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Cafe Fina – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cafe Fina, about twenty minutes from the Santa Fe Plaza

Living in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, my nieces expect to stay home on those blustery winter days in which (gasp, the horror) two or more inches of snow accumulate on the highways and byways. Because, they reason, sane people don’t have to risk such ”treacherous conditions,” they don’t buy the dramatic “exaggerations” my brother relates about his experiences growing up in Peñasco.  After all, how could they be expected to believe such obvious “embellishments” as my brother having walked to school in a foot of snow and having read by the light of kerosene lamps and candles when weather knocked out electrical power for hours? They certainly don’t buy what he tells them about gas stations and the service rendered during a typical fill-up and they roll their eyes when he tells them how much gas cost “way back then.” He may as well have told them he hunted dinosaurs in the woods.

There are times we look back upon our “primitive” upbringing without PCs, iPhones and satellite television and our youth seems like an episode of The Twilight Zone, a program much too bumpkinly for my worldly and sophisticated nieces. Back then, you’d pull up to a gas station and wait in your car while an attendant not only pumped your gas, but washed your windshield, checked your fluid levels, radiator hoses, tire pressure and fan belts then thanked you for your business (what a radical notion!). Even in Peñasco there were “gas wars” in which competitors lowered the price of gas to as little as 25 cents a gallon (about the price of a loaf of bread at the time). Sometimes a fill-up included a free gift. It’s no wonder my nieces regard our recollections of the “good old days” with more than a bit of healthy skepticism.

Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice, Gingerbread Square and Chocolate Croissant

Pointing out that Cafe Fina was once the type of service station my brother remembers fondly would certainly elicit guffaws of derision from my nieces…along with scatological comments about the “gaseous” (not the petroleum kind) nature of gas stations turned restaurants. Situated about twenty minutes east of the Santa Fe Plaza, Café Fina probably once have had a “Last Chance for Gasoline” sign similar to those on the edge of many western cities and towns many years ago. Today very few visages of its service station past are visible. In fact, unless someone tells you (or you put two-and-two together from the restaurant’s name) you’re about to dine at what was once a prominent gas station, you probably won’t be able to tell.

In a bit of prophetic irony, when every oil company in the mid-1960s was trying to differentiate its products from those of the competition, Fina touted “PFLASH” as an ingredient in its gasoline which would “improve the food at roadside restaurants.” Though PFLASH isn’t an ingredient on any of Café Fina’s culinary fare, it can certainly be argued that the ingredients used by this oasis on Santa Fe’s easternmost fringes make it perhaps the best eatery between Santa Fe and Las Vegas. You might be surprised at just how many guests fuel up for the day with brunch and lunch fare every day of the week and dinner Thursday through Sunday evenings.

Breakfast Burrito

Café Fina is a commodious structure with several dining rooms and an expansive patio which welcomes four-legged children of the canine persuasion. Large picture windows let in plenty of light and offer views of the pinon-studded foothills. Visit on a busy weekend and you’ll probably queue up within a few feet of the restaurant’s entrance. The line moves quickly, but not so quickly that you don’t get a generous gander at the bakery case on your left and a counter to the right with a bounty of baked goods, including quiche. The bakery case flaunts a phalanx of pies, pastries, cookies and cakes. A bevy of beverages showcases organic apple juice, orange juice, Coca cola with real sugar, Blue Sky sodas, lemonade and a number of coffee and tea options.

You might just find yourself torn between ordering the Mexican hot chocolate or the Mexican mocha. The problem is that both names are rather generic for hot beverages which may or may not have a hint of piquancy (courtesy of chile) and which usually include a number of ingredients in addition to chocolate. Because of a rather lengthy line behind us, we opted not to ask. We didn’t discern chile on the hot chocolate as has been customary since the days of a rather avaricious dude named Montezuma (who lived even before the days of 25 cent gas). Still, it’s a silky, cinnamon-kissed, rich and hot beverage not to be missed. Even more eye-opening is the orange juice, a pulpy blend with what appears to be a hit or two of seltzer for just a bit of effervescence.

Housemade Granola

Naturally you can’t have hot chocolate and orange juice without pastries and Café Fina offers only the best. Those pastries come from the Sage Bakehouse, Santa Fe’s nonpareil artisanal pastry and bread company and they are magnificent! The chocolate croissant is light, flaky and fresh, filled with rich, delicious chocolate and topped with powdered sugar. The gingerbread squares would inspire the Brothers Grimm to spin another yarn about a house constructed of this full-body flavored pastry so reminiscent of autumn.

