Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

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Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: February, 2015

February

Street Food Blvd was the Clear Favorite Among Judges and Public Alike at The Taste of Rio Rancho

The fifth-annual Taste of Rio Rancho gave 22 of the City of Vision’s best eateries an opportunity to showcase their finest culinary fare to some 800 guests. Shining most brightly was rookie participant Street Food Blvd., a food truck which garnered three of six awards in the “Best of Taste” competition judged by two panels of six judges each. The winners were:

  • Best Appetizer: Street Food Blvd.
  • Best Entree: Street Food Blvd.
  • Best Pizza: Pizza 9
  • Best Sandwich: Pizza 9
  • Best Dessert: Vanilla Bean Frozen Custard and Treatery
  • People’s Choice: Street Food Blvd.

If nothing else the compilation of lists is entertaining. Often controversial and rarely achieving consensus, lists serve as excellent conversation starters. One of America’s foremost compilers of lists is Thrillist which purports to bring “very best food, drink, and fun from across the country and around the world delivered piping hot right to your inbox.” Recognizing that “50 million Americans are served fast food every day,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list ranking every state in the fruited plain by its fast food. New Mexico ranked 31st largely on the strength of the 75 LotaBurgers throughout the Land of Enchantment. Special mention was given to Whataburger with the disclaimer that the writer was “running out of other options.”

Pierogies from the Heimat House in Albuquerque

Thrillist “looked to” their “famous chef friends to tell us the best burgers they’ve ever eaten” and where to find them. The best burgers in the country, according to chefs included only one burger from the Land of Enchantment, but it’s a great one indeed. Chef Michael Kornick of Chicago’s celebrated mk is obviously a discerning gentleman with great taste: “My favorite burger would have to be the original Hatch green chile cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite (formerly The Bobcat Bite), made with a giant hunk of amazing beef and green chile so perfect it renders any additional condiments superfluous.”

New Mexico’s best restaurant. That’s a topic sure to elicit a wide swathe of opinions. In compiling a list of the best restaurants in every state, the Business Insider considered a wide swathe of opinions from credentialed sources (such as the James Beard Foundation) while not discounting local recommendations. Paying particular heed to fine dining establishments, Business Insider named Santa Fe’s Geronimo as New Mexico’s best, citing its “impeccable service and complex dishes” and noting that “Geronimo was named best overall, best ambiance, and best food in New Mexico by OpenTable, among other honors.” Business Insider also indicated Geronimo is the “only New Mexico restaurant to win a AAA Four Diamond award, as well as a Forbes Four Star award.”

Coffee isn’t all Rio Rancho’s Cafe Bella does well: Chocolate Chip and Double Espresso Scones

The Los Angeles Times arrived at a conclusion reached by sojourners along Highway 60 on the west side of the Continental Divide: There are indeed pies in Pie Town, a slice of heaven for travelers. The “queen of the oven” in Pie Town is the effervescent Kathy Knapp, a “pastry pilgrim” with a license plate befitting her status: “PIELADY.” “Visitors from all over the world” come, some “to see if a place named Pie Town is a joke.” Pie Town is no joke. It’s the panacea of pie.

“Albuquerque is Where It’s At” according to The Huffington Post which named the Duke City among the “5 American Cities You Should Visit” in 2015. With a nod to “Breaking Bad,” writers encouraged visitors to “go for the insanely good chicken-fried steak fingers at Mac’s Steak in the Rough” and to “stay for the sopaipillas.” An Albuquerque tradition for more than six decades, Mac’s Steak in the Rough may not have the fine-dining cachet of Geronimo, but it’s got the love and admiration of generations of Duke City diners.

Albuquerque’s The Grill is proud of its burgers

New Mexico was well represented in the 2015 James Beard Foundation pantheon of award semifinalists. James Beard awards, the restaurant industry’s equivalent of an Academy Award, have eluded all but a few of the Land of Enchantment’s best restaurants and chefs. Could 2015 be the year Albuquerque’s Jennifer James is finally recognized for Best Chef: Southwest Honors, a distinction for which she’s been nominated numerous times? Her in-state competition in 2015 includes another multi-time nominee in Martin Rios of Santa Fe’s Restaurant Martin as well as Andrew Cooper at Santa Fe’s Terra at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado and Jonathan Perno of La Merienda at Los Poblanos in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. Ron Cooper of the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal in Ranchos de Taos was nominated in the category of Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional.

