Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille in Bernalillo

“Ancient spirits dwell in New Mexico, since before the existence of humanity.”
The Husband: A Novel by Dean Koontz

FROM THE ANCIENT SPIRITS BLOG ON JULY 17:  Due to unforeseen circumstances Ancient Spirits Bar and Grille has had to close its doors. We have lost one of our owner/investors and are searching for someone to take his place. We are hoping that this is only a temporary setback and that we will be able to open back up very soon. Sorry for the inconvenience and thank you for your support.

The presence of ancient spirits is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico.  It’s a presence as palpable as a soft caress or a small, still voice.  You can feel that presence while standing reverently under a canopy of stars when the hushed stillness of an ebony night is punctuated by a gentle breeze.  You can sense those ancient spirits around craggy canyon walls which reach precipitously upwards to cerulean skies.  Contrary to what is popularly postulated, these spirits are earthbound not because of unresolved issues, but because they can’t bear to leave the preternatural beauty of the Land of Enchantment.

Some will call it sacrilege, others will argue it’s a tribute, but in March, 2013, a new restaurant named for those ancient spirits was launched in Bernalillo.  Those who consider it sacrilege should remember that some of those spirits earned their reputations as pranksters, the most famous of which is Kokopelli. Known also as a fertility god, healer and raconteur, the flute-playing Lothario has come to embody what is colorful and fun about the Southwest.  It’s only fitting that effigies of the hunch-backed flutist festoon the Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille.

The main dining room at Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille
The main dining room at Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille

Ancient Spirits is situated to the immediate east of the Santa Ana Star Casino in a capacious edifice owned by the Pueblo of Santa Ana (which is not involved in the operation of the restaurant in any capacity).  Area residents will recognize the complex as having previously housed Capo’s Bottega Ristorante Italiano and before that the Milagro Brewery & Grill.  Perhaps because of the mediocrity of previous tenants, several of my foodie friends were trepidacious about dining at Ancient Spirits, believing it would be more of the same.

Any trepidation or uncertainty we may have felt ourselves quickly dissipated when we ran into executive chef Enrique Guerrero, one of the most accomplished and personable chefs in the Land of Enchantment. Chef Guerrero has a very impressive culinary pedigree that includes having served for more than four years as personal chef for Mexican President Carlos Salinas. During that stint, he had the privilege of having prepared state dinners for Pope John Paul, II as well as President George H.W. Bush.

Cowgirl Quesadilla with Sweet Potato Fries
Cowgirl Quesadilla with Sweet Potato Fries

In New Mexico, Chef Guerrero presided over the kitchens of some of most highly acclaimed restaurants during their halcyon periods, including the now defunct La Mancha at Galisteo Inn when it garnered recognition from Bon Appetit as among “ten of our favorite dining spots in vacation destinations around the country.” Under his watch, La Mancha was also named by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the nation’s 26 “Hot Tables.” More recently, Chef Guerrero was the founding chef for both the O Eating House in Pojoaque and Mangiamo Pronto in Santa Fe.

Chef Guerrero could not have selected a more inviting milieu in which to ply his considerable talents. Ancient Spirits is a very attractive, very well laid-out establishment with a sprawling patio providing awe-inspiring views of the bosque and Sandias. Blonde wood floors, massive floor to ceiling vigas and kiva fireplaces adorn the main dining room. Oneophiles will appreciate the separate bottle room in which they can select from among different wines. Plans are also in motion to relaunch the brewery operation.

Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada
Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada

Ancient Spirits is described on its Facebook page as a “Southwest Steakhouse,” which offers an eclectic array of food styles: American (new), Mexican, sandwiches, seafood, Southern, steakhouse and vegetarian. You can trust that Chef Guerrero will infuse unique and innovative touches–sometimes with a bit of whimsy, sometimes with a bit of sophistication, but always with a delicious actualization of flavors in each dish.

Surprisingly the lunch menu doesn’t list appetizers unless you consider the four taquitos on the “taquito divertido” menu as starters.  Divertido, a Spanish word which translates to “fun or enjoyable” makes sense.  The lunch menu also includes four “from the garden” salads and a taquito soup.  The sixteen item Platos De Almuerzo (lunch plates) menu features New Mexican entrees, burgers, a petite steak, red chile battered Alaskan cod, quesadilla and sandwiches.  Several, but not all, of the Mexican and New Mexican items are prepared with cumin.  The lunch menu features thirteen entrees south of ten dollars.

