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Salads everything but not the only thing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Just off Cerrillos Road in a house-turned-restaurant, Vinaigrette is one of those slightly quirky, slightly off-the-beaten-path places that Santa Fe locals love and visitors brag about “discovering.”

With a menu centered on fresh, unusual salads and the wisdom to include protein “add ons” of nearly every conceivable variety, Vinaigrette has developed a winning formula and a loyal following. This approach to food seems so logical and easy to understand I wouldn’t be surprised to find it copied in other food-focused towns. Maybe it has been already.

A friend and I shared a wonderful celebratory lunch on the patio. I’d just finished another step in a big writing project and he wanted to take me someplace special as a surprise. Why does being happy make me hungry?

LOCATION: 709 Don Cubero Alley, Santa Fe, 505-820-9205
HOURS: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

We started with a cup of what Vinaigrette calls mushroom “stew” ($5), served hot with plenty of sliced mushrooms, carrots and onions with a yummy home-made crouton afloat on top. When I think “stew,” I picture a dish with a thick, gravylike sauce. These veggies soaked in a tart broth. Soup or stew, it gets thumbs up. Bread arrives on request here. We asked for and received fresh slices of a chewy white farm bread with a nice crust arranged in a metal bucket. My friend raved about his Reuben Sandwich ($10.45). I agree. This is one of the best versions of this classic I’ve had. As a cheese lover, I especially enjoyed the abundant melted Swiss cheese. The Reuben had ample corned beef and a nice layer of crisp sauerkraut. The light rye bread held things together deliciously. I liked the presentation with the bread simply toasted rather than buttered on the outside, which makes for messy fingers as well as extra fat.

The Reuben and other sandwich choices (hot turkey, tuna melt, Cuban torta and roasted veggies with provolone and basil aioli) come with a salad. You can pick among the Omega, a fancy combo of chopped greens, sweet corn, avocado, red bell pepper, tomato, cilantro, pine nuts and blue cheese, a simple garden salad or a Caesar. We had the Caesar. The combination of fresh romaine lettuce with red onions, scallions, chopped fresh tomatoes and croutons is finished with a light, lemony dressing. This is a nice change from the standard heavier version with anchovy, garlic, raw egg and Parmesan cheese.

Speaking of cheese (again), we shared a dish of Erin’s Mac & Cheese ($6.50). My friend liked it so much he was ready to lick the bowl. I’m not wild about this American classic (no matter who makes it), but I enjoyed it. It was comfort food without pretension: creamy, cheesy and bubbling hot in a thick brown bowl that kept it warm for most of the meal. Vinaigrette serves the pasta bowl on a white tray with two shot glasses. One is filled with pear and apple slices and the second with carrot and celery sticks. Touches like this make Vinaigrette more than your average salad cafe.

The salads here are more than average, too. I’ve tried several and especially like the French Frisee ($ 9.95), frilly frisse greens tossed with crisp, salty bacon and a poached egg in a warm dressing. The hardy Chop Chop ($10.95), another favorite, combines bite-size bits of tomato, bell pepper, romaine, garbanzos, salami, roast chicken and provolone.

This time, I ordered The Nutty Pear-fessor ($11.95). I loved the abundance of chopped pecans that went well with the fresh greens and bits of blue cheese and bacon. The menu says the bosc pears are “grilled,” but they tasted more pickled to me, not the fresh fruit I had expected and would have preferred, but that’s a minor quibble.

We finished our celebration lunch with a piece of fabulous carrot cake ($6). Like all Vinaigrette’s desserts, it’s made in house. The cake was just sweet enough, full of chopped walnuts and moist with shredded carrots. The chef topped it off with a tasty but light, slightly sweetened cream cheese frosting. This is a dessert worth saving calories for. (If only it had raisins, too.)

Vinaigrette uses the tag-team approach to service, and things moved slowly the day of our visit. Our main waiter apologized, noting that we’d arrived with a hungry wave of other customers. He and his fellow workers did their best with a full house, and kept their attitudes from slipping.

Parking at Vinaigrette can be a challenge. The property itself has far fewer parking places than tables for guests. You might find parking in the adjacent lot along Cerrillos Road. Carpooling with friends is a good idea.

Our lunch for two with enough leftovers for dinner was $50.20 with tax before the tip.
— This article appeared on page V13 of the Albuquerque Journal