Set in Albuquerque, Breaking Bad, AMC’s critically acclaimed television series may leave viewers with the impression that the Duke City is a haven for meth cookery and fried chicken joints. Had the fair city been more accurately typecast, it might have been portrayed as a mecca for microbreweries. The Albuquerque Beer Scene blog says it best: “It’s like Portland, but with sun,” a comparison which shows just how much the city’s microbrewery and brewpub scene has grown–and not just in terms of sheer numbers. Duke City breweries have accorded themselves so well at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup that the city may soon be re-christened “Albeerquerque.”
Should the New Mexico Tourism Department ever decide to introduce a New Mexico Beer Trail, the Duke City would be its epicenter both geographically and in terms of quantity. The Land of Enchantment now boasts of nearly thirty independent microbreweries, brewpubs, brew houses and taprooms with the largest concentration in its most populous city. In fact, the Duke City could be the hub of a Beer Trail with spokes traversing to just about ever corner of the state because high-quality craft beer can now be found throughout the Land of Enchantment.
The success of New Mexico’s craft brewing industry mirrors a nation-wide trend. Nearly 1,800 craft breweries operated across the fruited plain in 2010 with an estimated 9,951,956 barrels (each barrel containing 31 gallons) of beer sold in 2010 accounting for sales of $7.6 billion, up from 8,934,446 barrels and $7 billion the previous year. While craft beers continue to grow in popularity, overall beer sales actually declined by nearly one percent during the same 2009-2010 period. That growth can probably be attributed to the local touch provided by brewers with ties to the community. Duke City residents, it seems, would rather quaff a pint or three of locally brewed beer than a six pack of the beer that made Milwaukee famous.
Over the years the culinary bill of fare at many of our state’s breweries has upscaled from salty snacks designed to make patrons thirsty to a repertoire of substantial sandwiches and bounteous burgers. More recently, however, menus at several breweries and brew pubs have made significant inroads, some moving into the arena of the gastropub, a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-quality, often high-end food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to describe food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub.” It may, in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.
While many brewpubs don’t call themselves gastropubs, it’s obvious food isn’t an after-thought or a Miss Congeniality and diners don’t have to be four sheets to the wind to enjoy it. These breweries and brewpubs understand something vinters have known for a long time–that pairing their product with the right foods can emphasize its inherently complex, interesting and delicious flavors. Some of the Duke City’s breweries and brewpubs have emerged as dining destinations in their own right. They remain at heart and first of all, purveyors of high-quality craft beers, but they don’t necessarily take a back seat to anyone when it comes to food.
One such destination is the Nexus Brewery which opened in June, 2011 on Pan American Freeway East. It doesn’t have the brewpub-restaurant storefront look and feel of some Duke City breweries and is in fact, situated on a largely industrial complex off Interstate 25 just north of Montgomery. Don’t look for it on the “restaurant row” side of the freeway as we first did. It’s on the side of the freeway headed north toward Santa Fe. Keep your eyes open because the signage doesn’t shout out at you as signage at some brewpubs tends to do–and even when you drive up directly in front of it, the only telltale sign is a small logo that resembles a brand you’d normally see on cowhide.
The Nexus Brewery is the brainchild of Ken Carson, a former banker who once served as the state’s banking commissioner. A hobbyist home brewer, Carson decided to take it to the next level after fifteen years of perfecting his home beer brew. He chose the name Nexus because it reflects his desire to create a sense of community–and as a tribute to Star Trek The Next Generation where in “the Nexus,” circumstances are whatever you want them to be. For Duke City diners lamenting the absence of non-chain Cajun food and a truly great fried chicken, the circumstances are exactly as we want them at Nexus where both are offered along with what Carson terms “New Mexican soul food.”
New Mexican soul food is a combination of Southern and Cajun entrees honoring the Carson family’s Southern roots and New Mexican favorites befitting their current home. Nexus may have the only menu in which red chile nachos share space on the appetizer menu with fried pickles and signature dishes include both home style open faced enchiladas and Southern fried chicken and waffles. Everything is made fresh in the brewery’s kitchen. The Southern fried chicken, in fact, takes 25 minutes to prepare because it’s made to order so it arrives at your table steaming hot.
You’ll have a selection of seven New Mexican and Southern inspired appetizers to whet your appetite as you wait for your entrees. If you order the fried chicken, you’ll want a starter that will last more than a few bites. The homemade corn tortilla chips and fresh pico de gallo fit the bill. This “rooster’s beak” is made from finely chopped tomatoes, white onions and jalapeños, but doesn’t have much of a bite if piquancy is what you’re after. It’s still fresh and lively, coupling well with crispy chips which are low in salt.
