America may be a multicultural melting pot, but thriving within its most populous metropolises are ethnic neighborhoods–pockets of diversity residing in two worlds, retaining many of the cultural and culinary traditions of their motherland while integrating into and pursuing the American dream. Cities such as Chicago have long realized that these ethnic enclaves offer a treasure trove of cultural and culinary experiences. Most of these neighborhoods welcome culinary tourism–the opportunity to showcase the cuisine of their homelands.
One such example is the city of Chicago which boasts of the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw (as many as 183,000 by some estimates) in the world. Storefronts and restaurants in “Little Poland” on Chicago’s far Northwest side are bedecked in the white and red flag of Poland. They offer everything from pierogies to kielbasa. Every Labor Day weekend Chicago celebrates its Polish heritage at the Taste of Polonia festival where Polish cuisine and culture are showcased.
Obviously Albuquerque doesn’t have the population to support a “Chinatown” or a “Little Poland,” but the Duke City does offer multicultural dining diversity. Although several of the city’s ethnic restaurants are clustered throughout the International District, many others are strewn throughout the metropolitan area where they’ve integrated into the fabric of neighborhoods which may or may not have an ethnic population base.
One such restaurant is the Red Rock Deli which opened its doors in October, 2014 in the far Northeast Heights. Featuring the cuisine of Poland and Eastern Europe, the Red Rock Deli sits on Lomas just west of Tramway. Situated in a timeworn shopping center, it occupies the easternmost storefront in a complex which also houses the Ali Baba Food Mart.
If you’ve ever been blessed with the opportunity to visit Chicago’s Little Poland, the Red Rock Deli will seem very familiar once you step within its doors. To your immediate right are shelves stocked with comestibles such as red borscht, sauerkraut, jams and so much more. Make sure to peruse the freezers where savory and sweet pierogies, stuffed cabbage and other items can be purchased. Other shelves are jam-packed with candy, cookies, beverages and other grocery items not usually found in Duke City stores.
Owner Mark Toczek spent his formative years in Poland before moving first to Germany then to Chicago (which he visits frequently to stock up on the items which grace his shelves and his deli’s menu). In 1995, he launched the Red Rock General Store in Blanca, Colorado just outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park about 1.5 hours north of Taos. The Red Rock General Store has long been TripAdvisor‘s highest rated restaurant in the area.
Mark, who launched the Red Rock Deli in October, 2014, is an effusive and hands-on owner with a high likeability quotient and a welcoming smile for everyone. In fact, for sheer customer orientation and making all guests feel welcome, he’s in rarefied company with the superb staff at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. Initially he operated the deli with the help of his sweet mother Jadwiga, but she passed away in January, 2015.
While the walls are papered with imagery depicting New York’s subway system (a remnant from the years in which the store housed a Subway restaurant), the menu is proudly and prominently Chicago and not just the Little Poland section of the Windy City. Windy City transplants are sure to find several things that will transport them back home to Chicago.
Our eyes immediately gravitated on the menu to the Italian Beef sandwich, a Chicago staple. Also catching our eyes was menudo, a New Mexico favorite among intrepid diners. The menu has four sections, the first of which lists three Polish sausage options. Six hot dogs (including Chicago-style and a New Yorker) precede twelve sandwich options (including Angus hamburgers) on the menu. The “specialties” section of the menu lists the Polish specialties along with the aforementioned menudo as well as blood sausage.
4 April 2015: During our second visit, Mark surprised us with a complimentary bowl of Ukrainian Borscht served piping hot. The borscht is made by Mark’s talented wife and is as comforting and delicious as any vegetarian soup you’ll find in the Duke City. A light, savory meatless broth redolent with cabbage and beets (accounting for its reddish hue) includes potatoes, carrots, kidney beans and jut a tinge of salt and pepper. It’s a wonderful soup!
21 November 2014: It’s not often (if ever) the term Russian Roulette elicits smiles, but at the Red Rock Deli you just might find yourself drooling at the mention. Russian Roulette is a mix of six different kinds of pierogi (a sweet Russian Roulette option offers six different kinds of pierogi with sweet stuffing) from among the nine variants of savory stuffing available at Red Rock). For a pittance, you can have the pierogi fried with onions and bacon. It’s a winning combination.
