Torinos’ @ Home – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Torinos @ Home in the Journal Center

I love Italian food but that’s too generic a term for what’s available now:
you have to narrow it down to Tuscan, Sicilian, and so on.”
~ Lee Child, Author

“You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend; you want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.” That tried and proven sports adage applies in every walk-of-life. Indeed, if you’re the person who has to succeed a beloved living legend, you’ll invariably hear about the gigantic shoes you have to fill. Your every move will be scrutinized and your every failure magnified until you prove yourself worthy of breathing the same rarefied air as the icon you’re replacing. It’s not a challenge the faint-hearted should attempt and it will test the mettle of even the most accomplished.

Confident people have another perspective on following a legend. They relish the challenge of living up to exceedingly high standards and fully expect to succeed. There’s no exit strategy for them…unless it’s to move on to a loftier challenge. They revel in the scrutiny, seeing it as another opportunity to prove themselves. Confident people aren’t reluctant to chart a different course, to do things just a bit differently than their predecessors. They’re risk-takers with an intrinsic believe that it is possible to improve on perfection.

The bright, sunny dining room

So just how to you balance the need for respectful deference to your predecessor with the desire to stamp your own imprint on success? Daniel and Jenna John are doing it the right way. In February, 2016, they purchased Torinos @ Home, one of New Mexico’s most revered and highly acclaimed restaurants. In doing so, they succeeded Maxime and Daniela Bouneou, two of the most beloved and highly respected restaurateurs in the state. Rather than rebranding an established and highly successful restaurant, Daniel and Jenna decided to keep the name Torinos’ @ Home and to continue showcasing the Northern Italian cuisine inspired with French and Spanish influences.

Where the new owners will make Torinos @ Home truly their own is in bringing more local ingredients and indeed, Torinos’ has established local partnerships with several local farms, wineries and breweries. The couple also plans to incorporate new items into the menu and introduce wine happy hour events. One significant “attitudinal” difference is Daniel’s concession that Torinos @ Home offers a “fine dining experience with a casual atmosphere.” Maxime would not—even on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives—declare Torinos’ to be a fine-dining restaurant.

Torinos’ lounge

Stepping into Torinos’ @ Home still felt like coming back home even though we weren’t greeted effusively by Daniela. Also gone is the little store in which Italian goodies—such as Maxime’s olive oil, biscotti, chocolate croissants, homemade jams and a veritable treasure trove of other exciting and interesting items—were once proffered. In its place is a welcoming lounge where you can indulge in your favorite Italian coffee. For my Kim, the most noticeable absence (aside from the Bouneous) was her favorite lavender scented soaps in the ladies room.

Other, more important, facets of a Torinos’ dining experience remain unchanged. Service is still first-rate with attentive servers tending to your every need, such as delivering and later replenishing a colander of olive and Italian bread. The accompanying olive oil is resplendent with the herbaceous freshness of a complementary blend of herbs swimming in the decanter. where they are joined by thin ancho chiles. You’ll also want to save a couple slices for dredging up whatever may be left over of the sauce you select for your entree…and you’ll definitely want to purchase a decanter of this olive oil before you leave. It’s world class stuff!

Bread

The menu remains comfortably familiar with many of our favorite dishes still available. Dishes we had not previously sampled are interspersed among the familiar favorites. The Antipasti menu includes both a cheese board and an antipasto platter as well as five other inviting starters. Six salads, several of them Torinos’ standards, beckon. A section of the menu is dedicated to Pasta and Risotto, two of life’s enduring pleasures. Two (beef cheek manicotti and squid ink pasta) of the ten dishes on this section were showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Because diners can’t live on pasta and risotto alone, other sections of the menu are devoted to offerings from the Sea and from the Farm. You can add such favorites as homemade sausage, prosciutto and sweet potato fries to any dish. Then there’s the desserts, as decadent and enticing as ever.

