Edward: Garlic scapes. What are they. The unknown. Terrifying!
But no! They’re just the flower stalk of the garlic plant, usually seen at farmer’s markets around the beginning of the season. They’re quite lovely — gracefully curled, like extra-long green beans, deep green turning yellowish approaching the flower.
The stalk is firm, with a snap — like green beans. The flavor is…well, garlicky. To me it’s sort of analogous to green onions, in that they have a definite garlic flavor, but with a green, herby overtone. Also fairly spicy. I was expecting something more mellow, but these actually pack a punch.
The first thing we made with these is garlic scape pesto, using the Saveur recipe. This recipe uses salted, roasted cashews. Some use almonds or pine nuts. Hannah figured the cashews would make for a creamier pesto, so we went with cashews.
I started off by separating the flower tips from the scapes. It’s probably optimal to just snap them off with your fingers, like with asparagus stalks, but I used a knife, for no particular reason other than that I was feeling shivvy. (We’re saving these flower ends in some water to see if they open up.)
That done, you set about chopping up the scapes. The Saveur recipe calls for 1 cup of “finely chopped” scapes, so I went about chop-chopping.
These guys are tricky to chop, not because of texture/thickness but because the hard little pieces go rolling everywhere. I was getting a little irritated, but then Hannah pointed out that it was all going into the food processor anyway, so why bother chopping them into teeny pieces? What a fountain of wisdom is Hannah!
And here I must brag on myself a little bit. Check out my awesome spatial estimating powers (third photo from top). I grabbed what I figured would end up about a cup of scapes, and sure enough, it came to one cup (minus a few pieces that as far as I know are still somewhere on the kitchen floor). SUPERSPATIALESTIMATOR
So then you get your other ingredients together. This recipe has four ingredients plus salt and pepper. You can’t get much simpler than this!
You got your 1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan — I don’t have to tell you not to use the green can, right?
Your roasted, salted cashews. PROTIP: buy these in bulk at your local natural-ish grocery. We got these at Sprouts, where they had cashew pieces in bulk for considerably cheaper than whole cashews.
You put everything into a food processor, add a little salt and pepper, and away we go! Taste it and season accordingly. I ended up using a few shakes of sea salt, a bit of black pepper (not that much, really, since it’s a bit spicy to begin with), and adding a little lemon juice to brighten up the flavor.
You can use this pesto with pretty much anything you do with pesto. Last night I baked some Mahi-mahi fillets (15-20 min at 375) that I had topped with pesto and thin slices of lemon. Delicious! We also put this in an omelette with sliced fresh mozzarella. Magnifico!
It freezes well, too. Hannan & Edward say check it out at your local farmer’s market this weekend!
[NOTE: We forgot to mention in our review that all the courses (except the lobster pappardelle and the cake) were served family style. The dishes you see in the photos are five portions. --Edward]
Edward: Honey, sometimes I feel like we’re just the media outlet of Torinos @ Home!
Hannah: I will be DEAD HONEST here…I feel that way too. Like, this isn’t supposed to be the Torinos blog, because that would be crazy…right…?
However, the chance that we have eaten well is significantly higher when Torinos is involved.
So, whatever whatever.
Edward: But I think part of it is that people who like Torinos, really, really like Torinos, and want to support them. We’re not the only ones!
Edward: So, for instance, the special dinners they have — almost everyone who attends them is a regular. I’m starting to recognize the same faces each time. And these people — us — we have a special affection for Torinos.
Because it’s basically a mom ‘n’ pop restaurant, as Chef Maxime said last night, but it offers some of the best food in the city.
Even though I am a stone cold cynic about many many things…last night I realized what a gem we have in Torinos in ABQ, and how lucky the city is…and most people don’t even know it,
Edward: But I guess that’s what it is that makes people so evangelistic about Torinos — it’s the kind of restaurant you want people to know about!
Hannah: Wait, there’s something else I want to say….
It’s not perfect. Torinos @ Home is a family restaurant, and it’s not trying to be classical fine dining, or anything other than what it is. It’s real people and real people aren’t perfect. However, I’ve never been somewhere where the people behind it were so very passionate.
I think that’s what makes it special. Even if the service is off, or the dish isn’t what you expected, it’s still better than so much out there.
Edward: Isn’t that strange? I haven’t seen any restaurant inspire such passionate loyalty. I think it’s what you’re saying: we’re lucky to have Torinos because it’s kind of an anomaly in this city — a restaurant that serves food on the level of fine dining, but it’s completely unpretentious and casual. I can’t think of another restaurant like that in Albuquerque.
Hannah: OK, enough evangelizing…now the fooooood!!!
Edward: For those just tuning in, Torinos has started doing special dinners every once in a while, like wine pairing dinners and special occasion dinners. Last night was a special birthday celebration dinner, both for Chef Max and Torinos itself, which opened on Maxime’s birthday and is three years old!
Hannah: (Spoiler: IT WAS SO SO SO GOOD)
(Side note: Torinos opened in ABQ three years ago– existed in Santa Fe before that.)
The first part which was antipasti and fritto misti was served in three parts. Right?
Edward: Right. There was a fried ravioli with — pecorino romano?
Chickpea fries… < -- THE AWESOME
Antipasto platter with tuna salad on a roasted pepper, and grilled veg...
Proscuitto and speck ham...
Hannah: And calamari. Which we can call it because: ITALIAN!
Edward: They’re allowed to call it calamari. Everyone else: squid.
Or appropriate terminology based on your native language.
But the calamari — beautifully crisp YET tender, perfectly cooked.
Also, can I just say something about the tuna?
Hannah: Um, is it “THIS IS THE BEST TUNA”? Or not?
