A Taste of the World in Rio Rancho 

The Santa Ana Star Center Hosted the Sixth Annual Taste of Rio Rancho on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

While the marquee may have welcomed guests to the sixth annual Taste of Rio Rancho, the mouth-watering event could easily have been called “A Taste of America in Rio Rancho.”  In the six years which have elapsed since the inaugural Taste of Rio Rancho, the city’s culinary diversity has expanded significantly thanks to an influx of new restaurants cutting a wide swath across culinary cultures from throughout the country (and planet).  Not only are Visionaries (my term for residents of the City of Vision) spending more of their disposable income on hometown restaurants, diners from across the metropolitan area are increasingly making their way to Rio Rancho restaurants where it’s not just about serving outstanding food; it’s about providing a great dining experience.

The Type of Voting All Americans Enjoy

Those diverse dining opportunities were showcased during the Taste of Rio Rancho event where guests got to sample some of the unique culinary creations for which the city’s restaurants are renowned.  Moreover, guests had the opportunity to interact with their favorite restaurateurs and staff.  It speaks volumes about the familial climate in the city that many warm embraces and hearty handshakes were exchanged during those interactions.  The ambiance was convivial, fun and filling, an escape from the cares and concerns of current times.  Unlike (as many have expressed) less than desirable choices in the Presidential run, voters in attendance had two dozen delectable choices from which to select a People’s Choice award winner.

Garnering the most votes for the 2016 People’s Choice award was über chef Michael White and The Point Grill at Mariposa.  Although open for only thirteen months (as of this writing), the Point Grill and its chef have acquired quite a following.   Four miles north of the Santa Ana Star Center, the Point Grill offers spectacular east-facing views of four mountain ranges and a spectacular menu that’s surprisingly ambitious considering the restaurant’s smallish space.  The bacon-toffee sundae alone is worth the trek.

Rio Rancho is home to a number of award-winning food trucks.  The aptly named Cheesy Street has elevated the grilled cheese from simple comfort food to creative and innovative grilled cheese you will crave.  Parked frequently at the Westside Marble Brewery  the shamrock-green truck with its smiling crew has become a pied piper of sorts as long queues of hungry diners wait eagerly to place their orders.  Many of us line up for the Dubliner with bacon while others are addicted to the uniquely wonderful caramelized Irish bread pudding.

From Joe’s Pasta House: Victoria, Kassie and Randi

Perhaps no restaurant in Rio Rancho exemplifies the friend and neighbor ideal as much as Joe’s Pasta House, the proverbial restaurant “where everybody knows your name.” Indeed, frequent guests are on a first name basis with the owners, chefs and the very best wait staff in New Mexico. Many of us who call Rio Rancho home can recount examples of acts of kindness performed without fanfare by owners Joe and Kassie Guzzardi, but those kindnesses aren’t performed for publicity or praise.  They’re performed because the Guzzardis are looking out for their friends and neighbors in need.

Hot Tamales’ lives up to its mantra: “Our menu is simple but our food is extraordinary!”  Showcasing red chile blended from pods and fire-roasted green chile, the menu lists about thirty items.  Some Rio Rancho residents have tried them all, while others have a rotation of a handful of favorites such as the Hot Tamale Bowl (a large bowl of posole topped with a pork tamale) or the Tres Colores (red chile beef, green chile chicken and chile con queso rolled enchiladas).   Hot Tamales is the sister restaurant of O’Hare’s Grille & Pub, a long-time favorite in the City of Vision.

With three locations in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, Squeezed Juice Bar is New Mexico’s only locally owned organic raw juice and smoothie bar.  Visit the newest location at 1751 Rio Rancho Blvd. for fresh, healthy, raw foods that nourish the body using organic, locally grown products whenever possible.  If you’re inclined to believe healthy and raw don’t sound very tasty, Squeezed! will make a convert out of you as it did dozens of guests who stopped by for a sample.  Squeezed! is open seven days a week.

Serving the City of Vision since 2008, Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille may be patterned after an upscale English pub, but the 20,000 pennies covering the surface of the bar all sport President Lincoln’s countenance.  Libation loving patrons belly up to the penny bar for their favorite adult beverage.  Diners have a harder time making up their mind because the menu is replete with Irish, English and American  dishes.  The fish and chips are on a short list as best in the metropolitan area.  Burgers, especially the El McGoldrick, are also much sought after.

There’s always something new and exciting going on at Cazuela’s Mexican Grill & Brewery, a restaurant which seems to be reinventing (or more accurately, adding to its repertoire) itself every few years.  The restaurant added mariscos to an already formidable Mexican food menu in 2009.  Three years later the restaurant added a brewery and tap room showcasing several award-winning adult libations then in 2015, pizza (scratch-made dough infused with New Mexico honey) became a dinner-time offering.  We may not know what’s next for this innovative eatery, but we do know it’ll be good.

Can it really be twenty years since O’Hare’s Grille & Pub first opened its doors and extended a hearty Céad míle fáilte (an Irish greeting meaning “a hundred thousand welcomes”) to its guests?  Many of the first guests to visit O’Hare’s return frequently to “gulp, gorge and gather,” the restaurant’s three word “mission statement.”   Continuity is one of the hallmarks at O’Hare’s.  The menu hasn’t changed much over the years, but that’s the way many guests like it.  They especially like Thursdays when the daily special is Dublin Pot Roast in natural jus with roasted potatoes, roasted vegetables and grilled French bread.

In parts of the Midwest, it doesn’t matter how low the thermometer reads, it’s never too cold for custard.  Rio Rancho residents are beginning to understand that obsession.  Vanilla Bean Frozen Custard has introduced us to premium ice cream that’s thick, rich, creamy and made fresh daily.  Vanilla Bean offers vanilla, chocolate and flavor-of-the-day ice cream and if it ever does get too cold for custard, you can also enjoy specialty popcorn, freshly made fudge and candies.

In April, Franchise Business Review named Pizza 9 one of the top 200 franchises in America for 2016.  Several months later, the New Mexico Restaurant Association awarded Pizza 9 the Restaurant Neighbor Award in recognition of its community involvement.  Serving Rio Rancho since 2009, Pizza 9 has converted many residents of “Little New York” to Chicago-style pizza and to Italian beef sandwiches.  Owner Vu Nguyen has expanded his restaurant empire with the 2016 launch of 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen in Nob Hill.  Rio Rancho residents are already clamoring for him to expand to Rio Rancho.

“Catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!”  That’s what the banner in front of K’Lynn’s Southern & Cajun Food reads.  The “carne adovada fries” may have you doing a double-take, but they’ll also have you making repeated visits to the city’s first and only Southern and Cajun food restaurant.  So will the gumbo, rich with Andouille sausage and chicken.  So will the pecan pie covered with a bourbon sauce.  KLynn’s offers not only Southern food, but Southern hospitality.

Since 1983 when Gary West launched the legendary Smokehouse BBQ, 4000 Barbara Loop has practically become a second home to the city’s barbecue aficionados.  Carrying on the low-and-slow smoke tradition is Greg Janke who launched Stack House BBQ in September, 2016.  Greg is a veteran of Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew, a Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned event in which he’s fared very well.  For competition-quality barbecue and for Rio Rancho hometown service, you can’t beat Stack House BBQ.

Left: Tony Otero, Owner of Dairy Queen in Rio Rancho; Right: Matt Geisel, New Mexico’s Incoming Economic Development Secretary

Fifty years after its founding, Rio Rancho has already become New Mexico’s third most populous city.  One of the architects of its growth and success has been Matt Geisel who, for eight years, served the city in various capacities, most recently as Economic Development and Business Relations Manager.   In early October, Matt was selected by Governor Susana Martinez to serve as the state’s Economic Development Secretary, a cabinet post for which he’s imminently qualified.  Matt was instrumental in the growth of the Taste of Rio Rancho and is primed to do great things for the Land of Enchantment.

Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant

Countries and states may recognize borders but food doesn’t, especially today in an increasingly connected world where it’s possible to enjoy the cuisine of many of the world’s diverse and distant cultures without crossing a single border. Attribute the modern world’s dietary diversity to improved agricultural, transportation and preservation methods as well as rampant imperialism throughout the history of humankind. Consider the culinary influence of invading forces on the ancient nation of Armenia. During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded and occupied in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.

Though we were pretty sure the menu at Aura European and Middle Eastern Restaurant in Albuquerque would offer diversity, the terms “European” and “Middle Eastern” cast a rather broad net. European, for example, could encompass Spanish tapas, Italian pastas, French crepes and so much more. Similarly Middle Eastern is a rather broad category that could describe the cuisine of several nations and cultures, not all of whom share similar palates. There is no way, we thought, any restaurant could possibly attempt such a broad brush approach to European and Middle Eastern cuisine. There’s just too much diversity to execute the concept well. A quick perusal of the menu assuaged our concerns.

The rich interior of Aura

Aura’s menu isn’t a compendium of all foods European and Middle Eastern (not even close), but it offers a nice representation of the diverse melting pot cuisine on which brothers Ash and Marat Darbinyan were raised in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. If you’ve frequented Middle Eastern restaurants, you’ll find the menu more than vaguely familiar. You’ll recognize such appetizer delicacies as hummus, dolmas and crab cake. Lunch and dinner offerings such as Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Marsala, French Onion Soup and Russian borscht will also leap out at you as familiar favorites. So, too, will grilled lamb chops, kebabs and baklava. What you might not recognize, at least by name, are the premium wraps made with lavash bread, the Russian blinchik and the shashlik (grilled and skewerered meats and vegetables).

Aura is located in the Far North Shopping Center (just east of Budai Gourmet Chinese) in the space which previously housed Athens Eclectic Greek and other restaurants. The 86-seat restaurant has a very inviting vibe tailor-made for relaxed dining. Ash runs the front of the house while Marat runs the kitchen as he once did at the long defunct Charcoal Mediterranean Grill. The brothers Darbinyan have lived in Albuquerque since 2006, but Aura is the first eatery they’ve owned. It’s the culmination of a dream they’ve long shared and for which several restaurant jobs have prepared them. With amiable, professional service and a menu sure to please the discerning palate, the brothers have the formula that portends success.

Aura Appetizer Plate

Though there are probably several yet-to-be-discovered “must have” dishes on the menu, we certainly found one during our inaugural visit.  The Aura Appetizer Plate is everything you could possibly want if you love dips.  Picture hummus, tzatziki dip, spicy feta dip and an eggplant spread, a quadrumvirate of dip deliciousness served with pita bread wedges.  What we appreciated most about the fabulous foursome is that each has a unique flavor profile–the tanginess of the tzatziki, the garlicky bite of the hummus, for example.  Our favorite is the spicy feta dip which pairs the sharp, tangy sheep’s milk cheese with sweet-spicy red peppers.  It’s a magnificent duo.  The eggplant spread (roasted eggplant, red peppers, onions, parsley, tomato paste and spices) is the most interesting and multi-faceted.

In my seven years of serving as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl event, only one intrepid restaurateur (the brilliant Kevin Bladergroen at Blades’ Bistro) has ever attempted borscht, one of the most popular soups across Eastern European nations.  There are dozens of variations, some with and some without beetroot, the ingredient which gives borscht its reddish hue.  It’s been said that borscht isn’t about ingredients, it’s about spirit (aura?).  Aura’s version is replete with finely chopped vegetables in a comforting broth and it’s served with a dollop of sour cream.  It’s reminiscent of borscht we’ve had at some restaurants (including a Bohemian cafe in Chicago) and different from others.  That, too, is encompassed in the spirit of borscht.

Russian Borscht

My first exposure to Beef Stroganoff was courtesy of the “Tree Frogs,” Peñasco’s Boy Scout Troop 512.  During a camping excursion to the Jicarita wilderness, the experienced among us crammed lightweight dehydrated foods into our backpacks.  Somehow Beef Stroganoff was among our provisions, albeit a dish no other Tree Frog would even sample.  That turned out propitious for me. Reconstituted Beef Stroganoff began a lifelong love affair with the Russian dish.  Though my Kim makes a better-than-restaurant version at home, seeing it on a restaurant’s menu rekindles my love for the dish.  Rarely do we pass up the chance to order it at restaurants if only to compare it the one we make at home. 

We had expected Aura’s rendition (tender grilled beef, yellow onion, mushrooms smothered in a sauce served with fusilli pasta) to be prepared the traditional Russian way which is with potatoes, not pasta.  As the Web site To Discover Russia explains “Beef Stroganoff is at best a vague resemblance to the original dish, and at worst – absolutely different inexpressive concoction.”  The version we make at home is with egg noodles, so we don’t exactly subscribe to tradition either.  One thing we do at home and which many recipes advocate is thoroughly smothering the noodles with a rich, creamy mushroom sauce.  Aura’s version is rather stingy with the sauce though what there is of it is tasty.

Beef Stroganoff

In 2013, the per-capita consumption of lamb among Americans was a meager one pound per person per year.  Instead, beef is what was for dinner–to the Brobdingnagian tune of sixty-one pounds per person.  As recently as 2011, the American Lamb Board reported that nearly half of American diners had never even tasted lamb.  Blame this travesty on the latest war to end all wars, when rations for American servicemen in Europe included mutton (older sheep) passed off as lamb (typically slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months).  Servicemen hated the strong musky flavor of adult sheep and brought their distaste home with them.  Understandably, many of them forbade lamb from their dinner tables, resulting in generations growing up unfamiliar with the delights of real lamb. 

As an unabashed lover of lamb, it saddens me to learn that lamb is loathed, in many cases by diners who haven’t even tried it.  Sure, that leaves more for me and for enlightened diners in virtually every nation outside the fruited plain, but  passion, much like misery, loves company.  If you like lamb, but your excuse for not trying lamb is that it’s too expensive, Aura features three grilled lollipop lamb chops for under twenty dollars, far less than what you’d pay for a steak.  And if you’re phobic about its purported off-putting flavor, you’ll appreciate the well-seasoned preparation which complements without obfuscating, the distinctive, slightly gamy, more earthy flavor lf luscious lamb.  These chops are served with your choice of one side and a salad.  The grilled asparagus is an excellent complement.

