Cafe Laurel – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cafe Laurel on Central Avenue Just East of Old Town

To anyone else,” my Kim joked “the name Café Laurel is just a cute name probably chosen because the owners like laurel leaves. To you the name has to mean something.” She reminded me of the hours I spent dissecting former President Bill Clinton’s statement “It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.” “You’re too literal. You don’t just want to know what words mean. You need to know why they’re used.” “But,” I retorted “laurel leaves aren’t just a leafy plant. Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte fashioned “crowns” out of laurel leaves, probably,” I surmised “because laurel leaves were more comfortable than the heavy, bejeweled metallic crowns that may have been the reason for the adage “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” She rolled her eyes.

Sure,” I argued “the owners of Café Laurel may have had nothing more in mind when naming their restaurant than they liked the laurel plant, but the implication of the name Laurel means a lot more.” “How did you arrive at that conclusion,” she asked. I explained that “in ancient Greece and Rome, laurel leaves were used to fashion wreaths that were presented to those achieving the highest levels of success, such as winning an event at the ancient Olympics.” I added that “the Bible imputes such traits as fame, success and prosperity to the laurel. So, the implication is that this is a restaurant which has earned victories and honor in the culinary field.” She ended our discussion with “ask a stupid question...”

The charming, verdant interior of Cafe Laurel

If you’re wondering why my long-suffering Kim puts up with such a literal guy, it’s probably because I take her to restaurants such as Cafe Laurel–restaurants which really do earn accolades and plaudits. She can put up with my etymological analysis because when it comes down to it, she enjoys a date night every time we go out (or so she tells me). In any regard, Café Laurel’s exterior signage facing Central Avenue, is festooned with painted laurel leaves directly below the restaurant’s name. Inside, the restaurant is awash in greenery—hanging and potted plants everywhere you turn. It makes black-thumbed people like me green with envy that others can coax plants to grow so lushly. Talking to our plants at home has never worked for me, probably because as my Kim reminds me “they don’t understand your big words either.”

In May, 2018, Café Laurel will celebrate its third anniversary of serving the neighborhoods sandwiched between Old Town and Downtown on historic Route 66. Its pedigree, however, goes back quite a bit further than those three years. So do several items on the menu. If Café Laurel inspires a little déjà vu, it could be because some of the dishes—and certainly the hospitality—are reminiscent of Christopher’s, a beloved Old Town institution co-owner Ken Faber’s mom ran for nearly two decades in the 1970s and ‘80s. Ken owns and operates Café Laurel with his lovely bride Debi. Ken’s 28-year career in corporate chains serves him well on busy days when orders come in like a fusillade of shots. Debi runs the front of the house. Both are very friendly and accommodating.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Macaroni Salad

For the versatile among us who enjoy breakfast items for lunch and burgers for breakfast, Café Laurel is a dream come true. You can order anything on the menu any time of day. Sadly this means 8AM to 3PM Tuesday through Friday and 9AM to 2PM on Saturday and Sunday. The menu isn’t especially large, but it offers good variety of mostly American and New Mexican favorites. You may want to get there early or you might miss out on the daily quiche or daily special. Breakfast favorites include omelets, huevos rancheros, burritos and crepes. Warm sandwiches—served with your choice of macaroni salad (curry-based), Greek salad or chips—include several standards and others which should be. Meatless enchiladas, vegetarian sandwich and a number of salads are available. Sweets and treats seem to go quickly.

When my friend and frequent lunch companion Bill Resnik invited me to Café Laurel, he didn’t extol the variety of the menu. Bill is a pretty monogamous guy. When he finds something he loves (such as his beautiful bride Tish), he sticks with it. During his own inaugural visit to Café Laurel, he fell in love with the green chile cheeseburger (listed on the menu as “burger”; make sure to ask for the green chile). This is a behemoth between buns: two Angus beef patties prepared to your exacting specifications (medium rare if you want the optimum in juiciness), lettuce, tomato and red onion on a grilled roll with mustard and ketchup on the side. Every burger should be this good! The green chile has both the roasted flavor and piquancy aficionados demand. The two Angus patties protrude beyond the confines of the buns. Every ingredient (even the tomatoes) is fresh. The grilled roll is formidable enough to contain all the juiciness though it’s a definite four- or five-napkin affair.

Chicken Salad Salad

So impressed was I by the green chile cheeseburger that a return visit was quickly imminent. My Kim and our debonair dachshund The Dude had to experience Café Laurel, too. As we were to learn during our ninety minutes at the restaurant, this is a favorite restaurant for four-legged children. Because Café Laurel doesn’t have any appetizers per se, we gravitated toward the salads section of the menu. We were relieved for a change to find these are the salads of yore, not the seemingly de rigueur newfangled salads with their candied pistachios, dried cranberries and vinaigrette du jour. We hadn’t had a chicken salad salad in a long time and Café Laurel’s version beckoned. A meant to be shared plate of white meat chicken, celery, chopped pecans, Cheddar cheese, Mandarin oranges, tomato, cucumber, hard-boiled eggs on greens was picture perfect, impeccably fresh and delicious. The way it was designed on the plate actually resembled three salads. Instead of being jumbled together, ingredients were splayed neatly in three sections of the plate: right, left and center. That’s the way we ate the salad.

In a recent comment posted by Sarita, a good friend of this blog (and someone with whom I hope to someday have the honor of breaking bread…or tortillas, pita, lavosh, etc), she highly recommended several items on the menu, lavishly praising the roast beef (not thinly sliced…very tender). She recommended the Toasted RB (roast beef, Cheddar, green chile and mayo on a grilled roll). Not in a green chile mood, my Kim opted instead for the cleverly named Adobe Brick, a brick-sized sandwich she would later praise as “one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in Albuquerque.” So what’s in an Adobe Brick? Picture thickly sliced, tender roast beef; sour cream, Provolone, grilled mushrooms and red onions on grilled sourdough. This is truly a sandwich for which all ingredients work in multi-part harmony. From the umami of the sour cream and mushrooms to the mellow mildness of the Provolone, this sandwich will enrapt your taste buds. Sourdough is the perfect canvas for a sandwich that needs absolutely nothing else.

Adobe Brick, a Magnificent Sandwich!

You might not think a restaurant named “Café Laurel” would prepare some of the very best red chile in town, but it does! It’s not the most piquant or earthy red chile you’ll find, but more than most red chiles, it’s got a deep, rich flavor profile that will remind you that chile is technically a fruit. No, it’s not overly sweet, but it’s got sweet, mellow notes and a deep roasted flavor. That wondrous red chile crowned my plate of enchiladas (layered flat corn tortillas with chile and Cheddar and a garnish of chopped tomatoes and lettuce) with a flour tortilla and papitas on the side. The pool of yellow yoke mingling with the red chile is enjoyable from the perspective of both esthetics and deliciousness. The flour tortilla, of course, is essential because it forms “New Mexican spoons” where you fold bite-sized bits of the tortilla into a repository into which you can spoon in the other elements of this enchanting enchilada. It’s a meatless enchilada, the type of which Catholics will appreciate during Lenten Fridays.

On every table at Cafe Laurel, you’ll espy handmade snail-mail ready postcards which you’re invited to fill out and send to a friend. Cafe Laurel will even mail them for you and in exchange for completing a postcard, you’ll get a free beverage card. Being the over-analytical type, I was stumped by the Twitter-like hashtag “meetmeatlaurel” referenced on the postcards.  Why, I wondered, would Cafe Laurel use a hashtag extolling its meat (meet meat). Sure their burgers and sandwiches use high quality meat, but… It took Kim about one second to figure out the hashtag actually read “meet me at Laurel.” Some genius I am, huh?

Enchiladas!

Cafe Laurel was a “Best of the City” winner in Albuquerque The Magazine’s annual readers’ poll for 2016. It continues to earn its laurels and shows no sign of resting on those laurels. With its legacy and people-pleasing proprietors, it’s a restaurant that should be great for a long time.

