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Small town, big taste
Food/Drink - Review
Thursday, 12 March 2009
Who would have thought that a spot on the map, could offer such culinary refinement?

Photo by Josh Bond
By Kevin Hopper

After I completed a cross-country trek a few years back that had me driving a four-cylinder mini-van from Albuquerque to New York City and back in a mere six days, I realized that it’s nearly impossible to find a great restaurant in an unfamiliar city when you have only a few hours available.

It is, of course, an enviable feat (and one that smart phone technology has made more attainable) when you can arrive in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and navigate your way through alien freeways and exits to the “Best Whatever” in town. Realistically, I have found that falling back on fast food joints that I normally would never step foot in — KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell, et al — is regrettably the most efficient way to procure sustenance when you are on the road. Then again, for a so-called foodie, sustenance is a word that holds little, if any, meaning.
All these thoughts coursed through my mind as I sat down to dinner at Bella Luca Cafe Italiano, an unsuspecting and minimally-minded modern Italian restaurant located only two short hours away from Albuquerque in the sleepy, funky township of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I repeat, a modern Italian restaurant located in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The name is arguably the coolest city moniker on the planet, but in the eyes and stomachs of ABQ and Santa Fe foodies, it is hardly a sought-after spot on the state’s dining map.

Admittedly, it is this very same short-sighted viewpoint that has, in the past, relegated my dining options on every one of my dozens of visits to this emerging, artistically rich Southern N.M. town to a default Brazier Burger and soft serve cone at the safe and friendly DQ. Perhaps, had I afforded myself the luxury of time, my trips back home would have been more enjoyable (i.e. - less bloated).

Photo by Josh Bond
To the disappointment of all you “app-hungry” iPhone users such as myself, I happened upon Bella Luca via word-of-mouth, from a close friend who lives and works as an artist in the area. Artists have a way of attracting culture, be it food, fashion, art or whatever. This could be the reason that Bella Luca’s chef and founder Byron Harrel-Mackenzie was initially drawn to the area. Regardless of his motivations, it was made painfully clear to me that a visit to TorC is not complete without a lunch or dinner at Bella Luca.

The restaurant’s high ceilings and markedly open, echoing atmosphere, all but guarantees that you are not in for an intimate dining affair. An open kitchen and pair of rustic chef’s tables lets diners know in no uncertain terms, that Bella Luca is a chef’s restaurant.

Despite the fact that Bella Luca was bustling with activity upon entering, my artist friend was able to quickly reduce a 45 minute wait into a 3 minute wait — TorC is a pretty small town, but it is always cool when you, “know people who know people.” Spare table settings and sleek, modern chairs emphasized a fine dining feel that worked to, even before I had a peek at the menu, build my expectations.

Though it is not an entirely fair assessment, I couldn’t help but notice that Bella Luca most closely resembles the Nob Hill staple, Scalo Northern Italian Grill. In my mind, that is a good thing. With a menu that places an good amount of emphasis on earthy ingredients and grilled entrées, as well as a noticeable focus on the Italian food traditions from the northern territories, Bella Luca comes across as anything but a small town Italian eatery. As for the food, I was suspect of the calamari appetizer — after all, this was TorC. But to my surprise and overwhelming delight, Chef Byron’s version was downright immaculate. The small cuts of squid were very lightly fried in a crispy, crunchy crust complimented by mixed greens delicately massaged with just the right amount of olive oil. Bread and olive oil were of course on hand as were a small offering of marinated olives.

Photo by Josh Bond
My dining companions and I all passed over the menu’s pizza and calzone lineup — though the shrimp, brie, garlic and spinach calzone was pretty intriguing. Rather, our eyes and stomachs were drawn to Italian standards such as Rigatoni Bolognese ($12.95) and Spaghetti and Meatballs ($10.95), as much as they were to more refined dishes like Roasted Grouper ($19.95), Italian Marinated Rib Eye ($19.95), Pan-Seared Sea Scallop Risotto ($21.95) and Littleneck Clams & PEI Mussels sautéed in herbs, garlic and white wine ($16.95). My two companions chose the Littleneck Clams and the Eggplant Parmesan, while I opted for the rib-eye. The clams proved to be the clear winner with an expected buttery, garlicky goodness that its ingredients promise. The eggplant was successful in many mays, the most important of which was flavor balance — no one ingredient was overpowering.

As for the rib-eye, ordered fussily cooked “rare to medium-rare,” was overcooked. A bummer for sure, but one of those inevitable situations that a seasoned chef can quickly make better with a second version of the dish and, as an added gesture, a couple of big pours of premium wine selections. Chef Byron proffered both and effectively endeared me to this hidden culinary treasure that, after scraping clean a plate of bread pudding topped with a buttery sauce of pear and caramel, exquisitely paired with a peachy, not-too-sweet dessert wine, changed my view of small town eats. Sorry DQ.

Bella Luca Cafe Italiano
303 Jones, Truth or Consequences, 575.894.9866
Hours: 11a-9p, Mon./Wed./Thu.; 11a-10p, Fri.-Sat.; 10a-8p, Sun.; Closed Tuesdays

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