My Chicago born-and-bred bride and I often debate the merits and pitfalls of the Albuquerque metropolitan growing large enough to support more cultural opportunities, larger sports venues and ethnic restaurants we don’t currently have. Having grown up with those amenities, she knows more urban growth also means an increase in crime (as if we didn’t have enough already); more cronyism, corruption and collusion among the political cabal; more pollution, gentrification, traffic congestion, etc. Neither one of us wants Albuquerque to become another Big Cheese like Phoenix (though increasingly we’ve grown to love the Valley of the Sun’s restaurants). We would, however, love a Big Cheese shop like one in Toronto.
If you’ve tuned in to a Hulu series called “Cheese: A Love Story,” you know of what I speak. The series centers around Afrim Pristine, one of the youngest maître fromagiers (cheese masters) in the world. That means he really is a big cheese…so much more than a turophile (a gourmet/ connoisseur of cheese) like me. His appreciation for and knowledge of cheese puts me to shame. As in every métier, it took significant time and effort to achieve his level of expertise. It did help that he was born into his vocation. Pristine’s journey as a cheese monger and entrepreneur began in a 650-square-foot store launched in 1970 by his father and grandfather, both originally from Albania.
Today, Pristine presides over The Cheese Boutique, an eleven-thousand food building in the heart of Toronto’s trendy Swansea area. Since 2000, he and his staff have served thousands of items—from olive pastas and sauces to olive oils and more than 500 different types of cheeses. If not for the wintry weather, it might be worth moving to Toronto just to be close to all that fabulous fetid fromage. When we stepped into The Mouse Hole on Broadway (just north of Central Avenue), my initial thought was “Afrim Pristine got his start in a shop just about this size. Maybe someday Albuquerque will have an eleven-thousand foot cheese shop, too. We’ve all got to start somewhere.”
The Mouse Hole got its start as a goal and vision of Mekala Kennedy and Nathan Sauceda-Halliday, the high-energy couple who own and operate La Finca Bowls, one of only two Duke City eateries to land on Yelp’s list of the Top 100 eateries in America in 2021. The Mouse Hole is situated in The Lifts at Albuquerque High, the same edifice in which La Finca Bowls resides. Like its elder sibling, the Mouse Hole already garnered rave reviews. Unlike Afrim Pristine, Kennedy and Sauceda-Halliday are not certified maître fromagiers. In fact, they admitted in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal that they’re not really cheese experts, but really enjoy cheese and have made it their quest to continue learning. Their inspiration for The Mouse Hole was a small cheese shop close to the Santa Monica, California hotel in which they once worked.
The Mouse Hole is so much more than a Fromagerie. Its glass-fronted display cases do display more than 40 cheeses from around the world–including some from Tucumcari and even Las Cruces–but it might just be the shelves that seal the deal for you. Locally sourced pickled vegetables, crackers, jams (including Heidi’s amazing raspberry jams), sauces, wine, mustards and other comestibles festoon those shelves. Though The Mouse Hole may be Lilliputian in size, you could spend hours perusing those shelves. Even better, if you don’t already have a cheese board of your own at home, you can pick up a beautiful cheese board handcrafted by Albuquerque’s 505 Resin Works.
As awe and wonder gripped our attention, I momentarily reflected back on Albuquerque’s first cheese shop, The Downtown Gourmet. It’s been gone for well more than a decade now, but it still holds a piece of my heart. Carey Smoot was the downtown gourmet, a fellow turophile whose passions for cheese mirrored mine. Though her 1,200 square-foot fromagerie didn’t have staying power, it gave caseophiles (another great word for cheese lover) the sense that maybe someday Albuquerque’s streets would be paved with cheese. I have similar hopes for The Mouse Hole, a little piece of heaven we visited with our good friends Bill and Tish Resnik.
