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Red Rock Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Red Rock Deli on Lomas Blvd.

America may be a multicultural melting pot, but thriving within its most populous metropolises are ethnic neighborhoods–pockets of diversity residing in two worlds, retaining many of the cultural and culinary traditions of their motherland while integrating into and pursuing the American dream.  Cities such as Chicago have long realized that these ethnic enclaves offer a treasure trove of cultural and culinary experiences.  Most of these neighborhoods welcome culinary tourism–the opportunity to showcase the cuisine of their homelands. 

One such example is the city of Chicago which boasts of the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw (as many as 183,000 by some estimates) in the world.   Storefronts and restaurants in “Little Poland” on Chicago’s far Northwest side are bedecked in the white and red flag of Poland.  They offer everything from pierogies to kielbasa.  Every Labor Day weekend Chicago celebrates its Polish heritage at the Taste of Polonia festival where Polish cuisine and culture are showcased.

The interior of the Red Rock Deli. Can you tell it was once a Subway Restaurant?

Obviously Albuquerque doesn’t have the population to support a “Chinatown” or a “Little Poland,” but the Duke City does offer multicultural dining diversity.  Although several of the city’s ethnic restaurants are clustered throughout the International District, many others are strewn throughout the metropolitan area where they’ve integrated into the fabric of  neighborhoods which may or may not have an ethnic population base.   One such restaurant is the Red Rock Deli which opened its doors in October, 2014 in the far Northeast Heights.  Featuring the cuisine of Poland and Eastern Europe, the Red Rock Deli sits on Lomas just west of Tramway. 

If you’ve ever been blessed with the opportunity to visit Chicago’s Little Poland, the Red Rock Deli will seem very familiar once you step within its doors.  To your immediate right are shelves stocked with comestibles such as red borscht, sauerkraut, jams and so much more.  Make sure to peruse the freezers where savory and sweet pierogies, stuffed cabbage and other items can be purchased.  Other shelves are jam-packed with candy, cookies, beverages and other grocery items not usually found in Duke City stores.

Russian Roulette, a mix of six different kinds of pierogi

Owner Mark Toczek spent his formative years in Poland before moving first to Germany then to Chicago (which he visits frequently to stock up on the items which grace his shelves and his deli’s menu).  In 1995, he launched the Red Rock General Store in Blanca, Colorado just outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park about 1.5 hours north of Taos.  The Red Rock General Store has long been TripAdvisor‘s highest rated restaurant in the area. 

Mark, who launched the Red Rock Deli in October, 2014, is an effusive and hands-on owner with a high likeability quotient and a welcoming smile for everyone.  He operates the deli with his mother Jadwiga.  While the walls are papered with imagery depicting New York’s subway system (a remnant from the years in which the store housed a Subway restaurant), the menu is proudly and prominently Chicago and not just the Little Poland section of the Windy City.

The Polish Polish

Our eyes immediately gravitated on the menu to the Italian Beef sandwich, a Chicago staple.  Also catching our eyes was menudo, a New Mexico favorite among intrepid diners.  The menu has four sections, the first of which lists three Polish sausage options.  Six hot dogs (including Chicago-style and a New Yorker) precede twelve sandwich options (including Angus hamburgers) on the menu.  The “specialties” section of the menu lists the Polish specialties along with the aforementioned menudo and blood sausage. 

It’s not often (if ever) the term Russian Roulette elicits salivation, but at the Red Rock Deli you just might find yourself drooling at the mention.  Russian Roulette is a mix of six different kinds of pierogi (a sweet Russian Roulette option offers six different kinds of pierogi with sweet stuffing) from among the nine variants of savory stuffing available at Red Rock.  For a pittance, you can have the pierogi fried with onions and bacon.  It’s a winning combination.

Denuded Chicago-Style Hotdog

The pierogi are about the size of a Chinese dim sum dumpling or about two bites worth.  They’re served with a generous dollop of sour cream, not that it’s needed when you can scoop them up with crispy bacon and onions fried to a pearlescent sheen.  Among the nine available options with which the pierogi can be stuffed are potato, sauerkraut, ground meat, cabbage and spinach.  All are very good with our very favorite being the spinach stuffing.  In our increasingly cosmopolitan world in which the unusual and unique are embraced, it’s nice to enjoy old-fashioned and traditional pierogi. 