Cafe Laurel
1433 Central Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 259-2331
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 February 2018
1st VISIT:: 2 February 2018
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Green Chile Cheeseburger, Enchiladas, Chicken Salad Salad, Adobe Brick
Restaurant Review #1025

Cafe Laurel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Philly’s N Fries – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Philly’s N’ Fries on 2nd Street

But it’s a dry heat.”  You’ve probably seen that slogan emblazoned on tee-shirts depicting a sun bleached skeletal figure lying prostrate mere feet from a thirst-slaking, life-giving oasis.  You’ve gratefully expressed that sentiment every time Channel 13’s manic meteorologist Mark Ronchetti (or better yet, the pulchritudinous Kristen Currie) predicts yet another day of 90 degree plus weather as you rationalize that you could be in one of the South’s sweltering, sauna-like cities with temperatures comparable to our Duke City, but with 80 percent humidity.  You may even have muttered that phrase while scalding your feet as you scurry to a swimming pool the temperature of bath water.

For years, Albuquerque spelled relief from the oppressive heat “I-T-S-A” as in Itsa Italian Ice, a veritable oasis of cool refreshment on scalding New Mexico summer days.  Itsa was situated in a Lilliputian locale at Lomas and Washington, offering drive-up service for cavalcades of parched motorists.  The specialty at Itsa was a veritable phalanx of Italian ices, a flavor or more for each color on the ultraviolet spectrum.

Cherry Italian Ice at left; Tangerine Italian ice at right

Unlike snow cones and other ice desserts, all ingredients–typically water, sugar and flavoring–used in making Italian Ice are blended together prior to being frozen.  Italian ice is baby-butt smooth and soft while snow cones have a granular, crunchy texture and the flavoring is added afterwards.  Most Italian ice is made with sugar, not corn syrup and has neither fat nor milk products.  It is far more refreshing than ice cream, gelato, snow cones or shaved ice.  It is the paragon of frozen pleasure.

Much to the dismay of Duke City heat-stroke candidates, Itsa Italian Ice shuttered its doors in 1996, a year after we moved back to Albuquerque.  Though you could still find Itsa products on the frozen food aisles at some grocery stores, it just wasn’t the same experience as rolling down your window to place your order and experience glorious heat relief and blissful, flavorful, sweet satisfaction seconds later.

Just after the lunch rush on a Friday

In 2006, Steve and Cathy Garcia purchased Itsa and procured a refrigerated trailer they could ferry to outdoor events throughout the dessert-dry Duke City.  Three years later they actualized their vision for a brick and mortar Italian ice business by launching Itsa Italian Ice on the corner of Second and Phoenix, N.W., two blocks north of Menaul.  The facility isn’t set up for drive-up service, but you’ll want to take a seat and linger for a while at the 50s themed full-service restaurant where now you can get not only your favorite Italian Ice, but hamburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, a Philly cheese steak, hand-cut French fries, Frito pies, Frontier cinnamon rolls and more. 

In February, 2015, Itsa Italian Ice was renamed Philly’s N Fries.  It’s not everyday a highly regarded and successful business tampers with an established brand identity, but the move was deemed necessary because (surprisingly) not everyone associated the name Itsa Italian Ice with food.  Then, of course, not everyone reads Food & Wine Magazine which, in October, 2010, featured Itsa in its Trendspotting segment.  No, they’re more apt to read Albuquerque the Magazine which spotlighted Itsa’s “better than Philadelphia Philly” in a feature entitled “The Ex-Pat’s Guide to Eating in Abq.”  The rename has proven very successful.

Double Meat Burger with Fries

The panoply of Italian ice flavors includes lemon, watermelon, cantaloupe, lime, grape, black raspberry, tangerine, cherry, banana, blue moon (cotton candy) and chocolate.  The only flavor which  didn’t initially survive the decade plus was Root Beer, my very favorite flavor.  Fortunately, it was added to the menu in June, 2010.  It’s as wonderful as ever with a pronounced adult root beer flavor–strong and peppery.   Unlike some Italian Ices, these actually taste like the fruits (and chocolate) for which they are named. They are still as refreshing as a dip in a cold mountain lake.

Philly’s N Fries 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.  The Fifties theme starts with the black and white checkerboard tile of the era which blends thematically with the red and white kitchen-style chairs, brushed chrome tables, refurbished Conoco gasoline pump and on the northwest corner of the restaurant atop a vintage Pepsi machine, a bulky, boxy period era television set.

Green Chile Philly & Fries

Although prices are hardly reminiscent of the 1950s (or 1996 for that matter), there are good meal deals on the menu.  Hamburger and hot dog combo meals (French fries and a soft drink with unlimited free refills) are a good bet for cost conscious consumers.  A regular ice goes for $2.50 while a large will put a slight dent in your wallet for two dollars more.  Still, this is Itsa Italian Ice we’re talking about and it’s worth it!

Philly’s N Fries doesn’t offer table-side service.  Cathy and her perpetual smile are  ready to take your order at a counter and she’ll deliver it to your table when it’s ready unless long lines prevent her from leaving her post (in which case, you’ll be called up to pick it up).  If there’s one thing reminiscent of the 50s (from what I’ve heard), it’s the service–friendly, accommodating and pleasant.  The service is enough to bring me back.  Steve, Cathy and their daughter Desiree are among the most friendly restaurateurs in the Duke City.

Philly Cheesesteak at Itsa Italian Ice

Another View of the Fabulous Philly Cheesesteak (Photo courtesy of Sean O’Donnell)

9 February 2018: Philly’s N Fries may be just as adept at satisfying the pangs of hunger as it is refreshing your thirst and you won’t go away hungry.  That’s especially true if you order the double-meat green chile cheeseburger, a behemoth by any measure.  Prepared at just a shade beyond medium, the beef patties are thick and juicy.  American cheese, lettuce, tomato and of course, green chile adorn the burger.  This green chile cheeseburger is one of my Kim’s favorites, but occasionally a burger so good she actually eschews the green chile Philly. The green chile not only has the piquancy New Mexicans love on their favorite burger, but it’s got a nice flavor and the restaurant doesn’t scrimp on it.  

The French fries are crisp inside and out, almost as if they’re fried twice in very hot oil.  These fries are fresh and hand-cut on the premises.  In a city in which most restaurants serve frozen French fries out of the bag, these fresh not-quite-shoestring thin fries are a welcome change.  You’ve got to order a combo meal (sandwich, fries and a drink) because a Philly without fries is like a day without sunshine.

Green Chile Chicken Philly with Fries

2 May 2009: Being a 50s themed restaurant, it’s only fitting that Philly’s N Fries offer a hot dog that was actually around in the 1950s.  Nathan’s Famous were first seen on the Coney Island boardwalk in 1916.  Not only have they stood the test of time, they’ve expanded nationwide and are available in grocery stores and food courts everywhere.  Despite being ubiquitous, Nathan’s hot dogs are a take it or leave it proposition with as many aficionados as there are detractors.  At Philly’s N Fries these fat all-beef dogs are griddled to a crispy exterior.  They’re browned outside but retain their juiciness inside.

During our inaugural visit, we overheard Steve tell a customer that Philadelphia natives who ordered Philly’s N Fries Philly Cheesesteak compared it to the one offered at Pat’s King of Steaks, arguably the City of Brotherly Love’s best cheesesteak.  I dismissed that as pride of ownership until Sean O’Donnell (the very entertaining former KOB FM radio personality), a Pennsylvania native, told me he was “ecstatic” about finally finding “a place in town with a decent Philly Cheesesteak,” “a big deal for a PA transplant.” Considering Sean has steered me toward other great dining destinations, I place a lot of stock in his recommendation.

Nathan's Hot Dog

Nathan’s Hot Dog

9 February 2018: It’s a well-founded recommendation.  the Philly Cheesesteak is terrific!  Sweet white onions are grilled to perfection, not caramelized, but on that fine line between being crispy and soft.  Green peppers are grilled to a slightly crunchy consistency.  Two slices of white American cheese are arranged on each sandwich and it’s a wonderfully creamy and nice melting cheese.  The meat is chopped thin on the grill (a melodic percussion) and is seasoned well; you won’t find any fat or sinew anywhere.  The bread is a soft receptacle for the contents and is quite good.  This isn’t a huge sandwich except in terms of flavor.  No matter what you might read in “# of Visits” below, you can probably double that number.  This is my very favorite sandwich in the Land of Enchantment.  Nine visits out of ten, it’s what I’ll have at Philly’s N Fries.