The brunch menu is replete with options, so many and so varied that Solomon himself would be hard-pressed to select just one. It’s a menu which will surely inspire future visits to sample those options we missed out on during our inaugural visit—options such as the cloud cakes (ricotta pancakes with fresh berries and real maple syrup), huevos motulenos, the “one for David” fish sandwich and of course, the green chile cheeseburger. Because there are so many other intriguing options, we won’t have the housemade granola next time we visit and it makes me sad. The Greek yogurt with which it is served is tangy and sour, a nice departure from so many sweet yogurts. The fruits (raspberries, blueberries, bananas, strawberries) are a fresh and delicious complement to the yogurt and the rolled oats and nuts.

Migas

As much as we’ll miss the housemade granola, we’ll miss the migas even more…much more. There are a number of restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment which serve migas, but perhaps none make them as delicious as Café Fina. There’s only one thing wrong with these migas (scrambled organic eggs with corn tortillas sautéed with mild salsa and New Mexico Asadero cheese, served with black beans, sour cream, guacamole and a whole wheat tortilla) that’s the fact that you’ll want a portion twice the size. There’s a lot going on in this relatively simple dish in which every ingredient plays so very well against its brethren. Every bite is an adventure in gustatory pleasure.

If only the migas were the size of the behemoth breakfast burrito (scrambled organic eggs, hash browns, New Mexico Asadero and Gouda cheeses and bacon with red and (or) green chile. Better still, if only Café Fina created a migas burrito then life would be perfect. While the breakfast burrito is perfectly fine…even quite good, everything pales in comparison to those migas. Surprisingly the combination of Asadero (stringy like mozzarella with a Monterey Jack flavor) and Gouda (a rich, smooth cheese) works so well, you might not want to go back to Cheddar. Bacon lovers will also appreciate the generosity of everyone’s favorite pork candy.

Because social media has brought the world closer, even tourists are finding Café Fina…and they’re loving it. What’s not to love? Writing for USA Today’s “10 Best,” the fabulous Billie Frank, whose blog The Santa Fe Traveler, is (like her) a local treasure, rated Café Fina as one of Santa Fe’s ten best restaurants for brunch. She calls it “a true local hangout.” You’ll envy those locals in close proximity to this gem of a gas station turned restaurant. My nieces don’t know what they’re missing.

Cafe Fina
624 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 466.3886
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Migas, Chocolate Croissant, Breakfast Burrito, Gingerbread Square, Housemade Granola, Orange Juice, Mexican Hot Chocolate

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Central Grill and Coffee House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Central Grill and Coffee House near Old Town

“Life is short. Eat more pancakes and fewer rice cakes”.
~ Unknown

With an almost reverential zeal they come, their cellphone cameras at the ready. The enthusiasm for their pilgrimages has brought them to this hallowed destination from every corner of the country.  Some know next to nothing about the city, save for it having been the hometown of chemistry-teacher turned meth-kingpin Walter White.  They don’t regard the city with the ignominy with which it’s been portrayed, but as a Mecca replete with landmarks of the groundbreaking television series Breaking Bad.  They come for  up-close-and-personal views of locations frequented by its characters. 

The more enthusiastic among them have gone as far as to toss a pizza on Walter White’s roof, recreating White’s famous pizza toss from season three.  Roughly 200 avid devotees wishing to bid one last goodbye to the drug lord better known by the clandestine pseudonym Heisenbergeven participated in his mock funeral.  Most, however, are content to take in the landmarks from the air-conditioned conveyances of the several companies capitalizing on the show’s popularity.

Hot and Buttered Salted Caramel Sticky Bun

One landmark Breaking Bad enthusiasts will no longer find is Liu’s Chinese Fast Food Restaurant which made a cameo appearance during a season one episode entitled “Cancer Man.”  No longer will fans be able to reenact the scene in which Christian “Combo” Ortega stood outside the restaurant to call Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad’s deuteragonist. It may not seem like much to the casual watcher, but to diehard devotees, it’s part of living the dream.

Situated on Old Route 66 directly across the street from the Old Town Plaza parking lot, Liu’s may not have been contemporaneous with the Conquistadores, but it sure seems that way.  In May, 2014, the Central Grill and Coffee House replaced Liu’s at the 60-year-old edifice, in the process transforming the nondescript building from a rather austere and uninviting premises to a bright, welcoming diner. 

“Christmas Style” Breakfast Burrito with Sausage and Bacon

The Central Grill and Coffee House seats 48 with outdoor seating on an expansive patio accommodating several more patrons. Walk in on a Sunday morning and you’ll swear there are at least 48 guests standing in line to place their orders.  The process is rather brisk.  While standing in line you’ll have plenty of time to peruse the menu and after you place your order, it’ll be delivered in a short while.  Watching one order after another of pancakes being ferried to eagerly awaiting guests is part of the fun. 