20 August 2016: Turophiles everywhere will delight in Torinos’ cheese board, literally a paddle-sized wooden board strewn from top to bottom with cheeses: biaco sardo (sheep’s milk), pichin (raw cow’s milk), Aged Montegrappa (cow’s milk), Nocetto Di Cabra (goat’s milk) and Gorgonzola Picante (cow’s milk) as well as Nicoise olives and walnuts. As with all good cheese boards, the cheeses run the taste gamut—from mild to sharp with degrees of variation in between. Cheeses should be eaten from mildest to strongest so you don’t miss the nuance of a mild cheese after eating a stinging, astringent blue. Because the olfactory senses contribute so much to a cheese-tasting experience, you should always imbibe the aroma of your cheeses before eating them. There is only one thing wrong with the Torinos’ cheese plate. Understandably, what’s missing is more cheese—as in large wheels or blocks of the stuff.

Cheese Board

We’d be hard-pressed to name a favorite cheese from among the five. We loved the bianco sardo and the way its creamy mouthfeel contrasted with its firm, dry texture. We could have eaten an entire wheel of the Pichin, an earthy, acidic, semi-firm cheese. Montegrappa, probably the most expensive cheese on the board, is dense and crumbly with a subdued flavor that nonetheless leaves a lactic aftertaste. Predictably, the Nocetta di Cabra, a creamy, tart cheese was my Kim’s favorite while mine was the Gorgonzola Picante, a veiny blue cheese with piquant notes. Make sure you ask for a side of the positively addictive Cipolline onions (saucer-shaped Italian pearl onions with a uniquely sweet and mild flavor), a nice foil for the cheeses.

20 August 2016: If Risotto Fruit Di Mare had been on the Torinos @ Home menu when the Maxime performed his magic in the kitchen, we must have missed it.  More likely it’s one of the new items on the menu introduced by Chef John.  Don’t dare miss it!  The arrival of the dish (al dente Arborio rice with shrimp, little neck clams, calamari, mussels, clam juice and star anise) is preceded by an aroma one normally encounters only at Vietnamese restaurants.  It’s the inimitable, alluring aroma of star anise, an aroma that permeates each grain of rice with its subtle licorice-like flavor.  The risotto with its very clean, very fresh flavors and the slight and subtle undertones of anise, is a perfect complement to the fresh, almost off-the-boat flavors of the seafood.  Several years ago, I lamented the scarcity of good risotto in New Mexico.  Since then a number of restaurants have risen to the challenge and now serve very good to outstanding risotto dishes.  Mark Torinos’ as one of the latter.

Risotto Fruit Di Mare

During my inaugural visit to Torinos’ @ Home way back in 2009, the menu showcased a “ravioli of the day” special. It was a novel concept which introduced Santa Fe diners to the infinite possibilities of ravioli, an Italian dumpling composed of sundry fillings sealed between two layers of thin pasta dough. For those of us who once believed ravioli came from a can labeled Chef Boyardee, Torinos’ ravioli was a godsend. Thinking back on our naiveté, we’re now inclined to share the perspective of Canadian novelist Doug Coupland who put it so aptly: “I know it’s not cat food, but what exactly is it that they put inside of tinned ravioli?”

20 August 2016: The ravioli of the day concept may not have been long-lived, but it certainly had an enduring effect on diners. The challenge for my Kim was whether to have the roasted beet ravioli (beets, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses stuffed in a ravioli, topped with golden raisins, walnuts, poppy seeds and more Parmesan cheese drizzled in light butter sauce) or the Porcini Ravioli (white truffle, porcini mushrooms, cream and Parmesan cheese), a vegetarian offering.  It was a very good choice.  Earthy, rich-flavored porcini mushrooms impart a pungent, woodsy flavor to the ravioli.  The white truffle lends similar qualities.  If you love full-flavored fungi, this is the dish for you.

