Armand Ortega, son of the Armand Ortega whose name dominates billboards for trading posts along Interstate 40 in New Mexico and Arizona, has opened a new restaurant called Balconies on the Plaza. It will fill the location previously held by The Ore House.
The Ore House has moved down the street and merged with Milagro 139 to become The Ore House at Milagro. Ortega already runs a sprawling family enterprise of national park concessions in addition to a jewelry shop on the Plaza. In a May 13 article in the Albuquerque Journal North, Ortega asked anyone with a better name than "Balconies" to let him know. Apparently, nobody did.
That's a shame because it's an unimaginative, vaguely geriatric name. But then, with prime real estate overlooking the Plaza, it doesn't really matter what the name is, so long as people realize they can grab a margarita and some grub.
The margaritas are respectable, well-salted and long on flavor. The grub comes courtesy of chef Tom Kerpon, who formerly held the reins at Rio Chama and Inn of the Anasazi, and did a stint overseeing the whole Gerry Peters Santa Fe restaurant empire. An emphasis on New Mexican dishes is, in my view, preventing Kerpon from letting his creativity shine through, although there are a number of small flourishes that raise the eyebrow and whet the appetite.
The Santa Fe Meze ($10), a pairing of red chile hummus and green chile baba ghanoush, comes with mint yogurt sauce and mushroom flatbread. The Pickles & Poppers ($9) is a small plate of deep-fried jalapeños stuffed with cheese, and deep-fried pickles. The pickles are a genius move that provides unexpected delight. The calamari appetizer is par for the course, but the coriander-lemon aioli dipping sauce is good enough for you to wish it came in a squeeze bottle so you could sit alone at home and suckle from it while watching bad television.
Overall, a large collection of small plates, snacks and sandwiches supplies plenty of options to the late-night crowd—assuming those options are all available until midnight Friday through Sunday. The entrées, called "larger plates," are less inspiring, but likely to serve the target demographic—a blend of tourists and local bar loiterers—well. The No. 3 enchilada plate ($7-$12) is beautifully arranged, but the unabashed smothering errs on the side of presentation rather than flavor. Slow-cooked baby back ribs ($15) are savory and come with delicious baked beans, but won't soon threaten any reigning barbecue champs. One of the best, most flavorful plates is a farmers market seasonal vegetable platter ($13) but, of course, that will vary.
There's no telling what innovations and evolutions lie in the immediate future, however, since the restaurant will close temporarily in November for an extensive interior and kitchen renovation. What comes out of the other side may be a whole new example of what Ortega and Kerpon can achieve as partners. A rumor is even circulating that a subterranean offshoot may eventually complement the balcony perch.
I hope that's true. But, if so, please don't call it Basement on the Plaza.
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