of consuming comfort foods, however, read closely and nowhere within that definition is it explicitly stated that comfort foods have to be eaten in order to be warm, cozy, hearty and homey. Nor do we have to masticate, graze, sup or savor comfort foods in order to feel good or to satisfy more than our physical hunger. Whether deliberate or unintentional, Zimmern’s definition can also apply to acts other than eating one’s food. Indeed, for some of us, the sense of warmth, coziness and comfort from food can be derived from acts other than eating it.

A very busy kitchen

That may be especially true for ramen, arguably the most popular comfort food in the world. In Japan, ramen is so revered that several major cities boast of museums designed to pay homage to this national dish. Considering the veneration with which they revere this sacrosanct food, you might think the Japanese consider ramen as strictly for degustation, for lovingly luxuriating in its nuanced flavors, studiously imbibing its fragrant aromas and ruminating about the sheer delight of enjoying such sheer deliciousness. You might even believe Japanese would consider it heretical, perhaps even blasphemous for ramen to be used as a “play thing” or worse, as bath water. You would be wrong on both counts.

Since 2007, a Japanese spa has been offering patrons the opportunity to luxuriate in a tub filled with ramen. While health regulations mandate that only non-edible (synthetic) noodles be used in the hot bath water, real pork broth is added. The broth not only renders the water brownish, it imparts collagen which ostensibly has the salubrious benefits of helping improve the bather’s metabolism while cleansing the skin. Frankly, a tonkatsu (pork bone) broth sounds just a bit greasy and there’s no telling what bodily nook and crannies those noodles will sneak up into.

Jim and Janet Millington, founding Friends of Gil (FOG) members

We joked about the ramen baths with our friends and founding Friends of Gil members Jim and Janet Millington who joined us for our inaugural visit to Naruto, an Albuquerque ramen house open since December, 2015. The Millingtons were already planning a visit to a ramen museum in Tokyo during an upcoming sojourn to the Land of the Rising Sun. I tried in vain to talk them into indulging in a ramen bath, but Jim has too much respect and love for ramen. Like me, he would rather eat a tubful than bathe in it. Googled images of ramen bathers did little to make the ramen bath concept more enticing. In fact, our Japanese server found the notion rather silly.

It’s becoming a tradition that Jim and I break in new ramen restaurants together. On 24 April 2014, we made our initial excursion to the delightful O Ramen on Central Avenue across the street from the University of New Mexico (UNM). Surprisingly, only one (currently vacant) storefront separates O Ramen from Naruto which occupies the space which previously housed the Mint Tulip Vegan Café. Out of concern and curiosity, we walked the twenty steps or so from Naruto to O Ramen and were very happy to see nearly every seat at both ramen houses occupied. It makes sense that collegiate types would appreciate having two ramen houses in close proximity (after all, ramen is a dietary staple for students).

Gyoza

Naruto may be new to Albuquerque, but it’s got a New Mexican pedigree. Founding owners Hiro and Shohko Fukuda opened the Land of Enchantment’s very first sushi bar some four decades ago. Since its opening in 1975, the Shohko Café has been considered one of the very best sushi restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, earning first place in the Santa Fe Reporter’s annual “Best of Santa Fe” edition from 2009 through 2014. Not strictly a sushi restaurant, Shohko serves a number of ramen dishes as well as soba or udon noodles and many other Japanese favorites.

The transformation from the Mint Tulip Vegan Café to Naruto is startling, an aesthetic and functional make-over. Bar stools overlooking the exhibition kitchen give diners a window to the real transformation which goes on everyday at Naruto. That’s the transformation of fresh ingredients into some of the very best ramen in New Mexico. There are similarities to the ramen at O Ramen, but it’s distinctive enough that comparisons will be in order. The menu showcases eight different ramen dishes, including some heretofore unavailable in the Duke City. We’re talking miso ramen, seafood ramen and vegetable ramen here. Also available are a number of entrees including kimchi fried rice, a chashu bowl (sliced pork with ramen noodles) and gyoza.

