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.

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