17 December 2015: The only Philadelphia cheesesteak better in Albuquerque is the restaurant’s Green Chile Philly, a Philadelphia cheesesteak with New Mexican green chile.  Green chile makes everything taste better, especially when the chile has a piquant bite.  My friend “Señor Plata,” an aficionado of the Philadelphia cheesesteak ranks this sandwich even higher than his previous favorite at the now defunct Petito’s Pizzeria in Rio Rancho.  The biggest difference, in his estimation, is the steak itself which isn’t shaved sliver-thin as at Petito’s.  It’s also not quite as lean which generally means just a bit of fat for flavor.  A Los Angeles native, Señor Plata has had the very best cheesesteak sandwiches America’s second largest city has to offer and he rates Philly’s N Fries higher.

Cantaloupe Italian Ice

17 December 2015: Not that very long ago, a chicken Philly would have been considered sacrilege, especially in the City of Brotherly Love where the Philly cheesesteak originated.  Today, chicken Phillys are ubiquitous throughout Philadelphia.  It stands to reason that persnickety, variety-oriented diners would want a non-red meat option and chicken, after all, is the other white meat.  As with the more conventional steak-laden Philly, the chicken is finely chopped (it’s a wonder Steve doesn’t have carpal tunnel syndrome) and is available with green peppers and sweet white onions.  Risking the guilt of betrayal for not having our beloved cheesesteak, my  friend Bill Resnik and I were inaugurated into the chicken Philly option in December, 2015.  The date is significant because it’s the day we found a viable alternative to the sacrosanct cheesesteak.

Dessert offerings include the aforementioned Italian ice as well as an old favorite, the Nutty Buddy.  Philly’s N Fries also carries the fabled Frontier rolls, those hot, buttery, gooey rolls of pure deliciousness with a cinnamon sugar glaze.  They pack a day’s worth of tooth-decaying, waist-expanding calories, the kind you love to consume.  Among the very best cinnamon rolls in the Land of Enchantment, they’re worth the extra time at the gym.

Italian Ice–it’s a refreshing, fat free, non dairy dessert that’s an Albuquerque tradition now energizing and winning over yet another generation of thirsty, overheated residents. The green chile Philly cheesesteaks are the very best in Albuquerque (certified by experts like Sr. Plata) and the service is warm and hospitable.

Philly’s N More
215 Phoenix Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2017
1ST VISIT: 1 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 23
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Double meat green chile cheeseburger, French fries, Italian Ice, Hot Dog, Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, Green Chilly Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, Frontier Roll, Green Chile Chicken Philly

Itsa Italian Ice Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bayti Mediterranean Delicacies – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My Friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver Is Anxious to Try Bayti Mediterranean Delicacies on Menaul

“Ashlan Wa Sahlan” (Welcome)
Sahteyn” (Twice Your Health, Bon Apetit)
t’faddalou” (Welcome to the Table, Dinner is Served)

How can you not love a culture in which there are numerous beautiful expressions associated with hospitality and with families welcoming guests to join them for a great meal?  When it comes to warmth and hospitality, few cultures embody it so richly and genuinely as the Lebanese.  Similarly, when it comes to utterly delicious food prepared with love and served in generous portions, the Lebanese culture may be unequaled.    One of the most treasured blessings of having grown up in the small mountain community of Peñasco was sharing many meals with first-, second- and third-generation expatriates from the beautiful country of Lebanon. 

The wonderful SBS Website, an exemplar of culturally-relevant Australian media content explains “Lebanese hosts will never believe you don’t have just a bit more room for something utterly delicious that’s been prepared with love. In a Lebanese household, food is life and sharing it is one of the great joys of being alive. Even for simple dinners at home, there are a variety of dishes on the table, the meal starting with small portions known as mezza, which centre around dips and salads. They may be as simple as simple as pickled or raw vegetables, and bread or an entire meal consisting also of meat kebabs, grilled, marinated seafood, salads and desserts.” Regardless of your own culinary culture, you’ve got to love that.

Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver Studies Bayti’s Menu

Thanks to our Lebanese neighbor Jeanette Owen, I experienced and enjoyed such Lebanese delicacies as fattoush, tabbouleh and kibbeh as a young sprout — long before your once naive and callow blogger experienced Asian cuisine of any type.  To that point, the only non-New Mexican or Mexican dishes to have crossed my lips before the Air Force sent me to the Boston area were lasagna, spaghetti and pizza. Despite my own Spanish heritage, a tapa was solely a lid on the top of a jar. The foods of the exotic Indian subcontinent may as well have been extraterrestrial cuisine. From among the fifty best dishes in the world, I can tick off having experienced only ten (and who hasn’t had popcorn, potato chips, chocolate and donuts) before my nineteenth birthday. Heck, I didn’t partake of a McDonald’s burger until well into my teens. But I knew Lebanese cuisine.

If you’re wondering why Lebanese decided to settle rural, agrarian communities in the Sangre De Cristos, Pete Sahd, patriarch of one of the most wonderful families I have been blessed to know, often spoke of how much the mountain villages of Northern New Mexico resembled the cedar-rich mother country.  The progenitors of many of New Mexico’s Lebanese immigrants left Lebanon during the repressive Ottoman Empire, the main exodus occurring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Escaping persecution and poverty, some arrived with nothing but aspirations, dreams and hopes. The frontier territory of New Mexico was replete with opportunity (and the prospect of freedom) for them. 

Raquel Brings a Whole Roasted Chicken to our Table

Like their Phoenician forefathers had done, many of them began as door-to-door peddlers, many eventually launching trading posts or general stores in the small villages in which they settled. The “Arabes” as they are sometimes still called by Hispanics were (and still are) hard workers, shrewd businessmen, community-minded and family-oriented. They fit right in with the tight-knit Hispanic communities which shared similar values–so much so that Los Arabes of New Mexico, a wonderful book written by Monika Ghattas is subtitled Compadres From a Distant Land.

In the vernacular and tradition of Hispanic Northern New Mexico, few–if any–titles were held in such esteem and reverence by elder generations as “compadre” (male) and “comadre” (female). In his Dictionary of New Mexico & Southern Colorado Spanish, Ruben Cobos defines a compadre as a “ritual co-parent; a term by which godparents address the mother and father of their godchild and by which the child’s parents address the godmother and godfather.” That’s the esteem to which many of the Arabes were…and still are held today.  My mom’s best friend Patty Sahd was a third grandmother to the Garduño children.  We love and miss her very much.

Baba Ghannouj

When my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and I stepped into Bayti Mediterranean, I wondered if we would experience the type of hospitality and warmth shown by Lebanese compadres and comadres in Peñasco.  We were greeted warmly by Raquel who immediately discerned our confusion.  Bayti is not a restaurant per se.  It’s akin to a deli in which food items are apportioned into containers, displayed under glass in a deli case and sold by the pound.  Though take-out accounts for much of its business, Bayti also has a handful of tables in which diners can enjoy their meal on the premises.  Raquel, our hostess, was a gracious,  knowledgeable and perpetually smiling presence who explained all the dishes as if she’d been raised on them (though she had never had any of them, having grown up in Mexico).  As in Peñasco, it was delightful to speak Spanish while enjoying Lebanese food.

About halfway through our meal, managing owner Feryal Zantout, a statuesque beauty walked in and introduced herself. She explained the concept behind Bayti is to serve fresh and healthy Mediterranean cuisine from Lebanon and that  Bayti is a Lebanese word for “my home.”  The dot atop the “i” in Bahti is actually a Lebanese cedar, a symbol on the Lebanese flag.  Hoping to remain true to Lebanese cuisine, at present New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile is not to be found in any item on the menu though Feryal admitted several guests have suggested it.  True to everything you’ve ever heard about Lebanese hospitality, Feryal saw how crowded our table was, discerned we had  just a bit more room for something else and brought us a plate of Mujaddara, a traditional vegetarian Lebanese dish made with lentils and rice, and garnished with caramelized onions.  She’s very proud of all the culinary fare at Bayti–and with good reason.

Dolmas

One of the items on our crowded table was Baba Ghanouj, a roasted eggplant dish made with tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds) and garlic.  Baba Ghanouj is one of those terms people just love to say, but most don’t know the genesis of the term.  It’s actually an Arabic term translating to “pampered papa” or “coy daddy” and is said to refer to the supposed invention of this very popular Lebanese staple by a member of a royal harem.  Bayti’s version is outstanding, one of if not the best in Albuquerque.  It’s easily Sr Plata’s favorite from among the dozens we’ve shared in Duke City restaurants.  With a thick and creamy consistency and a smoky flavor, it practically beckons for pita, another item Bayti prepares very well.

