Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse
Dine well and speakeasy
By Maren Tarro
Oh, the hoops some restaurants will jump through to separate diners from their dough. There are sports-themed joints that feature big-screen monuments to full-contact manliness, medieval battlegrounds that mix chowing with jousting, and booby-based dens of iniquity, to name a few.
While there’s nothing wrong with the whole “dinner and a show” game, too often the demagogic show serves to distract from the substandard dinner. But now and again something truly worthwhile comes along.
Vernon’s approach is a blatant attempt to deceive the unsuspecting public. However, unlike establishments that con customers into overpriced fajitas, Vernon's is doing its damndest to keep a good thing on the down-low.
In the rear of the Calico Café, in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, there's a basic package liquor store. Everything appears on the up and up—unless you wander in on a weekend night. Maybe the overdressed cashier is a little out of place. And maybe you catch an expectant glance from him, like you’re looking for more than a microbrew. It’s as though he knows something you don’t—like things aren’t quite what they seem.
Trust him, they're not. If you're privy to the secret (as are those with the foresight to make reservations), you’re led to a back corner where a run-of-the-mill door—except for a sliding grate at eye level—awaits three quick knocks. The grate moves aside. Classified information is exchanged. Access is granted.
On the other side of that door is a swanky underground of good eats and high times, delivered speakeasy-style. The hostess whisks you past a piano man tickling the hell out of the ivories, through a lustrous, ebony-adobe walled dining room. You're deposited at a table clothed in crisp, black and white linens.
Might as well start with booze. By the glass or bottle, you’ll find old friends and new loves. Or, if what you crave isn’t listed, ask if it’s in the liquor store. For $10 over retail the staff will happily pour to your heart’s desire.
Then order the bruschetta ($10). Sure, you’ve had it everywhere, but things are different in the Valley. Here, toasted baguette slices encircle a bowl of bubbling mozzarella and fruity olive oil, piled with sweet, juicy tomato bits. While unconventional, the fondue-style presentation is practical and refreshing. You control the topping amount and can alter the cheese/olive oil/tomato ratio to your liking. While you're getting started, don’t overlook the Hidden Valley salad ($7), which perks up salad greens with spicy, candied walnuts and a lusty bleu cheese dressing.
Serving beef tournedos Rossini ($37) without truffles and foie gras is a gamble on par with drinking bathtub gin. But even without the usual trimmings, Vernon's simplified version—a butter-tender filet swimming in rich, silky demi-glace—more than satisfies. Savor it with a glass of garnet-red Esser Pinot Noir ($9); without the expected mushroomyness of a typical Pinot, it’s perfectly suited to the fungus-free tournedos.
On the surf-and-turf front, veal Oscar ($37) tastes so nice, the guilt of sacrificing infant cows to the gastronomic gods goes down a lot easier. Milky white in color with a baby-bottom-soft texture, the cutlets are delicate and velvety, hidden under a mound of ambrosial crabmeat. It's accompanied by perfectly steamed asparagus and a full-bodied Béarnaise sauce. A glass of rustic Alexander Valley Cabernet ($11) makes the course bold and strangely sensual.
End on a cloying note with chocolate mousse pie—crumbly, nutty crust that supports a satiny chocolate mousse and weightless Chantilly cream. Though not original, it’s done well and brings a classic meal together with retro-chic style.
It’s not often that you stumble into a liquor store and find a backdoor-Baptist-style speakeasy. Carry Nation is probably turning like a corkscrew in her grave. But dining in a windowless hideaway has its appeal. Add excellent service, and prohibition almost seems like a good idea.
It’s possible that popularity will blow it—Vernon’s could succumb to the pitfalls of notoriety. The food could take a backseat to the scene and the scene could cheapen the experience. But at least for now Vernon’s is a genuine jewel in the rough of the dining industry.
Oh, and if you go, tell ’em Joe sent you.
The Alibi Recommends:
• Beef tournedos
• Veal Oscar
• Bonus dessert—Crème brûlée with Grand Marnier is nice and creamy, with a beautiful caramelized top and just a hint of orange ($6)
Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse, 6855 Fourth Street NW, 341-0831. Hours: Fri-Sat 5-9 p.m. Price range: Expensive. Credit cards, large parties, booze. Reservations recommended.
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