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Del Charro Saloon – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Del Charro Saloon at the Inn of the Governors

Can it truly be that the more things change, the more they stay the same? In 1776, Fermin de Mendinueta, governor and captain-general of the Spanish province of New Mexico, declared that “Santa Fe settlers are “churlish types” who are “accustomed to live apart from each other, as neither fathers nor sons associate with each other.”  In 2013, Travel & Leisure published a list of America’s “snobbiest cities” and Santa Fe made the list at number five.  The list was based on surveys of the magazine’s readers.

Mayor at the time David Cross attributed the perception of Santa Fe snobbery to the enjoyment of the arts, a point validated by the article which quoted a writer as saying “without a certain appearance or air about yourself, gallery owners barely acknowledge you when you walk in.”  Then there’s the former Santa Fe restaurateurs who had a very strict “no fragrance” (as in no eau de toilette, eau de parfum and even no Old Spice) policy at their splendorific Italian restaurant.  Even some food snobs believed that was taking haughtiness too far.

Outdoor dining with murmurations of starlings

Fortunately Santa Fe has its own version of the place where everybody knows your name…and if they don’t, they’ll still treat you well.  One of the city’s most down-to-earth (or least pretentious, depending on your perspective) venues is the Del Charro Saloon scant blocks south of the Snob Fe Plaza.  Adjacent to the Inn of the Governors, one of the city’s most reasonably priced lodgings, Del Charro is so friendly even murmurations of starlings frequent it or at least they frequent the fireside patio which is covered and heated during cold weather.  The inviting fragrance of woodsmoke permeates the warm, amiable milieu.

Named for the nattily attired Mexican horseman, Del Charro is one of Santa Fe’s most popular watering holes. In 2012, readers of the Santa Fe Reporter voted it Santa Fe’s best bar in its annual “best of” issue.  Del Charro also garnered acclaim as “the most affordable restaurant” in Santa Fe, a tribute to its no-snobbery prices.  The menu’s pub fare is as good as higher priced “cuisine” served at other restaurants in town.

Chips, Salsa and Guacamole

You’ve probably noticed the scarcity of New Mexican restaurants serving complimentary chips and salsa.  Not only do they charge you for something which until recent years has always been free, if you want to make it a triumvirate by adding guacamole, you’ll pay a king’s ransom.  It’s almost shameful how highly some restaurants think (based on ridiculously high charges) of their chips, salsa and especially their guacamole.  While Del Charro’s chips and salsa aren’t gratis, they are inexpensive ($3) and the cost ($1.50) to add guacamole won’t break the bank.  It’s refreshing to pay appetizer prices for appetizers. 

The salsa and guacamole are served in red corn tortilla “bowls.”  The salsa is thick and made from fire-roasted tomatoes.  It’s not especially piquant and is made with just a bit too much Mexican oregano which really changes its flavor profile by making it overly acerbic. The guacamole is infused with a hint of lime and with chopped tomatoes.  It’s creamy and rich with a fresh avocado flavor.  The chips are light, crispy and relatively light in salt.  The chips, salsa and guacamole are quite good, especially considering the pittance you’ll pay for them.

Two Sliders with Housemade Potato Chips

Mustard and ketchup dispensers are positioned next to the salt and pepper on every table.  Order the two sliders plate and you can apply mustard and (or) ketchup to your liking, not as some overzealous dispenser squeezer applies them for you.  In fact, the sliders are served naked–only beef patties on a brioche style bun.  You can ask for other ingredients if you’d like.  A few grilled onions and with more than a little imagination you can almost convince yourself you’re enjoying White Castle sliders.  Given your choice of sides (French Fries, Cole slaw, Potato Salad or Potato Chips) opt for the chips.  They’re housemade, crispy, low in salt and fun to eat.

Over the years, innovative restaurateurs throughout the state have attempted to place their own stamp on New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger.  The avant garde versions–those that deviate most from the delicious simplicity of green chile cheeseburgers–are the most interesting.  Their departure into heretofore untried methods and ingredient combinations don’t always work.  I’d heard tell of a daringly different approach to the green chile cheeseburger at Del Charro and had to try it.

