Turtle Mountain Brewing Co. has been a Rio Rancho gem for more than two decades.
Owner Nico Ortiz decided to expand the brand and opened Turtle Mountain North on the opposite side of the city in the underserved Enchanted Hills neighborhood. The taproom is celebrating its first year with a feast called Gala con Vara, featuring wine and spirits from Vara Winery & Distillery and Taylor Garrett. The food pairing menu, created by Turtle Mountain North’s bar chef Andrew Szeman and chef Chris Blanshine, consists of six courses.
“Chef Chris Blanshine and I started sitting down and kind of pitching food ideas and drink ideas,” Szeman said. “So it slowly kind of morphed over us bouncing ideas back and forth at each other. And one of the focus cocktails has been something that I’ve been mulling over my head for like seven, eight years when Empress Gin came out. It’s a gin infused with butterfly pea tea leaves and it looks really dark purple, almost black. And when you add acid to it, it turns a really royal purple, almost pink. I wanted to do a cocktail where the spirit is inside of a hollow ice sphere with the acid mixer on the outside and you break it with a hammer and it changes colors and changes the cocktail. That’s called The Metamorphosis.”
Each of the courses on the menu are themed with different names such as The Gatherer, The Explorer, The Pirate, The Alchemist, The Hunter and The Archivist.
“My favorite pairing is going to be The Hunter … it’s duck breast, seared mushroom risotto, cherry garnacha reduction and honey dust,” Szeman said. “And that’s going to be in a dehydrated carrot duck’s nest that (Blanshine) is making. And then we’re pairing that with the Garnacha from Vara and I think that’s going to be an absolutely delicious pairing.”
The first course consists of Oysters Chino named in honor of a former chef.
“Chino was a chef that used to work with us and he passed away this year,” Szeman explained. “This is one of his dishes that he came up with. It’s going to be Spanish chorizo, manchego smoked under glass, and we’re doing the smoking with hickory. We drop that at the table, pull the glass off, and we’re going to pour a bacon Boulevardier into the same glass table side.”
The Pirate, which is the third course, was inspired by Blanshine’s preferred drink. The cocktail will be paired with a pork belly confit with braised Swiss chard, white bean puree and molasses demi-glace.
“One of his favorite cocktails is a Dark and Stormy,” Szeman said. “So we’re doing a Dark and Shiny because he goes by (the nickname) Shine. We’re gonna use the Añejo rum and the Blanco rum from Vara, ginger beer and lime. (It’s) refreshing, delicious, kind of geeky, really fun.
The libation for The Archivist course stems from a family tradition. The course will feature barley pudding made with cranberry golden raisins, apple compote and brandied caramel.
“I’m doing the Spanish Brandy Solero Reserva from Vara,” Szeman said. “I’m just doing warm brandy. That brandy is so delicious and special that I believe it doesn’t really need anything to accentuate it. I don’t need to make a cocktail and a very Old World tradition is warm brandy after dinner. I’m part Hungarian. So a big thing that my family does is we have warm brandy after dinner.”
Celebrating the taproom’s first year of operation is a proud accomplishment for Ortiz and his team.
“It was a long time planning,” Ortiz said. “We started the planning for this in 2020 right in the middle of or in the early stages of COVID … Enchanted Hills, it was a wasteland, a culinary wasteland, and we came in and brought some light to it. We’re sort of a little oasis, well a big oasis in Enchanted Hills, and they’re making big plans. The landlord is putting in a new container development just to the north and west of us, which definitely should spur some activity. North Rio Rancho is definitely starting to finally get the development that it needs.”
Ortiz has big plans for the taproom in 2023.
“The first year we mainly concentrated on operations but (in) 2023, hopefully we’ll get the interior decorations up on the wall, we’ll get the patio finished, we’ll finish out the space and make it realize its full potential,” Ortiz said. “We have yet to realize the full potential of what we’ve got here.”