Albuquerque: A Food & Wine Lover’s Delight
by Susan Montgomery
Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Albuquerque, where I had been many years before on our way to Santa Fe. I recalled it as a sleepy high desert town with a few nice Mexican restaurants and not much else. I am so glad I went back because I discovered there is so much more to do and enjoy in this friendly city with such a rich and fascinating history — from delicious dining to Native American cultural opportunities to glorious hot air ballooning and surprisingly wonderful wine tasting options. It is definitely a destination for visitors and not just a stop on the way to Santa Fe. Our tour for members of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association was hosted by Visit Albuquerque and introduced us to so much more than we would have discovered on our own. Here are some ideas for a short trip to this enthralling city with a focus on some of the special restaurants and wineries we visited.
Where to stay:
We were fortunate to be staying at the luxurious, contemporary Hotel Chaco, which is ideally located in the developing urban Sawmill District. The hotel’s name comes from Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site, where ancient pueblo settlers thrived. Inspiring artwork throughout the beautifully decorated hotel reflects the area’s Native American and New Mexican heritage. The lobby is highlighted by several stunning sculptures. Hotel Chaco has almost every amenity you could desire in an upscale hotel, including a lovely pool, fitness center, outstanding restaurant and bar, and even a wine tasting room. The beds are so comfortable and each room also showcases local art. I especially loved the rug above my bed that had been created by a Navajo weaver.
For an entertaining and informative introduction to the city, I suggest taking the Best of ABQ City Tour with Albuquerque Tourism & Sightseeing Factory. The two-hour tour, led by a knowledgeable guide, highlights many notable sites in the city, including a nostalgic drive down Route 66, Nob Hill, Old Town, the BioPark (which is home to the zoo, the aquarium, and the botanical garden), the University of New Mexico campus, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, locations of major films and TV shows, including “Breaking Bad,” and Jesse Pinkman’s house.
Where to eat:
Our group dined at a marvelous variety of restaurants that were unique and bursting with tasty food and ambiance. We found a strong focus on organic, local, seasonal ingredients combined in creative dishes that frequently featured Native American and Spanish flavors, but many other ethnicities are also reflected in the restaurants of the region. And of course so many dishes feature New Mexico’s iconic red or green chilies. I would highly recommend the restaurants listed below, but there are many others:
LVL/5 is the upscale rooftop restaurant on the 5th floor of Hotel Chaco. The name is also derived from the five levels of Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito. While the restaurant is stylish, it also exuded warmth and ambiance, especially as the sun was setting when our group met for dinner. The unique dishes reflect the region’s New Mexican and Latin American influences. Much of the produce comes from the Chaco Hotel Garden, which nurtures a wide variety of vegetables, including tomatoes, turnips, eggplant, and fennel, plus herbs such as basil, sage, and thyme. We tried a variety of imaginative dishes including a Chilean sea bass that had been steamed in miso, steamed scallops with pear and leek risotto, watermelon-guava barbecue glazed chicken breast, and an Agnolotti pasta made with hatch green chilies. Make sure you take a special cocktail to the rooftop deck to watch the gorgeous sunsets over the Sandia Mountains. “Sandia” means "watermelon" in Spanish and as the sun sets the mountains glow with a lovely shade of pink — just like watermelon. (See photo.)
Located in the trendy Edo neighborhood, the Grove Cafe is a special, not-to-be missed stop featuring fresh, made-in-house dishes, prepared with the best, most flavorful ingredients sourced from New Mexico. We visited for brunch and most of us tried the special coffees. (My matche latte was scrumptious.) I loved the scrambled egg burrito (with green chilis and roasted tomato jalapeno salsa) and tasted a friend’s delicious sweet potato hash with a sunny-side-up egg. I also found myself gazing longingly at the Grove Pancakes (French style) served with honey and crème fraiche. Although there are wonderful lunch items on the menu, breakfast is served all day.
Family-owned El Pinto has been serving authentic Mexican dishes to locals and visitors for more than 50 years. This rambling, multi-room restaurant creates a warm, inviting atmosphere with its colorful Western décor and glowing fireplaces. You’ll find lovingly prepared traditional Mexican fare, such as enchiladas, huevos rancheros, tacos, tamales, and burritos, all served with the restaurant’s special green chili salsas and sauces, but also some more imaginative dishes right out of grandma’s recipe box. Make sure you try the El Pinto Chile Con Queso and fresh guacamole and don’t miss the succulent Red Chile Ribs. Finally, make sure you top off your experience with a taste of one of the 160 Blue Agave Tequilas and 35 different Mezcals stocked in the bar or do what I did and savor one of their special margaritas. (Warning: It will be hard to just have one.)
This farm-to-table restaurant and historic inn sit in the midst of a beautiful 25-acre organic farm highlighted by lavender fields in the heart of the Rio Grande River Valley. It is an ancient site originally settled by Pueblo Indians. Campo is located in a renovated dairy building where the vibe is bustling and friendly. The chef, Jonathan Perno, has been nominated for James Beard awards and deservedly so with his enticing menu focusing on local seasonal organic ingredients. No wonder Bon Apétit Magazine rated the inn as one of the top ten hotels for food lovers.
Our group tried a variety of healthy and delicious breakfast dishes, including a Seasonal Hash Bowl that when we visited had roasted root vegetables with turmeric, currants, apples, onions, farm greens, and two eggs any style. Some in our group also loved the house-made granola served with yogurt, seasonal fruit ,and lavender honey. I loved my blue corn pancakes with crispy bacon. Of course, you can also try some creatively prepared Mexican favorites such as Chilaquiles and Carne Adovada Chimichanga.
