Tula: “My mom was always cooking foods filled with warmth and wisdom…
and never forgetting that side dish of steaming-hot guilt.”
As it celebrates its twenty year anniversary the 2002 Rom-Com “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” remains as timeless and funny as it was when it debuted. Moreover, it’s still a heart-warming movie with which some of us can relate. In my estimation, it could easily have been called “My Big Fat Northern New Mexican Wedding” and it could have been set in Peñasco. The similarities between Greek families and Northern New Mexican families around which I grew up were startling. That’s especially true about the food, family and eccentricities, the latter especially prominent among the movie’s well-meaning and hovering aunts and the protagonist’s domineering father. My Big Fat Greek Wedding centers around Tula Portokalos, who at thirty is only woman in her family who has failed to find a nice, Greek husband and have babies. Living at home, Tula works as hostess at her family’s restaurant, “Dancing Zorba’s.”
Tula describes her younger self as a “swarthy 6-year-old with sideburns” who was shamed by blonde schoolmates for eating “moose caca” (moussaka). Tula remains frumpy and insecure until early in her third decade when she practically wills herself into becoming a successful, confident, open-minded woman. Eventually Tula falls for a white Protestant professor who is definitely not Greek. She doesn’t see how it could ever work – how she could possibly explain her eccentric and oft-obnoxious family to someone so different. And, how could she explain to her meat-loving family that he’s a vegetarian? (“What do you mean, he don’t eat no meat? That’s okay, that’s okay. I make lamb.” – Aunt Voula) To her surprise, their relationship gets serious quickly, and before she knows it, the odd couple is engaged. What her beau doesn’t know is that he’s engaged not just to Tula, but to her whole family.
Learning that Dion’s, a perennial favorite of pizza paramours throughout New Mexico, planned to launch a new restaurant named Tula’s certainly piqued our interest. On top of that, a phalanx of food quotes from the movie flooded into my one track mind. It turns out Tula’s isn’t named for the main character in Greek Wedding, but for co-founder Jon Patten’s late aunt Tula who was known for her flavorful, scratch-made cooking. The name Tula is apparently short for Athenoula, a Greek name and variation of Athena. Athena, you might recall from Greek Mythology, is a half-sister of Dionysius (Dion). In that regard the names of the sibling restaurants make a lot of sense.
Tula’s Kitchen opened its doors in October, 2022 at the La Cueva Town Center on the northeast corner of Paseo del Norte and Wyoming, N.E. Fittingly its next-door neighbor is one of the 25 Dion’s restaurants throughout the Duke City. Tula’s is immaculate, a white-washed facade accentuated by dark accents. We half expected more Greek touches (such as a whitewashed exterior with blue accents and doors), but were actually relieved to discover that while Tula’s menu does offer some Greek specialties, it’s not a Greek restaurant. Nor does the menu replicate what you can find at Dion’s (though you can get Dion’s fabulous green chile ranch dressing).
The Tula’s concept is designed to offer modern dining (simple, delicious food constructed from quality, high-end and fresh ingredients) built for family dinners. Tula’s is an attractive and capacious space built for dining in all seasons. A separate bar area is set aside by a half wall that still smells like freshly cut lumber. Seating capacity accommodates about 130 guests while another 60 can dine at an outdoor patio with a fire pit. As at Dion’s, Tula’s is primarily a counter service restaurant though you can order additional items once seated. Our beautiful server Gill (short for Gillian) was a peripatetic presence, taking wonderful care of us as well as several tables in our immediate vicinity. Service has always been a staple at Dion’s and appears to be a priority for Tula’s as well.
A smart menu will win over repeat visitors. It’s not an overly ambitious menu, offering a relatively small number of items–ostensibly prepared extraordinarily well. Three “shareables” (appetizers) and four fresh salads (served with pita wedges) should get you started on good footing. Deciding on an entree will be a greater challenge. You can opt from the “Tula’s Favorites” section of the menu or scroll down to the “Tasty Sandwiches” section. Grilled sandwiches are a focus area at Tula’s. They’re crafted with artisanal cheeses and house-baked bread. As with the sandwiches, items on the “Craveable Chicken” section of the menu are served with a cup of soup, Tula’s tots or a signature salad. Three soups are available, too, each a sure cure for winter’s bite.
Contrary to a recent online meme, charcuterie is not French for “I’d like a sandwich, but I don’t have any bread.” There are no hard and fast rules for how charcuterie should be eaten. Salami snobs might, for example, poo-poo the presence of cheese on a board. Similarly, they’ll tell you bread has no functional role on a board. My advice–after years of enjoying charcuterie–is to have it your way. One of the three “shareables” on Tula’s menu is a charcuterie board (a selection of meats and cheeses with nuts, house-made pickles, Kalamata olives, and fruit, served with toasted pita). While the toasted pita wedges makes it easy to construct small sandwiches with the salami, prosciutto and the thin cheese slices, we instead enjoyed each item on the plate individually. This mishmash of meats, cheeses, veggies and fruits was a nice introduction to the Tula’s menu.
On the “Tula’s Favorites” section of the menu you’ll find marinated grilled kabobs (two citrus-marinated beef or pork kabobs with onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, served with roasted potatoes and broccolini). These are not kabobs the type of which are served as a “sandwich” within pita, but savory skewers showcasing the marriage of meats and veggies. Tula’s gives you the option of beef or pork. The citrus-marinated beef is steak-quality though prepared to about medium-well which might not be to your liking. Veggies were prepared at about a medium degree of doneness which bodes well for the cherry tomatoes, but not so much for the green peppers. We didn’t get much of a “citrus marinade” flavor from either meat or veggies. Frankly, my favorite item on this entree was the broccolini, a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese broccoli. It reminded me of the cheesesteak broccolini sandwiches so popular in Philadelphia (hint for Tula’s chefs).
My Kim also opted for an item from the “Tula’s Favorites” section of the menu. Her choice was the lemon and herb roasted chicken (a marinated half chicken served with roasted potatoes and Tula’s signature salad). This is a classic Greek chicken–well-seasoned, nicely charred and very flavorful. The latter adjective may surprise regular readers who recognize how easily I’m bored by chicken that isn’t fried. I would probably never order it myself, but sure enjoyed Kim having shared bits and bites of it. Accompaniment was excellent. In addition to the aforementioned broccolini, small, cubed roasted potatoes and Tula’s signature salad (cucumber, red onion, feta, grape tomatoes drizzled with vinegar and oil) graced the plate.
Tula’s offers four “Sweet Treats:” peach crepes, berry cobbler, chocolate walnut brownie and an ice cream sundae though we were both too full to partake. That’s saying something about Tula’s prodigious portions. Beverages include Dion’s popular lemonade as well as a number of “mocktails,” Italian sodas and adult libations. As a Javaphile (a new term for coffee lover), I rarely get past coffee on any beverage menu. Tula’s coffee comes from Four Leaf Coffee, a Shamrock Foods product. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this elixir and its rich aroma and flavor.
In its May, 2023 edition Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Tula’s Kitchen a”Hot Plate Award” for being a “hot meet-up spot.” 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.” Tula’s was described as boasting of “something few restaurants have; order at the counter, grab a seat and get treated to an otherwise standard dining experience.”
Dion’s has been serving New Mexico for some forty years. It remains to be seen whether Tula’s Kitchen will have similar longevity. One thing is for certain, it’s got the pedigree to be a people-pleasing success for a long time.
8100 Wyoming Blvd., N.E., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 November 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Charcuterie, Lemon and Herb-Roasted Chicken, Marinated Grilled Kabobs