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Smoke near the water
Thursday, 06 June 2013
Photo by Wes Naman
Chef Paco Aceves brings culinary training and a love of all things smoked to favorite North Valley corner

By Mike English
Let me start this food review by noting that I’m a journalist, not a restaurant insider. My knowledge of the culinary world is paid for with my Visa. But I’ve used that card enough to know that any restaurant’s balance of food, service and atmosphere is a delicate one, with seemingly many more ways to fail than succeed. My layman’s take on the state of this balance at Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine, which opened last fall? A work in progress.
Paco’s is located in the old Johndi’s barbecue spot on Rio Grande and Griegos. Paco Aceves, who grew up in Albuquerque and was trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, runs it with his wife Brandi Aceves and business partner Sue Heistermann. It’s the Aceves’ first stab at running their own eatery.

That Paco Aceves knows how to construct an interesting and focused menu is evident at Paco’s. His concept is to bring an international style of smoked meats to the Albuquerque dining scene (think subtle, or non-Texan). Chicken and beef variations of this approach are sprinkled throughout the menu.

Take the Brick Chicken with Lemon Coriander Dressing ($18), for example. The half chicken is smoked for several hours over low heat to infuse it with smoked flavor, basted with lemon and coriander and baked on a cast iron skillet. The result is a light-colored, juicy bird designed to stand on its own merits.
Photo by Wes Naman
The plate of Habanero and Honey-Glazed Smoked Chicken Wings ($8) is another example of this unique smoked approach. Like most Americans, I’m used to having my lips made orange and smoking hot by the average order of bar wings. I found myself surprised by the light skin and subtle glazing of the wings at Paco’s, with just a hint of habanero bite and that foundational flavoring provided by the smoker.

The wings raised my expectations for the Smoked Beef Brisket Nachos ($8), but alas, this was a spot where the menu fell short. The brisket was to die for but oddly sparse. The tortilla chips were subpar, the queso excessive and the cheddar atop it all focused into a thick melted glob. What should be a signature appetizer was not.

The journeys away from the smoker can be rewarding at Paco’s. The Cast Iron Chuck Filet, which my dining companion and I requested to be cooked at medium temperature, is rubbed in a light mix of chipotle seasoning then seared on a heavy skillet. It was one of the most tender, satisfying 8-ounce cuts of beef I’ve ever had.

Photo by Wes Naman
I can’t sing the same praises for the Mussels ($17). The coconut milk and chipotle broth is yet another example of Aceves’ creativity in the kitchen, but the mussels had obviously been frozen. As a one-time resident of Whidbey Island, Wash., where I lived across from the famous Penn Cove mussel farm, this is sacrilege and compromises texture and taste. But I live in New Mexico now and I should probably just get over it.

Another menu item of note is the Spinach and Olive Strudel ($7), which is baked with feta cheese in flaky phylo dough and served atop a red pepper coulis. Notable on the dessert menu is the Warm Apple Crisp, made with Dixon apples and a well-executed crust. The wine menu at Paco’s is focused and tasteful. The choice of tap beers is surprisingly wide, with a beer lover obviously afoot.

Now a word about atmosphere, which brings us back to that issue of the delicate balance of success in the restaurant business. The Aceves and Heistermann did a nice job remodeling the interior of the old Johndi’s, opting for a spare, orderly decor with a pleasing palette of warm paint colors. But the patio features plastic tables as well as a very funky blue-tarp outdoor swamp cooler — fine for a BBQ joint, not so fine when the entrées approach $20. Some simple linens and additional fans and misters seem in order.

In my experience as a restaurant consumer, the trick is creating a seamless balance between food, service and atmosphere. Easier said than done, I’m sure, and Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine is still fine-tuning. What they’re up to is interesting, though, and worth checking out for yourself.

Paco’s International Smoked Cuisine
Hours: 4-9p, Tue.-Sat.
3851 Rio Grande NW | 505.345.3354
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