Best New Restaurant
Tie: Relish and Zinc
The fabulous uptown cheese market/sandwich shop known as Relish and the upscale American wine bar and bistro in Nob Hill called Zinc have run up against each other. Although they are quite different in many ways—one's a cheese shop and sandwich joint with just a few little tables, the other is an upscale meat-and-potatoes dinner house with a dark, luxurious interior—they both share a passion for simple, high-quality food, which is what readers seemed to respond to. The reggae-fueled atmosphere of Jamaica Jamaica, the inventive food of East Mountain hideout Nouveau Noodles and the always-welcome vegetarian cuisine of La Siringitu also captured our attention in the last 12 months.
Best New Chain Restaurant
“Unchain your appetite!” one contestant wrote in. We agree. Alibi always encourages hungry New Mexicans to patronize local restaurants. Still, we are forced to admit that the simple, freshly cooked noodle dishes at Pei Wei (whipped up in fire-fueled woks right before your eyes) are pretty darn tasty. The soba-miso bowl with shrimp is worth a regular trip.
The 66 Diner is a time machine. When you want to step back to the roots of Albuquerque's Central Avenue neon '50s culture, there's no better place than the good ol' 66. This year, as usual, it won by a landslide. According to our voters, Hurricane's and Mannie's are also fine eateries to get that vintage diner vibe. Another popular place, at least according to one of our readers, is the “the police substation at Central and Girard.” We hear they've got great root beer floats.
This was a new category this year and we were surprised to find that although Albuquerqueans seem to love complaining about Frontier's prices, fully 33 percent of all ballots listed Frontier as best value. The others listed every small New Mexican, Mexican, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant in the city. We were surprised Ho Ho didn't get more votes. Seems like every time we see someone with a Styrofoam container—heaped to the ceiling with General Tso's chicken—it's from Ho Ho, home of the cheapest, fastest Chinese food we've found.
Best Dine-In Pizza
Delivery is truly a Godsend when you're too tired to peel yourself off the couch, too inebriated to drive or too disheveled to risk being seen in public. But sometimes you want a little pizzazz with your pizza, and that's exactly why these pie shops rule. Yeah, the eatin's good—real good. But the humble pizza joint has always been part and parcel to the flavor of a neighborhood. It's a place where you can come as you are, where you know the staff by name (or at least by sight), where you can sit back, sip a frosty beverage and watch the human scenery filter through. The fact that there's a Dion's in just about everybody's neck of the woods must certainly add to its enduring popularity. They were followed by, in order of preference: Saggio's, Il Vicino, Giovanni's, NYPD and Village Pizza.
Delicatessens are not native here in New Mexico. The deli is an import to Albuquerque from areas with sizable Jewish, German or any-other-ethnicity-that-loves-weird-meats populations, you know, big East Coast cities where their food polls ask for Best Knish, Best Wurst, Best Whitefish Salad. Whitefish salad? Good luck! Here, our delis are different but no less desirable. In their most modest form, like at DGs, they allow us to choose from a case full of meats and cheeses, and create our own Dagwood-worthy sandwiches. Hey, modest doesn't mean meager, people love this place! At delis like Relish we get to sample artisanal cheeses not found anywhere else, at Tully's we find irresistible Italian sausages, and at Pastrami and Things there's even whitefish salad. No, really.
Funny, isn't it, that the winner of Best Dessert is also the best bakery. Why could that be? Because we love the pies, cakes, baguettes, cookies, cakes, bagels, muffins and, well, everything in the case at Flying Star. When Alibi readers want something with a little bit of an accent to it, they shop at Le Chantilly in Hoffmantown Shopping Center or at Patisserie C, just a few doors down from Artichoke Café.
What, you haven't been to Carlito's? With so many votes coming in for this hidden gem near the Zoo, how could it still be undiscovered? Perhaps it's just that those of you have found this sunny spot (in a former Stufy's) with the smiling staff, are anxious to let everybody else know about it. Maybe you think that because the food is so good and the people are so nice they must not be doing very well. Otherwise, they'd be snobby about it, right? No, not here. The food is as authentic as it get and the folks are as friendly as family and nobody's feeling too high on his horse. In second place, Nouveau Noodles and Relish. tied, but again, these places have been getting tons of votes in a bunch of different categories so we think the same rules apply for them as for Carlito's. Other undiscovered favorites include La Siringitu, Hannah & Nate's Place, Geo's Fine Foods and Krung Thai.
