Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

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Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Year in Food: March, 2015

March, 2015

The Milano (Marinara Sauce, Italian Sausage, Prosciuitto, Genoa Salami, Mozzarella, Oregano, Pesto) from Saggio’s

Noting that “America’s coming-of-age” coincided with the rise of the automobile,” and the automobile birthed the ubiquitous drive-in restaurant, Thrillist compiled a list of the best drive-in restaurants in the fruited plain. The Land of Enchantment was well represented thanks to Mac’s Steak in the Rough, an Albuquerque staple for more than six decades. According to Thrillist: “just about everyone in Albuquerque that isn’t a meth-addled Breaking Bad fan has hit up Mac’s Steak in the Rough for everything from taquitos and cheeseburgers, to the semi-eponymous Double Meat Rough.” You can bet even our meth-addled citizenry have hit up Mac’s for that fantastic limeade.

Don’t ever use the tired idiom “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” to describe the Land of Enchantment’s uber chefs whom, it seems, are perennially named semi-finalists for the James Beard “Best Chef: Southwest” Award, but don’t advance further. To be named a semi-finalist is to be recognized as among the very best of the elite. The level of competition throughout the Southwest (Arizona, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico) is extremely high. Chef Martin Rio’s of the eponymous Restaurant Martin has broken through, being named one of six finalists for the “Oscars of Food.”

Egg Foo Yong and Fried Rice from Lucky Boy

Chope’s Town Café and Bar in La Mesa has been recognized by the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division as the newest entrant on the state’s Register of Cultural Properties. Named for José “Chope” Benavides, the son of original proprietors Longina and Margarito Benavides, the restaurant was established in 1915 when Longina opened her dining room to sell enchiladas to local residents. A century later, visitors from all over the world have discovered Chope’s and pilgrimage to what remains one of the very best restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.

San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Austin, New Orleans…These are all formidable foodie cities, heralded and acclaimed as trend-setters and culinary destinations nonpariel. Would you believe the Duke City rates above all of these cities, finishing sixth overall, in a Travel & Leisure Magazine ranking of America’s best food cities? As is usually the case, you can attribute that high ranking to New Mexico’s incomparable green chile which Travel & Leisure described as “the patron saint of this Southwestern city’s food scene” indicating it “pops up on the local fry-bread tacos and cheeseburgers (like the classics at Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Liquor Store, or can be made into a sauce at your table at legendary spots like El Pinto.

Shrimp Sausage Banh Mi from Banh Mi Coda

“Take a quaint, old adobe building, some candlelight, and arguably Albuquerque’s best food and you have the making of an amazing romantic experience.” In recent years, Old Town’s iconic Antiquity Restaurant has consistently garnered “most romantic restaurant” honors in several local polls. The secret is out. TABELog has named Antiquity “one of the thirteen most romantic restaurants in America,” and recommends trying the “filet mignon wrapped in bacon.”

On March 24th, a pall of sadness was cast over the Land of Enchantment as we learned of the passing of Bill Jamison. That sadness was punctuated by loving memories of a beautiful man with an infectious joie de vivre. Bill was a man who laughed easily and often and who kept listeners spellbound with his raconteur’s wit and humor. When he circulated among friends, he had the rare gift of making all of them feel special. Modest and self-effacing almost to a fault, you’d never hear him trumpet his many impressive accomplishments—such as partnering with Cheryl, the love of his life and scintillating bride for thirty years, to earn four James Beard Awards for culinary writing. Along with Cheryl, he authored some two dozen travel books and cookbooks, earning the couple the sobriquet “the king and queen of grilling and smoking” from Bon Appetit magazine. Even as we will miss this tremendous soul, we can’t help but smile at having been blessed with his wit and his friendship. Godspeed, Bill.

Seafood Curry from Thai House

IN APRIL, MAKE TIME FOR: On Saturday, April 11th from 11AM – 4PM, the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum will host the inaugural Great New Mexico Food Truck & Beer Festival. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the Duke City’s food truck and craft beer culture in one place for one truly delicious day. The festival will include 20 gourmet food trucks from the Duke CIty area, serving up a variety of savory and sweet dishes, including fall off the bone BBQ to South American cuisine, gourmet hot dogs and everything in between. General admission tickets cost $5, with children 12 and under free. Food and craft beer are sold separately. For more information and to purchase tickets in advance to avoid lines, please visit: http://www.foodtruckfestivalsofamerica.com.

