Updated: Michael's Kitchen - Taos, New Mexico

Michael's Kitchen
304 C N Pueblo Rd.
3 blocks north of Plaza
Taos, New Mexico 87571
Date of Visit: Monday, June 23, 2008
Time: Breakfast - 8:30 AM
Server: Rosairo
Number of Diners: 8

Food Quality: 8
Ambiance: 5

This place is legendary across New Mexico for good food and great bakery items. You can tell a place is good when the parking lot is four times the size of the building - in an area where parking is scarce! I went with my wife and a half dozen other motorcylists to try the breakfast, and it did live up to the legend. The place is a little nondescript, and you have to enter via a long breezeway - to accommodate the frequent long lines. Our timing was perfect, hitting the soft spot between the pre-work breakfasters and the vacationers - the breezeway was jammed as we tried to leave at 9:30. The place has two main rooms in the front, separated by a walk-in bakery counter filled with countless delights. There are additional rooms in the back, too. Bustling and noisy, the decor was old southwest, with rough-hewn plank flooring copiously stained with generations of coffee, syrup, and other items.

They seated our party of eight in seconds and brought coffee (regular or pinon) for those so inclined. Pinon adds a mellow, almost chocolate flavor to the coffee, but our table of mostly tourists considered it more of a contaminant. It's a love-it or hate-it deal, kind of like New Orleans chickory coffee.Our waitress was a veteran professional, so she immediately asked if we wanted one check or several, and did not flinch when we told her two groups of two and one group of four.

What we had with menu descriptions...
The menu had a large selection of standard and New Mexican breakfast dishes, and our group sampled several.

My choice: Breakfast Enchilada
Corn tortillas filled with scrambled eggs, smothered with your choice of chile, served with rice and pinto beans: 7.95

My wife's choice: Tortilla Relleñada
Delicious diced ham and lightly scrambled eggs with chives, wrapped in a flour tortilla & smothered with your choice of chile and cheese: 8.35

Martín's Breakfast Burrito
Scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, diced green chile and hash browns wrapped in a flour tortilla: 8.35

Blueberry Blintzes
A gourmet delight ­ heated blueberry compote surrounded by thin pancakes and topped with sour cream: 8.65

And my wife s
ummoned all her resolve not to get the Viva La French Toast
Delicious cinnamon bread swizzled in a rich batter browned to perfection and topped with one egg, any style, and two bacon strips or sausage: 7.65

The food arrived within 10 minutes for the entire table, delivered two by two in the hands of our capable waitress. I opted for pinto beans and rice with mine. The two enchiladas were excellent - chewy corn tortillas offsetting the creamy egg/cheese filling. The green chile sauce topping was spicier than average, and full of small chunks of beef (they also offer veggie green chile). Another diner, who had both on hers, assured me that the red was quite good also. The pinto beans were whole (as they should be) and not refried. The rice was a soggy Spanish-sauced white rice - the only disappointment. The beans, chile, enchilada combo was outstanding. I also sampled the Rellenada that my wife ordered. The eggs were very fluffy and well-seasoned with chive and shaved ham - absolutely delicious with the green chile as well. Other diners added their praise to the generous dishes. Upon exiting, I browsed the menu case with a range of cake donuts, colossal cinnamon rolls with and without pecans/maple glazing, and other delights. I chose a blueberry muffin to go and paid the modest check ($27 for two, including $5 tip). Later that day the muffin did not disappoint - jammed full of fruit and very light on the sugar.

I really must say, Michael's food was excellent. Both the green and red chile sauces were unique, and I found the red much more to my taste that the type found south of Santa Fe. In fact, it was so good that we returned again for two more breakfasts and three lunches that week! All were legendary. Here's a quick review of our other experiences - 4 diners each time...

Something Deliciously Different
Omelette enhanced with roasted green chile and smothered with cheese: 7.45

Poor Man's Eggs Benedict
Two eggs any style on a toasted English muffin, nestled between shaved ham and chile and crowned with melted cheese: 8.35

Huevos Rancheros
Two eggs served on a corn tortilla, piled high with pinto beans and surrounded with your choice of homemade red
or green chile with meat: 7.95

Omelette Extraordinaire
A zesty blend of cheese, ham, peppers, onions and chile salsa: 7.85

And for lunch...

