Sunday, February 28, 2010

A James Beard "American Classic"

Today we revisit three of our favorite restaurants in Albuquerque. Since I have already blogged at some length about each, I am not going to spend time on their ambiance or history. If anyone is interested, see the blog on the dates indicated in parenthesis for each.
So we are back in the land of the chili and where do we go for our first meal? To an Asian restaurant, of course. One of our favorite Albuquerque restaurants is Asian Noodle Bar (11/23/09) on Central Avenue in downtown. As before, we decided on three appetizers (Gyoza, Grilled Meatballs, and Asian Shrimp) plus a bowl of the Spicy Noodle Salad. The Gyoza and Noodle Salad are repeats from previous visits.

On our last trip to Asian Noodle Bar last December, I saw our server bringing a plate of shrimp to a nearby table. When he returned to our table, I asked what the dish was called. It was the Asian Shrimp appetizer. Knowing that we would be making a return trip in February, this fact was stored in my culinary memory bank to be retrieved at a later date.

First, I should note that Chuck is not as big a shrimp fan as am I. But these are special. The sweet and fresh shrimp were coated in a very crisp batter, drizzled with a sweet chili sauce, and topped with toasted almonds. And the chili sauce also covered the shredded lettuce and fried rice noodle base. Chuck enjoyed his portion so much that he is determined that, on a future visit, he is going to have his own plate. What was especially enjoyable was the taste contrast with the Gyoza, stuffed with a garlicky pork filling and served with a soy-based dipping sauce. The sweet shrimp followed by a savory gyoza was a perfect taste combination.

The grilled meatballs, served on skewers and accompanied by another sweet chili sauce, were very good, but were no match for the shrimp or gyoza.
Now it’s time for New Mexican food, and it’s off to Sophia’s Place(11/22/09 and 11/23/09) for breakfast. Like our previous weekend visit, by 9:15 a.m. this small restaurant was full, and patrons were rearranging the furniture to accommodate a family with a baby buggy.

My breakfasts on the last trip focused on more traditional breakfast foods – French toast and pancakes. This time I was determined to try the giant breakfast burrito smothered in chili. The Sophia’s breakfast burrito is made with two eggs, potatoes, and cheese plus you choice of meat (sliced steak, pork carnitas, chicken, or bacon) or mixed veggies. It was the steak for me, and, yes, I wanted the burrito smothered not just with one but with two chilis. In New Mexico, ordering both the red chili and the green chili is called ordering “Christmas.” But I am particular. I don’t want one chili put atop the other as is done in some restaurants. I want each flavor separate and distinct. My burrito came just as ordered. Green chili on one end, red chili on the other.

Both chilis are good but I thought that the red was a little harsh. The green, which was hotter than the red, was perfect. So perfect that I asked Chuck if he planned to eat the green chili that covered his plate. (He also had the burrito with just green chili.) He didn’t, so I spooned the chili from his plate to mine.
For you doubters out there, yes, I did eat the whole thing.
Finally, we went to my new favorite restaurant serving New Mexico food-–Mary & Tito’s (11/30/09). This family-owned-and-run restaurant serves down-to-earth food in a bare bones and casual setting.

Chuck’s lunch choice was the Blue Corn Enchilada Plate with ground beef, beans, and rice. I selected two sides—the chili relleno with green chili and the carne adovado with red chili.

I can’t tell you much about Chuck’s lunch. I think it disappeared before I had a chance to try it. But my two sides were worth the return visit. I am beginning to think that this restaurant has the best chili relleno I’ve eaten. The batter is thin and crisp, and the chili itself is hot—but not overwhelming—and is filled with a white cheese that oozes when the chili is cut. And this is my favorite green chili. Hot enough to make your eyes water, but not inedible. And, unless you specify that you want vegetarian chili, it comes with a generous amount of pork mixed with the chili.

The carne adovado was very good, but I think that I still prefer the carne adovado at Garcia’s Kitchen. (We didn’t have time for a return visit on this trip.) The pork was shredded instead of being cut into cubes or chunks and I think that I like the cubes better.