Of the three Polish sausage options, we couldn’t pass up the one anadiplotic name–Polish Polish, a hot dog style sandwich with Polish sausage, brown mustard and pickled jalapeños.  What you’ll notice first about the Polish Polish is the bolillo-style bread which resembles the bread used on Sonoran hot dogs.  Mark procures this bread from Colorado.  It’s so good you’ll want to use it on all your future sausage and hot dogs.  It has a dense and crusty exterior and a soft, pillowy interior.  The Polish sausage nestled within that bread is procured from Chicago and is sliced diagonally.  It’s a coarse, garlicky and smoky sausage with a natural casing that snaps when you bite into it.  The pearlescent onions and pickled jalapeños complement the sausage very well.

Italian Beef

For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, only a Chicago-style hot dog would do though by omitting the tomatoes, pickles, jalapeño (normally sport peppers are used) and even the celery salt, you could hardly call it a traditional Chicago hot dog.  Its only claims to Chicago were the neon green relish, mustard and a Vienna Beef hot dog directly from Chicago.  Vienna Beef hot dogs have a natural casing that gives them a discernible snap when you bite into them.   The same delightful buns used on the Polish Polish sheath the hot dog which extends beyond the bun by a good inch on both sides. 

Among the foods most expatriated Chicagoans tend to miss most–no matter where they may settle–is the uniquely Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich, about which Thrillist wrote “Some cities were built on rock ‘n’ roll, but Chicago was built on big, greasy meat mountains on rolls.”  The Italian Beef sandwich features thinly-sliced, slow-roasted roast beef dripping with homemade Italian gravy on a dense, long Italian-style roll.  There are at least four Duke City eateries now serving Italian Beef sandwiches and (with apologies to Pizza 9) perhaps none of them make a better one than the Red Rock Deli.  Quite simply, it’s got all the elements of an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich and can be prepared with your choice of sweet peppers or hot giardiniera (or both). It’s Chicago good!

Nalesniki

Dessert options include the aforementioned sweet pierogi and nalesniki, crepes stuffed with sweet farmer cheese fried in butter and served with sour cream and powdered sugar.  Texturally similar to cottage cheese, farmer cheese is a fresh, dry-curd cheese with a tangy flavor.  Stuffed into crepes topped with powdered sugar, this dessert is rich and delicious without the cloying flavor of too many crepes. 

The Red Rock Deli is a welcome addition to Albuquerque’s increasingly diverse culinary scene. You need not know anything about Polish cuisine. If you love a great hot dog, a terrific sandwich or a Chicago style deli, you’ll be right at home.

Red Rock Deli
13025 Lomas Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 332-9656
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Italian Beef Sandwich, Classic Hotdog, Polish Polish, Nalesniki, Russian Roulette

Red Rock Deli on Urbanspoon

New Mexico Beef Jerky Company – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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New Mexico Beef Jerky Company on Fourth

NOTE (17 November 2014)Within the next few weeks, the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company will be relocating to 1527 4th Street, N.W., about three blocks south of its present location.

The internet is replete with compilations abounding in truth and humor entitled “You know you’re from New Mexico when…”  Perhaps most resonating in factuality are the items which depict just how much New Mexicans value their culinary traditions.  For example, you know you’re from New Mexico when: your favorite breakfast meat is sliced fried bologna; you buy green chile by the bushel and red chile by the gallon; most restaurants you go to begin with ‘El’ or ‘Los'; you have an extra freezer just for green chile; you think Sadie’s was better when it was in a bowling alley; and you can order your Big Mac with green chile.

Even if you’ve lived in the Land of Enchantment for only a short time, several items on that short list will ring with veracity for you. If you’re a lifelong resident, however, the list may get your dander up a bit because, conspicuous by their absence, are sacrosanct New Mexican foods and culinary traditions we treasure. We would add to the list, you know you’re from New Mexico when: your trail mix consists of pinon and carne seca and instead of popcorn, your home movie nights consist of eating chicharrones in front of the television.

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The comfy, cozy interior of NM Beef Jerky Company

You also know you’re from New Mexico if you can drive down the street and pass several stores selling carne seca. New Mexicans have always had an affinity for carne seca whose literal translation is “dried beef” but for which a more accurate description would be “dehydrated beef.” Spanish conquistadores and settlers learned the process for making carne seca from indigenous peoples, quickly discerning the value of preserving and ease of transporting dehydrated meats as they set off on their conquests. When they settled down and raised cattle for their families, they retained their carne seca preparation traditions. Years of preparing it had taught them that beyond its practicality, carne seca is an addictively delicious meat treat.