There’s something about enjoying cheese that just seems to inspire community and a slower, more relaxed pace. You don’t just pick up a stiff, smelly block of fromage for the gobble-and-go dining experience the American way of life seems to inspire. Great cheeses will encourage slow and deliberate nibbling so that you can enjoy their nuances and complexities. Additionally, you’ll want to share the experience with people you love, much as we did. Fortunately, the Mouse Hole is a very welcoming venue. An archway separates the retail portion of the cheese shop from the dining area where seating is more functional than comfortable (though it was comfortable enough for us to spend a couple of hours luxuriating in our meals).
The cynosure of the dining room is a mural depicting an anthropomorphic mouse and snail. It’s an eye-catching, thought-provoking mural. Parlor chairs invite you to sit on the lap of comfort as you wait for your order. The artsy ambiance is nice, but frankly, we didn’t fully concentrate on our surroundings until sating our appetites. At the front counter, you might not even notice there’s a menu above a working table. That’s because you’ll be lusting lovingly at the cheeses in the display case. That menu lists three cheese boards and an array of “nibbles,” those irresistible sides you’ll want even though each cheese board serves two to three people.
The three regional cheese boards showcase fromage from noted cheese-producing regions: a Spanish board called “Vamos A Espana”, a French board titled “Pardon My French” and a local board fittingly named “All Local Board.” Cheeses are paired with fruits, vegetables and other snacks native to the areas where the cheeses were produced. Cheese is also sold by the pound and in some cases, half-pound. We found the staff extremely capable and knowledgeable. Moreover, they really seemed to enjoy introducing guests to their cheese offerings, not to mention a variety of local breads delivered daily and a selection of fine beverages. If, like us, you cherish the experiential aspects of dining, you’ll love your time at The Mouse Hole.
You don’t have to be especially observant to notice that seemingly every restaurant in town is offering a “charcuterie board,” typically as an appetizer. It just makes sense, especially when you’re dining with other people. Just try to get consensus on what starters to order and you’ll know what I mean. Tastes vary and if everyone at the table orders an appetizer that best suits them, you’ll soon have a table replete with foods that are often left unfinished. Charcuterie, salumi boards and cheese boards are a perfect option for larger gatherings. They’re sharable and nearly universally beloved. When is the last time you saw charcuterie left-overs?
My friend Bill, a fellow trencherman, ordered as if we wanted to have left-overs. It’s a good thing we were all hungry. First to arrive at our table was the All Local Board (three New Mexico cheeses, Heart of the Desert red chile pistachios, local pickles, fresh apples, Los Ranchos bakery bread, Heidi’s raspberry jam, Pickle Jar mustard and honey). Our three cheeses were Muenster, Feta and Green Chile Cheddar. If you’re wondering how New Mexico could possibly be considered a “great cheese-producing region,” the Land of Enchantment is the eighth-largest cheese producer in the country, boasting of several hundred dairies. It’s not all about quantity, however.
Only the overly crumbly feta wasn’t a huge hit at our table–due mostly to its texture. It reeked of the wonderfully astringent edible molds that give blue cheese its inimitable qualities, but none of us was able to cut a small piece that didn’t break into a dozen more. The green chile Cheddar is further proof (as if any more is needed) that green chile goes with everything. Among our favorite plate-fillers were the pickled beets which were almost devoid of the earthy sweetness characteristic of beets, but were replete with a briny flavor that sent shivers down my spine. The local honey also drew oohs and aahs. We dipped everything from cheese curds to bakery bread into it.
Our second cheese board was called Vamos A Espana. Spain is one of the most prolific cheese producing nations in Europe, making nearly half-a-million tons of cheese per year. With a rich variety of landscapes and a centuries-long tradition of livestock farming, Spain produces a rich variety of delicious cheese. The three cheeses on our Vamos a Espana board (three Spanish cheeses, tangerine and chile olives, membrillo, fresh bell peppers, marinated cherry tomatoes, dried figs, Marcona almonds and sesame seed infused crackers) were Manchego (a personal favorite of mine and Bill’s), Tetilla and a Navarra cheese.