Stuffed Green Chile Cheeseburger with Beer-Battered Fries

Del Charro’s signature burger is a stuffed green chile cheeseburger.  While “stuffed” has been done before, Del Charro’s version has actually drawn praise from respected burger connoisseurs.  The “stuff” in the “stuffed” includes applewood smoked bacon, autumn-roast green chile and Gorgonzola all mixed into the chipotle barbecue sauce-tinged beef before the patty is formed.  Served with crisp lettuce, red onion and a thick, unripened tomato on the side, if you want to taste the stuff, you might want to dispense with the aforementioned sides.  Adorn your burger instead with the contents of the ramekin of green chile relish so wonderfully reminiscent of the fabulous Cajun chow-chow relishes we enjoyed in New Orleans.  The green chile relish is mildly piquant, sweet and tangy.  It’s so good it should be bottled and sold!  Not only was it the highlight of a much-touted burger, it enlivened the accompanying beer-battered fries, too.

With a menu which might best be described as “bar fare with a Southwestern leaning” and not strictly New Mexican, it’s not surprising to see Del Charro’s menu list some items as including “chile” and others being made with “chili.”  Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference in any of the other 49 states, but in New Mexico there’s only one way to spell chile and that’s ending with an “e,” not an “i.”  Just to make sure, we asked if the Frito pie (for which the spelling “chili” is used) is made with New Mexican chile or with Tejano chili. Our server assured us the Frito pie is made with New Mexican chile.  

Frito Pie

Alas, not all chile is created (or seasoned) equal.  The New Mexican red chile, while pleasant enough, doesn’t have much of a bite (perhaps out of deference for tourists who frequent Del Charro).   The Frito Pie, large enough for a small family to share, is a mound of beef chili (SIC; my Mac is chaffing at that spelling), Frito’s corn chips, Cheddar-Jack cheese, chopped onions, shredded lettuce and pico de gallo.   Though not especially piquant, Del Charro’s Frito pie is not one you’d kick off your table.  Made with fresh ingredients which go well together, it’s a solid Frito pie.

There are only three desserts on the menu, the most popular of which are the natillas. Served in a “bowl” fashioned from a fried tortilla, the natillas  (a thick, creamy custard-like dessert) are served at just about room temperature and are sprinkled with a generous amount of cinnamon.  With virtually no lumps to distract you, you may want to close your eyes and luxuriate in the smooth, sweet vanilla deliciousness in front of you.  The fried tortilla “bowl” is more utilitarian than it is edible.

Natillas

Del Charro calls itself “Santa Fe’s watering hole” and while adult libations are certainly a popular draw, value-conscious diners who want a quality meal will enjoy one of the best “cheap eats” options in the vicinity of the Plaza.

Del Charro Saloon
101 West Alameda
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 954-0320
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 October 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stuffed Green Chile Cheese Burger, Natillas, Frito Pie, Sliders, Salsa, Chips and Guacamole

Del Charro Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Turquoise Room – Winslow, Arizona

The fabulous La Posada

The fabulous La Posada

The concept of “fast food” had a far different connotation during the Southwest’s Frontier days than it does today. This is especially true if one traveled via railroad through hundreds of miles of desolate, open country. In the more densely populated and genteel east there were often several cities between most destinations. This allowed for frequent rest and refreshment stops. Passengers rode in relative comfort in Pullman cars with dining cars.

In the wide open west, only twenty minutes were allowed during each of the infrequent stops. Further, the food was as miserable as the travel conditions. According to Keith L. Bryant’s History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, “meat was greasy and usually fried, beans were canned, bacon rancid and coffee was fresh once a week.” No doubt it was gastronomic distress that prompted the following ditty documented on the book Hear the Lonesome Whistle Blow by Dee Brown: “The tea tasted as though it was made from the leaves of sagebrush. The biscuit was made without soda, but with plenty of alkali, harmonizing with the great quantity of alkali dust we had already swallowed.”

