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O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

My friends Jim and Janet Millington (left), Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) and Hannah Walraven ruminating about ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return frequently.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

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Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  My friend Andrea Lin, the luminous restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, calls it “liquid pork.”  The porkalicious broth elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Tonkatsu Spicy Miso Ramen (Level 4)

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  For fellow aficionado Jim Millington, level three is perfect.   The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2015
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

O Ramen on Urbanspoon

Teofilo’s Restaurante – Los Lunas, New Mexico

Teofilo’s Restaurante on Main Street in Los Lunas

Several years ago award-winning Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum (since retired) penned a wonderfully evocative column entitled “Spanish Names Fade into History.”  Leslie observed that if you frequent the obituaries, especially those published on the Journal North and Journal Santa Fe, you may have observed  and lamented the passing of another great Spanish name.   The lyrical names with which the scions of Coronado were christened–Leocaida, Elfido, Trinidad, Pacomio, Seralia, Evilia, Amadea, Aureliano and others– have become increasingly rare in the Land of Enchantment. 

Leslie noted that “just about every day in New Mexico, another great old Spanish name passes on as a family loses a viejo.”   Former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez believes the disfavor which has befallen once-honored given names can largely be attributed to  “the stigma against the use of the Spanish language, which stretched from the 1940s into the 1980s.”   It’s a shameful stigma that “extended into many families as they welcomed babies into the world.”

Salsa and Chips

Today, instead of bestowing their children with such culturally-rooted names as Prudencio, Malya, Natividad, Onofre, Celso, Andreita, Ramoncita and Piedad, young New Mexican parents tend to favor more “homogeneous” names as Noah, Elijah, Jacob, Aiden, Daniel, Jayden, Josiah, Ethan and Michael for boys and Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia, Emily, Sofia, Ariana, Ava and Abigail for girls. According to the state Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, in 2014, the most popular names for newborns in New Mexico were Liam for boys and Mia for girls followed by the aforementioned names. Coronado would not recognize these names.

Having grown up daily hearing the mellifluous and traditional Spanish names of a bygone era, I can now appreciate their distinctively melodic qualities and like Leslie, mourn the passing of friends, relatives and strangers alike who brought honor to those names.  It makes me cringe when young Hispanos mispronounce (butcher would be a more appropriate term) names those of my generation hold sacrosanct.  Because their own parents were taught to eschew Spanish, it’s entirely inappropriate to blame young Hispanos for any linguistic malapropisms.

Breakfast Quesadilla (Cheddar-Jack Cheese, Avocado, Bacon) with Papitas

Leslie recalls the appropriate recitation of these names by former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez as “somewhere between a poem and a lullaby.”  Were she to visit Teofilo’s Restaurante in Los Lunas, Leslie would probably first celebrate the perpetuation of a time-honored, traditional Spanish name on the restaurant’s marquee.  She would probably then shudder the first and subsequent times she heard a server answer the phone “Tio Philo’s.”   Servers aren’t the only ones employing this aberrant mispronunciation, but even more than their customers, they darned well should know better. 

That not everyone in the village of Los Lunas can correctly pronounce the name Teofilo is probably attributable to the fact everyone calls Pete “Teofilo” Torrez, Jr. by his first name.  Everyone in Valencia county pronounces the Torrez name correctly and with a bit of reverence.   To put it mildly, the dynastic Torrez family is restaurant royalty in Valencia County. In 1949, Pete Jr.’s father and mother Elijia (another melodic New Mexican name) founded the legendary Pete’s Café in Belen, which (ask Arnold Schwarzenegger) is still going strong.  In 1986, Pete, Jr., and his wife Hortencia (more music to my ears) launched Teofilo’s in Los Lunas. 

T’s Huevos in a Bowl (Blue Corn Tortilla topped with papitas, T’s red chile carne adovada, two over-medium eggs, chile, Cheddar-Jack cheese piled high in a bowl

Teofilo’s is situated on Main Street where it faces the historic Luna Mansion which Pete, Jr. purchased in 2009.  Both are historic properties.  The venerable complex which houses Teofilo’s dates from 1913.  It was built for Doctor W.F. Wittwer who was enticed to stay in Los Lunas for the princely sum of fifty dollars per month.  The distinctively old New Mexican architectural design showcases period-specific architecture, including terron (thick slabs of earth rather than adobes) walls and a high-pitched, corrugated tin roof. 

