The St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Magdalena, New Mexico is adorned with ceramic statues, most familiar and easy to identify…at least for dyed-in-the-wool Catholics like me. After Sunday Mass one September, 2010 morning, we espied a statue of a saint clutching a curious implement to his chest. None of the parishioners we asked had any idea who the statue represented. Father Andy Pavlak, the parish vicar at the time, confirmed the statue depicted Saint Lawrence of Rome and the curious device he held was a gridiron, a metal grate used for grilling meat, fish, vegetables or any combination thereof.
Father Pavlak went on to explain why Saint Lawrence clutched the gridiron. Saint Lawrence was one of seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian. The manner of death he suffered was especially gruesome. The intrepid saint was grilled on a gridiron. As his flesh cooked, Lawrence is said to have cried out, “This side’s done. Turn me over and have a bite.” That probably explains why Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, butchers and roasters. He is also patron saint of several parishes throughout the Land of Enchantment.
I suspect Saint Lawrence might also be the patron saint of grill masters. If so, I sure could use his divine intercession. Like the administrators of his death, I seem to have a problem discerning when one side is done. Consequently one side is usually charred to the consistency of coal while the other is as rare as the raw beef boxers apply over wounds acquired in the ring. It doesn’t matter how closely I’ve studied the collective writings of Bill and Cheryl Jamison, America’s preeminent outdoor cooking experts, my results are disastrous. On the grill, I’m a disgrace to my gender.
Because I’ve ruined hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, my Kim would just as soon see me wave the white flag of surrender (though I’d probably drop it on the grill and only one side would burn.) Better still, she’d rather I take her to a restaurant in which bona fide grill masters impart the olfactory-arousing direct application of heat to produce succulent results. Frankly, that would be my preference, too…so, perhaps my ineptitude on the grill might be a subliminal thing. Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.
It’s no secret that some of the very best grilled meats anywhere are prepared to perfection in Middle Eastern restaurants. Many Middle Eastern dining establishments have mastered the enviable art of imbuing meats with the pungency of exotic spices; a distinctive aroma inherent from woods with personality; a whisper-thin crust that seals in flavor and tenderness in a pleasantly pink interior; and any number of heavily spiced, flavorful sauces, all of which seem to highlight even more of the magnificence of meat in all its grilled glory.
In Albuquerque as in many other cities, Middle Eastern restaurants seem to fall into two stratum: opulent, lavishly adorned dining rooms or time-worn cafes in bedraggled edifices. Experience shows that spit and polish alone don’t make the restaurant. Some of the very best Middle Eastern restaurants are often found in tumbledown buildings. No longer a tenant at one of these is Al-Qud’s Mediterranean Grill & Grocery (formerly the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant) on the northeast corner of Montgomery and San Pedro in the Northeast Heights. Al-Qud, by the way, is not the owner’s surname, but the Arabic name for the city of Jerusalem, literally meaning “The Holy One.”
Al-Qud’s is ensconced in an edifice that used to house a Wells Fargo bank. Were it not for the thick-gauge steel vault door, you’d never recognize it as a bank today. Even the vault has been repurposed. Behind that steel vault door, you’ll find the restaurant’s prep area, a busy, bustling space in perpetual motion. Much of the building is dedicated to comestibles. Its shelves are well-stocked with Middle Eastern spices, groceries and dry goods. Adventurous cooks will enjoy walking up and down the aisles studying all the wonderful options, perhaps inspired by the olfactory arousing aromas coming from the small kitchen at the back of the complex next to the vault.
Dine-in and carry-out options abound. Should you decide to dine in, there are several comfortable booths and tables available. The dining area is not only much larger than the improvised dining area at its San Pedro predecessor, but wholly separate from aisles of groceries. Mohammad Abdeljalil, the perpetually smiling Palestinian owner and his two genial sons are exemplars of service-orientation. Considering the unholy hours at which Mohammad begins baking the day’s pita, you’d think he’d be a little bit grouchy by lunch hour, but he’s unfailingly friendly and accommodating (more on that later).
The menu is surprisingly ambitious. Reading from top-left, the first items to catch your eye are appetizers and small order items followed by family-size plates then six salads, only one (a simple house salad) of which you might see at any type of restaurant. One section of the menu is dedicated to platters, both meat-based platters and vegetarian platters. Platters generally include a meat or vegetarian entree with hummus or rice and one of the six sensational salads. Two pieces of the homemade fresh pita bread (the best in the city) comes with several of the platters.
