When it comes to food, most bowling alleys strike out. Ardent keglers are subjected to such catastrophic “cuisine” as perpetually rotating hot dogs seared to a leathery sheen under a heat lamp inferno, soppy messes of nachos bathed in gloppy processed cheese topped with gelatinous jalapeños and greasy onion rings with the texture of fried rubber bands and as oily as well-slicked lanes. Getting something edible at most bowling alleys is as tough as picking up a seven-ten split.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque has somehow managed to buck the national trend of bad bowling alley food–or at least the Lucky 66 Bowling Alley on Fourth Street has. The Lucky 66 (then known as Sun Valley Bowl) was once the home of Sadie’s Dining Room, one of the Duke City area’s most popular dining destinations. After Sadie’s split for more commodious confines, Dean’s Mexican Food moved in and fed Duke City bowlers and diners in the know for a few years. When Dean’s departed, other victual vendors tried, but couldn’t pin down the secrets to success in serving food at a bowling alley
Visitors to the historical Fourth Street bowling alley will notice colorful signage on the exterior north-facing wall of the yawning complex and might initially attribute it to some of the city’s very creative taggers, but it’s not some gang named Ezra’s staking its territory with graffiti that’s at work here. Ezra’s Place is the second Fourth Street restaurant venture of the phenomenal chef Dennis Apodaca, braintrust behind Sophia’s Place, one of the city’s very best restaurants.
Ezra’s Place is named for Dennis’s son, a well-mannered teenager who helps out on weekends. Sophia’s Place is named for Dennis’s daughter so if the naming conventions formula holds true, he probably won’t open another restaurant since he’s only got two children (and a lovely step-daughter who also helps out at both restaurants).
Ezra’s Place is antithetical to Sophia’s in terms of seating capacity. While Sophia’s is tiny and crowded, Ezra’s is capacious. Ezra’s Place launched in late September, 2008, but the word got out quickly and it wasn’t long before Dennis’s dining disciples made the pilgrimage almost directly across the street from Sophia’s.
It’s not only the seating area that’s capacious. The kitchen at Ezra’s dwarfs the confining kitchen at Sophia’s (although as Guy Fieri said, “little place, huge flavors.”) As a result, Dennis has been able to expand his menu and feature even more of the creative and funky, New Mexican influenced dishes that have garnered him acclaim as an Über chef. He’s also been able to expand hours of operation and serve dinner five nights a week. Ezra’s Place is open from 11AM to 9PM Tuesday through Saturday and from 9AM to 2PM on Sundays.
As at Sophia’s, the ambiance at Ezra’s is colorful and interesting. Unframed and very colorful paintings festoon the walls. Most, particularly those of anthropomorphic dogs will have you do a double-take in an appreciative sort of way. The restaurant is situated on a second level of the brightly illuminated bowling alley, but the sound of pins crashing down is muffled by distance. What you’re more likely to hear are compliments to the chef and utterances of sheer enjoyment.
The Saturday and Sunday brunch is like a “best of” from among some of the wonderful specials with which Dennis tantalized taste buds at Sophia’s. There are only about a dozen standard items on the brunch menu plus the special (in every sense of the word) pancakes and scrawled on a slate board near the entrance are brunch specials, some of which I don’t recall ever seeing at Sophia’s.
Because brunch means breakfast and lunch, you can also order from the expansive lunch menu, adding another dozen or so options from which to choose. We had the pleasure of sharing our inaugural brunch at Ezra’s Place with Sandy Driscoll, our friend from Los Angeles. Brunch is best with friends like Sandy who have sophisticated palates and a great sense of adventure–friends from whose plates you can sample, friends who won’t order the same thing you do. It allows for trying more of the menu and comparing notes on what’s good and what’s not as good.
We didn’t find anything at Ezra’s for which the adjective “good” would suffice. Everything started at “great” and got better from there. Greatness would certainly be ascribed to the fried calamari with the house dipping sauces. Each whisper-thin, batter-coated ringlet is surprisingly fresh with the perfect texture that’s neither too chewy or too crispy, but a balanced medium. Two sauces accompany the calamari. The first is a Balsamic reduction with equal pronouncements of sweet and tangy. This one is so good that I tried it with pancakes and it passed muster. The second is a jalapeño Ranch dressing. This one has a piquant bite to it, but also a hint of dill. No doubt Dennis made these dipping sauces from scratch as he’s apt to do with most things on the menu.
In New Mexico, chips, salsa and guacamole are the three amigos people most want on their dinner tables. The chips are homemade and served warm. They’re also thin and low in salt, a healthful, delicious combination. Neither of the salsas–a roasted tomato and chipotle salsa and a salsa fresca akin to a pico de gallo–are particularly piquant, but both are very flavorful and tend to complement rather than dominate the flavors of anything to which they are added.
The special pancakes of the day is a brunch tradition at Sophia’s Place and it continues at Ezra’s. With any luck, you’ll visit Ezra’s when the featured pancakes are the ricotta and lemon pancakes with a piñon butter topped with fresh berries. The tartness of the berries and lemon create a palate pleasing harmony with the maple syrup (yes, the real stuff). The sour cream changes the texture of standard pancakes by adding moistness while retaining the fluffiness inherent in great pancakes.