Step into Teofilo’s and you’re not only walking into history, you’re walking into a warm and beckoning interior with period pieces throughout.  It’s akin to walking into someone’s home and in a very real sense, you are.  The small waiting room, which is often standing room only, includes a number of black-and-white photos of Doctor Wittwer and his family.  There are a number of small dining rooms, the most popular of which is probably the enclosed porch area where historic artwork festoons the wall.  The east-facing windows let in both heat and sunlight.

Red Chile Carne Adovada on Blue Corn Tortillas with refritos and arroz

You’ll also find plenty of heat on the salsa.  The salsa is a rich red jalapeno-based salsa with as much heat as it has flavor. Your first serving of salsa is complementary. After that there’s a small charge. Freshness, flavor, piquancy and a little bit of smokiness are hallmarks of the very best salsas and this one ranks near the very top. Aside from jalapenos, you’ll discern the boldness of chopped onions and fresh cilantro. The chips are over-sized and delicious with little salt to get in the way of your taste buds enjoying them with a scoopful of the salsa.

Rather than lamenting Sunday as the day preceding the start of a new workweek, savvy diners in Los Lunas and beyond celebrate Sunday as the day in which Teofilo’s offers a Sunday breakfast menu unlike any in the area. Available only from 9AM until 2PM, this is a Sunday breakfast the good doctor would have ordered. Start with a breakfast quesadilla (Cheddar-Jack cheese, avocado and bacon) with a side of papitas. It’s not only a good way to obtain another portion of salsa, it’s a way to treat yourself to as good a quesadilla as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll love the way the buttery richness of the sliced avocadoes, sharpness of the Cheddar and smokiness of the bacon nestled within a grilled flour tortilla all combine to form an eye-opening, mouth-watering flavor combination. The lightly-sheened papitas are thinly sliced and are fried to perfection.

Flawless Sopaipillas

If the breakfast quesadilla doesn’t have you praying for Sunday, T’s Huevos in a Bowl (blue corn tortilla topped with papitas, T’s red chile carne adovada, two over-medium eggs, chile, Cheddar-Jack cheese piled high in a bowl) certainly will. At first glance, T’s Huevos in a Bowl might appear to be a gloppy, cheesy mess, but as your fork peels back layer-upon-layer of concordant flavors, you won’t care what it looks like. To your taste buds, this is a masterpiece, a convergence of ingredients that complement one another very well. The carne adovada is among the very best in New Mexico. It’s silky smooth porcine perfection marinated slowly in a superb red chile. The blue corn tortilla has a sweet, nutty flavor that plays off the sharpness of the cheese very well.

For many of us, enchiladas are the benchmark we use to measure just how good a New Mexican restaurant is. While they may appear rather simple in their construction, when you consider the vast diversity of ingredients with which they can be created, enchiladas can be a rather complex dish. Teofilo’s creates enchilada plates from which dreams are made. Picture a blue corn tortilla canvas topped with carne adovada and a fried egg over-easy slathered with a rich red chile and served with sides of refritos and arroz. Quite simply, Teofilo’s enchiladas are poster child quality, as good as they can be made. “As good as it can be made” aptly describes the red chile which may tempt you to lick the plate so as not to leave any behind.

Award-winning Natillas

Sopaipillas are, very often, the way most meals at New Mexican restaurants end. Most of the time, it would be criminal to consume anything after reveling in the hot, puffy pillows of dough. Doing so is generally anti-climatic. As wonderful as the sopaipillas are at Teofilo’s, you’re forgiven if you choose to indulge in one of the rich, delicious desserts. For many diners, a meal at Teofilo’s wouldn’t be complete without finishing it off with natillas. In its “Best of the City” issue for 2008, Albuquerque The Magazine named them the “best natillas,” indicating they’re “worth driving for.” These rich, creamy, cinnamon custard delights are absolutely addictive.

If there’s one dessert which may top (yes, it’s blasphemy, I know) the natillas, it’s Teofilo’s Toledo Crème Cake, a three-layer coconut-buttermilk cake studded with pecans and thick, rich cream cheese frosting. Served Fred Flintstone slab-sized, it’s an addictively rich, calorific indulgence you’ll have to share and even so, will probably take much of it home with you. This is the type of cake few restaurants endeavor to prepare and serve any more.   Lucky for all of us, Teofilo’s isn’t like other restaurants.

