Oooh Ahh…Albuquerque

A flame has been lit. The food scene in Albuquerque has been growing for years, but this year there’s a fire burning that’s on par with metropolitan cities across the country. A trifecta of new restaurants, top chefs and electric nightlife has given the Duke City the kindling to start a blaze roaring high enough that the nation has started to take notice. If 2013 is any indication of what is ahead, might Albuquerque be the next Portland?

Val Armstrong  Dreamstime.com

Photos by Val Armstrong
Dreamstime.com

I recently strolled down Central Avenue in the Nob Hill district on a crisp November afternoon with my girlies. We reveled in the plethora of new business, some of which we hadn’t even noticed before. Nob Hill is known for its eclectic mix of locally owned businesses, and this year saw a slew of new restaurants and bars.

Many Burqueños were shocked at the closing of a Nob Hill favorite, Bailey’s on the Beach (one of only two rooftop establishments in the district), which shut its doors in May. But brightly, like the moon that hits your eye, comes a new pizza pie: Amore Neapolitan Pizzeria. Owners Gabriel and Kimberly Amador met and fell in love in Italy. The couple was trained, certified and mentored by president of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani (APN), Roberto Caporuscio. APN certification is the highest certification for pizza chefs in Italy and can only be obtained in Naples, Italy or New York City. The Amadors opened Amore with the desire to combine the things they love the most: “a hand-made, healthier style of pizza, Naples, family and our pride in all things local.”

After you have had your pizza fix, head a few blocks east on Central to the perfect spot to soothe your sweet tooth: the Chocolate Dude. It’s part coffee shop, part chocoholic heaven, with a pinch of hippie mentality. “Chocolate Dude is a place where you are able to slip out of the harsh reality of the real world for a moment and a place that will bring back childhood memories,” says Kirk Clark, owner and eponymous chocolate dude. He is also the former manager of Bailey’s on the Beach. (Yep, one door closes, and another opens just a few steps away, especially in this small world.)

An authentic Jewish bakery fits in perfectly with Nob Hill’s worldly offerings. Situated on the busy corner of Carlisle and Central Avenue, Nosh opened its doors in September. It offers up bona fide matzoh ball soup, latkes, knishes and glimmering pastries worth loosening your belt for (try the chocolate babka). I, for one, am grateful that owner Alisa Turtletaub-Young had the chutzpah to create a genuine Jewish experience. And there’s no green chile in sight!

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If you’re looking for holiday libations, there are quite a few new spots to add to your list of watering holes in Nob Hill. Yanni’s remodeled this year, creating the vibrant Lemoni Bar, which awaits your arrival. With a new cocktail menu offering fresh-squeezed juices as well as house-made syrups and spirit infusions, the bar is a welcome addition. They even showcase a mezcal cocktail (yes, real mezcal, not the stuff with the worm that makes you quiver with regret the next morning). It has all-natural peach liqueur, apricot nectar and fresh lemon juice. Yum!

The motorcycle-themed Shade Tree Custom Cycle Works is not your stereotypical shady biker bar. Have no fear of walking in solo and bellying up to the bar for a locally-brewed craft beer. Shade Tree offers La Cumbre, Marble Brewery and Santa Fe Brewing Company beers, all on draught, in addition to malts from “outta town,” like the Kona Longboard Lager. The menu has breakfast, lunch and dinner choices, all cleverly named to fit the mechanical theme, and there’s live music several nights a week. The place houses an actual custom motorcycle shop. It’s located in the basement and features a motorists’ entrance in the back alley, so enthusiasts can break for an oil change or customize their ride with original work from Albuquerque’s finest craftsmen. It’s a win-win for beer lovers and gear heads.

For a more upscale experience, try Elaine’s, headed by Executive Chef Andrew Gorski, whose résumé (try Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse) will impress any foodophile. The menu is stocked with words to make you drool: foie gras, confit, tartare, truffle… The list goes on, and the creativity is impressive. The restaurant is cozy, so make a reservation (only open Tuesday through Saturday). But if you have to wait, I can assure you the wine list has a gem or two that will help pass the time.

You should keep your eye on Chef Andrew Gorski, of Elaine’s, but he’s not the only one in the Albuquerque food scene who’s packing heat. The game is changing, and the bar has been set high. Chef Mark Kiffin has been a well-known award-winning chef in Santa Fe for years, seizing the highly respected and most coveted culinary honor, the James Beard Best Chef Award in 2005 for his work at The Compound. This year his Albuquerque-based authentic Mexican taqueria and tequila bar, Zacatecas, was a semi-finalist for the James Beard 2013 Best New Restaurant. Add to that rockstar Jennifer James and her back-to-back 2010 and 2011 James Beard Best Chef nominations, and it’s only a matter of time before the Duke City brings home one of the most sought-after marks of respect, the Oscars of the food world.

