Reading my sisters’ Archie comic books on the sly 30 plus years ago taught me two things. First, it taught me that teenage boys shouldn’t admit to ever reading Archie much less admit to preferring the girl next door Betty over the siren Veronica. Secondly, Archie comics taught me that a “cooper” (as in Betty’s last name) is a barrel-maker. Everything a cooper produces–casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, pipes and more–is referred to collectively as a “cooperage.”
In 1976, a barrel-shaped building called the Cooperage appeared in a Lomas Boulevard area dominated by car dealerships. Armed with knowledge provided by Archie comic books, I impressed those very same friends who had teased me about reading Archie comics by explaining the meaning of this strange building (they thought it had something to do with the Roswell alien invasion). Later on we discovered that the barrel motif encompasses not just the restaurant’s exterior, but the interior as well. Some complain that not only does the restaurant look like a barrel, at times it may sound as if you’re in a barrel. The acoustics aren’t always optimal for quiet dining, particularly on the nights in which live music is provided.
The Cooperage is the brainchild of local restaurant impresario Jim Schumacher who also founded the city’s two Scarpa’s Brick Oven Pizza restaurants (brick-oven pizza, Italian pasta, gourmet salads) and the now defunct seafood emporium Seagull Street. Continuity has been the hallmark of his restaurants. The Cooperage is renowned for its surf and turf menu which features prime rib, steak, chicken lobster, salmon, shrimp, crab legs and even some New Mexican entrees.
It’s also known for having one of the most popular soup and salad bars in town. Available as an all-you-can eat option for one price or at a substantially reduced price for lunch if you have it with an entree (and it’s complimentary for dinner with an entree), it’s replete with fresh ingredients prepared daily on the premises. It’s a salad bar detractors consider an anachronism, a “throwback” belonging to a bygone era. Maybe that’s the idea. The salad bar may not be as eclectic and extensive as some contemporary salad bars, but when you have an occasional yen for the days in which lettuce was synonymous with “iceberg” and salad dressings were thick and creamy, you’ll appreciate the Cooperage’s salad bar offerings. During a visit in 2012, we observed that during our hour-long stay, only one guest did not take advantage of the salad bar option.
If you think the salad dressing line-up–Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Ranch, Italian and French–is also a bit dated, you might be surprised to learn that according to the Food Channel, four of five of these dressings are still among the top ten most popular in the country as of 2019 (only French didn’t make it). The Cooperage’s blue cheese dressing has a very thick viscosity and is redolent with crumbled blue cheese. As with the salad ingredients and even the plates on which your salad is constructed, the salad dressings are cold. Beds of crushed ice surround the steel vessels in which each ingredient and dressing is kept. The selection of soups changes daily, but you can always be assured of a tureen of hot, delicious soup including a green chile chicken soup as good as some New Mexican restaurants make it. It’s not especially piquant, but it’s replete with chunks of chopped chicken (not all white).
In a 2012 episode of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, the voluptuous Mad Men star Christina Hendricks introduced an elimination challenge requiring contestants to prepare proleptic favorites from the 1960s. Chef Floyd Cardoz had the unenviable challenge of preparing an “Ambrosia” salad, a dish he (and most of the other contestants) had never even heard of. Visitors to the Cooperate would know. An Ambrosia salad (a traditional fruit salad made in sweetened whipped cream) is one of the several frothy and colorful salads also available on the salad bar. Also available are a Waldorf salad (apples, mayonnaise, walnuts), a pistachio salad and tapioca.
As advertised, the Cooperage is the place for prime rib, where you can feast on grain fed, Nebraska prime rib served with au jus and creamed horseradish. The prime rib comes in three sizes: a standard cut, the manager’s cut and the gigantic Cooper cut. The best prime rib is richly marbled with fat which lends itself to dry roasting. At the Cooperage, roasting it to perfection means just above medium rare so that the beef’s natural juices have more than a hint of pink. The horseradish is on the mild side. Each entree includes your choice of potato, seasoned rice or steak fries as well as some of the best baked San Francisco sourdough bread in town and of course, trips to the bountiful soup and salad bar.
An interesting variation on the prime rib is a lunch menu smoked prime rib quesadilla which is glazed with chipotle and layered with a blend of Monterrey Jack and Cheddar cheeses and topped with an avocado salsa. We liked that appetizer so much that we’ve actually asked for our prime rib entrees to be prepared with that tongue-tingling chipotle. It’s really not that difficult for the chefs to accommodate that request because the Fresh Salmon Santa Fe entree is prepared with that chipotle glaze. It’s one of the very best salmon entrees in town, but not the only great salmon entree served at the Cooperage.
Another seafood favorite, the Seafood Melt, is available only for lunch. It’s an open-faced croissant sandwich topped with rock shrimp, scallops, surimi crab (an imitation crab which translates literally in Japanese to ground fish) and white wine sauce then covered with Cheddar cheese and topped with avocados and tomatoes. It’s not the type of sandwich will magically transport your taste buds to a seaside coast, but this being Albuquerque, it may remind you the Rio Grande is a few miles away.
Mississippi catfish, both deep-fried and broiled are available. On occasion you might even find blackened catfish. Longtime readers of this blog know of my quest to find a catfish in New Mexico comparable to the catfish in the Magnolia State. None of the Cooperage’s catfish offerings is comparable. Least inspired is the blackened catfish which is direly lacking in the Cajun and Creole seasonings in which it is prepared throughout the Deep South.
Over the years several menu items have proven so popular that an entire section of the menu is dedicated to these favorites. First on that list is the BBQ Bits of Beef, a casserole dish of tender bits of beef in a tangy barbecue sauce. The Cooperage has been serving this dish for 30 years and there appears to be surcease to its popularity. The only thing “casserole” about the BBQ Bits of Beef is the dish in which it is served. Even though the beef is tender and delicious, you may, in fact, find it to be too much of a good thing especially since it is absolutely covered in sauce.
26 September 2019: Six sumptuous sandwiches adorn the lunch menu with another sandwich occasionally making it onto daily special. Such was the case when my friends Bill Resnik and Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver joined me for lunch one unseasonably warm September. Despite the heat, we were jonesing for the cream of mushroom soup, a thick, creamy elixir which sadly wasn’t available. An Italian sandwich (salami, pepperoni, ham, pesto, Provolone, tomato, onion with Italian dressing) made up for it. When you order an “Italian sandwich,” you never quite know exactly what you’re getting until it’s delivered to you. This one is served warm with melted Provolone draped over the meats with a cold Italian dressing dip for contrast. It’s a nice sandwich served with your choice of fries or rice pilaf.
The Cooperage has long been reputed to be one of the best places in the city in which to enjoy Salsa dancing. Music runs Thursday through Sunday night with Latin music the featured fare on Friday and Saturday nights.
7220 Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 September 2019
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# OF VISITS: 9
BEST BET: Prime Rib, Fresh Salmon Santa Fe, Teriyaki Top Sirloin, Soup & Salad Bar, Smoked Prime Rib Quesadillas, Blackened Catfish, Sourdough Bread