The welcoming interior of the Turquoise Room

One man, an English emigrant named Fred Harvey was determined to change the deplorable railroad travel conditions in the west. With a background as a restaurateur and later as a railroad employee, he brought good food at reasonable places served in clean, elegant restaurants to the traveling public throughout the Wild West. Historians agree that he also introduced civility and dignity. The Fred Harvey Company’s expansion included hotels, restaurants and lunchrooms throughout the Southwest (Arizona, California and New Mexico) as well as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and eventually anywhere the Santa Fe railroad system had major terminals including Chicago and Saint Louis.  By the late 1880s a Fred Harvey dining facility existed every 100 miles along the Santa Fe line. Meals at a Harvey establishment epitomized the highest standards for cleanliness and fastidiousness. Fine China, crystal, Irish linens, sumptuous portions and great value were hallmarks of a meal at a Harvey facility.

In the 1920s, the Harvey Company decided to build a major hotel in Winslow, the Arizona headquarters for the Santa Fe Railway. Being centrally located, Winslow was thought to be ideally situated for a resort hotel. No expense was spared. Construction costs for grounds and furnishings have been estimated at $2 million or about $40 million in today’s dollars. La Posada, the resting place, was the finest hotel in the Southwest during the railroad era. Today it remains not so much a re-creation of the great railway era, but an accumulation of memories and treasures in the form of exquisite art, history and beauty. Its opulent flow includes arched doorways, hand-painted glass windows, glittering tin chandeliers, Southwestern hand-hewn furniture and whimsical art. It is a magnificent complex, one of the finest hotels in the entire West.

Heirloom Squash Blossoms

Heirloom Squash Blossoms

It is only fitting that a hotel with the grandeur and splendor of La Posada have an elegant area set aside for the finest in dining. That would be the Turquoise room which has been recreated to reflect the ultimate in stylish railroad dining. The Turquoise Room is indeed a fabulous restaurant, viewed by experts as one of the very best in the Four Corners region. The braintrust behind the restaurant is chef and owner John Sharpe, an Englishman like Fred Harvey with a similar commitment to outstanding food and impeccable service.  That commitment was  recognized in 2011 when Sharpe was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as the best chef in the southwest.

Sharpe is committed to using only the finest and freshest ingredients possible, many of them grown locally. An avid gardener, he also grows heirloom vegetables and herbs for the restaurant, including the giant squash blossoms that appear on his menu on occasion. Every once in a while Sharpe also pays tribute to the great days of the Fred Harvey Company with retro dishes from the great railway era, but for the most part his cuisine might best be labeled as regional contemporary Southwestern. An even better label would be fabulous!  Several items are menu mainstays: roast prime rib, grilled steaks, fresh fish, pasta, elk, quail, pork, chicken, lamb and a vegetable platter. Desserts are made in-house on a daily basis.

Porterhouse Steak

The Engineer’s Porterhouse Steak

24 August 2008: Sharpe’s giant squash blossoms are things of beauty! Piped into each beer battered squash flower is a tamale-like concoction of corn meal and two types of cheeses topped with a corn salsa and drizzled with fresh cream. You will savor each bite and mourn the last one. It is one of the best appetizers we’ve had in any Arizona restaurant. An excellent pairing with many Turquoise Room entrees is the Don Juan Sangria cocktail made with red wine, port, sherry, brandy, triple sec and citrus juices served over ice. Sliced oranges, lemons and limes float on the sangria and add to its full-bodied, hearty flavor.

If you’ve ever lamented the lack of game gracing menus at restaurants throughout the Southwest, you’ll be thrilled to see several game favorites featured at the Turquoise Room. Better still, some entrees include more than one game favorite. One sure to please entree for the gaming gastronome is the Native Cassoulet with Churro Lamb, Duck Leg and Elk Sausage. Cassoulets are generally rich, slow-cooked bean casseroles containing meats (typically pork, sausage, mutton or goose), but Sharpe takes some liberties with that definition.

Prime Rib au jus

Prime Rib au jus

8 September 2007: Sharpe’s version starts with Tohono O’odham (a Native American tribe formerly known as the Papago who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico) grown tepary (a drought-resistant bean grown in the Southwest) beans cooked with locally raised Churro lamb, chilies and spices. The Turquoise Room’s Churro lamb chop is fork tender and absolutely delicious with nary a hint of gaminess or fat. In fact, the meat is very distinctive for lamb with a subtle wild flavor likely resultant from the Churro breed’s diet of shrubs and herbs in the sparse deserts of the Southwest. This is some of the best lamb I’ve had anywhere!  The duck leg confit is similarly wonderful–a duck leg seasoned and slowly cooked in duck fat. The Turquoise Room’s rendition is sinfully tender and moist with a crispy and golden brown skin.  The spicy smoked elk sausage may surprise you because it actually lives up to its billing. The sausage’s pronounced smokiness quickly gives way to a spiciness that will play a concordant tune on your taste buds. It is slightly coarse as sausage goes, but is tender, moist and delicious.

