Armed with Andrea Lin’s terrific Duke City Fix review of the El Bandido restaurant on Central, we set off on a Friday night to visit a branch of a restaurant at which we hadn’t dined since 1999. El Bandido Hideaway del Valle, we figured was affiliated with the Central Avenue restaurant renown for its creative advertising (stationing a sign carrying man wearing a Mexican wrestling mask on the busy median). Alas, while the affiliation no longer exists, the North Valley restaurant’s name remains unchanged. That, as it turns out, was perfectly okay because we uncovered a real find.
Some people have a passion for their culinary craft. Not all of them have the opportunity or desire to ply their craft to quasi-celebrity status at restaurants anointed by reviewers as the places to dine. In Javier Rocha we uncovered just such an artist. A chef for more than 15 years, Javier attended to us personally while simultaneously feeding a room full of boisterous barflies. Thankfully the dining room was segregated from the combination dance hall and bar area in which a mostly Latino crowd grew increasingly louder as the evening wore on and the alcohol exerted its influence.
Chef Rocha is a perfectionist, but in this milieu, he’s like a Michelangelo extracting alchemy out of marble at a flea market. Rocha’s marble equivalent is in the ingredients he uses. He cuts his own sirloin steak himself, a choice cut aged for 21 days before serving. His salads feature Romaine lettuce, not only because iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value, but because he wants his salads to be a cut above. He creates his own vinaigrette dressings, using olive oil instead of the more traditional vegetable oils other restaurants use.
You won’t find pre-formed patties on his hamburgers; he uses only fresh ground beef which he shapes himself. Give him two days notice, he says, and he can prepare anything you want, even sushi. Despite his prodigious talents in the kitchen, his menu is somewhat limited given his clientele and the restaurant’s location. When we found out this Bandido had no ties to the Central Avenue location, Rocha told us confidently that our meals would be free if we didn’t like what he served. No surprise to him, we liked everything.
Start your meal with his salsa and chips and you’ll gain an immediate appreciation for his skill. The pico del gallo-like salsa marries tomato, white onion, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro and lime, a union of fresh ingredients which resonate with taste. The chips were warm and crispy with just the right amount of salt. The salads include fresh tomato, thinly sliced carrots and your choice of dressing (ask for the cilantro vinaigrette). I don’t usually order or like chimichangas, but Rocha talked me into it with his passionate description of what turned out to be one of the best chimis I’ve had. A fried tortilla encased shredded beef, Romaine lettuce, beans, yellow onions (for their sweetness) and tomatoes, a combination which sprung to life on my taste buds. Kim had carne asada which was tender, well seasoned and absolutely delicious.
Chef Rocha appears perfectly happy to ply his craft simply and without fanfare and while it’s unlikely he’ll gain the celebrity accorded other chefs, he’s got the talent to compete and that seems to be enough for him.
El Bandido Hideaway Del Valle
1119 Candelaria, NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 June 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Salsa; Carne Asada; Chimichanga