Flying Star 2.4
Landmark restaurant approaches a quarter-century milestone with new dishes
Flying Star Café has become an old friend to many. It’s the kind of friend you hang out with all the time, even though you sometimes complain about him. The red stuff is too expensive, but you drink it anyway because it’s that good. The watery beans in the breakfast burrito may not be what gets you up in the morning. But just thinking about a tofu scramble with brown rice feels like a warm hug.
And like an old friend, we’ve come to trust Flying Star. Maybe that’s because it gives us the run of the place, with its browser-friendly magazine racks and unpoliced drink refill stations. There’s also the information the restaurant shares in how it sources its ingredients, which come with all of the right adjectives: local, organic, humane, green, fair trade and other labels of clean, guilt-free food. That is, unless chocolate cake and berry pie make you feel guilty.
UFC star Carlos Condit, a homegrown talent who admits to eating there every day, sums up two prominent sides of Flying Star. “I can get brown rice and fish and vegetables,” he once told me. “Or, if I feel like cheating, I can eat some comfort food.”
Condit was just a scrappy toddler in 1987 when NYC transplants Jean and Mark Bernstein opened Double Rainbow, a San Francisco-based ice cream parlor franchise, in Nob Hill. With a family of his own now, Condit might soon be taking advantage of the “kids eat free” policy every Thursday at the Bernalillo location. If you’ve got a kid in tow, each entrée comes with an order off the kid’s menu. It’s darn generous and, apparently, Flying Star can afford it.
Having celebrated its 24th anniversary in November, you could qualify this as an “empire,” with nine locations in Albuquerque, Bernalillo and Santa Fe, and as many associated Satellite Coffee shops. The Bernsteins have crafted a solid formula that combines friendly, no-frills service and simple food that, as the menu boasts, is made “from scratch.” Ingredients include local beef, cheese, veggies and wheat, certified humane eggs and chicken, and many organic grocery items, including yogurt, tofu and peanut butter.
“Made from scratch" may be a cliché, but it’s also smart business. That way, you oversee as much of the supply chain as possible. Many of the preliminary steps involved in the from-scratch process happen at Flying Star’s central commissary, which makes every location more efficient and consistent. Ironically, the commissary model sometimes gives a fast food feel to the dishes—a feeling that some meals weren’t cooked so much as assembled, such as when wads of minced garlic and ginger don’t get adequately broken up in your Buddha bowl. At least if you speak up in times like these, you’ll probably be well taken care of.
The Bernsteins also invested big on ambience, which makes you want to stay and hang out. Designed to accommodate both socializing and privacy, Flying Star’s interiors have a way of keeping people happy, stimulated and comfortable. In almost any direction you can look, you’ll see fancy lamps, colorful murals, big windows and multiple levels. There are location-specific amenities—the fireplace in Bernalillo, the patio on Rio Grande, the deck Downtown, the flower-shaped vase thing in the middle of the Santa Fe dining room and the groovy elevated lounge with 10-foot-tall seat backs in Nob Hill.
Surfing free Wi-Fi while global dance music thumps quietly in the background, it's easy to forget Flying Star’s origins as an ice cream shop on Central. It'll be interesting to see where the next quarter century takes our neighborhood café empire. Whatever the future brings, I hope it includes a happy hour for the red stuff.