Frank Chavez and his family have been provisioning New Mexicans with high-quality, delicious carne seca for three decades, proffering some thirteen flavors. The carne seca is hung and dried in a controlled environment until the desired texture is achieved. The thin strips of dehydrated beef are then marinated in such ingredients as Hatch red and green chile with no additives or preservatives. Any triskaidekaphobia you might have will dissipate when you feast your eyes and wrap your lips around any of the thirteen flavors: original (salt only), peppered (salt and pepper), green chile, red chile, tangy teriyaki, extra hot teriyaki, lemon peppered, old-fashioned, garlic, extra hot Habanero, hot chile con limon and Christmas (red and green chile).

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Taco Burgers

27 November 2013: Texturally, the carne seca is absolutely perfect.  That means it snaps when you bite into it or break apart a piece.  It isn’t stringy in the least and is lean and super delicious.  The chile con limon is not to be missed.  Chile con limon is a very popular Mexican spice mix combining chile spices, salt, lemon and lime to impart an addictive piquant-tangy-citrusy flavor.  The heat is real.  So is the citrusy flavor.  Other early favorites include the extra hot teriyaki and the garlic, but that’s likely to change with future visits and more sampling.

Chavez, an Albuquerque native who grew up in the area around Central and Atrisco, realizes that New Mexican’s can’t live on carne seca alone. When he launched his second instantiation of the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company, he diversified its offerings by selling chicharrones, too…and if there’s anything New Mexicans love as much as carne seca, it’s chicharrones. We also love hot and spicy New Mexico Quality (the store brand) red chile chips so Chavez makes the very best, created with the same high standards as other products in the store.

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Carne Adovada Burrito

Several months after launching his second store (1900 Fourth Street, N.W.), Chavez once again listened to his customers (a novel concept more restaurateurs should embrace) who were clamoring for more. He expanded the menu beyond carne seca, chicharonnes and red chile chips, restructuring the store to include several tables for eat-in dining. One of the first to visit after the menu expansion was Rudy Vigil, the Sandia savant who’s led me to some great restaurants. Rudy endorsed the burritos at the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company with the same enthusiasm he has for the University of New Mexico Lobos.

The limited menu befits the store’s diminutive digs.  Four breakfast burritos (served all day long), five lunch burritos, burgers (tortilla or bun) and taco burgers make up the standard menu, but savvy diners will quickly pick up on the fact that they can also order chicharrones in half or full-pound sizes.  Even better, they can indulge in a chicharrones plate which comes with two tortillas and four ounces of chile for a half-pound portion.  Order a full pound of chicharrones and you’ll double the number of tortillas and chile portion size if you order the full pound.  You’ll also double your enjoyment.

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Chicharonnes Burrito with Green Chile

1 November 2013: Order the taco burgers as an appetizer to begin your experience in New Mexico Beef Jerky Company deliciousness. The taco burgers are simple in their construction: a hard-shell corn tortilla, a hamburger-style beef patty, lettuce and your choice of red or green chile (or both). More tacos should be made with hamburger patties. Texturally, hamburgers have an advantage in that they don’t fall off the taco shell. Hamburger patties are also superior in flavor to fried ground beef. The real kicker, literally and figuratively, is the green chile which bites back with a vengeance. It’s an excellent chile, some of the best in town.

1 November 2013: The carne adovada burrito is so good, it’s easy to imagine yourself having one for breakfast and one for lunch two or seven times a week.  The breakfast version is made with carne adovada, eggs, cheese and potatoes while the lunch version omits the eggs (though as previously noted, breakfast burritos are available all day long).  The carne adovada is outstanding with tender tendrils of porcine perfection marinated in a rich, piquant red chile made from chile pods.  Burritos are generously engorged, easily twice as thick as most hand-held burritos…and most of the filling is carne, not potatoes.  They’re easily affordable and will fill you up.  My adovada adoring friend Ruben calls them “unbelievably good,” a sentiment you’ll echo. Another friend Mike Muller believes these are the very best carne adovada burritos in town. Frankly, I can’t think of any better.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with New Mexico Quality Chips

Green Chile Cheeseburger with New Mexico Quality Red Chile Chips

1 November 2013: By most measures, the carne adovada burrito would be the best burrito at most restaurants’ burrito line-up, but it may not even be the best burrito at the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company. That honor probably belongs to the chicharrones burrito (with beans and chile), the only possible way in which chicharrones could be improved. The chicharrones are exemplars of crackling pork. They’re crispy, crunchy and redolent with porcine goodness. This burrito is tailor-made for green chile, an R-rated variety in that it may be unsuitable (too piquant) for some children, adults who don’t have an asbestos-lined mouth and Texans. This is chile the way New Mexicans have been preparing it for generations, not dumbed down for tourist tastes.