The gods of Mount Olympus may not actually have blessed humanity with ambrosia, nectar and dolmas, but many Middle Eastern nations believe stuffed grape leaves had to have been divinely inspired. Unfortunately because rolling the grape leaves can be very tedious, some restaurants across the Duke City serve canned dolmas.  Don’t count Bayti among them.  Bayti’s dolmas are hand-rolled and far (by several orders of magnitude) superior to their canned counterparts.  Sr Plata noted the absence of overly acidic brine on these dolmas, rendering them much more pleasant than some which can be lip-pursing.  These dolmas are served cold, are stuffed with short grain rice, tomato, parsley, onion ,mint, olive oil and lemon and seasoned liberally.  In Lebanon, dolmas are called Warak Arish, but that term isn’t quite as familiar.

Zaatar Manoushe

While most of our meal consisted of tapas-like smaller dishes, our main entree was a whole roasted chicken.  Raquel explained that the chicken is seasoned with eight different spices.  Most discernible were cardamom, sumac, pepper, salt and cumin.  Raquel expertly cut the chicken into pieces for us and we hungrily extricated the moist, juicy and delicious white and dark meat, leaving only a carcass of defleshed bones.  It was gratifying to find a whole roasted chicken as many restaurants tend to serve half portions (thigh, leg and breast).  Moreover, we were happy to find poultry this succulent and enjoyable.

Inexplicably, the notion of pizza for breakfast (and I’m not talking about frittata here) hasn’t caught on as much as some of us would like. Usually when you mention breakfast pizza, you’re usually talking about pizza left over from the night before and consumed in the morning for breakfast. In Lebanon, the notion of pizza for breakfast is a welcome one. In fact, the national breakfast dish of Lebanon is a pizza of sorts—and not one left over from the previous night. It’s called Zaatar Maoushe. There are two essential elements to this street food staple: Maoushe and Zaatar. Maoushe is the baked dough, typically having a crispy exterior and a warm, chewy interior. Zaatar is the key topping, or rather the combination of toppings, atop the dough. Zaatar is an herb that grows abundantly in the eastern Mediterranean, but on this pizza dish, it’s combined with other spices such as thyme, marjoram, sesame seeds and even sumac. The result is a delicious “pizza” sans tomato sauce, cheese and other ingredients popular across the fruited plain. If you’re tempted to try replicating this terrific find for breakfast at home, you’ll be happy to read that Bayti sells a pre-packaged mix.

Small Beef Pastries

Bayti offers a number of stuffed pastries, some (chicken rolls and beef rolls) resembling Mexican flautas or maybe even Chinese egg rolls and others (small beef pastry, small chicken pastry and small spinach pastry) resembling savory empanadas. The small beef pastries at Bayti are stuffed with ground beef, peas and carrots. More than any other item we enjoyed at Bayti, we found these pastries just a bit on the dry side. These pastries would benefit greatly from a dipping sauce of some sort. Regrettably Sr Plata and I had devoured most of the baba ghanouj, but the little we had left was a perfect foil for the soft, warm dough and its content. These are best served warm.

One of the glories of adulthood is being able to eat dessert first. Who needs to “save the best for last” when you can have the best first. That was my approach with Bayti’s rose pudding (Mahalabia), a sweet Arab dessert made of milk and sugar, thickened with cornstarch, laced with rose water and topped with ground pistachios and almonds. Rose water, flavored water made by steam-distilling crushed rose petals to obtain their essential oils, not only lends a floury bouquet, it imparts a sweet floral flavor to the pudding- (or flan) like dessert. Rose water has been used in desserts for centuries across the Middle East and was originally a by-product of rose perfume. A little goes a long way. Thankfully Bayti’s kitchen uses it judiciously—in perfect proportion to concoct this mysterious dessert.

Rose Pudding (Mohalabiya)

There’s another Arabic expression often uttered at the conclusion of a great meal.  It’s “Sallem Dayetkoom” which translates to “God bless your hands.”  It’s said to the cook as a compliment for an excellent meal. To Feryal and Raquel, here’s a hearty Sallem Dayetkoom” from Sr Plata and the nmgastronome.  We hope to enjoy your magnificent hospitality and wonderful food again and again.

Bayti Mediterranean Delicacies
5017 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 366 4609
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 February 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Rose Pudding, Whole Roasted Chicken, Zaatar Manoushe, Small Beef Pastries, Baba Ghannouj, Dolmas
Restaurant Review #1024

Bayti Mediterranean Delicacies Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Farol – Santa Fe, New Mexico

El Farol on Canyon Road in Santa Fe

For over a quarter century, the most popular section in New Mexico Magazine (the nation’s oldest state magazine, by the way) has been a humorous column entitled “One of Our Fifty is Missing.” The column features anecdotes submitted by readers worldwide recounting their experiences with fellow American citizens and ill-informed bureaucrats who don’t realize that New Mexico is part of the United States. Some travelers from other states actually believe they’re leaving their nation’s borders when they cross into New Mexico. Others think they need a passport to visit (not that they’d visit considering they’re wary of drinking our water.) Merchants and banks throughout America have been known to reject as “foreign credit cards” American Express and Visa cards issued by New Mexico banking institutions.

Sometimes you have to wonder if “one of our fifty is missing” applies also to American History textbooks. As an unabashedly proud New Mexican of Spanish descent, I always wondered why public schools taught impressionable students that America’s history was the exclusive domain of the thirteen colonies. You would think this great country’s history began when the pilgrims descended on Plymouth Rock. Seemingly unbeknownst to history books was all the history transpiring across the Land of Enchantment decades before the heralded pilgrims. For every “oldest this” or “first that” attributed to one of the thirteen colonies, there was already something significant older or precedent in the Land of Enchantment–with few exceptions, one being restaurants.

Dining Room at El Farol

Unlike the urban east, New Mexico was largely rural and agrarian with farms producing just enough to feed the families that tended to them. Being much more urban, it makes sense that the thirteen colonies are the domain of the quaint colonial restaurants. Seven of the ten oldest restaurants in the fruited plain reside in the states representing the red and white stripes festooning the flag. Among the most venerable is Boston’s legendary Union Oyster House which opened its doors as a restaurant in 1826, almost ninety years before New Mexico joined the union. Even the Union Oyster House, however, is a youngster compared to Newport, Rhode Island’s White Horse Tavern, circa 1673. As for the Land of Enchantment, numerous online sources (including the restaurant itself) will tell you the oldest restaurant in the state is Santa Fe’s El Farol.

In 1835–twenty-six years before the American Civil War and eight-seven years before New Mexico joined the union— La Cantina del Cañon, a saloon dispensing liquor and food, opened its doors on Canyon Road. Instead of the fashionable destination art district it is today, back then Canyon Road was a hard-packed dirt trail flanked by old adobe homes. The cantina was owned and operated by the Vigil family well into the mid-twentieth century. In 1963, it was sold and ultimately rechristened El Farol. Perhaps because of the continuity of having a restaurant at the same spot, it’s been pretty widely accepted that El Farol is the oldest restaurant in New Mexico .

Caldereta de Langosta

While it may be debated as to whether or not El Farol is the oldest restaurant in New Mexico, there many things about El Farol that cannot be disputed. It was once described by the New York Times as “one of the best bars on Earth!” MSN heralded El Farol as “one of the 39 most historic restaurants in America.” From 1985 through April, 2017, El Farol was owned and operated by Hernandez (home to Ansel Adams’ most famous photograph) native David Salazar. In the three decades in which Salazar ran the restaurant, thousands of visitors and locals frequented El Farol. Many came to experience the palate-pleasing creations of Chef James Campbell-Caruso, now chef-owner of La Boca, who ran the kitchen from 1999-2006. This may have been the restaurant’s halcyon period as it garnered numerous James Beard Awards and for a while, had the distinction of being one of the few restaurants west of the Mississippi to offer Spanish tapas. In 2017, the restaurant was sold to Richard Freedman who owns the Santa Fe Teahouse almost directly across the street.

