Edward: Had a terrific lunch at Torino’s 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: Torino’s 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!
Torino’s 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 Torino’s 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 Torino’s.
Hannah: But is it nice? Is it?
Hannah: Well, as usual at Torino’s@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.
Edward: In the winter time, there’s nothing better than Vietnamese soup. THIS I BELIEVE.
Also: summer time. And all the times.
Vietnamese soup is best soup!
I think we can agree that colonization is bad, but if you have to have been colonized by any European empire, probably the French would be the way to go. That way, when you finally throw out the foreign invaders, you at least end up with delicious cuisine.
Hannah: I don’t know how we got so lucky here? But Vietnamese is so superior in ABQ.
Edward: Albuquerque is the last place I’d have imagined would have great Vietnamese food, but we have a large Vietnamese community, and that means an abundance of awesome Vietnamese restaurants!
Hannah: Here is where we need one more staff member for WHEW so s/he can research the history of the community! But instead, we’ll just talk about….PHO #1
Edward: NOTE: Internships UNPAID
Vietnamese food is fascinating to me because of the French influence. I mean, look at the crazy Banh Mi — a delicious baguette, filled with things like cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon?
Hannah: And weird meats and pastes! But we didn’t have that at Pho #1. Oh no no!
Edward: The French also popularized beef in Vietnam, so you end up with incredible dishes like Pho, where you have Asian flavors like lemongrass and basil, but with the kind of complex beefy broth like you’d get in French cooking.
Hannah: Korean food also has a lot of beef — is that because it has more grazing land or something?
Edward: Hmm, I dunno — I guess we also need an intern to study Korean cuisine!
If I had to guess though, I’d guess that it was the Western influence in Korea as well — Christian missionaries and later American soldiers.
Hannah: Oh, good point. But that means those mainstay dishes didn’t exist prior to the mid-20C?
ANYWAY off topic!!
Edward: Korea actually was visited by Western missionaries centuries ago!
Hannah: But would they have brought cows with them?
Edward: WE DON’T KNOW
BACK ON TOPIC
“Central Vietnam” Egg Rolls
Hannah: So, honey, I like those fried “eggrolls” but I don’t think they’re the best thing at Pho #1. At all. What are they called?
Edward: They’re just called “Central Vietnam Egg Rolls.”
Hannah: I remember the first time we had them, I scorched the Hades out of my tongue. This time I like them ok, but they seemed sort of superfluous.
Edward: I find them really interesting — I haven’t seen them here (yet) other than at Pho #1. What’s in them — some grilled pork and shrimp, with a little cabbage or green onion?
Hannah: I don’t think there’s anything other than pork in kind of a spicy red sauce. It’s a big chunk of pork rather than a minced filling.
Edward: Wrapped in rice paper and deep fried. So unlike either fresh spring rolls or crisp wonton wrapped fried rolls, the texture is very chewy. The pork is what dominates, but I could swear there’s some shrimp in there as well. At least, that’s what I remember. It’s hard to tell for sure, because after your first bite you’re too busy trying to cool off the second degree burns on the roof of your mouth to think about what you just ate.
Hannah: They’re called Cha Gio I think.
Edward: I really like these guys, though. I care for the chewy exterior, and love the sweetness of the pork.
Hannah: I agree. They’re delicious, but because the rest of the meal is equally-to-more delicious I think they’re unneeded.
Edward: They are needed — BY ME!
Hannah: But look at what you ate! That spicy beef soup!
Edward: True — as delicious as the egg rolls were, they were actually upstaged by the rest of our meal!
First, though — Pho #1 is a pretty casual place, wouldn’t you agree? It’s nice inside, but the vibe is very laid back. There’s a TV on, and almost always some elderly guys hanging out and chatting. Most times, there’s a little kid running around.
Hannah: Yes, and it’s a very large restaurant in my opinion.
Edward: The people who run the place are very friendly. You just sit wherever.
Hannah: Lots of tables, but usually not many people. Which is a shame because the food really good. Yes, super super friendly!!
Edward: Maybe it’s just the times that we go, but I haven’t seen the place really packed like May Cafe.
Hannah: I have a question, though. Since this has come up in a couple places we went to recently. What do you think of mid-range or cheap places that serve water in glass glasses? Is that weird? Or is it just me?
Edward: Huh? You mean as opposed to paper or plastic cups?
Hannah: Yeah, I guess.
Edward: It doesn’t seem weird to me to get glass glasses of water in any sit-down restaurant.
Hannah: It just struck me at Pho #1 and at another place.
Edward: You would get that in a Denny’s or Village Inn for instance.
Hannah: I think the ones at Pho caught my eye because they were very stylish, not institutional.
Edward: I’d generally expect plastic/paper cups in a place that was more fast food or takeout oriented.
