After A Tough Year, Tuerta Turns Its Eye To The Future

By Candolin Cook

In Spanish, the word tuerta/o means a person with one eye (or only having sight in one). The restaurant is named in honor of Liam Kimball’s one-eyed cat, Lydia. Pictured: Ninny Threadgoode Fried Green Tomato Sandwich. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.

The afternoon of Friday, July 9, was a sweltering one hundred degrees, as local artists, artisans, performers, and food vendors busily set up their booths for the downtown Albuquerque Artwalk. A feeling of excitement crackled in the summer air, especially for local business owners, since the previous month’s Artwalk and Pride celebrations had brought a much-needed boost to the struggling commercial district. Over the past year, downtown businesses have suffered not only a loss of revenue due to the pandemic but also a spike in vandalism, which led many to board up their storefronts and even close temporarily. Turnout for tonight’s festivities seemed particularly promising because the state’s COVID-19 restrictions were fully lifted on July 1. Galleries, shops, and restaurants could now host their art exhibitions and events indoors, as well as on the sidewalk, and many were using the occasion as a sort of post-lockdown grand reopening. But, just as the street vendors were putting finishing touches on their tables and tents, a blanket of dark monsoon clouds and winds came roaring in. It appeared downtown was in for another bit of bad luck and that Artwalk would be rained out.

One of the businesses that had planned something special for the evening was Tuerta: A Sandwich Shop, located at Fourth Street and Central. Owner Liam Kimball had teamed up with former Campo sous chef Daniel Garcia for a pop-up dinner service at the normally lunch-only spot. Offerings included fermented carrot pasta with housemade cavatelli and mushrooms; a smoky birria burger; sorullitos de maiz (Puerto Rico–style corn fritters); and a miso caramel and matcha cake ice cream sandwich. While the menu branched out from the restaurant’s usual offerings, they were right in line with Kimball’s cooking style, employing local and seasonal ingredients, experimentation, and a touch of whimsy.

“It’s just food—it’s supposed to be fun,” Kimball tells me over lunch, a couple of days before Artwalk. “I don’t want to come to work and not have fun, and I want people who come [into Tuerta] to feel the same way.” The tiny sandwich shop is fun. From the framed Rodney Dangerfield albums on the wall to the tall stack of Halloween VHS tapes on the beverage cooler to the ever-changing menu’s irreverent sandwich names (e.g., Dirty Dancing II: Cubano, Mitch Hedberg Chicken Club, Megan Thee Stallion Thee Sandwich), Tuerta seamlessly blends silliness with seriously good food.

Kimball, who’s an Albuquerque native, has a culinary pedigree including stints at popular restaurants in Chicago, Providence, and New York, where he attended culinary school. Five years ago, he took a front-of-house position at Los Poblanos in Albuquerque, but still longed to open his own restaurant, on his own terms. “I always wanted to work somewhere where I could try all the stupid stuff I wanted to do,” Kimball says. One not-so-stupid idea was applying complex tastes and techniques to his favorite food, the humble sandwich: “I wanted to do sandwiches because they are multicultural and almost universally recognizable. It’s a great way to take disparate ingredients and make them work together. Most any food is good when you put it on bread . . . maybe not pancakes.”

Liam Kimball, owner of Tuerta. Photo by Joel Wigelsworth.

True to his original intention, Kimball’s food succeeds in being both approachable and ambitious. Tuerta’s many gluten-free or vegan offerings, for example, are the result of countless hours of recipe development to make sure they are every bit as good as, or better than, meat- and cheese-based offerings. “I want solid [vegan] dishes, not ‘throwaway’ options, like, ‘here’s a salad.’ There’s so many more vegans now, for so many reasons, and it’s leading to a lot of innovation.” One such innovation has Kimball working with local mushroom purveyor The Art Farm, UNIncorporated, to take their products’ “ugly parts” (i.e., stems and broken pieces) and grind them into a roasted mushroom and seitan sausage. His excitement for plant-based cuisine has even led to a Vegan Nite dinner service every third Friday of the month. Kimball also deeply values procuring quality local ingredients. “I love that I’m able to buy from local farmers even at my scale and price point,” he says.

While Kimball exudes enthusiasm and a positive attitude, he admits that being a restaurant owner, especially downtown, has been tough. When he opened Tuerta in October of 2019, Kimball had faith in the food-and-drink-led revitalization of downtown Albuquerque, and envisioned a spot that catered to office workers, tourists, and—eventually, when his hours expanded—locals with the late-night munchies. But by the following summer, he was one of the only businesses on this stretch of Central without its windows shuttered. “It looked terrible. It was a really lonely, dystopian scene down here.” Kimball, however, is quick to praise his loyal customers who ordered takeout during the pandemic, and the solidarity he felt with his neighboring restaurants. “It feels like a real community. I know I can go borrow an egg from Sister or Oni if I need to.”

Over the last couple of months, however, business is “starting to get back to where it’s supposed to be,” says Kimball. “Everyone just spent a year cooped up in their houses. I think now they’re thinking, ‘might as well go downtown and see some people.’”

On the evening of July’s Artwalk, they did just that. Despite a solid half hour or so of torrential rain, hundreds of Burqueños braved the elements and began making their way downtown. Just after 7 pm, the storm rolled out as quickly as it had come in, and a brilliant setting sun peeked out from behind silver clouds. A line started to form outside Tuerta, and Kimball began serving pickled watermelon aguas frescas to happy customers. Everyone was laughing and having fun.

317 Central NW, Albuquerque, tuertanm.com

Black Magic Wolfman Butternut Sandwich with roasted butternut, beets, apple pico, kale, and garlic-chickpea sauce. Photo by Joel Wigelsworth.

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Candolin Cook is a history doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, an associate editor for the New Mexico Historical Review, and editor of edible Santa Fe. She spends much of her free time washing carrots and radishes at her husband’s vegetable farm, Vida Verde Farm, in Albuquerque's North Valley. Come check out their booth at the Downtown Growers Market, and follow her farm life on Instagram: @candolin and @vidaverdefarmabq.