Bún at Saigon Restaurant (Albuquerque, NM)

Pork and shrimp bun

Pork and shrimp bún

For dinner, we headed over to Saigon Restaurant and ordered bún (☆☆½). It would have been a very good version if the noodles had been drained adequately after being removed from hot water. The result was a pool of water at the bottom of the bowl that diluted the nuoc cham that we like to pour over the noodles. This was a grievous oversight in our opinion that disproves the idea that it’s impossible to screw up a bún. Too bad because the pork slices were lean, flavorful and tender and the shrimp was good, too. The devil is in the details.

Saigon Restaurant
6001 San Mateo Boulevard Northeast D4
Albuquerque, NM 87109

Lunch at Bobcat Bite (Santa Fe, NM)

I was on a quest for the great green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico. Blake’s Lotaburger is pretty good, even if it is a fast-food chain, but the patty was thin. 5 Star Burgers fell short, primarily because the beef was too lean and therefore pebbly in texture.  A great burger starts with ground beef that is around 85-percent lean so that the fat bastes the meat as it cooks. It also has to be seasoned well or the beef will lack dimension, and reasonably charred, not burned to the point of being bitter. New Mexicans add their unique twist by offering chopped green chiles (preferably Hatch). Bobcat Bite serves a fantastic cheeseburger (☆☆☆☆), using choice ground chuck and sirloin. It is all that a great burger should be. We wound up splitting an order because the sandwich is generously portioned.

The name derives from a time when the diner used to feed bobcats that came down from the hills. Bobcat Bite will be a destination diner anytime we’re in Santa Fe.

Bobcat Bite
418 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, NM 87505

Bandelier National Monument (NM)

The Las Conchas Fire of 2011 was the largest in New Mexico history. It eventually burned 150,000 acres and threatened Los Alamos, home of the Los Alamos National Lab. We in the West have become accustomed, almost inured to hearing about forest fires like this. Every year, their ranges, frequencies and intensities seem to grow, a possible consequence of global warming.

Little did we know that the Las Conchas Fire caused the closure until a few days ago of Bandelier National Monument, where we were headed. The fire began in June and burned much of the monument as well as acreage around it, though the ancient ruins and visitors center were thankfully spared. Heroic effort was expended by park staff and the Los Alamos fire department to save artifacts and protect the ruins and the park offices. Fortunately, the fire was contained and did no further damage. Most of the watersheds had been destroyed. One of the rangers told us that a recent storm caused a 15-foot wall of water to roar down the canyon, leaving mud and debris in its wake.

As we approached Bandelier, there were signs along the road that no vehicles would be allowed entry in the park. Only shuttles from White Rock would take visitors back and forth. We parked our car in town and took the free transportation. Along the way, we got to view the spectacular Frijoles Canyon. On arrival at the visitors center, we were surprised to learn that the park had only been open for three days. We considered ourselves lucky that we hadn’t come all this way, only to be turned back.

Much of the park is still closed (and will remain so indefinitely until vegetation grows back), but the main loop through the ancient ruins had been re-opened. The large-scale, traditionally circular ruins of Tyuonyi are impressive enough, but the network of altered caves (cavates), carved into the soft volcanic tuff cliffs that tower over the canyon, is unique among ancient Puebloan dwellings. The natural gas pockets left behind when the tuff rained down and hardened were enlarged by ancient humans, many of them interconnected by passageways, and possibly used for habitation or storage. They reminded me of the underground network of rooms, also carved out of tuff (tufa), in Orvieto, Italy. Ladders are provided for park visitors to climb into a few of them, some of which were tall enough for the ancient Puebloans to stand up in. Hiking paths beyond the main loop were closed because of the fire.

Our next stop was Los Alamos.

Tuff cliffs

Tuff cliffs

Tuff spires with Tyuonyi ruins in the background

Tuff spires with Tyuonyi ruins in the background

Ladder to room

Ladder to room

Entering a room

Entering a room

Tyuonyi ruins

Tyuonyi ruins

Breakfast at Tabla de los Santos (Santa Fe, NM)

Burritos with eggs and chorizo, red and green salsas

Having been disappointed by Café Pascual yesterday morning, we looked for somewhere else to have breakfast. Within a stone’s throw of Pascual was a restaurant that is part of the Hotel St. Francis—Tabla de los Santos. Chef Estevan Garcia has impressed quite a few people with his takes on New Mexican cooking. Our burrito with eggs and chorizo (☆☆☆½), topped with red and green salsas, and the homemade granola (☆☆☆½) with fruit bowl were spot on. Unfussy but carefully prepared grub.