Lamb Chops

In an increasingly connected world, it’s still gratifying to find there are still new and different foods to be tasted; to discover menus offering foods you’ve never heard of, much less tasted; to be titillated by different yet familiar spice combinations.  That’s what you’ll find at Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant.

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant
6300 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-3224
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Russian Borscht, Beef Stroganoff, Aura Appetizer Plate

Aura European Mediterranean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Curry Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Curry Leaf North & South Indian Cuisine

Leonard: Is it racist that I took you to an Indian restaurant?
Priya: It’s okay, I like Indian food.
Leonard: Or as you probably call it back home, food.
Big Bang Theory (Season Four, Episode 18)

Queen Rania of Jordan cautioned against judging “through the prism of our own stereotypes.”  Ill-founded stereotypes were very much in evidence after my team successfully landed an especially challenging project at Intel…and as with most stereotypes, they were based on faulty assumptions, overarching generalization and lack of experience.  When we deliberated where to celebrate our achievement, my suggestion that our repast be held at an Indian restaurant was met with such comments as “Indian food is…too spicy, too rich, too much curry, too vegetarian” and worse, it “causes heartburn and (to put it mildly) gastric distress.”  Prying more deeply revealed only one of my colleagues had ever actually ever tried Indian food.

In truth, when it comes to Indian food, if we don’t subscribe to such stereotypes, even the most open-minded among us tend to generalize about it.  Much as we do with Italian food, we compartmentalize Indian food as either “Northern” or “Southern,” generalizations which are inaccurate and which don’t do justice to one of the world’s great cuisines.  India is a very diverse country in which practically every province boasts its own unique cuisine.  Culinary taxonomists tell us there are 38 major kinds of cuisine in India, but my friend Kishore tells me there are local variations from village to village.

The Lunch Buffet is Spectacular!

Still, when we found out about the Curry Leaf, an Indian restaurant which opened its doors in August, 2016, we were elated at the prospect of a restaurant purporting to feature both Northern Indian cuisine and Southern Indian cuisine as well as a number of Indo-Chinese options.  Generalization goes out the window when our minds’ eye pictured spicier, more piquant entrees, the type of which aren’t common in Albuquerque whose Indian restaurants tend to focus on Northern Indian cuisine.  Even more rare in the Duke City is Indo-Chinese cuisine, the Indian adaptation of Chinese cooking techniques and seasonings.  Not since Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining has Albuquerque been able to enjoy the preternatural fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines.

With owner Narenda Kloty at the helm, Curry Leaf has the pedigree to succeed where other restaurants might fail if endeavoring such broad offerings.  Mr. Kloty is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment having previously owned and operated Albuquerque’s much-missed Bombay Grill as well as Santa Fe’s India Palace.  Until recently, he also owned a restaurant in Milpitas, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Today his sole focus is on Curry Leaf, a magnificent restaurant whose appeal to New Mexicans will grow as savvy diners discover flavor profiles very similar to our own beloved cuisine.  He is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant, a true gentleman whose goal it is to ensure all diners have a great experience at Curry Leaf.

A very inviting and attractive ambiance

Though sporting a Montgomery Boulevard address, Curry Leaf is recessed from the busy artery and isn’t easily visible until you turn into the retail development in which it sits.   Ironically, it’s situated next door to the familiar space which for nearly three-and-a-half decades housed the India Kitchen, Albuquerque’s very first Indian restaurant.  The Curry Leaf’s rather humble exterior belies an expansive and attractive dining room.  Visit for lunch and your immediate view as you walk in will be of burnished copper vessels in which the day’s buffet offerings are kept warm for you.  The wall art is not only visually spectacular, it’s thought-provoking.  An incomplete drawing of Buddha, for example, may have you contemplate that man, too, is a work in progress.

If you love buffets, this one is among the very best in the metropolitan area.  Quite simply, it offers entree quality offerings at value prices.  In fact, there are several items on the buffet this blogger already considers the best in the city (yes, even better than at the fabulous Namaste).  After my first two visits, I’ve accorded a rating of “23” for Curry Leaf, a rating heretofore not bestowed upon any buffet restaurant.  There’s little doubt that rating will increase when we order off the menu (which isn’t available during the lunch hour: 11:30AM to 2:30PM daily).

From the buffet: Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Tandoori Chicken

Ah, that menu!  It’s magnificent!  The appetizers section alone offers several items you won’t find at any Indian restaurant in the Albuquerque area–sumptuous starters such as chili paneer (cubed Indian cottage cheese sauteeed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce) and chili chicken (marinated, batter-fried chicken sauteed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce).  Homemade bread choices include not only naan of several types, but roti, kulcha and poori.  Tandoori specialties are absolutely the best in the area because the tandoor ovens burn charcoal.  The soups, several of which are available on the buffet, are wonderful (and will hopefully be entered into the Roadrunner Food Bank Souperbowl event in 2017).  Other menu categories warranting exploration are rice, chicken, lamb and goat, seafood, vegetable, dosa, Indo-Chinese and desserts.

Among the “best in the city” offerings at Curry Leaf are garlic naan, one of several homemade breads available.  The intense heat (approaching 900-degrees Fahrenheit) of the tandoori oven fired with charcoal imparts a magnificent flavor to what is probably my favorite form of bread (even over my mom’s flour tortillas)   Thin yet fluffy, the naan is amazing, inviting you to dip it into the tamarind chutney with its sweet, sour and just slightly piquant flavor or the raita, a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices.  Then there’s the mint chutney, an Indian “salsa” with an intensely fresh flavor.  It goes without saying that the naan is wonderful without amelioration, too.


If asked what the national food of England is, you’d probably answer fish and chips or Yorkshire pudding and roast beef.  In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook British declared chicken tikka masala as the new national dish of the United Kingdom.  Restaurant-goers seem to agree as they’ve made it the most popular restaurant dish in the country.  Tikka, a Persian word for “bits and pieces” aptly describes the dish which showcases boneless chicken pieces in a creamy spiced tomato sauce.  Curry Leaf’s rendition is fantastic, so full-bodied, rich and delicious it warranted a second helping.  So did the Chicken Makhani, a dish sometimes called Indian butter chicken.  It’s a dish so good it should be registered as a repeat offender for deliciousness.

Ubiquitous in virtually every Indian restaurant’s buffet offering, tandoori chicken is a take-it-or-leave-it item for me, but not at Curry Leaf which serves the Duke City’s very best rendition.  What makes this chicken so much better than any other is the fact that the tandoor oven is heated with charcoal.  That charcoal penetrates deeply, imparting smoky sweetness to the chicken which is rendered a bright reddish-orange color by a spice blend that includes cayenne pepper, paprika and other spices.  The Colonel can have his blend of eleven herbs and spices.  This chicken is better than finger-licking good.

Garlic Naan

Regardless of culture, soup is one of the most gratifying dishes on the face of the Earth.  Indian soups are among the very best.  They’re diverse, healthful and delicious.  Curry Leaf includes at least two soups on the daily buffet.  You’ll be tempted to ferry the entire tureen of Madras Tomato Soup to your table though a ladle or two will have to do.  This tomato soup is made distinctive with the addition of coconut milk and spices.  This is unequivocally the very best tomato soup I’ve ever had.  Nearly as good is the Sambar, a vegetable soup with a piquant bite.  It’s fiery red in appearance with fresh vegetables for every spoonful.

Two other noteworthy buffet staples are the Saag Paneer and the Aloo Gobi.  Rumor has it that Popeye the sailor man emigrated to Indian when he heard about Saag Paneer, a rich, delicious dish of creamed spinach and cubes of soft farmer’s cheese.  If you’ve never enjoyed spinach, this dish will change your mind…and if there’s one vegetable even more reviled than spinach, it might be cauliflower.    Aloo Gobi (potatoes and cauliflower sauteed with chopped onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes in a rich blend of mostly seed-based seasonings) presents cauliflower in the most delicious manner you’ve ever experienced this cruciferous vegetable.  Those seasons render this dish pleasantly piquant and superbly flavored.

From the Buffet: Madras Tomato Soup, Aloo Gobi, Saag Paneer, Chicken Makhani, Tandoor Chicken

As wonderful as the buffet is, savvy diners should also visit Curry Leaf for dinner when the menu really opens up with spicy deliciousness unlike any you’ll experience in the Duke City.   Now, if only Curry Leaf offered breakfast…

Curry Leaf
6910 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-3663
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 October 2016
1ST VISIT: 1 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Mango Lassi, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Dosa

Curry Leaf Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Stack House BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho

One of my Psychology professors cautioned students about the danger of “amateur diagnosis,” the practice of assigning specific psychoses and neuroses to people we meet solely on the basis of our cursory familiarity with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  He explained that it often takes an experienced practicing psychiatrist several sessions to arrive at a diagnosis and many more sessions before treatment proves effective.  His point–a little knowledge can be dangerous–applies in virtually every arena of knowledge in practicum.  Reflecting back on all the times my rudimentary conclusions were ultimately proven incorrect, it’s a point well driven. 

When my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick, Dazzling Deanell and Beauteous Barb decided to pursue Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) certification, the words of my Psychology professor resonated in my memory.  Sure, we’d all been eating barbecue most of our lives, but how much did we really know about passing judgement on barbecue?  Not much, it turned out.  Over the course of several hours, our KCBS instructor imparted sage knowledge and proven techniques to help us understand thee three most important and very nuanced elements of competitive judging: taste, texture and appearance.   Much like getting a Psychology degree, obtaining KCBS certification gave us a modicum of knowledge.  Applying what we learned in such competitions as Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew built upon that knowledge.

Long lines queue up for terrific ‘cue

Recently when Larry and Deanell rhapsodized poetic about the barbecue at the Stack House BBQ in Rio Rancho, my first questions were “how would that barbecue rate in a KCBS barbecue competition?” Larry gave it nines in taste, texture and appearance. Deanell one-upped Larry, indicating the Stack House BBQ’s ‘cue warranted all tens (and she knows what it is to be a ten). They invited me to discover for myself whether their ratings were hyperbole or justified.  Alas, during my inaugural visit, I was suffering the ravages of a bad cold which rendered my taste buds untrustworthy and enfeebled my olfactory senses.  You can’t judge barbecue if you can’t imbibe its aromas and taste its subtle flavor qualities. 

Having a bad cold tends to exacerbate my desire for chile, the more piquant the better.  In the throes of even the most egregious colds, I’ve been known to drive to Santa Fe for some of the Horseman’s Haven‘s combustible chile.  The Haven’s Level II chile, affectionately known as “El Diablo” is about the only thing that can quell the stuffiness of a head cold.  While the Stack House doesn’t offer anything quite as incendiary as El Diablo, the menu does include two pepper-infused items: Frito pie and jalapeño sausage.  From what my compromised palate could surmise, both were probably quite good though it would take a return visit or ten to know for sure. 

Pit Master Extraordinaire Greg Janke Slices Brisket with Surgical Precision

My return visit transpired exactly one week after my inaugural visit, so eager were my Kim and I to experience the bodacious barbecue about which Larry and Deanell had raved.  We had the great fortune to spend time discussing all things barbecue with proprietor-pit master Greg Janke.  Like me, Greg is an Intel alum, having toiled at the technology giant for 23 years, five years longer than I.  Not one to let grass grow under his feet, Greg left Intel in April, 2016 and five months later–on Friday, September 23rd–he launched Stack House BBQ. 

Greg’s transition from technologist to restaurateur wasn’t as challenging as one might think.  In fact, Greg admits, working at Intel prepared him very well to own and operate a restaurant.  Even in such technically demanding areas as Automation where he rose through the ranks, Intel employees have the opportunity to hone their business and customer orientation skills (not to mention the discipline to work long hours).  There is, of course, nothing in the semi-conductor arena which translates directly to the mastery of smoking meats in the low-and-slow manner.  Greg began smoking meats at home several years ago, eventually earning praise from friends and the confidence to enter the arena of competition.

Half Rack of Baby Back Ribs

In each of the past two years, Greg has competed at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew, a Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned event.  In 2016, he finished seventeenth overall in a field of thirty-one, faring especially well in the pork category where he placed eleventh.  As much as the judges in the blind taste foodfest may have enjoyed his barbecue, it was event-goers who convinced him to launch his own barbecue restaurant.  In each of the event’s two days, he sold out–every morsel of magnificent meat–well before day’s end.   Moreover, many of them lavished praise and encouragement, essentially convincing Greg that he belonged in the barbecue restaurant arena.

Just seven months previously, Rub-N-Wood had shuttered its doors, leaving the City of Vision without a barbecue restaurant.  Now, Rio Rancho without barbecue is akin to Hillary not wearing a pantsuit.  It just doesn’t and shouldn’t happen.  Barbecue became a Rio Rancho tradition in 1983 when the great Gary West launched Smokehouse BBQ  at 4000 Barbara Loop, a location which would henceforth become synonymous with great barbecue. He owned and operated the stately home of seductive smoke for nearly a quarter-century before moving on. With Roger Bell at the helm, Rub-N-Wood moved in and pleased palates for nearly three years.  The hazy smoke plumes which had so long emanated from 4000 Barbara Loop resumed on a lazy, late September day when Greg assumed the role as Rio Rancho’s proprietor of the pit.  It was a day warranting celebration.

