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 2022 are almost exclusively of the “cheap eats” (if that term even applies under the current economy) 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 2022. Every dish was a delicious discovery from within New Mexico’s sacred borders. In chronological order, my “best of the best” are:
New Mexicans tend to be blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes eaters (or in the case of breakfast, biscuits-and-gravy (with green chile, of course)). At My Moms on 4th Street, Marie Yniguez’s green chile sausage biscuits n’ gravy is a breakfast offering you’ll want to get up early in the morning for. The biscuits are buttery and fluffy served parted in the middle like the Red Sea courtesy of Moses. Cream green chile sausage gravy is slathered generously atop the biscuit. It’s a substantial meal I couldn’t finish after having devoured an almost as good baloney sandwich, but it heats up well.
Red Rock Deli’s kraut burger (lettuce, mayo, pickles, onions and mustard served with sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, and topped with Swiss cheese) is one you’ll remember for a long time. It’s one of the very best burgers I’ve enjoyed in years that didn’t include green chile. It’s so good, I’ve been plotting a return trip to have another (or maybe three). It’s so good not even green chile can improve it and that’s saying something.
My Kim and I have enjoyed kabobs all across the fruited plain and throughout Europe where kabobs are practically a religion. Most vary in quality from good to very good, but only a few cross that fine line threshold that makes only the very best kabobs memorable. The beef kabob at Tikka Hut Pizzeria & Kabob House is one of them, easily in the top-five of all kabobs we’ve ever had. Sadly, Tikka Hut and its elder sibling restaurant closed for good.
One of the stalwart standards that will never go out of fashion is brisket. Rev’s BBQ offers a brisket that warrants reverence. It is of Texas barbecue quality. One of the new ways in which Manny “Rev” Duran offers brisket is with a skyscraper-tall sandwich called The Big Reverend (One layer brisket next Italian sausage (yes, Italian sausage) then brisket then more sausage and topped with fresh New Mexico green chile on a toasted brioche bun with pepperjack cheese). It’ll convert the most staunch of vegans.
It’s not often we’re surprised by pancakes, but Hello Deli managed to blow us away with an offering called Santa Fe Cakes. They’re virtually everything you would want a pancake to be and much more. So much more! Picture two near plate-sized blue corn pancakes with Cheddar and Jack cheese, green chile and piñon baked right in served with your choice of bacon, ham, sausage or chorizo and two eggs (any style) for a pittance more.
Six juicy, chewy, uneven squares of minced pork folded into a thin sheet of dumpling dough arrive in a glorious sauce at Nio Szechuan. That sauce is resplendent–richly colorful and pleasing to the eye. It’s replete with elements of sweet, savory, garlicky, and spicier than any hellish elixir Satan might prepare. More importantly, it greeted us with an umami bomb, that deep, rich, meaty and earthy flavor unique to some foods. The spicy chili shrimp pork wonton is life-altering.
The Love Apple’s housemade, pan-fried potato gnocchi (served with sugar snap peas, grilled asparagus, lemon juice and feta) is one of the very best dishes we’ve ever had. Rather than the tired old, seemingly de rigueur red sauce, this gnocchi was sauced simply with butter, garlic and feta. While I’m in a declaring mood, gnocchi should always be made with potatoes. It is NOT a pasta. The Love Apple pan fries each delicate potato dumpling to absolute perfection. Each gnocchi is a mouth-watering delight.
We all know The Buckhorn Tavern is renowned for its green chile cheeseburgers, but did you know the best companion for any burger is not fries, but a bowl of whole beans? Add green chile to the bowl and you will have paired New Mexico’s two official state vegetables–frijoles and chile. These frijoles come from Estancia, home to arguably (they won’t get any argument from me) the very best beans in the Land of Enchantment. A flour tortilla on the side can be used to fashion New Mexican spoons with which to scoop up one delicious spoonful after the other.
Central Bodega’s The Italian (constructed from prosciutto, bresaola, sobrasada, fontina, mortadella, veggies, olives, pepperoncini and champagne vinaigrette on a baguette) is perhaps the best Italian sandwich we’ve had in the Land of Enchantment. More than making its presence felt is the bresaola which “smells like Christmas” when it’s being sliced thinly. Bresaola has a sweet, aromatic “clovey” flavor that accentuates the taste of the lean beef from which it’s made and the spices used to impart flavor notes. Also notable is the sobrasada with its prominent peppercorn notes. If you love sandwiches with diverse and assertive flavors, this is a sandwich for you.
Bibimbap can be literally translated to “mixed meal,” because it’s constructed from sundry items often already prepared. Other than bulgogi, it may be the most popular and well-known Korean dish in existence. Some cynics actually decry it as leftovers disguised as a gourmet dish. There may be some merit to that description. Even if you can’t pronounce it, bibimbap at K Style Kitchen on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side will impress you.
Adventurous types will love the atol de elote which appears to be the love child of the union of horchata and corn chowder. It’s a sweet, creamy, silky rich drink served so hot it will warm you even atop one of Guatemala’s 13,000-foot peaks. The ancient Maya believed corn was sacred and their descendants share a reverence for it through the preparation of such dishes as atol de elote and tamales de elote. You can find it only at Panaderia Guatemalteca Eterna Primavera on San Pedro.
My friend Tuan and I weren’t thinking about the health benefits of the fabulous beef marrow soup we enjoyed at Pho Nho. Quite the contrary. We were solely focused on how luxurious and indulgent the beef marrow soup was. We both polished off an entire bowl of this enchanting elixir, taking particular notice of the globules of fatty goodness. ALL beef pho broth should have a layer of fat covering its surface. These globules of unctuous deliciousness add great beefy flavors to the broth and retain a lot of the spice flavors that make it a pho broth and not just regular beef stock.
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 in 2023 they’ll make it to my list, too.