The Chocolate Cartel/Van Rixel Brothers – Albuquerque, NM

by Nick
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Published on: November 12, 2010

Chocolate.  Even the word itself fills me with the warm fuzzies of my childhood.  I think that is the reason Halloween is my favorite holiday.  The thought of dressing up in an elaborate costume for the sake of getting gobs and gobs of sweet, delicious and rich chocolate made all those caramels, chews, and sweet tarts extraordinarily disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong, when I was a kid, sweets were sweets, but chocolate has always been chocolate.

Years have past, and though my affinity for dressing up on the best day of the years has not changed, my taste in chocolate has.  No longer is it about the sugar rush or the caffeine high, it’s about the flavor, the texture, the aroma.

ChocolateCartel

There used to be a Gelato place in town that had the absolute best gelato I have ever had.  I waited for the place to open, then went there every week to get my fix.  Then it got cold and I stopped going, but as the warmer months approached, I decided it was time for my ritual to start anew.  It was closed.  No warning, no notifications, just a sign on the door saying goodbye.  I was distraught, where in the world was I supposed to get my gelato fix?

SignThat is when I found it, Van Rixel Bros Gelato and Sorbeto.  Or is it The Chocolate Cartel?  I don’t really care, I have to try it.

In the corner of what appears to be a warehouse is a tiny shop, easily missed by the average passerby, including myself.  I have driven by this place a hundred times before and not once did I see the word chocolate OR gelato.

When I entered this unusual location the inside was far different than the outside.  Cases of chocolate, chocolate on the wall, shelves full of the stuff.  I was in heaven.

chocolatesWhat to try first?  Well that was decided very shortly by the owner, or one of Van Rixel Bros anyway.  “Here, try this truffle base, this is what we use in all our truffles.”  It was smooth and creamy, such a simple thing elevated to heights I had not previously known.  Super rich chocolate flavor, not too sweet, not too dark, just intense and smooth.  I had to try as many of them as I could.

With flavors like Vanilla Lavender and Wildflower, I wasn’t sure this was going to be my kind of place after all. Worry not, they also have a dark chocolate, blood orange, cinnamon, smoked chile and Sea Salt Caramel.  Their flavors change regularly, there is always something new to try when I go in.  All of their truffles are beautifully designed and hand crafted.

chocolates2I nearly tried one of each the first time I went and let me just say, they were ALL awesome.  The smoked chile seemed very mild at first, then the heat kicked in.  The Blood Orange had a nice strong citrus flavor without being overpowering, peppermint, butterscotch!  The chocolate has a very crisp bit to it on the outside, but the truffle inside is soft and rich and decadent.

For all you nut lovers out there, you have not been forgotten.  Caramel, Giandujas (nut pastes) and fruits also fill their perfectly tempered chocolate.

A must when getting a box of sweets, is the sea salt caramel.  The salt is like a punch in the mouth, taking all of the chocolate and caramel and turning the flavor knob to 11.  There is just something about that salty/sweet mix that really puts a smile on my face.  Shelf

This store has more than just truffles too.  Toffee, chocolate covered almonds, cocoa powder, drink mixes, even chocolate covered parmesan cheese!  A treat I attempted to get a friend of mine to taste, but he chickened out.  Pfft, some parmesan lover HE is.

I got the cocoa powder too and it’s intensely rich and made some of the best brownies I’ve ever had.  I also used it to make a Cocoa Syrup per Alton Brown, which makes the perfect accompaniment to any bowl of ice cream, or gelato.

Another bit of the chocolate that you can buy is in bar form.  Most of which have a light dusting of toppings like cocoa nips, espresso beans, toffee, puffed rice, salt, and Bacon.

This list and combinations just seem to go on and on.  I will give you one warning though, if you see on a package, the label: El Diabo, that means it’s really stupid hot!  Or maybe I just wasn’t expecting it to be as hot as it was, but you have been warned.  Their chocolate, as with anything in the store is phenomenal.  The perfect snap, the salted chocolates and the cocoa nibs are my favorites, I’m still debating on the bacon.

Barsa

Ok ok ok, so what about the Gelato?  They don’t have a case for the Gelato, it’s all sold pre packaged.  The good thing though, they have a 4 oz pack, as well as Pints and Quarts.

They didn’t have the standard Gelato flavors that I was accustom to.  What they DO have are ever changing.  Chocolate and Sea Salt appear to stay on the menu, but the seasonal changes make for a very tough decision.  I also got the smores and for my girlfriend a Lemoncello.

The Lemoncello was such a tart gelato, it took me by surprise.  With that said, it’s very clean and refreshing.  Like drinking a lemonade, freshly squeezed, on a hot summer day.  The orange was a bit sweeter, but just as refreshing.

