Hello Poké – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hello Poké in the Far North Shopping Center

Ask most professional restaurant critics where to find the highest rated or best restaurant across the fruited plain (or even in their locality) and they’ll likely steer you in the direction of some highfalutin restaurant serving haute cuisine prepared by (or at least named for) a celebrated chef.  With an exclusive wine cellar showcasing fine aged vintage, these white tableclothed pantheons of gastronomy are altars of excess.  Obtaining a table could mean several months on a waiting list and a meal could set you back the equivalent of two months in groceries. For most of us dining at such establishments is a rare event reserved for special occasions.

The difference between professional restaurant critics and the general dining population is that the latter isn’t necessary impressed by ambiance, cost and exclusivity.  To the “average” Joe and Jane, it’s all about enjoyment and experience.  The venue in which much of the general dining population expresses its likes and dislikes isn’t a newspaper or blog, but a crowd-sourced online presence named Yelp.  In 2014, Yelp’s highest rated restaurant in these United States was a hole-in-the wall takeout eatery with the pedestrian name Da Poké Shack.   Reflective of the “every man and woman” nature of many Yelp posters, the Land of Enchantment’s “best restaurant‘ for 2016 was deemed to be Albuquerque’s Asian Pear.

Where Poké Bowls Are Constructed

The year it was named the country’s highest-rated restaurant, Da Poke Shack’s average Yelp rating was five stars (on a scale of one to five) on roughly 600 customer reviews.  That’s a flawless Bo Derek rating with nary a disparaging word uttered.  Sure poke is one of the most popular foods in Hawaii, but Yelp analysis actually determined most reviews were posted by tourists–ostensibly some of them from mainland locales in which poké is not to be found.  Fortunately, Albuquerque is not such a place.  In Poki Poki Cevicheria, the Duke City has had a poke restaurant since May, 2016 and it’s one of Yelp’s highest rated Albuquerque restaurants with an average rating of 4.5 on 95 reviews as of this writing.

If you haven’t had poké (always pronounced po-kay), you’re in for a treat.  Poké refers to a “chunked” marinated or seasoned raw fish dish that’s been served primarily as an appetizer in Hawaii for centuries. In fact, the Hawaiian term “poké” simply means to “chunk” or to “cut crosswise into pieces,” both aptly descriptive terms for the salad-like preparation of seafood that has been cut into small chunks and marinated. Largely influenced by Asian flavors and ingredients, poké can be–and is–made with almost any type of seafood and topped with a vast array of garnishes and sauces. As with sushi, the chef’s imagination often determines the composition and diversity of poke.

Make Your Own Poke Bowl with Virtually Everything

Although it may seem the Duke City is slow to embrace culinary trends that have captured seemingly every other major metropolitan market, once we catch onto something, we embrace it enthusiastically.  February, 2017 saw the launch of Albuquerque’s second poke restaurant when Hello Poke opened for business in the Far North Shopping Center complex which hosts the transcendent gourmet Chinese restaurant Budai as well as Aura, a European-Middle Eastern eatery.  Very shortly thereafter, Poki Poki will open its second location, this one on Wyoming.  Unlike recent culinary trends such as kelp, quinoa and cronuts, poké appears to have staying power.  Attribute some of that to its healthful qualities, but the truth is, poké is absolutely, addictively delicious.

Hello Poké was initially slated to debut as Aloha Poké, but that name was trademarked by Chicago-based restaurant.  By any name, this is a restaurant you should add to your “must try” list, especially if you haven’t previously tried poké.  Hello Poké manager Maron Mangan told us he’s been surprised at how large a Hawaiian population Albuquerque has and he’s thrilled at how well the restaurant has been received by both poké veterans and novitiates.   In the short time we visited, at least a dozen guests placed take-out orders, all customized to taste and preference.

Less “Busy” Poké Bowl

Customization is largely what Hello Poké is all about.  It’s also not “sushi in a bowl” nor is it a donburi bowl.  Essentially guests are at liberty to be creative, first by selecting a base for their poké–either brown rice, white rice or organic mixed greens then by topping it with such proteins as tuna, salmon, albacore, shrimp, scallops, spicy tuna, spicy salmon, tofu (non GMO) and marinated tuna.  Last to be added are sauces (house, house spicy, sweet Ponzu, Yuzu Miso or a gluten-free house) and toppings (crab meat, avocado, masago, green onion, seaweed salad, cucumber, pickled ginger, onion, edamame, jalapeño, roasted seaweed, wasabi, furikake, sesame seeds, spicy mayo, eel sauce and sriracha). The “house” fish is cubed yellowtail that’s been marinated for 12-24 hours in a blend of sesame seeds, onions and a salted seaweed.

My advice is “go wild.” My own make-your-own bowl had virtually everything that could fit on the bowl highlighted by the house yellowtail, spicy tuna and spicy salmon ameliorated by fiery complements such as jalapeño, wasabi, spicy mayo and sriracha.  Because my bowl was absolutely brimming with content, it became difficult to mix all the ingredients with the rice.  Consequently, the last third of my bowl would have been a bit on the dry sauce had Maron not suggested more spicy mayo and sweet Ponzu.  Good call.  My poké was a wholly satisfying, absolutely delicious dish to be repeated soon and often. 

My Kim’s poké bowl was somewhat “less adventurous” and certainly more focused.  Her choice of proteins was spicy tuna, shrimp and krab (imitation crab) on organic mixed greens with just a few toppings and no incendiary sauces.  Only one thing could have improved her poké experience–noodles instead of rice and mixed greens.  She suggested as such to Maron who promised to explore the possibility.  Maron, by the way, previously served as sous chef at La Crepe Michel, but he would not acquiesce to serving nutella and banana crepes with the poké.

With only three weeks having elapsed since its launch, there are only five Yelp reviews on Hello Poké, but all five Yelpers accorded five-star ratings to what promises to be another well-received poké restaurant.  It may not garner Yelps best restaurant in the country honors, but it may just contend for best in the city.  

Hello Poké
6300 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-5653
LATEST VISIT: 25 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Make Your Own Poke Bowl

Hello Poke Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tao Chinese Bistro – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho

It’s highly unlikely ancient Chinese philosophers ever intended the concept of Tao to be used as an approach for the serial seduction of women, but that was the premise of the 2000 movie The Tao of Steve.  Filmed in the Santa Fe area, this campy romantic comedy centered around a corpulent, underachieving former philosophy student who christened his approach after the somewhat stolid “cool” epitomized by three Steves: Steve McQueen, Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O and Steve Austin from The Six Million Dollar Man.

The Tao of Steve–which proves a very successful approach for sexual conquests–is comprised of three rules:  ((1) Be desire-less. If your body language indicates a lack of interest, a woman’s attraction to you will increase. (2) Be excellent.  Grasp the opportunity to showcase your talents, thereby proving your sexual “worthiness.” (3)  Be gone.  Leave women wanting more by not overstaying your welcome.

Tao Chinese Bistro Dining Room

For years, the concept of Tao has been and is being demonstrated in ever more creative and unique ways.  There was the Tao of Pooh, an introduction to Taoism using the beloved fictional character of Winnie the Pooh.  The Tao of Bow Wow taught pet owners how to better communicate with and relate to their dogs using these same principles.  The Tao of Physics provided an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.  There’s even The Tao of Tweeting intended to help maximize the enrichment and insightfulness of 140 words or less.

Tao (pronounced dao) is loosely defined as “doctrine” or “principle” but the word itself translates to the “way,” “path” or “route.”  Taoism, therefore, is not so much about a destination, but about experiencing life within the journey itself.  It’s a system of faith, attitude and practices designed to help its practitioners be true to and live their nature, to flow with life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things.

Peking Dumplings

Throughout this path, one will encounter opposing, but equal forces or poles of existence that flow in a natural cycle, always seeking balance.  Known as yin and yang, these forces are opposite but complementary, opposing but not in opposition to one another.  They are instead two aspects of a single reality–light blending into dark, for example.  This is clearly depicted in the yin and yang symbol, one of the best-known symbols in the world.  The yin and yang symbol depicts the light, white yang moving up blending into the dark, black yin moving up–dependent, opposing forces seeking balance.

