Until Dagmar Mondragon launched her first German restaurant in Albuquerque back in 1996, many of us knew very little about German cuisine in general and baking in particular. The only German baker with which some of us were acquainted was the wicked witch who planned to bake Hansel and Gretel in her oven. And the only German pastry with which we were familiar was the gingerbread house in which that witch lived. Most of us believed German chocolate cake originated somewhere in Germany. Heck, if it wasn’t for Hogan’s Heroes, we wouldn’t know the difference between pumpernickel and weinerschnitzel.
Having frequented every one of the German restaurants Dagmar has launched in the nearly a quarter-century in which she’s served the Duke City metropolitan area, I’ve become besotted by her baked breads, delighted by her desserts, captivated by her cooking and grown very fond of the remarkable, larger-than-life woman named Dagmar. Her inspirational story is replete with all the elements and themes that make a great movie though if you weren’t already acquainted with Dagmar’s story, you might not believe how anyone could surmount so many challenges and remain the warm, perpetually smiling lady who greets you cheerfully when you step into her bakery.
While most movies center around one theme, you would be hard-pressed to pigeonhole the Dagmar Mondragon story into one central motif. The most prominent theme would probably have to be “overcoming adversity.” Dagmar has experienced much more adversity–both in business and in her personal life–than most of us can fathom. Through it all, she’s remained resolute, determined, unflappable…an embodiment for the axiom “you can’t keep a good woman down” (another movie theme).
Even before launching her first restaurant, adversity tried to bar the door to Dagmar’s dreams. Armed with tremendous talent and self-confidence, but with no start-up capital, Dagmar somehow managed to secure a deposit for her first restaurant. Alas, the San Mateo location in which she opened her start-up was broken into several times. Dagmar then moved to a new location where she introduced Albuquerque to the German food with which she grew up. Not long after she relocated, she suffered the first of two heart attacks she would survive before triple bypass surgery rectified the issues with her heart. Two days after surgery, she returned to her restaurant. Among her first customers were the doctors who had performed the surgery.
Over the next nearly two decades, Dagmar would go on to share the cuisine of her maternal homeland throughout the Duke City and Rio Rancho in four different locations. In that time, she’s overcome a litany of challenges and health issues, any of which would have broken a lesser person. Her restaurants were burgled on multiple occasions, once by a ravenous robber who devoured her pastries. She’s experienced more equipment issues than Wile E. Coyote. Sewer back-up issues at one restaurant obfuscated the enticing aromas that make dining at her restaurants an olfactory-arousing joy.
Sometime after her fourth move, Dagmar was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite the removal of 22 pounds of mass, she literally went straight from the hospital to her restaurant. In 2012, she launched a small eatery in Rio Rancho while continuing to operate her Albuquerque establishment. Once again, cruel fate stepped in, this time sapping her of the passion and drive she had always had for cooking and baking. The culprit this time was systemic lupus which rendered her in perpetual pain. She closed her restaurants, put everything in storage and moved in with her ailing mother.
For five years, Dagmar worked on recovering her health. Over time, she regained the passion and vitality that had sustained her through so many challenges. She decided her most recent instantiation of Dagmar’s Delectables would reside in Rio Rancho and would focus on German pastries, particularly strudels. Dagmar’s opened its doors in July, 2019 in the 1,300-square-foot Trinity Plaza space which previously housed Gluten-Free Gourmet. It’s a smaller space than some of her previous restaurants. Though it isn’t set up as a sit-down restaurant, you can pick up daily breakfast and lunch specials as well as those incomparable pastries and breads. A small section of the space is reserved for comestibles such as German mustards and curry ketchup.
According to a study in the journal Emotion, the more adversity in life a person has experienced, the more compassion they tend to feel and show toward others. The first time we visited Dagmar in her new Rio Rancho location, we were reminded why we had missed her so much–and it wasn’t solely because of her baking and cooking prowess. In Dagmar, we’re witness to the rare type of hospitality and customer orientation that bespeaks of a beautiful heart. Dagmar is a very kind person, the type of which makes the best of friends and neighbors.
But this isn’t a review of Dagmar’s life. It’s a review of her bakery (though it could be said the two are inextricable). If you’re not already acquainted with German baked goods or you believe French bakeries are the be-all and end-all, it might surprise you to learn that CNN’s Travel website contends “German bread is the best in the world.” Having enjoyed freshly baked baguettes, buttery croissants and crusty loaves of French bread (as well as rich, creamy gateaus; decadent eclairs and other pastries) in my travels across France, I’m more than inclined to agree. One visit to Dagmar’s will convince you, too.
