Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
There’s a Japanese proverb that goes “Better than a banquet somewhere is a bowl of rice at home.” At Anthony’s Grill and Santa Fe Build-A-Bowl, two new fusion take-out restaurants courageous enough to open – and thrive – in the midst of COVID-19, rice is just the beginning.
Both ventures are founded on the hibachi meal concept of building a complex and flavorful stir-fry with your choice of proteins, vegetables, starch and sauces. Santa Fe Build-A-Bowl sprung from the minds of chef Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín and his business partner Corey Fidler during the second restaurant lockdown last fall. A bowl-based pop-up restaurant, Restaurant Martín co-owner and general manager Jennifer Rios explains, “was an idea born of food and beverage professionals who can’t sit still.” The Rios family – which includes their 23-year-old daughter, Build-A-Bowl’s social media maven, and her boyfriend, who designed the pop-up’s logo – are expecting the new concept to cover Restaurant Martín’s rent, gas and electric bills through the pandemic.
Thursdays through Sundays, customers can order “The Bowl” online ($13-$16). They click through a list, negotiating their choice of proteins (ahí tuna, grilled chicken or steak, crispy tofu or Scottish salmon), bases (jasmine, brown or cilantro-lime rice, yam-scallion cakes, quinoa, ramen noodles or chopped greens), and a diverse cast of 17 different veggies and toppings: sautéed mushrooms, steamed broccoli, black beans, zucchini noodles, crispy tortilla or wonton strips, Asian slaw, mango, avocado and much more. Seven inventive sauces include smoked chile-lemon, adobo, teriyaki, Korean red dragon, coconut curry, spicy cilantro-ranch and chile-lime vinaigrette. Jennifer Rios says one repeat customer raved, “I love that I can order from you every night you’re open and never eat the same thing twice.”
Pick-ups are scheduled in 15-minute increments, and it all goes down in the small Restaurant Martín parking lot on Galisteo Street. Last Saturday, we got creative with two bowls. One starred ruby-centered chunks of lightly seared tuna, zingy cilantro-lime rice, black beans, broccoli, pickled red onions and slaw sprinkled with sesame seeds ($16). Paired with the fiery red dragon sauce and a more mellow coconut-curry concoction, it was a delight to enjoy two differently sauced portions.
Another bowl ($15) featured strips of steak al pastor over thick ramen and ribbon-like zucchini noodles, along with mushrooms, avocado, pico de gallo and scallions, sided with chile-lemon and adobo sauces. The sauce-on-side rule (or SOS, for any former servers out there) also keeps any bowl from becoming soggy by the time you get it home, while the individually cooked ingredients make each element sing in their own right.
Jennifer Rios says that, while prices may seem on the higher end for a bowl-based dining concept, it’s because unlike, say, Chipotle, every one of the bowls is made to order, using the same quality sourced (and rotating, depending on what’s in season) ingredients as Restaurant Martín. “When you’re ordering a piece of tuna, it was raw before he started preparing your order,” not sitting in a metal bin under a heat lamp.
Over at the St. Michael’s Village West shopping center, the Asian fusion takeout at Anthony’s Grill has been enjoying a bustling word-of-mouth business since chef-owner Anthony Moore opened the place last August. Moore is a 13-year veteran of Asian restaurants, having most recently cooked at Hayashi Japanese Steakhouse in Albuquerque. Of opening a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic, he says casually, “If you take the chance and offer up good comfort food, you can be pretty successful.”
Moore’s well-priced comfort food includes cornmeal-crusted and fried catfish and hush puppies, both recipes derived from his Oklahoma upbringing. The main events are his build-your-own stir-fries, but a vast menu includes chicken wings and tempura shrimp, along with American-Chinese staples such as fried rice, egg and spring rolls; orange, sesame and General Tso’s chicken; hot-and-sour, wonton and egg drop soup; pot stickers and crab Rangoon. Each stir-fry platter offers a choice of protein (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, tofu) and one or more of 17 different loosely defined “veggies” (snap peas, water chestnuts, egg, cabbage, cilantro, pineapple, celery). Starch selections include steamed, fried or brown rice, lo mein or rice noodles. Anything can be made vegetarian or vegan.
One sizeable order was a veritable (moveable) feast. An expertly packed bag of goodies filled the kitchen with mouthwatering scents before we unpacked a small platter ($12.95) of glossy stir-fried steak strips, broccoli, red peppers, carrots and brown rice. Another small platter ($12.95) was laden with shrimp, yellow squash, spinach, mushrooms, bean sprouts and fresh ginger. General Tso’s chicken ($9.50), fried rice ($3), and hot-and-sour soup ($3) are piquant, homespun, delicious takes on the classics, and every ingredient was fresh and tasty, never cooked past its prime. The plates were blessedly free of grease; Anthony’s Grill’s website also boasts of its commitment to made-from-scratch low-sodium sauces and no MSG.
If these platters are small, the large portions ($15.95) must be enormous – each plate contained enough food for two sittings. Like Build-A-Bowl, Anthony’s offers a bevy of side sauces, including teriyaki, soy, Mongolian, sweet and sour, and Thai coconut, along with green and red chile. We loved the freshly made sweet and sour and the hot Mongolian.
But the real stars of Anthony’s show are the perfectly crusted fried catfish and delectable, bready and savory hush puppies ($7.75 for three pieces each), served with well-balanced house-made tartar and cocktail sauces. If ever Moore expands his Southern food repertoire, I’ll be there in a flash with my wallet out; in the meantime, I’m so glad to have found a new source for impeccable catfish and herb-flecked fried dough balls.
“I just wanted to keep it simple,” says Moore. “But, with the menu that we have, you can create so many options.” That’s the real takeaway here – at either Anthony’s Grill or Build-A-Bowl, it’s next to impossible to pack a home kitchen with such a plethora of options and sauces.
“Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something,” said the late comedian Mitch Hedberg. These intrepid newcomers offer that and much more.