The Tewa name “Oku Pin” which translates in English to “Turtle Mountain” has three meanings of significance to the people of Okay Owingeh, one of New Mexico’s great Tewa speaking Northern New Mexico Pueblos. “Oku Pin” was the the Indian name given to Dr. Alfonso Ortiz who obtained worldwide prominence as an anthropologist and ethnologist until his death in 1998. Ortiz was born and raised in San Juan Pueblo which in 2006 officially changed its name to Okay Owingeh.
“Oku Pin” is also the Tewa name for Sandia Peak, the 10,678-feet high mountain which provides a spectacular backdrop for Albuquerque, Bernalillo and Rio Rancho. When Nico Ortiz, son of the famous anthropologist launched his inaugural restaurant and microbrewery in 1997, it just made sense that it should be called Turtle Mountain, a name which pays homage to his father and to the magnificent peaks under whose shadow his enterprise would flourish.
Today, Turtle Mountain has also become synonymous with good food and (ostensibly) very good beer. Nico Ortiz has dedicated his life to the pursuit and production of good beer and has garnered tremendous recognition for his efforts, including a multi-page spread on the November, 2005 edition of New Mexico magazine. His brainchild has also been discovered by Brewpub magazine, All About Beer magazine and other national and local publications, all of which have come away singing the praises of Rio Rancho’s first brewpub.
The inaugural Turtle Mountain microbrewery and restaurant was situated in a strip mall on Southern Boulevard, across from what was then the City of Vision’s City Hall. In addition to quality libations, it quickly earned a reputation as a friendly neighborhood tavern in which you could actually get a very good pizza, calzone or grinder (the term used in the Northeast United States for a large sandwich), all named for New Mexico’s incomparable natural landmarks and several being crafted with an inventive flair you don’t find in many brewpubs.
There was no pretense as to what the original Turtle Mountain was–a microbrewery which just happened to serve high quality food. Parents wanting their children to experience some of the very best pizza in the metropolitan area knew it meant subjecting them to the choking haze of cigarette smoke (before New Mexico banned smoking in restaurants), the cacophonous din of adult beverage-inspired revelry and sometimes long waits for a table to come available. Those factors may have made the Turtle Mountain a less than family friendly environment.
This wasn’t lost on Ortiz who, in November, 2006, opened a larger, family-friendly Turtle Mountain location about half a mile away from its Rio Rancho birthplace. Smoking isn’t permitted at the new location and the menu has expanded to include panini-style sandwiches, salads, appetizers and burgers heretofore unavailable to Rio Rancho residents.
Turtle Mountain’s previous location (3755 Southern) became the home of the now defunct Fat Squirrel Bar & Grill which was also owned by Nico Ortiz and his wife. None of the inventiveness that has made Turtle Mountain a local favorite was lost on the new restaurant and pub which launched in the summer of 2008. In 2011, Ortiz joined the ranks of Duke City area restaurant impresarios with more than two restaurants when he launched Timbuctu Bistro in the city’s westernmost fringes. Timbuctu Bistro closed in 2013.
From the onset, the guiding principle of Turtle Mountain Brewing Company has been “to provide the people of Rio Rancho and surrounding communities with delicious, high-quality foods and beverages at an affordable price in a comfortable, friendly environment.” Turtle Mountain’s employees are encouraged to get to know customers by name. If this sounds like the show “Cheers,” it’s by design. That’s how Nico wants it.
The Turtle Mountain’s appetizers include the Cochiti Combo, house-made tortilla chips with the terrific triumvirate of salsa, con queso and guacamole. While the salsa recipe has changed over time (it used to have a sweet bite that had its genesis in sunflower seeds, a crunchy treat we’ve never seen before in salsa), it’s still quite good. Its current rendition is much more piquant, a bit tangy and more akin to a pico de gallo. The chile con queso is no longer the most piquant of the three saucy appetizers despite the prominent presence of jalapeno. It’s still the velvety smooth, creamy guacamole that steals the show.
While several Albuquerque area restaurants offer calamari, they often have the texture of rubber bands. Turtle Mountain’s Calamari Steak (house Ale battered and fried sliced calamari steak topped with pesto aioli and feta cheese served with marinara (aioli contains pine nuts and pecans) are much more than a cut above. Calamari steak is made from the flattened bodies of squid. Because squid is a tough and rubbery meat, calamari steaks are tenderized before cooking. Turtle Mountain’s calamari are tender and delicious with a light batter coating. The pesto aioli and feta cheese are flavorful accompaniment, but not absolutely necessary as the calamari is quite tasty on its own.
