I get squirrely when I hear: “Let’s go to the opera in Albuquerque.”
There are some words that don’t ordinarily go together.
Such as “opera” and “Albuquerque.”
Hearing this makes me nervous because, in my mind, not a lot goes with “Albuquerque.” It is not one of my favorite places though, I must admit, I have not fully explored the Duke City.
I feel a certain amount of trepidation.
Kathy is beaming, however, and it is obvious I can’t say no to the proposition.
So, troubled by the prospect of enduring “Homer and Jethro Presents ‘Carmen,’” I set out with Kathy for a two-day cultural adventure in Albuquerque. (Culture? Adventure? Albuquerque?)
In order to steel ourselves for the Albuquerque experience, we stop in Santa Fe for lunch. The side trip is akin to divers saturating themselves with pure oxygen prior to heading for the dark deep. The diversion proves worthy: We find a small table at a favorite Spanish restaurant. I take my mind off the impending musical disaster with a dose of kefta, the grilled tubes of ground and highly-spiced lamb folded in a large round of warm flatbread, moistened with a lovely yogurt sauce. A glass of Grenacha is a big help.
We eat, we drink, we breathe deeply and we motor south.
Kathy has reserved a room in a cheap Albuquerque motel located near the airport (“Why spend money if you are only going to be in the room while you sleep?”) Makes sense to me; as long as there are no bullet holes in the walls of the room and no concertina wire surrounding the pool area, I am good with the idea. The lobby looks like a scene from Stalingrad, 1943; management is renovating the area and there is rubble everywhere. Crude, hand-lettered signs direct the lucky guests to the temporary check-in desk – a card table set up in a hallway, manned–by a heavily pierced young fellow who talks to his girlfriend on a cell phone throughout the process.
At least we know the room is clean: the smell of pine oil is reassuring.
We have just enough time to change clothes and head downtown. Once there, we find a café where we enjoy a passable light meal, then we head to the theatre, and the opera.
I am pleasantly surprised. It is far from a disaster. The Opera Southwest production is very well done, featuring principals trucked in from New York and other opera-rich environs, and great stage design. It is an enjoyable evening. So, “culture” and”“Albuquerque” can, indeed, be used in the same sentence.
Alas, the glow fades quickly.
On the way back to the motel, Kathy decides she needs bottled water. She has grave reservations about municipal water systems and is what I call a “filter freak.” We find a convenience store on the boulevard leading to the motel. It is 10 p.m. and the store is locked. An employee wearing what appears to be a Kevlar vest, and with “muerte” tattooed on the back of one hand, sits behind a bulletproof glass window and takes orders. He delivers the bottles of water via a sliding drawer similar to those you see at the drive-thru at a heavily-fortified bank.
“Why are you closed so early,” I ask.
“Not safe to stay open after the sun goes down,” he responds.
Ah, yes, Albuquerque. Even Muerte is worried after dark.
The next morning, I discover that the “continental” breakfast at the motel consists of stale, dry cereal and day-old pastries, each as dense as a neutron star. Further, with the motel “breakfast room” under renovation, people are slouching in the hallway, trying to eat cereal while standing up.
Kathy is not dismayed. “Let’s pack the car, head out and find something quick and easy.”
Decent food, “quick and easy.”
What we find, two blocks from the motel is a chain restaurant. I won’t divulge the name of the place, but I will say the name includes the word “Village.”
As in: It takes a Village to screw up breakfast.
I trudge into the joint, grumbling all the way. We make our way through a lobby area lined with several carnival-like vending machines and are led to a booth. The seats in the booth are patched with duct tape and the tabletop is sticky. The walls shine with a greasy patina. As does our waitress.
The menu is twelve pages long, full of photos of the food. Brightly-colored food.
Photos on a menu are there for one of two reasons, or both: 1) the average client cannot read and/or 2) the owners want you to see the image of a menu item as it would look if only they could cook it correctly.
I zero in on a photo of a breakfast burrito. Kathy selects a photo of waffles.
The food arrives and provides a neat lesson in Neo-Platonic theory. The perfect form (represented by the photo in the menu) has emanated a material representation and, as must be the case in such a process, the earthly example is a seriously flawed and sadly temporary manifestation of unattainable and eternal perfection.
In plain talk: the stuff on the plates is crud. Barely edible.
My breakfast burrito consists of a gummy flour tortilla wrapped around a filling of day-old, flavorless shredded pork and criminally-overcooked scrambled eggs. A slick of gray-green sauce is slopped atop the rolled tortilla, the salty muck bound by cornstarch. I stare across the table at Kathy. She is attempting to tear a bite off a wedge of cold waffle dangling from the end of her fork. Her eyes are closed and she hurls her head from side to side like a pit bull in battle.