Half Chicken

As had transpired during the Pork & Brew, Greg sold out his first few days of operation.  Barbecue aficionados quickly embraced his Memphis meets Texas approach to smoking meats.  What’s not to love!  Greg uses a combination of oak and cherry woods to impart a unique flavor to his barbecue.  He developed a rub that includes some twelve ingredients that penetrate deeply into the meats and imbue them with flavor-boosting, crust-forming properties.  Not only that, the Stack House BBQ restaurant is an inviting milieu for meat lovers.  It may well be the most pristine barbecue restaurant in which you’ve ever set foot.  If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, Greg is probably being fitted for a halo as you read this.  In addition to the immaculate nature of the premises, service is friendly and attentive (another Rio Rancho tradition exemplified by the terrific staff at Joe’s Pasta House among others).

The Stack House menu is rather limited.  Meats–brisket, chicken or pulled pork–are available by the half or full pound.  Also available are sausage, jalapeño sausage, half-a-chicken and baby back ribs (available in quantities of three, half a rack or a full rack).  You can also opt to have your meats on a sandwich.  Then there’s the aforementioned Frito pie.  Sides are pretty much what you’d expect at a barbecue joint: potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, corn on the cob, chile, beans, mac and cheese and fries (including chile cheese fries).  A baked potato, with or without meat, can also be had.  Limited applies solely to the number of items on the menu board, not to how great they taste.

Sides: Green Beans and Potato Salad

You won’t mind getting your hands dirty handling the baby back ribs on which Greg’s magical rub is liberally applied.  These ribs are messy and they’re magnificent, each meaty morsel pried away easily from the bone.  They’re not fall-off-the-bone tender, having just the right amount of give that signifies the perfect degree of doneness.  Make no bones about it, these baby back ribs are (as Larry would say) competition-worthy, needing neither sauce nor amelioration to improve upon them.   The sauce, by the way, is terrific, a sweet and tangy complement to the richly satisfying smokiness of the ribs.

With the emphasis on pork and brisket, chicken is often a sorry afterthought at some barbecue establishments.  Not so at the Stack House where the full-flavored half-chicken is a main-event item.  Quite simply, it’s fantastic, some of the very best we’ve had in New Mexico!  Peel back the blackened skin (delicious in its own right) and you’ll be rewarded with moist, juicy and delicious white and dark meat chicken…and there’s plenty of it.  A nice-sized half-chicken (breast, thigh and leg) won’t leave much for sharing–not that you’ll want to.  

Cherry Cobbler

Great barbecue restaurants know that to provide an excellent full-meal experience, smoked meats must be accompanied by worthy sides.  Stack House has a two-tiered pricing model for its sides, the most expensive being three dollars.  Sides are served on Styrofoam vessels and are generously portioned.  The potato salad may evoke memories of picnic meals long gone.  It’s a mayonnaise-based potato salad with a pleasant mustardy-vinegary tang.  Alas, the green beans could use a few bits and pieces of smoked meats and maybe a pinch of salt.  Much better is the cherry cobbler, replete with whole cherries and a crumbly and delicious crust. 

Stack House BBQ may ultimately become yet another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho, a port-of-call for barbecue aficionados from throughout the metropolitan area, if not the entire Land of Enchantment.  With its September launch, all is right in Rio Rancho once again.

Stack House BBQ
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 903-7516
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2016
1ST VISIT: 29 September 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Half Chicken, Cherry Cobbler

Stack House BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

K’Lynn’s Cuisine – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho

The tethered banner in front of K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho lists a few of the delicious treasures available in the tiny restaurant: “catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!”  Yeah, we did a double-take, too.  One of those items just seemed a bit out-of-place?  If you’re thinking “carne adovada fries” don’t belong on the list because they’re not Soul food, you’d be wrong.  Carne adovada fries definitely belong on the list.  So does jerk chicken which, by most conventional definitions, isn’t soul food either.  The one item we thought to be out-of-place was “& more.” 

I mean what more could you possibly want listed on the banner.  If it didn’t have you at “catfish” you probably haven’t had catfish down South…and if it didn’t seal the deal with “gumbo,” you definitely need an infusion of South in your mouth.  Beyond catfish and gumbo, the rest is gravy and it’s absolutely delicious.  Until the summer of 2016, restaurant-goers craving Southern cuisine had only one option for soul food, albeit a wonderful option in Bucket Headz.  For those of us on the “west side,” the  trek to the International District for Malaika’s fabulous cooking is a long (though well worth it) trip.  With the launch of K’Lynn’s Cuisine, we now have a second option to succor our souls.

K’Lynn’s Tiny and Cozy Dining Room

Residents of the City of Vision may be asking themselves where this new denizen of deliciousness is situated.  Most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment’s third most populous city, after all, are clustered on three main arteries: Rio Rancho, Southern and Unser.  K’Lynn’s occupies a Lilliputian space on the northeast side of the Rio Rancho Marketplace, a retail shopping center whose anchor tenants include Target and Albertson’s.  Even if you take Ridgecrest west-bound, it’s not easy to spot.  Trust me.  It’s there and it’s worth a detour from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine is the restaurant arm of K’Lynn’s Cuisine & Catering, an enterprise owned and operated by Karen Johnson-Bey, aka K’Lynn.  A self-taught chef, K’Lynn launched her restaurant on July 7th, formerly focusing solely on catering.  It’s no longer Rio Rancho’s best kept secret.  Word is getting out about the tiny place where you can enjoy food for your soul–a mix of soul, Cajun and Caribbean cuisine.  Her culinary repertoire is even more expansive, catering “all types of cuisines from American, New Mexican, Italian and more.”  There’s that “and more” term again.

Gumbo and Cornbread

You probably won’t peruse K’Lynn’s menu too thoroughly.  That’s because the day’s specials, scrawled on a white board on the counter, are so value-priced and tempting.  Listing only a handful of items, the specials list may include such mouth-watering items as crab cakes, oxtail and barbecue ribs.  The menu itself befits the small restaurant.  You might not get any further than the baskets: catfish (one, two or four pieces), fried shrimp or fried crawfish served with your choice of fries or coleslaw, but if you do you’ll run into three entrees: gumbo, jambalaya and jerk chicken.  Hungry diners can opt for platters which are served with your choice of three sides or you can have a two- or three-item combo.  Either way, you won’t leave hungry…and we haven’t even gotten to the appetizers which include such sumptuous starters as popcorn shrimp and the aforementioned carne adovada fries.  Page two of the menu, if you somehow manage to get there, also lists several po’ boy and salad options.

Gumbo is an archetypal Cajun offering and almost inarguably the most popular dish ever conceived in Louisiana (as emblematic of the Bayou State as chile is to New Mexico).  It’s a veritable melting pot dish, transcending all class and income barriers.  With a fragrant bouquet that precedes it, a steaming bowl of good gumbo is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures.  K’Lynn’s offers two options for its gumbo: Andouille sausage and chicken or shrimp. We can’t speak for the version made with shrimp, but the version made with Andouille sausage and chicken is “close your eyes and let the aroma and flavors wash over you” satisfying.  It goes without saying that it pairs best with cornbread, some to sop up that great gumbo and some cornbread with lots of butter.

Catfish, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

One of the Southern traditions we quickly embraced upon moving to Mississippi was a family-style meal of catfish and fried chicken after church every Sunday.  For umpteen consecutive Sundays we visited Aunt Jenny’s in Ocean Springs for a bounteous repast.  Aunt Jenny’s set the bar for catfish rather high and only a handful of restaurants (such as the aforementioned Bucket Headz) in the Land of Enchantment are even in the same zip code as that bar.  Though K’Lynn’s source for catfish isn’t the murky ponds of Mississippi, Californian catfish is still very good.  Sheathed in a golden-hued, lightly seasoned batter, the catfish is light and delicate with a deliciousness that defines any notions you may have about the bottom-dwelling fish.  Catfish goes especially well with mac and cheese and fried green beans, both of which are quite delicious.

While you’re more likely to find restaurants pairing fried chicken with catfish than you are restaurants pairing catfish with jerk chicken, the latter combination goes very well together.   Infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call, the chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning.  If you prefer your jerk chicken to render you a coughing, sputtering, watery-eyed frump, K’Lynn’s version won’t do that for you, but you will enjoy it.

Jerk Chicken, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

In his terrific tome Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time culinary historian Adrian Miller  declared red Kool-Aid to be the official soul food drink.  That’s a pretty audacious claim for which he puts up a good argument.  In the South, Kool-Aid tends to be made with almost as many scoops of sugar as there are granules of Kool-Aid.  That’s why we prefer K’Lynn’s grape Kool-Aid and ginger ale.  Not only is it not cloying, it’s got a nice  effervescence and it makes you feel as if you’re getting away with something.

While the Land of Enchantment is second only to Georgia in the annual production of pecans, Southerners would argue that only in the South can pecan pie be made the right way.  The “right way” means an almost sickeningly sweet pie, palatable only to diners with a seriously sweet tooth.   In the South most pecan pies are made using dark Karo syrup which has a more pronounced and sweeter flavor courtesy of the addition of molasses.  K’Lynn’s version is made with the not-quite-as-sweet blonde Karo syrup and it’s topped with a smooth bourbon sauce redolent with the unique bouquet of the oak casks in which it is distilled.  Whole pecans and a flaky crust offset the cloying elements.   While some Southerners might complain it’s not sweet enough, most diners will enjoy it very much.

Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

Visionaries (isn’t that what residents of the City of Vision are called) have started to discover K’Lynn’s Cuisine, but it shouldn’t take long for savvy diners from throughout the metropolitan area to find out for themselves that food for your soul is good for everyone.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine
4300 Ridgecrest Drive, Suite O
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 453-3068
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Cornbread, Catfish, Mac and Cheese, Fried Green Beans, Jerk Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, Grape Kool Aid, Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

K'Lynn's Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: September, 2016

Hot Dog and Fries from Spinn’s Burger & Beer in Albuquerque

With a panoply of colors, warm days that transition to crisp evenings and the irresistible aroma of roasting chile, autumn is the favorite season for many New Mexicans and visitors to the Land of Enchantment. Naming the Duke City “one of the best Fall escapes in the United States,” National Geographic invites travelers to “take to the skies in Albuquerque” and enjoy the spectacle of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. National Geographic also praised our “delicious New Mexican cuisine,” recommending the red chile pork ribs at El Pinto and the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s.

Not even the beloved taco has been excluded from the divisiveness of 2016’s contentious presidential campaign. Latinos for Trump leader Marco Guttierez warned “that without tighter immigration policies…you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.” While taco trucks may not be parked on every corner, tacos have become a ubiquitous American favorite. No longer are denizens of the fruited plain subjected solely to Taco Bell’s rather piteous version of the taco. You can find outstanding tacos across the country. Just ask BuzzFeed which compiled a list of the most popular taco spot in every state. Popularity was measured using an algorithm considering the number of reviews plus the star rating for every business on Yelp. New Mexico’s most popular taco comes from El Paisa in Albuquerque. One astute devotee commented on Yelp, “The only comparison is the street tacos in downtown Puerto Vallarta, because this is as authentic as it gets.”

The Apple Tree Cafe in Corrales may have a small menu, but it’s a great one

Bustle, an online presence “for and by women who are moving forward as fast as you are” invites its readers to try seven authentic New Mexican eateries to try because “green chile is king.” The writer, who’s actually lived in New Mexico for four years, attests that “New Mexican cuisine is a flavorful, fiery treat for the taste buds.” She recommends the Frontier Restaurant, “one of the most iconic Albuquerque dining destinations;” Casa Azul “in queso emergency” or for “a meal that takes advantage of the freshest ingredients New Mexico has to offer; El Patio, “a cozy, intimate dining destination that has been family owned and operated for three generations;” Sadie’s of New Mexico where it “doesn’t get much more New Mexican;” Mary & Tito’s which offers “James Beard Award-winning New Mexican food in a relaxed, understated setting;” El Pinto, “a New Mexican restaurant that offers anything your heart desires;” and the 66 Diner whose “whimsical retro decor and friendly, uniformed wait staff might make you feel like you’ve stepped into another era.”

On September 12th, 2016, Laguna Burger earned bragging rights at the New Mexico State Fair’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge, ending a two year reign by national chain Fuddrucker‘s. Finishing second in the blind taste test adjudged event was Starr Brothers while judges determined Pasion Latin Fusion‘s green chile cheeseburger was third best. The competition featured ten of the Land of Enchantment’s most prolific purveyors of New Mexico’s sacrosanct burger. As is often the case, the public’s perception of which burger is best differed from the opinion of the judges. Earning the coveted “people’s choice” award was Sparky’s, a Hatch institution.

Homemade Bread from the Loyal Hound Pub in Santa Fe

In the pages of September’s New Mexico Magazine, you’ll find recipes that will help you ‘”cook like a local with harvest-ready dishes” showcasing green chile from the Hatch valley. Descendants of Hatch chile pioneer Joseph Franzoy and other Hatch pepper buffs offer their favorite home-cooking recipes for such standards as green chile stew. You’ll also learn how to prepare such non-traditional dishes as Crepe Olé, green chile pasta, stuffed eggplant with green chile and even Sparky’s Green Chile Milkshake.

When Santa Fe’s scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison launches a new brand, it doesn’t solely warrant local attention. The culinary community across the fruited plain takes notice. Food & Beverage Magazine sure did, lauding her launch of Excited About Food, a multimedia Web presence where she shares recipes, cookbooks, exotic ingredients, tips, classes, videos and special events all about the excitement of cooking! The indefatigable culinary evangelist also launched Heating It Up!, a riveting program in which she interviews a wide array of experts from chefs and authors to food critics and farmers from across the country. Fittingly, Cheryl’s radio program comes to us courtesy of KVSF 101.5, the Voice of Santa Fe.

Chocolate Nirvana from ChocoGlitz & Cream in Albuquerque

“Foodies. Gourmands. Epicureans. These are the people seeking adventure on a plate.” These are the people who cast their votes for Open Table’s 2016 list of the Best Restaurants for Foodies. The list of honorees was compiled “after analyzing more than five million reviews of more than 20,000 restaurants across the country — all submitted by verified diners.” Alas, only one restaurant in the Land of Enchantment made the list. Widely regarded as the best fine-dining restaurant in New Mexico, Santa Fe’s Geronimo is perpetually the state’s most consistently honored dining establishment.