Perhaps the most popular Southern-soul food combination across the fruited plain is the marriage of crispy, Southern-style fried chicken with waffles draped in maple syrup and butter. At Nexus, a single golden, orb-shaped waffle sliced into four pieces, has just a slight crunch that belies a silken texture. Alas the syrup is served cool and has a cooling effect on the waffles. Thankfully the wait staff will gladly nuke them for you, but better would be warm syrup. The combination of sweet, syrupy waffles and savory fried chicken makes for an excellent meal, better than an entree and dessert pairing. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Nexus Brewery a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its chicken and waffles as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
That’s especially true because Nexus’s fried chicken may be the very best fried chicken in the Duke City (although Johnny’s Homemade Takeout and Delivery would have had something to say about that had it not closed). “There’s not much competition,” you say. The truth is there are a number of restaurants (and not just the fried chicken joints showcased on Breaking Bad) who serve good to very good fried chicken. The fried chicken (at least the breasts) is boneless and lightly breaded. With a “have it your way” approach, you can order two or three pieces of chicken and select from among breasts, thigh or legs in any combination you desire. Any way you have it, the fried chicken is superb!
For the first four months of our eight year residency in Mississippi, our weekly after church Sunday lunch was at at Aunt Jenny’s, a circa 1852 home on the bayou which specialized in all-you-can-eat pond-raised catfish, shrimp and chicken served family style. Since leaving the Deep South, we’ve lamented the dearth of good catfish in New Mexico. We saw it as almost heretical when we read the Nexus claim that its Swai, a fresh water farm raised fish, tastes better than catfish. Swai fillets, two of them, are featured fare on the Southern fried fish and beer battered fries entree.
It may mean renouncing my honorary Southern Gentleman status, but I believe Nexus’ claim may be accurate. These lightly battered fish are more moist than catfish, making them a more willing recipient of malt vinegar (a preferential hold-over from our years in England). So, not only is this fish dish better than just about any we had in Mississippi, it may also have given us the best “fish and chips” dish we’ve had since leaving “Old Blighty.” The beer-battered fries are excellent, too.
Optional sides include collard greens, leafy cruciferous greens slow-simmered with smoked turkey. Renown for their cholesterol-lowering ability as well as their leaf-like texture and a flavor that makes spinach seem tame in comparison, greens are an acquired taste. We enjoyed them immensely during our years in the Deep South and were reminded of those with each bite of Nexus’ version.
Dining at Nexus is perhaps as close as you’ll find in Albuquerque’s to dining in the deep south. A surprisingly Southern menu includes New Orleans-style gumbo with andouille sausage and chicken. As John Lucas astutely points out in the comments below, proteins are parsimonious (paltry poultry and absent andouille), but flavor is not. Its thick, hearty roux has a smoky bouquet and a nice spice kick (moreso than the piquancy of some New Mexico green chile). The thick, dark roux is complemented with plenty of okra as well as the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking: onions, celery and bell pepper.
Though the gumbo isn’t accompanied with French bread, you can do one better by ordering Nexus unique rendition of New Mexico inspire cracklin cornbread. Cracklin cornbread is a Southern tradition, usually made with all pieces of crispy rendered pork fat and skin. Paula Deen, the queen of butter, even has a version in which jalapeños are used. At Nexus, the cracklins are chicharrones and instead of jalapeños, green chile is used. The muffin-shaped cornbread is crumbly yet moist, perfect for for crumbling into the gumbo. A basket of four is the way to go here.
For dessert, the staff favorite is Nexus biscuit bread pudding a la mode. Howard Paige, author of “Aspects of African-American Foodways” explains that biscuit bread pudding originated when African Americans could only afford homemade biscuits instead of the white bread the more affluent enjoyed. When the biscuits went stale, inventive cooks turned them into a wonderful bread pudding dessert. Nexus doesn’t use stale biscuits, but it does use a biscuit mix to create dense, but moist bread pudding which is topped with a Scottish dark ale glaze. It’s served warm and is best with vanilla ice cream.
My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, is as fond of Nexus’s libations as he is the cuisine. Whether you visit for the craft brews or the terrific New Mexico Soul Food, you’ll find something to like at this very welcome member of the fraternity of award-winning breweries.
4730 Pan American Freeway East, N.E., Suite D
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 December 2012
1st VISIT: 4 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Fried Chicken and Waffles, Southern Fried Fish and Beer Battered Fries, Collared Greens, Pico de Gallo, Cracklin Cornbread, New Orleans Style Gumbo, Bread Pudding