The Daily Meal’s “passionate team canvasses the world to bring you the best food and drink experiences at all levels, around the table, at home or on the road.” In February that passionate team took a stab at naming America’s 50 Best Mexican Restaurants.” Only one Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment made it onto the fabulous fifty, but it’s a restaurant imbued with greatness. Albuquerque’s El Modelo, a Duke City institution since 1929 “still makes rave-worthy tortillas and tamales along with enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and sopaipillas–many of these featuring New Mexico’s signature red and green chiles.”

Panna Cotta from Albuquerque’s Fork & Fig

In an era of openness and transparency in which there seem to be no secrets left, DreamPlanGo which purports to “bring you travel and vacation ideas, insights and inspiration” named Santa Fe as one of “America’s secret 2015 foodie destinations.” One of ten foodie destinations noted, Santa Fe was noted for its chef “blending the flavors they’ve grown up on with influences from Mexico, France and the Mediterranean” resulting in “a delicious collection of Southwest fare prepared in new and innovative ways.” 

Plato once said that “opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”  In the opinion of The Culturetrip, these are “New Mexico’s ten best restaurants:” Antiquity Restaurant, High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, The Artichoke Cafe, and The Grove Cafe & Market, all in Albuquerque; The Range in Bernalillo;  Geronimo, Luminaria and Cafe Pasqual in Santa Fe; The Curious Kumquat in Silver City and Savoy de Mesilla in Mesilla.  Some will view this list and determine it leans toward knowledge and others will argue that it skews toward ignorance.  At the least, it should inspire conversation.

Salsas from Taqueria El Paisa in Albuquerque

Global Gumshoe Ron Stern of the Communities Digital News (CDN) tells readers that Albuquerque’s cuisine is “anything but ordinary.”  In fact, Stern believes “Albuquerque is blazing a trail of its own on the culinary scene.”  “From hot and spicy New Mexican cuisine to upscale dining,” CDN recommended some of the Duke City’s most popular dining hotspots including: Sadie’s of New Mexico, El Pinto, The Cube, The Pueblo Harvest Cafe and others.

TIME TO REVISIT THESE THREE RESTAURANTS: Bob of the Village of Rio Rancho (BOTVOLR), the most prodigious commentator on Gil’s Thrilling…(and some would say, most prolific palaverist) recently suggested I “might remind readers of three Options to check out over a weekend as many of us are ‘getting of an age’.” If you’re interested in sampling traditional Lenten fare enjoyed by New Mexico’s Catholics for generations, make one of those three Abuelita’s in Bernalillo and order the torta de huevo and quelites. You have only one day left to visit Paul’s Monterrey Inn, an Albuquerque institution which shutters its doors for good on February 28th. It may not quite be a trip to the age of Aquarius, communes, hippies and free love, but Santa Fe’s Counter Culture Cafe may just remind you of a bygone psychedelic era as it delights you with deliciousness.

January

The  Culture Trip, “a one-stop, global website, showcasing the best of art, food, culture and travel for every country in the world” discovered ten great places in Taos for dining out.   It may surprise you to learn that only two–Michael’s Kitchen and Orlando’s Cafe– of the restaurants recognized showcase New Mexican cuisine.  Diversity is the hallmark of the remaining restaurants whose ranks include French and Latin inspired Gutiz and Spanish and Moorish influenced El Meze whose chef Frederick Muller has been nominated several times for the James Beard award as the best chef in the Southwest.

Sushi Rolls from Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

“Obsessed with everything that’s worth caring about in food, drink, and travel,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list of “the most iconic restaurants in every state.”  Admittedly this endeavor required looking up the word “iconic” in the dictionary and to qualify, a restaurant had to have been around for 30 years or more and “still be a crowd favorite.”  As a disclaimer, perhaps, the selected restaurants “may not have the best food or be tourist-free,” but “they’re all famous.”   Thrillist’s selection for New Mexico was El Pinto, a restaurant with  more detractors than supporters, a conclusion at which you might arrive if you read the comments following the list. 

While it may be debated as to whether or not El Pinto is the most iconic restaurant in the Land of Enchantment, you can’t dispute its popularity and propensity for marketing.  The new year saw filming begin for a potential reality show featuring the restaurant.  El Pinto’s owners, the “iconic” Thomas twins desire is that the reality show “offer an authentic portrayal of the restaurant, the Albuquerque community and New Mexico’s food and culture.” 

