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IKrave Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

iKrave Cafe for Albuquerque’s very best Vietnamese Sandwiches

Please say it isn’t so!  According to Nations Restaurant News, a highly respected trade publication “a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs” believes “American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.”  The notion of corporate chain megaliths setting their sights on the humble banh mi should send shudders down the spine of everyone who frequents the mom-and-pop nature of the banh mi restaurants we’ve come to know and love. Imagine a phalanx of Subway-like sandwich shops creating and selling banh mi. The notion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

One of the first chains vying to expand the presence of banh mi in the mainstream is Chipotle whose Asian-themed offshoot “ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen” features banh mi as the menu’s cornerstone. If Chipotle does for the banh mi what it did for burritos and what Olive Garden did for Italian food, there will be generations of American diners who may never experience the real thing–an authentic banh mi prepared in the traditional manner by Vietnamese weaned on banh mi. Worse, slick Madison Avenue advertisers might convince them they prefer the faux food.

iKrave’s energetic, customer oriented owner Hien

It’s a small consolation that it will probably take a while before the heavily bankrolled chain interlopers reach Albuquerque (think about how long it took before Chipotle invaded).  That gives the Duke City’s  three established independent purveyors of peerless banh mi the opportunity to win over even more converts.  It should take only one visit!

Until just a few years ago, you had to visit larger cosmopolitan areas such as San Francisco to find banh mi.  Eventually such banh mi pioneers as May Café, May Hong and Cafe Dalat, all full-service Vietnamese restaurants, began offering “Vietnamese Sandwiches” on their appetizer menus.  Before long, almost every other Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City followed suit.  In 2010, Banh Mi Coda became the Duke City’s first full-fledged banh mi shop.  It took three more years before Sai Gon Sandwich launched, becoming the second restaurant in Albuquerque dedicated solely to banh mi.

#4 Grilled Pork Banh Mi

The third banh mi restaurant–the one about which you may not yet have heard–is called iKrave.  The name means exactly what it sounds it should mean as in “I crave” banh mi. iKrave opened its doors in August, 2014. Being ensconced in a rather nondescript strip mall on Juan Tabo (just north of Constitution) and without a prominent eye-catching storefront, much of its business has come from the Vietnamese community and nearby residents. You wouldn’t blame them if they wanted to keep secret what is one of New Mexico’s best sandwich shops of any genre.

iKrave exemplifies the axioms “big things come in small packages” and “small place, huge flavors.” This Lilliputian lair has room for only a couple of small tables, a free-standing beverage refrigerator and a bamboo counter where you place your order. The man behind the counter is owner-chef Hien who not only constructs the banh mi (it’s a thing of beauty), he cures, marinades, cuts and otherwise imparts preternatural deliciousness on all the meats which grace the banh me he serves. He also slices, dices and juliennes all the fresh vegetables adorning each banh mi.

Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

To say the banh mi is a sacrosanct sandwich is an understatement. So is calling it merely delicious or utterly wonderful. During a 2009 visit to Vietnam for his award-winning “No Reservations” show, Anthony Bourdain described banh mi as “a symphony in a sandwich.” It’s an apt description for the effect this superb sandwich has on your taste buds. You can almost picture all ten-thousand taste buds dancing, enrapt in the melodious harmony of flavors

Bourdain elaborated further: “The baguette alone is something of a miracle. How do they stay so crunchy, crisp and fresh on the outside, so airy, so perfect on the inside?” In truth, this statement is much more applicable to the baguettes in Vietnam than the bread used by banh mi purveyors throughout the Duke City. Hien procures his baguettes from a local baker whose classic preparation techniques are very close to those used in Vietnam. Unlike American sandwiches whose bread can lull taste buds to sleep, Vietnamese baguettes are really the vessel that coalesces all the flavors of the banh mi.

#1: Special Combination Banh Mi

With your first bite, you’ll notice the difference and with each subsequent bite, your appreciation will grow for this delicious duality of light and airy, crisp and soft, fresh and flavorful bread. It’s the perfect canvass for any one of the eight sandwiches on the iKrave banh mi menu.  Before he creates your sandwich, Hien brushes the baguette with a rather expensive French butter then heats it.  It’s one of several touches he employes to ensure the most moist and meticulously crafted banh mi in town.  It’s sandwich artistry at its finest and most delicious.