Pancakes are one of many options on a rather wide-ranging menu that includes numerous breakfast favorites, burgers, sandwiches, salads, sides and “perks.”  The latter would be a line-up of coffee and blended smoothies sure to wake you up on a sleepy morning.  There’s enough variety on the menu that you’ll be hard-pressed to make a quick decision.  Fortunately, as previously stated, you could be in line long enough to deliberate your choices thoroughly.

Carne Adovada Burrito

Perhaps the most difficult choice to make is deciding from among the scone of the day, muffin of the day and sweet of the day.  If the salted caramel sticky bun is available, it’s a no-brainer.  This is a sweet treat which should be mentioned in the same breath as the fabled Frontier roll and the cinnamon rolls at San Marcos Cafe outside of Santa Fe.  In other words, it’s in rarefied company.  It’s even better when served hot with lots of melting butter.  Calories be damned; just double-up on the treadmill. 

The behemoth breakfast burrito is probably even more dietetically devastating than the sticky buns.  Roughly the size of a log of firewood, it’s engorged with the ingredients New Mexicans love on their breakfast burritos: scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese and your choice of bacon or sausage (live it up and have both) topped with red or green chile (or both).  This is one of the best breakfast burritos to have crossed my path in quite a while.  The red chile has a very pleasant piquancy while the green has the roasted nuances aficionados appreciate.

ABQ Western Sandwich

For my Kim, a carne adovada burrito sans additional chile makes great sense.  She contends that the chile in which the pork has marinated has a porcine-blessed flavor profile other chile doesn’t have.  She was blown away by the sheer volume of pork with which this burrito is engorged.  Tender tendrils of pure pork deliciousness marinated in chile practically made her swoon. 

Among the more intriguing sandwiches on the menu is one called the ABQ Western Sandwich, sliced brisket, smoked sausage, Cheddar and barbecue sauce on a toasted ciabatta bun.  One of the things that make this an intriguing sandwich is that there is no smoker on the premises.  Somehow, the brisket has the hint of smokiness that seems to indicate it spent time imbibing low-and-slow smoke.  The smoked sausage doesn’t quite have the same discernible smoke notes, but it pairs well with the brisket.

While Breaking Bad devotees may not find one of their favorite Old Town area landmarks, if the pangs of hunger strike during their pilgrimages, they’ll certainly find a terrific diner and coffee house to sate them.

Central Grill and Coffee House
2056 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 554-1424
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salted Caramel Sticky Bun, Breakfast Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito. ABQ Western Sandwich

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Sandia Chile Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sandia Chile Grill, Smokehouse and Microbrewery

If perspiration is (as the proverbial “they” have declared) the mother of invention, Mickey and Clinton Coker may just be two of the most glistening guys in the Duke City. Since 2004, the Cokers have “reinvented” their restaurant four times. If you’re thinking, they’re just try, try, trying again until they get it right, you couldn’t be more wrong. Mickey Coker, the entrepreneur behind the four make-overs, started with a culinary concept that was so wildly successful, it prompted almost immediate growth. His second effort, a brick-and-mortar operation, also achieved significant acclaim. Some might have considered the third Coker transition strictly a sideline…until it started garnering one award after the other. The fourth step in the evolution of the Sandia Grill may be the most revolutionary of all.

For Mickey Coker, the route to entrepreneur was inauspicious. He got his start selling New Mexican food at a gas station-convenience store. Yes, the very notion of a gas station-convenience store food conjures images of salty, cylindrically shaped dry meat snacks with the texture of sawdust and air-filled bags of Cool Ranch Doritos.  Now mention New Mexican food and gas station in the same sentence and the likely image would make all the sophomoric six-year-olds among us giggle, the notion of “gas” not having anything to do with petroleum.  Despite these stereotypes, Coker had the confidence in his New Mexico food products to launch his business in 2004, ensconced within the confines of a convenience store-gas station in the Winner’s Circle gas station at Harper and Barstow. A second location, on Montgomery just east of I-25, followed shortly thereafter.

Once strictly a New Mexican Restaurant, Now Showcasing Barbecue and New Mexican Food

From its onset, the Sandia Chile Grill’s made-to-order burrito concept elevated gas station dining from a fast food grab-and-gobble experience to a uniquely sublime New Mexico dining extravaganza, albeit one without on-the-premises seating. The aroma of tortillas on the grill quickly had patrons making a bee-line to the little grill that could at the back of the convenience store portion of the gas station. While relatively little space is required to operate what is essentially a to-go diner, Coker saw his business grow to the extent–as many as 4,000 meals in a busy month–that a real restaurant storefront was in order. He launched the Sandia Chile Grill restaurant at the Del Norte Shopping Center, essentially moving from the Winner’s Circle gas station not that far away.

