Thursday, May 12, 2011

Laru Ni Hoppy

As a city, Albuquerque continually earns its "quirky" status, and not just for its Isotopes baseball team or its famous submarine house, but also for the unusual way it mixes the urban landscape with rural ranches or splices old vaquero attitudes with cutting-edge nuclear research facilities.

And you can pretty much pinpoint the epicenter of quirk by traveling to the Nob Hill area. The roughly three-mile stretch of Central Avenue (formerly Route 66) just east of the University has grown into a convivial, primarily local, shopping area where the strip-mall store fronts mingle with 1950s era car dealerships converted to pubs, theaters converted to churches, and motels made of doll-heads. Nob Hill is a Candyland of mural art, neon lights, and and bric-a-brac.

Laru Ni Hati is one such decoupage store front with its retro-style neon tower sign which crowns the building to advertise "Hair," "Nails," "Skin," "Cards," and "Cigars." This hair salon has it all, with patio seating for its in-house Cubano grill, wine and cigar display cases, twirling postcard stands, and a billiards table. Stepping into Laru is a sensory adventure. The flooring is a mix of hardwood and smooth concrete that always fluctuates between some state of flat, ramp, or stairs. There are fabric panels suspended mysteriously, neon lights, metal-bead curtains, and lots of flat screen monitors--some showing classic film noir and others showing modern, bisexual phantasmagoria.

-Bisexual phantasmagoria?? Wait, how did I miss this?! I must have been too busy looking at the postcard towers! That's it, we're going back!

On a recent visit to Laru for their discount-price "late night" hair cut (honestly, this discount price is only one of two reasons I'll pay more than ten dollars for a haircut), Zach and I were delighted to find that included in the cost of our hair cut was a chance to taste a brew from the local Marble Brewery. (Can you guess the other reason?)

Fully clipped, trimmed, and thirsty, we paid our bills and took our Marble Reds onto the patio to enjoy. The New Mexico sky was thickening from periwinkle gossamer to navy blue velvet as we took our first sips.

The Marble Red possessed the perfect, creamy, lacy head of bubbles and that sultry, seductive red hue that just tempts you to drink it...drink it and like it. So drink I did, always forgetting that American reds are different from the reds drunk 'round the rest of the world. Most reds are characteristically sweet, or toffee-like, almost bordering on the side of caramel. In other words, I order a red and I'm thinking, "Mmmm, this is gonna' be sweet."

But then drinking the American red when one is expecting a red beer is a lot like meeting Mr. Hyde when you're expecting Dr. Jekyll.

Bitter. Bitter. Bitter. Admittedly, this is exactly what an American red should be (distinctly bitter with a distinctly hoppy edge)...but I am not a bitter beer person. When I taste the bitter of hops, I feel as if I am drinking the rain water collected off an airport tarmac. But that could just be me. Lots of people love and enjoy American reds. I am sure I might even know a few of them. So, maybe the female tongue was not made for that level of bitter. So for a fully appreciative discussion of the tarmac-sauce that is a fine American red beer, please refer to Zach.

I don't think Jenny gives enough credit to the female tongue (or its preferences for taste). Yes, the Marble Red is bitter, but more than that it's hoppy. It's hoppy like an IPA should be hoppy, only without the underlying sweetness I notice in a lot of pale ales. Granted, my experience with American reds is not as broad as I would like it to be. (You mean I have to try more beers to get there? Oh darn...) But even if it's not "tarmac-sauce" -- don't be discouraged by THAT description, folks! -- I don't feel like this particular brew is representative of the color.

The flavors are all there. But yeah... it's just too bitter for my preferences. Right off the top of my head, I can think of four or five Marble beers I would choose first. And yet, I fall right into the same trap Jenny does every time. "Red... that sounds good... I think I'll go for that!"

Admittedly, I feel I have to improve my knowledge of the beer type before I can give a good comparative analysis of the Marble Red. (Are reds -- like ambers -- so named more for the color and no other real definition, or are they christened more for their hops, their brewing process, their malts?) But I can say that the first sip of this beer, whether consumed fresh after a darn good hair cut (I recommend Liz's styling talents for men's hair and her knowledge of food in Buffalo, if you should be headed that way) or tasted any other time, kicks the back of my throat.

But that sensation mellows. And I finish the beer. Every time. So at least that's something.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fish Tacos and Monastic Bliss

This was a Wednesday of contradictory experiences. Fish tacos in the high desert. "Riders on the Storm" played during the warmest, clearest, and sunniest of middays. Two soon-to-be students saving for graduate school splurging on a lunch out.

Belgian-derived Abbey-style beer with Mexican food.

And yet, the juxtapositions made the day. Or, in this case, the meal.

After a morning spent doing backyard gardening for an elderly friend, I called Jenny on a complete whim and asked if she would like to join me for a nice lunch, anywhere of her choosing, but probably near UNM so she could stay close to work. She never hesitated to say yes. (This is why I love this woman.) We deliberated for a bit, and settled on El Patio, the Mexican/New Mexican food establishment for the University district. (Unless you count Bandido's. Which I don't. Call me crazy, but the silent man walking around campus and standing in the median on Central with his Nacho Libre mask always creeps me out. Besides, buckets of Bud Light obviously don't rank high on our list of fine drinking experiences.)

The reason we chose El Patio? Fish tacos. El Patio (142 Harvard Dr. SE, Albuquerque, NM; 505-268-4245) only serves their renowned fish tacos--or what I like to call delectable, crunchy bundles of yum!--on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of each week, and Jenny loves them. (He's being modest, folks. I am seriously the worst fish taco junkie the world has ever seen.) Apparently I had only ever been a weekender at El Patio, so I had never tasted these so-called delights. I was in. Why not?