16 April 2015: Combination #1 is the mother lode, the bahn mi with the most. It’s an unheated sandwich (the Vietnamese version of a “cold cut” sandwich, but infinitely better) constructed with barbecue pork, pork roll and cured pork pate along with the classic banh mi condiments: Vietnamese mayo (cut with butter for moistness and nuttiness), fresh herbs (cilantro, scallions), pickled (julienne daikon and carrots) and unpickled vegetables (jalapeños).  The sandwich is further moistened by sauce Hien uses on the barbecue pork.  Every element in this sandwich is as fresh and delicious as it can be. Together they coalesce to create my very favorite banh mi in New Mexico.

Sugar Cane Juice

19 April 2015: if your preference is for a heated sandwich, iKrave has several wonderful options.  Savvy diners who frequent Vietnamese restaurants are familiar with grilled pork, porcine perfection marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds.  Imagine a banh mi created with this incomparably delicious pork.  It’s better than your imagination.  So is the grilled chicken banh mi.

16 April 2015: You’ll want to wash down your banh mi with sugar cane juice made on the premises by Hien himself.  Take a gander at the beverage refrigerator where you’ll see bundles of sugar cane stalks from which Hien extracts the juice.  Organic Lifestyle Magazine lists sugar cane juice  (which has a relatively low glycemic index of 43), as a healthy alternative to table sugar when used in moderation. It contains fructose and glucose, which, unlike sucrose-based sugars, do not require insulin for metabolism.  Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious! Alternatively, iKrave serves what Hien believes to be some of the strongest iced coffee in town.  It’s excellent!  

One of the most  common, albeit more than a little bit Americanized, nicknames for Vietnam is “Nam,” obviously a diminutive of its full name.  In honor of the banh mi, perhaps its nickname should be “num num.”  iKrave is home to banh mi which will have you uttering “num num” and more.

iKrave Cafe
1331 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite 1P
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-6625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2015
1st VISIT: 16 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Special Combination Banh Mi, Sugar Cane Juice, Coconut Macaroons, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Grilled Chicken Banh Mi

Ikrave Cafe on Urbanspoon

J.J.’s Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

J.J.'s Pizza on Menaul

J.J.’s Pizza on Menaul

“Locally owned and operated.”  It’s a concept I celebrate on my blog in paying homage to intrepid moms and pops who risk it all to compete with the ubiquitous corporate chains.  I trumpet the fact that locally owned and operated restaurants can be unpredictable, that they prepare food to order instead of thawing something out which was shipped from corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away, that you can get to know the great families who own them, that those families have very personal investments and take immense pride in their products.

Justin (JJ) Salazar’s ideas as to what constitutes “locally owned and operated” mirror my own.  In his words, local should mean that “a business is owned by someone who lives in town (not just a mailing address), that there is no parent company (franchise) taking the proceeds to another town, and that the owner works in the business.”  JJ knows that “nobody cares as much as an owner and that it does no good if the owner’s not in the store.”  He plans on passing on his business to his children so you know his heart is in his investment.

The interior of JJ’s

J.J. grew up in Albuquerque, just a couple of blocks from Central Avenue in the UNM area where he frequented Nunzio’s, then the undisputed best independent pizzeria in town.  As a teenager he was fascinated with the art and science of cooking, particularly the chemistry and processes that create different breads.  This knowledge served him well as he moved up the ladder from driver to general manager in one of the busiest Pizza Hut franchises in New Mexico.

His time at Pizza Hut served to intensify his appreciation for independent pizzerias, an appreciation he would nurture in California where he immersed himself in studying and training for the day he would launch his own independent pizza restaurant.  It would take borrowing from every source he could find before J.J. would realize his dream, the type of personal investment many mom and pop restaurant owners make in their restaurants.  The price of a dream can be very costly.

Before there were video games....

Before there were video games….

From the outside, J.J.’s Pizzeria resembles many other independent pizzerias with little of the flash and panache of the behemoth pizza chains which are ultimately more style than substance and whose copycat products reflect the impersonal investment of their parent chain.  When you walk in, don’t expect the typical rehearsed wait schtick of insincere chains.  J.J. himself greets you as he might a guest at his home.  It’s yet another aspect of independent restaurants I appreciate.