A native New Mexican (born in Belen), Coker saw two obvious reasons for the name Sandia Chile Grill, the first being Sandia chile which grows in the Mesilla Valley. Sandia chile ranges from four to six-inches long and dries to a deep burgundy color.  It’s one of the most delicious of all red chiles and is served at such fabled New Mexican food treasures as Mary & Tito’s.   Sandia is also the name of the mountain range backdropping the city of Albuquerque.

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Twice Baked Potatoes and Calabasitas

At the restaurant, the staff had the room to operate and customers had comfortable seating in which to enjoy New Mexican food favorites. Though much of the restaurant’s business remained carry-out, it was nice to have had an alternative when you wanted it. As at the service station, burritos dominated the menu: breakfast burritos, steak burritos, steak and chicken burritos, chicken burritos, pork burritos and even veggie burritos. Some burritos were named for professional wrestlers (Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker, Junkyard Dog, Mankind and the Macho Man). There were also burritos named for Mexican western characters: El Matidor (sic), Bandito, Caballero and El Jeffe. The menu also included stuffed sopaipillas, enchiladas, tamales, rellenos and tacos–the New Mexican food essentials which couldn’t be prepared at the gas station sites.

In 2009, the facility was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to can all its chiles and sauces for nationwide distribution. In 2012, the Cokers opened a microbrewery on the premises–and an award-winning brewery at that. Within months after launching, they entered seven items in a New Mexico State Fair competition, earning five medals including a “best of show” in the professional division. The blue and red-ribbons are on display in the restaurant. The menu also began featuring several gluten-free items (nachos, green chile chicken stew, chicken quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, steak tacos and more).

House Sauces: Hot (with Habanero), Tangy (Mustard-Based) and Sweet

The Cokers determined that an even more natural accompaniment to award-winning adult libations than New Mexican food is barbecue. Yes, barbecue! Though their New Mexican dishes were beloved by the masses who frequented the Sandia Chile Grill, the Cokers are not ones to stay still. They transitioned to a smokehouse concept in March, 2014, positioning a smoker near the Wyoming entrance to the shopping center. Aficionados of Sandia’s New Mexican food weren’t left in the cold, however. The new menu also includes several popular New Mexican food favorites (burritos, enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas, huevos rancheros and a green chile chicken bowl ) prepared with smoked meats instead of the more conventional meats used on New Mexican food.

Because the concept of transitioning from a New Mexican restaurant to a smokehouse may seem radical, you’re probably wondering if this is a haphazardly undertaken venture. In truth, the Cokers have had a smoker for more than a decade. That’s plenty of time to master low-and-slow smoke manipulation on meats. Brimming with confidence from the great reception their barbecue has received, the Cokers have plans for a larger smoker with a much greater capacity. The barbecue menu is replete with the essentials: pulled pork, smoked chicken, brisket, St. Louis ribs and street tacos. You can purchase them in increments ranging from a quarter-pound through ten pounds. You can also partake of a sandwich meal with two sides for a ridiculously low price. Three sauces–a tangy sauce similar to what you’d find in the Carolinas, a spicy sauce redolent with Habanero and a sweet sauce–are available though because it’s good barbecue, they’re wholly unnecessary.

Brisket Enchiladas

The pulled pork sandwich features a hoagie type bun brimming with tender tendrils of pulled pork. It’s good to go as is though you might want to experiment with the three sauces to see if one suits your taste. The spicy Habanero-based sauce provides a “slow burn,” a deceptive “sneak up on you” burn that may water your eyes if you apply too much of the sauce. If you’re from New Mexico, you can handle it. Make one of the two sides the calabasitas. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill calabasitas. They’re prepared al dente and paired with a green chile as incendiary as the Habanero sauce. Another excellent side is the twice-baked potatoes which have a smooth, creamy texture and are punctuated with sour cream.

The pairing of New Mexican food and barbecue is a match made in New Mexico and that’s about as close to heaven as there is on Earth.  One of the most surprisingly natural couplings is smoked brisket with “Christmas” style enchiladas, available in quantities of one, two or three.  Atop tortillas redolent with corn are heaping helpings of smoked brisket, shredded Cheddar, lettuce and the red and green chile with which Duke City diners fell in love when the Ultimate Warrior was on the menu.  The chile has a pleasant piquancy that doesn’t obfuscate the smokiness of the brisket.  Brisket enchiladas are a surprisingly good way to enjoy the best of two flavor combinations.

Mick Coker and his son Clinton are immensely proud of their New Mexican heritage and like most proud New Mexicans, know one of the day’s most difficult decisions is whether to have red or green chile…or both.   They help make that decision easier for their guests by offering excellent New Mexican cuisine showcasing both. They also showcase some of the best adult libations and barbecue in town.

Sandia Chile Grill
7120 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 798-1970
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 3 July 2015
1st VISIT:  18 August 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Calabasitas, Twice Baked Potatoes, Brisket Enchiladas

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