Porcini Ravioli

14 April 2018: Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp believes Daniel and Jenna have “made the dining adventure even more swoon-worthy than it was a few years ago.”  TripAdvisor and Yelp communities strongly agree.  In the two plus years since they bought Torinos @ Home, they’ve truly made it their own.  During our April visit, we had a brief opportunity to meet Jenna who’s even more attractive in person than online.  She has an effervescent personality and easy smile even when she’s assiduously preparing for a unique event such as the “Technology Dinner” Torinos was hosting that evening.  With Saturday morning brunch and interesting themed events, Torinos continues to evolve and improve.

14 April 2018: If you’re tired of reading about Gil’s charcuterie adventures, rest easy.  Torinos @ Home doesn’t serve charcuterie.  Charcuterie is French.  Salumi is Italian.  What’s the difference, you ask.  Paul Balisteri, the award-winning salumi maestro and Executive Chef of Tender Greens in San Diego, explains: “salumi is an Italian term for sausage-making, cured and smoked meats, as charcuterie is in French. He also explains that “the difference between salumi and salami is, salami is one of the many items that fall under the umbrella of salumi.”   If it sounds as if your humble blogger is getting hung up over semantics, you’re probably right. By any name, the cured meats served at Torinos are exemplary.

Salumi Plate

14 April 2018: A good salumi plate should offer a diverse flavor profile–a well thought-out melody of flavors and textures.  Careful consideration is in evidence with Torinos’ salumi platter which was comprised of three different salamis as well as sopressata and the house-cured duck along with an eye-opening, taste bud awakening, house-made mustard.   Finocchiona, a traditional Italian pork salami from the Tuscany region is one of the most popular of all Italian salamis.  It’s easy to see why.  Named for the Italian word for fennel, its chief flavor component, this coarse-ground salami is distinctly sweet and delicate.  Its polar opposite is the Calabrese which has a discernible piquancy thanks to a generous addition of red pepper flakes.  Coppa, a dry cured capicolla, is somewhere in the middle, neither sweet nor piquant, but earthy and delicate with notes of pepper, ground cinnamon, cloves, bay seeds and nutmeg.

Our salumi soiree also included two painfully thin sliced slivers of fatty, delicate, salty prosciutto, the Italian equivalent of ham (though prosciutto is as similar to American ham as Hans Solo is to Jabba the Hutt). With a buttery texture and melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness, it’s one of the saltiest of all Italian cured meats. It’s also one of the very best. Torinos’ duck is without peer in the Duke City. An outer layer of unctuous fat borders a delicate pink meat flecked with marbling. You’ll want to make sure you’ve got bread on hand with your salumi plate—not to make sandwiches, but to give the house-made mustard a platform. The mustard has a reddish hue, courtesy of what I believe to be a Turkish Aleppo pepper which has more heat than an ancho chile. It imparts an incendiary quality all mustard aficionados will love.

Tomato Basil Soup

14 April 2018: The Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten calls grilled cheese and tomato soup “the ultimate comfort meal.” She certainly wasn’t talking about Campbell’s condensed tomato soup which goes better on Andy Warhol’s 1968 painting than it does on any kitchen table. She was talking about the delicious cure-all for whatever ails you, a tomato soup with the flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes. A great tomato soup embraces you like a warm hug. A superior tomato soup also includes basil, an invigorating, fragrant variety that lends oomph to any Italian dish. Torinos’ tomato basil soup is studded with pinon which lends just a bit of piny freshness. This soup takes the chill out of winter.

14 April 2018: Contemporary wisdom is that if you want a dish to be perceived as appetizing, you give it a name that makes it sound delicious, like something you’d crave. Such wisdom has apparently been lost on Italians who have long christened their culinary fare, especially pasta, with rather unique names—some humorous, some irreverent, some even ribald, but always interesting. Not even the most innocuous of Italian dishes are spared. Vermicelli pasta, for example means “little worms” in Italian. Spaghetti alla puttanesca’ translates literally as “spaghetti in the style of whore’s.” Orecchiette, a flat, disk-shaped pasta translates to “little ears,” not the most inviting of names for any dish. Chicken Scarpariello or “shoemaker’s chicken” is named because of the way chicken bones protrude from your mouth as you eat the dish much like a shoemaker holding tacks in his mouth as he works

