“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.” Sound of Music fans will recognize that these are a few of Julie Andrews favorite things. It’s with great fondness and more than a little (blush) salivation that I bid adieu and auld lang syne to my my favorite things–the dishes I enjoyed most across the Land of Enchantment in 2018. These are the baker’s dozen plus dishes which are most indelibly imprinted on my memory engrams…the first dishes that come to mind when I close my eyes and reflect on the past year in eating. As with previous yearly compilations, every item on this list was heretofore unknown to my palate before 2018. Every dish was a delicious discovery from within New Mexico’s sacred borders. In chronological order, my “best of the best” are:
- Seared may be the Duke City’s most reasonably priced fine-dining restaurant, an upscale American bistro “with a French and Italian twist.” Chef Alejandro Tenchipe prepares one of the city’s most sumptuous steaks, a Filet de Boeuf (eight-ounces of local, grass-fed beef, roasted red skin potatoes and red onions, asparagus, red wine demi-glaze reduction and roasted garlic). It’s a great dish with which to start or end any year.
- Norteños who believe the apotheosis of burger perfection can only be found in the state’s northern half should trek on down to Roswell where Big D’s Downtown Dive serves up The Green (autumn-roasted green chile, yellow cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mustard and pickled cucumbers). The Green may be one of the five or six very best burgers in New Mexico. That’s saying something!
- Ordering curry dishes almost exclusively at Thai restaurants has been at the expense of other outstanding Thai dishes such as the Pad Krapow at the Thai Kitchen. This magnificent dish, which translates to “wok fried” (Pad) “holy basil” (Krapow), is one of the most fragrant of all dishes in a culinary culture in which virtually all dishes are fragrant. It’s also one of the most delicious, especially the way it’s prepared in this westside gem.
- My favorite quaintly named Italian pasta dish is strozzapreti, a term which translates to “priest stranglers.” No one prepares it better than Torinos @ Home, where we enjoyed it as a special of the day during an April visit. This exemplar of rich deliciousness showcases a creamy Parmesan cheese sauce, woodsy pine nuts, earthy mushrooms, leafy spinach, grilled chicken and of course, the priest-strangling pasta.
- Chef Dennis Apodaca made a triumphant return to the Duke City dining scene with the launch–or shall we say relaunch–of Sophia’s Place, the restaurant which captured Guy Fieri’s imagination. It also captured my affections with Huevos Divorciados, two fried eggs atop two tostadas topped with shredded white and yellow Cheddar and black beans . One egg is slathered with a tomatillo sauce (the green), the other with red chile. Both are absolutely superb!
- Toltec Brewing Co.’s Royale was one of hundreds of burgers entered in the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project national project. After an evaluation by a panel of highly credentialed judges, the Royale was deemed worthy of being showcased at the James Beard House, an honor bestowed to only the five very best burgers in the competition. It’s a fabulous burger.
- Across the Deep South, fried green tomatoes are all the rage. Far better are fried green tomatillos, lightly battered, golden-hued green tomatillo orbs available only at the Freight House Kitchen & Tap in Bernalillo. It’s unlikely a movie will be named for these herbaceous orbs, but perhaps a New Mexican corrido should be sung about them. They’re terrific with the two accompanying sauces, but even better with the Freight House’s Alabama white sauce.
- Chef Robert Hesse went from Hell’s Kitchen to almost heaven (Albuquerque) where he’s introducing celestial cuisine to Duke City diners at Gigi Italian Bistro. His life-altering white truffle ravioli is not only one of the most delicious dishes it’s been my joy to experience, it’s the dish I enjoyed most in 2018. It’s not only fabulous, it’s value-priced for diners who wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy this transformative dish.
- My second favorite dish in 2018, chicken tortellini carbonara (roasted pulled chicken, five cheese tortellini, prosciutto di Parma, English peas, crispy pork belly, wild mushrooms, garlic Alfredo sauce and sun-dried tomatoes) also came from Gigi Italian Bistro. It’s a dish so rich and delicious it will make grown men swoon (it did me). It’s the stuff of which dreams are made, one of those dishes in which individual ingredients coalesce to form an even better whole.
- An icon of the halcyon days of Route 66, El Vado was reborn in 2018 as a mixed-use complex showcasing local brews and food pods in which local food vendors offer culinary diversity and deliciousness. One of our favorites food pods is Bosque Burger where Chef Greg Ritt is introducing such fabulous creations as The Cubano, a hybrid burger and sandwich that combines the very best of both.
- Campo at Los Poblanos in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque is one of the most highly regarded fine-dining restaurants in the state. The dish we esteemed most at this cultural-culinary gem is the cider-brined pork chop. Sliced into six large half-inch thick medallions, including one with bone-in, these chops are porcine perfection, as good as any pork chops we’ve had anywhere. They’re plated beautifully and served with several complementary dishes.
- Chef Elvis Boncomo is one of the most inventive chefs in the Land of Enchantment. Every dish he creates is magical in its ability to tantalize your taste buds. At Poki Poblano, he’s been dazzling diners with such wondrous dishes as one with the most simple of names, Salmon. Beautifully brushed with a miso glaze and given a nice grilled exterior char while preserving the moistness inside, it’s a tender fillet as flaky and delicate as salmon can get. Moreover, it’s absolutely delicious.
- Eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast made us quite finicky when it comes to Cajun and Southern cuisine. Fortunately Karen Johnson-Bey at K’Lynn’s in Rio Rancho prepares the best of both breeds we’ve had since returning to New Mexico. Our very favorite is the jambalaya, a jumble of chicken, Andouille sausage, shrimp, rice and the Cajun “trinity” of onions, celery and green bell peppers seasoned assertively the way New Mexicans love their food.
- If the term “hot off the griddle” conjures up images of a stack of flat, golden orbs dripping with butter and slathered in maple syrup dripping down onto the plate, you owe it to yourself to visit Modern General in Albuquerque to try Savorycakes. My early favorites are the Red Pepper Sonoracakes (bright red, subtly smoky roasted pepper flapjacks topped with Scottish lox, chive sour cream and finished with sweet pepper syrup), as intriguing a dish as has crossed my path in quite a while.
- It’s not often a restaurant can garner a significant following when it offers only one dish, but Barbacoa El Primo has managed this feat on the strength of its outstanding barbacoa. Though offering only one meat (barbacoa) and only four items: tacos, burritos, tortas and consome–possibilities abound. So do flavors, starting with the tender, rich, fatty deliciousness of that barbacoa. It’s the best I’ve ever had!
Please feel free to share your own “best of the best” New Mexico dining choices for 2018 by commenting to this post. Who knows? Maybe next year they’ll make it to my list, too.