Thursday, July 24, 2014

This 'n That Thursdays: Albuquerque and Santa Fe Restaurants

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Every summer my husband and I try to spend a few days in New Mexico, where we hope to retire in the near future.  Some years we have a specific agenda, but this year we decided to take it easy and just explore the Turquoise Trail (New Mexico State Road 14) at a leisurely pace over five days, mainly checking out potential places to retire.  For a while we weren't even sure we would be able to travel, since our old Dalmatian, who has arthritis, had gotten a lot worse in the past year, but our house sitter was willing to deal with her, so off we went.  As usual, we had a wonderful time, mostly exploring new areas, resting during the heat of the day, and enjoying great food.  I did not take many pictures on this trip, but I thought I would share information about some restaurants in the area in case anyone else is planning a trip to the state.

Frontier Restaurant (Albuquerque)

From Omniac Education

On our first day we arrived at Albuquerque's Sunport Airport in the early afternoon.  This is one of my favorite airports, by the way, always clean, never very crowded (it is not a hub for any airline), and beautifully designed and decorated.  We decided to spend the night in Albuquerque, and since we were too early to check in to our hotel, we went to one of my husband's favorite spots for lunch, the Frontier Restaurant across from the University of New Mexico.  My husband is a university professor, and he loves to visit eating establishments near universities recommended to him by people he knows in the area.

The Frontier Restaurant is a local favorite because the food is tasty, plentiful, fast, and inexpensive.  It is more traditional fare, plain and simple, which is the sort of food we always crave when we first arrive in the state.  Don't expect a gourmet dining experience here, but if you are on a budget and want to sample old-fashioned southwestern food, give this place a try.  We both had a burrito (chicken for me, bean and cheese for my husband) and we ordered extra guacamole.  Everything was satisfying and just right for a quick lunch.  The Frontier is open from 5 AM until 1 AM, and is especially popular for breakfast and lunch, but the crowds move through quickly and we have never had to wait long for our food.  Best of all, there is a lot of original artwork hanging on the walls (John Wayne art is particularly popular here) so take some time to peruse your surroundings while you eat and choose the one you like best!

A few favorites from the Frontier Restaurant menu.

Dine while surrounded by art!
(from William Zhang Photography)

John Wayne art is prominently displayed
(from American Food Roots)

After lunch we drove a short distance north on the Turquoise Trail and scouted around the Cedar Crest area, checking out the road to Sandia Crest and the Cibola National Forest, as well as a few promising neighborhoods for retirement.  We even stopped for a soft serve ice cream cone at Twist-n-Turn, an ice cream shop newly opened and still in the process of renovation near the turnoff for Sandia Crest.  We had not had soft serve ice cream in decades so this was quite a treat, but the menu is extensive and quite unique (for example, a Wild Hog Sundae with bacon!).  They also serve a frozen dessert called Frosty Paws for canine customers, who can sit on the outdoor patio with their owners and enjoy their treat in the comfortable climate of the higher elevations!

From On-the-Go with Patty

La Placita Dining Rooms (Albuquerque)

La Placita Dining Rooms is in a restored historic
building with a fascinating history
(from SGHA)

This sign describing the history of the
building is posted on the outside
(from Dream Me Home -  New Mexico)

Every time we are in Albuquerque I always insist that we have one dinner at La Placita Dining Rooms in Old Town.  This was the first restaurant I visited the first time I was in Albuquerque decades ago, and the menu has not changed.  That is what I like about this restaurant, but I know others find this disappointing.  Nevertheless, I am always pleased that I can relive my very first New Mexico dining experience whenever I visit, and the food is always consistently good.  I am afraid that I am stuck in a rut and order the same thing I had all those years ago every time (quacamole as appetizer, Navajo taco with chicken and red chile sauce as entrée), but I only get the opportunity once a year if I am lucky and I truly enjoy my meal.  The best part comes last, however, and it comes in the form of the best sopaipilla you will ever eat.  Sopaipillas are served as part of the meal (as are chips and salsa).  They always come perfectly warm and puffy.  Honey is on the table to pour into the sopaipilla once it has cooled off enough to be torn open, and that first honeyed bite is heaven!  Everyone should try this restaurant at least once if only for the sopaipillas, and also to see the enormous tree in the middle of one of the dining rooms.  It is an Old Town tradition, and one that I never miss when we are in Albuquerque.

