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Award-winning burger one of many stars at Toltec

When eating the Royale, the prize-winning burger at Toltec Brewing Co. on the West Side, you might push the plate aside, thinking you’re too full for another bite, but it’s such a good burger that you end up going back for more.

Toltec’s executive chef, David Ruiz, created the Royale from a mix of beef brisket and chopped cremini mushrooms. The combination worked well enough to earn a win at the 2018 James Beard Foundation Blended Burger Project, a competition intended to reduce our ground beef consumption by incorporating mushrooms into burger mixes.

The Toltec Royale combines beef brisket with chopped mushrooms, and the pork belly fries are served with cheese and chipotle aioli. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The Royale is but one of the featured items at Toltec, a craft brewery that opened less than a year ago amid the sea of strip malls, office buildings and free-standing stores south of Ellison and Alameda.

Toltec’s ambiance wraps you in a bear hug the moment you enter. Sporting events on the numerous television screens mounted around the room fight for attention over the hum of conversation. A kid squeals as a Jenga tower comes crashing down at one of the tables. A server hollers over to tell you to sit anywhere you’d like.

My party sought shelter in the relative calm of one of the booths along the wall, a good perch from which to take in the room and note the diverse clientele: families, young couples, older guys in ball caps. A four-sided bar dominates the space, backed up by beer tanks standing sentinel behind a set of windows.

Chef Ruiz put some thought and creativity into his menu of beer bites, pizzas, sandwiches and salads, with surprises like potato beignets with pickled calabacitas ($9), a salad of braised beets and goat cheese ($10) and a chicken bahn mi sandwich ($12).

Three brisket taquitos are served with smoky, spicy harissa cream, pickled vegetables and salsa. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The beer bites carry considerable heft. Three brisket taquitos ($8), one of several gluten-free offerings at Toltec, are almost enchilada-sized. They are crisp, not greasy, and great for dunking in the accompanying tangy tomato salsa.

Pork belly fries ($9), served with cheese and chipotle aioli, work as both an accompaniment to the burger and a stand-alone dish. The crisp-coated fries are excellent; that is, if you can eat them before they get locked into the matrix of congealing cheese. The cubes of pork belly provide interesting contrasts, as the caramelized agave glaze gives way to jelly-like fat that imparts a faint pork flavor as it melts in your mouth.

If you don’t like mushrooms, you might be leery of trying the aforementioned Royale burger, but fear not. The mushrooms add meatiness without imposing on the beefy taste of the brisket. There’s much more to the burger, including cheese, a pile of moderately hot Hatch green chile, a thick slab of bacon and a fried egg. Unless you have the ability to unhinge your jaw, it’s hard to get everything into one bite. Eventually, I broke down and used a knife and fork. Sacrilege, maybe, but it helped me enjoy all of the elements together and contribute to the sustainability theme by reducing my napkin use. I would have liked the burger even more if the yolk of the fried egg crowning it had been runnier.

Toltec has a good selection of beers covering the spectrum from lagers to stouts and available in a variety of serving sizes, including a flight of four 6-ounce pours. I sampled the fruity, crisp altbier and the subtly spicy rye lager before opting for the oatmeal stout, its coffee and chocolate flavors, making it an ideal brew for sipping on a cold day.

Service was performed with a kind of brusque efficiency. Even tucked away in a booth, my party never felt marooned.

Chef Ruiz recently announced that he would be leaving Toltec Brewing Co. to start a new venture.

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