As a cautionary note, if you get there late in the day, say after 3:30, the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company may have run out of chicharrones.  Fresh batches are made daily and if you’re fortunate enough to arrive shortly after a fresh batch is ready, you’re in for a treat.  Few things are as wonderful as freshly made chicharrones hot enough to burn your tongue.  Before day’s end, the freshly ground beef from which burgers are constructed may also be gone.

Baloney, Cheese, Egg and Bean Burrito

Baloney, Cheese, Egg and Bean Burrito

27 November 2013: The ground beef for the burgers comes from the same beef used to create the old-fashioned carne seca. Each beef patty is hand-formed and prepared at about medium-well then topped with mustard and onions. Green chile (a must-have) and cheese are optional. As a green chile cheeseburger, the emphasis here is on chile as in plenty of piquancy. If you’ve ever lamented not being able to discern any chile on your green chile cheeseburger, this is a burger for you. The chile is not only piquant, it’s got a nice flavor. The beef patty exceeds the circumference of the bun and is thick, probably a good eight ounces of delicious, rich beef. Burgers are served with New Mexico Quality red chile chips. 

24 September 2014:  Baloney!  If you’ve ever wondered why the popular Italian sausage is synonymous with a term commonly associated with nonsense, bunkum or insincerity, you’re not alone.  It turns out the word “baloney” was first used in the 1930s as a reference to the disingenuousness of government bureaucracies.  The term was later applied to “Bologna” sausages because the sausage tasted nothing like the meat used to make them (a mixture of smoked, spiced meat from cows and pigs). 

Baloney Sandwich

24 September 2014: There’s nothing insincere or nonsensical about the love of baloney, the sausage.  It’s long been a favorite among families in rural New Mexico, a realization some restaurants are only now starting to grasp.  New Mexicans love the log-sized baloney we slice ourselves so that it’s three or four times the height of the single-sliced baloney sold in supermarkets.  We like to grill or fry it over low heat so that it acquires a smoky char and we love our boloney on a tortilla.  That’s how Frank’s crew prepares it: two thick slices of grilled baloney, melted cheese, lettuce and an incendiary green chile that will bring sweat to your brow.  It’s the baloney sandwich of my youth recaptured.

17 November 2014: Baloney–it’s not just for sandwiches anymore!  In fact, baloney is a versatile ingredient that improves almost every dish in which it’s used (and it’s pretty terrific on its own, too).  In addition to using it on the aforementioned baloney sandwich, the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company deploys baloney on its burritos, too.  Were it not for that sublime carne adovada, the baloney, egg and cheese burrito would be in contention for best burrito in town.  The only thing that can improve this winner is beans.

Chorizo Burrito

9 October 2014:  When I asked the genial server manning the counter whether or not the chorizo burrito included cumin, his answer validated my long-held assertion that cumin has no place in New Mexican food.  He told me: “we don’t use sobaco on anything here.”  Sobaco is Spanish for armpit, a description my friend Bill also uses to describe cumin.  The chorizo burrito (eggs, potatoes, cheese, chorizo in a flour tortilla) is the best I’ve had in memory, maybe the best ever.  The chorizo has a wonderfully piquant kick.  It’s not nearly as piquant as the XX-Hot chile of the day (a placard at the counter will tell you how hot the chile is ), but it’s got personality and deliciousness.

17 November 2014: Chile cheese fries aren’t a new idea.  Several New Mexican restaurants offer them though very few are notable.  At the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company, they’re so memorable you might wish they were available at every meal.  The French fries are reminiscent of the fries at the K&I Diner in that they’re soft and easy to pick up en masse with a fork.  The cheese is shredded, not gloppy.  The chile, of course, is fantastic!  The plate includes a garnish of chopped tomatoes and lettuce which go surprisingly well with the fries.