After the change in ownership, El Farol underwent an extensive make-over which focused on preserving the legacy of the restaurant while reinvigorating a venerable institution in need of some spit and polish. Several new coats of paint brighten up the dining room to accentuate the iconic murals painted by former patrons, including one over the bar by Alfred Morang, a distinctive Santa Fe figure and founding member of Transcendental Painting Group. The flamenco dinner show, traditional Spanish tapas, good wine, the romantic garden setting…even the bullets on the floor remain though the menu did undergo a transformation of its own.  It’s a menu that reads like a fine novel, one you can’t put down.

Ensalada de Otoño

As you’re perusing the menu, your server will ferry over a plateful of lavosh (Armenian flatbread) and a bowl of olive oil.  For my Kim, olive oil alone doesn’t cut it; she has to mix it with Balsamic vinegar.  At El Farol this is a good thing.  The Balsamic vinegar has the viscosity of motor oil and sweet-tart notes that will delight you.  The olive oil is also of high quality.  The versatility of lavosh is such that it can be served soft like a tortilla or hard like a cracker.  El Farol’s rendition is cracker-like, but it has nicely absorptive properties and picks up the olive oil-Balsamic vinegar very well.

For years, my Kim has eschewed every seafood-based soup I’ve ever encouraged her to try. This includes some terrific cioppino in San Francisco, bounteous bouillabaisse in Boston and even the magnificent seafood bisque at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. She loved the caldereta de langosta (a Majorcan lobster stew made with sofrito, onions, tomatoes, garlic, preserved lemon and Marcona almond gremolata) at El Farol!  While sipping this luscious stew, we reviewed the ingredient list and were amazed that we could not only discern each component, but that they all worked so well together in a “no stars all stars” fashion.  This is a soul-satisfying elixir sure to remedy whatever ails you.

Aguacate

The “Starters” menu lists both cold (frio) and hot (caliente) options.  Among the former is a gluten-free autumn salad (ensalada de otoño) which packs some of my favorite all-season salad ingredients into one decoratively appointed plate: caramelized squash, pickled beets, dried blueberries, charred red onion, citrus, toasted pepitas, aged goat cheese, black kale and a goat cheese dressing.  It’s a multi-ingredient, multi-colored, multi-textured, multi-napkin affair, one of the very best salads in the City Different.  Among the stand-out components were the sundry citrus fruits including juicy slices of grapefruit and orange.  The toasted pepitas and dried blueberries lend textural contrasts while the pickled beets and caramelized squash provide interesting flavor counterbalances.

Several items on the menu have simple, one-word names that belie the complexity of the items for which they’re named.  One such example is the Aguacate which translates from Spanish to “avocado.”  A fruit high in healthy fats, avocados are versatile and delicious though all too often not used creatively.  El Farol flash fries a ripe, fat avocado  stuffs it with pico de gallo and drizzles it with a lime crema.  It may sound like a strange combination of ingredients, but they actually go together very well.  The pico (red onion, tomato, green pepper) is lively and fresh while the lime crema lends a citrusy tang to the proceedings, but it’s the flash-fried. lightly battered avocado which shines most.  As with most avocados at their peak of ripeness, it’s buttery, unctuous and rich.  Make sure each forkful has a bit of each component to maximize your enjoyment of this terrific dish.

Cerdo

My Kim’s entree choice was the Cerdo, a one-word descriptor which translates from Spanish to pork.  The Cerdo (pork tenderloin sandwich with bacon, Idiazabal cheese, avocado, arugula and fig mustard on rustic bread), served with pork cracklings and fries is one of the better pork sandwiches in Santa Fe.  Though its unique elements shine, this is one of those sandwiches which is the sum of all its parts.  All those parts work together as if they have always belonged together, but it took a chef genius to figure it out.  You’re probably curious about the Idiazabal cheese and rightfully so.  It’s not often used in these parts.  Idiazabal cheese is a Basque cheese made from sheep’s milk.  It inherits a sweet, aromatic smoke from the way it is stored and has a taste somewhat reminiscent of caramel and burnt caramel.  The fig mustard is both sweet and sharp like a Dijon.  The pork is tender and moist.

With so many other entree options available, I joked with our server about the propriety of ordering a burger at a restaurant such as El Farol. With a wink, he urged me to do so, confidently boasting that El Farol serves the very best burger in Santa Fe. Considering the City Different is home to such peerless purveyors of mouth-watering burger indulgence as Santa Fe Bite, the Counter Culture Cafe and Cowgirl BBQ (to name just a few), that’s a pretty audacious statement. El Farol’s burgers, he explained are eight-ounces of ground beef impregnated with bone marrow and brisket. That must account for just how moist, juicy and absolutely this multi-napkin burger is.

Hamburguesa El Farol

There are actually two burgers on El Farol’s lunch menu–the Hamburguesa El Farol and the Hamburguesa Santa Fe.  The latter is El Farol’s version of a green chile cheeseburger which not only includes Hatch green chile, but green chile toasted buns between which are also nestled avocado, Cheddar and bacon.  Despite these enticing ingredients, my contrarian appetites steered me toward the Hamburguesa El Farol (eight-ounces of ground beef, Balsamic onion jam, Manchego cheese on toasted brioche).  What a great, great choice!  Make no mistake about it, what makes this burger special is the ground beef.  It’s ground steak in all its glory–rich, beefy and a perfect canvas for the sweet-tangy Balsamic onion jam, caramelized onions tinged with velvety, complex sweetness.  The Manchego also has sweet, nutty notes, but they’re wholly different than those of the onion jam.  Worthy accompaniment for this behemoth burger is a field greens salad.

El Farol’s dessert menu is a mix of predictable post-prandial pleasures (such as churros and a selection of artisinal cheeses) and unique creations heretofore unexplored.  In perusing the dessert menu, our eyes quickly fixated upon a dessert reminiscent of the fabulous citrus cake we enjoyed so much at Jake’s in Palm Springs.  The Limon Brazo de Gitano (rolled sponge cake, lemon cake, raspberry meringue, raspberry caramel, candied pistachio) was a real surprise, especially the interplay of the sweet-sour lemon and juicy, slightly sweet taste of raspberry.  The rolled sponge cake is ethereal in its lightness and elevated to greatness with lemony swirl.  The candied pistachios impart flavor and textural contrasts as well as palate cleansing between bites of sweet and citrusy deliciousness.

Limon Brazo de Gitano

El Farol translates from Spanish to “the lantern” and indeed, this landmark restaurant and cantina is a veritable welcoming beacon of warmth and light, a refuge from worldly cares.  It’s what El Farol was destined to be.

El Farol
808 Canyon Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 983-9912
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 3 February 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:

El Farol Restaurant & Lounge Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Leona Banh Mi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Leona Banh Mi…Fresh, Healthy, Yummy

“I’m not allowed in the Vietnamese sandwich shop anymore.
They decided to banh mi for life.”

During an ice-breaker at what promised to be a stressful project planning meeting, all participants were asked to stand up and describe their favorite childhood Christmas gift. For the most part, favorite gifts conformed to gender stereotypes. Male colleagues waxed fondly about GI Joe action figures (don’t ever call them dolls), Star Wars Lego sets and their first bike. Females in our group described Barbie dolls, playhouses and cabbage patch kids. Then it was my turn. “My favorite Christmas gift as a child,” I explained “was a dictionary.” Copious groaning ensued though for some reason no one was surprised. As a child for whom English was a second language, my first dictionary was a good friend, one consulted frequently when reading my other favorite tome, the encyclopedia. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Perhaps because it was so ponderous and not a few gazillion bytes of information floating around some ethereal concept called the cloud, the dictionary was much more uncool back then. It was also much more mysterious and stodgy. No one seemed to know how new words were added from year-to-year (I pictured a pantheon of robed academics assiduously considering all prospects). Today, we know that new words are added to dictionaries when they’re used often enough that they can be said to “belong”—they’ve become part of the mainstream vernacular. One particularly rich source of new words is the culinary world. In 2014, for example, the Vietnamese term “banh mi” was one of 500 new words added to the American Heritage Dictionary.

Leo Greets Another Soon To Be Satisfied Customer

If you’re wondering why it took such a long time, consider that the popularity of banh mi has largely been an urban phenomenon. You could, in fact, say the same thing about Vietnamese cuisine in general. Travel around the Land of Enchantment and you’re not likely to find authentic banh mi in Farmington, Gallup, Roswell, Silver CIty or Taos—and they’re among the state’s most populous or urbane cities. No, my friends, for the most part if you want banh mi, you’ll have to trek to the Duke City, Las Cruces or Santa Fe. Though banh mi may have become part of the American lexicon, it’s still largely a strange word to many New Mexicans. Give it a decade or so and that shouldn’t be the case. Banh mi is too good not to be enjoyed by everyone!