As we were leaving, Chuck noticed a framed letter from the James Beard Foundation near the cash register. The New Mexico Business Weekly reported on the award to Mary Gonzales : “The Albuquerque restaurant was one of five 2010 “America’s Classics” category award honorees. The winners were singled out for having a ‘timeless appeal,’ serving food that ‘reflects the character of their community,’ and for ‘[carving] out a special place on the American culinary landscape.’...To qualify for the award, establishments must have been in existence at least 10 years and be locally owned. Organizers say the winners are usually informal and moderately priced. The honorees are selected each year by the Foundation’s Restaurant Committee, which is composed of 17 individuals throughout the country, many of whom are notable food critics and culinary writers.”

Mary and her daughter, Antoinette Knight (Tito died in the early 1990’s), who helps manage the restaurant, will receive their award in New York City in early May.

So, to my three favorite restaurants in Albuquerque: Keep the stoves hot, we’ll be back in May.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Albuquerque was founded in 1706, and since then its heart has been Historic Old Town.

Along our walk on one of the "arteries," we found that most of the architecture of Old Town is adobe, in the Pueblo-Spanish style. In contrast to the adobe structures, were some splashes of color. The table and chairs just seemed to be placed along this wall to brighten the space.

The umbrellas offered shade to the customers of this particular cafe--one of more than 100 shops, galleries, and restaurants in an area of about 10 blocks.

Old Town was laid out in the traditional Spanish colonial way, with a central plaza. Here the gazebo is the site for musicians, dance groups, and even wedding photographs.

The Old Town Emporium with its turquoise door is one of the most colorful buildings on the plaza.

Within Old Town is a small group of shops in the quaint Poco-a-Poco Patio. Kate had remembered La Casita de Kaleidoscopes; we had stopped by this shop to browse on earlier visits to Albuquerque. The store has slowly grown to feature kaleidoscopes, teleidoscopes, and related items by over 70 artists from throughout the world. This time Kate purchased a beautiful Henry Bergeson kaleidoscope to thank me for my nursing skills in the recovery process following her surgery. What a great surprise!

Kate: After a busy morning of shopping, lunch was overdue, so we headed off to Church Street Café (where the green umbrella is), a restaurant that we visited on our first trip to Albuquerque seven (?) years ago.

The restaurant is located in an old house. “Casa de Ruiz, which literally translates to ‘the house of Ruiz,’ has a long and distinctive history. Unfortunately much of this history has been lost with the passage of time and that which remains is at best uncertain. The house was built during the founding of Albuquerque sometime after 1706. This would make Casa de Ruiz the oldest residence in Albuquerque and one of the oldest structures in the state of New Mexico…The property was originally a residence built by the Ruiz family in the early 1700's. It remained a residence until the last inhabitant, Rufina G. Ruiz died in 1991 at the age of 91. The house had never been sold and had remained in the Ruiz family since the early 18th century” (From the restaurant’s web site).

In front is a small patio with two large round tables, each seating six. Inside, there are three small dining rooms with seating for twenty-five to about forty. In the back of the house is a newer dining area where we were seated. It looks as though there will eventually be a much larger outdoor patio, but this area was still under construction.

While our dining room didn’t have the old New Mexico charm of the front rooms, the owners have made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the past. One wall is dominated by a large kiva fireplace and another wall contains a long bench strewn with colorful pillows (photo below).

As you would expect, the menu relies heavily on New Mexican food, although the salad and sandwich lists do include a number of “All American” diner options, e.g., chef salad, fruit salad, turkey sandwich (with green chile), ham and cheese sandwich, club sandwich. But why travel over 1,700 miles to eat the same food that I can find in any East Coast diner? So we both went with “standards with a twist.” Chuck chose the Duke City (ABQ is known as the Duke City) Philly and I the Navajo Taco.

The Navajo Taco is basically a taco salad served on Indian Fry Bread. Indian fry bread is tradition to the Navajo, and though the tradition of fry bread is common among many Southwestern Tribes, it is the Navajo who developed the recipe. Baking powder is used as the leavening agent, and as the name suggests, the plate-size round of dough is fried in very hot oil or other fat. The result is a fried circle of dough about eight to ten inches in diameter. This disc was then topped with seasoned ground beef, beans, cheese, avocado, lettuce, and tomato. I had forgotten how filling the Navajo Taco can be!!