Homemade granola with fruit bowl

The dining room was empty except for one other party. But for the formal atmosphere, we couldn’t see any reason why Tabla doesn’t draw more customers.

Tabla de los Santos (Hotel St. Francis)
210 Don Gaspar Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Menus: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

“Miraculous” Loretto Chapel Stairway (Santa Fe)

Most non-parishioners come to Loretto Chapel to marvel at the spiral staircase. A fascinating legend surrounds its construction. Originally, when the chapel was built in 1872, there was no stairway to the choir loft.  The nuns prayed to St. Joseph to intercede. At the end of nine days, a carpenter appeared at the church who volunteered to build a stairway, on the condition that he have total privacy during construction. After three months, with the chapel completely sealed off, the stairway was completed, but the stranger disappeared without having been compensated. A reward for his identity never was claimed. The mystery doesn’t end there, however. The spiral stairway is a miracle of carpentry: it has no central support to the loft and uses no nails, only wooden pegs. Legend has it that no one saw any wood being delivered to the sequestered carpenter. Who was he? We can only marvel at this handiwork.

Loretto Chapel
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501

Roque’s Carnitas (Santa Fe, NM)

Beef carnitas

One of the cult foods in Santa Fe is the beef carnitas from Roque’s wagon, parked at the edge of Santa Fe Plaza. A whole half pound of sliced marinated beef top round is grilled with onions and green chiles (I’m presuming Hatch), picking up a smoky flavor, then piled into a large flour tortilla, topped with salsa, all rolled up in aluminum foil.

My vision of carnitas is the Mexican kind made with roasted pork and corn tortillas, so I am the first to admit that it is probably this pre-conception that dulled appreciation of Roque’s version (☆☆). First of all, it’s messy, really messy. As soon as you peel back the foil and take your first bite, pieces fall out and juices run down your hand (and, if you’re not careful, your clothes). This by itself is not enough to downgrade it. I did find though that the salsa seemed more like stewed tomatoes (again, I’m expecting pico de gallo). The carnitas itself had a bitterness likely from the smoke from the briquettes and a vinegariness that didn’t seem like limes. Tons of fans seem to love Roque’s product, so I chalk up my indifference to regional preference.

Roque’s Carnitas
Southeast corner of Santa Fe Plaza
Santa Fe, NM 87501

Breakfast at Cafe Pasqual (Santa Fe, NM)

Huevos Motulenos

We had breakfast at one of the legendary restaurants in Santa Fe, Cafe Pasqual. The portion being large, we split the highly recommended Huevos Motuleños, easy-over eggs on a bed of black beans, topped with feta cheese and served with corn tortillas and sauteed bananas. This was a major disappointment (☆☆). First, the eggs were cooked hard. The black beans lacked flavor and were a bit hard; they could at least have cooked them in salted water. The corn tortillas were dry. And the sautéed bananas really didn’t add anything at all. We always order the salsas on the side so my wife can decide if they’re too spicy or not. What this means is that the dishes we order have to stand on their own. This egg dish didn’t. The overall impression was blandness. About the only thing going for it was that the ingredients were organic (almost all Cafe Pasqual’s ingredients are). The salsas were very good, including a tomatillo salsa (☆☆☆) that had flavors of cilantro and vinegar. I hope that future visits will not disappoint as much as this one did.

Cafe Pasqual 121 Don Gaspar Avenue Santa Fe, NM 87501 505.983.9340 Menus: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner  

Viewing the Rio Grande Rift (Taos, NM)

There is no indication as you’re driving northeast along Highway 68 to Taos that the Rio Grande River will reveal itself in the middle of one of Earth’s biggest geologic rifts. About halfway out of Espanola, the river at this time of year was lazy. Several rafters were making their way down river near Rio Grande Gorge State Park.

