Had Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra written Don Quixote in the 21st century instead of in 1605, the title character’s quest in life might not have been to revive the chivalric virtues and values of adventurous knights. His quests might well have instead taken him on tapas bar-hopping adventures throughout Madrid, Spain. In his edible escapades, he would have fought the incursion into Spanish tapas traditions. Instead of tangling with windmills, he would have squared off against golden arches and a creepy crown-wearing burger mascot. Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza would have certainly earned his surname.
Madrid, perhaps even more than Ernest Hemingway’s beloved Paris is a “moveable feast.” The practice of chasing after those diverse and delicious little dishes known as “tapas” is called a “tapeo” and no city does tapas bar-hopping as well as Madrid. In Madrid tapeos have achieved near cult status. They are a cultural event, a rite of passage and a sporting event rolled into one. A tapeo allows you to sample the culinary fare at several tapas bars without sitting down for an entire meal. Ostensibly, you “walk off” your tapas and wine as you hop from bar to bar.
Tapas have become one of Madrid’s most popular tourist attractions with “tapas tours” becoming increasingly well-known and popular. As recounted on this blog, tapas are the Spanish version of hors d’oeuvres or dim sum, little plates of food. In Spain they’re often served complimentary with a drink (usually wine). The word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, which means “to cover”. History and legend attribute the term to pieces of ham or cheese laid across glasses of wine to keep flies out (and stagecoach drivers sober).
Tapas can be traced back to the centuries of Moorish presence in the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors brought with them an influx of exotic spices and ingredients such as saffron, apricots, artichokes, carob, sugar, carrots, coriander and rice. They introduced pastries, desserts and cold soups which remain part and parcel of the Spanish culinary repertoire to this day. Fittingly, the Moors are widely credited for Spain’s best-known culinary innovation–the small and varied delicacies today known as tapas.
Perhaps New Mexico’s preeminent practitioner in the art of Spanish tapas is five-time James Beard Award nominee for “Best Chef – Southwest” James Campbell Caruso. Chef Caruso has plied his culinary craft at La Boca in Santa Fe since 2006, achieving tremendous popular and critical acclaim. La Boca, a which translates from Spanish to “the mouth” and which specializes in Spanish tapas is a favorite of Food Network luminary Giada DiLaurentis.
In 2013 when Albuquerque’s AAA Four Diamond hotel, Hotel Andaluz announced a make-over of its signature restaurant Lucia, it made sense that the restaurant’s new direction and concept would be Spanish tapas. After all, the presence of Moorish culture and cuisine is more prominent in Andalusia (the Spanish region for which the hotel is named) than anywhere else in Spain. It also made sense that Chef Caruso would be brought in from Santa Fe to head the new restaurant concept christened MAS, a Spanish word which translates to “more.”
The magnificent Hotel Andaluz is the perfect venue for Mas, providing a “tantalizing and sensuous tapestry of past and future,” celebrating yesteryear while embracing today. Tracing its lineage to Conrad Hilton, the ten-story hotel launched in 1939 as New Mexico’s first Hilton, is a stunning complex showcasing earth tone stucco and southwest woodwork, furnishings and artwork. Its imposing two-story lobby, stately arches, hand-carved beams and balconies overlooking the lobby make it one of the finest hotels in the Land of Enchantment.
In March, 2017, the year in which he earned Chef of the Year honors from the New Mexico Restaurant Association, Chef Marc Quiñones replaced Chef Caruso as executive chef at Hotel Andaluz. In this capacity, the two-time Albuquerque The Magazine Best Chef in the City award winner’s duties are to oversee all of the culinary operations at Hotel Andaluz, including banquets, catering and the hotel’s two restaurants, MAS Tapas y Vino and Ibiza Rooftop Restaurant and Bar. It’s a venue and a challenge which seems tailor-made for the iridescent chef.
“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list” was often my response the many times readers asked when I was going to review MAS Tapas Y Vino. In April, 2021, when Kurt Nilson and I were interviewing Chef Quiñones on Sunny 101.3’s Hungry Hump Days program, the great chef himself was more direct. Considering I had literally reviewed “almost every other restaurant,” he wondered aloud if I had anything against him. I hemmed and hawed some flimsy excuse (as if any excuse could suffice) for not having reviewed MAS and committed to visiting soon. That visit occurred on my birthday weekend, coincidentally a few days after his birthday.
Contrary to having anything against him, I’ve long and greatly marveled at Chef Quiñones’s talents and accomplishments, many of which have been chronicled on Gil’s Thrilling monthly Red or Green report. If anything, my admiration may have been even greater for two of his many estimable qualities than for his impressive curriculum vitae. Those two qualities are loyalty and passion.