Edward: The tuna salad epitomizes Torinos…you tell someone “tuna salad” and they think, yeah, so? But they don’t get it, Yes, it is technically “just” tuna salad. However, it is THE ABSOLUTE PERFECT TUNA SALAD.
Hannah: No. It really is. That beautiful tonno on a wee boat of roasted red pepper? Come ON.
Edward: You think, ohhhh, OK I get it now. I thought I was eating tuna salad before, but I was not. This is actually tuna salad. I’m not sure what it was I used to eat. Perhaps some kind of gutter scrapings.
Cured meats, tonno, grilled veg, calamari, baccalao. I neglected to get a pic of the baccalo because I was too busy getting in on my plate and into my gullet.
Edward: Indeed. Baccalao is something I had not tried before Torinos — if this is what it is, I am a fan!
We love their cured meats. I’m always very happy when I’m tasting the prosciutto.
Hannah: Was it pecorino in the ravioli? Or ricotta salata?
Edward: I thought Daniela said it was pecorino, but she could have been talking about something else. [NOTE: According to the menu, it was pecorino.]
Hannah: That little fried ravioli…I squeezed some lemon on it and it was sublime.
And chickpea fries!
Edward: The chickpea fries — are they just a chickpea flour batter that’s chilled and then cut into strips and fried?
Hannah: Yes. Ground chickpea cooked like polenta…
Served to me…
In a quantity so shockingly small…
Edward: These dinners are always a life lesson for me about quality over quantity. Each of the courses does not satisfy me, insofar as I would prefer a portion size equal to a gigantic trough or wheelbarrow of each dish. They are all gone way too soon. By the end of the evening, however, I am somehow totally stuffed and completely sated.
Hannah: Yes. I didn’t know what was coming when I ate those chickpea fries.
(Spoiler: SO SO SO GOOD)
Edward: They’re so creamy inside, but have a nice crust on the outside. And just a really nice clean flavor.
Hannah: OK. Now we’re about to get serious, with the first of the “real” courses.
Hannah: BEEF CHEEKS MCGILLICUDY
Edward: That’s the actual Italian name of that dish.
Beef Cheeks Rotolo!
Hannah: I kid because I love.
Edward: LOVE THIS DISH
Hannah: I really really love.
Edward: So good.
Hannah: It rotolo’d me right over!
Hannah: OK listen: I know many many people love their braised brisket agnolotti. But I’m not a lover of braised meats…usually.
Edward: Me either.
Hannah: So when people praise that brisket, I just nod in polite agreement. And that’s what I was expecting with this dish.
How-EVER. I was completely wrong. This rolled, baked pasta with braised beef cheeks and two kinds of Italian cheese…ungh.
Edward: What made it different for you? From other braised meats.
Hannah: The tenderness of the beef wasn’t….I dont know…stewy or something. It was clearly tender meat in the first place. The pasta was perfect.
Edward: Oh, so it wasn’t tenderized tough meat like braised meat usually is, but a cut that’s already pretty tender. So maybe it didn’t need so much cooking, so it didn’t get that kind of dullish flavor that slow-cooked meat sometimes has? I don’t know how to describe it, but less-cooked beef and more-cooked beef taste very different. I mean just in terms of flavor (obviously, the texture is different).
Hannah: Yes, I agree. But for many people, slow cooked meat is where it’s at! And for me, in some cases! But usually not beef. So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I loved that rotolo.
Edward: It’s actually Torinos that has turned me around on slow cooked meat. The first time I tried their duck confit, it was worlds away from what I thought it would be.
Hannah: Oh. Yes, you’re completely correct. When I go there and don’t eat the duck confit, I feel a little sad.
Honey, a side note: this post (and this weblog) is for people who gasp when they eat something delicious. Who miss duck confit, who feel near tears when they taste a perfectly ripe strawberry in a cake like you’ve never had a strawberry before in your life. Those are our people. Not everyone is like that, which is weird to me, but I accept that human variation is a fact.
So I want no guff.
Edward: Side note to your side note: I agree!
Hannah: That’s why we’re wed.
Edward: Hey, back to “rotolo” — is there a term for a word that evokes the thing it’s describing, but from the actual physical shapes of the letters, not the sound (onomatopoeia)?
Hannah: Dude. That kind of question is maddening.
Hannah: OK, beef cheeks = the best thing so far.
Until the next thing….
Hannah: Wikipedia told me that the name derives from the verb “pappare,” to gobble up.
Uh, yeah. I would have eaten the **** out of about everyone else’s bowl in my vicinity.
Edward: Gobbling occurred, yes.
Hannah: It was…ungh.
A. Perfect pasta is a joy forever.
B. Sweet lobster.
C. Some kind of brown sauce.
Why, honey. Why am I not eating that right now?
Edward: All decorum was abandoned when it came to that lobster. I started out just trying to daintily pick out the lobster meat, but eventually I just picked it up and gnawed at it like a starving castaway.
Nothing about that dish wasn’t awesome. This is an example of the “why can’t I just eat a trough of this?” idea I mentioned earlier.
Hannah: Here’s the secret to this dish, I think: it wasn’t little pieces of lobster mixed in some pasta. It was a hunk of lobster in its shell, with its little legs still attached (sorry lobby, thanks for your sacrifice), perfectly cooked on top of some crazy good pasta.
And yes, you had to dig that biz out.
Edward: Yeah, so it wasn’t all just a big bowl of food, but it was separate pasta and lobster that each had their own thing going on, and all tied together by that gravy.
Hannah: That gravy.
Edward: Remember the lobster bisque we had that other time? The gravy kind of reminded me of that.
We haven’t talked about the wine pairings, which were awesome, but none more than the upcoming dish: pollo al limone, paired with a rosé. Was a revelation!
Edward: Yeah, it was all right…WHAT IT WAS DELICIOUS
Hannah: The lemony chicken and preserved lemon slices and Niçoise olives…a wine needs to be able to stand up to that lemon! And I was surprised how perfectly that rosé balanced in my mouth.