Positioned above the counter at which you place your order is a menu which at first browse resembles the menu of many a pizzeria.  Pizza is available in small (a personal size eight-inch beauty), medium, large and extra large sizes.  A panoply of specialty pizzas includes meat lovers options (including a barbecue beef pizza) as well as vegetarian friendly pizzas.  You can also construct your own from a phalanx of available ingredients.  Eleven different hot subs, calzones, salads and even spaghetti are also available.

The Ranchero Pizza at J.J.'s

The Ranchero Pizza at J.J.’s

On one corner of the restaurant are positioned three video games.  No, not the modern hand-held video games.  J.J.’s got the precursors of today’s innovative digitally enhanced multi-platform games.  These are the video games of the 1980s, the type of which could be found in drugstores, laundromats and game rooms two decades ago.  J.J. grew up playing these games and still has a soft spot in his heart for them.

So what makes J.J.’s pizza different?  It certainly starts with the crust.  Dough is made fresh from scratch in the store every day, a recognition that living dough makes better bread than frozen dough.  The crust has deep hues of brown and gold, the speckled char to which all great pizzas aspire.  The crust is baked in a Middleby Marshal PS260 pizza oven which cooks hotter meaning the dough never comes out doughy and all the toppings are cooked thoroughly.   Only 100 percent never-frozen, real mozzarella cheese is used on each pizza.

A large pizza: half Ranchero and half barbecue beef

A large pizza: half Ranchero and half barbecue beef

1 July 2009: During my inaugural visit, J.J. himself recommended the Ranchero (pictured above), a personal sized pizza topped with pepperoni, ground beef, bacon and green chile.  It was an astute recommendation from an obviously very proud owner.  The Ranchero is an excellent pizza!  It arrives at your table steaming hot and cooked all the way through.  The crust is pliable, with enough bend that it can probably be folded like New York style pizza.  It is a terrific crust, the type of which will remind you of great bread right out of the oven.  The sauce is thick, well-seasoned and hearty.  The ingredients, particularly the green chile, are top notch.  The green chile has a nicely roasted flavor and just a bit more piquancy than most Duke City pizzas.

23 August 2009: Being an independently owned and operated family business means you have the latitude to do what you want; you don’t have to follow the corporate regimen.  If you ask for a unique combination (within reason), JJ’s can prepare it for you.  You can, for example, ask for a half Ranchero (pepperoni, ground beef, bacon, green chile) and half barbecue beef and it will be delivered to your table.  The barbecue beef pizza is topped with handfuls of barbecue beef and red onion, each slice offering some of both.  The beef has a faint smokiness and is imbued with a sweet and tangy sauce.  It’s the type of beef which would go well in a barbecue beef sandwich–which is a good thing because the menu offers it as one of eight hot subs–ranging in size from five-inches to ten-inches–on the menu.

Meatball Sub

 

21 April 2015: The hot subs include turkey, Italian, roast beef, Albuquerque turkey, BBQ, club, ham and meatball.  If the meatball sub is any indication, JJ’s is no slouch in the sandwich department.  You’ll want the ten-inch meatball sub which arrives at your table sliced in half.  A generous number of meatballs smothered in a thick marinara are nestled in a lightly toasted roll and topped with shredded mozzarella.  There’s very little, if any, filler in the meatballs which are just slightly larger than bite-sized.  Because the marinara is so thick and tomato-rich, this may be the least messy meatball sub in town.  Not quite fully melted, the shredded mozzarella is a nice change from the gooey, molten blanket of cheese which usually tops meatball subs.  It’ll be hard to top this sub!

Albuquerque has a surprising number of very good independent pizzerias.  When J.J. Salazar entered the fray, he knew his product had to be a cut above in order to compete. It is!  If personal investment, a terrific product and owner involvement count for anything–and they should–J.J.’s Pizza will continue to win over a discerning Duke City market.

