Eating Santa Fe

There may be prettier towns in America but Santa Fe is probably the best smelling one. All the smoking kivas, burning pinon, send out a woody, perfumed scent, something an aromatherapist couldn’t top, and in the evening the whole town smells like an open southwestern hearth.

That may be reason enough to visit but there are other incentives. Now that foreign travel is a foreign notion for a lot of us, Santa Fe’s graceful, oddly coherent blend of Native American, Hispanic, colonial and frontier cultures allows for a cheap trip to another country. And winter’s low season makes the trip more affordable.

Which was part of the reason we ended up there last weekend, sniffing the pinon, circling the plaza in the clear, soft desert light, and looking for something good to eat.

It wasn’t as easy as the inflated press suggested, a decade ago, when Santa Fe was the travel glossys’ It girl. But a concentrated culinary culture still thrives in Santa Fe and while we never had a great, sustained meal we had fragments of one. Locals can offer their own more seasoned suggestions (I’m keeping a  list of what I missed for the next visit). But if I was going to piece together one great Santa Fe meal, based on our grazing marathon last week, it would consist of the following dishes.

Appetizers: Geronimo’s ex-chef Eric DiStefano has taken over the kitchen at the revived Coyote Cafe, which removed the howling coyotes but won back its big, howling crowds. The menu is thick with theatrically rich dishes but the best may be the Cafe’s long-standing signature starter: a stack of sweet shrimp sandwiches between actually fluffy griddle cakes. Our most eye-opening appetizer, though, was at the Fuego restaurant, in La Posada hotel, where chef Mary Nearn serves a dish of very tender, shredded, braised red chile beef cheeks, topped by a little crown of manchego cheese and sitting on a crisp disk of blue corn tortilla. Get two orders of this, or maybe three, and you’ll have the best meal in town.

Entrees: Cafe Pasqual’s, as much of a local culinary landmark as Coyote, never needed a revival because its food never flagged, and the line for lunch still snakes out the front door almost every day. Its chicken mole enchilada is a perfect dish; the dark chocolate brown, almost inky, black mole is dusky, deeply flavored, and just a shade shy of sweet, and the free-range chicken comes wrapped up tight in white corn tortillas. (You can get a mole-less version of the enchilada, topped with red and green chile, that’s just as good, pictured above). The Inn of the Anasazi’s dining room, headed by British chef Oliver Ridgeway, serves a surf and turf plate of velvety scallops and equally velvety pork belly cubes. And Geronimo, where local favorite son Martin Rios has taken over from DiStefano, saves the ubiquitous salmon (the creme brulee of entrees) by pairing it with a very seductive truffle beurre fondue.

Desserts: Almost all the more formal kitchens in town seem seized by the creme brulee-panna cotta-flourless chocolate cake mantra. Get something more interesting, and truer to Santa Fe, at the Todos Santos chocolatier, where the silver and 23 karate gold leaf chocolate saints and milagros are too pretty to eat, unless you get really hungry, and then it’s a fight between your appetite and your aesthetics. The other option is the Saturday morning Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, at the new Railyard, where hippie cowgirls sell raspberry red chile ginger jam to spread on the apricot peach bread rolls, and the danishes, sold by a line-up of bakers.

Oddly, of course, what’s missing from a lot of the name restaurants is a real sense of New Mexican flavor. For reliable, cheaper meals that evoke some actual local color, as satisfying as the whiff of pinon, try the Tune-Up Cafe, where the kitchen mixes New Mexican and Salvadoran dishes, and Felipe’s Tacos, which is as good as it sounds.

by Raphael Kadushin,