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Pasta is first-rate, brunch OK at Joe’s

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I’d heard good things about the Joe’s Dining spaghetti dinner special for years. On Tuesday nights, Joe’s sweetens the pot for customers with a two-course pasta meal for two for $29.95 including a half-carafe of Chianti, if you want it.

The reason I’d never tried this has nothing to do with Joe’s and everything to do with a childhood bruised by too many school or church fundraising spaghetti dinners. These meals featured gummy noodles buried in bland tomato sauce with mystery meat, sometimes shaped into meatballs. The spaghetti came with a bowl of iceberg lettuce and perhaps a cherry tomato, chemically enriched bottled dressing and a piece of soft white bread jazzed up with melted margarine and garlic powder. Store-bought cookies or white sheet cake with flowers in the icing made up dessert.

Then, I married a man whose mother had savored many meals in the trattorias of San Francisco’s Little Italy. She helped me learn to value fresh ingredients long-simmered to create her rich, fragrant Bolognese. After that, with rare exceptions, pasta and meat sauce were boring.

Joe’s Dining
LOCATION: 2801 Rodeo Road, Santa Fe, 505-471-3800
HOURS: 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

So, Joe’s spaghetti dinner surprised me in a happy way. I liked it before I even tried a bite because of the way it looked – pink rather than the bright red of tomato paste – and the mouth-watering aroma that wafted up from the bowl. It was deliciously different from the bland, limp version served at long tables in the school gyms and church halls. (Very different from my mother-in-law’s version, too, but first-rate in its own way.)

I liked the chopped fresh tomato in the sauce. The meat had either been finely ground or cooked long enough to become an integral part of the sauce. Joe’s recipe has hints of smoky bacon (or maybe it was prosciutto), celery, onion, carrots and garlic. Blending together with careful cooking, they create a whole more irresistible than any of the parts.

We also enjoyed Caesar salads crafted from fresh romaine lettuce lightly coated with a garlicky dressing and sprinkled with croutons. Along with the salad came thin slices of baguette toasted with butter and garlic. The noodles were cooked to my liking and Joe’s serves gluten-free pasta on request.

We started with an appetizer, chicken liver pate ($7). It had a smooth texture and a mild, rich flavor. I appreciated the pink onion marmalade, the sweet cornichons or miniature pickles, and the small, crisp bagel chips that came with it. Our servers’ polite attention added to our enjoyment.

If you’re not in the mood for pasta, Joe’s has a large regular menu, a list of gluten-free options and daily specials at lunch and dinner. Joe’s serves New Mexico lamb, beef and bison, house-made mozzarella and desserts, New Mexico beer and wine, local bread, fruit and vegetables from the region when available.

Our tasty spaghetti dinner followed an average Sunday brunch a few days earlier. Unlike the reasonably priced dinner, brunch for me and three guests came to a whopping $82.28 before tax and tip and without Mimosas, Bloody Marys or anything to drink except coffee ($2.79 a cup) and a single glass of orange juice.

If I am going to pay $20 a head for breakfast food, I expect something memorable, but the only outstanding thing at this meal was the price and Lou Levin’s musical entertainment – soft jazz classics on the keyboards.

The meal included an overcooked breakfast steak, beef pounded thin, with potatoes and eggs ($14.99). Besides the steak, I didn’t like the extra charge of $2.50 for a single piece of toast. Even more, I resented not being advised that toast was extra, and our server’s lack of response when my friends and I complained.

We tried the Eggs Royale and Joe’s Benedict, the same dish except Joe’s Benedict spoons poached eggs on top of hot, crisp latkes instead of the traditional toasted English muffin halves for the Royale. Pretty slices of house-smoked salmon come next, then warm eggs and hollandaise. The Royale ($13.99) has home fries and the Joe’s Benedict ($14.99) adds a fresh tossed salad.

I asked for light hollandaise on the Joe’s and instead received a white paper cup with perhaps a tablespoon of barely warm sauce on the side. The eggs were overcooked, – I hadn’t specified how I liked them, but the waitress never asked. I also ordered a single blue corn pancake. It was hot, fresh and good.

For my money, Joe’s best breakfast was the most traditional. Cowboy Jack featured two eggs cooked as requested, two pieces of crisp bacon, potatoes and two pancakes. ($8.99) The brunch menu also includes quiche and omelets.

Curious about dessert, we tried the pineapple upside down cake ($5.95). It was a yummy, cupcake-size, soft yellow cake topped with a single pineapple ring, a glaze that added moisture, and a dollop of whipped cream. Other desserts, all made on the premises, include cheese cake and French chocolate truffles.