The Blue Dragon's Higher Grounds

Chef Kent Dagnall Talks About Salvation Through Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

Laura Marrich
8 min read
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Big changes are afoot at the Blue Dragon, the little neighborhood hangout that straddles Girard's jog just south of Indian School. With a fresh coat of paint and some new menu concepts headed by Chef Kent Dagnall, the Dragon is gearing up for spring and their fifth birthday on Mother’s Day. I recently dropped in on Kent, a long-time pal and culinary co-conspirator, to pump him for information and split one of their signature pizzas.

So what are your plans for the menu?

I'm gonna start off with five wraps. One of them is chicken, the others are all vegetarian. There's a Cuban wrap that's with Cuban pasty black beans and mint cilantro yogurt and we can add chicken, turkey or ham to that. The clientele that we focus on is vegetarian because meat eaters can always find something to eat.

That's a refreshing approach.

In the next few weeks after our big change, I'll be experimenting with more vegan wraps and we'll have three of 'em at least.

Like what?

Right now we've got a cold sesame noodle and peanut dressing wrap. That's our one vegan wrap.

Sounds good … what else is new?

We're now open on Mondays, so we're open seven nights a week. And I'm just now putting some finishing touches on our crew and our menu so that on Sundays we'll have some really cool brunch stuff.

Like a buffet?

No, just an à la carte menu. We're gonna have spicy yogurt parfaits with blueberry chutney. … Right now we're using an organic cow's milk yogurt … Brown Cow. And we make our own toasted Farsi spice mix with cumin, mace and fenugreek, and we'll add that to the yogurt.

So what's been key in shaping this new menu?

The one thing we're limited by at the Blue Dragon is our lack of a stove of any kind—everything comes out of the pizza oven or the cold line. And the kitchen's like a postage stamp with 18 people in it. But it forces us to go in a certain direction and it sort of creates this Blue Dragon feel to the menu. Brunch is something that I've personally been really wanting to experiment with and the Blue Dragon is an awesome blank canvas.

Are you trying to compete with other vegetarian/vegan restaurants?

Naw. The only thing we've ever wanted to be is a coffeehouse. We've always been a neighborhood café that serves the University and we're very interested in keeping close to this neighborhood. One thing that Lise Dale, the owner, is very into is providing this neighborhood with the most wholesome, fortifying, healthy and at the same time luxurious food—we're not granola eaters. We're into making things that'll totally blow your mind and that’ll also feed your body. That's something that you don't get in fine dining's butter-and-foie gras-scene.

You've worked with Joseph Wrede (of Joseph's Table) in Taos, as well as a few other big names. How did you end up here?

I moved back down to Albuquerque to get away from the professional chef lifestyle to which I've grown so accustomed and to go to art school at UNM. The Blue Dragon is a wonderful side project for me—it's a wonderful move outside of fine dining. There's no reason why a place like the Blue Dragon can't have that same attention to detail, material and ingredients that the big money, big-name places do. Joseph Wrede treats his kitchen like an art studio. He told me once it was grad school for culinarians, and that's how I felt, too. It was this grad school and then after that you could go on to do whatever you wanted. And so now I'm really interested in seeing this place survive and become something even greater in the next couple years.

What inspires you as a chef?

Well, food happens to be my career, but it's also my addiction. I love to eat! And things that inspire me can come from anywhere. Music or art, or other people's food or what people in other parts of the world are eating. Along those lines, the Blue Dragon doesn't serve anything that we feel takes advantage of people in other countries. For example, we represent the Fair Trade movement in the coffees we offer. And with our employees, we try to have the same philosophy. If you come to work for us at the Blue Dragon you, like it or not, become a part of the family. You get sucked into the team that's working here

And eating here and hanging out here …

Right. Everybody who works here eats here and hangs out here. Lise found me sitting on the corner waiting for the place to open up two weeks after they first opened back when I was a junior in high school [laughs] … I've been in and out of the Blue Dragon since they opened, and several of our employees have been here for years. Even if they haven't always worked here, they're familiar faces. With our customers, I still run into people that I met five years ago working the counter. And the connection between all these people is the Blue Dragon.

You seem to have a big focus on vegan pastries.

We call 'em “socially conscious” pastries.

How's that different from a regular vegan pastry?

We realize a lot of people come in and get a pastry and a cup of coffee—maybe that's all they eat until lunch. So I'd like to send you away with a pastry that's not a gut-bomb of sugar, eggs and butter. We first started putting together vegan pastries for our vegan customers. But now we're putting them together because if you can have a cup of Fair Trade organic coffee and a vegan carrot cake muffin made with non-GMO, non-trans fatty acid margarine, then for all intents and purposes you just sat down and ate a plate of carrots.

And what about all the non-vegan pastries you guys have?

We're doing fun stuff like a buttermilk-honey cake with bee pollen, sugared violets and lavender. So you've got honey, bees and flowers. We're doing a peanut butter-banana-honey sandwich cake that has layers of bananas and honey between banana cake layers with peanut butter frosting. That really calls you back to your childhood. We've got some of the best chocolate chip cookies that I've ever had and I can say that because it's not my recipe.

You guys have sort of made a name for yourselves as a pizza spot, which seems unlikely given how non-traditional you are.

Well, we've always added flaxseeds to our white pizza crust. Right now we have a whole-wheat thin pizza crust that's spectacular and wonderfully crisp. And so with our white crust, to make up the difference, we've been adding fresh-ground flax seeds, so at least you get your essential fatty acids in every bite of cheesy goodness. We have a red sauce, a Cajun sauce, a pesto sauce and a white glaze, so whatever your dietary restrictions we can make you something that's really delicious.

As far I can tell, you've got the most organically based menu in town. You don't seem to advertise it, though.

Well, you can definitely taste the difference. And often I've had to explain exactly why our pizza's better than other places. All of our toppings are being sourced right now to be either organic or as high quality as possible. It's always a give and take—no restaurant can source all organic without a pocketbook 100 times larger than ours—but right now we're using organic tomatoes in the tomato sauce and alpine sausage kitchen meats on our pizzas. We've got 20 to 30 pizza toppings and several of them are organic. Our staff's really knowledgeable about that, so you can always come in and just ask what's what.

Any other plans the general public should know about?

For brunch, I eventually want to have a gospel group walking around. “The Blue Dragon Gospel Brunch”—that’ll get your blood pumping on a Sunday morning!

Amen, brother.

Check out the Blue Dragon at 1517 Girard NE, or give 'em a holler at 268-5159.

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