February

Street Food Blvd was the Clear Favorite Among Judges and Public Alike at The Taste of Rio Rancho

The fifth-annual Taste of Rio Rancho gave 22 of the City of Vision’s best eateries an opportunity to showcase their finest culinary fare to some 800 guests. Shining most brightly was rookie participant Street Food Blvd., a food truck which garnered three of six awards in the “Best of Taste” competition judged by two panels of six judges each. The winners were:

  • Best Appetizer: Street Food Blvd.
  • Best Entree: Street Food Blvd.
  • Best Pizza: Pizza 9
  • Best Sandwich: Pizza 9
  • Best Dessert: Vanilla Bean Frozen Custard and Treatery
  • People’s Choice: Street Food Blvd.

If nothing else the compilation of lists is entertaining. Often controversial and rarely achieving consensus, lists serve as excellent conversation starters. One of America’s foremost compilers of lists is Thrillist which purports to bring “very best food, drink, and fun from across the country and around the world delivered piping hot right to your inbox.” Recognizing that “50 million Americans are served fast food every day,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list ranking every state in the fruited plain by its fast food. New Mexico ranked 31st largely on the strength of the 75 LotaBurgers throughout the Land of Enchantment. Special mention was given to Whataburger with the disclaimer that the writer was “running out of other options.”

Pierogies from the Heimat House in Albuquerque

Thrillist “looked to” their “famous chef friends to tell us the best burgers they’ve ever eaten” and where to find them. The best burgers in the country, according to chefs included only one burger from the Land of Enchantment, but it’s a great one indeed. Chef Michael Kornick of Chicago’s celebrated mk is obviously a discerning gentleman with great taste: “My favorite burger would have to be the original Hatch green chile cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite (formerly The Bobcat Bite), made with a giant hunk of amazing beef and green chile so perfect it renders any additional condiments superfluous.”

New Mexico’s best restaurant. That’s a topic sure to elicit a wide swathe of opinions. In compiling a list of the best restaurants in every state, the Business Insider considered a wide swathe of opinions from credentialed sources (such as the James Beard Foundation) while not discounting local recommendations. Paying particular heed to fine dining establishments, Business Insider named Santa Fe’s Geronimo as New Mexico’s best, citing its “impeccable service and complex dishes” and noting that “Geronimo was named best overall, best ambiance, and best food in New Mexico by OpenTable, among other honors.” Business Insider also indicated Geronimo is the “only New Mexico restaurant to win a AAA Four Diamond award, as well as a Forbes Four Star award.”

Coffee isn’t all Rio Rancho’s Cafe Bella does well: Chocolate Chip and Double Espresso Scones

The Los Angeles Times arrived at a conclusion reached by sojourners along Highway 60 on the west side of the Continental Divide: There are indeed pies in Pie Town, a slice of heaven for travelers. The “queen of the oven” in Pie Town is the effervescent Kathy Knapp, a “pastry pilgrim” with a license plate befitting her status: “PIELADY.” “Visitors from all over the world” come, some “to see if a place named Pie Town is a joke.” Pie Town is no joke. It’s the panacea of pie.

“Albuquerque is Where It’s At” according to The Huffington Post which named the Duke City among the “5 American Cities You Should Visit” in 2015. With a nod to “Breaking Bad,” writers encouraged visitors to “go for the insanely good chicken-fried steak fingers at Mac’s Steak in the Rough” and to “stay for the sopaipillas.” An Albuquerque tradition for more than six decades, Mac’s Steak in the Rough may not have the fine-dining cachet of Geronimo, but it’s got the love and admiration of generations of Duke City diners.

Albuquerque’s The Grill is proud of its burgers

New Mexico was well represented in the 2015 James Beard Foundation pantheon of award semifinalists. James Beard awards, the restaurant industry’s equivalent of an Academy Award, have eluded all but a few of the Land of Enchantment’s best restaurants and chefs. Could 2015 be the year Albuquerque’s Jennifer James is finally recognized for Best Chef: Southwest Honors, a distinction for which she’s been nominated numerous times? Her in-state competition in 2015 includes another multi-time nominee in Martin Rios of Santa Fe’s Restaurant Martin as well as Andrew Cooper at Santa Fe’s Terra at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado and Jonathan Perno of La Merienda at Los Poblanos in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. Ron Cooper of the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal in Ranchos de Taos was nominated in the category of Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional.