Best Patio Dining
It's not too hard to understand why El Pinto won this category. With it's luxurious, old-style outdoor seating in the most beautiful part of the North Valley, this patio dining staple is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous restaurants in New Mexico. It's amazing that Albuquerque, with its year-round sunny weather doesn't have more outdoor dining options, but if you look around there are several attractive ones to choose from sprinkled around town. This year's voters highlighted Nob Hill's Kelly's, Downtown's Pearl's Dive, Old Town's Seasons and the Flying Star Café on Rio Grande.
If we're going to fork out for a high dollar gourmet meal, we like to be pampered. Is that so wrong? We think not. This year voters selected the friendly, knowledgeable waitstaff at the Artichoke Café as the best pamperers in town. We're thrilled that since Artichoke isn't as expensive as some of those chain restaurants with the terrible service, we've got enough cash left over to reward the servers handsomely. A three-way tie for second goes to Ambrozia, Zinc and Ranchers Club. One vote goes to the lovely ladies at Hooters for their encyclopedic knowledge of that restaurant's world class wine list. Or something.
Best Restaurant Name
Yeah, we thought that was pretty witty, too, especially since we love to graze. Only instead of eating half a pint of Ben and Jerry's while standing in front of the open freezer in our nightgowns, at the place called Graze we can nibble on housemade pâté, tequila-cured salmon and New Mexico lamb loin with peanut tamarind sauce. We can order glasses of champagne and watch the pretty people walk by, then order more food! Now that's worth getting out of our jammies and into a clean pair of pants. Readers also loved the restaurants called Nouveau Noodles, Relish, Juan's Broken Taco, Kai's Kung Fu Cafe, Murphy's Mule Barn and Pop ’n' Taco.
Best Mom ’n' Pop
Mary and Tito's
What is a mom ’n' pop place? It's not the kind of place where you walk in the door only to stand in line and receive a flashing, vibrating plastic coaster that you're instructed to clutch while you hover in the doorway, getting hot each time the door closes and then freezing again every time it opens with a rush of cold air. It's not the kind of place where your server wears “flair” and writes his name in crayon on your butcher paper tablecloth. A real mom ’n' pop is a place like Mary and Tito's, where the wall behind the cash register is plastered with pictures of Mary's late husband Tito, their kids and grandkids; where Mary herself sits at the counter, adding up checks and chatting with the cook, making sure to stop by your table later and ask is everything OK, m'ija? Many restaurateurs say they want to open a place that feels just like home but it's a rare few who actually succeed.
It was no contest, really. The former home of Fred's Bread and Bagel (and a succession of badly decorated businesses that followed Fred's) was transformed, “Trading Spaces”-style, into a lofty, trendy, gorgeous dining room with warm, earthy wall colors, deep wood accents and zinc-topped bar. When the place first opened, patrons would get stuck at the door, with buggy eyes and gaping jaws, like homeowners staring in speechless awe at their freshly renovated bedrooms as Vern Yip begs, “so ... do you love it?” Yeah, Zinc. We love it.
Best Sunday Brunch
Cocoa Crispie-crusted french toast. Biscuits and foie gras gravy. Deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Who wouldn't love this place? And what makes it so much better is the amazing wine list and incredibly private back patio. We're embarrassed to admit we ever went to one of those big hotel brunches and paid $20 for the privilege of having some stoned prep cook reheat a plateful of mushy pasta. What were we thinking? Alibi readers apparently take brunch seriously enough to propel Ambrozia far above the rest of the city's brunch offerings. Can we have a reservation for 34, please? Booked? OK, we won't think twice before calling Zinc, home of the readers' second-favorite brunch. We'll be ordering the brie, caramelized onion and rosemary tart, smoked salmon omelets, and strawberry and chocolate crêpes. Mmm, mmm good.
