This isn’t Burger King!
You can’t have it your way.
You get it our way or you don’t get it at all.
For some reason, human beings seem inclined to level criticism by the shovelful while apportioning praise and plaudits by the thimbleful. We seem genetically predisposed to put more stock into negativity than we are to believe the best of others. We consider compliments to be based on insincerity or ulterior motives. Even our television viewing preferences gravitate toward gratuitous depictions of misbehavior and depravity. We consider unwatchable any movie or television show portraying kindness and humanity.
That grim indictment of humanity is, by virtue of its own unflattering characterization, itself an example of misanthropic pathos. In the spirit of John 8:7, I will cast the first stone at myself. For years, I heard about a humble little sandwich shop in which customer service was said to be more than a slogan; it was a way of doing business. Instead of embracing this supposed people-pleasing panacea, my first inclination was skepticism and a willingness to lump the Oak Tree Cafe with any number of other eateries which provide good service, albeit with transparent insincerity.
You’re no doubt familiar with the type of restaurant of which I’m talking (chains are especially good at this). The minute you walk in, a painted-on smile approaches you and begins the well-rehearsed wait “schtick” that typically begins with something like, “I’m Julie and I’ll be your server tonight.” Periodic visits to your table (usually when your mouth is full) include perfunctory chit chat as well as refills and more napkins. Though typically not unpleasant, this type of service is still rather impersonal and unmemorable. It’s essentially a game of reciprocal expectations between customer and client; both parties know what to expect and fulfill their respective roles. It’s basically harmless.
Unfortunately, as feedback to this blog will attest, for some restaurants, harmless would be a vast improvement. Some restaurants, it seems, don’t seem to understand that good customer service is the lifeblood of any business. All too often, customer service appears to be of the “This isn’t Burger King! You can’t have it your way.” variety. This type of service is characterized by a haughty disregard for the axiom that the customer is always right. Its rendition of the golden rule stops at “do onto others” as in “do ignore them,” “do belittle them,” do patronize them.” Quite naturally it dissuades return visits.
Since most customer service seems to fall somewhere between the impersonal and well-rehearsed wait schtick and the “you get it our way or you don’t get it at all” approach, you’ll forgive me if I was skeptical about the Oak Tree Cafe. It really is too easy to be cynical about a restaurant which has made its reputation not only because of its great sandwiches, but because of its genuinely warm, personable and attentive service. Though I’m not from Missouri, Oak Tree would just have to show me.
The Oak Tree Cafe was founded just over a quarter century ago by the father-son duo of Michael and Rob Carson who worked side-by-side until Michael’s death at age 86 in 2009. Today Rob is ably assisted by a kitchen staff which abides with the cafe’s long-standing tradition of excellent customer service. In the tradition of Cheers, television’s friendliest bar, it seems everyone–or at least Rob–knows the name of all regulars as they walk in. He also knows each regular’s “usual,” what those regular patrons like to order when they visit. If my first visits are any indication, the regulars outnumber new visitors undoubtedly eager to find out if the cafe’s reputation for outstanding food and exceptional service is well deserved.
In April, 2013, the Oak Tree Cafe relocated from its Uptown location to a new shopping center at 4545 Alameda, N.E. (if you’re coming from the west, you don’t have to cross I-25 to get to the cafe). The Oak Tree Cafe’s digs are 2,500 square-feet of welcome to west side diners whose sandwich options were primarily chain restaurants which blight their neighborhoods. An outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables accommodates another forty guests or so. At its expansive new location, the Oak Tree Cafe now serves burgers, beer, wine and appetizers.
As of my initial visit to the Alameda location on 10 May 2013, only the famous Oak Tree bell hasn’t made it to its new home. At the Uptown location, once you took your seat, conversations with your dining companions were periodically be punctuated by the tintinnabulation of a bell positioned by the cafe door. As customers exited, they were invited to please ring the bell “if the food was great and service was crazy.” Without exception, everyone exiting the premises rang the bell. Look for the bell to make its way to Alameda soon.
