Spend enough time getting to know the local Albuquerque cuisine and you’ll realize that chile is an acceptable ingredient in everything—sauces, appetizers, desserts, salads, even drinks (sometimes). We as a city are expert at combining beans, corn and chile in dozens of ways, across hundreds of restaurants. It makes one think that chile is all our city does, especially after seeing chile on pizza or burgers at national franchise joints.
But don’t count Albuquerque out. For all the homogeneity in our love of spice, there are categories of culinary excellence that would pass muster in any major city. Who knew that one could find housemade charcuterie, eight treasure duck, to-die-for spring rolls or Polish sausages all without a road trip? You can find all of that and more (New York cheesecake? Yes, please!) by following this handy reference, grouped in three categories worth your attention: Homestyle Asian, Authentic Regional Delis and Middle Eastern Eats. Every one of the three categories—and the three restaurants in each—are worth a special trip; they’re that good.
Her name is Vicki and she is the effervescent owner of not one but two of the best Vietnamese joints in Albuquerque, a town already stuffed full with great Vietnamese. At either location, begin with delicious spring rolls wrapped in rice paper and fried to an ethereal crisp, as thin as taquitos. If Vicki is on hand she might take (or deliver) your order of tamarind mussels, saying, “OK, honey,” with every smile. Standard fare abounds like pho and bun noodle bowls—all good—but the treasure is in the “weird stuff” like grilled onion beef (which is thinly cut and rolled up with tender white onion) or clay-pot rice with chicken—the pot keeps each bite nice and hot until you’re done. Finally, drink like you mean it: the salted lemonade is refreshing beyond all belief.
Saigon 2 Restaurant, 2003 Southern Blvd Suite 105-106, Rio Rancho, 505.896.0099 saigonrestaurantnm.com
Budai Gourmet Chinese
Yes, there is a thing called “eight treasure duck.” It’s a boned bird stuffed with rice, mushrooms, sausage, nuts, veggies and more, which requires advance notice and a group to partake. Here’s the thing: so much at Budai is wonderful any day of the week, and you’ll be charmed regardless of the occasion. Photos on the wall guide diners to regional specialties, but following your nose around the room and ordering whatever else looks great on other folks’ tables is absolutely OK. As the weather cools slightly, I love the fish and goji berry soup, but Taiwanese beef noodle soup is a favorite comfort food of your host Elsa’s homeland and highly recommended. From garlicky veggies to salt-and-pepper shrimp, nothing is boring, nothing is bland. Ask for help (or the Chinese menu), and have a ball.
Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar and Cuisine
Two important features of Japanese Kitchen are not easily discernable from Louisiana Boulevard near the mall, and that’s a disadvantage in a neighborhood awash in chains. One hidden aspect is the teppan grill dining room, festive and boisterous. The other sits kitty-corner next door and has been my quiet respite for sushi for years; the interior is refined and comfortable but the service is affable once they know you’re interested in great Japanese cuisine. For sushi, just ask the chefs what’s good and let them guide you to sashimi or something extravagant like the Revevie Roll with sweet shrimp, yellowtail and jalapeño. Very few rolls or dishes are over the top with adornments or deep-fryer treatment, and that’s how it should be. The reverence for food at Japanese Kitchen is palpable, from the servers to the chefs to the diners.
M’Tucci’s Market & Deli (Italian)
Housemade charcuterie, here in Albuquerque? Sure. A chef-driven kitchen just as interested in food-science geekery as with great taste? That’s M’Tucci’s Market, an offshoot of the Italian eatery next door—though the two are worlds apart in feel and clientele. Housemade sourdough permeates the air, while imported cured meats and cheeses make any foodie’s eyes pop open in delight. Take a seat from the few available and scan the brief menu…even though you’ll order the charcuterie plate. Have the chef choose what to put on the slab, from silky ham to beef with housemade garnishes and pickles. Sigh in pleasure. Later, leave with deli items for your own larder or fridge, and perhaps even a muffaletta sandwich for the road.
