Cafe Lush – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Urban Dictionary, that oft hilarious, veritable cornucopia of slang, jargon and streetwise lingo, defines “lush” as “someone who drinks a lot.” (Actually, there are several pages of similar definitions for “lush” in the “peoples’ dictionary,” but this one was the best fit for this PG-rated blog.) When I asked Sandy Gregory, a self-admitted “food industry lifer” and co-owner of Albuquerque’s Cafe Lush why the name Lush, she laughingly kidded “because we like to drink a lot.” Seeing that her response left my mouth agape, she winked and corrected herself, “because our food is luscious.”
You’ve got to love a restaurant owner with whom you can engage in witty repartee. At Cafe Lush, you’ve got two of them. Sandy’s husband and business partner Tom Docherty explained why they launched their restaurant venture: “We’re too poor to retire and too old to work for someone else.” With nearly a combined eight decades in the restaurant business, Tom and Sandy want to make Cafe Lush a cafe in which “food for the senses” is more than just a clever but empty slogan. It’s a formula for success and one which garnered “best chef” accolades from Alibi readers for Chef Docherty in the magazine’s Best of Burque edition for 2013.
Most recently executive chef at the Radisson Hotel, Tom is the creator of cuisine while Sandy, formerly a familiar face tending bar at Mykonos and before that the Rancher’s Club, runs the front of the house. With just under 775 square feet under roof plus limited sidewalk seating, Cafe Lush is small enough to be intimate and friendly enough to become a local favorite in the fringes of the burgeoning downtown district. It is situated in a historic edifice which has served as a restaurant since the 1920s, most recently as Gold Rush Cupcakes. Cafe Lush is within easy walking distance of high-rise hotels and their pricey fare, but its immediate vicinity is heavily populated by purveyors of jurisprudence.
The Cafe is proud to feature local and organic ingredients and fresh seasonal produce of the highest quality, the goal in mind to support the healthy, happy and sustainable lifestyles of the Duke City. Cheeses are procured from Tucumcari and coffees from Red Rock Roasters. Produce is acquired from the nearby farmers’ market and other products from La Montanita Co-op. Cafe Lush is open on weekdays for breakfast and lunch. On Saturdays, it features a ten item brunch menu at a fixed price which also includes a fruit garnish, fresh made mini muffin and your choice of juice, tea or coffee.
Because the restaurant is small, the menu is, too, but there’s something for just about everyone. All items hover around ten dollars and portions are generous. The ten item breakfast menu includes some eye-openers including a breakfast pizza crafted from a breakfast potato crust topped with eggs, house-made red or green chile (unfortunately both include cumin) and local cheeses. Breakfast offerings also include assorted pastries, “lushchiladas,” a breakfast burrito and more.
A fourteen item lunch menu showcases Chef Docherty’s inventiveness with sandwiches (named for family friends), pizzas, wraps and salads. Sandwiches and wraps are served with your choice of southwest slaw or potato chips with a side of fresh fruit, Caesar salad or cup of soup available for a pittance more. There are five dessert options available including gluten-free brownies, house-made ice cream and a chocolate chip whiskey bread pudding I’m betting my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, will appreciate.
Cafe Lush opened in mid-June, 2011 and added brunch on Saturdays two months later. The brunch menu is the best of two world’s: breakfast and lunch, both executed very well if our inaugural Saturday visit is any indication. Our introduction to this terrific cafe came on a day in which fall was in the air, the venerable open transoms allowing just enough crisp air to cool the small space. It was a good day for good coffee and Red Rock Roasters delivered on that promise.
10 September 2011: With cumin an ingredient in all brunch items featuring red and green chile, the limited number of choices left allowed us to be adventurous and order items we might not otherwise have selected. One was a fruit and yogurt parfait, a goblet brimming with fresh fruit (strawberries and melon) and seasonal berries (blueberries) with vanilla yogurt, crunchy granola and a single blueberry muffin. This is a yogurt parfait the way it should be made. Neither the yogurt nor the granola are cloying in their sweetness. The fruit is seasonably fresh and plentiful. The crunchy granola provides a textural contrast and delightful crunch.
