Over the past decade, Erin Wade has transformed a stretch of Central in west Downtown into her own personal restaurant row.
Wade’s breakfast and brunch spot, Modern General, shares space in a revitalized old Route 66 motor lodge with her rustic wine bar called the Feel Good. A hundred yards north of that is Vinaigrette, the place where Wade first planted her flag in the Albuquerque dining scene.
The Albuquerque Vinaigrette is one of three that Wade runs. The others are in and Austin, Texas, and Santa Fe. The latter location opened in 2008, and Wade’s expansion to the Duke City four years later had many locals wondering if people here would pay Santa Fe prices for salads and sandwiches. Almost 10 years later, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
The pandemic forced Wade to put Modern General and the Feel Good on hiatus, but Vinaigrette is still open six days a week for lunch and dinner. It was empty when I visited recently to dine on the patio during a weekday lunch hour.
Vinaigrette has two patios: one by the entrance that’s exposed to the elements and the street traffic and a second, more secluded spot on the other side of the restaurant. You have to walk through the restaurant to get to it, which gives you a chance to appreciate the dining room with its reclaimed wood floors and green-hued tile work around the bar.
The menu reads like a roster of superfoods, most of them locally sourced. Kale, avocado, nuts and black beans turns up numerous times. Lest it all sounds too stringent, there are a few comfort food indulgences, including macaroni and cheese and nachos.
Most of the space on the menu is taken up by an impressive roster of salads. There are 16, divided into four categories that can be paraphrased as zingy, savory, sweet and balanced. On paper, they all look appetizing, and the option of adding proteins such as ruby trout and flank steak that leaves you with enough choices to fill out an entire year.
La Pepita ($17) arrived as a generous mound of chopped green kale studded with spicy pumpkin seeds and black beans. Moist, shredded white chicken meat and creamy diced avocado give it some backbone, and crumbled cotija adds a little snap. The citronette dressing was unobtrusive, the lemon adding a hint of tang and the cumin evoking Middle Eastern cooking. Like Popeye with his spinach, you can feel yourself stronger as you eat it.
From the Snacks & Sides portion of the menu, Wade’s eponymous macaroni and cheese ($9) was served in a lime-green casserole dish with a side of sliced pears and apples and stalks of carrot and celery. The blend of cheddar, jack and Asiago cheeses was worked to a superior level of creaminess and added enough sharpness to keep it interesting.
Kale fritters ($6.50), cleverly presented in a wire basket with a shot glass full of sriracha aioli, offers up six crispy shelled nuggets yielding to a core of vivid green chopped kale. They were a terrific snack, with a falafel-like nuttiness and a big charge of heat from the aioli.
The five sandwiches on the menu are in the $17 range and include classics like the Reuben and the Cubano.
The hot turkey sandwich ($16.75) consisted of a good-sized pile of sliced turkey under a shroud of melted provolone with avocado bursting through the holes in the bread. It was a little disappointing not to find any of the gravy that usually turns up in a hot turkey sandwich, and the bread was overladen with clarified butter.
Sandwiches come with your choice of salad or soup. I chose the mushroom stew and got a bowl filled with forest, button and porcini mushrooms in a miso-based vegan broth. The whole thing was too soupy to be called a stew, but it worked as a showcase for the textures and flavors of the different mushrooms.
Drinks, listed on a separate menu, include a variety of wines ranging from $10 to $12 a glass, along with a few concoctions categorized as Tinctures & Tonics. The ginger turmeric tonic ($6.75) with carrot juice, lemon and seltzer, presents as a tall glass of neon orange. It was fizzy and bracing, the carrot juice taking a little of the edge off the potent ginger flavor.
Service was estimable. As for the prices, they partly reflect the restaurant’s move to a tipless system, meaning that the gratuity is included in the bill. While this system is well established in Europe, it has proved controversial in the United States. The idea behind eliminating tips is noble: Among other benefits, it provides higher wages for kitchen staff and protects servers from feeling compelled to pander to unpleasant or abusive customers.
It’s not without risk, though, as customers who see the prices out of context might believe that restaurants are hiking prices out of greed.
That Erin Wade would be among the first in the city to move to tipless dining is no surprise. She’s never been afraid to challenge the status quo, as when she recently took on Grubhub over what she considered excessive fees for its services. The holistic view she brings to the restaurant business is a breath of fresh air.