Edward: That’s another one of those dishes where it’s not normally something I crave — a braised chicken — but it’s just so beautifully prepared that it’s totally not like what I expect and is completely delicious.
Hannah: Yes, although I’ve gotta say that the poor chicken had some hard acts to follow. It was lovely, but those pasta dishes….
Edward: Yes, the pasta dishes reigned supreme. BUT, this lemony chicken was great. I thought it might be super sour, but it really just was more like intense lemon essence, a little tangines, then you get the salty olives that balance it all out.
Hannah: And the meat was so moist.
Edward: Another great thing about that dish is that I thought we were done with the savory courses after the lobster pasta, so I was all sad, but then hey! Bonus dish!
And last but not least:
only the best cake
what the hell
Hannah: I mean really. Maxime was standing behind me explaining all the parts of the cake to someone else
Edward: To: All Other Cakes
You are #2 or lower.
Hannah: and I couldn’t even pay attention because my ears were…like…all parts of my head were focused on what was happening in my mouth. And I don’t even like strawberry stuff all that much.
Edward: Yeah, I know a food is really special when I find myself eating it in tiny little bites to make it last.
Edward: Something about the textures, the subtle flavors…it was NOT too sweet. Most restaurant desserts are sugar bombs. This was really delicate and just a little sweet, so you could taste all the other flavors.
Hannah: Honey…. let’s wrap up. I’ll make my closing argument.
Hannah: If, person, you are in Albuquerque and haven’t yet gone to a special event at Torinos, then I contend you haven’t experienced it at its best. It is So. Fun.
The next one is in July. Watch for it.
I REST MY CASE.
I will comment briefly on your closing argument, then I will make my closing argument, then a brief side note.
Hannah: Tell us what you’ll tell us, tell us, tell us what you told us.
Edward: I agree with your statement. If you have not been to Torinos, I think the special dinners are a great way to get to know what Torinos offers — to get to know Daniela, Maxime, their food, the spirit of their hospitality. The wine flows, the atmosphere is relaxed and fun, and you leave feeling like you’ve had a real experience.
MY CLOSING ARGUMENT
When we lived in Las Vegas, our favorite restaurant was Rosemary’s. A fine dining restaurant, but with nothing snooty about it…they didn’t hit you over the head trying to impress you. They were just quietly awesome at what they did, and let the food and service speak for themselves. It was a neighborhood restaurant in a nondescript strip mall — not the trendiest or flashiest restaurant in Vegas by far, but one of the very best for people who love good food.
Torinos is like that for me. Seeing Daniela’s energy level and the work she puts into running the place makes me have to sit down and take a rest on her behalf. I have no idea what it is Chef Maxime does back there in the kitchen — some form of sorcery or dark magicks, I assume1 — but he puts food together in a way that takes me back to my childhood in Northern Italy…AND I AM NOT FROM NORTHERN ITALY.
I can’t put it better than Gil does in his tribute, so I’ll just point you there. All I can say is, here’s a place run by a passionate couple who take fierce pride in what they do, and have the talent and work ethic to justify that pride. It’s a place run by people, not some investment group, and you can feel their heart and soul in everything they do. I felt as welcome the first time I stepped through their doors as I did last night.
I’m definitely no culinary expert — just someone who lives for that special plate of food that causes me to make strange moaning and humming noises when I eat it. Food that is so good it actually makes me ANGRY for some reason. That’s what I get from Torinos and why I’m such a fan, and why I regularly encounter other people who are just as blown away. If I could afford it I would eat there almost every night. I say almost because sometimes I’ve gotta have the red chile.
The hyperbole and the evangelizing are just something that happens when you dine at Torinos and you’re the kind of person who can appreciate what you’re experiencing. I’m pretty sure every diner in the place last night was gushing as shamelessly as I am now over their meal and how fun the evening was, and that’s pretty cool.
END OF CLOSING ARGUMENT
Oh, my side note is that the dinner was a community table, and the courses were served family style. I have not been to a community table dinner before, so (as an introverted, quiet person) I had some trepidation, but it turned out to be loads of fun.
Our table companions were terrific company, and I think what made it so pleasant was that, even though we were all strangers, we had our love of Torinos in common. So it was kind of like a meeting of the Torinos Fan Club. “I don’t know you, but I recognize you as a member of my tribe.”
Hannah: Yes, exactly! Plus, our dining companions were very charming!
Edward: We tend to be shy with new people, so I’m glad our companions kept things interesting!
Oh, also: one topic of table conversation was that the beef cheeks rotolo should totally become a regular menu item. So let me put that out there and voice my FULL THROATED SUPPORT for that measure!
Hannah: Honey, I declare that Once Again….
Edward: Had a terrific lunch at Torinos on Thursday — squid ink tagliatelle with mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari. Pasta: delicious. Broth: delicious. Seafood: perfectly cooked. CAN RECOMMEND.
A quick plug for our favorite restaurant: Torinos is celebrating its 3rd birthday on Thursday, May 23rd (which is also Chef Maxime’s birthday) with a special community table dinner. Five courses, each paired with different wines. The lineup:
Antipasto Platter: prosciutto, speck, salame, grilled eggplant, grilled zucchini, bell peppers tonnato, fried pecorino romano ravioli, garbanzo bean fries, bacalao, fried calamari
Wines: Chianti “Il Vescovado” and Chenin Blanc from Gruet Winery
Beef Cheeks Rotolo: hand made rolled pasta with braised beef cheeks, topped wth red wine sauce and gratinee parmigiano
Wine: Prine Rosso from Puglia
Lobster Pappardelle: hand made pasta served with lobster
Wine: Pinot Grigio “Conti delle Venezie”
Pollo al Limone: braised chicken with olive niçoises and lemon
Wine: “Whispering Angel” Rosé
Edward: Before the doors closed on Milton’s Restaurant in 2012, it was one of our go-to breakfast spots. Their breakfast menu was pretty basic, nothing fancy, but it was consistently well prepared and the service was also consistently good. It was a little divey, but we loved the down ‘n’ out ambiance of this old-school diner. The fact that we were willing to drive five miles to Milton’s on a Saturday morning while nursing hangovers says a lot. So, it was pretty heartbreaking to learn that Milton’s had closed down.