New Mexico Cheese Steak with Fries

Though it’s on the Platos de Almuerzo menu, the Cowgirl Quesadilla makes a very good appetizer.  As quesadillas go, this one is more appetizer sized than it is entree portioned.  It’s one of the more creative quesadillas in the Albuquerque area with two  pinto pony color charred flour tortillas stuffed with bleu and asadero cheeses, fresh apple slices and spicy pecans.  An apricot-habanero glaze is drizzled on the tortillas.  The contrasting flavors of the ingredients, especially the bleu cheese and the apple slices, go very well together as do the textural differences of pecans and soft asadero cheese.

The New Mexican entrees proudly showcase New Mexico chile.  The slow-roasted turkey enchilada plate is served with your choice of Chimayo red chile or Hatch green chile, both of which exemplify what it is we all love about our state’s official state vegetable.  The Chimayo red chile has a rich, earthy flavor and a notable piquancy.  The green chile will also bite you back and has a fresh, fruity flavor.  The enchiladas are served flat, the preferred way in Northern New Mexico and they’re served with house rice and black beans.

Apple Pie Tamal with Cinnamon Ice Cream.  (Chocolate and Cajeta Ice Cream also Pictured)

Move over Philadelphia cheese steak.  The New Mexico cheese steak (beef tenderloin tips, roasted bell peppers, New Mexico green chile, Cheddar cheese) will make even the most devout of Philly transplants forget “wiz wit” (“with cheese whiz, “wit” onions).  While green chile isn’t a novelty on cheese steak sandwiches, Ancient Spirits pulls no punches because it dresses this sandwich with a chile you can respect.  It’s green chile with heat as well as flavor.  Great as the chile is, you’ll come away remembering and perhaps pining for another bite of the beef tenderloin tips.  If they’re indicative of the quality of the restaurant’s steaks, we’ll be trying those soon. 

Six dessert offerings, in addition to the house ice cream selection, are available to crown your meal.  The desserts are as creative (i.e., jalapeño cheesecake) as many of the entrees.  Perhaps the most imaginative dessert is the apple pie tamal (apple pie, moonshine crema)  Sheathed within singed corn husks are apple pie filling inside a cinnamon crust served with cinnamon ice cream.  As interesting as this dessert is, my preference would have been for masa with a pronounced corn flavor to go with the sweet apples. 

Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread (Smoked Local Tomatoes, Caramelized Onions, New Mexico Goat Cheese)
Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread (Smoked Local Tomatoes, Caramelized Onions, New Mexico Goat Cheese)

SECOND VISIT – 11 APRIL 2013:  The beef tenderloin tips on the New Mexico Cheese Steak made such an impression on us that we knew we’d return in short order to try the steak.  Any restaurant which calls itself a “Southwest Steakhouse,” especially a restaurant in which Chef Enrique Guerrero presides over the kitchen certainly must know its steak.  The grill menu offers eight tempting entrees, not limited to steak.  You can also order barbecue pork ribs, a three-quarter pound burger (with pork belly, among other ingredients), two smaller (a meager eight-ounces) burgers and a twelve-ounce pork chop. 

Much as we might have wanted to attack a steak the moment we pulled up to the parking lot, other items on the menu beckon “try me first.”  One such item is slow-baked Cowboy Bread served with a sweet house butter.  There are five breads from which to choose, each one baked individually at ten minutes baking time and each one seemingly more creative than the other.  Our choice included smoked local tomatoes, caramelized onions and New Mexico goat cheese.  The bread arrives at your table in a too-hot-to-the-touch cast iron baking pan (which could probably have used a bit of baking spray to prevent the bread from sticking to the pan).  It’s a very good bread which would have been even better had we been able to extricate it wholly from the pan.

Taquito Soup (Tomato Broth, Avocado, Charred Corn, Pulled Chicken, Cheese Taquito, Crema
Taquito Soup (Tomato Broth, Avocado, Charred Corn, Pulled Chicken, Cheese Taquito, Crema

Another starter not to be missed is the aptly named Taquito soup, a beautiful expression of flavor and texture in a flying saucer sized bowl.  The basis for this excellent elixir is a nicely seasoned and rich tomato broth in which you’ll find unctuous avocado, charred corn, pulled chicken, crema and a cheese taquito.  The cheese taquito is a very pleasant surprise texturally in that it retains just a bit of a crispy crunch.  The soup is served warm (not hot) and its portion size isn’t really substantial enough for sharing (not that you’d want to).  Those are the two minuses for an otherwise terrific soup.

