Cafe Bleu – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Today Huyen Wylie might smile a little when she describes herself as having been one of the Vietnamese “boat people,” but it’s not because she finds anything evenly mildly amusing about the term. She was but ten years old when her family braved the choppy waters of the South China Sea in their quest for freedom. It was their third attempt. As with many families, fleeing their homeland was an act of desperation undertaken by people persecuted by an oppressive communist government. It was a perilous journey fraught with uncertainty and danger.
Still, risking death on the open seas was preferable to the certain imprisonment or execution many citizens faced at the hands of a retaliatory government. Many of the boats used to flee Vietnam were crude and makeshift watercraft–often converted fishing boats–not built for the open waters. Dangerously overcrowded, many sunk shortly after leaving the shore. Making it out to the open sea was no guarantee of freedom, but often the beginning of other dangers such as unfriendly neighboring countries who turned the refugees away and pirates who murdered many and sold others into prostitution or slavery.
Huyen’s family made it to Hong Kong where they remained in a refugee camp for six months before being sponsored for resettlement in the United States. Her family has been in Albuquerque ever since. Today Huyen has many reasons to smile. Though she didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in America, she now has an easy command of English. She also has a degree in Electrical Engineering and a very impressive resume as a systems engineer. More importantly, she is married and has children of her own.
During her sterling career as a systems engineer, Huyen received almost as many compliments about her cooking as she did about her work. Colleagues encouraged her to pursue a cooking career someday. One of those colleagues is my friend “Wild” Bill Kramer who’s known and worked with Huyen for years. It would have been easy to dismiss his effusive raving about her culinary skills as the enthusiasm of a friend for another friend, but when given the opportunity to be treated to lunch anywhere in the city, Bill wanted to eat at the Bleu Cafe, Huyen’s tiny eatery. He promised us it was that good.
The Bleu Cafe is not a conventional restaurant with a storefront visible from the street. There’s no external signage that will let you know you’ve arrived nor will you be greeted from afar by the telltale wafting of tempting aromas. The Bleu Cafe is ensconced in a corner of the Del Norte Sports & Wellness center on the northeast intersection of Wyoming and San Antonio in the Northeast Heights. The Lilliputian cafe has but a handful of tables, but it’s got an ambitious menu that belies its size.
Huyen named her eatery “Bleu Cafe” because the connotation of the word “bleu” is that of “food prepared to a very high standard” as in “cordon bleu” or “blue ribbon” award-winning food. If you’re predisposed to believe “gym food” is all protein and whey shakes and other “slow-burning” complex carbs work-out foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain bread, rice, pasta, and cereals, you’re in for a real treat. The Bleu Cafe menu is hardly one you’d stereotype as work-out food.
Huyen is proud to offer more than a hundred items on a diverse menu. The Bleu Cafe starts serving at 7AM Monday through Friday and at 8AM on Saturday for those who like to work out first thing in the morning. The breakfast menu includes such favorites as a breakfast burrito (eggs, hash browns, sausage or bacon, cheese and green chile) and a yogurt parfait (layered Greek yogurt and berries topped with nutty granola). If the best part of waking up includes the tinkling of a spoon against a steaming ceramic mug, you’ll find a number of espresso favorites as well as a house coffee, hot chocolate and tea.
Burgers, panini sandwiches, wraps, a salad and sandwiches crafted on multi-grain bread constitute the lunch and dinner menu. Baked goods (blueberry muffins, banana breads, key lime cheesecake and brownies) are all baked on the premises. The number of available items is relatively limited, but the quality is surprisingly high (though it shouldn’t have been considering “Wild” Bill’s endorsement). Alas, the menu is devoid of Vietnamese food which Bill assured us Huyen prepares better than any Vietnamese restaurant in town.
If you’ve ever wondered why bad panini happens so often to good people, the probable reason is bad ingredients prepared in assembly line fashion by sandwich makers who don’t take pride in their work. You’ll be thrilled at the high quality of the panini at the Bleu Cafe. The Blue (hmmmm, why isn’t it spelled “bleu?”) Cheese Chicken Ciabatta is an edible work of art prepared by sandwich artists. The canvas for this masterpiece is an artisan ciabatta which is topped with chicken grilled on the premises, bacon, apple, blue cheese and honey mustard. The ingredients–especially the blue cheese and honey mustard–go very well together with complementary and contrasting flavors which sandwich aficionados appreciate. The grilled chicken is roughly a quarter-inch thick and delicious.
It seems every sandwich shop in town proffers a version of an “Italian” sandwich, typically layering anemic Italian cold cuts and cheese on flaccid bread. The Bleu Cafe’s rendition is several orders of magnitude better than most, in no small part due to the perfectly prepared artisan ciabatta which is pressed to a not too crunchy and not too soft consistency. The sandwich is engorged with ham, salami, pepperoni, mozzarella, tomatoes, spinach, red onion, pepperoncini (vastly underutilized as a sandwich ingredient) and pesto mayo. That’s a lot of ingredients combining to form a terrific sandwich.
If you’re tired of French fries with a viscosity which renders them limp or fries so salty as to warrant desalinization, you’ll appreciate the Cafe Bleu’s potato preparation. These fries aren’t fried; they’re baked. It makes a difference and not just because you won’t grease running down your hands. Baked fries are actually quite delicious, especially the baked sweet potato fries.
The unending parade of surprises during our inaugural visit to Cafe Bleu included a perfectly blended mocha frappe. Frappe is a term indigenous to coastal Massachusetts and some parts of Vermont and Maine. Many a printed word has been used to debate the difference between milk shakes and frappes, serving mostly to add to the confusion. I enjoyed the deeply flavored, extremely satisfying mocha frappe too much to contemplate the differences.
For those of us whose primary means of exercise involves a television clicker, Cafe Bleu gives us a reason to visit a gym once in a while. We might not work out, but we’ll certainly be well sated.
7120 Wyoming Blvd, N.E., Suite 8B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Mocha Frappe, Baked Sweet Potato Fries, Blue Cheese Chicken Ciabatta, Italian Panini