Shade Tree Customs & Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill

For at least the past seven years, the most famous “biker cafe” in the Land of Enchantment has been the fictional Maggie’s Diner in Madrid on the Turquoise Trail. Constructed in 2007 for the made-in-New-Mexico comedy Wild Hogs, Maggie’s Diner was frequented by bikers of all ilks, whether they be white collar executives in the throes of mid-life crises or the stereotypically rowdy, raucous bikers who terrorize the Madrid’s citizenry and demand food and adult beverages gratis.

After January 14th, 2015 when the Food Network aired a Restaurant: Impossible episode entitled “Revved Up,” New Mexico’s most famous biker cafe probably became the Shade Tree Customs & Cafe in Albuquerque. Chef-host Robert Irvine and crew spent a couple of days in October “transforming” the restaurant. The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000, Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.

The redesigned Shade Tree Cafe

To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows. If anything, what the show revealed is that when two worlds—a motorcycle shop and a restaurant—collide, issues are bound to arise. Irvine quickly determined the ownership quintumvirate didn’t have clearly defined roles and that operational transparency (food and beverage costs, labor costs, revenue) was lacking. Irvine also discerned the ownership passion for the motorcycle shop, indicating that similar passion for the restaurant would make the concept “amazing.”

Convening a meeting of the minds with staff and management, he pinpointed operational issues and recommended an increase in the frequency and openness of communication as well as role definition and managerial involvement. He also helped the kitchen staff rework the menu, creating exciting new dishes designed to wow patrons. To increase kitchen cohesiveness, team-building and morale, he asked that they create a team dance. It was one of the more entertaining segments of the show.

Part of your dining experience should include visiting the patio and repair shop

The show’s restaurant designer described the restaurant design as “college dormish” and “super macho.” Her goals for the make-over was to “make it cool, rough-and-tough, but still have a feminine touch.” Mission accomplished! The metamorphosed Shade Tree Café was even better than the vision ownership had in mind, described by Irvine as “the coolest place on Route 66.” The redesign inspired a rekindled passion that, coupled with the implementation of sound management practices, promises to restore the restaurant to profitability and prominence.

The Shade Tree Customs & Cafe first launched in February, 2012 before relocating to a larger Nob Hill venue some twenty months later. As its name implies, the Shade Tree is a motorcycle-themed restaurant and custom motorcycle shop within one complex. The restaurant storefront is visible from Central Avenue just a few doors west of Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila. The suite also houses a shop area where Shade Tree builds, sells and repairs custom cycles. Weather permitting, an expansive patio in the alley behind the restaurant extends capacity beyond indoor capacity of 70.

Spark Plugs

The Cafe portion of the Shade Tree operation offers wide-ranging beer and wine options as well as lunch and dinner menus ostensibly celebrating American biker favorites such as burgers and sandwiches. The Cafe is also open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11AM until 2PM. The menu isn’t overly expansive (five appetizers; four soup and salad options; five burgers, including one custom-made; four sandwiches and three popular entrees) or vegetarian friendly, but it does offer good variety and interesting specials.

A good way to start your dining experience at the Shade Tree is with Spark Plugs, not the humble electrical contrivance that “sparks” to ignite the fuel on combustion engines, but what non-“motorheads” might call a “jalapeño popper.” If that term practically reeks of greasy, breaded, bite-sized stuffed jalapeños, you’re in for a surprise. These spark plugs are baked, not fried, and they’re stuffed with cream cheese and Cheddar topped with bacon bits. The jalapeños aren’t incendiary, a likely consequence of being rather large (generally the smaller the pepper, the more heat it generates). These spark plugs will rev your motor.

STC (Southern Tasty Chicken) Sandwich

One of the Shade Tree’s most popular entrees is the Southern Tasty Chicken (STC), a fried chicken breast served with green chile chutney, smashed potatoes and the veg o’ day. A more portable variation of this “sounds like Sunday dinner” entree is the STC Sandwich, a towering behemoth constructed from a fried chicken breast, Habanero-Jack, Cajun mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Do yourself a favor and dispose of the lettuce, tomato and onion even before biting into the sandwich; their biggest contribution to the sandwich is in providing a cooling effect. The fried chicken breast is meant to be eaten hot with the molten cheeses and Cajun mayo slathered on generously. As far as chicken sandwiches go, in the Duke City the only better option may be at the Stone Face Tavern.

Fortune smiled upon us on the Sunday morning of our inaugural visit when one of the brunch specials was a Southwestern Patty Melt, an Angus patty, poblano, caramelized onions, Habanero cheese and green chile aioli on a brioche bun. Perhaps because the patty is so prodigious, the ostensibly piquant influence of poblano, Habanero cheese and green chile aioli aren’t especially notable. A larger tangle of caramelized onions would also be welcomed. If these sound like shortcomings, kudos are still in order to the Shade Tree for providing a unique take on a sandwich that all-too-often provides a boring sameness from one restaurant to another.

Southwest Patty Melt

From the “Entrees” portion of the menu comes the Green Chile Mac, a plateful of macaroni smothered in Cheddar and Habanero-Jack cheese with a New Mexico green chile topping. The rich combination of cheeses is sure to please the turophiles (cheese connoisseurs) among us, but the lack of real piquancy may leave volcano-eaters wanting more. Alas, we didn’t learn until more closely perusing the menu after-the-fact that you can give any entree a kick-start by adding the “XXX hot “Backfire Sauce.” We’ll request it next time.