16 May 2020: While Dagmar’s pumpernickel and rye breads are fabulous, our favorite is the amazing brötchen, an incomparably wunderbar white bread roll. Living in England, we easily came to love the simplicity of brötchen with butter and thick apricot jam, a welcome departure from the American tradition of piling on a hillside of ingredients ala Dagwood Bumstead. We also loved the richness of brötchen with creamy French butter and sharp English Cheddar, but our favorite was brötchen with braunschweiger which wasn’t particularly easy to get in England. Braunschweiger, a soft, creamy and spreadable liver sausage has a distinctive peppery liver-based flavor that just seems tailor-made for brötchen. It’s only fitting that the brand Dagmar offers is Berliner, named for her birthplace.
The American comedy series Hogan’s Heroes introduced viewers to Sergeant Hans Schultz, a befuddled, obese, always lazy Luftwaffe serviceman who frequently falls asleep at his post and often chooses to look the other way, uttering one of his trademark phrases: “I see nothing,” “I hear nothing,” and “I know nothing!” One thing Schultz could never look away from was strudel, the irresistible pastry consisting of several layers of thin dough filled with a fruity or creamy deliciousness. The American prisoners-of-war frequently used strudel to bribe Schultz into divulging information.
12 May 2020: Sergeant Schultz’s very favorite strudel was apple strudel. It’s my favorite, too, but only the way Dagmar bakes it. The defining characteristic of strudel dough is that it should be stretched very thin — literally almost paper-thin and transparent and there should be layer upon layer of it. Between those layers Dagmar nestles tart, firm baking apples which are chopped and mixed with just a bit of cinnamon. While some versions of apple strudel are drizzled with a creamy frosting or sprinkled with powdered sugar, Dagmar tops hers with large granule pearl sugar. You can bribe me with Dagmar’s apple strudel any time.
12 May 2020: The Republic of Texas claims strudel as one of its official state pastries, likely because of the many communities of German immigrants who settled in the hill country west of Austin and San Antonio. My Kim loves Dagmar’s cherry strudel so much she could qualify to be a Texan. What she loves most about it is there’s cherry in every bite–not that annoying thick, syrupy fruit filling you find in some pies, but whole, tart cherries. Few things in life are as satisfying as cherry strudel after a cup (or six) of hot coffee on a lockdown day.
12 May 2020: In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Dagmar revealed she plans to offer 65 different strudel types. In my wildest dreams I had no idea there were 65 types of strudel. For Sergeant Schultz, that would be like strudel heaven. Coconut cream strudel is a recent revelation and departure from the fruit-filled strudels we usually prefer. As an aficionado of coconut cream pie, it doesn’t pain me to declare coconut cream strudel far superior, but it does pain me that it took me so long to discover it. Another favorite find is the raspberry-lemon strudel, a luscious tart amalgam of pure decadence. Then there’s Dagmar’s apricot strudel, a mouth-watering gem showcasing the musky tartness of apricot.
12 May 2020: While Dagmar’s doesn’t serve a full dine-in menu as at some of her previous restaurants, she does offer small breakfast and lunch options so good you’ll rue ever having settled for fast food alternatives. Best of all, she prepares them before your very eyes. The canvas for some of her delectable lunches is the aforementioned brötchen we love…and few things go as well on brötchen as a good wurst. In Germany, it’s said that “wurst comes to wurst,” an idiom regarding the popularity of sausages. Dagmar’s bratwurst brötchen is superb, a thick sausage scored diagonally to allow excess fat to escape. Spread a little of the medium-spiced mustard on the brötchen and you’ll enjoy a sandwich which should rival the hotdog in your estimation.
12 May 2020: Another superb lunch option is the schnitzel brötchen, another exemplar of deliciousness crafted on the versatile German bread roll. The schnitzel is thinly cut, a pounded and lightly seasoned pork tenderloin with a golden-hued breading. As with the bratwurst brötchen, the schnitzel extends beyond the brötchen. German mustard lends a little assertiveness to this sandwich. Both brötchen lunch offerings were accompanied by the very best German potato salad we’ve ever had. German potato salad is wholly unlike the mayonnaise-based potato salad popular across the fruited plain. It’s warm and tangy courtesy of vinegar specked with bacon.
Dagmar’s story has all the elements needed for Oscar consideration, but she’s far from finished. She has guests to win over and feed, friends to make and strudel to bake.
Dagmar’s Delectables Bakery & German Specialties
2704 Southern Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 May 2020
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Apple Strudel, Cherry Strudel, Brotchen, Coconut Cream Strudel, Braunschweiger, Wurst Brotchen, Schnitzel Brotchen, German Potato Salad, Apricot Strudel, Raspberry-Lemon Strudel, Curry Ketchup