The Rio Grande is a lazy river in New Mexico

The Rio Grande River flows from Colorado to Texas for almost 2,000 miles. It defines the border between Texas and Mexico all along the southwestern edge of Texas until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Through all of New Mexico, running north-south, the river flows through the middle of a gigantic rift in the earth’s crust, the second largest outside of Africa’s Great Rift, the result of a splitting apart that began 30 million years ago. The rift extends from central Colorado to northern Mexico, part of unstable geological activity that produced the volcanoes and lava flows that are still evident today. Cities to the south, such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, sit on top of basins that were formed after the split. A spectacular view of this geological phenomenon can be appreciated from Rio Grande Gorge Bridge outside of Taos.

Rio Grande rift

Rio Grande rift (from Apple Maps)

Ramen at Shibumi Ramenya (Santa Fe, NM)—CLOSED

Tonkotsu ramen

Tonight, we were in the mood for Asian food, so I came across a Yelp review of Shibumi Ramenya in Santa Fe. There wasn’t anything revealing about the reviews, but we went anyway. As soon as we walked in, the interior exuded a minimalism that is classic Japanese. Although the name ramenya means a ramen restaurant, Shibumi also serves izakaya and has an impressive sake menu.

According to our waiter, the chef (Eric Stapleman) trained in kaiseki with Seiji Yamamoto and that he attempts to make genuine ramen. The chef, it turns out, owns an Italian restaurant next door (Trattoria Nostrani), but claims Japanese food is his first passion.

Both my wife and I ordered the tonkotsu ramen. It was very good (☆☆☆½), the tonkotsu broth gelatinous and milky as you would expect, though not as porky as some versions. The broth is cooked over two days, following a prescribed sequence of adding pork parts at strategic moments. There were thin coins of daikon, steamed spinach that had been previously squeezed dry, green onions and sliced fatty smoked pork that practically dissolved in the mouth, and the noodles were cooked just right. There was no option to add an egg. This was a welcome meal after a steady diet of Southwest food, not to mention a complete surprise in the middle of New Mexico.

On a special menu, there was a “special pork ramen” for $30!!! We had to ask the waiter what made it so special and so expensive. It turned out that it is the chef’s effort to reproduce the cult ramen in Tokyo (Fujimaki Gekijyo). Astonishingly, there is only one way you can eat this special ramen (which costs 100,000 yen, or about $115). Chef Shoichi Fujimaki has to invite you. Fujimaki claims there are 26 ingredients, and Stapleman, after watching videos countless times of the master making the special ramen, feels he’s nailed 23 of the 26 ingredients. We will never buy ramen for $30, but we have to admire the chef for his dedication to the craft.

Update: (11-27-13) I have learned that Stapleman has moved to my neck of the woods, Seattle, Washington, to try out his ramenya-izakaya concept there. This is good for Seattle for it will up the ante on who makes the best ramen in the Evergreen City.

Shibumi Ramenya *** CLOSED ***
26 Chapelle St
Santa Fe, NM 87501

Léona’s Restaurante (Chimayo, NM)

Carne adovada burrito

Leona’s was a little gem in Chimayo, across the walkway from the Santuario. Since 1977, Leona Medina-Tiede has been serving delicious snack foods, primarily burritos and tamales. I ordered the carne adovada burrito, very different from the adovada I had at El Bruno’s. This was a wonderful adovada, more tender than Bruno’s, more garlicky, shredded and salty, and lightly combined with red chile sauce. Her red chile sauce, also served on the side, was pure, unadorned chile powder and water, with a hint of natural sweetness. We purchased a jar of the green chile sauce, it was so good.

Chicken burrito

Green and red chile sauces

At checkout, for later eating, we purchased biscochitos (anise-flavored cookies) and a tub of real chicharrones, not the “chips” that are sold in cellophane packages in supermarkets.


Unfortunately, as of October 16, the restaurant portion will be closed when Leona retires from the cooking business. But the shop will continue selling gift items.

Update: The restaurant, after being closed for a few years, has re-opened. Unfortunately, Leona is no longer with us, but her legacy continues through Leona’s eldest daughter and her family.

Leona’s (Restaurant now closed, gift shop still open)
17 Santuario Drive
Chimayo, NM 87522
(505) 351-4569