Vincent: And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the #%*&! a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: What’d they call it?
Vincent: They call it Royale with cheese.
Jules: Royale with Cheese. What’d they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.
265 “f-bombs,” copious racist slurs, torrents of extreme language and some of the most weighty dialogue ever spoken in an American movie. That was Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 apotheosis Pulp Fiction, a low-brow pastiche the cognoscenti consider one of the most quotable movies ever made. The clever banter and witty repartee between hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is particularly memorable. It was their dialogue which introduced this review. It was what immediately came to mind when I espied the “Royale” on the “Breaking Bread” section of Toltec Brewing Co.’s menu.
While no self-respecting gastronome would ever order a Quarter Pounder…er, Royale with cheese in Paris (or anywhere else, but especially not in Paris), Toltec’s Royale is an entirely different matter. Constructed from a patty weighing in at a whopping half-pound of blended brisket and crimini mushrooms, it’s the proverbial muscle-bound beach bully kicking sand in the face of the four-ounce weakling Quarter Pounder. Toltec’s Royale was first brought to my attention in June, 2018 by a well-meaning colleague who asked me if I had ever tried Albuquerque’s James Beard award-winning burger. He must have had the gift of prophecy.
As of June, 2018, the Royale had not won a James Beard award of any kind, but Duke City voters helped change that. The Royale was one of literally hundreds of burgers entered in the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project national project. Some of the other burgers entered in the competition were actually constructed by actual James Beard award-winning chefs so this was one formidable food melee. Voters were able to cast their ballots once a day through 31 July 2018. After the ballots were tallied, the Royale was one of the top twenty vote-getters. Those top twenty burgers were then evaluated by a panel of judges (including television personality Andrew Zimmern) to determine which five would be showcased at the James Beard House in the Blended Burger Bun’anza. The five winners included Albuquerque Chef David Ruiz of Toltec Brewing and that fabulous Royale.
7 June 2018: The James Beard House loved the 1/2 Pound brisket and crimini mushroom patty with ancho and herb mayo, Young Guns green chile, aged white Cheddar, bacon, local-fried egg and heirloom tomato. This is a burger that delivers on its campaign promises! Take it from at least two constituents, photographer extraordinaire Bruce Terzes and your gangling gastronome, the Royale will win you over. Not since the green chile cheeseburger at Alamogordo’s Rockin’ BZ Burgers has such a fantastic burger crossed my lips. It made such a tremendous first impression on the Thursday of my inaugural visit to Toltec that I had to have another one the next day. Quite simply, it’s one of the very best burgers in the Duke City. In three visits to Toltec, I’ve had three Royales. It doesn’t happen often that I don’t explore other items on any menu.
So, what makes it a burger for the people (at least the non–vegan people among us)? Well, it delivers on what was promised about Wendy’s burgers by 1970s commercials. Wendy’s spokesperson Clara Peller, for example, often asked “where’s the beef.” That question doesn’t apply with the Royale. There’s a whole half-pound of brisket blended with crimini mushrooms. The combination is hot and juicy, another Wendy’s promise of yore. It’s a multi-napkin affair with moistness sure to run down your arms and make a glistening mess of your face. The fried egg is over-medium which means the yolk is only slightly runny (like the Rio Grande). The bacon is crisp and plentiful, the aged Cheddar sharp and complex, but it’s the green chile from Young Guns which brings it all together. The green chile actually bites back, increasingly a rarity in the Land of Enchilement. Though the buns are formidable, they’re no match for the juiciness of this fabulous burger. Bravo, Toltec!
It may surprise some that Toltec, a west side brewery which launched in May, 2018, would serve such a superb burger though the surprise quickly evaporates when informed the genius responsible for this chef d’oeuvre was David Ruiz (who has since moved on to other opportunities). Albuquerque knows David from his days as executive chef at Pueblo Harvest, a gig that earned him a 2017 appearance on the Food Network show “Guy Fieri’s Family Road Trip.” It wasn’t the chef’s only appearance on the Food Network. In 2016, he competed on the network’s popular cooking show “Chopped.” In 2017, David won the “Duke it Out” challenge, earning both people’s choice and critics’ choice for best entree. David was the co-founder of 505 Food Fights, a grassroots chef competition intended to fonder community in Albuquerque’s culinary industry. His worthy successor is Chef Emma Gibson who worked alongside Chef Ruiz since its launch. Look for Chef Gibson to imprint her own touches to the menu.