The Daily Meal’s “passionate team canvasses the world to bring you the best food and drink experiences at all levels, around the table, at home or on the road.” In February that passionate team took a stab at naming America’s 50 Best Mexican Restaurants.” Only one Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment made it onto the fabulous fifty, but it’s a restaurant imbued with greatness. Albuquerque’s El Modelo, a Duke City institution since 1929 “still makes rave-worthy tortillas and tamales along with enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and sopaipillas–many of these featuring New Mexico’s signature red and green chiles.”

Panna Cotta from Albuquerque’s Fork & Fig

In an era of openness and transparency in which there seem to be no secrets left, DreamPlanGo which purports to “bring you travel and vacation ideas, insights and inspiration” named Santa Fe as one of “America’s secret 2015 foodie destinations.” One of ten foodie destinations noted, Santa Fe was noted for its chef “blending the flavors they’ve grown up on with influences from Mexico, France and the Mediterranean” resulting in “a delicious collection of Southwest fare prepared in new and innovative ways.” 

Plato once said that “opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”  In the opinion of The Culturetrip, these are “New Mexico’s ten best restaurants:” Antiquity Restaurant, High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, The Artichoke Cafe, and The Grove Cafe & Market, all in Albuquerque; The Range in Bernalillo;  Geronimo, Luminaria and Cafe Pasqual in Santa Fe; The Curious Kumquat in Silver City and Savoy de Mesilla in Mesilla.  Some will view this list and determine it leans toward knowledge and others will argue that it skews toward ignorance.  At the least, it should inspire conversation.

Salsas from Taqueria El Paisa in Albuquerque

Global Gumshoe Ron Stern of the Communities Digital News (CDN) tells readers that Albuquerque’s cuisine is “anything but ordinary.”  In fact, Stern believes “Albuquerque is blazing a trail of its own on the culinary scene.”  “From hot and spicy New Mexican cuisine to upscale dining,” CDN recommended some of the Duke City’s most popular dining hotspots including: Sadie’s of New Mexico, El Pinto, The Cube, The Pueblo Harvest Cafe and others.

TIME TO REVISIT THESE THREE RESTAURANTS: Bob of the Village of Rio Rancho (BOTVOLR), the most prodigious commentator on Gil’s Thrilling…(and some would say, most prolific palaverist) recently suggested I “might remind readers of three Options to check out over a weekend as many of us are ‘getting of an age’.” If you’re interested in sampling traditional Lenten fare enjoyed by New Mexico’s Catholics for generations, make one of those three Abuelita’s in Bernalillo and order the torta de huevo and quelites. You have only one day left to visit Paul’s Monterrey Inn, an Albuquerque institution which shutters its doors for good on February 28th. It may not quite be a trip to the age of Aquarius, communes, hippies and free love, but Santa Fe’s Counter Culture Cafe may just remind you of a bygone psychedelic era as it delights you with deliciousness.

January

The  Culture Trip, “a one-stop, global website, showcasing the best of art, food, culture and travel for every country in the world” discovered ten great places in Taos for dining out.   It may surprise you to learn that only two–Michael’s Kitchen and Orlando’s Cafe– of the restaurants recognized showcase New Mexican cuisine.  Diversity is the hallmark of the remaining restaurants whose ranks include French and Latin inspired Gutiz and Spanish and Moorish influenced El Meze whose chef Frederick Muller has been nominated several times for the James Beard award as the best chef in the Southwest.

Sushi Rolls from Ahh Sushi in Rio Rancho

“Obsessed with everything that’s worth caring about in food, drink, and travel,” the good folks at Thrillist compiled a list of “the most iconic restaurants in every state.”  Admittedly this endeavor required looking up the word “iconic” in the dictionary and to qualify, a restaurant had to have been around for 30 years or more and “still be a crowd favorite.”  As a disclaimer, perhaps, the selected restaurants “may not have the best food or be tourist-free,” but “they’re all famous.”   Thrillist’s selection for New Mexico was El Pinto, a restaurant with  more detractors than supporters, a conclusion at which you might arrive if you read the comments following the list. 

While it may be debated as to whether or not El Pinto is the most iconic restaurant in the Land of Enchantment, you can’t dispute its popularity and propensity for marketing.  The new year saw filming begin for a potential reality show featuring the restaurant.  El Pinto’s owners, the “iconic” Thomas twins desire is that the reality show “offer an authentic portrayal of the restaurant, the Albuquerque community and New Mexico’s food and culture.” 

