“People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef salads
With good things and bad things chopped and mixed together
In a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
~ Lemony Snicket, The Grim Grotto
I’m not the type of guy who could write a tearful tell-all or confess some scurrilous detail to Oprah. Nor do I ever get on Facebook and publish a litany of mundane minutia about my life. However, in the spirit of “confession is good for the soul,” I’ve got a secret to divulge. I’ve got a huge crush on Erin Wade. It’s not the type of crush for which I’d leave my Kim, but the type of crush a geeky, gangling high school kid might have on a popular girl who’s way out of his league, the type of crush that would probably leave him tongue-tied if she were ever to talk with him. The first time I saw Erin Wade live and in color at her restaurant in Santa Fe, my initial impression was “Wow! She is stunning. She’s got to be a model or a goddess.” I didn’t know who she was until my dining companion informed me that she was the braintrust behind Vinaigrette.
Over time the goddess Erin more than lived up to my crush–and not just because she remains an ageless, timeless beauty. She’s got an amazing farm in Nambe in which she grows almost all of the greens that grace the tables at her restaurants. And speaking of restaurants, she’s indefatigable, launching Vinaigrette locations in Albuquerque and Austin then a restaurant and retail concept called Modern General in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Most recently, she opened The Feel Good in Albuquerque. Every one of her restaurant concepts bespeaks of her commitment to quality, sustainability and deliciousness.
As if my admiration for (and crush on) Erin Wade wasn’t already boundless, during the Cabrona virus pandemic, she garnered even more of my respect and that of many of the city’s savvy diners. She put to words the sentiments and feelings of most restaurateurs when she penned an open letter to the CEO of Grubhub. The goddess Erin blasted Grubhub and similar delivery services for the duplicitous practice of pretending to “partner” with restaurants by providing a necessary service while in actuality charging a 30-percent commission fee that slashes a restaurant’s already razor-thin profit margins. Her letter made me simultaneously proud of her and angry at predatory practices that hurt restaurants I love so much. You’ve got to read it. Confession hour is over, folks. Back to my review.
Before launching in Albuquerque, Erin Wade had actually considered making Southern California the home of her second restaurant. As fate would have it, she was then introduced to a long vacant a 3,000-square-foot building on the fringes of Old Town. Fittingly the edifice was tailored for the type of “green” operation Wade desired, wanting it to be “green outside the plate,” too. The Albuquerque restaurant features reclaimed pine floors from Dixon, high efficiency lighting tracks, Energy Star kitchen equipment, recycled-content tiles, door hardware made from 90% post-consumer waste, eco-friendly fabrics and zero-volatile-organic-compound paint. Vinaigrette recycles and composes all its organic waste.
The attentive servers at both locations are attired in bright tee-shirts on which the leafy parts of salad ingredients are painted. It takes away much of the mystery as to what “greens” actually are and if you thought lettuce is the principle component of all salads, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Vinaigrette’s salads are sophisticated and inventive without being too fru-fru. Even some of my troglodytic carnivorous colleagues will enjoy them, especially since portion sizes aren’t what they might associate with salads. Those of us with furry, four-legged children love the expansive dog-friendly patios. There’s one on the restaurant’s west side and one on the east.
31 December 2012: If you’re a fan of bold flavors, it’s possible to enjoy them even with salad. The Cherry Tart, which may sound like a pastry dessert, is such an bold-flavored salad. It’s composed of dried cherries (as fresh and delicious as any we’ve ever had), mild feta cheese, peppery baby arugula and toasted pecans with a Champagne vinaigrette dressing. Baby arugula has been described as having a “subtle nutty flavor with a radish-like edge.” While not entirely accurate, it is most certainly a bold and spicy, maybe even peppery green. It’s clearly the star of this salad. The Champagne vinaigrette dressing is lightly applied to allow other flavors to shine.
31 December 2012: If you don’t necessarily want to experiment with heretofore untried salad ingredient combinations, the “Classic Salads” section of the menu provides more familiar, traditional and time-honored options. It may even restore your faith in how “Classics” such as the Cobb salad should be made and remind you why you loved them in the first place. Kelly Koepke, (erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal) who can turn a phrase better than anyone maybe in New Mexico, turned me on to Vinaigrette’s Cobb salad. Though she liked my “best of the best for 2012” choices, she was confident the Cobb salad would make my list once I tried it. She was right! I’ll let her describe why it stands out: “It’s not the usual composed Cobb with gloppy dressing that most restaurants serve. Instead, it’s a chopped, tossed Cobb with the perfect amount of tangy dressing. Best. Cobb. Ever.”
