Several years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, multi-player gaming meant sitting at a table and playing board and card games with friends actually sitting across the table from you as opposed to the disembodied online kind of ‘friends.” My compadre Brad and I had been trounced several times by our pop culture savvy spouses at Trivial Pursuit, a primitive game contemporaneous with throwing rocks at mastodons. After four games, we finally had a chance to win one, but it came down to the toughest question Kim and Vicki could muster in a pop culture category which had been our downfall all night. The question was “Who is called the Marilyn Monroe of South America?” You could hear a pin drop when I calmly answered “Sonia Braga.”
Shockingly (for me), no one else at the table had even heard of Sonia Braga, a sultry seductress from Brazil…and tragically none of them had seen Gabriela and Flor and Her Two Husbands, two wonderfully spicy movies showcasing the raw voluptuousness of the sexy siren. As if Sonia’s erotic qualities weren’t sufficiently alluring, in both movies her cooking was as integral to the plot lines as her lovemaking. A stunning woman who can cook! It’s no wonder Sonia epitomized the ideal Latin woman to American males in the 80s. What red-blooded American man wouldn’t be reduced to a quivering mess watching a glistening (women don’t perspire) Sonia in the role of Gabriela as she cooked a sweet rice dessert in a clingy, curve-accentuating dress.
A carnal association between Sonia Braga and the cuisine of Brazil remains imprinted in the engrams of my memory even today. Alas, most of my experiences with the cuisine of Brazil have been at Churrascarias, the orgiastic celebrations of meats prepared on a rotisserie. Watching skewered meats rotate slowly over an open flame is hardly as exciting as watching Sonia slowly stirring sweet rice over a wood oven (and if you don’t think that can be exciting, you need to see Gabriela).
Rudy Vigil, one of my most trusted sources of information regarding visit-worthy new restaurant openings, recently told me about an exciting and quaintly named Brazilian restaurant which launched in March, 2012 on Route 66 just west of the Rio Grande. He raved effusively about the food, described the colorful ambiance and even told me about the service but didn’t mention any pulchritudinous Sonia Braga lookalike preparing and serving it. Drat! It looks like I’m going to have to visit Brazil for myself.
Despite the curious appellation, Jamon’s Frybread Cabana is as authentic as the cuisine of Brazil gets in Albuquerque. The name comes about because owner James Trujillo previously served as the manager of the Pueblo Harvest Cafe, a peerless purveyor of Native American frybread. A native New Mexican born in Las Cruces, James is also half Brazilian, having lived throughout South America for seven years, including three years in Brazil. The fusion of his two culinary loves–New Mexican style Native American cuisine (a prominent component of which is chile) and Brazilian street food–just made sense to him. After my inaugural visit, it made plenty of sense to me, too.
Among the familiar menu offerings are Indian frybread and Indian tacos as well as red and green chile, pinto beans, taco salads and carne adovada which is used as a filling within a pastel. In New Mexico the word pastel conjures images of pies and in a sense, pastels in Brazil are a form of a pie though they more closely resemble a sopaipilla. The restaurant’s pastels are stuffed with such diverse fillings as pizza (pepperoni, mozzarella, Cheddar cheese and marinara sauce), BMT (basil, Mozzarella and tomato), hazelnut chocolate and banana and carne (ground beef seasoned with garlic and onions) as well as the aforementioned carne adovada.
Brazilian options include several of the familiar churrasco items Duke City diners will recognize if they frequent Tucanos Brazilian Grill, heretofore Albuquerque’s only Brazilian restaurant. There’s carne churrasco (sirloin tips infused with kosher salt), peru con bacon (grilled turkey breast wrapped with peppered bacon), verduras vinaigrette (grilled seasonal vegetables drizzled in Brazilian vinaigrette and dusted with Parmesan), frango churrasco (grilled chicken breast marinated in Brazilian citrus vinaigrette), sausage and abacaxe (grilled pineapple slices glazed with a brown sugar and molasses syrup).
From the outside the restaurant still resembles any of a number of previous restaurant occupants, but step inside and the look and feel is most definitely not New Mexican. Only the blonde bamboo ceiling is monochromatic. The walls are festooned in bold, lively hues. Along with Bailey’s on the Beach, it’s as close to a contemporary beachside eatery as you’ll find in landlocked Albuquerque. Even the slate boards on which menu items are scrawled are colorful. James will walk you through the ordering process and will describe the menu options if you need, but ordering is really as simple as one, two, three, four.