Bacon Chile Cheese Burger
Our huge burger with bacon, melted cheese, and diced green chile, served with french fries 7.95 -
These were so good I had two (on different days!)

Patty Melt
Pure ground beef smothered in onions and melted processed cheese, served on rye bread, grilled in butter: 7.95

Stuffed Sopapilla
A delicate sopapilla stuffed with beans, cheese, onions and ground beef. Your choice of chile is ladled on, then crowned with guacamole and sour cream: 8.35

BLTG Wrapper

BLT with Green Chile Wrapped up in a Flour Tortilla Mmmmmmmmmmmm: 7.85

Chicken Quesadilla
Grilled chicken in a flour tortilla, a tangy blend of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, diced green chiles and avocado. Grilled and served with rice and beans:6.85 - Side of fruit ordered extra to aid digestion!

It should be noted that on our first visit we were seated in an overflow area. The main dining room is much nicer and more tastefully decorated with stained glass, antique iron stoves, local photographs and other local art, plus an enormous wood scroll-saw landscape on one wall. Both food and ambiance scores have increased a full point based on our subsequent visits. The food was all outstanding, with the patty melt trailing the pack at simply good. The stuffed sopapilla was absolutely delicious, and the bacon green chile burger rivaled that of the famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, NM. The quesadilla was quite good, approaching but not rivaling the Range in Bernalillo, NM. Service was consistently friendly and capable. On top of it all each meal came with one or more sopapillas for dessert with honey butter plus honey on the table. I gained a pound a day during my week in Taos!

Michael's Kitchen - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Highs: Excellent, bountiful, rib-sticking food; friendly, informal atmosphere; reasonable prices
Lows: Noisy and often crowded - only open for dinner on weekends!

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Blue Ridge Seafood - Gainesville, Virginia

Blue Ridge Seafood
15704 Lee Highway
Gainesville, VA 20155

Date of Visit: Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Time: Dinner - 8:30 PM
Server: Shirlee
Number of Diners: 5

Food Quality: 7
Service: 7
Ambiance: 4

I decided to join my fellow-traveling co-workers this evening, and they were on a mission - a mission for BLUE CRABS! The ringleaders suggested there was only one place - Blue Ridge Seafood in Gainesville. This town is well to the southwest of the DC area, a few miles beyond Manassas. We made the sojourn late, to avoid the infamous rush hour. The restaurant is a sprawling shack with an enormous gravel parking lot that was nearly full. We stepped inside to the decor of "crab shack 60's" and waited a bit for the young hostess to seat us. She found a place for us in the back, at a pair of picnic tables covered with brown butcher paper on an unifinished concrete floor. The neighboring tables had a group of 15 or so, most of whom were 2.5 sheets to the wind already, and very noisy.

What we had with menu descriptions...
The menu had a large selection of seafood items, about half of which were fried. Featured on the menu and a table card were several soups and chowders. I noticed the lobster bisque was the same price as the New England clam chowder. I asked the waitress about it, and she didn't quite wrinkle her nose. "I'd go with the clam chowder," she advised. "It's made here and that lobster stuff is frozen." Good enough for me, and most of us ordered a cup or bowl of chowder. While several other things looked good, we were there for a crab adventure. Shirlee advised starting with a dozen medium crabs and going from there. We again followed her advice, and added a pitcher of Red Hook ESB (Extra Special Bitter, aka English Style Bitter) Ale. She had each of us specify if we wanted butter or malt vinegar. Four chose butter and one vinegar.

The beer arrived first, with a large stick of frozen stuff to keep it cold stuck into the pitcher. It's a bitter style, but does not have a strong bitter flavor, so the name is deceptive. It worked well with all the seafood. The clam chowder was dense with a generous amount of clams, a heavy cream base, and large chunks of skin-on potatoes. A few minutes after the soup was cleared a plastic dining tray arrived with our dozen medium crabs, covered in a bath of dry spices. These were about a hand's width across. Our veteran showed us how to use the plastic prybar and wooden mallet to get to the crabmeat, advising us what to eat and what to avoid. There was quite a bit of work involved, but it got easy once I got the hang of it. The peeling, prying, and cracking process left enough spice residue on my fingers to flavor the tiny morsels of meat - enough so I completely forgot the tiny cup of drawn butter. My take - it was good, but not quite worth the effort. A dozen crabs later we were all still hungry. Shirlee ducked into the kitchen to reserve our second dozen - apparently our late arrival made availability doubtful. She came back to announce that all that were left were "Jumbos," significantly more expensive. Being on expense account - nobody cared, and we charged on, adding a second pitcher of beer.