I had heard that Milton’s was going to reopen at a new location at some point, but I didn’t know where or when. So when I saw the above sign while driving past a little office park in our neighborhood, I almost swerved onto the sidewalk. I immediately turned into the parking lot and did some investigative journalism. The contractors working on the interior confirmed that, yes, this was “the” Milton’s, and that it would be opening in a few months.
Hannah and I are pretty stoked — not only is Milton’s finally coming back, but it’ll be within walking distance of our house! I’m curious to know what form Milton’s Mark II will take. It won’t have the same charm in this sterile new location, but I’m hoping the food and service will still be as good as it was.
The last time I drove past it, a couple of days ago, there were still sheets over the windows, so I don’t know how close they are to opening. Cannot be soon enough for me.
Edward: Every neighborhood has that one cursed location, where seemingly every few months a new restaurant opens and briefly flowers, only to be found, weeks later, doors locked and emptied out, usually without warning and sometimes with a terse explanatory note taped to the door. A location that, because of some mysterious ill-starred confluence of deadly factors, becomes known to locals as the place where dreams of prosperity come to die.
Case in point: the building at 10131 Coors Boulevard, next door to the Teriyaki Chicken Bowl in the Alameda West shopping center (the one with the Jo-Ann’s, Marshall’s, Albertson’s), that has been a steadily revolving door for hopeful restaurateurs over the past few years. When I started working in the area, I dimly recall it being a mariscos restaurant, that very shortly went out of business.
After that came the late, lamented Hakata Asian Cuisine, a great idea (pan-Asian specializing in charcoal-grilled yakitori) torpedoed by a combination of iffy location, uneven execution, and prices that kept at least this lunchtime diner from frequenting the place. Hakata had some shortcomings, but it was one of very few quality Asian restaurants in that area, so when it abruptly vacated last spring, I wept bitterly, albeit only figuratively.
I’m not sure when it happened, but one afternoon a few weeks ago I was headed into Albertson’s when I espied a change in signage at the erstwhile Hakata buiding. Naturally, I suspended my grocery plans and hustled over to see what was up. “Chinese Gourmet Express,” eh? The building was empty, but I resolved to keep an eye out for developments.
So, today I drove past the place, and found it festooned with streamers and balloons. A good sign vis-à-vis openage! I decided to check it out.
I had no idea what to expect, but the sign did suggest that it would be more towards the Panda Express end of the Chinese food spectrum than the Budai. Inside: immaculate, well-lit. Hakata’s dark wooden bar and pub atmosphere was replaced by a steam table counter manned by a cheerful Chinese lady. I studied their to-go menu — apparently the only kind available — and saw that they offer made-to-order Chinese dishes in addition to the fast food counter.
Being in a hurry, I decided to try the fast food, figuring I’d get a sense of their baseline before sampling the regular menu (I would have just ordered the Mongolian Beef, natch). The one-item combo is $3.95 and comes with fried rice and chow mein. There’s also a two-item combo for $5.25, with additional items a dollar each. I got the two-item combo, with Orange Chicken and BBQ Pork, mixed fried rice and noodles. A side of egg rolls set me back a couple more dollars.
There’s a scene near the end of Boogie Nights, after the shot-on-film 70s flicks with artistic pretentions have been replaced by cheapo video, where the porn cinematographer played by Ricky Jay is editing a scene shot on VHS. Ricky looks up from the crappy footage on the video screen and mutters, with dead-eyed resignation, “It is what it is.”
What can I say. Chinese steam table fast food: it is what it is. Which isn’t in any way a knock on Golden Star in particular. For what it is, it actually is not bad. The entrees, which are your standard fare, including Sweet & Sour Chicken, Kung Pao, Pepper Beef, etc., all looked fresh, and are put out in small batches so it’s replenished more often.
As for the two entrees I chose, the Orange Chicken was a good rendition of fast food Orange Chicken — yes, the sauce was candy-sweet, but it still had a good crunch to it and wasn’t over- or under-cooked. The BBQ Pork was above average for what you normally get, surprisingly not all that sweet, with some nice char on the outside.
The egg rolls were OK, chewy and a little tough, but with a good filling and overall not bad. The pinkish sauce was your standard sweet & sour. The fried rice and noodles were not good, but no worse than what you usually get with a Chinese lunch combo. Definitely not your first-string rice and noodles, but not the worst examples of the form, by far.
I’m not going to lie, the lunch counter examples of the food here is not great Chinese food, which I think even the owners would admit. On the other hand, it’s not meant to be great Chinese food, merely decent fast food quality Chinese at a decent price. By that standard, I think Golden Star does well. It’s a chain, but a regional chain and perfectly acceptable if you’re not looking for gourmet quality (despite what it says on the sign). Can recommend (as qualified above), will return for the regular menu.
I wouldn’t want to bet on the survival probability of Golden Star in this difficult location, but I wish them luck (they’ll need it). Aside from Chin Shan, a fair ways down Coors from here, I don’t know of any other Chinese restaurant in this neighborhood that’s really worth the miles or the money. (Of the two nearby places I’m thinking of, one is way overpriced for what you get, and the other is sub-edible and should be closed down by the health department — permanently, I mean, and not just occasionally.) If you’re looking for a fast, inexpensive Chinese lunch that offers fresh, decent food, skip Panda Express and hit up Golden Star.
