Visit Albuquerque In 2018 For A Glimpse Of A City On The Come Up

“Where are the cool people and places in Albuquerque?” I ask my fifth Uber driver since arriving in the city. Settling into the black SUV, desperately thankful for the air conditioning and reprieve from the sun, I wait for the intel I need.

“Cool places?” the driver asks. “Yeah… we don’t have those.”

Again? God. Damn. It. And, I am oh-for-five.

With full confidence, I can say that the City of Albuquerque needs to host some sort of summit with their Uber drivers, because they do not upsell the city. There’s not even any Breaking Bad chat, though there is plenty of griping about neverending mass transit projects.

“A lot of people call the orange construction barrel our state monument,” says driver Randy with more resignation than humor.

* * *

When I decided to go to Albuquerque, part of the draw was the swagger-filled attitude with which my hosts repeated that ABQ is poised to be the next Austin or Portland. I live in Portland. I love Portland. Could Albuquerque give me the cool kid magic that Portland had before the present rental boom began pricing out young families and creative weirdos?

Well, no. Not exactly.

My trip to Albuquerque was built around the SOMOS ABQ festival, an event organized entirely by the city’s young professionals. The goal was to boost the local economy and increase connection for the larger community.

“Somos ABQ is about contributing to the quality of life for our young people,” said Stephen Segura, the owner of VivaABQ, El Rey & Mezcal. “A big part of that recipe is keeping ABQ entertained. SOMOS is helping with just that. Where else can you see local bands showcased on the same stage as Dillon Francis, Minus the Bear, and Deltron 3030 for just $10?”

As a side note: despite the fact that hundreds of collaborators — including non-profits and community organizations, artists and designers, tech industry entrepreneurs, business owners, musicians and performers, and local government — worked to make this fest happen, none of my hired drivers knew about it. So maybe cool things are happening entirely without making themselves known to Randy and his fellow Uber ferrymen.

“A festival organized by the young people of Albuquerque?” you say. “Surely, that gave you all the fresh, creative energy you were looking for on your trip?”

Yes and no. More than anything, the festival served as an apt metaphor for my trip and the city: It flirted with me before ghosting.

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Enjoying the goodness of El Pinto on this midweek day

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Before SOMOS ABQ got kicking, I was taken to dinner at the rightfully famous El Pinto, where I had my second chile relleno of the day because when you don’t eat meat and people insist every meal be classic New Mexico cuisine (which seems to be rarely vegetarian), your diet is limited. However, the endless pitchers of margaritas we downed like spring breakers in Baja and the pillowy, honey-drenched sopaipillas we ate made me unconcerned with the amount of time the whole thing was taking. I should have been.

The meal didn’t finish until 8 pm, so the festival was in full swing when I arrived on the roof of a building adjacent to the event. My plan was to hit the New Mexico Distillers Guild First Annual Spirits Festival and get my drink on before I moved through the crowds toward the main stage to see Dillon Francis. Sigh.

In the scant half hour I was there before the fairy lights went abruptly dark, distillers snatched their precious bottles off the table, and the group of people I was with was rushed to elevators, I managed to drink a shot of straight gin (like a Victorian prostitute) from Santa Fe Spirits, down another of a delicious coffee vodka in a toast with a short-haired girl who shouted something in Spanish before she drank, and made friends with a very affectionate, very drunk brewer from Santa Fe. He talked about his cat a lot and insisted on hugging me to punctuate his thoughts.

See this pattern where I get close to some awesome activity like indie drinking (very Portland) and it is only available in a very limited way? That’s what happened over and over again because the seed for the wild, verdant weird Austin/Portland type city is planted in ABQ, but it hasn’t fully sprouted.

Leaving the distillers behind, I walked through closed off street of downtown with a few groups and the drunk brewer, who was now my best friend. Or, so I thought until he locked sweaty hands with an equally loaded girl. But, I was not to be saved. They weebled behind me, loudly mumbling things. I did a lot of smiling and nodding.

When we came to a stop next to a large piece of street art that included a television on which a man with a beard, waxed mustache, and a pipe was playing 8-bit video games (a glimpse of Portland), the pair got very close to me. She looked up and me with eyes that wanted to be focused, and said, “Is this gonna happen or what?”