We’ve been loving banh mi in Albuquerque since at least 1995 when they were called “Vietnamese Sandwiches” by the few Vietnamese restaurants (May Hong among them) which served them. That’s nineteen years before banh mi made it to the American Heritage dictionary. Albuquerque’s very first Vietnamese bakery whose primary focus was banh mi was Banh Mi Coda which opened in 2010 after a short stint as Lee’s Bakery. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named the banh mi at Banh Mi Coda as “one of the city’s “12 yummiest sandwiches.” In early 2013, the Duke City saw the launch of its second banh mi shop when Sai Gon Sandwich opened in Franklin Plaza, a timeworn shopping center made infamous on Better Call Saul. Ten different banh mi adorn the menu at this combination bakery, deli and tofu house.

Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

In November, 2016, SweeTea Bakery Café opened its doors in the Montgomery Plaza shopping center, gracing the Duke City with yet another very impressive array of delicious banh mi as well as some of the best pastries this side of Paris. Not quite a year later, Rolls & Bowls became the fourth Vietnamese bakery-restaurant specializing in banh mi to launch in Albuquerque. One commonality among this quadrumvirate of banh mi purveyors is some of the city’s very best sandwiches prepared and served by very talented and dedicated owners all committed to proving (to paraphrase the Beatles) you can banh mi love. You may have noticed there remain under-served and even unserved portions of the Duke City in which nary a banh mi can be found. One of those is the burgeoning westside.

On 28 December 2017, westside Vietnamese food aficionados had their prayers answered with the launch of Leona Bahn Mi.  Located in a small, nondescript shopping center, Leona may be the smallest tenant in the area with two four-tops (table seating four diners) and seating for two on a small counter space.  This bodes mostly take-out business–or diners arriving early so as to secure a seat.  You’ll want to do the latter to interact with the very friendly and accommodating owners.  There actually isn’t anyone named Leona at the restaurant.  Leona is a portmanteau for the delightful married couple who own the restaurant: Leo, who runs the front of the house and Hanh who runs the kitchen.  You’ll meet them both.

Meatball Banh Mi

Leona Banh Mi is aptly named, but banh mi aren’t the sole items on the menu.  Belying the Lilliputian space, you’ll also find seven pho dishes, four different spring rolls and Vietnamese coffee.  Lots of coffee.  Vietnamese smoothies are at the ready though not one made with durian.  Nine distinct banh mi grace the menu including one (sardines and tomato sauce) your intrepid blogger has yet to try anywhere.  Banh mi are available in six- or twelve-inch sizes.  All banh mi include pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro and jalapeños or green chile if you request them.  Instead of your banh mi being constructed on the usual Vietnamese-style baguette, you can ask for a lettuce wrap-style banh mi.

Spring rolls, two per order rice wrappers encasing cilantro and lettuce along with your ingredients of choice: shrimp, shrimp and pork, tofu or vegan are the only “appetizers” on the menu–or you can enjoy a six-inch banh mi with a bowl of pho if you prefer.  Don’t pass up the spring rolls.  They’re about five-inches long and are served with Leona’s homemade peanut sauce or fish sauce.  The shrimp and pork spring rolls are terrific–fun, fresh and delicious.  The shrimp has the crisp snap of freshness while the pork is imbued with inimitable Vietnamese grilled pork flavors.  The peanut sauce is a bit on the sweet side, but a bit of chili sauce will quickly fix that.

Fish Roll Banh Mi

After years of being disappointed by so-called Italian meatball subs, my affections have turned to the Vietnamese meatball banh mi.  My disappointment has been abated every time.  There’s just something magical about the moist pork meatballs interplaying with the crunchy carrot-daikon-cilantro-jalapeño slaw that appeals to my taste buds.  As with all banh mi, the secret to this sandwich is the balance between meatballs, slaw and sauce.  It’s not drenched in sauce nor is it desiccated.  Banh mi are not intended to be behemoth “Dagwood” sandwiches crammed with meats and cheeses.  You can actually taste, discern and appreciate every single component of every banh mi.

One of the most unique banh mi I’ve ever encountered is Leona’s fish roll banh mi.  My expectations were for some type of fried fish looking like most fried fish look.  Instead, the fish more closely resembles sliced deli turkey about a quarter-inch thick.  Thankfully it doesn’t take like turkey.  Despite its rather unique appearance, it does taste like fish, albeit strangely presented fish.  Hahn explained that the fish is filleted and pressed then fried.  Whatever the process, it’s a good (though not even very good) banh mi.  Flavors didn’t pop as they do with the meatball banh mi. 

Residents of the West Mesa no longer have to trek across the river or to Rio Rancho to get their banh mi fix.  Now if we could only persuade Leona to expand to other unserved and under-served hamlets across the Land of Enchantment, the dictionary entry for “banh mi” will be instantly recognizable to one and all.

Leona Banh Mi
3250 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite H
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 347-1913
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 February 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET:  Shrimp & Pork Spring Rolls, Fish Roll Banh Mi, Pork Meatball Banh Mi

Leona Banh Mi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: January, 2018

Green Chile Cheeseburger from Cafe Laurel

If you visit a New Mexican restaurant and you’re offered red or green “sauce,” you might have to question if (like Bugs Bunny) you made a left turn in Albuquerque and wound up in Denver.  Virtually no one calls our sacrosanct red and green chile “sauces.”  That is virtually no one who’s lived in the Land of Enchantment for a while or the Travel Channel.  In an episode of Food Paradise entitled “Saucy,” the Travel Channel showcased some of the best sauce-driven dishes across the fruited plain. Recognized for its red and green chile “sauces” was Santa Fe’s Tia Sophia’s, a veritable institution on the famous Plaza.

In its February issue, Sunset Magazine named Albuquerque as one of “20 Game-Changers That Are Redefining the West,” ranking the Duke City 17th.  “Considering the strong public-art program, miles of hiking trails, and 310 annual days of sunshine, it’s no wonder the locals don’t boast. They’re too busy living,” wrote Sunset’s editors.  Sunset also noted “coffee roasters, restaurants, and food trucks are launching to keep up, many of them focused on local, organic produce, especially New Mexico’s beloved green chile.”

Foie Gras (Hudson Valley Foie, Caramelized Apple, Pickled Strawberry, House Ciabatta) From M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria in Albuquerque

To get all existential about it – how do I know the perfect donut for me is the perfect donut for you? The truth is there really is no Perfect Donut because we all love different things. So at Rebel Donut, we are all about options.”  How’s that for an appealing mission statement or operating philosophy, not that Rebel Donut’s Web site calls it that.  With that level of commitment to variety and people pleasing, is it any wonder Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut was named “The Best Donut Shop in New Mexico” by Delish.  Like Rebel Donut, Delish believes “there’s no wrong way to eat a donut.”  To compile its list of each state’s best donuts, Delish consulted Yelp, increasingly the most reliable crowd-source on culinary matters.

In most of America, winter sucks. It is cold out. You don’t feel like doing anything, so you get fat. Pipes freeze. Lips, noses, and cheeks get chapped and raw. Black ice kills.”  That’s how Thrillist began its feature “Every State Ranked By How Miserable Its Winters Are.”  Not surprisingly the state whose winters were deemed most palatable was Hawaii while Minnesota’s winter was rated most miserable.  New Mexico was ranked 45th in the winter misery index, meaning our winters are the fifth best across the fruited plain.  It may raise your temperature to learn that Thrillist believes “New Mexico is basically Colorado” because we both “have high plains, mountain ranges, deserts, basins, and affiliations to green chile.”

Nutella and Cinnamon Cream Crepe from Breve

BuzzFeed which purports to have “all the trending buzz you’ll want to share with your friends” consulted Yelp to uncover the top new restaurant that opened in 2017 in every single state.  Taking into account the number of reviews and star ratings for every new restaurant on the site, Buzzfeed then compiled a list of “the one restaurant to try in every state in 2018.”  New Mexico’s very best new restaurant, according to Yelp’s algorithm was Fresh Bistro in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.  Yelper Bella B. described Fresh as “Lovely French- and Italian-inspired creations will keep you enticed at this charming, cozy, and newly transformed restaurant in Los Ranchos.”

