I was born in New England, a stone’s throw from the tumultuous Atlantic and a thirty-minute trip south on the T—Massachusetts’s sprawling commuter rail—from the Boston waterfront. My childhood summer weekends were spent with my father, rising long before dawn on the days when he wasn’t laboring on sweltering construction sites to head to the docks. As he and his partners readied their creaking old boat for a day of launching lobster pots, I would sit on a piling with my fishing pole, catching a strange assortment of small fish and wriggling eels for bait. When my bucket was full, the guys would chop it all up and fill the pots, and we’d churn through the steel-gray waters to drop the new lines and pull up the old, filled to bursting with the week’s catch.
Some of my best memories are of summer days spent with extended family, eating the unsold lobsters alongside massive bowls of corn on the cob, baked potatoes, and, if we were lucky, bushels of steamer clams dug up from beaches worked by my uncles. The sea, the salt on the wind, and the bounty of the waters are as integral a part of me today, despite a decade and a half in New Mexico, as they were of my 1970s child self in New England. So when I’m offered the opportunity to dine at a place fast becoming known for its seafood options, as Central Bodega is, I’m all in.
Central Bodega opened in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill in August 2022. The restaurant’s owners, Jessica and Seth Beecher, were both born and raised in Burque. Seth made his first culinary splash in my adopted city back in 2000 with the eclectic and innovative Ambrozia Cafe & Wine Bar, housed in a century-old home on the edge of Old Town. Known for unique offerings such as lobster corn dogs and french toast encrusted with Cocoa Krispies, the café garnered rave reviews from discerning palates during its run. Central Bodega is something of a departure from Ambrozia in that its menu features mostly classically executed dishes—albeit some, like salmon rillette and their popular Spanish mussels, are not widely served in Albuquerque. The restaurant breathes new life into the building that Nob Hill shoppers may remember as being the home of Hey Jhonny, a popular boutique that closed in 2017 (a casualty of retail trending away from brick and mortar, though a changing Nob Hill and a disastrously long-winded ART project didn’t help).
Arriving with my mother and sister on a lively December evening, it was a bittersweet experience to walk into the old shop and see it transformed into a bustling, energetic new business. The downstairs space is a bright, sleek urban bistro, like one would find on Boston’s Newbury Street, while the upper floor skews dimmer, dramatic, and date-night chic.
Greeted warmly by the hostess, we were informed that the party ahead of us was running behind. The front-of-house staff were exceptionally attentive and accommodating during the time it took for the last of the revelers to relinquish what was to be our table. Arnaldo, our devilishly charming server, got us swiftly settled with menus and a round of expertly crafted cocktails before reeling us in with his recommendations. Central Bodega’s offerings are streamlined yet varied enough to appeal to any appetite. The dinner menu leans European, with options such as coccoli (a deep-fried Italian dough served with prosciutto and burrata), salmon en papillote, and a divine dish we couldn’t pass up as a starter for the table, whipped feta drizzled with golden honey, sprinkled with cracked black pepper, adorned with thin shavings of radish, and studded with heirloom tomatoes so fresh tasting it was like they were zapped straight to the plate from late August.
Furthering that sensation of summer, both my sister and my mom, visiting from back East for a few weeks, ordered the Caesar salad, with my sister opting to add shrimp for a protein punch. The salads were cool, crisp, and perfectly tangy with their housemade dressing, and the plump, perfectly prepared shrimp added bright pops of color and flavor. I’d been leaning toward the French mussels because the description reminded me of beloved preparations from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but the popular dishes sell out fast and early. After a brief but intriguing description, I decided to take Arnaldo’s suggestion and try their clam chowder, which sounded more like what I grew up on than anything I’d had in quite a while.
Here’s where I’ll say that I’m often skeptical of ordering this dish so far from the Atlantic shores, having grown up eating fresh chowders made with clams pulled directly from the sands of my home state. All too often, I’ve let nostalgia and hope get the best of me and ordered clam chowder only to find it lacking in one way or another: chopped-up, rubbery bits of clams instead of whole steamers, odd and excess vegetables not found in a true New England chowder, or everything drowning in weak, watery liquid instead of the nuanced, silky broth that makes this dish so marvelous. So I was excited and optimistic when the large, steaming bowl that appeared before me was packed with fresh, whole clams still in their shell, their generous numbers nesting among an abundance of tender vegetables and chunks of potato. The first taste was heaven; the chowder was rich and creamy, with the lively, slightly briny flavor of the clams balancing the buttery smoothness of the white wine cream broth. The soft, lightly chewy texture of the clams complemented the potatoes, simmered to perfection and practically melting in my mouth. It was like my youth served up in a bowl, with a side of crisp house-made bread for dunking, and I drained it to the last drop.
Sated and happy, we opted to enjoy a French 125—the Bodega’s cognac-laced version of the traditional cocktail—to top off our meal in lieu of dessert while we soaked up a bit more of the festive atmosphere before ceding our table to the sudden rush of late-night merrymakers. Stepping out into the frigid darkness of the night, we were met by several more people coming toward the welcoming light spilling from Central Bodega’s facade. Nob Hill may have lost some old favorites these past few years, but I got the feeling that this lively dining space is no fish out of water but just what the neighborhood needs.
Raven del Rio
Raven Del Rio bounced around the country before falling in love with New Mexico fifteen years ago. A former writer for La Loca Magazine, she's happiest when roaming the highways and byways collecting stories to share. When she's not on the road, she can usually be found working on a vintage Coachmen camper or running with her German Shepherd, Ziggy.