J.J.’s Pizza
4111 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-6962
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2015
1ST VISIT: 1 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Ranchero, BBQ Beef Pizza, Cinna-Munchies, Meatball Sub

J J's Pizza on Urbanspoon

New Yorken Cafe & Bakery – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The New Yorken Cafe & Bakery on Juan Tabo

Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach
Or to Hollywood
But I’m taking a Greyhound
On the Hudson River Line
I’m in a New York state of mind.”
~Billy Joel

Perhaps only in New Mexico does the term “New York state of mind” evoke images of a desert hamlet atop the mesa overlooking the largest city in the state. Such was the effectiveness of the slick marketing campaign by the American Realty and Petroleum Company (AMREP for short) that Rio Rancho, the city it founded less than fifty years ago, may be more often referred to as “Little New York” than as the “City of Vision,” the sobriquet it would prefer.  AMREP’s clever marketing attracted hundreds of middle-income New Yorkers to the then untamed western fringes overlooking the Rio Grande.  

To almost everyone else, however, “New York state of mind” calls forth the melting pot character that can take you around the world in five boroughs where as many as 800 languages are spoken.  That multicultural diversity has become what former President Jimmy Carter described as “a beautiful mosaic” with “different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”  That diversity extends to the city’s culinary scene where within a span of two or three blocks and scant minutes, you virtually have a world’s worth of dining options.

Patrick and Lisa Archibald, proud owners of New Yorken

It’s been said that you may leave New York, but New York never leaves you.  Patrick Archibald, a transplanted New Yorker who’s been in Albuquerque for more than two decades, can certainly attest to that.  Having cut his culinary teeth in Staten Island by baking bagels, he was immediately smitten with the food business and determined to someday make a living in the profession.  It’s taken a twenty-year detour to someday for him to achieve his dreams. 

As owner of New Surface Cabinets and Countertops on Juan Tabo, he witnessed several restaurants come and go from the restaurant space next door before embarking on his inaugural restaurant ownership venture.  A few months after Dagmar’s Restaurant & Strudel Haus shuttered its doors in the summer of 2014, Patrick and his better half Lisa, a native New Mexican, launched New Yorken.  Determining what the featured fare would be was a no-brainer.  Patrick wanted to bring New York to New Mexico.  For that it’s not only transplanted New Yorkers who are grateful.

Dinner Salad with Blue Cheese

Perusing the menu, it would be easy to conclude that Patrick is of Italian descent, but he’s as Irish as a field of shamrocks.  While heavy on Italian “red sauce” restaurant favorites, the menu also reflects the multicultural diversity of the neighborhood in which he grew up.  That means a smattering of Jewish and German favorites, too.  New Yorken also salutes Lisa’s home state with such enchanting dishes as a breakfast burrito, Frito pie and green chili (SIC) stew).  New Yorkers aren’t the only ones who’ll appreciate the fried or dirty water hot dogs, pork cutlet sandwich, chicken cutlet parmigiana sandwich and burgers redolent with Big Apple touches.

While the breakfast and lunch menus bespeak of New York’s melting pot diversity, the dinner menu could have emanated from a restaurant named Guido’s, Santori’s or any number of other Italian names.  It lists ten Italian dishes, not all of which might be recognized in Italy, but all of which are absolutely beloved in the Italian American communities of New York.  Family recipes are the source of such New York favorites as linguine with clam sauce, baked ziti and meatballs.  Patrick smiles broadly when describing those meatballs and is fittingly proud that the New Yorken menu includes shrimp parmigiana, a dish not often found in the Land of Enchantment.

Italian Bread with Garlic Cloves

The New Yorken Cafe & Bakery is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.  All dinner entrees come with a tossed side salad and fresh Italian bread, the latter of which is served with garlic cloves and butter.  The hard-crusted bread with a soft, pillowy interior is a perfect vessel for sopping up sauces.  That includes the housemade salad dressings such as the house specialty, a garlic vinaigrette. 

My standard salad dressing request is “as much blue cheese as you can carry.” What is ferried to my table usually isn’t enough. Lisa brought me two ramekins brimming with some of the best blue cheese we’ve had in a long time. It’s replete with plenty of blue veined, thick, creamy and wonderfully fetid blue cheese crumbles. This blue cheese dressing pairs well with New Yorken’s tossed side salad which is constructed from an organic salad mix, carrots, cucumber, tomato, broccoli, red onions and mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms, a vastly underused salad ingredient which goes especially well with blue cheese.

