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Casino betting on new cantina

hood_taylor_sigSanta Ana Star Casino’s dramatic expansion plans over the next couple of years will include a 204-room hotel and new restaurants.

With that in mind, Santa Ana Star has decided to fill the space once occupied by Sadie’s New Mexican restaurant on the casino floor with a new casino-owned restaurant, the Cantina Rio.

Sadie’s left the space in January, and Santa Ana Star Casino used all local contractors and subcontractors to provide a quick turnaround of the space. The general contractor was Jaynes Corp.

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The polished pipe beer taps at Cantina Rio restaurant inside Santa Ana Star Casino dispense some of New Mexico’s finest local brews. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Cantina Rio, which is already open, mixes the popular American-style grill with a more local New Mexican flavor. The weathered wood walls are decorated with everything from crocodile heads (which I’m assured are replicas), license plates and obscure “Breaking Bad” references. The cantina was decorated by the casino executive team, and most of the items were found at antique and gift shops from all over the state, according to Shannon Guess, casino community relations manager.

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The 4,500-square-foot space is a big change from Sadie’s open floor plan. The casino has closed the space off, “to create a more intimate feel,” Guess said. The casino uses small touches like hand-weathered tin ceilings and unique individualized light fixtures to make the effect work.

Cantina Rio is smaller than Sadie’s, but the casino feels that the closed-in space and cantina style more than make up for the smaller area.

“A cantina-style restaurant was a natural fit for our casino. It enables us to draw on our local culture while serving the type of food our guests crave and maintaining a fun, high-energy atmosphere.” the casino said in an emailed statement.

The food is as eclectic as the decor. Head chef Hassan Abassary has cooked up a menu that offers macaroni and cheese, burgers and enchiladas, among other fare. One of the more unusual offerings is the fried ravioli dunkers.

In the middle of the cantina sits a solid-copper bar and behind it, a wall filled with tequilas, and a series of copper beer taps that dispense some of New Mexico’s finest local brews (and yes, they still have Bud, Coors and Miller.)

One of the many reasons Santa Ana Star Casino wanted to renovate the space was to expand the live music area. Before Cantina Rio’s opening, music at the casino was limited to a small space in a corner bar. Now it can fit a full nine-piece band, according to Guess.

Cantina Rio, which had a soft opening in early April, will have its grand opening on Friday. Festivities will include live music, food and drink specials, giveaways and prizes.

Still SpiritĀ 

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Spirit Stills owners Zac Hulme, left, and Peter Arathoon stand behind the handcrafted bar in Spirit Stills’ new vodka tasting room. (Taylor Hood/Albuquerque Journal)

With the explosion of new taprooms, breweries, pubs, microbrews and bars in Albuquerque, finding a new niche in the alcohol world is a daunting task. However, Peter Arathoon and Zac Hulme, owners of the new Still Spirits distillery, have a solution. Still Spirits is opening a vodka tasting room.

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Still Spirits is on Marble NW, directly across from Marble Brewery.

“(Marble) has been very nice and supportive. Just super cool,” Arathoon said.

The former industrial workshop that now houses Still Spirits has been modified to have a unique-looking barroom in the front and stills in the back.

Arathoon and Hulme did most of the construction. “We cut the concrete, did all the woodwork, then brought in contractors for the stuff that requires a licensed contractor.” Hulme told the Journal.

While renovations will continue after opening, Arathoon and Hulme have created a space that combines plants and art with the original industrial feel. The distillery may be new, but it certainly seems to understand the style of the neighborhood.

Still Spirits, which opened on April 26 after several unannounced test openings, distills its own vodka on site. “We began with a sugar mash, but we hit a bottleneck in our production, so now we are using pre-distilled spirits and then redistilling them,” Arathoon said.

Arathoon and Hulme began distilling using a homemade still they constructed out of a beer keg. Recently however, they began using a new still bought from a company in Denver. It has twice the capacity and now takes the bulk of Still Spirits’ distilling load.

The original still, which sits in all its duct-taped glory next to the shining chrome of the new still in the back of the Still Spirits distillery, will eventually be used to distill gin.

Arathoon, a Guatemalan native who came to the U.S. in 2003, loves gin and says he hopes to add a Still Spirits brand of gin “within the next couple of months.”

Zullo’s Bistro

Zullo's Bistro is now open at 509 Central.

Zullo’s Bistro is now open at 509 Central.

Do you like wine? Italian food with a twist? The color purple? Well, then, you may have a new favorite hangout. Zullo’s Bistro has opened at 509 Central NW, the former location of Blackbird Buvette.

Zullo’s is owned by Jennifer Zullo and her father, Mike, a bluegrass musician.

The family moved out from Minneapolis two years ago and immediately wanted to open a bistro, Jennifer Zullo told the Journal. But the Downtown crime made them think twice about locating in the “bar district.”

“But Downtown has really cleaned up over the last couple of years,” said Zullo, who attributes a lot of the progress to the local breweries.

Jennifer said they fell in love with the location right away. What sold them? The outdoor space.

509 Central NW is a free-standing building with a back patio, something of a rarity in Downtown, according to Jennifer. And she has made the back patio her own. Nothing in the bistro announces Zullo’s style like the outside decoration.

One wall is painted with a giant Zullo’s logo. Pastel colors adorn the adobe walls, and one corner has been carved out as a musical space. “We’ll really take any musical acts, but they have to be live, no DJs,” Zullo said.

Another selling point for the Zullo family was the ready-made amenities inside. The location already had a bar, kitchen and some seating. Zullo and company reupholstered, painted and updated some of the equipment and they were ready to go.

To go with the live music, Zullo has selected a corner of the bar area to exhibit local artists. The artist will change every two to three weeks, and artists can sign up at the restaurant.

Zullo, head chef, has poured a lot of love into the bistro, and everything she loves is quite literally inside. Her father helps with business, her mother chooses local artists and her fiancee, Eric, tends bar and helps with decorating.

Reviews for the soft opening “have been really good. We have (nothing but) five-star reviews so far,” she said. “We are known for our meatballs. Everybody seems to order those,” she said.

After a rocky start due to mechanical breakdowns, Zullo’s finally had a soft opening a few weeks ago. It is looking for a grand opening in a month or so.

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