Is it any wonder September is probably the favorite month for most New Mexicans? With trees adorned in spectacular colors and the aroma of freshly harvested chile perfuming the air, there’s just something magical about September. Magic certainly pervades every September at Santa Fe’s annual green chile cheeseburger smackdown. Chefs from throughout the Land of Enchantment vie for bragging rights every year, the one constant being the starring ingredient: New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile. Anthony Smith, executive chef at the Inn and Spa at Loretto in Santa Fe laid the smack down on six other competitors, earning the coveted judges’ choice award with The Santa Fe Autumn Roast which celebrates New Mexican ingredients with grass-fed beef, Angel’s Bakery bun, house-made pancetta, Tucumcari Cheddar Cheese, New Mexico Autumn Roast Green Chile and creamy avocado spread. Chef Milton Villarrubia‘s “Plate Lickin’ Cheese Burger” earned “people’s choice honors.

The Stack House, Bodacious Barbecue in the City of Vision Once Again

The Texas Hill Country. Memphis. The Carolinas. Kansas City. These are America’s paragons of low-and-slow supremacy, each asserting credible claims to smoking the best stuff under spacious skies. New Mexico has never been known for its bodacious barbecue, but that may be changing. NFL powerhouse, the Seattle Seahawks are now showcasing Mr. Powdrell‘s house sauce on brisket sandwiches sold at CenturyLink Field. Paul Allen, the billionaire team owner and former denizen of the Duke City apparently acquired quite a fondness for Powdrell’s when he and fellow Microsoft founder Bill Gates lived in Albuquerque.

Contrary to so many coming of age movies about the college experience, the collegiate lifestyle isn’t only fraternities and sororities, binge drinking, toga parties and starving students subsisting solely on ramen. College is also about discovery–the growth experience that comes from uncovering new experiences. Thrillist believes college “students carrying overpriced textbooks while wearing sweatpants” have discovered the 21 best college burgers in America, a likely major contributor to the fabled freshman fifteen. Making the list is the Frontier Restaurant’s signature “Fiesta Burger with green chiles, cheddar, and lettuce, just as the New Mexican forefathers intended.”

Three Sauces Every Chinese Restaurant Should Have Chili, Hoisin and Hot Mustard: from the Dragon House in Albuquerque

Thrillist also refreshed its annual list of the best barbecue restaurants in the United States. For the second consecutive year, the Land of Enchantment’s best purveyor of smoked deliciousness is Danny’s Place in Carlsbad “thanks to the glory that is consistently great barbecue cooked over sweet hardwood for over 40 years. Oh, and don’t worry, because this is New Mexico after all, you can still get a green chile-smothered burrito and the “flip plate” — a flour tortilla buttered and fried on the grill and filled with a hamburger patty, two cheese slices, green chile, onions, and salsa.” By the way, the “local expert” mentioned in the feature is a blogger of some repute whose thrilling and filling reviews you can trust.

Thanks to the Food Network, restaurants have become a water cooler topic (though water coolers themselves have largely gone out of fashion). The point is, restaurants are a popular topic of conversation. Gastronomes no longer have to skulk in dark corners and speak in hushed tones when we discuss our favorite eateries. We can now shout from the rooftops about our favorite foods, including pizza. The pizzeria everyone is obsessed with in New Mexico, according to Delish comes from Farina Pizzeria in Albuquerque. Farina has made char a flavor in New Mexico and for that we’re obsessed.

Glandjila from Frost Gelato in Albuquerque

The Land of Enchantment’s culinary community was feted during the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s 2016 Hospitality Industry Awards banquet. Restaurateur of the Year honors went to Laura Leal of Leal’s Mexican Food Restaurant in Clovis. Pizza 9 earned the Restaurant Neighbor Award for its community involvement. Chef of the Year went to Tatsu Mizayaki of The Restaurant at Sierra Grande in Truth or Consequences while Wayne Moore of St. Clair Winery & Bistro earned Manager of the Year honors. Several other restaurants were recognized for feeding New Mexico’s families for more than forty years.

Saveur Magazine writer Matt Taylor-Gross undertook a hunt for Hatch chiles, a trek that began at the Hatch Chile Festival which he compared to “walking around an O’Keeffe painting.” Though Georgia O’Keefe may not have spent much time in Hatch, she was known to cook with and enjoy chile. On his weekend assignment to the chile capital of the world, Taylor-Gross enjoyed chile in several New Mexican staples as well as in a milkshake from Sparky’s. He also discovered sopaipillas from Church Street Cafe in Albuquerque.

August, 2016

Pepper Lamb from Budai Gourmet (Photo Courtesy of Haley Hamilton)

In August, 2016, Spoon University, the self-proclaimed “everyday food resource for our generation, on a mission to make food make sense” set off on a course to identify the 50 best ice cream desserts in every state,” one from each state in the fruited plain. The Land of Enchantment’s representative was the ice cream taco from Pop Fizz. Spoon University waxed poetic about this ice cream: “We all scream for this ice cream. You can find this bad boy in Albuquerque, NM, and you can choose from several flavors such as cinnamon churro, cookies and cream, and strawberry.”

Is there anything worse than concession nachos, those depressing, over-salted, stale round chips blanketed in gloppy cheese “stuff” pumped from a large jar? If you’ve ever had them, likely at a ball park or movie theater, you’ve probably tried to repress the memories. Thankfully inspired chefs have done a lot to improve nachos, to the point that it’s grossly unfair and inaccurate that the gloppy concession travesties share the name “nachos.” TABELog, a restaurant review blog undertook the enviable task of naming the ten best places to eat nacos in America. It stands to reason that a restaurant whose very name includes the term “Nachos” would make the list, never mind that Albuquerque’s very own Papa Nacho’s was named for the proprietor’s nickname. In naming Papa Nacho’s the seventh best place to eat nachos, TABELog advised “Do not be fooled by this exterior of this spot—it is better than it looks. They serve Mexican dishes rice & beans, tacos, quesadilla, enchiladas and of course nachos. Their signature papa nachos is packed with enough spices and cost only $7.”

Lunch-Size Stromboli from Saggio’s in Albuquerque

In 1982, Bruce Feirstein wrote “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, a “bestselling tongue-in-cheek book satirizing stereotypes of masculinity.” Had he written about truck drivers instead, the book’s title would likely have been “Truck Drivers Don’t Eat Salad.” According to the Center for Disease Control, truck drivers top the occupation obesity list, largely due to a diet of fast food and long periods of inactivity. Truck drivers don’t always eat fast food. Truckers know about the hidden gems most of us would discount, little holes-in-the-wall lacking the pristine veneer off the chains. Thrillist enlisted a trio of professional tractor-trailer drivers to deliver a convoy of those hidden gems. In a feature entitled “Truckers Name America’s Greatest Restaurants You’ve Never Heard Of,” that trucking triumvirate listed among the tantalizing ten, a Route 66 gem in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. The Silver Moon Cafe was described as ” “It’s a pretty popular place. They have it all: beef tacos, cheese dip, salsa, fajitas. But the big thing is that it’s all seasoned so well, especially if you like hot stuff.”

Have you ever wondered why so many guides and books employ fatalistic titles imploring readers to see or do something “before you die?” The likely culprit was the 2007 movie “The Bucket List,” whose premise was indeed to “complete a list of things they want to see and do before they die.” The movie inspired many people to compile their own lists and it engendered a number of publications employing “before you die” in their titles. Spoon University published a predictably and unimaginatively named feature titled “The 50 Best Things to Eat in Albuquerque Before You Die.” From burritos at Twister’s to green chile bread from Golden Crown Panaderia, the comprehensive compendium offered no surprises for residents of the Duke City, many of whom have probably sampled everything on the list many times in their lifetimes.

Reina Margherita Pizza from Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap Room in Albuquerque (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

“Bugs Bunny and Breaking Bad don’t really capture the essence of this largest city in New Mexico. Albuquerque offers art, culture, history, and places of great surprise, if you know where to look beyond the usual tourist haunts.” Offbeat Travel’s feature “10 Favorites Only Locals Know in Albuquerque” listed only one food-related item. In a snippet about the Green Jeans Farmery, Offbeat Travel waxed poetic about Chill’N handcrafted organic ice cream, explaining the ice cream is created by “created by churning the ingredients in blasts of liquid nitrogen. Remember how some of the trendy cooking shows experiment with this new technique? Well, it makes amazing ice cream. The superfast freezing results in richly creamy frozen confection. The nitrogen bubbles away during the process.”

PureWow, an online women’s lifestyle site “dedicated to finding ways to make your life more interesting, beautiful and manageable” compiled a list of “The Most Iconic Restaurant in Every Single U.S. State.” The list of “restaurants (and, OK, fast-food joints) that make America so tasty” did include some of the most iconic eateries in the fruited plain, many of them introduced to America by the Food Channel. New Mexico was well-represented on the list by Santa Fe’s Cafe Pasqual’s. PureWow explained “Since 1979, visitors have lined up outside Café Pasqual’s turquoise door for New Mexican classics with an inventive twist. (Think: green chili burgers and huevos barbacoa.) The colorful restaurant also houses an art gallery on the second floor.” While it’s difficult to dispute the selection of Cafe Pasqual as the Land of Enchantment’s most iconic restaurant, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “green chili burger” anywhere on the restaurant’s menu.

Ice Cream Sandwich from Rude Boy in Albuquerque

Shame on those of you who would answer the question “where is the best steak in New Mexico to be found” with LongHorn, Black Angus, Golden Corral or The Sizzler. Steak, “a dish that reaches across American diversity, binding us together through a common love of red meat” is never intended for the institutionalized, corporate fast food treatment. MSN partnered with FourSquare to locate the “best steakhouse in every state.” For a change, the Land of Enchantment’s representative didn’t come from Albuquerque or Santa Fe, but from Mesilla, a “suburb” of Las Cruces: “Margaritas and steak? It’s not a typical dining experience, but at Double Eagle in Mesilla, New Mexico, you won’t want to miss out. Try the signature Green Chili Bloody Mary to spice up your evening.”

From the pages of New Mexico Magazine, managing editor Kate Nelson introduces readers to a “renowned Los Ranchos inn” which “serves what it sows, with scrumptious assists by a host of local farmers.” In 2013, Bon Appetit named Los Poblanos Historic Inn “a top ten hotel for food lovers.” At the helm is multi-time James Beard Award nominee chef Jonathan Perno whose “carefully constructed breakfasts and dinners” are veritable “sensory smorgasbords.” Kate spent time with the culinary architect of “true farm-to-table invention that he calls Río Grande Valley Cuisine.” It’s a very compelling read which may just have you planning your next date night outing to one of New Mexico’s most acclaimed dining destinations.

The Classic Pastrami Sandwich from California Pastrami in Albuquerque

Willy Wonka may have had a chocolate factory, but New Mexico has a Pie Town, described by writer Bobby Christian as “the last stop along a road that never reached its full potential…a desert town where fruit pies are a way of life.” Writing for Travel Mindset, an online site “created by experienced travelers who like to explore the world and are looking for life changing and life shaping experiences,” Christian so eloquently described a Pie Town experience poetically: “In a world where reality trumps frivolity, it’s an escape into the possibility of a magical realm, a place where for the brief time of a roadside stop, life can be a whimsical experience.” His article “Meet Pie Town, New Mexico’s Tastiest Stop” chronicles Pie Town: The Film, an Alec Baldwin narrated documentary introducing, but not centering around, Kathy Knapp, Pie Town’s fabled Pie Lady.

A list of the World’s Best Cities for Food would certainly include such paragons of culinary excellence as New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and so on. That’s to be expected. Perhaps not as expected is the inclusion of Santa Fe, New Mexico as one of the top ten cities for food in the United States. Travel & Leisure magazine readers, a savvy, worldly bunch listed the City Different alongside some of the aforementioned cities when it comes to great food. “For a small city,” said one T+L reader about Santa Fe, “the restaurant and food selections are outstanding.” Others raved about the unique, regional dishes like carne adovada: braised pork featuring local meat, dried red New Mexican chilies, and Mexican oregano.”

Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries, an Onion Ring and Vanilla Pudding From Rex’s Hamburgers in Albuquerque

Delish, one the top 10 food-related destinations online, “rounded up the top-rated burger shop in each state.” While similar lists have named such denizens of deliciousness as Santa Fe Bite and LotaBurger as the best the Land of Enchantment has to offer, Delish dared differ from the usual suspects. Delish’s choice is Holy Cow, an Albuquerque burger institution since 2011. Holy Cow’s best bet, according to Delish, are the “Holy Cow, Mushroom & Swiss and Blue Cheese Burgers.” So for those of us who can’t conceive of a great burger being constructed without New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile, Holy Cow is telling us otherwise.

It was once said that “seventy-percent of the Earth is covered in water, the rest is covered by the Associated Press.” Because I can’t cover the entirety of the Land of Enchantment by myself, I’ve asked Melodie Kenniebrew for help. A New York City transplant to New Mexico now living in Las Cruces, Melodie publishes the delightful blog “Melodie K” in which she chronicles her travel and culinary adventures, employing a very warm and endearing style that makes it obvious she loves her new home. Melodie has agreed to keep her ear to the ground for news-worthy culinary events throughout Southern New Mexico. She’ll be sharing her findings with readers of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog. Her first update (below) explains how a small-town pizzeria has been invited to a prestigious culinary competition involving restaurants from across the country. You can find a link to Melodie’s bog on my blogroll.