On a day like this one, our choice of seating was really no choice at all. We took a seat on the front patio (presumably, the very namesake of the establishment) along the front wall. We were essentially right on the sidewalk, but the simple wooden fence made me feel like we were in a backyard in a quieter part of town.
Zach is right on with this observation. El Patio's approach is simple yet effective. The place itself is small and the patio: even smaller. But in my opinion this keeps the conversational volume knob at medium, which means you can hear what your lunch date has to say. 

Then came the inevitable question from Jenny, setting off the restaurant routine we share each time we dine out: What are you going to drink?

I answered like I always do: What are you going to drink?

But this dance had a variation. See, Jenny and I don't get to go out to lunch very often. I blame work. At dinner, assuming the place has any beer selection worth mentioning, our sudsy beverage is a given. But lunch? Ah, in America (and surely in some other part of the world, though I haven't found it yet), we are meant to think one is not intended to drink during lunch. Especially on a work day. So really, the veiled question was instead, not what, but are you going to drink?

We knew already what to eat (though we both gave the menu an obligatory glance), so we turned to the drink menu. There was a selection of Mexican beers, none of which particularly excited us at that moment, and one local brew: Monk's Ale.

Every time we go grocery shopping, we see Monk's Ale among the selections. And we always debate it. And we never decide to buy it. So I looked up from my menu, and Jenny looked up from hers, and our eyes made the decision for us. Two Monk's Ales, please!

We began to discuss how our drinking culture in the United States is so very different from what we both experienced in various places throughout Europe. Clearly, drinking at lunch here is not so powerfully taboo that it cannot happen, like purchasing liquor on a Sunday used to be. After all, we were able to order our Monk's Ales just then without any hassle. But why this difference in cultural attitudes? Why does one see outdoor tables with no purpose other than mid-day drinking in France and Germany and Belgium, but so very seldom in New Mexico?

The beer was brought out before we could reach any ground-breaking conclusions. I suspect this is what happens to a good many brilliant conclusions. The server gave us each a typical pint-style glass and a bottle of our selection. (If you like Belgian-style beers, I do recommend purchasing a six-pack. As is typical when going out, our two bottles cost well over your usual six-pack cost. But they were SO worth it. Keep reading.) We poured them, and on a visual level, we knew we'd picked a winner. The beer came out wonderfully bubbly without fear of fizzing over, and the marigold-yellow brew looked clear and crisp. I held the glass up to the dappled light coming through the shade tree at the center of the patio. "Whoa," I said. "This beer's not transparent."

I don't think Jenny believed me until she lifted hers up, too. (I'm not a skeptic, just a hands-on, do-it-yourself, and see it for yourself kind of learner...that's all.) I can't explain the appearance (oh, but I on!) of this beer other than to say it was opaque without being cloudy. I tip my hat to those monks.

And tip he should, if there be money in that hat! The makers of Monk's Ale accomplished one of the most important, and perhaps difficult feats concerning a great Belgian brew, which is make it the very color and opacity of Heaven's own golden, cloudy gates.    

Then I sipped it. Now, if one can call me a connoisseur of any particular genre of brew, perhaps I can speak of German beers. Or stouts and porters. Jenny is the real expert on Belgian- and Abbey-style beers. But I know what I like. And I liked this particular beer. A lot. It had a very light floral taste without overdoing it, and what I would call a slight citrus undertone. It was the kind of beer about which you could use words like "bouquet" and "fruit" without saying "crowded" and "fruity." That is, it tasted like it might as well have been brewed in Brugges. And it accompanied sunlight and fresh air simply beautifully.

Well, now, I wouldn't profess to be an expert but I developed my pallet for the Abbey-styles while in Belgium. Where else, right? And yes, the local Monk's Ale craftsmen fermented into this beer the same outdoor elements that the monks of scenic Belgium would have celebrated and meditated. The buzzing of the bees, the color of tulips, or the fresh smell of rain. All of it is there in that sip of heaven. And that little taste of citrus Zach noted in this ale I'd say is nothing other than the unique Zia-zing of outdoor New Mexico!

Only then did I notice the subtle music coming through the speakers. Of course I noticed it, because it was Neil Young's acoustic "My My, Hey Hey" off of Rust Never Sleeps. Who plays that song at a Mexican restaurant? But it was, if I may say it, perfect. Then it rolled into one of the melodic tracks off of Led Zeppelin III. Then "Riders on the Storm." It was a strange string of songs, ones I never would have associated with a lovely early afternoon such as this. Yet it fit. The day was perfect for such pairings.

Then the food came. These fish tacos were, indeed, fantastic. (Nom! Nom! Nom! Gobble-gobble-slurp!) And at something like $6.50 a plate, complete with three soft-shelled tacos, salsa, all the garnish (including avocado) and decently-sized french fries, I felt like it was a steal.

Now if I'd thought ahead and remembered that seafood is so often served with this style of beer in Belgium and the Netherlands and France, I might have realized just how well paired this meal would be with this beer. But I was too engrossed in the day to think like that. And oh. my. God. did they go delightfully together. Scrumptious! It was the kind of meal where you want to sip your beer while still chewing your food, just to let the flavors mingle and frolic together on your tongue.

The only tragic part was when we had to leave. Our lunch break was over, and we had to go back to the grinding stone. (Believe me when I say that we both seriously considered quitting our jobs right than and there, just to continue enjoying the flavors, the music, the moment!) Besides, our one-hour parking had expired. But just as the warmth of the sun and the air lingered on our skin, and The Doors lingered in my ears, so the memory of this delectable discovery continued to tantalize my tastebuds. I would have eaten (and drunk) the whole thing all over again. Before we leave Albuquerque, I believe we will.