At times like this, one is tempted to think, “Things can’t get any worse.”
But, oh … they can.
We are in Albuquerque.
A loud whooping sound, accompanied by high-pitched shrieks, issues from the lobby area.
Seconds later, two urchins rocket through the Village. A small girl, maybe 8 years old, holds a yellow ball of fake fur above her head and screams: ”I got it, I got it, I got it. Look what I got” at the top of her lungs. She appears to have an entire bottle of blueberry syrup slathered on her face.
Behind her runs a stout young lad, perhaps 10 years of age, barefoot, legs caked in mud. He waves his pudgy arms and yells: “Look what she got. Look what she got.”
The duo makes three circuits around the dining area screaming all the while, before darting back to the lobby.
Somewhat startling, but the fun is just beginning.
A shadow falls on the room and a male voice booms: “She done it. She done it. She done it on her first try! Hey, look everybody, she done it on her first try!”
A monster of a man stands at the entrance to the lobby, blocking the light from the front windows. He is 6-4 and must weigh 400 pounds. At least 300 of those pounds are falling from beneath the bottom of a too-short, dirty gray T-shirt and over the tortured waistband of a pair of what were once white shorts. The guy is wearing flip-flops — each a different color. His hair looks like a he has been hit by hurricane-force winds and he hasn’t shaved in days.
Hey everybody, it’s Dad!
He gestures wildly to the lobby behind him and to a machine that features a clawlike device that dips into a bin of poisonously-colored furry things. Pay a quarter, take a chance on grabbing the prize.
“She got it on her first try. I can’t believe it! The first try! Look, everybody!”
The kids take off on another high-volume lap.
There is a group of policemen eating breakfast at the restaurant. The kids skid to a halt in front of their table.
“Look, look, look.” The girl shoves the furry thing in one of the officers’ face.
“Look, look, look.”
The boy pushes her aside and bellies up to the table.
“I love cops.”
One gets the impression the family has had a lot of experience with law enforcement.
Dad waddles over to the table.
“We all love cops.”
I see one of the officers instinctively reach for his sidearm.
The circus continues as the happy family moves from table to table to display the booty, at max decibles.
We leave before they arrive at our booth.
We drive north, heads reeling, ears ringing.
Again, there is a need for oxygen, to prevent a case of the bends.
We stop at another favorite restaurant in Santa Fe. What we eat saves the entire trip.
Our selection is, at first glance plebian: A sandwich. A meat loaf sandwich, at that. Usually pretty blue-collar stuff.
In reality, it is one of the best sandwiches either of us has enjoyed.
A slab of green chile meatloaf is covered with a thin layer of melty-good gorgonzola then bedded with sliced tomato and greens on a toasted brioche bun. On the side: warm potato salad — large chunks of perfectly cooked red potato, dressed with simple tangy and light mayonnaise-based dressing.
The meat loaf is light, unimaginably light, the texture pillowlike, the taste subtle, kissed with a bit of heat from the green chile. It pairs beautifully with a glass of domestic pinot noir.
I resolve to reproduce the masterpiece the following Friday, for dinner with BFD and GB.
I gently combine a pound of 80/20 ground chuck with a pound of ground veal.
I peel and chop a large carrot, a clove of garlic and half of a small white onion then pulverize the veggies in the food processor. I add the veggie slurry to the meat with a beaten egg, salt, pepper, a pinch of ground cumin and a cup of chopped, roasted green chile. I top it off with a cup of panko bread crumbs and I very carefully mix all the ingredients, taking care not to compact the meat.
I put a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet, put a rack on the sheet, loosely form a loaf with the meat mix and place the loaf on the rack. Into a 350 oven it goes, for an hour.
I wrap the cooked and cooled loaf in foil and put it in the fridge. The next day, I cut hefty slices of the loaf and put them on the grill for a couple minutes, and sprinkle the cooked side with crumbled gorgonzola once the slabs are turned.
I split and toast bolillo rolls. A grilled slice of loaf goes on a roll, which has been moisetned with a bit of the dressing I make for my version of the warm potato salad (three parts mayo to one part plain yogurt, a pinch of cumin, salt, pepper and some finely minced white onion). A couple slices of tomato, some spring greens and the sandwich is ready.
For my first crack at it, the effort is commendable. But the loaf is nowhere near as light, as ethereal, as its inspiration.
I will try again.
Until then, consider me trepidated.