Green Chile Cheese Fries

New Mexico Beef Jerky Company may be Lilliputian compared to those impersonal mega restaurants, but when it comes to service, the big boys can learn a thing or two from Frank Chavez and his crew. By the time our taco burgers were delivered to our table during our inaugural visit, Frank had already secured our unending loyalty with a generous sample of chicharrones. For “dessert” he brought us chicharrones in red chile and samples of the beef jerky.  He had us at chicharrones.  We’ll be back again and again.

New Mexico Beef Jerky Company
1900 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-6121
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 November 2014
1st VISIT: 1 November 2013
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Chicharrones, Chicharrones Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Taco Burger, Beef Jerky, Green Chile Cheeseburger, New Mexico Quality Red Chile Chips, Baloney Sandwich, Chorizo Burrito, Green Chile Fries

New Mexico Beef Jerky Company on Urbanspoon

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE – Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.

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The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

Chef Fernando Olea (right) and his very talented Sous Chef Leroy Alvarado (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll).

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.

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Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.

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A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.

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Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!

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Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.

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Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.

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Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.

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Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.

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Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 20 March 2014

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.

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Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.

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Abalone

Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Poblano Soup (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.

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Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck

The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought Sweet Symphony to our table, he described in alchemical terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

Sweet Symphony: Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 15 November 2014

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining, she wrote “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.  And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  My conversation about food with my friend Sandy Driscoll began in October, 2007 when she discovered my blog shortly before visiting New Mexico.  We’ve been talking about food (and virtually everything else) ever since and have broken bread (and sopaipillas) together in New Mexico and California. 

During a recent conversation about food, we discussed our mutual admiration for Spanish chef Jose Andres, a restaurant impresario and celebrity chef.  In a fit of bravado and New Mexico pride, I posited that Chef Olea is “right up there with Andres” as a chef (frankly I think Chef Olea is a superior chef, but he’s a very modest man and wouldn’t want me bragging on his behalf).  Because the proof is in the huitlacoche, we introduced Sandy to Chef Olea’s fabulous chef’s tasting menu where can be found at least two items on my theoretical “last meal” wish list.

Porcini Mushrooms and Bean Thread Noodles with an Asian Sauce and Sprigs of Mint (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our perfectly paced three-hour meal, Sandy, who’s not nearly as prone to hyperbole as yours truly, used the term “fabulous” to describe virtually every item (in between other utterances of delight).  Afterwards she described her meal as “one of my best ever culinary experiences!!” and “the best meal I’ve ever had in Santa Fe.”   Considering she’s dined at several Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, that’s high praise indeed.  

Epazote has been in a lot of conversations lately.  In October, 2014, USA Today’s 10 Best named Epazote the very best option for lunch in Santa Fe.  Billie Frank, who’s pretty fabulous in her own right, was effusive in her praise for Chef Olea’s loving culinary preparations.  Lest you think “it’s just lunch,” Hillside owner Tisha Sjosfrand assured me that Epazote will enter the dinner restaurant fray on receipt of its beer and wine license.  The question then will be whether or not Epazote is the best dinner destination in Santa Fe, too.

Chef Fernando Olea and our very capable server bring Poblano Soup to our table (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef Olea’s coat is emblazoned with the term “Inspired New World Cuisine.”  It’s an apt description for his masterful execution of cuisine which defies pigeonholing.  He laments that when Santa Fe concierge recommend Epazote for its Mexican cuisine, some diners are disheartened and leave when they don’t find tacos and enchiladas on the menu.  What a shame!  Perhaps if they had stuck around, they would have experienced an Asian inspired work of art with which our tasting menu experience began.  This starter showcased porcini mushrooms and bean thread noodles with the chef’s own Tabuca sauce and sprigs of mint.  The woodsy  earthiness of the mushrooms, the Thai chili pepper heat of the Tabuca sauce and the evergreen freshness of the mint coalesced into a balanced flavor profile in which all elements are deliciously discernible on your palate. 

Our second course was the sublime Poblano soup about which I wax poetic in my review of my previous tasting menu experience.  Served in a martini glass, this soul-warming elixir was not, however, a repeat of the Poblano soup I had previously experienced (though that would have been joyously welcomed).  Chef Olea changed things up subtly yet with great effect.  Instead of the magnificent shrimp from my first visit, a sole “crouton” created from seared wild Pacific salmon luxuriated in the broth.  The brininess of the salmon and the alchemical interplay of other ingredients reenforced why this is my highest rated soup in New Mexico.  It’s on the very top of my proverbial “last meal” list.