21 November 2014: The pierogi are about the size of a Chinese dim sum dumpling or about two bites worth. They’re served with a generous dollop of sour cream, not that it’s needed when you can scoop them up with crispy bacon and onions fried to a pearlescent sheen. Among the nine available options with which the pierogi can be stuffed are potato, sauerkraut, ground meat, cabbage and spinach. All are very good with our very favorite being the spinach stuffing. In our increasingly cosmopolitan world in which the unusual and unique are embraced, it’s nice to enjoy old-fashioned and traditional pierogi.
4 April 2015: Pyzy, yet another form of Polish dumplings, may be difficult to pronounce, but they’re delicious to eat. Unlike the pierogies on the menu whose wrappers could pass for those used on Chinese dumplings, these are most assuredly and unmistakably potato dumplings. They even look like boiled potatoes with a doughy wrapper made from potatoes and stuffed with meat. Texturally, they’re soft and pliable as dumpling wrappers tend to be. The meat stuffing is nicely seasoned and complements the wrappers very well. Don’t forget to pay the pittance for having them fried with onions and bacon, a combination which improves everything.
21 November 2014: Of the three Polish sausage options, we couldn’t pass up the one anadiplotic name–Polish Polish, a hot dog style sandwich with Polish sausage, brown mustard and pickled jalapeños. What you’ll notice first about the Polish Polish is the bolillo-style bread which resembles the bread used on Sonoran hot dogs. Mark procures this bread from Colorado. It’s so good you’ll want to use it on all your future sausage and hot dogs. It has a dense and crusty exterior and a soft, pillowy interior. The Polish sausage nestled within that bread is procured from Chicago and is sliced diagonally. It’s a coarse, garlicky and smoky sausage with a natural casing that snaps when you bite into it. The pearlescent onions and pickled jalapeños complement the sausage very well.
21 November 2014: For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, only a Chicago-style hot dog would do though by omitting the tomatoes, pickles, jalapeño (normally sport peppers are used) and even the celery salt, you could hardly call it a traditional Chicago hot dog. Its only claims to Chicago were the neon green relish, mustard and a Vienna Beef hot dog directly from Chicago. Vienna Beef hot dogs have a natural casing that gives them a discernible snap when you bite into them. The same delightful buns used on the Polish Polish sheath the hot dog which extends beyond the bun by a good inch on both sides.
21 November 2014: Among the foods most expatriated Chicagoans tend to miss most–no matter where they may settle–is the uniquely Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich, about which Thrillist wrote “Some cities were built on rock ‘n’ roll, but Chicago was built on big, greasy meat mountains on rolls.” The Italian Beef sandwich features thinly-sliced, slow-roasted roast beef dripping with homemade Italian gravy on a dense, long Italian-style roll. There are at least four Duke City eateries now serving Italian Beef sandwiches and (with apologies to Pizza 9) none of them make a better one than the Red Rock Deli. Quite simply, it’s got all the elements of an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich and can be prepared with your choice of sweet peppers or hot giardiniera (or both). It’s Chicago good! My friend Larry McGoldrick makes the case that it’s even better than the Italian beef sandwich at Portillo’s. Who am I to argue?
4 April 2015: One of the more interesting items on a very interesting menu has the curious name “Lincoln Pork Sandwich.” It’s easy for Chicago transplants (and those of us married to them) to assume this sandwich is named for Lincoln Park, a community area in northeast Chicago bordering Lake Michigan. Instead, Mark will explain, the sandwich has everything to do with the cost of pork. When pork was a relatively inexpensive meat, he could afford to sell the sandwich for five dollars, the denomination sporting Abe Lincoln’s stoic countenance. Today the sandwich is priced at just south of eight dollars. When the rising cost of pork forces a price escalation to ten dollars, the sandwich will be renamed the Hamilton Pork Sandwich. Alexander Hamilton is the face on the ten dollar bill.
