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 V.20 No.49 | December 8 - 14, 2011 

Locovore

Flying Star 2.4

Landmark restaurant approaches a quarter-century milestone with new dishes

Now on the permanent Flying Star menu: Stew pot chicken and Thai steak salad
Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com
Now on the permanent Flying Star menu: Stew pot chicken and Thai steak salad

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.

Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com

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.”

Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com

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.

Sergio Salvador salvadorphoto.com

“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 dishesa 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 amenitiesthe 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.

Gearing up for its 25th anniversary in 2012, Flying Star has introduced nine new dishes to the menu’s permanent lineupthat’s in addition to an ongoing rotation of seasonal specials. Here are my favorites from what I’ve been able to sample so far, in order of preference.

Matzoh ball stew. OK, this is actually a seasonal special, not a new addition. But it’s so good you’ll wonder what other parts of the matzoh they cook. One large ball (seasoned, surprisingly, with nutmeg) sits in a hearty chicken stew. The tasty broth is excellent for dunking pieces of the spoon-tender Jewish dumpling. The special ends Jan. 3.

Lucky for Albuquerque, the stew pot chicken is now a menu fixture that may someday become legendary in the ranks of comfort food. It’s kind of like a deconstructed chicken pot pie. The mushroom-rich stew has big chunks of chicken, sweet potato and zucchini, and it’s topped with two towering biscuits.

The south by southwest breakfast looks rather plain at first glance. But once you dig into it, the fireworks come out. You’ll find a slab of red-chile-doused grits, a green chile sausage patty and gravy, with a pair of over-easy eggs draped on top. Locked and loaded with a double Americano at your elbow, this is a great breakfast.

Don’t overlook the bowl-shaped Acapulco tostado. It’s crunchy yet soft, with enough flavor (and oil) to make you want to eat the crumbs when the salad on top is gone. A citrus dressing ties the salad’s shrimp, avocado and jicama together.

The Thai steak salad has plenty of competition from Albuquerque’s many good Thai restaurants. Although the bottom layer of peanut-butter noodles is unremarkable, it’s a different story above the noodle line: There’s a bed of beautiful mixed greens, quite a few slices of beef sirloin and a penetrating, tangy dressing.

For a sandwich on perfectly toasted bread, with beef, melted cheese and green chile inside, you’ll want to try the rancher’s melt. But don’t dillydally, as the jus will make the toast soggydefinitely not one for takeout.

One of three new vegetarian dishes on the menu, 5 spice tofu does indeed carry the faint flavor of that ancient Chinese blend. Three tasty, deep-fried slabs are as much batter as they are tofu, and the stir-fried noodles beneath are rich in vegetables.

Flying Star Café

Nine locations in Albuquerque, Bernalillo and Santa Fe
flyingstarcafe.com
Price range: $5 to $15 per dish
Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options: Yes, clearly identified
Booze: Beer, wine and pairing recommendations
Plastic: Yes, including the Frequent Flyer card, which keeps track of your spending and awards $5 coupons
 
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