Mussels from Farina Alto in Albuquerque

In its January, 2015 report Pizza Magazine Quarterly revealed that only four states across the fruited plain love pizza less than New Mexico does  (another quality of life category for which we can be grateful for Mississippi).  With only 1.55 pizza joints per 10,000 residents, the Land of Enchantment ranks 46th in terms of number of pizzerias.   Worse, only 38.4 percent of those pizzerias are independent.  There is one local chain regarded as one of the most successful local chains in the fruited plain.  Dion’s ranked number 37 on the magazine’s list of the top fifty pizza chains in America.  From a monetary perspective, however, the magazine noted that Dion’s makes more money per restaurant than any other pizza chain in the country.

“The Best…Ever!”  That’s a pretty audacious premise, but one the Food Network decided to tackle.  In its inaugural episode which aired on January 5th, celebrity chefs and restaurateurs celebrated the “Best. Pizza. Ever.,” identifying the eleven best pizzas ever.  Who says when it comes to pizza you can’t have the whole enchilada?  Not chef and restaurateur Roger Mooking who made a a case for the chicken green chile and cheese pizza at Santa Fe’s Rooftop Pizzeria being “the best spicy slice ever.” 

Adult Beverage Menu at the Shade Tree Custom & Cafe which was featured on the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible

If you’ve ever shortchanged New Mexico’s barbecue, you might just give it some respect now that the Food Network’s “Best…Ever!” program airing on January 12th listed a Santa Fe barbecue dish as one of the best barbecue dishes ever in America.  Chef Aaron Sanchez explained why Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe is taking nachos to another level, calling them “decadent, gluttonous and fun” with “big flavor.”  He noted that the “best barbecue nachos ever” brings elements of barbecue (brisket), Mexican and Southwestern dishes together. 

Travel Mindset, a site “created by experienced travelers who like to explore the world and are looking for life changing and life shaping experiences” took a stab at dissecting New Mexico’s “signature ingredient: the chile pepper.”  Advising that “if you want to taste one of the hottest—literally—culinary landscapes in the United States, you need to get a few things straight,” Travel Mindset encourages familiarizing yourself with the “red or green” question.  They also championed the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, “composed up of local and critic favorites—making it the best of the best.”  The best, in their estimation comes from San Antonio’s fabulous Owl Cafe

Street Food Asia and sister restaurant Street Food Market won second and third place critic’s choice awards at the 2015 Roadrunner Food Bank SouperBowl in Albuquerque

The premise of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  host Robert Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  On January 14th, the episode featuring Albuquerque’s Shade Tree Customs & Cafe aired for the first time.  While soap opera-like drama is typical for many reality shows, the Restaurant: Impossible segment was a very effective vehicle for showing the likeability and passion of the Shade Tree ownership and staff.  

“When most people think American cuisine, they think pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers.  While these are indeed staples across the country, each state has its own sense of flavor.”  The Huffington Post and Yelp collaborated to determine the “most disproportionately popular cuisine in each state.”  In Louisiana, it was Cajun cuisine while Missouri certainly loves its barbecue.  Interestingly, the most disproportionately popular cuisine in New Mexico was determined to be “Mexican.”  Not “New Mexican,” but Mexican.  Texas garnered more respect as its most disproportionately popular cuisine was deemed to be “Tex-Mex.”  

Santa Fe SouperBowl Winners: 215

If breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day, it seems most of America prefers to start their day off with a richly indulgent cavalcade of calorific sweets such as pancakes, French toast, donuts and sticky buns.  At least that’s what several celebrity chefs on the Food Network’s “Best. Ever. Breakfast” program would have you believe.  California based chef Antonia Lofaso begs to differ, making a case for the breakfast burritos in Santa Fe’s Tia Sophia’s restaurant as the best breakfast burrito ever.    Chef Lofaso recommends getting it “Christmas style.”  

On Saturday, January 17th, 2015, Santa Fe’s The Food Depot hosted its 21st annual Souper Bowl, a fabulous event featuring soup tastings from 29 local restaurants competing for the title of Best Soup in Santa Fe.  