8 September 2007: Another dinner entree featuring game is aptly named the Wild-Wild-Wild-West Sampler Platter. This entree features grilled quail with prickly pear jalapeno glaze, seared elk medallion with blackcurrant sauce and a cup of chunky venison, buffalo, wild boar and scarlet runner bean chili served with sweet corn tamale and fresh vegetables. Every item on this entree is stellar in its own right, but together they put to shame just about every combination meat platter you can think of.  The seared elk with blackcurrant sauce edges out the grilled quail with prickly pear jalapeno glaze as the best of the lot, but not by much. Both are absolutely delicious, prepared to absolute perfection.

Cream of corn and smooth black bean soup

Cream of corn and smooth black bean soup

24 August 2008: If you’re of a carnivorous bent but don’t necessarily desire an entree with multiple meats, the purist in you might prefer The Engineer’s Porterhouse Steak. This is a one-pound Sterling Silver center-cut Porterhouse you can cut with a dinner knife. That’s how tender it is. It is served with a spicy (perhaps chipotle infused) steak sauce that is actually worth using on this slab of meat.  Prepared to your exacting specifications (medium is my recommendation), it is juicy and delicious on both the larger short loin side and the more tender and flavorful tenderloin side. Some restaurants call this cut of meat the T-Bone, but by any name, it is often a challenge to prepare correctly because of the uneven temperature distribution in preparation. The Turquoise Room obviously has mastered the art of preparing this delicious cut.

24 August 2008: Another fine meat option is the Premium Angus Prime Rib Roast Au Jus served with horseradish cream, a medley of fresh vegetables and a choice of baked potato or red caboose mashed potatoes. This cut is available in an eight-ounce or fourteen-ounce cut. Prime rib is not for the faint of heart. For optimum flavor, it’s best served at about medium rare, a degree of “doneness” which may give the appearance of bloodiness that turns off the queasy diner. Preparing prime rib at anything above medium is sacrilege and detracts from this flavorful slab of meat.  Needless to say, the Turquoise Room knows how to prepare prime rib. Cut into it and the succulent juices (albeit a bit red) flow onto your plate. Bite into it and you’re in heaven. A little bit of marbling goes a long way on this cut of beef and that’s what you’ll get–that and a whole lot of flavor. If you’re an aficionado of prime rib, this one will please you.  You might not be as pleased with the baked potatoes which are on the small side and may not be completely heated all the way through. While most of the potato is tender, some is just a bit tough, an indication of inconsistent baking. Still, you add a little butter and a little sour cream and you’ve got a nice dinner accompaniment.

Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Souffle for Two

Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Souffle for Two

24 August 2008: All dinners include your choice of Caesar salad or the restaurant’s signature soup, a cream of corn and smooth black bean soup served side-by-side in one bowl and topped with a red chile signature. As impossible as it may sound, the chef actually managed to keep separate on a bowl two very distinct yet very complementary soups as warming and comforting as the definition “comfort” soup itself. The Caesar salad is magnificent! It includes roasted red peppers, pumpkin seeds and Parmesan crusted tepee of the restaurant’s red chile cracker bread.

24 August 2008: The restaurant’s desserts are decadent and delightful, none quite as much as the Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Soufflé for Two. It takes 25 minutes to bake this extravagant treat, but it’s worth the wait. A rich dark chocolate soufflé is baked to order and served with whipped cream, dark chocolate Grand Marnier sauce (poured into a cavity atop the soufflé) and whipped cream. It’s a nice way to finish a meal.

Arizona Green Chile Eggs

Arizona Green Chile Eggs

Portion sizes at the Turquoise Room are generous but you’ll still be tempted to lick your plate so as not to waste a morsel or dribble of your entree or dessert. Fortunately dinner is followed by breakfast only a few hours away and breakfast, though not quite the equal of dinner, is an extraordinary event at this terrific restaurant.