The appetizer we’ve enjoyed least is Turtle Mountain’s hummus with triangles of pita bread. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad hummus. It is, in fact, a good hummus. It’s just the type of hummus you might expect a brew pub to serve. Where we found it lacking is in some of the subtle touches that the more practiced hands of a Mediterranean restaurant’s hummus chef would impart: the sheen of olive oil and lemon juice to provide moistness, a tad more garlic to provide fragrance and flavor.
The Turtle Mountain’s specials of the day sometimes surprise even frequent visitors. One special imparting a dramatic effect is the Thai peanut soup, a thick, rich, comforting soup the flavor of which you normally don’t find in American restaurants, much less a brew pub. This soup is comparable to the sweet peanut sauce often served with satay at Thai restaurants. It is replete with vegetables such as onion, okra and tomato, all sliced small. A bowl of this isn’t quite the swimming pool size of a Vietnamese pho, but one bowl is more than filling.
Another special of the day we hope will someday make it to the daily menu is a pizza called the Spicy Blue, a 12-inch canvass of peppercorn encrusted dough topped with a base of cream cheese blanketed by salty prosciutto and smoked jalapenos draped by melted mozzarella cheese. It is a thing of beauty, more oblong than round with its sole hint of red coming from the prosciutto. Its most prominent flavors are saltiness and heat, a palate-pleasing combination.
Not quite a pizza, but close to it is a curiously named starter called Niff Sticks, yet another special-of-the-day good enough to make the starting line-up for just about any other restaurant in town. Niff sticks start off with the restaurant’s thin-crust dough which is then topped with garlic oil, bacon and jalapenos all covered by mozzarella. Normally I don’t advocate a bread appetizer prior to having pizza, but this is just too good to pass up especially for bacon lovers who will love the generous portion of bacon in each bite.
Incomparable might be a good adjective for the pronounced roasted green chile taste you’ll find in all the Turtle Mountain’s pizzas. Call it heresy if you will, but this restaurant’s pizzas are better than just about all Duke City purveyors specializing in the thin-crust, gourmet ingredient genre. Move over Il Vicino. Stand aside Farina Pizzeria. Surrender Scarpa’s. Turtle Mountain’s pizza reigns supreme, particularly the Adam Bomb pizza (Mozzarella, pepperoni, green chile, sausage, spinach, pine nuts, sauce). Not only does the green chile have the roasted taste New Mexico’s citizens demand, it’s got a bite to it. It is truly the bomb! If you want your bomb to be twice as explosive, ask for the Turtle Mountain’s cracked peppercorn crust. Coupled with green chile, it’ll give your taste buds a thrill.
The pizzas are about twelve inches of thin-crusted deliciousness. Though thin crust, they’re definitely not New York style with the type of pliability that allows you to fold them vertically. The crust is painfully thin, stiff and crunchy in places, but it’s not overdone and has only hints of char. It’s a great canvass for the creative ingredients offered at the Turtle Mountain. Each pizza leaves its own unique imprint on your taste buds, quite unlike at some pizzerias where every pizza seems to be a cheese pizza whose sole taste differentiation comes from the different ingredients piled atop. There is serious inventiveness going on at the Turtle Mountain.
Some of those pizzas showcase the brew pub’s award winning brews. One is the Ojo Caliente, a pizza crafted with Habanero stout barbecue sauce, mozzarella, chicken and Cheddar. Some might consider barbecue sauce on a pizza a heretical concept, especially when topped with chicken. The Ojo Caliente will make converts out of the nay-sayers. First of all, the sauce is tangy, piquant and absolutely tongue-tingling delicious. The chicken is shredded instead of cubed as served in some pizzas. The two cheeses are complementary.
Perhaps the city’s best culinary collaboration was the pairing of barbecue and pizza on the restaurant’s Smokehouse BBQ Pizzas, a pizza partnership between the Turtle Mountain Brewing Company and Rio Rancho’s beloved and much-missed Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant. One pizza is topped with sliced pork, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and your choice of red or green chile. Add a fried egg and you’d technically have an enchilada on a pizza. The Smokehouse barbecue flavor profile is prominent on this pie with a very discernible hint of smoke. The red chile packed a punch, moreso than the green chile, but both are a terrific alternative to tomato sauce.
The calzones are roughly the size of a flattened football and prepared in the same wood burning oven as are the pizzas. In fact, you can have any of the restaurant’s signature pizzas made into a calzone. The Adam Bomb calzone, for example, is made from the same ingredients as my favorite Turtle Mountain pizza. They’re just packaged a bit differently.