Miso Ramen with Tempura Shrimp

If your experience with gyoza is similar to ours, you’ve found there’s very little to distinguish gyoza at one Japanese restaurant from another. Worse, there’s little to distinguish gyoza from dumplings you’ll find at any Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese restaurant in town. At first bite, we could tell the gyoza at Naruto is different. It’s better…legions better These pulchritudinous pan-fried dumplings are stuffed with the usual minced pork, but that’s where similarities end. The greenish tint of the pork is courtesy of Chinese leeks and scallions. They infiltrate the pork with an herbaceous quality no other dumpling in memory possesses.

The gyoza isn’t accompanied by the usual soy-based dipping sauce served with most dumplings in the Duke City. Instead, you’ll find a condiment caddy at your table replete with everything you need to impart as much additional personality to your gyoza (or ramen) as you’d like. The caddy includes a pickled ginger that’ll water your eyes, pickled garlic that’ll ward off a family of werewolves, chile oil that’ll have you coughing and sputtering and another oil whose undoubtedly delicious qualities escape me.  Darn, that means I have to visit Naruto again…and soon.

Tonkatsu Ramen

Tonkotsu ramen is porcine perfection, an intensely porky elixir concocted by culinary wizards who, over many hours of simmering time, transform pork bones into an opaque broth with a rich, butyraceous flavor and the aroma of heaven. Naruto offers two versions of its Tonkotsu ramen, the standard “as good as winning the lottery” version and a super-rich version that’s even better than winning the lottery. The super-rich version includes Japanese pickled mustard greens, black mushrooms and chashu pork as well as any additional toppings (there are eleven of them) you may choose to add. The ramen noodles are imported from California where they’re fashioned to Naruto’s exacting specifications. They’re transformative, as good as you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque! This is comfort food ramen at its very best, a melt-in-your-mouth dish that will make adults swoon.

Even better if you can imagine that is a Miso Ramen (green onions, two slices of chashu, bamboo shoots and kikurago) a relative newcomer in that Miso Ramen has been made in Japan only since the 60s. The broth combines “copious amounts of miso blended with an oily pork broth to create a thick, nutty, slightly sweet and very hearty soup.” Dismiss any notions you might have about miso soup; this one is many orders of magnitude better than any miso soup you’ve ever had at any Japanese restaurant.  The dashi stock, the base for any miso soup, is made in-house.  As with the Tonkotsu Ramen, there are twelve optional toppings. Try this special elixir with shrimp tempura; you’ll thank me later.

Condiment Caddy

Naruto’s ramen is made for luxuriating–not the type you do in a tubful of hot water, but for slurping merrily with a soup spoon.  Naruto is blazing new paths in culinary deliciousness.

Naruto
2110 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 369-1039
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Ramen, Tonkatsu Ramen Super Rich, Gyoza

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

Dion’s Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dion’s in Rio Rancho on a snowy winter morning

Toga! Toga! Toga! Ever since the misfit Delta Tau Chi fraternity threw the most debaucherous toga party ever in the 1978 “teensploitation” comedy Animal House, the toga party has been ingrained in the college party culture. The genesis of the toga party goes back much, much further than Animal House.  Toga parties, in fact, precede collegiate life in the fruited plain by many hundred years. The first toga party was actually organized in ancient Greece by the Greek god Dionysus, the deity of the grape harvest, wine-making and wine, of ritual madness, fertility, theater and religious ecstasy (that’s quite a job description, even for a god). Dionysus literally had a cult following of men and women who worshiped him. Together this vagabond group became some of history’s first true party animals, holding orgiastic celebrations where they danced to frenzied music and behaved like crazed BYU basketball fans. It was during this revelry that Dionysus invented both the toga party and the first drinking games.