9 September 2007: One of the breakfast entrees that makes it so are the Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles–shredded beef machaca with tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices, scrambled with two eggs, smoky red chile tomato sauce, crispy red and blue corn tortilla chips and jalapeno jack cheese. This entree is topped with crema fresca and roasted corn salsa and served with black beans. What a wonderful wake-up call. For most New Mexicans the smoky red chile tomato sauce would barely register on the piquant scale, but that’s okay because this breakfast entree is so replete with flavors competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Every ingredient plays on its partner ingredient and the resultant tune is a masterpiece.

Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles

Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles

9 September 2007: The best part of waking up, however, just might be Arizona Green Chile Eggs– creamy polenta in a pool of green chile, tomatillo sauce topped with two eggs, covered in melted jalapeno jack cheese and garnished with roasted corn salsa and diced fresh tomatoes, black beans and served with warm corn tortillas.  I’m somewhat loathe to credit anything in Arizona that includes salsa or chile, but the Arizona Green Chile Eggs have me issuing an apology to the Grand Canyon State’s use of ingredients New Mexico restaurants do best. This is an outstanding breakfast entree! 

22 June 2014:  Perhaps only in Italy is polenta used on breakfast entrees more than at the Turquoise Room.  Chef Sharpe’s rendition of polenta will remind you it’s so much more than “Italian grits” and can be made more sophisticated and interesting than simple coarse yellow cornmeal.  In addition to the aforementioned Arizona Green Chile Eggs entree, polenta also graces a breakfast entree called The Corn Maiden’s Delight, a bowl of warm yellow corn polenta topped with fire-roasted tomatoes, fresh spinach, two poached eggs, jalapeño jack cheese and fresh roasted corn salsa.  The very best qualities of this dish are showcased in the combination of its individual components, the more the merrier.  Alas, there is so little of the roasted corn salsa (onions, green peppers) that you’ll have to use it sparingly.  My preference would have been to cover the entire dish with this salsa.  All breakfasts save for waffles and pancakes are served your choice of La Posada’s blueberry muffin, bran muffin, cinnamon roll, English muffin or white, wheat or sourdough toast.

The Corn Maiden’s Delight

9 September 2007: Traditionalists might instead order something like the Silver Dollar pancake entree which includes two eggs, three pancakes and your choice of bacon, sausage or ham with spicy green chile breakfast potatoes. Rather than have your pancakes with maple or blueberry syrup, douse them liberally with prickly pear syrup. Prickly pear syrup has a higher fruit to sugar ratio than most syrups which is something you’ve got to appreciate if you don’t want a major sugar rush first thing in the morning.

22 July 2012: The lunch menu includes one of the most unique dishes I’ve seen on a restaurant menu anywhere, piki bread with hopi hummus. It’s a dish you might order for the experience of eating something so authentically Native American and uniquely different, but probaly not because someone has told you it’s a great tasting dish. The most unique aspect of this entree is the piki bread, finely ground blue corn blended with burnt juniper berry ash. Ash, in fact, is texturally what the bread resembles. This bread is crumbly (as in blow away light) and won’t stand up to the lightest portion of the bad-dap-suki, the “Hopi hummus” with which it is served. Hopi hummus is also unique, but its greatest resemblance to hummus is textural.

Piki Bread with Hopi Hummus:

22 July 2012: Much more traditional is the crispy pork carnitas platter, large pieces of crispy pork with red and green salsas, white tortillas, black beans and sweet corn tamale.  The carnitas are tender tendrils of pork perfectly made for the smallish corn tortillas.  Add a bit of the red or green salsa and you’ve got very good tacos.  The sweet corn tamale is essentially two scoops of a sweetened corn masa without any of the pork.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, one of my favorite items at the Turquoise Room is the Late for the Train Coffee, an organic Turquoise Room blend.  It’s a mellow, rich coffee with a delicate roasted flavor.  Since our first visit to the Turquoise Room in 1997, it’s the only coffee we’ve had at home.

Crispy Pork Carnitas Platter: Large pieces of crispy pork Carnitas, with red and green salsas, white tortillas, black beans and sweet corn tamale

Fred Harvey would undoubtedly be very proud of the La Posada Hotel and the Turquoise Room, its fine, fine-dining restaurant.