In the April, 2021 edition of New Mexico Magazine, Chef Quiñones explained how he measures success: “It’s about people and the connection. To me, that’s the ultimate level of success…” Very few chefs in the Land of Enchantment have achieved Chef Quiñones level of connection with people. Very few of them work as hard at it. He’s a peripatetic chef who, as much as possible, flits from table to table at his 116 seat restaurant to ensure his guests are enjoying their experience at MAS. It’s no wonder guests feel so loyal to him. It’s very much reciprocal.
His connection to people isn’t limited to guests at his award-winning restaurant. Every Thursday morning, Chef Quiñones spends hours with inmates at New Mexico prisons and halfway houses, providing an attentive ear and imparting the word of God. The chef also volunteers with the Cooking with Kids program in Albuquerque where he teaches cooking and healthy eating principles to elementary school students. That’s loyalty!
Discuss his 2021 ten episode appearance on Hell’s Kitchen and Chef Quiñones is quick to point out that one of his objectives was to prove that New Mexico chefs can compete at a national stage with chefs from more acclaimed culinary hotbeds. Loyalty to his homestate–you bet. No one (not even a certain blogger gastronome) does as much to celebrate the talents and accomplishments of New Mexico’s restaurateurs. Rather than tear down the culinary competition as some chefs have been known to do, his Facebook page resounds with laudatory praise for them. That’s loyalty!
For an example of loyalty being the proverbial two-way street, you need look no further than Richard Padilla, Chef Quiñones’s talented sous chef. Chef Padilla was cementing a reputation as a chef on the rise in Santa Fe when his long-time mentor was in need of a sous chef. He quickly jumped at the opportunity and today commutes every day from the City Different to Albuquerque where he works hand-in-hand with Chef Quiñones to create transformative dishes. Chef Quiñones sees it as a personal responsibility to prepare his kitchen staff not only to be able to prepare innovative and delicious culinary fare, but to take on the leadership roles required for 21st century restaurants.
Insofar as passion, that other quality of his I admire so greatly, writer Lois Alter Mark may have said it best in an article for Forbes entitled “The Secret Ingredient Award-Winning Chef Marc Quinones Adds to Every Dish: “Chef Marc Quinones is down to earth and approachable but his passion comes through whether he’s cooking a dish, plating it or simply describing it. I don’t know how to explain it but you can actually taste that care in every forkful.” She added “We’ve never before sensed a chef’s personality so infused in their dishes.” Ditto!
Our long overdue visit to MAS Tapas Y Vino proved we’ve deprived ourselves of one of the best restaurant experiences we’ve ever had in the Land of Enchantment. Not just one of the best meals, but one of the best experiences in totality! Chef Quiñones lives up to his press and then some. So does Chef Padilla. So does the restaurant staff, all of whom reflected Chef Quiñones guest-centric orientation.
Chef Quiñones treated us to a tasting menu experience. In the spirit of full disclosure and transparency, our meal was comped, but we would gladly have paid twice the price for the best meal we’ve had in 2021. I rarely accept a “free meal,” and when I do it’s with the understanding that my review will include all warts and blemishes. Chef Quiñones wouldn’t have it any other way, not that he had anything to worry about…not when he delivered a flawless meal and tremendous experience.
By strict definition, a tapa really refers to the portion size, not the style of food. Tapa are intended to be small plate dishes for one diner. In Madrid if two diners plan to share a dish, they would order “raciones” (servings in English) or “media raciones” (larger than a tapa, but not as large a serving as a full racione). You could argue that what we experienced at MAS Tapas Y Vino were raciones, but why argue when you can be enjoying the contemporary Mediterranean delights coming out of the kitchen.
Our first course was an idea whose time has finally arrived–asparagus calabasitas (yellow squash, zucchini, corn, Cheddar, lime, green chile, red chile sauce, warm tortillas). It sounds simple enough, but in the adroit hands of Chef Quiñones, composition and preparation technique include subtle touches that elevate the simple to the sublime, the commonplace to the extraordinary. It’s been years since calabasitas have been more than plate filler for me. This amazing vegetable medley nearly had me swooning in soul-satisfying delight. Whether nestled in the cozy comfines of the warm tortillas or slid slowly through the red chile, these calabasitas set the bar high. They’re the apotheosis of a dish I could once take or leave.
We’ve had patatas bravas (a classic Spanish dish of fried potato cubes served with a spicy dipping sauce) a number of times and have always taken for granted that they’re only slightly more complex than French fries. We were floored when he described the two hour plus preparation of the MAS patatas bravas. The alchemical process involves immersing cubed tubers into an imported Spanish olive oil, garlic and herbs then baking them for 90 minutes. They’re then removed from the oven, cooled down and fried until crispy. Next they’re tossed with chile flake, parsley and more garlic before being served with a spicy aioli. The resultant magic is potatoes that are perfectly crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside.