Also available are five different “grinders,” the name given to sub sandwiches in New England. For perspective, a grinder is essentially the same as a hero, hoagie, po boy, submarine, torpedo, wedge or zep. It’s a large sandwich made of a long crusty roll split lengthwise and filled with meats and cheese (as well as sundry condiments such as tomato and onion).
The Sun Mountain grinder is constructed of turkey, ham, green chile, provolone, Cheddar, tomato, onion and garlic mayo on a hoagie roll. It is served warm so that the melted cheese covers all the other ingredients. Fortunately, the cheeses ameliorate, not cover-up the other ingredients. This is an excellent sandwich, as filling as a Turtle Mountain pizza and as good as any sandwich you’ll find in the City of Vision. The green chile and garlic mayo combination is especially flavorful. There is a lot going on in this sandwich as in a lot of ingredients, a lot of flavor and a lot of sandwich!
The menu has several tempting burgers. For a wonderful breath-wrecking and absolutely delicious burger, you can’t beat the El Rito. This beauteous, bountiful burger is engorged with crisp bacon, fetid feta cheese and that rich, creamy guacamole the Turtle Mountain does so well. It takes two hands to hold his burger and five or six napkins to wipe off your mouth; that’s how juicy this carnivore’s dream is.
Macaroni and cheese is yet another entree the Turtle Mountain does surprisingly well–so well that you’ll often see children eschewing pizza to partake of their favorite cheesy treat. This is an adult mac and cheese made with a blend of five cheeses, the most prevalent being Cheddar. It’s not an especially creamy mac and cheese, but that also means it’s not as oleaginous as some macaroni and cheese tends to be.
14 July 2020: The fish and chips at the defunct Fat Squirrel Pub & Grill may have been the very best in the area (just ask Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, the most prolific commentator on this blog). Its sibling restaurant, the Turtle Mountain, is a chip (pun intended) off the old block. English Phil’s Fish N’ Chips, golden-hued, flaky cod planks are dipped in the house beer batter then deep-fried and served with pub-style chips, malt vinegar and a housemade tartar sauce that’s actually quite good. The house beer batter is light and crisp, the flesh delicate to the pierce of the fork and the oversized chips soft, but not flaccid. My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” enjoys them so much, he asks for three planks.
14 July 2020: Hidden in the mountains of northern New Mexico lies Blue Lake, or Ba Whyea, an ancient sacred site for the Taos Pueblo community. In plain view on the Turtle Mountain menu is the Bleu Lake (half-pound Angus beef burger with sautéed mushrooms and yellow onions topped with bleu cheese dressing on a fresh kaiser roll) which may have more umami ounce-for-ounce than any burger in the metropolitan area. Umami–that deep, dark, meaty intensity that distinguishes seared beef, bleu cheese, and mushrooms, among other food items–hits the back of your throat and leaves you craving more. With every bite of the Bleu Lake, you’ll be craving more. It’s one of the best burgers in the state, even without green chile (which would have added even more umami).
It’s rare that anyone has much room left for dessert, but if you do, the Turtle Mountain menu includes several popular choices, the local favorite of which is probably the Carrizozo Apple Calzone (caramelized apple calzone fried golden then topped with sugar, cinnamon and caramel sauce with vanilla ice cream). Another cloying option is the Roundtop Reese’s Cookie (freshly baked oversized cookie with Reese’s Pieces topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce). If you weren’t stuffed before having dessert, you certainly will be when you’re done with the sweetness.
Until about a decade ago, Turtle Mountain not only brewed award-winning libations, but some of the very best root beer and cream soda you’ll ever have. Luke’s Root Beer, a now defunct website dedicated to classic root beer all across the country even and rated it 15th among 71 root beers reviewed. Well, this overgrown kid certainly did love that root beer–it washed down some excellent food. Alas, both that wonderful root beer and the Turtle Mountain’s heady cream soda (which had a sarsaparilla goodness rare in soda) are no longer offered, the consequence of doing business with Coke.
With nearly a quarter-century of brewing beer and serving crowd-pleasing food, Turtle Mountain was one of the very first brewpubs in the state. After all these years, it remains among the very best.
Turtle Mountain Brewing
3755 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 14 July 2020
# OF VISITS: 21
BEST BET: The Adam Bomb Pizza, The Chimayo Pizza, Calzone, The Ojo Caliente, Thai Peanut Soup, The Sun Mountain Grinder, Smokehouse BBQ Pizza, Fish and Chips, Bleu Lake Burger