Strozzapreti

14 April 2018: My favorite quaintly named Italian pasta dish is strozzapreti, a term which translates to “priest stranglers.” There are several myths regarding the etymology of the term, the most popular being that gluttonous priests (who apparently didn’t know about fasting and abstaining disciplines) used to gorge themselves on it until some of them, quite literally, choked to death. A more humdrum origin story suggests that the pasta’s twisted shape simply resembles a priest’s collar. Alas, it’s not on Torinos’ daily menu, but it was the special of the day on the breezy Saturday in which we visited. Torinos’ version is among the best we’ve ever had, a very rich dish with varying flavor profiles and delightfully diverse textures: a creamy Parmesan cheese sauce, woodsy pine nuts, earthy mushrooms, leafy spinach, grilled chicken and of course, the priest strangling pasta. Whether cautious because of the legends as to how the pasta acquired its name or because we wanted to savor each and every bite, we ate slowly, several swoons of appreciation escaping our lips. This was a wonderful dish!

Whenever my mom chided me for not liking some traditional Northern New Mexican dish (boiled turnips, anyone), I had a two word retort—“goat cheese.” As do many people, she finds goat cheese off-putting in both aroma and flavor. That’s not surprising. Goat cheese has as many detractors as it does proponents. Count my Kim and I among the latter. We count goat cheese among our favorite frommages. Torinos’ goat cheese salad (spinach, Nicoise olives, red onion and candied pecans drizzled with a sweet Balsamic dressing and served with two crostinis topped with honey goat cheese) gave us another way to enjoy it. Our favorite component of an excellent salad was, of course, the honey goat cheese. The combination of tart, slightly sour goat cheese with the liquid gold sweetness of honey blew us away. It’s possible even my mom would have liked it, but if not, that just means more for us.

Goat Cheese Salad with Chicken

14 April 2018: Though several dessert options beckoned, we opted for the Biscotto Jar (Biscotto (caramel cookie), chocolate hazelnut mousse, homemade whipped cream, drizzled with caramel) which was even better than described on the menu. Perhaps inspired by gianduja, a chocolate-hazelnut paste created in Turin, Italy a couple of centuries ago, the chocolate-hazelnut pairing on the rich, creamy mousse is absolutely addictive. Surely some divinity also inspired the addition of caramel. This is three great tastes that taste even better together. For textural contrast as well as another element of deliciousness, the biscotto proved a worthy component. Only one thing would have made this dessert better—instead of a biscotto jar, a biscotto barrel.

Biscotto Jar

While diners throughout New Mexico believed only Maxime and Daniela were synonymous with Torinos @ Home, Daniel and Jenna John have, in short order, proven worthy successors.  Torinos @ Home remains in good hands! 

Note: You can read my previous review of Torinos @ Home here.

Torinos’ @ Home
7600 Jefferson Street, Suite 21
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-4491
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2018
1st VISIT:  20 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Porcini Ravioli, Risotto Fruit Di Mare, Cheese Board, Salami Plate, Strozzapreti, Biscotto Jar, Goat Cheese Salad, Tomato Basil Soup

Torinos' @ Home Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

528 Sushi & Asian Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

528 Sushi & Asian Cuisine Includes Albuquerque’s First-Ever Burmese Cuisine

No lady likes to snuggle and dine accompanied by a porcupine.”
He lit a match to check gas tank.  They call him skinless Frank.”
A man, a miss, a car, a curve.  He kissed the miss and missed the curve.”
Within this vale of toil and sin, your head goes bald but not your chin.”
Henry the Eighth sure had trouble.  Short-term wives, long-term stubble.”

Some of the more seasoned among us might remember that one of the best ways to break up the drudgery of traveling long distances on monotonous two-lane highways was to look for Burma Shave billboards.  Humorous five-line poems adorned red signs one line at a time, each line in white capitalized blocked letters about 100-feet apart.  The last line of each poem was the much anticipated punchline followed by a sign bearing the obligatory name of the then-popular shaving cream.   New Mexico was one of a handful of states not to benefit from this highly visible and very successful advertising medium.  Apparently our highways and byways were deemed to have insufficient road traffic to warrant the billboards.