The Lincoln Pork Sandwich is terrific! At its essence it’s a breaded pork cutlet nestled on a gilded bun. If that sounds pretty boring, count on Mark to embellish the sandwich with excitement courtesy of mustard, mayo, pickles, jalapeños and lettuce. It’s a winning formula. The pork cutlet is pounded thin and not even Sherlock Holmes would be able to find fat or sinew. The combination of jalapeños, mustard and mayo provides bold and contrasting flavors while the may adds a touch of richness. My Kim, who usually has an aversion to breaded anything, enjoyed this delightfully delicious sandwich as much as I did.
4 April 2015: Chicago’s Greektown district has a distinctive dining and nightlife scene that celebrates the culture and cuisine of the Greek population. To assume you can find excellent gyros is an understatement. Some of the very best gyros you’ll ever find in the fruited plain are prepared and served in this area. Mark imports both the lamb-beef amalgam and the pita bread from Chicago and the quality shows. That quality is also evident in the thick, sour-tangy Tzatziki with its pronounced yogurt and cucumber flavor profile. The pita is moist and pliable and didn’t dry up and harden as some pita is apt to do. Just a modicum of hopped onions and tomatoes makes this a sandwich as opposed to a salad with meat. The gyros is accompanied by baked potato skin chips, my new favorite potato chip.
21 November 2014: Dessert options include the aforementioned sweet pierogi and nalesniki, crepes stuffed with sweet farmer cheese fried in butter and served with sour cream and powdered sugar. Texturally similar to cottage cheese, farmer cheese is a fresh, dry-curd cheese with a tangy flavor. Stuffed into crepes topped with powdered sugar, this dessert is rich and delicious without the cloying flavor found on some crepes.
4 April 2015: The premise of Russian Roulette, a potentially lethal game of chance, is frightening, but at the Red Rock Deli, Russian Roulette may forever change what you think of the term. Sweet Russian Roulette, a mix of six different types of pierogies stuffed with a sweet filling and topped with sour cream and (usually) powdered sugar is more like a Russian dream. When available, the sweet pierogies are spritzed with “forest sauce,” a tangy-sweet, light syrupy sauce made from berries which grow in the forest. The pierogies are stuffed with such delicious fillings as cranberries, plum and farmer’s cheese. There are few desserts quite as exciting and delicious, especially when forest sauce is drizzled generously.
18 February 2016: It was a given that my friends and fellow gastronomes Larry McGoldrick and Dazzling Deanell would also enjoy the Sweet Russian Roulette as they had its savory counterpart. What I could not have predicted is that they would introduce savory elements to a dessert entree that needs no amelioration. Perhaps as a lark, Larry, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, wondered out loud what the sweet pierogi he described as “OMG delicious” would taste like with the fried bacon and onions used on the savory pierogi. It turns out the bacon and onion combination goes very well with the sweet pierogi. Is it any wonder Professor Larry was such an innovative software engineer and oceanographer before sharing his savvy insights online.
18 February 2016: If there’s one traditional New Mexican dish that has not transcended generations, it’s menudo, the dish constructed from yellowish, spongy, honeycomb-structured “innards” (can you say tripe) and chile. Young folks (and not just millennials) find the texture, aroma and flavor more than a bit off-putting, a phenomena that generally occurs when you tell them what menudo is a tripe dish. Even more “seasoned” diners don’t often list menudo as a favorite dish. We found it very interesting that a Polish restaurant would offer a variation on menudo. What makes it Polish is the infusion of Hungarian spicy paprika, a seasoning that imparts a pleasantly piquant personality. Texturally, the tripe is thinner than what you’d find in New Mexican menudo, but it’s just a bit on the chewy side (though not quite rubbery). This is an interesting variation on a traditional dish not everyone loves.
The Red Rock Deli is a welcome addition to Albuquerque’s increasingly diverse culinary scene. You need not know anything about Polish cuisine. If you love a great hot dog, a terrific sandwich or a Chicago style deli, you’ll be right at home.
Red Rock Deli
13025 Lomas Blvd, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 February 2016
1st VISIT: 21 November 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Italian Beef Sandwich, Classic Hotdog, Polish Polish, Nalesniki, Russian Roulette (Sweet and Savory Pierogies), Gyros, Lincoln Pork Sandwich