Chuck’s Duke City Philly was a large flour tortilla stuffed with shredded beef and finely chopped fried onion and came with a small bowl of green chile on the side.

Both of our lunches were good, but lacked the intense seasoning you find at restaurants (Tito and Mary’s or Garcia’s Kitchen) that cater to a mostly local audience. I suspect that, being in one of Albuquerque’s prime tourist areas, Church Street Café turns down the heat so to speak.

Since I wanted dessert (When don’t I want dessert?) I ate about two-thirds of my taco and took the rest home. It reheated nicely and made an interesting breakfast.

Time for dessert. Would it be the fried ice cream, the natillas (Mexican pudding), the bunuelo (fry bread dusted with sugar and cinnamon), or the flan? No, it was the sopaipilla stuffed with vanilla ice cream, drizzled with chocolate, and garnished with whipped cream. Chuck described this as a funnel cake (a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition) gone wild.

This was certainly not the best of Albuquerque’s food, but was a pleasant respite from searing chile and earns a 3.5 Addie rating.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What’s in a Name?

Often, just enough to pique my interest.

Such was the case with Tooties, just outside of Bristol, VA. Of course, the eye popping orange and yellow paint on the building didn’t hurt. So also was the case with Big Earl’s Greasy Eats in Cave Creek, AZ. How can one resist? So when I found Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill (Belen, NM) on Gil Garduno’s blog, I knew we had to go. Yesterday, Chuck gave you a tour of the mountain of artifacts that consume every empty space in this casual and friendly restaurant. Today, I deal with the food.

But first, a short clarification. Harla May doesn’t exist. “She” is a figment of Anthony and Carmen’s fertile imagination. Harla refers to their love of Harley’s. May is the sister of one of them – I forget which. And Fat Boy? Given that they are Harley lovers, that should be obvious. Hence, Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill, whose slogan is “We relish your buns.”

Anthony and Carmen clearly have had fun with the restaurant's name and slogan, but their hours top everything. Imagine calling to ask when the restaurant opens and being told, "10:57." Who would say, "OK," instead of asking the person to repeat the time?

Anthony and Carmen began their career in food service with a snow cone machine. Later, they graduated to a Tastee Freeze stand which they named Celeste’s after their daughter. (Carmen told us that everyone thought that her name was Celeste, and when they opened Harla May’s, apologized for not knowing that her name was Harla May.) In 2004, they finished the renovations of the Oñate Theater and Harla May’s opened.

When we entered through the theater curtain, ‘70’s music was playing on the sound system. Is that the theme from “The Love Boat” I hear?

I was in the mood for a burger, but decided that the Fat Boy burger, a one-pounder with chile, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, bacon, guacamole and onion rings was beyond my capabilities. So, instead I went for the half-pound Flame Thrower topped with cheddar cheese and a Padilla’s Jarales hot green chile. When I placed my order, our server gave me a skeptical look and asked: “Do you like hot food?” Little did she know that I live for hot food. With the burger came a side of fries.

Chuck originally considered the Hecho-a-Mano, another half-pound patty that is smothered in your choice of red or green chile and served with beans, papitas, and cheese. But he ultimately ordered the Gillie’s Philly, a Southwestern Philly on a tortilla with grilled chile, onions, bell peppers and cheese and a side of fries.

My burger was a thing of beauty. No pre-formed patty here. This was handmade with the open and juicy interior that is the hallmark of a burger that didn’t come frozen from a box. And the generous amount of cheddar cheese melted down the sides and onto my plate. And the chile. What a chile. Hot it was and made even hotter by leaving all of those incendiary little seeds inside. And my fries, like Chuck’s, were hot and extra crisp on the outside and all moist and steamy inside. This may have been the best burger I’ve eaten since The Squeeze Inn in Sacramento, CA.