Navajo taco
(from Foursquare)

Stuffed sopaipillas, plus plain
sopaipillas with honey
(from TripAdvisor)

Tree in the dining room!
(from Foursquare)

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast at Einstein Bagels in Albuquerque (perfectly fine, but not very New Mexican!), then headed up the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe.  On the way we stopped in Madrid for some shopping therapy.  Madrid is such a cute and colorful little town, full of artists and other nontraditional types.  Everyone we met was friendly and proud of their town.  We saw some great arts and crafts, and my husband in particular fell in love with the beautiful stone fountains at Range West.  He has always dreamed of living in an adobe house with a courtyard, and has decided that one of these fountains would be the perfect addition to that courtyard.

This fountain would be just right!

And then on to Santa Fe!

Painted sign on the wall along Burro
Alley in Santa Fe

Elevation Bistro (Santa Fe)

We finally arrived in Santa Fe just in time for a late lunch.  At first we tried Cafe Pasqual's in the historic Santa Fe Plaza area, which we enjoyed last year, but the waiting list was so long we decided to check out a new restaurant called Elevation Bistro tucked into the back of an alley right next door.  What a great choice!  My husband ordered what he declared to be the most memorable meal of our trip, which was a Roasted Stuffed Poblano Pepper, with couscous filling and chipotle and red pepper cream sauces.  I tried the Ribbons of Squash and Zucchini, which was served with a pesto cream sauce.  There was an option of adding either grilled shrimp or chicken for an additional few dollars.  I chose the shrimp, and it was an excellent selection.  The sauces were so good that my husband said he was tempted to pick up the plate and lick it clean (I felt the same way)!  We will definitely be returning to this little establishment in the future.

The "memorable" Roasted Stuffed Poblano Pepper
(from TripAdvisor)

Ribbons of  Zucchini and Squash (I ordered the shrimp option;
the image shows the dish with chicken)
(from TripAdvisor)

A truly amazing oven!
(from Yelp)

Dream Cakes (Santa Fe)

Just down the road from Elevation Grill is a small shopping mall that includes a cupcake bakery called Dream Cakes, whose creations are sinfully delicious.  We could not help but indulge, and both of us chose their Key Lime Cupcake.  It was so amazing that I would give up desserts for the rest of the year if I could have this cupcake just once a year, and if you knew just how much I love desserts you would realize that I do not make this assertion lightly!

Delectable Key Lime Cupcakes
(from Facebook)

Taberna La Boca (Santa Fe)

Outdoor dining at Taberna (from TripAdvisor)

After exploring a few Santa Fe neighborhoods, we checked into our hotel and rested up for a while before heading back to the Plaza in search of a dinner restaurant.  It was a Saturday night and the weekend of a huge International Folk Art Market, so the town was even more packed than usual (so glad we made our hotel reservations in advance!).  We were hoping to try a new-to-us Spanish tapas restaurant called El Mesón, but of course they were booked solid, so we tried a find from last year called Taberna.  Taberna is also a tapas restaurant,  actually the back courtyard of the original tapas restaurant called La Boca, split off into a separate entity a couple of years ago.  This casual establishment managed to find us a table immediately, which was very fortuitous!  My husband loves this place, as you get to choose from an extensive menu of great tasting food on small plates and can choose just how much food you want to eat.