The last page of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches–non-vegetarian and vegetarian–and specials. It’s an intriguing menu. One of the most intriguing items on the menu is, believe it or not, a cheeseburger. If you’re wondering why any right-minded diner would ever order a cheeseburger at a Middle Eastern restaurant, the answer is because it’s made from shish kafta, the delightfully seasoned ground beef seasoned such Mediterranean spices as cumin, paprika, minced onion, coriander, and parsley. Should it become available with green chile, your humble blogger might try it, but until then there are so many other wonderful dishes to try.
The appetizers section includes some de rigueur standards you’ll find at almost all Mediterranean restaurants. The difference is that Al-Qud’s prepares them better. “Heresy,” you say. After our inaugural visit on November 13, 2010 we were so impressed that we had to return a week later to confirm what our taste buds were saying. They were telling us this humble little establishment might be the very best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque. Zomato readers seem to agree. As of this writing (9 November 2018), the restaurant has earned a 4.9 rating (out of 5), one of the highest in Albuquerque. It’s got a solid 4.5 stars on Yelp, too.
9 November 2018: The dolmas, a six-piece appetizer of stuffed grape leaves served with tahini salad is one of those items Al-Qud’s prepares as well as any Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque. Though you can use your fork to cut the cigar-shaped dolmas into smaller, bite-sized pieces, they’re best consumed in one bite, the way many of us eat maki (sushi) rolls. Mohammad will encourage you to eat your entire dinner (not just the dolmas) the way it would be eaten back home in Palestine. He would just as soon you dispense with your fork altogether. Great advice! Dip the dolmas into the fresh, invigorating tahini sauce or eat them sans sauce. Either way, they’re delicious, a mingling of tastes and textures you’ll love.
Unlike many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Duke City, these dolmas are homemade, not from out of a can. They have a very distinctive flavor born of a seven spice blend, one that’s just slightly different than many seven spice blends I’ve seen in Japanese cooking. This one is made with All Spice, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Fennel and Ginger, a blend which enlivens the vegetarian dolmas with a flavor punch that will wow your taste buds.
9 November 2018: Another terrific starter is the six-piece falafel plate. The falafel (chickpeas mashed with onions then fried to a nice crunch) are also somewhat cigar-shaped. Bite into each falafel and you’ll experience the sensation of a slight crispy crunch followed by a tender, moist inside that tastes like a little piece of heaven on Earth. It’s the type of falafel which should be used to help broker peace in the Middle East. Seasoned with herbs and spices, they’re served with a luscious yogurt sauce which complements them wonderfully.
14 November 2010: For years, my local standard for Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic, was Yasmine’s Cafe when it was under the auspices of its original owners. Al-Qud’s version is even better. It’s rich and creamy with a prominent garlic flavor. In Middle Eastern fashion, you’ll want to cut up pieces of the wonderful housemade pita (still fresh and warm) and use the pita to scoop up as much Baba Ghanoug as you can fit into your mouth. Each bite is an adventure in appreciation.
9 November 2018: For me, the highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the six choices–was always the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil). Though no longer offered on the menu, the accommodating staff might just whip it up for you if you ask nicely and Mohammad is available (he’s the only one who knows the recipe). This salad has powerful qualities, a term you might not associate with parsley. Parsley is usually thought up as an ingredient to chop up and sprinkle on entrees needing color. It’s mostly thought of in a decorative sense, not for its flavor enhancing qualities. Used correctly and in combination with other ingredients (such as tahini), it is refreshing and assertive. It’s also delicious!
20 November 2010: Growing up in bucolic Peñasco with Lebanese neighbors, I was introduced to Tabbouli, Kibbeh and Tahini long before I’d ever had Chinese food or even my first Bic Mac. Seeing Tabbouli (lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint, cracked Bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice and virgin olive oil) on Al-Qud’s menu was a treat. It may well be the best I’ve ever had, reminding me in some ways of what a Middle Eastern pico de gallo might taste like. It’s got remarkable freshening qualities, like a savory and delicious breath mint.
20 September 2016: It wouldn’t be a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant without a sensational hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic) and that, too, is incomparably delicious at Al-Qud’s. You can order it on its own as an appetizer or you can order one of the several platters with which the hummus is served. The hummus encircles the meat platters like an island of creamy, garlicky goodness. Of course, a generous sprinkling of sumac (with a characteristically sour taste similar to lemon but not quite as astringent) is rained upon the hummus. Years ago Mohammad taught us to use pita to scoop up heaps of meat and hummus with our hands. It’s the only way to eat hummus.