Toledo Creme cake (three-layer buttermilk, pecan, coconut cake layered with cream cheese frosting)

While so many mellifluous New Mexican names are going by the wayside, we’re comforted in knowing that wonderful family restaurants such as Teofilo’s continue to prepare and serve the traditional foods of New Mexico the way they’ve been prepared for generations.  Teofilo’s is a Land of Enchantment classic!

Teofilo’s Restaurante
144 Main Street
Los Lunas, New Mexico
(505) 865-5511
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Natillas, Toledo Creme Cake, Blue Corn Enchiladas, T’s Huevos in a Bowl, Sopaipillas, Breakfast Quesadilla, Chips and Salsa

Teofilos Restaurante on Urbanspoon

Kasey’s Restaurant & Pub – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Kasey’s on Washington, south of Central

Thematically, it’s usually pretty easy to tell what some restaurants have to offer. Seafood restaurants, for example, tend to have nautical-themed “tells” such as fish nets, buoys and oars designed to evoke the salty, briny look and feel of the sea. The “template” for barbecue restaurants seems to include red and white checkered cloth tablecloths adorning oak tables, cute ceramic pig figurines on the counters and country music blaring from a tinny stereo. Irish pubs typically are accentuated with dark woods and perhaps more importantly, Guinness draft imported directly from Dublin where it is brewed.

By design and deliberation, the overarching concept of theme restaurants touches the architecture, decor, music, menu and the overall “feel” of the place. Unfortunately, in far too many cases the food appears to be a secondary consideration, taking a backseat to the faux and fantasy of all-encompassing theme. Much like an amusement park, the theme often brings in customers based solely on their expectations for an implied experiential premise (we’re so easily entertained).

The main dining room at Kasey’s

On Washington, about half a mile south of Central, stands a curiously out-of-place edifice that can only be described as barn-like. (albeit sans weather vane). There is no exterior signage that tells you what this “barn” actually houses though its pristine exterior certainly seems to indicate it’s probably not an abode for Albuquerque’s most pampered bovines. Even when you find out this barn is home to Kasey’s Restaurant & Pub, you’re still at a loss as to the type of food offered. Is it grub or is it cuisine? Is it barbecue or is it steak?

Set foot in the premises and you’ll find yourself in a swanky milieu with white linen tablecloths and folded napkins on every table. You can also opt to sit at the generously appointed bar which features, get this, wine from the tap, Albuquerque’s largest selection. If you’re thinking wine from the tap is just a step up from Wal-Mart wine-in-a-box, co-owner Gary Lange will assure you it’s good stuff that’s already won over some of the Duke City’s (my words, not his) wine snobs.

Pumpkin Waffles and Fried Chicken

It’s not until you peruse the menu that you begin to discern what Gary and his lovely better half Casey Armstrong-Lange have in mind for the restaurant they launched in December, 2014. And, it’s not until you discuss it with them that you recognize the passion they share. Even then, it may not be until you see a server pass by you with a tray of skyscraper-tall burgers that you truly appreciate that passion. It’s a passion for the community they love and the food they lovingly prepare and serve Duke City diners. They procure beef from Deming and hand-cut every steak. They also grind their own hamburger. The quality shows.

Gary and Casey were destined to own and operate their own restaurant. Before they were married, Casey actually worked for Gary as a chef for the Norwegian Cruise Lines where they rarely had time to luxuriate in the Hawaiian waters where they were ported. The couple later worked together at a resort in the Denali National Park in Alaska and in Oklahoma before launching their restaurant venture, their first as owners. A culinary arts graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, Casey helms the kitchen while the peripatetic Gary runs the front of the house.

Stardust

The barn? Well, they sort of lucked into that. The building is actually owned by Casey’s father and uncle. Over the years, the edifice has served as an aquarium store, a bridge club and even a chicken restaurant (now, that makes sense). It took more than four-months to renovate the building into the spic-and-span state in which it stands today. At first browse of the pristine interior, you may even forget about the farm animal jokes with which you were going to regale the wait staff.

The lunch menu offers a nice variety of burgers, sandwiches, salads, soups and even a couple of steaks. The aforementioned burgers are artwork on a plate and they’re pre-announced courtesy of an aroma that may leave you drooling. The sandwich menu includes such rareties as a chicken banh mi and pork belly tacos. Lest I forget, the appetizer menu includes red chile pulled pork egg rolls which are one of the restaurant’s early run-away hits. The restaurant menu dresses-up a bit for dinner with an appetite-whetting selection of steaks prepared in your choice of butter. Dinner entrees also include braised short ribs and much more.