For a restaurant with a reputation for service, it’s surprising to find that there is no tableside wait service. Instead you’ll place your order at a counter, interacting with an affable server who’s happy to answer any questions you may have or to make recommendations if you need them. When you first walk in don’t be surprised to be greeted with a friendly handshake and an introduction “I’m Rob Carson. Welcome to the Oak Tree Cafe.” It probably won’t be the only time you interact with Carson who’s a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting throughout the premises with an ambassadorial flair.
The sandwiches warrant not only bell-ringing, but cheers. They’re that good! The sandwich and wraps menu is formidable, nearly two dozen different sandwiches crafted on fresh bread, (sub rolls, wheat, rye, white, Kaiser rolls and French rolls) either toasted or untoasted. Meat products come from Boar’s Head. Sandwiches are named for faithful customers, New Mexico landmarks and celebrities such as Monty Hall and Al Capone. Each sandwich towers with meats, condiments and ingredients, some of which are infrequently found at other Duke City sandwich shops.
If you’re uncertain as to what sandwich to order, focus your study of the menu on those crafted with roast beef, a specialty of the house. The roast beef is slow-cooked on the premises from choice top round. It’s as tender as a marshmallow and as moist and delicious as any roast beef you’ll ever have anywhere! The Taos–hot USDA choice top round roast beef, melted Monterey Jack, grilled onions, grilled green chile, tomato, mayo and lettuce on a fresh-baked Kaiser roll–showcases layer upon layer of roast beef, so juicy and unctuous it resembles a hamburger patty until you taste it. That’s when you gain an appreciation for how wonderful roast beef can be. It’s especially wonderful when its flavor profile melds with the other ingredients which make this my choice for best roast beef sandwich in town.
During my inaugural visit to the Menaul location, the special of the day featured an ingredient combination–hot corned beef on rye toast topped with grilled onions, Monterey jack cheese, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and deli mustard–that made my taste buds very happy. The combination of banana peppers, deli mustard and grilled onions was especially notable, a complementary mix of sweet, savory and tangy flavors. This sandwich is piled about twice as high as many other sandwiches you’ll find in local eateries. It also stands tall above the rest in terms of pure deliciousness.
The sprawling Alameda location is every bit as accommodating and friendly as its previous home. Even the menu bespeaks of friendliness with the slogan “A warm, friendly atmosphere full of camaraderie and congeniality.” Location aside, the biggest difference between one location and another is the menu which now includes three gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads and appetizers. Sandwiches are the Oak Tree Cafe’s raison de’etre and will probably always be the most popular draw, but burgers and chicken sandwiches will beckon, too.
Although all sandwiches are served with a pickle spear and your choice of homemade apple coleslaw, homemade macaroni salad or fresh fruit, you owe it to yourself to try some of the other sides on the menu: hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries or beer-battered onion rings. The beer-battered onion rings are among the very best in the city. These golden hued beauties are served on a tree-like apparatus, just ready to be plucked. Bite into them and onion juiciness squirts out, a wonderful departure from the usual desiccation you experience with out-of-the-bag onion rings most restaurants serve.
Much as the burgers and chicken sandwiches beckon, chances are you’ll succumb to the stronger calling of a sumptuous sandwich. One of the best is the Oak Tree Combo, a sandwich honoring the years spent at the San Mateo (Uptown) location. This is a sandwich’s sandwich, a meaty behemoth on a Kaiser roll. The ingredients–USDA top round roast beef, turkey breast, corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, melted Cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes–go very well together. It’s such a good sandwich, you may mourn finishing your last bite.
The Oak Tree Cafe has made a believer our of this cynic who often laments the absence of truly sincere, truly personable service coupled with excellent sandwiches. This cafe is an anachronism, a throwback to the days in which the customer was always right and you could get things done your way. At its new Alameda location, the Oak Tree Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 8PM.
Oak Tree Cafe
4545 Alameda, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 May 2013
1st VISIT: 5 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: The Taos Sandwich, Hot Corned Beef Sandwich, Oak Tree Combo, Onion Rings