You know the refrain, "Where there's a will, there's a way?" Well out here in the East Mountains, it's more like, "Where there's a need, there's a way."
Five years ago, Jay Wulf and his wife, Barb Hanlon Wulf, definitely had a need. A couple of them, in fact. As parents of two young boys, a move to a new neighborhood was now in order.
"We'd been coming up to the East Mountains for years to hike, bike, and ski," says Jay. "So when we came to the point in our lives where we were looking at school districts and for someplace affordable with privacy and land, this was the perfect fit."
At the time, Jay was also running Gecko's Bar and Tapas down in Albuquerque. While the commute didn't necessarily bother him, the job's hours were starting to become unmanageable. "Staying up until four o'clock in the morning just wasn't working anymore."
Jay realized that it was time for a professional change, one also made possible, it turns out, by his recent move. "Not only would we not have found the same house with the same amount of land for the same price in Albuquerque," he explains, "We also wouldn't have built up the same kind of equity."
Equity that allowed the Wulfs to invest Jay's talents into a restaurant that would mean financial and creative freedom for the family and also fill a long empty niche in the East Mountain dining scene.
The handful of communities that make up the backside of the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque have much to recommend them, especially when it comes to fresh air, scenic views, and room to roam. But when it comes to dining? Not so much.
Don't get me wrong. You can get a terrific burger out here. Top notch pizza, too. You can also sit and sip at a number of charming coffee shops, dig into a piled high plate of enchiladas, and chow down on some of the best barbecue west of Texas. But what's been lacking up until now is a bona fide, chef-driven restaurant.
"It's difficult to look at the Albuquerque market and make predictions about what restaurant is needed where," says Jay. "But out here, this is the one place I knew of that definitely had a niche we could fill."
In October 2007, Jay and Barb filled it with the Greenside Café. Named for the lush, gentle slope of the east side of the Sandia's, the restaurant occupies an expansive corner in the new shopping center on NM 14 in Cedar Crest (formerly the home of dearly departed Bella Vista restaurant). It's a great space, with an airy, light-filled main dining room at the northern end and a smaller, more intimate section at the south side where the Wulfs hold their popular four course wine dinners. Before you shake your head in sad remembrance of how many so-called fine dining restaurants have tried and failed up here, please take note: Jay Wulf knows what he's doing.
The Maquoketa, Iowa native began his career in a working kitchen when he was sixteen years old. Despite forays along the way into various other professions (juggler, motorcycle mechanic, ski instructor, to name just a few) Jay always returned to the restaurant industry. While he remains decidedly modest about his skills, his curriculum vitae showcases an impressive body of work: chef at the Double A and Café Escalera in Santa Fe, likewise at the Prairie Star and Range Café in Bernalillo, opening partner at The Standard Diner, and owner/operator of Gecko's Bar and Tapas, both in Albuquerque.
Barb, a Chicago native who also managed some of that city's finest French restaurants, likewise speaks glowingly of her husband's talent. Although she now works primarily as an occupational therapist, the free moments she spends helping out at Greenside gives her first hand experience with how Jay works.
"One of the reasons I liked working in French restaurants is because, typically, they're chef owned, and so the main focus is on the food," she says. "Which is Jay's focus. Not only does he have a great palate and the ability to put food together well, he is also one of the few highly trained chefs I know who also has the discipline to work with people. He has very little ego. He's all about the food."
If Jay earned his culinary chops at fine dining restaurants, he credits his customer service abilities to the time he spent at The Range. As one of New Mexico's most beloved destination restaurants, the Bernalillo-based eatery hit early upon a formula for success. It's a forumla that had nothing to do with pretense and everything to do with great food, reasonable prices, lively atmosphere, and friendly, professional service.
"It was a breath of fresh air to go to The Range because it was the kind of place where you could go out and talk to the customers, to people who were truly enjoying what you were doing, and who enjoyed talking to you about it," says Jay. "That's the feeling I wanted to create with Greenside. Someplace where I could be myself, where I could come out of the kitchen, talk to my customers, get to know them. Hey, it's not rocket science. It's just good food."
With that in mind, Jay focused on crafting a menu to fit the East Mountain market. A market that, admittedly, can seem a little schizophrenic. Steeped in rural traditions, this isn't a place where people suffer snobbery easily, no matter how many gated, high end communities are in development. But neither are we plebes when it comes to good food.
"It wasn't our intent to offer fine dining," says Jay. "Just very good dining-with a little something for everyone."
Hence, a menu that appeals to a variety of tastes at an affordable price point. For instance, Greenside features a variety of excellent wines and artisan beers, but at about a $1.00 a glass lower than most restaurants. Jays would rather make up for the lower mark up by selling more.
The same attention to excellence and variety informs a selection of regional favorites, kicked up comfort food, vegetarian plates, fresh fish delicately sauced, and creative nightly specials. On any night you can choose from 100 percent ground Angus chuck hamburgers, a subtle bacon and herb infused meatloaf with smashed potatoes and fresh sautéed vegetables, a curried rice bowl, or free range grilled chicken with artichoke and goat cheese. Recently, a half dozen girlfriends and I passed around plates of Romescu, green chile Mac "n' Cheese, brook trout, peanut noodles, and crème brûlée, accompanied by a bottle of Tortoise Creek Pinot Noir and delicious free trade Agapao coffee. The consensus? Resounding yums all the way around. And with main dishes rarely tipping the $20 mark, easy on the pocketbook, too.
Open only seven months, Greenside seems to be catching on. Already lines form out the door at lunchtime and the Thursday and Saturday night wine dinners have become so popular, they spill over into the main dining room. While Jay estimates that 80 to 90 percent of his customer base is local, he's also drawing business from Albuquerque. "Many people who live along Tramway find it just as easy to pop over here than to go downtown," he says.
But whether customers regard Greenside as a destination restaurant or a local hangout, the goal is the same. "This is a wonderful place to live and work and we love it here," says Barb. "We want to give back to the community that has been so supportive of us and we can do that by serving good food, made with fresh ingredients-food with a conscience. There are a lot of hidden treasures out here. We look forward to becoming one of them."
Greenside Café is located at 12165 North Highway 14, Suite B-1, Cedar Crest, NM 87008, 505-286-2684. Open every day for lunch and dinner, and for breakfast starting at 8am Saturday and Sunday. For more information on hours, menu, and special wine dinners, log onto www.gofoods.net.