Lasagna

Because my own New Mexican mom makes my favorite lasagna in the universe, I rarely order lasagna in restaurants for fear of being disappointed.  It’s usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Lisa’s effusive description of New Yorken’s lasagna swayed my decision as to what to order.  It’s an excellent choice: layered pasta, homemade marinara sauce, creamy cheese blend and Italian sausage “baked to perfection.”  Several elements on this dish stand out.  The marinara sauce is reminiscent of the sauce served at New York’s many “red sauce” Italian restaurants.  It’s not as heavy on oregano as marinara around here tends to be and the tomatoes are rich and sweet.  The coarsely-blended sausage is redolent with fennel and is very flavorful. 

We thought the lasagna has a lot of sausage (and it does), but it’s sausage-impoverished compared to the Italian Sausage entree (mild Italian sausage, peppers and onions served over spaghetti with garlic and herbs).  Often called sausage and peppers on Italian restaurant menus, it’s a favorite in red sauce Italian restaurants.  None we’ve ever visited serves as many diagonally sliced sausage coins as New Yorken.  My Kim, who believes in sparing the sauce (heretical, yes I know) appreciated the relatively sparse sauce as well as the perfectly al dente spaghetti.  The red and green peppers were absolutely perfect, too, neither soft and mushy nor raw and hard.  The diversity of sausage and peppers can be seen throughout the menu.  They’re available on the New Yorken omelet and on the “Little Italy” sandwich.  Wise diners will try them all.

Sausage and Peppers

There are many foods associated with New York, but perhaps the most beloved of them all is the classic cheesecake.  It may be the most enduring, too, having survived America’s low-cal, low-fat, low-carb and low-sugar manias to be served today in more than 2,000 of the city’s restaurants.  New York cheesecake has been a rich, creamy, delicious staple of the New York dessert scene since the 1920s.  Among its telltale signs are its denseness, thickness and creaminess.  There are many imitators, but none are as good.

It took a lot of trial and effort before Patrick was able to bake a cheesecake as good as his mother’s.  Over the years he’s added to his repertoire, eventually building a brand and a business from his passion.  For almost five years, he’s offered his delectable cheesecakes under the Patty Cakes brand, selling them in limited quantities.  With a more expansive platform, it shouldn’t be long before Duke City diners discover and get hooked on possibly the very best cheesecakes outside New York.

Fabulous Cheesecake

The luminous treasures displayed in jewelry cases pale in comparison to the cheesecakes behind glass in the pastry cases at New Yorken.  Most of them might be classified as “plain” if sheer, utter deliciousness can ever be termed as plain.  In this case, plain only means they’re unadorned with any toppings.  “Classic” is a better descriptor.  Patrick encourages you to make your inaugural slice a classic cheesecake so that nothing comes between your taste buds and the purity of this rich, creamy dessert.  My Chicago born-and-bred Kim, who’s no stranger to cheesecake, conceded with alacrity that Patrick’s classic cheesecake is better than Eli’s, a Windy City staple.

The turtle cheesecake (pecans, caramel and chocolate) is at least as good as the last slice of Junior’s Cheesecakes to cross my lips (and hips) several years ago.  That places it in rarefied company.  Unlike far too many cheesecakes which are made with a Graham Cracker or Oreo crust, New Yorken’s cheesecakes are absolutely crustless.  The denseness of the cream cheese holds up against the generous layer of chocolate topped with whole pecans and drizzled with caramel.  The beauty of the turtle cheesecake is the layer of flavorings with varying degrees of sweetness within the tangy cream cheese, dark chocolate and sugary caramel.  The pecans are a perfect foil.  This is the perfect cheesecake!

Even Better Turtle Cheesecake

The New York state of mind is alive, well and delicious at the New Yorken Cafe & Bakery, a little bit of the melting pot character that defines America’s largest city.

New Yorken Cafe & Bakery
2120 Juan Tabo,  N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 293-3439
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 18 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Turtle Cheesecake, Cheesecake, Lasagna, Sausage and Peppers,

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