Filling in the Blanks
Hanging at Joe's Pasta House
Joe's Pasta House is as unassuming as its name implies. It's a little brown restaurant in a little brown shopping center. There's no neon light drawing you in from the road, but there is a banner advertising beer.
Inside, it's a different scene: a classy bar in the corner, dimly lit; a medium-sized dining room that hums quietly—seemingly rocking back and forth to the calm soundtrack playing just below threshold. The diners were either sedately chewing in hushed pleasure or lolling in their seats, looking like toddlers ready for their afternoon nap. We'd arrived at 8 o'clock—one hour before closing time—and the place was winding down. We sat in a booth, and I immediately felt relaxed and at home.
Despite the late hour, our server approached with a soothing bedside manner, as if we had all the time in the world. He asked for our drink and appetizer orders. The restaurant had the relaxed comfort of a familiar neighborhood mom-and-pop diner, but with the staff and menu of a fine dining establishment. The servers were well-mannered and well-dressed, the dishes were gourmet, but the tables had paper covering the top—if that explains anything.
My wife and I played hangman on the paper tablecloth while we waited for the full Caesar salad ($8.95) we'd ordered to share and a plate of Danny T's jalapeños ($6.95). She picked the first phrase—a hefty beast of a thing with too many letters and quotation marks around it.
“That comma can't be in the right place,” I said when we were about halfway through. I'd only gotten “_ _AT IS _O_ R _OT_ER , TRE_E_ ?” My stick man only had a head so far. “It's a saying,” she answered. “A famous saying.”
Right about then, the salad appeared. It was a monster of fresh lettuce and Parmesan, lightly coated with a spot-on Caesar dressing. It was flanked by two oven-toasted croutons and showed up along with some of the fresh house bread that comes with all meals. I ate some of the salad and dipped a slice of the bread into the olive oil it came with. It was so soft and fresh that I yelped a little. I tried out my Oprah impression: “I love bread!” My wife nodded.
A second dipping bowl next to the bread held what turned out to be a mouth-pleasing dollop of bruschetta—an Italian toast-topper made with chopped tomatoes, basil and olive oil. I honestly feel like I could have sat there all night just eating bread and bruschetta. It was bright and cool—perfect for winding down on a hot August day.
The heat came back with the next course, Danny T's jalapeños: eight fresh peppers sauteed with garlic, olive oil and topped with grated Romano cheese. Rather than clean the seeds out and soak the jalapeños until they are fit for a wimp like me, they just throw the whole thing in fresh. The result is a plate of amazing hot bastards that damn near burned my face off. I had to force myself to stop eating them, because they were so perfect, though.
To fight the oncoming sweat and tears, I went back to devouring bread. A piece of oily basil fell onto the puzzle. “A 'W' and an 'H,'” I said. “'What is your mother …' There's no way that's right. You know, you are writing it upside down.” She didn't even raise an eyebrow.
Our repartee was interrupted by the arrival of the entrees. We'd ordered lobster ravioli with shrimp ($19.95) and Mediterranean pasta with chicken ($14.95). The ravioli was laid in a circle with a pile of shrimp in the middle. The dish was covered in a creamy white brandy sauce (which doubled as a great bread dip) that tasted nutty and rich. The tender raviolis were stuffed with lobster and rounded out the sauce nicely, making the whole experience seem overwhelming. I ate it in small bites and paused to grab a few shrimp here and there.
The Mediterranean pasta was even more impressive, though. It consisted of linguine pasta topped with chicken, artichoke hearts, garlic, a healthy smattering of kalamata olives, tomatoes and large chunks of feta. I'd guiltily been eyeballing it on the menu during the ordering process. I was here to review an Italian restaurant, but my love of all things Mediterranean had won out in the end.
And what a great decision it was. Salty and sharp, this unique pasta was a brand new experience for me—one that I feel will prove highly addictive in the long run. The chef's appreciation for this oft-misunderstood cuisine was plain. All of my favorite face-pinching, briny flavors were there, from the well-distributed, vinegary olives to chunks of feta the size of a quarter. It was incredibly satisfying.
We ended up finishing right at 9 o'clock on the dot. The other diners had already left, but I hadn't noticed while I'd been locked in on my dinner. Carrying gargantuan bags of leftovers to my car, I remembered something. “We never finished hangman. What was it?” I asked.
“Get a rope,” she said.
3201 Southern SE, Rio Rancho
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-9pm, Sat noon-9pm, Sun noon-7:30pm
Vibe: Relaxed and laid back
Alibi Recommends: Mediterranean pasta, Danny T's jalapeños and lobster ravioli.