Think about it: when was the last time you had lunch or dinner at Frontier? To be fair, the place is always busy so there must be lots of folks who eat at Frontier during normal weekday hours, but after the bars close, when for some godforsaken reason you find yourself up and awake at 5 a.m., you go to Frontier. If it's a carne asada burrito for you and a gyro for your buddy then we bet you're pulling up to Los Betos for a late-night snack. Well-heeled insomniac readers also voted for Zinc, where you can hang out in the basement, drinking top shelf cocktails and munching duck egg rolls or steamed mussels until 1 a.m. In addition, overcaffeinated readers recommend Graze, where you can swallow dozens of deviled eggs (or anything else on the menu) until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Because he's an astonishingly talented chef who graduated first in his class at culinary school and has a keen nose for fine Champagne but isn't afraid to ask, “What would Homer Simpson do?” when creating new recipes for Ambrozia's menu. Maybe there's somebody else out there who's thought to himself, “Mmm ... lobster. Mmm ... corn dogs,” but Sam's the guy who actually batters and deep fries lobster tails on sticks. The guy commands a team of kitchen geniuses but not one of them is a pretentious “artist” type who's more interested in showing off than cooking something that tastes good. Reading his menu doesn't require a set of Berlitz guides for translation and you won't need your bifocals to find the food on your plate. Plus, there's bacon all over the menu: shrimp wrapped in pancetta over white cheddar grits; crab-stuffed trout over sweet potato and corn hash with smoked bacon vinaigrette; boar chops perched over a mound of Cabrales cheese and bacon gratin. Who could resist?
Best Restaurant We're Sorry is Now Closed
Tora Bora House
It was our only Afghan food and now it's gone. And the readers are a bitter, bitter bunch! They're also still bitching and moaning about New Chinatown, M&J Sanitary Tortilla Factory, Cau Garden, Bada Bing! and ReBar. Come one, guys. It's gonna be OK. Someplace you least expect it, someday when you've forgotten all about it, another Afghan place will open. And it will be good. And it will remind you of all the great meals you had at Tora Bora. So dry those tears and go out and find your new favorite restaurant, the one you're going to tell everyone all about before it closes.
Strictly speaking, cocktails don't go with food, wine does. Even beer matches with certain dishes better than a kamikaze, and yet we're drawn to places that produce a fine cocktail. Many of them also happen to serve excellent food. Martini Grille is one of those, with a long menu of food that is flavorful and filling (big, fat burgers!) yet able to stand up to a very, very stiff Manhattan. Readers also like the mixed drinks at Anodyne. (Actually, we've been told we enjoy the cocktails there too. Uh, maybe too much?) If you're in the mood for cocktails, our poll results suggest you also belly up to the bar at Scalo, Seasons, Paul's Monterey Inn and Monte Vista Fire Station, all places where you will find a damn fine meal to follow your whiskey sours.
Best Wine List
Zinc does not have the largest wine list in the city, nor does it have the most expensive or exotic list. What makes Zinc wine list so beloved is the approachable way that it's structured. Every month, there are about two dozen wines pulled from the list and made available not only by the glass, but by the half glass and by the equivalent of a half bottle. The restaurant also offers a few flights of wine, say a trio of Pinot Noirs or California Zinfandels, and the option of creating your own flight. Apparently people love the flexibility this gives them to test and taste without the pressure to commit to a whole bottle they may not like. Connoisseurs also suggest that you try places like Le Café Miche, where they have a wine bar just for you, and Prairie Star where the sommelier is expert at suggesting wine pairings for every dish on the menu and the list is very, very long. At Ranchers Club you'll be presented with an enormous list that includes some serious special occasion wines and at Great American Land and Cattle you can buy bottles straight from the restaurant's cellar.
Best Beer Selection
Here at the Alibi we make no secret of our love for beer: We keep three kegs on tap in the conference room and we drain them pretty quickly. When we get tired of our own selections, we shuffle next door to Anodyne and put ourselves in their hands. Nobody knows more about beer than these guys. We love to let them surprise us with brews we've never heard of, beers so dark they taste like chocolate, so bitter we need to run across the street for a hot dog, beers that come in weird bottles and have names we can't pronounce, beers that make us puke on the lobby floor and set off our own burglar alarm. (Oops!) When we get 86'd from Anodyne, we also agree with the readers' suggestion to check out the beer selection at O'Niell's and Billy's Long Bar.
Best Restaurant You Wish You Could Afford More Often
Graze by Jennifer James
We wish we could afford Graze more often, too, but the fact of the matter is that Graze is not outrageously expensive. Think about it: Ordering two Bloomin' Onions, two Outback steaks, two Down Under desserts and two Marsupial margaritas at Outback costs more than $60. Two can easily stuff themselves to the gills at Graze for $60. The cost is about the same but the advantages of dining at Graze include: eating locally grown organic meats and produce, watching the chef who created these dishes as she cooks them right in front of you and, of course, not having to eat at Outback Steakhouse. Next time you're planning a trip to the Secretly Expensive Pseudo-Ethnic Eatery Near the Movie Theater, why not see how far that same amount of cash will get you at Graze, Prairie Star, Corn Maiden or Le Cafe Miche? You'll be surprised, mate.