Cheapism, an online presence which scours the internet for news stories and resources that are informative and fun and can help you save money, acknowledges that “no shortage of cheap, delicious pizza across America, but sometimes something that demands a little more finesse, like veal parmigiana or ravioli heaped with red sauce, is required.”  In tracking down “the best old-school Italian restaurant in every state,” believed there could only be one choice for the best Italian restaurant in New Mexico.   Joe’s Pasta Houseoffers an oasis of Italian just north of Albuquerque. Go traditional with a dish like carbonara, ziti alla vodka or gnocchi, or try the well-reviewed Southwestern fettucine, which has green chile and crushed red peppers for a local twist.” 

Salad with Green Chile Ranch Dressing from Seared

A coffee shop’s design often reflects its neighborhood.”   Perhaps only an architect would think in those terms.  The rest of us typically walk into our favorite coffee shops in a weary and bleary state and only after a caffeine fix do we even notice the ambiance which surrounds us.  The Architectural Digest published its list of the most beautiful coffee shop in every state in America.  The Land of Enchantment’s most beautiful coffee shop was deemed to be Zendo in Albuquerque.  Here’s what the Digest had to say: “On warm days, the outdoor patio at Zendo is open for seating, marked by a colorful mural and covered by sailcloth. The minimalist interior—white-washed brick walls and concrete floors—is pretty sweet, too.” 

Grabbing guac? Craving queso? Dips reflect history, a sense of place and evoke a strong sense of home-state pride, whether they feature locally caught seafood, export-worthy cheese or indigenous produce. So grab that cracker, chip, fry or veggie, and dig into the dips that give each state something to sing about.”  That’s how the Food Network Magazine began its feature 50 States of Dips.  Arizona’s best dip is salsa while California goes gaga for guacamole and Colorado gets mountain high over choriqueso (from a restaurant called Chili Verde).  Representing the Land of Enchantment is the Frontier Restaurant’s Green Chile Salsa. “The salsa gets a double dose of heat from flame-roasted green chiles and jalapenos, which are simmered with sautéed onions, tomatoes and spices and served warm.” 

Green Chile Cheeseburger from the Pecos River Cafe in Carlsbad. Photo Courtesy of Melodie K.

A Travel Channel program called Roadside Eats: Top 20 counts down the “top 20 restaurants in America that might just require a little extra mileage to get to. Just off I-25 in the desert hamlet of San Antonio is the world-famous Owl Cafe where the original owner Jose Miera is credited with having invented the green chile cheeseburger.  The Owl Cafe was the only restaurant in New Mexico to have made the list, but savvy New Mexicans know that the Buckhorn Tavern another destination roadside eat lies just across the street from The Owl and it’s not just The Owl’s overflow crowds who visit.  San Antonio is an exemplar of roadside eats! 

The 2018 Roadrunner Food Bank Souper Bowl in Albuquerque

Every year on the Saturday preceding some much ballyhooed football game, Albuquerque’s Roadrunner Food Bank hosts the Souper Bowl, an annual soup and dessert event which brings 1,200 people into the Food Bank facility to enjoy the wonderful creations of restaurants from throughout the metro area.  While at the event, attendee are able to vote for and select People’s Choice winners by submitting a ballot voting for their favorite soup and dessert.   Drumroll, please. The 2018 Souper Bowl winners were: 

People’s Choice – Overall Soup Winners
1st: The Corn Maiden at the Hyatt Tamaya (Sweet Corn Chowder)
2nd: 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen (Vegetarian Soup- plantain fennel and butternut squash)
3rd: Indigo Crow (Lavender and corn bisque with smoked crema)

People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup Winners
1st: 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen (Vegetarian Soup- plantain fennel and butternut squash)
2nd: The Daily Grind  (Blue cheese root vegetable)
3rd: Zacatecas Tacos (Negro Modelo-Tillamook Cheddar Soup

People’s Choice – Dessert Winners
1st: Nothing Bundt Cakes
2nd: Garduños
3rd: Theobroma Chocolatier

Best Booth
1st: Zactecas Tacos + Tequila+ Bourbon
2nd: 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen
3rd: Sage Dining @ Albuquerque Academy

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

Critics’ Choice Winners
1st Place: Sage Dining @ Albuquerque Academy (“Street” Elote Soup- Roasted Corn Chowder topped with Cotija Cheese)
2nd Place: Ranchers Club of New Mexico (Crab and Green Chile Chowder with Corn)
3rd Place: Garduños (Elote Soup)

Celebrating its 24th anniversary, Santa Fe’s version of the Souper Bowl was also a huge success. In 2017, over 160,000 meals were served that might otherwise been missed, thanks to the generosity of soup lovers, who supported this event. Some of the city’s very best purveyors of soup accorded themselves very well:

Best Overall Soup: Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine (Chicken Tom Yum Soup)
Best Savory Soup: Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine (Chicken Tom Yum Soup)
Best Vegetarian: Kingston Residence of Santa Fe (Cold Pistachio Soup)
Best Seafood Soup: Dinner For Two (Lobster Bisque)
Best Cream Soup: Jambo Cafe (Curry Roasted Garlic & Coconut Cream Bisque)

Seared – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Seared on San Pasqual in Albuquerque’s Old Town

While you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, sometimes a book title will resonate deeply and you know you’re going to enjoy reading it very much. That’s especially true when a book title warmly reminds you of nostalgic memories long buried in your past. Such was the case when I espied Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood by award-winning raconteur Regi Carpenter. That title aptly described daily life for the long suffering Peraltas, our childhood neighbors in Peñasco. Mama Peralta, one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, was such a scatterbrained cook that she used the smoke alarm as a timer. She didn’t sear meat, she cremated it. Even the cockroaches at the Peralta home ate out. So did her children who had more meals at our kitchen table than they did at home.

“Wait,” you ask, “isn’t searing a technique practiced by great chefs?” In the hands of the right person, searing is indeed a culinary technique used to build deep savory flavors. Searing meats, chicken, fish and other proteins at high heat caramelizes their surfaces, imparting a deep-brown crust, especially on thick cuts. Searing crisps the skin on fish and imbues pork chops and other animal proteins a deep layer of flavor in a short amount of time. Alas, Mama Peralta’s idea of searing meat involved heat that was much too low (which allowed her to focus on the marathon phone call sessions in which she engaged at around meal prep time). As a result, the inside of the meat cooked at the same rate as the outside, resulting in very little browning, a zombie-gray pallor, ”carne seca” texture and a perpetually disappointed (and hungry) family.

The Dining Room at Seared

For entirely different reasons, a visit to Seared, a high-end American bistro on San Pasquale Avenue in Albuquerque’s Old Town, also reminded me of our deliciousness-deprived neighbors. At Seared we experienced the type of deliciousness our neighbors never enjoyed when Mama Peralta practiced her unique brand of meat mummification and her family prayed after they ate. Perhaps divine intervention would have occurred had the Peraltas lived on a street named for the patron saint of cooks and kitchens. Then again, Mama Peralto often used the San Pasqual retablo hanging on her kitchen wall as a place to drape dish towels (we could never understand why she needed dish towels when all meals she prepared were served on paper plates).

Seared is located on southwest side of the weirdly confusing, labryinthic Old Town intersection in which Lomas Boulevard meets Central Avenue and San Pasquale crosses both. Getting there is a challenge, but your patience will be rewarded—just as it was more than a decade ago when Jennifer James–then a relative newcomer to the Duke City–plied her craft at the then occupant, Chef DuJour. More recently, the “plain Jane” edifice has been the home of Cheese & Coffee, a popular purveyor of specialty sandwiches, made-from-scratch soups and crisp, fresh salads. Habitues of Cheese & Coffee can still get their favorite sandwiches at the tried, true and trusted San Pasquale location. They just won’t be able to get them after 3PM.

Fried Asparagus with Green Chile Ranch Dressing

Since late-August, 2017, at precisely 3PM, the 2,100-square-foot space begins its daily transformation from simple sandwich shop to Seared, an upscale American bistro “with a French and Italian twist.” The metamorphosis takes an hour during which white linen tablecloths are draped over dining room tables, silverware is laid out meticulously, moveable walls are rearranged and even the art is changed out. The art, by the way, includes colorful portraits of some of your favorite characters from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Signage is also changed out, a relatively easy feat considering there’s no flashy neon or LED involved.

