One of the best examples of the dichotomy of human nature can be illustrated in the way we react to lizards. The mere sight of a lizard scurrying around can send shivers down the spine of otherwise reasonable and intrepid people. Many of us are repulsed or frightened in the presence of any slithering reptile. In Tripoli the sight of a lizard is held to cause women to bear speckled children. To others, however, lizards are a portend of good luck, a source of entertainment and a symbol of plenty. Biographies written by several former prisoners of war in Vietnam recount being entertained by the scampering of geckos. Throughout the Mediterranean, the lizard is fondly regarded as an old family friend.
In Manhattan’s bustling Madison Avenue, long metonymous with the American advertising industry, the gecko is viewed as a wildly popular success story. Since the GEICO gecko made its debut in the Millennium year, it has been an advertising icon and one of America’s favorite anthropomorphic characters. The gecko’s sense of humor, affability and selfless nature (exemplified by his desire to help people find the best values in insurance) endear him to children of all ages and reinforces the advertising notion that animal images create strong ties between customers and companies.
That notion certainly wasn’t lost on former Duke City restaurateur Mark Zanoni who changed the name of his popular bar and restaurant from Chez What to Gecko’s Gallery and Grill in the mid-1990s, predating the world-famous GEICO gecko by about half a decade. The original Gecko’s menu featured pasta, pizza, burgers, appetizers and some of the city’s best Buffalo chicken wings. It wasn’t until Chef Jay Wulf created the original tapas menu–complete with a conceptual rename to Gecko’s a Bar & Tapas–that the restaurant began its ascent into greatness. Chef Todd Lovell succeeded Wulf, building on and improving the concept. Gecko’s came to be recognized as one of the city’s first gastropubs.
Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices. Until recent years, mentioning bar food in America has conjured images of dank, dark, smoky and loud watering holes serving greasy, tasteless food you have to be four sheets to the wind to consume. Not so at Gecko’s, where an imaginative menu of upscale comfort food favorites and exceptionally well done traditional bar appetizers became a major draw to Nob Hill.
The second instantiation of Gecko’s launched in the far Northeast Heights (5801 Academy Road, N.E.) in December, 2006. At first glance, the new Gecko’s (where all the pictures on this review were taken) looks as if it should be called “The Bijou” or something cinematic. It’s a colorful antithesis of the Nob Hill location in many ways. Aside from its gaudy polychrome facade, the exterior frontage includes an anthropomorphic gecko (a true lounge lizard) performing a champagne toast. The gecko closely resembles the British accented GEICO gecko (say that five times fast).
The original Gecko’s might not be the type of pub David Frizell had in mind when he penned the lyrics to his country hit “I’m going to hire a wino to decorate our home.” Several tastefully done and colorful murals by famed local muralist Karen Deaton festoon the South-facing wall. One mural, “Deviled Eggs at Gecko’s” depicts happy hour patrons at Gecko’s enjoying tapas and spirits. Another “Who Left the Curtain Open” shows the serving staff unwinding (in various states of undress including one “cheeky” waitress with a gecko tatoo) after a busy shift at Gecko’s.
The interior of the new Gecko’s isn’t nearly as dark as the original. It’s ultra-modern with none of the dark woods so prevalent in the founding restaurant. It’s got a mural, too, albeit one of a seaside cityscape in which two geckos dance under a starry, moonlit sky. Smoking is no longer permitted at either Gecko’s location, though the malodorous ghost of cigarettes past is faintly noticeable at the original which had years’ worth of a head start for the odoriferous emanations to penetrate.
Gecko’s specialty remains tapas, the ubiquitous small snacks most people associate with Spain. Gecko’s menu explains that tapas represent a dining philosophy where small plates of small appetizers are to be shared amongst friends and family in a relaxed fashion. Talented chefs transform simple ingredients into elaborate creations that with a few, can make a meal in themselves. The tapas menu changes periodically which may be a good thing in that you get variety, but may be a downer if you get too attached to some of the great little plates which might not make it back into the “rotation” for a while. Many of them are served with sauces obviously inspired by genius tempered with experience and creativity.
The shrimp and cabbage spring rolls, for example, are served with a hot, sour and sweet soy dipping sauce that while not Asian created, are inspired by the spirit and taste of Asia. They are better than 95% of the spring rolls served in Albuquerque’s Asian restaurants, many of which only hint at shrimp, but which are mostly cabbage. Ditto for the tempura chicken skewers accompanied by a fiery chipotle cherry barbecue sauce that melds sweet, savory and piquant flavors to create a sensational taste sensation. Tempura lightly sheathes the chicken so that it’s poultry you taste, not batter. Similarly the sauce complements the chicken instead of making it taste like candied chicken. Another A+ appetizer is the jerk spiced pork short ribs smothered with a smoky barbecue queso sauce–again, a pairing of seemingly disparate tastes that work exceptionally well together…and who but a creative genius might pair smoked kielbasa with a twany port reduction to form perhaps a sausage dish you might find to be the best of its kind in the Duke City.
It’s not just tapas at which Gecko’s excels. The “bar apps” (referred to as the “ol’ standby” on the menu) include thinly-sliced and lightly spiced buttermilk onion rings which are most assuredly among the very best in town. If chile con queso is what you crave, Gecko’s treats you to an extraordinary creation of chorizo blue cheese queso, perhaps the best in town of that genre. We’ve tried to duplicate some of Gecko’s masterpieces but have fallen consistently short.
Not surprisingly, Gecko’s also serves some of the best soups in town, including a rich and savory green chile chicken stew and a flavorful red chile clam chowder. While the green chile stew is standard daily fare, the chowders are rotated daily. Just how good are the soups at Gecko’s? Look above you as you walk in to the Academy restaurant and you’ll see three Souper Bowl awards including a third place award in 2012 for a sumptuous fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder. Gecko’s has also been recognized by Local IQ readers as the best place in Albuquerque to take your dogs.
The one sandwich we’ve ordered more often than any other is Gecko’s Triple Decker BLT. This is no simple sandwich. Stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread, it puts to shame just about every other BLT we’ve ever had. It’s maybe even better, if possible, with a fried egg. The wheatberry (a term which refers to the entire wheat kernel) bread is lightly toasted and the applewood smoked bacon is the type of bacon only restaurants seem able to find. The tomatoes are indeed ripe, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous artificially ripened but consistently green tomatoes most restaurants serve.
There’s a lot to like at either location of Gecko’s Bar & Tapas, a surprisingly good gastropub with tapas that can’t be topped and sandwiches ranging from sensational to sublime.
Gecko’s Bar & Tapas
3500 E. Central
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
BEST BET: Onion Rings,