For New Mexicans familiar with the culture of the Diné, or Navajo, of America’s Four Corners Region, the Taoist desire for flowing through life in a peaceful manner in balance with all things sounds very familiar.   The Diné call it “hózhó,” a word embodying the striving for balance and harmony along with beauty and order.  Every aspect of Diné life–whether spiritual or secular–is connected to hózhó, maintaining balance between the individual and the universe and living in harmony with nature and the Creator.

Tao’s Marinated Chicken Wings

Very prominent on the north-facing wall at the Tao Chinese Bistro in Rio Rancho is a six-foot tall Chinese ideogram depicting the Tao symbol.  There is nothing else near the symbol, making it the most pronounced point of focus when you walk into the restaurant.  Shades of green, gray and gold with soft wood colors give the milieu a relaxing feel.  The ceilings are a grayish-black with subdued lighting which imbues the restaurant with a sense of intimacy.  Additional soft lighting is available behind the blond wood trim along the east and west walls.   A serpentine half wall bisects the front of the restaurant from the spacious dining area which seats 70.

From the outside, the Tao Chinese Bistro isn’t much to look at.  In fact, unless you look closely at the signage, you might mistake the storefront space for a martial arts studio.  It’s sandwiched between the now empty space that once housed the Black Olive Wine Bar & Bistro on the east and Fratellis Pizzeria on the west in the Country Club Shopping Center, one of several nondescript shopping centers off heavily-trafficked Southern Boulevard.  One of the shopping center’s long-time anchor tenants is the fabulous Joe’s Pasta House, but it’s Albertson’s (now closed) which once dominated the complex.

Hot and Sour Soup

The Tao Chinese Bistro’s February, 2010 opening has been a welcome one at the City of Vision which has several Chinese restaurants, but none of which are transcendent.  Still, Tao is easily the very best Chinese restaurant in Rio Rancho and one of the very best west of the Rio Grande.  Though the ambiance bespeaks upscale and classy, the price points are reasonable, particularly for lunch.  The specialty is gourmet quality wok-fried Szechwan cuisine and dishes from China’s remote Southeast provinces.

Chef Johnny Lee, formerly of the Fortune Cookie Chinese restaurant on Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico, is at the helm.  Chef Lee is passionate about fresh ingredients and balanced flavors.  He doesn’t take short-cuts, using no monosodium glutamate on his cooking.  The restaurant serves lunch and dinner six days a week (closed on Mondays) and offers both take-out service and catering for parties and special events.

Wonton Soup

The lunch menu served Tuesday through Saturday from 11AM through 2:30PM provides excellent value with a phalanx of familiar favorites averaging around seven dollars each.  Lunch entrees are served with steamed or brown rice and your choice of egg drop, wonton or hot and sour soup.  You can upgrade to fried rice for two dollars more.

The dinner menu is segmented into several categories: Soups, Rice, Noodles, Entrees, Vegetarian, Egg Foo Young, Tao’s Classic Dishes, Kid’s Menu, Desserts and Drinks.  The menu is a familiar one with few surprises save for on the Classic Dishes portion of the menu where you’ll find Coffee Chicken (chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce), Fisherman’s Feast (large prawns, scallops and lobster meat quickly cooked to perfection) and Walnut Shrimp (Lightly fried shrimp with roasted walnuts in a creamy sauce).  The menu offers more seafood entrees than most Albuquerque area Chinese restaurants.

Coconut Curry with prawns

Coconut Curry with prawns

Even though the restaurant specializes in Szechuan cuisine, there are but a handful of entrees asterisked (*) to denote a greater degree of spiciness.  Szechuan cuisine, which originated in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China, is renown for its bold flavors, emphasizing the qualities of spiciness and pungency.  Szechuan cuisine’s liberal use of chili peppers and garlic make it a favorite of discerning diners who want their meals to grab their attention. 

19 March 2010: It was thus surprising that the hot and sour soup is somewhat subdued, lacking the intensely piquant and lip-pursing, vinegary tartness which defines the way some people measure how good this soup is. It is a flavorful soup served steaming hot and delivered promptly within minutes after you place your order. It’s just not as intensely, boldly flavored as one might expect from a restaurant specializing in Szechuan cuisine.

Orange Peel Beef

Orange Peel Beef

24 February 2017: In Cantonese, the literal translation of wonton is “eating clouds.”  Indeed, a well-made  bowl of wonton soup should reflect this definition with cooked wontons resembling soft and fluffy pillows floating in clear broth.   At Tao, the wonton soup is made well.  Wontons made from a thin sheet of dough are stuffed with pork and served in a clear chicken broth.  While the broth and the wonton skins are light and delicate in taste, the pork filling is seasoned nicely.  Unlike other versions of wonton soup we’ve had, Tao’s version is relatively lightly salted and generous in the number of dumplings, making it one of our favorites.

15 August 2014: Pork dumplings are served at most Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area and are generally among the most consistently good dishes you’ll find at those restaurants.  Tao’s Peking dumplings–six hand-wrapped, crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground pork and green scallions served with a homemade sauce–are among the very best in the area.   The sauce, which has sweet, savory, tart and piquant properties makes them even better.  In fact, the sauce would make a good beverage to accompany your meal.

Chicken with Black Bean Sauce: slices of chicken, stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce

15 August 2014: Chicken wings are another appetizer staple in Duke City area Chinese restaurants, but unlike dumplings, most aren’t very good. Tao’s marinated chicken wings, six wings sauteed in black pepper and salt, are terrific. The black pepper imbues the wings with an assertive flavor profile, but doesn’t overwhelm the moist, tender chicken. Only larger chicken wings could improve this starter. Our server informed us that with enough notice we could have an entire chicken prepared in this style.

19 March 2010: If the hot and sour soup is insipid, how then does an asterisked entree called Szechuan Beef fare?  Szechuan beef is one of the most popular wok-fried entrees in Chinese restaurants throughout America.  Tao’s rendition is a melange of thinly sliced beef, garlic, ginger, green and red peppers, snow peas, garlic and strategically positioned throughout the plate, several incendiary dried peppers that you dare not bite into unless your mouth is lined with asbestos.  This entree is served steaming hot (a consistent quality among the restaurant’s entrees) so that the flavors wafted upwards to excite your nostrils.  The beef is of high quality, not the cheap, sinewy beef this dish might use if in a Chinese buffet restaurant.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared and very fresh.

Tao’s Spicy Chicken

19 March 2010: One of the surprising lunch menu entrees is a Thai inspired coconut curry with prawns (or beef or chicken) which emphasizes the pungent piquancy of curry and not the cloying qualities of coconut milk. This generously plated entree is redolent with the melding of flavors which go together very well, including fresh, crisp vegetables: onions, red peppers, black mushrooms and baby snap peas. The prawns are large, wholly antithetical to the concept of shrimpy shrimp. The number of prawns on the plate is surprising, too.

19 March 2010: Orange peel beef is an entree seemingly done by most Chinese restaurants, but most don’t do it well.  Tao Chinese Bistro does.  The beef is wok-fried to the point of being caramelized on the outside while retaining a perfect tenderness on the inside with an orange peel sauce that is most definitely citric, but not syrupy or cloying.

Double Pan-Fried Noodles

12 April 2011: Half of the entrees from the “Tao’s Classic Dishes”section of the menu feature chicken, a meat which tends to shine when stir-fried or wok-fried. Dark meat, which tends to be more juicy and flavorful, is used on all but one of them. The chicken with black bean sauce features slices of dark meat chicken, red and green peppers, pea pods, onions, water chestnuts and broccoli stir-fried in a fermented black bean sauce. The black bean sauce has a garlicky profile and isn’t overly thickened with corn starch so the flavor is predominantly of fermented black beans. The vegetables are perfectly stir-fried so that they’re crispy and fresh. Tao’s rendition of this dish is a good one.