Rolled Chapulines (Baby Grasshoppers) Tacos, Sun Gold Tomatoes with a jalapeño sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Our third course–one neither my Kim nor the worldly Sandy had imagined they would ever experience–was two rolled tacos engorged with chapulines (baby grasshoppers) encircled by a jalapeño sauce and served with three Sun Gold tomatoes.  It’s only the thought of eating the “icky” insect that’s repulsive.  Get past that revulsion and you might, like everyone to whom I’ve introduced this tasty treat, enjoy (or at the very least, be able to brag about) the experience.  If you can’t get past the chapulines alone, the jalapeño sauce adds flavor and heat elements that may make them less off-putting to you.  Then there are the Sun Gold tomatoes, the reddish-orange beauties with an explosively sweet, fruity flavor.  They’re addictive (and so are the chapulines). 

Should you treat yourself to the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Epazote, make it a point to request bread before any course is brought to your table.  You’ll don’t want to lose a single drop of any of the fabulous sauces which ameliorate each course.  Not only is the bread utilitarian for sopping up those precious sauces, Chef Olea’s baking skills are on display with such creative and delicious breads as a dense grain bread punctuated with apricot and walnuts.  It’s a fabulous bread, the type of which you’ll want an entire loaf. 

Bread infused with walnuts and apricots (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not every chef is intrepid enough to pair bold, assertive flavors with delicate flavors and not every chef knows that seemingly disparate flavors can actually be complementary.  Chef Olea’s flavor and ingredient pairings are legendary.  Perfectly tender, rich and rosy rare Muscovy duck with a light, succulent ring of fat is one of those light, delicate flavors not often paired with assertive and bold flavors.  Chef Olea dared pair the magnificent Muscovy duck with an incendiary (courtesy of jalapeños) Oaxacan mole verde which isn’t quite as sweet as some moles tend to be .  A smear of the equally piquant Tebuca sauce decorated the plate.  Other delicate elements on the dish were crispy spinach and crispy bean threads. The ethereally light and flaky spinach is a real treat.  The seemingly disparate pairing actually worked very well with flavors playing off each other in harmony.  I’m convinced Chef Olea can pair an Army chukka boot with a Bruno Magli loafer and make a fashion statement haute fashionistas would drool over. 

Over the years, lamb has obtained (perhaps earned) a reputation for being gamey (resembling the flavor and odor of wild hunted game) and having a strong flavor not all carnivores enjoy.  The strength of “gaminess” actually ranges among different breeds of sheep.  Northern New Mexican sheep, the type of which Epazote procures, has a rich and robust flavor without being off-putting and overly gamey.  Chef Olea paired two thick, lollipop lamb chops with a sweet potato puree and Poblano mole, both of which have sweet notes that complement the lamb very well.  With their built-in “handles,” the lamb chops are made to be picked up (etiquette be damned) and used to scoop up some of the puree and mole.  Three purplish dots on the plate are courtesy of a red cabbage reduction which just might reduce you to tears of ecstasy.

Muscovy Duck, Oaxacan Mole Verde, Bean Threads, Crispy Spinach and a Tabuca Sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Our dessert was the fabulous Sweet Symphony, the second Epazote offering on my proverbial last meal.  Words can’t adequately describe just how wonderful this sublime sweet course really is, but you can read my feeble efforts at such above Sandy’s photo of the dessert.  Having previously had Sweet Symphony, it made me tremendously happy to see my wife and dear friend first try to discern the ingredients of this masterful concoction, then watching them swoon with each treasured bite.  Two days after having partaken of this greatness, Sandy is still raving about it.

Although our initial seating was by the tranquil waterfall on the restaurant’s bottom level, we asked to be moved on account of the sunlight.  Our accommodating server gave us the other best seat in the house–right under the portrait of the New Mexico mole ingredients on the second level.  The culmination of our meal was a conversation with the great gentleman chef whom Sandy looks forward to seeing again when he serves as guest chef at the Los Angeles restaurant where his daughter works. There’s no doubt this won’t be Sandy’s sole visit to Epazote.

Northern New Mexico Raised Lamb Chops, Mole Poblano, Sweet Potato Puree, Red Cabbage Reduction (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

EPILOGUE

From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-9944
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup, Symphony

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