Nosh Jewish Deli & Bakery (New York)
This nubbin of a deli has been delighting Nob Hill for a few years now, and for good reason. The interior is tight and bustling, full of conversations and newspapers to read, with great-looking food from every vantage. Nosh serves everything to soothe an East Coaster’s heart, from black-and-white cookies to matzo-ball soup. Get your salt fix on with corned-beef hash and a side of latkes—one menu item that is allowed to be both greasy and delicious. Breakfast includes lox and eggs—a staple in New York just like huevos rancheros here—and buttery pastries galore. Don’t forget lunch, where the crowds are still appreciative of Reubens and egg salad on challah, followed up by a slice of carrot cake that will kick start your afternoon.
Red Rock Deli (Eastern European)
The first time I visited Red Rock Deli in the Northeast Heights, I went a little overboard: pierogies and bratwurst and borscht, oh my! After I ordered nearly half the menu, owners Mark and Paul Toczek seemed concerned but happy. “I’ll take leftovers home!” I explained. I couldn’t help myself in this spare yet welcoming grocery and café. With borscht that’s thin and authentic, Polish and German wursts, and even a potato salad of your dreams, it’s easy to order in abundance. The Midwest presence extends to Chicago hot dogs and Iowa fried pork chop sandwiches. Those pierogies are hand-made offsite and brought in for Paul and Mark’s customers by the dozen; but you can order “Russian roulette” and receive six random flavors, from cheese to cabbage to beef. Shop the grocery before leaving or just have the naleśniki for dessert: sweet crepes with cherries. Yum.
Red Rock Deli, 13025 Lomas Blvd NE, 505.332.9656
San Pedro Mart
Owned by Palestinian brothers Muhamad and Abraham, the former gas station grocery and café gives off no vibe of fine dining, but that’s OK by its legions of fans. Nearly everything on the menu is perfect, from parsley-heavy tabbouli to spiced fava beans drowned in fragrant olive oil to the lamb shawarma plate, easily the most famous dish here. Bits of chopped char-grilled lamb are centered on the plate surrounded by a moat of hummus. Use the bland but fluffy pitas to soak everything up, and feel an unstoppable smile spreading across your face. After dining, you can shop for ingredients to make your own feast, but honestly, you won’t—not after having everything prepared by the experts. It’s worth it, every moment in that cozy dining space.
San Pedro Middle Eastern Restaurant, 4001 San Pedro Drive NE, 505.888.2921
Very few places let loose their garlic love enough to ward off both infections and second dates; if you adore the pungent bulb, Yasmine’s Café is for you. Start with the hummus, reveling in the rich spread, whether on pita bread or just on a spoon. It’s also a great topping for balls of falafel or meaty kabobs. As that garlic begins to seep into your pores, so does the charmingly tidy dining space that oozes comfort from wall murals of colorful sunsets. Yasmine’s menu is vast, from dips and salads (don’t miss the Jerusalem Salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and tahini) to both meat and vegetarian combos galore. Finish off that shawarma plate (my favorite here is chicken) or anything else with a potent Turkish coffee. Inky black and super-sweet. Dessert? Nah.
Yasmine’s Café, 1600 E Central Ave., 505.242.1980
Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery
Many fans of Middle Eastern restaurants, due to some eggplant-related trauma in their past, choose hummus over baba ghanouj every chance they get. Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery, right across from UNM on Central, has baba ghanouj so good it’s almost like going to therapy. The eggplant is char-grilled (always a good start, as we New Mexicans know from our chile habit), then pureed and blended with tahini, lemon and garlic. The flavors are simple and clean and oh-so-good. The newly revised menu only gets more interesting after appetizers are served; the Lebanese Plate has one each of meatball and chicken kabobs, plated up with yogurt cucumber salad, tabouli, rice and pita bread. The owners are happy to suggest dishes for customers both new and seasoned—let them guide you to something wonderful, but only if you save room for a little something sweet.
Story by Andrea Feucht. Photo by Gabriella Marks.