We each started with a glass of sherry (I had the Amontillado, which was deliciously nutty and not too sweet) and a bowl of mussels.  We both love mussels, and there is always a tasty sauce for bread dipping.  Then we ordered four more small plates, two to share (a farmer's market vegetable stew and roasted patatas with an aioli sauce) and two not (I had a watermelon-tomato salad that my husband did not care to try, and he had smoked salmon on toast in which I had no interest as I do not like salmon).  The patatas were a little overdone, probably because the restaurant was crowded and a large group came in shortly after we entered, so the kitchen was in chaos for a while, but all else was perfect, and we even managed to leave before it started to rain (there were thunderstorms every afternoon/evening when we were there).  I recommend the Spanish potato tortilla, which we tried and loved last year, although the type served changes periodically and the one that day had salt cod, which I do not like (so picky, I know!).  One of these days we hope to try both La Boca and El Mesón, but we will have to remember to make reservations first!

The wonderful steamed mussels
(from Yelp)

A refreshing salad
(from Fodor's Travels)

Our hotel (Holiday Inn Express Santa Fe) offered a free full breakfast every morning, and we took advantage of this option.  Their choices range from the relatively healthy (yogurt, fresh fruit) to downright decadent (biscuits and sausage gravy), so you can customize your own meal.  Thank goodness, because I really did have to compensate somehow for the cupcake indulgence of the previous day!

A Greek dance demonstration at the Greek Festival.

We did not attend the International Folk Art Market because it was so huge and also sold out, but there was a Greek Festival at the Eldorado Hotel near the Plaza, so we decided to check it out.  We planned our visit for an early lunch to miss the after-church crowd, because we had passed by the night before on our way to dinner and it was packed.  Our timing was perfect as the crowds were sparse when we got there.  We had plenty of time for a leisurely stroll to visit vendors before buying lunch and we had no problem finding a table.  We shared a Greek salad and a vegetarian plate and they were phenomenal.  There is such a difference between freshly-made hummus and the packaged store-bought variety that I don't know if I will ever be able to eat the latter again!  We also got baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip) which we love but can rarely find at home, soft pita bread for dipping, dolmades (rice-stuffed grape leaves), and the best tabbouleh I have ever had.  The tabbouleh was made with barley rather than bulghur wheat, and there was very little mint, which is a plus in my opinion as I am not fond of mint, especially peppermint.  The cucumbers were peeled and finely diced with almost no bitterness, which I appreciated.  I am going to have to try making this version at home.

Delicious Greek pastries.

After lunch we went for a short stroll around the Plaza before driving north of Santa Fe to explore a few more possible retirement sites, and were shocked to discover that Packard's on the Plaza, a southwestern home décor store that has been a fixture for 70 years and once ranked as one of the ten best Native American galleries, has changed ownership!  For my husband this was the end of an era, as Packard's was his favorite shop, especially the rug room.  The rug room is still there, but the rest of the store is slowly changing over to more modern and upscale items, including women's clothing.  While still a nice place to visit, the new establishment, now called Malouf on the Plaza, will be a completely different experience.

Packard's, you will be missed
(from The Santa Fe New Mexican)

The fabulous rug room remains!

Il Piatto (Santa Fe)

From Venue & Vine

We explored some of the highways north of Santa Fe, and then returned to our hotel.  Between the unexpected loss of his favorite Santa Fe store and the strain of so much mountain driving, my poor husband needed some time to recuperate, so we relaxed in our room during the hottest part of the day and then went back to the Plaza for dinner.  The folk art market was over and most of the crowd had left, but a lot of the restaurants are closed on Sunday so it took a little while to find a place.  Fortunately, Il Piatto, an Italian restaurant featuring farmhouse kitchen food, was open and their menu looked intriguing.

We indulged in a glass of wine on our last night in Santa Fe, and then chose our appetizers (a cured salmon bruschetta special for my husband, and the green salad with braised pears and house made ricotta for me).  There was a cruet of the best balsamic vinegar on the table, and I added some to my salad.  In fact, that vinegar was so good I also had some on my bread.  For our main course we both had pasta, which was offered in either appetizer or entrée portions (we chose the former).  My husband had Gorgonzola and Walnut Ravioli, while I selected the Potato Parmigiano Gnocchi in a mushroom-Marsala cream sauce.  I have to say that my gnocchi was probably the best dish I had on this trip, and we had some extremely good food!

