Santa Fe report (long)
- Peter Cherches
Food was, of course, one of the main reasons I made this, my first visit to Santa Fe. New Mexico is known to have a very particular brand of Mexican-based cuisine that somehow has never really been exported. You can find Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex all across the U.S., and much of the rest of the world too (authentic or not is another matter), but you rarely find New Mexican cuisine outside of New Mexico. I had to travel to its natural habitat.
Mark Miller took Santa Fe by storm 19 years ago when he arrived from the Bay Area and opened his Coyote Café, combining a California sensibility with New Mexico cuisine. I didn't eat at the very high-end Coyote's main dining room, but I went up to the casual, affordable Rooftop Cantina. I had a decent, but hardly memorable meal of grilled duck quesadillas (served with a nice spicy slaw with mango & pineapple), and a pretty forgettable sopa Azteca (tortilla soup). The Margarita was also forgettable, but I made up for it by ordering a Don Julio añejo after dinner.
I went to The Shed, which is famous for its red chile, and ordered an enchilada/taco combo with posole (a/k/a pozole) for lunch. In Mexico pozole (a stew of hominy and pork) is usually served as a soup with lime, radishes, and tostadas with refried beans on the side to be mixed in by the diner. In New Mexico it tends to be less of a production number, and is often served as a side dish on the plate with the other items (and, of course, without all the broth). The combo was a traditionally heavy New Mexican plate. It was absolutely delicious, but still, I can tire of that kind of heavy, cheesy stuff fairly quickly.
My friends in town took me to Maria's, a Santa Fe institution not far from their home. Frankly, I was not too impressed by the green chile stew, a soup with pork, green chiles and potato that was surprisingly mild. The ribs appetizer, however, nicely smokey with a red chile glaze, was excellent. But I think the real highlight of the meal was my introduction to sopapillas, a staple of New Mexican cuisine, and generally unknown elsewhere. What is it about fried dough that's so great? That's what sopapillas arepuffy, chewy, flaky, crispy, delicious fried dough, usually eaten with honey. Beignets, crullers, zeppoles, Indian pooris, Modenese gnocchi fritti, and now sopapillasI love 'em all.
Cafe Pasquals is another Santa Fe institution. They're famous for their breakfasts, which are served until 3 PM. For my 11 AM brunch I had EL PRESIDENTE Our Sauté of Smoked Poblano Chiles and Niman Ranch Beef Strips on White Corn Tortillas with Two Eggs Any Style and a Circle of Pinto Beans with Cotija. The spice of the green chile was bold but not overpowering, and it married so nicely with everything else. Niman Ranch are organic farmers who raise their meat without cruelty, leading to their products being called "happy meat." Happy meat is tasty meat.
The Plaza Restaurant is a time capsule across from the Plaza. Its been there since the 1920s, and now has the look of a 50s American diner. I love the laid back vibe of the place. My cup of posole was not as good as the posole served by The Shed, and I learned that all sopapillas are not created equal, as Plazas were rather disappointing after Marias. I was, however, very happy with the Guatemalan tamal (stuffed with chicken, olives, pimentos and raisins), topped with green chile.
My one departure from New Mexican cuisine was a dinner at El Farol, a highly regarded Spanish restaurant on Canyon road with a specialty in tapas. I ordered three tapas to start, two of which bowled me over.
The boquerones fritos, fried, sesame-coated Spanish anchovies served with a spicy lemon aioli were delicate and wonderful. The Israeli couscous (similar to egg barley) with creamy Idiazabal, a lightly smoked Basque sheep cheese, was rich and rewarding. The grilled pulpo (octopus) was less successful. It was overly charred and could have used more smoked paprika. It was, however, served with a very nice black olive tapenade. I should have quit there, but I wanted to try one more since two of the dishes were so good. Unfortunately, the dish I ordered was by far the worst of the bunch, the setas (Crimini mushrooms) with Jamon Serrano and Sherry. The thickish slivers of cured ham were too salty when cooked, and there was too much of it, so the ham ended up hijacking the mushrooms.
A mediocre ½ carafe of Sangria at $18 was a ripoff. Id have been better off ordering two glasses of wine.
Thanks for the report. I have lived in NM for 30 years and Santa Fe for most of that time. The local cuisine is distinct but I have never considered it "Mexican-based" but I guess if you think that there are enchiladas, burritos, tacos, etc, you could say that.
New Mexican food is not always hot (you described the posole at Maria's as suprisingly mild). Alot of people like the taste of red and green chile, but not too much heat. A lot of people like the flavor and the heat, and some just go for the heat.
Just to set the record stratight: the Coyote Cantina does not serve New Mexican cuisine. Cafe Pascual's does not serve, for the most part, New Mexican cuisine. They may use some New Mexican ingredients. Poblano chiles used in the dish you had (which sounds delicious) are not green chiles.
Sounds like you need to come back and try some carne adovada (Mary and Tito's in ABQ for one), and sample other New Mexican restaurants to get a really good feel for New Mexican cuisine. Good excuse to come back. Also, Santa Fe is not the only place to get New Mexican food. Albuquerque dishes it up real well, too. A good time to return is in late August, early September when green chiles are in season. Then try some fresh-made green chile rellenos. Also, Hatch has its chile festival every Labor Day weekend.
re: Peter Cherches
I agree with Desert Rat. You haven't tasted "New Mexican" cuisine until you've hit some of the small Mom and Pop places, both in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. La Salita, Sadies, El Pinto, Las Cuates in Albuquerque, Tecolote and Diego's in Santa Fe. These are "authentic" New Mexico food. Red or Green??
I agree with Desert Rat, Mary and Tito's in ABQ is the true "New Mexican". But for some reason no sopapillas there! They do have outstanding stuffed sopapillas but not plain ones. Oh well.