  • In the category of “best savory soup” as well as the overall winner with a King Trumpet Mushroom soup was Dinner For Two.  
  • In the category of “best cream soup,” the winner was Terra at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado with a Creamy Vegetable with Cranberry soup.  
  • The “best seafood soup” category was claimed by The Pantry which wowed judges with a Seafood Butternut Bisque.  
  • “Best vegetarian soup” honors went to Bon Appetite with a wild mushroom soup.

The Ranchers Club of New Mexico won the Critic’s and People’s Choice Awards at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s 2015 SouperBowl in Albuquerque

The Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl, held on an unseasonably warm January day, is the Food Bank’s largest fund-raising effort every year. The soups seem to get better every year, too.  In my eight years serving as a soup judge, this year’s soups were the very best I’ve had from top to bottom and for the first time in memory, the critic’s  and people’s choice award winners went to the same restaurant.  Here are the 2015 winners:

  • 1st Place and Souper Bowl Champion: Ranchers Club of New Mexico for their Chimayo Red Chile Pork Chowder; 2nd Place: Artichoke Café for their Lobster Bisque; Third Place: Bocadillos New Mexico for their New Mexico Clam Chowder
  • People’s Choice – Vegetarian Soup 1st Place: Bouche for their Cream of New York Portabello; 2nd Place: Forque Kitchen and Bar at the Hyatt Regency for their Pumpkin Red Vegetarian Soup; 3rd Place: StreetFood Market for their Malay Curry Squash Bisque
  • People’s Choice – Desserts 1st Place: Nothing Bundt Cakes; 2nd Place: Theobroma Chocolatier; 3rd Place: Chocolate Cartel
  • People Choice – Best Booth: Ranchers Club of New Mexico
  • Critics’ Choice Winners 1st Place:  The Ranchers Club of New Mexico for their  Chimayo Red Chile Pork Chowder; 2nd Place: StreetFood Asia for their Bangkok Christmas Lobster Bisque; 3rd Place: StreetFood Market for their Malay Curry Squash Bisque

The American diner tradition is alive and well.  To recognize this sacrosanct tradition, the good folks at Thrillist embarked on a trek across the fruited plain to locate America’s 21 best diners.   The only diner in the Land of Enchantment to make it onto this elite list was Santa Fe’s Pantry Restaurant on Cerrillos.  Thrillist observed that “the Pantry was on every single person’s list” when the writer inquired as to where he should eat.  “Around since 1948, it’s 1) damn iconic, 2) a place where you have a decent shot at running into Cormac McCarthy, and 3) serves impeccable New Mexican breakfasts.”

Orange Chicken en Papillote with rice and vegetables from The Model Pharmacy in Albuquerque

Movoto Blog, a blog celebrating the lighter side of real estate, did a seriously great job of naming “15 New Mexico Restaurants Which Will Blow Your Taste Buds Out Of Your Mouth.”  Having previously published a list showcasing Albuquerque restaurants, the list was richly represented by restaurants in Rio Rancho where the  Turtle Mountain Brewing Company, Namaste Restaurant, Rub-N-Wood Barbecue and Joe’s Pasta House received well-deserved praise.  Duke City restaurants noted included Farm & Table, The Grill, Down N Dirty Seafood Boil, Tia Betty Blues, Bocadillos Slow Roasted and the Guava Tree Cafe

Each January, AAA announces restaurants that received the Four Diamond or Five Diamond Rating during their latest evaluation. Restaurants at these rating levels offer an extensive array of amenities and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail. Among the 58,000 AAA Approved and Diamond Rated restaurants visited in 2014, only a very small percentage received the AAA Four Diamond Rating.  Two Santa Fe restaurants–Geronimo and Terra at Encanto–were named to the very exclusive list. 

Chips Con Queso from the Effing Bar in Albuquerque

The Food Network’s Best. Ever. program continued its love affair with Santa Fe restaurants and dishes, going four for four (four episodes, four Santa Fe restaurants) in the month of January.  The beloved Santa Fe Bite was showcased in the Best.Burgers.Ever episode with chef and restaurateur Roger Mooking calling them “a rich, satisfying bite.”  New Mexicans have long acknowledged the Santa Fe Bite and its predecessor, The Bobcat Bite, as living treasures in the Land of Enchantment.

