I don't know about you, but I'm a guy who likes food. In fact, I have to say that next to napping, food is one of my favorite things. Thankfully, in New Mexico, food is part of our identity. Show me a guy without a red chile stain on his shirt, and I will show you a guy without a shirt.
Great local, spicy, colorful New Mexican food has become our trademark. The snootier among us quickly correct those who would call our cuisine “Mexican” with an “Oh no no, it's New Mexican.” (Not to be confused with nuevo Mexican, which is what you would call the salmon and caper tacos you might find on the menu at a trendy restaurant in Soho.)
Our green and red chile are our own unique versions of Cajun rue or an Indian curry. We build our many tasty dishes around these two spicy nectars. Locals are hooked, visitors sweat and then can't get enough. Like me, you need it at least once a week or you get the shakes.
But as much as I love New Mexican food, and, believe me, I have been known to get in a tussle or two over who gets the last sopaipilla, we need something more. Don't get me wrong, there are some great international restaurants in Albuquerque. Thai Orchid, India Palace and Shogun Sushi come to mind. There are also a lot of terrible ones that shall remain nameless in the interest of avoiding threatening e-mails from guys in funny white hats.
But for every 10 New Mexican restaurants, we seem to have only one international restaurant. Why is that?
Loosely quoting a line from one of my favorite old date flicks, When Harry Met Sally, “Restaurants are the theater of this generation.” The point is, people love to socialize over meals. And no matter how much you love them, man cannot live on carne adovada alone.
If you have ever been in an argument over who has the best enchiladas (Padilla's, Sadie's, Gracias, etc.), you know what I mean. It is harder to argue about who has the best Ethiopian food because there is none. Thai? There are a handful of restaurants, but only a couple worth recommending. Middle Eastern? Pars is almost the only game in town.
Even the good restaurants we do have require one to drive from one part of town to another. Want good French? It's Café Miche in a strip mall in the Northeast Heights. Good Italian? Back to Nob Hill to Scalo or Vivace. Great barbeque? Back to Powdrell's on north Fourth. Instead of forcing foraging folks to get in their cars and drive across town, what if we looked at the old Route 66 as the new restaurant district between UNM and Old Town?
If we want Albuquerque to truly be a diverse and cosmopolitan city, we need to actively cultivate a stronger international restaurant district. Great food in a relatively walkable environment is important for a city's image. Think of the great cities—part of what makes them great places to live or visit is a great, diverse, accessible restaurant scene. New York has Soho with its great outdoor restaurant scene; Washington, D.C. has Adams Morgan with block after block of international restaurants. London has it too. And believe me, they need it.
So how do we make it happen? Here are a few ideas. What if we used city incentives through loans, zoning, taxes, etc. to create an international restaurant district? Central between UNM and Old Town would be ideal, but there are other areas such as the north Fourth Street corridor that would also work. City leaders have been looking for a way to get people to walk, bike and ride buses between the city's entertainment areas. Leveraging a series of great sidewalk cafés and international cuisine would be ideal to get people out of their cars and off of the interstate.
Cities across the country, including Albuquerque, have supported incubators that help new businesses get off the ground. What if we used that same idea to help new restaurants get off the ground? Maybe the city could purchase a few old properties along one of these corridors and then provide subsidized rent to new international restaurants. After three years, the time it takes most restaurants to establish their clientele, the venues could start to pay the real costs of overhead. Shared marketing, shared distribution and shared security could help them keep costs down while they nurture their new business. Not unlike a mall or airport food court (although hopefully higher-quality food and more unique ambience), these 20-40 new international restaurants could share seating areas, parking and related overhead.
As we celebrate our Tricentennial, I hope we will remember that Albuquerque was built and is nurtured by people from around the world. Intel, UNM and Sandia have brought with them an influx of diverse people from around the country and around the globe. Our goal should be to become a truly international city. And, let's face it, it starts with the grub.
Think of it. It's Thursday night and you want to really impress a new client or boyfriend. Instead of racking your brain about where to drive and what to eat, you simply stroll, ride or park along the international restaurant district. Mexican mariscos? No problema. Carpaccio? Just two doors down. Some more somosas? Three blocks away.
I can almost taste it now. Who's up for Ethiopian?