You might not know it but the Dion’s Pizza franchise that has become ubiquitous in the Duke City area, is actually named for that rapscallion god Dionysus (albeit a shortened version of that infamous name). Obviously when founders John Patten and Bill Scott contemplated naming options for the New York Pizza restaurant they purchased, they wanted to celebrate the wine experience they planned for their planned Greek restaurant.  They certainly didn’t want to celebrate the John Belushi-like characteristics of the god Dionysus. During the transitional period between pizza restaurant and Greek restaurant, they continued to make pizzas and quickly discovered that pizza was what their customers craved.

A combination pizza from Dion's

A combination pizza from Dion’s

Nearly four decades later, it is still pizza which draws patrons to this amazingly popular restaurant, but pizza is far from all Dion’s has to offer its loyal patrons. Nor can it be said any longer that Dion’s is strictly a “local” favorite. In addition to multiple locations in the Albuquerque metropolitan area (including Bernalillo, Los Lunas and Rio Rancho), Dion’s can be found in Las Cruces and Santa Fe. In recent years, Dion’s has expanded beyond the Land of Enchantment with restaurants in Lubbock, Texas as well as Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado. Dion’s has become not only the most successful pizzeria in Albuquerque, it’s one of the most lucrative in the fruited plain.

In its January, 2015 report Pizza Magazine Quarterly revealed that only four states across the fruited plain love pizza less than New Mexico does  (another quality of life category for which we can be grateful for Mississippi).  With only 1.55 pizza joints per 10,000 residents, the Land of Enchantment ranks 46th in terms of number of pizzerias.   Worse, only 38.4 percent of those pizzerias are independent.  There is one local chain regarded as one of the most successful local chains in the fruited plain.  Dion’s ranked number 37 on the magazine’s list of the top fifty pizza chains in America.  From a monetary perspective, however, the magazine noted that Dion’s makes more money per restaurant than any other pizza chain in the country.

The Duke City (Photo courtesy of Bill Resnik)

In those 30 years plus of operation, Dion’s has established a near cult following of devoted patrons, many of them families. Dion’s is so popular that in its tenth anniversary edition, the long defunct Abq magazine named it to its “Hall of Fame” in recognition of the restaurant garnering more “Best of” votes than anyone else in the pizza category.  In its annual reader’s choice issue, readers of Albuquerque The Magazine (an unrelated successor to Abq magazine) continue to lavish high praise for Dion’s, a perennial contender, if not winner, of the magazine’s “best pizza in the city” honors.

There’s much to like about Dion’s.  The restaurant is immaculate and service is efficient and friendly.  It’s staffed with energetic and smiling employees who seem to enjoy what they’re doing.  There’s a viewing area from which children (of all ages) can watch the pizza-makers in action.  Seating is plentiful and there’s even a drive-up window where you can pick up your call-in orders.

Turkey and Swiss Sandwich with Greek Dressing

Today Dion’s has twenty-one locations including eleven in Albuquerque.  Ever ambitious, this regional powerhouse has designs on becoming “the most admired regional restaurant brand in the country.”  Dion’s employs over a thousand employees, many of them teenagers.  Among the secrets to Dion’s success and continued growth are fundamental rules established at the onset, rules by which each Dion’s restaurant still operate today:

  • Always use the finest ingredients.
  • Never change ingredients simply to get the cheapest price.
  • Only serve pizza, salads and submarine sandwiches that we are proud of.
  • Hire the best people.  Promote team players and cooperation.
  • Give the customer exceptional quality, service, cleanliness and a teamwork environment.

In its 2010 Food and Wine edition, Albuquerque The Magazine published the results of its search for the best pizza in Albuquerque.  At each pizzeria, the magazine staff ordered a pepperoni pizza and rated it on its taste, appearance, authenticity and creativity.  After tallying points, the top five had a “pizza playoff” in which the finalists served the specialty pie of their choice as well as a pepperoni pizza.  Dion’s placed fifth from among nearly forty Duke City area pizzerias.  Alas, my vote is much harder to get.