Tetilla, a rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese often used in desserts, was terrific. It’s nearly spreadable enough to be used on a sandwich, but pairs better with dates than with bread or crackers. Manchego, a rich sheep’s milk cheese, may be the most famous of all Spanish cheeses. Similar in flavor (but not in color) to Cheddar and Asiago, it was a favorite at our table. We deliberated about the wafer-thin crackers with their peppery flavor and sesame seed infusion…and who doesn’t love Marcona olives. Spanish olives have a thicker skin than most varieties, giving them sharp and spicy notes, especially when emanating from its oil. This was a magnificent board with so much diversity of flavors, textures and elements of deliciousness.
Because you can’t live on cheese boards alone (though some of us might like to try), The Mouse Hole offers a great selection of side dishes that go very well with the cheeses. Three were delivered to our table at the same time: Olives (yes, more olives), cheese curds and a pickled artichoke-roasted red pepper salad. All three were quite good. Tish and I enjoyed the pairing of cheese curds with the New Mexico local honey. My Kim and Bill appreciated the pickled artichoke-roasted red pepper salad, a combination that really goes well together. As for the olives, well, you can’t have too many olives. These green beauties were salty, tangy and delightfully bitter.
Though cheese is The Mouse Hole’s raison d’etere, we were determined not to miss the meat products that characterize charcuterie boards by ordering a side of salume and prosciutto with small slices of bread. Contrary to what you’ve probably seen at some restaurants, the bread isn’t intended for the construction of small sandwiches. It’s intended as a palate cleanser. As the term implies, palate cleansers reset your sensory perception, preparing your taste buds to notice subtle flavor differences. The differences between salume and prosciutto are more than subtle. The thinly sliced, salmon-pink and reddish prosciutto has a salty ham flavor with sweet notes occasionally showing up. Although porcine-based, the salume offers a different taste experience than the prosciutto. It’s bold, tangy and oh, so delicious.
One of the Mouse Hole’s signature sides is a white bean salad (white beans, onions, cilantro on an olive oil and vinegar base) which proved very popular with our table. It’s a cold salad putting the nutty, earthy flavor of white beans on display. White beans retain their shape and tender fleshed texture well which makes them very popular on salads, including salads served hot such as Minestrone and Pasta Fagoli. This white bean salad will be very popular with vegans and diners with gluten-free dietary needs.
By now you’re probably thinking we ordered everything on the menu. That’s not entirely accurate. We didn’t, for example, order the Pardon My French board. Delivered last to our table were grilled cheese sandwiches on locally baked bread. What distinguished this sandwich from others were caramelized onions which lent a sweet contrast to the sharp Cheddar. The locally baked bread makes for a superb sandwich canvas. It’s the type of bread that makes the best type of toast–soft and crumbly on the inside and crusty on the edges. For the grilled cheese sandwich, the bread is sliced thinly so that the cheese peeks out. It’s a nice touch.
There’s a multitude of reasons The Mouse Hole will have a brisk take-out business. Those reasons are on shelves and display cases. Though we enjoyed enough calories for two days, we just HAD to take home other treasures: sourdough bread from Los Ranchos, quince paste from Spain, goat’s cheese infused with red wine also from Spain and cippolini onions. Cippolini onions have an attention-grabbing agre-dolce flavor that makes them a favorite even among even people who think they don’t like onions. We look forward to many minutes…er, hours…er, days of enjoying these delightful treasures.
My dream of Albuquerque someday being able to support a large cheese shop may never reach fruition, but The Mouse Hole makes a lot of dreams come true. Turophiles, take note! This may be Albuquerque’s “itty, bitty cheese shop” but it offers large flavors and satisfaction!
The Mouse Hole
300 Broadway, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 January 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Vamos a Espana Cheese Board, Local Cheese Board, Cheese Curds, White Bean Salad, Salume, Olives, Pickled Artichokes