4 August 2019: When she broke out in the chorus of Sonny and Cher’s top ten hit song “The Beat Goes On,” I had to admit my Kim and I are getting a bit long in the tooth. Many of my colleagues at the University of New Mexico wouldn’t recognize either the song or Sonny and Cher. What prompted my Kim’s reminiscence was perusing the salad menu and seeing one named “The Beet Goes On” (fresh baby greens and arugula tossed with tangy goat cheese, chopped pistachios, balsamic roasted beets and honey-balsamic vinaigrette). To make a great salad even better, we added grilled marinated baby artichokes. Large chunks of the sweet, earthy root plant are the a reason “beet” is the named ingredient on this salad. A sprinkling of pistachios makes those beets even better. The tangy goat cheese and honey-balsamic vinaigrette are perfect two-note harmony for a memorable salad.
31 December 2012: You might think you’ve had every variation of the Cubano possible with little discernible difference between most of them. Vinaigrette’s Cuban Torta (mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish) actually surprised me in many pleasant and delicious ways. The first surprise is the split roll on which the sandwich is constructed. It’s not the de rigueur panini-style bread which is often abrasive enough to hurt the roof of your mouth. It’s a soft bread somewhat reminiscent of just baked bagels without the chewiness. The combination of chipotle and sweet relish provides a wonderful balance between tangy, sweet and piquant notes that complement the mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, either ingredient of which would make the basis of a wondrous sandwich. This sandwich doesn’t subscribe to any template of what a Cubano should be and taste like. Viva la diferencia!
4 August 2019: It’s been pretty well established that sommeliers have more sophisticated taste buds than the rest of us. With their “privileged” noses, they can discern subtleties and nuances in the flavors and aromas of wines. They can even identify faint aromas of substances present in the wine as well as aromas of the very casks in which wines are stored. Oak? No problem. Grapefruit pith? That’s easy. So when certified, award-winning sommelier Tom Molitor ranted about Vinaigrette’s Reuben (savory corned beef griddled and layered with tangy sauerkraut, spicy Russian dressing and Swiss cheese on toasted rye) at Vinaigrette, it behooves those of us with pedestrian taste buds to take notice.
Tom described the Russian dressing as “mysteriously outstanding,” confirming during visits in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque that Vinaigrette makes their own. He calls Vinaigrette’s Reuben “fabulous.” That’s no understatement. It’s in rarefied air as one of the very best Reubens in Albuquerque just below the transcendent Ruben at Bocadillos and in the company of the Reuben at 2G’s Bistro and The Farmacy. That Russian dressing is a mingling of sharp flavors that liven up the sandwich, pairing with an excellent sauerkraut that’s more than just sour. It’s got sweet, salty and spicy notes, too. The corned beef is nicely spiced and delicious.
4 August 2019: You might not think a restaurant specializing in salads would offer a taco worth mention–or that if it did offer a taco, a broad lettuce leaf would take the place of a corn tortilla. Instead of a lettuce leaf Vinaigrette’s duck taco (duck confit, hoisin and hot sauce with peanuts, cabbage, scallions and carrots) nestles the contents of its tacos on crisp jicama shells. It’s a surprisingly good touch. The sweet, nutty flavor of jicama is wholly unlike corn or flour tortillas and unlike some taco shells, it doesn’t fall apart. That makes it a crispy, but sturdy home for sweet, tender tendrils of duck cooked in its own delicious fat. With the hoisin sauce instead of a salsa, it’s more Asian than Mexican. By any standard, it’s a Taco Tuesday worthy taco.
4 August 2019: As early as 1885, The Creole Cookery Book (published by the Christian Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans) was describing gumbo-making as an “occult science” that “should be allowed its proper place in the gastronomical world.” Having lived for nearly eight years about ninety-miles from New Orleans, we crave gumbo, hoping (and praying) we can find a version comparable to what we enjoyed in the Crescent City. Vinaigrette’s version (Classic gumbo with Andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken and rice) while “Albuquerque good” probably wouldn’t cut it in New Orleans where a thicker, darker roux is preferred. That’s our preference, too. Had this version been called “New Orleans soup,” we would have enjoyed it more, but the term “gumbo” has connotations of greatness for us.