And don’t forget famed tapas chef James Campbell Caruso, owner of Santa Fe’s La Boca, who happens to be a five-time James Beard Award nominee himself (cough, cough). A published author of two cookbooks and repeat competitor in the Copa Jerez International Food and Sherry Pairing Competition—as well as an all-around sweetheart of a guy—Chef Caruso has joined forces with Hotel Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque for the opening of Más. Replacing Lucia, Más is a full-service tapas and wine bar offering reinventions of traditional Spanish small plates created with local ingredients and high-quality imported ingredients and spices.

And, on a side note, I hear rumors that Mark Kiffin and James Campbell Caruso are not the only big-name restaurateurs from Santa Fe looking to make the move south to the Q. It appears the Duke City is drawing a few more of Santa Fe’s elite. If all pans out, Albuquerque may just be supplanting our neighbors to the north as the the Land of Enchantment’s premier culinary destination.

Love it that Breaking Bad shined a little light upon my favorite breakfast spot in town, The Grove. It had three on-location appearances in the AMC show and was an integral part in the season finale. Owners Lauren and Jason Greene (Jason happens to be Albuquerque’s most under appreciated chef, in my humble opinion) found their restaurant at the center of the series clincher, the scene where lead character Walter White poisons his meth ring cohort Lydia. “People are super excited about the part [The Grove] played in the show. People from all over the world are coming into the restaurant and asking to sit at the table where the final deed was done,” explains Lauren. “At first, we were a bit scared to accept the offer, since I knew the show revolved around a crystal meth drug ring, but the producers and cast were so kind and gracious, and we knew that this was something good for Albuquerque as a whole, so we decided to go for it. Now we get visitors, Facebook posts and emails about the appearances.” The series may be over, but the glow is still here.

Albuquerque nightlife has seen a boost in quality destinations this year, and downtown may be on the verge of a rebirth. The bar Sister, owned by Ross Sorce, Doug Albin and Jesus Zamora (all three long-time employees of the pool hall and bar upstairs, Anodyne), has become my go-to destination for a tipple. I have a passion for amari and herbal liqueurs, and for this they are the only game in town. I feel instantly at home when I walk in, and if there is no live music, I drop off my ID, borrow the bean bags and find a challenger for a friendly game of cornhole. (If you don’t know what cornhole is, I suggest a visit immediately.)

But music is the name of the game. “There is nothing more important than music when it comes to Sister,” explains Jesus Zamora (aka Zeus). “Music is our religion, in a sense, and is held in the highest regard. We never intended to become a music venue. It just kind of happened. From the second we opened our doors, it became more and more apparent that Albuquerque wanted and needed another venue for live music.” Sister has certainly filled that void, booking national touring acts on a regular basis. They also have the best draught beer selection in Albuquerque, hands down. “We also don’t carry Budweiser, Bud Lite, Coors or Miller on purpose.” proclaims Zeus. Sister has everything I look for in a great bar: unpretentious, comfortable environment, great tunes, good people. Done and done.

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Then on the corner of 2nd and Gold, there’s the ArtBar, a private club that is also Albuquerque’s first non-profit bar. The profits from its operations are split evenly between six arts-oriented non-profit organizations. Memberships are $30 for a year and grant you access to art shows, fundraising events and handcrafted cocktails under the organization’s full liquor license. The ArtBar’s kitchen is managed by popular Albuquerque food truck The Supper Truck.

Finally, the food truck trend has sunk its roots into Albuquerque, and it’s about time! Throughout the year, I spotted more and more traveling treats, and a visit to roaminghunger.com/abq or abqfoodcarts.com will help you locate one of the dozens of mobile munchers roaming around the city, taking no prisoners in the food battle. Talin Market is also a great spot for the gathering of the curbside caterers. Every Wednesday both the trucks and the hungry gather at 10 a.m. in the parking lot on the corner of Louisiana and Central for an international feast.

Albuquerque has seen tremendous growth for the industry in 2013, and the buzz is already starting for 2014. More nightlife with shocking energy, talented chefs pulling out all the stops and a growing international melting pot of cuisine are all just little tasters of what’s to come. The hospitality community here is a family (sometimes a little dysfunctional, like most families), but the brothers and sisters support each other, because we all know that it takes a village. There is no one chef or one restaurant that will change the scene and raise the standards for the whole city, but the electricity flowing through Albuquerque right now is at its highest—and it’s contagious.

Look out, people. The Q is on the loose.

Story by Kate Gerwin


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