Mussels from Farina Alto in Albuquerque

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 Best…Ever!”  That’s a pretty audacious premise, but one the Food Network decided to tackle.  In its inaugural episode which aired on January 5th, celebrity chefs and restaurateurs celebrated the “Best. Pizza. Ever.,” identifying the eleven best pizzas ever.  Who says when it comes to pizza you can’t have the whole enchilada?  Not chef and restaurateur Roger Mooking who made a a case for the chicken green chile and cheese pizza at Santa Fe’s Rooftop Pizzeria being “the best spicy slice ever.” 

Adult Beverage Menu at the Shade Tree Custom & Cafe which was featured on the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible

If you’ve ever shortchanged New Mexico’s barbecue, you might just give it some respect now that the Food Network’s “Best…Ever!” program airing on January 12th listed a Santa Fe barbecue dish as one of the best barbecue dishes ever in America.  Chef Aaron Sanchez explained why Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe is taking nachos to another level, calling them “decadent, gluttonous and fun” with “big flavor.”  He noted that the “best barbecue nachos ever” brings elements of barbecue (brisket), Mexican and Southwestern dishes together. 

Travel Mindset, a site “created by experienced travelers who like to explore the world and are looking for life changing and life shaping experiences” took a stab at dissecting New Mexico’s “signature ingredient: the chile pepper.”  Advising that “if you want to taste one of the hottest—literally—culinary landscapes in the United States, you need to get a few things straight,” Travel Mindset encourages familiarizing yourself with the “red or green” question.  They also championed the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, “composed up of local and critic favorites—making it the best of the best.”  The best, in their estimation comes from San Antonio’s fabulous Owl Cafe

Street Food Asia and sister restaurant Street Food Market won second and third place critic’s choice awards at the 2015 Roadrunner Food Bank SouperBowl in Albuquerque

The premise of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  host Robert Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  On January 14th, the episode featuring Albuquerque’s Shade Tree Customs & Cafe aired for the first time.  While soap opera-like drama is typical for many reality shows, the Restaurant: Impossible segment was a very effective vehicle for showing the likeability and passion of the Shade Tree ownership and staff.  

“When most people think American cuisine, they think pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers.  While these are indeed staples across the country, each state has its own sense of flavor.”  The Huffington Post and Yelp collaborated to determine the “most disproportionately popular cuisine in each state.”  In Louisiana, it was Cajun cuisine while Missouri certainly loves its barbecue.  Interestingly, the most disproportionately popular cuisine in New Mexico was determined to be “Mexican.”  Not “New Mexican,” but Mexican.  Texas garnered more respect as its most disproportionately popular cuisine was deemed to be “Tex-Mex.”  

Santa Fe SouperBowl Winners: 215

If breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day, it seems most of America prefers to start their day off with a richly indulgent cavalcade of calorific sweets such as pancakes, French toast, donuts and sticky buns.  At least that’s what several celebrity chefs on the Food Network’s “Best. Ever. Breakfast” program would have you believe.  California based chef Antonia Lofaso begs to differ, making a case for the breakfast burritos in Santa Fe’s Tia Sophia’s restaurant as the best breakfast burrito ever.    Chef Lofaso recommends getting it “Christmas style.”  

On Saturday, January 17th, 2015, Santa Fe’s The Food Depot hosted its 21st annual Souper Bowl, a fabulous event featuring soup tastings from 29 local restaurants competing for the title of Best Soup in Santa Fe.  

  • In the category of “best savory soup” as well as the overall winner with a King Trumpet Mushroom soup was Dinner For Two.  
  • In the category of “best cream soup,” the winner was Terra at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado with a Creamy Vegetable with Cranberry soup.  
  • The “best seafood soup” category was claimed by The Pantry which wowed judges with a Seafood Butternut Bisque.  
  • “Best vegetarian soup” honors went to Bon Appetite with a wild mushroom soup.

