Family owned restaurants have been called the heartbeat of a community, its pulse and its roots. Beyond the tintinnabulation of silver spoons on ceramic coffee mugs and over the hum of conversation, restaurants become living links to the past and storehouses of memories. They’re are a respite from the strife and stress of our daily vicissitudes. They help us unwind, relax and catch up with friends and family. In a sense, these beacons of comfort and repose often become family.
Not all restaurants achieve this distinction, of course, and if they do, it usually doesn’t happen quickly. Restaurants have to prove themselves over time with a combination of memorable food, a homey look and feel and mostly personable, attentive service. To find the template for how a restaurant becomes the heartbeat of a community, you need look no further than Joe’s Pasta House, a paragon of service excellence and culinary deliciousness where all guests are treated like family.
It may be early to know for sure, but it appears Lily and Liam Bistro in Rio Rancho has the potential to become a community heartbeat restaurant. It’s been open only since November, 2019, but already there are telltale signs that it’s got staying power and that it will engender loyalty from happy guests even if they might have to wait a few minutes to be seated. As my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and I surveyed the restaurant while waiting for a table to open up, realtor extraordinaire Sheila Parra invited us to join her and her friends at a capacious table near the door. Four months previously, Sheila and I, who had never before met, shared the only available table at Asian Pear and discovered several mutual interests. We had a grand time reminiscing about our Air Force careers and solving the world’s problems.
The type of serendipity in which you enter as strangers and leave as friends doesn’t happen every day, but your chances improve at restaurants such as Lily and Liam Bistro where close, personal space proximity seating means you’ll probably ask your neighbors about the tempting dishes delivered to their table. That’s an introduction to conversation. That’s the beginning of community. That’s the weaving of individual threads to form a beautiful tapestry. We saw a lot of that during our inaugural visit.
Liam and Lily Bistro may not have started off expressly intending to become a place in which community forms, but that rare sense of community is developing organically. There are no vestiges remaining of long-time tenant Subway, its predecessor at the NM 528 location across the street from Intel. Where Subway was a gobble-and-go operation, Liam and Lilly Bistro has a warm and welcoming ambiance that seems to inspire lingering. With only 1,210 square-feet of space, it’s an intimate east-facing milieu bathed in light and sunshine–figuratively and literally.
The Bistro is the brainchild of James and Megan Garrigan who named the restaurant for their children. James, a 20-year veteran of the rigors and rituals of the kitchen and once a cook at the legendary Joe’s Pasta House, is at the helm, the creative genius behind an inspired menu. Megan has a more peripatetic role waiting on tables and getting to know her guests. A very friendly and attentive staff is at your beck and call, quick to refill your coffee (Whispering Bean) and deliver your food. In fact, it may take longer for you to decide just what to order than it will for it to be delivered to your table.
12 February 2020: That’s because both breakfast and lunch menus offer so many interesting choices including a few heretofore unseen options. Already the Bistro has become locally famous for its “Dutch babies,” available in sweet and savory varieties. My friend Sarita describes the NM Baby better than I could have: ” Ever had a Dutch Baby? The flavor and texture is a lot like Yorkshire Pudding (sans gravy), but bigger and topped however you like, sweet or savory. They’re pretty easy to make, but the batter has to rest for some time for maximum fluffiness. So, so good! When I saw Lily and Liam’s offered Dutch Babies, I just had to have one. The one I chose was topped with short-rib, muenster cheese, eggs cooked to my liking, arugula, peppers, radish, avocado and green chile. It also came with a side of au jus for the short-rib, but it was completely unnecessary. The flavors melded together so well. The chile wasn’t overly piquant, but it had a nice roasted flavor.” NOTE: In its May, 2023 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Lily and Liam Bistro’s NM Baby a”Hot Plate Award.” This award is bestowed by the editors and staff of the Magazine “for dishes, drinks, concepts, ideas or persons who are doing amazing things in our local culinary scene.” The innovative anytime dish was described as putting “a New Mexico twist on the Euro-turned American classic.”
12 February 2020: Sr. Plata and I shared the breakfast tacos (eggs, potatoes, short rib, green chile, feta, house salsa) with a side of pinto beans. These are not your ordinary breakfast tacos, elements such as short rib and feta elevating them to rarefied status. Served three to an order, they arrive “open-faced” which means you’ll have to fold them into the conventional taco shaped envelope. No easy feat is this. The fresh corn tortillas are so generously packed with ingredients that spillage is inevitable. The salsa is almost redundant if salsa can ever be redundant. It’s a smoky salsa with nice piquancy.
12 February 2020: In keeping with a more healthful dining discipline, Sr. Plata’s choice of entrees was a poached salmon and arugula salad (hard-boiled egg, olives, capers, radish with a chervil vinaigrette). The chervil vinaigrette is a revelation. Chervil, a delicate herb often used in French cuisine, hints at anise with maybe a mild tarragon or parsley reminiscence. The salmon is beautifully poached, a six-ounce filet with a light pinkish hue and tender, moist texture. Sr. Plata gave it the ultimate compliment in sharing that his beautiful bride Dawn would enjoy it. Unlike us, Dawn is more judicious about healthful dining choices.
5 April 2020: In 2011, the Journal of Clinical Investigation published a study explaining why comfort foods are so comforting. The study suggested that high-fat, high-carbohydrate comfort foods actually fight stress by stemming the tide of stress-related hormones released when people are acutely exposed to stress. It’s unlikely the Garrigans had that study in mind when putting together their restaurant’s breakfast menu for its pickup/curbside operation during this time of social distancing. And all we knew was that we needed something satisfying and delicious for lunch. The pickup/curbside menu offered several options.
5 April 2020: In the “Family Style” section of the menu, our eyes gravitated toward the French toast box (again, without any consideration of the physiological triggers that called for comfort food). The French toast box is a week’s worth of diet-defeating carbohydrates, calories and fats. Three carry-out bags were brimming with French toast almondine, scrambled eggs, bacon and fruit portioned for a family of four. Thick slices of fluffy and firm French toast sprinkled with toasted almonds, strawberries and an almond-infused cream made the extra hours on the elliptical worth it. Somehow, the chef managed to create French toast that were eggy without being soggy. Scrambled eggs and bacon provided a savory contrast to the sweetness of the French toast while the fruit (sliced apples, grapes, orange slices, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries) lent a tangy twist.
5 April 2020: For dessert (we obviously needed a lot of comforting), we ordered a slice of cheesecake (housemade vanilla bean no-bake cheesecake with graham cracker crust) turtle style (drizzled with chocolate and caramel). To prevent a caloric overdose, we saved it until the following day when our appetites returned. If ever a cheesecake was imbued with a comforting creaminess, this would be the cheesecake. Somewhere between firm and dense and light and creamy, it was a textural delight. We discerned from its tanginess that perhaps just a tad sour cream was added to the cream cheese. Nice touch! You know a cheesecake is imbued with greatness when you mourn the last morsel.
Author Chris Guillebeau expressed that “no man is an island, and two people can be a partnership, but you need at least three people to have community.” Even if you arrive alone at Liily and Liam Bistro, chances are pretty good that you’ll soon be part of a growing community of people united by their love of great food and good fellowship.
Lily and Liam Bistro
1751 Rio Rancho Blvd. S.E., Suite 101
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 5 April 2020
1st VISIT: 12 February 2020
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: NM Baby, Breakfast Tacos, Poached Salmon & Arugula Salad, Whispering Bean Coffee, French Toast Box, Turtle Cheesecake
REVIEW # 1148