As a child growing up in a rough Bronx neighborhood, Chef Quiñones’s young mother would often serve Van Camp’s Pork & Beans she doctored up to make them “magical.” He calls the Berkshire pork belly his “love song to my mom on a plate,” indicating the dish “represents who I am not only as a chef, but as a person.” This isn’t just an elevated play on pork and beans, it’s a metaphor for the chef’s life and how he surmounted challenging circumstances to make himself the renowned chef he’s become.
This may well be the best pork belly dish we’ve ever had. Chef Quiñones braises the pork belly for six hours in a blend of different stocks, aromatics, sherry and harissa. He then presses the pork belly overnight before cutting it into cubes and crisping it up. Next he glazes it with the braising jus that’s been strained three different times and serves it with an Anasazi bean ragout and toasted corn kernels. The crispy part of the pork belly is reminiscent of the best bacon you’ve ever had. The fatty portion is velvety smooth and akin to pork candy.
Despite having grown up in the “Hog Butcher to the World,” (one of Chicago’s many nicknames) my Kim had never had roasted bone marrow until I introduced her to it several years ago. Now it’s one of her very favorite dishes. The roasted bone marrow at MAS wasn’t a revelation in that we expected it to be outstanding with its unctuous gelatin-like texture. The revelation was the tangy, smoky guava bbq sauce drizzled on the plate. We had thought it would contrast wildly with the marrow, but it proved a magnificent counterbalance instead. Atop the marrow on every bone trough are pickled red onions and a parsley salad with cherry tomatoes. Roasted bone marrow is one of those ultra-rich dishes that won’t fill you up, but they’ll certainly satisfy you.
Our attentive server confided that savvy diners often eschew desserts and instead order the honey bacon wrapped dates. Good advice. This dish is an adventure in complementary and contrasting flavor profiles and textures that work very well together. House-cured honey bacon with a sherry reduction is wrapped around dates which are wrapped around marcona almonds and served with a warm goat cheese dip. It’s not every dish that combines savory and sweet flavors and still manages a subtle demarcation, but that’s exactly what you get with the honey bacon wrapped dates. This confluence of flavors, textures and vision is one of the very best dishes we’ve had in a very long time.
When he’s not out on Saturday mornings running distances that would tire some of us out driving that far, Chef Quiñones frequents the area’s farmers markets where he searches for agrarian bounty he can use at MAS. He wanted us to try the crunchy “pizza” squash blossoms before they were out of season. Thank you Chef! This is a magnificent dish showcasing squash blossoms sheathed in a light oregano and thyme tempura batter stuffed with whipped goat cheese and deep-fried. Served with a tomato “gravy,” the squash blossoms are light and delicate possessing neither a squash-like flavor nor the perfumey taste of other edible flowers. They’re imbued with endearing melt-in-your-mouth qualities.
On the entrees section of the menu you’ll find MAS steak and potatoes. While that sounds rather innocuous and (let’s face it) boring, those two terms should never be ascribed to any culinary creation from the hands of Chef Quiñones. This churrasco (a Spanish term for grilled) steak is a surprisingly tender skirt steak sliced into thin medallions and topped with a peppadew pepper chimichurri. Creating a chimichurri from peppadew, a distinctive pepper with a sweet and piquant (1200 on the Scoville scale) flavor is sheer genius, the factor which distinguishes this steak from any other. This is a chimichurri which should be bottled and sold. It’s life-altering! The steak is served with creamy whipped potatoes.
Chef Quiñones admits to finding enjoyment playing with his food, using his imagination to create such whimsical delights as the “Fruity Pebbles Semifreddo.” While that name may evoke imagery of a cloying, tooth-decaying child’s cereal, the process is far from childlike. In fact, it’s rather painstaking and methodical. The chef essentially creates a cereal milk mousse which is plated opposite smear of chocolate fudge, all of which is sprinkled with a Fruity Pebbles crumb. On the plate it resembles a child’s artistic folly. On your palate it resembles what it is–a rather sophisticated dessert children of all ages will enjoy.
A tapas crawl in Albuquerque? You don’t need to go further than MAS Tapas Y Vino, a restaurant I’d crawl to for a meal. It’s appropriate that this fine tapas restaurant in the heart of downtown Albuquerque is named “MAS” because after enjoying its rich indulgences, you’ll definitely want mas, mas, mas.
MAS Tapas Y Vino
125 Second Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2021
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: MAS Steak & Potatoes, Patatas Bravas, Asparagus Calabasitas, Crunchy “Pizza” Squash Blossoms, Roasted Bone Marrow, Berkshire Pork Belly, Honey Bacon Wrapped Dates, Fruity Pebbles Semifreddo