After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution ushered in the era of Prohibition in the United States, an era was to last from 1920 through 1933. Only liquors used for religious purposes were excluded. Because alcohol was declared illegal by the Congress, bootleggers and distributors of illicit alcohol thrived. There was no shortage of enthusiastic scofflaws willing to run afoul of the law in order to enjoy intoxicating beverages. One of the most popular milieus in which alcohol was served was the speakeasy.
A speakeasy was generally either a restaurant or a bar to which patrons gained admission by knocking on a door and uttering a secret password. Once inside, patrons were treated very well in a swanky ambiance that may have included elaborate floor shows, fine dining and live entertainment. Speakeasies flourished throughout the United States.
Vernon’s Speakeasy (formerly known as Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse), no longer one of the Albuquerque area’s best kept secrets, celebrates the spirit of the speakeasy. Located in the 19,000 square-food Village Shops at Los Ranchos, there is absolutely no visible sign that Vernon’s even exists. You enter Vernon’s through a heavy steel door. Knock three times on that door and a sliding peephole opens. Speak a secret password and you’ll be greeted by a doorman attired in a pinstripe suit delivering heavily accented gangster schtick (more reminiscent of the pitchman for Godfather’s Pizza than Don Vito Corleone of the Godfather movies) before granting you admission to a surprising world reminiscent of the Prohibition Era speakeasy.
Vernon’s Speakeasy is named for Vernon Garcia who along with his wife Angel founded the restaurant in January, 2007. Despite a lack of mainstream publicity in its infancy, Vernon’s gradually established itself as a popular dining destination among those in the know and has continued to grow in popularity. In 2009, entrepreneur Michael Baird purchased the speakeasy-themed steakhouse along with the adjacent package store and the Calico Cantina & Cafe, a popular eatery specializing in American comfort foods with a twist. Under Baird’s direction, the entire complex has undergone a significant transformation. Gone is the Calico, replaced by Prime, a high-end delicatessen and specialty food shop. Additionally, Vernon’s has made the speakeasy experience even more authentic with secret passageways, a new private dining room, a cigar patio and a VIP club.
The minute you enter Vernon’s, the cares of the day melt will away. True to its speakeasy theme, the entire restaurant is intended to be hidden away from prying eyes. Black curtains prevent the incursion of any errant sunlight. Passers-by who stride along the sidewalk have absolutely no idea there’s a fashionable, high-end restaurant behind those curtains. The walls of the entire restaurant are highly buffed to a black diamond finish. Only the rich red planked ceilings from which muted lighting is parsimoniously meted out offer a surcease to the enveloping darkness. A relaxed mood is further established by a pianist with an endless repertoire of music for all tastes.
The high-end menu includes the type of cuisine on which Al Capone himself might have dined in a Chicago speakeasy: chops, steak and seafood. While it might not take a well-heeled outlaw’s ill-gotten gains to eat at Vernon’s, entrees are somewhat pricy (as in the potential for a $200 meal without alcohol). A 20-ounce USDA prime, center-cut, bone-in ribeye with a port demi-glace reduction and savory chervil butter (called the Los Ranchos Star), for example, goes for $64 (as of this writing). Entrees are served with the chef’s vegetable du jour and one complimentary accompaniment: white truffle infused Yukon mashed potatoes, herbed new potato hash, wasabi mashed potatoes, Basmati rice, baked potato, loaded mashed potatoes or roasted pepper and onion mashed potatoes. The wasabi mashed potatoes have a discernible bite and are very good.
With a couple exceptions, the beef is Newport Prime, noted for its high quality, trim standards, yield, appearance and most importantly, taste. Newport’s cattle are raised on mother’s milk, introduced to and raised on pasture grass then finished with a protein and corn rich diet. The boneless ribeye and prime rib (twenty-one day, wet aged beef) are all-natural New Mexico raised beef. Seafood entrees include seasonal salmon and halibut as well as Australian cold water lobster tail. Petaluma free-range chicken, beef tenderloin medallions, marinated pork loin and New Zealand lamb shank round out the entrees menu.
Appetizers are surprisingly unimaginative for such a high-end dining establishment: blue corn cakes, bruschetta, crab stuffed mushrooms, orange cured salmon gravlox and scallops. That doesn’t mean they’re not very good. The bruschetta, for example, is quite good. Toasted French Parmesan baguettes are studded with Balsamic marinated tomatoes topped with melted mozzarella. The crab stuffed mushrooms (lump crab meat, spices and stuffed into mushroom caps) are another popular pre-prandial treat that will fly off the table. This isn’t faux crab; it’s the real thing and it’s really delicious. Soups and salads provide an alternative to the appetizers. All are excellent precursors of things to come.