The veg o’ day served with the green chile mac was baby asparagus, as good as we’ve had them anywhere in Albuquerque. Sauteed (probably in butter) and seasoned with black pepper and garlic, they should be made a permanent addition to the menu or at the very least offered as a substitute for the fries served with sandwiches and burgers. These baby asparagus are adult-pleasing good.

Green Chile Mac smothered in Cheddar and Habanero Jack Cheese served with Baby Asparagus

If the food is good and the ambiance welcoming, the concept of a biker’s cafe should have a much wider appeal than solely to the biker culture. At the Shade Tree Customs & Cafe, the food is good and the ambiance make-over up-classed the restaurant from being inviting primarily to bikers to being a draw for all demographics.

Shade Tree Customs & Cafe
3407 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 December 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Mac, Southwestern Patty Melt, STC Sandwich, Spark Plugs

Shadetree Cycleworks and Cafe on Urbanspoon

10 thoughts on “Shade Tree Customs & Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

  1. Someone told me they’ve closed down. Can anyone confirm that? I called just now, their Yelp site said open til 11 and I got routed to a voicemail.

  2. They are now seeking $30,000 in donations to keep the restaurant afloat. If they can’t make it work in Nob Hill, they need to change locations.

    Their street appeal is confusing. You walk by, and it still looks like a bike shop. Non-bikers won’t be drawn to that… I never was, and I only learned later that they served food, and even then, there was nothing suggesting that it would be great… Even after the Restaurant Impossible episode, they are still not locally recommended for their culinary offerings, and there are plenty of other excellent destinations in Nob Hill. Perhaps they could establish themselves elsewhere as a destination for a certain crowd. I don’t think Nob Hill hits their target demographic.

  3. I know I’m commenting without consuming but my problem is the chicken breast.
    It is the Rachel Ray Syndrome, simplicity over everything else. I feel somewhat cheated when a chicken entree consists of a cooked breast and what ever else the chef is doing to it. I know that it’s easier to pop the breast out of the little pounch it comes in from Sysco, or any other purveyor. I simply prefer a chicken dish that consists of all the parts. One of each leg, thigh, breast and the wing. If I want just the breast I wan’t it as a Parm dish, marsala, or with capers, lemon and butter.
    Everytime I read the menu and it’s a breast, period, I think of Rachel Ray carrying 5 or 6 items a whole 4 feet from the fridge to the stove and saying to her viewers that she saved 8 more seconds of her, and our valuble time.

  4. Gil, regarding the Southern Tasty Chicken Sandwich: What do you look for in the quality of the chicken and the method of deep frying? Can you compare and contrast the STC with, for example, Chick fil A?

    1. Hi Tom

      We had the great fortune of having lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (about 90 miles away from New Orleans) for nearly eight years where we experienced a fried chicken epiphany–discovering chicken that literally attacked (in a good way) our taste buds. Most of our favorite chicken on the Coast was heavily impregnated with cayenne and other Cajun spices.

      This past April, I spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina, indulging in pan-fried (my preference over deep fryers) buttermilk fried chicken that was every bit as good as Cajun-style chicken.

      The very best chicken I’ve ever had, however, was at Stroud’s in the Kansas City area.

      Stroud’s prepares the perfect chicken. It’s pan-fried in a heavy cast iron skillet to a crispy golden hue. One of the restaurant’s mottos is “we choke our own chickens,” a double-entendre laced reference to the fact that Stroud’s still does things the old-fashioned way with no short-cuts, using the same recipes it used when launched in 1933. Missouri grown chickens are hand-trimmed before they’re dredged in a simple batter mix of flour, salt and pepper (who needs eleven herbs and spices?). Each piece of chicken is only partially submerged in the skillet and receives plenty of individual attention as it fries on the pan. Watching the chicken as it’s prepared is a sensual experience.

      Alas, it’s been years since my last visit to Chick fil A, Popeye’s, Church’s, etc., so couldn’t do justice to a comparison/contrast. Would you endeavor to compare/contrast for my edification? I’d also love hearing about your experiences with poultry perfection.


      1. I mention Chick fil A as the best chicken sandwich (witness the drive-thru line-up of cars any day but Sunday) in the fast-food category, not in the artisanal category. For me, the most memorable fried chicken sandwich was at Emril Lagasse’s restaurant in New Orleans: flour/spice mix dipped in buttermilk and fried in a large heavy skillet. Never deep fried!!!

        1. In keeping with my “day late and dollar short” karma, this past Saturday (December 21st) we happened upon a fried chicken banh mi that showcased maybe the best fried chicken we’ve had in Albuquerque. This South Carolina meets Vietnam gem was prepared by The Supper Truck, the award-winning motorized conveyance with a positively Southern flair. What makes me a day late is that we visited (finally) The Supper Truck on its very last day of operation (at least for the foreseeable future). That fried chicken banh mi and the other dishes we sampled were so good, we would have visited again the following day were it still open.

          Bruce, analogizing the chicken breast with Rachael Ray is brilliant on many fronts.

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