The Turqouise Room
303 East 2nd Street (Rte 66)
Winslow, Arizona
(928) 289-4366
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2014
1st VISIT: 8 September 2007
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Silver Dollar Pancakes, Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles, Arizona Green Chile Eggs, Native Cassoulet with Churro Lamb, Duck Leg and Elk Sausage, Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Soufflé for Two, Crispy Pork Carnitas Platter, The Corn Maiden’s Delight

Turquoise Room (La Posada Hotel) on Urbanspoon

La Cantina at Casa Sena – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Our server Jennifer belts out a Broadway tune

Our server Jennifer belts out a Broadway tune

In the dark ages of 1979 when the world wasn’t nearly as connected as it is today, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ruled the airwaves throughout the United Kingdom just as it had since its founding in 1922. Young listeners complained that the monopoly of control had forged a monotony in programming. For Yanks like me, however, the so-called “monotony” provided the most interesting diversion. In perhaps trying to appeal to listeners of all demographics with a one-size-fits-all approach, the BBC’s programming didn’t seem to make any sense…at least by American standards.

My own musical tastes tend to be very eclectic, but the BBC sometimes stretched eclectic beyond logical sense. One of my favorite examples of the “diversity” of the BBC’s music programming was a succession of songs that included True Love by Bing Crosby, Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon and If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body by the Bellamy Brothers. This example of the BBC’s programming was antithetical to that of American radio stations which then and now subscribe to fairly predictable programming formats. Country music stations will play country music, Oldies music stations will play oldies and so forth. Never the twain (not Shania) shall meet.

CantinaSena02

Seafood Sampler – Lobster Sausage, Tortilla Crusted Shrimp, Pasilla Crusted Tuna Sashimi, Edamame-Wasabi Puree

The BBC’s varietal selections immediately came to mind when one of the performers of La Cantina’s singing wait staff announced the evening’s program, a repertoire that would include jazz and musical revues of the best of Broadway as well as selections from Walt Disney movies. Among the Broadway tunes to be showcased were selections by Cole Porter, coincidentally the composer who wrote the aforementioned True Love. Wouldn’t it have been appropriate if Werewolves of London was also on the night’s parade of tunes?

La Cantina is Santa Fe’s best year-round attraction for audiophiles, especially those who enjoy great food presented artistically in a warm and intimate environment. La Cantina is part of the sprawling Casa Sena complex on Palace Avenue just east of the famous Santa Fe Plaza. The singing wait staff, accompanied by some of Santa Fe’s most accomplished pianists, performs daily starting at 6:00pm. This terrific troupe of troubadours has been featured collectively and individually in media across the country. Reservations are highly recommended and there is no cover charge.

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Guacamole and Chips

Doubling as your servers and as the night’s entertainment, the performers are superbly talented in both roles. As servers, they’re highly personable and surprisingly attentive, especially considering each one performs several numbers. As performers, they shine, each with professional caliber voices that resonate strongly across the entire room. Engage them in conversation during a lull in the program and you’ll find they’re genuinely happy to be performing and serving guests. Two and even three hours will pass quickly as you thoroughly relish the evening’s entertainment.

It’s a rare restaurant in which the menu takes second or equal billing to the wait staff, but perhaps only the chef wouldn’t agree that at La Cantina, the night’s entertainment is on par with the excellent food. La Cantina’s menu showcases locally farmed and sustainable foods. The Casa Sena family of restaurants participates in Santa Fe’s Farm to Table program and supports local farmers outside the program. Chef Patrick Chef Gharrity believes in “building community through the vehicle of food,” demonstrating this approach through his commitment to supporting local farms, dairies and ranches.

CantinaSena05

Pan-Seared Scallops with Oregano Sauteed Zucchini, Purple Potato Chips and New Mexico Harissa Sauce

The culinary offerings are described as “New American West Cuisine.” The flavors and configurations of New Mexico products are proudly showcased on the menu, but so is a surprising diversity considering there are fewer than a dozen entrees on the menu. Entrees range from New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger and traditional enchiladas to pan-seared scallops and grilled venison Italian sausage. The appetizer menu is similarly diverse. There is truly something for all tastes.

