2011: The Thrilling & Filling Year in Food
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, Bon Appetit magazine named Tomasita’s of Santa Fe, one of America’s “best chili spots.” Alas, it was the exclusive “chile” named in the company of purveyors of “chili” in such hot beds of pepper piquancy and cumin contamination as Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C., Cincinatti, Ohio; Springfield, Illinois and New York City. Bon Appetit declared, “This is one of the best places to try stew-like New Mexican green chili (named after its green Hatch chiles), filled with your choice of pinto beans, posole, beef, chicken, or cheese. A crispy sopaipilla (puffy fry bread) comes on the side.”
In January, Roadrunner Food Bank’s Souper Bowl, Albuquerque’s foremost tasting competition–featured more than thirty of the Duke City’s finest restaurants showcasing their very best soups and desserts. The event serves as the Food Bank’s premier annual fund-raising event. The Souper Bowl winner (critic’s choice) for 2011 was the cream of mushroom soup with bacon from the Cold Water Fusion Restaurant. The grilled butternut squash soup from the Santa Ana Cafe finished second.
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, Open Table, Inc., which provides a free online restaurant reservation service, named its fifty “most romantic restaurants,” a list gleaned from more than seven million reviews submitted by Open Table diners on more than 12,000 restaurants across the fruited plain. Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse on Albuquerque’s restaurant alley, Fourth Street, was the sole honoree from the Land of Enchantment.
In February, TheWondrous.Com Web site named Santa Fe one of “America’s top ten cities for food lovers.” The article seemed as impressed with the fact that Santa Fe has two Whole Foods stores as it was with “New Mexican’s twist on Mexican fare using blue-corn tortillas and locally grown chiles.”
In February, the Daily Beast asked the provocative question, “if America is fast-food nation, which city should be crowned capital?” Alarmingly, over a five year period ending in 2010, the United States saw a five percent increase in the number of chain restaurants, accounting for more than 15,000 chains. Meanwhile, there was a one-percent decline in the number of independent restaurants. Evaluating the thirty largest chains in nearly 500 cities, each with a population of at least 200,000 citizens, the online site determined that Albuquerque ranked 31st per capita in the number of fast food and chain restaurants. The Duke City has more than 300 fast-food and chain restaurants–56.7 per 100,000 residents. The chain with the largest presence in Albuquerque is Subway.
For the second year in a row, Albuquerque’s über chef Jennifer James was nominated and was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southwest. Also nominated was Santa Fe’s Martin Rios, thus far the only chef to have participated on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America competition. New Mexico was not shut out from the most prestigious awards in the culinary world. Edible Santa Fe, an edition of the Edible Communities food network, won the James Beard award as the 2011 Publication of the Year. The quarterly publication promotes and celebrates the abundance of local foods in North Central New Mexico.
In April, Poor Taste Magazine took a stab at naming the 100 best spots in America for brunch. Two Santa Fe institutions made the list. Harry’s Roadhouse was touted as “a green-certified southwestern gem that takes to heart the notion of blending quirky comfort and hearty square meals.” The Pantry Restaurant was highlighted for its unique omelets which are “crammed full of chile relleno and covered in more chile and cheese, served with a side of carne adovada.” Only one New Mexico restaurant made the magazine’s list of America’s 100 greatest “cult” restaurants which are defined as “restaurants having a highly devoted customer base and which appeal to both locals and tourists.” The lone honoree was Albuquerque’s El Pinto.
I had the privilege and pleasure to be one of five bloggers selected by Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine to contribute to an article called “America’s Best Food Regions” published in its May, 2011 issue. Each of us was given 500 words to explain why the cuisine of our respective regions reigns supreme over other the cuisine of other culinary regions. If you’re interested, the other regions showcased were the New Orleans area Cajun Country, Austin, Texas’s barbecue, Portland, Oregon’s fresh foods and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Old World cuisine. The “Chile Country” region truly does stand out!
The 2011 edition of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was announced during a press conference on May 26th. The thirty purveyors of New Mexico’s iconic burger receiving the most votes were automatically placed on the trail along with an additional 36 choices selected by a committee of culinary experts. Receiving the most popular votes was LotaBurger, a long-time Land of Enchantment institution. The other top five vote-getters were Bobcat Bite, Taco Box, Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern.