And Chuck’s lunch was equally good. Harla May’s take on the Philly Cheesesteak came rolled in a flour tortilla with juicy thin sliced steak, cheese, diced green pepper, diced red hot pepper, and grilled onions. With each bite, juice cascaded from the sandwich onto the plate. And the grilled onions gave the steak a mildly sweet flavor which was not unpleasant. We have tried a number of cheesesteak variations on our travels, but Harla May’s just might be the best.

Given the size of our lunches, you would think we wouldn’t have room for dessert. You’d be wrong. We decided to share a slice of Carmen’s homemade apple caramel pie. And with ice cream for good measure. The pie came to the table warmed just enough to intensify the apple and cinnamon flavors and to slightly melt the caramel topping. And, for extra measure, Carmen had added chopped pecans to the filling so that every bite contained a little crunch to balance the softer apples.

What a great lunch. What a great place. What great people. All of this deserves a 4.5 Addie rating.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Restauranteur, Collector, and Historian

A stop at Harla May's Fat Boy Grill in Belen, New Mexico, is a "3-in-1" experience.

It is clearly a very good restaurant (more on that tomorrow), it is a look into a person's attic collections amassed over many years, and it is a history lesson provided through one couple's family and friends.

The history begins with the Oñate Theater, built in 1932, and named after Juan de Oñate y Sálazar, who was selected in the late 1590s by the viceroy of New Spain to conquer the Pueblo Indians.

Anthony Baca, the present owner, is part American Indian and had the experiences of his ancestors to assess Oñate's actions.

After passing through a curtain from the lobby of the former theater, we entered the restaurant and the collection of one couple's history. My conversation with Anthony began with the Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys that he had obtained.

A friend of Anthony's was cleaning out his garage, and Anthony asked if he could have the 1953 Buick engine. He could, and it now occupies a place near the entrance.

There were photographs of family members with pick-up trucks. "These men could get jobs only if they used the names Sanders or Smith."

Anthony spoke of instances in which he was refused to be served in restaurants in the Northeast.

There was a jersey from one of the cycling clubs in the area.

There were photographs of one of his German relatives with an accordion in a band. "Mexican bands often play what sounds like German polka music, but they're called 'rancheras.' The German influence on music was very strong."

I don't know the story behind Bob here, but the two pair of black platform shoes at Bob's feet belong to Anthony and his wife Carmen. Bob wore his shoes with a rented leisure suit at his high school's 30-year reunion held at the restaurant last year.

There was a poster for the movie Hidalgo. "See that horse in the corner? My aunt raises Spanish horses, and that is one of several of hers that were used in the movie."

"Over here is a photo taken in Chicago of a young Eric Clapton."

"This old photograph shows the Oñate and across the street is a building that has a lead-lined second floor with one window. It seems that during the Depression, all the banks in the state moved their reserves to this room. One guy sat looking out this window with instructions to use his 10-gauge shotgun to shoot anyone who even looked as though he was heading for that building."

Remaining from the old movie theater are the 10 seats in the balcony, the movie screen, and 32 (shown on the left) of the original 400 theater seats.

The theater-turned-restaurant was a dream of Anthony and Carmen, and it was a restoration project that stretched from 1993-2004. The restaurant now seems to serve as the community center for Belen. Several meetings and social functions are held in this space created by leveling the theater floor.

Anthony also spent several minutes during our nearly two-hour tour and conversation talking about his biker experiences. As the theater marquee announces, the Bonecracker Run is a biker event that will collect food for the town's food bank.

He is a fascinating historian of his family, Belen, and the culture of the Southwest, and it wouldn't surprise me if he weren't also a volunteer fireman.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hotel For Sale

The 26-mile trip from the ruins at Gran Quivira to Mountainair, NM, seemed longer--probably because we were long overdue for lunch.

We turned onto Main Street at the Tomahawk Service Station, looking just as it did when we first visited and wrote about Mountainair (blog entry February 5, 2009). But it was a sign right across the street that caught my eye: "Hotel For Sale."

Included in the sale were the Shaffer Hotel and Restaurant, Pop's Curio Shop, and a couple of other buildings, but "Hotel For Sale" was all I needed to read. (I get caught up in the romance of restoring an old diner or hotel, but that's another story.) The Hotel's restaurant, which had been closed on our first visit, now seemed more and more like the place to be.

