I don’t know if there’s any veracity to the adage “don’t trust a skinny chef,” but one thing is for certain. Albuquerque has been trusting a very grumpy chef to prepare excellent meals for more than a quarter century. That grumpy chef is the irascible Barry Schuster, serving great cuisine in Albuquerque since 1979.
One of the first things you see when you walk into the restaurant is a caricature of a somewhat younger Barry. Scrawled below his countenance are the words “grumpy chef.” Barry cultivates the image of a surly curmudgeon, but underneath that gruff exterior lies a heart of gold, a hospitality professional who wanders from the kitchen to check in on his guests and engage them in discourse. He continues to come to work day-after-day instead of enjoying a well-deserved retirement.
Okay, maybe he’s not exactly an avuncular fellow, but he really does care that his patrons enjoy their dining experiences at his eponymous restaurant. He’s got a great sense of humor and his witty repartee will enhance your experience. The banter between Barry and his nearly as churlish waiter Richard Lopez is particularly entertaining. Richard has been with Barry for more than a decade. The two of them are the heart and soul of the restaurant.
Originally from New York (where he once cooked for a Chinese restaurant), Barry can cook anything and, in fact, honed his craft in advanced courses at the prestigious Cordon Bleu, a culinary school of worldwide repute. His staff brags about his prowess with New Mexican food and his restaurant’s menu features the cuisine of the Mediterranean region–Spain, France, Italy, Greece and for good measure, some Middle East countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.
Barry moved to Albuquerque in 1978 so he could play golf year round. He launched the “Sizzling Oasis” a year later in an edifice which previously house an A&W Root Beer restaurant. Barry dropped the “Sizzling” in 1982 (so as not to be mistaken for a middling quality chain steak restaurant) and changed the restaurant’s name to “Barry’s Oasis” when he moved to a San Mateo location in which his restaurant would stay for the next 20 years.
In October, 2002, the restaurant moved to its current location on Osuna at the intersection of I-25 and Osuna (Exit 230). Barry owns both the property in which the restaurant is situated and the steel building in which it is housed. You can’t miss Barry’s Oasis. For one thing, it’s one of the few buildings on the northwest corner of the intersection. Secondly, two painted palm trees on the restaurant’s east-facing wall seem so out-of-place in an overkill adobe facade city. Look closely at the bluish-gray stucco and you’ll see it was applied in a seashell-shaped pattern.
The tropical theme (or at least the palm trees) continues inside the restaurant. The high-ceilinged dining room is awash in color, particularly of the Mediterranean. Greek style balconies, one of which features a rooster looking downward, are replete with potted plants. Large canvas umbrellas are suspended over tables on the restaurant’s north side in a fashion similar to Parisian outdoor cafes.
Still other canvas umbrellas are suspended upside down from the high ceiling. While decorative, these umbrellas are also utilitarian, functioning to mute the lighting. Cafe lights are also strung from the ceiling and are turned down low at night to provide the illusion of out-of-doors nighttime in a Cosmopolitan European city. Seagulls flying overhead continue the seaside theme.
The restaurant’s menu includes a glossary of sorts, defining and describing the various cuisines of the Mediterranean region. The glossary also explains that though meals had long been served in taverns, coffee houses and cook shops, the first place designated a “restaurant” was the Champ d’ Oiseau which opened in Paris in 1765.
At the entrance to the first restaurant in Paris was inscribed the Latin motto “Venite ad me, omne qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabor vos” which translates to “Come to me, anybody whose stomach growls, and I will sustain you,” a creative derivative of Matthew 11:28-30 (Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”)
That motto (not the one from Matthew) could well apply to Barry’s Oasis. Because the portions are reasonably sized (as opposed to the gargantuan portions you find in nearly every other restaurant in town) you’ll leave Barry’s with a contented…and yes, fully sustained (but not bloated) and happy stomach.
There are more than 30 items on the menu in addition to international beers and wines. Barry’s dessert offerings are also not to be missed as you traverse through the tastes of the Mediterranean. For the culinarily unadventurous, a section of American entrees is also sure to please.
While the menu certainly resonates “fine dining,” the atmosphere is casual. Barry wants his patrons to dress comfortably so they can enjoy their repast.
That enjoyment might start with the Oasis Appetizer Plate, an assemblage of various starters from Greece and the Middle East. This platter can be ordered for two or for three diners and while big enough to share, isn’t quite substantial enough to make a meal for one.