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina on Fourth Street in Albuquerque

At about 75 miles  each way, Cuba, New Mexico is almost equidistant between Albuquerque and Farmington. Regardless of starting point, the drive  to and from Cuba is  one of the Land of Enchantment’s most spectacular.  A preponderance of scenic vistas and an otherworldly, multi-hued topography make the drive a sightseer’s delight. The stratification of multi-hued earthen layers, will  remind you of colorful Navajo sand paintings while hulking hoodoos (columns or pillars of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness) will inspire awe, none more so than the nipple shaped Cabezon Peak, a dramatic 7,785 foot volcanic formation that commands the skies.

I must admit that most of my enjoyment of those incomparable vistas has been on the return trip from Cuba.  For some reason, I always seem to be in a hurry to get there with a single-mindedness of purpose only a seeker with a yen to be sated can truly understand.  In my quest to fulfill that longing, I’ve even resorted to corrupting the innocent,  once convincing my friend Sandy that her new Prius could reach speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour on the long, straight stretches of U.S. Highway 550.  So what would drive two law-abiding, upstanding citizens of good repute to risk life and limb at the expense of enjoying the scenery?

One of several dining rooms at El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina

The answer, of course, is El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina, considered by the cognoscenti as one of the very best purveyors of New Mexican food in the Land of Enchantment. For nearly four decades–since 1975–savvy diners have made their way to Cuba for traditional and contemporary New Mexican food crafted from Hazel Herrera’s family recipes.  Hazel and her husband Bruno are the genial proprietors of this storied restaurant, the destination of hungry legions who, like me, probably wait until the return trip to enjoy the vistas which give New Mexico the sobriquet “land of enchantment.”

There’s plenty to see on the premises of El Bruno, too.  A colorful mural on an exterior west wall depicts a New Mexican woman carrying a basket brimming with green, red and yellow chile peppers while other field hands harvest New Mexico’s official state vegetable from fecund and verdant fields. The entrance to El Bruno’s is through a wooden bell gate into an expansive courtyard.  A large Spanish bell is poised above the gate as if to call in hungry patrons to a meal with its timbre and tintinnabulation.  On the wooden gate is carved the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas.  To many New Mexicans there is no truer manifestation of welcome.

Salsa and Chips

Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s interior ambiance is superb (although what can truly compare to the unrivaled scenery on the way to Cuba). Being surrounded by the enrapturing art of Taos artist Miguel Martinez (renowned for painting beauteous women with almond-shaped eyes) as well as by charming antiques makes it an attractive milieu for any meal.  A canopy of huge vigas overhead and earthen-hued tones add to the New Mexican ambiance.  Ambiance not withstanding, it’s the food for which so many visit El Bruno.

For Albuquerque’s El Bruno’s enthusiasts, the news in August, 2010 that this terrific destination diner would be launching its first satellite, and in the Duke City, too, was as welcome as news that the Lobos had been invited to the big dance.  Notice that it wouldn’t open in December as originally announced was then akin to learning the Lobos had lost to BYU.  After a couple of false-starts, El Bruno’s finally opened on March 7th, 2011 in the spot vacated by long-time tenant Garduño’s of Mexico.  Ironically, the restaurant is situated on the intersection of Fourth Street  and Garduño Road.

Con queso with crispy tostadas

Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, a long-time contributor and friend of this blog, was one of the very first Burqueños to visit El Bruno’s. He came away impressed by some things, but disappointed by others indicating “perhaps my anticipation, nursed by several delays in opening, created a mystique which set too high a bar.”  With an ease of words I admire, Bob also relayed that El Bruno’s “captures what folks expect of an inviting New Mexican cantina, but avoids a formality to a place.”

An inviting New Mexican cantina is an apt description for El Bruno’s which straddles the line between casual and formal dining with a motif that includes bright earth-tone colored walls, earthenware sconces, tin light fixtures and other Southwestern accouterments.   Immediately to the left as you walk in is the bar-dining room and beyond that is an elongated  north-facing room bathed in sunlight.  The equipales furnishing (tables and chairs) in both these rooms  are crafted from fibrous materials removed from maguey cactus and fixed with leather bands.  The restaurant includes several other dining rooms including one in which intimate booths are partially shielded by purplish drapes.  The art of Miguel Martinez festoons several walls.

Traditional Shrimp Ceviche

The menu is extensive.  All the favorites from the original El Bruno’s are available.  A separate menu depicts lunch specials, all of which are named for Albuquerque area locales: Placitas, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Corrales, Ranchitos, Rio Rancho and the Cuba plate (one cheese and one beef enchilada, red and green chili (sic), beans, rice and melted cheese).  Appetizers range in price from eight to fourteen dollars and include such surprises as camarones Mexicanos marinated in El Bruno’s pinon sauce and traditional shrimp ceviche.  There are seven creative salads on the ensaladas section of the menu.

