Tis the season…for year-end retrospectives in which the good, the bad and the ugly; the triumphs and tragedies; the highs and lows and the ups and downs are revisited ad-infinitum by seemingly every print and cyberspace medium in existence. It’s the time of year in which the “in-your-face” media practically forces a reminiscence–either fondly or with disgust–about the year that was. It’s a time for introspection, resolutions and for looking forward with hope to the year to come. The New Mexico culinary landscape had more highs than it did lows in 2010. Here’s my thrilling (and filling) recap.
In January Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award,” a prestigious accolade honoring “a restaurant with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community. Mary and her daughter Antoinette, the heart and soul of Mary & Tito’s, picked up their award at New York City’s fabled Lincoln Center in March. Mary & Tito’s has been earning devotees since 1963 with the best, most authentic New Mexican cuisine in the Land of Enchantment. It is the third restaurant in New Mexico to be honored with the America’s Classic Award, joining Santa Fe’s Cafe Pasqual (honored in 1999) and The Shed (honored in 2003) as honorees.
Uber-talented chef Jennifer James was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as “best chef in the southwest,” a validation of her place among the nation’s very best chefs. At her eponymous restaurant, the chef has made the concept of dining as a social event fashionable and fun.
Also in January, the Travel Channel traveled from coast to coast to uncover the “101 tastiest places to chow down“–joints serving some of the biggest and best dishes of deliciousness around.” Only one New Mexico restaurant made the list, but it’s a great one worthy of recognition. At number 45 on the chow down countdown was Cecilia’s Cafe, a downtown Duke City institution. The program described Cecilia’s as “where they serve up New Mexican food so messy not even a stack of napkins will help.” Frankly, the food at Cecilia’s is so good, with a little chile you might even want to chow down on those napkins.
New Mexico Restaurant Week, a seven-day extravaganza in Santa Fe and Albuquerque invited diners to experience extraordinary specially created, multi-course dinners at amazingly low prices. The event proved so successful that in 2011, it has been expanded to include a week each in Taos and Las Cruces. Multi-course dinners will be available at a bargain price of just two for $25, or $20, $30 or $40 per person. The 2011 New Mexico Restaurant Week runs February 27th – March 6th in Taos; March 6-13 in Santa Fe; March 13-20 in Albuquerque; and March 20-27 in Las Cruces. Optimists like to think of it as “restaurant month” because you can travel from city to city to partake of culinary greatness at unbeatable prices.
Fresh off his 2009 “green chile cheeseburger throwdown” victory over Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay, San Antonio’s Bobby Olguin, proprietor of the now world-famous Buckhorn Tavern parlayed the charm and wit he displayed on the throwdown episode to earn a hosting gig on KASA Fox 2. As host of “New Mexico’s Hot Chefs,” Olguin hobnobs with some of New Mexico’s most prominent chefs, all of whom prepare appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts, sharing some of the recipes featured in their restaurants. New Mexico’s Hot Chefs airs weekly and can be viewed throughout central and northern New Mexico.
In April, Livability.com named the “10 most surprisingly vibrant cities for foodies to flex their taste buds,” cities which “aren’t just some of the best cities for food — they’re great communities for everyone.” Albuquerque was number seven on that list, cited for “marrying traditional New Mexican cuisine with an independent spirit and hunger for diversity.” The real surprise to foodies in the know is that Albuquerque’s burgeoning culinary scene would come as a surprise to anyone. Savvy diners will tell you Albuquerque is no longer the homely stepsister ignored by dutiful suitors who prefer the cuisine of Santa Fe, its more glamorous sibling.
New Mexico Magazine, which has long showcased dining in New Mexico in its recurring “breakfast, lunch and dinner” feature dedicated its June, 2010 issue to celebrating New Mexico’s Best Eats. The magazine introduced readers to eight of the very best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment: Huevos Rancheros, Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Green Chile Stew, Comfort Food, Deli Sandwich, Tacos, Local Seasonal Ingredients and Desserts. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and an uptown version–were showcased.
In July, PETA ranked Albuquerque third in its large city category as “the most veg-friendly cities in North America,” noting that “going vegan in Albuquerque is easier than learning how to spell the city’s name!” Perhaps there’s a correlation between the city’s vegetarian-vegan friendly restaurants and Men’s Health magazine ranking Albuquerque number six on their list of the “Top 10 Leanest Cities in the US.”
New Mexico’s contribution to Health.com’s “50 Fattiest Foods,” a state-by-state hall of infamy, was our ubiquitous Frito pie. The version low-lighted in the article contained a pants-popping 46 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat. Still, it’s hard to resist the Land of Enchantment’s most egregious fat-offender, especially since it looks like a healthy lettuce and onion salad when it’s delivered to other tables.
Chef James Campbell Caruso and wine director Adam Johnson of Santa Fe’s fabulous La Boca restaurant reached the United States finals of the prestigious Copa Jerez competition. The food and Sherry pairing competition attracts top chefs and sommeliers from eight countries including Spain, the United States, Japan, Germany and others. The winner from each participating country will compete in an international finals judged by some of the world’s best food and wine experts. La Boca’s inspired Spanish cuisine in the form of inventive tapas is a winner by any measure.
On October 1st, the national newspaper USA Today published a compilation of America’s “great burger joints,” one in each state. The choice for New Mexico was the green chile cheeseburger from Five Star Burgers. According to USA Today, “When you talk burgers in New Mexico, you’re talking green chile cheeseburgers. What distinguishes 5 Star Burgers, with restaurants in Taos and Albuquerque, is quality. Served on a brioce bun from local Fano bakery, their all-natural, hormone-and antibiotic-free Black Angus beef is ground fresh daily and cooked to order. The 8-oz green chile cheeseburgers come in two varieties. Both are delicious.”
In November, USA Today asked local experts to name just one great pizza parlor in each state and the District of Columbia. The New Mexico selection was none other than Giovanni’s Pizzeria. According to USA Today, “local foodies agree that Giovanni’s Pizzeria in Albuquerque makes the best pies. This is New York style thin-crust pizza crispy with a blackened spot or two and a good, yeasty taste. But being New Mexico, green chile shows up frequently as a topping. Specialty pizzas include the New Mexican with chicken, ricotta, garlic, red onions and green chile. Both dough and toppings are made fresh daily in house.”
In November, the New Mexico Tourism Department introduced the New Mexico Culinary Classics Trail, an initiative which recognizes those rare and precious family-owned and operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31, 1969. A comprehensive list of more than seventy culinary treasures are profiled on the Department’s Web site which also includes an interactive map which will guide visitors and locals alike to these treasures.
A number of wonderful restaurants closed their doors for the last time in 2010. By my count, 20 restaurants met their demise in a very challenging year for businesses across America. Duke City diners said good bye to such favorites as the Blue Cactus Grill, the Independence Grill and Chef Jim White’s Cafe & Catering. The City of Vision is drying its eyes over the closure of Mad Max’s BBQ, Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine and the Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill. Notable Santa Fe closures include The Original Realburger and Honnell’s Late Nite Burger . Taos County lost Gypsy 360 Cafe and Joseph’s Table.
2010 was a banner year for Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog which achieved two major milestones during the year. In November, the blog hit the one-million visit milestone then a month later the 2,000th reader comment was published. Readers haven’t been shy about expressing themselves with passion, humor and one-upmanship. I value your comments immensely and appreciate that you thought enough of my blog this year to have voted me as one of the Duke City’s five best bloggers for 2010 in Albuquerque The Magazine’s annual “best of the city” issue.