8 June 2018: Toltec is by no means a one-trick pony when it comes to dining. Its menu might be small, but it’s mighty. Save for “Green Eggs and Ham,” Toltec’s name for deviled eggs (with spinach and agave glazed pork belly), the “Beer Bites” section of the menu is pretty uninteresting. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. Take, for example, the Local Cheese Plate (local cheese, cured meat, flat bread, local honey and candied pepitas). It’s a turophile’s dream, celebrating Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory‘s fantastic fromage: (wonderful wedges of green chile and aged Cheddar and charcuterie meats (prosciutto, salami, capicola). The greater surprise, however, were the candied pepitas and the local honey from a bee-keeper of the chef’s acquaintance.
8 June 2018: With every burger or sandwich on the “Breaking Bread” menu, you have your choice of seasoned fries, cinnamon fries, cinnamon sweet potato fries, tortilla chips or side salad. The side salad (mixed field greens, candied pepitas, fresh apple slices, white cheddar and sweet red onions) is superb, pairing magnificently with the blue cheese dressing with its plenitude of cheese crumbles. This is a salad constructed of complementary ingredients; they all go well together.
8 June 2018: For my Kim, sausage and peppers evokes memories of Italian restaurants throughout the Chicago area where that combination is part and parcel of one of the best sandwiches you’ll find in the Windy City (and that’s saying something). Sausage and Peppers at Toltec is something entirely different: house-made lemon capellini topped with turkey, lemon and thyme sausage, a trio of bell peppers, roasted marinara and Parmesan. The capellini, a thin pasta whose name translates to “little hairs” is perfectly al dente. Strands of this light pasta wrap around red, yellow and green peppers, a coarse sausage and lots of red sauce. The dish was recommended by two servers, both of whom indicated it was the best thing on the menu. If there’s one aspect of this dish that would have made this dish more “Chicago authentic,” it would be using a fennel-kissed sausage instead of the thyme sausage. Thyme has a bitter, almost piney flavor profile that sometimes overpowers other aspects of a dish.
5 November 2019: According to the National Chicken Council, nearly four of every five Americans eat chicken wings. 57% of respondents to a Council survey indicated they enjoy their wings with Ranch dressing. 43% enjoy them with barbecue sauce, 38% with hot sauce and 34% with blue cheese. You probably noticed that the numbers don’t add up to 100%. That’s because most of us like our chicken wings with a variety of sauces and dips. Heck, 34% of Americans like their wings with celery and 21% like them with carrots…or maybe they invite their vegan and vegetarian friends to eat the celery and carrots while the carnivores among us devour the wings.
Toltec offers an eight count of wings served with Cactus Warrior BBQ sauce, classic hot, naked or garlic Parmesan and they’re served with carrots and celery along with your choice of Ranch or blue cheese dressing. We ordered two of each so as to try them all. The wings appear to be double-fried, a process which gives them a crispy exterior coating while sealing in moistness and juiciness. My Kim enjoyed the BBQ sauce most while my favorite was the Buffalo style classic hot.
5 November 2019: There are four pizzas on the menu, ranging from the classic Margherita to three inventive avant-garde pies. They’re slightly larger than the personal pies served at many pizzerias, about twelve inches around. My Kim may be the only person in Albuquerque who does not consider “char” to be a flavor so she asked that her pie be extricated from the oven just as the char is starting to build. It was a great decision. She also asked for crispy pork belly instead of pepperoni on “The Burque” (Mozzarella-Provolone blend, marinara, green chile, pepperoni). Another great choice! This was a surprisingly good pizza, one of those rarities in which the cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) tastes like very good baked bread. A generous portion of smoky pork belly with sweet undertones also stood out.
5 November 2019: There are only two desserts on the menu, but the one which called out loudest to us was an apple upside down cake. That’s apple upside down cake, not pineapple upside down cake. It was a surprising revelation to us that a classic American baking technique could be done with something other than pineapple. Shame on us. As with the pineapple upside down cake, a single circular apple slice sits atop a dense, moist cake seasoned with traditional apple pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice). Caramelized edges provided a wonderful textural contrast.
Service at Toltec is terrific. Make sure to ask for Nate, an ambassador for the restaurant’s menu who’s on-the-spot with whatever you need, whether it be a refill or an answer to a question about the menu. Toltec’s dog-friendly patio is only about fifteen feet away from a heavily trafficked and often noisy street, but it’s well-shaded (except right before sunset) and relatively cool. Were Vincent and Jules to ever visit Toltec, the ensuing dialogue would probably be laced with colorful epithets, all complimentary. They would love Toltec’s version of the Royale with cheese.
Toltec Brewing Co.
10250 Cottonwood Park, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 November 2019
1st VISIT: 8 June 2018
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: The Royale, Local Cheese Plate, Sausage & Peppers, Side Salad, The Burque (Pizza), Apple Upside Down Cake, Chicken Wings