As a precocious child yet to revel in hours-long explorations of the family encyclopedias, my limited knowledge of “Burma” came from my dad, the smartest man I’ve ever been blessed to know.  Even he couldn’t tell me if the shaving cream he himself used was actually developed in Burma.  In fact, he knew very little about the Southeast Asian country bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.  No one in my then limited circle knew much about Burma either (remember this was long before the internet was a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes, back when the only “Google” was spelled “googol” and represented the number one followed by a hundred zeroes.

Lilliputian in Size, Huge in Flavors

Over the years, of course, my knowledge of Burma (much like my waistline) has increased.  Burma was on the world stage in 1989 when a ruling and violent military regime changed its name from Burma to Myanmar and its capital city from Rangoon to Yangon.  Though the United Nations officially recognized the name change, the United States and the United Kingdom still have not (although during his 2012 visit President Obama did refer to the country as Myanmar on at least one occasion).  While the despotic military junta was dissolved and a nominally civilian government was formed in 2010, a large-scale ethnic cleansing campaign triggered a massive human rights and humanitarian crisis in 2017.

My culinary knowledge of Burmese cuisine, however, has long been lacking.  I’ve always assumed that Burmese cuisine is similar to the cuisine of its bordering nations, perhaps with some country-specific nuances thrown in.  Immediately obvious from the time my culinary explanations began in earnest (circa 1977 Massachusetts), was that Crab Rangoon (despite its name) was not created in the Burmese capital.  So, despite having consumed a fair share of Crab Rangoon over the years, until my inaugural visit to 528 Sushi & Asian Cuisine on 4th Street (thank you Beth Porter), my taste buds were strangers to the diverse and flavorful foods of the storied nation.

Myanmar Style Pork and Pickled Mango Curry

528 Sushi & Asian Food is (to my knowledge) the first Duke City restaurant to offer even a modicum of Burmese food.  Some of that can be attributed to the country’s long seclusion from the world community (film maker Robert Liebermanhe once described Burma as the “second most isolated country in the world after North Korea.)”  As its name declares, the restaurant serves both sushi and Asian food.  The latter is a rather broad umbrella, but it’s readily apparent from scanning the menu over the counter that the umbrella includes Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and of course, Japanese sushi. My eyes targeted dishes prefaced with “Myanmar style.”

You’ve probably surmised that the name “528”  has nothing to do with Highway 528 which runs through Rio Rancho.  The significance of the number 528 is borne from Buddha’s teachings of “metta” or loving-kindness.  “528” is used to symbolize the love within a family while the number “ 1500”  symbolizes love between partners.   That’s the way a very friendly, very shy young lady behind the counter explained it to me.  She also did her best to explain the Burmese dishes on the menu, going so far as warning me that not everyone likes the strong Indian curry used in the first dish that caught my fancy.

Spicy Vegetables Stuffed Fish Cake

That would be the Myanmar style pork and pickled mango curry.  Perhaps the last dish to surprise me as much because of its sheer uniqueness was the Tortillas Florales with Indian Butter from Eloisa in Santa Fe.  Talk about a pleasant surprise!  After recently being subjected to a cavalcade of cloying curry dishes, I’d expected pretty much the same.  Instead, this was the most unique curry dish I’ve had in years, a melding of culinary cultures and techniques: pungent Indian curry, piquant Asian red chili, aromatic cilantro, potatoes reminiscent of those on Mussaman curry and of course, the sweet and mostly sour mango, all served with rice.  Every element was complementary, every bite delicious.

Just as unique is the Myanmar style spicy vegetables stuffed fish cake appetizer, another theretofore new to me surprise.  I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Surprises abounded, starting from the piquant-citrus fragrance wafting from the dish, a bouquet very reminiscent of my favorite papaya salad from An Hy Quan.  The fish cakes were the color of scallops and were split in half butterfly style.  They weren’t so much stuffed as “vegetables” (mostly julienne carrots, cabbage and cilantro)  inserted into the butterflied center of each fish cake and tossed with a piquant citrus sauce.  Texturally, the fish cakes somewhere between marshmallow soft and chewy.  Altogether, this is a terrific dish, one which must be experienced to be appreciated.