In June, 2011, New Mexico Magazine published its second annual “Best Eats” issue. The magazine showcased dishes ranging from fine-dining to New Mexican “soul food.” They came from some of New Mexico’s most popular restaurants as well as from tiny, off-the-beaten path gems which have become dining destinations in their own right. Seven culinary experts weighed in on New Mexico’s best green chile cheeseburger, New Mexican soul food, fine-dining meal, enchiladas, vegetarian New Mexican food, road food, local seasonal ingredients, contemporary Native American food, chocolate and carne adovada.
On May 14th, the charismatic and personable Ryan Scott made the dialogue about food in the Duke City more interactive by launching a revolutionary radio program called “Break The Chain.” Break The Chain wasn’t about breaking or bankrupting heavily bankrolled chain restaurants. It’s about breaking the chain “habit,” the inclination many have to visit the ubiquitous and convenient chains. Break The Chain was a celebration of local mom-and-pop restaurants, aiming to show the many outstanding alternatives to the familiar chains. The show had a home on 1550 KIVA AM until November 15th. During its six month run, Break the Chain introduced listeners to many of the movers and shakers in the dining scene.
When he traveled to Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) a stop at Grandma Warner’s K&I Diner was a must for host Adam Richman. No longer an active competitor in man’s quest to eat ridiculous amounts of food, Richman recruited three Albuquerque residents–all named Travis–to test their gurgitator’s mettle against the Travis on a Silver Platter: three flour tortillas, beef and beans, sausage-infused red chile and shredded Cheddar. Man vs Food Nation also visited two other purveyors of prodigious platters–The Frontier Restaurant and Sadie’s Dining Room.
June saw the launch of an outstanding new food blog called Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings. Written by Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, the blog not only showcases some of New Mexico’s best restaurants in very well-written reviews, it provides information on a variety of food-related topics. Larry’s reviews are brutally honest and they’re based on years of studying and understanding cuisine of all genres–its provenance, its traditions, its components. New food blogs–most very poorly written and soon to be abandoned–seem to crop up weekly, but Larry’s has got staying power because he knows what he’s talking about.
The July edition of Sunset Magazine invited readers to start their cars and bring their appetites for a journey to the “absolutely best places to eat along Western highways.” The magazine rated the “top 41 road food spots in the West, giving the Land of Enchantment plenty of love. Both of San Antonio’s famous purveyors of green chile cheeseburgers nonpareil, the Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern were among the five burgers selected as best in the west. Also showcased was the great road food route which starts just outside Santa Fe at the San Marcos Cafe then proceeds along the Turquoise Trail to the Mine Shift Tavern to a delicious terminus at Cedar Crest’s Greenside Cafe.
In the season premier of the Sundance Channel’s Ludo Bites America show which first aired on July 19th, nomadic chef Ludo LeFebvre transformed Santa Fe’s Tecolote Cafe into Ludo Bites Tecolote. The premise of the show is that the eccentric chef travels across the country and creates a “pop-up” restaurant on an existing restaurant premises. Only New Mexico’s piquant peppers were a match for Ludo’s temper in this entertaining half hour.
In its July-August, 2011 issue, National Geographic Traveler showcased Albuquerque’s Golden Crown Panderia’s biscochitos. An article entitled “five American desserts worth the trip” described them as “fragrant, infused with anise, this flaky shortbread coated with cinnamon.” A more succinct way to describe them is absolutely wonderful! It was a huge year for the Duke City’s most famous bakery whose turkey bread sculpture was featured in a November 22nd article on BBC Travel Magazine.
A study released by Business Insider in July confirmed that Albuquerque loves its chain restaurants, particularly those specializing in fast food. The report rated the Duke City as 68th from among the largest 100 cities in America in terms of fast-food spending. Using a consumer data service called Bundle, the study analyzed spending data to see where consumers spend the most and eat most often at the most prominent fast food denizens: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s,KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Arby’s.
The August, 2010 edition of the Food Network Magazine named the “best pizza” in each state. The Land of Enchantment’s representative on this list was a pizza named the “Santa Fe” and fittingly, it can only be found in our state capital’s Rooftop Pizzeria. This award-winning pizza, available by the slice or whole pizza, is crafted with grilled chicken, Alfredo sauce, piñon nuts and green chile on a blue cornmeal crust.
The Food Network’s popular “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program gave New Mexico just a modicum of love. The premise of this show is that restaurateurs and chefs know where to eat. It answers the question “where do food stars and chefs eat in their free time–when they’re paying.” The three New Mexico restaurants showcased were the Pie Town Cafe which pastry chef extraordinaire Duff Goldman declared serves America’s best pie (a green chile apple pie); Santa Fe’s Pink Adobe, purveyor of the amazing Steak Dunigan which chef Rahm Fama declared as “better than mine”; and Santa Fe’s Cafe Pasqual’s. In an episode entitled “Eggstraordinary,” chef Chris Santos declared the Huevos Barbacoa the best egg dish he’s ever eaten. Chef Fama returned to his hometown of Santa Fe for a “Best Thing” episode entitled “Childhood Favorites.” In the episode, he recalled the joys of noshing on Frito pie from the original Five & Dime General Store.