In the 70s, “stacking” food was a gourmet restaurant trend that lingers on and on.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  In the latter category is the Ancient Spirits bone-in center-cut rib eye entree nestled atop potato puree and topped with a chile relleno and charred tomato sauce.  The reason stacking this entree didn’t work for us is that the chile relleno erupted its molten cheesy innards all over the steak.  Grrrrr!  Even after scraping away the gooey, cheesy and charred tomato mess, their residual flavors remained imprinted on the steak.  What might otherwise have been an excellent steak was diminished.  The steak is thick, juicy and it’s prepared to your exacting specifications.  Should we order it again, the sides will be on the side.

Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye (16-ounce hand-cut bone-in rib eye, chile relleno, charred tomato sauce, mashed potatoes
Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye (16-ounce hand-cut bone-in rib eye, chile relleno, charred tomato sauce, potato puree

THIRD VISIT – 27 June 2013:  In his near-obsessive quest to find the best non-fried chicken in the Duke City area, my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver has devoured several chicken coops worth of rotisserie chicken, roasted chicken, chicken al carbon, barbecue chicken, baked chicken and chicken made in ways of which the Colonel never conceived.  He’s got a phalanx of poultry loving people providing feedback on chicken dishes he hasn’t yet sampled.  When someone recommended the iron skillet roasted chicken at Ancient Spirits, he took it in the spirit that “all feedback is a gift,” forgetting that fellow foodie Bruce Schor had found the penurious portions of the chicken to be just one of the things he didn’t like about it.

The menu describes the iron skillet roasted chicken as half a chicken marinated in cardamom and Ancho chile.  The term marinade implies “before cooking,” but the marinade appeared to have been applied after-the-fact.  Instead of marinated, the chicken had a slathered-on feel with marinade ingredients not penetrating much below the surface.  The marinade itself is wholly unnecessary and any cardamom influence is obfuscated by a  chile which completely dominated any roasting flavor profile.  The chicken is served with roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables and fresh avocado.

Iron Skillet Roasted Chicken

Much better than the chicken are the Ancient Spirit burgers. The Cowboy Deluxe Burger, a beefy behemoth topping the scales at eight ounces and topped with onion rings, bacon, Cheddar and Oooo Eee barbecue sauce (did Bob of the Village People name that?) is a stellar burger–and it would be even better sans onion rings–or at least onion rings not so heavily breaded.  As effective a desiccant as you’ll find anywhere, onion rings on a burger are a mistake which will make you wish for more of the Oooo Eee sauce or at the least, grilled onions.  At medium, the beef is perfect.  The bun is solid and formidable enough to hold up against all the moist ingredients.  Burgers are served with your choice of regular or sweet potato fries.

Cowboy Deluxe Burger

The ancient spirits who inhabit the Land of Enchantment have one more reason to remain earthbound–a delightful bar and grille named for them with a chef who prepares preternaturally good food.

Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille
1016 West Highway 550
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 June 2013
1st VISIT:  6 April 2013
COST: $$-$$$
BEST BET: Cowgirl Quesadilla, Slow Roasted Turkey Enchilada, New Mexico Cheese Steak, Apple Pie Tamal, Slow-Baked Cowboy Bread, Taquito Soup, New York Strip, Bone-In Center-Cut Rib Eye

Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon

10 thoughts on “Ancient Spirits Bar & Grille – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

  1. OMG Brooklynn Bruce! A Memory like an…er… elephant (no offense). Ya WOWed me! as even I would’ve missed a couple!
    Sorry delayed in responding…Some of us here in the Village of all places, lost elec last night!I was also delayed being WOWed by envisioning a bevy of Linda Wannabees running around my restaurant. Eh! I’ll admit it, you do have great ideas…once in awhile.

    Your big chance has arrived in the form of Ancient Spirit’s demise.
    You can now put to good use all those suggestions sent along to all those restaurants.
    Price breaks 24/7.
    Lobstah rolls for a buck.
    Ambiance so thick you can actually eat it.
    I’ll be on line at the opening.
    I’m excited for you, and for the foodies all over Albuquerque.
    Dozens of LBeaver wannabes serving the food.
    Single senoritas serving iced cold margaritas.
    Wednesday can certainly be Prince spaghetti day.
    Go for it Bob.
    I’m behind you the entire journey.
    Way behind.
    Good luck!

  3. Heehola! So Sad! Not even a Velorio!!!??? While I know ‘Food IS the Thing!” this place is such a nice setting inside and out. Where is Rudolfo Anaya or Tony Hillerman when ya need ‘em? Is there a hex/whatever that a Santa Ana Shaman or a Curandera of El Camino Real or a padre from SF can help with? Indeed, realistically ya just can’t open another eatery of New Mexican Yum Yums and expect people to burn gas driving up therein and especially when many Locals sit empty down here! On the other hand, can you explore mixing Traditional recipes with those of one’s culinary ‘bent’ to explore, in just the right balance to be unique while traditional and enchant people to Come-on-Up!!!!! Indeed, it is a tough adventure! Gracias to those who try! Tenga mucho Cuidado! to others who will try!