Buca di Beppo
Second place: Romano's Macaroni Grill. Third place: Graze. Dear Restaurant Owners: If you really want to win the Best Bathroom Category in our Readers Choice Restaurant Poll then you've got to make an extraordinary effort. No, you don't have to sterilize the sinks hourly, nor do you have to put Charmin in the stalls. All you have to do is give your full-bladdered clientele 1) something interesting to look at 2) something interesting to listen to, as in foreign language tapes, or 3) free tampons (assorted sizes), hand lotion and dental floss picks.
Best Restaurant for Out of Town Guests
Let's see, Garduño's, El Pinto and Sadie's. Those were the top three winners in this category. What does that say about Albuquerque's desire to impress visitors? Well, all three have pretty good ambiance. Garduño's locations all have murals and fountains and stuff like that. El Pinto has that unbelievable patio, wooded North Valley setting and views of the Sandias ... all right, we're getting the picture. You want to impress guests with stunning atmosphere without burning their tongues to a crisp. Not a bad plan. Keep it up.
Best Restaurant in Albuquerque
The great thing about this place is that you can take anybody to Ambrozia and feel confident that they'll be thoroughly pleased. Women love it because the menu is adventurous and they get to experience flavors they've never tried before (Oooh ... ceviche three ways!). Men agree to go again and again because they know there'll be enough recognizable food on each plate to ensure they'll be full by the end of the meal (yes, it's a veal chop and yes it's the size of a baseball mitt). Wine lovers are delighted by the number of wines available by the glass and tourists love it because it's close to Old Town (but very little of the food is slathered in the chile that gave them a horrible case of the runs the previous day). With the Best Chef at the helm and the Best Sunday Brunch bringing readers in every week, how could they lose? Graze, Le Café Miche, Seasons, Monte Vista Fire Station and Seasons all attracted large numbers of votes.
Best Restaurant in Santa Fe
Only once were we threatened with having a bad time at Geronimo. The couple at the table next to us insisted on talking on the phone for several minutes during dinner. We sent them a look that said: go to hell you cellphone junkies. They sent us a bottle of wine for putting up with them and we told them to go ahead and make as many calls as they liked. And the food? Oh, it's fantastic. As in really, really memorably delicious (and memorably expensive). It's not really New Mexican or even Southwestern, though those flavors are present here and there. Geronimo serves the kind of New American food that uses the highest quality ingredients put together by extremely skilled chefs inspired by a diverse range of international flavors. What does all that gibberish mean? It means if you really love food and you've got a pocketful of cash then you've got to try Geronimo at least once. Just head up Canyon Road and don't stop until you arrive at Geronimo.
Best Restaurant in Taos
To be a great chef, you must have an understanding of your ingredients, an empathy for them and their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Joseph Wrede seems to understand, like no one else, the essence of each culinary element and how to best express it and combine it with complementary flavors and textures. If you truly, truly love food then you will love Joseph's. If the idea of French fries cooked in duck fat doesn't make you weak in the knees, if an entrée of duck nine ways (breast, confit, foie gras, chicharron, prosciutto, mousse, aspic, broth and egg) hasn't got you reaching for a clean pair of underpants, then you should probably just roll down your window, order another McGriddle and turn the page.
Best Restaurant South of Albuquerque
The Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio
Be realistic: “South of Albuquerque” is an area roughly the size of New England. Granted, there are more piñon trees than people over much of the state but the point is that for the Owl Bar to win in this category is no mean feat. Sure, it's just a little cafe in a dusty little town that doesn't seem to have much reason for being. The place is as famous for its green chile cheeseburger (with grilled onions!) as it is for being the final repository of one very special handcarved bar, the bar that was first installed in San Antonio when Conrad Hilton's father opened his general store and hotel nearby in the late 1800s. There's no place like this in Rhode Island, that's for damn sure.
Best Restaurant for a First Date
Well, it's safe, for one. It's well-lit, there's plenty to choose from on the menu, whether your date is vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, Atkins-dieting or sugar-bingeing. Plus, there's something very cosmopolitan and intellectual about the place. You can arrange to meet saying, “I'll be the one reading the new issue of Existential Anarchist.”
Best Anything We Forgot
Oh, we always forget something and you always point it out to us. Some of your ideas, like Best Grocery Store, Best New Mexico Wine and Best Sopaipillas are bound to end up on next year's poll. Some of the others, like Best Sweet Tea (dude, this isn't Texas), Best Water (what?) and Best Raspberry Chocolate Pancakes (whoa, where are those?) might have to wait for their turn on the ballot.