It did not, but I thanked her for the offer.

After not enough liquor and too many propositions, I reached the stage where Dillon Francis was playing and watched roughly ten minutes of his set before it ended. As I had made my way there, I noticed all of the booths were closed or being packed away, but the reality that this was all coming to an end at 10 pm wasn’t fully accepted.

I would like to say that the VIP parties I was invited to were lit and that I was able to stay up all night riding the amazing energy that SOMOS ABQ genuinely created. But…no. Both were completely dead, so I went back to my totally gorgeous room at the historic boutique hotel Hotel Andaluz, drank a lot of wine, and watched cable.

The next day was my final in the city, and I was committed to finding the Portland I’d been promised. Thus far, the trip had really leaned into the Southwest — which was a good thing — but I hadn’t witnessed the young creative hotbed that I’d heard about. I ate at the famed Barela’s Coffee House (yes, chile relleno). I walked through Old Town and peeped traditional architecture and tourist traps. I drank a High Noon Margarita, the house beverage at the High Noon Restaurant and Saloon, a haunted establishment that can trace its heritage back to 1795. It was an adobe, turquoise postcard made real, but it felt better suited to families and traditional tourists.

That afternoon was when I took my ride with Randy. When I enthusiastically chirped Nob Hill was my destination, I asked him if it was cool and fun. He told me it is often called “Snob Hill,” and I found myself worrying. Would it be too swank to be fun? No. It would actually be too closed. Nothing on Nob Hill opens before noon on Sunday. I enjoyed walking the streets and taking in the classic buildings with their bright colors illuminated by the bright sun of the high desert. But, the pattern was in full effect, leaving me with my hands cupped against a variety of windows to shade my eyes as I longingly stared into establishments I could not access.

Empire Board Game Library had my interest. But, like the equally interesting Nob Hill Music, the doors were locked. The Guild Cinema looked like it would be a perfect spot for taking in an indie film in the evening. The storefronts of second-hand clothiers Off Broadway Vintage Clothing and Buffalo Exchange boasted serious retro and trendy steez. Masks Y Mas, a store full of indigenous art, and Astros-Zombies, a comic book store, were total eye candy and gave me some serious retail blue balls.

With their classic lines and bright murals, all the stores are fun to look at, and they house awesome shit; sadly, there just isn’t enough. It hints at what could be without fully achieving an accessibility that points to sufficient cool.

When I finally gave in and bailed on Nob Hill, I hunted down some of the local breweries, arriving at La Cumbre to try what I was told was the best IPA in Albuquerque, the Elevated IPA. Again, I was too early. There was a yoga class going on and customers weren’t allowed in for drinking. Shades of ye olde old PDX.

After a wait on the patio in the blaring sun, sitting at the wood counter sipping what was, as promised, a great IPA surrounded by glistening people in workout gear similarly tippling, I couldn’t help but think I could have been at home. This was a feeling that only increased when the music stylings proved to be The Cure and Morrissey. Then, I hit Marble Brewing — where I had a sampler that ranged from not great to a spectacular gose before heading to the airport for an overpriced bloody Mary (why not ride out Sunday day drinking with more drinking?).

Still, I’d gotten the clues I was looking for. The city does great with beer, and as the PNW has taught me, that’s essential to starting a boom. Mission accomplished.

ABQ sure as hell isn’t the next Portland 2017. It’s not even 2007 during the food boom or 1997 when it was constantly rated the “most liveable city in the US.” It’s Portland 1987.

Maybe that’s the best possible scenario. It’s early yet in Boomtown. Before the city can keep life weird, it’s gotta get a hell of a lot more weirdness worth preserving. Still, I’m jealous of all the thinkers and creators that will move there to write comics and design clothes and play music and sell books and tend bar because they will get to live through the 90s Portland that I missed. And, when Albuquerque finally locks down being a city with a high quality of life, liberal appeal, and rampant quirkiness on a large scale, these bold dreamers will be the first to say “We were when it was really cool.”

And they’ll get there… in due time.