Thank you, Mighty Mike! Thank you for restoring our faith in barbecue just one day after my Kim declared “I don’t want to have barbecue for a long time.” Readers might find it hard to believe, but we uncovered a barbecue restaurant so bad our one visit risked turning us both off barbecue completely (and no, I won’t be reviewing it because if you can’t say anything nice…). If our lifelong love for barbecue was to be restored, it was really important that our next barbecue experience be absolutely amazing and that it happen quickly (like getting back on the proverbial horse that bucked us off).
The very next day, I decided to take my Kim to a food truck whose reputation for stellar smoked meats precedes it. Thank you, Mighty Mike for living up to the expectations and hype. Make that thank you for exceeding the expectations and hype! I hate to think that because of one horrendous experience, we might have deprived ourselves of barbecue for a long time, that we might not have experienced what may well be the best barbecue we’ve ever had in Albuquerque. Thank you, Mighty Mike.
Legendary raconteur and television personality Anthony Bourdain once claimed “only Texans and Jews understand brisket.” He obviously didn’t know about New Mexico born-and-bred pit master Michael “Mighty Mike” Mondragon who smokes a brisket so good you’d swear it has its genesis in Austin’s finest smokers, a brisket so tender and moist it will make grown men (and probably not just this one) swoon. Before waxing poetic about that brisket, let me tell you a bit more about Mighty Mike.
Like so many other barbecue chefs, Mike’s path to mastering the subtleties and nuances of smoke was one of trial, error and lots of hard work coupled with a dogged determination to do it right. During family gatherings and outings with friends, Mike invariably found himself manning the barbecue. Finding that he had a talent for it, he began kicking around the concept of “Mighty Mike’s” years before actually persuing his dream–all the while toiling for someone else and continuing to build impressive skills in the art and science of low-and-slow.
In 2018, while working out at the gym doing dead lifts and cardio, Mike had a heart attack. He shrugged it off, thinking it was just the “no pain no gain” aspect of his cardio workout. The next day at work, he had another heart attack. When he shared his symptoms with his doctor at the Heart Hospital, Mike was told he was having a major heart attack. The first night at the hospital, his doctor also told him had he not been working out and staying healthy, he would not have survived that heart attack. He advised Mike to slow down.
In Mike’s head, he translated the doctor’s cautionary “you need to slow down” advice to “I don’t want to die working for someone else.” Always one to march to the beat of his own drum, he told his wife Sarah he wanted to start his own business. That night while she slept, Mike started the Mighty Mike Instagram account (which currently has over 3,700 followers). Mike launched Mighty Mike’s Meats in October, 2018, initially plying his talents out of a tent he would tote to many locations and events which hosted food trucks. He quickly established a relationship with La Cumbre Brewing on Girard where you can still find him on Sundays from 12-6PM.
On the day after the Superbowl not quite sixteen months after launching Mighty Mike’s Meats, Mike quit his job. He was tired of taking orders, particularly from an employer who had dissed and dismissed his barbecue as “your little hobby.” Two months later, he and his son drove 24 hours to pick up the food truck he purchased. No sooner had they returned home than Covid hit. For the next few months, Mike would prepare food and deliver it to the homes of loyal customers he had cultivated.
Today you can find Mighty Mike’s Meats at a number of locations. More than just about any purveyor of deliciousness from a motorized conveyance, Mike keeps his loyal and prospective customers apprised (through his very active Instagram and Facebook sites) of where he’ll be and what he’ll be serving. It’s one of the reasons–along with the best barbecue in Northern New Mexico–he’s cultivated such a devoted following. A very engaging and genial guy, Mike loves interacting with his customers, many of whom return time and again. In short order, many of those regulars have become friends.
We were first in line on a queue that grew exponentially so we didn’t get as much time with Mike as we would have liked. In addition to asking about his barbecue, we couldn’t help but ask about a sticker on his food truck’s glass window which reads “Magni Strength: Inclusion, Empowerment, Growth.” Magni Strength, it turns out is the name of the gym Mike and Sarah own. Magni, he explained means “mighty” and is the name of Thor’s son. Just as Magni is the strongest of the Norse gods, Sarah is a professional strong woman who holds several power lifting records. Mike is very proud that Magni Strength is a female run and operated gym, a place all women can consider a safe space.
Mike wouldn’t share the secret for the deliciousness and moistness of his barbecue, but did confirm that he often sleeps on a chair and babysits the meats as they’re being smoked on local fruit woods. Smoked meats might be the primary draw to Mighty Mike’s, but the menu is replete with foods that complement those meats. He’s not a huge proponent of barbecue sauce, preferring dry rubs which he stresses “build superior flavors.” Recognizing that “fat is flavor,” he doesn’t trim all the fat off the brisket as amateurs are apt to do. He’s also rightfully proud of the potato salad and coleslaw he offers, emphasizing that there is no mayo on any product. His sandwiches are constructed on freshly baked brioche buns.
Similar to many restaurants, his menu does have some seasonal items. It’s nachos during the summer and fall and Frito pies in winter. In winter, he’ll also introduce New Mexico style red chile brisket with beans and during our inaugural visit, introduced brisket tacos (kicking myself for not trying one or six of them). Mighty Mike’s best seller are the “mighty melts,” (meat, two slices of melted Cheddar, pickles and barbecue sauce in between butter grilled toast. Other sandwich offerings include the “Sangwich” (meat hit with a sexy squirt of sauce topped with mighty slaw and pickles, and “Sloppy Mikes” (meat drenched in nacho cheese then topped with diced jalapeños and barbecue sauce). Meats, of course, are brisket, pulled pork, pork belly and spicy chicken. Also on the menu are a Mighty Rib Plate and “other mighty stuff.”