Enchiladas and tacos occupy an entire page on the menu.  Shrimp and crab enchiladas (topped with chile con queso and fresh green chile) are just one of the six different enchilada offerings, all of which can be made with blue corn tortillas.  Platos de pollo (plates showcasing chicken), de la parillada y del mar (from the grill or the sea) and fajitas y carnitas share a page on the menu.  The other two sections of the menu showcase Antojitos Mexicana and Platos de Combinacion on one page and burritos, chimichangas, los burgers and “para los niños” on another.  The menu is replete with surprises, some items of which you won’t see at other New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.

Carnitas and papitas

As you ponder the menu, the friendly and accommodating wait staff will deliver your first bowlful of salsa and a basket of red and yellow corn chips. My initial impression, one shared by Bob the Villager, was that the salsa lacked the piquancy of other Fourth Street New Mexican restaurants.  There was discernibly more heat in the salsa during my second and third visits when the medley of rich, red tomatoes and the jalapeños combined to titillate my taste buds with the heat they crave.  This is good salsa and the chips are thin and crisp yet substantial enough for Gil-sized scoops (though they’re quite salty).  There’s no chip-dipping in my table.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Bruno the very best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

13 March 2011: Alas, one of our very favorite dishes in Cuba, the magnificent chile con queso, was a disappointment in Albuquerque.  In fact, it was downright “dumbed down,” lacking the piquancy the Cuban con queso contained.  Though the queso was flecked with green (ostensibly green chile), it was as punchless as the University of New Mexico football team under coach Locksley.  Without piquancy, the queso was reminiscent of the gloppy Velveeta genre.  Instead of conventional chips, El Bruno’s con queso is served with crispy tostadas (fried flour tortillas).  These “chips” are magnificent!

Carnitas a la Mex with two enchiladas and a flour tortilla

29 March 2015: El Bruno’s menu pays homage to Old Mexico with several items you don’t often see in New Mexican restaurants.  Among those is “traditional” shrimp ceviche, a mariscos favorite throughout Mexico.  The quotation marks around “traditional” are there because El Bruno’s shrimp ceviche wouldn’t pass for traditional shrimp ceviche in Mexico.  In fact, it resembles something akin to a cross between Campechana (a Mexican seafood cocktail) and ceviche.  Where El Bruno’s ceviche (avocado, fresh lime, jalapeño, yellow hot, fresh cucumber, red onion and a special marinade sauce) lacks the tangy citrus prominence of Mexican ceviche, the freshness of the avocado, jalapeños and special marinade are quite good in their own right.  Our only other complaint with the ceviche is the relative sparsity of seafood.  There just wasn’t much of it.

13 March 2011: Fortunately one of the dishes we enjoyed most in Cuba is also on the menu in Albuquerque.  That would be El Bruno’s fabulous carnitas, some of, if not THE best carnitas in New Mexico. Celebrated among patrons who have sampled these cubed carnivore’s delights, the carnitas are available in two dinner combinations: the poetic sounding carnitas con papitas and the carnitas a la Mex which come with rolled enchiladas, refried beans and homemade tortillas, all of which are wonderful. What makes these carnitas incomparable is the quality of the sirloin (yes, sirloin, not pork as seems to be the case with most carnitas) which has the charbroiled taste of an outstanding steak. The papitas are silver dollar-sized, dusted with fiery red chile and on par with those served at Sadie’s in Albuquerque (meaning they’re the best).

Carne Adovada

13 March 2011: At many New Mexican restaurants when an entree includes a side of, but does not necessarily showcase, enchiladas, the enchiladas are an after-thought, generally not very good. That’s not the case at El Bruno’s. While carnitas may be the starring attraction of the aforementioned Carnitas a la Mex, the enchiladas are main entree quality. They are engorged with cheese and topped with your choice of red, green or Christmas style chile.  The chile won’t set off any fire alarms with its piquancy, but it’s got a good flavor.  The beans and rice are topped with melted yellow and white Cheddar. Garnish includes not only the perfunctory lettuce, but large sprigs of parsley (which has wonderful flavor ameliorating qualities and should not be solely relegated to plate decoration). 

