The quaint names given to English pubs are sometimes nearly as interesting as the reasons for which those names were bestowed. Take for example what is arguably England’s oldest pub, the Trip to Jerusalem. Built into the rock face under Nottingham Castle, the brewhouse has been offering sustenance and sanctuary to weary sojourners since before 1189. The genesis of its name comes from the fact that the inn served as a travel lodge in which crusaders relaxed–no doubt with a pint or eight–before heading off to battle the Saracens in the Holy Land.
Rio Rancho’s newest brew pub (as of 2008), the Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill explains the genesis of its name this way: “The name Fat Squirrel comes from the old Turtle Mountain days. One of the brewers discovered that a squirrel had been stealing the grain from the alley and by the dumpster after brews were done. Gorging on the spent grain, the squirrel quickly became so fat that she had a hard time running around the parking lot and had taken to lying on her belly in the shade under cars. After the first winter she returned with her babies for the free and easy meals. In the English pub tradition, we decided to name this restaurant after her and serve a namesake English style IPA that we contract with Turtle Mountain.”
No trip across the English countryside would be complete without the entertaining travel game of finding the most unique pub name–or even better, the name with the best double-entendre, It’s easy to go into the gutter with suggestively connotative pub names which I won’t mention here since this is a family-friendly blog. You’ll find some of the same double-entendre within the cozy confines of the Fat Squirrel.
The Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille is located on Southern Boulevard just a few blocks east of Rio Rancho’s most popular microbrewery, the Turtle Mountain. In fact, the Fat Squirrel occupies the location which once housed Turtle Mountain, but where the original Turtle Mountain was crowded and cramped (compared to a fraternity house basement by the Albuquerque Beer Scene blog), the completely revamped edifice is spacious, upscale and classy (at least in comparison to its predecessor). Both the Turtle Mountain and the Fat Squirrel are owned by Rico and Liz Ortiz.
The Fat Squirrel is patterned like an upscale English style pub. It is appointed with rich, dark oaks. The decor includes squirrel themed signage warning patrons to protect their nuts from the furry, long-tailed rodent for which the pub is named. Libation loving patrons might belly up to the penny bar (yes, a bar whose surface is covered in some 21,000 pennies) while guests wanting their favorite pub grub might choose to sit in one of the comfortable booths. Laminated maps of the United States festoon each of the tables in the booths. This would make Miss Teen South Carolina very happy because of her concern for people in our nation who don’t have maps and therefor can’t find the United States on a map of the world.
The Fat Squirrel shares several similarities with its elder sibling. The first and most obvious is the parking situation which is atrocious. I know several people who have been turned away from dining at the Turtle Mountain because they can’t find a parking spot within easy walking distance of the brewpub during hectic lunch hours. In the evening the Fat Squirrel’s parking situation is similarly challenging. Another similarity (it goes without saying) is the microbrewery’s specialty, award-winning beer. The Fat Squirrel features 20 beers on tap, 45 bottled beers and more than 50 different wines. The Fat Squirrel Pale Ale is a popular favorite.
The menu is a vehicle for the diversity of the Turtle Mountain’s beers, many of which are used to accentuate the sauces and gravies on menu items as well as salad dressings and even the restaurant’s signature Irish stew (more on that later). The Fat Squirrel’s chef creates all sauces and dressings from scratch, one of the touches that elevates the menu above the level of pub grub.
That menu has some pleasant surprises, perhaps the biggest surprise being how flavorful some items are. The dinner menu features USDA choice cut steaks hand-cut in house. The steaks are ameliorated with your choice of either a red wine mushroom reduction or roasted garlic and herb compound butter. According to the wait staff, one of the favorite entrees is Jagerschnitzel, a simple comparison of which might be “like a chicken-fried steak, only made with pork instead of steak.”
The starters portion of the menu is intriguing and diverse with such unique offerings as corned beef and cabbage wontons, Kobe beef sliders, schnitzel strips and a Southern favorite, fried pickle strips. The fried pickle strips are beer battered and served with a creamy ranch dressing made in-house. The pickles are not the small, thin-sliced brined dills the type of which you’ll find on burgers, but thicker strips sheared from whole pickles. The batter is crispy and adheres well to the pickles. It’s the ranch dressing that really stands out, however.
Another starter not often found in grill pubs, but common in their English and Irish counterparts are Scotch eggs. The Fat Squirrel’s rendition features two hard-boiled egg halves coated with lamb sausage breading served with Fat Squirrel pale ale mustard. For me, eating boiled eggs is akin to eating tennis balls, so these aren’t really my thing, but I do appreciate a good pale ale mustard and the Fat Squirrel’s is some of the best I’ve had in the area.
When we lived in England, we grew to love mussels steamed in cider (the hard stuff), but have yet to encounter that unique flavour combination anywhere in the colonies. White wine seems to be the most common agent used in New Mexico where it’s paired with anything from saffron to garlic to green chile. At the Fat Squirrel, Brazilian blue mussels–an entire pound of them–are steamed in beer and garlic butter with tomatoes and onions served with crostini. The most prominent flavor notes are of saltiness, oft a consequence of cooking with beer. We also missed the fun and deliciousness of dunking soft bread into the broth. While the crostini reconstituted when dunked into the broth, it also broke apart.
Sandwiches and burgers, all of which are served with the restaurant’s house cut fries or coleslaw, play a prominent role in the lunch menu. The burgers are “build your own” with an eight-ounce certified Angus patty foundation served on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato and two toppings. There are ten different sandwiches on the menu, but as chronicled repeatedly on this blog, it’s become one of my life’s quests to find a pastrami sandwich to approximate those with which I fell in love in the Northeastern United States. That made the hot pastrami sandwich the logical choice for my inaugural visit. The Fat Squirrel’s rendition includes a generous endowment of pastrami on pumpernickel with Monterrey Jack cheese and the aforementioned pale ale mustard. Two of those components were a huge hit with me.
