Once described as the “enfant terrible of the gastronomic scene,” curmudgeonly English food critic Jay Rayner pondered “Why would anyone want to take a good piece of meat and cook it until it has the texture of shoe leather, but none of the utility? Why would they want to put something in their mouth that tastes of nothing and gives your jaw cramps?” He was, of course, railing against the egregious violation against nature of grilling a steak well-done. Sure, your perfect steak’s degree of doneness is a matter of taste, experience and preference, but even the most customer-oriented “have it your way” restaurants consider it a desecration to take a perfectly good slab of steak and make charcoal out of it. Many post a caveat on their menus indicating “we are not responsible for steaks ordered well-done.”
Most chefs and steak savants agree that the optimum degree of doneness for any steak is medium rare, officially defined as steak cooked to an internal temperature of 135 degrees. At 135 degrees, the marbling on the steak has had a chance to melt, disseminating its butteriness and flavor throughout the meat. At that temperature, very little moisture has evaporated which translates to a juicy, plump, flavorful and tender steak, one which is red at the center with a ring of pink between the center and crust. 135 degrees is the gold standard of steak doneness!
When Joe and John Lujan and their uncle Tom Brinson decided to launch a new catering business, they chose the name 135 Degrees, not because the focus of their enterprise was going to be steak, but because 135 degrees is an exacting and recognized standard for perfection. It’s a standard they strive to achieve through their punctilious attention to detail, insistence on high quality ingredients and passion for making people happy through food. Joe and Tom helm the kitchen while John runs the front of the house and serves as business manager. Their catering company has been operating since December, 2017, with a repertoire that includes Italian, Asian, Barbecue, New Mexican and American cuisines.
In February, 2019, the trio expanded their operation, launching a brick-and-mortar restaurant they christened The Kitchen by 135 Degrees. Ensconced off Osuna in the westernmost section of the long complex which previously housed the Albuquerque Tortilla Factory, The Kitchen serves comfort food made from scratch. It is currently open only for breakfast (served all day) and lunch Monday through Friday. Place your order at a counter from a lit overhead menu and your food will be delivered to your table shortly thereafter. You will, however, have to serve your own coffee from a condiments station. It’s a very good, rich, strong coffee, by the way, bearing the Pura Vida brand.
The Kitchen by 135 is a bright, casual, airy restaurant sure to become a favorite. The menu is relatively limited, currently offering eight breakfast items, four salads, green chile stew, three sandwiches, a burger, steak frites and chicken fried steak. Popular American breakfast favorites such as pancakes and French toast won’t be on the menu until the chefs can find a high-quality syrup whose exorbitant (quality costs) costs won’t be passed on to their guests. Even then, Joe indicated the restaurant might serve Japanese-style pancakes which are much thicker and more fluffy than their gaijin counterparts.
In our quest to find the best chicken fried steak in the metropolitan area, Sr. Plata and I have traversed well-beaten, well-eaten paths renowned for exemplary renditions of his favorite dish. Until our visit to The Kitchen, all our previous excursions had been to well-established restaurants. We didn’t quite know what to expect. Joe filled us in. The Kitchen’s version of chicken fried steak is made from center-cut top sirloin heart, not a tenderized cube steak. That in itself elevates it above others. It’s breaded in panko breadcrumbs which are lighter and crispier than other breadcrumbs. He had us at center-cut.
Sr. Plata enjoyed his chicken fried steak topped with green chile, an autumn blend with both red and green roasted chile. The Kitchen doesn’t shy away from piquancy nor does it adulterate its chile with cumin. The chile is superb with a tongue-tingling heat New Mexicans will enjoy and which bodes well for The Kitchen’s green chile stew. It’s not so piquant that you’re not able to discern the beefy deliciousness of the chicken fried steak. My chicken fried steak was topped with a sausage gravy which had its own prickly spiciness. It didn’t take long before we both agreed The Kitchen’s rendition is in rarefied air, one of the very best in the Duke City area. It’s the apotheosis of Sr. Plata’s Chicken Fried Steak Trail.
Served with the chicken fried steak is your choice of a hash brown cake or roasted potatoes, white or seeded grain toast and two eggs any way you want them. The roasted potatoes are beautifully seasoned and cut into bite-sized cubes. If fault could be found about these potatoes, it’s that you’ll want more, more, more of them (Sr. Plata counted only eight on his plate). The hash brown cake is an exemplar of the crispiness we all love from hash brown with light, tender potatoes inside. Another sumptuous surprise is the seeded grain toast (served buttered), so good we had to order a second portion.
It always surprises me to ponder just how much Albuquerque exemplifies the “it’s a small world” adage. Thinking it was a long-shot, my friend Sr. Plata asked Chef Joe Lujan if he was related to the governor (Michelle Lujan Grisham). Joe told us not only is he related to the governor, but to former Secretary of the Interior and Congressman Manuel Lujan, Jr. and even to Ben Ray Lujan, the U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district. His dad, Larry Lujan, a prominent entrepreneur, is an investor in the 135 Degree enterprise.
The Kitchen by 135 Degrees is one of those rare restaurants you’ll wish would open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. The chicken fried steak is so good, it’ll inspire future visits to see what else Chefs Joe and Tom are cooking. It’s bound to be outstanding.
The Kitchen by 135 Degrees
141 Osuna Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 7 February 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Chicken Fried Steak, Hash Brown Cake, Pura Vida Coffee