Flash in the Pan
The Ari Awards
A departing critic’s Albuquerque favorites
By Ari LeVaux
Dear Albuquerque, by the time you read this, I will already be gone. Being a restaurant critic in this wonderful city has been a dream job, but forces beyond my control have whisked me back to my Montana homeland. I’ll be missing you terribly and hope to return for the winter from time to time. But in the meantime, before the memories fade and my gut microflora adapt to their new home, I want to give you my impressions on the best foods that you have to offer.
This format will loosely follow the Best of Burque format and some of the categories are identical. Coincidentally, BoB voting opens this week, so if you don’t agree with my choices, cast your own vote to restore order to the universe.
Best New Mexican Food
As New Mexico is not my homeland, I always felt hesitant to parachute in and talk about the food. But you don’t need to be an expert to know that there is something special going on at El Modelo (1715 Second Street SW), by the train tracks beneath Avenida Cesar Chavez. The inside of that grand building feels like a movie set depicting old New Mexico, as rows of spinning fans dangle from the high ceilings above long tables lined with señoras mixing masa, pressing tortillas, stirring chile and assembling orders. The red chile is my favorite in town, and the menu leans heavily that way, although there is some green. It’s funny that I’m making a big deal of a place that serves mostly red chile when green chile is my absolute favorite thing about the New Mexico food scene. I guess it speaks to how good the red there is. It drenches the tamale plate, which is so packed with tamales that there is no room for rice and beans. The tamales are large and loose and it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins. And the red chile spare ribs, succulent and permeated with red, are worth the long drive down from Montana.
But no discussion of tamales or New Mexican food would be complete without mentioning the tamales for sale at the Saturday Downtown Grower’s Market, made by Mary and Tara Benavidez of Santo Domigo Pueblo. As big as California burritos, they come in two flavors: red chile pork, and my favorite, green chile, corn and calabacitas. Many of the ingredients, including the corn in the masa, the red and green chile, and sometimes the calabacitas, are homegrown.
Pro tip: You know it’s a Mexican restaurant, and not New Mexican, when the green sauce gets its color from tomatillos, not green chile. And my favorite slinger of the tomatillo variety is Lupe’s Antojitos. There are two of these wonderful joints, one in a Bernalillo strip mall on 550 (180 E Highway 550) and another in a funky wooden house on Zuni (8302 Zuni SE). Both serve fresh tortillas that I haven’t seen eclipsed anywhere in town, along with a variety of dishes rarely found in ABQ, like a red chile-based goat stew called birria and a lamb soup called barbacoa de borrego. Both have the incomparable depth that comes from boiling bones for a long, long time. They also serve several interesting molcajetes, stone mortars filled with various foods, including cactus pads.
I have eaten at every Vietnamese restaurant in town. I made a point of it. And there are so many good ones that it’s hard to pick a favorite, so instead I will focus on specific experiences to be had, via certain extraordinary dishes found in various establishments.
The duck soup at Vietnam 2000 (601 San Mateo SE): this soup is like pho, but with duck instead of beef. It’s greasy, sweaty, ducky, and authentic enough to transport me to a gnarled alley in a city I’ve never been to.
The creamy rice soup with salted duck egg and pork at Café Da Lat (5615 Central NE): this restaurant is a soup powerhouse with many worthy bowls on the menu. But the cháo, made of rice that has been cooked to the point of disintegration, is my fave. And—correct me if I’m wrong—Café Da Lat is the only place in town that serves this simple, filling peasant dish. It looks like mush, but tastes mush better than your mama’s cream of wheat.
The green waffles at Banh Mi Coda (230 Louisiana SE): There are many things to love about this place, but most of them can be found on the menu or in the display case. The green tapioca and coconut waffle is found in neither place, but can be ordered if you know to do so. Now you know, so do it.
The bun bo hue at Pho #1 (414 San Pedro SE), aka number 38, aka “special spice lemongrass beef soup”: the broth is reddened with dry chile flakes, burnished with peanuts and flavored with cilantro and sate, a spice also known as Szechuan pepper. I get sweaty just thinking about it.
The beef stew sandwich at Viet Taste (5721 Menaul NE): for seven bucks you get a mountain of stew, thick with beef chunks, in a rich sauce that could be called pho curry. The stew reacts brilliantly with the soft interior of the toasted baguette bun it comes with.
Budai Gourmet Chinese (6300 San Mateo NE). If I had to pick a second, I’d say Chopstix (6001 Lomas NE) which is very authentic and has a great variety. But Budai is unique and that trumps authentic. The secret menu that you have to ask for is not a gimmick as it contains things that are too hardcore for me, which is rare (beware the oyster omelet). The razor clams, tea-smoked duck and crispy flounder all have special places in my heart, as do the salt and pepper ribs, clay pot tofu, piles of greens on the vegetable plates and steamed fish all make me long for a place I’ve never been: the isle of Taiwan.