Gelatoa

Give me a scoop of smores, chocolate and sea salt and I’m a happy camper.  As with all gelato, the flavors are intense and a little goes a long way.

If you’ve never had gelato, it’s denser than regular ice cream, containing only about 20%-35% air, compared to ice creams which can have up to 50% air.

Each flavor was unique in texture as well as flavor.  The sea salt almost tasted like butterscotch.  The chocolate was rich and  decadent.

The flavors may be closer to ice cream than gelato, but this is definitely gelato at it’s finest.  You can also find the pints at Whole Foods, but I prefer to go to the source as that is the only place you can find the chocolates, at least here in Albuquerque.  There is nothing about this store that I do not like.  The chocolate is amazing, the gelato, the guys running the place.  With an emphasis on quality, you are assured to have a very happy Halloween, though these are treats you will want to keep for yourself.

Van Rixel Bros. Gelato & Sorbet on Urbanspoon The Chocolate Cartel on Urbanspoon
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Dakine Hawaiian Ice – Albuquerque, NM

by Nick
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Published on: June 16, 2010

StoreIt’s summer time in New Mexico and it is HOT!  With temperatures approaching (and reaching) 100  degrees out there, it’s time to find a way to beat the heat.  Towards the end of last summer, I kept passing by a roadside circle of promise advertising Hawaiian Ice.  At first appearance, it seemed closed as there was no one inside the booth, but further examination shows that it’s just an advertisement.  A trick to bring back memories of your childhood, walking up and getting a snow cone in one of those tiny cone shaped cups.  This is no small cup, and no snow cone. 

Let’s talk about the snow cones we had as a kid.  The big dome on a small cup, saturating the crystals of crushed ice which allowed all the goodness sink to the bottom of the cup and leave a disappointing layer of flavorless white cubes on top, all the while the ice below is melting, diluting all the flavoring.  This is not what I had this weekend at DaKine.

Menu2With a huge list of flavorings, you have your pick, surely something for everyone.  Twenty six flavors  and when I say they have something for everyone, I mean they also have sugar-free, so even the dieters out there can partake in thus summertime cooldown. 

The combos are also unlimited, with another surf board of suggestions, some of which I would never have thought of, but look good just the same. 

The surf boards are not just a clever way of showing their plethora of options, but the theme of the entire place.  You can even buy leis made of candy, and if you have a special event coming up, order a real lei or two.  FrogInaBlender

One combo, Frog in a Blender, combines lime and cherry.  The lime was a bit overpowering for the cherry, but it was nice having the choice going back and forth between the two.  Though you get a small amount of drift as the flavoring settles, you’d have to fight to get a bite with no syrup. 

The texture is like fresh snow.  To make a cup, which I typically order the Big Kahuna, a brain freeze inducing large container making sure that you get your fill, they shave big blocks of ice to the finest powder that would make any snowboarder happy.  I’m a huge fan of vanilla, so I ordered the Black Jack, a combo of Black Cherry and Vanilla.  Don’t let the picture fool you, inside what looks like a standard snow cone texture is the finest, smoothest snow-like ice, you’d swear they scooped it straight from the mountain top in the dead of winter. 

BlackJack

PurifyThey filter their own water, so the taste is smooth and clean.   You can even buy your own water there.  Not only that, but if you have yourself a big gathering, you can order custom labels.  With a outward facing 5 gallon filling station, you can have fresh clean water anytime, day or night.  The building is small, but a big windows shows their whole reverse osmosis setup.  A little piece of Hawaii in Albuquerque, surfboards and all, do not feel in the slightest tacky. 

On a hot summer day, this beats ice cream hands down.  Though if you want that little bit of cream, they have a bottle to add that touch just across the top.  Full of flavor and deep on chill, this is the perfect summer stop. 


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El Pinto – Albuquerque, NM

by Nick
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Published on: May 1, 2010

El PintoThe other nights asthma inducing windstorm reminded me of a night a couple of weeks ago.  My girlfriend’s mother had come to town and it has become a tradition.  She invites my parents out to dinner and where do we go?  El Pinto.   It’s not that she is a big fan of Mexican food as she is from Montana, a place not really thought about when you think of good Mexican food.  And before you start yelling at me stating El Pinto isn’t Mexican food, it’s NEW Mexican food, for the sake of having a few less words to write, I will just leave it as Mexican food and you can make the change in your head.  Deal?  Ok.

It had been a gorgeous day, though it was supposed to be a big ball a crap.  We were very lucky having gone to the zoo earlier that day, but the weather loomed on the horizon.  On to the food. 