Edward: I thought I’d try out a new thing called “Quick Bite,” where I eat at a place but for one reason or another I don’t really want to do a proper review so much as give some quick impressions, that may or may not have any accompanying photos. INNOVATION
Why this is not a proper review: whenever I visit a Chinese restaurant for the first time, I almost always order the same lone dish, to get a feel for the place and to see if they do this dish the way I like it. That dish is Mongolian Beef. It’s pretty much my favorite thing to get at a Chinese restaurant, but only if it’s made in a very particular style.
The perfect Mongolian Beef, for me, looks like this. Wok-seared slices of beef, and when I say seared, I really mean seared, not just sauteed. Lightly tossed — not drowned — in a moderately sweet, salty sauce. Scallions mostly, some onion. Served on a bed of crispy fried cellophane noodles. The last time I found the Platonic ideal of this dish was in 1994, at a Chinese restaurant, the name of which is unfortunately forever lost in the tar pit of my memories, in the middle of a business park in Bellevue, Washington. At the time I was working as a temporary peon in the bowels of a gargantuan cellular phone company, and on my lunch breaks I ate this Mongolian Beef as often as I could afford it. It’s possible that the brief reprieve from 8 hours a day sitting in a cubicle being berated over the phone while a disapproving supervisor glared over my shoulder was what made that dish so succulent and sweet.
Unfortunately, I almost never get the dish the way I like it. Typically, the Mongolian Beef I get is lightly sauteed beef swimming in a sweet brown soup, mostly onion, and no cellophane noodles. It’s so different to the dish I love that I’m positive that they’re either two different regional styles with the same name, or a dish that comes out the way I like it because it’s prepared by someone not Chinese (many Chinese restaurants are Korean-owned, for instance). I’ve tried researching this with no luck. The closest thing I’ve found in Albuquerque to what I’m looking for is at Pei Wei, but their dish is so sickeningly sweet that I don’t eat it unless it’s right there or I’m going through a bad patch in life and caught in a death spiral of self-loathing and Weltschmerz.
So, I won’t call this a review because I just got the one standard dish I always get, and it may not be — probably isn’t — representative of what the restaurant does well. In the case of Chin Shan, unfortunately the Mongolian Beef is pretty much the usual. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I’m looking/hoping for. It’s OK. The beef is tender, the sauce isn’t overly sweet, and the veg is well prepared. It’s just not “my” Mongolian Beef. That’s OK. I don’t hold it against them.
I’m kind of sorry that I have this rigid Mongolian Beef rule with new Chinese restaurants, because Chin Shan has a lengthy menu (the one linked from their website only displays part of what they actually offer), with some dishes I don’t see in most of your standard-issue Chinese restaurants in this town. Stuff like Clay Pot Stewed Beef, or Shrimp/Scallops with XO Sauce. Although it didn’t pass my standard test (but then, neither did Budai, one of the best Chinese places in Albuquerque, so I guess it’s not really much of a test), I’m definitely coming back.
Edward: Back when I did my Alameda Lunch Rush shootout, I wasn’t especially impressed by the burger at Lumpy’s. Here’s what I said about it at the time:
The patty is where this burger lets me down. The burgers may be made fresh to order, but the patties don’t taste freshly formed. They may be, but something about the preparation makes them come out tasting not much different from burgers made from frozen pre-formed discs. The meat is bland and a little mealy tasting.
I did, however, vow to go back and give Lumpy’s a second chance. Did my opinion improve this time around?
Answer: yes — mostly. The burger patties did taste better this time. They were flavorful and juicy. Didn’t get that weird mealiness. Overall, not bad. I guess last time either my taste buds were out of whack, or they had a bad batch of ground meat.
Oddly, on this visit it was the bun that I found off-putting. I’m pretty sure it’s the same Kaiser bun, with a nice light, fluffy texture, but I found it way too bready this time. I had to kind of mash it down to keep from feeling like I was getting gigantic bites of bread. I think I’d like this bun better if it had a good toasting on the grill, and got flattened some. It’s the kind of bun that really wants to soak up some juices, but these burgers aren’t really juicy enough to do the trick.
Still and all, Lumpy’s did redeem itself on this visit as a “can recommend” lunch spot. Friendly service, lots of customization options, and a comfortable atmosphere.
As we finish out 2012 and our first year of WHEW, Hannah and I just want to express our gratitude to everyone who has visited, commented and supported our wee blog over the past few months. It’s been an absolute blast!
Special appreciation goes out to Gil Garduño, the Godfather of Albuquerque food blogging and the man with the multitudinous agglomeration of mellifluous morphemes! Almost from our first post, Gil — whose review site is pretty much the definitive guide to Albuquerque dining — has been so generous with his praise and support, and since we’ve been regular readers and fans of his site since we moved (back) to Albuquerque several years ago, we’ve been delighted to an unseemly degree to enjoy the stamp of his approval. (WHEW also got a nod in Gil’s year-end wrapup!)
And of course, we salute all of the staff and owners of the excellent restaurants H and I have reviewed here this year, for the work you devote day in and day out to giving your customers a great dining experience. Thanks to you, we have eaten very well in 2012 indeed!
Torinos most recent wine pairing dinner was on my birthday night!
Hannah: No, I’m pretending like this is still my birthday.
Edward: Happy Birthday!
Hannah: So, I was very lucky enough to have a special dinner for my birthday. And it was special!
Edward: This was Torinos second wine pairing dinner, and would you agree it was even better than the first?
Hannah: Yes I would. I feel like it ran nice and smooth, was well-paced, and the food was phenomenal.
Although I think I preferred the wines from the first dinner. I think this time the food was so good it outperformed the wines.