Some of the aforementioned specials which sometimes graced Sophia’s menu are standard offerings at Sophia’s. One such special at Sophia’s but standard at Ezra’s are the chiliquiles with red chili-roasted tomato sauce served with black beans and two long strips of crispy bacon. Chiliquiles are an interesting dish, seldom prepared the same way by different cooks. Dennis’s rendition holds true to some of the dishes traditional aspects, but being the maverick (eat your heart out John McCain) he is, he also imparts his own creative flair into what is otherwise a simple dish.
The basis of chiliquiles are soft tortillas on top of which eggs (any style) are added. In Dennis’s version, the chili-roasted tomato sauce is actually layered below the eggs which are topped with queso fresco. This dish truly brings with it an explosion of flavors, textures and contrasts–the medium piquancy of delicious red chile, the acidity and tanginess of a homemade tomato sauce and so much more. It is a very enjoyable entree.
A chile relleno trio sure to tantalize your taste buds starts with chilaca chiles, a mild to medium-hot chile with a rich flavor. Fully mature the chilaca chiles have a dark greenish or maybe even dark brown appearance. When dried, these chiles take on a dark, wrinkled skin and are known as pasilla chiles. What Dennis does with the chilaca chiles is akin to culinary wizardry, stuffing them three ways. One is stuffed with black beans refried in duck confit (a flavor escalation that places the beans in rarified company as some of the very best I’ve ever had). One is stuffed with tomatillo and one with a roasted tomato and red chile sauce. All three are topped with goat cheese and Asadero cheese then drizzled with a creme fraiche.
From the lunch side of the menu, you might want to try the Poblano chili relleno with calabasitas, Asadero cheese and tomatillo sauce. The poblano has slightly more piquancy than a bell pepper, but when roasted properly imbues the qualities of freshness and fruitiness to an entree. This is a poblano on steroids, a corpulent pepper engorged with fresh calabasitas and Asadero cheese. The tomatillo sauce is a Dennis Apodaca specialty, one which he demonstrated for host Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The tomatillos are grilled and blackened while Dennis prepares the foundation for the sauce (onion, garlic, chipotle adobo and pure honey). He then adds the tomatillos to the mix and allows them to simmer for a few minutes before blending the entire amalgam then reducing it. This is a spectacular sauce with a lot going on.
One of the seemingly de rigueur offerings at many inventive Southwestern restaurants in New Mexico is duck quesadillas, a very good idea not always executed well. For me, the standard has always been the Coyote Rooftop Grill in Santa Fe. It shouldn’t surprise me that Dennis does them better. The duck is as tender as a bird’s heart with none of the gaminess and fattiness of duck at the hands of chefs who don’t have Dennis’s skills. He’s generous with the duck to which he applies a sweet-savory barbecue sauce wholly unlike the vinegar-tomato sauce you’ll find at barbecue restaurants. The tortillas are browned to a nice crispness and have the brown spot appearance of a pinto pony.
Served with the quesadillas is a fresh salad, a hallmark of Dennis’s restaurants. Ezra’s salads are always crafted with fresh, crisp greens and a subtle dressing that marries well with the greens so that their flavor is what you get with every forkful, not some sweet or tart flavor suppressor. The quesadillas also include a fresh pico de gallo and some of the very best guacamole in America. The guacamole has a nice lime and cilantro infusion to complement the buttery richness of fresh, creamy avocado.
Sophia’s was home to my favorite pastrami sandwich in Albuquerque. Ezra’s one-ups Sophia’s with a grilled Ezra pastrami sandwich. Lightly toasted Sage Bakehouse sourdough bread is the canvass on which sauerkraut, pastrami and homemade Thousand Island dressing imprint their deliciousness. Rather than masking the flavor of sauerkraut as some restaurants do by sweetening it or saucing it highly, Dennis allows the sauerkraut to be sour–not lip-pursing sour, but with a definite tang. The Thousand Island dressing is thick, rich and somewhere between sweet and sour. This sandwich is served with a mountain of Ezra’s fries, julienne fries that are one of the restaurant’s most popular draws. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Ezra’s a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its julienne fries as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
On October 23rd, 2011, the New York Times travel section celebrated “36 hours in Albuquerque.” The article was perhaps a revelation to residents of Metropolis who may not be cognizant of all there is to see and do…and eat in the Duke City. Likening the “lush farmland” “along the banks of the Rio Grande” to a “quiet oasis,” the Times indicated those farmlands provision the city’s “vibrant organic movement” with “heirloom beans, corn and more.” The Magazine praised the “bowling alley location, farm to table produce and a chef-owner with Chez Panisse credentials” at Ezra’s as adding “up to hipster overload” anywhere but Albuquerque.
The aforementioned Sophia’s is one of a handful of restaurants in Albuquerque I believe can compete in larger, more culinarily sophisticated markets. Ezra’s, if possible, could be even better. That’s because Dennis Apodaca now has a bigger canvas for his art, a more expansive venue in which to display his vast talents.
6132 Fourth, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 July 2012
1ST VISIT: 23 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Poblano Chili Relleno, Breakfast Burrito, Breakfast Sandwich, Fried Calamari, Ezra Pastrami Sandwich, Ezra Fries, Chile Rellenos Three Ways, Chips and Salsa, Guacamole, Pork Chops and Eggs, Shrimp Enchiladas