The first is the pumpernickel bread which is coarse and strongly flavored. Pumpernickel is a type of rye not often associated with pastrami sandwiches. The second was the pale ale mustard which is coarsely ground and has a nice, soulful kick. While I appreciate that the Fat Squirrel is generous with its pastrami, it’s pretty lean stuff. I subscribe to the Mayor Ed Koch school which appreciates its pastrami a bit on the marbled (translation, fatty) side.
It seems most English styled American pubs serve fish and chips, but it’s a rare find whose fish and chips have a modicum of semblance to what you’d find in one of the thousands of fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom. Like many of those, the Fat Squirrel deep fries battered haddock filets and while they’re not quite like we were used to when we lived in England, they’re pretty darn good. For one thing, when your fork punctures the golden sheened beer batter, you actually encounter light, flaky and delicious haddock, not more batter. For another, the batter is crispy yet thin enough to allow good penetration from malt vinegar. You can ask for one, two or three fillets (you’ll want at least two). The Fat Squirrel offers a house-made tartar sauce second only to the one served at the Independence Grill. It’s a creamy sauce punctuated with dill and garlic and would make a wonderful salad dressing (those are house-made, too).
The “chips” component of choice in the fish and chips combination served in most American pubs seems to be French fries, usually out-of-the bag which means thin, desiccated and tasteless. Some American pubs serve steak fries which are thicker and larger than the chips served in the United Kingdom, but which offer little in terms of taste. The Fat Squirrel’s chips aren’t quite steak fries, but they’re thicker, more substantial and much better tasting than French fries from a bag. They’re also perfect hosts for malt vinegar.
On a cold winter day, nothing beats hearty soups and stews. The Fat Squirrel’s answer for bone-chilling cold and mood dampening bluster is its Irish Stout beef stew, a swimming-pool sized bowl brimming with potatoes, shallots, beef, Irish Stout and vegetables. It’s a flavor-rich stew served with traditional Irish soda bread, a very dense bread which isn’t especially good for sopping up the stew’s wonderful broth. You know it’s a good stew when all the veggies are more than al dente; they’re cooked all the way through and are fresh and delicious.
Fittingly, the quintessential English comfort food is also available at the Fat Squirrel. That would be shepherd’s pie, sirloin tips served with vegetables and gravy topped with homemade red-skinned mashed potatoes and Cheddar cheese. On the one instance in which I had this entry, the vegetables were slightly undercooked, but otherwise this dish has some semblance to shepherd’s pie we’ve had in England. My preference would have been for lamb or mutton, but the sirloin tips are tender and delicious.
Jaegerschnitzel isn’t something we saw often during our frequent forays into British gastropub dining so it was a pleasant surprise to see the “hunter’s cutlets” on the menu. The breaded and pan-fried pork cutlet is fork-tender and perfectly prepared, but what makes Jaegerschnitzel special is the “hunter sauce,” variations of which usually make this dish an adventure. The Fat Squirrel’s hunter sauce is replete with chopped mushrooms in a tangy brown gravy. The Jaegerschnitzel is served with housemade red-skinned mashed potatoes and a smoky apple cabbage. We didn’t get much of the “smokiness,” but thoroughly enjoyed the sweet-tartness of the apple cabbage.
In 2009, Albuquerque The Magazine went in search of the best burger in Albuquerque. Pairing staffers to sample burgers at forty different burger purveyors, their systematic testing methodology involved ordering two burgers at each restaurant: the specialty of the house and a basic cheese burger prepared at medium. The entire staff then got together and ate at the five restaurants garnering the highest ratings. With more than two-hundred burgers consumed, the second-place selectee as the Duke City’s best burger was the Fat Squirrel’s Avocado Bacon Burger.
Now, you won’t see an avocado bacon burger on the menu. All burgers are “build your own” with an eight-ounce certified angus patty foundation served on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato and two toppings; in this case, avocado, bacon and a third ingredient: Cheddar cheese. As with truly outstanding burgers (and these are possible even without green chile), the reason this is such a good burger is because the beef is so good. It’s juicy, tender and absolutely delicious with just a bit of seasoning to ameliorate it. The bread is a perfect canvass for the beef, light enough to allow the beef to shine and substantial enough to hold in all the juiciness. The bacon is somewhere between crispy and flaccid and the avocado soft and rich.
The rabid UNM basketball fans at Lobo Lair for which my friend Ruben sometimes writes took the Albuquerque The Magazine’s challenge further and went off in their own quest to discover the best burger, but they expanded their search outside the Duke City area. The Fat Squirrel’s burger was highly praised, rated higher by at least one poster than the fabled Bobcat Bite’s burger. Lobo Lair, by the way, is a tremendous resource for avid Lobo fans who certainly work up a hunger cheering their favorite team on to victory.
Desserts include a pub favorite with a twist. That would be a house-made potato bread pudding served warm a ‘la mode. It’s drizzled with a whiskey praline sauce and isn’t cloying as some bread pudding tends to be. Potato flour makes some of the best doughnuts I’ve ever had and it makes a good basis for bread pudding, too.
A few visits to this Rio Rancho pub and grill just might have its guests resembling the well-fed Squirrel for which the pub is named.
Fat Squirrel Pub & Grille
3755 Southern Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 08 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Potato Bread Pudding, Irish Stout Beef Stew, Fish and Chips, Shepherd’s’ Pie, Avocado Bacon Burger, Jaegerschnitzel