The Ranchers Club of New Mexico won the Critic’s and People’s Choice Awards at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s 2015 SouperBowl in Albuquerque

The Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl, held on an unseasonably warm January day, is the Food Bank’s largest fund-raising effort every year. The soups seem to get better every year, too.  In my eight years serving as a soup judge, this year’s soups were the very best I’ve had from top to bottom and for the first time in memory, the critic’s  and people’s choice award winners went to the same restaurant.  Here are the 2015 winners:

  • 1st Place and Souper Bowl Champion: Ranchers Club of New Mexico for their Chimayo Red Chile Pork Chowder; 2nd Place: Artichoke Café for their Lobster Bisque; Third Place: Bocadillos New Mexico for their New Mexico Clam Chowder
  • People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup 1st Place: Bouche for their Cream of New York Portabello; 2nd Place: Forque Kitchen and Bar at the Hyatt Regency for their Pumpkin Red Vegetarian Soup; 3rd Place: StreetFood Market for their Malay Curry Squash Bisque
  • People’s Choice – Desserts 1st Place: Nothing Bundt Cakes; 2nd Place: Theobroma Chocolatier; 3rd Place: Chocolate Cartel
  • People Choice – Best Booth: Ranchers Club of New Mexico
  • Critics’ Choice Winners 1st Place:  The Ranchers Club of New Mexico for their  Chimayo Red Chile Pork Chowder; 2nd Place: StreetFood Asia for their Bangkok Christmas Lobster Bisque; 3rd Place: StreetFood Market for their Malay Curry Squash Bisque

The American diner tradition is alive and well.  To recognize this sacrosanct tradition, the good folks at Thrillist embarked on a trek across the fruited plain to locate America’s 21 best diners.   The only diner in the Land of Enchantment to make it onto this elite list was Santa Fe’s Pantry Restaurant on Cerrillos.  Thrillist observed that “the Pantry was on every single person’s list” when the writer inquired as to where he should eat.  “Around since 1948, it’s 1) damn iconic, 2) a place where you have a decent shot at running into Cormac McCarthy, and 3) serves impeccable New Mexican breakfasts.”

Orange Chicken en Papillote with rice and vegetables from The Model Pharmacy in Albuquerque

Movoto Blog, a blog celebrating the lighter side of real estate, did a seriously great job of naming “15 New Mexico Restaurants Which Will Blow Your Taste Buds Out Of Your Mouth.”  Having previously published a list showcasing Albuquerque restaurants, the list was richly represented by restaurants in Rio Rancho where the  Turtle Mountain Brewing Company, Namaste Restaurant, Rub-N-Wood Barbecue and Joe’s Pasta House received well-deserved praise.  Duke City restaurants noted included Farm & Table, The Grill, Down N Dirty Seafood Boil, Tia Betty Blues, Bocadillos Slow Roasted and the Guava Tree Cafe

Each January, AAA announces restaurants that received the Four Diamond or Five Diamond Rating during their latest evaluation. Restaurants at these rating levels offer an extensive array of amenities and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail. Among the 58,000 AAA Approved and Diamond Rated restaurants visited in 2014, only a very small percentage received the AAA Four Diamond Rating.  Two Santa Fe restaurants–Geronimo and Terra at Encanto–were named to the very exclusive list. 

Chips Con Queso from the Effing Bar in Albuquerque

The Food Network’s Best. Ever. program continued its love affair with Santa Fe restaurants and dishes, going four for four (four episodes, four Santa Fe restaurants) in the month of January.  The beloved Santa Fe Bite was showcased in the Best.Burgers.Ever episode with chef and restaurateur Roger Mooking calling them “a rich, satisfying bite.”  New Mexicans have long acknowledged the Santa Fe Bite and its predecessor, The Bobcat Bite, as living treasures in the Land of Enchantment.

The Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Grill on Menaul serves one of the best burgers in Albuquerque

I’m not telling you, ‘Never eat a hamburger.’ Just eat the good ones with real beef, you know,
like the ones from that mom-and-pop diner down the street, …
And it’s so good that when you take a bite out of that burger,
you just know somewhere in the world a vegan is crying
.”
Homer Simpson

America’s favorite everyman philosopher may have had The Grill in mind when uttering that pithy pearl.  What, after all, is a burger if not the celebration of meat, a pulchritudinous beef patty sandwiched between glorious golden orbs and festooned with ingredients intended to bring out flavor combinations that dance on your taste buds?  Made properly–personalized for taste to your exacting degree of doneness and with your  unique choice of ingredients–a burger can elicit tears of rapturous joy among burgerphiles.

Though the corporate  chains offer convenience and consistency, few would argue that their copycat burgers could elicit raw delirium when bitten into.  Some, like me, would argue that they’re not even made with real meat, USDA definitions for meat be damned.  No, my friends, it’s solely the bounteous burgers at your local mom-and-pop diners down the street that elicit the carnal cravings and libidinous lust that make you want to rush over to visit your preferred profferer of  meaty happiness with great regularity.

