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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Up in Kingston

By B.A. Nilsson

 

Armadillo Bar & Grill

97 Abeel St., Kingston, 845-339-1550. Serving lunch noon-3 Sat-Sun, dinner 5-9 Tue-Fri, 5-10 Sat-Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mexican-Southwestern

Entrée price range: $12 (Texas-size burger) to $18 (shrimp fajitas)

Ambiance: bright and cheery

She’d already bought an upstate house—upstate in this case being Kingston, as defined relative to Manhattan. “I’m a child of the first Woodstock generation,” says Merle Borenstein, “and I love the area. So I bought this place, but I’m still working in the city.” Working in the restaurant business, as it happens, managing a prestigious operation. “I’m vacationing in my upstate home, thinking I’d like to run a restaurant in the area. But I didn’t tell anyone.

“So this customer comes in one day, a regular customer at the Manhattan restaurant, and he says to me, ‘I have a space I’d like to rent to someone who’ll know how to use it.’ And wouldn’t you know, it’s in Kingston!”

Borenstein looked at it. “It had nothing! No kitchen! It was a bar in the 1890s, I was told, but at this point the neighborhood was run down and brutal. A tough neighborhood, they told me! I looked at it and said, ‘I’m from Brooklyn. It looks fabulous.’”

Thus the Armadillo Bar and Grill opened in May 1987. “You know how you’re supposed to have six months of salary and other expenses in the bank? We had nothing. We opened with a fundraising event, for Hospice, and it did very well. And we’ve been going ever since. We’re very seriously fortunate. And we’ve stayed small.”

But they’ve helped spur a change in the neighborhood, which was dressed in its holiday finery during our recent evening visit. We passed an art gallery complete with exhibit-opening party en route to the restaurant.

Armadillo has about 50 indoor seats and doubles its capacity with outdoor seating during the warm months. They take reservations only for parties of five or more, so we joined the small crowd at the entryway. But it looked inviting, and the hostess (who turned out to be Borenstein) was so welcoming that I startled my family by resisting my usual waiting-in-line grumpiness and actually chose to stay.

The strictly-from-scratch meal begins with a basket of tortilla chips and a pair of salsas: the traditional tomato-based, cilantro-livened variety, and a unique blend of avocado and sour cream that gives a sense of guacamole while staying light (in consistency, anyway).

The menu hits the usual Mexican-fare marks, but there are thoughtful differences. Among the starters, for example, are a goat cheese and vegetable quesadilla ($8.50), crisp calamari with salsa diabla ($9), a Mexican chopped salad with jicama, corn and roasted pumpkin seeds among its components ($7.50), and the appetizer I was told to try: shrimp-stuffed jalapenos. The $9 version gives you three shrimp, the $15 flavor five. At three bucks a popper, I expected magic, and it was there, each of the shrimp fat and crisp, with the combined breading, cheese and pepper redefining what this item ought to be.

Shrimp shows up in a few other places, such as the camarones ajo verde ($18), served in a green salsa over rice, and in a variety of wraps. These include tostadas ($14-$17), with a choice of fajita steak, grilled chicken, black beans or the aforementioned seafood; enchiladas ($14-$18), which also include an option of grilled pork tenderloin; chimichangas ($14-$17), with steak, chicken or veggies and cheese; and, of course, burritos and tacos ($14-$18), which include pretty much anything mentioned above.

The enchiladas de puerco ($16) arrived on a plate crowded with a corn tortilla-wrapped meat compote, the pork sweet and piquantly seasoned. Although refried beans are traditional, these plates are garnished with black beans, which are much more appealing. Even the rice seemed like less of an assembly-line product. My daughter was pleased to see a green tortilla wrapped around a filling of grilled chicken for a giant burrito ($16), out of which she ultimately made a few meals. Sides of avocado, sour cream and pico de gallo crowded the generous rice and beans allotment.

I was tempted by the Texas-size burger ($12) just because I’m an ever-curious burger fan. This 12-ounce Angus beef monster has been acclaimed by area blogs and magazines, Borenstein later told me, something she never would have expected.

A section of big-bowl items look like hearty winter complements. Certainly green-chili mac and cheese with roasted poblanos ($13) has to take comfort food in a new direction. Pasta with a smoky tomato-chipotle cream is served with chicken ($16) or shrimp ($18) or veggies ($14), and there’s chili available ($14), cooked with ancho chilies.

But the hands-down winner for most creative item was the Southwestern shepherd’s pie that my wife enjoyed. This hearty bowl ($14) is layered with a stew of chicken, corn and other veggies, on which hovers an orange cloud of chipotle mashed potatoes. The seasoning was easygoing but artful, the portion large enough to also provide a couple of subsequent lunches. Which meant that we weren’t in much condition to go after dessert, although they’re also made in-house and include Mexican flan, key lime pie, banana piñata and a chocolate truffle torte ($6-$6.50 each).

When Borenstein told me that much of her staff has been there for over 20 years, I wasn’t surprised. There’s a keen sense of dedication and enjoyment on the floor, with regular customers and strangers like us able to share the fun. A happy restaurant is infectious: You want to return. And when the food is as good as we found it here, you’re going to.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave., Albany) was one of only 16 restaurants in the United States to win a 2010 Santé Restaurant Award in the Innovative Food category. The 13-year-old Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national restaurant competition in North America. Chef consultant Ric Orlando previously won a Santé Award in 2006 at his Saugerties restaurant, New World Home Cooking. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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