21 March 2012: Even better is Tao’s Spicy Chicken, chicken breast rubbed with cayenne chili cut into bite-sized pieces then wok-tossed with garlic, ginger, green onions and Sichuan dry chili (with a hint of five-spice powder that’s not listed on the menu).  The flavor profile is intense as in this is a very garlicky, nicely piquant dish.  It’s made with white chicken for discerning diners who care about such matters.  In three visits, this is the best entree I’ve sampled. 

Coffee Chicken

15 August 2014: My Kim’s favorite Chinese dish is a nest of double pan-fried noodles which reconstitute in a light brown sauce. She typically orders it with onions, omitting such vegetables as green peppers and with pork. The pork has a characteristic reddish ring around the pinkish-white meat. It’s got a smoky, wok-fried flavor and light sweetness that comes from a marinade. Until you mix in the light brown gravy, the double pan-fried noodles have a texture similar to Shredded Wheat before milk is poured on. One reconstituted, the noodles are delightful, both to eat and to enjoy the transformation process.

15 August 2014: Conceptually, the notion of Coffee Chicken sounds like a winner, but it’s in its execution that it seems to fall consistently short.  Tao’s menu describes its coffee chicken as “tender chicken rubbed with ground French coffee, stir-fried in a sweet spicy sauce.”  The description borders on fallacious.  First, the chicken is hardly tender.  It’s rather heavily breaded and stir-fried to the point of being caramelized, rendering it crispy.  Secondly, the sweet spicy sauce has virtually no spiciness.  It’s got a surfeit of sweetness, so much so that an entire bowl of fried rice doesn’t temper its cloying qualities.  Desserts envy this dish for its sweetness.

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

A lunch portion of Szechwan Beef

24 February 2017:  Tao’s menu lists six vegetarian items.  If the mushrooms with snow peas dish is indicative of the high quality and deliciousness of the vegetarian menu, we’ll be ordering from the vegetarian menu more often.  What’s not to love about fresh Shiitake mushrooms and crispy snow peas in a sauteed brown sauce–especially if mushrooms and snow peas are among your favorite vegetables in non-vegetarian dishes?  Event better, this terrific dish includes thinly sliced ginger and red peppers.  Typically made from molasses, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other flavorings, the brown sauce is has sweet and savory flavor notes in near equal proportions.  The mushrooms are large and fleshy with the earthy flavor characteristic of fetid fungi while the snow peas are sweet, crispy and delightful to eat.

Mushrooms with Snow Peas, an Excellent Vegetarian Dish

24 February 2017: If ever there was an aptly named noodle dish, it would be Chow Fun, a Cantonese dish showcasing long, thin noodles (as opposed to chow mein which uses thin egg noodles; your choice of vegetables and your choice of chicken, pork, beef or shrimp.  My Kim would rather not spend much time and effort on vegetables when noodles and meat are around so the only vegetables gracing her Chow Fun were green and white onions.  The wok-grilling imparts a discernible smoky flavor that lingers long after you finish your dinner.  The pork is delicate and delicious with a sweet barbecue flavor.  Much as we enjoy Chow Fun, we don’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s a healthy dish.  It’s a calorie-laden, often oily dish that’s far from healthful.

Chow Fun Noodles

After five visits, it might be audacious to proclaim the Tao Chinese Bistro the best Chinese restaurant on the west side.  Five visits in four years is more than most Chinese restaurants in Albuquerque are accorded so it must be good.

Tao Chinese Bistro
3301 Southern Blvd., Suite 500
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 962-0168
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2017
1st VISIT:  19 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Orange Peel Beef, Coconut Curry with Prawns, Szechwan Beef, Hot and Sour Soup, Tao’s Spicy Chicken, Chicken with Black Bean Sauce, Mushrooms with Snow Peas, Chow Fun Noodles, Wonton Soup

Tao Chinese Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Vick’s Vittles Country Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Vick’s Vittles on Central Avenue just east of Wyoming

Possum shanks; pickled hog jowls; goat tripe; stewed squirrel; ham hocks
and turnip greens; gizzards smothered in gristle; smoked crawdads.  
“Ewwww Doggies!,” now that’s eatin’. 
~The Beverly Hillbillies

Guests at the Clampett residence always seemed to recite a litany of excuses as to why they couldn’t stay for dinner when Granny announced the mess of vittles she’d fixed up.  Not even the opportunity to dine at the fancy eatin’ table (billiards table) and use the fancy pot passers (pool cues) under the visage of the mounted billy-yard (rhinoceros) was enough to entice the sophisticated city slickers to stay for dinner with America’s favorite hillbillies.

For the generation who grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies, the notion of eating vittles elicits a broad smile and a warm heart.  Those sentiments were rekindled when we drove east on Central Avenue just past Wyoming and espied a new restaurant named Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen.  Not only did it conjure memories of “heaping helpings of hospitality” from Jed and all his kin, the name “Vick’s Vittles” seemed so familiar and comfortable.

Main Dining Room at Vick’s Vittles

That’s because several years ago a restaurant named “‘Country Vittles” plied its chicken-fried specialties for about an year on Central Avenue where  Middle Eastern Food & Kababos currently sits.   Despite the similarity in names, there is no affiliation between the two restaurants.  Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen is named for proprietor Robert Vick who’s got a passel of credentials and awards in the hospitality industry.

An affable gentleman and stylish dresser (owning more than 100 vests), Vick earned “Executive of the Year” honors in 2010 from the International Food Service Executives Association for his leadership at Kirtland Air Force Base’s food services.  Before being launched as a restaurant, Vick’s Vittles excelled as a contract company that continues to operate the Thunderbird Inn Dining Facility at Kirtland.  Under Vick’s auspices, the Thunderbird Inn has earned two Hennessy Food Service awards signifying the best dining facility in the Air Force.  Look for the Thunderbird Inn to earn its third in 2018.   Transforming a “chow hall” into an outstanding dining facility is no easy feat.

Affable Proprietor Robert Vick and my very favorite server, an even better reason to visit Vick’s Vittles

Robert Vick is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant, glad-handing and inviting guests to set a spell.  His wait staff mirrors his friendliness and is on-the-spot to replenish your coffee.  During our inaugural visit, we caught sight of several familiar faces–some of the same folks who frequented this familiar location when it was occupied by Roper’s Restaurant and before that, Milton’s Cafe.  Vick’s is a popular dining option for my Air Force brothers-in-arms.

Vestiges of its former tenant are still in evidence in the form of  cowboy and western-themed accoutrements throughout the large dining room.  Country music plays in the background while you dine.  The menu also includes a few hold-overs from the Roper’s days, a melange of country cooking meets the Southwest.  It’s an ambitious menu, offering American and New Mexican comfort food favorites as well as barbecue all served in prolific portions.  Daily specials are available Monday through Friday with a daily lunch standard being green chile New England clam chowder in a sour dough bowl, a New Mexico meets New England treat.

Buttery, Pecan-Rich Cinnamon Roll

The breakfast menu is extensive, offering pancakes, French toast and waffle plates for those of you craving a sweet start to your day.  A bounty of breakfast burritos includes several sure to elicit double takes.  There’s the corned beef hash burrito, for example.  Breakfast plates, served with your choice of potatoes (country, spuds or hash browns) galore and three-egg omelets round out the menu for the most important meal of the day.  You can start your day off no matter what time you start it because Vick’s Vittles serves breakfast all day long.  An every Sunday buffet offers scrambled eggs, green chile, red chile, country spuds, crispy bacon, sausage links, sliced ham, biscuits, Vick’s famous green chile cream gravy, green chile cheese enchiladas, pintos, red chile pork tamales, waffles, Santa Fe pancakes, buttermilk pancakes, French toast, grits and more.

Vick’s Vittles also offers an extensive lunch menu with a number of appetizers, salads and soups available. New Mexican specialties, served with pinto beans and rice, include the “Lone Star Stack,” enchiladas layered with spicy beef and chile-con-queso, shredded chicken with green chile and melted Cheddar-Jack cheese with red chile.  Sandwiches and burgers, served with your choice of a garden salad, soup, French fries or onion rings, are also available.  Daily specials are displayed on a monitor directly above the greeter’s stand.