It’s too bad we didn’t get a photo of the water glasses at Pho #1 to illustrate, but do you remember what they looked like?
Hannah: Yes, they had a multi-shades of blue graphical pattern on them.
Edward: Oh, OK, I remember that. Yes, stylish!
Pho #1 is pretty nicely decorated in general.
Hannah: And clean, including the restrooms, which…that’s all we have to say about that….
Vermicelli with Pork, Grilled Shrimp and Egg Roll
Hannah: I got a noodle bowl, and it was a DOOZY!
Edward: Vermicelli, with grilled pork, grilled shrimp and egg roll?
Hannah: Yes — and peanuts
and bean sprouts
and that nice sauce.
Honey, the online menu2 doesn’t seem to be the place we went…it has a ton of sushi?
Edward: That menu is…highly questionable?
But we’ve had some form of this vermicelli dish at…Cafe Da Lat, May Cafe, and Viet Taste if I’m not mistaken.
Hannah: Yes of course, a vermicelli bowl is standard. I just was checking if it was called grilled pork or not, and found that weirdo menu.
Edward: I’m just saying that this is a dish we order often.
Hannah: It’s my go-to if I don’t feel like soup.
Edward: How does this rank with the other places?
Hannah: Oh, very high. The toppings were so amazingly good. Fresh, clean, flavorful! And abundant!!
Edward: I like that the grilled pork and shrimp really taste grilled — nice and smoky! And the shrimp are well-cooked, nice and tender.
Hannah: Honestly, the pork was really my favorite. Sometimes in this dish the meat can be a bit…scant. But this was large pieces slices and it lasted through all the noodles, which is a feat!
Edward: Yeah, I’m used to generous portions in Vietnamese restaurants, but Pho #1 definitely is generous with the good stuff!
Hannah: But my dish was simple, clean, nice flavors, what is expected from that noodle bowl. What about yours!? It looks so……complicated!
Hue Style Lemongrass Beef Noodle Soup
Edward: Mine was very much not simple!
I had the Bun Bo Hue — Hue-Style Beef Noodle Soup.
Not drawing a direct comparison here, but more in terms of feeling, I think the difference between Pho and Hue soup is like between Vegetable Beef Barley and Texas Style Chili. One I like for its simplicity and clean flavors, the other for rich, pungent craziness.
Hannah: Oh, yeah, the pig blood cubes! A very different soup from Pho.
Edward: The broth in Bun Bo Hue is pretty in-your-face compared to Pho, I think — very strong with lemongrass, and beefy, with I think shrimp paste and/or fish sauce.
Hannah: And, (furiously researching) from a different area in Vietnam — Central!
Edward: Pork hock…and yeah, that crazy pig blood cubes! So there’s also this odd (for a palate like mine that’s unfamiliar with these flavors) blood flavor to the soup, that contrary to what you might think is actually very pleasant, although it does take a bit of adjustment if you’re not used to it.
Hannah: I think the most interesting thing was how the blood cubes themselves were pretty flavorless.
Edward: The herbs are also different from Pho — you get the bean sprouts and lime and all that, but also some mint and perilla.
Hannah: Did you like it?
Edward: Yeah, the blood cubes were a little off-putting to me, because of the texture — kind of gummy — and it seems like the flavor all goes into the soup, because I couldn’t really taste much from them. So I admit I didn’t bother with them.
Hannah: Right, all the flavor went into the soup (that was the rest of my thought, but I got distracted)!
Edward: Oh, also, the noodles are different from in Pho — larger and round.
I really liked this soup. I won’t say I like it better or worse than Pho, because they’re both great for their own reasons, but when I want something really earthy and a little spicy-sweet I would definitely go for this.
Hannah: A good soup for colder weather or when you’re feeling ill?
Edward: I would put this up there with the Banana Beef Stew at Cafe Da Lat for sure.
Yeah, absolutely a great cold weather soup because of the spiciness, and I think also good for a cold because of all the good stuff that’s in it!
We just had a quick lunch on this visit, so we didn’t try more than just the three dishes. I would love to go back and try some other things.
Hannah: Yes I agree, this place should definitely go into our rotation!
Edward: Although this is one of those places where it’s hard to branch out and try new things, because the things you like there are so damn good.
Hannah: Right..that happens at Vietnamese places for me. It’s like you get X dish at one place, and y dish at another place…always.
Well, we ate well at Pho #1 and I would like to eat well there again!
Hannah: #1 Value!
414 San Pedro Dr SE, Albuquerque, NM 87198
Edward: We made a last-minute decision to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year, but before that we had planned to just order a bunch of fancy edibles from Zingerman’s, the legendary deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and enjoy a four-day noshfest. Fortunately, we’d already ordered the box o’ treats when we changed our minds, so now we get the best of both worlds!
We recorded the unboxing because Zingerman’s is like Apple for food geeks, and because we’re lame that way.