Eating the Change We Seek
The Alibi's new local-centric mandate for food criticism
Jeff Drew jeffdrewpictures.com
There’s no shortage of love in the kitchens of Albuquerque. And there’s no shortage of people who know how to cook really good food. New Mexico is blessed with an incredibly rich array of indigenous and exotic cuisines, the legacy of waves of cultures and civilizations that rolled through Rio Grande country and the greater Southwest over the years. Today, we have our share of hot-handed chefs mixing it all up, traditional cooks making their food old-school style and ambitious restaurateurs ready to give it a go.
This all makes Albuquerque a great city in which to dine out, and it’s made my work as restaurant critic here really fun. And now I'm here to tell you that the times they are a changing. At the Alibi, we’ve always had high standards for the food we cover, and now we’re aiming higher—by turning our gaze down upon the earth beneath our feet and toward local foods.
Without abandoning the appreciation of good cooking, we're expanding our criteria to include the processes that bring the ingredients to the kitchen—an area where too much food criticism, and too many restaurants, fall short. While I appreciate the mastery of a chile-smothered burrito or a heaping bowl of pho, the finished product can only be as good as the raw ingredients. So I know it could be better.
We're expanding our criteria to include the processes that bring the ingredients to the kitchen—an area where too much food criticism, and too many restaurants, fall short.
In my non-restaurant-reviewing life I’m a local foods snob, and I obsess about the pedigrees of my food. A good meal to me is like a good battle was to Homer: an epic event with great heroes, multiple storylines and subplots. Consider my big greasy breakfast: a crisscross of players like backyard eggs, wild deer, garden garlic, green chile from down south and coffee (everything in moderation, including caffeine and localistic ideology) from a friend’s farm in Hawaii.
The gig as Alibi restaurant critic is more of a hobby than gainful employment, while most of my bread is buttered by Flash in the Pan, my nationally syndicated weekly column dedicated to local food. In Flash, I can sing the praises of every minute morsel I gathered from the hills or killed with my bare hands. But when I’m on Burque restaurant patrol, it feels like I’m leading a double life. The values I hold so dear and write about so passionately are cast aside as I gulp down orange-cheese-covered burritos full of who-knows-whatnot, and then write glowingly about them in these pages with no apparent care for where the ingredients came from.
In an attempt to be the change we seek, we at the Alibi have renamed this corner of the food section “Locovore.” It’s a play on “locavore,” a word that describes people who are as dedicated to eating as locally as possible.
I’m getting too old for this. I’ve got Alka-Seltzer in my wallet where I once stashed a condom, thanks to all the greasy and delicious food I’m stuffing down my gullet. Meanwhile my freezer at home is full of some of the best food in the world: hundreds of pounds of deer and elk that I hunted down in pristine places, animals that lived happy, clean lives; friend-raised lamb, beef and pork; frozen beans, peas and greens from the garden; and cans of homegrown ratatouille, applesauce, pickled peppers, apricot chutney and oven-roasted tomato sauce. All of this wonderful food is gathering dust and freezer burn as I waddle around town filling my belly with mystery meat, processed cheese and jet-lagged vegetables.
So in an attempt to be the change we seek, we at the Alibi have renamed this corner of the food section “Locovore.” It’s a play on “locavore,” a word that describes people who are as dedicated to eating as locally as possible. Locovore is attempt to shine a light on eating choices that are healthier for you and the planet, and perhaps less conducive to heartburn.
These aren’t fancy, fine-dining places; just inexpensive little mom and pops. Often it’s the result of the restaurant owner simply hunting for the best quality ingredients, and guess what? Those often turn out to be locally sourced.
The first rule of Locovore is that I will no longer be opening my mouth to mystery meat. By “mystery meat,” I mean meat that has no story attached, no way to evaluate the meat’s ethical and ecological baggage—things like its carbon footprint or the animal’s living conditions. I’m not demanding to see the animal’s birth certificate, but the more I know about the meat, the more likely I’ll be to order it. And I'll beat a path to the door of any restaurants I hear about that's using local ingredients.
If this sounds like it might limit the pool of restaurants and menu items for me to choose from, you might be right. But as I’ve begun thinking about this new direction and asking questions about where stuff is from, I’ve discovered that a lot of area restaurants are serving local ingredients without even bragging about it.
Saffron Tiger for example, an Indian restaurant on Paseo del Norte, uses locally grown goat meat in its curry goat. They don’t advertise or announce this fact—I only found out because I asked. This has also happened at some other restaurants that I’ll be writing about soon. These aren’t fancy, fine-dining places; just inexpensive little mom and pops. Often it’s the result of the restaurant owner simply hunting for the best quality ingredients, and guess what? Those often turn out to be locally sourced.
Vegetarian and vegan options not only deserve a seat at the table, they deserve the same care and respect as meat-based dishes.
I’m not saying that local food doesn’t spoil, or that it can’t be overcooked or under-salted. But local foods are fresher, and they arrive at the kitchen with less wear and tear. And most importantly, there’s direct accountability and transparency with the producer, which builds in a level of quality control that not even organic certification can provide.
Although most rigorously enforced with regard to meat, the Alibi’s new local mandate will be in effect with regard to all foods on our radar. If we learn about a restaurant that uses New Mexico grown pinto beans, I’ll go there and eat the beans. If they’re any good, I’ll write about them.
Since I'm going to be extra picky about my proteins, I’ll be ordering a lot of vegetarian options, and that’s OK with me. Eating less meat of better quality makes a lot more sense than eating more meat of poor quality. That also means I won’t look the other way when restaurants treat vegetables like second-class citizens. At its most blatant, we’ve all seen places simply not offer any non-meat options. More subtly, menu sections routinely advertise “vegetarian entrées” instead of “vegetable entrées”—the former implies something (meat) is missing, while the latter focuses on what the dish is. Vegetarian and vegan options not only deserve a seat at the table, they deserve the same care and respect as meat-based dishes.
We’re hoping Locovore’s focus will help raise the profile of local foods to the point where restaurants that use them will come out of the woodwork and let us know about it. And we’re counting on tips from readers along these lines as well. So Burquevores, if you know of any places that are dishing local flavor on the down-low, give us a jingle at email@example.com. If we use your idea, you’ll get a Locovore tote bag, perfect for shopping at the growers’ market.
As Locovore narrows the Alibi’s scope with regard to restaurants, it will also widen our focus to include other topics pertinent to local foods. I’ll be dropping in on New Mexico growers’ markets all summer long, so you can expect at least one market review per month. And as I seek out these far-flung markets, I’ll be stopping at restaurants along the way. I can’t wait, because some of the best local fare to be found in state is in the middle of nowhere. So please don’t limit your tips and suggestions for local flavor to just the Albuquerque area.
Since Locovore is a work in progress, we’re depending on you for tips and feedback. As we go, we’ll fine-tune our restaurant criteria, and we’ll hopefully learn about some great eateries—and give away lots of Locovore tote bags. We're hoping our little Locovore revolt will lend its weight to the revolution in food consciousness that's in progress around the world. It may not be an "Arab Spring"-level of change. But if our little "Sparerib Spring" opens a few eyes to the importance of thinking about where your food comes from, we'll burp a little easier.