“Ancient spirits dwell in New Mexico, since before the existence of humanity.”
- The Husband: A Novel by Dean Koontz
The presence of ancient spirits is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico. It’s a presence as palpable as a soft caress or a small, still voice. You can feel that presence while standing reverently under a canopy of stars when the hushed stillness of an ebony night is punctuated by a gentle breeze. You can sense those ancient spirits around craggy canyon walls which reach precipitously upwards to cerulean skies. Contrary to what is popularly postulated, these spirits are earthbound not because of unresolved issues, but because they can’t bear to leave the preternatural beauty of the Land of Enchantment.
Some will call it sacrilege, others will argue it’s a tribute, but in March, 2013, a new restaurant named for those ancient spirits was launched in Bernalillo. Those who consider it sacrilege should remember that some of those spirits earned their reputations as pranksters, the most famous of which is Kokopelli. Known also as a fertility god, healer and raconteur, the flute-playing Lothario has come to embody what is colorful and fun about the Southwest. It’s only fitting that effigies of the hunch-backed flutist festoon the Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille.
Ancient Spirits is situated to the immediate east of the Santa Ana Star Casino in a capacious edifice owned by the Pueblo of Santa Ana (which is not involved in the operation of the restaurant in any capacity). Area residents will recognize the complex as having previously housed Capo’s Bottega Ristorante Italiano and before that the Milagro Brewery & Grill. Perhaps because of the mediocrity of previous tenants, several of my foodie friends were trepidacious about dining at Ancient Spirits, believing it would be more of the same.
Any trepidation or uncertainty we may have felt ourselves quickly dissipated when we ran into executive chef Enrique Guerrero, one of the most accomplished and personable chefs in the Land of Enchantment. Chef Guerrero has a very impressive culinary pedigree that includes having served for more than four years as personal chef for Mexican President Carlos Salinas. During that stint, he had the privilege of having prepared state dinners for Pope John Paul, II as well as President George H.W. Bush.
In New Mexico, Chef Guerrero presided over the kitchens of some of most highly acclaimed restaurants during their halcyon periods, including the now defunct La Mancha at Galisteo Inn when it garnered recognition from Bon Appetit as among “ten of our favorite dining spots in vacation destinations around the country.” Under his watch, La Mancha was also named by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the nation’s 26 “Hot Tables.” More recently, Chef Guerrero was the founding chef for both the O Eating House in Pojoaque and Mangiamo Pronto in Santa Fe.
Chef Guerrero could not have selected a more inviting milieu in which to ply his considerable talents. Ancient Spirits is a very attractive, very well laid-out establishment with a sprawling patio providing awe-inspiring views of the bosque and Sandias. Blonde wood floors, massive floor to ceiling vigas and kiva fireplaces adorn the main dining room. Oneophiles will appreciate the separate bottle room in which they can select from among different wines. Plans are also in motion to relaunch the brewery operation.
Ancient Spirits is described on its Facebook page as a “Southwest Steakhouse,” which offers an eclectic array of food styles: American (new), Mexican, sandwiches, seafood, Southern, steakhouse and vegetarian. You can trust that Chef Guerrero will infuse unique and innovative touches–sometimes with a bit of whimsy, sometimes with a bit of sophistication, but always with a delicious actualization of flavors in each dish.
Surprisingly the lunch menu doesn’t list appetizers unless you consider the four taquitos on the “taquito divertido” menu as starters. Divertido, a Spanish word which translates to “fun or enjoyable” makes sense. The lunch menu also includes four “from the garden” salads and a taquito soup. The sixteen item Platos De Almuerzo (lunch plates) menu features New Mexican entrees, burgers, a petite steak, red chile battered Alaskan cod, quesadilla and sandwiches. Several, but not all, of the Mexican and New Mexican items are prepared with cumin. The lunch menu features thirteen entrees south of ten dollars.
Though it’s on the Platos de Almuerzo menu, the Cowgirl Quesadilla makes a very good appetizer. As quesadillas go, this one is more appetizer sized than it is entree portioned. It’s one of the more creative quesadillas in the Albuquerque area with two pinto pony color charred flour tortillas stuffed with bleu and asadero cheeses, fresh apple slices and spicy pecans. An apricot-habanero glaze is drizzled on the tortillas. The contrasting flavors of the ingredients, especially the bleu cheese and the apple slices, go very well together as do the textural differences of pecans and soft asadero cheese.