The Grill on a busy Wednesday lunch hour

For Duke City diners one of the best the mom-and-pop diners down the street has a burger which just might elicit swoons of joy as it quells the most rapacious of appetites.  It’s a burger that had Rudy Paul Vigil waxing poetic when he told me about it.  An advocate of homemade tastes, Rudy is the guy who introduced me to Lumpy’s Burgers shortly after it opened so he’s got plenty of down-the-street burger cred with me.  In describing The Grill, he expounded about a unique wood-firing contraption that imbues each burger with enchantment.

The Grill is the brainchild of veteran restaurateur Phillip Chavez, a man who knows and likes burgers as much as he likes bussing, or at least that’s the impression you might get in reading the menu’s claim of “food so good, you’ll wanna kiss the cook!”  Before opening The Grill, Chavez operated grill-oriented family restaurants in Gallup as well as Shiprock and Farmington.

Phil Chavez tends to his unique mesquite-fired grill (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

The Grill launched initially on the western fringes of the Duke City just east of 98th Street and was then called “Grandpa’s Grill.”  From the restaurants east-facing windows you were treated to some of the very best views of the Sandia Mountains and downtown Albuquerque.  At night, the panoramic view of the city lights were absolutely inspirational. 

In July, 2011, Grandpa’s Grill moved to Menaul (next door to Jennifer James 101) and rechristened itself “The Grill.”  Interior walls are festooned with period pieces–mostly kitchen related bricabrac, much of it donated by patrons of the popular restaurant. Old-fashioned coffee makers, blenders and other appliances make for interesting reminiscences among us seasoned diners and for strange curiosities among the Y-generation crowd.

Salsa and chips are on the house at The Grill (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

The most interesting period piece, however, is the restaurant’s signature grill. White hot and throbbing red embers of mesquite coals lay on a steel tray atop of which sits a metal grated grill which Chavez raises and descends via a hand-crank. He’s mastered the art of temperature control to prepare your burgers or steaks to the level of doneness you specify.

An old-fashioned burger fixings bar, complete with sneeze guard, hosts sliced tomatoes, pickles, mustard, ketchup, lettuce and onions which means you truly can have your burger your way.  A deep metal serving tray holds salsa which you can ladle onto plastic ramekins.  Another holds crisp, homemade (but excessively salty) chips, both free with each order.

An eight-ounce Papa Burger with green chile and Cheddar cheese

The salsa is exceptional–as in so good it should be bottled good. It’s so good that properly pureed, it would make an excellent bloody Mary mix. It’s so good, it would make the the key component of a great gazpacho. It’s so good, you’ll eschew ketchup and dunk your fries in it. It’s so good, you’ll finish two or three trays of chips before your order is up. Seriously, this is good salsa. Its components are rather typical–tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, garlic, salt–but Chavez mixes each batch up in perfect proportions. The salsa is pleasantly piquant, not so incendiary you won’t be able to taste anything else.  It deserves better (less salty) chips.

You will want to taste the burgers!  Prolific eaters will opt for the Grandpa Burger, a whopping sixteen-ounces, but Rudy Vigil assured me the eight-ounce Papa Burger will be more than enough for most ordinary eaters.  A six-ounce Mama Burger and a four-ounce Little Rascal Burger are also available.  The beef patties are hand-formed and thick.  You can top them with green chile and your choice of Cheddar, American or Swiss cheese.  The buns are lightly toasted.  All burgers are available in combination with a drink and Fries.

The Papa Burger with Fries

The menu also includes two steaks–a sixteen-ounce Ribeye and a ten-ounce New York cut–both served with your choice of fries or beans and tortilla. Also available are a chicken breast platter, a chicken sandwich, a Southwest chicken sandwich (with green chile and cheese wrapped in a tortilla) and chicken strips with fries. Hot dogs, in either jumbo or regular sizes, with or without chile and cheese, can also be ordered. Deep-fried sides include French fries, fried zucchini, fried mushrooms and onion rings.

The Papa Burger with green chile is terrific, a true compliment to the grill master and his deft manipulation of temperature!  The beef patty is imbued with the kiss of mesquite heat, but not so much that the usually acerbic grilling wood imparts its characteristic bitter aftertaste.   The green chile is a bit on the mild side, but the other ingredients from the fixings bar are all fresh and delicious.  Fries aren’t much to write home about, but they’re much improved when you dip them into the salsa instead of ketchup.

