Who hasn’t dreamt of a luxurious Mexican Villa overlooking pristine sandy beaches and translucent blue waters–a distinguished gate, thriving gardens and a capacious floor plan with earth-toned terracotta and ochre floors and walls festooned in vibrant colors? Think of it–your own personal chef preparing the briny delicacies of the sea for your every meal, the soulful voice of a Mexican singer plumbing the depths of your emotions, a fresh Pacific breeze negating the balmy climate. It would be an idyllic life.
The Villa del Mar restaurant on Albuquerque’s Central Avenue won’t make all these dreams a reality, but it will serve you a meal that–maybe just for a moment–will transport you to that villa of your dreams. Villa del Mar, launched in April, 2007, gained notoriety before it even opened when several palm trees were planted in front of the restaurant. While Albuquerque may be in the desert, our winters tend to be too severe for most palm trees. Sanibel Island, Florida we’re not.
Atop the Spanish tiled building and impaled on a pole is a large blue marlin, a large sporting fish that is rarely, if ever, table fare. Aside from the usual table condiments, each table is decorated with a decorative foot-long craft palm tree, the only kind likely to survive New Mexico’s weather. A small bowl of smoked jalapenos also sits on every table.
The menu is primarily mariscos (seafood), however, other Mexican favorites are available. As you peruse the menu, the personable wait staff brings to atypical salsas to your table. One is an avocado and sour cream based salsa and the other is a salsa made from roasted green chile, jalapenos and tomatoes. The latter is most definitely a winner.
Both salsas are muy piquante and muy sabroso. We liked the green chile and jalapeno salsa so much we paid four dollars for a sixteen ounce Styrofoam cup of the stuff and considered it a bargain at that price. We also did our best to consume about sixteen ounces of that salsa with our meal. This salsa reminded me very much of the roasted green chile on which I was weaned in Northern New Mexico. We used to spread that chile thickly on a warm tortilla then added a slice of Cheddar cheese to offset the capsaicin burn.
The avocado based salsa isn’t quite as piquant, but it’s certainly a dynamo in its own right. The accompanying chips are thin, crisp and served hot. Best of all, the accommodating wait staff will replenish both chips and salsa throughout your meal Like so many of the mariscos restaurants in the Duke City, Villa del Mar serves several aguas frescas (literally “fresh waters”), a refreshing drink popular throughout Latin America. The restaurant’s horchata is one such agua fresca. It’s not nearly as sweet as at some restaurants in which it tastes like the milk from a child’s breakfast cereal.
The menu lists several appetizers, but when mariscos is featured fare, it’s usually best to start with tostadas de ceviche, raw fish (pescado) or shrimp (camaron) marinated in lemon and piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices. Interestingly ceviche originated where seafood was plentiful and refrigeration was rare. Usually served as an appetizer, it is low in calories and has a refreshing taste that melds the briny savoriness of fish with the citrusy tang of the lemon. The lemon won’t quite pucker your lips and won’t overwhelm the fish. It’s a marriage made in seafood heaven.
During our inaugural visit, we didn’t make it past the especiales del chef (chef’s specialties) on page two of the menu. That’s where we saw the entrees we just had to have. For my landlubber wife it was the Steak Tampiqueña that snared her. You probably won’t ever obtain consensus as to what Steak Tampiqueña is. Ostensibly, it originated in Tampico, Mexico, but rarely will you see any two restaurants in one city preparing it the same way or even using the same cut of beef. At high-end restaurants, this steak might be a ribeye or a New York Strip while at less expensive dining establishments, it might be a thinly cut skirt steak. At some restaurants, it’s doused with red chile and at others, it’s just a slab of unadorned beef.
At Villa del Mar, the Steak Tampiqueña is a succulent, marinated and grilled skirt steak without the usual toughness for which skirt steak is renown. Being thinly cut, the steak was served at about medium well, but it somehow managed to retain the juiciness of a good slab of beef. The Steak Tampiqueña comes with enchiladas (which my Kim substituted with a taco), rice, salad (lettuce and tomato with no salad dressing) and a baked potato. The rice is light and buttery with a lot of flavor for rice.
No one in the world serves better baked potatoes than Mexican restaurants and Villa del Mar is no exception. While not the size of footballs as you’ll find in some American steak restaurants, these tubers are absolutely delicious, tender, slow baked and served in aluminum foil. At your request, the cook will slather on drawn butter and sour cream, a carbohydrate laden feast.
For me the first choice at a mariscos restaurant in which it is featured is parillada del mar (grilled seafood). It’s also been my experience that rarely do I order this entree a second time. That’s because at most restaurants the seafood tastes as if just plucked out of the Dead Sea. It’s briny and salty enough to warrant desalinization. It was a wonderfully pleasant surprise when my first bite of the crab meat met with sweet, succulent and tender crab meat. The other seafood in this delightful mix–shrimp, octopus and fish–were grilled to perfection in a bed of bell peppers, sweet onions and a special seasoning.
Without a doubt, the best and freshest seafood parillada we’ve had on this side of the border, the Parillada Villa del Mar restored my faith in this entree. This is an entree I could eat every day of the week without growing tired of it.
Winter doldrums call for a change of pace and the enveloping comfort of something warm and delicious. Villa del Mar offers such comfort in the form of various soups. A wonderful option is the restaurant’s caldo de res, a Mexican beef soup that is extremely hearty, satisfying and delicious. It derives much of its flavor from hind shank and bone marrow. Villa del Mar’s rendition (pictured at right) also includes large pieces of cabbage, corn on the cob, carrots, onions and cilantro.
The menu lists only three desserts, our favorite being the pastel tres leches (cake of the three milks). As its name implies, this cake is made with three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream. Butter is not an ingredient and as such, this is a very light cake with a lot of air bubbles. As you press your fork down on this cake, it positively oozes with milky goodness, but there’s no way you can call this a soggy cake. It’s delicious and refreshing, a great way to end a terrific meal.
Years ago there were very few mariscos restaurants in the Albuquerque area. Today it seems a new mariscos restaurant launches every few months or so and savvy Albuquerque diners can’t get enough. Villa del Mar is poised to compete with the very best mariscos restaurants in town. With an unbeatable green chile and jalapeno salsa and sweet, succulent seafood, it promises to ascend quickly up my restaurant ratings.
Villa del Mar
5001 Central, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Ceviche de Pescado, Tampiquena Especial, Parillada Villa Del Mar, Pastel Tres Leches, Horchata, Salsa, Caldo De Res, Camarones Boston