9 November 2018: The Lamb Shawarma (marinated slices of lamb) is terrific (as if that needs to be said). Instead of shaved lamb as you’d find on Greek gyros, the lamb is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces, each blessed with a grilled smokiness and seasonings that are so distinctively Middle Eastern. In Arabic, shawarma is a verb that means, “to turn”and indeed, Mohammad confirmed that Al-Qud’s employs the use of a vertical, turning spit in order to cook the meat which he slices himself. The spit is turned above a heating element which slowly cooks the meat over the course of the day. The meat on the outside of the cone, which cooks faster than the meat on the inside, is shaved off and plated as it is ordered. It’s the real stuff, unlike unlike the gyros meat most restaurateurs acquire already on a vertical cone from vendors.
9 November 2018: Speaking of gyros, would it surprise you to learn Al-Qud’s version is as good as you’ll find anywhere in the Duke City save for maybe Gyros Mediterranean. The most obvious difference between Al-Qud’s gyros and that of Greek restaurants is the pita. At most Greek restaurants, the pita is a single piece of flatbread folded over an amalgam of beef and lamb (or chicken). At Al-Qud’s, the beef-lamb (or chicken) is stuffed into a pocket cut into the thick flatbread. Ask for an extra portion of the tangy tzatziki sauce (or the terrific tahini salad) and onions to complete this superb sandwich.
Not since Banbury, England in 1987 have we had better shish kabob (cubes of extra lean beef served) than we’ve had at Al-Qud’s. In describing the grilling expertise at Middle Eastern restaurants earlier in this essay, I must have had this shish kabob in mind. The meat is grilled to perfection. At medium, it has just a slight hint of pink inside while its exterior texture is nicely charred. It’s the type of grilling expertise I lack. It’s perfect grilling.
13 February 2011: Another exceptional platter which showcases the grilling process and exceptional seasoning is the chicken tawook platter, marinated juicy cubes of chicken breast with garlic sauce served with hummus, salad and the homemade fresh pita bread. The chicken is moist and tender, absolutely impregnated with flavor though not so garlicky that it will wreck your breath. Instead, the garlic melds wondrously with a hint of grilling.
27 March 2011: The chicken shawarma, an island of small-cut chicken pieces surrounded by hummus is yet another fabulous entree. Similar to the chicken tawook, garlic is a prominent flavor as is the wondrous fragrance of grilling. Parsley also fits prominently into the flavor profile, imparting an invigorating herbaceous freshness, but this dish is best when scooped up with hummus and that absolutely amazing pita. Abraham tells me he makes some 700 pieces of bread on an average day. I’ll typically have four of them each visit and take home another half dozen. This is the best pita in New Mexico!
24 August 2011: Even on the rare occasion in which an item you don’t order is delivered to your table, you’ll want to try it before even thinking about sending it back. Such was the case when my adovada-adoring friend Ruben Hendrickson (rest in peace, my friend) and I ordered dolmes and a strange looking dish with an even stranger name was placed before us. As it turns out, the Foul Mudammas with Pita is an outstanding appetizer, one which will visit my table in the future.
There’s nothing foul about this wonderful dish which is made with diced fava beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Given the same ingredients and asked to create something wonderful, there’s no way most of us could ever concoct anything nearly this good. The humble fava hasn’t made significant inroads in the American diet, but in combination with the right condiments and spices, it’s more than palatable. Fava beans have tremendous healthful benefits, too.
9 November 2018: Al-Qud’s is no slouch when it comes to desserts. Trays of baklava behind a glass pastry case may elicit involuntary salivation. Don’t hesitate to order the pistachio baklava. This baklava is on par with the pistachio baklava at the Anatolia Doner Kebab House which means it’s the very best in New Mexico. The salty pistachios are a perfect foil for the cloying honey, making this a dessert of complementary and contrasting flavors which go so well together. Bite into the layers of luscious flaky phylo and you’ll be rewarded with a moist, delicious, wonderful way to finish an outstanding meal.
Al-Qud’s Mediterranean Grill & Grocery is reminiscent of the type of restaurant you’d find in an ethnic rich area of a large metropolitan area. It is frequented by customers of all ethnicities, the common denominator being the recognition that this is a very special restaurant with incomparable food, terrific service and the type of grilling skills I envy.
Al-Qud’s Mediterranean Grill & Grocery
5555 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 November 2018
1st VISIT: 13 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 9
BEST BET: Shish Kabob Platter, Lamb Shawarma Platter, Fresh Pita Bread, Bakdunecea Salad, Garden Salad, Dolmes, Falafel, Baba Ganouj, Shisk KaftaPlatter, Beef Shawarma, Tabbouli, Chicken Shawarma, Foul Mudammas with Pita, Fatoush, Pistachio Baklava, Eight O’Clock Coffee