Chile cheese dog with fries (Photo courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik)

A value-priced 16-ounce Ribeye steak prepared at medium is too good to pass up. Ribeye tends to be a well-marbled and tender cut of beef that is well-suited to dry-heat preparation style. That means The Grill’s unique mesquite grill brings out the optimal flavor profile in this steak. Not quite fork-tender, the Ribeye cuts easily, juices flowing not quite copiously but enough. The only seasoning discernible is salt and pepper, but sometimes that can be enough. It is in this case. Value-priced means sixteen-ounces of steak for under a dollar an ounce, a good deal by any standard.

The steak is accompanied by your choice of French fries or beans and a tortilla.  At first glance, the beans look inviting, a hearty portion topped with shredded cheese, but as they approached our table, the malodorous emanation of cumin wafted toward us.  As usual, I whined vociferously, urging our attentive waitress and Phil Chavez himself to take the beans and dispose of them at a nuclear waste dump site.  Phil indicated 99-percent of his customers appreciate the beans, some even asking for the recipe…but I’m not crazy; everyone else is.

A sixteen-ounce Ribeye Steak with a side of beans

The chile cheese dog is only so-so. The wiener is just slightly thicker than a human thumb, not an oversized meat-tube that dominates the flavor profile. Alas, the chile had a canned taste which includes enough cumin to be noticeable, but not so much that it kills the taste. Hot dogs are also served with French fries.

On the counter gracing your visage as you walk in is a domed cake platter holding the delicious cake of the day.  Fortune was with us during my second visit because the cake under glass on that day was a gorgeous red velvet cake. Red velvet cakes have been popular since the 1920s, experiencing a resurgence in the 1990s, but it’s never really gone out of style.  Essentially not much more than a chocolate cake with a dark red-brown color and layered with a creamy white icing, it is beautiful to look at and generally delicious to consume.  This decadent dessert isn’t prepared in-house, but you will want to take a piece home with you.

Red Velvet Cake

The Grill is an anachronism–a throw-back to the 1960s with prompt, courteous, unobtrusive service and a genuine spirit of welcome from the owner.  Ask Phillip Chavez for a tour of the kitchen and he’ll gladly show off his unique grill, the contraption which makes some of the very tastiest burgers in Albuquerque.  Somewhere on old Route 66, a vegan is crying.  That’s how good these burgers are!

The Grill
4615 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 872-9772
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 25 February 2015
1st VISIT:  17 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Papa Burger with Fries, Chile Cheese Dog, Salsa and Chips, Ribeye Steak, Onion Rings, Red Velvet Cake

Grandpa's Grill on Route 66 on Urbanspoon

Kasbah Mediterranean – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Marrakech  Kasbah for the best in Moroccan and Greek cuisine

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen up to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
All on board that train
- Crosby, Stills & Nash

For decades, Hollywood has portrayed the ancient Moroccan city of Marrakech as a venue in which mystery and intrigue can be found along every narrow street and behind every sharp turn, a place of fantasy where fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and snake charmers perform–a city with a dizzying array of food stalls, richly adorned palaces and alleyways crowded traditional shops in which intricately woven tapestries and brass works dazzle the eyes.

Alfred Hitchcock certainly exploited those characteristics in his suspenseful 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much where middle class Americans played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day vacationing in Marrakech find themselves embroiled in a nefarious plot to assassinate an ambassador after their son is kidnapped.  The movie has me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it, as much for the suspense which builds to a surprising climax as for the unique way in which the 1956 Best Song Oscar Que Sera Sera plays a role in the plot’s resolution.

The colorful interior at The Kasbah

Although they couldn’t catch the Marrakech Express of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame, from 1998 through the millennium year, Duke City diners managed to make their way to Marrakech in droves–not to the Moroccan desert, but to Central Avenue where Tunisian owner and chef Ridha Bouajila created an alluring menu of North African and Greek cuisine favorites at his fabulous restaurant, appropriately named Marrakech.  To aficionados of the uniquely seasoned, vibrant melding of heretofore unavailable flavor combinations, the closure of this inimitable restaurant warranted a flag flying at half mast.

Bouajila returned to the Albuquerque dining scene in 2004 when he launched the Mediterranean Cafe–essentially Marrakech reborn.  The Mediterranean Cafe on San Mateo (at the site which also housed Quesada’s) operated under Boajila for two years before he sold it to his business partner.  Within a year, the restaurant folded and once again savvy Albuquerque diners were left in mourning for the Moroccan cuisine with which they had fallen in love.