“The Cowboy,” a behemoth, belly-busting burrito

20 September 2014: American novelist Lemony Snicket wisely noted  “Anyone who gives you a cinnamon roll fresh out of the oven is a friend for life.”  Though we arrived at Vick’s a little late for cinnamon rolls fresh out-of-the-oven, the hot, buttery cinnamon rolls were fresh nonetheless and delicious with a surfeit of sweet, rich icing tempered only slightly by the melting butter.  The cinnamon rolls are about the size of the disc shape conveyance which crash-landed in Roswell a few decades ago.  One of these calorific overachievers is large enough to share. If you like a bit of savoriness to offset the sweetness of the cinnamon rolls, you can ask for a topping of pecans.

Everyone’s (including 2 KASA Style host Chad Brummlett who calls it “arguably the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had in my life) favorite breakfast burrito, according to the menu, is the Cowboy Burrito, a tortilla-encased behemoth constructed from scrambled eggs, country spuds, Cheddar-Jack cheese and chopped chicken fried steak smothered in green chili (SIC) cream gravy. In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Vick’s Vittles a “Hot Plate Award,” for this beauteous behemoth.

Carne Adovada and Eggs

20 September 2014: While not your conventional New Mexico breakfast burrito, there’s much to like about the Cowboy Burrito.  The green chili cream gravy topped with melting shredded cheese is very rich and quite good though not especially piquant.  Texturally, the chopped chicken fried steak and country spuds (more like square tater tots than fried potatoes) are unexpectedly delightful.  Perhaps only Jethro Bodine, lovingly referred to as “the six foot stomach” by Granny, could polish off an entire Cowboy burrito in one sitting.

20 September 2014: For my Kim, seeing “carne adovada” on a menu means there’s no need to look any further at the menu. More often than not, she’s pleased with that choice. Sometimes, as in the case of Vick’s Vittles, she’s thrilled, calling the carne adovada “New Mexico quality.”  Tender tendrils of marinated shredded pork are served with two eggs and country spuds.  The red chile in which the carne adovada is marinated is only slightly piquant, but it’s got the time-honored flavor of well-made chile. 

Hot Link Sandwich with Fries

There are barbecue restaurants (several of them, in fact) in the Duke City area.  Very few of them do barbecue as well as Vick’s Vittles.  That’s not just my opinion.  In June, 2015, Yelp’s community manager Howie Kaibel compiled a list of the “11 best BBQ joints in the metro area.”   The only barbecue restaurant rated higher than Vick’s Vittles was Pepper’s Bar-B-Q & Soul Food, a full-time purveyor of smoked meats.  Howie aptly described Vick’s as have a menu “bigger than Texas, as are the plates, and peep those Baby Back ribs hanging off the plate.”

2 April 2015: When it comes to the hot link sandwich, Vick’s is in rarefied company with Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House as the best in the area.  It may also be one of the messiest, especially after you slather on the side of Vick’s green chili (SIC) sweet BBQ sauce.  Two split hot links weighing in at five-ounces are nestled within a toasted hoagie bun with grilled onions.  Keeping some of the links inside the bun is a challenge, but eating them off the point of a fork isn’t a consolation prize.  The green chili sweet BBQ sauce is a wondrous amalgam of two things most New Mexicans love–a thick barbecue sauce punctuated with plenty of piquancy. 

My friend Sr. Plata enjoys chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green chile gravy

11 June 2015: In the great state of Texas, chicken fried steak is virtually a religion.  No Texan ever revered this breaded cutlet dish with as much fervor and zeal as my Los Angeles born-and-bread friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver.  We’ve taken my friend to restaurants specializing in other foods (burgers at Spinn’s Burgers and the “Travis” at the K&I Diner, for example) and he’s always eschewed the house specialty in favor of chicken fried steak.  At Vick’s, he found one of his favorites–a thick slab of tenderized cube steak breaded lightly and covered in green chile gravy.  It’s an exceptional chicken fried steak, equal to some of the best I’ve had in the San Antonio area, but nowhere in the Lone Star steak…er, state will you find a gravy quite as rich and delicious as the green chile gravy which covers both the chicken fried steak and the mashed potatoes.

Not very many restaurants in the Duke City area employ the “broasting” technique of preparing meats, despite the technique being available solely to restaurants and food services operations.  Though the broasting process has been around since the 1950s, broasting equipment and ingredients are not available to the general public.  If you haven’t experienced broasting, you’ve missed out on a method of preparing meats that may be incomparable in terms of flavor and freshness.  Broasting, which incorporates a special marinating process, seals in a meat’s natural juices while sealing out almost all the cooking oil.  The result, for example, is chicken with the flavor of fried chicken though much more moist and less greasy.

Broasted Pork Chop, Mashed Potatoes with Green Chile Gravy (Side Salad Not Pictured)

11 June 2015: Even better than the broasted chicken (which is better than any fried chicken in the Duke City) is the broasted pork chop, a bone-in, center-cut, three-quarter-inch chop that instantly became my very favorite pork chop in Albuquerque…by a country mile.  In fact, the only pork chop I remember liking nearly as much comes from Carson’s Ribs in Chicago.  What makes this pork chop so wonderful?  Cut into the lightly breaded chop and you’re rewarded with a moist and juicy pulchritudinous portion of white meat with an intriguing  flavor replete with personality courtesy of having been marinated overnight in cayenne, Chimayo red chile, garlic and other spices.  You may find yourself gnawing at the bone lest you risk missing out on a morsel of this magnificent white meat.  It goes without saying that the broasted chop pairs fabulously with mashed potatoes and green chile gravy.

13 June 2015:  Having thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to broasted pork chops Robert Vick-style, I had to return two days later for an encore.  My Kim, who’s been known to order those scrawny pork chops so many restaurants serve for breakfast, ordered the broasted chicken.  At first glance the broasted chicken looks like fried chicken and it even tastes like some of the very best fried chicken you’ve ever had anywhere.  An eleven-ounce portion includes a breast and leg quarter.  Usually breast meat is less moist and juicy than thigh meat, but not this one.  Sticker shock nearly set in when we finished with our bodacious broasted brunch.  We couldn’t believe how inexpensive our meal was and felt so guilty we left our server a tip equal to half our bill of fare.  She…and the broasted bounty we so enjoyed…were worth it.  My friend “Captain Tuttle” listed both the broasted chicken and pork chop as among the very best dishes he enjoyed during 2016.

Broasted Chicken with French Fries

11 June 2015: The vast variety of victuals at Vick’s Vittles will surprise and delight you.  You’ll invariably fall in love with an item and couldn’t be blamed if you fall into the trap of ordering it every time you visit.  Do so at your own peril because it’s likely there’s something else on the menu even better.  Kathy Kyle made a passionate plea for me to try a dessert which at first bite, supplanted the cinnamon rolls which had besotted me during my inaugural visit.  That new favorite is the peach turnover with green chile, proof indeed that green chile improves the flavor of virtually everything.  I’ll let Kathy describe it: “they are the best turnovers we have ever had! They melt in your mouth. Not at all heavy or greasy.” Ditto!

13 June 2015: Because of the vastness of the menu, you could potentially discover a new favorite every time you visit.  That’s the beauty of being an adventurous diner.  Robert Vick himself introduced me to my new favorite dessert at Vick’s Vittles–banana pudding.  Served in a large Mason jar is a generous enough to share (not that you’ll want to) portion of very rich, very sweet and very tasty banana pudding.  As you drill down the luscious layers of bananas, vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, you’ll swoon with delight.  This is a Mississippi quality banana pudding.

Peach with Green Chile Turnover

19 February 2017: For many restaurants across the Duke City, earning one Hot Plate Award from Albuquerque The Magazine is quite an accomplishment.  Vick’s Vittles has earned two.  The first was earned by the Cowboy Burrito in 2013.  The  second went to the Santa Fe Pancakes (three blue corn buttermilk pancakes with roasted piñons, hatch green chile, and cheddar-jack cheese in the batter).  It’s the perfect amalgam of sweet meets savory with a little piquancy thrown in.  While Cheddar is not an uncommon foil for sweet dishes such as apple pie and pancakes, not every restaurateur is intrepid enough to throw in some green chile, especially when it’s got some bite to it.