Pate Maison: Chicken Pate, Cornichons, Caramelized Onions, Baguette

1 March 2015:  Our inaugural visit to Kasey’s was on a Sunday in which brunch was the featured fare.  The brunch menu is somewhat limited and doesn’t include appetizers. Limited, however, doesn’t mean you won’t find something you’ll enjoy. For some, it will be the fried chicken and waffles, a seemingly de rigueur brunch standard. My Kim orders this combination virtually every time she sees it on a brunch menu, but rarely is she pleased. Kasey’s rendition is the best she’s had. The pumpkin waffles are extraordinary light and absolutely sumptuous.  They’re slathered with a tangy strawberry butter that tempers the sweetness of the syrup and melds well with the waffles.  The fried chicken is three triangular shaped chicken breasts.  It’s a very moist and very tasty chicken despite a rather thick coating. 

1 March 2015: Stardust is believed in some cultures to have mystical and magical qualities.  We wondered if those qualities extended to a breakfast sandwich named Stardust (English muffin, mushrooms, filet medallion, over easy egg, Bernaise) with a side of breakfast potatoes. It’s a very good sandwich though because of the runniness of the egg, you’ll eat it with a knife and fork and not like a sandwich. The filet medallion is especially good though somewhat on the thin side. The breakfast potatoes are little cubes of nicely fried potatoes.

New York Strip and Steak Fries

14 March 2015: Eschewing the tempting red chile pulled pork egg rolls takes a lot of willpower, but in a fit of madness we did just that, opting instead for Pate Maison (chicken pate, cornichons, caramelized onions, baguettes). The pate is smooth and deeply flavorful. It spreads lusciously on the lightly toasted baguettes (a welcome change from too many overly toasted, dry baguettes which tend to overwhelm the flavor of pate). The caramelized onions are served cold and are probably better as a side than served atop the pate. Seriously, you don’t want anything coming between you and that pate, except maybe that lightly toasted baguette. Cornichons, as always, are a terrific foil.

14 March 2015: The lunch portion-sized New York strip is a slab of beautifully glistening beef prepared to your exacting specifications. Order a steak at medium and that’s what you’ll get at Kasey’s. At nine-ounces, the New York strip may not be the beefy behemoth carnivores crave, but for sheer deliciousness, it doesn’t take a backseat to its thicker brethren. It’s served with a side of steak fries which do a great job absorbing malt vinegar (no ketchup for us).

Coffee-Rubbed Flank Steak, Grilled & Balsamic Reduction, Crispy Onions, Mashed Potatoes, Sauteed Spinach

14 March 2015: My last experience with a coffee-rubbed steak was at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Las Vegas, Nevada. It left a rather indelible impression on me so when we espied it on the menu at Kasey’s, it was a foregone conclusion we would have to order it.   The flank steak is grilled and sliced into small strips similar to roast beef.  It’s an even better steak than the New York strip.  We suggested to Gary that he find a way to bottle the coffee rub and serve it as a sauce even though a more prominent flavor is a Balsamic reduction drizzled on the steak.  The steak is moist, tender and delicious.  The accompanying mashed potatoes are, well, they’re mashed potatoes.  Much better, if fortune smiles on you, is spinach sauteed in butter and garlic. It’s good enough to convert even avowed carnivores. 

14 March 2015: Desserts are no afterthought at Kasey’s.  In fact, you’ll be thinking about the whiskey caramel bread pudding long after your meal.  What most nay-sayers don’t like about bread budding is it can be more than a bit cloying, maybe even tooth-decayingly sweet.  Kasey’s tempers their bread pudding with a Jack Daniels whiskey and caramel sauce and a single scoop of vanilla ice cream.  The combination is a winner.

Whiskey Caramel Bread Pudding with a scoop of Ice Cream

If luck or design takes you down Washington Avenue and you espy Kasey’s, you no longer need wonder what the barn-like structure houses.  What you should wonder instead is whether you’ll be having one of those beauteous burgers, a sumptuous sandwich or a nicely-priced steak.  You’re sure to find something you’ll enjoy.

Kasey’s
400 Washington, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505.241.3801
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 14 March 2015
1st VISIT: 1 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stardust, Fried Chicken and Pumpkin Waffles, Whiskey Caramel Bread Pudding, New York Strip Steak, Coffee-Rubbed Flank Steak, Pate Maison

Kasey's on Urbanspoon