Elote Toast at Curious Toast. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.
The year was 2014. All across the internet people dumped buckets of ice water on their heads to raise money for ALS research. Hollywood’s most famous bachelor, George Clooney, finally tied the knot, while Gwyneth Paltrow notoriously “consciously uncoupled.” And the hottest trend in food was something called “artisanal toast.”
Not simply buttered and jammed, artisanal toast is a slice of toasted (good quality) bread slathered with a “fancy” topping such as avocado, almond butter and blueberries, or whipped goat cheese and honey. Such combinations were hardly new to anyone who’d ever been too busy or too lazy to cook a “real” breakfast, but the concept of serving them at cafés, elegantly plated, and charging four to twelve dollars (or more) a pop, created a bit of a sensation in the United States. Soon restaurants from San Francisco to Brooklyn began using the humble slice of toast as a blank, compact canvas on which to express their culinary creativity: carmelized leek and fava bean toast; country loaf toast with pear, mushroom, and miso bagna cauda; and banana slices with hazelnut-pepita butter and flax seeds on gluten-free quinoa toast—just like mother used to make.
As with most things popular, it didn’t take long for the backlash to begin. Was artisanal toast cultural appropriation? What was the difference between American fancy toast and a tartine or bruschetta or smørrebrød? Think pieces on avocado toast as conspicuous consumption and all that is cringey about Instagram food fetishization appeared in publications such as The Cut and the Washington Post. At the very least, gourmet toast was widely derided as overpriced and overrated, a product of hipster culture run amok. Only midway through 2014, the New Yorker boldly predicted that the trend itself would soon be “toast.”
Nonetheless, throughout the late 2010s, fancy toast’s popularity endured. So much so that in a widely mocked 2017 interview, a millionaire real estate mogul famously lamented that the real reason millennials couldn’t afford homes was because they kept buying high-priced avocado toast. Nearly a decade after the initial fancy toast craze, the dish has officially gone from a cultural flash in the pan—er, toaster?—to a café staple. Even in New Mexico.
“The [demand] is not going anywhere,” says David Ruiz, an award-winning chef and co-owner of Albuquerque’s Curious Toast Cafe. Despite the ubiquity of gourmet toast as a menu item, Ruiz’s café is one of the few restaurants that is almost entirely dedicated to it, offering more than a dozen sweet and savory options. “When I started researching the concept in 2018, I could only find four toast restaurants in the country,” he says. “I loved the idea because toast is so versatile. It lends itself to experimentation. You can make it high end, or what I really like is taking my favorite recipes from when I was a kid and seeing how I can re-create them on toast.”
One of those favorite childhood foods for Ruiz is elotes. “Growing up in California, the elote man would come down the street with his cart, take out the corn and [slather it with mayo] and chile powder. I wanted to see if it worked on toast and now it’s one of our best sellers. It definitely holds its own against any avocado toast.”
To hear more about Ruiz’s favorite fancy toast and to find out which other local renditions are worth financial ruin, check out the roundup below.
Fancy Toast Roundup
Curious Toast Cafe
718 Central SW, Albuquerque
Located inside a charming Victorian in downtown Albuquerque, this cafe takes the artisanal toast concept to another level. Starting with your choice of locally baked bread (gluten-free and vegan options available), the folks at Curious Toast construct such unique offerings as Parfait Toast (Greek yogurt, local granola, seasonal berries), the Van Dame On Mushroom (wild mushrooms, pickled tomato, lemon aioli, arugula), and the aforementioned Elote Toast. The latter is a taste of summer that comes with a generous spread of grilled sweet corn mixed with creamy sour cream and lemon aioli. Finished with cotija cheese, lime zest, cilantro, Tajin, and New Mexico red chile powder, this fork-and-knife toast gives you all the flavor of elote on the cob without having to spend the rest of the day picking it out of your teeth.
Meraki Coffee + Market. Photo by Candolin Cook.
Modern General Feed and Seed. Photo by Candolin Cook.
Whipped goat cheese and raspberry red chile jam
Meraki Coffee + Market
5900 Eubank NE, Albuquerque
Meraki (a Greek word meaning the love and attention one puts into their food, or something prepared for others) is a hidden gem on Eubank Boulevard. At first, the bright and sunny café appears to be just another stylish coffee shop, but take a look at their menu and you’ll see an extensive list of house-made pastries; natural wines and spirits; and breakfast and lunch items, including mussels, feta lamb meatballs, and smoked salmon toast. For fancy toast lovers with a sweet tooth, right now Meraki offers a tangy rendition of berries and cream. A long slice of locally baked ciabatta is topped with a heaping slather of whipped goat cheese, drizzled with homemade raspberry red chile jam, and strewn with fresh raspberries and mint. Pair it with a cup of their freshly brewed Cutbow coffee and you can pretend you’re in a Parisian café instead of an Albuquerque shopping center.
The Grove Cafe & Market
600 Central SE, Ste A, Albuquerque
The Grove has long been Albuquerque’s version of a SoCal café—a place where healthy and tasty are not mutually exclusive. In the EDo restaurant’s hearty version of avocado toast, whole wheat bread is topped with avocado smash, hard-boiled egg, pickled carrots, beets, seasonal sprouts, and a “super seed” mix of chia, sesame, and flax. It’s a dish pretty enough to make your Instagram grid and filling enough to power you through a whole day of pilates.
Pumpernickel & Lox
Modern General Feed and Seed
637 Cerrillos, Santa Fe and 1720 Central SW, Ste B, Albuquerque
Few things make me and my Jewish New Yorker husband happier than smoked salmon and schmear for breakfast. Do I wish it was on a New York bagel? Obviously. But as a current resident of the Southwest, I will take the next best thing: freshly baked pumpernickel toast from Modern General. Both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque locations offer their lox toast with the essential accompaniments of cream cheese, red onion, capers, lemon, and fresh chives and dill. It is a classic combination that will undoubtedly outlive any hipster fads.
Note: The Albuquerque location is currently closed for reconfiguring, but you can still visit Modern General in Santa Fe.
Avocado Smash and Serrano Ham Tartine
535 Cerrillos, Ste C, Santa Fe
What better place to buy toast than at a bakery? While so much of the fanfare about artisanal toast is about what goes on top, Sage Bakehouse proves it is really about what lies beneath. Their hand-formed bread dough is naturally leavened, slowly fermented, and baked directly on a stone hearth to create a perfectly crunchy crust and a soft, airy interior. For Sage Bakehouse’s most popular “tartine,” that fresh bread is then toasted and topped with a simple but delectable composition of creamy avocado and crispy and salty serrano ham. While you’re there, pick up one of their dozen or so loaves to go and make your own signature fancy toast recipe at home.
Candolin Cook is a PhD candidate in history at the University of New Mexico, freelance writer, editor, and former co-editor of edible New Mexico. She lives in Albuquerque, where her husband owns Vida Verde Farm, and believes in supporting local agriculture and food businesses whenever possible.