That rumbling noise to the east of town on the weekends is not thunder. Not yet. It's the crowds of people filing in and out of Dion's.
Why are people braving long waits at the traffic light to visit Dion's? This Albuquerque-based chain offers sandwiches, pizzas and salads. The service is friendly, even when the crowds are hectic, and the food is simple, fast, fresh and delicious. All the windows give the restaurant an airy feel on even the dreariest of days. And if you don't want to dine in, you can order and pay online, then pick up your order at the drive-through window.
Dion's is a chain, but a small, regional chain. There are 10 stores in their home town of Albuquerque, five others in New Mexico, two in Lubbock, Texas, and one here, as of Dec. 1. Pizza dough is made fresh at the store, while all of their breads, brownies, cookies and salad dressings are made at the Dion's 'commissary ' in Albuquerque, supplying all locations with the same high-quality goods.
The attention to detail shows in the food. The warm, toasted baguettes for the sandwiches have a tender interior and a chewy crust, sturdy enough to hold the sandwich together while remaining soft enough to bite through. The wheat baguette truly shines, with a distinctive wheaty flavor and heartier texture.
While there are several standard sandwiches (6-inch $5.45, 10-inch $6.95), every single one is customizable, a feature you can truly appreciate if you order online. All the sandwiches I've tried so far have been extremely well balanced, with enough lettuce for crunch, just enough onion for flavor and not so much dressing that it runs down my arm. I especially appreciate that the roast beef isn't so rare I feel as if I'm eating Carpaccio (an Italian dish of thinly sliced raw beef). Then there's the Veggie, so full of succulent roasted green chilies, cheddar, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, black olives, tomatoes and lettuce that you will never miss the meat.
Each sandwich comes with plain old potato chips, fruit or koolsla (their name for fresh cabbage salad). Being something of a nut for raw cabbage, I had to try the salad. I'm glad I did. Crunchy cabbage with a healthy dose of sweet shredded carrots and flecks of red cabbage make up the base. This is accented with chopped almonds and dried cranberries, and the whole thing is tossed with a very light dressing that comes down slightly on the sweet side. The only thing that would make this better would be an option to have the coleslaw directly on the sandwich instead of alongside, but I'll admit, I could be in the minority on that one.
What about the pizza? It's good. It's not mind-blowing, and if you're looking for the crackling, blistered crust of a wood-oven pizza, you'll be disappointed. The crust is a medium thickness, with good, chewy edges and an interior that holds up to most toppings. Prices range from $1.85 for a slice with cheese to $16.75 for a large (16-inch) Dion's Special.
One of the best features is that you can order a single slice of pizza with up to any four toppings you want. I tried green chili and chicken, with good results. The sauce, with bright flavors of garlic and oregano, has more of a fresh-tomato flavor than a long simmered taste. I think the difference is refreshing and allows the toppings to shine. The chicken was still moist, and the load of green chilies added a nice hint of heat. The Tuscany gourmet pizza uses a garlicky pesto in place of red sauce, topped with bits of sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, crunchy pine nuts, provolone and parmesan. The unexpected combination was a huge success.
Not so successful is the Margherita pizza. The red sauce is completely buried under provolone, cheddar, mozzarella, asiago and parmesan. There's a bit of fresh sliced tomato and some spare bits of fresh basil, but it was too little in every sense of the word. The cheese is applied with a heavy hand and completely overwhelms all the other ingredients and renders the crust soggy and unpleasant.
Kudos go to Dion's for the variety of salads they offer ($4.45-$5.45 for full size). Everything is based on iceberg lettuce, not my favorite, but you can upgrade to romaine or spring mix lettuce for an additional charge of 74 cents. Most of the salads come with 'Dion's mix, ' which is a combination of finely diced cucumbers, red onion and bell peppers. Like the subs, they are customizable, allowing you to add in what you like and subtract what you don't. Sadly, while you can get Kalamata olives on your pizza, they don't offer the same option for salads, and it would give the Greek salad a much-needed boost.
All the extras are made by Dion's in Albuquerque. If you like the dressings, you can buy a bottle to take home. The Greek is nicely balanced, not too tart or too oily. Surprisingly, the light ranch has a fresher and less salty taste than the regular ranch. The cookies ($1) are available in chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and macadamia, and all have a buttery, homemade flavor. The brownies ($1.55) are easily big enough to share, but the walnuts are all massed on the top instead of spread throughout. Also, for true brownie fans, these are cakey, not fudgy.
If you visit Dion's on the weekend, expect it to be packed. The reason is two-fold. One, you can feed your whole family good food without breaking the bank. Two, whoever designed the entry/exit point for that particular little plaza was possibly working with another dimension not visible to normal humans. Getting in and out can be nightmarish, although the food is worth it.