Edward: The courses are all small plates, but I still left pretty stuffed!
Hannah: Oh most definitely. If you eat nice and slow and take your time enjoying it, weirdly you get full on much much less food! Who’da thunk?
The first course was a Lobster Mille-Feuille with Citrus and a Vanilla Emulsion.
I’ve eaten a lot of foods in my long life so far.
And there’s not many times I can say “I’ve never tasted anything like that,” and have it be a pleasant experience. I mean, I just feel like I’ve tried what’s good, you know?
But that dish….I’d never tasted anything like it, ever, and it was strange and interesting and good!!
Edward: You’re right — it was unlike anything I’ve had before, and without any strange or unfamiliar ingredients! And just to clarify, the Mille-Feuille wasn’t a sweet dish. It was basically just a puff pastry on top of some chunks of sweet, chilled lobster, and citrus slices in the vanilla emulsion. A very simple dish, but such a perfect, interesting combination of ingredients.
What I liked about it is that it wasn’t a complicated or fussy preparation. Just a few elements that were all perfectly done and well balanced.
And everything kind of worked together to bring out the flavor of each thing. The sweetness of the citrus brought out the sweetness of the lobster, and the citrus acid balanced out the lobster’s butteriness.
Hannah: And the lobster’s butteriness melded with the pastry’s butteriness.
Yes, a fine start, very fine. Refreshing and a signal to the palate to wake up!
And good to wake up the palate for the next dish….
What did you think of the wine with this course? It was a 2010 Vernaccia Di San Gimignano, a white. I thought it was OK — pleasant, fairly dry.
Hannah: I probably wont’ be able to speak to the wines very much…I didn’t find anything unpleasant, but I wasn’t concentrating on them other than how well they went with the food, which I think they all did….
Not a very good review of a “wine pairing” dinner, but I’m thinking of it more as “Hannah’s Birthday.”
The pork terrine that came next was so tremendous.
Edward: The second course was a Juniper Pork Terrine, paired with the Case Ibidini Nero D’Avola, that was just awesome all the way around.
Hannah: I heard Daniela say that she was going to have a slice for breakfast on a buttered baguette, and I was so very jealous.
Edward: Totally dude.
Hannah: But I also heard her talking about how labor-intensive that dish was, that he’s not going to make it very often.
Edward: I wouldst have, like a buttered baguette…by which I mean, A BAGUETTE…with that terrine.
Hannah: Uh, yeah. A longue baguette.
Edward: What I thought was interesting about that course is that it was the first time the actual food-wine pairing really hit me.
The terrine was yummy, but eaten with the wine it brought out the flavor in a big way — not just of the terrine but also the wine.
Hannah: Yes, both intensely flavored, got somehow rounded out by each other!
Edward: I was impressed by that. I’m not a big wine guy, but I do enjoy wine with a good meal occasionally, and although I’ve obviously had meals where I had good food and good wine that went well together, I don’t think I’ve experienced a dramatic transformation like that.
Hannah: The only thing that stopped me from being super sad when I finished that dish is that I knew more courses were coming.
Edward: Ha! And indeed they were! Next up was the Beef Involtini with Porcini, Chestnut Gnocchi, and Cannelini Bean Puree.
Hannah: This was my favorite. This dish was like eating the earth, but not gross.
Edward: “Eating the earth” doesn’t sound that appetizing, but damn, that was one earthy dish! Nothing about it was not EARTHY and HEARTY.
Hannah: It was like eating the winter bounty. The beef was wrapped around a forcemeat or puree w/more beef and mushrooms. The sauce was intense umami. The bean puree was pure earthiness, as were the chestnut gnocchi, which were so soft.
Edward: It should just be called UMAMI TORNADO
Hannah: Oh man, I wouldst eat that some more.
Edward: It was just so hearty and satisfying on a chilly evening. And I thought it was interesting to contrast this with the first course — the first one being a balance of different tastes, and this one being more like variations of a theme.
Hannah: Ah, good insight! I’m just sitting here thinking MOAR PLZ
Hannah: You know, that pork terrine on crostini with juniper and aspic was also very foresty, but not as earthy. It was like eating the woods, but not gross.
Edward: But also, the first course was like, essences of specific ingredients. This one was more like, “I don’t know what the hell Chef Maxime did to this, but it’s incredible.”
Interesting — do you think it was a deliberate progression, like, first the trees (fruit), then the forest floor (juniper), then the earth (mushrooms)?
Hannah: The first course could be the sea, also. I think it was variations on nature — because the last course was iced hazelnut nougatine right? Nuts: a different kind of fruit!
But maybe all delicious food is variations on nature? No no, I don’t think that. Sometimes nature is changed/subdued/processed so much you can’t recognize it. But in these courses it was the star!
Edward: So now we come to the worst course of the evening — worst because it was the last!
Why must it end? Why can’t it just dissolve into a crazed Roman bacchanal where we’re served courses and courses of delicacies until we vomit!
I liked that last course, it was small and not too heavy, but it had some hard acts to follow, so I don’t know that I can give it super top marks. I think it did its job.
Edward: It was tasty, a kind of cake of ground hazelnuts, with a little sabayon and orange sauce. Not too sweet — also pretty earthy. A good winter dessert.
Hannah: Well, it was in the shape of a little cake, but remember it was cold? It was iced nougatine, which is like caramelized sugar and ground nuts…and egg whites, I guess. We don’t know how to make nougatine! Only eat it!
Edward: Indeed! Oh, and there was a little bonus at the end of a wee truffle.
Hannah: Oh, yes! And that last wine was nice, a sparkling rose!
Edward: Yeah, it was very pleasant — and not too sweet! (I guess I like things to be not too sweet.)
Honey, thanks for such a nice birthday dinner! It was very special!