We also decided to try some dessert, chocolate mousse for my husband and a sweet marsala zabaglione for me.  Both desserts were outstanding.  My husband is a chocolate mousse fanatic, and he pronounced his mousse to be excellent.  I had never had zabaglione before and have always wanted to try it (it can be tricky to make as the eggs are barely cooked over a double boiler, so I really wanted to try someone else's version rather than attempt my own).  Il Piatto's recipe is not traditional as they add soft cheese (I think the waitress said mascarpone, but my memory is not clear on this, so it could have been ricotta).  Zabaglione is normally more like a soft and frothy custard (see this recipe), but this variation had a density somewhere between a mousse and a cheesecake.  It was still delicious, however, and the touch that really put it over the top for me was the drizzle of balsamic vinegar (like I said, the vinegar was that good!).

Gorgonzola and Walnut Ravioli
(from Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog)

Sweet Marsala Zabaglione
(from Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog)

The next day we left Santa Fe and headed south to Albuquerque.  Our breakfast at the hotel was memorable mainly because I saw a coyote walking down the road while we ate.  It made a detour into our hotel parking lot, I assume on a dumpster diving mission.  While coyotes are not particularly shy (I even see them here in Georgia, especially when trail riding), I did find it amazing that it did not look at all concerned about trotting on the edge of a busy main highway through town!

Yasmine's Cafe (Albuquerque)

From Panoramio

We looked at one more Santa Fe neighborhood before we left the city, and were glad that we did, because it is one we have added to our list of possibilities (if we can find an affordable house there, of course!).  We took the Turquoise Trail again, and have decided that this is the route we will take from now on, rather than Interstate 25, when we travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  We were too early to check into our hotel again, so we looked for a place to have lunch by just cruising through town in the university area.  We finally selected a small and unassuming place called Yasmine's Cafe which specializes in Mediterranean food.  There was a lot of overlap between the Greek food we had eaten the day before and the menu at this restaurant, so we chose one of their vegetarian plates with similar items for comparison.  This plate consisted of heavier fare, with equally good hummus, exceptional baba ganoush with a nicely smoky flavor, some light and crisp falafel, and a triangle of spanakopita.  The latter was a little cold, but everything was very tasty, and the pita was fresh and warm.  This restaurant has apparently changed hands several times and the food quality has been inconsistent, but we can say with confidence that the current owners are creating fabulous food and I hope they do well.  We left feeling very satisfied and hope to try other menu options (like the Stuffed Eggplant and the Chicken Shawarma) on future trips!

Warm, soft, and puffy pita bread
(from Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) blog)

I wish I had some of this unbelievably excellent
baba ganoush right now!
(from Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog)

The falafel was perfectly crisp on the outside,
soft and warm on the inside
(from Yelp)

We were still full from lunch that night, so instead of going out to dinner we found a nearby supermarket and bought some food for a light meal.  Our flight left early the next morning and we ate decent but not noteworthy airport food, so our culinary adventure in New Mexico was over.  Next year we want to plan a trip to Chama, New Mexico, to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad train and try more great food, but only if our old Dalmatian can handle being left in someone else's care.  Right now this is doubtful, as she did not fare very well while we were gone.  I will be taking her to the vet soon to see if there are other treatments we can try to ease her arthritis issues without causing more problems, so we shall see.  If we do go, I am hoping my best friend and her son in Florida will accompany us.  I think they would enjoy the trip, and Chama is a great place for the young man, who is an avid fisherman, as it is well known as a fly fishing spot.  If we plan the dates properly we can also stop at the Lavender in the Valley Festival at the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm in Abiquiu, which is on the way to Chama.  There is so much to do in our favorite state, and I can't wait to go back!

Blooming cholla cactus in New Mexico

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