Sixty Six Acres – Albuquerque, New Mexico
My high school football coach used to call his team “chiquitos pero picosos,” a Spanish term meaning “small but piquant” (like New Mexico’s chiles). At 6’1” and a svelte 175 pounds in full uniform, I was the biggest guy on the team. That made me an enforcer of sorts when players on the other teams tried to bully my smaller teammates. For the most part, I was able to handle the biggest, meanest, roughest players we lined up against. The one exception was when we played Albuquerque Indian School. To keep us from touching their quarterback, the Braves positioned a steel wall in the backfield, an impenetrable barrier President Trump would envy. Disguised as a fullback, that human wall pummeled us mercilessly. We couldn’t go around him and we darn well couldn’t go through him…though I sure tried. I was sore for three days every time we played Albuquerque Indian School.
To this day, every time we’re in the vicinity of the 12th Street acreage that formerly housed the Indian boarding school, memories still visit me of the felony-level atrocities “the wall” perpetrated upon me. Albuquerque Indian School is long gone. In its place, not far from the domain of the immovable mauler who haunts my dreams, sits the sprawling Avanyu Plaza, a business and cultural corridor owned by the Indian Pueblos Marketing, Inc. Founded in 1976 by New Mexico’s nineteen Pueblos, the corporation develops initiatives to provide economic and employment opportunities for Pueblo and Native American people across the state.
Avanyu Plaza, on the southeast corner of 12th Street and Menaul Boulevard, has been transformed into a vibrant new neighborhood in which dozens of enterprises are planned. The plaza is already home to several attractions, including the state’s largest Starbucks, the city’s first Laguna Burger and as of January, 2019, Sixty-Six Acres, a restaurant launched by restaurant impresario Myra Ghattas. You might recognize her as the owner of the innovative Slate Street Café. The name Sixty Six Acres pays tribute to the original allotment of land provided for Albuquerque Indian School and which is now home to Avanyu Plaza.
At just a bit more than 2,000 square feet, Sixty Six Acres is much smaller than Slate Street Café, but like its elder sibling, it’s a trend-setter. Its menu features a spate of tempting starters and shareables, flatbreads, salads, grilled sandwiches, bowls, sweets, sides and extras. An east-facing open floor space bedecked in grainy woods and warm lighting provides a comfortable venue for dining even though seating is more functional than it is comfortable. Against one wall, shelves are adorned with local merchandise you can purchase. Weather permitting, the best seat in the house is on the patio with million dollar views of the Sandias and a towering fireplace to warm you.
2 February 2019: As we perused the starters and shareables menu, my Kim asked me what the difference between calamari and squid is. My off-the-cuff response was “Most Americans will eat calamari; they won’t eat squid.” She followed up with “Aren’t they the same thing.” I explained that calamari is a type of squid with a few slight (mostly anatomical) distinctions. For diners, the most important distinction is probably that calamari are generally more tender than squid. If your experience with calamari has been with fried, breaded rubber band textured ringlets, it’s almost invariably because it was overcooked. According to Martha Stewart, “The trick to coaxing it to a soft, supple texture is to cook it quickly over high heat or slowly over low, whether sautéing, roasting, stir-frying, grilling, or even deep-frying.”
The kitchen at Sixty Six acres knows that trick very well, offering a spicy calamari and peppers starter which would be the envy of calamari you’d find at a psarotaverna in Greece. The calamari is dusted in cornmeal and is served with grilled peppadews and jalapenos with a lemon-basil aioli. With a texture somewhere between melt-in-your mouth and a silky onion ring, the calamari is as good as any we’ve had. Grilled peppadews were something new to us though we usually buy these peppers by the pound at M’Tucci’s Pizza. None of their delightful sweet heat is lost when the peppers are grilled.
2 February 2019: Named America’s “most hated vegetable” in a 2008 survey conducted by Heinz, Brussel sprouts are almost universally reviled. Many diners hate them without ever having tried them (probably because they heard someone else express their disdain for this villainous vegetable). Andy Griffith even wrote an anti-tribute to Brussels sprouts. Entitled “Just Disgusting!,” its lyrics posit: “Who wouldn’t hate them? They’re green. They’re slimy. They’re moldy. They’re horrible. They’re putrid. They’re foul. Apart from that, I love them.”
