CoolWater Fusion

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, May 2011

CoolWater Fusion is an unlikely sort of place. It’s tucked away into a corner of a strip mall deep in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, with an oceanic parking lot bridging the divide between its doorstep and the automated sliding glass panes of a Walmart Supercenter. But CoolWater Fusion, despite its unusual name and odd location, is without a doubt one of the best restaurants in the city. 

Consider, for instance, Chef Jason Upshaw’s version of the classic fried chicken: Sizzled in a blue corn crust and then brushed with chipotle honey glaze, a bite of the organic bird is almost inexplicably tantalizing—the savoriness and slight sweetness meld to unleash a perfect spectrum of flavors. Simple ingredients create a complex taste that will leave you yearning to eat more and more so you can decode it. You may think about that chicken for weeks. 

The bird’s companion pieces aren’t to be underestimated, either. Mashed potatoes, green beans and a roasted ear of corn share the platter, and each, though seemingly straightforward, brings something unexpected and irresistible to the meal. But this is still comfort food, not overly rich; and when the plate is wiped clean, you feel quite comfortable.

Also consider the turkey osso bucco, braised in white wine and roasted with onions, carrots and celery; or the boneless short ribs, doused in red wine and served alongside ancho chile and plum sauce; or the rainbow trout stuffed with crab meat, wrapped in bacon and presented with roasted corn salsa. And while you’re considering all that, take a moment to reflect on the chocolate crème brûlée, garnished with blackberries. 

CoolWater’s menu presents an elegant philosophy: simple, traditional ingredients are cooked superbly and with great intentionality. Each dish feels like a masterpiece.

And the strange location? That’s intentional, too, and it speaks to the core values of Upshaw and owner Glenn Williams—community, family, and staying true to what’s local and fresh. 

Williams and medical student Katie Sanchez are the true co-owners of the restaurant, but Sanchez is mainly in the business for financial support. Although Upshaw may not technically be a partner, in sentiment as well as the vision and direction of the restaurant he is every bit so. Williams and Upshaw are good friends, the kind of friends who answer questions about the other with pride, and the kind of friends who keep good on their pacts.

The two met in 2006 when they worked together briefly at Quail Run in Santa Fe, with Upshaw in the kitchen and Williams in management. Some time later, after Upshaw had joined the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to help open The Pueblo Harvest Café and Bakery, they bumped into each other. Upshaw tried to recruit Williams to Pueblo Harvest to act as its general manager, and Williams agreed on one condition: When he was ready to open a restaurant of his own, Upshaw would join him. Upshaw kept his promise, and when CoolWater opened on July 13 of last year, he took center stage in the kitchen. 

The entire process of creating the restaurant, from conception to the final coats of blue and orange paint on the walls, has retained that sense of friendship and community. Williams and Upshaw chose the restaurant’s location based on how close it is to their homes (both live within walking distance) as well as the fact that high-quality restaurants are sparse in the area.

“In the past, I’ve driven half an hour or more to work,” says Williams. 

“To make food for strangers,” Upshaw adds. 

“This was a lifestyle change.”

Now the two make food for their neighbors, many of whom are regulars at CoolWater. But their attitude about localism goes much deeper. Upshaw and Williams are devoted to fresh, local food. They’re so devoted, in fact, that Williams makes it his personal mission to go grocery shopping every day, at up to five different places, to ensure that the food coming out of his kitchen is as fresh as possible. He favors locally grown food at farmers markets but will shop anywhere that provides what he’s looking for: quality. “I handpick lettuce,” he says. “People look at me, because I’ll walk around looking for the best asparagus.”

This is why CoolWater refuses to use a distributor for produce. For meat, the restaurant is also particular. The beef on the menu comes from Heritage Beef, a collection of five New Mexico ranches that mostly grass feed their cattle, only finishing them on grain to help produce marbling. “If you’re gonna kill something, you might as well make it worthwhile, to honor the animal,” Upshaw says. “If you get it locally, you know how it’s treated. ... It’s better to eat happy animals.”

Williams and Upshaw are also looking for New Mexico-raised lamb. Since buying local fish proves difficult, they get their fish from Idaho Farms, which sends them fresh and whole. Upshaw debones them in-house.

All CoolWater’s food is prepared from scratch; the kitchen doesn’t even have hot boxes. “We sauté everything to order,” Williams says. The restaurant itself was made from scratch, too. Williams and his 73-year-old father built everything inside it, from the walls and ceiling to the fish tank embedded in a stone wall on the far side of the modest-sized room. Including Williams and Upshaw, CoolWater only has 10 employees. “My cousin is a waitress,” Williams says. “Everyone here is a friend, family or both.”

To further bolster its ideals, CoolWater solely plays music by Shane Wallin, a local singer/songwriter who also plays live at the restaurant most weekends. Everything about the restaurant, down to its name, is inspired by community. Williams called the restaurant CoolWater Fusion because he likes the way the words make him feel. It reminds him of little display fountains his mother kept in their house when he was growing up, and he wanted to bring the sense of serenity he associates with the memory to his restaurant. 

CoolWater is still small. It only has 17 tables, and Upshaw is still working a second full-time job. He works from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. at his other job five days a week, getting to CoolWater around 3 p.m. to work for the evening shift. Williams, who works seven days a week at the restaurant, is the acting cook for the lunch hour, taking off as soon as it’s over to do the day’s grocery shopping.

Even though the restaurant is small, it’s starting to make an impression on the local culinary scene. In its first year of entering Roadrunner Food Bank’s Souper Bowl, CoolWater took home first place, and it tied with another eatery for the title of Best New Restaurant in the Weekly Alibi’s Best of Burque: Restaurants poll. It’s not all that surprising, considering that Upshaw was invited to be a participant on “Top Chef” a few years ago. (He says he was too busy at the time to do it, adding with a timid grin, “I would have died from stage fright.”) 

But CoolWater may not be small for long; it has plans for expansion, and it’s supposed to get its beer and wine license mid-May.

Williams and Upshaw may be overworked, but they don’t show it. They seem to feed off the perpetual motion in which they find themselves. For the first time in their lives, they’re working on something that belongs to them.

“We all started this on a dream and a hope,” Williams says, to which Upshaw chimes in, “It sound cheesy, but it is a labor of love.”