Stir-Fried Noodles with Shrimp and Vegetables from Le Bistro Bakery & Vietnamese Cuisine in Albuquerque (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

Forghedaboudit, a Deming restaurant specializing in New York Italian-style food, is off to represent New Mexico this Labor Day weekend at the National Buffalo Wing Festival in ~ where else? ~ Buffalo, New York. Owner and native New Yorker Bob Yacone will be offering both sauced and dry-rub wings in 6 flavors, including red and green chile, to compete with the best of the best in the world for chicken wings. Restaurants attend the festival by-invitation-only and Forghedaboudit is the first in New Mexico to be invited since the festival began in 2002. The annual event regularly draws thousands of chicken wing aficionados from all over the world.

July, 2016

La Gobernadora Burger from Pasion Latin Fusion in Albuquerque

As oft chronicled in monthly “Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food” updates, the Land of Enchantment receives a lot of praise from national publications. Almost invariably they tout our incomparably delicious red an green chile–usually to the exclusion of all the other wonderful cuisine available in New Mexico. In a riveting piece for New Mexico Magazine, scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison invites readers to take a “delightful detour from the norm” and “check out some of the savvy immigrant restaurateurs serving the dishes of their homelands in the Land of Enchantment.” Her NM’s Wide World of Forks article showcases dining diversity at such paragons of deliciousness as Albuquerque’s Ajiaco Colombian Bistro, Pad Thai Cafe and Budai Gourmet Chinese. Because international fare and flavors aren’t exclusive to Albuquerque, she also profiled restaurants in Santa Fe, Gallup and Las Cruces.

A Thrillist feature naming the “best food city in every US state” is bound to invite controversy, if not outright civil war. It takes a lot of gumption, for example, to declare San Francisco a better food city than Los Angeles, to pronounce Kansas City cuisine as superior to St. Louis culinary fare and to rank Pittsburgh’s culinary landscape over Philadelphia’s. Thrillist was clearly divided in selecting the Land of Enchantment’s best food city. “It pains us physically, in our hearts and souls, not to choose Albuquerque for this honor,” the writer declared, however, “Santa Fe has just too much good stuff to be ignored, and a lot of it has to do with green chile.” Citing such green chile apotheoses as the Santa Fe Bite and Horseman’s Haven, Thrillist also noted that the City Different boasts also of “standout American cuisine.”

The Provencale Sandwich from La Quiche Parisienne in Albuquerque

From 1994 to 2014, the number of farmers markets across the fruited plain increased almost fivefold making them a viable alternative to the behemoth supermarkets brimming with food from corporate farms. Today, virtually every city or town has a market area where farm fresh isn’t just an ethereal concept. America Unraveled, self-professed as the “best place online to discover the greatest destinations in the USA” ranked its five favorite farmers’ markets across the country. The number one Farmers’ Market in America, according to America Unraveled, is Santa Fe’s Farmers’ Market, but it isn’t regarded as highly because of its products or location, but because of “the philosophy behind the existence of this market.” “The organizers and participants believe that everyone, independent of their economic status, should have access to fresh, locally grown agricultural products that are nutritious and taste better than the goods that are shipped thousands of miles to grocery stores.” It’s number one in our hearts, too.

No one has eaten America and chronicled its culinary landscape better than Jane and Michael Stern, the trusted, trailblazing restaurant guidebook authors who founded the Roadfood franchise. The Sterns recently assembled a roster of must-eat, iconic dishes they’ve discovered throughout their four decades plus of road-tripping. It stands to reason that New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger would make that list and that Santa Fe Bite (arguably) the state’s best exemplar of that bodacious burger would be listed as the paragon purveyor. The Sterns described it thusly: “It (the green chile cheeseburger) finds its apotheosis at Santa Fe Bite, where 10 ounces of freshly ground chuck and sirloin are cooked to your specs, smothered with vibrant green Mesilla Valley chilies and melted cheese, and piled into a fluffy-crumbed, house-baked bun. It may not adhere to food-pyramid proportions, but this big, ovoid masterpiece delivers bread, meat, vegetable, and dairy in lip-smacking balance.”

Flowers in Bloom at the Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque in Albuquerque

Refinery 29, “the fastest growing independent fashion and style website in the United States” recently told its readers where to go. On vacation that is. Albuquerque was named in a feature listing “10 Up and Coming U.S. Cities to Visit Now.” Predictably, the feature gave a perfunctory nod to Breaking Bad as well as to our legendary red and green chile: “Albuquerque may still be synonymous with Breaking Bad, but it is sorely underrated as a destination on its own terms. Though its culinary reputation is dominated by green and red chiles, Albuquerque is also home to a surprisingly healthy wine and beer scene: It has a higher concentration of breweries per capita than even Portland, Oregon.”

The Exception Magazine, the self-glossed “favorite news source for the world’s most inspiring and innovative people, places and ideas” has identified “10 Popular Restaurants with the Most Creative Chefs of Albuquerque, New Mexico.” Acknowledging that Albuquerque is “stuffed with appetizing restaurants,” Exception listed some of the most exceptional. Anointed restaurants include Magokoro, B2B Bistronomy, Ajiaco Colombian Bistro, The Cellar and Ben Michael‘s, all showcased on this blog.

June, 2016

My good food friends Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Larry McGoldrick, the Professor with the Perspicacious Palate at Limonata in Albuquerque

Ruben Hendrickson was my best friend! That’s a claim dozens of Ruben’s friends can make because that’s precisely how Ruben made us all feel. Ruben had the rare gift of being truly present and fully attentive in every conversation he shared with his friends and family. On Friday, June 3rd, we bid our final good byes to my friend–one of the kindest, most humble and giving people I’ve ever been blessed to know. Ruben was taken from us all too soon. He would have turned 59 on August 3rd. Ruben and I were brought together by our shared love of food, but became friends because of our love of family. We traveled the Rio Grande corridor together–from Hatch to Chimayo–in pursuit of the best carne adovada in New Mexico. Carne adovada was just one of his passions (hence the frequent references to my “adovada adoring amigo” on the blog). So were barbecue and craft beer. Ruben didn’t just sit back and passively enjoy the things he loved. He pursued them vigorously and meticulously, becoming an excellent cook (only Mary & Tito’s, his favorite, makes a better carne adovada) and brewer. He lived and loved life with a similar passion…and we sure loved him. Godspeed, my friend.

Shortly after the Breaking Bad episode aired in which a waiter at Garduno’s (great name for a restaurant) kept trying to hawk the restaurant’s table-side guacamole at inopportune times, sales of the guacamole saw a significant increase with some 35-percent of customers ordering it. Most customers cited the episode as the reason for ordering the guacamole. Some tourists visit the restaurant to have their photos taken at the table in which the Whites and Schraeders could have shared in the most awkard guacamole in television history. Perhaps table tensions would have been allayed had they ordered the guacamole which tabelog ranked as the fifth best guacamole in America. According to Tabelog, “Quality ingredients and customer service are the main focus, and this shines through in the guacamole. Prepared table-side and from fresh ingredients, Garduno’s does the classic guacamole in a memorable way.

Sopaipillas and Tortillas from the El Comal Cafe in Santa Fe

At the risk of introducing an irritating earworm, who can ever forget the Dr. Pepper jingle “Dr. Pepper, so misunderstood. It tastes different and millions of people love the difference of Dr. Pepper. So misunderstood.” As with Dr. Pepper, different can be good. So says Thrillist which compiled a list of America’s 13 most misunderstood cities, cities “that are way cooler than anyone gives them credit for.” Topping the list (only because it was in alphabetical order) is Albuquerque, described as “the perfect place to start your meth empire if you’re a science teacher.” Thrillist conceded that the Duke City’s food scene has plenty to offer, citing Los Poblanos as “a tiny reservation/inn worth snagging a scarce reservation. The feature also indicated “you’d also be remiss not to eat some green chile while you’re in town, and El Pinto’s enormous-but-always-full restaurant (get the red chile ribs and one of the strong margaritas) does the trick. And for an evening in extremes, eat dinner at the upscale, seasonal NM-cuisine spot Farm & Table.

Try dining al fresco in Phoenix, Tucson or even El Paso and you risk being as cooked as your meal (or at least feeling that way). For dining in the great outdoors anywhere across the Southwest, you can’t beat Albuquerque whose moderate climates (and especially its cool evenings) make it an ideal milieu for luxuriating under the shade of a tall tree or patio’s canopy. In compiling its list of the 100 best al fresco dining restaurants in America for 2016, Opentable.com considered the opinion of more than five-million restaurant reviews submitted by verified Open Table diners for more than 20,000 restaurants across the fruited plain. Only two restaurants in New Mexico made the list: Farm & Table in Albuquerque and Indigo Crow in Corrales.

Ground Beef Enchiladas from The Frontier in Albuquerque

Travel & Leisure acknowledges that even “fast food chains are hawking the farm-to-table trend” which leaves consumers feeling that “every restaurant is green to some degree.” Still, within the true farm-to-table movement, there are some restaurants which “stand out from the pack by not only creating exciting innovative cuisine with a locally sourced menu, but also by applying that same eco-minded culinary philosophy to every aspect of the operation.” Travel & Leisure consulted with experts across the fruited plain to uncover the best eco-friendly restaurant in every state. New Mexico was well-represented by La Merienda at the Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic farm. La Merienda was described as “a green oasis that pays homage to the pioneering farm-to-table roots of pueblo cuisine. Everything on the menu—from the micro greens to the bacon to the honey and jujubes—is sourced on-site.”

In 2008, America was introduced to Dennis Apodaca, the pioneering chef at Eli’s Place (formerly known as Sophia’s Place) when Dennis wowed Food Network Star Guy Fieri during an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Eight years later, Dennis will make his second Food Network appearance, this time in an episode of Chopped, a program which challenges four chefs to create dishes out of mystery ingredients. The winner gets $10,000, but more importantly, an opportunity to showcase culinary talents across the country. The show will be taped in August and will air later this fall.

Cherry Tart and Almond Tart from Chez Mamou in Santa Fe

The term “underrated” has connotations of being underestimated or being rated or valued too low. Perhaps it’s because the Land of Enchantment tends to rank with Mississippi and Arkansas on the bottom end of many quality-of-life ratings, New Mexicans feel our beloved state is underrated even when we’re ranked near the top. Despite those quality-of-life ratings, we believe we’re number one in everything. In its Lifestyle section, MSN published its list of the most underrated restaurant in every state. “Whether it’s because of the understated appearance, hidden location or lack of publicity, these restaurants serve great food and everyone should know it.” New Mexico’s most underrated restaurant is Albuquerque’s Dog House. According to MSN “ What the Dog House may lack in ambiance they make up for in the taste of their chili dogs. Breaking Bad even used the Dog House as a filming location.” To really understand the Dog, House, you’ve got to read the assessment penned by Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos on my review.

“Land of the Free, Home of the Heavy.” That’s how Thrillist subtitles its feature “The Best States to Get Fat In.” You would think—considering the Land of Enchantment has the best food in the world—that we would top this list, however, perhaps because we’re a fitness-minded citizenry, New Mexico ranked only 31st. According to Thrillist “The greatest trick New Mexico ever pulled was convincing the world that if you douse everything in green chile it basically counts as eating your vegetables, even if said “everything” happens to primarily involve various meats, tortillas, and melted cheeses. For real, it’s a great trick.” There’s no trick to it. Green (and red) chile makes everything taste better!

Pizza Slice Masterpieces from DaVinci’s Gourmet Pizza in Albuquerque

Who can ever forget Homer Simpson’s bucket list? Predictably it consisted of a bucket of fried chicken, a bucket of shrimp, a bucket of tartar sauce, a bucket of chili and a bucket of popcorn all washed down with a bucket of cholesterol medicine. As with most gourmands, Homer’s bucket list was replete with culinary options. Thrillist compiled its Great American Bucket List: 50 Restaurants to Try Before You Die, listing restaurants whose “overall experience — yes, the food, but not just the food — is so spectacular in its singularity that it’s worthy of telling others to seek out before they kick the bucket.” The Land of Enchantment’s sole representative is Bernalillo’s iconic The Range Cafe which Thrillist described thusly: “When it comes to green chile options, this cafe does, in fact, have range. It also has “ranges,” as in the nickname for the vibrant, vintage toy stoves that adorn the walls.”

Purewow.com, an online presence “dedicated to finding ways to make your life more interesting, beautiful and manageable” compiled a list of “the most iconic restaurants in every single U.S. state,” ostensibly the restaurants which “have emerged as the ultimate representation of each and every state.” New Mexico’s representative was Santa Fe’s Cafe Pasqual. Purewow’s synopsis: “Since 1979, visitors have lined up outside Café Pasqual’s turquoise door for New Mexican classics with an inventive twist. (Think: green chili burgers and huevos barbacoa.) The colorful restaurant also houses an art gallery on the second floor.” Green chili burgers? Unless Texans have started dying their “chili” green, there’s no such animal!

May, 2016

Tempura Cheesecake from Naruto in Albuquerque

Brunch–it’s the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both. It’s a leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something, as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree. More than five million verified OpenTable diner reviews of more than 20,000 restaurants across the nation were used in the compilation of the 100 Best Brunch Restaurants in America for 2016. Surprisingly the only restaurant in New Mexico making the list is the Duke City’s own Farm & Table. Going strong since 2012, Farm & Table is a veritable oasis of green amidst Albuquerque’s earth-tone and concrete modernity. With an enviable balance of sweet and savory deliciousness, its brunch options are bountiful and beauteous.

Readers of USA Today and 10Best were given the opportunity to select the very best of the best from among so many outstanding green chile cheeseburgers throughout the Land of Enchantment. A panel of experts picked the initial 20 nominees, and the top 10 winners were determined by popular vote. That popular vote determined Blake’s Lotaburger is the best green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the final results is that the voting was not dominated by purveyors of New Mexico’s sacrosanct burger in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Duke City’s sole representative was the Owl Cafe, a presence in San Antonio since the 1940s. The Owl Cafe was runner-up to Lotaburger. Santa Fe was well represented by Santa Fe Bite in eighth place.