Santa Fe’s incendiary cuisine was the sole focus of “Heat Seekers,” another Food Network show which aired in August, 2011. Hosts Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most incendiary cuisine. They started by sampling the mouth-watering, eye-watering carne adovada at Tomasita’s then proceeded to Kakawa for hot, hot, hot chile truffles and chocolate-chile elixirs. The most piquant plate on their visit was a pulled pork sandwich from Cowgirl BBQ & Western Grill ostensibly so hot even locals couldn’t take it.
Gridskipper, an online service providing maps and news for urban travelers wrote in September that “despite what AMC’s Breaking Bad would have you believe, Albuquerque, New Mexico isn’t all meth cookery and fried chicken franchises. Instead, the city’s most sought after vice is undeniably the vaunted green chile cheeseburger, so popular in the state that it has its own government-funded trail (of tears, depending on how emotional you get about food). The site listed some eight purveyors of green chile cheeseburger perfection throughout the Duke City.
In October, the New York Times Travel Magazine spent 36 hours in Albuquerque. From the article’s inauspicious beginning (FREE association with “Albuquerque” used to yield “Bugs Bunny” and “that airport you go through to get to Santa Fe.”), you had to know the article had nowhere to go but up (as in very favorable toward the Duke City). It wouldn’t be a good visit without sampling some of the city’s best dining. The Magazine raved about the double-shot espresso milkshake and baked goods at the Golden Crown Panaderia. It called carne adovada the “lifeblood” of Mary & Tito‘s and praised the “bowling alley location, farm to table produce and a chef-owner with Chez Panisse credentials” at Ezra’s Place as adding “up to hipster overload” anywhere but Albuquerque. As with many national publications, no visit to the Duke City would be complete without a meal (or several) at the Frontier Restaurant where you can get “a killer cinnamon roll dripping with molten cinnamon goo.”
In November, Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods visited New Mexico to test the mettle of his iron cast stomach against some of the Land of Enchantment’s unique foods. Though the show is really about investigating culture through food, most people tune in to see if Zimmern can eat the unique local foods. He proved up to the task, enjoying blood pudding (morcillas) at a matanza in Valencia county and buffalo kidneys, testicles, liver and heart at the Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe. Zimmern also sampled prairie dog at the Zia Pueblo. It wasn’t all adventure eating, however. He also filled up on green chile cheeseburgers at the Bobcat Bite.
Geronimo, widely regarded as the best restaurant in the state, was the only New Mexico restaurant recognized by the Forbes Travel Guide (formerly the Mobil Travel Guide) as a four-star restaurant. The travel guide names four- and five-star restaurants and spas. Only 25 restaurants across the country achieved a five-star designation.
In the December, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine Cheryl Alters Jamison was introduced as contributing editor for all things culinary. Cheryl, who along with her husband Bill, is a four-time James Beard award-winning author is an authority on New Mexican food. She has served as the New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary tourism liaison for three years, conceiving and implementing such initiatives as the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail and the New Mexico Culinary Treasures Trail. In December, Cheryl launched the Tasting New Mexico blog, a scintillating read.
In December, James Beard award-winning blog Serious Eats created a list depicting “29 touristy spots in America that are actually good,” “tried and true tourist destinations that are actually worth your time and effort.” Only one New Mexico restaurant–Tomasita’s in Santa Fe–made this list. To Tomasita’s credit, it’s as popular with locals as it is with tourists.
Several restaurants fell victim to the worldwide economic malaise. Closing their doors for the final time after years of enthralling diners were such favorites as the Cajun Kitchen which served Albuquerque for 24 years and Leona’s Restaurante de Chimayo, a northern New Mexico staple for nearly two decades. Also closing were restaurants with a national profile such as La Fonda Del Bosque which garnered recognition from Hispanic magazine as one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the United States in 2003 and 2004–a remarkable achievement that came within three years of its launch.
2011 was another banner year for readers of Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog who aren’t at all shy about expressing themselves with passion, humor and one-upmanship. Faithful readers Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos and Larry McGoldrick both achieved the 100 comments milestone. There are now more than 3,300 reader comments on my reviews. 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.