At Sixty Six Acres, the Crispy Brussels starter is so good even the most nitpicky fussbudgets among us will enjoy them. They’re the antithesis of the smelly, overcooked, burnt rubber funkified Brussel sprouts which just aren’t prepared correctly. These Brussels are taken to a new level with the alchemic addition of an apricot-green chile glaze and white balsamic reduction. The sweet-tart essence of apricot and the mild piquancy of the green chile transforms this vegetable with such a bad rap into a lovable treat everyone will enjoy. Don’t be fooled into thinking these Brussels are palatable solely because their flavor is “masked” because it’s not. If anything, the flavor is only ameliorated or enhanced. The sprouts are cooked to perfection and would be wonderful sans sauce. Texturally, they’re crispy with slightly darkened, but not burnt edges.
2 February 2019: Linus had his security blanket. Your humble blogger had a security…bowl. As a child, I figured that if my bowl was good enough for breakfast cereal, soup and ice cream, it was good enough for every other food. Bowls had the additional benefit of preventing food from sliding off (unlike plates). They also facilitated the intermingling of ingredients, a practice of mine my parents didn’t understand. My affinity for bowls isn’t unique. In many cultures, bowls are the primary and preferred vessel for eating. Only in more affluent cultures do plates dominate—bread plates, salad plates, dessert plates, entrée plates, plates ad nauseam.
It made me happy to learn that the menu at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle included “bowl food.” So does the menu at Sixty Six Acres. Five bowls to be precise. Mark this as a great step in the evolution of mankind—bowls filled with ingredients only a few of us would have dreamt of years ago. The Korean fried chicken bowl (broccoli, roasted carrots, kimchi, red rice, Korean bbq sauce) is one such bowl. For those of us who won’t ever set foot in any of the Colonel’s restaurants, Korean fried chicken is the “real KFC.” Four large fried chicken strips–more reminiscent in color and size of crab legs than poultry—will catch your eye first on a beautifully appointed bowl replete with deliciousness. The secret to the delicate, crunchy crust on the sweet-sour-salty-piquant chicken strips is double-frying. It’s what gives the chicken a lacquered appearance. Alas, the Korean fried chicken bowl didn’t quite win over my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver, who’s a peerless poultry paramour.
2 February 2019: Steak frites (sliced steak, truffled Parmesan fries, roasted Portobellos) is yet another unexpected bowl that just makes good sense especially since the steak is already sliced for you. Prepared at medium-rare, the steak is tender, well-seasoned and moist. It pairs beautifully with the earthy, savory umami-rich Portobello mushrooms and the mountain (we didn’t know whether to eat it or climb it) of truffled Parmesan fries. Umami, thy name is Steak frites on a bowl at Sixty Six Acres.
7 July 2019: There’s a masculine affectation practiced across the Land of Enchantment. Many of us born with the XY-chromosome pairing like to display how macho we are by devouring chile peppers with the Scoville scale equivalence of pepper spray. It’s not enough for us that New Mexico born-and-bred red and green chile is just about the most delicious food in the universe. We need for our chile to bite back…to make our eyes water, scald our tongues and scorch our taste buds. For masculine masochists of this ilk, there’s one pepper we just don’t get. That would be the shishito chile pepper.
Introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun by Portuguese travelers, these peppers are petite, resembling small Hatch greens. That’s where the resemblance ends. Shishitos are mild in flavor, about as piquant as a bell pepper. The Japanese actually bred them to be that way. That is, all but one out of every ten shishitos. When these random random peppers hit, their hot and spicy kick will water your eyes. That’s probably why we keep ordering them. The one in ten that bites back gives us that endorphin rush we crave. Sixty-Six Acres blisters them much as you would Hatch green chiles then it sprinkles on some Cotija, sesame oil and black sesame seeds. Frankly most of them are about as boring as another politician apologizing for yet another indiscretion, but that one in ten is special.
7 July 2019: If the Japanese like their chile peppers on the sweet side, denizens of the North African region appreciate their peppers and seasonings with a little assertiveness. That may surprise you considering how hot and dry North Africa is. As explained by Kitchn, “foods that are hot in spice or temperature may actually cool the body by increasing blood circulation and perspiration.” Cayenne, paprika, peppercorns, garlic, ginger, black pepper and hot chiles all have a place at the table in North Africa. Perhaps the most popular across the region is the legendary harissa.