Edward: I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Let’s not forget to mention the Q&A that Chef Maxime did after the meal.
Hannah: That was awesome!
Edward: Daniela passed out pieces of paper before hand to each table, for diners to write down questions. Then the chef came out and answered the questions! It was nice — we got to express our appreciation to the chef, and also learned some interesting facts about the dishes.
The evening was a lot of fun all around.
Edward: And really, a terrific deal at $55 + 20% gratuity for such an enjoyable experience.
Edward: Daniela says it’s all regulars who come to these — it feels like a Fan Appreciation Night!
And by the way it’s nice to know that we’re not even the most hardcore fans of Torinos.
Hannah: But is it nice? Is it?
Hannah: Well, as usual at Torinos@Home, we ate very very well.
Edward: WE ATE NICELY
Hannah: indeed. Did you want to mention next Monday’s event?
Edward: A while back, I lamented the absence of good lunch options around where I work (the area around the Cottonwood Mall). It’s not so much that there aren’t any places to eat as that the choices are mostly dine-in restaurants (most of which are lame chains like Red Robin) or fast food. What’s a white-collar peon in the Paradise Hills area to do when he’s got an hour for lunch but wants something a little further up the foodservice chain than McDonald’s?
The Lunch Rush Gods must have heard my lamentations, because, over the past couple of months, not only has Urban Hotdog Company rolled into the neighborhood, but a couple of fast-casual spots have set up shops as well. So I figured I’d provide some incredibly narrowly focused public service, and do a quick shootout between three of the recent arrivals.
NOTE: Two of these three are national chains; Hannah and I believe in spending our energies spotlighting local establishments, but out here in the culinary wilderness, I’ve gotta take what I can get. There are some local eateries in the area, which I plan to get to eventually.
FIVE GUYS BURGERS & FRIES
(Sorry about the crappy photo, but this is I guess what Five Guys would look like at lunchtime, so there’s some verité going for me here.)
Five Guys is an massively popular national burger chain, and they certainly have an attractive setup. The menu is pretty simple — mostly just burgers and hot dogs, with a welcome nod to non-meat-eaters with grilled cheese and veggie sandwiches — but the major draw is the ability to custom-build your food with a sizable array of ingredients, like A-1 Sauce.
The interior vibe is very much “old-fashioned diner,” with plenty of that insane cheerfulness that’s apparently mandatory for all upscale fast food joints now. You order at one end of the counter and wait through a lot of shouting before picking your food up at the other end. Those in the know, however, order online at their website or via iOS/Android app.
Ordering online is a godsend for the busy peon on the go. You can put together your order at your leisure, and at least on the iOS app you can store your credit card info, so you can pay right from your phone. Then you go in and bypass the long line and pick up your food from a register dedicated to online/phone orders.
One thing to keep in mind if you’ve never experienced Five Guys before is that the concept here is very much about BIG FOOD for people who want to EAT A LOT OF FOOD. People complain about the prices — my fairly standard cheeseburger/fries/soda came to about $12 — but keep in mind that their standard “hamburger” is other places’ “double meat hamburger.” The regular burger is a double, and the single burger is the “Little Hamburger.” It’s a genius concept, since most customers at burger joints will just order the cheeseburger or whatever, and upsize if they’re especially hungry — but here, you have to downsize to the “normal” burger.
So, how’s the burger? It’s OK. Some people love it; I like it, but I don’t love it. The extreme customizability is probably the best thing about it. The burger patties are juicy and thick and usually nicely charred around the edges. But I find them a little bland. You may be tempted to go crazy with toppings, but I think it’s a mistake — it makes for a crowded, soggy mess. As a burger fan, I like to actually taste the hamburger. If you’re familiar with the In-N-Out burger chain, this burger is pretty similar. It’s pretty fresh-tasting (one of their selling points is that they don’t have freezers at their locations — everything is fresh), clearly a quality product. But to my tastes, lacking in flavor, even with your zestier toppings. The bun is pretty generic, and the cheese, while plentiful somehow manages to be practically nonexistent in flavor.
As with the burger, let the buyer beware when ordering fries. Order the “regular” fries and you get more than a basket of fries at most places. Ordering the “large” fries results in a tsunami of potato product that should not be consumed by any single person in one sitting. The fries come plain or “Cajun” flavored, and are of the fresh-but-limp variety. Crispy fry lovers will find no joy here. But if you’re a fan of the softer fry, you’ll probably enjoy these. And in addition to the standard ketchup, they keep bottles of malt vinegar at the counter, which is a nice touch.
Lumpy’s opened up a few months ago in the area. I’m not sure if this is a second location for this popular local burger joint, or just a move, since I no longer see the Central Ave. location listed on their website. (Well done, by the way, on the website, which stands apart from many restaurant sites in that it ACTUALLY LISTS THEIR HOURS OF OPERATION ON THE FRONT — and every — PAGE.) As to the interior vibe…if Five Guys is a faux-diner-style burger joint, Lumpy’s is a faux-dive-style burger joint. Different genres, but fairly similar in many respects. Lumpy’s goes for what I can only describe as a polished downscale quirkiness.
There are a couple of fun — or rather, one fun and one questionable — gimmicks at Lumpy’s. You place your order by filling out options printed on a paper sack, using one of the crayons provided. The menu here is even more minimal than Five Guys: burgers, fries, drinks, and hand-made milkshakes. That’s pretty much it; the variety is provided by, as with Five Guys, a wide array of customizable toppings.
Some of the more interesting options include a fried egg, avocado, and a couple of mysterious-sounding sauces — “Cali Sauce” (basically “secret sauce,” perhaps the least secret sauce in existence — Thousand Island) and “Burque Sauce,” which is a creamy green chile sauce. (You can also get something called “Frozen Moo Juice” as a fry dipping sauce — I’m assuming this substance is milkshake, as some people unaccountably love fries dipped in milkshakes, but I haven’t summoned up the courage to request it.)