Sadly, my inquiry as to which of the listed desserts to try was met with the disappointing news that all were discontinued because they weren’t being ordered by guests. If they were as surprisingly delicious as the entree and appetizer, they would have been glorious. Future visits warrant exploring sushi dishes as well as other Asian specialties, but first there are other Myanmar treasures to sample. 528 Sushi & Asian Cuisine is set in a Lilliputian storefront with seating for no more than four people. During my brief visit, only one additional guest stopped by and that was to pick up an order of Chinese dishes. This little gem is too good to remain a hidden secret!

528 Sushi & Asian Cuisine
5312 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-2104
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Vegetables Stuffed Fish Cake, Myanmar Style Pork and Pickled Mango Curry
REVIEW #1037

528 Sushi & Asian Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cocina Azul – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cocina Azul on Montgomery

Ever the lexicologist, my first inclination at seeing the mantra “panza llena, corazon contento” emblazoned on any restaurant’s menu is to ponder the veracity of the audacious claim that filling the belly can leave diners contented.  The venerable New Mexican dicho which translates from Spanish to “full belly, happy heart” was, after all, conceived at a time when food wasn’t nearly as plentiful as it is today.  Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as my forefathers found out when, for centuries, they eked out a meager subsistence from an austere terrain amidst the ravages of climatic extremes.

As the popularity of buffets serving humongous helpings of pitiful pabulum will attest, any restaurant can accomplish the “full belly” feat, but it takes something special to truly make the heart happy.   February, 2010 saw the launch of a New Mexican food restaurant which has been accompanying that feat since its opening.  Fittingly Cocina Azul, the “blue kitchen” not only uses the slogan “panza llena, corazon contento” on its menu, its exterior signage invites diners to “get your chile on.”

Chips and Salsa

The original Cocina Azul is located in the venerable building that for generations housed the aptly named Sunshine Market, a cornerstone of the neighborhood since it launched in 1925 until its closure  some three quarters of a century later.   From 2007-2009, the converted market on the southeast corner of Mountain Road and 12th Street was home to the Sunshine Cafe, a very highly regarded restaurant which retained some vestiges of the market–-a wooden door to the market’s meat locker, exposed roof trusses and other wood accents taken from the market.  Those vestiges are still visible with the Cocina Azul.

It didn’t take Cocina Azul long to earn significant popular and critical acclaim.  Guests quickly discerned the differentiators which single out the truly special restaurants from their competitors.  Perhaps first and foremost is the service which might be best described as familial.  Quite literally, Frank and Evelyn Barela, the affable owners and their staff, treat their guests as they would treat family members, exuding warmth and hospitality.  Secondly, the food is prepared from time-tested and traditional family recipes bolstered by contemporary nuances that give it upscale qualities.  Those recipes don’t call for dumbed-down chile.  This is chile natives like me respect as much for its flavor as for its piquancy.

Posole

Step into the bright and airy cafe and your eyes might train on a menu board above the counter prefacing the kitchen.  The menu board offers “self-service catering,” an interesting concept in that customers can saunter up to trays of New Mexican food favorites and load up on quart or gallon sized portions of carne adovada, red or green chile, beans, rice and chile con queso.  You can also purchase enchilada casseroles in small (5-7 people), medium (18-20 people) and large (35 people or more) sizes; and tamales in quantities of half-dozen or a dozen.

With the success of the Mountain Road location, it became inevitable that the Barela family would expand their restaurant enterprise.  Their first attempt at expansion was on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side in a shopping center where restaurants turn over at a rapid pace.  Cocina Azul west was short lived at the location.  Downtown proved no more welcoming to Cocina Azul when its fast-casual concept called Azul Burrito Co. didn’t last very long, a casualty of traffic choking problems caused by construction.  Based on a heavy lunch crowd during our inaugural visit on 8 April 2016, the family’s most recent expansion venture, at the Granada Square restaurant space on Montgomery, appears poised to succeed where its predecessors did not.