Delicious Dolmas: surprisingly flavorful though not homemade

Delicious Dolmas: surprisingly flavorful though not homemade

On December 11th, 2009, the discerning Duke City diners captivated by Moroccan cuisine had a reason to celebrate again when Bouajila launched his second instantiation of Marrakech.  It was situated in the shopping center which for years was the site of Robb’s Ribbs.  Ensconced in the corner shop between an old-time barber shop and an Asian restaurant, its tiny storefront belied the nearly 3,000 square foot space, by far the largest restaurant Bouajila has operated.  

In 2011, Marrakech shuttered its doors once again but reopened in 2012 with a new name.  Now christened  Kasbah Mediterranean, by any other name the captivating aromas emanate from the kitchen and waft over you like a delicious, enveloping breeze.  Those aromas perfume the air with incomparably rich dishes melding sweet and savory on the same plate–dishes which incorporate dried fruit such as dried plums and apricots; aromatic spices like cinnamon, paprika and dried ginger; and ingredients which make seasoned chefs swoon such as preserved lemon, rose water and saffron.  The ingredient and flavor combinations are inspired and bold, the results memorable.

Hummus with Pita

Kasbah Mediterranean is situated on eastern fringes of Nob Hill in the edifice which previously housed Guicho’s Authentic Mexican Food Restaurant.  Gone are the colorful murals depicting beautiful maidens and Aztec warriors.  In their place are intricately woven tapestries and their multi-ihued mosaic patterns; sheer, whisper thin silken fabric coverings and bright colored walls on which artful accouterments are hung. The tasteful color array is warm and inviting.

Tables are in personal space proximity so you can’t help but gawk in admiration as large plates of stunning food arrangements are delivered to other patrons. No matter what the restaurant has been named over the years, our experience has always been a pleasant interaction with a friendly and accommodating wait staff which delights in their guests’ enjoyment of  the food.  They beam radiantly with pride with each (and there were many) compliment we paid and when they can’t answer a question, they stepped into the kitchen and retrieve an answer from the chef. That’s a sign of professionalism.

Baba Ganouch and pita

Baba Ganouch and pita

Just as he did at his previous Albuquerque restaurant stops, Bouajila also made it a point to come out of the kitchen to welcome diners and ensure a pleasant dining experience.  Now, pleasant is probably the most understated adjective any diner will use after a meal at Kasbah Mediterranean. Be daring in your ordering (translation: go for the Moroccan entrees, not the familiar Greek standards) and you’re assured a dining experience in which your taste buds are titillated, your imagination is unencumbered and your soul is satisfied.

That’s not to say the Greek items aren’t fabulous.  They’re just so familiar–you can have gyros, dolmas, hummus, Greek salads and Spanakopita at several Greek restaurants throughout the city.  Do what Marco Polo would have done and take a different culinary route through a Moroccan menu that might seem strange and different, but which offers an adventure you won’t soon forget.

King's Bastilla

King’s Bastilla, a surprisingly delicious entree for lunch, dinner….or dessert?

Aside from the aforementioned Greek dolmas, hummus and Spanakopita, the appetizer section of the menu includes a soup du jour, baba ganouch (Arabic), falafel (Arabic) and brika (Tunisian).  Brika, a Tunisian turnover, is an excellent start to your dining adventure, a delicate pastry filled with seasoned potato mousse, fresh parsley, herbs and egg then fried to perfection. It’s a starter with which we were quite familiar from visits to the original Marrakech and the Mediterranean Cafe and one we’ll have during future visits.

23 January 2010: In discussing the appetizers with a buoyant server, she raved about the restaurant’s dolmas, indicating most guests have praised them highly.  It’s easy to see why.  Served cold and nearly saturated in olive oil, the five grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice are arranged in a star-shaped pattern surrounding a bowl of cucumber sauce.  They are not made in-house, but they’re a definite keeper.  At first bite, you’ll experience the sensation of what can only be described as effervescence, as if biting into a fizzy lemon-lime drink.  That, we discerned, is courtesy of the dynamic mingling of dill and mint, a sensation heightened by dipping the dolmas into the mint and yogurt enhanced cucumber sauce.  These are the best non-homemade dolmas we’ve had in Albuquerque.