4 March 2020: Espying a salad called The Nutty Per-Fessor immediately called to mind a quote from the Jerry Lewis movie “The Nutty Professor.” When a colleague was discussing the eccentricities of scientists, he noted that “Einstein hated haircuts, De Vinci love to paint, and Newton … ” at which point the Jerry Lewis character interrupted with “he had something to do with figs, right?” There are no figs on The Nutty Per-Fessor, but you will find Balsamic-roasted pears, bacon crumbles, toasted pecan halves and earthy blue cheese served with tender greens and ruby port vinaigrette. This is the perfect salad for those of us who love contrasting flavor profiles–the sweet tartness of the Balsamic-roasted peppers against the salty bacon crumbles, the earthy blue cheese as a foil for the ruby port vinaigrette. There’s a lot going on in this salad, all good, all delicious.
30 July 2022: You might think serving something like a Reuben sandwich in a sandwich restaurant would be somewhat dichotomous. Erin explains it best in a blog named justBOBBI: “Occasionally I’ll have an indulgence like pizza and or hamburger, if I want it. I feel that being too restrictive is bad—dieting and restricting can be harsh and problematic. I honor my cravings, but mostly I’m a very clean eater.” Bravo! Is it any wonder I’m crazy about her. You’ve already read my esteem for Vinaigrette’s Reuben sandwich. Whether it’s paired with a salad or the mushroom stew (hearty miso-based vegan stew with a blend of forest, button and porcini mushrooms), it’s fabulous. So is the stew, a umami bomb that enhances the savory qualities of the stew. It’ll spoil you for both miso soup and other mushroom soups.
30 July 2022: Those of you seasoned enough to remember the Beverly Hillbillies will probably laugh at the recollection of cipher-expert and double naught spy Jethro Bodine. In response to a secretary’s question “How would you like a karate chop?” Jethro replied “Swell, I’m starving.” Even after having been knocked senseless, Jethro thought a karate chop was akin to a pork chop or lamb chop. I wondered what he might think a chop salad is…and how much more exotic an Asian chop salad would have to be. Vinaigrette’s Asian chop salad (chopped Napa and red cabbage and rice noodles, with julienned red bell peppers, scallions, shredded carrots, cilantro and peanuts. Tossed with a miso ginger vinaigrette and topped with crispy noodles) is a knock-out in ways a karate chop could never be. It’s an exemplar of freshness meets flavor, a melange of crispy veggies mixed with a tangle of glass noodles. The miso ginger vinaigrette should be bottled and sold. It’s magnificent.
A number of fresh desserts is also available and all hold true to the restaurant’s commitment to serving organic and local as much as possible. One post-prandial treat which will impress itself on your memory is a peach-raspberry pie. The peaches are certainly not the canned variety; they have a recently picked texture and taste. This is a lip-puckering dessert also lacking that artificial pectin sometimes used to over-sweeten pies. It’s all natural and all delicious. The ice cream is a soft-serve variety that melted quickly on the 90-degree day we visited.
Even better is a pumpkin cheesecake so good you might wish for fall year-round. The menu describes it simply as “aromatic, autumnal, satisfying!” It has all those qualities and so much more, especially the satisfying adjective. Its aromatic qualities are courtesy of using the right spices in perfect proportion to one another and the pumpkin itself which is garden-picked fresh. For years my Kim and I have experimented with pumpkin cheesecakes and have never managed one quite as good.
In the stoner vernacular, the term “shrub” probably has connotations of Colorado’s (and now New Mexico’s) favorite cash crop, but you won’t find that type of shrub at Vinaigrette. Instead you’ll find a remarkably refreshing beverage such as the raspberry-basil shrub my Kim and I shared. Behind the Bar describes shrubs as “an acidulated concoction of fruit, berries, aromatics, sugar, and vinegar. The word shrub is derived from the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink.” If all that sounds too scientific, all you need to know is that shrubs are delightful. Though they’ve actually been made since colonial America, only in recent years have they made a resurgence. For that we’re very happy.
After our second visit, my Kim remarked that this remarkable emporium of salad excellence should be renamed “Vinai-Great.” You won’t get an argument out of me. Next time you visit Vinaigrette, say “hi” to Erin to me. Maybe you won’t be as tongue-tied.
1828 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2022
1st VISIT: 31 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Cobb Salad, Cuban Torta, Pumpkin Cheesecake, Peach-Raspberry Pie a la mode, Gumbo, The Beet Goes On, Reuben, Duck Tacos, Raspberry-Basil Shrub, Asian Chop Salad, Mushroom Stew