The Unique Spirit of the Southwest is Alive in Albuquerque

This oft-overlooked Southwest destination is on the rise, offering offbeat travel for foodies, wine lovers and those who celebrate the almighty chile.
Frontier Restaurant / Photo by Patrick Coulie

In recent years, Albuquerque, New Mexico, may have become best known as the rough-and-tumble setting of the hit show Breaking Bad. But this city, which straddles the Rio Grande in the shadow of the Sandía Mountains, is more than just a television backdrop. Albuquerque captures all the Southwest has to offer, and provides visitors the opportunity to fully experience (and taste) the real New Mexico, both past and present.

Grape tarts at Frenchish
Keep it light with tarts at Frenchish

Where to Eat

New Mexican cuisine is a hybrid of Native American and Northern Mexican styles that differs considerably from its eastern neighbor, Tex-Mex. The food of the region centers around “chile,” which refers to both the native New Mexico chile pepper—sometimes referred to as Hatch chile—and the green (fresh) and red (dried) chile sauces made from it. If someone asks “red or green,” they’re asking which sauce you want over your dish, and New Mexicans do put it on everything. The smart answer for a newbie is “Christmas,” or half and half.

Los Poblanos: Built in 1934, this historic inn was designed by famed New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. The property also houses one of the Southwest’s best restaurants. Los Poblanos also maintains an organic farm that specializes in endangered heirloom produce and supplies the restaurant with the majority of its ingredients. The restaurant’s self-described “Rio Grande Valley cuisine” is mostly cooked over wood fire.

Frontier Restaurant: Albuquerque has no shortage of old-school diners, and while locals will argue about which is best, you can’t go wrong with Frontier. Serving the community since 1971, stop in for local favorites like huevos rancheros for breakfast (don’t skip the signature giant sweet roll), a green-chile cheeseburger for lunch, or a late-night carne adovada burrito. While you wait in the fast-moving line, check out the diner’s extensive gallery of John Wayne portraits.

Recipe for Carne Adovada

Frenchish: Jennifer James has long been a star of the Albuquerque food scene. Her newest restaurant, an unpretentious French-influenced bistro named Frenchish, opened late last year. It offers dishes like New Mexico steak tartare, grilled beef ribeye with roasted mushrooms and an aged-gouda macaroni gratin.

Go before 6:30 pm for a boisterous happy hour, where an early-bird, three-course “friends and farmers” dinner is available for $20. The all-French wine list also includes a section of bottles all priced at $25.

A sample of the wares at La Cumbre Brewing Company
A sample of the wares at La Cumbre Brewing Company

Where to Drink

Brewery District: There are craft breweries throughout Albuquerque, but the Brewery District—an official designation given to the area a few years ago—is the best place to start.

La Cumbre brews some of the city’s most distinctive beers, and its Elevated IPA is a must-try. Canteen Brewhouse (formerly Il Vicino) is the city’s longest-standing brewery. Nearby Nexus Brewery serves a mix of New Mexican and Southern comfort food alongside its beers and local wines.

Breweries worth a visit outside the district include Bosque Brewing, Boxing Bear, Marble Brewery, Kaktus, Lizard Tail, Tractor and Red Door. Don’t be shy about asking your bartenders for their favorites.

Left Turn Distilling: The city’s first distillery, which also happens to be located in the Brewery District, makes vodka, gin and rum, as well as a blue corn whiskey produced exclusively from local ingredients.

The tasting room at Gruet Winery / Photo by Gabriella Marks
The tasting room at Gruet Winery / Photo by Gabriella Marks

Gruet Winery: New Mexico was one of the country’s first wine regions, as Spanish monks planted wine grapes in the early 1600s, but world-class, traditional-method sparkling wine from New Mexico? The Champagne-producing Gruet family has planted here since 1984. Their high-altitude sites outside Albuquerque sit between 4,245 and 5,110 feet above sea level and enjoy the warm days, cool nights and disease-free climate ideal for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their Albuquerque tasting room, located at the winery, was recently renovated and expanded. Winery tours are given on the last Saturday of each month.

Prairie Star Wine Bar
Prairie Star Wine Bar

Albuquerque is arguably more of a beer town than a wine town, but when you crave the grape, there are some great places to visit. Apothecary Lounge offers dozens of options by the glass and panoramic rooftop views. Check out the cellar bar at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro for live music and great pours. You can take in blind tastings and frequent wine events at Slate Street Café, while Prairie Star Wine Bar has 32 wines by the glass (via Cruvinet) to pair with stunning sunsets over the mountains. Notable is Prairie Star’s “Wednesday Wine & Dine”—a three-course meal for two people and a bottle of wine for only $60.

The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University
The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University

Not to Miss

The Chile Pepper Institute: Learn why this vegetable is so important to local culture at the Chile Pepper Institute, the only nonprofit organization devoted to the study of chiles. Located on the New Mexico State University campus, the visitor center has seed packets for hundreds of hard-to-find chile varieties. Its nearby teaching garden is open daily from June through October.

Published on October 10, 2017
Topics: Travel
About the Author
Nils Bernstein
Contributing Editor, Food

A fan of sweet wines, sour beers, and old-school Rioja, Bernstein is an exhaustive traveler in search of new and unsung chefs and restaurants, innovative wine and food pairings, and eating and drinking at the source. In addition to Wine Enthusiast, Bernstein has written for Bon Appetit, Men’s Journal, New York Times, Men’s Fitness, Hemispheres, and Kinfolk, among others.

Email: nbernstein@wineenthusiast.net




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