Best Fine Dining
Trying to choose between Jennifer James 101 (4615 Menaul NE) and La Merienda (4803 Rio Grande NW at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm) is a pleasantly torturous endeavor. They are so different, with JJ101’s urban metro vibe contrasting with La Merienda’s bucolic hacienda-style surroundings at Los Poblanos. Both are rooted in the farm, though La Merienda more so, as it is, literally, on a farm. JJ101 might have the edge on artistry—those chickpea fries are game changing, while La Merienda might have a leg up in the ingredients department (translation: house-raised pork belly). But we’re splitting hairs here. The most important thing is that somebody else is paying.
Best Kept Secrets
The Alpine Sausage Kitchen (2800 Indian School NE) is part German deli, part European goodie store and, thanks to the house-made bologna, part of our daily lives. Children like bologna. That is an indisputable fact. The stuffed bacon is like bologna for grownups, a slice of which in a hard roll (limit 12 per customer) makes a nice snack, especially with onion, mayo and a green chile. The smoked pork loin (kasseler), is special too, cut in inch-thick, bone-in slabs. And if you’re grilling, one word of advice: bratwurst.
The other best kept secret was on my radar for years, but I only began visiting shortly before leaving: the headquarters of the Chocolate Cartel (315 Juan Tabo NE) purveyors of funky chocolate bars available in select outlets around town. It shares a storefront on Juan Tabo, south of I-40, with its sister business Van Rixel Bros Gelato and Sorbet. Everything there is top-notch, including ice cream, chocolate, truffles, etc. I brought a bag of blended cocoa powder home to Montana and used it scary quick. I’ll be ordering additional bags of the stuff, so silky and nutty that it almost doesn’t need sugar or cream. Almost.
This category is kind of silly. I mean, it goes without saying in New Mexico that “burger” means “green chile cheeseburger.” You put green chile on a cheeseburger, you elevate it to a uniquely superior place, such that any burger with green chile is superior to any non-chile containing burger anywhere else. So with all of the burgers in town already in rarified air, picking the best green chile cheeseburger seems a bit obsessive. But I do have a soft spot for Holy Cow (700 Central SE). Maybe it’s the avocado. Maybe it’s the clean sweetness of New Mexico grassfed beef, served medium rare and juicy.
Kokoro (5614 Menaul NE) and Nagomi (2400 Juan Tabo NE) are both Japanese owned, which is surprisingly rare on the ABQ Japanese food scene. If you’re paying, Kokoro’s simple, ramen-heavy menu will leave you satisfied on the cheap. If someone else is paying, start off with an order of hamachi toro sashimi. And steer clear of the marinated squid guts.
Best Green Chile
Here’s a little known fact, even in New Mexico: while Hatch is a good place to grow chile, the best chile does not come from Hatch. If one is a chile grower looking to produce the most bushels per acre, then yes, Hatch is a great place to do it, thanks largely to a long growing season and abundance of cheap labor. But most chile connoisseurs would agree that the most flavorful pods are grown in the northern part of the state. The smaller, thin-skinned varieties, most famously the Chimayó, are widely known for their talents as red chile, but when harvested green and roasted, they have amazing flavor as well. These chiles, which come in differently-named varieties depending on the specific valley in which they are grown, are generally smaller and their thinner skins render them not as good for stuffing as a Big Jim. But if you are looking for something to put on your burger or chop into your stew, you want a northern variety. And the best in this category, after my six years of dedicated research, are the Alcalde green chiles grown by Romero farms in Alcalde, north of Espanola, and sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
I’ve been a Michael Thomas (1111 Carlisle SE) snob as long as I’ve been here, since long before it was cool, and there was a second location on Snob Hill (202 Bryn Mawr SE). I love the way the large roaster takes up most of the small café on Carlisle, because you know where the priorities lie at Michael Thomas: getting a perfect roast. Snobs like me who only drink coffee from lightly roasted beans need a place like this for our home brewing needs. I was drinking the Yemen beans for a while until the damn Saudis invaded Yemen and made their coffee unavailable. Then I switched to the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, another light option, which is similarly smooth and not burnt tasting. The Red Sea blend of several area beans is worth a double shot as well.
I didn’t need anything more from the Albuquerque scene, but when Humble Coffee (4200 Lomas NE) opened right around the corner from my house, I was smitten. Humble uses a lightly roasted espresso bean to make the best Americano ever. On most days I continued brewing my Michael Thomas at home, as it was more economical, but when I wanted a treat, I would stumble toward Humble. The cold brewed coffee is fantastic as well, less bitter and more chocolatey than you’ve likely ever tried. Some of that on ice and your hot day will get very nice.
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