Ribeye Steak Enchilada Plate with Whole Beans and Fideos

Faithful readers know my enmity for  misguided New Mexican restaurants which commit the mortal sin of adding cumin to chile.  In Frank Barela, I found a kindred spirit.  The amicable co-owner of Cocina Azul assured me you won’t find cumin anywhere near his kitchen, comparing cumin’s odoriferous qualities to smelly socks (my friend Bill Resnik would go a bit further and say “wet dog wearing smelly socks.”).  Barela appreciates the purity of chile, a fruit so perfect it needs no amelioration.  The chile at Cocina Azul is made from pureed whole pods, strained to a silky smoothness.

That purity is discernible in the wondrous salsa, a plastic molcajete brimming with a piquant blend of chile rojo, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano and cilantro.  It’s an eye-opening, mouth-watering salsa with a nice bite.  The salsa is served with  a generous heaping of crispy white and blue corn tortilla chips sturdy enough to hold Gil-sized portions of salsa.  These may be the very best restaurant chips of any New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque.  They’re lightly salted and heavy on corn flavor.  A green salsa, a surprising rarity in New Mexican restaurants, is also available.   It’s at least as good as the red salsa and perhaps slightly more piquant.

Carne Adovada Relleno Plate

10 April 2016: During our inaugural visit to Cocina Azul’s Montgomery location, we experienced a number of issues which detracted from our enjoyment of what we expected would be a very good meal.  First, we ordered the “bottomless” salsa, expecting to have it replenished faithfully at least twice.  Alas, no sooner had the salsa arrived at our table than our server ferried over our bowl of posole and within only a few enjoyable bites of the posole, our entrees arrived.  We would much have preferred a well-paced meal with a more lengthy interval between “courses.”  The kitchen’s heavy hand with salt was the restaurant’s second transgression.  A carne adovada relleno plate (doesn’t that sound fabulous) was so salty we had to send it back.  Other items were only slightly less salty.  Future visits will determine if these issues were, as we suspect, anomalous.

10 April 2016:  During our visits to the Mountain Road location, we concluded Cocina Azul’s posole just might be the best in the city.  For one thing, it looked and tasted like posole and not  Southern hominy (yes, there is a difference).  The  posole  (nixtamilized corn kernels slaked in lime water sans husk) was of a perfect consistency, swimming in a large bowl of red chile and tender chunks of pork.   This was New Mexican comfort food at its finest, one of those dishes that truly can make your heart happy.  At the Montgomery location we didn’t feel the same level of love and comfort.  The culprit (wouldn’t you know it) was posole in need of desalinization.

Whole Beans and Fideos

10 April 2016: One of the most wonderful things about enchiladas is their versatility.  You don’t always have to have yellow corn tortillas when blue corn tortillas are available.  You don’t have to stuff them with ground or shredded beef.; you can engorge them with virtually any protein or vegetable (calabasitas are a great option) you desire.  Similarly, you’re free to choose the cheese and the chile (red, green or both) you want.  A fried egg or two or three–that’s no problem.  Cocina Azul offers several options to make your enchiladas more enchanting.  

The ribeye steak enchiladas (three flat corn tortillas, marinated select ribeye steak, filled with a Cheddar and Monterey Jack blend, melted and smothered with your choice of Frank Sr.’s red or green chile) is an excellent option.  The ribeye is cut into small pieces about the size into which your mom may have cut your steak.  It’s a high quality ribeye with no gristle or fat and it may leave you wondering why more restaurants don’t offer ribeye for your enchiladas.