Seared is the brainchild of Jan Barringer-Tenchipe and her husband and business partner Alejandro. Jan has owned the San Pasquale location of Cheese & Coffee for seven years, but with the notorious Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project having proven deleterious to business, she decided to offer Duke City diners another reason to visit the beleaguered Old Town area. Besides that, she and Alejandro had wanted to work together for a while. Seared aptly describes Alejandro’s cooking style, a style he honed in upscale and fine-dining restaurants throughout the city. During our inaugural visit, both Jan and Alejandro checked up on us several times. Their hospitality and commitment to great food and impeccable service is genuine and one of many reasons we’ll be back.

Salmon Crudo

Another reason, of course, is the menu, a compelling bill-of-fare that defies ordering quickly. You’ll be hard-pressed to decide what to order. Everything listed is appealing. Should you visit on Sunday for brunch, you’ll have two equally enticing menus from which to choose–an intriguing brunch menu and the sumptuous daily menu.  We opted for the daily menu, reasoning that we now have an excuse to return on a lazy, brunchy Sunday afternoon.  Another excuse, not that one is needed, is a pleasant dog-friendly patio with plenty of shade behind the restaurant.  You’ll want to peruse the herb garden where such fresh ameliorants as rosemary, basil, parsley and more can be found.

What surprised us most about the menu is how relatively inexpensive each entree is considering the generous portion size and quality of preparation.  This is fine-dining at near cheap-eats prices.  The appetizer menu ranges from salmon crudo to encrusted brie and a cheese platter offering a diversity of local and imported fromage.  The soup and salad menu includes one of the best described chopped salads we’ve seen on any menu.  If it tastes as good as it reads, it’ll be a hit among Duke City diners.  Entrees showcase all your favorite proteins: pork, beef, chicken and fish.  There’s also a vegetarian entree which just might convert some of us carnivores.

French-Cut Pork Chop

17 September 2017: It took us nearly ten minutes to decide which appetizer to request. Our choice, the fried asparagus served with a green chile ranch is a winner.  Lightly coated in a tempura batter, the half-dozen asparagus spears are firm and crisp with none of the stringiness you find in poorly fried asparagus (Mama Peralta).  Though addictive on their own, the housemade green chile ranch dressing elevates the fried asparagus to the “must have” appetizer level.  The green chile ranch isn’t as piquant as the one now offered at Dion’s, but it, too, is so good it should be bottled and sold.  Seeing a generous portion of the green chile ranch remaining after we had polished off the asparagus made it easy to decide what dressing would be gracing the salad accompanying my entree.  The salad, an old-fashioned dinner salad with fresh, crisp greens, croutons, cherry tomatoes and shredded carrots is terrific. 

28 January 2018: In Japan, until some three decades ago salmon was eaten only cooked or grilled.  That meant no salmon sashimi, salmon sushi or salmon crudo.  Wait, aren’t salmon sashimi and salmon crudo the same thing?  Both involve mastering the art of raw fish, but that’s where the similarities stop.  Sashimi is about appreciating the purity of masterfully sliced fish while crudo, an Italian term, is very ingredient-driven.  Seared’s appetizer menu includes a salmon crudo (citrus-cured salmon, pickled onions, carrot salad, wasabi aioli and soy ginger sauce) dish that’s not only beautiful, but is constructed from ingredients which work so very well together.  The mild-flavored, pink-fleshed salmon is neither too rich or oily and it sings neath the wasabi aioli and soy ginger sauce.  It’s meant to be eaten with the carrot salad which is garden-fresh and lively under the same saucy influences.  Together this starter is a great way to start a meal at Seared.

House Cut Loin Steak

17 September 2017: Often when unable to choose from two equally evocative entrees, I ask our server to surprise me, always assuring him or her that either choice will make me happy.  The slow-braised French-cut pork chop made me very happy indeed.   As with proteins which are “Frenched,” the meat is cut away from the end of the chop so that part of the bone is exposed, essentially giving it a built-in “handle” which makes it easy to pick up and eat.  Another portion of the pork chop is roughly six-ounces of artfully prepared, absolutely delicious porcine perfection.  The chop is positioned atop a creamy, delectable grain mustard sauce that’s been tempered a bit so as not to obfuscate the delicate flavor of the pork.   The chop is served with a mound of rich potatoes au gratin and a fennel apple salad that rings with freshness. This chop competes with the bone-in pork chop at Mykonos Cafe for “best in town” honors.

17 September 2017: My Kim’s house cut loin steak proved equally formidable, reminding us of the many times we enjoyed loin steak in England.  Though usually basted with chimichurri sauce, Kim asked that it be served on the side.  No sauce was needed.  Sliced thinly into medium-rare visions of pink pulchritude, the loin steak was fulsome and flavorful with a rich beefy flavor.  The herbaceous notes imparted by the chimichurri appealed to me, but my Kim is much more a purist than I when it comes to the flavor of beef.  Accompaniment for this terrific steak came in the form of roasted red potatoes and calabasitas (a substitute for broccolini).  Both are equal to the task of sharing space on a plate with that magnificent loin steak. 

Grand Slam Chicken

28 January 2018: When used in the context of  food, the term “grand slam” may inadvertently trigger thoughts of Denny’s grand slam breakfasts, a pick your favorite four-item array of breakfast favorites.  Visit Seared for Sunday brunch and you’ll never again associate grand slam with Denny’s.  Seared’s Grand Slam Chicken (thick chicken fried chicken nestled in two fluffy, homemade buttermilk biscuits along with a molten blanket of Cheddar, crispy sliced bacon all topped country sausage gravy) will forever be your favorite grand slam breakfast.  This sumptuous sandwich reminds your humble blogger of the Charleston Nasty Breakfast from the Hominy Grill in South Carolina and if you read my review, you’ll see just how highly I think of that sandwich.  Served alongside the grand slam chicken are some of the best roasted red potatoes in town.  Not only are they perfectly roasted, they’re flecked with rosemary which imparts invigorating freshness.

28 January 2018: When Chef Alejandro ferried the Filet De Boeuf (an eight-ounces of local, grass-fed beef, roasted red skin potatoes and red onions, asparagus, red wine demi-glaze reduction and roasted garlic butter)  destined for my Kim’s side of our table, I almost reached up to intercept it.  The Chef’s mastery of meats and complementary sauces is in rarefied air.   An artistic stacked food plate on a white background is how professionals do it, but a pretty meal doesn’t always translate to a delicious one.  This one is both beautiful and delicious.  Prepared at medium-rare, the filet is tender, juicy and tasty as well as devoid of any extraneous fat and sinew.  The red wine demi-glaze is superb, so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate so as not to leave any.  The roasted red skin potatoes  and red onions are worthy accompaniment as are the asparagus spears.  This is the most expensive item on the menu, but it’s well worth the price.

Filet De Boeuf

17 September 2017: Jan is the baker in the family though Alejandro wishes she prepared her German Chocolate Cake more often at home.  It’s simply the best German chocolate cake I’ve ever had at any restaurant, equal to the version made by my not-at-all Teutonic mom.  One of the things we appreciated in this cake is that it is served at room temperature, not obviously thawed to order.  The coconut-pecan frosting is slathered on generously, but not so much that it overwhelms the delicate chocolate cake itself.  Another surprise we enjoyed is the sweet-tart raspberry jam spread atop the frosting.  It’s goodness on top of goodness.  The portion size is very lavish.  Call it a sizeable slab of sumptuousness.

17 September 2017: For my Kim, the perusal of a dessert menu stops and ends when she espies sorbet.  Her excitement is in triplicate when a sorbet trio is available.  Seared’s sorbet trio features three of her favorites: mango, lemon and raspberry.  All three flavors are fresh, lively and delicious with the icy coolness you appreciate most when temperatures are unseasonably warm.

German Chocolate Cake

Seared is one of the very best reasons to make your way to the Downtown area.  Jan and Alejandro aim to please and their aim is certainly true. 

Seared
119 San Pasqual, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 999-8414
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 January 2018
1st VISIT: 17 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Fried Asparagus, French-Cut Pork Chop, House Cut Loin Steak, German Chocolate Cake, Sorbet Trio, Filet De Boeuf, Grand Slam Chicken, Salmon Crudo
REVIEW #999

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

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