Your first glimpse of Fresh Bistro in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque is that of an unassuming house with a plywood sign pointing to a gravel driveway.
Your second glimpse is of a “compound” of smaller buildings and an old refurbished city bus, with a sign pointing you to what feels like the house’s front door.
As far as book covers go, you should know that this place is a literary classic wrapped in cardboard and masking tape.
Once inside, you’ll notice the not-quite-rustic decor and the modern impressionist portraits, paired well with the fresh roses floating in crystal water bowls atop each table. Next, you will notice the friendly young staffers who greet you warmly and show you to your table.
“Our Pepsi guy didn’t show up,” my waitress told me before recommending a bottled root beer. I went along with her recommendation and was rewarded with a sugarcane-sweet Zuberfizz from the Durango Soda Co., a boutique bottler in Colorado started by college roommates.
“Tell your Pepsi guy not to come back,” I said jokingly.
If you order the penne pasta with chicken, you’ll be presented with a perfectly portioned dish with no frills, no magic, just a plump and juicy chicken breast sliced into huge wedges and sitting on a bed of steaming pasta.
You’ll find just the right amount of sun-dried tomatoes – too few and they’re forgettable, too many and they drown out the taste – mixed in with finely chopped red onions in the most delicate cream sauce you’ll ever taste.
After the first bite, you’ll notice the faint but distinct signature of fresh garlic, not powdered or pre-minced, and will realize that you are eating as simple and honest a plate of pasta as you can find in this city for $14.
“The key is timing,” chef Jon Young said about the sauce as he sat down at my table to check on my meal. He genuinely cares about, and takes pride in, the experience at his humble restaurant.
Here, you will think, style is not a substitute for substance. “Everybody deserves good food,” he says.
If you have $4 more to spare, you can finish your meal with a small but astonishingly good dessert of fresh cherries jubilee – flambéed in a light liqueur and poured over vanilla ice cream so fresh you’ll swear it’s homemade. (The ice cream might be the only part of your meal that isn’t made by Jon’s hand. At least for now.)
So far, “from scratch” is working for Fresh Bistro, which is itself a bit of a spinoff from the mobile restaurant parked outside. Co-owner Melissa Young, a native New Mexican, says the demand for a full-service version grew out of the popularity of the bus (freshabq.com).
Now, an assortment of regulars and newcomers has been streaming in since the restaurant opened at the beginning of the year, she says, and the place is growing.
“Slowly,” she says. “We don’t want to get too big, too fast.”
Starting March 18, Fresh will serve a complete dinner menu Wednesday through Sunday by reservation. The dinners will feature heartier plates such as poached salmon in a lemon cream sauce and pan-seared pork loin with shiitake mushrooms in a brandy demi-glace. If you’re a traditionalist, you might enjoy the filet au poivre, a choice cut of beef tenderloin seared with green peppercorns for a fair $35. Fresh has applied for a license to serve beer and wine.
An open-air patio is available for events, and a taproom and small outdoor performance stage are expected to open this spring.
You will be forgiven for passing by Fresh without giving it a second thought, unaware that beneath the forgettable exterior lies a gem with ambition and plenty of promise. If you take the chance and venture inside, you might discover a new leather-bound classic.