Don’t miss the charming gift shop adjacent to the restaurant where you can buy a variety of gift and food items that, once you are home, will bring back wonderful memories of your trip to Albuquerque. I ended up buying my husband a fascinating cookbook and my daughter some aromatic lavender soaps and hand creams.
This authentic American Indian restaurant is perfectly situated within the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where we enjoyed some traditional pueblo dances. The restaurant is operated by the 19 pueblos of New Mexico and features a unique menu of Pre-Contact dishes, which include flavors and ingredients from the original, historic pueblos before the Europeans arrived in America — such as corn fritters, Elk Pot Roast, Tribal Trout, Cedar-Braised Turkey, and also Post-Contact options such as delicious Green Chile Stew and Blue Corn Onion Rings (which we savored). This is really an ideal stop if you want to embrace the important pueblo culinary culture of New Mexcio. And before or after your meal, you can stroll around the enlightening historical exhibits at the Pueblo Cultural Center.
Inside the charming historic Hotel Andaluz, this enticing restaurant features creative tapas and other dishes inspired by the bold flavors of Spanish cooking. Many dishes have an inventive twist with unique combinations of ingredients. Try garlic shrimp, roasted bone marrow (yes it’s delicious), Iberico ribs, honey bacon wrapped dates, or a delightful Mezze Platter with eggplant baba ghanoush, hummus, and other spreads that you can slather on house-made pita.
Where to enjoy New Mexico wine:
New Mexico might not be on your radar as a winery region, but we were pleasantly surprised to learn the state has more than 60 wineries that produce some excellent wines. Did you know that Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Valley encompasses the oldest wine drinking region in the country? The state actually has a perfect terroir for producing good wine with its sunny days, cool nights, high altitude, and rich soil. We were fortunate to experience a few of these wonderful wineries.
Lescombes is the perfect place to pair some great New Mexican wines with enticing dishes. The Lescombes family has been producing French-styled wines for six generations. After successfully producing wine in Burgundy and Africa, the family moved to New Mexico where they found an ideal wine-growing climate such as what they had known in Algeria. They eventually established a 200-acre vineyard in the southern part of New Mexico but have several bistro locations around the state.
The atmosphere at Lescombes is comfortably stylish and they have a friendly, helpful staff. I would suggest trying the bacon-wrapped dates, Southwest meatloaf (with hatch green chiles of course), and pecan crusted trout. Most menu items suggest a complementary wine pairing for that dish. I loved the Heritage Series Rosé, which was fruity and crisp, but all the wines we tasted were very good.
Since we were staying at the Hotel Chaco, we couldn’t miss their trendy Crafted Tasting Room, which features only New Mexico wines. You don’t have to be staying at the hotel to visit this welcoming tasting room, which is open daily from 2 to 8 pm. Besides featuring some of the most outstanding wines produced in the state from celebrated wineries such as Gruet, Vivac, Noisy Water, Milagro, Casa Rondeña and Sheehan, the tasting room also offers samples of gin, brandy, vodka, and whiskey from Santa Fe Spirits.
Two other wineries were noteworthy and definitely worth a visit. At Sheehan Winery, the personable owner, Sean Sheehan, led us in an extensive tasting of his varietals. Sean started this winery in his backyard in 2015 and is now winning medals with his more than 35 mostly red wines. Sheehan has monthly tastings, with the schedule on the winery's website. We also enjoyed some great wines at Casa Rondeña Winery, which has been named “Best Winery” for seven years by Albuquerque Magazine. This winery is located on beautiful grounds and is a wonderful site for relaxing and soaking up the serenity of the surrounding woods while savoring some sips of lovely wines.
While food and wine options are the focus of this article, there is lots to do in Albuquerque between restaurant and winery stops. Many in our group took a heavenly balloon trip, which was so appropriate since Albuquerque is known as the balloon capital of the world. They reported that the experience was serene and the views were spectacular. Balloon rides are offered by Rainbow Ryders every day of the year and in October you can attend Albuquerque’s famed International Balloon Festival. We also visited the fascinating Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum with its wonderful exhibits where we learned about the rich history of ballooning.
Some members of our group went on a bicycle tour and others walked around the enchanting, historic Old Town district with its charming old adobe buildings and boutique shops. There are many interesting museums in Albuquerque such as the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, the Turquoise Museum, and the American International Rattlesnake Museum (which was not for me but others found it fascinating). You could also spend a day at ABQ BioPark where you’ll find the zoo, aquarium, botanical gardens, and even a beach with fishing ponds. And then there is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway for a view from 10,000 feet of the whole region. Albuquerque has hundreds of parks and a stellar public arts program with murals and sculptures all over the city. The possibilities for activities in Albuquerque never end.
We enjoyed the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where we witnessed an amazing performance by the Cachini Dance Group. We thoroughly enjoyed these authentic native dances which take place every Saturday. We then walked around the cultural center and learned so much from the interesting exhibits about ancient native American pueblo life.
Tablao Flamenco in the Hotel Albuquerque was another highlight of our visit. We learned that Albuquerque deserves its reputation as the Flamenco capital of North America and attracts dancers from Spain and all over the world who come to Albuquerque to perform, study dance, and offer workshops. At Tablao Flamenco, we had an opportunity to enjoy Flamenco, which is elegant, intense, and dramatic traditional Spanish dance. The talented musicians and dancers improvise and coordinate beautifully with each other, enthralling the audience with their thrilling performances, accompanied by a talented singer/guitarist. You can also enjoy delicious Spanish tapas while watching the show.
I hope you are now convinced that Albuquerque is a fabulous destination for visitors with all kinds of interests. I am now planning to go back soon because there is so much I still want to see, do — and eat!
Balloon and Flamenco photos by Stacey Wittig.