For the seafood lover in you, the Seafood Sampler (lobster sausage, tortilla-crusted shrimp, Pasilla-crusted tuna sashimi, edamame-wasabi puree and a mango-sesame dressing) brings the bounty of the sea to your table.   The only thing not to like about this sampler is how very little of each item there is, especially if you’re sharing among any more than two.  The lobster sausage is especially notable with the texture of a sliced sausage and the unmistakable sweetness of lobster punctuated by flecks of red pepper.  We didn’t discern horseradish on the wasabi which has the earthiness of the real thing.  The sashimi is fresh and lightly seared.

CantinaSena06

BBQ Pork Sliders with House Sesame Slaw and Sweet Potato Fries

At the risk of stereotyping, you might expect a restaurant named La Cantina to serve good guacamole and chips.  La Cantina certainly does.  The blue and yellow corn tortilla chips are housemade and the guacamole is made-to-order which means it arrives at your table at the height of freshness.  It’s made with perfectly ripened avocados tinged with a citrus influence more common in Mexican guacamole than it is on New Mexican guacamole.

There are a couple schools of thought about scallops.  Most chefs believe in saucing simply so as not to detract from the sublime sweet richness of pan-seared scallops.  The risk-takers among chefs will introduce elements that change or ameliorate that flavor profile.  The latter approach is what La Cantina does, generously applying a deeply red New Mexico harissa sauce.  Harissa is a piquant North African sauce often used as a condiment, so it’s not necessarily a great departure to envision a New Mexican version.  The New Mexico harissa sauce is made with red chile, olive oil and cilantro, emphasis on the red chile.  The scallops are served with oregano-sauteed zucchini cut into julienne-type strips and with purple potato chips.

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Aztec Dusted Salmon – Pan-Seared Filet with Spiced Mocha Crust, Yellow Mole, Quinoa-Radicchio Salad and Mango-Sesame Dressing

For more casual fare such as you might have on a fancy picnic, you can’t go wrong with BBQ Pork Sliders, shredded pork slathered in a guava BBQ sauce sandwiched between buttermilk biscuits and served with a sesame Napa cabbage slaw and sweet potato fries.   The guava BBQ sauce imparts a sweet Tropical flavor on the delicate pork.  It’s a biscuit sandwich as good as you’ll have anywhere.  The sweet potato fries are served with a smoky barbecue-flavored ketchup, but it’s the house sesame slaw that will really grab you. 

If you think you’ve seen and had salmon every conceivable way it can be made, Chef Gharrity will surprise you with a rendition called the Aztec Dusted Salmon.  The Aztec dusting is a spiced mocha crust, but this dish owes its  amazing flavor to perhaps the very best yellow mole I’ve ever had.  It’s a mole so good you’ll want to sop it all up from the plate with the restaurant’s bread.  Yellow mole, a specialty of Oaxaca, is usually made for chicken.  Salmon, it turns out, is an excellent vehicle for the mole, too.  The salmon is made with a quinoa-radicchio salad and a terrific mango-sesame “dressing” which involves finely chopped mangoes tempered with green onions and red peppers.

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Left: Sour Cream-Blue Berry Sundae (Frozen Sour Cream Mousse, Blueberry Compote, Blue Corn Crumble)
Right: Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake (Pistachio Whipped Cream, Blackberries)

Desserts remain a strong suit of the Casa Sena family although the sublime chocolate red chile soup is no longer on the menu.  The sour cream-blueberry sundae is a worthy successor. It’s made from a frozen sour cream mousse punctuated with a blueberry compote and a sweet blue corn crumble.  The frozen sour cream is a textural success and is surprisingly flavorful.   The blueberries ensure it’s not too sweet, lending a tangy flavor.  Another terrific dessert is the warm chocolate pudding nestled neath a pistachio whipped cream and a handful of blackberries. 

Had the BBC allowed the singing wait staff at La Cantina to perform every song in its nonsensical playlist, this is one listener who would have enjoyed the programming much more.  But not nearly as much as I enjoy it today within the comfy confines of a wonderful restaurant serving excellent and adventurous food.

La Cantina at Casa Sena
125 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988-9232
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Sour Cream – Blueberry Sundae, Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake, BBQ Pork Sliders, Aztec Dusted Salmon, Pan-Seared Scallops