10 September 2011: The Chop Salad, one of the three best in the Duke City (along with the chop salad at Vinaigrette and at Relish), is an exemplar of fresh flavors melding well to truly entice the senses. How can you go wrong with black beans, Lush bacon, roasted corn, cilantro, red bell pepper, natural smoked turkey, avocado, cheese and Romaine lettuce tossed with a house-made green chile citrus dressing and four pita wedges? This is a virtuosos composition, true salad greatness with nice textural and ingredient contrasts that complement each other well. The chunky, buttery avocados at the epitome of ripeness and the Lush bacon made for an especially wonderful melding of disparate flavors. Then there’s the green chile citrus dressing made the thickness of a bleu cheese dressing–so good it should be bottled and sold.
7 October 2020: On paper and on a smart phone screen the mango chicken salad (sliced grilled chicken, edamame and mango with scallions and fresh basil topped with blueberry vinaigrette on fresh organic spinach with Lush bacon bits) sounds like an irresistible choice. For the most part it was. Its sole shortcoming was the blueberry vinaigrette which was about as thick as a chip dip and didn’t have a characteristic vinegar taste. We surmise the dressing was not mixed with an olive oil and vinegar which not only would have thinned it out, but would have given it the slight tartness we enjoy in a vinaigrette. Every other ingredient was spot on and delicious: the liveliness of the basil, freshness of the mango and grilled deliciousness of the chicken were especially notable.
10 September 2011: The French toast, which the menu refers to as a “breakfast bread pudding” (Larry McGoldrick, are you reading this?) truly earns the “luscious” adjective for which the cafe is named. It also earns every other superlative you can think of. The foundation for the fabulous French toast is Fano Bakery’s cinnamon bread which is dredged in an egg and coconut milk wash along with currants and apples then grilled. It’s topped with “Lush dust” (cinnamon, cardamom and cocoa powder) and served with a house-made Kahlua syrup.
Unlike some French toast which can be downright tooth-decaying sweet, these wouldn’t make a child ping off the walls. Texturally it does bring to mind some bread puddings while the apples and currents might remind you of a great fritter. In its annual food and wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Cafe Lush a hot plate award for these French toast. Hot Plate awards are accorded annually to some of the city’s most delicious dishes as seen by the magazine’s editors and staff.
31 December 2013: Ludwig van Beethoven, better known as a great composer than as a food critic, nonetheless accurately posited that “only the pure in heart can make a good soup.” As with many accomplished chefs, Chef Docherty is a soup maestro. Peruse the Cafe Lush Facebook page and a varied and yes, luscious selection of soups of the day will immediately jump out at you along with such adjectives as vegan, gluten-free, organic, fresh and delicious.
Great fortune shined on us when the soup of the day for the last day of 2013 was a vegan cream of potato and vegetable soup with coconut milk. Even better fortune smiled upon me when my dining companions decided they had an aversion to coconut milk, leaving the entire steaming bowl for me alone. How they could imbibe the aromatic temptress wafting toward them and not succumb to its luscious, siren-like beckoning is beyond me. This is a terrific soup, the essence of comfort food with the qualities of heart-warming heat and savory-sweet succulence. Though coconut milk may evoke images of Thai soups and curries, the soup was more reminiscent of Indian soups. It’s served with pita wedges, unfortunately not enough to save for sopping up when done.
31 December 2013: The lunch menu includes three pizzas although a pizza special is occasionally featured. Pizzas are thin-crust and grilled with a gluten-free option available for a pittance. Though called a pizza, perhaps a more accurate name would be “pizzetta,” a relatively new culinary term which means “a small pizza” and which encompasses a whisper-thin crust. Thin-crust does not, however, mean cracker-like or brittle in the least. The Cafe Lush crust is moist and pliable even though it’s obvious from pinto-pony like char that it’s been grilled. There is no “create your own” option, but the friendly staff will let you omit or add an ingredient or two so the pizza is to your liking.
The Callan, features sauce, housemade green chile turkey sausage, mushrooms, mozzarella and fresh basil. Sauce does not, in this case, mean the de rigueur tomato sauce topping eighty-some percent of pizzas throughout the fruited plain. This sauce is redolent with sweet-savory notes reminiscent of a Balsamic glaze. It’s a perfect foil for the earthy, woodsy mushrooms; fresh mozzarella and basil Because the green chile turkey sausage includes a smidgeon of cumin, we opted instead for bacon, always an excellent addition to any pizza.