Santa Fe Pancakes

Robert Vick may not personally tell his guests they’re all invited back to this locality to have a heaping helping of hospitality, vittles, that is…Vick’s Vittles.  It’s implied in the way you’re treated at this unpretentious restaurant in that oh, so familiar location.  Vick’s Vittles Country Kitchen is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week and for dinner on Friday and Saturday.

Vick’s Vittles Country Restaurant
8810 Central Avenue
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-5143
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2017
1st VISIT: 20 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carne Adovada and Eggs, “The Cowboy,” Cinnamon Roll, Chicken Fried Steak, Broasted Pork Chop, Green Chile Peach Turnover, Hot Links Sandwich, Broasted Chicken, Banana Pudding

Vick's Vittles Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rowley Farmhouse Ales – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Rowley Farmhouse Ales in Santa Fe

Only in John Denver’s hit song “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” is life on the farm “kinda laid back.”  In actuality, farm life can be downright arduous, requiring back-breaking work in climatic extremes for low wages.    It was much worse in colonial days when life on a farm generally meant very few luxuries outside of a warm fire and a tankard (or ten) of house-brewed ale.  Beer was brewed not only to refresh, sustain and comfort hard-working farmers, but because during sanitation-deprived colonial times,  it was safer than water.  Farm-brewed beer was created with what was on hand, whether it be wheat, hops, barley or rye supplemented with such ingredients as evergreen boughs, juniper berries, honey and fruit.  Because beer was made with whatever ingredients were available, the lack of convention led to an emphasis of individuality over uniformity.

Along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, beer, it seems, was almost an inalienable right and in many cases, an integral part of a worker’s compensation package.  Gentlemen farmers such as George Washington brewed beer not only for themselves, but for their farm workers whose employment contracts often stipulated a certain daily allotment of beer.   Washington’s farm workers customarily received a bottle of beer a day, each bottle containing one quart of liquid.    Washington himself enjoyed beer so much that he named his hound dogs after his, er, affection for ales. Among the names he christened his dogs were  “Drunkard,” “Tippler,” and “Tipsy.”

Bar and Dining Area

American craft brewers are leading a revival of brewing farmhouse ales in  the old world tradition of Belgian, French and American farmhouse ales of the nineteenth century,  Though not located in remote farmhouse settings, those brewers  strive to capture the rustic essence, seasonality and art of traditional farmhouse brewing.  Among the breweries distinguishing themselves by pursuing the farmhouse style is the aptly named Rowley’s Farmhouse Ales in Santa Fe which opened its doors in September, 2016.  Located about a block south of Cerrillos on Maclovia Street, Rowley’s not only brews and serves its own farmhouse and sour ales, it offers an extensive draft and bottle list of best available beers from the Land of Enchantment and beyond.

It stands to reason that Rowley’s would pair its farmhouse ales with a farm-to-table menu, essentially upgraded traditional pub fare sourced locally wherever possible.  The menu emphasizes ingredients with seasonal availability and includes gluten-free and vegetarian items.  Chef Jeffrey Kaplan, who cut his teeth working for Wolfgang Puck and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, created a menu designed to pair well with the beer.  If you’re of the mind that nothing goes as well with beer as do nuts, run out and get a copy of the March, 2017 print edition of New Mexico Magazine  where you’ll find Rowley’s spicy nut bowl recipe.

Korean Style Chicken Wings with Cucumber Salad

That edition of New Mexico Magazine included the Readers’ Choice Dining Awards for 2017 where readers weighed in on their “favorite burger and chile joints, taquerias, doughnut shops, and four-star restaurants, plus the most exciting new places and beloved old standbys.”  Rowley’s Farmhouse topped the list of favorite new restaurants in Santa Fe.  The magazine waxed poetic about Rowley’s: “This southside gastropub captivated Santa Feans with its focus on complex, fruity, Belgian-style ales and an ambitious menu of elevated bar food.”

Rowley’s can seat as many as 25 diners and (or) imbibers in its pub area and another 50 in an  shaded outdoors area.  The pub’s cynosure is a 24-foot-long bar constructed from planks taken from rail-car transport containers and brushed smooth with a high-gloss veneer.  Behind the bar are some 24 tap handles showcasing the pub’s diverse selection of beer styles.  Habitues can also purchase Rowley’s merchandise–polo shirts and sweatshirts–also on display behind the bar.   The pub’s handful of tables also sport a high-gloss veneer.  Seating, more functional than comfortable, is on bright red metal chairs.

Cheese Plate

My Kim jokes that I wouldn’t eat KFC chicken if you put a gun to my head.  That’s not entirely accurate.   I’d drive a hundred miles out of my way for the real KFC.  That would be Korean Fried Chicken and it’s harder to find in New Mexico than Waldo.  Rowley’s chicken wings are described as “Korean style” which is characterized by lightly coated chicken pieces fried until the outside is crispy and the  meat inside is cooked through.  When prepared correctly, the frying actually cooks off the fat from the chicken skin.  Rowley’s wings are prepared correctly and are impregnated with a sweet, slightly piquant sauce, not the incendiary sauce which seems to define chicken wings.  The six wings are sprinkled with crushed peanuts and green onions and served with a fresh and delicious, whisper-thin cucumber salad.

Turophiles will bow in appreciation at Rowley’s cheese plate, three artisinal cheeses hand-selected by Cheesemongers of Santa Fe.  As with all good cheese boards, the three cheeses run the taste gamut—from mild to sharp with degrees of variation in between. Cheeses should be eaten from mildest to strongest so you don’t miss the nuance of a mild cheese after eating a stinging, astringent blue. The most mild of our three was a wedge of Moses Sleeper, a soft, rich and creamy cheese inspired by a classic French Brie.  Of medium sharpness and firmness was an Alpine Blossom with its slightly sweet flavor.  Last to be sampled but certainly not last in our hearts was a pungent blue cheese from Point Reyes.  The cheese plate also included a a coarse salami with a salty finish, plump and sweet Marcona almonds from Spain and bread slices you can use to construct a sandwich or as a palate-cleanser.

Chicken and Waffles

Rowley’s offers two waffle options, the most seemingly de rigueur of which is a chicken and waffles plate showcasing Liege Belgian waffles served with your choice of a leg and thigh or breast,  house-made Colkegan barrel-aged maple syrup and apple coleslaw.  Leige waffles are several orders of magnitude better than any waffles you may have had at IHOP.  They’re made with a yeast raised dough, not a batter and are more full-flavored and sweet than other waffle types.  The Colkegan (a single malt whiskey) barrel-aged maple syrup is similarly much better than any store-bought syrup you can buy.  The fried chicken is lightly battered and moist while the sweet-tangy apple coleslaw proves a worthy foil for every item on the plate.

When prepared well, risotto has a rich, creamy and slightly chewy texture, with each individual grain of arborio rice standing out clearly and having a hint of a bite, rather than being soft or mushy.  Perhaps because preparing risotto can be a complicated process requiring painstaking monitoring, not many restaurants across the Land of Enchantment offer it and those which do tend to prepare it with rich proteins such as lobster.  Rowley’s Farmers Market Risotto features a selection of fresh vegetables.  It’s an excellent risotto made both gluten free and vegetarian.  We were surprised at how well each of the vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms, corn and arugula) worked with the rich, creamy risotto.  The sweet corn, especially, seemed to pop in contrast to the otherwise savory dish.

Farmers Market Risotto

It’s easy to see why Rowley’s Farmhouse Ales was listed as one of Santa Fe’s favorite new restaurants according to New Mexico Magazine’s readers.  With an inventive menu of farm-to-table favorites, it promises to be a Santa Fe favorite for a long, long time.

