When Chef Jon Young of Fresh Bistro was just 12 years old, he climbed over the wall in his backyard just to lend a hand in a real restaurant kitchen. The restaurant was Casa Vieja, a long-standing Corrales establishment, and it was there where he first learned his knife skills, where he worked his way up from dishwasher to sous-chef, and where he first adopted the no-nonsense, classic-French-cooking sensibility that is diffused through his and his wife’s culinary ventures today.
Fresh Mobile Bistro and the newer Fresh Bistro in Los Ranchos are the type of eateries that exemplify what makes dining out in New Mexico so fun. Local farm ingredients aren’t fussed over, but the menu, free from the constraints of fleeting foodie trends, is completely in the hands of the chef, Jon Young. He’ll be the first to tell you that he does just as he pleases – in this case, traditional French cooking that takes inventive turns toward New Mexican and even Italian.
Jon is willing to venture that Fresh has the best eggs benedict in town. His “Caprese cakes” have been popular lately, featuring herbs from the rosemary bisque, fresh mozzarella and aged balsamic vinegar. Traditionalists can enjoy coq au vin and beef bourguignon, which can be made in small batches and are a favorite for those seeking out authentically European food. “Frenchiladas” are a play on the New Mexican classic, featuring cream sauce, chicken and sautéed mushrooms between thin crepe layers.
Melissa and Jon, the duo behind the Fresh Mobile Bistro and the new Fresh Bistro, began their journey in 2014, when they revamped a 1955 bus they found on Craigslist. After former lives as a highway post office and KOB news van, the bus was outfitted to look like the famed Orient Express, complete with plush upholstery and white tablecloths. Since 2016, the Fresh Bistro crew has taken the 13-foot behemoth out and about at least twice a month, hosting intimate private dinner parties and reservation-only meals with a chef’s choice tasting menu that changes monthly. Melissa, who manages operations, is in charge of keeping the businesses running smoothly.
A bus with limited seating offers a rare opportunity for human connection in the age of fast-casual dining and food trucks. As Jon says, “It’s a small dining environment so you can’t help but listen and talk to your neighbors, to enjoy their company as well as the food.” Only recently did they begin to lease the adjacent building, outfit it with a kitchen, and offer a full-service restaurant experience. According to Jon, the standing restaurant has its advantages. Of the bus, he said “She’s temperamental.” With the restaurant, “I don’t have to charge the battery, make sure there’s gas, maybe add some bailing wire and some duct tape… and lots of stroking and praying.”
Local ingredients play a big part in driving the menu offerings, but Jon’s other aim is to keep the food affordable. “It’s not all about the farm stuff – it’s about how you prepare it. Sustainable is more our mission than anything.” By not running an exclusively farm-sourced operation, Fresh is able to include “a whole section of the population that loves good food, that wants good food,” Jon said. “We provide good food that they can afford.” Jon sources greens from Arca Organics, gluten-free bread products from Revolution Bakery, and works with Little Dirt Farm, which vends local produce to area restaurants. When a customer or friend offers up extra bounty from their yard, he’s been known to incorporate them into the menu. Recently, fresh figs from a local source went to use in homemade fig ice cream, made the old fashioned way.
Though the mobile dinners continue on, the restaurant has become a center of activity – Jon and Melissa open their cozy bistro space six days a week to a healthy mix of older neighborhood regulars and adventure-seekers from across and even out of town. They host live music on their patio, wine and cider pairings, terrarium-building, and have even done a speed-dating night.
Jon mentions, almost as an afterthought, that he’s been in talks with local film offices about a home-grown culinary TV show. Almost like a New Mexican-ized “Parts Unknown,” Jon would take the bus out to various locales across the state – think chanterelle picking in the Sandias, a goat cheese farm, a raw milk dairy – and spotlight the owners and their operations. As Jon describes it, what was once a bus with a tiny kitchen has taken on a life of its own.
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Sophie Putka is a Massachusetts transplant in love with New Mexico. She writes, makes lattes, and haunts Albuquerque eateries in search of a good bagel. She can usually be found in the kitchen trying to use up as many leftovers as possible and plotting her next adventure.