The Italian Sub

That highly touted pizza is, in my honest opinion, very inconsistent–often very good but not as transformative as my fellow New Mexicans believe it is.  Too many pizzas during too frequent visits  have been generally soggy with a surfeit of drooping, greasy cheese. My friend Mike Muller, a Dion’s devotee, claims that the quality of the pizza depends on which store you visit and who’s making it. My retort is that a restaurant which isn’t consistent visit after visit is one I won’t visit very often.

Still, I do credit Dion’s for its dough which we occasionally purchase for our take-and-bake dinners. The dough is made from scratch daily and serves as a nice canvass for whatever ingredients with which you top them.  For dining in, pizzas are available in 12-, 14- or 16-inch sizes.  Available toppings are pepperoni, Italian sausage, smoked ham, ground beef, chicken, bacon mushrooms, black olives, pineapple, red onions, fresh tomatoes, green chile, jalapeños, bell peppers and anchovies.

Meatball and provolone sub with chips

Dion’s venture into the realm of gourmet pizzas is a popular draw, though my experiences with these so-called gourmet pizzas have also met with mixed results. A Kansas City pizza features a barbecue sauce so insipid renders the pie’s name a misnomer.  As a devotee of Kansas City barbecue, my expectations for s sauce bearing that bastion of barbecue’s name are high indeed, and Dion’s pizza failed to meet those expectations.  So did the Duke City (turkey, Cheddar, green chile and Parmesan) which practically put my taste buds to sleep–and that’s not just from the tryptophan.

Dion’s sandwiches are the restaurant’s most redeeming item and a far better reason to visit than the pizza.  Served submarine-style on original white or wheat hoagie-style baguettes baked fresh daily, the sandwiches are available in six- and ten-inch sizes.  Green chile is available upon request on all sandwiches and there’s no charge for an ingredient which improves everything it touches. Sandwiches are served with Greek dressing, a dill pickle spear and crinkled potato chips which you can substitute with fruit for a mere pittance.

Greek Salad

The sandwich board choices are Turkey & Swiss, Pastrami & Provolone, Roast Beef & Provolone, Ham & Swiss, Meatball & Provolone, Veggie (green chile and Cheddar) and an Italian sub. Sandwiches are adorned with lettuce,  red onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise and deli mustard. The Italian sub, the restaurant’s specialty is engorged with ham, pepperoni and Genoa salami and is studded with Asiago cheese, Kalamata olives, bell peppers, red onions, lettuce, mayonnaise and deli mustard.  It’s a terrific sub, a deli-class sandwich made with premium ingredients.

There are two facets to each sandwich which makes them special.  The first is the baguettes which are lightly toasted in a conveyor oven to give them a crispy exterior while retaining a pillow soft contrast inside.  The conveyor oven melts the cheese but doesn’t warm the beef to a mushy consistency and somehow manages to keep the vegetables crisp and fresh.  The second facet is the Greek dressing which is simply terrific, so much so that you’ll want a second portion so that every morsel of sandwich you bite into is infiltrated by the tanginess of this excellent dressing.  Save Dion’s ranch dressing for salads, but always use the Greek dressing on the sandwiches. 

Dion’s salad is a perennial winner of “best salad” honors during the Alibi’s annual “Best of Burque” balloting.  With that tangy Greek dressing or the rich and creamy Ranch dressing, even plain lettuce would be delicious.   The Greek salad (iceberg lettuce, black olives, feta, tomatoes, croutons and Dion’s mix) is one of the best of its kind in Albuquerque, so good you might reflect on what might have been had Dion’s become a Greek restaurant instead of the state’s most popular pizza restaurant. 