Rowley Farmhouse Ales
1405 Maclovia Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 428-0719
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 18 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Cheese Plate, Korean Style Chicken Wings, Farmers Market Risotto, Chicken and Waffles, Onion Rings

Rowley Farmhouse Ales Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’Tucci’s Moderno – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Moderno In Rio Rancho

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New
York.”
~Frank Sinatra

Jeff Spiegel, managing partner of the insanely popular M’Tucci’s family of restaurants has described flagship restaurant M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant (previously M’Tucci’s Kitchina) as “as good as anything we did in New York City.”  That is really saying something considering  over the course of 23 years, Jeff and his life and business partner Katie Gardner owned and operated eleven restaurants in The Big Apple.  Those eclectic eleven were highly regarded dining establishments, earning praise and acclaim from the dining public and media alike.  One, The West End Bar & Grill, was a legendary Columbia University institution and veritable second home to students, faculty and staff.  Two chefs who once worked for Jeff and Katie have earned Best Chef recognition from the James Beard Society while one has garnered significant notoriety as a chef, author and television personality (some of you might recognize the name Anthony Bourdain).

When Jeff and Katie returned to Albuquerque (his hometown) in 2007, they initially pursued other ventures.  Eventually the lure of the restaurant world at which they had succeeded at the highest level pulled them back.  In July, 2013, they partnered with über executive chef John Haas in launching M’Tucci’s Kitchina, the progenitor of a restaurant family quickly becoming dynastic.  Some seventeen months later, the triumvirate opened M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria 150 feet south of the mother ship in the Montaño shopping center.  In July, 2015, they introduced M’tucci’s Cocina Grill, a Nuevo Latino concept and catering operation, in Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center.  Shortly after the dawning of 2017  M’Tucci’s Moderno debuted in Rio Rancho.

One of M’Tucci Moderno’s Two Dining Rooms

One of the keys to expanding their Duke City area restaurant empire has been the recognition, cultivation and flourishing of a very talented and inventive staff, six of whom have become partners.  You get the feeling that Jeff and Katie don’t hold their young chefs back, that they allow them to be inventive and to stretch their creative bounds.  The result is modern, contemporary restaurants which offer playful takes on classic dishes as well as a hint of local flavor.  Chef Haas’s interpretation of traditional dishes often involves their deconstruction, refinement and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes you’ve enjoyed for years, but they might not be exactly as you remember them.  They’re better! 

Similarly Cory Gray and Shawn Cronin at M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli have created a real niche by baking their own breads (sourdough, rye, rustic wheat, baguette, ciabatta, focaccia), making their own pastas and sausages, curing some of their own meats and making their own mozzarella and other cheeses.  They’re New York City deli quality!  M’Tucci’s is the only business in the Land of Enchantment authorized (by the state) to sell its own artisan salumi products.

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

Habitues of the M’Tucci restaurant family will recognize the influence of Chefs Haas, Gray and Cronin on the menu at M’Tucci’s Moderno, a menu which mostly resembles that of the flagship albeit with more steaks and chops than its brethren.  In some ways, Moderno combines the best of its predecessors, offering for example, the charcuterie boards and market bread from the Market & Pizzeria as well as some familiar entrees heretofore available only at the mothership.  The menu is a delight to peruse.  Segmented into sections–antipasti, insalata & zuppa, pasta, secondi, artisan pizza/lavosh flatbread and contini–makes it easy to navigate though you might have a hard time deciding what to order.

M’Tucci’s Moderno is located at the Unser Pavilion, west of Rust Medical Center in the space which previously housed Prime and Vernon’s Open Door, both now defunct.  Swathed in a neo-industrial aesthetic complete with exposed ceiling ductwork, it has some of the familiar eye-catching aesthetic touches Katie introduced at the couple’s first Duke City venture (without the life-sized alligator).  The restaurant has three distinct main areas, all offering comfortable seating and just enough personal space proximity to neighbors.

Charcuterie Board C: Sopressata Salami, Morbier Cheese, House Rosemary Grain Mustard

Surprisingly considering Rio Rancho is often referred to as “Little New York,” there’s only one other Italian restaurant in town (though there are several pizzerias).  That would be the much celebrated Joe’s Pasta House about five miles away.  One hallmark of Joe’s has always been outstanding service, the best in the metropolitan area in my opinion and according to Albuquerque The Magazine‘s 2016 “Best of the City” poll.  M’Tucci’s is also no slouch when it comes to service with M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant finishing in the top five of the Magazine’s “best service” category.  As has been our experience at the M’Tucci restaurant family, we found Moderno’s service convivial and professional.

We also found every nuanced morsel absolutely delicious.  On a blustery February day, the cream of wild mushroom soup especially hit the spot.  Constructed from wild mushrooms, Shiitake, Cremini, Portabella, heavy cream, brandy and olive oil, it’s got the comforting, soul-warming properties of all great soups.  It’s a soup that penetrates deep into your taste buds and thoroughly satisfies your palate and belly.  It’s the type of soup this multi-time judge would love to see at the Roadrunner Food Bank‘s annual Souper Bowl next January (hint, hint).

Shrimp Campanelle

Our hearts beat a little faster when we espied Charcuterie Boards on the menu–four of them, each offering sundry cheeses, meats and garnishes.  Charcuterie, the art of salting, smoking, brining, or otherwise curing meats, is a culinary art for which M’Tucci’s has absolutely no equal in the metropolitan area.  All four boards will merit your rapt consideration.  We opted for Charcuterie Board C, a bountiful melange of Sopressata salami, Morbier cheese, house Rosemary grain mustard served with olive oil, sea salt and  fresh M’tucci’s market bread.  Morbier has a rich, creamy flavour with a slightly bitter aftertaste and delightfully pungent aroma.  It pairs well with the whisper-thin Sopressata, a coarsely ground salami with a hint of piquancy.  The market bread, as always, is the perfect canvas for the house Rosemary grain mustard.

Previous visits to M’Tucci’s restaurants have taught us that any intentions we might have to save some of our entrees for later will go out the window as soon as we taste those entrees.  Such was the case with the Shrimp Campanelle (sauteed Gulf shrimp, house heritage pork chorizo, grape tomatoes, lobster cream sauce, basil and Campanelle pasta).  At first glance, the entree appeared too big to finish in one meal.  At first bite, we knew we wouldn’t be leaving any for later.  This is an outstanding dish–one with  je ne sais quoi, qualities not easily described.  We determined uniquely palate pleasing notes came from the house heritage chorizo and its cinnamony flavor pairing with the sweet brininess of the shrimp and decadent lobster cream sauce.  The grape tomatoes provided acidity and served as a nice foil for the richness of other elements.

Affumicato Artisinal Pizza

Whether you like your pizza on a thin, but pliable crust (artisinal pizza) or an even thinner, crispy crust (lavosh flatbread), Moderno has a pizza to satisfy every preference.  Ever since I introduced her to buffalo mozzarella several years ago, it’s been my Kim’s favorite cheese.  Smoked buffalo mozzarella is only one reason she ordered the Affumicato.  Other reasons included roasted grape tomatoes, San Marzano tomato sauce, preserved sweet peppers and caramelized onions.  For someone with as pronounced a carnivorous bent to have enjoyed this pizza as much as she did speaks volumes about how good it is…and how good buffalo mozzarella is.  One of few people who don’t believe char is a flavor, Kim asked for a light char and Moderno delivered. 

Desserts are a medley of familiar M’Tucci’s standards and some heretofore unavailable.  Among the former is the Twinkie L’Italia which four-time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.”  Only the bread pudding (port wine cherries, Stracciatella gelato, dark chocolate ganache) could pull us away.  This is an excellent bread pudding elevated to rarefied air with the addition of the Stacciatella (vanilla gelato flecked with fine chocolate) drizzled with dark chocolate ganache veins.  The tart-sweet port wine cherries are a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of the bread pudding.  It has already vaulted to the top of Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  The professor with the perspicacious palate is pretty selective when it comes to bread pudding.  Trust us.  This is a great one.

Bread Pudding (Port Wine Cherries, Stracciatella Gelato, Dark Chocolate Ganache

It could well be argued that Duke City diners are even more persnickety and demanding than their counterparts in New York City.  What can’t be disputed is that–just as they did in Metropolis–Jeff Spiegel and Katie Gardner have made it in Albuquerque.  As restaurant impresarios and developers of restaurant talent, they just might be peerless.  Their restaurants certainly are!