29 March 2015: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, recently took umbrage with a “top five carne adovada” list compiled on Newscastic by a culinary novice.  Larry’s own list begins with the sublime carne adovada at the incomparable Mary & Tito’s Cafe followed by the superb carne adovada at El Bruno.  Larry describes it as “very tasty and succulent marinated pork was fork tender, and among the best in the city.”  How can you argue with that?  El Bruno’s carne adovada is indeed fork tender and delicious, each tender tendril of marinated pork falling apart at the press of a fork.  My Kim enjoys the carne adovada with two fried eggs.

The Chaco Burger – a half-pound burger with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo

16 March 2011: The “Los Burgers” menu features six half-pound burgers, including one served on a tortilla with green chile.  Just as it’s not every great Italian restaurant that can make a decent pizza, not every great New Mexican restaurant can char-grill a decent burger.  My frequent dining compañero Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I arrived at that conclusion after a couple of bites each of our burgers, both of which arrived at medium-well though we requested medium-rare and medium respectively.  Mine was a Chaco Burger which is embellished with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo.  The combination of caramelized onions and chipotle mayo is very sweet (much like a caramelized onion relish) and there weren’t enough blue cheese crumbles to provide any contrast (and I like my blue cheese breath-wrecking strong).  If there was any bite to the chipotle, it, too, was obfuscated by the sweet caramelized onions. 

4 December 2011: Growing up in Northern New Mexico, fishing the pristine cold-water streams was a favorite pastime, but my brothers and I were pescatarian snobs.  During camping trips into the wilderness where we subsisted solely on fish we caught, we threw back any rainbow trout which had made their way upstream from where they were stocked.  Our taste buds craved New Mexico’s official state fish (yes, we do have one), the cutthroat trout, the most delicate and delicious of all fish you can find in the Land of Enchantment.   Rainbow trout, we believed, were strictly for tourists and if we did take them home, we fed them to our neighbor’s chickens who pecked them to pieces and chased each other around the coop playing a combination of take-away and tackle.  It was great fun at the time.

Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout: Pan-seared, topped with mango salsa and served with mango salsa, red chile-dusted papitas and a salad

4 December 2011: Thanks to a recommendation from the professor of the perspicacious palate Larry McGoldrick–or more accurately, his better half Jane who became besotted of an entree showcasing rainbow trout, my own opinion may have been forever changed. El Bruno’s  piñon crusted rainbow trout is butterflied and pan-seared to a golden-hue then topped with a mango salsa–not enough to make the trout “fruity tasting,” but just enough to provide a light contrast to the delicate, fresh taste of the trout.  The piñon crust is also delicate with barely a hint of the woodsy tasting nut.  The trout is served atop a bed of fried spinach, a unique dish first created by the brilliant entrepreneur Tom Hamilton of the sublime Hamilton Chop House outside Durango.  It’s served with a generous mound of red chile-dusted papitas and a garden salad (make sure you request the green chile ranch dressing). 

4 December 2011: It stands to reason that because of the pride El Bruno takes in preparing its carnitas, the fajitas would be something special and indeed they are.  Sizzling strips of sirloin arrive at your table on a hot metal plate.  The fajitas are served with sauteed onions and bell peppers, grated white and yellow Cheddar cheese, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and flour tortillas.  It’s the sirloin which stands out most because it’s a much higher quality cut than skirt steak which is typically used for fajitas.  It’s chop house quality steak and it goes very well with whatever other ingredients you wish to use in crafting your meal.

Fajitas sizzling on a plate

Driving a few miles through the concrete urban jungle to get to El Bruno’s isn’t nearly as scenic as the 75-mile drive along Highway 550, but it’s a drive many Duke City diners have already started to make.  The parking lots are as full now as they were during the halcyon days of Garduño’s and the food is so much better.

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina
8806 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-0444
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 29 March 2015
1st VISIT:  13 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carnitas con Papitas, Carnitas a la Mex, Chips and Salsa, Fajitas, Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout, Carne Adovada, Shrimp Ceviche

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O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

My friends Jim and Janet Millington (left), Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) and Hannah Walraven ruminating about ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return frequently.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

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Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  My friend Andrea Lin, the luminous restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, calls it “liquid pork.”  The porkalicious broth elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Tonkatsu Spicy Miso Ramen (Level 4)

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  For fellow aficionado Jim Millington, level three is perfect.   The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this was perhaps my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2015
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

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