The butter poached lobster salad (fresh arugula, shaved fennel, bell peppers, cucumbers, grape tomatoes and citrus vinaigrette) includes several elements which work well together as well as contrasting flavor profiles that surprised me. The zesty, peppery flavor of the arugula and the slight bitterness of the bell peppers, for example, could have overwhelmed the delicately sweet butter poached lobster, but they don”t. The offsetting element may well be the citrus vinaigrette which seems to put it all together for this salad. The lobster, of course, will leave you wanting more.
Though an excellent entree, the Steak Au Poivre (a Newport USDA prime center-cut New York strip steak) may not be for you if you savor your steak with the grill-influenced taste some aficionados crave. Steak Au Poivre is pan-broiled and served with a brandy and butter sauce. At Vernon’s, the Steak Au Poivre isn’t redolent (translation: overwhelmed) with the crushed peppercorns that typify this entree. It is as tender as any non-Kobe beef you’ll find anywhere, a ten- to twelve-ounce slab of flame kissed beef prepared to your exacting specifications. Ask for medium if you relish the juiciness of a great steak perfectly prepared.
The New York Strip, a twelve ounce slab perfectly prepared to your exacting specifications might be a better choice for aficionados of unadulterated beef. It is Newport USDA prime center-cut steak made even better if you ask for salt, pepper and garlic on both sides. You won’t find any trace of sinew, gristle or fat on this buttery tender steak. My best bet choice is the aforementioned Los Ranchos Star, the USDA prime center cut 20-ounce bone-in slab of pure deliciousness. This melt-in-your mouth beef hunkiness is big enough to share though you probably won’t want to. You’ll want every morsel of this steak for yourself. Ask for the wild mushroom Bordelaise, the only way you can possibly improve on this magnificent meaty perfection.
If the sides aren’t enough, you can also order from among several ala carte items including an adult mac and cheese, braised collard greens, and grilled asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. The adult mac and cheese is sinfully rich and utterly delicious, thanks in no small measure to an infusion of Gouda cheese and sugar-cured ham. Who needs Kraft dinner when adult mac and cheese is so wonderful.
The dessert tray abounds with delicious options sure to please the discerning diner. Rave reviews are sure to follow if you opt for the Chocolate silk, a shortbread pecan cookie crust topped with a rich, frothy chocolate custard and sweet cream cheese. This is a dessert for which you absolutely have to make room. It’s one of my very favorite desserts, one I enjoy so much, I employ the “it’ll all go to your hips so you shouldn’t have any” ploy on my loving bride of 26 years. Invariably it never works and I have to share it with her.
In January, 2010, Vernon’s Speakeasy was selected by AOL’s When.com Web site as one of “Twenty Romantic Restaurants We Love Across the Country.” According to the feature: “This speakeasy-style restaurant is still a bit of a secret to most of the locals. If you didn’t know there was a restaurant behind a hidden door in Los Ranchos Liquors, you’d probably never learn how romantic an underground spot can be. The atmosphere is cozy and warm – a good place to cuddle up with your number one guy or gal.”
Shortly before Valentine’s Day in 2010, Open Table, Inc., which provides a free online restaurant reservation service, named its fifty “most romantic restaurants,” a list gleaned from more than seven million reviews submitted by Open Table diners on more than 12,000 restaurants across the fruited plain. Vernon’s Speakeasy was the sole honoree from the Land of Enchantment.
Only from Zagat will you find a disparaging word. Zagat wrote of “trends that may once have seemed fresh and innovative that have simply worn out their welcome.” Near the top of that list is prohibition-era restaurants which are “getting a little tired at this point.” That, of course is an opinion and Albuquerque diners clearly dissent. Duke City diners have certainly not grown tired of Vernon’s Speakeasy. If anything, it continues to increase in popularity. It’s especially favored for special occasions and celebrations. If the doorman is to be believed, Vernon’s is frequented by Hollywood glitterati whom he cautions should be allowed to enjoy their repast in peace.
Vernon’s may no longer be the well-kept secret it once was, but it remains an excellent dinner option when only steak will do and you want to impress a special someone.
6855 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Steak Au Poivre, Bruschetta, Chocolate Silk Pie