M’Tucci’s Moderno Italian Restaurant
1908 Wellspring Avenue, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 891-2432
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bread Pudding, Shrimp Campanelle, Affumicato, Charcuterie Board C, Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

M'Tucci's Moderno Italian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nanami Noodle House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nanami Noodle House and Sister Restaurant, Plum Cafe

If Chinese superstitions have any credence, some of us may not be long for this world.  Chinese superstitions posit that long noodles symbolize a long life.  Ostensibly, if you cut your noodles, you’re cutting your life short.  Instead of cutting your noodles, the Chinese advocate slurping up long noodles without breaking them.  When it comes to noodles, the Chinese should know.  After all, they’ve been preparing noodles longer than any culture in the world.  In 2005, archaeologists uncovered a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles in Northeast China, the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.  Buried under ten feet of sediment, an overturned sealed bowl contained beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles made from two kinds of millet. Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern indicated that “even today, deft skills are required to make long, thin noodles like those found” at the Chinese site, adding that  “this shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication.” 

If you’ve never seen the art-and-science process of hand-making noodles, it should be on your bucket list–and because the process is quickly becoming a lost art, you should place it near the top of that list.  Fortunately you don’t have to go far to witness veritable feats of noodular prestidigitation.  The art of hand-pulled noodles is on daily display at Beijing Noodle No. 9 within Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where the open kitchen doubles as an exhibition hall for chefs who’ve been intensely trained on how to hand stretch noodles.  Through a process of stretching and twisting flour, noodle-masters can hand pull hundreds of beautiful long thin noodles for a variety of dishes.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but even more spectacular is sampling the results.

Nanami Dining Room

When we heard a new Duke City restaurant named Nanami Noodle House would be launching in January, 2017, we dared hope hand-pulled noodles would be featured fare.  Alas, such was not meant to be.  Nanami showcases noodles made elsewhere and flown in for use on a variety of broth-based, vegetarian and non-broth noodle dishes (if it’s any consolation, very few cities across the fruited plain can boast of restaurants in which noodles are made in the traditional hand-pulled manner).  Captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen gave us very little opportunity to bemoan our ill-fortune.  The source of those fragrant bouquets were in dire need of exploration as was a menu as diverse and delightful as we’ve seen in quite some time.

Befitting the restaurant’s name, which translates to “seven seas,” that menu includes dishes originating in Vietnam, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan and Korea with a nod to New Mexico here and there.   The Land of Enchantment meets Asia in the very first appetizer listed on the menu.  That would be the green chile Rangoon.  It’s one of nine appetizers, most of which are pretty standard fare.  You can eschew appetizers altogether and enjoy one of the four available salads.  Some diners will gravitate immediately to the noodle soups section of the menu, a listing of fifteen slurp-worthy soups.  If you prefer noodles sans broth, the menu lists four inviting options including grilled vermicelli.  Vegetarian options are also available.

Green Chile Rangoon

Lest I forget, the menu lists a nice array of hot and cold beverages including sixteen-ounce shakes, some in flavors you might not expect (green tea, Vietnamese coffee and Thai tea, for example).  Caffeine fiends should try the Vietnamese Coffee Frappe, an eye-opening meld of strong coffee and sweetened condensed milk.  Hot tea by the pot flavors include oolong, jasmine, green tea and a decaffeinated green tea.  Ice tea flavors include unsweetened green tea, mango, lychee and peach.  Coke products are also available, but other options just seem so much more appropriate.  Oh, and you’ll definitely want to peruse the dessert menu, too.

Nanami Noodle House is located at the former site of Cafe Jean-Pierre off the Pan American Highway.  It faces and is within easy walking distance of the Century 24 theater.  Nanami is the brainchild of first-time restaurant owners Brian and Nga Trieu, both of whom have extensive restaurant experience.  Brian cut his teeth working in restaurants owned and operated by his siblings in Roswell, Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.  Among family owned restaurants with which you might be familiar are Banana Leaf (which a sibling sold years ago) and the Plum Cafe next door.  There are some similarities between the three.

Chicken Dumplings

Sure to become the restaurant’s signature appetizer is the Green Chile Rangoon (crispy Rangoon filled with green chile, jalapeño, onion, cream cheese and Cheddar).  If you’ve ever lamented the cloying flavor of most Crab Rangoon, you’ll appreciate that this six-piece starter bites back–not too much, but enough to be discernible.  The Green chile Rangoon is served with a plum sauce, a term which usually engenders yawning and ennui.  This plum sauce actually has personality courtesy of a nice infusion of ginger and chili.  It only looks sweet and innocuous.

Nanami pays attention to the sauces which accompany its appetizers.  That’s a difference-maker discerning diners will notice.  The chicken dumplings (crispy pot stickers filled with chicken, Napa cabbage, shallot and green onion), for example, are accompanied by a chili oil sweet soy sauce that emphasizes both its piquant and sweet elements.  The chicken dumplings are flash-fried to a golden hue and are generously filled.  It’s telling that the dumplings are delicious with or without sauce though the sauce does bring out more flavors.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

Whether you noodle over the choices carefully or you espy a noodle dish that quickly wins you over, you’re in for a real treat.  My Kim beat me to the spicy beef noodle soup (rice noodle, medium flank steak, beef broth, tomato, cucumber and bean sprouts in a sate pork-shrimp broth topped with crushed peanuts, green onions, fried shallots and basil), my ad-libitum choice when trying a new Vietnamese restaurant.  While the flavor profile of most spicy beef noodle soups in the Duke City gravitates toward anise-kissed pho made piquant with the addition of chili, this one is wholly different.  It derives its heat from sate, a piquant Vietnamese sauce typically made with garlic, lemongrass, chili, fish sauce and other ingredients.  You may have noticed from the ingredients listed above that the broth is a sate pork-shrimp broth, not a beef broth.  There are many surprises in this soup, the least of which is the addition of fresh tomatoes and cucumber slices.  This deeply satisfying, rich elixir may have you rethink what you believe spicy beef noodle soup should be.

If you can’t get enough ramen in your life, you’ll appreciate Nanami offering one ramen option heretofore unavailable in the Duke City.  That would be the Kim Chi Ramen (wheat noodle, chasu, tofu, soft-boiled egg, mushrooms, bean sprouts and kimchi in a pork dashi broth topped with sesame seed, green onion and nori).  This is a ramen dish rich in umami, one of the five basic tastes (along with salt, sweet, sour and bitter) with a profile described as “meaty” and “brothy.”  The rich stock (dashi), soy sauce, earthy mushrooms and even the fermented kimchi are especially imbued with umami.   There is a lot going on in this dish, a melding of ingredients which go very well together, but if the term “kimchi” inspires visions of fiery, fermented cabbage, you might be disappointed.  The focus of this ramen is in developing a multitude of flavors, not one overwhelming flavor.  This is a memorable dish!

Kim Chi Ramen

The Nanami Noodle House may not hand-pull its noodles, but the chef certainly knows how to use noodles to craft deeply satisfying, soulful and delicious dishes you’ll want to enjoy again and again.

Nanami Noodle House
4959 Pan American, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-1125
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 11 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Rangoon, Chicken Pot Stickers, Kim Chi Ramen, Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

Nanami Noodle House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: January, 2017

Beef Tender Bistro with Waffle Fries from Grill 49 in Tularosa.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

As an essayist of the New Mexico culinary scene, it often baffles me to read national print and online publications attempting to speak for New Mexicans in naming our best this or best that.  It’s often as if the writers have never set foot in the Land of Enchantment and instead tossed a dart at a target listing sundry foods.  Take for example, Delish.com’s recent compilation of compilation of The 50 Most Wanted Game Day Food in Your State.  Using findings from DirecTV which ostensibly combed through Instagram to determine which snacks people were scarfing down before cheering on the home team, Delish.com named onion rings as the fried snack of choice here.  Onion rings!!!   In years of having attended Lobo football and basketball games, I don’t recall any tailgaters noshing on onion rings.  Perhps they devour onion rings at home before heading to the University Stadium or Wise Guys Arena.