  4. Closed!
    Wanted to try their lunch menu yesterday.
    Suggested it to friends who told me it had closed, most likely while I was away traveling.
    Supposedly a big investor pulled out.
    Too bad, it’s a nice location with potential.
    But it comes down to food, the price of that food, the preparation of the food, service, followed by food again.

  5. Bruce to Bruce,
    I see that your experience at Ancient Spirits mirrors my visit re the 1/2 chicken and the bread.
    My personal preference in terms of waitstaff is simple, like children they should be seen and not heard until needed.
    Not overly friendly, no touching (I’m a customer, not a long lost Army buddy) and knowledgable about the menu and food preparation, in other words professional demeanor.
    My hope for AS is that they rethink the things that don’t work, slim down their menu, add a few more none meat dishes.
    I think perhaps they are trying too hard to be something that is just not that easy to be, a clubby type steak house and bar scene. You can’t eat atmosphere or service, but yes they add to the overall experience, but it’s really about the food. the food has to be number one.
    I want as many good restaurant to choose from as possible, I just hope the on the job training period is over soon.

  6. Came with Sensei for lunch but ordered the grilled chicken off the dinner menu hearing it was awesome. I had issues with it, will describe later, but first very very impressed with both servers that were there today where I was not happy with my meal and said so when they asked. They immediately took the meal off the check; so very impressed with their management! Now, the issues were 1) Chicken pieces not large enough for a 1/2 chicken, 2) Rather not have have the Red Chile sauce slathered on top; would have been better left alone and grilled crispy, 3) Expected there would be bread served with the dinner, but alas there was none; I could have purchased bread from the menu but I don’t do that 4) Needs more of everything including the grilled vegetables & potatoes as it didn’t seem like a dinner meal. I am glad we gave real-time feedback. The servers told me they were glad as most don’t and if they don’t know, they can’t change… thus why restaurant owners need to read their city food blog like Gil’s! Sensei had a burger and sweet potato fries and they both looked great (and seemed more food on the lunch menu than my dinner item).

  7. My wife and I had dinner at Ancient Spirits last night.
    I wasn’t in the mood for red meat and that immediately put me at a disadvantage, their menu is loaded with steaks and burgers.
    We started with drinks ($11.50 for a gin and tonic made with Hendricks gin) and their blue corn crusted calamari.
    I have never NOT been disappointed with the fried calamari version served in the Albuquerque area. It’s almost always calamari “strips”. Having just returned from a vacation in Europe that ended in Italy I had calamari from the source and perhaps that affected my judgement but strips just don’t cut it.
    I like the tentacles and the rings cut from the tube body and they are delicate enough they don’t require the deep frying with heavy crusts. As a matter of fact they need a light dusting of flour and quick sauteing. The very thick (1/4 inch) strips at Ancient Spirits are just not very good and when coated with all that blue corn crusting the need too much frying.
    My wife opted for a trio of tacos only after being assured they were not too spicy because the chef “only uses the chili spices for flavor not heat”. I can only imaging how hot it would have been if he used it for “heat”.
    I did try her tacos and I thought they were pretty good and spicy, the best being the fish and the least favorite was the pork with apricot sauce and the sauce won the flavor battle.
    Now onto my main dish, skillet roasted 1/2 chicken. It was a strange half of the chicken which until yesterday I would have thought included breast, leg and thigh but seemed to be missing the breast. It was also over cooked and dry and since I’m not a fan of fingerling potatoes they were a disappointment. The mixed veggies were pedestrian at best.
    No bread unless you bought it………..
    I decided on the jalapeño cheese cake almost as a challenge after our wait person said,” OK, but hold onto your seat” inferring that the heat was on the “hold onto your seat” level.
    There was literally no heat forthcoming and the cheese cake was gritty not smooth.
    I prefer more of a NY cheesecake texture and this was like chewing sand.
    My drink at $11.50 comprised 20 % of my total bill and that seemed like a lot.
    Friends have recommended Ancient Spirits extolling the burgers for lunch. Maybe that was my mistake thinking they do everything well.
    I’ll go back for lunch one day sooner than later and I’ll be in a burger mood.
    The service was attentive, friendly, timely for the most part. The waitperson was there to “help us”.
    The interior was a bit dark at certain tables. I had to change seats to be able to see my food. There was music and it was a bit noisy with all the hard surfaces.
    Ancient Spirits seems to be hoping to be a nightly bar scene but that is going to be difficult in this area which seems to roll up the sidewalks at around 9:30 to 10:00PM.