The sampler includes spanakopita (a spinach pie with a baked phyllo dough crust) dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), falafel (deep-fried balls of ground, spicy chickpeas), garlicky hommus spread on pita bread with feta cheese and Greek olives for good measure. Alternatively you can have an appetizer of garlic and lemon kissed homous with pita.
The hummus is fabulous, especially if you like garlic. Still, this portion of the appetizer could be improved if it were only spread even thicker on the room-temperature pita. The spanakopita is light, flaky and absolutely delicious. There’s also no doubt that the falafel is the best seasoned, best tasting falafel in town with a taste that sings.
Proof of Barry’s genius with New Mexican food is evident in one of the most popular lunch entrees, green chile gyros. These are wholly unlike the gyros you find at some Greek restaurants in town, some of which use pre-roasted, pre-cut, thinly-sliced meat so dry that only the saturation of tzatziki sauce can moisten it. Barry shaves the lean blend of beef and lamb amalgam in thick slices from the gyros spit in his kitchen–much more thickly than any other gyros meat we’ve ever had. He also seasons that beef amalgam very well. The thick, juicy, well-seasoned meat is sensational on its own, but it doesn’t stop there at Barry’s.
Also unlike other gyros, Barry doesn’t stuff the meat into a pita pocket. Instead, he tops “Olympic bread” (a pita without a pocket) with the thickly sliced meat, lettuce, tomatoes and some of the best green chile you’ll find anywhere. It’s got a nice bite and a terrific flavor, the type of which leave a tangy, happy sensation on your taste buds. You might never go back to the sandwich type gyro again.
Not even the Gyros plate is served sandwich style. Instead, a generous amount of Barry’s lean blend of lamb and beef seasoned to flavorful perfection with savory Mediterranean spices is spit-roasted then sliced thickly and piled atop moist, flavorful rice pilaf and served with two slices of Olympic bread and tzatziki sauce. The meat is thoroughly delicious and moist, probably the best gyros meat in town.
Among the most popular entrees at Barry’s Oasis is the Seafood Crepes, a wonderfully unctuous French dish rich in flavor. This dish features two crepes filled with a medley of seafood (scallops, shrimp, crab) in a creamy cheese filling topped with melted Muenster cheese. Did I mention this dish is cheesy? It is served with a side of savory rice pilaf. The recipe for this dish was requested by the editors of Gourmet magazine no less. Barry turned them down which means only Duke City diners can partake of its unique deliciousness.
One of the highlights of the Greek portion of the menu is the Greek Shrimp entree, shrimp sautéed in ouzo (a clear, anise-flavored liqueur from Greece) then covered in a savory/sweet tomato sauce, topped with feta cheese and baked until golden brown. The shrimp are redolent with the briny sweetness of freshly caught shrimp while the tomato sauce is better than any marinara sauce we can think of. This is a winner.
When offered as a nightly special, the Greek steak does indeed earn the special designation. This steak can be cut with the standard table knife and is as delicious and moist as it is tender. It is served with twice-baked (to perfection) potato
One of the best selections on the Italian portion of the menu is lamb and feta lasagna, a unique twist to a popular favorite done in Barry’s inimitable style. Barry layers ground lamb and feta cheese in between flat pasta then covers it in his incomparable marinara sauce. The marinara sauce is applied lightly so that it complements the other ingredients.
Desserts include baklava (both in traditional form and as baklava fingers) and a phalanx of other decadent treats Barry himself concocts. The French inspired Banana Crepes are an excellent option. A single crepe, served warm, is stuffed with mashed bananas in the prime of their flavorful best and served with a heaping heart-shaped portion of coffee ice cream.
Close your eyes when you slide your first spoonful of Barry’s chocolate bread pudding into your mouth and let the flavors take over. It’s like eating what a smooth tune by Lou Rawls might taste like–rich, comforting and oh so good. Made with Bailey’s Irish cream and topped with a heart-shaped slab of vanilla ice cream, it is some of the best bread pudding you’ll have anywhere. My friend Larry McGoldrick calls it a slice of heaven.
True to its name, Barry’s Oasis is a culinary oasis in a relatively isolated area of the desert. Don’t fear the chef because of his grumpy disposition. We should all be so cantankerous.
4451 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Greek Shrimp, Seafood Crepes, Oasis Appetizer Plate, Chateaubriand, Banana Crepe, Green Chile Gyros, Bread Pudding, Baklava Fingers