There’s nothing like a day at the Albuquerque Biological Park with the kiddies. There are flowering gardens, a really cool tank filled with neon-lit jelly fish, a gift shop overflowing with plastic aquatic creatures, and tons--and tons--of children. The idea of offspring is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but as they are our youngest consumers and our future food connoisseurs, I figure spending a meal discovering what restaurants feed them wasn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had. (My meatloaf on a stick idea was actually the worst.)
The Shark Reef Café is the lone sit-down eatery in the Bio Park—there is a row of snack bars in the pavilion, but unless the kids are being punished, I wouldn’t get them a meal there—and if waiting for a table isn’t an issue, the view is worth the effort. I waited about 20 minutes for a table at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and there was a considerable line of people stacking up behind me. I was ushered to a fairly good spot a few yards away from the huge back wall aquarium tank, complete with live fish, turtles and sharks in a replicated indigenous environment.
The “Just for Kids” portion of the menu showcased the usual suspects: hot dogs or corn dogs, mini burgers, cheese or pepperoni pizza, spaghetti, chicken strips, grilled cheese, cheese quesadillas and pancakes or French toast with a bacon slice ($2 up to $3.95, with an upgrade from potato chips to fries and a souvenir cup for $2 more). I decided on the spaghetti as an appetizer, based on the majority of ankle-biters around me with noodles and sauce on their little mugs.
I also made a lap around the adult lunch menu, and was surprised to see reasonable prices and a few deviations from the usual fare I had expected. There were burgers, including a grilled Portabello burger and a tortilla burger with melted Swiss and thousand island dressing, a shrimp and chips basket, citrus-grilled steak tacos, seafood pasta and a grill platter served with chicken, beef or sautéed shrimp and scallops, and served with grilled veggies or a piñon salad. The breakfast menu is served all day, and vegetarian alternatives to menu items are available.
I ordered the spinach and artichoke dip ($4.95) and the seafood enchiladas ($8.95) and sat back for what turned out to be a loooooooong wait. The service was friendly but terribly slow; the jam-packed dining room was the likely cause. My lunch was delivered in due course, but by this time, much like a toddler, my attention was directed elsewhere. The aquarium wall was truly the best part of the experience here. I was watching the shiny fish—and an occasional turtle—swim by when a diver appeared in the tank with a container of food for them. It was aquatic pandemonium in there, which resulted in excitement for the diners. There were screams of delight, pointing and jumping up and down on chairs. I hope I didn’t scare the kids.
My spaghetti was a perfect nibbler-sized portion, and I was surprised to taste house-made marinara sauce that was both rich and tangy. I was also pleased to see that, although I could taste tomato, onion and bell peppers, there were no discernable chunks. After consulting a parent, I was told that chunks of anything in spaghetti are anathema to the little ’uns, so this was a thoughtful move on the part of the restaurant. My only complaint was the lack of breadsticks—I was also told that kids adore those.
The dip, on the other hand, was all chunks. The spinach, artichokes and cheese made it thick, but not at all unpleasant. I’ve just gotten used to a few stray spinach leaves suspended in alfredo sauce, so I had to retrain my brain to work a little harder with those multi-colored tortilla chips. The enchiladas get no props for presentation, but the seafood was adequate, the rice was spicy as all heck (I had to watch the sailor mouth), and the red and green chiles were warm and flavorful. Then came the ice cream nachos ($2.95).
I caught the desserts while checking out the menu earlier. There was a small variety of child-friendly goodies like cheesecake, ice cream floats, chocolate cake and ice cream nachos? I had to order them, or the mystery would haunt me until my dying day. What I got was a bowl with four soft triangles of fried, cinnamon-sugar coated flour tortillas and four scoops of vanilla ice cream, all laced over with chocolate, caramel and raspberry syrup. The “nachos” were absolutely delicious in every way. Much like those cool new toys that walk, talk and knit you an afghan, where were these things when I was a kid?
I finished my meal with a surprisingly short ticket: only $27.92, and I had two sodas, an appetizer, two entrées and a dessert plus tip. Some restaurants with a “captive” set of diners jack up their prices just because they can; lunch at the Bio Park gets a gold star on their report card for lunch prices. This place is perfect for a meal with the tikes—who doesn’t like watching sharks gulp down helpless little fishes while they eat? I was also thinking that this would be a good spot to test market my meatloaf on a stick idea. Or maybe meatloaf nachos? I’m full of ideas.
The Alibi Recommends:
Albuquerque omelet (turkey and green chile)
Potato reef (smothered hash browns, yummy)
B.L.T.G.C. (a classic B.L.T. with guacamole and cheddar)
Ice cream nachos
The Shark Reef Café at the Albuquerque Biological Park, 2601 Central, 848-7182. Hours: 9 a.m-5 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. weekends. Price range: Inexpensive to moderate. No smoking, credit cards accepted, large parties, breakfast all day, vegetarian accommodations welcomed.