  8. My wife and I dined there last night with friends and we are pleased to report 4 thumbs up!
    The food was excellent, offering delightful surprises on familiar dishes. Everyone found something to rave about for each of our selections. The slow baked Cowboy Bread (as reviewed by Gil) was an excellent starter and they must have taken your advice as we had no issues removing our shared portions from the pan!
    We found the service level to be above average for such a new restaurant, earning extra credit for keeping our water glasses filled and us informed on the status of our appetizers and entree’s.

    My only criticism is minor – regarding the bar service. A list describing the specials would be helpful. Also our small group was interested in margaritas – and the 3 specials as described by the server all included the ingredient coconut. I opted for a house margarita (sans coconut) and would have preferred it to be served in something other than a pint beer glass.

    All in all it was a nice evening out and we look forward to a return visit!

  9. Hopefully, Ancient Spirits will become another reason to enjoy taking St. Rd. 313 (which, if you’ve never taken it) extends north from the ‘end’ of 4th as part of old Camino Real when driving out to Blade’s Bistro, The (original) Range, etc. as a way of ‘winding down’ from the Big City life here in ABQ.
    Alas, a bit of nostalgia may creep in for Los Viejos, Los Anasazis, by passing the former convent when it later became home to a restaurant for ‘dining’ (’69?) within its Southwestern architectuaral ambiance, i.e. across from the Church and wine festival locale. Turning west on 550, I was taken aback by increasingly closed businesses and the sprouting up of more neon ala fast food places.
    Alas, it was reassuring turning into the ‘compound’ of Ancient Spirits, but a bit eerie per the sparsely filled parking lot given it being Cinco de Mayo!!! That and some bad-press on some other blogs, tempered my ordering The Filet for 25 bucks. Nevertheless, I ordered a favorite of mine, “Rellenos” and, well, a Margarita from a cordial, welcoming ETOH ‘Barista’ …Hola! its Cinco!!!
    Whoa…Los Rellenos were artfully presented like I’ve never seen…i.e. set in a bed of black beans on a square plate! This is not your Sadie’s green chiles…they not be stuffed with cheese drowning in green chile, con extra onions (which I request). Per the menu: “Tamal Stuffing Chile Relleno: Pablano Pepper, Black Beans, House Rice,Charred Tomato Sauce”, I have to leave it to the more discriminating palates to discern what they are stuffed with as it is not Toto, your typical cheese, but a mixture of something else, i.e. I can’t find a separate def for Tamal vs Tamale. Bottom line, it is an interesting and tasty change of pace and, like I said, not what I’ve found in most places…LOL
    Otherwise, while the guitar duo was playing music that was not particularly my genre, they, after overcoming the shock of being asked for musica of yore (which I first heard in the early ‘70s)…LOL, most graciously honored my request which I thought was needed for a dreary Cinco… LOL… per El Mosquito
    Indeed, Cinco was a dreary, overcast day which left the magnificent view of the Sandias quite colorless. Nevertheless, the striking ambiance of Ancient Spirits per its wood floors, ceilings of vigas/latillas, kiva like fireplaces, partial adobe walls to break up the airy spaciousness of the dining areas brought about its own Enchantment we all know as New Mexican. Lo that I could, this would be the alternative ambiance I’d have for my own gracious fine dining experience.
    If that is not enough, toodle on out there as the weather warms and the sun sets, for what I anticipate as a place Grande: their patio… to sip Margaritas and soak up the Sandias per their ‘power’. (Hopefully, Ancient Spirits will comp some salsa with, if not chips, some Fry Bread in the Spirit of Welcome to The Pueblo ala Santa Ana!!!!

  10. The missus and I had lunch at Ancient Spirits today and enjoyed it greatly. They had the good sense to leave the previous lovely interior untouched – very nice atmosphere. The service was friendly and flawless. The kitchen was very fast. My slow cooked turkey enchilada had just the right amount of bite with no aftertaste, but a lingering warmth found in good chile. Even the trimmings were upscale, tasty white rice with a little corn, well cooked black beans and a nice garnish of romaine and good tomato. None of that god-awful shredded iceberg lettuce, cardboard tomato and shredded cheddar that you see even in good NM restaurants. My wife enjoyed her cowgirl quesadilla (cheese, apples, pecans and a light chile glaze) with sweet potato fries. Our dishes were $9.99 including a soft drink. We are definitely coming back!

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