On the edge of the dining area, the small sofa seemed to fit perfectly with the worn look on the restaurant's chairs.

Built in 1923, the Hotel is a registered National Historical site and one of the few Pueblo-Deco buildings still in existence.

The fireplace, with its unique color and texture differences required prolonged study.

Even though we were hungry, we spent several minutes staring at the ceiling.

"The Pueblo Deco should be an attraction that would draw people to the Hotel," I thought to myself.

Now usually it is Kate's practical side that jolts me into reality.

However, in this case, Kate did not even have to begin the reality check. The asking price for the Hotel package: $1,375,000.

The romance of ownership was no match for this much reality.

So, it was with a different eye that I studied the artistry of the counter and stools at the far end of the dining room.

Kate: It is a shame, given the beauty of the space, that the restaurant’s menu and food are so pedestrian. I don’t remember much of the menu other than that most of the items were sandwiches, with four or five New Mexico items, and three dinner entrees – steak, fried shrimp, and one other that might have been pork chops or ham. The blackboard special of the day was baked chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and peas. Yes. You read that right. Peas.

I decided to play it safe with the green chili cheeseburger and fries. The patty was thin and the chili mild. The fries were o.k.

Chuck ordered the Navajo Taco. Usually, a Navajo Taco comes served on Indian Fry Bread but this came in a flour tortilla that had been folded to resemble a bowl and then fried. The bowl was then filled with seasoned beef (which was tepid in both flavor and warmth) which in turn was topped with beans, tomato, lettuce, cheese, and red salsa. Neither of our meals were bad. They just weren’t all that good.

The room deserves more. The conundrum is defining the restaurant’s client base. To modify the menu and to make it more creative would probably result in a loss of the Shaffer’s “bread and butter” clientele, who probably like things just the way they are.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Centuries of Living

We had driven 65 miles from Albuquerque to Mountainair, New Mexico, and then another 26 miles through very sparsely populated countryside to the ruins of Gran Quivira, the largest of the three Salinas Valley pueblo missions.

Since we were the only people visiting the National Park Service site that morning, I asked Ranger Dan if he became bored or felt lonely in this solo assignment in the ruins far from others. His answer: "I live at the bottom of the hill; my nearest neighbor is 2-1/2 miles away and the next neighbor is another 4 miles away" indicated he thought he had just the right amount of contact with neighbors.

Instead of appearing just as distant from visitors as Gran Quivira was from civilization, Ranger Dan was an energetic, out-going teacher. He clearly enjoyed the ruins and their history and said that he experiences something different each time he walks the grounds.

Following his enthusiastic introduction, we headed up the quarter mile trail to the second church begun around 1659, but never completed.

The first three photos were taken from the church looking to the northwest, west, and southwest in that order.

As we walked among the ruins of the church, we thought about the structure that had endured some three-plus centuries, the people who lived and worked here, and the serenity of the area.

There were walled spaces within the church that still looked quite sturdy.

Just behind the second church was the foundation of an earlier church.

Occupied for nearly nine centuries, 800 A.D. to 1672 A.D., the pueblo was an important trade center before and after the Spanish presence. Although the people resisted the newcomers representing Spain, they reconciled and borrowed freely from their culture.

The photo above, looking west toward the church, and the photo on the left, looking east, were taken from the "roof" of what would have been homes, work spaces, or storage areas.

Excavation has revealed that segments of the living quarters have been built on top of earlier structures serving a similar function in village life.

In the 1660s, friars burned and filled (ceremonial) kivas (now excavated and shown in the foreground) in an effort to exterminate the old religion.

In spaces scattered around the ruins, we could imagine the work of food preparation that might have taken place here.

In 1672, drought and famine led the remaining 500 inhabitants to abandon the pueblo.

In the Visitors' Center, there were displays of pottery that had been found during the excavation of the ruins.

We thought about Ranger Dan when we left. We had arrived feeling sorry for him working in a National Park so far from the small towns in the area.

We left Gran Quivira thinking that he may have found the perfect location for his interests and admiring him for the curiosity and love of the pueblo's history that made our visit more meaningful.