So once you’ve got your paper bag filled out, you head on into the line, where you come across some bins of potatoes — regular and sweet. Depending on which kind of fries you’ve marked on your bag, you pick out your own spud and take it with you to the counter, where it’ll be taken away and fried. This is both charming and extremely problematic. Charming: it’s pretty cool to pick out your own potato. You get the size you want, and if you care about such things, you know you’re getting a fresh, unblemished specimen.
Two problems with this concept: one, I just don’t care for fresh-cut fries that aren’t double-fried. This method results in fries that taste good for about thirty seconds after they hit your table, but quickly become soggy. Second, these (kid-level) bins are just out there for everyone (including yourself) to paw at with their grubby hands. I find this a little disgusting. I mean, yeah, yeah, once they’re fried at 350 degrees they’re not going to have any (living) germs on them, but if you’re a filthophobe1 like myself, you don’t want filth on your food, even if it’s sterilized filth. No bueno.
But enough about filthy potatoes — how’s the burger? Well, unfortunately, after all that buildup with the paper sack and zillions o’ options, what you wind up with is a disappointing burger. Again, like Five Guys, the standard “Lumpy” is a 1/2 pound double-patty, but you can get the quarter-pound “Umpy” or, God help you, the 3/4 pound beast that is the “Plumpy.” What’s good is the light Kaiser bun — I hate an overly bready burger, and this bun is sturdy but delicate. Toppings are fresh and I like the options here much better than at Five Guys. (The Burque Sauce is ostensibly a fry dipping sauce, but I find it a lot better on the burger. It’s very chunky, so I’m not sure why it’s offered as a sauce for the soft fries that aren’t sturdy enough to hold the pieces of green chile.)
The patty is where this burger lets me down. The burgers may be made fresh to order, but the patties don’t taste freshly formed. They may be, but something about the preparation makes them come out tasting not much different from burgers made from frozen pre-formed discs. The meat is bland and a little mealy tasting. (Caveat: I’ve only visited Lumpy’s once, so I may have just been unlucky. I want to give the place a fair shot, so I will be back in the near future, and will update this review if I have a better experience.) Everything else about this burger is pretty good, so it’s especially disappointing that the patty itself is a letdown.
Although the fries aren’t the crisp outside, creamy inside style that I prefer, I will say that Lumpy’s makes a pretty good version of the fresh-cut style (putting aside the filth issue for the moment). You can get them “Skinny,” which is a thin-cut fry, or “Skrewy,” which is even thinner-cut, supposedly resulting in a crispy fry. This is something I’ll have to test on my followup visit. I’m skeptical. In any case, Lumpy’s makes some pretty tasty, well-seasoned fries, and having the sweet potato option is pretty nice.
Chipotle, which only set down in Albuquerque in 2011, was one of the most hotly anticipated and prayed-for national chains to open up here, and they still command some pretty daunting lunch-hour lines. Fortunately, though, like Five Guys, Chipotle offers online ordering as well as a super-convenient iOS app (there isn’t an official Android app yet) that you can use to build your order and pay in advance. Unlike Five Guys, though, there isn’t a dedicated register for online pickups, which could be confusing if, like me, you don’t read the confirmation email they send you. But if you order online, you can bypass the line entirely and go right up to the counter to pick up your foodstuffs.
For those who choose the conventional route, the way Chipotle works is basically cafeteria style. You go down a line of servers who build your order to your specifications, and you pay at the end of the line. The process is brutally efficient: you choose your overall food format — burrito, burrito bowl, hard taco, soft taco, salad — then your starch/veg (cilantro rice, pinto or vegetarian black beans, or fajita veg), and your meat (steak, barbacoa, chicken, carnitas). Choose your salsas — all free. Chips and guacamole are available as extras, as well as sour cream and cheese. You can request customizations, of course, like half and half of meats, or extra meat (for an extra charge). Internet scientists are constantly hard at work refining the formula.
There’s a reason why Chipotle is insanely popular — the food is pretty damned good, considering it follows the Taco Bell model of a handful of ingredients rearranged into different configurations. My preferred configuration is the burrito bowl, with half barbacoa and half steak, over fajita veg (sometimes rice), with ALL THE SALSAS. Everything is extremely fresh — nothing tastes like it’s been sitting on a steam tray for too long. The barbacoa, braised in chipotle adobo and a mixture of spices including — sorry Gil — cumin, is tender and well seasoned. The steak, tender and juicy. This is simply a delicious bowl of food.
I wasn’t as enthused about the hard tacos, though for reasons that aren’t really Chipotle’s fault. The hard tacos — you get three with an order — really need to be ordered and eaten with a minimum of sitting around, or they quickly become a soggy mess. So for me they were a bit of a letdown (the one pitfall of online ordering!), but if I’d gotten to them right away they would have been delicious. I don’t know if these shells are freshly fried or not, but they do taste like it. The parts that were still crunchy were nice and substantial, no trace of staleness or old frying oil. And this is a hefty meal. I wasn’t sure what the portion size would be of these versus the burrito bowl, but as it turns out any of the choices are probably going to fill you up, no problem.
AND THE WINNER IS…
This was unexpected for me, since I’m a dedicated burger guy and, while I like Mexican (and Tex-Mex, and New Mex) well enough, it’s just not a regular lunchtime go-to choice. Plus, I’d much rather hit up a taco truck than get assembly-line food at a chain. But Chipotle won me over, with the deliciousness of their food, the impressive customization options, and unbeatable convenience. The ability to order and pay online and pick up my order almost immediately is a huge plus when time is limited. Also, there aren’t any lunchtime taco trucks around here.