Dion’s Pizza
4200 Montano, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)898-1161
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 05 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 26
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Greek Dressing, The Italian Sub, Greek Salad, Ranch Dressing

Dion's on Urbanspoon

Little Red Hamburger Hut – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Little Red Hamburger Hut on Mountain Road

The Little Red Hamburger Hut on Mountain Road

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
– J. Wellington Wimpy

Cultural shock!  It’s been oft repeated that the United States and England are two nations separated by a common language.  I had no idea how much the two nations are separated by more than language until 1979 when stationed at Royal Air Force Base Upper Heyford just outside of Oxford, England.  Cultural differences were especially evident in dining experiences.  Back then American fast food restaurants were as scarce in England as fish and chips restaurants were in the United States. McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut had just starting to make inroads in the megalopolis of London.  In smaller cities, if we wanted an American hamburger, the only option was a chain of England-based hamburger restaurants named Wimpy’s.  During my first visit to Wimpy’s there were many reminders we were not in America.

First, service was on New Mexico time (and I say that with the utmost affection); the concept of fast food was apparently lost on the wait staff.  Secondly, portions were parsimonious.  The burgers weren’t the size of a frisbee the way American servicemen liked them.  Soft drinks were merely eight-ounces, not the barrel-sized cups we were used to.  Worse, we were charged for refills.  Last, and most important, the burgers were–as most English food tended to be at the time–bland and mediocre (or worse).  Give us McDonald’s any day!

Little Red Hamburger Hut Dining Room

As those of you old enough to remember the characters might have surmised, Wimpy’s was named for Popeye’s friend J. Wellington Wimpy, an erudite and manipulative glutton.   Wimpy was, in just about every way,  Popeye’s “foil,” a living contrast to the “strong to the finich” sailor man.  Where Popeye was prone to wild antics and explosive blow-ups, Wimpy was the consummate “straight man.”  While Popeye had the stereotypical, albeit G-rated vocabulary of a sailor from the Bronx, Wimpy was highly intelligent and well educated.  Popeye loved to “eats me spinach” while Wimpy was never seen without a hamburger in hand.

Interestingly, Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood has a restaurant staking a claim to being the home of the “original” Wimpy Burger.  Founded in 1922, the Red Ball Cafe which closed in 2015 was a Route 66 mainstay for more than three-quarters of a century.  McDonald’s single-sized Wimpy burgers with cheese are still available on the menu for under a dollar.  The irascible Popeye and his supporting cast of characters festoon the restaurant’s walls while comic strips under glass decorate the table tops.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

In 2008, a restaurant by the name of Wimpy’s was launched just minutes north of Old Town.  Though not affiliated with the Red Ball Cafe, the name engendered obvious confusion among diners (and reportedly some contentiousness between both ownership parties).  Wimpy’s has since been renamed “The Little Red Hamburger Hut,” a name that just fits (though regulars still call it “Wimpy’s.”  It is situated on the intersection of Mountain Road and Sawmill, which back in 1900 was considered beyond the Albuquerque city limits.  In the early 1900s a giant sawmill operated in the area and many workers built adobe and/or frame homes in the area.  There were also a couple of grocery stores serving the little community as well.  I believe Wimpy’s is located in one of those.

The timeworn edifice has charm to spare.  The solidity of distressed oak plank flooring heavily trod upon by generations speaks to the quality of construction.  On the corner of the main dining room stands a hand-painted fireplace, the symbol of hospitality and warmth.  The ceiling is bamboo matting (which in New Mexico is a multi-purpose utility used as flooring, ceiling and even fencing).  The Little Red Hamburger Hut provides diners with a nostalgic trip back to a carefree, more innocent time before the infestation of chain restaurants.  Even if you’re not old enough to remember it, you’ll appreciate the sundry bric a brac from the Fabulous Fifties and Swinging Sixties.

A Large Little Red with French Fries

A Large Little Red with French Fries

Diners queue up before the restaurant opens so they’re first in line to place their order in a room adjacent to the main dining room. The menu enjoys you to “enjoy New Mexico’s famous burgers.”  Burgers are the primary draw here, but not just your standard, conventional burgers on a bun.  Burger options start with the “Little Red” which you can order in small, medium or large sizes.  The Little Red is available with either red or green chile (both complementary as well as is cheese).   A combo meal includes fries and a large (barrel-sized) beverage of your choice with free refills. You can also have your burger on a tortilla.  There’s even taco burgers and hot dog burgers which are just what their names indicate they are.

