With a puff of white smoke emanating from the chimney of the Garduño residence and to the cheers of legions of loyal Gil’s thrilling readers, your friendly neighborhood blogger has finally named the very best of the best for 2019. These are the dishes I enjoyed most across the Land of Enchantment in 2019, the dozen dishes 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 2019. Every dish was a delicious discovery from within New Mexico’s sacred borders. In chronological order, my “best of the best” are:
Comedian Rita Rudner once joked that “most turkeys taste better the day after; my mother’s tasted better the day before.” Obviously she had no idea what Chef Nestor Lopez can do with a turkey. His El Chumpe sandwich (Salvadoran pulled turkey in a tomato mole, sliced cucumber and radish, slaw, mango-pineapple-habanero salsa and watercress on a toasted bolillo) is one of several items on the Gobble This menu which could have made this list.
Twice named purveyors of the best food truck burger in the country, Chef Toddzilla’s Gourmet Burgers in Roswell graduated from food truck to brick-and-mortar restaurant, but retained the severe case of “give a damns” that has endeared them to burger pilgrims across the fruited plain. The smart ones come for the Smackdown Burger, a masterpiece constructed from chorizo and adorned with a fried egg and green chile. Even the stoic Mr. Spock would swoon at first bite.
There are several reasons savvy diners arrive early and stand in line for more than an hour at Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue in Cloudcroft. One of those reasons is the brisket, an exemplar of moist, juicy, tender deliciousness with a pronounced smoke ring and a bark that’s pure meat candy. For many of us Cloudcroft is closer than Texas and in Mad Jack’s it’s got a barbecue joint as good as any you’ll find in the Lone Star state.
Iron Chef Masuharu Morimoto quips that “one way to make it slightly healthier is to leave the soup and just eat the noodles.” If you did that you’d miss out on the transformative pecan daschi ramen with smoked bone marrow from Oni Noodles in Albuquerque. if you remember the elation you felt when you first fell in love with ramen, you’ll relive it all over again with what could very well be the best ramen in the Land of Enchantment.
One definition for masochism is “deriving pleasure from pain.” That definition fits Duke City diners who have fallen in love with the “really clucking hot” fried chicken at FireBird Nashville Hot Chicken. Not all diners can handle that level of heat, but most New Mexicans should have no problem with just regular “hot.” At any degree of heat, Nashville hot chicken creates an endorphin rush similar to New Mexican chile, but it’s not all about heat here. The chicken is moist, tender and addictive.
Resplendent KOAT morning anchor Royale Da could probably urge her legion of loyal viewers to snack on chapulines (grasshoppers) and we’d run out to the fields to catch a few. So, when she declared the Shop Burger from The Shop her very favorite burger, it was a given that we’d rush out and try one…or ten. The Shop Burger (two fresh ground patties, mustard, jalapeño mayo, chopped green chile, Tillamook Cheddar, caramelized onions and housemade pickles on a locally baked fresh bun) is the very best burger in Albuquerque and among the top three burgers in New Mexico. Thank you, Royale.
In less than two years of operating Malageña’s Latin Tapas Javier and Molly Montaño earned the Local Heroes award from Edible New Mexico in recognition of the state’s best food truck. Today, the Montaños are enthralling diners with exquisite tapas at the Vara Winery & Distillery. Even without an on-premises kitchen, the Montaños create such pure deliciousness as Panzanella Salad with Steak, an ingenious melding (particularly garam-macerated tomatillos) of cultures and ingredients. It’ll blow you away.
If ever there was a restaurant whose very name evokes Pavlovian reactions, it’s Need a Pita. You’re probably drooling right now thinking about how great it would be to sink your teeth into a warm, fluffy pita maybe stuffed with green chile schwarma or as a side with the best babaganoosh in the city. Owners Alex and Neda Abweh are the consummate hosts. Trust them to guide you through a delicious Middle East dining adventure you won’t soon forget.
Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, sagely advised “Life is short and unpredictable. Eat the dessert first!” Though she would have loved the utter indulgent deliciousness of the Cioccolato Bianco(a white chocolate dome, banana pudding gelato with Italian Chantilly, dark chocolate ganache with caramelized pistachios over berries) from Sassella in Santa Fe, she would sadly have missed out on the visual thrill of seeing it created. This is a dessert no one should miss. It was truly one of the most magnificent desserts we’ve enjoyed in many a year.
At the risk of being skewered myself, I’ll put Tanzanian mishkaki skewers against any other skewered meat dish in the world…at least the way they’re prepared at the Safari Grill. Each moist and tender skewer is imbued with the distinctive flame-kissed flavors and the exotic spices that confirm Marco Polo’s journey was worth it. My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and I enjoyed more meals at the Safari Grill than we did at any other restaurant, in every case letting Shaina, the restaurant’s radiant ambassador guide our culinary journey to an exotic cuisine.
Savvy diners will live everyday like it’s Taco Tuesday. In doing so, we live each day full of appreciation and a genuine sense of joy and gratitude. Joy and gratitude are the two sentiments that come immediately to mind when reflecting on all the transcendent tacos I enjoyed at Dia De Los Tacos. Genius chef Dominic “Dom” Valuenzuela’s creativity knows no bounds when it comes to creating tacos which pop with flavor and ingredient combinations that are bold and brash yet sophisticated and refined. It would be impossible to single out just one taco for “best of the best” recognition. They’re all “best” caliber.
“Find of the year” and “best bite” honors go to La Guelaguetza, a South Valley gem that celebrates the incomparable cuisine of Oaxaca. The latter honor goes to the enchiladas with mole (moist shredded chicken enrobed in corn tortillas and topped with your choice of mole). After having enjoyed these enchiladas twice, I have yet to figure out which of the three moles-–mole negro, mole picoso and mole Oaxaqueño–is my favorite. It’s also entirely possible there are dishes on the menu even better, but the enchiladas are so good, it may take a while before I try anything else. These enchiladas are enchanting!
Please feel free to share your own “best of the best” New Mexico dining choices for 2019 by commenting to this post. Who knows? Maybe next year they’ll make it to my list, too.