Story by Wolf Schneider
He’s been approached by “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” “The Food Detective,” and other shows on the Food Network and Discovery Channel, all seeking his advice about New Mexico restaurants, most often of the roadhouse ilk. He gets about 120 emails a week from fans. By day, he works at Intel. By night, he is the brains behind nmgastronome.com.
Gil Garduño (no relationship to the Garduño’s of Mexico Restaurant & Cantina chain) isn’t in the restaurant review business for the money. Would he even want to be a professional food critic? “It wouldn’t pay as well as Intel does, so probably not,” reasons the soft-spoken 51-year-old. He isn’t in it for the freebies. When upscale restaurants want to host him, “I usually say, I do have plans to visit your restaurant at some point, but if I go there, I’m certainly not going to announce myself and say, ‘I’m Gil, you need to treat me really well,’” shrugs Garduño. “Probably 90% of the restaurants we visit, I am completely and totally anonymous.”
Garduño started his website, nmgastronome.com, in the late nineties. It has reviews of 57 restaurants in Santa Fe, 285 restaurants in Albuquerque, and a smattering of small-town New Mexico eateries. The reviews reveal when he last visited, his recommendations for best dishes, and how costly it is. The website has never been a profit center, nor does Garduño have plans to make it one. “I’m a chronic compiler of lists. One of those people who are sort of meticulously organized,” he confesses.
More than a decade later, he’s still at it. “It’s an escape mechanism. The information I impart can benefit other people, and people appreciate it,” he says.
A resident of Rio Rancho, NM, Garduño’s day job is as a business analyst at nearby Intel, where he specializes in software solutions. “I deal with the clients, I gather the requirements, I make sure the requirements are translated into solutions,” he explains.
When he comes home at night, he’s his own boss at nmgastronome.com, where he typically puts in an hour nightly, answering emails and composing two to three new restaurant reviews weekly. He’s written of the “siren-like call” of Tully’s Italian Deli in Albuquerque; called Vivace “one of the very best Italian restaurants in the Duke City”; lauded “Santa Fe’s diminutive Bobcat Bite”; and pointed out that Gourmet magazine named Santa Fe’s Trattoria Nostrani “one of the 50 best restaurants in America.”
An egalitarian sort of gastronome, his three favorite Santa Fe restaurants run the price gamut. First is Los Potrillos (roughly translated to “The Colts”), on Cerrillos Road: “It’s very colorful, very expressive, very diverse. They encompass the entire country of Mexico,” he assesses, recommending the Molcajete Al Pastor marinated pork and Quesadilla Sincronizada (Synchronized Quesadilla). Next is Geronimo on Canyon Road: “It’s pretty fabulous, with upscale elegance.” Third is Aqua Santa on the west side: “For the creativity of the chef.”
In Albuquerque, his picks are more modest. Sophia’s Place on 4th Street: “It’s owned by Dennis Apodaca, who worked at Chez Panisse. It was featured on the Food Network. It’s a humble, little place that serves outstanding food — New Mexican, American sandwiches, burgers, lemon-ricotta pancakes. It’s not fancy. It’s so unassuming, you’d pass it by.” Mary’s & Tito’s Café on 4th Street: “An unassuming little café serving the very best, most pure, most earthy chile in the state. It’s a dive-y little family-owned, family-operated restaurant that’s been there since the sixties.” Café Da Lat on Central Avenue: “The best Vietnamese food.”
Overall, Garduño believes, “Santa Fe restaurants have better chile, especially red chile, with the exception of Mary’s & Tito’s. Santa Fe restaurants tend to be more upscale. There’s a lot more experimentation going on in Santa Fe restaurants.” He estimates there are 300 restaurants in Santa Fe, versus 1,200 in Albuquerque, where he discerns a dining scene that’s “burgeoning, growing, with a lot more restaurants.”
Having been born and raised in Peñasco, NM, Garduño does not ignore off-the-beaten-track bistros. “Sugar Nymphs Bistro in Peñasco is so good that it was mentioned in Gourmet magazine, in a story about really rural restaurants with a unique regional flavor,” mentions Garduño. “It’s owned by a couple of chefs with really impressive credentials — one worked at Greens, which is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country. They care about the quality of the ingredients and they use a lot of ingredients grown in Peñasco, which is really nice for the village. The food is fabulous. Very diverse. There’s nothing too fancy or too expensive. They do a grilled vegetable lasagna. They do slate oven-baked pizzas that are really good. And they do a wonderful Sunday brunch with home-made scones that are exceptional.” Also recommended: the Goat Cheese Salad and Provencal Pistou with pinto beans, sweet parsnips, and caramelized onion.
In Rio Rancho, he is a fan of Noda’s Japanese Cuisine, declaring it “certainly the best Japanese restaurant in the Albuquerque area.” And in out-of-the-way Cuba, NM, he recommends El Bruno’s for its “exceptional chile and authenticity—the chile bites back.”
Invoking even more enthusiasm is the tiny town of San Antonio, NM, with standout green chile cheeseburgers at the Owl Bar and Grill and the Buckhorn Tavern. Garduño sent Bobby Flay to both restaurants when Flay wanted to do a green chile cheeseburger throwdown in New Mexico. Flay asked for videos and ultimately chose the Buckhorn. “Obviously the Buckhorn had the most charisma and personality,” Garduño concludes.
Garduño doesn’t have any specific training as a restaurant critic, but he’s studied the field. His favorite TV foodie? “Anthony Bourdain — he’s very intelligent, very articulate, very well-spoken.” He also is impressed by John Vollertsen, Becky Mercuri, and of course Julia Child. While it appears that he never writes negatively about a restaurant, Garduño demurs on that point: “There is a way to write without making it personal or mean-spirited, and I have been critical of many restaurants, just not in the conventional tone of today’s blogosphere.”
Married 24 years now to his wife Kimberly, who works for the state of New Mexico, Garduño dines out frequently, of course. Where next? “Restaurant Martin, the hot new restaurant in Santa Fe. Two sources I trust a lot have been there and loved it.”
Santa Fe-based Wolf Schneider has been editor in chief of the Santa Fean, editor of Living West, and consulting editor at Southwest Art.
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