Over the years Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has become a community in which readers freely share their opinions. I invite all my dear readers to share your favorites by replying to this post…and if, like me, you love “best of” lists, I invite you to check out Cheryl Jamison’s The Ten Best Things I Ate In New Mexico This Year. Cheryl, the elegant and scintillating James Beard Award Winning Author, is the New Mexican I trust most for culinary recommendations so it’s a sure bet I’m going to try as many as possible of the dishes she enjoyed during 2012.
While my travels throughout the Central California Coast, Chicago and Kansas City in 2012 introduced me to some transformative dishes, be it ever so humble, there is nothing quite as wonderful as the food served throughout New Mexico. The dishes listed below–Gil’s Best of the Best for 2012–are my baker’s dozen plus two list of the best foods I had in New Mexico. They still linger on my taste buds and remain imprinted on my fondest memories. My favorites are listed in chronological order.
- Ironically, some of the most sumptuous seafood in landlocked New Mexico, is served in a three-legged cooking and serving vessel made from pure volcanic basalt. It’s the Molcajete Sinaloense from Albuquerque’s El Zarandeado. The deep-pucked cauldron includes three types of shrimp along with two butterflied fish filets and ringlets of octopus served in a mildly piquant green salsa served almost bubbling.
- Jambo Cafe is so exciting, enticing and exotic that any number of dishes on its menu could rank among the best of the best for any year. The Coconut Peanut Chicken Kebabs with Curry Coleslaw is such a dish. It’s an appetizer with a grown-up peanut curry flavor. It’s a melding of textures, colors and tastes in such harmonious relationship to each other that the recipe could have been written by Mozart.
- Neither sweet nor made of bread, sweetbreads are the ultimate organ meat, highly coveted by skilled chefs and daring connoisseurs alike for their mild yet exotic flavor and velvety texture. Chef Kevin Bladergroen at Blades’ Bistro in Placitas prepares the most rich and delicious veal sweetbreads I have ever had. It’s worth enduring a bout or two with gout for this offal deliciousness.
- In Africa there is nothing more festive than sharing foods. Villagers near and far are called to such festivities by “talking drums.” It’s only appropriate that the Duke City’s first and only African restaurant be named Talking Drums for the method of communication which calls people to eat. One of the dishes which calls loudest is jerk chicken, an assertively piquant poultry dish that, as Emile Lagasse might say, “pops.”
- From Chef Jean-Pierre Gozard’s eponymous Cafe Jean-Pierre in Albuquerque come some of the very best oysters these lips have ever tasted–pearlescent beauties with pronounced flavors of savory-sweet brininess. Having lived outside of New Orleans for almost eight years and having consumed boatloads of oysters should give me a modicum of credibility.
- Cynics and critics alike decry pork belly as “so yesterday.” It’s fortunate, therefore, that Albuquerque tends to be a bit behind the times and trends because in 2012, the Duke City fell in love and lust with the pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce at the Farm & Table restaurant. It’s bacon in its purest and most delicious form, three petite pieces of porcine perfection provide a textural and flavor experience few foods can hope to match.
- If you believe Albuquerque’s Ming Dynasty is solely a dim sum restaurant and haven’t ordered from the day-to-day menu in a while, you owe yourself a visit. Tell Ming you want the shredded duck entree. It’s laden with crisp, fresh vegetables and rich, succulent duck doused in a beauteous brown sauce that has discernible notes of piquancy. It’s one of my very favorite duck dishes in New Mexico or anywhere.
- If you think Jennifer James 101 is an unlikely choice as my top 2012 choice for Mexican-New Mexican inspired cuisine, you haven’t indulged in her fresh corn smut tamale served with a chipotle cream and a roasted corn salsa. Corn smut is, of course, the gnarly, slimy, sometimes gooey, ink-black corn fungus long savored in Mexico. It’s a rare delicacy in New Mexico, but it’s catching on. This tamale is one of the reasons why.
- In its December, 2012 edition Bon Appetit Magazine named the Cemita sandwich one of the top 25 food trends for 2013. There’s only one place in Albuquerque where you can get the Cemita–Chile Rio Mexican Grill. Better yet, Chile Rio offers two variations on the sandwich often called Mexico’s Big Mac or Mexico’s Dagwood Sandwich. Available with Yucatan Chicken or Slow-Roasted Pork Carnitas, I just call it one of my favorites.
- In August, 2008, during a filming of his No Reservations show, the Travel Channel’s indefatigable host Anthony Bourdain proclaimed the enchiladas at the Pepper Pot in Hatch “the best red enchiladas of his life.” It was the green chile enchiladas which ensnared my affections. Now who are you going to trust–me or the best-selling author, culinary adventurer and self-proclaimed hedonist.
- One of my very favorite culinary finds for 2012 is Rey’s Place for whom the terms “hole-in-the-wall” and “mom and pop” truly apply. So do the terms “made-from-scratch” and any synonym for delicious you can think of. Grandma Gloria’s Tacos are among the many Rey’s specialties which captured my heart and expanded my belt line during the year. When Rey’s is no longer a well-kept secret and becomes so crowded you can’t find a seat, you’ll regret you didn’t visit earlier or more often.
- It wouldn’t be an authentic favorites list for me if it didn’t include at least one Vietnamese soup (which dominate my Favorite Soups list). In 2012, the best soup of any genre I slurped to my heart’s content may well be the Pho Sate Kim Long from Kim Long Asian Cuisine. Think bold flavors, soul-warming comfort and uncommon deliciousness. It’s served in a swimming pool-sized bowl. A swimming pool of this pho might not be enough.
- As a snot-nosed kid, I wasn’t as culinarily adventurous as I am now and would turn up my nose at such delicacies as chicken liver. It’s too bad I wasn’t exposed sooner to the sauteed chicken livers “Agre Dolce” with pine nuts, raisins, caramelized onions, vinegar and mashed potatoes from Santa Fe’s Il Piatto. You haven’t lived until you’ve had liver this good.
- Few new restaurants arrived with the fanfare and reputation of Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining which launched in November in the Duke City. If anything, this restaurant exceeded expectations. Even its buffet has earned accolades–not for portion opportunities, but for its high quality. Forgo the buffet and try the Seafood Korma (Scallops, Shrimp, Mahi Mahi, Cashew Cream Sauce). It’s the catch of the day–any day in 2012.
- Quick! What’s New Mexico’s best sandwich? If your answer is “the green chile cheeseburger,” you’re like many New Mexicans who haven’t been sufficiently impressed by any sandwich. You’ll be more than impressed if you visit Mucho Gourmet Sandwich Shop in Santa Fe and order the Southwest Grilled Cheese Sandwich. The Food Network believes it’s our state’s best sandwich. You probably will, too.
You’ll notice that some of my very favorite restaurants–Budai Gourmet Chinese, Mary & Tito’s, Torinos @ Home, Joe’s Pasta House, and The Bobcat Bite aren’t represented on this list even though I did visit every one of them (some several times) in 2012. Those are my stand-bys and they serve some of my favorite dishes of any year. It would have been too easy to name my favorite dishes from these fabulous eateries.