31 December 2013: Another quaintly named pizza is The Boody, perhaps an alteration of “booty.” This one is constructed with pesto, roasted garlic, feta, spinach, mozzarella and chopped tomatoes on a thin-crust canvas. Ask for ham if you’d like a meaty infusion. The pesto, roasted garlic and spinach triumvirate gives this pizza an invigoratingly fresh flavor while the feta lends just a hint of tangy sharpness and the tomatoes, a needed acidity. It’s a very good pizza made with ingredients which complement each other very well.
7 October 2020: In 2012, Sergio Miccu, head of the Neapolitan Association of Pizza Makers declared “there is no such thing as a gourmet pizza.” He’s not alone in thinking as such. For decades, a strong difference of opinion between “traditionalists” and “innovators” has raged on. Cafe Lush’s The Jeremy (marinara, mozzarella, ham, grilled pears, balsamic syrup, feta and caramelized red onion) is solidly in the camp of an “innovator’s” pizza. Heck, it’s so good it might win over a few converts who believe the only good pizza is composed of tomato sauce, cheese and basil. The combination of ingredients and flavors on The Jeremy is sheer genius! This is one terrific pizza.
7 October 2020: If there is such a thing as a “traditional” burger (hmm, maybe mustard, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and onions), Cafe Lush’s Marlowe (house-made green chile turkey sausage burger, local Cheddar cheese, peach mustard and Lush Bacon with house-made pickles on a grilled sesame bun) would probably be considered heretical. There are so many elements on this burger that at first glance may seem wrong, but it should take only one bite to convince you, the combination of ingredients works well. Very well, in fact. To paraphrase Barbara Mandrell, “if eating you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
10 September 2011: When Sandy showed us the lunch menu, I couldn’t help but espy the chocolate chip whiskey bread pudding. Though not on the brunch menu, our ever-accommodating hostess delivered the sole portion left over from the previous day’s lunch. This is first-rate bread pudding topped with Lush dust and drizzled with Kahlua syrup. If your initial inclination is to recoil at what could naturally be perceived as a very sweet dessert, you’ll be happy to learn this bread pudding isn’t overly sweet. It’s an “adult” bread pudding emphasizing flavor combinations, not cloying compositions.
7 October 2020: How can you mend a broken heart? Mine, after learning Cafe Lush had run out of the bread pudding was healed with a pear tart with toasted coconut, a combination sure to assuage life’s most heart-wrenching moments. A thick layer of toasted coconut topped fresh, moist pears atop a thick, crumbly pie crust. The smoked coconut added all the sweetness needed to balance the slight tartness of the pears. In some respects, this tart reminded me of French frangipane though made with toasted coconut instead of almond cream. I may have enjoyed Cafe Lush’s dessert more.
31 December 2013: The Duke City is blessed with several restaurants offering housemade ice cream, most of them rich, creamy, delicious and made with imagination. The blueberry-espresso ice cream, for example, blends ingredients you might not automatically think as possibly going well together, but Cafe Lush puts those ingredients together in perfect proportion. If you’re a coffee aficionado, you’ll appreciate the complexity and richness of this blend. Similarly, chocoholics will fall in love with the chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream in which semi-sweet chocolate chips and milk chocolate ice cream coalesce into a wonderful whole. Baskin Robbins has nothing on these two ice cream treats.
The Urban Dictionary also defines “lush” as “something pleasing or desirable” and “something really cool, nice looking, tasty, and so on.” Cafe Lush is certainly all that and more!
700 Tijeras, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2020
1st VISIT: 10 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Fruit & Yogurt Parfait, French Toast, Chop Salad, Chocolate Chip Whiskey Bread Pudding, Ice Cream Sandwich, Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream, Blueberry-Espresso Ice Cream, Potato and Vegetable Soup with Coconut Milk, The Callan (pizza), The Boody (pizza), Mango Chicken Salad, Marlowe (burger), Pear Tart with Smoked Coconut