Picking a favorite Mexican food place is like picking your favorite team.  When it comes down to it, they are all basically the same, a few variations here and there, and sometimes, even when you know they are crap, you still support them and are your favorite.  On the flip side, they can be really really good, but just something about them rubs you raw, you just don’t like them. 

ChipsandsalsaEl Pinto is what I think of when I think of Mexican food.  The atmosphere is fantastic, the place is  enormous and the food is generally quite good.  They make some of my favorite Salsa, though the stuff you buy at the store in the jar isn’t quite as good as the stuff at El Pinto.  It’s nice and hot without being mind blowing (though that can be debated if you talk to my girlfriend’s mother, or my girlfriend, but take that as you will, they are from Montana and aren’t such the huge fans of hot).  I’ve had hotter salsa before, but that’s not what this is about.  This is about the flavor.  And it’s free, and they refill the basket too, a fact that most Mexican food places leave out, first one is free, then you have to pay?  Not here, if you can eat it, they will bring it.  Oh yeah, and the chips are homemade too.  Crispy, fresh, hot, it’s a good way to start the meal.  Just make sure you save a little bit of salsa for the tacos, assuming you get tacos.  They also have quesadillas, and burgers, both of which would benefit from a nice scoop of the red stuff.

Speaking of Red stuff, I always order the #2, red and hot.  Oh, THAT’s descriptive, mmm…that sounds good, let’s all get a number 2 (sarcasm at myself).  Tamale, cheese enchilada and 2 rolled tacos.  Not being such a big fan of beans, I get the papitas…potatoes for you and me.  Dinnerplate

I usually order a side of Red chile as I smother my whole plate, but since my girlfriend always gets her’s on the side, even though it’s mild, I’ll just use that.  Start with the papitas, soft inside, crispy outside, cooked with onions and peppers, dipped in a little of the red chile, now these are a good way to start  a meal.  The tacos, dipped in what is left of the salsa are super crispy and hot, covered in melty and slightly crispy cheese, they come in chicken and beef (though I always get beef, they are flavorful cigars of taconess.  Tamales aren’t typically covered in red chile, but mine are.  A soft masa, also covered in cheese, though I think it’s just because they were a bit judicious on my tacos.  The spicy pork inside is shredded and tender and I think a great ration between meet and masa.  I’m a huge fan of cheese enchiladas.  You can get a little extra heat from the sauce and still have it cooled off a little by the cheese.  The flavor is intense, garlicy and as much flavor as spice.

Let’s talk about the heat for a second.  Now this is all very subjective, what one person finds about as spicy as a bell pepper, could be link drinking a can of sterno and striking up a match.  I like my spice flavorful and I have a reasonable tolerance.  I like medium taco sauce at Del Taco and Taco Bell because I find the hot just too hot for the flavor.  I like medium salsa, because as much as I like to have that little sweat across the forehead, I want to taste the rest of my dinner when I am done. 

CleanPlateAnd what do you do when you clean your plate?  You sit around and talk for a while because you are far too full for dessert.  It may not look like a lot of food at first, but it’s enough.  My brother could probably plow through two plates as he is a big fan of food and has an insatiable appetite.  With that, there is still a basket Sopapillaof Sopapillas on the table and there is no way we can let those go to waste.  I highly suggest you start your meal with them because after they have been sitting there for half an hour, they aren’t nearly as tasty if they were freshly plucked from the fryer.   You may want to ask your bringer of food to hold off on the Sopapillas until the meal comes to an end.  Do yourself a favor and heed my warning as you will be far happier with a nice crispy, hot, fresh and steamy sopa than if you were to let them sit.  They are quite good even still.  Bite off the corner, fill the thing with honey (make sure you have your plate still) and devour. 

RistraAs we left the wind had picked up, I could tell because my asthma was killing me.   The Ristras violently thrashing around made it difficult to get a picture, but it’s very much a big part of who they are.  The pictures line the wall of all the celebs and presidents who have walked under these red chile pods and enjoyed a meal at this local landmark.  It’s not because it has a pretty entrance, it’s not because the building is huge or has a nice bar.  It is because the food is good, damn good.  If you have your favorite place nailed down and you compare every salsa to the bowl they bring you when you sit down, it doesn’t matter what I say here.  But if you are looking for some all around good Mexican food, a variety choices and a fantastic atmosphere, give it a go. 

Oh yeah, and don’t let the lingering smell of Horse manure scare you away as you are walking in, the smell stops at the door. 