Option one is any two skewers, a half frybread and any side. Option two is a Brazilian taco (fried corn tortillas filled with black bean puree, rice, your choice of ground beef, carne adovada or shredded chicken, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese), a side of red or green salsa and a twenty-ounce beverage. Option three is any pastel, any side and a Brazilian taco. Option four is an Indian taco (beef, chicken, carne adovada or vegetarian) and a beverage. Every one of these combinations is comparably priced to a Big Mac, fries and a Coke (I looked it up) and infinitely better. A number of a la carte options are also available.
Murphy (anything that can go wrong will go wrong) accompanied us during our inaugural visit, but the true mark of character is how you handle adversity. Because of a technical difficulty in the kitchen, the restaurant was unable to prepare fry bread and pastel, the two items we most wanted to try. Rather than send his guests away hungry, James had his kitchen staff prepare a sumptuous repast of churrasco items along with rice, pinto and black beans, and red and green chile. He then proceeded to serve us family style.
The churrasco items were all terrific, better than those at the aforementioned Tucano’s which tends to have heavy hand with the salt shaker. The Peru con Bacon (grilled turkey breast wrapped with peppered bacon) was easily my favorite, but then almost anything which includes bacon takes its rightful place at the top. The sausage was equally good and the abacaxe (grilled pineapple slices glazed with a brown sugar and molasses syrup) was excellent. We missed the visual stimulation of seeing our grilled skewers atop the frybread as they’re usually served, but were very happy with what we did have.
James’s New Mexican background is apparent in the red and green chile, neither of which utilize cumin, the foul demon despoiler of chile’s purity. The red and green chile both have a piquant bite, not the perfunctory nibble of some restaurant chile. The red is especially incendiary. The pinto beans are also very much New Mexican in form and flavor. Much better than Spanish rice at any New Mexican restaurant in town is the Brazilian style rice flavored with onion and garlic. The only thing which could have improved on that rice is watching Sonia Braga prepare it.
Six weeks after my inaugural visit, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott convinced me I was already overdue for a return visit to the Frybread Cabana. During his first visit Ryan had the good fortune not to be joined by the proverbial ill-fated Murphy as I had been. As such, he became enamored of the frybread which he says is the very best he’s ever had, better even than the frybread served at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. He also enjoyed the pastel filled with nutella and banana, one of my favorite combinations in crepes.
In 2012, frybread became even more engrained into America’s culinary fabric than ever before when the FryBread House in Phoenix was one of five honorees for the James Beard Foundation Awards America’s Classics category given to restaurants with timeless appeal and that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community. During my next visit to Phoenix, I hope to visit the FryBread House to see for myself if it’s as wonderful as the frybread at Albuquerque’s Frybread Cabana which is every bit as good as Ryan described.
Roughly the size of a discus, the frybread is more reminiscent of a New Mexican buñuelo than it is a sopaipilla though it could be argued that save for their shapes, the three fried bread treats are essentially the same. At the Cabana, the frybread is better than 95 percent of the sopaipillas in Albuquerque. Though frybread doesn’t puff up as sopaipillas do, they’re excellent with honey. Tear into the fresh, right out-of-the-fryer frybread and fragrant steam is released to intoxicate your nostrils with the unmistakable aroma of fried dough. The flavor delivers on the promise made by the aroma. These are indeed addictive.
Addictive would also describe the pastel, a deep-fried envelope filled with nutella and banana and eaten directly from your hand. In Brazil, the pastel is a favorite snack or light lunch. Pastels are rectangular, roughly the size of a Pop Tart (but it’s an insult to pastels to even mention them in the same sentence) and can be filled with either a sweet or savory filling. Naturally, they’re served hot right out of the fryer. Fillings are limited only by the imagination. The Frybread Cabana offers pastels are filled with imagination and with love. If the pastel filled with nutella and banana (as good as any crepe in town) is any indication, Albuquerque will love these decadent fried treats.
By the way, the curious appellation “Jamon’s” has nothing to do with ham, the Spanish translation of the word. James explained that during high school a classmate called him “Jamon” for two years, teasing that “Jamon” was Spanish for “James.” Duke City diners continue to discover that “Jamon’s” means a culinary adventure with a flavorful surprise in every order.
Jamon’s Frybread Cabana
3915 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2012
1st VISIT: 7 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carne Churrasco, Peru con Bacon, Frango Churrasco, Abacaxe, Brazilian style rice, pinto beans, red chile, green chile, Frybread, Pastel with nutella and banana