Two Ala Carte Beef Tacos

10 April 2016:  Unlike at so many other New Mexican restaurants, Cocina Azul doesn’t limit the sides that come with your entrees to the de rigueur rice and beans.  Items on the “Platos de Nuevo Mexico” section of the menu include your choice of two sides including whole beans, fideos, calabasitas, rice and more.  The whole beans are an exemplar of how New Mexico’s “other” official state vegetable should be prepared.  For a unique treat, ask for the fideos, an unassuming short, thin and slightly curved pasta served in a tomato sauce.  Fideos have been served in Spain since the 13th century. 

10 April 2016:  After the crushing disappointment of sending back the carne adovada relleno plate, my Kim opted for two ala carte tacos constructed on soft flour tortillas and stuffed with seasoned ground beef, chopped tomatoes, fresh lettuce and a shredded Cheddar cheese blend.  These tacos are a perfect repository for the restaurant’s wonderful salsa.  The soft tortillas are soft and pliable with just enough thickness to hold in all the ingredients.  If you’re still of the mind that tacos should be prepared in hard shells, these will make a convert out of you.

Sopaipillas

The sopaipillas will have that “corazon contento” effect on you, too.  Not quite the size of a deflated football, they’re the perfect way to end a great meal.  Best of all, these golden treats are served with real clover honey, not that inferior honey-flavored syrup far too many restaurants use. Clover honey is honey that has been harvested from bees that have gathered nectar mostly from clover.  It’s not overly sweet, but this golden-hued ambrosia is just sweet enough for some of the very best sopaipillas in the Duke City.

10 April 2018: In her wonderful tome Sandwiches That You Will Like, my dear friend Becky Mercuri explains that Route 66 in Texas was often called the Chicken Fried Steak Highway.  With her usual poetic flair, she elaborated:  “As splendid and noble as barbecue and Tex-Mex are, both pale before that Great God of Beef dish, chicken-fried steak.”  As regular readers of this blog know, my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” frequently worships at altars where that Great God of Beef is prepared.  In the past several years, we’ve explored the highways and byways around the Duke City in search of the best chicken fried steak to be found.

Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs

Blazing our own New Mexico Chicken Fried Steak Trail, our trek took us to Cocina Azul where a reputedly excellent chicken fried steak is to be found.  Available on the breakfast menu (served all day), it’s large enough to feed a small family (or one Sr Plata):  two eggs prepared the way you want them, hash browns and a half-pound Angus beef steak pounded and batter dipped, fried to a golden brown and smothered with Frank Sr.’s creamy green chile chicken gravy sauce, or Frank Sr.’s regular green or red chile, served with toast, sopaipilla or tortilla.  Sr Plata’s assessment: “This is a top five chicken fried steak.”  It’s thicker than any other we could remember, but is still fork-tender with a crispy exterior giving way easily to its tender interior.  The green chile chicken gravy sauce has a nice bite and is flecked with tendrils of chicken.

10 April 2018:  As Evelyn’s Homemade Pancakes (a full stack of fluffy, delectable pancakes served with butter and syrup on the side) approached our table, we caught a faint whiff of vanilla.  To our minds, vanilla is wholly unnecessary and makes an already sweet dish nearly cloying.  That’s too bad because the three golden orbs are light, fluffy and beautiful.  Rather than vanilla, my preference would have been pancakes in which either cheese or bacon was embedded.

Full Stack of Pancakes

Cocina Azul is one of those rare restaurants which pays attention to the small details, the difference-makers understood by all businesses (such as its predecessor on the premises, the Sunshine Market) striving for longevity.  Our first two experiences at this sterling restaurant convinced me that the issues we experienced on our third visit were an anomaly.  We’ll certainly be back.  Cocina Azul is widely regarded one of Albuquerque’s best New Mexican restaurants and should continue being so provided it continues to create panzas llenas and corazones contentos.

Cocina Azul
1134 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-8009
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2018
1st VISIT:  25 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole, Creamy Green Chile Chicken Soup, Steak Tacos, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Chile Verde Con Queso, Frank Sr. Super Combo Plate, Fideos, Whole Beans, Ribeye Steak Enchilada Plate, Chicken Fried Steak, Pancakes

Cocina Azúl Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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