12 October 2020: When I compared Mike’s brisket to some of the best brisket we’ve experienced in Austin, he recounted his own most recent visit to the city which wants to remain weird in all things but barbecue. He admitted to spending $700 on barbecue in just one day, including purchasing an entire brisket from the James Beard award-winning pantheon of barbecue Franklin Barbecue. Franklin Barbecue is in rarefied air. So is Mighty Mike’s brisket, so moist, tender and delicious we bought a pound to take home. Most of it didn’t make it there. We would have finished it had I not wiped out an entire Sloppy Mike brisket sandwich, a barbecue behemoth on brioche. Even under molten nacho cheese, the seductive smokiness of the brisket stood out, its taste reminiscent of Texas but better because it’s in New Mexico.
12 October 2020: Okay, so Mighty Mike captured me hook, line and sinker, but I’m an easier mark than my Kim who was so traumatized by the previous day’s “barbecue” that our barbecue future may have rested on the Sloppy Mike spicy chicken sandwich. I watched with trepidation as she bit into it then soon uttered a sigh of relief when she proclaimed it “absolutely wonderful.” Chicken is probably my least favorite smoked meat, but Mike’s rendition is superb. The “spicy” element is more a slight prickle than it is a pronounced sting. The coleslaw is superb–crispy and fresh with nearly equal parts sweet and savory notes. The sauce is subtle and delicious, but not necessary for chicken smoked so masterfully.
15 October 2020: Remember how I touted Mike’s use of social media to keep his loyal customers apprised? That’s how I found out Mike would be featuring for a limited time, a limited quantity of “biggo beef dino ribs” at four locations. Now, beef ribs are about as rare in New Mexico (despite the fact that cows outnumber people) as red beryl and they cost nearly as much. In butcher’s lingo, they’re actually known as “beef short ribs,” but these bones are about as short as the rib bone that tipped over Fred Flintstone’s car. The meat on these long “Dino Ribs” was at least one-inch thick and with the bone, tipped the scales at somewhere from one to one and a half pounds on a bone that was about ten-inches long. With Mike babysitting these beauties, the ribs were tender, juicy, and infused with the flavor of wood smoke. My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver who loves beef ribs nearly as much as he loves being retired likened the rich, unctuous beef to prime rib.
1 April 2021: For as much as New Mexicans like to denigrate the cuisine of the Lone Star State (especially that aberration they call “chili”), we’ve got to give Texans their props for contriving the perfectly peerless pairing of barbecue and tacos. Forget Reese’s peanut butter cups, barbecue and tacos are the superior “great tastes that taste great together.” No one in Texas would call this magical marriage “fusion” which implies a combination of elements from different culinary traditions. Texans believe–and rightfully so–that barbecue and Tex-Mex traditions (including tacos) evolved together over the course of the state’s sacrosanct history.
New Mexicans (we’re a proud bunch) who’ve enjoyed Mighty Mike’s meaty tacos will argue his tacos have one-upped their Texas counterparts thanks to the addition of specific New Mexican elements. You choose the meat–pulled pork, jalapeño sausage, brisket, sweet spicy pork belly or smoked turkey–and Mike’s crew will overfill three pliable corn taco shells with that meat. Nothing else! No shredded cheese, lettuce, chopped tomatoes. Nada. Instead, the tacos are served with a side of red chile cheese dip and a smaller side of crema. Pour the red chile cheese dip over the tacos and the melding of sumptuously smoked meats with a fiery New Mexican heat may trigger an snappy salute. This is tacos self-actualized, tacos all they can be, tacos which don’t need sauce. Forget the Alamo, you’ll remember these tacos. Our introduction was in the form of smoked turkey, a delicate, lightly smoked meat that really goes well with the red chile cheese dip.
1 April 2021: That red chile cheese sauce is just one of the elements which makes Mike’s Cheesy BBQ Papa Bowls (a boatful of papas, red chile cheese sauce, jalapeños, crema and barbecue sauce) so good. Well, that and the fact that you can have a bowl constructed with the protein of your choice. Brisket was my choice and you know just how much I think of Mike’s brisket. My esteem is pretty high for the papitas, too,–cubes of sweet fried potatoes with a crispy exterior giving way to a delicious, fluffy interior. These papitas are the equal of Sadie’s. You might think that a trio of sauces–red chile cheese sauce, crema and barbecue sauce–might be too much, but they’re in perfectly balanced proportion that you can taste each individually as well as marvel at how well they all work together. The papitas bowls are truly an amalgam of great flavors that work well together.
1 April 2021: It stands to reason that if corn tortillas would make a great vehicle for smoked meats, so would a flour tortilla. Ergo, Mike’s BBQ Burritos (a hand-held burrito stuffed “thicc” with your choice of meat, papitas, green chile, brisket cheese sauce and a little drizzle of BBQ sauce. Construction isn’t finished. You also get your choice of meat and can even have your burrito “sloppy” (smothered). While my choice would have been to the detriment of whatever I was wearing, my dainty bride chose the neater of two options. Her meat of choice was the sweet spicy pork belly which was more meaty than some pork belly tends to be. As with any meat Mike smokes, it was kissed by just the right amount of smoke and wasn’t overpowered by the other ingredients and sauces.
Thank you Mighty Mike’s Meats for restoring our faith in barbecue and serving Austin quality barbecue we don’t have to drive 800 miles to enjoy.
Mighty Mike’s Meats
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 April 2021
1st VISIT: 12 October 2020
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Sloppy Mike Brisket Sandwich, Sloppy Mike Spicy Chicken Sandwich, One-Pound Brisket, Topo Chico Lime, Beef Ribs, Mike’s BBQ Burrito with Pork Belly, Mike’s Meaty Tacos with Smoked Turkey, Cheesy Papitas with Brisket