If comedian Jeff Foxworthy was Armenian, his repertoire of one-liners might include such gems as, “You know you’re Armenian if you have philo dough, string cheese or See’s candy in your freezer.” Or perhaps, “You know you’re Armenian if you serve hummus and tabbouleh with your taco chips.” Then there’s the classic, “You know you’re Armenian if you shovel food on other people’s plates when they aren’t looking.” Who can forget the oft-told “You know you’re Armenian if you think pilaf is one of the four food groups.”
A quick Google of Armenian food will return results that reveal Armenian’s self-deprecating sense of humor regarding their culinary culture. Search results will also show the culinary influence of the regions and countries neighboring the ancient nation of Armenia. Wedged in what has been one of the world’s most volatile–some would say unstable–regions, Armenia is at the crossroads between the Middle East, Asia. Minor and Europe. During the course of its storied history, Armenia was invaded in succession by Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and Turks, all of whom left their mark on the cuisine.
It’s a Middle Eastern cuisine punctuated with dishes that are very aromatic and flavorful. It is a cuisine that is not rushed, but for which great care is exercised and time is taken. It’s a cuisine that will certainly remind you of meals you’ve had in Albuquerque’s Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and Palestinian owned restaurants. If you think you’ve never had Armenian cuisine, a quick perusal of the menu will assure you there’s nothing strange or foreign about it.
Charcoal Mediterranean Grill serves the traditional cuisine of Armenia. That authenticity is assured because the yawning restaurant is owned and operated by youthful Armenian Kostan Gasparyan who knows what he’s doing on the grill. The restaurant’s name describes its concept. All meats and fish are prepared with mesquite charcoal–not mesquite wood or briquets that have mesquite added. Mesquite charcoal comes from the ubiquitous Southwestern tree converted under specially controlled conditions to charcoal. Mesquite charcoal imparts faintly smoky overtones and sweet, slightly acidic flavors that more greatly influence delicately flavored fish and poultry than it does pork, veal and beef. Many grill chefs have been swearing by mesquite charcoal since the 1970s.
Charcoal is situated where Asado Brazilian Grill sat for nearly five years–on the backside of the Pan American frontage road’s restaurant row within easy walking distance to the Century 24 theater. It’s a tough area for restaurants, several of whom have met an early demise in large part because they are not visible from the frontage road. The problem is exacerbated because it’s ensconced in an area replete with chain restaurants, some with national prominence: Texas Land and Cattle, Subway, Cold Stone and further down the frontage road, Papadeux, Fuddrucker’s and Dickey’s Barbecue. Though the Duke City is very much still a town that loves its chains, in immediate proximity to Charcoal is the fabulous Cafe Jean Pierre and behind it is the Chama River Brewing Company, an excellent restaurant in its own right.
The ambience hasn’t changed significantly from the Asado days. Charcoal has an industrial look and feel with high ceilings and exposed duct work. Against one wall is a large wrought iron sculpture of a musical scale set against a colorful mosaic of tiles, a carry-over from Charcoal’s predecessor. Suspended from the rafters are bedizened sun-faces, perhaps only the artist’s idea of beauty. Sit at the wrong table and one of these menacing faces will look down on you.
Armenian cuisine as featured at Charcoal includes such familiar standards as shish kabob, barbecue, shawerma and falafel, all Mediterranean standards. You’ll also see borsht, a stew-like soup that is very popular in Eastern European nations where it is served both hot and cold. One section of the menu is dedicated to sandwich wraps which are wrapped in either pita bread or lavash, a soft, thin flatbread of Armenian origin which also serves as an excellent platform for pizza.
The menu also includes a section dedicated to kabob plates, all of which are served with four (yes, that’s four) side dishes and pita bread. The pita bread is made on the premises and it’s served steaming. Considering so many other Mediterranean restaurants in the area extricate their pita from hermetically sealed bags, Charcoal’s fresh pita is a real treat.
A veritable phalanx of cold and hot side orders also set Charcoal apart. While other restaurants are parsimonious with their sides, this restaurant fills your oversized plate with very flavorful and authentic sides: mutabbal (an eggplant dip), hummus, tabouleh, dolmas, eggplant caviar, rice pilaf and corn. Interestingly, each of these sides go for three to six dollars a piece if you order them by themselves.
Perhaps because there are so many sides, the menu includes only a few appetizers, one of which (the hummus) is available as a side. Hummus is made from garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) and is one of the world’s most versatile foods. In Armenia as throughout the Middle East, it can be served as an appetizer, side dish or main course. Arguably, it tastes best when scooped up with a piece of warm pita bread. Alas, as an appetizer Charcoal’s hummus is served with crispy pita chips which just don’t cut it as well as pita bread. The hummus, while good, could use a bit more garlic.
Charcoal is one of a handful of restaurants in the Duke City area offering lamb chops for under twenty dollars. Discard any notions you might have of overpowering gaminess and tough cuts. Charcoal-grilled lamb is tender and succulent. It is also quite tasty though served at about medium-well which is a bit more done than gourmet-quality lamb chops are typically served. These chops are also quite thin, not nearly the half-inch to inch thick beauties served at premium costs elsewhere.
The gyros plate includes the thinly sliced beef and lamb amalgam carved from a perpetually rotating spit over the grill. The meat is served outside the pita bread so you can stuff it as much as you’d like or stab it with your fork. In either case, the tzatziki is quite good, a tangy combination of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and more. It’s a refreshing additive to the charcoal blessed meat.
Most of the sides are quite good. Notable are the corn niblets which don’t have an out-of-the-can taste and the pickled vegetables which have just enough tartness to get your attention without pursing your lips too much. Desserts are all under two dollars and include baklava, sweet rolls and other desserts made with finely ground (pulverized) walnuts or pistachios, honey and phyllo dough. Desserts are served with Mediterranean coffee which is brewed in sand on top of the charcoal grill. It is a strong coffee, but very rich and deliciously flavored.
The Charcoal Mediterranean Grill certainly has the chops, figuratively and literally, to survive in a competitive Albuquerque restaurant market. All it will take is for Duke City dining patrons to look beyond the Pan American frontage road for their meal options.
Charcoal Mediterranean Grill
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Lamb Chops, Lamb & Beef Gyros, Hummus & Pita Chips, Baklava, Sweet Rolls