According to an online survey from the National Coffee Association, 83-percent of adults crave their caffeine jolt.  A separate survey from Zagat revealed about half of respondents get their coffee fix at a nationally owned chain or local coffee shop.  When it comes to finding a great cup of coffee, not every city is created equal.  Yelp data was evaluated to determine America’s fifty caffeine capitals.  With a caffeine score of 86.27, Albuquerque ranks as America’s second most caffeinated city.  Coffee lovers convene for their favorite cup at one of the city’s 124 coffee shops which earned an average Yelp rating of 3.9 (on a scale of one to five) with 80 of them earning ratings of four to five on Yelp reviews.

Chicken and Waffles (with Bacon) from Salud! de Mesilla.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

“Love may be a many-splendored thing, but however you cut it, “splendor” is the operative word.  Cities that bring the beauty almost always crank up the heat, which is why there’s no mistaking a romantic city when you encounter it. Thrillist compiled a rundown of US cities where the scenery doubles as an aphrodisiac, for use as you and boo see fit.”   Not surprisingly, Santa Fe was named one of the most beautiful cities in the US for romantic getaways.  According to Thrillist, the City Different’s most romantic restaurant-bar is the Pink Adobe adding that “the neighborhood’s wonderful collection of bars and restaurants, from the Palace to Secreto Lounge to Tia Sophia’s, is integral to the area’s sultry charm.”

Santa Fe is also home to one of America’s 39 most historic restaurants as named by MSN.  The venerable El Farol on artsy-chic Canyon Road is the city’s oldest restaurant.  MSN wrote: “Serving Spanish tapas this delightful restaurant has been offering “warmth” and “light” (the English translation) since 1835, alongside sharing plates well before they became a trend and nightly entertainment.  El Farol is one of the forerunners of the tapas movement, the sharing of small portions of delectable foods served in groupings.  History meets entertainment at El Farol which features live entertainment seven days a week.

Cannoli from NYP Pizza House in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Just in time for the advent of 2017, Travel Squire,  a digital magazine and travel therapist in one combined, written and edited by destination specialists. organized its picks for the top 28 destinations for the upcoming year in travel.  The list includes every continent with something for every travel style.  “New on Your Radar” destinations providing a variety of cultural and culinary experiences include the Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is the only state that is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Chaco Canyon, Taos Pueblo and Carlsbad Caverns.  It’s also unmatched in terms of culinary experiences.  Travel Squire noted: “Enticing culinary trails like the Breakfast Burrito Byway and the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail will introduce you to New Mexico’s culinary staple—the spicy chile. There are also numerous opportunities to experience the Native American culture from a pueblo cooking class at Okhay Owingeh to sampling pueblo cuisine, exploring Gallup’s Native art and Native-influenced spa treatments.”

While many New Mexicans might have named our official state cookie–the sacrosanct biscochito–as our most delicious cookie, Good Housekeeping made a rather surprising choice.  In naming a dark chocolate chili cookie as New Mexico’s very best cookie in its list of the 50 most delicious cookies by state, Good Housekeeping actually found a cookie that really doesn’t have much New Mexico in it.  Study the recipe and you’ll quickly note its ingredients include a hint of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and chunks of dark chocolate chili chocolate.  Sure, we love cayenne pepper with Cajun food, but it doesn’t grace our recipes for New Mexican food.   As for the “chili” in this cookie, it actually comes from a  Lindt chili excellence bar.  It’s unlikely any New Mexican chile farmers would allow their product to be spelled “chili” so there’s no telling where it comes from.

Menudo from Bravas Cafe in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

During our three years in England, we spent many a lazy day on the banks of the serene River Windrush  luxuriating with a cup of tea coupled with a combination of scones, clotted cream, and jam.  It’s not something we can hope to duplicate on the banks of the murky Rio Grande, but scant miles away, we can experience the genteel pleasure of sipping tea at The St. James Tearroom.  The Huffington Post calls an experience at the St. James Tearoom “the lost art of connection,” indicating that the tearoom “offers its patrons an experience that creates connection and intimacy for those who choose to leave the rushed and stressful day to day duties of work to take time out and connect. It is a place to relax and be fully present to those around you and tea is the magical thread that weaves this experience together.” 

What one person considers delicious, another may deem entirely unpleasant.  Thrillist realizes that “each state has foods that might look unappetizing or downright disgusting to an outsider — but to homegrown kids, they’re a little slice of home.”  Most native New Mexicans will consider it heretical that in a Thrillist feature entitled “Every State’s Grossest Food (That People Actually Love),” declares that our beloved carne adovada “resembles a plate of wet dog food in marinara sauce.”  Hard to believe as New Mexicans will find it, carne adovada was deemed our “grossest food.”  Where do you find this paragon of loathsomeness?  Thrillist recommends Mary & Tito’s Cafe where “you get it paired with a plate of perfectly cooked sunny-side eggs and hash browns.”

Croissant from Belle Sucre in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

Ludwig van Beethoven once declared “only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”  Restaurants throughout Albuquerque and Santa Fe are obviously staffed with pure-hearted chefs and cooks who show off their formidable culinary skills every year at each city’s annual Souper Bowl, the most delicious fund-raising events in the state.  Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl benefits The Food Depot, “Northern New Mexico’s Food Bank.”  Approximately one-thousand soup lovers attended the twenty-third annual event where they sipped soup to their heart’s content.  Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen earned both  best overall soup and best savory soup with a Thai Cambodian Coconut Chicken soup.  Other category winners included Terra at the Four Seasons at Rancho Encantado in the best cream category; Kingston Residence of Santa Fe in the best seafood category; and The Palace in the best vegetarian category.

More than twelve-hundred guests enjoyed scrumptious soups and delectable desserts from nearly forty area Albuquerque restaurants in the Roadrunner Food Bank’s Souper Bowl 2017.  Awards were presented in two categories: Critic’s Choice and People’s Choice with attendees casting their ballots for their favorite soup and dessert.  Drum roll please…the 2017 Souper Bowl award winners were:

People’s Choice – Overall Soup Winners
1st Place and Souper Bowl Champion: Bocadillos Café and Catering
2nd Place: Chumly’s Southwestern
3rd Place: Daily Grind

People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup Winners
1st Place: Turtle Mountain Brewing Co.
2nd Place: 99 Degrees Seafood
3rd Place: Corn Maiden at the Hyatt

People’s Choice – Dessert Winners
1st Place: Nothing Bundt Cakes
2nd Place: Theombroma Chocolatier
3rd Place: Vic’s Daily Cafe

Critic’s Choice Awards were chosen by a panel of six judges (including yours truly) who rated each soup based on appearance, aroma, texture, spice blend, flavor and overall impression.  

Critics’ Choice Winners
1st Place: Chumly’s Southwestern
2nd Place: Sandia Golf Club
3rd Place: Zacateca Tacos + Tequila

Quiche Lorraine from The Shed in Las Cruces.  Image Courtesy of Melodie K.

What’s the hottest trending topic in the world of comfort cuisine.  According to The Travel Channel, it’s Mexican food.  With flavors so bold, brash and satisfying, it’s no surprise.  Leaving no tortilla unturned in its search for America’s eight best places to “enjoy maximum Mexican food enjoyment,” it’s also no surprise The Travel Channel would wind up in New Mexico where Albuquerque’s legendary El Pinto ranked number four in the list of Best Mex.  John and Jim Thomas, the famous “Salsa Twins” were featured along with the meaty splendor that is El Pinto’s red chile ribs.  The process of preparing the best ribs since Adam shared one with Eve was showcased along with calabasitas and a 24-ounce bone-in tomahawk steak.

The Travel Channel also counted down eight restaurants known for serving up the best version of a city’s signature dish.  In an episode of Food Paradise entitled “Iconic Eats,” Santa Fe’s Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen was lauded for its blue corn enchiladas, a main player in its menu for more than fifty years.  Another dish on the epic list are Maria’s epic chile rellenos which are stuffed with a pepperjack cheese.  It’s too bad modern technology has not yet developed smell-o-vision or better still, taste-o-vision because both dishes truly represent New Mexico on a plate.  It’s Christmas every day at Maria’s.

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