The blue corn hushpuppies at Campo come with carne adovada and just the right amount of heat for an excellent appetizer. (Nick Cote, Special to The Denver Post)
Whenever I cross the state line and find myself in New Mexico, I feel like I’ve entered another country. Nowhere else in the U.S.– at least in the 44 states I’ve been to — do you find such distinct culture throughout the entire state. This is the kind of place where chiles are so paramount to local cuisine, even McDonald’s sells a green chile cheeseburger.
When I visited for a weekend, I was shocked to find that Albuquerque more than holds its own in a food fight against the culinary scene in Santa Fe. At least along the Front Range, it often gets a reputation for being a tough city (“Breaking Bad” doesn’t help with that perception) that’s not worth visiting when Santa Fe and Taos are so much closer. But if you’re of this opinion, that Albuquerque doesn’t have much to offer, you’re missing out on foodie heaven. From wineries, wine bars and a speakeasy-style saloon to traditional New Mexican food and eclectic fare at an upscale tapas restaurant, this city has it all. Not to mention it’s more affordable than Santa Fe.
Start your journey with dinner at Campo, the on-site restaurant at Albuquerque’s lavender farm, Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm. Aside from being a beautiful — and fragrant –place to spend a weekend, Los Poblanos grows many of Campo’s ingredients right on-site, so meals are quite literally farm to table. The menu changes seasonally, but you can’t go wrong, especially if you order something with lavender in it. The blue corn hushpuppies with carne adovada and just the right amount of heat are an excellent appetizer. If you drink cocktails, try the Campo Margarita, with lemon, lime and lavender, or the refreshing Lavender ’99, with gin, crème de violette, lemon and sparkling wine.
Barrels at Casa Rondeña Winery, in Albuquerque. (Nick Cote, Special to The Denver Post)
Wine lovers will want to pay a visit to the Casa Rondeña Winery, within easy biking distance from Los Poblanos, which offers guests free use of its fleet of cruiser bikes. The peaceful grounds are a lovely setting for a relaxing afternoon slowly sipping a glass of 1629, a Tempranillo, syrah and cabernet sauvignon blend. Casa Rondeña also makes wine-infused chocolate and caramel sauces, which make excellent gifts.
For a good laugh and cocktails made with house-infused spirits, head to Vernon’s Speakeasy — if you can find it. The “hidden steakhouse,” as Vernon’s calls itself, has a prohibition-era theme, complete with a mobster at the door to shake down diners and make sure they’re not undercover cops trying to shut the place down. To get in, you’ll need to make a reservation or call ahead and ask for the password. You’ll get hassled, if not turned away, if you show up without one. Play along and you’ll get shuffled through a secret entrance to the restaurant.
Vernon’s has a classy, old-timey vibe and no windows to the outside world, so it truly feels like a hidden bar from the early 1900s. The cocktail menu, with drinks like the Speakeasy Manhattan and The Dillinger Sour, features house-infused spirits, like rose gin and blackberry brandy.
If you’re craving traditional New Mexican fare, pay a visit to El Pinto, an Albuquerque institution with an impressive tequila and mezcal list. Don’t be turned off by the massive size of this place — the restaurant has committed to using sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients, which includes producing many of their own ingredients. El Pinto raises chickens for cage-free eggs, grows many of its own greens, and has an extensive composting program to further support its farming efforts.
Chickens are raised for eggs to use in dishes at El Pinto Restaurant. (Nick Cote, Special to The Denver Post)
You’ll find the best view of the city from the top of the Sandia Peak Tramway, which opened a
new restaurant this summer called Ten3. It sits 10,300 feet above sea level and serves lunch to hungry hikers and fine dining experiences ideal for special occasions in the evenings.
Make a reservation for your parting meal at Más Tapas y Vino, in the Hotel Andaluz, where you’ll want to splurge on a wide variety of dishes. Bring a huge appetite, or recruit a few friends to join you for the weekend so you can justify the number of plates you’ll want to order. Don’t skip the savory bone marrow toast, Iberian Black Pig “Secreto,” honey bacon-wrapped dates, served with melted goat cheese dip, or the grilled artichokes with pickled watermelon rind. Save room for dessert. You’ll want both the lavender panna cotta and the sea salt caramel carrot cake, at the very least.
And this is just some of the good food Albuquerque has to offer. Thank goodness it’s also one of the country’s best cities for access to hiking, camping, climbing, rafting, hot springs-hopping and scenic cycling, which makes it easier to justify the never-ending feast you’ll find yourself at once you arrive in town. With easy and cheap direct flights from Denver, Albuquerque deserves a spot on your list for getaways.
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