Tagine of Chicken Mruzia

Tagine of Chicken Mruzia

23 January 2010: Given a choice of hummus or baba ganouch (usually spelled baba ghanouj), we always seem to prefer the latter in part because the name just rolls off your tongue so exotically, but mostly because it offers more textures and flavor than hummus.  An Arab dish made of mashed eggplant mixed with various seasonings, it’s also not quite as ubiquitous in the Duke City as is hummus.  The version at Marrakech is lighter, sweeter and less garlicky than others we’ve had.  Served with six wedges of pita bread, it is a very good baba ganouch.  24 February 2015:  The hummus is no slouch in the deliciousness department.  What makes it especially good is an optimal use (not too much, not too little) of garlic.

The entrees section of the menu includes a Mediterranean plate (Greek salad, dolmas and Spanakopita served with pita bread), a Mezza Plate (Greek salad, hummus and baba ganouch served with pita bread), a Falafel Plate, a Tunisian plate (brika served with rice or house salad), a Vegetarian Delight (Spanakopita, dolmas and pita bread), a Gyros plate and Moussaka.  It’s an inviting panoply of entrees, but they’re mostly Greek and at the risk of over-emphasizing this point, the Moroccan dishes offer more flavor.

Moroccan Lemon Chicken

The Moroccan dishes are appropriately listed in the “Specialties” section of the menu, but that title could be reduced by a few letters.  Call it “Special” and leave it at that because this section of the menu is indeed special.  The specialty of specialties, according to the menu cover, is the couscous.  Couscous is a North African staple and is the main ingredient in many dishes in the way rice is the main ingredient in so many Asian dishes.  In shape, color and texture, it even resembles rice.  It’s made from small grains of semolina with vegetables and sometimes meat.  Marrakech offers several couscous dishes.

23 January 2010: As an essayist of restaurant visits, it’s not very often I’m surprised by something I’ve never tried before.  The last time, in fact, I remember being surprised was at Pars Diner with a dish called Fesenjoon, a stew made from sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce.  Marrakech completely took me aback with an entree called King’s Bastilla. Though the word Bastilla, a Spanish word for “hem” is completely lost on me, the exotic dish blew me away.  It’s called “King’s Bastilla” because it’s served to esteemed guests at special occasions such as weddings. It is indeed a special dish worthy of royalty.

Traditionally, bastilla is made with pigeon, but Marrakech uses chicken instead.  A crisp, whisper-thin pastry shell made from Moroccan warqua or phyllo dough encloses an amalgam of moist chicken, ground almonds, rose water and spices.  The shell is sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  Quite honestly, it looks like a dessert and is in fact rather sweet, but definitely not cloying.  Its sweetness is acquired primarily from the delicate rose water and ameliorated by the powdered sugar.  It’s one of the most unique and delicious dishes I’ve had in the Duke City and frankly, I can’t wait to have it again.

23 January 2010: At most Moroccan restaurants, the most popular dishes tend to be Tagines, named for the special pot in which they’re prepared.  Tagines are slow-cooked stews braised at slow temperatures which result in aromatic vegetables, sauces and tender meats (generally lamb or chicken).  The Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, a marinated chicken breast cooked with dried plums, dried apricots, almonds and honey, topped with sesame seeds and served with rice, is a wonderful entree with a fine balance of sweet and savory flavors complemented by the tanginess of the reconstituted fruits.

24 February 2015:If there’s one flavor combination that’s often overlooked and certainly underused, it’s that of tart, salty and zesty (or acidic).  The notion of a dish possessing these properties brings an automatic lip-pursing reaction to many diners.  What makes these three flavor combinations work at the Kasbah Mediterranean is that they’re featured in perfect proportion to one another as they’re showcased in Moroccan Lemon Chicken.  The bitterly salty preserved lemons and briny, salty green olives are tempered by the delicate, beautifully seasoned chicken and its exotic spice profile.  This beautifully plated dish also includes two strips of fluffy rice which also serves as an excellent foil for the acidic-saltiness of a dish that won’t so much purse your lips as make your mouth water.

The Marrakech Express should head straight to 4801 Central Avenue for an exotic dining experience Duke City diners will want to repeat time and again.

Kasbah Mediterranean
4801 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 881-4451
LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2015
1st VISIT: 23 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Dolmas, Baba Ganouch, Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, King’s Bastilla, Hummus with Pita, Moroccan Lemon Chicken

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