The New Mexican entrees proudly showcase New Mexico chile. The slow-roasted turkey enchilada plate is served with your choice of Chimayo red chile or Hatch green chile, both of which exemplify what it is we all love about our state’s official state vegetable. The Chimayo red chile has a rich, earthy flavor and a notable piquancy. The green chile will also bite you back and has a fresh, fruity flavor. The enchiladas are served flat, the preferred way in Northern New Mexico and they’re served with house rice and black beans.
Move over Philadelphia cheese steak. The New Mexico cheese steak (beef tenderloin tips, roasted bell peppers, New Mexico green chile, Cheddar cheese) will make even the most devout of Philly transplants forget “wiz wit” (“with cheese whiz, “wit” onions). While green chile isn’t a novelty on cheese steak sandwiches, Ancient Spirits pulls no punches because it dresses this sandwich with a chile you can respect. It’s green chile with heat as well as flavor. Great as the chile is, you’ll come away remembering and perhaps pining for another bite of the beef tenderloin tips. If they’re indicative of the quality of the restaurant’s steaks, we’ll be trying those soon.
Six dessert offerings, in addition to the house ice cream selection, are available to crown your meal. The desserts are as creative (i.e., jalapeño cheesecake) as many of the entrees. Perhaps the most imaginative dessert is the apple pie tamal (apple pie, moonshine crema) Sheathed within singed corn husks are apple pie filling inside a cinnamon crust served with cinnamon ice cream. As interesting as this dessert is, my preference would have been for masa with a pronounced corn flavor to go with the sweet apples.
SECOND VISIT – 11 APRIL 2013: The beef tenderloin tips on the New Mexico Cheese Steak made such an impression on us that we knew we’d return in short order to try the steak. Any restaurant which calls itself a “Southwest Steakhouse,” especially a restaurant in which Chef Enrique Guerrero presides over the kitchen certainly must know its steak. The grill menu offers eight tempting entrees, not limited to steak. You can also order barbecue pork ribs, a three-quarter pound burger (with pork belly, among other ingredients), two smaller (a meager eight-ounces) burgers and a twelve-ounce pork chop.
Much as we might have wanted to attack a steak the moment we pulled up to the parking lot, other items on the menu beckon “try me first.” One such item is slow-baked Cowboy Bread served with a sweet house butter. There are five breads from which to choose, each one baked individually at ten minutes baking time and each one seemingly more creative than the other. Our choice included smoked local tomatoes, caramelized onions and New Mexico goat cheese. The bread arrives at your table in a too-hot-to-the-touch cast iron baking pan (which could probably have used a bit of baking spray to prevent the bread from sticking to the pan). It’s a very good bread which would have been even better had we been able to extricate it wholly from the pan.
Another starter not to be missed is the aptly named Taquito soup, a beautiful expression of flavor and texture in a flying saucer sized bowl. The basis for this excellent elixir is a nicely seasoned and rich tomato broth in which you’ll find unctuous avocado, charred corn, pulled chicken, crema and a cheese taquito. The cheese taquito is a very pleasant surprise texturally in that it retains just a bit of a crispy crunch. The soup is served warm (not hot) and its portion size isn’t really substantial enough for sharing (not that you’d want to). Those are the two minuses for an otherwise terrific soup.
In the 70s, “stacking” food was a gourmet restaurant trend that lingers on and on. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the latter category is the Ancient Spirits bone-in center-cut rib eye entree nestled atop potato puree and topped with a chile relleno and charred tomato sauce. The reason stacking this entree didn’t work for us is that the chile relleno erupted its molten cheesy innards all over the steak. Grrrrr! Even after scraping away the gooey, cheesy and charred tomato mess, their residual flavors remained imprinted on the steak. What might otherwise have been an excellent steak was diminished. The steak is thick, juicy and it’s prepared to your exacting specifications. Should we order it again, the sides will be on the side.
The ancient spirits who inhabit the Land of Enchantment have one more reason to remain earthbound–a delightful bar and grille named for them with a chef who prepares preternaturally good food.
Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille
1016 West Highway 550
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 April 2013
1st VISIT: 6 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Cowgirl Quesadilla, Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada, New Mexico Cheese Steak, Apple Pie Tamal, Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread, Taquito Soup, New York Strip, Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye