My sagacious friend Bill Resnik is like a 6’5″ Yoda. Perhaps because he was a stand-up comedian for several decades, he seems to invite good-natured teasing from among our mutual friends and colleagues. Like gunfighters sporting black hats in the westerns of yore, would-be comics seem to come out of the woodwork to challenge the fastest quipster in the west. Instead of six shooters, the villains arrive sporting their put-downs, taunts and insults…and like the white chapeau-wearing good guy fighting on behalf of the forces of goodness and niceness, Bill dispatches them quickly with witty retort. I once asked Bill how he could put up with constant ribbing from colleagues and friends. He reminded me that being offended is a choice.
As my Kim and I were enjoying our inaugural dining experience at the Urban Taqueria, we were witness to an example of two people choosing to be offended. They strode to the counter, perused the menu and stormed out. The very menu we found innocuous–even funny–apparently offended them so much that they eschewed the opportunity to enjoy a fabulous brunch. Sadly, their behavior is something the Urban Taqueria has experienced virtually since its launch. So what is it about that menu that some find so offensive?
All it takes is a quick perusal of the menu to see that it doesn’t subscribe to the typical template that (yawn) presents a boring litany of uninspiring and monotonous food item names and maybe the ingredients from which they’re made. Urban Taqueria’s menu inspires double- and triple-takes. Okay, it’s inspired a few walk-outs, too, but as owner Hanif Mohamed explained to KOAT TV “more than 99 percent, don’t seem to have an issue with it,” adding that “the menu’s not designed to insult people or hurt people, but it’s just meant to keep the conversation going as to what’s happening around us.”
Despite the old maxim that you should never discuss politics or religion at the table, Urban Taqueria practically invites diners to discuss politics even as they’re perusing a menu that names its food items for politically charged topics of our time such as “Lock Her Up,” “The Mueller,” “Fake News,” “Wikileaks,” “The Stormy” and “The Wall.” These are topics about which most of us have an opinion one way or another. The key, as Hanif implied is to have a conversation, not to storm out in a huff. Besides, once you’ve sampled the tacos and burritos for which these edgy topics are named, you’ll be talking about those tacos and burritos.
Urban Taqueria is an urban oasis in a downtown expanse that may as well be ten miles from heavily trafficked Central Avenue. Turn north from Route 66 toward the convention center and to your right you’ll espy the One Central ABQ building, a sprawling west-facing edifice with large glass windows that present some of the most enchanting views of Albuquerque’s downtown high-rises. Urban Taqueria was One Central’s first tenant, opening its doors in July, 2019. A wrapped parking structure includes 423 covered, secure spaces. It’s a short walk to the taqueria.
Since its inception Urban Taqueria has been a popular draw among tourists staying in downtown area hotels as well as visitors to the nearby convention center. Regulars still smile at the cleverly named menu items just as we did when we first espied them. In a delicious twist of irony, when Hanif conceptualized the idea for Urban Taqueria, he envisioned it as a fast casual restaurant serving high-quality food. Instead, it’s become a destination restaurant in which guests like to linger and enjoy the fun, welcoming ambiance and outstanding food. Sure, it would be nice to have real silverware, but we chalk up the plasticware as just part of the experience.
With more than thirty years of food and beverage experience in 4 Star – 4 Diamond properties in the United States and his native Kenya, Hanif is one of those rare restaurateurs who won’t compromise on quality or take shortcuts. He is proud to offer to the extent possible, products from local vendors and growers. He procures pinto beans from Estancia (there are none better in the world) and pork from a local south valley farmer. Fresh and organic are hallmarks of his menu. Tortillas and tortas are made fresh in-house daily. Flour is unbleached. The black beans, green chile and flour are organic. Chicken and eggs come Mary’s Chickens. You’ll pay just a little more for your food, but the quality really shows…and the flavors really sing.
As Duke City diners know, when it comes to coaxing deliciousness out of any ingredient no one does it better than Chef Dennis Apodaca. As fate would have it, Hanif’s launch of Urban Taqueria coincided with the closure of Sophia’s, the second instantiation of Dennis’s famous flagship restaurant. Hanif brought Dennis in ostensibly to help with the July, 2019 launch of Urban Taqueria. Seven months later, the famous chef is still part of the taqueria’s landscape. The dynamic duo bounces ideas off one another and spur each other onto greater creativity. It’s a relationship that really works well and diners are the recipients of their combined genius.
Seeing one of my favorite chefs in the country was just one of several delightful surprises greeting us during our inaugural visit. Another was the barbacoa brunch menu, one of the very best brunch menus we’ve seen in years. It’s the antithesis of so many predictable and boring brunch bills of fare. The taqueria’s cynosure is a colorful mural that pays tribute to the history of Mexican cuisine. A Spanish caravel sailing the azure waters of the Yucatan Peninsula is depicted below the mesmerizing countenance of a beautiful indigenous maiden, maybe even the infamous Malinche herself. It’s an evocative mural that should inspire contemplation.
Since his days at Fajitaville, the name Dennis Apodaca is virtually synonymous with salsa. A complimentary salsa bar was also one of many inviting aspects of Hanif’s previous Duke City restaurant venture Krazy Lizard. Salsas are roasted and made fresh in house from fresh ingredients. Urban Taqueria offers five unique and delicious salsas, none of which can be described as “subtle”: roasted tomato-arbol salsa, a bit of piquancy with a hint of sweetness and acidity from the tomatoes; roasted tomatillo-arbol salsa, the salsa with the most bite tempered by acidity from the tomatillo; roasted jalapeño-tomatillo, well balanced with heat and acidity; salsa verde, classic salsa with a Krazy Lizard twist; and pico de gallo, bountiful, flavorful and caliente. Fortune smiled upon us because Dennis also made a flavor-packed chipotle salsa which my Kim enjoyed most.
16 February 2020: In March, 2013, Enrique Olvera, a Mexican chef trained at New York’s Culinary Institute of America (the real CIA) decided to capitalize on the boundless potential of mole, the generic name given to several variations of rich, thick multi-colored sauces. Instead of following a single recipe each morning, Olvera begins with a base left over from the previous day to which he adds seasonally available products, never in exactly the same combination. This process means his “Mole Madre,” as he calls it, has had dozens of different ingredients added to it since he embarked on this masterstroke. That’s nearly 2,500 days (as of this writing) of uninterrupted cooking with fresh products added to the existing base, giving the blend lively and slightly different character each day.
In comparison, the 154-day old mole (as of our inaugural visit) at Urban Taqueria is in its infancy, a mere baby. Despite its relative “youth,” the depth of flavors generated by vegetables, nuts, aromatics and three types of chiles (including Ancho and Guajillo), the mole has a profound earthiness and a discernible complexity of flavors working together very harmoniously. The use of guajillo bespeaks of the authenticity Dennis pursues in his cooking. Guajillo, the dried form of the mirasol chile, is a mild, slightly sweet chile with notes of berries and tea. It’s so much better than making a mole with chocolate. As we sat down to await our brunch entrees, Dennis ferried a small cast iron vessel of mole over to our table. Had I not already ordered something else, I might have asked for a vat of this exceptional mole. It may be better than the transformative mole at La Guelaguetza.
16 February 2020: Not everyone has a high opinion of brunch. In his terrific tome Kitchen Confidential, the late Tony Bourdain blew the lid off brunch, explaining that “brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” adding that “you can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.” Brunch at Urban Taqueria is hardly a dumping ground of leftovers. In fact, none of the items on the brunch menu are available on the daily lunch and dinner menu.
The Barbacoa Brunch is a prix fixe affair which includes aged mole, bottomless chips and salsa as well as your choice of beer or wine. One of the tempting entrees and the one for which the brunch is named is Lamb barbacoa (slow roasted NM Lamb, various toppings and garnishes, corn tortillas). If it’s your sweet tooth that needs to be sated on Sunday, you can also have Native Blue Corn Pancakes and Horchata French toast both served with barbacoa, butter and pineapple compote. Barbacoa is also served with huevos rancheros, whole grilled trout, breakfast burrito and homemade hash and potatoes. Sunday mornings have never had as many reasons to get up.
16 February 2020: Hanif confided that his favorite brunch item is the homemade hash and potatoes with barbacoa or vegetables, roasted peppers and corn topped with a fried egg prepared your way and corn tortillas on the side. Writer Ambrose Bierce’s had it all wrong when he declared that “nobody knows what hash is.” Urban Taqueria certainly knows hash, and if it doesn’t, its facsimile of this chopped meat dish is one of the most satisfying and delicious dishes you’ll ever have for brunch. Barbacoa is the star of this dish, a jumble of shredded tendrils of tender lamb. Cubed papitas add both a crispy, craggy exterior and tender exterior that holds up very well even when dragged through golden liquid egg yolk.
16 February 2020: My Kim went off menu and ordered duck confit, a generous pile of silky, moist tendrils of shredded duck prepared in its own fat. For your taco creating convenience, it’s served on a banana leaf with sides of pickled red onion, chopped white onion, cilantro, lime slices and corn tortillas (or you can ask for flour tortillas if that be your preference). The duck is fatty, rich and just slightly gamy which makes the side ingredients a nice foil. Whether you enjoy the duck confit in taco form or you scoop it up with your fork, it’s a perfect Sunday indulgence.
16 February 2020: When in Rome, you’re advised to do as Romans do. When you’re in a taqueria, you have tacos. If you find yourself offended by the politically charged names, you can always have something as innocuously named as the lobster taco. We actually found ourselves contemplating a rename, but we don’t have Hanif’s creativity or imagination. Thankfully the lobster taco isn’t battered and fried to golden brown. Nor is it smothered in an overpowering aioli or topped with a fruity salsa. While it was good, the skies didn’t open up to a chorus of angels singing its praises. Neither will I. Again, it was good…New Mexico lobster good, but there are better taco options.
Among them are The Republicans (pastor style achiote – grilled pork tacos, arbol, grilled pineapple) which all but the most staunch Democrats will enjoy. Call it a taco for the bipartisan crowd. It’s about four bites of bliss, a delicious envelope of porcine perfection ameliorated by the sweetness of pineapple. Fusion fanatics will love the India meets Mexico taco known as The Outsourced (tandoori chicken, raita, tamarind salsa). You’ll never again have to wonder what an East Indian taco tastes like. It’s delicious!
20 February 2020: Though our inaugural visit left us very contented, the one dish which impressed itself most prominently on my taste buds was the 154-day mole. Perhaps it’s because my palate is treated (or subjected) to so many varied flavor profiles, it’s rare that any one item remains ingrained in my mind for five days. That’s how long it took me to return to Urban Taqueria to confirm what my taste buds had been telling me–that this is one phenomenal mole. There are, however, no mole dishes on the menu. Thankfully Hanif and Dennis were very accommodating in my request for a burrito smothered in mole.
The question was which of the seven burritos would go best under a blanket of molten mole…or would it be best to invoke the “build your own burri” option. Dennis suggested The Stormy (carne adovada, Mexican rice, pinto beans) and who am I to argue with the genius chef. Besides, the notion of how well pork already marinated in red chile would go with a deeply earthy, preternaturally delicious mole piqued my interest. Count on Dennis to once again discern flavors that work exceptionally well together. The moist and tender carne adovada doesn’t have much piquancy, but its flavor bespeaks of New Mexico enchantment. True to its name, The Stormy is curvy and full-bodied. Smothering it in mole makes it a sensual experience involving gratification of the senses…especially your taste buds which will delight in its deliciousness.
16 February 2020: Urban Taqueria’s culinary mastery isn’t limited to savory and piquant dishes. You can’t get to the counter where you place your order without passing by a freezer showcasing tubfuls of Mexican style ice cream. As with Italian gelato, “the key to creating Mexican-style ice cream and sorbet is to treat the freshest ingredients simply.” “You should be able to close your eyes and feel like you’re almost taking a bite out of the main ingredients.” That’s advice straight from Fany Gerson, author of Mexican Ice Cream Beloved Recipes and Stories. We sampled three flavors: Mexican vanilla, pineapple and Mexican chocolate with Ancho chile and cherries and lived the sensations Gerson described. In New Mexico only El Cotorro creates ice cream as wonderful as does Urban Taqueria.
16 February 2020: You no longer have to travel to Mexico to experience fruit cups, an ubiquitous Mexican snack sold in street markets and restaurants alike. It’s typically made with fresh fruit that’s been cubed or cut into long spears, stacked into clear plastic cups and topped with Tajin chile lime seasoning, chamoy sauce and lime juice. Urban Taqueria’s rendition of the fruit cup (diced mangoes, tajin, chamoy, lime juice) is as good as any you’ll find in the Land of Montezuma. Since introducing my Kim to chamoy (a syrupy sauce made from pickled fruit mixed with spicy chiles and a salty brine), she’s craved that perfect blend of sweet, sour salty and spicy deliciousness which pairs beautifully with sweet fruit. It’s become an obsession for both of us.
It’s not every restaurant in the Land of Enchantment which–within weeks of its opening–is featured on Newsweek, CNN, New York Daily News, Yahoo and even Fox News. While national media articles sensationalized a minor controversy, they completely missed the boat. They also missed enjoying some of the most delicious food you’ll find in the Southwest.
1 Central Avenue, N.W., #1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 February 2020
1st VISIT: 16 February 2020
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Mole, Homemade Hash and Potatoes, Duck Confit, Lobster Taco, The Republicans, Outsourced, Mexican Vanilla Ice Cream, Pineapple Ice Cream, Mexican Chocolate with Ancho Chile and Cherries Ice Cream, Fruit Cup, Stormy Smothered in Mole