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Cracker Barrel – I-25 and San Antonio Albuquerque, NM

by Nick
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Published on: March 22, 2010

So pull up a chair and let me tell you about a place where family values still mean something.  Where the food is just like mom used to make and the service feels like family. 

 Chair

Ok, so that may be going a little overboard, but that’s the idea, an old timey place where you can get unique comfort food like no where else in town.  The first thing you notice when walking in, it’s a store.  Wait, where’s the restaurant?  Oh, it’s in the back of the store.  If you go on the weekend, you have to wait, which makes the store concept kinda nice.  If you have a sweet tooth like me…you are in trouble.

  Candy

ValomilkThis is a retro candy counter with all kinds of candy and treats that I highly suggest you check out, but do not buy anything before eating dinner.  You may wander off with a case of Valomilk like often happens to me.  You’ve never heard of Valomilk?   Dude, you seriously need to get to Cracker Barrel, if not for anything else, for the Valomilk.  I never leave the place with at least a few.

 Lemonade

Once you get to the table you are presented with 2 GIANT menus.  Breakfast, served all day, and Lunch and Dinner.  Once again, I was given plenty of time to look over the menu, but not too much before it was time for something to drink.  You don’t need to look at the menu for this.  You want the Lemonade.  My lemonade of choice, Raspberry, you only have 2 choices, that and regular.  Normally it comes in a nice frosty mug which looks like it was carved out of giant piece of clear ice.  Today though, just a mug.  Still cold, tangy and oh so good.  They have your standard sodas and Raspberry iced tea too, but I never seem to get past the lemonade. 

 

Wall The decor reminds of TGIFridays in the early part of last century. The tchotchkes are all antiques and remind of me of several museums I’ve seen.   In the cold months, a nice fire is sparking, but today is a warm today, so fortunately the fireplace is just full of ash.   You are distracted from the fact that it takes a long while to even order your food as they put a game Toyon each table and off to the side, checkers.  I beat this one though, twice, while taking pictures and still waiting for ordering food.  Granted, they are busy, I’m seeing a lot of that lately and I’m impatient.  

They are known for their Chicken and Dumplings.  So of course I got the pot roast.  I’ve had the Chicken and Dumplings before, and they serve flat noodle like dumplings, which are good, but just not peaking my interest.  And seriously, how can you go wrong with Pot Roast?  Fried Chicken, Country Fried Steak, Meatloaf, Lemon Pepper Grill Rainbow Trout, this is rustic hearty food.  You get 3 sides which has a huge list to choose from.  Carrots, Mac & Cheese and Mashed potatoes round out my meal.   

Well, no style points for a clean plate, but hey, when did your mom ever serve you a pristine clean plate?  First things first, mac and cheese.  The flavor is Plateperfect even if lacking in texture.  Chefs always talk about cooking noodles until just al dente, these are not those noodles.  I imagine trays of mac and cheese sitting in the back room for hours bubbling away and the mushy noodles are my proof.  Lightly steamed carrots with a little bit of crunch…no.  You could mash them with a fork, which wouldn’t be bad, mashed carrots because they are very sweet.

Ok, so mashed potatoes maybe?  Yes, soft, fluffy, slightly chunky, skins included.  These are very rustic and just like I imagine they should be.  Now for the namesake, you don’t order sides, you order Pot Roast.  It’s good, peppery, and completely soaked in gravy, just as it should be.  Occasional you pull up these odd slimy translucent things, turns out they are onions.  You’d expect all this food to be a giant salt lick, but surprisingly, they do not taste very salty.  You’d be tempted to pour a couple pounds of salt to enhance the flavors, all of which are good if you can get over some of the textures, but I implore you, don’t.  It’s really not necessary and I’m sure that if you really take a look, it’s probably plenty salty.  Biscuit

They serve with your mean, Rolls and corn bread.  I LOVE cornbread and this is no cornbread. I expect a nice little light and fluffy puff of corn sweetness.  The mealy texture present a flavorless and bland little hockey puck. I highly suggest you pass and go for the rolls.   The rolls are good, but I’m pretty sure they are made with vinegar instead of buttermilk.  They don’t quite have that creamy texture you get from buttermilk biscuits, but a faint hint of the vinegar twang.   It’s better than the rolls I make at home, but I still think I prefer the rolls from KFC, yeah, that’s right, KFC. 

I think it stays true to the hearty home cooked meals as long as your mom was like my mom and overcooked all the veggies (or used canned veggies).  The menu is not TOO highly priced for the amount of food you get and the tastes are good, if the textures are not.  All in all, you really need to go get Valomilk.  If it were not for Valomilk, I am not sure I’d crave Cracker Barrel too often.  But hey, sometimes you even crave McDonald’s right? 


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