Unless you specify otherwise, the burgers are cooked well done, but as you’ll happily realize, that doesn’t mean charred to a desiccated mess.  Though the beef patties are fresh and delicious, they aren’t as juicy as burgers done to a lesser degree of “doneness.”  It’s a likelihood that their desiccation may also be the result of the heinous spatula press (for which cooks should be shot).  The burgers are hand-formed each morning from freshly ground beef.  They’re available in medium (quarter-pound) and large sizes.    It’s very evident that freshness is a hallmark of the burgers and that’s all ingredients, not just the beef.  All produce is purchased daily to ensure the optimal freshness and flavor.

The Little Red Tortilla Burger fully dressed

14 March 2010: The Little Red is constructed much like other burgers in town–lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese, green chile–but like any classic structure, it’s built very well and it’s built to order–to your exacting specifications with your satisfaction guaranteed.  The buns are lightly toasted, the beef is wonderfully seasoned and hand-pressed into a thick patty, the ingredients are fresh and the green chile (spelled “chili” throughout the menu) is about medium on the piquancy scale.  It takes just a bit longer (not quite English time) but it’s worth the wait.

3 September 2010: A New Mexico alternative to the Little Red may one-up its more popular brethren between buns. That alternative would be the tortilla burger, a large tortilla dressed any way you want it.  Impressively, the beef–a large patty cut in half — spans nearly the entire length and breadth of the tortilla.  It’s best fully dressed–green chile, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and cheese and is available in small, medium and large sizes.

Hot Dog Burger with Fries

3 February 2016: The Little Red Hamburger Hut solves the dilemma as to what you should have when both a hamburger and a hot dog sound good but you don’t have the funds for both.  By combining a hot dog within a burger, you have the best of both worlds.  The hot dog burger special (medium burger, 20-ounce beverage and fries) is proof that hot dogs and burgers can coexist in harmonious deliciousness under the same canvas.  That canvas is a bun that’s probably not much more than three-inches around.  When ingredients are piled on, the burger is nearly that tall, too.  The buns are hard-pressed to hold in all the ingredients and will probably fall apart after a few bites, so make sure to have plenty of napkins because you might be eating with your hands.

3 September 2010: New Mexico’s contribution to Health.com’s “50 Fattiest Foods,” a state-by-state hall of infamy, was our ubiquitous Frito pie.  The version low-lighted in the article contained a pants-popping 46 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat.  Still, it’s hard to resist the Land of Enchantment’s most egregious fat-offender, especially since it looks like a healthy lettuce, tomato, cheese and onion salad when it’s delivered to other tables.  Underneath the salad ingredients, however, is a mound of ground beef covered in chile and cheese surrounded by Frito’s corn chips.  The Little Red Hamburger Hut crafts a classic New Mexican Frito pie.  The chile is likely Bueno brand red chile, a made in New Mexico chile which means it’s good and has a piquant bite without no canned or cumin aftertaste.  The chile is slathered on generously.

A large Frito pie

The fries are strictly out-of-the-bag and nothing special other than they’re served steamy and hot.  It takes a lot of ketchup and a lot of salt to make them palatable, but that’s the only downer to a meal that’s otherwise quite memorable.

The Little Red Hamburger Hut is the antithesis of the Wimpy’s chains in England. It’s an excellent purveyor of New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburger and one of the friendliest restaurants in the Duke City.

Little Red Hamburger Hut
1501 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 304-1819
Web Site| Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 3 February 2016
1st VISIT: 14 March 2009
# of VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Large Little Red’s Combo, Large Tortilla Burger, Large Frito Pie, Hot Dog Burger

Little Red Hamburger Hut Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1 2 3 320