A half-pound of brisket from Pepper’s Bar-B-Q & Soul Food in Albuquerque

Travel & Leisure took the pulse of its readers to compile a list of America’s Favorite Cities. Thanks in large part to a vibrant culinary scene, the Duke City was rated sixth. Here’s what Travel & Leisure had to say: “Readers rated Albuquerque especially well for its bakeries, such as Golden Crown Panaderia, where the loaves of the signature New Mexico Green Chile Bread are decorated with howling coyotes. But since man does not live on green-chile bread alone, Albuquerque also scored well for local beer (like the wildflower wheat at downtown’s Marble Brewery) and diners. For the latter, the Standard Diner offers comfort food such as bacon-wrapped meatloaf and country-friend ahi tuna. Readers also applauded the city for feeling like a good value.”

Travel & Leisure didn’t define how it distinguishes between a city and a town, but for Santa Fe it probably wouldn’t matter. The City Different is beloved regardless of classification. In its 2016 compilation of America’s Favorite Towns, Santa Fe ranked third. As is often the case, the city…er, town’s burgeoning culinary scene is just one of many reasons it’s held in such esteem. According to Travel & Leisure, “It also ranked well for history—like its San Miguel Chapel, the nation’s oldest church, and even its restaurants, like Geronimo, set in an adobe home that dates to 1756. Its lounge offers the opportunity to try the city’s most famous local crop in a creative way: the Norteño margarita is made with Hatch-green-chile-infused tequila, then shaken with an orange liqueur. After a few, you might see why the city also got high marks for its peaceful vibes.”

Sauce Katusu from Magokoro in Albuquerque

“Barbecue festival season kicks off in the spring, with celebrations, cook-offs and competitions held all over the USA until late fall. In general, the barbecue teams and cooks that participate in these festivals pay homage to Memphis-, Texas-, St. Louis-, Kansas City- and Carolina-style barbecue, experimenting with spice rubs, slathering meats with thick, sweet sauces, or dressing shredded tendrils of pork with a tart vinegar-based dip.” USA Today included a New Mexico standard among the best cue-fests in the fruited plain: “The Pork & Brew BBQ State Championship is a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event in Rio Rancho, N.M. The three-day festival features top barbecue vendors, offerings from local microbreweries, live music and interactive family activities. General admission is $6 for adults and $4 for kids. The winning barbecue teams can go on to participate in larger national competitions.” The Pork & Brew is an annual tradition for me and my friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell, all of us certified Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) judges and barbecue aficionados.

Mental Floss, “the international media brand that gives smart, curious knowledge junkies their fix with upbeat, witty explorations of everything from science to pop culture to tech to history” compiled its list of the best burger in all 50 states. The Land of Enchantment’s representative is no surprise considering it’s graced similar lists for years. Mental Floss lavished praise on San Antonio’s Buckhorn Tavern, saying “Food experts across the country continuously name Buckhorn Tavern’s Green Chile Cheeseburger one of the best burgers in the U.S. The small, family owned Buckhorn Tavern is so popular that many visitors actually plan their trips around this burger hot spot.

Watermelon Shake from The Owl Cafe in Albuquerque

Americans seem to love lists and often seem willing to forgive list-makers when less than completely accurate choices are made. It’s all in good fun save for those of us who want the world to know there’s a difference between the cuisines of Old Mexico and New Mexico. The most recent culprit in committing this geographic faux pas is Tabelog, a “dynamic, interactive environment where users can come together over a shared passion for fine dining.” In its “10 best Mexican Restaurants in America,” Tabelog listed Santa Fe’s The Shed restaurant as America’s second best pantheon for Mexican cuisine, all-the-while indicating “Rooted in Northern New Mexico cuisine and hospitality, The Shed has been around since 1953.” Perhaps the most offensive statement for New Mexicans was “Any true lover of Mexican cuisine must make a point to hit this spot for an amazing experience.” While the experience will certainly be amazing, it won’t be Mexican.

Pardon my gratuitous self aggrandizing here, but I was tickled pink to read Kitson Harvey’s shout-out to “some of my favorite local bloggers, not on Duke City Fix.” Here’s what the brilliant Kitson wrote about your favorite sesquipedalian sybarite. “Gil Garduño @ Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog. This is THE Albuquerque food blog. This past week he made a return trip to Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho and, along with his new review, includes the text of his past reviews so we can see whether/if his opinions have changed over time. This blog is a major resource for local eaters, and I love his reason for not including wine pairings (check the FAQs for the answer).” Right back atcha, Kitson. I’ve been a huge fan for years.

April, 2016

The Cubano from Alicea’s Bagels & Subs in Rio Rancho

It’s no April Fool’s Day joke. On April 1st, LotaBurger launched its very first Arizona location, expanding its burger empire to three states (in 2004, Lotaburger debuted in El Paso, Texas). Tucson’s burger aficionados will quickly discover why the 2006 edition of National Geographic’s Passport to the Best: The 10 Best of Everything book, declared LotaBurger serves the “Best Green Chile Cheeseburger in the World“. Going strong for well over six decades, LotaBurger was a New Mexico only institution for all but the past 62 years, but not appears poised to conquer new culinary horizons.

It’s been oft said by chefs that “you eat with your eyes first. Although the senses of taste, smell, and vision are distinct, visual stimuli have been shown to alter your perception of those senses. Tabelog, an “online community for foodies by foodies,” compiled a list of America’s 13 most scenic restaurants, eateries boasting of amazing panoramas from every angle. New Mexico’s sole honoree is the High Finance Restaurant at the top of the Sandia Peak Tramway. According to Tabelog, “With enormous views of the Rio Grande Valley and the Land of Enchantment, High Finance Restaurant offers one of the most unique scenic meals in the country.”

Wings with Buffalo Garlic Sauce from Bucket Headz in Albuquerque

Over the years there have been a number of national online presences purporting some level of expertise about New Mexican cuisine. They publish “best of” features that leave locals asking “huh” and “why was this restaurant selected?”. At other times those “best of” features show a level of savvy that surprises locals. Such was the case when Spoon University, “the everyday food resource for our generation, on a mission to make food make sense” selected the cheeseburger from Burger Boy in Cedar Crest as the Land of Enchantment’s best. Spoon University’s “best burger from every state” feature indicated “Although they offer a few different burgers for a cheap price, most choose the classic cheeseburger, which also comes with fries.” Most New Mexicans we know order their burger with green chile.

What type of restaurant might be named to MSN’s 50 best restaurants in America list? You’re probably thinking it’s some posh fine-dining establishment featuring nouveau French cuisine. “Best,” as we all know is a subjective term subject to individual interpretation. MSN’s list showed some out-of-the-box thinking in naming Albuquerque’s Guava Tree Cafe as the 31st best restaurant in the fruited plain. According to MSN, “this little restaurant has great Caribbean and Latin American-inspired food. With many Cuban type sandwiches and avocados in most of their food, this place definitely has the delicious lunch thing down.”

Toritos from Mariscos Mazatlan in Rio Rancho

Innovative chefs ply their trade all across the fruited plain with some of the very best working across the southwest. Dorado, an online magazine which “celebrates the rugged and eclectic spirit of the Four Corners region” compiled a list of “seven Southwest chefs we love.” New Mexican chefs which made the list included Rob Connoley, the James Beard award-nominated forager from Curious Kumquat in Silver City; Ahmed Obo, the Kenya native who fuses traditional Kenyan dishes with Caribbean flavors at Jambo; and Erin Wade, who’s made really big salads really delicious in Vinaigrette which has a presence in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Thrillist, the online presence “obsessed with everything that’s worth caring about in food, drink” compiled a “state-by-state ode to the edible (and drinkable!) dynamos that have literally changed the shape of America (because we’re fatter now). In its “Every State’s Most Important Food Innovation” feature, Thrillist declared (what else) green chile as New Mexico’s choice. According to Thrillist, “Chiles only came to the region post-Columbus, and the chiles you so enjoy today are the results of painstaking research in the early 20th century at New Mexico State University meant to isolate varieties that would thrive in the arid climate there.”

Blueberry Muffin from Desert Grows in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

Perhaps if our options consisted solely of green chile and pinto beans, more of us might endeavor to become vegetarians. Fortunately for vegetarians, there are many other delicious meat-free choices across the Land of Enchantment…so many that CNN Traveler named Santa Fe as one of the “15 best U.S. cities for vegetarians.” Traveler noted that “like the town itself, Santa Fe’s vegetarian-friendly restaurants offer a number of ways to get out of your comfort zone. Try a fix of the famed local staple, green chile, in a tamale at Cafe Pasqual’s or wrapped in a crispy dosa at the innovative South Indian restaurant Paper Dosa.

Although the Cooking Channel doesn’t grace my cable subscription package, I find comfort in knowing Founding Friends of Gil (FOG) member Jim Millington was able to watch the channel’s “Cheap Eats” show when it featured host Ali Khan visiting beautiful, sunny Albuquerque. Jim reports that “the show is pretty much like Rachael Ray’s old Twenty Dollar a Day show except that Ali lacks Rachael’s cuteness and he has $35. His first stop was at the Tia B’s La Waffleria for vegan waffles which he found to be wonderful. Next stop was the Route 66 Pit Stop for the famous green chile cheeseburger which knocked his socks off. Third was Rebel Donuts. He didn’t even get a donut shaped one. It was long, stuffed and topped with bacon. Papa Felipe’s introduced him to the amazement of carne adovada stuffed in a sopaipilla.” Thank you, Jim.

March, 2016

Polish/German Platter from the Red Rock Deli in Albuquerque

Hollywood has discovered one of New Mexico’s most enchanting qualities. It’s the state’s chameleon-like ability to transform itself to virtually any location movie producers wish to portray. Thanks to its preternaturally diverse topography, various locations throughout the Land of Enchantment have been featured in more than 600 productions over the years, touching virtually every corner of the state. In many instances, New Mexico doubles as some far-away exotic locale and not necessarily within the surly bounds of Earth. The filming location for the 2016 movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot may have been Albuquerque, but it’s a Duke City many of us won’t recognize. Stretching its acting chops, Albuquerque portrayed Afghanistan in the movie. During an appearance on the Tonight Show, starring actress Tina Fay explained “New Mexico looks a lot like Afghanistan, weirdly, but with really good burgers with green chiles.” You won’t find green chile cheeseburgers in Afghanistan.

Speaking of doubling for something else, several years ago Rebel Donut gained tremendous notoriety for creating a donut mimicking the potent crystal blue meth made famous by AMC’s Breaking Bad series. More recently, Rebel Donut was honored on Food Network Magazine as one of a dozen “best in dough,” an honor bestowed upon fun donuts. The honoree is Rebel Donut’s pina colada donut, a vanilla cake donut dipped in coconut rum glaze then raw coconut with buttercream frosting. Unlike the Breaking Bad donut which has no actual blue meth, there is actual real rum in the pina colada donut. It’s one in a small line of adult donuts though it can be made “virgin” as well.

Corn from Delicias Cafe in Albuquerque

There are dozens of annual sweets and dessert festivals across the fruited plain. USA Today honored just a handful of the most popular, inviting readers to “sweets festivals worth traveling to indulge in.” One of the festivals garnering a mention is Albuquerque’s own Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest in March. “The festival features both baking and eating contests, welcoming all ages and skill levels.” More than 120 vendors and 17,000 festival-goers attend” the event according to USA Today.

How many times have you heard it said “only in New Mexico.” Frankly, every state has unique features, landmarks, personalities and quirks that set it apart from other states. Recognizing the uniqueness of each state is the goal of OnlyInYourState.com, an online presence which takes a fun, informal approach to helping readers discover things to do in each of the 50 states. Anyone can write about New Mexico’s enchanting enchiladas and bounteous burritos. OnlyInYourState dares to point out “13 Pizza Places in New Mexico So Good Your Mouth May Explode.” Interestingly, you have to go all the way down to number six before a pizza from Albuquerque is even mentioned. According to the writer, the five best pizzas in New Mexico are the Rooftop Pizzeria in Santa Fe, J.C.’s Pizza Department in Las Vegas (with a branch in Albuquerque), The Pizza Barn in Edgewood, Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana in Las Cruces and Forghedaboudit in Deming. How many of us even know these pizza places exist?

Chicken Fried Steak from City Lights in Albuquerque

“Santa Fe’s small, intimate and upscale dining scene provides ample restaurants with hushed lighting, tranquil outdoor seating and a unique fold of Southwestern, American and French cuisines.” Foodandwine.com invited its readers to reserve a table or two at the most romantic restaurants in Santa Fe. The list includes Eloisa, the James Beard award-nominated restaurant from chef John Rivera Sedlar; Izanami, the traditional Japanese izakaya restaurant; Luminaria, where lantern-lit courtyard dining awaits; The Anasazi, a rustic-chick restaurant melding Southwestern and Latin influences; and Santacafe, with its Georgia O’Keefe inspired dining room. Romance is definitely in the air at these restaurants.

22 Words, an online presence which purports to be “your source for the crazy, curious, and comical side of the Web” and offers “funny and fascinating viral content as well as more obscure (but equally interesting) pictures, videos and more” put together its list of the “BEST things to Eat in Every State.” It’s a no-brainer to declare the best thing to eat in New Mexico: “When chili peppers are one of the state vegetables, it’s a given that you’re known for producing fresh, hot chili-based sauces that are poured on everything from eggs to burritos to burgers.” Spelling “chile” as our neighbors in Texas do just takes something away from the credibility of this otherwise interesting feature.

