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Eatery offers ‘eco-sourced’ food for the 99%

Armand Saiia’s Desert Grows Kitchen has planted itself in a couple of different places in the past two years.

bizO-Dyer_Jessica_BizOThe restaurant – designed around a fully equipped, 30-foot mobile kitchen trailer and serving what Saiia calls “farm to table (food) for the 99 percent” – originated in Santa Fe before moving to the Albuquerque metro last year. It spent most of 2015 in a spot across 4th Street from Dan’s Boots & Saddles, but closed there after Thanksgiving.

It has now settled just up the road at what Saiia expects to be its last stop.

“I’m 61 years old, and I don’t want to move again,” Saiia says from the new location at 7319 4th NW, the former home of Desert Willow cafe.

Armand Saiia, right, chef and co-owner of Desert Grows Kitchen, greets patrons at the eatery's new location. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Armand Saiia, right, chef and co-owner of Desert Grows Kitchen, greets patrons at the eatery’s new location. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

His nomadic kitchen isn’t just parked on site – it’s been hoisted onto blocks behind the building.

“Trust me. I want this to be it, and then I’m moving to Vietnam or something,” Saiia adds with a laugh.

Saiia and partner Bettina Armijo have big plans for their new home. Saiia, a former New York-based sculptor and filmmaker, wants to host small-works art shows in the 40-seat dining room. He has started transforming the on-site stable into an “entertainment barn” for live music and special events. He intends to fill a separate building on the property with horno ovens for a pizza-making operation.

But his primary mission remains the same as it was when he started: serving fresh, quality food at reasonable prices.

“We can’t make good food elitist. We can’t allow it to be made for just one sector of society; it has to be available to all people,” he says.

Saiia’s path here began with a major lifestyle change that saw him moving from the East Coast to buy a farm in Ribera. He has grown up to 60 vegetables on that Northern New Mexico expanse. Some wind up in his Desert Grows dishes, though he’s also relying on other area farmers and as many local producers as possible.

The restaurant’s menu touts that 90 percent of the food is locally and naturally grown or “eco-sourced,” which Saiia describes as a “mindful procuring of food from the shortest distance.”

The menu doesn’t have a theme beyond that; options run the gamut from French toast topped with “freshly made spice syrup” and fruit compote ($7.95) to beef and lamb burgers ($7.95) to a carne adovada taco plate ($9.75).

“We’re global. That’s our cuisine,” Saiia says. “I don’t want to be boxed into a corner. We do a little bit of everything.”

Desert Grows is open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday (except Tuesdays, when it’s closed) and 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. Dinner is available on a reservation-only basis for parties of eight or more.

The address is 7319 4th NW, near Los Ranchos Road. The phone number is 362-6813.

Sushi done differently

Now introducing … the sushi burrito!

Jenifer Duarte, a Sushi Freak owner, creates a sushi burrito at the new Albuquerque restaurant.The Gunshow sushi burrito at the new Sushi Freak in ABQ Uptown.

Jenifer Duarte, a Sushi Freak owner, creates a sushi burrito at the new Albuquerque restaurant.The Gunshow sushi burrito at the new Sushi Freak in ABQ Uptown.

That’s right: Sushi Freak has arrived in Albuquerque with its fast-casual twist on the traditional Japanese meal. Sushi Freak’s take includes build-your-own rolls – à la the Subway sandwich and WisePies pizza model – and even a selection of hand-held sushi burritos with names like Angry Bird (featuring teriyaki chicken and avocado) and Beach Bum (filled with the likes of coconut shrimp, avocado, crab, cream cheese and mango).

The concept comes from San Diego, where owners Michael Broder and Jenifer Duarte opened the first Sushi Freak in 2010. They now have two restaurants in California, but picked Albuquerque, where Duarte was raised and where Broder’s family has operated many restaurants, for the third site. Their 70-seat restaurant opened near Starbucks inside ABQ Uptown about a week ago.

“Mike’s mother has been in the restaurant business in Albuquerque for probably about 30 years,” Duarte says of Sushi Freak’s beginnings. “We saw a need for a faster version of sushi. We didn’t want to do it like a traditional sushi restaurant.”

Sushi Freak aims to get customers through its assembly line process in about 2 or 3 minutes, Duarte says.

“It’s fresh every single time,” she says, noting that even the shrimp tempura is made to order.

Creative types can customize their roll. A seaweed version starts at $3.95, while soy begins at $4.75. Prices climb based on the choice among 15 proteins (options include shrimp, tofu, fried calamari, and raw salmon and tuna) and the selected toppings (from toasted coconut to spicy tuna). It’s finished with the buyer’s pick of two house-made sauces.

The menu also features several signature sushi rolls, labeled either Old School (think California or spicy tuna) and New School (like the New Mexican with salmon, “krab mix” and green chile). They range between $6-$11. The burritos, meanwhile, run $8-$10.

Sushi Freak – with its bright, modern ambiance – also has a retail wall lined with Japanese snack foods, such as chips and cookies. Duarte says some San Diego customers have been known to stop in just for those items.

Sushi Freak is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. It’s located in ABQ Uptown at 2200 Louisiana NE.

Torino’s in new hands

Torino’s @ Home has some new faces.

Daniel and Jenna John have purchased the Journal Center restaurant from founders Daniela and Maxime Bouneou and will shepherd it going forward.

The Bouneous, meanwhile, are already planning their next venture, a pizzeria called Eclectic that they hope to open later this year near Menaul and Interstate 25.

“After (nine) years of it, we decided (it) was time to turn the page” on Torino’s, Daniela Bouneou says via email. “We are staying in beautiful New Mexico; (we) thought of leaving, but decided that this is the place where we wanted to be.”

Daniel John says Torino’s will keep the name and the Northern Italian cuisine with some French and Spanish influences, though the Johns will make it their own by bringing more local ingredients into the kitchen, incorporating some new menu items and introducing wine happy hour events.

The couple, who come with some combined work experience in restaurants and catering, say they had been looking on the market for the right opportunity.

“When we walked into this one, it was almost magical. The atmosphere was amazing, the food was amazing; it was fine dining, but almost a casual atmosphere. It wasn’t so pretentious,” Daniel John says. “We liked taking a foundationally grounded restaurant and injecting startup energy into it.”

Torino’s @ Home is at 7600 Jefferson NE, north of San Antonio. It opens at 11 a.m. daily, with the final seating at 9 p.m.

The phone number is 797-4491.

Other news:

• Vinaigrette is now a two-state enterprise. The salad bistro with Santa Fe and Albuquerque locations opened an Austin restaurant last month. “I’m so excited to fuel Austin with Vinaigrette’s nutritious food and share a special piece of New Mexico with this eclectic city,” founder Erin Wade said in a news release.

• Albuquerque’s new Burlington store is set to open Friday at West Central Plaza, 4208 Central SW. The off-price retailer joins Conn’s in the redeveloped center that previously housed Kmart. The new Burlington will be open 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

If you have retail news to share, contact me at or 823-3864. For more regular updates on Albuquerque shopping and restaurant news, visit my blog at or follow @abqdyer on Twitter.