You might think that my annual “best of the best” compilation would be replete with lavishly extravagant dishes proffered by swanky fine-dining establishments. Instead, the list of dishes I enjoyed most across the Land of Enchantment in 2021 are almost exclusively of the “cheap eats” (or reasonably priced) variety, selected not for complex culinary preparations and exorbitant price points, but for the simple preparation of dishes that taste as if they were prepared by a chorus of angels in a celestial kitchen. These are the 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 2021. Every dish was a delicious discovery from within New Mexico’s sacred borders. In chronological order, my “best of the best” are:
If ever diners diners needed to turn to their favorite comfort foods for some sense of normalcy and solace, it was 2021. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, the classic American comfort dish most giving us that sense of normalcy and solace is fried chicken. No restaurant prepares fried chicken as well as Ms. Gennie’s House of Chicken on Lomas Blvd. Served with a delicious array of sides, this pulchritudinous poultry will assuage whatever ails you.
Vietnamese cuisine continues to make significant inroads on the American culinary landscape. Perhaps someday Americans will even embrace Bún bò Huế as it’s enjoyed in the Central Vietnamese city of Huế–with pork knuckles and pig blood curds. Even without these ingredients, this is a rich and spicy elixir with deep layers of flavor that touch your very soul. Bamboo Grill’s version is the most authentic we’ve had, a soup so satisfying we may never again order pho.
During the annus horribilis that was 2020, only the stout-hearted and most passionate invested in a restaurant. First-time restaurant owners Panos and Miranda Marmaras did precisely that, purchasing Gyros Mediterranean during the very height of the pandemic. In short order they actually improved an already outstanding menu. Their double meat gyros is the best in New Mexico. It takes two hands to handle this behemoth sandwich with flavors as majestic as the Parthenon.
We didn’t know what to expect from a food truck owner who calls himself “the wacky Iraqi in Albuquerque.” We now know we can expect interesting conversation, friendly banter and some of the most fresh and delicious Middle Eastern food in the Albuquerque area. Among Mama Zahira’s musts try option is the falafel homemade pita bread, an eight-inch crescent shaped pita bread stuffed with five falafel and a pickled vegetable salad (five different peppers) all slathered with a mango sauce.
There are only three things I’ve ever heard my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott lavish praise effusively on–his beautiful bride Kimber, the Denver Broncos and the tomato bisque from Rustico Italian Kitchen. This wondrous elixir is composed of sweet San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil greens, Parmigiana and croutons in combinations that hit all the right notes. It’s served hot with sumptuous steam wafting upwards to tease your waiting nostrils. Save for the last spoonful, every bite brought us joy.
Chef Marc Quiñones, the brilliant braintrust behind the superb kitchen of Mas Tapas Y Vino composed a tasting menu experience that was our most memorable meal of 2021. Every item delivered to our table should have a place on this “best of the best” list. Every dish was magnificently composed, every bite was memorable. Arguably our best bite came from the unique Berkshire Pork Belly, a dish Chef Quiõnes created as a tribute to his mom. She must be very proud of her über talented son.
Kahlil Gibran described passing away as “And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?” That’s how we like to think of my friend Chef-owner Mario D’Elia who passed away before realizing his dreams of expansion. Before he left us, Mario touched a lot of lives and sated a lot of appetites with his magnificent New York style pizza. We’ll miss The Veronica from Poppy’s Pizza, but we’ll miss its larger-than-life creator much more.
Other than Motown music, Detroit-style pizza may be the best thing to ever come from the Motor City. “Fat is where it’s at…at Thicc Pizza Co. where you’re invited to find out why it’s really hip to be square (as in square steel pans). Thicc’s motto is “Made for two, Sometimes devoured by one!” You probably won’t want to share a pizza as good as the Yo Adrian! (Thicc cheese blend, garlic crema, thin sliced ribeye, mushrooms, green chile, EVOO, arugula, side of yellow hots). It’s as good as it gets.
Since Eater designated 2015 as “the year of the avocado toast,” “gourmet toast” has been in an ascendency that’s finally caught up with Albuquerque. When co-owners Victoria Van Dame and Chef David Ruiz launched the Curious Toast Cafe they proved just how inventive gourmet toast can be in the right hands. Our early favorite is “The Elote,” a unique take on the Mexican style street corn that’s taking America by storm. We’re looking forward to trying even more examples of toast being all toast can be.
Fried chicken may be a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s not all prepared the same way. Budai Gourmet Chinese serves a boneless Taiwan fried chicken that’s as good as any poultry fried in the Deep South. It’s crispier, juicier and far more delicious than the chicken you’ll find at any of the chains. Marinated overnight before being coated in a secret “crispy coating,” it’s deep fried to give it both a crunchy and flaky exterior (similar to tempura,) while retaining a juicy interior.
It stands to reason that a restaurant offering bold and imaginative entree choices would also proffer dessert options that also live in the creative realm. Salt and Board’s version of panna cotta will impress itself on your taste buds and memories. The flan-like molded cream is ameliorated with lemongrass and when topped with a drizzle of Thai hot chili oil then garnished with basil. It’s Italy meets Southeast Asia in delicious, memorable concordance.
The restaurant we visited most often in 2021 was Saigon City so it stands to reason that at least one item from this outstanding Vietnamese restaurant would land on my “best of the best” list. Frankly, virtually everything we’ve had at Saigon City could have a prominent place on any “best of” list. Among my very favorites is the caramel stew fish which showcases just how good catfish can be. The caramel sauce can become a delicious addiction, so good you’ll want to slather it on everything.
Much like Saigon City, we had so many delicious meals at Tikka Hut that several items could have made it onto this list. Owner Hanif Mohamed and Chef Dennis Apodaca have made every single meal a memorable and delicious experience. Hospitality and culinary excellence are the hallmarks of this restaurant. Alas, one of my favorite dishes, roasted potatoes, aren’t on the daily menu but maybe they’ll be added if I whine enough.
Our last best find of 2021 was the Mediterranean Kitchen, a food truck that provides covered dining under a tent. Perhaps the only thing effusive owner Ahmad Eotoom does better than prepare outstanding Middle Eastern food is make all guests feel welcome. He loves meeting and feeding people. One of several amazing dishes he served us was the best chicken shawarma I’ve ever had. Wrapped within the cozy confines of a toasted pita wrap are moist, tender chicken cut into bite-sized pieces packed in tightly with chopped tomatoes and an incendiary salsa that brought tears to my Kim’s eyes.
Please feel free to share your own “best of the best” New Mexico dining choices for 2020 by commenting to this post. Who knows? Maybe next year they’ll make it to my list, too.