Chiles Rellenos from Tenampa in Albuquerque

When it comes to perpetuating a successful franchise, Pizza 9 is a ten. Franchise Business Review named the burgeoning enterprise among its “best of the best,” one of the top 200 franchises in America for 2016. As one of only 38 franchises in the food and beverage segment to be honored, Pizza 9 has experienced substantial growth since launching its inaugural store in 2008. Today, the company boasts of more than 20 locations in the Land of Enchantment and Texas with other locations being planned. While the name on the marquee pegs it as a pizza restaurant, Pizza 9 is also one of only a handful of restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment to offer Italian beef sandwiches, a Chicago area staple.

Zap2it, an online movie and television information network , interviewed cast and creators of AMC’s “Better Call Saul” to find out what restaurants in the Land of Enchantment they frequent. Bob Odenkirk (Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman) and Michael Nando (Nacho) enjoy Farina Pizzeria in Albuquerque. Producer Vince Gilligan favors Santa Fe’s Geronimo while Patrick Fabian (Howard Hamlin) is a fan of Los Compadres . Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler) enjoys the food and ambiance at Los Poblanos Farms. Interestingly, none mentioned restaurants such as Loyola’s, Sai Gon Sandwich and Taco Sal which have made cameo appearances in the series.

Hass Aslami, founder of franchise powerhouse Pizza 9

On March 22nd, the Travel Channel debuted its Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations episode showcasing Albuquerque. Instead of highlighting the weirdly wonderful aspects of dining in the Duke City, the show focused on the unique foods Zimmern believes define Albuquerque. Understandably that means chile, both red and green. At the Church Street Cafe, Zimmern touted the stacked green chile enchiladas. For green chile cheeseburgers, Zimmern visited The Owl Cafe on Eubank, explaining this satellite location uses the recipes and preparation techniques of the San Antonio Owl Cafe which originated green chile cheeseburgers. For the most intense, rich and smoking hot red chile, Zimmern recommended Mary & Tito’s Cafe, a James Beard Award-Winning restaurant where carne adovada is a mainstay. Because not even New Mexicans can live on chile alone, Delicious Destinations visited The Pueblo Harvest Cafe for a Tewa taco and piñon rolls from Buffet’s.

February, 2016

Nutella and Banana Crepe from Boiler Monkey in Albuquerque

In January, Business Insider put together a list showcasing the best restaurant in every state. Paying particular attention to fine-dining establishments, Business Insider declared Santa Fe’s Geronimo as the best the Land of Enchantment has to offer. Less than a month later, restaurant review guide Zagat compiled a line-up called “50 States, 50 Steaks” which honored the definitive slab of succulent beef to be found in every state. New Mexico’s honoree was none other than the Tellicherry-Rubbed Elk Tenderloin at Geronimo. “Served atop roasted garlic fork-mashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, Applewood smoked bacon and creamy brandied-mushroom sauce,” the Elk Tenderloin is indeed divinely inspired, a transformative steak.

Shortly after Zagat’s affirmation of New Mexico’s premier steak, Geronimo’s uber-talented executive chef Eric DiStefano passed away unexpectedly. Tributes to the chef centered not as much on his greatness as a culinary virtuoso, but on what a kind and gentle soul he was. He was a man beloved in the community, a man who touched many lives as well as palates. My friend Billie Frank who knew him well wrote a very touching feature on Chef DiStefano on Santa Fe Travelers. Billie and I agreed that every apron in Santa Fe should be at half-mast. Godspeed Chef.

Fried Pickles from The Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille in Rio Rancho

It speaks to the remarkable consistency with which New Mexico’s very best chefs perform night in and night out that in 2016, the state’s five semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest are repeat honorees. To be named a semi-finalist is to be recognized as among the very best from among the elite. The level of competition throughout the Southwest (Arizona, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico) is extremely high. Semifinalists for Best Chef Southwest for 2016 include Jennifer James of Jennifer James 101 in Albuquerque, Martin Rios of Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe, Jonathan Perno of La Mierienda at Los Poblanos in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque and Andrew Cooper of Terra at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe. Eloisa, Chef John Sedlar’s tribute to his grandmother, was nominated for Best New Restaurant.

Rancho de Chimayo was announced as one of five recipients of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Rancho de Chimayo is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

Whoo’s Donuts, Homer Simpson’s Favorite Santa Fe Restaurant

No doh about it. Homer Simpson would drool over the Thrillist’s compilation of the best donut shops in America, thirty-three purveyors of confectionery excellence. Only one of the Land of Enchantment’s decorated domiciles of donut deliciousness made the list. Santa Fe’s Whoo’s Donuts were a revelation to Thrillist writers who described the blue-corn donut experience as “like eating a corn muffin that has been put into a culinary witness-protection program and comes out with a totally new identity, but is more delicious.” While the analogy may be a bit lame, Whoo’s Donuts are fantastic.

“Kiss me, I’m drunk.” While that quote may sound as if uttered by Richard Burton or Joe Namath, it’s how Buzzfeed subtitled its “Best Irish Bar in Every State” feature. Regardless of what the subtitle may or may not have implied, the feature acknowledged that “a good Irish bar isn’t just a bar. It’s home.” Buzzfeed consulted the good folks at Yelp for the top-rated Irish spots in every state. The Land of Enchantment is well represented by Albuquerque’s Two Fools Tavern where “the hardest part is deciding if you want the boxty, fish and chips or the bangers and mash.”

For the Love of Meat – Airing in Santa Fe on Wednesday, March 9th at 7PM. (Click Image for More Info)

Best in the country. It’s one thing to give yourself that title, it’s another to earn it. Chef Todzilla’s Mobile Cuisine, a Roswell food truck earned it! In a poll of the best food trucks in the fruited plain, Chef Todzillas garnered almost half the 4,700 votes cast while competing against food trucks in such cosmopolitan behemoths as Dallas and Las Vegas. Chef Todzilla prides itself on using fresh, local, never frozen ingredients and has a burger menu to be envied. The chorizo burger is reputed to be addictive.

On Wednesday, March 9th at 7PM, the Violet Crown Cinema in Santa Fe will screen a documentary on barbecue as it is incomparably prepared in Central Texas. Entitled “For the Love of Meat,” the documentary introduces some of the top barbecue pit-masters in Central Texas. This documentary comes with a warning: It will make you hungry for some brisket. Purchase your tickets here.

January, 2016

High Point Mac (Choice Center-Cut Steak and Green Chile) from The Point in Rio Rancho

Not since Adam and Eve have ribs been as oft-discussed as they are today.  Barbecue restaurants throughout the fruited plain strive for melt-in-your-mouth pork and beef ribs.  Ribs are the most popular of all barbecued meats, caveman cuisine at its very best.   In a program called Top 5 BBQ in America, the Food Network celebrated barbecue ribs in such barbecue hotbeds as Tennessee and North Carolina.  Admittedly Albuquerque isn’t the first place you think of for great ribs, but the Food Network fell in love with the red chile ribs from El Pinto, ranking them third in the country.  “The secret to their mouth-watering spicy ribs is a paste made of dried caribe chiles rubbed onto the meat and allowed to marinate for 24 hours.” 

“From new attractions and massive additions to quirky flavors, big birthdays and booze, 2016 promises to be a good year for the curious traveler.”  CNN compiled a list of 16 things to see and do in the U.S. in 2016.   Arguably the most delicious destination to be enjoyed this year is New Mexico’s very own Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  “With nearly 100 spots to sample, the Trail is a tasty way to add a little spice to your life this year.”  Among the purveyors of incomparable green chile cheeseburgers listed were Sparky’s in Hatch and 5 Star Burgers with locations in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos.

My friend Darren contemplates his meal at Magokoro

In December, 2015, you read on this blog that Zagat, a national online and print restaurant review medium, had selected as New Mexico’s very best dessert not something unique to the Land of Enchantment, but a bundt cake you can find at a chain with locations throughout the fruited plain.  Spoon University, the self-professed “everyday food resource for our generation, on a mission to make food make sense” made a lot more sense than Zagat, naming New Mexico’s best dessert as bizcochitos from the Golden Crown Panaderia.  Spoon described them as “sweet, cinnamony cookies” that became the “official state cookie almost 20 years ago” and “deserve to graduate onto the official dessert.” 

Business Insider didn’t limit itself to cookies, naming the best restaurant in every state.  Sifting through their own list of the best restaurants in America, James Beard Award nominations, expert reviews, and local recommendations, paying particular attention to fine-dining establishments, Business Insider declared Santa Fe’s Geronimo as the best in the Land of Enchantment.  “Noted for its impeccable service and complex dishes,” Geronimo “boasts a host of mouthwatering dishes.”

Wonton soup from Asian Pear

With almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine, coffee is next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe. The Huffington Post and Foursquare users compiled a list of the best places for coffee in every state across the fruited plain.  With cups touting them as “passionate about coffee,” the Land of Enchantment representative was Satellite Coffee, an Albuquerque presence with eight locations throughout the city. 

“Until recently, Tim Harris, of Albuquerque was the only restaurant owner in the country with Down syndrome. But what drives a restaurateur who has lived for his business to close up shop? A girl he loves more than anything.”  In a very touching report the CBS news show Sunday morning profiled Harris and his decision to close his popular restaurant Tim’s Place to move to Denver where he could be close to the love of his life.  When Tim launches his restaurant in Denver, it’s a sure bet the Mile High City will embrace him as warmly as the Duke City did.

Lobster Tater Tots from the Freight House in Bernalillo

Santa Fe Chef Marc Quiñones who plies his craft at Luminaria competed with four other chefs on the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a reality cooking show.  Cutthroat Kitchen features four chefs competing in a three-round elimination cooking competition. The contestants face auctions in which they can purchase opportunities to sabotage one another. Each chef is given $25,000 at the start of the show; the winner keeps whatever money he or she has not spent in the auctions.  While the talented chef didn’t win the competition, every guest at Luminaria is a winner when they get to partake of his culinary fare. 

For years, Santa Fe has been regarded as one of the nation’s premier tourist attractions as well as one of America’s best dining destinations.  This culinary Mecca hosted its inaugural Santa Fe Foodie Classic, highlighting classic flavor combinations as well as new techniques demonstrating the future of Southwestern cuisine.   Several events were held in which some of the city’s very best chefs showcased their talents over a three-day period.


For more than 35 years, the Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico has been serving the state’s hungry.  As the largest Food Bank in the state, it distributes more than 30 million pounds of food every year to a network of hundreds of partner agencies and four regional food banks.  Through that network, the Food Bank is helping 70,000 hungry people in our state weekly.  That’s the equivalent to feeding a city the size of Santa Fe every single week. Every January, the Food Bank hosts the Souper Bowl, its largest fundraiser, an event in which restaurants across the metropolitan area prepare and serve their tastiest soups to hundreds of people and several hungry judges who get to weigh in on their favorites.  This year’s winners were: 

People’s Choice Winners – Soup
1st Place and Souper Bowl Champion: Artichoke Café for their Butternut Squash and Coffee Soup; 2nd PlaceSoupDog for New Mexico meets New Orleans Gumbo; 3rd Place: Bocadillos Café and Catering for New Mexico Clam Chowder

Critics’ Choice Winners – Soup
1st Place: Zinc Bistro and Wine Bar for Roasted Chicken and Red Chile Dumpling Soup; 2nd Place: Bien Shur at Sandia Resort and Casino for Fire Roasted Poblano Cream Soup with Corn and Crawfish Salsa; 3rd Place: The Ranchers Club of New Mexico for Bison Posole

People’s Choice Winners – Vegetarian Soup
1st Place: Street Food Asia for Malay Curry PPP Chowder; 2nd Place: Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza for Vegetable Minestrone; 3rd Place: Turtle Mountain Brewing Company for Green Chile Cheddar Ale soup

People’s Choice – Dessert

1st Place: Nothing Bundt Cakes for Bundtinis; 2nd Place: Theobroma Chocolatier for Assorted Chocolates; 3rd Place: Gardunos Restaurants for Biscochito Flan

People’s Choice – Booth Winner: Bien Shur Restaurant

On the same weekend, The Food Depot in Santa Fe holds its own Souper Bowl event. This year more than 1,200 people enjoyed the best soups some 28 restaurant chefs across the City Different had to serve.  Winners of the 2016 event were:

Best Cream: Rio Chama
Best Savory: Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe
Best Seafood: Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen
Best Vegetarian: Paper Dosa
Best Overall Soup: Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen

Eli’s Place (formerly Sophia’s Place) – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dennis and the lovely Sophia at the viewing of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode featuring his outstanding restaurant

Dennis and his daughter, the lovely Sophia at the viewing of the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode featuring his outstanding restaurant (Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Picture yourself as a first-year marketing student assigned by your professor to perform a marketing analysis of Eli’s Place and its enigmatic chef-owner Dennis Apodaca.  Essentially you’ve got to figure out the rhyme and reason behind the restaurant’s success.  “Easy assignment,” you think to yourself, “Eli’s Place is successful because it serves some of the best, most delicious food in Albuquerque.”  Your research quickly reveals, however, that Eli’s Place actually violates many of the time-honored, trusted and fundamental marketing tenets of growing and successful businesses.  From a marketing perspective, it just shouldn’t work as well as it does. 

Any Marketing 101 student can tell you, for example, the importance of brand identity.  A brand is one of the most valuable and important assets of a restaurant. It needs to be carefully cultivated to ensure it properly and authentically reflects the values, attributes and passions of a business.  Eli’s Place received an enormous boost to its brand identity in 2008 when the Food Network came calling.  Being featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is generally worth a fortune to any restaurant.  So what does Dennis Apodaca do?  In 2015, he renamed his restaurant, eschewing the well-established and nationally known brand name Sophia’s Place in favor of Eli’s Place.

Eli’s Place may not be as visually appealing as other restaurants, but it serves beautiful food

Then there’s the restaurant itself.  From an esthetic perspective, it isn’t nearly as inviting and attractive as those modern venues with their pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains.  It’s virtually homely.  Heck, it doesn’t even have a sign telling you you’ve arrived at your destination.  The parking lot can get muddy during inclement weather which can sometimes render the outdoor patio useless.  Step inside the Lilliputian edifice and during peak hours, you’ll be challenged to find a seat.  It just doesn’t make sense that Eli’s Place works as well as it does.