Harissa is North Africa’s answer to America’s salsa, a ubiquitous condiment and hot sauce. Its most potent ingredients are hot peppers such as Serrano and Cayenne tempered with such ingredients as olive oil, caraway, cumin, garlic, paprika, lemon juice and coriander. As with our sacrosanct salsa, harissa isn’t solely about heat. Sixty-Six Acres’ version, in fact, is rather on the mild side like a marinara sauce. Any piquancy it may have started with is mollified with a dollop of goat cheese which lends notes of tart earthiness. The harissa is served with flatbread crisps.
7 July 2019: Several years ago, my Saigon-born friend Hien confided his concerns that Vietnam’s sacrosanct sandwich, the bánh mì, would soon be Americanized. He believed the under five-dollars price-point would be irresistible to American diners who spend much more for “some pretty terrible sandwiches.” Sadly, his prognostication for the rise in popularity of his favorite sandwich was fraught with pessimism. He figured Americans would soon be desecrating bánh mì with such condiments as mustard and ketchup and such meats as bologna and potted meat.
When he discovered the crispy pork belly banh mi (kale, jalapeños, cucumber, pickled radish, Sriracha mayo and cilantro) at Sixty-Six Acres, his faith in American ingenuity was restored. Hien isn’t easily impressed and he’s a bit of a cynic, but he told me this banh mi could have been constructed in Vietnam. We, too, were more than pleasantly surprised, especially with the Korean barbecue marinade with sweet and savory notes that made the crispy pork belly glisten. We loved the bread, somewhat softer than traditional banh mi (which actually translates from Vietnamese to “bread”) and smeared with a Sriracha mayo the type of which you find sometimes on sushi. We loved the veggies which were definitely true and traditional.
29 October 2019: Serious Eats, a James Beard award-winning blog contends “The Reuben is an easy sandwich; there’s no reason to get it wrong.” As writer Daniel Gritzer points out in his feature on how to construct a great Reuben sandwich, even if you can’t get good corned beef and Jewish rye, the melted cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing make it a “very forgiving” sandwich. It should be even better when constructed with pastrami. Sixty-Six Acres rendition of a pastrami Reuben (Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and marble rye) has all the makings of a great Reuben, but an ingredient list does not a great Reuben make. Not when the marble rye is toasted to the consistency of balsa wood and the pastrami, though sheared into thin slices, was dry. Sure, the Russian dressing and sauerkraut were fine, but I can’t forgive the chef for constructing disappointment on a plate.
7 July 2019: If you’re one of those macho dudes who likes his red and green chile with a kick, you might not want to order the New Mexico shrimp and grits (green chile cheesy grits, red chile shrimp and tortilla strips), one of the five “bowls” on the menu. Despite having both red and green chile, this dish doesn’t have the heat many of us like. In fact, the red chile-dusted tortilla chips are the most piquant item on the dish. The red chile shrimp certainly don’t have much heat, though the way they snap when you bite into them is indicative of their freshness. We’ve had cheesier, creamier grits, too.
7 July 2019: There are only three items on the “sweets” section of the menu which makes it difficult to pass up the apple green chile empanada (which not even New Mexico masochists would like served piquant), but we had it on good authority (thank you Dixie Burch) that the Sixty-Six Acres bread pudding is “to die for.” Served in a jar are layers of housemade pudding, fresh bananas and shortbread. You’ll thank the shortbread for the delightful textural contrast in this banana pudding crunch and you’ll thank Dixie for recommending this dessert. It’s a winner!
It’s meals such as the one we enjoyed at Sixty Six Acres that make me most grateful “the wall” didn’t knock loose a few of my teeth. Sixty Six Acres is an exciting new restaurant venture with an interesting menu offering tremendous variety and flavor combinations you’ll enjoy very much.
Sixty Six Acres
2400 12th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2019
1st VISIT: 2 February 2019
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Korean Fried Chicken Bowl, Steak Frites Bowl, Crispy Brussels, Spicy Calamari and Peppers, Banana Pudding Crunch, New Mexico Shrimp & Grits, Crispy Pork Belly Banh Mi, Baked Harissa & Goat Cheese Dip With Flatbread Crisps, Shishitos