I asked our group if the crabs were local, presuming they were from the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Apparently it had been fished out years ago, so all restaurant crabs were imported, presumably from Mexico or somewhere. So I asked Shirlee, and she verified that they were not from the Chesapeake - hadn't been for years. I asked where they came from now, and she replied, "I think they come from Alabama." Most of us had been to Alabama several times, and all of us were surprised to hear it. Shirlee ducked into the back and returned with the day's invoice. Sure enough, all from LA (Lower Alabama) now! This supplier was based in Bayou La Batre.

The next round of crabs was easily three times bigger than the first. Having warmed up on the small ones, the Jumbos were easy to crack and eat, causing unintentional yet amusing sprays of crab juice in all directions. The meat was bountiful and delicious, perhaps not as tasty as the smaller lot, but far less work to get to. This second platter filled us up and left all satiated. Total with tip was about $38 apiece - very reasonable. The guys who had been before avowed that all of the seafood dinners were likewise excellent and affordable. Definitely worth a return visit. Just be sure to ask what's prepared in house!

Blue Ridge Seafood - RECOMMENDED

Highs: Good, fresh seafood, informal atmosphere, reasonable prices
Lows: Noisy and Messy!

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cafe Monti - Alexandria, Virginia

Cafe Monti
3250 Duke Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314


Date of Visit: Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Time: Lunch - 1:30 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 1

Food Quality: 7
Service: 3
Ambiance: 4

On this particular day I was in the mood for a late lunch of salad and pizza. Having my fill of NY style a few days earlier, I was looking for something thinner and less greasy. I told the GPS to look for Italian places as I drove down Duke Street in Alexandria. Stopped at one place - menu in the window proclaimed, "NY Style Pizza," so I moved on. I was about ready to give up as the GPS indicated Cafe Monti dead ahead. Sounded too pretentious for a pizza place. I was looking for places to make a legal U-turn as I passed the place. Much to my delight, it was very clearly a hole-in-the-wall dive. My kind of place!!! I took one of the three available parking places (there were a few more in back) for my late lunch.

Upon entering I was rewarded with Great American Dive Restaurant decor, faded linoleum, chipped formica tables, vinyl tablecloths, thin patina of perma-grease on everything, and a wonderful aroma of cooking tomato sauce! And there were no less than three signs calling attention to their Zagat listing, dated 2007 and 2008, an unexpected discovery. The tall counter hardly concealed the tiny kitchen area, where two cooks were hard at work. A handwritten sign notified all visitors to place their orders at the counter before being seated at one of the eleven (clearly numbered) tables. The manager, dressed in designer jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, greeted me cheerfully as I perused the white board with 20 or so handwritten specials, primarily seafood and seafood/pasta combinations. On the yellowed wall was the permanent menu, listing margherita style and other pizzas. This was good for me, indicating authentic Napoletana Style (Neapolitan) pizza. An Austrian flag proudly displayed next to Old Glory further indicated the Northern Italian slant of the proprietor and menu. Half a dozen enormous round fresh-baked loaves lined a shelving unit, and two more of them were disemboweled in the prep area. I ordered a small margherita pizza and a green salad. Upon inquiring if they had iced tea, the manager assured me it was both fresh brewed and unsweetened, so I added it to my lunch trifecta. Total with tax - $11.78.

I took a seat, and after a short wait, the manager delivered a large salad of fresh, chopped greens (no olives or other veggies to get in the way), generously dressed with a light vinegarette. A large piece of round bread loaf had a very crispy crust and a chewy, spongy inside - sort of like soda bread without the saltiness. It was perfect for pushing the salad and soaking up the surplus olive oil. The iced tea was cold enough to cause brain freeze when using the supplied straw in the plastic cup. Soon the pizza arrived on a tin plate. At first glance it looked just like NY style cheese pizza. While I was expecting fresh tomato slices and basil leaves over mozzarella on the crust (classic margherita), it was a generous amount of tomato sauce and cheese - no basil at all. It was very hot, and I cut off small pieces to cool - protecting my upper mouth from blistering. The sauce was absolutely amazing, so it was decent pizza, if not what I expected. The crust was relatively thin, crispy, and good as well. Perhaps this alteration was an adaptation to the recent tomato-salmonella scare, but I doubted it. As I waited for the pie to cool, I noticed seven types of wine on display, and a case of bottled beer. Some quick investigation found there was a good assortment of both domestic and imported beers, and I zeroed in on an Erdinger Hefe-weizen Dunkel (dark) als Bayern (from Bavaria). $5.35 more and it was mine, providing an excellent companion for the pizza.

