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Lunch crowd will quickly take a shine to simple, thoughtful food

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Al’s Big Dipper, opened late in 2010 by partners Cassidy Nein and Alan Chen, is more hip than your typical mom-and-pop. Think of it more as Cookie Girl & Sandwich Guy; it fills the void in the gourmet sandwich market left by the departure of Relish, the previous occupant of the diminutive space barely large enough for a serving counter and a spot to place one’s order.

Tables outside are for people watching if you’re not fetching a takeout order for yourself or your appreciative co-workers.

Nein and Chen are making a go at the daytime dining crowd by offering a straightforward product: simple lunches made with good ingredients, priced with the recession in mind. Those good ingredients include roast beef cut by hand, inventive soups that change daily, even homemade cookies that throw in a twist now and again. (I’ve heard of a bacon chocolate cookie, but not yet experienced this promising treat.)

Al’s Big Dipper
LOCATION: 411 W. Central, 314-1118
HOURS: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Fridays; closed weekends

In the larger eating world, it is known that ingredients often have natural flavor affinities: pork and apples, basil and tomatoes, dill and salmon, and so on. One of my favorites is beef and caramelized onions, a combination reinvented in the Angel Sweet Onion Sandwich ($7.95) with thin roast beef and cool onion jam as a refreshing alternative to the hot grilled preparation. A smear of cream cheese adds richness and a tangle of spinach provides crunch and color. Served on sturdy ciabatta that almost needs the onion juices to soften it, this is my new favorite sandwich in town.

Every stuff-on-bread restaurant has a grilled chicken sandwich or a chicken salad offering, but Big Al’s brings simplicity back in CC’s Chicken Special ($6.95), a cool assembly of deli-cut chicken breast, pepper jack cheese and avocado on chewy sourdough. No gimmicks, just a good fistful of sandwich.

Find nonmeat delights in the Ansman Mozzarella ($6.50), with wide slices of fresh mozzarella set off by tart sun-dried tomatoes on a mustard-smeared ciabatta loaf. Or spring for Ting’s Tangy Leaves ($5.50) if a salad is more to your liking. I’m certainly liking the crumbled feta, fat walnuts and zippy dressing to add substance to the greenery.

Daily specials run the gamut, from a Sloppy Joe one visit to a grilled Cuban a week or two later. The soups rotate as well, showcasing anything that strikes the cooks’ fancy. I’ve seen cheesy chicken and broccoli, herbed potato, even chilled corn and shrimp perfect for a sunny July lunch. Lighter appetites will find much to love in splitting a sandwich with a cup of soup as part of the daily lunch special, usually just $6.

Takeout orders are filled quickly and delivered nearby for a nominal charge. Call ahead, then pick up your neatly bundled bags and be on your way. There are individual pickles in tiny baggies. There’s a cookie for each entrée in a paper wrapper. There are salads, pasta or coleslaw in little bowls. Everything adds up like tidy little gift bundles when you unwrap and begin distributing sandwiches to your friends.

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