The main reason for its success, of course, is gifted proprietor and chef Dennis Apodaca, an accomplished restaurateur despite (or maybe in spite of) not following a tried-and-true template. Sure, he may be an enigma to any marketing student, but to savvy diners he’s one of the very best chefs in New Mexico.  Dennis has a very impressive pedigree that includes stints at some of the best restaurants in San Francisco and Santa Fe, having worked for several world-famous, cutting-edge chefs in some of America’s most renown restaurants.  Those include Mark Miller, the high priest of modern Southwest cuisine and founder of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the pioneering Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, the original California cuisine (focusing exclusively on organic, locally produced foods in season) restaurant in Berkeley, California.

The interior of Eli’s Place. Note the poster signed by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri

Apprenticing under luminary chefs may make apparent the genesis of some of his culinary influences, but it’s also obvious that Dennis loves his craft and plies it with enthusiasm and style.  I heard him speak once of his annual pilgrimages to New York and of dining at such restaurants as Katz’s, a Manhattan deli I hold in reverential esteem. Like most great chefs, he is always in pursuit of new ideas and techniques.  Dennis launched the restaurant he named for his then eight-year-old daughter Sophia on December 3rd, 2002 (and which he renamed for Sophia’s own son in 2015).  It’s situated at the former site of the once very popular, but now defunct Fajitaville, a restaurant at which he served as chef before launching his own operation. As popular as it was, you don’t hear many former Fajitaville patrons lament the change. That’s because they’ve been completely won over by Apodaca’s inventive, eclectic and funky menu–a menu that includes a range of sophisticated salads and soups, extraordinary sandwiches and lots of pleasant surprises.

Dennis is also a stickler for using fine ingredients, many of which are flown in and delivered daily to his charming North Valley restaurant. He insists on the preparation of each meal to order; you won’t find anything sitting under a heating lamp here.  You also won’t find a freezer in the premises.  Dennis believes in ultra-fresh. His menu is replete with specials of the day which change frequently, usually crafted from fresh ingredients he procures from the farmer’s markets.  Eli’s also does not have an oven or burners, just two grills, but sheer magic is created on those grills.

Chips and salsa at Eli’s

On August 25th, 2008 the Food Network’s Guy Fieri taped a segment at Sophia’s for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program.  On a signed poster which hangs on one of the restaurant’s walls, Fieri wrote “little place, huge flavors.”  That pretty much says it all, not that Fieri didn’t say quite a bit more about Sophia’s.  After that segment aired on Monday, November 24th, 2008 getting a seat at this fabulous restaurant became even more difficult.  Guy Fieri pegged it correctly when he called him “a hands-on chef who’s doing things his own way.”  That includes touches like making his own butter and crafting all his culinary creations by hand.

24 November 2012: One holdover from Dennis’s days at Fajitaville are some of the best salsas in town.  An order of salsa and chips rewards diners with two salsas–a roasted tomato salsa and a pico de gallo style salsa coupled with housemade chips served warm.  Neither of the salsas are especially piquant, but both are redolent with freshness and flavor.  The chips are lightly salted and oversized for Gil-sized portions of salsa.  Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.

Grilled Sirloin and Green Chile Sandwich on Sage Bakehouse Bakery Bread with Shoestring Fries

Grilled Sirloin and Green Chile Sandwich on Sage Bakehouse Bakery Bread with Shoestring Fries

Breakfast and lunch entrees are served all day which is a great thing because you never know when the urge will hit for a world-class sandwich. Sage Bakehouse bread, a New Mexico treasure, is the foundation upon which those sandwiches are built. Each sandwich is served with your choice of potato salad, green salad or homemade shoestring potatoes (a must-have).  Don’t desecrate those shoestring potatoes with ketchup. Ask instead for a small bowl of Eli’s red chile and dip your fries into that. Some of the best chile and some of the best fries in town–you can’t go wrong with that combination.

Eli’s grilled pastrami sandwich is a poor man’s version of the aforementioned Katz’s in which pastrami is piled on skyscraper high. Even though Eli’s doesn’t lay the pastrami on as thick as at Katz’s, it’s also not apportioned in waifishly thin shreds like the sandwiches the chains proffer. In Albuquerque only California Pastrami serves a better pastrami sandwich (although it dropped just a bit in my estimation when packets of mustard replaced the gourmet mustard once dolloped on the sandwich). Apodaca gets his pastrami flown in from Chicago where this brisket derivative is best made.

Chipotle Chile Bacon Cheeseburger

The green chile cheeseburger at Eli’s

30 August 2008: Also exceptional is the green chile bacon cheeseburger on hard-crusted Sage Bakehouse bread. As the hack comic Banya would tell Jerry Senifeld, “it’s the best, Jerry, the best.” In a city and state in which green chile cheeseburgers are a religion, Dennis Apodaca is a high priest, serving something just a bit different. This cheeseburger is a two-fisted edible piece of art with an explosively delicious taste.  The green chile is not so assertive that it prevents the salty sweetness of the bacon to sneak out. Instead they meld together wonderfully. The texture of the lightly toasted Ciabatta bread is a nice departure from the traditional soft burger buns. The bacon is crispy and thick. There’s no iceberg lettuce in this masterpiece; it’s salad quality mixed greens. The hamburger patty hasn’t seen  the inside of a freezer; it’s hand-formed and thick, prepared to your exacting specifications.

27 September 2016: Burger aficionados will also love Eli’s chipotle cheeseburger, a work of art and absolute beauty.  It’s got the piquancy (maybe even more) of a green chile cheeseburger with the inimitable flavor of chipotle.  If you’re not sure what a chipotle is, it’s merely a smoked, dried jalapeño.  It’s a versatile pepper, adding depth, complexity and a kick to meats, and a savory counterbalance to sweets.  At Eli’s, the chipotle doesn’t come out of a jar.  It’s the real thing, smoked at home and rehydrated to textural perfection.  This chipotle cheeseburger is simple, a thick hamburger patty, molten cheese and chipotle.  That’s it…and that’s enough.

Sophia's Breakfast Burrito

The breakfast burrito, Albuquerque’s very best

The simply named Breakfast Sandwich on (what else) toasted Sage Bakehouse bread is a concordant composition of fried eggs, bacon, cheese and fresh salsa that will help make your day start off on the right foot. It may well be the best breakfast sandwich in Albuquerque, not that there is a plethora of competition in the breakfast sandwich arena.

10 April 2008: Eli’s breakfast burrito has done something I had thought impossible. It supplanted Milton’s breakfast burrito as my favorite breakfast burrito in New Mexico. The primary reason is a wondrous red chile, a deep, earthy, sweet and utterly delicious chile of medium piquancy. This chile is in rarified company with Mary & Tito’s legendary red which I’ve long considered the best in the Duke City area. It’s the type of chile you might want to lick off your plate so as not to leave any of it behind. If Dennis were to offer New Mexican food exclusively, it would probably be the best in the city. Make sure you order your burrito “smothered” so you won’t be lamenting that there isn’t enough chile on your plate. In its September, 2011 edition, the staff of Albuquerque The Magazine undertook the enviable task of selecting the Duke City’s very best breakfast burrito. Eli’s was rated tenth best. To paraphrase the immortal words of former world boxing champion Max Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs, “they waz robbed!”

Huevos Mexicanos

There’s only one thing wrong with Eli’s red chile. It’s that the red is so good, many of us may never again order the breakfast burrito “Christmas style” (with both red and green chile). That would be sad because the green chile is outstanding in its own right. It’s a fruity chile with a comal roasted aroma and flavor. The breakfast burrito is crafted from organic eggs, potatoes, cheese and salsa. You can have it with your choice of bacon, pork carnitas, chicken, beef or vegetables.

23 November 2010: The daily specials on Eli’s menu truly earn the accolade “special.” Such is the case with a breakfast enchilada with turkey sausage, Cojita cheese and poblano chile. The melding of these ingredients make for an outstanding breakfast entree that I may have to bide my time to see returned to the menu. Fortunately, there’s always something else intriguing and invariably delicious to mollify my appetite.

Another special special, duck enchiladas with a green chile cream sauce

Duck enchiladas served with a green chile cream sauce

30 August 2008: Another very special special are the duck enchiladas served with a green chile cream sauce (pictured above). Somehow Dennis manages to segregate the least fatty parts of the duck while retaining all its characteristic flavor and he engorges corn tortillas with the delicious canard. A generous dollop of mildly piquant green chile sauce crowns the enchiladas with even more flavor. This special is served with black beans studded with Cojita cheese as well as a mixed greens and mango salad. This is just Dennis and his free spirited whimsy; he loves to play with ingredients and has a knack for making seemingly disparate ingredients meld together in perfect flavor synchronicity.

The Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives taping took place on a day in which the special of the day was another version of duck enchiladas, this time with tomatillo sauce. Watching the step-by-step construction of this entree revealed the depth of Dennis’s talent, but even more so, just what a perfectionist he is. Every preparation step is meticulous and well practiced, obviously the result of extensive experimentation until everything is absolutely to the chef’s exacting standards.

Scallop Tacos with beans, rice and a salad

The duck, which is left in the bone and skin, is seasoned and rendered in duck fat for several hours then is de-boned by hand and seasoned again (lime, cilantro, Mexican red chile, sugar, salt and other ingredients) on the flat top.  Two legs per order of succulent duck meat are then placed on two soft corn tortillas with Asadero cheese then topped with the tomatillo sauce, toasted pumpkin seeds, scallions and queso fresco.  Fieri uttered “really good” three times punctuated with “an explosion of flavors” and “you’ve got it going on with this one.”

10 April 2015: A Washington Post writer recently proclaimed, “Ok so who in the hell doesn’t do a scallop taco?” He obviously hasn’t been around the restaurant scene in Albuquerque where scallop tacos are a novelty. In fact, Dennis is just one of a handful of chefs in the landlocked Land of Enchantment I know of daring to depart from the de rigueur fish taco (which is rarely done well in New Mexico). His version starts with gigantic sea scallops which he tucks into soft, pliable corn tacos then garnishes with a mild salsa, avocado slices and Crème fraîche. There are two scallops per taco, two tacos per order and they’re at least twice as good as the best fish taco I’ve ever had.

Sophia's shoestring fries with red chile

Eli’s shoestring fries with red chile

Eli’s scallop tacos are inspired–an amalgam of flavor combinations which work very well together.  The pearlescent scallops are grilled so they have a nice char on top and at bottom while retaining an opaque clarity that means they’re absolutely perfect.  I’ve tried in vain several times to duplicate Dennis’s wizardry with scallops, but have concluded begrudgingly that my scallop skills are rudimentary compared to the chef. 

The Saturday and Sunday brunch menu features several items not available during weekdays. These weekend specials have made Eli’s an intensely popular dining destination. You might have to wait in line ten to fifteen minutes to place your order then another half hour for your order to reach your table. It’s worth the wait.


20 April 2008: One of the best reasons to get up on a weekend are Eli’s Special Pancakes, priced daily and served with fresh fruit and real maple syrup. Those special pancakes might be sour cream and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with blueberries. The tartness of the blueberries and lemon create a palate pleasing harmony with the maple syrup. The sour cream changes the texture of standard pancakes by adding moistness while retaining the fluffiness inherent in great pancakes. 

23 November 2008: Eli’s pancakes will cure the early morning blues (or anything else that ails you).  A large stack (four) of pumpkin pancakes with pinon nut butter topped with assorted berries may be the very best pancakes you’ll ever have.  They’re stick to your ribs pancakes, the panacea for cold mornings.  Cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice emphasize the flavor of pumpkin while the berries provide a tangy contrast.  The syrup brings together the complementary tastes of sweet, tangy and pumpkiny.  Share these with people you love.

Turkey Sausage Enchiladas with Red and Green Chile

One of the things that makes Dennis’s pancakes a panacea is his homemade butter, a culinary rarity that blew even Guy Fieri away. Fieri who has probably seen just about everything on his road tours seemed amazed that Dennis would go to that extent. After sampling Eli’s homemade butter (made from separated heavy cream mixed with toasted pine nuts, dried cherries and honey), Fieri called it “outstanding.” 

4 November 2012: Other brunch favorites include Eli’s version of chilaquiles and a very unique interpretation of Huevos Rancheros called Huevos Mexicanos.  This dish is constructed from corn tortillas topped with two eggs prepared any way you want them then slathered with green chile stew.  The green chile stew is terrific, the type of which you’d appreciate at any time, but especially on a cold wintery day.  The chilaquiles are simplicity itself though its flavors are complex and delicious.  Chilaquiles are a traditional Mexican dish with which Eli’s takes a few liberties, topping the eggs and tortilla chips with red chile instead of the more conventional salsa.

Lemon and sour cream pancakes with blueberries

Sour cream and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with blueberries

You’ve got to experience this gem for yourself to find out what so many diners know–Eli’s Place is one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre. Overflow crowds and accolades don’t tell the whole story. That lies in each and every wonderful morsel of pure deliciousness fashioned by the inventive hands of the chef and owner.  Eli’s Place and its superbly talented owner-chef Dennis Apodaca may be an enigma to marketing students, but to those of us who love great food, he’s a luminous star, one of the very best.

Pumpkin pancakes with pinon nut butter

6313 4th, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-3935
LATEST VISIT: 27 September 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Pastrami Sandwich, Breakfast Sandwich, Chipotle Bacon Cheeseburger, Simple Noodles, Breakfast Burrito, Special Pancakes, Scallop Tacos, Chilaquiles, Huevos Mexicanos, Grilled Sirloin Sandwich, Pork Carnitas Tacos,

Eli's Place (New Name for Sophia's Place) Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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