As I finished eating and nursed my beer and tea, I saw the cooks and bus-girl take a seat with some big platters of food. It looked and smelled wonderful, as did the fish ordered at a neighboring table. My pizza and salad made a delightful and filling meal, just perfect for my mood and inclination. I looked up their Zagat Rating, and found it to be 22 for the food, a pretty high score for the Uber-picky NoVa crowd. I think the place deserves a return trip to try the seafood and pasta, which looked great, and perhaps even to try some Austrian fare as well. It's a place you definitely go for the food and not the atmosphere.

And so I did return, for dinner!

Date of Visit: Thursday, June 12, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 1

Even though 9 of the 11 tables were full, I still was able to snag one of the three places out front. The same folks were there as the day before, plus an attractive young lady who served and cleared the tables. The white board had been changed in several areas, and the drill looked to be the same. I studied for a bit, then stepped up to the cash register to order. Unlike lunch, the manager did not collect payment at that time, but directed me to an empty table.

What I had with descriptions...
I went with the prosciutto and melon appetizer ($8), fresh scallops and linguine for main course ($18), and pear tart ($5) for dessert. the white board menu descriptions offered no more information than this. I noted they were pouring wines by the carafe, so I asked about the choices for white - pinot grigio and chardonnay. I added half a carafe ($9) of the pinot grigio. I took a table at the back and watched the room. The wine arrived at once, and it was cold and decent - off dry and nice in the summer heat. Near me was a display refrigerator stocked with sodas and bottled water, and a bus area with tubs labeled "Dishes," "Silverware," and "Glasses." Much to my surprise, two young girls eating with their mothers bussed their table into the bins. A few minutes later their teenage brothers did the same, as did the mothers. As I enjoyed my salty prosciutto, fresh cantaloupe, olive oil, and crusty bread - offset nicely by the wine, I watched essentially all the other diners bus their tables as well. It was evident that many of them knew each other - by sight if not by name, and they were also familiar with the staff. Apparently this is a locals' place, and the locals are happy to help out by clearing their own tables. One elderly man even stooped low to fetch a napkin from under his table. Most of the adults, and all of the kids, smiled and acknowledged me as I sat alone. It created a nice atmosphere.

The main course arrived - a healthy pile of needle-thin pasta surrounded by a dozen good-sized scallops. The smallest was about the size of a half dollar. The sauce was the same as used on yesterday's pizza, made slightly runny in combination with the pasta. The linguine was slightly overcooked, soft and unable to absorb any sauce. I put a few hunks of crusty, spongy bread to good use, soaking up puddles of sauce, as I focused on the scallops. They were fresh and sweet, though a couple had started to become slightly fishy. I noted a father and daughter at a nearby table order dessert, and was surprised to see something other than the pear tart. I asked the helpful server what they had, and she informed me it was apple strudel. As it turns out they also had cheesecake, flan, and one piece of raspberry tart. We discussed the merits of strudel versus pear tart for a bit, and I ended up changing my order over to the strudel. I took my time with the main course, but still ended up with some sauce spray on my shirt - which was fortunately red!

The strudel arrived with a nice side of whipped cream. The waitress had told me that none of their desserts was overly sweet, and that was indeed the case with the strudel. I noted a pink tinge to the apple filling, and saw a couple of fruits inside that looked like raisins. I was pleasantly surprised to find they were pitted, dried cherries, lending a delightfully tart contrast to the sweet apples. The portion was generous and delicious. And though not overly sweet, it brought out a pleasant bitter characteristic in the pinot grigio, providing yet another contrast. Again we have a dessert elevating the overall food score! Satiated, I decided to join the locals and bus my own table. And I will have to come back another time to try the pear tart... Total bill was a very reasonable $42.50 with tax, and I left another $8 for tip.

Cafe Monti - Recommended if you want decent Italian with outstanding dessert in a modest setting

Highs: Decent food, great desserts, reasonable prices, large portions, very friendly staff, local restaurant feel
Lows: Ambiance not suitable for a first date or business meeting

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Tony's N.Y. Pizza - Fairfax, Virginia

Tony's N.Y. Pizza
3087 Fair Lakes Shopping Center
Fairfax, Virginia
11:00AM - 11:00 PM - 7 Days a Week

Date of Visit:Monday, June 11, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: 4

Food Quality: 7
Service: 2
Ambiance: 4

I hooked up with three co-workers who were also working in Northern Virginia this week for a pizza treat. Our ringleader was "Longisland Guy" (LG) who was Jones-ing for a taste of his homeland. He had been to Tony's before and attested it was the real deal. There were a few tables outside in the 100 degree heat and 100% humidity, so we bypassed them and headed into the strip mall location. LG was quick to point out the portraits of the last three Popes hanging conspicuously over the cash register - a testimony to the authenticity of the place. Inside you stand in a line to place your order and pay, then you are given a number for your table. This number is called in semi-incoherent fashion over the loudspeaker so you can come fetch your food. The staff in the back yelling at each other indiscriminately added another layer of authenticity to the experience.

The Menu and what we had...
The menu was a full Italian slate on large overhead signboards. Probably a dozen pre-made pies were on display in a glass case for orders by the slice. On the last visit LG and another guy had put away two 14-inch pies, so we ordered three 16-inchers for the four of us, plus antipasto salad and bread. And a pitcher (or two) of Sam Adams beer. Our three pies were classic NY cheese, pepperoni, and (after considering mushroom for a minute) sausage. My suggestion to get a combo was quickly dismissed as impractical, testifying to my Midwestern ignorance. We found a fast-food style booth for four and crowded ourselves in. The beer and salad were ready very quickly, and we were privileged to have an authentic Italian staff member deliver the salad personally. It was a pile of iceberg, heavily dressed with oil and vinegar, plus Buffalo cheese balls and rolls of ham, artichokes, and Italian peppers. A side of bread was ignored in anticipation of the coming pies. Three of us had small portions of the salad, while LG abstained to save room for his precious NY pizza. When the pies were called, two went to retrieve them, and there was no room on the small table. Our earlier helpful friend returned with three pedestals, two of which fit on the table - the third being relegated to and adjoining high-top table.

The pies were blisteringly hot, and LG dove in immediately, while the rest of us were more circumspect. The cheese pie was topped with a semi-liquid sauce and a healthy amount of Mozzarella cheese. The crust was NY spec - lending itself to folding to hold most of the topping in a pocket for your eating pleasure. The Pepperoni pizza was identical to the cheese with the addition of spicy slices of bright red meat-byproducts. The sausage pizza was similar, but instead of crumbled sausage there were slices of brown sausage. The cheese pie was greasy, the pepperoni pie was very greasy, and the sausage pie was molto-molto-greasy, as demonstrated by the puddles on our paper plates - grease catchers. We charged through all four pizzas, three large piles of napkins, and two pitches of beer (for three of us - the fourth was a teetotaler). The pie was decent and a pleasure to eat, although NY is not my favorite style. LG proudly proclaimed that the roof of his mouth was blistered, shredded, and pleasantly numb - the rest of us had avoided such a fate. While nobody was keeping track, LG certainly was the consumer of the night - and we were all happy for him. And by unanimous vote, Pepperoni was the best of the three pizzas.

While we all sat and rested in a cheesy-greasy haze, somebody (might have been me) mentioned that they had cannoli. A lively conversation ensued concerning the compartmenting of the human stomach into food and dessert sections. A few minutes later a tray appeared with four beautiful cannoli. "Are you kidding me?" I asked. Bought and paid for, there was nothing for it but to proceed. These marscarpone-stuffed tubes of pastry were absolutely delightful, better than the last ones I'd had in Little Italy on Manhattan. The dessert raised this restaurant's food score by a full point. Overstuffed and wounded, we made our way back to our respective hotels for a well-earned comatose rest.

Tony's NY Pizza - RECOMMENDED for all New York pizza lovers and all who love to blister the roofs of their mouths!

Highs: Pepperoni pie, Cannoli
Lows: Self service, uncomfortable tables, noise

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego